The Last Christmas of Mrs. Claus
by Alex Wilson
Betty was thirty-eight and still believed in Santa Claus. But sometimes he could be such an asshole.
She leaned against the kitchen counter, picking dried glaze from the wrinkles in the back of her hand. From the wireless headset that dangled from her neck, her old marine buddies called to her with joyous profanity and the bass of digital gunfire. The Xbox was upstairs. Her buddies were in San Diego and Cleveland. Satellite coverage in Santa’s Village was just another Christmas miracle, like faster-than-light travel and stuffing oneself through gas fireplaces with neither explosions nor lawsuits nipping at your heels.
It was six o’clock. Santa had said he needed to leave at eight. So Betty had made Christmas Eve dinner while listening to—instead of participating in—the big special ops campaign game online. She’d garlic-salted the yams to the tune of Gomez unloading his Glock into a drug dealer. She’d painted the ham with maple glaze while Williams punctuated Patty Smyth’s “Goodbye to You” with bursts from his assault rifle. “Her boys,” as she called them, didn’t take a lot of eggnog in their rum.
Santa had spent his day opening envelopes from North American children and falling asleep watching the Pittsburgh-Cleveland game in the media room. Now he was in the kitchen, awake and on his way out the door, because suddenly spending fifteen minutes eating dinner with his wife had become too much of a burden on this most wonderful night of the year.
His white V-neck undershirt was tucked into his pants in front, pulled taught over his belly. It stretched the neckhole halfway down to his happy trail. His hands were finding their way through the armholes of his robe.
“It’s just that there are more children in the world now,” he said. “And Santa’s not getting any younger, ho ho ho.”
“Don’t get much older either,” Betty said. Santa’s first wife had died centuries ago, but he always just dismissed the question of his own mortality. Betty never knew how naughty she should feel about wanting to strangle him sometimes. “You’re seriously going to let me eat alone again on Christmas Eve?”
“Don’t think of it like that, doll,” Santa said. “Think of the children.” He slung his belt around his back, and gave it a quick tug. His waist shrunk from dangerously obese to barely jolly. A few crumpled bills in American currency fell out of his pocket. Santa bent down to pick them up, mumbling about “emergency money.”
“Can’t you get dressed in the bedroom like a normal person?” Betty asked.
Distorted shouting erupted from Betty’s headset. She imagined red and yellow mosaic bursts lighting up the sunless snowscape outside, as if there was an HDTV behind the blinds instead of their kitchen window. One of her boys probably stepped on a landmine. Williams, she guessed. She thought she could hear Gomez laughing.
She picked up the pans in which she’d made the potatoes and maple glaze. She put them in the sink to soak. The gingerbread batter bowl could wait a day, even though it would take longer to clean tomorrow. For now, she appreciated its fight to cover the ham-stink that coated the room.
The jingle bell chimed on Santa’s cell.
“Nutcrackers,” he said. “Santa can’t reach it, and it’s probably Ginny. Would you be a doll?”
“Your secretary’s calling, and you need me to answer it? How efficient.” Betty wiped her fingers on a hand-towel. She lifted her headset’s microphone to her mouth. “Moroz out. Back in five.”
“Copy that,” Gomez said on the other end. “It’ll take that long to put Humpty back together again anyway.”
Betty switched off her headset mic. She unclipped the cell phone from the back of Santa’s girdle, and pushed the button with the green arrow, serrated to look like a double-edged diving knife. Or a Christmas tree, if that was more your thing.
“Hey Ginny,” Betty said into the phone.
“Oh hello, Mrs. Claus,” Ginny said. “Merry Christmas.”
“For heaven’s sake, call me Betty.”
“Sorry, Mrs. Claus. Has Mr. Claus left yet?”
“On his way,” Betty said. “He was just thinking of the children. One at a time. He’s very thorough.”
Betty liked Ginny, even though Santa said they shouldn’t have favorites because his elves were all “pretty much interchangeable.” But the year Betty arrived at the Pole, a rabid timber wolf mauled and killed Ginny’s parents. Ginny was a year old. Betty was twenty-three. She’d helped place the girl in another elf home before heading off to track down the animal.
Betty was no hunter by trade, but she was better in a crisis than she was in the kitchen. She relished those two nights alone on the icy wasteland, along with the two shots it took to put the beast down. It was the most sense of purpose she’d had since leaving the Corps.
