FEEDBACK: Very welcome, to Miss Murchison - thanks!
SETTING: This fic is set after the events of the series 'Wonderfalls'
DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to someone else - not that they seem to have wanted them. I'm borrowing, and I promise to put them all back in good condition, and only slightly used.Twisted Santa
I got my mom's Christmas newsletter today, all about the Tylers in 2004. I have one paragraph, near the end - which is better than the fifteen words I finally got on my mom's book blurb, but not by much. Of course, there's been an awful lot going on with me that she doesn't know about. If she had, it would be the most interesting Christmas newsletter my mom's friends and relatives had ever received.
It's nearly a year now since the wax lion first spoke to me. At which point, I thought I would soon be getting picked up by men in white coats from the finest private mental institution in the State. (Mom and dad can afford it.) And then before I knew it, I was doing a whole collection of really stupid things just because a brass monkey, or a stuffed chameleon told me to. And things kept on turning out for the best. So I decided maybe I wasn't going mad - but the world was never going to understand that, so I've kept quiet. Apart from telling Aaron. And Mahandra. And Eric. Okay, I can't keep my blabbing mouth shut.
But really, it's worked out pretty well. Oh, of course there's a cost. People die, and get shot or beaten up, and there's an awful lot of property damage, plus there's the jail time - and the fines. I keep my sister Sharon pretty busy after work, off the clock, or during unbillable hours, bailing me out of this or that - and don't think she doesn't resent having to do all that work pro bono because sure she does. Plus there was the time when I broke my dad's leg in several places, and I know I worry my mother. But still, it all works out for the best - and I saved my therapist's life - which is not something a lot of people can say about themselves.
And once I accepted it, that the animals just knew, life actually became a lot simpler. Just do what the monkey says, Jaye, and you'll be helping the world out. Though I'm still not convinced they got it right with Eric. He 'had to leave before he could come back'. Yeah, right. End result of that is he has two divorces in the pipeline - to the same woman. Or a divorce and an anullment. Because to make things even more complicated, he didn't finalise his divorce the first time, before he married her for the second time. You'd think that might make things simpler - but oh, noooo.
So Heidi in New Jersey is still a tick in our hides. Although I mustn't go on too much about Heidi, because that would be immature. And there's that whole thing where she saved my life. Though with it being by accident I don't think I have to be that grateful. And that white fur coat of hers? Is just slutty.
Okay, less about Heidi. How about the rest of the family? My brother is still hard at work studying religion, even though he's not religious. He seems okay, but I worry. After all, the man kidnapped my talking animals - you can't tell me that's healthy. Still, he has Mahandra. Which is weird, but I'm okay with it. Even if she is like my sister. Doing it with my brother. Eew.
So far, Mahandra is still at The Barrel, though now she's been outed as Aaron's girlfriend it's only a matter of time before she gives way to my mother, and gets dragged onto the Tyler success train. It takes years of hard work and determination not to succeed in my family, and she doesn't have the strength, poor baby. I saw her the other night, poring over some papers. She tried to bundle them away when she saw me coming, but it was a prospectus for night school. She's doomed.
My sister is still a Single Female Lawyer, still attending Republican Women fundraisers, still working within that generous immigration program for aspiring Americans. Oh, and screwing the lady who runs the shipping service. Except I'm not sure about that at the moment. Something's happened.
And mom and dad are still mom and dad. Writing bestsellers, saving lives - same old.
And work me? Here I am. Still at Wonderfalls, though I'm hanging on to this job by a thread. Still with the talking animals, too. And Eric is still a bartender, though he got promoted to better shifts - and some times we sleep in his room there, and some times I let him have a sleepover at my trailer. Which is nearly, almost, commitment, right?
But, all in all, we're all bumping along. I do my job - badly; get cosy with Eric - which I think I do very well; and every so often a stuffed animal tells me to do something dumb, or anti-social, and there's another page in my police dossier. Sharon says it's getting kind of fat and dog-eared now. She also says I should grow up, and get a proper job, and stop upsetting my mom. I don't listen to Sharon much.
