“But Once a Year”

This holiday-themed tale was written sometime around spring 2004. I can’t remember exactly what suggested the idea to me, but it was one of those instances where the story nearly wrote itself in a day or two (or maybe just a few hours). It’s an example of what one might call “Christmas Gothic,” of which the greatest innovator (other than perhaps Charles Dickens) is Tim Burton.

The story is quite short, so I’ve reproduced the complete text here.

The old man sat in the reception room. He wore a red wool suit, trimmed with white.
The room was unbearably warm. The man had taken off his cap and was fidgeting with it nervously, wiping it across his greasy brow. A plate glass window was set in the far wall, but no one was sitting at the desk.

Half an hour passed; then an hour. Still no movement behind the desk. The old man dripped with sweat, and his cap was a twisted mess.

“Mr. Claus.”

The old man leapt up in terror, slipped and fell, knocking his head against a coffee table.

“If you’re not unconscious, Mr. Claus,” crackled a voice from hidden speakers, “please step through the door to your right. You know the way.” On cue, the door had creaked open–apparently of its own accord.

Rubbing his bruised temple and cursing, the old man perched the mangled cap on his head, took a deep breath, and walked through the door.


Claus moved slowly down the hall. He was taking his time…delaying the inevitable.

The hall was gray and narrow. Countless doors loomed along both sides. All were unadorned. Other than the silver doorknobs and the faint shadows cast by the doorjambs, there was nothing to relieve the endless corridor of gray.

“Thirty-three,” Claus mumbled, his eyes following the doors on the left. “Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six…thirty seven.”

Claus hesitated, panting. He wasn’t in the best shape of his life. He waited until he had his breath back, then opened the door.

The room was just large enough to avoid being a closet. Like the hall, its walls were a cloudy gray, as if its designers had no interest in–or awareness of–aesthetic appeal.

Behind the bare gray desk sat a…thing.

It wasn’t a man. Most of what was visible above the desk seemed to be the creature’s elongated head, which ended in a snout and a tangle of jagged teeth. Its skin was rough and scaly, and of a vaguely turquoise hue. Its eyes were bulbous and black.

Below the reptilian folds of the neck was a grotesque approximation of a business suit. The creature’s thin, clawed hands were folded neatly on the desk.

“Ah, Mr. Claus.” The voice was oddly smooth, almost unnatural. “Is it that time of year already?”

“Mr. Zaker,” Claus said. He pulled his cap off his head and gave a little bow. The temperature was still much too warm. Claus was used to a colder climate. He could feel drops of sweat sliding down his back.

“Please, have a seat,” said Zaker, gesturing to a chair in front of the desk.

Claus sat. He avoided meeting the creature’s blank, insect-like stare.

“And how are the”–Zaker used a word unpronounceable by humans–“holding up? What is it you call them? Rander?”

“Reindeer,” said Claus.

“Ah yes, reindeer,” Zaker said. “And how are the little darlings? Still fast enough for you? We could cycle a few of them out, if you need new ones.”

“No, they’re fine,” Claus said. “No, uh, no problems.”

“And the ship?” Zaker asked. “Still running? It must be, since you’re here. How have you found the new atmospheric bubble shield? It’s a much better design than the last one–as I’m sure you’ll agree. There shouldn’t be any more unpleasant incidents.”

Claus nodded. He was again mangling his cap.

“Are you all right, Claus?” Zaker asked. He raised a clawed hand. “You look unwell. I could call a medic to come take a look at you…”

“No!” Claus cried. “No, I’m fine. No need for that. Please.”

“Very well,” Zaker said. “Then perhaps we should get down to business. You have the goods, I hope?”

“Yes,” said Claus. “In the sleigh.”

“Excellent,” said Zaker. “The merchants have been absolutely screaming for this shipment. Demand has gone up since your shipments started getting lighter, you know.”

“I know,” Claus murmured.

“In fact,” said Zaker, pulling a long sheet of paper from somewhere beneath the desk, “your shipments have been getting progressively smaller over the last thirty years. Why is that, Mr. Claus?

“Our studies show your planet’s population has exploded in the last fifty years. The goods should be abundant. Yet your shipments have declined over the last decade. Why, Claus?”

“I’ve told you,” Claus whispered. “Times change…it’s not so easy now, to–”

Zaker slammed a clawed fist into the desk. Claus screamed and jumped behind his chair, cowering.

“Our deal is an old one, Claus,” said Zaker. “But that does not mean you are free to gradually renege on your part of it.”

Zaker stood and rounded on Claus. His body was thin in relation to his huge head, but the suit went all the way down to a pair of patent-leather shoes. He looked like a humanoid caricature of an alligator.

“We saved you, Claus,” said Zaker. “You were a dying wretch when we found you, living off your own race like a parasite. We healed you, and opened your eyes to things never conceived of by human imagination. We gave you everything. Technology far beyond that of your current civilization. Tireless alien workers and the means to produce massive quantities of product in no time at all — with little overhead. We gave you a ship, and creatures to pilot it properly. We gave you the ability to slow time. We even gave you immortality.

