He hadn’t thought of himself as anything more than Santa Claus in many years. Since he’d been passed the mantle he’d just enjoyed the magic of the position. He spent three-hundred sixty-four days of the year in his village workshop, with just one night out to deliver toys to all the girls and boys who still believed.
It was a dwindling list of names, but more so this year. Around April the list very nearly cut by half in a single day, and steadily it had fallen until around mid May. After that is dropped in chunks every now and then with one more sharp decline in early October. By December first, when the village usually kicked into overdrive to finish all the toys, there we barely more than a hundred names left, less as he loaded up his sleigh on Christmas Eve.
That first house in Russia had been such a shock. The roof was too slanted, so he’d landed on the barn. They were so silent that he hadn’t noticed the dozens of people standing around outside the house. He didn’t see them move as his boots crunched down in the snow. But when he got to the house and found all the doors and windows boarded up, he turned around to find himself face to face with a gaping maw of broken teeth.
It lunged at him, but he was, as the poem says, both jolly and quick. He darted left down the porch and found two more gruesome things standing at a window, claw marks on the wood and broken nails on them told him they’d been trying to get in. Not wanting to get too close, especially once he got a look at their faces as they turned toward him, he put one hand on the porch rail and launched himself over it and into the yard.
They moved slowly, these things around the house. He saw them now, coming from nearly every direction in ones and twos. He could easily maneuver between them spread out like that, but suspected they’d be very deadly gathered together in a pack.
He threw a glance at the house and decided that perhaps inside was a safer place to be. He picked a clear area of the yard and ran toward the house. As he approached he laid one finger on the side of his nose and felt his weight shift upward. Before he completely left the ground he gave a final push forward to keep the momentum that would carry him over the house. He hated using this magic out in the open, without a chimney to guide him upward. He tried his best to judge the arc as he sailed through the air, pulled his finger away from his nose and landed with a thud on the roof.
The roof was too slanted, and icy. He scrabbled against the shingles trying to get a hand on the peak, but it wasn’t to be and he slid backward. The house was a two story, and he needed only to keep himself from getting back to the ground, so he rolled on his back and looked for the rain gutter he hoped was there. It was, and while one hand kept a tight grip on his sack full of gifts the other shot out and clamped on to the gutter as it passed by.
He hung there a moment, his eyes shut, silently praying the gutter wouldn’t give. When it didn’t, he opened his eyes to find that up here the windows weren’t boarded up, only shuttered. He considered his options, looked down at the gathering crowd in the moonlight below and kicked against the shutter.
There was movement from within, and after a moment there was light and a shadow against the shutters.
“Please,” he said, “I can’t hold on all night.”
Inside there was some muttering and a little cautious excitement. Finally there was a click of the latch and the shutter opened to reveal a group gathered inside, some of the adults pointing rifles.
Most adults have long stopped believing in Santa Claus. They’ve been told he’s a myth or that he used to be real. But the truth is that Santa exists and does bring gifts to the children who believe. Just one gift each usually, the kind where either parent will easily believe that the other parent bought it or that it was a gift from some distant relative. But they don’t believe. However, as they say, seeing is believing. Almost immediately a smile spread across the face of the man who’d opened the shutter. And as he pulled Santa inside, the smiles worked their way over all the faces.
One child, Max (age six, nice, a set of Matchbox cars), stepped forward. “We were worried you wouldn’t make it,” he said with relief.
His list was so short that Santa had decided he could take a few moments and perhaps learn what was going on. He handed out gifts to the kids, three families under one roof, and then settled down for milk and cookies. He didn’t mind at all that the cookies were from a box and that the milk was too.
They told him about the deaths, and the zombies. They told him about how things had fallen apart so quickly and he thought about his list and nearly cried.
In the end he apologized about the crowd he was leaving below and they smiled and said they’d take care of it in the morning. He asked if there was anything he could do, and they’d talked about how they had enough food for winter and that things were pretty safe here. He promised we would be back next year and used a rope tied to the gutter and his finger on the side of his nose to float out the window and swing himself up on the roof. After a couple of tries he got himself stationed on the peak of the roof and whistled for his team.
