Old Man

by Kareem Lawal

Nikolas let out a weary sigh as he muttered, “Another long year.”

He meticulously went over The List for the second time that day as was tradition.

“Hmm still can’t believe Alexei Lipov finally made it off the naughty list, never thought I’d see the day…” He trailed off in mid-thought as he continued down the list of names.

“Sir!”

Nikolas quickly turned back to see his Clapper, the Elite elves’ commanding officer. CO Clapper stood with his back erect and eyes staring off into the distance awaiting his superior’s command, a large piece of parchment rolled beneath his left bicep.

At ease Clapper, what do you have to report?”

Nikolas made a small mark where he’d left off then placed The List down on his desk waiting for Clapper’s report. The young elf kept his stern disposition, as was his way, but began his report.

“We have finally received detailed intel from our agents in The South, this Korean War the humans have undertaken has both Eastern and Western Hemispheres on a higher alert. We have had to make major adjustments to your flight path for tonight, sir.”

Clapper quickly closed the distance between the door and Nikolas’s work desk built against the wall, the heavy soles of his leather boots filling the room with quick dull thuds. In a practiced maneuver he hopped up onto the desk, nearly as tall as himself, then used his small nimble fingers to clear out a room for the world map that laid out Nikolas’s delivery route for the upcoming night.

“The borders here, here, here, and here will be hotspots for miles around. On such short notice our engineers were unable to manufacture a proper cloak so for now total evasion is imperative, sir.”

With that Clapper somersaulted off the desk and resumed his rigid stance behind his superior, awaiting any possible further orders.

“Thank you, Clapper, that will be all.” Clapper gave a quick salute to before marching toward the door.

Nikolas began to pour over the map before he cleared his throat and said over his shoulder. “Wait…”

Clapper froze at the door awaiting his orders.

“I’ve changed my mind, have Rudolph’s nose clipped again tonight. The last thing we need is unwanted attention when I have to make my lower altitude runs.”

“Sir.” Clapper said in acknowledgment before quick-stepping toward the stables.

“Every year it gets just a little bit harder.” He bitterly muttered to himself.

In the beginning he had been light and merry, a good and kind man simply trying to spread some joy with a homemade gift or two. With time however humanity’s growth had also inadvertently caused a growth in his commitment. When he had made the vow to carry on the season’s “Spirit” he had not known the responsibility he had chosen to shoulder.

Nearly 1700 years had passed since he had made that misguided bid for immortality and never once a slip-up; the thought gave him pause. “What if I made a mistake? What if just this once I simply said no? Would I be released?”

For a moment he paused as long repressed memories began to resurface. “Would I finally be able to join my wife?” His voice caught in his throat as her name filled his mind.

“Martha,” he whispered as a tear streaked down his cheek, quickly engulfed by the thicket of white hair on his jaw.

For a few moments he sat at his desk once again suppressing everything that did not pertain to his mission. He took a breath, another, and then a third before slowly standing. His bones cracked like logs in a fire as he stretched out his ancient back and limbs. It seemed to him that each time he rested for even a moment it took him just a little bit longer to get up, but that was not a problem for today; today was a day for work not reminiscing and musing that did nothing more than unsettle him. He tucked his new flight coordinates into his back pocket reading The List as he made his way to the room he kept the crimson coat he must ritualistically done once every year.

As he made his way down the hallway no elf dared make eye contact with him. Entire generations separated the merry man that had saved their ancestors from death in the Amazon, Amazonian woman having a zero tolerance policy for any born not female and at their gargantuan proportions. The man they knew now solely as “The Old Man” was as cold as the barren wasteland he had built his fortress on. The Old Man had zero tolerance for failure and any that failed to meet his standards received a one-way trip through The Door, the only way in and out of The Compound beside the Sleigh-Run.

“OilRag, ToeNail, ShortCurlies,” he said without looking up from his list or raising his voice, knowing all in the hallway were at attention in his presence, “recheck the coal reserves, it has been a particularly naughty year it would seem.”

The lowly elves scurried off, eyes never once leaving the ground.

“Oh, and be sure the cargo hold is secure,” he said over his back. “These damn children are getting greedier every year, I remember a time when a wooden train was more than enough.” He muttered to himself.

Once again his musings gave him pause. There had once been a time when the simple act of giving a gift was enough to elicit true joy in a child but now children wanted whatever was new, his worker elves having to construct more and more intricate gifts for the nice. What worried him was the trend was still sharply on the rise getting worse with time. Every year a new and larger sleigh had to be constructed with more reindeer added to the line to compensate, the original 9 now made 90. If this continued he did not know how it would be physically possible to continue his work 20, 50, or 100 years from then. His thoughts were momentarily interrupted as he arrived at his destination.

As he opened the dingy closet he kept his curse in worry passed over him again as he pondered what the coming years would bring. With the grey area separating naughty and nice widened, reflected in the longer and longer gift lists he received. Greed was becoming the true spirit of the season and if that was true; what did that make him?

He shook his head to clear it before letting out a long weary sigh and pulling out a well-worn flask from his back pocket, “To hell with it, God bless us every one.” He said in cheers before draining the flask and bitterly chuckling to himself as he removed his long life’s life-long folly from its chamber to begin this year’s labors.