Everyone in town works at Santa Land from Thanksgiving until one week before Christmas because it’s money, it’s what we do. Townies operating the frozen carousel, selling plastic Jesus heads, baking pre-baked gingerbread cookies, cleaning up puke on the bumper cars and shoveling shit in the reindeer barn. Our family’s always been the Shit Sweepers. It’s what we’re known for, what we’re good at, Grandpa, Gramma, Aunt Irene, Uncle Fred, all my cousins, my sister and I, we’ve all done it.
The old man met Ma shoveling shit. Their wedding cake was piled high with layers of brown and gray and black to celebrate and didn’t everyone laugh, the old man said, didn't everyone fucking laugh.
“Bring me the paycheck,” my old man says, not looking up.
“Yeah,” I tell him.
“All of it this time.” And he coughs into his hand and takes another swallow of his scotch. It’s nine am and I’ve had my jigger too, just behind his back, because the old man don’t share, wants it all to himself since Ma left.
“I need gas,” I say.
“Fuck you need gas.”
“You just want to get laid.” He points the remote at the television, cussing, because all we’ve been getting is snow, freezing rain, for weeks. Freezing pipes, freezing telephone lines, freezing the shit out of everything. But it’s not the weather he’s pissed about—it’s the cable being out. Nothing but static on his Quebec porn channels, just fuzzy shots of ass, random tits.
“Yeah,” I finally say, and stand there with my hands in my pockets and think that’s the last thing I’m getting in that barn tonight because it’s just me and Burger and the bottle under my shirt. The old man looks up and shoots me a grin that says, You get it boy while it’s hot, but then his look freezes, turns sour, and he sucks his Winston hard.
“Don’t roll your eyes at me, Boy.”
I could knock him out the door if I wanted, and I know that’s what really gets under him—my lack of ambition with a fist. He hooks a finger under his chin, urging me on, wanting that side hook, knuckle on skin, bone to bone.
“You hear me talking to you?”
“Yeah, ” I say,
But then the cable gets a run of luck. Fuzzed out tits and ass, some random face appearing, and he’s gone to it.
The barn at Santa Land is cracked open and slicked back, wood shining. I crank some “Nine Inch Nails” because what are the reindeer going to do? Complain? They’re stupid, just cows with antlers, and anyway, they like it, sometimes jamming their fat heads around to the vengeful shit, spreading their mouths wide like they’re rocking out. Burger and me like to jump over their backs at closing time, leap over their bins, being that we’re metal heads with shovels. But tonight, it’s just me for sweeping. Burger’s taking off with his girlfriend in an hour, this chick from the Gingerbread House, Babette or Janette, he don’t even know, but she gives him head along with leftover gingerbread men, and it’s a forever thing as far as he sees.
“She got a friend,” Burger says.
I pull the old man’s scotch from under Bessie’s feed bin and turn on a killer mother solo and leap over the fence when the guitars jam it.
“She from Canada. Babette or Lynette or something. She got a tattoo of a snake on her ass.”
“Screw your old man, Jessie,” he says. But he knows. Knows how bad it all gets.
I just crank the radio higher and jump stall to stall, leaning deep to the wood and digging my toes, hopping over piles and piles we’re not sweeping yet. Keeping balance better than those loser skateboarders in California, the ones I see on ESPN when the old man’s down to the VFW.
“Hey,” the barn supervisor, Walter, says, coming in. “Get to work.” He’s from down south, Concord or Manchester, some city guy with attitude, and he don’t know shit, even with his degree in cattle management, like that makes him some big guy, some one with the all the answers in Santa Land. He don’t even live in town. “And I mean it.” He has soft manicured hands and smooth shoes and he wears a marshmallow parka.
“Hey, Walt,” Burger says, throwing a pile at Walter’s feet. And Burger looks to me to start heaving shit too, but I just tell him to shut the fuck up because I’m tired tonight, just want to get the hell out of here.
“You need to get laid,” Burger tells me, after Walter docks our pay. Again.
“Yeah,” I say.
And I get back to work.
The old man used to hit Ma square in the face when she didn’t laugh at his jokes. Sick jokes about farm animals and dutiful dogs that Ma closed her ears to.
