“Lacey, please take a step back. You’re blocking my face.”
“Lacey, please.” Meg gave me a not-quite-patient expression. “It’s just one step to the left.”
I moved one step to the left. It’s not like I had much of a choice, really. I hadn’t even wanted to be here in the first place, but again, I didn’t have much of a choice. Meg’s rules.
If I’d had my way, I’d be at home, cozy by the fire, with a unicorn hot chocolate in hand. Pink marshmallows, rainbow sprinkles, a huge glob of whipped cream on top.
If I had it my way, my head would be resting on Anthony’s lap, and we’d have music on in the background and Elf on the TV. I wouldn’t be found here, in Santa Land at Maple Mall, playing second fiddle to Meg dressed as Madame Claus.
“There you go, much better,” Meg said, adjusting her beard. “But your hat is too pointy. Squash it down, or you’ll ruin the photo.”
“There’s not even a kid in the room yet.”
“I don’t want a kid ruining the photo, either!” Meg stood up and rested a hand on her hip. “This is about me. I’m the jolly one, the pictures should feature my face.”
“I understand your point of view,” I said, which was somewhat of a lie. “But you were hired to interact with the children. Your boss probably won’t appreciate if you kick the children out of the photo.”
Meg’s jolly was hindered only by the scowl on her face. Otherwise, she looked the part: she had the beard, the belt, and even the elf.
Unfortunately, I was the elf.
She had dressed me in green from head to toe, except for the shiny black buttons down my chest and festive red stripes across my shoes. She’d also insisted on pointed ears. I hated the pointed ears.
Meg had only forgotten one thing in this elaborate presentation. The spirit of Christmas.
When Santa Claus had been fired last week for having breath that smelled suspiciously like beer, Meg had jumped on the Craigslist post and hightailed it down to Maple Mall in full attire. She’d convinced the coordinator to hire her on as Santa Claus, mostly because she volunteered to bring the elf with her in a two-for-one deal.
“I’m not kicking the children out of the photo.” Meg twirled a hand, gesturing to the floor. “Just to the edges of the frame. Maybe the kids can sit at my feet.”
“On your lap.”
“Knees?” I gave her a blank stare. “How is a kid supposed to sit on your knees?”
“You’re hopeless.” Meg plopped back onto the chair, stretched, and waved to the lone security guard at the door. “Bring in the little tykes. I’m ready.”
“I’m not!” Clay’s high-pitched wail sounded from behind Meg. “Hold on, my system is still loading.”
“We don’t need a system for this.” I shifted around and peeked at my cousin’s computer screen. “Let it go, Clay.”
“But I’ve been working for months on it!”
He scowled. “Because. It’s interesting.”
And pointless, I thought, since the only thing Clay’s software claimed to do was predict a child’s Christmas wish list.
“It’s unnecessary,” I explained for the fifth time this afternoon. “The point of kids coming to Santa is so they can tell him what they want, not be told what they want.”
“It’s modern,” he said. “Get with the program, Lace.”
“You’re right. Sorry,” I said. “I’m just the elf here.”
“That’s right.” Meg thumbed over her shoulder. “Get back there, elf, before I call Rudolph to escort you out.”
I slid behind Meg once again as the line of waiting children and parents began filtering into the small waiting area. The rest of the mall was closed, but seeing as how Santa Land had been missing Santa for a few days, there was a backlog of Christmas wishes. The line wrapped around the block.
“Take my picture,” Meg said to the photographer. “Quick, before the kids ruin it.”
The photographer, confused, glanced at me. I shrugged, gesturing for him to snap a few photos and appease Meg. We smiled and posed until Madame Claus was satisfied.
“Mrs. Claus,” one of the security guards said, approaching her carefully. “Here’s your non-fat, extra-whip, double-mocha-latte.”
“Extra chocolate chips on top?” Meg sniffed, looking down her nose at the coffee. “I don’t see that bean.”
“The bean?” he asked, looking a little weak-kneed at Meg’s tone. The lone security guard was half Meg’s size, and fully intimidated. “What bean?”
