Winter Holidays - Story 5 - Time to Reflect by Gustavo Bondoni

This story was originally published in 2014 in Falling Star Magazine.

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From beneath the twisted wreckage, a hand emerged. Slowly, painfully, it displaced the deep snow around it until it exposed an arm.

The hole in the snow grew bigger and bigger until a grunting, overweight figure managed to climb out from beneath the bent and battered frame of what once had been a beautifully crafted vehicle. With the tatters of his red suit fluttering in the wind, Santa Claus observed the carnage that had once been his pride and joy.

It was clearly never going to fly again. The sleigh itself had broken into dozens of pieces upon impact; one runner was hanging off a tree a hundred yards away, and the wood had splintered into matchsticks, despite the snow cushioning the fall. The only thing that had saved old Saint Nick himself was the fact that none of the antiaircraft fire had actually hit it.

The reindeer hadn’t been so lucky. Prancer and Vixen were lying nearby, more suitable for use as pasta strainers than to drag a sled. Dasher was just as dead, although only the unnatural angle of his neck and a broken antler hinted at the lamented condition. Half of Blitzen protruded from a sturdy shrub, but the rest of the crew were nowhere to be seen.

Rudolph, of course, had been the natural target. It would have taken a truly incompetent gunner to have missed a target illuminated that brightly against the dark December sky. The gunner had been anything but incompetent, and the reindeer had dissolved into mist under the savage barrage that had been Santa’s first inkling that all was not right in the world.

It had come as a complete shock. The Alaskan night sky had been reasonably peaceful after the fall of the Soviet Union. NORAD had stopped scrambling interceptors at every small plane that forgot to file a flight path, and life had generally gotten much better if you happened to be someone whose livelihood depended on flying a sleigh through polar airspace.

It seemed that with tranquility had come complacency, Santa thought.

But who could blame him? He’d had clear skies, an easy delivery route, and had made his final drops on Pacific Islands near the date line a few hours before. All that had remained was a quick pre-dawn hop back to the Pole. He was thinking of wine, food and the satisfaction of a job well done—air defenses were the last thing on his mind.

And now that he thought about it, this seemed really unusual for a NORAD strike. They were more inclined to send jets up to have a look before shooting stuff down, and the antiaircraft fire that had gotten him was more like the stuff that used to come up out of the Balkans than something the Americans would use. There was something fishy going on, but he would have to think of it later.

Right now, he needed better clothes.

Where, he wondered, could he find suitable attire? He thought about it, and then remembered the mall. It had been light for a few hours, so they would be about to open. He just hoped it wasn’t too late to get what he needed.

***

The unconscious man weighed a ton, but at least he hadn’t been particularly vigilant. As he descended from his truck, it had been child’s play for Santa to sneak up behind him and hit him with a large chunk of firewood that he’d found in a pile by one of the houses. Fortunately, the parking lot had been deserted on Christmas morning—this guy had only been there because his job demanded it.

A certain amount of grunting and dragging later, he got the man into an alley, took his suit, and, for the first time since being shot down, felt like himself.

As he was turning to leave, the man stirred. “Hey, wait. Where am I, what happened?”

“My dear sir, I have no idea who you are.”

“My head hurts.”

“That is because I hit you with a log.”

“What?” The man’s eyes seemed to focus a little better. “Is that my suit?”

“This? Well, it was the one you wore,” Santa explained patiently, “but it will always be my suit. And you need to talk to your haberdasher about the hat. It has a very inferior pom-pom.”

“You took my costume? Why?” The man then seemed to notice the alley and the snow. “My god, I’m cold as hell! I can’t feel my fingers!”

“Ah, that is something I can help you with,” Santa replied with a smile. He hit the man over the head with the log again and walked off, wondering whether he should try to get a sleigh or some reindeer next. “Ho, ho, ho.”

***

Reindeer proved a challenge, mainly because the nearest flock was a semi-domesticated group being commercially farmed. The ranchers were well armed and the animals were collared, which meant that whenever one strayed from its area, someone would come along and investigate. Santa knew he was supposed to be immortal but was loathe to test the theory against a modern rifle.

He sat inside a thick pine tree, thinking of his job. Here he was, bringing joy to generations of humans, but he knew that if he went and asked the ranchers for a few reindeer and a sleigh of some sort, they would laugh at him. They might even shoot him.

They’d been trained over generations to think of him as a fantasy, represented in real life by guys like the one he’d left in the alley, paid to be jolly and friendly.

He also remembered a time when he’d been a lot less hypocritical, less worried about opinion polls. Back then, bad children had gotten coal, and even the good ones had often received cuts of raw meat—and been thankful for it.

But now, every little brat was some mommy’s golden child, and coal wasn’t in the cards. God forbid that there might be consequences to being a snotty, useless blight. So they all got toys, all enjoyed Christmas.

The sad part was that the ones who truly deserved nice gifts never complained, always enjoyed them. It was the brats who should have gotten coal—or a good whipping—that complained. Always.