“What? What?” he’d say, not understanding the composure on her face, the way she kept her hands clean at home, made the shoes stay off in the house.
Then Ma’d get mean. Demand the money. “Where is it?” she’d ask. When he said nothing, she’d add, “You drink the check again?”
“Nah,” the old man would say, hanging his head, because he knew. He couldn’t help it, really, the drinking. It’s the only thing to do in this town once the night hits. He’d keep his head down and I knew that was a worse sign than all the fists he’d make. Especially with Ma shaking her head, sighing into her fist. “You too good for me? Huh?” he’d ask and me and my sister, Lorna knew to run up the stairs then to the closet. I’d tell her ghost stories real loud. Some nights we’d even sleep in there. Lorna curled around me like I knew all the answers.
As the glasses smashed, furniture thrown.
The next morning, Burger and I see them. On their usual tour of the barn before the winter season happens. The Disney Rejects—these extraterrestrial blond things from California, girls who didn’t make the Disney Channel, the Disney Cruise, Mouseketeer Girls who fuck up lines and dance steps so they’re stuck in New Hampshire at Santa Land dancing for the tourists. Their one last shot of stardom before they pack it in and kill themselves. Everyone in town is scared of them. They’re different. And they hate us.
“Now, girls,” Walter says. “This is where Santa comes for his reindeer.” No one laughs. “And here are Santa’s working elves.” Walter expects us to wave at them with our shovels.
I just keep shoveling shit.
“Can we get going?” one Reject asks. “It’s really, really cold in here.”
“Get a load of that one,” Burger whispers, but I’m not looking. I already know. Blonde chick, usually in red, white and blue, occasionally with a cowboy hat, and always with spangles and sparkles and fake eyelashes. “She ride me high I bet.” I forget to laugh so he smacks the shovel into my rib. “She ride me high,” he says, again, using his eyebrows as exclamation marks.
“Ha,” I say just to keep his shovel away. And I continue flinging piles.
“You see that one bending over, you see that one there, she the one I want…”
“Shut up,” I tell him.
Because, yeah, I know what we look like in our Elf Boy outfits—losers, fucking losers. Velvet hats and red satin jackets, candy cane striped boots covered in reindeer shit. There’s no use to pondering the merits of getting it on with them. No use to all these jokes, all this nodding and chuckling and rubbing our hands up and down the shafts of shovels. It’s hopeless. A fucking waste.
“Check her out, man…”
But then I hear it. A squeal, a smack then a squish. First, I think it’s Bessie, the mental reindeer, the one who bit Burger in the ass last year when he was messing with some jingle bells. But it’s not Bessie, with her high pitched squealing, banging against boards, it’s one of them. She’s fallen straight into one of my piles.
“Oh, dear Lord,” Walter says.
But this Reject doesn’t cry. Burger out there first, and Bud Jr. rolling up his sleeves. She’s laughing. Even through all the ‘oh my gawds’ and arched eye glances of her fellow dancing queens, she’s fucking laughing.
So I pull her out.
In the mornings, I’d tell Ma that it’d get better, it really would. And she’d rub her fingers up and down my hand and stare past me to the frozen fields, that winter sky coming at us bright and hard. Even with the woodstove going full blast.
“Yeah,” she’d say.
“He don’t mean it.”
“Yeah.” And she wouldn’t look at me. “I know.”
“It’s just that…”
“Don’t say it,” she told me late one fall morning. And she pushed my hand away and got up quick, the chair almost falling over. She slammed the screen door going out, and didn’t even come back for her coffee. She always had three cups, but that day, she didn’t even drink one.
I poured it down the drain.
I leap end to end over the pitchforks, AC/DC just blasting the hell out of the place, while the reindeer knock their antlers into feed bins. I’m done sweeping, the stalls are layered and fresh, and the old man will be passed out in his chair so I can get past his sorry hump and upstairs without him coming at me. I balance upside down between the slats. Feel the blood rushing into my forehead and finally see the stars behind my eyelids. It feels good.
