This story is set directly after "Christmas in the Airwaves", which means that there are spoilers for anyone who hasn't seen that episode.
Disclaimer: Betty Roberts and the other WENN characters are owned by Rupert Holmes. WENN itself is owned by AMC (otherwise known as the All Monkeys Channel). The story itself is mine.
Italics denotes thoughts.
December 24th, 1940
Betty sat by the radio, listening in rapturous joy. Everything seemed so magical since Gloria Redmond changed her mind about keeping them on the air. She also sent a fuming Rollie Pruitt back to Boston for the holidays, claiming that he'd be better off there than in Pittsburgh. Betty held the tickets to Elkheart close to her, as if they would disappear if she let them go. It wouldn't surprise her. Nothing would surprise her tonight!
The other members of the WENN staff were happily exchanging gifts when not completing the Christmas shows originally intended for the night. The gift-giving party was planned at least a month before and no one really wanted to cancel it, Pruitt or no Pruitt. Scott and Betty spent an hour the day before trying to figure out how to sneak their presents to each other under the fastidious financier's nose. With Pruitt's departure, however, there was no longer a reason to hide anything. Gloria Redmond stayed in the studio and sang Christmas carols with Gil Martin while the others gave out their presents.
Betty smiled as she watched her friends...no, her second family...open their gifts with the abandon of small children. Gertie chomped on a bag of peanut brittle that Eugenia brought in the night before and concealed a drawer in the green room. Maple proudly showed off the scarf that Gertie knitted her. Jeff helped Scott get his watch onto his new watchband.
Mr. Eldridge handed Betty a large package after Hilary opened a lovely copy of "Hamlet" from Mackie. "I drew your name, Betty," the kind old man admitted. "I couldn't think of what to give you until I found this. It belonged to my late wife. I think she would have wanted someone like you to take care of it."
Betty unwrapped the paper and the loosely tied ribbon in a flash. She opened the box to find a little wooden man, dressed in a toy soldier's uniform. His face was homely but proud. The strange toy was obviously old. His uniform was faded and bits of his white hair were missing. However, Betty could also tell that it was a once a treasured possession, perhaps a family heirloom. "Mr. Eldridge," she murmured, "I don't know what to say." She put down the toy and hugged the old man. "Thank you. I love him!"
"You're welcome, dear," the old man said with a grin. He took a small walnut from a bowl of nuts sitting on the green room table. "I'll show you what he does." He placed the nut under the soldier's mouth and pulled the lever on the back of the jacket. The small wooden jaws handily crushed the hull of the nut.
"Oh," Betty exclaimed, "it's a nutcracker!"
Mr. Eldridge nodded. "This has cracked nuts for me since before most of you were born. You have to be very careful with him, though. He's not as young as he used to be."
Scott looked up at the clock. "Oh, would you look at the time?" he said in his usual roguish manor. "I do believe it's midnight." The WENN chime rang on the radio, indicating the end of their broadcast day. Scott turned to the cast members who were either on their way out or getting ready to go. "I hope you all have a really merry Christmas. We'll see all of you who volunteered to work tomorrow at ten o'clock sharp."
Betty nodded. The only people who weren't going home for the holidays were Maple, Scott, Mackie, and Gus Kahana. They promised to man (and woman) the station for Christmas day. Scott planned to come in a little early and run Christmas records until the others arrived.
Betty picked up the nutcracker and went to get her coat and hat. Scott joined her. "Drive you home, Betty?" he asked.
Betty nodded. "Sure. I'm not sure if the trolley runs this late on Christmas Eve, anyway." They walked out to Scott's car, a slightly dented Ford coupe. Scott made sure to open the door for her and covered her threadbare seat with his coat. Betty put the box with the nutcracker in it on her lap and Scott turned up the heat as far as it could go.
Snow began to fall while Scott warmed up the car. Betty peered out the windows at the buildings surrounding them. Traffic was light at this time of night, even of Christmas Eve. Most people were at home, dreaming of sugarplums and presents. "Scott?" Betty asked.
"Why did you buy me those tickets? They must have cost a great deal."
Scott took a deep breath. "Betty, I know how important your family is to you and how much you love Christmas. I saw the look on your face when Pruitt said that Christmas was banned at WENN. You were devastated, and not just because we could lose half our advertising revenue for the year. People should be with the ones they love on Christmas day."
