Part 2 of 2
Once we're aloft, everyone falls silent, caught up in the wonder of it. We all love to fly. To grow up only dreaming about it, as every kid does, and then as adults, living in cages, actually getting to do it? To soar, to dive, to bank, to hover—to fly! There's nothing like it. It's such a rush that if we weren't hauling Santa, it would be near effortless. It's a crisp, cold night, and the world is spread out before us. If we actually got to fly anywhere we wanted, now wouldn't that be fine? But who ever gets to do that?
I look back. Everybody except Comet is staring with damp, mournful eyes at the fires dotting the southern horizon. Even Santa, who usually dozes, is rapt. The fires multiply as we watch. I bank north and accidentally take us into our own vapor trail. By the time we reach our first stop, even Comet is looking over her shoulder like Lot's wife. Me too. Hell of a thing, celebrating while your city burns. We all grew up on the wrong side of town. The luckiest of us would've been the ones sitting in the stadium or hanging out in the parking lot for a glimpse, bunched up to stay warm.
Our first stop at a cavernous climate-controlled coliseum has been sold out for weeks in spite of ticket prices that aren't for the meek. But people have stayed away in droves. Everybody's home watching their city erupt. Even those who've shown up with their kids are sneaking peeks at tiny screens of devastation while we do all the Christmas numbers they've heard a thousand times anyway. Who can blame them? It's not a silent night out there.
And then about halfway, after Frosty and the elves' atrocious "Jingle Bell Rock," the story on the news takes another ugly turn, and I decide to bag our performance and put the images everybody's watching anyway up on the coliseum's big screens, so we can all watch together.
The news feeds all show the same story. The media drones deployed at the stadium to cover our cancelled event, kept in play by a lazy or astute director, capture the moment when one of the incoming helicopters, sent to evacuate the rich and powerful from the scene, clips the stadium lights, passes low over the crowd, hits another bank of lights and crashes spectacularly in the parking lot. It may or may not have been fired upon, and portions of its journey are replayed frame by frame and opinions delivered whether a twitch in its flight is significant. No one doubts everyone on board is dead or that the fire (LIVE) is bright and persistent. Pending investigation of the fiery crash, the air transport contractor has suspended further flights.
The angry crowd inside the stadium is refusing to disperse until R3 and the Christmas All-Stars show up as promised, and rioters from the troubled neighborhoods nearby are streaming toward the burning copter like it's a beacon on a mountaintop. The stadium has become ground zero for The Christmas Riot, the global story of the moment. I'm sure somewhere wars are raging, great artists are unveiling masterpieces, the planet is dying—but no one's watching. Everybody's watching the same scenes: the fiery crash, the swelling tributaries of desperate people filling the huge parking lot, the surrounding neighborhoods and beyond, a sea of people as far as you can see, more and more all the time, looking to the sky, for what? For relief, for hope, for something impossible to believe in. For us. A drone swoops over some poor kids in the parking lot holding up a homemade sign, WHERES OUR CHRISTMAS R3? It's starting to snow. They race through our history as Christmas icons and bio-engineering marvels. In the corner of the screen, the camera never leaves the unquenchable fire (LIVE).
I can't watch anymore. I go backstage to round up everybody for our last stop, a gala event at the sponsor's headquarters, but I find the mayor and the asshole cop backstage talking to Santa, as if he decides anything, and Santa says to me, "Rudy, they want us to go to the stadium. I didn't know what to tell them."
Then I spot McArthur, the company weasel, standing in the shadows. He's our handler, our boss. He's been with us from the beginning. If the cops look at us like we ought to be in jail, McArthur looks at us like we're still in the lab. He never watches the show. We never see him unless it's bad news.
"Don't sweat it, Santa," I say. "Just wait in the green room. I think there're some cookies in there." I wait for Santa to leave. I know the outfit I work for—they don't give a damn about that stadium full of people. "You want us to try to perform in the middle of a riot?" I ask the mayor.
"You won't be performing, Rudy," McArthur says in his nasal unctuous voice. "Our sponsor's CEO is there. He needs a ride, and all conventional aircraft are grounded."
"That's right. Don't you remember? You two were supposed to exchange a few lines of banter at the cancelled event. There was a mix-up, and he wasn't on the first choppers, and now there won't be any more until our risk management contractor determines there's no risk. We don't have time for that. You and the others are to extract him from the premises."