“Hey,” she says. I open my eyes. It’s the dancer chick. Her feet at my face. . I topple over quick, grabbing for my gloves. “You could be dancer,” she says. “Good balance. Strong arms.” She chews the air as if she can’t breath. Then I realize her teeth are chattering.
“Yeah, right.” And I hand her my bottle. She holds it tentatively as if I’ve given her some lit match, a grenade or something. “It ain’t gonna bite you,” I tell her roughly. So she takes the bottle and guzzles it hard, those black eyes hitting my face with attitude. She’s long and lean like the rest of them, but there’s nothing Sound of Music about her face. She’s got a Mick Jagger mouth.
“You got height and distance. Long stance between leaps.” She’s enjoying this, her breath coming out in long puffs as she stares at my Elf Boy tights, my boots covered and stinking.
“Don’t you got curfew?” I crack my neck.
“Yeah.” And she tries to look dangerous, and she almost pulls it off except that her teeth are too white and she has diamond earrings. I don’t say nothing because she’s blinding actually, and I’ve never before had a conversation with any one of them, especially late at night, and without Burger for backup. She finishes the bottle, hands it back to me. “You have more?”
I swing that empty bottle and know that I can smash it hard against the wall, get her back to where she belongs, let her see the pieces flying. But all I do is tell her, “I got to lock up.”
And she doesn’t move. She just doesn’t move. “I’m Kristi,” she tells me and extends her hand.
We head toward the Gingerbread House, to where Burger and Babette or Lynette are probably doing it, and she talks the entire time, gee whizzing over the frozen pines, touching the blinking lights on the bushes, raising her arms overhead and spinning in circles.
“Are you for real?” I finally ask her.
“It’s so beautiful here,” she tells me as she grabs my arm. “Look.” And she points my face up, and yes, it’s splintered with stars, and yes, the moon hooks the cliffs, and yes, the light on the river throws shadows. But the wind howls and the rocks are the color of pooled blood.
“Yeah, it’s paradise,” I say.
And she sits on the path in front of Santa’s House. So I sit, too.
“I pierced my tongue once,” she tells me, and she sticks her tongue out from between her lips and waggles it a bit.
“I don’t see it,” I say, my eyes directly into her mouth. She opens wider and her breath comes at my face and smells of my scotch.
“It pissed my parents off,” she says. “So they put me into the psycho ward.”
I have to look away from her. “Because of your hole?”
“They thought I was influenced by Satan. Do you like Satan?”
“I don’t really think of the dude, to tell you truth,” I say, because I hear Burger and his Gingerbread girl coming up the walk, and before I can get us out of there, Burger sees us, and hoots out, “Party on, dude.”
Then he sees the dancer girl. And so does the Gingerbread girl, and the pathway gets real quiet. Because we’ve never had this happen before. One of them with us.
“Meet Kristi,” I say. And Burger just holds himself.
We party on the Dancing Elf Stage, dressed up as reindeer and Christmas presents. Babette comes out naked tied up in a red velvet bow, and Kristi, she just barrels across the stage as Drunk Punk Santa, in a ripped apart red suit and my shit kicker boots, pounding the stage and leaping as The Clash screams through the speakers.
“She’s a hot shit,” Burger says as Kristi flings herself past us.
“She from Utah?”
“Don’t look like any Mormon ballerina I ever met.”
“Yeah, and you’ve met a lot of those around here,” I say. Kristi kicks a wrapped box across the stage then knocks over the Christmas tree.
“You gonna do something about it?” Burger lights up another spliff and hands it to me, and I suck it hard.
Kristi karate-kicks a plastic elf head.
“Don’t be a fucking loser all your life,” Burger says, shaking his head. “It’s right out there…” He thumbs at Kristi as she smiles a five foot smile. “Waiting for you, man.”
And I don’t give him another toke, I hold that spliff between my lips and join Kristi on the stage, blowing smoke to the green and red ceiling. And she loves it when I throw her high into the air, my work gloves getting good grip on all that Santa velvet.
She grabs my neck when I catch her. Her hands are so warm and smooth.
