I love a challenge, especially a writing challenge!
The requirements of the Flash Fiction Holiday Blog Hop were:
All stories must include in the text:
* A winter holiday theme,
* A “bad boy” character, and
* A gift of some kind (author’s choice).
It also had to be inspired by this image:
So, without further adieu, I give you…
A Santa Named Mike
By Zee Kensington
“And what do you want for Christmas, little one?”
Mike nodded encouragingly at the little girl on his lap. It was tough to give her his full attention with the Christmas carols blaring over the store speakers, the chattering of the other children waiting in line, and the constant din of the shoppers beyond “Santa’s Village.” Mike had perfected the skill, though, over the decade he’d been playing Santa Claus for the city’s biggest department store, and he gave her his best Santa Claus smile.
If you had told Mike in his twenties that he’d be working as a department store Santa in his sixties, he would’ve sneered in your face. Mike had big dreams back then. He was going to go to LA, make his break as an actor, and win his first Oscar by 30.
Those days were far enough behind him that Mike could laugh at his naiveté. His brilliant acting career had never panned out further than a few walk-on roles and a steady gig waiting tables. Now, several decades and zip codes later, Mike found the irony in playing the most famous man on the planet. Who would’ve thought that the muscular, barrel-chested physique that had eliminated him from so many roles now made him a shoe-in for Santa? Add the full, white beard he’d grown out and he looked so perfect you could put him in a Coca-Cola ad.
He wished the child on his lap a Merry Christmas and sent her back to her parents with a candy cane. He took the opportunity to lean back in his chair to stretch his aching back. Santa’s throne had horrible lumbar support. He began to feel the familiar nicotine itch in his fingers and surreptitiously checked his watch.
“How you holding up, boss?” Kelly, one of “Santa’s elves,” asked.
“Two more kids, then I need a break.” He was already smiling and waving up the next child. As soon as the tiny toddler got close to Mike, though, he began screaming and clinging to his mother. Oh boy.
As the mother tried to soothe her son, Mike’s gaze flickered out over the crowd. Something caught his eye in the store—something off.
Amid the sparkling Christmas ornament displays, two young men were skulking. Well, one of them—the one in the dark hoodie—was skulking. The other fellow—the one in the knit hat—seemed genuinely mesmerized by the glittering ornaments. His friend seemed uncomfortable, his gaze shifting back and forth rapidly. Watching. Waiting. Mike knew that look all too well.
Just as Mike expected, the one in the hoodie turned to let a stranger pass, burying his shoulder in the decorated tree. When he stepped back, there was one less bauble and a slight bulge in his front hoodie pocket. Busted.
Mike had just motioned Kelly over to ask her to page security when the thief’s friend grabbed him by the shoulder. Surprised, Mike watched as the friend dug his hand into the pocket and pulled out the stolen ornament. The friend looked around frantically, terrified, and shoved it back into the tree. The thief shrugged nonchalantly, but Mike could see the embarrassment darkening his face.
His friend wasn’t done with him. Mike couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he could see the angry gestures, the defensive stance, and—to his surprise—the tears that the thief’s friend wiped away with the back of his hand. He stormed off, leaving the thief standing alone.
“You need something, boss?” Kelly asked.
Mike thought fast. There was no point calling security now. In fact, he felt bad for those two boys.
“Can you bring the jingle bear? I think this little guy needs some extra encouragement.”
He turned his attention back to his job, smiling gently at the terrified toddler. As he looked at the child’s tear-streaked cheeks, though, he couldn’t help but see the anguish on those young men’s faces in his mind’s eye.
The bright flame from Mike’s Zippo lighter cut through the evening gloom, guttering in the hard wind channeling down the alley. Thanks to the city’s draconian no smoking laws—and the store’s policy that Santa should never been seen “setting a bad example” in public—Mike was forced to hide out deep in the backstreet behind the store to get his nicotine fix.
Mike sighed as he drew in a deep pull of fragrant smoke, but his exhale came out in a stuttering cough. It had been happening more and more frequently these days, a sure sign that it was finally time to quit smoking. There were a million reasons to do so—one big one in particular—but there just never seemed to be the right time.
As he stood in the recess of a wide service entrance, Mike’s eye caught a lean, hooded shadow moving towards him. Cautious of trouble, Mike leaned deeper into the doorway, glad for the trench coat he’d draped around his jovial red costume. The figure stopped a few feet away from Mike, and began searching in the other darkened doorways.
“Seth?” The shadow’s voice was masculine, slightly young, but it wavered some with insecurity. “Seth? Are you hiding back here again?”
When no reply came, a small rectangle of light lit up in his hand. As he brought the smartphone up to his ear, Mike recognized him instantly. It was the thief from the store.
As the youth waited he fished around in his hoodie pocket with his free hand and pulled out a cigarette. He placed it between his lips, but jerked it out to speak as the loud dial tone cut out. His face fell, though, and Mike knew the call had gone to voicemail. The thief pulled the phone away from his ear, jamming it back into his pocket. He produced a cheap plastic lighter, and even in the dim alley light, Mike could see his hands shaking as he tried to light the smoke.
The thief tried one, two, three, four times to light his cigarette, but all he got for his flicking was sparks. With a yell of frustration that dropped the cigarette from his lips, the thief threw the lighter as hard as he could. He brought his hands up to cover his face.
“Seth, I’m sorry.” He moaned softly. “Where the hell are you?”
Mike had seen enough. He cleared his throat, stepping slowly from the doorframe. The thief looked up sharply.
“You need a light, son?” Mike asked gently. He held out his Zippo, snapping it open and flicking the wheel in a long-practiced move.
The thief looked at the flame, then up at Mike warily. Mike didn’t blame him. If a strange old man had offered Mike a light in an alley at his age, he would have run the other way. So, Mike did the only thing he could think to gain his confidence—he let his trench coat open a bit so he could see the Santa outfit underneath.
The thief’s expression went from caution to recognition to amusement, and the corner of his lip quirked up into a smile that was more of a sneer.
“For real?” the thief asked. His eyes narrowed. “Why you hanging around in an alley?”
Mike shrugged, and pulled the lit Zippo back up to his pipe to take another draw. “Even Santa needs a smoke break.” He snapped the lighter shut. This time, he offered it out to the thief. It was a nice lighter, 1970s vintage, with a Santa’s face painted on the side. He’d had had it for decades, and it was as much a part of his Santa uniform as his hat or buckled belt. Mike knew he was taking a gamble offering it to him, especially after what he’d seen in the store.
The thief studied the lighter for a moment. Then, with a same speed that Mike had seen him use to shoplift, he swiped it from Mike’s hand. He picked up the dropped cigarette from the ground, dusting off the butt before sticking it in his mouth and lighting it. He sucked in the smoke hard, relief smoothing his face.
“Thanks.” The thief looked at the painting on the lighter, then back at Mike with a bemused smile. “You really look like Santa, y’know? Beard looks real and everything.” He handed back the lighter without hesitation. So, stealing wasn’t his first immediate impulse. “Man, Seth is gonna get a kick outta hearing ab…” His words trailed off, face falling.
Mike knew that it was none of his business, but he couldn’t help but want to get involved. Maybe it was the Santa suit, or a smoker-to-smoker camaraderie. Or perhaps it was the genuine sadness on the thief’s face. Mike had to try.
“Seth’s still angry you were stealing, isn’t he?” Mike said without accusation in his voice.
“How did you know?” The thief’s posture tightened.
“I’m Santa Claus. I see everything. Especially from that big chair in the middle of the store.”
“Oh shit,” the thief murmured.
“I’m not going to turn you in. Though I think you owe me an explanation.”
The thief’s chest puffed out defensively. “Man, I don’t owe you anything. I didn’t do anything wrong!”
Mike fixed him with a hard stare. “Seth seems to think so.”
The thief deflated, his eyes dropping to his feet.
“Your friend—” Mike continued.
“Boyfriend,” he corrected Mike sharply. His pointed chin jutted out of his hood in defiance, just daring Mike to say something derogatory.
Mike fought his smile. Well. Good for him. It really was a different day and age now, wasn’t it?
“Your boyfriend” –he shrugged, the word rolling off his tongue easily—“doesn’t seem to approve of your compulsion either.”
If the thief was surprised by Mike’s easy acceptance, he only showed it with the subtlest raise of his eyebrow. He took another drag off his cigarette, thinking.
“It’s not what you think,” the thief exhaled his words with his smoke. “We both gave up shoplifting after Seth got caught. Believe me, it’d be damned helpful right now to have a little extra in our pockets.”
“Everyone feels the pinch this time of year,” Mike said.
“Even Santa?” The thief fixed Mike with a hard look.
“Even Santa.” Mike met his gaze evenly.
The thief thought for a long moment, then sighed.
“It’s just, that ornament…” he trailed off, then tried again. “Look, Seth hasn’t been able to go home in months. Not since he came out to his parents.”
“They didn’t take it well?”
The thief snorted bitterly. “No. This is Seth’s first Christmas without his family, and I wanted him to have something special. He loves Christmas, and all that shiny holiday stuff. I was planning on buying him one of those fancy ornaments, but when I saw how much it cost I panicked.”
“Those Christopher Radko ornaments aren’t cheap, I know.”
“Man, it’s not fair!” The thief blurted. “Seth’s an amazing guy! He’s sweet and smart and funny. He deserves something nice for Christmas!” His voice died to a whisper. “And I can’t afford to give him shit.”
Mike’s heart broke a little for the young man. This was the hardest part of being Santa. Every year he had to look children in the eye, and gently tell them that no, he couldn’t bring their loved ones back to life, or make their parents stop fighting, or end the bullying at school. All he could do was give them a little hope.
“You can give Seth what he needs the most right now. A man who loves him, who is there for him when no one else is, and who honors his word.”
