(estimated reading time: 7 minutes)
Spilled Milk and Curbside Cookies
Something died in the Klaxton house. The response to it was rather slow, partly because the symptoms of its demise did not present for over two weeks. January thirteenth, around there, was the likeliest date for when the first needle changed color. The evergreen dropped the ever, and then the green, and then some of the needles themselves.
Eighty percent were still on their holiday tree when it was dragged out to the curb on January eighteenth along with the rest of the garbage. For some reason Mr. Klaxton stood it up, with a bin on either side to pinch it upright, perhaps thinking it would be easier for the collectors to move if they could tip it into their arms.
Shepard was the last in the cul-de-sac to bring his trash out for collection, timing it pointlessly close to the 10 AM pick-up. Judging the Klaxtons for letting a tree rot in their living room for weeks was not something he could reasonably do, not when the black bin he wheeled to the end of his driveway contained over a hundred beer bottles and seltzer cans from his own new year’s party. Arranging them into a pyramid next to his television and admiring it for days had not made the whole procrastination process any more sanitary.
It was too hot for January, the sun reflecting off the asphalt as if off the hood of a car. The plastic handle of the bin was scalding his hand, so once the bin was at the foot of the driveway he pulled it off and put it on the back of his neck, thinking the area might need protection from one of those five-minute sunburns, like the sun had targeted him individually and focused its magnifying glass.
He could’ve been back inside in thirty seconds, and stayed there until January got its affairs ordered and started acting itself again, but he foolishly glanced down the curve of the street to see if he was once again the last one to prepare his refuse. He was, but the Klaxtons’ didn’t stay prepared.
The wheels on their bins scraped as they shifted. The dead tree collapsed onto the fresh black of the street, generating an explosion of brown needles, and the shedding uncovered something for Shepard to squint at, at first sure it was an illusion of the sun baking the air over the street.
It looked like a face of lidless eyes and withered nose. The teeth were perfect, but the lips were drawn too far back to smile or frown, so they were just on display like a trophy in its case. The mummified illusion clung to the tree trunk, dressed for the past season instead of the weather, wrapped up in woolly red and fluffy white. It asserted itself.
“Help me!” it shout-croaked at Shepard, reaching out with a gloved hand. It couldn’t sustain the effort, and when its elbow hit the pavement more needles fell, some landing in the sheath of its retracted lower eyelids. There was no strength to blink them away, so they just sat there on sclera that looked like the skin of a sphinx cat. Shepard swallowed, but the sun had robbed him of saliva already, so it went down like a crumpled pizza crust. If he didn’t know better he would’ve said that was Santa Claus baking on the pavement.
Without a word, and without much choice in the matter, he stepped toward it, aghast that the visage only grew more detailed instead of letting itself be blinked away. The generous man had fallen on hard times as well as the street, rosy cheeks reduced to dried apricots, bowl full of jelly overturned and emptied into the storm drain. His iconic outfit hung off him as if out to dry as his wiry white beard broke through a corpse’s chin like fungal stalks piercing their subterranean home to throw off spores.
“Help me Shepard!” the man repeated, unable to move his arm a second time. Toppling the tree had taken the last of his energy.
“You know my name?” he asked dumbly. The sun didn’t let up, the back of his neck roasting along with his ears now too.
“I know the names of all the good little boys,” the shriveled Santa claimed, eyes locked to his, perhaps incapable of looking away. “Quickly, I’m dying. I need palliatives.”
“Wha- what happened to you?”
“The Klaxtons,” Santa growled, his rage shaking his needle cloak like a porcupine rattling its quills. “They are naughty. I tripped, but instead of helping they kept me, restrained me, trying to negotiate. Their evil children wanted all the presents to go to them, an endless undeserved stream of gifts. A glut for the sickos, with nary a smudge of coal to make them reflect.”
“That’s… terrible. Should I… call an ambulance?”
“No!” Santa screamed, as if the street had just dropped out from under him. “My glamour keeps most from even seeing me. They would think you crazy Shepard. Only the best boys and girls, and the worst, can see me. I am impossible, so I only exist at the extremes.”
“I always thought my parents got me those presents.”
“And they always thought it was each other,” Santa explained, almost nodding. “Trading cards when you were twelve. A chinchilla when you were fourteen.”
“Skippy,” Shepard recalled. A wonderful pet, but always a distance in its stare, like it had been somewhere unfamiliar for a little too long, been stuck in a dark warehouse awaiting shipment until it forgot the sounds of living things. Sometimes Skippy didn’t react to loud noises, and sometimes it ran from them, to cover of darkness as if it could protect.
“Now you must return my blessing Shepard! Be the good I have fostered within you! Bring me palliatives so I may restore myself and return to the North Pole! All the good little children are counting on you! And the naughty, though they know it not! But they need my justice to grow toward the good light! We must all grow toward the light!”
“What’s a palliative?” Santa was quiet for a moment, the dead tree seeming to grow over him even though it continuously lost needles.
“Milk and cookies. The Klaxtons did not give me any. Since Noel I have taken no nutrients. That is why I am dying, why I have none of my power left. Saved only by playing dead, and by you Shepard. They discarded my body with the tree, knowing I won’t be recognized until it is too late.”
