Wednesday, December 22, mid-afternoon
Kenwood Towne Center’s public address system wound down the seventeenth playing of “Silver Bells” by the Undead Orchestra. The odors of compressed humanity, shuffling along the brick and terrazzo in dour lines, beat against the sense of smell like a tsunami on a rocky shore. There wasn’t a smile to be seen within a city block. The place was hot, muggy, and a definite drag on the spirit. It was, in short, two shopping days before Christmas.
On the hardscaped island in the middle of the mall concourse, a small boy sat on the edge of a brick planter near a fountain and cried his heart out. He looked to be somewhere south of eight years old. He might have been eight, but if so, he was small for his age. He was dressed warmly, too warmly for the interior of the mall, but in well-kept, if not entirely modish, clothing of good quality. He had his head in his hands and was crying and sniffing and wiping snot on the sleeves of his parka, and generally being miserably unhappy.
“Hey, little fella,” came a cheery greeting in a husky female voice.
He looked up and saw a tiny young woman, her face framed by a leonine mane of waist-length golden-red hair, a brilliant smile on her face and a naughty twinkle in her emerald green eyes. There was a spatter of freckles across her nose and upper cheeks that gave her a mischievous air. She was dressed all in white, white platform boots, skin-tight white leggings, and a short white jacket lined with ermine fur. The jacket was open to reveal a white tee shirt with a Swiss army crest, a white cross on a red shield, embroidered across her full breasts.
Standing next to her was another woman, somewhat taller, but slender like a willow branch. She looked a little like an elf, except she didn’t have pointy ears–but then again you couldn’t see them under her hair, so maybe she did. She was wearing a jeans jacket, an embroidered logo sweatshirt, and skin-tight Levi’s 504’s. On her feet were a pair of blue-gray slouch boots with soft, flat soles. Her hair was like spun cotton, pure white and so fine and soft. Her eyes were warm and brown, friendly–her skin a deep, tropical tan.
The red-haired lady dropped to one knee in front of him, setting her packages on the floor, while the other one sat next to him on the brick wall of the planter.
“You OK, Baby?” the red-haired lady said in her smoky voice, reaching out a hand and brushing the hair out of his eyes.
He jerked his head aside, resentful of her attentions. “‘M not a baby,” he muttered.
“She didn’t mean it like that,” said the other lady. Her voice was smooth and pretty, like his mother’s. “She calls everybody Baby.”
A look passed between the two women that the boy observed, but did not understand.
“What’s the matter?” said the red-haired lady, her rough voice beginning to sound to him more and more like comfort. “Did you lose your mom?”
He shook his head. “She told me to wait here. She’ll be back to get me. I was just getting tired and wanted to sit down.”
“Mm-hmm,” the red-haired lady prompted. She got up off her knee and sat down next to the boy, on the opposite side from her companion. “So what are you crying about?” she asked, leaning toward him as though to shelter him.
“‘M not crying!” he insisted, perhaps overloud. Several adults nearby glanced in his direction with knowing and sympathetic smiles.
“Oh, sorry,” said the white-haired lady. “Of course you’re not crying. Must be something in your eye, huh?” She produced a tissue from somewhere and wiped his nose, instructing him to blow, which he did without thinking. “Now, tell Auntie Callisto what the problem is,” she said quietly. He didn’t really notice that she held her hand out flat, palm-up, and the tissue went up in a flash and a puff of smoke.
But the instant he heard and comprehended the words “Auntie Callisto,” his head whipped around and he gaped at the white-haired lady. It was–it couldn’t be– “It’s you!” he said breathlessly. Then his head spun around and he pinned the red-haired lady with his gaze. “And you! You–you’re–Gabrielle!”
Dolly chuckled deep in her throat. She reached out and ruffled his hair.
“Wow!” he said, looking from one to the other. “Where’s Xena?”
“Oh, she’s around, somewhere,” Callisto said casually, pretending to search the crowd for the tall woman with raven hair.
“Wow!” the boy repeated. “Wait ’til Tommy Pilesko hears about this!”
“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” Dolly protested. “Not so fast, little man. We’re kinda traveling in-cog-nito. Y’know?”
“Then where’s your sunglasses?” he asked smartly.
“Right here,” Dolly said with a grin. She whipped her mirror shades out of her jacket pocket and instantly the boy was looking at a reflection of himself in her eyes.
“Cool!” he said.
Dolly removed her shades. “So who’s this Tommy Pilesko?” she asked, folding the shades and sticking them back in their pocket. The boy had to agree that her green eyes were a lot prettier to look at that those old silver sunglasses.
“He’s a friend of mine. Well, not a friend. Not any more. He lied to me. He told me that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus!” He looked from one to the other of them, desperately searching their expressions for confirmation of his beliefs.
“I’d think old Saint Nick would be mighty surprised to hear that!” Callisto exclaimed. She gave Dolly a tight, pursed-lipped grin that was returned behind the boy’s back.
“You know,” Dolly said, “there’s something sad when a boy falls off the sleigh. When he doesn’t believe any more.”
“But it ain’t true, right? There is a Santa Claus… Right?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Dolly like she was singing the last line of a blues tune. “There is a Santa Claus.”
“Wow! I can’t wait to tell off that butthead Tommy Pilesko!”
“Wait a second, now!” Callisto cautioned. “What are you gonna tell him? That you know for a fact that Santa Claus exists?”
“Yeah,” Dolly chimed in. “Isn’t that what you told him before?”
“Oh, yeah.” The boy’s face dropped until he was back in the dumps again.
“But,” Dolly went on, “What if you could find somebody he would believe who could vouch for you? For Santa? Who knows Santa real well, ’cause he… works at the North Pole!?”
His hope and faith in the rightness of the world restored, the boy looked up at Dolly with a magical light in his eyes. “Could you do that?” he asked eagerly.
“Wow! If I could show Tommy an elf…” then the crestfallen expression avalanched across his face again. “But I can’t leave here. If I do, then my Mom will get worried…”
“Mmm,” said Callisto, pondering the situation. “Where’s this Tommy guy now?”
“Oh, I don’t know. He just likes to–to–just run around the mall and hang out and pick on littler kids. Him and that gang of his friends.”
Callisto nodded wisely. “So he just told you there’s no Santa Claus and then went off somewhere?”
The boy nodded miserably.
“And he hasn’t been back?”
Dolly was looking puzzled. She lifted an eyebrow at Callisto.
“We’re talking the gloat factor,” Callisto replied to the unspoken question. “He’s only made one pass. He’s little our young friend stew in his own misery for awhile, but he’ll be back to do some bomb damage assessment.”
Dolly nodded comprehension. “So what do you have in mind?”
“What’s your name, guy?” Callisto asked.
“Michael,” he replied.
“OK, Michael. Do you think Tommy will come back here sometime soon?”
“Oh, sure. Those kids all like to hang out at the Warner Brothers store. They’ll be here any minute now.”
“Alright. Suppose we leave you alone and wait–” Callisto looked around, “–over there, so nobody can see we’re with you. Then we’ll wait until Tommy shows up and we’ll prove to him that there’s a Santa Claus.”
“How are you gonna do that?” Michael asked.
In answer, Callisto held up her right forefinger. Floating in the air above the upraised tip was a tongue of flame. “I’m magic,” she said. “Remember?”
Michael’s widened and his mouth got very small. He nodded eagerly in agreement with the plan.
To be continued…