PodCastle 766: Lockdown Around the Christmas Tree

Show Notes

Rated PG-13

Lockdown Around the Christmas Tree

by Heather Shaw & Tim Pratt


What a colossal crapstorm of a year, the third year of infinite garbage in a row, ever since the lockdowns started. The walls came down around Mischa in March 2020, and here they were, still standing, tall and impenetrable, for Christmas 2022.

Then the man in red showed up, and made his offer, and everything changed . . . but before you can understand all that, you need to understand how Mischa ended up alone for the holidays, when seemingly everyone else in the world was out kissing strangers under mistletoe and drinking from communal punch bowls and breathing unventilated indoor air with all their out-of-town relatives again.

Mischa had gotten a kidney transplant in January of 2020, donated by their cousin, which meant they were alive, so that was great, but they were also immunocompromised, which meant when everyone else decided to play pretend that the pandemic was over, Mischa didn’t have the option of joining the game. They had to keep living in reality.

And what a reality it was. It turned out Mischa’s partner didn’t like having a sick lover-slash-housemate-slash-best-friend who’d need help in recovery, so she bailed right before the surgery (and right around the holidays), meaning when the pandemic lockdowns started two months later, Mischa was living alone, taking immunosuppressants, and stewing in a constant broth of anxiety and fear and loneliness. Getting sick and dying alone had been abstract worries for the far future, but now they seemed like immediate possibilities. Mischa’s family lived thousands of miles away, and though their Mom offered to come out and help, Mischa could tell it would be a hardship for her, and lied and said they’d be fine. Then the plague hit, and Mischa was glad they’d declined.

Mischa lost their job in the wave of office shutdowns, but at least there were unemployment checks with a boost from the federal government, and they could get groceries delivered, so buying beans and rice didn’t require going to a grocery store and literally risking their life. They bought a stationary bike and played a bunch of Animal Crossing, baked bread, and got into gardening in the tiny plot out back — fleeing the latter whenever the couple in the other half of the duplex came out into the shared space. (Hearing them kinky-sex their way through lockdown on the other side of the wall didn’t do much for Mischa’s mood either.) Most of their local friends were pretty good about social distancing, and some of them went for “social distance hikes” where they wore masks and tried to keep six feet apart, but that felt too risky for Mischa. They did the Zoom thing for a while, but talking to people through a screen was weirdly draining, and Mischa soon fell completely out of the habit of socializing. There were still emails from family, and social media posts from friends, and even the odd phone call… but all that felt hollow without real human connection to give it heft.

And then . . . their cousin got married. In October 2020. With an indoor wedding and reception. When Mischa got the invitation, they called their cousin up to try to talk him out of it. The two of them had been close growing up, and even though they didn’t talk much anymore, Mischa trusted the strength of that old connection to lend perspective and some strength.

Nope. Their cousin was hurt that Mischa refused to attend, and certainly wouldn’t hear of postponing things until the virus was more under control. He practically spat at them over the phone. “You can’t just put your life on hold, Mischa, the world just keeps on turning, and we have to turn with it. You want to stay locked up alone for the rest of your life?”

“I don’t want to,” Mischa began, but after that it was a one-sided rant about how the virus really wasn’t any worse than a cold and everyone was overreacting. Mischa hung up with a new understanding of human nature: you could make yourself believe anything, if believing it allowed you to do what you wanted to do anyway.

Mischa’s mother and father went to the wedding. They got sick a week later, along with about a third of the other guests. Mischa’s mother made it out of ICU; their father didn’t. Their mother was weak and frail, but she called Mischa when she could. Unfortunately, Mischa’s failure to fly out and support her was always there, a silent barrier between them. Mom understood, intellectually, that Mischa was vulnerable . . . but it still hurt her already-devastated heart, and it’s tough to love through that much hurt.
Mischa got all the vaccines and boosters they could, but they knew the reality — being immunocompromised made them less effective, and while the world opened up again for so many others, theirs stayed closed. All those months alone in the apartment took a mental toll as well — the few times they tried to socialize, even outdoors in a park, the crowds of people overwhelmed them and they didn’t last long.

