It’s subdued for a while after that bully dad leaves with his son. I could tell Dean wanted to say a whole lot more to that asshole, but it was better he didn’t. When you have service jobs, there are always going to be customers who treat you like crap. You just have to suck it up.
So Dean sucked it up.
We get back in our rhythm eventually, and mostly all the kids are really cute. And the parents are nice enough, even if they’re getting progressively more stressed out as the day goes on. Soon enough, we’ve got half an hour left till quitting time. I can’t wait. My poor elf feet are killing me.
I see Dean rubbing the small of his back and shifting in his seat. He winces and adjusts his position.
“Back hurting?” I ask him.
He looks at me in surprise before yanking his hand away. “No, I’m good.”
“You should walk it off,” I tell him. “You’ve been sitting for way too many hours. We could take another quick break.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he mutters.
I shrug. I guess he wants to get this whole thing over with so he can go home. I can’t blame him.
Before our next kid comes in, we get a visit from a man in his late twenties, who seems to be cutting in line. The guy is smiling nervously and looks sweaty in an overly puffy pea-green winter coat. “Can I talk to you guys for a minute?”
I look over at Dean and Betty. They both nod.
“So here’s the deal.” The guy swipes at his sweaty forehead. “My girlfriend wanted to go see Santa, so she’s waiting in the line. Except we’ve been together three years and I was thinking I’d like to use this as an opportunity to propose to her.”
I exchange looks with Dean. “What do you have in mind?” he asks.
“So she’d been hinting at getting married lately,” the guy says, “and I was putting the idea in her head that she should ask Santa for an engagement ring. So I’m hoping that’s what she’s going to ask for.” He smiles nervously. “And then I’ll break out the ring.”
I can foresee many things going wrong with this plan, but I keep my mouth shut. Dean nods again. “Sure, sounds romantic.”
As soon as the guy leaves the cottage, I roll my eyes at Betty and Dean. I know the guy was trying to be romantic, but the whole request sort of irritated me.
“Kind of sexist, don’t you think?” I say.
Dean raises his eyebrows. “Why?”
“Because his whole plan is predicated on his girlfriend asking for an engagement ring for Christmas!” I roll my eyes again. “I mean, it’s not like that’s the only thing a woman would want.”
“He seemed to think that’s what she’d ask for.”
“Yeah, well.” I shake my head. “Ten bucks says she’ll ask for something besides an engagement ring.”
Dean pulls his beard down so I can get the full effect of his grin. “You’re on, Callie.”
This will be the easiest ten bucks I’ve ever made.
It takes another twenty minutes for the guy and his girlfriend to make their way to the cottage. The girl is short and chubby and really adorable. I like her instantly, and even though I want to get my ten bucks, I also am secretly hoping the proposal works out as planned. Unfortunately, her boyfriend looks about ten times more anxious than he did last time he was in here. He’s got beads of sweat glistening on his forehead, so I can only imagine what his armpits look like under that coat. I hope he doesn’t get cold feet. If he chickens out after all this planning, I might have to slug him.
“Go ahead, Lucy,” the guy says to his girlfriend. “Sit on his lap.”
“Oh my God, this is so weird, Jared!”
“It was your idea!”
Lucy is fighting off a serious case of the giggles, but she makes his way over to Dean and settles herself on his lap. Before he can say anything, she confides in him, “I feel really silly doing this.”
“Nobody is too old for Santa’s lap,” Dean assures her. He winks at me. “And what would you like for Christmas, young lady?”
I can see Jared reaching into his pocket. I don’t have ten bucks to lose, but I still want Lucy to ask for the ring. I’m rooting for Jared.
“What I want more than anything for Christmas,” Lucy says, a big grin on her face, “is a sectional sofa!”
I can see Jared’s face fall. And… I just won ten bucks! Score!
I mean, poor guy.
“A sectional sofa?” Jared asks weakly.
She nods eagerly. “Like that one we saw at Jordan’s Furniture? Oh my God, I love that sofa! I know our place is small, but it’s so comfy. What do you think, Jared?”
“Uh, I guess so…”
Jared shoots Dean a helpless look. I hate to say “I told you so,” but…
“Is there anything else you’d like for Christmas?” Dean presses her.
“No, that’s it.”
Dean smiles at her. “Are you sure?”
Lucy looks up at Jared and flashes him a shy smile. “Well, now that you mention it…” Okay, here we go. I see Jared reaching into his pocket again. “I really, really would love those Manolo Blahniks we saw when we were shopping yesterday. The suede ones? Oh my God, I just adore them.”
“Manolo Blahniks?” Dean repeats dumbly.
