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The Reindeer Conundrum: Part One
by Mark Zubro; illustrated by W.S. Reed

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The Reindeer Conundrum, written by Mark Zubro and illlustrated by W.S. Reed, is a Christmas story with a message from the very heart of the holiday. It appears in the anthology Shifting Through the Snow from MLRpress. These are shifter stories connected with the holidays. We'll be serializing it in our online editions for the next five weeks. Beginning December 8, it will be available on line as an ebook and a paperback.

Today The Reindeer Conundrum: Part One.

December 23, 5:00 A.M.

"Mr. Rudolph?"

The reindeer adjusted his black, horn-rimmed glasses, but did not look up from behind his desk. "I asked not to be disturbed." He used a tone of voice that could freeze an elf faster than an arctic cold front at the height of a blizzard at the North Pole.

"Sir, it's a shifting issue."

Rudolph sighed. He checked his computer screen for a moment and then hit send. The new even more hoof-friendly mouse pad was a blessing of enormous proportions.

Rangifer, his secretary, stood next to the offending elf. Rangifer shook his antlers and said, "Sorry. He said it was an emergency." Rangifer had worked for him for many years. If he said it was important, then it probably was.

It was barely five a.m. and Rudolph had been in front of his computer since four. He'd only gotten three hours of sleep. It was December twenty-third. In less than twenty-four hours, Santa would have to be on his way. There were a million things left to do.

"It's okay." Rudolph turned to the interloper and glared. "What is it this time?"

"Teenagers, sir. Um, ah, and gifts."

"Who was in charge?"

"Blitzen, sir."

Rudolph could have guessed.

The interrupter was an elf: second class, reindeer division, shifter sector x-1, monitor q47. Rudolph made it his business to know the names, not just the ranks, classifications, and numbers of all the elves who labored in his division. This one was Ralph.

Young reindeer, male and female, loved to show off their shifter powers. The simple embarrassments of shifting gone wrong were too numerous to mention, and there'd been a few tragedies when the far too young tried to do far too much. If they brought a problem to his level, Rudolph knew something was very wrong and could escalate to a first-class-disaster very quickly.

Rudolph was not in charge of Reindeer Rearing, but he was the head of the Deer Shifting Division, which meant he had to put up with young reindeer far more often than he cared to. Being part of an operation that handled the complexity of getting several zillion gifts distributed once a year to all kinds of kids was enough of a pain in the neck. He couldn't stand dealing with both human and reindeer youth most of the rest of the time.

But it came with the job. That's what they did, when you were competent, you got promoted. Lead a sleigh one year, and poof, the next thing you knew, you were in charge of half a damn department ( tinsel and candy canes that first year ), and not long after that you were stuck in a desk job in a leadership position. When mostly what you wanted to do was to shift into being a cow in a herd in Iowa with plenty of lush grass to eat. This time of the year, those thoughts always came to Rudolph.

He glanced up at his wall with all the pictures taken with him and that damn nose and with all kinds of celebrities from around the world.

He was stuck with the red nose. Forever. It wasn't a skill. He wished it had been. He often tried to tell himself that it was an accident, but in his more honest moments, Rudolph did admit what happened was kind of, well, mostly his fault. He had been young, playing around with shifting, and he'd got the damn red nose when he turned himself into a clown. When he'd shifted back, all of him being a reindeer returned, but the red nose had stayed. Even after that Christmas Eve, he'd tried for years to get rid of it. He'd consulted every possible expert, but he and the nose were wedded together. No matter what he shifted into, when he was back to his real form…Yep, the red nose was too.

No luck. Rudolph, red nose. Screw it.

The red nose was embarrassing. And he was shunned. People laughed.

Then came that foggy night, and no other reindeer could shift to something, a clown or anything having a red nose, and then come back being a reindeer with a red nose. Except Rudolph.

So, he was it.

When he thought about it, and it was hard to forget because that damn red nose led him around every instant of his existence, he found that night very depressing. Before then, he'd been mocked, harassed, and bullied.

Then they'd found a use for him. They didn't like him for who he was. Rudolph never mentioned that they loved him because he could perform a function. A freak turned useful. He resented this at odd times, but mostly he figured it was better to fit in than fight it.

