Families line the streets. Kids are bundled in coats, hats, gloves and blankets. Adults stand or sit in folding chairs, hands in pockets or laps, their excitement matching the children’s. A chill hugs each person tight. Teeth clatter, legs shake and dance; people trying to stay warm. Hot chocolate and coffee work for a while, but fade, leaving shivers along spines.
“How much longer, Momma?” they asks, young eyes and hearts waiting, hoping to catch a glimpse of an elf or reindeer or even Santa Clause. Maybe some candy will get tossed their way.
“Not much longer,” mothers and fathers announce, some happily, others with a chagrin that sits in their stomachs like heavy rocks. Christmas isn’t like it was when they were kids, back when December meant presents and eggnog and feasts, parties and family get-togethers, Christmas lights and holiday specials on television. Snow-filled streets meant sledding and snowmen, snow angels and snow ball fights.
There’s no snow this year; streets are covered in dust and dirt, debris from crumbling buildings, worn by time, weather and the passing wars. Few trees have stood the test of bombs and bullets. Fewer windows remain intact.
A breeze blows along Main Street, lifting grit and trash into the air. Many cover their faces, kids cry out from the sting of sand in eyes; some adults shake their heads and wonder why others choose not to wear protective goggles.
“Here they come,” a kid shouts. Others echo his words, sending a buzz along the road. Eyes open wide in anticipation and little ones squirm in their seats; blankets come off as they stomp their feet, kicking up clouds of dust.
Down the street a truck appears, adorned in reds and greens, its lights shining. The driver honks and waves a meaty hand as he passes through the crowd of onlookers. Three fingers are missing. A pinky and thumb form an odd shaped L. “Merry Christmas,” he bellows. It comes out “Mare-wee Cwis-moss.”
The next vehicle inches along, yellow and orange lights cling to its exterior. The top of the car is missing, shorn off pieces of metal still jut out where the top use to be. A real beauty sits on the trunk, her feet inside the car. Her blond hair is singed at the ends, her once youthful face scarred on one side, an eye drooping, the eyebrow gone. A rusty crown sits atop her head. An unraveling sash across her faded blue dress reads Miss WW III 2038. She smiles. Her teeth are missing.
A marching band follows, horribly out of sync, no rhythm, none of them marching in unison with the ones in front, behind or beside them. Damaged horns squawk and squeal, bells clatter, hollow drums are rapped on with broken sticks from fallen trees, all forming a cacophony of noise that no amount of rehearsing could fix. Some of them are missing limbs, a foot here, an arm there, both legs over there, being pulled along in a wheel chair by a man with no arms and a limp, a rope tied around his waist. Distorted faces and twisted torsos make the rag tag orchestra a crowd favorite. Several other bands would follow, strategically placed along the length of the parade, but none quite as spectacularly grotesque.
A semi pulling a trailer creeps up the street. Women dressed in red and white striped bathing suits dance along poles to ancient Christmas Carols that few of the children have ever heard. Adults sing along to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and Holly Jolly Christmas. Few even notice the women. The new wave of freaks—the beauties of a long forgotten yesterday who have no blemishes on their faces and who aren’t walking with limps—stare out at nothing as they dance, cringing with fear at those gawking at them. Tears fill their crystal blue, green and brown eyes.
Cars proclaiming the holiday season inch along, large men behind the wheels; motorcycle riders doing wheelies and criss-crossing figure eights, careen about, almost going into the crowds, but pulling back at the last moment, much to the dismay of the thousands of onlookers. It is rumored that once a year a bike goes off course, taking out several spectators to the delight of those who are fortunate enough to take in the carnage. Smoke billows from rusty mufflers, engines growl, spit and sputter during turns, but none of the bikes slide out of control, maiming or killing folks along the streets. Children poke out their lips. The pain would be worth not being like the freaks dancing on poles for men and women alike to ogle and insult, to abuse as they see fit when the parade is over.
The first hour pushes well into the second one. As the end draws near a burnt orange fire truck looms in the distance, its tires dirty, ladder crusted in grime and rust. A wooden chair sits at the back, elevated. A large man with blush red cheeks and flowing white and gray hair, a beard down to his stomach and a red jump suit sits on the throne. A hole is in one knee, no black belt at the waist. His black boots are scuffed and his red cap is missing the dangly white ball that should be attached to its tip. At his feet sit several packages and bags, wrapped in newsprint and tied with twine.
The children scream, “It’s Santa Clause.” They laugh and cheer and clap; some of the adults cry. Santa didn’t look like this when they were kids. He wasn’t a scraggly old man whose rosy cheeks came from drinking a pint of illegal liquor before the Christmas parade. He wasn’t a man with a sack not full of goodies, but something much worse. He wasn’t this vision of insanity that the younger people know and somehow love.
The fire truck stops. Santa stands, reaches behind his throne, hefting a gray bag onto his shoulders. He waves a black glove at the crowd as he turns in a circle, a toothless smile noticeable even with the thick tufts of gray and white that cover most of his face from ears down. His eyes fall on a group of people huddling around a metal barrel, flames licking up from it. They warm their hands and roast marshmallows; the perfect picture of happiness.
Santa points. “Onward, Rudolph.”
The fire truck veers to the left as the driver mashes the gas. The engine revs, the truck lurches forward, black smoke spills from the exhaust. Bodies scatter as the grill and bumper strikes the crowd. A brilliant flash of orange, yellow and red emits from Santa Clause’s bag of gifts. The explosion follows, ripping the back of the fire truck apart. Santa evaporates in a spray of metal, flesh and shredded wrapping paper. The front of the truck smashes into a dilapidated building that collapses. Brick, metal and glass tumble to the ground, taking with it several more people and kicking up a large dust cloud. Fire engulfs the truck, the building and many onlookers. Others scramble about, searching for body parts, tossing pieces aside, frantically looking for…
“I found it,” a woman yells and lifts Santa’s head from a pile of rubble. His jaw is missing, along with one ear. An eye dangles from an empty socket. Her family and friends pat her on the back, congratulating her, some grudgingly, others with the genuine sincerity only offered by loved ones.
A collective groan emits from those seeking the Christmas prize. People gather their blankets and meager belongings. Kids shuffle with parents back to their cold homes, devoid of windows and heat, misery greeting them at their doorways.
A green car pulls alongside the woman, the back door opens but no one gets out. A white gloved hand extends from the darkness, and beckons her to get in. The woman hugs her family, tears streaming from her eyes.
“I’ll miss you all,” she says and steps toward the car.
“We love you, Mommy,” one little girl says and hugs her leg tight. She lets go, steps back. “You’ll be the best Santa ever.”
“You bet I will,” she says and lifts Santa’s head high in the air. Blood spatters her and her family, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She gets inside the car, to little fanfar. It speeds off, leaving the family waving. The little girl bends down, picks up Santa’s stocking cap, turns it over in her hands, and places it on her head.
“Daddy, do you think I’ll ever be Santa Clause?”
Her dad kneels, puts both hands on her shoulders. “Anything’s possible, sweetheart. Anything’s possible.”
The family leaves, father and daughter holding hands. They chatter about the parade, the fireworks and wonder about the body count. Still, some adults stand, shocked, dismayed by the events. Christmas wasn’t like this when they were kids…