Autumn was scribbling down a map in her spiral notebook when she heard the door burst open. She glanced up to see a gasping Edgar dragging a cardboard box inside, followed by the noisily-whispering wind & a few flecks o’ stray snow that managed to pass the eave outside.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I got a few decorations I thought ’bout hanging up,” said Edgar, his face still shrouded by his hood.
“It’s no hindrance to me,” replied Autumn. “Mind if I close the door, or do you have mo’ to bring in?”
“O, no, that’s fine,” said Edgar as he dragged the box to a corner, out o’ the way.
While Autumn stood to shut the door, Edgar opened the top flaps o’ the box & sorted through its contents. The 1st he picked up was a fake fir tree the size o’ his head.
“Look @ this li’l tree I found. Isn’t it cute?”
“Hmm… Sure,” said Autumn as she headed straight for her laptop & notebook without turning to Edgar.
He set it next to the box & began hanging ol’, cheap, flat wooden decorations o’ cartoon snowmen, colorful presents, & dirty-faced folk in ragged coats & Poor-Boys hoisting sickles ’bove their heads.
As he did that, Autumn cleared her throat, & then asked, “You, uh, need any help with that?”
Edgar shook his head. “No. This is just something I’m doing for fun.”
What enjoyment one might find from an activity most would consider labor was lost on her. Then ’gain, the same applied to Edgar’s cooking.
“So, uh, I was thinking o’ a special heist we might do tomorrow night for the holidays.”
“We’re not going to break into people’s houses & steal everything just to ruin it for them ’gain, are we?” asked Edgar.
“No; this’ll probably be a li’l mo’ dangerous…”
“This 1 will require traveling to Sherbet Slopes.”
Edgar turned to her.
“You’re not thinking of—”
“That’s exactly what I’m thinking,” said she with a nod.
“I… I never even thought you would’ve believed he existed,” said Edgar. “Didn’t you say ‘twas all superstition?”
“I said I thought the whole smarmy, hippy, hugging-&-kissing bullshit was superstition. I once robbed Cthulhu working @ a grocery store; believing in some tubby red guy with a bushy beard wandering round the world babbling ’bout the betterment o’ humankind isn’t a yank in comparison.”
Edgar slunk in hesitation.
“Doesn’t robbing him seem… a li’l unethical?”
“I give most o’ it ’way, anyway, don’t I?” said Autumn. “It’ll go to the same distribution in the end. I’d think what we’re doing is completely consistent with the holiday spirit.”
She had expected him to ask why she bothered, then. She wasn’t sure, either. Her mind couldn’t devise a logical explanation. ’Twas like his decoration or cooking.
’Bout a half hour later, Edgar had emptied his box, save a cracked-open ornament & a few wooden decorations without string in which to hang them. Strewn ’long the walls on the floor were short plastic statues o’ Santa grinning & a snowman in a pink top hat clutching a candy cane to his chest, both o’ whom had chipping paint that didn’t fall within the lines o’ their features. ’Long the ceiling’s edges crawled caterpillars o’ furry silver tinsel, repeatedly drooping parabolically. In addition to the medley o’ wooden, plastic, & glass ornaments, the li’l tree was covered with strings o’ multicolored lights & crowned with a glittery red star.
As Edgar climbed down from the stepladder, asked he, “Well, what d’you think?”
Autumn’s head briefly popped up from ’hind her monitor & then back down ’gain.
“Looks nice, I s’pose. Is there any purpose for any o’ it ’sides aesthetics?”
“Well… No,” said Edgar as he looked round @ everything. Then his eyes stopped on the mistletoe hung before the door. “Well, the mistletoe has this thing where if 2 people step under it they’re supposed to kiss, I guess.” He chuckled nervously as if trying to explain the “why did the chicken cross the road” joke to an alien.
Autumn followed Edgar’s eyes up to it & stared blankly @ it for a moment, seeming to ponder it.
“For what purpose?” asked she.
“O, you know… it’s just 1 o’ those… what you’d consider a silly superstition,” said Edgar.
“Huh,” said Autumn as she returned to her work.
‘Twas a clear evening for winter when Autumn & Edgar left their apartment & took their 1st steps down the sidewalk toward Watching Airlines.
Boskeopolis was quickly dimming as the pinkening sun sunk ’hind the skyscrapers toward the west. This cold color cast was matched with a steadily dwindling temperature, causing Autumn to clutch Edgar tightly to her to maximize their warmth.
The airport was packed with silhouette people, probably headed for greener countries for the holidays. Autumn still wasn’t sure if this was good or bad.
When Edgar saw them approach the plane, he felt saliva burrow into the back o’ his throat.
“Um, I just remembered: we didn’t go over the plan in full detail. So, you already ordered tickets for our flight, right?”
“You should know better than that,” replied Autumn.
“O. Right. It’s just that… you know, isn’t hijacking a plane a li’l extreme?”
“We’re just cadging a free ride. It’s not as if I’m Dan Cooper.”
“They might not know that…”
“Well, they won’t know, anyway, ’cause we won’t be caught.”
“Wait & see.”
While all o’ the extra eyes might increase the chances o’ someone spotting her sneaking onto the plane, it also decreased the chances o’ someone important seeing her do so, with so many bodies to distract their eyes. She just had to hope that the narcs were too preoccupied by their own business.
Edgar’s saliva hardened to stone as he noticed Autumn lead him to the left wing o’ the plane. She stopped next to the wheel on the backside—so the personnel near the front would be least likely to see her, Edgar surmised.
“Climb,” said Autumn.
“On the wing?” asked Edgar, his rising pitch revealing his uncertainty.
“No, on the wheel. Try to clutch it as tightly as you can.”
Edgar slowly climbed up, wrapping his arms & legs all round the leg ’tween the wheel & the bottom o’ the wing. Autumn followed him, wrapping her arms all round him & the wheel bar.
“This may be a bit o’ a bumpy ride,” said she.
“That… I thought I remember seeing you bring a pack on your back…”
“That’s a parachute, right?”
“’Course it is. I’m crazy, not stupid.”
“Well, that’s good…” said Edgar uneasily.
