BY CLAYTON WALNUM
Cold. A bitter, crystalline cold that whirls with the wind, changing the air to glass, the sea to rock. Snow swirls across a plain of white, bringing with it delicate frost figurines that dance, spin, leap, then fall back to be lifted again into new, undulating shapes. And there is the song. The wind's song. It wails its lament into the arctic afternoon, alone, a single voice offered up from the storm's glacial throat.
A tiny stream of warmth trickles from the frost-painted glass of a window. The heat tumbles away, into the storm, into the gale, into the cold. There is a face in the window. Pink nose and cheeks, pointed ears and sad, aquamarine eyes. The elf rubs away some of the window's frost. He is the watcher. Every morning he posts himself by the window and spends the day gazing out over the sea, waiting, hoping, looking for that which has yet to come. In his heart there is doubt, a glowing coal of despair. Where are they? Why have they not come? Christmas is fast approaching!
Behind him there is a long table wrought from oak and trimmed with black strips of steel. One hundred creatures sit on benches—99 elves and one man. There is one empty place. It belongs to the watcher.
This is a feast: ten roasted turkeys, four buckets of stuffing, 150 sweet potatoes, 15 gallons of wine and two dozen pumpkin pies. But the eating has not yet begun. All wait for the man to make the toast, to officially begin the holiday season. Eyes flicker hopefully to the watcher, then back to the man. It would not do to start the holidays without that which has not come. In a few moments, the man will have to begin the feast anyway, and none can bear the thought of such a dark omen.
Where are they? When will they come?
The man glances behind him. The watcher turns and shakes his head. The man sighs, stands, lifts a glass of wine. The time has come; he can wait no longer. He forces a merry smile through a forest of snow-white whiskers. He laughs as he raises his glass above all their heads, his belly bouncing and quaking (it really is a great deal like a bowl of jelly). It's a wholly unconvincing laugh, even though he is doing his best to brighten the event.
"My friends," he begins, and there is no need to hush them since none has spoken since gaining his seat, "I once again take great pleasure—."
Pleasure, thinks the watcher. The empty words are little more than a background rumble, belying the man's effort at jollity. What pleasure can be left now? He blinks and rubs the window, trying to remove the speck of dirt interfering with his view.
But the rubbing does no good. The window is clean.
"Wait!" he cries, and the man stops the toast. All turn to look at the watcher. "I think—I think—."
The speck grows larger, and as it approaches, he can see a thin stream of smoke climbing into the sky.
"Yes, it's definitely a boat. This could be it!"
No one moves as the ship drifts into dock. No one speaks as the gangways are affixed. No one breathes as the cargo bays are opened. Finally, pallets of boxes begin moving toward the warehouse, toward the place where the man's still half-empty gift sacks await filling.
The watcher squints, leans forward. The forklifts roll closer.
"Well?" the man says. "Well?"
"I can't quite read the labels yet," the watcher replies. "Just a little closer—a little closer.—"
And then the waiting is over. Even through the snow he can see that the first pallet is marked "Atari Corp.," the second "ST-Log."
"Yes!" The watcher spins from the window, performs three backflips and plops neatly into his position at the table. "They're here!"
Cheers and pointed caps fill the air. The man raises his glass. "My friends, I once again take great pleasure in welcoming the new holiday season. Peace to you all!"
"Peace to us all!" 100 voices echo.
Outside, the storm abates, and the forklifts—bearing thousands of exciting gifts for well-behaved souls all over the world—trundle into the warehouse.