Thursday, December 24, 2015

28 Xmas Stories: "it began to fade, little by little, until it was gone."

Bug God’s First Gift To Her People, 3:

Up… up… up…
Bug God
Someone said.

The vizier felt the world turning below him, felt the onward rush of time towards midnight – towards the new day.


Who is that? Bug God wondered, but she could spare no energy for asking.
Up… up… up…

“We will do nothing,” Tiger God said.

But he did not take his eyes off the sky.


Bug God faltered, struggled, flapped her tiny wings in the cold cold dark thin air still so far away from the stars.

Bug God…

Someone said again.

This time, Bug God answered, sparing the tiniest amount of her energy from the continued, slow climb up to the stars.

“What?” Bug God asked


The bugs of the world were growing restless, concerned.  There was no God in the tree, there was no word from Bug God, the vizier was merely sitting there, and it was getting on towards midnight. Nobody knew what would happen. Never before had Bug God left the tree, never before had Bug God’s carapace not simply faded away into dust on the branch of the throne.

The vizier could feel the sussurance of concern before he heard it or saw it: the rustling of wings, the clicking of jaws, the scraping of carapaces, the tapping of lets, all stirred the air and made it spin and dance and swoop around him, and in those breezes the vizier read the fear growing in the people.

Bug God, what have you done? the vizier wondered. But he walked to the edge of the branch, slowly, taking one small step at a time. He knew that his motion would be seen by those near him, that it would run the risk of converting fear into panic: what was needed was reassurance, now, and merely moving would not provide that – but moving too quickly would be certain to crest the wave of concern into a full onslaught of rioting, and he did not want to do that.

Nor did he know what he would say, yet. The flower from which Bug God had emerged last night was noticeably wilting. Each time before, each day at midnight, he had been there to see the old Bug God crumble into dust just as the new one emerged from the flower, her wings damp with night-dew, her eyes opening onto the world she would rule for the next 24 hours. Never before had the flower changed, other than the shifting of the pedals as the new Bug God emerged.

The vizier trembled a little.


Tiger God, without taking his own eyes of the sky, murmured to Bird God: “Where is she now?

Bird God, too, stared straight up, keen eyes peering into the vast sky. “She is still climbing up, even more slowly now. I am amazed that she can still be going. I don’t know how she is doing it.”

Tiger God kept staring up as Monkey God said: “Something is not right.”

“I feel it too,” Bird God said. “Something wrong.”

Tiger God let their words die out, let the night again be taken over by the crackles and hisses and taps and shuffles of the billions of bugs gathered around the tree, bugs worried for their god and their home and their lives and their world. Tiger God could hear the vizier’s slow steps out to the end of the branch, so good was his hearing. His fur bristled with the air’s rapture as the bugs spun it around.

“It is fine,” Tiger God said.

The other two then took their eyes off the sky to look at him, startled.

“How can you say that?” Monkey God asked.

“Can you not feel what is in the air?” Bird God demanded.

“Yes,” Tiger God said. “A new day is almost here.”


Bug God, you have flown higher and farther than any living being ever has before, the voice told her.

Bug God could hardly keep her wings moving. She felt each tiny increment of height throughout her rapidly weakening body, felt it wrack her with the absence of anything around her. The stars! They were still so far away.

“I cannot reach them,” she said, meaning it as a question.

You can, the voice told her. But not the way you are going.


The vizier stopped to stroke the pedals of the flower. Two of them fell off and began to waft down gently below the branch. The pedals, as flower pedals will, drifted here and there and back again, sometimes lifting on an air current, sometimes pirouetting in place. The vizier, horrified at what he had done, stepped back, only two see more pedals flutter off: three four five ten, the flower was falling apart and then it did fall apart, seeming almost to explode into a white brilliance, the tiny iridescent shards ballooning out and then starting to fall down.

The vizier stood still as stone, trying to decipher this event.

The petals formed a slowly widening, lightly dancing cloud just below the branch, descending with tiny steps, hesitantly, as though afraid of where they might land and what might be waiting for them.

Monkey God held himself tightly with his long furry arms, alternating between watching the flower on the branch suddenly puff up into a cloud of pedals, watching the sky where he could see nothing but stars and darkness, and watching Tiger God, who calmly stared up into the sky as though he had said and felt nothing.

