The subscription radar on the Dasher 5000’s Detecto-screen flashed gold – an Elite-level customer on Santa’s Nice List was to the right.
Mel pointed to the screen and stuttered something.
Tony, who was trying to set his chair massage to sexy mode, sailed right past 743 Nutmeg Street.
“Whoa, man, we missed one! Why didn’t you tell me?”
Mel sighed as Tony made a mildly destructive u-turn on the narrow street and whizzed back toward the target house. He’d learned several seasons ago that it was useless to argue with his delivery partner. “Sylvia and Marie,” Mel recited from the check-twice app on his phone. “Present boxes number A656 and G900.”
“I’m two steps ahead of you, bro,” Tony chuckled from atop the rolling toybox trailer. He hefted two medium-sized rectangular boxes onto his shoulder, nearly dropping one. Mel cringed and opened the passenger door to go help. By the time he’d made his way around to the back of the trailer, Tony was across the street, taking Sylvia and Marie’s presents to the wrong house.
“That’s 744!” Mel called, but his voice was whisked in the opposite direction by a gust of wind. Sighing, he schlepped over to the chimney-bouncer Tony had characteristically left by the side of the building and used it to catapult himself onto the roof, whistling to call the foldable device back to his hand. He tucked it safely in its designated pocket.
Judging by the echoing coughs and hoots emanating from the chimney, it would appear Tony had already jumped down. Mel donned his air-mask and followed.
Like most fireplaces, this one was electric and turned off, so it didn’t pose a problem to the elves. However, when Mel ducked out into the family room, his partner was whimpering in pain and stumbling across the floor. Apparently someone had left some spinning tops on the carpet, and Tony was hopping from one pokey handle to another.
“Shhh!” Mel warned from beneath the coffee table. “We can’t afford another Memory-Wipe today. I’ve only got two left!”
Tony backed away from the spinning-top arena of death, swearing loudly. He scampered onto the couch to nurse his wounds.
A pudgy grey cat emerged from beneath the couch and began investigating Tony with whiskers and tongue.
“Get away from me, babe, I’m not into tonguing it,” Tony giggled nervously as he clambered up to the windowsill behind the couch.
Mel was chewing his fingernails down to the cuticles. He wanted to help Tony, who was in danger of becoming a statistic for the Elves Against House Cats Society. But he couldn’t leave his hiding place – what if he himself was attacked? What if a human came in?
The cat jumped onto the windowsill and flounced toward Tony.
Giggling in terror, he took a step backward and staggered right into a golden eight-branched candelabra (luckily there weren’t any lit candles.) The candelabra crashed through the window, setting off a symphony of discordant beeps. Mel lay down beneath the coffee table to avoid head trauma from the loss of consciousness he felt was impending.
Voices stirred upstairs. Footsteps padded down, getting louder with each step. A smartphone flashlight pierced the darkness of the family room. “Hello?” demanded a man’s voice. “I have an instant alarm system. The police are tracking you and you have nowhere to hide.”
Mel swallowed his baby barf and grimaced, but he managed to scramble to his feet. As the man with the flashlight advanced further into the room, Mel heaved himself onto the couch, grabbed Tony’s hand, and led the senseless elf out the broken window onto the blanket of snow below. They ran around the corner to the back side of 744 Nutmeg.
“Okay,” Mel gasped. “I don’t think that counts as a sighting. Now let’s get back on route.”
Tony’s face was confetti-ed with bloody scratches. He looked right through his partner’s concerned gaze, not seeming to understand his words.
“Tony?” Mel searched his pockets for a sanitary wipe. They were supposed to be right above the left hip, but he seemed to be out of stock. “Tony!”
The elf was still not listening, slowly turning around to take in the back alley where the two were standing.
“I’m so sorry this happened to you, Tony, even if it was entirely your fault and it wouldn’t have happened if you’d only listened to me. Now come along with me to the Dasher 5000. We’ll get you professional help in no time.” Mel grabbed for Tony’s hand to drag the elf back to their ride.
