THE GIFT • by Kristi DeMeester

Santa never brings me what I want for Christmas. Last year I went running downstairs and Momma was just sitting there smoking her morning cigarette, her hand shaking because she hasn’t had her whiskey yet. This year won’t be no different. Same shit, different day, only I can’t let Momma hear me say that or she’ll whup me good. Twelve-year-olds shouldn’t talk that way she tells me.

“Sorry, hon. Santa’s a real asshole,” she’d said and handed me a stale donut. “Merry Christmas.”

I figure he’s too busy getting all plumped up to bring back Pop or at least the stupid bike I asked for two years ago. But that was before Pop got all ate up with the plague and the men came looking for him because he couldn’t stay with us no more. He went kicking and screaming, the little bit that was left of his skin flying off so that I could see the inside of him sloshing around.

The news people on the TV say that’s what the plague does. It eats all of your guts and organs and stuff real slow until everything in there is all thick dark liquid, like a milkshake. You can’t catch it unless you touch people who’ve got it, get their goo on your bare skin, but I guess the government isn’t taking any chances because the men came busting through the door in those special white suits they wear, and it didn’t matter how hard I punched or kicked at them.

“I keep him in the room! He ain’t going to infect us!” Momma hollered. They took him anyway. And ever since then, Christmas — and hell, most other days — has sucked nuts.

It was Christmas when I missed him most. Mostly because he was always planning something big, always winking and laughing like he had something real sly set up just for me and Momma. Even if it turned out to be something small or silly, it was always exciting because he made it that way. Whenever I think about him, it gets hard to breathe, so I try not to do it too much. But sometimes he comes sneaking up on me and then I’m gasping for air and my heart feels like it’s gonna rip in half.

So this year, I reckon I’ll ask for something different. Jason makes fun of me for still believing, but I don’t care. He’s still got an old man. Mike and Carlos and Ben and Ruth and Paul keep quiet though. They know what it’s like to have the men bust in your house and drag people away. So Jason can stuff it.

I’ll catch hell for it with Momma, but on Christmas Eve I walk the five miles to the Greensboro Outlet Mall. Ain’t hardly no wait to see him. Most people won’t go out, afraid that two hours in the open air and their babies will come home with the plague crawling around inside of them.

Pop wasn’t scared. And I’m his boy. I ain’t scared either. Besides, they said on the TV that it’s probably not airborne, and I guess they’re smart enough to know. They keep saying stuff like how we should keep living our lives, do normal things like shop and go to restaurants because it won’t be long before they have this thing beat, but most people just stay holed up in their houses.

The mall is open, but it’s weird with hardly any people in it. Some old timey guy is singing about a white Christmas, and his voice is all echoey and hollow. There are a few ladies rushing in and out of shops and a few high school kids slouching around, but I mostly have the place to myself. There are some snot noses waiting in line with their parents. Their moms look tired and hurry the kids off of Santa’s lap as soon as the camera flash goes off. Seems stupid to buy pictures where there isn’t even any time to pose or anything.

Santa smells a lot like Momma’s whiskey, and he’s lumpy in all the wrong places. He motions to his lap, but I stand instead. I’m not a total wuss.

He asks if I’ve been good, and I say I guess that I have, and he asks what he can bring me. When I tell him, his eyes go all wide like they’re about to pop right out of his head.

He don’t say nothing, so I go ahead and walk on back home. Momma whups me something fierce, but I don’t mind it too much.

Next morning, I don’t go downstairs even though it’s Christmas. Something inside of me don’t feel right. When Momma finally comes to check on me, she screams and screams and screams.

My skin has gone all loose around my hands, and there are tiny bits of it peeling off. Underneath, there’s just a little bit of black, runny stuff. Momma is still standing there screaming, but it’s not as loud as it was. Mostly she’s just making this low “Oooooh” sound, and I try to smile at her, tell her it’s okay, that I’m gonna see Pop real soon, that it’s what I wanted for Christmas, but she just keeps making that same sound over and over and over. I try to think of who I touched, but I can’t remember anyone. I guess the TV got it wrong.

Kristi DeMeester lives, loves, and writes dark fiction in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the fiction editor for Loose Change Magazine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Shimmer, Daily Science Fiction, Fear and Trembling, PANK!, DecomP, and others. Growing up both Southern and Pentecostal, she has witnessed traveling preachers cast out demons. These demons still haunt her writing.

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