AN ELF’S DAY OFF
When you think of elves in the North Pole, you probably think of toymaking. The truth is that elves do many jobs in the North Pole, and Gildy worked at the post office.
Sorting mail is really a one-elf job, but elves are social creatures, and Gildy sometimes wished she had someone to talk to while she worked. The reindeer dropped by once in a while, but her hours were mostly solitary, prereading letters from children and tossing anything addressed to “occupant” and anything that smacked of adults trying to pass themselves off as children. An addition to the house indeed!
“Santa will get right on that,” Gildy grumped as she tossed the request in the trash.
She put requests for soccer balls, phones, ukuleles, and dollhouses in a red velvet bag and lugged the bag to the sled outside. As it was December, the sky was black and full of stars even though it wasn’t yet dinner time. The sled was lit up by the light flooding out from the office.
Only one human visits the North Pole, and in this day and age, that person is Brigit. She flies her mail plane and lands expertly on the red-lightbulb-lined runway every day, twice a day in December. As today was December 23rd, her bags were extra full as she hauled them toward Gildy.
”Hello again,” Brigit called.
Even by human standards she was rather tall. Gildy reached about halfway between her friend’s knee and hip.
“Just put them in the office,” Gildy said. “I’m about to take this bunch to Santa’s house.”
Brigit nodded, and the fiery orange curl that had escaped her pilot’s hat bounced in the wind. Through the big front window Gildy could see her lift the heavy bags onto the counter as if they weighed no more than Gildy’s slipper.
Brigit left with a wave and a “See you tomorrow,” and she hopped back into her plane. Waving and smiling, Gildy rather wished her friend had more time to talk. Alas, it was December 23rd. No time for visiting. Gildy waited until the noisy jet had gone before calling, “Flo!”
The reindeer walked, in no hurry, around the corner out of the colorfully lit village and across the ice to the post office. She turned placidly to allow Gildy to harness her to the mail sled and nuzzled Gildy gently. Gildy hopped onto the sled and Flo plodded back across the ice, past elf homes, bustling stores, and cheery factories to Santa’s house.
Many letters to Santa included the question “How do you fit down the chimney,” which always made Gildy chuckle. Santa was an elf, after all, and no bigger than Gildy. The real question was how he magically made himself human sized in order to participate in human parades and festivities. Santa and his reindeer were flying in from such an event as Gildy and Flo pulled up.
”Gildy! Thank you!” Santa tore off his fake beard, an accessory the humans seemed to favor. Elves don’t grow facial hair, and they don’t age after about thirty, so their hair doesn’t turn white. How could he be old enough for white hair and be so lively and quick? Humans really didn’t understand elves at all. That was probably for the best, though. Brigit was sworn to secrecy.
Lars, whose job was to care for Santa’s reindeer, appeared from around the back of the house and led Dasher and the others to the back yard.
Gildy carried the bags of mail into Santa’s modest home and said hello to his stunning, raven-haired wife, Jane.
“Hi Gildy, looking forward to the party?”
Gildy set her bags in the sleigh-shaped inbox. “Oh yes!” All the elves looked forward to the Christmas Eve party they always threw while Santa was out delivering gifts, but none more than Gildy, who spent her days alone at the post office.
Jane draped her arm over Santa’s shoulders and asked Gildy, “Stay for dinner?”
”No thanks.” Gildy tried to sound chipper. “Brigit just brought in quite a bit of mail. I’ll be at the post office until late, and then again as soon as Brigit comes in the morning. Have to make sure those last minute requests get here before Santa leaves.”
Santa beamed. “You’re a gem, Gildy. We’ll have you over after Christmas, eh?”
”Thank you! See you tomorrow!” Gildy waved and practically skipped out the front door, where she crashed into Lars.
“Oh, sorry Gildy.”
”No, no, my fault.”
”I expect you’re working late tonight?”
”Yes. Probably not as late as the toymakers, though.”
”Well…” Lars patted Flo. She sniffed his pocket, and he fed her some of the birch leaves that he gathered from afar this time of year and usually saved for Santa’s reindeer. ”I guess I’ll see you at the party tomorrow night.”
