by Jeff Strand
Copyright 1996 by Jeff Strand and Janice Hansen. Reprinted by permission of the author.
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen, though you'd probably mess up the names and embarrass yourself if somebody asked you to list them. And of course you know the mutant. But there is another reindeer whose story has yet to be told.
This is the tale of Howard, the tenth reindeer.
Howard lived up in the North Pole, and had just barely missed the final cut for Santa's team. During try-outs, he choked and let three presents fall out of the sleigh, including a Captain Hocker doll (with super spitting action), the most popular toy that year. So he'd been given a job as Comet's understudy, which meant he'd never get to pull the sleigh. Every once in a while Blitzen would overdo it on the eggnog and be incapable of fulfilling his duties (thus his name), but Comet was always ready for action. The only reindeer who couldn't be accounted for with any regularity was Vixen.
This was a terrible disappointment to Howard, because there wasn't much for a reindeer to do if he wasn't on Santa's team, besides watch Bambi for the 79th time. He could give rides to the elves, but they had an annoying habit of tugging on his antlers and shouting, "Faster, horsey, faster!" All he wanted was to help make Christmas special, but he didn't know what he could do.
Though legend would have you believe otherwise, the truth is that almost all little girls and boys receive presents from Santa every year. This is because Santa grades behavior on a very generous curve, so even little boys who run over their sisters with tractors generally receive their share of gifts. For a child not to get anything from Santa means that he or she was a terrible, rotten, thoroughly despicable person that year.
Edward Stinkwater was eight years old and had never received a single present from Santa. He was a truly wicked little boy who took great pleasure in breaking other children's toys and blowing up amphibians with firecrackers. His parents loved him very much, but they were delusional. Everyone else ran when they saw him coming.
He kneeled on his bedroom floor, playing with his coal soldiers. Though breaking their arms and legs off was fun, he had something even more fun planned for Christmas Eve tomorrow night. For the past three weeks he'd been working on the roof, setting a trap for Santa's reindeer. When Santa came to deliver presents for his brother and sister, Edward was going to hijack the sleigh and ruin Christmas for everyone.
He smashed the soldier with his fist, then laughed and laughed. For he was truly a wicked little boy.
"Guess what!" said Cosmo, one of Howard's fellow reindeer. "Cupid has gone on strike demanding more vacation days per year, and Santa is letting me be a scab worker!"
"Aw, that's no fair," pouted Howard. "It's my dream to pull Santa's sleigh, but I'll never get to!"
"Well, you didn't hear it from me, but we could perhaps arrange for Comet to meet with an ... accident. Those roofs can get pretty slippery, if you know what I mean."
"No! That wouldn't be in the holiday spirit! I'll just stay here and mope, I guess."
"Well, suit yourself. I'm off to do some calisthenics. Have fun with the elves."
Cosmo hurried off, leaving Howard alone to feel sorry for himself.
And then it was Christmas Eve.
"Allllll right!" shouted Santa. "It's Oreo time! Gimme gimme gimme!"
"Now, dear, your suit isn't ready yet," said Mrs. Claus, looking up from her ironing. "And there's still a few minutes until you have to leave. Have you double-checked your Excel file?"
"I'm all set," said Santa, holding up the hard copy. "I had to delete a few names thanks to the influence of that terrible Beavis and Butthead show, but there are still lots of good little girls and boys."
"That's nice, dear. Now, I hope you've learned your lesson from last year and won't drink any milk that an overzealous child put out a few days too early."
"Yeah, yeah. Susie almost won herself a spot on the naughty list for that one."
"Here's your coat, dear," said Mrs. Claus, handing him the newly-pressed garment. "Now go make this the best Christmas ever!"
Santa took hold of the reins in his fully-loaded sleigh. "On Dasher! On Dancer! On Prancer and Vixen! On Comet! On Cupid -- "
"Sorry. On Cosmo! On ... dang, I lost my place. On Dasher! On Dancer! On Prancer and Vixen! On Comet! On Cosmo! On Donner and Blitzen! Rudolph, quit that sniffling and lead us forward! Merry Christmas to all!"
