The wind was sharp, and carried with it a biting cloud of sleet that tore at Sally’s face and shirt. In front of her, Peter was a mountain of muscle and burlap, his head uncovered, his hair pulled tight against his scalp. The moon rested low in the sky, casting long shadows that made the whole camp seem like a stretched balloon. Any moment, she thought, the whole thing might burst.
Peter said something, but his voice was stolen by the howling wind. He pointed, though, and she followed his gesture to the building at the far end of the camp. It was enormous, shaped like a barn, and painted to look like gingerbread, straight down to the multicolored gumdrops along the roof. Peter led her to the barn’s double doors, shoved them open a crack, and slipped through, holding it ajar so she could follow him inside.
Whatever she had expected from looking at the outside, the inside of the barn was nothing like it. Four stalls on either side along the walls, separated with brick and shut with windowed doors made of some kind of metal. At the far end of the corridor, a wide door with a sign overhead:
Authorized Personnel Only.
She wondered at that, wondered what kind of animal might be behind the door that it would need to be separated from the others. Wondered, too, why the reindeer needed to be separated by brick walls instead of being allowed to wander freely.
“Here we are,” said Peter. Then he pointed to each stall in sequence. “Vixen. Blitzen. Donder. Cupid. Dasher. Dancer. Comet.” He gestured to a step-ladder leaning against one of the stalls. “Use that if you want to look in on them. But don’t linger too long.”
Sally took the step-ladder and set it up next to Comet’s stall, climbed up, looked through the window.
The creature in the stall was enormous. Thick brown fur covered its body and long legs, and a pair of elegant antlers protruded from its head. Or she thought they were antlers at first; looking closer, she realized the protrusions were horns. They swept back above the animal’s body like wings. The animal’s eyes were black, but there was something burning in them, a fire that cast light around its stall like a torch.
“Do they all have eyes like that?” she asked.
“Just Comet,” said Peter. “We thought it might help him see better at night, but it turns out Comet is blind. The light helps the others, but he has to be carefully managed or he’ll lead the whole team into a tree or a building.”
She watched the reindeer stare blankly at the wall, casting a light he would never see. She climbed down from the ladder after a moment, moved it to another stall.
She looked through the next window, and the next. Each reindeer had some oddity that Peter explained as an experiment to make the whole team work better as a unit. Dasher’s legs were thicker and more powerful, allowing him to get up to full speed more quickly. Blitzen’s antlers curled in front of his face, shielding his eyes from the harsh winds and snows of the upper atmosphere. Vixen was the team’s only female, and as Peter explained, the only reindeer without any modifications.
“Why not?” asked Sally.
“They need her healthy enough to produce replacements if any of the other reindeer get sick or die of exposure. We only have the one female, and it’s not worth the risk to the team to try and change her.”
As she climbed down from the last window, Sally found her gaze drawn to the metal door. “What’s through there?”
Peter followed her eyes. “Rudolph.”
Sally blinked in surprise. “The White Reindeer? I thought that was a myth!”
“Rudolph is no myth,” said Peter. “But don’t get any ideas. That door is locked for a reason. We don’t bring him out unless we absolutely have to.”
“Can I see him?”
Sally stared at the door. She could feel the secret pulsing from the other side of the window. It called to her. “Why is he locked away?”
Peter sighed. Not exasperated. He was always patient with her. But he could sense when she wasn’t going to let something go. “He’s dangerous, chestnut. He claws and bites. His fur is toxic. He–”
“Rudolph is more than just an albino reindeer, chestnut,” said Peter. “They changed him. Made him stronger, fiercer. Made him a monster. He doesn’t get along with the others.”
“Does his nose really glow?”
“Who told you that?” He sounded genuinely alarmed.
“It’s in the song,” Sally said. “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose, and if you ever saw it–”
“Don’t sing that song here!” Peter clapped his hands on her shoulders, pulled her away from the door. “Just don’t.”
“Why not?” asked Sally. “Is the song true?”
“The song is true in the same way that the Holy Man is a saint. The general facts are there, but the reality is much more terrible than the words suggest.” He gave the door a baleful look. “Just trust me, chestnut. You don’t want to see what’s on the other side of that door. It isn’t good.”
Sally thought for a long moment before speaking. “Pete,” she said carefully, “Do you think what we’re doing here is right? Is this place… Is it okay? Are we okay here?”
Peter continued to watch the door for a moment. When it appeared that nothing was going to come crashing through it, he seemed to relax a bit. “We should go,” he said. “It’s getting late.”
They walked back to the bunkhouse in silence, trudging through the wind and sleet. Sally wondered if Peter had heard her question, or if he was ignoring it. When they reached the door, she laid her hand on his arm. “Thank you for showing me the reindeer,” she said.
He hesitated, then spoke in low, deliberate tones. “This place is not okay, chestnut. The Holy Man decides what we make, and we follow his orders. If we don’t follow his orders, we get marched out in the cold.
“It wasn’t always like this. I don’t know what changed, or why. But this place… No, chestnut. We are not okay here. Not you, not me, not the reindeer. None of us are okay.” He opened the door for her. “We will continue your training tomorrow. Get some sleep.”
In her bunk that night, Sally thought about the reindeer, about Dennis’s pogs, about Holly and the mess and Peter’s coal teeth. She thought about what Peter had said.
And she had an idea. “Dennis,” she said.
His head popped into view. “You can make Jack-in-the-Boxes, right?”
“Jacks-in-the-Box,” he corrected. “Yes, of course. Everyone in my group can. Why do you ask?”
“Could you make one big enough for an elf to climb inside?”
“Sure,” he said, cheerful as ever. “Not sure why you’d want one that big, but I’ll add it to my order for tomorrow.”
“Excellent,” said Sally. “I’ll have some measurements ready for you in the morning. Good night, Dennis.”
“Good night, Sally!” He disappeared from view.
Sally rolled over, stared at the wall. We’re going to need help, she thought. Which means one of us has to break out of here.