by Jason McKinney
“I hate this time of year,” said Maxwell. He leaned over his drafting board, feverish with hatred for the new-year. Santa always kicked things into high gear in January to prepare for the Christmas season that lay eleven months away.
“You wouldn’t hate it so much if you put your mind into your work and not into grumpiness, Maxie.” Jenna Tannenbaum had been his assistant for the last 23 years and was his exact opposite. She loved all things Christmas as much as she loved her job.
“There’s more to the world than this.” Maxwell’s nerves were already frayed from her cheery optimism and it was only two days into the year.
“Maxie, you say that every year. One of these days you’ll change your mind.” While he thought Jenna had a beautiful smile, it did nothing to alleviate his mood.
“Fat chance of that happening,” Maxwell muttered, going back to his design for the sleigh’s new stealth system that any human military would gladly kill for.
His department was Research and Development. They were cutting edge in ways that left the defense and toy industries wallowing in the Bronze Age. The new stealth capability was one-quarter Christmas magic with the rest being hardware and software.
Jenna looked over his shoulder as she placed a cup of peppermint hot chocolate on his pencil table. “When are you going to use a computer to do your designs?”
“Tell you what. When pigs pull the sled, I’ll use a PC.”
“Kirk is using a computer for all his designs. His enamel paint facilitator is expected to go online in March.” Jenna spoke in a dreamy way that edged Maxwell further into gloomy anger.
“It’s a glorified spray paint machine. Geez! What’s the big deal?”
“It’s going to save time when finishing the toys. Come on, Maxie. It uses laser technology, for crying out loud.”
“Well, when you put it that way, you’re right. That’s way more important than making sure some soldier on midnight watch doesn’t launch a tactical something or other up the old man’s ho-ho-ho. Well done that.”
“You’re a jerk.” Jenna turned and stormed out of the workshop.
Maxwell leaned forward, pulled down his right eye’s bottom lid and stuck his tongue out as Jenna slammed the door. He noticed the other fifteen elves staring at him. “Whaddya looking at?”
The others returned to their work and so did Maxwell.
Maxwell Jingle was a fourth generation elf. His father had worked for the fat man as one of the product designers/tinkerers that made sure things went smoothly in the workshop. His grandfather had been a North Pole cobbler, and his great grandfather worked as a deer wrangler. His mother was a seamstress, his grandmother was an assistant on gift distribution and great grandmother was a fact checker in the List Department. To say that being an elf was in his blood was an understatement.
Unlike in the movies though, jobs weren’t passed down from parent to child at Santa’s shop. No, an elf was placed where their aptitude lie. Maxwell or Maxie as the fat man called him was one of the rare few that had inherited his position from his father. Like dear old dad, he was good at thinking up mechanical things, but he hated it.
By the end of that day he hated it even more. The old man had called him in and lectured him on the Christmas spirit. Maxwell despised being lectured and loathed Santa even more for it. How he longed to go south and live a normal life. Cities likeLondon,New York, andMoscowfascinated him. Even a Podunk town likeMarybeth,Louisianaseemed a far cry better than the North Pole.
“Christmas spirit? Who’s he kidding? At least he gets off the reservation once a year.” Maxwell took a drag off his cigarette and bundled himself tighter against the cold wind that blew across the hard packed snow. He exhaled, wishing it had been something other than the Mistletoes he’d bought off the North Pole black market. He didn’t know why he was surprised the cigarettes tasted like candy canes, considering the name branded on them, even though he knew they had tobacco in them.
Smoking, like alcohol was prohibited, but Maxwell wasn’t one to care. “Self righteous rube,” he cursed, stamping the dropped cigarette into the snow.
Maxwell turned to a hydraulic lift that served as one of the entrances to the work areas below. As he pressed a button hidden in a faux snow bank he heard a dull explosion from overhead. “What in the name of the little drummer brat was that?” He turned, searching the sky, not seeing anything until he looked northeast.
