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Story 3

Susan Sinor

Susan didnít start out wanting to write, but after meeting her husband, writer Bradley H. Sinor, she found out that the urge to write was contagious. She has a lot of beginnings of stories, and is gradually finishing some of them. She has been published by Yard Dog Press a number of times: in the chapbook ďPlaying With SecretsĒ and the anthologies ďInternational House of Bubbas,Ē ďHouston, Weíve Got BubbasĒ (in collaboration with her husband), ďA Stitch In Time Saves NoneĒ and ďI Should Have Stayed In OzĒ (also collaborating with Brad).

This story came out of nowhere some years ago while thinking about Christmas shopping, and took awhile to finish. Iíve decided that the longer it takes to finish a story, the better it is, so Iím not pushing myself. I have observed that my characters usually get what they deserve by the end of the story.

-- Susan Sinor

Enjoy with us now this slightly offbeat Christmas tale. 4 Star Stories is proud to present Susan Sinor's thoughtful holiday offering, Christmas Shopping.

 

CHRISTMAS SHOPPING

By

 

S. P. Sinor

 

Larry peered at his watch by the light of a nearby lamppost.

8:00 P.M.

"Time to go shopping," he said.

He was normally very prompt about doing things, but Christmas shopping was something that he always waited until exactly 8:00 P.M. on Christmas Eve to do. After all, it was a tradition with Larry. Traditions were important things, especially where he had grown up.

Start at 8, finish by midnight. Four hours was pushing it, but he had never had any problems before, and there was no reason to expect any this year.

Midnight: the Witching Hour; or rather, Clausing Time. Larry grinned at his own joke. Since childhood he had been proud of his sense of humor. He loved puns and other outrageous jokes. The people heíd grown up around had certainly been cheerful, but they would never have appreciated the kind of humor that Larry liked.

He checked his bag one more time: lock picks, rope, latex gloves, plastic bags to use as shoe covers, black ski mask and an assortment of odd items that he thought might come in handy. You never know what you might need.

Under a black flight jacket he wore a matching jumpsuit. He had worn it to work, decorated for the season of course. Now all the "decorations" were safely stored in a plastic bag under his car seat.

Most of the other male hairdressers at Madame Xís salon dressed outrageously, trying to outdo each other, but Larry was fairly conservative. Thatís how he got so many of the older, richer clients. They might like to look at the more outlandish dressers, but they wanted their hair done by someone who was expert in the classic styles and could carry on a conversation, (read, listen attentively.)

He didnít have a family anymore. Heíd left home a few years before and had never looked back. Marilyn and Chuck Ryan and their twins, Tracy and Stacy, were Larryís best friends. In fact, if he was being brutally honest, they were really his only friends. Larry had met them when heíd first come to town, alone and broke. They had all but adopted him, and he owed them a lot. They were his family now.

He wanted to give them nicer Christmas gifts than he could afford.

Larry checked his shopping list. There was no one special in his life at the moment, although he did have his eye on someone who worked at the small art gallery next to Madame Xís. His name was Mark. Larry had stopped in the gallery a few times, mainly to see Mark. They hadnít gotten to the getting-together-after-work stage, yet; certainly not to the Christmas gift stage, so three gifts would be all he needed.

The first stop would be at Mrs. Richardsonís, for that sterling gravy boat. She intended it for her newly-married granddaughter, but the pattern also matched Marilynís pattern. Then to the Smiths. What Mrs. Smith didnít confide to him, Mr. Smith did. The video games they had bought for their grandchildren would thrill the twins. After the Smiths, he would pick up a silk shirt for Chuck at the Arnoldís. It should be just the right shade of blue, providing Mrs. Arnold had bought the shirt Larry had so thoughtfully suggested.

The Richardsons, Smiths and Arnolds were all going to be at the Hobart Johnsonís Christmas Eve party. Besides New Years, this was the one night of the year that they all stayed up, and out, until after midnight.

Even though Pam Johnson had invited him, somehow Larry didnít think he would make it.

"Larry, why donít you drop by and join the party? You already know most of the guests, and youíre such an amusing young man. Weíd love to have you."

Amusing. That word really grated on his nerves. What he wouldnít stoop to for his career. All three ladies had been eager to discuss with him what they would wear to the party. They seemed to value his advice, and especially, his attitude. Larry had learned when he was very young what an asset the correct attitude could be.

When he couldnít even fake the "correct" attitude his family demanded, he had decided to leave his home, and had never regretted it. Here, he had been able to maintain an attitude that had gotten him to the position of senior hairdresser at Madame Xís. With just a bit of luck, it would eventually get him his own salon.

