'Twas the Night Before Christmas
by John R. Plunkett
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse
The children were laid all snug in their beds
With visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads
My wife in her kerchief and I in my cap
Had just settled in for a long winter's nap.
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter-
My eyes flew open. For several seconds I lay perfectly still but heard nothing. Maybe I'd just dreamed the noise. If so this wouldn't be the first time I'd woken myself up with a sound I'd imagined-
A loud crash set me straight up in bed and banished any notion that it might only be a hallucination. "What the Hell?" I exclaimed, flinging the covers aside and rolling out of bed. It sounded like someone was tearing the roof off. I pulled on my robe and thrust my feet into my slippers; as I left my bedroom the next door down opened a crack.
"Did you hear it too?" Terry asked.
"A great big crash up on the roof?" I responded.
I nodded. "Yeah, I heard it." Sliding my hand along the wall I found the light switch and flicked it on. I squinted in the glare but hurried across the living room to the front door. As I reached for the knob the roof groaned alarmingly as if something heavy were pressing down upon it. Six or so centimeters of fresh snow lay on the neighborhood and flakes continued to fall thickly as I hurried out into the yard, ignoring the sharp chill as bits of snow came over the cuffs of my fluffy slippers and touched my bare ankles.
In less pressing circumstances I'd have stopped to look around. New fallen snow covered the grass, trees, shrubs, parked cars, and everything else; Christmas lights on the house across the street glowed merrily against a backdrop of soft, glittering white. Though the time was somewhere in the wee hours falling snow scattered illumination from streetlights and houses, making the sky appear to glow with warm, rosy light. It was the sort of night I remembered from my childhood; I could stand for hours staring straight up at the sky, imagining that I was flying through space and the flakes falling toward me distant stars.
"Help!" a voice cried from somewhere above. I looked up, shielding my face from the falling snow. I dropped it almost at once, realizing suddenly that the snow had ceased. I glanced quickly around but snow still fell in the street. I saw a clear line of demarcation with snowfall on one side and not on the other; it moved swiftly away from me, as if-
I looked up again. Directly above me the sky still glowed rosily but without falling snow. I searched; my eye picked out a sharp edge with falling snow beyond it but only after staring for several seconds did it snap into perspective. I quivered in a way that had nothing to do with the chill air and involuntarily took a step backward, though intellectually I knew it wouldn't make any difference. Something enormous hung over the house and in fact the whole block; it glowed with almost the exact same color as the sky itself but, like an umbrella, it blocked the falling snow.
"Help!" the voice repeated. Now that I knew what it was my eye picked out the source of the sound at once. A figure- nothing but a tiny, dark silhouette against the vast, glowing bulk of the thing- clinging desperately to what looked like the index finger of a colossal, skeletal hand. A full sized pickup would set as comfortably in that hand as a 32nd scale model in my own; the figure lay over the base of the finger as if over a log, its booted feet kicking frantically as it tried to pull itself up. Something dropped, spinning lazily through the air to land in a puff of snow near my feet. It was a red stocking cap with a white brim and pompom.
"Star!" I bellowed, cupping my hands around my mouth. "Put him down this instant! Shit!" I slapped my thighs in frustration. I'd forgotten that Star couldn't hear and of course I'd left the radio communicator in my bedroom. She spoke sign but I didn't.
Someone peeked through the living room curtains. Since the eyes gleamed momentarily I guessed it had to be Snowflake. To hir right I saw a lean, rectangular face that must be Kit's; to hir left a rounder, fleshier one that must be Terry. I gestured frantically for them to come.
Star descended rapidly, cautiously extending her hand. I swallowed nervously; when something the size of a jumbo jet comes at you like that you feel the air displacing in front of it. Now that I knew what I looked at, and my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw the sharp sweep of her wing and the channels in her belly into which her limbs fit when retracted.
Snowflake bounded out into the yard, spinning about and looking up. "Oh, my God!" shi exclaimed, clutching hir hands to hir face then gesticulating frantically.
Star cocked her hand so it wouldn't hit the roof. A meter or so above the ground the figure lost its grip and landed on its back in the snow. Snowflake and I rushed to it and so did Kit, watching from the entryway. Terry set his bare foot on the icy walk and leapt back inside with a yelp.
"Are you all right?" asked, skidding to a stop and almost falling on my ass when my slippers slipped treacherously on the snow-covered grass.
