Vulgarity ensues.

Cover for Tim Pratt's Dirty Santa by Emily CannonMerry Christmas strangers! The Drabblecast has something rather wicked fixed up for you this holiday season! We present to you a festive tale from fan-favorite Tim Pratt! It’s called “Dirty Santa.”

It’s a story that takes us on a journey with one awkward, balding, twenty-something to a Christmas party where he meets a mysterious stranger carrying a mystical and dangerous gift. This is a white elephant he’ll probably never forget.

‘Tis the season of giving, right folks? Yes, the season of learning how to genuinely thank people for upping your supply of socks and underwear. It’s a season of family and friends and maybe learning the difference between the two. Whether you’re opening up presents or opening up old wounds (thanks Kate) we’re reminded this is the time of year to be mindful of what you wish for. You just might get it.

Story Excerpt:

 

Kieran wallflowered. The apartment was a bustle of twenty other people more extroverted and festive than himself, all dressed in the requisite hideous holiday sweaters, drinking bourbon punch and rum punch and some sort of strange vegan eggnog, flirting and joking and ranting and, in one case, openly making out against a wall underneath a dangling branch of mistletoe.

And hey! Once the story’s over, go on over to Podcastle to hear another holiday special from Tim Pratt. That’s right, we’re offering a two Tim Pratts for the price of one and that price is, well, free. All you have to do is check out our friends on the other side of the internet, so why not spread the Drabble cheer?

And while we’re feeling celebratory, why not also take some of that Christmas check from Grandma and put a little towards Tim Pratt’s Patreon? As little as a dollar a month gets you new, previously unpublished stories that you can read and download. Yeah a dollar. You can’t even make a long distance phone call for that anymore. Do people even make long distance phone calls now? Does anyone remember that?

Ah… another year gone.

Drabble:

Our Drabble this week is “A Frosty Demise” by Zimmerman:

As death appeared over the hills of snow
The old man’s smile fell away
The end was near
His posture cantered to one side
Weighed down by a scarf that had now frozen solid around his neck
“What senseless meaning lay behind this existence?” he pondered. “What maker gave life, only to have me watch it melt away, all alone?”
His face began to glisten and droop in the noon day sun.
“If winter is the end, then what is the beginning?”
As his silk hat fell away
He hoped and he prayed that he’d be back again
Some day

Uplifting.

Every wonder what else that hat might have brought to life? Like maybe the dead, or a scarecrow? What happens when an actual person wears it? Curious…

Think you can write a 100-word story (you can!)? Give it at shot! We might just produce it for the show.

Twabble:

Today’s Twabble comes from Suomy Nona!

Realizing “being good” would not end the neglect, Mike crossed into Maryland and aimed. Yes Santa, there IS a Virginia.

Want your Twabble read on the show! Tweet it to us!

So once again, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy (belated) Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, or whatever repackaged pagan ritual you folks celebrate. Hope you enjoy the show (full text printed below the player)!

Drabblecast #394 – Christmas Special “Dirty Santa”

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Dirty Santa

By Tim Pratt

 

Kieran wallflowered. The apartment was a bustle of twenty other people more extroverted and festive than himself, all dressed in the requisite hideous holiday sweaters, drinking bourbon punch and rum punch and some sort of strange vegan eggnog, flirting and joking and ranting and, in one case, openly making out against a wall underneath a dangling branch of mistletoe.

The ones making out were the hosts: Kieran’s ex-girlfriend Mia and her partner Josie. (Except Mia probably didn’t even think of Kieran as an ex, since they’d only gone on three dates and had sex exactly once, an experience that had ended with Kieran mumbling, “It’ll be better next time, when I’m not so nervous about being with someone new,” a promise he’d never had the opportunity to fulfill.) They’d decided—that is, Mia had decided—they were better as friends, and Kieran always accepted the invitation to her annual Ugly Sweater Dirty Santa Party because he did like being friends, and also because of a compulsion to pick the emotional scab by watching her be happy without him.

