by Michael Young
St Nick was not feeling jolly. Just “Old St. Nicolas”.
He looked down and thought how his stomach was more like a half-deflated balloon than a bowl full of jelly, and his nose more black cherry than maraschino.
His job gave him every reason to feel jolly: perfect job security, cheerful co-workers, state of the art technology, travel to exotic places and unlimited hot cocoa. But today the calendar read Feb 25th. The most dreaded deadline of the year was today: the finalization of the Naughty List, based on last year’s deeds.
Sure, he could see kids when they were sleeping and know when they were awake. He knew if they were bad or good with the help of his monitoring elves. It was just so hard to make the final decisions. Though most people assumed he checked the list only twice, he often agonized over it for weeks, checking and rechecking it.
There was the regular Naughty List, which was bad enough, and then there was the Chronically Naughty List, where only the naughtiest appeared. Those on the list risked being permanently banned from Christmas privileges, with only coal to look forward to for the rest of their lives.
St. Nick didn’t like having to put anyone on the list. But, rules were rules and he couldn’t break them without setting a bad example.
He stuffed his large girth into the tinsel-draped chair behind his desk, and picked up his candy-cane striped pen. The Naughty and Nice lists lay out in front of him, filled with of names in calligraphy. Off to the side lay the third list, on which only one name stood. St. Nick’s eyebrows rose.
Several months ago, he had sent his elite elves to carry out interventions for each of those on the Chronically Naughty List. For those who remained after the interventions, he conducted a trial, with one elf as the prosecution and one as the defense.
Every year they had managed to shrink the last list considerably by the middle of February, but he had not expected this. A single name. "Dallin J. Snark,” read St. Nick. "How can we get you off this list?" There was nothing to do but conduct the trial. He’d have to call on Amras and Nerwen, his most talented elite elves.
St. Nick rubbed his black cherry nose. “Bisquat,” he said to his head secretarial elf, “could you bring me some of my Krisp Kringles? This case requires comfort food.”
Bisquat bowed, "No milk and cookies?”
St. Nick gave a “Ho, ho”. He couldn’t manage the third “Ho” today. "No, it's usually June before I can even look at a cookie. Too many in one night. Why don't you also fetch Amras and Nerwen?"
Bisquat bowed again and his exit was heralded by the sound of retreating jingle bells. A minute later, a full-size figure entered. St. Nick jumped in his chair. He was not used to looking up at any one around here, and briefly feared the intruder might have infiltrated the North Pole, intent on stealing trade secrets or perhaps a taste of reindeer venison.
"Amras! You’ve got to remember to shorten your cane once you’re back at the Pole."
Amras glanced down and reddened to match St. Nick’s suit. "I'm sorry, your Saintliness. Right away." He looked up at the red and white cane in his hand and pressed the down on the end. The cane retracted like a telescope, and, as the cane shrunk, so did its owner until he stood less than half of his original height.
St. Nick sat back in his chair, “That's better,” he said. "Now where is—“
Another elf entered, already shrunken to the size of the door, her flushed face matching her fiery red curls. "Just in the St. Nick of time!”
She flung up her arms and waited for a response. None came. Her face fell.
“You used to laugh at that one.”
St. Nick managed a faint smile. "The first 20 times, Nerwen. You should really think of a new punch-line, or figure out how to be on time.”
Nerwen nodded and took a step back.
"Let's get started," St. Nick said, opening his bag of Krisp Kringles, which resembled a miniature version of his present bag. He took one red and green chip and popped it in his mouth. Each chip was designed to taste like something from Christmas dinner and this one tasted like eggnog. "I will hear three arguments to determine whether this boy should be given the Ban. Amras?"
Amras smoothed down his green vest. "Thank you, St. Nick. I’ve seen some terrible cases, but this is one of the worst. I shall endeavor to show that the subject deserves this punishment for three reasons: his disrespect for authority, his disrespect for his peers, and his disrespect for himself.” Amras withdrew a clear marble from his pocket and rolled it in his hands. It grew like a snowball into a large orb.
Amras approached St. Nick's desk and placed the snow globe on a stand at the edge. St. Nick leaned forward and Amras tapped the globes surface. "Exhibit A,” Amras said as a young boy came into focus within the ball. The boy had a tangled mass of blonde hair and a husky frame.
"This is he?" asked St. Nick.
"Yes. Note the sinister smile, the darting, mischievous eyes.”
Nerwen’s hand shot up, "Objection! Speculation. How do we know that it’s not a friendly smile? That his eyes are not jolly?”
Amras remained unruffled. "In context you will see there could be no other explanation."
"Thank you. “ Amras tapped the glass again and the picture came to life. Amras narrated the events that took place. "On February 14th, the school held a Valentine's Day assembly in which students were invited to perform love poems they had written."
Amras placed his hand over his heart. "Not exactly Shakespearean sonnets, but touching nonetheless. During the recitation of one of these poems, Dallin stood and released stink bombs, yelling 'Love stinks!’ Pandemonium ensued, and many were injured. Dallin was suspended, pending an expulsion hearing. He’s played every prank in the book and contributed several chapters of his own.”
