Nutcrackers and a Nativity Scene
"You promised Gemma. You swore blind that we would be out of here in one hour and that was two hours ago," July said.
"Look at me. Do I look like someone who hurries through the bloody mall? We're in California July, relax, it's Christmas," Gemma said placing a lock of her chemically aided blond hair behind her shoulder. July regarded her assistant. She didn't look like a computer "specialist" but July knew from experience that people were rarely what they appeared to be.
"Tomorrow is Christmas. Today is hell. This," July motioned to a woman two racks away who was pleading with a toddler, "is hell. At least she gave the nanny the night off." She shifted the load of clothing she was holding for Gemma from one arm to the other and looked up at the ceiling. She counted slowly to ten. Heiresses with credit cards were nothing but trouble.
"It's the joy of Christmas boss," Gemma said looking at a blue dress that was most likely priced several hundred dollars more than it was worth. She handed the dress to July and July took it without looking.
"Why are you doing all of this shopping? You won't be able to ship it all home in time," July said still staring up at the ceiling. She was counting beams because the store wanted very badly to be in Washington state instead of California and was going for that industrial look.
"Don't be silly. I did all my Christmas shopping before we left England. This is for me, she said as she moved around the rack and held up a skirt.
"Can you make some decisions? This stack is getting heavy," July complained shifting the load again.
July felt something hit her from behind. The large pile of clothes she had been holding kept her off balance but also helped to brake her fall. It, however, did nothing to prevent her from rolling into a rack of scarves and knocking it over.
July Spencer was small, perhaps even slight, but it could not be denied that she was tenacious. She was back on her feet before Gemma could even get over to her. Gemma noticed that a scarf was moving on its own so she picked it up. She couldn't quite explain what she found beneath.
"Can I keep it?" Gemma asked July.
"Being that it looks like a he and people don't own people, I would have to say no."
"But he's so cute. And that outfit. He looks like an elf. A handsome elf."
"I am an elf," said the little man blushing slightly but regained himself. "And I will thank you to unhand me."
Gemma dropped the hand that was attached to the finger that had been poking at the elf.
"He isn't an elf, Gemma. He's a man in an elf costume. There are no such things as elves," July said looking down at the elf.
"Those ears don't look fake to me," Gemma said.
"So he's committed. Any halfway decent plastic surgeon can manage elf ears. Remember the videos you made me watch? Those people had surgically enhanced ears. The Trek people."
"They aren't called Trek people and anyway those were Klingon's, not elves."
"No, there were ones that looked like elves."
"Vulcan's?" Gemma asked. She couldn't quite believe that July had remembered Vulcan's.
"If those were the other one's then yes."
"Ah, no. Vulcan's are definitely not elves."
"That's not the point."
"If you move I can be on my way and you can talk crazy all you want," said the elf.
"Where are you going?" Gemma asked.
"I am delivering this nutcracker to a very special friend of Santa's at the other end of the mall."
"Then you should be on your way," July said.
"No," Gemma said. "We should walk him."
"Why?" July and the elf asked at once.
"We owe it to him. This place is a mad house. He'll never make it," Gemma said.
The elf appeared to consider this. So did July.
"He'll be fine. He knocked me flat. Not an easy task to accomplish." July rubbed a hand over the hip that had made contact with the scarf rack.
"That wasn't my fault. I was being chased."
"Why?" July asked looking up at the ceiling again praying for patience.
"Look at me. The guy kept saying that I was a real elf he could put on his shelf," said the elf.
"Are you f-," July began.
"July, you have to watch the language. He could go back and report you to the big guy."
"He's not a real elf because there are no such things as elves."
Gemma and the elf shook their heads in pity. They were true believers and were not about to be put off by rational thought. July threw up her hands and bent down to retrieve Gemma's clothes. She decided it was better to go along with the farce and get it over with. She had allowed too much of her day to be eaten up already. She laid the clothes over a rack they didn't belong to and looked at Gemma.
"He is your responsibility and I don't want to hear a word when he steals your wallet."
"Hey," said the elf.
