Santa's workshop had a dick drawn on it.
Matt snorted at the markered graffiti, poorly hidden by a cardboard Christmas tree someone shoved in front. Next to him, Abbie immediately looked up in interest. "What's so funny?"
He looked down at his little sister, instantly sure that he would rather stand on a lunch table naked than admit what he'd actually been laughing at. Unfortunately, his usual response to questions he didn't want to answer was to mouth off, and that wasn't going to work here. "The elves' shoes are stupid," he muttered finally, caught without a better answer.
She curled her hand through his, careful not to pull on his aching shoulder. "It's the bells," she said easily. "Boys don't like shoes that make music."
Well, now he felt guilty. "Sorry." He squeezed her hand, resolving to try harder to fake this whole Christmas spirit thing. Maybe he could steal her some lights or something. "I know how much this means to you."
Abbie beamed up at him. "Which is why you brought me." She leaned against him, hugging his arm with her free one. "Mom's always busy at work, and Dad..."
Her voice trailed off, uncertain, but Danny didn't need her to finish the sentence. Little kids shouldn't know the words for stuff like that. "You know you should always go to me for stuff like that, right? We don't want to worry Mom if we don't have to, and I don't want you talking to Dad at all."
She shot him the most loving "you're an idiot" look he had ever received. "Of course I always go to you. I know who takes care of me."
"And I always will." He cleared his throat, trying to pretend it didn't have a lump in it. "Now, why don't you tell me more about whatever new animal you've been reading up on this week."
As Abbie launched into an excited recitation of all the new things she'd learned about elephants, Matt scanned the line. The mall wasn't in the rich part of town, but they'd come early enough that it was mostly the moms who could afford not to work. A few of them were complaining that this Santa didn't do photo ops, and one of the brats they dragged away pointed and laughed at the duct tape wrapped around one of his sneakers.
Matt flipped him off, earning a scandalized look from the mother. His teachers would be so proud.
But even the most annoying lines moved eventually, and after enough people cleared out Santa finally came into view. Abbie leaned forward to get a better look, eyes wide with awe, but Matt was sure he'd seen better. The beard was more old wizard guy than Santa, for one thing, though he did give the guy points for it being real. He also wasn't quite fat enough to fit the usual standard, but the padding mall Santas had to wear probably stunk. He couldn't blame the guy for going without.
Of course, there might be other things to blame the guy for. One of the boys ahead of them was one of those kids who said "why?" every other word, and he had a whole list for the poor mall Santa. Matt might have had some sympathy for the guy – those kids could be super annoying – but the Santa's answers were weird. Like when the kid asked if Santa really ate all the cookies kids left out for him, any normal person would have just said yes. This guy, though, had a whole thing about how it was really the spirit of Christmas that kept him alive.
Even worse, the kid looked appalled. "So you don't like the cookies?"
"I do like the cookies," he said, using that same big, cheerful voice that should have been grating. Instead, seemed to have a relaxing effect on everyone, from annoying kids to their pinch-faced parents. "But what I really like about them is the love with which you put them out. There's so much emotion in the air during the holidays, and the nicer emotions are sweeter than any cookies. And with so many people in the world, I get so much sweet emotion during the holidays."
This time, Matt managed to keep his snort just inside his head. The guy would probably have a blast talking to his English teacher about chakras and healing crystals.
Finally, it was Abbie's turn. She ran up to stand just in front of Santa, but waited until he held out his arms before crawling into his lap. "Did you know that elephants are smarter than any animal except for big monkeys?" She leaned closer, voice also dropping to a whisper. "We also count as big monkeys."
He laughed, a big, booming sound. "I had not known that." He smiled down at Abbie. "Now, little one, what would you like for Christmas?"
Abbie's shoulders fell, voice turning wistful in the way that always broke Matt's heart. "You can't bring me anything. Dad told me that the reason we don't get Christmas presents is because he'd shoot you if he ever saw you on our property."
Matt, standing slightly to the side, swallowed back a fresh rush of rage at the man. He promised himself for the thousandth time that he'd get both Mom and Abbie out of there the second he turned 18. No matter what he had to do.
Santa had gone still, the same way adults always did when they were thinking a lot more than they were saying. "That wouldn't stop me, child. Bullets can't hurt Santa Claus."
"We probably shouldn't risk it." Abbie leaned forward, wrapping her arms around him. "I just wanted to give you a hug and make sure you were okay."