Much, much later that night, Santa arrived on the rooftop of Edward Stinkwater. He parked the sleigh and used his magical Time-Ceasement ring to freeze the flow of time, which was a remarkably convenient item to have when one had to cover the entire gentile world in a night, especially when one was drinking plenty of liquids along the way.
"Ho ho ho," he said, in that jolly ol' voice of his as he walked toward the chimney. "Walt and Yoko Stinkwater have been very good this year. There will be lots of presents for them! Too bad Edward was naughty again, but I guess he'll just -- "
Suddenly a rope tightened around Santa's ankles, causing him to fall onto his back with the kind of loud thump that comes from way too many cookies in one night. The Time-Ceasement ring popped off his finger and rolled off the roof. The reindeer rushed forward to help, but another large noose tightened, tying them together in a bunch.
Edward heard the clatter arising above and giggled with maniacal glee. He rushed out of the house, climbed his father's ham radio antenna to the roof, and waved his fist at Santa.
"Hahahaha! I've got you now, Nickie!" he laughed. "I'm going to crash your sleigh into a 747 and then make Rudolph's nose into a shiny red necklace! There'll be no Christmas this year! It won't be long before your ratings plummet, and the Easter Bunny takes over the top slot! Hahahaha!"
"Must ... reach ... emergency ... beacon ..." groaned Santa, trying to work his hand free.
"Nobody can help you now," snarled Edward, snapping out the blade of his pocketknife as he walked forward.
"Look!" shouted Mrs. Claus, pointing at the sky. A circle of light shone brightly, with the image of a candy cane inside it. "Something awful must have happened!"
"Santa's in trouble! Santa's in trouble!" the elves began chanting.
Howard felt a momentary rush of relief that he'd let Captain Hocker fall, then realized that this was his chance to save Christmas! "We have to do something!" he said.
"But what? But what?" chanted the elves.
"We have to help Santa!" Howard declared.
"No duh! No duh!" chanted the elves. "But how? But how?"
"We're useless," said Cupid. "We can't fly without a sleigh, and Santa has the only one!"
(Storyteller's note: This saga takes place in an alternate history where a sleigh is required for reindeer to fly properly. And the Nazis won World War II, but fell out of power due to poor public relations.)
Howard thought for a moment. "That's not true! There's a spare sleigh behind the tool shed!"
"No, no." Cupid shook his head. "That one was built years ago by illegal immigrant elves using lumber we bought cheap from the Mexican government! It'll never hold up!"
"We have to try!" Howard insisted. "All the good little boys and girls of the world are counting on us! We can't let them down!"
"It will give me some bargaining power in next year's labor negotiations," Cupid said thoughtfully.
"That's the spirit!" said Howard. "Let's go!"
Edward cut Santa free of the ropes, but kept the knife pointed at him. "Just stay cool and nobody gets hurt for awhile," the wicked little boy said. "Now, tell me how to drive that sleigh."
"You'll never be able to," Santa informed him. "It's a stick shift."
"I'm presently not in the mood to play games, so don't toy with me!" Edward warned.
"You are truly evil," said Santa.
"It's a gift."
"AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!" said Cupid. "The sleigh is breaking apart!"
Howard and Cupid were just about to cross over the Canadian border. The other understudy reindeer had chosen to stay at the North Pole so that Santa wouldn't punish them for malpractice if the rescue operation went awry.
"Keep moving!" Howard shouted. "We'll make it!"
"The whole bottom just dropped out! Uh-oh, I think it's going to wipe out that old lady sitting in her backyar ... no, wait, it missed her ... squished the heck out of her roses, though ..."
"We have to move faster!" said Howard.
"Oooh! Side stitch! Side stitch! We need to stop for a minute!"
"Never! I'll save Christmas, or die trying! Oops, I hope that rudder misses those carolers." Suddenly the last bit of sleigh broke apart. "Oh no! Without a sleigh, we're -- "
"Prisoners of the force of gravity!" screamed Cupid. "we're going down! We're venison! I regret that I have but one life to giiiiiiive..."
"Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright..."
Tyler Grinchdirt got out of bed and threw open his window. "Will you shut up out there? I'm trying to sleep in heavenly peace too!"
"You hear that, guys? We've got a Scrooge!" shouted one of the carolers.
"Let's egg him!" shouted another.