To this day, hearing Ginny’s voice made her feel useful, though the elf was now sixteen, old enough for conscription in Santa’s Village. It was Betty’s final act of usefulness to keep Ginny out of the factory, and this marked her first Christmas as Santa’s new assistant.
“But what are your plans, dear?” Betty said presently. “I’ve got this great big ham here, and Santa’s saving room for milk and cookies.”
“Oh thank you ever so much,” Ginny said. “But this is the most wonderful night of the year. It’s Christmas Eve!”
“Really? Must’ve missed that email,” Betty said. Santa was rubbing white cream into the dirty gray of his beard and eyebrows. “But what kind of monster makes you work on Christmas Eve?”
Santa shook his head. He added blush to his cheeks.
“I don’t mind, Mrs. Claus,” Betty said. “I love Christmas.”
“Of course you do,” Betty said. Everybody loved Christmas in Santa’s Village. They put it in the water with the fluoride. “Ginny, Santa hasn’t ever mentioned to you anything about being a patron of prostitutes, has he?”
“Saint!” Santa said. “Patron Saint of Prostitutes, Betty! Jesus.”
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot what a good Catholic he is,” Betty said. “Someday I’ll tell you about our miraculous wedding. No priest for miles, and yet here we are!” She’d thought of that joke in August. Gomez had thought it was funny.
“Patron Saint of all of Bari, thank you very much,” Santa said quietly. “So there’s prostitutes in Italy. That’s my fault now?” He leered at his reflection in the microwave. It was more a bedroom smile than something appropriate for children.
“Mrs. Claus, would you tell Mr. Claus that Mr. Dandridge will be staying at the lodge tonight?” Ginny said.
“Copy that,” Betty said. “And maybe I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Well,” Betty said. “It’d just be nice to see you, that’s all.” She didn’t know how else to answer that question. She thanked Ginny for calling and pressed the red gumdrop button to end the call.
“She didn’t want to talk to Santa?” Santa said.
“She said one of the postal workers is staying up here for the night.” Betty clipped the phone back onto his belt.
“Doesn’t he want to get home to his family?”
“I don’t know,” Betty said. “Can you think of a reason why someone wouldn’t want to spend even part of Christmas Eve with his family? Even when his wife got everything ready by six like he said?”
“Well, these are the sacrifices Santa must make.”
“Huh,” Betty said.
In her headset, there was a flurry of gunfire. Then an explosion, intermingled with a CGI terrorist’s scream. Then laughter. If she had to guess by sound alone: Gomez lobbed a fragmentation grenade at a bad guy, when an elegant cap to the head via sniper bullet or shuriken would have worked just as well. She so needed a television in the kitchen.
“Will you at least take a sandwich with you?” Betty asked.
“Jolly. Santa would like that.”
Betty opened a drawer and frowned. “Foil’s missing again.”
Santa shrugged. He didn’t care what she wrapped the sandwich in, so long as it got wrapped. But to Betty it was the principle of the thing. Elves shouldn’t take things without asking. And if they did, then Betty should be able to put a lock on their front door, like she could anywhere else in the free world. And what did they want with so much foil anyway? Or bleach or cheesecloths, for that matter? Elves stole the craziest shit. Probably didn’t need to keep her birth control in the upstairs safe, but why risk it?
She opened the pantry door to get a replacement roll, which she’d hidden behind jars of pasta sauce. She switched her microphone on again. “Moroz back online.”
“Oh, man. You missed some fucked up shit, Betty,” Williams said.
“So I heard. Live to fight another day, I guess.”
“Dude, we should run an Arctic mission sometime.”
“Why?” Betty said, though she could think of a few things she’d like to frag.
“Hey. Gomez has to log off, but my girl’s taking a nap. I could run a lightning round with you, if you want.”
“Oorah. Give me ten minutes. Out.” With a carving knife, she liberated three slices of ham from the larger hunk. She tucked it in a hoagie with some baby spinach.
Santa leaned over her shoulder. “Santa wants some barbecue on that,” he said.
“It’s got a maple glaze,” Betty said. The man was seventeen-hundred years old; at what point would he get sick of smothering barbecue sauce over everything?
“Just a little bit,” Santa said. He ran a finger along the insides of the gingerbread batter bowl. “And maybe some cheese, ho ho ho.”