He sipped his bourbon-cider punch and looked around for someone he wanted to talk to, but the only people he recognized were art nerds he didn’t particularly like. Mia’s friends were local art people and Josie’s friends were shiny tech-company people and Kieran was halfway in between, day jobbing with unsexy legacy infrastructure programming and making found-object sculpture in his free time—art that might as well have stayed lost for how much attention it got. At least his tiny gallery appearances gave him some cool photos to put in his dating profile to offset the whole “thinning hair” and “approaching thirty” issues. He’d met Mia at a First Friday Art Walk event in Oakland a few years before—she made weird sculptures and jewelry that looked like murderous alien sea creatures—and they’d hit it off by making fun of soulless tourist-bait art kitsch together. It turned out mutual snark wasn’t a sufficient basis for a relationship, but it was just barely enough for a friendship.

A woman came weaving through the party toward Kieran, wearing a green sweater with an enormous reindeer head on the front, antlers spreading out on either side and disappearing into her armpits. The reindeer wasn’t very festive—no red-and-white striped scarf, no ornaments dangling from its antlers—and had a strangely direct black-eyed stare. Under the baggy sweater she wore a red velvet mini-skirt and sparkly stockings and heels, and she had great legs. Kieran remembered to look at her face and realized she was older than average for the party, probably closer to forty than he was to thirty, but she was pretty, with long red hair and vivid red lipstick to match, teeth shining in a smile. “Dave!” she shouted as she drew near. “It’s so great to see you again!” She kissed him on the cheek, and she smelled like vanilla. That was the scent Mia wore most of the time, too.

“I, uh, think you think I’m someone else. My name’s Kieran.”

“Oh, that’s fine, I’m not picky. What matters is we’re reindeer buddies.” She poked him in the stomach, a little too hard, right on the bright red nose of his Rudolph sweater. “I’m Elsie.” She stood beside him, shoulder-to-shoulder, back against the wall, and surveyed the party. “This is fun. This is nice. What did you bring for the swap?” She gestured to the silver-and-white Christmas tree in the corner, and the pile of gifts underneath. You couldn’t come to the party unless you brought a wrapped gift for the Dirty Santa exchange. Kieran had grown up calling such events Yankee Swaps or White Elephant parties, and when he first got invited to a Dirty Santa party he’d expected something more salacious, but it was just the same thing under a different name: people took turns, and each could either choose a new gift to unwrap, or steal an existing gift from someone else, making them unwrap a new gift instead. Some parties had house rules to mitigate the fundamental unfairness of the game (the first person had too few options, the last person too many), with restrictions on how many times gifts could be stolen and other limits, but Mia’s Ugly Sweater Dirty Santa party was pretty much a red-(and-green)-in-tooth-and-claw gift-stealing frenzy.

“I found this hideous cheap remote controlled toy rat on the bottom shelf of a discount store the week after Halloween and snatched it up with this party in mind,” Kieran said. “How about you?”

“Wow, you must really look forward to this party if you looking for a gift six weeks in advance.”

“I mean, well, it’s always really fun, and funny, so… sure I do. How do you know Mia? Or Josie?” Kieran didn’t think she looked like a programmer or an artist, but she could be a rich art collector out slumming, he supposed.

“You asked what I brought for the swap.” She clinked her cup against his. “I brought a delicate glass ornament full of magic. It contains a Christmas wish. Or possibly a lot of wishes, if they’re small. It’s like, you know how if you have a few yards of material you can make one big dress or a whole lot of little handkerchiefs? It’s like that.” She stepped away from the wall, spun on her heel, and faced him. The colorful ornaments dangling from the antlers of the reindeer on her sweater seemed to sway, but surely that was an optical illusion. Wait. Had those ornaments been there before? “I like you, Dave. We’re reindeer buddies. So let me tell you: pick the gift wrapped in midnight purple paper speckled with little stars. That’s the bauble. That’s the ball of miracles.”

Kieran looked past her at nobody. “I see somebody I need to talk to, sorry, it was nice meeting you, ah….”

“Elsie. You don’t believe me. That’s okay. Like Josie would say, your disbelief, that’s expected product behavior. Take my hand. No? I’ll just take yours then.” She grabbed his hand, and then flung her other hand, the one holding her cup, high in the air. Kieran expected booze to fly up out of the cup, but instead, glitter flew out, red and green sparkles showering down around them—actually showering all over the room, like it had been hidden in the ceiling—drifting slowly, slowly, slowly, until finally some of the glitter just hung suspended in the air, unmoving. At the same time the big-band-era Christmas music playing slowed too, the singer’s voice stretching and distorting, and then falling silent. Everyone in the room slowed and went still as well, frozen in place like they were playing a game of statues.

