ou don't seem very surprised," the water sprite said. The thing spoke in a squeaky voice. About six inches in height, it stared up at Harold from where it stood in the middle of the kitchen sink. For an alcoholic delusion, it was truly lovely, all translucent green, tiny, and svelte. One could say it had a Dresden-porcelain face, so fine-featured was it, with expressive crystalline eyes, an aquiline nose, and palest, pouting lips of a most delicate shade of emerald.

"Well, I shouldn't be," agreed Harold, amiably enough, as he continued to gaze down at the gossamer-looking creature.

It looks feminine, he thought, although he didn't see any significant breasts, but then it was wearing a loosely fitted gown of what looked to be Grecian design. Charming, but not very revealing.

Is it female? He hoped so. If his mind was conjuring this up, as he felt it certainly had to be, then he preferred his hallucinations to be female. Harold didn't want to deal with any unknown or long-buried gender issues regarding himself at this late stage of his life. He was barely handling things as it was.

Aloud, he said, "After last night's Christmas party, I guess I should've expected something like this. Although, I would have thought it was when I was still drunk that I'd have seen something like you--not when I'm nursing such a rotten hangover the next morning. Lord, I bet I've got alcohol poisoning. I wonder if I should see a doctor?"

"Humans," the sprite said in a sulky tone of voice and then gave a disdainful sniff. "You never accept reality for what it really is, do you?"

"You're a fine one to talk about reality, a thing like you, and from the middle of my sink. Like that happens every day. Would you get out of the way?" Harold asked, none too politely. "I really need a glass of water. If I don't get some aspirin down me and quick, trust me, you won't like the results. I'm feeling pretty nauseous."

A fearful expression passed like a wave over the thing's miniscule face. Then, reluctantly, it seemed, the ethereal little nymph hopped out of the stainless steel sink, but it didn't venture far from the edge. It just stood near it, expressionless, with arms folded across its chest, while he turned the tap and filled a glass with cold water.

He popped four aspirins into his mouth. This was double the recommended dosage, but under the circumstances, with an imaginary creature chatting away at him, it seemed a reasonable thing to do. Noisily, he gulped some of the water, and swallowed the pills.

"Finished?" asked the water sprite, too tartly, Harold felt, considering it had come here uninvited. Without waiting for an answer, it hopped back into the sink, splashing its delicate bare feet about in the remaining little puddle of water. It looked happier now.

"Then we'd better get down to business," the sprite added, in a sprightly sort of tone.

"Oh, down to what business, exactly?" Harold wasn't really interested in the answer. Who would be? One couldn't take a hallucination with an agenda too seriously. Besides, he expected the sprite to fade away any time now, once the pills started taking effect. All he had to do was wait and humor the thing until then.

Just how long do aspirins take to begin working? he wondered. Maybe, given what he was seeing, he should have taken a couple of Tylenol, as well. It might have hurried things along some. . .

"We have to rescue a kidnapped elf."

Well! This delusion not only had an agenda, but it was a darned original one at that. Whatever alcohol had caused this, and he'd drunk many different types last night, it must have had some weird stuff in it! Fleetingly, Harold wondered if he might have imbibed Absinthe somewhere along the way without knowing it. Known as the "Little Green Fairy," because of supposed hallucinatory side effects, Absinthe might explain this.

The sprite was regarding him expectantly. Harold decided he should continue humoring the thing just a little longer. Although he only wanted to go back to bed. Still, there was no sense inadvertently sending himself off onto some bad trip. Dealing with angry hallucinations while enduring a throbbing headache didn't seem like a great idea. Besides, the aspirins had to work soon.

He clung to this hope, as he said, "We have to rescue an elf, do we? And why is that? Surely, they must get kidnapped all the time." This, he knew, sounded a tad condescending, but he couldn't help it.

The sprite sighed, seemingly not having missed the tenor of Harold's response. Then it said, "Why do you think? Because it's a very important elf, that's why."

"How important?"

"What season is this?"

