Fiction: Department of Letters
What is this? Night 17? Anyway, every day between the 1st and 25th this month, I'm giving you a new piece of fiction. It's a little series I like to call "25 Christmas Eves," and today I've got something particularly special for you: a piece called "Department of Letters." This one opens in a mail room, the day before Christmas....
By: Erin L. Snyder
Iyla’s joints cracked like breaking ginger snaps when she stretched her fingers, but the sound was lost in the noise of grinding machines and rippling paper. She was tired - they all were - but the season was almost done. The shipment had come in a few hours earlier: it was a big one - always was on Christmas Eve - but it was also the last.
She was a Letter Specialist, 3rd class, in the mail subsection of DLWL (Department of Letters and Wish List). She knew six languages, which was why she was still third class: the leads knew at least two dozen each, and it was rumored the director could read every language used on the planet.
The Geola Building housed her entire department. She lived nearby in the Prudentius District. This was about as far from the action as you could get without leaving the North Pole, but it meant an easy commute without having to deal with the central passages, which were almost unbearably crowded this time of year.
Above her, a procession of letters four thick whirled by, clipped onto metal chains that rattled more than they jingled. Iyla plucked a letter from the third row in - the only row in this section in a language she knew - and ran it through the cutter, a simple contraption consisting of a gap and a razor. Five years earlier, they’d tried installing electric letter openers, but those hadn’t lasted the season before breaking apart.
She had the letter out in a quarter second, unfolded in a flash. The envelope was face up on her workspace. She drew a form from her tray and slid it into her typewriter. She slid the letter against a stand and looked at it.
Iyla did not read the letter: no elf in the department did, at least not after their first season. Rather, she captured it. Her eyes glossed over insignificant details and focused on data points. Tone, reason for writing, and detailed information about the sender’s state of mind were evident at a glance from the quality of penmanship and the formatting. Key phrases practically leapt off the page: there were only so many points on the page a request could be hidden.
It was a girl from Providence, RI writing a follow-up letter to Santa to “remind” him that there was nothing she wanted as much as a “red bike with handlebar streamers” and a brown basket. There was something about wanting it to bring food to her grandmother, but it was rare not to see something along those lines in a letter.
Her fingertips slammed against the keys, and the form progressed through the machine:
ADDRESS: 1765 Priest Street, Apt. 133
SENDER: Lisa K. Anderson
REQUEST: Bike - 099147, red
A staple pinned the form, letter, and envelope together, and Iyla set it in her outbox on top of the others. Then she pulled down the next letter. This was from a boy in Manchester who wanted nothing more than for his younger sister, mother, and father to have the “best Christmas ever,” and that anything Santa could do to make that happen - even if meant him not getting the football uniform he’d asked for - would make him happier than he’d ever been in his life.
REQUEST: Sports Outfit FB771
NOTES: Further investigation recmnd
RECOMMENDATION: Consider add. action if warranted
She tore through the letters one by one, though her pace began to waver. It was exhausting work: most elves who’d started the job with her had transferred to wrapping or even toy production. The endless tedium of the letters tried even the most focused minds. They all blurred together until they were seemed no different than the background noise of the machines: metal grinding together, with only the vaguest of forms coming through.
A letter from an American girl living in Pakistan (Iyla wondered how many different sections that had been transferred through before reaching the ‘English’ row) expressed sincere concern for a sick relative. Actual stress in the letter formation, a lack of an offered exchange, and stains Iyla suspected were caused by tears (the chemists in Research would verify) were dead giveaways.
A fathers’ lack of sincerity in transcribing his son’s letter was almost enough to trouble Iyla, while his ludicrous misspellings and childish use of syntax caused her to laugh out loud (fortunately, no one noticed).
A letter from a town in Alaska written in crayon seemed off, not least because it contained a single letter in Santa’s name written in red, while the rest was blue. This actually gave Iyla pause, though she couldn’t tell why: she’d seen far stranger in her time here. Why, earlier in the season, she was pretty sure--
She jumped at hearing her name called and turned. “Yes, Cello.” It was her manager.
“You’re good with Italian, aren’t you? We’ve got more than enough elves on English, but they’re dying over there.”
“Sure thing,” Iyla said, trying to maintain her smile. She could manage Italian well enough, but she was far better in English.
“Station sixty-three is open. First row.”
“Got it. I’ll head right over,” she said. She hurried through her last letter. The penmanship was strange, but the content looked relatively innocuous. She punched it up, dropped it in her outbox, filled out a brief form, and closed down her station. Then she headed over to the Italian section to help wrap up the season.
