Winter Animals: Stories to benefit PROTECT (part four)

Welcome to Part Four of the Boston Mad Dogs Writing Group’s holiday story project, WINTER ANIMALS. I hope, if you’re reading this, you have already been enjoying the stories written by my friends and colleagues, Christopher Irvin, Errick Nunnally, and KL Pereira. I am sure that having made it this far, you know all about how we came up with the idea for the project (short version: it’s Christopher Irvin’s fault) and who we are. So instead of going over how much I love, and love working with, these wonderful people, this time I’d like to explain why we picked PROTECT.ORG as our charity for the e-book release on December 30th and why we hope you will buy a short book full of stories you’ve already read.

Excuses are as old as politics and money. The three go together like Christmas ghosts. If you don’t have money, expect to hear an excuse why a politician “can’t” do something about the problem that affects you. As long as I can remember being politically aware, the reason why any given politician wouldn’t support some measure that would benefit children and their interests is that “kids don’t vote.” Which is to say in reality, they don’t have power. They don’t donate to political campaigns or have the ability to hold their representatives accountable for forgetting about them either. Like so much else in their lives, they need people who’ll stand up to help them be heard.

But it’s not enough to clamor and say “this is important to me.” Remember what I said about politics and money and excuses? Think about it this way. Why do guns get so much attention from our representatives in Washington and the state legislatures and kids don’t? I’ll give you three guesses and you’ll only need a single letter for each one. Got it? Good.

Can you think of a single-issue political lobbying organization that advocates for children consistently and aggressively demands action from legislators to the exclusion of every other issue? Ten years ago, the answer would have been no. But in the last decade, PROTECT.ORG has been doing that work. They’ve been truly non-partisan and accountable to only one constituency: people who believe that protecting children from neglect and abuse is, as Andrew Vachss puts it, the only “holy” war worthy of the name. They’ve been fighting for legislation that protects children from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. They fight and they win.

So when were thinking about a suitable recipient for the profits of the Winter Animals project, the conversation went exactly like this: “How about Protect?” “I’m in!”

We hope that you’ll feel the same way. Read our stories for free. We want you to enjoy them. Then, in a week when we say, “Would you like to buy WINTER ANIMALS for your Kindle?” we hope you’ll reply, “I’m in!”

I am done shouting for now. Thank you for reading this far. Perhaps you’ll indulge me for a few pages more and let me whisper something to you instead.

Bracken MacLeod

 


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CAN I WHISPER IT?

by Bracken MacLeod

The mall throbbed like a plump vein swollen by an excited heart. Shoppers tumbled past one another pursuing an imperative relentlessly driving them through an ever-repeating circuit until their bank accounts succumbed to entropy. Some smiled and blithely shouted gossip at their companions over the din, while others scowled, red-faced with frustration and anxiety at the dwindling time left with which to accomplish the task set by the season. Everyone moved on, eager to experience the rush of finding that perfect thing at a deep discount. No one stopped and clogged the flow. No one except Holly and her mother.

They stood with their backs against the wall watching shoppers accumulate things, keeping an eye on people emerging from high-value targets like jewelers or electronics stores. When Holly’s mother caught a glimpse of a petite white bag with an Eve-bitten logo she pulled the girl out into the flow to fall in step behind their mark. The shopper—the mark—would eventually need fuel and rest and would head toward the food court seeking that push of food-science engineered carbs and high fructose corn syrup that would fuel their reentry into the stream of commerce. The mark would buy something from a cholesterol merchant and find a rarefied seat to devour it. Ideally, she’d have a companion to occupy her attention and neither of them would be minding their purchases as they recounted the afternoon’s victories. Holly would circle the table and touch her right or left ear to indicate on which side of the mark the prize rested. Then she’d begin to cry.

At first she’d try to look worried and give a few sniffles. If that wasn’t enough to turn a head, she’d sob and fearfully whine, “Mommy?” The mark would ask if she was okay and Holly would say, “I can’t find my mommy.” Of course, she’d be looking at Martha over the mark’s shoulder, watching her slip the prize into a boxy shopping bag where it would disappear under a cheap sweater bought earlier that morning to use as cover. The next day, Martha’s boyfriend, Nick, would list the tablet or MP3 player on Craigslist or Ebay converting it into what they really wanted for the holidays: cash.

