Here’s the first of this year’s trio of Christmas stories. I haven’t had as much time to work on these as I would have liked, but they’re done, damn it, warts and all.
I have a central idea when I do these stories. I want one that makes the reader laugh, one that makes the reader think, and one that makes the reader cry. I don’t know if any of these stories will do any of the above, but if I get a chuckle, a sniffle, or a thoughtful tilt of the head, I’ll consider them a success. After all, I write these stories for fun and one of them from last year became my first story in print.
So, with the understanding between us that these stories may indeed suck, I give you “Death of a Mall Santa”. WARNING: This story is rated “R” for language, violence, and other inappropriate shit.
Frank heard the name. Somewhere in his bourbon-soaked brain, he checked and found the name wasn’t his. He ignored the question.
“Santa?” the voice asked again, small and curious. “Santa, are you awake?”
He sent the small part of his brain that was still functioning to double-check the name, comparing it against his own. No, he finally decided, he was not Santa. He was Frank. Fifty-two. Two-seventy. Involuntarily retired.
And completely drunk.
He was not Santa. That was a ridiculous notion. Just because he had put on a few pounds over the years and had let his beard grow out to a scraggly white mess and had taken a part-time job as a —
“Shit!” Frank said as the pieces slammed together like a car crash. He sat up, nearly dumping the shocked, white-faced child from his lap. The girl’s mother rushed in, her face alight with anger, and scooped up the child as she started crying.
“You are a disgrace,” the well-dressed woman said through gritted teeth. She pushed her sobbing child behind her as though Frank might leap up from his grand chair and bite the kid. “I’m going to see that you get fired for this, you . . . you . . . animal.”
The woman stormed off in the direction of the mall office, all but dragging her child behind her.
“Have a Merry Christmas,” Frank called. When he was sure she was out of earshot, he muttered “bitch” in what he thought was a quiet voice, but several more parents, standing open-mouthed in line, gasped when he said it and left the queue, following the first woman toward the office.
A girl in an elf costume, young enough to do such work without feeling ashamed, but old enough for Frank to imagine her naked, leaned forward until her nose was nearly touching his. The look of rage on her face cracked a moment when he exhaled, blowing Jim Beam breath at her, but returned after she retreated several inches.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Her name, Frank remembered, was Holly. Very appropriate for someone wearing an elf costume. Or maybe it was Haley. A minute before he had to double check his own name, so he applauded himself for at least getting close. “You can’t come in here drunk off your ass, pass out when the kids are talking to you, or call their mothers bitches. Are you trying to get us both fired? I need this job like you need a bath, so don’t fuck this up. You hear me?”
Frank started to reply, but when he opened his mouth, the words came out as a long, loud burp that turned heads across the wide corridor of the mall.
“Ohmygod,” Holly/Haley said, “that is so disgusting.”
Frank stood up, listening to the impulse as it arrived half-formed in his head. He wobbled for a moment, teetering back and forth, threatening to fall into the plastic candy canes marking each side of the path to his chair. Finally, putting his hands out like a tightrope walker, he steadied himself and smiled at his accomplishment.
“What are you doing?” Holly/Haley asked, backing away.
“Bathroom,” he answered, following the explanation with another loud burp. “Too many milk and cookies.”
Frank stumbled away from the chair, tripping over the strings of lights that surrounded his faux kingdom and nearly falling into the arms of a young gay couple. He shook off the lights, nodded to the two men, and said, “Why don’t you two go home and make a fruitcake?” Laughing hysterically at his own wit, Frank shuffled past the couple and weaved toward the restrooms. He passed the various stores, packed with customers doing their last minute Christmas shopping, and bowled through the steady stream of people moving in the opposite direction. Most of them saw him, or at least heard the bells strapped to his belt, and moved out of the way. The rest he pushed aside, not bothering with apologies. In his drunkenness, Frank saw only a mass of faces parting before him like the Red Sea before Moses.
