A Very Valley Christmas
by R.C. Murphy
Like a Viking horde, Christmas invaded Huntington Boulevard. Nearly every home along the mile-long historical district possessed some sort of twinkling lights fixed to their lawns. The few bare houses were startling in their lack of glitz and mass-produced holiday cheer. On any given night throughout December, folks walked or drove down what had been dubbed Candlestick Lane—so named because the old fashioned street lamps were decorated like gigantic candlesticks. Halfway through the dazzling displays children could catch a glimpse of Santa Claus. A real, live Santa who waved and gave a hearty, “Ho, ho, ho” to passing cars. Holidays on Huntington Boulevard were surreal, beautiful, and a gigantic pain in the ass.
Morning sun stole all of the glory and wonder from carefully decorated homes. Everything in sight looked washed out, tired. Or maybe her mood colored her view of the world.
Rebecca McGovern sneered at a herd of wire deer grazing in her neighbor’s yard. That very same herd had been making Mr. Jacob’s lawn their home for nearly ten years. They were the only décor the old man allowed to be set up. Hell, since his wife passed, not even a tree went up inside. Ah, the holidays. How they persisted in reminding the living of those who have passed on.
Across the street, in the wide grass strip that once held tracks for the long-forgotten trolley line, sat Santa’s sleigh—complete with animatronic reindeer. Somewhere along the line of reindeer caretakers, they fancied that the reindeer were fans of bad disco fashion. Each of the four bore bright, sequined saddle blankets. Rebecca couldn’t help but hum the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever every time she passed by.
A sudden attempt to dislocate her shoulder banished the disco music from her mind and firmly pulled her attention back to the matter at hand.
“All right, Samantha. Calm down, we’re going.” The bouncing blonde chihuahua on the other end of the leash gave an excited whimper and shook. She always shook. It was part of the tiny breeds charm. If only their propensity to develop an ear shattering bark would fall to the evolutionary wayside.
Samantha let out another trembling whimper. Her gaze locked on something over by Santa’s sleigh. Another dog came around the side of the display, nose locked to the dewy grass. The stray hiked up his leg and pissed on the base of a Christmas tree beside the sleigh. Rebecca bit back a laugh. Some days, she held the same sentiment.
“Come on, baby girl. Let’s leave him to his bathroom break.” Rebecca chuckled at Samantha’s snort and led the way down the sidewalk.
A quartet of ice-skating Smurfs met them in the next block, their smiles far too cheery for the cold breeze leeching through her jacket. Their ply-board bodies swayed in the wind, giving the illusion that the overgrown Smurfs could actually skate. Not that Fresno ever got cold enough to freeze ponds for anyone to skate on. Winter in the Valley consisted of a moderately chilly two-month break from the hot-as-hell temperatures.
Samantha’s nails clicked along into the next block, which held the infamous dueling manger scenes. For as long as Rebecca could remember, the two houses constantly tried to out-do each other, adding more and more to their decorations until it became Jesus-palooza on their lawns. A few years back both of their baby Jesus dolls went missing. The “official” report blamed teens from the high school down the street. She suspected, however, that the men engrossed in the manger battle stole the other’s Jesus in order to get an upper hand. The second, and larger manger scene pulled ahead by leaps and bounds in the annual pissing contest when the homeowners hung a life-sized mannequin dressed as an angel over their manger.
This year the scene didn’t pack a punch. The angel lost an arm during a storm. His missing limb laid in front of baby Jesus, looking like a serial killer’s offering to the Messiah. Rebecca laughed. Her mind toyed with the idea of one of the wise men as a homicidal maniac. Gold, frankincense, and the still-beating heart of an unfortunate woman… considering how bloody the bible was, the idea didn’t seem that far-fetched.
Tugging impatiently on the leash, Samantha led the way across the street. Her little chihuahua legs moved a mile a minute to keep her well ahead of Rebecca’s steps. The dog had enough horsepower to pull a dogsled all by herself. If there were any snow on the ground, she’d sacrifice some cash to see if Samantha really could.
When it seemed as though the subdued decorating theme would win out, weird reared its head again. Smack-dab in the middle of a manicured lawn sat another set of ply-board figures. Santa Claus stood in the cold, his bright red long johns exposed to the public. He looked awfully embarrassed as a bunch of woodland creatures laughed at his expense. Why anyone thought a half nude Santa was appropriate confounded Rebecca. Poor Santa had been flashing passersby his unmentionables for years. Though she still held out hope that someone would take pity on him and update the display.