The sleigh took off from the barn, circled around and picked him up in a fairly daring fly by as it dipped below the edge of the house and he leaped into the seat.
Many of his stops were like that, until New York. He’d landed on the roof of a row of town homes. The people were locked in a safe room and wouldn’t come out. He left the gifts on the floor and headed back to the sleigh. As they made their way to take off, a roof access door flew open and several of the monsters lunged as they passed. Comet was bitten, Cupid too. They never turned, but they were hurt. Outside Cleveland he released them from their harnesses and sent them home.
It was slower going with six reindeer.
He hadn’t thought of himself as anything more than Santa Claus in many years, but tonight he was feeling more human than he had in a long time. He wasn’t the first Santa, but he was worried he might end up being the last.
This brought him to Los Angeles where even in winter it was practically warm. He could see them, as they’d been in all the warmer climates, no longer lumbering in the cold, but walking with purpose, not running but still the faster movement made him uneasy. He circled the building a few times from up high, New York and several other dicey landings and take offs had taught him not to take empty roofs for granted.
The sleigh touched down, he grabbed his sack and jumped off to the gravel covered roof and his team immediately took the sleigh into the air again to wait for his call. He waited. Sounds attracted them and he had made plenty with his jump. His eyes darted back and forth between the two doors that lead below. Nothing came, and after a moment he finally released the breath he’d been holding and made his way to the door closest to the street. He just had a feeling about the front stairwell.
As he descended the stairs, he could hear sounds from the street outside. Something was happening but he had no windows. The kids he was after were down on the third floor. Others had told him that city dwellers liked to stay near the ground but not too near the ground. That if you get too far from the street you can’t hear your defenses breaking down until you’ve got several floors worth of the undead coming at you.
On three, Santa reached a black gloved hand carefully toward the door. There was shouting now, and struggle, and he thought he heard a crackling fire. Just as his hand gripped the handle of the door, it flew open and knocked him onto his back. There was screaming, and the stairwell filled with firelight. The door slammed and the stairwell went dark.
“Is he…” “Can’t be…” “Maybe…” “We have to go!” “Grab him!”
Hands pulled him to his feet and shoved him up the stairs.
“We can cross to another building, make our way down maybe,” a gruff voice said from ahead.
A few flights up the group stopped and a flashlight clicked on. The beam went around and illuminated the faces.
“Did we lose anyone,” the gruff voice asked.
“No,” someone said to Santa’s left, “I think everyone is here.”
There were about eighteen people that he could make out in the dim light as his eyes readjusted.
“We have to leave,” a woman said, “the building is on fire.”
There was banging from below, the door they came through. “The rest of them are going to hear.” It was a quiet voice. Male. He could see the man’s head turned, looking inward but upward instead of down.
Santa finally spoke up. “What does that mean, ‘The rest of them are going to hear’?”
The gruff voice with the flashlight turned it on him and answered, “We just moved in. We’d only just secured the floor. We haven’t cleared the rest of the building yet.” He paused and then added, “Nice suit.” He stood up and shined the flashlight up the stairwell. “Weapons?”
There was muttering all around. Clearly no one had picked up anything, being too focused on survival.
A girl climbed three steps and sat next to Santa. She just smiled. Sarah. She was seven, she had been good, she liked sports.
Santa opened his sack and reached in. His arm came out with a baseball bat in the grip of his hand, a red bow right in the middle. Sarah took the gift, pulled off the bow and then handed it to the man with the gruff voice. He smiled and passed it up to the man highest on the stairs then looked back at Santa. “Got any other gifts in that sack?”
It is important to know that Santa’s elves can make anything. They also don’t make judgments on safety. They simply make the gifts that people who believe ask for, label them and file them away. They start making gifts in February, but only the stuff they know will have a home, popular gifts in small numbers. Most of the toy making happens after December first, that’s when things get locked down, so to speak. Santa never sees the gifts, they are stored and loaded into the magic sack on the sleigh, the big one in back, and in between houses he puts the small sack into the large sack and it gets loaded with gifts for the next house. He’d never really spent much time thinking about the process of how so many toys fit in one bag and how his little sack gets filled. He’d just accepted the magic.
