Dec. 8, 2019
Long Island Rail Road train, 11:15 a.m.
We’re on a train to Manhattan, I have no idea where Carol is, and I’m about to lose my mind.
“Calm down, Robert. She’ll be here.” That’s my wife, Geovanny. It’s not the first time she’s used the phrase, “Calm down, Robert,” and probably won’t be the last. Also with me is Tyler, my 16-year-old son. They’re helping me take Carol Glover, the star of my two “Defenders of Claus” books, into the city to celebrate the November release of “Christmas Carol & the Shimmering Elf.” When the first book came out in 2017, we went on an adventure to visit New York City spots mentioned in the story and give away a book at each location to a random kid. I thought it might be fun to do again. There aren’t many places in the world more magical at Christmastime than New York.
Carol was supposed to appear at our house, traveling from the North Pole through a portal (one of the powers she uses to protect Santa as a Defender of Claus). Only she never arrived.
“How are we supposed to take Carol to the city if there’s no Carol?” Tyler sighs. It’s not the first time he’s sighed at something I said, and probably won’t be the last.
“Calm down, Robert!” (See? Told you.) “She’ll show.”
And then, as if my wife’s words are a conjuring spell, Carol materializes right in front of us, landing in the empty seat next to Tyler. I jump. Geovanny yelps. Tyler’s bag of potato chips goes flying, chips raining down on our heads.
“Hi, Robert L.!” Carol says, an ornery glimmer in her green eyes. She’s dressed from head to toe in reds and greens, perfect for the holiday she loves so much. They don’t call her “Christmas Carol” for nothing.
“You scared the daylights out of us, Carol! What if someone saw you?”
"No one saw me, Robert L.,” Carol says. But then her eyes grow big and we turn. The LIRR conductor, his mouth hanging open, is staring at my friend with the red hair and the white stripe through it. Apparently, HE saw. His eyes roll back in his head and he falls like a tree in the forest. A passenger catches the poor fellow.
“Um, I think it’s time to go,” I say as the train pulls into Penn Station. We squeeze through the crowd gathering to check on the conductor. I glance back and he’s sitting up. Thank goodness. The train stops. I glare at Carol. She won’t look at me as we exit into Penn Station.
“Carol in the City” is off to a rocky start. We’ll try and get it together for our first stop in Washington Heights. Let’s hope we can give away some books without making anyone else keel over. See you soon!
Washington Heights, 12:20 p.m.
It’s a clear, chilly day, about 42 degrees, and we’ve just arrived at 175th Street and Broadway. Carol’s pouting after I scolded her. “You about gave the poor conductor a heart attack.”
“I said I was sorry, Robert L.”
“Call me Robert, Carol, or just Rob!”
“But it says ‘Robert L.’ right there on the front of my books.” I sigh, giving up on that particular battle.
Carol’s eyes light up when she sees where we are. “Ray’s from here!” That would be the Ray who’s right next to Carol on the cover of the new book. He and his Mom, who are Dominican, are forced to go on the run in “Shimmering Elf” and they hide out in Washington Heights, which has a large Dominican population. Geovanny grew up in the Dominican
Republic so, not surprisingly, Dominican characters find their way into my stories.
“Geovanny lived in an apartment on this block when I met her,” I say.
“Awwww, isn’t that sweet, Robert L.”
“Tell her about the $60 cab ride,” my wife says and snickers.
“Um, maybe some other time.”
Geovanny ignores me. It’s not the first time she’s done that, and probably won’t be the last. “We met when he asked me to dance salsa at the Copa.”
“You can dance, Robert L.?”
“Yes, Carol, I can dance.”
“I’d LOVE to see that.”
“We danced all night,” Geovanny continues. “And he offered to give me and my friend a ride home. I thought he had a car but we took a cab. $60!”
“And that was back in the Dark Ages,” Tyler says, smirking. “$60 was like $500 in today’s dollars.”
“Hahahaha, very smooth, Robert L.”
