The Night Before Never
by Gerri Leen
Kris Kringle moved silently through the workshop, making sure nothing had been forgotten by the elves. Normally, they’d be starting their post-toy-making-frenzy party, but this year the group was more subdued, the carols on low, with no one making merry or wearing lampshades.
Kris sighed and lifted his hand in a wave as he passed the break room, but he didn’t go in.
Inventory. Yes, inventory would take his mind in the direction it needed to go.
Lumps of coal? Check.
He peeked out the window. Elves hooking up the reindeer? Check.
Reindeer fat—but not too fat, they did have to fly—and happy? Check.
Rudolph’s nose at full power? Check.
As Kris moved from the workshop to the adjoining kitchen, he sniffed. Apple pie baking, ready to eat when he got home?
“Kris?” The voice soft and scratchy from the bedroom. Their bedroom. His and Hilda’s.
“What is it, my love?” He tried for the jolly, booming voice of years past.
She was trying to sit up in bed, and he hurried to her, plumping pillows and smoothing covers in some vain attempt to make everything better.
She was dying. It was never going to be better.
“You should get dressed.” Her eyes were red, but not from crying. From sickness and age and the cold, probably—why had he dragged her up here to this godforsaken place full of toys and elves and reindeer but nothing for her, just for her?
Except for him. And he left her on Christmas Eve every year. And then slept through a good part of Christmas day, belly full of her pie and the cookies and milk left by the kids and their parents. Cookies and milk that would curdle in his stomach this year, if he could even make himself squeeze down the chimney.
He knew ho-ho-ho’ing was out of the question. You couldn’t fake that kind of jolly. Kids knew, even if they didn’t understand a damn thing.
“Kris, it’s getting late.” Hilda smiled up at him, wrinkles and gray hair not hiding the girl he’d first fallen in love with. “There are children waiting.”
Let them wait, he wanted to say. Let them wait forever.
She patted his hand, as if he had said it out loud. “Go, Kris.”
He got up slowly, never looking away, waiting for her to change her mind, to ask him to stay.
But of course she wouldn’t. It was why he loved her. Why he’d married her. Why she’d stayed all these years without a complaint—she never thought of herself first.
“Go,” she said, then turned over and sighed—a sound he didn’t think she was aware she’d made.
He walked to the spare room, the closet where he kept his red suit. Red had always meant joy to him. Joy and love and generosity.
He wasn’t sure it would ever mean that again.
Sighing, he slowly opened the closet. The suit was gone. He dug through the other clothes, but it was hard to hide a scarlet and white outfit in his size.
A cough sounded from the hallway. “I didn’t figure you needed to go tonight.” Sal, his oldest friend, the foreman of the elves. Also the shortest and the grumpiest and…wearing the suit. It was rolled and taped and pinned to fit him. He’d stuffed it with a pillow to make the belly stick out. He wore white cotton as a beard and had covered his head with the Christmas tree flocking spray.
He looked utterly ridiculous, and Kris told him so.
“I think I look damn good, boss.” Sal’s language was, as ever, atrocious.
“You’re too short.”
“Osteo-damn-porosis. And curvature of the spine from lugging all these gifts. You watch them shut up when I tell them that—besides, they’re supposed to be sleeping.”
“There are always some who are up.”
“Yeah, well they’ll get what they deserve, won’t they?” Sal took a deep breath and let out a, “Ho, ho, ho, I’m your worst nightmare, you little brats.”
“Please tell me you won’t say that.”
Sal’s face softened. “If I promise I’ll be good, will you stay home and let me do this for you…for her?”
It wasn’t right, an elf masquerading as Santa. It was Kris’s duty. It was his job—his calling.
But his wife, the only woman he’d ever loved, needed him.
Kris nodded. “Watch Prancer. He’s getting old and he sometimes steps wrong on the landing.”
“And Rudolph. Be good to him. No whip.”
“Like I’d use a whip on any of them?”
Kris realized he couldn’t see very well and blinked furiously until Sal came back into focus. “Thank you, old friend.”
“You’re welcome.” Sal glanced toward the hall. It had taken years for him and Hilda to warm up to each other. Oil and water, Kris used to say.
Sal was blinking hard, too. “Merry Christmas, boss.” He hitched up the pants and rushed out.
A moment later, Kris heard the bells on the sleigh, then he heard a combination of a moan and a sigh from the bedroom and hurried in.
“What are you still doing here?” Hilda frowned.
“Sal’s taking the run tonight.”
He nodded as he eased off his shoes and slipped under the covers with her.
She cuddled in, her skin hot, so very hot. “He’s full of surprises, that Sal.” She pulled him down to her and kissed him gently. “Thank you.”
