I want to wish all my readers (both of you) a very Merry Christmas and I hope you enjoy this last story of the year.

PENNY’S SNOWGLOBE

Penny Wilkes sat on her couch, waiting.  She had taken the initiative to put on her pajamas, mostly out of routine, and she stared at Tinkerbell and her fairy friends until she thought they were dancing across the flannel.   Despite her dress, Penny was not ready for bed, was not even sleepy.  She had waited for this night and had planned accordingly—sleeping through the day, taking naps when she could force her eyes to close, even making and gulping down some of the instant coffee her mother kept in the freezer for guests, as she didn’t drink it herself.

Penny had to be awake when he came.  She knew the rules, knew that Santa only came to the children on his “nice” list when they were asleep, but she didn’t know of any other children who had so urgent a need to speak to Santa as she did.

She got up off the couch, looking up at the clock as she did.  It was just past two in the morning—her mother had taught her how to read a clock not even six months before—and she wondered how much longer it would be.  She paced the floor, a habit she had also learned from her mother, who would follow the same track from wall to wall in the small living room, circling the couch like a racecar on a test drive while she chewed on her fingers and mumbled to herself.  She thought that Penny could not hear her talk about the medical bills, about Penny’s father walking out on them, about her worries for Christmas, but Penny heard it all.

Now, with her own worries, Penny mimicked her mother’s actions precisely, if unconsciously, her tiny feet in their flannel footies scuffling across the floor with barely a sound as she chewed her own tiny fingers.  The only thing she did not copy was the mumbling.  Penny was a very deliberate girl and had thought of nothing in advance to mumble, so her lips remained closed in a tight line.

The house in Queens where Penny lived with her mother was small and, without a fireplace or chimney, she wasn’t quite sure how Santa would get in.  Every trip around the couch she would look at the front door, at the curtained windows, at the stairs that led up to her  mother’s room, at the back door past the kitchen, and then back to the front door, checking with each like a night watchman making rounds.  On every fifth circuit, she rearranged the cookies she had placed on the coffee table and checked the temperature of the milk, sticking her finger in to see if it was still cold enough.  She listened hard for any sign of his approach—sleigh bells, the click-clack of reindeer hooves on the roof, even a distant “Ho, ho, ho”, but she heard nothing other than the whisper of her feet on the carpet and the ticking of the wall clock.

When the fireplace appeared against one wall where none had been before, she almost walked by it without realizing what it was.  She jumped, her feet catching on a half-second later than the rest of her, and she nearly stumbled to the floor.  Strong hands wearing black leather gloves trimmed in gray fur reached out and caught her, helping her back to her feet.

Penny righted herself and looked up at the one who had helped her.  Just as she had hoped, he was there, his suit dotted here and there with ash as though someone had sprinkled pepper on him.  He looked down at her with a kind, but confused, expression on his bearded face.

“Penny,” Santa said, “you’re up awfully late.”

“I had to wait for you, Santa.” She said.  The only reason she could get the words out over her nervousness, was that she had been practicing them every waking moment for three days.  She knew, when the moment came, she would have to plead her case without error, without stumbling over the words.

Only now did she notice the velvet bag slung over his shoulder.  Santa lowered it the floor with an audible sigh.  “Funny thing about this bag,” he said, smiling.  “No matter how much I take out of it, it never feels any lighter.”  He stepped over to the couch, sat down, and browsed the cookies a moment before selecting an oatmeal raisin.  He took a small bite and chewed slowly, closing his eyes to savor the morsel, then washed it down with a swallow of milk.  When he was done, he looked at Penny and smiled.

“Excellent cookie,” he said.  “Now, Penny, you know I’m not supposed to stop until you’re asleep, right?”

“Yes, Santa.”

“So,” Santa asked, taking another bite of the cookie.  “What’s a nice girl like you doing up at an hour like this?”

“It’s my momma,” Penny said.  “Come upstairs and I’ll show you.”

Penny led Santa up the dark, narrow flight of stairs and along a short hallway to a closed door.  She opened the door without knocking and led Santa into the room as she flipped on the light.

“There she is,” Penny said, pointing at the bed.  “I need you to help her.  She won’t wake up.”

Santa moved to the side of the bed and looked down at the figure before him.  To a young girl like Penny, he supposed, she might look like she was sleeping, covered up in bed with her eyes closed.  But Santa saw the pallor of her skin and the way the covers above her chest never moved.  He took off one of his black gloves and felt the woman’s neck, finding no pulse beneath skin as cold as his backyard.  Leaned over the bed, he saw the empty pill bottle still clutched in her hand.

“Make her wake up, Santa,” Penny said.  “That’s all I want for Christmas.  For my momma to wake up.”

Santa stood motionless for some time, tears sliding down over his red cheeks into his beard.  He looked at Penny and saw the same tears running down her cheeks.  Santa knew that, despite her age, she understood that her mother was gone, that he was her only hope of getting her back.

Yet, despite all the powers he possessed as Santa Claus, this was one gift he could not give.

He put his hand on Penny’s shoulder and led her out of the room as the girl burst into loud sobs.  To Santa, it seemed like a dam bursting, all the fear and pain she had hidden behind her hope in him gushing out of her in a great flood of misery.

“No, Santa!” she wailed.  “You have to help her!  You have to make her wake up!”

Santa picked her up and carried her back down the stairs to the couch.  There, he sat with her in his arms, rocking back and forth until her sobs, little by little, tapered off into quiet snuffling.  In some part of his mind, he knew he was falling behind schedule, but nothing in the world—not the cookies or the reindeer or the gifts–mattered more to him in that moment than little Penny Wilkes.

Then, just when he thought he could do nothing for her, Santa had an idea.

“Penny,” he said, his voice gentle and low.  “Penny, are you listening to me?”

She gave a loud snuffle and wiped her dripping nose with the sleeve of her pajamas.  “Yes, Santa.”

He propped her up on his knee so he could look at her.  “Penny, I’m afraid that not even I can wake up your mother.  I’m very sorry.”

Penny looked as though she was about to break down again, but she took a deep, shuddering breath, closed her red-rimmed eyes, and nodded.

“But,” he said.  “I do have another present for you.  It won’t bring your mommy back, but you might like it.  Do you want to see it?”

“I can open it now?” she asked.

“I insist,” Santa said.  He moved her onto the couch and reached for his bag.  Reaching inside, he rummaged around for some time before he found what he was looking for and, when he removed his hand, he held a wrapped present.  He held it out to Penny and she took it, removing the bow and paper with care.  When she opened the box, she saw a small, glittering snowglobe.

“It’s pretty,” Penny said.

“It’s more than pretty,” Santa said.  “It’s magical.”

“What’s it do?”

Santa took the snowglobe from the box and stood it up on the coffee table.  The snow inside shifted and swirled as though a blizzard raged within the glass sphere, revealing nothing of the scene within.

“I can’t tell you that,” Santa said.  “Right now, you go to sleep and when you wake up in the morning, you’ll figure it out.”

“But I’m not sleepy,” Penny said, her wide eyes fixed on the snowglobe.

Santa reached into a pocket of his coat and pulled out a pinch of silver powder.  He reached out and sprinkled it over Penny’s head.  At once, her eyes grew heavy and closed.  She leaned back against the couch and, a moment later, was softly snoring.

“Sleep now, Penny Wilkes,” Santa said as he moved to the fireplace.  “And Merry Christmas.”

In a flash of light, both Santa and the fireplace were gone.

