By Jason Offutt
We went to the mall the day Dad saved Christmas. Technically, it wasn’t Christmas Day he saved, it was Christmas Eve, but I figure anything that falls within 12 days of Dec. 25 is still Christmas. He didn’t do anything noble. He just saved his family from evil, that's all. He could have saved us on Arbor Day, or Presidents Day, or even July 12, but what happened to us picked Christmas Eve, so when I say he saved Christmas, I mean he saved Christmas for us.
I grinned as I sat at the breakfast table, milk dripping from my chin and back into my cereal bowl. I grinned because I’d figured out Dad’s plan. Sure, last night he’d only said, “we’re going to the mall in the morning,” as he scratched his belly in my doorway. “And if you don’t get to bed, Stu, Santa will put your hand in a bowl of warm water while you sleep.” But I could tell he was hiding something. We had to be going to the mall for a reason, and that reason was to buy me the new Mega GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4.” I’d only asked him for this new video game system 472 times since Christmas Present Begging Season began after Halloween. Besides, I was 10 years old. I didn’t believe in Santa.
“I made poopy,” Bennie said. His face popped above the tabletop and disappeared again. Bennie was my brother and he was three. But Bennie wasn’t important right then, at breakfast, on the eve of me getting me the most prized Christmas toy of my life. Bennie was fun, but he wasn’t Mega GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4” fun.
“You’re not getting a Mega GameStation,” Dad said as he cut a bite off his eggs and crammed it into his mouth, the yellow bit all drippy and gross. “You’ve got an Ultra GameStation. What’s wrong with it?”
“Poopy,” Bennie said. His head popped up on the other side of the table.
I looked up from my Sugary Chocolate Puffs, the milk dark brown after only half a bowl. Sugary Chocolate Puffs is the best cereal on the planet. “It’s chocolate chocolaty madness,” the guy on the commercial screams while doctors tie him into a straight jacket. “Now with a Surgeon General warning. Who loves Sugary Chocolate Puffs cereal?” I do.
“‘Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4’ won’t play on the Ultra GameStation,” I said as I poured more Sugary Chocolate Puffs into my bowl. There was a two dollars-off coupon for the game “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4” in that box, and I had to eat my way down to it before we left for the mall.
Dad's fork clanked on his plate, the sound loud even with Bennie yelling “poopy.” Dad was the kind of dad who brought home comic books for me sometimes when I didn't even expect them. He’d take me to a really cool movie up to three times before saying no. But that was it when it came to spending money. He and Mom bought me an Ultra GameStation last year after my Super GameStation caught fire. Maybe he was serious. No, no, he couldn’t be. He was a kid once. He had to know when I went back to school after break, everybody in my grade would have played “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4” but me, and I’d be an outcast like that kid who still sucks his thumb. Then the real horror struck me; the kid who still sucks his thumb will have probably played “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4,” too. Then where would I be? Yeah, Dad had to buy me a Mega GameStation. How could he not?
“Then why are we going to the mall on Christmas Eve?” I asked, in a surprising display of bravery in the face of Dad dropping his fork.
“Because we’re taking Bennie to see Santa,” he said.
“Santa,” Bennie yelled. “Poopy. Santa. Poopy. Santa. Poopy.”
Sure we were. After breakfast, Mom and Dad changed Bennie’s pants and loaded us into the minivan. The traffic guy on the radio warned us to stay home. “You’ll die if you leave your house,” he said. Heck, Dad probably shouldn’t have taken us to the mall that day at all. It started to snow and, unless I heard “Bill Nasty in the Sky” wrong, there was some problem with syrup and a chicken truck. But Dad was taking us to the mall for something really important and Christmas-related and it was all because of me. I was sure of it.
Snow covered the road by the time we pulled into the mall parking lot; the traffic guy on the radio screamed something about mass chaos and the end being near. The only spot available was way back near the Burger King, so Dad took it.
“You know, they hire people to sit in the empty seats at awards shows on TV,” Dad said as we got out of the car. “Malls do that, too. They hire people to park in their parking lot, then bus them back home for the day.”
