On the day before Christmas, Al drove over to West Side Orphanage to play Santa Claus. On the drive home, about three hours later, he was still in his Santa costume. Strapped securely in the front passenger seat next to him was Malcomb. Malcomb was five years old, small and frail and quiet.
"He hardly ever says anything," Mrs. MacNamara had told Al. "His parents both died in that horrible fire, and he's been here almost five months, and I bet he hasn't said ten words to anyone, but when he does open his mouth, the meanest things come out. I'm afraid he has a streak of cruelty running through his little bones."
"Which do you think is better?" Al asked as the car glided through the nearly empty streets of Christmas Eve afternoon, "Nintendo or PlayStation?"
The boy didn't answer. He just stared out the side window.
"I hear Nintendo has better graphics," Al speculated. "And a better controller. And the system is quicker to load. But that PlayStation has a better choice of games, especially sports games."
Again Malcomb remained silent.
"Thinking it over?" Al prompted.
The boy swiveled his head, looked at Al a long time before he said, "You're a fake Santa, aren't you?"
"What makes you say that?" Al asked.
At first the boy didn't answer. He stared out the side window at the passing shops and cemeteries. But eventually he said, "Two things. First of all, if you were a real Santa we'd be riding in a sleigh up in the sky pulled by a bunch of reindeer. And second, if you were a real Santa, you'd know which was better, Nintendo or PlayStation. Oh, and one other thing, you're not nearly fat enough. I can see the pillow peeking out. And your beard isn't white. It's all just crap." Malcomb turned back to the side window. "Just crap," he muttered.
"Okay," Al answered. "I wish I could take you riding through the sky, but the reindeers have got to rest up. They've a long haul ahead of them. And about the pillow, well, Mrs. Santa's put me on the strictest diet. I don't want to get stuck in any more chimneys. Nothing more embarrassing than having to call 911 on my cellular. At the same time I wouldn't want to disappoint my fans by showing up skinny. But you know, you go down enough chimneys and even the whitest beard turns sooty. And as for the Nintendo, um... I don't know, I'm not exactly a kid."
"That's for sure," Malcomb said.
"I'm just an ordinary guy, an ordinary dad trying to..."
"You have kids?" Malcomb said. "Kids of your own?"
"Sure do," Al said. "Twins. Keda and Tommy."
"Is there something wrong with them?"
"No," Al said. "No, they're perfect. Just perfect. You'll meet them in a few minutes and see for yourself."
"Oh," Malcomb said softly. "How big are they?"
"Getting bigger every day," Al said. "They're crawling all over the place, too. I think they can crawl faster than I can run. And they pull themselves up so easily now. I think they'll be walking in a matter of days."
"I was twins, too," Malcomb said.
Al found he couldn't answer. He swung the car into the Gracely Mall. "We'll just stop here for a second, okay?" he said. "Pretty quiet for Christmas Eve, huh?" Soon they were in the toy store. "Look around," he said to Malcomb. "See if you can find something a pair of kids who are about to take their first ever steps might like, while I talk to this pretty lady." Al watched Malcomb take a few tentative steps of his own down one of the toy store aisles.
A few minutes later he found Malcomb staring up at a big white bear which was perched on the top shelf. "You think that might do the trick?" Al asked. Malcomb shrugged. Al reached up and grabbed the bear down. He handed it to Malcomb. The bear was almost as big as he was. "It's a beauty," he told the boy. "Drag it on up to that pretty lady cashier."
The pretty lady cashier smiled at them. She had full lips and bright eyes which twinkled, and when she spoke there was something slightly French about her accent. "Ooh, what a cute bear," she said.
"Do I get the Santa discount?" Al chuckled as he pulled out his wallet. The lady smiled as she whisked Al's credit card through the slot. "What is his name?" she asked Malcomb, who had the big bear bundled against his body.
"It hain't a he," Malcomb said. "It hain't got a penis so it can't be a he. Can't you see that?"
"Of course," said the lady clerk. "No penis. I should have seen that."
"Right, you should have," Malcomb said. "Her name is Beauty."
"She's very beautiful," the clerk said, reaching over the counter to pat Beauty on the head.