Maybe he should go to the party, just for a few minutes. The Johnsonís house was so big, like the guest list, that he could be there for ten minutes, say heíd been there all evening, and no one would know the difference; an alibi of sorts, just in case.

He could also pick up something there, for himself, since he had no way of knowing what it would be. The other gifts should be no problem. His clients always bragged about how elaborately the stores wrapped their packages, just the sort of information that one filed away for future reference.

Larry parked his dark green Volvo a few doors down from the Richardsonís house. The car was old, but it was a classic and he took good care of it. One must keep up appearances. It was just the kind of car no one would pay any attention to in an upper class neighborhood like this.

The winter wind whipped his hair as he put the ski mask and other Ďprotectionsí on. It had been a dry winter so far, and tonight was clear and dark, just perfect for Christmas shopping.

He slid along the walls of the house until he came to the back door. Carefully, he worked the door lock until it snapped open. That gave Larry thirty seconds to reach the alarm box and punch in the deactivation code. He did it with ten seconds to spare. When the system was being installed last spring, Mrs. Richardson had let slip what the code was, which, knowing her memory, would never be changed.

He paused for a moment in the living room door. Even without lights he could see the Christmas tree, decorated in silver and red. The gravy boat was in a green foil box with a gold ribbon and bow, marked To Maria, From Grandmother.

He hid it inside his jacket and retraced his steps, closing the door carefully behind him, not forgetting to turn the alarm back on or to remove his ski mask.

One down, he thought.

The Smiths didnít live very far from the Richardsonís. Everything in this part of town was old: houses, trees, people, and money. Most of his clients lived in this neighborhood, knew the same people, shopped at the same stores, got their hair done at the same salon, by the same person.

Larry wasnít too concerned about being found out. He never shopped at the same homes two years in a row and never took more than one gift at a time. No sense taking chances. Larry researched each store very carefully: security, pets and the possibility of someone still being home on Christmas Eve.

The Smiths lived on a block with an alley. The backyards had high stone walls and alley-entrance garages. Larry already knew of a spot on the wall where he could boost himself over.

As he hit the ground, he heard the yap, yap, yap of a small dog.

"Oh, no!" He could see the dog jumping and barking furiously about ten feet away. "Where did that thing come from?"

He thought of just going back over the wall, but that would mean giving up the games for the kids. He knelt on one knee and softly called the dog.

"Here pup, pup, pup. Come on, I wonít hurt you. Come on."

To his surprise, the dog ran over and began to lick his hand.

"Well, hi, fella. What are you doing here?" There was enough light from the yard lamp to read the dogís tags. Muffy, Owned by Robbie and Nicole Smith.

"Oho, so thatís it. Just visiting, are you? I suppose that you canít stay in the house with the cats, because you might terrorize them. Let me tell you a secret, Muffy. Those cats could have you for lunch. Better you do stay outside. How about I try to find you a snack while Iím inside? Would you like that?"

The Smiths didnít have an alarm system, thinking that the wall around the yard was all the security they needed. Maybe he should discuss that with them Ė next year.

He had no trouble jimmying the back door, being careful to not leave any marks. Their tree wasnít lit either, but light coming in from the window bathed it in a glow, and he could see that it was decorated beautifully. The Smiths had always had excellent taste.

He carefully looked through the packages under the tree until he found the right one: To Robbie and Nicole. Then he saw another one like it. Two! He hadnít thought of that. He couldnít take both, but which one?

"I guess Iíll just play eenie, meenie to decide. I hope I pick the right one."

He set both gifts on the floor and waved his hands over them until they settled on one. Placing the other one where he had found it, Larry hid his choice inside his jacket and made his way to the kitchen.

"Mustnít forget Muffy," he said, looking in the pantry and the fridge. Nothing. What were they doing, putting the little furball on a diet? Then he noticed some leftover steak wrapped in plastic. "Iíll bet Muffy will love this."

Bribe in hand, Larry stepped out into the backyard, just as the dog came yipping around the corner of the house.

"Okay, okay. Here you go." Larry tossed his present for Muffy under the bushes where any remnants wouldnít be noticed.

Now he was getting hungry.

"Maybe I should take a break and visit the Johnsonís party."

# # #

Larry checked his watch by the dome light of his car; it was only 9:30. He was doing well enough that he could allow himself an hour at the party and still make the last house on his shopping list.

It wasnít far to the Johnsonís. He parked in an inconspicuous place and started putting back on everything heíd taken off: a scarf Ė red and green, of course: a pin here, an earring there, and several rings.

He combed his hair and locked the car behind him. Canít be too careful around here at night, especially with so many expensive cars. Besides, heíd heard about a gang of thieves who ripped off Christmas presents from cars.

The front door would not be a good idea; after all he "had been here for some time". There were party noises coming from the rear of the house as he turned the corner into the backyard.