“Hey, it worked, didn’t it? She married me.” Carol laughs and Tyler rolls his eyes. “Let’s find a kid to give a couple of books to.”
There aren’t many kids! Which is kind of surprising. Washington Heights has changed some since we were last here, but the building Geovanny lived in looks the same. (For my story, I imagined Ray and his mother lived in the same building.) We manage to get inside to try and say hello to a friend of Geovanny’s who still lives there, but she’s not home. Several of the apartment doors are decorated brightly for the holidays and the building has a warm, festive feel.
We snap a shot of Geovanny at the door to her old apartment. A lot of memories there!
Out on the street, we finally see a little girl who looks age appropriate. Thank goodness
Geovanny’s with me to speak to the grandmother in Spanish. Otherwise, she might have been inclined to run from some weird looking man in a Santa hat approaching her on the street.
The girl’s name is Ariana and she’s sweet and adorable. She and her grandmother, who say they’re Salvadoran, seem delighted to accept the books. “Gracias! Gracias!” the grandmother says again and again.
“Oh my gosh is she ever cute,” Carol says, grinning from ear to ear.
But as we wave goodbye, Carol suddenly straightens up. Her head is cocked to one side, as if she’s listening for something.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I felt something. A disturbance.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing. Let’s go to our next stop.”
Central Park, Historical Marker for Seneca Village, 2:01 p.m.
“The Shimmering Elf” is a time travel story and I chose to send Carol back to the 1850s partly because of a fascinating piece of history I stumbled across. In what is now Central Park, before the Civil War, there stood a predominantly African-American town called Seneca Village. Black people owned the businesses and homes, which was rare at a time when slavery still existed in the U.S. If you want to know more, watch the video.
“What was it like, Carol?”
“The 1850s? Stinky. There was horse poop everywhere and a guy walking around shoveling it into a bucket.”
“You travel back to a fascinating time in history and that’s what you remember? Horse poop?”
“It’s what my nose remembers. Oh, and I had to wear a weird dress.”
“I’m asking about Seneca Village, Carol. What was it like?”
“Oh, yeah. That was really cool. I met some nice people there. I ate rabbit and I met Sebwe, the first …”
“Don’t give away the story!” (A character named Sebwe figures prominently in the early days of the Defenders.)
“Oh, sorry.” Carol looks distracted again. Her body goes taut, like a deer sensing a predator. “Where are we going next?”
“Down to Greenwich Village, where the Shimmering Elf lives.”
“We should go right now.”
“We have to give books away first.”
“I think he’s messing with time again, Robert L. I feel it.”
“Surely he wouldn’t after what happened the last time. You’re just being paranoid.”
“Maybe you should listen to the girl with superpowers, Dad,” Tyler says.
Carol folds her arms across her chest and glares at me. I ignore them both. “We’ll go when we’re done.”
We stroll over to the nearby Museum of Natural History because there are bound to be kids there. We’re in luck. Geovanny immediately spots a little girl with the most glorious smile and we approach her.
“You’re a real author?” she squeals, practically bouncing on the sidewalk.
“Yes,” I answer.
“Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh! I finally met a real author!”
I swear I think my heart is going to explode. What a joy! The little girl’s name is Brooke and she says she’s in fifth grade, but proudly tells me she can read at a much higher level.
“Well, then these books are perfect for you,” I say, handing both to her after I sign them.
She quickly opens the book to the back flap of the jacket and holds my picture up to compare it to my face. She starts bouncing again. “A real author! I’m shaking.” Geovanny can’t stop laughing. Carol is smiling, too, seeming to have forgotten her eagerness to get down to the Shimmering Elf’s castle.
We take a couple of photos and bid Brooke farewell, all of us glowing. She made this entire day worth it. Such a sweetheart! There’s nothing more rewarding to a children’s author than a kid who’s that excited to read his or her books.
We head toward the subway to go Downtown. “Can I at least make a portal so we get there faster?” Carol asks.
“No portals, Carol!”
Jane Street, Greenwich Village, site of the Shimmering Elf’s castle, 3:30 p.m.
