One Santa, Two Santas…
Part Two
By: Gabriella Balcom

In front of Pepper and Hiss, two large beings—a German Shepherd and a cobra—floated on a blue carpet. They shone an incandescent white, and the dog and snake could see the wall through their translucent bodies.

"The Great Snake Mother," Hiss murmured and immediately bowed.

Pepper whispered, "The Great Dog with Endless Bones," and followed the serpent's example.

"Yes, I've been called that," the German Shepherd replied, his deep voice booming. "But you can think of me as your Fairy DogFather. And this is the Eternal Snake Mother."

He exchanged a glance with the cobra and they spoke together. "Rise, children."

The trembling animals did as they'd been instructed.

"Your plight is universal," the Eternal Snake Mother hissed. "Hundreds of my children wonder where their next meal will come from, and blame themselves for being abandoned, dumped like trash, or suffering other indignities."

"My children have been treated just as badly," the Fairy DogFather growled. "Most of them are innocent of any wrongdoing. They're called man's best friend, but their humans often mistreat them, discard them like garbage, and move on as though what they'd done was all right. Well, it was not."

"It's high time for consequences," the cobra goddess stressed. Her voice shook with rage, and she coiled and uncoiled her body.

"What would you have us do?" Hiss demanded.

Pepper nodded, almost too awed to speak. But he cleared his throat and forced himself to talk. "I mean no disrespect and I know I'm nothing special, but—why did you come here? To us?"

"What do you mean you're 'nothing special?'" The dog god's voice was gentle but edged. "You are loyal. Kind. You are special."

The Eternal Snake Mother nodded, and lightly touched Hiss's forehead with her snout. "So are you, Hiss." She added, "Are you two aware of what today is?"

Hiss and Pepper exchanged blank looks.

"No," Hiss finally replied.

"Two days before Christmas," she said quietly. "Tomorrow is Christmas Eve."

"We're all-seeing and all-knowing," the Fairy DogFather told them. "We know if humans or animals have been mean or nice, and no being can hide his actions or thoughts from us."

"Like Santa Claus," Hiss murmured. When Pepper looked puzzled, he explained, "Carla told me about him. He always knew if children were naughty or nice and what they were doing. Every Christmas Eve he goes to homes and leaves presents for children. Carla was excited about Christmas every year."

"Larry's family didn't celebrate Christmas," Pepper murmured.

"Bad children used to receive a lump of coal," the Eternal Snake Mother stated. "Personally, I think a bite would have been more appropriate." She glanced at Pepper.

He trembled but saw understanding in her eyes.

"I guess you can think of us as Santa Paws and Santa Slither," the Fairy DogFather mused before giving a bark of laughter. The snake goddess snickered beside him.

The immortals instructed Hiss and Pepper to sit on the carpet, and within minutes, they were floating down the street. The carpet moved between people or flew over their heads, but it was obvious the humans were oblivious.

The magic conveyance swept down another deserted alley and stopped. Directly in front of them, four barking dogs had backed a white cat into a corner. What might have become an even more unpleasant situation ended abruptly when another figure appeared without any warning. A large, glowing cat snarled at the bullies and viciously raked them with her claws. The dogs yelped in pain and ran away with their tails between their legs.

"Santa Purr, we presume?" the Fairy DogFather asked with a wide grin. The snake goddess laughed.

The Fairy CatMother rolled her eyes but didn't appear surprised to see the other two immortals. They touched noses in greeting. After surveying Hiss and Pepper, she and the rescued cat joined them.

During the night and well into the next day, the conveyance steadily grew larger, allowing room for more animals to join Hiss, Pepper, and the god and goddesses. The immortals had gone straight to the animals who'd been mistreated by humans.

The entourage eventually stopped at a park. There, the animals who now numbered over fifty took care of their toileting and grooming needs. The god and goddesses conjured a feast of meats, cheeses, milk, and other foods out of nowhere for their guests, then murmured among themselves.

A sleigh flew through in the air, landing not too far from the feast, but reindeer were not pulling it. Instead, four anacondas, two mastiffs, two pit bulls, and four cats did, all of whom wore red velvet hats topped by bells. Bells also festooned the sparkling red and green sleigh.