"Uhh..." the figure stirred. It was a man, and a pretty hefty one, too. He blinked several times and pushed himself to a sitting position. Long, curly white hair adorned his crown and his chin; against the winter cold he wore a red jacket with white trim and a wide, black belt, mittens, heavy trousers, and shiny black boots. A bit of a flush colored his round cheeks and prominent, slightly bulbous nose. Extraordinarily blue eyes looked out at us from beneath bushy, white brows. "You wouldn't happen to have some hot chocolate, would you?" he inquired in a deep, vibrant voice.
"I-" The import of the situation struck me just as the word left my mouth. I stared, mouth agape. "You're Santa Claus," I said. I sounded remarkably calm.
"You expected maybe Jack Nicholson?" the visitor inquired, arching his eyebrows. "Help me up, won't you please?"
Kit and Snowflake beat me to the punch, seizing his arms and hauling him erect. "We're really sorry about this, Mr. Claus," Snowflake began, hopping nervously and stroking his forearm. "Star is- well-"
Santa smiled. His eyes really did twinkle. "She's a child," he said as if that explained everything. The way he said it, in some odd way it did.
"Star, go back to the airport!" Snowflake exclaimed, gesturing emphatically. Shi had to repeat hirself three times; finally Star retracted her manipulator and drifted away. I watched her go; it still creeped me out that something so Gawdawful big could move so swiftly and yet silently.
"Terry, warm up some of that hot chocolate in the 'fridge," Kit called.
"Uh, right, right away." Terry turned and scurried out of sight.
"Are you hurt?" I had the presence of mind to ask.
"Only my dignity," Santa replied as Kit and Snowflake walked him to the front door. "I confess I let my curiosity get the better of me. As soon as I saw her entry on my list, well-" He opened his jacket and pulled out a sheet of what appeared to be stiff, slightly yellowed parchment. I caught a glimpse of neat, hand-written script but as I leaned closer for a better look he clutched it to his chest. "Now, now, no peeking," he admonished. "That's naughty." He smiled to take the sting from his words but my face flushed anyway. I felt like I was about five years old.
"I swung by the airport to have a look at her," Santa continued as we all went inside. "I was so amazed I barely glanced at my Morpheus Meter." He pulled from his pocket an object that resembled a large gold pocket watch. Instead of a face and hands it had a single black needle with a heart-shaped head on a graduated scale. I couldn't make out the annotations but the needle hovered near the top end of the scale.
"So that's how you always know when we're really asleep," I commented.
"Quite so," Santa agreed, slipping the meter back into his pocket. "There's always some kid somewhere hoping to catch sight of me. Anyway, Star wasn't so asleep as I thought. I made a low, slow pass and she woke up. Scared the bejeezus out of the reindeer, she did."
"Here's the coca," Terry announced as he trooped into the kitchen. He had the pot in one hand and a couple mugs in the other. He glanced at us as he set the mugs on the table then did a double-take. "Say, you look like-" he began.
I grinned. I couldn't help it. I saw the words perched on the tip of his tongue, waiting to burst out. He blinked, pushed up his glasses, and brushed distractedly at his hair. "Oh, go ahead and say it already," I exclaimed.
"Thank you for being so understanding, Mr. Claus," Snowflake said, pouring a mug if coca and offering it. "Star- I mean- she's usually so well behaved-"
"You don't have to apologize for your child acting like a child," Santa insisted, pulling off his mittens and warming his hands on the mug before taking a sip. "Especially not to me. Say, this isn't half bad."
"It's real hot chocolate, not instant," I replied. "A bit of coca, some milk, a dash of sugar, and drop of nutmeg...."
"Thank you." Santa sipped, then quaffed the mug. "Anyway, when Star jumped up at us she startled the team something terrible. They bolted, and as I struggled to sort everything out, well, I sort of fell." He shrugged. "Luckily for me Star not only had the presence of mind to catch me but the skill to do so without causing me undue harm."
"She is clever," Kit put in, positively beaming.
"But will the team be okay?" Snowflake asked.
"That's a bit of a problem, I'm afraid." Santa set his mug on the table, resting his fingertips on the rim. "Without me it'll take them a while to calm down. Catching up to them on foot won't be easy and I do have a schedule to keep." He rolled back his left sleeve, revealing a fancy watch that I swear was a Rolex.
"If there's anything we can do-" Snowflake began.
