Alan Lindsay & Dennis Anfuso
Claire dropped the bag of food on the table and took a burger for herself. “Food’s here,” she called out not quite loud enough for the whole house to hear but loud enough for anyone nearby. Word tended to spread pretty fast when a bag of food landed on the table.
When Morris descended on the kitchen—and he came directly, as he always did, being pretty hungry most of the time—Claire had already disappeared into the basement, where her office was, where she did most of her eating. Whatever else she did down there was a mystery, one Morris saw no particular need to explore. Claire was his third stepmother. They didn’t tend to last.
Claire and his dad both said they hoped the children would learn to get along like brother and sister. But his dad had also said things that made Morris realize that this might be a waste of time. “That’s just kind of the way things are today,” he’d told him after his second stepmother left. “People don’t stay together like they used to.” But, really, that’s something Morris already knew. There was hardly anyone at school who didn’t have a step-someone in the house or who didn’t move from house to house as the hormones attached and reattached from one partner to another. That didn’t mean his house wasn’t weird. It wasn’t even that, as far as heritage went, they were a little United Nations (though not necessarily all that “united,” but then neither was the United Nations if you thought about it). People are people. But then there was the one who wasn’t related to anyone. That was Jasmine. She’d been picked up along the way by Claire, originally, she said, a stepdaughter of a guy who’d abandoned both of them so long ago Claire had actually changed the baby’s name (though, looking at her, she couldn’t be more than half Asian).
Tanya blew into the kitchen just as Morris was leaving. “She get any grilled chicken?” she called to Morris’ retreating Nikes.
“How should I know?” Morris didn’t turn around.
“Well you were just in the bag,” she said as though Morris was still in the room.
“Just take what’s on top,” he yelled back.
“Like you don’t even have a preference?”
Morris stuck his head back into the room. This was the longest conversation he’d had yet with his new stepsister. “It’s fast food,” he said, as though that explained something. But then, to the quizzical expression on her face he added, “there’s only two flavors: mayonnaise or ketchup.”
Tanya’s response, if there was one, was overwhelmed by the tsunami of a blues progression that slammed in from down the hall, filling the kitchen and adjoining rooms: Jasmine, practicing.
“Would you tell your stepsister to tone it down?” Morris dug his fingers into his unbitten sandwich.
“She’d lose the sound.”
“Then tell her use headphones. I’ve got stuff to do. I can’t be…”
“And blow an eardrum? You want that? Then she’d have to turn it up even louder.”
“Well she could at least tune the stupid guitar,” he huffed.
Morris laid the Call of Duty box on the game console and pulled out the wires to hook up the new 64-inch plasma TV. This game was gonna be boss on this monster.
“You’re not supposed to be playing that,” said Tanya.
Why had she followed him into the room? Had she taken his quip about Jasmine’s grating guitar as some kind of invitation?
“Like anyone’s gonna notice.”
“They say all sorts of crap. No follow through.” And then, to Tanya’s silence-thickening eyeball roll, “you didn’t notice?”
“Claire’s gonna have a cow.”
“Claire’s gonna be gone. You’re all gonna be gone before Christmas.”
And then the distortion from down the hall swelled and, poof, the screen went black, the air conditioner stopped, and the blues faded away.
“What the…” was all Morris managed to say before the sound of an explosion reverberated through the house. Morris and Tanya both jerked back like they’d been shot.
“I told you to tell your sister to turn that amp down.”
“Blew every circuit breaker in the house.”
And then Jasmine was in the room holding her guitar by the neck like it was a goose she’d just shot. “What the hell was that?”
Tanya went to the window, but in the middle of the day you couldn’t really tell if the other houses had power. She listened. “He thinks you did it.”
Jasmine laughed and swept the strings of her guitar. “Wouldn’t that be cool?”
Morris ran out of the room with a purposeful motion that made Tanya and then Jasmine follow.
