Rich drives me to the mall because getting myself a car with hand controls would involve a) my having enough money to purchase a car with hand controls and b) my leaving the house. No and no. So right now, I’m dependent on everyone else in the world for rides. As if my life couldn’t get any better.
Rich doesn’t have handicapped plates like my parents do, so he has to park in a spot where the spot to our right is empty so I have room to get out. Only when he’s going to get my wheelchair out of the trunk, someone swings into the spot next to ours. Of course they do. Because that’s my life these days.
“Hey!” Rich is waving his hands at the woman who pulled into the spot. “Hey, can you park somewhere else?”
The middle-aged woman getting out of the car looks at Rich like he just spoke to her in a Martian language. To be fair, it’s an unusual request.
I can see by craning my neck that Rich has already pulled one of my wheels out of the trunk and is waving it in the air now. Great—a scene. Just what I was hoping for.
“My brother is in a wheelchair,” Rich explains to the woman. “We need room for him to get out.”
The woman looks at me, sitting in the passenger seat. I’m attempting to slouch down as much as humanly possible without being on the floor. She gives him a skeptical look. “So park in the handicapped spots. That’s what they’re for.”
“Well, I don’t have a permit,” Rich says.
“So get one.”
“Come on, lady, he’s disabled. Have some heart.”
The woman has no heart. She throws up her hands and walks away from her car, saying once again, “Next time get a handicapped permit.” Meanwhile, I’m sitting shotgun, willing my brother not to cause any more of a scene. If he does, I’m out of here. To hell with the apartment.
But Rich doesn’t make a scene other than yelling “Merry Christmas!” at the woman, then storming back into the car, where he swears the entire time he’s looking for another spot. My original suggestion was for him to drop me off in front first and then find a spot himself, but he said it was “too much trouble.” Now we’ve spent over ten minutes in the process of parking. Luckily, we don’t have any more trouble at the next spot.
By the time we get to the entrance of the mall, I’m already exhausted and regretting this with every fiber of my being.
It’s only nine in the morning, but the mall is packed. I’ve always hated crowds, but now I really hate crowds. Especially when a family of five kids knocks into me near the entrance and I practically slam into a wall. Getting the money for this job and the apartment for a week isn’t enough. Rich is going to owe me his firstborn after this.
“Where’s the Santa court?” I ask Rich. I’m trying not to let on that I’m five seconds away from having a panic attack.
“Second floor,” he says.
I groan, dreading the journey to the second floor. The mall has two elevators and I don’t want to go in either of them. One is a tin can elevator the size of a broom closet all the way at the far end of the mall. The other is a glass elevator by the food court, which makes me want to throw up every time I use it. I’ve been terrified of that elevator since I was four years old. I don’t know what it is about glass elevators that makes me so damn queasy. But it’s still better than the tin can elevator.
There are a lot of people waiting for the glass elevator—more than the elevator can possibly hold. And all of those people are carrying five bags of packages. I feel my blood pressure going up and start to remember why I hadn’t left the house in ten days.
I hate Christmas.
The glass doors of the elevator swing open and the ocean of people starts to flow inside. It’s clear Rich and I won’t make it onto this elevator, and we’ll be lucky if we get on the next one. Except before I settle in to wait, a woman calls out, “Everybody needs to make room! There’s a man in a wheelchair who needs to board!”
For Christ’s sake…
“It’s okay,” I say quickly. “I can take the next one.”
“No, we need to make room,” the woman insists.
I try to protest again, but Rich hisses in my ear, “Just go, Dean! We don’t want to be here all day!”
I don’t want to go. I don’t want to be the “man in a wheelchair” who needs special treatment. I just wanted to be treated like any other twenty-seven-year-old guy who needs to wait his damn turn to get in the elevator. But they do make room for me, and at that point, it would be awkward if I refused. So I go inside with Rich, who they probably think is my nurse or something.
And of course, I end up right against the glass of the outside of the elevator, so I can see us rising in the air. I try to look away, but it’s hard. Rich watches my face, amused. He knows I’ve got a thing about heights. “You getting sick, Dean?” he asks.