Taken off guard by this question, Harold blinked. "Winter," he said, slowly.

"Try again!" The sprite stamped one tiny foot in seeming frustration. This sent a fine spray of water several inches into the air.

You have to admire the details of this delusion, Harold thought, with a reluctant admiration. They were good. But never having had such a vision before, he wasn't sure just how good they should be. After all, weren't hallucinations supposed to seem very real? "It is winter," he said, perhaps a little too stubbornly, because the sprite frowned darkly up at him. "Look." He pointed out of the kitchen window to prove his point. "There's snow on the ground."

"Duh," said the little thing. "And what holiday do you celebrate at this time of year? Think carefully now. I don't mean New Year's."

"Oh. . . " Harold's voice trailed off, as he realized what the delusion was driving at. "You mean Christmas."

"Ta-da!"

"Well, you don't have to be so sarcastic about it." Now it was Harold's turn to sound sulky. "After all, you said 'season,' and not 'holiday.'"

"Ever heard of the saying, 'Season's Greetings,' Harold?" it asked. "In any case, moving right along," the sprite added, before he could answer, "given that the season is Christmas, and a certain elf has been kidnapped, a very important one at that, just which elf would you suppose it might be?"

Harold hesitated before answering, feeling faintly ridiculous. "Santa?" He almost whispered it.

"You got it!" The sprite gave a little happy dance. Well, it was more of just a simple two-step actually, but it again caused a cloud of mist to build about its miniature feet.

"You're being sarcastic again," Harold accused.

"And you're being obtuse! Come on. We've got to get going. We've got to save Santa."

"Unh-unh," Harold said, firmly, while shaking his head, which caused it to throb even harder. "I'm not going anywhere. I don't believe in Santa--never really did. All that nonsense about him delivering presents on Christmas and such. Pure malarkey!"

"Malarkey? Well, what a quaint expression." If someone could actually put a sneer into their words, then this delusion had just managed it very well.

"I stand by what I said," Harold said, mulishly. "I'm not going with an imaginary creature to save another imaginary creature in a red suit that does imaginary things. That's just too many imaginaries in a row. In fact, I'm going back to bed where I belong. So you need to disappear now."

"He doesn't wear red."

"What?" Harold paused as he'd begun to turn away. Now he turned back. "Santa doesn't wear red?"

"Of course not. That's just a silly thing you humans invented. And he doesn't deliver presents, either. He's the spirit of Christmas-giving, not the fact of it. Without him, there would be no goodwill at this time of year. And let's be realistic here. This is about the only time of year you humans feel any goodwill to each other at all. So you need it! Besides, if he did deliver packages, his clothes wouldn't be red anyway. Not practical. He'd probably wear something more like a UPS outfit."

Harold tried to visualize Santa in a brown UPS uniform, one with the shorts and long socks. He failed utterly at conjuring this image. This was weird when one thought about it, because he'd done great with creating the water sprite.

Why aren't those aspirins working yet, he wondered, beginning to feel a little desperate now.

"So let's get going."

"What are you going to do, whisk me away through the plumbing like you supposedly came here?"

The sprite shook its little head. "No. As good and vast a subway network as your human plumbing has created for us, you wouldn't fit. You wouldn't make it through the traps, let alone the drains. Not with that belly!" It jabbed a finger at Harold's bulging stomach. "No, I'm afraid that traveling by plumbing is just a pipe-dream for you." The sprite smirked at its own pun, before adding, "We'll just have to go in your car."

To get some of his own back, Harold asked, "Are toilets a problem when you travel? Not in cars, I mean, but in the plumbing? I should think they would be. One wrong turn down there in the pipes, and. . . "

Now the sprite frowned again. "Harold," it said, "You're digressing, and not in a good way."

"Be that as it may, I'm still not going. Besides, I don't even know where you want to go, or if I can even get there. Is it in fairyland or somewhere like that?"

