The Christmas tree stood proud, red and silver and plastic. It smelled real. The collector’s wife must have lit a pine-scented candle before leaving for church.
The presents, more than I’d ever seen, were wrapped and stacked beneath simulated evergreen needles. Gold and blue paper popped under lights and tinsel—the place looked like a Hallmark movie set.
“We need to get in and out, fast,” I said. “If the collector returns and we’re here, we’re fucked.”
Smitty didn’t answer. I glanced right. He stared at the tree, oblivious, munching Santa’s cookies.
“Cut it out,” I said. “Those are for Saint Nick.”
Smitty laughed. Rotten yellow teeth flashed between crack lips. The ugly hole poked out of splotchy skin. “I’m on the naughty list.”
I frowned. “Put the treats back.”
Smitty grinned. “Who gives a shit?”
My mind flashed to the orphanage and the pain and the cold and everyone calling me “Cracker Bitch” and the wrapped GI Joe and the joy—overwhelming happiness. Somehow, exactly what I’d asked for, magically appeared under my bed. I never figured out who put it there, or how they knew. The attached card said: “Merry Christmas -Big S”.
That’s when I became a true believer.
“Santa’s real,” I said.
Smitty’s ugly hole broke ear to ear. “The fuck your say?”
“A thing happened… At the group home when I was a kid.”
“Yeah, I heard those priests are friendly.”
“Not that, asshole. A gift from nowhere.” I frowned. “Shit, I don’t know.”
“Wait… you think Santa is real?” Smitty laughed. “You fucking idiot.”
I slapped his dirty mouth. “Don’t disrespect Santa.”
Smitty held his jaw and whimpered like a bitch.
I pointed to the wall-hung paintings. “Mass is over in five minutes. Let’s get these out.”
We loaded Big Tony’s requested art in the back of the stolen van. I drove away.
I was halfway to Hoboken. Sinatra crooned in the background. I felt good. Big Tony paid well. I’d be able to get my boy the PlayStation.
I looked right, checking the mirror. In the corner of my eye I saw Smitty. He cradled a small, blue and gold wrapped, present.
My stomach soured. “The fuck is that?”
Smitty shrugged. “We jacked ten original oil paintings.” He raised the gift. “Who gives a shit about this?”
“The kid, and Santa.”
I stopped the van. “Get the fuck out, leave the present.”
His bloodshot eyes went wide. “What?”
I pulled my Glock and pointed the 9mm at his head. “Drop the present. Walk to Tony’s. Do it now. Disobey and I’m offing you, just like Lucky Larry. Fuck around and find out.”
Smitty did as he was told.
I was disappointed. I wanted a reason.
I banged a U-turn and returned to the collector’s place. I sprinted inside, dropped the thing, and got out. As I drove away, a silver Bentley rolled past. I’d beat the collector home by minutes.
I drove to Tony’s, delivered the stuff, and got paid. Smitty sat there, wet from melted snow, looking sour.
He smirked. “The true believer.” He sucked a menthol. “Ever since we got out of the pen, you’ve been a pussy.”
I tasted menthol. “Fuck you. Santa’s real.”
Smitty chuckled. Tony shrugged. I left.
• • •
I woke at sunrise on December 25th. There was a text from Fat Tony on my phone.
“Turn on the news.”
I flipped the switch. The anchor spoke.
“Tragedy in Hell’s Kitchen. A local man, Gerald Smith, died last night. A dump truck, managed by Kringle Enterprises, lost control on ice. The truck skidded to a stop, but the load of coal broke loose, crushing Mr. Smith. He was 42 years old.”
I texted Tony. “Tragic”. The fat man didn’t answer.
I reached under my bed, looking for my jeans. I felt something and pulled it out.
It was a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 year, with a red bow, and a little card, which I opened.
Presents for the good. Coal for the naughty. Don’t fuck around.
I opened the bottle and took a long slug. The good burn hit. I felt merry.