“Why would they do that?” I asked, although I should have known better. Dad always had an answer. The whole class laughed when I read my history paper on the ancient Sumerians who invented mathematics just to figure out how many lawyers it took to screw in a light bulb. The teacher gave me an F.
“Business, my boy,” Dad said, and dropped a hand on my shoulder to start our alpine hike to the mall doors. “If the parking lot is full, people driving by think they’re missing out on something like a sale, or a soap opera star signing autographs, or looting. So they’ll want some, too. In Third World cultures, entire economies are based on the number of spots not available at mall parking lots.”
“Don’t listen to your father, boys,” Mom said, pushing us to walk faster in the cold. “He’s just confused by the fact that the parking lot is full on Christmas Eve.”
Big fluffy flakes fell slowly to earth as we walked toward the building. Mom held onto Bennie’s hand so hard he squealed, and occasionally dropped into The Noodle so she had to drag him. Mom didn’t hold my hand when we went anywhere in public anymore. She either figured I was big enough to take care of myself, or if gypsies were going to snatch me, they’d have done it by now. Bennie wasn’t so lucky.
Dad pulled open one of the doors at the front of the mall, a blast of heat and the mixed smell of Americanized ethnic cooking from the food court enveloped us. Dad hated to go to the mall. I loved it.
“Well,” I said, pulling off my gloves to shove them into my coat pocket. My coat was big and brown and looked like something Daniel Boone wore when he felt like killing bears, which was all the time. We were at the mall, and it was time to call Dad’s bluff. “I think the game store is this way.”
“And why,” Dad began, grabbing my arm and pointing me in the opposite direction. “Would we be going that way, when we’re going this way?”
He was only teasing me. We came to the mall for a Mega GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4,” but that would be the last thing we did. Of course. Why would we go see Santa with the biggest, best present of the year already tucked under Dad’s arm?
“And don’t fool yourself into thinking we’re here to buy a video game,” he said, steering me toward the food court. Santa’s throne was always at the end of the line of booths, next to Mr. Wok’s Egg Noodle Emporium. “You’re not getting a new one until the one you have catches fire again. And don’t get any ideas.”
At that point it hit me. I don’t know why the thought waited until that moment in the mall, right next to the condiment table in front of Dave’s MasterBurger. Maybe it was the tone of Dad’s voice. Maybe it was his 474th denial. But there it was, doubt creeping into my head. Would Dad really not get me the Mega GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4?” Would I have to spend another year playing “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 3” on my lousy Ultra GameStation? Was my life already over at 10?
I walked with my family through the food court in silence, except when Bennie occasionally laughed for no reason. At that moment, I wished I was three, then the highlight of my day wouldn’t be over.
The line for Santa started at Pandora’s Pizza. It usually started as far back as Jolly’s Cracker Hut, but this year it was at Pandora’s, just two booths away from Mr. Wok’s.
“None of these kids seem very excited,” Dad said softly, leaning close to Mom. He nodded toward a boy walking away from Santa’s throne with his parents, the boy’s eyes big and blank, like he was in a Japanese cartoon. “They’re pretty quiet.”
“Yeah,” Mom whispered. “Usually they’re like …”
“Satan,” Bennie screamed.
“Bennie," she hissed.
“Satan, Satan,” Bennie yelled. He’d leaned way out of line and spotted Santa on the throne, a little girl on Santa’s big, red lap.
“Bennie,” Mom said, picking him up. “It’s Santa. San-ta.”
“Sa-ten,” Bennie slowly enunciated, then giggled.
I leaned out of line, too. Maybe Dad wasn’t fooling around. Maybe I wasn’t going to get a Mega GameStation at all. Maybe… . The little girl who had been on Santa’s lap walked by holding her mom’s hand. She stared at something, but I couldn’t tell what, unless it was at the guy at Potato Heaven’s fixins bar who had his right pinky up one nostril to the second knuckle. I looked around. Nope, she wasn’t staring at him. I turned back toward Santa. It was Christmas Eve, so the guy in the red suit might just be my last hope. I was going to have to do it. I was going to sit on Santa’s lap.
