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It'sha Kirmas Mircul!

  “This is a stupid plan,” the ten year old muttered, kicking at the ground.

  Shifting a shopping bag idly, her uncle cast a glance over his shoulder at the line of children and their parents, all presently wrapped up in their own conversations. Most were younger than his niece, the flickering joy of meeting Santa Claus still very much so present in their faces. Others were less pleased, either due to the forced participation of the mall-Santa ritual or just general child-based anxiousness.

  “This is a really stupid plan,” the towheaded girl grumbled again. Instead of kicking an invisible rock, she punctuated the sentence with folded arms and a huff.

  “Hey,” her uncle half-snapped as he processed the tone of her voice rather than the words. It took an additional moment to realize what she said and another to come up with a response. “You’re a stupid plan.” An actually good response would have taken another two moments. Probably three.

  “I’m too old for this, you know,” she said.

  “No one has to know that,” he responded matter-of-factly. “They aren’t going to card you or anything.”

  A few moments passed. Two mall security guards in their campaign hats marched by, followed by one on a motorized scooter. The scooter would whir up quickly behind the other two, stop suddenly and wait for the distance to grow to about seven feet before repeating the process until the three of them were out of eyeshot. To be entirely honest, the uncle had been hoping the scooter would plow into the other two and send them all crumpling to the floor. The pilot of the goofy thing was competent enough to not cause an accident – a shame really, considering that no matter how deftly one drove those things, there was precisely no chance to look dignified while doing so. Even if you didn’t wipe out, you were still driving a motorized scooter instead of walking like a human being.

  “Can I see my game now?” the girl asked petulantly.

  “You know the deal. No toy until we get the...” he gestured with his free hand toward the makeshift workshop the mall employees had built for Santa, “... elf... situation taken care of.” He felt the two mini-bottles of liquor click against each other in his interior pocket as he brought his hand back to scratch the back of his head.

  “This is dumb,” she whined. “You know he’s not real.”

  He sighed in frustration, his free hand falling to his side. “That’s not the point...”

  “He is so real!” a congested child called out in protest. Both the uncle and his niece turned to regard a younger boy as he cleared his face with his jacket sleeve. The uncle slightly recoiled at the sight of the shiny sleeve. The boy’s mother was hardly paying attention, preferring the soft glow of her smart phone. “I saw him last year on the weather show’s radar!”

  His niece snorted. “Was that before or after he skipped all the poor kids?”

  “He doesn’t skip anyone!”

  “What about Jehova’s Witnesses?”

  Her uncle nodded in agreement and pointed to her. “She’s got a point, kiddo,” he said to the boy. “They’d probably call the cops on his jolly ass.” His eyes shot up to the mother’s as she put her phone back into her purse. “Butt. I said ‘butt’.” She hadn’t noticed his verbal faux pas initially, but the insistence on a different word made her instantly suspicious.

  “You said a bad word,” the boy said with a mix of horror and glee.

  The uncle made a face and scoffed. “No, I didn’t.” He looked at the boy’s mother and pointed at him with a shrug.

  “Mom, they said Santa’s not real and Winona’s dishes are going to call the cops on him,” her son said smugly, cozying up to her side.

  “Is that right?” she asked, eyes fixing on the girl’s. “Well, I believe in Santa,” she said.

  There was a pause. The pause grew pregnant and gave birth to little pauses before the uncle and his niece traded glances. “Was that...” he began. He cleared his throat. “Was that supposed to, like, prove something?”

  The niece shoved his leg. “I believe in unicorns.”

  The uncle laughed. “I believe the tooth fairy grinds up molars to make tooth paste!”

  “Harry Potter!” she offered. She looked at the boy. “I saw him on the TV!” Her uncle held out his hand, which she heartily slapped in triumph.

  “Boom,” he said.

  The mother, horrified, looked between the two. “Why are you even here if you hate Christmas so much?”

  The uncle held his hands up in protest. “Whoa. Whoa. Who said anything about hating Christmas?”

  “I don’t hate Christmas,” his niece offered.

  He gestured to the lights. “I’m a fan of this.” A shrug. “Just not keen on the time-bending communist fat guy is all.”