“They were totally gorgeous,” Lucy sighs. “But so expensive. I could never spend that kind of money. I mean, not on myself…” She shoots Jared a pointed look.
Poor Jared. He had this romantic plan for a proposal, and all he’s managed to get himself is a couch and a pair of ridiculously expensive suede pumps.
Lucy gets up off Santa’s lap, her mission apparently completed. Jared looks shell-shocked and miserable. His hands are nowhere near his pocket. Well, there’s always New Years to propose. I’ve heard that’s pretty romantic. Not that I know anything about romance. The last guy I dated thought the height of chivalry was opening my beer bottle for me.
“And how about you?” Dean is addressing Jared now. “Is there anything that you would like for Christmas?”
Jared’s eyes widen. I see what Dean is doing—he’s giving Jared an opportunity to save his romantic proposal in Santa’s cottage. It’s a really nice thing to do. And he’s not even making Jared sit on his lap.
I wonder if Dean is a romantic at heart. I wonder if he’d twist off the cap of my beer bottle for me.
“Actually,” Jared says as he falls to one knee, “there is one thing I’d like for Christmas.” He takes Lucy’s hand in his as her own eyes turn into saucers. “I’d like for you to be my wife, Lucy.” He smiles nervously as he presents the blue velvet box to her. “Will you marry me?”
“Yes!” Lucy squeals before he even manages to get the box open. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Does it make me a cynic that I’m wondering if he’ll still have to get her the sofa and shoes?
Lucy and Jared are arm-in-arm as they exit Santa’s cottage. I hold out my fist to Dean, who laughs as he gives it a bump. “Nice save, Santa,” I say.
He buffs his fingernails on his red coat. “Thanks, Elf.”
Our eyes meet for a moment. Every moment I spend with Dean, my stupid crush on him only deepens. I wonder if there’s any chance he’ll ask for my number before we leave. I’d like to think it’s a possibility. It’s a depressing thought that after today, I might never see this guy again.
We only have a few more kids after that. I hand out the last of the candy canes to a girl with adorable blond pigtails and… drum roll please… Santa’s cottage is officially closed. I made it through one day of this nonsense. Thank God.
Dean yanks off the beard and hat immediately after I shut the doors to the cottage. He rubs at his face for a good minute. Even though I hate my costume with a passion, I have to grudgingly admit his could be worse. Mine is mostly just ugly, but his is hot and itchy. But he does look awfully cute with his hair all mussed from the hat. I’d love to see how he looks in jeans and a T-shirt.
“Hey,” I say.
Dean looks up at me with his sexy blue eyes. “Yes?”
“Don’t forget you owe me ten bucks.”
He laughs. I still love the sound of his laughter. God, he’s hot. “You’re right.”
“Don’t try to plead poverty. I’m way poorer than you.”
He shakes his head. “I would never.”
I watch him undoing a few buttons on his Santa coat. I can see all the padding he’s got stuffed down there. I can also see he’s got on a T-shirt underneath, and I can’t help but wonder what he looks like in that T-shirt. I’m willing to bet he looks pretty good.
“Maybe you can treat me to dinner instead,” I blurt out.
Oh my God. Why did I say that? What is wrong with me?
I must have that disease where you say things without meaning to say them. Tourette’s, right? I have Tourette’s. It’s the only explanation I can think of for inviting Dean to dinner when he very soundly rejected my lunch invitation. Because I’d never do anything that stupid on purpose, right?
I need to go to a doctor and get tested for Tourette’s.
For a moment, Dean just stares at me. He’s really sexy. He’s pulled out the stuffing from his suit and now I can even see the outline of some muscles under his T-shirt. I wish I could see him without that suit. Or without anything at all.
“It’s okay,” he finally says. He reaches into the pocket of his suit and pulls out a wallet. “I’ve got a tenner.”
He slides out a ten-dollar bill and thrusts it in my direction. I snatch it from his hand, unable to look him in the eyes. I am thoroughly humiliated. Again.
“So I guess I’ll see you around,” I mumble.
I give Dean one last look. I’ll never see him again. If someone else is going to be Santa, there won’t be any excuse for us to spend time together. But maybe I’ll see him around the mall sometime. We’ll walk by each other in front of The Gap, and I’ll have to avert my eyes and pretend he didn’t reject me twice.
I hate Santa.
Betty won’t stop giving me looks after Callie leaves. She doesn’t tell me outright I was an idiot for rejecting her dinner invitation, but she might as well have. She doesn’t get it though. I know what I’m doing.
When Betty gets my chair out of the closet one last time and I climb into it, my relief is palpable. I want to kiss the chair. There are days when I hate my wheelchair, but I can’t really hate it because it’s my legs, and without it, I’m screwed. I love that I can now move around freely—I’m no longer glued to that goddamn Santa chair. It’s amazing. I want to do laps around the mall.
