The snow lay in quiet drifts, glittering a reflection of the stars in the sky overhead. This far north it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the snow began, unless you looked to the south and saw the ocean creeping toward you.
“Climate change,” Nick muttered. “Yet another item to add to the list.” He puffed on the corncob pipe in his mouth, though there was hardly any tobacco left in it, and the fire had gone out long ago. More habit than anything else, these days.
A small voice to his right brought him out of his reverie. “Your Holiness,” the elf said. “The makers?”
Nick blinked away the dark thoughts. “Yes, yes,” he said. “What about them?”
The elf consulted a tiny clipboard, made a mark with a piece of black chalk. “They want to know if we’re building anything this year, or if they can turn in early.”
Nick shook his head. “I’ll check the lists,” he said, and turned back toward the cottage.
“Your Holiness,” said the elf, “with all due respect, you checked the lists this morning already.”
“I’ll check them again to make sure,” said Nick. But he didn’t move. The lights in the windows were flickering oddly. The lamps must be running low on oil, he thought. What had made him so hesitant to spring for a generator? “Tell the makers to polish their tools,” said Nick. “Just in case.”
“Your Holiness.” The elf clapped his heels together in a kind of salute, marched off toward the factory.
The walk toward the cottage seemed longer tonight than usual, the snow crunching under the leather of his boots. Crunching, he thought. It never used to do that.
At last his hands grasped the wood of the door’s handle, and he wrenched it open with a grunt.
“Close the door! You’ll let in the draft!”
Nick stepped inside and closed the door, shaking the snow from his coat. “It’s barely freezing out there,” he said. “Since when do you mind the draft?”
“Since we started running out of matches.” Mary stepped out from the kitchen, wiping someting greasy off of her hands onto her apron. She looked at him. “You look a thousand years old,” she said.
“I feel a thousand years older than that,” said Nick. “How long are we going to keep doing this?”
“Doing what?” She went back to the kitchen.
“Pretending things are the way they used to be. Pretending we’re making a difference.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, each few words punctuated by the dull thud of a knife chopping meat. “We are making a difference.”
“Maybe,” said Nick. “Some years I wonder if it’s worth it.” He sat down at his desk, checked the ledger one more time. He sighed. “Worse than last year,” he muttered to himself. The makers were going to have short work again. He turned page after page, both columns, checked for mistakes.
He didn’t find anything until the last page, when he found a name he didn’t remember writing down.
Santa Claus — NAUGHTY
He checked it twice; no, it definitely wasn’t his handwriting. Someone had tampered with his ledger. “Mary, did anyone come into the house while I was out?”
“Not that I know of,” said Mary. “Oh, one of the makers stopped by to bring me a pot of tea. I don’t quite remember her name, though. Some kind of tree nut, I think.”
The color drained from Nick’s face. “Chestnut?”
“That’s the one. Nice girl, good set of teeth. All dressed in motley like some kind of court jester. I didn’t know the makers wore costumes; I thought that was a Halloween thing. Why? Did she take something?” Mary came out of the kithcen. “Nick?”
But Nick was already gone, crunching through the snow toward the factory in the distance.
It was impossible. They had burned her body. He remembered. He saw it. He was there. But some dark corner of his heart knew she would never be gotten rid of. Not with fire alone.
Chestnut was back. And if she was back, if she was here, that meant her entire crew could be roaming the snow drifts, planning their next move. It might already be too late.
In the howling wind, Nick heard the soft echoes of a song, rising north like a bell toll:
Chestnut’s roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like eskimos
A turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow,
They’ll find it hard to sleep tonight.
You’ll find it hard to sleep tonight.