Automatic reflex takes over for most of the drive, and when the earbuds start to fail, you obey the voice's instructions, switching on the radio to an AM band. The Windy City rises like a tsunami, bit by bit and then all at once. The fever swells and recedes, a tidal push and pull, nausea riding the crests.
The voice guides you down I-55 and north, Chinatown sliding by on your left, Motor Row District on your right. It gives you simple instructions: Drive up Michigan as far as you can, leave your vehicle where you stop, and walk through Grant Park until you reach Buckingham Fountain.
That's what you do, the door of your rusty Focus snapping shut with a sound like the calving of a wave-battered cliff. Twilit December has cast the car-choked avenue a frigid, submarine blue, bare oaks frozen like brittle fan corals, rimed drifts matching the chilly shades of Lake Michigan. And the people flit through the tree-lined green, a frenetic school flitting this way and that, tending camp fires, fixing tents, stirring cook pots, a confused mass of humanity — and a mass moving without any external impetus.
They come to a halt when they see you.
Strong hands on your arms guide you to a tent that smells of antiseptic and human waste, iodine and soiled linen. You're guided to folding chair that perilously creaks as it receives your weight. You stare at the blighted grass and soft soil beneath your feet, locked into the sudden loss of momentum by your damaged basal ganglia.
"There you are," the voice says. "Look at me, please."
White coat. Shoulder-length, dun-colored hair streaked with gray. A face that would look kind if fatigue and calorie deficit hadn't carved lines of care into it.
"I see you made it. Not many do. Look, I could explain, but I think you'd prefer if I showed you. This—" She holds up an unlabeled pharmacy vial. "—is a dopamine agonist. Turns out it works wonders. Production and distribution may be a problem, but it seems that the world isn't quite ready to end. Would you like to open your mouth?"
You require no further prompting.
"Good. Now, let's hear your story …"
• "Minutes of the Weekly Meeting of the Operation Believe Planning Committee, 12/19/1978, 1900 hours North Pole Time" and "Twelve" by Dan Dykstra (see below)
• "I Saw Three Ships" by David Llewellyn Dodds (see below)
• "Echoes" by Becky Rui (see below)
• "Rudolph123!" by William Gregory
• "Stay" by Phil Wade on Brandywine Books
• "And the Enfolding Arms Shall Cradle 'Til Your Last Breath and Beyond" by Loren Eaton on I Saw Lightning Fall • "The Poison Garden" by Linda Casper on Third Age Blogger
• "Christmas Lights" by Craig Scott on CS fantasy reviews
• "Adventus" by B. Nagel (see below)
• "Tribute" by Paula Gail Benson on Little Sources of Joy
• "Swan Song" by Rhonda Parrish on Rhonda Parrish
• "Ghosts" by Paul Liadis on Cyborg Menagerie
• "2022" by Kel Mansfield on Write Stuff
• "If Only in My Dreams" and "Mark Ye Well the Song We Sing" by John Norris on Pretty Sinister Books
• "Uncountable Sorrow" by Dave Higgins on Dave Higgins: A Curious Mind
• "My Digital Assistant" and "Stumpy's Viewpoint" by Patrick Newman on Lefty Writes
• "Moaning Stones" by Simon Kewin on Simon Kewin: Fantasy Author, Science Fictioneer, Writer of Worlds
• "Listen" by Elizabeth Gaucher on Esse Diem
• "False Creation" by Michael Morse on By Michael Morse
• "Last Christmas" by Iseult Murphy on Iseult Murphy: Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Author
• "Dragon Ornaments" by Lester D. Crawford on Lester D. Crawford Blog
"Minutes of the Weekly Meeting of the Operation Believe Planning Committee, 12/19/1978, 1900 hours North Pole Time"
by Dan Dykstra
Commander Blitzen presiding.
1. MISSION – Reaffirmed something must be done about people saying there’s no such thing as Santa.
2. TARGET – Identified as Mrs. Mildred Brooks of Lexington, Ky.
3. RECON – Agent Comet reported treacherous riparian and arboreal conditions at target’s residence. Motioned that action be carried out Sunday evening when target is anticipated to be in transit. Motion seconded and passed.