Betty frowned. "What about you?"
He shrugged. "I'll do the remaining Christmas shows with Mackie, Maple, and Gus, and then have dinner with a few friends and spend the rest of the night listening to the radio. Except for WENN, it's the same thing I do every year."
"Don't you have any family nearby?"
Scott shook his head. "Nawww. I was never really close to my family, anyway, except Aunt Agatha. Aunt Aggie asked me if I wanted to go to Detroit with her to visit her daughter and son-in-law and their kids, but her son-and-law and I don't get along very well."
He pulled up at the familiar red brick building that housed the Barbican. "Here ya go, Betty. I'll see you Monday morning!" He opened the door for her and handed her the nutcracker box. Their eyes connected for just a few seconds before they both turned away, their cheeks as red as the stoplight that reflected on the window of the women's hotel.
"Yeah," Betty whispered shyly, "I'll see you Monday, too. Thanks again for everything!" She gave him a peck on the cheek and hurried into the Barbican.
Betty was so tired after her long day that she barely noticed where she was. She didn't see the mouse until she heard something squeak loudly underfoot. She jumped and saw a flash of gray run into a small hole in the hallway wall. The tired writer just shook her head. The management really has to do something about the mouse problem, she thought. They keep on getting larger and larger. That one had to be the size of a Christmas tree ornament!
She dragged herself into her neat little apartment. She spent one of her spare Sunday mornings decorating the two little rooms from top to bottom. She even had a small Christmas tree decorated with cheap ornaments and old battered toys from the back room of a five and dime. She placed the nutcracker below the tree and surrounded him with the old, faded toy soldiers. He looks as if he belongs there, she thought. He seemed regal to her. Almost like a prince commanding his men.
Betty spent the next hour packing the warmest clothes she owned into the smallest suitcase she owned before she finally passed out in her clothes on the soft but worn bedspread.
December 25th, 1940 - One O'clock
Betty woke with a start. She heard something in the living room and thought it was the mice getting into her crackers and bread again. This would be the third time this week! She got up and went to re-set the trap.
Betty walked into the living room. Now, where did she set up that mousetrap? Oh, yes, in the kitchen area. She was about to lift a garland to take a look at the trap when she felt an eerie sensation run up her spine. She wondered if she was being watched. But that's impossible, she thought. No one lives in this room but me and most of the other girls are asleep or away for the holidays.
"H...hello?" she called timidly. She looked around her room. It all appeared the same. Same old couch with the faded calico upholstery, same old Christmas cards given to her by friends and relations, same old Mr. Eldridge sitting on top of her clock...
She let out a startled gasp. There, on top of her cheap silver wall clock, was Mr. Eldridge. Or was it? She was about to take a closer look when something else astonishing happened. Her small Christmas tree began to grow as if it were still alive! It grew to ten, no, twenty feet. Everything in the room grew with it as well. Now she was no bigger than her beloved nutcracker! "What's going on?" Betty exclaimed. She'd always heard of the "magic of Christmas", but this was just a little too much, even for a holiday-lover such as herself.
Something wooden grabbed her hand and pulled her under the tree. Betty was surprised to find herself staring into the black painted eyes of her nutcracker! "Betty," he exclaimed, "I need your help!"
"What do you mean?" she asked. "What's going on?" All of the old playthings under her tree were coming to life. A doll straightened her dress. The toy soldiers polished their uniforms. A jack-in-the-box helped re-tie a ribbon around the lion that was losing its stuffing.
"We're going to battle." He smiled. For some reason, she knew his smile. It was as raffish as a wooden nutcracker could manage. "I'll explain later, but for now..."
"Your kingdom is mine, Nutcracker!" exclaimed a slimy, slick, squeaky voice from inside a hole in the wall. Betty's eyes widened as hundreds of mice dressed in capes and circlets and carrying swords entered the room. She gasped as two furry paws snatched her from behind. "Give up, Nutcracker, or your precious owner will see what happens to those who dare to trod on the delicate tail of the Mouse King of the Barbican!"
