Theo placed the cranberry-colored box atop of the towering stack. Inching back, he held his stout hands wide, stubby fingers splayed. Once certain the boxes wouldn’t tumble, he turned around, the bell on his long-tailed stocking cap jingling.
“Is that the last one?”
“Haven’t you seen the order?” Pearl marked her clipboard, and then rubbed at her temple hidden beneath her skullcap’s fringe of white fur.
The ruby ribbons on her sleeve billowed when Bethel entered, toting an evergreen box out of the cold.
Scribbling on her clipboard, Pearl didn’t bother looking up. “How many more?”
Bethel bent at the knees and tucked his burden beside the others. “Three pallets at least.”
“What?” Theo shook his head, then stilled when his bell’s tinny jingle chipped his nerves. “That’s one for each of us.”
“More so since Pearl here isn’t hauling.” Bethel straightened and rolled his ursine shoulders beneath his candy-cane striped tunic.
“My wrist remember?” She lifted her clipboard, revealing the bleached sling and bandaged limb.
Theo waggled an accusing finger. “You really shouldn’t be holding that either.”
“And leave you doubly shorthanded?” Adjusting her board onto her hip, Pearl jotted another mark.
Bethel grunted in what sounded like disgust at the possibility while Theo glanced around the warehouse. Stacks others had brought in during earlier shifts lined the walls, creating a cavern of green and red fading off into black.
“Where is Merry anyway?”
“Didn’t you hear—“
Pearl frowned up at Bethel’s blocky face. He raised innocent brows as thick as licorice. With a sigh, she skittered forward, her icicle eyes darting to the shadows where, Theo suspected, she thought someone might lurk.
“Pink slipped,” she mouthed.
Theo stared at her, then at the pointed tips of his leather shoes. “Union?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bethel and Pearl nod in tandem. Theo whistled long and low.
“That’s not right,” he whispered to the worn patches covering his aching feet.
“Careful.” Pearl cradled her clipboard against her sling and began feigning a count of the boxes.
Lifting his head, Theo scowled.
“Careful of what?” He crossed his arms, making the wool of his sweat-damp tunic cling to his spindly chest. “If they’re going to fire me they’ll fire me.”
“And then I’ll be carrying boxes for three.” Bethel raised his hands in defeat and headed for the door.
Theo grabbed his arm, the bulkier limb like stone. “Wait a second.”
“Wait?” Jerking his arm free, Bethel thumbed at the entrance. “You heard Red. We’ve got to get this stuff stowed by dawn or the morning shift’s going to be way behind.”
Theo set his hands on his narrow hips. “So you’re just going to keep toeing the line despite what they did to Merry?”
Pearl huffed. “What else can we do?”
“She’s right.” Bethel shrugged, a mini-iceberg bobbing. “They got rid of Merry when he tried to shake things up. We keep doing like we’re told and we keep our jobs.”
“Are you willing to leave it at that?” Theo straightened, his tawny hairline coming to Bethel’s chin. “To keep working for a few pats on the head and a warm bed? Where’s your sense of dignity?”
“I wear tights and a pointy hat with a bell.” Bethel flicked the tip of his cap, the jingle ending his point.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t stand up for ourselves.” Theo stomped in emphasis, “stand up against what they did to Merry.”
“What do you want to do?” Pearl motioned at the gaping hole in the boxes meant for them to fill. “They’ll just find someone else to do the manual labor.”
Bethel grunted again. “We’re about as rare as snowflakes.”
He put his back to the door though and matched Pearl’s expectant gaze.
“I…I don’t know.” Theo slumped under their watch and glared at the ice between his feet. “I just want them to know we’re not just cogs. We’re more than a pair of hands and feet that can be kicked out when we try to go outside the lines. For them to realize we’re important too.”
“The only important one around here is Red.”
Bethel snatched off his cap, raked a hand through his charcoal locks, and turned for the door. His massive shoulders heaved when he put his hat back into place and he laid a hand on the knob. With a turn, he yanked the door ajar, the brisk Arctic swooping inside as if seeking shelter from the elements.
The cold cut through Theo’s tunic and seized his circling mind. “Wait, that’s it.”
Bethel pivoted. “What’s it?”
“Shut the door, shut the door.” Theo beckoned them closer and they huddled together on the warehouse floor. “What’s the one thing they can’t deal without?”
“I said it already, Red.”
Theo rolled his eyes and Pearl looked chagrinned.
“Come on,” he said, regaining an encouraging tone. “Think!”
Bethel snorted. “Not my strong suit.”
“Fine.” Theo laid his hands gently on Pearl’s clipboard and captured her eyes. “Who else do they need? Who else do they have to have to make the Night Run work? Who’s backs make or break Red’s success?”
He held his breath as the concentration on her face thawed like frost and understanding ignited.
“The Deer!” She covered her petite mouth. “You can’t be thinking—”
Theo beamed. “Isn’t it brilliant!?”
