(reading time: 49 minutes)
The passage of the next several days revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of their mode of travel. Snaps almost immediately noticed the hidden gyroscopes that kept their rooms upright even when the bag was turned upside down. The adjustment could be felt as a slight loss of weight in one’s bottom and heard as a rattle.
He was situated on one end of the rack, underneath a tank of vanilla rum. Parliament had been so confident that he would agree to take this mission that they had gone ahead and installed a tall cylindrical oven in the wall of his canteen, just the right proportions to fit his limb molds. There was fuel for it under the bed in canisters, along with extra flour and baking soda.
Where they had failed to provide was in the lighting department. Each room had only one lamp, and it was filled with the liquid from firefly abdomens. Switching it on and off was just a matter of removing the black cloth hanging over it. Pale and green, the light bathed the rooms in a dispiriting glow, like the yawn of an ill ghost on a cold night, or, when seen on the polished inner rim of the canteen, like a runny aurora slipping down the sides of a porthole.
The canteens shut out a good deal of sound, but the din of the large could not be completely ignored. From its variations Snaps knew that the Scot had boarded a train, as the background noise became the steady krik-kruk of the tracks and the occasional wailing whistle. The latter, along with a mounted clock, allowed him to track night and day.
At first he was left to his own devices, those devices being his saber and rifle, both of which proved impossible to practice with in the confined space, but boredom quickly set in and he started receiving visits via the sliding door from the other members of the team. Each night, after a dinner of ration packets, they would gather in two of the canteens with the door open, three to each bed, and discuss strategies.
Yahoo’s strategies revolved mostly around acquiring food anyway he could to ‘prop up his strength’. It was difficult to argue with him much of the time, as only himself, Mygdenia, and Mustardseed needed to consume anything at all. They couldn’t help themselves from joining in on his requests that the other members of the handful give up their rations.
Even noble Mygdenia whispered in Snaps’s ear at one point that she would very much appreciate the little package of dried harvest mouse salamis hanging on his wall; they were her favorite. He relented, happy to deny them to Yahoo, whose drool now stained all of their bed sheets in places. All of this was tolerable, as long as he kept his mouth on inanimate things.
On their third night aboard the train, with their meeting finished, Snaps sat under his blankets but upright, pillow wadded up behind his back. Sleep wasn’t showing its droopy eyes. The reason for his insomnia eluded him as well. His nerves were rattled less than the train car; he was no stranger to battle.
Perhaps its was the looming threat of converging scales. It was unorthodox for anyone small to announce themselves to the larger world. To him it seemed like taunting a nearby thunderstorm when you were made of paper. Asking to be not only destroyed, but to have your remains destroyed as well. To become so many crumbs, so thoroughly distributed, that no one would ever think of putting any two of the pieces back together.
“What troubles you?” The question startled him so badly that he whipped his saber out of its sheath and stuck it in the door. In order to get through the door it had to pass through a set of lips and a shoulder, but luckily these were incorporeal, belonging to the spirit of Christmas past.
“You frightened me!” Snaps huffed, startled again by the fact that he could be so easily frightened.
“I’m sorry,” she said, but she continued to intrude, the rest of her body coming through the door. She sat on the end of his bed with her legs crossed. “Really, it’s the spirit of Christmas future who is supposed to be frightening. He is the unknown. I am not just the known, but the cherished.” They sat quietly for a moment; he kept waiting for her to state her business. “I did ask you a question,” she eventually said. He thought back; so she had.
“How did you know I was awake?”
“I have a sense for such states. A ghost has no use for a sleeping person, so they’re just like furniture to us. I felt that something was weighing on you, so I thought I would visit.” Silence set in again. The gingerbread soldier thought it presumptuous of her. There was of course something eating away at him, but since he hadn’t identified it he didn’t see what help she could be.
“The green light,” he eventually offered as a reason. “It makes everything look seasick.” She smiled.
“I can help. Really, I can this time.” With both hands she gripped her snuffer helm and lifted it off her head. Snaps blinked as the canteen was bathed in warm candlelight. The snuffer suppressed a shocking amount of heat, making him feel fresh from the oven once more. If he had tried to apply an iced beard at that moment it simply would’ve melted down his front.
The top half of her head was all aglow, eyes nothing more than white hot slivers. Her hair was a dancing smokeless flame. She ran her hands through it once and shook it, seeming to disbelieve its presence herself.
“That… does help,” he stammered.
“You’re very welcome Winifred!” she gushed, but a moment later she threw her hands over her mouth. This seemed to deny the flame oxygen, as it faded some, lowered, and grew lethargic like the tail of a drugged lizard.
“Winifred was the girl, yes?” Snaps offered. “You manifested for one of her eves?”
“Yes,” the spirit admitted. “The first thing I remember is being outside her window, snowflakes vanishing in my flame in spirited puffs. I watched the whole family… and I watched them solve their problems together. There was no need for me.” She moved to don her snuffer once again, but Snaps got out from under his blanket and grabbed the rim of it to stop her.
“I was intrigued,” he said quickly, “when you spoke of her in parliament. I have seen that look on a girl’s face, when Christmas is nigh, when the fire is in the right places, and it produces only togetherness and pastries. Her name was-”
“How did you… Your senses again?”
“No, not exactly,” the spirit admitted. “I am… sort of good friends with the spirits of every Christmas past. Well, less good friends and more licks of the same flame. I know I was supposed to be there for Winifred Pebblebear’s Christmas, though I know not what wind blew me there. And while I was not present… I know what you endured for the happiness of Clara Silberhaus.”