It was late afternoon before the department shut down for the year. Technically, it was earlier than she usually got out, but it didn’t feel like it: like everyone else in her department, she’d put in a double shift to finish in time. She hurried home, in spite of a half dozen invitations to holiday parties. As soon as she reached her apartment, she kicked off her boots and fell on her bed. She squeezed her eyes shut and waited for sleep.
But it wasn’t coming. Something wasn’t right: something was off.
She stood up, stretched, and started a kettle of water. When it whistled, she poured it into a saucer and dipped a tea bag in. She sat on her couch while she thought. It was almost pitch black outside of her window, but such was winter at the North Pole.
The work stayed with her. Something about it bothered her more than usual. The letters were now a blur. She pinched the bridge of her nose to distract herself from the developing headache. She shut her eyes, but she could still see the patterns of paragraphs, key words, and codes she had entered thousands of times a day for the past few months.
But through it all she saw a name, “Santa”, written in blue crayon with the n in red. No, it wasn’t the n: it was one of the a’s.
That’s what was bothering Iyla: it was shifting back and forth in her mind. She shook her head. It was stupid. It didn’t mean anything - just that she’d seen something like it before. That was it: she had another letter that was all but identical. Same bizarre use of color.
Probably nothing. Probably kids copying each other.
But that was just it. The penmanship was messy, but it was wrong. It wasn’t a child’s hand: it was an adult trying to disguise itself as a child’s.
It still didn’t mean anything. Did it?
Iyla was almost out of breath when she reached the office building. The guard at the bottom recognized her.
“I need... research,” she explained. “I think... it’s important. I mean, it might be important.” The guard made her wait while she tried to explain. It took three times before he understood.
“So?” he asked, shrugging.
“I think it’s a code,” Iyla said.
The guard shook his head and lifted the phone. He called up and eventually an exasperated bookkeeper working in research agreed to see her. Iyla thanked the guard and headed to the elevator.
“Let me get this straight,” the bookkeeper said, after Iyla finished going over her story again. “You want to see a letter you turned in hours ago. But you don’t know what the name was. That right?” He was a rotund elf, and like everyone else this late in the season, looked like he was about to collapse.
“I was working in station sixty-three. No. No, wait. This was before. I was at... I was at one-eleven.”
“You sure?” the bookkeeper asked. “Because it’s getting late.”
“I’m sure,” Iyla replied, despite second guessing herself.
“Look. I can check, but there’s a good chance the paperwork’s been processed. If so, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“That’s fine. Just... please. Can you look? I know it’s probably nothing, but... I just can’t stop thinking about this.”
The bookkeeper rolled his eyes and went off to check. He was gone more than fifteen minutes, and Iyla began to wonder if he’d just forgotten about her. Part of her wanted to run off: she felt ridiculous. It was probably nothing: just a fluke or her mind playing tricks on her. Even if she was right - if it really did mean something - was it really worth ruining everyone’s holiday trying to figure it out?
But the handwriting kept gnawing at her. Everything about the letter felt wrong: she had to see it again.
The bookkeeper returned soon after with a stack of letters and forms. Iyla tore through the pile until she came across the one she was looking for. It was exactly as she’d remembered it. She studied it now, closer than she almost ever did while on the job. The character spacing removed any doubt it was written by an adult, though they’d clearly attempted to disguise that fact. The text was ludicrously simplistic: on the surface it was simply a standard request for a doll. But the discolored ‘a’ stood out like a beacon.
Iyla flipped to the envelope. “Oripine, Alaska,” she said to the bookkeeper. “I need to see the others now. You still file by city, right.”
The bookkeeper sighed, started to object, then abruptly changed his mind. Apparently, he decided he’d wrap this up faster by complying than debating. He hurried off while Iyla continued studying the letter.
He returned with a cart containing four massive folders. One by one, he set these on the counter in front of Iyla.
“Thank you,” she whispered, flipping through the first folder. Five minutes later, she’d amassed a stack of letters nearly identical to the first. They were all written in crayon, and were all identical, save for the date, return address, the name of the child, and the fact a single letter was discolored in Santa’s name.
The bookkeeper was starting to take an interest now. “What’s it mean?” he asked.
Iyla ignored ignored his question. “I need to use your phone,” she said dryly.
When she reached the analytics team, she found them as irritable and unhelpful as everyone else she’d encountered. But now she had something concrete, even if she still didn’t know what it signified. She argued and pushed until they promised to send someone down to take a look.