Penny woke on Christmas morning and saw from the light squeezing through the ice-crusted windows that the sun was up.  She sat up on the couch, wiped her eyes, and looked around as she tried to remember what had happened.  Only when she saw the snowglobe where Santa had left it on the coffee table did the pieces come together.

She picked up the snowglobe, surprised at how light it was in her tiny hands.  The snow, still swirling inside, changed at her touch, the white flakes inside slowing until she could see an image begin to take shape within the glass sphere.  As she watched, she saw a tiny figure that looked very much like her, dressed in her coat and boots, hat and gloves, opening a front door that looked very much like the one that stood only a few feet away from her.

Penny set the snowglobe back on the table and stared at it in wonder.  No longer touching it, the snow swirled inside again, a miniature blizzard just inside the glass.  With one tentative finger, she touched it again and gasped as the snow halted to reveal the same scene as before, the tiny version of her going out the door of the house.

She knew what she had to do now.  She just didn’t know if she could.

With slow steps, Penny climbed the stairs, going first to her room.  She dressed, putting on the dress her mother had gotten her for Christmas only a few weeks before.  Then, she brushed her hair and teeth in the bathroom before going to the door to her mother’s room.  She stopped there, afraid that if she went in, saw her mother still lying in the bed, that she would not be able to leave her behind, no matter what her magical snowglobe wanted her to do.

She opened the door and went inside.

The room was different than it had been the previous night.  Instead of the piles of laundry that lay scattered like islands upon the floor, the room was clean.  Light streamed in through the open curtains that had been shut the night before.  Still, Penny saw none of this.  Her eyes rested only on the empty, made bed before her.  A piece of folded paper rested on the pillow where her mother’s cold head should have been and Penny picked it up, opened it, and read the two sentences written in a neat hand:

She will be taken care of.

Be brave, Penny.

At that moment, Penny did not want to be brave.  She fell to her knees at the side of the bed and cried for her mother, now truly lost to her.  She wailed, burying her face into the bed linens that still smelled of her mother’s perfume, and cried until she could summon no more tears.  When she was done, she pulled herself to her feet and, without looking back, left the room, shutting the door behind her.  The click of the door was drowned out by what sounded like a string, pulled taut like a piano wire, breaking in her heart.

Penny walked back downstairs and put on her coat, her boots, her hat and her gloves.  Then, she picked up the snowglobe and, just like the tiny girl inside, opened the front door and stepped out into the snowy morning.

The sunlight reflecting off the snow was blinding, and as her eyes adjusted, she looked around for some sign of what she was supposed to do next.  The street looked just as it always did, save for the new coat of snow upon the ground.  A few people milled about outside the tightly packed buildings, some shoveling the snow, others playing in it.  A few children near the corner gave Penny a quizzical look, wondering if she was coming out to play with them after being shut up inside for so long.  A taxi cab passed by, leaving a slushy trail in the street.

Penny looked again at the snowglobe, pulling it so close that her nose touched the glass.  When it did, the snow cleared again and showed the tiny girl inside entering the subway tunnel two blocks away, the one near the pizzeria her mother always took her to on her birthday.

Adjusting her scarf to keep out the cold, Penny walked down the steps to the sidewalk, the snowglobe cradled against her chest.  The snow was past her ankles, but dry, the kind she would normally kick into the air as she walked just so she could see the sunlight reflecting off the tiny flakes.  Now, though, setting off alone in the world with nothing but a snowglobe for company, she dragged her feet, turning back every few steps as her view of the house grew more narrow.  Finally, at the corner, she could no longer see the house, just the outline of the front steps, and it felt as though another string broke in her heart.

She crossed through the slick intersection without another look back, checking for traffic and waiting for the signal as her mother had taught her.  Traffic in either direction was light in this part of the city and especially so on Christmas morning.  On the next block, she found it the same as her own—a few people working or playing, a passing car—and soon came to the subway entrance.  The pizzeria was closed for the holiday, but the sight of it, the memories that flooded her mind as she gazed inside the darkened windows, nearly made her turn back and return to the house.

But her mother was not there, so Penny walked down the steps to the subway station.  When she reached the bottom, she consulted the snowglobe again, removing one glove with her teeth to touch it with her bare fingers.  Again, the snow parted and showed the girl swiping a card through an electronic reader at the gate, then walking through and getting on a train just as it arrived in the station.

Penny felt a moment of panic.  Her mother had never given her a subway pass, preferring to take taxis whenever she had to travel any distance.  Just as she was about to head back up the steps, she reached into her pocket and found a hard piece of plastic tucked inside.  She pulled it out and, just like the girl in the snowglobe, swiped it through the reader.  The gate opened for her just as she heard the approaching train rumble into the station, its brakes hissing like her mother’s tea kettle.

She moved across the platform and, when the doors to one of the cars opened, she stepped inside and found it empty except for a large black man, huddled in a heavy coat on the opposite end of the car.  He wore dark sunglasses that reminded Penny of a movie she had watched with her mother about a guy who played piano, even though he was blind.  Ray something, she thought.

The door of the car slid shut behind her and, with a jolt that nearly sent Penny tumbling onto the floor, the train started forward.

“Merry Christmas,” the black man said from the front of the car.  He never looked at her, his face tilted toward the ceiling as though he was staring at the sun.

Penny said nothing; her mother had told her not to talk to strangers.  Instead, she sat down on the seat furthest from the man and clutched the snowglobe to her chest.

“Not in the holiday spirit, eh?” the man said.  “Can’t say I blame you.  World’s a hard place.”

Penny did not look up at him, afraid that, even blind, he would continue to talk to her.  To her relief, he said nothing more, only sat back staring at the same spot on the ceiling, rocking with the motion of the train as it sped beneath the New York streets.

The train passed by several stations, but did not stop.  Penny saw them out the window, flashes of light and blurred faces breaking the monotony of the dark tunnels.  In every station they passed, she looked for the blurred face of her mother, knowing she wouldn’t be there but hoping she would.  She imagined herself stepping off the train into her mother’s arms, her mother healthy and happy, ready for them to be a family again.

Penny touched the snowglobe again, hoping the image in her head would appear within its snowy recesses, but instead she saw only herself exiting the train at the other end, near the blind man, and entering another station, a large sign reading Fifth Avenue on one wall.

She felt the train start to slow and stood up.  She was wary of the large man, even blind, and she walked as quietly as she could the length of the car in the hopes that he would not hear her.  If he did, he showed no sign of it and continued to look up at the ceiling, almost as though he was expecting something to happen there.  Penny stayed on the side opposite from him, as close to the seats as possible, and moved into position to exit the car as soon as the doors opened.

The doors slid apart and, at the same time, the train came to a full stop, jolting Penny again.  This time, the snowglobe slipped from her grasp.  She gasped and reached for it, knowing in that moment she would never be able to catch it.  Her eyes closed as she listened for the noise of shattered glass and broken dreams.

There was no smash of the snowglobe hitting the floor of the train.  Even when Penny was sure it should have hit the ground, there was no sound of impact.

Penny opened her eyes and saw the snowglobe was whole and unbroken.  A large hand, gloved fingers spread around the glass sphere, held the object a few inches above the ground.  The blind man, kneeling in the floor beside her, his arm outstretched to its fullest length to catch the snowglobe, smiled and held it out to her.

Penny stood there for several seconds before she realized she wasn’t breathing.  When at last she took a breath, a gasped “Thank You” came out, barely audible.

“You’re welcome,” he said.  “Can’t be too careful.  Now, you go on before the door closes.”

Penny stepped out of the car and looked back at the blind man.

“You have a Merry Christmas, Penny,” he said to her just as the doors slid shut again.  With another lurch, the train moved on to its next stop.

