I INTENDED AT ONE TIME this blog being essentially about Dolly, but I hijacked it…
NOW he admits it!
…that I would, from time to time, feature stories new and old about da Doll. One of which was — as I intended — the annual Christmas tradition-to-be of replaying the story of Dolly’s first Christmas. I first ran the story on this blog in 2004, have had a spotty record of performance in the interval, and am here to amend it. Here are the first bits. Perhaps, by this time next year, this will have been formally published in a new draft.
We can only hope.
This story is the fourteenth story of the Apocrypha. It is, however, appropriate to the season. And I wanted to start a tradition of running it the week before Christmas every year.
By Mark Philip Alger
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.
When she and Dolly were seated in the next area down from where Michael sat on the planter, Callisto pulled out her cell phone and placed a call to the Center van outside.
“Nasty, honey,” she said. “I need a favor. No, it’s not for me… NO! It’s not that. You wish, short boy. No. I’m sorry. Look, Nasty, it’s Christmas and there’s this kid. He’s just heartbroken. Could you come in and meet us in the concourse in front of the Warner Brothers store… Nasty! Look, I’m not responsible for all of the stereotypes. But you are an elf, and you look like a hip version of the elves on the kids’ shows about Santa Claus, and we need to… OK. Here she is.” She handed the phone to Dolly. “He wants to talk to you.”
Dolly’s skin flushed as she accepted the phone. She turned away from Callisto and murmured into the mouthpiece. After a lengthy exchange that grew quite heated at one point, Dolly closed up the phone and handed it back to Callisto.
“And?” Callisto demanded.
“Yeah. He’s coming in. You better hope this works and it’s worth it, ’cause you owe me big time for that, sister.”
“What? He just wanted to talk to you!”
“Ever hear of phone sex?”
Callisto’s jaw dropped and she started to laugh. “Ho-ho-ho! You didn’t!”
“It’s not anything I’m proud of. In fact, if it gets back to me, I’ll deny everything. But… yeah.”
Then Dolly grinned. “It’s kind of a neat feeling of control to know that, not only can I get men hot and horny and get them off in person, I can even phone it in!“
The two sister dollies broke into merry peals of laughter.
“I can just picture him out in the parking lot,” Callisto giggled, “whacking off while he’s on the phone with you! Tee-hee! What a sight!”
“Hope he didn’t get caught by Mall Security,” Dolly put in. “Dunno how they’d explain that.”
“So what about Xe?”
“Do we need to…?”
“Well, if Gabrielle and Callisto and an elf are convincing, how much more convincing would it be to have Gabrielle, Callisto, an elf and Xena?”
“What if this kid doesn’t buy any of it?”
“Well then, that’s just too bad for him. He’s gonna grow up and be a bitter and disappointed man.”
“Thus speaks Auntie Callisto.”
“Knows all, sees all, tells all. I’m nothing but a big blabbermouth.”
The two of them put their foreheads together and clasped each other’s shoulders, rocking to and fro in their shared merriment.
In a few moments, Nasty showed up. He was dressed smartly, as always, in tight black chinos, a silver Tommy Hilfiger wind cheater, and black leather ankle boots. Pitifully inadequate in the chill winds of the season. But Gods forbid he should sublimate style for comfort. His long, jet black hair was slicked back into an Elvis pompadour, with locks of hair strategically placed to cover the tips of his pointed ears. He was short, something under four feet tall, but exuded such an air of confidence that nobody seemed to notice.
“OK,” he said truculently. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Not yet,” said Dolly. “We’ve got to wait for a couple more people.”
While they waited, Callisto filled Nasty in on the plan. The elf agreed only reluctantly until Dolly threatened to tell the Trolls what he’d done on the phone. Knowing their overprotective feelings toward the little doll, Nasty got smart fast and amended his attitude.
About fifteen minutes later, with Nasty getting more impatient by the second, Xe showed up, carrying a single store bag, but with tell-tale bulges as from small parcels in her coat pockets.
“What’s up?” she asked. Callisto explained. By the time she was finished, Xe’s expression had morphed from the suck-cheeked “Impress-me” scowl that was her weekday expression into the carnivorous, vulpine Sunday grin she got when she was contemplating the laying low of the ungodly. To her, it didn’t matter if the sinner was an adult or a child. It was the act of retribution that gave her such a thrill. She readily agreed to the plan and collared Nasty, telling him to behave or the Trolls couldn’t get there in time to save him from her.