”Goodbye.” Gildy hopped on the sled and Flo moved painfully slowly away from Santa’s house and back to the post office.
The post office had a bright little kitchen, in which Gildy made herself some cocoa to drink while she worked. She set the mug on the wooden desk and settled onto the green and white striped cushion on her chair.
She picked up the first envelope, which was addressed to Pere Noel. She carefully opened it. Puppy. She shoved the letter back in the envelope and put the envelope into the large, red velvet bag for Santa.
Requests for ice cream, requests for better sisters, requests to visit the North Pole, rambling letters that didn’t seem to ask for anything, letters that showed the lack of understanding that reindeer cannot speak but can understand language as well as and better than some humans, all into the bag. Very few went into the trash.
“Dear Santa, I don’t believe in you,” Gildy read. “Rude,” she said aloud to herself. But she did put it in the bag because it was addressed to him and seemed to be from a child. Even letters from adults she put in the bag as long as they were well-intentioned.
She took a sip of cocoa, picked up a plain white envelope, and stared at it for a moment. It was addressed in type as such:
There was no “head” elf at the North Pole. Even Santa wouldn’t consider himself the head elf. He just happened to have the job of visiting the humans. Gildy turned the envelope over. Nothing else was written on it. It had ample stamps (perhaps ample is the wrong word; letters to the North Pole do not require stamps) and appeared to have been sent from the United States of America. Head elf. Humans probably considered Santa the head elf if they considered him an elf at all, but they would have addressed their letter to Santa if that’s what they meant. They probably meant head toymaker.
But there was no “head” toymaker, and it was Gildy’s job to read the mail anyway, so she ripped into it. This too, was typewritten.
“To whom it may concern,
“We have an assembly job that needs to be completed faster than we are capable of. We are in grave danger. We require your services immediately after Christmas. Travel, housing, and food covered. Pay very generous. Please send positive response to the P.O. Box below. This message is confidential and for the head elf alone. Do not share.”
There was a P.O. Box number, and it was signed “Cameo.”
Gildy reread the brief letter. This was ludicrous! Elves didn’t leave the North Pole to work for humans. Except for Santa, they didn’t leave the North Pole at all. Gildy read the letter again. The sender, this Cameo, made it sound as if this “head elf” had no choice but to comply. They didn’t sound like a child. Gildy looked up at the front window and out into the darkness. It was all rather sinister. For the first time in her long career at the post office on the edge of the village she got up to draw the curtains closed. She hurried to the window, and as she reached out for the red and white striped fabric, a shape hurtled toward the window out of the darkness. The shape slowed just in time, and two nostrils and an antler barely tapped the window pane.
”For goodness’ sake, Comet. You scared the cocoa of me.”
Comet’s breath fogged the window, and Gildy tried to breathe herself.
As often happened when a reindeer came to see her, whether it was Santa’s or not, Lars appeared, out of breath, soon after. He smiled and waved and mouthed the word, “Sorry.”
Gildy stuffed the letter from Cameo in a desk drawer and trotted to the door and invited him in. He tied Comet to a hitching post and Gildy, after stepping out into the cold to scratch Comet’s head, brought Lars in and poured him a cup of cocoa.
Lars sat in Gildy’s desk chair so that Gildy could have the comfy arm chair. He took a sip of his cocoa.
“I really shouldn’t keep you from your work.”
Any other December 23rd she would have agreed, but tonight she was relieved to have him there.
”I am glad you’re here.”
The clock ticked as the two of them sat, Gildy wondering what would happen if she told Lars about the letter from Cameo. She squinted at the window, whose curtains she had failed to close. But this was silly. How many letters had she read over her decades at the post office? She had never let herself be intimidated by a human!
But she couldn’t bring herself to tell him. She also wanted to ask him to wait until she was done with her work and walk her home, but she didn’t want it to sound romantic, which it was sure to do. An elf walking alone in the dark is perfectly safe. Even polar bears didn’t bother with them. Gildy reminded herself of this.
