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.
Sparks scattered on the factory floor with every strike of the hammer.
The display might have been beautiful in another setting, another season. Here, it was just another reminder of what she was doing wrong. “You aren’t hitting it straight,” Peter said, resetting the vise. “You need to swing straight down, or you’ll ruin the edge. Try again.”
“I’ve been trying,” she said, gripping the hammer tighter in her hand. “I’m not a blacksmith, Pete. Never have been, never will be. Why do I have to do this?”
The smith’s eyes grew hard. “You need to learn, chestnut. Demand’s shifting away from the little knick-knacks and candy snacks you make in the kilns.”
“Kids still like candy canes, Pete.”
“Kids like computer games, chestnut.” Peter gestured to the assortment of Blu-Ray discs lying on the table in front of them. “They only want play-toys if they come with bluetooth. You need to learn.”
She stared down the hunk of metal in front of her. She knew there was more to this work than just swinging a hammer; there was alchemy involved, and faerie dust, and a new 3D printer the factory just got a week ago. Times were changing, and it was best to change with them.
But still she liked the quiet work of whittling. She enjoyed the feel of pine between her fingers, the smell of the lacquer when she polished each wheel in a toy train. It was hard work, but it was real, it required no magic. And, she had always believed, the children loved her work more because it was real, because it was hard.
The metal stared back at her, gleaming in the coal-fire light from the furnaces. This is wrong, she thought. But she swung the hammer again.
Clang-ktchh. Sparks showered the factory floor. The hunk of metal shattered. Peter gave her a hard look. “Pick up the pieces, chestnut,” he said. “Give them here.”
He held out his hands and waited patiently as she set each fragment in a pile on his palms. She knew she should apologize, she knew he was doing her a favor by teaching her. But she refused to feel sorry for breaking a thing she didn’t want to exist in the first place.
“Good,” said Peter, looking at her with those same hard eyes.
“Do not feel sorry,” he said, answering her thoughts. “This work is messy, it is dirty, it is not clean. It is not for you. Do not feel sorry when you break this work. This work feels nothing. Do not feel sorry. Try again.”
The coal-fires flared and she had to shield her eyes from the brightness. When the light dimmed, Peter was holding a single hunk of metal in his hands. The fragments were gone.
“How did you do that?” she asked.
“That is not for you to learn,” said Peter. “Set the piece in the vise and try again.”
“What if I never get it right?” she asked.
Peter didn’t smile often. He had only a few teeth, the rest of them gradually replaced with shards of coal over the years. That was why they called him Peter Black; when he smiled, his mouth was a dark abyss. He smiled now. “Try again.”
It was some hours later that she dropped in a heap on her bunk, arms sore from her training with Peter, mind buzzing with thoughts about the work she was learning to do, and what it meant for those around her.
A face appeared in the air from the top bunk, the color of velvety milk chocolate. “Hard day, Sally?”
She lifted an arm to make a gesture, then thought better of it and let it flop back on her belly. “We,” she announced, “were not meant to work in the factory. Remember that, Dennis.”
“I’ll make a note of it,” he said, and flipped down to sit beside her on her bed. “Did Peter beat you to a pulp? Everybody said he was probably going to beat you to a pulp.”
“He didn’t beat me to a pulp,” said Sally. “He was teaching me how to make Blu-Rays.”
“I thought we did it with cellophane and a light bulb?” said Dennis, adjusting the points of his socks.
Sally watched him fuss with his stockings. He didn’t know. He didn’t even know what it was he should know. “Times are changing,” she said carefully. “Kids don’t want knick-knacks anymore. They want video games and bluetooth. We need to be ready for the transition.”
“Video games? Pah!” Dennis chortled, snapping his fingers and hopping to his feet. “Just another fad. Like pogs. Remember pogs?”
“No one remembers pogs, Dennis,” said Sally.
“Exactly,” said Dennis. “They were all the rage for half a decade, and then poof! Gone. I think I still have my slammer somewhere in my things. Want to see it?” He danced off to the dresser and opened his drawer, started rifling through his belongings.
Sally sighed. “This isn’t a fad, Dennis. Video games have been around almost fifty years. It’s time we all got with the program. That includes you, you know.” She hated herself for saying it. It was just that morning she had been complaining about the work involved in training on the new system. But Dennis needed to see the urgency of the situation, so she pressed on. “Sooner or later, no one’s going to ask for a hobby-horse or a train set. They’re going to be asking for smartphones, tablets, virtual reality headsets. Even the old-fashioned kids are asking for retro-style systems for playing outdated video games. The technology is lapping us, Dennis.”
“Found it!” Dennis stretched his hand in the air, holding a thick, circular piece of plastic. He brought it over to Sally. “See this? One of a kind. You can’t even buy stuff like this online. Lena made it for me. It’s priceless.”
Such joy, she thought. He doesn’t know. He’ll never understand. “That’s great,” she said. “Really, it is.” The hope in his brown eyes was too much; she looked away. “Hey, I’m exhausted, I think I’m going to turn in. You mind turning out the light?”
