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Actually, it was the 23rd of December in the Year of the Great Fog – not literally “one foggy Christmas Eve” – when Rudolph got the knock on the door he’d been praying for his entire short life. “Headquarters, stat!” barked the terse elf, and vanished into the heavy mist. Rudolph leapt only once with glee, and within minutes was inside the Compound, getting ushered into the Reindeer Relations Office.
All afternoon Rudolph filled out forms, until his front hoof ached – forms for the Arctic Union Authority, forms for the Polar Province, forms for the Seasonal Delivery Union, tax forms, insurance forms, hold-harmless agreements and next-of-kin forms, everything in triplicate, much of it redundant. But it all seemed worth it when he thought about what was in store tomorrow night – a sudden chance, out of the blue, to guide Santa’s sleigh, as a mere rookie, still in his teens, all because of the unprecedentedly thick fog and his inexplicably luminous nose! So he just kept on, repeatedly printing out his mother’s igloo address, signing his name, and pressing his hoof print into the ink pad, until it was supper time.
I have it on good authority that he was kept in Reindeer Relations longer than normal because it was in nobody’s interest for him to attend that afternoon’s contentious Team Meeting.
“You’re ready for this, foreman?” grunted Dancer with a tight-lipped grimace.
“Yeah, yeah, sure, you can count on me,” answered Donder a little shakily.
“He’ll rant and rave, he’ll throw his tantrums, but just stand firm, he has to respect our contract.”
“I got it, buddy. I’m ready.” The door opened, and in shambled Santa, head down and wordless with an armful of documents and a mug of steaming hot cocoa. He set his load down at the head of the table and began pacing with his hands behind his back.
“All right ladies and gentlemen, let’s get down to business. As I’m sure you all know, we have a new deer guiding the sleigh this year…”
Raising his paw timidly, Donder quickly interjected, “That’s what we’d like to talk about, sir. Did you get a copy of our grievance?”
Santa stopped pacing and narrowed his eyes at Donder for a moment. “Yes I saw your little pissant grievance. You wanna know what I think about it? Do you?? Well, I’m not gonna say what I think about it because there’s ladies present. What I think about your grievance is I’m gonna ignore it. Now moving on…”
“Sir, we’re serious. Paragraph 3, page 38 in our Binding Agreement states very plainly that ‘the sleigh shall be guided by the reindeer with the most seniority who has not guided the sleigh in the preceding five years.’ And this year that honor would fall to my distinguished colleague Dancer, who…”
Here one of the “ladies,” Vixen, broke in: “Remember, sir, Dancer just had his fourth calf, and he’s just taken out a loan on a bigger igloo, using the guider’s bonus as collateral…”
“YOU!” spat Santa. “You’re in on this too, you little slut? Did you forget the kind of life I plucked you from to put you on this team? And this is the gratitude I get? You all know exactly why Rudolph has to guide the sleigh this year. I mean, look out there!” he pointed out the window. “You can’t see your bloody hand in front of your bloody face!”
“Sir,” stammered Comet with his head down, “the language contains no exceptions for weather conditions.”
“What’s this? THIS pansy too? Are ALL of you involved in this? Fine, you know what Santa’s gonna do? I’m gonna fire ALL of you and do this year’s delivery with a team of reinscabs! And I’ll pay them HALF what I pay you and they’ll lap it up!”
Donder, wishing to God he weren’t this year’s foreman, heard his own mouth say, “There’s no time to train reinscabs, sir.”
This time when Santa turned his florid, trembling face toward him, his eyes were bulging and he seemed unable to form words. But after a few tense moments they came tumbling forth in a torrent: “You know what I see here? I see eight degenerate sh*theels who obviously don’t give a flying rat’s ass about all the good little boys and girls in the world! Oh it’s ‘I need a bigger igloo’ and ‘I wanna guide the sleigh!’ It’s never ‘what can I do to help things go smoother!’ You buncha spoiled pricks, I knew your parents and they would disown you if they saw you now! I wipe my ass with your little faggot grievance!” His rage seemed to feed on itself as he gripped the table, spittle flying from his mouth. “Oh, we’ve got Santa’s balls in a vice now, don’t we? Santa will eat sh*t, Santa always eats sh*t. NO! NO!” He hollered like a furious overgrown toddler, “No! Not this time! NOT THIS time! You are NOT forcing me to eat sh*t this time! I’m gonna burn this thing down, just watch me! No goddamned delivery this year! Is that what you f*cking want? Fine, you bastards!” With a sweep of his hand, papers and steaming cocoa went flying as everyone ducked. “That’s it, I’m f*cking through with all of you!” And he stormed out, slamming the door.