She had to think of something to say, though. “Are the reindeer ready for their big trip?”
”Oh yes. They’re all healthy and seem excited. It’s not hard to find a replacement, of course, but they get peevish if they miss the Christmas trip. Comet will get a talking to for running off the night before the big trip. He’s supposed to be getting a good night’s rest! I’ll threaten to replace him, but I wouldn’t.”
”Flo!” Gildy almost shouted it.
Lars looked out the window for Flo.
Gildy stammered, “I was just thinking how much Flo would love to go with Santa again.”
Really Gildy had just had the idea of calling Flo to her when she was done reading letters. She knew she’d be working too late to make another trip to Santa’s, but Flo could walk with her at least, and then she wouldn’t have to explain to anyone why she felt spooked.
“Do you think so?” Lars looked skeptical. Flo always had the look of a creature who would rather be not moving than moving.
Gildy chuckled. “Maybe not.”
Generously, Lars said, “But she was sure a fantastic flier in her day.”
They listened to the clock tick some more and expressed their excitement for the party some more, and then Lars said he’d let Gildy do her work. He loitered a moment, but Gildy didn’t give in to her fears and ask him to stay. She locked the door and shut the curtains as soon as he left, though.
Every letter was opened with some trepidation, but there were no more from Cameo. Maybe she should just ignore it. She left the bag of letters for Santa to be delivered in the morning and didn’t open the drawer again before stepping outside and calling to Flo.
Her reindeer looked none too happy to be called out so late at night, but she walked alongside Gildy without grunting her disapproval. Halfway to town, the aurora burst forth with such powerful green and pink light that Gildy felt silly for fearing anything from the world outside her North Pole town. Strengthened in spirit, she walked through her colored bulb-lit neighborhood a little straighter and hugged Flo goodnight before entering her little home, which was just the way she liked it.
When Gildy’s jingle bell alarm rang a few hours later, she washed and dressed and hurried through the dark with Flo to the post office, where she put bags of letters on the sled and took them to Santa.
“Jane and I will try to get through these before you get back with the last batch.”
Gildy rushed back and finished the bags that Brigit had brought while she was out and repeated the process one final time. After her last trip, she sent Flo home and walked with Santa and Jane to the toy factory.
The elves worked at their long tables as quickly as ever, but there was no singing. Each elf worked with eyes only for the toy on which they worked. A few colored bulbs needed replacing, and scraps of paper littered the floor, as all hands were busy with the final push. The giant room would sparkle again and ring with song in a few days, but this day was for presents and presents only.
“Ho ho ho,” one of the toymakers called out when she noticed Santa.
”Ho ho ho,” Santa called back.
Gildy’s next door neighbor and best friend, LeeLee, looked up from putting the finishing touches on a hoverboard and jumped up to come take Santa’s bags.
”Hi Gildy! See you at the party?”
The back wall of the room was lined with the magical bags that Santa would take on his journey. Each bag matched the outfit Santa would wear to one of the humans’ regions. Gildy liked the pale blue one. Elves shoved toys into all the bags at a breathtaking tempo. Later, Jane, Lars, and a toymaker named Crysty would leave the party frequently to help Santa change, tend to the reindeer, grab another bag of toys, and take off again. Now that Gildy thought about it, maybe Crysty would be considered the “head” toymaker. No, she was letting Cameo’s letter get to her. She was ignoring the letter! No more thinking about the letter!
“Gotta get back to work,” LeeLee said. She hurried to her workspace.
Jane held up a small stack of letters. “We’re running late this year. Gildy, could you take these to the animal homes? Santa and I can split up the rest and deliver them.”
”Sure,” Gildy replied.
Not only did Gildy love to visit the puppies and kittens at the animal home, she and the other elves couldn’t hide their curiosity about Wilma, the animals’ caretaker. Because elves have an extremely low mortality rate, they don’t conceive babies often. In fact, many never date or marry. The ones who do marry often divorce after a hundred or so years still with no children. Such was the case with Wilma and her husband. But fifty or so years later they had married each other again, and now Wilma was pregnant. Very pregnant.