“Mommy,” Bennie said, Mom's hand still holding his in a death grip. “Why I’m gonna sit on Satan’s lap?”
“His name is Santa, Bennie,” she said. “And you’re going to sit on Santa’s lap to tell him what you want for Christmas. Then tonight, he’s going to come to our house and put your presents under our Christmas tree.”
“Satan’s comin’ to my house?” Bennie screamed. Bennie had only two volume settings, loud and off. And he wasn’t off enough.
I didn’t listen to any more. The whole Santa thing was silly. I knew that. I mean, it wasn’t like he was real, like vampires or killer robots from the future. He was something grownups invented to keep us from doing anything stupid for an entire month. So why was I going to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him I had to have a Mega GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4?” For the same reason people on death row pray – they’ve run out of options.
The line moved and we stepped even with Mr. Wok’s Egg Noodle Emporium. There were two more kids ahead of us. The others had sat on Santa’s lap and filed soundlessly by, holding at least one parent’s hand – sometimes two. I took a deep breath; my mind was set. This was my lowest moment. Well, if that’s the way things had to be.
“I’m going to do it, too,” I snapped to Mom and Dad, not looking at either. A warm feeling rushed over my face. “I’m going to sit on Santa’s lap.”
“What?” Mom asked. I could hear the grin in her voice. Her little boy wasn’t growing up after all. For one more Christmas, I was still her iddle, widdle man. “Since when?”
“Since Dad told me I wasn’t getting a Mega GameStation for Christmas.”
“Yes,” slid from Dad’s mouth in a stifled hiss. He wanted to scream it, I could tell. He’d beaten me and he wanted to gloat. I wish he had. “Remember this moment in a few years when you ask for a car,” he said.
I let my head hang, my chin hitting the zipper of my Daniel Boone coat. I’d have a zipper dent on my chin when I got to Santa, but that was okay because my folks didn’t bring a camera so there’d be no photographic evidence of my moment of shame. I just hoped none of my friends were here or I wouldn’t have to worry about being an outcast for not playing “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4.” I’d be an outcast for something much worse.
Another family walked by, the little boy quiet as the rest.
“Geez, that kid looks like a zombie,” Dad whispered to Mom.
Pfft. What did Dad know about zombies? Zombies were all green and smelly and made ‘Uuuhhh’ sounds. That kid didn’t look anything like a zombie. Then the next family was finished. We were next. In just a few minutes, it would be over with. I looked at the boy who’d just told Santa his secret wishes. He shuffled by, holding each parent’s hand. His face was slack, like his muscles were controlled by a puppet master who’d dropped all the string. That was the third …
“Ho, ho, ho,” a voice bellowed. I looked away from the boy who walked lifelessly by, and into the eyes of Santa. The blue, blue eyes of Santa. Ohmagod. We were it. We were next. Mom nudged me in the back, but I couldn’t move.
Hey, kid, a voice said, but didn’t say. It wasn’t really a voice because I hadn’t heard anything. Come on over. Santa wants to see you. I tried to open my mouth, to ask, to beg Dad to get me out of here, out of the mall. I wouldn’t ask for a Mega GameStation again – ever again. Just take me home. But I was lost, Santa’s eyes were …
“Hey kid,” the same voice said, but this time the words came through my ears. Santa’s elf stepped into my line of vision. The elf was dressed like an elf was supposed to be dressed; green tights, pointy hat with a bell on the end, and a big red belt. He was my size, but he wasn’t a dwarf. He was just a little man, and old, really old. He smiled at me; his smile stretched too wide for his pointy little face. “Come on over. Santa wants you.”
The elf touched my hand with long, spindly fingers, and I screamed.
“What’s wrong with you?” Dad said, pressing his hand in my back and pushing me toward the elf – the evil, evil elf. “You said you wanted to sit on Santa’s lap, so sit on Santa’s lap.”
Yeah, what’s wrong with you? The grinning elf told my head. Santa just wants to know your secrets. Your deep, deep secrets. Come on over. Everything will be better after you talk to Santa. The elf took my arm and led me away from Dad, his little fingers like vice grips in my flesh. I knew I was going to die. The elf pulled me toward the big, red suit and lifted me up to Santa. Santa wants you.