Dad trashed the house for three days after Ma left. Broke every picture. Twisted her rocking chair all apart. Ripped her wedding quilt to shreds. Tore the feather ticking from all the pillows. When my sister came after him, hitting him in the face with her fists, I saw him eyeing the goblets on the counter, and knew he’d be cracking those against the kid’s head soon. So I rammed him in the belly and let him take his time on my face.
I got to be out of school for a week.
And no one asked any questions when I came back to class. Not even Burger. Because I was the Evans’ kid. The shit kicker who got the shit kicked out of him.
“Where you been?” the old man asks, even though I was walking slow and quiet past his covered body.
“Yeah.” And he tries to pull himself up in the Laziboy. But that chair’s done with him. It reclines in constant lopsidedness, just like the old man, and I’m not fixing it again. “Get over here,” he tells me. I shove the chair to the wall so he can sit upright, and that’s his opening. He grabs me tight around the collar. “You been drinking?”
I don’t answer him because he’ll want to know what I brought back for him.
“You got it all over you,” he says. “And more.” His jaw goes back and forth and then he laughs. “You see Darlene?”
The old man likes my girlfriend, Darlene, not just because she’s the daughter of his old drinking buddy Dozer, but because she brings stuff over for him. Seven Layer Bars, frosted cupcakes, cakes with moose and deer figurines, and she wears her tee shirts so tight he can see straight through to her skin. Darlene likes him, likes the attention he pays her.
“Nah,” I say, trying to get the hell out of there. He usually wants the play-by-play, who did what to who, and most times, I end up saying, so he’ll leave me alone. But tonight, I just walk right past.
“I told you.”
“Don’t you mess that up.”
I just shake my head and go to bed. Cover my ears with the pillow when I hear him howling out Ma’s name then turning the television on high.
I tell Walter it’s my fault the stage got trashed but he don’t fire me. No one fires a townie, that’s the word around town. So I get two days off without pay.
Once Kristi’s off from dance practice, I take her up into the White Mountains on Burger’s four-wheeler and she hangs onto me when I spin us in circles on Jabson’s pond. Keeps telling me to go faster, faster, faster, and so I do. The sky opens then closes, black covering blue, and the ridge is covered with broken limbs, whole trees from the avalanche last year.
“Keep your eyes closed,” I tell her once its dusk. The crows scream in the trees when I turn the engine off and hide like ghosts in the pines. The Pemi has frozen to its usual twisted green.
“Now?” she asks. The mist is just about to come over Crooked Mountain. It trails itself wide over the Pemi, starts up the trails to North Bend woods.
“Yeah,” I say, and when she takes her scarf off, her cheeks redden from pale white to deep pink.
“Oh,” she whispers. “Oh.”
She’s got the look of slapped happiness.
The old man took to drinking harder, laying around in his stained bathrobe all day, all night. Told us to just shoot him, shoot him dead in the face. Because he was shit, and his life was shit, and there was nothing but shit surrounding us. He kept the curtains drawn and piled his clothes on the floor. Then one day, he threw his work boots into the river and squinted at us as if we were demons.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked, that television blaring out weather reports.
And I didn’t answer him, but Lorna did, telling him that we were his kids, and that he was her father, and not to worry so much because Ma would come back one day, and we’d be a family again, and Ma’d cook us her stew, and make him that pan of brownies and he’d be happy again, and for one long moment, the old man’s face relaxed enough so that there was something of kindness sitting between his lips. But then Lorna touched him and that did it.
“Get away from me,” he yelled, smacking the air in front of him.
Later, that night I hated seeing how lost my sister’s eyes got when I told her I didn’t have no answers to this family. I just held her until she fell asleep. And then I cleaned up after the old man, covering him with Ma’s crocheted quilt, the only thing he didn’t destroy of hers.
I tell Darlene I want to take a break, but she just pulls me on top of her, and moans shit in my ear, and so I say, what the hell, and we do it in the back seat of her father’s Buick. But then she starts up again.
“What’s her name?”
“Quit it,” I say, trying to zip up, but she punches me.
“You too good for me now?”
“Cut it, Darlene.”
I try to get out of the car but she grabs at me again, and so I have no other choice but to lean back. She has long nails painted bright red and she scratches my wrist.