OK, there’s isn’t really a castle on Jane Street, but I imagined a huge Gothic looking structure as the lair of the Shimmering Elf, who has mastered time travel and isn’t exactly the nicest fellow. That’s the great thing about being a fiction writer. You can make up whatever you want, as long as it works for the story.
“Wait, seriously, there’s no castle?” Carol asks.
“But I was in it!”
“I made it up.”
Carol fixes me with her intense gaze. The long white curl, the one that signifies she’s a Defender of Claus, falls across her eye and she blows it away with an emphatic “Pffft!” “Then HOW WAS I IN IT?”
“Um, let’s not get into that. My head will explode.”
“Whatever. I need to find that elf. He’s up to something.”
“Make a portal to see where he is.”
“He’ll sense it and run. Oh wait. I could freeze time and then do it.” She starts to wave her hand.
“Carol, no! Don’t freeze . . .”
“Hi everyone! Carol here. If you hadn’t guessed already, I froze time. Robert L. will never know the difference. Time manipulation is one of the powers we Defenders have to help Santa deliver all of his toys in one night. Anyway, let’s see where that nasty elf is.”
Carol concentrates on the elf and a portal forms. He’s in Times Square, in the middle of a huge crowd, a hood covering his shimmering face. His constant time travel has messed him up because two versions of the same person (or elf) can’t exist at the same time. Every time he went back, he merged with his younger self. So now he phases in and out of various ages, making it look as if he’s shimmering.
Another portal opens beside Carol. It’s the Ancient One, her powerful elven grandmother. In case you didn’t know, Carol’s part elf. “What are you doing, dear?” her grandmother asks telepathically. Elves speak to each other without talking aloud. “Why did you freeze everything?”
“That nasty elf’s messing with time again. I can feel it”
“He wouldn’t dare!” Carol’s grandmother rubs her wrinkled chin – she’s more than 600 years old! – and appears lost in thought. “Just let me handle it, dear. I’ll keep an eye on him and you have fun with Robert L.”
“He says to call him Rob.”
“But it says Robert L. right there on the cover of our books.”
“That’s what I told him!”
“Unfreeze time, dear. And have fun today.” Her grandmother vanishes. Carol waves her hand and starts time again.
“… time, Carol. You can’t be messing with time like that.”
Carol grins. “OK, Robert L. I promise I won’t freeze time.”
I look at her with suspicion. I’m pretty sure she’s done something sneaky. I mean, I created Carol, after all. I know her well. “OK, then. Let’s find our next kid.”
So no kids! Or we don’t see any, and it’s starting to get chilly. We don’t want to stand here all day. So an idea hits me out of the blue. And it’s brilliant, if I do say so myself. Across the street is the front door to one of the charming Jane Street apartment buildings and I see a mail slot, which just happens to be about the size of a book.
“Let’s leave two books with a note, asking them to give them to a kid who might like them,” I say excitedly.
“That’s a good idea, Robert L.!” Carol says.
“Of course it is!” I say. “I’m full of good ideas.”
“You’re full of something,” Geovanny says.
So I approach the apartment, Tyler snaps a picture and I lean down to slide the two books through the mail slot. What I didn’t count on was the dog, losing its mind and barking maniacally at the intruder. Scared the living daylights out of me! Thank goodness the pup’s snout can’t fit through the mail slot or I might have lost a finger or two. I jam the note and books through the slot and we make a hasty retreat, hoping the mutt doesn’t use my “Defenders of Claus” stories as chew toys. I hope some kid out there gets them. On to the next stop.
Subway, the #6 train, 4:35 p.m.
“I’m a little nervous about this.”
“Chill, Robert L. It’ll be fine.”
We’re on the #6 train headed south. In the new book, the bad guy’s gone back in time to change history, conquering the world and turning it into a terrible place, where freedom’s been taken away and people live in fear of the Supreme Leader. Carol and her grandmother team up with a couple of boys with Defender powers who are part of the resistance against the Supreme Leader. The boys live in an abandoned subway station.