“Oh, sure,” said Dennis. “Never really understood why we have lights in the first place; all of us can see in the dark.” He hopped over to the lamp, flipped the switch, and bathed the room in deep shadows.
The darkness was comforting. Outside the window, the aurora borealis filled the night sky with a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors. She allowed the display to lull her to sleep, her dreams marked by the clanging of hammers and the scattering of sparks.
Breakfast, in the mess. As the elves filed in for the morning shift, Sally kept an eye out for Peter. He had promised to continue her training in the morning. She stood with her tray as though looking for an empty seat, though anyone could see there was plenty of room to go around; the tables were built for human children, and elves took up half the space. It was part of why the elves had been brought in in the first place.
Quarter bell rang, and the messenger for her bunk, Holly, sidled up next to her. “Whatcha doin’?” she asked brightly. It dawned on Sally that everyone she knew had the same sunny disposition, everyone except Peter. The contrast was startling, when she thought about it.
“Waiting for someone,” she said.
Sally turned to face Holly. No use pretending. “Yes. Have you seen him?”
“He got called into the Workshop last night,” Holly said. “The Saint looked pretty angry, from what the others tell me. I don’t know what happened, but Pete’s bunkmates said he didn’t come home at all last night.”
“What did Saint Nick want with Pete?” Sally felt a knot building in her gut. It was the training, obviously. The elves weren’t supposed to work in the factory. Everybody knew that.
“Don’t know,” said Holly. “Might have been something to do with you, or maybe he just wasn’t meeting his quotas. They’re crazy strict about quotas in the factory, or so I hear.”
“I heard that too,” Sally said, scanning the room again. Still no sign of Peter. “Thanks for the info, Holly.”
“No problem,” said Holly. “Hey, you mind if I ask a personal question?”
“Why does Pete call you chestnut?”
Sally sighed. “You want the long version or the short?”
“I’ll take whatever you can give me,” said Holly. “I love a good story.”
“The short version is it’s because of my hair,” said Sally. “He told me he had a thing for girls with chestnut-colored hair, and started calling me chestnut.”
Holly grinned. “Scandalous. What’s the long version, then?”
“The long version is the same as the short version,” said Sally. “Except it includes the reason he likes chestnut-haired girls. And that’s a story I’m not telling, since it’s not my story to tell. Thanks again, Holly.”
“Any time, Sally.” Holly separated herself and moved to sit at one of the tables.
Sally waited another fifteen minutes before giving up. She didn’t eat or sit down. The half-bell rang, and she set her tray down in the wash rack, scraping her food into the drains.
A voice from behind made her freeze. “Not hungry today, chestnut? You’ll need your strength.”
She turned around. There he was. “Pete! You’re alright!”
“Alright is a strong word,” said Peter. “I am alive, and in some kind of a shape to continue your training.”
“I heard you were brought into the Workshop. What happened?”
Peter shrugged. His shoulders creaked. “Holy man says I shouldn’t be wasting time training elves to do factory work when I’m behind on my quotas. So I showed him the Blu-Ray you forged yesterday at the end of your first session.” He held up the perfectly round disc between a pair of slender fingers. “Holy man was impressed. Said maybe he was wrong about elves. Gave me permission to teach you more.”
Sally’s heart raced. “You mean I can learn the alchemy parts too? What about the magic, and the dust? Can you show me how to put the broken pieces back together? When can I–”
“Slow down, chestnut,” said Peter, laughing mildly. “We take things one step at a time. You are proof of concept. If you do well, other elves may join you in training. More workers for the factory.” He smiled, displaying his coal-toothed mouth in all its glory.
Despite the grotesque display, Sally smiled back. “Pete, you big beautiful mess. This is wonderful. Finally, the elves will be able to wield some power again, and maybe–”
“No.” Peter’s voice was firm. “The elves will never wield power. Not the kind of power you’re thinking of. Remember why you’re here. Remember what you are to the Holy man. That will never change.”
He was right, of course. No matter how well she did in her training, Saint Nick would always see her as nothing more than a cog in his toy-building machine. The same was true of every elf there.
Still, if she could learn alchemy… It was a piece of power, at any rate. More than she had now. And if the other elves learned it too…
“Will you take me to see the reindeer?”
Peter’s black smile vanished, but the light remained in his eyes, dancing there. “I would be honored to take you to see the reindeer. Not now, though. Tonight. When it is dark.”
He placed his heavy hand on her shoulder, looked her in the eye, held her gaze.
“But you must eat, chestnut. If you are hungry, you will collapse or fall asleep or pass out in the snow. I will not be able to carry you back to your bunk. You must take care of yourself. Keep yourself alive. Can you do that for me? Make it a promise, chestnut, or I will not believe you.”
Sally smiled. “I promise to eat, Pete. Don’t you worry about me.”
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.