A bright flash of light and a whoosh overhead sent Maxwell tumbling. Something crashed into the snow about a kilometer away, showering him with snow and ice. Maxwell stood up, brushing his face and front in bewilderment. “What is that,” he muttered, taking a few steps toward the column of steam.
He tromped his way forward, finally coming to where the object had crashed. The steam was dissipating, showing something that looked like a chunky contorted Raisinet. “Figures,” he thought aloud. “Even the cool stuff that falls from the sky looks like candy.”
Scurrying down the impact crater was tricky at best. The heat from the space debris’ reentry had melted the snow then turned it to ice. As he climbed down, Maxwell was thankful for his hobnail boots.
The object was about nine feet in diameter. As Maxwell circled around it, he wondered what the odd writing on one of the scorched panels meant. He quickly took out his pencil and pad and sketched the sixteen symbols.
“What are you?” He prodded one of the glyphs with his pencil. The heat from the object warped the eraser. Then a six inch octagon hatch sprang open revealing a red and green display. It appeared to be counting down. “Aw, crap. That can’t be good.”
Maxwell tried to scramble up the icy crater, mentally chastising himself for being so stupid as to provoke an alien craft. “Move you tinkerer piece of reindeer dung,” he cursed aloud as his feet refused to gain purchase on the slick sheets.
The beeping from the object reached a shrill crescendo before a deep, distorted alien voice laughed maniacally. It sounded like a malignant Santa and it did little to ease Maxwell’s mind.
He looked over his shoulder as he thrust a foot and a small fist through the ice to gain traction. A greenish red gas burst from the satellite, shrouding him. His mind and stomach flip flopped as the smell of rotten nutmeg filled his nose and then his lungs.
Maxwell fell back into the crater. His vision blurred and his dinner screamed to exit the way it had entered. Slowly he lost consciousness. His mind filled with fevered dreams about Jenna doing things no elf could ever possibly do. It made him wonder if she was a freaky little elf in real life as well. It would have been a good dream if in the fantasy Jenna hadn’t also been hitting him in the head with a tack hammer.
When he awoke he felt even worse. His feet were wobbly and his head throbbed with an unnatural headache. He leaned against the satellite and for a moment couldn’t remember what had happened. He jumped away from the vile machine once his memory returned.
“I’ve had enough of you.” He kicked the dead object in anger. While normally grumpy, he was, at that moment, unusually enraged. He kicked the object again, harder this time, causing the octagon hatch to fall off. He leaned toward the darkened display, confident that the mystery satellite was dead for good. “Serves you right,” he whimpered, though he wasn’t sure if he was talking to the hunk of metal or himself.
Maxwell took the time to visit Gregory Gilder, the Cultural Interpretation and Translation expert for Santa’s operation. Not only was Gregory the language guru, he was the North Pole’s head black marketeer of minty cigarettes and gingerbread whiskey. If anyone could figure out what the symbols meant, it was Gregory.
“Hey there, Greggie boy,” called Maxwell, walking into the translator’s office.
“Where you been, Max? What can I do you for?” asked Gregory, turning from his desk to face Maxwell. “Sweet Christmas pie,” he exclaimed. “Mother fudge lover! What happened to you?”
Maxwell gave Gregory a strange look. “Nothing, I just got back from a smoke break. Hey, can you decipher these symbols?” He held the notepad out to him. Gregory delicately took it from him with the expression of a person wishing he had rubber gloves that went up to his shoulders.
Gregory carefully studied the symbols then cast Maxwell a doubtful glance. “Where’d you get these?”
“Umm. Saw ‘em on a human TV show about crop circles or some such. Just wanted to know if you’d ever seen anything like them before?”
“I’m not really sure, but it looks familiar. Have you seen a doctor recently?’
“What? No, I haven’t seen a doctor. What’s with you?”
Gregory held his hands up, palms out before him, and the sight of his appendages made Maxwell hungry for chicken fingers. “Nothing, brother,” Gregory answered with a hint of fear in his voice. “Just thinking maybe you should. I don’t know, forget I asked. Still, where’ve you… Um, Max? Are you drooling?”