  A visible twitch developed in the mother’s eye. Her child started tearing up. “C... commu...”

  “Come on, a guy who flies around giving away shit for free. Total commie.”

  “He kinda even looks like Marx,” his niece mused.

  Her uncle looked at her with pride. “That is awesome.” He offered his hand again for a high-five which she indulged. “Where did you pick that up?”

  “You two...” the mother hissed, eyes wild and flicking between them. “You are going to...” her hands shot down to her child’s ears. The act was more than superfluous as she half-whispered, half-gasped “Hell.”

  The uncle nodded solemnly. “And a happy New Year, madam.” He put his hand on his niece’s shoulder and turned around, pivoting the girl so they faced the holiday hut. “That got dark,” he mused to no one in particular.

  “Whatever. Kid was a dork,” she muttered.

  “Didn’t deny that.”

  “You’re a terrible role model.”

  “Your father let me borrow you for the day, so he’s not looking too good either.”

  “I’m going to tell him you said that.”

  “He’ll agree with me.”

  “Your plan is stupid.”

  “It is not a stupid plan!”

  “Next!”

  The harried holiday worker’s order caught them both off guard. It took the fake and decidedly unhappy elf’s violent ‘come here’ motions with his clipboard to get the two moving toward him. He was high school age, judging by the slight acne and irritable baby-face. “You have five minutes. If you want a photo, it’s ten bucks,” he sighed, marking some boxes off a sheet. His gruff orders certainly didn’t engender faith in his holiday cheer.

  “Santa’s camera doesn’t run on magic and wishes?” the uncle said with a laugh. The elf, annoyed, looked up at him. “‘Cause... ‘cause then it would be free.”

  “Oh, I got it,” the elf said dangerously low, eyes squinted. “Hilarious.” He shoved the pen under the metal clasp before pushing the clipboard into the uncle’s chest. “Sign on the line.” He grabbed the board as the elf released it. He looked at it. “This absolves us of any liability in the off chance something happens.”

  The uncle cocked an eyebrow. “It’s a visit to Santy Claus. Unless you’ve been kidnaping children to work in the Great Toy Mines of the North Pole...”

  “Look, you unfunny asshole, if your little tyke pukes on St. Nick, this stops you from claiming it was because his cologne made her sick, alright?”

  The uncle rolled his jaw as he took a long, slow breath. “You don’t think I’m funny?”

  His niece started bouncing in place. “Just sign it already!”

  “Fine.” With a huff, the uncle took out the pen and scribbled a half-legible squiggle on the line. He passed it back to the elf. “But if it comes down to it, I’ll tell them you forged that fucker.”

  “You do that, sir.” With an exasperated sigh, he lead them to the entrance to Santa’s remarkably-small-on-the-outside workshop. The elf shoved open the door. “Have a magical time,” he grunted as the girl darted through the entryway.

  The uncle hunched a bit to enter, only to stop and look back at the elf. He squinted at the young man. The worker put his arms akimbo, bracing for another bout of yuletide abuse. “Jobs won’t always suck. Remember that.” He turned to enter the workshop, only to crack his skull sharply on the door frame. The world spun briefly as he heard the elf next to him hiss. He brought his hand up to his head and felt his fingers grow slick. At the same time, his head burned with the salt on his skin. “Son of a... fffffuuuuuuudge...” he trailed off. Casual swearing was a habit impossible to break – swearing in pain was surprisingly easy to keep under control. He stomped his foot once, twice, as he hummed the opening bars to Ode to Joy.

  “Are you okay?” he heard the elf ask.

  If he had been more aware of his surroundings, he may have appreciated the genuine sympathy in his voice. Instead, the uncle appreciated the throb in his face by giving a roaring whimper. He took a breath. “I’m great. Bandage?”

  The elf looked around. “No, man. Sorry.” Suddenly, his face brightened. “Wait,” he said as though the uncle was planning on disappearing. The worker darted out of view as he shouted, “This is why...”

  “... we have you sign the form,” both finished. “Great, thanks,” he muttered quietly as he rolled his head back, trying to keep the trickle of blood out of his eyes.