The man known only as the Executive always felt uneasy on planes. Never knew when they might crash. Though he tried to tell his body to calm itself, it for some reason never listened. He couldn’t keep his hands from tightly clutching the armrests o’ his seat, couldn’t stop the sweat from dribbling down his bald forehead, nor was he able to prevent his head from turning all round the plane.
“This plane isn’t safe…” muttered he.
“What’s that?” asked his seatmate.
He turned to his seatmate & said mo’ loudly, “I said this plane isn’t safe! What’re we going to do?”
“What are you talking ’bout? You loony or something, pal?”
The Executive clutched him by his shoulders roughly & stared into his eyes with dilated pupils.
“You don’t understand! I can’t die! If I die, nobody will be round the mall to keep the Mammonth from destroying the city!”
“Well, that answers my question,” said the other guy. He stared petulantly @ the wrinkles in his suit sleeves created by the Executive’s tight grip. “Please release me, Sir.”
The Executive did, but not without adding, “You laugh—you all do—but I know what happened in the United States…”
“We all do. It’s hard to miss it.”
“Yeah, & when d’you think they’ll finally decide to ram 1 o’ these planes into the Atlas Tower, huh?”
“Yeah, I’m sure terrorists are itching to get back @ a country most people haven’t even heard o’.”
The Executive crossed his arms. “That’s what makes it the perfect plan. Nobody’d ever suspect.”
“You’re a true satellite-head, you know that?”
“That’s just what they want you to think.”
“You know, you can’t just say ‘that’s just what they want you to think,’ & have that be a legitimate argument, right, buddy?”
“That’s just what they want you to think.”
His seatmate shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“OK. I think we’ve discussed ’nough, thank you. Let’s just be quiet now.”
The Executive turned his head back to the window with a smug grin, satisfied @ ’nother intellectual victory. Though he knew everyone still thought he was crazy for his brave brilliance, he was used to victory all the same. This was ’cause he could usually just fire anyone who disagreed with him.
That grin soon dissipated, however, when he saw—or a’least his eyes thought they saw—what appeared to be a bespectacled young woman in a red ponytail climbing up the wing. He shook his head & scrubbed his eyes harshly with his knuckles, hoping to wash this obvious mirage from his sight—a technique he learned from afternoons watching Tex Avery.
Unluckily, when he looked ’gain, he saw not only the same ponytailed woman, but also a robed skeleton climbing ’hind her.
That was when he recognized them.
He stood abruptly & shouted, “No! They’re back! They can’t be!”
His seatmate looked in as opposite a direction as he could, his legs crossed & his face hanging in his arm.
Just ignore him, Jack.
But, just as he’d unhappily expected, he felt a thick hand nudge his shoulder.
“Hey. Hey, Sir. Come look out this window.”
“Let me guess: it’s a gremlin, is that right?” said Jack as he begrudgingly turned his head to the window. “Uh huh. It’s just some crazy hippies plane-surfing. Nothing to panic ’bout.”
The Executive clutched his shoulders ’gain.
“You don’t understand!” shouted he so open-mouthed that spittle landed on Jack’s face. He thrust his arm toward the window. “I know those 2! They’re after me! They’re… they’re the ones who caused the Mammonth to ’scape its cage & destroy the city last time!”
“Please quit grabbing my arms; this suit was just pressed,” said Jack as he glared @ the Executive’s fingers, stark white from pressure.
The Executive let go ’gain & Jack rubbed his arms, hoping to a’least smooth out the worst wrinkles.
“Funny story you gave there, pal—’bout the, what was it? The ‘Mammonth’? Don’t know what that is, but I find it funny that it destroyed the city, & yet the city’s currently not destroyed; & I certainly don’t remember Boskeopolis ever getting destroyed, a’least not within my lifetime. When did this happen, by chance?”
“2 years ago! Look, I don’t know why the city’s not destroyed, anymore—they rebuilt it—you just gotta believe me!” The expression o’ pure horror painted on his face only increased Jack’s horror.
Then he heard the Executive say, “I’ve got it: they wiped our minds so that we’d be unable to remember the city being destroyed, even though it truly happened.”
“You’re loony, pal,” said Jack as he leaned ’way from the Executive in disgust.
“You’ve gotta believe me! Those 2 are crazy dangerous!” The Executive shouted with his hands raised.
“I don’t have to believe anything,” said Jack, sour-faced.
The Executive walked out into the aisle & waved his arms round.
“They’re coming to destroy us! Everyone!”
A panic-faced attendant walked toward the Executive.
“OK, Sir, please return to your seat. What’s the matter?”
The Executive jabbed his finger toward his window.
“The left wing! The left wing!”
’Nother passenger stood & shouted, “Damn straight!”
The attendant stopped before the Executive.
“Sir, please calm yourself. You’re agitating the other passengers.”
But the Executive only continued to point @ the window.
“Look out the window! Look!”
The attendant bent in closer to see an empty wing rushing over a blurred sea & charcoal sky.
Then he looked back @ the Executive as one might stare @ a serial killer.
“Sir, I think you may just be having a case o’ FOFS—‘Fear-of-Flying Syndrome.’”
The Executive turned to Jack with pleading eyes.
“Tell him! Tell him ’bout the plane-jackers!”
Jack raised his face to look @ the attendant with the solemnest o’ expressions—1 anyone knew could be trusted to speak in the utmost honesty.
“The man’s bonkers, I’m ’fraid. I don’t know what to say.”
The Executive clutched the attendant by the front o’ his shirt & began to throttle him.
“I’m not bonkers! Don’t believe him! You’re all in on it! You’re all gainst me!”
Then the Executive stopped, seemingly surprised by his own recent actions. He slowly released the attendant & smoothed out the wrinkles he’d left.
He cleared his throat. “I must assure you that my sight o’ vicious troublemakers on that wing o’ the plane was no fantasy.”
’Hind him, where the Executive couldn’t see, Jack was twirling a finger round his ear.
“Sir, maybe you should sit down & get some rest.”
The Executive’s eyes widened, fearful o’ what might happen if he were left ’lone by that window ’gain.
