Christmas Land (Full Novel)

After losing her grandmother, a young graphic designer in her twenties faces the yuletide season alone in the small mountain town of Timberton Heights. This Christmas will be unlike any other as she uncovers the magical land of Christmas. Classic legends meet modern day reality in this new seasonal tale of Christmas adventure that will help anyone get into the Christmas spirit.  

Christmas Land the novel is coming to Amazon this Christmas season. You can be one of the first to read it here on Tripp Blog. Please note that this version is currently in its rough draft. Please consider helping me find typos by emailing them to the follow email address: terrytrippwriting@gmail.com.

Christmas Cindy

Chapter 1

“I’m serious. It really talked to me,” Candy exclaimed. Her real name was Candace, but everyone called her Candy.

“Yup, okay. I hung out with the monster under my bed last night. We drank some hot cocoa and played on our phones for a good hour or so,” Cindy replied to her friend.

“Cindy, I’m serious.” Candy let her know she wasn’t joking around.

A moment of silence went by.

And then another as Cindy steadily steered on the evening road. She finally responded, “Was this a real snowman? Like made of snow or someone in a costume?”

Candy pulled back her curly, blonde hair to explain, “I was walking back home from checking my mailbox, and I went past Mr. Elwood’s old house—you know, Grace’s late grandfather—and there was a snowman in the front yard, probably made by the Gustafson’s kids. I walk past it, and I hear in a voice that was more in my head but not my own say—.”

“What the heck!” Cindy yelled as she slammed on her breaks. The cute car slid wildly on the icy asphalt until it crunched into a short wall of fresh snow. “Stupid idiots on their phones!”

The two got out of the tiny, red car that Cindy got five years ago when she was in high school. After examining it for damage, she saw it was just a little powder snow that she had ran into. The car in front of them had driven off like nothing had happened. The two girls got back into their car and drove off, talking about how they just almost died.

Cindy dropped Candy off in her front yard. It was almost night now, and Candy’s foot slid a little on the icy sidewalk as she began to walk to her house.

“Shopping tomorrow after work?” Cindy asked.

“Of course, but let’s go down to West Gate again.” West Gate was a large mall about 45 minutes out of town down in the valley.

“Stay dandy, Candy!”

“See you, skinny Cindy.”

Cindy wasn’t the skinny, little girl from their childhood, but the nick name stuck. She had filled out into a still thin but womanly figure, her eyes large and blue with mid-length, wavy, light brunette hair. She had always secretly envied Candy’s golden curls since her own blonde hair darkened and straightened when she became a teen. But she hated her nose. It wasn’t the cute button nose that other girls had; it was long and pointed—not ugly but just unique.

Cindy pulled off back into the street as snow began to lightly fall onto her windshield. As she passed the Gustafson’s house, she looked across the street to the abandoned house where her old friend’s grandfather once lived. Grace had grown up with Cindy and Candy but had gone off to college by the beach and never returned to their little, country town of Timberton Heights, as a lot of young people did. When the old man died, no one moved into the house, and it slowly died too.

The Gustafson family were a different group of people. The husband and wife had five children, and like their parents, every single child had fiery red hair and a face full of freckles. They always seemed to get into any mess they could find. A few years ago, they started kidnapping dogs and then waited for reward signs to go up in the town. As soon as the signs went up, one of the children happened to find the lost dog and happily collected the reward. After several dogs, people began catching on, and the kids were eventually found out. The owners of the kidnapped dogs demanded their money back from Mr. And Mrs. Gustafson, but no one ever received anything.

As Cindy glanced in her rear-view mirror, she noticed a peculiar snowman—sticks for hands like he was waving, rocks for eyes, carrot for a nose, and an old scarf wrapped around its neck. It even had an old top hat like the epic children’s tale. She thought if it just had a corn cob pipe, it might even come to life.

At 10:00 that night, a buzzing came from Cindy’s phone on her nightstand. It was a text from Candy’s mother asking if Candy was with her.

Cindy sat in bed that night disappointed that she had nothing helpful to offer Candy’s mother. Candy didn’t have a car. She didn’t appear to be texting anyone else that night. Cindy and Candy shared an honest friendship where she would have mentioned any plans of meeting up with anyone else. She texted Candy’s mother back an empty answer and stared at the shadows on her wall that came in through the window’s curtain from naked, swaying trees.

While the dryness of her eyes scratched against her closing lids, Cindy finally began to drift as her head weighed heavily into her pillow. Fading images flashed through her mind in the silence of her bedroom until one stuck. It was a childhood memory of her, Candy, and Grace at her elementary school’s Christmas performance when she was in the first grade. It was a special year because her class was telling the nativity story, and Cindy got to play the Christmas angel. All the other girls wanted to play Mary but not Cindy. She had no real memory of her father because he didn’t stay around after she was born. But this Christmas he was in town, and she was going to meet him for the first time being grown. She didn’t want to wear the rags that Mary wore. She wanted to wear the pretty, white dress and the halo that the angel wore. She wanted her father to think she was beautiful and decide to stay in town to be with her.

The evening of the Christmas performance, her class was doing one final rehearsal. She, Candy, and Grace were playing near the stage, but Cindy made sure to be extra cautious not to get her white dress dirty. Their teacher moved them all backstage. Cindy peeked through the heavy side curtains and found her mother and grandmother in the audience. She looked at all the men sitting out there and wondered which one was her dad. She worried about what she would call him. Father? No, Daddy? Dad?

The teacher motioned them to move out onto the stage to take their positions. The stage lights burned bright, and all of the audience slipped into darkness. She stood up straight and smiled from cheek to cheek like her grandma had rehearsed with her. When her lines came, she said them from memory with absolute perfection. The audience applauded cheerfully as the holy nativity was performed with such brilliant innocence. After the other classes all performed their skits, the principal made his concluding seasonal speech, and the students were released to go back with their parents. The skinny, little angel searched through the tall towers of adults looking for her mother and grandmother eager for the moment that she would see her father. Any one of the grown men around her could be him. She stood straight and walked as she had seen proper little girls on television walk, not knowing if her father was already watching her.

“Absolutely wonderful, my dear!” her grandmother bent over to hug her.

“You were the perfect angel. So beautiful,” her mother sweetly said as she got down on one knee to be on her level.

“Where’s my dad?” she asked with eyes moving back and forth to all the movement around her.

Her mother’s smile turned into a straight line. “Honey, he didn’t make it.”

His name was Jack, and he didn’t make it. That’s all she ever knew of her father. That and supposedly they had the same nose.

Just like that childhood night many years ago, this night was going to be one of those nights as well, where Cindy knew she would sleep without sleeping.

Chapter 2

Cindy woke up to the 6:00 a.m. alarm that was set on her phone. She quickly noticed three new text messages form Candy’s mother. She scanned through them and texted her back quickly explaining how she really had no idea where Candy was. She figured their plans to go to West Gate would be canceled because Candy’s parents were going to be furious when Candy finally did come home. Although Candy was 22, living at home meant living under her parents’ rules, and staying out all night was inexcusable, if she was okay. Cindy worried a little, hoping that Candy would text soon.

Unlike Candy, Cindy lived on her own in a small apartment. The word her landlord used was tidy. She grew up in a house with her mother and grandmother. As soon as Cindy graduated high school, her mother married a man named Zack and decided to move away to the coast, which was a few states away. They offered for her to live with them, but it all seemed too different, too weird, and she didn’t want to leave her grandma alone. She liked living at her grandma’s house. There was history to it, and it was on the outskirts of town. The backyard opened up to trees and mountains, and there was an old wedding altar back there that was once hung over her grandma and her grandpa some long history ago. Through years of rain, snow, wind, and sun, her grandma added support to it in the winter and grew vines and flowers on it during the spring. She always called it her magical doorway to the past. She would sometimes go out just to stand under it and smile as if she could see a world of past memories.

Last November, her grandmother suffered a sudden heart attack. She spent three weeks in the hospital trying to recover, but her body began to fail one part at a time until there was no hope.

That house now lay abandoned.

Cindy didn’t want to leave Timberton Heights; she didn’t want to leave her past. She moved into her apartment when her mother sold the family house to an investor from out of town, but no one ever moved into it. No one visited it. It now joined the collection of the other abandoned houses in Timberton that were left to ruin until the land was worth enough to tear down and build something else.

Mostly alone now, Cindy refused to leave her hometown. The original buildings that lined the downtown area contained both wooden logs and red brink, and they made up most of the downtown area with the mom and pop stores and restaurants. Hills and mountains surrounded the town with snowy caps for half the year. This year, Timberton Heights had already experienced early snow that came right after Thanksgiving, making the town already feel like Christmas.

Cindy’s grandmother, who she called Nana loved Christmas, and Timberton Heights was what people called a Christmas town. Cindy had a year to prepare how she would celebrate Christmas this year without Nana. She finally decided on putting up a waist-high Christmas tree in her apartment, a wreath on the front door, and a few other Christmassy decorations around the small space, which wasn’t much at all compared to how Nana would decorate. But like Nana, she did put out cinnamon scented pinecones, which made her white-walled space feel a little more like home.

It was 6:15 a.m. now, and she finally pushed through her weighing blankets to get out of bed. She turned on her Christmas tree lights and went to her refrigerator for a glass of cold milk, ignoring the cold chill that broke through the thin walls of her apartment. She stared at the colorful lights on the little tree, and thought about how Nana would be proud of her. After making her bed and waking up in a warm shower, and getting ready for the day, she stepped out into a few inches of fresh powder snow. The streets were already plowed, so she would be fine getting to work this Friday morning.

She worked for a small app development company that was working hard to take off. They were called Alter Dimensions, and they were the most technological company in the town of Timberton Heights. The town was known for its distribution of firewood throughout the country, so an app company was rare and unusual. There were only five employees who were a part of Alter Dimensions. Cindy was one of the two graphic designers, so she spent most of her time behind a computer screen on Adobe Illustrator meticulously creating vector images for every part of the company’s newest app.

Alter Dimensions’ work space was simple with one enclosed office for the owner Cliff and open wide desks for the rest of the employees. Cliff was about forty and known for his multitasking. He always appeared to be busy but not necessarily always productive. The other graphic designer in the office was Tyler Jamison. People called him TJ. It wasn’t really shorter than Tyler, but it’s what people called him. He was really into video gaming and running his YouTube video game channel, and he always wore his red hoodie over his head. There were also two programmers who sat in the corner and didn’t really speak that much to anyone. They did the crutch of the work of the company, but you wouldn’t even know they were there most of the time.

Right before lunch the door burst open, and Mr. Woolworth came pushing through with his arms holding warm drinks. “Merry Christmas!” he hollered. “I have hot chocolate for all of you.”

Mr. Woolworth was Alter Dimensions’ main and only investor. He was in his sixties and retired. His wife ran off after he retired, and he never bothered to go after her. He was now obsessed with the youthful app company and wanted to live vicariously through its success, so he normally came in on Fridays for a few minutes to hang out and steal some of the youth of the office.

Cindy said, “Thanks, Mr. Woolworth, but it’s only December 1st today.”

“Exactly, and the Christmas season started after Thanksgiving dinner. I’m sorry I’m late.”

TJ went for his hot chocolate, “Hey, I’m not complaining. Let’s have Merry Christmas all year long.” He lightly toasted his drink to Mr. Woolworth.

After the usual greetings, Mr. Woolworth always shared his newest idea of an app. Although he barely used his own smartphone, he was still fascinated with the idea of technology and its association with youth.

“I’ve been thinking …” is how he always started. “How about an app for walking your dog? We can call it Dog’s Best Friend. It can include GPS maps of all the streets and trails that are dog friendly.”

And after these weekly ideas that almost never got carried out, the entire team would nod and agree excitedly as if they were eager to drop everything they were doing to take on a whole new project.

What was really special about Mr. Woolworth was that he came in each year and decorated the workspace for the Christmas season. This reminded Cindy of Nana.

During her lunch Cindy texted Candy multiple times to try to find out where she was last night. She never received a text back. She really started to worry now, but maybe Candy’s mom took away her cell phone, or maybe the battery died. She tried to reason with herself all the possibilities of why her friend wasn’t texting her back. She finished out her long day with all of this on her mind and went home.

It was one of those Friday nights that you look forward to until it actually arrives because you remember that there’s nothing to do. There wasn’t really much to do at all for a single girl in her twenties in Timberton Heights. Cindy decided that she would walk around the corner to the local bookstore. At least she wouldn’t be alone.

She crunched her way through the flattened snow as it reflected street lights mixed with the Christmas colors on houses nearby. This street, like many streets in Timberton Heights during the Christmas season, exhibited stringed Christmas decorations hung across it, garland with bells and angels. The decorations varied from street to street.

The bookstore was an old bank building converted into a welcoming bookstore. Different rooms were set up for different genres of literature. This was an amusing setup that the locals in town enjoyed, especially since the horror and suspense novels were kept in an old safe with the thick door unhinged but still leaning against the wall for nostalgic purposes. As Cindy walked through the bookstore, the old wooden floor creaked with every step and even sank in a little. A section of the bookstore featured used books that smelled like ancient libraries, but most of the books in the store were new.

She walked around as her hand lightly grazed the illustrated covers on the bookshelves. She thought about all the stories. Each with a character. Each someone a little bit like her. She wondered if she would ever have a story, or would she just design apps for people to entertain themselves to escape life a little more.

A Christmas display caught her eye, and near the top of the display was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, along with other popular classics like The Gift of the Magi and Twas the Night Before Christmas. Elaborate Christmas cards sat at the bottom on the display featuring scenes of painted snow and lights—not too different than Timberton Heights. It was little things like this that made Cindy like her town, and if Nana were there with her, she would marvel at the display with her and probably comment about the first time she read A Christmas Carol and talk about an old Christmas painting that her father once painted that was similar to the cards.

Cindy couldn’t imagine a Christmas without snow, especially one at the beach. Yes, she enjoyed the beach in the summer and definitely went out to visit her mother and stepdad, but it was Christmastime, and at Christmastime she wanted to be in a Christmas Land. Nana understood this; her mother, not so much. This brought Cindy an odd sense of abandonment—not because her mother moved away but because she actually didn’t care too much for Christmas.

Cindy would agree with her mother that the snow was sometimes hard to live in, and it was definitely cold, but that’s what brought people together—the cold.

Christmas was an odd sort of paradoxical holiday for Cindy. What should have been a dark, cold, and bleak time of year was actually warm, as people would come out and be with each other around a fire. It was colorful, as people put up bright lights that reflected off the snowy ground to create even more light. It was hopeful and full, and streets, homes, yards, malls were all decorated with icons of seasonal stories that pointed to hope for all.

Yes, this was Christmas.

Where people say, “God bless us, every one!”

Where people sing that war is over.

Where people dream of the pure snow washing over the town.

Where people go rockin’ around the Christmas tree.

It truly was the most wonderful time of year.

But Cindy looked around the bookstore and didn’t see anyone. The music that was on when she first walked into the store was turned off. She thought that maybe they were closing.

It was silent now.

She decided to go back home.

Cindy was careful not to slip on the outside sidewalk that was bordered with snow. As she walked only a few cars drove by, and it felt much darker than it had before. Her footsteps echoed on the cold concrete. Her hands sunk deeply into her coat pocket, wrapping her coat tightly around her.

She felt something nearby.

Behind her.

But when she looked, it was nothing.

Her speed increased, and she glanced more quickly this time to find a figure behind. She looked around for nearby cars or other people walking on the street, but there was nothing.

Her body shivered with the cold. She looked behind her again to check on the figure. It appeared to be a man in deep, dark clothing, hood hanging far over his face.

She sharply turned the corner of her street and walked even faster.

The figure did the same.

Her shoes tapping the ground echoed off the quiet building walls, and the sound soon doubled with his. Looking over her shoulder one last time, he was there.

Chapter 3

An icy hand gripped into the back of her tiny neck, collapsing her to the hard sidewalk. With a deep breath, she yelled out “Help!” But with the frozen, tight squeeze, all that came out was a breath of fog.

That fog went off into the wintry night sky and vanished into a faded Christmas wreath that hung on a door of a gloomy apartment building not too far from her own.

Cindy felt her lungs begin to freeze from deep inside. The pressure was so tight around her neck, she couldn’t turn around to see. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t even get up from her knees on the icy sidewalk. Struggling for air, her lungs wouldn’t expand at all.

Frozen.

Suffocating.

In her now blurred vision, she saw something running towards her in the far distance. It appeared to be a man. And in what only seemed to be a second, he was already in front of her. He didn’t slow down at all but jumped over her, knocking down and breaking the icy grip of the attacker behind her. With some sort of cane, the mysterious hero violently thrashed against the hooded attacker.

Cindy’s lungs finally expanded, and she breathed heavily, trying to stand up again. Her attacker was now gone, and the mysterious stranger helped her to her feet.

“You’ll be alright. Just breath slowly,” he calmed her. He was wearing dark green, tight pants and a light brown long-sleeve shirt with a few small buttons on the top. A dark green beanie covered his ears as a curl of light brown hair peeked through above his sharp eyes.

“Thank you,” she said with dry air. Her eyes moved upon the weapon he used. She observed that the cane was striped like a candy cane but about four feet in length. “Who are you?”

“I’m not from around here. My name is Hermey. Do you think you can walk?”

“I’m sure I can.” She went to take a step and stopped to catch her balance before kneeling back on the ground.

“Do you still feel icy cold inside?”

She nodded.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out something small in a red and green handkerchief. He unfolded it and said, “Here, eat this.”

“What?” she asked still looking weak.

“It’s warm gingerbread.”

“How’s it still warm?”

“If you want to feel better, then eat.”

She put the gingerbread in her mouth and slowly chewed the fresh texture. As the full flavor dissolved into the back of her mouth, the dessert began to warm her entire body. She felt her body begin to glow. Light actually appeared to be coming from her own skin, bright as the Christmas lights down the street.