“That little espresso, chocolate thingamajig they put on there.”
“I’ll be back,” he said. “Sorry, Mrs. Claus.”
“No, that’s fine,” I said, reaching out and snagging the beverage. I thrust it at Meg and gave her my best combative glare. “This will do. We’ll get those bean things later.”
“Fine,” Meg agreed, somewhat grudgingly. “Thank you very much, Tom.”
By this time, the first of the children had approached the platform. Our first customer of the day was a little guy with big round glasses. He was no older than five, and looked very shy. Meg took a sip of the mocha, and then hoisted him onto her lap.
“What can I get for you, little buddy?” she asked. “Ho ho ho.”
“You have marshmallow in your beard,” he said. “And you sound like a girl.”
“Stop right there,” Clay instructed. He punched a few buttons on his computer, waited for his screen to blink and play a quick round of Jingle Bells. “It’s working!”
“What’s working?” The kid scrunched his nose, pointed at Clay. “Who is he? What is he doing?”
“I wish I had an answer for you,” I told the kid. Then I glanced at Clay. “I often wonder the same thing.”
“You want…” Clay hesitated, reading the words in his program. “A vacuum?”
“I don’t want a vacuum.” The little boy shot his mom a confused look. “I want trains.”
“No you don’t.” Clay shook his head. “You want a vacuum. It says so right here.”
“Maybe you mixed it up with his mom’s wish list,” I said to Clay, gesturing to a woman with similarly round glasses to her son, looking a little shrunken and nervous about the Santa Claus Crew. “I’m sure our friend wants a train. What’s your name, buddy?”
“Ransom,” he said. “And I also want a wand. Magical wand.”
“Magic doesn’t exist—” Clay said, but I interrupted louder.
“Magic wands? I want one too!” I sat down next to Meg, and looked Ransom in the eyes. “I promise you that you won’t find a vacuum under the tree this Christmas. Trains and wands is all, okay? Ignore Scrooge.”
“Deal.” Ransom nodded, looking skeptical. “So, do I get my picture taken?”
“Sure,” Meg said. “How about you move to the left a little—actually, why don’t you just slide on to Lacey’s lap… there you go.” Meg stuck her hands out in jazz fingers, taking up ninety percent of the frame. “Merry Christmas!”
The photographer, again confused, didn’t move.
Once I wrestled Meg into the proper position—with Ransom front and center—I forced everyone to smile.
“Cheese,” Ransom said, as Meg tried to smile bigger, brighter than anyone else.
“Meg, this is for the kids,” I said, as she gently lifted Ransom to the floor. “You have to—”
“Duck, Lacey!” Meg leapt over me, crashing both of us to the floor. Then she grabbed Ransom by the waist, tucking him into her chest as she rolled underneath the Christmas tree.
“Meg, what the—” I couldn’t finish my sentence because a boom sounded, and then a big cloud of smoke ballooned throughout Santa Land.
“We’re being robbed!” Meg yelled. “They’re stealing the presents!”
The smoke cleared slowly, but not before a few bursts of gunfire sounded in the room. I cinched my eyes tighter, rolled behind a stack of presents, and yelled for Clay to do the same.
He stood, frozen, in front of his computer. I reached out, tugged on Clay’s arm, and yanked him backward until he toppled into Santa’s sleigh. The reindeers attached to said sleigh were plastic, and very wobbly.
One at a time, they tilted over, knocking into each other like dominos and clattering to the floor. Rudolph was the last to go, and by the time his red nose hit the tiles, the entire sleigh had come loose from the display.
“Whoops,” I said, watching as the sled took off, Clay inside of it.
“Help!” Clay screeched. “Help me! Runaway sleigh!”
I lunged for the rear, my fingers clasping around the metal runner as the whole contraption skidded down the slick floor and away from me. This sleigh, unfortunately, had wheels. And instead of pulling the sleigh to a stop, it sped up, dragging me behind it for a good few feet before I finally shouted an apology to Clay, and let go.