“No gas in the generator,” he said when Tanya arrived in the garage.
“Then we gotta get some,” Jasmine rounded the corner.
“You got a license?” said Tanya.
“How’s she gonna work without power?” said Morris.
“Batteries. Cell phone,” said Jasmine. “Personal hotspot.”
Morris huffed. He knew that, of course. But when you’re frustrated you’ve got to say something. “What does she do down there all day anyway?”
There was no response.
“I can’t believe this.” Morris exclaimed when the silence grew awkward. He grabbed the gas can. “I’m asking her.”
“Good luck with that,” said Jasmine.
“I had my whole day planned out,” he said.
“You’re not the only one,” said Jasmine.
“Screw it, then. I’m walking.”
“Like hell, you’re walking. It’s five miles to the nearest gas station,” said Tanya. “By the time you get back, power’ll be back on.”
“Five gallons of gas, pretty heavy load to carry five miles.” Jasmine shoved aside boxes still unpacked from the move. “Thought so,” she said, revealing two bicycles, an old ten-speed and a mountain bike. The mountain bike had a rack and some frayed bungee cords. “Who’s got money?”
They all looked at each other.
“I know where a credit card is,” said Tanya.
“We can’t use mom’s credit card.” Jasmine stared at Tanya.
“It’s for gas. She buys gas all the time. She’ll never notice.”
Jasmine turned her head toward the closed garage door. “What if the power comes back on before we get back?”
“Yeah, but if it doesn’t, you won’t be able to play your guitar,” said Morris.
“If the power comes on, I’ll call you,” said Tanya.
“Just give me the credit card,” said Morris.
“As if,” said Tanya.
“Maybe she won’t notice,” said Jasmine.
The pure tone of Botto’s bell swelled like a bubble through the murmuring of elves. Everything went quiet. Motto hummed the note—E-flat above middle C. At the front of the crowded hall, Geimle paused mid-sentence and held his pose like a statue, his raised left hand clutching a rolled up piece of paper with which he seemed to be pointing to the second-floor mural of the Big Guy with sparkling eyes and an eight-foot grin. Geimle pivoted his head in the direction of Motto and Botto and peered over his glasses.
“Motto?” he said.
“Actually it was Botto,” Motto pointed left with his thumb. “Mine’s an F-sharp.”
“Botto, then?” Geimle sounded like the frustrated shop teacher he’d been back when Botto’s father was but a gleam in his grandmother’s eye.
“Well, I was just thinking,” Botto gestured, “what’s the point? I mean, really, what’s the point? It used to be kind of a joke, you know, ‘Christmas in July,’ because, you know, by July it had been so long since they’d thought about Christmas. But now, now July’s just the new zero date on the Advent calendar, isn’t it. Start of the new holiday season. By the time we’re old like you, the holiday season won’t even be a season. It’ll just be—you know—the thing.”
“Starts back up in January. I’m just saying if we called it quits right now, today, and never delivered another present to another child anywhere in the world, would they even notice? Our part in this holiday, it’s just an afterthought. It’s like the part of the frosting that sticks to the fork after you’ve eaten the cake.”
Geimle straightened his glasses and bunched his considerable lips and pushed them over to one side of his face as a dozen cogent replies sprang to mind. “The point, as I’ve said—you were listening, weren’t you?—the point is to get it back. That’s what the Big Guy wants. That’s what he’s asking for—if I read this note correctly, which I’m sure I do.” Geimle unrolled the piece of paper in his hand. He stared at it and then turned the writing side toward Botto—though he was much too far away to read it. “Yes. You’re right. As I’ve already explained, not only is our role in the holiday shrinking like an ice cap, but elves are leaving like rats from a sinking ship. That’s why we’re here. We have to fix what we can.”