Elsie let go of Kieran’s hand and did a little pirouette, and when she faced him, the reindeer on her sweater had Christmas lights wound around its antlers, real ones that blinked red and green and blue, but its eyes were still black and blank. “See? Magic. The existence of one particular form of magic doesn’t necessarily imply the existence of other forms, admittedly, but I’m trustworthy, so believe me when I say: choose the gift wrapped in dark purple, and you can make wishes come true.”

“This—what—I—”

“Cogently argued.” Elsie walked over to Mia and Josie, who were still embraced under the mistletoe. “There’s some solid tongue work happening over here. Caught them right in mid-French. Did you want to cop a feel? They’ll never know, so you could argue it’s a victimless crime.”

“What? No! That’s horrible!” He looked around at the still, silent people, with no choice but to believe his senses.

Elsie shrugged. “Sure. There’s a sliding scale of horrible, but that’s definitely somewhere on it. What if you could wish for Mia to fall in love with you, though?”

“That… would also be horrible. It would be like mind control. Coercion.” Mia loving him would be wonderful. Mia forced to love him would be awful.

Elsie nodded. “See, I could tell you were a good kid. That’s why I singled you out, even though originally my plan was to go full random with the bauble and see what would happen. Fortunately I never one to stick to a plan just for the sake of consistency.” She spun back to him and said, “Purple paper.”

Elsie disappeared deeper into the party. The music came back, the glitter shimmered and vanished, and everyone was laughing and talking again. Kieran leaned back against the wall and shivered. Either he was having some kind of psychotic break or a—what, a witch? sorceress?—had had just stopped time. He looked down into his cup, and saw glitter flecks sparkling on the surface, red and green. Third possibility. Had she dosed him with something? He’d done acid and shrooms plenty of times, and this didn’t feel like either of those, but it would explain the distorted sense of time, sort of—

Mia clapped her hands. “It’s Dirty Santa time!” Her sweater was covered in cavorting, vaguely sinister elves, and was at least three sizes too big. Someone turned the music down and everyone drifted toward the tree, gathering in a loose semicircle on beanbags, folding chairs, the loveseat, and the floor. Elsie was near the front, seated cross-legged on the floor and gazing up at the tree, which was topped with a shimmering jellyfish instead of an angel or star. Kieran considered bolting for the door, but that would be hard to explain, so he settled down on the edge of the coffee table instead, near the back of the crowd.

Mia stood up by the tree and pointed at people in no particular order, shouting numbers from two to twenty-one; Kieran got thirteen, and Elsie was fourteen. She turned around and grinned at him.

The games began. “I’m the host, so I’ll take the hit and go first!” Mia picked up a bulky package wrapped in light blue baby shower paper and tore it gleefully open. “A partially deflated volleyball!” She held the gift aloft like the head of a vanquished enemy. “Number two, do you want to steal my bounty?”

“I don’t want to be known as ‘number two’ especially, and no, I’ll pass.” That was Taylor, a dapper enby who made handmade books of exceptional beauty, and he picked up a package wrapped in yards of gold ribbon. He tore it open and showed off the prize, a silver cylinder in clear plastic packaging. “Look, a personal shaver, specially designed for pubic hair!”

“Marco will love that!” someone shouted, and everyone laughed. Mia said, “Number three, pick or steal!”

The rounds continued, with gifts opened and gifts stolen with great energy and mirth. There were shot glasses featuring Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s face (stolen twice); a tiny book of dirty limericks; a two-foot-tall nutcracker painted to look like a rotting zombie, with walnut “brains” taped to its hands; dirty socks; a ten dollar Applebee’s gift card; a dildo shaped like a candy cane (stolen three times); a Funko Pop figurine of George R.R. Martin; packets of edible marijuana-infused lube; a huge bag of that horrible circus peanut candy; a CD of Christmas carols composed of cat meows and dog barks (stolen once, and he was welcome to it)… an then it was Kieran’s turn.

People moved aside to let him approach the tree and consider the dwindling heap of presents underneath. He saw the package right away, nestled unobtrusively, as Elsie had described it: a spheroid of crinkled paper, so purple it was nearly black, with little speckles of white that could have been stars. He considered reaching for something else, but was he that big of a coward?