Today, though, Holly wasn’t watching the marks, trying to guess which one Martha would target. Instead, she stared at the fat man on his throne, vital and red as a heart. A line of children stretched back for ages, accompanied by harried-looking mothers and a few bored fathers waiting for their chance to ask for fulfillment of a dream. The toy itself was worth less than what it represented: direct interaction with the eternal elf, participation in an act of ritual magic on a global scale. Most got their picture taken so they could take home a keepsake of innocence before its expiration date. Before unanswered prayers and late night stumblings upon one’s parents playing the role of a red-bedecked god pulled back the veil and reduced the world to predictable banality.

Holly tugged at Martha’s sleeve. Her mother pulled back and swatted at her, hissing. Undeterred, she tugged again, whispering, “Can I?”

“What?” Martha said, keeping her eyes on the crowd.

“Can I?” Holly pointed at the elf. He didn’t “ho ho ho” as much as he “haw haw hawed” with his eyes wrinkling up and shining with honest delight. His beard was real—a little shorter and a bit yellower than the other Santas whose ersatz whiskers came out of bags and stank of polypropylene. His belly was also real—not a pillow. She could see it move with his laughter, pushing against the wide leather belt holding closed a regal robe with white fur trim. Holly had stopped believing in Santa almost as soon as she’d started, but this man, this elf, he was real. She knew him for what he really was. He could give her what she wanted for Christmas. If only she could get to see him. If only she could whisper in his ear.

Holly tugged a third time and pointed. Martha looked at her daughter, face pulling down in the grimace she usually reserved for home. “Uhf! Why do you wanna sit on some old loser’s lap? It’s not really him.”

“Pleeeease.”

Martha’s voice hardened. “Jesus, Holly. That shit’s for babies.”

“It’s not for babies. Look.” Holly knew the only time she could challenge Martha was in the mall. Her mother couldn’t slap her or pull her hair or do anything that would leave a mark or redden her skin. Not in public. Not while they were working. Once they got home, Holly would pay for her lip. But now, here, she was free to make a demand, hopeful that in the short term it would pay off. She could handle paying the price later if only she could sit in a real Santa’s lap and ask him for just one thing. She pointed at a blond-haired girl giggling as Santa gently poked her in the ribs with a velvet-gloved finger. “She’s bigger than I am,” Holly said.

Martha squatted in front of her daughter. Her angry scowl twisted her flushed face so she looked like a Halloween Jack O’lantern. “She’s also a fuckin’ moron. You think some alky asshole in a costume is gonna give you a pony if you ask him real nice and lie about being good. Even if he was a real Santa, he’d bring you a lump of coal for being a whiny little shit like your dad. Now stop day-dreaming and pay attention.” Seething, Martha straightened up again to renew her search for a suitable mark.

Holly stared at the man as another child and another and another passed from line to lap to the exit, faces stretched with pleasure and hopeful dreaming. A couple of younger children cried and contorted in unexpected fright while the helper elves took their pictures, but Santa handled them graciously and with kindness, seemingly impervious to pique. When she felt the tug signaling time to work, Holly wished she could leave a little piece of her behind to keep staring and live through the other children. Her mother dragged her along with another hiss. “Red hair. Green coat. Apple bag. Got it?”

“Yes, Martha.”

They slipped into the commerce-stream like a pair of hungry viruses.

#

The security guard nodded and stared at the food court table like it might give up its secrets to him if only he could find a way to communicate with it. The woman next to him shouted about the mall not looking out for its customers. She dressed him down, making a show of her outrage. He told her it was important that she keep an eye on her belongings. The safety of its guests was of supreme importance to the mall, but loss prevention was only possible in partnership with each other, he recited. Holly didn’t understand a word he was saying. She imagined the woman didn’t either as her face became redder and the pitch of her voice rose. The doughy man in the blue uniform led her away from the table to “record her report.” Martha stared like everyone else while pushing her greasy stir fry around the cardboard bowl with a plastic spork.