“Hm? What? No, I’m not!” But Maxwell was. He tried to covertly wipe his mouth, but he knew Gregory had seen it already. Maxwell was embarrassed more than anything else. He was also beginning to feel a little hungry and sick again. “Hey, I gotta go. Work on that when you get time.”
Maxwell left the office and made his way to his work station. He passed a few elves that he didn’t know, but they obviously knew him. Most flattened themselves against the wall as he walked by while others stopped, looked at him then fled whispering.
“Waste of elfin magic if you ask me.” He didn’t care if they heard his discontented observation. Their attitudes earned his disdain.
By the time he got back to the R&D Department he was feeling much better. AS he walked to his desk his co-workers stared at him in astounded horror. Normally he would’ve snapped, “What are you looking at”, but he was feeling better than he ever had.
“Good morning, everyone,” he said, sitting down at his drawing board.
Jenna and Kirk cautiously approached him. They both looked frightened as they slowly inched toward him.
Maxwell watched them out of the corner of his eye. They were almost shoulder to shoulder as they got closer, but were soon taking turns trying to push one in front of the other.
“Hey, Maxie,” said Kirk, trying to sound brave. “Where…” Kirk coughed nervously, then continued. “Um, where’ve you been, buddy?”
“Out for a smoke if it’s any of your business.”
“For four days?” Jenna shifted from foot to foot. Her nervousness was showing and that agitated Maxwell greatly. “You’ve been missing for four days, Maxwell. Everyone was searching for you.”
“Four days? No way. I was outside for an hour at most.” He rolled a pencil under his right palm. His irritation was growing and the need to kill something engulfed his heart and mind.
“Buddy, you really need to be kicking that-”
“Aw, what the hay,” said Maxwell, leaning forward. “It’s clichéd but who cares.” He slammed the pencil through Kirk’s left eye. Jenna screamed as Kirk’s body writhed then collapsed to the ground. The pencil, still stuck in Kirk’s eye, broke in Maxwell’s hand.
The screaming flowed through the office like a wave as the rest of the elves began to panic and for the first time Maxwell noticed how shrill Jenna’s voice could be. He went to swing at her but the movement felt clumsy and sent Maxwell to the floor. “Son of a fruitcake eater,” he hissed as he collapsed next to Kirk.
He looked at the cooling body of his nemesis. “You’ve had better days, ain’t ya, lad?” Maxwell mused, using Kirk’s annoying Irish lilt, patting his forehead. His hand brushed against the broken pencil.
Maxwell couldn’t help himself. He tugged on the pencil, at first wanting only to remove it from the destroyed socket. But something compelled him to remove the eye as well.
The thought repulsed him at first then made him hungry that is until the eye popped out. The sound and sight of it made him cringe. He dropped it to the ground all the while still hungering for it.
“What in the name of sugar plums is wrong with me?” He forced himself to stand though it took greater effort than it should have.
“Hit him in the head!” yelled someone from behind him. Maxwell turned in time to see a snow shovel closing with alarming speed toward his cranium.
The blow made him double over, but didn’t knock him down. He was getting angry and the angrier he got, the hungrier he became. He straightened up; stunned by the fact that he didn’t feel any pain from the attack.
Three elves stood watching him. The one with the snow shovel stood in front of an elf armed with a plastic candy cane and another wielding a stirring paddle from the chocolate factory two doors down. The lead elf looked scared but not as much as the other two. They’d wet themselves and Maxwell loved the terrified looks on their faces.
Maxwell spoke, though not in a way the three would’ve liked. “Maxwell is the hungriest there is!” The sad truth was that Maxwell was hungry. He was famished as a matter of fact. He lunged at the snow shovel wielding elf. The other two, seeing Maxwell’s charge, lost their stomach for the fight. They took discretion as the better part of valor and ran away. Maxwell didn’t care about those two though. He figured he’d catch up with them sooner rather than later.