However, the elves who showed up weren’t from analytics. She knew the moment they appeared: she’d known enough number crunchers to recognize them on sight, and these two were something else. When one extended a hand and introduced himself as part of security, Iyla began to sweat.
The bookkeeper quickly distanced himself from the situation, protesting that he had no interest in disrupting the operation of the North Pole on this night, above any other. The security elves mainly ignored him and asked Iyla to come with them. They took the letters she’d found with them, as well as the others from Oripine.
They brought her to a private tunnel - one she’d never known existed - where they’d parked a vehicle. One of the agents drove while the other sat in back with Iyla. Even before the vehicle had started, he was asking her to explain the situation.
Remarkably, she finished by the time they reached their destination. By then, Iyla was wondering whether the agent had even listened to her or if he’d just been patronizing her to keep her calm. Were they here to get to the bottom of this or to lock her up?
And where was ‘here?’ Iyla had never been to this complex. There were guards posted at the underground entrance and no signs. She was taken in, along with the documents, which were swiftly turned over to an elf who did look like a number cruncher. The agent she’d been talking to then quickly summarized her story over a phone. When he’d finished, he led Iyla to an enclosed room containing a table and a handful of chairs.
“Wait here, please,” he said, shutting the door behind him. Iyla wondered whether it was locked.
A half hour passed before anyone entered. The person who finally came for her was the last thing she’d have expected.
Mrs. Claus towered over Iyla. Of course, she’d have towered over any elf: the largest were barely half her height. She was wearing a simple dress and glasses.
“Iyla, isn’t it?” Mrs. Claus asked. Her voice was sturdy, almost intimidating.
“Yes.” She’d never been this close to either of the Clauses.
The old woman nodded slowly. “You work in Letters, is that right?”
“Yes. Letters and Wish... Yes, Letters.”
“Is that where you noticed the anomalies?”
“I saw one earlier this year. I’m not sure when. Last month, I think. I came across another today, and... it bothered me. I was worried it might be important. Was it?”
“I’m not sure yet,” the old woman replied. “We’re still trying to determine that. It could be a prank, I suppose.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Iyla admitted.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” Iyla said. “I guess I never had time to really think it through. It just seemed too strange to be meaningless.”
“A lot things seem like they mean something. Most don’t. Usually when we encounter things like this, they’re just noise.”
“Where are we?” Iyla finally asked.
“I suppose we’re in a division of Operations.”
“What about me?” Iyla asked. “Am I in trouble?”
“Of course not,” Mrs. Claus replied. “You can leave at any time. Or you can stay to see how it turns out.”
“I’d like to stay,” Iyla replied. “At least for a while.”
Mrs. Claus brought her to a room full of maps, charts, radios, and a dozen elves working intently. The old woman began to pace, looking down at whatever the others were working on. They seemed somewhat uncomfortable in her presence, but she said nothing. Iyla found an empty corner and tried to stay out of everyone’s way.
After a few minutes passed, a phone rang. One of the elves lifted the receiver and said, “Control room. Go.” A few seconds later, he covered the mouthpiece and turned around. “It’s cryptography,” he said to Mrs. Claus. “They want to speak with you.”
She walked over to him and pulled the phone from his hands. “This is her. I see. Yes, come down at once.” She handed the phone back to the elf, who returned it to its holder.
Iyla expected her to say something, but Mrs. Claus simply strolled over and examined a map. Before long, an elf hurried in. “Hello. Ma’am. I’m Geril.”
“Go on,” she said.
“We... we arranged the letters in chronological order and found a repeating pattern to the discoloration. We assumed a numerical value and tried to--”
“Don’t worry about the math,” Mrs. Claus said. “What did you find?”
“We think they’re coordinates. I mean, that’s the most likely explanation. Of course, with more time--”
The coder swallowed. “Right here. Or nearby, anyway. They’d be at the North Pole.” He took a folded piece of paper out of his pocket.
“Sinli,” Mrs. Claus said, prompting one of the elves in the room to hurry over, snatch the paper from the coder, then go to a map of the North Pole encased in glass. He unfolded the paper then drew a black ‘x’ on the glass.
“Ma’am,” Sinli said, “Should we remove the civilians?”
“Thank you,” Mrs. Claus said to the coder, who hurried out. Iyla was inching towards the door herself when the old woman turned to her. “You are welcome to stay,” she said simply. Then, to Sinli: “Add the overlay.”
He opened a compartment and withdrew a transparent piece of plastic containing a red line. The upper corner contained the words, “Flight path.” It crossed directly over the “x”.