“Let me guess,” Carol says. “You made up the subway station, too.”
I nod sheepishly. “But there are abandoned stations, and I’m hoping we can see one – if we don’t get caught.”
The #6 line’s final stop is at the Brooklyn Bridge, where everyone’s supposed to get off. But if you stay on, discreetly, the train does a U-turn to head back Uptown, passing through the City Hall station, which was abandoned in the 1940s. They usually have the lights off so it’s hard to see, but maybe we’ll catch a glimpse.
“They’re not strict about making people get off,” Tyler says.
I nod but still have this vision of us being led away in handcuffs.
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Carol asks.
“I save it for my books,” I mumble as the #6 train rumbles on.
“Last stop! Last stop! All passengers must exit.”
Geovanny gets up. I’m about to follow, mad at myself for chickening out. Then I notice two elderly ladies keeping their seats, intent on staying on the train. If they can do it, why can’t we? “Let’s stay, Geovanny.”
So we sit back down. The train doors slam shut, and down toward the abandoned station we go. It was starting to get dark when we entered the station so we’re not sure what we’ll be able to see. When we pass, I keep the phone pressed against the glass, and a minute or so later, there it is! The abandoned station. So cool! And beautiful. I snap photos. They’re not the greatest, but you get the idea. I’d love to take a tour some day, but they do them only periodically and they sell out quickly. Maybe sometime down the road we’ll get to do it.
The train continues back Uptown and a family gets on. I find it more than a little awkward approaching total strangers on a subway, but Geovanny urges me on. The little girl’s name is Beatrice and the family is delighted to get the books. They thank us repeatedly. As we say our goodbyes and exit the train, we glance back to see Beatrice already reading!
Macy’s, 6:20 p.m.
We couldn’t get in to see Santa, which is a bummer. When Tyler was little, you simply got in line and waited. And waited. And waited. Now, however, you need to make a reservation, something that completely slipped my mind.
“I can get us in,” Carol says. “I have connections, you know.”
“No, Carol,” I answer. “That’s not fair to the people with reservations.”
Carol grumbles, “What good is being a Defender of Claus if I can’t even get in to see him?” She looks up and her eyes fix on something none of us can see. “Hi, Grandmother.”
“The Ancient One’s here?” I ask.
“Yes, Robert L., looking through a portal. She says hi.”
“Oh, tell her I say hello, too. And merry Christmas. Is something going on?”
“I told you. The Shimmering Elf is up to something. Grandmother’s been keeping an eye on him for me.”
“Where is he now?” I ask.
“She says Rockefeller Center. Watching the skaters.”
“See? He’s just enjoying New York during the holidays like us.”
Carol flashes a skeptical look but says nothing more.
We’ve just finished looking at the famous Macy’s windows, since we can’t go up to see Santa,
and to be perfectly honest, they’re a little disappointing. Not many this year. Maybe they’ll add more later, but since Christmas is only a couple of weeks away, I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t all be done. We snap a photo or two in front of the “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” windows, wander through Macy’s looking at the decorations, and then go back out to look for the next kid.
Success! We find a little Dominican girl and I couldn’t be more delighted. Maria is very shy but softly thanks me for the books. Her Mom seems much more excited than she is, but I hope when Maria reads the books, she’ll enjoy the Dominican characters. It’s really important for kids to see themselves in books. I’m not Dominican, of course, but I love the culture and my Dominican family. I hope I do both justice.
We take some photos and say our farewells. Off to Times Square!
Times Square, 7:05 p.m.
Everyone’s dressed quite differently from the people Carol and her grandmother encounter in Times Square in “The Shimmering Elf.” In the book, the Supreme Leader’s government forces all of its citizens to wear the same dull gray uniforms. Needless to say, a girl with red hair and a white stripe, and an ancient elf with long silver hair, both wearing colorful North Pole clothes, stand out in the crowd.
“It was awful,” Carol says, shuddering. “People suspicious of everybody else; eyes watching your every move.”
