December, 1963

The Etch A Sketch nearly passed through Martin’s hands without a second glance, but his neighbor jabbed him with an elbow. Martin froze at the image of the starburst drawn in grey plastic.

“It’s Aaron,” his neighbor, Sanjeet, whispered.

Martin looked up the length of the table. Beyond the last pile of Etch A Sketches sat Aaron, sweating beneath his green hat. Aaron kept his eyes glued to the box of toys before him, working diligently. Martin’s gaze wandered to the elf’s bulging jacket.

“Shake or pass, idiot,” Sanjeet muttered.

Martin shook the starburst into oblivion, to cover his quaking hands as much as to destroy the evidence. He placed the toy in the Approved pile and reached for the next.

With Christmas just hours away, the workshop was crammed to capacity. Hundreds of elves scrambled to assemble the last of this holiday’s toys and pack them into the quantum sacks needed to haul them to their destinations. Blixem-class fusion sleds hovered near the ceiling, swarmed with elfin pilots performing final flight checks.

“I still think my plan—” Martin said, but Sanjeet hissed.

“We’re committed,” he said. “Aaron arrived thirty seconds late today. He’ll be called up any minute. Just be ready.”

Martin swallowed and cast a hurried glance to the center of the room. On a cherry platform at the center of the workshop lurked their taskmaster, hidden behind a bank of computers. At the back of the platform, a great fireplace warmed the entire workshop, the chimney rising hundreds of feet to the roof.

Martin could see the black boots beneath the desk, slightly above head level for an elf, forcing them to gaze upward as they approached.

A pair of burly elves appeared at Aaron’s sides. “Aaron Mallow,” one of them said, his voice uncharacteristically deep for an elf. Aaron’s eyes darted around, perhaps seeking comfort, but he found only averted faces.

“I… yes.” Aaron said, already sounding defeated.

“Impudence has been duly noted,” the other said. In unison, the thuggish elves ordered, “Report to Claus.”

They hoisted Aaron from his chair and carried him away. The other elves bent to their work, keeping their heads low.

“This doesn’t have to happen,” Martin said. “I’m telling you, my plan can still be implemented. It just needs time.”

“Revolution has no patience,” Sanjeet sneered. “Justice doesn’t wait.”

Aaron’s shoes hit the platform’s rosy steps with a clatter. Martin couldn’t tear his eyes away, despite Sanjeet’s urgent kicks beneath the table.

With a sweet tinkling of bells, the computers slid away to reveal their master. Mrs. Claus leaned forward, terrible and beautiful in her red fur coat.

“Mr. Mallow,” she said, and Martin couldn’t repress the shiver in his spine. “Thirty seconds late today. We can’t have our elves showing up just whenever they please, can we?”

“No ma’am,” Aaron said. “But, if I could explain to — to — well, that is, if we were allowed to see Santa, and perhaps address some of the conditions in the… barracks…”

His voice trailed off as, with each word, the rage grew on Mrs. Claus’s face. Her cheeks flushed, she gripped the arms of her chair. “You will not say his name here,” she said in a bitter tone. Her left eye twitched in jolly hatred.

Aaron took a deep breath and stood firm beneath her manic glare. He put his hands on the buckles of his jacket. “I demand to see Santa Claus, madam. He has not walked these halls in many a year.”

“If that two-timing son of a bitch wants to make time with the Tooth Floozy he’s no longer welcome here!” screamed Mrs. Claus.

“Why is the fool talking to her?” Sanjeet asked. The workshop went silent, all eyes turning to the commotion.

“I expected as much,” Aaron said quietly, and he tore open his jacket to reveal bundles of glowing candy canes strapped around his torso, coupled by a modified Vac-U-Form. Bodyguards leapt forward. “The Claus is dead! Long live the Claus!” Aaron cried. Martin caught a glimpse of Mrs. Claus reaching for her face with a jerk. The entire platform, Aaron, and the guards ignited in a sphere of super-heated red-and-green plasma. For long seconds, tiny skeletons stood etched in the brilliant ball of energy. Then only a twinkling crater remained.

Not an elf stirred. They had all seen her vanish in the instant before the explosion, leaving nothing but a glittering trail of sugarplums up the chimney. She’d be back in minutes, covered in ashes and soot, more furious than ever.

“Blasted fool!” Sanjeet cursed.

“There is yet time,” Martin said. He ran to the auxiliary control panel. “We can change things. We can let people know. They just have to know how to look…”

Tiny, gnarled hands dashed across the keyboard, pausing only to wipe away a tear from his eye. He pulled up the Naughty List and the Nice List, side by side. A quick cut and paste, and the Nice List was Naughty, the Naughty List Nice. A simple change. A line never crossed. But someone would understand. And they would come and fix things, back to how it was before the reign of Mrs. Claus. It was just a matter of time.

Alexander Burns lives in Fort Worth, TX. He writes because he doesn’t have a basement in which to build robots or time machines. His work has appeared at Every Day Fiction, A Thousand Faces, 10Flash, The Future Fire, and Big Pulp.

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