Adult language, some violence

Drabblecast Cover by Bo Kaier Comfort and Joy

This year’s Drabblecast Christmas Special brings you another original commissioned holiday story from the master of Christmas weirdness himself: Tim Pratt.

Happy Holidays Weirdo’s!

I was in a grubby little bar down in Florida, sitting on a stool beside a plastic palm tree decorated with Christmas lights, when I heard a cough, and smelled cold ashes. I folded up my list and tucked it into my pocket. Without looking around, I said, “Ruprecht. Long time.” A very long time, actually, but I’ve always been good with names…

 

Comfort and Joy

by Tim Pratt

 

I was in a grubby little bar down in Florida, sitting on a stool beside a plastic palm tree decorated with Christmas lights, when I heard a cough, and smelled cold ashes. I folded up my list and tucked it into my pocket. Without looking around, I said, “Ruprecht. Long time.” A very long time, actually, but I’ve always been good with names.

He sat down next to me, wearing an old barn coat, his face bearded and lined, shoulders broad but slumped. He looked much as he had in the old days, when we used to run around the German countryside together. “What name are you going by these days?” he asked. His voice was rough, a farmhand who’d smoked since he was old enough to lift a pitchfork.

“Changes from year to year. Lately people call me Bishop.”

Ruprecht raised a hand and ordered a pilsner, of course. I was drinking egg nog—it was the season, though down in the Keys you wouldn’t know it—because nobody knows how to make posset anymore, and because some old habits are harder to shake than others.

“You, ah, working tonight?” he said.

“Of course.”

“Got your list, and all?”

I patted my breast pocket. “Checked and double-checked.”

“How many are you going to… visit tonight?”

I shrugged. “Two, maybe three. It’s not like my old job. I don’t have to do them all in a single night.”

Ruprecht stared into his beer, brooding. He never was the jolly type. That was the part I played, in the old days. I was the big loud laughing flashy one, and Ruprecht followed along, playing the heavy. I was the one who said “Be good,” and Ruprecht’s very presence said, “Or else.” He wasn’t the only one I ran with, back when the winter nights seemed longer and people looked up at the sky more often. I had different companions in different places in different times, but they all had the same job: being scary. Offering threats as necessary counterparts to my bribes.

These days, I do the heavy stuff myself, and I do it better than any of my old companions ever did. It’s not their fault. They’d had me holding them back, keeping them within limits, making them follow rules. I didn’t have a me to hold myself back, and I didn’t make threats. I just followed through. “How’d you find me, Ruprecht?”

He scowled into his beer. “We figured you’d be somewhere warm. As far from home as you could get. A lot of us went out, checking places. Me, and Pete. Bart and Bel and Drapp. Even K came down the mountain to help out. We’re all worried about you.”

“I’m fine.”

“Your ex is worried about you.”

I snorted. “Sure she is. I don’t even remember getting married, Ruprecht. One day I woke up and there she was, making cocoa and baking cookies and bustling around. I took holy orders, or at least, I think I did. I shouldn’t have ever gotten married. When she turned up, what was it, around ’49? That’s when I really started to feel like I’d lost control of my own life. Looking back, things started to come apart a lot earlier, but suddenly having a wife from out of nowhere, new memories slotting themselves into my brain… That shook me.” Like a bowl full of jelly, I thought.

I sipped my eggnog, and wiped some off my upper lip. I already had a good start on a mustache, though I’d shaved just a couple of hours earlier.

“I couldn’t tell where I ended and the stories began. I remember slapping heretics, saving prostitutes, rescuing sailors from drowning, seeing the pyramids, but it’s all dim. The ice is a lot clearer, and the pounding of hammers, and the bells. Always the bells. Bells on everything that moved, jingling. A diet of mostly cookies and gingerbread.”

I patted my belly, which wasn’t as round as it had been. The things I did now were more physically demanding, and I worked a lot more nights.

“One day I was drinking some syrupy carbonated shit with some polar bears and I thought, ‘Enough is enough.’ Time to take control of my life. Make my own narrative instead of being shaped by someone else’s. So that’s what I did. I’m making a difference, now.”

Ruprecht sucked air through his teeth. “You made a difference before. You brought joy and hope—”

“You’re all doing that fine without me. You stepped up. You filled the gap.”

“It takes twenty of us to do what you did, about half as well as you did it.”