“Perhaps all I need is a bedtime story,” Snaps said to nudge the subject away. “That, necessary as it was, was not a good Christmas for me. Why don’t you tell me the story of Winifred’s: what you would have told her from outside that window.” The spirit smiled again and crawled to his side, showing exceptional control with her intangibility ability by sinking into the cot before rising into a normal sitting position under the blanket. She tapped the spot next to her, refusing to start until he was cozy.
“Remember now, I was privileged enough to know the Pebblebear family twice, even though I only witnessed them with these eyes once. When I was outside their window, a newborn, everything I knew was a Christmas two years prior. In that celebration of their family was hidden a great wisdom, a wisdom I was supposed to remind her of.
The Christmas of two years before was much the same. Her father was home from his work on the magazine, as they only released truncated issues during the holidays and they had no need for his interviewing skills. I remember, you’ll love this, that littler Winifred asked him why he didn’t interview Saint Nicholas with his time off. The man was so clever, answer quicker than his smile and the little touch on the tip of her nose: a scheduling conflict! While has was off, Nicholas was working his hardest. They just kept missing each other.
Her mother was late in wrapping the presents that year, still getting over a hand injury from dropping a book that really had no business being that heavy on it, but she insisted on doing it herself. So while she toiled away in another room the rest of her family was in the den, before a purring fire, decorating the tree.
It was Winifred, in a white dress with red and gold ribbons, any that fell off were then tied in her hair, her older brother Ian, he was very tall for his age, and their father who supervised from his chair with a glass of brandy.
Their ornaments, all of a single set, had been a gift from their carpenter grandfather before he passed away. Like us the pieces were, small men and women of various professions, but wood instead of flesh and frustration. They came in three tiers: artisans, nobles, and angels. There was a note from their grandfather tucked in the box telling them exactly how to arrange them so they came to life.
I mean that figuratively of course; it was just the positions he deemed most vibrant. Nothing like our situation in that regard. I remember, I really do, how adorable the old man’s handwriting was. Every letter shook more than a sheered sheep in December, and it stood in such contrast to his craftsmanship. Every line and curve of the ornaments was perfect, no splinters or nicks anywhere. He hadn’t been a writing man, but he was very much a making man.
The note told them that the artisans went along the bottom of the tree, for their poses were the most active. To put them higher, where the tree was thinner, would make it look top heavy, he argued, even though there was no one to argue with him within the confines of the note. The lowest level would run with buckets of water, stomp grapes, beat carpets, play instruments, and all sorts of other things.
Above the artisans were the nobles, and they would go about less exaggerated tasks. Walking with their nose in a book. Riding a well behaved horse. Holding their spouse in one arm and waving to their subjects with the other. Little statesmen, dukes and duchesses, orchestra conductors, and bishops.
Above them, where the tree was so thin it could only accommodate a set of five figures, sat the angels. Beautiful lacy gowns with the green of the tree showing through the patterns. Their hands were little hooks, so the five could be joined in a ring around the top, itself something like an angel’s halo.
However, there was a crowning jewel in the set that went even above them, an angel twice the size of the others that topped everything. She was the most beautiful of all, with a head full of the tiniest brass chains ever crafted by human hands acting as her hair. Her face was so detailed in the carving that she could easily be mistaken for a third parent in the Pebblebear family.
Oh, but as they finished a problem became apparent. There was no telling whose fault it was, or what caused it, be it a nudge from one of the children or an overly exaggerated kick from an artisan, but it was plain to see all the same. You see the figures were articulated, so their limbs could be posed, but that opened up the possibility of asymmetry and imbalance.
The crowning angel was not set perfectly. By the time they finished she was leaning badly, perhaps even about to fall. With glass eyes and jewelry, parts of her were fragile enough to break from such a fall, so something had to be done. It was their father who had placed her, so they turned to him for the righting, but, to their tragic dismay, he had fallen asleep in his chair!
Thinking quickly, Ian decided to handle it himself. He stood on the tips of his toes and reached, but he could barely touch the hem of the lower angels. When he nearly tipped over the whole tree rattled, and the angel’s list worsened.
‘I thought you were tall!’ Winifred fretted.
‘I am!’ he insisted. ‘I think the tree grew since we brought it in here.’
‘What are we going to do!?’
‘Mother’s hand is still healing; we can’t bring her into this. That would just be another angel who could get hurt. And we can’t wake father. He’s on his fourth glass. If he tries to fix it he’ll topple the whole thing.’
‘It’s up to us brother.’ She took a deep breath, closing her eyes and picturing her grandfather. She was very good at that, you know. When she concentrated she could really put herself in another’s place. I swear, I am swearing, that when she did that it was stronger than any magic or blessing that conjures spirits like me. What she saw was her grandfather, slaving away at his lathe, thinking only of his precious grandchildren and how much joy the ornaments would bring them.
She knew how much it would hurt him to see them broken, even with him having passed, because she knew how much it would hurt herself. She saw, such a young girl mind you, that when a family loves each other hurt is a web, and the pluck of one string is felt by all the others. Everything in her power would be done to right the angel, to keep their family safe.
‘You have to lift me,’ she said, knowing full well that a fall could be far more damaging to herself than to the angel.
‘Lift me Ian! I’ll steady her! You’re tall, so you must be strong too! Like father. Hurry, before she comes down.’ Now Ian didn’t have her confidence, but he couldn’t disappoint her by pointing out how height very much did not correlate to strength. His pride was as easily bruised as any boy’s, so he would try. With both hands around her waist he pretended she was just another ornament, and lifted her with a somewhat embarrassingly loud grunt.
