by Janna Hopper
Photo/Clip Art: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1q7BeUVobKxD_K1wvboSzlfMCZb2dzWAb_ts9iDbtSiE/edit?disco=AAAAlC8RXo8
“Tinsel! Where in the bottom of St. Nick’s cuppa cocoa is your hat?” I wince apprehensively and stop in front of Jolly’s (my boss) office. I don’t know who named him Jolly, but I would count it as a mistake. His thick eyebrows and perpetual frown have never made him come across as the friendly type. It sure doesn’t help that he always seems to catch me with my hat off.
“I uh- I lost it, sir,” I lie. Truth is, I can’t stand the way the scratchy wool never fits over my ears properly and the stupid bell on the end never stops ringing. I hope the mice under the cupboard enjoy their new sleeping bag.
“Lost it? Again?”
“Fine, fine. I really don’t have time for this anyhow,” he grumbles, waving his hand at me dismissively. I really should take my cue and scurry on out of here before he changes his mind. But spending the rest of the day at my cubicle answering calls about Amazon delays isn’t all that enticing.
“Is something wrong, sir?” I pry innocently. Jolly glares up at me from his desk. Then he sighs and rubs his temples, looking worn out.
“Have you ever done any field work, Tinsel?”
“Yes, sir.” He nods slowly as the memory surfaces.
“That’s right… you were a shelf elf once, correct?”
“Yes, sir,” I agree nervously, shuffling my feet. He watches me for a few more moments before tossing me a bundle of papers.
“Good. I need you to report to mission control. One of our field agents needs backup, but everyone else is occupied with Christmas coming up so soon. Go on now, make yourself useful. Or I will have to report you for your missing hat again.”
“Thank you, sir!” I clutch the bundle of papers and rush down the halls towards mission control. A few of the other elves give me odd looks, but everyone is so frantic with preparations that no one can be bothered to stop and ask me what is happening.
At last I make it into the control room. I have missed this place. Its shimmering glass pipes transporting letters from here to there, brass machinery whirring away. Polished mahogany floors and skylights high in the ceiling. Elves work at stations all over the room, rushing about to share notes and request assistance. I used to work here. Spend my time watching for updates and then grab my suit and rush out the moment I was needed. Of course, that was before the whole incident.
“Tinsel? Is that you?” The incredulous voice comes from my left and I turn to face Carol, my old partner that would relay me information from here in mission control.
“Hey, Carol,” I greet, feeling a little shy and awkward being back here again. She doesn’t seem to care, as she rushes over and yanks me into a hug.
“I’ve missed you so much!”
“Careful,” I gasp. “You might rip the papers.” She pulls away and I offer up the bundle Jolly gave me. Carol opens and quickly reads it. By the time she is finished, her eyes are wide.
“This is serious,” she remarks. She grabs my hand and pulls me toward the far end of the room. A few heads turn our way, one in particular that I had been hoping to avoid. The hunking idiot by the name of Fruitcake. Just like that traditional food, he is hard to deal with and never seems to go away.
“Hey, babe! Miss me much?” Fuming, I try to turn around and face him, likely with my fists. Only Carol’s gentle hand stops me.
“Easy there, redhead. Fruitcake is trying to get you to react, remember? He still hasn’t got it through to his head that we control girls would rather deck him than have a chat over cocoa.”
“I’m not a control girl anymore,” I murmur. Carol places a hand on my shoulder and smiles.
“Don’t be silly, Tinsel. Once a field agent, always a field agent. That’s just how it is.” I grin and follow Carol to the pods, ignoring Fruitcake’s remarks about girls in the workplace. How he ever managed to get hired in the workshop is beyond me.
As I change into a suit and put on the proper gear, Carol prepares the pod and explains the mission to me.
“An agent named Jingle reported having a bit of trouble with his host family a few days back. Since then, he has dropped off the grid. We need you to go in and see what has happened, getting him out of there if you have to. Be on the lookout, though. I hear that part of the problem he was having is that the kids in this house are quite grabby. You don’t want the humans to touch you. Though I don’t have to remind you about that, do I?”
