He’d wondered, when he started the job, why he needed a belt with so many holes. Now he knew — it fitted around him twice and felt like it needed tightening again. It took months to visit every home in one night and he’d lived every minute, surviving on what was left for him. In some houses it was mince pies and a glass of sherry. In others milk and cookies, and a carrot for the reindeer.

In most, it was nothing at all.

The residents of this house had put out a slice of Christmas cake, and a bowl of nuts for visitors. He cracked open a walnut and ate the crinkly sweet flesh, then put a handful of hazelnuts in his pocket for later. More than that would abuse their hospitality, something he’d been warned against.

He ate the cake with one hand and filled stockings with the other. He’d learned early to take short cuts where he could. The cake was shop-bought, crumbly and too dry, with no brandy-tang to wake a mouth that was starting to feel like it was full of cotton wool. Still, he was grateful.

He ate another walnut before disappearing up the chimney.

At the neighbours’ the tree was huge and bushy, with the angel bowed beneath a ceiling festooned with red and gold. Every surface sparkled. At first glance it appeared they’d left nothing, but then he saw a bottle of sherry with a label around the neck. Sure enough it was addressed to him.

Please take the whole bottle, or Gramma will drink it all and ruin Christmas. Love Johnny.

“Bless you, kid,” he whispered.

On the roof, he tipped the sherry into the drainpipe. He’d had more than enough and the bottle was a more valuable gift. He dug in the footwell of the sled for a card left for him earlier on this endless night, and curled it into the neck of the bottle as a makeshift funnel. Behind him the reindeer snorted impatiently as he shoved in handfuls of snow — no one ever thought to leave out drinking water.

The reindeer had accepted a single carrot each, when offered, but left the rest for him. They didn’t seem to need more, but then he supposed flying reindeer had their own rules.

Europe finished, they pulled the sleigh west out over the Atlantic. The advert had mentioned travel, but he’d thought it was touring malls. Then, at induction they’d told him travelling east to west made the most of the varying timezones, and to trust that the reindeer knew where they were going.

“You are not permitted,” they’d said, “to bring anything with you. Only that which is left out can be taken. You are not permitted to eat the reindeer.”

High over the ocean, the tears froze on his cheeks. He’d known there were others before him but no one had been willing to talk about them, only mutter about changing times. As he huddled against the cold he looked down at the water, shining like ice in the moonlight. At this distance it would be like hitting concrete.

He just had to get to the end.

In South America it was summer, and he felt the welcome heat soak into his bones. He drank sidra and ate pan de Pascua — it seemed every nation had its version of fruit cake. As he went north it grew colder, and he nearly cried as he saw the bulk of the USA and Canada stretch out before him, each house waiting for a visit. His teeth loosed in his gums and he had to suck the sugar cookies left for him before he could eat them. His nails peeled away from their beds. Just before they crossed into Canada he gorged on snow until he was sick. He wondered how many before simply didn’t survive the trip, and what happened then.

The reindeer flew on. The snowfields of Canada were so vast he didn’t notice they’d crossed into Alaska until they came to the ocean and the reindeer banked to head towards the pole.

“That’s it?” he croaked. “We’re done?”

The reindeer didn’t answer. He huddled in the sled’s footwell to sleep and didn’t care if he never woke up.

The next thing he knew it was warm. Hands pulled at him but he struggled away and slid to the ground.

“Well done, sir,” a cheerful voice said. “Now you can rest. Eat, sleep, and prepare for next year.”

“Next year? I thought this was a seasonal job!”

“Seasonal, yes. But it is a permanent position.”

The elves pulled him to his feet and shuffled him towards the snow-covered log cabin he’d stayed in before, with smoke coming out of the chimney and the roof edged with fairy lights.

As they ushered him in, he wondered why he hadn’t noticed before there were candy cane bars at the windows.

C.L. Holland is a British writer of fantasy and science fiction, and winner of Writers of the Future. Sometimes she writes poetry under an assumed name. She has a BA in English with Creative Writing, and MA in English, and likes to learn things for fun. She lives with her long-suffering partner, and two cats who don’t understand why they can’t share her lap with the laptop.

Every Day Fiction wishes you all the joy of the season;
Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it!

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