Bird God plucked several feathers from the edge of his chest in annoyance, lifted his left claw, lifted his right, then settled back in.  He flapped his wings and shook his head. Having done all that, he finally said: “She has no right.”

“We are gods. We each of us do what we want,” Tiger God said, softly.

“We should have done something,” Bird God said.

“Perhaps it is not too late,” Monkey God said hopefully.

“We need to act!” Bird God said. He tried to make it sound commanding but it came off as a plea. Both Monkey God and Bird God were aware that they were not actually talking to each other, but to Tiger God.

“She can’t do this,” Monkey God said.

Tiger God looked away from the sky then and at them.

“We are gods,” he said. “What can’t we do?”


Bug God it is time to turn away the voice said.

Bug God could not speak; even if she had had the energy to spare, the air was gone and she could force none of it through her tracheae. But in her mind she said I will not turn away from the stars.

The stars do not lie that way, for you, Bug God.

I can see them Bug God thought desperately.  Her wings buzzed in a frantic motion as she sought any purchase in this emptiness.

You have gone as far as you needed to, she was told.

Bug God folded her wings.

You have done what you needed to do, she was told.

Bug God let her legs go limp, stopped clawing for purchase.

See what you have wrought, Bug God.

Bug God let herself turn downward at the world, saw in a billion facets the curve of the earth below her, the oceans spreading out endlessly to either side, glowing silver with moonlight, saw the dark continents anchored to the core of the earth by pillars of rock, the trees and flowers and mountaintops each shimmering here and there with tiny flecks of light reflected back into the sky.

She saw the tree she had lived on her whole life, saw the massive gathering of bugs there, saw the vizier cowering, saw the flower gone, its pedals spreading out in a canopy over her people.

You have reached the stars, Bug God, she was told.

how, Bug God wondered. how is that true when I am not yet at their level?

You are at their level, the voice said. For you have become one. 

The words echoed in her mind as Bug God began to fall.


“See, there,” Tiger God said.

He was pointing towards the tree, where the first of the flower petals were starting to land on the bugs below. The immediate reaction was alarm, and the fear spread through the bugs almost visibly. The flower the flower the flower he flower the flower he flower the flower he flower the flower he flower the flower he flower the flower he flower the flower was repeated by a billion tiny voices as more and more petals landed.

Monkey God and Bird God could not speak: they were enraged and fearful, far more so than the bugs. Their minds boiled with thoughts of what could be done even now to stop what was happening. Bug God… Bug God… she had given up her post and left the world, and once one god falls, they knew… neither Monkey God nor Bird God wanted to admit they were aware of what this meant.

“It is a new day,” Tiger God said. He looked up.


The vizier looked down at the ground, saw the bugs begin to race in circles and rise up in clouds and trample each other. He did not know what to do. The flower was gone! Bug God was gone! He could not look at the apocalyptic vision below, did not know what to do, and cast his eyes upward, the last place he had seen his salvation.


They will not need you anymore, the voice said, and it was like a blanket was wrapped around Bug God. She felt warm and safe and secure even as her body fell faster and faster and faster. She saw with surprise and pleasure that her legs, her body, her wings were beginning to glow.

You have reached the stars, Bug God the voice said and wished her farewell.


“They will not need us anymore,” Tiger God said, and because he was looking up he saw it before the other two gods, before anyone except


The vizier’s eyes locked on it at once: A brightly glowing speck that grew in intensity rapidly even as it began to trace a line across the sky, a trail of glimmer behind it stretching off into the night sky.

“Look…” the vizier said, and something in his voice carried enough power to reach the bugs nearest him, who – dazed and distressed already by the disintegration of the flower and the events of the night – paused a moment and looked where the vizier was indicating with his antennae.

They stilled and pointed, too, and one by one by one through a billion bugs, each bug stopped worrying about the flower, about its neighbors, about its life, and stared up into a night sky speckled with a thousand different tiny glows, and one bright arc of a golden light stretching from directly above the tree out across the immensity above them.

As the bugs watched, the line grew and grew and grew, and they slowly understood what was happening, knew that Bug God was up there, was the one making the glow, was slowly burning away and leaving herself behind in this thrilling flare. 

The trail, they realized, was coming almost directly at the tree, making its way more directly tan it seemed – the shimmer seeming to be a curve only because of its height and the immense length of it, and the bugs were frozen in that moment, every eye watching Bug God’s final flight, watching as the last of the Bug Gods slowly pierced the night sky, glowing with the intensity of a new star even as she faded from the world.