Kieran picked up the package, turned to face the crowd, and tore off the paper. There was a clear glass Christmas ornament inside, filled by a soft glow of pale yellow light, and he held it up. “It’s… a shiny thing!” he declared, to a few chuckles.

“That’s pretty, is it LED lights or something?” Mia looked around the crowd, but no one claimed knowledge or ownership. Kieran glanced at Elsie, who grinned up at him. The reindeer on her shirt was grinning now, too.

Mia shrugged and said, “Steal or open, number fourteen?”

Elsie stole up. “Steal, of course. Always steal.” Kieran was still standing by the tree, and she stepped toward him, reaching for the bauble, to his confusion. Hadn’t she wanted him to have it? Was she just messing with him?

Instead of taking the bauble, she pressed her hands against Kieran’s, pushing his palms together hard with the ornament between them. He gasped, expecting shards of glass to stab his hands, but instead it popped like a soap bubble, and warmth and tingling spread through his hands and then through his body and—

“Holy shit, he’s glowing,” Taylor said, pointing.

Kieran looked down at his hands, and the bauble was gone, but his skin was glowing with that same pale yellow light. He looked at Elsie. “I… do I… get a wish now?”

She wrinkled her nose at him. There was a reindeer skull on her sweater, now, antlers white and bare. “What? No. Santa Claus doesn’t get Christmas gifts, he gives them. You grant wishes, Dirty Santa, you don’t receive them.”

Everyone gaped at him, and some of them moved away. Mia reached out, hesitant, and touched his glowing hand—

—and suddenly the room vanished, and he found himself seated on a throne of wood and antlers in a dark cavern lit by distant torches. Mia was sitting in his lap, but not in the way he reminisced about so often, full of snuggly third-date affection—she was glassy-eyed now, and her voice was vague and far away. “I wish his gallery would burn down,” she whispered. “He stole my designs and made so much money, I wish he’d lose everything.”

Something stirred inside Kieran, and light swirled out from his fingertips, and he felt somehow… diminished.

Then he was back in her apartment, back at the party, and Mia staggered away. “What the hell was that? Where were we?”

“You disappeared!” someone shouted. “What the fuck, you both vanished and then you poofed right back!”

“She got a Christmas wish,” Elsie said. “A dirty one. Who’s next?” She gestured to Kieran. “Step right up! He’s your sugarplum fairy godmother!”

Somewhere outside, sirens began to wail. Where was the gallery Mia had wanted burned? Was it near here? Kieran stared down at his glowing hands.

Elsie spun toward Taylor, grabbed them by the arm, and flung them into Kieran, who lifted his hands to fend them off.

They crashed together, and Kieran was back in the cavern, Taylor on his lap. “I wish Marco would cheat on me so I could break up with him and still have the moral high ground,” Taylor mumbled.

Another swirl of light, and that sense of diminishment again, and then the party was back and Taylor was stumbling away, shaking their head and looking confused. Taylor’s boyfriend Marco, wearing a sweater with an antic snowman on the front, pushed a techie guy Kieran didn’t know up against the wall and began making out with him.

Taylor started screaming at Marco. Mia stood staring out the window as sirens wailed. Some guests were shoving against the front door, trying to get out, but it wouldn’t open. Elsie did pirouettes in the middle of the party, calling out. “Who’s next? All your dirtiest, darkest wishes can come true! There’s plenty of magic left in our jolly old elf! Your wishes are so small!”

She grabbed hold of another partygoer and tried to swing her toward Kieran, but he sidestepped, reached out, and grabbed hold of Elsie’s arm instead.

He was in the cavern again, on the throne, with Elsie on his lap. She looked around, barked a harsh laugh, and then put her arms around his neck and snuggled close, wiggling her warm ass into his lap. “All this, just to have a moment alone with me? All you had to do was ask, Dave.”

“Why are you doing this?” he said.

“Everybody has to do something. Why not this? Besides, I’m not the one making the wishes. You and me, we’re just making dreams come true.”

“Terrible dreams!”

“It is a Dirty Santa party. I’m just trying to be thematic. Besides, secret wishes are more interesting than the ones people admit to in public.”

