Here's my Christmas gift to you: My Christmas story, "The Consolidated Brotherhood of Truly Bearded Santas," starring everybody's favorite holiday hellspawn, the Krampus.
The Consolidated Brotherhood of Truly Bearded Santas
By Bill Ferris
"The Consolidated Brotherhood of Truly Bearded Santas" originally appeared in Stupefying Stories, and was reprinted in The Again.
Craig’s Bert and Ernie slippers made no sound as he descended the carpeted stairs. He was a Christmas ninja, silent and quick.
A clatter from the living room. Something knocked against the Christmas tree, clacking the bubble lights together. He heard the hollow whump of a cardboard box hitting the floor. Was that the sound of a new KillBot 4000? Ralph Moyo had already gotten one from his folks, which wasn’t fair because he was the worst kid in class.
Craig pressed his back against the wall that separated him from the living room. He took a deep breath. One...two...three. He peeked around the corner.
He expected to see the red suit, the beard. He did not expect to see fur and fangs and a tongue as long as a garden hose.
Craig stumbled backward, too scared to think. He tripped over his Bert and Ernie slippers and fell on his butt.
The thing that wasn’t Santa Claus stared at him. Coarse black hair covered every inch of its body and goat legs. Two long devil horns erupted from its skull.
The goat-man was upon him now, its animal reflexes too fast to track. The beast had pinned Craig to the floor, flogging him with a bundle of sticks. His brain was too frozen with fear to notice the pain. The creature’s face hovered inches above Craig’s, its breath reeking of meat and death. A glob of viscous drool landed on Craig’s nose. Craig wondered if it would have the mercy to kill him before it started to eat him.
“No!” said a voice.
The beast retreated, hissing and shielding its face from a series of blows about its head and shoulders.
Craig looked up, and there stood Santa Claus flogging the creature away with a rolled-up copy of the Sears Christmas Catalog.
“No! Bad!” Santa said in a furious whisper, hitting the beast again. “He’s on the ‘good’ list! Don’t make me get the squirt bottle. Bad!”
Santa looked at Craig and extended a hand. “You all right?”
Craig felt like he was watching this on TV. Fear gave way to awe--Santa Claus was here, in his living room, talking to him. “I’m fine,” he croaked.
“Sorry about that,” Santa said, hauling Craig to his feet. Santa lowered his bulk onto one knee so he could look at him eye to eye. He smiled and said, “It’s okay, little buddy. Everything’s fine. Krampus is from the Alps. He gets cranky whenever we go below the fortieth parallel. Every few years I think, ‘Oh, he’s ready to do a world-wide run this year.’ I’ve been doing this long enough, you’d think I’d know better. Ho ho ho!”
Santa’s trademark laughter loosened the rubber band encircling Craig’s heart. “I made some cookies for you, Santa. Well, my mom made ‘em, but I helped.”
Santa laughed. “How did you know I like cookies?” His belly shook like a mold full of Jell-O. He held out a hand. Craig took it. The skin was rough and callused from centuries of carving chunks of wood into the stuff dreams are made of.
Craig stopped and pointed. Santa followed Craig’s eyes to the Krampus. “Oh, don’t mind him,” Santa said. “He’s a teddy bear once he learns to trust you.”
“What’s he doing?” Craig said. Krampus was leaning over his parents’ arm chair, furiously rubbing the front of his body against it.
“Um...yeah, best let him finish,” Santa said.
“Are those chocolate chip?” Santa said, nudging Craig toward the kitchen. “Those are my favorite.”
A moment later, Craig sat at the kitchen table across from Santa. I am sharing milk and Cookies with Santa Claus. This is really happening, he thought. His friends would never believe it. Craig had sat on Santa’s lap at the mall, but he was old enough to know the difference between Santa’s helpers and the Great Man himself. He sensed that his life would be all downhill from this point.
Santa said, “Now don’t go telling all your friends about this. I can’t stop for cookies with every little boy and girl.”
Craig nodded solemnly. “On my honor, sir.” He gave Santa his two-fingered Cub Scout salute.
Santa laughed. “Well, it’s not as serious as all that, but thanks, kiddo.”
“Don’t other kids stay up to see you?”
Santa swallowed a mouthful of cookie. “Not near as many as you think. And the ones who try usually miss me. Most kids don’t have the eyes to see me, if you get my drift.”
