(For part one, please visit yesterday’s post.)
At 8 AM on Christmas morning, despite a grueling late night making sure everything was perfect for Santa’s flight, Anastasia popped out of bed. She tiptoed out of her head elf single-accommodation room. While she still was technically on unpaid administrative leave, Mrs. Claus had allowed Anastasia to keep her room…for now. Whether she would need to relocate to the ordinary elves’ rooms would depend on her annual performance review. Anastasia shuddered. The only open spot was with Celeste, and everyone knew that she snored.
Anastasia made sure her tights were spotless and straightened her tunic. She gave her shoe buckles an extra polish and then set her pointy cap on her head. She looked in the mirror and sighed. It just wasn’t the same without the red stripe on her cap that signified her head elf status. In fact, the lack of any stripe on her cap broadcasted her loss of even the working elves’ rank. She might as well be an apprentice who still had to be taught the basic tools.
Grabbing the parcel from Mrs. Claus, Anastasia trudged into the unused workroom. Puffing and grunting, she loaded each surprise onto the enormous dolly that Mrs. Claus had lent her. For a full hour, she made the trek back and forth until every brightly wrapped package sat in the dormitory common room. The cards she had taken such pains to hand-letter sat on top of the smaller packages. For the bigger packages, especially Renee’s and Cara’s, Anastasia taped the name cards to the side. She patted each one to make sure they had no scuffs or tears from the moving.
Anastasia walked around the room to check one more time. Had she forgotten anything? Was everything in tip-top shape? Would this be the day she redeemed herself, or had she disgraced elves forever?
Just before 10 AM, the possibly forever-disgraced elves began trickling in. Wide-eyed Sue was first.
“You, Anastasia? Why would you want to hang around with little peon elves like us?”
Anastasia blushed. She deserved that. “I’m sorry,” she began, but Renee came in next.
“You! You mean we thought we were in trouble and it’s just you? Haven’t you done enough already?”
“Please,” Anastasia begged. “If you’ll just let me explain…”
Celeste stomped in, scornfully refusing to look at anyone. “I need my beauty sleep!”
“Looks like she didn’t get enough,” Renee giggled to the newly arrived Emma, forgetting their feud.
Celeste scowled, but before she could say anything Cara came in. Her cheeks were very pink indeed.
Sue sniffed. “Cara, why do you smell like sugar?”
Cara’s bright cheeks bulged as she struggled to answer. “Mmrphh mphh not mphrrr!” A few crumbs flew into the air as she talked.
Sue stepped back in disgust as one crumb landed on her shoulder. “You snitched cookies from Mrs. Claus’ kitchen again! Boy, isn’t she going to let you have it. You know what she said last time.”
Cara shook her head violently. She swallowed a few times and then held up a collection of wooden spoons. “She can’t spank us without these.”
A collective gasp rose from the group.
“Are you crazy?”
“Put those back!”
“What if she thinks we did it?”
Jade stepped inside the room, sized up the situation, snatched the spoons from Cara, swatted her soundly with the largest one, and dashed out of the room. Cara screamed indignantly, clutched her bottom, and then raised her hand. Sue ducked out of reach just in time and huffed.
“Don’t you hit me! You’re the one who’s always causing trouble. Of all the stupid things to do!”
Anastasia clapped her hands. No one paid attention, so she clapped harder.
No one moved or spoke, not even when an empty-handed Jade came back to the room.
“I wanted to make a nice Christmas for you and show you that I was sorry for being horrible to you before, but forget it! All you do is fight! I don’t even want to be Head Elf any more. I quit, and I hope Mrs. Claus spanks all of you!”
Anastasia stomped out of the room and slammed the door shut behind her. She sank to the floor and put her head in her arms, crying. All of her work for nothing! No wonder she’d lost her promotion. If she couldn’t handle the elves she’d always thought were her best friends, who was she fit to supervise?
As her tears slowed, Anastasia raised her head. She heard something unusual. Was it…laughter? The fighting had stopped, or at least it had quieted. She heard Cara’s lilting voice and an exclamation from Renee that sounded like, “Yummy!” Then some laughter that sounded a lot like Celeste’s “Heehee!” when she couldn’t help but find something funny.
