The Magic of Christmas
A Short Story by Rebecca Besser
“Hammond, where is everyone? Only half the elves are here today.”
“They’re sick, Santa,” Hammond said with a heavy sigh, as he too looked out over the workshop floor. “Ever since Royce came back from cutting down Christmas trees with a strange bite, more and more elves are getting ill.”
Santa crossed his arms and frowned. “Will we still meet our quota for toys? I can’t have children going without presents.”
“If we work longer shifts we should be able to make it,” Hammond said, looking at a spreadsheet on his clipboard. “It’s going to be close. If anyone else gets sick we might fail.”
“Failure is not an option,” Santa said sternly. “Do what needs done—after Christmas everyone can rest.”
Hammond watched as Santa walked away. He hadn’t mentioned that the illness was the strangest he had ever seen. Santa didn’t need the extra stress right now, as he was still going over the Naughty & Nice List.
Turning toward the workshop, Hammond got on the intercom and announced the shifts that would be needed to ensure Christmas came on time.
“Hold him down!” Dr. Jim screamed. “If he bites anyone, they’ll get sick, too. We already have too many of these biters!”
“I’m trying, sir,” Milly said just before the patient broke loose and took a chunk out of her arm with his teeth. She screamed as blood shot everywhere, her eyes huge with pain and shock.
Dr. Jim growled and grabbed the patient’s arm, slamming it down on the table and securing it with tinsel rope. “Milly, go get that bandaged and then admit yourself to the Holly Wing. You’re now infected with the disease.”
Milly took a deep, shaky breath with tears in her eyes. She had seen what happened to the infected and didn’t want it to happen to her. Her eyes pleaded with Dr. Jim, begging him to let her stay, to say she wasn’t infected.
He took a deep breath and softened his tone. “Maybe we’ll figure something out. Maybe we’ll be able to stop it. But you know as well as I do that you’ll try to infect someone else once it takes hold. We have to be careful. Go and get looked after. I’ll come check on you when I get done here.”
Milly nodded, her tears sliding down her round, cheery cheeks that were already starting to pale. She scurried out through the brightly painted red and white striped doors.
As they swung shut, Dr. Jim bowed his head and said a quick prayer, asking God to save them all. He knew this was a hopeless cause. There was no stopping the infection. He pulled up his sleeve and looked at the pussy teeth marks that were turning his arm purple. Soon he would be one of the flesh eaters, one of the walking dead.
The room started to spin and Dr. Jim clung to the table that held the elf who had already turned. The gnashing of the patient’s teeth and the incessant moans began to fade as Dr. Jim fell to the floor.
Two days later, Santa sat in his office, staring out the window. He watched white, fluffy snowflakes float down from the grey, overcast sky without really seeing them. He had finished the Naughty & Nice List yesterday. Today, he had read the medical report from the hospital. Ninety-eight percent of the elves were sick or dead. He feared after delivering presents tonight he would come back to nothing. This might be the last Christmas ever, but at least there would be gifts this year.
Hammond knocked on the door before entering. “Santa, we’ll be ready on time. There were enough of us left to load the sleigh. We’re exhausted, but there will be Christmas for the children.”
Santa sighed. “Yes, for the children.”
Hammond caught the melancholy in Santa’s tone. “We’ll figure something out, sir. Maybe things will be better by the time you return.”
Santa shook his head and rubbed his forehead. The pictures he had just examined flashed through his mind. Pictures from inside the hospital, were the walls had been drenched with blood. The red liquid had been everywhere, dripping off the ceiling and candy cane railing, puddled on the floor. It looked like a sadistic butcher shop. The worst thing was no one was there. Bones and severed limbs had littered the halls and rooms, but no living or moving thing was left. Everyone was missing. The only indication that the missing elves had been able to walk away was the trail of bloody footprints in the snow, leading into the woods.
“The sleigh will be ready in an hour,” Hammond said and left, closing the door behind him.
The reindeer munched contentedly on the hay that was laid out in front of them while they waited for Santa. The sleigh sat behind them, loaded down with merrily wrapped packages. The joyful colors of red and green added a festive and exciting accent to the otherwise drab, brown shed.
Prancer was just bending down for another mouthful of hay when he saw a movement to his left. He froze as he sniffed the air. It smelled like an elf, but it didn’t. Looking at the strange creature, Prancer let out a warning bleat.