Betty pulled away from the paws and found herself staring at a long gray nose and bristly whiskers. The nose led to a wrinkled gray face and large gray ears. Two beady black eyes gazed at her intensely. The huge, fat mouse wore a red robe trimmed with ermine and large gold crown. Even more worrisome than the rodent, however, was the long, sharp sword that he pointed at Betty's chest. Betty also noticed that the mouse's tail was wrapped with bandages. This is what I stepped on tonight? Betty wondered.
"Um, excuse me," Betty began, "I'm sorry that I stepped on you, but I was tired and I really wasn't looking where I was going." She gulped. "Can't we just talk this over? I have some cheese and tea in my cupboard..."
"Certainly not! My honor is at stake." The Mouse King swung Betty over his shoulder. The Nutcracker ordered his men to charge, but the Mouse King poked Betty with his sword. "You can't hurt me as long as I have this pretty hostage." He gestured at the toy soldiers. "Drop your weapon, Nutcracker, or she dies!"
"No!" the Nutcracker exclaimed. He turned to his men and said softly "Do what he says. Put your weapons down."
Betty couldn't stand to see the courageous toys give up the battle before it even began. She snatched a long sword from the mouse soldier closest to her and stabbed the Mouse King's already damaged tail. He let go of Betty and nursed his sore tail. The toys took this as the signal to attack.
They drove the mice back to the door to Betty's bedroom, but the Mouse King kept calling for new recruits. Betty swung her sword at every mouse she could find. Her Nutcracker was aquitting himself well, too. She could see his homely wood head above those of the falling mice.
Betty was getting tired. Mice overwhelmed the small room. For every one rodent that fell, three more ran out in its place. She could feel her legs weaken. She tottered onto something soft. "Here, sit on me," said a deep, familiar voice. She was surprised to find that she fell on the old lion. It lost much of its stuffing and the top of its head near its mane was completely bald, but what fur that remained felt warm and comfortable. The lion sprinted to a quiet corner under the Christmas tree. She got off and looked around.
"It doesn't look good, does it, Miss Roberts?" the lion asked. The toys were being quickly captured or dismembered by the mice. Mouse fur and doll parts lay scattered on the dull, matted rug.
The sounds of clashing swords attracted Betty and the lion's attention. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King dueled under the tree, not far from the writer and the stuffed animal. "The Nutcracker!" Betty exclaimed.
The lion shook his head. "Who does he think he is, Errol Flynn?"
Betty grasped her weapon. "We have to help him!"
The lion backed further under the tree. "Are you crazy? I've lost enough stuffing as it is. I'd like to at least keep my head!"
"Fine!" exclaimed Betty. "Be a cowardly lion! While you find some nerve, I'm going to use my brain and stop the Mouse King from taking off the Nutcracker's head!"
Betty rushed to the rodent and the toy just as the Mouse King knocked the sword from the Nutcracker's hand. Three mouse officers threw the sword under the sofa. The Mouse King tripped the Nutcracker and pointed his sword at him. "I thought I smelled a rat," the Nutcracker tried to quip.
"Oh, very funny," snapped the Mouse King. "You won't be laughing when I thrust this through your painted heart!"
"This has got to end!" Betty wailed. She ran to the King and attempted to dislodge his sword from his hand. She only managed to have her own sword taken from her grasp. Two mice restrained her.
The Mouse King laughed. "Ah, so my destruction of this child's plaything upsets you, Miss Roberts?"
"I'll give you anything if you'll get out of the Barbican and leave us alone!" she shouted.
The evil rodent's ears lifted. "Anything? You'll give me anything I ask if I allow this...plaything...to live?"
"Yes," Betty said, "as long as you get out of here!"
"First of all, I want all of your cheese. Enough for my entire empire!"
Betty nodded. "It's yours. You can send your men to my icebox."
The Nutcracker frowned. "Betty, you don't have enough cheese to feed his whole empire. There isn't enough cheese in all of Pittsburgh to feed his whole empire!"
"I don't want to hear another word out of you, Nutcracker!" The Mouse King scratched the Nutcracker on the arm with his sword. The Nutcracker's cry wrenched Betty's heart.
"Stop!" she wailed. "Don't hurt him!"
"If you want him to live," the King purred, "give me your finest candies and cookies and cakes. I love a good dessert."
"I don't have much," Betty told him, "but whatever is in the cupboard is yours."
The Nutcracker shook his head. "Betty, you don't know what you're doing! He wants to..."