“Uh… I need to use the restroom, if that’s OK.”
“Uh, ’course…” the attendant answered while visions o’ crazy & dangerous antics this man might get into if left to his devices swam through the attendant’s mind.
The Executive stumbled down the aisle in the other direction while rubbing his throbbing temples, his breath heavy & his face saturated in sweat.
His veins began to throb harder when something familiar crossed his sight.
No! I couldn’t be! You’re imagining things!
But when he backed up to check ’gain, his past vision was confirmed. Sitting right there with her legs crossed & her eyes intent on some airplane magazine was the ponytailed woman, next to her skeleton partner staring out the window.
“Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?” murmurred the Executive in a loud whisper as he stepped backward slowly, wrists shaking.
This time Autumn glanced up @ what was certainly an unexpected response. She turned to Edgar & said, “That reminds me… We need to change into our costumes ’fore we land.”
Edgar had no idea what she was talking ’bout, but figured ‘twas a part o’ some plan he didn’t know; so he simply nodded & followed Autumn out their seats & down the aisle.
The Executive jumped back with a shudder as they entered the aisle, ’fraid that touching them would inflict him with a curse greater than broken mirrors, torched 4-leafed-clovers, stepped-under ladders, & spit-on big-people’s feet combined.
Then he aimed a finger @ them & shouted, “Look out, everyone! They’re inside! Run!”
“What is it, now?” someone groaned.
“I’m trying to watch these 2 movie stars awkwardly flirt for an hour here!” someone else shouted with a raised fist.
“& I’m trying to light this bomb here. D’you have any idea how complicated this stuff is?” said ’nother as she lifted a stack o’ dynamite to everyone’s sights.
“OK, everyone, let’s all calm down now,” said the attendant as he stepped toward the Executive with arms stretched to each side, as if holding off 2 lion prides ready to pounce.
He turned to the Executive. “Sir, could you please return to your seat.”
“They’re in the bathroom! You have to stop them ’fore they cause us to crash!” shouted the Executive as he jabbed his finger toward the restroom door @ the other end—which Autumn & Edgar had occupied by then—’gain.
“Sir, you can’t just harass passengers trying to use the restrooms,” said the attendant. “Believe me, I tried, & the executive wasn’t happy.”
“I’m not happy now,” said the Executive. “D’you have any idea what will happen if I’m dead. I won’t be ’live anymore!”
“Yes, yes, we all heard your lovely story ’bout the mammoth or the gremlin or everyone disappearing ’cause o’ the rapture, whatever. Now, could you please return to your seat?”
The Executive clutched the attendant’s shoulders. “You’ve got to check the restroom! For all o’ our sakes!”
“Yeah, yeah, just sit down,” said the attendant as he strode over to the restroom door. He stopped & saw the word “occupied” was indeed there.
He knocked & called in, “Is everything all right in there?”
There was a pause ’fore Autumn answered, “Uh… yeah.”
“You’re not… You’re not making bombs in there, are you?” asked the attendant.
“No, I don’t think I am.”
The attendant’s eyes narrowed.
“You’re not lying are you? I’ve heard some people lie to me before, & it always trips me up.”
“I can assure you, I’m not lying.”
“Well, OK then. If you say so,” said the attendant as he turned & went back down the aisle.
That was when the attendant saw the Executive still standing in the middle o’ the aisle.
“Sir, I thought I told you to return to your seat.”
“What are you doing? You’re just going to let them get ’way with it?” the Executive shouted as he threw his hands up.
Suddenly, the plane jerked to the left, causing the attendant & the Executive to topple over. As they returned to their feet, an announcement rang, “We are experiencing some turbulence. Please stay in your seats.”
“Sir, you truly must return to your seat.”
“No, they’re going to destroy us all! I must stop them!” shouted the Executive as he ran down the aisle—in the other way, to the attendant’s confusion.
The Executive stopped before a seat & snatched the bomb out o’ its passenger’s hands.
“Hey! I was just ’bout finished with that!”
“Sorry, Madame, but I must use this. I hope you don’t mind,” said the Executive just ’fore running down the aisle in the other direction.
The attendant held a hand up as if he were a traffic cop & said, “Sir, you truly can’t be running round like thi—” only to be interrupted by the Executive pushing past him. He turned round & shouted, “Sir!” but this for some reason didn’t encourage the Executive to stop 1 byte.
“Begone, monsters!” shouted the Executive just ’fore flinging the bomb @ the restroom door. Everyone gasped & huddled forward, hopeful that this would somehow protect them from the blast.
Rather than exploding, however, the bomb burst into flames as it smacked the bottom o’ the door.
The attendant shouted into his walkie-talkie, “Security! We have an emergency here!”
Autumn & Edgar moved as far back as they could in their li’l space on the toilet & over the trash bin, up gainst the wall, while they held their mouths & shut their eyes to protect them gainst the poisonous smoke. Though they couldn’t see the shivering flame’s orange light target them, they could feel the wall o’ heat in front o’ them—an extreme change from the general cold they were so used to from just a few minutes ago.
Autumn had to admit, for as much as she planned for possible snags, this was not 1 she’d expected.
Her mind pumped for idea for ’scape, only to drop thin dregs o’ dust. The chances o’ survival appeared dim.
Still, she could see that there were 2 options they had: stay or run through the flames. Both would likely end in death; but the latter was slightly less likely.
She clutched Edgar close to her, wishing she could whisper calming words, & then charged forward inside the fire.
It gladdened her that she hadn’t had to inconvenience them with stopping to open the door, since it had already been melted to a hollow shell. ’Stead, they charged straight through into the aisle to an audience o’ gasping faces, temperature rapidly decreasing in the opener air.
Both still felt the million-stinger burns swarm their bodies. Both dropped to the ground, rolling round & frantically slapping themselves over to quench the flames.
‘Twas only when some passenger dumped her limeade on them that they felt the flames vanish. Now the 2 were simply left on the floor in a puddle o’ sticky limeaid, staring up @ the staring crowds in awkward silence.
They slowly returned to their feet, & then Autumn slowly led Edgar to the nearest ’scape hatch. They could both see the security personnel clambering down the aisle.
