Here it is, the third and final of my new Christmas short stories for this year. Short, however, is a term I use loosely for this tale. It does run a bit long, but it’s only as long as it needs to be to tell the story..

Again, I fall back on my Santa theme this year as I pay tribute to my late mother, although this story shows a different side of my writing. Sometimes, I write dark, somewhat offbeat tales such as the aforeposted “Santa’s Worse Stop” and “An Inconvenient Christmas”. Sometimes, however, I delve into the realm of uplifting emotion and hope I don’t get any on me. Part of me is Stephen King, part of me is Nicholas Sparks. What can I say other than I hope you enjoy “The Many Santas of Shepherd’s Hollow”?

I hope anyone reading this has an enjoyable Christmas and the promise of a wonderful new year.

ETA: Due to the length of this piece, I added a cut at the bottom of this entry. Just click where it says “Read the rest” and it will show you, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.

THE MANY SANTAS OF SHEPHERD’S HOLLOW

The snow began December 23rd, flurries sliding in from the west as though they were ordered especially for the holiday. White Christmases were rare in central Kentucky and the gray skies with their white flakes offered the first promise of one in years. Children looked out their windows and smiled, pointing and declaring with the authority granted to them during the holidays that this year, finally, there would be snow on Christmas Day.

Their parents also looked out the windows. They did not smile. They had seen the weather forecasts and knew what was coming.

Becky Garrison had not seen the weather. Waiting tables at the only restaurant in Shepherd’s Hollow, she had overheard vague conversation about the weather, but there was always such talk at the Corner Café. Old farmers and older retired farmers, deep into their sixth refill of free coffee, sat at the small tables all the time and talked about the weather, the tobacco crop, deer hunting, and the occasional Kentucky basketball game. Becky only paid attention to the basketball talk, the rest fading into a dull drone that formed the soundtrack of her working day.

“Jim,” Becky called to the kitchen as she pulled off her apron, “you need anything else before I take off?”

Jim Cantrell, wearing a grease-stained Santa hat instead of his usual grease-stained chef’s hat, looked up at her. He smiled at her, the warmth of it a bittersweet reminder of her father, dead of lung cancer the previous April. Jim had been her employer since high school and the only man she really trusted since Robbie had left her, four months pregnant with his child, to go to college out west.

“No, hun, you go ahead,” Jim said. “You and Beth have a good Christmas and be careful.”

“I will. Thanks.”

Becky tossed her dirty apron into a cloth bag beside the kitchen door, spun on her coat, and made for the front with a casual wave at the last four customers in the restaurant, all regulars she had known since childhood. Thee of them returned her wave, throwing in a “Merry Christmas” along with it, but the fourth, the oldest of the group, stood up and motioned for her to wait.

“Hold on, Becky, before you go,” Mr. Cosley said. A withered-looking man in his mid-eighties, Mr. Cosley looked even smaller in his tan coveralls, zipped halfway down to reveal his customary v-neck tee beneath, and his heavy, insulated boots. He hobbled through the tables and chairs to Becky, reached in his pocket, and pulled out a fifty. “You can’t leave without your tip.”

Becky stared at the money, but didn’t move to take it. “Mr. Cosley,” she said, her voice low, “that’s a fifty. I think you grabbed the wrong bill in your—“

“Ain’t the wrong bill, either,” the old man said. He reached out and stuffed the bill into Becky’s reluctant fingers. “You take it and have a good Christmas with that little girl of yours.”

Tears stung the corner of Becky’s eyes and she did the only thing she could to keep the sweet old man from seeing them, wrapping her arms around his shrunken shoulders and kissing him on the cheek. She held him there for a moment until she was sure her voice would work properly.

“Thank you,” she said. “And Merry Christmas to you.”

She kissed Mr. Cosley again, smiling as the pasty skin of his ears turned bright red, and waved again at the others before nearly dancing out the door into the parking lot.

Outside, Becky realized for the first time that it was snowing. Her mood higher than it had been in some time, she stood and watched the bits of white drift down, swirling in the yellow lights of the parking lot. Night had fallen, still and quiet in the small town.

Becky found her car, an older model Toyota, covered in a light dusting off snow and brushed off her windshield, not minding the cold bite on the exposed skin of her hand. She worked fast, only clearing off enough to drive safely the few miles to her home, and sat down in the car, flexing her frozen fingers as she dug her keys out of her purse. The car started on the fifth try and as it idled, she reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out the wad of cash. Singing along with a Bon Jovi song on the radio, she smoothed out the bills and laid them into stacks on the passenger seat, organizing them by denomination. Then, she started with the fifty Mr. Cosley had just given her and counted the stacks, her spirits rising as the total rose to and past what she had hoped to save by today.

Yes, she decided, it would be enough.

Tucking the money back into her jeans pocket, Becky put the car in gear and pulled onto the quarter mile of Highway 650 that became Main Street as it passed through Shepherd’s Hollow. The street, like her car, wore a blanket of white marred only by a few sets of tire tracks that were already starting to disappear under the steady accumulation of powder. Becky traveled slow, her headlights soon replacing the street lamps as the only source of illumination on the two-lane road out of town. Her father, a truck driver until the illness took hold, had taught her how to handle slick roads and she felt no fear as she handled the curves and rolling hills, only a cautious confidence that she would make it home to her Beth.

The radio station came out of commercial and the DJ started the weather forecast. Becky reached down, her eyes locked on the road, and switched stations until she found Kenny Chesney and joined him in a mid-song duet.

Reaching her turn, Becky did as her father had instructed and began braking very early, allowing the car to come to a near stop on the icy road before allowing it to coast onto the gravel road. Even with such caution, the Toyota’s back end slid a bit as she turned, causing Becky to stop singing abruptly and grip the wheel tighter, even as her foot automatically let off the gas to allow the vehicle to correct itself. The back tires caught traction again and, reaching the relative safety of the gravel, dug in for a better grip.

Becky lifted her voice again, joining Kenny for the last chorus and singing along with Reba as she sang about a girl named Fancy. “Fancy” was one of Becky’s all-time favorites, the story of a young girl living a life of poverty who rises up, through sacrifice and hard work, to a life of luxury. The song gave Becky hope, something, like money, that a single mother working at a local diner rarely had in surplus.

