What follows is my own strange attempt at the creation of a Holiday classic. It is written, as a gift, for those people in my life who have given me such tremendous support in my career as a writer, who have patiently waited for my success, and believed in me for many years now. Though I have no money to spend on gifts, because of the love and support of my friends and family I have a wealth of words to offer. So here I am offering a few thousand, arranged carefully to convey a certain unique holiday flare.
Nestled within you will find 45 words that were not chosen by me, but rather by those friends and family who believed in me. This story arose around the skeleton of their disparate and sometimes challenging offerings. To those of you who couldn’t see the forest for the nine-syllable trees…well…don’t say I didn’t warn you!
The story below is somehow more melancholy than I set out for it to be, but I think that spirit lives at this time of year as much as joy. As always, I have strived to write a story to represent someone who might be just a little bit different, and in so doing, to present again the moral that each of us is lovable and acceptable just as we are, and more than that, that no mater how different we seem, each of us is more similar than we are different.
Balls but I’m nervous about this one!
Ah well. I guess I just have to let her rip.
Krampus and the Christmas Sweater
The Krampus stood in the bedroom of ten year old Billy Boyson and itched.
He’d been itching since he crossed into the Central Time Zone, somewhere over the Mississippi River. Of course, had he been a proper Krampus, his fur would have been as natural as his hair, and not a mass produced, Made-In-Elfland holiday horror vest. As it was though, the shaggy unlined garment hung around his bony white torso, open in the front, and producing a bright red rash where it chafed him raw, leaving him looking something like a Neapolitan hairball.
Sparing a moment before his formal duties commenced, he leaned down and sniffed at himself, crinkled his nose and said, “Petrichor. Petrichor and queso. Yes. That’s the terrifying ticket. Really intimidate the buggers by reek of rained upon cheese sauce. Very good, sir Krampus. That’s the way to build the mythos.”
Glancing around the room, the Krampus began to shoulder the heavy lengths of rusted chains (though he was fairly certain the rust was some sort of textured spray paint hastily applied), and gave the traditional birch branches he carried a few whistling test flicks. He gave a good look to his feet, encased in orthopedic shoes modified to appear like clomping cloven hooves, and then to the floor in front of him. He learned early in his Krampusing career that it really took the fright out of a visit to have Krampus tripping and sprawled on the floor tangled in My Little Ponies or Lego cities.
What he saw was the first surprise of many the night held in store for him. The room was spotlessly clean. Pristine even. Each toy was placed away on a shelf, the gray white carpeting was smooth and crumb free, showing only the tracks of a recent vacuuming, and the dirty clothes hamper wasn’t simply neat, it was empty. The Krampus frowned (as well as he could around the plastic mouthpiece of fangs he wore to give him the proper imposing grimace). This was very unusual. The children Krampus usually visited were little boys who left too many skid-marks in their underoos, or little girls who made juicy mud pies in mother’s best bakeware. In short, naughtiness most often went hand in hand with dirtiness.
This departure from the expected norms filled the Krampus with another sort of itching, this time caused by apprehension buzzing in his mind. As he took a closer look around, he mumbled, “Well, this is makes for a fine lacuna. Seems there’s a gap between what should be and what is. Is this a last minute reversal? Clean your room and you’ll get the bearded Saint instead? Well, I suppose this isn’t like the other visits anyway. It’s my first abduction afterall.”
Putting his curious instinct aside for the moment, he waggled his eyebrows up and down, feeling the strange weight of them with the horned headdress affixed above them with gobs of gooey spiritgum. He let them settle eventually into a deep scowl, and hardened his eyes as he rose up onto the balls of his feet and began to clomp menacingly towards the small racecar bed in the center of the far wall. When he was halfway there he let the feaux-rusted chains begin to clink ever so slightly, gathering in cacophony until he was looming over the bed. Taking hold of the edge of the Pokemon festooned comforter, he prepared a very dramatic growl deep in the back of his throat, which immediately died as he threw back the covers and saw two red-rimmed and very much awake eyes staring up at him.
Billy Boyson lay flat on his back in the bed, his bright blue eyes fixed clearly on the looming Krampus. The only movement he made in response to the sudden uncovering was to turn his head slightly to the side and say softly, “Hello. Are you Krampus?”
The Krampus fumbled with the covers awkwardly, and took a step back. This was definitely not normal. However, as he jumped the chains rattled ominously, and seemed to remind him that he very much looked the part of the dark side of Christmas, and he had better play the part too. He stamped one booted foot and said, “Yes! I am Krampus, and I’ve come to steal you away for being so terribly naughty this year!”
Slowly, Billy sat up in the bed and swung his legs over the side. He stared at the Krampus with the cleared eyed stoicism which only children possess and then nodded once, saying, “I thought so. Tommy told me Krampus takes kids who are too bad for their parents to take care of anymore. I’m ready to go. I cleaned up my room so my Dad wouldn’t have to when I’m gone.”
The Krampus was dumbstruck. He let the birch branch raten drop to his side and reached up his free hand to scratch his head, and mumbled, “Uh. Alright. Good?”
The curious instinct returned more strongly than ever now, and the Krampus paused to look at ten year old Billy Boyson more closely. By all respects he looked like an average American child, save for the red raccoon rings around his blue eyes. He wasn’t too fat or too thin. He did not have a sinister look about his brow. Rather, his entire countenance looked simply sad.
And then there was the nightgown.
The Krampus wondered why it took him so long to notice it. Perhaps it had seemed only a long nightshirt at first? But no. Now that he was looking properly he saw that Billy wore a light blue cotton dress with white ruffled frills at the neck, sleeves, and hem. And across the chest were emblazoned the now ubiquitous Disney duo of Queen Elsa and Princess Anna from the hideously popular children’s cinema offering from a short while ago. It was one of the few American media trends popular enough that even he was aware of it. The songs were like auditory herpes, infecting anyone who engaged with aural congress of any variety with other human beings.
His wandering irritations were interrupted, however, when Billy stood up and bent down to grip the hem of his nightgown and draw it up over his head. The Krampus instinctively averted his eyes, but found when he looked back that Billy was folding the nightgown with a tidy somber mechanicalness, and was dressed in a pair of plain looking, rather refreshingly boyish flannel pajamas. Billy looked over to him and said, “I just wanted to wear it till you got here. I promised Tiffany she’d get it back tomorrow anyway. Cause I won’t need it. I mean. I don’t think I’m allowed to take anything right?”
Despite being the one dressed as a mythological creature tasked with dolling out universal punishment upon children, The Krampus was the one who felt as if he were caught in a surreal dream. Were all abductions like this? He frowned and reached up, spitting out his false fangs and working his jaw a moment. He then said, more clearly, “Listen, this isn’t strictly permitted. The sanctity of the character and all. But just to be sure…you are Billy Boyson, yes?”
The boy looked to the man and nodded, then said, “Your fangs aren’t your real teeth?”
The Krampus looked down at his slobber coated mouthpiece and then back to Billy and said, “Well no. But listen, that isn’t important just now. I’m just, well, shall we say, how to put it? You aren’t what I expected.”
Billy pursed his lips, “I guess I could say the same?”
The Krampus sighed, “This may seem a trifling strange question, but tell me, whatever did you do to get put on the abduction list?”
Billy cocked his head to the side, his resigned composure faltering for the first time as he asked, “You don’t know?”
The Krampus shuffled one orthopedic hoof on the floor and said, “Well, as to that. I’m afraid it might be a bit more…complex than your friend Thomas led you to believe. You see, I’m actually a substitute Krampus.”
Billy narrowed his eyes, “Substitute…Krampus?”
The Krampus shook his head, “Oh rot. You see, I’m afraid the Ontological Society for Human Interation with Truth has been in quite the conundrum recently. It seems a recent innovation has been wreaking havoc with the normal dispersion of the mythological paradigm. Tell me, have you heard of the Internet?”
Billy nodded once, “Sure. Hasn’t everyone?”
