What happens when merry old Kris Kringle is too sick for the annual journey?
|Normally the person who answered the front door at Jeff's knock wouldn’t be smiling, but today Judy Claus beamed at him while exhaling a deep sigh of relief. “Thank you so much for coming so quickly,” she said, ushering him through the peppermint painted workshop door. “Can I take your scythe?”
Instinctively, Jeff gripped the hardwood handle. “Thank you no,” he said. “I have to keep it with me at all times. You know how it is.”
“Indeed I do.” Judy led him down a short hall, bright with a cascade of tiny gumdrop lights. They came into a sitting room, where two plush chairs stood near a red brick fireplace complete with a perfect fire. Judy motioned to Jeff to take a seat, and then sat down herself.
Jeff thought the whole place seemed deserted. “Where is Kris?”
Judy put her head in her hands. “That’s why I called you, Jeff. We’ve never had an emergency like this before. Kris is down and out and in bed, and the elves all died last week.”
“I saw all the little lumps of snow on my way here,” Jeff said. “Elf tombs, if I’m not mistaken. What’s going on, Judy?”
“It’s the Pig Sick. Happy Snappy Elf went down into the world to be in some parade and caught himself the Pig Sick. Happy Snappy Elf is one of those snow mounds now, but he brought the Pig Sick to Santa’s Workshop. Kris is out of commission, Jeff, and I’m desperate. But you’re Death. You’re part of this Figmentsphere. You’re the only one I can trust.”
Jeff might be a skeleton but his mind remained sharp. True, he and Kris Kringle and Judy June had all been dorm mates at Figment College, and Jeff had been best man when Kris married Judy, and they had all stayed tight friends in spite of occupational differences. But asking Death to be Santa Claus? Did Judy have any idea what she was doing?
Then again, what choice did she have?
Judy led Jeff to the stable. The reindeer, or what was left of the reindeer—Comet, Blitzen, and Rudolf had all succumbed to the Pig Sick as well—stood at attention when they saw Judy. Then an amazing yowl and the stomping of rhythmic hooves rose from the reindeer, a sound of savage panic and fear. In an instant, they had jumped their gates and bolted for the opposite end of the stable, away from the presence of Death. “I don’t know how they are for flying, but they run fine,” Jeff said.
Judy let loose a naughty word she’d picked up back in college and only rarely got a chance to use, usually after four straight hours of Kris practicing his ho-ho-ho. “I hadn’t thought of this, Jeff. The reindeer know who you are. They might be as dumb as fruitcake about most things, but they know all about saving their own asses.”
“This doesn’t bode well.” Jeff chipped at an ice patch with the bottom of his scythe. “NORAD is fine with a sled and reindeer, but I don’t know how they’ll take to Death in a sleigh. Maybe I can take some elves with me?”
Shaking her head, Judy explained, “If we had elves I would give you as many as you need. But, you know, the Pig Sick is especially bad for creatures with the immunity of taffy.”
“And now they’re all dead.” Jeff glanced around, listening to the wind whistle through the hollow stable.
“Every one.” Judy whipped an embroidered handkerchief from her apron and dabbed at her eyes. “We had universal elf care, too. But we were too late. I’d think you would have known about this.”
With slight indignation, Jeff replied, “Judy, I have enough to do in the human realm. I don’t have time for fantasy fairytale creatures. How am I supposed to do this?”
“All right Jeff, I’m going to let you in on the biggest secret at the North Pole.” Judy leaned into his black cloaked figure and motioned as if whispering into his ear. “That Clement Moore fellow—may tainted plum pudding take him!—got everything wrong. Can you imagine circling the globe in one night with enough toys and crap for every little blighter who’s been brainwashed into believing? Hell, I don’t even know what a sugar plum is, and a long winter’s nap sounds more like your usual territory.”
“Anyway, what Kris brings is presence. Presence! Not presents! It’s his presence what puts gifts under the tree. He doesn’t literally bring presents himself. So now here we are, completely distorted by the media. Our dead letter office is the largest on the planet. You think Kris reads all of those thinly-disguised epistles of greed?” Judy let out a long breath. “He used to let the elves do it, if they wanted. But now we don’t have elves.”
Suddenly Jeff appreciated the barbaric simplicity of his own responsibility. A person died, he appeared, he released the spirit, and that was it. He didn’t even have to be personally present, since his effect was so pervasive on the earth. But the Claus clan had some real problems, tied up in the imaginary bureaucracy of an earlier age. The least he could do for these old friends was to get them through this Christmas catastrophe. Afterwards, when Kris was well—if he ever got well—Jeff could help them rebuild their establishment.
“Judy, I love you and Kris,” he said, careful not to touch her. Even Judy Claus might be put off by the touch of Death, however friendly. “I’m happy to fill in for him tonight.”