By Andrew Paul Grell
“It’s time, Nick. Are you up for it?” Josh assessed the old man’s visage. It wasn’t like the old days. Larger territory. Vast increase in audience. Security. Changes in entrance and exit protocols. Not that any of that mattered; it was Nick or nobody.
“It’s been a while since I made a real run. And I haven’t heard from Black Peter in two centuries. In the current circumstances, what do you think would happen if I got stuck down there?”
“You’d be taken as vertically challenged and treated with kid gloves. Stay away from the cities, you don’t want to get caught with non-pet animals. Let me show you something. This should really help. I had Barbara give a zetz to a guy at MIT to get this done. Here, have a look. This is the best possible Traveling Salesman solution algorithm. Should definitely cut down your time.” Again, Josh studied the old Saint’s eyes; he saw the life return to them as he studied the paper.
“Josh, we’re going to run into relativistic issues if I use this.”
Josh smiled; Nick was coming along. “It’s not like the old days. You don’t need to hit every target. All you need is a critical mass. Let’s get those reindeer fed, shall we?”
“Josh, honestly, I’m not really sure about interference from the top. Would you ever tell Tony to help someone find this but not that? Have Chris tell her but not him which bus to take? I didn’t have my eyes gouged or my head cut off, but every drachma and shekel I had went to do the most good. I’m on strike for a good reason, Josh. You know—obviously you know—I put civvies on and visit about seven post offices every year. There’s always a bin where the letters go. I read my share. The differential between the input and the output has become staggering. I’m not riding out until what gets given gets a lot closer to what’s really wanted.
“Funny you should mention that, Nick. You get to be a part of making that happen. Nick. Old friend. I’m going back down. Here. Take some Myrrh with you to grease the skids. This is the year you’ll get what it is you want.”
You wouldn’t notice it but the formless white void in which this conversation took place started stretching out once Nick blew his whistle to call the herd. Josh stayed up, Nick went down to a different sort of white void, snow-capped and freezing. Fawn and bone colored shapes came into view; they were pulling something across the snow. Nick took his time going over each and every one of the traces and every piece of tack. He turned the sled over and applied a good coat of his old friend’s myrrh to the runners. The team was inspected next. Every hoof had to be clean, antlers needed the correct number of points, flanks firm and fleshed out, breathing easy. When everyone and everything passed his exacting and demanding tests, Nick began to load up. Someone tossed him one of the Klein-bottle sacks; Nick looked down and let out a whoop for the ages.
“Peter! Where have you been, you old devil?”
“On strike, boss. Just like you. It’s not the same as it was. Josh let me know what was going on and I rushed up here as fast as I could. I had been getting pick-up work here, there, the other place, sometimes on my own. Keeping roofers from falling. Curing heel spurs. That was a good one; you’d be surprised at what these people will put on their feet, as long as it has the right name on it. Finding missing papers in desks; that was me myself on my own. My last gig was—dig this boss—and remember, these people now move around in these big metal chariots belching smoke, like dragons, boss. I helped them to find places to put their dragons when they got to where they were going. It was something to fill the time. But now. Now! We’re back in business! The team is together again! Let me hear it, boss! I haven’t heard it in forever, give it to me, bring it home!”
Nick couldn’t help but smile at his old helper and smile even wider at the charm offensive Josh must have put together to get him flying again. He cleared his throat and aimed his countenance heavenward and let it out: “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Nick and Peter worked the reindeer out taking a great circle to Bethlehem, where they started the trip proper, and followed the sunset line west.
# # #
“911. Caller, what is your emergency?”
“Someone broke into our house. 362 Hemlock”
“Are you safe? Is the intruder still there? Was anything taken?”
“We’re OK. I don’t think anyone else is in the house. Nothing was taken, but something was left. “
“The intruder left something in your home?”
“When we went to sleep last night, there were seven packages under the tree. A noise in the house woke me up and I went down to see what was happening. Now there are eight. Two of the cookies are missing and the milk has been drunk.”
“Ma’am, are you sure none of the people you thought were asleep snuck down with an extra package? Any sign of forced entry?”
“There are tiny, ashy footprints leading from the chimney to the tree. The doors and windows are all locked and the security system shows all clear.”
“Ma’am, is this a joke? We’re very busy every Christmas Eve handling tree fires and drunk drivers on snowy roads. You’re aware that filing a false police report is a crime?”
“This is not a joke.”
“Ma’am, I’m sending a patrol car over to investigate a suspicious package. It would be safest if you could have everyone leave the house and wait in your car or at a neighbor’s house.”
“Thank you; we’ll be waiting at the Chisolm’s, 364 Hemlock.”
Richard and Jenny Hesse took Pat, their daughter, and Mike, their toddler son, across the yard to the Chisolm’s. Sabina Chisolm must have seen the lights come on at the Hesse abode; she opened the door before anyone could ring the bell. Jack was on the love seat holding a box wrapped in snowy evergreen paper with a red and white ribbon and hand-curled bow. He was alternating his gaze between the fireplace, the tree, and the box. He was weighing it by hand, put it to his ear, but didn’t shake it. He got up and faced his neighbors.
“We have no idea how this box got under our tree.”
“Same here. We called the police, they told us to get out of the house and wait for the patrol. Were your cookies eaten? Milk drunk? Teeny weeny footprints coming out of the fireplace?”
Sabina looked at Dick and Jen with alarm. “Things like this don’t happen here. Jack, what are you doing? Put that down. Didn’t you hear what the police told Jen?”
