“Give me a sucker!” the eight-year-old on Cameron’s lap whined. The boy lurched for the candy in Cameron’s gloved fist. Stacy, the Christmas Palace photographer, laughed at the struggle. Cameron only hoped she caught the precious moment on camera.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” Cameron boomed as the boy jumped off Cameron’s red velvet lap. Cameron formed his lips into an “O” for resonance. It was still hard to sound like an old, fat guy when you were fat but not old.
Next in line was a little girl. “And what do you want for Christmas?” Cameron said as he leaned down to her. Unfortunately, his white beard dangled into her face and the girl went into hysterics.
“We got the photo,” Stacy said loudly, “move it along.”
Cameron’s palms itched beneath his thick leather mittens. Actually, he itched everywhere. What did the real Santa do about chaffing? This red wool racket was intolerable. The holiday job at the mall idea had certainly come back to bite. Work with children, spread Christmas cheer, he had thought. What a joke.
“And what have we here?” Cameron said to the next kid, rumbling his vowels.
“I’ll take these video games,” the boy shoved a long list into Cameron’s gloved hand, “and a new MP3 player, and a new laptop, and, if you really want to surprise me, a remote-control helicopter.”
“Whoa, tiger!” Cameron’s Santa-voice said. “Have you been a good boy this year?”
“Oh, whatever,” the boy shrugged, sliding off Cameron’s lap. “I’ve already texted the list to my dad.”
“Psst!” Cameron hissed when the boy was gone. “Stace!”
“What?” Stacy said. “Aren’t the elves up on the latest computer models?”
Another kid clambered onto Cameron’s lap before he could retort. Stacy walked a few steps away to snap a picture. Thank goodness no one could tell whether Cameron was smiling beneath his outrageous beard.
“Stace!” Cameron hissed back before another girl ran up for her turn. “Is it near closing time yet?”
Stacy took another picture, and Cameron pretended to listen to the little girl’s interest in mechanical ponies and female pop CDs while inwardly cringing at the wad of bubble gum lolling back and forth in the child’s mouth.
In answer to Cameron’s question to Stacy, the sickly-sweet voice of the closing notice echoed up and down the halls of the mall: “Pleasant Valley Shopping Pavilion will close in fifteen minutes. Please visit again soon, and Happy Holidays.”
“There you go,” Stacy said. Her camera clicked and another boy slid off Cameron’s lap.
Hallelujah, Cameron thought. Just fifteen minutes until the stores closed. All the employees would go home, and he’d get to see—
“Oh, and what do you want for Christmas?” he exclaimed to a toddling girl. Picking her up and cringing at her bubbling nose, Cameron wondered if his mittens were virus-proof. That would make the incessant itch worth it.
Finally the line in front of the Christmas Palace began to dwindle. The halls of the mall emptied, and the drone of shopper’s walking, talking, screeching, and moving dissipated. Once again Cameron wondered if his ears would ever stop ringing with the echoing sounds of a commercial Christmas.
“Well, that’s a wrap,” Stacy said, snapping off her zoom lens. “You can probably come out now, Mr. C. in disguise—get it? Cameron—Claus? Ha!” Cameron wondered why it irked him so much that Stacy snorted when she laughed. Or maybe it was that she laughed at her own jokes, or that her jokes were lame. Maybe all three.
“Finally,” he said aloud, pulling off his white and red hat/hair/beard turban. He stood and stretched his back. “What a day. I don’t know if I can survive many more,” he pressed his shins gingerly, assessing the damage.
“On to pipers tomorrow,” Stacy said vaguely, pulling off her elf hat.
“What?” Cameron screwed up his face. “What are you talking about?”
“‘Eleven pipers piping,’” Stacy rolled her eyes, “duh.”
Cameron shook his head in disbelief. Sometimes he seriously considered what planet Stacy came from. She was nice and all, and had an awesome shutter finger, but the combat boots and bright green hair extensions did not say Venus.
“So, what’s the record?” Cameron asked.