“No,” I lie.
If this elevator takes one more second to reach its destination, I’m gonna hurl.
The elevator jolts to a halt on the second floor. The two boys next to me are horsing around, probably because they’re bored out of their skulls from being dragged out on a shopping trip first thing in the morning. I feel for them, I really do—or at least, I would if my situation weren’t so much worse. And also, their behavior is making me anxious. Sure enough, just as I’m pushing through the elevator doors, one of the kids bashes into me and knocks my right foot clean off the footplate.
The poor kid looks nothing short of traumatized. He stares at me, open-mouthed, as I lift my leg back into place.
“Mason!” the boy’s mother snaps at him. “Say you’re sorry.”
“Sorry, Mister,” the boy mumbles.
“It’s fine,” I mumble back. My manners aren’t any better than a ten-year-old kid’s.
“Are you all right?” the mother asks me, her brows scrunched together like her kid may have seriously injured me.
I just nod at her because I don’t feel like talking to anyone ever again.
Santa’s village is at the far end of the second floor of the mall. I get winded pushing myself there, which is a sad commentary on how little exercise I’ve been getting lately. Maybe not leaving the house for ten days straight isn’t the best idea ever.
My chest tightens when I see all the fake snow and the giant Christmas tree all lit up. I still remember how excited I used to get when I was a kid and my mom brought me here. I used to look forward to it all year. I wish I had good nostalgia right now, but it’s just making me feel uneasy.
In the center of Santa’s Village is Santa’s cottage. It’s a small faux-wooden cottage, covered in fake snow and surrounded by a bright red fence. I know from personal experience that Santa sits inside the cottage, which is where the kids go to meet him.
I keep my hands on the pushrims of my chair, reluctant to wheel any further. Rich doesn’t seem to notice until he’s several paces ahead of me. He turns back to look at me and waves his hand impatiently. “Come on! We don’t have much time before the kids start coming.”
Well, that lights a fire under me.
Inside the cabin is a giant chair where I’m supposed to be sitting, which is next to a fireplace. The fireplace is fake—or at least, I hope it is because there’s no way I’m getting my ass out of here in a fire. There’s a giant bucket filled to the brim with little candy canes, which I suppose we’ll be giving out to the kids after they’ve told me what they want for Christmas.
There’s also a woman in her forties with gray-streaked hair who is in front of the giant chair, fiddling with a fancy-looking camera. The second I see her, my heart sinks.
“Hi, Rich,” the woman says.
“Hey, Betty,” Rich says. “This is my brother, Dean.”
Betty waves at me. “Hi, Dean.”
The polite, normal thing to do right now would be to say “hi” back. But instead, I stare up at my brother, my blood boiling. “Who is she?”
He shrugs. “She takes the photos. I filled her in on what we’re doing. Don’t worry—Betty won’t rat us out.”
“You mean I have to pose for photos?”
“Of course you do.” Rich shrugs again as if failing to mention I was going to be the center of a hundred Christmas photos is inconsequential. “Where do you think all those photos of kids with Santa come from? Magic?”
I look at the camera then down at my lap. “Forget it. I’m not doing this.”
“Dean!” Rich looks panicked now. “Come on, don’t do this to me. I’ve got to be at Hannigan’s in less than an hour. You promised.”
“You didn’t say anything about photos.”
“Shit, I didn’t think I had to!”
Betty regards us both with amusement. She steps out from behind her camera and I can see she’s wearing an elf costume. “Can I say something please?” she asks me.
I avert my eyes, not really wanting to bring a stranger into this family dispute. “Uh huh.”
“Look,” she says. “The photos aren’t a big deal. I’m quick—I promise. And you’ll be in your costume so you won’t be recognizable in the pictures. Nobody will know it’s you in a million years.”
Both Rich and Betty are looking at me expectantly. I really don’t want to do this. But I’ve reached the point of no return here. Plus, I don’t want to be the Grinch who refused to pretend to be his brother on Christmas week and spoiled Christmas.