St. Nick scratched his beard. “Nerwen, do you have anything to say?”
Nerwen shook her head, her red curls bobbing. “I would prefer to listen to all of the arguments first before refuting them.”
“That’s fine,” St. Nick said. “Continue.”
Amras tapped the globe and another scene appeared. “You will recall my second point was that he has no respect for his peers. Look.”
The surface swirled and came into focus. It showed Dallin next to a smaller kid in front of a locker covered with wrapping paper. At the top was a sign that read “Are you ready for s’more birthday fun?”
“What’s wrong with that?” Nerwen said. “He decorated that boy’s locker.”
“He did,” said Amras. “That boy is one of the most picked-on boys in school—a foster child with some serious medical problems. Our subject told him that he had a birthday surprise for him.”
St. Nick drew his eyebrows together. “You’re defeating your own point. That’s one of the nicest things I’ve seen in a long time.”
Amras jabbed a finger at the image. “That’s exactly what makes this deed so dastardly, this act so atrocious, this plot so pernicious, this-“
St Nick cut him off. “We understand. Go on.”
Amras smoothed his suit. “Dallin filled that boy’s locker with marshmallows.”
Nerwen burst out laughing, her clothes jingling.
“Once again, you haven’t considered everything,” said Amras. “The boy’s birthday falls on July 26th, which just happened to be the hottest day of the year. That day turned each locker into a long, thin Dutch oven.”
Amras tapped the globe again and the picture advanced, showing the poor boy opening his locker, only to find it flooded with sticky goo. A couple graham crackers and pieces of chocolate had been added at strategic points, making it look as if a boy scout’s backpack had exploded.
St. Nick put his head in his hands.
“It took the janitors a week to get it all off. The hallway still smells like s’mores and cleaning solution.”
St. Nick waved his hand. “Enough. I may never be able to eat a s’more again.”
“And worst of all,” said Amras, “my third argument.”
Amras tapped the globe, and the boy was seen holding a large bag of peanuts.
Nerwen’s hand shot up.”I suppose you're going to tell me now that he's a terrible person, because he likes to eat peanuts and leave the shells on the floor. You’ll have to try harder.”
Amras smoothed his dark hair. “I will, little miss. He has a violent peanut allergy and carries around that bag everywhere. And whenever things aren't going his way, he eats some just for the attention it affords him. He's tried this at home, school, and in various public places. He becomes violently ill and blames it on all sorts of things. He would damage his body to get away from his problems.”
In the globe, Amras displayed a montage. “His cousin’s wedding, his sister’s piano recital, his first day at his new school—the list goes on.”
Amras tapped the globe and stepped back, “These incidents show that the subject is an inherently naughty person. Intervention has failed, and he shows no remorse. I call for the immediate suspension of holiday privileges without the possibility of parole.”
Amras shot an overly-broad smile at Nerwen. “The prosecution rests.”
Nerwen walked over to the desk. “That was convincing. If I had not seen what I have, I would've been won over. But for his three points, I have three questions: Why? How? When?”
St. Nick adjusted his spectacles. “Please be more specific.”
“Specifically, ‘Why is Dallin the way that he is?’, ‘How can he be helped?’ and ‘When are we going to do it?”
“Good,” said St. Nick, finishing a Krisp that tasted like turkey with cranberry sauce. “I’d like to hear more."
She produced a snow globe of her own and placed it on St. Nick’s desk. An image of a Dallin appeared, all smiles gone, mischievous or not. Nerwen cleared her throat. "Dallin lives a difficult life, and not all of his troubles are his fault. He was orphaned young and placed in foster care with poor parents."
Nerwen tapped the snow globe a number of times and it cycled through different scenes of Dallin’s life, being ignored, being yelled at, being told that he was stupid, and finally left alone, shutting himself in his closet and crying softly.
She tapped the surface a final time and the picture froze on the closed door. Before anyone could say anything, she continued. “As demonstrated by the prosecutor, Dallin is a boy of considerable brains. He's extremely creative and courageous. Now, however, he is applying his talents in a negative way. People have tried to change Dallin’s behavior by punishing, yelling, and threatening. I understand why he is so naughty.”
A faint snicker came from Amras’s direction.
“He feels unappreciated and under stimulated. If he felt there were people that really cared about him and if he were given an outlet to do something positive, the problem would cease.”
Amras sighed. “It is one thing to say how you feel. It is another thing to see what is really there. This boy has a chronic history of misdeeds. I doubt the solution is so simple.”
Nerwen shook her fiery curls. “I can prove it to you.”
“You can prove it?” asked St. Nick. “That’s a bold statement. Would you like to explain?”
Nerwen nodded. “The proof is contained in the third question: “when are we going to do something about it?’ The answer is ‘I already have.’”
All eyes fixed on her, “You better explain that,” said St. Nick.
“I talked to him myself. I used my cane to make myself a little bit taller and wore a cap to disguise my ears. I found him out walking by himself and started talking to him. His first reaction was ‘buzz off,’ but after we got over that hurdle, things went along nicely.”
