‘Twas The Night Before…

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This was my entry for the 2019 Winter Holiday contest.

As always, thanks to my editor, ThisNameIsntTakenYet, for his invaluable work to make me look actually literate to the impartial observer.

Special thanks to the inimitable Salandar, for setting me straight on a troublesome story beat. She’s a brilliant, classy lady whose level I aspire to reach.

~~ Monday evening, December Twenty-Third ~~

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon!” Kathryn muttered under her breath as the line of cars ahead of her slowly crawled through the traffic light. It turned red before she could get through.

“Shit!” she exclaimed, and slapped the steering wheel of her well-worn Honda Civic in frustration.

“Mommy, you said a swear!” the small voice in the back seat exclaimed. She turned and smiled at her four-year old daughter. Caitlyn was wearing her Christmas dress, with its broad green and white stripes and little felt gingerbread men dancing along the hem of her skirt. Her puffy pink jacket and boots did little to detract from her cuteness.

Kathryn tucked a lock of her shoulder-length brown hair behind her ear, then picked up a quarter from the cup holder and held it out to her. “You got me sweetie! You can put this in the swear jar when we get home.” Her little girl made the quarter disappear into her pocket. “Mommy just wants us to get there before they close.” She turned back and followed the car ahead of her as the light turned green.

Tonight, was the last night of the famous Christmas village the next town over from theirs, and Kathryn was praying she could make it in time for Caitlyn to get a picture with Santa. Between work, school, all the chores it took to keep the house in order and her child fed and clean, she hadn’t had a spare moment the entire month.

As she pulled into the parking lot for the town park, her heart sank. There were few people about and most of the lights in the village were turned off. She jumped out of the car, bundled Caitlyn into her arms and hustled towards the center of the village. Maybe we can catch Santa before he’s left, she hoped as she hustled through the mostly empty market.

“Oh no, mommy! Is Santa gone?” Her daughter’s plaintive question threatened to break her heart as they came to the North Pole scene set up in the middle of the village square. Santa’s throne sat empty, with a lone elf picking up trash around the tiny house.

“Baby, I’m so sorry. It looks like we missed him.”

“But if I can’t tell him I won’t be home, he won’t be able to find me on Christmas! Can I stay home tomorrow so I won’t miss him?” The quiver in her voice was a clear announcement that tears were imminent.

Kathryn sighed. “Baby, we talked about this. You have to go to your Daddy and Gramma’s tomorrow, okay? I promise Santa will find you.”

Kathryn felt a tap on her elbow and turned to find the elf standing next to her. She was a cute, wholesome looking young woman, about the same age as herself, wearing a bright green skirt. Her shirt and tights with covered with red and white candy cane stripes. The fake elf ears sticking out from her long shaggy black hair poked up next to the white fur trim around the brim of her green stocking cap. She smiled brightly at Caitlyn.

“Exc-u-u-u-u-se me little girl!” she said in a fake, squeaky elf voice. “Did I just hear you have an urgent message for Santa? He’s my boss, you know!”

“Really?” Caitlyn’s quivering lip turned into a smile faster than Kathryn could believe.

“Really! I’m Megan, what’s your name?”

“Caitlyn,” she said, shyly.

“Well, Caitlyn,” Megan said as she leaned down and presented one of her elf ears to the little girl, “why don’t you whisper your secret in my ear and I’ll pass it on to Santa for you?”

“No! I can’t tell you! I have to tell Santa!”

“Caitlyn! Don’t be rude!” Kathryn admonished her, but Caitlyn was having none of it.

“Mommy, I need to tell Santa!” The tears were back.

“Caitlyn…” She felt so helpless. Tomorrow was going to be horrible enough. If there was just some way…

Megan touched Caitlyn gently on the arm to draw her attention back and addressed the little girl seriously. “You really need to see Santa tonight, don’t you?”

“Uh-huh,” Caitlyn said, rubbing her eye with her tiny fist.

“Well! I didn’t realize it was such an important message.” Megan winked at Kathryn. “Tell you what, you sit right here in this throne with mommy, and I’ll see what I can do, okay?”

Kathryn looked around at the empty village and prayed this woman wasn’t about to disappoint her daughter.

“I’ll be right back!” Megan motioned for Kathryn to sit on the throne with her daughter and disappeared into the Santa house.

After a few minutes of sitting on the throne and trying to console her daughter, she had almost decided to give up and head to the car to deal with the inevitable meltdown, when they were both startled as a loud “Ho Ho Ho!” rang illegal bahis out behind them.

