"Dad, where's Liam's presents?
I froze, whiskey sloshing against my mouth. The tumbler in my hand shook and my eyes rolled over to the gaudy Christmas tree sparkling in the corner of our living room. It was 5 PM on Christmas Eve, my first day off in weeks. I wanted to spend it quietly with my young family. I surveyed the small pile of gifts, soon to be bolstered once Santa broke into our house. I scoured the tags silently. A few for my kids' mom, a couple for me, and a number for Chelsea. It looked like Liam, a little over two years old, was going to be royally screwed come Christmas morning.
"Uh... Santa hasn't come yet. Don't worry, Liam will have more presents than he'll have time to play with!
"Okay!" Chelsea smiled, returning to her ritual poking of her presents. Cara, my wife, stuck her head out of the kitchen, an eyebrow raised quizzically.
"Noah, can you come help me with... With cookies? Yes, I need help with cookies."
"The cookies, of course. Alright, sweetheart, I'm going to help your mom with cookies."
Once I had one foot in the kitchen door, Cara sunk her claws into my arm and dragged me over to the stove.
"What the hell is going on?" I looked nervously around at her angry whisper.
"Dude, I thought you were getting Liam's presents! Is he asleep yet?"
"Are you f--king serious? It's Christmas god damn Eve! What is wrong with you, Noah?"
"Me? What's wrong with me!? I've been working my ass off for this asinine holiday while you flounce around like some... I don't know, like a flouncing lemming on flounce juice!"
"What? Don't use that kind of language with me! I swear to god, I will b-tchslap you so hard..."
"Okay, okay, we need to calm down. It's only 5. I'm sure there is some store out there still open."
"What, like Safeway? Are you going to get him some cheap, piece of shit toy from a freakin' grocery store?"
"Damnit, Cara, I'll handle it!"
"Fine," she conceded, massaging her temples with one hand. "I'll trust you to take care of this. It's both of our faults. I'll watch the kids and finish up these cookies for Santa."
I took a look at the cookie sheet she had placed on the stove. Warped reindeer and pine trees made out of sugar cookie dough looked ready to be decorated. Well, aside from the blatant malformations and obviously charred remains of many of their comrades. I noticed a haze of smoke lingering around the ceiling, and more was escaping from the oven.
"What exactly happened here?"
"I told you I couldn't cook. I mean, like, at all."
"Hey, I said I would make them. You're the one who said you wanted to don that mantle."
"Argh, just pick up some cookies while you're out."
I looked deep into Cara's eyes. She looked deep into mine. We both knew what she was asking me to do: I was a man unarmed entering a bloody battlefield. The rush of other parents, grandparents, siblings and friends who, like me, were surging forth on Christmas Eve to preempt the pained cries of a child presentless on Christmas morning; it would be an unholy, frenzied melee. Cara knew this, and her eyes shone with unshed tears. I cleared my throat and took her hands in mine.
"I promise you, I WILL return."
"You better return or I'm filing for divorce. Don't forget your keys."
Yes, she was a cold woman indeed. I grabbed my parka, thin armor against the coming storm, and headed out. Once I reached the sidewalk, I look back up to our apartment. Cara was staring at me from the living room window. I gave a short wave with my gloved hand, then tipped my knit cap to her, the mistress of my home. I watched her roll her eyes and drop the Venetian blinds down. I knew she would mourn me.
I sped over to our car, parked against the sidewalk about thirty feet from our front gate. Fishing around my pockets, I realized I had forgotten my keys. It was too late to go back. I remember the bus stop around the corner. If they had stopped running, I decided I would just have to run. An elderly woman with two large bags packed with aluminum cans was hurrying to the stop as I approached. I started to jog, and I heard a rumble emanate from down the block.
"MA'AM! HOLD THE BUS! FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, HOLD THE BUS!"
"HOLD THE BUS!
"I SAID, 'NEVERMIND'!"
"SORRY, BOY, I'VE GOT TO GET ON THE BUS NOW!"
I was in perfect form now, sprinting around the corner. Frantically, I waved my arms, trying to get the bus driver's attention.
"WAIT FOR MEEEEE! PLEAAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSEEEEEEEEE!"
I stumbled up the steps on the bus, blasted with warm, poor-smelling air. Seriously, it smelled like poor people. I found it nostalgic.