I put down my empty cup of eggnog. “Give it a few more centuries of practice, Ruprecht. You’ll get there.”

“It’s Christmas Eve next week.”

“Is it? I haven’t looked at my calendar in a while.”

“You could come back.”

I nodded. “That’s true. I could. I won’t.”

He took a long sip of his beer, smacked his lips, and sighed. “What you’re doing now… it’s not right. It’s not you.”

I looked straight at him, for the first time. “I check my naughty list every single day, Ruprecht. My name has never shown up there once. I have to go. Work to be done.”

“Nick—” He put his hand on my arm.

I shook it off. “It’s Bishop.” I started to walk away, then paused. He meant well, and it’s the thought that counts. “Hey. I appreciate what you’re trying to do. Really. But I’m fine. You… have yourself a happy new year.”

#

The sleigh was out back, a shadow hidden among shadows. I’d painted the gleaming silver runners and rails matte black. Rudy was still in the harness, unmoving, antlers raised, nose dark. (Criminals use red flashlights, did you know that? They’re harder to see than white lights, and less likely to give your presence away. Of course, I can see perfectly in the dark, but it’s still interesting.) None of the others wanted to leave the north with me, and they all disapproved of my plans, except Rudy. She had some experience being pushed around and treated bad and bullied, and I guess she has a little taste for revenge. When the others took flight, she stayed.

I fed her a handful of maraschino cherries I’d taken from the bar. The staff doesn’t mind. They know all about my sweet tooth.

I climbed into the sleigh, settled onto a pile of empty sacks, and pulled out my list. “We’re going to Miami.”

Rudy ducked her head and started forward, and the sleigh lifted into the air, skimming over the dark waters. With the bells cut off, the sleigh was eerily silent. The naughty list just had names on it, but if I ran my finger along a line, I could see every bad thing they’d ever done. Once upon a time, the names on that list mostly committed small offenses—stealing from mom’s purse, teasing a sibling too hard and drawing blood, throwing rocks at a stray cat, running off with another kid’s bike. Sometimes there was something worse, sure, but I told myself the really troubled ones were outside my purview—my job was to nudge, to encourage, and (let’s be honest) to bribe the ones who could be persuaded into good behavior.

When I changed jobs, the list changed with me. I didn’t visit children anymore. Most naughty kids grow up to be good people, or at least, not particularly terrible ones. Some of them, though… some of them only get worse. With most of them, I understand why. They grew up with challenges they couldn’t overcome, shaped by tragedies, or neglect, or cruelty, and they when they got big, they visited those same indignities on others. Plenty of them could be helped, given therapy, rehabilitated, set on a better path.

I don’t visit those. I visit the ones who revel in their cruelty. Who do unspeakable things to those in their power, and feel a thrill in those acts, like the grotesque mirror of what I used to feel, when I slipped small gifts into people’s shoes, to give them a little joy on a cold morning. Except these people take joy in suffering.

I take no pleasure in theirs, but I do find satisfaction in making sure they won’t hurt anyone else.

Rudy touched down on the roof of a luxury apartment building. I was surprised. The man I was visiting, Roger Malloy, preyed on children, and I’d expected him to live in a house where he could enjoy some privacy. I ran my fingertip over his name—lightly, because I didn’t want to look too close—and saw he had a cabin in the swamp where he pursued his avocation. Good to know.

I walked across the roof and considered the air conditioning unit on top. My skillset, gradually accrued over long centuries, is amazingly well suited to my new line of work. Infiltration is infiltration, whether your goal is leaving gifts or slitting throats. I touched my fingertip to the side of my nose. The world blurred, and I was inside the building, beneath a vent in Malloy’s dim and twinkling apartment.

He had a big Christmas tree, one of those fake silver-and-white ones, hung all over with tasteful glass ornaments. My most cantankerous old companion, K, looked like a monster—goat hooves, horns, long black tongue, the whole bit—but I’d learned that among mortals, the monsters seldom showed their true natures so clearly. Malloy was like a rotting tree hung all over with tinsel and garlands. He looked good from the outside, but underneath, he was all worms and mold and ruin.

I slipped, light-footed, through his living room, listening at all the doors I passed. Malloy was in his bedroom, watching television, chuckling occasionally. “Not a creature was stirring,” I whispered, crouched by his door. “Not a creature.” I listened, and soon, he was snoring, deep and regular. (Kids are often too excited to sleep on Christmas Eve, and usually, I could soothe them into slumber, though some were resistant, and managed to catch a glimpse of me.) I eased open the door and looked inside.

