Santa's Big Helper
This place ("sucks" -- erasure) stinks. Dad says he can't bring our presents because he doesn't know where this is, and he bought me my game box and my ...
"And it's not even Turkey Day." The postal clerk weighed my "Santa" bundle in her left hand, her mouth twisted in sardonicism.
"What would you have me do with them?"
"They'll just go into Dead Letters."
"Isn't there a charity or something?"
"They have their own little ways, I guess."
"Pass 'em back to me." Not that I knew what I was doing ...
We don't have ("no" -- erasure) any chimney. Mama says maybe we can take the bars out of one of the vents. But I know we don't have to. I told Tommy it's okay. Nothing stops Santa.
All I want is a big yellow dump truck. Mama says I'm too big to ride on it ...
No man enters Purdah, the women's colony in the tunnels. Anne Q had the vault-like door open maybe a foot when the shouting started. "Amelia! You get your skinny butt back here!! Amelia, no!"
A ten-year old girl hell-bent on escape burst through the opening and dodged past me. Slicker than a lead-off batter on the basepaths, she twisted just out of my reach.
"Clear the door!" Anne Q is bigger than I am, and gets more time to lift. She heaved on the hinge pivot and the door tried to smack me off my feet. I flattened myself and the door plucked at my belt buckle as it swept over me.
Anne Q jumped through the portal and pivoted to chase the fleeing little girl. She stopped at the command of a woman standing in the portal. "Anne, I need you here!"
Because I am a fool errant, I said, "I got this, Minerva. Watch my bag." I knew where the child was headed.
I ("have" -- insertion) been a bad girl this year, but Mommy says no, cause it was really a bad year. She said I had to write you, or your feelings would be hurt. I just want to have a home, where my sister has her own bedroom. That's so I can have one too ...
This farflung reach of the Old District is tunneled like the biscuit rationed out to sailors in the nineteenth century Royal Navy. These tunnels are small, none larger than three feet in diameter -- too cramped for adults, perfect for tweens as they begin to pull in earnest at Mom's leash. The tweener version of hide and seek is played for cigarettes bought for fifty cents a piece on the street, beer lifted from the stash of a sleeping drunk, flakes of marijuana hoarded from discarded roaches and the tokens of a micro-society touched with that spark of reason out of the eye of the Lord of the Flies.
Factor in the most complex and human-hostile design of all of these tunnels. At ten, Amelia was too little a fishling to swim in these depths.
Bent over half out of balance, I hurried after the sounds of a fleeing child. I heard a little-girl whoop! turn into a scream which cut off almost immediately. Then I was among the sinks, the open mouths of an array of deep oval-sectioned drains finished in a lacquer coating designed to smooth the flow. It was only incidentally that the coating prevented a human from clawing the way out of a sink.
Light at a low angle makes long shadows. I played my flash beam over the incline like a hose, trying to wash away the stains of darkness. There!
"Hang on, Amelia! I'm coming!"
The small fingertips disappeared.
I leapt at that sink, filled it with light. The child crouched in the curved bottom and hid her head like a baby ostrich. I dropped my arm over the edge of the sink.
"No! Go 'way!!"
I jerked my arm back. "What's wrong, Amelia?"
"I don't wanna write no stupid letter!"
"Letter? To Santa?"
"Santa's a fake!"
"Okay, so don't write it."
"Mama says I have to help my brother. He's six, an' he's stupid!"
"Oh, c'mon. What'd you think of Santa when you were six?"
"That's not fair!"
"Sure it is. Think about it."
"Anyway, Santa's real. He's not the bill of goods you were sold, but he exists."
"You're a liar!"
"I can prove it."
"I don't believe you!"
"I can. You do your part, and I will."
"What's my part?"
"First, come on up out of that hole and go home. Second, help your brother with his letter. Third, hang loose on Christmas Eve. You'll have your proof before, uh, bedtime. Fair enough?"
"You better! If you don't, I'll ... I'll ..."