"Huh?" I panted, looking up at the bus driver. She pointed to the ticket machine.
"Oh. Do you take credit?"
"Hurry up and shut the door! It's freezing in here."
"No, we don't take credit. Look, either pay up or get off of my bus."
I found two gnarled dollar bills in my wallet and took a transfer. The bus was almost empty, save for the grandmother sitting in the front seats, her tiny gray bun peeking out from behind her bulky garbage bags. A middle aged man was snoring in the back, a halo of cheap liquor surrounding his person. I tactfully took a seat near the middle.
"You're welcome," the bus driver spat, clearly in the holiday spirit. She shut the front door and pulled out of the bus stop into the dark, empty street.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Half an hour later I was at the mall. Oh, how I wish I wasn't. The sprawling, five-story monstrosity looked more like a tomb than a shopping center. Throngs of procrastinators flowed in and out of the reinforced glass double doors that lined the street. Downtown was an inferno of holiday cheer. The road was slick with a recent drizzle, dark cars sped by with windshield wipers half-cocked and ready for the worst, illuminated by the Christmas lights hammered into every awning and light post. Pine trees of all sizes were ablaze in shop windows, but one tree loomed over the entire block. The fifty foot titan stood several yards away from the entrance to the mall. Every decoration known to man, from strings of popcorn to a pair of shoes tied together and thrown over one of the thicker branches, hung from its dark green boughs. Some poor family was going without heat tonight with the amount of power redirected to keep the thing lit. It was glorious.
I managed to get past the doors and into the main lobby of the building with a few well-placed shoves. Twin escalators rose from the middle of the room, curving to connect with the floors above. People were packed cheek by jowl, trying to reach the shop where they would certainly find the perfect gift. I walked over to a rail and looked down into the chasm in the floor. The basement level food court was overwhelmed with starved shoppers craving chow mein and sandwiches thrown together by college students pissed off at having to work during their break. I made my way to an escalator going up, looking around at my fellow shoppers. Babies screamed in strollers, sleep deprived and wanting to celebrate their first Christmas in peace. Couples locked elbows and strolled carelessly, one partner sometimes being dragged to a store with a flushed face. The volume seemed to rise as the shallow black step I occupied climbed higher. Shouts and laughter, a haggard Santa ringing a bell, teenagers and adults on phones making excuses to their friends and relatives; it was too much. It was all too much. I could have been at home where it was nice and quiet, taking shots of laced eggnog and laughing at Claymation Christmas.
I was almost at the second floor and mentally preparing myself to sync my first step off with the speed of the escalator when I felt someone gently pat my shoulder. Looking around, I saw an aging woman with bags under her eyes wearing a short red trench coat.
"Be strong," she whispered, then looked away. I felt like grabbing her hands. A comrade! We weren't members of this insane orgy of consumerism. We were simply victims of tradition and forgetfulness. I got off the escalator with gusto, hoping to clasp this brave woman's hands between my own. However, she had vanished into the crowds, no doubt continuing on her own perilous mission. I couldn't allow myself to pause for long. I needed to acquire toys.
Toddlers. I was pretty sure two year olds were toddlers. I recalled he had most of his teeth, but that memory proved useless as I entered the toy store. A handful of cashiers frantically pulled boxes across scanners and stuffed the presents into large plastic bags. The lines extended into the aisles, where the customers pawed through discounted items on the shelves in hopes of scoring a much needed stocking stuffer. I made my way through the shoppers towards an area with more rounded toys, things my son would not impale himself on. I had no time to be discriminate. The first thing I grabbed was a purple bouncy ball, bigger than my head. Sure, it'd be a bitch to wrap but the kid could gnaw on it for days, bash his head against, whatever. Next was a see and say. I pulled the lever to see if it was truly functional.
"The cow says, 'mooooooooooooo'."
I looked at the picture of the cow, sectioned off in her own little slice of the center wheel. I pulled the lever again.
"The duck says, 'quack, quack'."