“Looks like,” Stacy ran her finger down a clipboard, “Five hundred fifty-seven.”
“Gosh,” Cameron said, “no wonder I feel like I’m about to break.”
“Not with all that padding, sleigh-boy.” Stacy snorted.
Cameron threw up his hands. “Geez, you could lay off the fat jokes for once.” It was a touchy subject because, despite popular belief about Santa impersonations, Cameron didn’t wear any padding. “I’m going home.”
“Mayday! Chick sighting! Angela at two o’clock!” Stacy actually pinched her nose for a submarine effect. The girl was out of control, but Cameron had no time to complain. He scrambled to locate his Santa head entourage and flung it over his face. Pulling haphazardly, he peeked through the mouth hole of his beard.
There she was, coming out of the store across the way: Angela.
The thought, the sound, the sight of that name, and that babe, made Cameron want to drop something and crawl on his sagging belly whithersoever the goddess willed. She was wearing pinstripes and those pointed heels that made his jaw gape.
“Later, Mags!” Angela called in the sweet voice that was music to Cameron’s aching ears. He watched those click, clickety heels propel that specimen of female perfection out the north doors of Pleasant Valley Shopping Pavilion, and Cameron’s nightly fast from drop-dead beauty began once again.
“Get over it already,” Stacy rolled her eyes.
“You just don’t get it,” Cameron said, shaking himself. “What’s so bad about Santa asking for something for Christmas?”
“Mop up the drool before you go, Santa Baby,” Stacy smirked before following Angela into the parking lot.
Cameron pulled his askew Santa gear off his face and melted into his throne with a groan. This was not the life plan that Cameron, high school improv comedy all-star and class clown had in mind a decade ago. He pulled his bag from beneath a Christmas tree and shoved his headpiece inside. The whole deal—Santa, Stacy, Angela, Christmas—was despicable.
Why did he have to be the one to come back home to take care of his aged mother? “Oh, Cameron can do it,” his older brothers had said. “He’s the only one not in the middle of a serious career. Come on, Cam, what’s the point of an acting MFA, anyway?”
Out in the parking lot, Cameron slammed his trunk shut and grumbled into the driver’s seat. The chipped leather steering wheel was icy cold, but he was sick of itchy mittens. The starter squealed and caught, and Cameron screeched out of the parking lot.
It had been ten years—a whole decade—since that fateful day at graduation when Angela had dropped her program on her way down the steps from receiving her diploma. Cameron, who was on the front row because he had performed in the drama skit earlier, had retrieved it for her. He could still picture it all, the hundreds of flashing cameras, the freshwater pearls bouncing playfully on Angela’s graceful throat, her lips forming the words, “Thank you.” He remembered the electricity as their fingers brushed. For a moment, all that was between them was a single sheet of folded paper and a thousand whistling parents.
They had gone to different colleges. Cameron had heard—and read on Facebook—that Angela had graduated in the top of her class in PR. What brought her home for the holidays to sell perfumes at Madame Monique’s, Cameron could not figure out, unless it was some internship for her Master’s work.
As Cameron downshifted and turned onto Main Street, he thought of the girls he had dated in college. Yes, he had forgotten about Angela–okay, tried to—for a little while, but when he saw her setting out holiday gift boxes in front of Madame Monique’s, the old electricity came back.
And why shouldn’t she go for a guy like him? What was keeping him from strutting up to the perfume shop and sweeping her off her feet?
It was simple: 80 extra pounds, an empty wallet, and a sweaty, itchy, smelly, unpadded Santa Claus suit.
Cameron banged on the radio buttons to find a station that wasn’t playing Christmas music. He had enough decking, jingling, merry spirit at the mall. All he wanted was some peace.
An explosion of sound made Cameron jump, his lap belt stretching taunt across his thighs. No, it wasn’t the refreshing sound of an electric guitar; it was the engine.