"Then don't steal her wallet," July said.
"Where would I spend it? They don't take dollars or pounds in the North Pole."
"You have got to be kidding me," July said with general weariness.
"We could keep debating if he's real or we could take him to the other side of the mall and you can get on with your life."
"I know. You're right but-"
"Fantastic. Thank you July. You won't regret it." She turned to the elf. "Let's go before she changes her mind," Gemma stage whispered to the elf. "And she changes her mind a lot."
They had traveled past three stores before Gemma spoke.
"What's your name?"
"Pleased to meet you Carl. I'm Gemma and this is July."
July didn't give any sign that she cared about what was going on, let alone that she was actually listening. So Gemma continued.
"What's the North Pole like? What's your job there?"
"It's cold but I like it. Elves were made for the cold. I'm head of shipping. I make sure the packages get into Santa's pack and then loaded onto the sleigh. I also make sure the reindeer are ready to go. Then I hand the reins over to Aggie, who is head of navigation. She's in charge of take off and landing."
"It sounds like you're fond of Aggie. Is she your girlfriend?" Gemma asked.
"Aggie is amazing. I couldn't coordinate the way she does. I have a whole year to do my job. The noticeable part of her job happens in one night and involves the whole operation. If she's wrong the sleigh doesn't go up."
"I guess she's never been wrong then," Gemma said, wonderment in her voice.
"No she hasn't."
"You're telling me."
"Are you two finished? You are making my brain ache. There are no such things as elves so there isn't an elf navigating Santa because there is no Santa," July said a little too loudly. A mother hissed at her as she walked by.
"July doesn't believe in anything she can't see. Trust me when I tell you it's a trial to be in her employ," Gemma said doing her best Victorian era lady impersonation.
"What do you do for her?" Carl asked.
"That is classified," July cut in. "Sorry. I'm sure you understand. I bet Santa keeps that naughty and nice list need to know."
"No, there is an entire division devoted to it."
"Fine, whatever, stick to the topics of your mental illness and that nutcracker," July said.
"You're a buzz kill boss. Who's he going to tell?" Gemma bent towards Carl. "She's a former assassin and I'm a former hacker. We do good deeds now. We help people."
July only glared at her as they made their way through last minute shoppers. Fifteen minutes later July was positive they were either in the longest mall in the world or she had died and was in her own personal hell of chattering assistants and elves.
"Where is the other end?" July asked applying pressure to the bridge of her nose. She was developing the mother of all migraines.
"You don't see it?" Carl asked.
"I see a giant nativity. I'm sorry, is that a man swinging from the ceiling in front of that star?"
"He's an angel, July, in front of the Star of Bethlehem. Oh, I bet they have magi," she said clutching her hands to her chest like a heroine from a Gothic romance.
July wasn't sure about magi but she smelled the real live animals before she saw them. The barn scene was complete. There were two goats, three baby pigs, a donkey, and a cow.
"Do you know where your guy is?" July asked Carl. Carl nodded and pointed.
"You better be pointing north to heaven and not to the guy in the harness." Carl only looked at her. "Great, let's get this over with. When does he come down?"
"Not until after the show," Carl said looking up at her.
"They're having a live nativity," Gemma said.
July just stood and stared. There were people everywhere. Every bench and chair was taken. Children were camped out in strollers. The scene was the opposite of heavenly. A sign on the stage confirmed her worst fear; the living nativity had just begun and was going to go on for the next four hours.
"No," July said quietly. A man who was trying to get through the crowd slammed into her shoulder without a word of apology. He kept walking. She watched as a woman tried to sooth her crying baby by telling him to look at the animals on the stage. The donkey was impressive but she wasn't sure it could cure the crying.
"What if we dropped it off? He has to have a bag or something up there right?"
"That might be alright," Carl said unsure of the entire situation.
"I'll climb the scaffolding and drop off the nutcracker. Then all of this will be over."
"I'm going up with you. That way I've actually delivered it," Carl said.