"It does indeed." I grabbed another for myself. Who knows when I might need to reference animal onomatopoeias, I justified. Next up was a firefighter's helmet which I perched on my head for safe keeping, followed by a large blue brontosaurus that roared when squeezed. That was when I saw it: a shiny red wagon. I needed it, I mean, Liam needed it. I hurried forward, arms laden with miscellaneous toys, almost knocking over a young mother fretting over dolls with different colored hair. I let the brontosaurus fly and it landed dead center in the wagon. The rest of my spoils soon followed, and I grabbed the handle victoriously. I hobbled toward the checkout line, dragging the overflowing, child-sized wagon behind me. There were only ten people ahead of me.
The line eventually dwindled, and the only person in front of me was a wizened old woman with a faded checkbook between her claws.
"Do you giftwrap, dear?"
"No, sorry," the tired employee replied. "The total is..."
"Do you take checks?"
"Yes, your total is..."
"Well, alright then. How much is it?"
"For f--k's sake," I said too loudly. I looked around sheepishly, remembering I was in a children's toy store. Probably not a good place for me to be swearing. My "sorry" went largely unnoticed.
At last, the elder limped away with her modest purchase and I was being rung up. I didn't look at the price; I didn't want to know, and I handed my credit card over with a smile on my face. I piled everything back in the wagon and peeled out. I made that wagon squeal.
I felt I needed something more to augment Liam's load of gifts so I meandered around the floor I was on, hoping to find a store that would suit my needs. Maybe clothing? And, wouldn't you know it, a kid's clothing store leapt out of the hordes. In the window hung a black dinosaur hoodie, with big green spikes protruding from the back and hood. I wanted it, nay, I needed it. For Liam. Sure, two year olds don't typically care what clothes they have on, but I would have loved to have that thing when I was a kid. Liam was lucky he had a dad like me.
I swooped in through the front door and snatched that hoodie from behind the window.
"Sir, that is display only." The surly man, a manager by the looks of him, walked towards me with arms folded across his chest. He wore a threadbare Santa hat which only accentuated his shiny bald spot.
"Oh. Well, do you have this for 2T to 3T?"
"Sure, just down that aisle. I think we have a few left."
"Thank you!" My jovial tone made one of his eyes twitch erratically, and he tailed me to the section he had indicated. I dropped the wagon's handle and sifted through the rack, checking the tags punched through sleeves for sizes. Finally, I found a tag with "2T" in large block letters. I yanked the hoodie out and tucked it under my arm, hanger and all. The manager had wandered off, concluding that I was the acceptable amount of crazy for this time of year. I decided to check out the rest of the store, working my way over to the shoe section. That's when I saw them. I almost cried with the beauty of what was displayed before me. Light up shoes, the heels flickering green intermittently on the pair being exhibited. A familiar old form stood near them, one check-writing old biddy. She slowly removed one from the wall so that she could better prod it. I spotted the manager warily lurking and waved him over.
"This is the year of the dinosaur! Do you have those in size eight?"
"Ha ha, for kids."
"I'll go check in the back. Just a minute."
I admired the display pair as I waited. The bottoms had a three-toed imprint so that the wearer could stop around and make reptilian tracks, lights going off every step. A menacing head, eyes, teeth and all was painted on the top of each shoe. If only they had adult sizes. The manager came back with a box between his hands.
"It looks like you lucked out. We have one pair left."
"Young man," the elderly woman said, walking over with one shoe dangling from her hand. "Do you have these shoes in size eight?"
"As I was just telling this gentleman, we only have one pair left."
"Oh, goodie!" she exclaimed, seizing the box. I reached out to intercept her.
"Excuse me, I asked for these first. The shoes are mine."
"Yes, ma'am. I was bringing these out for him."
"But, my grandson would just love these."
"Too bad, granny, I'm buying these."
"Never!" The old woman sprang to life, her arms frighteningly spry in light of her age. I reached out swiftly to grab the other end of the box, tugging just enough to wrest it from her grip. Her yellowed nails sunk into the cardboard, her cloudy brown eyes looking through huge glasses to meet mine.
"You wanna rumble, Father Time?"
"I'm a woman!"
"Customers, please calm down!