That bit about the rats might have been hyperbole, but elves were leaving. Although until now it had never been officially recognized, the number of workers in the factories was obviously diminishing—not rapidly, but steadily. Elves had been choosing to leave the noble work and (as the euphemism went) “return to Burzee.” No one knew for sure how long this had been going on. But it had grown more obvious lately. As to why this was happening or where the missing elves were actually going, that was less clear. After finding, tacked to his office door, the anonymous note in his hand (probably in the Big Guy’s handwriting), Geimle thought he understood: the great symphony of elven labor, replayed every year, culminating in the annual crescendo of Christmas, was not being heard any more; it was being drowned out in the great thundering cacophony that the holiday had become practically everywhere it was celebrated. The contribution of the elves went mostly unnoticed. So one by one, they were leaving in a downward spiral that made the work all that much harder to do—or to notice.
It was just a theory. But Geimle realized that if the Big Guy, sick as he was, was getting involved, something must be done.
And, no, he was not sure this was the proper something. How could he be?
He might have been more certain if he knew, at least, where the missing elves were actually going—if there was, indeed, one place they were actually going to. But you couldn’t ask them because they didn’t give notice. They just left. It was like someone was shushing them at the door. Maybe they were going in search of Burzee. Some elves still held out hope that the ancient elven homeland of Burzee had survived the human expansion. But not many. And where the old kingdom might be exactly, no one could recall. Some thought it was in Europe, some said South America, others located it at various other places all over the globe. Most elves would tell you it no longer existed anywhere, that “civilization” had razed it long ago. If an elf announced, “I’m going back to Burzee,” it meant only, “I’m leaving. You won’t see me again.” They even left their phones behind. It was always sad. North Pole work had always been the best work an elf could do.
After ripping the admittedly puzzling note from the tack that had been rudely pushed into the ornate carving of his office door, Geimle decided the Big Guy was calling them to reclaim the holiday—and to entice his elves back home. Naturally, Geimle was all over that.
Standing in front of the all the elves of the West Wing, scratching his head with the rolled up note, Geimle tried to recall what else it was he’d meant to say. Then again, if he couldn’t remember it, perhaps it wasn’t that important. The plan had been laid out. And there was work to do.
He stood there like a plastic toy, slowly bobbling his head.
An F-sharp pierced his thoughts.
He frowned again. Perhaps it would have been better simply to give orders without wasting time on questions—the way old Dafle would have done it if he were still here.
“Whose idea was it to hand bells out anyway?” he muttered.
A polite laugh carried through the hall.
“So I think what Botto’s trying to say is maybe instead of, you know, expanding our reach, like you’re saying with your otherwise certainly cutting-edge scheme, maybe we should be, you know, contracting.”
“And why exactly do you think that’s what Botto is saying?”
“Because it was my idea. He just kinda stole it.”
“Please, everyone, we are at the end of our time. There is a lot of work to do. Put down your bells. The issue is not up for discussion. We’ve begun the process. I’m just keeping you informed.”
The room went quiet; the quiet was broken by the perfect tone of Botto’s E-flat.
“No more comments,” said Geimle.
“Sir, I just don’t think you’ve thought this through.”
“No more comments,” said Geimle.
But as soon as he turned his head, an F-sharp filled the room.
“What is it, Motto?”
“It was Botto. He grabbed my bell.”
“I did not,” said Botto. Motto grabbed Botto’s bell and rang it like a fire alarm.
Botto grabbed Motto’s and did the same.
The next morning, Motto and Botto found themselves assigned to the planer. Motto, of course, blamed Botto.
The two had spent many years in the mailroom, a pretty good job, more than half way through the ranks, and just a few steps below their dream jobs. Old friends, they did not talk about the incident of the bells for weeks. Then one morning, in the middle of the day, between shut down and re-start, Motto blurted out, “when I told you Geimle had a stupid idea, I wasn’t asking you to tell him it was a stupid idea.”
To which Botto coolly replied, “You didn’t have to let on it was your idea, you know. I could be working the planer by myself.”
“And let you run off with the credit? I don’t think so.”