Autumn looked out the nearest window & saw, to their luck, a large patch o’ white. Sherbet Slopes.
She clutched Edgar in front o’ her & pushed open the door. This almost caused them to be pushed backward themselves from the influx o’ wind. However, Autumn steeled them gainst the edges o’ the door & thrust them both forward ’nough to exit the plane,.
1 o’ the security personnel—all o’ whom began running when they saw what Autumn was doing—shut the door & turned round the plane to give the rest o’ the passengers stern looks.
“Nobody open this door, OK?”
1 o’ the passengers raised a tepid hand.
“Yes, Sir?” asked the security person.
“Um… How was she able to open that emergency exit so well? Aren’t they supposed to be forcibly shut by the plane’s gizmos & stuff?”
“Not if the plane’s machinery has shut off, such as in the case o’ emergencies in which the plane is malfunctioning—hence the emergenc…y…”
Her eyes widened as the implications finally reached her attention.
That was when everyone started running round panicking.
Everyone ’cept the Executive, who was sitting back in his chair with easy breaths. Those thieving apparitions o’ his nightmares had left, after all.
Sherbet Slopes was a Rorschach test o’ stark contrasts: the black sky speckled with the white stars & moon matched the white snow speckled with black furs, all o’ which was splattered by white flecks o’ blizzard snow. Where in this visual mess slept Santa’s workshop, neither knew.
They trudged through the flurries, all the same; both wrapped so tightly all one could see o’ Autumn were her sharp eyes & red nose, & all one could see o’ Edgar were the glows o’ his red eyes poking out from ’hind the shadows under his hood.
To call the mounds o’ snow under their feet a blanket would be trite. It’d also be inaccurate: blankets were not nearly as sharp & crunchy as that which Autumn & Edgar’s half-numb boots walked through. Blankets also usually didn’t jut upward in the distance like fangs.
One would also be wrong to assume ‘twas as quiet as space; in fact, their ears filled with the watery whistling o’ winds, rustling pines, & creaking wood.
But ’twas peaceful. That part o’ the pattern turned true.
Till Autumn & Edgar both felt the ground lurch under their steps, heard a large snap, & ’fore they could react, all plummeted into a deep cavern.
The 1st thing they each did was call out each other’s names to ensure each knew where the other was. Since the cave wasn’t large, it didn’t take long; though ‘twas so dark, they had to rely on touch to do so—a’least, till Autumn was able to find the flashlight tightly lodged in her coat.
She swung the light to reveal that they were in 1 o’ the many fabled crystal caves, whose walls sparkled with ice-white crystals.
She also revealed that the tiny opening still left was meters ’bove their heads. She began rummaging through her pack for her rope hook.
However, when she tossed it up, it only broke right through the snow & thudded back down to the ground.
Autumn stared down @ it in contemplation.
“You don’t think it’s too high for us to climb onto each other to reach the top, do you?” asked Edgar.
Autumn swung her light upward & squinted as she estimated the distance ’tween the opening & the ground.
“Yeah, I don’t think either o’ us would be able to reach up there.”
“So, what do we do now?” asked Edgar.
Autumn exhaled. “Actually, there may be some good ’bout us falling down here. These walls offer far mo’ shelter than we could hope to find round here. It should be safe to rest the night here without fear o’ hypothermia, so long as we wrap up tightly & use all o’ our blankets.”
So they did so; though with Autumn on the side nearest the wall so she could chisel @ the wall for crystal—a task she found rather difficult since she’d turned her flashlight off, wanting to preserve its battery for mo’ important tasks. Everything was by touch: Autumn felt round the hard wall—contrasted with the soft emptiness before it—with her screwdriver & bag-holding hand while Edgar hung on from ’hind with multiple blankets, which surrounded them so fully that only Autumn’s hands poked out from ’hind them.
@ 1st, the only sounds were the winds still blowing outside & Autumn’s minimalistic chiseling. After a few minutes, though, Edgar asked, “So, you getting much out o’ that wall?”
“Some,” mumbled Autumn. “I’m not sure if it’s falling in, though.”
“Need any help with anything?”
Autumn paused. “I may need ’nother bag later, but not now.”
Both were silent once mo’, focus heavy on the in-&-out o’ each other’s breathing. Autumn wasn’t used to her attention being so free from work, the chiseling requiring li’l. Without being able to see ’nough to record anything, she didn’t bother too much ’bout planning for future heists.
Perhaps you should make conversation with Edgar, then.
“So, uh, how’s that cooking going?” asked Autumn.
Well, that handled that question. What else is there?
“So, uh, I was wondering if you had any ideas for any ventures we could try.”
“Me?” asked Edgar.
“No. Sorry, I was talking to the crystal shavings in my bag. They’re magic, you know.”
“I wouldn’t know anything ’bout that.”
“Yes, I s’pose that is an absurd question to ask—like asking someone how they’d perform heart surgery.”
“Thank you for asking, though,” said Edgar.
“Neither o’ us benefited from it, so there’s no reason you should,” said Autumn.
“You might not know, but I truly do,” said Edgar.
“So, what plans do you have?”
“Other than the 1 we’re already doing, not much. I was thinking o’ crossing Baguette Bridge over to the Cinnamines, but that’s all I have so far—& I haven’t even looked into that 1 fully. It seems after only a few years, Boskeopolis is already running out o’ treasure spots.”
“Yeah… Actually, now that I think ’bout it, I think we’ve just recently hit the 5-year mark since we 1st met… though I guess you were probably doing this long before then.”
“Not these kinds o’ ventures, no. Mostly small-scale pilfering. Cell phones & that…”
“Well, I guess it’s a good thing we don’t give each other presents for anything, since that might mean 2 now.”
“3 if we include your birthday,” said Autumn. “Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to get much out o’ this wall,—& as I said, I don’t even know if it’s going in or not—so I think I’m done for the night. It’d be good to sleep early so we can wake early.”