Young Blitzen broke the stunned silence. “Wow, I’ve never seen him like that!”
Cupid winked at Vixen. “We’ve seen him like that plenty of times. He’ll go off and think a little and calm down, and then he’ll be back in a few minutes and apologize. Just remember, we all stand our ground. The law’s on our side.”
After five long minutes the door slowly opened again. “I’m sorry I lost my temper. I’ve been under a lot of stress. But please, we have to do it this way this year, just bear with me. I have some news that might make this easier to swallow. Dr. Mendelbaum is hopping on a plane the day after Christmas…”
“Mendelbaum – the stem-cell guy?” interrupted Prancer.
“Yeah, Mendelbaum, the biogeneticist from the University of Moscow. He’s dying to find out what makes Rudolph’s nose glow. And I told him he can have all the access he wants to the kid as long as he figures out a treatment so that all of you can have luminous noses, so this problem never comes up again. That is, all of you who want that.”
Not a tail in the room failed to wag a little at the thought of having a luminous nose, and the huge guider’s bonus that would go with it.
Sensing success, Santa gave his first smile. “NOW, if we may, on to tomorrow’s logistics.”
Rudolph finally emerged from Reindeer Relations just as the meeting was letting out. “Aw, what did I miss?”
The other reindeer gathered around him gushing with enthusiastic welcome. “Congratulations, Rudolph, we’re really glad you’re with us this year!” cried Donder. “I always knew you had it in you, buddy!” raved Comet, and Prancer startled Rudolph with a big kiss on the cheek – the same Prancer who had turned him down for the Prom a couple years earlier, calling him a freak. “Wow, I’m excited to be working with you guys too, you’re the greatest!” he managed, as they trotted off in every direction to their cabins.
Blitzen hung back with Rudolph, observing. “They’re sure singing a different tune now, eh Rudy?”
“Yeah, I always thought they hated me!”
“Dude, this is the biggest bunch of two-faced backstabbers you’ll ever meet. Don’t EVEN think you can trust any of them as far as you can throw ’em.”
“Aw, Blitzen, I always find it’s best to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
“Let’s go somewhere and talk, Rudy. But first let’s get high.”
They pranced off into the pine forest, and reclined in a small clearing where Blitzen had stashed a little bag of something greenish-brown. “My own mix of mosses and lichens. This’ll really help you relax.” He packed some into a pipe, inhaled and held in a lungful and passed it on to Rudolph. “Here, take a big hit of this, hold it in… hold it in… and let it out slowly. Like I was saying, I just think you need to be aware of how jealous all those guys are of you. Of your nose really. Do you know how much money you’re getting, the guider’s bonus? Some of those deer would kill for that. That and the prestige.”
“Aw… they don’t need to be jealous of my nose. I’d give it to them if I could.”
“See, you’re too nice to work with people like that. They’re just gonna take advantage of you. Really, I’m glad you’re here because I was always the one they picked on, but I think it’ll be you from now on!” They both chuckled at that.
“I feel a little weird right now, Blitzen.”
“Here, you just need to do more of this.” He passed the pipe again. “You wanna know why they’re harnessed in the order they are? And it changes every year. Some of them just can’t stand to see each other’s faces. But nobody will ever quit because the job pays so good, and look at the unemployment around here. Couple years ago, Comet was boning both Prancer and Vixen…”
“Oh, Blitzen, I don’t need to know about this!” Rudolph protested, blushing, through lungfuls of the sweet smoke.
“Once the girls found out about each other, they have to be harnessed as far apart as possible, or they’ll end up kicking each other and throwing the whole sleigh off course. And that’s not all. Do you follow the local blogs?”
“No, politics make my head hurt.”
“Okay, well Cupid, Dasher and Dancer all first started out on a blog called the Apple Cider – a good investigative blog for local politics. But Dasher was named a city commissioner and became real close to a certain councilman, and when Cupid started criticizing that councilman Dasher moved to another blog, the North Pole Liberal. Fine, huh. Except eventually Cupid and Dasher started attacking each other in their blogs – real personally too – so much that Santa had to move them to opposite ends of the line-up or they’d bite each other’s throats open. That was just last year. This year… Hey don’t bogart that pipe, pass it over here.”
