Despite the sign on the side that read "Santa House," Shaun did not find Santa Claus in the bright red shed trimmed with garland and speckled with white paint to imitate snowfall. He rummaged through the empty boxes covered with gold and silver paper on either side of the soft vinyl chair taking up most of the shed's interior. A card with a name in written in script was taped to each box. Michael, Susan, Bob, Mary, all common names But no Shaun.
Santa had forgotten him again.
Shaun backed out and surveyed the lot behind the shed. Christmas trees stood near the entrance, along the wire fence on either side of the shed and lined up in several rows going into the lot. An old pickup truck on blocks, a few rusted drums, and broken bricks filled the rest of the empty space. Beyond the fence, more lots separated old factories and warehouses.
Shaun shivered, pulled his coat collar up around his neck and looked up at the overcast sky. A cold wind was blowing in from the river, bringing tears to his eyes. His mother's small silver gun was like a piece of ice in his coat pocket, burning his fingers through thin woolen gloves.
He walked between the rows of Christmas trees, looking for Santa. He knew he was too old to believe in Santa Claus. His father had told him long ago, before he left, that there was no such thing. And every Christmas, when he didn't get what he'd asked for in his secret letter to the North Pole, his mother had told him she was Santa's helper and that he needed to tell her as well as Santa what he wanted so she could get it for him. This Christmas, his mother had said he should grow up and just forget about Santa Claus, along with whatever it was he wanted for Christmas. There just wasn't enough money.
Santa Claus was dead. He'd never even existed.
Shaun believed her. But believing that there'd never been a Santa Claus, that he had been wasting his time all these years with secret letters and cookies and milk under the tree and staying up all night listening for reindeer and a sled landing on the roof, didn't make the hurt in him go away. It made the hurt worse.
It made the hurt bigger and harder to take than when his math teacher called him up to the black board to work on a problem they both knew he would never solve. It made the hurt cut deeper than the kids' laughter at school when they made fun of the way his eyes were set too close together and his ears bent out and forward; the way he stumbled whenever he had to run in gym class or stuttered when he tried to tell a joke.
His mother told him to get over it. But he couldn't Part of him didn't want to give up Santa Claus. Didn't want to give up the hope that one day a secret letter might be read, and a wish come true. And the other part of him was tired of hurting Mad about hurting all the time Big, bright mad like the sun when you tried to stare at it. Hungry mad like a match flame catching and flaring and eating up a garbage can full of paper. Hurting mad, like when he dropped a typewriter out of the school window onto big-mouth Kevin.
It didn't matter whether Santa Claus was real and had forgotten him again, or wasn't real and he'd been making a fool out of himself all along. All that mattered was getting rid of the hurt. As he'd found out with Kevin, there was only one sure way to do that.
Noise from the shed startled him. He stepped out from among the trees, looked back at the shed. The front of the vinyl seat was rising, pushed from underneath by a red arm. Shaun blinked The seat fell back like a hatch on a hinge and Santa Claus came out of a hole in the ground.
Santa was thin until he stuffed the pillow he carried under his arm into his red jacket. He hitched his pants up and pulled the broad black belt a notch tighter so the pillow bulged where his fat stomach should have been. He pulled a stocking cap out of his pocket, adjusted his white beard, and glanced at his watch.
Shaun kicked at a broken brick by his foot. Santa jumped, looked up quickly.
"What're you doing around here?" Santa said. His voice wasn't jolly like the other times Shaun had talked to him. His suit was dirty, and he wore black sneakers instead of boots.
"Came to see Santa Claus," Shaun answered.
Santa walked up to him, glancing twice over his shoulder at the entrance and the empty street beyond "Aren't you supposed to be in school?"
Shaun took out his clinic appointment card and held it up. Santa took it, squinted his eyes at the small print "Supposed to see the doctor, get a shot. Every week. Make up for something I don't have."
"That's terrible, son." Santa took a long look around the lot, craning his neck to see between the rows of trees. "So, your mom brought you around to pick a tree?"
"Mom's at her doctor. She's missing stuff, too."
Santa put Shaun's clinic card in his pocket. "So you're all alone? Anybody know you came out here?"
"Nope. Skip doctor. Wanted to see Santa."
"Why, then, you must have something pretty important to tell Santa." He came up beside Shaun and put his arm around Shaun's shoulders. He smelled like something sweet and rotten at the same time. "Want to come over to the Santa House and tell him?"