He reached the hallway where the restrooms were located and knew he would not make it in time. He broke out in a half-sprint to the door, knocking several people down as he held his hand over his mouth. A young boy, unfortunate enough to be in the doorway when Frank reached it, bowled over backward as, to his eyes, Santa ran over him and dove for the nearest open stall. A moment later, the sound of Frank’s insides roaring out through his mouth drowned out the boy’s crying or the father’s angry yells.
When he was done retching, Frank slid to the floor beside the toilet, appreciating the cool tile under his skin. His gut felt as though a reindeer had kicked him. Now that he could hear above the sound of his own puking, he could tell his outburst (or the smell it created) had cleared the room of anyone who wanted to use the restroom and could wait until he reached the next closest one.
Satisfied that he was alone, Frank closed his eyes, hoping to rest a moment before mall security came to lead him out of the building. Seconds later, he was asleep.
Frank heard the voice and thought it was part of his dream. He had no idea why Sally Field would be saying “Ahem” in the middle of their lovemaking, but he decided he could overlook it.
Frank opened his eyes, wincing as the bright fluorescents sent shafts of pain through his skull. All he could see at first was the white base of the toilet. After another brief memory search, he pieced together how he came to be in the floor of a mall restroom and wondered how much longer it would be before the mall cops came for him. He figured he had not been out long, since he still lay in the floor.
Too late, he thought.
Frank struggled to pull himself to a sitting position, trying to think of something clever to say to the officers before they hauled him off. He ignored the pounding in his head and turned to face his punishment.
No officers, mall or otherwise, were standing at the door to the stall. No humans at all waited for him.
Instead, a tiny figure, no more than two feet tall, stood just beyond the open stall door, watching Frank with an impassive expression. Its large, luminous eyes would have been its most striking feature if not for the huge, pointed ears that stuck out from its head like the fins on a vintage Chevy.
“What . . . who are you?” Frank asked. He rubbed his eyes and looked again, but the little man was still there.
“My name is Tinsel,” the figure said in a high, almost girlish, voice. “As to what I am, I’m an elf. From the North Pole.”
Frank blinked at him. Aside from his diminutive size and his admittedly elf-like facial features, he thought Tinsel could not look less like an elf from the North Pole. Instead of the bright red and green outfit he had always seen on television or on Haley/Holly, he wore an outfit of all black. His long sleeved shirt fit snugly over an impressive build for someone so short, while his pants were loose and bore several pockets that bulged with objects he could not see. A large pouch, also black, hung from his belt. In place of pointed shoes with bells on them, Tinsel wore miniature black combat boots. To Frank, he more closely resembled an oversized G.I. Joe action figure than any elf he had ever imagined.
Still, Frank’s head hurt too much to allow him to argue. “Okay,” he said, “what do you want?”
Tinsel reached into the back pocket of his pants and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it and read, “Frank McCloskey, you have been found guilty of gross misconduct in your role as Mall Santa at the Windmere Mall. In accordance with the Mall Santa Code, which you signed upon your employment for this position, you are found to be in violation of your contract and have been designated for termination.” When he finished, he refolded the paper and tucked it back into his pocket.
Frank waited a moment to make sure the elf was finished. Then, he burst out in a fit of laughter that threatened to tear his skull in two.
“What?” he asked, tears of amusement streaming down his cheeks. “The mall sent you to fire me?”
“No, Frank,” Tinsel said, not smiling in return. “I’m not here to fire you. I’m here to kill you.”
Frank took in the serious expression on the little face and laughed harder. Even when he smacked his head on the toilet and slid back down into a horizontal position, he continued to chuckle, unable to control himself.
The laughter died abruptly, however, when Frank’s body went into harsh spasms that pounded his face against the base of the toilet like a woodpecker building a home. His body jumped and thrashed as pain rippled through his body, multiplying that in his head a hundred times over. The smell of burning flesh, likely his own, drifted to his nose. He heard screaming and it took several seconds for him to realize that the sound was coming from him.
Finally, the pain eased, but not all at once. It ebbed away slowly, retracting an inch at a time and leaving numbness in its wake.
