Chapter Seven: Responsibilities
By the time New Years rolled around, Curtis woke up expecting a brand new slew of disasters. Between the inevitable rough patch that follows any change in management and Jack’s refusal to do anything, nearly every section of the North Pole had already faced some catastrophic failure he had to deal with. Alone. Every time. So when Curtis arrived at the stuffed animal production line to find a hurricane of stuffing and fake fur crashing in through a broken windowpane, he wasn’t surprised Jack was nowhere to be found. And, like every other time before, the situation was too much of an emergency for him to walk away from it and drag Jack back by his ear.
A tiny headache started blossoming behind his eyes.
“Hey, hey!” he yelled, running into the middle of the chaos, waving his arms in an attempt to be attention-grabbing, but amidst the crowd of hopping elves and airborne materials, it wasn’t as effective as he’d hoped. The tiny headache unfurled a little more.
“Everyone, please stop!” he tried again, raising his voice as far as he could manage without cracking it, “Stop! We need to remain calm!”
No one was listening to him if they could even hear him. Clearly, this whole “commanding a room’s attention” thing was much harder than Bernard ever made it out to be. The mini toynado just made everything worse.
Switching to a different tactic, he snagged the arm of the closest elf, an adorable freckle-faced girl in windswept pigtails.
“I need you to go get the maintenance elves!” he shouted, pointing in the general direction of their offices.
“What‽” she shouted back, scrunching her eyes up against the wind.
“Maintenance elves!” he repeated, right before he and everyone around him dived for the floor. A blast of icy, wintry magic shot over their heads, hitting the broken window with a shower of snow, leaving a delicately patterned ice-pane patching the hole.
The elves’ voices murmured their way from panicked shouts to a buzz of questions as everyone started picking themselves up from the floor. Those that could, anyway. Curtis was one of the unfortunates who landed underneath someone, namely the freckle-faced elf, and had to wait for them to sort themselves out first.
“What the heck was that?”
“You’re pulling my hair!”
“There is no need to thank me,” Jack’s voice rang out, better practiced at the volume aspect of the whole attention-grabbing thing. Still, very few quietened down to listen. “My work here is done,” he said, making an overly-dramatic display of brushing ice specks off his hands before concluding, “I bid you all, adieu.”
Oh no. He wasn’t going to make it out of here so easily.
“Jack!” Curtis yelled, yanking himself out of the dogpile despite the complaints of those around him. “Jack, come back here!”
Jack had already made it a fair way through the (still-standing) crowd, given the advantages his height gave him in parting a path for himself. A couple of the elves, upon hearing Curtis’ shout, attempted to stop him. Most tried waving him down, but a few tried to grab onto a handful of the iconic red coat. Both were deftly ignored, Jack, needing little more than a light tug to relinquish his coat. By the time Curtis extricated himself and reached the edge of the stuffed-animal production line, Jack was long-gone.
“Ginger snaps,” Curtis muttered under his breath, earning a couple of judgmental glares. He noticed them. His cheeks warmed. Looking around, he also noticed that both his scramble across the felled crowd and his position as Head Elf had drawn the attention of (what felt like) the entire workshop. Right when he didn’t want it.
His immediate response, like it always was in front of focused crowds, was to panic. Or at the very least leave the situation as quickly as possible.
Don’t panic, he told himself, You just need to do something right now. That’s not panicking.
“Nothing here to see, folks,” he announced, drawing on his assumptions of how Bernard would handle the situation, “please resume your work. Everything is under control.”
Now, the elves weren’t stupid. They could see the fraying edges of someone’s composure as well as anyone else. Even when Bernard was the one providing the unspoken “There is a problem, but don’t worry about it, it’s being addressed,” it took a moment for the crowd to accept it and move on. And while they knew Curtis, (which did help,) nobody was particularly impressed with what little they had seen so far. Just look at all the issues that had popped up since Bernard left.
However, he was still the boss and the purpose of having a boss was so they didn’t have to deal with things like broken windowpane fallout and uncooperative Santas and instead could go about their lives unimpeded. So they dispersed, waiting a minute or two longer than they would have for Bernard. Curtis decided not to be bothered by this right now.
A sizable group had already congregated to ooh, aah, and otherwise fawn over the details in the ice-pane. If he was honest with himself, Curtis had to admit it was a beautiful piece of artistry. That would melt. And then they’d be right back where they started. No matter how intricately decorated it was unless Jack wanted to keep making trips down to this corner of the workshop every few hours to re-freeze it, they were going to need a permanent solution.
