Cast of Wonders 480: The Umbra
by Johnny Caputo
The Umbra glided from rooftop to rooftop, his footing sure and light. The soles of his boots made no sound as he bounded from shingle to snowy shingle because he was silence incarnate, justice in the night. The Keepers, oblivious in their cushy, heated houses below, were too busy stuffing their gluttonous faces or resting their slothful heads to be aware of his presence. But soon enough, they would know the terror the darkness brings. The Umbra would teach them the true definition of justice. He would make them feel the wrath of—
Dave stubbed his toe on a snow-covered, rooftop skylight. He took a tumble and nearly cracked his head against the gravel. Luckily, he wasn’t going nearly as fast as he would have liked to imagine, so he managed to get his arms underneath him to soften the blow. He sat there for a terrible, silent moment, feeling the full sting of his mishap in both his hands and his pride.
A soft and sarcastic electronic voice came from ElSi, the cell-phone-like device in Dave’s pocket.
“Real smooth,” she said.
“Shut up,” Dave replied.
“On all the runs your Dad and I did together, I never saw him slip. Not once.”
“It’s icy up here.”
“Maybe if you weren’t so busy doing voiceovers in your head, you could focus on important things. Like walking.”
“We both know you were. You get that stupid hitch in your breath when you get all excited with your internal monologues. My mic could pick it up from a mile away.”
The Umbra seethed at ElSi. He would do the voiceover thing if he damn well pleased. He was the Umbra now, and he would continue his father’s legacy. But more importantly, he would make the Keepers pay for locking his father up. He would siphon every last watt from their miserable—
“There it is again,” ElSi said, and she made a wheezing sound to mock him. “Could you please just get the juice so we can get back to your Mom and Frankie. There’s supposed to be another superstorm tonight, and they don’t need to find you frozen to death under a foot and a half of snow.”
Dave grumbled and proceeded over to the solar panel array on the far side of the roof. Every adult Dave knew hated the ever-present snow, but Frankie couldn’t love the stuff more. He made Dave spend hours and hours building snow castles and snow people, whole imaginary towns. Every now and then, during a particularly long construction session, Frankie would squeak out an excited “You can build anything you want!” or “It just falls out of the sky for free!” Dave didn’t want to imagine what would happen to Frankie’s six-year-old spirit if he learned that his older brother had been buried to death by his unending source of joy.
The roof-mounted streetlamp cast its bright orange light onto the snowy street below, glowing against the night like a luminescent fruit, heavy and ripe for the picking. Dave sneered: these lights were the ultimate symbol of the Keepers’ excess. A wanton waste of the energy that Dave and his family and so many others like them had been denied ever since the Keepers snatched up the remaining fuel reserves and left the outlying Grids powerless. In the face of a climate that was continually growing more and more frigid, the Keepers’ actions were as good as a death sentence for anyone who couldn’t afford the high rents where the Grid remained active.
Except, the Umbra thought with a smile, for those who’ve found other ways to procure power.
Dave pulled ElSi from his pocket and tapped her screen, releasing her silver-tipped prongs. He lifted the tarp that covered the batteries, found their terminals, and set ElSi to her work. For the briefest of moments, the orange light above him dimmed almost imperceptibly. But once ElSi had a strong connection, he dialed back the siphon, and the light returned to its original glow. ElSi let out a quiet, “Ahhhhh” as her power bar began to climb. While she was preoccupied, Dave picked up a handful of gravel from the roof and played with the stones.
Finally, The Umbra dared to think with a sideways glance at ElSi, these Keepers will know that no matter how many Walls they build, nor how many Grid Maintenance Acts they pass, justice will arrive. They can’t keep electricity out of our hands. They can’t hoard it all to themselves. They can’t leave us to die out in the frigid wastes beyond their Wall. Because darkness always returns to swallow the light. Because The Umbra is here, at their doorstep, and he will ensure that every last greedy one of them suffers the same fate as—
“Did you see that, Mark?”
The woman’s voice came from below. Inside the house.
“Honey, what did I tell you about interrupting the prayer?” said a second voice, a man’s.
“The power flickered for a second there and—
“Damnit, Darla. Would you bow your damn head, so I can finish the damn prayer?”