“What happened to Skippy?” Shepard asked, a surge of defiance squeezed out of him. The sun was the more powerful being of the two accosting him, and it encouraged Shepard to bark questions like a guard dog. It seemed the two were at odds, that the sun did not like the man who skulked under moonlight but once a year. The sun was not the ‘growing light’ the ancient saint referred to.
“Skippy was a gift,” Santa said. “Things live to live, not to be property. You shortened Skippy’s life with your desire to own it. I merely obeyed your desire. You learned your lesson. You have not owned a living thing since then.”
“I had to kill a few houseplants too,” Shepard admitted, crestfallen. The sun pushed too hard, and now he felt like a shadow about to be compressed out of existence from the radiant orb’s motion across the sky.
“Shepard please. Palliatives.”
Without a word the man turned back and entered his house. Air conditioning grabbed him, restored him. He never liked the Klaxtons either, so he wouldn’t put the creature’s claims past them. But it couldn’t really be Santa Claus; he wasn’t real. Yet what he saw was something, and if it wasn’t Santa Claus it was likely to be something far worse. Something worse that knew what he got every Christmas, and probably much more than that. If he didn’t help, would he ever feel safe again? It could have friends in seasonal places: grinning Jack-o-lantern spies, Easter bunnies tunneling under his feet, Thanksgiving turkeys that could make you choke on their own tiniest bones posthumously…
Did he even have palliatives? Rather than let the air conditioning freeze him solid he burst into motion, into search. Cookies were easy. Kids sold them on the street all the time, and Shepard had more stale boxes of them than he did rolls of toilet paper at any given time. The dying thing in the street did not voice a preference, so he grabbed a sleeve of gooey fudge I-beams, his least favorite.
The milk was another matter, as he suddenly remembered using the last of his carton just ten minutes ago to drown his breakfast cereal. It still sat there on the table, far too soggy now, its bright pastel colors having leached into the milk. Shepard swore under his breath, realized Santa could probably still hear it, and then went for a tall glass.
With one hand as dam he held back the cereal, pouring the chilled runoff, like a sidewalk chalk smoothie, all the way to the lip. With his hands full he shuffled back to the front door, opening it with an elbow, dreading the hot glare of the sun. While rushing back to the curb he pressed the cold glass to his forehead to keep his mind off the orb’s discouraging heat. The sun never gave him presents, never said his name. It didn’t think he mattered, so why should he pay it any mind now? Santa knew him, knew he could count on Shepard, even though he hadn’t done anything for the mythic man to witness as proof of his valor.
“Please Shepard, I grow weaker,” Santa called out as he approached, voice chugging like a slowing locomotive. His breath turned into something like a laugh, but he couldn’t ho ho ho with so little life in him, so it came out as a horrible pant: Huh huh huh.
“You’ll be alright,” Shepard assured him, leaning down, trying not to look at the desiccated figure’s flesh, somewhere between sun-dried tomatoes and the pigskin of a football. He presented the palliatives.
With a pounce Santa partook of something else. Needles and gooey fudge I-beams and needles and used milk and needles showered them. Santa tugged Shepard’s arm, bit the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder, and finally the neck, like a trekking pair of chattering teeth. A dead hand with sparkles under its nails smothered his face while his breath leaked out the side of his jaw. Everything went blacker than coal, and the sun troubled him with its warning no more.
Santa drank deep of his blood, guzzling gallons as fast as he crossed the prime meridian on his silent and holy night, sonic booms suppressed by the servants of the growing light, wheel of fused reindeer and antlers dragging him across the skin of the upper atmosphere with a prickle that made the Earth shudder.
“Milk,” he sighed with relief, festive red mist emanating from his open mouth and swelling tongue. Glittering claws dove into Shepard’s navel, opened it like a cinched sack, dug out a crimson organ morsel. Santa chewed it up and swallowed, throat distending like an angler fish’s stomach as a lifelike flutter returned to his hide. “Cookies.”
Finished with feasting and fully restored, a holiday card image of Santa Claus, ebullient and fat, crawled out from under the dead tree, rouging his cheeks with Shepard’s milk. He straightened his coat, fingers dancing up the buttons, each about to pop, but they didn’t since they’d already lasted hundreds of years.
With a touch to the side of his nose he vanished, back to the North Pole. There lurked things in the ice, who granted a boon to but one mannish creature, so that he might spread the tidings of the growing light: the light that grew to fill the mind, that crept into the empty spaces between morals and reality.
Their frozen slumber was but a brief sojourn in their journey across the vast cosmos. If their emissary balanced the books by taking a few of the gifts back here and there it did not concern them. They did not even recognize death. Little Skippy had a far better understanding of it.
Shepard’s body was draped in a shedding of Santa’s glamour, and so was not recognized for what it was when the sanitation workers came to collect. They saw only a patchy tree, some spilled milk, and another thing that needed to be disposed of.
One of them lifted it over his shoulder, took it to the back of the vehicle, and tossed it into its metal maw, the object clearly good for nothing.