"As a matter of fact there is," Santa replied. The corners of his mouth twitched up and his eyes gleamed mischievously. "Your little girl may have inadvertently precipitated this unfortunate state of affairs... and she can help us set it right. I can't think of any aircraft in this time and place that could possibly catch a team of panicky flying reindeer."
"You mean-" Snowflake began
"-That you want Star to chase down your sleigh?" Terry finished.
"Exactly." Santa poured himself another mug of coca.
"After what happened we'd be glad to do anything we could to set it right," Snowflake insisted.
"Yeah," Kit chimed in.
"Excellent!" Santa raised his mug in toast. "Then let us begin without delay!"
"We'll be ready as soon as we get dressed," Kit said, turning and dashing back to his room.
"Yeah!" Snowflake agreed, right on his heels.
I took two steps and slid to a stop. Terry still stood by the table, clutching a mug in his hands, mouth slightly agape, staring at Santa. I hesitated a moment then hurried back. "Come on," I whispered, tugging at his arm.
"But-" he protested.
"Go get dressed," I muttered. "You are coming, aren't you?"
"But-" he repeated, glancing at Santa.
I pinched his arm.
"Ow!" He leapt away. "What was that for?"
"You're not dreaming!" I hissed. "Even if you are, who cares? Make it a good dream!"
An odd expression flicked across Terry's features. All at once his face split in a huge grin. "Right!" he exclaimed, dashing to his room.
I don't believe I ever got dressed so quickly in my life. Socks, shoes, pants, shirt, coat, and gloves, I threw them all on in a frantic rush. Even so Kit and Snowflake beat me out; he in an orange Security Force space suit liner and hir in a light jacket. Of course shi didn't need much what with hir fur and all. Terry came out a moment later, hopping on one foot as he thrust his other into a boot. "Wait for me!" he called.
"All ready, then?" Santa looked around as Terry hastily laced up his boots.
"Yep." From the breast pocket of his suit liner Kit pulled a gadget that looked like a cell phone without an antenna. "Star?" he asked, holding it up to his head.
"Yes, Daddy?" I heard, tinny but still distinct. Star's voice- at least through the communicator- sounded like a Chakat's.
"We need you to meet us at John's right away."
"Okay, Daddy!" There could be no mistaking the excitement in her tone.
"She'll be here in a few minutes," Kit said, putting away the communicator. "Let's get out into the street and wait."
In the short time we'd all been inside enough snow had fallen to begin masking out the tracks made earlier. I groaned inwardly; in the morning I'd have to shovel the driveway. On the up side, with any luck the snow would keep people home. I'd discovered- the hard way- that people in early 21st century Oregon really weren't prepared for Star. I'd finally managed to ditch the UFO cultists though a few diehards still followed me around. Just what I needed right now was for one of them to see me with her and Santa Claus. I'd never hear the end of it.
"I hate snow," Snowflake muttered. Shi'd fallen to the back of the group because every few steps shi paused to shake snow off hir legs.
"A snow leopard who hates snow," Terry muttered, glancing back. "Who'd'a thought?"
"It doesn't snow in Amistad!" Snowflake snapped. I glanced briefly over my shoulder and happened to catch Kit's eye. He gave me a look of long suffering that I'm sure any male in the universe, regardless of species of cultural origin, would have instantly understood. He smiled quickly when Snowflake looked at him; I turned around before shi looked at me.
Even though I knew she was coming Star again stole upon me unawares. Only when snowfall ceased suddenly was I able to see her outline against the sky. Kit spoke quickly but calmly into his communicator; Star rotated, her stern hanging over the house and probably the next several streets, her nose extending out across the neighborhood toward the University. I swallowed; it's one thing to say a thing is the size of a 747. It's another entirely to have it hanging only a dozen meters over your head. Worse yet it made not a sound; my own early 21st century perceptions didn't at all like the notion of an object weighing as much as three railway locomotives floating in the air like a cloud. Star extended her front left strength limb and lay it palm up on the street; eagerly we hurried forward and climbed on.
"Dear, dear," Terry muttered as he struggled up. Star's chitinous skin gleamed like polished gemstones and felt about as slippery. "I'm used to riding inside the airplane, know what I mean?"