"Yeah." Shaun pulled out the gun, stuck it up against Santa and pulled the trigger.
The sound was muffled by the pillow. A few feathers floated out of the jacket and were whisked away by the wind Santa grunted, fell.
Shaun was disappointed. There had been no thundering explosion or bright flash. A sharp-smelling puff of smoke from the gun muzzle rose in the air and quickly dissipated. There was no blood, no sign other than the blackened hole in the red suit and Santa's flickering eyes that anything had happened. His hurt was just as raw and painful as before. There had to be more He had to do more. Leaving Santa pawing at his stomach, Shaun went to the shed and looked down into the hole under the vinyl chair.
A ladder descended into a bottomless pit of darkness. Shaun switched on the flashlight taped to the top of the ladder. The pit turned into a concrete well with a door in the wall at the bottom.
"Old fallout shelter," said Santa from behind. "Santa's secret hideout."
Shaun turned around in time to catch Santa's fist slamming into his face.
He fell backwards, tripped over the well's lip. The gun fell out of his hand.
He heard a cry that made his heart feel funny as he went head first into the well. Something grabbed his ankle He slammed back-first into the ladder.
Bounced. He heard the cry again, realized he was making the sound. His heart beat as if about to burst out of his chest. His arms flailed, and he kicked air with his free leg.
Santa appeared at the opening of the well, holding on to his ankle. He lowered Shaun a few more feet Then he let go of the ankle.
Shaun dropped. The last few feet of the well passed by in a blur. He landed on his head and lay stunned for a moment. Santa, breathing hard and cursing, climbed down the ladder pulling the vinyl seat over his head.
"Little shit," Santa said as he came down "Where'd you get the god damned gun? What the hell do you think you were doing?"
Shaun crawled away from the base of the ladder. His hand brushed against something cold. Metal. The gun. He picked it up, aimed at Santa. Stopped.
All he could see was a wall of red crashing down on him if he fired. Shaun backed into the door. Pushed the latch. Opened the door and went into the room beyond.
Darkness swallowed him as he maneuvered his way through a maze of junk on his hands and knees. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Santa standing in the well tearing open his jacket, throwing the pillow aside and fingering a streak of red across his stomach. Shaun stopped to aim the gun. The cylinder knocked against wood. Santa glanced into the room and then up at the flashlight. With a curse, he bolted into the room and slammed the door shut.
There was no more light.
"You little bastard," Santa said "You almost killed me."
Shaun opened his mouth to say, you never came, you never read my letters.
He stopped just in time. Santa would find him if he talked.
"How'd you find out?" Santa asked.
Metal scrapped against the concrete floor. Something fell near Shaun, and he cringed.
"Did you see something? Is there talk on the street about me? Do the cops know?"
Shaun gripped the gun tighter. Held it with two hands, finger on the trigger.
"You're going to tell me, boy. Sooner or later. And then you're going to keep little Lisa company for a very long time."
Metal crashed into metal. Solid thumps, grinding, clattering filled the room. Shaun's head hurt from the fall and the noise, and from the thought of Santa catching him. He waited for Santa to touch him. Held the butt of the gun against his stomach, ready to fire. Newspapers fluttered in the air, caressed his face as they fell. Glass broke.
Shaun couldn't wait anymore. He had to make Santa come to him "Who's Lisa?" he asked.
"What?" A massive metal wall next to Shaun suddenly pulled away. "Who's Lisa? You want to know who Lisa is? Let me show you, kid."
A hand brushed against the top of Shaun's head. A sneaker toe jabbed his thigh. Shaun reached out, touched a knee, pressed the gun muzzle against bone as Santa's hands settled on his shoulders. Fired.
This time Shaun saw the flash. The bang was deafening. Santa's hands jerked away. He stumbled backwards, screaming until he finally fell.
Shaun followed Santa's moans and cries, found a sticky leg with his free hand, and shoved the gun into the soft flesh between Santa's legs. He fired again.
Convulsive kicks threw Shaun off to the side, but he found Santa easily enough by following his high-pitched screaming. He put the gun barrel into Santa's skinny belly and fired, then reached up and shot Santa in the mouth.
Straddling Santa's chest, Shaun aimed the gun at where he thought the man's head might be and fired his last bullet. He judged by the flash that he'd probably missed, but he was certain it didn't matter anymore.