Santa nibbled on a second cookie. Craig felt an opportunity slipping away. What do you talk to Santa Claus about? Toys? No, kids were always bugging Santa about toys. He was a grownup. What do grownups talk about?
Craig channeled his father. “I suppose you’ve got some vacation hours saved up.” He felt like a tool as soon as he said it.
Santa rolled his eyes. “You’d think so, but this year I’m the commissioner of our rec hockey league.”
Craig’s eyes bugged out. “The North Pole has a hockey league? Awesome!”
“You wouldn’t believe how hard the elves hit the boards. Lot of pent-up aggression there.”
“They should play all sports in the snow. I love when the TV shows a football game during a blizzard.”
Santa slapped his hand hard on the table. “That’s what I’ve been saying! Put football in the Winter Olympics, every kid in the world will play it.” Santa stuffed the rest of his cookie into his mouth and drummed on the table for emphasis. Santa was a little more boisterous than Craig had expected, like Uncle Frank after he’d had a few glasses of egg nog.
Santa bolted to his feet with a purpose, brushing cookie crumbs from his huge red coat. “Welp, me and The Punisher here’d better get back at it. Good rapping with you, Craig. Enjoy your new socks.”
Craig played it cool. Tommy Porter was the funniest kid in class. What would he say? With a straight face, Craig said, “Cool. They’ll keep my feet warm while I’m kickin’ your butt.”
Santa stared at him for a long moment, during which time Craig contemplated never getting another Christmas present for the rest of his miserable life. But then Santa erupted into the most raucous laughter Craig had ever heard. The kitchen chair creaked just as loudly as Santa flopped back into his seat. He wiped tears from his eyes.
“Ha ha ho...Craig, you’re a hoot! If you’re awake this time next year, come on downstairs again. Heh...hey, would you look at that!”
Santa pointed to the floor. Krampus was on his belly, curled against the leg of Craig’s chair, licking cookie crumbs from the floor. Craig shuddered.
“Give him a little scratch behind the ears, he’ll love you forever,” Santa said. That sounded like a punishment. But how do you say no to Santa Claus?
Craig forced himself to put his hand on the Krampus’ head. The feeling of wiry hairs against his fingertips was like petting a tarantula.
“Just think of him as a big dog,” Santa said. Craig tried, which he would later blame for his lifelong fear of dogs.
“I think he likes you!” Santa said, laughing again. Krampus’ foot-long forked tongue lolled out of its mouth.
“All right, you big lug,” Santa said, giving the Krampus a hearty scratch on the back. “Let’s let this guy get some sleep, huh?” Krampus yawned and stretched, then jumped to its feet. Still seated, Craig got a close look at Krampus’ legs, how its knees bent backwards like an animal while it stood up like a man. It made Craig shiver. The way Krampus’ balls swung unrestrained didn’t help.
Santa gave Craig the Cub Scout salute, and adjourned to the living room. Krampus smiled at Craig, too--the grin said “friend,” the teeth said “predator.”
Craig sat at the table five minutes before he dared go into the living room. They were gone. Craig looked under the tree. Santa had left him a pair of tube socks.
And a KillBot 4000.
January 23, forty-five years later
Craig couldn’t believe it. Howard was shutting him down. Santa Claus would hear of this outrage.
“Sorry, Craig, but HOA rules are very clear--you can’t use your home as a place of business.” That was Howard Cortheiser, Craig’s across-the-street neighbor and president of the Mason’s Point Home Owner’s Association. Craig wanted to knock him down and pluck every white whisker off his fat face.
“Come on, Howard,” Craig said. “I sell the sleds three days a year, tops.”
“You posted all these ‘Sled Guy’ signs all over the neighborhood,” Howard said, rapping his knuckles against one of Craig’s vinyl signboards, “and it won’t snow for three days.” In his other hand Howard carried Nixie, a Pomeranian who, feeling that Craig’s blood pressure wasn’t sufficiently high, arfed at Craig every few seconds.
“Fine, I’ll take the signs down,” Craig said. “I’ll keep the garage door shut when customers come by.” By day a humble accountant, Craig ran a wintertime side-business selling cheap plastic sleds to thrill-seekers, would-be Olympians, and children of all ages. He’d been Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s “Sled Guy” for the past five years. The North Carolina Piedmont got only three or four sleddable snows a year. People were counting on him.
Howard pointed at Craig with his non-dog hand. “I don’t want your driveway to look like a damn garage sale.” Nixie yipped in agreement. Garage sales were also forbidden according HOA bylaws. “This isn’t one of your North Ridge free-for-alls.”