His reverie was broken by the sense of a reindeer nearby. He could sense reindeer through an unexplained sixth sense, and could charm them like an Indian fakir with a cobra. It was part of the same magic that kept him alive for centuries, and also that allowed him to have one of the few flying sleds that he was aware of.

In fact, it was the reindeer itself that flew. Keeping the sled aloft was a question of lightweight materials and centuries of aerodynamic trial and error.

The reindeer that approached was a big bull, seemingly interested in a small clump of scrub beside the tree in which he was concealed. It had, to the old man’s disgust, a perfectly normal nose, but he could worry about lighting upgrades at a later date.

Santa sang.

It was a song of the primeval age, when man was barely upright and animals hadn’t yet learned to fear him. It was a song of seduction, of mastery, of friendship. The reindeer had no chance—and no inclination—to resist as Santa jumped onto its back.

The animal sagged considerably, but was, under the magical influence of Father Christmas, able to take flight. By the time the farmers even realized one of their flock was missing, they had taken cover in the clouds.

“All right Mixter,” Santa said, christening the thing on the spot. “Let’s find out who shot me down.”

He guided the reindeer towards the place from which the fire had emanated, circling carefully, afraid that he might be spotted. But when he managed to sight the emplacement, there were no operators in view. He landed beside the gun.

“Well,” he commented to Mixter, “this sure as hell isn’t a NORAD gun. It looks like something someone pulled out of a museum. But it worked pretty well, didn’t it?”

The reindeer said nothing.

“And look here. Footprints. Oh, wait. Not footprints—these are giant rabbit tracks. Now how many giant rabbits do we know? Only the one, right? Yeah, I thought so.” Santa paused. “I can’t believe he still calls himself a bunny, though. After a century of hiding eggs and hard nights of boozing, he should be calling himself a rabbit by now, don’t you think?”

The only sign that the reindeer was even listening to him was a slightly quizzical tilt to its head. Santa was too angry to worry about that—as long as the thing could fly in the direction he wanted, it would suffice until he could get better reindeer.

“And now we know why he didn’t appeal the arbitration. I was kind of surprised about that. God knows he had some grounds for claiming I was doing some anti-competitive practices. I would have appealed in his place.” He gave Mixter a sly look. “But it seems out widdle wabbit had other ideas, didn’t he? Taking the law into his own hands. Too bad it didn’t work, and too bad for him that I’ll be more careful next time.

“Come on, let’s go get a sleigh.”

The reindeer flinched as the big man climbed onto his back but was smart enough not to risk his wrath.

***

The guy on the sleigh boggled as a huge man dressed like Santa landed a reindeer right in his path. The four dogs—some primeval instinct telling them that flying reindeer were bad news—attempted to run in four different directions, and all four ended up hopelessly tangled in the traces.

As the sleigh ground to a halt, the man jumped off to check his dogs. 

Father Christmas dismounted. “I need your sleigh,” he explained.

“My sleigh?”

“Yes, that thing. It’s not what I’d call a great piece of craftsmanship, but it will have to do.”

The man’s eyes flashed. “That sleigh was built by my great-grandfather. It has lasted through four generations, and I’ll give it to my son when he can drive one.”

“Ah, your grandfather. Jeremiah Watters, as I recall. I gave him coal every year, until he learned not to put the stocking out. Those were good days.” Santa sighed. “The sleigh is worthless, but I need it.”

The man took a step towards Santa and was suddenly confronted by the very large horns of a bull reindeer.

“I don’t think he wants to carry me on his back anymore. He would much prefer to have a sleigh. And yours is the only one around.”

Understanding dawned in the man’s eyes. “What happened to you? I thought you were one of the good guys, spreading cheer and all that.”

“Yeah?” Santa replied as he improvised a harness out of the dogs’ tackle. “Well that was before you people started selling anti-aircraft weaponry to my enemies. In fact, you’ve gone seriously downhill since I was last out and about. I need to get out of the workshop more.” He looked the man in the face. “And you’re lucky I’m in a bit of a hurry to get home, if not I’d ask you to return the electric train you got for your eighth Christmas. You should have gotten a bag of coal, just like your great grandpa.”

He completed the task, gave it a couple of experimental pulls and nodded, satisfied. “Yes, that will hold to the Pole. Mixter, come on, let’s get going.”

The reindeer took a running start and pulled into the air, dragging the overburdened sleigh haphazardly towards the sky.

“Yes, there are going to be changes around here,” Santa said. 

The reindeer wisely said nothing.

“Coal is much too good for them. Much, much too good for people who would sell arms to my enemies.”

He reflected for a minute. “Yes, there will be changes. Ho, ho, ho,” he said. And then he flew off into the distance.

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Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author who writes primarily in English. His debut novel Siege was published in 2016, while two others, Outside and Incursion, were published in 2017. On the short fiction side, he has over two hundred short stories published in fourteen countries. They have been translated into seven languages. Gustavo’s writing has appeared in Pearson’s Texas STAAR English Test cycle, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Perihelion SF, The Best of Every Day Fiction and many others.  So far in 2018, his short fiction has been a finalist in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and also received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He has also published two reprint collections: Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). The Curse of El Bastardo (2010) is a short fantasy novel. His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.

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