With a new found resolve, Maxwell forced his attacker to the floor, consuming his throat. He’d eaten his way to the spine before he realized what he was doing. He stopped and looked at the dead elf’s face. Maxwell tenderly brushed the blood off the name plate on the elf’s vest. “Bernie,” he murmured. “You look like a Bernie.” Maxwell didn’t blink as he dove back into the neck, eating his way down to Bernie’s sternum. Maxwell was indeed the hungriest there was.
As Maxwell rose from his meal a strange thought occurred to him. We don’t taste like milk or dark chocolate, peppermint or even like mint chocolate chip ice cream. By Odin’s Undead Beard we taste like meat! And we taste so darn delicious. I wonder why that is?
He left the design room, meandering down the hall, whistling It’s Beginning to look a lot like Christmas. His version though went something along the lines of “It’s beginning to look a lot like an apocalypse. Soon the blood will flow. And the prettiest sight to see is the entrails that will be on your own front door.” Maxwell was in very rare form.
He passed a mirror that hung at an intersection and he stopped to admire himself. He didn’t see much to admire, however. His skin was pallid; his eyes were beginning to look sunken and his chin and chest were coated in elf bits. He smiled wide but grimaced at the chunks that clung to the spaces between his teeth. “Oral hygiene is essential to a healthy smile. Eh, I’ll deal with that later. Time to see a fat man about a naughty and nice list.”
Maxwell followed the corridor that led to the Grand Hall, but was soon blocked by sealed silver, gold, scarlet and emerald doors. He was not pleased in the slightest.
He leaned against one of the doors, listening to the frightened voices that resided behind them. He could hear Santa’s shaky but deep voice telling those gathered with in that things were under control. They were scared and that made Maxwell giddy. For him Christmas had come earlier than usual.
Maxwell was about to pound on the door but was stopped by an odd sound behind him. He turned and called “Hello” to what should’ve been and empty hallway. He didn’t know why, but he was afraid. He called out again and was unpleasantly greeted by the sight of Bernie, the elf he’d eaten in the design room.
“Fudge kicker,” he spat. “Whatever happened to me must be infectious.”
“You watch your language, young man,” answered a raspy female voice from further down the curved passage. A few seconds later Mrs. Claus came into view. Her face was mangled, but Maxwell thought it improved her appearance. “I’ll not tolerate-”
“Awww, blow it out your chimney, ya old bat,” sneered Maxwell.
“Should have known you were the cause of this, Maxwell Jingle. You’ve always been a bad elf.” Mrs. Claus’ words were not helping to ease Maxwell’s renewing anger.
“Looks like someone had a little bit of the old lady,” responded Maxwell with a snarl. “And I do mean old. You’re past your shelf life, sweetie.”
“Now you see here-”
What was left of Bernie clicked its teeth together loudly. Maxwell took that as agreement though he didn’t know with whom Bernie was agreeing.
“Shut up,” grunted Maxwell. “And you, too, Mrs. Chunky Bar. From the looks of you, you’ve been at the ole meat trough, too. Who’d you nibble on? It wasn’t the old man. I just heard him in there.” Maxwell hiked his thumb toward the barricaded doors.
“It was that sweet Jenna girl.” Mrs. Claus smacked then licked her lips at the memory. It was clear that she loved the awful pun.
“You…ate…Jenna? You…ate Jenna? You ate Jenna?” Maxwell snatched the snow shovel from Bernie and proceeded to beat Mrs. Claus to her real everlasting death. “You ate my Jenna! You evil, evil woman!”
The hypocrisy was not lost on Maxwell. Here he was, an apparent zombie, beating another apparent zombie to death over eating a non-zombie. He looked at Bernie. “Did you bite her?” He pointed to Mrs. Clause. The zombified elf looked at Maxwell dumbly. “Did you bite Mrs. Claus, yes or no?”