“So the truth comes out!” Craig raised his voice so his neighbors could hear. He and Janet knew they were moving into the nicest planned community in Orange County. They should’ve also guessed it would be the most snobbish. Craig had served as HOA president in North Ridge for seven years. This tyranny would never have stood on his watch. “Let me tell you something about our North Ridge free-for-alls, Howie. We actually listened to members. We encouraged this kind of creativity.”
“And you liked it so much, you moved out.”
Craig took a deep breath. He was afraid he might punch Howard. He wouldn’t want to explain that to St. Nick. In a low voice, Craig said, “Work with me Howard. Janet and I use this money every year to go to Disney.”
Howard had always been pleasant in his prior dealings with Craig, but he’d apparently used up all his courtesy for the day. “Get a paper route. I want these signs down by the end of the day. It’s fifty bucks a sign after that.” Howard, his dog, and his attitude turned and walked away.
Santa leaned back in his chair at Craig’s kitchen table and scratched his beard. “What’s this really about? You didn’t have me come all this way tonight because of sleds, did you?” Santa said, as if distance were anything to him. “You could sell those sleds on eBay and Howard would never know. Why rub his nose in it with the signs?”
Craig opened the fridge and grabbed another round of beers. “He just acts like such a big shot. I mean, come on, Howard, you’re an HOA president, not the damn mayor!”
Craig moved a box of unpacked odds and ends out of a chair and sat across from Santa at the table. Santa had brought no jacket with him, and had rolled up the sleeves of his green flannel shirt--thirty-eight must feel like a heat wave to him, though Craig suspected Santa’s pink face had less to do with temperature than alcohol.
“Are you upset because Howard’s part of the Brotherhood?” Santa said.
Craig froze. “No!”
Craig grunted. “Okay, yes. Up at the clubhouse, I saw some pictures of the Mason’s Point Christmas Party. Howard likes to play Santa. That’s my deal!”
In his old neighborhood, Craig always played Santa Claus at the annual HOA Christmas party. Howard had trumped him by joining the Brotherhood. Craig had been trying to get into the Consolidated Brotherhood of Truly Bearded Santas for the last six years. Members could get, at the very least, a second interview at any department store in America. The Brotherhood made sure you got paid on time, and well. It was the status that appealed to Craig. Being one of an elite corps of performers bringing happiness to children during the best time of year.
A rejection letter from the Brotherhood had become an annual milestone for Craig, like putting his and Janet’s summer clothes in the attic for the winter.
Craig had force-fed himself cheeseburgers and pizza for a month and gotten his weight up to 205, still on the skinny side, but that wasn’t his undoing. The Consolidated Brotherhood of Truly Bearded Santas counted among its membership 546 white men, 37 black men, 19 Asian, 9 Indians, and three women. It was an open-minded group that did not discriminate based on race or gender. They were hard-core about the beards, though. Craig’s whiskers refused to cooperate, creating a sparse salt-and-pepper beard that was wispy in the mustache and barren tundra on his cheeks, necessitating a fake beard for Christmas parties.
Another strike against Craig--he and Janet had no children of their own. It was through no lack of effort on their part; the doctor said Janet was unable, and she had no interest in adoption. The Brotherhood had no official requirement for members to have children. However, ever since that department-store Santa in Indiana--not a member of the Brotherhood, it should be noted--was arrested five years ago for groping pre-pubescent boys, the Brotherhood looked askance at applications from childless men in a field that dealt so closely with children. Craig wondered if his annual applications had landed him on a government watch list.
“So what if Howard pretends to be me at the party,” Santa said with a chuckle. “Don’t you have other friends you can dress up as?”
“We’ve been over this,” Craig said, and that was that.
Santa sat back and belched. “Want help picking up the signs?”
“Already got ‘em. Thanks though.”
“I can at least help you drink some of your beer.”
“It’s the least you could do,” Craig agreed. “Aw, man!”
Krampus was in the refrigerator, tearing open a pound of ground beef.
“Knock it off!” Santa said, flailing his arms at Krampus. To Craig he said, “Sorry about that. He starts acting up, just give him a swat on the nose. Don’t be shy. He’s not like this at home, I swear.”