She turned, letting the hole in the blanket mountain covering them close through gravity. With her arms no longer being used, she wrapped them round Edgar, too, tightening the cracks ’tween them even further to minimize chilly air seeping in. Edgar shivered as he felt the sharp iciness run from her gloves to the back o’ his neck & could feel her shiver gainst his ribcage, too.
“This reminds me a li’l o’ when we were in that sewer place,” whispered Edgar.
“O, it’s not so bad.”
“The conditions are actually worse, though. If we had to live down here for months, we’d have died—well, a’least I would’ve. I’m only assuming by your shivering & shuddering that you react negatively to excess coldness, too.”
“It’s not so bad…”
“& why is that?”
“Uh… why, shouldn’t I think so? After all, you don’t take too bad to unhealthy environments like this.”
The rapidly pumping heart Autumn could feel through their touching chests belied that claim, she thought; though, now that she thought ’bout it, she was sure he could sense the same from her. In fact, she could sense it from both o’ them since they 1st slept next to each other.
Why haven’t I taken that as conclusive evidence?
Nervousness—perhaps even excitement—is a characteristic, but not a defining characteristic. It may be undesirable, too.
There’s never going to be 100% certainty, & the evidence is mounting, so you might as well try. You have plenty o’ free time here, too, so that ’scuse has been extinguished.
Fuck it. Might as well.
Autumn felt the familiar stab o’ energy—both fulfilling & uneasy—commonly found in the midst o’ a particularly dangerous venture.
It’s a risk no worse than any other… she reminded herself.
“Hey, Edgar… You still awake,” murmured she.
She’d halfway hoped he wasn’t, only to hear him quickly reply, “Yeah. Is something wrong?”
Autumn shifted uncomfortably. “Uh, I just…” She cleared her throat. “This is likely absurd, but I devised an idea for a present we could give each other @ the same time.”
She inhaled. “If you don’t want me to do this ’gain, just say the word & I’ll apologize.”
He was answered when he felt strange skin—that which was both wet & dry @ the same time—press gainst his mouth. Warm air seeped inside his mouth like steam from boiled tea, gradually warming his insides as warm water added to cold.
All o’ this was familiar, for he remembered them kissing after a similar discussion years ago, when still in high school. What was unfamiliar was the much warmer & wetter creature that burrowed into his mouth & scurried all round the roof & sides inside, sticky slime dribbling all over his own tongue & palate like a mud monster.
A minute that felt like a second passed ’fore Autumn released him, both panting & flushed.
“Sorry,” she mumbled.
“I-it’s all right.”
“You all right with that sort o’ thing?” asked Autumn. “I don’t truly know what I’m doing here, but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
“I won’t do it ’gain if you’re uncomfortable with it.”
“No… It’s just that… I don’t know… I always thought you thought that kind o’ thing was superstitious or something.”
Autumn paused to consider.
“You mean the… What was it called? ’Missile Toe’? What the hell’s that s’posed to mean?”
“I don’t know. But, yeah, that.”
“Well, it is an absurd superstition, you have to admit,” replied Autumn; “letting one’s position relative to a sparkling plant determine what one should do without any reason given? It’s as absurd as celebrating certain days, too, honestly. What’s the purpose?”
To answer the question she’d guessed was in his head, “If kissing’s purpose were to fulfill certain recreational needs, then it’d be logical to perform that function when it’s most desired, which should be irrelevant to one’s position relative to decorations—a’least it does for me, & you seemed to agree earlier. ’Course, you could’ve gained no recreational benefits from it @ all…”
This was followed by a pause that made Autumn regret saying the last part, till said pause was interrupted by his craggy lips pressing gainst hers.
I’ll just have to take this as the optimal indication that he does, thought she.
Autumn had already set up the rope by the time Edgar woke, allowing them to climb back up immediately.
She was the 1st to pop her head out the hole, only to be smacked in the face by a wall o’ wind so sharp, she could hardly keep her eyes open. Her nose had an instant itchy & runny reaction, as if bees had swarmed inside—a subject I am intimately experienced in, I must add.
She concluded that hurrying their trip as much as possible would be the quickest cure; so she clambered up as a yanked bandage & wasted no time pulling Edgar up with her.
As they travelled once mo’, she noticed ‘twas still dim—so dim that the firs were still black silhouettes—making her think ‘twas still early in the morn. However, as the hours passed, the sky remained dusky—& in fact, appeared to grow darker. By this point, Autumn pulled her phone out to check the time & saw it say 3:22 PM.
She clutched her forehead. Duh. This is still in Boskeopolis’s time zone. Let’s check Sherbet Slopes’s.
But when she checked it, she saw it say 4:22 PM.
She didn’t worry much mo’ ’bout it; a’least it didn’t say 11:59 for eternity.
Later they began to see a glowing light ’bove the crest o’ the hill they were on, rising into a small square o’ multicolored lights.
Edgar gasped. “I think I see it.”
Indeed, as they neared & its appearance grew, they saw it develop into a small gingerbread house covered in creamy snow & surrounded by glowing pink candy canes.
They stopped just before it to gain a closer look—Edgar to marvel @ its sight, Autumn so she could better plan how to sneak in.
She could find no better way than the traditional—ironic, considering the victim. Her eyes wandered up to the chimney poking from the white-chocolate roof, billowing smoke.
She waved Edgar ’long with her toward the side & had him hoist her up, followed by her clipping the rope hook to the chimney so he could safely climb after her. With both now on the roof, Autumn peered down the chimney to see, to her surprise, not a fire, but the bottom o’ a metal vent.
“Well, here goes,” mumbled she as she climbed down.
As she landed, she felt the frigid air that stabbed her through every hole in her clothes suddenly smothered by heat, said holes stickily closing as if her apparel were clutching her tightly for defense. She flung her hood back in a futile attempt to stifle the burning air.
By this point, Edgar had joined her, & she decided that the best solution, ’gain, was to hurry this process as much as possible. They wandered through the vents, looking through every stack o’ slit openings they found.
Through them they saw, to their amazement, wide factories full o’ whistling workers in bright costumes as they pulled levers, stacked conveyor belts, or wrapped bows. Autumn’s eyes looped round the twisting conveyor belts in hopes o’ finding the sacks all o’ the gifts were inevitably packed into @ the end; but after minutes o’ searching, she realized they were so wound together, she couldn’t tell where 1 belt began & ’nother ended.