There were eight children in all, and these children unlike most of those he’d run into tonight had not been so safe, with each gift he pulled from his sack that was clear. He focused on each child and put his hand the bag. He had pulled the baseball bat for Sarah, then followed that with another bat, aluminum this time, for James. There was a cricket bat for William, and a crowbar for Samantha who said she didn’t like locked doors that hide food as she took it. The first handgun he pulled out was a 44 Magnum, a small box of bullets with it. The second was a Glock 9mm with three spare clips. Those were for Jeremy and Jered, and they were quickly taken away. Then he pulled out a shovel for Tim.
As Santa put his arm inside the sack for the last of the gifts, the man with the gruff voice smiled and said, “My son always does what he’s told.”
His hand emerged from the bag gripping a fully loaded police issue riot shotgun with a bandoleer of shells. The boy, Edward, handed the gun off to his father. “Did I do good, dad?”
Edward’s dad cocked the shotgun and replied, “You did great!”
The gift sack was empty but most the adults were armed now. The banging from below continued and there was a crack of the door giving way.
“Alright everyone,” gruff voice said, “up we go!”
Santa stayed in the middle of the pack as they moved, with most of the children gathered around him. He took the job of picking them up when they fell and keeping them moving. On his way down since he hadn’t thought anyone would live in a building they hadn’t cleared he hadn’t noticed the missing doors. Someone would stand there staring into the darkness as he moved the children past, occasionally firing a shot or swinging a bat. The shotgun roared above several times, and there was a scream. As he shuffled the children past, he saw blood on the floor beneath the feet of gruff voice as he stood in the doorway.
They reached the roof and Santa hustled the children out into the starry night. Smoke was rising on all sides of the building. People were panicked and spinning around, wondering where an attack might come from. Gruff voice with his shotgun and the woman carrying the Glock each watched over one of the stairwell doors.
One of the adults standing with the kids had wild eyes and was hyperventilating. “There’s no where to go,” he cried between breaths.
Santa whistled for his team.
Everyone turned to watch as the sleigh and its six reindeer came hurtling out of the night, through the smoke and pulled to a stop on the roof.
Quickly he piled the kids into the sleigh. It was large, with three seats, normally the first for him and the back two for the large sacks. This year there had only been the one large sack which was now empty on the floor. This had been his last stop.
Santa instructed six of the adults to climb on the reindeer, the rest he made cram in close with the kids. There was barely enough room for Santa himself as he took the reins.
With a crack, the team pulled the sleigh forward and as they flew off the roof, gruff voice fired one last shotgun blast at the first of the zombies to stumble out of the stairwell. “Merry Christmas,” he yelled.
Santa might have said that was his line, but he was too busy watching as the reindeer, the sleigh and all of its passengers drifted downward toward the street. The building in flames had attracted attention and now the boulevards were full of the shambling dead. He could hear the reindeer straining as they tried to stop the descent. It slowed but it wasn’t stopping, the load was just too heavy.
Quickly he tied the reins to the front of the sleigh and called to his team, “You know the way home!” They surged forward and tried to pull upwards. Santa gripped the bar at the front of the sleigh with one hand, then said to the two adults sharing his seat, “Hold on to me, and don’t let go.”
When he felt them grab on to his belt, he gently laid his finger on the side of his nose. His body tried to shoot upward, but his grip on the bar and the hands on his belt fought to keep him down.
The sleigh stopped descending and after a moment began to rise. They made their way through the buildings and broke away from the city. Slowly they rose into the chill winter night and a cheer erupted from the children.
They made it all the way back to Santa’s village before setting down again, and Santa’s arm was sore from holding on the entire journey. After passing off the human survivors to a group of his elves he went to the stable to check on his injured reindeer and to find two replacements and perhaps a second team to pull a second sleigh. The list had been short, the deliveries, despite difficulties, had gone quick, and there was still much time remaining. The zombies grew slow in the cold, and outside the village it was so very cold, all year long. He would start again with the farm house in Russia. He would start there and he would save them all, bring them all to his village where they would be safe. And when that was done, when Christmas was over, he would watch his list and wait for new names to appear out the world. He hoped this wouldn’t be the last Christmas.