Frank was only dimly aware of the tiny pair of feet walking on him. Tinsel barely weighed anything and to Frank’s fried nerves, it felt as though the footsteps traveling up his side were on someone else’s body instead of his own. When the elf reached where Frank could see him, he held a small device in his hands that looked like a plastic icicle, blue electricity arcing from the tip.
“I didn’t want to do that, Frank,” he said. “But I need you to understand. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. The choice is up to you.”
Frank looked at the electric icicle. “Let me think about it for a moment.” Then, quicker than anyone would have expected, he rolled over on his back and grabbed Tinsel’s head, no bigger than a softball in his hand. As the elf brought the icicle down toward his chest, Frank lifted him up and over the rim of the toilet, slamming him into the bowl as though he was dunking a basketball. Tinsel’s tiny howl of rage was cut short as his mouth filled with what Frank hoped was not just water.
With effort, Frank pulled himself to his feet. He paused only a moment to look back at the two booted feet thrashing in the air before staggering to the door and out of the bathroom. His head still hurt and his limbs occasionally failed to respond to his commands, but each step that brought him closer to the exit made him feel a degree better. Through the glass doors at the end of the hall, he saw that night had fallen and no cars filled the parking lot beyond. He figured the mall was closed, but as long as the night guard didn’t catch him trying to exit the building, he’d get away clean.
He was three strides from the door, three strides from freedom, when he saw the chains. Thin chains of popcorn wound among the latch bars, offering a comical distraction to his escape. He shook his head, bemused, and the act sent a new pulse of pain that he knew would vanish with his first breath of outside air. He reached down and pushed the latch.
The latch did not move. The door remained closed.
Frank pushed again, harder this time. Still, the door defied him. He took a step back and hit the latch again, throwing his full weight into it and bouncing off as the latch stayed motionless as though set in concrete. With a snarl, he grabbed the chains of popcorn and pulled, expecting them to crumble in his grip. The chains felt like lead in his hands and would not budge a millimeter, even as he grabbed them and leaned back with all his weight. In exasperation, he gave the door a hard kick that served only to send a new flood of pain through his lower leg.
He looked through the glass at the parking lot, tinged yellow by the street lights standing sentinel over the pavement. He was inches from freedom, from being able to disappear into the night and never return to this place again.
With one last look of longing, he turned away from the door, looking for another exit. He was almost back to the restroom when he heard a small voice from inside.
“Did you think it would be that easy, Frank?”
Frank resisted the impulse to open the door and look inside, choosing instead to pick up his pace as he entered the main corridor of the mall. As he stepped out into the main wing of the mall, every light in the building flared to life, causing him to recoil as though in pain. The gates that barred entrance to the various shops along the corridor slid open, their metallic grating creating a spine-shivering chorus that nearly sent Frank back the other way. Locked windows on kiosks snapped open, displays rolled out into the traffic aisles on their own, and the fountain that formed the center spoke of the mall’s corridors roared into operation, the various lighted reindeer and polar bears that stood sentry around it paying no notice. Finally, the speakers in the corridors, in every store, even in all the electronic devices in the Radio Shack across hall from Frank crackled before a voice, tiny but annoyed, said, “Okay, Frank, we’ll do it the hard way.”
The voice died away, replaced by Michael Jackson singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” as such high volume that Frank thought his eardrums might throw themselves out of his head.
Barely audible above the deafening Motown track, Frank heard the restroom door creak open and, not looking back, began to run.
He made it exactly two steps before he tripped and fell, smacking his face hard on the tile floor. As he half-bounced on his jelly-like waist, he felt a tooth pop loose from his mouth and go clicking away ahead of him.
“Shit!” he screamed as pain slammed through his skull again. He rolled over on his back quickly, expecting the commando elf to be right on top of him, but instead he found a trio of radio-controlled trucks forming a line a few feet away. He had tripped over these somehow and, in his anger, he reached out with his foot to kick one away. The truck backed away just beyond his reach, beeping its high-pitched horn at him.