Seeing that there were too many eyes in there, Autumn continued in search o’ stealthier pastures, despite the unbearable heat. After a few meters, she saw ’nother grate, under which was mo’ o’ what she was looking for: a garage-like area with a reindeer-reined sled full o’ gift-stuffed satchels.
Her mouth curled up into a Grinchy smile. He packed it up for us & everything…
She extracted her screwdriver & used it to open the grate. Just ’fore she dropped in, she poked her head in, swinging it all round her to ensure nobody was present. She was soon assured.
She dropped in, cringing as her still-snow-sodden boots crunched gainst the metallic floor. But when she checked yet ’gain, she neither saw nor heard any signs o’ attention attracted by this noise.
She waited for Edgar to join her, & then hopped into the sled, grabbed the reins, & searched the front for controls.
“You’re not actually thinking o’ trying to drive this thing, are you?” asked Edgar as he climbed in after her.
“I don’t see any other option.”
“Ho, ho, ho. How did you pesky comrades sneak in here?”
Both Autumn & Edgar’s faces stretched in surprise as their heads slowly turned to the source o’ that speech, only to widen even mo’ when they saw the familiar portly man in red & white standing just meters from them with a meaty pepper-colored beard, button nose, & twinkling eyes.
“Can it be…?” Edgar muttered. “Are you… are you…”
Their recent acquaintance slowly nodded his head with a grin.
“The… the… the Santa Marx!”
The Santa Marx clutched his fat belly as he threw his head back & chuckled.
“That’s right. Now, I hope you 2 have been good li’l proletariats & have been developing your class consciousness,” said he as he waggled a white-gloved finger mischievously.
“Yeah…” the 2 muttered as they stared down @ the ground shyly.
“Well, isn’t that radical…”
Autumn’s brows narrowed as she noticed Santa’s jolly smile turn sour just ’fore she felt the solidity ’neath her disappear. She & Edgar both looked down just ’fore falling down the black abyss, landing with a thud 4 meters below.
They looked up to see the Santa Marx’s face peer down @ them. Then he clutched his beard & hat & yanked back to reveal a much smaller, darker fuzz covering his chin & upper lip, & a bald forehead, with only a li’l hair to the sides. With the beard gone, his chin appeared much thinner & pointier than before.
Edgar gasped. “You’re not the Santa Marx! You’re the Santa Lenin!”
The Santa Lenin twisted his mustache maniacally. “That’s right, & it’s off to the labor camps with you!”
He threw his head back & laughed—much less jollily this time—as the trap door ’bove Autumn & Edgar closed, slowly squeezing the thin slit o’ light over their faces till it disappeared completely.
Autumn & Edgar had to repeatedly rub their gloved hands to keep themselves warm, which was hard when the warden kept shouting @ them to get back to work.
The thin metal walls were grimy & rusted, a patchwork o’ gray, brown, & green scraps. They hardly noticed a difference in temperature ’tween inside & out. So cold was it that the leaky drips from the knot o’ pipes attached to the ceiling were glued frozen to the bottom lip o’ its pipe end.
Each realized that the best way to warm themselves was to keep working—in Autumn’s case, sewing gaudy holiday sweaters with god-awful animal puns on them; in Edgar’s case, wrapping boxes. Both struggled to find the happy medium ’tween going fast ’nough not to draw the warden’s ire & not completely messing up, whether it be by cutting the wrapping paper too short or severing a thumb.
How tiring the work was was only surmounted by how tedious ‘twas. Autumn could feel her mind ebbing into insentience as she followed the rote steps demanded o’ her, as if she were mo’ a simple code programmed into the conveyor machine than a human with any semblance o’ complex thought.
Both had gotten so tired by the 13th hour that Edgar only noticed halfway through snipping that he was cutting right into his index with his scissors & Autumn had stabbed her thumb a few times by pushing too far into her sewing machine. When she sucked her thumb to stop the bleeding, the warden shouted @ her to return to work & to stop dripping blood on the clean floor.
“Clean? Look @ all the paper scraps & rat shit strewn round? For god’s sake, there’s an already-decomposed dead body still on the ground.”
She was rewarded for this correction by having all meals taken ’way for 20 years.
“But I’d starve to death,” said she, throwing her arms out in exasperation.
“Make that 30.”
“I’d already starve by then, so that wouldn’t be any worse.”
“Make that 10.”
“That’s not even a larger #.”
“Make that cake.”
“That’s not even a #.”
Speaking o’ which, 2 hours later was mealtime, the 1 time o’ the week they were allowed to eat—’cept Autumn, ’course, who was now banned from meals for the square root o’ cake years. This week they had bone soup, which was truly just chicken bones dunked into bowls o’ boiled water. This wasn’t ’cause o’ rationing or anything—they had plenty o’ chickens to spare; they were just dicks & considered it a creative exercise to devise hilariously mean meal options. For instance, last week’s meal was bowls o’ bricks.
“We have to bust out o’ here,” murmured Autumn as she sat with her chin dug into her upraised hands, struggling to keep her eyes open in exhaustion.
Edgar squirmed. “Gee, I don’t know… Didn’t the warden say walkouts were uncommunist or something? I’m guessing that’s a bad thing, right?”
“Who cares?” grumbled Autumn as she stood ’gain. “If we don’t do something soon, we’ll just be worked to death, anyway. What have we got to lose but our chains?”
“What ’bout our free parking spaces?” asked Edgar. “The warden said the demand for them was pretty high.”
“We don’t even drive cars.”
Edgar looked down with a long face. “Yeah, but they are rather nice…”
Autumn searched the vicinity for signs o’ a means to ’scape when her eyes stopped on a few wrapped packages still gliding down the conveyors, many o’ which were huge, headed straight for the sacks that, Autumn knew, would carry these hidden treasures ’way.
She nudged Edgar & whispered, “I have an idea.”
They snuck over to the conveyor belts, keeping their eyes grated for the wardens—who were much too busy planning HIV-infected-needle-stuffed potatoes for next week’s meal to notice any disturbances.
