December twenty-third again? Nick had barely recovered from last Christmas. Check that, Nick hadn’t recovered from last Christmas, and now it was bearing down again. He needed a break, time off. But the calendar pages kept flipping by. It used to be the happiest time of the year, the whole North Pole energized. He missed watching movies with Rudolph, laughing over their distorted life stories. He missed the elf flash mobs, those little guys could dance. But most of all he missed his own sense of joy.
“Hey sad sack.” A small voice came from the doorway.
“Tanya, hi. How’s the Tooth Fairy business?”
“Apparently better than Santa Clausing. What gives? You’re about to be on stage.”
He groaned. “Nothing, just not feeling it this year. I need a break. ”
“A break, seriously, you work one freaking day a year and you need a break? What about me? I never have a night off…ever.”
“Typical. You think Christmas is a one-day thing. Who do you think makes all those toys?”
“Mattel, Nintendo, Lego…”
Santa glanced at his shuttered workshop and felt a little smaller. “But keeping the list is a full-time job, as is training the reindeer, and keeping Mrs. Claus happy.”
Tanya plugged her tiny ears. “TMI there, Nicko.”
“I mean helping in the kitchen. Keeping up this physique is a full-time job.” He patted his over-round belly and tried a smile. It didn’t take. “And training the mall Santas. Sheesh, Millenials are impossible. They demand two breaks an hour, environmentally safe hand sanitizer, and pre-visit antibiotics for any kid with a cough. Last month, a guy who missed only one on the final exam, argued the date of Christmas was an unfair question.”
She giggled her tittery giggle. “I can’t believe you haven’t been forced to change Vixen’s name. It’s so judgy.”
“One group demanded I ‘free the beasts of burden’,” he said with air quotes. “Rudolph led a sneak attack and let’s just say they’re all requiring new roofs and some serious yard work.”
“Good for Rudolph,” Tanya said with another laugh that would ordinarily be contagious.
Why didn’t Nick find that story funny? “I need a break.”
“Come on. You need a break from being the most loved mythical creature in the Western hemisphere? Kids stop believing in me by the age of six, and Spanish kids think I’m a mouse. A mouse for heaven’s sake. Do I look like a mouse to you?”
Nick held his thumb and forefinger apart to approximate mouse-size. Tanya would fit inside. She flitted away. “No, of course not,” he said. “You’re a lovely, if diminutive, fairy.”
“Diminutive? How many fairies do you know? I’m average height.”
Must be a female thing, his five-foot-tall wife frequently said the same thing, and he knew better than to argue. “Yes, sorry, of course you are.”
“But I hear you Nick. I’m sick of picking up teeth, too. Under a pillow was the dumbest plan ever. They slip out and I’m having to hunt all over creation, without waking up the kid, or the dog. There has to be a market for a bedside tooth jar.”
“Buddy would suggest a stamp so kids could mail you their teeth.”
“Buddy the elf?”
“He thinks Venmo is the same as finding money under your pillow?” Tanya scoffed.
“No, you’re right. That’s what I keep telling him. Our jobs need the human…-like creature…touch.” He hoped that didn’t offend her. She could be sensitive. “Buddy wants to replace my deliveries with drones. Ever since the whole “Mommy kissing Santa – Mistletoe” fiasco, he’s been pressing to get me out of the homes.”
“Wasn’t that in like 1952?”
“It keeps resurfacing, stupid Jackson 5.” Nick had underestimated little Tommie Connor’s threat. A Red Ryder sounded like a wagon. The elves even painted those words on the side. Who knew he wanted a BB gun? And considering the subsequent threat, Nick had probably done the neighborhood a favor. Then, ten years later came the song, and then all the re-releases, and then a TV movie. Thank goodness Mrs. Claus never doubted him.
“Do you think that’s really why Buddy wants to take over the deliveries? I mean, look what he did to your workshop.” She gestured to the sad building.
Nick’s stomach squeezed. “He said out-sourcing would save on labor costs. I should have known better. Nothing can match the elves’ craftmanship. I’d put even the ones on the Island of Misfit Toys up against anything from those Chinese factories.”
“So we can’t quit, but we both need a break. Time to find ourselves, and rekindle passion for our jobs.”
“Like a gap year?”
“How about a gap week for starters?” she said.
“That sounds amazing, but I can’t disappoint the kids on Christmas.”
“How are you going to go being all jolly when your heart isn’t in it?”
Nick shrugged. He’d fake it, like he had the past several years, ever since he secretly accessed social media and learned he wasn’t so beloved as he’d been led to believe.
“Tell you what,” Tanya said, “how about we trade places, just for a week?”
“You can’t be serious. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. That wouldn’t be fair to you.”
“Hey, I get the rest of the week off, right?”
“Well, yes, I suppose.” He generally slept the rest of the week.
“While you still have to work every single night. You don’t know how much I’d love to just stay home for a night, all night.”
Nick’s misgivings faded at the prospect of having Christmas Eve off, to sit by the fire with Mrs. Claus and watch anything not animated, and not on the Hallmark Channel. It could work.