“Fine,” I grumble.
Rich gets out the suit, which is, not surprisingly, bright red with white trims. It looks extremely hot. I wore jeans today instead of my usual uniform of a T-shirt and sweatpants, but the jeans are going to have to come off to get this suit on comfortably. I could probably keep my T-shirt on, so I don’t have to strip down naked in front of Betty the Camera Lady.
“You need help changing?” Rich asks me.
“No,” I say irritably.
Usually I dress in bed, but I can do it in my chair. The upper body part is easy—I have great upper body strength, even better than before. My legs are harder because I can’t move or feel them, but I learned how to do this in rehab. I get my jeans off, then put on the furry Santa pants. I take off my jacket, so I can put on the red jacket. I stuff the fake belly down my shirt, which I badly need because I’m thirty pounds lighter than I was before I got hurt.
“I should probably transfer into the chair now,” I say, eying Santa’s chair. There’s a red velvet cushion on the seat, but if I’m going to be sitting there all day, especially with a bunch of kids hopping on and off my lap, I’m worried it won’t be enough. I want to use my wheelchair cushion. I don’t think anyone will notice.
I scoot my butt forward in the wheelchair, take my legs out of the footplate, then transfer myself in one swift motion. Before I can get settled, I grab my cushion and put it behind me. Then I back up so my butt is on the cushion.
“You really need that?” Rich asks.
“I really do,” I practically spit at him.
“Okay, okay…” He looks down at my wheelchair. “So I could put your chair out in the—”
“The chair doesn’t leave this room,” I say firmly.
Rich looks like he might argue with me, but I won’t bend on this. I need my chair. I am screwed without it. I’m not going to risk something happening to it in this crowded mall. I’m not letting it out of my sight.
Finally, Rich finds a closet in the cottage where he can stash the chair. I can’t see the chair, obviously, but I can see the closet so I know my chair is safe. Betty can get it out for me when I need it, or if worse comes to worse, I could drag myself over and get it, but I hope it wouldn’t come to that.
Last, I’ve got to put on the beard, wig, and hat. It’s the part I’m looking forward to the least, and that’s saying a lot. When I get everything in place, I feel ridiculous. Betty asks me if I want a mirror, but I really don’t. All I know is I want this over with so I can rip this hot, itchy beard off my face.
“It’s not that bad,” Betty says, a smile twitching at her lips.
“You owe me so much,” I say to Rich.
“I know,” he says, his own lips curling into a smile too. “Listen, I gotta run now. But the kids will start coming in about ten minutes. I’ll be by to pick you up at six.”
This day already feels endless.
I crack open a candy cane while I watch my brother walk out of Santa’s cottage. I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Even at my best, I wouldn’t have enjoyed doing something like this. But I remind myself if things go south, I can always leave. I’m not stuck here. Rich is the one whose job is on the line—not me.
“Hey, stupid question—this is Santa’s cottage, right?”
I look up and that’s when I see her standing at the door. A girl around my age, wearing the ugliest elf costume I’ve ever seen. It’s as big and bulky as my own Santa suit with crazily oversized shoes and a silly hat, but at least I can see her brown hair that curls at the ends and her flawless, pale skin.
“Are you the new elf?” Betty asks her.
The girl nods. “Yes. I’m Callie.”
I’d assumed Betty was the elf. I figured she was doubling as elf and photographer. I mean, how many freaking elves do we need here? But apparently, this girl Callie is going to be the main elf, who will lead children into the cottage and make sure they each leave with a candy cane.
And she’s beautiful.
The best news I’ve heard all day is that I’ll be in Santa’s cottage, which means I won’t be out in the general public of the mall, visible to all mallgoers. I’m not vain—I swear. I just feel like an idiot in this costume. The more hidden I am, the better.
The woman taking photographs, Betty, seems really nice. She shakes my hand warmly when I come in and explains to me what I’m supposed to do. Thank God, because I hadn’t been given much in the way of instructions aside from: Show up in ugly elf costume.