Thomas was having trouble sleeping. He always had trouble sleeping the night before Christmas; the excitement kept stirring him awake whenever he started to drift off, thoughts of toys and games and even new socks filling him with anticipation. Most years, or most years he remembered, he managed to nod off at eleven o’clock or eleven-thirty, but now it was eleven-fifty and he wasn’t remotely sleepy.
I think I’ll go have a drink of water, he thought, and carefully opened his bedroom door. He did his very best to be quiet so as not to wake the rest of the house, even tip-toed around the creaky boards in the floor on his way to the bathroom. It was when he passed the stairs that he heard it, and stopped.
Jingle-jingle. Jingle-jingle. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.
Thomas wasn’t a believer. He had found a present in the back of his parents’ closet last year that he hadn’t told them he’d seen, and then found the present wrapped in special paper and addressed from Santa. That seemed to be the end of the fantasy to his clever mind.
Yet even so, a small corner of his heart wanted it to be real, wanted there to be a Santa Claus, wanted the jingling and stomping sounds from above to be the sounds of reindeer landing on the roof. That small corner was clever, too; Maybe I’d rather have a glass of milk, it suggested, and the practical rest of Thomas agreed. He made his silent, careful way downstairs, and hid behind his father’s easy chair.
Black dust billowed out of the fireplace in a thin cloud, and down from the chimney appeared a pair of soot-covered boots. Following the boots were a set of bright red stockings, a bright red fur-lined coat, and a beard as white as a freshly baked sugar cookie.
Thomas stared. This person looked nothing like the image in his mind; he was short, and lean, and his skin was a deep tan, almost brown. He carried a small satchel made of fine leather, out of which he pulled four presents wrapped in shining paper. He placed them each under the tree, stretched his back a bit, then looked around. His eyes rested on the plate of cookies and glass of milk sitting next to the chair where Thomas was hiding. He patted his slim torso, shook his head, and picked up the glass of milk. He downed the whole thing in one big gulp, then set it carefully back on its tray, wiping his face with a sleeve.
Thomas thought about coming out from his hiding place. But what would he say? What would Santa do if he saw him? Instead he resolved to stay right where he was until Santa Claus left.
But Santa was lingering. He was looking around the house, almost as though he were casing it for a robbery. Which didn’t make sense; why would he rob them after bringing them presents?
At last, Santa found what he was looking for: a pair of twenty-dollar bills on the mantel. Cash. But why?
Thomas found himself speaking before he realized it. “What are you taking our money for?” he asked, stepping out from behind the chair.
Santa froze. “Not every family can afford Christmas,” he said slowly. “Those that can, they leave a few dollars to help keep the fires burning in the old workshop. Helps us reach more of the families who don’t have much.”
“My friend Jessica’s family is poor,” said Thomas. “Will you be bringing her presents too?”
“I will try,” said Santa. “If she was a good girl this year, I should have something for her in my bag.”
“Why don’t you bring presents to my Jewish friends?”
“It’s…” Santa sighed. “Complicated. I’m sorry, Thomas, I don’t have all the answers for you. Christmas is a challenging, enormous thing, and it means different things to different people. Happy Christmas.” He moved to the chimney, ducked inside, and was gone.
Thomas watched Santa disappear, then moved quickly to the presents he had left under the tree.
They were all of them addressed to him. He gave each of them a good shake. The first two made soft shuffling noises: probably clothes. The third one sounded like it might be building blocks. The last one, bigger than the others, made a shump sound and an oof! sound and a hey, watch it! sound.
Thomas thought that was unusual. He gave the last present another shake.
“I said, watch it!” the box said. “What kind of kid shakes their presents?”
“You can talk?” Thomas said. “What are you?”
“Open me up,” said the box, “and I’ll show you.”
Thomas carefully untied the ribbon, removed the wrapping paper. It was an ornately painted wooden box, with a metal crank.
“A jack-in-the-box?” Thomas sighed. “I’m a little old for toys like this, I think.”
“Turn the crank,” said the box. “It’ll all make sense.”
Thomas turned the crank slowly, wincing when he thought the toy’s metallic song might start playing. But it made no music. He took a breath and turned the crank more quickly. When the song should have ended (if it had been playing in the first place), the lid of the box popped open. But nothing popped out at him.
He peered over the edge of the box to look. Inside was a small woman with pointed ears, dressed like a clown, with hair the color of chestnuts.
“An elf,” she said. “Yes. And I know you won’t believe me, but I need you to listen. Saint Nick–the guy you call Santa Claus–he’s not the jolly old soul your songs make him out to be. We need someone to help us fight back. Will you help?”
Thomas, the part of him that had wished Santa were real, felt a tightening knot in his heart. He found himself wishing instead that he had just gotten his drink of water and gone back to bed.
“If my parents find you,” he said, “they won’t understand. We’ll need to find you some different clothes to wear, and a hat to cover those ears. But yes, I’ll help you. Just tell me what you need me to do.” He held out his hand. “I’m Thomas.”
The elf looked at him for a moment, then shook his hand. “Call me Chestnut.”