Rebecca left Santa to his embarrassment. Leaves crunched under her feet. A breeze kicked up under the back of her jacket, cold enough to make her gasp like she’d been goosed with an ice cube. “I’m asking Santa for a longer coat this year, Sammy.”
The chihuahua ignored her. Her determined little legs dragged Rebecca past an never-ending line of houses with more of those damn wire deer and corresponding wire Christmas trees. About five years back originality in the decorations gave way to cheap and easy ways to get their crap out on the lawns the weekend after Thanksgiving and back out of sight on January second. Nevertheless, when the sun set the street took on an ethereal feel. If one could overlook the modern decorations it’d be easy to imagine a troupe of Victorian carolers strolling down the sidewalk.
A surge of traffic forced them to stop in the shade of a gigantic Christmas tree. According to the sign by the sidewalk, it was one of the tallest, living, lighted, and decorated Christmas trees in the nation. Rebecca tilted her head back to take in the full size of the tree. She’d hate to be the one responsible for decorating that thing every year. Nor would she want to be the one stuck footing the electric bill. The half-billion bulbs on the branches twinkled in the sunlight between brightly colored ornaments.
Despite the hassle and the cost, the Christmas tree remained the shining star of Huntington Boulevard. Grudgingly she admitted to herself that growing up, the main reason she’d sneak out on cold December nights wasn’t to visit Santa, but to admire the grandeur of the giant tree.
Traffic slowed and she moved on. Samantha did her doggy business. Out of habit the pair kept walking all the way to the other end of the street towards Cedar. A pair of teens from the high school strolled past, headphones plastered to their heads, phones in hand. She shook her head, wondering if the next evolutionary step would be no mouths or vocal cords. Kids nowadays communicated strictly by texting.
Down at Cedar, she stopped to wait for the traffic light. A noise drew Rebecca’s attention to the house behind her. The corner house had always been a tad… different. This year the owner put out a set of realistic deer grazing on the lawn and, to her surprise, little tiny Santa hats on the metal flamingos interspersed between the well-kept rose bushes bordering the sidewalk.
“How adorable. I wonder if those come in Chihuahua size,” she teased Samantha, who in turn snorted and squatted to tinkle on the strip of grass next to the street. “You’re all class, Sammy.”
Rebecca frowned down at the dog. No way could she pee enough to actually make a sound after a mile and a half walk.
“Oh what the hell?” She turned around, expecting to see one of the high school kids trying to screw with her head. Nothing. Just the flamingos with their tiny red hats.
One of the flamingos’ head bobbed on the giant spring that acted as its neck. The wind must have caught it, though none of the others moved. Samantha gave a whimper and darted behind Rebecca’s legs.
“Chicken Chihuahua. It’s the friggen wind,” she muttered.
“The wind can’t talk,” a male voice replied.
Rebecca blinked. Then blinked again for good measure. The flamingo that’d moved in the wind moved once more, only instead of just bobbing its metal head, its jaw moved. Okay, too much time in front of the weirdo house, she told herself and turned around to cross the street, traffic light be damned.
“Roadkill isn’t a good look, Rebecca. Get over here. I can’t exactly chase you,” the voice said again.
She froze, one foot hovering over the pavement. “Let me guess, because you’re a flamingo with his leg stuck in the ground?” Whirling around, she scanned the bushes for the source of the voice.
The flamingo’s head tilted up to meet her eyes. “Precisely.”
“I’ve lost my fucking mind.”
“That is up for debate considering how often I’ve heard you speak with that rat on the end of your leash, but we don’t have time to assess your sanity. Rebecca, I need your help.”
She gaped at the flamingo and then pinched the back of her wrist. Hard. “Ow! Okay, so not dreaming. Why the hell do you need me?”
A frustrated snort came from the non-throat of the flamingo. “You’re sensitive to spirits. I bet you know which houses down this street are haunted. It’s a gift, and is the reason why I need you. After the lights turn off, come back here. I will explain more.”
Just like that, the flamingo’s head dropped down and went back to being a plain ol’ metal flamingo with a Santa hat on its head. Rebecca inched forward and gave the thing a poke. It didn’t move again or yell at her. She peeked over the rose bushes, looking for wires or speakers, anything to explain what the hell happened.
