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.

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…)

Here is the third and final of this year’s Christmas stories, “Penny’s Snowglobe”.  In all honesty, I just finished this one two nights ago and haven’t had as much time as I’d like to edit and revise, but it’s done and sometimes that has to be good enough.

I would also like to add that this has been a very challenging year–not just for my writing, despite my earlier successes, but on every front in my life.  When everything around you seems to be crumbling, it’s hard to focus on something that seems to trivial as a made-up story.  However, as I have learned, sometimes writing that made-up story is what brings sense and hope back to the world.

So, with all that in mind, I want to wish all my readers (both of you) a very Merry Christmas and I hope you enjoy this last story of 2010.

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.”

Here’s the second of this year’s Christmas stories.  It’s short–shorter anyway than what I normally do–but it only needs as many words as it takes to tell the story.

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.

While I finish this year’s three new Christmas stories, I figured I’d go ahead and post the ones from last year.  Two of the four I’ve done so far are unavailable for reposting, as one was published this year and another is out on submission, but that leaves the other two free with nothing to do.

So, 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…)

While I await the results of a few short stories out on submission and in between working on this year’s Christmas short stories and before I go back to work on one of my novels-in-progress, I thought I’d update here about my recent goings-on:

–My short story, “Nehemiah’s Apparatus”, a Civil War zombie story, hit the cyber shelves this week as part of the Pill Hill Press anthology, Gone with the Dirt:  Undead Dixie.  You can order it here.

–My short story, “Santa’s Worst Stop”, is still available in the Fall issue of Ghostlight Magazine.  You can order it in print or download a digital copy here.

–I had my first interview as an author recently.  Tennessee Magnet, a local paper which covers nine counties in my little agrarian corner of the world, printed some very nice stuff about me and, as a bonus, a piece of flash fiction I did called, “Grandpa Rides the Wave”.  Thanks to Cindy and Chris for taking an interest in what I’m doing.

–My aforementioned annual Christmas stories are in the works and will hopefully be completed soon.  This will be a rough week for me after tomorrow–I’m working Thanksgiving Day and most of Black Friday, but my wife and children will be out of town the latter half of the week and, lacking offspring to yell at, I hope to use some of my alone time for finishing the last of the three and editing them all.  I also plan on re-posting a couple of my previous Christmas stories that are not currently out on submission.

–My fantasy football team, the Munchkinland Giants, after taking over sole possession of first place in my league last week, got smoked by the last place team, probably dropping me to 2nd or 3rd with the playoffs just around the corner.  Damn near everybody on my team had an off week, but hopefully they have them out of the way so they can perform well in the playoffs.

–As I mentioned before, I will be working this Thanksgiving, the first time I have done so since I left Wal-Mart eleven years ago.  My also-aforementioned wife and children will be out of town over the weekend, but we all plan on being home for Christmas this year, something that hasn’t happened the last three years while I’ve been working that holiday.

–My writing plans for the near future are as follows:  finish and post the Christmas stories, revise/rewrite a short story for a content due in February, and, when all my shorter work is floating about in search of a home, I plan on getting back to work on one of my novels, probably Project Supervillain.  I haven’t worked on this one in some time, but I think I’m about ready to start back on it.  I also plan on taking my newly-acquired publishing credits and testing the agent waters again.  While they are certainly not feature stories in Harper’s or Fantasy and Science Fiction, they are a start and I want to see if they affect my chances at all.

That’s about all for now.  I will start posting my Christmas stories somewhere around the first of December, so feel free to stop by and give them a look.  You’ll laugh.  You’ll cry.  You might even throw up a bit.  It’s okay.  I won’t be offended.  You, on the other hand . . . .

Here it is, the third and final of my new Christmas short stories for this year. Short, however, is a term I use loosely for this tale. It does run a bit long, but it’s only as long as it needs to be to tell the story..

