Monday, January 16, 2017

A Scene From Writing Life: Reality Brakes

Greetings, WYMOP readers!
This week, I bring you a scene from writing life:

At a recent multi-author event, we held a large, multi-prize raffle: each item had a bucket, and players bought their tickets and simply put them into the buckets for each of the things they were interested in, one chance per ticket. Participating authors also had buckets, winners there to have themselves written into a story by said author. It’s a neat little prize, and hey, we’re all going to be writing stories anyway, right?
At the end of the event I checked my bucket and found only four tickets, but three names—someone had put their name in twice. Flattering, yes? So it was just three names—two women and a man—and I knew all of them but one woman. I’d already planned on writing more short work for submission this year, so I decided on the spot to use all three: bang—everyone’s a winner. I put things off through the holidays, then set about thinking of a story for one of them.
But wait! Inspiration hit me like a wrecking ball—the one Wile E. Coyote used against Roadrunner, not the one a naked Miley Cyrus rode into the hearts of millions of fourteen-year-old boys.
I have a story idea I’ve been meaning to write for the better part of a year: basically a three-person play, opening with a wife storming into a hotel room to catch her husband in bed with another woman. Two women and a man, all three major characters in the story—and I had two women and a man who wanted to be written into a story. Perfect! It was a certifiably genius idea, that I would knock out of the park! I was so excited I decided to run the idea past my writing/editing partner (who also knows two of the three persons involved).
I'll somewhat paraphrase our conversation:

SL. So you have [man], [woman 1], and [woman 2], whom you do not know.
Mᴇ. Yeah, but I figure I don’t know [woman 2], so I’ll cast [woman 1] as the chippie.
SL. You can’t.
Mᴇ. Well, I mean, I’ll run it by [woman 1] first, of course, but—
SL. You can’t do that.
Mᴇ. Yeah, but she really wanted to be in my story, so I think she’d be okay with—
SL. But what about her fiancé?
Mᴇ. Uh . . .
SL. He’d be pissed.
Mᴇ. But it’s just fiction. I could add a disclaimer saying—
SL. You can add whatever you want, but if you write a story where [woman 1] is in bed with another man, stealing someone’s husband, he’s going to be pissed.
Mᴇ. Maybe you’re right. But what if I—
SL. He’ll be pissed.
Mᴇ. I could—
SL. He’ll be pissed.
Me. But he’s—
SL. Pissed.
Mᴇ. Pissed?
SL. Pissed.
Mᴇ. So, considering that [fiancé] might get pissed, I’ve decided to think of something else to do.
SL. Good thinking.

Okay, yeah, sometimes it’s really, really good to have someone else there to slam on the reality brakes.

Talk to you later!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It . . .

Greetings, WYMOP readers!