More light.

Now even brighter.

She had to close her eyes because of the brightness. As she did, she slept instantly, falling back into his strong build. He picked her up and carefully carried her to her apartment. He brought her in and laid her down to sleep in her bedroom, gently pulling a blanket over her to make her all nestled and snug in her bed. He turned the Christmas tree lights on and left her safely in a dream as he whispered, “May you have visions of sugar-plums dancing in your sweet head. To you, a good-night.”

Chapter 4

With the morning sun shining through her curtains, she slowly moved in her bed, until she remembered the previous night. She sprung up in her clothes—even her shoes still on—and searched her apartment for Hermey.

Just a lit Christmas tree.

She hurried to her bathroom and looked in the mirror to see if there were any marks on her neck.

None.

A dream? Impossible, she thought. She was attacked.

She went for her cell phone and noticed a new text from Candy: “Hey, can you call me?”

Cindy’s thumb hurried against her phone to call, and Candy answered, “Where have you been? Are you okay?” Cindy asked, still confused whether she, herself, was okay.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Candy answered.

“Then where were you?”

“I went out of town with some friends. You don’t know them.” Candy’s voice was melancholy.

“What do you mean? I know all your friends.”

“You don’t know these ones, Cindy.”

“Okay, so you have secret friends now that you ditched town with and freaked everyone out with worry. Great.”

“It’s not like that,” Candy’s voice stayed expressionless.

“Well, maybe you can tell me what it’s like. I, on the other hand, got attacked last night.”

Candy’s voice finally showed expression, “What! What happened?”

“Some guy snuck up on me on my way home and started choking me. Then some other random guy with a giant candy cane came and saved me. We were supposed to go to West Gate, but you ditched me for your secret friends to leave me here in town to get randomly attacked.”

“Did you say it was a candy cane?”

“Yes, I know, crazy, huh?”

“I’m so sorry,” Candy expressed.

“I mean, it’s not really your fault. I was just worried about you,” Cindy explained.

“I’m seriously so sorry,” Candy almost sounded like she was crying on the other end.

“I’m fine. It’s really not that big of a deal, since that random guy stepped in and—”

Candy interrupted, “You need to stay away from anyone new. My battery is about to die, but stay away from anyone new right now.”

“Why? I mean, he saved me. Also, he was kind of cute,” Cindy giggled.

“No, listen. If anyone from out of town comes to you, stay away. I can’t explain right now, but they are not safe. When I was gone, I—.”

“Hello? Candy?” Cindy looked at her own phone and saw that it too was about to die. She put it down to take off her shoes finally. The phone buzzed on her nightstand.

Cindy hurriedly reached to answer it, “Okay, so what do you mean?”

“Ah, I haven’t even said anything yet. It’s Cliff.”

“Oh, sorry. Hi, Cliff.”

“TJ found out we have a competitor app estimated to be released in two weeks. It’s most likely being created by one of the big sharks. We really have to finish first if we are going to have any chance against their big money marketing. If I can get the front end designed with you and TJ working today, Bob and Iggy can get it running, tested, and out before the competition. TJ is willing to put in the time, so it all depends on you.”

Cindy knew that this meant her entire Saturday and maybe more would be gone. She sighed away from her phone and leaned back into it, “Count me in.”

“Thank you, Cindy. We have the best team.”

Her phone died.

Cindy hurried to shower and made her way to the office. Inside the office was like any other day, Cliff was in his private office. The programmers, Iggy and Bob, were silently working away on their computers. TJ seemed excited to be there on a Saturday.

“Did you hear? I found out about the competitors, so one could say I saved our app.” He spun around in his chair in victory with giant earphones on his upper head over his half-on hood.

“Yup, I heard you ruined my Saturday,” Cindy said as she logged into her computer and began to open files.

“I might have ruined your Saturday, but I might have saved your job,” he drummed with his fingers on his desk.

“Okay, you’re right. You did a good job. I would hate to see all our work wasted.”

“You know, Alter Dimensions is going places; I can feel it. Cliff isn’t wasting our time. We’ll continue with our apps and then games and then full programs and then the world!”

Cindy continued preparing all her files.

TJ continued, “Okay, maybe not the world, but how cool will it be to say, ‘Oh, you use that app? You know, I created it.’”

“Yup, brownie points with strangers. My life goal.”

“Bah humbug to you too,” he pulled his earphones on over his ears.

“Look, TJ. I’m sorry. Things have been crazy.”

“I know, you’re missing friend Candy came home, I heard.”

She added, “Yes, that and other stuff. But let’s get this done, so we can go home sometime tonight.”

“Team We Make Things Look Awesome?” he stuck out his fist for her to bump it.

“Team We Make Things Look Awesome,” she bumped his fist with a smile.

The Alter Dimensions office worked hard that day. They called in sandwiches for lunch and ate at their desks, finishing right before sunset. Cindy enjoyed her job, but she didn’t really daydream about “making it big” as the others did. She knew what she wanted couldn’t be purchased with money.

The extra workday finally ended with tired eyes and stiff necks after too many hours of screen time.

After letting her phone charge at work, she texted Candy but received no reply. Tired, she just sat in her car in the work parking lot. Her phone connected to her car, and the setting sun with twilight sky over the white mountains made her yearn for Christmas music. She typed in “Christmas” into her phone’s music streamer for a seasonal channel, but it was buffering and wouldn’t play. She watched a few flakes of snow softly fall on her windshield.

Saturday evening and nothing to do. Actually, there was always something to do. Laundry, cleaning, organizing, but there was nothing enjoyable for her to do. She really just didn’t want to be alone. She missed her grandmother.

Normally during this time of year, the two would make dinner together, sit down and eat, and then watch a classic Christmas movie. She remembered the Christmas town display Nana would set up in their house taking up a large portion of the living room. Nana would stretch out cotton balls on the table to look like snow and set up little ceramic houses with people going about their seasonal lives. Some would be ice skating. Some would be walking with their children. Some would be carrying the Christmas goose. Just people enjoying life together.

Not alone.

She wished she could drive back to her old house and just be there with Nana again. To be back home for Christmas.

More snowflakes landed on the windshield, and the buffering finally started. Music played: “I’ll be home for Christmas. You can plan on me.”

Cindy’s eye stretched open as the low, calm words carried over her in the small car, bringing back so many images of the old days that were becoming more of a fading memory with every passing moment.

“If only in my dreams.”

She felt an overwhelming desire to see her old house again. She hoped that maybe just seeing it would make it feel a little more like Christmas. A little more right. A little less alone. She turned on her car, and with a switch of a knob, wiped away the light flakes off her windshield.

Driving carefully but determined, she made her way to the outskirts of Timberton Heights and rolled up to the desolate property.

There was silence.

No wind. No distant traffic. Nothing.

She got out and stood in reverent respect.

It was a solemn sight not seeing Christmas lights hanging from her childhood home. The front gate was twisted off its hinge. The yard had been unkept. She was curious about Nana’s old wedding altar in the backyard. She sunk into clean snow each step towards the back.

It was still there with the majestic evening mountains as its wintry backdrop—a land still untouched by time, fighting against the coming night. The top of the arched altar was covered with snow, but she could see the still strong, delicate wood that had been hand carved some ancient history ago. She could almost imagine Nana standing under it on her wedding day, recalling the old black and white photos she had proudly been shown on multiple occasions.

Light flakes continued to fall, and Cindy pulled her thin hands out of her coat pockets to wipe away some that had built up on her hair. She turned from the altar to examine more of her lost home.

She imagined it lit with bright lights of many colors. With fresh smells of warm food. With jingling bells and laughter. With stories and a Christmas tree. It was a painting of light in her vivid imagination.

A voice came from behind her near the altar, “It’s a beautiful place to live, isn’t it?”

Cindy quickly turned around to see Hermey standing next to the altar, looking identical to how she saw him the previous night. “What are you doing here?” She appeared both alarmed and angry.

“What are you doing here?” he responded.

She couldn’t help but drop her guard for a moment in the presence of the old house. “It was once a very beautiful place to live.”

“I was talking about the past.”

“It was my home,” she said sadly.

Home is a very interesting idea.”

Cindy became bold. “Why are you following me? I’m pretty sure stalking is a crime.”

“So is trespassing, but I’m not here to discuss any of those silly matters.”

“Then why are you here?” She was eager to hear his reply.

Hermey looked hard at the old house behind her. “Would you like to see my home?”

“Do you live nearby?”

He pointed through the altar.

It was starting to get dark now, and Cindy noticed when she looked through the altar, it appeared to be lighter—white. She walked closer to Hermey and stood in front of the altar, staring profoundly. “What’s that, in there?”

Hermey answered, “It’s my home.” He reached out his hand and said, “Let’s go home.” She lifted out her delicate hand into his.

Warm.

They, together, walked through the altar as everything turned white.

Chapter 5

The soft crunching of snow ended with the feeling of a hard, icy surface as the two began to slowly slide, not necessarily up or down but just across. Bright light blinded the scene. Cindy strained her eyes searching to see anything, but not even Hermey was visible in the blinding white. She felt his hand guiding her but nothing more.

Lightly, she heard a faraway noise.

Sleigh bells.

Like the sound of snow.

Soon her eyes began to see again, and she was walked through the falling of heavy snowflakes. She moved now onto a fresh, cold powder ground still guided by Hermey. As the snow slowed, she could now see the nightly sky.

“Welcome home,” Hermey said with a proud smile as he finally let go of her hand.

The many colors of the northern light sky reflected off the snow-covered ground. Small igloos sporadically stood neatly. Out of the entrance of one igloo hurried a little penguin wearing a Santa hat. A white bunny with red mittens on followed him.

Cindy noticed two signs in front of her. One pointed to where the penguin and bunny hurried off to and read, “North Pole.” The other sign pointed the opposite direction and read, “South Pole.”

Before Cindy could ask about the signs, she was alarmed by a raging polar bear nearing her. She moved closer to Hermey, but the polar bear began to rush more quickly towards her. Cindy’s heart beat rapidly by the giant threat, for not even Hermey could defend her from such a creature. She tucked her head into Hermey’s chest and gripped onto his arm, listening to the ominous sound of the pounding ground until she heard in a low, funny voice, “It’s already happening right now, Buddy! You and your guest are going to miss it if you don’t hurry.”

“Thanks, Mr. Stewart. We won’t waste a minute,” Hermey responded to the polar bear—Mr. Stewart.

Cindy, eyes now wide open, whispered, “It talks.”

Hermey replied, “Of course he does. He sings too. All the animals here at the North Pole talk. Sometimes far too much.”

Mr. Stewart was tying a red scarf around his neck before he fell down to run on all four of his legs, singing, “Do, do, do, do, do.”

Cindy said, “This is some kind of dream, isn’t it? I mean, it has to be.”

Hermey smiled, “It’s not a dream.”

“It has to be. You’re the guy who saved me last night. There’s a talking polar bear.”

“You mean, Mr. Stewart,” Hermey corrected.

“Whatever. And I’m at the North Pole. Like, seriously? How more cliché can it get? What’s next, Santa Claus? I know I’m going to wake up any moment now. I’m pretty sure that’s how dreams work, right? You wake up as soon as you realize you’re dreaming.”

As Cindy grew more outlandish, Hermey’s smile increased. He responded, “I have something to show you right over that little hill.” He reached out his hand, and she took it again as the two ran through the white powder to the edge of the small hill. This is where I live. It’s called Christmas Land.”

As her eyes twinkled from the reflecting lights of the town and the northern colors above, she almost forgot to breathe. It was a winter wonderland of tidings of comfort and joy.

As they moved down the hill, they could hear the music of the town. It was a nostalgic kind of tune, the kind played on old vinyl records through an almost echoing speaker: “You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout. I’m telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town.”

They stepped foot upon red brick streets lined with small buildings and workshops, surrounded by cute, palatial houses, and all had hanging lights. The music was louder here, but there was no one in sight.

Cindy asked, “Is it always this empty?”

“They’re all waiting to hear the captain,” Hermey answered.

“Who is this captain person?”

“He announces anything and everything important to Christmas Land.”

“Oh, so he’s like the king.”

“No, no. He’s not the king of Christmas Land. Christmas Land is ruled by three spirits, but we really don’t see them often.”

Cindy quickly stopped. “I think I just saw a real gingerbread house.”

Hermey motioned for her to move forward, “Yes, but you must not go into the House of Candy. You must obtain special permission to enter it, but we really must hurry if we’re going to hear the captain.”

The two continued though the deserted town. Cindy wanted to stop to take it all in: the reindeer stables, the present wrapping center, the library, the candy shop, the train station, and all the other fantastical places that begged for her attention. But she had to hurry to keep up with Hermey.

The magical music played louder now from the town’s intercom system as the two continued on their hurried mission to see this captain. Soon, Cindy heard the music on the intercom being matched by a crowd of harmonious voices: “Follow me in merry measure, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la. While I tell of Yule-tide treasure, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.”

It was there she witnessed an outstanding presence of a crowd of creatures circling around a towering Christmas tree decorated but still without light. There around it were many of the smallest people she had ever seen along with some polar bears, penguins, white rabbits, squirrels, snowmen, and multiple other fantastical characters. Some even appeared to be toys that were animated.

The music changed to a softer tune as the entire crowd became silent. Appearing from the crowd was a beautiful slim figure in a bouncy, white skirt with translucent fairy wings coming from the feminine curves of her long back. She moved in an elegant dance as her wings fluttered to keep her barely touching the ground, and she was holding something bright close against her chest.

As she approached the dim Christmas tree, her wings moved more rapidly, and she took off up and around the tall tree that reached to the stars. At the top she placed the yellow light, and let go quickly in one sudden movement. The entire tree exploded with color as the star on the top glowed like fierce gold, forcing all the crowd to squint their eyes for a bit.

The crowd cheered in great joy at a thunderous volume. The cheering turned into something else though. Each character had a bell—held in their hand or on their hats, sleeves, or shoes. They shook their bells together in unison in the style of short jingles.

Over the ringing of bells, a deep voice shouted from above, “On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer and Vixen! On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner and Blitzen! Rudy, bring us down!”

Overhead, a mighty, red flash slowed down into a visible sight, a flying sleigh pulled by majestic reindeer. It landed in a floating manner next to the glowing Christmas tree. A heavy figure stepped out of the sleigh in a red and white uniform of a suit. As his heavy black boot hit the flat snow, his belly shook like a bowl full of jelly.

There was not a sound now as everyone awaited his word. A small person, less than half the size of a regular man with long ears, respectfully approached the towering figure in red. He bent down as his long white beard touched the snow, and he listened and then nodded gravely.

Hermey whispered to Cindy, “That’s Captain Claus. You might know of him as Saint or Santa Claus.”

“Yes, Old Saint Nicholas,” Cindy responded.

“No, not even Mrs. Claus calls him by his first name—at least not in public.”

Captain Claus cleared his voice before he addressed the awaiting crowd. “Great friends of Christmas Land, it’s with dire concern that I inform you that Frost and his minions have hit us with a great blow. This time, he has used his shadow dwellers to capture all of our bumbles. Christmas Land is currently exposed, but it would be audacious for even Frost to enter with only his army of shadow dwellers for we have the northern lights and the Christmas star shinning upon us, given to us by the three great Christmas spirits. But there are rumors of a sinister machine being made that would house the shadow dwellers in some sort of flesh like armor allowing them to be of a greater threat. If these rumors are true, we will have real reason to be concerned. I assure you that I have our top elves working day and night on this issue. Christmas Land must go on. The Christmas spirit must continue to move Christmas onto other lands to bring joy to the world. Friends of Christmas Land, will you sing together with me?”

The entire congregation began together in unison: “O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy. O tidings of comfort and joy.”

As the singing ended, Captain Claus sprang to his sleigh and gave his team a whistle before they flew away like the down of a thistle.

The gathering dispersed in concerned chatter, and Cindy turned to Hermey, “So what is going on?”

“The rumors are true,” he said more to himself. “The bumbles are gone.”

“What’s a bumble?”

“A massive snow creature, like a monster. I think you might know it as an abominable snowman or something like that. Here in Christmas Land, they march the perimeter and guard us from anyone who might want to do harm to Christmas Land—Frost.”

“And who is Frost?” she continued, eager to learn.

“The stories say that Frost was once an elf like me who turned into a human like you.” He made eye contact with her.

“You’re an elf?”

Hermey removed his beanie, and two tall, pointed ears appeared. He looked down.

Cindy said lowly, “I thought you were like me.”

“I’m a Highland elf. We’re tall like humans. The other elves are Nevan elves. They’re small and able to help the captain on special missions to other lands.”

“What do you do? I mean, what do the Highland elves do?”

“We protect Christmas Land.”

“And Frost?” She worried about asking too much.

“He spent too much time alone in the cold. Some aren’t made to be alone. There’s a saying we elves have: “Alone we freeze; together we breathe.’ Frost froze from the inside out.” Hermey stared at Cindy for a moment like he wanted to tell her more but couldn’t. He continued, “There are many stories of old that you can learn later, but I have an idea to save the bumbles, and I’ll need some help. Are you with me?”

Cindy looked around at the beautiful town and took in a deep breath of crisp air and felt its inner cleanse. She thought for a moment about Alter Dimensions and the new app in progress. She then thought about being alone in her small apartment. She remembered where she came from and the dark, empty house of fading memories.

Sadness.

She moved closer to Hermey and looked into his strong eyes as the sadness felt further away.

She finally answered, “’Tis the season.”

Chapter 6

Hermey felt relieved to know he had someone to follow him on this journey he would take. He couldn’t bring the regular villagers from Christmas Land because they would be required to stay to defend their town in case of an attack, but Cindy wasn’t a regular villager. She was from the Blandlands, as the Christmas Town regulars would refer to it or the land without belief.