Again, I fall back on my Santa theme this year as I pay tribute to my late mother, although this story shows a different side of my writing. Sometimes, I write dark, somewhat offbeat tales such as the aforeposted “Santa’s Worse Stop” and “An Inconvenient Christmas”. Sometimes, however, I delve into the realm of uplifting emotion and hope I don’t get any on me. Part of me is Stephen King, part of me is Nicholas Sparks. What can I say other than I hope you enjoy “The Many Santas of Shepherd’s Hollow”?

I hope anyone reading this has an enjoyable Christmas and the promise of a wonderful new year.

ETA: Due to the length of this piece, I added a cut at the bottom of this entry. Just click where it says “Read the rest” and it will show you, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.

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.

Read the rest

Here is the second of this year’s three Christmas short stories–“An Inconvenient Christmas”. In keeping with the theme I chose to honor my late mother, a huge Santa Claus fan, this tale features Saint Nick facing an ecological disaster with somewhat dark and humorous consequences.

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.

Santa sighed and turned away from the spilled coffee, ignoring the patter of the brown drops against the Italian tile. He threw on his red coat over his robe, slid his bare feet into his black boots, and opened the door to go outside.

The Campus, as Santa called the assortment of buildings that made up his operation at the North Pole, was awash in the soft, yellow glow of the streetlamps that lined the streets of packed snow and ice that served as the thoroughfares through Santa’s domain. Normally a place of understated serenity, the buildings were decorated with all manner of lights and tinsel. Evergreen trees—grown in the large greenhouse a half mile or so from Santa’s house—lined the sidewalks, their limbs heavy with ornaments. The elves, like their human counterparts to the south, enjoyed decorating for the holidays, but by the first week of January, exhausted from the mandatory overtime and in need of vacation, were sick of all things Christmas, including the fat son of a bitch that took all the credit for their hard work. The administrators of the local chapter of YULE (Yeoman’s Union of Laboring Elves) had their hands full keeping complaints to a minimum.

Now, however, the usual calm of a December night at the North Pole had given way to absolute pandemonium. Elves ran up and down the streets, crashing into each other and over each other. Many of them looked as though they had been roused from sleep, sprinting about in their pajamas, but a fair number had the bleary-eyed look of too much eggnog. Even the elves that normally worked third shift down the street at the massive workshop were in the streets, running and flailing their arms and looking terrified.

An elf ran into Santa at full speed, bounced off into a double somersault, and landed hard on the ice. As the dazed elf started to get up, Santa recognized him.

“Kleebert,” Santa said, kneeling down to the elf’s eye level, “what the hell is going on?”

Kleebert looked up at Santa, his eyes gradually sliding back into focus, then widening with the same look of terror on the faces of the other elves running like water around them.

“The ice, sir,” the elf began. “It’s—“

What the ice was doing, Kleebert never got to say. As he was about to finish his explanation, the ice beneath where he knelt split open and the elf, with a high-pitched scream, fell into the black water welling up from beneath the hole.

“Shit,” Santa said again. He dove for the elf, his beefy arm sliding down into the water and finding, to his great disappointment, no elf.

Crack!

The ice all around the hole cracked like window glass, spidery lines stretching out in all directions. One wound its way across the street to where a large mass of elves, the merger of two smaller masses moving in opposite directions, were trying to get past each other. Without warning, the ice beneath them gave way, dropping two dozen more elves into the freezing sea. Their screams, like Kleebert’s, died with a sudden finality that drilled into Santa’s overloaded brain.

Santa stood up slowly and backed away from the hole where Kleebert had fallen. The ice beneath him groaned and popped, but held his prodigious weight as he nearly moonwalked his way to safer ground. All around him, elves were vanishing with tiny splashes as the ice opened up beneath them like a great, hungry mouth and swallowed them whole.

“Santa!”

Falbut, Santa’s second-in-command, was sprinting toward him across the ice. He had obviously picked up the wrong robe in his haste to get outside, the bright pink velour waving behind him as he approached.

“Santa,” the elf asked, out of breath, “what do we do?”

“Hell if I know,” Santa said. “How did this happen?”