But as she pulled into her driveway, the lights of her rented trailer winking through the increasing snowfall, she had just over two hundred dollars in her pocket and the kind of hope that only Christmas can bring.

She pulled the Toyota beside the Dodge pickup already in her driveway, the larger vehicle’s features all but vanished beneath the blanket of white. Doing a twirl in the gravel before she went inside, Becky placed a tentative foot on the first of the two steps leading up to the front door and, finding it slippery, grabbed the rail for support. The sound of laughter, unusual coming from her, accompanied Becky as she pulled her way up the steps and turned the door knob.

The trailer was small and old, but thanks to Becky’s knack of decorating on a tight budget, it felt cozy and inviting. She had strategically placed pieces of furniture, rugs, and pictures of Beth to cover up the various burns, stains, and holes left by the previous tenants. Instead of the smell of smoke and urine that had greeted her first visit to the place, the trailer now smelled of pumpkin spice and apple pie thanks to the aromatic candles she kept burning in the kitchen. This year, she had even placed a Christmas tree for the first time, a live one she had cut herself in the nearby woods and hauled back as a surprise for her daughter.

“Mommy!”

Beth met her at the door, her footie pajamas sliding on the snow-slick tile. Her hair, still damp from her bath, stuck to Becky’s frozen cheek in warm strands that seemed to radiate the love between them.

“I was starting to worry about you,” Paula said from the kitchen where she was finishing the dishes from dinner. “Roads look like they’re getting bad out there.”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Becky said, putting her daughter down. She looked at Beth as she took off her coat. “What was for dinner?”

“Fish sticks,” Beth beamed. They were her favorite, a staple Becky could count on at least three nights a week. “I ate nine.”

“Wow,” Becky beamed back, “that’s a lot.”

Beth held out her flannel-clad belly, leaning back so that it protruded as much as possibly against the snowman designs. “I know. Look.”

Becky reached down and rubbed her daughter’s belly. “Wow,” she repeated. “Now, you go get in bed and I’ll be in a few minutes to tuck you in.”

Beth took off in a sprint for her bedroom down the hall, Becky watching her go.

“She’s pretty excited about the snow,” Paula said, drying off her hands and reaching for her coat. “Can’t say that I second that emotion, but I remember being her age.”

Paula had been Beth’s sitter since Becky had been able to go back to work following childbirth. Her husband, a contractor, made more than enough money to support them, but Paula loved being around children and saw Becky’s situation as a perfect way to get out of the house and feel needed. To Becky, she was a saint who had been more than a blessing to her and her daughter, she had been like a wise older sister, one she could ask for advice and count on for whatever she needed. Paula had been there many nights in the beginning, mopping the tears from her eyes or the morning sickness from her lips, and she was still there, as much a part of their family as either of them.

Becky reached into her pocket and pulled out the wad of bills and thumbed through them as Paula came into the living room.

“You put that away,” Paula said.

“I told you I’d pay you today,” Becky protested.

“And I said put it away,” Paula said. Her tone made it clear that the matter was not open for debate.

“But—“

“You use that money on Beth,” the older woman said. “You can make it up to me later.”

For the second time in less than an hour, Becky was rendered speechless by gratitude. She reached out and hugged Paula hard, kissing her cheek. This time, she did not try to check the tears that flowed down her still-red face. Paula had seen them enough to not be shocked by them.

“Thank you,” Becky told her.

“Merry Christmas, girl.”

They let go of each other and Paula opened the door to let herself out.

“Watch out for those steps,” Becky warned her, “and the roads. I fishtailed a little pulling onto the gravel.”

“I’ll be alright,” Paula said, using to handrail to slid down to the ground. “You shut that door so you don’t let all the heat out.”

Becky laughed and waved at her friend as she climbed into the big Dodge. She mostly shut the door, leaving open a crack while the big V-8 roared to life and the truck backed out into the road. She continued to watch it until the red tail lights were lost in the heavy snowfall and then she shut the door, locking it against the winter cold.

“Mommy!” came Beth’s voice from down the hall.

Becky slid off her wet shoes near the door and peeled off her damp socks as she hopped down the hall to her daughter’s bedroom.

Beth was in bed, her pink comforter piled on top of her like whipped topping on a sundae. Becky smoothed out her covers and sat down on the edge of the bed.

“You two have fun?” Becky asked.

Beth nodded. “We played Uno and watched Wheel of Fortune and I ate nine fish sticks.” To emphasize the point, she held up eight fingers, looked at the result, furrowed her brow, then added one more and held them out again.

Becky laughed again, unable to remember when she had felt more like doing so. After so many years of struggling, so many nights when everything in their lives seemed uncertain except for the constant fear that they would not have enough to survive, Becky finally felt like they were finding some traction, gaining some ground on that paralyzing terror that she was not the mother Beth deserved.

“Does Santa come tonight?” Beth asked, her eyes wide.

“Not tonight, honey. Tomorrow night.”

“And he’s bringing me presents?”

“Have you been good this year?”

Beth narrowed her eyes. “Mommy,” she said, as though she were the parent, “you know I’ve been good this year.”

“I know,” Becky agreed. “And I’m sure Santa knows, too. Now, you go to sleep and when you wake up, you’ll be one day closer to those presents.”

Beth closed her eyes and gave a mock snore.

Becky leaned over and kissed her daughter on the forehead, barely able to contain another outburst of mirth. “I’ll see you in the morning, you faker.”

Leaving her daughter’s room, Becky thought of going into the small living room and seeing what was on television, but her feet screamed at her from the cold and from being on duty all day, so she turned left into her own bedroom and shut the door. A few minutes later, she was in bed, thinking of all she had to do tomorrow. Even though the Corner Café was closed for the holiday, she had to drop Beth off at Paula’s so she could go to Wal-Mart and pick up the things on Beth’s Christmas list. The girl had not asked for much and, for the first time since they had been together, Becky could afford to get what she wanted.

She watched the snow falling outside as snuggled into her warm bed, thinking of how her daughter’s face would light up on Christmas morning.

“Mommy!”

Becky ignored the familiar little voice that called her name. Clutching her comforter closer to her chin, she rolled over and stayed asleep.