"It's just her name," Malcomb said, pulling the bear away. "And it's not for me, it's for this guy's kids. So don't touch it."
"Sorry," the clerk said, drawing back. She looked at Al. A timid question.
"I guess we'd better be on our way home," Al said to her. "Thanks for all your help."
The clerk smiled, a shy touch of a smile.
"Could you do one more thing for me," Al asked, pulling the pillow out from under his red Santa Claus coat. "Could you, um, take this?"
"Of course," the clerk said, as if this were an every day request. She pressed the pillow briefly against her breasts, and then put it up to the side of her face. "Mm, soft," she said, "And warm. I might even sleep with it tonight. Will it make my dreams come true?" Then she giggled. "Merry Christmas," she told Al. "Take good care of Beauty," she called out to Malcomb. But the boy had his back to her, and on his little shoulder sat the bear's big head, its expression bland as a drift of snow.
"We're home," Al announced to Pat and Julie a few minutes later. "And we've got company."
"Oh, what a nice bear," Julie said. "And what a nice boy. Does this boy belong to you?" Julie asked the bear.
Malcomb thrust the bear into Julie's arms.
"Actually Malcomb was thinking of giving it to Keda and Tommy," Al explained. "Her name is Beauty, and she would be a little Christmas present from him to them."
"Follow me, then," Julie said. "Keda and Tommy are in the playpen, playing. There they are, just where I left them. Shall we toss the bear in?"
Malcomb shrugged. Julie tossed the bear in.
"A dah?" Keda said.
"A ba duh!" Tommy replied.
They were standing at opposite playpen rails trying to decide whether to take a step forward or simply tumble down.
"Are you their mommy?" Malcomb asked.
Julie smiled. "No, I'm their mommy's little sister. Pat's making us special Christmas cookies. You'll like Pat's cookies."
"How come you keep them in a cage?" Malcomb asked, "So they won't wreck things?"
"It's not a cage," Julie explained, "It's a playpen. They like being in the playpen. Sometimes they fuss until I lift them into the playpen. Then they fuss until I lift them out. Then they fuss until I lift them back in. In other words, they love being lifted. Oh, my back. But yes, they like being in the playpen. And they like being out of the playpen. They like being everywhere. I don't mind when they're everywhere, but sometimes it's different everywheres. Like Tommy climbs the stairs while Keda eats the Christmas tree. They're too clever for me, that's for sure."
"How come they have no clothes on?" Malcomb asked. "Is that so you can tell which one's a boy and which one's a girl?"
Julie laughed. "You're a curious little boy, aren't you?" she said, ruffling his hair. "Hey, I can tell you're a little boy even though you don't have your clothes off. How do you suppose I know that?"
Malcomb didn't answer. He watched Keda and Tommy cuddling the big white bear. Keda had her mouth around Beauty's ear. Tommy was chewing the tail. Malcomb had his hand on the front of his pants.
"It looks like they like your gift," Julie said. "It looks like they like it a real lot. Thank you. Thank you very much. I just hope they don't spoil their dinner. Do you need to go to the bathroom or anything?"
Pat came in with a plate of cookies. "Hi," she said. "What a fine fat bear. A beauty. Julie, what have you done with the kids' clothes?" Then she served hot cookies to everyone. Malcomb frowned and shook his head, the slightest shake. Al took two cookies. Make that three. He wolfed two down, fed a nibble of the third to Julie. She fed it back to him. "Wanna help me change out of my Santa suit," Al asked her. "It looks like you already started," Julie said, reaching under the baggy shirt. They went off somewhere. Patty picked up both Keda and Tom and sat on the couch and gave them some milk to wash down their cookies. Malcomb watched carefully. Pat hummed as Keda and Tommy feasted at her breasts.
Someone was knocking on the door. "Could you get that?" Pat asked Malcomb. He gave her a peculiar look, but then he went to the door, opened it. It was another fake Santa, carrying big brightly wrapped packages.
"Ho ho ho," he said. "These are for you. Sign here."
"What?" said the boy.
"Sign here," said the man. "Where's your pen?"
"I hain't got a pen," Malcomb said. "And I don't know how to write, anyway."