Caitlyn’s face lit up as a short, not quite roly-poly Santa came out of the North Pole house.

Kathryn slapped her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. It was clearly Megan, who had changed out of her elf costume and was wearing an oversized Santa suit, complete with a giant, fake snow-white beard and wig and long, red Santa hat. The suit was hanging off her, the legs of the pants rolled up and she had clearly stuffed the lumpy jacket with whatever she could find to give the impression of a somewhat fat, jolly Santa.

“M-e-e-e-r-r-r-r-y Christmas!” Megan was using a deep voice, trying to play the part as best she could.

Caitlyn bought it hook, line and sinker.

“Santa!” she shrieked, as she jumped off her mom’s lap and squeezed Megan-Santa’s legs in a bear hug. Kathryn could see just a few wisps of Megan’s black hair sticking out from under the wig and her eyes were twinkling with amusement above her fake beard.

“My elf, Megan, just told me that I missed seeing the most delightful little girl. Are you Caitlyn? You are? Good thing my reindeer hadn’t finished their dinner yet, or I’d be flying back to the North Pole right now and I’d have missed you! Now, let me sit in this chair where good little girls come to tell me what they want for Christmas!”

Megan switched places with Kathryn. Caitlyn eagerly hopped up on her lap, as Kathryn started taking pictures with her phone.

Megan took on a serious tone. “Now, Caitlyn, have you been a good girl this year?”

“I’ve been so good Santa! I clean up my toys! I help mommy with the cooking! I stay in bed at bedtime, well mostly, I mean I try to! And I put the quarters in the jar when mommy says a swear!”

Megan smothered a giggle, then let out another booming “Ho Ho Ho! You do sound like a good little girl! Well, in a few minutes, I’m going to go get in my sleigh and have my reindeer take me to the North Pole, so I can get the last of the presents ready for Christmas Eve. Do you know what I say to my reindeer to get them ready to fly?”

Caitlyn looked at her mommy, who started mouthing “On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer…”

Caitlyn picked up on it and loudly recited “On Dasher, on Dancer, on Pancer, and Mixon. On Comics and Cupin and Donder and Bixen. And Rudoph too!”

Megan-Santa cheerfully ignored all the mispronunciations and laughed. “Ho Ho Ho! That’s very good! You are a good girl Caitlyn, what can I bring you for Christmas tomorrow night?”

The little girl looked up at her mommy then said “I want a Barbie Sparkle Unicorn, and I want a Unicorn Purse Pal, and…” She looked at her mommy again then the words rushed out, “and I want you to give mommy good grades so she doesn’t have to study so much and I want you to make it so I don’t have to go to Gramma’s tomorrow.”

“Oh baby,” Kathryn murmured with a shake of her head.

“I see…” said Megan-Santa glancing at Kathryn. “Those are tall orders, Caitlyn. I’m not sure I can do all that. But I tell you what, I’ll work on the first two. And now that you’ve told me you might be at your Gramma’s, I will make sure and find you tomorrow night, no matter where you are, okay?” She looked at Kathryn who nodded her head. “As for your mommy’s grades, well, she doesn’t need help from Santa, because your mommy is very smart. And getting good grades all by yourself is important and makes you feel good about yourself, right?

“I guess so,” the little girl allowed.

“Now, I have to go check on Donder and Bixen before our trip back to the North Pole. It’s been very nice talking to you Caitlyn. Would you like a candy cane?”

“Yes, please!”

Megan-Santa reached into her pocket and pulled out a huge candy cane that was almost a foot long, and held it out to Caitlyn. She took it in both hands and jumped off Megan-Santa’s lap and started happily skipping circles around the Santa house chanting “On Dasher, on Dancer…”

“Thank you so much,” said Kathryn. “You have no idea how much that meant to her. Or to me.”

“All in a day’s work, mommy!” said Megan-Santa, maintaining her character. “How about you? Have you been a good girl? What can Santa bring you for Christmas?”

Kathryn smiled sadly. “Just more time in the day to spend with my little girl. I’m not sure you can fit that in a stocking.” She dug around in her purse then pulled out a crumpled five-dollar bill. “Here, it’s not much but…”

Megan-Santa said, “Santa doesn’t take tips, mommy. Now, you take that little girl and you hug her tight tonight and tell her that Santa will be looking out for both of you. Would you like a candy cane too?”

Kathryn laughed. “Sure, why not?”

Megan-Santa pulled out another candy cane, normal sized this time, and handed it to her. “Merry Christmas, mommy,” she said quietly in her normal voice.