The holidays were the worst. In 2020, they had Zoom Christmas in the morning, with mom and uncles and cousins, and an online happy hour with friends the next day. In 2021, they talked to their mom on the phone for a while, FaceTimed with a few friends who were out having more traditional fun, and then watched a marathon of holiday rom-coms to shake off the gloom.

Now it was Christmas Eve 2022. The next day, once a major source of joy in life, loomed like a monument to isolation. Mischa’s mom was doing the usual big get-together with the family, even though case counts were spiking, and Mischa didn’t even bother trying to talk sense into people anymore, so there wouldn’t be more than a brief phone call tomorrow. Even that one bright spot was going to be pretty dim.

Mischa decided to lean into the misery, though they couldn’t even drink heavily with their kidney. They spent Christmas Eve playing mindless games on their phone and sipping tea and thinking about all the stupid ways they’d ended up here — sometimes Mischa was the stupid one, and sometimes the rest of the world was stupid. Usually the latter, but there was plenty of stupid to go around. Maybe Mischa should have flown home to spend the holiday with Mom, though with the unemployment benefits dried up and freelancing sparse this time of year, it wasn’t really feasible . . . and Mom would want to go to her sister’s for the giant afternoon meal and exchange of gifts, and she’d feel guilty about going when Mischa couldn’t, so maybe it was better anyway.

Mischa microwaved a turkey dinner and ate it while trying the first three minutes of five different shows on Netflix. Nothing felt right. Too bright, too dark, too British, too silly, too much reading subtitles, too much murder. Ugh. Mischa finished eating, threw away the tray, threw the fork in the sink, and went back to matching three colorful things at a time on their phone.

One of the incessant ads those sorts of freemium games inflict on the poor popped up, a grind game where you make and decorate cookies, and of course then Mischa started thinking about cookies. They had flour, sugar, butter . . . what else did you need for sugar cookies? With nothing better to do, and hoping for festiveness by association, Mischa went into the kitchen and gathered ingredients. They pulled a cookie-cutter ornament off the Christmas tree they’d put up a couple of weeks ago in an attempt to make their apartment more cheery. After a couple of hours, there was a lot of flour everywhere, and a giant tray of cookies.

Mischa stuffed themselves and then, drunk on sugar and oat-milk eggnog, wrote a note to Santa Claus. When they were a kid, they always put a handwritten letter out next to the cookies and milk they left for the jolly old elf, thanking him for his hard work and generosity, a sort of follow-up after the earlier letter requesting toys. Such manners! This letter was . . . not that.

Hey Santa,

I know this is late notice and also totally bullshit but if you’ve got the time and are not actually a story made up for children, I would really love not being alone on Christmas day. I know I pretend like it doesn’t matter and I don’t need anybody, and it doesn’t and I don’t . . . except sometimes. More and more. I just don’t know how to talk to people since lockdown and have done a shit job of trying and everything feels endless and doomed. I don’t know how to get from here to people anymore. I’m completely stuck and it’s stupid and it’s at least one-quarter my fault, but . . . help me out?


PS: I made you some cookies. Sorry I haven’t written in uh . . . twenty-four years?

Mischa folded the paper to make a tent, wrote “Santa” on the outside, and set it up over a plate of sugar cookies in gingerbread person shapes. That looked wrong, so they poured a small glass of oat milk and moved it all to a tray beside their small Christmas tree. Better.

Mischa smiled a little bit for the first time in years. At least when you were alone no one could make fun of you for being silly for its own sake.

Many games of Cookie Shoppe later, dawn approached . . . and Mischa heard a rattling from the vicinity of the tree. Had their cookies attracted rats? That would teach them to be whimsical.

They turned, and there was a man in red biting the leg off one of Mischa’s gingerbread people.

Mischa should have thought the man with the big white beard and the fur-lined red suit was a deranged home invader doing cosplay, but . . . it was Santa. There was no doubt, no question, no denial. He had an ineffable but undeniable Santa-ness about him. He said, “I only bite off the legs. That way they can still use their arms to make toys.”

Mischa blinked. “That’s . . . pretty dark, Santa.”

He chuckled. “My list says you have a dark sense of humor. Just trying to make you comfortable.”

“I . . . that . . . what?”

Santa finished off the cookie and nodded, holding up one gloved finger while he chewed, then said, “Of course, you’re not a child, and a strange man appearing in your house is disconcerting, even if he doesn’t make jokes about biting off legs. I don’t actually talk to people much at work. Maybe I’m out of the habit.” He cocked his head. “Not as far out of the habit as you are, though. I got your letter.”