“Just because someone has a—a bad impulse, a dark thought, it doesn’t mean they really want the bad thing to happen!”

“If you give people the opportunity to do something horrible without facing the consequences, most of them will say yes. People are only nice instead of naughty because they don’t want to get on the naughty list. Or go to jail or whatever. You’re a good person—so, boring—but that makes you a little blind to how good everybody else isn’t. Come on. Let’s get back to the party. You know someone in there wishes somebody was dead, and that’s like half a Christmas miracle right there, it’s only missing the resurrection part.” She started to slide off his lap, but he grabbed onto her, seizing her wrists.

“Stop,” he said. “What’s your wish?”

“Ha. I don’t have secret thoughts. I claim my dirty wishes proudly.” She started to pull away—but somehow she couldn’t. She frowned, and pulled harder, but Kieran felt a terrible strength within him. This cavern, it wasn’t a place, not really, it was… the manifestation a bargain, a transaction, and it had to be fulfilled. Elsie had magic, she’d unleashed this magic, but magic had its own requirements, and they bound her as much as him.

“Holding onto a lady against her wishes isn’t very woke, you know.” The reindeer on Elsie’s sweater snarled and snapped its skeletal jaws.

“You have to make a wish.” Kieran felt the truth within him. “We can’t leave here until you tell me what you want—what you really want.”

“Ugh, I will not be a Christmas miracle, my heart will not grow three sizes this day, I will not have an epiphany three weeks before Epiphany—damn it.” She struggled without success.

Kieran spoke softly. “Just tell me. What’s your secret wish? The desire you can’t even admit to yourself?”

Light crawled out of Kieran’s hands, onto Elsie, swirling around her wrists like manacles. She howled and shook her head back and forth, long red hair whipping around and lashing Kieran in the face—and then she stared into his eyes, her gaze empty. She parted her lips. She licked them.

She said, “I just want to feel something.”

Everything flowed out of Kieran then: he was hollowed, he was cored, he was emptied of light. The cavern vanished, and he was back in Mia’s apartment, sitting on the floor, and Elsie was beside him, sprawled half across his lap, her arms clutching him around the waist as she wept and sobbed and pressed her face against his chest. The front door popped open, and most of the party streamed out.

Kieran didn’t know what to do. So he just said, “Shhh. It’ll be okay.”

Elsie sat up, wiping at her eyes, and turned her red-rimmed gaze on him. The reindeer on her sweater was crying too. “That didn’t go the way I’d expected. I was hoping for a little light entertainment, maybe a minor Christmas cataclysm at best, and instead I got… I don’t know what. Feelings. This is such a stupid sentimental holiday.”

“Who are you?” Kieran said. “What are you?”

She pushed tear-dampened hair out of her face. “I used to be a woman. Then I became something else. I didn’t think I’d lost anything on the way to becoming something else. I thought I’d only gained. But… maybe I was wrong. Okay, Kieran. You can have a wish. Not even a dirty one. Just don’t say ‘Peace on Earth.’”

Kieran looked at Mia, who was staring, dazed, at her empty apartment. Josie was standing against the wall, hugging herself and shivering, and Marco was curled up in a corner, sobbing.

“Can I wish for peace in this room, at least? To… undo… what happened tonight?”

Elsie kissed him on the nose. “You are so good, Kieran. Good as gold. These idiots are lucky to have you.”

His vision filled with shimmering glitter and then he was back, standing against the wall, cup in hand, the party rewound to the moment before he met Elsie. He looked around, but didn’t see her. He walked over to the tree, and the black package was still there, just as before.

When his turn came up in the Dirty Santa exchange, he picked up the midnight purple gift, expecting to find an empty glass ball, or a bundle of shards, but the package was much heavier than before, probably five or six pounds. When he unwrapped it, he found a golden apple, with the letter K scratched on one side. “I got gold,” he said. “But, uh, no frankincense or myrrh.”

“Is that plastic?” Mia asked.

He hefted the apple. “I mean…. it’s pretty heavy.” If the apple was really solid gold—and why wouldn’t it be?—then it was probably worth six figures. Life-changing money. He squeezed the apple between his hands. A Christmas miracle.

Of course, the next person in line stole the apple from him, but as Kieran thought, It’s the thought that counts.