The other reindeer looked up at Prancer’s warning of danger, stepping back and forth, they tried to break free of their harnesses.
The creature ignored the animals and instead headed for the sleigh. The little, pale elf sniffed at the velvet interior and liked the scent. She climbed in and burrowed underneath the packages.
Prancer snorted and looked at his teammates. He cocked his head as if to ask, “What was that thing?”
The others snorted and tossed their heads.
Santa’s solemn face stared back at him as he pulled his shiny, black leather belt tight over his paunch, securing his red velvet coat.
“This is it, old boy,” Santa said to his reflection. “Time to deliver all the Christmas cheer.”
He was still staring at his reflection, as if he could find all the answers in his mirrored self, when Hammond came in.
“It’s time, sir,” he reported to Santa. “The sleigh is loaded, the reindeer are ready, and it’s time for Christmas Magic!”
Santa inwardly winced at the false cheer in Hammond’s voice.
“Christmas Magic, indeed,” Santa mumbled, turning and putting on his hat. “Let’s get this over with.”
Hammond was close to tears as he watched Santa walk out of the room. He may be a three-hundred-year-old elf, and had cried maybe two times in his adult elf years, but this was the saddest thing he had ever seen. Santa was depressed about Christmas and nothing could be done to pull him out of it.
Moving to the window, Hammond watched Santa board the sleigh that had been pulled outside. The snowflakes danced, the reindeer pranced, and thirty elves who weren’t sick tried to cheer. They fell flat and looked dead on their feet.
Santa cracked his magic whip, the silver and gold strands glinting in the gas street lights, and with a half-hearted “Ho! Ho! Ho!” they were off.
Hammond watched them take off. It was perfect as always. At least some things stay the same, he thought with a sad smile, watching Santa until he couldn’t be seen any longer. When he looked back at the village, his eyes fell on the condemned hospital. He shuddered. Despite the new snowfall, the blood on the ground in front of the main doors was still visible, now showing pink instead of bright red.
Turning from the window, he set about straightening the few items Santa had used while getting dressed. He was placing the last item, a silver comb, on the dressing table when he heard the first scream.
Rushing back to the window, he looked down on the quaint village that was nestled in the arctic glaciers of the North Pole. What he saw made him gasp in shock as fear gripped his heart with its icy fingers.
They had returned.
Santa went through his duties, and that’s what they felt like to him that night, duties. Normally it was a pleasure for him to give gifts. This year he didn’t care. He knew unless a miracle happened Christmas would cease to exist. What he couldn’t understand was, why wasn’t Christmas Magic helping now? Why hadn’t it stopped the outbreak? Was he failing in some way?
With a heavy heart, he left beautiful dolls for good little girls and skateboards for good little boys. Thinking of the delight in their eyes when they ran down the stairs in the morning to find their special gifts, made just for them, brought a faint smile to his lips and a rose tinge to his waxy cheeks. He decided right there, right then, this was going to be the best, most beautiful Christmas ever, even if it killed him.
With renewed vigor, he stood tall and marched to the chimney with determination. Yes, Christmas was going to be wonderful, illness and death would come, but not until after he had made sure Christmas would shine in the memory of every person, in every house, that he touched that night.
Hammond stood frozen, not quite believing his eyes. Elf-zombie after elf-zombie came pouring into town, moaning and waving their arms. It was like some circuit in their festering brains remembered they were supposed to be there for something. In fact, they were supposed to see Santa off, but they were too late, and it was now too late for the elves that had arrived on time.
The hungry horde fell on the tired, weak, healthy elves like they had never eaten before and needed sustenance so badly that they couldn’t help themselves. Flesh was bitten and torn off with cruel hands, claws, and teeth. Pale faces and foggy eyes contrasted with bright red blood as it shot through the air, spraying everyone. Some of the elf-zombies were cackling and catching blood drops on their tongues, just like small children do with snowflakes.
He shuddered. The gore was unimaginable. He had never seen such violence. That was something reserved for humans, not elves. They were supposed to be happy, peaceful beings. This wasn’t their way.
A gleeful moan sounded behind him. Hammond whirled around to see five of the elf-zombies standing in the doorway with sadistic grins on their rotting faces. Blood still speckled their cheeks from the feeding frenzy in the courtyard.
