Richard Kelly had never been a believer. At least, not since he was five years old and still believed Santa Claus was a kindhearted old man from the North Pole who traveled the world bringing gifts to children. Angels, to him, were mythical creatures, artists’ figments of imagination, like the ones painted on the ceiling of Holy Trinity Church in the South Bronx. He remembered them well because as a child he’d sat counting them and studying their mesmeric features, Sunday after Sunday, while waiting for the sermon to be over. He’d never expected to actually come face-to-face with a live one someday. Certainly not in a noisy, overcrowded department store.
He saw himself sitting on a pew, too small to see much more than the vast vaulted ceiling beyond the sea of adult heads, as clear and unwelcomingly familiar as if it were yesterday.
“Don’t forget to pray for the cleansing of your soul,” his grandmother would always tell him before the beginning of Mass.
Whatever that meant. He’d never heard of a soul needing cleansing, as if it were a dirty face.
Still, he’d prayed to those pretty angels whose clean faces looked benevolently down on him, asking for the purification of his wicked soul. With some luck they’d take pity on him and bring his mother home. Back when he was still a gullible kid, that is, until he’d developed some semblance of a brain and realized it was all a waste of time and energy.
He blinked to clear his vision, but the angel didn’t dissipate in a flash of heavenly light.
He was hallucinating, he thought. The stress of juggling college and two part-time jobs had finally gotten to him.
From the crowd of kids and adults, she— the creature— blinked in response, then continued to stare in muted fascination. Her eyes were so blue and bright they made him think of the sky on a clear day in April.
Get a grip, he told himself.
This was no angel. It was just another awestruck kid captivated by his pet capuchin monkey’s antics. Perched on the back of Santa’s gilded throne, Molly was putting on the act of a lifetime for the children lining up to meet Santa, and Molly knew how to work the crowds. She fancied herself a comedian and reveled in all the attention she could get, the pesky little show-off.
He handed his last visitor—a fidgety five-year-old with a Christmas wish list as long as the Long Island Expressway—to her waiting mother and tugged at his collar. He couldn’t wait to get out of the ridiculous outfit. He was perspiring underneath it and the artificial mustache tickled his nostrils, making his eyes water. He imagined his nose rivaling old Rudolph’s up there, suspended from the ceiling. Why had he agreed to take this job? He could think of a dozen places he’d rather be on Christmas Eve than sitting in a velvet chair, bouncing obnoxious children on his knee and asking them dumb questions.
Having Molly along as a sidekick helped ease some of the pressure, especially when it came to distracting the more restless kids. A primate was the animal least emblematic of Christmas, and Molly didn’t have the docility of a reindeer, but it didn’t bother the children. Kids were a
weird species. Give them some novel entertainment, toss them a handful of lollipops, and they’d turn into docile little lambs—for a while, anyway.
It had been Mr. Murphy, his supervisor, to foist the job on him after Richard had dared to question the soundness of the holiday display.
He still heard the sound of Mr. Murphy’s pompous, nasally response reverberating in his ears, after Richard had pointed out the display was a safety hazard.
“Thank you, Mr. Kelly. If in the unlikely event I’ll ever need your advice on how to do my job, I’ll ask for it.”
Richard had been tempted to tell him he'd rather be stocking shelves on double shifts than spending five hours entertaining a bunch of spoiled brats, but he'd known better than to insist. It was either take it or be out of a job.
“Can I at least bring my pet monkey along?” he’d asked the supervisor. “She’s good with kids and I have a hunch she’ll help bring in more business.”
To his surprise, Murphy hadn’t been opposed to the idea. Obviously the prospect of increased profits represented an opportunity to ingratiate himself to his superiors and a possible career boost.
“I’ll check with management, but it shouldn’t be a problem. Make sure she’s kept on a short leash and out of the reach of the children.”
There was a break in what was probably the 999th replay of “Jingle Bells Rock,” as the overhead speakers announced ten minutes to closing.
“Sorry folks, Santa’s closing shop for the night,” the photographer called out to the disappointed crowd and began to gather his equipment.
At last, Richard thought, lifting himself off the chair and stretching. One more screaming toddler to bounce on my knee and I’ll be screaming, too.
He’d promised his pals he’d join them at Charlie’s Bar and Grill for a Christmas Eve snack and a smuggled beer, but now he wondered if he’d even have the energy to do anything other than drag his feet to bed.
A chorus of complaints rose from the still lingering crowd.
“Sorry, kids, no more pictures tonight. You’ll have to come back next year,” he said in his best Grinch voice.
To hell with jolly and nice. Next year, Murphy could find himself another willing schmuck to do the job.
Molly let out a series of obnoxious shrieks, not ready for the fun to be over. He threw the monkey an incinerating glare designed to shock her into submission, but she only shrieked louder, causing people to stop and stare.
His nervousness mounted. All he needed was for the supervisor to show up and he’d be in big trouble.
Then he remembered the candy canes. Molly was a glutton for candy and had discovered a new weakness for the peppermint kind. He reached for his bag and found to his dismay it was empty. He swung around to a suspicious shuffling sound behind him and saw a gloating Molly clutching the remaining candy canes to her hairy chest.
“Bad girl. Give those back. They don’t belong to you,” he reprimanded the insubordinate primate. He moved to take the candy from her, but his movements were hindered by the padded suit. His co-workers and the handful of bystanders howled with laughter, assuming it was part of the act. Molly let out a mutinous screech and flung the candy canes high in the air in the general
direction of the crowd. Children lunged for the flying candy while Molly continued to squeal, this time in obvious delight.
Richard was already envisioning the pink slip materialize before his eyes. He might as well start emptying his locker and hand in the key.
The angel look-alike’s big, blue eyes were still staring. He noticed there were no adults with her. She looked alone and strangely out of place. He rummaged through the sack, hoping to find a stray candy cane or a lollipop to give to her, but only came up with a fake holly branch—some decorative stuff that had somehow gotten mixed up with the candy.
He handed her the holly. “Sorry, I’m clear out of candy.”
He was surprised when she took it, her eyes lighting up. “Thank you,” she murmured, sounding as if he’d given her a priceless piece of jewelry.
Richard’s heart did a funny little flip, but he didn’t have time to explore the peculiar phenomenon.
Above the din of the music, he heard a series of popping sounds coming from overhead.
His head jerked toward the ceiling where the fiberglass sleigh and reindeer apparatus hung by thin nylon cables, the same that were now snapping off the ceiling in rapid succession, as if in rebellion for the extensive amount of strain to which they’d been subjected. All eyes turned upward in alarm as everyone realized what was happening.
“Watch out, it's coming down!” someone yelled.
More screams rose from the crowd but before Richard could spring into action, the girl propelled toward him like a mini tornado. He fell backward, his arms flailing as he struggled to maintain his balance on the edge of the platform, but he lost his footing and stumbled backward, hitting his head against one of the brass posts. The next instant, stunned and hurting, he heard a loud crash.
As his vision cleared, he saw the girl sprawled on the carpeted platform, partially buried by the debris.
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