“No idea,” Falbut answered, “although I did hear Bloktin mention something about ‘global warming’ right before he fell into a hole.”

Craaaack!

At the far end of the street, a building Santa recognized as The Naughty Elf, the Pole’s only strip club—its neon sign displaying a male elf being spanked by a buxom, scantily-clad female –trembled, then began to tilt to one side. Santa first thought he was imagining the effect, that the stress of what was happening was too much, but as he continued to stare, open-mouthed, the building listed until, with a great slurping sound, it slid out of view into the ocean.

“We are in deep shit,” Santa said to Falbut.

“Every elf for himself,” the elf said. He turned and dashed off the way he had come.

“Get back here you little bastard!” Santa yelled. He was about to tell Falbut that he was fired, but as he opened his mouth to speak, a great hole opened up before the elf.

Falbut, seeing the hole in time, skidded to a halt at the very edge of the jagged wound in the ice cap. Leaning back, he reached up to wipe his brow in relief just as a walrus shot out from the water, snatched the tiny elf in its maw, and dragged him into the black depths.

Santa had seen enough. There was nothing he could do to save the elves, the buildings, or the thousand of toys in the warehouses adjacent to the workshop. Everything he had spent centuries working for was going to ruin, sinking into the Arctic Ocean like some failed luxury liner. He might, however, save what mattered the most.

Santa turned and ran back for his front door. He could hear the ice splintering beneath him and, in some places, it gave way completely and only his forward momentum kept him from falling into the water. He reached the front door just as the building across the street, an Italian restaurant that he particularly enjoyed, shivering and plunged into the ocean like a person in a dunking booth.

Sprinting back through the kitchen, Santa could feel the floor of the building beneath him shifting and heaving as the ice below cracked. He had no idea how long his house would stay above the surface, so he took the steps three at a time, knowing that each second placed him closer to an icy depth.

“What is going on out there?” Mrs. Claus asked as Santa burst into the room. She was sitting up in bed now, the covers pulled up around her neck.

Santa ignored her question. Instead, he dove for his sack lying on the floor next to the bed.

“What are you doing?”

Santa again ignored her, too focused on the task at hand to lose precious time answering. He rummaged around in the bag, his arm inside to the shoulder, groping blindly and hoping that he was right, that the item he needed was still in there.

The house seemed to jump, throwing Mrs. Claus on top of Santa as his fingers settled on what he had been searching for. The two of them rolled in a heap to one corner of the room as the house, having jumped, had come down crooked and now leaned hard to one side.

Santa, sore and battered, refused to let go of what was clutched in his hand. With a hard pull, he managed to throw his wife off of him while removing from the bag a large, folded pile of yellow rubber.

“You better tell me what—“

Santa reached around the yellow mound until he found what looked like a loose piece of rope hanging from it. This he grabbed and pulled. The thing in his hands hissed and expanded, its various folds unfolding until a large rubber raft lay in their bedroom.

Mrs. Claus’s face went as white as her hair.

“What’s that for?” she asked in a timid voice.

“We have to get outside,” Santa said.

The house shifted again, this time drawing almost level, but sinking a few inches so fast that Mr. and Mrs. Claus bounced off the floor.

Mrs. Claus grabbed her robe from her bedside chair and threw it on while Santa grabbed his sack and threw it into the raft.

Downstairs, Santa could no longer hear the screaming of elves. The only sound he heard, apart from his and his wife’s panicked breathing, was the rush of water pouring into the first floor of his house. Then, a loud popping noise came from somewhere in the house and the lights went out. A silvery shaft of moonlight came through the window at the far end of the room, providing the barest of illumination.

Fumbling through the darkness, Mrs. Claus climbed into the raft and sat down. Santa, however, continued to stand beside it, staring at its shadowy form as though he was waiting for something.

“Are you going to get in?” Mrs. Claus asked him, the dangerous tone of impatience that he so feared returning to her voice.

“I forgot something.”

“Well,” Mrs. Claus said, “it’s a little late now.”