“The letter on the table beside you?”

He waved a gloved hand. “Once you write ‘Dear Santa,’ the letter comes to me. How else would I get them otherwise? International mail is so unreliable these days. The cookies are also a sort of . . . beacon. So here I am.”

Mischa wondered if they were finally having a complete mental breakdown. Maybe so. But they didn’t have any other plans for the day. “I guess you’re here to break the bad news that you can’t grant my wish? Or, wait, you’ll spend the day with me, so I’m not alone?”

“I don’t think I’m the one you really want to see. But no, your wish isn’t impossible. Some things are, but human connection is not. You face more challenges than most, and I can’t fix them, but I can . . . ease them, for a bit, and see if that gives you a boost. I don’t have the cure for loneliness. You can’t make that in a toy workshop, even with magic hammers. But I gave it a think as I finished up my rounds, and I have an idea. It’s dawn, and I’m done for the year. You’ve got a big TV, a comfy couch, the newest gaming consoles, and, of course, cookies. I thought I could relax here for a while.”

Mischa looked at their tiny TV, dumpy futon, and lack of the latest anything. “Apart from the cookies, I don’t —”

Santa waved his hand, bells jingled, and a new living-room set appeared, seamlessly replacing the broken-springed, stained wonders that previously filled the space. Mischa gasped. Being cooped up would be a lot more pleasant now.

“So I get to hang out all day playing video games with Santa?” They tried not to sound dubious. It would definitely be an experience, but it wasn’t quite what they’d had in mind.

Santa’s mouth was full of cookie, but he was shaking his head and waving his hand, and as soon as he was done swallowing he said, “No, no, I’m going to stay here, and of course you can as well, it’s your home, but I have what I think you’ll consider a better offer.” He looked up at the ceiling. “My sleigh is up there. With my reindeer. I won’t need it for a while. Why don’t you take it and visit all the people you’ve been missing these past few years?”

Mischa gaped. Santa swallowed the last of the milk. “Okay, it’s time. Up you go!” Santa laid one hand on Mischa’s shoulder and then laid a finger alongside his nose and, with a whoosh, they were on the roof. There was a small sleigh, all curved wood and silver accents, and eight small reindeer stood before it, harness bells jingling in greeting. They shouldn’t have been able to fit on the small sloped roof, but somehow, there was plenty of space.

Mischa looked down — their sloppy robe and pajamas were gone, replaced by a hat and scarf and coat and sweater, new fleece pants and fuzzy socks and boots, all new but also comfortably broken in.

Santa gently turned Mischa to face the sleigh. “My reindeer don’t need any rest — they draw their strength from me, and I have plenty to spare. Don’t worry about directing them — I’ve planned your route. I know what’s in your heart, after all. Best of all, for today, at least, you don’t have to worry about getting sick.” He unbuckled his black belt and cinched it around Mischa’s waist, and despite his somewhat greater girth, it fit snugly. “This will make you immune to all earthly ills, and it also prevents jetlag. Or sleigh-lag, in this case. Since showing up in a sleigh might alarm people, the belt will also transport you — press the buckle, and you’ll land somewhere unobtrusive, and press it again to return to the sleigh.”

Was this really happening, or was it just a psychosis-induced dream? Either way . . . “Where am I going first?”

“It’s Christmas, Mischa,” Santa said. “The whole point is to be surprised.”

“You think this morning hasn’t been surprising?”

Santa Ho-ho-ho’d, and Mischa realized that his real laugh just sounded that way. “Off you go! Have fun! You deserve it!”

Mischa climbed into the sleigh, sitting down on a bench seat that was inexplicably as comfortable as a recliner, and then —

They were flying through the air at dizzying speeds, high above the clouds. Mischa had so many questions about how this all worked, including why they could breathe at this altitude and how come there wasn’t any wind, but moments later they were landing, softly, on the mock-Tudor house where their ex lived.

“What the hell, Santa,” they muttered. Mischa crossed their arms. “Next stop, reindeer.”

The reindeer snorted, and a small panel opened in the sleigh in front of Mischa. Before they could lean over to look inside, a tiny little boxing glove popped out, hitting the black belt Mischa wore square in the buckle.