"Fairyland? You really take the cake, you know that? No, Harold, it's not in fairyland, not that there is any such place. We live in the real world, although I'm beginning to suspect that you don't. But you can drive to where we're going. You get there often enough now. We have to go to your vacation home, your watermill house up in Vermont."

"Vermont? That's a long drive from here."

"Try it through the plumbing sometime. Now that's a journey!"

"And an interesting one, I'll bet." Harold grinned maliciously after he said this.

"Now who's being sarcastic?"

"I'm still not going."

"You have to. You're the owner of the property where they're holding him, so it has to be you. Nobody else will do."

"I'm afraid they'll have to, because I'm going right back to bed."

The water sprite gave a huge sigh, before saying, "Look, Harold, it's not like I want you in particular--far from it. As a middle-aged, pot-bellied, and balding man, you're hardly my first choice for hero of the day. But as owner of the property, you're the only one who has a chance. And if you don't go along with me on this, I can always summon a lot more water sprites to help persuade you."

"That sounds like a threat. What are you all going to do--have a big River Dance in my toilet bowl to pressure me?" Harold grinned again, feeling sure he had the upper hand. After all, he was a lot bigger. What did he have to fear from a fictitious water sprite?

"Do you like major plumbing problems, Harold?" the sprite countered, "Because you'll have them! We have fountain sprites, river sprites, lake sprites, and ocean sprites at our disposal, and they all have control over their types of water. So, just out of curiosity, how much water can your pipes hold at any given time without bursting? Ever wondered that, because if you have, now may be the time to find out."

"Ah. . ."

"Ah, indeed, Harold." It was the water sprite's turn to grin now. "So, shall we get going?"

"And just who's paying for all the gas?"

"Harold?"

"Yes?"

"How long can you tread water?"

"Ah. . ."

* * *

he drive up from New York had been a tricky one, what with the ice and snow on the roads everywhere. And not only did Harold's hangover refuse to lessen in degree of severity along the way, but also the water sprite insisted on listening to a classical music channel with the volume on high. Although Harold had never liked Beethoven, particularly, neither had he nursed any sort of special grudge against him, either, until now. There were far too many notes, in Harold's opinion, and all of them much too loud!

But even more, he resented the little water sprite, as it stood in a sloshing, half-filled glass of water that sat in the cup holder. The diminutive creature remained there for the entire journey, moving its dinky little hands, as if it were conducting an imaginary orchestra with an equally imaginary baton.

Well, small things for small minds, Harold thought, rather smugly. "Here we are," he said aloud much later and with a patent relief, as he pulled the car into a long, tree-lined driveway. This led up to the converted watermill that served as his personal retreat in the woods, a squat-looking wooden haven far from the city. "At long last."

"Still have that nasty hangover, Harold?" the sprite asked.

"Worse than ever," he said. "Now, let's get this over with. Where have they locked up Santa? Just tell me and I'll go and release him. Is he in the hall closet?"

"Oh, it's not quite that straightforward, I'm afraid."

Harold gave a mental sigh at this, before saying, "It never is, is it? I suppose I have to go on some stupid quest, or something?"

"Oh, do get real, Harold. You don't have to do anything of the sort. You just have to overpower the kidnapper and then you can command it to release Santa."

"If it's so straightforward, why don't you just do it?"

"Ah. . . "

"I'm waiting for an answer here."

"Well, I certainly can't overcome a Vila alone. They're big and quite powerful, as well as being of a rather nasty disposition. You know the type; morose and sullen, with that East European sort of melancholy, and so touchy about their honor! And if we sprites here tried to all gang up on it, it might call for help. That could start a major war. We can't have that. Besides, there may be more of them than there are of us, which wouldn't play out at all well. Anyway, as the human owner, it really is your place to--"

"Wait a minute," Harold demanded, interrupting the sprite. "Hold it right there. Just who or what is a Vila?"

"Ah. . . I was afraid you might ask that." The sprite actually contrived to look contrite, its little eyes downcast, as it studied its feet.

"Well?"

It looked up at him again, as it said, "Well it's a sprite like us of sorts. But they're bigger than we are and much faster. And. . . well. . . a good deal meaner."