Santa hugged her back tightly, meeting Matt's eyes over the top of her head. Matt braced himself for questions he didn't want to answer, but in the end it didn't matter. DCFS was worse than useless, and even if the guy tried to call he didn't have either of their names.
When Abbie pulled away, Santa smiled down at her. "How would you like to be an honorary elf? My friend over there needs help handing out candy canes, and I think you're just the person to do it."
Abbie happily agreed -- big surprise there -- and ran off to help give candy to strangers. Once she was out of earshot, the guy put up a "Santa on break" sign before turning his attention to Matt. "And what do you want for Christmas, young man?"
Matt tore his gaze away from his sister's beaming expression, focusing on the old man. Shock, he'd found, was sometimes enough to distract people looking to do their good deed for the day. "Unless you're down for murdering my dad, I don't think there's anything you can get me."
Rather than look offended, or even horrified, the guy only looked more kind. "It must be dire circumstances indeed, for a son to want his father dead."
Matt's throat tightened at the sheer compassion in the man's voice. Knowing he was being stupid but not able to stop himself, he yanked down his collar to show the ugly purple bruise spread across his shoulder. He'd gotten good at popping it back in the socket, all on his own.
The man looked more solemn now. "I see," he said quietly. "And your mother?"
Denial came hot and fast. "Last time she tried to leave, Dad beat her so black and blue she couldn't go to work for a week." He swallowed. "She could probably leave, if it was just her. But she won't go without us, and one of Dad's old Army buddies is a lawyer."
"I see." There was no judgment in the words, and he stayed silent long enough to let Matt's heart to settle a little. Then he took a deep breath. "You know, your sister didn't make a request of me."
Matt blinked, thrown by the sudden change of topic. Maybe the guy was just desperate to stop a really uncomfortable conversation. "It was really nice of you to let her help with the candy canes, though."
His expression softened. "Your sister is a delight, but that isn't what I meant." He leaned towards Matt, intent. "The visits to Santas, as well as the letters, are invitations welcoming me into the homes of the children I visit. I have no invitation into your home."
Matt held his breath, feeling like all his hair was standing on end. It would be easy to do what he was asking -- a few simple words, said in his most sarcastic tone -- but he couldn't look away from the guy's eyes. They were too old for his face, like he'd seen firsthand all of humanity's biggest screw-ups for the last thousand years. Like he could give you all the gritty, horrible details, but he was too kind and too tired to try.
In pure defense, he grabbed for the first thing he could think of. "You should change your story about surviving on Christmas spirit. The world's such a dumpster fire there can't be much of that, these days."
He sat back, thoughtful, and the weird electric feeling was gone. His eyes just looked like everybody else's, now. "There are plenty of other emotions around the holidays. Not sweet, no, but you need more than sweets to keep you alive." He smiled. "And if I leave a little peace in my wake, then so much the better."
He had no idea what to say to that, which meant his instinct to mouth off kicked in. "It's still a weird way to answer the kid."
The guy laughed. "Probably. But I've found that children want honesty more than they do pretty stories." He cocked his head as if he heard something. "I believe your sister is about to join us."
Matt looked back at his sister, who was just now hugging the elf lady. Then she turned, running back to him with a glowing expression. "I love being an elf! They're so nice, and I made this little boy smile just by making the candy cane dance! Thank you, Santa!" She waved at him, who waved back even though he was just now accepting another little kid onto his lap.
Matt kept his eyes firmly forward as he hurried his little sister away.
The guy was a wackjob.
That was what Matt told himself, over and over again, in the days following their visit to Santa. He was just some New Age-type who took out his frustration at the hoardes of ankle-biters he had to deal with by saying weird crap to them. Hell, there were worse hobbies out there.
So he tried to forget. Abbie actually helped, careful not to say anything about it where there was a chance their dad might overhear. She got this glow in her eyes, sometimes, like she had a secret she was cuddling close to her chest, but he could pretend that was about anything.
There were some things, though, that he'd stopped pretending about a long time ago. The sound of his dad shouting could wake him up out of the deepest sleep, and even if it didn't the feel of Abbie burrowing into his bed would have done the trick. They lay there, listening, Matt's arms tight around Abbie and eyes squeezing shut against the urge to go in there. He'd sworn to his mother he wouldn't, no matter what he heard, but when a thump rattled the walls it was only Abbie's arms locked around him that kept him in place.