" The manager joined the tug of war, trying to reclaim the shoes. The old woman screeched, her face twisting into that of a harpy's. With a mighty pull I secured the shoes and ran to the register, wagon bouncing unsteadily behind me. I dropped the hoodie and the box on the counter and threw my card at the cashier. She blinked and quickly scanned the items, sensing the urgency. The old woman was causing a ruckus from the back of the store, yanking on the manager's arm and screaming for security. He looked towards me and nodded. I had won this round. He led the elder back towards the shoes, trying to find another pair that would suit her needs. I took the bag the cashier handed me, tucked the receipt into its plastic bowels and took my leave.
Moving through a crowd with the mountain of crap I have obtained was an arduous task. There was no way in hell I could get that wagon on an escalator without breaking a few bones. I got onto an elevator with only a few stink eyes directed towards me and got off of the first floor. According to my phone, it was almost 8 PM. I doubted any grocery stores would be open this late on Christmas Eve. However, a scene unfolded before me, one that I had overlooked when first entering the mall. A snowy fantasy land with log cabin facades and giant candy canes ringing the compound was laid before my eyes. Short men in green elf costumes scurried around, play acting at being busy. An aged, black mall Santa Claus sat facing me and a line of screaming children, with a dowdy Mrs. Claus walking up and down the line proffering iced sugar cookies on a tray. One of the elves was holding the bridle of a live reindeer and taking bills from parents whose children wanted to pet Rudolph. It was the cookies, however, that caught my eye.
Wheeling my wagon over towards Mrs. Claus, I weighed my options. I had some cash on me still. I hoped the portly woman in the costume would be willing to negotiate. If notcwell, I would cross that bridge when I got to it. I convinced myself I didn't have time to look around for cookies. I still needed to catch the bus back home, wrap these presents, get decently drunk and drift off to sleep. I approached the woman with a calm and courteous demeanor.
"Excuse me, but by any chance could I buy that tray of cookies from you?" For a moment Mrs. Claus looked taken aback by the strange query, but she smile broadly and answered.
"I'm sorry, but these are for the child waiting to speak with Santa."
"Look, lady, we both know what's going on here. I'm kind of on a schedule, and it would be really helpful if you could just sell me at least a dozen of those. I got kids of my own, and Santa needs something to eat at my house."
"I'm sorry, but I can't help you. I should really get back to handing these out. Merry Christmas!" Mrs. Claus, still smiling, turned back toward the impatient children and continued with her cookie distribution. I sighed, prepared to accept defeat. Maybe some place in the food court was selling cookies. An elf passed by with a cardboard box, flaps open. Packs of cookies were crammed inside. Making sure no one was watching me, I followed him around Santa's throne. He set the box, dusted off his hands and walked off to join a group of his coworkers headed out for a smoke break. I discreetly reached inside the cardboard box and pulled out a few packs of cookies, stuffing them into one of the bag I had balanced on the wagon.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Mrs. Claus, the coy old bat, had seen my thievery. I stood up and raised my free hand to ward off her approach.
"Security! Someone's stealing from the North Pole!"
"What? Someone's stealing from Santa!?"
"Mommy, mommy! Someone's twying to steal all of aw pwesents!"
The chattering of the rabble rose, parents and children expressing disdain for the person cruel enough to rob their present-bearing messiah. I backed out into the open, Mrs. Claus stalking after. I could feel eyes and fingers fixated on the exchange. Santa, still seated, settled his cold gaze on me. I looked up and tried to grin innocently.
"Little boy," Santa rumbled, "Did you take something that didn't belong to you?"
"No, no," I half yelled to be heard. "I was just trying to buy some cookies off of Mrs. Claus here."
"You're making it sound like a drug deal!" Mrs. Claus exclaimed.
"Is 'cookies' slang for crack or something?" an out of it soccer mom asked no one in particular.
"I mean, he stole the cookies meant for the children."
"You got it all wrong. Look, Santa, I was just trying to get some food for your visit later tonight. See? No harm done. I'll pay for them, like I first asked."
"You know, little boy," Santa began, standing up, "usually when girls and boys are naughty, I'll leave coal in their stocking." Santa cracked his knuckles and then his neck. "But in the hood," he said, dropping into more modern vernacular, "Santa puts a couple rounds of lead in your a-s. BREAK YOSELF, FOOL!"
I threw my hand out and grasped one of the large candy canes that studded the fake cotton snow. I pulled it out and swung it in front of me, fending off the suddenly vicious crowd.
