With a tug of the leather reins, the sleigh landed in exactly the right spot on the roof. Even the hooves of my eight reindeer pattered gently against the shingles of the shotgun home nestled beside a classic New Orleans bar. The Marigny is peaceful tonight, and the thick, chilly fog prevents any curious passers-by who happen to look up from noticing the bright red vehicle and big bag of toys.
I don’t have much time.
Bad snow in Chicago and a near-miss from an overzealous airline dragged me behind schedule, but there's plenty of magic in these old elven bones to set the night back on track.
The chimney is old. It has been closed up the past few years, so I have to get in through the narrow vents in the window AC. Tonight, the unit is set to heat, and the contraption warms me as I enter the building's second room where the Broussard family has set up their impressive Fraser fir.
Pralines and milk rest on the annual red and green plate, and the stockings are hung at the mantle of the defunct fireplace with care as usual, but they have outdone themselves this year by amassing more multicolored twinkling lights, glimmering garland, and oversized ornaments than this family should be able to afford. Adding to the extravagance, the opulent angel atop the tree is a vast improvement over the previous, raggedy elf who formerly crowned the display. Classic overcompensation—a shame.
According to my list, the family hasn’t had the greatest luck the past twelve months.
Their father, Alphonse, has had a little trouble with the bottle ever since his loving wife, Veronica, got diagnosed with breast cancer. Their kids, Billy and Faith, haven’t been on their best behavior either. Back in May, Billy shoved a lit M-80 down a bullfrog's throat to watch which way the eyes would fly when its head exploded, and Faith has been stealing candy and cherry lip gloss from the corner store. A few weeks back, Faith, in a jealous lapse of judgement, even lifted a doll from another, more well-mannered neighbor. Even though I've brought coal in my pocket for them, I can't help but feel bad that my magic isn't strong enough to take away the disease from their mother. They deserve a pass this time.
I'll just have to hold back on the candy for their stockings, maybe give those extra chocolate covered cherries to that little girl who lost her doll. I know that she'd appreciate the gesture.
After the sweets and milk, I retrieve their presents from my red velvet sack. The satchel always knows what to offer up when I reach in, and letting it take care of the heavy lifting helps to keep the extra weight out of the sled. Keeping the cargo light allows a more aerodynamic and fast journey. Some nights, I need all the extra time I can spare.
The letters that they sent me during the break from school for Thanksgiving state that Billy desires a video game and a skateboard and Faith wants a fancy hand mirror and that cute pink dress she noticed in the catalog. For Billy, I added on a helmet and pads so she doesn't hurt his head, elbows, and knees. And for Faith, shoes and socks that match her new outfit.
Both kids are getting books. Although toys are fun, nothing beats a little food for the brain.
The presents come easy, a few more than I expected. It seems that the universe is also sympathetic to their plight this year. A big box wrapped in slick, silver paper takes two hands to produce. The heavy present rattles as I stumble to tuck it behind the tree. Strategically placing oversized gifts in the back are my way of setting up a grand finale. After all, what better way to end the event than with a big bang?
I step over the purple package filled with Faith's dress, and—snap—bolts of lightning shoot up my leg.
I drop the present, and the box bounces off an enormous steel bear trap that's chained to the floor.
I try to pull free from the awful device, but the snare's sharp teeth tear deeper into my shin. Warm wet spills from the wound, down my leg to pool in my boot; the chain clatters as I struggle.
Pain sets in, and I howl in agony.
The overhead lights snap on, temporarily blinding me.
When everything focuses, Billy and Faith are standing by the pralines and milk tray, smiling the most wicked grins this normally jolly old man has ever seen. Billy aims his father's cell phone at me, no doubt filming this embarrassing entrapment while Faith brandishes a large, gleaming kitchen knife.
"We got him!" She squeals and twirls around.
Billy steps closer. "Say cheese, fat man."
"Wh-what's going on here?" I'm terrified to move my aching, bleeding leg. "Where are your parents?"
Faith snickers. "We gave them plenty of Mom's sedatives with their evening wine. They'll be out for a while."
"We gave them so much, they might not wake up at all." Billy extends an open palm, and Faith slaps it.
They are actually reveling in this evil indiscretion.
For the first time, the loss of innocence is obvious in their eyes.
Mrs. Clause, the elves, my gut intuition, the crystal ball—all of my resources have failed me on this one. Here I was, feeling bad for these two gremlins, and all the while, they were plotting a set-up.
Guess whose names are permanently landing in the Naughty Book?
I collect myself. Maybe reason will ease the tension and back them down. "Look, I know this isn't you. Billy, remember that year you got all those Star Wars action figures? And Faith, how about those My Little Pony and Barbie dolls? You two are better than this. Does not the memory of them ignite some of that childlike wonder within your souls?"
"No," they both chime.
Faith lunges, knife aimed at my chest.
I pinch my nose, tap into some of that old North Pole magic I use to slip down chimneys, and transform myself into blue smoke.
The blade slashes thin air.
Faith tumbles over the empty trap and knocks over the tree. The lights flicker one last time before snapping off.
I reappear by the stockings, hands on my hips and leg throbbing. "Why are you doing this? I know things are rough right now, but with a lot of positive thinking and a little luck, things will work out for the best for your family."
Billy slides the cell phone in his pocket, his eyes like the jagged icicles that hang from the rooftops back home. "There is no why."
He rushes at me, arms out. His small fists land a punch before I can react, and I topple over the fell fir and land on Faith.
Her blade makes purchase, the tip so sharp, it slices through my layered velvet coat as if it never reformed from mist and stabs into my abdomen.
Billy piles on top of me, clawing at my eyes, pulling my beard.
Faith, laughing, stabs again and again, branches snapping with every thrust. My nose fills with pine and bark.
Billy wraps his tiny fingers around my neck and squeezes; where did such a small child find this rage, this angry strength?
I choke. Blood splatters across the boy's face. Has the knife punctured a lung?
"Die, you merry red fuck." Billy head-butts me, but the attack throws off his balance, and I'm able to regain footing.
Tossing off the brat, he crashes into the snack tray, sending the pralines and milk flying into the stockings.
I manage rolling off Faith, but blood gushes from my wounds. Darkening crimson shadows consume my coat's normal festive red, stain the white, fluffy trim. Sticky sap clings to my gloves, face, hair—everything.
Faith, trapped in the tree branches, garland, and light strands, struggles to escape. Ornaments break under her thrashing.
Stunned, Billy shakes his head. Milk drips from his mussed hair and streaks across his round cheeks. "You bastard. I'll kill you."
I can't catch my breath. "I wish…I wish I could take away the pain, son. I realize things haven’t been in your favor, but this violence won't solve anything.
"Get him, Billy. Don’t let him get away," Faith screams. She's almost free.
Billy uses the mantle to stand, pulling down the ceramic Christmas tree lamp, shattering it. The clear, glass star splinters; red and green bulbs scatter everywhere.
"He ain't going nowhere."
But Billy will never be as fast as Father Christmas.
A pinch of the nose, and I'm out of there.
On the roof, I summon my present sack and load it on the sleigh. The wounds are already healing, but I've lost so much time. Finishing the run will be a challenge, but I've been in worse situations.
As I climb aboard, red burning eyes pierce the night.
The demon's chain clank as he pulls himself on the roof, birch branches in his clawed hand. He smiles when he sees me, his long, forked tongue rolls out. His hooves thump as he passes, no doubt heading for the AC unit.
He'll retrieve the phone for me, erase the evidence. He always has my back.
I call to the reindeer, and they lift us into the Louisiana night.
Below us, the screams of children.