Amras choked, even though he was not eating. “You actually risked talking to him? Don’t you think that’s a bit reckless when you’re the right size to get stuffed in a locker?”
Nerwen lifted her chin another inch. “Reckless, but necessary. I had to be sure that he was really the worst apple of the bunch. And you know what?”
Everyone leaned forward.
A broad smile broke over Nerwen’s face. “The outside is rotten, but the core is sweet.”
“Did you put on your rose-colored glasses this morning?” said Amras with a scowl, “You don’t get on the Chronically Naughty list by having a good core.”
Nerwen met St. Nick’s gaze. “I would like to invite you both to come with me. I have something to show you.”
With a sigh, Amras rolled his eyes. “We don’t have time to go looking at your snow angel gallery, Nerwen.”
Nerwen’s face did not flinch. “With respect, that is not what I had in mind, though the gallery is exquisite. I promise this will prove enlightening.”
St. Nick rose and nodded, brushing colorful crumbs off his suit. “I’d like a diversion. Lead the way.” He glanced over in Amras’s direction. “No snarky comments.”
Nerwen led them out of the workshop and up the snow-covered rise that overlooked the surrounding area. At the top, a railing marked off an observation area. The snow blew in thick flurries, carried on a wind that tasted of peppermint, so that every breath felt like brushing your teeth.
“With respect,” he muttered, “what are we supposed to see? I've been up here dozens of times.”
Nerwen pointed at a cluster of buildings below. “I'm sure you remember that you commissioned us to build a new gingerbread village.”
St. Nick ran his hands through his beard. “Yes,” he said, “But it was my understanding that construction has been delayed, because our chief candy designer has taken ill.” St. Nick fell silent. It was yet another thing that dampened his jolly attitude.
“I invite you, your Jolliness, and even you, your grumpiness, to look down at it now.”
They craned their necks over the edge and glanced down at the gingerbread village under construction. The village teamed with activity, with great carts pulled by reindeer lugging stores of candy down from the factories, and candy masons, sculptors, and artists swarming over buildings in various stages of construction.
“Donner and Blitzen!” cried St. Nick. “Everything is in full swing. How did this happen?”
Nerwen pointed down to the square where a single figure stood atop a fountain pouring streams of hot wassail. “There is our supposed bad apple.”
They craned to see, and nearly lost their footing. It was Dallin, decked out in full Christmas attire, with an enormous green pointed hat wreathed with sprigs of mistletoe and holly. He carried a large notebook in which he wrote with an enormous quill pen and shouted instructions to craftsmen as they approached.
“I don’t believe it," muttered Amras.
“Correction,” Nerwen said softly. “You didn’t believe in him. I spoke to his foster parents and told them we’re a new kind of school willing to take him in to teach him a wonderful new trade. I had already seen how clever he is with sweets. I know it's not a typical course of study, but he's already shaping up to be one of the greatest gingerbread architects we've ever had.”
St. Nick removed his cap and scratched his head, marveling that he hadn’t noticed. “Remarkable.”
"It's like that motto you're saying all the time--the one that you put at the bottom of all your correspondence. You’ve even got it written above your office door.”
St. Nick nodded. “’Tis the season. Remember the reason.”
St. Nick leaned against the railing, staring down with wet eyes at the scene. “I think,” he said in a low whisper, “perhaps I've been doing things all wrong. The One whose birth we celebrate does not have a Naughty List. He serves everyone in the world and offers them incredible gifts, no matter what they have done. It's true many people do not accept His gifts, but He is willing to give them anyway. I, on the other hand, have given my gifts conditionally. I've made it my business to judge people, and I wonder how many times I have misjudged them.”
St. Nick arose, the color returning to his cheeks, the cherry-like quality to his nose, the twinkle in his eye, and even the jiggle of his belly. “From now on, I will be setting the example. In celebrating Christmas, I will be more like Christ.”
He turned to Amras and Nerwen, his face aglow. “Come, I'm eager to see that snow angel gallery.”
Nerwen beamed to match St. Nick, but Amras frowned. “But, sir, do you have time? I'm sure you have more pressing duties.”
“No. Without the Naughty List, I’ll have plenty of time. Now that I think of it, so much of my time was spent judging people that I've hardly had a chance to appreciate them. Why don't you come along? I promise we'll pay a visit to your candy cane mosaics afterwards.”
For the first time that day, Amras’s lips rose in a genuine smile. “Really?’
“Really,” said St. Nick.
Amras fell into step and all three broke out in a rousing Christmas carol. When they had finished, St. Nick drew in his breath and let out a complete “Ho, ho, ho,” feeling jollier than he had in years. This Christmas was going to be different. This year, he’d be makin’ a list, but he would not have to check it twice.
[This was sent in time, but didn't get to me. If you've already voted but would have voted for this one had it been posted on time, go ahead and vote for it.]
[If you haven't already voted, never mind.]
Critique: Loved it. The only suggestion I have is to differentiate the two elves just a bit more through dialog, actions, quirks or something. Otherwise, it’s great!
What I liked best: Santa’s words about Christ. Loved that message. Great writing.
Publication ready: Absolutely!