"You mean you want us to fly in, not perform, then fly out with the CEO?"
"That'll make folks happy. Why don't you just have us dump gasoline on them and light a match while we're at it? If it's too dangerous for a copter, it's too dangerous for us. Rescue operations aren't in my job description."
"Too bad, freak," says the cop. "We have a bleeding-heart judge standing by to declare you human. It keeps him up nights—you not having any rights and all. And once you're human, you know what that means, don't you? We can pick you up for violating your parole, tax evasion, any number of things. We might have to hold you on suspicion. The city's offered to let us use their stables. Hope you don't mind police horses. Or there's always the pound."
McArthur smiles through all this. He's enjoying it. We don't exactly get along.
"All right. You got me. But the fat man stays here. We don't need the weight. We'll also need a couple of bags of feed for the extra flying time this is likely to require."
"One bag," says McArthur, as I knew he would.
"And don't worry," the mayor says, "our forces are poised to strike the moment you take off with the CEO."
"Strike? And do what?"
"Restore order," he says indignantly.
I know what order looks like—tear gas and riot sticks, for starters. I liked him better when he was telling bad jokes.
I break it to the team the stadium's back on the schedule, and they're all for it. Glued to the screens, and full of Donner's sappy gas, they're suckers for the manipulative images of desperate people longing for us to show, as if a bunch of flying freaks could make a damn bit of difference. A stadium full of downtrodden, pushed around, pissed-off poor people are hoping to see us? Hooray! Merry Christmas! Freaks to the rescue! Then what? We're all serving a life sentence as a sideshow. How did we end up with this mess?
Prancer and Dancer break into song, "R3 with your nose so bright, won't—"
I hold up my hands. "Don't," I say. "Please. Just don't."
"Sorry Rudy," Dancer says.
As I'm hooking myself up, I ask Donner if she has any more shrooms.
"Ah, Rudy," she says, thinking I'm asking her to give them up.
"Enough for everybody?"
She nods, trying to search my eyes for the answer to this mystery, but I face front and light up the nose. "Everybody eat your chow—and a half cup extra. We might have to do some fancy flying tonight."
I don't say anything about the CEO. If they want to think we're the good guys for a little while longer, why should I deprive them? They know this isn't just another show. We're flying in alone. Santa's already heard he's grounded, Comet tells me, and has gone in search of his missed dinner at a new French place with Marley's Ghost and the Littlest Angel. I caution everybody we'll be flying a lot lighter without him, and they shout out with glee.
We skip the usual fanfare and take off, making a beeline for the stadium at twice our usual speed. Once in flight, we pick up a drone alongside, and pretty soon, there we are on the screens, headed toward the stadium, the famous flying reindeer. We hold our heads high. We try to look graceful. We try to look noble. We try to look like every kid's dream. My nose glows so bright it makes us look like we're all on fire. Our snow-encrusted fur sparkles. When we come in sight of the stadium parking lot, we hear the shout like a breaking wave. The drone flies behind and slightly above us, seeing what we see as we approach a sea of people, standing on cars, hanging from light poles, in every treetop, and on every rooftop. The stadium, an island in the middle, is full to overflowing.
We circle once, and I scope it out. The stadium lights are dark since the crash, but the scoreboard still works, scrolling orders to exit the stadium because the scheduled event has been cancelled. Drone spotlights dart here and there. One of them stays fixed on the stage where we'll land, the one place where someone isn't sitting or standing. The field is jammed—solid people right up to the footlights, and though nobody looks openly hostile toward us, they're definitely riled up. Their tiny screens glow in the dark stadium. They can see themselves in the eyes of the world. This is their chance. No one can turn away and ignore them tonight. It's Christmas.
I give the nod, and we spiral down into the huge bowl of people. The sound is like nothing I've ever heard in my life, like a prison riot during a tornado, and then somebody in the control booth changes the message on the scoreboard and screams it into the PA, and everyone joins in, not only inside the stadium, but beyond, where everyone watches and listens, as if the stadium was their mouth shouting into the sky in a single voice: WE WANT CHRISTMAS! WE WANT CHRISTMAS! WE WANT CHRISTMAS! You can feel it in your gut like a sharp gust of wind. The whole world watches as we set down. We've replaced the burning helicopter, the bloodied and angry faces, the smashed stores, the weeping mother and child living on the streets. Nine terrified freaks in a well of rage and longing. Spotlights from the other drones criss-cross us like it's a prison break.
