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Christmas in the National Enchanted Forest
by Michael Bard
Michael Bard -- all rights reserved
 

Slamming the door shut, Jenna threw her worn snow-drenched coat onto the floor

"God damn them! GOD DAMN THEM ALL!"

Her apartment was dark and cold, and a part of her didn't want to turn on the lights, afraid they wouldn't come on. She tried so bloody hard! Trying to navigate the bitter conflict, the hatreds, the petty jealousies of when she'd had a job. And now-- Two years since she'd had real employment. Two years of struggling day to day, getting odd jobs, slowly selling everything she owned, fighting to stay ahead, paying only what had to be paid.

She didn't even check her mail anymore -- all it had were "Thank you for applying. Although you do not meet our current needs--" type letters and overdue notices. And, of course, adds for vacations in the National Enchanted Forests that she could no longer afford.

Even more depressing, the job letters were getting rarer, as most companies didn't even bother replying anymore.

Bastards!

And now-- Now the job she'd known she had, that she had to have, the only interview she'd had in six months, had fallen through. She'd arrived early, cleaned herself up, tried to relax, and waited politely until the secretary told her that they'd just found somebody.

Sitting there on the day before Christmas, she'd gotten to watch the manager come out shaking the hands of the new employee, the one they'd interviewed just before her.

That had been the final straw.

She'd fled sobbing, leaving behind her case, her resume, her dreams.

Rubbing her eyes, she looked around the tiny bare apartment. Once there had been bookshelves, furniture, possessions, the detritus of a life.

Now just bare walls.

Outside a church bell began to ring, celebrating that Christmas had almost arrived.

And Jenna had nobody. No friends -- they'd been driven away by her depression -- no family -- they were all dead -- nothing.

She wandered through the darkness, her shoes wet from the snow, and into the study. It was the only room with furniture other than the mattress and suitcase in her bedroom. It still had a desk, old and worn, and a horribly outdated computer. But, it was enough for e-mail purposes, and she needed it to try and find something.

Not that it mattered anymore.

The desk was bare, she didn't even have a mouse anymore, and--

And what was that red envelope doing there?

Jenna knew she hadn't received anything -- or at least nothing she'd actually taken out of the mailbox. And nobody sent her Christmas cards anymore -- it wasn't like she could afford them, even if she knew somebody to send one to.

For a timeless moment she looked at it, the bright happy red lit from the streetlight that glistened and sparkled through the softly falling snow.

It was probably a final eviction notice. The landlord must have used his key and put it here to make sure she got it. She couldn’t blame him, he'd-- he'd been more than nice--

She lost it, sobbing uncontrollably.

Why did the world hate her so?!

The bells stopped ringing, and the faint sound of carolers drifted through the city night. Wiping her tears away on her sleeve, not worrying about what she was doing to her makeup since she hadn't owned any in months, she realized she was still holding the envelope.

That was strange.

Moving to throw it out, she couldn't see a no garbage can. Of course not -- it was long gone. Well, there was always the toilet--

She turned to walk towards the washroom -- or so her brain commanded. Instead her fingers fumbled open the envelope and pulled out the letter:

Dear Jenna

Your application for the position of ENCHANTED FOREST WINTER GUIDE has been accepted.

Enchanted forest winter guide? When had she applied-- oh right -- it was one of those internet scams she'd replied to. It had been on a lark on the night she'd held a dull razor in her hand and thought about just ending it all.

It had been a scam, hadn't it?

If you are still interested in the position, please sign your name below.

Sincerely,

A Jolly Elf

She looked at the paper. That was it?! No contact phone number? No address?

Who the hell was she supposed to tell that she'd accepted?!

God damn it! An offer and there's no way she could accept it!

It was a joke. It had to be a joke. But--

What did she have to lose?

For a moment hope flared in her, but then the cold rationalism and expectation of failure swept it away. Hell! She didn't even have a working pen anymore.

Well, there was one thing. She snorted -- it was kind of traditional.

Breaking a sliver off the old table, she poked it into a finger, wincing at the pain before pulling it out and letting a bead of blood appear.

"It'll be something I can tell the police when they throw me into the street."

With that, and with many more pokes, she managed to sign her name onto the crisp white paper. It seemed to absorb the blood, transforming the writing into a find red-brown line. Something that looked far more elegant than it had any right to.

And then it was done.

She waited, hope beating at her mind even as she fought to keep it down. She knew that nothing would happen. And she waited. Hope flared, and eventually died.

"Nothing--"

And what did she expect?

With that she made to crumple up the page, when a sudden nausea swept through her. All she could think of was that, maybe, she'd lost too much blood--

The world went bright, she became toasty warm for the first time since she'd gotten back to her icy apartment. She felt muscles stretching, her thin gaunt body putting on layers of warm winter fat.

And then it was over.

Blinking her eyes, she looked around, her head feeling strangely heavy. She was-- No! It was impossible!

But--

But, she was standing in a snow-covered field, green pine trees in the distant background. She was warm, toasty warm, even though she could feel a wind blowing against her-- her fur--

Fur?

She looked down, past the lump in the middle of her face, a lump she suddenly realized she could feel, and saw her hands. They hadn't changed in shape, but now were covered in thick brown fur. Her right arm still had her shirt sleeve, but the rest of the arm was covered in fur.

Why wasn't she cold?

Looking down, she saw that her pants were stretched; her shoes were gone, and her feet were now covered in thick gray and white hairs and ended in-- hooves. Which she was standing on, like a ballerina balancing on her toes.

Lifting one foot she wiggled one of the hoof halves.

"Miss Jenna Terrance?"

Jenna spun around, her fe-- hooves crunching in the soft snow, and looked up into the deep brown eyes of-- of--

What looked like a reindeer who stood on two hooves.

Outside her volition her hands wandered upward and brushed against her large ears sticking out either side of her head and then felt the, her antlers.

She was a reindeer on two legs too--

As he reached down and picked up the letter she'd dropped, Jenna managed to speak. Speaking felt odd, her mouth, face, muzzle, head, something was far longer than it used to be. Her voice was deeper, more nasal. "Umm-- well--"

The male, she could smell strongly that he was a he, looked up at her from reading the letter she'd signed. "Blood isn't necessary you know."

"I-- it was all I had--"

Upon hearing that he turned to look at her, his large brown eyes tender. The letter slipped from his hand and he hugged her, holding her tight. At first she found it odd, but then she leaned into it.

It had been so long since anybody had held her.

"There, there, it's over now."

"But, my life--"

"What life? What did you have left?"

"I--"

"On your side, St Nicholas cannot go. He doesn't exist. But, here he does. And, as our realms grow closer, he can hear the pain. Yours called to him. Once a year he can help a handful, only a handful. And, this year, you're one of that handful."

She blinked, and looked at him.

"All he wants is for you to be happy."

And the pain fell from her as she realized that, finally, the struggle was over. That somebody cared for her, would help her when the weight of the world grew too heavy. That somebody would right the great wrongs. That she had a job--

"Umm… When do I start?"

As he laughed, she knew, finally knew, even as realizations fled through her, that everything would be all right.


From somewhere in the distance overhead, an old kindly elf looked down, and boomed out "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

 

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