The Naughty Ones
The elves take children from their parents and plunk them down on Santa’s lap. I take their picture. Most times, the kids flash gap toothed smiles. Other times little Johnny or Susie cries. Every once in a while, some kid has a total meltdown. I’m talking complete nervous breakdown, the kind where snot goes flying and the hysterics are shrill enough to pierce eardrums. I have a theory about those wailers – they’re going to be the naughty ones. And they know that when they grow up Santa will be very unhappy with them…
The girl grins from her perch on Santa’s lap and I click the camera’s shutter button.
While Santa’s helpers, college kids in red and green costumes, replace the girl with a boy I type the customer’s order number, 070144, under the picture and hit the send button. The parents will buy a copy – or twenty – and after doing this three thousand or so times the night will be over. All I want to do is get back to my brother’s couch and fall asleep in front of his fireplace.
Santa lets out a bold, “Ho ho ho! And what do you want for Christmas, little boy?”
I hate this job. The noise of it, the deep, fake Santa-bellows, hurts me. The din of children, their high-pitched voices giddy with greed, works its way into my head, a sharp icicle expanding in the cold.
I adjust my camera, framing the picture, and tell the boy, “Smile.” He’s three, maybe, and he stares blank-faced at the camera. Other Santa photographers might try to coax a little grin out of him, but I couldn’t give a piece of reindeer shit about it.
The line of parents and children wraps through the mall lobby and into the west wing. I can’t see the end of it. The night will never end.
Click. “Good job.” I title the picture, 070145.
I used to photograph models. That’s how I met my wife. She wore a swimsuit the size of a two ipods and sand on her legs. I fell in love with her big eyes and pointy eyebrows. She had a rough laugh, like she was hungry for joy, and she dropped the brooding-sultry-model act the second I shut down the cameras. Who wouldn’t love a warm hearted girl like that?
Another little boy takes his place on Santa. He’s about seven. His father stands nearby and he looks like he’s dying of cancer; gaunt faced and sallow. An Eddie Baur coat hangs lopsided on his shoulders. Maybe it fit him when we was well, before his disease started eating him from the inside out. He looks familiar to me…
“Smile,” I say, forcing my own lips upwards.
He does. Click. And then I label the picture, 070146, and as I’m framing the next shot, I realize who he is and why I didn’t recognize him. He lost eighty pounds in prison. At least I have that, I think and turn to watch him walk toward the purchase table, one hand on his boy’s back. At least I can see that the year he served for manslaughter was hard on him.
The sick looking man with the boy is the fat guy who ran his BMW over my wife. Upon impact, my lovely girl was caught between his car and the asphalt. He ground her into a blood smear three feet wide. After a bit, he stopped and backed up. Then he drove around her body, easing his sedan into traffic, leaving the bag of broken bones that had once been my wife behind him, forgotten road kill.
I don’t blame those kids, the wailers, for being scared. Santa’s a real gem when you’re good. When you believe in him, miracles happen. Of course, it’s hard to believe in something that’s not real. We grow up, we learn the “truth” and we forget… It’s okay with Santa. He couldn’t take gifts to all the good boys and girls and cover the grown-ups, too. The fact the people forget is the only thing keeping Santa’s operation afloat. The thing is, though. Santa doesn’t forget.
He keeps those lists updated. Both of them.
“Not a creature was stirring,” I thought. Ha ha ha. I stretched out on my brother’s couch, where I’ve been living this December. I don’t have my own place anymore. Everything I had died in a parking lot. So family and friends put me up, a month here, six weeks there, all so I can pull myself together and get on with my life. Like that can ever happen.
The fireplace stared back at me, an empty hole. I wish I was an alcoholic. Then I could slip into a whiskey-coma every night. I could drink until my liver looked like a cracked sponge and die. Instead I get the quiet. Tonight, however, the silence is broken.
The noise starts on the rooftop, a long banging, like cars slowly crashing. It startles me so bad I bolt straight up on the couch. My brother remains asleep, I guess, because he doesn’t charge down the stairs. I head toward the windows, the hardwood floor like ice against my bare feet, and open the curtains. I see a few parked cars, snow covered yards, that’s all.