"Stay in harness," I tell the others as I unhook mine. "Everybody have some of Donner's shrooms. Chase it with some more chow."
The CEO and his bodyguard pop out of a trapdoor in the stage and dash to the sleigh. "Thank God you're here, Rudy," the CEO screams in my ear. "Get me out of this hellhole!"
He starts to scramble into the sleigh, and then I see them, obediently standing on their risers in the shadows—the boys' choir. I put a hand on the CEO's shoulder and spin him around. "You left them?" I ask, pointing to the terrified boys in their clean white shirts and their dark faces.
"They're from around here," he says. "Their parents can get them. What do you expect me to do? Get me out of here, now, unless you want to go back to prison!" He looks around for his bodyguard, who didn't like his chances and scurried back down the trapdoor when his boss wasn't looking.
We can't fly the kids out—even Santa doesn't weigh as much as a whole boys' choir—but maybe we can make things go down easier when we fly away. "Have you got a pen?" I ask the CEO.
"What are you talking about? Get me out of here!" He tries to claw his way past me into the sleigh, but I grab him by his red and green tie and reach inside his coat, and sure enough, he's got a nice pen, must've cost a fortune, probably writes underwater or in outer space where he spends weekends for fun. I put the pen in his shaking, grasping paw.
"Now, you do what I tell you, if you want to get out of here alive, and don't try to threaten me. I'm in prison every morning when I look into the mirror."
I cue the drones to light us up, hoping someone's paying attention, and then not only do all the drone lights find us, but the stage spots rigged for the show spring to life and light us up like Christmas, as they say. I grab a live mike. "Merry Christmas, everyone!" I shout in the belly of the beast.
"MERRY CHRISTMAS!" it screams back, then falls eerily silent. I'm a gnat in a dragon's lair. I have only a few breaths to survive. The next breath might be fire. I haul out the big check and lay it in the pool of light for all to see.
"Add a zero," I tell the CEO. "Make that two zeroes. Big ones."
"You must be joking."
"Yeah right. Ho-ho-ho. Make it three. Now." The silence is already eroding as people do the math and shout what they think of his generous gift and where he might put it. I place a helping, heavy hand on his shoulder.
The CEO sinks to his knees, and like a kid making a banner saying MERRY CHRISTMAS or GO TIGERS or DEATH TO FASCISTS, he bends over the big check and makes three big wobbly zeroes with the whole world watching. I make sure he initials the change. "Now get in the sleigh," I tell him. As much as I'd like to, I can't just leave him here.
I pick up the big check and go to the tallest boy in the choir, and the spotlights follow me.
"What's your name, son?"
He's terrified. They look like a herd of deer in the headlights of a tank. "Seth, sir."
"Call me Rudy. Where's your director?"
"I-I don't know, sir-Rudy."
"We all appreciate you being here," I tell him. "I'm sure these fine people here will make sure you get home safe and sound."
Beside us a woman starts clambering onto the stage with a few helping shoves from below. You do enough shows, you get an instinct for these things. I have the microphone in her face the moment she speaks. "I'm Isabel, their bus driver," she says. "I-I'll make sure they get home okay, Rudy."
"That's the Christmas spirit!" I shout, and the crowd loves it. I shake her hand and the nose glows bright to thunderous applause. She's trembling all over. All the brave people I've ever met were afraid. Only psychos are fearless. I'd like to stick around and help her, but we have a job to do. "I'm going to leave this check with you for safekeeping." I say and place it in her hands. "What were you guys going to sing?" I ask Seth.
"'D-deck the Halls.'"
"Good choice. I bet you could direct it yourself, couldn't you?"
"I guess so."
"Sounds like yes to me." The drones are all over it. All the light reflecting off their white shirts and the big check is blinding up close. I turn Seth around, raise his trembling arms. "Sing it, guys," I tell them. "Really loud."
And they do. They sound great. They're local boys, and everyone listens to the hokey old song. I get back into harness, my team looking like they're already flying on some other plane of reality, all grinning at me with big, mushy mushroom smiles. "We're going to keep it real low, spread a little Christmas cheer."