“You don’t ever have to thank me. I’m just sorry we never got to spend Christmas Eve together.”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
Even when it was the last time.
A Little Something For Christmas
by Kat Day
The tinkle of distant bells, a thump, and someone swearing. Loudly but… oddly squeakily. James started in his chair. He’d been wrapping Christmas presents and, possibly, there had been one too many mugs of mulled wine. He was sure he’d only sat down for a moment.
“Bugger,” said a voice from the direction of the fireplace.
James blinked. Hang on, he thought, we haven’t got a fireplace.
“Hey, what happened to the TV? And who the hell are you? What the hell are you?” he asked, pushing himself out of his armchair. The space on the wall where the flat-screen TV had been had, indeed, turned into a large grate. Complete with the charcoaled remains of a log, a sprinkling of ashes, and a rather nice cast-iron surround with twiddley bits. The whole thing was three and a half feet off the ground.
On the floor underneath, brushing dust from her clothes, was a small creature wearing a long, yellow coat and a hat with a large needle pushed through it. There was something that looked like a brush stuffed through her belt, and strips of brightly-coloured cloth poked out of her pockets.
“All right, all right, keep yer hair on,” said the creature. “I’m just helping out. S’all hands on deck these days. The Big Man can’t get to every house with kiddies in it on Christmas Eve. He has to del’gate. Not just elves these days, neither. Us brownies get collared, too. Even the tooth fairies has to help out. Mind you,” she added, “that works out quite well. They bring presents for all the kiddies wot asks for money to save up for stuff.”
“Oh,” said James, looking suspiciously at his empty mulled wine mug. “That… makes sense, I suppose.”
The brownie nodded and rummaged around in the sack. She pulled out two boxes wrapped in red and green paper and peered at the labels. “Mabel and Maria,” she read, “they’re yours, right?”
James’s eyes drifted to the framed family photo on the wall. It was slightly crooked. No matter what he did, it always ended up hanging slightly crooked. He thought of the girls asleep upstairs. It would be their first Christmas without their mother. He’d been determined to make everything perfect. But now there were scraps of wrapping paper all over the table, bits of sticky tape on every surface, and he didn’t even want to think about the mess in the kitchen. He wriggled his big toe which was sticking painfully through a hole in his sock. Amelia would’ve bought him new socks. It had been a sort of joke between them. Socks as a present, always: birthdays, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, she’d even given him a new pair as a wedding gift. He sat back down in his chair, pulled off the offending sock and threw it on the floor.
“Yes,” he said.
The brownie had followed his gaze to the photo on the wall. “S’a lot to do at Christmas,” she said softly, turning back and studying him.
James nodded. It had been busy enough with two of them, in the years before. Now the mountain of jobs seemed un-scalable. “I meant to clean up,” he said, waving a hand tiredly around the room, “and maybe make some cookies. My wife always used to make cookies at Christmas.” He pulled off the other sock.
The brownie pushed Mable and Maria’s presents under the tree. “Got any milk?” she asked, thoughtfully.
“Oh, yes, I did manage milk!” said James ruefully. “Over there.” His daughter Maria had been very insistent that they had to leave a glass of milk for Santa. James had suggested that he might prefer a nice brandy, but his older daughter, Mable, had said firmly that even Santa shouldn’t drink and drive.
The brownie trotted over to the glass, sniffed it cautiously, then picked it up and downed it.
“Yum,” she said, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. “Right-ho, I’d better get going, lots more deliveries to do this evening. Y’know how it is. You get to bed. It’ll be all right, you’ll see.”
“We-ell, maybe not all right,” she conceded, looking at him again. She had the eyes of a Labrador, full of warm intelligence. “That ain’t possible, really. Nothing’s perfect. And you can’t just replace wot’s missing. But people appreciate a bit of effort. There’ll be more smiles than tears, and who can ask for more than that, eh?”
James smiled, blinking away blurriness.
“Go on, now,” said the brownie, nodding at the door to the stairs. “Those girls’ll have you up early in the morning, if I’m any judge.”
“But I have to…” James looked at the paper-strewn table.
The brownie put the empty milk glass down. “Don’t you worry,” she said. “They’ll only see the tree. And then there’ll be paper everywhere anyway, right?”
James chuckled. “Right.” He looked at the wall and thought of something. “Um, you are going to fix the TV, aren’t you? I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I don’t think I’ll manage to sort out lunch without some sort of support from Pixar.”
The brownie waved a hand airily. “Don’t you worry. S’magic innit. All back to normal once I’m gone. It’s only cos you ain’t got a chimney. It was a good idea, a few years ago, using TV screens,” she added darkly, looking up at the wall, “before people started putting the bloody things half-way up the wall.”