“Dang,” Meg said, pulling Ransom to his feet, then coming across the room to help me up, too. “What a ride. That’s one way you and I haven’t traveled yet, and we’ve done everything including the tandem bike.”
Clay continued his trek down the long hallway, screaming bloody murder. Thankfully, a huge display of presents sat at the entrance to Santa Land, and he crashed somewhat gracefully into the pile.
By somewhat gracefully, I meant that he sent presents skittering in all directions, set off at least one alarm, and pulled himself out of the mess with a murderous glare on his face.
“Lacey…” His voice held a level of death in it I hadn’t heard in quite some time. “What were you thinking?”
“She saved your life!” Ransom’s mom said, her big blue eyes shining through the round glasses at the pair of us and focusing on Clay. “You should be thanking her!”
“That’s right,” Meg said. “Where did that sucker get to, anyway? I don’t like the elves that come in here shooting up Santa Land.”
“You.” Almost accusatory, Ransom’s mom turned to Meg. “You saved my baby’s life. Thank you, thank you, so much.”
Meg preened under the compliment. “Just doing what Madame Claus does best.”
“I don’t know how I can repay you,” she said.
“A hundred bucks sounds good,” Meg said, nonchalant. “Or, you know, whatever you have on you.”
“No, no, she’s kidding,” I said, waving a hand as Ransom’s mom looked confused. “We’re happy to help however we can. Did you see what happened? Where did he go?”
“I don’t know, but maybe we can follow these…” Meg bent over, picked up a colorful little nugget from the floor. “It’s like Hansel and Gretel, except with gumballs.”
Clay, who’d finally made it back from his sleigh crash, turned his mutinous stare from me to Meg, and it melted into curiosity. “Wait, are you saying that wasn’t a gun?”
“It was a gun,” Meg said. “It was just a gumball gun.”
“That doesn’t exist,” Clay said.
“Yes it does,” Meg said. “You bought it for me last Christmas.”
“What?” Confusion washed over Clay’s face. “No, I didn’t.”
“Well, I borrowed your credit card, and you bought it for me. I take it onto airplanes because usually, the TSA folks don’t consider it a weapon.”
“You borrowed my credit card?” Clay asked, astounded. “My credit cards are safe from hackers. How did you manage that?”
“Because you forgot to buy me a present, so you gave me permission to buy whatever I wanted for twenty bucks,” Meg said. “I gave you the receipt. Or maybe I threw it away. I don’t remember.”
“Whatever,” I said. “What just happened? And why? Who was that guy, and did anyone catch a glimpse of his face?”
“I did!” Ransom’s mom waved a hand. “He had a face like the Joker, scarred and ugly, a monster.”
“No!” Another mom, this one with three kids at varying heights around her knees, shook her head. “He was tall, dark-haired, and smiling.”
“That’s not true,” one of the dad’s standing in line said. “It was a woman. Red dress.”
“Did nobody see anything?” I asked. “How did everyone miss it?”
“Uh, Madame Claus?” This time, the hand-raise came from the photographer. “I might have something that interests you here.”
He turned his camera around. On it was a photo of Meg. Poor little Ransom had half of an eyeball in the photo, and I had managed to get one ear in the spotlight. Meg, in all of her smiling glory and jazz hands, took up most of the image.
“What am I looking at?” I asked.
“Me,” Meg said.
“There.” The photographer pointed to the background where, reflected in the screen of Clay’s computer, a shadow of a figure stood holding what looked to be a tiny machine gun. One loaded with gumballs, apparently, and made from plastic. “I don’t know if you can do anything with the information, but it’s better than…” He trailed off, glancing at all the people spewing conflicting stories.
“Right,” I agreed. “Can I take this for a minute? Where’s security?”
Tom, the guard who’d brought Madame Claus her coffee, took a tentative step forward. “Over here, ma’am.”
“Ma’am,” Meg said. “Did you hear that? He knows who you are, Lacey.”