Then a gang of kids sauntered up to Michael and began the same dominance dance that has gone on between and among pre-adolescents from time immemorial. One or the other would invade Michael’s space and poke at him, or give him a sucker punch on the shoulder. To his credit, Michael stood his ground. Finally, the group was done with that ritual and the apparent leader stepped in. This, the dollies agreed, would be Tommy.
“Time to do our thing,” Dolly said.
Xe, Callisto, and Dolly did their patented Dolly swirl, wherein the three of them surrounded Michael, doing a dance of attentiveness that was definitely too sexual for the young boy, but certainly got the attention of the kids in the gang. They kept up a running patter about all manner of things, including the agog and wonderstruck boy in the conversation, for all he could barely muster an “uh-huh” or “Yeah!”
One by one the dollies were recognized, and there were hushed whispers of “Xena!”, “Gabrielle!”, and “Callisto!” from the tiny mobsters.
Then Dolly said, “Oh, and Mickey baby–Guess who we found?”
One of the girls in the gang shrieked at that and whimpered, “Mickey?” like–a goddess just called this goober-worm by a totally cool name and she couldn’t believe it.
Just then, Nasty stepped around the corner of a planter into the midst of the crowd of children. “Hey, Mickey,” he said. “How’s it hanging?”
Somehow Dolly managed to smack him on the top of his head without anybody noticing. But it didn’t matter.
Michael took one look at Nasty, a genuine elf, and blurted out, “You came!”
“Sure enough,” said Nasty, pretending to a modesty he didn’t feel and speaking with a brogue he’d only heard on television. “All the way from the Pole. Busy time of year for us, but for a bud… Hey! What are friends for?”
“Well, since it is two days ’til Christmas, and all,” young Tommy Pilesko said with all the youthful sarcasm he could muster, (which wasn’t much, but remember these are eight-year-olds we’re talking about), “What are you doing in Cincinnati?”
“Well, we’re takin’ a survey. Y’know? Makin’ a list and checkin’ it twice? This is part of the checking process. So tell me, lad–” he moved toward Tommy, boldly stepping into the boy’s personal space. “–what’s you’re name? Have you been good?”
“Thomas Pilesko, s-s-sir. And I’ve been good. Sir.” Nasty lifted a dubious eyebrow. There was a general titter from the boys and girls in the miniature gang. Dolly had a feeling that there would be a shift in the power structure of that little group sometime soon. Perhaps that very afternoon.
Then Callisto stepped in. She was standing behind Nasty. She cupped her hands together at her own waist level and about at Nasty’s shoulder blades. Very shortly, Nasty began to glow. Or that’s what it looked like. And little streamers of fire began to emanate from Callisto’s cupped hands–appearing to come from Nasty’s shoulders–and fly in sparkling arcs to touch the tops of the heads of the children.
And suddenly the dollies, the elf, and the boy were alone again. The fleeing backs of a gang of junior grade thugs could be seen weaving in and out of the adult foot traffic along the mall concourse.
Callisto started laughing so hard she had to sit down. “Well. That certainly wasn’t what I had in mind, but I think it will do.”
Dolly was down on one knee again in front of Michael. “Better now?” He nodded.
They were joined just then by a slender woman with light brown hair and a harried air about her. She was approximately somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five and obviously somebody’s mother. Obviously Michael’s mother.
“Michael,” she said, pushing through the group of adults clustered between her and her child. Then she looked up at Xe and did a double-take. “You! You’re…”
“Yes, ma’am,” Xe drawled. “But we’d kinda prefer it didn’t get announced to everybody in the mall.”
Michael’s mother looked from one to the other of them, taking in Xe, Dolly, and Callisto and then settling her gaze at last on Nasty. Then she turned back to her son and noted the beatific expression on his wide-eyed face. “But what are you…?”
“Just talkin’ to a friend, ma’am,” Dolly said. “Just talkin’ to a friend.” She turned to Michael. “Well, Mickey–it’s been real. But we gotta go. Gimme a hug.” And he did. A very good and manly hug it was, too.
“You OK?” Dolly whispered. “Did that help?”
“Do you think he’ll believe?” Dolly asked.
“Nope. People like him, they never believe. But… Thank you anyway.”
“You’re welcome. Glad I could help you believe.” Dolly pinched his cheek and grinned when he rolled his eyes.
“That’s not it,” he whispered. Dolly raised an inquiring eyebrow.
He was quiet for a moment and the sounds of the mall intruded, the shuffling feet, the burruburrub of muted conversations, the announcements and alarms of the stores. Then he answered her question and the answer filled her heart with joy.
“I’m not afraid any more,” he said.