“Thanks again. Merry Christmas!” Kathryn gathered Caitlyn and headed illegal bahis siteleri off towards the car.

~~ Tuesday morning, December Twenty-Fourth ~~

Kathryn sat waiting in the parking lot of the Target near the highway, watching Caitlyn in the rear-view mirror.

“It’s going to be okay baby. Daddy and Gramma love you and they’re going to take good care of you. And Santa told me he’ll find you there tonight, okay?”

“Okay,” her daughter said listlessly.

She was about to say more to try and cheer up her daughter when Amanda’s BMW pulled into the parking space next to hers.

They got out of the car, and after a gentle nudge, Caitlyn said, “Hi, Gramma.”

“Hello, Caitlyn,” Amanda said, giving her granddaughter a hug that was clearly unwanted by the little girl. “Now get your bag and get in the car.”

Kathryn rolled her eyes and reached into her car to get her daughter’s bag.

“You’re just spoiling her, not making her do it herself, Kathryn.”

“She’s four and this bag weighs as much as she does, Amanda.” Kathryn got her daughter buckled into the car seat in the back of Amanda’s BMW and kissed her goodbye. “You be a good girl, okay baby? I’ll be here to pick you up on Thursday.”

“I love you mommy.”

“Oh, I love you too, baby doll. You have a good Christmas, okay?” She closed the door and spun around before her daughter could see the tears in her eyes.

“Take care of her, Amanda.”

“We always take good care of her, Kathryn.”

“No, you take care of her. Steve doesn’t do a goddamn thing except drink and yell. And I’ll say what I say every time, if she has one mark on her when she comes back, I’m going to the police, I don’t care if we end up in a women’s shelter or on the street.” She stomped to her car and got in without waiting for an answer. Her little Civic coughed several times before it finally started.

Great, she thought, just the impression I want to give when I’m trying to storm away from my daughter’s grandmother.

~~ Tuesday afternoon, December Twenty-Fourth ~~

Kathryn stared at the books spread out on the table in front of her as the librarians were circulating through the reading room, telling the patrons they were closing in fifteen minutes.

I barely remember a single thing about anatomy I’ve read today, she sighed to herself. It was inter-session, so she didn’t actually have any classes now, but she’d gotten the book list for the spring term and was trying to get a head start. There was never enough time when school was in session. She gathered her books and, once outside, was surprised to see it was still before sundown, although just barely. There was no sunlight because of the icy grey clouds covering the sky. She looked back at the library and saw the sign on the door that read, “Closing at 4:00 PM on Christmas Eve”.

Right. Christmas Eve, she thought, what a miserable holiday tomorrow is going to be.

She looked up at the sky again as fat, wet snowflakes started falling. “Great,” she muttered to herself. The tiny apartment she shared with Caitlyn was a mile’s walk from the university, and since the campus parking pass was an extravagance she couldn’t afford, she’d walked, as usual. Snow started coming down harder as she trudged home. The sidewalks were quickly becoming slippery, with visibility dropping to a few dozen feet. It was beautiful, really. But not if you’re trekking across town., she thought.

She passed several shops and restaurants, most of them closed, and was walking with her head down to keep the snow out of the hood of her jacket when she crashed into a sandwich board sign on the sidewalk, knocking it over. She quickly picked it up, struggling to get back in place. Once she got it standing on its own, she saw the sign said “Flanigan’s Bar – Christmas Eve Special: Shot & a Beer, $3”

She looked up at the bar’s windows. Soft yellow lights inside gave off a welcoming glow that dimly lit the sidewalk around her.

I don’t think I’ve gone into a bar for a drink since before Cait was born, she thought. She looked up and down the street. Not the worst neighborhood she’d pass through. She nodded to herself. I can afford three bucks. She pulled open the heavy wooden door and walked in, stamping the snow off her boots on the rubber mat she found just inside the bar.

The interior was small and cozy, with just a dozen tables and a polished wooden bar down the left side of the narrow room. Christmas music was playing over the speakers. Two of the tables were occupied with couples and there were two rough-looking men sitting at the bar near the back of the room. Kathryn hesitantly took the barstool closest to the window, hanging her coat on the back of her chair.

A minute later, a young woman came out of the back room and called out, “Eddie, need a refill?” One of the men nodded, holding up his empty glass. “Alright, gimme a second. John, use a coaster, canlı bahis siteleri would you?” She picked a cardboard coaster off a pile near the beer taps and expertly flicked it with two fingers like a frisbee towards him. It slid across the bar and fetched up against his glass.