Rebecca yelped and turned around so quickly she tripped over Samantha’s leash and hit the ground with an “oomph”. A pair of nurses who worked at the hospital across the street gave her concerned looks. One reached out to help her up while the other hit the button for the crosswalk.
“You okay, miss?” The older nurse gave her an once-over. Probably checking for blood… or a hospital wristband saying she’d escaped from the mental ward.
“Yeah, fine. Thanks.” Without meeting their eyes again, she slinked across the street and walked back home. Oh yeah, she was okay. If you considered talking to lawn decorations the definition of “okay”.
By ten o’clock Rebecca decided pacing would be her newest hobby. She walked a loop around her living room, bypassing the oversized chairs and couch that tempted her to sit and think. Thinking, that’d be a bad idea. Really bad. Then she’d be forced to face the fact that either her last marble had gone the way of the dodo or accept that a metal flamingo expected her to meet up with him in an hour. What sort of help did he need?
“Get a grip. You got brain freeze or something and it made you see things,” she told herself for the umpteenth time.
From the back of the couch Samantha watched her pace, little brown eyes tracking her progress across the living room and back. If the dog saw or heard the encounter, she sure didn’t let on that she did. Aside from that one yelp when the strangest conversation of Rebecca’s life started, Samantha seemed okay with what’d happened. That made one of them. She eyeballed the dog, who’d since given up watching and curled up in a ball to sleep.
“A lot of help you are,” Rebecca murmured and abandoned her pacing to make a cup of tea.
Butt leaning against the counter, she cradled an oversized coffee mug to her chest. Cinnamon drifted up from the steaming contents, but did little to soothe her nerves. The lights down Huntington would be off in just a few minutes. Could she—would she—really trek out in the cold to converse with something that’d certainly been a figment of an overactive imagination?
Through the kitchen window, Rebecca watched Mr. Jacob’s wire deer turn off and settle in for a long winters nap. Santa would be climbing down from his sleigh to go home for the night. In a few moments the people that came to see the lights would clear. It was now or never.
“I choose never,” Rebecca decided, setting her mug on the counter.
A chill crept down the back of her neck, invisible fingers working their way down her spine. She turned to check the window lock. Suddenly the coffee mug skittered across the counter and shattered on the floor. Cursing, she bent down to pick up the pieces. Halfway down she realized the fragments held a message, H-E-L-P. Oh wonderful, notes from her mystery flamingo.
Minutes later Rebecca trudged out the door bundled up in her coat, gloves, hat, and scarf—which covered most of her face, thankfully. If anyone saw or heard her talking a flipping flamingo, they wouldn’t be able to identify her to the men in white coats toting a straightjacket.
She crossed the street and headed towards Cedar. A handful of looky-loos lingered on the sidewalks. Cars without their headlights on eased past to catch a glimpse of the last few houses with their lights still on. Rebecca, like most, kept her lights on a timer. That way she didn’t have to go outside in her pajamas to turn off the friggen things.
Feeling rather humbug about everything involving Christmas, she walked up to the last house on the street. Hands shoved in her pockets, she waited for something to happen. She’d be damned if she spoke first. The flamingo-ghost-illusion wanted her help; he could break the ice.
“It’s not polite to stare.” The flamingo sprang to life. The little white poof on the Santa hat bobbed back and forth across beady black eyes.
“How about breaking someone’s coffee mug?”
“It got you here. I call it a necessary sacrifice.”
Rebecca bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself from telling him she’d necessarily sacrifice his freaky metal backside to a junkyard. “Can we hurry up? I’m freezing.”
“Certainly.” The spring neck of the flamingo creaked as it lifted up higher. “I am a Christmas spirit and as such it is my du—“
“Oh god.” Rebecca slapped a hand against her forehead. “I fell asleep watching A Christmas Carol again. No wonder all this weird crap keeps happening.”
The flamingo’s head shook. “You ruled out a dream when we first met. Please, just hear me out.”
Sighing, she motioned for him to continue and silently wondered how long she could stand on the corner before someone came by, probably not much longer. The bird better talk quickly.
“As I was saying, it is my duty to ensure everyone in the area has a wonderful Christmas. This year, however, there is a dark cloud looming over the boulevard. If someone does not take action, it could be devastating.”
“What, no stockings from Santa this year?”
“Sarcasm is not productive.”
“Yeah, but it keeps me entertained. I’m still not seeing a problem that needs my help.”