"Stay back! I'm not afraid to use this!"
"What are you gonna do, boy?" Santa laughed. "Hang that on a tree? Somebody grab his a-s before he runs off."
Looking back, I'm not ashamed to say I ran at that point. I want not about to be taken to jail on Christmas Eve. My wife would kill me. Within seconds I was past the reindeer petting grounds and carving a path to the front doors. I slammed into the steel bar and shoved the door open with my shoulder, breaking out into the cold night. I tugged the wagon across the street, hoping it's contents remained within its shallow bed.
The wet streets had started to ice over and I slid, angry drivers honking at my idiocy. I could hear shouts behind me and chanced a look. An unprecedented mob of elves, mall Santas and chagrined shoppers were struggling to get out onto the streets. It looked like even the reindeer had decided to give chase.
"There he is!"
I broke into a sprint and reached the end of the block. I groaned. Some moron had decided to erect an ice rink between me and freedom. Oblivious couples twirled on the sparkling ice. Gritting my teeth, I pressed on. This was one quest I'd be damned if I failed.
I didn't dare look behind me again. The number of bodies swarming out of the mall was unimaginable, and all for a couple of cheap cookies.
"Can't a brother get a break?"
A nearby man seated on a stoop nodded in assent and raised a paper bag encasing 40 in solidarity. He knew what was up.
I kept running, the little red wagon bouncing merrily behind me. I figured I could lose the majority of the mob by cutting across the skating rink located for some inexplicable reason in the middle of an intersection. Of course no one batted an eye at a slab of ice being plopped down into the center of a heavily trafficked area, but steal some dollar store baked good and they wanted to hang you.
I was fast approaching the rink and wondering whether or not I should vault over the barrier. The oversized candy cane in my hand didn't look like it had the structural integrity to facilitate such an action. There also remained the issue of the wagon and my hard earned loot. Gasping for breath and with hundreds of ferocious footsteps pounding behind me, I made the only decision I could. At the wall, I hoisted up the wagon and threw that shit right the hell over.
The wall was short enough for me to put one leg over at a time. Though some skaters had stopped, the less experienced clinging to the wall to avoid breaking a bone, there were a few still speeding around counterclockwise, arrogantly avoiding my wagon and I. One teenager, in extremely tight figure skates, caught his foot on the handle and went flying through the air, landing hard on the ice and skidding to a stop several yards away. Feeling his jaw for missing teeth, he brushed himself off and continued his circuit. Eager to get away from this slapstick prone arena, I flung myself on top of the wagon. Its wheels, unable to spin due to my added weight, skidded and sliced through the already choppy ice. I pushed myself along with the candy cane at my side, running down the still frozen skaters. I careened toward the entrance of the rink, stunned patrons trying desperately to dodge my deathwagon, and was almost tossed off when the wheels hit the tacky floor surrounding the rink.
I rolled off the crushed presents and stood to survey the ice for blood. To my disappointment, there were no injuries. Instead, a politically correct Santa and a pissed off reindeer were skidding and falling their way towards me, backed by a swarm of holiday shoppers shaking plastic bags filled to capacity in white knuckled fists. We were only two blocks from the mall and their interest in exacting justice had not yet waned.
I hurried past the low benches, ignoring stares from the seated patrons. An employee reached out her hand as I passed the concessions stand and called out.
"Um, excuse me, but it's twelve dollars to skate."
"I wasn't skating, I was fleeing for my life. I'd love to stay and chat about the subtle differences between the two, but I'm on a tight schedule." I picked up the handle of the wagon and darted ahead, trying to put more distance between me and my would be lynchers. The temporary parking lot was sectioned off with a line of traffic cones, a few of which I knocked over to present an obstacle. I zigzagged through the cars, trying to hide myself among them. I wracked my brain for possible escape routes, or at least a place I could disappear into. The broad streets of downtown would not suffice; packed as they were along the main strip, I would be too easily spotted as a moved away from the city center where fewer people ventured. At the end of the lot, I heard Santa's feral roar once again. I supposed that ornery attendant was holding him up. Unlike me, Santa couldn't afford to lose face by being rude. I laughed and made my way to the end of the street, turning another corner and recalling a large park, perhaps two miles long.