Gravel crunched as the Mini rolled to a stop in the driveway, in the spot normally occupied by the homeowner’s SUV. We got out, casting surreptitious glances to the neighboring houses before focusing on the one in front of us. It was Christmas day, after all, and the car was in a neighborhood in which it did not belong. In a driveway where it didn’t belong. And we were about to enter a house in which we didn’t belong. If one of the neighbors noticed the Mini, and the cops showed up while we were in the house, things could get . . . awkward.
We shared a nod and my partner scooped a small box from the back seat, then we went around to the front door and tried the knob: unlocked. With another glance around we stepped into the empty house, closing the door behind us . . .
Okay, at this point I might want to mention that my “partner” was actually my son, Handsome, and the house we were entering belongs to his girlfriend, Miss D (and thus his girlfriend is forever named Miss D, here at WYMOP). Okay, it was technically her mom’s house. And Handsome had gotten the mom’s permission in advance to enter the house while they weren’t home—in fact, she’d texted to let him know when the house was empty.
The boy moved through the kitchen in a cabinet-rattling tiptoe—at fourteen, he’s much larger than he is deft—and into Miss D’s room, laid the box from the car on her bed, lifted off the lid, and drew forth a squat gray cylinder, maybe four inches across and two high. He placed the thing on Miss D’s desk, wiping it down and dusting it with a paper towel. I drew a black box from my pocket, a blocky, rectangular portable charger, capable of reenergizing my tablet twice before needing recharging itself, and handed it over. Handsome plugged the cord from my block into the back of his cylinder, then went back to the box on the bed.
He came back to the desk with a small crystal obelisk, maybe four inches tall, the words I Love You running up the front and capped with a rose, all laser cut beneath the smooth face. He went at the obelisk with the paper towel, polishing away fingerprints and shining every surface. He placed the gleaming crystal upon the center of the cylinder—now a base—and stood back. He stepped forward, made a minute adjustment, then back again. Nodding, he stepped forward and flipped a tiny switch.
Light shot from the center of the base, rifling up through the crystal to highlight and split at the laser-cut words, the recently-polished surfaces suddenly suffused with all the colors of the rainbow as the opening strains of “Hotel California” filled the room.
“That should play for hours,” I said, “maybe even a couple of days, plugged into that charging block.”
Nodding once more, the boy found a paper and pencil and bent to the desk, writing quite a lengthy note. Another song came on as he wrote, and then a third. We packed up all the extraneous material and left, making our escape in the world’s smallest getaway car, grinning widely as the music continued to play in the empty house behind us.
And that was how Miss D, coming home from Christmas dinner at her grandparents’ house, and probably wearing the sweatshirt given to her earlier by Handsome as her “Christmas gift,” discovered her true Christmas present: a rechargable, programmable, 21st century music box, filled with ten of her favorite songs, the titles figured out by the boy during a conversation weeks earlier.
Yeah. I have a pretty good kid.
I’m fairly proud.
I’m understating wildly here.

Talk to you later.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Goodbye 2016—And Hello 2017!

Hey there, WYMOP readers!
So, that was 2016. Rather than go off on a rant about something 2016ish, or shout about some New Year’s resolutions we all know would basically be lies told with the best of intentions, I made two simple lists: one reminding me of things I’ve done, the other to help me remember things I want to do. I made then both pretty much off the top of my head (though I did have a little help remembering one particular thing), so if it looks like I’ve forgotten something important somewhere, I’m sorry.
Please feel free to remind me. I’ll add it to my personal lists.

Writerly things I accomplished in 2016:

  • Had Echoes of Darkness published with Books & Boos Press, then favorably reviewed on Cemetery Dance Online (among others, but this was the biggie!)
  • Managed to get the Storyside News (our newsletter at The Storyside) out on time, twelve months in a row, despite the best efforts of the gremlins who seem to enjoy screwing up everything technological about me: cars, computers, phones, you name it.
    I hate gremlins.
  • Managed to get my Monster Movie Madness column up over at Cinema Knife Fight on time, twelve months in a row. See above regarding gremlins.
    I hate gremlins.
  • Back in 2015 I partnered up with Stacey Longo to form S & L Editing, which I think has helped make me a better writer. In 2016 we edited or proofed seven complete books, as well as (possibly) keeping Stacey from actually filling all those shallow graves she digs in her backyard on the weekends. For fun. Yeah. For fun.
  • Had two of the stories in Echoes of Darkness nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I know the name doesn’t sound like much, but the Pushcart is kind of a big deal in the writing industry. Unless I lose. Then it’s really not all that important. But if I win, well, look out!
  • Only wrote and submitted three short(ish) stories for publication, with one acceptance, one rejection, and one the jury’s still out on, but that one I’m waiting to hear about was a pirate story. I edit by reading aloud. You ain’t had fun editing until you’ve read through an entire 12,000 word story—multiple times—sounding like the Flying Dutchman from Spongebob Squarepants. Arrr!
  • Penned (okay, typed) a novella tentatively titled Friends in High Places that was a ton of fun to write, but a giant cramp in the scrotum to edit. I’m still editing it. Sometimes, just to make the editing more palatable, I read it aloud sounding like the Flying Dutchman. Arrr!
  • Participated in about a half-dozen public readings (some more public than others) over the course of the year, including being the featured author for the Worcester Storytellers in October. I understand folks like when I read to them, which is good, since I enjoy doing it, despite the gut-wrenching, pants-wetting, testicles-ascending-into-my-abdomen stage fright that starts approximately a  half-hour before, and usually lasts about a minute into, any performance. I think I’d like to do more of this—except the testicles ascending thing. I’d really like to skip that part.
  • Had one of my coworkers approach me with a well-thumbed copy of Echoes, looking for an autograph. That was fun. And completely unexpected. And fun.
    Did I mention that it was fun?
  • Did some of the writing for, some of the editing on, and some of the proofreading of the next installment of the Insanity Tales anthology series coming out of The Storyside. Insanity Tales III: Seasons of Fear should be out in 2017, and will have some fantastic writing in it. Some of it might even be mine!
  • Finagled my novella, “The Christmas Spirit,” into a three-novella anthology, Triplicity: The Terror Project, Volume 1, so I have something a little longer than a short story out there in the public eye. And now I have also used “finagled” in real life, so I can check that off my bucket list.
  • Started work collaborating on a novel with a terrific writer, which is going better than I’d feared (I’m not the best team player out there). With a little luck, and a whole bunch of work, it might be ready for shopping around to publishers sometime in 2017. It’ll be fun. It’ll be funny. Did I mention it’ll be a whole bunch of work?