“Like George Orwell’s ‘1984,’ ” I say.
Carol nods. “Grandmother said the same thing.”
“Thank goodness our society’s not like that.” I look around at the mass of humanity. “People come from everywhere to enjoy Times Square. They call it the Crossroads of the World.”
Times Square is absolutely jammed, even on a Sunday. Not surprising, I guess, this time of year. We head to the red staircase at 47th Street and they’re so crowded you can barely see the lit-up steps. Everyone’s looking up at the amazing light displays and snapping selfies. It occurs to me that so far we’ve give books only to girls, so I look for a boy. And as luck would have it, we find A.J., with his baby brother and his dad Jose. A.J.’s 8, right on the cusp of being too young for my “Carol” books, but even if he reads them down the line, that’s fine. He seems
more interested in the lights of Times Square than the books (don’t blame him a bit), but Jose is appreciative. I sign the books and we take the requisite photos.
As we bid farewell to A.J. and his family, Carol’s eyes grow wide.
“It’s Grandmother again. I have to go.”
“Rockefeller Center.” She makes a circle in the air with her hands.
“Are you making a portal? You’d better not be making a portal. DO. NOT. MAKE. A. PORTAL!”
Carol makes a portal. “I’ll catch up with you later.” She jumps through and vanishes. A woman on the street next to us screams and faints.
“Well, that makes two victims today,” I say. “Let’s get out of here.”
We rush through the crowd. It’s only a few blocks to our final stop, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. I wonder what awaits us – and Carol.
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, 8 p.m.
“It’s Carol again, everybody. I had to get here fast. Grandmother’s here, too. And if she’s willing to leave her cozy cabin in the North Pole, things must be serious.”
“I spotted that cursed elf talking with a man with red hair,” her grandmother says. She pauses. “And a white stripe.”
Carol gasps. “But he’s not a Defender?”
“I didn’t recognize him. Where are Robert L. and his family?”
“I left them in Times Square. They’ll be here soon. Let’s hurry.” They ease through the crowd below the glittering tree, which is breathtakingly beautiful. Carol has to force herself not to stop and stare.
“Over there,” her grandmother says, motioning to the hooded elf and a man with red hair who’s gesturing wildly. They slip closer, when suddenly the elf steps back and starts moving his arm in a corkscrew motion. Carol and her grandmother know exactly what he’s doing: Going back in time. Something he promised to never do again!
Carol rushes forward. He’s created a swirling portal and he and the man step toward it. “Carol!” comes a voice from behind her. She looks back at the source of the voice. “Stay back, Robert L.!” The Elf and the man turn. Their eyes widen. They leap into the time portal. Carol leaps in after them.
The three of them tumble and turn and flail, spinning through time. And when they emerge on the other side, Carol’s confused. It’s Rockefeller Center. The place is packed, just like when they’d left. Nothing looks different. Huge crowd. Sparkling tree. Maybe the elf failed and they didn’t go back in time at all.
But suddenly, it’s as if Carol’s pulled like a magnet toward the skating rink. Her body slams into something. Her brain swims with confusion. She hears another voice that sounds just like hers: “What’s happening?” She’s on skates, gliding across the ice. And then she realizes what’s happened and where she is. That other voice she hears is her own! The elf must have traveled back to a year ago, when Carol’s uncle brought her and her best friend Amelia to New York City. It’s the night Carol first met Santa and agreed to become a Defender of Claus.
Her body shudders. Her two selves have merged. That’s what happened to the nasty elf, his selves merging over and over again until his body couldn’t take it anymore. Carol wonders if the same fate will befall her. But she can’t worry about that now.
The man with the red hair is glaring at her from above. He’s frozen everyone and is circling his hand, manipulating the threads of time and space, ready to hurl a North pulse at her. She’s dizzy and wonders if she’ll be able to withstand the blast or fight back. But before the man can fire, a pulse from behind Carol knocks him backward. Another man glides up beside her. “Mr. Winters!” The teacher who recruited Carol to be a Defender. It all clicks into place for Carol. That’s why the man with the red hair came back: To stop Carol from meeting Santa and becoming a Defender of Claus.