“I gotta go, Darlene.” I pick up her bra and hand it to her.
“Babette told me, so don’t hide it.” She throws it at my face.
“There’s nothing. I just want…”
“You lying sack of shit.” And she beats me over the head with her fists and I just sit there, letting her snap. But then she says it: “You fuck-up…”
And that does it.
“Shut up.” And I grab her hands between mine. Hold them more than tight. But Darlene is tough, tougher than rock, and she doesn’t flinch. Just stares me down.
“Go ahead,” she says. She turns her face left and right. “You know you want to…”
And I think of Ma again. And that night she left. And how the old man’s hands sounded on Ma’s skin, and that there was never crying afterward. Just stunned silence and the dishes being washed.
So I push myself out of that back seat, no shoes on, and run across that frozen ground.
The night Aunt Bev took Lorna, she whispered, “You’re a good boy.” They were going to Quebec where Aunt Bev lived, where Ma was. “You’re doing the right thing.”
“Yeah,” I said as I carried Lorna past the old man drunk asleep on the Laziboy.
“Remember that,” Aunt Bev said before starting her car.
Lorna didn’t cry. She knew how to keep it quiet. I was real proud of her and told her so. When she hugged me one last time, I pressed my thumbs over her back trying to memorize her bones.
And then Lorna was gone.
Ma called me once. I could hear Lorna in the background laughing and for one moment, I
thought, Shush, Lorna, the old man will hear you, until I realized I was. Alone in the kitchen, the old man gone to the VFW.
“Come back,” I told Ma, cupping the phone with one hand. She sounded so close.
“You don’t even know what’s…” she said, sighing.
“He can’t help it.”
“Stop,” Ma said so I shut up and listened to her breath.
Ma used to focus on my hands mornings after the old man went at her. She’d hold them and blame herself for everything. So I got to stuffing them into my pockets so she’d stop, just stop.
“Ma…” I said.
“I can’t,” she said.
One morning, Ma grabbed my hands out of my pockets and held them up to the light. Veined and red, skin peeled in places from cigarette burns, my fingernails blackened, never clean enough. “Stop,” I’d told her, but she wouldn’t. She kept her eyes on them. “Quit it.” But she kept on, kept on, her face puckering as she rubbed at the dirt on my skin. “You can’t help it,” she had whispered. “You just can’t help it…”
“Please…” I said, banging my forehead into the wall.
“I can’t, Jessie.”
My hands came at Ma only once. Quick, almost quicker than the old man’s but I didn’t slap her, I didn’t, I just pushed her aside, and when she hit the kitchen wall, her forehead buckled backward, then forward, and in that moment a rush of fear came over her face that was worse than any pounding I’d gotten from the old man’s leather belt, worse than any metal slammed against bone, any fist to skin. Her face fell. Then emptied.
“It’s okay,” Ma said on the phone.
But it wasn’t. I couldn’t offer her my hands anymore.
Kristi shows me how to do turnouts and entrees and swags and sways. We throw ourselves at each other and tumble across the floor most nights after everything closes up.
“You’re doing good, but point your toes,” Kristi says when I walk in a handstand toward her.
“Point your own goddamn toes,” I tell her. She snorts into her fist because she digs it when I cuss. “We really shouldn’t be here,” I tell her.
“Shut up, Elf Boy.”
“You shut up, Dancer Bitch.”
“Why are you so nasty?” And she comes up close.
“It’s my job.”
Her hands are on me quick, grabbing hold of my ankles. “I got you,” she says. I stare at her tattoo wrapped around one ankle, a butterfly spread out blue and green over her shin, not in the color of a bruise, but in the shades of ocean and pine. “Focus…” And I imagine first tracing the blue with my tongue, then taking my time with the green of the wings, nibbling on the antennas, tasting that arch. But then she asks, “Why do you wear those gloves all the time?” And her voice is so far above me that it’s almost an announcement, a statement of fact that there’s nothing truly holding me up. Her hands swing at her sides as I topple to the floor.
“Shit,” I say, as I lay at her feet. I don’t look at her.
“You’d have better grip with your hands free,” she says. “From the gloves.”