Writerly things I’d like to be better at in 2017:

  • Keeping up my website. I’m pitiful at it. If you could win a gold medal for sucking at something, this would be my event.
  • Working on my own stuff. I’ve already written couple of novels and a few novellas I keep meaning to get into shape to shop around. I have whole trilogies mapped out, with notes to work from and everything for when I get around to writing them down. If I have so many stories in my head it sometimes feels like it’s going to burst, shouldn’t I do something about it?
  • Working on my own stuff. And right now you’re thinking Rob’s lost it, he’s repeating himself, but that’s not the case. I only submitted three short stories for the whole year in 2016. Along with the longer stuff I mentioned above, I’d love to get more of my short stuff out there. I have unpublished shorts I’ve already written, and more I want to write—including one about the Squirrel Mafia, which should be so much fun I’ll be editing it in my Flying Dutchman voice. Arrr!

  • Doing more events. I have a hard time doing whole weekend events because I work most Saturdays, but I’ve noticed a few public readings around that happen mid-week in the evening, and those sound right up my alley. Please see above regarding ascending testicles. Yeesh!

So that’s, as Forrest Gump would say, all I have to say about that. Despite all the bitching and crying and whining and yelling I saw on social media all year, I hope you had a great 2016.

Happy New Year.

. . . now, go out and grab 2017 by the throat (or balls, if you’re feeling mean enough), and make it the best 2017 you can. You only get this one. Make the most of it.

Talk to you later.

P.S.—I was just about to hit POST when I realized I forgot to add something to that list of writerly accomplishments for 2016: I wrote this very damn blog for 52 weeks in a row, almost always on time, and they almost always made a little sense.

Holy crap, talk about missing the obvious?


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Cindy Who, Lou?

Merry Christmas, WYMOP readers!
For Christmas this year, I’m shooting you your regular Monday blog a day early—I plan to be busy tomorrow trying to recover from all the overeating last night and today. If I can do more this evening than moan and whine about not being able to move from the couch because my stomach won’t let me, well, then it just ain’t Christmas.
Even today I’m not doing much, just introducing you to an old Christmas story of mine that was a lot of fun to write. I hope you have as much fun reading it.
Have fun, be good to each other—every day, not just today—and have a merry Christmas.