The bugs felt, as their god scintillated from the heavens, a sense of freedom blow over them. The flower petals were stirred up and drifted away. Had someone asked them – but who would, ever? – each bug would have said that it felt suddenly like it was the master of its own fate, that it was able to determine what course it might take. Around the world, every other living thing felt a slight stirring of this same feeling: that perhaps it was their own destiny to make for themselves, and they could decide how their lives would unfold, rather than having each moment dictated to them by some unfathomable force. The bugs stared up at the sky and saw their god giving herself back to them and everything else in the world began to ask their own god to give itself up to them, too – to let them be the gods of their own selves.

The trace burnt so brightly over the world!

And then it was over. The coruscating line stopped growing longer. After a moment, then, it began to fade, little by little, until it was gone. 

Only the stars remained, as they had been before: beautiful, cold, and somehow both impossibly far away, and closer than you could imagine. 

28 Xmas Stories 27: And now our thrilling conclusion!

Rudolph The Regular-Nosed Reindeer Falls In Love On Xmas Eve, 5:

Above him, the woman who’d brought him here was being carried aloft by two of the elves—they had to be elves Rudolph thought what else could 3-foot-tall guys with pointy ears be? – through some mechanism Rudolph couldn’t discern.

Acquisitions, meanwhile, was charging at him with several of the other elves that had stood by the magician, and Rudolph saw other elves spreading out around the lobby of the hotel. He darted quickly to his right, to a bank of elevators, round ones made of glass in transparent shafts, and made it inside one.  He hit the highest floor he could – 17 – and saw the doors close just as Acquisitions was about to reach him.  The elevator started up.

Below him, Acquisitions paused only briefly before he and the elves piled into the other two elevators, which then began rising, a floor or two below Rudolph. He was gaining on the woman, who, he saw now, was being lofted by the elves without any apparent means of support.
Across the atrium, other elevators started rising.  Down below, the magician was waving her hands around in a spiral and Rudolph saw a waterspout begin to rise up towards him.  He couldn’t make the elevator go any faster. It was 13…14… well ahead of the other elevators but the waterspout was coming up quickly… 15.  The elves carrying the woman were struggling as she kicked her legs and twisted around… 16… the waterspout widened up.  17… the doors opened and Rudolph threw himself out in the hallway. Turning to his right he reached the railing from where he could look out onto the atrium.  The waterspout was only a floor below, the other elevators already reaching the 17th floor.  The elves had barely risen. The woman saw him, reached a hand towards him.  “Help!” she yelled.

Rudolph stood up on the railing, and teetered precariously for only a moment as Acquisitions and the elves came charging towards him.

He leaped.

It was a preposterous thing to do, he realized.  The woman was at least 15 feet away, if not more, and what could he leap like this, maybe four or five? He stretched his arms out and began to fall just as the waterspout crashed into him, lifting him up with its force and pulling him towards the center. The woman and the elves were caught, too, and the woman, flailing frantically, kicked a leg towards Rudolph, who grabbed it. The waterspout whipped them around wildly and then flung them hard against a wall on the other side of the atrium.

Rudolph rolled over, chest heaving, body aching. The woman was struggling to her knees.  From around them came yells and the howling of the water spout.  Rudolph looked up with bleary eyes. The door next to him said ROOF ACCESS.

He grabbed the woman’s hand, helped her to her feet. The door, miraculously, was unlocked. He pushed it open and they began up the stairs, still unsteady.

Outside, it was still dark, and the cold was biting. The wind up here was swift and tore at him – both of them were soaked. They heard yells below. 

All around them the city skyline was dark. Not a single light could be seen, no car horns honking or busses grumbling.  The entire world seemed empty. Rudolph slammed the door shut behind them, and seeing nothing to block it with, pulled the woman after him.  They made it to the edge of the roof, and looked over. Nothing – below them was the street. No window-cleaning rig, no fire escape, nothing. Rudolph realized that the likeliest place for some stairs or emergency exit route would be on the back of the building, and he turned around.

Acquisitions, the magician, and the elves were standing there.

“Oh, no…” he breathed.

The woman turned and saw what he saw.

“I have to tell you what the gypsy actually told me,” she said.  “Why I was going to Chad’s party anyway.”