Mrs. Clause squinted. “How long before takeoff?” she asked.
“Twenty seven minutes,” someone replied.
“Reroute my husband. Say it’s due to weather. Send him around the peak.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Several elves lifted receivers or turned on radios, while Mrs. Clause approached another elf sitting beside a screen. “Is anything showing up on radar?”
“I’m getting something, but I don’t know what it is,” he said.
She turned to yet another elf who was sitting attentively. “I want feet on the snow in five,” she said. “Send a stealth team... here,” she pointed to a spot on the map nearby the ‘x’. More calls were made and more time ticked by. Before long, they had their team in position. Iyla had no idea how they got there so fast, but she had no intention of saying a word.
The elves’ voices were garbled over the radio, but the idea came through: “We’ve got... here... least six, maybe... men. Heavy equip....”
“Pull them back five hundred yards,” Mrs. Claus told one of the elves. Then she stood still, thinking for a moment. “Clemins. We still have a few of those remote decoys left, don’t we?”
“I think so,” an elf replied.
“I want one ready to fly as soon as possible, set to the original trajectory. And I want the fuel at full.”
“Full?” the elf replied. “That would carry it to the Antarctic.”
“I don’t think it will,” Mrs. Claus replied, thoughtfully.
The elf’s eyes widened. “But... if it’s shot down....”
“You have your orders,” Mrs. Claus said.
He seemed to deflate as he turned to lift his phone and convey the instructions. Several elves in the room seemed likewise horrified, but most simply continued as usual. Mrs. Claus waited until she’d received word that Santa had left before she ordered the decoy launched.
“It’s Christmas,” someone reminded her when she gave the order.
“And I’ll be damned if an attempt to change that goes unanswered,” she replied. “If we’re wrong, the decoy will pass overhead without incident.”
“He wouldn’t like this,” one of the elves said.
“My husband isn’t in charge of security,” Mrs. Claus said. The button was pressed, and the radar now displayed an additional blip. When it was directly above the spot, the team on the ground checked in frantically.
“They’ve fired something at..... hard to see... surface to air.....” they lost communication for several seconds after that. “Explosion took out... hill.... nothing coming out of... valley.”
“Thank you,” Mrs. Claus said softly into the microphone. “Return to base for debriefing.” At last, she addressed Iyla. “A word, please.” She brought her back to the room she’d been in earlier.
“Are you alright?” Mrs. Claus asked.
“I... I don’t know. We killed them, didn’t we? My God..."
“They were killed when their own missile detonated the fuel reserve. When they tried to kill my husband.”
“Could they have done it?”
“With a missile? I sincerely doubt it. But at the very least, they would have destroyed his sleigh, the gifts, and probably killed the reindeer.”
“Why would anyone want to do that?” Iyla asked.
“Oh, we run into problems with governments from time to time. You have to understand, the holidays have become increasingly significant to the economy of the western world. If we weren’t in business, every toy would need to be purchased by parents. It would be a massive boon to industry. In a real sense, we are competitors to a significant portion of the global economy.”
“They’d kill for that?”
“People are killed for far less money than we’re worth,” Mrs. Claus said. “Kris likes to think otherwise, and I like to let him. He’ll never know what happened here. It’d ruin his Christmas.”
Iyla stood very silent. After a minute had passed, she asked, “Why’d you let me see this then? Aren’t you worried I’ll tell someone?”
“I’ll need to ask that you don’t,” Mrs. Claus responded. “If you do, no one would ever back you up. As for your first question, I had a few reasons. First, I thought you deserved an answer. Second, you showed real promise today. Not a lot of elves would have noticed what you found, and even fewer would have followed up on it. I could use someone with your attention to detail in Special Operations.”
“No,” Iyla said, almost immediately. “No, thank you. This morning, I wasn’t sure how I could spend another day reading letters, but... when you were launching the decoy, when I figured out what was really going on... all I could think about was that the men on the ground must have families. Their relatives won’t ever have a Christmas that feels right again, and it’s because of me. I’m not saying it wasn’t right - just that I never want to be in that kind of position again.”
“I understand,” Mrs. Claus said. “Thank you for your assistance, Iyla. You’ll find that a bonus has been added to your most recent pay. It’ll look like an accident, but it’s not.”
“Thank you,” Iyla said, quietly, as she began to head out. She wasn’t sure how she’d get home, but she suspected someone in the front would be able to direct her.
“One more thing,” Mrs. Claus called out. “You saved Christmas today. Hang onto that.”
Iyla forced herself to smile when she looked back.