Mischa whooshed away and landed on their ex’s Victorian horsehair couch. It was a stiff and unforgiving seat, and they’d argued about it constantly — Mischa believed in furniture that was nice to sit on. The rest of the room was decked out in full Victorian Christmas splendor, with bows and swag, the tree hung with glass and tin ornaments and garlands. A merry fire crackled in the fireplace.

Their ex stared through the doorway from the next room. She looked amazing, damn it.

“Holy shit. That note was real?” Anne walked over to a wingback chair and pulled a note out of a stocking slung over the arm. The paper glowed, faintly, and was edged in red-and-green lights that shaped themselves into mistletoe, then into holly, and then into a clever interlocking tree pattern that had tiny woodland critters that occasionally flitted between them.

“I thought this was some crazy tech!” Anne flung it into Mischa’s lap.

The note read, “Hi Mischa! This is magic paper, and it knows you’re looking at it, so I’m sorry, but you won’t get to know what the note said unless Anne tells you. Love, Santa”

“Oh,” said Mischa. “It’s magic paper.”

“Apparently!” Anne sat on the chair arm. “Anyway. Um. Hi. Have you had breakfast? The table is laid for two, per Santa’s instructions. Want to eat with me?”

Mischa suddenly realized they were very hungry. They’d only eaten cookies, and the breakfast smelled good . . . mostly. “You’re still doing eggs scrambled with smoked salmon?”

“It’s a tradition.”

Mischa sighed. They hated smoked-anything, but Anne insisted on it, which would have been fine, except she insisted on doing all the cooking, but never bothered to ask what Mischa wanted. They sat down anyway and took some food and sighed. What was Santa thinking, sending Mischa here? Was it some kind of evil Santa? Were the reindeer actually Satanic goats in disguise?

Anne poked at the salmon-y mess on her plate. “So. Hey. I wanted to say . . . I’m sorry.”

Mischa looked up. “Sorry? For what? What could you possibly be sorry for.”

“Okay. I know I was a total bitch ditching you like that, right before Christmas, and your surgery.”

“In a text.”

Anne winced. “Yes.”

“After four years of serious dating.”

“I just . . . couldn’t face you.”

Mischa snorted, and took a little satisfaction in Anne’s miserable expression.

Anne said, “I screwed up, and I was too ashamed to apologize earlier, until, well. Santa encouraged me.”

“Gee, thanks, Santa.”

“I know, right?”

Mischa shot her a look, and Anne said, “Okay, yes, I would have kept putting this off without the shimmering appearance of you in my living room on Christmas morning. But Santa’s right. This has been hanging over me. I’ve been really ashamed. I can’t fix it, but at least now I’ve acknowledged it. Addressed it.”

“Addressed me.”

Anne looked up into Mischa’s eyes. “Yeah. Addressed you. I’m really sorry, Mischa.”

“Does getting to know why you dumped me come with this deal? Did you leave just because I got sick?”

Anne frowned. “You’d been sick, Mischa, and I was there the whole time. I left when I knew you were going to get better. That’s why I felt like it was okay for me to go. I was in . . . a really bad place. I wasn’t good for me, and I certainly couldn’t be good for anyone else.”

Deep assumptions rearranged themselves in Mischa’s mind. “I didn’t know you were struggling, Anne. I guess I was so caught up in my health stuff, I just . . . I’m sorry.”

Anne touched their hand. “Hey, no, don’t do that. I could have talked to you. I didn’t.” She took a breath. “Will it help to hear I have a therapist?”

Mischa sat with that. “And you’re working on . . .”

“Figuring out why I never talk to anybody about anything that matters. Since therapy requires talking about things that matter, that’s rough, but.” She shrugged. “Progress.”

Mischa nodded. “It does help to hear that. And that you’re sorry. I wish you hadn’t waited three years to say it, but I still appreciate it.”

The smoked salmon in Mischa’s eggs shimmered and disappeared. Mischa brightened. “Aw, thanks Santa!”

Anne laughed. “You’re happier about your eggs than our emotional moment!”

Mischa took a bite of perfectly seasoned eggs without a hint of smoked flavor. The eggs were definitely bringing them joy. The stuff with Anne . . . that was more relief. Like having a splinter for so long you forgot it was there until you felt the pleasure of its eventual removal.