“Santa is going to burn down the Christmas tree.” The flamingo’s tone made the ridiculous statement ten times spookier.
Rebecca snorted and shook her head. “Santa is a myth. How can a myth burn something?”
“You’re intentionally being dimwitted. The gentleman playing Santa in this year’s festivities plans to torch the giant tree tomorrow night.”
Oh. “And why on earth would he do that?”
He made an exasperated noise. “I don’t know why. I just know you have to stop him.”
“Some kind of spirit you are.” She took a look around to make sure no one snuck up while they talked. “Okay, fine. Who is it and I’ll call the cops.”
“I don’t know.”
“What time will he blow up the tree?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know anything at all?” Her hands fisted in her pockets. One more “I don’t know” and she’d punch the flamingo in its metal beak.
Black eyes met hers and held. “I know that if that tree burns, not only will the spirit of the season be forever tarnished, but every house on that block will become ash and rubble.”
She squirmed under the intense gaze. “But why me?”
“You are the only one I can speak to. Your gift, the niggling feeling that tells you there is a specter near, allows me to warn you of the events to come.”
Talk about pressure. Rebecca nodded, not believing that she really just agreed to help a possessed lawn sculpture save a giant Christmas tree. “I’ll do everything I can to stop him.”
“You won’t see me again, Rebecca, but I will be around, lending a hand when I am able.”
The flamingo’s head sagged on its spring neck and bobbed lifelessly in the breeze. Frozen to her core, Rebecca turned around and headed back home. The entire walk she wondered how exactly to stop a man determined to ruin not only the holidays, but a lot of families’ lives as well.
If she really was their only hope, God help them all.
The next morning Rebecca woke with a Chihuahua on her head and so many questions her mind buzzed. She’d stayed up late, trying to think of ways to flush out Santa. Every year someone else volunteered to play the part and this year she’d opted out of the holiday planning committee, so she had no insider information on the fat man. Not only did she have to find Santa, she had to prove he meant to do serious damage. Just catching him wasn’t enough. He needed to go to jail. She rubbed her forehead, knocking Samantha’s paw off. Could you go to jail for threatening to burn down a tree?
By the time she showered, she’d almost convinced herself the flamingo and his dire warning had been a hallucination. Stress at work and the holiday blahs always messed with her head. Depression mixed with stress cause this sort of mental snap all the time, right? Sure.
Rebecca stepped out of the shower and wrapped her hair in a towel. When she looked back up, the fog on the mirror began to move.
“Just what I needed, an impatient hallucination,” she grumbled and went to get dressed.
After breakfast, she perched on one of the stools at her kitchen counter, scrolling through the contacts on her phone. Would it be too much for the spirit guy to help her and give her the number of whoever played Santa? Rebecca searched the numbers, half hoping to see one that said, “Bad Guy” or “Evil Santa”. Unfortunately no such number came up, so she called Joyce instead.
Joyce Conrad possessed the title of Huntington Gossip Queen, a title she wore with utmost pride. It earned her a few enemies in the neighborhood, but came in really handy when one needed to spy on someone without getting their hands dirty, or in this case possibly burnt off by a nutjob in a red suit. She hit the call button and held her breath. If Joyce didn’t know who played Santa, the whole saving Christmas thing would be a lot harder than she originally thought.
“Good morning.” Joyce’s voice vibrated through the phone with cheer. A morning person, wonderful.
“Morning, Joyce. This is Rebecca McGovern. I have a strange question for you.”
“Ask away, sweetie.” Christmas music drifted through the phone. Not only was Joyce a dreadful morning person, she also listened to holiday music from Thanksgiving day to New Year’s eve non-stop. Good thing she didn’t have to live with the woman.
“I was wondering who is playing Santa this year. He’s doing such a wonderful job out there and I wanted to write him a thank-you card.” Lame, lame, lame. Rebecca mentally smacked herself.
“Aren’t you a doll? It’s the new gentleman, Leonard.”
“New” around the boulevard meant someone that’d moved in during the last five years. Older folks owned most of the houses and the ones that weren’t were owned by the children of the previous generation. The houses moved down family lines for the most part. For one of the larger houses to be sold to an outsider was a rarity.
Leonard bought the house on Sixth that held the giant Christmas tree about five years before. She sat there, so shocked she forgot to reply to Joyce.
“You still with me, Rebecca?”
“Oh, yes. Sorry, I was distracted by something. Thank you, Joyce. Have a nice day.”