So close they came, but he couldn’t stretch his arms all the way, and Winifred only tapped the face of a lower angel. The tree rattled again, which rattled Ian’s nerves, which weakened his ankles! Suddenly he was wobbling, and one wrong wobble would finish them. Forced to reel backward, Winifred was taken on a wild ride across the room, made worse by other things present that were also not suitable to collide with.
She was almost tossed into her slumbering father’s face, and then almost in the fireplace! I don’t think I could stand being the spirit of that Christmas, where a child was turned to ash. Fortunately Ian kept a hold of her, sacrificing his own knees by dropping them onto the hardwood and setting her down.
All seemed lost. His bruises formed quickly, leaving him crumpled in defeat. Winifred looked and saw the angel in a deep bow, only moments from falling. She could likely catch it, but on its way down it would hit the other angels and the nobles, causing an untold number of casualties.
Then, when the situation was at its worst, inspiration came to her. She should be saved by her own people, not ungainly giants. The clever girl scurried back to the tree and plucked an artisan from the bottom level: a humble gardener. The artisans were solely of wood, so there was nothing breakable on him. He could handle anything but the fire, so she made sure to put her back to it. She adjusted his arms and legs, straightening them, turning him into something like a javelin. With careful focus and purest intent she took aim.
The gardener’s arc was true, and the point of his two hands struck the angel around the waist, pushing her up and steadying her as straight and tall as she was before. The fellow bounced off and hit the floor nearby with a quiet clack. The sound made their father snort and adjust himself in his chair, but by the time he opened his eyes the gardener was back in place and the children were smiling. Christmas could go on with their parents none the wiser, and when their mother brought in the presents their grandfather’s angel could watch all of them, and recount the details to him in heaven.”
“I see,” Snaps said when he realized that was the end of the story.
“What do you think?”
“You told it beautifully spirit… By the by, is there another name I could call you? As my comrade you are more to me than just a ghost.”
“No,” she said flatly. “We do not need names. Did you like the story? What did it make you feel?”
“In all honesty, a touch confused.” Her expression sank; her body did as well. Its descent into the cot caused the blanketed peaks of her knees to weaken and collapse. “From the story of the man Scrooge I assumed that the spirits were only summoned to the mortal realm to force revelation. To show the most dramatic or emotional holidays as a means of convincing.”
“Typically…” she whimpered.
“I know you tried your best to liven it some, but this was just children playing a game and steadying a decoration. I can’t imagine why you would be made to endure so much as a single winter breeze to witness it.”
“Yes… you are right. I am completely worthless.”
“I didn’t me-”
“Perhaps it was my choice to strike out from the immortal flame, and I just didn’t realize. I was greedy, wanting my Christmas to be one of importance. Life in Minimil is my shame then, my punishment.” She threw her snuffer back over her head, dousing the light back to the stomach-lurching green that looked so terrible on a dessert like Snaps. He was worried she would try to leave, realizing a moment later she was already doing so, but by sinking into the bed rather than taking the door.
“Don’t go!” he pleaded as her neck passed through the pillow. “The fact that we’re on this mission together means we’re not worthless. That’s the promise of Minimil: no matter how small your origin or stature you can still do good by service.” He was talking to a twisted pillow. “I would like to share my Christmas with you. We’re alike. Neither of us has an ideal one.”
He was turning back with a sigh when the top of the snuffer reappeared at his feet. Only the spirit’s head returned, and she didn’t remove her helm. Her upper lip hovered just over the blanket as if she was tempted to nervously chew it.
“My Christmas was like yours,” Snaps started. “It was mostly the work of the small. Its consequences insignificant. It didn’t feel that way to us though, those enchanted to life by the sugarplum fairy. I would be furious at that woman for what she did to us, but I’ve found there’s no point in getting steamy-eared over fairies. Asking them to care about bigger consequences is like telling a frog to catch a vulture with its tongue.
The real culprit is the Mouse King. He was the one who invaded the Silberhaus holiday. He came, from a dark hole in the wall, to eat the innocent dreams of a young girl, to spread disease into their pantry, and to leave a broken home behind so the pests could have squalor in which to flourish.
I’m told by a historian back in the barn that he, for hundreds of years, has left haunted houses in his wake, sweeping across Russia and into Europe proper. Clara’s home was just the next stop in his campaign. I never spoke to the foul creature, his seven heads spoke a language that only the others could understand, each in a different accent mind you, one for each nation they’d bested. I did see him though, but that was late into the battle, before the clock struck three.
What I first remember is the fairy, gliding over us in her fuchsia gown, raining fairy dust down like powdered sugar. The villain I saw down to every whisker and tooth stain, but the fairy was never more than a blur above me. In moments she was gone like the setting sun, and the starkness of the world became apparent as I sat up for the first time.
We were a batch of thirty gingerbread men and women meant to be consumed in the morning alongside crepes and fresh fruit. Our life may even have been an oversight, as the fairy’s dusting brought every object in the house that bore a human shape or face to life. I think she intended to mostly raise the sturdier toys and stuffed animals.
The Mouse King’s assault was already well underway by the time I stood. Five mice were upon our platter before some of us could comprehend what we were supposed to do with our hands and feet. I remember… the gnawing. And the screams that came after. Imagine, the first thing you learn how to do is scream… as a mouse nibbles through your side.
Twenty-seven of us made it off the platter, but we had been placed on a counter, and we did not yet understand that the difference between heights could be a fatal thing. One of us fell and broke into five pieces, scurrying mice making quick work of the remains. We were trapped on an island of sorts, but then the fairy’s champion arrived: the nutcracker. He was a gift for Clara from her godfather, with jaws that could crush a walnut to powder. He made a bridge out of an apron, allowing us to slide down to the floor.