The door cracked open, and Sue’s cheerful face poked out.
“Come back in, Grumpy,” she said. Anastasia got to her feet in a daze. Hadn’t everyone been fighting a few minutes ago? What was going on? She allowed Sue to lead her back into the room. Smothered giggles erupted from all corners of the room.
“What’s going on?” Anastasia asked Sue, who made her sit in a chair. Sue handed Anastasia the now-opened brown paper parcel. There was one sugar-sprinkle cookie left.
“You weren’t supposed to open that until after,” Anastasia protested, but Sue held the package toward her.
“Go ahead,” Sue urged. All of the other elves were either munching on their own cookie or wiping crumbs from their face. Only Cara’s cookie was untouched. She looked slightly green.
Anastasia picked up the cookie and bit into it. It was rather early for sweets but…oh…oh my…so tender and flaky with just the right touch of sugar on top…my!
Renee broke into giggles. “What did Mrs. Claus put in these cookies?” she asked. She danced around the room, weaving in and out of the enormous packages. “And which one is mine?”
Anastasia groggily pointed toward the largest package, an upright enormous oblong box. It was as tall as the tallest of them and several elves wide. Renee gave a cry of joy and disappeared in a blur of Christmas-tree-print wrapping paper and red bows. In less than a minute, she stood next to a shower stall. She gave Anastasia a look of bewilderment.
“Do you think I’m dirty?”
Celeste snorted with laughter. Emma said delicately, “Maybe once in a while…”
Anastasia bounced in her chair. “No!” she exclaimed, running up to the shower. “It’s kid-proof, see? You push this button here…” she pushed a large red knob outside the shower door “and look!” The outside of the shower came to life in a blaze of lights and whirring noises.
“Good morning, dears!” a green dinosaur face beamed. “Let me tell you a story about a long, long ago when I was a wee dinosaur baby and my grandmother showed me the Blue Road home…”
Renee stared at the moving screen, entranced. “It will play while my husband and I take a shower?”
Anastasia nodded eagerly.
“It will keep my kids entertained and safe?”
Anastasia’s little elf face bobbed so furiously that it was a blur. “And I asked Mrs. Claus to approve your request to move to family quarters so you can be together. I shouldn’t have stalled your request, and I’m sorry.”
Renee crushed Anastasia into a hug. “For the first time in years, we can actually have a shower in private! Thank you!”
Renee disappeared into the shower, exclaiming over each newly discovered gadget.
“Some people sure have all the luck,” Celeste harrumphed. “Renee’s the one who spanked you, and you’re being nice to her.”
“Not just her!” Anastasia protested. She led Emma to another package, tastefully wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with a pink ribbon. Emma looked at Anastasia.
“You hate red and green, right?”
Emma blushed. For once, her sassy mouth had nothing to say. She turned her present over, untied the ribbon, and took out a large, heavy slate. She held it up, puzzled.
“What is it?”
Anastasia grinned. She reached over and switched the panel to “on”. Just like Renee’s shower, the slate whirred to life.
“Hello!” a cheerful voice said. “What is the title of your book?”
Emma’s tiny jaw dropped open. “What?”
Anastasia leaned over. “Aversion Therapy,” she said clearly and carefully.
“Aversion Ther…but, Anastasia!”
“What colors would you like?”
Since Emma could do little more than sputter, Anastasia gave the slate answers to all the questions. Not even five minutes later, the electronic screen presented a custom-made book cover with Emma’s name and book title printed in eye-catching script.
It was Anastasia’s turn to blush. “I’m sorry I yelled at you for working on your stories in the break room. I think they’re wonderful.”
Anastasia turned to Sue before Emma could respond. Sue looked from Renee to Emma and then Anastasia.
“Don’t think this is going to make me not tell Mrs. Claus about everything you did…” she warned.
Anastasia picked out a shiny, foil-green gift and handed it to Sue. “I know,” she said. “I deserve it. But I still want to give this to you.”