“You too, sweetie.” The Christmas music and Joyce’s vibrant personality cut off with a click.
Rebecca sat back in her seat. Not only did Leonard plan to burn down the tree, but his own home as well. The guy didn’t strike her as the type to do such a thing. Of course, she’d never met anyone that wanted to set fire to much more than a barbecue or a stack of logs in a fireplace. She rubbed her forehead to chase off a budding stress headache.
Leonard Pickett was a big man. When he moved in they all thought he’d make an ideal Santa. Year after year he politely refused, saying his hands were full enough making sure the tree looked its best. What changed his mind this year? And what the hell possessed him to burn it down after taking so much pride in the thing for the past four years? Most importantly, how the heck would she take down a man that easily had a hundred pounds and six inches on her?
“Too many questions,” she groaned and hopped off the stool to hunt down some aspirin.
By the time the aspirin kicked in, Samantha began to do the puppy pee-pee dance at the front door. She gave a relieved yip when Rebecca hooked the leash onto her harness. Ten feet outside the door, the tiny dog stopped to do her business. The temptation to turn around and go back inside after she finished tugged at Rebecca. Outside stood reality where, allegedly, one of her neighbors would burn down a small chunk of the city for no apparent reason. Inside her house, she could ignore the Christmas spirit’s warning and call the fire department if or when the blaze started. Good plan. Safe plan. She liked it.
Across the street a leaf blower whirred to life. Looking over, Rebecca cringed. Leonard Pickett strolled around his massive front lawn, sweeping the leaf blower back and forth to clear the leaves that’d fallen overnight. From a distance he still didn’t look like a guy with arson on his mind. A nagging feeling in the back of her head propelled her feet before she could stop herself.
What are you going to do, Rebecca asked herself, walk up and say, “Excuse me, sir, but are you going to light the tree on fire tonight?” That’d be a one-way ticket to the loony bin for sure.
Leonard looked up from his work and killed the leaf blower. He waved to her. “Well lookie here. Haven’t seen you two in a while.”
A nervous smile broke across her face. “Work keeps me busy. Uhm, how’ve you been?”
Any more small talk and she’d smack herself. How the hell could she get away before blurting out the nonsense the flamingo fed her the night before? Fake an injury? No, then he’d try to help. She’d walked right into the “nice neighbor” loop. Crap.
He gestured to the tree. “Keeping busy. Replaced all the old ornaments for this year.”
Did he cringe when he looked at the tree? Oh god, now that damn metal bird had her all Nancy Drew, searching for clues to a mystery that likely didn’t exist.
“Wow, must have been a lot of work. A birdie told me you’re Santa as well this year.” Samantha tested the limits of her retractable leash and went off to sniff around the yard.
“Yes, ma’am. Speaking of, I need to finish this up and get ready. Tonight’s a big night.”
Leonard gave a wave and walked back towards the pile of yard tools laying by the gate to his back yard. He set the leaf blower down before stepping through the gate. Several red jugs, what looked like gas jugs, were lined up on the other side. The gate shut behind him too quickly for her to figure out exactly what they were.
“I can’t believe this, Sammy,” Rebecca said softly to her companion. “But I’m starting to believe the flamingo.”
Night fell on Huntington Boulevard. Twinkling lights set on roofs, yards, and trees blazed to life. Families bundled up in winter coats began their walks. Others piled into cars to drive slowly down the boulevard. In the middle of it all sat Santa, giving a cheery ho-ho-ho to everyone that passed.
Rebecca watched Leonard do the Santa thing from her front window. When she figured enough time passed, she grabbed a black coat and crept out the back door. She circled around, using the alley to keep her out of sight until she crossed Huntington well behind the sleigh. Slow traffic hid her progress. She ducked into the alley behind Leonard’s house without incident.
“I must be insane,” Rebecca said to thin air. Maybe the Christmas spirit watched. Who knew?
She gave the gate handle a jiggle. It didn’t budge. With a curse, she kicked the wood. The gate lock gave a soft click and the door swung inward. A breeze swept across the back of her neck, but didn’t move any of the nearby bushes.
The breeze vanished. Rebecca didn’t waste any more time and walked into Leonard’s back yard. Dense trees blocked most of the ambient light. She clicked on the small flashlight she’d grabbed. Hoping like hell Leonard couldn’t see the light, she picked her way around the backyard until she stood where she’d seen the red jugs that morning.