“And a bottle of rum, you old pirate,” Betty said quietly. She pulled the condiment bottle and some preshredded cheddar from the fridge. She wrapped the sandwich and three gingerbread men in foil. Santa liked his food in neat little packages. “Unwrapping is half the fun,” he liked to say, which was exactly what her father used to say when the presents sucked.
Santa donned his cap and gloves. He winked at Betty. He opened the door and disappeared in a whistle of wind and snow.
Damn, it was cold. Betty shoved the door closed behind him, too fast even to wish him safe travels or merry anything. Except for the dull static from her headset, the mansion was suddenly quiet.
Betty used to love the cold. The first thing she did when she finished her two years at Camp Doha outside of Kuwait City was go off camping solo in the Pennsylvania mountains for the holidays. She was thankful then for the solitude and chilly nights. She ate corn pasta and fruit leather and thought not-quite-seriously about scaring a college admissions officer for fucking with her financial aid, ho ho ho.
But somewhere between midnight and dawn, Betty had heard a rustle outside her tent. Her bear bag was strung up from a tree a few yards from camp. She caught her future husband pawing at it.
She shot Santa twice in the belly with her .22. It would have been more if she hadn’t needed to reload after each one. But before she got her third round into the chamber, Santa convinced her he was no animal. He was just a hairy, hungry old man, as unthreatening to Betty as her practice rifle was to him.
It was a strange affair. Christmas was never a big deal in her family. And nothing against a little meat on the bones, but the last time she’d made love to an almost-as-overweight staff sergeant while still in the Corps, she found it smelly, sticky, and ultimately unfulfilling. But then, outside the sack, that guy hadn’t been a very good staff sergeant either.
Santa was a more generous lover. With him it was more like playing in cookie dough. He smelled like it, too. His rolls of fat were sweet to taste, and were almost completely covered in a soft, white fur that tickled as much it comforted. It was no wonder she’d mistaken him for a bear.
But shit, she thought presently. That was Christmas Eve. That made tonight the fifteenth anniversary of their first meeting. Santa wasn’t big on remembering dates either, but Betty’s mother had hammered anniversary themes into her brain since she was a little girl. Fifteen was crystal.
Santa was bugfuck for crystal. Her wedding ring was crystal because diamonds were just “tarted-up coal.” He called frostbite a “crystal caress.” When he saw ice melt for any reason, he said the crystals were crying, and that was his chief complaint against global warming, too. “Poor little crystals” were ever a higher priority than his elves drowning or his Village sinking into the ocean.
So a crystal anniversary would be important to Santa, to their marriage. If she hurried, she might be able to catch him at the stable before he pushed off, and at least give him a quick crystal kiss good luck. And anything beat spending another second in the kitchen right now. The smell of ham was reminding her of that staff sergeant.
“Williams?” Betty said.
“I’ve gotta bail.”
“No big,” Williams said. “I started without you anyway.”
“Merry Christmas, devil dog.”
Betty put on snowpants. She pocketed her headset, wrapped a scarf around her neck, and grabbed her boots and coat. She went after Santa in the night.
Winter held less promise in the North Pole than it did in Pennsylvania. The faint sun retreated completely by October and wouldn’t be back again until March. There was no grass—dead or dormant—compacted under the ice and flurries.
The snow fell heavily enough to obscure Santa’s footprints in the candycane streetlamp glow. It was sluggish going, with snow up to her shins—and snowpant padding making it hard to figure out exactly where her shins were—but it was still preferable to what she remembered of humping tools and water around a desert base. It took her fifteen minutes to reach the stables.
Larry, one of the elf VPs at the factory, greeted her outside. He wore the traditional green and white overalls, cut off at the knee to expose frumpy, hairless legs that were somehow immune to those crystal caresses. His yellow curls up top had no texture, and in the dim gaslight Betty was more convinced than ever that his hair was actually a toy piece he snapped onto his head every morning.
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Claus,” Larry said.
“Hi Larry. Santa still here?”
“Must have just missed him, huh?”
“Yes,” Larry said cheerfully. “You must have just missed him.”
“He get off all right?”
There was a snort behind Larry, coming from the stables.
“Was that Donner?” Betty pushed past him, and slid open the wooden door. It smelled even like more like shit than it should. Donner shuffled his feet in greeting. The rest of the reindeer stared back at Betty, expectantly. They were still in their individual stalls, with balls of crap piled up at their hooves. They weren’t even harnessed.
“Where’s Santa?” Betty said.