After Mischa took a last bite of egg, Anne stood up and came around the table. “Hug?”

“Why not?” Mischa stood and gave Anne a polite hug. Anne pulled them closer, and Mischa tensed as they felt her breath on their ear, the intake of her breath as she prepared to speak, her hips pressing to theirs . . .

. . . and then she pressed against Mischa’s belt buckle, and with a whoosh, Mischa was back in the sleigh.

The reindeer snorted, and Mischa faintly heard Anne’s shout of surprise as they took off into the sky.

Mischa felt lighter as they flew towards their next destination. Barely two minutes later, they landed on top of Mischa’s childhood home, thousands of miles away. No little boxing glove came popping out of the dashboard this time, and Mischa figured it was because they were eager to see their mom and needed no prompting. Another whoosh, and they were sitting on their mom’s comfortable sectional.

Their mom came bustling in from the kitchen. “Oh! I didn’t believe it when I got the note! My baby really did come home for Christmas!”

Mischa hopped up and their mother swept them up in a big hug . . . but she felt smaller than the last time Mischa had hugged her. She had a wheeze in her voice, and it was pitched a little lower than usual.

“It’s so good to see you, Mom.” Tears welled up in Mischa’s eyes. It had been so long since they’d seen her last, and they’d been so alone and miserable the whole time, and so worried about her, that feeling their mother’s comforting presence was at once a terrible shock and utterly reassuring. Their mom cried too, and they hugged and sobbed for a nice long time.

When the hugging was done, for now, they sat down to catch up. It was hard to be open over the phone, or at least Mischa had always felt so, and they realized as they started having their mother-kid heart-to-heart that they hadn’t been honest. They’d tried to protect Mom from the depth of their misery.

But she was their mom, and was not surprised, because she knew her Mischa very well. She let Mischa talk it all out, their fears and frustrations and worries, and eventually, as the sun grew into the golden hour of the day, she gave them a gentle pep talk, full of suggestions of things to do and ways of reframing their narrative, and although some of this stuff reminded them of being a teen and made them want to roll their eyes, it hit differently now that they were an adult and had been through some shit. Their mom concluded by taking Mischa’s hands and saying, “I wish the world didn’t seem so determined to forget you, and all the other people with the same kind of problems, the cancer survivors, people with disabilities . . . it would be so easy for everyone to just work a little harder, and it would make you all so much safer. It’s shameful.” She touched Mischa’s cheek. “But I didn’t forget you. And I never will.”

After she wiped away more tears, Mischa said, “Did you want me to leave so you can go to aunt Beth’s?”

“Don’t be silly,” their mom said. “You’re my present. I’m staying right here with you.”

They spent the day together. Mischa really didn’t want to leave, and as twilight approached, they hunched over, as if to prevent the belt buckle from being pressed. But eventually their mother started to nod off, and although Mischa asked about staying the night, Mom shook her head and said, “No, you must return the sleigh, sweetheart. Santa gave us this wonderful gift; it would be rude to keep him waiting.”

Mom handed them a sack filled with holiday leftovers. After another tearful long hug goodbye, Mom pressed a gift into Mischa’s hands, and then Mischa pressed the buckle and returned to the sleigh. They wondered if home was the next stop — had they used up the day visiting Mom? If so . . . it was worth it.

The reindeer whipped them into the sky, through the clouds, and then landed again on a new roof.

Mischa didn’t recognize the house, though it had some very cool-yet-tasteful Christmas lights strung up. Mischa stood up and pressed the buckle to launch themself into the unknown . . . and gasped. It was a Christmas party, specifically the Christmas after-party some of their college friends threw every year. They were set up in Caleb’s back yard with heat lamps, and people were flinging themselves down the snowy hill on sleds, laughing uproariously, and everyone was shocked and delighted to see Mischa, and they were, after all, allowed to drink a little . . . Eventually someone much drunker stumbled into their belt buckle, and from then it was a flurry of visits to old friends, greeting them on doorsteps and in airy kitchens, sharing confidences and apologies and wishes to reconnect. Their visits spiraled back toward their home until they ended up on a patio where some of their local friends had gathered, and when they pledged to do a better job of keeping in touch, they mostly believed it. Believing in people felt a lot easier after the day they’d had. They ran into a friend-of-a-friend, a cancer survivor, who told them about a group who threw outdoor parties and still took safety seriously, and invited them to a weekly writing-and-socializing group that met outdoors and would start up again in the new year.