Nothing. Not one damn can in sight.
Frustrated, Rebecca backtracked to a small shed beside the winterized garden. The lock hung loose on the door. Probably more help from the great beyond, or wherever Christmas spirits resided. Inside, she passed the flashlight’s beam back and forth. In the rear left corner sat a pile of red gas cans. She took a sniff of an empty can. Diesel? Leonard drove a hybrid. Why would he need this much diesel?
The flashlight scanned around. Lawnmower, weed-eater, hedge trimmer, unlabeled boxes, crates holding god knows what… the shed was packed, but no where did she find a piece of paper detailing Leonard’s master plan to ruin the holidays. She slumped against a wobbly worktable. Something rolled forward and bounced off her backside. Rebecca moved the light over what looked like a road flare.
Frowning, she looked around the table. Tools covered most of the surface. On the back corner sat a box, blasting caps. She paused and took a closer look at the road flare. Dynamite.
Rebecca hauled ass out of the shed. Her breath shot out of her mouth in huge clouds of fog. While she tried to slow down her heartbeat, she went over what she’d seen. Leonard had enough diesel fuel to power about a hundred chainsaws, blasting caps, and at least the one stick of dynamite. Would that be enough to call the cops? She looked up over the roof of the house at the star atop the Christmas tree. He’d said that all of the decorations this year were replaced. If he possessed any more dynamite, it hung on the giant tree, disguised as ornaments.
A breeze cut through the branches of the tree. The shiny ornaments caught the lights as they swayed. Taking that as a sign, she left the backyard and circled around to the front of the house via the alley. Hunkered down in the bushes, she waited for a gap in passer-bys before scampering up to the backside of the tree, away from prying eyes—all the while humming the Mission Impossible theme song to keep her panic at bay.
She checked the ornaments on the lower rows of the tree, paper towel rolls wrapped in foil gift-wrap with ribbon glued to the ends. Tacky, but not deadly. Glancing up, she realized the ornaments changed shape ever so slightly on the higher branches.
Rebecca jumped. Her fingers brushed one of the ornaments, but she couldn’t get a grip. Muttering a curse, she jumped again with the same result. Oh what she’d give to be two inches taller, or better at jumping. Maybe she could climb the tree? One look at the branches changed her mind. Unless an ornament sat close to the trunk, she’d fall. None of the outer limbs were thick enough to hold her weight.
“Crap on a stick.”
Legs feeling like rubber, she gave jumping one more try. Her fingers barely managed to wrap around the ornament before gravity sucked her back down. Rebecca landed on her ass with an “oomph” and decided to stay there for a while until she could breathe again.
“Let’s see what you really are.”
Carefully, she peeled the foil gift-wrap away and exposed a stick of dynamite identical to the stick she’d found in the garden shed. A tremble started at her legs and worked its way up to her hands. Leonard really wanted to blow up not only the tree, but that much dynamite would take out the entire block of homes.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Still in full Santa gear, Leonard walked around the tree, glaring down at her. He ripped the fake beard and hat off. “I said, what the hell do you think you’re doing, Rebecca?”
Ut oh… “I was just—“ she stuttered and took a breath. “The ornament fell, I picked it up so a stray dog wouldn’t take off with it.”
He snorted and snatched the stick of dynamite out of her hand. “You’re a horrible liar. Step back into the tree and hold onto one of the branches.”
The Santa Claus gone wrong produced a length of rope from the back of his belt. Rebecca stood, backed up slowly and jammed a hand in her pocket. Blindly she tried to dial 9-1-1, praying her shaking fingers hit the right buttons.
“Don’t do this, Leonard.” The only plan she could muster involved making him talk. If he stayed to talk, he couldn’t blow anything up. As far as plans went, it sucked. “Why the tree? Why now?”
Red splotches colored his cheeks. A vein throbbed under the curls of his white wig. With jerky movements, Leonard grabbed her wrists and tied them together around a branch above her head. He seemed to be thinking of an answer, his thin lips pinched in concentration.
“Didn’t want it to go this way,” he said at last. “ But you wouldn’t know how hard it is to keep afloat with a mortgage the size of the national debt. That fucking house, this god damned tree, they’re sending me to the poor house!”
He gave one last yank on the ropes holding her in place and stepped back. Anger flickered across his face, looking really out of place with the Santa getup.
