Although the whole week had been frantically busy - the kind of busy that finds you standing at your desk, wondering where the hot cocoa went that you had just poured for yourself only five minutes before, fragrant and steaming into your favorite Santa mug, only to find it, unexplainably, in the freezer by the bag of half-empty frozen peas - that busyness had slowed down. All the major work was done: the wrapping, the packing, the preparing, the readying. This last half-day was for finishing up odds-and-ends, for checking it all twice, for the calm before the proverbial storm.
It should have stayed that way, at least until Pre-Launch. But the siren rent the peace of the relative quiet, peppermint-scented air, causing everyone to jump.
"You have got to be kidding me," said Fred, checking the readings on the monitor.
Fae adjusted her hat, which had almost slid off her head when the siren caused her to jump a foot into the air. She really, really did not want to know. Not now. Not so close.
"Who the Bells would be Naughty this close to the Big Day?" commented Sid, coming over to peek around Fred. "I mean, really..."
Moments before, Fae had been re-checking the List. Not twice, but like for the 100th time. Her mind was still half on her checklist. But she needed to change her focus...now.
"No one panic," she said, as calmly as she could. " I am sure it is either a bad reading, or just a case of a Christmas Fit."
"I dunno, Fae," Fred replied, still checking the monitor. "This looks like it might be serious."
Great, Fae thought to herself. That is all we need.
Santa was leaving in less than six hours. Every Elf in the North Pole had a to-do list a mile long. She herself had at least twenty things left to go over before Final Launch. No one had time for a Naughty Case right now.
Naughty Cases occurred all year long, and they always handled each one with professional skill. Even through the month of December, when the NO team - the Naughty Office team, that is - had to constantly monitor and make final judges on all the year's cases, Fae and her team of crack NO officers managed the pressure just fine, thank you.
But six hours until Final Launch? Most children, even the chronically Naughty ones, were on their best behavior Christmas Eve. It was important. The last chance to get things right. And most did. It did happened every few years or so, that a Naughty Case popped up right at the end. Most of the time it was just a case of what the NO office termed a "Christmas Fit" - a child so excited by the coming of Christmas that they could not contain themselves anymore, and basically melted down. Bad behavior? Yes. But would this behavior have occurred if it were not Christmas Eve? No. Christmas Fits were forgivable. The child would be placed on a Naughty Watch list, but no permanent damage for this Christmas.
So, if Fred said this time the signs looked bad, the NO office might have to present a last-minute Naughty case to Santa. And no one wanted to do that on Christmas Eve.
"All right," Fae sighed. "What do we have?"
"Let's see...." Fred murmured, looking over the monitor one more time. "3 years old. Male. Location - Texas. Name - Nolan. Told Mom "no" when she asked him to pick up his toys, screamed when she put him in time out, would not say sorry, only wanted sugar cookies for lunch...."
"That sounds like a classic Christmas Fit to me," Fae said, relief washing over her. This would be over before it even began!
"Wait a moment, Boss, I am not done yet."
Fae's stomach dropped. She could see Sid close his eyes, placing a hand on his head to massage away a rapidly-developing headache.
"Then it was time for Mom to give him a quick haircut before all the festivities begin. He didn't like that at all. He threw a huge fit, screaming, shrieking, throwing toys, kicking the walls, and finally hitting the cat."
"What!" exclaimed Sid. "Trying to give a haircut on Christmas Eve? Does Mom want the kid to be on the Naughty List?"
"Maybe it was the only time she could do it," Fae said with frustration, "Maybe his hair grew overnight? I don't know and I don't care - we have got to figure this out, and Mom is not going to be the scapegoat for the kid's bad behavior. Got it, Sid?"
Sid nodded, his mouth clamped tight.
"Listen," Fae said gently, "No one wants a Naughty Case now, not you, not me, not Mom, and not this kid. But we gotta do our job. At 3, he might knows the rules. Do we have a reading on that, Fred?"
Fred type frantically for a moment before the information popped onto the screen.
"Yup," Fred said in a low voice. "He is a Level 4."
Level 1 was for babies, who were always good. Level 2 was for toddlers, who were just beginning to understand Naughty behavior, but who were not eligible for the Naughty List, being too young to really know how to stop bad behavior. Level 3 was for slightly older children, who knew what being "good" and being "naughty" meant, but did not get the whole Santa-thing. They most often never made the Naughty List.
But Level 4 was for children who not only understood Naughty and Nice, but who could choose to behave either way, and who got that Being Naughty could mean No Santa. Level 5 was for teenagers and pre-teens, whose attitudes made them almost always at least on the Watch List.