“I haven’t completely lost my touch,” I laugh. Carol helps me get my communicator connected and double checks that it is working. Then I am ready to go, black belt packed with gadgets and the pod fueled with its destination set.
“Good luck,” Carol tells me as she gives me one last hug. “Ring me up the moment you need something, okay?”
“Okay.” She steps back and the door to the pod slides closed. I strap myself into its singular seat and hold on tight as it launches into the air. I feel it picking up speed, flying higher and higher into the air, before the elven techno-magic kicks in. With a hiss, the door opens once again and allows me to jump into the cold night above a sleeping neighborhood. I love travel magic. Imagine having to sit through the seven hour flight needed to get here from the north pole!
The cold air stings my face as I fall, limbs spread to slow my descent. I locate the house I have been directed to and pull my parachute when I am over it. With a gentle bump, I land on the window sill and peer in through the glass as I clean up my chute. A large Christmas tree is situated in the corner of the living room. The house is glowing softly with cheerful lights and little paper snowflakes hang from the ceiling.
I pull a small, snowflake shaped disk from my belt. Attaching it to the window, I lean forward and whisper the password into its tiny microphone.
“Snow light, snow bright, let me in this house tonight.” The device shimmers and lets out a pulse. The glass ripples and I quickly step through like it is made of water. Once inside, I deactivate the disk and it falls from the window, giving me just enough time to grab it before the glass returns to normal.
I turn and scan the living room for possible problems. There is a cat tree in one corner, but blessedly no dog bed or toys. A bookshelf nearby holds lots of picture frames and bobbles. I am just about to jump to the ground and go searching for our missing elf when I hear a noise.
“Psst! Hey! Over here!” Peeking out from behind a picture of a family with three young kids is an elf wearing the classic red suit of a shelf elf. He waves at me and I use a grappling hook to quickly join him on the shelf.
“Agent Jingle?” I whisper. He nods vigorously, glancing around the room like he is worried about being caught.
“I’m ag- er. Tinsel.”
“Not an agent?” He looks at me curiously.
“I was an agent, at one point. But that’s not important. Why haven’t you been checking in? HQ is getting worried and mission control is in a panic because all the other agents are on assignment.”
“Oh yeah.” Jingle suddenly looks nervous, fearful even. “I’ve been trying to put myself in harder to reach places where the kids can’t reach me. No matter how many times their parents tell them not to, they keep trying. So I was high up on a shelf a few mornings ago. The oldest kid found me pretty quick and started trying to get me. The next youngest told him to stop and they got into a fight. They bumped the shelf and because they were so close, I couldn’t move, and… well…” It is then that I notice the bandage wrapped around his right leg. He reaches into a pocket and shows me the shattered remains of his communicator with a strained smile.
“I’m so sorry…” I murmur. His only response is a shrug. “I’ll go call this in, alright?” I walk a little ways away and lean against a dusty photo album while Jingle keeps watch. I use my communicator to reach Carol and she picks up after only a minute or so.
“Everything okay, Tin?”
“I’ve found Jingle. You were right, the kids here play rough. His communications equipment is broken and he’s been injured.”
“Then the two of you need to get back to HQ.”
“How should we do that?”
“I can have a pod sent your way. Should arrive in about a half hour or so.”
“Understood.” After cutting the transmission, I turn and walk back over to Jingle. “Mission control is sending transport our way. We shouldn’t have to wait for long.” I sit down next to him with a sigh, observing the quiet house.
“So Tinsel… how is it that you were once an agent? What happened?” I consider not answering his question. But it’s hardly a secret and he seems to be genuinely curious about it.
“I was a field agent assigned to a family of four,” I begin softly. “I know we are not supposed to get attached, but I loved those kids. They were so sweet and careful around me. However, they had an older cousin who wasn’t nearly so good. She came to visit a week before Christmas. She kept taunting them for believing that I was real, kept trying to destroy their Christmas spirit. Then one day she tried to grab me to prove her point. They did their best to protect me, but she was much older than them. And I did the one thing a field agent is never supposed to do.”
“You moved,” Jingle whispered, sounding somewhat awed.