Cameron pulled to the curb. By the time he shut off the car, the cab reeked with the putrid aroma of burnt rubber and oil. Cameron groped for the glove box catch to find his cell phone. Punching buttons brought no response; it was dead.
“Great! Just great!” he banged a few times on the steering wheel. He got out of the car, locked it, and, pulling up his furry white collar, headed down the street.
Cameron reached the city park just as he was sure his nose was going to freeze off, Santa coat or no. As he turned into the park, a crackling sound and the smell of a wood fire caught his attention. He had no idea who would have a bonfire in the snow late at night, two days before Christmas, but cutting through the park was a shortcut anyway, so he decided to investigate.
Skirting around a large pine tree, his Santa boots crunching through a foot of uncleared snow, the fire Cameron had heard and smelled came into view, lit in one of the park charcoal barbecues. A lone old man sat on a picnic bench looking into the flames.
“Hey, mind if I join you?” Cameron called. It was a little awkward approaching a stranger while wearing a red suit, but Cameron was pretty desperate for warmth. Besides, everybody loves Santa, right?
“Humph,” the man grunted.
If his knees weren’t about to shatter with cold, Cameron probably would have turned right around and left the grumpy bum, or whoever he was, alone, but Cameron took the grunt as a yes and rubbed his palms in the heat of the flames.
“So,” Cameron started after a few moments of heavy silence, “what brings you here, Mr.—uh?”
“Kr–” the man coughed loudly, “excuse me, uh, Crandle. Stephen Crandle.”
“Right,” Cameron raised his eyes. “I’m Cameron.”
The man nodded, still scowling and looking at the fire. Cameron had about decided that the frigid conversation was not worth the physical warmth of the fire, when the man spoke again. “Been waiting for someone,” he said.
“What?” Cameron asked.
“You asked,” grumbled the man, shifting his position on the picnic bench, “what I was doing here. I’ve been waiting for someone.”
“Oh,” Cameron said. This seemed like a nice time to leave. “Well, nice meet–”
“What about you?” Mr. Crandle cut in.
“Come again?” Cameron asked.
“What about you?” The man repeated impatiently. “What are you doing?”
“Oh,” Cameron replied. “Well, uh, something’s wrong with my engine, so I was walking home.” He waited to see if this was a satisfactory answer so he could get out of this conversation.
“No, no,” Mr. Crandle shook his head. “I mean, what are you doing in life?”
“Uh,” Cameron didn’t know what to say. This guy was whack. “I work at the mall?” he ventured.
“Right. That’s it,” the man nodded. “Anything else?”
“Umm,” Cameron stalled. There wasn’t much else to say. He spent his evenings playing a lame, online RPG. He bought a lot of Chinese take-out. Sometimes he thought about practicing free-throws on the driveway, but never bothered to retrieve a ball from the attic. Other than that, his hobbies included terrorizing his mother’s blind tabby cat and thinking about Angela.
“Look,” Cameron said, shaking his head. Why was he letting this guy get him all introspective? “I gotta go. See ya,” he gave a little wave and turned around.
“You’ve got one thing right,” Mr. Crandle said, “you have got to go.”
“What?” Cameron said, turning back around.
“You’ve got to get out of here,” the man said, rubbing his hands. “Get out; get a life.”
“What are you talking about?” Cameron asked. Would it be rude to just walk away?
“You’re mother’s better now, right?”
“Yeah, so?” Cameron shot back. “Wait! How–?”
“So what are you hanging around here for?” Mr. Crandle pursued.
Cameron shook his head again. Was this a dream? Who was this guy anyway? “Look,” Cameron said, “I don’t know how you know about my family, but I’m not just ‘hanging around.’ I’m going places. I just have to finish this Christmas job, and then I’ll be–”
“What?” the man spat. “On your way to the North Pole? Ha! Ha!” Mr. Crandle laughed, his head bawled over and his hands grasping his knees.
“Come on!” Cameron yelled over the crazed man’s laughter. “It’s a costume! Just a job, okay? Get over it!”