“Oh, you weren’t to know. Right, go on, off with you to bed,” she said, making a shooing motion.
James turned obediently and put his hand on the door handle. He looked over his shoulder to see the brownie standing there, eyes twinkling in the dim light of the Christmas tree lights. She made the shooing motion again. Shaking his head, James opened the door and trudged up the stairs.
“Daddy, dadddeeeee!” The bedroom was dark, but for every bit of missing light there were seven doses of extra noise. “Dadddddeeee, it’s Christmas!” squealed Maria, jumping on the bed and landing heavily on James’s chest.
“Ooff! Be careful!”
“It’s Christmas it’s Christmas it’s Christmas get up, Daddy! There are presents! Father Christmas has been!”
“All right, all right,” said James, pulling his daughter’s unruly hair away from her face where it had become stuck to a small patch of snot. “You’ll have to get off me though, sweetie.”
“Okay,” she said obediently, rolling off and accidentally kneeing him in the side.
James swung his legs out of bed before there was any more damage. He reached for his dressing gown. “Where’s Mable?”
“She went downstairs. Hey, Daddy, did you bake cookies last night?”
James pulled on his dressing gown and headed for the stairs. “I was going to, but I ran out of time. We’ll make some lat–” he opened the kitchen door and stopped, staring. There was a huge plate of cookies on the worktop, beautifully iced with snowflake and Christmas tree patterns. Not only that, the dirty dishes he was sure he’d left in the sink had disappeared. The floor looked spotless. The stainless-steel sink gleamed. There were no crumbs anywhere.
“Good cookies, Dad,” said Mable, from behind him. She crunched. “Just like the ones Mum used to make.”
James nodded slowly and walked into the living room. Maria had darted down the stairs and was now sorting through an artfully arranged pile of presents under the tree, which looked rather more symmetrical than it had last night. The carpet looked better than it had in years, the table was clean and, when James ran his fingers over it, the wood actually smelt faintly of polish. He looked at the wall. The family photo still hung at its familiar, slightly crooked angle, and the television was where it had always been.
“Daddy, there’s a Christmas card in with the presents!” said Maria, handing him a white envelope. James turned it over. There was nothing written on the outside, but he could just make out a jolly, red Santa printed on the cardboard through the white paper. He tore it open.
Inside was printed the usual “Merry Christmas” greeting and, underneath in irregular, smudgy letters, another message.
Thanks fer the milk. I dun yer socks.
James looked down. Lying neatly over the arm of his chair were his socks, perfectly darned. He picked them up and smiled.
Somewhere, in the distance, there was a faint tinkling of bells.
About the Authors
Kat Day is a writer and teacher currently living in Oxfordshire, in the U.K., with her husband and their two rambunctious daughters. Their house is full of dragons, although sadly not real ones – they’re tough on the furniture. She has been published in Daily Science Fiction and in 24 Stories, an anthology to raise money for the PTSD-related needs of the Grenfell fire survivors. You can read more of her work at thefictionphial.wordpress.com.
Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. In addition to being an avid reader and an at-times sporadic writer, she’s passionate about horse racing, tea, whisky, and art. She has work appearing in: Nature, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, Grievous Angel, Grimdark, and others. She’s edited several anthologies for independent presses, is finishing an urban fantasy novel, and is a member of SFWA and HWA.
About the Narrators
Nick Owers lives in London. He likes to tell stories.
Chloë Yates also writes as C.A. Yates but her website can be found at www.chloeyates.com. Her newest story, “A Treacherous Thing” about super furry spy Lynx Ruffieux, will be in the forthcoming anthology The Jackal Who Came in from the Cold by Fox Spirits Books, due out by the end of this year.
When Alasdair Stuart is not hosting PseudoPod and Escape Pod, or running Escape Artists Inc., he’s professionally enthusiastic about genre fiction on the Internet at places like Tor.com, Barnes & Noble, The Guardian, Uncanny Magazine, SciFi Now and MyMBuzz.
He’s an ENie-nominated tabletop RPG writer for his work on Doctor Who: Adventures In Time And Space. His other RPG writing includes Star Trek, The Laundry Files, Primeval, Victoriana, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, N.E.W. and Chill, meaning he’s got a playbook for any variety of invasion you can name.
Alasdair’s first collection of expanded podcast essays, PseudoPod Tapes, is available from Fox Spirit Books with volume 2, Approach With Caution, out in early 2018. His short stories can be found in the Fox Pockets anthology series from Fox Spirit, among other places. He lives in the UK with the love of his life and their ever expanding herd of microphones. Follow him on Twitter as @AlasdairStuart, or at his blog, The Man of Words.