“Sorry, here, I was just spacing out listening to you.”
“Nobody knows exactly what happened next but suddenly Cupid changed his mind about the councilman, Dasher came back to the Apple Cider, and they are like inseparable now, but meanwhile Cupid lent Dancer some money or something and they had a falling out, and now DANCER is at the North Pole Liberal, and Cupid and Dasher attack him mercilessly, and Santa had to move them again. Just last week the Apple Cider was attacking Dancer for his ‘illegal Eskimo wife’ and their two ‘anchor babies.'”
“This all seems really petty, Blitzen. I feel weird. These mosses and lichens are making my heart beat too fast.”
“Oh! You need some of THIS now.” Blitzen pulled out a little box. “This is real Fairy Dust. Just do like I’m doing, sniff some up each nostril.”
“Really? Okay, let me try.” Blitzen watched Rudolph snort some Fairy Dust, and tried to remember what point he was getting at.
“Mainly what I want to tell you is, despite all their bickering with each other, if they feel threatened by anyone from outside the team, they unite like this” – snapping his fingers – “at the common danger. And Rudy, they are united against you right now. They couldn’t get you off the team so now they all want your nose. They…”
For a stunned second they stared at each other, Rudolph trying to figure out how Blitzen snapped his hoof, and Blitzen gaping transfixed at Rudolph’s antlers. “Blitzen, I feel dizzy.”
“Rudolph! Look, your antlers are glowing like your nose! This is so cool!” By now it was night, and the entire clearing was lit up with an amazing otherworldly red light coming from Rudolph’s head. “I love how this Fairy Dust affects you!”
“I gotta move, Blitzen, I’m going crazy here.”
Rudolph’s memory of the rest of the night was spotty. They definitely went off flying at that point. They left the compound for a while, which they weren’t supposed to do. He remembered a sentry elf yelling at them. And somehow when they came back they knocked over the huge satellite dish over Santa’s headquarters. He remembered laughing and laughing – he had never had so much fun in his life – but knowing he was in trouble. And the two of them trying hard to set up the dish again, but hooking up all the wires wrong. And somehow, he never figured out how, he ended up back in bed in his cabin, because that’s where he woke up on the morning of Christmas Eve.
Santa was surprisingly jolly and relaxed at the Team Meeting that day. He did scold Rudolph and Blitzen for their escapades and ordered them to stay away from each other. But this was more than made up for by the hearty if modest welcome ceremony for Rudolph, where he was hoisted on everyone’s shoulders as they sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” At the end of the meeting, after a rousing pep talk, Santa cryptically added, “And that other little issue, it’ll be taken care of. Mendelbaum will be here tomorrow.” Rudolph was a little puzzled by that comment but didn’t ask any questions.
The big Christmas Eve delivery went like clockwork, exactly like Rudolph had planned and dreamed and studied for his whole life. It went without a hitch, possibly for the first time in history. It was amazing, nearly miraculous when you thought about it – a billion households, five continents, in twenty hours, timed to the rotation of the earth. But Rudolph proved himself more than worthy of the trust Santa had put in him. Even the pettiest members of the team had to grudgingly admit that he seemed born to the task of guider. And when he finally hit the sack, he was bursting with pride but exhausted and ready for a well-earned sleep.
But just as he was drifting off he heard a little tap at the door, and a familiar voice. “Rudy? It’s Blitzen. We have to talk.”
“Blitzen, you know we’re not supposed to be seen together.”
“You did great today, you know.”
“Thanks, Blitz, but I gotta get some sleep. I have an appointment at the hospital first thing in the morning.”
“That’s what I want to talk to you about. Do you know what that appointment is for? Do you know who Dr. Mendelbaum is? They’re going to operate on your nose to find out its secret. You could die!”
“Aw, Blitzen, I know you care about me. But you’re just paranoid because you do too many drugs. Every reindeer has to have a physical when they’re first hired, there just wasn’t time for mine yet.”
“I know what I’m talking about here, Rudy. I really recommend you skip that appointment and go home to your mom.”
“Blitzen… I love you, but you’re crazy. Come on, you gotta leave now. I don’t wanna get in trouble.”
After a moment’s silence, Blitzen sighed, “Okay then Rudolph. Good luck tomorrow and I hope it all turns out okay. You really did do a great job today.”
“Thanks, Blitz. Good night now.” Rudolph heard Blitzen’s hoof clicks move slowly and sadly away to his own cabin, and he slipped into a deep and peaceful slumber.
