THE WRITING DEAD RESULTS
The brilliant winning short story, here in full.
The sound of bolts snapping back. Hushed voices. A crack of light, thin as a hair, but blinding. It’s been months, I suppose. Time ceases to exist in the darkness. The first latch flicks back, then the second. The door eases a little, as though drawing a breath. There’s a pause before it’s thrown open, and the light floods in, unbearably bright. I recoil – as far as the restraints allow – seeing nothing but formless, liquid shapes. “He’s frightened.” Mila. She’s still here then. “Nonsense. He always does this. Come on. Wakey wakey.”
And Gustav. Of course. It’s always Gustav. “Up and at ’ em, big guy.” “Should I do the-?” Gustav makes an impatient gesture, and Mila picks something up from the table, weaving back and forth in front of the light. My eyes are adjusting now, making sense of the figures. More are crowded behind these two, peering forward fearfully.
A small voice from the back, “Is he dangerous?”
Mila presses her lips together, as though to prevent any answer escaping.
“Not if handled correctly,” says Gustav. “Observe the double restraints. They must remain in place until the inhibitor is administered. Mila, if you would?”
She leans closer, touches my arm. Her fingers are warm with sweat. After so long without sensation of any kind, the touch is startling, revelatory.
Please, I want to say, but it comes out an incoherent croak. She recoils, almost dropping the syringe. Gustav rolls his eyes. “Shall I do it?” “Sorry, Sir. No, I can manage. But, are you sure? I mean-” “We’ve been over this.” “I know, but seeing him like this-” “And over.” “It just doesn’t-” “And over.” “Seem right.” “Objection noted. Please continue.” She swallows. “Yes, Sir.” No doubt she tries to be gentle, but to my heightened senses the scratch of the syringe is monstrous.
A heaviness comes to my still bound limbs. But it is an odd effect of the drugs that even as they dull my senses and inhibit my actions, my brain becomes more alert, memories sharper. To Gustav it is a year since we last began this game. To me, no time at all. My thought processes pick up where they left off when he closed the box, 11 months, 30 days ago.
Mila unfastens one strap, and then another. I droop forward, almost collapsing without their support.
“Come on out, then,” says Gustav. “My team have outdone themselves this year. We have Minecraft plushies. We have remote control quad bikes. We have robot dinosaurs that pee their pants. I’m not even kidding. That’s what kids want.”
I curl a hand around the box, steadying myself before I lurch forward with rusty, awkward steps. Gustav stands his ground as the younger ones shrink back. “No,” I tell him. “Don’t be like that. We all agreed, this is for the best. Would you leave the poor kiddies disappointed?”
I glance at Mila. She drops her gaze, murmurs, “There are other ways, Sir.”
“Don’t start on about online shops!” he says, anger flaring. “Transactions. Paypal. Postage and Packing! It is not the elf way. We create for the joy of it. We give freely of our skills. I will not sully our traditions with financial exchanges!”
Her cheeks flush. “Come and see the team,” she says to me. “That always cheers you up.”
I let her lead me past the cowering others, down a narrow corridor where strings of coloured lights twinkle on the walls. She opens a heavy door, and animal smells surround me: hay
and fur and rotting meat. Even here, flashing lights are strung across the stalls.
Reluctantly, I draw closer. “Vixen, old girl.” I lay a stiff hand on the creature’s head. Her ears are cold, ragged. She glances at me, as boneweary as I am. How long has it been now? Since age and ill health claimed me – and the elves, my immortal helpers, my makers, claimed me back again.
“Blitzen.” I move to the next stall. He is in a sorrier state than Vixen. Ribs show through the parchment skin. His eyes droop, seeing nothing. I move on, greeting each of them in turn, looking for some spark of recognition, some remaining spirit. I reach the final stall. “Rudolph?” He raises his head just a little. One eye swivels towards me, and the ears come forward. He still knows me, and it breaks what remains of my heart. A beast’s suffering is always nobler than a man’s. A man knows why he is punished, or can guess. He can blame himself for a thousand small mistakes and wrongs – whether they have any bearing on the issue or not. A beast understands nothing but that it is in pain, and it cannot fathom why – or why those it loves do not help.
“It’s almost time,” says Mila. “I’ll fetch your jacket.”
I don’t respond. My fingers stroke Rudolph’s cold, dribbling nose. He shivers, gives a wheezy bark.
“I know, old friend. I want it to end as much as you do.”
I glance at the coloured lights, winking on and off endlessly in preordained patterns.
She has left me alone. She is not supposed to do that. He will be angry with her.
I snatch down the lights, swiftly winding the cable around Rudolph’s scrawny neck. The little bulbs shatter, jagged edges piercing his desiccated hide, and my own. He still has a bit of fight left in him; kicks at the stall, shakes his big head from side to side, working the wire deeper into his flesh.
The commotion brings the others. A twitter of high, anxious voices, and then Gustav barking orders. A syringe is found, and another dose administered. The sense of purpose drains from me, and I allow the little hands to subdue me, steering me away from the thrashing reindeer.
A sudden silence signals Mila’s return. “It was only for a moment!” she says, before he has a chance to accuse her. “I thought it would be alright. He seemed so quiet.” “Just get the jacket on him.” I allow them to dress me, pulling the huge red coat over my sagging body, fastening the buttons and buckling the belt. “He doesn’t fill it like he used to.” They stand guard over me as the skeletal reindeer are led out and harnessed to the sleigh. Last comes Rudolph, staggering, his big head drooping. My swollen hands are ringed with blood where wire and crushed glass has dug in. The little finger is almost severed, hanging at an odd, helpless angle.
“What were you thinking?” Gustav’s voice is soft, like that of a concerned friend. “Strangulation wouldn’t end him. You know that. Don’t you remember when you tried to hang yourself ?”
I was aiming to decapitate him, but there is no need to tell him what I know and what I remember. There is always next year. There is always another attempt.
I look up at my team of undead reindeer, my sleigh filled with presents for children who don’t know what it takes to bring them this joy each year.
Mila cranks the handle, and the gramophone starts up. Tinny sleigh bells jingle. I sit up at once, tense, alert. I have tried to fight it. As often as I have tried to end my unendurable existence, and that of the reindeer. But it is impossible. Whatever they have done to me, they have done it well.
Reanimation. Mind control. These things do not contradict the Elf Way.
The piano comes in. Next year, I promise myself. Next year I will escape.
The scratchy voices begin: Dashing through the snow, in a one- horse open sleigh…
And I am gone. Only Father Christmas remains. He climbs into the sleigh, he takes up the reins, as he is programmed. He waves to the elves as they load the last presents onto the back. He launches into the sky with a hollow, “Ho Ho Ho!”