“Mommy,” the voice said again. This time, it was accompanied by a shaking of the bed and an insistent prodding of her left shoulder.

“What, baby?” she muttered, still unwilling to open her eyes.

“Mommy,” Beth said again. She was nearly breathless with enthusiasm. “Come look at the snow!”

“I’ve seen snow before.”

Beth tugged at the comforter. “Prolly not like this. There’s so much!”

Something pinged at Becky’s mind and she opened her eyes. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll come take a look. Then I’m getting back in bed.”

Beth jumped down and vanished out the door, her tiny feet thumping against the floor as she ran down the hall.

Becky looked up at the windows above her bed, but could see nothing through the thick glaze of condensation that had settled on them overnight. She rubbed her eyes and stood up, throwing her robe on as she slid her feet into a pair of white bunny slippers Beth had gotten for her, with Paula’s help, as a birthday present. She left her bedroom, passed her daughter’s, and turned into the bathroom. Again, the glass was frosted over, but she could see a lot of diffused white in the tiny dots of moisture clinging to it. She emptied her bladder, flushed, and went out into the living room.

Beth was standing on the couch, her little hands pulling apart the curtains so she could stare out through small space she had wiped clear on the window.

“Look, mommy,” she said. “Look outside.”

Becky yawned and went to the front door. She turned the knob and pulled, expecting to see an inch or two of snow, just enough to cover the ground and excite a five-year old into near hysterics. Instead, what she saw drove her to near hysterics, though not ones caused by excitement.

The flurries from the night before had grown into an impenetrable curtain of white. Snow flew sideways beyond the storm door, so thick that she could not see more than a foot or two beyond the frosting glass. The Toyota, which she knew to be no more than ten feet or so from the bottom of the front steps, was completely concealed by the maelstrom of snow. Now that she was more awake, she could hear the wind howling around the corners of the trailer, a baleful moan that Becky began feeling inside herself.

“Isn’t it great?” Beth asked from the couch. She was bouncing up and down on the cushions. “Can I go out and play in it?”

“No,” Becky said. The word came out sharper than she intended and Beth stopped bouncing.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?”

Becky looked outside again, her high spirits from the previous night draining out of her. She hit the latch of the storm door and tried to open it, but a drift of snow, nearly rising the two feet or so to the bottom pane of glass, held it back, forcing her to push hard to open it out over the top step. Snow blew in harder than rain and, in just a few seconds, formed a growing drift around her bunny slippers. A gusting wind seized the door and, if she had not been gripping it with such firmness, would have ripped it from her hand and likely off its hinges. She pulled hard, shutting the screen door with extreme difficulty, the aluminum base dragging in another pile of snow onto the small patch of tile at Becky’s feet.

“Why can’t I go out and play?” Beth asked.

Becky forced herself to smooth the edges off the word before she said it again.

“No, baby,” she said, closing her eyes. “Not right now.”

Beth, not a child given to tantrums, sank onto the couch and said nothing.

Becky went to the television and turned it on. A map of the region sat beneath the women of The View, all the counties shaded in white while the crawl beside it listed them alphabetically. Beneath the map were two words Becky never thought she’d see in rural Kentucky.

Blizzard Warning.

Read the rest

Here is the second of this year’s three Christmas short stories–“An Inconvenient Christmas”. In keeping with the theme I chose to honor my late mother, a huge Santa Claus fan, this tale features Saint Nick facing an ecological disaster with somewhat dark and humorous consequences.

AN INCONVENIENT CHRISTMAS

Crack!

Santa Claus rolled over in his bed, a difficult task beneath the half dozen thick blankets, and looked at his wife.

“What the hell was that?”

Mrs. Claus’s eyes were wide and shifting back and forth as though the cause of the noise might appear within her limited field of vision.

Crack!

“There it is again,” Santa said. “What is that?”

“I don’t know,” Mrs. Claus said. “Why don’t you get up and find out?”

Santa nestled down into the covers. “No. It’s cold out there.”

Crack! Crrrrack!

Mrs. Claus was surprisingly strong and showed it now. Planting her feet in the small of his back, she pushed her husband out of the bed onto the cold, wooden floor. Even a belly like a bowl full of jelly did not help him as he landed on his stomach, the wind knocked from his lungs.

“Dammit, hon,” Santa grumbled, breathless, “that hurt.” He stood up, pulling on the blankets as though to climb back into bed, but stopped when an electric cattle prod appeared from beneath, its tip sparkling with blue lightning.

“I said,” Mrs. Claus said from beneath the covers, “take your ass downstairs and see what made that noise.”

“Where did you get—?”

“You shouldn’t have left your sack on my side of the bed.”

Santa still held the lip of the bottom blanket in his hand and considered trying to climb into bed anyway. He knew his wife loved him and would never, ever do anything to hurt him.

Then, the cattle prod sparked, the blue arc lighting the dark room, and he dropped the blanket.

“What? You think someone’s breaking in? Nobody can find the place.”

“You heard it, too,” she answered. “Now, go.” Her tone was commanding, daring him to protest further. It told him, without saying it aloud, that one more comment like that would draw her out of the warm bed and then, fat man, there would be hell to pay.

“Okay,” he said, “I’m going.”

Cold floors are a natural hazard of winter. Anyone with hardwood in a bedroom, or who has risen from a hospital bed to make that all-important walk to the restroom, knows the pain that comes as the cold seeps into the joints of the foot, climbing the ankles and calves like ivy, until it settles in the knees like a bundle of razor wire.

Then, there are cold floors at the North Pole. The cold there did not seep up slowly, attacking the joints one at a time in its steady progression. Instead, the cold Santa felt seized his legs like a mass of clutching, clawed hands. He lost the feeling in his feet immediately and the numbness rose like an elevator, not just to his knees, but all the way to his hips, making it hard for him to walk. He stopped long enough to put on his robe and slide his feet into his slippers, then hobbled out into the corridor, headed for the stairs.

Crack!