Hermey looked up to a clock tower nearby and said, “Eight o’clock is the last train ride out of here; we must hurry.”

They moved quickly to the end of town to the train station. It wasn’t much of a train station—just one small room with a sitting area inside and outside. There was a small frozen pond near the outside benches, and a white dog with a black spot on his back and two black, hanging ears ice skated silently. He was graceful like he had been skating longer than any human or elf, and his red colored scarf flew behind him in the crisp air.

Inside the train station sat an aged, heavy, bearded elf—a Nevan elf he was, so he was short. His beard, which was once white and now gray, hung over a wide-open book. He held a quill in his right hand with a stout bottle of ink nearby his left. As soon as he saw Hermey and Cindy enter, he hollered out in a high, rusty voice, “Welcome to the Northern Express! Gimbel here to serve you. What can I do you for?”

“Hi there, Gimbel, we need two tickets for the eight o’clock,” Hermey requested.

Looking down at his book, Gimbel replied, “Sorry, no can do. Due to a blizzard rolling in, the only destination tonight is … well, I would rather not say.”

“That’s exactly where we’re going,” Hermey spoke confidently.

“With the young human?” he whispered.

“Yes, she can handle it.”

Gimbel looked at Cindy and back to Hermey a few times over. He seemed torn. “Ah, I … I don’t know about this.”

Hermey removed the candy cane weapon from behind his back that he had used before to save Cindy. He leaned over closer to Gimbel and whispered, “I promise you I’ll give myself to keep her safe.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.” Gimbel exhaled a deep breath and continued, “Things there have been calm for a while, but please, be careful. You never know.” Gimbel handed them two golden tickets. In a different tone, he called out to Cindy, “And have a wonderful Christmas, my dear!”

The two waited outside since it was nearly eight. The dog still continued to skate in melancholy silence.

Cindy studied the dog as Hermey stared down the tracks for the train. Cindy yelled out, “Hi, doggie!”

Hermey said, “Don’t bother with him. He hasn’t spoken since his owner died. He was from your land—old Chuck they called him. He and his buddy were big on sharing with people what Christmas was all about. That gang of friends were a good group of people. Now, all that remains is that white dog, skating all day, every day, without a single word. People around here call him Sparky, but I don’t think that’s he’s real name.”

Then they heard the sound. The classic, mighty choo-choo. The strong whistling horn that rumbled the ground. The majestic red and green cased in shiny metal. The heavy machinery commanded their attention and requested the two to take a few steps back in reverence.

A younger elf, Nevan like Gimbel, stepped out into the snow in train conductor attire, checking his pocket watch as if it were the most important job in the world. He looked up at the two and hollered out, “All aboard for the eight o’clock!”

The train was unusually empty for the Northern Express. Hermey was used to it being full of life with people laughing, telling stories, drinking hot cocoa, and snacking on sprinkled cookies. The two sat down together in the large, red seats. Garland trailed down the inside of the train and a wreath hung above every entrance.

Cindy turned to Hermey and asked, “So, where are we going?”

Hermey removed his cane, so he could sit more comfortably. He leaned it against the wall next to him. Cindy could see small nicks it. Looking beyond the candy cane stripes, it looked more like a weapon now. Hermey turned to her and responded, “We’re going to a dangerous place. Some call it the place of nightmares—the Land of Unwanted Toys.”

Chapter 7

The festive locomotive moved like magic through places of desolate snow. It curved smoothly through mountain sides. It hurried through black tunnels. It passed isolated critters and creatures of the North Pole.

The inside of the Northern Express contained a fireplace like warmth that brought a Christmas comfort that Cindy had inwardly missed. It was the kind she felt as a little girl when she once fell asleep under the Christmas tree while staring at all the colors of the glowing lights reflecting in ornament bulbs as her mother and Nana sat chatting together to black and white Christmas movies playing on a boxy television.

In the large, engulfing seats of the train, she was about to doze off when she heard the sound of whispering.

Jerking up, she said to Hermey, “You hear that? I thought this train was empty.”

“It is, well, kind of.”

“What do you mean by ‘kind of?’”

“I really didn’t want to bring it up. There’s no chance that we could just avoid this conversation, is there?”

“Absolutely not. I heard something.”

Hermey rubbed his temples and asked, “Cindy, do you believe in ghosts?”

The whispering flowed in like cold air from an open window.

She jumped in her seat, “There it is again.”

“Hold on,” Hermey got up and moved to the back door of the passenger car.

The whispering continued, and this time Cindy heard her name and the word frost as well.

Cindy noticed that Hermey forgot his cane. She grabbed it and hollered, “Hermey, your cane!”

“Thanks, but I’m not going to need it.” He opened the backdoor of the passenger car, and a powerful gust of snowy wind violently pushed the tall elf down to the carpeted floor. Through the violent, icy wind, a transparent image of a man in chains stood angrily staring at Cindy.

The transparent figure clanked in heavy chains with anchoring locks on them and said in a dry, long voice, “It is the girl whom I seek after,” his jaw clanging open after each syllable.

Hermey crossed his arms, “No Jake. She’s not what you think. She’s kind and loves Christmas.”

“But she is—”

Hermey interrupted, “Good. She is one of the good ones from the Blandlands. She has come with me to help stop Frost.”

Cindy could now see two sunken, tired eyes in the ghostly Jake, sagging down deep into his skull. His jaw hung loosely to one side. Upon closer examination, he appeared more sad than angry. He concluded, “May you be on your journey.” Jake left as he came, and the sound of chains followed him out into the snowy dark.

Hermey made his way back to his seat. Cindy asked, “What just happened?”

“Just my old friend Jake.” He kicked his legs up on the chair in front of him. “So like I asked early, do you believe in ghosts?”

“I guess I do.”

The Northern Express continued hours on in its journey, over an extended bridge that crossed the Sea of Swirly-Twirly Gum Drops. As Cindy stared out the frosted window, she saw an unusual shift in scenery as the world changed to a blurry mist. The northern wintry lights faded to just a mere hue as dense fog covered everything as if they were flying through in a fallen cloud.

The train slowed as it entered through a decorative opening of a high stone wall.

Knowing Cindy was curious about the new land, Hermey said, “Welcome to the Land of Unwanted Toys. When we get out, stay close by, and try not to stare.”

The train continued to slow, and a castle illuminated through the fog. The high towers of the dark, gothic structure juxtaposed the red and green Northern Express, giving Cindy chills down her spine.

“That’s the great castle of King Moonracer. We’ll be meeting him soon.”

She asked, “Where are the unwanted toys?”

A screeching growl that seemed to come from the depths of a tortured soul pierced Cindy’s ears as the train was blown to the side for a quick moment.

Bracing onto the side wall of the passenger car, Hermey said, “There’s one right there.”

One side of the train flashed in yellow, directly followed by alarming heat. Fire now waved to the train outside their windows.

Hermey said, “Don’t worry. That’s just a warning flame from the brugonfly, one of the unwanted toys.”

Cindy strained her neck against the window until she spotted the giant creature. He had the body of a scaly, green dragon with purple hair on its head but with the beautiful wings of a butterfly.

“How is that a toy?” she asked.

“That’s the magic of the Land of Unwanted Toys; it’s a special magical animation. The longer they are here, the more real they become. A new toy is made of plastic and fabric, but if unwanted and brought here, in time it will gain a real beating heart and eventually become flesh. It will grow up and even become old and die. But once a toy is taken here, it normally never leaves. It can be a horrifying sight.”

“What can?”

“To see a toy half plastic and half real flesh.”

The Northern Express stopped near the menacing castle that towered over them. The short, train conductor elf opened the door and shouted, “You have arrived at the Land of Unwanted Toys at nine o’clock. Departure time back to Christmas Land is sharply at ten o’clock.” He leaned to Hermey, looking around at the scenery and said in a different tone, “Please hurry. I do not wish to leave you here.”

There was a unique static noise in the fog, and it reminded Cindy of an old music box playing faintly. It was a paradox of sorts—beautiful yet eerie.

Cindy asked, “Do you hear that?”

“That’s just the sound of the wind in the Land of Unwanted Toys,” Hermey answered. “Some say that it’s the sound of the in-between—alive but not real.”

His answer didn’t make complete sense to her, but there was already just too much that was unexplainable.

The two approached the great castle door when a little sliding window opened with two wide eyes on the other side. A high voice said, “State your business please if you wish to see the great King Moonracer.”

The brugonfly fluttered down nearby and stared maliciously with smoke trails steaming from his nostrils as his purple hair stood up against the foggy night.

Chapter 8

“Please inform the great King Moonracer that Buddy from Christmas Land requests his presence. With me is a trustworthy guest from the Blandlands.”

The castle door dragged open with many deep creeks that almost sounded like moans. Inside the castle was a long corridor lit by lofty candle stands with many doorways in the shadows. As the two entered, a stuffed penguin approached them with robotic arms and legs and said, “I’m Cybel, an IHPC—Intelligent Hospitality Penguin Cyborg.” Skittish toys hid in the side shadows. “Please don’t mind them. They don’t see guests too often. Just follow me, and I’ll escort you to the king.”

As Hermey and Cindy followed Cybel throughout the castle, they glanced upon many nervous unwanted toys of unimaginable oddities, but the toys would quickly flee as soon as they noticed their mysterious guests had seen them. Some were sweet in appearance, like the plastic bumblebee toy with fins and the toy soldier with a stuffed kitten head. Some were nightmarish like Annebelle, a mechanical spider body with a plastic doll head and Santa Claws, a rubber skeleton in a Santa Claus outfit with long claws stemming from his bony fingers.

Of the many unwanted toys, some were still new and in their toy stage, but others had been there for a forgotten sum of years; they were turning fleshy as they transitioned in time.

Following Cybel they eventually arrived to the throne room that featured three high steps that led up to a great red, royal bed that appeared to be sunken in the middle. To the right and left were two servant toys. One was a jack-in-the-box, but instead of a Jack, a springy bat bobbled over the box. The other toy was a stuffed pink, polka dot giraffe wearing a knight’s helmet with a shield and sword standing on two legs.

As the guests entered the throne room with Cybel, the king’s servant toys perked up into an alert position.

The bat-in-the-box jumped up and fluttered in the air for a brief moment with his small wings: “I present to you the honorable king of the Land of Unwanted Toys, the great King Moonracer.”

Cindy whispered to Hermey, “Where is he?”

A mighty voice roared against the brick walls, “What business do you have here in the Land of Unwanted Toys?” A shuffle took place on the royal bed.

Hermey whispered back to Cindy, “Only toys can see him naturally.” To the king now, “Your majesty, I’m Buddy and this is Cindy. We’ve come to bear news of an ominous threat to Christmas Land. Frost has captured the bumbles. Christmas Town is vulnerable to invasion. The current state of the bumbles is unknown.”

The roaring voice broke in, “Is there a request to be presented within this business?”

“Yes, indeed. There is one in the Land of Unwanted Toys who is said to know Frost’s domain in the South Pole. Stories are told of his horrifying experience, making him the only one who might be able to help us find the bumbles.”

“You speak of the green monster. What makes you think he would help you? He despises all the other toys here. He lives on the top of Mount Pikelet and hasn’t fellowshipped with the other toys in years.”

“The stories say the green monster was once a stuffed toy like the others but was captured by Frost and his shadow dwellers. Frost performed terrifying experiments on him in an attempt to find a way to make his own bumbles. The experiments failed, and the green monster was thrown out to freeze, but somehow, he survived. Are the stories true?”

King Moonracer replied in a softer voice, “Battie, Pufflesoft, turn on the lights for our guests.”

With a quiet click, colorful, stringed Christmas bulbs lit up the dim throne room with magical hues and on the bed before them was a mighty lion with the wings of an eagle wearing a golden crown. His grand appearance caused the two guests to take a step back with open eyes of awe.

King Moonracer said, “Now you see me as the toys do. Yes, the stories are true, and you may have a chance seeking his help, for it is likely that the green monster may desire justice for the atrocities that were taken against him.” He looked at his toy servants and continued, “I’ll send you to Mount Pikelet to seek the help of the green monster, and I will grant you my two most trustworthy servants to attend this journey to the South Pole to rescue the bumbles, if they are still able to be rescued.”

“Thank you, your majesty!” Hermey replied.

The king said, “Battie, Pufflesoft, go with Cindy the Blandlander and leave me in private for a moment to speak with Buddy.”

After the group left, King Moonracer approached Hermey and said, “I’m not sure about the Blandlander, are you?”

“She has a warm heart.”

“Does she? Or is it just your heart that is warm for her? I was once an unwanted toy myself but have lived many long years until I was granted kingship over this land. I have seen much and my observations are normally keen.”

“I hear you. As a Highland elf, my first obligation is to protect Christmas Land.”

“Very well. Be safe, Buddy. And be cautious, for the future isn’t always as clear as we envision it. You have a difficult journey ahead of you. May colorful light be upon you and your team.”

Cybel walked Hermey and Cindy and their new teammates, Battie and Pufflesoft, out of the castle and pointed them north to the large Mount Pikelet. Cybel moved back in the castle for a brief moment and came out and said, “It’s going to be a difficult journey in the snow for the Blandlander, so King Moonracer directed me to give her this.” He handed Cindy a long fur coat. “It once belonged to the famous Pevensie Queen, a very long time ago.”

Cindy put on the long fur coat, “It’s feels so good—so warm. Please tell King Moonracer I appreciate the gift.”

Cybel responded, “He already knows.” He pointed to a place in the snow not too far off with four large indentions.

Cindy smiled to offer her gratitude to the invisible king. She and Hermey then heard the sound of flapping wings as Battie and Pufflesoft stared off in awe, and the team then stared up together staining through the white fog to see a small glimpse of the high, snowy Mount Pikelet.

Chapter 9

The team followed Hermey far away from the castle up to where the snow came up to their knees. Battie jumped high and then fluttered a few feet in the air before he came back down again. Pufflesoft’s high neck stuck out of the snow as he pushed through the soft powder with his shield. They arrived at the base of Mount Pikelet and apprehensively began their hike up.

As they moved up the mountain, Cindy looked down below and noticed that through the fog there seemed to be a forest. She asked, “What’s that over there?”

Battie answered, “Oh, please no. Please tell me we aren’t going over there next. The green monster is worse enough.”

Hermey looked to Pufflesoft for an answer, not sure himself of all of the mysterious places in the Land of Unwanted Toys. Pufflesoft answered in his deep, noble voice, “That’s the Holiday Woods. It’s contains doorways to many different lands, including the forbidden Halloween Town.”

“So that’s the entrance to Halloween Town?” Hermey asked.

Battie answered, “Yes, but you know that no one from the North Pole goes to Halloween Town, so can we stop talking about it?” He looked up the steep Mount Pikelet and said, “Although I wish the green monster would go there, so we wouldn’t have to make treacherous journey.”

Gripping onto the sword hilt of the sheath on his belt, Pufflesoft said, “If the king were to desire me to venture into Halloween Town, I would do so gallantly, ready to fight off any evil adversary that came against me or the kingdom.”

The group moved up the mountain on a path only wide enough for two. The snowy wind didn’t aid their speed. In time the path narrowed the group to walk in single file. On their right side, a deadly drop threatened their every step. At some points on the path, the path was so narrow with piled snow that the group had to lean against the mountain to keep from slipping off the edge. Cindy hid deeply into her coat to survive the chill. Battie’s small wings struggled to keep from freezing. Pufflesoft was weakly silent as they all followed Hermey as his Highland elf instincts took over.

The weary hike up Mount Pikelet made it clear that no one had visited the green monster in years, if ever. And after painful exhaustion, the team eventually reached the top, which held an opening to a dark cave.

Hermey hollered into it, “Hello! Is anyone there?”

An echo returned his words.

Hermey said, “I guess we just enter.”

Pufflesoft moved forward, “I’ll be the first to venture on forth.”

Cindy stopped him, “Wait, just what kind of monster is in there?”

Battie sunk into his box and said, “Oh, an evil one. He was once a toy, but he has been altered by Frost—deformed into the image of pure evil. That’s why he was sent up here to be alone. I recommend we find an alternative plan. Highly recommend.”

Pulling out his sword, Pufflesoft exclaimed, “Then we must face the monster. I am ready to carry on!”

“Hold on,” Hermey stopped Pufflesoft. “Let’s just go in there and see what we find. I’m sure we can handle it. Right?” He had his cane out and pointed with it towards the darkness, and Pufflesoft nodded.

Moving into the dark cave, Hermey hollered again, “Is anyone there? We’ve come seeking the help of the green one.”

Battie whispered, “He’s the green monster.”

“I know, but I’m sure that’s not the most flattering name for him. Let’s try to get on his good side.” Hermey replied.

Cindy said, “Anything called monster, I’m all for getting on his good side.”

The group moved into the silent darkness. Gently, they moved on the hard ground that turned from cold ice to hard dirt. The light from the opening grew dim as the group proceeded more deeply into the cave.

Hermey called out again, “Is anyone there? We only come with good intentions.”

They soon found they were walking on some sort of concrete, but still, the only noise they heard was Hermey’s fading echo.

Cindy held onto Hermey’s shoulder as he reached out with his cane before every step. She opened her large furry coat a little and said, “It’s not cold in here.”

“That means this cave isn’t abandoned.” Hermey replied. “He must be here.”

“I heard something,” Pufflesoft whispered.

Cindy added, “It sounded like cranking, like a machine of some sort.”

The group squeezed in closer together and moved only a small step at a time. With his cane stretched out in the pitch black, Hermey finally hit something. He exclaimed, “It’s solid.”

The cranking sound came again, and the group heard the sound of a heavy slam.

Hermey said, “I think we have just been trapped in.”

Pufflesoft demanded, “Get behind me, and I’ll prepare for whatever comes next.”

“I can’t even see where you are,” Battie exclaimed.