Another heart-to-heart led to a surprise job offer. Mischa hadn’t realized a former coworker had started a new company during the pandemic with a remote staff, and the coworker hadn’t realized Mischa was looking for gigs — there was contract work available in January, and full-time possibilities when their next round of funding came in, too.

Mischa’s face ached from all the smiling and crying and smiling-while-crying they’d been doing, and it was getting pretty late. It wasn’t like all their problems had been solved, but the ones that remained seemed less intractable. Santa had hoped to give Mischa a boost. He’d given them so much more.

Mischa pressed the belt buckle, expecting the reindeer to take them home . . . but instead they landed in a graveyard, deep in the night, covered in snow. Mischa didn’t use the belt. Just walked toward their father’s grave. They hadn’t been there for the funeral. They’d only seen pictures of the stone, etched with the name, the dates, and, “Devoted Father and Husband.” Mischa stood at the graveside, a hand pressed against the cold stone, and cried for one last time. This was a hard way to end the night . . . but an important one.

You could mourn for the past, you should mourn for the past, while still believing in a path to the future.

Then they dashed the tears away and returned to the sleigh and said, “Please take me home.”

Santa was sprawled on the couch in an undershirt and red pants, boots off and red socks kicked up on the very nice couch Mischa had forgotten about since this morning.

He twinkled at them. “Welcome back! How was it? Better than a lump of coal?”

Mischa opened their mouth, but there was no way to sum up the experience. “It was just what I needed.”

Santa nodded. “I’m glad to hear it.”

Mischa sat beside him. “Some of it was hard.”

Santa nodded. “Relationships can be.”
Mischa glanced at him sidelong. “I was kind of surprised you didn’t send me to talk to my cousin. Losing that relationship . . . we were so close, and we don’t even talk anymore.”

Santa sighed. “I wanted to give you a gift. Going to see him . . . it wouldn’t have been good for either of you. He feels so guilty for your father dying, and everyone else who got sick, but that guilt has turned on itself, twisting inward, and he can’t face it, can’t accept it. So he’s convinced himself it’s all a lie, all a trick, that your father died of something else and people are just pretending it was a pandemic, for . . . well, for various reasons — those change in his mind day-by-day. He’s filled himself with rage, as a way to bury that guilt, and he’s found plenty of people on the internet and on TV to help pile on more rage when he starts to run low.”

“He was such a good person,” Mischa said. “I’m only alive because of him. He gave up a kidney for me; that’s like the definition of goodness.”

“People are complicated, Mischa. Everyone thinks I have a nice list and a naughty list, but it’s not true. I just . . . have a list, of people, with all their shades of gray. You can love who your cousin once was, and honor and respect the bonds between you, and hope that he finds his way out of the darkness someday . . . but it’s not your job to lead him. He won’t come out until he wants to come out, anyway. If he ever does, you can be there for him. In the meantime . . .” Santa shrugged. “Just focus on the things you can control, and the people you can help.”

Mischa sat with that for awhile, and Santa picked up the game controller and returned to the video game he was playing. It was a game about Santa fighting Martians and zombies and demons, and Mischa was pretty sure it didn’t actually exist. Santa handed them a controller, and Mischa got to play couch co-op as Krampus, and they battled their way through snowy realms until Mischa fell asleep.

They awoke on the couch — still the new one — on Boxing Day, tucked under the softest green blanket they’d ever felt. The room was still full of the new furniture and video games, though the debris from Santa’s snacks was all gone, as was the man in red himself.

A note sat on Mischa’s new coffee table:

Dear Mischa,

Thanks for the relaxing day! I needed it. My favorite part was playing games with you deep into the night.

I’d say we should do it again next year . . . but I think you’re going to be busy with plans of your own.


Your friend Nick

Host Commentary

Good morning, good day, good afternoon and good evening, and welcome to PodCastle, the flying castle of fantasy fiction. I’m your host, Matt Dovey, and it is my deep and abiding pleasure to present for your enjoyment, a PodCastle Christmas tradition in the form of an original story by Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw; this year, we are very proud to present as your present, LOCKDOWN AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE.