As she was led off, the red-haired woman scanned the food court a last time looking for a culprit to blame. The girl wanted to slip down and hide underneath the table, but she knew better than to do anything other than act natural. Eat lunch and leave. No matter how many times Martha told her that a mark would never be able to pick Holly out of a crowd as long as she took off her hat and reversed her coat after the drop, the girl still feared being identified. Nabbed by security and led away to be punished for her role in ruining someone else’s Christmas.

In contrast, Martha seemed to be in much better spirits after having lifted both the woman’s purse and purchase. She’d done it right in front of the red head’s blank-faced friend without being seen. Slipping both in the shopping bag, she skirted around to the restroom hallway where she walked in, pulled the sweater over top of the bag and got a drink at the water fountain. When she emerged from the hall, Holly shouted “Mommy!” and went running for her. The red head stood at her table watching while Martha leaned down and told Holly a little too loudly that she was supposed to always stay right by her side, asking where she got off to. “I wanted to see the pretty trees,” was the girl’s line today. Holly delivered it sincerely and Martha led her into the crowd, presumably to gaze at the line of plastic evergreens being auctioned off for the less fortunate. They passed the trees without stopping, deposited the contents of the bag in the car, and went back to the food court before the woman even realized that she’d been ripped off.

“Eat your lunch, Holly. You’re not getting anything else until tonight.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Yes you are. You just don’t know it.” Martha never looked up from her iPhone to see whether Holly was following her instruction.

“Martha? Mama?”

“What?”

“Can I?”

“Can you what?” she asked, shoveling another sporkful of paper-white rice and greasy meat into her mouth.

“Go see him.” Holly spoke into her food, not wanting to make eye-contact. Not wanting to see if Martha’s look of satisfaction was shifting, twisting into something more familiar.

“Really? This shit again?” Her tone was tinged with tired impatience, but not anger. Holly decided it was good enough. Indifference was the soil in which her dreams grew.

“I’ll be super fast. The line’s almost gone and I won’t ask for anything, I promise. He’s just so much better than the Santas at the other malls and I want to see him up close. Please.”

Martha lowered her phone and stared at her daughter, familiar disappointment souring her face. She rolled her eyes before stabbing a finger at the screen to unlock it. “Fine. Whatever. We’re going as soon as I’m done with lunch so you better hope that line moves fast.”

“Thanks Mama!” Holly said. She pushed her bowl toward Martha, blurting out, “Here, eat mine,” before sprinting off toward the center of the mall.

The line to see Santa had dwindled. There were only a couple of kids ahead of her with their mothers and both looked too young to have a real conversation with the big imp. For each kid it was up, a photo op, and off his lap. She held her breath as the mothers lifted their toddlers onto the man’s lap. The ladies laughed as he flirted with them and tickled their kids to get them to smile. The helper elves were good at their jobs and knew who the star of the show was. They didn’t coo or shake stuffed animals to get the kids to smile. They stood back and gave Santa room. He was more than capable.

Two flashes and it would be Holly’s turn.

A helper elf looked at her wristwatch and walked over to Holly, bending down with hands on her knees to talk to her in a sing-songy voice as though she were still in Kindergarten. “I’m sorry dear, but it’s time for Santa to take his break. You can come back and see him in an hour.” Her face was pocked with red welts that shone through thick base makeup and her breath smelled like milk and sugar. She smiled with half her mouth.

Holly’s stomach twisted into a hard pit of anxiety that threatened to rise up and choke her. Her vision blurred as tears welled in her eyes and she said, “Oh, please please please. I’ll be so fast. I’m not going to be here in an hour.”

“I’m sorry dear, but Santa and his elves need a bathroom break.” Holly wanted to protest and beg more, but her throat seized at the passing of her only opportunity. She let her head drop and tried to hide her crying. Tears were the sort of thing that would get her an ‘I’ll give you something to cry about’ at home, usually accompanied by exactly what was promised. “Sorry,” said the helper.

Resigned, she turned to leave. Santa’s voice carried from behind the pimple-faced girl. “I can see one more. Let her up.” Holly blinked, trying to banish the teary daydream.

The helper sighed and said, “Okay kid, come on.” Holly stood frozen for a moment, processing what was happening. “Come on if you wanna. Santa can’t wait all day.” Holly about-faced and sprinted past the girl toward the man in the red suit. She skidded to a stop a few feet away and stood, wiping away her tears. He held out his hands and invited her closer. “Would you like to sit on my lap? Or are you too big for that?” he asked with a wide smile. Holly shook her head. She took a few slow steps forward. Behind her, the helper sighed and whispered something to the boy elf manning the digital camera. They chuckled discretely behind white-gloved hands. Holly couldn’t hear what she said, but it sounded like snark to a young ear well-versed in sarcasm.

Santa helped her up onto his dais. She took his offered hand and before she could protest, the helper appeared to lift her, twist her, and set her in the man’s lap. Holly tensed like when she had to sit in Nick’s lap and smell his whiskey breath cascade down the back of her neck. Santa’s breath smelled like coffee and peppermint and his hands politely rested on her shoulders. She relaxed a little.

“What’s your name,” he asked.

“Huh-Holly.”

“Well, it’s very nice to meet you Huh-Holly.” He waited a beat to see if she’d laugh at his gentle mocking of her stutter. She didn’t. “Have you been good this year?” She nodded, not willing to vocalize it, afraid of being trapped in a lie. He accepted her answer and moved on. “I’m sure you’ve been very nice, dear. If you’re the same Holly from Natick on my list, then I’m almost certain of it.”

“I live in New Bedford.”

His spine straightened a little. “You’re a long way from home.”

She nodded again. “I know you,” she said.

“Of course you know me. I live in the hearts of all—”

“No. I know who you really are. You came to my school once and talked to us about stuff. Not Christmas stuff.”

Santa’s jolly face fell for a brief moment before he replaced his expression with a softer smile. “I talk to a lot of kids, Holly from New Bedford. Which class was yours?”

“I’m in Mrs. Kozlowski’s class at Hathaway.”

“I remember you. You sat in the back even though there were taller kids in front of you. Right?”

Holly’s heart swelled for a moment. He remembered her. She always sat in the back so no one could throw anything at her. She nodded again.

“Holly. What would you like for Christmas?”

She looked over at the helper elves. They stared with confusion and slight impatience, as though they didn’t know how to process this exchange with Santa. She looked into the man’s face. His full cheeks were red beneath his yellow-white beard. When he smiled, those cheeks pushed up and wrinkles grew around his blue eyes. His face was genuinely happy and the smile wasn’t at all forced. But his eyes weren’t joyful. They weren’t angry like Martha’s or that other thing, like Nick’s. Even though they were blue, not brown, they were like Holly’s: sad eyes.

“Can I whisper it?”

“Of course,” he said, leaning forward.

Holly shifted in Santa’s lap and wrapped an arm around his neck, pulling his ear closer. He held up a hand, not to hear her better, but to hide her mouth from his helpers. To give her privacy.

She told him what she wanted.

He nodded and sat up straight. His eyes sparkling wet under the picture spotlight. “I’ll do my best, Holly from Mrs. Kozlowski’s class in New Bedford.” He took her hand in both of his and held it firmly but gently. “Do you believe that?”

She shook her head. “I don’t believe in Santa Claus.”

“But do you believe in me?”

She nodded.

“I’ll do my best. You stay strong and be good, okay?”

“I’ll try.”

“So will I.”

Holly moved to slip off of Santa’s lap, but he held her in place with a strong hand. “Julie,” he said with command. “Take my picture with Holly. This one’s on me.”

