Fiction: Last Minute

25 Christmas Eves pushes on. Today's installment is a short piece of near-future science fiction titled, "Last Minute."
By: Erin L. Snyder

Adam’s car broke down on the way home, courtesy of a faulty valve. It took the internal diagnostic system almost twenty minutes to identify the issue and, thanks to the strain the holiday season was putting on the network, another five to download the schematics. And of course the emergency 3D-printer in the hatch required another fifteen to replicate a replacement. Then the site streaming the walkthrough crashed twice while he was installing the damn thing. All of this in the middle of a snowstorm, too: it was like something out of an old holiday movie.

It was after seven before he made it home, which meant arming his eleven year-old son with a world-class extortion scam: “You left me alone... on Christmas Eve! I had to order my own dinner! I had to watch a movie... by myself!” And so on and so forth. Fortunately, Adam was used to these guilt trips. He didn’t blame the kid: if anything, Derrick was showing real initiative and exhibiting advanced reasoning skills. The fact he bothered was proof he’d figured out his parents hadn’t done his Christmas shopping yet, which meant there was still time to manipulate them into spending a little more.

June didn’t make it back until close to nine, which was actually a little earlier than she was expecting. But her boss took pity on her (actually, on precisely one third of the staff, whose names were selected by lottery then informed they could take off early), and despite the deteriorating road conditions, there was virtually no traffic.

By the time she was home, she was exhausted. She gave her son a handful of candy, let him watch one more half-hour Christmas special about magic candy canes trying to regain their stripes from a villainous trainset (in the end, everyone learned the true meaning of friendship, acceptance, and racial sensitivity), and collapsed on the couch.

Adam had meanwhile purchased the rights to a new ornament depicting Santa’s sleigh being pulled by a team of fire-breathing dragons, which he then printed and hung proudly on the tree. He finished about the time Derrick’s special wrapped up. The whole family gathered around the artificial tree, which Adam plugged in. Miniature lights embedded in the branches bathed the fake needles and ornaments in pale pastel lights until June adjusted the dial to more “traditional” holiday colors.

By then, it was nearly ten; time to send Derrick to bed so “Santa” could make an appearance. Derrick, continuing to display a highly nuanced understanding of holiday tradition, neither argued nor hesitated: it was a well known fact among his friends that behaving well and getting to bed on time were essential strategies for anyone wanting to maximize their yuletide haul.

Once he was tucked in with the lights out, his parents retreated to the living room. Adam pulled two beers out of the fridge and offered one to June, who declined it with a shake of her head. He returned the spare to the fridge and popped the lid off his. “Should I ask?”

“Not too bad,” June said, lounging on the living room couch. “Hardly anyone came in all day. The place was completely dead after six.”

“Sounds great,” Adam said. “The office was hell. Utter hell. Tokyo wanted reports on the bears that were supposed to be transferred from Anaheim last week. No one over there realized this wasn’t the night we wanted to stay late. If we could have explained, I think Kiro would have understood, but of course her whole team was already off for the night. Just left us to get it done in this time zone. Then, that business with the damn car....”

“Oh,” June said, brushing the remaining hair back from Adam’s forehead and kissing him on the temple. “I’m sorry.”

“Hey. It’s life. But, I’ll tell you, I’m just about ready to hit the sack.”

“Tell me about it,” June agreed. “As soon as we take care of Derrick, I’m going to collapse.”

Adam pulled a ten-pound pack of plastic shavings out of the closet and set it down beside the 3D printer. June eyed the pack and shot her husband a look.

“It’s only once a year,” Adam said, with a grin. “You got the list?”

“I’ve got it right here,” June said, logging onto a ‘Letters to the Pole’ site, where kids send their lists directly to ‘Santa,’ all the while ostensibly unaware that their parents are able to access them. Derrick hadn’t bought into any of that for five years, but the site was free and - by this point - family tradition. “I don’t think there’s this much on the list, though,” she added, tapping the pack of raw material that they’d soon churn through the printer and transform into Christmas.

“Well... I might just have a few surprises of my own.”

“Okay. I guess we should buy the schematics for the action figures, then talk about digital access to movies and games while those are printing.” She signed into the toy site, where she’d be able to purchase rights to digitally reproduce toys of Derrick’s favorite cartoon and movie characters, as well as accessories, playsets, vehicles, and role-play items like toy guns, badges, and masks. She’d entered her password, jumped back to the first tab to double-check her son’s list, and started entering the criteria for the first search.

Then the power went off.

Silence. Utter silence. And black.

“I’m sure it’ll come back on in a second,” Adam said. He finished off his beer. “I mean, it has to come back on.”

The fingers on June’s right hand began nervously tapping against the computer desk.

“It’s Christmas Eve. They have to get this fixed. I’m sure. Any second now,” Adam said. His voice was different now. It was strained and no longer clear whether it was a statement or a question.

June was now tapping with her left hand, as well. The pace increased like racing horses gaining momentum.

“I’m sure, if we just give it a few more minutes, this will all be resolved. We’ll be laughing about this later. Really.”