When Gildy arrived at Wilma’s house, Wilma showed off her belly with no embarrassment about her pride. Gildy laughed and rubbed the belly for good luck.
“Yule will take those letters,” Wilma said. “The baby’s coming any hour now, and he thinks I’m having trouble bending over to pick up the animals. Go help him pick some out if you want.”
Yule appeared from the kitchen dusting crumbs from his tank top. He greeted her and shuffled through the letters.
“Good. Nothing too specific,” he said. “Easy.”
Gildy would have worn a tank top too had she known she’d be coming here. The animal rooms behind Wilma and Yule’s house were kept at a ridiculously high temperature for the animals. Nearly sixty degrees! She followed him first to the puppies, where she petted and hugged the fluffballs to her heart’s content and admired a handsome husky girl pup whom Yule said was not suited for the warm climates of these last Santa requests. Gildy almost wanted to take her home, but that would be just silly. Elves came to the animal home to get their fill of puppies. Their work days were much too long to keep pets.
Then to the kittens, where she scratched heads warily, ready to pull her hand away should they swat. Gildy and Yule chose a cat for each letter and put each unwilling but lucky critter in a cage.
“I’ll load these onto my sled and take them to the toy factory. Would you mind walking with Wilma to the runway to see Santa off and I’ll meet her there? She’ll be angry if she knows I asked you.”
Gildy thought that was probably true. Elves are stubbornly independent. So when she returned to the nice cool house, she casually asked if Wilma wanted to walk with her, and Wilma did. It wasn’t until Yule was gone and Gildy stepped out into the dark with Wilma that she realized she might end up delivering a baby alone in the street. She wasn’t sure which was more frightening—walking alone thinking about the letter from Cameo or having a baby pop out of her friend.
But Wilma wasn’t scared. She jabbered about the party and the newest litters of puppies and the pros and cons of owning tarantulas and snakes. Before she knew it, they were across town outside the post office, where many of the townselves had already gathered and begun singing “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and “Thank an Elf.” She found LeeLee in the crowd.
LeeLee rubbed Wilma’s belly. “Nice clear weather for flying. I’m glad to see all the regular reindeer made it, too. That will make things easier for Santa and Lars.”
Gildy stood on her tiptoes to see the reindeer in their newly polished and jingling harnesses. “Lars almost threatened to leave Comet behind for running off to see me.”
”Oh Gildy,” Lee Lee said.
”What? Oh I know he wouldn’t have done it, but he joked about it.”
“Not that. Santa’s reindeer are the most obedient reindeer at the North Pole, silly. Wilma, back me up.”
Wilma nodded. “I know animals.”
Gildy looked back and forth between them.
”Gildy,” LeeLee said, “Lars TELLS his reindeer to go to the post office.”
Wilma gave LeeLee a look. “Oh my goodness. My baby probably gets it.”
“What? Did he tell you he tells them to go there? Maybe they just like me. Or maybe they want to go on a trip so they come to the runway.”
”Gildy.” LeeLee put a hand on Gildy’s shoulder. “He obviously tells the reindeer to go see you so that he has an excuse to visit you.”
”Oh! Surely not.” But she wasn’t sure. She felt like a fool. Why didn’t he simply ask if he could come visit her?
Santa, dressed in red and white for the people of Samoa, climbed into the sleigh and everyone cheered. Gildy forgot to cheer. She was thinking about Lars, which was worse than thinking about delivering a baby, but not as bad as thinking about Cameo. Or was it?
Jane patted Santa’s cheek, and he straightened up and waved to them all. They cheered again, and Santa called out the name of each reindeer, and they cheered some more. He yelled, “Away,” and the reindeer pulled the sleigh forward. Soon they were running full speed, and then they were flying. They made a pass around the elves and then they were off and out of sight.
The other elves put arms around one another and walked toward the party hall in the center of town saying, “Job well done,” and singing “There Goes Santa Claus.”
Glitter Hall is one of the few structures at the North Pole that’s made of ice. Extra lights in and around it especially for this night made bursts of every color and cast a glow that rivaled the aurora.