“No,” Santa said, pulling at his beard in frustration. “How are we going to get the raft outside? It won’t fit through the window.”

There was a moment when, even in the darkness of the room, Santa could feel her anger as a palpable force, a wave of fury that, had it occurred earlier, he would have blamed for melting the ice cap. As it was, he could only stand there and hope that he did not spontaneously combust from her gaze.

“I guess I have to do everything myself,” Mrs. Claus said as the house lurched again. Water had reached the second floor and began pouring through the open bedroom door, pooling around Santa’s boots and lapping against the raft in a preliminary effort to lift it from the floor.

In the sparse light, Santa saw his wife reach for his magical sack again. She reached inside and, a moment later, pulled out a long, cylindrical object. Only when she raised it to rest on her shoulder, did he realize what the thing was and flung himself, headfirst, into the raft.

The rocket-propelled grenade flew from the barrel of the launcher, hissing through the bedroom for only a second before striking the far wall, blasting a hole through it with such concussive force that Santa was flipped out of the raft, end over end, to crash into the opposite wall.

As he lay dazed and upside down, Santa could feel the icy water closing around his head until he could no longer breathe. He flailed his arms and managed to right himself into water almost a foot deep and rising. Little chunks of ice floated here and there, gathering around him like small children at a mall.

“Please get into the raft,” Mrs. Claus said, sounding as though she wished he would do anything except what she asked.

Santa stood on wobbly, numb legs and began sloshing his way to the raft as it started moving away from him and toward the gaping hole still smoking in the far wall. He dove for it just as the small boat was about to float beyond his reach and landed with his head at his wife’s feet and his legs still dangling in the freezing water.

“Stopping goofing off and get in the damn boat,” Mrs. Claus said, not moving a finger to help him.

With tremendous effort, Santa Claus pulled himself into the raft just as it slid out of the bedroom and into the winter night. He lay there in the bottom of the boat for some time, gasping and shivering, before he found the strength to sit up and look around.

All around them, chunks of ice, most no bigger than the rubber raft, drifted through the still Arctic waters. Various debris—bits of wood from the buildings, several toys, even the stiff corpse of an elf floating face down in the water—filled the spaces between the pieces of ice. There was no sign of the centuries old operation that Santa had devoted his immortal life to creating. Everything, from the workshop to the elves, was gone.

“This is all your fault,” Mrs. Claus said from the other end of the small raft. “I said you should build your workshop closer to the equator, but you wanted privacy.” She waved her arms around at the empty night. “How do you like this for privacy?”

“Shut up,” Santa said. He thought of all the elves, annoying but loyal, he had lost. He thought of the reindeer, probably locked in their barn as it plunged into the ocean. He thought of the tons and tons of toys that he would not be able to deliver on Christmas Eve.

“I will not shut up,” Mrs. Claus said. “If you think I’m just going to forget what an idiot, what an imbecile you are, you are sadly mistaken.”

Santa reached out and grabbed the sack away from his wife. Reaching inside, he rummaged about until he found what he was searching for and, with a wide grin, pulled out a steel manacle attached to a thick chain.

“I said shut up.” Santa reached with the manacle as he spoke and, with the final word, snapped it shut over his wife’s ankle.

“What are you doing?”

Santa did not answer. Instead, his smile in place the whole time, he pulled arm length after arm length of heavy chain from his bag until, with a grunt of effort, he found other end attached to a heavy metal anchor.

With a small nod to his wife, Santa heaved the anchor over the side of the raft.

“No—you can’t—I mean—please—“ she was about to say something else, but the chain snapped tight and dragged Mrs. Claus, screaming in terror, out of the raft and into the cold, murky depths.

After several minutes of sitting in silence, Santa reached into his magical sack again and pulled out two oars, a battery-operated ceramic space heater, a flare gun with a box of flares, and a bottle of bourbon. He kicked on the heater, took a long pull of the whiskey, placed the bottle between his legs, and took up the oars, wondering how far it was to Canada.