Cindy said, “I’m starting to question this whole idea now.”

The floor beneath the group swung open, and bright light blinded their eyes as they fell through a large tube of red and white spirals. Even Battie was taken so off guard that he couldn’t flap his wings fast enough to slow down in the tube-like slide. They slid through loops and drops. They bounced off sides and felt upside down for short moments until they finally landed on a fluffy pile of white cotton.

Hermey asked, “Is everyone alright?”

“I think so.” Cindy answered as the whole group pushed through the white fluff trying to get to out of its soft hold.

“What is this?” Battie moved through the cotton.

A deep voice came from an old, twisted speaker: “It’s the cotton of toys that were never given the chance to live—toys from the workshop in Christmas Land that were never finished.” The voice was deep, dark, and menacing.

The group examined their surroundings to see a room of work tables and toy parts stacked everywhere: eyes, teeth, cloth material, rubber heads, hair, etc. Tools that resembled surgical equipment, magnifying glasses, sewing machines, needles and thread, and scissors all laid out in the open, creating a scene of toy terror. Pufflesoft and Battie were particularly affected by this scene of toy terror.

With his sword drawn, Pufflesoft moved out of the cotton pile and yelled, “Show yourself if you be not evil. Make yourself known and don’t hide behind a voice!”

Long mechanical, metal clamping hands moved out from the room’s walls and grabbed hold of each of them. The clamps tightened until their breath was almost inhibited.

From the twisted speaker, the voice came back: “You dare climb Mount Pikelet and make demands of me! You all are just like the rest of them. I’ll teach you to—” Then in a quiet voice, not so menacing, they heard, “Maximillian, come back here, you stupid dog. Maxey, get back here now.”

A small, tan lapdog came trotting around the corner barking, “Arf, arf” to the group of captives. He hopped up on the table of toy parts and leaned over to lick Cindy’s face. “Arf, arf,” he barked again.

Around the same corner with the sound of dragging feet came a shocking surprise to the entire group. In tight green shoes and holding a remote control in his hands, there stood the green monster. Although, monster was hardly the correct description of him.

With skinny legs and an overgrown belly, a tall creature hunched over in defeat, completely covered in stringy, green fur. He was like an abused rug left outside or a dog in the rain and green through and through.

“Hello,” he said anticlimactically in a nasally voice. “I’m the green monster.” He pulled up one of his long, narrow fingers to scratch deep inside his ear. “I guess … ah, welcome to Mount Pikelet?” He pressed a red, circular button on his remote control, and the group fell free.

Hermey said, “Are you really the green one who lives in this mountain, or is this some sort of trick?”

“Nope, I’m him. Sorry to disappoint you. I guess that’s what I do though. I disappoint everyone. I guess I’m not good enough for you Christmas Land folks. I’m not even good enough for the other unwanted toys.” He moved in his green shoes like they were too tight for his toes.

Cindy said, “You haven’t disappointed us at all. We’re actually relieved you aren’t some hideous monster.”

A dramatically disgusted look came over his face, “Is that what they are saying about me, that I’m a hideous monster?”

Hermey added, “I think they just don’t know you. If they knew you, I don’t believe they would say that.”

“I’m really not a monster at all. Frost tried to make me into one, but I’m not. I’ll never be. I’m an inventor! Do you see my contraptions?” He motioned to the clamping claw machines and held up his controller. I have so many more too.”

“See them? They nearly squeezed us to death,” Cindy said.

Pufflesoft added, “I nearly lost my stuffing in the unfair match.”

“Oh yeah, sorry about that. I just wanted to scare you all, so you would leave me alone. But did it work? No! It didn’t because I now have a polka dot, weird giraffe knight here with his deformed bat thing in-a-box breaking into my home for … wait, why are you here?”

Hermey answered, “We need your help.”

The green one laughed hysterically as his belly jiggled, “My help? This is most definitely a prank, a trick, an April Fool’s! I’m the monster, remember? Why would you possibly ask for my help?”

Hermey said, “You’ve been to the South Pole. You know the way to Frost. He captured our bumbles, and we’re a rescue team to get them back to Christmas Land. We don’t want Christmas Land to be vulnerable to an attack by Frost.”

“Do you not see me?” The green one leaned over to Hermey and glared at him with his sinister, yellow eyes. “He turned me into this. This!” He pulled at his stringy fur. “I used to be a toy. I had a future in the arms of a little boy or girl. To be loved! But he had me stolen by one of his shadow dwellers the night before Christmas out of a beautifully wrapped box. I won’t even tell you the tests he did on me to try to make me into his own twisted forms of a bumble.” His head sunk weakly, “He failed, thankfully. And now I’m just this: an unwanted misfit. A monster.”

Cindy said, “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

“You can’t possibly be sorry; you didn’t do anything. It’s Frost who needs to be sorry. And the other unwanted toys for excluding me, and those in Christmas Land for neglecting me. And all of you for breaking into my home uninvited. So yes, you should be sorry, you little brat.”

Hermey said to Cindy, “Let’s go. We’ll find another way.” The team turned from the green one to find an exit.”

Battie bounced in the air, and said, “What a grouch!”

Pufflesoft added, “Yes, a grouch indeed.”

“That’s right, leave! That’s what you all do best. Be gone!” he yelled. “Come on, Maxey, we don’t need them.” The little dog jumped into his long, green arms.

Cindy turned around and said with a small wave, “Goodbye, mister.”

Instantly, the green one’s angry demeaner changed, and something still undamaged inside of him grew. His eyes fell shut and then opened with water. The team continued to walk away, and from deep within, he cried out in a new tone, “Young lady, what is your name?”

Hermey said, “Let’s just keep walking, Cindy.”

The green one said, “Cindy, who? Oh, please do stop. I’m terribly sorry.”

Searching for an exit, the group continued walking down a colorful hallway that was full of unnecessary angles and turns.

“Dear Cindy, please do stop,” he continued.

Cindy turned around to him. The green one said, “You called me mister. No one has ever referred to me as a mister before. I’ve been a test subject, a worthless toy, a monster, and a grouch, but never mister, although I think grouch is acceptable because I have been one, and undeservedly to all of you. I am sorry. And I’m willing to help your team, if you will still have me.”

Cindy said, “Okay, but on one condition.”

“Yes, anything!”

She continued, “You need a better name.”

“Anything mister, please!”

“Have you ever had a name?” Cindy asked.

Test Subject One is the name I remember most and Green Monster. So how about Mr. Monster?”

“No, you aren’t a monster, but you can be a grouch.”

Battie added, “Yes, he is indeed a grouch!”

The green one stuck out his long, furry, green arm to shake Cindy’s hand, “Nice to meet you, Cindy, I’m Mr. Grouch.”

He got the names of each member of the team. When he leaned down to shake Pufflesoft’s polka dot hand, Pufflesoft said, “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grouch” and then gave him a smile of approval.

Mr. Grouch replied, “I’m sorry for my inhospitable actions. I think I’ve forgotten how to act around others.”

Pufflesoft replied, “I desire deeply that you become acquainted with us, for you’re a member of our team now.”

Mr. Grouch with his faithful Maxey provided a great meal for the team as they all became acquainted with each other. Mr. Grouch showed his new friends his fabulous inventions and gave them a tour of his home inside Mount Pikelet. He was learning how to be around others, which was a new experience for him, and he felt his heart growing many sizes around his new friends.

Chapter 10

After dinner the plates were emptied and leftovers were put away, Maxey hurried to Mr. Grouch with many short and unique, continuous barks.

Mr. Grouch replied to his dog, “Yes. Oh, no. That puts a damper in our plans. Are you sure it’s that bad?”

“Arf!”

“Okay, thanks, Maxey.” Mr. Grouch turned and said to the group, “A blizzard has blown in. It’s head-high of snow out there, and it’s getting worse.”

The team went out on the top opening of Mount Pikelet and stared out into the snowy night, not able to see a thing. Temperatures had dropped, and now they could hardly stand up against the unrelenting, snowy wind, which only seemed to be increasing. They hurried back into the living quarters and huddled around the fireplace for warmth.

“What do we do now?” Cindy asked.

“I guess all we can do is wait,” Hermey replied. “How long do you think it will take to clear up?” he asked Mr. Grouch.

“The blizzard will most likely last a few days and then, probably at least a week for the snow to go down. That’s an optimistic estimate.”

Hermey added, “And we should all hope the best for Christmas Land in this time of vulnerability.” Hermey looked defeated, and simply waiting was the last thing he wanted to do.

“Maybe we can do more than just hope,” Cindy said.

Battie asked, “Whatever do you mean?”

Cindy listened to the cracks and pops from the fire. She observed the worried faces of her friends lit in the yellow light. She didn’t have an answer, so she just stayed silent, thinking.

Out of the silent awkwardness, Mr. Grouch brought over a pan and a cloth bag full of chestnuts. He suggested, “We can at least eat some more; it’s going to be a difficult journey when it does clear up.”

No one seemed in the mood for an after-dinner snack. Then, suddenly they heard a hum—a soft melody from Cindy.

She hummed some more, and then moved over to Hermey and leaned against his side as she sang, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose. Yuletide carols being sung by a choir and folks dressed up like Eskimos.”

Pufflesoft and Battie joined in for the next verse, and then Hermey sang too. And they all ended with, “Although it’s been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you.”

There was something about singing that song that added to their hope, and Mr. Grouch saw it. He witnessed something beautiful. Something he had never experienced before. He nervously played with his green, stringy fingers and placed one over his heart, feeling something grow. Then he said, “I know a way.”

“A way?” Hermey questioned.

“Yes, I can get us out of here,” Mr. Grouch said. His eyes turned nervous. “It won’t be easy. I can get us all out of here, but I must do it alone.”

Pufflesoft interjected, “Absolutely not; we’re a team, Mr. Grouch. We all go together.”

Mr. Grouch said, “No, you don’t understand. Only I can go. You see, I do look like a monster. I know that. So I can go someplace you all can’t.”

Battie said, “Oh no, don’t say it.”

“Yes, Halloween Town.”

Hermey asked, “Have you ever been before?”

“Of course not. Why would anyone from the North Pole every freely go to Halloween Town?” Mr. Grouch responded.

The group looked down in worry.

Mr. Grouch continued, “But there’s a first time for everything, right? I have built a secret emergency exit down this mountain and a modified toboggin that I wired together that’s powered by an astro-rocket. You really have to see it! Come with me to my emergency exit compartment down stairs.”

The group followed Mr. Grouch through hidden doors and curvy corridors until they came to a large toboggin with a red rocket installed onto the back of it. There were aviator steering controls, a cushioned seat with seatbelts, and even a protected, kennel seat for his dog. Maxey jumped up into his seat, but Mr. Grouch said, “Sorry, Maxey, but you aren’t going to be able to come with me on this trip. It’ll be far too dangerous.”

Maxey whined in pity, and the group wished Mr. Grouch the best as he strapped himself into the seat. He pulled a lever nearby, and the mountain wall opened up to the snowy blizzard. He tapped a few buttons on his steering controls and the rocket lit up. The group moved back from the rocket’s heat as its built-up pressure began to rumble the ground. Mr. Grouch turned a knob and gripped tightly onto the steering controls anticipating the blast off. Maxey barked anxiously although he couldn’t be heard over the deafening sound. As the pressure continued to build, the little dog couldn’t take it anymore. Maxey leaped out towards his special seat and hopped in right when the rocket exploded the toboggin out of the snowy mountain’s opening with a boom deafening sound.

Down Mount Pikelet the two flew on the powder snow, Maxey as happy as ever to be with his master. Mr. Grouch was intensely focused on dodging boulders and trees through the thick fog. Any wrong tilt of the controls could be the end of them at such a rapid speed.

As he slid to even ground, he finally looked down around him and noticed his dog sitting next to him, tongue out and breathing in excitement. Mr. Grouch’s wild smile turned to a frown as he knew there was no way of sliding back up Mount Pikelet; he had just enough rocket left to get to the Holiday Woods. He gave Maxey a forced smile and continued to focus on guiding through trees, bouncing wildly here and there on the snowy surface.

They finally entered into the dark forest of the Holiday Woods. The rocket on his custom toboggin died out, which was fine because there wasn’t much snow under the thick trees of the forest. The wintry trees were so congested that they created a natural tent covering over the cold, dingy patches of grass.

The determined Mr. Grouch and Maxey journeyed through the woods on foot, mile after mile. Mr. Grouch sat down on a fallen tree trunk for a brief moment to massage his swollen feet, giving them a brief moment of relief from his tight, green shoes. The forest was silent with no signs of life—desolate. Maxey jumped up on his lap.

“Are you tired, boy?”

“Arf, arf, arf,” Maxey answered.

“Okay, I’ll carry you for a little while.”

Mr. Grouch sat up with a few crackle and pops in his knees and continued searching for the Holiday Woods with Maxey in his long arms.

The forest was dim, but not as cold as the Land of Unwanted Toys. He wasn’t sure if the forest was playing tricks on him, but all the trees began to look the same, and he couldn’t tell which way he had come. He turned around in a circle, looking all around to find that he was lost.

He pushed through the thicket, holding Maxey in one arm. He no longer cared about the throbbing in his feet. He moved knowing that many were depending on him, although parts of him secretly hoped that the Holiday Woods was a made-up place to scare off unwanted toys from going into the forest.

Deeper into the forest, it now seemed much darker. He pushed through more bushes as thorns and stickers stuck into his fur. But then, his yellow eyes lit up as he now stood in the middle of the Holiday Woods. He knew this because it was just as he could recall from the stories he was told. He was in the middle of a circle of ancient trees, and each tree had a door built into it.

The problem was that they were all the same door—wooden and plain.

“Arf, arf!” said Maxey.

“I know, I know. We’ll have to figure it out.”

Mr. Grouch went to each door, placing his furry head against the door, so his ear would be even against it.

“Nope, not that one,” he said before moving onto another tree. “Woah, definitely, not that one.” He moved to the next and then onto the next. Over and over again. “Nope, not that one either.”

He placed his green ear up to another door. Through the rough, thick wood, he heard the same screams and moans as he did in the woods. He looked to Maxey, “My mind tells me I’ve found it, but fearfully, I do not wish to enter.”

He bent down to his dog, “We must do something to you, Maxey, and I don’t think you’re going to like it much at all.”

Mr. Grouch rolled his faithful dog in a nearby puddle of mud, covering him completely as only two dark eyes showed through the messy fur.

“We have to look scary now, so give me your most scary face.”

The little dog opened his mouth as a cute puppy smile showed through the muddy mess.

“Well, that’s not really going to do. Maybe it’s best for you to just stay behind me. I’ll try to look scary enough for the both of us.”

Mr. Grouch wrapped his lengthy, green fingers around the rusty knob of the wooden door within the tree and turned with a strong pull. A bright orange light powered through, and Mr. Grouch and his dog bravely ventured into a land of monstrous screams and moans. When they had entered, the wooden door slammed violently behind them, and the Holiday Woods were once again desolate as before.

Chapter 11

The harsh orange light blinded Mr. Grouch and Maxey as they moved into Halloween Town. They stepped on some sort of paved surface. Looking down, Mr. Grouch could now make out a grey brick footpath. He heard singing, or was it chanting? The words: “This here is Halloween, so let us kill the pumpkin king.” As his vision came back to him more, he only saw muted colors with accents of light. Candles. And then, hideous faces. Green skin, long noses, warts. Wooden broomsticks pounded against the ancient, dark brick ground.

The crowd continued with the same chant, “This, this here is Halloween, so now we kill the pumpkin king.”

Maxey, covered in mud still, crawled behind Mr. Grouch’s skinny leg. As more came into focus, Mr. Grouch discerned a mob of witches with a handful of warlocks surrounding a heavy, black cauldron over an outdoor fire. Tied up and hanging over it was an orange man with a pumpkin head wearing a king’s robe.

As the pumpkin headed man struggled for freedom from the tight ropes, he called out, “This is Halloween, and I’m you’re pumpkin king! This is your final chance to release me and stop this nonsensical rebellion.”

All the witches and warlocks froze in silence after hearing his bold words. They carefully studied each other. Then, they broke into hysterical laughter. They continued, “Halloween, Halloween, now dies the pumpkin king!”

One witch summoned her black cat to the hanging platform over the large cauldron. She yelled, “Pull the lever, Thackery!” The cat’s tail snaked around for balance as his little paws reached up and pulled the wooden level of the rustic device that held the pumpkin king. The rope lowered steadily as the pumpkin king sunk into the boiling water with a deep, tormented scream that turned into a low gargle.

The maniacal crowed cheered in a frenzy, and they celebrated in victory, singing tunes and dancing. After cooling, the cauldron was turned over as steaming water spewed out onto the ground and all that remained from the pumpkin king was a pile of dispersed bones.

One witch yelled out in her squeaky voice, “All hail, your pumpkin king!” and the rest continued in eerie celebration as broomsticks tapped on the ground and teeth gnashed to grotesque lyrics with wicked smiles.

Mr. Grouch stayed ducked down in a shadow of one of the surrounded structures of the disturbing town. Maxey noticed the bones now on the ground in the center of the crowd. His canine instincts overtook him, and he wildly ran out to grab one. As he slid into the still warm puddle of water, his muddy disguise washed off, and he was clearly a dog from a different land. With a large bone hanging from Maxey’s mouth, Mr. Grouch called out to his dog, “Maxey, get back here!”

Maxey trotted back over to Mr. Grouch with his new bone between his teeth like nothing had happened. The entire crowd turned to the strange invaders. One of the witches stepped forward towards Mr. Grouch and screeched, “We have not seen you here before. Are you even from Halloween Town?”

He responded, “I’m actually from the Land of Unwanted Toys, but I’m here to—”

“Toys? Toys aren’t permitted to freely come into Halloween Town as they choose!” The crowd agreed with her angrily.