A dark figure stumbled out of the bushes and ran right into him. "Whoís Ďat?" the figure, a man, slurred, clutching at Larryís arm. "Why, itís Mr. Larry! Hey, how long you been here? Great party, huh?"

Larry was amazed at the change in Mr. Smith since heíd come by the shop that morning for a last-minute holiday trim. The dapper, retired stockbrokerís shirt was hanging loose from his belt, there was a stain of what looked like mustard on his pant leg, and the manís breath smelled strong enough to strip a varnished table.

"Why, Mr. Smith, you let me in the front door about an hour ago. Donít you remember? Oh, well, I suppose you might have been a bit distracted. I saw who you were talking to. Donít worry, I wonít breathe a word. Now, I thought Iíd help myself to a bit more of that wonderful shrimp dish. I just canít help myself."

Larry was glad that Mrs. Johnson had discussed the menu with him. Knowing about the shrimp might help avert a potential problem, if not disaster. Although, in his current condition, Mr. Smith would be lucky to remember what state he was in, let alone what happened an hour earlier.

"You go right on ahead. Iím just goiní to get a little fresh air." Mr. Smith giggled as he staggered around the corner of the house.

Larry smiled to himself as he walked through the back yard. He saw an almost empty glass on the deck railing and picked it up to serve as a prop. Putting on a big smile, he slipped in through the back door.

Larry had been in the house before and knew that there was a small bathroom near the back door. He went inside, sprinkled a little of the bourbon from the glass on his face like aftershave, emptied and washed the glass, and put about half an inch of water in it. Then he flushed the toilet and went back out. He drained the glass, making sure to be a little unsteady on his feet as he made his way toward the dining room, nodding to people he didnít know and exchanging pleasantries with those he did. Larry felt sure that he had left the impression that he had been there for awhile until he ran into Mrs. Johnson.

"Why, Larry, I didnít know you were here. When did you arrive?" She didnít seem nearly tipsy enough to fool for long. Best not to spin too elaborate a tale, he thought.

"Mrs. Johnson," he exclaimed, putting an arm around her shoulders. "I didnít see you when I got here, and then I got into a fascinating conversation with one of the other guests. You know, I donít remember what he said his name was, but he seemed to want to talk about his golf game, and before I knew it, it was an hour later.

"Iíd had a couple of drinks and just had to get some fresh air. I sat on your delightful deck until I got cold and hungry and decided to come back in and indulge myself at your wonderful buffet. I do hope thereís some of that shrimp dish left, but Iím sure that you would never let anything run out. You are such a marvelous hostess."

He was babbling, he knew, but it fit in with the festivities and he certainly didnít want her to be suspicious.

"Why, Larry, thank you!" Maybe he had fooled her, after all. "Please, go eat. You shouldnít be drinking on an empty stomach. Iíll see you later; I must check something in the kitchen."

She waved him toward the dining room.

The table was covered with nearly two dozen dishes, all of them looking expensive and very fattening. Larry had always been small and slight, so he didnít worry about calories as he loaded down a plate. After having the bartender fix him a real drink, he looked around for a somewhat secluded spot to eat.

He found one behind a sofa in the den, nearly tripping over someone who was already there.

"Iím s-s-sorry," the man whispered. "Iíll move over. Iím trying to hide from my wife for a little while. She doesnít want me to have any fun. Said I couldnít have any more to drink, because I might embarrass her. Sheís a real tyrant, but she also has money, so what can I do? Sheíll probably find me pretty soon, but Ďtil she does I can do this." He took a sip of a very substantial drink he had hidden between the sofa and the end table. "Are you hiding from your wife, too? I wonít tell on you if you donít tell on me. Say, do you play golf?

"I could play golf all day, and sometimes I do. Myrna doesnít play, says itís a stupid game, but she doesnít make me quit. Sheís always busy with her club meetings and things, and she says it keeps me out of her hair. Iím pretty good, too, if I do say so myself. Iíve got a real low handicap, and the pro at the country club says with a little work, maybe I could turn pro myselfÖ."

Larry couldnít get a word in, but he really didnít have anything to say anyway. Golf interested him about as much as watching grass grow. He settled back to eat and let the man talk. The poor guy was obviously starved for some attention. He didnít sound drunk, but either he was, or his elevator didnít go quite to the top.

After awhile, Larry glanced at his watch.

11:00! How did that happen?

He had one more place to go before he was finished, and he didnít have much time, not even to find himself a present from the Johnsonís. After making a quick excuse to his new "friend", he went into the little bathroom again, washed his hands and flushed, and casually walked out onto the deck. There didnít seem to be anyone outside right then, but just to be on the safe side, Larry clung to the shadows as he worked his way out to where he had left his car.