“Who is she?” Tom asked. “I’ve never seen her before in my life.”
“She’s the Lacey Luzzi of Lacey Luzzi Security Services,” Meg said. “And she’d be happy to handle this little mishap for you.”
“What? No I wouldn’t!”
“Great,” the security guard said. “Because they don’t pay me enough to deal with this crap.”
“No, I didn’t say that,” I said. “I don’t want to deal with any mishaps.”
“The shooter said he wanted his suit back,” the photographer added, piping in during the silence. “I don’t know what suit, but I’m assuming the Santa Suit?”
“Oh, heck no,” Meg said, running her hands over her velvety red stomach. “This is my suit. It even smells like me.”
“Because you sprayed perfume all over it,” I said. “The kids are going to break out in hives.”
“Exactly,” Meg said. “I personalized it. Now, anybody know who this guy is?”
“Well, if he wants his suit back, that must mean he had it in the first place.” I extended the camera closer to the security guard. “Do you recognize this guy?”
Tom squinted, peered closer. “Holy guacamole. That’s Morales.”
“Morales?” I asked. “You know him?”
“He was the previous Santa Claus.”
“Why? The beer thing?”
“Look at the guy,” he said. “Does that look like a Santa to you?”
It was my turn to take a closer look. The man in the camera didn’t look anything like a Santa. He looked more like a lima bean. Tall, thin as a rail, a scowl on his face. The image wasn’t clear, but it was clear enough to say that it didn’t look like any jolly old Santa I’d ever seen.
“That man doesn’t understand the art of making this happen.” Meg ran her hands over her body once more. “This much jolly takes years to cultivate.”
“So, you’ll get him?” I asked Tom. “We’ll just wait here until things are cleared up.”
“Look, ma’am, all my co-workers are on lunch break. I’m supposed to stay here and watch the Santa Room.” Tom shrugged, glancing around the now-nearly-destroyed Santa Land. The sleigh was blatantly missing, and the presents had been scattered far and wide. “I can’t leave, sorry. I’m required to stay put.”
“Surely they’d make an exception,” I told him. “When there’s a crazed ex-Santa on the loose. How about we watch Santa Land for you?”
“Or how about this.” Meg tapped my arm, cleared her throat, and prepared for a grand announcement. “I propose Lacey Luzzi Security Services—that’s me, and you, I suppose—save the day.”
“Lacey, this could be our one time to save Christmas! Haven’t you always wanted to be a hero?”
“Please?” This small, fragile question came from our bright-eyed friend, Ransom. “Please save Christmas. I don’t want a vacuum. I want a train.”
I sighed. “You’re really not interested in doing your job, are you, Tom?”
The security guard shook his head. “Not particularly.”
“Which way did he go?” I turned to the crowd. “Anyone see?”
“Yay!” Ransom cheered, and the rest of the kids in line joined in the fun.
By the time someone pointed us in the direction of the candy store at the end of the hall, we had a nice little cheering section going. The kids’ cries soared above the light Christmas music thrumming in the background, and even I had to admit that a small part of me fluttered with excitement.
I’d never thought I’d be a hero. Or particularly valiant. I hadn’t even mastered the art of becoming un-clumsified. But if there were even the smallest chance of us saving Christmas in the mind of one little boy, we had to try.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Armed and dangerous,” Meg said. “Then again, I’m dangerous even when I’m not armed.”
We hadn’t found a whole lot to use as weaponry. In fact, we didn’t have any weaponry. What we did have were a few bulbs from the Christmas tree. Clay had a long string of lights, but unless he planned to lasso Morales, I had no idea how it’d be useful.
Heading down the hall with Meg on one side and Clay on the other, I felt like the holiday version of Ghostbusters. Santa, the elf, and a strange techie guy twirling lights like a ringmaster.
The walkways were mostly silent. Since we’d begun work, the official mall section had closed, leaving only Santa Land open in one wing. The sign out front guaranteed that everyone in line would get a turn on Santa’s lap—clearly, nobody had predicted we’d have a line that wrapped halfway around the building.
