Escape Pod 816: Merely Players
by Erik Grove
Jester stopped his bicycle in front of the thrift store window and looked through the glass at the plastic fat man with a jaunty red hat and an army surplus gas mask. He’d been Santa Claus once, a long time ago before the world ended and everyone died. He could still do a Santa Claus laugh. Like a bowl full of jelly.
“Holly jolly,” he said and engaged the kickstand with his foot. He took a crowbar from his backpack and smashed the glass. He tossed the gas mask aside and went for the white beard on the mannequin underneath. He pulled it on and leaned back. The trick to a perfect Santa Claus laugh is leaning.
Digby wagged skeptically.
“Who says it can’t be Christmas?” Jester asked the dog. “Do you have a calendar?” Jester squinted at the oppressive desert sun and shrugged. “Christmas is in the heart anyway. Ho ho ho!” He really leaned into it.
Jester collected the hat and put it on. He left dusty prints on the bright red. Everything was covered in dust here, the streets, the empty buildings, the dry, cracked ground; a layer of it like a broken snow globe.
“Well, no one asked you, Diggles McGrinchy.” Jester nodded at the broken thrift store window. “Let’s see what’s under the tree, shall we?”
Jester climbed inside the storefront, clearing the last of the glass and debris with his crowbar. He stepped over a model train set and past a plastic tree before hopping down into the dark store. He unclipped a flashlight from his belt and thumbed it on.
“Wanna see if you can find some bones, boy?” Jester asked Digby and the dog vanished into the crowded aisles.
People had useless things once that they got tired of and traded for other useless things. They made whole stores to contain all their useless things and they put little price tags on them and left them on shelves. Salt and pepper shakers. Toaster ovens that still smelled like burnt toast when you opened them up. Yellowed magazines and half worn out shoes and children’s toys with missing pieces.
Jester looked for wires and batteries first. He poked at old VCRs and remote controls. He tore open a video game console and collected some resistors. He managed a pocket full of old alkalines. No lithiums. Mostly useless. People used to toss dead batteries in trash cans with apple cores and dirty diapers. Now Jester searched for them like gold. He got some usable copper wire but it was hardly worth the effort.
“Christmas isn’t about the presents, Digitron,” Jester explained to the dog. “It’s about the memories. And cookies, I think.”
He shifted attention to shelves of compact discs in cracked cases. Good old physical media; high fidelity and apocalypse resistant.
“I’m finding good things in here, Digster! Movie soundtracks. Greatest hits! Oh! Top Pop Picks of 2007!” Jester took the CDs that caught his eye and tossed them into his backpack. “They don’t make them like this anymore, D-Bigs.”
They don’t make anything anymore.
“Someone used to love this,” Jester said, holding a CD. The case had been opened and closed countless times. The little plastic bits that held the disc in place were half broken and the CD slipped loose when opened. The little booklet was frayed from reading and re-reading. “But then they didn’t anymore. How does that happen? How does a top pop pick become a hand-me-down? Was there something wrong with it? Was there some flaw in its top popness that revealed itself over time, a hidden defect that was always there vulnerable to extended scrutiny? Or did it just fade with familiarity? Isn’t that strange, Digby? On a long enough timeline, love just drifts away.”
Jester stopped on a title and smiled. “Here we go,” he said and pulled out a disc that promised 30 rock n’ roll Christmas carols. Jester popped open the case and examined the shiny plastic. “No scratches!” He loaded the CD into a little player lashed onto the backside of his pack that was wired up to small speakers and pressed play. Jester twisted his hips to “Christmas at Ground Zero.”
“All we need is some tinsel and egg nog!”
Somewhere in the store Digby barked.
“And a little elf costume for my dog sidekick!”
Jester put his pack back on his shoulders and whistled for Digby. He walked toward the back of the store and found the dog looking out an open back door. The lock was popped, there was dust on the ground, blown in and settled, and small, unmistakable footprints.
“Oh come all ye faithful,” Jester said and knelt down to touch the footprints. He turned to Digby. “Joyful and triumphant.”