The Krampus gave a disapproving frown, “Well. It is news to some people. At any rate, apparently this Internet contraption is really quite remarkably good at the spread and propagation of information and ideas. And therein lies the problem. You see, the Krampus, as he originally appeared was strictly confined to the Eastern European nexus of believing, and one entity was quite sufficient. And in the nineteenth century, he experienced near total extirpation even there. But in the year two thousand and six, by the American reckoning, five thousand seven hundred and sixty five if you were to mark it by the Jewish calendar, the editor of one BLAB! Magazine published a rather popular art book full of Krampuskarten, which are holiday cards featuring Krampus, and so reintroduced him to the modern imagination and the idea took hold via this Internet, and of course you can deduce the problem from there.”
Billy blinked once, then again slowly, and finally said, “Mr Krampus, I’m in the fourth grade.”
The Krampus and the boy gaped at each other for a long moment, before Billy said very slowly, “So I don’t know what any of that means.”
As if realizing he had spilled an ugly stain of food down his front, the Krampus flushed and said, “Oh yes. Quite right. I forget I’m talking to a child raised in the colonies. My apologies. Said another way, for a long time nobody believed in Krampus. Then suddenly, everyone did, which means for the balance of belief to be maintained, Krampus has to start doing his job again. But he isn’t just doing his job for the smallish nations of Eastern Europe, but all the way around the world. Why, he’s almost as big as his brother, the fat man with the beard and the poorly selected beasts of burden. The simple truth is that mythological figures must always appear where humans believe they belong the most. And Krampus belongs nowhere but punishing naughty children.”
Billy nodded, but cautiously, as if not trusting that the strange man had actually used words he mostly understood, and then said, “So, how come they picked you as a substitute Krampus?”
The Krampus frowned, “Ah well. That’s a delicate matter. Let us simply say I ran afoul of certain hypervigilant supernatural organizations, and despite some rather fantastic allocution on my own part, they saw fit to imprison me for my mystical activities. Of course, when this situation arose, and they found themselves in need of individuals possessed of a certain magical capacity, they put the proverbial turnbuckles to me, and convinced me that I might be paroled with the merest commitment of a century or so of service to the community as a Krampus. And here I stand.”
Billy narrowed his eyes, “So you’re like…a wizard? And you got in trouble and they told you they’d let you go if you became a Krampus?”
The Krampus made a clucking sound, “A gross oversimplification, but, yes. If you must.”
Billy bobbed his head again and said, “So…where do you take me now?”
The Krampus looked up from fussing with his vest front and raised his eyebrows, which had the effect of causing the oversize horn prosthetics he was wearing to waggle precariously, “Well, I believe you quite skillfully avoided answering my earlier question. Do you know why I’m here to take you in the first place?”
Billy gave a little wince and then looked down at his feet, “Well…I dunno. I think. I think maybe it’s because I’m a bad boy.”
The Krampus sighed, “Well clearly. That’s another way of saying naughty. Oh dear me…the word naughty isn’t too advanced for you? No child left behind indeed. My goodness!”
Billy shook his head and said in a strained way, “No. I mean. I’m a bad boy. You know. I’m just really bad at being a boy.”
The Krampus followed Billy’s gesture towards the neatly folded Frozen nightgown on the bed. He pursed his lips, “Oh come now. I can’t be here just because you’re a little light in the loafers.”
Billy looked at his bare feet with a confused expression, but then looked up with a distressed expression, “But it’s true. I’m just awful at it. I…I don’t like sports at all. And I’m really bad at math. And I know my Dad wants me to stand up to the bullies at school, but I just can’t, and I really, really like all the Disney princesses more than Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers, and I even traded Tiffany my remote control helicopter for that nightgown with Elsa on it.”
Tears had welled inside Billy’s blue eyes now, and the Krampus scowled unconsciously down at him, “That’s preposterous. You can’t honestly feel badly about those things? Why, try feeling badly for accidentally flubbing a line in your contract with a darkling that allows it to indiscriminately deponticate pregnant women and mixed-breed puppies…ah…nevermind. What I mean to say is that can’t possibly be why I’m here.”
Billy gave an ominous sniffle, but rubbed his already tear stained eyes valiantly and said, “I think it was the Christmas Sweaters.”
The Krampus cocked his head to the side (but immediately righted it when his antlers began to peel off his forehead), “Christmas…sweaters?”
Billy nodded, “I made them. For everyone in the family. Even Julie.”
While fiddling with his antlers The Krampus said, “Even Julie? Who is Julie?”
Billy snuffled again, “She’s Dad’s new girlfriend. My brother Greg doesn’t like her very much, but I made her a sweater too, because Dad really likes her.”
The Krampus harrumphed, “You made sweaters for your family. That isn’t naughty. Why would that be what brought me here?”
Billy looked down, his face glowing hot with shame, “I knew I was making them too fancy. Too girly. Greg said they were gay, and my pastor says things that are gay are bad. And Dad…he…he got so mad. He almost hit me. I…I knew I shouldn’t have put so much glitter puff paint on them. And…and…plus I had to steal the paints from school. They’re just bad sweaters, from a bad boy, and I know that’s why you’re here to take me.”
Billy finally began to cry quietly, causing the Krampus to squirm in miserable impotence. He ground his teeth together. This was NOT part of the job description. This was terrible, and clearly had to be a mistake. He made a series of small gestures with his hands, feeling lines of effervescent power coalesce around his fingertips, and then he concentrated on the apparition of a swamp of silence arising between himself and Billy, such that the boy could cry quietly and he could get to the bottom of things.
Turning slightly away from the heartbroken boy, he reached up to his ear and tugged on an earring. There was a pause and then a high-pitched nasal voice sounded from the air, “Holiday Helpine. Please state the nature of your mythological difficulty.”
The Krampus winced at bit at the volume, but said tersely, “Yes. Hello. This is Krampus Avatar Eastern and Central US, Myth ID# 07700900461. I’m calling in reference to my last stop of the night. Billy Boyson. He’s my only abduction. Can you please confirm the orders?”
There was a long pause during which The Krampus thought he could hear some soft clicking, and then the voice screamed in his ear again, “Yessir. I can confirm Billy Boyson is scheduled for abduction tonight.”
The Krampus made a grumbling noise, “Yes fine. Well then, can you please confirm the reason why?”
The voice cried back almost immediately, “Oh I’m very sorry sir, but regulations prevent me from divulging information contained on the naughty and nice list to anyone but a representative of the Claus family. However, I can confirm that the abduction orders are warranted. The parents, well, parent in this case, is convinced that the child is irredeemably naughty and an unmanageable danger to the family unit, and also the child feels shame in the absence of contrition which is indicative of repetitive patterns of problem behavior.”
The Krampus chewed on the words like a preschooler choking down broccoli. He let the information settle in his mind and then said, “Well, I wish to report a mistake then. This child is no danger to his family unit. He makes sweaters!”
The voice replied, “I’m sorry sir. All complaints against orders must be lodged at least 48 sol cycles prior to the execution date. This is a valid abduction request.”
The Krampus fumed, “According to whom?!”
The voice screeched again, “The list is very accurate sir. It is checked twice.”
The Krampus exploded, “You mean this is because of that judgmental diabetic?! Oh I’ll shove a shingle down his epiglottis!”
The voice, sounding softer for the pounding of angry blood in The Krampus’ ears, said, “I am required by regulation to remind you that any failure to perform the required and timely duties of your station by sunrise of the following day will be considered a violation of your parole, and may result in your return to incarceration in addition to a reassessment of your sentence in light of any action taken during your tenure.”
The high pitched bureaucratic voice spoke no more as The Krampus tugged the silver stud from his ear and flicked it against the wall. He whirled and found Billy, now quieted, staring at him through the twisting haze of empowered silence between them. He dismissed it with a wave and Billy said, “Are you off the phone?”
The Krampus scowled at him, “What do you mean phone?”
Billy wiped away the last of his tears, “You looked like you were talking to someone…”
The Krampus sighed, “Yes, I was talking to someone about you.”
Billy looked up, “What did they say?”