This time, the sound was accompanied by a tremble in the large house, as if the building itself was shivering from the cold. Santa stopped at the foot of the stairs, trying to determine the source of the sound and the shake, but after several seconds, it did not repeat itself, so he continued on, wincing as his sore hips navigated the steps to the ground floor. He emerged into a large, airy room with expensive-looking chairs and sofas surrounding a massive flat-screen television that took up nearly one whole wall. The television, tuned to Fox News, showed two men arguing.

“Global warming is a hoax—“

“That’s just absurd.”

“—a hoax thought up by liberals to make it harder for American businesses to make money.”

Santa stopped in the middle of the room, turned off the television, and listened again. He knew the crew of elves working third shift in the workshop were busy putting together the Playstations and Blu-Ray players and other gifts he would be delivering in less than a week, some of them on the phones asking questions to Japanese technicians at Sony or yelling at suppliers in Hindi. Most of his staff, though, was asleep at this time of night.

Hearing nothing, Santa moved into the kitchen and flipped on the lights. He opened a cabinet, pulled out a mug, and set it down under the spout of his Keurig coffee maker before spinning his large rack of single-serve brew choices. He selected a dark Brazilian roast and popped the small cup into the machine, smiling as the aromatic steam began rising from his mug.

Crack!

This time the house shook with such violence that Santa nearly fell to the floor. His coffee mug, half-filled, toppled over and spilled across the stainless steel countertop. Santa reached for the dark fluid with his hand, hoping to keep it from spilling onto the floor, and recoiled as the hot coffee scalded his skin.

“Shit!” he spat as he looked for a towel to clean the mess.

Another noise drifted to his sensitive ears. Something was happening outside the house. Someone, in the distance, was screaming.

Santa sighed and turned away from the spilled coffee, ignoring the patter of the brown drops against the Italian tile. He threw on his red coat over his robe, slid his bare feet into his black boots, and opened the door to go outside.

The Campus, as Santa called the assortment of buildings that made up his operation at the North Pole, was awash in the soft, yellow glow of the streetlamps that lined the streets of packed snow and ice that served as the thoroughfares through Santa’s domain. Normally a place of understated serenity, the buildings were decorated with all manner of lights and tinsel. Evergreen trees—grown in the large greenhouse a half mile or so from Santa’s house—lined the sidewalks, their limbs heavy with ornaments. The elves, like their human counterparts to the south, enjoyed decorating for the holidays, but by the first week of January, exhausted from the mandatory overtime and in need of vacation, were sick of all things Christmas, including the fat son of a bitch that took all the credit for their hard work. The administrators of the local chapter of YULE (Yeoman’s Union of Laboring Elves) had their hands full keeping complaints to a minimum.

Now, however, the usual calm of a December night at the North Pole had given way to absolute pandemonium. Elves ran up and down the streets, crashing into each other and over each other. Many of them looked as though they had been roused from sleep, sprinting about in their pajamas, but a fair number had the bleary-eyed look of too much eggnog. Even the elves that normally worked third shift down the street at the massive workshop were in the streets, running and flailing their arms and looking terrified.

An elf ran into Santa at full speed, bounced off into a double somersault, and landed hard on the ice. As the dazed elf started to get up, Santa recognized him.

“Kleebert,” Santa said, kneeling down to the elf’s eye level, “what the hell is going on?”

Kleebert looked up at Santa, his eyes gradually sliding back into focus, then widening with the same look of terror on the faces of the other elves running like water around them.

“The ice, sir,” the elf began. “It’s—“

What the ice was doing, Kleebert never got to say. As he was about to finish his explanation, the ice beneath where he knelt split open and the elf, with a high-pitched scream, fell into the black water welling up from beneath the hole.

“Shit,” Santa said again. He dove for the elf, his beefy arm sliding down into the water and finding, to his great disappointment, no elf.

Crack!

The ice all around the hole cracked like window glass, spidery lines stretching out in all directions. One wound its way across the street to where a large mass of elves, the merger of two smaller masses moving in opposite directions, were trying to get past each other. Without warning, the ice beneath them gave way, dropping two dozen more elves into the freezing sea. Their screams, like Kleebert’s, died with a sudden finality that drilled into Santa’s overloaded brain.

Santa stood up slowly and backed away from the hole where Kleebert had fallen. The ice beneath him groaned and popped, but held his prodigious weight as he nearly moonwalked his way to safer ground. All around him, elves were vanishing with tiny splashes as the ice opened up beneath them like a great, hungry mouth and swallowed them whole.

“Santa!”

Falbut, Santa’s second-in-command, was sprinting toward him across the ice. He had obviously picked up the wrong robe in his haste to get outside, the bright pink velour waving behind him as he approached.

“Santa,” the elf asked, out of breath, “what do we do?”

“Hell if I know,” Santa said. “How did this happen?”

“No idea,” Falbut answered, “although I did hear Bloktin mention something about ‘global warming’ right before he fell into a hole.”

Craaaack!

At the far end of the street, a building Santa recognized as The Naughty Elf, the Pole’s only strip club—its neon sign displaying a male elf being spanked by a buxom, scantily-clad female –trembled, then began to tilt to one side. Santa first thought he was imagining the effect, that the stress of what was happening was too much, but as he continued to stare, open-mouthed, the building listed until, with a great slurping sound, it slid out of view into the ocean.

“We are in deep shit,” Santa said to Falbut.

“Every elf for himself,” the elf said. He turned and dashed off the way he had come.

“Get back here you little bastard!” Santa yelled. He was about to tell Falbut that he was fired, but as he opened his mouth to speak, a great hole opened up before the elf.

Falbut, seeing the hole in time, skidded to a halt at the very edge of the jagged wound in the ice cap. Leaning back, he reached up to wipe his brow in relief just as a walrus shot out from the water, snatched the tiny elf in its maw, and dragged him into the black depths.

Santa had seen enough. There was nothing he could do to save the elves, the buildings, or the thousand of toys in the warehouses adjacent to the workshop. Everything he had spent centuries working for was going to ruin, sinking into the Arctic Ocean like some failed luxury liner. He might, however, save what mattered the most.

Santa turned and ran back for his front door. He could hear the ice splintering beneath him and, in some places, it gave way completely and only his forward momentum kept him from falling into the water. He reached the front door just as the building across the street, an Italian restaurant that he particularly enjoyed, shivering and plunged into the ocean like a person in a dunking booth.