Tyler pulled the window closed as the rotten eggs began splattering against it, just like last year. He walked out of the bedroom and into the den, where the cookies he'd baked with Ex-Lax rested by the fireplace.
Suddenly there was a huge thump on his roof. He scurried up the chimney lickety-split to see what was wrong.
"You crushed my TV antenna!" he cried out.
"Sorry," Howard said, getting back on his feet.
"Oh my God, it's a talking moose!"
"No, no, I'm Howard, one of Santa's reindeer. This crumpled heap next to me is Cupid."
"Hi," said Cupid, weakly.
"We need a sleigh! Quickly! Do you have one?"
Tyler thought for a moment. "A couple, actually. But why should I help Santa? He never brought me that Momma Helga's Fruitcake Deluxe With Extra Green Chunks I asked for when I was five! It's all I ever wanted! One lousy fruitcake! Curse you, Santa! I work for the IRS because of you!"
"I'm sure it wasn't Santa's fault," Howard insisted. "Those elves -- you have to keep after them every second. Do you realize how many kids got gypped during the Cabbage Patch Doll craze? Not that I personally minded, ugly things that they were, but -- "
"All right, all right, you've convinced me. The sleighs are in the garage, next to the harem of maids and dancing ladies my true love got me last year. There'll be some well-dressed guys jumping around, so be careful."
"Thank you so much!" said Howard. "Let's go, Cupid!"
"This is your fourth-to-last chance to cooperate!" said Edward. "If you don't -- "
"Stop!" shouted Howard, his voice echoing dramatically through the moonlit skies. "Let Santa go!"
"My hero!" said Santa.
"Hahahaha!" Edward remarked. "You think two puny reindeer can stop my nefarious plot to ruin Christmas? Nothing can stop me! Because while the good little boys and girls were going to school and learning the state capitals, I've been gathering the supplies and doing the research and receiving the government funding that has enabled me to construct the Fearsome Death Ray of Doom! Hahahaha!"
"Well, I'm bummed," Santa remarked.
Edward pressed the button on a remote control. Some roof shingles slid out of the way, and the Fearsome Death Ray of Doom rose from the hidden panel. "This ray has the power to disintegrate anything! It can disintegrate tissue paper! It can disintegrate butterflies! It can disintegrate Q-Tips! And unless you cooperate, I'll use it to destroy Santa's sleigh!" He thought for a moment. "Actually, with all the hassle that went into making this death ray, it's kind of dumb to make using it contingent upon Santa's lack of cooperation. Say goodbye to your sleigh, Kris, and thus goodbye to Christmas! Hahahahaha!"
"Wow," said Cupid. "That concept earned five 'ha's.' We're in deep shinola."
Edward pressed another button. The Fearsome Death Ray of Doom began to glow with a most un-Christmasy light.
"Nooooooooo[pause for breath]ooooooooo!" screamed Howard, rushing forward.
The death ray fired, just as Howard leapt in front of it. Human and reindeer alike gasped as Howard was instantly transformed into a small pile of ashes.
"Dagnabbit!" snarled Edward. "I only had enough firepower for one shot! That does it!" He raised the knife, let out a horrific battle cry, and began to run toward Santa, his eyes wild with psychotic glee.
At that moment, a miracle happened. The wind changed, blowing Howard's ashes into Edward's eyes. "I'm blind!" he cried out, losing his footing on the slippery roof. With a dramatic "Aaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!" he slid off the roof and smashed into the snowman he'd built that very afternoon. But since Edward was truly a wicked little boy, he'd filled this snowman with nitroglycerine, which blew the little twerp into itty bitty pieces.
"Howard's ashes saved Christmas!" Santa declared. "He's a hero! He's the greatest reindeer who ever lived! His ashes will be placed in an airtight urn, and from now until forever, Howard will ride at the head of my sleigh!"
"Hooray!" cheered the other reindeer. "Hooray for Howard!"
Howard's dream had come true at last. And so, boys and girls, when you're hanging your stockings by the chimney with care, take a moment to grab a handful of ashes from your fireplace and sprinkle them over the Christmas tree, to help honor Howard, the Tenth Reindeer.
That's it; here's your list of handy exits: