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“Twas two nights before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings hung off the chimney but Jane didn’t care… All she wanted from Santa was some new asses to tear… and… hmm… and the world to actually care about pollution-free air!”

At his side, Jon’s friend Roman halts mid-step, the uneven pressure of his footfalls causing the cherry timbers beneath them to cry out with a piercing creak—nearly as piercing as the look Roman is sending him right now.

“Shhhh!” Jon hisses, white-gloved finger to his lips. Roman’s icy blue eyes roll faster than a 200-pound barrel down a steep mountain, or, if Jon is to stay on theme, a gigantic ornament down the snow hills of the North Pole.

Ugh, that attempt at a poem sounds terrible even to him, and if he thinks it’s cheesy, Jane will think it’s an entire vat of cheddar. Jon sticks a Post-It note to the walls of his mind: No more holiday metaphors.  

“Really?” Roman spits back, but quietly in a small show of respect to Jon, or at least what they’re trying to accomplish. “You’re over here rewriting the words to ’Twas the Night Before Christmas for everyone to hear, and I’m the one you’re shushing? You want to tell me what’s wrong with that picture?”

Roman is not without a good point, but then again, they’ve always been a pair to more ignore when each other was right than recognize it openly.

“You tell me what’s wrong with an elf talking back to Santa. That’s not how this hierarchy works.” Jon hitches the black gift bag higher over his shoulder. It’s not the velvet bag he was looking for, but the thick plastic, more akin to a garbage bag, is all he could find this close to the holiday, and he had to go with what was available. He just hopes that the plastic doesn’t stretch to the point of giving way, so the presents they splurged as much as their minimum-wage budgets allowed won’t end up scattered and possibly broken on the floor.

Roman cocks his head, the candy-cane striped green and white hat atop it tipping with it.

The small bell fixed to hat’s pointy tip trills with the motion, eliciting a whisper of a jingle. “Aren’t elves being paid? Because this elf isn’t. This elf is here doing it out of the goodness of his heart.”

Tally another point in the Roman Truth column.

Roman could’ve easily shut Jon down when he pitched this idea to bring an additional level of Christmas cheer to their best friend Jane, but rather than doing so, he asked how he could help. As such, Jon really should bite back his laugh, but that’s difficult when Roman punctuates his statement with a stomp of his foot. More specifically, his foot covered with a felt bootie also adorned with a bell. The laughter bubbles out of Jon like a shaken-up soda, spurting out and dying quickly.

“Screw you. I can walk out right now and then you’ll be looking like an idiot all by yourself,” Roman says, the smile tugging at his lips betraying him. His tone on the other hand, well, that’s debatable.

“Sorry, sorry, you’re right,” Jon responds, raising the bagless-hand in defeat. Either way, Jon believes they most likely look more like idiots than not; but being a Santa, even a Santa dressed to the nines in a snow white beard and suit made of red velvet, white fur, and black patent leather looks less ridiculous with an elf at your side. There’s safety in numbers, and the realm of costumes is no exception. “Not about the elves being paid, though. I don’t know if their pay situation is ever specified. Personally, I’ve taken it as more like they’re born into indentured servitude kind of thing, but they’re sort of happy about it.”

“Yeah, because all servants are sort of happy about it.”

A car engine purrs outside, its headlights shining into the front window and throwing shadows of a milk-jug vase, sprigs of evergreen, a stack of books, and a Christmas tree onto the latte-colored wall. Smack dab in the spotlight is the portrait of the Westing family一Mr. And Mrs. Westing, Joey, Jessica, and Jane all accounted for. The flicker of light makes Jane’s eyes glint in the mischievous way that tends to draw people in, and warn them that there may be some trouble brewing. If people looked closely enough一if she let them look closely enough一they would notice it’s been dimmer as of late. Jon’s noticed, and Roman has, too, otherwise there is no way in hell he would have agreed to this plot.

So, if they’re actually going to do this, they need to actually do this.

“Okay, whatever, let’s move. She’s going to be back soon. We’re running out of time.”  Jon picks up his pace towards the tree, sparkling with silver tinsel, and sparkly blue and purple and green ornaments. Like Roman, each of Jon’s steps comes with a jingle.

“Ho, ho, ho, Santa.”

The bag hits the floor with bangs and clangs, both of which cause Jon to wince, both of which are overshadowed by the high-pitched yip of Roman. Both of which make the smirk on Jane’s face spread into a borderline sadomasochistic grin.

Ten feet behind them, she watches them from the foot of the stairs, propping her weight on the banister twined in flocked garland as she captures them on her phone, the movement of her thumb letting Jon know the embarrassment will live past this moment in multiple photos. Between her teal sweatshirt, black leggings, and dirty blonde hair pulled into a haphazard ponytail, she looks like she could’ve been upstairs sleeping or coming back from the gym一where they were told she would be.

Her tired eyes don’t offer any more information either way, and Jon knows the reason for it could lie in something else completely.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Roman asks, the fear replaced by indignation.

Jane scoffs. “I’ve been here, Buddy the Elf,” she says, waving up the stairs. “What are you dumbasses doing here? Did the toy shop run out of gifts so you’re stealing from me or are you fulfilling the wishes of the world’s children two business days early?”

Bending down to pick up the few gifts that ejected from the bag upon impact, Jon pantomimes a laugh. “None of your business. You weren’t supposed to see this.” What she was supposed to see was a small line of gifts ringing her tree, each with her name carefully written on the tag, and Santa’s in the From: line. When she told them about the mystery gifts, they would’ve sent her a photo and maybe a video of themselves in full garb arranging presents in her living room that she would’ve loved. That was the plan.

