The year Will and I played our best light prank ever was also the year we got caught. We’d been doing it since we were ten: switching out strings of Christmas lights for different colors, changing the positions of yard ornaments. But that year we went big. We forewent the usual suspect backyards, working our magic instead on the community center. They always put up this painfully obnoxious herd of reindeer pulling a sleigh. We pulled out all the blue bulbs that were supposed to be the reindeer’s eyes (do real reindeer have blue eyes? We think not…) and exchanged them with red ones from a gingerbread house. It was brilliant.
Will got smacked on the bottom with a paddle and grounded for the rest of the month. My parents believe in restorative justice, so they rewarded me by volunteering me for elf duty at the community center’s upcoming Holiday Hoopla. The center even provided me with stretch pants, elf hat, and curly-toed shoes. The same ones they used every year, to keep up a consistent illusion for the kiddos. Very sanitary. The worst part was, I had to ham it up. I knew my parents would be getting full reports on me, especially from Mr. Riley, the event director. And if I didn’t impress him, I could get stuck working the New Year’s carnival.
So I mustered all the charm and sweetness I’d been holding back for the past sixteen years and used my mom’s blush to make my cheeks all rosy, as a diversion in case my true nature showed through. I dutifully showed up early to the Hoopla and even sucked up to Mr. Riley.
“Hey, sir. How’s the light display?”
“Covered in white tarps, disguised as a snow mountain. We got the red bulbs out, but the blue ones are still in the Elf Motel. I don’t think we want eyeless reindeer.”
That seemed like a good time to examine the bells on my shoes.
“I’m… really sorry about that.”
“Hey, no hard feelings. We’ve seen a lot worse in terms of vandalism. Yours was actually artistic. Creepy, but in a good way, you know?”
It seemed Mr. Riley was less upset than my parents. This could be an easy sell.
“Anyway,” he continued, “you are more than making up for it. Kathy just called in sick, so we are desperate for an attendant at the petting zoo.”
“Oh. My mom said I’m supposed to take tickets.”
“We’re all covered for tickets. Business is slower than we expected. But without someone in the petting zoo, we’d have to close it, and some folks come just for that. This is your chance to be a hero.”
Let me tell you, I was a hero alright. I scooped poop. I fluffed hay. I valiantly protected rabid two-year-olds from the possessed goat. I valiantly protected terrified snow bunnies (no, really, that’s what they called them) from rabid two-year-olds.
When I only had an hour left in my shift, a kid showed up who looked about as sulky as I felt. He came right up to me and announced, as if I didn’t know it already, “This is dumb.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.”
“So why are you here?”
This kid could ruin it for me if I wasn’t careful. But I’d had years of practice lying, and I knew that the best lie was one that stuck very close to the truth.
“I’m being punished.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be an elf?”
“Look, kid, elfdom isn’t all fun and games. Santa’s way stricter with us than with the kids. See, I have a secret… an enormous, mind-blowing secret, and it almost got out. Fortunately, all anyone knows is that I didn’t show up for carol practice three weeks in a row.”
He rolled his eyes. “Let me guess, you were training to be a dentist.”
“Nope,” I replied smugly, and started brushing the donkey. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him debating whether to take the bait. At least he wasn’t bored anymore.
“So what were you doing?” he finally asked, trying too hard to make it casual.
I glanced around, then leaned down conspiratorially. “I was training an evil reindeer army.”
His eyes widened. “Cool!”
Half an hour left in my shift. I’d survived the smart-ass kid. I breathed an audible sigh of relief. And then I saw Mr. Riley headed my way, and I swear, his cheeks were as red as mine.
“I need to talk to you.”
He signaled to a cheery-looking blonde, who took up my post at the petting zoo while Mr. Riley pulled me aside.
“Did you say something to a kid about an evil reindeer army?”
“We need to do something. Fast. I’ve had at least twenty kids coming up to me asking if I know where they can find the evil reindeer army. Now, I know it’s not the typical holiday fare, but we’ve gotta play to our audience here. If these kids want evil reindeer, we give ’em evil reindeer. If we charge for admission to the evil reindeer cave, we could probably make enough to fund the rehab dance program.”
“You still have those red light bulbs?”
Beth-Marie Miller-Bicknell is a social worker and early childhood educator. She has loved reading and writing since she was a young child. Originally from Colorado, she currently resides in Arusha, Tanzania.