“We’re not supposed to give out free pictures, Santa. Mr. Paul says—”

“Do as I say, Julie. Take our picture.” The teen complied and gave Holly a one, two, three count before exclaiming “Candy cane!” The boy beside her snapped the shot. Holly winced at the flash. Santa relaxed his arm and let her hop down. “One copy for her and one for me,” he told his helper.

“But Mr. Paul says…” Julie let her statement die as Santa furrowed his brow at her as if to say that is not how you keep off my naughty list. The boy behind the camera led Holly around to the desk in front of Santa’s village and smiled awkwardly. Julie followed a few seconds later with a pair of pictures. She cut them apart, slipped one into an envelope and handed it to Holly. “Happy holidays,” she said.

“Thank you,” Holly said. “Merry Christmas.” She snatched the picture and stuffed it inside her jacket. She ran back to the food court to find Martha and get back to work.

#

Nick sorted through the week’s take. Two of those little iPods, some bullshit e-book thing, a pair of expensive tablets, and the real score: a tennis bracelet that Martha refused to take off. She knew better than to ask to keep the thing—while they couldn’t exchange or return it, Phil at the pawn shop would give them cash for it. Money in hand in time for New Year’s without any dicking around with buyers on the Internet. Still, he allowed her to wear it for the evening, as annoying as her staring and cooing at it was becoming.

He gulped down the dregs of a tall can of ‘Gansett, belched, and ordered Holly to bring him another. She stood hesitantly and waited for him to bark the command a second time before going. Maneuvering past the pile of dirty dishes and pizza boxes carelessly stacked on the dinner table, she opened the fridge and looked inside. There wasn’t much—a couple of Chinese takeout boxes, some half full condiment bottles, a molding Subway sandwich, and four remaining of the original twelve Naragansett lagers. She grabbed a can and popped the pull tab. Nick didn’t like it when she opened them for him, but she liked the snap and hiss sounds and the fresh smell wafting up from the mouth of the can before it mixed with the odors of Nick’s dinner and neglected teeth.

She crept back into the living room, stepping carefully over a pile of dirty clothes and discarded plastic shopping bags. Holding out the brew, she tried to stay as far from Nick as she could. He took his drink, sloshing some on her hands. “God fuckin’ damn it, Holly.” He slurped at the can. She tried to back away but his arm whipped out and he snatched her wrist. She pulled, hoping the spilt beer would slicken her skin and help her escape. He gripped harder, pulling her close. “Come sit on Daddy’s lap,” he said. “I heard you wanna tell Santa whatchu want from Crizmas.” She knew she had half a chance, if she just sat really still and didn’t squirm, that he might pass out on his recliner after another drink and some cuddling. If he did, she could sneak off to her room alone. Holly tried to focus on the holiday cartoon playing on the television, willing time to pass.

“Good little girls don’t get a visit from jolly old elfs unless they go to bed early,” he said. “Are you a good little girl?” She nodded. “Are you?” he demanded.

“Yes,” she said.

“Bullshit,” Martha blurted from the sofa. “Don’t encourage her. I almost didn’t get that iPad because of her Santa crap.”

“Well, I think it’s time for bed anyways. Good or bad she’s—” The doorbell cut him off. He looked at his arm as if he could tell time by consulting the ghost of a wristwatch he’d broken in a bar fight. Martha jumped up, hissing as she brushed their bounty from the coffee table into a shopping bag. She ran into the bedroom and tossed the bag in a closet before pulling the door closed behind her.

“Who the fuck is that, Martha?” Nick asked. “You ‘specting somebody?”

“Huh uh.” She pulled aside the curtain to have a peek. “It’s that fuckin’ teacher! Mrs. Kraponski or whatever.”

“Mrs. Kozlowski is here?” Holly asked.

“Shut up!” Martha and Nick snapped together.

Martha said, “What did you do? What did you tell her?”

“Nothing, I swear. I didn’t say nothing!”

The blindside cuff from Nick made her ear ring and stung the side of her face. Her hand flew up and immediately pulled away as the slight pressure on the hot, prickling flesh made her sob. “Go to your room,” he said. “I’ll deal with you after we get rid of the Polack.” Without hesitation, Holly jumped off of Nick’s lap, happy to be released even if it was just for a moment. She ran down the hall toward her room. Crouching low in the doorway, she watched Martha open the front door.