Thank goodness for Mr. Winters, a Defender of Claus himself. “Are you OK, m’lady?” he asks.
Carol starts to say something, to tell him what’s happened. But then she stops. He doesn’t know it’s future her. She’s just plain old ordinary Carol to him, the girl he’s about to take to the top of Rockefeller Center to meet Santa, the girl who doesn’t yet know her destiny. She can’t say a word, or else it could confuse him, confuse her past self, and mess up the future.
Carol freezes everything and everyone, except the nasty elf. She needs time to think. She hears her younger self’s thoughts, still shouting, “What’s happening?” So weird! She ignores her and yells up to the Shimmering Elf, who’s looking down at her nervously. He knows he’s in BIG trouble. “Take us back! Now!” she screams telepathically. He nods and swirls his hands again, making the corkscrew. Another time portal forms just above the rink. Carol skates toward it, gathering as much speed as she can, weaving in and out of the frozen skaters. She hopes this works. She jumps toward the portal, manipulating the air around her so that she flies up, up, up. Both versions of Carol scream. When they hit the portal, she feels it. A pulling apart. She’s separating from her younger self. She glances back to see the younger Carol land hard on the ice and fall. She hopes she’ll be OK, that Mr. Winters will protect her from the man with red hair, and that her future will remain the same.
The Shimmering Elf jumps in after her and they whirl through time again. Carol lands right back where she was only moments ago. The Shimmering Elf appears beside her. Her grandmother whispers, “Is everything OK?” Carol looks around – everything seems the same – and nods. The Ancient One grabs the Shimmering Elf by the ear. “I’ll take care of this one.” She leads him away and they disappear into the crowd.
“Carol!” I scream as I approach her. “Stay back, Robert L.!” she yells. Then she seems to vanish for a moment, and I stop, confused. But when I blink, she’s there again. I could swear I see the Ancient One with some other strange looking creature in a hood. But my eyes must be playing tricks on me. I’m out of breath as I reach Carol. “Why (gasp) did (gasp) you (gasp) leave (gasp)?”
“Jeez, Robert L.,” Carol says. “I think you need to get in better shape.”
“Did something (gasp) happen?” I ask.
Carol grins deviously. “Nope. Not a thing.”
I look around, trying to find evidence that Carol’s been up to no good. I’m pretty sure she has. But all I see are the throng of people and that gorgeous, glimmering tree. I gaze up in wonder as Geovanny and Tyler catch up to us. We stand in silence, taking in its sparkling beauty. I decided to trust Carol that nothing happened. “Well,” I say. “It’s been a really long day.”
“I’ll say,” Carol laughs. I glance at her again. Something DEFINITELY happened. “Giving away books, of course,” she adds hurriedly.
“Mm-hmm. Let’s find our last kid.”
Well, we end up finding TWO kids. Sisters Jane and Ceilidh (pronounced Kaylee; I hope I remembered the correct spelling!). “It’s Gaelic,” her father explains. Very cool name.
They’re waiting in line to enter F.A.O. Schwarz and seem thrilled to get the books. I’m not sure I can compete with the delights that await them in the famous toy store, but I’m happy that they seem happy. As for F.A.O. Schwarz, I’m certain I’m not the only one who immediately thinks of Tom Hanks in “Big,” that famous scene of him “playing” the big piano with Robert Loggia. Awesome scene. Awesome movie.
And speaking of awesome, the tree does not disappoint. It’s incredible. We’re exhausted and about to keel over, but ending our adventure at the Rockefeller Center tree was definitely the right move.
But now it’s time for Carol to return to the North Pole. I’m sad to see her go.
“So, see you again in two years?” Carol asks.
I laugh. “I hope so. But first I have to write another book.”
“Do it soon,” Carol says. “I’m ready for another adventure.”
“OK, Carol. Say goodbye to all the folks who’ve been following along.”