Finally, he nodded yes. Maxwell proceeded to beat Bernie’s head in as well. He found the act just as satisfying as when he’d first feasted at Chez Bernie.
He was finishing up with destroying the bodies even further when screams erupted from the main hall. “Now what,” he said in a surly voice. Maxwell could hear things being moved from in front of the door in a hurry. Then the doors themselves were flung open.
Elves poured into the hallway but most came to a halt at the sight of Maxwell. They didn’t have a clue where to flee after seeing him. The nearest junction in the corridor was behind Maxwell and the only other path open was back into the Grand Hall.
“Well, whaddya running from?” Maxwell stared at them waiting for a response. No one spoke they were too scared to move for fear of provoking the undead elf. He moved toward the frightened crowd causing them to retreat back into the Hall. Elves trampled each other in the mad rush to escape from Maxwell and his grumpy hunger.
The Grand Hall, once vibrant and beautiful had turned into a house of undead delights. Around the room flew what Maxwell knew to be Donner, Prancer, and Comet except they were…like him. The three reindeer were flying low to the ground and corralling elves as they themselves had once been. The most bizarre sight to behold was Jenna riding atop Prancer, acting like a rabid cowgirl. “If grandpappy could see this,” chuckled Maxwell.
Meanwhile, Blitzen, Cupid, and Vixen were on the ground level in the middle of the room, feeding on a group of elves that had been trapped in the rush to get back into the Hall. Dasher and Dancer were on the second floor, butting the giant mahogany doors to Santa’s office with their antlers.
Maxwell was shocked, but not in a bad way. “Wow,” he said in his best Christopher Walken voice. Just then Rudolph floated down to face him. Rudy’s nose was no longer the only thing red on his face and gone were his soft lips and silky facial fur. What took their place were chipped teeth and meat stained mats. “They feeding you, okay, Rudy?”
The zombified reindeer bellowed his approval as he loped toward an elf trying to pry off a ventilation grate in an attempt to escape.
“This is the best Christmas ever!” sang out an elf that was part of a group munching on one of Santa’s shop foremen.
Maxwell laughed and waved to the elf as he strolled up the spiral ramp leading to Santa’s office. He felt some melancholy as he moved toward the two reindeer still pounding on the door. In his unbeating heart he knew it to be the end of the North Pole as the world knew it but the feeling didn’t last long. Whatever had been in that crashed satellite had changed him and the words “Destruction Gospel” rang through his mind.
“Step aside,” he said, pushing his way past Dancer and Dasher. He cleared his throat as quietly as he could and then pounded on the door. “Oh dear God, let me in! Please! Whoever’s inside let me in! They’re going to eat me!” he increased his banging in hopes that someone would answer him.
The two undead reindeer snickered which made Maxwell have to force a laugh back. He’d never realized that reindeer had a sense of humor before. He shushed them and went back to his mock pleading.
Finally, a voice from within answered him. It was Gregory. “How do I know you’re not one of them?”
“Now’s not the time to ask stupid questions!” To Maxwell’s amazement, Gregory opened the door. Maxwell stifled a giggle as he rushed inside. Now’s not the time to make stupid decisions, either.
“What are we going to do,” asked Santa, cowering behind his teak desk. He clutched a fire place poker in his grubby little hands hoping it would protect him the undead Christmas horde. His eyes went wide as he looked at Maxwell’s face and the greedy grin on it. “You’re one of them.”
“Yep, and you’re the high lord and master of stupid fairy tale beings. Did you tell him to let me in?”
Santa didn’t answer.
“Idiot.” Maxwell didn’t ponder the poetic justice in calling Santa an idiot when he had left his back unguarded against Gregory. Gregory brought the full weight of an aluminum baseball bat down on Maxwell’s back.
Maxwell rolled away more out of sheer luck than any fighting prowess. The bat landed on the hardwood floor where his head had been, leaving Gregory to deal with the forceful feedback of the blow.
