"I still can't believe that I'm doing this," mutters Gail from behind the relative safety of the refreshment table. She watches warily as another thirty children pack into the small auditorium and spread out along the different stations. "Community outreach? My ass."
"At least we didn't have to dress up," says Andy, quickly swapping out empty brownie platters for ones with fresh cookies. Only a few of the new arrivals have even spotted the treats, but it doesn't hurt to be prepared.
When Jerry had first suggested the idea, holiday themed community outreach at a local elementary school—Leo's school to be exact, but he'd feigned ignorance whenever someone had mentioned the 'coincidence' to him—Andy had assumed that getting stuck with snack duty was like drawing the short straw during a sting op.
Now, less than twenty-five minutes into Rosenthorn Junior School's annual Christmas party, it's obvious that she and Gail are the lucky ones.
On a platform near the center of the room, Chris and Dov hand out wrapped presents and tiny candy canes to a cluster of eager school children. Andy watches them, feeling unwittingly charmed. Dov's got to be the skinniest, most clean-shaven Santa in the history of Christmas, but somehow Chris perfectly embodies the role of Santa's lanky elf friend.
The kids are definitely into it, emitting glass-shattering squeals of excitement each time a new present emerges from Santa's magical gift bag. Some of the younger teachers are also pretty fond of Santa, if Dov's badly hidden smirk is anything to go by.
Gail follows her gaze and snorts. "At least someone's having some fun around here."
"Well, all of the kids are happy," says Andy, more cheerfully then she actually feels. She takes a break from stacking napkins to try and keep the brim of her too-large elf hat from slipping past her eyebrows, before sighing and admitting defeat. Stupid hat.
It's not that Andy is particularly thrilled about spending two hours serving cookies and punch to a bunch of overexcited 5-9 year olds, (and boy, these holiday parties had seemed much more fun when she was a kid), but someone has to fake the holiday spirit and Mrs. Peck-Scrooge doesn't seem to be in the mood.
Gail deliberately ignores Andy's comment and continues to enumerate the morning's flaws, counting off each injustice on her hand. "Even if this was one of those schmoozy work parties—and it's obviously not—we're still technically on duty, so no booze. Lots of hyper, sticky-faced kids. Plus, these stupid elf hats."
She pauses before glancing over at Andy, eyes wide and aggrieved. "Did I mention the part about the kids?"
At least we're not working at the arts-and-crafts station, Andy doesn't say, looking over at a nearby table to watch Oliver and Sam teach kids to decorate sparkly snowflake ornaments with surprising originality. Oliver's talent is not entirely unexpected; fatherhood has shaped plenty of men into worthy craft gods. But Sam's glittery creations seem to be the ones that meet the approval of even the pickiest children. Andy isn't really one for glitter and glue projects, but the kids seem to be having fun. And anyway, it's kind of sweet.
The party goes on for about an hour before Andy finally catches sight of the two reasons she's here serving cookies at 10:00 am. Traci walks past the refreshment table with her son and then stops, pointing to Gail and Andy's matching elf hats and winking unsympathetically.
Leo holds her hand and talks a mile-a-minute, looking absolutely thrilled to be spending the morning with his mom. It makes Andy happy to see proof that at least one kid is appreciating more than a sugar rush; out of the corner of her eye, she can see Gail's frown soften slightly.
The moment is broken when, exactly on schedule, Andy's green hat jingles loudly. Again. Some inventor somewhere had probably thought programming holiday hats to jingle even without bells was really innovative, but Andy is so not amused. She fights the urge to yank it off, Christmas cheer warring with personal comfort and sanity. Gail's hat jingles a two-part harmony seconds later.
"I hate these stupid hats," Gail groans.
Sounds of running feet cut off Andy's reply. She elbows Gail, who plasters on a grin in time to greet the two small children who have come in search of cookies.
"I hope you're enjoying the party," says Gail, saccharine sweet, as she pours red punch into two festive cups.
The kids are probably too young to sense Gail's insincerity, but Andy hurriedly bends down to hand them each an extra sugar cookie. Just in case. Besides, it's not like she'll be around to deal with the resulting sugar high; staffing the refreshment table is only important as long as there are actually refreshments left.
"Merry Christmas," she says with a smile and a little wave. Gail echoes her, false enthusiasm faltering into panic as they look up to find a sea of bouncing children, led by apologetic-looking teachers, converging on their table.
Even with six adults and twelve hands, it takes over twenty minutes to hand out snacks, carefully making sure that each child gets the right ratio of cookies to napkins to punch. The teachers try to lead their students away and Andy wonders if any schoolwork will be attempted in class today. Probably not. What kid is going to sit still after getting cookies and meeting Santa?
Despite the morning's rampant chaos, teachers begin rounding up their classes exactly two hours after the Christmas party begins. By two hours and five minutes, all 150 kids are corralled over in the far corner, fidgety and mostly silent. Andy's suitably impressed.
The school principal makes a 'get over here' gesture, so all of the volunteers leave their stations to crowd around in front of the kids. Sam stands next to Andy and she grins to herself when she notices that his forearms are streaked with multicolored glitter. Seriously, who would have thought? The hidden depths of Sam Swarek.
She hears an encouraging "1…2…3," and turns in time to watch as 150 tiny bodies dutifully bellow their thanks.
"Thank you! We love you 15 Division."
Andy's surprised by how touched she feels. The kids really do look grateful, so maybe Jerry had the right idea all along. Totally for the wrong reason. But Andy is happy she's here. If 15 Division comes back next year, maybe she'll even sign up to decorate ornaments.
But seriously, there is no way she's ever wearing that stupid elf hat ever again.