“It’s fine,” Craig said. The beef had been thawing in preparation for Taco Night, but Craig would sooner lose the meat than have to interact with Krampus. Its animal musk had already permeated the entire house. It smelled of the wild, like ice and windburn and the despair of months without sunshine. If Craig petted or touched Krampus, it would take two showers to get the scent off him. Janet never seemed to notice, thank God, but it drove Craig bonkers.
“He probably needs to go outside. Did you...?” Santa said.
“Yeah, he’s upstairs.” Craig always locked Noodles, his cat, in the bedroom when Santa brought Krampus over. Krampus probably wouldn’t try to eat her, Santa had advised, but why chance it?
Craig chatted with Santa about Hurricanes hockey while Krampus did his business. Krampus took his time, time enough for Craig and Santa to down another beer.
“I hope the missus doesn’t give you a hard time for staying out so late halfway across the world.”
Santa waved him off. “Pfft. You know how after you’re married a long time, you finish each other’s sentences? We’ve been together so long, we don’t even start them.” Santa laughed and pounded the table, and Craig did his best not to look uncomfortable.
“Good luck, Sled Guy,” Santa said as he stood up.
“You’re leaving? Where’s--ugh!” Craig said, shuddering. Krampus had snuck up on him--with hooves, no less--and was rubbing his head against Craig’s leg. Krampus let out a noise that was something like a bleat and a purr.
“He says you’re like two peas in a pod. Were you a Krampus in another life?”
Craig furrowed his brow. “I thought you couldn’t understand him.”
Santa raised his puffy white eyebrows. “Oh yeah. We talk all the time.” He turned his head toward Krampus. “What’s that boy? Timmy fell down the well? Ha ho ho!”
“All right, all right, see you later.”
Santa exited. “Yes, you’re right, Krampus, he is gullible. Ho ho!”
“What do you think you’re doing up there?” Howard yelled.
The noise ruined a fine spring morning and almost made Craig lose his footing. He steadied himself and looked down from the roof at Howard. “Taking down the Overbays’ Christmas lights.”
“Oh-ho, no you’re not,” Howard said. He was actually wagging his finger at Craig. “We’ve talked about this. No side businesses operated out of a Mason’s Point residence.”
“This is just neighbor-to-neighbor stuff,” Craig said, ignoring the fact that he’d put “Christmas Light Guy” flyers in select neighbors’ mailboxes. “What’s next? You going to tell people they can’t pay a kid ten bucks to mow their lawn?”
“You can do it for free if you want to be a good neighbor, but no money changes hands. Hear me?”
Craig squeezed the flathead screwdriver in his hand, wondering how hard he’d have to throw it to pierce Howard’s breastbone.
Craig charged $100 bucks to take down people’s Christmas lights. The fee went up by $50 the first of every month, starting in February. For an extra $50, he’d remove the lights under cover of darkness to hide their shame. This was the ninth house Craig had done in Mason’s Point. Someone must have tipped Howard off.
“This is perfectly legal,” Craig said. “I wouldn’t even have to do it if you were doing your job as president. Standards are slipping, Howard.”
Howard snarled. “I’m fining you and Overbay each $250.” That was as much as Craig’s fee.
“I’m filing a grievance!” Craig said.
“You know what they say--you can’t fight the home-owners association.” Howard said, and walked away.
“Nobody says that!” Craig shouted. He cursed and resumed prying LED lights from Murray Overbay’s roof shingles.
The envelope felt light as a cloud in Craig’s hands as he crossed the street to Howard’s house. It ought to--it contained liberty from Howard’s oppression. It also contained sheets of paper, which don’t weigh very much, but still.
“You here to finally RSVP?” Howard said. The annual Mason’s Point Christmas shindig was scheduled for the following evening.
Craig held up the envelope. “Thought you might want to take a look at this.”
Howard gave him the stink-eye. “What is it?”
“Open it.” It had taken seven months of digging, but Craig had finally found a shovelful of dirt he could fling at Howard. Craig delighted in watching Howard’s face contort while he examined the documents.
“Looks like Santa’s been stuffing the wrong stocking,” Craig said.
“What does that even mean?”
“Your new backyard fence, Howard. My membership dues paid for that. So did everyone else’s. Residents have a right to know how their money’s being spent. So far, they don’t, but that can change.”
Howard’s face flushed red. “That keeps foxes and coyotes out of the community! You know my lot is right up against the woods.”
“Arguably true,” Craig said. “You may get the opportunity to argue that at the next HOA meeting. Or in a court of law.”