Cindy Who, Lou?
Rob Smales

Just like the Grinch, thought Lou. Now that guy had the right idea! With the theme song from his all-time favorite Christmas special running through his head, Lou quietly stuffed gifts into bags.
The first bag was anything that Lou could tell, from the size, shape, weight, and feel, held either toys or clothes. There was something that felt like a 10-pack of socks, a catcher’s mitt, a wrapped package in the obvious shape of a gun (honestly, sometimes he wondered why people bothered with the wrapping at all), and a few somewhat squishy boxes that were just the right size to hold sweaters. Maybe a couple of shirts or pairs of slacks, but Lou was pretty good at guessing package contents without actually peeking, and he was guessing sweaters. There was other stuff in there too, but at the moment Lou was focused on the other bag.
The second bag was anything portable and valuable. Two boxes that looked like a matching set of iPods, one box with an oddly-shaped corner he was pretty sure held a new iPhone, every gift card holder he could find, and every unopened Christmas card that might hold a little cash as well. Going through the stocking marked Mom, he’d found what might turn out to be the biggest score of the night: three small boxes—two square, one long—all with hinges running along one side for someone to feel through the wrapping paper, if they had careful fingers.
And I have the most carefullest fingers of all, thought Lou. If those ain’t matching jewelry boxes I’ll eat the paper they’re wrapped in.
He added those three boxes to the bag with the rest of the more expensive gifts he’d found, as well as some more electronics he’d spotted about the house, like the cell phones from the kitchen and the iHome stereo adapter from the living room. He was getting everything ready for transport out to his van; unwrapping here would make far too much noise—he’d bring it all home for the real sorting, then do some re-wrapping. He looked at the bags and chuckled again at the thought of gifts leaving the house in sacks rather than being brought in that way.
“I’m like the Anti Santi,” he whispered, twisting Old Saint Nick’s name to make the rhyme, impressed momentarily at his own cleverness.
“I have an Auntie Darla,” said a small, clear voice behind him, freezing the grin on Lou’s face. “Does that count?”
Lou whirled: a small figure standing in the doorway behind him, blonde hair falling down about big blue eyes in a pink Winx nightgown.
“Who are you?” The question was reflex: his first night as a burglar and he’d been caught by a little girl who reminded him of—
“I’m Cindy, Lou.”
“Who?” He was stunned. How did she know his name?
“No, Cindy Lou Martin. But I get that a lot this time of year.”
She heaved a little sigh. “My name. Cindy Lou Martin. But I get the ‘Cindy Lou Who’ thing a lot. At school and stuff. Forget it, just call me Cindy, okay? Now, what’s your name?”
Just for a second there he’d have sworn she used his name, but he wasn’t that rattled. “I, uh, I don’t think I wanna tell you that, Cindy.”
She waved a dismissive hand in a surprisingly adult manner. “Fine. You don’t want to go there, that’s okay. So.” She put her hands behind her back and leaned forward, big blue eyes squinting at him through the long blond bangs. “What are you doing?”
Lou thought as fast as he could, but all that kept running through his head were scenes from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
“Well, I’m one of Santa’s helpers,” he whispered. “I was just putting out the presents, and I noticed that this, uh—” He looked down at his hands to find they were holding a clock radio with a built-in CD player. “This, uh, this clock had a number that wouldn’t light up all the way, so I was just going to pop back to my workshop in the North Pole and—”
“And does the Christmas tree,” interrupted the girl, “have a light that won’t light on one side? And you’ll fix it up there and bring it back here?”
“I, well, I, uh, well you—”
“I’m Cindy, Lou, remember?”
There was that pause again; he could swear she wasn’t saying it like Cindyloo, but as two distinct names, as if she knew—
“I’m six, not stupid. I’ve seen the special.”
“Um, right,” he mumbled. “Of course you have. But that doesn’t mean I’m not one of Santa’s helpers, right?”
She looked up at him. “Aren’t you kind of tall? For an elf, I mean?”
“I had good nutrition as a youngster,” he babbled. “Look, if I wasn’t one of Santa’s helpers, would I know . . . uh . . .
He turned and thrust a hand into the first bag, rummaged for a half-second, then came up with a wrapped package, oddly coffin-like in shape.
“If I wasn’t Santa’s helper, would I know there’s a doll for you in here?”
The girl stared at him. “How did you know that?”
“Huh?” Lou held out the package to her. “Don’t you wanna check?”
The girl ignored the brightly wrapped present, staring instead at Lou. “What kind?”
“What kind of doll is in there, Lou?”
“What?” Lou was rocked. “What did you call me?”
You,” replied his tiny interrogator. “What kind of doll is in there, you? What’s going on, is something wrong with your ears? What did you think I said?”
“I think I gotta sit down,” said Lou. What’s going on here? he thought. What is this, guilt? Am I cracking up? Either way, I gotta get out of here! He tried for the door, but two steps later his knees folded and he sagged onto the couch, little Cindy moving to stand in front of him.
“What kind of doll?”