He liked his black-horned rimmed glasses. He thought they took away from the frivolousness of the nose, plus, he needed them these days to see clearly. Didn't do to miss a turn and plop into a snowdrift.

When he was really down about his nose and his relationship with the other reindeer, he'd confide in one of the Magi. They were well known for their discretion, but it had been years since he'd felt the need. This time of the year, between the elves and reindeer seeking help, the lines to see them could be half a mile long. It was a stressful time.

The North Pole Santa Complex was a generally happy place. In summers, the Magi had little to do. At those times, they occasionally dabbled in forming a rock band but with indifferent success. One year, they'd tried calling their ensemble "Stars of Heaven." Didn't work. They were still awful.

This time of the year, especially after Thanksgiving, the nights were eternal and the work unending. Consulting one of the Magi at this time took hours of waiting in line that could rarely be spared.

Rudolph was as content as a once-famous, some even whispered has-been, reindeer could be.

Yes, he'd saved Christmas. It was a hell of a thing to put on a resume. He had felt good about it that night, still sometimes did, but the nature of reindeer and what some of them could really be like, herd mentality and constant complaining, was all too true.

His doctor had suggested that they put some tranquilizers in his lichen for a while to make the memories go away. Rudolph had refused.

That Christmas Eve had been great. He didn't want to forget that. He didn't think about it often. Except moments like this when he had to trudge down to Blitzen and solve a problem someone else at a lower level should have been able to fix.

After that night, he'd been stuck for ages playing in their stupid reindeer games. Oh, sure, they were fun for a while. He found out he was quite good at them. But, he'd rather be home reading a book. Sure, every Christmas Eve since then was a great time. He did enjoy them. He couldn't deny it. Bringing all that joy to the world felt great.

But all that jolly ho, ho, ho the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year? It was too much, and now he had tons of work and responsibilities. So there were no longer any reindeer games of any kind, and not a lot of ho, ho, ho for a very over-worked Rudolph.

He sighed and stood up. Now this shifting issue would have to be dealt with. Blitzen of all reindeer!

It had been years since the foggy night episode. The elite eight, as the original contingent of reindeer was often known, had gotten old. Some had aged gracefully. Not Blitzen. He was still jumping from tops of porches to tops of walls and trying to dash away, and he could barely make the leap to the lid of a trash can. Now it was more of a wobble to the upper branches of a small pine tree and a then an iffy and very chancy dash to the next. If he even got that far. Blitzen's shifting abilities were starting to wane. Yes, it was possible to shift and transport yourself at the same time, but it took great expertise. The skill also tended to fade with age, in some worse than others.

It didn't do to find yourself jumping from one roof to the next and realize you weren't going to make it, and then try to transport yourself while several hundred feet in the air and going at full speed. It was like trying to fasten your seatbelt only when you knew you were going to be in an accident. Far too late.

No one knew exactly how the shifting worked: definitely mind control mixed with physical ability developed over years, but which precise neurons mixed with athleticism, will power, and desire were a mystery.

Shifting and transporting took concentration, time, skill, experience, and numbing hours of practice. It wasn't just poof, you're gone from here to there and turned into something else.

It wasn't easy, and the skills weren't learned all in a day. All strove to be in the elite eight for Christmas Eve. This was the pinnacle of reindeerhood. Only eight earned the privilege and some of those eight stayed on year after year.

Most of the rest of the others from that foggy Christmas Eve were old, tired and didn't even try many shifts or transports. There were younger reindeer who could do all these things. Sure Blitzen, Cupid, etc., got all the hype and publicity, but most of them were retired. Let the younger deer do it. They enjoyed it even without getting the well-deserved renown. The competition was fierce and only the most athletic, best coordinated, and expert shifters and transporters could make the elite eight for the sleigh for that magical night once a year.

The older reindeer mostly used their powers so they could shift in the blink of an eye to being part of a flock of geese heading south and spend the winter in Mexico. Many of them often did just that with the group-averse Blitzen holding out.

Rudolph realized he was out of sorts. He didn't like anyone who took out their frustrations on others, and he'd just done so. He said, "I apologize for snapping at you both. We've got a long day ahead of us."

Ralph looked surprised and mumbled, "Thank you, sir."

Rangifer smiled.