Howard looked Craig in the eye as he crumpled the documents. “I don’t know what you--”
“Here’s how it’s going to be, Howard.” Craig kept his voice low. Casual. “You can either be HOA president, or you can be Santa Claus, but not both. It’s up to you.”
Howard’s eyes bugged out. “Is that what this is about? You’re blackmailing me so you can be Santa Claus?”
Craig kept his voice even to illustrate how reasonable his demands were. “If you decide to stay president, I’ll need to know by 6 p.m. tomorrow so I can get ready for the party.”
Howard clenched his teeth and jabbed a sausage finger into Craig’s chest. “You want to come after me? You go ahead. It will be a cold day in hell before I let you be president.” He slammed the door in Craig’s face, then opened it again an instant later. “And a warm day at the North Pole before I let a pencil-neck like you be Santa around here!”
“Howard’s never reacted well to confrontation,” Santa told Craig over beers that night. “His brothers used to beat the holy hell out of him as a kid. He had to learn to fight back or he wouldn’t have made it to puberty.”
Craig took a victory swig from his bottle of Sam Adams Winter Lager. “You should’ve seen his face!” They were each four beers in, maybe five. In the two months since Janet left, Craig didn’t keep track as well as he used to.
Santa shook his head and mumbled something.
“You don’t approve?” Craig said.
“You’re asking me--Santa Claus--if I approve of Blackmail?”
Craig frowned and threw up his hands. “He took our money. He deserves to get punished.”
“Then call the police,” Santa said.
“Why are you being a dick about this?”
Santa shook his head. “You’re a big boy, you can do what you want. But you asked, and I’m telling you I don’t like it. Not one bit.”
Craig had never gotten angry at Santa before. How do you tell that guy off?
Before he got the chance, the back door slammed shut. Krampus clomped into the kitchen, leaving muddy hoof prints and nosing around the fridge like he owned the place.
“Where have you been?” Santa said.
Krampus ignored him. He helped himself to Craig’s last three eggs, popping them raw, shell and all, into his mouth like popcorn.
Santa shouted, “Get out of--”
“It’s fine,” Craig said. “They’d probably just go bad anyway. I eat takeout most days, anyway.”
Krampus flumped onto the floor at Craig’s feet. Craig rolled his eyes and scratched its head. He didn’t shudder when Krampus nuzzled his ankle.
“Krampus is on my side,” Craig said, scratching his ears with vigor. Santa didn’t reply.
Craig woke up, afraid his house was on fire. Someone was pounding on his front door. “Craig! Craig! Get out here!” Whoever it was, he didn’t sound happy.
Two weeks ago, Craig and Santa had killed time watching a documentary about home invasion. Craig grabbed a hammer from his tool box before checking the peep hole.
He sighed and opened the door. “Howard, what’s this about?”
Howard stood across the threshold in sweat pants and a fleece jacket. In his hand he carried a dead animal. “What’s this about? What do you think it’s about?” He shoved the animal toward Craig’s face.
Craig flinched away from it, but got a better look at the carcass. It used to be Nixie, Howard’s Pomeranian. Something had torn it to pieces. “Howard, I’m so sorry.”
Howard’s eyes were as puffy and red as Santa’s coat. “Oh, you’re sorry! What the hell do you want from me? How could you do this to my dog?”
Craig blinked at Howard several times while his mind processed this ridiculous new input. “You think I killed your dog?”
“McMurtry next door said he saw a man skulking around the neighborhood last night. He was gone before he could call the police.”
“Where do I come in?”
“Ha! Where does he come in?” Howard said in a loud voice to an invisible throng of supporters. “I wouldn’t have believed you’d kill another man’s dog, but I do believe you’re dumb enough to leave it on your own front lawn!”
Craig waved his arms in front of him. “Stop. Just stop. No one killed your dog.”
Howard shoved the bloody carcass toward Craig again. “Someone mauled my--”
“Damn it, Howard, it was probably a coyote or a bobcat or something. From the forest. Maybe your fence isn’t high enough.”
Howard slapped him hard across the face. Craig was so shocked he couldn’t move, as if Howard had jarred Craig’s batteries loose.
Craig took a deep breath. “Howard, listen to yourself. You’re upset. I get it. I’m very sorry about your dog. It’s really awful. But I promise you, I could not and would not do...” he pointed at Nixie’s remains slumped in Howard’s arms, “that to any animal.”
Howard’s face twisted into a series of three discrete snarls. “Fine.”
“Fine what? You realize I didn’t do it?”