After the sun set and a full moon shone overhead, the group climbed into the sleigh which rapidly expanded to just the right size to hold them. They flew to a house several blocks away, landing softly on the roof.

"Don't panic," the Fairy CatMother cautioned everyone. "We'll transport you inside. All of us will be visible, but you'll be completely safe."

Pepper felt a tingling, first in his chest, then expanding outward. He blinked and found himself inside the home with the others.

A teenaged boy wearing cut-off jeans sat at the kitchen table in front of the visitors, raising a cookie to his mouth. He gaped at them, ignoring the cookie crumbs falling onto his chin.

"This was my home," Snowflake, the white cat rescued from the dogs, whispered. "He…"

"Hurt you," the Fairy CatMother finished. She turned to the shocked youth, who couldn't be more than seventeen, and winked. A sock magically appeared, stuffing itself into his mouth.

"Cruelty is what you excel in," the Eternal Snake Mother accused, glaring at him. She turned to Snowflake. "Tell us your story, please."

Snowflake limped forward. "He jabbed me with things, poured hot grease on me, and broke my leg. It never healed right, and that's why I limp. He tied stuff to my tail, too. One time he wrapped wire around my tail and I couldn't get it off. It embedded in my flesh."

As she spoke, the animals murmured angrily among themselves and gave her former tormentor dark looks.

"That's where the skin is missing on your tail," the Fairy DogFather stated, his voice soft. Snowflake looked down at her paws and nodded. "And he tried to set you on fire, didn't he?"

Ignoring the onlookers' horrified gasps, he turned stern eyes on the boy, then asked the assembled animals, "Innocent or guilty?"

"Guilty!" they cried out.

"Guilty," the immortals repeated in unison.

The Fairy CatMother raised a paw. A stick materialized in front of her, then flew through the air to jab the kid in his side. He jerked, trying to get away, but an invisible force kept him in his seat. The stick jabbed him again and again until blood trickled from the wounds.

The Eternal Snake Mother made a low, hissing sound, and a pencil also appeared. It soared toward the youth. Stabbing him in the stomach once, then again, slow and deliberate, it only stopped after blood spilled from several holes. Then the pencil and stick both vanished.

Managing to spit the sock out of his mouth, the kid wailed.

The Fairy DogFather stepped forward and gestured toward the youth. A piece of barbed wire popped into sight. Wrapping itself around the boy's calf, it got tighter and tighter until it was deeply embedded in bloody, torn flesh.

"Now come out," the snake goddess commanded.

The youth uttered horrified screams as the wire yanked itself free, chunks of flesh coming with it.

Padding forward, the Fairy CatMother spoke. "For the remainder of your punishment, we sentence you to live as a cat for one year."

She inclined her head, and the boy's injuries vanished. An orb of white light surrounded him, and when it cleared, a white cat sat where the boy had been.

When the immortals and animals reappeared on the roof, they heard the boy-cat meowing from the yard. They were climbing into the sleigh when a screech rang out. A kid carrying a bat chased the now-cat. Everyone watched as the animal shot across a yard and got away from the boy, but ran into a pack of dogs. He turned and ran as fast as his new paws would carry him, the dogs right behind him.

The sleigh lifted off and the entourage proceeded to visit the animals' prior homes, where those who'd been unkind were confronted.

At some point, the sleigh left the city behind. As it soared, the Eternal Snake Mother, Fairy DogFather, and Fairy CatMother called out:

"Christmas Eve has arrived
and our plans won't be thwarted.
On an important journey we go,
and our mission won't be aborted.

Everyone, prepare for our arrival.
We bring long-past-due justice.
Your treatment of our children
we know, and no one we'll miss.

If you're good, have no fear.
If bad, don't bother fleeing.
We know your every thought
and location. We're all-seeing.

To each and every evil-doer,
this is your night of just dues.
However you treated animals
will soon be repaid to you."

The sleigh soared into a metropolis, landing atop a tall apartment building. The immortals magically transported everyone into an apartment, where they surrounded an older woman. She screamed and grabbed a poker from the fireplace, but it immediately glowed red-hot, causing her to drop it.