In keeping with this year’s theme of “Santa Claus”, here is the first of this year’s three Christmas short stories. I had a lot of fun incorporating this year’s trendy horror subject–zombies–with the holiday theme and I hope that fun translates into an entertaining read.

When my wife read this story, she asked me, “Do you realize that this story is about your mom?” I didn’t, and still don’t, really think so, but the house I describe in the story does bear an eerie resemblance to one she might have decorated. Pure coincidence, I assure you, but I think my mom would have appreciated the decor, even if she didn’t care for the overall story.

I think she would’ve liked the story, too.

WARNING: This story is not for children or people who object to their mythological gift givers spewing obscenities.

And so, here is “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.

Being Santa Claus, as Santa would tell anyone who would listen, is not all cookies and elf slaves. There are occupational risks to being Santa. There were attack dogs that, he had found, could usually be bought off with a nice bone or, if the case required, pepper sprayed. There were nasty older brothers who would set booby traps at the fireplace, leaving Santa cleaning up egg, or worse, from his uniform. There were the aforementioned acid cookies. Being Santa, he had learned, could be very hazardous to one’s health.

But at no point in his centuries of service, in the millions of houses he had visited, had he ever been in mortal fear of being eaten.

The zombie stretched out for him with its blood-caked fingers and Santa, reacting on pure instinct, swung his huge bag off his shoulder in a wide arc that intercepted the creature just as it touched his red coat. The zombie, weighing far less in death than it would have in life, bounced off the sack like a racquetball, crashing through a sea of Santas before smashing into the television.

Above Santa’s pounding heart, he heard The Beach Boys fade and Madonna start singing “Santa Baby”.

He stepped away from the fireplace, going against his better judgment, to peek around the sofa. A middle-age woman lay in the floor, her body partially covered by the Drunken Santa throw. Her nightgown, a Saint Nicholas-covered fleece garment, was open, revealing a gaping hole in her abdomen where the creature had ripped apart her flesh and feasted until Santa had arrived as a possible second course. The sight of the woman, her eyes wide, her face filled with silent terror, nearly made Santa toss his cookies. And that, after a nearly full night of sampling, would have made quite a mess.

Santa was so captivated by the dead woman lying on the floor that he almost didn’t hear the stirring to his left. He turned just in time to see the zombie straighten and charge him again. Jumping back, he swung his bag around again, hoping to knock the creature into the fireplace, but missed as the zombie hesitated as the velvet weapon whooshed past him.

The zombie darted in again, but Santa, reversing the direction of the bag with skill born of years of handling it, caught it just in time and sent it flipping over the arm of the sofa to crash into the Santa-laden coffee table. The small, cheap piece of furniture collapsed beneath the weight of the creature as animatronic Santas went off in a discordant symphony.

Santa moved back to the fireplace and tried to exit again and, again, found his magic failing him. He wondered if the stress of the situation was somehow blocking it or, even worse, if the zombie somehow was keeping him from escaping.

He had no time to think about it, however, as the undead thing started rising again where it had fallen.

Santa dropped his bag and moved around the room, putting the sofa between him and the zombie. He looked for something he could use as a weapon, but all he kept seeing were more miniature images of himself, none of which would prove very useful in mortal combat.

The zombie stood up and looked at Santa. Its face had changed again. Now, it looked hungry and pissed off. It opened its mouth, revealing elongated, wicked teeth and hissed.

“What, you want me to just hold still and let you fucking eat me?” Santa asked. “I don’t think so.”

The zombie hissed again and started moving around the sofa. Santa mirrored the move, careful not to step on, or in, the dead woman, keeping the heavy piece of furniture between them. The zombie moved the other way, and again, Santa moved the opposite direction. Then, the creature jumped up onto the sofa and, with another loud hiss, leapt over the back of the piece, arms outstretched.

Santa let out a high-pitched, girlish scream and did the only thing he had time to do. Grabbing the Christmas tree, he pulled it between himself and the zombie just as the bloody hands clawed for his face. The thing pressed forward, its arms extended through the tree on either side of the trunk, its snapping teeth biting off branches on the other side.