Malloy was sprawled on his back in flannel pajama pants and an open terrycloth robe, an out-of-shape middle-aged man with a little gray at his temples. Not a physically imposing specimen, but then, he liked to pick on people a lot smaller than him. I walked in, making no particular effort to be quiet. He was down deep, seeing visions of sugarplums, which would probably confuse him when he woke up, because no one knew what the fuck a sugarplum even looked like nowadays.

I shook out my bag, pulling open the drawstring, and slipped the mouth of it over his bare feet. With a deft jerk, I pulled the sack upward, and he vanished inside the bag. I slung the sack over my shoulder, and it weighed nothing at all. That bag could hold enough presents for millions of children without weighing down my sleigh. One evil piece of shit didn’t even rate.

#

Rudy flew me to the swamp, and wandered off to beat up alligators while I went into the cabin. The shack was as rotting and nasty as Malloy’s penthouse was polished and classy—this place was the reflection of his true self.

I shook out the bag and he fell in a heap onto the dirty wooden floor, then pushed himself up, bewildered. He blinked at me. “What the hell?”

“Roger Malloy. You’re on my naughty list.” I drew my weapons, a pair of woodcarving knives from the workshop. They never lose their edges, and I’d laid other enchantments on them, too. I’d even named them, because whimsy is also a hard habit to break: the long one was called Comfort, and the short one was called Joy. “I bring you tidings of comfort and joy,” I said, even though it’s a joke no one but me ever has a chance to understand.

At least, I started to say it, but then Malloy whipped around and dove past me, quick as a flash. He was more tricksy than he looked, and he knew where everything was in his cabin—including a pistol hidden underneath one of the chairs.

I assume I’m immortal, but let me tell you: being immortal just means that you’ve lived a really long time, and you haven’t died yet.

He pointed the gun at me and fired.

I watched the bullet with interest as it shimmered and drifted through the air. One of my best tricks is time dilation. How else do you think I went to so many houses in one night? Bullets travel around 1,700 miles per hour, so I only had to slow down time a few thousandfold to remove the threat. I walked around behind Malloy and crouched, Comfort and Joy at the ready. I let time return, wincing at the boom of the gunshot and the crash of the window it shattered.

I used to linger over these things more, but I just said, “To all, a good night,” and finished the work.

The touch of Comfort makes you feel at peace, and the blade of Joy reminds you of your happiest moment, so he didn’t die hard. Sometimes I wish I had more of a cruel, sadistic streak—that I could take pleasure in hurting those who hurt others, because it would make the job easier. But then, if that were the case, my name might show up on the naughty list, and I don’t know what I’ll do if that happens. I hope I never find out.

I went out to the sleigh. Rudy wasn’t back yet. Ruprecht was sitting on a pile of sacks, smoking a pipe. His hands were dirty and he smelled more like mud than ashes. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Followed you.”

I didn’t ask how. The companions have their talents, too.

“I took my shovel and did some digging, out back,” he said. “I found some… things.”

“I bet,” I said.

Ruprecht’s pipe glowed, but his face was in shadow. “We knew what you were doing, more or less, but coming down here, seeing it in person, knowing what you stopped tonight… it’s different. It’s restored my faith. This new story suits you, and it’s one you made up yourself. Do you think you could find a use for an old farmhand like me in your new line of work?”

I was tempted, but I shook my head. “This isn’t hitting mischievous children with a bag of ashes or giving them rocks and sticks when they expect candy. It’s….” I sighed. “I don’t want you to become what I’ve had to become.”

Ruprecht was silent for a long time. “You’re still looking out for everyone else, aren’t you, Nick?” I didn’t correct him this time. “Sailors, merchants, pawnbrokers, ladies of the evening, archers, children, brewers, former thieves. Me.”

I said nothing. It was true. That thing about old habits again.

“I’ll go back north,” Ruprecht said. “Get your ex off your back. Tell the others you’re doing important work. We’ll keep handling… the other half of the job. I’ll practice my jolly laugh.” He nodded, solemn like always, and walked off into the dark.

I sat there for a while, and then Rudy came back with most of an alligator stuck on her antlers. Once we got that cleaned off, we took to the skies and flew south. There was still dark left, after all, and my naughty list is long.

It’s getting shorter every day, though.