"That's good," Santa said, "Cuz I hain't got any paper, and I don't know how to read anyway. So let's open these babies up, see what we got."
The boy stepped back, let Santa do the opening.
"Aha!" Santa said. "Nintendo! Just what I always wanted."
"Aha!" said Santa, opening the other box. "PlayStation. Just what I always wanted! What about you?"
The boy shrugged.
"Well, let's hook these babies up and start them smoking. Only one problem. Pat, you ain't got a TV."
"Oh Jake, don't tease, just get a TV from downstairs somewhere."
"Right. But it's Santa, not Jake. Remember that. And I'll take two of these cookies in lieu of down payment. Be back in a jiffy with the TV."
A few minutes later Santa Jake and Malcomb were playing Mario Karts. Or rather Jake was playing. Malcomb watched. "Don't you want to push some buttons, have some fun?" Jake asked. "Makes these babies spin and swerve and crash like crazy?" Malcomb only stared at the screen. Meanwhile, Pat's babies were snoozing at her breasts, and in the next room, Julie was, in a manner of speaking, trying on Al's Santa suit.
"Don't you have your own, somewhere?" Al asked.
"Oh yes," Julie said. "We're all got our own. But it's more fun getting into yours."
At six-thirty they all sat down for a little supper. Malcomb refused to touch his food.
"It's not poison," Jake said. "See, even I'm eating it."
"You'll eat anything," Julie said.
"It smells like crap," Malcomb mumbled.
"You'll need some strength for the caroling," Al said.
"No, I won't," Malcomb said.
"Is Tanya coming over?" Pat asked.
"She'd better," Jake said.
"I bet she looks good in a Santa suit," Julie said.
"She does," Jake answered.
"I'll get the kids changed," Julie offered. "C'mon, Malcomb, there's a little Santa suit for you, too."
"I'm not wearing any crappy Santa suit," Malcomb said.
"C'mon," said Julie, "We've got boots and belts and everything. Even a beard. I can't wait to try on my beard."
A few minutes later Tanya rang the bell, and a few minutes after that, they all strolled to the park, everyone in Santa suits. Everyone but Malcomb. Beauty the Bear wore Malcomb's suit, and Al carried Beauty on his shoulders.
"Don't Ked and Tom look adorable as little Santas?" Julie asked the world.
"Do you want to help push their stroller," Pat asked Malcomb.
"No," Malcomb said.
In the park they joined at least a hundred other Santas, all singing carols and hugging and kissing each other. Then they went home, and Pat warmed some spicy cider, and a cup of hot cocoa for Al, and Tanya creamed Jake in four straight games of Mario Karts before Jake gave up and hoisted her into his arms and said good-bye and carried her off into the night.
"We're going to put you on the couch, okay," Pat asked Malcomb. "It's very comfy."
"I don't care," said Malcomb.
Julie shook out the sheets and unfolded the comforter. She showed him the bathroom. "Here's your toothbrush. It's blue, same as mine, and here's a glass for you, and if you have to go pee-pee in the middle of the night, this orange light is always on. Okay?"
Malcomb gave a small nod.
"When you're done in here, I'll tuck you in, okay?"
"What about the babies?" the boy asked.
"Oh, they have their own little room," Julie said.
"Do they sleep in the same bed?"
"They've got an oversized crib they share. Would you like to say goodnight to them?"
Malcomb didn't answer, but Julie took his hand and led him into the nursery. Side by side, Tom and Keda were asleep. At the foot of the bed, still in the Santa suit, Beauty the Bear stood guard.
"Night night, my sweeties," Julie said.
Malcomb didn't say anything.
Julie led him back to the couch.
"My tummy hurts," Malcomb said.
"That's because you didn't eat anything."
"No, it's not."
"Would you like a cookie, or a slice of turkey breast?"
"No," Malcomb said.
"You're sure?" Julie asked.
Malcomb didn't reply.
"Okay, then, sleep well," Julie said. "Tomorrow after services we're going sledding at Captain's Hill. It's great fun. You can share a sled with me if you want."
"What about the babies?" Malcomb asked.
"They'll be with Pat and Al."
"Sledding is stupid," Malcomb said.