Three and a half minutes later, June and Adam were shoving their printer into the back seat of June’s car. It took both of them to get it down the stairs in the dark, and it barely fit. Making matters worse, the parking garage was pitch black.

“Shouldn’t we wake him?” June asked.

“Tina only lives, what? Three miles? We’ll head over, hook up on her wireless, print some toys and games, then we’ll be back in, what? A half hour tops. We’ll look back on this and laugh,” Adam said, now clearly sarcastically. “Can you get a signal yet?”

“Nothing,” June replied, checking her phone. “The towers must be out, too.”

“When we clear this block, it’ll work again. Call her as soon as you get a signal and let her know we’re coming.”

“What if she’s not up?” June asked.

“Keep calling until she is,” Adam said. Sure, it was harsh, but this was Christmas Eve, and - unlike June’s sister - they had a kid.

They pulled out of the garage beneath their condo and were immediately met head-on with a barrage of snow and sleet pounding down against their windshield. Making matters more precarious, they found themselves embroiled in some of the worst traffic Adam had ever seen.

“Alert!” the electronic voice of the car announced. “Hazardous conditions.”

“Acknowledged,” Adam said.

“Alert!” the voice continued, “Abnormal traffic pattern ahead.”

“Acknowledged,” Adam said, through his teeth.

It was stop and go as they coasted - sometimes literally, thanks to the icy streets - though block after block of dark houses and apartment complexes. There wasn’t a single blinking light or fiberoptic glowing Santa, not one blinking reindeer or set of inflatable elfin carolers singing public-domain Christmas songs. Even the red and green of the traffic lights - that one ubiquitous reminder of Christmas that really does last ‘all year round’ was absent. It was a true silent night; the farthest thing from Adam’s idea of Christmas imaginable.

“Still no signal,” June said, as they neared the halfway point to Tina’s. “I’ll try the radio.”

She cycled through a handful of classic rap stations, country tunes, and singer-songwriters doing classic renditions of old holiday tunes, until she found someone talking who didn’t sound like they were a commercial.

“--not a good night for folks out there. But we’ve got the latest from the national weather service. The storm should be wrapping up after midnight, but the power... that’ll probably be off a bit longer. If you can stay home, officials are asking you to do so, but most of the folks who have called in haven’t been too keen on that suggestion. So, here’s what we know. Power’s out in the greater metro area and in most of the valley, so if you’re trying to find a place to log in... best of luck. Your best bet might be to head over to the Riverside Mall, where they’re selling off their floor models.”

Adam pulled a U-turn, almost getting hit by a truck going the other direction, which laid on its horn. He was about to flip the driver off, when a car pulled a U-turn just like he had a second earlier and came right into his path. He slammed on his brake and horn simultaneously, narrowly avoiding a collision. Then he slammed on the brakes yet again as another car pulled a U-turn directly in front of the car in front of him.

“How... how many people do you suppose heard that broadcast?” he asked softly. His wife just gazed on in stunned silence as vehicle after vehicle pulled into the street ahead or behind them.

Half of the shops in the Riverside Mall had closed down years ago. The majority of the remaining units had converted to showrooms, where customers could come in to flip through sample coffee-table books before having them printed, try on clothes before ordering them, and - of course - view objects in person before buying the rights to print out a reproduction in the comfort of their own homes.

Limited supplies were kept on location, since nothing was actually supposed to be on sale. But desperate times were clearly calling for desperate measures; unfortunately, that desperation described the entire city. The parking lot, which was usually almost empty, was packed. Adam found himself driving up and down the aisles, looking for a space.

Finally, he darted into a spot after another couple climbed into their minivan and pulled away. “That’s lucky,” Adam said. June looked unsure: the couple who’d left did so empty-handed. Still, the inside of the mall pulsated with light; it was the first they’d seen since the outage, and it filled them with a sense of hope.

The mall was full of parents running back and forth to the shops with toys and games while young men lined up in front of any place displaying jewelry. The storefronts where both were present were almost impossible to approach. In the background, the whirr of generators all but drowned out the Christmas music, leaving only a faint echo.

The tide of the crowd caught June and Adam, who focused on staying together - with cell phones unavailable, getting separated would mean more lost time. They found themselves swept up to the front of one the mall’s toy stores. A short, balding man was blocking the mob as best he could.

“Listen folks. We are out of everything. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can--”

An older woman wearing a sweater reading ‘World’s Best Grandmother’ demanded, “What the hell are we supposed to do then?”

She got an ovation, which gave a man in an expensive suit a chance to ask, “What about the back? The storeroom? Look, all I need is--”

“I’m sorry. I mean we are literally out of everything.”

“Well... can’t you print more? You’ve got power!”

“Power doesn’t do us much good with the network down. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.”

“Well... what are we supposed to do?” someone asked.

“Have you tried Frank’s, at the other end of the mall?”

“They told me to come here!” Someone shouted.

