“Oooof!” Santa groaned under the weight of yet another youngster. “Aren’t you the sturdy little fellow?” he said, adjusting the load as best he could. He had seen hundreds of kids that day, and the line of anxious little faces still waiting for a turn stretched across the store to the Chia Pets on aisle 17.
Santa thought for a moment about his brother in Duluth who sold lawn ornaments. Archie had been trying for years to get him to join the business. Perhaps? He considered the prospect for a few moments and then shook his head. No, he told himself firmly. Despite the competition, no one could do this job as well as he. Santa shook his head again, this time to clear his thoughts, then gave a couple of ho-ho-ho!s.
“Ouch!” He screamed as the round kid in his lap yanked his beard.
“Hey, what do ya know?” the boy proclaimed. “It’s real!”
“That’s it, kid. You’re through.” Santa handed the boy to the cute high school cheerleader masquerading as an elf. He motioned for the next child, a pretty little girl in a taffeta dress.
“Just a minute!” The round boy’s mother reared up out of nowhere and plopped her son back onto Santa’s lap. “We’re not through yet. Horace hasn’t told you what he wants for Christmas.”
“A lump of coal?” Santa suggested.
“Tell him, Horace.”
“No vegetables,” the kid said with a smirk.
“I don’t want any vegetables.”
“Well, Santa doesn’t usually deliver any vegetables for Christmas, so you don’t need to worry.”
“No. My wish is that I never have to eat vegetables again.”
“No vegetables?” Santa repeated incredulously.
“Crazy, huh?” the mom broke in. “I told him it was a stupid wish, but he insisted. So I brought him here so that he could hear it from the horse’s mouth.”
“Wouldn’t you like a new bike or a train or a video game?”
The boy shook his round head. “I never want to have to eat vegetables again.”
“Well, well. Santa will see what he can do. Here’s a candy cane, and I’ll be by your house bright and early on Christmas morning. Ho, ho, ho.” Santa set the boy down and gave him a little push in the direction of his mother.
“We’re not leaving until he gets an answer.” She turned the boy around and shoved him back toward Santa. “Go ahead. Tell him it’s a stupid idea.”
Santa forced a laugh. “Ho, ho, ho.”
“So tell him.”
Santa looked down at Horace. The roly-poly kid had crammed the entire candy cane into his mouth. It looked like a couple of carrots would do him good.
“Well, now, sonny boy. This is a tough one.”
The boy’s mother took a menacing step toward him. “Tell him, Santa,” she snarled.
“I — I just don’t know …”
The mom growled.
Santa stood up and plopped the kid down on his chair. “Wait here, kid. I’ll be right back.” Santa scurried around to the rear of his display and ran inside a giant plastic igloo. He shut the door marked “Santa’s Workshop – No Admittance” and threw the bolt behind him.
In the rear of the igloo was an old short wave radio. Santa switched on the set and adjusted the frequency. “This is Santa calling the North Pole. Come in, North Pole.”
There was nothing but static.
Just then, the boy’s mother began pounding her meaty fists against the door to the igloo. “Santa, get your red suit out here now!”
Santa looked at the rickety door and feared it wouldn’t last long. “Come in, North Pole!” He shouted into the microphone. “This is an emergency!”
“It better be,” answered a cranky voice. “I just started a liverwurst sandwich. It’s my lunch hour, and according to your contract with the elf union, each elf is entitled to a duty-free — “
“I know, Mort, I know, but I need some help now. I need someone to check the rules on Christmas wishes.”
“That’s Maurice’s department, and he’s out of town. There’s an elf convention in Munchkin Land, and he won’t be back for at least a week.”
“Look, I’m desperate.”
“Okay, okay. For you, Santa, I’ll do this. Whatcha need?
“Can a kid get a wish never to eat vegetables again?”
“Geeze, I don’t know.”
“Look it up, Mort!”
“Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ll get back to ya, Santa. ASAP.”
Mort switched off the short wave set, took another bite of his liverwurst sandwich, and sat back in his chair to read the latest edition of Elfen Times. He was entitled to another 36 minutes for lunch, and Santa was going to have to wait.
Meanwhile, back at Gronk’s Department Store, the line of kids waiting to see Santa now stretched out the front door and halfway down the block. Mr. Gronk smiled reassuringly at the throng of kids and parents as he crept past the line to inquire what had become of Santa.
After calming Horace’s mom, he gently rapped at Santa’s door. “Oh, Mr. Claus?”
“Mr. Gronk! Is that battleax gone?” Santa asked through the door.
Mr. Gronk smiled sweetly at the boy’s mother, who was boiling over with anger. “No, no, Mr. Claus. She’s right here. She just mentioned something about biting your head off. If you don’t come out of there soon, I might serve it to her myself.”
“Look, Mr. Gronk, I’m sorry about this,” explained Santa through the door, “but I’m in a bit of a jam.”
“It looks like a plastic igloo to me.” There wasn’t any humor in Mr. Gronk’s voice.
“So it is, but I’m afraid I can’t come out. I’m waiting for important news from the North Pole.”
Mr. Gronk slapped his forehead. Just my luck, he moaned to himself, a store full of kids and Santa’s gone bonkers. “Just what agency did you say you were from, Mr. Claus?”
“I didn’t. I’m the real McCoy.”
Mr. Gronk slapped his forehead again and slumped against the door. He turned and saw the teeming mass of pint-sized consumers. If they riot, I’m done for, Gronk realized. Best to coax this guy out and try to avert a disaster. “What can I do to assist you, Mr. Claus?”
“Nothing yet — hold on. Something’s coming through on the radio.”
“Yo, Santa. This is Mort.”
Santa ran for the radio. “Mort, Mort! What took you so long?”