When they reached it, they snuck ’hind 1 o’ its tall tunnels to hide & took the 1st large package they saw come by. Autumn ripped the paper off & opened the box.
Aha, I knew I’d find this in here, thought Autumn as she lifted a glowing, sparkling lollipop the size o’ her head.
They both took licks & began flashing wildly. Their colors also shifted rapidly, which disturbed the others’ appetites far less. Usually this would cause one alarm, as it usually indicated dangerous radioactive poisoning; but in the world o’ Boskeopolis, flashing colors always indicated a beneficial effect.
& so it did in this case, wherein they charged through to the exit, shocking anyone who came too close to them so hard they were thrown backward, as well as exploding into cartoon poof clouds. While this occurred, intensely cheerful carnival music played. This was the natural symptom o’ eating lollipops. Nobody knew why.
As they rushed out to the main lobby o’ the workshop, the Santa Lenin rushed out & stopped before them.
“You dare think you can ’scap—ACK!”
They charged right into him, knocking him backward & causing him to puff into smoke just like the rest.
Autumn skid to a stop, with Edgar just after, as the sparkling flashes slowed, & then eventually stopped completely.
“Well, that part was broken,” said Autumn. “Who just gives you an invincibility powerup right before the final boss?”
“O, ho, ho. He wasn’t the final boss… I am.”
From the shadows ’hind the doorway to their freedom flew out a bat-shaped robot so huge it could almost reach the 4-meter-high ceiling while less than a meter ’bove ground. Its wings were shaped as a mallet & sickle with rapidly-pinching black pincers ’neath. On its head was a twin Santa hat with white puff balls at each end & covered in white stars; ’long its pink body in bright yellow army letters was “M4RX”; & through the still-shiny gray glass front sat ’nother plump man garbed in black boots & red suit & hat. Under it, though, was a much squarer face with a large right-triangle nose & bushy mustache sans beard.
Edgar gasped. “It’s the… it’s the…”
“That’s right,” he barked with a humorless smile. “I’m the Santa Stalin; & it’s time to purge your lives from the history books o’ the future!”
He pulled a lever back & the machine’s hammer wing rose, casting a yawning shadow over them. Though it rose slowly like a bear yanking its arm out a honey pot, it struck the ground swift as sharp rain.
Unfortunately, the rising part was so slow that Autumn & Edgar had already dashed ’way long ’fore it could drop so quickly.
He tried ’gain with its sickle wing, this time ascending a li’l mo’ quickly. But they still rolled ’way from it just as it started to fall.
“You won’t last so long when I’ve turned into my final form,” snarled Santa Stalin as he cranked a lever all the way back.
Autumn & Edgar stood back, gaping…
They continued gaping for the next few minutes while Santa Stalin kept cranking the level forward & back.
“Damn transformation problem,” muttered he.
While he was doing that, Autumn & Edgar had dashed under him & ran into the dark exit.
“Hey, where’d they go?” asked he as he swiveled the body o’ his machine left & right, rudely ignoring what I had just said a paragraph before.
“They have to be here somewhere,” said he as he stupidly continued spinning. “They can’t just vanish.” He paused, rubbing his mustache. “’Less they have a Script Genie on them.”
’Course, if he’d just listened to me, he would’ve known they’d left down the dark exit long ago & chased them; but nope, he clearly doesn’t need my help. Keep up with that Mother Goose chase, Whiskers.
“I mean, I just saw them…” said he.
I mean, it’s not as if what I say is important, being the narrator & all…
“I know they were here…”
No reason to pay attention to what silly-ol’-me says…
Then he clutched the sides o’ his head with eyes sucked in like a gulped straw.
“Maybe… maybe I never saw them @ all. Maybe they were never here.”
He paused. His arms slowly fell & his face slowly relaxed.
“Well, if they were never real, then they couldn’t have even been a problem, & thus they can’t be a problem. I don’t need to do anything, then.”
With a satisfied grin, Santa Stalin yanked a lever & rode his machine into the work station to spy on the other proletariats.
It took a minute for him to settle in his place, where Santa Lenin stood before he was uncommunistically assassinated by… who killed him? He scratched his head as he puzzled over this. You know, ’stead o’ listening to what I freakin’ kept telling him—all right, ’nough. I know it’s hopeless to try. I’ll just let the flesh head figure it out himself.
“He couldn’t have just killed himself… Well, he could have, but he wouldn’t have, since suicide is uncommunist, & I was pretty sure he was communist.”
He decided not to stress himself too much ’bout it. They’d catch the bastard that done it, ’ventually. ’Sides, he had to admit he was rather excited ’bout being the new Santa—& all he had to do was bury the Santa Trotsky far underground & use his hypnobeams to make all o’ these dumb stiffs forget he ever existed.
His eyes moved ’long the conveyor belt: bootleg consoles & Blue-rays being screwed shut, shotty pirates o’ famous ol’ NES games with Disney characters being rapidly programmed, balls o’ yarn & cotton moving by unmanned sewing machines, going unsown…
Wait. Where’s the guy that’s s’posed to be sewing the sweaters?
Probably some layaround off in the bathroom ’gain, thought he sourly as his eyes rolled round the rest o’ the belt.
He’d make sure whoever that was would never be able to use a toilet ’gain.
But then he blinked in shock ’gain when he saw a bunch o’ cardboard boxes drop off near the bags unwrapped.
What is this? Where’s the guy that’s s’posed to be wrapping those? What kind o’ joint we running here?
He maneuvered his bat machine over to the middle manager, sitting @ a desk & checking the databases twice to see what was causing all o’ these errors. Just before Stalin stopped next to him, he slammed his keyboard & muttered, “Stupid Oracle. All I want to do is view all o’ the records. I don’t even know what a ‘single-group group function’ is.”
“Santa Khrushchev, why is no one sewing the sweaters & wrapping the boxes?”
“What?” Khrushchev grunted as he looked up, only to lighten when he saw Stalin leering ’bove him, wiggling his Grinchy eyebrows up & down with an impatient glare. Suddenly, his bulky face paled, his hands wrapped all round each other as if trying to wash the nervousness off them, & sweat pored all over his naked forehead.