Her hands reach for mine. I don’t tell her no. I just press my head into the wood of the floor and wait for her deep intake of breath, a sucking of teeth, and her quick escape.
“I’m so sorry,” she says when she sees them. She starts up crying. When I tell her to stop, she can’t. She stares at me full in the face. Shaking her head with all those tears. This is shit. I’m a shit. I don’t need this. Her sympathy. Anybody’s sympathy.
“You want a touch?” I ask her, jabbing them up to the spotlight, and there they are, veined and red, the skin burnt in places, my thumb like some flattened hammer from when the old man smashed it into the door frame. “You want a little souvenir to take home to Hollywood?” And I stand over her, feeling the old man’s blood in mine, the pounding of it all inside my head and I want to smack something, jam it hard against the floor.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
“Go back to your Dance House, Crazy Girl,” I say and I take off fast, slamming the carved Santa doors behind me.
“Where you been?” the old man asks when I get back late. “Huh?” Darlene has him dressed in a fresh shirt. She wears one of Ma’s aprons and whistles to the radio.
I just stare at Darlene as she grabs the old man’s hand in hers. “What’s she doing here?”
“I have a roast cooking,” Darlene says. “And for dessert?” Darlene pokes the old man in the chest with her red nail.
“Cheesecake,” the old man shouts and Darlene chases him around the kitchen table, shouting, “With strawberries, whipped cream and strawberries…” And the old man giggles, actually giggles, as he cranes his neck back at Darlene.
He lets Darlene catch him. They huddle for a long moment, the old man’s hands down her back. He rocks her like he used to rock Lorna, and that’s what makes me turn away, head toward the door.
“You want a little drinkie poo?” Darlene asks me. She pulls away from the old man but the old man grabs her back. His hands rubbing the fabric of her sweater. “We’re celebrating.” The old man spins Darlene around.
“What,” I say. That roast is lit up bright in the oven as I take the bottle, the old man not stopping me this time.
“You gonna be a Daddy,” Darlene tells me. “And I bet it’ll be a boy.” She clucks the old man under the chin. “Just like your old man.”
“Like father, like son,” the old man says as Darlene smiles wide, patting her stomach.
I used to follow the old man around as a kid. Hunt with him deep in the woods and we’d hide in the bushes, just waiting for some animal—didn’t matter what it was, squirrel, bobcat, mouse, bird—to pass within shooting range and the old man would go crazy. It was like that animal was out to get him or had smacked him full in the face in a card game down to the VFW, and the old man was out to settle all bets. The whole woods ricocheting with his bullets, and we’d scrabble out toward whatever was running away. Once we lucked out and got us a raccoon, but most times, it was just a spray of noise and cussing and then the old man crying into his hands about what he’d lost in the Viet Cong when he was twenty fucking years old and how I was shit for not defending anything but myself.
One time, when I was five, I tried hugging him to make him feel better.
And that’s when he started it up. Using me as his way out of bad dreams, lost animals in the woods.
Burger is impressed, but not so impressed. “There’s three already in our class,” he says at school. “She’ll be joining the Preggo club.”
I don’t say nothing.
“You dog.” Rondo comes over, and slams his fist into my back.
“No, you dog,” Burger shouts back because Rondo already had a kid. Got a junior pregnant last year and they live in an apartment downtown, over Sally’s Pizza where she waitresses. “I bet if I opened a daycare around here, I’d be fucking rich.”
“Shut up, Burger,” I say. This cafeteria sucks. This school sucks. Darlene waves at me from her posse of girlfriends and when I don’t wave back, they surround her and shoot me glances.
“They shit all the time,” Rondo says.
“Jessie gonna be a diaper boy now,” Burger says, elbowing me.
“Yellow shit, brown shit, hard shit…” Rondo slurps his chocolate milk down. “…runny shit, green shit…” Rondo continues. “But you’re used to shoveling shit, ain’t you?” He bangs me on the shoulder. “Shit Sweeper.”
Darlene’s walking over with Joy and Becky and the rest of them and I can’t deal with her today so I just do it. Crack my fist to Rondo’s face.
The old man would be so proud.