Gentle Feather called me a 'Chosen One'; I prefer the term 'Pawn of Fate'. But it's really not so bad. It's a life I can stand to live.
Good newsletter, huh? And that last bit, about me being almost, kind of happy? True. Until the gumballs spoke to me.
It was 4.30pm on Christmas Eve. I'd been suffering the burning torment of having to work in this place for nine-hour days, seven days in a row. Something was going to blow. I thought it was gonna be me, but it turned out that it was the gumball machine.
Wonderfalls Gift Emporium is even more soul destroying at Christmas than it is during the rest of the year, hard though that may be hard to believe. Basically, we have all the same merchandise, only we dress it up in tinsel, and wrap it in red and white. And then on top of that, we have the Christmas stuff. The Christmas Snoozing Bear, the Christmas Santa stuck in a chimney and another Santa jumping out of a jack-in-the box. Christmas lights, and plastic Christmas trees with plastic snow on them. We have Christmas paper, puppets, puzzles and pencils, stockings and smelly stuff. And worst of all, we have Niagara Christmas specials - the Niagara Falls tree ornaments, and bath gels. And then there's cards. Worst card of all? Is the edible card featuring Niagara Falls, and meant for your doggie to chew.
And all that is matched by our worst toy of all. A Maid in the Mist doll wearing a Santa suit. She has an eagle feather in her red and white hat - and a tiny canoe stuffed into the sack of toys slung over her shoulder. Real tasteful - and she sells by the dozen. Working here sometimes makes me despair of the human race.
And then there's the gumball machine, parked next to our Maid of the Mist video. With a Santa hat on its dome, and a white beard hanging down nearly to the floor. Creepy. It was dispensing Seasonal gumballs, naturally, in red and white. They'd wheeled it in on November 30th, and it had been breaking down, seizing up, falling over and occasionally spitting out gumballs at terrifying speeds ever since. The thing was a menace. But it hadn't occurred to me that is was actually possessed, until that afternoon.
The shop was buzzing, and I'd taken refuge in the Maid in the Mist section, where the only seasonal item on the shelves was the last Santa-Suited Maid in the Mist doll, which was sitting in lonely isolation, feather broken, toy sack askew. It was being gazed at worshipfully by some grubby little kid in a torn jacket and worn sneakers, until a small blonde woman forced her way through the crowd, picked it up and looked at it, her face doubtful. I edged nonchalantly away, planning to do a little emergency stock-taking in back.
And that's when the gumball machine speaks, beard waggling, and gumballs rolling around to make two shiny red lips and a pair of shiny red eyes. "Sell it to her."
Oh man, selling stuff. Is there no end to the trials these guys will put me to? I paste a smile on my face, and shimmy over. "Hello there. Can I help you?"
Small Blonde looks at the doll again. A spasm of distaste moves across her face. "I don't think so."
"That's a very popular item this Christmas, ma'am. Only $39.99, and we gift wrap." This is corroding my soul.
"The feather's broken."
"I'll mark it down. Half price - that's $20." Strictly forbidden for non-management staff - but what the hey?
The blonde wavers, then shakes her head. She presses the doll into my hands, and sidles away.
"Sell it to her." The gumball machine again - and it's getting agitated. Dammit.
I push through the crowd, tracking the woman down, catch her just before she gets out of the door, and pin her against a display rack of greeting cards. "Okay, you beat me down. $10."
She stares at me, eyes round like a deer in the headlights, "I don't want the doll. Go away."
I take my hand off her arm, frustrated, and she's out of the shop at a run. I trail back to the gumball machine, frustrated. "She won't take the damn doll."
"Sell it to her." The gumball machine rolls its eyes to look somewhere behind me. It turn, and there's a smart Barbara Walters type looking at the Maid in the Mist video sets.
"You just told me to sell it to the first chick. Make your damn mind up."
"SELL it to her."
I paste a smile on my face, and tap Barbara on the arm. "Good afternoon, ma'am. Can I interest you in our special Santa-Suited Maid in the Mist doll? $39.99 plus tax, but I'm marking it down to $20 this afternoon." I push it into her hands.