Keeping the tree at arm’s length, Santa struggled to find a way out of his predicament. The zombie’s hands were clutching at his sleeves as he held the tree out in front of him like a shield.

Santa had a flash of insight as he struggled against the hands. Pulling on the strings of lights that wound around the pine, he began wrapping the green wires around the zombie’s wrists, tying them up like a rodeo rider roping a calf. Soon, the hands could only flail against themselves in a clapping motion and the zombie was stuck, unable to free itself from the tree. With a great heave, Santa sent the tree tumbling over sideways and the zombie, hissing like an enraged cat, went over with it.

“Ha! Take that!” Santa yelled as the zombie thrashed to extricate itself.

The zombie jerked as though it was having a seizure, its body pulling back away from the tree. The light cords held tight to the creature’s wrists—working with flying reindeer all the time, you have to know how to tie a good knot—but with a sickening, ripping sound, the zombie’s left arm tore away from its shoulder. With its right hand, it then pulled the severed limb through the tree on the other side and stood up, holding the still-wagging appendage like a club as the music changed to the Jackson 5’s “Up on the Housetop”.

“Oh, shit,” Santa whispered as the zombie started toward him again. It shuffled forward, its foot caught in the fabric of Santa’s bag of presents.

The bag, Santa thought. The presents.

The realization struck Santa with a wave of nausea that matched the one from his initial smell of the room. How had had been so stupid, so incredibly dense, he could only attribute to the panic of finding a member of the undead eating a dead body in a room full of hims.

Santa Claus does one thing. He leaves gifts. That’s his gig. Santa, trying to leave at the first sight of the zombie was violating the primary rule of his job, the entire reason he had those magical powers to begin with.

For his powers to work, he now realized, he had to do what he came to do. He had to deliver his gifts.

The next problem, now that he had solved the first, was that the zombie stood between him and his magical bag of gifts, a deadly obstacle to the completion of his task. And it was coming closer.

Santa backed away, his eyes shifting from the zombie, now approaching him more cautiously that it had before, and the magic bag that represented his salvation. He stood in the doorway to the kitchen and dared a glance over his shoulder. The kitchen door stood ajar, the muggy swamp air rolling in over a set of muddy footprints that moved from outside across to the dead woman lying on the floor.

He turned just in time to see the zombie lunge for him again.

Santa, though, had a plan to repel this attack. Clutching one of the dining room chairs, he picked it up, stabbed out with the legs, and caught the zombie in mid-air. With a hard twist, he sent both chair and zombie sliding across the tiled kitchen floor where they crashed hard into the refrigerator. Hundreds of magnets, all showing some representation of a particular jolly fat man, fell upon the creature like rain as it hissed in protest.

Santa was moving again before the last magnet hit the floor. He jumped the dead woman and nearly tripped over a miniature him on a motorcycle before scooping up his bag and thrusting his hand inside.

“Come on,” he begged as he dug around, shoulder-deep in the red velvet. At last, he pulled out the first gift, unwrapped it, and found a life-sized inflatable Santa Claus. He threw the box at the woman’s corpse in the floor and it bounced off her blood-soaked shoulder.

“Merry Christmas, you fucking stalker!” he yelled at the dead woman, his arm disappearing again into the bag.

The zombie appeared in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen.

“If I pull out another damn me from this bag—“ Santa said, but he stopped when his hand found another item and he pulled out a long, heavy package, wrapped in camouflage paper and tied with a glittery red ribbon.

Again, Santa tore into the package, another violation of his magical contract, but one that he thought could be ignored under the circumstances. He suspected what would be in the narrow box and was not disappointed when a double-barrel Remington shotgun rolled out into his shaking hands.

The zombie inched closer to him, more wary than ever, a bloody snarl curling the remains of its lips. Its fingers bent into claws as it moved closer to its intended victim.

Santa raised the shotgun to his shoulder, aimed for the zombie’s head no more than six feet away, and pulled the trigger.

Click.

“Motherfucker!” Santa roared.

