A Story by Jaonna Koch
Lily looked at her eggs. The eggs looked back.
They shook when he laughed…
Her brothers thundered down the stairs. Two eggs sunny side up jiggled at Lily in time with the twins’ festive descent. They looked at her like yellow googly eyes on a slimy white face.
“I’m going to ride the Polar Whirlwind ten times!”
“No way. You have to take Lily on the Baby Reindeer Sleigh.”
“Mom, don’t make me waste my allowance on kiddie rides with her!”
“She still believes in Santa Claus, don’t you, Lily?”
The table rattled as the twins cavorted into their chairs. Two viscous aureoles accused Lily, unblinking.
He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows… he knows…
“No I don’t.” Lily stabbed one of the eyes on her plate to stop the wiggling. “I’m not a baby, either.” The dry crust of triangular toast burst open an invisible membrane holding back the quivering yolk. Gelatinous gold spread out and left a white crater of empty albumin. Lily gouged the second eye and smiled in triumph at the leaky sockets.
You better not cry, she thought and stuck out her tongue at her runny eggs, and then at her brothers for good measure.
Sadie, their mom, sat down with a fresh cup of coffee. “I feel so bad for poor old Santa when you kids rag on him like that. I’m just glad your father and I aren’t the ones getting bags of coal this year. We still believe in him, don’t we?”
Her husband failed to transition from phone to family. The twins sniggered. Sadie covered his confused silence with a helpful prompt. “We believe in Santa like reasonable people, don’t we, Jim?”
Jim caught on. “Oh, yeah. Heck yeah.”
“I suppose we don’t need to drag a bunch of mean-spirited doubters all the way to Elf Land for nothing. Let’s drop the kids at my sister’s. We’ll have Santa all to ourselves.”
Lily was thrilled. She dreaded seeing Santa every year. It was bad enough how he was always watching, making lists, and checking them twice with invisible, omniscient eyes. Face to face with him she felt terrified and exposed.
“Well, hot dog, that sounds like a date.” Jim winked at his wife. “Just you and me, out on the town. Grown-ups only.”
Scandalized, the twins abandoned their pessimistic stance.
“I believe in Santa. I never said I didn’t!”
“Lily’s the one who said it. Please, please, take us with you.”
Lily disdained their fickle shift. She knew they were lying. Worse, they were ruing her chance to escape Santa. Lily’s mom noticed her silence and conspired behind her coffee cup while Jim fielded the twins’ uproar. “You don’t have to pretend you don’t believe in Santa Claus, hon. Look at those boys. You’re more grown up than the two of them put together no matter what. Why don’t you finish your breakfast and put on your pretty new dress?”
Lily’s nibbled crusts stuck in the thick ochre sludge. “I’m not really hungry.”
“Okay, hon. Did you want some more juice?”
“No, thank you,” Lily said, and took her plate and silverware to the sink. She was a big girl, not a baby. She didn’t need her mom to clean up after her. And she had a plan for that miniature fruit fork she snatched from the table without anyone noticing. It would fit in her pocket perfectly after she washed and dried it.
You better watch out, you better not cry…
Lily hummed the song as hot water melted the remains of coagulated eggs off her plate. She believed in Santa Claus, all right. She took the fork to her room and got ready to meet him.
Lily was glad she didn’t let her family drag her to Elf Land unarmed. The place was crawling with people, swarming like someone stepped on an ant hill that erupted with people instead of ants. People of all shapes and sizes, wearing jolly dazed smiles, red and white hats with clattering bells, jingle-jangling earrings and bracelets, and a wide variety of abhorrent crocheted tops. The Helpers, as management insisted they refer to the staff, practically danced with jauntiness and insistent grins as they performed servile, repetitive tasks.
The whole place trilled with holiday gaiety. Except for that one elf.
At least, Lily thought he must be an elf. He wore the green boots with toes that curled up on the ends and the askew pointed green cap. But he didn’t dance. He skulked. Lily kept catching him smiling strangely at her. Not the normal, vacuous smile of a Helper or guest; an oily, slippery leer. She’d spy him looking at her, turn to tell her mother, and when she turned again, he was gone.
“Of course people are looking at you, honey. You’re the most beautiful girl here.” Sadie held her daughter’s hand and followed the map to meet Santa. She stopped short. They couldn’t even see the photo booth from where they stood at the back of the line. “Oh, my. Look at all this.”