So, although the kid was only 3, he was level 4, which meant he was smart. He Knew Better. Which meant...
"Willfull Disobedience," Fae announced, sadness in her voice.
The three NO Elves sat in silence for a little while, feeling sad for the kid who was in danger on losing everything, just hours from Christmas.
But Fae had an inkling of an idea. It just might work....
"Listen, guys," she said, "This one is really close. He is Level 4, he is committing Willfull disobedience, but if we can just get a little...something...we might be able to get it bumped to Christmas Fit, and then...."
"No Harm Done," finished Sid, hope coming into his eyes.
"Do you have any ideas, Boss," Fred asked.
""Fred, see if there are any packages on the way."
"Right-o....Checking.....Nope. Not one."
"Right," Fae said, "Get a message to the Emergency Elves in Texas. Tell a them we have a 12-24. We need an emergency drop at Nolan's house ASAP."
Sid put on his earpiece and quickly dialed the number to the Emergency Elves of Texas. Fae heard him give the code, the address, and a few other bits of info.
"They are on the way," Sid told Fae.
"Great. Let me know when they get there," Fae said.
It was a tense five minutes in the office. Finally, Fred announced,
"The Emergency Elves have made a package drop. Mom has retrieved the package."
"Fred, can you patch us in? Can we watch?"
Moments later, the Naughty Monitor brought Nolan into view. Fae could see the grumpy look on his face. He was laying on the floor, kicking nothing, repeating "No" over and over and over. This might not be easy.
"What's this," Nolan's mom said, just closing the door. She held a medium-size box in her hands.
"Who is it from," asked Nolan's Dad, coming over the examine the box.
"It doesn't say," replied Mom. "We are not expecting anything else. We already got all the packages from the family. So, I don't know...Look! It is actually addressed to Nolan!"
Nolan stopped kicking, and switched to just whispering "no" repeatedly.
"Should we open it?" asked Dad.
"I don't know," Mom answered. "Nolan has been so Naughty today, he may not deserve a package."
Back at the North Pole, all three Naughty Office Elves were chanting, "C'mon, Mom!"
"Maybe we can see what it is," Mom decided.
Dad helped her open the box. A rectangular present wrapped with red reindeer wrapping paper came out of the box.
Nolan stopped kicking and whispering. He eyed the package with interest.
"For me?" he asked.
"Well," said Dad. "It is for you - your name is on it. But there is a note on it that says, "Only for Nice Boys, not Naughty Boys."
Nolan lay still for a moment. Fae held her breath.
Then Nolan sat up.
"Only for nice boys?"
"That is what it says," Mom answered.
"I want to open it."
"Have you been nice," Dad asked.
"No," Nolan answered.
"Then, no, you cannot open it..."
Nolan opened his mouth to scream again.
"YET," Dad finished.
Nolan paused mid-breath to consider this.
"That means you need to do some nice things, first," Mom jumped in.
There was silence for a moment while Nolan considered the proposition.
"C'mon, kid," Fae whispered, "you can do it!"
Fred chewed his nails while Sid began to rock back and forth.
"Okay," Nolan said slowly.
The NO elves let their breath out.
"Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!" exclaimed Fred, while Sid cheered and did a fist-pump.
"Hang in there, boys. We are not home free yet," Fae cautioned.
Back in Texas, Nolan agreed to eat a sandwich and an apple before he had a cookie. Then, he finally picked up all his toys and put them back in his toy bins. Lastly, he gave Mom and Dad a hug.
"Now?" Nolan asked.
"Now," Mom and Dad said.
Nolan tore the red wrapping paper off the present. Inside was really cool toy airplane, and one figure of a pilot to put into the plane. Nolan's whole face lit up.
"Wow," he breathed, smiling.
"Do you see a note anywhere," asked Mom.
"Nope," Dad answered. " I have no idea who this is from."
"Well, who ever it is, they may have just saved our Christmas."
Fae, Sid, and Fred finally allowed themselves to cheer, giving each other high-fives and handshakes.
"I think we can mark this a Christmas Fit," Fae announced. "A strategic present has changed Willfull Disobedience into Cooperation."
"Do we have to tell Santa?" Sid asked.
"I don't think so. We will continue to monitor. Any more signs of Willfull Disobedience, and we may have to reconsider. But for now, I think we are safe."
Fae leaned back in her chair, tension draining out of her back and shoulders.
Looks like Nolan's Christmas - and hers - would be a Merry Christmas, after all.