"I'm Fuzzy," a brown rabbit missing an eye said. "This is where I lived." He hopped forward. "She got me when I was a kit. When people were around, she acted nice, but in private she was nothing like that." Fuzzy rose on his hind legs, and the animals could see small, circular patches of fur missing on his belly. "She made these by burning me with cigarettes. A few times, she bathed me in water so hot I lost all my fur."

"That's awful," Pepper blurted. "Didn't anyone notice?"

"She lived by herself and never took me outside. If visitors came, I was stuck in my cage and put in a back room, so no one knew."

"What happened?" Hiss asked.

"Yes," the Eternal Snake Mother agreed. "Please tell the rest, including how you got away."

"Sometimes she didn't feed me, but that was better than when she poured hot stuff down my throat." Fuzzy's voice shook. "I could barely swallow. She did many mean things to me."

He cleared his throat. "One day she got a knife and began to cut off my foot. It hurt. Blood squirted everywhere. I knew she'd kill me if I didn't do something, so I kicked her to get away. She tried to catch me, and almost did, but I screamed. Rabbits can be extremely loud, you know. Some man came to her door and asked if everything was all right. He kicked open the door, and I ran out. She chased after me but couldn't catch me."

"You nasty thing," the woman spat, tightening her lips and glaring at Fuzzy with cold, unrepentant eyes.

"Shut up!" the Fairy DogFather snarled at her. Voice harsh, he called out, "I summon the witnesses who have passed on."

A rabbit ghost winked into sight, followed by others—two cats, a gerbil, and a parrot. One by one, the dead animals offered testimonies very similar to Fuzzy's.

It was a few moments before anyone spoke. Then the Eternal Snake Mother hissed, "Innocent or guilty?"

The answer wasn't a surprise.

In short order, the goddesses and god conjured lit cigarettes that poked the woman again and again. She opened her mouth to yell but couldn't. Pots of steaming water appeared above her head, then tipped and trickled boiling water onto her. She flailed around, clearly ranting, and silently screamed.

All of the witnesses were invited to help administer punishment, and only the gerbil abstained. One by one the other animals bit the woman, jabbed her with their claws—the parrot with her beak—and repeatedly slashed her.

"Witnesses, we thank you for your testimony," the Fairy CatMother said later. "We are sorry for the horrors you endured. Although we cannot undo death and allow you to live again, know your lives had meaning, and she who tortured you will never be able to hurt another animal." The dead were then returned to the afterlife.

When the visitors left the apartment, the woman lay motionless on the floor, blood pooling around her. Her right foot was missing.

Throughout the majority of the night, the sleigh traversed the country. Dozens of animals shared how their owners had abused or hurt them. Dead witnesses spoke up, and wrongdoers received justice. Most were made to suffer the same indignities as their former pets, and many received extended sentences.

Eventually, the immortals landed the sleigh on a building, and their guests wondered who'd face the consequences of their actions now. Once more, everyone vanished and reappeared in a small hallway.

"Please scratch at that door beside you," The Fairy DogFather told Pepper.

Although Pepper obliged, he wondered why they hadn't just been taken inside the apartment to confront the next accused.

The door opened. An old man stood in the doorway.

"Strange," the man said, glancing over his shoulder to speak with someone. "A stray dog is at the door." It was obvious he couldn't see anyone but Pepper.

"Our neighbors don't have pets," a woman replied.

"Will you bring in the dog, so I can see him?" a person with a high-pitched voice asked from inside the apartment.

Pepper's chest tightened and there was a fluttering in his stomach, as if he'd swallowed a moth. He didn't know what to think. "What am I supposed to do?" he whispered to the nearby immortals, but they didn't reply.

The man sighed. "I know you like animals," he said, turning to look at somebody behind him. "But it could have fleas or ticks. It could have a disease."

"Please," the individual with the higher voice pleaded. "I'd come there, but…"

"All right, Dear." Opening the door wide, the old man stepped back and knelt, speaking to Pepper. "Come here, fella. You can come inside. It's all right. I promise I won't hurt you."

Although Pepper had planned to walk away, he had the strangest feeling that he should go in. Strangely, he felt he'd be safe. Not trusting these impulses and uncertain what to do, he glanced at the god and goddesses.

"Go inside, child," the Eternal Snake Mother instructed, her eyes sparkling. The other immortals said nothing, their expressions impassive.