Rudolph looked at her. “What?” he asked.

When he looked back, the magician and Acquisitions were advancing, the elves spreading out.

“The envelope,” Acquisitions said.

“Look, I…” Rudolph began.

Next to him, the woman said: “She told me that if I went to the party, if Chad was able to get me – those were the words she used – that …”

“Bad things would happen, I know,” Rudolph said.

“No.  She said specifically…” The magician and Acquisitions were only five feet away now. Rudolph and the woman were backed up against the small wall that lined the roof, reaching up to their waists.

“The ENVELOPE,” the magician said again. Rudolph was certain she had been at the Xmas party.

“She said specifically that if Chad got me I would die…” the woman said.

Rudolph never took his eyes off the magician or Acquisitions, who had paused, just out of arm’s reach.  “Then why would you go?

He began pulling himself up onto the wall, and the woman did too. Before their opponents could move, both were standing on the wall.

“The envelope,” Acquisitions said, again.

“I went…” the woman said, and paused only briefly before continuing “… because she said that if I didn’t go then the man I was supposed to meet would die, instead.”

Now Rudolph looked at her again. “Wha…” he began, but as he did Acquisitions lunged at them.

And the woman tried to step off the edge of the wall.

Rudolph threw himself sideways while grabbing at her, got his arms around her and pulled.

It almost worked.

He was left lying precariously on the wall, one arm wrapped around her back and holding her up by her armpits, the other clinging desperately to the inner bricks.  She was slowly weighing him down.

“Why would you come to the party?” he asked.

“Because I couldn’t let some man die just because I was too afraid…” she said. “I didn’t want that on my conscience.”

Rudolph looked into her eyes, and wished, suddenly, that tonight could have gone differently.

“It is OVER!” the magician yelled. Acquisitions grabbed Rudolph’s shoulders and began pulling.

“The envelope!” he was yelling.  “Give us the envelope and we’ll save you both! Where is it?” Acquisitions yelled.

The envelope was pinned beneath Rudolph in his coat’s inside pocket.

“Don’t believe them!” the woman yelled. “One of us is going to die tonight! The gypsy said it! You need to live and hold onto that envelope!”

“WHY?” Rudolph yelled as the wind picked up and Acquisitions began trying to locate the envelope by patting him down and reaching into coat pockets. Rudolph could feel the woman pull up against his arms, braced himself. She put her face right next to his and said softly:

“You’ll need it…” and then she kissed him, softly on the lips.

“The envelope!” Acquisitions yelled in his ear as the kiss ended.

“Don’t give it to them,” the woman said. She began to squirm.

“NO!” Rudolph yelled. She was almost out of his arm. He clutched at her frantically.

“You know,” she said. “You never did tell me your name.”

And with that she pushed hard against him. He was unable to hold on, and the last thing he saw was 
her body falling, as if in slow motion, towards the empty dark street below.

It was 12:14 a.m. on Xmas Eve.


There was a bright light against his eyelids. It was completely silent all around him. Rudolph’s entire body ached. He lay perfectly still for a  few moments, trying to remember… it all came back to him. The party, the woman, the strange tunnel, the magician…

The woman.


Rudolph sat up with a gasping sob, eyes suddenly filling with tears.
He was in his own bed, in his tidy bedroom in the small house he had on the outskirts of the city. 

He was wearing a t-shirt and some boxer shorts.

He stared around, the room brightly lit by the sun that was high up in the blue cloudless sky he could see from the window.

On the floor was his business suit, crumpled into a pile. He went over to it, nudged it with his toe. It was slightly damp and looked a mess.

He stared around the room again, bewildered.

He saw, balanced on his nightstand, an envelope. It was dirty and crumpled and appeared to have gone through the wash – if clothes were washed with dirty rocks and moss.  He walked over to it.

On the front, barely legible through the dirt and smudges, he saw block letters that said:

For: Rudolph The Regular-Nosed Reindeer.

He flipped it over, and in green felt-tipped marker it said:

Do not open until Xmas Eve

Rudolph looked around until he found his watch. It said it was 1:15, on December 24th.  He looked back at the envelope and after a moment, began to carefully tear it open.

Inside was a small piece of stationary, letterhead from the business where he and Chad worked. 

Written on that was simply:

Answer the doorbell.