“Uh, S-s-sir, I… I thought you were chasing them, Sir.”
“Why, the 2 terrorists who murdered our great former leader, Santa Lenin.”
“Ah, so you’ve finally found out who did it?”
Santa Khrushchev stared @ Stalin as if he were kilometers ’way.
“Uh… You were just chasing them, Sir, weren’t you?”
“I was doing no such thing.”
Though, now that he thought ’bout it, Santa Stalin did have the strange déjà vu feeling as if he had just been chasing 2 rapscallions.
“Remember? 1 had a ponytail & glasses; the other was a skeleton. They’re, uh… they weren’t exactly hard to notice.”
Stalin’s eyes darkened. “Are you calling me dumb?”
You could hear the gulp fall down Khrushchev’s gullet.
“Good. That’s what I thought I heard, but I just wanted to check to be sure.”
Now that he thought ’bout it, he was gorgeously sure he remembered chasing 2 people who fit that description…
No… It’s impossible. Those 2 don’t exist. Otherwise, I would know where they went.
You do know where they went. They went through the dark passage. I told you this multiple times.
Wait, did I think that? Where did I get that idea?
I put it in your head, stupid.
Why would my mind call myself stupid?
’Cause you are.
So Santa Stalin shifted a lever back & flew his bat machine back out to the lobby & through the dark passage.
Autumn & Edgar were just piling the 5th bag into the sleigh when they heard the doors burst open ’hind them & turned to see Santa Stalin in his bat bot inside.
“So, you thought you could trick me, did you?” said he.
“Um, I’m quite sure we did trick you for a while,” replied Autumn.
“Well, not this time you won’t,” said he as he hovered toward them, his shadow stretching over them like a yawning maw.
“Here, catch,” said Autumn as she turned the bag in her & Edgar’s hands ’way from the sleigh & chucked it @ the M4RX machine.
“Hey, don’t you dare—ACK!”
He leaned back just ’fore he saw the heavy bag crash into the glassy visor in front o’ him with a loud crunch, pushing it inward into cracking shards, many o’ which fell on his lap.
“Are you crazy? You want to hurt someo—”
He was silenced when he heard ’nother thunk ’bove, & saw the bag already in his visor fall in further, smashing into his controls—as well as his hand, causing him to wince in tearful pain.
“Ow! What d’you think you’re doing?”
But his pupils dilated even mo’ when he saw & felt the blue sparks wrap round his arms from the squished & stabbed machinery.
He knew what electronics like this did when ’twere damaged—& he could do nothing but gulp in wait.
It did exactly as he expected: burst into a giant fireball, only to transform into a pile o’ black ashes, all o’ which spilled onto the floor as an empty puddle.
There was 1 exception: Autumn & Edgar’s eyes fell ’long with the pie, which bounced up & down on its tin plate a few times when it hit the ground.
They waited, 2/5s-expecting it to get up & attack them or headbutt them in the face.
Autumn edged closer & picked it up, staring @ it curiously. Faint wafts o’ steam billowed up from it, & she could smell a warm, citrus odor rise with it. She poked a finger inside, her nerves ignoring the burns it gave her, & licked her finger.
“It tastes lemony,” said she as she turned back to Edgar.
“What color is it?” asked Edgar.
She peeled back some o’ the crust & peered inside.
“It looks like a lightish, pale green.”
“Must be lime,” said Edgar with a nod.
“Well, should we take it with us?”
“No. Dig inside for a key.”
“For a key?”
Autumn did so; & sure ’nough, she found a bronze key with a li’l hammer & sickle on the back end.
“& what’re we s’posed to do with this?” asked Autumn.
“Use it to open the door holding the real Santa Marx.”
“What? Screw that. Let’s ’scape with the goods while we can.”
“Autumn, it’s Marxmas…”
Autumn waved a hand forward. “Bah. Murmurinsect.”
But she knew by the teddy-bear look Edgar gave her with his eyeholes full o’ unreachable brownies that she’d never feel right ’bout refusing this trifling deed & sighed.
“Fine. But let’s finish packing the sleigh 1st,” said she. “That way, if he tries to triple-dharmacakra us, we can rush ’way, anyway.”
Santa Marx sat hunched in the corner o’ his molding dungeon, alternating ’tween jabbing his thumbs over the buttons o’ his cellphone like spraying rain & waiting for it to beep in response to ’nother message from his text pal, Engels.
He just received 1 that said, “International committee’s having a banquet. Wanna go?”
Santa Marx replied, “Need a polite way 2 decline. Dont wanna B seen round Herzel. Can you believe the way he shoved his way in & thanx me 4 the *invitation* i *never made* sorry I dont luv ol’ eur”
He was interrupted with a start when he suddenly heard a click to his left & turned to see the door open. He raised an arm over his face vampire-like as the sliver o’ yellow light widened, his eyes so unused to any light other than that o’ his phone.
“Who’s that?” said he with a gasp.
“Santa?” asked Edgar as he clicked on the light & turned to see Santa Marx blink painfully.
“We came here to rescue you,” said Edgar.
“Yeah, you don’t mind if we swipe some o’ your gifts as restitution, by the way,” said Autumn as she jabbed a thumb backward to indicate gifts unseen.
Santa Marx stared @ them, bewildered, as a wild animal.
Edgar reached his arm out, as if trying to hug the world.
“We came to save Marxmas.”
Santa Marx snorted. “Marxmas. Just ’nother excuse for people to bask in their commodity fetishes while friendly polar bears sell Hero-Hero bottles drenched in the blood o’ Colombian workers.”
There was an awkward pause, followed by Autumn & Edgar throwing their heads back & guffawing.
“That wacky Marx,” they said in unison as they pointed finger-guns @ him & leaned their shoulders back with zany smiles. Then they started laughing ’gain.
Santa Marx maintained his sour glare as the blackness surrounded him, narrowing the circle inside o’ it where you could still see him till it finally disappeared completely, leaving nothing but darkness, engulfing the entire universe in 1 bite.