Dave crept over to the skylight, brushed the snow clear, and peered down into the neatly decorated dining room below. A little girl about Frankie’s age sat on one side of the table, wearing a pink t-shirt and cushy slippers adorned with plush rocket ships blasting off from the tips of her toes. She bopped up and down in her seat, her eyes darting nervously between her mom and dad. The woman, rail thin with sunken cheeks, stared aimlessly at the broccoli on her plate. Her husband was all jowls. From behind his thick glasses and his even thicker moustache, wherein he was apparently saving some gravy for a midnight snack, he glared at his wife.
“May I continue?” Mark said.
Darla sighed. “Whatever you want.”
He bowed his head and folded his hands neatly in front of him before he began.
“And we thank you, Dear Lord, for the Wall. That lone bastion of strength that protects our civilization from the chaos of the Scavengers. We thank you for the blessings of light and heat you bestow upon us. In your name we pray. Amen.”
Scavengers. Upon hearing the word, Dave clenched his fist.
Darla and the little girl mumbled their amens, and the sounds of sophisticated dining began. Serving spoons clinked daintily against bowls. Mark’s voice rose a gentle octave when he asked his wife to “Please pass the gravy, dearest.”
The little girl sat quietly as her mom and dad began to eat. Her forehead was wrinkled, and she appeared to be mulling over some all-important question. Finally, she said, “Daddy, how does Santa know which houses to go to?”
“The light, sweetie pie,” Mark said through a mouthful of ham. “The big orange one up on the roof. When he sees the light is on, he knows he has to stop because a good little girl or boy lives in that house.”
“But what about the boys and girls on the other side of the Wall?”
“What about them?”
“There’s no lights out there. Does Santa bring them presents?”
Mark shook his head. “Santa doesn’t go out there. He only brings presents to good¸ civilized boys and girls. Now please finish your peas.”
“That’s not fair, what if someone…”
“I said, finish your peas.”
The Umbra decided right then and there to deliver swift and dark justice to these presumptuous Keepers. Swift. And. Dark. He would rend the sinful wires from their walls and burst every bulb in their—
Something sharp dug into Dave’s palm. He looked down to discover he was tightly clutching his handful of gravel. The small stones prodded his skin, causing him entirely more pain than something so small had any right to. He peered down at the family: the angry father, the timid daughter, the skittish mother. The woman looked terribly nervous, as if she might jump out of her skin at the slightest—
He smiled as another idea came to him.
Slowly, delicately, Dave pinched a single stone between his fingers and dropped it onto the skylight. The stone bounced off the glass with a small tik, and, just as he had hoped, Darla’s head perked up.
“I’m telling you, Mark,” Darla said, “I heard something on the roof.”
“And I am telling you, Darla: it is nothing but the wind.”
“Are you sure, Daddy? Maybe it’s Santa Claus.”
“I’m going up there to check,” Darla said.
“You are not. And, sweetie, Santa does not come until midnight, when you and all the other good boys and girls are asleep.”
“But the storm is supposed to be really bad tonight. Maybe he got an early start.”
“Now is not a great time for such questions, sweetie,” Mark said.
“Not this, not that. I’ve got a question for you, Mark,” Darla said. “How can you claim to know anything with a skull that thick?”
Mark’s hand cracked against the table. The plates rattled. “Really, Darla? On Christmas Eve?”
“Well with your head so far up your ass the rest of the year—
“If you’re going to behave this way, then get the hell out of my dining room.”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
Her chair toppled to the hardwood with a brisk snap, and then Darla was up, pounding out of the room. Mark roared and stormed off in the opposite direction. For a moment, the girl sat there all alone, unsure of what to do. She no longer bounced in her chair.
The Umbra smirked and turned away from these monstrously unhappy people to face the night sky. He imagined the little girl running to her plush little room to cry to her electronic talking dollies or curl up and sob underneath her heated blanket. As he gazed up at the stars—the energy given freely, the perfect black distances between them—he reflected upon how successful the night had been. Not only had he siphoned enough juice to fully power Mom’s Solstice party and possibly play a movie for Frankie, but he had taught this twisted little family a valuable lesson about—
“Shhh,” ElSi said from her place on the battery. “You hear that?”
Thumping came from below. Rising higher and closer. Footsteps on the stairs to the roof.
Dave scrambled to disconnect ElSi and throw the tarp back over the battery bank, but it was too late. A terrible yellow light spilled from the doorway, tainting the moonlit darkness with the glaring jaundice of the hallway light.