Fifty tin soldiers made up much of his army, and the fence they made with their own bodies gave us time to coordinate and plan. We were soldiers. That was what we learned after learning that we were alive, gingerbread, and people. We had a duty, to protect the Silberhaus family from this evil. As the night went on I became accustomed to the atrocities: mice scurrying up and down the Christmas tree to access the shelves and curtains, my friends full of stuffing being invaded and shredded from the inside, the crack of mouse bones in our commander’s bloodstained jaw…
We could not be used for flanking, as the mice could smell us at all times. We were only good for bait, and the trap was only ever sprung after the first bite. We weren’t baked with weapons, so we had only what was around us. Would you believe that I thanked the star, not the stars because I’d only seen the one atop the tree, that I had a silver lemon fork to defend myself with? It was a blessing, considering many of my comrades had only spoons or butter knives.
Mine was actually able to drive off a mouse after it took a bite out of me. Yes, we all had our turn as bait, and I was no exception. I was under order to let that first bite happen, to make sure the creature’s guard was dropped. I tried to sit stiffly in a position that would encourage it to take a bite from my thigh, which I believed to be the least vulnerable part of me. I had it raised, with my face against the floor, just waiting for either the tickle of a whisker or the shock of the crunch.
When the latter came with none of the former as warning I spun around and jabbed at the monster with my fork, successfully hitting it in the eye and drawing blood. A few tin soldiers chased after it, leaving me alone, crawling on the floor under the Christmas tree. Its fallen needles made my trail apparent, but at least their strong pine scent partly masked mine. Wounded, trailing crumbs, I didn’t really have a destination in mind. It was pure coincidence that I inched my way into the climactic confrontation.
After rounding the corner of a present I lowered my head, even sweeping some needles over me for cover. The nutcracker swung a polished nail, and it clashed with the curving saber of the Mouse King. Back and forth they fought, and righteousness was winning. The nail went through a furry neck, killing one of his seven heads, leaving it dangling. Then my commander’s jaw went in and took out another, ripping it from the shoulders and spitting it aside.
The king escaped, five heads intact, but I didn’t get to see exactly how it happened, for the head that was spit away was not so dead after all. Its black eyes spotted me; its mouth opened wide like a trap. The bottomless hunger of evil animated it, allowing it to pop up and roll toward me with nothing but the snapping of its jaws. There was no choice but to turn and crawl away as fast as I could, hoping that sensation didn’t come again while I wasn’t looking.
I made it out from under the tree, but I could still hear it thumping, snapping, and squeaking behind me, sounding closer and more desperate with each moment. I think perhaps its life was fading, and that if it had gotten to me it could have eaten the fairy’s magic right out of me and kept itself going. That might be how the king keeps surviving these things, and adding to his army; his heads can somehow regenerate and propagate on their own.
It was a shadow that saved me, passing overhead before bringing its full weight down on the pursuing head. When I looked up I thought it was another fairy, another god, but it was just a girl who would never be little to me, young as she was. Clara. She saved me, even though it was our job to protect her innocence. Her soft hand slipped under me so gently that I barely felt it. Then it was as if I was flying. Away from the battlefield. To her jewelry box, where I was kept safe as the rest of the night played out.
The battle was won, though most of us perished. Those that didn’t returned to their inanimate form, Clara told me peacefully, with the rays of the dawn. The victorious nutcracker was cleaned and placed upon the mantle to protect the family from then on. When she opened her jewelry box she found that I alone remained alive. It seems the sun’s rays were built into the fairy’s enchantment as its ending, but when I missed the dawn completely I became stuck in life.
That sticking wasn’t going to last long, for I grew stale quickly. The planned end to the spell was an act of mercy, allowing us to settle into a perfect sleep instead of suffering slowly and experiencing death. That was to be my fate; I am certain because I could feel it. At various points in my awkward life I have been in pieces, or missing pieces, but nothing felt as terrible as those days.
It wasn’t paralysis. I could move, but doing so was guaranteed to produce cracks or crumbling. My will to live screamed at me to seek dark safe corners, but if I obeyed it for a single second I would crumble and be no more. Clara couldn’t even handle me without doing damage, and she thought if her parents found out they would declare me the work of the devil and quickly take a meat tenderizer to me.
Wrapped in a cloth napkin, I saw it as my bindings, like a mummy. I would be stuck in a dark box for all time, alive and screaming on the inside, until my cream curdled into a curse that I would unleash on the first unfortunate soul to lift my lid. It got so bad that I couldn’t move my mouth, and so could only communicate with the sadness and rage in my eyes. Then I lost that, deciding to keep them closed so the lids didn’t break anymore than they already had. By that time there was a small hole in the left one, and without a perfect seal on the box’s hinges light crept in and was always in my head, even when I slept.
Clara, beautiful Clara, proved my savior once again. Her mother must have been startled and delighted to see her take such a sudden interest in baking where before she’d only cared about playing in the snow and building men out of it. The girl worked tirelessly, producing a menagerie of tiny gingerbread nuggets, refining their shape into something usable.
She went ten experimental batches of a roux-glue before she found one that would work. Neither of us knew if fresh material could be attached to me and take up the magic, and when she showed my a prototype arm I couldn’t offer my consent or protests. She had to guess at what I would want. Luckily she was not the type to ignore a problem; she didn’t leave me in the back of a closet to go mad. She assumed that the survival instinct, no matter its body, was always the same size.
With the sharpest knife she could acquire she severed my left arm and set its crumbling form aside. Delicately the prototype came down, the glue applied with a brush of just five cat hairs. When the procedure was done she told me to try moving. At first I didn’t, too afraid of failure, but then it happened almost involuntarily. My new fist clenched, the bread of the palm compressing in a luxuriously fresh manner.