But Tony’s shoe-grips were clamped to the ground. Eyes wide, he finally spoke: “This…is…”
“Yeah, it’s pretty upsetting,” Mel agreed. “But if you come to the car with me, we can fix it.”
“This…” Tony murmured. “This is an alley. This is amazing!” Eyes again filled with the fire of a midnight marshmallow energy drink, Mel’s delivery partner began twirling him in circles between the rows of dumpsters. “Alleys are where all the Tooth Fairy’s ladies hang out on smoke breaks,” Tony explained. “We could have some fun tonight!”
Mel’s phone was bleating angrily, warning him that Team Dasher was almost irredeemably behind schedule. “Um, I don’t think we should waste any more time?” he suggested.
Tony was already a block down the alley, strutting and skipping between recycling bins and trash receptacles, whistling “White Christmas” at triple-speed while he checked his teeth in his phone.
Mel sighed. “Looks like we’re not getting promoted this year,” he remarked to himself as he hustled to catch up with Santa’s rogue helper.”Tony!” he panted. “Remember Rule #3? Stay focused!”
“Focus, schmocus!” Tony hopped onto an abandoned couch and perched frog-style on the sagging rosy cushions. “Look at all this treasure, dude! People just leave this stuff for the taking! We could sell it and get rich!” He leapt over a blue recycling bin to land on a child-sized bed. “I think this is Tempur-Pedic, man, it’s so comfortable and… oy vay!”
Mel peered around the side of the recycling bin to see what had spooked Tony this time. Lying in the bed on either side of the elf were two human children, staring directly at him. There was no place to hide.
Mel was planning to have a heart attack, but when the six-or-seven-year-old boy with the runny nose spoke it stopped him in his tracks. For the little boy said, “Hello. Are you homeless too?”
Homeless. What a sad word. Like heartless, only the person might very well be nice and kind and gentle, they just got left out in the cold. Mel had never seen homeless humans before – usually he only rode down streets with subscriptions.
“We found some pizza,” the eleven-ish girl said to Tony, who was frantically looking around for an escape route. “It isn’t very warm anymore, and there are flies on some of the pieces, but you can have a slice if you want.”
Mel realized he was now standing in plain view at the foot of the bed. Tony realized it too and hissed, “Mel, dude, get out a Memory-Wipe!”
Mel shook his head. “Not yet, maybe later.” He came to stand by the bed’s head to address the little girl. “You’re having somebody’s throwaway pizza for Christmas Eve Dinner?”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” the girl blinked snowflakes off her eyelashes. “We’re Jewish.”
Tony squirmed under the quilt.”Mel! Remember Rule #1? Don’t talk to humans! Do you want to get fired?”
“It doesn’t look like we’re ever getting over to 743 Nutmeg, and you still have those two presents in your hands,” Mel pointed out. “Do you think – I mean, only if you want to – but don’t you think it would be nice if we gave those presents to these kids? They look awfully cold and they don’t have any toys.”
Tony hopped down to meet Mel and marched him over to the other side of the recycling bin for a private chat. “Are you out of your mind?”
“You’re the one who broke into the wrong house and flirted with a cat.” Mel could feel his nose turning bright red. Had he ever said anything so sassy before?
“We can’t interact with humans – especially broke kids without subscriptions! If the manager of Team Dasher was here, he’d be tying himself in knots hearing you talk about giving away presents to poor kids! That’s all very well for charities around Christmastime, but we’re not a charity. We’re here to make money. Do you want to lose your job?”
“I don’t think I should be fired for giving away- what’s in here?” Mel x-rayed the boxes with his phone. “Just one set of Mancala and a single hairdresser doll. Won’t even make a dent in revenue. The Big Jolly One won’t suspect a thing.”
“But these gifts belong to Sylvia and Marie! Their parents paid for them!” Tony clutched the presents to his breast, more serious than Mel had ever seen him. When the little girl came up behind Tony and began speaking, he jumped a foot in the air.
“Excuse me for interrupting you two,” the girl said, shivering in a t-shirt and too-big jeans. “But Noah and I have been having a discussion too. And we decided, instead of toys for Christmas, what we’d really like is for you to grant us one wish.”