Sprinting back through the kitchen, Santa could feel the floor of the building beneath him shifting and heaving as the ice below cracked. He had no idea how long his house would stay above the surface, so he took the steps three at a time, knowing that each second placed him closer to an icy depth.

“What is going on out there?” Mrs. Claus asked as Santa burst into the room. She was sitting up in bed now, the covers pulled up around her neck.

Santa ignored her question. Instead, he dove for his sack lying on the floor next to the bed.

“What are you doing?”

Santa again ignored her, too focused on the task at hand to lose precious time answering. He rummaged around in the bag, his arm inside to the shoulder, groping blindly and hoping that he was right, that the item he needed was still in there.

The house seemed to jump, throwing Mrs. Claus on top of Santa as his fingers settled on what he had been searching for. The two of them rolled in a heap to one corner of the room as the house, having jumped, had come down crooked and now leaned hard to one side.

Santa, sore and battered, refused to let go of what was clutched in his hand. With a hard pull, he managed to throw his wife off of him while removing from the bag a large, folded pile of yellow rubber.

“You better tell me what—“

Santa reached around the yellow mound until he found what looked like a loose piece of rope hanging from it. This he grabbed and pulled. The thing in his hands hissed and expanded, its various folds unfolding until a large rubber raft lay in their bedroom.

Mrs. Claus’s face went as white as her hair.

“What’s that for?” she asked in a timid voice.

“We have to get outside,” Santa said.

The house shifted again, this time drawing almost level, but sinking a few inches so fast that Mr. and Mrs. Claus bounced off the floor.

Mrs. Claus grabbed her robe from her bedside chair and threw it on while Santa grabbed his sack and threw it into the raft.

Downstairs, Santa could no longer hear the screaming of elves. The only sound he heard, apart from his and his wife’s panicked breathing, was the rush of water pouring into the first floor of his house. Then, a loud popping noise came from somewhere in the house and the lights went out. A silvery shaft of moonlight came through the window at the far end of the room, providing the barest of illumination.

Fumbling through the darkness, Mrs. Claus climbed into the raft and sat down. Santa, however, continued to stand beside it, staring at its shadowy form as though he was waiting for something.

“Are you going to get in?” Mrs. Claus asked him, the dangerous tone of impatience that he so feared returning to her voice.

“I forgot something.”

“Well,” Mrs. Claus said, “it’s a little late now.”

“No,” Santa said, pulling at his beard in frustration. “How are we going to get the raft outside? It won’t fit through the window.”

There was a moment when, even in the darkness of the room, Santa could feel her anger as a palpable force, a wave of fury that, had it occurred earlier, he would have blamed for melting the ice cap. As it was, he could only stand there and hope that he did not spontaneously combust from her gaze.

“I guess I have to do everything myself,” Mrs. Claus said as the house lurched again. Water had reached the second floor and began pouring through the open bedroom door, pooling around Santa’s boots and lapping against the raft in a preliminary effort to lift it from the floor.

In the sparse light, Santa saw his wife reach for his magical sack again. She reached inside and, a moment later, pulled out a long, cylindrical object. Only when she raised it to rest on her shoulder, did he realize what the thing was and flung himself, headfirst, into the raft.

The rocket-propelled grenade flew from the barrel of the launcher, hissing through the bedroom for only a second before striking the far wall, blasting a hole through it with such concussive force that Santa was flipped out of the raft, end over end, to crash into the opposite wall.

As he lay dazed and upside down, Santa could feel the icy water closing around his head until he could no longer breathe. He flailed his arms and managed to right himself into water almost a foot deep and rising. Little chunks of ice floated here and there, gathering around him like small children at a mall.

“Please get into the raft,” Mrs. Claus said, sounding as though she wished he would do anything except what she asked.

Santa stood on wobbly, numb legs and began sloshing his way to the raft as it started moving away from him and toward the gaping hole still smoking in the far wall. He dove for it just as the small boat was about to float beyond his reach and landed with his head at his wife’s feet and his legs still dangling in the freezing water.

“Stopping goofing off and get in the damn boat,” Mrs. Claus said, not moving a finger to help him.

With tremendous effort, Santa Claus pulled himself into the raft just as it slid out of the bedroom and into the winter night. He lay there in the bottom of the boat for some time, gasping and shivering, before he found the strength to sit up and look around.

All around them, chunks of ice, most no bigger than the rubber raft, drifted through the still Arctic waters. Various debris—bits of wood from the buildings, several toys, even the stiff corpse of an elf floating face down in the water—filled the spaces between the pieces of ice. There was no sign of the centuries old operation that Santa had devoted his immortal life to creating. Everything, from the workshop to the elves, was gone.

“This is all your fault,” Mrs. Claus said from the other end of the small raft. “I said you should build your workshop closer to the equator, but you wanted privacy.” She waved her arms around at the empty night. “How do you like this for privacy?”

“Shut up,” Santa said. He thought of all the elves, annoying but loyal, he had lost. He thought of the reindeer, probably locked in their barn as it plunged into the ocean. He thought of the tons and tons of toys that he would not be able to deliver on Christmas Eve.

“I will not shut up,” Mrs. Claus said. “If you think I’m just going to forget what an idiot, what an imbecile you are, you are sadly mistaken.”

Santa reached out and grabbed the sack away from his wife. Reaching inside, he rummaged about until he found what he was searching for and, with a wide grin, pulled out a steel manacle attached to a thick chain.

“I said shut up.” Santa reached with the manacle as he spoke and, with the final word, snapped it shut over his wife’s ankle.

“What are you doing?”

Santa did not answer. Instead, his smile in place the whole time, he pulled arm length after arm length of heavy chain from his bag until, with a grunt of effort, he found other end attached to a heavy metal anchor.

With a small nod to his wife, Santa heaved the anchor over the side of the raft.

“No—you can’t—I mean—please—“ she was about to say something else, but the chain snapped tight and dragged Mrs. Claus, screaming in terror, out of the raft and into the cold, murky depths.

After several minutes of sitting in silence, Santa reached into his magical sack again and pulled out two oars, a battery-operated ceramic space heater, a flare gun with a box of flares, and a bottle of bourbon. He kicked on the heater, took a long pull of the whiskey, placed the bottle between his legs, and took up the oars, wondering how far it was to Canada.

