D pulled his black hoodie over his smoothly shaved head, then slid on his Ray Ban sunglasses. The glowing white letters of the store’s neon sign blurred on the lenses. The glasses were stylish, but I knew what they hid.
I gulped and managed a nod.
“Meet you at the door when the job’s done. Don’t be late.”
I patted my pocket for the twentieth time. The package was still there. I followed D across the slushy parking lot and through sliding glass doors into a blast of light, heat, and “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Joining the slow moving mass of puffer coats, D and I inched past a grim-faced woman in a blue vest. Beside her, a bent cardboard sign read “3” as in three more shopping days ‘til the big day. She looked right past me as I moved into the store. Nobody noticed me. Almost complete invisibility to adult humans was one of my gifts, one of the things that made me good at my work. Still, it paid to be careful. Not much of a margin of error in this job.
Although it was close to midnight, many children were in the superstore's crowded aisles, some stuffed into shopping carts like last minute gifts, crammed next to dinged cartons holding big screens, microwaves, and popcorn makers.
Children you had to watch for. They noticed things. Things that were special. Things that were different.
Things that were wrong.
I acquired my target as D’s tall, gaunt frame slid behind a wall of giant inflatable Hula Dancing Santas: A woman, no longer young, wearing a stained trench coat over faded hospital scrubs. The merciless fluorescent lights etched gray shadows under her eyes. She held the hem of a silky red nightgown, then let it slip through her chapped fingers. Her cart was empty save for a toddler propped in the seat, immobilized by a full body snowsuit. A boy of about six whose bony wrists jutted out of a too small jacket over a hooded sweatshirt glued himself to her side.
The boy’s huge brown eyes turned in my direction as the woman pushed the cart forward. Spotted! I was too close. I melted back into a rack of lingerie.
So difficult to get close these days. In the old days children were much more trusting. Now it was all Stranger Danger. Now, every adult was a predator. But of course, most predators were someone the children knew very well.
A very unholiday feeling pricked my heart.
Merging carefully into the slow stream of shoppers and their carts, I pictured the store from above, a swishing river of blue and black polyester, the tops of heads with gray roots showing, baseball caps pointing backwards and forwards, exhausted children splayed over shoulders, moving past islands of plastic things that could not begin to plug the love-shaped holes in the hearts of their recipients.
If only they stepped outside. The world was so big. The sky. The stars. The air. The cold, more alive than anything in this building packed with beating hearts and bad music.
Suddenly, I felt snow sting my cheeks, heard half-remembered carols as delicate as frost on a window pane. Funny thing, how memory snuck up on you. I shook my head. Memory was a distraction I couldn’t afford. I had a job to do and I had only until midnight to get it done.
The Boss sends us on these little jobs as a way to earn extra credit, which I can sure use after that business at the Rowdy Reindeer Tavern.
I worked my way close enough to see the stars on the baby’s snowsuit, which many washings had faded to gray. The baby sucked loudly on the handle of the cart, face red, hat askew. Poor kid looked hot. That hat had to come off.
At that moment, the hat slid to the floor, revealing two skimpy, off-kilter pigtails. Brother picked up the little red hat and tossed it into the air. Baby kicked her legs and shrieked with glee, a shriek that burst into a sparkling laugh, a fireworks of joy that drew the eyes of harried shoppers. Surprised smiles creased their tired faces as they turned toward the sound.
Crumbled candy canes! I didn’t need more people looking toward my target.
I slid behind a display of artificial holiday greenery, peeking between plastic poinsettia leaves as the family joined other shoppers angling into the toy section.
You know, I’m not entirely magical. Sure, I can do some lower level tricks, misdirections, you might call them, but when operating on this plane, you’ve got to follow most of the rules. That’s physics for you – something I could alter, take a tuck here or there or let down the hem - but I can’t change things abracadabra or ho ho ho, like some others I could name.
Not yet, anyway.
I was about to make my move when a blast of black light blew me into a tower of holly print fleece blankets. Several blankets and a cardboard sign, Rollback 3.88, tumbled into a teenage girl’s shopping cart. She kept right on texting and walking as I somersaulted out of her way.
I’d heard about those black lights. Well, D did say he had an appointment in Electronics. Usually when D’s kind acquired a target, there was a gentle stream of golden light like one of those glowy Thomas Kinkade calendars, or more rarely, a shower of sparkles, like morning sun glinting off ice crystals. This one, well, the Black Light! I couldn’t wait to hear D’s story.