I was invisible to the few people who walked the streets as I ran to my sanctuary, just another crazed denizen of the city. My feet were starting to hurt and my hands were frozen in position. All the shopping and fleeing had me spent. With a stitch in my side and ragged breath, I crossed the street against the light and stood facing the massive park, another trial in my journey home. A vehicle honked as it wooshed by me, sending gutter water in a spray to where I was standing to catch by breath. I turned my head to follow and saw it was a bus, probably the last one for the night. In retrospect, I would have probably been sitting pretty at home with a pile of shiny wrapped presents had I taken the bus instead of hoofing it. I looked back to the park, at the towering pine trees whose top needles were freezing and the haunting breeze that blew out from within its depths. I didn't think I had any more cash for the bus anyway. I set my jaw and plunged ahead.
Well, I tried to plunge ahead. A few feet from the sidewalk, positioned along one of a paths that crisscrossed the park, was what amounted to a caravan of homeless people. Urban campers would be more accurate. There were a few grizzled old men and women greedily clutching cheap bottles of wine or pipes with mysterious contents, but the majority of this group were teenagers and young adults wearing purposefully torn, but clean, clothing. Some were laying half out of new looking tents, talking on their phones and a few were even trying to start a fire with wet branches. I walked quickly and with a purpose through the group, mimicking those who I had passed during my flight and minding my own business. It wasn't long until some half drunken kid drew attention to me.
"Hey, what's up dude? Got a smoke I could bum?"
"Got a light?"
"Oh... Okay. Merry Christmas I guess."
"Yeah, Merry Christmas."
I hadn't bothered to stop and kept on my way. Unfortunately, his questions had stirred his compatriots and soon the entire camp was watching my progress. Curious eyes peeked out from under pilfered emergency blankets. I was almost to the tree line. Usually I would find the park to be ominous at night, but now more than ever it was a safe haven in my mind.
The stir spread like wildfire through the mostly fake homeless camp. A few kids were stand up and moving in my direction, tossing their fashionably dirtied and knotted manes. I quickened my step, wanting to avoid any more conversation.
"Hey, maaaaaaaan, are you selling any of that stuff?"
"Haha, maybe he's like Ghetto Claus since he doesn't have a real sleigh."
"You kids need to shut up. I'm tryna drink here," one of the older ones slurred.
"Why don't you come over here and make me shut up you drunk asshole? My dad works in the DA's office."
"God, you are such a poseur, Nick! You told me your dad died in a freak gardening accident! I am so done with you."
"Oh, come on, Casey. We all know you go to St. Mary's you preppy bitch. Get over yourself."
"Yeah, if anyone's a poseur you are."
"Hey, that guy's got a lot of shit. Think we could steal it?"
"Dude, it's Christmas. Not cool."
"Hey, I was the one who got us all tents. Who do you think you're calling a poseur!?"
"That is EXACTLY why we're calling you..."
I started running again, not wanting to get caught up in their annoying exchange. Their voices faded as I ran deeper into the trees. I stumbled through the darkness, crashing into unseen bushes and branches, snagging the giant candy cane and wagon on roots and shrubs. It didn't seem anyone was chasing me so I stopped to secure the bags onto the wagon. Lacking rope, covered it with my jacket and tied the arms underneath. It would have to make do. A ruckus was growing in the camp and a stealthily moved closer to evaluate the scene.
The mall Santa had shown up with his new reindeer sidekick, though his army was much diminished. Only a handful of minions remained, and they joined him in questioning the campers. I was impressed by their tenacity and their dedication to the hunt. It did not, however, bode well for me. I really needed to put distance between us, orient myself, and make my way home. I made a move to leave, but paused when Santa grabbed the collar of the one called Nick with a red mittened hand. It looked like Santa wanted some answers Nick wasn't willing to give. He kicked the Santa in the thigh and struggled out of his grasp, rubbing his neck.