“It’s curious is all, Sir Digsalot,” Jester said as they moved down the main drag. “Seems like with wind patterns and the natural entropy of things and the like that footprints wouldn’t last long, that the foots that footprinted might be closer than farther. Could there be foots here? Foots after all this time, after all these empty towns? And on Christmas! Well, that does seem curious, doesn’t it?”
Digby walked alongside Jester’s bicycle, indifferent to the conversation and indifferent to the yuletide.
Jester scratched his chin under his Santa beard, keeping only one hand on the handlebars. “Curious and curiouser.”
He rode down the parched asphalt just barely fast enough to keep the bicycle upright. “Well, I for one think this warrants further exploration. All those in favor?” Jester raised his chin-scratching hand. “Aye! And all opposed?” He eyed Digby but the dog said nothing and kept both paws on the ground. “The ayes have it,” Jester concluded.
A block after the thrift store Jester stopped at a tuxedo rental shop. “Dress for the holiday you want, not the holiday you have,” he told Digby. “I think we need a cummerbund!” He kicked the kickstand. “Do you know which one is a cummerbund?”
If Digby knew, he wasn’t saying.
Jester couldn’t decide between the bowties so he wore them all, three around his neck, a half dozen on his wrists, a pair for his ankles. He picked a new powder blue jacket and riveted it with cufflinks. People used to put beads and jangles on things. They used to dress up and dance. Jester’s favorite cufflinks were a pair of silvered guitars. He wrapped a cummerbund around his head like a pirate scarf and put the Santa hat back on top of it. He looked at himself in the mirror and he leaned back and he laughed.
“And what would you like for Christmas, little girl?”
People used to go to malls and wait to take photos of their children sitting on Jester’s knee when he asked them what toys they liked. People used to go to malls.
“I think you would have liked malls, D,” Jester told Digby. “You could get big soft pretzels with big pieces of salt and you could find candles that smelled liked anything you might like a candle to smell like. Roast beef sandwich candles. Hot bath tub candles. And there were big flat sheets of ice there and you could slide across, just slide all day long, and there were skylights and air conditioning and movie theaters. I told you about movies, Diggy. I miss movies. I was supposed to be in movies, you know. I was supposed to be silver and celluloid. Or digital. I was supposed to be something make believe.”
Jester kept thinking about those footprints. He kept thinking about the legs and the torso and the arms and the face all attached to the feet that made them. When he searched through stores and houses and garbage dumps he looked for batteries and wires. He didn’t look for footprints because footprints were impossible. Weren’t they?
Digby set down in a nest of top hats. He was a gray dog. A wiggly stump-legged waggy dog, not as small as some but smaller than most.
“After all this, after all I’ve done for you, you could at least try to learn to talk to me. Diggy Diggy gum drop. Digmund Von Dibgystein. Digisaurus Rex.”
Digby set his chin down on the floor and looked up with black dog eyes.
“People used to take these little pills, these little chemical atomic bombs. And they used to feel better.”
Outside, overhead, echoing thunder cracked and Jester dropped two fistfuls of fake flower corsages. “Digby!” he shouted. “Do you hear what I hear?! It’s a Christmas miracle!”
Jester ran out of the tuxedo shop into the street and looked up. The sky had transformed from empty bright to empty dim and lightning flickered like blinking lights. All at once the storm cracked open and rain came, pouring hot and wet across the desert.
Jester danced beneath it. “Shake, shake, shake!” he shouted. “Shake the dust off of your feet! Shake, shake, shake! Shake the dust out of your hair!”
The rain soaked through Jester’s Santa hat and the cheap dye bled, staining his bowties. He stomped in the newly formed puddles and held out his hands. He spun around and around. He danced and sang a song that was a song he remembered and a song he made up and he jumped and he twisted and he stopped facing the tuxedo shop and the gray wiggly stump-legged black-eyed dog inside the door. He whistled for Digby. “Come on, boy! A little rain never hurt no one!”
Digby didn’t move.
Jester pulled a bone from up his sleeve. He showed it to the curmudgeonly dog and then tossed it into the street. “Get it! Go get it!”
Digby wagged and woofed. He darted out of the tuxedo rental shop but stopped beneath the storm. The rain turned him to pixels and fuzz, a glitch of light and fading AI. Digby blinked and popped and vanished.