"Oh, God!" Harold slumped forward over the steering wheel, resting his head on his hands there. "I swear I'll never get drunk again."

"You just might want to hold off on that promise until after this is over. You might want one last fling as a celebration."

Harold turned on the little thing. "I don't get it," he snarled. "Why is Santa so important to you? He's an elf and you're a sprite--not even the same species!"

Now the thing looked suddenly very awkward. It avoided his gaze, and shifted its weight back and forth from one tiny foot to the other. "I'm waiting," Harold said, coldly. "Well?"

At last it looked up at him. "Can't we still care about someone else's plight, even if they are from another species? Can't we show a little compassion? Can't we reach out? Can't we all just get along?"

Harold thought about this for a moment. Then a realization hit him. "This isn't really about all sprites wanting him free, is it?" He glared an accusation at his miniscule companion, who abruptly glanced away. "This is just your private thing. You, personally, want him freed, don't you?"

The sprite didn't answer.

"You two were having a fling, weren't you?" he persisted. "You and Santa are having an affair!"

"I resent that remark."

"But you don't deny it?"

"You needn't make it all sound so sordid," the tiny creature said, petulantly. "We were simply. . . very good friends. That's all," it added lamely.

"Yeah, right. And I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you."

"You're not easy to deal with, are you, Harold?"

"I hope not. Now where is Santa being held? Do you know?"

"He's at the bottom of the center of the millpond, chained there. He's all right, though. One of your myths about him is true. He prefers the cold."

"Must make for a fun bed partner."

The sprite frowned, deeply, and said, "Don't push it, Harold."

Harold sighed, before saying, "Okay, there's no help for it, I guess. The pond's not that deep, although it comes up to my neck near the center. I'll go get some blankets from the house, first, for when we come out of the water. It'll be freezing!"

"Oh, Santa doesn't mind that."

"I wasn't getting them for him."

"Ah. . . "

Harold left the sprite to its own devices while he trudged the snowy driveway up to his little house--more of a cabin, really. Moments later, he emerged again with several blankets.

"All right," he snarled from the top of the drive. "Let's get to it." And with that, he headed the short distance to the pond.

"Wait, Harold, there's something I have to tell you."

Harold didn't wait. He just wanted to get the whole thing over with, as soon as possible. He paused at the edge of the pond. Although not completely frozen over, there was a thin sheeting of ice all around the edges. The center was the only open spot. Sighing again, he dropped the blankets, then sat on one of them, and proceeded to take off his shoes, shirt, and slacks.

"What are you doing?" asked the sprite, as it approached him. Behind it was a tiny track of footprints, close set ones. This accounted for the thing's delay. Harold realized it must have been hard going for the little fairy. Even a few inches of snow would be a job to slog through for it. "I'm taking off everything, but my underwear, as if you can't see that for yourself."

"But why? You'll freeze!"

Harold shook his head. "They'll be a liability once I'm in the water--slow me down. And when I come out, they'll be dripping wet with ice water. I'll get warmer faster without them by just wrapping myself in the blankets."

"Oh. We're more different than I thought. Our clothes are a part of us. We always wear them."

"Well, good for you. I'm guessing laundry day must be an interesting and fun experience. Now, what did you want to tell me?" he asked as he pulled off the remaining right sock.

"You can't defeat the sprite in battle. You have to gain control of it, instead."

"How, by putting its little head in a headlock and making it yell uncle?"

"No, and good luck with that approach, if you try. They're vicious biters. Rather, you have to pull at least two feathers out of it. That gives you control. Then it has to do what you command."

"The Vila has wings?" For some reason, this surprised Harold.

"We do, too, you know." Now the sprite sounded sulky again. "It's just that when they're folded, they're hard to see."

"Apparently. Well, don't wait up," he said, as he rose to his feet. Lord, but it was cold when one was almost naked. The wind seemed to find every crack, crevice, and orifice on him. He'd better do this thing in a hurry. He didn't want hypothermia setting in.