“You’ll be fired for sure.”
“Not unless they find out.” His smile burned his cheeks. “It’ll just look like an accident.”
Bethel tipped up onto his toes, his bulk dangling over them like a low hung ornament. “Find out what?”
“Who let them out.”
“Let who out?”
“The Deer.” Theo patted Bethel’s bulging bicep. “Try and keep up.”
He started for the door and didn’t look back. Bethel’s thumping gait followed a moment later, and then Pearl’s brisk steps.
Opening the door, Theo glanced through the falling flakes growing more numerous by the second. The sled with red and green boxes of new arrivals waiting to be unpacked loomed, while the workshop with its snow covered eaves and candlelit windows hunkered beneath the growing squall. The clatter from the evening meal reverberated on the ice blocks making up the dormitory. At the edge of the compound, Red’s gabled house squatted amid the drifts, smoke coiling out of the chimney like steam from a cup of cocoa. No one milled in the streets between or beneath the skies promising a deluge to come.
“Perfect,” whispered Theo.
Doffing his cap, he tucked it into his pocket. He held it snug, silencing the bell as he traipsed away from the warehouse and toward the stables. Hoof prints from the Deer’s morning exercise marred the pristine snow, but the flakes were gathering quickly, obscuring the twin crescents of each reindeer’s stride. Rounding the back end of their stable, Theo lifted the handlebar and slid the door aside.
Pearl hovered at his shoulder as he peered down the single alleyway. Long faces peeked over the lips of nine stalls, saucer eyes gleaming, and the one on the far left adding a ruddy glow from a balled nose.
“This isn’t a good idea.” Pearl’s whole body trembled, adding a warble to her voice.
“No, it’s a brilliant idea.” Theo padded inside and felt comforted when Bethel joined him.
“Which one?” When Bethel cracked his knuckles, the Deer skittered in their stalls.
“The more the merrier.”
Bethel chuckled. “Sweet.”
“No,” said Pearl. “I can’t do this.”
Theo glanced over his shoulder, to where she cowered in the doorway. “Then get going. We’ll be right back.”
“Go, this won’t take long.”
She grimaced, and then glanced back the way they’d come. “I’ll be at the warehouse.”
“Sure.” Theo waved and swiveled around while Pearl dashed away.
Meanwhile, Bethel had unhooked the first stall’s latch. Theo hurried along the facing row, lifting the L-shaped iron rod and sliding it through the matching eyelet. The doors swung on well-greased hinges, making a hush like rails through packed snow. They met at the last and Theo did the honors while the ninth Deer’s red nose twinkled. Side by side, he and Bethel stood and stared along the line of opened stalls.
The Deer peered at them as they had before, a few whickering and glancing at the exit. Others pawed and milled, stubbed tails twitching.
Theo frowned. “Why aren’t they leaving?”
“Maybe they like it here.”
“If they like it so much, they can have my job.”
Bethel grunted, but they both stiffened when a shadow crossed the stable door. When he made out Pearl’s sling, Theo exhaled a misted breath.
“What are you doing?”
Pearl lifted a lid on a nearby crate. Musk of oats and hay wafted and each Deer wheeled, ears perked, antlers alert. Scooping out a handful of grain, Pearl poured it onto the hard packed ground and backpedaled when the first Deer stepped from his stall.
“You’re brilliant.” Theo darted down the alley, Bethel on his heels.
“That’s why they give me the clipboard.” Pearl managed a weak smile. “Let’s hope I can keep it.”
“You’ll get better than that board, I swear.” Theo unhooked two buckets from the wall and thrust one at Bethel. “Fill this and bring it along.”
Dunking the bucket into the grain bin, Theo walked backwards from the door. He tossed out handful after handful as he made his way from the stables and the center of the compound, out toward where the Arctic stretched unbroken. The winds swirled and the snow began falling with vigor, but he spied the first Deer exiting, nostrils sniffing out the morsels in white puffs. Another followed and then the next. The snow prevented more than four from being visible at a time, but Theo felt certain the whole herd had caught the scent of a free meal and were letting their stomachs lead them into the night. He traded his empty bucket for the one Bethel towed and continued depositing handfuls until even the glow of the workshop had dimmed.
Beside him, Pearl eyed the surrounding expanse. “I think this is far enough.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
With a heave, Theo pitched the rest of the grain into the wintry gloom. The trio clumped together when the Deer gave chase. As one, the herd seemed to realize their freedom and galloped onto the plains, their rush making Pearl’s ribbons snap, and the bells on Theo and Bethel’s caps jingle. A few Deer leapt up off the snow. Theo couldn’t tell whether they landed again until number nine took flight. His red nose led the way and after a heartbeat the clouds swallowed them completely.
“I guess that’s it.” Pearl shivered.
“That,” said Theo, giving her his beaming smile, “is only the beginning.”