This is my last host spot of the year, as Eric takes next week for a Tale from the Vaults, and I’m slightly staggered that it’s been a year already. When Summer asked if I’d step into the role after they stepped down last December, I was deeply honoured and entirely unsure if I could do the job justice or maintain the rigorous schedule required for the efficient production of the podcast. After a year getting used to it, I can definitively say–as I record this very spot less than two weeks before you’re hearing it–I cannot do the latter. But the other folk here in the castle are very kind, and very capable, and we muddle through and look after each other. We’ve all had some pretty serious ups and downs as individuals this year, but the joyous thing about being a team–as opposed to being a mere group of people nominally working on the same thing–is that you are there for each other, and you pick up the slack when you can, and you trust others to pick it up for you when you can’t. So I may have been terrified, unsure and overwhelmed this time last year–probably still am this time this year–but I am very happy, and very proud, to still be here saying these words to you on behalf of this team and this masthead. Who, fittingly, are all here today to read for you: in order of appearance, your narrators today are Glorious Co-Editor Eleanor R. Wood as the narrator; yours truly, Matt Dovey, as the cousin; one of your audio producers, Devin Martin, as Mischa, and your other audio producer, Eric Valdes, as Santa; Glorious Co-Editor Shingai Njeri Kagunda as Anne; and in the role of Mum, your assistant editor Sophie Barker.

Your authors, as is a PodCastle Christmas tradition stretching back over a decade, are Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw. Tim Pratt is the author of over 30 novels, most recently multiverse adventures Doors of Sleep and Prison of Sleep. He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. He’s also a senior editor and occasional book reviewer for Locus magazine. He tweets incessantly @timpratt and publishes a new story every month for patrons at www.patreon.com/timpratt.

Heather Shaw is a writer, editor, UX Designer, sewist, and lindy hopper living in Berkeley, CA with her husband and 15-year-old son, River. She’s had short fiction published in Strange Horizons, The Year’s Best Fantasy, Escape Pod, PodCastle, and other nice places. She has been the fiction editor at the erotica zine Fishnet, the speculative fiction zine Flytrap, and the pro-SF zine, Persistent Visions. As a family project during lockdown, Heather, Tim, and their son River designed, created, and successfully Kickstarted a tabletop card game called Cyberwreck. You can find more about Heather at her website, www.UXbyHeather.com

And now pay attention, and gather round the fire, for it is a time for storytelling, and our tale is about to begin…


…aaaaaaand welcome back. That was LOCKDOWN AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE by Heather Shaw and Tim Pratt, and if you enjoyed that, well, goodness, we got loads for you. Hit pause and go grab a pen and paper, cos I’m about to list all the other Christmas episodes from Tim and Heather that you should go back and listen to:
• From 2020, episode 658, The Cursed Noel
• 2019, was episode 606, River’s Giving, written with their son River
• in 2018, episode 554 was Hosting the Solstice
• and for 2017, episode 501, The Christmas Abomination from Beyond the Back of the Stars
• From 2016, episode 447, It’s A Wonderful Carol
• In 2015, episode 395, Winter Jinni
• 2014, episode 343, Elf Employment
• 2013, episode 291, Seasonal Disorder
• 2012, episode 239, Catching the Spirit
• For 2011, episode 188, The Ghost of Christmas Possible
• And finally, way back in 2010 as episode 136, the classic The Christmas Mummy
And that’s only about half of the stories Tim has had here. The man’s an institution round these parts.

So thank you, Tim and Heather, for this story and for all the stories, and thank you, our audience for listening, for supporting, for nominating and voting, for being there for us, and–we hope–being there for each other. I hope you have found ways this year to still make connections in this world, as safely as you can when so many have abandoned caution. I hope you have good people around you, like I do in the castle with all the voices you just heard, and that if you don’t, you find them soon. None of us should be alone in this world; we were made by time and circumstance to be social creatures, to be there for each other, to care for each other. The modern world has a way of trying to make us forget that, mostly so it can fill the void with other nonsense that’s not good for us, but I hope today’s story–and all our stories–remind you of the truth. Eric will be back with a story for you next week, but from me, thank you for this year, and I’ll see you again in 2023. Merry Christmas.