Penny touched the snowglobe again and saw herself walked up the steps to the outside.  It wasn’t until the fourth step that she wondered how the blind man had known her name.

She found herself in a part of the city she didn’t recognize.  Tall buildings stood on one side of her and a snow-covered park stood on the opposite side of the busy street.  Kids played in the park, throwing snowballs and building snowmen and making snow angels.  On her side, a steady stream of people walked in both directions, passing her as though she was an island in the center of a great river.

Penny touched the snowglobe again and this time it showed her entering a building with a green canopy stretching out over the sidewalk.  Looking up, she could see the canopy half a block away and she started walking toward it, falling in line with the flow of people moving in that direction.  The adults jostled her as their long strides carried them past her and the children, some tagging along at the heels of the adults, gave Penny interested looks as they struggled to keep up.  Penny ignored them all, intent only on keeping hold of the snowglobe and reaching the building with the green canopy.

When she reached the correct building, she saw a doorman standing in the snow just outside the door.  His face was lean and red from the cold, but when he saw Penny it broke into a warm smile.

“You must be Penny,” he said, bending down to address her at eye level.  “We’ve been expecting you.”

“Expecting me?” Penny asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“Absolutely,” the doorman replied.  “Please go on in.”  He opened the glass door for her and half-pushed her through into a spacious lobby dominated by the biggest Christmas tree Penny had ever seen.  It soared upward like the building itself, almost too tall to be believed, and was covered top to bottom with silvery lights that twinkled like stars.

Penny stared at the tree for sometime before realizing that she had no idea what to do next.  She consulted the snowglobe, which showed her entering the elevator near where she was standing and pressing the topmost button on the panel inside.  Penny did as the image showed, the doors of the elevator sliding open at her approach and closing as she pushed the appropriate button.

The elevator traveled for what seemed like, to Penny, days.  When it finally stopped and the doors opened, she found herself facing a short hallway, at the end of which stood a single door on which hung a large wreath.

Penny touched the snowglobe again, but this time the blizzard inside did not clear to reveal the next step of her journey.  She set it down in the elevator, stepped out, and watched the doors close before she heard the car descend.  This, Penny realized, she would have to do alone.

Taking a deep breath, Penny padded down the hall and knocked on the door.  She could smell the deep pine scent from the wreath.  The smell reminded her of the cleaner her mother had used on their tile floors and it calmed her even as it reminded her of her loss.  Still, wherever she was and whatever she was supposed to do there, the smell of the pine wreath made her sure that her mother approved.

The door opened and Penny saw two people inside, a man and a woman.  They were both still wearing their pajamas, matching red flannel, and both looked as though they had been crying right before she had knocked on the door.  They both stared at her, red-eyed and weary, as if they could not believe what was standing on their doorstep.  Then, they stepped aside, an unspoken invitation.

Penny walked into a large, open apartment.  The rooms she could see were decorated with the type of furniture—dark woods and soft fabrics—her mother always talked about wanting to have.  A television, bigger than her old bed, dominated one wall in the living room above a lit fireplace.  A massive kitchen stood off to one side, spotless and filled with stainless steel.  On the far side of the apartment, large windows offered a spectacular view of Central Park and the city beyond.  In one corner, a Christmas tree stood in the middle of a mountain of presents, more than she had ever seen in one place.

Then, Penny noticed the pictures.  On the walls, on the tables, even on the mantle beneath the billboard-sized television, the young face of a girl, no older than herself, stared out at her.  In some of them, she was alone, but in others, she was with the two people-obviously her parents—who still stood by the open front door staring at Penny.  There she was with them at the Grand Canyon.  There she was again with the Sydney Opera House in the background.  There she was again, standing with her parents, the Eiffel Tower rising up behind them.

Penny picked up one of the pictures from a nearby end table.  The girl wore a school uniform with a backpack slung over her shoulder.  She smiled into the camera with two missing front teeth.

The man and woman shut the door, but continued to stare at Penny.

“Where is she?”  Penny asked, holding out the photograph of the girl.

Instead of answering, the couple exchanged glances.  The woman buried her face in her hands and began to sob quietly.  The man led his wife to the couch and sat her down.

“That’s our daughter,” the man explained.  “Jillian.  She . . . she died last week.”

When he spoke, the woman cried harder and he put his arm around her.

Penny put the picture down, ashamed she had asked.  She turned away from the crying lady and looked at the Christmas tree.  Now that she was closer, she saw the tags on the packages, the name “Jillian” on nearly every one.  Presents for a girl who would never open them.  Penny knelt before the tree and, feeling the sting of her own loss mirrored in the woman behind her, began to cry herself.

Two pairs of strong arms lifted her from the floor.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” the man said.  “She had been sick a long time.”

Penny shook her head.  “No,” she said through her tears, “My mother . . . .”

They all cried for some time, each suffering from his or her own loss, each feeling the others’ pain.  Finally, when they could cry no more, they sat before the Christmas tree and looked at each other.

“What’s your name?” the man asked.

“Penny.”  She thought of giving her last name, but, with her mother gone, her family name didn’t seem to matter.

“I’m Max,” the man said.

“And I’m Susan,” the woman said, still wiping her eyes.

Penny, remembering her manners, shook their hands.  Then she stood up and went back to the window.  She looked out over snow-covered park and at the tiny people and cars milling about.

“Penny,” Max said.  “Would you like to stay with us tonight?  We . . . we would love to have you.”

Penny looked out over the city.  She thought about Santa and her mother and these new people in her life and how she came to be with them.  She thought about the snowglobe.

“Yes,” she said.  “I think I would like that.”

THE COFFEE SHOP

The sole customer at the Crossroads Diner sat at the counter, both hands holding a steaming cup of coffee.  He wore a thin, ragged coat, little protection against the harsh weather of northwestern Minnesota that, even now, was beating with wintry fury at the front windows.  The rest of his clothes, from his worn out workboots to his threadbare jeans to his holey flannel shirt, gave him the appearance of a drifter, someone fallen on hard times.  Beneath the curtain of his long, brown hair, he stared at the black liquid as though he might divine some truth from the tiny ripples created by the slightest touch of his fingers.

The man was not alone at the diner, but he might as well have been.  A young lady stood at the far end of the counter, eyeing him with suspicion.  She had not spoken when he came in, no smiling “Merry Christmas” or chestnut comment about the weather.  She had simply stood there, silently awaiting his order, and seemed relieved when he sat down and said only, “Coffee”.

He was still on his first cup, even though the sign by the front door advertised free refills.

The door of the diner opened, allowing a blast of cold air into the small space.  Snow swirled in to settle on the tables nearest the entrance and napkins blew free of their wire holders in imitation of the flakes.  The woman kept her eyes locked on the man at the counter for another second, then spared a look at the newcomer with anxious eyes.

He was short and round, shorter and rounder even than most of the people who portrayed him in malls and parades around the world.  His hat was not pointed, but was instead squarish, like a hunter’s cap, with flaps that he had tied to cover his ears, and a deep burgandy instead of the common cherry red.  The entire suit, top to bottom, was lined with thick, gray fur that matched the color of his thick beard.

Santa wiped the snow from his eyes and looked around the diner.  He smiled, the beard twitching slightly, and stomped the packed snow from his boots before making his way through the tables to the counter.  He sat down next to the other man, took off his coat, and looked down at the young woman.

“Coffee,” he said, and she complied, pouring him a cup and placing it in front of him.  She started to walk away, but he said, “Leave the pot, if you don’t mind.”