Finally, it had been quiet for long enough that Abbie's breath had slowed into sleep. He eased back, careful not to wake her as he slipped out of bed. Then, with practiced, silent feet, he made his way into the kitchen.
His mother was sitting on the floor, a ratty bathrobe around her shoulders and a pack of frozen peas pressed to her eye. He'd seen that package a lot, over the years, even though he didn't think they'd ever actually eaten peas.
When she saw him, she smiled. It looked as tired as she did. "Hey, kiddo."
Matt sat down beside her. That way, if his hands clenched, she wouldn't see it. "What was it this time?"
She sighed, the smile disappearing off her face. "It doesn't matter."
His fingers curled, mirroring the tight ball of rage in his chest. "He shouldn't do it at all."
She looked solemn. "No, he shouldn't." Moving the bag, she leaned over carefully and pressed a kiss against his cheek. "But I would rather it happen to me than you."
His eyes burned with all the tears he'd never let himself cry. "There has to be something I can do."
His mom looked like she was about to cry herself. "Just keep protecting your sister. Please."
Over the next few days, Matt thought long and hard about a lot of things he'd told himself not to think about. He stole a soda and a mini-pack of sandwich cookies from the convenience store on the corner, hiding it in his secret stash spot. They never had a Christmas tree, but he cleared off a spot on top of the cardboard box next to the bed.
On Christmas Eve, after his dad had safely passed out, Matt got one of his mom's coffee mugs from the kitchen. He carefully filled it with half the soda, then set it next to the unopened package of cookies. Then he sat back on his heels, looking at his meager offerings.
It was stupid. He was stupid.
Still, Matt closed his eyes. "Dear Santa," he whispered into the darkness, "please make sure he can't hurt us anymore."
He made himself go to bed after that, staring at the ceiling and trying hard not to think about anything at all. He had no idea when he went to sleep.
He woke up to Abbie shaking him. "Matt," she whispered furiously, half trying to drag him out of bed. "There are people in the house. They look like police."
It said a lot about their lives that the words panicked him the way they did. Motioning for her to be silent, he snuck over and pressed his ear against the crack of the door.
"... probably died in his sleep, ma'am." The man's voice had that same "professionally soothing" cadence as every school counselor who'd ever tried talking to him. "We won't know details unless you want an autopsy, but we didn't even see the usual signs of a heart attack."
Matt's own heart stopped.
"He was an alcoholic." His mom's voice wavered, though Matt recognized it as shock rather than grief. "Could that have something to do with it?"
"Who knows, ma'am?" There was a pause, like he was writing something down. "Maybe it's best to just tell yourself that he ran out of energy."
Abbie crowded in around his legs. "What is it?" she asked, tugging on his t-shirt. "What's happening?"
He closed his eyes, heart pounding a million times a minute. "Dad's dead," he managed.
She gasped, flinging her arms around his middle. "Promise?"
Outside their room, the man -- an EMT, Matt guessed -- kept talking as if he was in the middle of a tragedy. "If you need help talking to your children about--"
"It's fine." His mom sounded kind of choked as she cut the man off. "I'll take care of it."
They waited, breathless, while they took the body out of the house and drove away. When it was quiet, when it was safe, Mom finally opened the door. She still looked utterly overwhelmed, numb with shock, but in her eyes Matt could see the first sparks of dizzying hope. "Kids, I need you to come in the living room."
Matt followed her, expecting a careful explanation of the fact that Dad was dead. She'd warn them they had to pretend to be sad, maybe answer some--
His thoughts came to a screeching halt when they entered the living room. There, right next to the TV, was a brightly lit Christmas tree about as tall as Abbie. Underneath it was a new pair of tennis shoes, a big bag of fancy-looking coffee, and a huge stuffed elephant wearing an elf hat.
Abbie shrieked and ran forward to throw her arms around the elephant. As she did, Mom handed him a small red envelope. "This was next to it," she said quietly, still staring at the tree.
Slowly, Matt opened it. Inside was a silver-embossed card with "thank you for welcoming me into your home" written across the front. Inside was a spidery, surprisingly refined scrawl. I know you didn't ask for any of this, but we all deserve something sweet to enjoy. I appreciated the hope that came with the cookies and soda.
He looked up to see his mom staring at him now, something a little desperate in her eyes. "Who did this?" she whispered.
Matt took a deep breath, knowing there was only one answer he could possibly give. "Santa Claus."