Lou hefted the present still in his hand. “Barbie. The salon set.”
The blue eyes before him widened slightly as the little girl nodded. “Impressive.”
He held out the present to her again. “Don’t you want to check—”
“No need. So, what, you can just tell by the feel of the thing what’s inside?”
“I told you, I’m one of . . .
The blond head was shaking before he was even halfway finished. “No. You’re not. Like I said, I’m six, not stupid. I stopped believing in Santa this year. If you can do things like that,” she indicated the boxed Barbie set in his hand, “why do you stoop to robbing houses?”
Lou tried to turn his shocked expression into one of indignant surprise. “What are you talking about? Robbing? Me?” He rose from the couch. When you completely lose control of the situation to a child, he thought, it’s definitely time to go!
“I don’t have to stand for this sort of thing,” he said over his shoulder as he strode toward the door. “You guys can just fix that clock yourselves.”
The little blond head was shaking again. “I wouldn’t do that if I were Lou.”
Lou stumbled and whirled around. “You’re actually doing that aren’t you? You’re saying . . . what are you pointing at?”
The girl’s little arm was extended, finger toward the window. “You might want to look out there before you go.”
Keeping one eye on the strange child, Lou edged to the window, peeked through the curtains, and sagged with dismay. The police car was parked right behind his van, and they were probably checking his license plate right now. They were at least making a note of it, and come morning when people in the neighborhood called about their burgled goods—
I’m screwed. I am so screwed.
“That looks like trouble,” said Cindy.
Lou staggered from the window, spaghetti legs barely making it across the room before failing completely, dropping him back onto the plush couch.
“I’m done. I’m all done. They’ll come pick me up tomorrow for sure.” He dropped his face into his hands, hiding his eyes, wishing he could just hide from the whole world as easily. “I’ll be with my kids tomorrow. It’s Christmas. Oh my God, I’m gonna be arrested in front of my kids on Christmas.”
He struggled to his feet, heading for the door on legs that didn’t feel like his own. He made a strange sound, but had control of his voice by the time he took his third step. “I should just go down there right now and get it over with.”
A small hand landed on his forearm, cutting through his visions of handcuffs and jail cells. He looked down into the bluest eyes he had ever seen, gazing up at him through a curtain of blond bangs. Cindy’s little voice with its strangely adult inflections snapped him most of the way back to his senses. “Well, we can’t let that happen, can we?”
Tiny fingers gripped him with surprising strength as Cindy pulled him into a turn and guided him back to the couch, spinning him like a slightly drunken dancer to land back in the seat where he seemed to be spending so much time.
“What?” Lou said, still a little dazed. “What can I do?”
“Well.” Cindy stood in front of him, feet spread wide, hands on hips. “You can start by answering my questions.” She held up a finger. “First, how did you know what was in that present?”
The hand bobbed, the whole arm flexing at the elbow to throw out a second finger beside the first, Lou’s eyes following the motion.
“And second, why the burglary? When you get caught and your first instinct is to start quoting a Christmas special rather than running for the hills or tying me up, well, it just doesn’t seem like your heart’s really in it.”
There was a part of Lou that was wondering exactly what was going on, that took note of Cindy’s adult stance, the way she spoke and the way she was just taking charge of the situation and wondered, briefly, if he was dealing with a midget rather than a child. The rest of him , though, just went with the flow, happy to cooperate with anyone who seemed to be offering a solution here.
“No, my heart’s not really in this. I had that special in mind because I’m trying to be like the Grinch. I’m trying to steal Christmas. For my kids. I—”
He looked down at his hands, twining his fingers together, ashamed to meet even this child’s eyes. “Look, I haven’t had a steady job since my company downsized”—he made air quotes without looking up—“three years ago. I barely make enough to get by on the temp work I can get. My kids may not live with me any more, but I’ve always been able to give them a great Christmas . . . well, not this year. I haven’t even had temp work in a while. It’s just not out there. I had nothing I could bring to them, nothing I could give, so I tried this. Tried to steal Christmas. The Grinch, he got away with it, even if he did give everything back in the end. He got away with it, but I’ll be going to jail for Christmas and I don’t think there’s a thing I can do about it.”
“One thing at a time,” said Cindy. “You still haven’t told me how you knew what was in that present. I mean, how you knew exactly what was in there.”
Lou blinked.
“Well, I’ve always been pretty good at that. It’s how I got into your house, too. I have a really terrific sense of touch, I guess. Better than anyone else I know. I learned to pick locks by feel when I was a teenager, just for fun. Thought for a while I might try to be the new Houdini or something. I used to work in a department store and I noticed that just about nothing weighs the same as any other thing. Two Raggedy Ann dolls might weigh the same, but not the same as a Raggedy Andy. I used to do this blindfolded trick at company parties, telling what things people handed me by the size and shape of the box and the weight of the thing.”