She did, plopping a towel on the counter between the two men and placing the hot decanter atop it.

“That’ll be all for now, I think,” Santa Claus said to the young woman.  “Can you give us a bit?”

She nodded, staring at him in wonder, and backed away into the kitchen.

When they were alone, Santa took a sip of his coffee, then said, “How have you been?”

“Oh,” the man said.  “hanging in there.  And you?”

Santa took another sip of his coffee.  “The same, always the same.  Licensing agreements and merchandise contracts and royalty payments and drama with the elves and the PETA people complaining about my unethical use of reindeer.”  He gave the man a wry grin, his eyes twinkling.  “Every year gets a little tougher.”

The man chuckled.  “Tell me about it.  The polls—if you can believe those things—say I’m fading in the public consciousness, and I can see why.  With the Muslims and the liberals and the scientific community all taking shots at me, it’s a miracle anyone remembers me at all.”

Santa set his coffee mug on the counter.  “And I certainly don’t help matters.  I’m the very symbol of your problem.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” the man said.

“No,” Santa replied, “it’s true.  Go into any store in this country right now and what will you find?  Me.  Santa hats, Santa stickers, Santa-shaped chocolates, plush Santas and animatronic Santas playing a saxophone.”  He put one hand on the man’s shoulder and, with the other, pointed at himself.  “I don’t even play the saxophone.  I can barely play the bass guitar the missus bought me ten or twenty years ago.”

The man smiled, despite himself.  “I’m pretty good on drums.  Maybe we should start a band.”

“You’re missing the point,” Santa said.  “Here I am, the very emblem of commercialism, my chubby ass everywhere, and where are you in amidst my sea of merchandise?  I tell you where—nowhere—and I’m a big part of the problem.”

The man looked at Santa.  “This is really bothering you, isn’t it?”

Santa bent down over his coffee cup, looking embarrassed.  “Well, I am Saint Nicholas.  Despite appearances, I do have my priorities straight.”

“I know you do, old friend,” the man said, patting Santa’s back.

They sat again in silence for some time.  When both of them had finished their coffee, the man looked up at the clock above the grill.

“You should probably head out,” he said.  “You still have half the Western Hemisphere to go.”

“I suppose so,” Santa said, sliding down off the stool.  He started for the door, but the man reached out and grabbed his shoulder.

“Look, I don’t blame you, and you shouldn’t blame yourself.  You’re not the cause of this mess, just another product of it.  You think Thomas Aquinas or Mother Theresa want your responsibility?  And, if you really think about it, you really do represent what is right about this season, what it’s all about, even if the message gets a little mixed up these days.  Generosity, kindness, faith—all of these things you bring to the world are what we have in common.  Except I have to do it without the elves and reindeer, of course.”

The man smiled and Santa, pulling on his coat, smiled back.

“I guess you’re right,” Santa said.  “As always.”

“Of course I am.”

The man reached into his coat and pulled out a worn leather wallet, but Santa grabbed him by the forearm.

“No,” Santa said.  “My treat.”

“But—“

“No buts,” Santa argued.  “You can pick it up next year.”

The man put his wallet away.  “If you insist.”

Santa reached into his coat, pulled out a silver money clip, and peeled two twenties from the thick wad of bills it held.

“Business has been good,” Santa said, his cheeks turning a shade of red that had nothing to do with the cold.

Santa made his way to the door and opened it.  Snow swirled in about him and he breathed in deeply, closing his eyes.  A second later, his eyes darted open and he looked back at the man still seated at the counter.

“I almost forgot,” Santa said.  He reached into another pocket of his coat and pulled out a small, wrapped box with a silver bow on top.  He weighed it in his hand for a moment, then tossed it to the man.

“What’s this for?” the man asked.

“It’s for you,” Santa said.  “After all, it is your birthday.”

With a sly smile, Santa went out into the storm, closing the door behind him.

Despite a few mistakes, I really like this story as it shows that I can be sensitive and emotional with my writing and not just gory and inappropriate.

So, here is “The Many Santa’s of Shepherd’s Hollow”.  This is a rather long one, so feel free to take as l0ng as you need to finish.  I’m not going anywhere.

THE MANY SANTAS OF SHEPHERD’S HOLLOW

The snow began December 23rd, flurries sliding in from the west as though they were ordered especially for the holiday. White Christmases were rare in central Kentucky and the gray skies with their white flakes offered the first promise of one in years. Children looked out their windows and smiled, pointing and declaring with the authority granted to them during the holidays that this year, finally, there would be snow on Christmas Day.

Their parents also looked out the windows. They did not smile. They had seen the weather forecasts and knew what was coming.

Becky Garrison had not seen the weather. Waiting tables at the only restaurant in Shepherd’s Hollow, she had overheard vague conversation about the weather, but there was always such talk at the Corner Café. Old farmers and older retired farmers, deep into their sixth refill of free coffee, sat at the small tables all the time and talked about the weather, the tobacco crop, deer hunting, and the occasional Kentucky basketball game. Becky only paid attention to the basketball talk, the rest fading into a dull drone that formed the soundtrack of her working day.

“Jim,” Becky called to the kitchen as she pulled off her apron, “you need anything else before I take off?”

Jim Cantrell, wearing a grease-stained Santa hat instead of his usual grease-stained chef’s hat, looked up at her. He smiled at her, the warmth of it a bittersweet reminder of her father, dead of lung cancer the previous April. Jim had been her employer since high school and the only man she really trusted since Robbie had left her, four months pregnant with his child, to go to college out west.

“No, hun, you go ahead,” Jim said. “You and Beth have a good Christmas and be careful.”

“I will. Thanks.”

Becky tossed her dirty apron into a cloth bag beside the kitchen door, spun on her coat, and made for the front with a casual wave at the last four customers in the restaurant, all regulars she had known since childhood. Thee of them returned her wave, throwing in a “Merry Christmas” along with it, but the fourth, the oldest of the group, stood up and motioned for her to wait.

“Hold on, Becky, before you go,” Mr. Cosley said. A withered-looking man in his mid-eighties, Mr. Cosley looked even smaller in his tan coveralls, zipped halfway down to reveal his customary v-neck tee beneath, and his heavy, insulated boots. He hobbled through the tables and chairs to Becky, reached in his pocket, and pulled out a fifty. “You can’t leave without your tip.”

Becky stared at the money, but didn’t move to take it. “Mr. Cosley,” she said, her voice low, “that’s a fifty. I think you grabbed the wrong bill in your—“

“Ain’t the wrong bill, either,” the old man said. He reached out and stuffed the bill into Becky’s reluctant fingers. “You take it and have a good Christmas with that little girl of yours.”

Tears stung the corner of Becky’s eyes and she did the only thing she could to keep the sweet old man from seeing them, wrapping her arms around his shrunken shoulders and kissing him on the cheek. She held him there for a moment until she was sure her voice would work properly.

“Thank you,” she said. “And Merry Christmas to you.”

She kissed Mr. Cosley again, smiling as the pasty skin of his ears turned bright red, and waved again at the others before nearly dancing out the door into the parking lot.

Outside, Becky realized for the first time that it was snowing. Her mood higher than it had been in some time, she stood and watched the bits of white drift down, swirling in the yellow lights of the parking lot. Night had fallen, still and quiet in the small town.

Becky found her car, an older model Toyota, covered in a light dusting off snow and brushed off her windshield, not minding the cold bite on the exposed skin of her hand. She worked fast, only clearing off enough to drive safely the few miles to her home, and sat down in the car, flexing her frozen fingers as she dug her keys out of her purse. The car started on the fifth try and as it idled, she reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out the wad of cash. Singing along with a Bon Jovi song on the radio, she smoothed out the bills and laid them into stacks on the passenger seat, organizing them by denomination. Then, she started with the fifty Mr. Cosley had just given her and counted the stacks, her spirits rising as the total rose to and past what she had hoped to save by today.

