The next hour goes by smoothly. Dean gradually grows less nervous, and the line moves at a steady pace. Lots of the kids are babies who can’t even talk, and all he has to do is hold them on his lap while Betty snaps a quick photo of the bewildered infant. Still, after an hour, we’re all getting tired. Betty, who is clearly the most seasoned of the three of us, makes the executive decision to close the cottage for a five-minute break.
The second she closes the door, Dean lets out a sigh of relief and rips off his beard. Underneath, he’s got the seedlings of what will likely be a dark stubble in a few more hours. He rubs at his chin. “Christ, that beard is itchy.”
I swallow hard. A few times in the last hour, my mind had wandered as I thought about what Santa might look like under his beard, but mostly, I’d thought I was being silly. But no—Dean is hot. He was even sort of cute with the beard, but now without it, he’s revealed his sexiness. Even more so when he yanks off the wig and hat, revealing dark brown hair that is sexily tousled.
“What?” Dean says to me.
He’s noticed me staring—how embarrassing.
“Um,” I say. “Your hair is… uh, messed up.”
He rubs at his short brown hair, which is decidedly sticking up. “Yeah, well, it’s only going to get worse.”
I point at the ugly green hat atop my skull. “I’m sure mine is just as bad.”
Good job, Callie. Talk about how bad your hair is in front of the hot Santa. Smooth move.
“There’s no way your hair is as bad as mine,” he says.
“Oh, I guarantee it is.”
He raises his eyebrows at me. “Show me.”
Our eyes meet for a split second and I feel my cheeks turning pink. I can’t believe I’ve got a crush on Santa. And that Santa is sort of flirting with me, even though I can see his cheeks are just as pink as mine must be.
Maybe I should ask him to lunch later.
“Maybe later,” I promise.
He smiles at me. “Okay, but it’s got to be today, because someone else will be Santa tomorrow.”
“Really?” My face falls. “How come?”
“I’m just covering for someone,” he says. “This isn’t my regular job.”
I narrow my eyes at him. What does he think—I’m some sort of professional elf? “This isn’t my regular job either. I’m just doing it for the week.”
“Right, I know,” he says quickly. “I didn’t mean that… well, you know. I’m just here for the day is all.” He takes a shaky breath. He’s nervous talking to me, for some reason. It’s adorable. “What do you usually do?”
“I’m a law student.”
“Seriously?” His blue eyes widen. “Wow, that’s…”
I raise my eyebrows, gearing up for a fight. “What?”
“It’s cool.” He grins at me. “I mean, I wouldn’t think the girl in the elf costume is a brilliant lawyer.”
“Well, I’m not a lawyer yet.” (And the “brilliant” part is definitely debatable too.)
I look at him appraisingly. “What is your ‘regular job’?”
He smiles almost apologetically. “Nothing as exciting as you. I have a master’s in computer science and I’m mostly doing freelance stuff now.”
We’re quite a pair. A lawyer elf and a computer scientist Santa.
“You don’t look like a computer guy,” I tell him.
I grin at him. “You don’t look geeky enough.”
He rewards me with another of those sexy laughs. “Oh, don’t worry. I’m plenty geeky.”
Our eyes meet again. And this time there’s no blushing. Only heat.
Yes, I’m definitely asking him to lunch.
“One more minute!” Betty calls out from behind her camera.
Dean looks down at his beard and wig regretfully. If I were him, I’d be walking a lap or two around the cottage, considering he’s stuck in that chair all day. But he doesn’t move. He just sits there.
The kids. They never. Stop. Coming.
This should be one of the tortures of hell. Having to play Santa for a long line of kids that never, ever shrinks. I know there’s a break coming up for lunch soon, which is the only thing keeping me sane right now. If we waited until all the kids in the line were gone, I’d be here till my death.
Santa needs a lunch break. And a beer.
The only thing making this morning even remotely tolerable is Callie. Sexy Callie. Sexy, smart Callie—a law student, for Christ’s sake. I love smart, sexy girls. She’s wearing a comically oversized elf costume, but all I can think about is what’s under the costume. At one point, she bent down to grab a candy cane and I caught the tiniest glimpse of cleavage, and I nearly lost my mind. I hope she didn’t catch me staring.
I love the way she struts around the cottage. I love how she takes the kids by the hand as she leads them to me. I love the way she smiles at the kids. I love the way she smiles at me.
I’m really into this girl. And she’s flirting with me—I can tell. Unfortunately, she has no clue about the wheelchair stashed in the closet. If she did, I’m sure she’d be acting awkward like everyone else does. She definitely wouldn’t be flirting.
I’m hoping I don’t have to reveal it to her until it’s time to leave for the day. Or maybe never. There’s no reason I can’t be the old Dean for one more day. But I realize this is a dangerous game.