The Krampus turned towards the window as he tugged the large prosthetic horns free from his scalp with the sensation of a thousand band-aids ripping apart. Shaking his hair free, he looked back to Billy and said, “They told me I only have till sunrise to change your mind about yourself.”
The Krampus was surprised to find that nothing had changed since the last time he had set foot in La Nouvelle Orleans. Of course it was known to the majority of people in the present day as New Orleans, the Big Easy, but the name was not the magic. No. The magic was the music. Not the music thrumming ceaselessly from the open bars of the Quarter, though it was there too. It was the soft music that had melted into the air over the centuries, and wisped around the swamps, and up through the avenues, down Bourbon street and into the muddy Mississippi waters where it was carried into the Gulf to harmonize with the dolphins. It was the lonely warm wail of a sackbut trombone, permeating the humid air, and touching every worn stone and whitewashed plank of wood.
The music never changed.
Though it had required a fair bit more stardust than he had allotted for the job, The Krampus found he was easily able to send himself and Billy into the Astral Boulevard, allowing them to move quickly through the world, but still leaving them able to stop and examine moments. It was a job perk from being a holiday-associated mythological being, even a substitute one. It was an ability first popularized by some droll Englishman’s story about a gaggle of Ghosts and a wealthy sociopath. It wasn’t firmly ensconced into holiday mythos though until children started being educated in science enough to ask awkward questions like how one fat man delivers presents to all children everywhere. This necessitated an evolution by which holiday spirits might defenestrate the bonds of physics to accomplish their work.
Moving as they were between the worlds, The Krampus and Billy wandered down the nearly empty expanse of Bourbon street, passed three city sanctioned caroling parties (singing mostly to themselves and to the night), and wisped effortlessly through a crowd of faithful congregated in the square outside St. Louis cathedral awaiting the midnight mass.
As they moved further into the city, Billy’s ethereal voice asked, “Why did you bring me here? This doesn’t look like where Krampus is supposed to take kids.”
The Krampus looked down at Billy, “There’s someone I think you should meet. Well, at least see.”
Billy was about to ask another question when the world stopped flowing and came into sudden almost realistic focus. They were standing in front of a lean building on a street called Elysian Fields. The sign above the building was faded and cracked, but on the door a fresh flyer read:
“LIVE ON XMAS EVE
LEONA LA’ROUX PRESENTS
A Holiday Cabaret Spectacular
Don ye now your gay apparel!”
As they stood before the door, it swung open, releasing an explosion of thumping trilling Beyoncébeats, and spilling a rather muscular and underdressed young man into the streets, pursued quickly by a second, who looped himself under the first’s shoulder and set off with him in a staggering line down the street.
The Krampus looked down to Billy, who watched the scene with wide eyes. The boy looked up to The Krampus and asked, “What is this place?”
The Krampus made an awkward cough and said, “Well, the last time I visited it was an establishment of repute where gentlemen might come to enjoy particular kinds of entertainment as well as the company of like-minded men…”
Taking hold of Billy’s hand, The Krampus stepped through the doorway, enveloping them both in a strobing mist filled cacophony of sound and bodies. The Krampus made a strangled sound as Billy’s mouth fell open. With a sudden desperation The Krampus reached down and clamped his hand over Billy’s eyes, pressing him through the crowd quickly until he found the stage, and vanished them both behind the curtains quickly.
With his voice muffled by the concealing hand of the Krampus, Billy asked, “What’s going on in here?”
The Krampus cast his gaze around at the throngs of men drinking, dancing, and generally carousing in the bar and said, with a gulp, “Ethnic movements.”
However, soon enough the music dulled and the lights dimmed, bringing the crowd into a semblance of calm. The Krampus carefully slid his hands from around Billy’s eyes (but kept his palm poised ready to return to censorship duties at a moment’s notice). As the boy blinked to get used to the light again, a booming voice said, “Please give a warm Elysian Fields Christmas welcome to Leona La’Roux!”
From the curtains on the opposite side of the stage a woman in a short red dress trimmed in white fur, and an iconic Santa hat tripped out, a martini glass in one hand and a microphone in the other. Her vivid makeup made it look as if she were standing right in front of Billy despite her distance, and as she reached center stage amidst thundering applause, she made a short chopping motion which silenced the room and said, in a smooth southern drawling voice, “It’s Claus now, John! I told you, we went to New York and got hitched, it’s legal there now!”
There was a mixture of cheering and laughter at the remark, and the woman grinned widely at the audience, “You know it feels wonderful being home tonight with all my family. And I just thought it’d be grand to gather round the Yule Log and sing a few of my favorite Christmas songs. Oh, now, where is that log? I could’ve sworn we set it…”
From behind The Krampus and Billy a man rolled a large log out onto the stage, which the woman pranced over to and picked up between two fingers (which looked difficult considering the size). She held it up and wrinkled her nose and said, “Oh! Eduardo how many times have I told you not to use the props! That’s what Aiden’s for.”
The audience gave a low hooting of catcalls, and the woman beamed another smile at them and held up the log, “Now, which one of you flames has got a light!”
The show continued from there, in an ever growing seaswell of serendipitous joy and adulation. The woman on the stage sang alcohol slurred carols, and peppered the audience with acerbic wit. The Krampus even neglected to cover Billy’s eyes during the finale when a chorus of athletic lads dressed in bunny ears and not much else came prancing onto the stage to join the titular Mrs. Claus in a rafter crashing crescendo of holiday cheer.
As the lights came back up, and the music began to pound again, The Krampus turned towards Billy, whose face was glowing with the reflected energy of the performance, and said, “Well, that was more…modern…than I thought it would be. But nevertheless, what did you think?”
Billy looked from the stage to The Krampus and couldn’t contain a grin, “That was so cool! She was so funny, and even though it’s just boys they all liked it a lot. You could tell everyone was having lots of fun.”
The Krampus couldn’t keep a half smile from his face as he watched the boy so wrapped up in the moment that he seemed to forget his own situation entirely. But then he saw a dark cloud roll across the stars dancing in those blue eyes, and Billy looked down and said, “But I still don’t get why you brought me here.”
The Krampus nodded and said, “C’mon. There’s one more thing I want you to see.”
Walking with Billy, once more in the strange world of the Astral Boulevard, The Krampus led him away from the dance floor and down a long back hallway to a cellar door leading down into a small hallway, which branched into several rooms. There was one with a crooked star nailed into it, and as they stepped through, the figure of Mrs. Claus, Leona La’Roux, sat facing a low dressing table with a large mirror.
Billy let out a little gasp and said, “Mr Krampus! We can’t be in here with a lady! What if she undresses!”
The Krampus chuckled, “Actually Billy, that’s what I’m hoping for.”
Billy looked aghast, but just then Leona stretched and muttered to herself, then reached up and took off her hair.
Billy was stunned into silence. He watched as the woman proceeded to place what turned out to be an impossibly fabulous wig on a nearby mannequin head, and then unclasped her earrings and plucked a moist wipe from a nearby dispenser and began to scrub make-up from her face. After a few more minutes, the she, which was now quite clearly a he, rested on his elbows, and leaned in examining his features closely in the mirror, then let his eyes focus on the doorway behind him and said in that same southern drawl, “Well Alastair, are you just going to stand their gaping, or are you going to say your proper hellos, and introduce me to your young companion, who might I add is rather scandalous even for you.”
The Krampus and Billy made twin choking noises, and Billy started to back away as The Krampus said, “Leona! Darling! My apologies! I intended no offense, I was simply illustrating a point. I, uh, didn’t realize you could…well…”
Leona turned around on her small bench and faced the pair properly, still dressed in her Mrs. Claus regalia. She gave them both a look up and down and said, “Didn’t think I could see you? My dear, you could have gone to the world beyond and I still think I’d be able to spot an outfit that hideous. What in God’s name are you wearing?”
The Krampus, now named Alistair, shuffled and said, “It’s a uniform. For a job, of sorts, I’ve taken.”
Leona let out a low, satisfied laugh, as if she were savoring something truly delicious and said, “Oh don’t tell me they looped you into one of those ridiculous new Krampus gigs. Oh gods they did. And look at you! They’ve dressed you like a Jackelope lost an argument with a weedwhacker!”