“Oh,” Larry said. “I’m sure Santa’s on his way.”
“But you said I just missed him.”
“It’s Christmas. I didn’t want to argue.”
Fucking elves. “He left ten minutes before me, Larry. How did I beat him here?”
“Does he take a different route?”
“Do you know, or are you just being agreeable?”
Larry winced. “Merry Christmas?”
“Get the reindeer harnessed. Santa will be here any minute.” Were elves that dependent on Santa for every bit of micromanagement? No wonder he kept having to pull more and more all-nighters, and why he’d had to leave early tonight. Why’d she have to be so hard on him? The stalls looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in months. She hoped Ginny demonstrated more competence than that. “Get them ready to fly. I’ll go find Santa.”
“All right then,” Larry said. “Merry Christmas.”
Betty tried his cell while retracing her already-disappearing tracks back towards the mansion. She stayed to the streets, because if she strayed she was just as likely to get lost or step through a hole in the ice as any civilian would. Even the cellphone’s GPS was useless up here, with the winds and ocean currents constantly shifting around the iceplates which passed for ground. She got his voicemail. She tried again.
By the time she was a hundred yards from their home, she found little indication of her own previous bootprints, much less Santa’s. Must have been snowing harder than she thought.
She stopped in place and looked out into the darkness. There was something a few yards off the path. Was it a silvery object or a trick of the light? In a perfect world, she would have had a walking stick to test the ground before her, but she risked the half dozen steps to investigate anyway.
It was the ham hoagie and two of the three gingerbread cookies she’d wrapped in foil for her husband.
Santa wouldn’t get far without food. Was there some emergency that took him off the path? Or worse, had something happened to him? He’d had a few beers watching the game, but he hadn’t seemed tipsy. She tried his cell again. This time she left a message asking for a callback in no uncertain terms.
She doubletimed it to the stables. She handed Larry the sandwich. “Look what I found!”
“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Claus,” Larry said. “Your gift is coming. I chose the two-day shipping, but you know how it is.”
“No, Larry. It’s Santa’s. I found it in the snow. I think something’s happened to him.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Larry said.
“But I’m sure he’s fine.”
“I mean it would take something big to keep him,” Betty said. “Tonight’s all he talks about all year.”
“Yes. Christmas is wonderful.”
“What if someone grabbed him on his way to the stable?” Betty said. A horrifying thought, but she wouldn’t let herself imagine Santa falling through the ice. “You know what this means?”
“It means someone’s trying to ruin Christmas.”
Larry gasped. He even touched an open hand to his chest.
Betty marched into the stables. The reindeer were out of their stalls, wandering aimlessly aloof from the elves who were trying to harness them. The elves sang carols as they worked, but not all of them got the words or notes right. It was like Christmas was crumbling all around her.
Betty took her .308 Winchester off the wall, mounted high enough that curious elves wouldn’t have been able to reach it. In the back of the stable she kept a crate of copper-jacketed ball ammunition. She grabbed three magazines of twenty rounds each.
It was all heavier than she remembered, and felt foreign in her gloved hands. She hadn’t picked up a firearm in years, not since she had to put down poor Rudolph to keep his pink-nose infection from spreading to the other reindeer. And she hadn’t actually hunted since taking down Ginny’s timber wolf.
“But who would want to ruin Christmas?” Larry said. His face darkened as he mouthed: “The Jews?”
“Don’t be an asshole, Larry,” Betty said. How many times had she told Santa to watch his mouth around the elves? But no. He always insisted that a little joke never hurt anybody. “Is there anyone in Santa’s Village we don’t know?”
“You mean besides elves?” Larry said.
“Are there any elves we don’t know?”
“Then yes. I mean besides elves. What about this Dandridge character? The postman? Ginny mentioned something about him staying at the lodge?”
“Oh yes. There’s him.”
“Anyone besides him?”
“Worth checking out then,” she said. “I’ll cover that. You gather everyone you can and search the village for Santa. Be careful, though. And search in groups.” She told Larry where she found the sandwich. She told him to watch for holes in the ice.
“You’re not going up to Mr. Dandridge’s room alone, are you?” Larry said.
“Sure. Why not?” Betty said.
“It’s just...” He looked at the ground. He shuffled his weight from foot to foot.
“People might talk,” Larry said. “A married woman going up to a postman’s room?”
“I’m Mrs. Fucking Claus, Larry. What are people gonna say?”