Sue tore off the paper and held up the cotton T-shirt. A giggle, then a snort, and finally uncontrolled laughter swept through the room. The front read “GOOGLE BRAIN!” and the back had a large red circle with a slash through it. Underneath the crossed-out circle was the word “Tattling.”
Celeste broke in with a guffaw. “That’s about right. Always going on about having Mrs. Claus on speed dial, as if that means anything. Never realizes that anyone can put Mrs. Claus on whatever dial she wants. The question is whether Mrs. Claus picks up.”
Sue started to retort, but Anastasia pointed to a small brown bottle and a slip of paper in the bottom of the box. Sue read it silently to herself and then out loud.
“All-purpose health tonic, especially formulated to prevent cough and cold. Take one dropperful daily.”
Next to the bottle was a tiny medicine dropper.
“It’s enough to last you at least a year,” Anastasia said. “And it doesn’t taste like peppermint.”
All of the elf medicine came in peppermint, much to Sue’s chagrin. As she put it, “If I want peppermint, I’ll eat a candy cane. Or brush my teeth.”
Anastasia dipped the dropper into the bottle and squirted the liquid into Sue’s mouth. The grimace quickly changed into licking of lips.
“Mm!” Sue’s tongue poked around to get every last drop of the medicine. “What is it?”
“Mrs. Claus’ secret recipe. Only for you.”
Before Sue could reply, Anastasia held out an envelope to Cara. “Guess what?” she exclaimed. Cara shook her head wearily.
“I think I have a cookie hangover,” she said.
“Serves you right for snitching again. But open this.”
Cara looked down at the plain white envelope with disappointment. “This?”
Anastasia hugged herself. “Yes!” she squealed. She guided Cara’s thumb to break the seal.
“I can do it!” Cara huffed. Then she pulled out a creamy card decorated with calligraphy.
“Sparklett’s?” she asked. At Anastasia’s nod, Cara continued reading. “Unlimited water jug delivery for a year? But I don’t have a—“
Before Cara could finish, Anastasia skipped around Cara to reveal a squat, gold-papered package with an enormous glittery red bow on top.
Anastasia couldn’t wait for Cara’s slow, methodical unwrapping and began tearing off paper herself.
“No, it’s mine!” Cara protested, but soon the blue-and-white water jug cooler stood in all of its glory.
“Did you have to get her unlimited? She’ll be using the water for her baths and calling for delivery every single day,” Sue sighed.
“Bathing in purified water keeps my skin supple and fresh,” Cara answered primly. She ran her neatly manicured hand over the top of the cooler and smiled a secret smile. “Unlimited, really?” she asked. At Anastasia’s nod, Sue groaned.
“At least warn me when they’re coming, okay?”
Anastasia grinned. “I’ll let the two of you work it out. Jade?”
Jade crossed her arms. “You’re just trying to get your Head Elf job back, right?”
Anastasia clutched a long, red-and-white-striped package, unable to find words to reply.
“The presents are all nice, but…”
“Just open yours? Please?” Anastasia thrust the gift into Jade’s arms.
Jade opened the paper. Inside was a wooden spoon sturdy enough to match the strongest of Mrs. Claus’ arsenal. Jade held it up and frowned at Anastasia.
“Thought you said you didn’t need any help?”
“I do. I shouldn’t have called you a wannabe Head Elf, Jade. You’re great at being bossy…I mean, you’re great at being assertive and handling confusion.”
Jade turned the spoon over in her hands. Slowly, a small smirk crept into the corners of her mouth. She spoke with a delicious savoring of each word.
“Cara and Sue never got dealt with for fighting the other day. Or Emma for writing stories on the job when she thought no one was looking. Renee thinks we don’t know that she snuck her husband into her dorm room last night after Emma was asleep, either.”
Emma gasped. “Renee!”
“It was yummy!” Renee called unabashedly from inside the shower stall.
“There’s no need to do anything retroactively,” Anastasia put in hastily. “Maybe we can start with a clean slate from now on?”
“All right,” Jade agreed grudgingly. “But I’ll be watching.”
Celeste banged her foot against the leg of her chair. “A present for everyone but me, is that it? You’ve got this cliquey little club and…”
“No, wait!” Anastasia cried. She held up the last box and placed it in Celeste’s lap.