Alistair seemed to bristle and tugged his rash-inducing vest closed a bit and said, “Well I didn’t pick it did I! It’s a uniform, made by those damn elves. They did this on purpose because they don’t like the competition. Besides, it’s just a hundred year tour.”
Leona actually snorted, “A hundred years?! What did you do, release a darkling on the whole of humanity?”
Alistair’s cheeks flushed and he said, “Well, not the whole of humanity. Just…you know…a statistically miniscule subset. And also…puppies.”
Leona was doubled over almost shrieking with laughter now, “Puppies! Oh! Oh this is too much! I’ll have lines on my cheeks for ages. Oh! Alistair. You poor stupid man. You always rush the details and forget some important piece of the sorcery.”
Alistair opened his mouth with a hot reply on his tongue, but Leona held up a hand, which he found silenced him with irritating efficiency. He watched as she turned her gaze to Billy, who had been huddling near the doorway. She lowered the same silencing hand and held it out, like one would to a strange dog to sniff at, and said, “And who might you be, mixed up with poorly dressed wizards on Christmas Eve?”
Alistair looked down at Billy, and watched the uncertainty on his young face. However, as he had seen a hundred times before, the preternatural honey of Leona’s voice worked its soothing magic and the boy took a step forward, and then another. He paused halfway to Leona, who smiled as the boy said, “I’m Billy. Billy Boyson.”
Leona tilted her head to the side and said gently, “Charmed Billy Boyson.”
When he had reached three quarters of the way across the room, Billy paused again and said, “Y-you’re a boy. I…I thought you were a girl.”
Leona managed a blush which Alistair knew must be feigned, knowing the old witch for as long as he had, and said, “That’s a very nice thing for you to say. I think that’s sort of the point. Though I don’t think many people in the room were quite as fooled as you. Did you enjoy the show?”
Billy closed the few steps to Leona and stood in front of her, hands clasped shyly behind his back. He looked at the dressing table, strewn with cosmetics, and said, “You mean…people knew you were a boy who was just pretending to be a girl and they liked you anyway? Cheered for you?”
Leona laughed, though this laugh was higher, brighter, more charming than the mockery of before. She turned around on the bench and scooted to the side, patting the small space beside her. As Billy began to scrabble up next to her as if under a compulsion, Leona said, “Well you saw my show. How could they resist cheering? And yes. They knew. Let’s see…in this day and age I’m what would be called a drag queen. Though I started out as a Buffalo girl. Oh, but that was a long time before you were born.”
Billy looked at Leona in the mirror, his face a mixture of awe and wonder. Alistair had worked around Leona enough to know when he had been dismissed. As they sat together, Leona reached over casually and began to smooth Billy’s hair first one way and then another. Billy, still staring at her, said, “I didn’t know. And all those people seemed so happy at your show. I…I didn’t think…”
Leona leaned closer and gently began to tilt Billy’s head back and forth, examining him in the mirror from various angles. When he paused in his speaking she smiled and said, “You didn’t think anything good could ever come from a sissy? Is that it?”
Alistair saw a look cross Billy’s face as if he had been stabbed, but just as his lip began to quiver, Leona placed a two tubes of lipstick in each of his hands, and said, “Tell me, which color do you like better?”
Looking startled by the unexpected feeling of objects in his hands, Billy looked down, gazing in confusion at the make-up. When he looked up, he found Leona holding a hairbrush in her hands, which she used to begin combing his hair. Billy’s lips worked for a minute and then he fell back into silence. After a moment Leona said, “I think the red will drown out those pretty blue eyes of yours, but that champagne pink would make you quite striking. Of course, I wouldn’t let you out of the house in it till you were at least sixteen. But if you want to try a little now, it’ll be a secret between us girls.”
Alistair shook his head, still amazed at how quickly Leona picked up on people. But he supposed when you had to hunt them to live, it was a skill you picked up. He watched silently as Billy looked from Leona to the lipstick, and then back to his own reflection. With a little tremble he lifted the lipstick to his lips and smeared some on. Leona watched and the laughed a little and said, “No no. Like this. Dab and spread. It isn’t a crayon.”
Leona took the tube from the boy and turned him to face her. With deft hands she spread the lipstick on his small mouth, and then held a tissue up and said, “Press down.”
Billy pressed his lips automatically against the tissue and then turned and saw his own reflection, now blazoned pink. He took in a sharp breath and said, “That’s the same color as Queen Elsa.”
Instinctively he puckered his lips and then let out a sudden bark of nervous laughter and looked up at Leona, blushing. She smiled at him and gave him a squeeze around the shoulders, “That’s the way.”
With his lips still pale pink, Billy stared at his own reflection in the mirror as Leona began to idly fuss over him. After a long while, Alistair heard the boy say softly, “My mom used to let me play with her make-up. And sometimes she let me wear her high heels too.”
Leona clucked and smiled, “She sounds just perfect. I’m sure you must miss her terribly.”
Leona waited a beat and then said, “How long has it been?”
Billy took an obvious swallow and then said, “Four years. I was just six…she…she died in a car accident on Christmas Eve. She was going out to get a present she forgot…and…and she just…”
Alistair felt thunderstruck. He hadn’t realized the mother was gone. Julie the new girlfriend suggested a split, but he hadn’t even thought to consider Billy’s mother had passed away.
Leona nodded her head, waiting with tender patience. After another moment Billy said, “T-that’s why I made the sweaters. That’s what mom used to do every year. And we all used to wear them. And I thought she would be happy if we wore them again, even if Dad has Julie now. I wanted mom to know we weren’t forgetting her…”
The tears came then, hot and fast. Leona caught the boy into an embrace as he collapsed in the force of his unleashed grief. She made eye contact with Alistair then with eyes that stood in defiance of the softness with which she cradled the boy; eyes that spoke of rage, cold and deep and dangerous. The question was clear: who hurt this precious child?
Alistair shook his head once, a silent deferment, though he knew she would get her answer eventually. He frowned, and thought of how to send her a discreet message conveying the relative urgency of the situation with the abduction order, but as he tried to string a few handsigns together, Billy’s crying began to settle into soft sniffles and hiccups. And then he leaned away. Leona let him go, though she stayed close, the perfect picture of maternal care. Billy looked again at himself in the mirror and said, “Thank you Ms. Leona. I really like the lipstick. Do you…do you think my mom would be proud of me if I grew up and made people happy like you?”
Leona looked a bit surprised, and for the briefest instant Alistair thought he saw a tear shimmer like a snowflake, pure and white in the corner of one of Leona’s eyes. But the impossible moment passed and the snowdrop tear melted, and Leona smiled and said, “I know she would be, sugar. I know she would.”
Billy smiled and for the first time since he met the somber little boy Alistair felt like Billy was truly happy. The substitute Krampus felt a knot of tension release inside of him, and though it had been a gamble approaching a person as dangerous as Leona, he was glad to have followed his instincts. Now at least one of the conditions of abduction had been falsified. Billy wasn’t ashamed anymore.
As he turned around to face Alistair, Billy twisted his hands in his lap. He said falteringly, “Mr. Krampus, sir. Um, do you think there is any way that you could not take me? I…I think I want to go home.”
Leona’s eyes flashed to Alistair with such sudden ferocity that he almost ducked bodily, and she said, “Why of course you can go home, sugar. Isn’t that right Mr. Krampus.”
Alistair held up his hands to shield his face and said, “Yes! Yes of course. I think that should be fine now. T-that’s why I brought him Leona. That’s why.”
Lowering his hands to peek over them, Alistair saw Leona nod once, her arm resting possessively around Billy’s shoulder. Billy smiled, seemingly oblivious to the dangerous exchange taking place around him, and hopped off the bench. He looked at Leona and said, “Thank you Ms. Leona. I…I feel a lot better. You kinda remind me of my mom…even though you’re really a boy.”