Betty tapped on Dandridge’s door with the butt of her Winchester. She’d always thought it would be nice to greet the postal workers, the humans, who delivered children’s letters to Santa, but Christmas Eve was such a hectic time for everyone that it never worked out. And tonight? Her heart just wasn’t in it.
“Mr. Dandridge? This is Mrs. Claus. A word, please, Mr. Dandridge?”
The door opened sleepily. A squat, short-haired man in his early forties answered. He wore a white undershirt and yellow and black plaid pajama pants. Betty hadn’t seen another human since her mother came to visit three Thanksgivings ago. The realness of his hair—with its separate strands and lack of plastic gloss—seemed harsh and wrong.
Betty scanned the room behind Dandridge. No sign of foul play, but she didn’t know exactly what to look for anyway. Gomez had participated in house-to-house searches when he re-upped for the second Gulf War, but his stories were always more gossipy than educational.
“Oh, hi,” Dandridge said. “I expected someone...”
“Older? Frumpier? Thank you,” Betty said.
“Yes. I was going to say older. Or unarmed.”
“This?” Betty creeped her grip towards the rifle’s trigger. “Yes, sorry. My husband’s missing and we’re all just a bit on edge.”
“Santa’s missing? That’s terrible,” Dandridge said. He put on his glasses. “And it’s Christmas Eve, too.”
“Is that tonight?” Betty said. “Crap. You know if any stores are still open?”
“Right. Please come in. How can I help?”
Betty stepped forward, eyes narrowed. From video games, she half-expected enemy combatants to storm out the ventilation ducts. It wouldn’t be the least plausible shit she’d seen in Santa’s Village.
But Dandridge’s room was eerily normal. The television showed some sitcom with a laughtrack drowning out a married couple’s argument. There were cigarette butts in an ashtray by the bed. There was an open hardcover book straddling the armrest of a chair next to that. She couldn’t read the dust jacket, but unless it was about kidnapping or ruining Christmas, she doubted the title would be of much use anyway.
“You can start,” Betty said, “by telling me anything you know about his disappearance.”
“Sorry, I don’t know anything. Was there something on the news?”
“It’s just suspicious, that’s all. You choosing to stay here on Christmas Eve at the last minute?” Betty stepped close enough to feel the warmth of Dandridge’s breath. The second biggest thing she learned in the desert—the first being how sand loved the crotch even more than her boys did—was how Americans, herself included, could panic when somebody got up in their personal space. It was a miracle she’d lived this long without shooting anyone other than her husband. But panic was perfect for interrogation. “You want to talk about it?”
“Where have you been in the last hour?” Betty said.
“Right here,” Dandridge said.
Betty extended the rifle coolly past Dandridge, toward the television. She poked at the power button with the business end, only turning it off on the fourth try. She bit her lip at the awkwardness. It’d seemed so much more Eastwoodesque in her mind.
“Why. Are. You. Here?”
Dandridge shrugged. “Look, it’s no big secret. Just making things easier on Beth. My daughter. We’re separated, my wife and I. We didn’t want to cause any more confusion for the holidays, so we thought it’d be best if I just had to work. Okay?”
“And what’s your daughter going to think when Santa doesn’t bring her any presents this year?”
“Santa never brings her any presents.”
“Why?” Betty said. “Is she really bad?”
“No? Well, what kind of fireplace do you have?”
“Look. Sorry,” Dandridge said. “We don’t do the whole Santa Claus charade. No offense or anything. I mean, I think it’s great that he reads the letters and all, even though we generally discourage people from sending cash through the mail.”
“Well, we don’t open your letters or anything, but sometimes quarters’ll tear out of an envelope if they’re not taped down properly. If it was anybody but your husband, we’d have to worry about pyramid schemes, and we can’t be held responsible for—”
“That’s so sweet,” Betty said. “Kids wanting to help Santa out with their little contributions.” He’d enjoy hearing about that, too. She looked forward to telling him, and to the way he’d smile when something he did brought out the best in others. She blinked the thought away. First, she had to find him. First, he had to be okay.
“Okay,” Dandridge said. “So we figure telling our daughter about Santa will just make her feel worse when her friends get nicer presents than she does.”
Betty wondered how this man could fail to see the holes in his story. And saw a possible motive. “And why do they get nicer presents if she’s not bad?”
“Because their parents have more money. I mean—we do okay, but we live on the edge of one of those zip codes, you know? The kids she goes to school with...”