“Sorry, boy. I’ll reboot you when it’s over.”
Jester moved in slower concentric circles. He could still remember some of the choreography. Step. Step. Slide. The rain pooled quickly. It washed the whole desert away. No more dust. No more sun-bleached bones. No more footsteps.
Jester stopped dancing.
People used to cry sometimes when they were alone or when they were lost.
“Shake, shake, shake!” Jester sang. “Shake, shake, shake!” He hung his head and let the rain soak through him and hang in drops on his fingertips.
Digby yipped, a digital ghost without form.
Jester looked up and saw the little girl watching him at the end of the street. She was wearing big red boots and a big yellow hood and at first she was as still as the plastic fat man. Then, she held up a hand and waved.
“Hey!” Jester shouted. “Are you real?” He smiled. “It’s okay if you aren’t. I don’t mind.”
He ran toward her as fast as he could go but she dropped her wave and ran from him faster until she was gone.
Jester stopped at the end of the street, looking for her. The rain ended as suddenly as it began and the sun burned off the last of the gray. Digby appeared like a rainbow.
“Ho ho, now, Captain Digglesworth. I believe we have found a new friend.”
Digby watched Jester untangling strands of lights, checking each bulb.
“Well, friends don’t like it when you chase them, Diggle-butt,” he explained, answering a question Digby had not posed. “Chasing makes them nervous you see. What you need to do is invite them over. People used to invite people all the time. They called it having a party.”
Jester stripped plastic from wires. He twisted the ends together. He wrapped them in black tape. He poured out all of his batteries, all of his alkalines and lithiums and cadmiums. Weeks’ worth of scavenging.
Digby eyed the batteries and looked up at Jester.
“If I’m not saving them for Christmas, what am I saving them for?” Jester asked. He snapped them into their battery places and he turned the lights on. They twinkled and glowed in red and blue and green and white and some yellow and some purple. Jester stepped back from his work and he clapped. His Christmas tree was more lights than tree, more copper than green, but it would do.
“Now all we need is a star, Monsieur Diggems. You can’t have a proper Christmas Tree without a proper star. Those are the rules.”
Jester got back on his bicycle and cruised the little town that probably had a name once but seemed to have forgotten it. Digby ran alongside when he could keep up and rebooted when he fell out of range.
“What I posit, D, is that your purpose is to be a dog. It’s what you are designed to be. They put it into all your 1s and all your 0s. But what does being a dog mean fundamentally? And if there’s no one around that knows that you’re a dog, are you still a dog? Or are you something else? Or maybe nothing at all?”
Digby’s 1s and 0s were decisively ambivalent to Jester’s musings.
“I am a singer and a dancer, Digbizzle. I am an entertainer. But am I? Shakespeare wrote that all the world’s a stage but then the world ended. Now what? Is what I am only an am if I am seen and if I am known and if I am named? If a Jester talks to his holographic dog sidekick in the desert and there’s no people anymore, what’s he even doing it for? Is he even really real anymore? How different are you and me from these empty buildings, from the Top Pop Picks 2007, from all the things they left behind?”
Jester stopped his bicycle at a park full of small houses on wheels.
“People used to build houses to make homes and then they put wheels on them so that they could always leave,” Jester explained to Digby. “Home was home until it wasn’t anymore. We might find useful things here.”
Jester left his bike leaning against a fence that was more rust than wire stretched between desiccated wooden posts and started searching the RVs. Batteries, batteries, batteries; he always started looking for the batteries. There were slim pickings here. All flat tires and plundered alarm clocks and empty cabinets.
“Have you been here?” Jester asked, imagining little footsteps belonging to little feet on a little girl picking through these old lonely homes. “Have you been here all along?”
It wasn’t all for nothing. Jester found a roll of aluminum foil. Enough to make into a star.
“It’s going to be dark soon, Digberto. And Christmas is prettier at nighttime.”
Jester rode back to his Christmas tree and he made his star.
The batteries were going to be a problem. He was only going to be able to light the tree for so long on what he had. What if she didn’t see it in time? What could he do?
Digby barked and wagged. He chased his tail, all gray and tufty and holographic. He was a dog because Jester told him he was a dog. What if Jester told him that he was something else?