“Well.” Jane dismounts from the step in one jump, sticking the landing, but quietly, her thick socks absorbing the fall. No wonder they didn’t hear her. Damn socks. “I mean, it is my house, so it is my business. I think you at least owe me an explanation of whatever is happening here. Specifically why there is an elf with a thin beard and a ginger Santa in my hallway.”

Jon huffs, and Roman looks fully offended.

No, they’re not the most traditional looking legendary Christmas characters. Roman refused to shave the “beard” he’s been growing for two weeks, and Jon could find no wig to cover his red locks. They both have as much acne as you would expect two high school boys to have, and Jon isn’t sure of much, but he’s pretty sure puberty isn’t a thing in the North Pole.

In a different world, maybe just with a different person, though, this wouldn’t matter. But it’s Jane, and of course she couldn’t just let them go about their business and wrap up this gift for her (pun fully intended). To be friends with Jane is to engage in verbal sparring daily, if not hourly. Thank God he and Roman have always had sarcasm and quips in spades. Actually, that’s probably why they’re such good friends. They traffic in wit, and the exchange rate is high.

“Because it’s Secret Santa. We’re一“ Jon waves a finger between him and Roman, “一on theme.”

“Hence the breaking and entering?” Jane asks, arching an eyebrow.

“We didn’t break and enter,” Jon says.

“Yeah, we used the hide-a-key your parents told us about,” Roman adds, and crosses his stripped arms over his bright green vest. “Besides, Santa does it and everyone is okay with that.”

The glint. It flickers in her eye, and Jon readies himself for whatever satiric comment is going to come their way.

“Am I supposed to think that at 17 you still believe Santa is real and people are letting a random guy into their house in the middle of the night, no questions asked?”

Roman plants his hands on his hips. “So what if I do?” He doesn’t and Jon buttons up his mouth at the response, questioning why this would be the route Roman chose.

Jon and Jane both know that Roman’s Santa fantasy crashed and burned in the fourth grade, when he found the toys he had asked Santa for unwrapped in his parents’ closet. It was the first time he questioned his faith in his parents, and their intelligence for hiding supposed North Pole packed presents in such an obvious place for a child to look.

“Then we have bigger issues to unpack here,” Jane replies with the utmost seriousness. “Right after we unpack what’s in here.”

She reaches towards the bag with a claw of a hand, and Jon pivots, whipping the bag around and up in the air to make it more difficult to reach. Not that his two inches of height give him much of an advantage. “Nope, you are not getting these,” he says as she presses onto her tiptoes to try and grab the yellow plastic handle at its opening.

“Come on,” she laughs. “Sharing is caring.”

“We want to share, but we kind of had a plan here for how we want to do that, and this is making it a lot harder.”

“What’s this plan?” She asks, and her eyebrows draw together, her skin wrinkling between them. “Why are you here?”

Her hand wraps around his wrist between his glove and the fur at the end of the sleeve, and her gaze sets on interrogation mode.

The sigh leaves Jon’s body in a long exhale, a balloon slowly deflating rather than exploding in one’s face. At this point, they’ve lost all point in trying to be secretive about their altruistic mission. Of the many things Jon knows about Jane, she isn’t one to easily relent, and for all involved, drawing this out will just increase the likelihood that any of the joy they hoped to spread will instead die out. “Because we wanted to make our friend smile, and show her how much we care about her, and it’s Christmas, so we thought that this would be a fun way to do it.”

Despite having Jon in her grip, Jane doesn’t tighten it, or yank on it to get him to release. She holds him there, like they are stuck in some Christmas-inspired tango, her eyes flicking back and forth between him and Roman. Jon watches her process his words, and, as her eyes still, recognize the deeper meaning behind them. The reason.

The fact that they have seen through the put-on laughs and too-wide smiles.

The fact that they know there is a psychiatrist-prescribed bottle of pills on her bedside table, and that they’re working, but not as fast as she’d like.

The fact that sometimes she has energy to do nothing more than curl up on her couch and binge watch random shows on Netflix, which serves as a stark contrast to constant activity that used to populate her days.

The fact that she’s trying so hard to make sure no one sees any of it, so she can remain the hilarious, kind yet biting, uncomplicated, unflawed version of Jane she presents to everyone the second she steps in the doors of St. Paul High School.

The fact that Jon and Roman see it all, and it hasn’t changed the fact that they’d do anything for her.

The smile draws over her face like a sun appearing over the horizon at daybreak, small, but glowing bright nonetheless. It’s her truest of smiles, and it warms Jon as if he was standing in actual rays.

“And, you know, we thought you’d be less likely to make fun of us if you didn’t see us do it in the moment,” Roman interjects, the indignation and offense of before are long gone.

“But you proved us wrong on that,” Jon deadpans, and the snort bursts out of Jane before the laugh.

“Touché.” She releases his wrist and his arm falls with it. “Well, I’ll let you get back to it then. Pretend you never saw me.” She steps back, one foot turning into five. On her way past Roman, she claps him on the shoulder. “Nice work, Buddy.” With a spin on her foot, she aims one last look at Jon. “At ease, Santa.”

“You’re welcome young lady. Merry Christmas,” Jon says in his best Santa voice, except, between his unexpected croak and cough, it sounds more like a chainsmoker than a childhood dream.

“That was terrible,” Jane calls from the stairs.

Beside him, Roman nods, face solemn but not at all empathetic. If anything, he’s second-hand embarassed. “It really was.”

“Shut up,” Jon chuckles, and shakes open the bag, pulling out a gift wrapped in silver and red foil paper that he hands to Roman. “You will not be on the Nice List next year.”

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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