I started following Kristi around, watching her from behind the trees. She was always talking to herself, flipping her hair back and forth when she was alone. She walked past the barn most afternoons, scratching her fingernails down the sides of the wood. She sucked on her bare fingers when she got cold. Occasionally, she growled at children when they followed her too closely and I loved watching her face light up when they screamed, running back to parents and pointing at her. One day, she went off and pulled the plastic Baby Jesus from the ceramic manager and smashed him on the sidewalk in front of a pile of families. There were screams like you’d never heard in Santa Land. Parents covering their kids’ eyes, Mrs. Claus shaking her head from the door at her plywood cottage, the Gingerbread Girls coming out of their cookie house, and Kristi in the pink glow of the lamplight, tossing that Jesus in the air and screaming. Then she ran straight out of the place, tearing at her hair.
I knew where to find her. Smelled her from behind the wooden beams on the backside of the barn. The same clove and hay as Bessie. There was a settling then a crash down of snow from the roof as the wind picked up.
“Kristi?” I whispered. But she didn’t say nothing even when I stood over her.
She fingered her hair. It was short, too short, almost chopped in half. She’d found the reindeer shears.
“I like it,” I said, but I didn’t touch her, didn’t slide my hand over those spikes.
“I’m gonna be locked up.” She cracked her neck. “Never to be seen again.”
“Here,” I said, pulling a ratty barn quilt down. The heat wasn’t holding up to what the outside was blowing in.
“No.” She shook her head to my wool hat.
Bessie lay like a dog curled up in the corner. Her belly rising and falling in the darkness. “Mountain View Health Center,” she said brightly. “Where your happiness is our prime concern.”
“Sounds like bullshit,” I said.
“I’m not going,” she said. “You hear me Don and Barb?” Her fingers traced butterflies on my skin. Wings against my crusted skin, antennas over the scales as her fingers loop through mine. “I’m not…” she started to yell, so I reached across her mouth to quiet her down. For a minute, she fought, twisting in my arms, but I held her down hard, held her still, and whispered in her ear that I’d keep her safe, that I’d hide her.
Kristi and I dance in the barn because it calms her. She likes my hands on her skin, loves their roughness, the way I shiver when she takes them into her mouth. But mostly, I bring her to a ledge off Crow’s Nest after midnight. Granite outcropping surrounded by bent pine branches making this canopy. We dance in the shadows and howl across the frozen valley. Our voices echo against the rock and our breath disappears into smoke.
“Let’s stay up here,” she says, her coat sliding open. “Never return again.”
I toss her to the night sky.
“Yeah.” I set her down. “Live like hermits.”
She tosses her scarf over the edge. “Be spirits in the night,” she says. The scarf fluttering in spirals and circles until finally, disappearing.
“Never be found,” I say, pulling her into my jacket.
The wind wails. The moon fills her face. Then blows itself out.
We have our plan.
“Darlene says you know her,” the old man says when I get home. There was a bounty for Kristi’s whereabouts, a full freezer load of venison offered if anyone had a clue because the parents were in town, and they were pissed, demanding answers from the locals.
I shrug because the quicker he gets lit, the quicker I can get out of here. Darlene still down to Concord, looking for wedding gowns, shoes, not back until late, tomorrow, even.
“So?” he asks. His hands were shaking. “You know where she is?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Same place Ma went.”
That shuts him right up.
And soon enough, he’s asleep. So I take off.
When I get the barn, Burger’s there. He wasn’t in Kristi and my plans.
“Hey, Bud,” he says. He looks under a bin.
“She’s not there if that’s what you’re looking for,” I say. I hand him a shovel but he kicks it down on the ground.
Burger presses his face close to Bessie. “Smashing Jesus. What a psycho…” There’s green icing on both sides of his mouth.
I just shrug.
“Closing night at fucking Santa Land,” Burger turns to tell me, and that’s when Bessie licks him. “Shit.” He bangs Bessie’s crate, wiping Bessie’s slobber from his hand, and heads toward the CD’s.
I fork more hay to Bessie.
“The end of season kegger’s over to Robbie’s tonight.” He puts on “Full Metal Jacket” but I turn it off. Bessie stares at me, waiting. I rest my hand against her neck.