“Do I look like a genie?” Tony spluttered. “I’m only one-quarter genie, and Grandma Felicia was adopted anyway.”
While Tony continued to rant about his pedigree, Mel gently nudged him aside. He looked up at the girl.
She looked down at him. Their eyes met. Hardly anyone in the workshop ever met Mel’s eyes; they were always too busy texting more important elves.
“I’m not a genie, or a fairy, but I’ll do my best to grant your wish,” Mel said. “No promises, but… what is it that you wish for?”
Noah crept out from behind his sister’s legs and sniffled. “Can you give our daddy his job back?”
From the pedestal of the recycling bin, Tony announced, “This has gone far enough. We can’t do anything for your daddy. It’s too bad you folks are going through some hard times, but hopefully things’ll turn around soon and when you have enough income, you can subscribe! The Big Jolly One’ll be sure to set aside some great presents for you.” Tony hopped down to tug on Mel’s coattails. “C’mon, man, this alley is grungy. Let’s get back on route.”
“Okay.” Mel’s phone was very anxious about Team Dasher’s schedule; at this rate they wouldn’t reach Maple Lane until after sunrise. The elves really had to go. But first…
“Give this form to your father,” Mel directed the children. He handed a job application to the little boy. “We don’t currently have anyone delivering in this part of the neighborhood. Maybe your daddy could be the first.”
“You mean our daddy could work for Santa Claus?” The little boy wiped his nose on his sleeve.
“No,” Tony answered.
Mel talked over him: “Absolutely, if he wants to and he’s willing to work hard. In fact, he’d be creating a whole new sector of North Pole Inc. for deliveries to those in need. It’s a historical step for the company.” A step the Big Jolly One hadn’t authorized, Mel was painfully aware, but for once he decided to let things work themselves out. “You don’t need a stamp,” he informed the children. “Just lick and send to the North Pole. We’ll pay your daddy’s travel expenses if he gets an interview.”
Meanwhile, Tony was grubbing around in Mel’s pockets, looking for the Memory-Wipe aerosol. He pulled it out, but as the spraying end was facing the elf, Mel wasn’t worried when Tony pulled the trigger. “A better job than I could’ve done myself,” he remarked as Tony swooned and crumpled into a murmuring heap.
Suddenly feeling shy, Mel scooped up his partner and made for the car without another look back at the children.
Eleven months later, when a man named Rodney Fleischmann became the first human delivery elf for North Pole Inc., Mel smiled to himself. He knew lots of children of various religions would be enjoying warm gloves and arctic-fox pillows this Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanzaa/Festivus, whether or not their parents could afford to subscribe to Santa.
And the Fleischmanns themselves now had a lovely cottage at the North Pole where they could light a real fireplace and set up one of those “Torture Candle-holders,” as Tony called them, by the window as the children watched their daddy take off in the Rudolph 5000.
As for Mel, he was going to have a very merry Christmas working at HQ as a supervisor. His commission this year was to report all transgressive employee behavior, especially actions committed by the one elf currently on Santa’s naughty list due to a broken-window incident the previous year.
Image credits in order of appearance:
“MerrittBlackHouseKaukaunaWI” by Royalbroil – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MerrittBlackHouseKaukaunaWI.jpg#/media/File:MerrittBlackHouseKaukaunaWI.jpg
Jonathan Billinger [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“2003-08-23 Early morning alley in Chicago” by Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2003-08-23_Early_morning_alley_in_Chicago.jpg#/media/File:2003-08-23_Early_morning_alley_in_Chicago.jpg
“Wonder eye” by Jalal Volker – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wonder_eye.png#/media/File:Wonder_eye.png
“Christmas tree bauble” by Kris De Curtis – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christmas_tree_bauble.jpg#/media/File:Christmas_tree_bauble.jpg
“Santa Dashing Off Through The Night” by F. O. C. Darley (1822-1888) – http://www.reusableart.com/d/458-2/santa-03.jpgGallery page http://www.reusableart.com/v/christmas/santa/santa-03.jpg.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Santa_Dashing_Off_Through_The_Night.jpg#/media/File:Santa_Dashing_Off_Through_The_Night.jpg