"You're crazy!" Nick screamed as his friends patted his back sympathetically. The homeless adults were coming to life, and a few had already staggered over to back Santa. An empty can of what looked to be PBR hit Santa in his generous stomach and bounced off harmlessly. Without hesitation, the already furious mall Santa lunged forward, indiscriminately swinging left and right. One of the older women who had kept up with his pursuit was swinging her purse in a circle around her head, slapping it against the faces of the rude teenagers. It was a full on melee, and in seconds passers-by were joining in, some trying to break it up and others trying to allay the boredom of another Christmas Eve spent alone. I raised my eyebrows, surprised at the ferocity of the green-clad elves. After Santa attempted to pants one of the teenagers, I decided I had been traumatized enough. Even though it had been years since I practiced the Santa tradition myself, it was just too much for me to watch a childhood icon behave in that manner. I continued on my way, trying to find a path in the darkness that would connect me to the other end of the park.
Burdened as I was, it took me almost an hour to get out of the park even after I discovered a lit walkway. Checking the time, I was dismayed to find it was almost ten. Where I had emerged was a half an hour walk from my house on a good day. I could almost taste the warm liquor, feel my wife's loving embrace and I walked through our front door, victorious. I was nearly dead on my feet at this point. I needed something to keep me going forward, however unrealistic. I knew in my heart I was a dead man if I didn't get home before midnight.
The first few blocks on my final leg home were calm enough. This was a more residential area, and many of the houses and apartment buildings were silent and dark except for where people had been gracious enough to string lights or position a Christmas tree near a window. Now and then there would be a burst of jolly laughter, sometimes a carol, but it was generally a peaceful walk. I stopped at a crosswalk to check the condition of the wagon. By some miracle all of Liam's presents were still inside, and the wagon itself was unscathed. I contemplated ditching the candy cane as its weight had only hindered me after using it as a paddle on the ice rink, but I decided it was yet another of my hard earned spoils, a symbol of my triumph over the mall Santa and crew.
I dusted myself off and stood. I needed to get moving again: a t-shirt wasn't really cutting it on this cold December night and it had started to drizzle again. A sharp clopping made me jump.
"Oh, it's just a sheep." I took steady breaths to slow my racing heart.
A sheep was walking down the middle of the street. I started to cross and halted. I turned my head slowly to look at the sheep, it's white wool radiant under the street lights. What in the hell was a sheep doing by itself in the middle of a city? What the hell was a sheep doing in a city at all?
My questions were soon answered by a chorus of baas. Turning to regard this new anomaly, I saw three men decked in cream colored robes, all with shepherd's crooks and white beards. I waved at them, not knowing what else to do.
"Er, hello!" A sizable flock of sheep and lambs were milling behind them, taking up half a block of the street up to the sidewalks. The shepherds waved back in unison.
"We are the three wise men," said the one in the middle. "Do you mind catching that sheep?"
"I'm not exactly skilled in that department," I said, trying to hide the candy cane behind my back. It would be a decent sheep-catching apparatus and had the potential of invalidating my excuse.
"But, we have myrrh, gold and... Hey, what's the other thing we're supposed to be bearing?"
"Frankincense," said the one on the right in exasperated tones. "It's not that hard to remember."
"Yeah, Frankenstein scents."
"Next year we're getting someone to fill in for you. You're obviously not ready to be a wise man."
"Guys, cut it out," the leftmost one intervened. "We got a sheep to catch."
"I'm just gonna go now," I said, starting to walk up the block and away from any and all sheep.
"Wait, you're closer to the sheep. Can't you do us a solid and grab it?"
"Sorry, I need to get somewhere."
"Come on, where's your Christmas spirit!?"
"Up his a-s," one of the wise men said. Another suppressed his laughter.
From over my shoulder I could see one of them pointing at me and angrily shaking his crook. The sheep ignored his order, preferring to chew on newspaper stands and nose through garbage cans. The guy forced his way to the back of the herd and began shouting profanities.
"You two! Stand across the street and make sure they turn left. We're running that cold hearted bastard down!"
"What is wrong with you? Whatever, just remember to give us our share of the prize money."
"Prize money? You guys were terrible at the parade! We barely made first place this year. Just do what I told you!"
I could see the sheep were starting to move with a little more pep. The man egging them on from behind tapped one with his crook and, with a disgruntled baa, it broke into a run. With more baaing and tosses of the head, the rest of the herd followed suit, and the two other wise men waved frantically, directing the sheep down the intersecting street and towards me.
"WHAT IN THE F--K!?"