  The elf returned, a yellow t-shirt in hand. He smashed it into the uncle’s face. “Someone left it here yesterday.” The shirt smelled of the pungent cologne that some department stores insist on spraying their items with. It stung his eyes and made the cut burn all the worse, but it was better than inadvertently bleeding on everything.

  “Thanks,” he said, turning back to the workshop entrance. His niece reappeared in the doorway only to be taken aback by the bloody shirt.

  “Hey,” the elf said. The uncle turned. “Sorry, bro. The North Pole thing. Funny.”

  “Yeah, no shit,” he grunted as he followed his niece into the workshop. He had been willing to try to be nice to a kid stuck in a holiday job he clearly hated up until his blood tried to take a vacation outside of his body. After that, not so much.

  The interior of the workshop was remarkably-small-on-the-inside as well. The “workers” were all decals they had stuck onto the red-and-green walls, their huge smiles wide under terrifying white eyes. Most of the space was dedicated to a raised platform with the gentleman playing at Santa Claus on a chair toward the back of the chamber, his red and white suit looking at once comfortable and a pain in the ass to wear. A camera on a tripod was set up facing the jolly old elf, but there weren’t too many other features in the room. At least it was well-lit, so there was that.

  “Ho, ho, ho!” Jolly Ol’ St. Nicolas announced as his eyes locked on the girl. It was a better barrel laugh than the uncle had heard before, less awkward monosyllables and more old man finding something hilarious. He decided this was the perfect Santa. “Hello there, young girl! What do-”

  She held up her hand to stop him. She pointed to her uncle. “He wants to talk to you.”

  The man in red looked at her uncle and sputtered a moment. “That’s... alright. Are you...” He seemed to stumble over the word he wanted. It was at this point that the uncle noticed something... different... about this mall Santa’s voice. Something pleasant but decidedly un-sterotypically Father Christmas-y.

  Whatever had momentarily nagged him, he shrugged it off as he held out the bag for his niece. “No, sir. Just need some holiday advice.” She took it and retreated to a corner to look at her new toy. He gave his newly free hand a shake before swapping it in for the one that had been pinning the shirt to his face.

  Santa Claus immediately regained his composure. “This is really not what I’m here for.”

  “Yeah, but if movies have taught me anything, it’s that Christmas is not only the most explodingest time of year, but also the time when something stupid but Yuletide-themed needs to be done for something good to happen.” He gestured to the man in the suit. “And that’s where you come in, Papa Noel.”

  “Explodingest?”

  “Die Hard.”

  “Ah.”

  “I told him this was a stupid plan,” his niece chimed in.

  “You’re a stupid plan!” her uncle shouted back.

  “I’m afraid the girl is right,” the mall Santa said with a chuckle. “I’m just a guy in a suit.” He chose his next words very carefully: “It sounds like you want a psychologist.”

  The uncle shook his head dismissively and have a laugh. “I’m not crazy.”

  “That’s open to interpretation,” the other man muttered in response.

  “Look, I just need to talk to a holiday expert about this. I need one of those Christmas miracles they’re handing out this time of year really bad.”

  Santa looked between the two of them. “It doesn’t look like either of you buy into the idea of Christmas miracles in the first place.”

  “Well, no shit,” the uncle snorted. “I’m not stupid.”

  “Alright, that’s it...” The man rose, patience finally exhausted. “I think it’s time...”

  The uncle dug into his inner pocket and pulled out the mini bottles of liquor. “I have booze!” he shouted.

  The mall Santa cocked an eyebrow. “Why does that not surprise me?”

  The uncle rolled his eyes and gestured with the bottles. “Not for me. I don’t drink. But you kick me out, I uncork these bad boys and douse you with whiskey and...” he checked the other bottle. “Coconut rum.” He made a face. “Gross.”

  “How unbelievably-”

  “And that’s not all!” he cut off the Saint. The uncle gestured to his niece, presently wrapped up in the shiny new video game her relative had procured for her earlier in the evening. “You’re up, kiddo.”

  “You won’t believe it!” she shouted, eyes not leaving the game screen. “He’s the real Santa! He magicked this thing up right when I asked for it!” The excitement was palpable in her voice, but she remained relatively immobile. She’s going to be a hell of an actress, her uncle thought proudly.