Barbara blinks, "Um, no thank you. I'm not really interested in dolls." She tries to hand it back.
"$10. I'm begging you."
"I'm really not interested."
"Look, if I give you $10, will you buy this doll from me? Please?" I reach into my pocket and drag out a crumpled $5 bill and some change. "Okay, I don't actually have $10." I do a rapid count. "I'll sell it to you for $8.29. It's a bargain." I try to push the money into her hand.
Barbara takes a nervous step backwards away from me, out of the relative quiet of the video section, and into the heaving shop floor. She bumps into a big guy in a parka large enough to house a family of five, bounces off him, stumbles over a rack of Christmas baubles, and cannons into the gumball machine. Which starts firing gumballs - ping, ping, ping!
Chaos. There are shoppers ducking, diving, screaming and rolling out the way, as gumballs ping off in every direction. Display racks tumble, baskets spill, and everywhere I can hear the ominous ripping sound of cheap tinsel under stress.
Barbara is kneeling on the floor, all her purchases spread around her, holding her face to her hand, after taking a direct hit from a gumball - and there's the grubby little kid again. She swoops down, grabs the Santa-Suited Maid in the Mist doll from the floor and makes off with it, while I just stand there with my mouth open. I mean, this is not the streets of New York, where I hear if you get run over by a car, some panhandler will stop just long enough to steal your wallet - it's Wonderfalls Gift Emporium.
I wake up, and plunge into the crowd, finally getting a grip on her collar. "Hey, you!" I shout, and the kid looks up.
"That's $39.99 plus tax," I snap.
She drops the doll as though it's radioactive. I lean down to pick it up, and she shrugs out of her coat, and is out through the shop door like a greased weasel.
"Kids," I mutter, and I walk back to the video section, battered doll in one hand, and small grubby jacket in the other. Barbara is back on her feet, being brushed down by Alec, poor woman. As I reach them, the gumball machine pipes up again, red eyeballs rolling.
"Sell it to her."
I narrow my eyes at the gumball machine. "I am trying," I hiss. "Really hard. Nobody in their right mind wants this shitty doll."
"Well, at least I'm in my right mind!" That's Barbara. She turns to Alec. "This girl is completely nuts. She tried to force me to buy that ugly doll, and when I wouldn't she pushed me into that gumball machine. She needs help."
Alec is shaking his head sadly. I feel my mouth open, but he holds up his hand. "Go and open another register, Jaye. I'll speak to this lady."
I stomp away, "No way did I push that bitch," I say angrily, "I never touched her." And now I'm on the register. No reward for virtue in this life. I go over to open one. Alec comes up, and gives me a sorrowful look.
"I'm going to have to give her gift tokens," he says, "It won't look good on your report, Jaye."
At which point, just when I think my afternoon can't get any crappier, my sister Sharon shows up, in an ugly red-and-white checked suit with white cuffs, and a red Prada handbag to match, and starts drooping over the counter, ignoring the line of customers who have all spotted me opening a new checkout and come charging over. I ring up the first purchases, while Sharon fiddles miserably with the Seasonal Gift tags, and the Wonderfalls magnetised bookmarks on the counter.
"Is there something you want, Sharon?" I gesture to the line, "Only I'm kind of busy here."
"She's pregnant. She's having a baby."
Okay, Sharon is being cryptic. That can't be good. I hand the first customer her receipt, close the cash register, ignoring the groans and mutterings of the line standing there, take Sharon's arm, and steer her over to the gumball machine.
"Who is having a baby?"
I pause for a minute, then I decide I need to put it to her plainly. "Well, I doubt that it's your kid, Sharon."
"I know that," says Sharon. Her eyes are tearing up.
"And, I know it's the time of year and everything, but I doubt it's a virgin birth. Although, is her name Mary by any chance?"
Okay, that was mean, I admit it. Plus Sharon is now crying openly, and the Tylers do not cry in public. I could see she was close to the edge.
"Her name is Beth, as you very well know." she says, between sniffles.
"How would I know that? You never tell me anything about her."
And the father is..." There's this ominous pause, and then she points. "HIM!"