The Umbra reached for his knife. He wasn’t going to jail. He couldn’t do that to Mom and Frankie. He would fight, and if he had to, he would—
“Who… who are you?” a small voice said.
The door creaked closed, and the terrible yellow light disappeared. The little girl stood alone on the roof, wearing only her pink t-shirt, blue pajama bottoms, and the slippers with the plush rocket ships. No coat, no hat, no gloves.
“Say something, dummy,” ElSi whispered.
“I… uh… I’m Santa Claus,” Dave said, lowering his voice.
The little girl’s eyes narrowed. She looked Dave up and down, considering his dark jeans and black hoodie.
“But you don’t look like Santa,” she said.
“Got you there,” ElSi whispered again.
“Shut up,” Dave hissed.
“I… um… I’m sorry,” the little girl said, shrinking away.
“No, not you,” Dave said. “I was talking to my… uh… my helper.”
“Something like that.”
“But Santa’s helpers are all elves.”
“Well… you see… the thing is… Okay. Fine. You caught me. I’m not really Santa Claus.”
“You’re not?” The girl’s face wrinkled in disappointment.
Dave shook his head. “But I do work for him.”
“Are you an elf?”
“Hell no! I ain’t no… I mean… No, I’m a person. Just like you.”
“But Santa only hires elves.”
“No… he… he hires all kinds of people. I live… not too far from here, so once a year Santa pays me to deliver all the presents to this neighborhood.”
“But Daddy said Santa delivers all of the presents himself.”
“Sorry, kid. Reality’s just a little bit more complicated than that.”
She looked at him like she was working out some big problem in her head. After a long moment, she said, “Are those our presents in your bag?”
Dave began to slump the backpack off his shoulder to find something to appease this little girl: a jumper cable or a half-filled battery. But before he could even unzip the bag, the girl grabbed his wrist in her warm, gentle hand, and shook her head.
“I don’t think any of us have been good enough this year,” she said.
The Umbra did not know what to say to this vile Keeper girl. This pup of pestilence. This spawn of greed and—
“Do you deliver presents to boys and girls on the other side of the Wall?” the girl asked.
“I… uh… yeah, I do.”
She smiled. “I knew it.”
Then she bent down and took off her rocket ship slippers, and she handed them to Dave. The snow crunched beneath her bare toes. “Can you take these to some good little boy or girl? I hear it gets pretty cold out there.”
Dave stared down at the fuzzy rocket ships in his hands. Frankie would love them.
“Yeah, I think I can do that,” Dave said slowly.
“Thanks,” the little girl said. She turned and walked barefoot in the snow over to the solar panel rig and stood beneath the glowing orange globe for a brief moment. Then, suddenly and decisively, she flicked the switch and watched the light extinguish.
She ran back to the door, and the puke yellow light spewed onto the roof again.
“Stay warm tonight,” she said as she stood in the doorway.
Dave barely managed a small wave before the girl closed the door and was gone, leaving him alone in the moonlit darkness, staring out at the sea of a thousand glowing orbs. All of them burning frivolously in the night. All but one.
“How about that?” ElSi said.
But Dave didn’t respond. Rocket slippers in hand, he gazed up at the sky, looked to the stars, and for a long while, longer than he had any right to, wondered what it was about Santa Claus.
About the Author
Johnny Caputo is a pirate but only part time. He spends the rest of his time teaching writing at various institutions around Northeast Ohio. He is the writer of the webcomic The Ballad of Lumber Jackson, and his speculative fiction has appeared in Dually Noted, F(r)Online, The Pea River Journal, and Allegory. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio where there is plenty of loot to be plundered and grog to be drunk. You can find him at johnnycaputo.com or on Twitter @gojohnnycap.
About the Narrator
Peter Adrian Behravesh
Peter Adrian Behravesh is an Iranian-American musician, writer, editor, audio producer, and narrator. For these endeavors, he has won the Miller and British Fantasy Awards, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Ignyte, and Aurora Awards. His interactive novel is forthcoming from Choice of Games, and his essay, “Pearls from a Dark Cloud: Monsters in Persian Myth,” is forthcoming in the OUP Handbook of Monsters in Classical Myth. When he isn’t crafting, crooning, or consuming stories, Peter can usually be found hurtling down a mountain, sipping English Breakfast, and sharpening his Farsi. You can read his sporadic ramblings at peteradrianbehravesh.com, or on Twitter @pabehravesh.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.