Rudolph flipped it over to see if anything was on the back, and as he did so the doorbell rang, making him jump in surprise.  He turned the paper back over. It now said:

Well go ahead answer it.

He dropped the paper and ran downstairs, fumbled with the deadbolt and opened the door wide. A blast of cold air hit him and made his eyes water for a moment. When they cleared up, the woman, the running woman, the falling woman, the woman from the night before, was standing there.

She smiled.

“Merry Xmas,” she said. Rudolph didn't know what to say. 

"I guess we should introduce ourselves," she said. "I'm Mary..." 

Rudolph hesitated only a second before saying: "I'm Rudolph The Regular-Nosed Reindeer," and then before she could react he stepped out onto the porch, took her in his arms, and began kissing her.

After a moment she pulled back, looked into his eyes, and said:

"I love you, too, Rudolph."

Nailed It

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

28 Xmas Stories 26: He didn't know it, but the clock had just ticked over.

Rudolph The Regular-Nosed Reindeer Falls In Love On Xmas Eve, 4:

“Envelope?” Rudolph almost reached towards his coat pocket where he’d put Chad’s gift. But he paused his hand.

“Envelope,” the man – it had to be a man, right? – said. Rudolph squinted into the gloom as the voice went on: “Nobody gets in without one.”

“In?” Rudolph asked. He didn’t want to sound bewildered but, he reminded himself, that was actually a pretty natural thing to be feeling right now.

From behind him he heard what sounded like Chad asking the barber something in a loud voice. He didn’t know why they were running from Chad. But he knew that they were, and he didn’t have any better ideas.

“I’ve got an envelope,” he said tentatively.

A spotlight came on in the middle of the room, which turned out to be a sort of dome-shaped area with several tunnels leading off it. Rudolph stepped forward as the man – it was a man, he realized, with more relief than he should have had.  What had he thought it was? The events of the last ten minutes or so had rattled him. Had it only been ten minutes? He was halfway across the middle of the room and the man was only a few steps from him. Rudolph reached into his pocket and took out the envelope Chad had given him.  His eyes fell on what Chad had written:

Seriously Do Not Open Until Xmas Eve Or The Magic Won’t Work

Rudolph hesitated, looked up at the man. There was a grin on the stranger’s face, a smile Rudolph didn’t like. Rudolph pulled back slightly.

“Well, do you want to get in or not?” the man asked, in a voice Rudolph didn’t like at all. Rudolph looked around again at the three tunnels leading away from this room. What was going on here?

“Where’d she go?” Rudolph asked suddenly.

“Where’d who go?” Chad’s voice boomed behind him. Rudolph looked over his shoulder and as he did so the man made a grab for the envelope. Rudolph pulled it away from him.

“Give it to me!” the man yelled. “It’s the only way you’ll get out of here!”

Behind Rudolph Chad started forward. “I knew I’d find you in here!” Chad bellowed.

Rudolph looked again at the man, at Chad, and started to hand the envelope over three things happened at once:

First, a woman’s voice yelled “Don’t give him that envelope!

Second, Rudolph had already started pulling the envelope back, having re-re-thought what he should do even before the woman spoke.

Third, the man lunged at the envelope just as Chad lunged at Rudolph and the two of them clanged into each other with a bump, just grazing Rudolph and spinning him around. He saw then the woman he’d run into on the street, standing in one of the tunnels, which was now lit with strings of lights leading down into the gloom. She was pulling at two men who had her by the arms, ineffectively, and she looked at Rudolph.  “Help me!” she said, as the men dragged her away.

Rudolph started after her just as Chad grabbed his arm.  Rudolph spun around before Chad could say anything, and swung his other hand wildly, clapping Chad a punch on the side of the head. It was probably more surprising than painful, but either way Chad dropped his arm and Rudolph turned around again to see that the woman was no longer visible, but the tunnel was still lit. He ran into it, hoping to stay ahead of Chad and the man.

About twenty seconds in, Rudolph realized he was not being followed. He slowed his sprint to a jog and glanced over his shoulder. Far back he could dimly see the now-small opening to the tunnel and the domed room. There was no sign of Chad or the man. He looked back ahead, still puffing onward, but saw nothing.  He slowed to a walk, tried to silence his breathing so he could listen. Even when he held his breath, he could not hear footsteps or the woman.  There had been no exits or doors or branches to the tunnel, though, so she must be up there. He wondered if he should call after her?