July opened her mouth to protest but closed it without saying a word. Arguing would only make it worse. What was actually worse was Gemma inching through the crowd to get a better look at the donkey. July grabbed Carl by the back of his elf costume and pushed her way through the crowd. She made it to the back of the stage just as a man spread more hay for the manger and animals. She slipped past him, unseen, towing Carl behind her. The scaffolding was surprisingly sturdy so July felt confident that Carl wouldn't die while climbing.
"Are you sure?" July asked looking up.
"Santa's orders," he said.
"Fair enough. Up you go."
July picked him up from behind and set him on the third rung of the ladder that ran up the scaffolding. July gave him credit. He was small but determined. She followed him up. It was July's opinion that the organizers of the event had delusions of grandeur. The star and the angel didn't have to be so high. July had to push Carl up over the top.
"Take it easy," Carl said.
"I didn't do it on purpose. It was the angle."
"Find the angel's bag and make your deposit so we can get out of here."
"That's not him. That isn't Philip Cole. I've met Cole. This guy is Cooper Top," Carl said looking at the man's wallet. He was still crouched over the man's bag.
"Are you sure?" July asked.
"Does identification lie?" Carl asked gesturing towards the drivers license.
"Sometimes," she said looking for the break in the curtain so that she could peek out. "What does your guy look like?"
"Is he still out there?" Carl asked. Before she could stop him, Carl jogged over to her and stuck his head through the opening that she had been using to spy on Cooper Top. July knew how to spy. Carl did not. The moment he stuck his head out the audience laughed.
"Pull your head back in. They think you're part of the show," July hissed.
"I'm trying. I'm stuck. I think the bells on my collar caught on the curtain," Carl said trying to wiggle free.
Carl's foot slipped on the metal pipe of the scaffolding and he slipped. July tried to pull him back but his momentum carried them both over the edge. Carl swung out and hung by the back of his coat high above the audience. An audience that was equal parts laughter and horror. At first they laughed at the elf who was hanging sideways but then the screaming started. July tried to grab the curtain but she couldn't. She saw people and animals flee as she fell onto the roof of the nativity. It was made from cheap cardboard and it took three seconds to collapse beneath her. The roof split in half and July's elbow landed on something soft. It was the doll from the upset manger. She shoved the manger away and saw Gemma standing on the stage in front of her. Gemma slapped a hand over her mouth as her eyes went wide.
"July, you just rolled on Jesus."
"Not by choice."
"You're going to hell just the same."
"I'm sure God knows it was an accident," July said.
Gemma nodded quickly, her eyes still wide. "Sure."
"Besides, I used to kill people for money. I bet this doesn't even rate. I bet he doesn't even notice."
"Give me a hand we have to get out of here."
"What about Carl?" Gemma asked.
They both looked up towards the star. No Carl.
"It's a Christmas miracle. Let's go," July said tugging on Gemma's sleeve.
July dumped her coat into the nearest trash can and went to purchase another. When she returned Carl was kissing Gemma's hand. He gave her a little bow and vanished.
"What was that all about?" July asked.
"Carl thanked me for believing in him."
"What's in the box?"
"You are never going to believe this. Santa was an impostor. He used Carl to deliver the nutcracker. He had all of the mall elves deliver nutcrackers to the angel."
"They were filled with stolen diamonds. It was kind of smart really. The elves only thought they were delivering nutcrackers and the police couldn't work out how the diamonds were getting from point A to point B. Santa was never seen with the guy who was going to sell them but that's where they ran into trouble. Top worked it all out and killed Cole so he could take his place and collect the nutcrackers. None of the other elves had ever seen Cole before. So Carl kept a diamond and gave it to me. That's what's in the box."
"Doesn't that put him on Santa's naughty list?"
"I think he considers it justice. He said I was beautiful and could make the diamond beautiful again. Carl is sweet."
"He gave you his email address didn't he?"
"He says they have wi-fi up there," Gemma said smiling.
"What about the angel and Santa?" July asked.
"We should probably go. I'm probably on camera."
"You did pretty much destroy their living nativity," Gemma said.
"And we will never speak of it, ever, again."
Copyright © 2015 Arietta Charles