fantasy by Gerri Leen
Kris Kringle moved silently through the workshop, making sure nothing had been forgotten by the elves. Normally, they’d be starting their post-toy-making-frenzy party, but this year, the group was more subdued, the carols on low, and no one making merry or wearing lampshades.
Kris sighed and lifted his hand in a wave as he passed the break room but didn’t go in.
Inventory. Yes, inventory would take his mind in the direction it needed to go.
Lumps of coal? Check.
He peeked out the window. Elves hooking up the reindeer? Check.
Reindeer fat — but not too fat, they did have to fly — and happy? Check.
Rudolph’s nose at full power? Check.
As Kris moved from the workshop to the adjoining kitchen, he sniffed. Apple pie baking, ready to eat when he got home?
“Kris?” The voice soft and scratchy from the bedroom. Their bedroom. His and Hilda’s.
“What is it, my love?” He tried for the jolly, booming voice of years past.
She was trying to sit up in bed, and he hurried to her, plumping pillows and smoothing covers in some vain attempt to make everything better.
She was dying. It was never going to be all better.
“You should get dressed.” Her eyes were red, but not from crying. From sickness and age and the cold, probably — why had he dragged her up here to this godforsaken place full of toys and elves and reindeer but nothing for her, just for her?
Except for him. And he left her on Christmas Eve every year. And then slept through a good part of Christmas day, belly full of her pie and the cookies and milk left by the kids and their parents. Cookies and milk that would curdle in his stomach this year, if he could even make himself squeeze down the chimney.
He knew ho-ho-ho’ing was out of the question. You couldn’t fake that kind of jolly. Kids knew, even if they didn’t understand a damn thing.
“Kris, it’s getting late.” Hilda smiled up at him, wrinkles and gray hair not hiding the girl he’d first fallen in love with. “There are children waiting.”
Let them wait, he wanted to say. Let them wait forever.
She patted his hand, as if he had said it out loud. “Go, Kris.”
He got up slowly, never looking away, waiting for her to change her mind, to ask him to stay.
But of course she wouldn’t. It was why he loved her. Why he married her. Why she’d stayed all these years without a complaint — she never thought of herself first.
“Go,” she said, then turned over and sighed — a sound he didn’t think she was aware she’d made.
He walked to the spare room, the closet where he kept his red suit. Red had always meant joy to him. Joy and love and generosity.
He wasn’t sure it would ever mean that again.
He slowly opened the closet. The suit was gone. He dug through the other clothes, but it was hard to hide a scarlet and white outfit in his size.
A cough sounded from the hallway. “I didn’t figure you needed to go tonight.” Sal, his oldest friend, the foreman of the elves. Also the shortest and the grumpiest and — wearing the suit. It was rolled and taped and pinned to fit him. He’d stuffed it with a pillow to make the belly stick out. He wore white cotton as a beard and had covered his head with the Christmas tree flocking spray.
He looked utterly ridiculous. Kris told him so.
“I think I look damn good, boss.” Sal’s language was, as ever, atrocious.
“You’re too short.”
“Osteo-damn-porosis. And curvature of the spine from lugging all these gifts. You watch them shut up when I tell them that — besides, they’re supposed to be sleeping.”
“There are always some who are up.”
“Yeah, well they’ll get what they deserve, won’t they?” Sal took a deep breath and let out a, “Ho, ho, ho, I’m your worst nightmare, you little brats.”
“Please tell me you won’t say that.”
Sal’s face softened. “If I promise I’ll be good, will you stay home and let me do this for you — for her?”
It wasn’t right, an elf masquerading as Santa. It was Kris’s duty. It was his job — his calling.
And his wife, the only woman he’d ever loved, needed him.
Kris nodded. “Watch Prancer. He’s getting old and he sometimes steps wrong on the landing.”
“And Rudolph. Be good to him. No whip.”
“Like I’d use a whip on any of them?”
Kris realized he couldn’t see very well, blinked furiously until Sal came back into focus. “Thank you, old friend.”
“You’re welcome.” Sal glanced toward the hall. It had taken years for him and Hilda to warm up to each other. Oil and water, Kris used to say.
Sal was blinking hard, too. “Merry Christmas, boss.” He hitched up the pants and rushed out.
A moment later, Kris heard the bells on the sleigh, then he heard a combination of a moan and a sigh from the bedroom and hurried in.
“What?” Hilda frowned.
“Sal’s taking the run tonight.”
He nodded as he eased off his shoes and slipped under the covers with her.
She cuddled in, her skin hot, so very hot. “He’s full of surprises, that Sal.” She pulled him down to her, kissed him gently. “Thank you.”
“You don’t ever have to thank me. I’m just sorry we never got to spend Christmas Eve together.”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
Even when it was the last time.
Copyright January 2011 by Gerri Leen
Gerri Leen is celebrating the release of her first book, Life Without Crows, a collection of short stories published by Hadley Rille Books. In addition to 10Flash, you can read more of her stories in such places as: Sword and Sorceress XXIII, Return to Luna, Sniplits, Triangulation: Dark Glass, Footprints, Sails & Sorcery and GlassFire. Gerri lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. Visit Gerri Leen’s Virtual Abode to see what else she’s been up to.