“Not going,” I tell him.
“What the fuck’s wrong with you?” Burger says, as he bangs my boot with his rake, then quickly heads toward the back of the barn where Kristi and I have our things, the backpack, the blankets, some scotch.
I block his way.
“Darlene have the VFW reserved?” He pushes past me.
“Yeah.” I grab his collar.
“The old man’s paying,” he adds.
I twist his arm.
“He’s not so bad, you know.” Burger says, pulling me with him. “Your old man.”
There’s nothing else to do but crack him hard and he goes down right in front of the bin where Kristi sleeps. “Kristi?” I ask. When I open the crate, Kristi’s not there. .
Our plan was this: we’d take off to Canada on Burger’s snowmobile. Go to Aunt Bev’s in Quebec and I’d get a job over to the hotel that she worked in, get some decent pay for us to live together. We could probably get ourselves an apartment, probably something small at first, but maybe larger once Kristi got a ballet job, started dancing on stage or teaching kids or just maybe writing a novel like she’d talked to me about. She said she liked living a rustic life and it all made sense, Kristi and I in a different country, away from all this.
I sit in the back of the auditorium, high as I could go. My flannel jacket stretched up, wool hat low, so no one could see me. Bobby and Roger, from school, yelling Popcorn, Peanuts, in their striped red and white jumpsuits while their girlfriends sold snow cones in Snowgirl suits. Walter pacing by the front door, glaring at his watch, and everyone looking pissed. Show was supposed to be on twenty minutes ago.
“Come on,” one father yells.
“We got kids here,” another shouts.
I see Kristi’s parents. Her father looks in all directions while the mother sits ramrod straight, her hands twisting. Kristi told me to watch for them, Barb and Donald. That they’d be the ones with the video, the digital camera recording her every move.
Assassins, she’d whispered in my ear last night. They’re assassins.
Barb and Donald don’t have cameras. Donald stares at his watch then whispers to Barb. They both shake their heads.
“Let’s go,” a kid shouts. But still the curtain doesn’t open.
Kristi would love Ma and Lorna. We’d go over for family dinners and Ma would make her meatball stew and brownies and maybe we’d even play a board game. Lorna loved board games and I bet Kristi would like them too. We’d be a family. A happy family. Wouldn’t be locked no more. To anyone, to anything. Our lives would be perfect.
“Sorry about the wait…” Walter says as he wipes his forehead. “But...”
And then Kristi crawls out. From underneath the red velvet. There’s applause, the crowd thinking she’s a Christmas mouse, a lost elf, but I know better. I shake my head as she stumbles left than right. Red lipstick is smeared across her face. Some kids laugh, but the parents don’t.
“Merry Fucking Christmas, everybody!” Kristi pulls the microphone away from Walter.
Barb and Donald immediately stand up.
“You all having a good holiday?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Good, good, glad to hear it because you’re in for a shitty time tonight…” She whizzes the microphone in circles over head.
And that’s when I know to take off. Running through the aisle straight at her as she flips herself off the stage. Her arms are white, then silver, from the stage lights, as “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” rises in volume, and I catch her, spinning both of us around and around. The audience ripples in red, and green, and white, their faces spilling one into another, and applause hits us as I throw up her and twist her, her body so smooth in satin and silk. I don’t feel my arms. I don’t feel my hands. And there’s this humming coming from my chest and it’s warm, an ancient quilt settling over us as she hangs onto me and I hold her hips high. She flies in white as I kick the stage doors wide and still the applause, as the wind howls, the snow drifts over my boots.
“Kristi,” I say. The barn is open and lit up.
And we see Bessie, staring out at us from her unlatched doorway. She turns her head to the forest and steps forward in this spell of calm, like she knows exactly what she’s doing, where she’s going. Her antlers twist and her coat seems covered in silver ribbons.
“Go,” Kristi shouts. The sky is swollen, the air a flurry of hazy white. And when Bessie launches herself into a cover of pine, her shadow spreads wide against the snow.
Burger’s snowmobile roars. And Kristi’s hands are tight around me.