Gildy entered with LeeLee and Wilma and remembered how much she loved Christmas Eve. LeeLee ran off to dance near the band, and Gildy and Wilma stood aside and watched the elves from the power plant rush in and crowd the dance floor in one raucous mob. Candy makers passed out their goods on this, the only day of the year that elves indulged in their own sugary creations. Gildy and Wilma each accepted a candy cane.
”You’re awfully quiet, even for you,” Wilma shouted over the bells and accordions.
”I guess I’m tired from the Christmas rush.”
”That’s true. Taking care of the animals doesn’t change much at Christmas, so I don’t get exhausted this time of year. Still, are you sure?”
”Sometimes I wish I worked at the power plant or the toy factory.” Gildy only said it to come up with something that might be bothering her other than Cameo’s letter, but she realized as it came out of her mouth that it was true. The power plant elves were forming a pyramid on the dance floor.
”Or at least that someone worked at the post office with me.”
”But that only really takes one elf.”
”I know, but—“ Gildy trailed off.
” I get it. I mightn’t have married Yule—twice— if I weren’t the only one taking care of the gift animals.”
”And now look at you!”
They both laughed at the ginormousness of Wilma’s belly.
“At least you had the animals,” Gildy said.
”That husky puppy is so cute!”
Just then Lars and Yule entered the party together.
”Speaking of cute,” Wilma said, and Gildy hoped she was only referring to her husband, as the guys had gotten close enough to hear.
”Want to dance?” Yule asked his wife.
Gildy thought he was kidding, but off Wilma went, ginormous belly and all. Her moves rivaled LeeLee’s bounds and springs.
“Are you going to dance?” Lars asked her.
“I don’t know.”
Gildy realized she’d made her candy cane dangerously pointy. She bit the end off. “Yes?”
”We’ve known each other over a hundred years.”
”Is everything okay?”
Well, she didn’t want to tell Lars about the Cameo letter, and she certainly couldn’t tell him she was lonely at the post office. He would volunteer to come by more often.
“Everything is fine. I’m just a little tired.”
”Do you want me to find you a chair?”
”Do you want to come with me back to the runway when I go check on the reindeer? I could put you on a sled.”
”Ha. No thanks.”
They watched other people dance, and Lars left to check the reindeer while Santa grabbed another bag of toys for his next region. When Lars came back, he visited his other friends around the hall before going back out for his second check-in. After watching the party a while longer and wondering how Wilma’s baby didn’t just pop out onto the floor, she changed her mind. She found Lars by the cookie table.
”I think I’ll go with you this time. But I’ll walk.”
Lars smiled and linked his arm through hers. Jane and Crysty joined them. They left the dancers behind, but even out at the runway they could hear the music a little.
“Here they come,” said Jane.
The reindeer and sled were a barely visible dot in the clear night sky.
Lars’s grip on Gildy’s arm tightened. “Something’s wrong.”
It took Gildy a while to see it, but the reindeer seemed off kilter and the sleigh jolted around behind it. As they got close to the ground Gildy could see that Comet, usually in the lead, was in the middle of the right line and barely moving his legs. Lars ran toward them. Somehow they managed to put the sled gently on the runway. Lars ran alongside as the sleigh slid to a halt and Santa jumped out.
“What happened?” Jane cried.
Santa joined Lars in unhooking Comet from the line. “Someone set a trap on a rooftop. Middle of the United States.”
Gildy’s heart thudded. Cameo’s letter was from the middle of the United States. No, she was jumping to conclusions. There were millions of people in the middle of the United States.
”I think he’ll be okay,” Santa said. “I freed him pretty quickly and came straight back.” But it sounded like a question.
Lars was running his hands over Comet’s legs and belly. “Well, he can stand, and his pulse is good. Are you going to be okay, Comet?”
Comet lowered his head.
“I think he’s going to be all right,” Lars said. “Gildy, could you and Flo bring a sled while I get another flier? Then Flo and I can take Comet to Santa’s.”
Crysty said, “Do you think it’s safe to continue, Santa? Might there be other traps?”