In keeping with this year’s theme of “Santa Claus”, here is the first of this year’s three Christmas short stories. I had a lot of fun incorporating this year’s trendy horror subject–zombies–with the holiday theme and I hope that fun translates into an entertaining read.

When my wife read this story, she asked me, “Do you realize that this story is about your mom?” I didn’t, and still don’t, really think so, but the house I describe in the story does bear an eerie resemblance to one she might have decorated. Pure coincidence, I assure you, but I think my mom would have appreciated the decor, even if she didn’t care for the overall story.

I think she would’ve liked the story, too.

WARNING: This story is not for children or people who object to their mythological gift givers spewing obscenities.

And so, here is “SANTA’S WORST STOP”:

Santa Claus, his heavy red coat tossed over the seat of his sleigh, sat on a rooftop and took a moment to stare out at the clear, moonlit night. The Louisiana bayou lay all around him, the canopy of the trees forming a dark wall around the small illuminated patch in which the house rested. Smells of decay and life, sounds of animals, things he never experienced at the sterile North Pole, assaulted him in a dizzying array of sensation. The only familiar intrusions into this fantastic new world, reborn every year, was the subtle musk of the reindeer a few feet away.

Sighing, Santa leaned back against the tiled roof. The house, as isolated as any he would visit tonight, allowed him a place to rest on his yearly world tour, somewhere he would not be spotted by neighboring children hoping to catch a glimpse of him like paparazzi pursuing some celebrity diva. He pulled a Cuban cigar from his shirt pocket, one he picked up from a house in Havana, and lit it with a small flame that sprang from his thumb. He sucked hard on the stogie, watching as the end flared with light, and pulled a chocolate chip cookie from another pocket.

Ah, he thought, life is good.

For a while, he inhaled and blew smoke rings into the air, thinking of nothing in particular. He was near the end of his run and things had gone smoothly, even with all the trouble brewing in the world. Thankfully, naughty and nice only applied to children, or he would have needed an extra sleigh to haul all the coal.

When he felt he’d been idle long enough, he stood up. With his powers, he could manipulate time easily enough, but he didn’t want to allow himself to rest too long, preferring to push on through the weariness caused by his annual trek across space and time to reward the good little children of the world. Well, okay, the good little Christian children. The good little Christian children whose parents had enough money . . .

Why get bogged down in the politics of it? He brought the shit, the kids played with the shit. Wash, rinse, repeat.

He adjusted his suspenders and, careful not to catch it on his cigar, pulled on his coat. He hated the heavy thing once he got into these warmer climates, but he knew his image demanded that he show up in full uniform, no matter how much he would have liked to slip down a chimney in Brazil or Liberia wearing nothing but a red and green Speedo.

No, the Speedo would have to wait a week or so. As he threw the stub of the cigar off the rooftop, he thought of his private island in the south Pacific. Primo surfing, drinks served in hollowed out coconut halves, and Mrs. Claus sunbathing in the nude.

Yes, life is good, he thought. Vacation is better.

Santa buttoned his coat and nodded to the reindeer, who stood in front of the sleigh regarding him with bored impatience. He was again thankful that the smelly shit factories couldn’t talk. If the decision were up to him, he’d replace the beasts with something else, something cooler. Polar bears, perhaps. Considering how the things were dying out, he thought they could probably use the employment. Nobody gives a damn about reindeer other than the ones who pulls his sleigh, but everyone loves polar bears.

He walked to the chimney, thinking of how absurd it was for a house, and not even a very nice house, in Louisiana to have a chimney. Did it really get cold enough for someone to need a fireplace or was it just for some redneck to impress the buck-toothed whores he picked up at the local bar?

Santa climbed on top of the chimney and shimmied down, wondering how he had ever become so cynical. Very un-Santalike.

Half-landing, half materializing like some character from Star Trek, Santa hiked his bag up on his shoulder and looked around. Obviously, whoever lived here was a fan. The small room was decorated, floor to ceiling, with hundreds, if not thousands, of Santas. Santas took up every available inch of every flat surface in the room, from the mantle to the tables to even most of the floor, allowing just a narrow passage for someone to walk. Father Christmas ornaments hung on nearly every branch of the tree, some so heavy they weighed the limb down over tops of other Santa-bearing boughs. There were Papa Noels on the walls, atop the small television in the corner, even on the throw draped across the sofa. Dean Martin was singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” from a radio somewhere in the room. To the real-life Saint Nick standing by the fireplace, it reminded him of the time he ate some LSD-laced cookies at some house in San Bernadino, a stunt that had landed the kids, and the parents, there on the permanent naughty list. The whole effect, the massive overkill of devotion, made him a bit nauseous.

So stunned by the overpopulations of faux hims was Santa, that it took him a moment to realize something else was making him nauseous. A stench, something that he could never recall smelling in all his many, many years of demigodhood, struck Santa with almost physical force, reaching down his esophagus and crumpling his stomach like a piece of paper.

Santa looked around the room, searching for the source of the odor, and a movement caught his eye. He was well-tuned to slight movements, having spent centuries watching for any little children that might have stayed up to spy on him, and his keen senses noticed that the throw over the sofa, bearing images of him that made him appear to be raging drunk, slid back an inch, then stopped, slid another inch, and stopped.

Perplexed, Santa took a step forward and heard, as Dean Martin gave way to The Beach Boys singing “Little Saint Nick”, what sounded like someone eating. He could hear the smacking of lips and, very quiet, a rhythmic chewing sound followed by an almost imperceptible swallow.

He took another step forward and stepped on the button for an animated Santa that played the saxophone and shook his hips like an arthritic belly dancer. The toy blared to life and Santa winced.

The smacking, the chewing, the swallowing all stopped at once.

Santa watched as the throw slid slowly, but steadily, over the top of the sofa until it vanished from sight. Then, a hand, emaciated and covered in blood, reached up and grasped the back of the sofa. A face followed, sunken and sallow, its lower half dripping the same fresh blood as the hand. The eyes occupying the face, milky white, flared as they focused on Santa.