Leona smiled with a tenderness that set Alistair’s teeth on edge, and reached up to her ear. Gingerly she plucked one of her large glittering earrings out and pressed it into one of Billy’s hands, “Here sugar. You take this. It’s a token. You’re one of mine now, and if anything bad ever happens to you, I’ll be there to help you out. Unless you do something colossally stupid on your own, and then you’ll have to suffer the consequences yourself”
Here she cast a meaningful glance to Alistair, who might have responded if Billy hadn’t held up the earring with quite such sacred reverence. He mumbled more thanks, and then Leona twirled him around and sent him stumbling back to Alistair with a pat on his butt, and said, “Now you run along home. No family should spend Christmas without a special boy like you around to light up the room.”
And as Alistair led Billy out of the bar, back onto the now emptied streets of New Orleans, that’s exactly he did.
The trip back to Billy Boyson’s front yard seemed much longer than it did when Alistair took him away, owing mostly to the fact that the newly empowered boy chattered to The Krampus the entire way, listing his favorite princesses, and why, talking about what kind of colors he liked, or clothes he wished he could buy. It was endearing at first, and then, as inevitably happens when children engage with adults, it became tedious.
The presence of four police cars, lights flashing, squatting in Billy’s front yard shut both of them up. Alistair felt the sudden sickening wash of absolute certainty of his mistake pour over him. He muttered, “Blast. The perceptive prestidigitation field! I didn’t set the bloody prestidigitation field…”
Billy tugged on Alistair’s sleeve and said, “Presti-what? What’re the police doing at my house? Do you think my Dad wanted to have me arrested?!”
The Krampus looked down at the distressed boy and shook his head, “No. Actually. It may cause some problems but I’d imagine it’s just the opposite. I forgot to set up a charm to prevent anyone from coming looking for you. The Perceptive Prestidigitation field…so…your family probably thinks you disappeared.”
Billy looked from Alistair to his house, “You mean…the police are here to look for me?”
Alistair nodded, “Touching, if a bit complicated. I suppose we could…”
Alistair’s brooding was cut short when Billy suddenly clawed at his arm and gasped, “Look!”
From the vantage point on the small hill beside Billy’s house several figures were visible huddled around the front door of the Boyson house. There were, as expected, several uniformed police officers, some standing with hands on belts, others jotting down notes and nodding firmly. But there, standing facing the hill, illuminated by the front porch, were the figures of a man in pajama bottoms, with his arm hooked around the waist of a woman.
Both of them were wearing the ugliest, gaudiest Christmas sweaters Alistair had ever seen.
Billy danced from foot to foot beside The Krampus and almost shouted, “Those are my sweaters! They’re wearing my sweaters and looking for me!”
Alistair couldn’t help smiling and nodded, “Yes. Though after seeing the sweaters I can’t imagine why…”
Billy’s flashed him a wounded expression and Alistair held up his hands in surrender, “Kidding. Kidding. Mostly.”
Billy looked back down at his house and said, “They look so sad and worried. I…can I go to them? I can just say I ran away, right?”
Alistair felt mildly irritated at the simple elegance of the boy’s solution compared to his own fifteen step reintegration stratagem. But he showed none of it in his easy nod, as he said, “Why yes. I was just going to suggest the same thing. I can just pop you out of the Astral Boulevard…”
Billy grinned and then frowned and said, “Hang on. Before I go, I just want to know, if I had gone with you…if you had been like, a real Krampus, and you did your job, would my Dad and Julie be searching for me for forever, all upset?”
Alistair shook his head, “No. They wouldn’t. An abduction isn’t just taking you away, like a kidnapping. It’s a total capture and removal of your being, present and past. They wouldn’t have any memory of you. The entire world would have no memory of you. It would be as if you never existed at all. Of course there are tweaks to be made, here and there, but there’s a recovery department for that. But why is it you think there are legends of Krampus taking children, but no accounts of specific children he took? Even very naughty children would be missed by someone, don’t you think?”
Billy looked a little paler and he shook his head, “That’s terrible. Thank you. For, y’know, not doing like I wanted.”
Alistair shook his head and grinned, “I’m rather afraid that doing as others tell me is something of a weak point in my character. For better or worse. Now, run along home Billy Boyson. Your family is waiting.”
With a wave of his hand, Alistair popped the boy back into the real world. To the police and Billy’s family it would look like he had simply appeared on the hill, if they happened to be watching. But whether they were watching or not, as Billy traipsed down the hillside at full tilt, they heard him crying out to them soon enough. Alistair stood for a moment and watched as the police danced out of the way to allow the racing boy to crash into the open arms of his father and what was undoubtedly Julie. There would be a flurry of questions of course, but even if Billy told them the truth they would simply chalk it up to a stress induced dream the boy had while out in the cold alone. Alistair felt good inside, in a way he hadn’t since an unfortunate incident brought him to the attention of the wrong sorts of authorities.
That good feeling might have lasted longer if when he turned to leave, Alistair did not find himself standing face to face with the real Krampus.
It was no figure of prosthetics and cheaply made vests. It was a massive looming darkness, well over twenty feet tall, a shadowed figure that writhed with hellish vitality if you stared too long at it, somehow conveying the essence of horn and hoof and bestial unflinching wrath, in a way truer than any shape ever could. This was the real deal, the archetype. The man himself. Krampus Prime.
Alistair took a step back and stumbled a bit in his awkward orthopedic hoof shoes. He kicked one off and righted himself, then said quickly, “No. You can’t be here. There’s been a mistake. A clerical error of some sort. Look, I sorted it out, and I’m rather sorry you came all this way for a pickup, but Billy Boyson doesn’t need to be erased from existence.”
The Krampus Prime gave a tilt of its massive head, the night clad horns forking up viciously from its scalp giving not the slightest tremble. The response was a roar of power and fury with no sound that could be heard by Alistair’s ears, but instead reverberated in his very bones. The man shuddered and then shook himself free and shouted, “That isn’t fair! More than that, it isn’t even right! Who gives you the right to judge when the story of another human being should be undone?!”
The Krampus Prime took a single step forward, and Alistair felt like his heart might explode in his chest.
Yet he found he took a step forward as well with his bare foot, and he hollered with as much ferocity as he could, “I won’t let you take Billy Boyson!”
The response was instant, and impossibly fast for a creature as large as Krampus Prime. One moment Alistair was standing, and the next he lay sprawled and dazed twenty-five feet from where he had planted his feet in defiance. He had been tossed away like a rag doll. He growled and drew himself up, calling to mind several choice arcane words, along with several colorful phrases of a much more vulgar variety. Performing magic not associated with his job would be enough to end his parole. Attacking his boss? Probably extend his sentence by a century or more.
But just then, Alistair didn’t care.
With the zeal of a prisoner taking their first breath of truly free air, Alistair called forth the words of power and sent flame and lightning rushing out at the shadow beast. Sparks and smoke clouded the Astral Boulevard, and threatened to burst through the veil in their white-hot fury. He mustered another volley, this time sending dark roots twisting up from the ground to stab at the Krampus, and setting ice sheets falling like boulders from on high.
Krampus Prime took another step forward.
Alistair, panting now, sent a single beam of white hot light zipping from his fingertips, a beam so hot it was even visible to the mortal realm, like a razor thin sword slash of luminescence that appeared like lightning and then faded.
Krampus Prime took another step forward.
Alistair groaned, the ache of so much magic pressed down unused mystical pathways in his essence making him sore like a fat kid forced to run laps for an hour. He leaned to the side and quite unceremoniously vomited. He came back up and saw that still the Krampus Prime was moving towards the house.
He knew then he had only one option left. He forced himself to spring for the house himself, and as he passed the Krampus Prime he said, “You can’t claim him until the very last moment before dawn. I know the contracts. That means I still have time to fix it, to keep him from you.”
With a snap of his fingers, Alistair tore open the membrane of the Astral Boulevard and popped into reality, furry vest, one awkward shoe, and smoke flowing freely from his shoulders. He shook his head to clear it of dizziness and then resumed running for the Boyson’s front door.