“I’m not just a toy; I’m more real than I am a toy. That’s how it is in the Land of Unwanted Toys.”

“That’s not how it is here. Here, a toy is a toy.” She turned to another witch in all purple and said while pointing to Maxey, “Madame Mim, destroy that toy!”

Madame Mim pulled out a wooden wand and pointed it towards Maxey.

Mr. Grouch yelled out, “But he’s not a—”

A bright bolt of electricity exploded out from Madame Mim’s wand and zapped Maxey with a mess of light. A cloud of dust slowly flowed to the ground. Mr. Grouch fell down in terror, rubbing his lengthy fingers over his furry face in agony.

He cried, “Maxey was a real dog. He was my friend.”

The witch said, “Oops, our mistake. Maybe we’ll get it right this time. Madame Mim, destroy this big, pathetic toy.”

Madame Mim pointed her wand in the same manner at Mr. Grouch, but she noticed something about him that made her pause in curiosity.

His eyes lit up in a brighter yellow, and his body began to convulse as his teeth showed beyond his quivering lips. A deep growl was growing from deep inside of him, and as it finally broke out, his body expanded in sudden growth, and he became taller than any structure in the town. He was … a monster.

The witches and warlocks ran in fright, but the green monster smashed them one by one with his mighty fist and stepped on the others with his long feet. He smashed and thrashed and bashed and mashed until none were left.

Although the Halloween Town rebellion took many years to fester up, it ended almost instantaneously with the outburst of the green monster. He now stood, surrounded by silence and piles of empty dresses and cloaks, since witches and warlocks vanish when they die. He breathed more calmly now and looked over to the short mound of dust where Maxey once stood. A tear trailed down his gigantic face and sunk away into his fur. His body began to convulse again, and he fell back to the ground to his normal size. On the ground he cried for a long time as the orange full moon lingered only a little above the dark, twisted mountains.

Mr. Grouch then took the bones of the pumpkin king and respectfully laid them all down together, placing all the bones in their proper places. He said, “I guess this is Halloween.”

As soon as he moved the final bone in place, the bones glowed in white as each pulled closer together, fitting and forming the perfect skeleton, with a round skull. He sat up and his jawed moved, and a clear voice came from it: “Trick or treat?”

“What?” Mr. Grouch jumped back startled.

“You helped serve me and my kingdom. Would you like a trick or a treat from the pumpkin king?”

“Honestly, I came here from the North Pole, the Land of Unwanted Toys to be specific, to ask for help. Jack Frost is causing problems for Christmas Land, and we need a way to get to the South Pole to stop him. I already lost my best friend.” Mr. Grouch pointed to the pile of ashes nearby. “I also just found out I really am a monster. I came here to seek help, but already, the loss to too much for me to bear.”

“A treat it is, but first, can you fetch me some clothes? I’m feeling quite vulnerable without my pumpkin flesh.”

Mr. Grouch walked around the area until he saw a dilapidated coffin shop that also sold burial clothes. He didn’t know what a king should wear, so he chose the nicest outfit in the store—a striped suit with a thin, black tie. To him, it looked like the right choice for a skeleton king.

Chapter 12

Cindy fell in and out of sleep against Hermey’s arm as the low, crackling fire still warmed the living room of Mr. Grouch’s home inside of Mount Pikelet. Battie was asleep, closed away in his box. Pufflesoft sat with his head leaned back against the wall. Hermey tried not to move, not wanting to wake Cindy as she breathed so softly in peace.

Her eyes opened, and through delicate lips, she asked, “Do you think Mr. Grouch will come back with a way to the South Pole?”

He said quietly, “It’s really not about what we think in times like these but what we believe. I believe he will. That’s why I wait.”

Cindy’s eyes moved down as she thought about her life back home. It was a good life but a lonely one. She had so much to be thankful for, but she still hurt at times. She hurt in the loneliness. She hurt in the good memories—the special times that played like old, holiday reruns in her heart and mind.

In contrast to those memories, she agonized. And in her hurt, it was difficult for her to believe.

But she was in the North Pole, with an elf and real-life toys; she had to believe.

She remembered one conversation with Nana when she was still a little girl. Cindy was upset about something. Nana took her outside and sat her down under the starlit sky and said, “Everything’s going to be alright. Do you want to know why?”

Young Cindy nodded with puffy eyes.

“You see those stars above? You see all the black space between them? We’re just a speck in the universe, but someone somewhere up there cared enough for a speck like us to allow us music, color, stories, love, warmth. Ice cream and birthday cake. Soft beds. Sunsets and smiles. Hugs and puppies. Kisses and laughs. We may be just a tiny speck, a vapor that only lasts for a moment, but whoever created us did so in love, so you were created in love. Believe that always, my dear.”

Cindy turned and looked deeply into the eyes of Hermey and said, “I believe too.”

Hermey put his arm around her and held her closely, and she rested in the comfort of his strong warmth.

The fire continued to fade away, until all was silent in a dream.

And in her dream, Cindy was a little girl again, and it was Christmas Eve. The night was late, and her mother and Nana had just put her to bed. She tried to sleep, but she wanted a drink of water. Also, she was too excited to sleep. She moved through the dark hallway as her bare feet touched the chill of the tile floor. She moved along slowly, not wanting to wake her family. She could see the kaleidoscope glow from the Christmas tree reflecting onto the end of the hall. Some of the boys and girls at school had told her that Santa Claus wasn’t real, but she believed and what she heard next confirmed all of her bold faith.

Soft but real.

Bells.

Jingle bells.

Ringing in a beautiful tone.

She turned around the corner as her little night gown wiped around her in a flow, and as soon as she focused in on the scene … she saw glowing embers of a faded fire, a polka dot, stuffed giraffe and a closed bat-in-a-box. She closed her dry eyes to stay in Hermey’s comfortable embrace and tried to go back to sleep.

But she still heard the bells.

Jingling.

Like the dream.

Hermey moved. He whispered, “Do you hear that? Sounds like sleigh bells.”

Pufflesoft stood high, “Captain Claus! He must have heard!”

Battie popped out of his box, “Captain Claus! Here?”

“Wait, listen to these bells.” Everyone froze to carefully hear them. “That’s not Santa’s sleigh. Those bells sound dry and dull.

Pufflesoft said, “Let us venture to the entrance of this cave and see for ourselves if it is friend or foe.”

The group moved through the corridors of Mr. Grouch’s home in the mountain and made their way to the cave’s opening.

“I don’t see anything at all, except fog,” Cindy said confused.

Battie said, “Oh, I hear it again! Through the fog! It’s getting louder!”

Pufflesoft unsheathed his sword and Hermey pulled out his cane for the growing noise that was moving through the blinding fog.

Out of the white cloud, a grey sleigh emerged, pulled by eight flying, skeleton reindeer to the sound of rusty bells bouncing off their white bones. Driving the sleigh was Mr. Grouch, and as he saw his friends, he hollered out, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas from the pumpkin king!”

The skeleton sleigh landed at the entrance of the cave, and Mr. Grouch jumped down to his friends. They greeted him with excitement and thanksgiving, but he apprehensively told them, “I was able to make it back to Mount Pikelet from memory, but I’m sorry to say, the fog is now too dense to get out of the Land of Unwanted Toys.”

Cindy asked, “Where’s Maxey?”

Mr. Grouch’s head fell, “He didn’t make it; Halloween Town is a dark place.” Tears rolled from his eyes and slid off his green fur.

Cindy went to hug the tall mourner as he trembled with grief.

Mr. Grouch said, “He was my only friend for years. I’m going to miss him so much.”

The others give their condolences as Cindy continued to hold him. The others joined in, and Mr. Grouch was captured in a circle of their comforting arms.

Mr. Grouch said, “It’s weird. I can almost still hear him barking.”

The group looked at each other curiously.

Mr. Grouch continued, “I don’t know what I’ll do without him.”

Battie said, “I can hear him barking too.”

The fog lit up in bright light as a small figure floated towards them.

“Arf, arf!” he barked.

Mr. Grouch yelled out, “Maxey! Is that you?”

There appeared to be a transparent white sheet covering the figure of an invisible dog, but unlike the classic, white sheet ghost costume, this one shone brightly. The ghost dog flew into Mr. Grouch’s arms.

“Maxey, I don’t care if you’re a ghost; I’m just glad to have you back.”

Hermey said, “I heard once that if you die in Halloween Town, you become a ghost. It must be true.”

The team almost had to cover their eyes because Maxey shone so brightly.

Mr. Grouch said, “Maxey, can you control how bright you shine?”

Maxey lit up so bright that everyone had to look away, and then he dimmed down to a soft glow.

Hermey looked to Cindy and then to Mr. Grouch. They all knew what they were thinking.

Mr. Grouch said to his dog, “Maxey with your sheet so bright, won’t you guide our sleigh tonight?”

“Arf, arf!”

Chapter 13

Through the dense midnight fog, the sound of dull bells against skeleton bones broke open the quiet night with a bright glow from a ghost dog.

Mr. Grouch shouted out, “On Nasher, Slasher, Mason, and Killen! On Vomit, Crooked, Thunder, and Wicked!”

The skeleton reindeer moved with the grey sleigh with an orange pumpkin emblem on the side of it. Hermey and Cindy sat in the back seat as Mr. Grouch drove the sleigh in the front with Pufflesoft and Battie next to him.

Hermey said, “These reindeer aren’t the ones I’m used to, but they sure do fly fast.”

“They have less skin to slow them down,” Battie commented.

Pufflesoft said, “It’s really how I always imagined it would be, riding with Captain Claus, being pulled by the classic eight and the sleigh and all.”

Mr. Grouch said, “Eight? Why, Maxey is leading them all. So classic nine.”

Hermey replied, “No, it’s always Santa and his eight reindeer, not nine. We don’t really count Rudy.”

Battie added, “So we have eight skeleton reindeer and zero ghost dogs?”

Mr. Grouch replied, “Zero sounds good to me, since he is technically a ghost.”

The team eventually passed through all the heavy fog, and now they could look down to see the Sea of Swirly-Twirly Gum Drops. The northern lights shown bright against the night sky. The team flew on.

Hermey leaned over the sleigh and said, “Cindy, come look.”

Cindy leaned over with Hermey holding onto him for safety, and she said, “It’s so beautiful.”

The colored lights of Christmas Land reflecting against the white snow was breathtaking to the young woman.

Hermey said, “Even from up here, you can hear the sound of bells lightly play in the air. Even over the wind. Even over the dull Halloween Town noises from this sleigh. That’s how Christmas Land is—even though it may be far away, you can still hear it, if you listen.”

“It’s truly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” she said grabbing hold of Hermey’s hand.

“You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

She smiled but then looked away. “What happens if, I mean, when we get the bumbles back to Christmas Land and stop Frost? This isn’t my home.”

Hermey said, “Once Christmas Land is safe, maybe that will change.”

Cindy looked down at the wintry land below her and whispered, “Maybe so.”

She leaned her head against Hermey’s faithful shoulder and the sleigh continued between the glowing colors of Christmas Land and the bright starlit sky of many colors.

Through the night they continued on as the group grew tired with the slow rising of the morning sun.

Mr. Grouch said, “Hermey, how about we take a break for a moment. This flying is not quite as easy as I had imagined.”

“Yes, I’ve been thinking that myself. We need some rest if we’re going to take on Frost. When we come near the first layer of the Candy Cane Forest, pull down and land. Cornelius the adventurer lives nearby, and I’m sure he’ll take us in.”

The first and outer layer of the Candy Cane Forest contained trees topped with brightly colored cotton candy held up by candy cane trunks. The home of Cornelius was easy to find because it was the only human home around. It was a small, one room, wooden cabin, with a brick chimney with a small stream of smoke flowing from it. The front window flickered a dim presence of a candle inside. As the group approached, Hermey went up to the door, and before he knocked, he pressed his tall ear against it. On the other side, he heard loud snoring with occasional sleeping taking words that Hermey could only make out as “silver” and “gold.”

Pufflesoft said, “Is this man safe?”

“Safe? Yes. Gentle, no. It’s probably best if everyone steps back a bit.”

Hermey listened to the snoring repeat itself with those same mumbled words.

The snoring.

Loud.

Repeating.

Knock. Knock.

Silence.

Standing back now, the group looked concerned as Hermey braced himself.

The door broke open, and a burley figure jumped on Hermey tackling him to the ground. They rolled around in a violent struggle through patches of snow.

Hermey yelled, “Cornelius, it’s Buddy!”

Cornelius flipped the Highland elf over his shoulder and unto the ground to carefully study Hermey as he said in his deep, raw voice, “Well, I’ll be! Hey, Buddy! Let me give you a hand up.”

Hermey introduced Cornelious to the team, and Cornelious explained how he was an adventurer on the outskirts of the North Pole, searching for silver and gold. Cornelious had dark blue overalls and a red hunter’s cap that accented his red mustache and beard. He was a hirsute man and mostly just red all over with thick curly fiery hair pushed through the bottom of his cap and even his cheeks were rosy red with red freckles.

Once settled the group comfortably rested in the small space of Cornelious’ crowded house. Laying near the fireplace, he said, “So let me get this straight. You, the girl, the green guy, and the two little toys are all going to take on the infamous Jack Frost?”

Hermey answered, “You are almost correct.”

“Well, what did I leave out?”

“You left out the adventurer named Cornelious.”

Cornelious laughed audaciously and replied, “And why would I do that, my old friend?”

“Because, you’re an old friend. And, there might just be some silver and gold,” Hermey responded.

“Silver and gold!” Cornelious cheered. “What’s our plan exactly?”

“Mr. Grouch here has been to Frost’s fortress before. Once we get there, we’ll examine our options and develop a plan to get our bumbles back.”

“Even with me, I’m not sure we have a fighting chance. I mean, Frost’s place is heavily fortified, and he has his minions of shadow dwellers. I’ve come across one of them before, and they really are frightening as ice.”

“Cornelious, we can’t give up. Christmas Land is vulnerable to an attack as we speak.”

“I’m not saying to give up. We just need more help.”

Hermey said, “Even if we find more help, we can barely fit you on that sleigh, let alone anyone else.”

“Could we fit one small, furry friend on that sleigh with us?”

“Yes, I believe so,” Hermey answered.

“Then, what if that small, furry friend could multiply into a hundred in a matter of minutes?” Cornelious twisted his mustache in brilliance.

“The moggies?”

Cornelious said, “Yes! And when they multiply, they turn into critters.”

Battie interrupted, “Can I interject here for a moment? The critters are wild creatures. Are they not?”

Cornelious responded, “Yes, wild indeed but under control as long as the host, their leader, stays strong and in charge. They mostly listen to him.”

Cindy asked, “Hermey, what are these things?”

“Think of a cute cat-like creature with big ears that quickly creates offspring that look like gargoyles,” Hermey responded.

Cindy said, “Why did I have to ask?”

Mr. Grouch asked, “So where are these moggies?”

“Inside the Third Layer of the Candy Cane Forest,” Cornelious answered.

Mr. Grouch asked, “What’s inside the Seventh Layer?”

Cornelious said, “No one knows, and I kind of hope it stays that way, but I can see it in your eyes that you’re all tired. Get some sleep.” He blew out the candles in his small, wooden cabin.

Chapter 14

Cindy opened her dry eyes to the sound of Hermey and Cornelious convincing Pufflesoft that he had to stay to protect her, just in case anything unexpected were to happen to them. There was deep snoring coming from the corner where Maxey floated asleep nearby. As the three in conversation came more into focus to her, she could see Cornelious sliding his ice pick into his holster as Hermey went for his cane.

Hermey secured his cane into his back holster and said, “I can’t believe I’m actually going into the very place where this handy, little weapon originated from.”

Cornelious said, “The trunks of the Candy Cane Forest make fine combat canes. If I weren’t so keen on my ice pick, I would carry one myself, but this right here can help me find and dig out my silver and gold.”

“You have always been about that silver and gold, haven’t you?” Hermey said.

“Silver and gold, silver and gold. Ev’ryone wishes for silver and gold. How do you measure its worth? Just by the pleasure it gives here on earth.”

“And how much of it have you actually found?” Hermey questioned.

“Oh, that doesn’t matter; it’s the search that’s the fun of it—the adventure. Oh, sweet, sweet adventure.”

Cindy stood up and walked over to Hermey, rubbing her waking eyes.

Hermey told her, “We have to go now. The Candy Cane Forest is uncharted territory for me. If anything happens, Pufflesoft and Battie will take you back to Christmas Land, and from there, you’ll be guided home.”

Cindy hugged Hermey with her head in his chest and said, “Maybe this is home.”

Battie jumped over and asked, “Is there any other way? There’s horrible mysteries about the deeper layers of the Candy Cane Forest.”

Hermey answered, “With a moggy and some critters, we have a good chance getting back the bumbles. I know you and Pufflesoft will take care of Cindy.”

Battie nodded, and Pufflesoft confirmed, “Indeed, we will. There’s nothing to worry about here, my good sir. Just take care of yourself and the adventurer Cornelious.”

Hermey and Cornelious stepped outside.

The door closed.

And they were gone.

Cindy laid down on the bed and rested her dry eyes for a moment, already worried about Hermey; her eyes became moist.

With them gone the snoring in the corner seemed louder now. Maxey continued to float as he glowed white with closed eyes.

Battie asked, “Should we wake them?”

“I’m sure we should. They must be used to getting an extended amount of sleep,” Pufflesoft said.

Cindy called out, “Mr. Grouch. Hello, Mr. Grouch.”

Maxey’s eyes popped open, and he excitedly flew around the room in a puppy like manner. Mr. Grouch sat up scratching his head as his green fur was sticking up out of place. He asked, “Now what’s going on?” He stuck his long finger in his ear and wiggled it around a little. “Are we off to Frost’s yet?”

Cindy answered, “Not yet. Hermey and Cornelious went off to the Candy Cane Forest together, and we’re waiting for them to come by with the moggy.”