“In that case, I have no idea what you’re complaining about.”
Botto rolled his eyes and stared out the window. Snow drifted around the reindeer barns. Motto stared at his friend through the long silence. Botto wiped his finger across the screen of his phone, pulled up an image of the same scene he was looking at out the window and zoomed in on the door. He could almost see, inside the barn, the pawing hoofs of the rows of reindeer in their stalls. Finally he looked up at Motto and let it out, “I thought it would get us promoted.”
“Us?” said Motto.
“It’s a brilliant observation. We’d be saving him months of labor, and all that delivery work. We have more work to do than ever before and now he’s adding production? It makes no sense. I thought it would finally get us moved, you know, out of the mailroom.”
“Yeah, well, mission accomplished.”
“I meant up.”
“You thought shooting down Geimle’s new plan that he’s been working on for months right in front of the entire West Wing would get us promoted?”
“Who knew he had so much ego invested in his stupid idea?”
“Who didn’t know?”
Motto switched on the machine.
They were both perfectly aware, of course, that planing wood remained a significant part of the complex toy making process in the Legacy Division of Claus Ltd. Screw that up, you get rough surfaces and splinters on your puzzles and trains. Still, it rankled. Geimle obviously meant the experience to be humbling. But it wasn’t humbling. It was humiliating. Neither one understood why Claus, Ltd. even maintained, in this day and age, a Legacy Division. What kind of kid wants a circus wagon or a wooden train for Christmas? But more importantly, Botto and Motto had been convinced they’d left the planer permanently behind decades ago. Maybe they were still steps away from their dream jobs—Botto’s was in Imagineering. He wanted to use his 8G eTab to imagine the shapes and functions of the toy lines of the future. For Motto the goal was musical instruments. He had an idea he was dying to try out for a software-enhanced, five-stringed fiddle for people with long thumbs—but the mailroom wasn’t bad work.
“It’s dead end,” Botto said. “Elves that go to the mailroom don’t always come out.”
“Some of them like the mailroom,” said Motto.
“Well, I don’t. And neither do you.”
“It sure beats the planer.”
If Geimle was going to assign them to the menial task of planing—a task any octogenarian could do in his sleep—well, Botto decided, something would have to be done about it. Not only was the work strictly entry-level, it was boring as all get-out. And as for the noise—you could barely think when that monstrous contraption ground the last wrinkle and burr from the milled lumber. And you certainly couldn’t talk. But that was by design. Hard to foment resistance when you can’t spread the word.
“You can’t say Geimle’s not good at his job,” Botto yelled over the high-pitched grinding. “Nonetheless, we’re going to have to show him that more Christmas early in the year is just exactly the wrong way to go.”
“I saw your mouth move but I have no idea what you said,” Motto yelled back.
“Can I assume from the fact that you are obviously talking that you heard me and are shouting unconditional agreement?” yelled Botto.
“Well your hearing must be considerably better than mine. If I weren’t looking directly at you, I wouldn’t even know you were speaking,” yelled Motto.
“Even if this machine were not using the full capacity of my ears with the sound like the grinding of cats, these foam plugs in my ears would render me deaf even to messages of a life-saving nature,” yelled Botto. “Perhaps we should talk about this later.”
“I’ll have to turn the machine off if you want to talk to me. And you know what will happen if I do that.” Motto couldn’t even hear his own voice.
“Whatever you do, don’t turn the machine off. They’ll be on us in a second,” yelled Botto.
The motor whined to a halt and Motto pulled the plugs out of his pointed ears.
“What is so…”
He could say no more before Philona was breathing beside them.
“Problem with the machine, boys?”
A suitable retort rose to Botto’s lips but made it no further.
“Because I know of a couple openings in the reindeer stalls, compost division. Deadlines, boys, deadlines.”
The machine whined back to life under Motto’s forced smile as Philona mouthed something the two were just as happy not to hear.