“This way.” Meg pointed toward a stray gumball that’d rolled underneath the water fountain. “It’s like breadcrumbs, except sweeter.”
“Chewier,” Clay said.
“Do you think it’s within the five second rule?” I asked, eyeballing the blue nugget. At Meg’s horrified expression, I retreated. “I’m kidding.”
“No you’re not,” Clay said. “That’s disgusting.”
“It was a joke!” I gave a false sort of laugh, and pointed out the next gumball. “Look. They’re leading to the Sugar Shack.”
“Give us the layout,” Meg said. “We know you’ve been in that store five times in the past week.”
“I have not,” I lied.
“Where’s he hiding then?” Clay asked. “You know the store better than anyone. Is there space for him to camp out there?”
Grudgingly, I nodded. “My guess is he’s behind the gigantic marshmallow boxes. They’re a nice little shield, and I actually used them when we were dodging someone at The Grove.”
“I remember that,” Meg said. “You stopped mid-car chase last Christmas to buy a box of Lucky Charms cereal.”
“It was a rare bird,” I said, trying not to sound defensive. “The other option in the Sugar Shack would be the bulk candy aisle. He might be reloading his gumball gun from the buckets.”
“Then we’d better hurry,” Meg said. “Lacey, you go first. I’m going to take the rear.”
“That’s not fair,” I said. “Why don’t you go first?”
“Because I want to look at Clay’s butt,” Meg said, “and you can’t possibly say that view interests you.”
Because getting smacked in the forehead with a gumball was more appealing than walking behind my cousin, I went first. Crouched low, the three of us made our way as sneakily as possible through the open doors of the world class candy store.
Sugar Shack wasn’t just any store, it was the candy store. Colors lined every wall, the scheme similar to that of a children’s ball pit. One wall of jelly beans called my name, while the opposing wall of pixie sticks promised an instant sugar high. Candied raspberries and blackberries made up the ‘healthy’ portion in the center—I avoided those like the plague.
“Give me a hit,” Meg said. “I need energy.”
I passed her a pixie stick as long as my leg, and she ripped the top open. “We’ll tell Andy to put it on my tab,” I said. “Speaking of… where’s Andy?”
“Who’s Andy?” Clay asked.
“Only the most famed sugar connoisseur in all of the Twin Cities,” I said, only slightly offended that Clay hadn’t known. “He’s got the widest array of Nerds flavors that I’ve ever seen.”
“Impressive,” he said, sounding more bored than amazed. “Where is he now?”
The word was nothing more than a hiss, but it sounded from the center section, near the candied fruit. I eased behind stacks of licorice until I caught a glimpse of Andy’s burnt red hair, the color of faded orange M&M’s.
“Andy,” I whispered. “Are you okay?”
“The crazy Santa from last year came back,” Andy said. “Morales. He’s re-loading from the bulk section.”
“You called it, Lace,” Meg said. “That’s why you’re the expert and head of Lacey Luzzi Security Services.”
“Are you okay?” I asked the candy man. “Injured anywhere?”
Andy shook his head. “He told me to scram. I did, but I came back—I can’t let him ruin the Sugar Shack. It’s my life’s work.”
“It’s a fantastic piece of work,” I told him. “Pure art.”
“Enough,” Clay said. “How do we capture this Santa Claus so we can get home? It’s Christmas Eve, and I want dinner. Nora’s actually following a recipe this time.”
“Crap!” I said. “Nora!”
“What about Nora?” Clay asked.
“She’s out mall-walking with her friends!”
“Mall-walking?” Clay asked. “What is that?”
“Lacey!” Another new voice—well, an old voice, technically—called through the door. “Why are you hiding in the fruit section?”
Nora, mall-walker extraordinaire, marched obliviously through the doors of the Sugar Shack. She wore leg warmers, a bandana around her head, and a fanny pack straight out of Full House. During the winter months, Nora preferred to get her exercise walking laps with a few of her friends—mostly because they got free samples from the Asian restaurant at four p.m. daily.