As he approached he realized he was rather glad that the time disparity of the other world had worked in his favor and in the time it took him to battle the Krampus Prime the police had packed up and left the house. It would have been quite a fine thing to attack a primordial instantiation of a vital force only to be tazed and shot by a common beat cop.
Frantically, Alistair pounded on the Boyson’s front door. There was the sound of movement, and then the door flung open and Alistair found himself staring at the figure of a slightly paunchy middle aged man dressed in a hideous, rhinestone encrusted Christmas sweater, who was pointed a rather plain looking shotgun level with his chest. The man growled, “Get the hell of my property!”
Alistair realized what it would look like, from the man’s point of view, and he winced as he flicked his fingertips. Magic against a mortal was a crime far worse than the one he was already imprisoned for committing. But he had no other choice. He wiggled his index finger and the shotgun flew out of the man’s hands and levitated in the air, muzzle pointed upward. He drew a breath through clenched teeth and said, “Listen, hard to explain. Wizard on parole. Working for Krampus. Trying to save your son, Billy, and no I don’t have time for a lot of questions!”
The man clutched the air in a pantomime of gun ownership, his index finger twitching reflexively as if it were still an option for him to empty a thousand little balls of lead into the intruder. His jaw worked for a minute and then he said, “Krampus. Like those cards?”
Alistair sighed, “Yes. Now…”
But just at that moment, Billy’s head appeared around his father’s leg and he said, “Alistair! What’re you doing here?”
Alistair looked back at the quickly approaching but still invisible Krampus Prime and the graying edges of dawn that would give him the right to claim his prey. He knelt down, “Billy! I don’t know how but you’re still in danger. You have to tell me, do you still feel ashamed about Princesses and…you know…the drag queen stuff?”
Alistair resolved to work on eloquence under pressure in the long years of magical imprisonment he had ahead. But Billy blushed a bit and said, “N-no. Maybe…kinda embarrassed. But not ashamed. I…I wanna make people happy one day.”
A woman’s voice came from behind the door, “Jim! What’s going on?”
Billy’s father, now named Jim, titled just his mouth back to the inside of the house, his eyes still trained on Alistair, “Billy has company.”
The figure of the woman from the doorway appeared around Jim’s shoulder, and her eyes took in the kneeling becostumed Alistair as well as the hovering shotgun, and she said, “What in the f—“
Alistair cut her profanity short, looking up to Jim and said, “This is an important question. Do you feel your son is a danger to your family, and that you can’t handle him anymore? Like he should be removed?”
Jim looked like Alistair’s attention physically harmed him, but as the question registered to him, he set his jaw and reached behind him, pulling Billy close and said, “You aim to take my boy from me, and you’ve got a fight on your hands, devil powers or not.”
Alistair looked back again, seeing the gray dawn beginning to pink. He scrunched his eyes shut and gestured sharply with his hands, “Sweaters! Those ugly sweaters. You were angry he made them, Billy was sure that was the problem. Are you still upset about the sweaters?”
Jim winced, and Alistair saw Julie’s hand reach up to squeeze his shoulder. Billy too looked up at his father, and the big man shook his head slowly. It was Julie who spoke at last, “Don’t worry Jim. I’ll tell them.”
Billy and Alistair looked to the woman, whom Alistair thought was remarkably composed considering her circumstances objectively. But nevertheless what she said was, “Billy. Sweetie. Your Dad lost his temper about the sweaters because…well…because of your mom. You may not remember this, because you were so little, but your mom used to make sweaters for you guys every Christmas. It started out as a joke…back when your mom and your dad were first dating, and then it kind of became a tradition.”
Billy nodded, “I remember. I made my sweaters because of mom. I wanted her to know she was still important..and…and I wanted you to feel like you were a part of the family too Julie.”
Julie cupped her hand to her mouth, tears pooling in her eyes. Alistair sighed and said, “Yes yes. We heard that bit. Sweaters, mothers, tragic. Was it just lost tempers?”
Julie looked at Alistair and then to Billy and said, “Well. No. You see, the night that Billy’s mother passed away, she was out. She was going to get a sweater to make. A sweater for Billy, in fact. Jim, well, he used to drink back then, and he’d sort of ruined the sweater Billy’s mother had already made for him. She was out that night…to make sure Billy had a sweater on Christmas day like the rest of the family.”
Jim let out a choked sound and he squeezed his eyes shut. But he still gripped Billy’s shoulder and said, “I’m so sorry son. I didn’t ever want you to know. But when you surprised us with those sweaters…it…I didn’t know what to do.”
Billy looked between Alistair, Julie, and finally his father. He reached up and clasped his father’s hand and said, “It’s alright Dad. I…really miss mom too. But I think she wants us to be happy too. Ok?”
Without a word, Jim knelt and swept his son into a tight embrace, and Julie threw herself onto the hug as well, sobbing loudly enough for all of them.
Alistair sighed and stood up. Happy family, secrets revealed, healing begun. For the second time that night he felt relief pour into his tense muscles. Then he turned and saw Krampus Prime now looming directly over the house, the fire of dawn just beginning to blaze along the horizon. The beast wasn’t even leaning backwards. Alistair threw his arms wide and cried, “Back! Back into the house! Hold tight to each other! It’s harder to take someone who is present in the mind!”
Julie let out a sudden shriek, and Jim hollered, “Holy God! What is that!”
The veil was thin enough now, and the Krampus Prime’s power large enough that even the mortals could sense his massive black presence. Alistair began to chant quickly under his breath, trying to rack his brain for any trick he hadn’t yet tried, and he braced himself as the Krampus reached out one enormous arm towards the house, ready to bite the furry paw if necessary.
But it was not to the front door and the huddled form of Billy Boyson that Krampus Prime reached. His arm angled up instead, and passed into a window on the second floor. There was a startled yelp which rose quickly to a frantic scream.
Alistair kicked himself mentally, and whirled to see Jim and Julie were stumbling back from the monster, their mortal minds overwhelmed by gibbering madness induced by the revelation of such a being as the Krampus Prime. He looked down and saw Billy looking terrified, though clear eyed. He shook the boy, “Quickly! Who else is on the second floor!”
Billy blinked and then raised his eyebrows, “It’s Greg! He’s after Greg!”
Together Alistair and Billy tore past the stunned adults, pounding up the stairs and down a short hallway. Billy threw open the door, and Alistair saw the massive paw of the Krampus Prime, projected through the wall and groping towards a double sized bed in which cowered a boy not much older than Billy. Billy bounded towards his brother, Alistair close behind, and said, “Greg! Over here! We won’t let Krampus take you!”
Greg, huddled near the head of his bed, looked to Billy with disbelief, a crumpled sweater clutched to his chest, and tears staining his cheeks. He mumbled, “Billy? Y-your back? I…I thought I made you run away. I thought I was so mean you were gone forever…”
Well at least the reason Krampus could lay claim to Greg was plainly stated. But even as Alistair began another incantation, the massive hand lurched forward with that same speed, as if spurred on by Greg’s confession, and enveloped the boy completely. His screaming was muffled, as the hand withdrew. Alistair panted, “No, no, no!”
Billy, who was closer, threw himself at the paw, and clawed into it. He fell backward with a thud, but held in his hand one corner of the Christmas sweater he had made for Greg. He was being drug along behind the paw by that hideous sleeve, and he was crying, “Greg! No Greg, it isn’t your fault! I forgive you! I’m not mad, I promise! You can’t feel bad about yourself! That’s what Krampus uses!”
Alistair looked wildly around the room as Billy and Greg were pulled ever closer to the window. He saw that, beginning at the doorway, the personal effects belonging to Greg had begun to dissipate one by one. First toys, and photographs of friends and family. Then even clothing and furniture bought for the boy who would soon never have existed. He ground his teeth together and was pulled from his impotent fury by the sound of Billy striking the far wall.
The slight boy fell backward with the sound of ripping cloth, and jumped immediately to his feet, holding the torn sleeve in his hand. He kicked open the window in what Alistair might otherwise have called a rather manly display, and screamed, “Greg! I won’t let him take you Greg! He can’t get you if I don’t stop remembering!”