  “All those kids will be expecting something great from you...”

  “They won’t believe that rubbish,” the man said defiantly.

  “Really?” the uncle asked. “Because... most kids... aren’t stupid?”

  “Yeah, they are,” his niece chimed.

  “In any case, when their kids aren’t getting what they want and then the parents get a whiff of the sauce...” the uncle trailed off innocently. Or as innocently as one can when blackmailing the physical representation of the capitalist version of a holiday.

  The man in red sighed, glaring all the while. “Despicable.” He sat down. “What is it you want?”

  “Perfect!” The uncle put the liquor bottles back and strode toward the man. He stopped. “I don’t have to sit on your lap, do I?”

  “I’d prefer it if you didn’t,” he grunted.

  “Great,” he said. Then he snapped his fingers as what was nagging him about Santa’s voice finally slipped into place. “You’re Irish. Goddamn, that is awesome. Now I’m never going to be able to imagine Santa as not Irish. Amazing.” He put his hands on his head and pretended to pull it apart as he made a rumbling noise. “Mind. Blown.”

  Santa Claus let out an exasperated sigh. “Can we hurry this up?”

  “Right, sorry.” The uncle took a seat on the platform, looking up at Santa Claus. “Okay, so I have this friend...”

  “This isn’t going to be something sexual, is it?”

  The uncle was taken aback. “What?” He shook his head. “Ew. No. Jesus.”

  “Go on.”

  “Right.” He took a deep breath. “So, I have this friend. And we’re like old friends. I mean, not in the sense that we went to grammar school together or anything, but in the sense that we’ve known each other for years. Anyway when we first met, I had this girlfriend who didn’t like me hanging out with anyone she didn’t approve of and, of course, my friend wasn’t on that list. So, we fell out of touch until years later when the ex is out of the picture and we’re able to resume being friends...”

  “So I’m to take it that you fell out of touch to make your former girlfriend happy?”

  “Bro, she was never happy, let’s just put it that way.”

  “Continuing on...”

  “Yeah, sure.” Another deep breath. “Anyway, it was awesome because we’re both really good friends and hanging out a lot. And then I get a girlfriend but it’s cool because this new one is awesome and doesn’t care who I hang out with. We’re all good friends and it’s great and then something awful happens.”

  The man in red gave an accusatory sigh. “You didn’t sleep with her did you?”

  “What? Jesus, man.” The uncle shook his head. “Why are you obsessed with sex? You’re a terrible elf.”

  Santa Claus arched his eyebrows. “I’m just guessing because...”

  “Because you’re obsessed, buddy. I mean, I made out with her once, but that’s when we were both single so it’s cool.” The uncle squinted in Santa’s direction. “Haven’t you made out with someone and it went nowhere?”

  His cheeks grew red. Redder than they already were, anyway. “Well...”

  The uncle nodded his head. “That’s what I thought.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, she gets this new boyfriend and I don’t see or talk to her anymore because apparently I’m some kind of threat.” He sputtered in annoyance. “I mean, look at me. I’m like sixty pounds.”

  “But you’re a good looking chap,” the man offered. “So there’s that.”

  “Really?” The uncle looked at him before turning back and nodding his head. “I’d like to think so. In any case, this happened almost a year ago now and I really, really want it to stop.”

  “What to stop?”

  The uncle stood up. “Feeling terrible.” He started pacing. “I mean, I’m used to having friends go their separate ways on me. It’s a part of life, you know?” He cast a glance to the mall Santa. “But this is different.”

  “How so?”

  “Because it’s the same thing I did to her!” he shouted, gesturing with the hand holding the bloody t-shirt. The gash on his forehead re-opened ever so slightly, trailing down his face again. “And it’s bullshit, Mr. Claus. I was in that situation, I know what it was like.” He took a couple of steps toward the man in red. “The guy’s a wiener.”

  “So, what do you want me to do about it?”

  The uncle shrugged grandly. “I. Don’t. Know!” He put his hands on his hips. “I’ve been miserable for a year. And...” he trailed off. “I want my friend back,” he said meekly. “You’re right, I don’t believe in Christmas miracles. Or much of anything.” He slightly shook in place. “But I really, really need this padre.”