“What a dreadful forest that is supposed to be. I sure hope they return well.” he said.

To pass the time, the remaining team cooked a meal together and continued to rest, waiting for their friends to come back. The wind picked up and pushed against the wooden cabin as it creaked and moaned.

As the day grew late, the sun slowly sunk behind the surrounding snowy hills. The moon was already in the sky and reflected off the patches of snow on the cold ground.

Mr. Grouch said to the waiting team, “So there’s something I kind of wanted to tell you all, but it’s strange. Very strange.”

“What is it?” Cindy asked.

Maxey flew over and hovered on Mr. Grouch’s lap, and he continued, “I believe Frost was more successful than I might have initially thought. You see, when they got Maxey in Halloween Town, I lost it. Something inside of me changed. And then my body changed; I grew into a towering monster and destroyed the witches and warlocks who were taking over Halloween Town. I was big—huge. A real monster. I bring this up to say that if Frost was successful with his experiment—me—back then, what has he been up to now? What does he plan to do with the bumbles if they’re even alive? I just worry that maybe this is a job for Captain Claus, not us.”

Pufflesoft said, “But what about Christmas? Captain Claus can’t head off to the South Pole a month before Christmas. Should he deprive the world of Christmas cheer to go take on Frost? That would be exactly what Frost would want.”

Cindy asked, “Can you control this growth? Can you do it again?”

Mr. Grouch said, “No. I’ve already tried, but I can’t.”

Battie called out from the ground, “Maybe you can try some more!”

Cindy said, “Let’s go outside and give it a shot. What else are we going to do?”

Mr. Grouch nodded in agreement, and they moved outside underneath the early moon.

“Okay, Mr. Grouch, give it your best shot,” said Cindy.

The furry, green toy pushed his hands together, and they shook as his muscles flexed behind deep fur. His jaw clinched, and his eyes squinted to a close as he tried with all his might to grow big again.

But nothing.

“It’s not working. But it did once,” he murmured in disappointment as the moon reflected off of his pure green.

Petting his tall shoulder, Cindy said, “It’s okay, Mr. Grouch. It’s okay.”

Floating a few feet over the ground, Maxey shot out an ominous bark.

Turning all around himself, Mr. Grouch hollered, “Where, Maxey?”

The ghost dog barked again.

Mr. Grouch yelled out, “Shadow dwellers!”

With the warning words still only a few inches out from his month, Cindy was violently pulled backwards from the group with her legs dragging against the cold dirt. Pufflesoft unsheathed his sword and hurried towards her where his sword was met with the clink of shadowed metal in the air by another invisible dweller. Mr. Grouch swung his lengthy, green arms from left to right, trying to throw off their hold on him. Battie was tossed through the air, tumbling on the ground and landing far from the group. He sprang out of his box and hopped and fluttered back to the group. Maxey growled with saliva covered, transparent teeth and chomped at each shadow, which seemed to frighten them back a little, but the group was outnumbered and surrounded by the menacing, dark foes. They were shadows with some physical attributes, and at a certain glance in the moonlight, their skull-like faces could be seen under their deep hoods—empty, hollow eyes they were that pricked and stabbed with their very glance.

As the shadow dweller clinched onto Cindy, she felt the inside of her lungs began to freeze like they did in Timberton. She struggled to breathe, and her world turned slow. Her fading eyes took in the view: Mr. Grouch rolled on the ground with shadows over him. Pufflesoft stood empty handed with no sword. Battie was pushed closed in his box. And a yelp came from Maxey as he was strangled to the ground.

Cindy looked back at Mr. Grouch and thought that if there were a time to grow into the monster, that time was now.

But he stayed the same size.

On the ground.

Defeated.

Cindy’s vision blurred as she continued lacking breathe. She glanced up to the bright night and the large moon.

She shut her eyes.

And the bright moon turned to darkness.

But she still believed.

A shot echoed throughout the land.

Another one.

Piercing loud.

Cindy was released, and she fell to the ground gasping for air with open eyes.

Another shot rang in their ears.

Mr. Grouch struggled to his feet. Pufflesoft picked his sword up. Battie stretched out of his box and fluttered closer to group. Maxey flew back to Mr. Grouch.

Riding up on a saddled, brown horse, a man sat confidently in an Easter bunny costume with a cowboy hat on. He had a long rifle in his right hand, and with his other, he pushed up his round, red glasses. His bright blue eyes sparkled behind the round glass, and the team knew he was one of the good guys.

Chapter 15

The cowboy in the Easter bunny costume smoothly slid off his horse and walked over to the team who were still recovering from the shadow dwellers’ attack. His boots hit the ground heavily with each step as his spurs rang out, and he slowly rolled off the furry, pink costume. In a deep, slow voice, he said, “Any one of you seen my brother?”

Pufflesoft stepped forward to him, “I don’t believe so. Who may you be?”

The cowboy said, “They call me Ryder. And I’m looking for my brother.” He stepped past Pufflesoft without a care and reached into his back pocket to pull out warm gingerbread wrapped in a red handkerchief. He fed some to Cindy, and her breath recovered to a smooth pattern.

Mr. Grouch asked, “Is your brother lost?”

“Lost? Why, no! He’s been taken by someone or something, I believe.” Ryder removed his hat for a moment to rub his forehead and push up his glasses. “You see, he’s my little brother, and I got to find him.”

Battie said, “How did you get rid of the shadow dwellers with mere bullets?”

“These aren’t your regular bullets. They were given to me as a Christmas present many years ago by my parents. I’ve held onto them for a special occasion. Finding my brother is that occasion. I figured, why not use a few to help you all while I’m at it.”

Mr. Grouch sighed, “Ah, Christmas bullets! That makes sense now. Something given in light of love can destroy the darkness—the shadows.”

Ryder noticed his yellow eyes and asked, “What are you all doing out here anyways?”

Cindy answered, “Two of our friends went into the Candy Cane Forest. Once they’re back, we’re going to go to Frost’s fortress and take back the bumbles that he took from Christmas Land.”

“Wow, you’re all crazier than I thought. Not too many people come back out of the Candy Cane Forest, especially the deeper levels. And you think this team right here can really take on Frost?”

Cindy said, “We have a plan. But we could use your help.”

Pufflesoft eyed the wooden rifle and said, “With your deadeye aim, we could really use your assistance.”

Ryder studied the group. “A couple of toys and a girl? Nah, I’m sorry. I got to find my brother, and until then, I ride alone.” He threw the Easter Bunny costume over his shoulder and stretched over his horse and slowly trotted away.

Cindy yelled, “Thank you for saving our lives!”

Without turning around, he said, “Nah, it was nothing.” Then he turned his head slightly and added, “Just be more safe next time. I would hate to miss and shoot your eye out.”

As the team made their way back to the Cornelious’ cabin, Pufflesoft said, “That Ryder fellow; he’s one tough guy.” Once inside they warmed up by the fire and lit up the small space with candles. Soon, there was a knock at the door and in came Hermey with Cornelious. Hermey was holding a box wrapped like a Christmas present.

They all greeted each other with thanksgiving as Cindy and the team crowded around Hermey and Cornelious. “Is that the moggy?” she asked.

“Hermey said, “Yes, listen carefully.” Cindy moved her head closer to the wrapped box. She heard a high-pitch whisper noise in an unfamiliar language.

Hermey said, “Keep listening.”

She then heard the sound of a song—a soft little tune.

Hermey added, “They are known for their sweet melodies.”

Cindy told Hermey and Cornelious about the attack by the shadow dwellers and their rescuer, Ryder.

Cindy asked them, “How was the Candy Cane Forest?”

Scratching his red beard, Cornelious looked to Hermey with a slight headshake. Hermey said, “It’s not a place anyone should remember. I wish I could forget what I found there.”

“Sorry to hear that, but you got the moggy,” she said in victory.

“Yes, we sure did. I just hope everything goes as planned,” Hermey said as he looked at Cindy with what seemed to be sadness in his eyes. He then gave her a smile and hollered out to the group, “As soon as the sun is up, we fly off to the South Pole to face Frost.”

Chapter 16

Led by a transparent ghost dog, the dull bells bounced against the skeleton reindeer pulling the Halloween Town sleigh through the morning air. It was a full sleigh now with Mr. Grouch, Pufflesoft, Battie, Cornelious, Hermey, Cindy, and a wrapped box with the moggy in it—the full team, ready to venture into the most known dreaded place to save the bumbles to protect Christmas Land.

As they guided through the sky, they entered through a cloudy tunnel that spiraled around them. In it, time seemed to move backward and forward and all together. It was both light and dark, warm and cold. They looked at each other for help, but before they did anything or said anything, it was like they already had. It was a time warp tunnel that they were in, and soon they were through it on the other side. They felt normal again in the skeleton sleigh, but the sky in this new place appeared dim. Battie said, “It can’t be too many hours after noon, but it looks like evening.”

Mr. Grouch stated, “That’s how it is in the South Pole. It’s mostly dark and dim and icy cold. There’s no glowing warmth like there is in the North Pole. There’s no light song in the air. You’ll find it a much graver place.”

Looking at the dull sky, Pufflesoft said, “I dread it already.”

Cornelious said, “Frost is going to dread us pretty soon.”

“We need to pull down over there. Frost’s fortress is close,” Mr. Grouch said, suddenly appearing nervous.

Hermey nodded, and Mr. Grouch hollered out, “Maxey, bring us down now!”

The skeleton reindeer dropped down to the icy ground as dimness continued hovering over the land. Mr. Grouch said, “Friends, welcome to the South Pole.”

Cornelius commented, “I don’t reckon I’ll find any silver and gold here.”

They took the wrapped box with the moggy in it out of the sleigh and placed it on a rock. Around them was nothing but dark snowy hills—an ice land. They hovered around the beautifully wrapped box, and listened to its soft melodic hum.

Looking at Cornelius, Hermey said, “I believe it’s time.” He gently unwrapped the box. Two large eyes surrounded by a pudgy body of light blue fur. The sweet hum mesmerized the observing team as it drastically contrasted the bland environment.

Cindy picked up the moggy: “How cute is this!”

Hermey said, “Now it’s time to give him sugar.”

“Sugar? Should it eat sugar?”

“Normally, no. But today, it’s going to release the critters. I don’t really know how this happens, so we all better stand back,” Hermey suggested.

Cornelius stepped over and handed Hermey a hard piece of multicolor, swirly candy. Cindy gently placed the moggy down and moved back as Hermey handed over the piece of candy to the small, furry creature.

The moggy’s little beak like mouth wiggled as it quickly chewed the candy. It then made high pitch noises, speaking a language that they did not understand. It reached out its hand and spoke more in this same language.

Cindy said, “I think it wants more.”

Hermey took another piece of candy from Cornelius and moved closer to hand it to the moggy.

After two or three quick crunches, the candy was swallowed, and the Moggy spoke again, reaching out its hand.

“Hermey followed this routine and gave it another piece, and quickly it was swallowed. This time, instead of handing out its hand for more, it began singing again.

After what seemed to be a complete song, the moggy curled up in a ball, and its light blue hair began to grow. The moggy rolled around in its little ball form, and as it rolled, its fur fell out all over the icy ground. This happened quickly, as the team could see the fresh fur grow back in and then fall out again. After many minutes of this, the moggy finally rolled to a stop. Its eyes appeared dizzy and tired. It looked around to the hundreds of small piles of blue fur all around the icy ground, and then it began to sing some more.

The song was a warming song, but it contained parts of it that were sorrowful and dejected. The melody then became quiet and slow.

Still.

The piles of fur twitched.

They sprung up from underneath.

But what came from under the blue was something different—something scaly.

The moggy’s song faded out with exhaustion as the furry creature stood with weary eyes. Its head turned slowly observing its new creation as the team watched in awe.

There was over a hundred gargoyle creatures with light blue skin but hairless as they stood on the piles of fur. They had bat like ears and wings with sharp teeth projecting from their strong lower jaws. They had yellow talons on their hands and toes made to grip. Saliva already foamed in the crevasses of their lips, and they looked eager for direction. They were the critters.

The moggy looked to Hermey for direction, and Hermey turned to Cindy: “Are you ready for this? It’s not going to be easy. I actually know it’s going to be difficult.”

Cindy exclaimed, “We came so far. We need to do this for Christmas Land and all the Christmas Cheer that it brings to the entire world!”

“Then, we march!” Hermey shouted with cheers of the team. They moved boldly with an army of critters behind them in militant formation. The group moved in unison around snowy hills making their path through untouched snow in the desolate land.

When they turned around a long hill, they finally saw Frost’s icy fortress. It was built into the side of a mighty mountain with protruding towers and exquisite detail in a gothic design style.

The army marched on until it stood in front of two giant doors. Hermey held his cane as Cindy stood confidently right behind him. Battie never looked so serious as he braced himself next to Pufflesoft who had his sword out and prepared for battle with his shield pushed forward. Cornelious brushed back one side of his mustache with one hand as he gripped onto his ice pick with the other. Mr. Grouch had both of his long arms ready for action with Maxey floating right by his side. And the moggy grinded his small teeth as the wind lightly blew his blue fur. It looked to the army of critters behind it that waited for an official attack command.

Hermey stepped forward and knocked with the end of his cane on the metal doors that were covered with a thin layer of ice.

Nothing happened.

He hollered out, “We have come for the bumbles, to bring them back safely to Christmas Land.”

The tall doors creaked open a little.

The team leaned forward in curiosity.

The doors then burst open throwing the team back as an army of shadow dwellers rushed through to attack.

The team spaced out their position, and the moggy gave the critters the command to attack as they jumped and flew with their bat wings, clawing and biting at the dark shadows.

The team fought too, each in their own way. Battie bounced into the air to flutter a brief moment and used his momentum to knock down shadow dwellers with the bottom of his box. Pufflesoft sliced to and fro with his blade and blocked any blows with his shield. Mr. Grouch swung his green, furry arms all around him, knocking down many of the shadows as Maxey bit violently at them. Cornelious swung his pick heavily down upon attacking shadows as they faded into the dark snow in defeat. Cindy kicked them off as Hermey flipped his cane through the air, knocking them down.

But the shadow dwellers continued to rush out of the giant doors of the fortress, and the team fought on.

The battled continued as the team grew tired.

And still, the shadow dwellers continued to come.

The moggy began singing a tune that hummed through the dim scene, encouraging the critters to press on with all their might. Although many fell, they fought the good fight.

Then there was silence.

The last shadow dweller had fallen.

The team and the critters searched the scene for any others, but there were none.

“Victory!” sat at the tip of their tongues.

Until the noise.

A hellish roar shook through the icy ground.

The team looked at each other in worry.

The ominous noise came again.

Cornelious said, “What in Sam’s hell is that?”

Battie answered, “Something that sounds not good—not good at all.”

Mr. Grouch stepped back and commented, “I hope it’s not what I think it is.”

Hermey asked, “And what is that?”

Pufflesoft ran in front of the team, “I’ll take on the menacing fiend. Get behind me.”

Another roar blasted through the large doors, and with it, a massive, red creature dipped down and raised back up from the doors. Horns split threw its red fur that was dyed with stains. Its bloodshot, yellow eyes peered at the team. With one wide swoop of its arm, he grabbed Pufflesoft and ripped him in half and through him at the team, knocking Battie down. A mixture of stuffing and blood fell out of the dismantled toy.

Cindy screamed, “No!” and Hermey pushed Cindy out of the way of the creature’s reach.

Hermey yelled to the moggy, “Get it!”

With one hand motion from the moggy, the army of critters ran and flew towards the red creature in a violent attack.

The team moved to the side carrying the remains of Pufflesoft. Mr. Grouch said, “Frost did it. He took the bumbles to not only stop a barrier but to create a monster to destroy Christmas Land.”

Studying the alteration Hermey could see how the monster was once a bumble. He said, “What if he did this to all the bumbles?”

“I don’t think so,” Cindy replied. “Why would Frost only send out one if he had more?”

Cornelious said, “Good point, from what I’ve heard about the guy, Frost doesn’t take risks. He would have tried to destroy us as quickly as possible.”

Battie said, “We need to destroy that monster! It shouldn’t get away with what it did to Pufflesoft.”

Mr. Grouch said, “And it won’t.” He looked to Maxey and said, “Stand back,” and he walked to the red monster fighting off the attacking critters. Many of the critters had already been lost as they lay fallen near the red monster path. The critters were dedicated but not powerful enough to take down such a monster.

Mr. Grouch yelled out, “It’s my turn!” The moggy gave a signal to the critters, and they flew back behind the moggy with heavy wounds.

The red monster’s deep yellow eyes looked into the yellow of Mr. Grouch’s.

Hermey said, “We need to stop him.”

“No, I think he knows what he’s doing,” Cindy said.

Chapter 17

The red fur creature examined Mr. Grouch as its yellow eyes squinted to a devious angle. The multiple horns protruding out of its fur appeared more menacing as its chest moved with anger. What was once a Christmas Land bumble had now been transformed into a depraved monster. It charged at Mr. Grouch, rumbling the ground beneath everyone, but instead of a green toy, another ferocious monster stood in front of him. And with a giant swing of his green arm, the red monster was sent flying back against the icy wall of Frost’s fortress.

Cindy quietly said, “You did it, Mr. Grouch. Good job, you did it.” And the team cheered for their powerful friend who had grown many times in size into a new creature.

The monster in red regained its sinister composure and jumped onto the green monster with its horns digging into the green monster’s thick fur. And the two continued, back and forth, as the others all watched in fright on the rumbling ground.

Cindy said to Hermey, “We might be able to sneak in now.”

The two monsters wrestled through the snow, and the two large doors were now clear to enter. Cindy and Hermey quickly snuck in and moved down a large corridor.