Alistair winced, knowing however noble Billy’s words were, they were already futile. The room he stood in was bare completely now, and as if on queue Jim and Julie made their way upstairs, moving with no particular rush. They looked into the room and Julie said, “Here he is Jim! I found him. Billy! Why did you run off, and what are you doing in the empty room with the window wide open?”
Jim followed Julie into the room, and said, “Oh, stinks of dust in here. Haven’t used this place in years. Why did you run in here son?”
Alistair bowed his head, knowing he had failed. He listened as Billy said, “No! Julie, Dad, you have to remember! You’ve just got to, otherwise he’ll go away!”
Julie had crossed to Billy now and said, “Who will go away sweetie? What do we need to remember?”
Billy’s voice quivered and he said, “You’ve got to…it’s just. He. I. I’m not sure. It was really important.”
As Julie began to twitter away as adults do at children they believe are caught in fantasy, Alistair slipped quietly back into the Astral Boulevard, his heart sick with grief. In time the family would forget him as well. He’d be a recurring dream, fuzzy and indistinct for awhile, and then nothing at all. That was the one consolation. No one would remember the pain of tonight. Except him.
He watched as Julie, arm wrapped around Billy, drew the boy away from the window, and pushed him towards his father. He saw in Billy’s hand the still clutched sleeve of a sweater and paused. The sweater shouldn’t still exist. He saw as well that Billy’s other hand was dripping a red liquid, and was clenched tightly around an object. He caught the light glittering off of the dangling bit of glamour protruding from that fist at the exact moment that Julie, who was closing the window said, “Jim. There’s a…woman out on the front lawn.”
Alistair raced to the lawn, phasing through the walls easily. He saw her, standing with her glorious wig wreathed by the dawn, skirts blowing in a breeze which was not stirring, and the deadly fierce eyes of a mother burning on her face.
Alistair saw the Krampus Prime, Greg still clamped in one paw, pause as the strange figure appeared in its path. He watched Leona raise a hand to her lips and cough once, before saying in her sweet southern drawl, “Why Krampus, as I live and breathe, I never did think I’d see you again. And all the way out here, so very far from your home in Eastern Europe. I do so hope you didn’t come all this way just to see me.”
The Krampus Prime gave the same bone shattering roar it had to Alistair, and he felt his teeth buzzing in his skull again. But Leona just gave her soft low laugh, and said, “Oh dear. But where are my manners. You must be very tired. Why do you set down that heavy burden you’ve got there in your pretty little paw…”
The Krampus Prime lashed out again, and though Alistair didn’t see the movement, he felt the collision like a clap of thunder. He looked and saw that rather than being flung to the side, as he had been by the same attack, Leona was still standing, moved but a single foot width to the right, and grasping the wrist of the Krampus Prime as though holding onto the limb of a struggling toddler. Her eyes darkened, and she said in a lower voice, “Oh you’re not tired eh? You prefer to dance. Well. I’m your holly berry.”
What happened next defied even Alistair’s ability to fathom. There was a struggle. A wild, titanic battle which seemed to occur entirely in a single instant of time. He was aware, in the dim reaches of his mind that though it moved barely an inch, the fight might as easily have raged over a thousand miles, and the only indication it had even begun was a single bright red scratch marring Leona’s otherwise flawless face, and the Krampus now crumpled with the sharp heel of one rather wickedly sexy stiletto pressed into its throat.
Leona’s eyes flicked to Alistair, but she said to the Krampus Prime, “Floccinaucinihilipilification. It means to underestimate something, like for instance how fierce a boy in a dress can really be. Now. Release the child. Your moment has passed and your dominion has ended.”
The Krampus Prime made a sound, softer now, repetitive, like a snake’s hiss. Alistair realized it was laughter. He spat on the ground, even as Leona whipped her gaze down and cursed. From inside the clenched fist Greg began to scream.
Alistair rushed to Leona then, “What’s happening?! He can’t still be here. The sun is up! It’s Christmas day!”
Leona shook her head, “I’m stopping him from leaving, which means he can invoke the indwelling of an abode. A failsafe for just this sort of interference I’m afraid.”
Alistair frowned, “I’ve never heard of that!”
Leona looked up, “It’s ancient magic. Some might call it divine law. A creature who draws its strength from the belief of mortals may not be prevented by any means from returning to where they are believed to belong.”
Alistair looked at the Krampus, which seemed to be somehow shrinking, “So why is Greg screaming?”
Leona shut her eyes, “Where else does Krampus belong but in the fears and nightmares of naughty children? He intends to store himself entirely within Greg, a place no one can touch him. And it may drive the poor boy mad with fear…mad enough to stop his heart even.”
Alistair thought quickly, more quickly than he had ever thought. How did one prevent the enactment of an ancient law? He pounded his hands against his skull, which felt still sticky with spiritgum from his prosthetic. He cursed it then. The uniform. The parole. The job. Even the cursed artbook that had revived Krampus in the first place.
That was when inspiration hit. He rushed away, and called as he went, “Leona! Hold him as long as you are able!”
He was in Greg’s empty room in a flash. He found Billy lingering in the doorway, looking confusedly into the hollow space, as though he couldn’t leave but didn’t know why. Alistair appeared all at once, causing Billy to startle. The boy stuttered, “Alistair? You’re back again?”
Alistair grabbed Billy by the hand and drug him into the hall, moving quickly to the boy’s own bedroom. As he went he said, “Billy! The paints you used to make those sweaters. Do you have any left?”
Billy nodded and said, “Yea, why? What are you doing?”
Alistair tore about the room, and quickly found a notebook. He ripped a page out and folded it in half. He slammed it down on Billy’s small desk and said, “Be quick now. We don’t have much time to save your brother!”
Billy frowned, “I don’t have…or…maybe. Ugh! Why does my head hurt?”
Alistair snapped his fingers, “Not important. Do like I say. Get the paints, and draw a picture of Krampus on the front of this paper!”
Billy sat down at the desk and opened a drawer. He pulled out the paints, and in short order had a crude, if recognizable Krampus on the front of the folded paper. Alistair nodded and opened up the folded sheet, saying, “Now write: Happy Krampusnacht Greg! Love, Billy.”
Billy quickly scrawled the words on the paper. Without any explanation, Alistair snatched up the small boy over his shoulder and grabbed the paper, popping back into the ether, and flashing onto the lawn. He found Leona standing over a Krampus not much bigger than Greg now. In fact, the Krampus looked to be more a bulky terrifying coat being worn by Greg, who thrashed on the ground. Alistair set Billy down, who looked at the scene and then cried, “Greg! How could I forget! Greg, I’ll save you!”
But as the boy rushed forward Leona said softly, “Stay back sugar. This isn’t a fight for a princess. Leave it to the Queens. Thanks for calling like I told you to though.”
Billy looked up at Leona, and scowled, “Ms. Leona…but…how?”
Alistair left Billy’s confusion by the sidelines and strode up to the quickly diminishing monstrosity. He held out the paper and said in a loud voice, “You may be exercising an ancient law to try and escape into Gregory, but I’ve got bad news. The new ways of this modern world may have brought you back, but in doing so they made an addendum to that law. Seems like there is one place people believe you belong more than in the fears of naughty children. Do you know where that is? Krampuskarten! Plain old Krampus cards! That’s what made everyone believe in you again, and that’s the one place you belong nowadays!”
With a triumphant glee Alistair slapped the card against the Krampus, and heard it utter an unearthly shriek. He pulled the card back again, and was thrilled to see the shadowy form clinging to the crudely marked notebook paper. He began to walk backwards, the Krampus Prime’s body stretching out like a string of black silly putty, being drawn inexorably into the paper prison. He looked at Billy and said, “As soon as there is any part of Greg free, grab hold of it. Grab hold of it and think about how much you want him back with all your might!”
It took only a few seconds before Greg’s hand was being held by Billy, and as more and more of the boy was freed, Billy grabbed hold of each part, until finally the two boys were hugging on the front lawn, and the Krampus was just barely touching the sole of Greg’s left foot. Billy said to his brother, “I want you to come home! I don’t want to forget about you. I love you!”