“How are you getting home?” Betty asks me, as she packs up her camera.
“I’ll be fine,” I tell her. “You don’t have to babysit me.”
She shoots me a look. “I was going to offer you a ride home if you didn’t have one, but if you’re going to be a jerk, forget it.”
My cheeks grow warm. “Sorry, Betty. It’s been a long day. My brother is going to pick me up, so… you know, I’ll be fine.”
Her face softens. “You sure? I don’t mind.”
I nod. “Yeah. Thanks for offering though.”
She slings her camera bag over her shoulder. “I know you’re going to say to mind my own business, but I really think you should consider giving Callie a call.”
“I don’t know her number.”
“You can look it up.”
“I don’t even know her last name.”
Callie Quinn. Somehow the name suits her.
There can’t be many Callie Quinns out there. I could look her up. I could friend her on Facebook.
Oh shit. If Callie looks me up on Facebook, she’s going to see tagged photos of me sitting in a wheelchair. Shit, shit, shit.
Then again, I never told her my last name is Palmer. She probably doesn’t know it. And at this point, I feel confident she’s not going to be looking me up. She probably hates me.
I wait until Betty is gone to strip off my Santa pants and fumble back into my jeans. This will be the last time I ever dress up as Santa, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The kids were cute. And it was nice helping that guy propose to his girlfriend.
I wonder if I’ll ever get married. Before this happened to me, I used to take it as a given. Of course I’d eventually find some nice girl and get married. Everyone does.
Now? I’m not as sure. Just getting a girl to go out with me seems impossible some days. Getting a girlfriend—someone who wants to date me on a regular basis—that will probably take a while. And actually getting a woman to agree to spend the rest of her life with me?
I don’t want to think about it. If I’m alone, that’s fine. That’s just the way it will be. As long as I can get the hell out of my parents’ house.
My brother is supposed to be here by now. I call his number and get nervous when he doesn’t pick up. Betty is long gone, so I can’t bum a ride off her anymore. If Rich leaves me stranded at the mall after I did him a solid, I’m going to murder him. Getting a cab this close to the holidays will be impossible.
Fortunately, Rich does pick up the phone the second time I call him. He sounds almost surprised to hear from me. As if he didn’t know I was going to call him at this exact time and ask him to pick me up. My brother is an irresponsible idiot sometimes.
“Get your ass over here,” I tell him. “We’re done for the day and I want to go home.”
Also, I don’t want there to be any chance of bumping into Callie.
“I still have one more delivery I’ve got to make,” Rich says. “I’ll be there in… maybe an hour?”
“An hour!” I yell at the phone. A vein throbs in my temple. “Screw you, Rich. Get over here and pick me up.”
“I can’t.” His voice is distracted. “It’s impossible. Look, either get a cab or else just hang out in the mall for an hour. Go get some dinner in the food court.”
“I’m not hungry,” I whine, even though I am, in fact, extremely hungry.
“I’m sorry, man,” Rich says. “Look, I’ll meet you in the food court in an hour. Okay?”
I grumble something unintelligible and hang up on him.
So now I’ve got two options. I can either go up to the food court and risk running into Callie, or I can pathetically hide in Santa’s Cottage and starve. Eventually, hunger wins out over pride. All I’ve eaten today is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and I’m feeling lightheaded.
Even though I hate the crowds at the mall, I always liked the food court. I like the free samples they hand out. I like the food, even though I suspect the chicken all comes from a single source and they season it depending on which kiosk you’re at—Japanese, Cajun, Chinese, etc. I end up going to the specialty grilled cheese kiosk, where I get a grilled cheese with tomato, basil, Muenster cheese on white bread. It reminds me of when I was in college and used to make grilled cheese sandwiches in my dorm room using an iron.
“It’ll be a few minutes for the sandwich,” the cashier tells me. She gives me that condescending smile I’ve gotten used to. That smile is the reason I couldn’t accept Callie’s dinner invitation—I never wanted her to smile at me like that. “Do you need me to bring it to you?”
“No, I’ll wait.” I’ll grab an extra plate for insulation so I don’t burn my legs when I put the sandwich on my lap. I’ve managed to scald my thighs a whopping three times since I’ve been home. A burn means the muscle spasms in my legs kick up a notch and also a red area I have to worry won’t heal. It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that I’m only twenty-seven and non-healing wounds are a serious concern for me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice some movement in the relatively empty food court. I look to my right, and it takes me a second to recognize one of the kids who visited Santa’s Cottage a couple of hours ago. Joey. The kid who wanted the science kit, but his dad wanted him to get a baseball glove. And then the father yelled at me on his way out. Not my most heartwarming moment of the day.