And there's Thomas the EPS guy, unloading the emergency back-up supplies of Christmas Snoozing Bears, and Niagara tree ornaments.
"Her ex-husband?" She's sleeping with her ex-husband?"
"And me," says Sharon, bitterly. "Seems she couldn't choose between us. Only now she can, because of the baby. She's chosen HIM." And if looks could burn through cotton/poly blend, then Thomas would have been lying on the floor with a hole drilled right through between his shoulder blades.
Instead of which he whistled a merry tune, wished us all the best of the season, and left - a spring in his step. Someone was going to enjoy this Christmas. And it wasn't Sharon.
"Oh God, I can't stand this!" Sharon was beginning to wail, really quite loud. I made some shushing noises, and patted her shoulder, a bit helplessly. "There, there," I said, feeling dumb. "Maybe they'll have a crappy Christmas and she'll dump him again, and make you a step-mommy."
"Is that meant to make me feel better?" says Sharon, sarcastically, "Is that the best you've got?"
"What am I meant to say? Mom is way better than me at this, Sharon. Why don't you talk to her? Say, mom, I'm a lesbian - and I would have brought my girlfriend to Christmas lunch, but she's dumped me for the EPS man. You can do it."
And then the gumball machine pipes up again. "Sell it to her."
I look up. The Santa-Suited Maid in the Mist doll is back on the shelf, tattier than ever. In Sharon's weakened state I might be able to persuade her ... No! No way am I getting that damn doll again and forcing it on my heartbroken sister. Her life is bleak enough.
"Bite me," I say to the gumball machine. And its mean gumball eyes flash red.
"What?" says Sharon absently. "I shouldn't have known you wouldn't help, Jaye. You're selfish, that's your trouble."
"I help people all the time!" I yell. "I'm a philanthropist."
"What an interesting world you must live in inside your head," says Sharon, looking a little sad.
"Excuse me, Miss." There's a scruffy, skinny chick with pigtails in front of me, holding on to the hand of an equally scruffy little kid in a t-shirt and worn sneakers. Way underdressed for this weather. ... it's shoplifter girl. I glare. "Sandy here says she may have lost her coat in the store." The little girl is looking at me, her eyes wide. I look around. Where did I put that jacket? There it is, on the counter by the register. I fetch it, hand it over.
"Thank you." Pigtails hesitates. "Um, how much is that doll?" She points to the Santa-Suited Maid in the Mist doll.
"$39.99 plus tax."
"Oh," she droops. The kid droops.
I cast a glance at the gumball machine. It's silent. "Did you want to buy the doll?"
Pigtails sighs. "Sandy wants it. She's been coming and looking at them all month. But $39.99 is too much. I was hoping it might have been marked down this late in the afternoon."
I look at the gumball machine. The red gumballs silently shape themselves into a 'no', and its beard waggles slightly.
Then Alec is here again. "I told you to open a register, Jaye. Please do that, once you've finished the consultation with your lesbian attorney." He smirks.
Sharon gives him a look of heavy-lidded menace, and taps a cigarette out of her cigarette pack.
"Wonderfalls is a smoke free environment," says Alec automatically. He's lucky he doesn't have a cigarette dangling out of his eyeball by now.
"Jaye was just selling this lady a doll. Weren't you Jaye?" Hey, Sharon's standing up for me.
Pigtails looks alarmed, "I'm afraid I can't afford $40..."
"You were gonna sell it to that other lady for $8.29." That's the kid, looking at me. Shut up kid.
"I was joking," I say through clenched teeth, glancing at Alec. I don't really want to be unemployed at Christmas.
She deflates again.
"But it is shop worn," I add.
"I'll reduce it by $5." That's Alec. What a prince.
"It has a broken feather." Sharon picks up the doll and waves it. The kid's eyes follow it, lustfully. That doll's been through a lot of hands by now - it's looking pretty shabby. "And wear and tear," adds Sharon.
"$30," says Alec, as though it hurts him, "That's a 25 discount."
"It's shop worn, like Jaye says," says Sharon, turning it over critically, "I expect at least a 50 mark-down if you want to sell it as-is." She's glaring at Alec now.