“Clever,” Celeste harrumphed. “Think you can buy all of our—“ As she removed the candy-cane-print wrapping and white pearly bow, the sight of the curious foot pedal silenced her.
“What is it?” she asked, in a voice that tried hard to be gruff but couldn’t quite succeed.
“Give me your Kindle,” Anastasia ordered.
“Do you think you can tell me what to—Oh!”
Anastasia gave Celeste the skein of red yarn and long metal knitting needles. “See? You can knit with both hands, read your Kindle, and turn pages by pushing the foot pedal. Do you like it?”
“Ssh and let me read,” Celeste murmured absently as she cast on her first row of stitches with her eyes glued to the small electronic screen.
“You can use the circle on the bottom of the pedal to cycle through the home page and settings,” Anastasia explained, but Celeste waved a knitting needle at her.
“I’m counting. Don’t interrupt me. Thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two…”
“What are you making, Celeste?” Emma asked politely, but her eyes never left her cover maker. “Green and blue please, navy blue.”
Anastasia picked up the remains of her cookie and savored the last few bites. Cara argued into her cell phone that “unlimited” delivery should indeed include Christmas day, and Jade marched up and down the room cracking the spoon against various furniture. Celeste had finished casting on and was rapidly crafting something vaguely slipper-shaped. She chortled as a delicate curly-tipped foot pressed the pedal to turn the pages of her Kindle. Sue pulled her shirt on over her tunic, elf hair sticking up wildly in all directions from the static, and she was helping herself to a second dose of her medicine.
Ah well, Anastasia thought to herself. I guess Sue will be really healthy. She skipped out the door to go back to her room for a well-deserved nap. On the way, however, she was accosted by Mrs. Claus.
“Well?” Mrs. Claus asked.
Mrs. Claus made a motion as if to reach for Anastasia’s ear, but Anastasia jumped backward.
“Everyone liked the cookies. Except they ate them first. And I’ll clean up the workroom, but I want a nap first…”
“You know very well I meant the missing cookies. Who was it?” Mrs. Claus tapped her wooden spoon meaningfully as Anastasia squirmed. Here was her chance to finally get back at Cara. Even Mrs. Claus couldn’t fault her for telling the truth.
You used to be our friend, Renee had said. Hadn’t they all been? Since when did promotions mean more than friendship? Anastasia sighed. She would regret this, she knew. She could feel that horrible spoon already. She rubbed her bottom just thinking about it.
“Me,” Anastasia whispered.
“Liar,” Mrs. Claus chuckled. “But at least you’re starting to think of someone other than yourself. We’ll discuss this after your spanking this afternoon.”
“Yes, Mrs. Claus,” Anastasia answered obediently, her voice cracking. What was the point of trying to be good when it only meant more trouble?
“And then we’ll have a little chat with the rest of the elves to appoint the new head elf.”
Anastasia blinked hard. She had failed, after all. “Yes, Mrs. Claus.”
Mrs. Claus smiled. “Tell your friends that they’re not allowed to consider their new gifts when they vote whether to reinstate you.”
Anastasia’s mouth dropped open. “Really?” At Mrs. Claus’ nod, Anastasia hugged her impulsively before galloping to her dorm room.
“MERRY CHRISTMAS!” she bellowed, shocking several dark-circle-eyed elves on the way. “I LOVE EVERYONE!”
Mrs. Claus shook her head as she watched Anastasia run. “Too much happy spice in the cookies this time,” she murmured. “Oh well. Time enough for her to find out this afternoon that tonight will mean spankings and early to bed for all of those little miscreants.”
Mrs. Claus headed back to her kitchen to do her yearly inventory. She knew that at least one naughty elf had squirreled away a trusty wooden spoon, but she couldn’t understand the loss of her favorite cutting board. Maybe she would need to include some questioning during the evening’s spankings.
“Ah,” Mrs. Claus sighed as she opened a utensil drawer, “so many naughty elves to spank and so little time. I have a feeling Miss Claire Labraun will be dropping by again soon…”
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