“Hello Ms. Mikulas,” Holly’s teacher said.

“What did Holly do?”

Mrs. Kozlowski blinked a few times as if she could bat the confounding question away with her eyelashes. “Uh, nothing. It’s Christmas Eve and I wanted to drop off a present I forgot to give her before we recessed for winter break.” She held a small, wrapped box.

Nick sidled up to Martha, further blocking the door. “She’s already in bed,” he said.

“I’m sorry I missed her. Would you mind giving her this for me then?”

Holly couldn’t see what her teacher was holding. She knew also the chances of her ever seeing it were slim if she didn’t take it from the woman herself. “I’m still up!” she called out. Nick’s shoulders hunched at the sound of her voice and Martha’s head whipped around. She looked furious.

“I guess she could come out and get it,” she said.

“Wonderful!” Mrs. Kozlowski said. “I’m sorry I’m so late, but I just had to make sure she got this before tomorrow morning. It’s something I know she needs.”

Holly braved her mother’s eye-daggers as she crept from her doorway toward the front room. “What is it?” she asked, sliding in between Martha and Nick as gently as possible. She unconsciously turned the stinging side of her face away from her teacher to hide the throbbing redness. Her teacher shivered in the cold, but the hand offering the present was steady.

“It’s for you,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t get it to you earlier. I didn’t know.” Mrs. Kozlowski held the package out, too high for Holly to reach, offering it instead to Nick. He reached out to take it from her. Holly’s heart sank, knowing she’d never get to hold whatever it was. The ratcheting sound of the cuff slapping on Nick’s wrist was followed a second later by the deep whoof of his body hitting the sidewalk outside and a breathy whimper as a man materialized from the dark to kneel on his back and affix the second bracelet. Martha shoved Holly back into the house, knocking the girl flat. She tried to slam the door, but it bounced off another dark figure who’d pressed into the opening, obscuring the light from the street lamp outside. The dark man shoved the door open.

She screamed, “Get the fuck out of my house! You don’t have a warrant!”

The man replied, “We have a report of a child in danger, Ms. Mikulas. We need to assess the present safety of the girl before we can go.” His voice was full and commanding. It made Holly’s heart beat quicker. She wanted to hide behind the sofa when it boomed through the house. Despite the dominating tone, the voice also compelled her to run toward it and leap up into the arms of the shadow man. It was filled with the certainty of a promise kept.

He took another step into the house. “Also, Mr. Kay out there is in violation of his parole. He’s not allowed to have contact with children, Ms. Mikulas. Were you aware of that?” He gestured with a hand and two more people slipped through the door behind him. A uniformed officer who spun Martha around, twisting her arm behind her back, and a slender woman in a gray wool coat who rushed to wrap Holly in a blanket.

In the low ceilinged room, he seemed larger, less round and more like a brick wall than he had appeared sitting on his throne. His black suit made him look like a piece of the night, broken away from the sky, filling the house with its cold darkness, a golden star on his belt winking in the light. His white beard and bald head, however, glowed in the flickering light of the television like a beacon of hope.

As the woman led Holly toward the door, Martha screamed, “She’s mine! You can’t take my child away from me!” She screeched about her Constitutional rights and her property. Never once did she claim to love the girl.

The man stopped Holly as the woman with the blanket shuffled her past. “I’m sorry I’m so late. You never stopped believing in me, did you?”

“No. But I was scared you would forget.”

He crouched in front of her and pulled the mall photo out of his jacket pocket. “I know who’s naughty and who’s nice, Holly. You get what you want for Christmas this year.”

<<<<>>>>

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~ by poǝןɔɐɯ uǝʞɔɐɹq on 23/12/2013.

One Response to “Winter Animals: Stories to benefit PROTECT (part four)”

  1. […] Today, Bracken MacLeod brings WINTER ANIMALS home with his wonderful story, “Can I Whisper It?” […]

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