“That could’ve killed me,” howled Maxwell indignantly. He tackled Gregory before he could recover. Santa watched in horror as Maxwell plucked the bat from Gregory’s hands, threw it aside and then pinned Gregory to the floor.
“Don’t eat me! Don’t eat me! I have the translation of the glyphs you gave me.” It was a stalling tactic and Maxwell knew it. Regardless, he couldn’t help but be curious about what the etchings meant.
“You’ll eat me if I do.”
“I won’t eat you if you tell me.” Maxwell couldn’t believe that he was being childish enough to argue with his food.
“Promise?” Gregory looked up at Maxwell with a worried expression.
“Yeah, yeah, I promise.”
“Happy Ke’daki, you long nosed Tarei’hasan pauk-de.”
The words puzzled Maxwell. He was about to relax his grip on Gregory, but decided against it. “Stay where you are, fatty,” he growled at Santa. Santa had been edging away from the desk in an attempt to hit Maxwell from behind, but Maxwell smelled the approaching scent of live meat. “What’s that supposed to mean? How do you even pronounce that mess?”
“Wherever you got the glyphs from was alien. It’s an insulting Christmas card.”
“Ke’daki loosely translates out to Christmas or Spiritual War God Festival and Tari’hasan means foul, weak opponent or enemy. And I can’t even say what pauk-de means. I think it’s the ‘F’ word.”
“That’s it? Merry Christmas, you long nosed, weak enemy blankety-blank? Is this a joke?”
“I swear to Jack Frost it isn’t.” Gregory’s trembling subsided but only for a moment. It resumed once he saw the smiling snarl stretch across Maxwell’s lips. “Where ever this text came from was extra terrestrial in origin! Swear!”
Maxwell lunged for Gregory’s nose. “You promised you wouldn’t eat me,” he whimpered.
Maxwell paused. “You’re right. I didn’t promise not to bite you, though.” He sank his teeth into Gregory’s neck, enjoying the warm gush that followed the bite. He stopped himself from enjoying more than that. He was, after all, an elf of his word.
He moved away from Gregory as the elf thrashed and his screams mingled with the sounds of the dying outside. Maxwell turned to Santa, who hadn’t moved an inch from where Maxwell had told him to stop. “Don’t worry, nothing’s going to happen to you, big guy, but you are going to help spread the Destruction Gospel.”
“Destruction Gospel?” Santa could keep from stammering. He could already tell he was better off being eaten than being left alive.
Gregory stopped thrashing and joined Maxwell where he stood. “Happy New Year, Santa. We’re going to be doing more than rocking around the Christmas tree this year.”
Eleven months later the undead reindeer were being hitched to the sleigh to make the yearly flight. Santa sat nervously inside, dreading what was about to happen. He looked at Vixen, who had once been the gentlest of the team. Decomposition hadn’t been kind to her or her fellows. Flesh was missing from areas of her body but was prominent in her teeth. Maxwell had spent the year snatching children from the Naughty List as a way to keep what he called the Necrotic Pole Crew fed and content.
“Everything loaded up?” Maxwell asked Gregory.
“Yeah, buddy, it is. We’re spreading the news to all the good little boys and girls in the world tonight. By this time tomorrow, everyone will know the true meaning of silent night.”
“You’re not funny, dude. Bad pun.”
“Eh, kill me or replace me, Maxie.”
Maxwell still hated the nickname but he tolerated it from Gregory. There was a demented streak in him that Maxwell had come to love. “See you in 24 hours if somebody’s air force doesn’t shoot us down first that is.”
The ground crew cleared the sled for take off and soon they were well outside the North Pole. Maxwell smiled at Santa. “After tonight I’m willing to bet that soda company will wish they’d never picked you as their holiday mascot.”
Santa groaned. The sleigh was packed with the normal toys but also a bottle of infected soft drink bearing a familiar red and white logo for every good boy and girl in the world.
As the sleigh cut across the night sky headed toward North America, Maxwell whistled Santa Claus is Coming to Town. If he listened closely he could hear the reindeer grunting in tune with him.