"Good luck, Harold." The sprite said, sounding sincere for once. "Remember, Santa is chained at the center on the bottom. And trust me, the Vila will appear the minute you try to release him."

Harold paused at the edge of the pond, just as he was about to test it with a toe. "Can he breathe down there?"

"He's an elf, remember?"

"Like that explains it all," Harold said under his breath. How was he supposed to know what the heck elves and sprites were capable of? Up until today, he had been absolutely certain they didn't even exist. "Jeez! This is cold!" he exclaimed, as he stepped with bare feet onto the thin ice, which instantly cracked, and gave completely under his weight. His feet sank into the few inches of water there. What a shock! Almost immediately, he shivered uncontrollably, his body covered in goose bumps.

Using first his feet and then later his hands to crack the glass-like ice ahead of him, he waded deeper into the pond, taking involuntary deep breaths, so great was the cold. At this point, Harold decided not to prolong his agony. With his arms over his head for protection, he dove forward into the icy pond. The glacial touch of the water on his bared skin literally sucked his breath away.

He stood again, shivering as he never had before. Harold had to get this over with and fast! The water rose around him as he went, first covering his lower torso, and then his chest. Soon, he was neck deep.

"You're about there!" encouragingly called the water sprite. Harold glanced back. The thing stood on the shoreline. It peered at him with one hand raised to shelter its eyes against the setting sun.

"Right!" Harold halted near the center of the pond. He didn't want to step on or crush Santa. The cold was all consuming now, frigid to a degree he had not thought possible. Already, he was loosing feeling in his fingers and toes. What feeling he still had in his arms and legs amounted to a dull internal ache, nothing more. The shivering was threatening to get completely out of control, too. And his teeth chattered so hard they hurt!

He took a deep breath of air, prepared to lower himself completely into the water.

That's when the thing appeared out of nowhere, hovering just a few feet away from him over the pond, apparently above the spot where Santa was.

"Whoa!" Harold shouted in shock and surprise, completely taken aback. The sprite had been right, if a little understated in its description of the Vila. It was as large as he was, with a wing spread of at least six feet. It had hawk-like features with coal dark eyes, and hair that stuck out all around its head.

It smiled evilly at Harold, revealing fang-like teeth. The Vila clenched and unclenched its fists, revealing fingernails that looked more like claws.

"To hell with this!" Harold shouted. He turned as fast as the water would allow him to, preparing to beat a fast retreat to land.

"No, Harold! You've got to get control of it!" shouted the tiny sprite from the shoreline.

"The heck, I do!" he yelled back. He began wading his way toward shore, desperate to put distance between himself and the monster so close behind him. That's when he heard it, the sound of wings beating on air. The Vila was coming after him! He redoubled his efforts to escape.

Before he could move more than a few feet, he felt something heavy on his back, He heard a screech, and then felt nails dig into the flesh of his shoulders. The monster had him!

He let out a most girl-like sounding scream of pain and fear and then, frantic, he plunged forward, hoping to escape the creature's clutches, somehow tear himself free of it. Losing his footing, he fell face-forward into the pond. He just had time to take a gulp of air, before icy water closed over his head. Now he could barely see in front of him, so murky was it. And the weight of the Vila was pushing him to the muddy bottom. I'm going to drown! was his panicky thought. A lousy water sprite's going to kill me!

Even as he thought this, Harold could feel the burning in his lungs. Once a good swimmer when young, he knew time had taken its toll; his lung capacity was severely diminished. Only seconds of consciousness remained to him.

He hit bottom, with the thing still on top of him, clinging tightly, nails embedded deeply in the flesh of his shoulders. He was thankful for the numbing cold now. It acted as a painkiller, making him oblivious to what otherwise must certainly be agony.

Just then, a flash of green light flitted across his vision. The little water sprite! She'd come to his aid. She flew up over his head, out of his line of sight. The reaction was almost instant. The Vila released its hold on him.