About the Authors

Heather Shaw

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Heather Shaw is a writer, editor, UX Designer, sewist, and lindy hopper living in Berkeley, CA with her husband and 15-year-old son, River. She’s had short fiction published in Strange HorizonsThe Year’s Best FantasyEscape PodPodCastle, and other nice places. She has been the fiction editor at the erotica zine Fishnet, the speculative fiction zine Flytrap, and the pro-SF zine, Persistent Visions. As a family project during lockdown, Heather, Tim, and their son River designed, created, and successfully Kickstarted a tabletop card game called Cyberwreck. You can find more about Heather at her website, www.UXbyHeather.com

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Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is the author of over 30 novels, most recently multiverse adventures Doors of Sleep and Prison of Sleep. He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. He’s also a senior editor and occasional book reviewer for Locus magazine. He tweets incessantly (@timpratt) and publishes a new story every month for patrons at www.patreon.com/timpratt.

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Tim Pratt

About the Narrators

Eric Valdes

Eric Valdes is a sound mixer, performer, and creative human like you. He has spent the past two decades specializing in audio for visual media, and was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Sound Mixing for his recording work. Eric adores theatrical improvisation, but has also lent his face and voice to films, commercials, songs, and plays that may actually have been written beforehand. Eric journeys through life with his author wife Valerie Valdes, their two frighteningly high-energy offspring, and their two thankfully low-energy cats. Catch him making up silly songs on Saturdays on twitch.tv/thekidsareasleep, or stare in wonder while he anxiously avoids posting on twitter and instagram @intenselyeric.

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Devin Martin

Devin is a colony of uncooperative cells with a voracious appetite for cheesecake. After studying psychology and computer science, he almost fell into a career teaching robots how to kill, but escaped at the last moment. A number of arcane arts have vied for his attention, including programming and game design (both board and video), but writing has sung the sweetest. He lives with his brilliant scientist of a spouse and they call Cardiff their home. He almost never tweets @devinxmartin and he has a wide range of disturbing cackles.

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Shingai Njeri Kagunda

Shingai Njeri Kagunda is an Afrofuturist freedom dreamer, Swahili sea lover, and Femme Storyteller among other things, hailing from Nairobi, Kenya. She is currently pursuing a Literary Arts MFA at Brown University. Shingai’s short story “Holding Onto Water” was longlisted for the Nommo Awards 2020 & her flash fiction “Remember Tomorrow in Seasons” was shortlisted for the Fractured Lit Prize 2020. She has been selected as a candidate for the Clarion UCSD Class of 2020/2021. #clarionghostclass. She is also the co-founder of Voodoonauts: an afrofuturist workshop for black writers.

Her novella & This is How to Stay Alive is part of Neon Hemlock’s 2021 Novella Series.

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Sofía Barker

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Sophie Barker studied to become a doctor but was rescued by translation before there was too much damage done. She has worked with authors such as Lucy Taylor, Priya Sharma, and Kelly Robson in bringing their work to Spanish readers. She is very lucky to be surrounded by a great community of literary friends that keep reminding her that she is loved. She lives in Madrid, but her Scottish blood keeps calling her to Edinburgh. You can find her fangirling about one female writer or another on Twitter @S_A_Barker

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Sofía Barker photo

Eleanor R. Wood

Eleanor Wood Staff

Eleanor R. Wood writes and eats liquorice from the south coast of England, where she lives with her husband, two marvellous dogs, and enough tropical fish tanks to charge an entry fee. Her stories have appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Diabolical Plots, Nature: Futures, The Best of British Fantasy 2019 and Best of British Science Fiction 2020, and various anthologies, among other places.

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Eleanor Wood Staff

Matt Dovey

A head shot of author Matt Dovey. Matt smiles for the camera. He is wearing a grey vest, a white shirt, and a purple tie and had medium-long brown hair.

Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm from a ritual performed unto the Watchers Just Beyond, imploring them for the boon of great knowledge, but all he got were the lyrics to Dashboard Confessional’s album The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most stuck in his head forever. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement.

His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog, and Diabolical Plots. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.

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A head shot of author Matt Dovey. Matt smiles for the camera. He is wearing a grey vest, a white shirt, and a purple tie and had medium-long brown hair.