This whole thing is crazy, he thought to himself, but it never occurred to Rudolph that he should turn around and leave. Whatever was going on, he was in it, and whoever the woman was she obviously needed his help, and that was all Rudolph needed to know. He would keep after her until he figured out just why she was running and who had grabbed her and—

A woman appeared in front of him – a new one. She was dressed garishly, like a queen in a poorly-directed play, robes glistening with plasticky sequins and crinkling when she moved, her makeup almost clownish on her face, her eyebrows slightly crooked, her lips too red. Her eyes were set close together and she seemed almost cross-eyed. Rudolph felt like he knew her.

“You cannot pass unless you meet the challenge,” she said.

Rudolph had stopped, of course, and tried to peer beyond her. It seemed like the tunnel opened up a bit. He couldn’t see anyone. “Challenge?” he said. “Did you make the others do a challenge?”

“Others?” the woman asked. Her voice sounded as though she was doing an imitation of a person from Boston trying to do a British accent, and only partially succeeding.

“The woman, and the men, and …” Rudolph stopped because the woman held out her hands flat before him, palms up. “What are you doing?”

“Preparing the challenge,” the woman said. Her accent seemed to slip again and Rudolph peered at her more closely. The makeup was very heavy but he was certain he knew her. 

“What’s the challenge?” he asked.

“FLAME PAPER WATER,” she said, her voice sounding more imperious.

“Um, what?” Rudolph asked.

“It’s like paper-scissors-rock,” she said. “Only better. Flame burns paper, paper floats on water, water douses flame.” As she said their names, she held her hands to indicate how to throw the signs: fingers pointing upward and wiggling for flame, flat out for paper, and sprinkling downward for water.

“I … know you,” Rudolph said. “I’ve seen you somewhere before.”

“PREPARE!” the woman said. She held her hands up. Rudolph held up his hands.

“Wait,” he said. Chad, the woman he’d been running with. They worked in his office. And that man who wanted the envelope, he’d been at the Xmas party, hadn’t he? He looked up at the woman again. “You were doing karaoke!” he said, and she looked startled.

“No, I WASN’T,” she said, her accent slipping again. Rudolph heard footsteps behind him now. He looked over his shoulder as the woman said “PREPARE!” but Rudolph went on:

“And Chad and that woman were at the party, I know, and the envelope guy I think he works on three, down in Acquistions, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him before, too.” The footsteps slowed and Rudolph looked again. Chad and Acquisitions, Rudolph was sure it was that guy, appeared in the dim reds and greens of the strings of lights hanging around the tunnel.  Rudolph shook his head. “Chad, was this all something you did? Is this like the Secret Santa thing? Some kind of prank?” Rudolph pulled the envelope out, and it glittered a bit in the dim glow.

When he did that, the woman roared “THE ENVELOPE!” and reached for it, startling Rudolph, who looked back at her. He saw that she had her hand up over her head, and she brought it down in a trickling motion, the sign for water. He was about to speak when a deluge of water poured over him, soaking him to the bone.  He was sputtering and gasping for air as he stared at her and then back at Chad and Acquisitions, who had been hit by some of the backsplash.

“What the…!” Rudolph fumed.  “That’s not even FUNNY, Chad. How am I supposed to get home all soaking wet and”

“THE ENVELOPE” the woman said again and Rudolph looked at her. This time her hands were making the flame sign and suddenly a ring of fire shot up around him. He pulled his arms into himself and felt the water soaking his clothes begin to steam from the heat.

“HEY!” he yelled, looking back towards Chad and Acquisitions.  “This isn’t funny! Someone could get hurt!” Both the men looked a little startled. 

“Give her the envelope!” Acquisitions yelled. “It’s the only way she’ll let you through! I tried to tell you.”

“Rudolph, DON’T,” Chad yelled. “I tried to catch you to tell you”

“THE ENVELOPE” the woman roared again, and this time made the sign for paper, and the flames died out, but hundreds if not thousands of paper envelopes began whirling around Rudolph and the tunnel, as though caught in a cyclone. He started back again and the woman lunged forward, reaching for his pocket where the envelope was stuck.  He pulled away from her and in doing so saw, just beyond her, the woman who’d led him here in the first place.