My target had pushed further into the toy department. I had to move. D wasn’t the most patient guy and this cost-cutting carpool business put everyone on edge. But what could you do? Everyone was tightening belts these days. Transportation from our realm was expensive, and that meant sometimes sharing a ride with someone – or something, I wasn’t quite sure about D – from the wrong side of the magical tracks.
But D had utter invisibility. He’d been doing his job for a long time. Not me, not yet. Nowadays everyone had a smartphone camera and one little mistake meant you were all over the Internet. And that meant the Boss was not so jolly.
The tinny rendition of “Feliz Navidad” playing over the loudspeakers cut short and a breathless voice gasped, “Associates to electronics, associates to electronics.”
I dusted myself off and hurried after my target.
My target’s boy was protective, sticking close to his mother, not like some of the other kids, who were yanking toys from shelves or kicking them along the floor. The boy did pull a few things off the shelves, but he put them back with care. Now he hung off the front of the cart, eyes trained back in my direction.
Had the boy seen me? I had to chance it. I inched forward.
The cart stopped and the woman picked up a box.
“Do you think Evan would like this for his birthday?”
The boy shook his head. “He’s already got one.”
The baby had stopped sucking. She looked at me with those unblinking eyes, drool dripping over the handle. One little leg started to kick.
I slid behind a Barbie Dream House.
D materialized by a rack of stuffed pink ponies and made a little “come on” sign.
“Easy for you, Mr. Invisible,” I muttered. “Just a minute!”
I turned back to my target. Something about the elegant cut of her coat, even with the threads trailing from the hem, made me think of the way things had been when I was just starting out with the Boss.
My target pushed her cart right past me. I fumbled in my pocket but the little boy tugged his mother to the other side of the aisle. Too late!
Reindeer rash! The kid was Mr. Protective.
D pointed to his bony wrist. He wasn’t wearing a watch, but I got the message. When D says time is up, it’s up.
I didn’t need a clock to tell me it was almost midnight. What was it with midnight? Why not 1 a.m.? Or two when the bars close?
I pushed that thought away. That’s what had gotten me into this mess in the first place.
All I had to do was this one job to get back into the good graces of the Big Guy. A last minute mission only I was desperate enough to accept, desperate enough to hitch a ride with D. Well, I’d hung out with a rougher crowd back at the Rowdy Reindeer.
“Too many people. In you go.” The woman picked up the little boy and settled him in the cart. He looked back over her shoulder as he clambered in, but he turned to face the front of the cart. Probably keeping a lookout for out for me, the person of impossibly short stature in the fir green coat and boots. I made sure my ears were still tucked under my black watch cap and followed.
The baby continued to watch me with those unblinking eyes, one little leg kicking, kicking. She was definitely on to me.
I dropped back behind a large lady in a drooping Santa cap, and tried to make my thoughts blank, blank as a whiteout snowstorm.
I jumped side to side, trying to see past the drooping hat. Where had they gone?
D stopped to check out a display of thermal underwear.
I peeked around the lady again and my boot skidded on something soft.
The baby’s red hat.
I snatched it up and whirled toward the sound of the baby’s boot banging on the cart. My target had turned down a blindingly yellow, purple, and pink aisle labeled Crafts. The baby kicked again, wildly, still sucking on the cart handle. I hunkered behind a display of “It’s a Wonderful Life” DVDs.
“Say.” My target held up a paint set, surprisingly real and solid in the shrink-wrapped jumble of plastic toys. “How about this?”
The boy took the set in his hands. “It’s great. Mom, can I have one, too?”
The woman hesitated. “Maybe next time.”
The boy turned to the baby. “Hey, where’s your hat?”
The target looked down, saw the hat on the floor at her feet, and picked it up. Her head tilted. She opened the hat and pulled out the package I’d stuffed in it – money or “Benjamins,” I believe they’re called down here, tied in a white ribbon with a sprig of holly. It had taken only a minimal bending of physics to slide the hat to the spot by her rubber clogs. I held my breath, standing on tiptoe, peeking over the DVDs.
The woman looked around, but she and her children were the only ones in the aisle. Well, the only ones she could see.
A laugh, small and stuttering, was cut off as she pressed the hat to her lips. Then she said, “Yes, you can have one.”
The boy whooped.
An avalanche of relief replaced the worry I’d been dragging around like a broken pull toy. I spun into a few steps of the Sugarplum Shuffle.
I turned and bumped right into D’s silver skull belt buckle.
“Let’s go, elf chick. Time flies.”
“Let’s go, elf chick. Time flies.”
Over the P.A. system, an electric guitar shredded, but all I could hear was the sound of sleigh bells ringing.