“And what did we want in return?” said Zaker. “We asked you to work for us one night a year. A single night! And in exchange for spreading joy and mirth throughout your world, we asked for a few simple morsels. A pittance, really. No one would ever miss them.

“And you delivered. Not much at first, but as your fame grew, so did the goods. There were some very good years there, Claus.

“But now the supplies are dwindling again. Why? Our research shows you’re more popular than ever, yet they know nothing of your movements. Some believe you to be a myth. They would never suspect you. So why do you come with less stock every year?”

Zaker’s snout was inches from Claus’s sweat-slicked face. “Are you keeping some for yourself?” Zaker whispered.

“No!” Claus cried. “Never! I would never even think of–”

A clawed hand lashed out and gripped Claus’s throat. “You’re looking well-fed, Claus. Are you sure you’re not keeping a bit, just a wee bit, for yourself?”

“No!” Claus gasped. “No, please…come with me…I’ll show you…”

Zaker released his grip. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, the inspection.”

The creature opened the door and gestured to the hall. “Let us go, then.”

Rubbing his throat, Claus followed the creature out of the room.


Claus had parked the sleigh in the docking bay. The “reindeer”–monstrous reptilian quadrupeds who vaguely resembled the Earth animal–were milling around the craft, speaking in a loud, unpleasant-sounding dialect.

Behind the sleigh were two massive holding tanks. Zaker’s employees had detached the cargo and were now scurrying around it.

Zaker strode up to the tanks while Claus waddled behind.

One of the workers handed Zaker a datapad. “Down again,” said Zaker. “You’re going to have to explain this, Claus. But first, let’s check the goods.”

Zaker pressed a button on the side of the cargo container. There was a whirring noise, and a little tray slid out of the tank. Inside was a pile of flat, brown objects.

Zaker picked one up. He took out a small glass, held it to his eye, and inspected the item closely. With a satisfied grunt, he put the glass away and, with another glance at Claus, took a bite.

He chewed thoughtfully. “Excellent,” he pronounced. Zaker opened his gaping mouth and dropped the item in, swallowing it whole. “One of the few perquisites of this job,” he said to Claus, one eye narrowing in a grotesque parody of a wink.

Claus tried to smile, but the result was a nervous grimace.

Zaker strode to the next container. This time, the tray delivered a small cup of creamy liquid. Zaker took a sip.

“Hmmm,” the creature said as it swirled the milk around. “Not too bad. And yet…”

Suddenly Zaker’s face changed. He spat out the liquid and wheeled on Claus. “What’s the meaning of this?” he demanded.

Claus fell to his knees. “I’m sorry!” he cried. “I’m sorry! It’s this new diet everyone’s on! They’re all drinking soy milk!”


“Yes! It’s made from plants!”

“Plants?” Zaker gasped.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” said Claus. “The children, they don’t know, they just use whatever their parents have in the fridge…”

“Pasteurization was bad enough,” Zaker said. “And then the low-fat…and now this ‘soy’ milk?”

“They say it’s healthier,” said Claus. “I don’t like it myself.”

“I imagine not, judging by your gut,” Zaker said. “Is this why your shipments have been lighter?”

“Yes,” Claus admitted. “I–I’ve been tasting the milk beforehand and throwing the soy out. But more and more people are drinking it each year. And there was so much this year, I thought, maybe…”

“You thought you could fool us,” Zaker said. “Claus, you know we need pure milk.”

Claus had asked it many times before, but once again he found himself saying, “But why can’t you just steal the milk yourself? Or take some cows?”

“Damn it, Claus,” said Zaker. “I’ve told you a thousand times, we tried that. Our attempts to get the milk out of the cows were…messy, and usually resulted in the death of the cow. The humans became suspicious.”

“But–” Claus began.

Zaker waved a hand dismissively. “This method is much easier,” he said. He looked at datapad. “It’s not a total loss. We can probably separate the soy from the real milk. But we can’t use it. That means your shipment is even smaller this year, Claus. Next year, just throw out the soy milk.”

“I will,” said Claus.

Zaker squatted before Claus, who was still kneeling on the floor. He put a claw beneath the old man’s chin and forced him to look up. “You will bring us more milk and cookies next year, Claus,” he said, “or we may be forced to reconsider our deal.”

“But what of the little children and their toys?” Claus asked miserably.

“Tell them that good boys and girls leave out cookies and milk–real milk, none of this soy stuff,” Zaker said. “To be honest, I don’t care what you do. But we need those milk and cookies, Claus. Do you understand me?”

Claus nodded quickly. Zaker stood up.

“Good.” Zaker glanced at his watch. “All right, I’ve got a meeting with Wanda in ten minutes. Judging from her shipments, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage in teeth, at least.”

Claus bowed in shame.

“Oh, get up,” Zaker said. “You look pathetic. Take your ship and go home.”

Gingerly, Claus got to his feet.

“See you next year,” said Zaker as he strode out of the bay. “Oh, and Claus–Mirry Krassmiss.”


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