“It’s fine!” Howard shouted over his shoulder as he walked across the street to his house. Howard’s head vibrated in such a way that Craig was afraid he was having a stroke.
Once inside, Craig rubbed his eyes. He’d have to tell Santa that Krampus was no longer welcome.
Santa sat across from Craig at the kitchen table. Craig put his empty highball glass--his third--down onto his rejection letter from the Consolidated Brotherhood of Truly Bearded Santas. Perhaps Janet was right that it was a waste of time. “It wouldn’t be Christmastime without one of these,” he’d said when he’d shown it to Santa an hour before.
“Or one of these!” Santa had said, laughing and removing a flask from his jacket pocket. The flask was now less than a quarter full.
Craig stared into his glass. “Something I’ve always wondered. What’s up with the elves?”
Santa laughed. “When I got the job, I said I’d need help. Next day, I had a small town’s worth of pointy-eared weirdoes asking where they were supposed to sleep.”
Craig frowned. “You don’t like the elves?”
“Oh, we’re fine. Started out rough, though. I keep a close eye on ‘em. I still don’t have any idea where they came from, or why, but nobody gets exiled into a lifetime of forced labor as a reward, you know?”
“Is that where Krampus came from?”
Santa made a grumbling sound and fiddled with a loose button on his green flannel shirt. “That’s complicated. Especially now. After last night, Krampus won’t be going on any more sleigh rides, if you get my drift.” Craig wasn’t quite sure he did, but he didn’t want to ask.
Santa raised a glass to Craig and said, “All part of the job, I guess.”
A question occurred to Craig that he wasn’t sure he wanted the answer to. “Do you like your job?”
Santa smiled and contemplated the ceiling. “Every day I look in the mirror and say to myself, ‘I’m the luckiest man in the world, doing what I do, making so many people happy.’ But about this time every year, I start thinking, ‘This is my last Christmas.’ I’ve got the whole process so streamlined, it almost runs by itself, but it’s still heavy. It’s a heavy thing.”
“What would you do if you stopped?”
Santa chuckled. “A man retires, there’s only one milestone left. Nobody kept me alive this long so I could snowbird it in Miami.”
Santa grinned and slapped Craig on the arm. “And in the flower of my youth, too. Ha!”
Craig admired how Santa could inject levity into any situation. “So if you did...you know, would kids still get presents? Or would that stop? Would somebody else step up?”
“Why d’ya think I’ve been liquoring you up all night?” Santa said, and they both thought this was hilarious.
Craig imagined piloting the big sled through the endless night, giving gifts to sons and daughters he could never call his own, but they would share a sort of grandfatherly bond nonetheless. “It sounds fun, but God, it’s gotta be overwhelming. I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” Craig said.
“Do what I did. Just take the reins and go.” Santa grabbed a set of invisible reins in front of him and spurred on invisible reindeer. “Why don’t you give it a shot Christmas Eve? If you want. See if it suits you.” He said it the way a shy boy would ask out a hot girl, with the nonchalant desperation that people reserve for the things they really, really want.
Craig laughed, but it stumbled out of his mouth like it had been shoved down a flight of stairs. “I don’t know if anybody could do your job but you.”
Santa shrugged. “Anybody can drive a sled. You don’t need a PhD to deliver stuff. It’s the life that’s hard, but you could handle it. You’re wired for loneliness.” Only Santa Claus could make that sound like a compliment. Only Craig would take it as one.
Craig considered. Santa looked him in the eye the whole time, his face blank. Waiting.
At last Craig exhaled. “Nobody’s as nice as you, though.” Craig laughed, despite himself. “Look at me; I tried to stage a coup against my neighbor.”
Santa laughed--Craig thought it sounded forced, but a forced laugh from Santa was jollier than most men’s heartiest guffaw. “Aw, that’s right. Now I have to disqualify you. Ho ho!”
Santa stood up and smacked Craig on the back. “C’mon, we’ve both got places to be.”
“You’ve got to get to that party. Patch things up with Howard.”
Craig would sooner read another Brotherhood rejection letter than suck up to Howard, but as usual, Santa was right.
“You got some last-minute preparations before the big run?” Craig asked Santa.
“Yeah, but first I’m stopping by Howard’s house, too.”
Craig furrowed his eyebrows. “Howard’s?”
Santa winked. “An early Christmas present. Meet me behind his garage in about twenty minutes.”