Rudolph asked Rangifer to hold his calls, then rumbled down the halls of the complex, his hooves clicking on the marble tile. He enjoyed the sounds of toys being made, elves and deer in harmony together, machines whirring, and tweeting, and tooting, and singing.

There had nearly been a revolt, years before. They'd installed a new complex-wide system of piped in music, which after Halloween, became Christmas tunes twenty-four/seven.

As a reindeer, you couldn't be mucking about with shifting while you were trying to get your work done. Elves couldn't shift at all, so they were subject to the eternal carols worse than being chained inside the biggest mall on the planet.

That's how they'd gotten Steve Jobs to invent the iPod. Now they all had their own music to listen to. Or humming or singing to themselves, or just working in silence. Rudolph loved it.

5:37 A.M.

Rudolph got to Blitzen's office in the huge, new 'shifting' facility recently built with profits from patents on computer games that Santa secretly held. The elves had developed the basics for all current computers then trained select humans to build and distribute them. There was even talk of making Bill Gates an honorary elf. Steve Jobs would have been the first honorary elf, but then he'd died. They had to be careful bestowing honors on non-North Pole creatures.

Rudolph strode into the office. Blitzen slammed the door behind him. They faced each other antler to antler.

"What is the big deal?" Rudolph asked.

"It's Santa."

"Not teenagers and presents?"

"Please, what can you tell an elf? Can they really be trusted?" Yes, some still indulged in the old reindeer/elf mistrust, but at this time of the year! Rudolph was long since fed up with such ignorance and bigotry, but he concentrated on the main issue. "Santa?"

"It was an accident. It wasn't my fault. I didn't plan this. A shift mistake." Blitzen and his bulky antlers began pacing the room.

You could shift into slowly growing things, like a tree, but Rudolph always wondered what the point was. If you're a tree, you just kind of stand there and get another ring around your butt every year. You could shift into inanimate objects but once you were stiff, you stayed stiff. You could never come back.

"What happened to Santa?"

Blitzen said, "He put his finger up aside his nose and the next second he was gone."

"Maybe he rose up the chimney."

"You know that chimney reindeer-waste is hokum."

"Not if you're a true believer."

"And you are?"

"Just tell me exactly what happened."

"The night was silent, almost holy."

"They are like that around here."

"I thought he was napping by the chimney. He does that a lot."

"I know."

"When by damn, he stands up, and like I just said, puts a finger aside of his nose, and pa-fooey, gone."

"You sure he didn't go up the chimney?"

"I checked. No."

"Maybe he's stuck in the chimney?"

"Not that either."

Rudolph placed his nose at the top of the opening for the cold fireplace. He smelled nothing but ash.

"You don't trust me?" Blitzen asked.

"You got something against checking things twice?"


"We'll have to get a full-fledged investigation team in here."

Blitzen hung his head. "Oh woe is me. I think I'm going to shift into a cactus and stick to living in Arizona for the rest of the season."

"We've got a missing Santa, and you want to abandon sleigh? Not on your life, Mr. Blitzen. You stay and face the carols."

There were rules for shifting. Just like there were rules for everything. Most reindeer lived ordinary reindeer lives: big herds, lots of lichen, too many bugs in summer, and wolves waiting to devour you at all times. Basically, deer-muggles to use the most modern terminology.

Then there were the special ones. These were carefully watched for. Some reindeer at the North Pole had children and all of them, over the many years, had inherited their parent's shifting abilities, but there were some welcome additions from around the North. These had to be found and treated carefully.

From just after they were weaned, all these special reindeer were educated in everything reindeer including shifting and transporting.

Harry Potter and all the magicians had rules in the Harry Potter books. It doesn't do to break the rules. Sure, sometimes you get away with things. The same applied to reindeer shifting and transporting.

Among those who could shift and transport, there were problem reindeer, difficult, or wild, sometimes both. They had one egotistical moron of a reindeer who changed himself into a politician. Of course, no human had noticed. You wouldn't believe what he got elected to. It had shocked them all when he achieved such power. He came to a bad end. Just missed setting off World War III, but the Shifting Police caught up with him just as he was turning into part of an iceberg. No reindeer anybody knew who had shifted into a human had ever returned safely or come to a good end.