Shaun let the gun slip out of his wet hands, which he tried to wipe off on his soaked clothes. His ears rang. His body shook. The gunpowder smell was in his nose, his mouth He licked his lips, tasted salty, copper warmth, and smiled. Though his body ached and his head throbbed, Shaun was happy. Much happier than when he'd let the typewriter fall on big-mouth Kevin.
He stood, legs feeling as light as air. The hurt inside was gone He wasn't mad, anymore. This Santa Claus was dead. He'd killed him. The certainty of that fact was as soothing as a Christmas carol. It was as if Santa had really visited him every year, and given him all the presents he'd ever asked for. The pressure and pain he'd kept locked inside had finally been released.
Shaun felt his way in the darkness until he found the latch and opened the door. The light in the well made him blink. He put a hand and a foot on the ladder, pausing for a moment to stare at all the blood on him. He thought he heard something. Strength drained from his arms. He looked back into the room, expecting Santa to lurch out of the darkness. He heard the sound again through the ringing in his ears. Muffled crying. Lisa.
He went back into the room, felt along the wall on either side of the door until he found the light switch, and turned it on. A dim overhead bulb came on. The room was full of storage racks, cartons, newspaper and magazine bundles, trunks, broken furniture, all jumbled together. Santa was at the far end of the room, mostly hidden by junk. Shaun tried to track the crying, but the ringing in his ears wouldn't let him. He could barely hear the girl. He took a deep breath, sneezed, and searched for her in every pile, cabinet and trunk.
Shaun found Lisa locked in a three foot trunk with an air hose sticking out. The locking mechanism baffled Shaun for a few minutes, until he remembered the window gate his mother had trained him to open in case of fire.
When he opened the trunk, he found Lisa curled up around a bag of cookies and a bottle of water. Roaches darted across her arms and hands. She was thin and pale and dirty, and smelled like an unwashed bathroom. She wore only a pair of soiled underwear. She was crying.
Shaun called her. When she wouldn't answer, he tapped her on the shoulder. She flinched. He shook her, grabbed the water and poured it on her face. Lisa sputtered, pawed at the stream of water, and finally looked up at him.
Shaun stood over her until she was tired of screaming, until she had no strength left to sob or cry, or to wipe the blood where it had dripped from him on to her skin.
Old wounds opened in him. Old pain eased back into his mind and body.
He'd saved her from Santa Claus, but she wasn't grateful. She was afraid of him. She hated him.
Shaun balled his fists. He glanced at the dead Santa, wondered if he'd carried a gun. Or a knife. He looked back at Lisa. There were other weapons closer at hand. The length of pipe. The broken chair leg. The steel shelf.
They would all help to make the hurt go away.
But he wasn't mad enough about hurting. Not yet. Despite Lisa and her attitude, he was still happy. He was fairly certain it would take a while for the hurting mad to come back. At least now he knew what to do about it.
He let the empty water bottle drop on Lisa, then turned and left the room. He climbed up the stairs and worked to push the vinyl chair hatch open.
It was harder than it looked.
He was half way down the street when he stopped and looked back at the Santa House. The story he'd tell his mother about the mess was still confused in his mind. He'd have to answer questions. Make up answers. Stick to lies. But even if he messed up a little, it would be okay Everybody knew he had a hard time explaining things. People would understand. They'd be happy he saved Lisa from Santa Claus. They'd even be happy he killed Santa.
Probably the kids at school would stop laughing at him. For a while. He'd come through it all fine.
Because Santa Claus really was dead. And that meant he could take his place. Answer his old secret letters. Build his own Santa House. Hide gifts in its dark corners, and take them out whenever he needed to make the hurt go away.
Shaun continued on his way home, feeling as if all the Christmas wishes he had ever made had suddenly come true.
Gerard Houarner is a Rehabilitation Counselor at the Bronx Psychiatric Center. This qualifies him to, among other things, live in the Bronx; belong to a writer's group called Circles in the Hair (CITH); edit the anthology Going Postal from Space and Time; serve as fiction editor for the magazine Space and Time; write a novel, The Road To Hell, scheduled to appear from Necro Pub; and appear in Tales From Zothique, Asylum, More Monsters From Memphis, Palace Corbie, The Best of Palace Corbie, The Asylum, Best of the Rest 2, Brutarian, Hardboiled, Midnight Hour, and Bloodsongs. He promises not to get better if he can keep getting published.