“That’s called mall walking,” I told Clay, nodding toward our grandmother. “Strap on a fanny pack and leg warmers, and you’ll be good to start lapping the ladies.”
“No thank you,” Clay said. “I don’t love to exercise—ahhh!”
Nora’s presence had startled our disgruntled Santa out of hiding. Morales came out, guns blazing. The first gumball clipped Nora right in the fanny pack. Fortunately, it didn’t cause any damage as the thing was practically made of steel.
My grandmother glanced down at her waist, murmured a noise of surprise, and then glanced at me. “What was—”
“Duck!” I leapt for Nora, taking a gumball to the elbow as I pulled her out of the way. “Santa’s on the loose!”
He stood tall now, Morales, in all of his lima bean glory. His face glowed a pasty white as he made eye contact with me. “Give me the suit.”
“No!” Meg popped up next to me, holding in her hand a jawbreaker the size of my fist. “Put down your gun, or this is flying at your face.”
“Meg, that’s dangerous,” I said. “Please—”
Morales shot another round of gumballs at us, but this time we dodged them. One pinged straight through a cardboard box of Lucky Charms cereal, however, and an array of marshmallows sprayed over the ground.
“What are you doing wasting perfectly good snacks?” I called from my hiding place. “We can talk, Morales. This doesn’t have to be violent.”
“I came here to reclaim my Santa suit,” he said evenly. “It should be me up there, not her. Santa’s not a woman.”
“Santa’s not skinny, either,” Meg hollered. “At least I’m jolly, and I’m not holding up the mall because I got fired! If I held up every place I’ve been fired from, I’d probably be in jail full-time.”
“Let’s talk,” I said. “Put the gun down, and we’ll put the jawbreakers down.”
“No deal,” Morales said, and then he brought out the bigger guns. Sixlets. More specifically, the bulk Sixlets mixed with the tiny-sized jawbreakers. Hundreds of itty-bitty, rock-hard little balls rolled toward us, an avalanche of sweets.
“Don’t move,” I told everyone, but it was too late.
Clay stood up, slipped, and pulled Meg down with him. Meg leaned toward Nora, but she, too, lost her balance, and landed on the sea of marbles. Nora, oblivious, was busy sampling the chocolate fudge.
Which wasn’t a horrible idea. I might’ve considered a sample myself, if Morales wasn’t making his way out of the Sugar Shack with a freshly loaded weapon and no intention of stopping his terror attack on the Claus Crew.
I made my way after him, but by the time I waded through the jawbreakers and stepped into the hallway, he was gone. Vanished.
I peered up and down the hallway, but he must have fixed the leak in his gumball machine because there were no stray colorful breadcrumbs leading the way to Morales’s hiding spot. “Anyone see which way he—oomph!”
My question was stopped in its tracks by a chest hard as toffee, and just as delicious.
“Hello,” Anthony said, staring down at me with an expression torn between amusement and disbelief. “How are you doing?”
“Oh, hello, there.” I folded my hands in front of my body and did a shy sort of twirl. “How are you, my beloved husband?”
“Why did mall security call me and ask me to collect my elf?”
“Well, I’m technically Santa’s elf, and… ” I exhaled a breath, wrinkled my nose. Anthony wasn’t buying my innocent act this time. “Last year’s Santa, a guy named Morales, went a bit nuts and is trying to steal Meg’s costume from her body.”
“I have more than one question.”
“I don’t think I want to know the answers, so I will refrain.”
“Great,” I said, giving my sexy, dark-haired and dark-eyed husband a peck on the lips. “That saves on time. Are you in the mood to help us catch Santa?”
Anthony rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “What are the chances of you coming home before you finish this… thing?”
“Fine,” he said reluctantly. “What can I do?”
“First, you can tell me what you want for a stocking stuffer,” I said. “Because I’ve been looking for weeks, and you’re a hard guy to buy for. I debated socks, but you’re sort of picky with your feet.”