“No,” he said, raising his arm to protect himself as they advanced toward him. “No!”
As his back hit the wall, his hand came in contact with a silver-reindeer-topped cane. Lifting it high over his head, he let out a wild war cry and slammed it into the head of the lead zombie. It whimpered and fell to the floor to bleed out.
Hammond was shocked with himself, and with the fall of the elf-zombie. Renewed hope warmed his heart. He would go down fighting. These creatures weren’t taking Christmas away that easily. They would pay with their lives.
“You can’t have Christmas!” he yelled and battled the four remaining foes.
They weren’t fast and they weren’t smart, so it didn’t take him long to dispose of them. With a crocked grin and a cocky swagger, he left the dressing room, dispatching every zombie that was unlucky enough to cross his path. A few other healthy elves saw what he was doing. Taking up arms, they followed, and they fought.
Santa was on the last leg of his journey. He had one country left to deliver toys to. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the children would awaken and the true Magic of Christmas, joy and love, would be spreading all over the world. That was his gift to the masses. It was the only thing that gave him the strength to go on.
He returned to the sleigh after delivering a train set and a teddy bear, after yet more milk and cookies, when something in the back caught his attention. A couple of the packages shifted and he thought he saw claws. Frowning, he didn’t think there were any puppies being given out this year, due to the outbreak they weren’t taking any chances by delivering anything live that could possibly carry the disease.
Leaning down into the backseat of the sleigh, he moved a couple of boxes aside, not finding anything. He was about to turn away when a female elf-zombie shot out and grabbed ahold of his arm. She hissed threateningly and climbed up onto his shoulders in the blink of an eye.
Santa swung up at the little beast, trying to knock her off. After a full minute of swinging and spinning, he got a handful of braid and yanked as hard as he could. He was horrified when he looked down to see that all he held was hair and scalp. It dripped with slimy, dark red blood and veins. Frozen for a moment in shock, he was brought back to reality as the zombie bit into his neck.
Screaming with pain and cursing the little demon, he threw himself backwards onto the roof of the house. He was big enough, and heavy enough, that the action dislodged the zombie. She went rolling and tumbled off the roof, her head hit a fence post, impaling and killing her.
For the first time, Santa noticed the reindeer were agitated. He had been so preoccupied with what was going on at the North Pole, and his personal hang-ups, that he had ignored the warning signs they had been trying to give him all night.
Clutching his neck, he got up on his knees and then stood. Walking over to the reindeer, he patted them gently to calm them down.
“It’s all right now,” he said in a soothing voice. “The little biter is gone. We’ll finish up and head home—everything is going to be okay.”
Despite his words, he wasn’t sure. Even now, just a few minutes after being bitten, he was already starting to feel weak from the loss of blood, and from a fever. As he climbed back into the sleigh, he grabbed the reins and they were off again, for how long, he didn’t know.
Hammond and his army of three follower elves fought their way outside. They stood in the double doorway of the workshop and surveyed the carnage in front of them. Altogether they had killed a total of thirty-five zombies. They were tired from working long, hard shifts and they wanted to lie down and sleep, but that wasn’t an option. Fear and anger were fueling their bodies with overwhelming amounts of adrenaline, which seemed to grow stronger with each passing moment.
They looked at each other, smiling and grinning with a mad delight in getting revenge on these Christmas assassins. With a whoop and a holler, they charged into the fray, swinging their weapons in a craze of joy.
It took the feeding zombies awhile to realize what was happening. Hammond and his band took out twenty more zombies before their presence was noticed.
The zombies gathered in a shuffling, moaning, disgusting crowd and shambled toward their attackers, now intent on enjoying some fresh, hot meat.
“Hold rank,” Hammond barked.
The warrior elves stood in a straight line across the street, bloody weapons dripping on the snow-covered ground. Their breaths came out in thick, puffy clouds. Eyes blazing, stances set for the onslaught, they waited for Hammond’s signal.
“Forward,” Hammond yelled. “No mercy!”
Charging forward into the horde, Hammond and his band fought valiantly. Clubs met heads that gave way with moist thumps. Blood sprayed and splashed on the warriors and on their surroundings, but it didn’t slow them at all. The hungry mouths of the zombies were everywhere, gnashing, chomping, and biting. Two of the band fell to their foes; the others fought on.