"Yeah." I nodded morosely as I struggled up beside him. As much as it fascinated me I didn't like flying. Whenever I rode a jetliner I thought of flaming disasters and all the horrible things that could go wrong. I became airsick in even the mildest of turbulence and Star was notoriously unrestrained when it came to flying-
I sucked a sharp breath as the street dropped out from under me like an elevator with its cable cut. Star's relative inertia field prevented me from experiencing any more than a mild sensation of movement but the evidence of my eyes overrode the evidence of my inner ear. As when things got too extreme in the IMAX theater I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for my stomach to calm down. When I opened them I briefly saw the glittering lights of Eugene spread out below before they vanished as we entered low cloud cover. At which point another aspect of flying with Star I hadn't anticipated forced itself into my attention. Near the ground her hull glowed only because it mimicked the sky around it; inside the heavy clouds was pitch darkness and that's what I saw.
"Head straight north," I heard Santa say. "Without me to guide them they'll head for home."
"I see them," I heard Star say through Kit's communicator. Pale blobs of color flickered on her belly, briefly illuminating the mist around us. It wasn't like walking through fog where you saw the mist; Star was probably doing something around Mach 2 though force fields around her body kept us from feeling more than a mild breeze. The clouds we passed through were nothing but a diffusion of the light.
"Be careful," Snowflake put in. "We don't want to spook them any more than they are."
"Aye-firmative," Star replied.
We broke from the cloud tops like a submarine rising from the depths. The mist lightened, then fell away, and we skimmed over great, fleecy crags and canyons painted gray and silver by moonlight. I gritted my teeth but refused to close my eyes as Star almost stood on her wing tip, pulling hard into a descending turn. As moonlight shone straight down upon us I found myself looking at Terry's startled face. Somehow we'd ended up with our arms around one another's shoulders. I imagine his expression mirrored my own: shock at realizing what had happened, embarrassment at being caught, ending with resigned acceptance of the situation. Neither one of us felt confident enough to let go.
"There it is!" Snowflake called, pointing.
I leaned as far out into space as I dared- which wasn't very; walking up to the edges of cliffs made me giddy and this was a hundred times worse. I couldn't make anything out against the silver and grey cloudscapes.
"Got it," Star replied. She plummeted through a wall of cloud; the sky alternately appeared and vanished as we cut across towering mist canyons. Finally I saw it too: a string of irregular black dots silhouetted against a plain of dazzlingly bright vapor. They must have seen us too because they abruptly dove into the cloud. If they thought to evade Star so easily they were gravely mistaken; her mass detector could see through solid rock as easily as open air. She dropped her nose and dove after them. We spun giddily through misty darkness until suddenly breaking out underneath. I could tell by the grayness in the sky that we'd emerged into heavy snowfall but our speed was such that individual flakes were invisible. I couldn't see Santa's team anymore but by the way Star twisted and turned she was on them tight.
"I got 'em now!" Star called, throwing herself into a turn so hard the sky was momentarily below us. I squeezed my eyes shut until my body stopped shaking and my stomach relaxed. When I opened them I wished I hadn't; we'd come down amid high, craggy peaks. Star whipped between them at what definitely felt like excessive speed, practically scraping her belly on the valley floors. As we exploded over a ridge line the team was right there; I saw the reindeer rearing and tossing their heads as Star loomed over them but they couldn't break away without slamming into a cliff. Star extended her other forward strength limb; blue light flickered around her palm as she locked a tractor beam on them. The team struggled but could not work free; gradually they stopped trying and we all settled to the ground. The reindeer landed roughly and stood, pawing and blowing, their muzzles gleaming with froth. Star settled gently on her hind strength limbs, which with four hundred tons to support sank deep into the snow and even the frozen ground beneath. With an effort I broke my grip on Terry and staggered to my feet. My whole body was stiff from tension and as I gasped for breath the icy air stung my throat. We'd come a long way north.
With a speed and agility surprising in a man of his girth and apparent age Santa rushed to his team, stroking and clucking to each one until they'd all calmed down. From a box beneath the seat of his sleigh he produced a handful of candy canes and lovingly fed one to each reindeer. I watched all this without comment because my thoughts were still too disjointed to support coherent speech.
Santa returned to us, laughing heartily. "A bit of a turn but all's well that ends well," he declared. "Allow me to express my heartiest thanks to you all." He gave each one of us a mightily bear hug and a hearty pat on the back that left one gasping for breath. "And since you're all here and I'm already a bit behind schedule, Why don't I just give you your presents now?" He untied the bag fastened securely in the back of the sleigh. "Let's see..." he rummaged around. "Ah, here we are. Mr. Carson." Kit stepped forward. "For you I have this." He took from the bag an object that looked like an ordinary laptop computer.
