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Santa’s Penance, part one

December 7, 2010

           Maxwell Fenton Fenwick IV wiped the ice off his goggles and peered out into the white haze.  All he could see was snow and the stark black of the tree line.  He could have sworn he heard someone laughing.  Not just someone-a kid’s high-pitched laughter, which was impossible.
           Except for his competition, there wasn’t anyone around for miles.  One of his friends from New York was probably playing a practical joke on him.  He didn’t like jokes; he didn’t like anything that he couldn’t predict the outcome of, and jokes fell neatly into that category.
           He cracked the whip and the Malamutes resumed pulling the sled.  Things usually went Maxwell’s way, and when they sometime didn’t go his way, money corrected the problem.  He was beginning to realize that there were some things that didn’t care about Maxwell or his money. 
          One of them was the cold.
          He was miserable. The parka and layers of clothing didn’t keep him warm; they just prevented him from dying from exposure or frostbite. The snow wasn’t the big fat flakes he was used to, but tiny granules that scoured any exposed skin.
          He should never have made that bet.  It wasn’t the money, he had more money than he could ever spend, but his pride forced him to follow through with his foolish boast.  He just wanted to finish the Iditarod.  He didn’t care how he placed, as long as he finished.  Maxwell was not a quitter.
         Miles slipped hypnotically by.  The only sound was the occasional yelp from the dogs and the sleek slither of the sled’s aluminum runners through the snow.  It was quiet and still.
         He heard it again: the tinkling of laughter.  He wasn’t imagining things.  Stopping the sled, he looked around but didn’t see anyone.  Pulling out his map, he brushed the snow and ice off its plastic sheath and tried to get his bearings with his compass.  The needle swirled around.  It wouldn’t stop and indicate north. 
        Someone was playing a trick on him; he was certain of it and it wasn’t funny.
        “Hello!”  He called out, his voice muffled by the parka and scarf rapped around his mouth.
        All he got was the soft sound of snow falling for an answer.  
       “Who ever you are, show yourself!”
       Maxwell thought he saw something move near the trees to his right.  He cracked his whip and guided the dogs over where the shape had moved.  Something bolted away.  At first he thought it was a dog, or a wolf, but it wasn’t.  The thing had antlers.
       It was smaller than a deer or any caribou he had ever seen or heard about.  There were miniature ponies; maybe there were miniature deer or caribou.  The thing scampered off and joined several of its fellows that Maxwell hadn’t noticed until just before they all disappeared into the recesses of the forest.  Something nagged at Maxwell’s memory, but he wasn’t sure what it was. 
       He called out again and got no answer.  Then he checked his compass it still swirled around.  Cursing, he shoved it back into his jacket and headed down the trail.
       The miles passed beneath his sled and he didn’t see a single soul.  As the light of the sun started to fade he began to feel anxious.  He should have reached the camp for the day by now, but there was no sign of it.
       Maxwell kept telling himself that he would see the camp over the next rise, or around the next bend, but he didn’t.  “Soon,” he whispered, “I’ll be there soon.”  He should have stopped to eat something and feed the dogs, but he didn’t want to be stuck out in the wilderness at night.
       The snow was coming down faster and the wind was picking up.  The sled dogs lunged forward suddenly, yelping in excitement.  The sled lurched forward.  Before him, a huge structure loomed.
       He knew he was lost.  There wasn’t supposed to be anything like it on the race trails.
       Several stories high, it looked like an abandoned factory.  Windows were boarded shut; something creaked in the wind.  There was a large loading dock, which struck him as peculiar because the trail wasn’t wide enough for a truck to drive up.  Maxwell chuckled when he saw the faded sign on the factory that read  “Santa’s workshop”.      
      Whoever the owner was, he had a sense of humor.

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