The little freckle-faced girl from before had joined the back of the group. She noticed him walking over and gave out a little gasp, sending the rest of them scattering back to their positions. Another thing Curtis didn’t let bother him right now. At least the path was cleared. He gave the pane a quick once over to assess if it was as sturdy as it was ornate before heading off to find the on-duty maintenance elves himself.
Hollow Tree Inn
“What movie are we watching again?” Bernard asked, pulling the popcorn bowl into his lap.
“Black Christmas,” Myrna said, dropping the battered VHS tape next to him and retrieving the popcorn bowl to place back on the coffee table. “That’s supposed to be for all of us.”
“All?” he asked, stuffing a handful of popcorn into his mouth. “Who else is coming?”
The answer revealed itself when Juniper flounced down beside him in a nearby armchair. She kept her eyes glued to the still dark TV screen. Bernard looked to Myrna for an explanation, but she only shot him a warning glare that said: “Play nice or else.”
Fine. Worked for him. For once he wasn’t the one with an attitude problem. Juniper had been giving him the silent treatment for the past week or so, and he still wasn’t sure why. He held out the popcorn bowl for her. She took a handful, still glaring at the screen.
With both Bernard and Juniper contently munching away on their own handfuls of popcorn, Myrna pushed the VHS into the VCR with a heavy cha-chunk.
The movie itself wasn’t what he expected. He already knew it was going to be a slasher movie walking in, but the attention it paid to the characters and atmosphere was downright impressive compared to the usual shlock Myrna subjected him to. He’d still never watch it without her prompting, but it was nice to see some glimmers of quality.
The shared viewing experience turned out to be the highlight of the evening. He and Myrna would sporadically toss jokes at the screen, each building off the other’s comments for as long as they could. Every once in a while, Myrna would lob a comment or two in Juniper’s direction, but she’d bunt them back with little more than an “Mmm.” Bernard thought he caught a few moments where she deliberated saying something, only to notice his noticing and decide against it. However, the sulking cold shoulder in the armchair did little to dampen the fun.
Then the phone rang.
“I got it!” Bernard yelled, leaping off the couch with much protest from the springs. “You don’t need to pause it,” he added. He heard the movie stop mid-scream regardless.
“Hello, Apartment 206, who is—,”
“Myrna?” the panicky voice interrupted.
His stomach sank. It was Douglas, Myrna’s secretary, calling in what sounded like another emergency. She’d been called in so many times since that first event on Christmas Eve. It worried both his Head Elf and big brother instincts. She’d been piling on more overtime now at what should have been the slowest point of the year than at any Christmas rush he could remember. He didn’t like the conclusions his paranoia kept coming to and it was getting harder and harder to dismiss them as “not his problem anymore.”
“No, this is her brother,” he answered, “I can go get her for you. Another system failure?”
A pause. “I’m not sure you’re cleared for that anymore… sir.”
His stomach complained again. “I understand,” he said, trying to ignore it, “I’ll go get her now. One moment.”
“Thank you. And sorry. About the…” He heard Douglas trail off as he set the receiver down gently on the phone’s side table.
“Myrna,” he said, craning his neck around the living area’s entryway, “it’s for you.”
“Who is it?”
“What did he want?”
“Said he couldn’t tell me.”
“Jesus Christ,” she muttered, untangling herself from her blanket. “I swear to God if it’s another fucking…”
Bernard decided to stay where he was standing in hopes of overhearing scraps of the conversation. He couldn’t make out any of the details, but the tone was clear enough. Something else, yet again, had gone wrong and they needed Myrna to fix it.
The moment she hung up the phone, she raised her hand to quell his inevitable questions.
“Don’t,” she said, not looking up.
He let the topic drop.
“I’m gonna need to go in,” she said, speaking loudly enough for Juniper to hear from down the hall. “No idea how long I’ll be. You can keep watching if both of you want to.” She emphasized the last few words to indicate that she, in fact, expected them to patch whatever problems they still had and have a jolly good time without her mediating. “I’ll see you later!”
“Bernard, I have to go.”
“Please, just tell me something, which system it was, if something exploded, anything.” At Myrna’s hesitation, he continued, “Look, I know the protocols and the security risk, but if anyone in the North Pole could be trusted with sensitive information, who would you pick?”
Myrna’s gaze darted down the hall where Juniper still sat, no doubt stewing in her own positive energies. With a sigh, she said, “It involves the FPG. That’s all I’ll say. See you later.”
And with that, she whisked herself away, leaving Bernard to process what he heard. As he started down the mental spiral of conspiracies this new detail fueled, a door slam shook him out of his headspace.
He returned to find the living area cleaned and abandoned. The TV was off, the blankets neatly folded, the VHS placed back on the shelf, and neither the bowl of popcorn nor Juniper anywhere in sight.