Kit's eyes lit up as he took it. "A new workstation!" he exclaimed, opening it up. "With a full suite of engineering software! Thanks!"
"Thank Snowflake," Santa replied, chuckling. "Shi put in the request. I'm just the delivery boy." While Kit and Snowflake hugged and kissed Santa rooted once more. He came up with a small stuffed kitten with a large red tag tied around its neck. "This is for you, Snowflake," he said. "From your mother and father."
Snowflake took the kitten. As shi looked at the tag hir face lit up. "It's a kitten!" shi exclaimed, throwing hir arms around Kit and hugging him tightly.
"Well, yes, I see it's a kitten," Kit replied, clearly perplexed at Snowflake's excitement. He took the kitten, turning it over and finally coming to the tag. "For our wonderful daughter Snowflake," he read aloud, "A pre-paid visit to the Mother of Mercy fertility clinic-" he broke off suddenly, his face taking on the expression of one who understands. "Oh," he said. "A kitten."
"Mr. Knight." Santa produced several boxes; Terry stepped forward to receive them. "A set of color pencils and a refill kit for that Japanese brush pen of yours. And a few extra tips, just to be on the safe side."
"Thanks!" I saw Terry's eyes glisten as he took the boxes.
"Thank us by keeping up those great drawings," I said, squeezing his shoulder.
"Now, Star." Santa studied his bag thoughtfully. "This may be a bit of a challenge. Let's see..." He opened the mouth of the bag as far as he could. "Why don't you just reach in there and pull it out? It's a bit too heavy for me."
Star lifted her right front strength limb, which loomed over us like a crane. Very delicately she inserted the pointed tips of her thumb and forefinger into the bag; I was sure it would rip but it didn't. In fact, as she drew her fingers out it opened even further, passing the rounded end of an object resembling a cylinder cut in half the long way. She raised up and it kept coming; finally the tail came free and she lay it on the snow, flat side down. It looked like the top half of an airliner's fuselage, with windows along each side and large, cockpit-style windows at the front and back.
"What... what is it?" Terry asked. He looked slightly dazed; maybe he was still marvelling that the thing had come out of Santa's bag. I'd decided not to worry about it; compared to visiting every Christian child in the world in a single night with enough time spend on each to deliver all the presents, pulling an object twenty meters long out of his sack was nothing to get excited about.
"It's a passenger compartment," Kit replied, walking up to it and opening the door. It swung inward, just like an airliner's would. We all crowded inside; at the front was what looked like a cockpit, complete with instruments and flight displays, but conspicuously lacking flight controls. Aft of it we encountered a small but well equipped galley; next came a coach seating area with large, comfortable, and widely spaced chairs. Two bathrooms- one for humanoids and one for 'taurs- separated that from the sleeping area, done up with Pullman style bunks. At the very stern were two more doors and a room lined with comfortable couches and windows all around.
"Now you can ride back home in comfort," Santa declared. "Do you like it, Star?"
"Yes, Santa, I love it!" Star gushed from Kit's communicator.
Terry looked at me, a speculative gleam coming into his eye. "What do you have for John, Santa?"
Santa shook his head. "Nothing, I'm afraid."
"Nothing?" Snowflake exclaimed, looking deeply shocked.
"It's all right." I laid a hand on hir shoulder. "You see... Santa and I made an arrangement. I already have my Christmas present."
"What is it?" Kit asked.
"It is..." I felt my throat tightening and tears pooling in my eyes. "It's having you all here. In my life. Terry, Kit, Snowflake, Star... and all the others." I was grinning like an idiot but I couldn't help it. "It's even better than a Christmas present because... it stays with me all year long." I took Terry in my left arm and Kit in my right. Snowflake stepped up and wrapped hir arms around all of us. "Merry Christmas," I whispered because I could hardly speak. "And... thank you. For making my whole life the joy and wonder it is."
"My work's done here," Santa said, giving us each another hug. "See you all next year!"
I heard him declare as he rode out of sight:
Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night!
Thank you Terry, Bernard, Bob, Charles, Angus, and everyone else whose contribution has made me what I am today. Simply having you all in my life is the greatest gift I could hope for.