“Ho, ho, ho,” Santa said in loud, booming voice. Mom and Dad were smiling, and I was there, stuck on his lap. “Whisper in Santa’s ear what you want for Christmas.”
Then the stench hit my nostrils. Santa smelled funny. Not Grandma after a few too many ‘special Pepsis’ funny, but old, wet trash funny; and not just old, wet trash. It was something else. Santa’s blue eyes, as blue as a summer sky, burned into mine. I couldn’t look away from him. His skin changed as he drew me toward him. The soft pink hue spread away like a drop of dishwashing liquid hitting a greasy pan. His face grew slick and green, and his beard, big, white and fluffy, was different up close. It was alive – infested. The beard crawled over itself as he leaned closer to me.
“What are your fears?” Santa whispered, his breath scrambled across my face like ants looking for a place to crawl inside my head. “What makes you stay awake at night?”
I felt weak, dizzy, like I was going to sleep, but the smell. The smell. It was ... it was something familiar. Something that churned my stomach. “Poopy Satan,” I heard Bennie say from what sounded like miles away. That was it. Santa smelled like Bennie’s diaper pail. Bennie’s wet, sweet-sour smelling poop-filled diaper pail. My stomach lurched and I heaved; a brown, milky Sugary Chocolate Puffs goo splattered across Santa’s bright red shirt.
Hhhhiiissssss, shot through my head as Santa dumped me off his lap. I hit the hard mall floor in front of Mr. Wok’s, the breath shot from my lungs.
“Hey, are you okay?” Dad asked. He lifted me off the floor in front of Santa’s throne and held me like a toddler. Then he turned to Santa. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not the first time,” Santa said to Dad, smiling, his voice different than the voice he’d used on me. It was soft, low and jolly. “Or the worst.” Santa wiped his shirt with a rag the elf put in his hand, and waved at the next kid. But Santa was just Santa again. Pink skinned, cotton-bearded Santa.
“We lost our place in line,” Dad said, cradling me against his shoulder. “Bennie won’t get to …”
“Bennie won’t care,” Mom interrupted. “Let’s just go home.”
I leaned into Dad’s ear.
“Santa’s a monster,” I whispered.
Dad looked at Santa, another unsuspecting kid on his lap, telling him her secret hopes and dreams, and fears. The elf stared at me and grinned.
“Yeah, he’s a big one,” Dad said as we started our long walk back toward the mall doors and away from any store that carried the Mega GameStation with ‘Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4.’ “But I wouldn’t call him a monster. Your Mom’s brother Albert’s a monster. The fire department had to cut through a wall just to get him out of the house.”
“Hey …” Mom started, and we went home.
“You sure you’re okay, honey?” Mom asked, looking at the thermometer she’d slid out of my mouth. It wasn’t one of those fancy electronic ones Mom could have just wiped across my forehead; it was one of the old-fashioned mercury thermometers I had to hold under my tongue for 10 minutes. I sat there, listening to the motorized angel next to our tree, clicking as it moved back and forth, spreading joy and goodwill to all who weren’t trapped on the couch listening to it click, click, click.
“I’m fine, Mom,” I said. We’d driven straight home in the snow as the guy on the radio recited Bible verses from Revelation. Somebody in the background beat on the studio door and shouted words I’m not sure were supposed to be on the air. When we got home, Mom had me put on my pajamas and lie on the couch while Dad took Bennie to the hardware store. Dad said he’d seen a guy in a Santa suit ringing a bell in front of the store by the snow blowers and he wanted Bennie to sit on some Santa’s lap. “I told you why I threw up.”
Mom frowned. “Because the mall Santa was a zombie lord and he was trying to devour your soul.”
What part of that didn’t she get? “Yes, yes,” I howled. “I saw him change right in front of me. His skin turned green, his beard moved like it was full of bugs, and you saw all those quiet kids. Dad even called them zombies.”