I threw my arm up in victory, only to have the shoulder crack and separate it all once more. That moment was an awful shock, but the experience was entirely uphill from there. We deduced that either the core of my torso or of my head were vital to life, so those areas had to go unchanged. With bulbs inserted into baking molds we were able to create hollow shapes, resulting in a sort of jacket of fresh moist gingerbread that could go over my core.
The same thing could be done for my face, and I can tell you I look nothing like when I was born. This iteration is much more complex, more human. Whenever my core was exposed I applied a fresh layer of roux-varnish, which eventually sealed that and the one inside my head as single pieces, so there’s no more risk of crumbling unless I am squeezed or dropped with sufficient force.
The limbs worked well with the jackets. Over time, as Clara had her own adolescence to contend with, I shifted to handling the baking myself, with the use of those molds.” He pointed to the metal bundle hanging on the wall. The spirit didn’t turn to look, but nodded as if she could see them through the back of her head and the snuffer. “So you see… sometimes Christmas is pointless violence… and better regular pointlessness I think. I could definitely learn a thing or two from your story. I might just have to take the time to learn it, as I did with the baking that made me whole again.”
The spirit brought her entire body back, allowing Snaps to see that her legs were folded under her and she had been leaning forward, enrapt. Only then did he realize that she probably already knew all the details, connected as she was to some sort of spiritual fire that contained every Christmas.
“You knew this already,” he said. “I didn’t mean to bore you.”
“Oh no, not at all,” she insisted, speech more hurried than he’d yet heard from her. “Yes I knew about your Christmas. The others talk about nothing but theirs, but I only know how Winifred felt. Your feelings are entirely new to me. They are sweeping… and beautiful. You’re a beautiful soul, despite what you’ve been through.”
“My goodness,” Snaps said, his words fluttering more than he would’ve liked. His core felt like it was crumbling inside him like an ocean cliff, but in an almost euphoric way. “You would really go that far? Such a compliment.”
“It is plain as day by the light of my flame,” she assured him, putting her hands on his. He barely felt them, yet felt nothing else, as if all the ground in the world were replaced by pillow down. She turned to leave once more, but he asked her to stay another moment. Without hesitation he snapped the little finger off his left hand and presented it to her.
“I would like you to have this.”
“It’s almost a tradition of mine. People are always trying to take pieces of me. Some have succeeded. I am looked at with gluttonous greedy eyes and nostrils that suck up my aroma like a vampire taking blood. They assume I am theirs to take, and there would be no hope for me if I couldn’t also provide for those who would never take it from me. Only my closest friends are allowed to sample me, to taste what I am really made of. Please.” He held it out.
“But I do not eat.”
“That’s alright. There is still a way for you to consume it, and I would be honored if my ashes fueled you.” The spirit’s tight lips seemed a touch apprehensive, but all at once she snatched the finger from him, lifted her helm, and held it over her candle flame. It blackened and crumbled in her fingers, turning into ash so thin that it never made it back to the sheets.
“If only my Christmas could be good to you, good to somebody,” she whimpered, flying off the bed and through the door before he could say anything else. Snaps rubbed the stump on his hand. The canteen was not like the jewelry box. Her ashes were not like the bites the mice took. His agony was willing, and so gave him life. If only she could understand that being wounded was the only way to go on. With no trail of blood or crumbs, no one could ever find her heart.
The spirit did not visit him again, even though his sleep was just as tumultuous the following nights. He hoped it was nothing more than a force of habit, that she hadn’t quite wrapped her head around relationships lasting more than a single significant night. He couldn’t dwell on it too long, as there was their mission to consider.
With that in mind he forced himself into sleep on the final night before they were set to arrive at the docks. He had wrapped himself up in his sheets more tightly than an inchworm in its cocoon, yet when he awoke, the hour a mystery, his packaging had been torn open and was strewn about. Bleary-eyed, thanks to the sugar glazing that made his eyes believably moist bunching up when he closed them, Snaps tried to sit up in the cot. He listed to the left, cheek landing in someone’s lap. Crumbs rained down on him after a familiar crunch.
“Didunn wanna waykh oo,” Yahoo said through a full mouth and burgeoning cheeks. The hairy fiend licked his lips and swallowed. “You’re right-handed right? Figured it polite to take the left.” Paralyzed with shock, Snaps’s eyes drifted down to Yahoo’s third arm, the one he held in his other two. The one made of gingerbread with the bicep mostly eaten away.
“Have you no shame?” the commander whispered. “Have you no decency!?”
“Sorry.” He broke off a finger and offered it. “You want some? Like the taste of your own cut?” The Lilliputian grinned. Beings of flesh didn’t break into pieces as easily as the commander did, but he was nonetheless determined to cleanly slice the grin off that intolerable face. He rolled off Yahoo’s lap, grabbed his saber from beside the bed, and rolled back in a much more dangerous fashion.
The hairy creature demonstrated his agility, standing and stepping off the bed with incongruous grace. He was startled, but not enough to drop Snaps’s arm, or stop taking bites out of it. His puzzled expression likely had him second-guessing whether Snaps was left handed, but that was all. The gingerbread man kept up his defense of the lost limb, slashing and stabbing at Yahoo’s arms so he could feel what it was like.
Were he properly balanced he might’ve been able to hit, but the emptiness on his shoulder sent each stroke off the mark. Those that came close enough were dodged back and forth. Scores and sparks were left in the wall, supply pouches cut from their ties. Snaps chased him from one end of the room to the other, until a slash found the seam in the canteen’s curve and stuck fast.