On each side of the high ceiling corridor, ice statues of characters stood on pillar mounts. Some were elves. Some were animals. Some were creatures that Cindy had never seen before. She whispered to Hermey, “What’s the point of all the ice statues?”

“Those aren’t regular statues. Each one of them was once alive but now sleep frozen.”

A chill moved down Cindy’s spine as the towering images saddened her with angry disgust.

The fortress was inordinate in design with much attention given to the smallest of detail of all the crystal ice that surrounded them.

They heard the sound of steps coming from the end of the corridor, and Hermey and Cindy rushed behind one of the frozen statues. Peeking around it, they could see three long rows of what appeared to be another kind of shadow dweller. But these ones seemed more tangible. The skull faces could easily be seen as strands of wet muscle stretched behind it. They wore over their hooded cloaks a form of metal armor covered in a thick leather. Frost had created a machine that made fleshy bodies that housed the shadow dwellers.

Hermey and Cindy moved from behind each frozen statue to the next to avoid being seen and snuck into the next room.

This room was a greeting area that contained more of a casual yet still formal appearance for greeting and entertaining guests. It contained high shelves with books, couches, tables, etc.

They quickly moved from that room to another, where they viewed a long table for dining with table settings already in place.

From room to room, they found that this fortress which was built into the side of a mountain was not only a safe haven in terms of battle but it was also a mansion of the most exquisite style of living.

Hermey said, “There has to be a dungeon somewhere with the bumbles in it.”

Cindy added, “Unless Frost already changed all of them into those hideous monsters.”

“Let’s sure hope not, Cindy. With that armored kind of shadow dweller out there and altered bumbles, I don’t know if we’ll win this one.”

Cindy said, “Even when it doesn’t seem possible, I still believe.” She smiled at Hermey, “Someone very special taught me that.”

Hermey embraced Cindy, and he said more quietly, “When I was in the Candy Cane Forest, I saw some things that I didn’t understand. The Candy Cane Forest does that to people. It’s a lucrative place that blends reality and the imaginary—the truth and the trickery.”

“What did you see?”

Hermey didn’t know how to say it: “For years there was a tale, a story that was supposed to come to life about a girl from your land that would save Christmas Land and another girl from the same land who would try to destroy it. I had been secretly tracking shadow dwellers, knowing that they would likely attempt to kill this girl before she could ever come here. I saw one go after you and that’s when I stepped in and first met you.”

“You mean, saved me,” she smiled.

“Cindy, how well did you know your father?”

“Why do you ask? Why is it important at all?” she seemed concerned.

“It’s likely not. But do you remember anything about him?”

“All I remember is him not being there. I really don’t know much at all about him. I mean, he supposedly loved me when I was a baby, but then he disappeared out of my life. So besides that, all I really know about him is his name.”

“And what was his name?”

“Nothing special at all—Jack.”

At that movement the sound of more marching steps came, and the two hid down a deep stairway.

Hermey seemed nervous and unsure.

Cindy asked, “How many shadow dwellers does Frost have?”

“Too many,” Hermey answered, leading her further down the stairs to a stonewalled dungeon. In there it was dark in the corners, and the walls were stone. Great iron shackles lingered on the ground. Massive cage areas were enclosed by walls of ice, but they were all empty, except one.

“One of the bumbles!” Cindy cried out.

They hurried over to the white snow creature. It was laying on the ground and could barely move its eyes to look at them.

Cindy cried out, “What did Frost do to you!” She hit the ice with her fist. “Come on, we got to get it out.”

She kept hitting the ice with the bottom of her closed fist. She said, “Hermey, I need your help.” But when she turned to look at Hermey, he was a frozen statue—solid ice.

The bumble closed its eyes in despair.

A voice moved from behind the newly frozen statue, and a man in a long white robe appeared wearing a glass-like crown over his thinning, white hair. He held a crystal wand in his hand that emitted a light fog from the its tip. His skin was pale—almost translucent. His body was thin. His nose was familiar—long and pointed.

Cindy’s hand moved up and touched her own nose. She stared more at this familiar stranger that had to be the infamous Frost, but he seemed human. He stood peacefully, not like an evil villain but like a … patient father.

In a grateful and passionate tone, he said, “Welcome home, Cindy.”

“Dad?”

“I’m terribly sorry I wasn’t there for all those years. I knew your grandmother would take care of you; she was always such a special person—so kind, even to me. But when she passed, I knew it was time for you to come home, so I sent one of my messengers.”

“You mean that shadow dweller that tried to kill me?” Cindy yelled with emotion.

“No, he was going to safely freeze you in a peaceful sleep and wake you when you were safely here with me, but this fool,” he pointed at the frozen statue of Hermey, “killed my messenger and carelessly took you off on some dangerous adventure.”

“Not true! You’re the dangerous one. I saw what you did to the bumbles. I see the condition of this one right here.”

“Cindy, the bumbles were monsters to begin with. They were never meant to be peaceful dog-like creatures. They were originally called the abominable snow monsters. I freed them from being forced to guard Christmas Land year after year. The only reason they attacked today is because the fortress was being attacked by your group. We had no plans of using them to hurt anyone. If anything, I freed them from being slaves to Captain Claus and made them more powerful than ever.”

“Then how about this one right here?” she pointed to the bumble in the ice cell.

“That one is sick. We have been trying to help it get better, which is why we haven’t helped it transform yet. Transforming it now while it’s sick would be too risky for its health, and believe it or not, I care about these creatures dearly.”

“How about Pufflesoft and Mr. Grouch? I bet you cared about them too, huh?”

“I’m assuming that you’re talking about the toy that was destroyed outside? They are toys, Cindy. Don’t let the magic of Christmas Land and the delusions of the Land of Unwanted Toys taint your reality. Toys they are.”

“Then how about you? I waited for you at my Christmas performance, and you never came. I wanted to see you, and you weren’t there. You were never there. You abandoned me, and I needed you.”

Frost moved closer to Cindy, and said sadly, “You are right. I wasn’t there. I was given the opportunity to come here and build this. I’m the king of the South Pole, but I didn’t build it for me; I did it for you. I want you to eventually take my place on the throne. I want to give it all to you. That has always been my plan.”

Cindy looked over to the frozen Hermey, and said, “How about him?”

“He’s perfectly protected in that frozen state. I can release him at any time.”

Cindy struggled to look at her father. He removed his white robe and was wearing light blue pants and a long collar neck shirt underneath that matched. He dropped the white robe on the ground, and said, “Cindy, I’ve spent all these years, so we would have something—a legacy. I didn’t want to someday die and leave you with nothing.”

Cindy cried out, “But I needed you then. Dad, I was so alone. You don’t know how alone I was.”

“I’m here now, Cindy, and I’m not going anywhere.” He reached out to Cindy, and she fell into his arms with falling tears.” He said to her, “I’m here, my daughter. I’m here.”

As she hugged her father, she thought she heard the sound of hooves trotting nearby. She looked up through her blurry vision and saw nothing.

Chapter 18

“I have something to give you,” Frost said, signaling for her to go towards an opening of the dungeon.

“How about Hermey?” Cindy asked.

“He will be fine as long as no one shatters him.”

“What happens if he is shattered?” She looked worried.

“Then he would be no more—gone forever, but that won’t happen. I’m in charge of this Fortress; I’m in charge of the entire South Pole. Now, please, let me give you something.”

Frost directed her through a door at the end of the long dungeon. They then moved up the stairs and passed through several other rooms. Each was guarded by shadow dwellers in fully housed armor, and Cindy nervously stared at each of them as she moved by. Cindy and Frost eventually came to two high doors that were solid crystal ice. They reflected a colorful spectrum of many light colors. Frost nodded to a shadow dweller servant who opened the door respectfully.

Down a long purple carpeted path stood the throne—a great chair of excellence with decorated crystal in every part of it, telling through pictures stories of times forgotten. Cindy followed her father to the throne.

“Please sit down,” he requested.

“What, on that?”

“Yes, my dear. You’ll only add to its beauty.”

Cindy apprehensively climbed up onto the throne room chair. Frost left her for a moment to return carrying a purple pillow with something laying on it. He said, “This is yours. It’s been here since before me, waiting for its future owner—waiting for you for all these years, just like me.”

Cindy moved back when she saw the sparkling tiara. It’s glass-like, crystal quality supernaturally glistened the colors of magic.

Frost continued, “It’s time for you to take your place.”

“I can’t do this. I can’t fight against my friends.”

“Then don’t.”

She asked inquisitively, “What?”

“I can stop it all at any moment.”

“Then do it.”

Frost nodded, “As you wish, my dear. Just follow me.”

Cindy followed him all the way out to where she first came in with Hermey. As soon as the two fighting sides were insight, Frost moved his wand, and everything froze to ice. Bumble, critter, toy, or shadow dweller … all was frozen.

Frost said, “Now there’s no more fighting.”

In shock, Cindy said, “You could have done that all along?”

“Yes, I could have; I am the king of the South Pole. And in time, maybe you will be able to as well. You see, Cindy, together, we can rule well with no fighting. We can change the perception of the South Pole. The shadow dwellers can eventually fully come to life and out of the darkness; they yearn to be whole again. But when I someday die, I need someone worthy to take over, and you are that person. I want to give it all to you.”

Cindy looked at the two sides frozen in ice. She thought about Pufflesoft. She looked at the sincerity in her father’s eyes. All of it explained why he had to leave her when she was so little. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t because he didn’t love her. It wasn’t because she had been replaced by someone or something else. He had ultimately gone off to provide her a future, and she felt it was only right to take it and to rule even better than him.

She smiled at her dad and said, “Thank you, Dad.”

She walked back through the fortress to the throne room where her father gently placed the tiara on Cindy’s golden hair. She smiled in gratitude and hugged him tightly.

“My beautiful princess,” he whispered to her as his eyes filled up with moisture. “What will our first order of business be?”

“First, we have to free Hermey. After explaining all of this to him, he’ll understand and help end the fight.”

Her father said, “As you wish, my dear.”

They walked together through the large fortress to the dungeon discussing plans and ideas that would make the South Pole a winter wonderland like the North Pole. As they stood before the frozen Hermey, Cindy said, “Dad, you have to meet him; he’s so nice. He’ll be glad to hear this plan.”

“Very well,” Frost said as he prepared his wand. With a quick move of his wand, the ice melted away, and Hermey came freshly to life.

Hermey stared at the tiara on Cindy’s head and then looked at Frost. His eyes widened with shock and quickly angled to anger. Hermey yelled, “Cindy, get back!” pushing her down to the side and charging at Frost. Frost pointed his crystal wand at Hermey, and Hermey pulled out his cane. A sharp strike from Hermey’s cane knocked Frost’s wand back towards himself but the magic had already begun to shoot forth, hitting himself instead of Hermey.

Cindy stood up to see her father frozen as an ice statue, Hermey said, “Now we end this.”

Cindy reached out to stop him, but before she could say a word, Hermey’s candy cane weapon swung through the ice statue, shattering Frost into a thousand broken pieces.

Cindy’s head fell to the ground, and Hermey asked, “Are you okay?”

She slowly stood up, walked over to the area of broken ice and stood staring down. She picked up her father’s wand and put on the white robe that he was wearing earlier when she first saw him. She turned to Hermey: “Why did you do that?”

“He was a monster, Cindy. That was Frost!”

She replied, “No, that was Jack. He was my father.”

“I’m so sorry, but he would have destroyed us all.”

Cindy yelled, “No, if he wanted to, he would have. He just wanted me.”

Hermey said again, “I’m sorry, Cindy. But we need to take the last remaining bumble and leave this place.”

“No. It was my father’s. You aren’t taking anything that belonged to him.”

“But what about the other frozen statues?”

She answered in a snap, “Not those either.” Her skin looked icy pale against the white robe. She continued, “You need to get the team and leave.”

“And you?” Hermey asked, not wanting to hear the answer.

Cindy looked into his strong eyes and wanted once against again to feel his kindness—his affection. She wanted to follow him—trust him. But the crown on her head weighed heavily and was a new weight to get used to. With all the hurt she ever felt and all the hurt she would feel from being alone, she pushed it all together and said three simple words: “I am home.”

Hermey’s hope broke before her, and he walked away, wanting nothing more than to turn back. As he left her, he heard her say, “Hermey.”

“Yes?” he quickly turned around.

“Why didn’t you ever have me call you Buddy like all your friends?”

“Because I never just wanted us to be friends.”

Cindy wanted his warm embrace, even if just for one more time, but the tiara weighed even more heavily upon her thin neck. She said against all her heart, “I guess just because two people feel something in their hearts doesn’t mean they’re supposed to be together.”

Hermey said, “I don’t believe that.”

Cindy’s skin looked paler now than it ever did before. She said, “I do, Buddy. Now go save your team and leave.” The muscles in her face fought to remain emotionless, and he respected the wish of the ice queen.

When he walked outside to the frozen armies, his team began to come back from their frozen state. He looked up to see Cindy waving her wand in rapid motions during this awakening. He announced that they had decided on a truce to leave with their lives, and so they did. Cornelious, Mr. Grouch, Maxey, Battie, the moggy, and Hermey all flew off on the skeleton sleigh with many surviving critters flying behind them. Mr. Grouch drove the reigns of the sleigh, and after explaining what had happened, Hermey just sat looking down from the sky.

Silent.

Night.

Already missing her.

And somewhere far away now, an ice queen sat upon her throne of the Kingdom of Shadow Servants and protected her monstrous bumbles.

Chapter 19

When everyone, minus Pufflesoft, was safely back home, Hermey went to tell Captain Claus of the failed journey.

Seeing the comforting lights of Christmas Land brought Hermey a moment of comfort, but his head quickly fell low again. He moved through the busy street of elves, animals, and other creatures working hurriedly before Christmas Eve. As he approached Captain Claus’ headquarters, he greeted a security elf, requesting to speak to the captain. Being a Highland elf, his request was promptly granted.

A half hour later sitting head down in his lap, Hermey finished telling the captain the entire adventure and formally apologized for his failure. He said, “I’m so sorry, Captain. I thought I could handle it all on my own. With my Highland training and experience … well, I failed. We still don’t have the bumbles, a toy was lost during the battle, and a human has turned to the side of the South Pole. I was for sure she was the one in the stories—the one who would save Christmas Land, but I was wrong.”

From leaning back in his large office chair, Captain Claus put down his pipe and moved forward. Hermey looked up to the captain. A deep, warm voice came out, “Oh, faithful Buddy. You were so right, but you just had the wrong girl.”

“Excuse me?” Hermey moved up.

“The old stories are true. They have come from the three ghosts of Christmas, but there is another who is to save Christmas Land, and she is already here. What you saw in the Candy Cane Forest was true too, although you didn’t want to believe it; Cindy was always supposed to take her father’s place, but another is supposed to save Christmas Land. Some of my top officers and I let you venture off with Cindy to distract Frost from possibly going after the one who is destined to save our land. Her name is Candy, and she is already here.” Sam the Snowman went into the Blandlands a little before you first brought Cindy here. He has been bringing Candy here for us to train her in all the ways of Christmas Land. Captain Claus called out, “Bernard, have Candy enter in now.”

The door to the captain’s office opened, and a beautiful young woman with golden, curly hair walked in. She was wearing a red turtle-neck shirt with green pants.

Captain Claus said, “Candy, this is Buddy. He has proven himself as a great protector, and he comes from a long line of noble Highland elves. I would like to appoint him to be your own personal guard, if he would accept the responsibility.”

Hermey said, “But sir, I already feel a great responsibility to—”

Captain Claus interrupted him, “Buddy, she’s already not the person you knew. She has accepted the throne. She wears the crown on her brow. There’s a dark and powerful magic that runs through and covers over the South Pole, and she is already a part of it. She is now the ice queen, and as the magic freezes through her blood like it did with her father, she will eventually seek out a way to destroy Christmas Land. But Candy here is the key to save it. I don’t know how, but I know the stories of old: ‘For one will destroy and one will save Christmas on a holiday.’”

The acceptance of this truth showed painfully on Hermey’s face, but with a deep breath, he stood up and looked a long moment at Candy. He finally spoke, “I accept.”

Chapter 20

Hermey and Candy walked out of Captain Claus’ headquarters together, and Candy said, “I just love it here. I wish this were my home. The lights make me feel warm inside, although I’m surrounded by snow. And the light music in the air of sleigh bells, it’s all mysteriously beautiful. I wish my parents could see all of this. My friend Cindy would love it here too.”

Hermey thought for a bit before he spoke: “What’s important is what you like. Do you really like it here?”

Candy paused for a moment and looked all around her. Small snowflakes fell on her curls. She reached out her arms, embracing the falling snow as her eyes settled upon Hermey. Locking into his eyes she smiled sincerely and said, “I love it here, Buddy.”

“You can call me, Hermey.”

“Hermey, I like that. Hermey the elf.” She leaned closer to his shoulder as they walked together down a paved street surrounded by little shops and buildings full of holiday cheer.

On the intercom of the area, a song played, echoing through the street: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year. There’ll be much mistoeing, and hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Think and to Live 

blog car

Austere seat belt rules seemed to be less meticulous back in the 80s as I loosened up the tight restriction from my waist to lay my head against the boxy side window of the backseat. The telephone pole lines seemed to sway up and down with foothills blurred behind them as the car drove steadily on the two-lane road 

The Game Boy hadn’t been invited yet, and only the rich had televisions in their cars. My parents sometimes had the radio playing oldies quietly in the background on that enduring drive from Derby Acers to Bakersfield and from Bakersfield back to Derby Acers. And simply sat in the backseat of our long, white car with maroon seats and Life Savors dried into the matching floor mats and stared out the window, attempting to avoid car sickness.  

But I really did so much more than just stare—I thought.  