“Yeah, but Santa doesn’t care how much money someone has.”
“Santa doesn’t buy the presents,” Dandridge said. “We do. The parents do.”
Fucking commercialism. Here was something she did not want to tell her husband about. “So Santa’s toys aren’t good enough for you people, and you feel you have to supplement with mass produced bullsh—”
“You know, this is exactly the talk I wanted to avoid with my daughter?”
Betty shook her head and stepped toward the door. Dandridge was useless. And, in spite of a marked lack of Christmas spirit, he was too stupid to be her man.
“Sorry for wasting your time,” she said. “And my own.”
Larry was waiting for Betty outside the lodge. “The reindeer are harnessed, Mrs. Claus.”
“Oorah,” Betty said. “Walk with me.” She stepped past him.
Larry followed, wide-eyed.
“I don’t think he knows anything,” she said. “But I want an elf at his door just in case.”
“Wait, Larry. Why are you here? Didn’t I tell you to fan out and look for Santa?”
“Yeah, we can’t find him.”
“Balls.” No matter how horrible an idea a kidnapping was, the alternatives were far worse: falling through the ice or getting attacked by a wild animal. And only the latter, terrible option could give her much hope at all.
“All right, Larry. I want elves traveling in packs of at least three. We might have another rabid wolf on our hands.” She stopped suddenly. “Where’s Ginny?”
Larry shrugged. Betty grabbed him by the shoulders, very near the neck.
“Did Ginny come into work tonight?” she said.
Betty let go of him. She pumped her snowpantlegs toward the residential district.
“Wait,” Larry called from behind her. “Where are you going?”
“Why don’t I go get her?” Larry said.
“No. I want her by my side. When she hears there might be a wolf, she’s gonna be out of her mind.”
“Are you going to leave us?” Larry asked.
“For heaven’s sake, Larry. What are you talking about?”
She looked back at him. He was shaking. Betty had been so caught up with her own worry that she hadn’t realized what effect her panic might have on the little elves. She walked back and placed her hand again on his shoulder, gently this time.
“I’m sure Santa’s fine, Larry. And we’ll both be here a long time. But we’ve got to stay calm, okay?”
“Okay,” Larry said.
“And I’m sorry I shook you. Keep trying his cell, okay?”
“Okay,” Larry said. He smiled. “I’m sure he’s fine, too.”
Like every door at the North Pole, Ginny’s had no lock. So Betty knocked, waited two seconds, and kicked in the door. She could apologize later, though elves never seemed to take offense at anything.
She ran through the dining room. There was Elvis Costello on the stereo, barely covering the sound of the television from the living room. There was a wineglass on its side, but no stain on the tablecloth beneath it. There was a half-devoured venison steak on a plate, smothered in barbecue sauce.
“Oh, Ginny,” Betty mumbled. “Did Santa teach you that?”
She heard a yelp from the living room. She clicked the safety off on her .308. She opened the door.
It was no wolf. It was a polar bear! But how the hell did it get in here?
The bear’s back heaved violently. It was pouncing on the couch. Ginny was under it, on her stomach. Her blouse was half-torn from her midriff. She cried out.
Betty should have hesitated. But here, so far and long removed from the real world, she felt the recoil and heard the round leaving the chamber before realizing she’d even squeezed the trigger. Jarred into the present, she finally saw what she was shooting at.
The second round was more intentional.
Ginny screamed at her to stop. The polar bear collapsed on top of the little elf.
Betty dropped the gun and kicked its enormous mass onto the floor. Ginny jumped on top of it, as though it really was a polar bear and she thought hugging it was the best way to avoid getting mauled. She was crying.
“Stupid cow,” the polar bear said.
When Santa calmed down, he said the .308 stung far worse than the .22. He said the .22 hadn’t actually hurt at all; he was just going for the sympathy fuck. He said that a lot of children were going to be disappointed this Christmas because of what Mrs. Claus did tonight. He said he hoped Mrs. Claus was happy.
It was almost morning. Not that you could tell by the light. Betty had wanted to be alone, so of course Larry followed her to the toy factory. The windows were blacked out. There were garbage bags and empty containers of antifreeze piled up outside the door. She hadn’t been to the Village’s workshop district since she’d given her mom that tour three years ago.
“You knew about this, didn’t you?” Betty said.
“Are you going to leave now, like the others?” Larry said.