“You want ‘Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4’ so badly,” she said, and crossed her arms, signaling the conversation, to her, was over. “You’ll be lucky if I don’t take away your ‘Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 3.’”
I shut up. Mom wasn’t listening to me. She hadn’t seen the Santa monster. The grown ups hadn’t seen a thing.
Dad and Bennie got home after dark, supper already cold. “I saw Santa,” Bennie screamed at Mom as he jumped out of Dad’s arms and ran through the living room, throwing his coat, gloves and hat wherever they landed – on the floor, the Christmas tree, the ‘click-click’ angel.
“What took you so long?” Mom asked.
“The Santa at the hardware store wouldn’t let Bennie sit on his lap unless I had a receipt,” Dad said, holding up a box. “So I bought a nail gun.”
“What are you going to do with a nail gun?”
Dad shrugged, taking the heavy tool from the box, a box decorated with a big red bow Dad peeled off and stuck to Bennie’s head as he screamed by. “I don’t know yet. I might build the boys a tree house, or a trebuchet.”
“Tree Boo shay,” Bennie squealed, jumping over the couch arm and landing on my feet. “Daddy gonna build a boo shay in our tree.”
“You feeling okay, champ?” Dad said, leaning over the couch, snow still in his hair.
“Still think the mall Santa is a monster?”
I nodded again. Dad didn’t believe me either, I could tell by the way he was grinning. It was the same grin he gets before he asks Bennie to pull his finger.
“You’re telling me you bought yourself a nail gun on Christmas Eve?” Mom asked, appearing over the couch next to Dad. Her arms were still crossed. Oh, yeah, she was pretty mad. Mom had more hand signals than a third base coach.
“Well …” he started, then a knock sounded on the door. A loud, slow knock. Thump. Thump. Thump. Dad smiled. “Hey, I’ll get the door.”
I sat up, Bennie still on my feet, and watched Dad walk to the front door. Who’d be at our house on Christmas Eve? Dad opened the door, our holly wreath swung freely on its nail. I screamed. Standing at my front door, in the snow on top of our “The Fredericks” welcome mat, was the mall Santa and his bad elf.
“May I help you?” Dad asked.
We’ve come for you, Stu, the bad elf’s voice rang in my head, his evil little face demonic in the flashing red Christmas lights that framed our front door. You got away today, and nobody gets away from Santa.
I screamed again.
Shut the door, Dad, I thought, but the words wouldn't leave my throat. Shut the door, Dad. Shut the door, Dad. Shut the door, Dad.
“Momma,” Bennie said. “You said Satan’s gonna come to my house. You said it. You did.”
“How did you find our house?” Dad asked mall Santa, my brown puke stain still on the big, red shirt. “You trying to get us to pay for dry cleaning, or something?”
He’s going to eat you, Stu, the bad elf said in my head. He’s going to eat you all up. The elf grinned, the points of his teeth slid over his slug-like lips.
“You may find this funny,” Mom said, turning toward the door, toward the thing that was there to eat me. “Our son thinks you’re a zombie lord who works undercover as Santa to secretly devour the souls of children.”
“Yes, I do find it funny,” the mall Santa said, the red flashing lights making him look like he stood at the Gates of Heck. “Because it’s true.”
I screamed again.
“Ho, ho, ho,” boomed from mall Santa’s mouth, his voice faded more into a hiss with each ho. Mall Santa’s skin started to waver, just like it did in front of Mr. Wok’s; the pink rushed away in a flood of oily green. A centipede, or something like a centipede, dropped from Santa’s beard and into the snow on our front step.
“Holy crap,” Dad spat and slammed the door, the doorknob caught the bad elf in the face. The door rattled shut, our holly wreath dropped to the floor. Dad slapped the deadbolt locked, then locked the knob. “Call 9-1-1,” he screamed at Mom.
He’d seen it, too. He believed me now, because he’d seen mall Santa’s flesh crawl. Dad turned toward Mom, then the door exploded, throwing Dad across the room with a pile of splintered, white wood. He landed on the coffee table and slid off onto the floor, a jagged splinter of our front door stuck from his leg. I stared at him for a second – only a second. He didn’t move.