“I don’t know,” the store manager said. “You could try downtown.” It was clearly a desperate suggestion: the chances there’d be anything left at another mall were scarce, but the crowd began to disperse.

“I don’t know,” June said. “This looks hopeless. Maybe we could... I don’t know... explain it to Derrick. He’d understand.”

“That he’s not getting presents until after Christmas? Have you met our son?”

“Well... what do you suggest?”

Adam leaned against a wall. “I don’t know,” he admitted, burying his hands in his head.

“Wait,” June suggested. “This outage can’t go on forever.”

“So?”

“So, what if we drove north on 2. Just kept going until we find someplace where the power’s on. There’s got to be a hotel. We rent a room, hop online, print up his gifts, then get home before he wakes up.”

Adam’s mouth opened. “That... that might work.”

They practically ran to the car. It was almost midnight, but they had a second wind now, while they started it up and pulled out of the spot. Another car, almost identical to theirs, took the spot, and another couple hurried out and charged inside.

Until they reached the highway, every intersection was a sea of cars trying to squeeze through. Police had taken over at the larger streets and were directing traffic, but the smaller roads met in a jumbled cacophony of horns, screeching brakes, and crunching snow.

When they finally reached the highway, it was somewhat better. There were quite a few people on the road, but the traffic was moving along as fast as would be expected. The storm had mostly passed, leaving a light, lingering dusting of snow. They crested a small hill and looked out at the river of red lights on the backs of the cars ahead.

“It never even occurred to me,” June started. “I think this will be Derrick’s first white Christmas.”

Adam started chuckling until it grew into a robust laugh. June started in, too, until they were practically howling with laughter. Neither had any idea why.

When they started seeing lights, they began pulling off onto exits. Every hotel had identical “No Vacancy” signs lit. Eventually, Adam pulled into one, and the couple went into the lobby. There were three people before them, already arguing with the clerk.

“Look,” one of the customers began. “We don’t actually need a room. All we need--”

“I’m really sorry,” the clerk said. “We can’t let anyone on to the network who isn’t a guest. It would take up too much bandwidth. We’re having enough trouble as it is: this is the busiest shopping day of the year.”

Adam and June quietly slipped away while the others kept arguing. “We’ll go further,” Adam said. “We’ll find something eventually.”

Three more exits brought almost identical scenes. After that, he passed by the next four exits, before pulling off the fifth. By this time, the two of them were too tired to keep talking. They pulled into a convenience store for some coffee.

They picked up a handful of snacks while they were there, along with some candy bars for Derrick - even if things went well, they decided it wouldn’t hurt having some extra sugar to slip into his stocking.

There was no one else in the store beside the clerk, a thin, sinewy college kid who started ringing them up.

“Hey, do you know if there are any hotels around here,” Adam asked.

“There’s one on 55, but I think they’re full up,” the guy behind the counter said.

“Jesus,” Adam said to June. “Okay. We’ll try anyway. Maybe we’re far enough out they won’t be so strict about letting us use their network.”

“Huh?” the clerk said.

“We lost power,” June said. “We’re trying to find a place where we can go online and buy some toys for our kid.”

“Oh. I guess that’s why it's been so busy tonight. I was wondering.”

Adam tried his best to smile while he gathered his purchases. “Thanks for the info,” he said.

They were almost out the door when the clerk called after them. “Hey. Do you guys have a printer with you?”

They turned back, a bit confused. “Yeah,” June said.

“Oh. You could always plug in here. I could give you the password to the store’s wifi. If you wanted,” he shrugged.

“You could do that?”

“Well... I’m not supposed to. But, it’s Christmas, right?”

It took fifteen minutes to get the wireless to work on June’s tablet, then another forty-five to melt the plastic chips down and convert them into toys, including the time it took the device to spray on the quick-dry paint and sealant with a swiveling mechanical arm. While it worked, they sat on the counter and finished the rest of their shopping, buying Adam digital rights to a number of new shows and movies, including a few they’d probably have held off on due to content if it weren’t so late. They bought a lot of coffee and packaged pastries, and treated the clerk to the same after he refused to accept any money from Adam.

Adam and June walked out of the convenience store an hour after entering with their Christmas shopping done. The snow had stopped, and they began the slow drive home through the snow and ice.

It was almost five when they pulled into the garage beneath their apartment complex. The radio had spent the last few hours taking calls from frantic parents who’d been in the same situation as Adam and June. Some ended with the callers telling how they found a hotel with vacancy or someone in the sticks who let them into their house at two AM to get online and print up presents for their kids. Others ended with the stoic caller explaining how they’d realized it wasn’t meant to be, and that maybe they should see this as an opportunity to teach their son or daughter that there’s more to life than material possessions.

They piled the gifts up in their arms and hauled them upstairs, then wrapped everything as quickly as possible and shoved it under the tree. It was cold in their apartment, so Adam and June held each other and stood looking at the silent, dark tree.

“Maybe it’s the lack of the sleep, but I kind of like it this way,” June said.

“Definitely the lack of sleep,” Adam said jokingly, but he liked it this way, too.

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