  Although the uncle couldn’t see it, St. Nick appeared genuinely struck by this. After all the temerity and vulgarity, the man in front of him – tears welling in his eyes – was genuinely vulnerable. “Let me ask you something, son,” he began, pushing himself out of the seat. “Have you concocted any schemes like this one to get your friend back?”

  He sniffled. He realized how pathetic he looked, so he furrowed his brow in an attempt to look angry, only succeeding in looking like a red wrinkled balloon. “No.”

  “And why is that?”

  He shrugged. “‘Cause I guess she’s happy or something stupid like that.”

  The man in red nodded. “And I’m guessing that she’s not the only friend that you’ve abandoned in the past.”

  “No.” He looked up at the mall Santa. “But that’s the thing. I know how much it sucks now! I’ve been punished for this shit!”

  A white gloved hand fell on the uncle’s shoulder. “It’s not about punishment. It’s about growing up.”

  “I’m almost thirty.”

  “And who said you ever stop growing up? We all have to deal with something like this. It’s just your time.”

  “Says who?”

  He shrugged. “No one in particular.”

  “Yeah, well, that’s a stupid rule.”

  “Never said it wasn’t.” The hand slid off the uncle’s shoulder. “You haven’t done anything because someone else’s happiness is more important than your own. In a way, you’re giving your friend the best Christmas present of all.”

  The uncle cocked an eyebrow. “Are you cramming some kind of moral to this stupid thing in at the last minute?”

  The man in red gestured to his suit. “It’s kind of a package deal.”

  “So that’s it?” He threw his hands in the air. “No advice other than ‘keep making the same decision that’s made you painfully annoyed and sad for the past year’?”

  Santa turned back to his chair. “Nope.”

  “Couldn’t I just... like... not be her friend anymore?”

  He sat down in the chair, his head rolling back. “You won’t do that.” He opened an eye to look at the uncle. “Because she might need a friend in the future.”

  “So?”

  “I’m guessing from your answers that the blackmailing-a-mall-Santa thing is a ‘once a year’ kind of thing,” he said with a sigh. “Even if it was despicable, and stupid, and poorly thought out...”

  “Is there a point to this?”

  “... you did it out of... concern... or something.”

  The uncle looked at him, annoyed. “You know for a fact that if I didn’t do this underhandedly, you wouldn’t have talked to me at all.”

  Santa’s head wobbled for a moment, mulling it over. “You’re probably right.” He shrugged in his chair before leaning on one of the arm rests. “Long story short, if you hadn’t have piled up all the other misdemeanors here, I’d almost admit it was sweet... if not outright sad.” The uncle’s face had grown significantly unhappier. With a sniff, he brought the bloody shirt up to dab away some tears. “Oh, come now. Don’t cry. Did you really expect to get a holiday miracle?”

  The uncle’s chin wobbled. “No,” he said defeatedly. His eyes went to the floor. “Could I get a picture, though?”

* * *

  The food court was relatively empty, save for the foot traffic weaving between the various tables and plants. The uncle and his niece sat at a table in silence. He was mostly slumped over, one arm barely propping his head up. His other hand was using one french fry to shove another around on the tray. His niece was watching him with concern. She hated when adults got all mopey. Mad, easy enough to understand. Happy, well, that was ideal. But sad? Jeez, with all the neat thing adults can do, they can be really stupid sometimes.

  “It was a stupid plan,” he finally said.

  She didn’t quite know how to respond. “Duh,” she offered.

  He straightened in his chair, dropping the fry. “This time of year is dumb. If you don’t want stupid shit, you want touchy-feely crap. And people are terrible at giving presents, so no matter what, you’re screwed.” He crossed his arms and sighed. “People are dumb, too.” He was silent again. His niece stared at his dour expression for a moment. She slid out of her seat and walked over to his side before grasping him in the best possible hug she could manage, shoving her one arm stiffly between him and the metal backrest while the other more readily snaked around his stomach. “What are you doing?”

  “I love my uncle. He is sad. Hugs make things better.”

  He rolled his eyes at the gesture and sighed. After a moment, he rolled his eyes again at his earlier eye roll. “Thanks, kiddo,” he said quietly.

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