The little boy, Joey, is carrying his dinner tray to the trash bin. The dad is yelling at him to hurry up, so naturally, the kid trips and spills everything on the floor. I watch his half-filled soda go flying and a few chicken nuggets scatter on the ground. The father’s eyes go wide—he’s obviously livid.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Joe?” his father yells. “You’re so clumsy!”
Joey says something to his father, but his voice is so soft, I can’t hear him. I watch him go over to a table to grab some napkins to clean up the mess.
“Leave it!” the father yells. “The janitors will clean it up. That’s what they’re here for.”
Except Joey keeps cleaning the food, at least trying to pick up the chicken nuggets. It’s making his father even angrier—his face turns red and he snaps, “Are you deaf? I said to leave it!”
That’s when the father grabs Joey’s forearm hard enough that the kid lets out a yelp. He yanks him clear off the ground by his arm. And if that’s not bad enough, when he pulls Joey up by the arm, the boy’s shirt lifts up and I see the edge of what looks like a dark bruise on his rib cage.
I look around to see if anyone else saw what I just did. I guess to everyone else, it doesn’t look like anything so bad. People are stressed out this week. Parents get easily frustrated with their kids—it’s almost normal. Except I saw the way the father talked to his kid in the cottage. And that bruise on his chest—I can’t ignore that. I’ll see that bruise in my sleep. I remember the way Joey settled into my lap so gingerly and I’d thought it was for my benefit, but now I wonder what else was hurting him.
I want to kill that man.
Before I know what I’m doing, I find myself wheeling over to them. I’ve got to say something. Do something. I don’t know. But I can’t just let them walk out. Luckily, the kid is moving slow enough, even though he’s being yanked along by the arm, that I’ve got time to catch up.
“Hey!” I say.
The father slows to a stop and turns to look at me. He’s not so big. Bigger than I would be if I could stand, but not by much. I’m sure he weighs more than I do too, but that’s not saying a lot these days. He’s a lot older than I am—probably in his early forties. Balding. A beer belly. A couple of years ago, I could have taken him easily.
“We don’t have any money for charities,” the man says to me. Because obviously if a guy in a wheelchair talks to him, it’s because I’m collecting for a charity. “Sorry. Go bother someone else.”
Before he can turn away, I say to him, “You shouldn’t hit your kid.”
The father’s eyes widen. He releases his death grip on his son’s arm, which I take as a tiny victory. But his face has turned a disturbing shade a maroon. He doesn’t seem thrilled with me. “What the hell did you say to me?”
“I’m just saying.” I stare him in the eyes. “I see the way you’re yanking your son around and you shouldn’t do that.”
The man takes a menacing step toward me, but I don’t flinch. I’m not afraid of this asshole. “I don’t need to take childrearing tips from anyone. Mind your own goddamn business, Gimpy Joe.”
“It’s illegal,” I throw in.
“Are you saying you’re going to call the cops on me!” the guy practically spits at me. “You’re out of your goddamn mind. If you think I won’t hit a guy in a wheelchair, you’ve got another thing coming.”
He’s not really going to hit me. I don’t believe that. I’ve seen my brother do far worse than what I’m doing right now, and it was rare for anybody to take a swing at him. Maybe if the guy were drunk. But he won’t hit me in the food court of the mall. Not a guy in a wheelchair.
“Look, you shouldn’t blow up at him just because he wants a science kit,” I say.
The man narrows his eyes at me. In that instant, I know I should have just quit while I was ahead. But then I see the recognition dawning on his face and know this has now escalated to another level. “You’re the guy who was dressed up as Santa!” he cries. “I recognize your voice. Holy shit. They let cripples be Santa?”
I hate the word “cripple.” I know there are guys in chairs who use it jokingly, the same way black guys use the N-word maybe. But I’m not there. When I hear the word used to refer to my situation, it’s like a knife in the chest. It’s a reminder that I’m stuck in a goddamn wheelchair for the rest of my life, unable to walk like every other person on the planet, all because of one stupid night.
“Fuck you,” I snap at him. “At least I don’t beat up on a defenseless kid.”
“Defenseless,” the guy snorts. “Yeah, you should talk. Look at you. You better watch your mouth.”
“Or else what, asshole?”
Maybe I shouldn’t have said that last part. Maybe it was dumb to practically dare the guy to hit me.
But even so, I’m surprised when his fist flies through the air.
To be continued…
P.S. The entire book version of Santa Crush is being released tomorrow! I will post an update next week, but if you want to download the whole version, you have that option :)