4. CONTINGENCIES – Private Prancer reported that elimination of potentially incriminating marks on target’s back is “uh, like, totally under control, guys.”
5. RESOLUTION – Action, though drastic, will provide convincing evidence of Santa to a boy and his grandfather
("Minutes of the Weekly Meeting of the Operation Believe Planning Committee, 12/19/1978, 1900 hours North Pole Time" copyright 2020 by Dan Dykstra; used by permission)
by Dan Dykstra
January 5. Christina awoke with a sense of dread.
The app had promised “true love”, and just a week ago Christina was ready to declare Nick the fulfillment of that promise.
Then came the birds.
And the cows.
And the pompous people trampling her well-manicured lawn.
And don’t get me started on those woodwinds.
Nick said it was his way of showing what was in his heart, but all Christina wanted was a new yoga mat and a nice bottle of wine and some damn peace and quiet.
She carefully went downstairs to get coffee.
“Nick? It’s over.”
("Twelve" copyright 2020 by Dan Dykstra; used by permission)
"I Saw Three Ships"
by David Llewellyn Dodds
Christmas morning, 1715. St. Nicholas was cheerfully sailing south along the Florida coast. By boat “From Amsterdam to Hispanje” as the Dutch sing? No: the mail boat, San Nicholas de Vari y San Joseph, Pedro de la Vega, master, that is. When… Pirates – again! ‘Sancte Nicolaë, ora pro nobis!’ Two bigger ships, this time! – and the hour of death? Could he show them where the treasure fleet wrecked? Sure – like he did the pirates who looted him yesterday… Looted again, two gold pieces – and when they got there? Death? No, and 1,200 pieces of eight well hidden all the while!
Post Script: This story was inspired by Colin Woodard's The Republic of Pirates (2007), pages 108-109.
("I Saw Three Ships" copyright 2020 by David Llewellyn Dodds; used by permission)
by Becky Rui
Pounding feet. Panting breaths.
Every morning, the same route. She loved the quiet, empty park. The pre-dawn shadows that danced under her sneakers.
Measured pace. Even breathing.
Glancing left at the rustle of dry leaves. Just an echo of her own noisy feet.
Slight uphill. Faster breathing. Slower strides.
Echoes of feet on pavement. Faster, not slower.
Her stride further slowed, all effort focused on hearing alone.
The push sent her sprawling. The body atop her heavy. The fingers on her throat tight.
Feet jerking. Body struggling. Breath panting.
Her gasps echo, but no one hears.
("Echoes" copyright 2020 by Becky Rui; used by permission)
by William Gregory
The elves seemed resistant to COVID-23, but Santa was struggling grievously. (His weight problems didn’t help.)
To buoy Santa’s spirits, we reminisced about how Rudolph’s face mask used shine so bright, but Santa only crinkled his eyes with a pained smile.
We lost Rudolph to COVID-19. Dasher and Blitzen to COVID-20. Mrs. Claus to COVID-22.
Doc said we can do no more. The end is near …
How could we save Christmas? What were we to do?
In his dying breath, Santa whispered, “Use my Amazon Prime account …”
But Santa, we don’t know your password!
And then he was gone…
BREAKING NEWS: Kristopher Kringle has passed from complications arising from COVID-23. In other news, AMZN is up nearly 80% in pre-market trading as they are reporting unusually large orders from the North Pole.
("Rudolph123!" copyright 2020 by William Gregory; used by permission)
by B. Nagel
Nissy knelt beside the gunwales, wreathed in spray, watching the foam and snow swallowed beneath the weight of the ship’s advance. Every swell, a reminder of her home. Every slap, her future. The sails stood out in the frigid wind and the brittle sun behind her cast shadows on the waves, destined for sublimation. A piece of her disappeared beneath the ship and her soul rose up.
“[name], come away from the railing. Your husband will be waiting. He didn’t pay for a frozen, salty herring.”
Nissy leapt for the waves and thought of flashing fish, but the irons held.
("Adventus" copyright 2020 by B. Nagel; used by permission)