Rudolph and his nose were another example of shifting by the inexperienced and untrained. Little good had ever come of it, except for Rudolph's foggy night and a few other incidences. Far too many had never come back to tell about it.

No, better to turn into a nice cuddly puppy, or a Clydesdale. Those were good. Manageable.

And the Shifting Police! Strict enforcers. All the North Pole bambis of the reindeer world had been threatened one time or another with the Shifting Police when they were naughty.

Rudolph was forced to deal with the Shifting Police in his regular duties. They were the most unpleasant part of a North Pole job description. The chief of the Shifting Police was a deer who'd broken his leg the day before the first Christmas Eve he'd been eligible to be one of the elite eight. He'd never flown again. He was a bitter reindeer.

"Okay," Rudolph said. "He was tired. He did the finger/nose thing," prompting Blitzen to resume his story.

"You know he's always talked about wanting to be able to shift."

"Only when he's really tired."

"You know he's always totally exhausted the weeks after Thanksgiving. It all started with that stupid Macy's parade and that goddamn movie. After that movie, he feels obligated. It's been getting worse and worse, more burdensome every year."

"Kids love the parade. Millions love the movie. The old guy who plays Santa is great."

"Fine, but now he's gone for nearly four whole days between parades and special appearances, everything from malls to sporting events. The weather is rarely congenial, and the holiday season is in full gear by then. He's got work here."

"I know all this." Rudolph kept his voice low and calm and tried to put as much kindliness into it as he could. He asked, "What happened recently?"

Blitzen shrugged. "So when the old guy got back from the Thanksgiving rush, he was neither right nor jolly. He blew through enough eggnog to float every toy boat on all the Christmas lists."

"He usually rests for up to a week. He's not getting any younger. None of us are."

"You know how they always show him drinking those fizzy drinks?"

"Yes, the ads for colas and specialty liquors. I know. The legal department says there's nothing we can do to stop them."

"And how he puts spirits into his own fizzy drinks?"


"And how he used to like mulled wine?"

Rudolph waited.

"He put a whole lot of spirits into his cola water this year and drank nearly a gallon of mulled cider." Blitzen's worried look deepened. "I called Mrs. Claus. She told me to just let him get a few extra days of rest. He'd catch up on sleep and all would be well. These past few weeks, he didn't get better. Santa kept saying he wanted to try shifting."

Rudolph shook his antlers.

Blitzen said, "I told him it wouldn't do any good, but he's magical in a lot of ways. How does he get all those toys around the world in one night?"

"We've all been there. He just does."

"Well, he wanted to shift. Kept trying and trying and then today, poof he was gone."

Jolly old elves weren't supposed to be able to shift. There wasn't a rule against it. It just never happened.

Now, Blitzen segued into one of his more chronic complaints. "On Christmas Eve, he gets all those cookies and goodies and so the liquor doesn't get to him. We never get any cookies and goodies."

"Sweets make us sick. You know that. You want a flying, puking reindeer?"

"You think it's easy pulling a sleigh filled with that many presents and an enormous fat guy? Around the entire globe? In one night? You think it's easy? They've got to be trained."

"I was there, remember? I know. What does any of this have to do with our Santa shifting disaster?"

Blitzen dithered.

"Did you check his tracking device?" Rudolph asked.

Blitzen held up a tiny computer chip. "This was on the floor where he was standing when he shifted. I sent a few of my more trusted staff to hunt for him." He shook his head. "They took hours. They were discreet and checked every place twice. He is nowhere to be found. Heat sensors outside show that no one has wandered out into the cold."

The Santa Complex at the North Pole was enormous, but it was finite. The sensors for outside the perimeter were state of the art. Whether someone went accidentally or deliberately out into the bitter cold, they would freeze in minutes.

"The last one just got back. They couldn't find him. He did the nose thing a little after two. I thought it was a joke. Then it wasn't funny. Around three, I sent out searchers. We're especially good at finding young lost reindeer and elves for that matter. Seconds after the last one got back before five, I sent for you."

Rudolph made his voice as soft and consoling as he could. "No one's going to blame you."

Blitzen began to blubber and weep. "It's all my fault. All those kids won't get presents. I'll be more famous than you, but in a bad way."

Part Two: .

Part Three: .

Part Four: .

Part Five: .

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