I'm free! Harold thought. He stumbled to his feet. But something was over his head, in his way. Completely out of breath now, he did what he had to do. He reached up, clutched at whatever it was, and jerked it aside. His head broke surface. He gasped for air, like some beached fish.

"You did it, Harold!" he heard the water sprite cry from somewhere behind him. "You've got some of its feathers."

"I do?" Harold said, blankly. He hadn't even been aware he had something in his hand. He looked down, saw he gripped a cluster of gray, wet, and bedraggled feathers.

The water sprite flew in front of his face, its wings beating as fast as those of a humming bird, as it hovered there. "Command it, Harold," it told him urgently. "Command it to release Santa and then be gone. Do it. Now! Before it attacks you again."

Needing no further encouragement, Harold shouted in a quivering voice, "I command you to release Santa and then be gone!"

There was a loud screech from the Vila. Harold didn't care. He didn't even look back. All he wanted was to get on shore and get warm. He'd been in the water less than five minutes, but he knew he couldn't take anymore, that he'd die. He waded, shivering, teeth chattering uncontrollably, even as he sobbed for air. Behind him, the Vila screeched again. The he heard the little water sprite give out a cheer. This was followed by a fierce beating of large wings. Then. . . nothing. Harold stumbled up onto shore, collapsed on the blankets, and rolled himself up in them. He just lay there, shaking, shivering, eyes shut.

"Are you okay, Harold?"

He opened his eyes. "Is it gone?"

"Oh, yes. It had to obey you. But it will come back if you don't let go of those feathers. Those will make it disappear for real."

"Feathers?" Harold realized he still grasped them in his hand. "Oh." He let go of them. They fluttered to the snowy ground next to him, now looking like just so many old pigeon feathers.

"And Santa?" he asked.

"He left already, on about his business. This whole thing has really delayed him."

"Back to the North Pole, huh?" Despite still being unbelievably chilled, Harold couldn't help but manage one sarcastic remark.

But the sprite merely smiled at him. "Thanks, Harold," it said. "You did good."

Harold managed a nod. "So did you. Thanks for helping me out. I would have been a goner if you hadn't interfered."

"Not a problem. Glad to be of help. After all, you did me a big favor, and your fellow humanity. There will be a feeling of goodwill for this season, after all."

"So glad to hear it." Again, he knew he sounded sarcastic. "Now what?"

"Now we finish warming you up, get you dressed, and drive back to town. And just think, when you come back here again and gaze out over this pond, you'll remember your incredible fight with a Vila. Not many humans can say that!"

Harold shook his head. "No I won't. I'm selling this place. I'm not coming back here with something like that hanging out in my pond. Screw that!"

"But it's gone, Harold. It can't harm you now."

Again, he shook his head. "No, but others can, and who knows when another Vila might show up, and carrying a grudge for what I did to one of its friends. No thank you!"

The water sprite sighed, and then said, "Probably wise, Harold. One never knows, does one?"

Later, back in the car, the sprite once again conducted an imaginary orchestra, this time to the strains of the Die Moldau, a tone painting about a river, no less, by Smetana. Harold relaxed as they made their way back to the city. He didn't even mind the classical music. With his hangover and headache finally gone (no doubt, due to the prolonged shock of the frigid water), he was feeling pretty good. Even the deep welts on his shoulders didn't pain him any longer, thanks to the magical ministrations of the sprite.

I really should celebrate all this, he thought, just like the sprite said I should. After all, he'd saved Santa, helped out a lovesick water sprite, and defeated a hideous magical creature. Maybe, I'll actually try some absinthe.

The sprite chose this moment to glance up at him. Seeing his effusive grin, it frowned, and pausing in its imaginary conducting, the sprite said, "Harold, you look entirely too happy, I think."

"Oh, not as much as I'm going to be," he replied. And then he lapsed back into thought. Where could he get his hands on a bottle of absinthe, he wondered? Now that he'd gotten to know one so well, he wouldn't mind seeing a few more little green fairies.

END


CONTENTS


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