"Would you like to lose an arm or a leg like some of your comrades?" the Mouse King threatened the toy. "The third thing I want," he continued, "is all of your Christmas decorations. There will be no Christmas here. My men will take all of your decorations, the toys, and that card from your father."
Betty's jaw dropped. "Wait just a minute! You can have any of my food that you want. I don't have much of an appetite, anyway. But you can't have my Christmas decorations or the toys or the card from Dad! Can't you see how much they mean to me?"
"That's why I want them," the Mouse King snarled. "No one will have a merry Christmas ever again but the mice of the Barbican!" He lifted his sword to stab the Nutcracker. "Say good-bye to your friends and your Miss Roberts, plaything!"
Between the long day and the crazy night, Betty had quite enough. "That's it! You've asked for it, buster!" She didn't have time to get a sword, so she took off her shoe and flung it as hard as she could at the Mouse King. The shoe smacked him on the head. He let go of his sword and toppled to the floor. The mice, upset over the easy defeat of their leader, picked him up and carried him back to the hole in the wall.
She managed to catch her breath a bit before turning to the Nutcracker. The toys surrounded the unconscious wooden man. Betty fought her way through the crowd and gently picked up the Nutcracker's ugly head "This is all my fault," Betty sobbed. "I shouldn't have given the Mouse King what he wanted." She held his hard head close to hers. "Please don't die!"
"Ok, I won't."
Betty gasped. The hair she stroked was no longer white and missing in places. It was thick and black, with silver at the temples. The faded uniform was shiny and new. The eyes were big and chocolate brown, but they twinkled just as merrily. The skin was human flesh instead of wood and the scratch in the arm bled rather than splintered. The smile, however, was as roguish as ever. "Betty, Betty, Betty, thanks for saving my life."
"Who are you? Where's the Nutcracker?"
Everyone in the crowd spoke at once, but the Nutcracker quieted them. "Let me tell her. I might be able to make it a little less shocking."
The doll with the red hair and the fancy dress snorted. "Good luck. If I were her, I'd be doubting my sanity."
"Betty, I'm the Nutcracker Prince, and these are my subjects. Welcome to my kingdom."
The now-handsome man stood and steadied himself on the lion. "I can understand completely if you're confused. Didn't Mr. Eldridge tell you about me?"
Betty shook her head. "Only that you were old and you belonged to his late wife."
He smiled that lopsided smile again. "The old boy tends to forget these things every now and then. Where is he, anyway?"
Betty wasn't too surprised to see Mr. Eldridge walk out from behind the tree. He wore a black cape and top hat, like a magician. "Hello, Prince Stephan. How are you?" He beamed. "I knew the moment I laid eyes on Miss Roberts that she was the one to break that horrible spell over your person."
Prince Stephan nodded. "I'm glad you did. However, you forgot to brief her on a few of the essentials, like who I am, what the curse was all about, and why she just had ten thousand rodents re-enact the Great War in her living room."
Mr. Eldridge gestured at the Prince. "Oh. Well, Miss Roberts, you have the honor of meeting his Royal Highness Prince Stephan of the Land of Christmas."
"Charmed, I'm sure," Betty said, "but what's going on? What's the Land of Christmas? Who's the Mouse King, and what in the heck does he have against holidays?"
"It's a very long story," the old man began. "Many, many years ago, the Land of Christmas was a beautiful place. Christmas trees shown with tinsel and lights all year round. Candy cane trees were laden with sugarplums and marzipan oranges and the gingerbread homes were filled with happy toys, all awaiting the day when Santa would take them to some lucky girl or boy. The good Queen Glory and King Benjamin ruled the land with a gentle touch. They insisted that the Christmas spirit be present every day of the year and were always generous to their subjects. Queen Glory sang Christmas music and her son and husband would accompany her. Everyone in the kingdom looked forward to their concerts, especially during the holiday season."
Tom Eldridge sighed. "That all changed the year that King Benjamin died in a terrible snowstorm. He was visiting the neighboring Kingdom of Mouseton and froze to death while trying to get back home to his wife and son in time for Christmas. He had some sort of present that he wanted to give them."
Prince Stephan shrugged sadly. "We never did find out what it was. Mom hasn't been the same since."