His smile faded.
“That was back when I had a company.”
There was silence for a moment, then Cindy turned and marched from the room. Lou sat, not knowing what else to do, and she was back in less than a minute.
“What time will you be seeing your kids tomorrow?”
Cindy sighed. “Would you please stop saying ‘what?’ and just answer my questions? What time will you be seeing your kids tomorrow?”
“Uh . . . probably about nine o’clock. Why?”
A small hand slapped a yellow Post-It Note to the front of his coat. “Be at this address at eight o’clock then, and whatever you do, don’t be late.”
Lou peeled the note from his chest with one hand as Cindy pulled him to his feet with the other, despite her diminutive size. “What? Why?” He looked at the flowing, almost calligraphic script. “What’s here?”
“What you need. Trust me, okay? Now go home.”
She started leading him toward the front door, but he slipped loose, detouring to the window again, where he sighed.
“Look, kid, I don’t know what you’re trying to do here, but those cops ain’t going away. This is the third house I hit tonight, and I’ll bet somebody noticed. I thought they were just patrolling the neighborhood, but someone must have called the cops, and now they’re watching the street. I go down there now and they’ll probably ask to check inside my van. One look back there, at the stuff I already have in there, and it’s off to jail I go. It’s either that or wait for your parents to wake up and call the cops themselves. Even if I do slip out the back, they already have my license plate number. I parked too close or something—some kind of rookie mistake I’m sure. I’m in serious trouble, kid.”
Cindy stared up at him. “If you make it out of here, if you walk out of here right past the police and don’t go to jail, will you promise me you’ll go to that address at eight?”
Lou smiled resignedly. “Sure, kid, I promise. But there’s no way I’m gonna—”
She took hold of his arm and walked him toward the front door again. “Just get in your van and go home. Okay? And remember: you promised.”
“But how am I—” he began, but she spoke over him.
“Because not every present is delivered by a man wearing the biggest red suit you ever did see. Sometimes the miracles are right in front of you, and you don’t even see them.”
She ushered him out into the front hall. “Or, to paraphrase your hero, sometimes the miracles come without ribbons, they come without tags, they come without packages, boxes or bags. Now go on home. Merry Christmas, Lou.”
“Merry Christmas, Cindy.”
The door closed behind him and he was opening the front door to the porch before it hit him.
She DID keep saying Lou! How did she know my name?
Shaking his head and chalking it up to just another ingredient in the weirdest night of his life, Lou stepped out into the night to face whatever would come. He walked past the police car, head held high. Maybe I can bluff it.
He was just slipping the key into the lock when he heard car doors opening.
“Excuse me, sir. Can we see some identification?”
His shoulders slumped, but he reached slowly for his wallet as he turned around. “Certainly, officers. You bet.”
The first officer gave his driver’s license a hard look. “Well, Mr. Arsenault, we’ve had reports of some criminal activity in this area. I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask to take a look in your van, if that’s all right with you, sir.”
Lou thought about saying no, but he knew it was hopeless. He walked around to the rear of the van, unlocked the double doors and opened them wide, turning to face the officers. He watched the two men studiously not react as they shone their flashlights past Lou, illuminating the van interior behind him.
It was a nice try, kid, he thought. You were really convincing, almost had me believing in miracles. This is the really real world, though, where miracles don’t stand a—
“Sorry to trouble you, sir,” said one of the officers, handing back Lou’s license. “But thank you for your cooperation. You drive safe now, all right?” Lou just nodded, open-mouthed, as the other officer said “Merry Christmas,” and the two headed back to their patrol car. He spun about to look into his van, wondering if this was some sort of joke—and stared.
The back of his van was empty, no sign of the four bags of loot he’d already collected that should have been lying there. He reached in, touching the rough carpeting with his fingertips, unable to simply accept what his eyes were telling him.
It was here, all of it, right here!
The police were just getting back into their car when what they should have been doing was reading a handcuffed Louis Arsenault his rights.
I may not have anything to bring to them, but at least I’ll be spending a happy Christmas with the kids! My God, this is like a scene out of a movie or something, a real Christmas mira—
Lou broke off that train of thought and spun to face the Martin house, searching the darkened windows for signs of activity, but found none. He fumbled the slip of yellow paper from his pocket, checking to make certain he hadn’t lost the address he’d been given.
Eight o’clock, he thought. I promise.
He looked back at those dark windows.
Who was that little girl?