Pepper looked at Hiss, who narrowed his eyes, before slowly padding through the open doorway, taking quick sniffs as he went. He froze when he saw the teenage boy sitting on a couch just a few feet away and sniffed again.

"What a beautiful dog you are," the teen exclaimed. As he tried to stand, he moaned and his body shook. He stopped trying and held out his hand.

Pepper saw how badly it quivered, and he trembled. The scent he smelled was one he never expected to smell again, and despite his memories reminding him of why he'd first felt hurt and bitterness, he couldn't help but hope.

Hurrying forward, Pepper placed his paws on the couch, and leaned forward to touch the boy's face with his nose. Then he stared at the teen.

The youth gasped, reached up, and touched his own cheek. "Grandpa, he touched my face. That's what my dog used to do." He struggled to lift Pepper, but it seemed he wasn't strong enough. He stared deeply into the dog's eyes. "He looks just like Pepper." A tear streaked the boy's face. "He acts like my dog did." When Pepper climbed onto the couch and snuggled near, he insisted, "This is Pepper."

"Larry," the elderly man replied, "it's very unlikely this is the same dog you had years ago." He bit his lip and glanced over at the old woman who'd joined them from another room.

"When Mom and Dad dumped me here after I got sick, they said they left Pepper at home. He was my best friend, but they didn't care. They discarded him the same way they did me. But he found me, and he's here now."

"Honey, I understand how badly your parents' choices have hurt you," the elderly woman said, her voice soft. "But I hope you know we love you dearly and were thrilled to have you. We are still thrilled, and you mean the world to us."

"I know, Grandma." Larry laughed as Pepper licked his face. "I love you and Grandpa very much. But I love Pepper, too. I just know this is him. Look how happy he is to be back with me."

He hugged Pepper, and promised him, "I've missed you so much and we won't ever be separated again."

Pepper woofed gently and got even closer to his beloved friend. Eyeing the invisible group, many of whose eyes were damp, he whispered, "Thank you."

***

The animal-drawn sleigh landed in a meadow in the country. A small home surrounded by trees stood only a couple hundred yards away, and the immortals' guests looked around curiously.

The Fairy CatMother glanced at the silent animals. "It's early morning now," she said, her voice mild. "Christmas Day. You've witnessed one happy reunion and many, many instances of justice in action. Each of you has endured sadness and pain, and you deserve to live out your days in peace and plenty."

Looking directly at Hiss, the Eternal Snake Mother leaned forward to place a gentle kiss on his forehead. "You should go to the home over there."

Hiss's eyes reflected incomprehension. "Why? You already punished Carla's parents and the worst of the people who were—cruel. I know there were others who were unpleasant, but they didn't succeed in killing me, so…"

"Trust us," the Fairy CatMother urged, and the Fairy DogFather woofed encouragingly.

Hiss slithered from the sleigh and slowly moved in the direction of the home. He was only a few feet from the doorstep when the door opened, and he instantly stopped moving.

He heard someone take a sharp breath. "Oh, you're beautiful," a woman said.

Heart twinging, Hiss wondered who she'd spoken to. He hoped she wouldn't try to stomp or kill him. He didn't even hear the other animals who'd followed him being told to stay back.

But the woman knelt right in front of him and addressed him directly. "Hello, there. Where did you come from?"

Hiss tensed. When he raised his head to look at her, he found himself unable to breathe. Blue-green eyes studied him, and he'd know them anywhere.

"You look just like a snake I had long ago, only bigger," Carla said. "Don't be scared." She reached to gently pick him up.

Hiss thought his heart would burst, and he touched her nose with his snout.

She gasped, then studied him more closely. "You can't be—Hiss?" Eyes wide with shock, she began to smile and kissed his head. "My parents told me you died long ago, but I know it's you."

***

The watching animals were totally silent as they saw Hiss experiencing the very thing they'd each dreamed of—someone being kind and loving. When the immortals urged them to return to the sleigh, they did but most looked backward longingly.

"That is what each of you deserve," the Fairy CatMother told them once they were airborne.

"And what you will get," the Eternal Snake Mother added.

The Fairy DogFather smiled at them. "Who's next?"

The End.

-

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