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1: Existence is a Decision

KIERON SAT on the end of his bed. His eyes were shut tight. His hands were clutched together, almost as if he were praying, his knuckles white with the pressure. His voice came in whispered sobs. He begged for the answer to his question.

And somebody was listening.

"It isn't true. It isn't true. Please, tell me it isn't true."

It was the kind of scene you might see in a Christmas drama on TV. The one that was meant to break your heart before everything turned out right and they all gathered around the piano and sang Christmas carols. Except this was real life and the ratio of endings, on a happy to sad scale, tended to be heavy on the latter.

Dave sat in front of his laptop and watched the scene unfold. He listened in to the little boy's thoughts. Kieron was searching for an answer – an answer that, according to his detailed schedule, so kindly prepared by the ever-efficient Tagus, Dave was supposed to give the boy right there and then. But, he said nothing. Instead, he slapped the lid of his laptop closed and tried to shut the wretched image out of his mind.

On a lighter note, it was Christmas Eve and Dave had just finished decorating the tree. Well, Tagus had finished decorating it under his direction, because his hands were far too big to handle the delicate baubles and other glittering examples of Christmas kitsch. At least, that was his story, and he was sticking to it. He'd changed his mind on how he wanted the tree to look a total of six times. First, he didn't want tinsel, because it was far too vulgar. Then, he did, because the tree just looked bare without it. On the third attempt, he decided that he'd prefer a purple and silver theme, rather than red and gold, because red and gold was so last year. Then, he changed it back again, because red and gold were so much more Christmassy. Version five was a miserable experiment with an upside down tree – never again. But, finally, with tree design number six, they'd ended up with exactly what they'd started with. Tagus, needless to say, was not amused – he moaned something about having missed a back-up routine because of it, but then, that had been the whole point of the exercise in the first place – to annoy the hell out of his trusty minion, in the same way that his trusty minion had annoyed the hell out of him all year long.

It was an artificial tree, of course. A real tree would drop its needles the moment it felt the intense, drying heat in the penthouse, although artificial trees also had their problems – fireside melt being the worst. Dave remembered the time they were all overcome with sleep-inducing, poisonous fumes. That was a bit of a lark. But, as long as it wasn't placed too close to the flames, things usually panned out okay.

Certainly, Dave should've been full of festive cheer and expectation. He loved Christmas. It was their celebration of when it all kicked off big time in the underworld. He was so proud of how his Dad had managed to skew the whole purpose of the celebration towards the old pagan rites and the obsessive present giving, rather than what the guys upstairs wanted it to be, but those few weeks leading up to the big day, when he was required to 'do his duty', were gut-wrenching.

His Dad, Old Nick himself, poked his head around the door.

"Hey, Son, how's it going? How many childhood dreams have you shattered so far this year?" His accompanying laugh was the worst kind of sinister-evil combo.

"Oh, a few." Dave crossed his fingers, his legs and his particularly flexible toes. "You off out now?"

"Most certainly am. Don't expect me back for at least twelve hours, probably nearer twenty-four."

"I won't. Enjoy."

His Dad always had always had a blow out on Christmas Eve. He never talked about the detail when he got back, but his cheeks were always rosier than when he went out, if that were possible, and he looked like he'd been rolling in the soot of the Fiery Abyss all night. By all accounts, he always had the most amazing time and couldn't wait to do it all again the following year. Dave had never been invited to go along. It was probably just as well. They couldn't all be out at the same time.

Tagus walked over to where Dave sat by the fire. "He's in a good mood, Sire," he said, with a nod towards the ash cloud that had begun to settle in his Dad's wake.

"Yes, he is." Dave sighed.

"And, I'm guessing that you're not, Sire."

"Is it that obvious?"

Tagus nodded at the laptop.

"You have to do it."

"I know. I know."

Dave lifted the lid of his laptop again and logged back into Kieron's location. The child desperately needed an answer. Dave mouthed the words 'Sorry, Son,' and then his resolve failed. He felt like the meanest demon in all of history. Which, of course, if you didn't count his immediate family, he was.

 "Remind me, what's your target for this year, Sire?" Tagus was so matter-of-fact about the whole thing, it made Dave shiver, despite the heat. He was pretty certain his crotchety, old companion already knew the number. He had an infallible memory for such things.