“Let’s do it,” Nick said.
“Do what?” Buddy, the mission director, appeared in the doorway, without knocking. He never knocked.
Nick decided the straightforward approach was best. “Tanya and I are trading places for a week.”
Buddy stared. “She’s taking your place? On the sleigh? Delivering gifts?”
“She is. It’ll be great. She has loads of experience.”
“Listen, Nick, if you need a break, I have the drones pretty much ready to go. Untested, but they should be okay.”
“We can’t have just okay, Buddy. It’s Christmas, and requires the touch of a caring, thoughtful being. Not an autonomous drone.”
Buddy seemed unconvinced, but he didn’t argue.
Next, Nick led Tanya to the pasture. The reindeer didn’t argue either. They barely noticed as Tanya flitted amongst them, introducing herself. It wasn’t until she came back that Nick saw she was plugging her nose. “First order of business is a bath. They smell awful.”
“Good luck with that. And even if you can talk them into it, their Christmas Eve meal is refried beans.”
She wrinkled her nose. Nick fished in his pocket and handed her a bottle of liquid peppermint. “Put some inside your scarf.”
They moved toward the house. Tanya snapped her tiny fingers and a long printout appeared in Nick’s hand. “What’s this?”
“Kids who’ve lost a tooth so far today. They’ll need their cash tonight.”
“No problem, I have a stockpile of quarters from the old days.”
“Quarters? Are you kidding? The average per-tooth payout is almost four dollars.”
Santa coughed. “For a baby tooth?”
“Inflation.” Tanya shrugged. “It’s more for the parents, wanting their kids to still be innocent believers.”
“You know, it’s creatures like you and the Easter Bunny that shorten my role in these kids’ lives.”
And Nick realized it wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Once the kids stopped believing in the lesser mythical creatures, they started questioning his existence. Which meant less work for him. Why had that bothered him for so long? And why did it still?
He scanned the list of names, pulled a pen from behind his ear and scratched through Jason Oranski. “This kid’s on the naughty list.”
“So what? I don’t discriminate on the basis of behavior.”
“But, he didn’t feed his cat for a whole month, and lied about it.”
“And that’s a problem, why? I hate that cat, always hissing at me. Where’s your list?”
Santa pointed to a three-foot tall mound in the corner.
“Seriously?” She stared wide-eyed. “You know, I can pop in and out way faster than your stinky reindeer can fly around.”
Santa glanced back at the pasture to be sure they hadn’t heard. “Pop in and out? Carrying literally tons of gifts? Santa Claus isn’t a cash-based economy like the Tooth Fairy.”
Tanya raised an eyebrow.
“Besides, the kids need to hear the prancing and pawing of each little foot.”
“Hang on. Are you talking about the poem? No way I’m bounding down a chimney. I can’t just throw my wings in the laundry like your fat suit.”
“Whatever, as long as they hear the clip clop on the roof. Just pop in close to the fireplace, okay?”
The front door opened and Mrs. Claus appeared. “Tanya, what a nice surprise. Would you like some hot cocoa and fresh-baked cookies?”
“I’m not much for sweets,” Tanya said, “but I’d love some milk.”
Nick kissed his wife on her flour-smudged cheek. “Great news. Guess who’s going to be home for Christmas?”
“Me! Tanya and I are trading places for a week.”
Cocoa spilled over the table. At the alarm in his wife’s eyes, he said, “Work. We’re trading jobs.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “After I pay a small subset of children for the completely natural event of losing a baby tooth, we can roast chestnuts over an open fire, and I won’t have Jack Frost nipping at my nose.” Or other parts.
“Chestnuts are poisonous,” Mrs. Claus said.
Why was everyone such a negative Nellie? “We can watch the radar as Tanya here does all the deliveries.”
His wife looked less thrilled than he expected.
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You’re Santa, you deliver gifts on Christmas Eve.” She shook her head. “It’s just wrong. It’s who you are. Who we are.”
“Won’t it be fun being someone else for a change? Someone who gets Christmas off?”
“But what if…” She looked at Tanya and trailed off.
“We’ve talked it all through. What could possibly go wrong?”
Mrs. Claus moved toward the kitchen door. “Um, can I talk with you, alone, for a moment?”
Nick apologized to Tanya. “Sorry about this, she doesn’t do change well.”
As soon as the door swung closed, his wife turned on him. “What are you thinking? She’s a fairy. Everyone knows she’s flighty.”
Nick let that one pass.
“Are you aware that at least a quarter of the kids wake up each day without money under their pillows? Why do you think that is?” She jammed her fists on her ample hips. He’d not seen her this angry since he invited all the elves to dinner before the factory closed. Sure, he should have known there were thousands of them, but they were small, how much could they eat?
He decided the question was likely rhetorical.
“Because Tanya the Tooth Fairy is a light-weight lush. She nips a little from the first few houses, and that’s all it takes, small as she is. You can’t let her play Santa. Christmas will be ruined.”