The latest kid climbing into my lap is about five or six years old and skinny as a rail. His thighs are easily narrow enough for me to wrap my entire fist around them. I’m grateful for the smaller kids, which most of them thankfully are. If some kid weighing a hundred pounds bounded onto my lap, I’d be worried. I can’t feel the weight of these kids on my legs, and I’m scared tonight I’ll find bruises all over my thighs. Thank God I’ve got my wheelchair cushion under me.
“Hi, Santa,” the kid says.
I smile at him in that automatic way I’ve developed over the last two hours. “And what would you like for Christmas?”
He thinks for a minute. “Macaroni and cheese.”
“Macaroni and cheese?”
The boy looks up at me with big, brown eyes. “I’m just really hungry.”
Something tugs at my chest. Sometimes you forget not everyone out there has enough to eat. There are plenty of kids out there who are starving, even in our very own town—this boy is obviously one of them. All these other kids want toys and all this kid wants is a decent meal. It breaks my heart.
Maybe there’s something I could do to help. Aren’t there food banks that help people during the holidays? Maybe I could contact one of them for him and—
“Oh, for God’s sake, Nathan!” the kid’s mother snaps. “If you’re so hungry, why didn’t you eat the chicken nuggets and fries I got you from McDonald’s?”
The boy looks over at his mother. “I wanted macaroni and cheese!”
“All you eat is macaroni and cheese! You’re getting malnourished!” She fishes around in her purse and pulls out a box of chicken nuggets. She shakes it at him. “Eat this!”
“No! I want macaroni and cheese!”
Okay, well, apparently, I don’t need to be calling any food banks. I think the mom is right that the kid should be eating things besides mac and cheese, but I remember when I was a kid, all I ate for one month was frozen pizza every night. So I can’t throw stones.
Betty snaps a photo of a pouting Nathan on my lap, and now it’s time to break for lunch. Thank God.
The second the doors to the cottage slam shut, I rip off the beard and wig. Goddamn, those things are itchy. All I want to do is spend the next five minutes scratching my face. Then I’ll eat the sandwich I brought for my lunch. I’ve also got to get back in my wheelchair and hit the bathroom if I don’t want to have a wet lap for the afternoon session.
Callie is lingering around the cottage. I want her to leave so Betty can get my chair out. But she doesn’t budge. She’s just standing there, not leaving. Doesn’t she want to get some food? Do some shopping? I don’t care what she wants to do, as long as she gets the hell out of here.
“Hey,” Callie says finally. She’s got a tiny, nervous smile on her lips. “Do you… um, you want to grab some lunch in the food court?”
I swallow hard. I want to. I really, really want to. She has no idea how much.
“I probably shouldn’t,” I say, scratching at my chin.
The smile slips from her face. “Oh.”
“I mean,” I say quickly, “it would look bad for a guy in a Santa suit to be wandering around the food court. Might traumatize the kids. So… I’m just going to eat here.”
“I could bring back some food and eat with you here then,” Callie offers. “Keep you company?”
No. I can’t risk her getting back here before I’m back from the bathroom. And it’ll probably take forever in there because of this stupid Santa suit.
“Don’t worry about it,” I say. “You have a good time at lunch. I’ll be fine here.”
She hesitates for a moment before nodding. Any hint of a smile is completely gone from her face when she leaves the cottage. She thinks I rejected her.
I feel as bad as she looks. I want to have lunch with her. So much. She just doesn’t get it.
“Hey, Betty,” I say. “Can you grab my wheelchair from the closet?”
Betty lifts her eyes from her camera and gives me a pointed look. “I could have done it five minutes ago.”
She sighs and walks over to the closet, where my wheelchair is stuffed inside at an awkward angle. She pulls it out and pushes it across the room, close enough that I can climb inside. Right after I’ve made the transfer, I pull off my red Santa coat so the kids won’t realize it was me. Don’t want to traumatize them.
“You’re not giving Callie much credit,” Betty comments.
I don’t look up at her as I adjust my legs in the footplate. “I know what I’m doing. Believe me.”
“She likes you, Dean.”
“She doesn’t even know me.”
I don’t feel like explaining to Betty how every interaction I’ve had with women in the last year has involved patronizing pats on the shoulder and sympathetic smiles. This chair completely desexualizes me. I may as well cut off my balls. I can’t feel them anyway.
Even so, there’s part of me that considers going to the food court. Finding Callie and asking if I could join her for lunch. Maybe we’d have a great time. We could talk about what law school is like and make jokes about the kids we’ve seen so far today. And maybe we’d exchange phone numbers and plan on getting together again Saturday night.
But in the end, I know it’s all just a fantasy. Which is why after I hit the bathroom, I eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich alone in Santa’s cottage.
To be continued....