The guy dressed as Santa seems like a jerk. I can barely see his face at all between the giant beard and wig, but when I introduce myself, he just mumbles a hello. He doesn’t even stand up or make eye contact or something remotely politely like that. He doesn’t even introduce himself, but I hear Betty call him “Dean” so I guess he’s Dean. Nice to meet you, Dean.
Hopefully he’ll at least be friendly with the kids. There’s nothing worse than a grumpy Santa. If a kid’s been waiting in line an hour to meet him, they deserve better than a growled “Merry Christmas.”
At eleven o’clock, Santa’s cottage is officially open. Betty gives me word to let in the first of the already lengthy line of children. As I’m walking to the door, I see Betty put her hand on the grouchy Santa’s shoulder and say just loud enough for me to hear: “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”
Maybe Santa isn’t grumpy. Maybe he’s just nervous.
As soon as I open the door, the first kid shoots into the cottage like a lightning bolt. It’s a little girl, wearing an absolutely adorable dark red velvet coat. Without having to be told, she scrambles onto Dean’s lap.
Dean just stares at her like he’s not sure what to do. After an awkward moment, he blurts out, “Oh! Um, what do you want for Christmas?”
“Well,” the little girl says, “I’d like an Oonies Mega Starter Pack, Doctor Dreadful Zombie lab, and a Hatchimals.”
“Oh.” Santa Dean looks befuddled. He tugs at his beard and for a second, I catch a glimpse of his blue eyes and realize how young he actually is. I don’t know his real hair color, but it’s definitely not white like the wig. He’s probably about my age. “Have you been good?”
The little girl stares at him. “Don’t you know?”
“Of course I do,” Dean says quickly, and I almost laugh. “I’m just double-checking Checking twice. You know.”
The girl gives him a skeptical look, but accepts his answer. Then it’s photo time, which is obviously the girl’s forte. She poses adorably with her little hands folded in her lap and her head cocked to one side, and Betty snaps the picture in an instant. I hand her a candy cane and herd her out the door on the other side of the cottage. We’re an assembly line.
“Good job,” I say to Dean, because he looks so anxious.
“Oh.” He laughs and I realize he has a cute laugh. Nice eyes and a nice laugh. I wonder what he looks like under the wig and beard. I’m suddenly unbearably curious. “Thanks. I… I’ve never done this before.”
I look down at my ridiculous costume. “Me too. But I think we can fumble through it together. And on the bright side, I don’t think anyone we know will see us like this.”
He laughs again. “Yeah, true.”
Dean may not be as grumpy as he seemed, but he’s obviously not very talkative. Not that we have time to talk, since the line is growing as we speak. It’s going to be a very, very long day.
The next kid in line is another girl, around six years ago. Like the first girl, she climbs onto Dean’s lap without hesitation. I remember being in line to see Santa where the kids were terrified of the man in the red suit, but none of the kids seem to have this problem with Dean. He seems more scared of them than they are of him.
“What do you want for Christmas?” Dean asks the girl.
The girl recites, “I want a My Little Pony Canterlot and Seaquestria Tower with a light-up tower.”
The girl’s father groans, “No! No more My Little Pony junk! I can’t stand it anymore, Brianna!”
The girl, Brianna, glares at her father. “It’s not up to you! Santa gets to decide!” She turns back to Dean. “Santa, please?”
“Um.” Dean looks at the father, who gives him an exasperated shrug. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Brianna sits there for another moment, looking at Dean thoughtfully. “You smell nice, Santa.”
He lets out a surprised laugh. “Oh. Um, thanks.”
“You smell like peppermint.”
“Well, I ate a candy cane.”
The little girl’s eyes widen. “You’re allowed to do that?”
He shrugs. “Sure. You don’t want Santa’s breath to smell bad, do you?”
I laugh myself this time—I can’t help it. I remember when I was a kid, I sat on the lap of a Santa who had a bad case of coffee-breath. I appreciate Dean’s attempt to be a nice-smelling Santa. Good to know in addition to having nice eyes and a nice laugh, he also smells nice.
And now I sort of want to smell him.
To be continued...