Yahoo took the opportunity presented by the sliver of light in the seam, jumping and kicking. The entire side of the canteen popped open as much as it could with the rack; the leathery smell of the case poured in. So too did ocean salt and the spongy wood of an old dock. They heard gulls cry and lots of shuffling footsteps. The Scot was waiting to board the Challenger’s ship.
The smells and sounds might’ve brought the commander back to his senses, if Yahoo hadn’t immediately squeezed himself into the opening and wriggled out, so like a mouse under a bedroom door. The theft couldn’t be allowed to stand beyond even the temporary borders of his canteen, so he pursued. Without the verminous resilience of a yahoo he had to push the gap open a little wider before escaping, giving his opponent a head start toward the clasps.
With so much give in the leather it was difficult to walk, and that was before the rocking of the Scot’s steps was taken into account. Snaps had forgotten that the canteens were internally balanced; outside of them he was fighting on a moving mountain, one in a range made up of every country on Earth. Again the stakes nearly cooled his head, but then he saw Yahoo climbing toward the rays of daylight. The thief looked over his shoulder and Snaps saw his arm held in the mouth, drool down the front of it, like a dog with a bone.
Snaps mimicked him by putting his saber in his teeth, freeing his remaining arm for the climb up the side of the bag. He’d made a similar climb once before, up a far less stable tablecloth, so he jumped onto it with furious confidence, just as Yahoo was slipping out. The commander threw himself up with abandon, grabbing Yahoo’s ankle. He was pulled into blinding sun.
The extra weight caught Yahoo by surprise, and they tumbled as one down the side, his clawed hands digging into the leather at the bottom at the last moment. They dangled underneath the shoulder bag and swung with the motion of the Scot’s steps like a pendulum. Difficult as it was, Snaps still caught a glimpse of their destination between the legs of the other shuffling representatives and up a metal ramp.
The ship was the largest he’d ever seen in person, much bigger than the country of Minimil. It’s metal hull was clear of barnacles and rust as if on its maiden voyage. A name was printed across the side of the bow in dark green lettering: Challenger.
“Ahm wettin wohh!” Yahoo mumbled through a mouthful of an armful.
“What!? Spit me out!” The yahoo did so, just enough to shout.
“I’m letting go! My hand hurts. Good luck.” Before the commander could protest they were falling. He had only one arm to work with, so when he grabbed the Scot’s pant leg he couldn’t grip firmly enough to keep from sliding all the way down to the ankle. His feet touched the wood at the same time as the Scot’s, narrowly avoiding having the latter crush his toes into powder.
Snaps had to let go, but the Scot wasn’t aware anything had even left his bag. He kept his eyes forward and his expression bored, because it was almost time for the bag check. At the top of the ramp a rather large man, with notably small and delicate hands, was quickly opening and searching the contents of each piece of luggage. His left danced in and out of clothes and papers while his right swung in after with a silver magnifying glass.
He had to get back in his canteen before they reached the top, or he would have to stay behind. The gingerbread man ran, leaping over the fissures between the boards, searching for another leg he might be able to ascend with his lonely hand. He spotted Yahoo just ahead of him, artfully leaping from knee to knee, somehow managing to avoid drawing any attention.
The task ahead and above seemed impossible, but luck struck with the force of a marching boot. The woman behind him, the first female military officer ever to represent her tiny nation, refused to let her professionalism drop for even a moment. Every step of hers was a stomp, with the knee raised up to her waist. With a glance over his shoulder Snaps recognized that knee as a helpful springboard.
Her foot came down practically on his coattails, with enough force to bounce him, so he used the height to scramble up the front of her boot and grab the laces like he was a topman in the rigging. From there it was mostly a matter of timing, and of not absorbing enough of her march to crumble. When the foot was near its highest he sprung upward and landed on her level thigh. If her technique wasn’t so precise he certainly would’ve slipped off.
There was only a moment to grab the fabric of her pants before her leg was down again, and when his chest was flat against her knee he glanced to the side and saw the coastline stretching as far as he could see. Water was one of his worst enemies. If he was to swim for more than ten seconds his limbs would absorb too much and become incapable of motion. If it penetrated to his core the old layers of adhesive roux would dissolve and he would die. Between being crushed under the boarding passengers and that fate, reaching a shoulder became all the more important.
When next her knee went up Snaps pushed off and dove, aiming for the shortest person in front of him. They also had a woolen jacket, with plenty of loose fiber to grab. He pulled himself along by their shirt collar, staying low in the hopes of not being seen. What he hadn’t considered was the risk of being heard, thanks to the hoarse rattle, barely in the realm of a whisper, coming from Yahoo, who was safely perched on the other shoulder and trying to speak to him around the back of the neck.
“I saw that!” he chuckled. “Good show! You’re a tough cookie.”
“Quiet! We have to get back to the bag you fool!” His urgency was undercut by a sudden slowing of the line. It had compacted to its maximum, allowing Snaps to estimate four minutes before the point of no return.
“What are you so cross about!?” Yahoo hissed.
“You ripped off my arm and ate it! Where… where is it?”
“I finished it; I figured you wouldn’t want a slobbery third of it back.”
“The whole thing!? You hog!”
“I didn’t hog it; I tried to share remember?”
“You were in no position to share! That’s my position and mine alone!” A hand came up, causing Snaps to cower, but it just scratched the nearby ear before returning to the waist. It reminded him where he was, so he made a quick observation of the rickety young man they rode. His clothes were too large and held more dignity than he obviously ever had. Snaps spotted a pin on his lapel with bright enamel paint: an American flag.