As the barkeep walked towards her, Kathryn looked her over. She had a very punk rock look. Her dark hair was tied back in a shaggy ponytail, she was wearing black lipstick and had a small silver nose stud. The front of her tight, red t-shirt said “Merry F***ing Christmas” in white letters and she was wearing a black leather choker adorned with silver metal studs around her neck. She was also wearing a headband that held up two reindeer on springs like festive antennae. The plastic reindeer’s noses flashed with red LED lights as they wobbled in the air over her head.

She tossed a coaster onto the bar in front of Kathryn and said, “What can I get you?” Then she did a double take and said, “Oh hey! Nice to see you again mommy, how’s Caitlyn doing?”

Kathryn was taken aback, “I’m sorry… do I know you?”

The woman smiled. “Which would help you out more, if I put on my elf ears or if I got back in the Santa suit? Please say the Santa suit because the elf costume turns Eddie into a horn-dog for some reason,” she said, hooking her thumb down towards the men at the far end of the bar.

“Yeah it does!” Eddie said, laughing.

Kathryn gawked at her. “Santa? Oh my gosh, I totally didn’t recognize you! Sorry, was it… Megan?”

Megan laughed, “Yeah, my name is Megan. No worries about the mix-up. I know my normal look doesn’t track with the Santa’s elf thing.”

“No, it certainly doesn’t. I’m not sure I’d have recognized you at all if you hadn’t said something.”

“So, what can I get for you?” Megan was back to business.

“The shot and a beer special?”

“Sounds good. It’s domestic draws, so any of those,” she pointed to the far set of taps. “Bud Light is our most popular. And you can have any of the well liquors. They aren’t great. I’d recommend the bourbon, but just because it’s the least bad of the bunch.”

“Okay, that sounds fine.”

“Be right back.”

She watched Megan go to the other end of the bar and efficiently pour two draft beers at the same time. She put one in front of Eddie, then grabbed a heavy rocks glass from a stack next to the taps and headed back to Kathryn. She set the beer on the coaster, flipped the glass high in the air with her right hand, then pulled a bottle from the rack on the front of the ice bin, while she caught the glass with her left hand. She set it in front of Kathryn and gave her a generous pour from the bottle.

Kathryn had warily leaned back as the drinkware acrobatics was going on in front of her. “That was impressive and not a little scary,” she said.

Megan smirked. “Professional bartender.”

“And professional elf. And professional Santa apparently.”

“Elf is my fourth job. The Santa thing was just a one-off.”

“So, bartending is your, what? First job?”

“Third. My second job is paralegal, but it’s for a non-profit and doesn’t pay much. Paralegal pays for rent, bartending pays for food. Being an elf pays for booze and Christmas presents.” She pulled out a menu from below the bar and offered it to Kathryn. “Hungry?”

“Um… no thank you. So, what’s your first job?”

“Law student,” she said, putting the menu back. “I’ll finish my second year this spring.”

“Well, if you do your first and second jobs as well as you do your third and fourth, you’re going to be a good lawyer.”

“Thanks.” She looked over to see one of the couples stand up from their table and head to the bar looking for their check. “Be right back.”

Kathryn took a sip of her beer. Her mind drifted back to the days before Caitlyn had come along. She’d drank too much of this stuff then, but surely it was okay to have one by herself on Christmas Eve. It’s not like she was partying. More importantly, she wasn’t the ditzy party girl she’d been when she’d dated people like Steve. She frowned at the whiskey on the counter.

“Is your booze harassing you? ‘Cause I’ll ask it to leave for disrespecting my patrons if I have to.” Megan had come back to her end of the bar.

“No… I was just thinking about the last time I drank something like this. It was a long time ago. A different time in my life, you know? But it’s Christmas Eve. So, cheers!” She lifted the glass and took a small sip. She coughed. “Gawd, that’s awful!” she croaked.

Megan laughed. “Yeah, there’s a reason my boss will let me sell that with a beer for three bucks. Sorry about that. The vodka’s worse though.”

“I guess I’m getting my money’s worth,” said Kathryn, laughing and taking another tiny sip.

“Hey are you sure you aren’t hungry? I can get you some happy hour nachos. They’re free as long as you’re drinking.”

“Oh! Well, okay, sure. Thank you!”

“Alright, give me a minute, gotta take care of some stuff.”

The other couple were at the bar now. Megan settled their bill, wishing them a Merry Christmas, then Kathryn heard her yell as she walked into the back room, “Julio! Drop an order of nachos!”

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