“No!” Mr. Crandle was looking up again, completely sober. “You,” he pointed to Cameron, “get over it.”
“Whatever,” Cameron shrugged, but he felt his brow furrow. “Later, man, whoever you are.” He turned away and continued plowing through the park. He looked back after a minute, but the flicker of the fire and the smell of smoke were gone. Weird.
Cameron trudged home, wondering if this were a prank, but who would go to all that trouble for him? Still, what Mr. Crandle had said bothered him. He had thought about what a loser he was a lot—twenty-eight, over-weight, no dates—but it sounded a lot harsher coming from a stranger—a fat, old guy hanging around the city park at night. Wait—what? What did Cameron care about a stranger?
He pulled up his furry collar again and walked more quickly. It wasn’t that bad of a trip home, he guessed. If it were summer, maybe he’d start hoofing it to work and lose the soda belly.
What had Mr. Crandle meant about going places? Okay, maybe the deadline for re-enrolling in the MFA program had slipped by—what of it? Cameron could reapply next semester, no one was stopping him. All right, playing Santa Claus wasn’t exactly the living as an actor he had in mind, but try-outs for “The Christmas Carol” had conflicted with the World Series; that wasn’t his fault.
Girls was one subject Cameron could not rationalize away. He was going nowhere there. When Stacy found out about Cameron’s lifelong syndrome of Angelaitis, she had spent three days throwing encouragement at him. “Just do it!” she said. “The worst that can happen is she’ll say no. It’s just a date.” But Cameron knew that if Angela, who had gone out with all the jocks in high school, knew he was wearing an unpadded Santa suit, she would laugh.
The wind grew chillier, but, looking up, Cameron saw that the sky was clearing into a star-lit night. He was nearly home. Going places, he had said to Mr. Crandle. Well, at least he was going home. Maybe he could lay-off the ESPN and the RPGs tonight. It was nearly Christmas; maybe his mom would want to watch that old Jimmy Stewart movie that she loved so much. It wouldn’t be so bad, just once.
Maybe it really was time for him to get back on his own again. He could try for late enrollment, if he threw on his best charms and got the theater department to pull some strings. Maybe some buddies at school would want to hit the racquetball courts with him once in a while. It wouldn’t make him Angela date material, but he might be able to shed a few pounds.
Cameron trudged up the front walk and banged his heavy Santa boots on the doorstep. Maybe his job wasn’t so bad. The kids were kind of cute. It wasn’t their fault that their parents were dragging them around the mall for hours. Maybe he could get the boss to invest in more lollypops.
His hand was on the doorknob when he nearly tripped over something. Squinting in the lack-of-porch-light darkness, Cameron bent down to find a glittery star-shaped gift box. He took a few steps out from under the porch awning so he could examine the box in the star light. “To Cameron,” the envelope taped to the top of the box said. He gave the box a gentle shake, and the wiggly lid let out an aroma he knew well: fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.
Inside the envelope was a Christmas card: “Dear Cameron, Sorry we haven’t been able to chat. I always have to run to the 9:05 bus. Are you going to the mall employee Christmas Eve party? Can’t wait to catch up, Angela.”
Cameron stared at Angela’s curvy handwriting in disbelief. He blinked once and pinched himself. Nope, this was real. Cameron let out a whoop and punched the air with his fist. In his excitement, Angela’s card dropped face-down in the snow. Grasping at it, he noticed there was some writing on the back of the card. “P.S. Nice suit,” it said with a smiley face. But the minute print at the bottom of the card was what arrested his attention: “Kris Kringle Press, Ltd. North Pole Distribution.”
Cameron looked up, cocking his head to one side and squinting at the stars. Crandle—or Kringle?
Nah, Cameron shook his head. Couldn’t be.
What I liked best: A nice feel-good Christmas story. Good sensory images.
Publication ready: Close. I’d like to see an unexpected twist somewhere, either characterization or plot. A little too much telling us about Cameron. You could easily show us some of this with more bits of conversation between him and Stacy.