Yes, she decided, it would be enough.

Tucking the money back into her jeans pocket, Becky put the car in gear and pulled onto the quarter mile of Highway 650 that became Main Street as it passed through Shepherd’s Hollow. The street, like her car, wore a blanket of white marred only by a few sets of tire tracks that were already starting to disappear under the steady accumulation of powder. Becky traveled slow, her headlights soon replacing the street lamps as the only source of illumination on the two-lane road out of town. Her father, a truck driver until the illness took hold, had taught her how to handle slick roads and she felt no fear as she handled the curves and rolling hills, only a cautious confidence that she would make it home to her Beth.

The radio station came out of commercial and the DJ started the weather forecast. Becky reached down, her eyes locked on the road, and switched stations until she found Kenny Chesney and joined him in a mid-song duet.

Reaching her turn, Becky did as her father had instructed and began braking very early, allowing the car to come to a near stop on the icy road before allowing it to coast onto the gravel road. Even with such caution, the Toyota’s back end slid a bit as she turned, causing Becky to stop singing abruptly and grip the wheel tighter, even as her foot automatically let off the gas to allow the vehicle to correct itself. The back tires caught traction again and, reaching the relative safety of the gravel, dug in for a better grip.

Becky lifted her voice again, joining Kenny for the last chorus and singing along with Reba as she sang about a girl named Fancy. “Fancy” was one of Becky’s all-time favorites, the story of a young girl living a life of poverty who rises up, through sacrifice and hard work, to a life of luxury. The song gave Becky hope, something, like money, that a single mother working at a local diner rarely had in surplus.

But as she pulled into her driveway, the lights of her rented trailer winking through the increasing snowfall, she had just over two hundred dollars in her pocket and the kind of hope that only Christmas can bring.

She pulled the Toyota beside the Dodge pickup already in her driveway, the larger vehicle’s features all but vanished beneath the blanket of white. Doing a twirl in the gravel before she went inside, Becky placed a tentative foot on the first of the two steps leading up to the front door and, finding it slippery, grabbed the rail for support. The sound of laughter, unusual coming from her, accompanied Becky as she pulled her way up the steps and turned the door knob.

The trailer was small and old, but thanks to Becky’s knack of decorating on a tight budget, it felt cozy and inviting. She had strategically placed pieces of furniture, rugs, and pictures of Beth to cover up the various burns, stains, and holes left by the previous tenants. Instead of the smell of smoke and urine that had greeted her first visit to the place, the trailer now smelled of pumpkin spice and apple pie thanks to the aromatic candles she kept burning in the kitchen. This year, she had even placed a Christmas tree for the first time, a live one she had cut herself in the nearby woods and hauled back as a surprise for her daughter.

“Mommy!”

Beth met her at the door, her footie pajamas sliding on the snow-slick tile. Her hair, still damp from her bath, stuck to Becky’s frozen cheek in warm strands that seemed to radiate the love between them.

“I was starting to worry about you,” Paula said from the kitchen where she was finishing the dishes from dinner. “Roads look like they’re getting bad out there.”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Becky said, putting her daughter down. She looked at Beth as she took off her coat. “What was for dinner?”

“Fish sticks,” Beth beamed. They were her favorite, a staple Becky could count on at least three nights a week. “I ate nine.”

“Wow,” Becky beamed back, “that’s a lot.”

Beth held out her flannel-clad belly, leaning back so that it protruded as much as possibly against the snowman designs. “I know. Look.”

Becky reached down and rubbed her daughter’s belly. “Wow,” she repeated. “Now, you go get in bed and I’ll be in a few minutes to tuck you in.”

Beth took off in a sprint for her bedroom down the hall, Becky watching her go.

“She’s pretty excited about the snow,” Paula said, drying off her hands and reaching for her coat. “Can’t say that I second that emotion, but I remember being her age.”

Paula had been Beth’s sitter since Becky had been able to go back to work following childbirth. Her husband, a contractor, made more than enough money to support them, but Paula loved being around children and saw Becky’s situation as a perfect way to get out of the house and feel needed. To Becky, she was a saint who had been more than a blessing to her and her daughter, she had been like a wise older sister, one she could ask for advice and count on for whatever she needed. Paula had been there many nights in the beginning, mopping the tears from her eyes or the morning sickness from her lips, and she was still there, as much a part of their family as either of them.

Becky reached into her pocket and pulled out the wad of bills and thumbed through them as Paula came into the living room.

“You put that away,” Paula said.

“I told you I’d pay you today,” Becky protested.

“And I said put it away,” Paula said. Her tone made it clear that the matter was not open for debate.

“But—“

“You use that money on Beth,” the older woman said. “You can make it up to me later.”

For the second time in less than an hour, Becky was rendered speechless by gratitude. She reached out and hugged Paula hard, kissing her cheek. This time, she did not try to check the tears that flowed down her still-red face. Paula had seen them enough to not be shocked by them.

“Thank you,” Becky told her.

“Merry Christmas, girl.”

They let go of each other and Paula opened the door to let herself out.

“Watch out for those steps,” Becky warned her, “and the roads. I fishtailed a little pulling onto the gravel.”

“I’ll be alright,” Paula said, using to handrail to slid down to the ground. “You shut that door so you don’t let all the heat out.”

Becky laughed and waved at her friend as she climbed into the big Dodge. She mostly shut the door, leaving open a crack while the big V-8 roared to life and the truck backed out into the road. She continued to watch it until the red tail lights were lost in the heavy snowfall and then she shut the door, locking it against the winter cold.

“Mommy!” came Beth’s voice from down the hall.

Becky slid off her wet shoes near the door and peeled off her damp socks as she hopped down the hall to her daughter’s bedroom.

Beth was in bed, her pink comforter piled on top of her like whipped topping on a sundae. Becky smoothed out her covers and sat down on the edge of the bed.

“You two have fun?” Becky asked.

Beth nodded. “We played Uno and watched Wheel of Fortune and I ate nine fish sticks.” To emphasize the point, she held up eight fingers, looked at the result, furrowed her brow, then added one more and held them out again.

Becky laughed again, unable to remember when she had felt more like doing so. After so many years of struggling, so many nights when everything in their lives seemed uncertain except for the constant fear that they would not have enough to survive, Becky finally felt like they were finding some traction, gaining some ground on that paralyzing terror that she was not the mother Beth deserved.

“Does Santa come tonight?” Beth asked, her eyes wide.

“Not tonight, honey. Tomorrow night.”

“And he’s bringing me presents?”

“Have you been good this year?”

Beth narrowed her eyes. “Mommy,” she said, as though she were the parent, “you know I’ve been good this year.”

“I know,” Becky agreed. “And I’m sure Santa knows, too. Now, you go to sleep and when you wake up, you’ll be one day closer to those presents.”

Beth closed her eyes and gave a mock snore.

Becky leaned over and kissed her daughter on the forehead, barely able to contain another outburst of mirth. “I’ll see you in the morning, you faker.”

Leaving her daughter’s room, Becky thought of going into the small living room and seeing what was on television, but her feet screamed at her from the cold and from being on duty all day, so she turned left into her own bedroom and shut the door. A few minutes later, she was in bed, thinking of all she had to do tomorrow. Even though the Corner Café was closed for the holiday, she had to drop Beth off at Paula’s so she could go to Wal-Mart and pick up the things on Beth’s Christmas list. The girl had not asked for much and, for the first time since they had been together, Becky could afford to get what she wanted.