The countries of the world had likely sent their expendable people for such a strange situation, but their place there still had to make some sense, so Snaps guessed his steed was the talentless nephew of a senator or governor: someone more useful as a deceased name in a headline than an actual person. Snaps considered it a stroke of luck, as the Americans had never been as enthused for gingerbread as Europeans. They preferred their caramels, taffy, and flapjacks to ornate creations like the commander.
“I saw you sharing,” Yahoo said, drawing him back to perhaps the worst conversation he’d ever had. “When we were getting shuffled by the shoulder boys, you were sharing that tasty beard of yours with that roach fella.”
“Solenos is a myrmidon! They’re ants! And more than that he is a friend. A true ally. Someone I have judged worthy of nourishment by me. You are no such thing. You disgust me.” Yahoo frowned, wiping the sides of his mouth with a sleeve, head heavy like a muddy scolded bloodhound.
“Well I didn’t know that. You’re made of food and I was hungry; just seemed like what you were good for.”
“I explicitly said, when you were there, that I was not to be used as rations frivolously!”
“Oh, well I wasn’t listening. Nobody said my name.”
“You only listen when your name is said!?”
“That’s how you talk to people! Good god, how did all the other pinches in this handful get so out of touch?” Snaps had more venom than cream in him, but his retort was interrupted by a looming eye. Young Mr. America was staring at his shoulder, squarely at the commander. The gingerbread man froze. It was too late to add stiffness, to pretend to be an ordinary dessert. All he could hope for was that the boy wouldn’t panic.
“I knew this would happen!” Mr. America whispered giddily, stunning Snaps so much he nearly fell. The boy squinted. “You don’t look anything like I heard though. Did I imagine you wrong? Like putting pasta dough through the wrong cutter?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Is the other one here too?” His head whipped around and spotted Yahoo, who was already strolling back and forth along the shoulder, having slicked his wild hair back with a saliva-coated hand.
“Do I look wrong?” Yahoo asked rhetorically. “Trust me kid, this is right.” The yahoo’s slight New York accent had thickened. His quick-witted shift surprised Snaps until he remembered Yahoo used to work as a private investigator. At least some of his clueless routine had to be an act, for clues were vital in that line of work.
“I can tell you’re the devil, sure,” Mr. America said. “Look at those chompers! But I heard you’re supposed to have my face and red skin and horns.” It dawned on Snaps embarrassingly late, especially with how quick Yahoo was on the uptake. Their steed thought he was looking at his shoulder angel and shoulder devil. The commander had forgotten that their proper place was actually stored away in the human mind and not in a government facility.
“Those are all the advanced techniques kid,” Yahoo lied. “You’re stuck with the basic model. Don’t worry, you’ll learn.”
“Why does the other one look like dessert?” Mr. America whispered.
“Tell the truth.” Yahoo grinned. “You’ve got an empty belly.”
“I did skip breakfast,” he admitted. “I didn’t want to spray eggs everywhere if I got seasick like I did on the way over… but you fellas being here is a good thing right? It means this voyage is really important. I’ll have to make a major decision, just like Uncle Whitaker would!” Snaps couldn’t stop himself from snorting, astonished and amused he’d gotten the nephew angle right, but it brought those giant excited eyes back.
“You… you’ve never summoned us before,” the commander guessed, putting his arm behind his back and trying to mimic Yahoo’s confident walk.
“I’ve never done anything! I thought you’d show up when I cheated on that maths exam, but you didn’t. That made me think I didn’t even have a conscience you know! Like I was wholly possessed by the devil.”
“Look at how little I am kid,” Yahoo said after slapping him on the side of the neck. “You barely got any of old Scratch in you.” The big man atop the ramp called for the next in line. They all took a step forward, and it was Mr. America’s first onto the ramp. His shoulders tilted, forcing Snaps to shuffle forward quickly in order to stay upright. Three minutes at the moment. The Scot was only two sets of shoulders ahead, but they couldn’t leave suddenly. The boy being abandoned by his conscience would surely cause him to loudly panic.
“So let’s get to it,” Mr. America said, rubbing his hands together. “What’s the issue on the table for debate? What’s my great ethical conundrum? Do I speak first? Am I supposed to stop this from happening!?”
“Easy there bronco,” Yahoo chuckled. “Don’t go charging in guns blazing.” The boy’s brow furrowed, and it was clear Yahoo forgot he wasn’t supposed to be the voice of measure.
“What my villainous colleague means to say,” Snaps intercepted, “is that the voyage isn’t actually the issue. No, we in your head think you’ll handle that quite well. Just keep quiet and do as the others do. There will be troublemakers somewhere on this ship, and there’s no reason for it to be us.”
“What? How could it not be about this? The Challenger said this was the biggest event in human history!”
“We’re not here for humanity,” Snaps reasoned. “We’re here for you, individually. Our world is your life, and anything beyond the peace of your mind does not concern us.”
“Yeah, we’re here because… because that friend of yours got mad at you over a simple misunderstanding.” Yahoo looked around the neck at Snaps and glared.
“Which friend?” Mr. America pondered. “Vick?”
“Yeah, Vick,” Yahoo confirmed. “Where does he get off anyway? You didn’t hurt anybody. He probably didn’t feel a thing.”
“It’s the principle!” Snaps snapped, practically causing their steed’s neck to do the same as it twisted back. “We can’t go around making assumptions as to what people might feel, eating up all the good will as we blunder forward.”
“You really think Vick’s that angry?” Mr. America asked Snaps. “All I did was make eyes at his sister.”