Bright and early the next morning, Rudolph shook the sleep from his eyes and trotted across the Compound to the hospital. The pretty nurse was standing there waiting for him with a big smile and a syringe in her hand. “Ah, Rudolph, our little hero! I heard what a good job you did, we’re all so proud of you. Just lie down here now – this will sting just a tiny bit…” She poked the needle into Rudolph’s foreleg and he drifted off to sleep again…
It was impossible to say how long he slept, but when he woke he was in a different bed in a different hospital room, and he couldn’t move any of his legs because they were tied down. He could hear a couple of doctors speaking, and they sounded like they were arguing quietly but intensely. He heard one say something like,
“Mendelbaum says we have to remove it. That’s the only way he’ll agree to work on it.”
And the other responded, “Too dangerous, I keep telling you. That artery goes straight to the brain stem. If everything doesn’t go completely smooth the kid could end up dead or a vegetable.”
Rudolph managed to mumble, “Re – remove what?”
The doctors, startled, glanced over, then called to the nurse, who was filing her nails in the corner. “Nurse? The patient…”
She hurried over, repeating in the same exact voice as before, “Our little hero! You woke up! Here, you need to sleep a little more…” and gave him another injection.
Of all the morphine-infused dreams he slipped in and out of while sleeping in that hospital, one was especially intense and realistic, and seemed to be a long-buried childhood memory. It was of the last time he had ever seen his dad, the day his daddy left. He heard him yelling mean things at his mom while she cried. He heard his dad call his mom a whore, and heard her ask him to quiet down and please stop drinking. He heard his dad say, “I know where he got that red nose, do you think I’m a fool? Do you think I don’t remember that red-nosed Yeti bartender and how much time you spent with him back when we first met?” And he heard his mom call his dad a son-of-a-bitch, and he could hear his dad hitting her over and over, and her crying for help, and finally his dad leaving and slamming the door, and he knew that was when he left for good.
And he remembered his mom holding him on her lap after his dad was gone, rocking him back and forth, weeping, and calling him “My beautiful little Abominable baby… my precious Abominable Snowman baby…” And he tried to hold that memory in his mind as long as he could.
Rudolph never really woke up again. But for a long long time, what seemed like months or years, he could feel himself in the hospital. Sometimes he could see things in a blur through his eyes but those times he couldn’t hear or speak or move. Once somebody brought some balloons and he watched them move around in the hospital room, and that was sort of nice.
But more often he just sort of watched everything from above, like he was floating around the ceiling of the hospital room, and he could look down on his shrunken, bandaged face. A few times his mom came and sat by his bed for a while, holding his front hoof and weeping. Those times he wished he could say something to comfort her, but he didn’t really feel any emotion. The funny thing was, he did feel kind of guilty for not feeling any emotion. Did that make sense?
For a long time, off and on, he could hear crowds outside the hospital chanting “Don’t pull the plug on Rudolph!” One time he saw Sarah Palin come into his room with a bunch of cameramen and reporters, and he heard her make a short speech where she said that Obama’s death panels would “make America a nation of Rudolphs.”
And another time, Jesse Jackson and Bono came to visit him, with the same cameramen and reporters. Bono sang a song he had written for him, and then Reverend Jackson made some kind of speech but Rudolph couldn’t understand a word of it, although it seemed to rhyme. Then for a long time nobody came.
Finally one day Santa Claus came to his room, with his mother, a priest, and a judge holding a document. Santa sat in the chair by his side and this is what he said:
“Rudolph, I don’t know if you can hear me or not, but I want you to know… I didn’t want this to happen this way. You know I don’t have the authority I used to have, I’ve got to do what the Arctic Union judges tell me to do. And the court has ruled that we can’t keep you alive artificially any more… So, little fella, here goes nothing.” Santa reached down and pulled a plug out from the wall while a nurse removed some tubes from his forelegs, and his mom started crying again.
Santa continued speaking. “Rudolph… I don’t know if this would make you feel better or not, but I want you to know that the experiment was successful, and all the other reindeer have luminous noses now, thanks to you! Aw… damn…” Now tears were rolling down Santa’s cheeks, and his normally cruel and harsh visage was wracked with emotion and seemed almost kindly. “Rudolph, I just want to say,” he sobbed in a broken voice, “you’ll go down in history.”
And then everything sort of faded to white, and Rudolph felt free.