Nick’s first thought, “People leave liquor for the Tooth Fairy?” His second thought, “All they leave me is milk.” So he said, “It’ll be fine, dear. She can’t get drunk off milk.”
Several hours later, Nick began his first Tooth Fairy rounds. The wings Tanya fashioned for him chafed, and the spell she’d cast so he could travel without the reindeer gave him vertigo. He cross-checked Tanya’s list with his own, and sorted in descending order of behavior. If he delivered only a portion, he wanted it to be the deserving kids. If he felt better later, he’d finish the list. But he didn’t feel better, so Jason-the-cat-hater got to keep his tooth, as did Oscar-the-hair-puller, and Brenda-the-biter. Hopefully she’d lose more teeth quickly.
Nick couldn’t return too early or Tanya would know, so he took a break in Bermuda for some Dramamine, and again near San Diego for No-Doz. When he made it back to the North Pole, Tanya asked, “How did it go?”
“Fine, it went fine. How’s it going with Rudolph and the gang?”
“Good. We’ve come to an agreement. I’ll give them twice the beans when we get back if they’ll stick to vegetables until then.”
“Vegetables?” He glanced at the reindeer happily munching.
Tanya gave Nick’s belly a meaningful look. “They’re these things that grow in the ground. Broccoli, kale, no surprise you’re unfamiliar.”
Nick didn’t have the heart to tell her about broccoli farts.
“So there’s one more thing I forgot to mention,” he said.
He shrugged, she won’t like hearing this, but if people left her liquor…. “Most everyone leaves out a little treat for Santa, and they’ll be disappointed if the cookies are left untouched.”
Her eyes filled. “They leave you treats?”
“They leave you…” Should he mention the booze? Probably not. “…a part of themselves.”
Anger flared in her tiny eyes. She wasn’t buying it.
“Look, I’m sorry. I never asked them to leave things for me, and I won’t ask you to eat something you don’t like. But can you just break a cookie or two at each house? Spread around some crumbs and then move on.”
She nodded, but her forlorn expression tore at his heart. She was jealous of the treats. Or was it the appreciation the treats represented? Despite the haters on Instagram, Santa was beloved. Tanya had few likes, and was never trending. Santa, on the other hand, went viral every Christmas. He really did have the better job. A little appreciation went a long way.
Christmas Eve came. Nick ensured the sleigh was loaded and ready. He patted Rudolph on the head. “How ya feelin’ big guy?”
Rudolph squeezed his eyes shut, and let out a belch so loud his nose lit. “Gassy,” he said.
“Sorry about that, but you’re ready, right?”
His nose lit again.
“Keep an eye on Tanya.”
“Will do, Boss. It won’t be the same without you.”
Nick’s stomach did a small flip.
“It’ll be a lot lighter,” Donner said. Count on him to lighten the mood.
As they lifted off, Nick felt a strange melancholy. He belonged on that sleigh. It had never flown without him. A tear threatened, the first in several centuries. He wiped it away and headed inside to don the loathsome wings and head out on Tooth Fairy rounds. “Nick,” Mrs. Claus stopped him at the doorway. “It’s Christmas Eve. Kids are about to get mountains of presents. They’re not going to care about a lousy quarter from the Tooth Fairy.”
“The average is almost four dollars.”
She gave me her I’m-taking-a-breath-so-I-don’t-lose-it face. Then said, “You need to stay here, in case there’s a problem. You might have to step in.”
She grasped his hand and led him to the Control Room where Mission Director Buddy was watching the radar on enormous screens covering the far wall. “She’s several thousand deliveries behind,” he said.
“She’ll get the hang of it,” Nick said. “The first time I delivered, I was behind--”
“The first time you delivered there were less than a thousand homes total,” his wife said.
A ticker over the map counted down remaining deliveries. It was barely moving. “Fifteen thousand behind…twenty. She stopped moving.”
“Zoom in,” Nick said.
Buddy zoomed on the area of Tanya’s red blinking light. Russia. There weren’t a lot of deliveries in Russia. An enormous mansion filled the screen.
“Oh no,” Nick said. “The Smirnoffs’.”
“Who?” Mrs. Claus asked.
The view stopped zooming. Tanya lay on the arm of a leather sofa, a tiny straw extending from her mouth into a mug on the coffee table.
“He always puts a little something in the milk, to warm me up.”
Silence fell as the digital counter remained frozen.
“I’ll suit up,” Nick said. How could he have been so stupid? And how was he going to make up for lost time? “Buddy, how far along are you with the drones in Europe? Could we use them to catch up, then I’ll cover the Americas?”
“They’re ready,” Buddy said. “And way easier in Europe without the FAA.” He typed a command on his computer and the radar over Western Europe filled almost immediately with tiny dots. “They’ll be near the Smirnoff’s when you get there.
Nick rushed from the room to finish the job. Being Santa was his life, his calling, and his passion. Next time he needed a break he’d think about those slimy baby teeth. And maybe talk with the Easter Bunny instead.