"That's putting it mildly!" Mr. Eldridge exclaimed. "Queen Glory went into seclusion. She wouldn't see anybody, even Stephan. The Mouse King came here from Mouseton and took over while she grieved, the scoundrel!"
Prince Stephan patted the old man on the back. "Mom had a long conference with the Mouse King and he convinced her that Dad died because he wanted to come home and give us that gift. The Mouse King ordered my men to chop down all the Christmas trees and destroy the gingerbread houses to spare her the pain and the constant reminder of her loss. Mom wouldn't come out of the castle. She wouldn't sing, she wouldn't laugh, and she wouldn't go and spend time with our subjects or hold concerts. All the toys became worn from neglect and started losing parts. Santa took one look at them and refused to take them with him on his sleigh."
"Yeah," added the lion, "that rodent cheated us out of our chance to be loved by some kid."
"I could have been under some sweet little girl's Christmas tree this year instead of fighting like an extra from 'The Dawn Patrol'!" complained the doll in a familiar Brooklyn accent.
"I had an inkling of what the Mouse King was after," Stephan went on, "but I didn't truly understand until I sweet-talked the Sugarplum Fairy and Mr. Eldridge into giving that overstuffed rodent drugged cheese. He said a belly full after that."
"Well," Betty asked, "what was he after?"
"Christmas!" exclaimed Mr. Eldridge. "He wanted Christmas, the whole kitten and noodle, that old rat!"
"Just what he told you, Betty," Stephan added. "He only wants him and his subjects to enjoy the Christmas season. He intended to enslave the toys and banish me before I could change Mom's mind about changing the way we celebrate the holidays."
Betty nodded. "I think I understand now. You tried to stop him, and in return, he turned you into a toy, like everyone else."
Stephan grinned. "Smart girl. I rounded up an army to get the Mouse King out of the castle. That worked even less well than it did tonight. He sent my men to the dungeons and turned me into the lovely creature that Mr. Eldridge gave you."
"He put a curse on Prince Stephan," Mr. Eldridge explained. "The curse stated that only someone who loved the Nutcracker Prince and Christmas with all their heart could defeat the Mouse King and restore Stephan to his human form."
Betty sat on the lion for a few minutes to try to absorb all the strange information she was just given. "Let me get this straight. The Mouse King wants to take Christmas for himself, and that's why he turned you into a Nutcracker."
The lion nodded. "That's right. Mr. Eldridge sent us to Woolworth's after he gave Prince Stephan to his wife. He was afraid that the Mouse King may take his plans beyond the Land of Christmas." He lifted a paw and shook Betty's hand. "Oh, by the way, they call me Mack."
"And I'm Dolly," the doll added. "Nice to meet 'cha, Miss Roberts." She nodded at the box behind her. "And that's Jack-in-the-Box." He waved shyly.
The Prince stared at his wrist. "Oh, would you look at the time? Mr. Eldridge, we've got to get back to the Land of Christmas before the Mouse King remembers what hit him." He took Betty's arm. "You'll have to come with us. It's not safe for you here."
"But I can't!" Betty exclaimed. "I'm going home tomorrow!"
"Why don't we make a deal?" Prince Stephan asked. "If you come with me and help me and the Sugarplum Fairy get the Mouse King out of our hair and our kingdom for good, we'll bring you back with plenty of time for you to go back to Elkheart."
"If you stay here," Mr. Eldridge added, "the Mouse King may come back and try to do something terrible to you. He doesn't like people who can beat him, especially with just one shoe!"
"I'll go," Betty agreed with a sigh. "You folks need help. I don't know what I can do, but I'll try."
Everyone cheered. "Well, how do we get to this Land of Christmas of yours?" Betty asked.
Prince Stephan pointed at the tree. "Just close your eyes, hold my hand, and follow me."
Betty took the Prince's hand. "It sounds weird. But, then again, nothing sounds weird after tonight!"
She and Stephan walked hand in hand under her tree. She gradually felt the air from the vent become colder and felt something soft and chilly brush her nose. She heard crunching underfoot. The sounds of giggles and whispering wind reached her ears. "Ok," Stephan finally said, "open your eyes."
Betty gasped. Their group stood in a vast forest. Snow fell and chilly wind blew through the glittering pines. It looked like a fairyland. "Where are we?"
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