Flying just above the rooftops is a stunt we perform often, and this isn't that much different. We saturate the stadium first until they're all singing along, then circle the parking lot, spiraling out until we spot the Mayor's promised strike force, and hoping nobody can bring themselves to shoot down Christmas reindeer, buzz them so low they all duck. I'm worried at first: Some have on chemical warfare gear, others are inside armored vehicles. But by the time we make a second pass, their unprotected companions have lured them out of their cocoons to share their Christmas joy, and pretty soon they're all hugging the hooligans, laughing with the lawless, embracing disorder. Fa-la-la-la-la's fill the night. The logo for the story by the time we fly away has the stadium as a giant manger, the reindeer flying over towing the Star of Bethlehem. We're now A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE.
We dump the CEO on the snow-covered lawn at company headquarters and take off. Last we see him, he's singing "Good King Wenceslas", pissing in the snow and contemplating the profound mystery of being a very small intelligence under a vast dome of stars, as the assembled press close on him for a few questions. The first of which—Is the check any good?—gets a resounding yes and a hearty ho-ho-ho.
After something like that, you'd think we'd be heroes, that we'd be flooded with requests to visit from towns everywhere, in July if necessary. Christmas all year round. You'd be wrong. By the time we're back at the airport Hilton, half our stops for the rest of the season have cancelled and other cancellations are pouring in. We're heroes, it's true, but it's feared our visit might trigger civil unrest wherever we go. Do we really want the lawless and the law to embrace? our scheduled hosts asked themselves, and suddenly there's no more room, in their stadiums or in their skies, for flying reindeer. McArthur strikes a deal. We're the bad apples. The rest of the Christmas All-Stars will complete the tour at a bargain rate—'tis the season, after all—but we're out of the lineup, grounded. We're all feeling pretty low.
We don't bother asking McArthur what's to become of us, knowing we won't get a straight answer. We'll know where we're going when we get there. Prancer claims zoos are already bidding on us, but it's all just rumor. We have a few hours before our flight, so we're hanging out in the hotel bar, where I seem to have spent half my life. All the reindeer are arguing like a bunch of jailhouse lawyers about how best to address this outrage, not wanting to face facts. Except for Donner and me; our eyes meet above the hubbub, and we trade sad smiles.
"Rudy, can I have a word with you?" Santa whispers in my ear, glancing around nervously. Jeez, what trouble has he gotten himself into now?
"I'm all ears," I say.
"Not here. My room in five minutes."
And then he's gone, heaving his bulk through the crowd, like a mountain with a purpose.
Five minutes later I'm in Santa's room. It smells like a food court. Every available surface is covered with spent food wrappers, boxes, cartons, and bags. He sits on the king-size bed and tells me a story. "Remember those guys I went drinking with in Amsterdam?" he says. "They were the chemists you hear about who made your feed. They confided in me that your feed's complicated secret formula is just a lot of smoke to fool people, that the active ingredients are available as nutritional supplements in most health food stores. He gave me the names of a couple that were practically identical."
Santa hands me a big jar of capsules with a red ribbon tied around it. "This should be like six months worth for all of you. Merry Christmas. Ever since I got this job I've wanted to say that and mean it. Merry Christmas, Rudy, Merry Christmas to all you guys. After what you've done, just letting you go like this, turning their backs on you. That's just not right. If they ask me, I don't know where you guys went, but I'll say you took a taxi."
So that was how we reindeer ended up going underground—if that's what you call it when you go flying every night. Sure enough, Santa's pills work. We slipped away to the roof of the Hilton and flew off unseen. We settled in Lapland, though our flights take us far and wide, flying unharnessed—as free as huge furry, horned birds. There's only nine of us, but we try to cover as much territory as possible. Technically, we're fugitives from justice and face imprisonment if caught, but those who spot us are seldom inclined to turn us in and make us pay for our many crimes. Quite the contrary. They form the backbone of what the media calls our cult following.
So if, unaccountably, some dark night, you feel the compulsion to embrace someone you normally wouldn't or shouldn't, a gust of compassion and humility from nowhere, a certain generous spirit in the air, as if what happens to any one of us happens to us all, you can blame it on us reindeer. Breathe deep. Remember the feeling by the light of day. Believe the impossible: Reindeer really know how to fly. God might be some poor homeless bastard born in a stable. Sins are forgiven.
Donner and I live together in Lapland, and fly most nights side by side. We have no idea how much longer we'll live. No one knows what our lifespan might be, since we have no real history. But however many days we have, every single one is Christmas. We're flying reindeer. Christmas is our day.