“Sabbie, this is nonsense. It doesn’t weigh nearly enough to be a bomb. I’m opening it.” Everyone in the knew there was nothing anyone could do when Jack made up his mind; his snap decisions—Jack was an arbitrage trader—were almost always correct. Almost always, anyway. Jenny went with Jack to set up a blast wall using the kitchen table. Jack used some twist-ties to attach a knife to a broomstick, gave it to Jen, and took the Swifter broom for himself. Dick and Sabina hustled the kids behind the couch and within easy reach of the door. Debbie, the Hesse girl, was spotted hiding on the staircase and was carried to the safe zone; she didn’t have her wheel chair downstairs. Jack held the box steady with the Swifter and Jenny started sawing off the ribbon and wrapping, and finally got the box open. There were three of what looked like yo-yos in the box. Jack held them up. Three Duncan competition yo-yos, a Drifter, a Torque, and a Butterfly.
“Hmm,” Jack uttered, deep in thought. “Whoever put this box here, how did whoever it was know? Deb, get a load of this!”
Deb and her Mom were beaming. Debbie’s dream was to compete in something, anything, as long as she didn’t have to compete as a cripple. Jack had designed an “elevator” for Debbie’s wheelchair which would support her by the ribcage and thighs so she could be standing to do tricks and not knock a yo-yo into the chair. The Hesse and Chisolm parents had discussed Debbie’s aspirations and Jack’s solution. Jen and Dick had been impressed. They looked at each other now. Jack had spent $8,000 on the elevator and stood to make millions if it took off, but he thought spending $150 on three yo-yos for a 7-year-old was poor parenting. Debbie was fingering the gleaming Drifter and obviously looked eager to try it out. She looked down at the box and said, “Hey, there’s something else in there!” Everyone got back into safety positions and Jack used a high-shelf grabber to fish it out. It was a twisted piece of paper. He turned to Sabina and asked her, “What do they call this thing? A Mo strip?”
“Give me that, Jack. It’s a Mobius Strip.” She started reading from the infinite paper ring. “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart.” She went on. “what is good; And what is required of you? But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly.” Everyone except Mike was looking at everyone else. Jack got Debbie’s chair down and the Chisolm’s walked the Hesse’s back to their home, where Pat rushed to the unidentified, gift-wrapped box until her Dad held her back. The grownups decided to use the same precautions as before, which fortunately hadn’t been necessary. Pat was over the moon. The box held a pastel set, ultrathin sketch paper, and an honest-to-goodness lightbox “camera”. Jenny had looked everywhere for the antique device—today’s LED boxes were only good for tracing; Pat needed help with perspective for her desired art career. There was a second gift inside: a “My Ding-a-Ling.” Dick and Jen had both loved that song as kids and were both sad when each of their respective sets of parents told them it wasn’t a real toy. Jen handed it to Mike, who began to make it whir, whoosh, buzz, and, of course ding.
Debbie rolled over to the box and looked down. “There’s that same funny paper in this box, too.” She reached her hand in and snagged it. “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up,” she read. “I Like it. Here’s the other one. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. So what’s the deal?”
Jack answered his daughter’s question. “Kindness?”
It was Billy Mack, the Trumbull County, Ohio, sheriff who got the ball rolling by calling neighboring counties first, then more distant ones. It was clear that there was a wave of presents being left, modulating north and south and propagating east to west, following the 11:00 PM line. Sheriff Mack skyped to England, Germany, Holland, Denmark, and France. They were all part of the wave, as were, as Billy found, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Benin, Liberia and Ivory Coast. Greece, Russia, Spain, Portugal, and Latin America were not. There were no data points east of Armenia. Billy called his cousin in NORAD who confirmed what they were terming a “Hypersonic Wave Effect Event.” Pax River and Groom Lake were scrambling AWACS planes, the airworthy ones, anyway. The DEW line was powering up and pointing the dishes east instead of west. By the time the wave crossed the Missouri River, some radar tech who hadn’t learned from the last 15 or 20 leaking episodes, fed the blurry imaging of the event to the major network news. ABC, CBS, and NBC, which had been doing their usual schtick showing a sled on a radar screen, now had what was, beyond doubt, a man and a boy on a sled being pulled by quadrupeds of some kind. At 16,000 feet.
The wave collapsed when it hit the Pacific Ocean, but by then the next problem came up. Tens of thousands of people in New York were walking to East 33rd Street and First Avenue. Bellevue Hospital. Health & Hospitals Commission police were doing everything they can to keep the people from grinding the busy hospital to a halt. Patients, staff, and visitors already inside were heading to the fourth floor and the room of someone whose name most of them, both inside and out, did not know. Marisol Ruy-Diaz, 18 and a graduate of Stuyvesant High School, about to go into labor. No One knew quite why they wanted to be near this girl. When asked by any reporter, the answer was always “I just know I have to be here today.”
It was noon when Marisol gave birth to a healthy baby boy, eight pounds, two ounces, 16 inches long. She named the boy Joshua. The cries of the new baby washed over the crowds; people there that day would remember the crying washing away their own pains, wounds, and hurts.
No one was ever able to establish that the famous footage had been faked, but neither could anyone establish that the events shown in the video really took place. After Marisol had given Joshua his third feeding, what looked like three men in operatic costumes walked from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, over the East River to Bellevue. Staffers swore they saw the three visitors in the room with Joshua. Then they left and walked up to 46th Street, where they made camp next to George killing the Nuclear Dragon, and began their vigil. A very short, fat man in a red suit and a skinny black boy came to visit their colleague George. Nick shook hands with everyone—George could not shake back, obviously, and he wished the three visitors a short wait and a successful culmination. Pete whistled and the reindeer stopped grazing the diplomatic grass. Nick and Pete hitched the team to the sled and with a final Ho, Ho, Ho! They headed back to where they were just two days before. But what a difference two days make.