"I'm sorry, could you repeat that?"
"Yes ma'am. I said it looks like you have elves."
"Yes ma'am. About a dozen or so I'd suppose, th0ugh it's hard to tell for certain. They tend to keep out of sight, most times."
"Yes ma'am, you heard correct. Right around Boxing Day we start getting the calls in. Looking for a place to nest down for the season, you know." He looked around at the home: brick and neat white cladding, two-storey with shutters over the windows, icicles dangling along the edge of the roof. Pretty as a Christmas card. "Yep. This is the sort of place they flock to, your basic elf."
That he parked in plain sight in the driveway was bad enough. Now this? What would the neighbors think? She lowered her voice. "This is a good neighborhood," she hissed. "The realtor said nothing about… infestations."
"Oh, it's a fresh bunch," he said. "Probably smuggled in on one of them Alaska cruise ships. Real problem up north, you know. But global warming… well, they're losing habitat."
She shivered in her robe, clutching her cocoa for warmth. The candy cane tinkled against the edge as she shivered. It had taken hours to roll them out and get the twists just right, and dammit, they were going to get used. Except they'd been disappeared. A few here and there -- easy enough to blame on the kids -- but then this morning, over two dozen, just vanished. And two empty cookie tins, out in the yard. And all the decorating sugar, gone. The gingerbread village disappeared without a trace. Rats, she thought. Or mice. And she called the exterminators, and they sent this… person.
"I'm really having trouble with this," she said. "You know, yesterday was kind of a busy day…"
The exterminator nodded. "Perfect time for them to slip in, you know. All the hustle and bustle. But you can't miss the signs." He'd showed her the gap in the basement wall, lined with leftover tissue paper like a paper wasp nest. The neat piles of cedar shavings in the corners ("Probably tinkers," he said. "Mind you lock up your tools.") And of course, the little piles of peppermints stacked neatly under the stair. ("Droppings," he told her. "Fresh ones. Still sticky.")
"Isn't there anything you can do?" she said. "A spray or something?"
"Oh no, can't spray," he said. "They're a Protected group, your basic elves. More'n my job's worth to cross that line."
She felt a headache coming on. "Traps, then?" she said. "What do they do for raccoons? My sister had a raccoon up the chimney in their cabin once."
"No good," said the exterminator. He was filling out a complicated-looking form. "Far too clever to fall for that. Most of 'em could build better, anyway. You can't get 'em by outsmarting."
"Well, what am I supposed to do, then?" she said. She tried to ignore the noises coming from the dryer vent. It sounded suspiciously like Christmas carols, being sung by tiny, childlike voices.
"Well," said the exterminator. "There's no guarantees, but if you get all this down and packed away, nature tends to take its course, if you know what I'm saying."
"But these wreaths are handmade!" she said. "White pine from Scandinavia! Hand-woven grosgrain! Blown-glass bulbs from Austria!" It was enormous, too, and well-lit. She made sure the whole neighborhood could see it.
"I understand, ma'am, I truly do. But there's nothing for it. They look well moved-in now. Maybe you'd have a chance with an artificial tree…"
"An artificial… we are not barbarians you know."
"No ma'am, sorry ma'am. I'm just saying that you've made it all so nice, it's no wonder they flocked to you."
"Flocked? You said it was six or seven!"
"I said 'probably' six or seven, but there's no way to be sure. Two tins of cookies and a stack of peppermints. You have any sort of chocolate in the house?"
"Cocoa powder, of course. Baking chocolate. I know the kids have some candy from their auntie."
"Make a list," he said. "And check it. Twice. Basically, you need to get your supplies down now, before the hibernation season. See, they fatten up good for winter, maybe wake around Easter for a snack, and then again at Halloween before their migration. That's your best chance. Make sure you don't bring out any decorations until at least December first. Maybe St. Nicholas' Day, to be safe. The last thing you want to do is give them an excuse to stay through next winter." He tore off the back sheet of the form and gave it to her in a mittened hand. "Giving that it's the holidays, this call's on me. Merry Christmas."
She snatched it from him. "Christmas was yesterday, and thanks for nothing," she said. She slammed the door hard enough to dislodge a few icicles from the roof.
"You're welcome," he said to the door knocker. From a vent down by his feet, he heard the sounds of jingle bells and laughter. Checking that no one was watching, he left a stack of cookies next to the basement window. Chocolate chip. Still warm. "See you next year," he said to the window. A pair of tiny hands snatched the cookies and disappeared again.
And laying his finger aside of his nose, he climbed into his van, and out the cul-de-sac he drove.