~ ~ * * ~ ~

“Did you get it all?”
Poppa Kringle nodded, pointing at four sacks in the sleigh that didn’t match the rest of the bags that took up every other square inch of storage space.
“Good. Thank you. Did you call Murphy?”
“Yes,” said Kringle. “And he didn’t appreciate being woken up at this hour. He’ll be there
tomorrow morning at eight, but he’s only staying five minutes. If your man there is late he’s out of luck, but if he’s on time then he has a job waiting for him at the Big Red Toy factory.” Poppa looked down at the little elf who leaned out over the edge of the roof, watching the van drive slowly down the street. “That was a good call, sending him to Big Red. He may never know it, but if he works there he really will be one of Santa’s helpers!”
The elf looked up at Kringle with a smile of satisfaction. “It was obvious, wasn’t it? Can you see someone with his skills doing anything other than quality control? That man will feel imperfections the rest of us won’t even see!”
“We still have to return what he took, you know.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No, no, not at all,” said Poppa Kringle. “In fact, I think we may even have time to swing by Big Red and leave a few things for Lou to take to his children tomorrow.”
The elf’s smile widened and he pointed a finger. “You old softie!”
Poppa laughed as the elf settled into the driver’s seat. “Look who’s talking, Cindy. Oops, sorry, I meant Harold!” A large red mitten patted the little man on the shoulder. “You know, I think you’re really starting to get the hang of this.”
“Thanks,” said Harold. Then the satisfied smile disappeared, replaced by an expression of worry.
“Say, uh, Poppa? The other elves, they don’t have to know about the whole nightgown and wig thing, do they? I mean, I’d really appreciate it if that could just be between you and me . . .
“Well now” came the deep, jolly voice. “That’s the kind of thing that’s hard to forget, you in a pink nightie. I mean, I could forget it, if I put my mind to it. I’m going to be awfully tired when we get home, though. If only there was some way I could just hop out of the sleigh and go right to bed without having to help put the reindeer and sleigh away.” He finished with a long, thoughtful “Hmmm . . .” but Harold had picked up on the hint long before that.
“Why Poppa,” he said in his most sarcastic voice. “I would be honored if you would do me the favor of allowing me to stable the reindeer and stow the gear myself when we get home. I’d like nothing better than to have you off and sleeping just as soon as possible!”
“Why thank you, Harold! I accept! And Harold?”
Harold looked back over his shoulder to see Kringle closing one eye in a broad wink.
“Merry Christmas!”
Harold grumbled, faced forward and snapped the reigns, starting the reindeer off across the roof, taking the sleigh with them. As the whole team lifted off into the night sky, the broad smile found his face once more, and the words came out of him in a happy whisper.
“It is a merry Christmas!”

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Yes, this was another Harold the Elf story. I wrote the original four—almost by accident—back in 2011. Then, when Christmas rolled around in 2012, and I decided to try my hand at another tale for the holidays, Harold threw up a thickly-mittened hand in my imagination, shouting “Dude! I’m over here!” I decided to give him another shot in the spotlight, though he was generous enough to share it with Lou.
Do I have another Harold story in me? Maybe. He’s not the kind of elf to just sit back and let the world roll by without trying to be a part of it. Check back with me next year, and we’ll see. Until then, though, merry Christmas to all, and have a happy New Year!

Rob Smales