Greg clung to Billy then, and said with a choked voice, “I’m so sorry I said your sweater was gay Billy. I didn’t mean it. It just made me miss mom. I’m so sorry.”
As Billy said a few final words, the Krampus Prime’s hold on Greg snapped and the long desperate tendril of its being rushed towards Alistair and slammed into the card. The words Billy said were, “I forgive you.”
The sun had properly risen by the time Jim and Julie joined Greg and Billy on the front lawn. Alistair and Leona stood apart, in the shade of a tree, Alistair still holding the Krampuskarten. He shook his head, “Well, I guess you won’t be seeing me for a good long while. I can’t imagine they’ll let me keep this job after all that happened tonight.”
Leona smirked, “I’m not so sure about that. I did a little digging after your visit, called up a few friends, and it seems this whole Krampus debacle has been poorly instituted from the very start of the resurgence. Afterall, it’s a very outdated belief, the idea of nature itself judging the morality of a person. That’s just a few steps more evolved than blood sacrifice for goodness sakes. No, I don’t think this will be held against you.”
Alistair smiled and opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by the sound of sleigh bells jangling overhead. He looked up and saw the unmistakable figure of a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer descending from the horizon. He heard Billy exclaim from the lawn, “Look! It’s Santa! It’s really him!”
Alistair had a little trouble believing it himself. He looked at Leona who shrugged and said, “I said I called some friends. I happen to know his Grindr user name so I dropped him a direct line.”
Alistair crinkled his brow, “Grindr?”
Leona chuckled, “It’s like my bar, but on the Internet.”
Alistair’s eyebrows shot up, “You mean Santa is…is…”
Leona chuckled, “The ultimate bear? Yes. And don’t you worry your traditional little head. It’s just a little arrangement with Mrs. Claus. The real one. What’s an extra hour of limbo one night of the year if it keeps their marriage spicy? After two thousand years, you try keeping the flame lit without a little creative negotiation. Besides, nothing sells a man like marriage.”
Alistair blinked once, twice, and then shook his head as the sleigh touched down on the front lawn right in front of the gawking family. He sighed, “I’m afraid I’ll never understand all these modern changes.”
Over the next few minutes the jolly old man in the bright red suit made quite a show of laughing and gesturing. He reached into a massive sack and began throwing out presents like rice at a wedding. And then, as the family twittered over their loot, he climbed off his sleigh and stumped over to where Alistair and Leona stood. He didn’t smile as he approached. He nodded once to Leona, who gave him a passing glance as if barely able to stand to acknowledge him. He then turned to Alistair and said gravely, “You have Krampus?”
Alistair nodded and held up the crumpled card. He tilted his head to the paper and said, “Locked up tight in here. At least for a while.”
Santa reached out a black mittened hand and said, “May I?”
Alistair handed the card to him, and after a minute of staring at it, he said, “And you are the substitute Krampus that started this whole mess?”
Alistair winced but nodded, no use in denying it now. He cleared his throat, “But, sir, in the spirit of the holiday, I should mention that I believed I was doing the right thing.”
Santa averted his twinkling blue eyes and nodded, “Yes son. Yes I believe so. Unfortunately the right thing and the correct thing are so seldom the same these days.”
That was not the hopeful answer Alistair was hoping for. He sighed, already imagining the horrible itch of his uniform replaced by the tight metal grip of shackles as they spoke. But Santa simply sighed and said, “Gods above I could curse that blasted Internet. This isn’t a part of my myth I want to survive! It’s not necessary anymore. Hell, do you know how long I’ve work just to kick the List? And the worst it does is leave some kids with rocks in their socks. But this…him…Krampus. Oh, how I wish I could just erase him like he erases those poor children.”
Leona spoke up now, slicing with her southern sweetness, “Oh we’ve all got a few bits of our past we’d rather not follow us into the present Nicholas dear. But what I’m most concerned about is this wizard’s immediate future. You know, I’ve just grown so comfortable with secrets. They’re so fun. And useful! I’m certain that while there would be quite a lot of uproar over tonight’s events, it could all just be delayed indefinitely if certain parties just kept suitably silent. But of course, if the winds have changed, and secrets aren’t really the style anymore, who am I to question the times? I guess I’ll just have to start airing some of my own…”
Santa winced and held up his hand, “Let’s not be hasty Leona! I’m sure something can be arranged…”
Alistair watched the drag queen threatening the living embodiment of joy and giving in the world and shook his head. He cleared his throat and said, “If I may, what about an equivalent exchange? That’s ancient magic too. I’ll give you something worth your silence…and my freedom.”
Santa eyed Alistair for a moment, and then nodded once. Alistair stepped forward and leaned in close to the large man, whispering in his ear. After a moment, the jolly old man’s eyes began to twinkle again, and then he burst out laughing, a loud string of hos ringing over the hillside. He leaned back, clapped a hand on Alistair’s shoulder and said, “You’ve got yourself a deal! I’ll take it!”
Alistair smiled and nodded, watching as Santa turned and almost skipped back to his sleigh. The Boyson’s waved to him as he snapped his reigns, and as the huge contraption took to the skies, Santa bellowed, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Alistair snorted, “It’s morning you fat ghet.”
He turned then to leave, realizing all at once that he was free now, when he heard a voice calling, “Alistair! Alistair are you still there? Ms. Leona too!”
Alistair turned and saw Billy trudging up the hill. He cast a glance to Leona who gave a shrug of her shoulders, and with a snap the pair appeared to Billy. Billy beamed and said proudly, “I asked Dad and Julie if you two could stay for Christmas dinner and they said yes! Dad says no more…you know…shotgun tricks. But will you stay? Please?”
Leona chuckled and said, “Well, anything for you Princess.”
Alistair took a deep breath, “I guess, why not. If you promise to get me a change of clothes and a shower.”
Billy nodded, “Yea! I’ve got an extra sweater and I can even paint it really fast!”
Alistair winced but forced himself to say, “That’d be just swell.”
Billy beamed and turned around, racing back to his family, and said, “Dad! Julie! They said yes!”
Alistair began to trudge down the hill after the boy when he felt a hand on his elbow and he froze. It was never a good thing when an elder vampire chose to touch you directly. He waited until Leona said softly, “Before we go play happy mortals, I wanted to congratulate you on your success at securing your freedom. And. I’m simply dying to know. What did you give the fat man in exchange for that freedom?”
Alistair looked back over his shoulder and quirked a brow, “I told him how to do my card trick. And I explained to him how useful it could be, having Krampus back. It seemed to me the real problem with his myth was the objective and natural judgment inherent in devils like Krampus or in the naughty and nice list. It implies there is some infinitely black and white standard, and if Santa wants out of that gig Krampus is the perfect solution.”
Leona tilted her head to the side and obvious invitation to further explain. Alistair sighed, “Listen, people just aren’t ready to stop believing that there is something out there that determines whether a person is good or bad, and like it or now people will keep believing Santa is some sort of judge and jury. Well, what if we let Krampus keep doing his job, the job he used to do, being Santa’s dark side…but with one tiny change? What if we tell people that a Krampuskarten keeps him away, traps him for a year. What if a Krampuskarten became a way for people to say they accept each other…and themselves…warts and all? Poof. No more standard. Just a duty to tell your loved ones you love them as is. And the object negates the consequence. Krampus still judges people, but the card, symbolizing the communities love, drives him away.”
Leona gave a low whistle and withdrew her hand. She inclined her head and said, “Like the blood of a Passover lamb, but with racy Krampus cartoons instead? Well that was a rather juicy Christmas present. Clever too. I’ll have to remember you’re that clever, even if you do tend to pontificate a bit. Now, shall we?”
Alistair nodded, and began to follow the drag queen down the hill and then paused and said, “Hold on will you? This is my first real moment of freedom in a long time. I think I’d like to enjoy it.”
Leona nodded and turned to go.
Alistair stood on the hillside and opened his arms wide to the morning light, trying to feel a gentle breeze on his free skin.
Instead, he stood on the front lawn of Billy Boyson’s house and itched.