“Holy fuck!” Santa yelled as the zombie drew slowly to its feet. It’s clothing, what wasn’t covered in red stains, was filthy as though the creature had trudged through the surrounding swamp to get to the house. It’s skin hung from its body, it seemed, more out of habit than for any practical purpose. In places, it was sheared away, leaving exposed bones that the abomination didn’t seem to notice.

The milky eyes fixed on Santa and the thing’s face changed. It looked hungry.

Santa’s first instinct was to shoot back up the chimney and get the hell out of dodge. He backed up to the fireplace as the zombie turned its head sideways, regarding his considerable bulk like a full Christmas feast—and God bless us, every one. Holding his bag firmly, he touched his nose, triggering the magic that would shoot him back up the chimney and outside.

Nothing happened.

He touched his nose again, feeling the sweat dripping down it.

Nothing happened again.

The zombie began his way around the end of the sofa, his shuffling steps knocking
Santas aside like a strong wind felling trees.

Santa grabbed his nose so hard it brought tears to his eyes.

Nothing happened for the third time.

The zombie, clear of the sofa, lunged for Santa.

Being Santa Claus, as Santa would tell anyone who would listen, is not all cookies and elf slaves. There are occupational risks to being Santa. There were attack dogs that, he had found, could usually be bought off with a nice bone or, if the case required, pepper sprayed. There were nasty older brothers who would set booby traps at the fireplace, leaving Santa cleaning up egg, or worse, from his uniform. There were the aforementioned acid cookies. Being Santa, he had learned, could be very hazardous to one’s health.

But at no point in his centuries of service, in the millions of houses he had visited, had he ever been in mortal fear of being eaten.

The zombie stretched out for him with its blood-caked fingers and Santa, reacting on pure instinct, swung his huge bag off his shoulder in a wide arc that intercepted the creature just as it touched his red coat. The zombie, weighing far less in death than it would have in life, bounced off the sack like a racquetball, crashing through a sea of Santas before smashing into the television.

Above Santa’s pounding heart, he heard The Beach Boys fade and Madonna start singing “Santa Baby”.

He stepped away from the fireplace, going against his better judgment, to peek around the sofa. A middle-age woman lay in the floor, her body partially covered by the Drunken Santa throw. Her nightgown, a Saint Nicholas-covered fleece garment, was open, revealing a gaping hole in her abdomen where the creature had ripped apart her flesh and feasted until Santa had arrived as a possible second course. The sight of the woman, her eyes wide, her face filled with silent terror, nearly made Santa toss his cookies. And that, after a nearly full night of sampling, would have made quite a mess.

Santa was so captivated by the dead woman lying on the floor that he almost didn’t hear the stirring to his left. He turned just in time to see the zombie straighten and charge him again. Jumping back, he swung his bag around again, hoping to knock the creature into the fireplace, but missed as the zombie hesitated as the velvet weapon whooshed past him.

The zombie darted in again, but Santa, reversing the direction of the bag with skill born of years of handling it, caught it just in time and sent it flipping over the arm of the sofa to crash into the Santa-laden coffee table. The small, cheap piece of furniture collapsed beneath the weight of the creature as animatronic Santas went off in a discordant symphony.

Santa moved back to the fireplace and tried to exit again and, again, found his magic failing him. He wondered if the stress of the situation was somehow blocking it or, even worse, if the zombie somehow was keeping him from escaping.

He had no time to think about it, however, as the undead thing started rising again where it had fallen.

Santa dropped his bag and moved around the room, putting the sofa between him and the zombie. He looked for something he could use as a weapon, but all he kept seeing were more miniature images of himself, none of which would prove very useful in mortal combat.

The zombie stood up and looked at Santa. Its face had changed again. Now, it looked hungry and pissed off. It opened its mouth, revealing elongated, wicked teeth and hissed.

“What, you want me to just hold still and let you fucking eat me?” Santa asked. “I don’t think so.”

The zombie hissed again and started moving around the sofa. Santa mirrored the move, careful not to step on, or in, the dead woman, keeping the heavy piece of furniture between them. The zombie moved the other way, and again, Santa moved the opposite direction. Then, the creature jumped up onto the sofa and, with another loud hiss, leapt over the back of the piece, arms outstretched.

Santa let out a high-pitched, girlish scream and did the only thing he had time to do. Grabbing the Christmas tree, he pulled it between himself and the zombie just as the bloody hands clawed for his face. The thing pressed forward, its arms extended through the tree on either side of the trunk, its snapping teeth biting off branches on the other side.

Keeping the tree at arm’s length, Santa struggled to find a way out of his predicament. The zombie’s hands were clutching at his sleeves as he held the tree out in front of him like a shield.

Santa had a flash of insight as he struggled against the hands. Pulling on the strings of lights that wound around the pine, he began wrapping the green wires around the zombie’s wrists, tying them up like a rodeo rider roping a calf. Soon, the hands could only flail against themselves in a clapping motion and the zombie was stuck, unable to free itself from the tree. With a great heave, Santa sent the tree tumbling over sideways and the zombie, hissing like an enraged cat, went over with it.

“Ha! Take that!” Santa yelled as the zombie thrashed to extricate itself.

The zombie jerked as though it was having a seizure, its body pulling back away from the tree. The light cords held tight to the creature’s wrists—working with flying reindeer all the time, you have to know how to tie a good knot—but with a sickening, ripping sound, the zombie’s left arm tore away from its shoulder. With its right hand, it then pulled the severed limb through the tree on the other side and stood up, holding the still-wagging appendage like a club as the music changed to the Jackson 5’s “Up on the Housetop”.

“Oh, shit,” Santa whispered as the zombie started toward him again. It shuffled forward, its foot caught in the fabric of Santa’s bag of presents.

The bag, Santa thought. The presents.

The realization struck Santa with a wave of nausea that matched the one from his initial smell of the room. How had had been so stupid, so incredibly dense, he could only attribute to the panic of finding a member of the undead eating a dead body in a room full of hims.

Santa Claus does one thing. He leaves gifts. That’s his gig. Santa, trying to leave at the first sight of the zombie was violating the primary rule of his job, the entire reason he had those magical powers to begin with.

For his powers to work, he now realized, he had to do what he came to do. He had to deliver his gifts.