“I don’t really want to see Santa. It’s okay if you don’t want to wait, mom.”
“I’m not a baby anymore.”
“That’s true, honey. You’re growing up so fast.” Sadie smoothed the irritation out of her voice. She wondered why they didn’t have multiple Santas to get the job done more efficiently. The kids would never know. The photo booth was private anyway. “Let’s get your picture with Santa this one last time, okay? You look so pretty in your new dress. I bet if you tell him exactly what you want, you’ll get it, too.”
Lily checked her pocket for the fruit fork with her free hand. She nodded up at her mother. She was rewarded with a warm smile.
Lily loved her mother’s smile.
Hours seemed to pass. The line moved like a river of mud. Tinsel laughter trickled from the shore while the line lagged. The suspicious elf slipped in and out of the crowd like an eel. Lily glimpsed him more often as they moved to the head of the line. When it was Lily’s turn to enter Santa’s private quarters, the eel-elf stepped up and took her hand to lead her inside.
Lily held on to her mother. The elf grinned furiously. His lukewarm hand tugged on her like a moist rope.
Sadie tried to shake Lily loose. “Go ahead, honey. Don’t be scared.”
A burly man stepped out of line several paces back. “Look lady, if you can’t control your kid, mine is more than willing to–”
“Excuse you.” Lily’s mom shot the man a stern glare. “Be patient. These are our children. We each wait our turn.”
“Lady, I been being patient, and all I’m saying is your kid better move it or lose it.”
Murmurs and nods rippled down the line.
“I’m not scared.” Lily didn’t like the man making her mom a target. She let go and slid through the heavy curtains into Santa’s chamber. She fingered the fruit fork pressed in her pocket.
Inside, the photo booth spun with fake snow, walls decked in red and white stripes, and a huge tree with multicolored lights. Silence sparkled. The angry crowd echoes didn’t pass through the curtains. Lily heard the sound of real snow outside, the tiny chitter of ice hitting the roof.
In the center, Santa sat on a white and gold throne. The oily elf led Lily near. She forgot about his soft, damp fingers and peekaboo leer. Santa looked like a sleeping mountain. Never had Lily met a man of such girth. The elf gestured toward the mountain’s lap. Lily thought the figure might be a giant plush statue. It wasn’t until she clambered up that she noticed the sonorous suggestion of a snore.
Santa glowed and pulsed. His suite was more viscous than velvet. Round red baubles rolled from his pockets as Lily upset his stasis. They clung like anemones and drained away color where they stuck. Feeling her breath go black and white, Lily gasped. Baubles bound her to Santa’s lap.
The oily elf slithered behind the camera, his spindly stockings completing the points of a pentagram with the legs of the tripod. He cloaked his head under the back of the box and held up a flash tray set to ignite. “Smile.”
“You better not pout.”
Without further warning, the eel-like elf triggered the flash. A pyrotechnic blast blinded Lily for an instant. While she recovered her vision, all the round ornaments on the tree winked open and watched. The red anemones rolled upward and gaped. Santa sputtered and blinked. He bubbled and chortled with glee, one eye crusted shut with gluey magma. His good eye opened and shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.
He laughed and laughed at Lily’s scowl. The bulging globe juddered loosely in the socket as he shook. Lily bounced on his lap, not amused. Santa’s hilarity escalated to tears. His eyeball streamed with thick, yellow rheum. Lily spit the ichor away as it spattered her face and dress.
She grabbed the fork from her pocket. The orb wiggled free, lidless and sticky, trailing an elastic optic nerve. The liquid-coated membrane of Santa’s eyeball touched Lily’s cheek.
The eyeball crawled up and squished against her eye, rolling around her iris like it was trying to get inside. Lily saw the world inverted through the back of the foreign lens.
She plunged the fork, fast and deep.
Author Joanna Koch writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Her short fiction has been published in journals and anthologies such as Synth, Honey & Sulphur, and In Darkness Delight: Masters of Midnight. Look for her novella, The Couvade, coming soon. Consumer her monstrous musings at Horrorsong.
The compromise to do specific projects without giving up your own editing business seems wise, but only if it pays well enough and gives you a credential to flout. Then again, if you’re making it work now and living comfortably, why give up autonomy? A difficult decision. Do you mind my asking what horror authors I might be familiar with who you’ve edited for? Yes, I’m shopping a little bit. May want to try getting together a collection in the next year or two.