Frank clamored to his feet and stepped toward the truck to make sure he didn’t miss with his second attempt. “Fucking piece of sh—.” He kicked out again, but this time the truck accelerated forward. Before Frank could retract his leg, the toy had used its knobby, hard wheels to climb his foot and start to ascend his leg, digging through his red pants and gouging the skin beneath. Frank roared in pain as the thing seemed to be eating his leg, pinching great chunks of his meaty thighs between its spinning tires and plastic frame. Frank danced around on one foot, beating at the truck with his fists, as the other two began attacking his other leg, looking for some purchase to follow the first up the other side.
“Damn!” Smack. “Piece!” Smack. “Of shit!” With both hands, Frank managed to pry the toy truck off his leg, losing a strip of flesh from his inner thigh in the process. He howled in agony and rage, this time landing a kick on one of the trucks and sending it flying. It landed on its top several feet away, the tires still spinning as though reaching for him.
Frank pushed the other two trucks away with his feet, then stomped on each in turn until they were no more than piles of debris.
“Take that!” he said. A wheel atop one of the shattered trucks spun in response and Frank ran, his moment of triumph passed.
He ran toward the center of the mall. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw no sign of Tinsel or his avenging toy trucks, nor did he see the large kiosk he ran into. He bounced back with a startled cry, landing hard on his red-clad bottom. He looked up, ready to launch into a new round of swearing, but the words evaporated before they could leave his mouth, smothered by his terror.
Dolls, two dozen or more, stood all around and atop the kiosk Frank had struck. They stared at him with big, glassy eyes that looked innocent and passive when they weren’t moving, but now looked cold and lethal. Adding to their chilling appearance, the dolls stood atop a kiosk that was not the one where they spent their days being inanimate for potential buyers, but was instead one that sold sets of cutlery, shining sets of knives the dolls were now distributing like a bucket brigade to all their party. Frank could not swallow the scream that erupted from him as the little plastic boys and girls, armed with what looked like swords in their tiny hands, approached him like some menacing beast they meant to put down.
Frank scrambled backward just as the nearest dolls swiped at his shin. He got to his feet as the mass of dolls hobbled toward them on their stiff legs and he danced away as they stabbed at his ankles. He glanced around for something he could use to defend himself and, finding nothing, tried to jump a nearby bench to reach the other side of the corridor. He nearly made the leap, but his back foot caught the topmost wooden slat and sent him down hard on his left shoulder. He felt the joint dislocate and let out another high-pitched scream, this one of pain. His head swam, but he fought off the tempting blackness that colored the edges of his vision, visualizing the army of dolls instead. He pulled himself to his feet, mindful of the pitter patter of tiny feet drawing closer to him, and forced his legs to amble on through the mall.
His gaze down, Frank only knew he had reached the center of the mall by the roaring of water in his ears. It was the only thing he could hear over his own heartbeat and it helped clear his head. He looked back over his shoulder and saw the dolls were still coming, but their miniscule strides made their chase difficult.
“Frank,” Tinsel’s voice chimed in from everywhere again, “you’re just delaying the inevitable. Give up now and I’ll call off the dolls.”
“Fuck you, you reindeer-fucking pygmy!” Frank roared to the heavens.
“Have it your way,” Tinsel said through the overhead speakers.
Frank allowed himself the slightest grin before he heard the growl behind him. The smile melted from his face as he turned around, coming face to face with the massive lighted polar bear that, moments before, had been standing completely stationary atop the platform in the middle of the fountain. Now, spray from the fountain sizzled off the bear’s glowing bulbs and tiny arcs of electricity crawled along the wires that made up its body. It’s eyes, once white and benevolent as character from a Coca-cola commercial, now glowed a murderous red. It opened its wide, electric mouth, showing a series of blazing bulbs lined up in wicked rows of teeth.
The bear roared.
Frank soiled his Santa suit.
The bear reached out to swipe at Frank with one massive wire paw, but Frank scrambled backward, nearly into the onrushing tide of knife-wielding dolls.