She watched the snow falling outside as snuggled into her warm bed, thinking of how her daughter’s face would light up on Christmas morning.

“Mommy!”

Becky ignored the familiar little voice that called her name. Clutching her comforter closer to her chin, she rolled over and stayed asleep.

“Mommy,” the voice said again. This time, it was accompanied by a shaking of the bed and an insistent prodding of her left shoulder.

“What, baby?” she muttered, still unwilling to open her eyes.

“Mommy,” Beth said again. She was nearly breathless with enthusiasm. “Come look at the snow!”

“I’ve seen snow before.”

Beth tugged at the comforter. “Prolly not like this. There’s so much!”

Something pinged at Becky’s mind and she opened her eyes. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll come take a look. Then I’m getting back in bed.”

Beth jumped down and vanished out the door, her tiny feet thumping against the floor as she ran down the hall.

Becky looked up at the windows above her bed, but could see nothing through the thick glaze of condensation that had settled on them overnight. She rubbed her eyes and stood up, throwing her robe on as she slid her feet into a pair of white bunny slippers Beth had gotten for her, with Paula’s help, as a birthday present. She left her bedroom, passed her daughter’s, and turned into the bathroom. Again, the glass was frosted over, but she could see a lot of diffused white in the tiny dots of moisture clinging to it. She emptied her bladder, flushed, and went out into the living room.

Beth was standing on the couch, her little hands pulling apart the curtains so she could stare out through small space she had wiped clear on the window.

“Look, mommy,” she said. “Look outside.”

Becky yawned and went to the front door. She turned the knob and pulled, expecting to see an inch or two of snow, just enough to cover the ground and excite a five-year old into near hysterics. Instead, what she saw drove her to near hysterics, though not ones caused by excitement.

The flurries from the night before had grown into an impenetrable curtain of white. Snow flew sideways beyond the storm door, so thick that she could not see more than a foot or two beyond the frosting glass. The Toyota, which she knew to be no more than ten feet or so from the bottom of the front steps, was completely concealed by the maelstrom of snow. Now that she was more awake, she could hear the wind howling around the corners of the trailer, a baleful moan that Becky began feeling inside herself.

“Isn’t it great?” Beth asked from the couch. She was bouncing up and down on the cushions. “Can I go out and play in it?”

“No,” Becky said. The word came out sharper than she intended and Beth stopped bouncing.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?”

Becky looked outside again, her high spirits from the previous night draining out of her. She hit the latch of the storm door and tried to open it, but a drift of snow, nearly rising the two feet or so to the bottom pane of glass, held it back, forcing her to push hard to open it out over the top step. Snow blew in harder than rain and, in just a few seconds, formed a growing drift around her bunny slippers. A gusting wind seized the door and, if she had not been gripping it with such firmness, would have ripped it from her hand and likely off its hinges. She pulled hard, shutting the screen door with extreme difficulty, the aluminum base dragging in another pile of snow onto the small patch of tile at Becky’s feet.

“Why can’t I go out and play?” Beth asked.

Becky forced herself to smooth the edges off the word before she said it again.

“No, baby,” she said, closing her eyes. “Not right now.”

Beth, not a child given to tantrums, sank onto the couch and said nothing.

Becky went to the television and turned it on. A map of the region sat beneath the women of The View, all the counties shaded in white while the crawl beside it listed them alphabetically. Beneath the map were two words Becky never thought she’d see in rural Kentucky.

Blizzard Warning.

(more…)

I give you “Death of a Mall Santa”.  WARNING:  This story is rated “R” for language, violence, and other inappropriate shit.

“Santa?”

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.

“Ahem.”

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.

“Ahem.”

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.

“A-hem.”

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.”

Here is my pseudo-cautionary tale, “An Inconvenient Christmas”.

AN INCONVENIENT CHRISTMAS

Crack!

Santa Claus rolled over in his bed, a difficult task beneath the half dozen thick blankets, and looked at his wife.

“What the hell was that?”

Mrs. Claus’s eyes were wide and shifting back and forth as though the cause of the noise might appear within her limited field of vision.

Crack!

“There it is again,” Santa said. “What is that?”

“I don’t know,” Mrs. Claus said. “Why don’t you get up and find out?”

Santa nestled down into the covers. “No. It’s cold out there.”

Crack! Crrrrack!

Mrs. Claus was surprisingly strong and showed it now. Planting her feet in the small of his back, she pushed her husband out of the bed onto the cold, wooden floor. Even a belly like a bowl full of jelly did not help him as he landed on his stomach, the wind knocked from his lungs.

“Dammit, hon,” Santa grumbled, breathless, “that hurt.” He stood up, pulling on the blankets as though to climb back into bed, but stopped when an electric cattle prod appeared from beneath, its tip sparkling with blue lightning.

“I said,” Mrs. Claus said from beneath the covers, “take your ass downstairs and see what made that noise.”

“Where did you get—?”

“You shouldn’t have left your sack on my side of the bed.”

Santa still held the lip of the bottom blanket in his hand and considered trying to climb into bed anyway. He knew his wife loved him and would never, ever do anything to hurt him.

Then, the cattle prod sparked, the blue arc lighting the dark room, and he dropped the blanket.

“What? You think someone’s breaking in? Nobody can find the place.”

“You heard it, too,” she answered. “Now, go.” Her tone was commanding, daring him to protest further. It told him, without saying it aloud, that one more comment like that would draw her out of the warm bed and then, fat man, there would be hell to pay.

“Okay,” he said, “I’m going.”

Cold floors are a natural hazard of winter. Anyone with hardwood in a bedroom, or who has risen from a hospital bed to make that all-important walk to the restroom, knows the pain that comes as the cold seeps into the joints of the foot, climbing the ankles and calves like ivy, until it settles in the knees like a bundle of razor wire.

Then, there are cold floors at the North Pole. The cold there did not seep up slowly, attacking the joints one at a time in its steady progression. Instead, the cold Santa felt seized his legs like a mass of clutching, clawed hands. He lost the feeling in his feet immediately and the numbness rose like an elevator, not just to his knees, but all the way to his hips, making it hard for him to walk. He stopped long enough to put on his robe and slide his feet into his slippers, then hobbled out into the corridor, headed for the stairs.

Crack!

This time, the sound was accompanied by a tremble in the large house, as if the building itself was shivering from the cold. Santa stopped at the foot of the stairs, trying to determine the source of the sound and the shake, but after several seconds, it did not repeat itself, so he continued on, wincing as his sore hips navigated the steps to the ground floor. He emerged into a large, airy room with expensive-looking chairs and sofas surrounding a massive flat-screen television that took up nearly one whole wall. The television, tuned to Fox News, showed two men arguing.

“Global warming is a hoax—“

“That’s just absurd.”

“—a hoax thought up by liberals to make it harder for American businesses to make money.”

Santa stopped in the middle of the room, turned off the television, and listened again. He knew the crew of elves working third shift in the workshop were busy putting together the Playstations and Blu-Ray players and other gifts he would be delivering in less than a week, some of them on the phones asking questions to Japanese technicians at Sony or yelling at suppliers in Hindi. Most of his staff, though, was asleep at this time of night.

Hearing nothing, Santa moved into the kitchen and flipped on the lights. He opened a cabinet, pulled out a mug, and set it down under the spout of his Keurig coffee maker before spinning his large rack of single-serve brew choices. He selected a dark Brazilian roast and popped the small cup into the machine, smiling as the aromatic steam began rising from his mug.

