The Evidence for Coal by Jonny Eberle

This year, Santa’s operation entered the 21st century. Shortly after Thanksgiving, a server room went online at the North Pole to analyze data that used to take an army of elves a year to complete. Sophisticated algorithms crawled the web, taking into account thousands of behavioral factors. Code scoured social media for keywords, while software did the dirty work of sorting naughty from nice. A team of hackers worked to piggyback signals on telecommunications satellites to intercept texts and tweets as they flew around the world. Millions of emails were obtained through a Russian intermediary. Security camera footage was spliced together with GPS locators and all of it was neatly compiled to build a comprehensive file on every last human being on Earth. Finally, the computer assigned a final judgment to each one and spat out a color-coded, three-page report on crisp, white cardstock.

The elves passed the pages around, then checked them twice, and they smiled to each other. A few exchanged high fives. Everything they had been saying for years was confirmed. Even better — it was scientifically proven with evidence. In neat letters on the final line of the final page, the computer issued its recommendation: 10% Nice/90% Naughty.

There was some disagreement over who would present the findings to Santa. A few got into a shouting match. They all wanted to be there to see the look on his face when he finally saw what they had always seen. Still others were frantically emailing the mines to ramp up production. They were going to need record amounts of coal.

The older elves tried to block it from reaching Santa on the grounds of tradition, arguing that this newfangled technology wasn’t to be trusted. It wasn’t how things were done here. Legal wanted to seal the files until a full ethical review could be completed. PR tried to block it on the grounds of public opinion, arguing that a year of coal would hurt public perception of the Santa Claus brand. In the end, their concerns were overruled.

A meeting was scheduled. A conference room with a view of the ice floes was booked. Coffee was brewed. The elves came fifteen minutes early in their business suits. Santa arrived a few minutes late, panting and sweating, still in his workout clothes. He had just come from his personal trainer and would have to run off to meet with the sleigh engineers as soon as they were done.

They slid the report across the table to him. He read it silently. When he reached the final line of the final page, he flipped back to the first page and read the whole thing again.

When he was done, he slid the report back to them. He plucked his reading glasses off the bridge of his nose. He commended them on their work and attention to detail. They had given him a lot to think about. Then, checking the time on his fitness watch, he thanked them and jogged off to his next meeting.

The elves headed down to the canteen for a celebratory round of peppermint schnapps. The humans—with their violence, their bigotry, their cruelty—would wake up to find stockings bursting with rough-hewn coal. It was late and a light snow was falling when they stumbled home.

On Christmas Eve, the team gathered in their office to watch the reaction in real-time. There were speeches and champagne and then more speeches. Not wanting to miss the onslaught of distressed Facebook posts that would come pouring in as dawn broke across the world, they drifted off in their office chairs. No one noticed the buzz of text messages coming in from the loading docks.

In the morning, the elves searched the web for some mention of the tons of coal that appeared under trees overnight, but found only photos of smiling families unwrapping gifts. They concluded that there was an error in the program. It was caught in a loop, displaying last year’s Christmas presents. Someone ran down to the server room to reboot the system. No change.

A few of the elves headed outside. They hiked up the hill in the blowing snow toward Santa’s workshop. As they reached the crest of the hill, they saw a small mountain of coal piled beside the loading docks, waiting to be delivered.

Furious, they marched down to the foreman’s office and knocked on the door. The foreman stepped outside, dipping a cookie in his coffee.

“What is all this coal still doing here?”

“Last-minute change straight from the big guy,” the foreman said. “I tried to call you.”

“You should have tried harder. Those people weren’t supposed to get presents.”

“That doesn’t seem to bother him. Every year, he takes less and less coal. And this year, he didn’t take a single lump.”

“Why?”

“Beats me,” the foreman said. He shrugged and took a bite of his cookie before returning to his office. The elves stood in the cold as the wind blew around them, wondering what Santa saw in those terrible humans that could possibly override all the evidence.

*Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Arizona, he received his Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Political Science from Northern Arizona University. He lives in Tacoma with his wife and three typewriters. He blogs at www.jweberle.com