“You can’t hurt anybody with eyes,” Yahoo assured. It wasn’t clear if the Lilliputian was committed to his part or falling into earnest agreement. “Vick’s skin must be thinner than a peach if you broke through it with your eyes. Even if it is, he should grow it right back.”
“You moron!” Snaps barked, realizing a moment too late that such a word didn’t belong in an angel’s vocabulary. “It doesn’t grow back. It has to be remade and carefully reapplied. It takes time.”
“So I just have to give Vick some time?” the young man pondered aloud. “I thought maybe I should apologize. If I don’t how’s he going to know I didn’t mean anything by it? She just had that blue dress on, and I don’t know if either of them realize it, but it gets awfully tight right by her-”
“Apologizing will do no good,” the gingerbread man interrupted. “And ignorance is no excuse. All we can do now is give him a wide wide berth. The privilege of his friendship is lost already.”
“Sounds like he doesn’t want any friends,” Yahoo grumbled.
“The only thing to do now is be exemplary,” Snaps continued, stomping on the young man’s shoulder when he tried to turn back to his devil. “If, within Vick’s peripheral vision, he witnesses upstanding behavior, then he might see fit to give us another opportunity. He has the absolute right of approach however. Interaction is his alone to give.” They shuffled forward. Two minutes.
“Well that’s our piece said,” Yahoo blurted when he noticed the distance.
“You’re leaving? But you didn’t tell me what to do!” Mr. America whined.
“You’re confused kid. We just tell you what we think, then you pick what to do. Now close your eyes.”
“You blinked and then we were there, right? You have to do it again so we can leave. Only it’s a lot harder to squeeze into an ear than pop out of one, so keep them closed for oh… twenty seconds.”
“Alright. It was nice meeting you I suppose.” He took a deep breath and squeezed his eyes shut, counting to himself. Yahoo took the opportunity to scurry over to Snaps’s side and silently point out the set of shoulders he was about to leap to. He held out his arm, indicating a willingness to carry Snaps with him.
Someone bumped Mr. America, forcing him to take a blind step forward. The line was moving with or without Snaps, and he saw no possible way to cross back to the bag single-handed. It was either hold his nose and be bundled under the yahoo’s hairy arm like a rolled up blanket or accept that he was staying behind.
Solenos was barred from participation. In his mind he saw the myrmidon’s disappointment, his wilting antennae, as he heard the news of Snaps’s stuffy cowardice. He couldn’t refuse the assignment knowing he represented them both, so he nodded and bent forward. Yahoo grabbed him firmly, though he seemed aware of exactly how much pressure would cause him to compress.
The creature proved his talent if not his worth, pushing off with stunning power in a leap that easily got them to the next shoulder, and a little beyond. Together they slid down the front of an unsuspecting coat and before they reached the buttons Yahoo leaned forward and launched himself again.
With each leap Snaps caught a glimpse of their goal: the shadow under the red bag’s flap. They were close, but it was even closer to the examination table, and the Scot still seemed unaware they were missing. On the last foreign set of shoulders he remembered that his canteen was still forced open. If they didn’t get back in and close it the inspection would reveal the incriminating interior of the device, and they would all be immediately jailed or stomped.
The bag was placed, but it still wasn’t quite its turn yet; the inspector was busy scrutinizing the stain on a lacy edge of handkerchief. Snaps didn’t think they could land without making a ruckus, and he was right, which was why Yahoo aimed as far as possible and smacked into the leather wall of the bag itself. The gingerbread man was shoved up under the flap first and tumbled all the way down to the canteen rack.
Yahoo scrambled in right behind, and the two rushed back to the open canteen and squeezed inside. They grabbed the open lip, but then the entire bag rocked as it pulled across the table, throwing them both onto the cot. The clasps popped open together: Pinkt! Yahoo grunted and kicked, his heel catching the lip of the canteen and pushing it closed.
They froze in mutual terror, hands squeezing the cot’s blanket. They heard a muffled conversation, unable to make out a single word, but they definitely heard the lilt of the Scot’s accent. The man didn’t sound nervous; hopefully he was an experienced liar. A finger tapped its way along the row of canteens. The impact was enough to rattle them, and everything that had fallen to the floor in their struggle.
“The debris!” Snaps hissed, crawling over the edge of the bed and shoveling ration packets and other items into a box bolted under the cot. “Get everything put away!” Yahoo followed his lead, working even quicker thanks to a second arm and thick long claws like wood chips.
They heard a laugh, and it wasn’t the Scot’s. The canteen shuddered. Despite its internal balancing they still felt the movement in their insides; Yahoo’s stomach did a somersault and he tasted cinnamon in the back of his throat. The flick of the canteen sent Snaps’s saber flying into the air. Its owner lunged and caught it before it could clang against the metal wall, and Yahoo lunged and caught him.
With gingerbread feet pressed against the wall and with Yahoo leaned back on the bed to keep them away from the floor, they both had the perfect vantage point to see the bottom of the liquor tank. The cap came off, but sunlight only poured through and dyed the interior amber for a moment. Then a big mouth covered the opening like an eclipse, and they saw the nasty sight of alcohol flooding across a tongue and splashing against a levee of teeth.
It probably wasn’t the Scot’s; he seemed like he had a much less sloppy, more tight-lipped mouth. This looked like a henchman’s mouth, cheek interiors scarred in places as their owner was always chomping at the bit, eager to attack something. They prayed it was nothing more than a test swig.
Yahoo’s stomach lurched again, and they both made out a satisfied groan. The cap was screwed back on and the bag slid to the other end of the table. When they were lifted again they felt even less stable than before, but that was the rocking of the boat. They’d done it. The first challenge was met.