Before long, all the zombies were down. Hammond looked around for his friends, to no avail. He was the only survivor, or so he thought.
As he stood bent over, breathing heavily, a door to a small cottage across the street creaked open. He spun, raising the reindeer cane high above his head, ready to be charged by yet another enemy. When he saw that it was just a young elf and his mother standing in the doorway, he laughed and lowered his weapon.
More and more families started pouring out of their homes, where they had been hiding. Female elves with their children. He hadn’t thought of all the young elves…that stayed safely at home during everything. They had survived the illness with their seclusion.
Hammond fell to his knees. Their race would go on, the little ones would grow, and Christmas would continue. Laughing hysterically, letting out all of the tension and despair that had been plaguing him, he realized Christmas was truly magical.
Santa wasn’t feeling too good. Every time he stopped to deliver gifts, he vomited. This didn’t worry him at first. All the milk he had drank, and a fever, would cause vomiting, so at first he just ignored it. But as he began to get dizzier and starting throwing up blood, he knew he was done for. He had to get home, and soon.
Weaving, he made his way back to the sleigh.
Santa passed out on the way back to the North Pole. Luckily the reindeer knew their way home. They were still nervous and flew faster than normal. They needed the security and safety they knew they would feel when they got into their stalls.
The smell of blood reached them, even in the air. The reindeer jerked so hard, and rocked the sleigh so violently, it woke Santa. He moaned and took the reins, guiding the reindeer down the best he could.
He passed out again, just as they halted in the bright red snow.
Hammond had seen the sleigh land and had come out to meet it. As he approached, he noticed how pale Santa was. Rushing to him, he shuddered as he saw the festering wound on Santa’s neck and the blood that dotted his coat.
For a moment he just stood there, not knowing what to do. He wasn’t sure if he should waste his time by having Santa dragged inside or if he should just slam something into his head now, before he turned.
The choice was taken away as a young female elf saw Santa. She screeched with joy and tugged at her mother’s skirt, yelling, announcing his return.
Soon the remaining elves were surrounding the sleigh. The adult’s eyes took in the situation and they looked to Hammond with panic and concern.
“Take the reindeer to the barn and see to them,” he instructed a small group of elves. “The rest of us will get Santa inside. Sprinkles, why don’t you take all the little ones to your house while we get him inside?”
Sprinkles nodded and took charge of the small children.
The remaining elves helped him get Santa inside. They removed his belt, boots, hat, and coat and put him in bed.
Hammond stayed with Santa. He could hear the nervous chatter of the other elves in the hall. There was no hope for Santa. He was going to become a zombie, too.
Hammond bowed his head to pray, and jumped when the door to Santa’s room flew open and an elf, no more than five-years-old, came dashing in giggling. Her blonde hair was coming free from her long braids, looking like woven gold in the candle light.
“Santa!” she squealed and hopped up onto the bed.
Hammond jumped up and tried to grab the child, but she was too fast.
Santa’s eyes shot open; they were cloudy. He hissed and sat up, grabbing the girl as she wrapped her arms around his neck. His teeth were merely an inch away from her tender flesh when she spoke.
“Merry Christmas, Santa!”
Zombie Santa froze, and a blinding flash of light flashed between him and the little girl.
Hammond raised his hand to shield his eyes from the glare. Blinking rapidly, he waited for it to fade. It only took moments.
When he could see again, he looked at the girl and Santa. He was normal. He looked cheerful and healthy. The girl was sitting on his lap, rattling off all the presents she had gotten like nothing at all had happened.
Speechless, Hammond turned and left the room. The Magic of Christmas had come through for them after all. Everything would be fine, and there would be more presents next year.
Rebecca Besser is the author of Nurse Blood. She is a member of the International Thriller Writers Organization. She has been published hundreds of times in magazines, ezines, anthologies, educational books, on blogs, and more in the areas of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction for a variety of age groups and genres. Her nonfiction article on skydiving was picked up by McGraw-Hill for NY Assessments. One of her poems for children was chosen for an early reader book from Oxford University Press (India). Her short story, P.C., was included in Anything But Zombies! published by Atria Books (digital imprint of Simon & Schuster).
Rebecca’s main focus has been on horror works for adults. She writes zombie works, suspenseful thrillers, and other dark fiction related to the horror genre/community. She has also edited multiple books in these genres.