Then, I hear a sound like pieces of sandpaper being rubbed against bricks and I spin around. The creature lands in the fireplace. Enough light enters the room for me to see the black cloud of soot rise under his feet. He ducks down and steps out of the fireplace.
He – it – is two feet tall and dressed like one of Santa’s helpers, but instead of green and red his pointy boots and tights and top jacket are black as motor oil. His face seems smashed, like he ran right into a wall. But what freaks me out most is the eyes – two pinpoints of yellow, glaring at me.
“No, not God,” he says.
And that’s when I start to scream.
About those grown-ups who make the naughty list, they really can’t help it. There’s something wrong with them. It’s in their genetics, I suppose, and whatever the flaw it’s strengthened by upbringing. So the world is stuck with adults who do bad things, who live without remorse even when they crave the taste of blood. On some level, though, they all know they’re being bad.
They also know they could do better if they worked at it and because they won’t they know they deserve to be punished.
We talked a long time. I thought the creature’s voice would be grating and scary, but his tone was soothing, his words all comfort and rationale. He explained everything; Santa, his lists, the naughty and the nice… He told me the difference between the punished and the free.
“The unrepentant,” the little troll said, “are everywhere. One of them lives right here.”
He handed me a piece of paper, customer order 070146. For a second I wondered how he got it, but then I realized I was talking to a two-foot tall elf dressed in black with the yellow eyes of a predatory and I stopped wondering about the trivial.
I had in my hand the address of the man who’d slain my wife. He’d been punished, yes. The police had found him before the blood dried on his bumper. But he wasn’t sorry, not the way he should’ve been.
“The naughty one takes his little boy to sit on Santa’s lap,” he said. “Santa doesn’t like that.”
“I don’t either,” I said. “It’s not right.”
“Perhaps we can remedy that injustice?”
He held a tiny hat in his small hand. His fingers, more like claws tipped with talons the color of rotting teeth, waved the pointed hat at me, gesturing, offering, ordering me to take it. I snatched that hat. The felt was thick and rough under my fingers.
“Put it on.”
“It won’t fit.”
“Believe,” he said, “and it will.”
When I was a boy, there was this man that lived down the street. His wife used to pummel him. He could no more defend himself against her than he could turn into a weather balloon and float away. She was evil and he was her victim; and that was all that could be said about that. That’s why I believe that those on the naughty list can’t help it. The man couldn’t help being a weakling who let his wife beat him and she couldn’t help but turn his nose into pulp. It was the way they were. But you know who suffered? Their kids. The family dog. Even the neighbors, I suppose, who had to listen to all the screaming.
Santa sent a mean little elf to cut their throats and burn down their house…
The hat did, in fact, fit and when I took the elf’s hand we ascended through my brother’s fireplace chimney and to a sleigh. Reindeer, yellow eyed like the elf, carried us to customer 070146.
“Wake up,” I told him.
When he did I jumped on his chest and wrapped my tiny hands around his throat. He looked back at me with bulging eyes while I strangled him.
I released my grip and asked him, “Do you know why?”
He coughed, looked to his sleeping wife and didn’t answer.
“Please,” he began.
I latched on to him again and this time I finished him.
I have to admit, I felt elated about punishing him, like I had a reason to keep my heart beating. And when my new friend gave me the list of naughty ones I set off on my own sleigh with more energy than I’d had since my wife was alive.
It was the best Christmas ever.
He sees you when you’re sleeping and his list is long this year. It’s divided up among Santa’s yellow eyed helpers. I’ve got my share and I hope you’re not on it. But if you are… Well, just think about this way; our time together gives peace to the wounded and justice to the guilty. What better Christmas present is possible than that?
So to all a good night, my grown up boys and girls, and to those on the naughty list, I’ll see you soon.
The Naughty Ones
Copyright © 2010 by Lake Lopez. All Rights Reserved.
D I S C L A I M E R
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, places and events portrayed in this work are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to people, living or dead, is purely coincidental.