Crack!

This time the house shook with such violence that Santa nearly fell to the floor. His coffee mug, half-filled, toppled over and spilled across the stainless steel countertop. Santa reached for the dark fluid with his hand, hoping to keep it from spilling onto the floor, and recoiled as the hot coffee scalded his skin.

“Shit!” he spat as he looked for a towel to clean the mess.

Another noise drifted to his sensitive ears. Something was happening outside the house. Someone, in the distance, was screaming.

(more…)

This story started out as a fun waste of time, exploring different angles of the Santa tale than you’ll find on most television specials.  It ended up being my first published story in print format and, as such, will always hold a special place in my heart.

Considering the success I’ve had with these stories, and considering how much I enjoy writing them, it saddens me to announce that there will be no new Christmas stories this year.  The reasons/excuses for this are many, but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to finally admit that I just don’t have the Christmas spirit in me this year.

Still, I have the old stories to fall back on, including this one.  I hope you enjoy it.

WARNING:  This story is NSFW, contains excessively foul language, and is full of explicitly gory detail.  It is not recommended for children, people of weak constitution, or people who are very traditional about Christmas.

SANTA’S WORST STOP

Santa Claus, his heavy red coat tossed over the seat of his sleigh, sat on a rooftop and took a moment to stare out at the clear, moonlit night. The Louisiana bayou lay all around him, the canopy of the trees forming a dark wall around the small illuminated patch in which the house rested. Smells of decay and life, sounds of animals, things he never experienced at the sterile North Pole, assaulted him in a dizzying array of sensation. The only familiar intrusions into this fantastic new world, reborn every year, was the subtle musk of the reindeer a few feet away.

Sighing, Santa leaned back against the tiled roof. The house, as isolated as any he would visit tonight, allowed him a place to rest on his yearly world tour, somewhere he would not be spotted by neighboring children hoping to catch a glimpse of him like paparazzi pursuing some celebrity diva. He pulled a Cuban cigar from his shirt pocket, one he picked up from a house in Havana, and lit it with a small flame that sprang from his thumb. He sucked hard on the stogie, watching as the end flared with light, and pulled a chocolate chip cookie from another pocket.

Ah, he thought, life is good.

For a while, he inhaled and blew smoke rings into the air, thinking of nothing in particular. He was near the end of his run and things had gone smoothly, even with all the trouble brewing in the world. Thankfully, naughty and nice only applied to children, or he would have needed an extra sleigh to haul all the coal.

When he felt he’d been idle long enough, he stood up. With his powers, he could manipulate time easily enough, but he didn’t want to allow himself to rest too long, preferring to push on through the weariness caused by his annual trek across space and time to reward the good little children of the world. Well, okay, the good little Christian children. The good little Christian children whose parents had enough money . . .

Why get bogged down in the politics of it? He brought the shit, the kids played with the shit. Wash, rinse, repeat.

He adjusted his suspenders and, careful not to catch it on his cigar, pulled on his coat. He hated the heavy thing once he got into these warmer climates, but he knew his image demanded that he show up in full uniform, no matter how much he would have liked to slip down a chimney in Brazil or Liberia wearing nothing but a red and green Speedo.

No, the Speedo would have to wait a week or so. As he threw the stub of the cigar off the rooftop, he thought of his private island in the south Pacific. Primo surfing, drinks served in hollowed out coconut halves, and Mrs. Claus sunbathing in the nude.

Yes, life is good, he thought. Vacation is better.

Santa buttoned his coat and nodded to the reindeer, who stood in front of the sleigh regarding him with bored impatience. He was again thankful that the smelly shit factories couldn’t talk. If the decision were up to him, he’d replace the beasts with something else, something cooler. Polar bears, perhaps. Considering how the things were dying out, he thought they could probably use the employment. Nobody gives a damn about reindeer other than the ones who pulls his sleigh, but everyone loves polar bears.

He walked to the chimney, thinking of how absurd it was for a house, and not even a very nice house, in Louisiana to have a chimney. Did it really get cold enough for someone to need a fireplace or was it just for some redneck to impress the buck-toothed whores he picked up at the local bar?

Santa climbed on top of the chimney and shimmied down, wondering how he had ever become so cynical. Very un-Santalike.

Half-landing, half materializing like some character from Star Trek, Santa hiked his bag up on his shoulder and looked around. Obviously, whoever lived here was a fan. The small room was decorated, floor to ceiling, with hundreds, if not thousands, of Santas. Santas took up every available inch of every flat surface in the room, from the mantle to the tables to even most of the floor, allowing just a narrow passage for someone to walk. Father Christmas ornaments hung on nearly every branch of the tree, some so heavy they weighed the limb down over tops of other Santa-bearing boughs. There were Papa Noels on the walls, atop the small television in the corner, even on the throw draped across the sofa. Dean Martin was singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” from a radio somewhere in the room. To the real-life Saint Nick standing by the fireplace, it reminded him of the time he ate some LSD-laced cookies at some house in San Bernadino, a stunt that had landed the kids, and the parents, there on the permanent naughty list. The whole effect, the massive overkill of devotion, made him a bit nauseous.

So stunned by the overpopulations of faux hims was Santa, that it took him a moment to realize something else was making him nauseous. A stench, something that he could never recall smelling in all his many, many years of demigodhood, struck Santa with almost physical force, reaching down his esophagus and crumpling his stomach like a piece of paper.

Santa looked around the room, searching for the source of the odor, and a movement caught his eye. He was well-tuned to slight movements, having spent centuries watching for any little children that might have stayed up to spy on him, and his keen senses noticed that the throw over the sofa, bearing images of him that made him appear to be raging drunk, slid back an inch, then stopped, slid another inch, and stopped.

Perplexed, Santa took a step forward and heard, as Dean Martin gave way to The Beach Boys singing “Little Saint Nick”, what sounded like someone eating. He could hear the smacking of lips and, very quiet, a rhythmic chewing sound followed by an almost imperceptible swallow.

He took another step forward and stepped on the button for an animated Santa that played the saxophone and shook his hips like an arthritic belly dancer. The toy blared to life and Santa winced.

The smacking, the chewing, the swallowing all stopped at once.

Santa watched as the throw slid slowly, but steadily, over the top of the sofa until it vanished from sight. Then, a hand, emaciated and covered in blood, reached up and grasped the back of the sofa. A face followed, sunken and sallow, its lower half dripping the same fresh blood as the hand. The eyes occupying the face, milky white, flared as they focused on Santa.

“Holy fuck!” Santa yelled as the zombie drew slowly to its feet. It’s clothing, what wasn’t covered in red stains, was filthy as though the creature had trudged through the surrounding swamp to get to the house. It’s skin hung from its body, it seemed, more out of habit than for any practical purpose. In places, it was sheared away, leaving exposed bones that the abomination didn’t seem to notice.

The milky eyes fixed on Santa and the thing’s face changed. It looked hungry.

Santa’s first instinct was to shoot back up the chimney and get the hell out of dodge. He backed up to the fireplace as the zombie turned its head sideways, regarding his considerable bulk like a full Christmas feast—and God bless us, every one. Holding his bag firmly, he touched his nose, triggering the magic that would shoot him back up the chimney and outside.

Nothing happened.

He touched his nose again, feeling the sweat dripping down it.

Nothing happened again.

The zombie began his way around the end of the sofa, his shuffling steps knocking Santas aside like a strong wind felling trees.

Santa grabbed his nose so hard it brought tears to his eyes.