Craig retreated to his office to pace away the twenty minutes. He also put on a black turtleneck. Whatever Santa had in mind, it sounded like it would be sneaky.
Craig arrived at the rendezvous point at exactly the right time, but where was Santa? Should they have synchronized watches? Was Santa late? Had someone seen him? Unlikely--Santa had based his entire career on sneaking around in the dark.
Not knowing what else to do, Craig tried the garage’s side door, the one for people, not cars. The knob turned, and Craig kept as quiet as St. Nick as he entered. The only light came from the digits of a clock radio.
A gray blob in the corner of the garage moved. “Craig?”
It was Santa, though he’d changed into his Christmas suit for some reason. His voice had changed, too. Less effervescent. Bristlier. Santa switched the light on, and Craig adjusted his eyes.
“What are you doing in here?” he said. It wasn’t Santa, it was Howard dressed in his official Brotherhood-edition Santa suit, grabbing beer from a small fridge.
“Uh...” Craig began. He wasn’t sure what he planned to do in the garage, but his best guess would have involved peeing in Howard’s gas tank.
“The front door’s open,” Howard said.
Howard shrugged. He held out a beer to Craig. Craig didn’t want it, but took it in the name of patching things up.
“Glad I ran into you,” Howard said. “About yesterday. I was upset, I lost my head a little bit. I had no right to accuse you of that.”
Craig replayed Howard’s words again in his head. Yep, the jerk was apologizing. “Uh, thanks.”
“Now about this fence business,” Howard said.
Craig blushed and looked at his shoes. “Yeah, about that. Listen, I don’t need--”
“I think I know a way we can both get what we want.”
“Howard, don’t. I--”
Howard waved him off. “Trust me, you don’t want the presidency. Hell, I barely want it. Every day is one damn thing after another. Someone wants to dig a swimming pool without a permit. Mister Father-of-the-Year builds a tree house out of pallets and duct tape that’s going to kill somebody. I’m retired! I’m too old to deal with all that.”
“You seemed to like it when you were dealing with me.”
“Because you’re a worthy adversary. That’s a nice way of saying you were a big pain in my keyster.” Howard said it with a smile. “But it finally hit me--let’s put all your piss and vinegar to work for the neighborhood.”
“As what? Your errand boy?”
“I was thinking my enforcer,” Howard said. Craig laughed. Howard did not. “Picture this: someone decides to park his P.O.S. hot rod on the curb all month long, you tell him to put it in the garage or you’ll put it in the dump. The local garage band wakes up the whole block, you tell them not to quit their day jobs.”
Craig scratched his beard. “Sounds great--for you. When do we get to the part where I get what I want?”
Howard grinned. “First off, you get to keep your HOA dues--like a stipend. Also, my son has a little storage shed across town. It’s got nothing but junk in it. You clean it out, he’ll let you set up your sled business there. That and a couple of sleds for his kids.”
Craig allowed himself a slight smile. “And?”
“Come January 15, if some crumb-bums still haven’t taken down their Christmas lights, you’ll deliver a personalized letter that says I’m fining them $50 a day the lights stay up. In the same envelope will be a flyer for your Christmas-light-removal service.”
Craig thought about it. “All this to make the fence thing go away?”
Howard smiled. “Because it’s Christmas. The wife says the Santa suit turns me into a real softie. Christmas is about peace and goodwill, right?”
Craig let out a dry laugh. Trying to be Santa had made him small and shallow. Perhaps this role would suit him better.
“Looks like you’ve got yourself an enforcer.”
Craig held out a paw, and Howard shook it. Maybe it was the spirit of the season--Craig felt the animosity drain out of him. Howard had given him a role to play, and Craig found it suited him better than a sleigh and a Santa hat ever could.
Howard smiled. “Well, let’s not be the idiots standing around in the garage when there’s a party going on.”
Howard led the way inside, and Craig followed, taking his rightful place next to the man in the red suit.
A glass bottle hit the wood floor in the living room. A donkey laugh followed it, sounding harsher than glass breaking.
“Great. Sounds like Stevie’s hitting the suds already. Does it every year. Last year he almost ruined the whole fiesta.”
Craig patted Howard’s shoulder. “I’ve got this.”
He made his way to the living room. Stevie saw Craig coming and his party-guy smile crumbled. Craig caught a look at his own reflection in the hallway mirror. It looked as it always did, but he knew that if someone had the eyes to see, they couldn't miss his black fur and horns.