The next problem, now that he had solved the first, was that the zombie stood between him and his magical bag of gifts, a deadly obstacle to the completion of his task. And it was coming closer.

Santa backed away, his eyes shifting from the zombie, now approaching him more cautiously that it had before, and the magic bag that represented his salvation. He stood in the doorway to the kitchen and dared a glance over his shoulder. The kitchen door stood ajar, the muggy swamp air rolling in over a set of muddy footprints that moved from outside across to the dead woman lying on the floor.

He turned just in time to see the zombie lunge for him again.

Santa, though, had a plan to repel this attack. Clutching one of the dining room chairs, he picked it up, stabbed out with the legs, and caught the zombie in mid-air. With a hard twist, he sent both chair and zombie sliding across the tiled kitchen floor where they crashed hard into the refrigerator. Hundreds of magnets, all showing some representation of a particular jolly fat man, fell upon the creature like rain as it hissed in protest.

Santa was moving again before the last magnet hit the floor. He jumped the dead woman and nearly tripped over a miniature him on a motorcycle before scooping up his bag and thrusting his hand inside.

“Come on,” he begged as he dug around, shoulder-deep in the red velvet. At last, he pulled out the first gift, unwrapped it, and found a life-sized inflatable Santa Claus. He threw the box at the woman’s corpse in the floor and it bounced off her blood-soaked shoulder.

“Merry Christmas, you fucking stalker!” he yelled at the dead woman, his arm disappearing again into the bag.

The zombie appeared in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen.

“If I pull out another damn me from this bag—“ Santa said, but he stopped when his hand found another item and he pulled out a long, heavy package, wrapped in camouflage paper and tied with a glittery red ribbon.

Again, Santa tore into the package, another violation of his magical contract, but one that he thought could be ignored under the circumstances. He suspected what would be in the narrow box and was not disappointed when a double-barrel Remington shotgun rolled out into his shaking hands.

The zombie inched closer to him, more wary than ever, a bloody snarl curling the remains of its lips. Its fingers bent into claws as it moved closer to its intended victim.

Santa raised the shotgun to his shoulder, aimed for the zombie’s head no more than six feet away, and pulled the trigger.

Click.

“Motherfucker!” Santa roared.

The zombie was nearly close enough to touch him now and Santa was moved to try something desperate. Taking up a stuffed Santa doll, weighted at the bottom to make it stand up, Santa called forth the same thumb-tip flame he had used to light his cigar and put it to the doll. The cotton material caught at once and, without hesitation, he flung the flaming doll at the zombie.

The zombie, still wet from its trek through the swamp and the blood covering its face and body, watched as the flaming Santa struck it and bounced off, doing no more harm to it than a sprig of mistletoe.

Santa, his hand already back in the magical bag, could not help his mouth dropping open in disappointment. A moment later, though, that disappointment changed to triumph, followed closely by alarm.

The flaming Santa doll, while doing no direct harm to the zombie, landed on the old throw half-draped over the dead woman at its feet. The throw, and the sofa next to it, flared into hellish life, the conflagration quickly spreading across the many, many Santa figures and decorations across the crowded room. In moments, the entire room looked like the inside of a lit fireplace.

The zombie took a step back to avoid the burning throw, but could not escape the ring of fire that wound around it. It turned left and right, looking for some avenue to freedom and, finding none, turned its baleful gaze back to Santa.

The radio, halfway through Elvis Presley singing “Here Comes Santa Claus”, warbled, then died, as it melted.

Santa dug into the bag, knowing that this house required one more gift. He could just touch it with its fingers, as though the bag knew the danger of his situation and wanted to torture him. Finally, he managed to grab hold of the box—a heavy one—and pull it free of the bag.

It was the right size and shape and Santa, following the pattern of logic from the last gift, knew it was a box of shotgun shells. He tore the paper away from the nondescript brown container and pried it open with his thick fingers.

It was not shotgun shells. Instead, an assortment of artificial fishing baits and lead sinker weights sat in little compartments, awaiting a fishing trip that would never come.

The zombie, sensing its end drawing near in the raging inferno, charged through the fire toward Santa, the orange, burning tongues finally biting the tattered remains of its clothing enough to engulf it.

Santa screamed in anger and frustration as he hurled the tackle box at the zombie. The heavy sinkers struck the zombie’s head like birdshot, some of the various baits clinging to the pallid skin like odd piercings. The overall effect, though, stopped the zombie just long enough for Santa to realize that, with all the presents delivered to this house, he could get the hell out.

He reached for his nose, but the zombie’s flaming hand, the skin curling black around Santa’s wrist, grabbed him, pulling his arm down.

Santa, enraged beyond anything he could remember in all his many long years of life, bellowed a roar that drowned out the crackling symphony of the flames all around him. Despite the heat gathering around him, despite the flaming hand clutching him, despite the gnashing teeth of the zombie zooming toward his face, Santa Claus would not be denied.

With a powerful jerk, made possible by his centuries of hauling his heavy bag of gifts, he pulled the zombie toward him and, with a hard thrust, bounced the fiery, undead creature off his belly. The zombie snapped its teeth once, nearly taking off the tip of Santa’s nose, before flying back away into the flames, it’s severed left hand still clutching Santa’s wrist.

The flames reached across the floor and the white fur around Santa’s boots began to blacken, but a second later, he was gone.

Back on the roof, smoke rising all around him, Santa Claus peeled off the still-protesting hand of the zombie and flung it off into the swamp. He wiped off the pieces of rotted skin the clung to him and, with a quick pinch, put out the small fire that was sending smoke up from the cuff around his left boot. He flipped into the sleigh, taking the reins so he could leave before the roof collapsed beneath him.

He snapped the reins, but nothing happened.

“Come on,” Santa demanded, waving his hands at the reindeer. “We have to go.”

As one, the eight reindeer turned and looked at their master. Their eyes, normally heavy-lidded and submissive, were wide and alert. And angry. From their mouths, billowing out around the metal bits like clouds in an approaching storm, a milky white foam dripped onto the roof.

Placing his weary head in his hands, Santa Claus ignored his rabid reindeer and for the first time in his existence, wished he was the Easter Bunny.