"Five hundred and sixty-two thousand, six hundred and thirty-nine," he said.

"Across the whole of the territory?"


"Hmm. And exactly how many have you done so far?"

Dave lowered his head and let the laptop lid soak up the sound of his voice.


Tagus leaned in closer.

"I didn't quite hear that, Sire."

That was a lie. Dave could tell by the expression on his minion's face that he was relishing this moment.

"Two, okay. I've done two. Are you happy now?"

Tagus shook his head and tutted so forcefully that the flames of the Fiery Abyss flickered for a moment.

"Two? Are you telling me that during the whole of the human month of December, you've given clarity to precisely two of those on your list? Sire, you know your Father won't be happy if the whole list is not completed before the earthly day is out and they do have to find out sometime. You can't put it off forever."

Dave could feel the tears form across the surface of his eyes. They made the image on the screen blurry and out of focus.

"I know, but some of them are so young."

"And some of them you've put off for the last three years."


"No buts, Sire. You need to do it. It's for their own good."

He looked down at the screen again. He could just about make out that Kieron was still sitting on his bed, but his head was now buried in his hands and he was sobbing as if his heart was broken. Dave rewound the boy's life back to the time when his life had fallen apart, which turned out to be earlier that afternoon. He needed to get some perspective.


IT WAS a typical Christmas Eve scene. Kieron and his best friend, Dom, were surveying the presents under the tree and giving each one a quick shake to see if they could guess what they were. It was one of their Christmas rituals, one that Kieron's Mother frowned upon, but they always did it when she was busy getting the turkey ready for the next day. There were only a few, the ones that his parents gave him. The really big ones appeared overnight, when Santa came to visit. Kieron picked up one box. They threw it back and forth between them.

"Computer game."

"Gothfire Monster."

"Robot mask."

"Jumbo crayons."

"Vampires Are Cool book."

"Dinosaur model."

They were rarely right. Kieron's parents had become experts in misleading wrapping. When they'd finished analysing, they lay back on the rug in front of the fire and began to speculate on the coming celebrations. Dom was the first to speak. There was a glint in his eye that Kieron knew meant mischief, but he wasn't sure he wanted to blot his copybook on Christmas Eve.

"You know that it's not Father Christmas who brings the presents up to your room, don't you?"

Kieron looked across at his friend with an expression that combined ridicule and disbelief. The conversation was going in a direction he really didn't like.

"What? Who told you that? Jimmy Cartright?" Jimmy Cartright was the meanest boy in class and was always saying things that were meant to hurt.

"No-one told me. I found out all by myself. It's your parents who put the presents at the end of your bed."

Kieron sat up and crossed his arms firmly across his chest. That wasn't the kind of thing that a best friend said. Not when Santa was only a few hours away.

"Prove it."

"You're far too old to still believe in all that nonsense."

"Prove it."

"Father Christmas is nonsense. He doesn't exist. He's just a lie."

"Prove it!" Kieron wondered if Dom was having a laugh and was going to say 'gotcha' in a second. He waited to see. He didn't.

"Okay," he said, "I pretended I was asleep last year and I saw them do it. They crept into my room and put the sack at the end of my bed. There were no sleighs with jingle bells, no reindeer and there was definitely no big, fat man jumping down the chimney."

Kieron ran up to his bedroom and had been there ever since. Dom had ruined everything.


"IT'S ALL very well getting all emotional about it, Sire, but that won't get the lies sorted from the truth. The sooner you do it, the better and then he'll be able to get on and enjoy his Christmas."

"But how can he possibly enjoy Christmas if I tell him that Santa Claus isn't real?"

"Oh, Sire, really. Do we have to do this?"

"Do what?"

Tagus faced him, hands on hips. He looked a little uncomfortable. It was hardly surprising considering the words that came out of the ugly creature's quivering lips next.

"The three scenarios of possible futures. The ones that show you what happens if you tell them too early and too late, followed by what happens if you simply get on and do it at the allocated time."

He said the words as if Dave was supposed to know what he was talking about. His mind drew a blank, but he was game for anything right at that moment. Anything that would put off the inevitable.

"Well, I guess you do have to, Tagus. I'm waiting."

"Oh, for the love of Christmas and all that is glutinous. There go my Christmas Eve preparations down the tunnel of eternal flames."

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