Come on!” she yelled, and Rudolph ducked the magician-woman and ran towards the other one.  He heard more roaring and water splashing after him and felt rivulets of water run down beyond his shoes.  He looked back over his shoulder as the woman grabbed his wrist and pulled him to the left, just as flames shot past them.  They were running down an offshoot of the tunnel, the woman leading him through the dark now, with only occasional splashes of light from something up above to give them any hope of seeing.  Footsteps echoed behind them.  Rudolph felt them turn once, twice, tried to keep track, felt the path curve, and realized he was hopelessly lost.  They ran on and on until he’d lost track of the time. 

Finally, they slowed to a walk.  Rudolph caught his breath, and said “What is…” but the woman put a finger to his lips. In the gloom he saw her shake her head: No.

They walked on more, and after a few minutes came to a splash of light.  Rudolph looked up and saw, far above, a streetlight through a sewer grate. A ladder led up.  The woman pointed up, leaned in to Rudolph, and said “up there we can talk.” She urged him to climb up, and when he motioned to her to go first, she shook her head. So he started up and looking back, saw her climbing up after.

It was about forty rungs to the top, and when he got there he pushed against the grate, felt it move slowly. He was able to climb out, into the cold air. He started shivering in his wet clothes, and turned down to pull the woman up.  The street appeared deserted, the buildings near them dark.

“What’s going on?” he said.

The woman looked around, trying to get her bearings. After a moment, she pointed and took his hand. “This way,” she said.  As they started walking, she said “Things have gone really weird. REALLY weird.”

“You don’t say,” Rudolph said. He was getting colder in his wet clothes. The woman shook her head again, and said “We’ve got to get you inside.” They walked faster, and as they did the woman said “Chad is my brother. I’m just here visiting for Xmas.  He said there was someone he wanted me to meet. He was going to set me up with this guy, I was supposed to come to his office party to meet him.”

“But then why did you run…” Rudolph began. The woman stopped and looked at a door to her right.

“In here,” she said.

Rudolph looked at the building. Like all the others on this street it was completely dark and looked abandoned. But as he watched, she pulled on a door and it opened.  She pulled him inside. It was some sort of hotel, he thought: the lobby, though dark, had a feeling of airiness and lofty heights. The dim light from the street and some windows meant his eyes had to adjust, but it was warmer in here.

“I ran because of the gypsy,” the woman said. 

“I…” Rudolph began, not sure what to make of this.

“I had some time today and so I went to this one fortune-teller in the Square. I just figured it’d be kind of fun, but she knew stuff, all kinds of stuff. And it wasn’t one of those things where I gave her the answers while she guessed. I sat down and before I even told her my name she was rattling off stuff about me, telling me where I’d gone to school and who I had crushed on then and about the time I tried pot which I’ve never told anyone, and then she said that if Chad got me, bad things would happen.”

“What? Chad? What?” Rudolph said, hardly able to process any of this.  The woman took his hand.

“So I’m sorry to involve you. I don’t know why I was even going down there. I suppose I didn’t have any better idea. But…”

Rudolph interrupted her. “This is the setup, isn’t it? I don’t know how that lady did that back there with the fire and the water and the envelopes, it was pretty impressive, but this is Chad’s idea of some big thing, isn’t it? This is where you’re going to tell me that I’m the guy you were going to meet…”

“I don’t know who I was going to meet. That’s the thing. Chad wouldn’t tell me his name and said he had a good reason not to”

Rudolph interrupted. “That’s GOT to be it. I don’t know why he went to such lengths but it’s got to be me.”

The woman looked at him. “Why? Why does my not knowing his name mean it has to be you?

Rudolph hesitated.

“What, is your name something weird or whatever?” the woman asked.

Rudolph looked down at the ground now.

“What is your name, anyway?” she asked.

Rudolph looked back up at her. If Chad had gone to these lengths, the sewer and the street magician and Acquisitions and all, then he must think the woman and Rudolph were a good match, right? So he wouldn’t tell her my name until I got to meet her and got to know her, and maybe then I wouldn’t be so shy around her… he began to think.

“Well?” she asked.

“It’s…” Rudolph hesitated, and then as he watched the woman was suddenly lifted straight up into the air, as the lights came on in the lobby and Rudolph saw Acquisitions and the magician-woman and a group of what could only be described as elves – and not nice-looking ones – surrounding him.

He didn’t know it, but the clock had just ticked over and it was 12:01 a.m., December 24th.