“The other Mrs. Clauses. They always leave when...”
“When they find out Santa’s been fucking his elves?”
“Err, yes, Mrs. Claus.”
“How many have there been?”
“Oh, not many. Usually it’s only one or two times each week. It’s just that around Christmas, he’s extra stressful. A man has certain needs, and it wouldn’t be very giving to make his dear wife shoulder the entirety of that responsibility when...”
Betty closed her eyes. They never missed a word, did they? “Thanks for that, but no. I mean how many other wives?” Santa had only ever mentioned the one. Martha. He’d said it crushed him when she died.
“Not many, Mrs. Claus,” Larry said. “He didn’t usually marry the humans he picked up. But I think he really liked you. He stopped cruising at all for a while there.”
“Is Santa still even in the toy business?” Betty said.
“Yes?” Larry said.
“Huh.” She indicated the factory door with her rifle. “Open it.”
Larry frowned. “Yes, Mrs. Claus.”
Betty’s missing cheesecloths, yellow-stained and greasy, were strewn about on the factory floor between propane tanks, coffee filter boxes, and empty five-gallon water jugs. On the dusty conveyer belt sat hot plates and glass beakers, burnt out from the inside. The chemicals smelled like animal urine.
Betty took her gaming headset out of her pocket. She switched it on. “Williams? Gomez? Either of you still online? Can you hear me?” She’d never used the headset this far from the mansion, but North Pole reception kicked all kinds of ass.
Larry began picking up aluminum foil squares and putting them in a garbage bag. “It’s not Santa’s fault,” he was saying. “Kids don’t want toys anymore. We even tried gift cards, but...”
“Don’t touch anything,” Betty said. She slapped a sheet of burnt foil out of his hands.
Her headset crackled. “You’re up late, Betty,” Gomez said finally. “What’s up?”
“Yeah, what do you know about methlabs?” Betty said.
“I know they blow up something fierce,” Gomez said. “You that bored?”
“They explode?” Betty said.
Larry nodded solemnly. “They explode.”
“Quiet, you,” Betty said.
“Yeah, let me get my laptop,” Gomez said. “There was this article or something? About how sometimes the first sign is when a motel room or trailer goes kablooey?”
Betty grabbed Larry by the upper arm and yanked him out the factory door. But what was the hurry? And what good was running? An explosion on the sensitive arctic ice could sink the whole of Santa’s Village in minutes.
“There’s safer options, if you want something to pass the time up there, Betty,” Gomez said.
Betty didn’t answer him. She didn’t look at Larry. She crunched through the snow, marching the elf further and further from the factory.
“Larry, I need you to tell me you’re not sneaking drugs into children’s stockings.”
“We’re not,” Larry said.
“And I need it to be true,” Betty said.
“Oh, it’s true,” Larry said. “Santa says only the first taste is free. And we almost never do deliveries on Christmas anymore.”
“Gomez, call Williams,” Betty said into her microphone. “I’m proposing an Arctic campaign. A real one. But it’s gotta be done soon.”
“What are you going to do, Mrs. Claus?” Larry said.
“Call me Betty,” she said. “Mr. Claus is presently between Missuses.”
“What are you going to do, Betty?” Larry said.
She froze. Her name sounded foreign to her, coming from this elf. It should have been more distant, or at least digitized as it ever was in her headset. And Larry’s voice sounded deeper—human even—when he said it.
“I’m sorry,” she said finally. “I have to undo this.”
She had to. Crisis first. There’d be time for crying later. There was no other explanation for why she was in the North Pole in the first place. She certainly wasn’t going to be any good at explaining the concept of “evacuation” to a people who hadn’t stepped outside the Village in generations. This was her purpose. It would do.
“Why?” Larry said quietly.
Betty didn’t think she’d ever seen an elf not smiling before. Even frowns held onto traces of smiles. But Larry wasn’t frowning, either. He just wasn’t smiling. His face looked real. Chances were, he wouldn’t be so agreeable in the sunnier world outside Santa’s Village. He’d sing no carols as he highballed it south. He’d find less cheer in that complicated life. But suddenly Larry’s face lit up.
He smiled as though he was hearing about Christmas for the first time. He tried to answer his own question with another one: “Because unwrapping is half the fun?”
“Balls,” Betty said. One didn’t play a mediocre campaign game for fifteen years without having certain expectations about the crystal explosions at the end. “It’d better be more than half.”