Frank yelped and ran forward, sprinting at an angle that carried him just past the lighted polar bear along the edge of the fountain. The bear roared again and Frank could hear the clicking of its wire paws as it padded after him. He wanted to looked over his shoulder, to see the absurdity of the situation in full, but he would not slow down or risk running into something again.
Rounding the fountain, Frank saw his next obstacle right away. A line of Christmas trees from a nearby shop stretched the length of the corridor, forming a wall of green between him and whatever lay beyond. He knew the trees did not have to stop him completely, only slow him down enough for the polar bear or the dolls to catch up with him, so rather than try to find some way around the prickly branches, Frank picked out what looked like the smallest, weakest tree in the line and pounded for it.
“Red rover, red rover,” he panted as he lowered his shoulder and hit the tree like a linebacker. The tree gave surprisingly easily and Frank, not expecting such success, toppled forward as though he was being dispensed from a soda machine full of Diet Santa.
Frank lay on his back, winded, and closed his eyes. He could hear the soft padding of the knife-wielding dolls coming closer and the growl of the lighted polar bear as it too approached. Part of his brain screamed for him to get up, to flee, to keep fighting for his life, but all his limbs felt like pudding. He had no strength left to do anything but lie on his back, panting, and wait for the end.
“I didn’t have to be this way, Frank.”
Frank opened his eyes and saw Tinsel’s face, upside down and inches above his own. The elf regarded him with a tiny mixture of boredom and sadness.
“Just get it over with,” Frank said, closing his eyes again. He felt Tinsel climb up onto his shoulder, unable and unwilling to stop him. The little feet climbed atop his broad chest and stopped and Frank, hearing the familiar crackle of the electric icicle, just hoped it would be quick.
“Tinsel?” a different, deeper voice asked from a short distance away. “What are you doing?”
When the elf spoke, Frank heard quavering words and knew the elf was afraid. “Santa? I . . . I was just doing what you . . . what you told me to do.”
Frank found just enough strength to raise his head. Santa Claus—no poor sap working at some run down mall, but the real Father Christmas himself—stood only a few yards from Frank’s feet, close enough that Frank could smell the faint musk of reindeer he gave off. He regarded them both—man and elf—with an amused twinkle in his eyes.
“Now, Tinsel,” Santa said, an amused twinkle in his eyes, “I didn’t tell you to kill him.”
Frank felt relief beyond any emotion he had ever felt in his life. Energy flooded back into his limbs and as Tinsel opened his mouth to protest, Frank smacked the elf off his chest. Tinsel rolled along the tile, disappearing into the mob of angry dolls.
“Santa,” Frank said. He crawled across the floor and lay at Santa’s feet, a penitent sinner seeking absolution. “Oh, Santa, thank you. Thank you for not letting him kill me. I’m sorry, so sorry for how I’ve acted and I promise you that I will get my act together and—“
Santa laughed, his deep “Ho Ho Ho” resonating through every corner of the mall. “Get up, Frank. I have something for you.”
Frank could not believe his good fortune. He scrambled to his feet, trying to forget that he had been chased by an army of animated toys, that he had come within seconds of being killed by an insane elf, and that he had dropped a load in his rented Santa suit. He had survived all of that and now here was the real Santa Claus, about to give him a present. He looked over to where Tinsel had picked himself up and stuck his tongue out at the elf.
Santa reached into his bag. “Tinsel, he said, “I didn’t tell you to kill him.” He removed his hand from the bag, but instead of a wrapped present, he held a 9mm handgun. “I told you that I’d kill him.” Santa pointed the gun against Frank’s chest and pulled the trigger.
Frank felt a searing pain in his chest and back, then all feeling washed away. He was dimly aware that he was falling, but he felt nothing as he landed on the hard tile yet again. The last thing he saw before his vision failed was Santa standing over him, gun barrel still smoking.
Santa pointed the gun again, this time at Frank’s head, and as he pulled the trigger he spoke the last words Frank would ever hear.
“Frank McCloskey,” Santa said. “You’ve been naughty.”