Jensen looked up from the papers on his desk. He’d been checking the children on his list all day and now his shoulders ached and the muscles in his neck burned. The office was empty and, beyond the doors, the workroom was silent. It was nearly midnight, and all the elves would have long been in bed. He stood and stretched. He didn’t really need to be putting in such long hours yet. Extended hours would be implemented in November. He rolled the list up and slid it into the circular cavity at the side of his desk.
He flicked the lights off as he left his office and strolled into the dimly lit workshop. At the other end of the building, lights shone through the frosted glass doors. Either someone was still working in the lab, or they’d forgotten to turn the lights off when they left. Jensen increased his pace.
The doors opened silently to reveal P.D. perched on a stool, one foot on the floor, one on a rung, his back bowed as he stared through the lenses of a microscope on the bench. Jensen leaned against the bench and waited until he straightened.
“Anything?” he asked.
P.D. started slightly then frowned. “Lots of things, but nothing we want to find.”
“What does that mean?”
“Fertility isn’t our only problem.”
“I know. We’re getting sick too.”
“Human diseases.” P.D. pushed back from the bench and gestured to the microscope. “Take a look.”
Jensen dutifully leaned over the microscope and peered through the lens. Whatever was in there was blurred. He humphed. “You know I have no idea what I’m looking at, don’t you?”
P.D. pushed him aside. “It’s September. You probably can’t even see what you’re looking at,” he said as he stared through the lens again. He sighed and rubbed his forehead as if all the tension in the world rested there. “These are human diseases. We don’t get human diseases, Jen. The only people who can contract human diseases, are humans.”
Jensen paced the length of the lab, then stopped again in front of P.D. “So what you’re saying is we’re turning human.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Will that solve the fertility problems?”
“So not only are we facing extinction because we can’t reproduce, we’re facing extinction because we’re losing our elvenness. We’ll become human and there’ll be no more magic in the world.”
“And the only thing that can save us is—”
P.D. pressed his lips together and turned away. Jensen grabbed his elbow and pulled, pressing his chest against P.D.’s back. He lifted his chin so his nose could nuzzle the soft skin behind P.D.’s ear.
“I miss you, P.D.” he whispered as he ran his hands down his lover’s chest. “I can’t sleep without you beside me.”
P.D. pushed Jensen’s hands away and spun around, grabbing his shoulders and pulling him into a rough kiss. He’d had peanut butter and jelly for his supper again, the familiar flavor exploding through Jensen’s senses like a memory. Jensen sank into it, able to simply relax and enjoy for the first time since… since he’d last seen P.D.
They were both panting, gasping for breath, when they separated. P.D.’s soft brown eyes were troubled. “Who are you marrying?”
Jensen stepped back and wrapped his arms around himself. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? You’re going to spend the rest of your life with her. Shouldn’t you at least know her name?”
“The only person I want to be with for the rest of my life is you. If I can’t have you, it doesn’t matter who I end up with.”
“Mer will choose someone I can get on with.”
Jensen turned away.
“Jensen! Look at me.” P.D. grabbed Jensen’s arm and turned him around. “Look at you. How are you going to be happy when you hate this so much?”
“It’s not about me being happy, P.D. It’s what I have to do to make sure we survive, that all the elves survive.”
“But nothing.” He threw his hands up in defeat. “I have to get back to work,” he said, even though he was way ahead because of the hours he’d been putting in. He walked to the door.
“Don’t come back, Jensen.”
He stopped but didn’t turn back.
“Don’t come back here, and don’t invite me to your wedding. I’m not going to watch you commit yourself to a miserable life.”
The doors opened in front of Jensen but he didn’t walk through. He’d suddenly forgotten how to move, how to breathe. The only thing on him that moved were the tears sliding slowly down his cheeks.
Eventually, his lungs expanded and air filled him, bringing with it the need to get away. He strode through the doorway. By the time he was halfway down the workshop, he was running. His feet stopped running when he reached his house, but his mind and heart kept going. He didn’t think they’d ever stop.
The day before, Jensen started wearing his big-boy clothes and his beard was beginning to curl on the ends. His cheeks were round and ruddy, his belly well on the way to being jolly, but there was no sparkle in his blue eyes behind the round glasses.
The Elves were still getting sick. Jensen knew P.D. was working all hours of the day trying to find a cure for the illnesses and the fertility, but he hadn’t been back to the R&D lab since September. Meredith kept insisting the records weren’t precise and seemed to expect Jensen to know what that meant.
Jensen couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept through the night. His eyes constantly felt gritty and he always felt slightly ill. Food held no appeal and if it wasn’t for the magic of Christmas changing him to the jolly old man everyone knew and loved, he’d look gaunt. He couldn’t bring himself to care, not even when his parents cut their holiday short and came home.
His father was once again in charge of the workshop. Production had fallen off to practically nothing before his parents came home because Jensen’s bad mood scared the elves so much they couldn’t work. Jensen spent his days, and most of his nights, in his office, crossing names off The List. He spent so much time staring at the snow globes that lined the walls of his office, and showed all the children of Earth, that nothing escaped his notice. The slightest misdemeanor was spotted and noted, and the demerits mounted up. This year, more children than ever before had been crossed of The List.
“Jensen, look at me!” His mother strode into the office and waddled down the centre of the room amidst gasps from the elves working there.
Jensen almost smiled as he watched her. She looked much as she had all through his childhood. Jolly and round, curly blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. Only now, her eyes were sparkling with anger, not joy. When they’d returned from Hawaii three weeks ago, she’d been slim and tanned, and her eyes were green.
“What have you done?” It was an accusation, not a question, but Jensen still had no idea how to answer it.
“I’ve done everything I can to fix it.”
“Well, it’s not working. You have to do something else. Something different.”
“There is nothing else to do. R&D haven’t come up with anything that doesn’t confirm what the records already say.”
“The records say Santa has to—”
“I have to marry to ensure the survival of our species, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
“You can’t marry someone you don’t love, Jensen.”
“Didn’t you hear me, Mother? I don’t have a choice.” He stood and walked past her. “I’m going for a walk.”