"$20. And that's my final offer." He's eyeballing her back. The boy must be nuts.
"That is 50," says Sharon.
"Darn it," says Alec.
And Sharon grins like a shark, and turns to Pigtails. "Yours for $20, ma'am."
"Thank you!" says Pigtails, and Sandy grabs the doll from Sharon's hand. At which point, the gumball machine goes crazy, firing gumballs in every direction. Everyone ducks for cover. Except Sharon.
"Oh for God's sake," she says crossly. And she kicks the gumball machine, hard, knocking it on its back, and as it starts to fire gumballs up into the air, she takes an edible Christmas card, doubles it, and shoves it into the gumball machine's gaping maw. I guess being in the immigration service teaches you these simple techniques. "That thing's a public health hazard," she says, kicking it again. Then, as Pigtails and Alec go over the counter, where Pigtails opens her little purse, and starts to laboriously count out change, Sharon slips a hand in her red Louis Vuitton purse and hands me $20, "That's for the doll,"and then another $20, "Take the tax out of that one, and you can keep the rest - don't spend it all on beer." She gestures to Pigtails, who's got down to counting out her cents. "Don't tell her until I've gone, right? I'm off to talk to mom and dad, before any more of your little friends decide to make my private business public."
"Thanks, Sharon." I shake her hand, making her jump. "You've made a little girl very happy this Christmas."
Sharon nods stiffly. "I'm ... glad," she says, then she hesitates, and walks up to Pigtails and the kid, resplendent in red and white check. "And Merry Christmas to both of you," she adds - and she's gone.
Then I hand over the money, tell Pigtails that Sharon is this eccentric old-maid do-gooder figure, no need to try and pay her back - and they're gone too, the kid with one hand in her mom's, the other firmly clutching her new doll. I turn back to the gumball machine, which is rolling from side on the floor, its entire face a sea of furious red. I kneel down beside it. "You wanted me to sell the doll before that kid got it, didn't you? You just wanted to stop some poor little girl getting a Maid in the Mist Santa Doll. You're an Evil Santa! Well, screw you. The nice lesbian Santa won." I get up again, and think about things. "Which is kind of post-modern, isn't it?"
And then it was back to the registers for the rest of the day.
I came back to my trailer after closing up, and sat down to wait for Eric. Meanwhile, I had some tough questions for Mr Wax Lion and Mr Brass Monkey.
I dumped my pile of employee discount Christmas paper, puppets, puzzles and pencils, stockings and smelly stuff on the bed, ready to wrap it in time for Christmas morning at mom and dad's. (We don't have a dog, or I'd have bought an edible Christmas card too.) Then I popped the cap on a bottle of beer - thanks, Sharon - threw myself on the bed, trying not to crush the stuff I'd just thrown there, and opened the conversation.
"So, since when did you guys start being evil?" Nothing.
I try an appeal to the spirit of the season. "It's Christmas, you guys, open up to me here. And nothing too cryptic, okay - it's been a very long day. And my sister was crying on my shoulder, which is just weird. Also damp."
The wax lion turned to look at me, "I'm not evil."
The monkey flicked over a page in his book, looking bored. "I'm not evil either."
"That damn gumball Santa told me to do something bad! And I nearly succeeded!"
The wax lion raised a shaggy wax eyebrow, "Why did you trust a gumball machine dressed as Santa?"
I frowned, "I trust all you guys. I don't even think you're the devil any more. Much."
The wax lion shook his head. "The gumball machine is not one of us."
The monkey flipped another page, not bothering to look up. "NEVER trust a gumball machine. Or Santa. Everybody knows that."
And that's when I knew I was lost. I'd started to be happy talking to the animals. I thought I'd found a replacement for my inner voice - an outer voice that I could trust. But then God - or whoever - upped the INSANE factor, and it turns out that gumball machines with smiley Santa faces are bastards. There's no certainty in this world, even if you are Fate's Pawn. Life's a bitch, all the same.
Oh - and Merry Christmas, wherever you may be. Though it can't possibly be more fun than Sharon's Outing Party tomorrow at the Tyler house.