“I couldn’t let her break their hearts like that. So yes, I moved when they could see. Not only to avoid the cousin, but so they would still believe. We didn’t have the same tech as we do now; there was no way to fix it. I went back to HQ that Christmas and was placed in a cubicle almost straight away.”
“I can’t even imagine.”
“It wasn’t ideal.” I turn and smile at him. “But it was worth it.” He is about to respond when we are interrupted by a new voice entering the room.
“Mr. Elfyyy! Where aaaaare youuuuu?” Comes a sing-song whisper as a small figure appears before the shelf. Jingle goes pale, moving as far from the edge of the shelf as quietly as he possibly can. The kid keeps searching, trying to coax Jingle out of hiding.
I check my watch. We still have a good ten minutes before our pod arrives. And we need to get outside to meet it. I silently walk over and help Jingle to his feet, lending my support as best I can. We make it to the far side of the bookshelf nearest to the window. From there, it would be a simple matter of using my grappling hook again to swing us over to the window sill. If not for the kid still searching the room.
I wait for as long as I can, until the kid is far enough away. I pull out my grappling hook and take aim. Before I can pull the trigger, a clatter comes from behind us. The kid is back by the bookshelf, knocking photos out of the way in search of us. We back as far into the corner as we can. It isn’t enough. The kid is getting closer.
“Seven minutes until pod arrival,” a soft mechanical voice warns in my ear. Time to stop thinking and start acting. I press my grappling hook into Jingle’s hand. Then I run a few steps and roll away from his position. Just as I had hoped, the kid notices the movement and turns towards me instead. Grubby fingers search for me around the frame I crouch behind. Taking careful aim, I throw my snowflake-like device as hard as I can. It hits the window perfectly and emits its silent pulse.
Jingle looks at the window, then turns back to me. I gesture frantically for him to get out of here, but he shakes his head, refusing to leave. I huff with frustration and try to come up with a plan of action when the kids fingers finally brush against my arm.
The whole thing about elve’s losing their magic if you touch them is a myth. We don’t personally have magic, just a bunch of highly advanced technology (though we do borrow Christmas magic sometimes; don’t even get me started on the reindeer). Something does happen when we are touched by humans, though. We suddenly go limp, unable to move. I don’t know why, probably some ancient defense mechanism from the days before we worked for Santa Claus. So the moment the kid touches me, I collapse into a heap. No matter how I struggle, I can’t move as the kid reaches out to pull me from my hiding place.
“Tinsel!” I hear Jingle shout. Then something runs into me from behind. Jingle and I collide with the frame that has been hiding me and go flying off the edge of the shelf. An arm wraps around me with an iron grip and with a jolt we are zipping up towards the window on the cable of my grappling hook. Our landing on the window sill is far less graceful, more of a crash than a landing really. By now the kid is watching us in shocked silence with wide eyes.
“Second pouch from the left,” I manage to rasp, still unable to move. Jingle, understanding what I mean, reaches into my belt and pulls out a small orb. He swiftly pushes the red button on the top and tosses it into the room. A glittering golden gas spews from it. I hold my breath as he scoops me up and hobbles through the shimmering window. He even remembers to grab the small disk afterwards.
“Well that was eventful,” Jingle remarks as we watch the gas fill the room. It will clear after a minute or two and the kid will remember nothing from the past ten minutes. If only this had been invented back when I was in the field.
“Most fun I’ve had in a while,” I laugh, the feeling starting to return to my fingers. Jingle props me up against the window and then sits down next to me. We stare up at the sky as a dark pod falls towards us, ready to take us home.
“You handled yourself well in there,” he compliments. I smile brightly and he grins back.
“Thanks. I’ve missed this.”
“Well. This mission was such a success. Maybe we can fix that.”
“You think?” I question breathlessly.
“You fearlessly threw yourself into the fray to save a wounded agent. I couldn’t think of anyone better to be on the force, Tinsel.” I don’t know what to say as the door to the pod opens. When he helps me to my feet, I don’t know who is supporting whom as we stumble into the transport. Belatedly, I turn my communicator back on.
“All ready and aboard, Carol.”
“Good work, Tin. Everything go smoothly?” I glance over at Jingle and exchange a smile.
“Wonderful. Hold on to your hats, guys! Time to get the two of you home.”