The shortwave radio still sat on the desk and it felt like more than luck when Shelly found a numbers station on her first run down the dial. A woman’s voice read the numbers, calm, never pausing for breath, reciting five-digit combinations.

During the day, Shelly’s grandfather only gave those stations a few seconds before moving on to more interesting transmissions, accented voices from places she’d find in the old atlas with loose pages. At night, he’d let the numbers ramble.

“Soothing,” he’d say, and make her cocoa in a metal cup. “Codes sent around the world for spies, they say.” He’d open another beer, grandma would read fat historical paperbacks, and Shelly would doze off.

The monotone numbers soothed her now, while her spun questions for morning. Should she go north to the city? Should she take or avoid the interstate? Which logging road was it had a station where she could top off the tank? The further she got tomorrow, the better.

“I know how you think,” Glen always said. “You’ll never leave me ’cause I’ll guess where you’re going before you even get there.”

But he hadn’t known she would leave. She hadn’t known until she drove past work and onto the onramp. Then she couldn’t go back — even if she got home by five like everything was normal, he would know.

The radio voice repeated the call sign “Papa November Pa-pa Nov-em-ber,” and maybe Shelly did doze, because a man unfolded himself from the air up near the ceiling, his gray skin nearly silver in the light of the bare bulb. He climbed down the dresser and looked at her.

She tried to speak, but all the muscles in her throat and neck froze rigid. The man’s shoulders were twisted, one leg was too short, one foot too big. He stared as if seeing into her, and evened out. He had Glen’s eyes and forehead, then he didn’t; there was a hint of grandpa’s many-times broken nose, then his face went mannequin blank.

Shelly felt her lips moving with the numbers, as if she knew them.

Then the gray man replied with codes of his own: “35-A14, 24-C9, 63-J2…”

She woke just before dawn with a hunch. In the atlas, she saw she was right: those were pages and map-grid coordinates. Places she could go.

Glen might know her, but he didn’t know Papa November.

You can hear some actual Papa November transmissions here, or read more about numbers stations in this Salon article or this Wikipedia entry.

Twelve days before Christmas it wakes. It claws its way into the Johnson’s basement to the where the Christmas ornaments, boxed from last year, are ready to be unpacked. Beak and horn and scaly-skin, hooves and forked tail all change to the form of a silver angel, hands clasped in prayer, like always.

The Johnsons are pleased to find it though they didn’t remember it from last year. Still, they place it atop their newly decorated tree.

When the Johnsons are asleep the silver angel creeps down from atop the tree and into the room where the elder Johnson boy is sleeping. With one claw it reaches into the boy’s mind and grasps images of Saint Nicholas. The boy’s belief is strong, so there is a lot of work, lots to eat. By morning the boy does not believe in Saint Nicholas any longer.

Last year the children of this neighborhood saw the specter of the real Saint Nicholas. That is why it has come. To eat. Saint Nicholas, the reindeer, the manifestation of Father Winter all are real.

On Christmas Eve it is about to creep down the tree when it senses something is wrong. The fire in the hearth goes out. Hooves patter on the roof. The specter of Saint Nicholas appears by the milk and cookies. Saint Nicholas eats, but the cookies remain whole. It knows the specter takes nourishment from only the belief with which they were made and placed.

The specter is ugly. An old child of Adam- round face, white beard. This year he is frail and thin- it and its kin have been eating well.

The specter does not see it. He leaves his gifts for the children, blessings- imbued in the toys beneath the tree. It sees the boxes begin to shimmer- this one with long life, that one with happiness, another with laughter and fun.

Hooves stomp the roof. The reindeer sense it and are trying to warn the Saint.

I won’t be taken alive, it thinks. I have walked the earth for ages and have eaten the faith of many children. I will never be forced to serve the Saint.

Faint footsteps pad down the stairs. The younger Johnson boy peers through the arm-rail and sees the specter of Saint Nicholas by the gifts. The specter promptly disappears.

When it is confident its enemies have moved on to another roof the silver angel crawls down from the tree. The Johnson boy has seen. One more meal before this year’s sleep.


Cupid’s got himself a chopper. He fancies himself quite the slaughterer of indifference. “Pow!” and movie star falls for waitress. “Kchow,” and billionaire clothing designer finds chauffeur irresistible. ‘Pada-ching!” a ricochet and there’s a three-way for a nun, an opera singer, and some unemployed douche from Passaic.

It’s a Heckler & Koch MP5 with a billion-round magazine adapted for tiny little magical arrows. It’s taller than he is, but he swings it around like he’s been carrying for ten thousand years. It’s got a sight, but that’s not how Cupid rolls. He’s more of a shoot-from-the-hip kinda god.

“Looka me!” he crows, and puts the thing on full auto. A year later the world’s population almost doubles, a lot of people and I do mean a lot die in the next few years, and Cupid finds himself on the wrong end of a scolding.

But that’s all in a day’s work for the Love Assassin.

A homeless guy panhandling downstairs had told me this was where the old lady lived. The one eating all the livestock. The one who might be my missing grandmother. If this was her, and I thought it was, she needed help. I knocked again. Sometimes old people took a long time to get to the door. I was just finally turning away when the cover slid away from the peephole.

“Yeah?!” A voice roughened by hard use.

I had not decided what to say. “Um.” My mind was empty.

“Three seconds.”

“Ms. Johnson,” I said desperately, “I think I’m your grandson.”

Silence. Then the door swung open. There she stood, Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies. Instead of a corn cob pipe she had a can of Bud.

“No,” she said and moved to slam the door.

“I’m pretty sure. My mother was…”

“I believe you; don’t want to talk.” She bounced the door off the hand I put out to stop it.

“And I heard about the cow. I’m curious. How…”

She rolled her eyes and took a swig, stepping aside to give me room. As soon as I was in she slammed the door hard enough to shake dust off the knickknacks on the shelves, if there had been any. There weren’t. A battered wooden table with a couple of chairs was all the furniture in the front room. The only thing on the table was a 4-inch ceramic horse, which was, frankly, hideous. She set the beer can down beside it.

I cleared my throat.

“I don’t know how to say this, Grandma. I hear you’ve been eating animals. Raw, whole, live. Is this true?”

For a moment she just stared. My eyes flicked to the doorway as I measured my chances of escape. Then she laughed, a true belly laugh, improbably loud coming from her. It went on and on. Gradually she subsided. She wiped her eyes.

“Raw, sure. Whole? No. Live? No. I did eat a dead fly. The spider might have been in a coma. The rest of them were ceramic, and good riddance to the lot. The cat was pink, nuff said. The dog had Heartfelt-Moments eyes. The cow was an abomination. People make the most disgusting crap imaginable. I dispose of it.” She pointed at the center of the table.

“And tomorrow? Tomorrow I’m going to take care of that obnoxious horse. You watch me.”


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