“Research takes time, Santa. Look, old boy, I can’t find a thing. I guess you’re on your own.”
Horace’s mom could not be contained, and she again began pounding on the door. “Santa, get out here now, or I’m going to take a blow torch to this igloo!”
“Mort, I’m in a bad way, and I’m going to need some weight behind this decision. I’m afraid we’re going to have to take this to the top.”
“You can’t do this to me. I’ve got 125 years with this firm. I’m not going to throw it all away on a bunch of vegetables!”
“Mort, do you want anything in your stocking this year?”
“That’s right. I won’t if you don’t do this for me.”
“You’re a tyrant. That’s what you are. All right, I’ll do it, but I’m going to report you to the Santa’s Little Helpers’ Society.”
“We’ll settle this later. Now go. I want the answer in five minutes or less.”
Mort turned away from the radio and walked out of the dispatch room. The hall was congested with young up-and-coming elves, bustling here and there with last-minute preparations for the holiday. Mort boarded an elevator, pushed the top button, and shot to the highest floor in the building.
The doors opened, and Mort stepped out onto the thick piled carpet reserved for the executives. He went down the hall to the large reception desk and nodded a hello to Bernie.
“I need to see the Big Cheese,” Mort said, trying not to sound nervous.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“Uh-huh. I’m here on orders from Santa. Seems he’s having a bit of trouble at Gronk’s Department Store.”
Bernie shook his head. “It’s a good thing Christmas comes but once a year.”
“Give me the Fourth of July any day. Well, here goes.”
Mort stepped up to the door marked “Ms. Claus — C.E.O.” He knocked softly and then entered.
“Hello, Mort.” Ms. Claus’s smile was frosty from behind her gigantic mahogany desk. “I’ve been expecting you.”
“You have?” Mort asked, already rattled. “But how?”
“Oh, I have my ways. So, Santa is having trouble in Region Eight?”
“A toy doesn’t drop without my knowing about it, Mort.”
“I see.” Mort was impressed.
“I’ve already sent Rudolph with a special package for Santa.”
“Very good, ma’am.”
“Yes. And speaking of good, how was that liverwurst sandwich?”
Mort grimaced. “Not bad. Coulda used a little more mustard.”
“Glad to hear it,” Ms. Claus responded. “By the way, you’ll be enjoying your lunches in the reindeer stables from now on.”
“Yes, given your recent performance, I’m promoting you to sanitation engineer.”
At Gronk’s Department Store, the line to visit Santa now stretched for three and a half blocks. The waiting kids let out a tremendous cheer when Rudolph, in a khaki uniform, flew overhead and landed in front of the store. The reindeer nodded to the crowd and then pranced inside, his nose glowing brightly.
Mr. Gronk slapped his head again and muttered, “Let me guess, you’re Rudolph.”
“That’s right. I’ve got a package for Santa.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Sorry.” Rudolph shook his head. “Santa’s got to sign for this.”
Just then, Santa emerged from his domed fortress. “Rudolph! Good of you to come.”
“Got a package from Ms. Claus.”
“Great!” Santa signed for the package and tore it open. The large padded envelope contained a small bottle of blue fluid and a note. Santa read the message and began to smile. He looked up at Rudolph. “Tell Clarice — I mean Ms. Claus — thank you.”
Rudolph nodded, clicked his hooves together, and then pranced out of the store. As the reindeer exited, Santa returned to his throne. He hoisted Horace up and set him back in his lap. “Ho, ho, ho!” He chuckled. Mr. Gronk and Horace’s mom now flanked his chair.
“Well, little boy,” Santa began again, “I have your answer.” He held the little bottle before the boy’s round face. “Upon drinking this elixir, you won’t have to eat vegetables until you choose to do so.”
“And that’ll be never! Gimme, gimme!” The kid grabbed for the bottle, but Santa adroitly held it beyond his reach.
“Here’s the fine print: Should you ever choose to eat a vegetable, the whole deal’s off. Things are back to normal, except you’ll agree to eat a balanced diet, maybe join a kiddie gym.”
“Sure, sure. That’s a laugh! It’ll never happen.” The kid lunged forward and snagged the vial. He tore off the cork and downed the contents in one gulp. “Tah dah! That’s it! No more—”
Before he could finish his sentence, there was a massive puff of smoke and a flash of blue light far brighter than the one flashing above the Chia Pets. When the smoke cleared, a small chubby reindeer was stretched awkwardly across Santa’s lap.
Santa stood and set the reindeer down. The creature began prancing and pawing with each little hoof at the fake snow covering the linoleum in this part of the store.
“Wha?” was the only sound that the boy’s mother could manage.
Santa turned to her and gave her a wink. “Not to worry: Reindeer are vegetarians. With the first celery or clump of grass this little guy gnaws on, everything’s back to normal.”
“Wha? Wha?” The mother was still in shock.
Santa went over to an animatronic reindeer on display next to a cardboard sleigh and removed a faux leather harness. He slipped the tack over Horace the Reindeer’s head and then clipped a red velvet guide rope to the harness after unlatching it from a couple of stanchions.
Santa handed the rope to the stunned mother and led her and her four-legged son past the enthusiastic kids reaching out to pet the reindeer. He ushered the two out the front door. “In case the little guy is holding out,” he told her, “I’ll be sure to put some particularly delicious carrots in his stocking. Ho, ho, ho!”
Santa worked the crowd for a while, patting little kids’ heads and asking them if they had been good. He eventually found his way back to his chair and sat down with considerable relief. After a few deep breaths to center himself, he turned to the wide-eyed girl in the taffeta dress.
“And what do you want for Christmas, little girl?” he asked.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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