The zombie was nearly close enough to touch him now and Santa was moved to try something desperate. Taking up a stuffed Santa doll, weighted at the bottom to make it stand up, Santa called forth the same thumb-tip flame he had used to light his cigar and put it to the doll. The cotton material caught at once and, without hesitation, he flung the flaming doll at the zombie.

The zombie, still wet from its trek through the swamp and the blood covering its face and body, watched as the flaming Santa struck it and bounced off, doing no more harm to it than a sprig of mistletoe.

Santa, his hand already back in the magical bag, could not help his mouth dropping open in disappointment. A moment later, though, that disappointment changed to triumph, followed closely by alarm.

The flaming Santa doll, while doing no direct harm to the zombie, landed on the old throw half-draped over the dead woman at its feet. The throw, and the sofa next to it, flared into hellish life, the conflagration quickly spreading across the many, many Santa figures and decorations across the crowded room. In moments, the entire room looked like the inside of a lit fireplace.

The zombie took a step back to avoid the burning throw, but could not escape the ring of fire that wound around it. It turned left and right, looking for some avenue to freedom and, finding none, turned its baleful gaze back to Santa.

The radio, halfway through Elvis Presley singing “Here Comes Santa Claus”, warbled, then died, as it melted.

Santa dug into the bag, knowing that this house required one more gift. He could just touch it with its fingers, as though the bag knew the danger of his situation and wanted to torture him. Finally, he managed to grab hold of the box—a heavy one—and pull it free of the bag.

It was the right size and shape and Santa, following the pattern of logic from the last gift, knew it was a box of shotgun shells. He tore the paper away from the nondescript brown container and pried it open with his thick fingers.

It was not shotgun shells. Instead, an assortment of artificial fishing baits and lead sinker weights sat in little compartments, awaiting a fishing trip that would never come.

The zombie, sensing its end drawing near in the raging inferno, charged through the fire toward Santa, the orange, burning tongues finally biting the tattered remains of its clothing enough to engulf it.

Santa screamed in anger and frustration as he hurled the tackle box at the zombie. The heavy sinkers struck the zombie’s head like birdshot, some of the various baits clinging to the pallid skin like odd piercings. The overall effect, though, stopped the zombie just long enough for Santa to realize that, with all the presents delivered to this house, he could get the hell out.

He reached for his nose, but the zombie’s flaming hand, the skin curling black around Santa’s wrist, grabbed him, pulling his arm down.

Santa, enraged beyond anything he could remember in all his many long years of life, bellowed a roar that drowned out the crackling symphony of the flames all around him. Despite the heat gathering around him, despite the flaming hand clutching him, despite the gnashing teeth of the zombie zooming toward his face, Santa Claus would not be denied.

With a powerful jerk, made possible by his centuries of hauling his heavy bag of gifts, he pulled the zombie toward him and, with a hard thrust, bounced the fiery, undead creature off his belly. The zombie snapped its teeth once, nearly taking off the tip of Santa’s nose, before flying back away into the flames, it’s severed left hand still clutching Santa’s wrist.

The flames reached across the floor and the white fur around Santa’s boots began to blacken, but a second later, he was gone.

Back on the roof, smoke rising all around him, Santa Claus peeled off the still-protesting hand of the zombie and flung it off into the swamp. He wiped off the pieces of rotted skin the clung to him and, with a quick pinch, put out the small fire that was sending smoke up from the cuff around his left boot. He flipped into the sleigh, taking the reins so he could leave before the roof collapsed beneath him.

He snapped the reins, but nothing happened.

“Come on,” Santa demanded, waving his hands at the reindeer. “We have to go.”

As one, the eight reindeer turned and looked at their master. Their eyes, normally heavy-lidded and submissive, were wide and alert. And angry. From their mouths, billowing out around the metal bits like clouds in an approaching storm, a milky white foam dripped onto the roof.

Placing his weary head in his hands, Santa Claus ignored his rabid reindeer and for the first time in his existence, wished he was the Easter Bunny.