"You can smack me right across the chops. Hard as you want."
"I will, too!"
"I believe. Are you ready to come out of there, now?"
"Wait! What are 'chops'?"
My sister always says scary things. She says we might have to live here until we’re old, like eighteen. She says we can’t go out because somebody could get us. She says you’re not real …
Nevada has no inventory tax, so Las Vegas has a lot of warehousing. Leshai had been one of my accounts while he saved to put a conventional roof over his family.
"Looks like the job is working out pretty well. Parts runner to warehouse manager in what, thirteen months?"
"Close enough. I caught the wave, y'know? Somebody up the ladder quits and they boot everybody up a rung." We went back, Leshai and I, but he was suspicious of my motives.
"You've got a good grip, I hope."
"Good enough to know maybe I don't want to climb the next rung. I can really do this job now, just now. So, thanks for asking and all, Meric. But what do you want?"
"I have a drop for you. Five letters." I put the bundle on his work table.
"I thought I'd fallen off your list. So, that's two-fifty, still?"
"No charge. But I want you to look at them now."
"Now? What are you trying to do to me, anyway?"
"If I ever did you a solid, Leshai, this is all I want back from you."
"Strictly cash, from here on out."
"Okay. Fair enough." Leshai patted the table until he turned up a pair of reading glasses, fitted the earpieces, inspected the top envelope. "You’re setting me up. This is some kinda con job."
"'Fair enough', you said."
“I coulda been wrong.” He thumbed open the envelope, scanned the contents. "No-o,” he murmured. "Aw, Jeez." He ran through the remaining four envelopes as though the letters inside were one. He finished the stack and raised his head to stare at nothing in the building for a minute.
"All right, look. I’ve got some stuff is marked 'excess stock' and 'incinerate only'. So if it winds up on a table at the swap meet, it's my ass. I do have some wiggle room, but I need a token payment."
"Will a hundred get it?"
Leshai dug in his jeans, slapped a bill on the table. "A twenty'll get it, since you're doing all the labor. You brought a truck, right? Maybe a couple elves to help out?"
"Aren't we all?"
"I guess me too, you stickup artist."
Mr. Meric told me how unhappy you are, and why. I told him it's okay, to remember that he felt the same way the Christmas when he was eleven.
Take this silver key and show it to Ms. Minerva. Tell her I said there's a new padlock in the tunnel outside, and you need Ms. Anne to help you get what's inside.
Mr. Meric cannot help because men are not allowed where you are. Besides, he just went on vacation.
This is what you asked for, Amelia. I know I can count on you.
The backlog was even heavier a week into the New Year. My bike had sagged and teetered under me with the catchup load for Purdah. I passed bags and boxes down and into the arms of a detail of older children, then grabbed my list and dropped into the chute.
"That wasn't as slick as you thought, Meric. I had to clean up after you."
"Thank you, Minerva."
"Don't be so blase. Little Amelia wasn't buying it. But all of the kids kept getting what they asked for, mostly. She's still trying to figure that out."
"You didn't explain it to her."
"I thought it might be personal to you."
"It's just business. As long as there's a Santa, there's no such thing as a dead letter."
“Sure, but the young lady would like a word with you.”
“Aw, come on, Minerva! Can’t you see I’m swamped here? You couldn’t bail me out with her?”
“Bail you out? Meric, I would pay to see this. Ready or not.”
I felt the tap on my shoulder, turned and looked down. “Hello, Amelia.”
“Hello, Mr. Meric. How was your vacation?”
“Just fine. You have a bone to pick with me.”
“A bone to --”
“No, no problem. I figured it out for myself. You wanted me to think you were Santa.”
“Well, now --”
“No, no, it’s okay. I’m growing up, and sometimes a grownup has to pitch in and help Santa out.”
What have I done? I took the plunge. “So you believe in Santa again?”
“No, that’s silly. But, I guess I do kinda. I mean, I figure it's okay to believe if you're just doing it for the little kids.”