The thief looked up, blinking slowly as he weighed Mike’s words. The thief looked so very young in that moment, just another lost child out in the cold. Mike wished he could do more for him. If this were a Christmas movie, then Mike would find a way to show up at their place with food, presents, and holiday cheer. But it wasn’t a movie, and all Mike had to offer was what he had in his pockets…
An idea began brewing in Mike’s head. Maybe there was a little something he could do.
“I think I can help, if you’ll let me…” Mike trailed off, extending a questioning hand.
“Nick.” The thief placed his hand in Mike’s in a brief handshake.
“Good name.” Mike winked at the kid. “Let’s get to work.”
“Seth Johnson,” Kelly’s voice rang over the store’s intercom. “Seth Johnson, please come to Santa’s Village on the first floor.”
From his throne in the middle of the store, Mike could see Nick waiting nervously at the scene of the thwarted crime. It took a few minutes for Seth to arrive, looking around curiously to see why he’d been paged. Mike’s intuition had been right, Seth hadn’t left the store after all.
Seth looked around anxiously, as if expecting security to jump out and arrest him. When he saw Nick he relaxed a bit, but tensed again quickly in anger.
Nick slowly approached his boyfriend, his face a study in apology. He pulled a small, giftwrapped box out of his hoodie pocket and offered it to Seth. Seth’s eyes went wide, and he looked around uneasily.
Mike’s heart twisted to see the depth of damage Nick’s earlier theft had done to Seth’s trust. He knew it would take a while before Seth had full confidence in his boyfriend again.
However, Seth’s worry smoothed into wonder as Nick said something and pointed up to Mike, sitting on his high throne. Now it was his turn.
Mike gave his best Santa Claus smile and waved at Seth over the throngs of waiting children and holiday shoppers. He tapped the side of his nose and gave an encouraging nod, channeling the very essence of Santa—love, giving, forgiveness. And the Oscar goes to…
Seth’s eyes went as wide as a child’s, his face lighting up brighter than the Christmas trees around him. He looked down at the small present in his hands, then back up at Nick. Nick was chewing his bottom lip, nervously gauging his boyfriend’s reaction. Was it going to work?
Seth threw his arms around Nick, pulling him into a tight, full-bodied hug. Nick clung back, relief and happiness radiating from him. Mike’s heart swelled as he watched them embrace. In this moment, they didn’t care where they were, or how little money they had. All that mattered was that they had each other.
Mike smiled to himself as he saw the little kiss Seth pressed to Nick’s lips before pulling away, and how he didn’t let go of his hand as he led him out of the store. As they departed, Nick looked back at Mike and smiled, mouthing a sincere “thank you.”
Mike smiled farewell in return. Sometimes, being Santa really had its bright moments.
It was near midnight by the time Mike got home. The apartment was dark, except for the soft flicker of light coming from the TV. Hanging up his trench coat and his garment bag with his uniform on the rack, he tip-toed into the living room.
As he suspected, Lee was sprawled out asleep on the couch. The light from the TV illuminated his sleeping face, which was no less handsome for the lines time had etched into it. Mike loved him even more for them, as he had gotten to watch them slowly appear onto the boyish face he’d fallen for all those years ago. He contemplated letting Lee sleep, but his partner stirred awake as Mike placed his keys on the table.
“Welcome home,” Lee murmured, tipping his face up for a sleepy kiss. Mike leaned down and pressed his lips to Lee’s, their softness widening into a smile as Mike’s beard tickled his chin. “Did you have a good day at work?”
“I did,” Mike said.
“Did you finally decide what you want for Christmas? I only have a few days left to get you something.”
This time, Mike had an answer.
“One of those electronic cigarettes.”
Lee’s dark eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You’re quitting smoking?”
Mike shrugged, trying to make it nonchalant, though part of him already regretted his decision. It was going to be a hard road. Then he looked down at Lee’s face, at the child-like hope brightening his tired features. It reminded him of Seth’s smile as he looked up at Nick, beaming with love and trust. Mike’s heart swelled, and he knew he couldn’t back down now.
“I figured maybe you’re right. It’s time I quit before this cough gets worse.”
It had been parting with the Zippo that did it. He’d stolen it forty years ago when he’d been a frustrated waiter-cum-actor in LA, just swiped it off a table during a Christmas party in a fit of pique. It’s not fair that these Hollywood fat cats get to live it up while Lee and I can barely scrape by…
It had seemed fitting that he pass it on to another recovering thief, especially when it would be used to make amends for his transgression. It was poetic, somehow. He’d even had it boxed and wrapped for Nick at the store’s giftwrapping station. It was a new start for the lighter, a new start for the boys, and a new start for Mike’s lungs.
He joined Lee on the couch, snuggling into the warm cocoon under the afghan with his long-time love.
“You always know exactly what to give me for Christmas, Mike,” Lee said, wrapping Mike in the warm circle of his strong arms.
“Of course I do,” Mike chuckled. “I’m Santa Claus.”
Check out the other 40 stories participating in the blog hop!