“There has to be another way.” Rebecca twisted her wrists against the binds. They didn’t give. Just her luck, the crazy man probably learned from the Boy Scouts.
Leonard pinned her with a stare that froze her blood. “I thought so too. The bank won’t help. I can’t go to my family asking for a handout to save a house they warned me not to buy. This is the only way. It’s a historical landmark. They’ll assume terrorists blew the block sky-high long before they think Santa Claus did it.”
A muffled voice came from her pocket. She couldn’t make out what they said, but assumed her call to 9-1-1 went through. Please, god, she thought, let the dispatcher hear what we’re saying.
The friendly neighborhood Christmas spirit could help any time now.
“Blowing up a huge chunk of Huntington Boulevard homes won’t fix anything. And blowing up the tree will hurt the people who’ve lived here their entire lives.”
“Shut up! You inherited your house. There hasn’t been a mortgage on that place in your lifetime. I’m going through with this. Your pooch can inherit your place after they piece together your charred skeleton.”
Leonard collected his hat and beard from the ground and slid them back on. He set the faux-ornament she’d retrieved down beside her feet. With a wink of his eye, he thumbed his nose and strolled back towards the sleigh. A group of children cheered from the other side of the tree.
“Please, please, please help.” She didn’t know if the operator still talked from her pocket. The pounding of her heart drowned out everything.
In the branches above her head, wires ran back and forth. Some went to the multitude of light bulbs; the rest strung the sticks of dynamite together. The interior of the tree looked like a spider’s web and she’d become the unwitting fly caught in the trap. A trap that reeked of diesel fuel. Rebecca fought to free her wrists. There was no telling when that lunatic would press the trigger and blow her to smithereens.
“I’m going to die, blown up by fucking Santa Claus.” Her laugh turned into hysterical tears. Blood ran down into her coat sleeve from where the tree bark scraped her wrists raw.
Tears made her vision blurry. A bright light swept across her eyes and only made things worse when paired with the multicolored Christmas lights. Rebecca sobbed, waiting for the worst. She’d never been very patient. Apparently that included waiting for certain death.
“Hello?” a man called. “Ma’am are you in there?”
Great, she’d started hallucinating again. What the heck, might as well go out embracing insanity. “I’m here!”
The branches blocking her view of Leonard’s house parted. Through her tears she made out the vague shape of a man in dark clothing. He stepped carefully around the puddles on the ground until he reached where she’d been tied up.
“Just try to keep breathing. You’re going to hyperventilate if you don’t calm down. Breathe with me, ma’am.” The man, a cop judging by the silver glinting off his chest and hat, took a deep breath in through his nose and let it out slowly through his mouth.
A sob choked Rebecca when she tried to do the same. Her wrists screamed in pain and only got worse when he began to untie the knots holding her in place. He kept his cool, continuing to take deep, calming breaths. Eventually her body followed his example.
“T—thank you.” She cradled her throbbing wrists against her stomach.
The officer led her through the tangle of wires and tree branches. A short, blonde paramedic swooped in on them when they emerged, blue-gloved hands making quick work of assessing the damage to her wrists. The woman walked her to the ambulance parked in the semi-circle driveway in front of Leonard’s house.
A light bulb went off in Rebecca’s traumatized mind. “Santa Claus! They have to catch Santa before he blows the tree up.”
Firm hands held her down on the back bumper of the ambulance. “Stay still, please,” the paramedic warned softly and jerked her head towards the flashing police car beside them.
“They got him right before we found you. Congratulations, you saved Christmas.”
Santa wig askew, beard down around his throat, Leonard glared at her from the backseat of the car. He yelled something, but she couldn’t hear it. Probably for the best, she thought. He’d be out for blood. Her blood. Oh god, what would happen once he got out of jail?
“Cops say there’s enough explosives to put him away for a nice, long time,” the paramedic said in that soft, even tone emergency workers used. She carefully pulled a piece of tree bark from Rebecca’s wrist and dabbed it with gauze.
“Thank goodness for that,” Rebecca replied, eyes glued to the man that’d nearly killed her.
Frost crept up the window of the cop car, completely obscuring the hateful man inside. Bits of ice began to swirl and move of their own accord. The Christmas spirit—shaped like that dang flamingo—nodded at her in the frosty picture. He winked; the end of the ghostly Santa hat bobbed around. Just as quickly, the image vanished and the frost began to recede.
“Merry Christmas,” she whispered to the spirit, wherever he’d gone.