“It doesn’t matter, I don’t need anything.”
“Yes, you do. Everyone needs a stocking stuffer.”
“Not if you don’t have a stocking.”
“Everyone has a stocking,” I said. “You had one last year.”
Anthony pulled out his phone, tapped a few pictures, and drew up an image of Nora’s mantle. There, on the fireplace in the mansion, was a row of festive stockings. Nora, Carlos, the twins, me, Clay—even Meg had a stocking, although I expected she’d put it there herself, seeing as all of the stockings were red except for hers, which was a bright, bright pink. Anthony’s was at the end.
I pointed to it. “Your stocking’s right there. Same one as last year.”
He zoomed in. “Look closer.”
“Oh…” I murmured. “Well, I’m sorry.”
On the stocking that had previously been Anthony’s, Nora had made a few adjustments. With a permanent marker. She’d crossed out ‘nthony’ and replaced it with ‘rnold’.
“Arnold isn’t even real,” Anthony said, a bit mystified. “He lives off blue gel. He gets a stocking, and I don’t? I’m married into the family.”
“You know how Nora feels about babies,” I said. “She’s knitted him more presents than anyone else in the family.”
Anthony sighed. “Let’s just find this Morales and go home. His eyes darkened as they caught mine. Reaching out, he hooked a finger in the top of my elf costume, and peeked inside. He nodded, as if he liked what he saw. “I have a better idea for the sort of present you can give me.”
“Anthony!” I gave him a little nudge with my elbow, but what he was promising sounded pretty good to me, too. My cheeks burned, and suddenly, I felt more than a little impatient. “Let’s find this Santa and get out of here.”
“I’ve got an idea!” Meg appeared in the doorway. Unfortunately, she was missing a few articles of clothing. Actually, she was missing most of her clothing. Enough to make Anthony blush, and that was a feat. “We can lure him in with my suit.”
“Yes,” Clay said hurriedly, his gaze transfixed on Meg, love in his eyes, and something else too. He looked at her as if he never wanted to see her get dressed again. “Burn the suit. Get rid of it. Permanently.”
“Don’t burn the suit!” Anthony raised a hand to shield his eyes. “Put it on, Meg. Or a blanket. Or a… something. Why are you naked?”
Meg looked down at her tank top and undies. “I’m not naked. This is more than a bathing suit, so chillax, bro.”
“Don’t call him bro,” I said to Meg. “It sort of irks him.”
“Ugh!” Meg slapped a hand to her forehead. “Anthony and his rules.”
“What about this lure?” Clay asked, still staring at Meg’s body as if she were an ice cream buffet. “I like the sound of lures.”
“I can’t explain it,” Meg said. “Let me show you.”
“I’m going home,” Anthony said. “Sorry, Lace. This is your deal.”
“Aren’t you worried about us?” I asked him. My stomach was starting to growl, and the way Anthony had been looking at me had me hungry on more than one level. “Won’t you save us, my knight in shining armor? Please?”
He looked at me, then Meg, then back to me. “Am I worried about you?” Anthony shook his head. “No, not particularly.”
“Aw, man,” I said. “That stinks.”
“However, I am worried,” he said carefully, “for the fool who wants Meg’s pants.”
“Here he comes,” Meg said. “Wait for it…”
We waited in silence. Anthony had since gone home, but not without a delicious kiss that had me ready to get this incident wrapped up with a bow lickety split. He’d promised some very interesting ways to get me out of my elf attire, and it was getting harder and harder to focus on the task at hand.
“I’m ready to move,” Clay announced. “Lacey?”
I returned my attention to the setup before us. There, underneath the big Christmas tree in the center of the mall, was Meg’s Santa Claus suit with a little white flag waving from it. The flag had been formed from Meg’s t-shirt and the remnants of her pixie stick.
Clay stood, slinking behind the tree to the other side. I remained across from him, both of us resting our hands on the quietest carts we could find in the connected stores. Between the carts we’d strung the long line of unlit Christmas lights.