Nothing happened for the third time.

The zombie, clear of the sofa, lunged for Santa.

(more…)

It’s that time of year again.  Christmas is once again upon us and this year, as with each of the past couple of years, I am posting my previous holiday short stories in an effort to seem a little less lazy about blogging.  I still hope to have three new stories for this year, although I am, as of this posting, still writing them.

So, in keeping with what I hope will be a long-standing tradition, I present the first of my series of Christmas short stories–“The Present”.

THE PRESENT

by Lee Smiley

All was in place.  Thomas scanned the few objects lying on the table before him, checking that he hadn’t forgotten anything.  The pen, the paper, the loaded gun—that’s all he would need, really.  He thought about adding a cigarette or the bottle of Maker’s Mark in the cabinet downstairs, but he had quit smoking before he turned twenty and the bourbon now seemed unnecessary.  No, he thought, these things would do.

He could hear the sounds of Christmas carols from across the street.  “O, Christmas Tree” drifted like snow through the thin window glass.  The Bakers were having their usual family Christmas, complete with drunken caroling that often lasted until the wee hours of the morning.  The house itself stood as a testament to seasonal marketing—not an inch of building or lawn, was left undecorated by lights, holly, or inflatable figures.  A fleet of cars and trucks stood parked in the snow outside the house, dark beneath the street lamps.  The sight of them, setting aside their familial differences, their past offenses, for one night of good cheer and peace, made Thomas envy them.

There are some offenses, he knew, that could never be set aside.

As “O, Christmas Tree” ended in a wave of raucous laughter, the music for “Silent Night” started, oxymoronic at such volume.  Thomas turned away from the window, afraid that anger and longing would distract him from his plans.  He closed the curtains, blocking out enough of the music so that only a warbled melody penetrated his room.

Sitting down at the table, he took up the pen.  He had been thinking of what to write for some time, had completed mental draft after mental draft, each one evolving from the previous one into what he hoped would be a perfect suicide note.  Even during the summer, right after Carla had left him and he decided to take his own life, he was scripting his final words in his head.  At work, during showers, during his meals alone, usually frozen dinners or take out, he would drift into a trance-like state of composition, his expression blank as he called forth the words that would be his lasting legacy, the only one he had to replace the one he had destroyed.

Now that the time had come to conjure the words to paper, however, they would not come.  As though suspended in the ether, unwilling or unable to take physical form, they floated loose in his head, rejecting his desire to put them in some practical order.  He held the pen over the paper, commanding the language to pour out, but the pen and the hand holding it remained still.  In frustration, he threw the pen down on the table and, seizing the paper, sent it airborne with a flick of his wrist.  He watched as the pieces fluttered and settled in various points around the room, scattered as his life had been scattered for the past year.

He sat still for only a moment, looking out the frosted window, before he rose and started to gather the loose paper.  Once he had it all in one pile again, neatly arranged and lying next to the pen on the table, he sat back down.  He stared at the paper as though willing the words he wanted to say to appear on the blank pages, even if he was not sure what those words would be.  Only when his eyes began to water did he even blink.

After nearly a half hour, he picked up the pen again.  He resigned himself to knowing that anything he wrote down would not be a sufficient explanation.  Then again, he reasoned, there really wasn’t anyone who needed an explanation.  Carla was gone, Brady was gone.  Soon, he would be gone, too.

He picked up the pen again and pulled one sheet of paper from the top of the stack.  Before he had time to change his mind or second guess himself, he wrote.  His hasty scrawl was barely legible, but anyone finding his body would be able to decipher the words and that was all he cared about.

I’m sorry, the note said.

It wasn’t much, but Thomas knew it was enough.  It was all he had to say.

He folded the note into thirds and held it down flat with his hand on the table.  He was afraid to put it into an envelope, afraid that it might be cast aside as a meaningless piece of mail by whoever came to investigate the sound of a gunshot or, he grimaced, the stench.  He spent a long moment wondering how his body would look after a few weeks of decay.  The house stayed cold in the winter, but he doubted it would be cold enough to prevent at least some of his tissues from breaking down.  Looking up, he regarded his image in the mirror across the room.  He had lost a significant amount of weight over the past year–somehow food didn’t seem as appealing after what he did to Brady–and the face staring back at him, pale and haunted, was not his own.  That face, the one he saw now, was the face of his son’s murderer.

Thomas took up the pen again and thought for a moment who to address the note to.  Finally, he settled again on the basics, scribbling “Whoever” on the upturned third of the paper and pushing it to the center.  He lay the pen carefully next to it, lined up at a perfect angle to both paper and the edge of the table.  Somehow, he figured if the only thing left untidy when he was done was himself, the situation would look better for him.

He glanced back up at the mirror again.  The murderer’s face was smiling at him as if to mock his grief, his loss.

Anger welled up inside Thomas, entwining with his grief to a thread of steel that gave his hand strength to take up the gun.  The feel of the Ruger in his hand, the evil metal against his skin, made him almost lose his nerve.  He knew that what he was about to do was cowardice, a luxury he did not deserve after what he had done to his son, yet cowardice was a mild thing compared to that monstrous act.  The events played through his mind again, as they had thousands of times over the past year.  He fought against the memories, but they came on anyway, forcing him to relive them again one more time before he made his last, desperate attempt at escape.

“What was that?” Carla asks him, he voice accompanied in the dark by her hand on his shoulder.

Thomas hears the noise and is up at once.  He does not bother getting dressed, afraid of the noise even the pajama pants at the foot of his bed might cause.  He imagines himself pulling on one leg, then tripping as he tried to pull on the other one.

Instead, he pulls the Ruger from the drawer in the bedside table.  Flipping the safety, he pads to the bedroom door.  The door is shut, but the house is new and the doors still open on quiet, well-oiled hinges.  He eases it open, feeling the breeze attacking his privates, and steps into the hall.

The only light he can see is the flickering glow from the Christmas tree downstairs, radiating up the stairwell like a neon aurora.  He looks to the other end of the hall and sees Brady’s door is still closed.  The boy could sleep through just about anything, he knew, and he is now very glad of the fact.

Ruger in hand, he comes to the corner of the stairwell and peaks around, looking down the long, walnut bannister.  At once, he sees the shadow amidst the blues and greens and reds dancing across the living room.  He had seen on the news only a few days ago how burglary rose sharply in the days leading up to Christmas, thieves looking to take advantage of well-lit loot, packaged for the taking.  He considers going back to the bedroom to call the police, but the Ruger makes him bold and he starts down the stairs.

He takes the first step down in absolute silence.  He can hear the rustling of the wrapped presents down stairs and wonders if he is in time to save them all or if the thief has already managed to get some outside.  He takes two more steps down before the idea of an accomplice, someone who might be waiting just around the corner at the bottom of the stairs, comes into his head.  Distracted, he slips off one step, his foot landing hard on the step below and nearly causing him to lose his balance.

The shuffling downstairs stops.  The shadow grows longer as the figure comes to the bottom of the stairs.

The gun goes off as the shadow materializes into a dark mass below him.  He does not remember, even later, pulling the trigger, but he knows he must have.  The dark shape crumples to the floor.

Thomas all but leaps down the remaining stairs in one stride.  Only when he reaches the bottom does he realize what a terrible, terrible mistake he has made.

Brady, the front of his Spiderman pajama shirt stained dark in the thin light by blood, looks up at him.  Thomas looks back, seeing not pain or shock or confusion.

Looking in his dying son’s eyes, he sees remorse.

“Just wanted . . . to shake . . . a few . . . .”  Then, he is gone.

(more…)