I briefly lost consciousness when the first sheep hit. I managed to knock the wagon off the road and into a sloped driveway, feeling relief when I heard the tinny clink as it connected with the garage door. A wooly sea crashed down on me, and I was sucked into the rip tide of the sheep's street stained hooves. I pressed my face against the cement and shielded my head with my hands. I sense a few slow their gait to nibble on my clothing. Thankfully, many managed to avoid trampling me and I emerged several minutes later with a few scraps and decidedly sheepier. I pulled clumps of wool from my shirt as I went to retrieve my wagon. The wise men stood awestruck at my apparent good health.
"Hey, shouldn't we be herding those sheep? Won't we get in trouble for letting them run around town?"
"You're worried about that? Do you know how much it costs to rent three hundred sheep? DO YOU?"
I started on my way once more, only making it a few feet before a crumpled to the ground. It seemed I had twisted my ankle in the stampede, and the sprained was now aching something terrible. My house was only ten blocks away. I could have called a cab, but I was a man on a mission. I sucked it up and hobbled home.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Where the hell have you been?" Cara was sitting in the living room on the couch, staring at the Christmas tree with a brooding, evil look. Her mouth was upturned into an unflattering sneer as she regarded me. My clothes were a wreck, torn, tattered, and smelled as if they had been squeezed out of a ewe's teat. The wagon and presents were in shockingly good shape, nary a disfiguring mark among them.
"It's 11:50! I called you SIX TIMES, Noah. SIX!"
"I was shopping," I said, my voice level.
"Keep your voice down," Cara hissed, "the kids are sleeping."
"I was being quiet..."
"Nevermind, let me see what you got." Cara stood up and snatched the wagon's handle out of my hand, rolling her eyes at the candy cane I held in front of me as if to beat her off if she started to get violent.
"Alright," she said, pulling my coat off the top of the wagon. The silence was deafening as she removed each item, turning it between her hands. I balanced on the tips of my toes, anxious that she would find a flaw after all I had been through to see the gifts safely home. She didn't bat an eye at the blue brontosaurus, thought she shot me a dirty look when it roared. The two see and says were set aside, and she looked the shoes and hoodie up and down. The firefighter's hat, a few shirts I don't remember grabbing, and miscellaneous toys picked up for stocking stuffers joined the pile. Then came the sugar cookies. How could I forget about those? She opened a packet and gave it a careful sniff. They, too, passed under her scrutiny.
"I gotta say, you did pretty good all things considered."
"Can I at least get a thank you?" The unappreciative she demon.
"Yeah, yeah, thanks," she said, giving me a quick hug and a peck on the cheek. My chest swelled up with pride. I had survived.
"Oh, Christ, that is disgusting. You smell like a barn stall."
"You mean, I smell like a MAN!"
"Right. What exactly happened out there?"
As we wrapped the presents, set out the cookies and prepped the living room for the coming morning, I regaled her with my tale of heroism. We finished around one in the morning, and I passed out on top of the sheets without so much as a shot to wet my lips.
I woke up to the screams of my children at six. The loveable little shits came running into our room, almost bouncing off the walls with glee. If they only knew what it took for me to put those happy smiles on their pudgy faces. I bit back a reprimand and sat up, clutching my head and wondering how I got into my pajamas. I was guided out to the living room with Liam and Chelsea each hanging off of an arm, swinging back and forth like monkeys on crack.
Presents were opened, happiness was had, and Christmas morning went by in a coffee-fueled blur. As lunch approached, our house phone rang and my wife answered. The smile froze on her face and she hung up after a short exchanged. I looked at her questioningly and she walked slowly over, sinking down next to me on the couch where I was finally enjoying some hundred proof eggnog. The faint violet bags stood out against her paling face, and a solemn air surrounded her.
"Noah, my parents just called."
"They're coming over at two."
"I forgot to get presents for them."
I stood up without responding and took my beautiful wife by her hand. I walked with her over to the front door, unlocked it and pulled it open. The candy cane had been propped against the wall, and I presented to her.
"You'll be needing this."
She took it, perplexed, and allowed herself to be shuffled out onto the porch. I smiled, warm and lovingly, and slammed the door in her stupid face. She pounded on the door, shouting to be let in. The kids thought it was a game and shouted along with her, and I chuckled merrily. Ah, I really loved Christmas.
By Drusilla Hebert