“Ready,” I whispered, as Morales crept toward the suit. “Wait…”
He looked around, but we’d hidden ourselves, and the line of Christmas lights, behind stacks of presents and underneath tufts of fake snow.
Morales reached long, skinny pale fingers toward the suit, twitchy as a mouse. By the time he looked up and caught sight of the string of lights, it was too late.
“Go!” Meg shouted. “Now, Lace, Clay!”
Clay and I leapt into action, running, pushing our carts ahead of us until we clotheslined Morales, dragging him to the ground. Meg was ready with Santa’s bag—emptied of presents—and plunked it over his head.
“There,” she said. “Gotcha.”
Morales whined a bit as Clay and I returned and untangled the lights. Meg bound his hands behind his back with the t-shirt that’d served as the surrender flag. Once he was sitting on the ground, I pulled the bag off of his head.
“Why are you terrorizing Santa Land?” I asked the ex-Santa. “It’s Christmas!”
“Did you not get the present you wanted for Christmas?” Meg asked. “That does stink.”
At this, Clay pulled out his phone and started punching buttons. “I’ll tell you the answer,” he said. “Just give me a minute.”
I shook my head. “Seriously. Why are you ruining this for all the kids?”
“I wasn’t drinking beer,” Morales said. “They wanted to fire me because I wasn’t fat enough.”
“I don’t think that’s probably true,” I said. “I’m guessing it was the beer.”
“I don’t drink!” he exclaimed. “I’m a teetotaler. They just wanted me out of there because I don’t look the part. But neither does she.”
At that moment, Nora marched right up to us. “What do we have here?” She peered down at Morales. “Hey, you’re that gum-baller! Talk about rude. You chipped my fanny.”
He gave her an odd stare. “What?”
“Fanny pack,” I clarified, as Nora showed the place where a chunk had been taken out of the zipper. “Regardless, it was pretty rude to light up the place like that.”
“I know the problem,” Clay said, tapping his phone. “It says the answer right here.”
“What answer?” Morales asked. “It’s just not fair. I should get the Santa job. They can’t discriminate against me based on my lack of weight.”
Clay displayed the phone triumphantly, the results of his newest software flashing in bright red and green letters. “Morales wants a hug for Christmas.”
“Oh, poor thing!” Nora bent to her knees and clasped her arms around Morales. “You poor thing! Are you all alone this Christmas?”
At first, Morales remained silent. Then, he blinked. A little too fast to be normal blinks. “I couldn’t afford to go home for Christmas this year.”
“Oh, you poor thing,” Meg echoed, and plopped herself into the hug too. It was a little awkward, since she hadn’t yet recovered the suit and put her body into it. “No wonder you’re ornery!”
“I knew I was right,” Clay said. “My technology did save Christmas.”
“Why don’t you come over for dinner?” Nora said to Morales. “We’ll get you all dressed up in your suit, and you can hold Baby Arnold. I haven’t taken Arnold to see Santa yet.”
“Are we sure that’s a great idea?” I asked. “Really?”
“Anthony’s going to be there,” Meg said. “What can possibly go wrong?”
“Oh, wow.” Morales looked up. “I’d really love that.”
“Come on,” Nora said. “It’s time for dinner. I threw the recipe out the window for tonight, so this should be good. I’m cooking au naturale.”
Meg, Clay, and I all froze in the middle of the mall.
“What?” Clay finally croaked. “No recipe?”
Nora turned, gave a mischievous wink. “I’m kidding. Jeesh, you lot are sensitive.”
Meg let out a breath of relief. “Praise be.”
“But you haven’t tried my cookies yet,” Nora said, hoisting Morales to his feet. “I don’t need a recipe for those.”
My teeth felt injured at the thought, but Morales seemed excited. Poor guy. He’d need more than one hug to recover from Nora’s baking.
“Groovy,” he said. “I like cookies.”
“Unicorn-shaped,” Nora said. “Come along, you are in for a treat.”
Merry Christmas to all, and a Happy New Year!