I thought about everything a small child could possibly think about. I wondered if I could strain my eyes hard enough to faintly see the Statue of Liberty in the distance. I reflected on cartoons I recently watched. I debated with myself the possible birthday presents I might get months down the road. I revisited confusing feelings I had about that one special girl at school. I anticipated the next time my best friend would come over and how we would team up to fight off imaginary alien invaders or protect our castle from medieval soldiers and dragons. I analyzed the lyrics of the quietly played tunes and tried to make sense of what was being sung. I soaked in the notes and the melody and felt the music.  

I thought. 

Those long drives were some of the best gifts my parents ever gave me because they gave me so much more than a ride from one point to another; they gave me time—free time.  

Time to think. 

Time to live. 

There were no cell phones, email, or social media. Video games were only in 8-bit. And television was something watched with my mom and dad on the couch.  

There was time to play. There was time create. And there was plenty of time to think freely. 

All of those minutes of thinking added up to make me who I am today. 

Someone who thinks. 

I didn’t need programs and lessons on the practice of thinking. I didn’t need an educational mindfulness curriculum. I just needed time. 

I hope I can someday give my children the same gift in this technologically packed society of today. I hope they can sit back and watch the telephone pole lines sway in the sunset and observe the mountains around them. I hope they can ponder what is beyond our visible sight. I hope that they can be still and know that God is God. I hope they can learn to hear that still small voice through the deafening static of our society.   

I hope they can think so that they can truly live. 

 

The Worst Job, Temporarily

 

blog

My parents always had to work jobs in high school, so they missed out on the many common high school activities that are normally associated with the typical, American, high school experience. They made the most out of it with each other, marrying instead of graduating and starting a family a few years later.

They wanted my sister and me to have a different high school experience. As long as we were involved in school activities and earning good grades, we didn’t have to get jobs. Thus high school, for me, was some of the best years of my life, full of new experiences, unfamiliar adventures, and social challenges.

The summer after I graduated high school, my parents informed me that it was time to get a job. And when you’re an 18-year-old with no previous job experience and no employment connections, you don’t get to be picky.

I spent the early days of my summer as a high school graduate driving around in the increasing heat in a long sleeve dress shirt and tie, dropping off resumes at any and every place that looked tolerable.

I recalled my nanny and papa telling me how my dad used to make the best pizzas when he was a teenager working at a pizza parlor when dating my mom. He would bring them over on the nights he closed after loading up the pizzas with the best combination of cheese and toppings.

I can still hear my nanny say, “Best pizza I ever ate!” as she sat on his couch reminiscing back to the past as my papa nodded in agreement.

Following in my father’s footsteps, I drove to a pizza parlor near my house. After introducing myself to the manager and asking about employment, I was turned away with the common “We’re not hiring right now.”

After a few days of more rejections all around town, I decided to go back to the pizza parlor again to ask if they were hiring now. This time the manager said, “We’re not hiring right now but maybe later.”

A few more days went by with no luck on my job hunt, so I went back to the pizza parlor again. This time the manager asked, “Why do you want to work here so bad?”

I explained I thought it would be a neat job. And that’s how I got my first job. Or that’s how I got the worst job I ever had in my life.

I learned quickly that my dreamy idea of making pizzas while cracking innocent jokes with a new community of friendly faces was far from reality.

I was the joke.

The workers there were not what I would describe as people of high character, and I didn’t belong.

And they knew it.

And they wanted to make sure I knew it.

I seldom heard my name without profanity attached to it, and I was yelled at for questioning their disagreeable procedures, such as making salads with their bare hands directly after handling money and crushing the ice down with their foot when too much was placed into the soft drink ice machine tray. One of their favorite moments was when some kids set off a cherry bomb in the toilet, and they laughed hysterically as they watched me mop off the filth from the walls and ceiling.

The real humbling moment was when I saw my high school ex-girlfriend walk in holding hands with one of my old friends. I had heard that they were dating, but the moment of humility was when they saw me and uncontrollability let out a slight laugh of shock. My post high school life looked dim and lame as I stood there in a cheaply printed pizza parlor t-shirt with one of my managers staring down at me from the oven, looking for a reason to criticize me. When they had finished eating their pizza, my manager quickly yelled at me to clean up their mess as they were still walking out the door.

Now you might think one of the advantages of working at a pizza parlor would be getting free pizza every now and then. Not for me. I was allowed to buy pizza at a small discount, and when making minimum wage, I wasn’t about to spend an hour and a half of my wages on a pizza. During hungry evenings there was a real temptation to sneak a bite from unfinished pizzas left on tables. Being a rule follower, I would throw away half eaten pizzas that were still warm from the oven and leave work hungry.

It wasn’t long until I found a better job working at the bookstore on my university’s campus, which really was a breath of fresh air. My managers there appreciated my hard work and even rewarded it by increasing my responsibilities. I made friends there and got to meet many of the university’s professors before classes began. Plus, I enjoy books far more than pizza.

Eventually, the fall came, and a very special moment of my life happened.

I arrived on my university’s campus to be early on that first day of college, and as I stepped onto the white sidewalk and strolled over freshly cut green grass still wet from the morning’s dew, I took in a deep breath and exhaled in victory knowing that I had made it farther than anyone in my family.

I was a university student.

I was going to be the first in my entire family to graduate college.

And I did, and now I have a wonderful job.

The worst job was only temporary. And that’s something to remember when God has us walk through the valleys in lifeor through the pizza parlors.

It’s only temporary.

Even the good career I have now is only temporary.

It’s all only temporary.

This is why our focus should not be on what can be seen around us, for all of this is only temporary. Our focus should be on the things that are not seen, for those things are eternal.

Underarm Deodorant

Old Woman

Not everyone is lucky enough to know their great-grandmother, but I was. Grandma Patterson is what we called her. From Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, she and my great-grandfather brought their many children over to California for a better life. She spent her time working in the laborious fields and raising her 10 children.

When I knew her, she was already old. She wore her hair pulled back tightly into a brown bun that rested on the back of her head. She mostly wore long straight dresses that hung like giant t-shirts. She was overweight some, and she hunched over when she walked.

And her eye vision was failing.

Back then, people didn’t always wear sunglasses when working outside in the fields, and a lifetime of abuse from the unforgiving sun did a number on my Grandma Patterson.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was chubby with an acne covered face and a mouth full of metal. My undiagnosed OCD caused me to slick my hair straight down with a perfect part so not a single hair would ever dare go out of place. I was extremely shy, awkward, and my best friends went by the names of Nintendo and Sega. Needless to say, I didn’t have girls chasing after me, and I didn’t blame them.

For Christmas that year, I remember unwrapping a Christmas present from Grandma Patterson. I think it was the last one I ever remember receiving from her. It was a green bottle of spray deodorant.

Yes, underarm deodorant.

I opened it up not knowing how to react. I was still at the young age when body odor didn’t exist, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I forced out a “Thank you!” with a decent smile.

My great-grandma stood up and walked over to me hunched over. She leaned in close to me and said, “You spray a little of that here and there, and you’ll have to fight those little girlies off of you.” She motioned like she was spraying it on both sides of my neck.

It then made sense to me and my observing parents that my Grandma Patterson thought she bought me spray cologne. Like I said earlier, her eyesight was failing.

Not too long later, I visited her with my family, and she said to me, “Terry, I bet all those little girlies are after you now, aren’t they?”

I answered awkwardly, “I don’t know.”

She continued, “Well, this is what you do. You need to get yourself a baseball bat in one hand and a croquet stick in the other, so when the girlies come after you on the right, you can knock them off with the left, and when they come after you on the left, you can knock them off with the right.”

I thought she really must not be able to see the dorky looking kid standing right in front of her; the girls at my school didn’t want anything to do with me.

On our way home that night, I silently chuckled in the backseat of our family minivan. And after thinking about it some more, it was nice to have someone see something in me I didn’t see in myself, even if that person was going blind. It was encouraging that she saw something in me that she thought others would find attractive.

A few years later, my acne cleared up, my braces were taken off, and my hair hung more loosely and naturally as it grew out in a blond, suffer style. I lost weight and spent time outside swimming in my family’s new pool as my skin darkened into a healthy shade. With my newly gained confidence, I traded in my timid shyness for a gregarious, extroverted personality.

And the girlies started to chase after me.

My Grandma Patterson didn’t get to see me graduate high school or college. She didn’t live that long. But she didn’t need to see those events because even with her blind eyes, she saw me—the real me.

I pray to be a little more like her and see others not with my eyes but with something more. I hope to see their future possibilities. I desire to be a builder of people and error on the side of encouragement.

There’s already enough honest evaluation. There’s enough tough love. Even after the silly self-esteem movement in the 1980s and this crazy post-modern society we live in now, we still need people to see in us what isn’t there yet.

We all need a Grandma Patterson who will give us our own underarm deodorant.

Boom, Lights, and Revival

Fireworks

My young parents sat on a quilted blanket stretched out over fresh grass as we waited for the heavens and the earth to kiss. I was around five or six, wearing a red striped shirt and shorts.

Blond hair and blue eyes—the American kid of the eighties.

We were at the local baseball field of our small town waiting for the boom with other local families sitting in little patches on the grass.

I remember specifically that we were on part of the incline of the field where it was a little easier to watch the sky.

A star twinkled—two then ten.

And then came the boom.

The dim summer sky lit up in bright showers of color, and my parents looked down to watch my excitement.

I moved down to a prone position as I pretended to be a solider shooting down UFOs out of the sky who were invading our planet. Every time I shot my make-believe gun, an invisible UFO exploded and trickled down in burning pieces.

The sound and the colors paired with my imagination seemed more real than any 8-bit video game of the day.

Around 10 years later, learning a little more about American history and life in general, those fireworks still captured my attention, but I no longer shot down UFOs. Sitting outside, I closed my eyes and just listened to the sound of the boom move the ground beneath me as the bright lights flashed through my eye lids.

I imagined what it would have been like in that historical Revolutionary War knowing that each boom was most likely a life taken. I thought about the other wars too. All those soldiers who listened to the boom in a threatening manner. The ones fighting for what they believed was right. And the ones whose last sound they ever heard was that ominous boom.

I know the Fourth of July is a time to celebrate our freedom, but it’s difficult for me not to meditate for a moment on the people who once fought under those bright lights. Those who gave their all.

America is changing and sadly, those who sacrificed so much are being forgotten, but that doesn’t negate what God has done through this great land. Obviously, there has been some bad since it’s a land full of humans, but the story of us is one about God doing extraordinary things through people who didn’t really have a chance. Then he used those people to help others even though they weren’t perfect.

Does that sound familiar?

America today doesn’t look the same as it did 30 years ago, and it won’t look the same 30 years from now, but it’s still our story, and if we can bless others with our blessings and lead a confused and hurting nation back to the simple message of Jesus, it will have a good ending.

Historically, revival doesn’t begin with preaching but prayer.

Powerful, passionate, and patient prayer by God’s people.

From the Reformation to the First and Second Great Awakening to the Prayer Meeting Revival to the Camp Meetings to the Azusa Street Revival to the Jesus Freak Revival, and now to today, there is hope.

It’s time for this country to come back together, and politics will not accomplish that task, but Jesus can.

In John 17:21 (ESV), Jesus is recorded praying for us—the believers then and the believers now. He said to the father, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

We have a mighty responsibility in this country that should flow out to the entire world. In our worship to God, we are to spread his love and light to the lost and confused so that no one is alone and all are apart of the family of God. And through the propitiation of Christ, we can experience true freedom now and forever.

As we sit under those exploding lights of red, white, and blue and feel that boom rumble the ground beneath us, let’s silently pray as passionately as the poets and as bold as the beasts that God’s Holy Spirit will change this land by bringing the souls of this country in allegiance to him.

Greater Things than These

Return of the Jedi hit theaters in May of 1983 when I was two years old. Not too many people remember much about being two. I don’t either, but I do remember when my great grandfather died—sort of.

I remember driving home with my mom and nanny after his funeral in Bakersfield sitting in the back seat of the small car. I remember my nanny saying to my mom who was driving, “He really wasn’t all that great of a daddy” as her eyes were wet with grief.

Being so young, I was confused. I didn’t understand why she was crying if he hadn’t been a good daddy; my child size capacity of thinking was very limited.

I also remember my mother holding me as we looked at the open land in Derby Acers where our mobile home was going to be placed. We had been living in a trailer a few blocks away for almost a year. I felt her excitement about moving into a new home and that made me excited too. I wanted her to put me down, so I could explore the wide, empty lot, but she said she had to hold me because there might be nails on the ground.

Out of all the things I could possibly remember at two, those are my main memories.

And there’s one more thing: Star Wars.

I remember sitting in a small movie theater with my parents in Taft watching Return of the Jedi. It’s where I first witnessed Ewoks fighting Stormtroppers on the planet of Endor. I can still recall where the theater was located.

Over 30 years later, I went back to that same place with my wife and looked at the building where I remembered the theater once was, and sure enough, we could see how the old building used to be a small theater. This was support for me that my memory was accurate.

Along with many of the totally rad kids who grew up in the 80s, Star Wars was my thing. There was He-Man, Ghostbusters, ThunderCats, Transformers, and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but Star Wars stood above them all, maybe because it was a live action film instead of a cartoon, or maybe because it was just epic.

I can’t count how many times I acted out each adventurous scene in my childhood. I can still picture myself in my front yard walking to the end of an imaginary plank as Jabba waits for me to jump to my death. I nod to Lando and then signal to R2-D2 before I lever myself off the plank into a flip as I catch my lightsaber from R2 and save the day.

It was clear how Luke Skywalker was able to do all that he did—the force.

Being newly married, my wife and I drove out to Taft to watch The Last Jedi when it came out; it was sort of a trip down memory lane. We watched it in the ancient Fox Theater, the largest and now only theater in Taft.

The main theater screen has a classic early 20th century style to it with a velvety blue, oval shape ceiling that gently glows with mysterious lighting. The seats are small, the carpet is patterned, and the screen is on a stage with red curtains folded to the sides.

The reviews of the new Star Wars film were critical, specifically relating to how the force was used by the iconic characters. Recurring social media comments questioned how the force was used differently than in the original three movies. I was bothered by this too at first until I read a comment that explained how the force didn’t operate by a set of systematic formulas, and just because we didn’t see the force displayed in particular ways in the original movies doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the newer ones.

The force can be used differently by different people at different times in different situations, and yes, even in different movies.

Now I know the force isn’t meant to represent the Holy Spirit; George Lucas is not C.S. Lewis by any means. At times, we may in our own minds limit the Holy Spirit to only what we read in Acts. But keeping the Bible as the foundation, let’s be open to all the greater things than these moments the Holy Spirit is capably of doing.

Let’s not put God in a box.

Let’s not create formulas to attempt to predict his actions.

He’s so much bigger than us.

He’s not limited to the past.

And just how the use of the force in The Last Jedi surprised its audience, God can still surprise his followers today with how he uses his Holy Spirit.

We can’t even imagine the great things he can still do with us—greater things than these.

The First Guitar

I was wearing a vertically striped, white collar neck shirt tucked into white baggy jeans, hair sprayed into the perfect position that Vanilla Ice would have been proud of, with shiny braces and blue rubber bands around them on my teeth. It was the mid-90s, and I was a complete dork, but I oddly fit in with all my awkward friends in junior high.

I had just arrived with my family at my nanny and papa’s house, and they were showing us their prized purchases from yard sales that morning. My papa could really wheel and deal at yard sales, making permanent purchasing decisions over mere nickels.

This time he had purchased a red electric guitar with an amp that was almost as tall as me. He couldn’t really play it, but he thought about learning. He gently put the worn strap on over his shoulder and meticulously adjusted the amp’s silver knobs to a safe volume before he sat down to pluck out a few random notes on the higher strings.

Then he told me to try, and of course, I did—eagerly. I held the guitar in my lap and accidentally strummed the strings too hard as my entire family jumped a little from the powerful amp. I gave the guitar back to my papa.

Once the yard sale treasures were no longer the topic of conversation, I put on the retro red and sneaked away into the kitchen. I loosened the strap, so the guitar rested against my lower hip, and I looked into the reflection of my grandparent’s glass refrigerator.

There I was with such an instrument of awe. I liked how it looked on me. I liked how I felt holding it.

The guitar would eventually become the vehicle that would take me to many different stages in various bands up and down California and allow me to be a very small part of local rock’n roll history—the part that people enjoyed but seldom remembered after the bands’ stickers peeled off, t-shirts faded, and CDs became obsolete.

It would bring together different young personalities to form unique lifelong friendships and sacred memories between band mates and groupies.

It would be the tool that aided in countless private worship sessions in a teenager’s bedroom, attended only by a melancholy boy confused by a changing world as invisible angels observed quietly.

And as that boy grew, it would be the instrument that helped lead many different groups of people in holy songs until the Lord.

My nanny walked into the kitchen and saw me standing in the reflection. “You like the guitar?”

With wide open eyes and a mouth too excited to fully articulate an answer, I just said, “Yeah, I do” in a simple nod.

When my junior high graduation approached, my mom asked me what I wanted as a graduation gift. Of course, I told her a guitar.

Now that was an expensive gift for a young teenager to ask for, but my mom drove me all around town researching different guitars and prices and eventually found one used in the newspaper with a case and small amp included. It was in excellent condition and red like my papa’s.

That summer I was planning to get ahead and take a math class in summer school, but I ended up quitting halfway. I spent the rest of my summer watching Green Day, Deftones, and Collective Soul music videos on MTV, trying my best to mimic their blurry fingers flow up and down the guitar neck. My papa took me once a week in the evening to some beginning guitar lessons at the local music store.

Although my parents so selflessly bought me my first guitar and my grandparents generously paid for beginning lessons, I see music as a graceful gift from the Lord.

It’s a gift that creates a special connection with people—such a connection that it’s even used as a way to worship God.

It’s meant to be personal, authentic, raw—from the heart.

Play it passionately.

Listen to it fervently .

Sing it from within.

Use music, and use it well; it’s a gift.