When it got dark Jester flipped the switch and the tree lit up and he pressed play and turned up the volume. It was Christmas because Jester said it was and it was bright and it was twinkly and everything it was supposed to be and Jester put on the Santa hat, more pink now than red, and he put on the beard, more pink now than white, and he leaned and he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!”
She would hear him. She would see the lights. He just knew she would.
The batteries only lasted an hour before the music started to slow and the lights started to dim.
Jester turned to Digby. He was chewing on his paws. Or he looked like he was.
“But you’re not a dog,” Jester told him. “You’re 1s and 0s. You’re light. You’re batteries.”
Digby stopped chewing. He looked up at Jester and for the first time, Jester thought that maybe he understood.
“I’m sorry, boy. I really am.”
Jester took the holographic emitter off of his belt and popped out the batteries. Digby vanished just like he’d never been at all.
With the extra batteries the lights and sound restored but the night kept getting later and no one came.
Jester wrapped copper wires around his fingers. He twisted them together, tighter and tighter. Then, he exposed his battery port. He had been running on emergency reserves for weeks. His batteries didn’t have much left.
But what was he if he was alone? What good was a stage without an audience?
He plugged in the wires and the volume boomed. Christmas carols filled up the desert and the lights brightened to blinding points. Jester shuffled and danced, copper and lights hanging off of him like tinsel.
“Shake, shake, shake! Shake the dust off of your feet!”
The lights buzzed and some of them burst when they got too bright.
He saw the little girl with the big red boots first, then he saw the rest of them. Six, seven, eight, no, nine children standing in a clump at the end of the street. They were dressed in red and green and they held packages wrapped in paper or cloth or silver tape. They had bows and ribbons and little plastic snowflakes.
“Oh Digby,” Jester said. “Oh, Diggolous Diggington. People used to believe in miracles at Christmas.”
He looked to his right and to his left and the dog, indifferent, gray, wiggly, and holographic, wasn’t there anymore.
“Oh,” Jester said. “Oh.” He leaned back.
The trick was always in the leaning.
by Mur Lafferty
I want to commend Erik Grove for his writing of course, but also his patience: he sent this story to us in October 2020, and we loved it, but we felt it worked best as a holiday story, and we already had one for the year. So we bought it and sat on it for many many months. This was Erik Grove’s first sale, and we’re sorry he had to wait so long.
Look, I abhor stories by people who clearly hate either children or Christmas or both. Whoever let that asshole Hans Christian Anderson write anything for children? A sadist, that’s who. “Cool, you have a character that represents love and beauty and Christmas, and now, boom, they’re dead for no damn good reason. Yes!” Many of his dismal stories have no sense of sacrifice, of giving of yourself to make someone’s life better. Just freezing to death in the snow or catching on fire or walking on knives forever.
I’m sorry. That got ranty.
My point is, the loss that is experienced in this story, and the loss implied, are both done for possibly the best reasons ever: Life is crap and we want to make children happy for just a moment. I struggled with a content warning. I don’t know if this story belongs on the “does the dog die?” website. But this story shows me that even if you can’t take a huge step towards helping someone else, if you don’t have the money, or the personality, or the energy to give, even a small kindness can be worth it to someone. We WANT Jester to help the kids, to be a grownup for them, protect them in this terrible setting. But he can’t. What he can do is give them a little Christmas.
About the Author
Erik Grove is a writer, marathon runner, little dog owner, husband, and plucky rabble rouser from Portland, OR. You can find him on Twitter @erikgrove and you can check out www.erikgrove.com where he mostly blogs about running for far too long.
About the Narrator
Karlo Yeager Rodriguez
Karlo Yeager Rodríguez is originally from the enchanting island of Puerto Rico, but moved to the Baltimore area some years ago where he now lives with his wife and one odd dog. His fiction has appeared in Nature, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Speculative Fiction for Dreamers, Seize the Press, and is forthcoming in Pseudopod.
In addition to writing, Karlo has narrated stories in Strange Horizons, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Escape Pod and is the host of the Podside Picnic podcast.
Follow him at alineofink.com or on Twitter @kjy1066.