“Merry Christmas,” the bad elf cackled, and stepped into our house.
“Run,” I screamed at Mom and I grabbed Bennie’s hand.
“Dennis,” she whispered at my Dad’s body that lie in a lump on the floor next to the clicky angel, the phone fell from her fingers.
“Ho, ho, ho,” mall Santa hissed and stepped into my house. My house. Run, little man, run, the bad elf said to my head. You taste better when you’re scared.
I pulled Mom and Bennie down the hallway.
“Ho, ho, ho,” mall Santa thundered behind us. I could hear his heavy boots thump like cinder blocks on our hardwood floors. “Ho, ho, ho.”
He’s getting closer, the bad elf cackled. Closer and closer. Have you been naughty? Have you been … Then the bad elf was gone. He was there, in my head, then he just wasn’t anymore.
“Ho, ho, ho.”
I ran through the hallway, the hallway that led to all the bedrooms, montage picture frames showing the evolution of our family, from Mom and Dad looking gangly and teenage-dumb, to Bennie’s first haircut when he kicked the barber in the groin. My family history flew in a blur as I dragged Mom and Bennie to my room. I was 10, where else would I go? Where else in this house was my castle, my fortress?
“Satan’s at my house,” Bennie screamed. Mom was crying.
“Help me push the bed in front of the door,” I wheezed at Mom as I yanked at my big wooden bed, my NFL blanket advertising to the world what a big boy I was. “Then we can climb out the window. Then, then …” then I smelled Bennie’s sour diaper pail. Mall Santa was there. He was at my door, and I was too late. My bright white bedroom door, a poster of “Gloriana, Zombie Killer” taped to the back, crashed against the wall, my shelf of Zombie Hunter action figures (not dolls, action figures) slammed to the floor.
Mall Santa stood in my doorway not looking like Santa any more at all. Its face, once round and rosy, was pointed and green. Centipedes danced around its chin, some fell to the floor and skittered under my bed. It grinned, showing two rows of sharp, pointed teeth. “Uuuhhh,” it said, smiling at me. “That’s what I’m supposed to say, right?” Bennie started crying and mall Santa laughed, the sound spewed from his pointy mouth like he was eating a cat.
Mom stepped in front of me, and threw her arms across me and Bennie. “Stay away from my babies,” she whispered.
“Noble,” mall Santa hissed. “But I’ve come for Stu’s soul.”
It pushed Mom noiselessly away from me and Bennie. She just fell to the floor and didn’t move. “What are your fears, Stu?” Santa said, his voice pounded in my head. No need to whisper now. “What makes you stay awake at night?”
Mall Santa sniffed the air and grinned. I was scared, and he could smell it.
“I’m going to enjoy you,” he said as he loomed closer to me, close enough to swallow my soul. Then Dad was there, behind mall Santa, blood splatter dotting his face. Dad grabbed a black, plastic box off the top of my TV and swung it in a wide arc, bringing it down corner-first on top of mall Santa’s pointy head. The black box – holy crap. My Ultra GameStation – exploded in a shower of plastic shards. Mall Santa’s scream bit into my head as the big, green thing collapsed on my floor; the system motherboard and my game CD of “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 3” stuck from its ruined skull. Dad stood there for a moment, looking down at the body like he might give some Tarzan scream, then he collapsed onto my bed.
“Dad,” I whispered.
He opened an eye. “Call an ambulance,” he said. “I’m hurt real bad.”
Ohmygod. “What happened to the elf?”
“My nail gun works great as a hammer,” he whispered.
And that’s how Dad saved Christmas. The police had a lot of questions, but since it was a home invasion, and the invaders were a green zombie lord and his minion, there were no charges. Bennie screams a lot at night now, and Mom started taking prescription medications with vodka. Dad got out of the hospital on Dec. 30, and the first thing he did was buy me a Mega GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4.” He bought it for me within 12 days, so it still counted as Christmas. And me? Mom and Dad believe everything I say now, and maybe when the Extreme GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 5” comes out next year, a little trust will count for something.