”Surely not!” Jane said.
Santa shrugged and scratched under his fake beard. “I can hardly not deliver the rest of the presents, but I’ll take an extra look before I land.”
Jane eyed him.
”I promise,” he said.
Gildy said, “I’ll get Flo.”
When she returned with Flo and a sled, Lars had already hooked the replacement up to Santa’s line. He encouraged Comet to get on the sled. Comet lay down as soon as he got on.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Gildy asked.
”No, you go back to the party.” Lars patted Comet on the neck. “He’s going to be all right, but I’ll stay with him tonight. I’ll just pop in on the others when they come back for presents. Let’s go, Flo.” He gave the sled a shove to help Flo pull her heavy load.
Gildy didn’t want to leave her friend alone on the night of the big party, but she did want to go back to the party, and she didn’t want to encourage romance.
She was still deciding whether to run after Lars when Santa said, “One thing’s for sure. Cami O’Connor isn’t getting a present this year. I’ll start back in with her neighbor Nina.”
Cami O. from the middle of America. Cameo was a child.
”Oh, Santa,” Jane said. “Are you sure? What if someone else set the trap? What if it wasn’t Cami?”
”I’m sure,” was all Santa said.
No one but Jane ever questioned Santa’s judgment about a child.
And Gildy didn’t know what made her do it, but while neither Santa nor Jane nor Crysty was looking toward her, she slipped into the half-full bag of presents in the sleigh.
Hidden in the sack with what felt like a toy plane jabbing her left glute, Gildy second guessed herself. She didn’t know what Cameo wanted help with! Maybe it was something sinister after all. But she was a child! But she HAD set a trap that injured a reindeer. And no one would know where Gildy was if something went wrong.
However, the thought of popping out of Santa’s bag seemed ridiculous, especially at such a serious moment.
“Did Gildy go with Lars?” It was Lee Lee’s voice.
Jane said, “I didn’t see her, but maybe.”
”Or maybe she went back to the party. She was sure acting strangely today.”
Gildy’s stomach did a little flip. She wanted to hear what more Lee Lee had to say about her, but Santa said, “I’ve got to hurry,” and next thing she knew, the sleigh jolted forward.
She managed not to yelp when the toys shifted under her. Fortunately the plane shifted to a more comfortable position and not a more alarming one.
This was insane! What did she think was going to happen when Santa opened his bag in Colorado? She would have to sneak out before Santa turned around to get the sack on Nina’s roof.
Moving along over the hard-packed snow at the speed of eight reindeer was more exhilarating than she would ever have imagined. She only had a second to register that she wasn’t hearing hooves anymore before the sleigh jolted again and she was yanked upward, thrown back, and covered with pungent cans of play dough.
When the sleigh leveled out again, Gildy caught her breath and climbed back on top of the toys. She had no idea how long it would take to get to Nina’s roof, and she wanted to be ready to spring out. She had heard that the weather was warmer down south, but she wasn’t prepared for the dramatic change. Soon she could hardly breathe, and her skin felt like a stovetop. When she could stand the stifling heat no longer, she pried the top of the bag open enough to stick her head out.
Very slowly, she peeked out over the edge of the bag. Santa’s back was almost within reach. She breathed deeply of the balmy air. The sky was clear and starry, but she wasn’t even sure it would be cold enough to snow had there been clouds. It was difficult to see below the sleigh what with the bag bulging all around her, but if she looked toward the horizon she could see what she imagined must be the city lights from a city the size of which she had never imagined. She supposed all those letters had to come from homes, but she had never tried to picture the enormity of a city that held so many children.
When the sleigh began its descent, Gildy gripped the opening of the velvety bag harder and made sure her feet weren’t tangled among the toys but ready to launch her out. She needn’t have worried about getting stuck. When the reindeer set the sleigh down, she pitched forward so hard she almost slammed right into Santa’s back. She stopped with her arms stretched out to the side and her nose almost touching him. She waited to see which way he turned (left) and went the other. She leapt out and ran past the reindeer to the edge of the roof.