Fortunately, the Arnolds didnít live that far.

In less than ten minutes he was cruising their street. Apparently, one of their neighbors was having a party, too, and the block was lined with late-model cars. Finally he saw a small space just around the corner.

There wasnít any kind of fence or wall surrounding the Arnoldís property, but they did have a thick growth of hedge. They didnít have an alarm system, either. The neighborhood itself was protection, they assumed. "And who am I to argue with them," Larry mused, as he slipped through a space next to the alley-access garage. Sometimes he found his lack of size to be an asset.

Thankfully, there would be no Muffys, here. Mrs. Arnold abhorred dogs and was allergic to cats.

He gently worked the lockpick, eventually hearing the satisfying click of the lock opening.

Once inside, it took Larry a few minutes to get his bearings. Heíd heard about the house but never been inside: utility room to the left, kitchen to the right. And beyond a closed door a hallway that led to the rest of the house.

He turned the knob and eased the door open as silently as possible. Still no sound. A few cautious steps led to another hallway and the living room. On the left, beyond a large squared-off set of double doors, a grandfather clock stood to one side.

11:30. No problem.

The tree was majestic; yeah, that was a good word for it. Gorgeously decorated, it stood at least seven feet tall, filling the bay window at the front of the room. It had been years, too many years, since anything associated with Christmas had filled him with such awe. Seeing it lit would have been nice, but not worth the risk.

The only part of Christmas that had ever really excited him had been the Christmas tree: finding a perfect one, setting it up, and especially decorating it. He could have only a very small tree in his apartment, but he tried to make it as beautiful and special as he could.

"Come on. Youíve got work to do, and youíre running out of time." He began searching carefully through the pile of gifts. The one he wanted was wrapped in multi-colored foil with a red satin bow.

"Here we go." He said spotting his prize. Then he saw a second package, with identical foil and bow; then another and another.

"Four! Four!" he muttered. "Two at the last place were bad enough. Couldnít that old biddy have been more original?"

He had three choices: unwrap each one, take them all, or just grab one and take his chances.

"With my luck they might all be bowling shirts."

Taking a deep breath, Larry sat down on the floor and began to carefully unwrap the first package. Being foil, the paper didnít tear when he pulled off the tape. That was fortunate.

"Hounds tooth pajamas. How tacky."

The second package yielded a golf shirt.

Just as Larry began to peel the tape from the third package, he heard something from outside. It was just midnight, the large mantle clock, a replica of an antique wind-up clock, or probably it was the real thing, tolled midnight. It couldnít be the Arnolds, they shouldnít be leaving the party yet, much less be home already, unless one of them was sick

Hurriedly replacing the presents, Larry looked around for a place to hide. He had just ducked behind a corner chair, when he heard a horribly familiar chuckle. Larry turned slowly toward the fireplace, which, until now, had been empty even of gas logs. Now a crouching, rotund figure, in red and white, stood there, a bulging sack over one shoulder. The newcomer laid down the bag, straightened and turned toward the chair that Larry was peeking around.

"You!" both of them said, simultaneously.

"Hi, Nick," Larry said.

"Well, well, Laric, fancy meeting you here. Iíd wondered if Iíd ever cross paths with you again. Now, donít tell me that you live here. Youíd never be able to afford a place like this. Besides, except for Christmas trees, your taste was never quite this traditional." Nick gestured at the holly wreath, the manger scene and the candles on the mantle. "So tell me, what are you doing here at midnight skulking around someone elseís Christmas tree?"

Larry just stood with his mouth hanging open, then swallowed. "Uh, nothingÖnot anything, just ... visiting here. Iím spending Christmas with my friends, the Arnolds, and I couldnít sleep, so I thought Iíd sit here in the living room and look at the tree for awhileÖ and call me Larry!"

"Laric, you know you canít lie to me, never could, so tell the truth."

"Hey, wait a minute. What are you doing here, Nick? These people donít have any small children. Why are you bringing presents here?" Belligerence should be the next course of action, or so Larry hoped.

Nick picked up his pack and moved toward the tree. "No, they donít. But they do have grandchildren who will be here early Christmas morning. Remember, I know everything when it comes to this sort of thing.

"Now, donít you think itís about time you came back home? Iíll even give you a ride. I could use some help; Iím not getting any younger. Oh, by the way, weíll put back those presents you took earlier this evening as well."

Larry felt a chill run down his back. "I donít know what youíre talking about. Iím not going Ďhomeí. I am home. Iíve got a good life here. For the first time Iím happy. I always hated it at the North Pole. Thatís why I left." He slumped into the chair he had hidden behind. "I never fit in. My lifestyleÖwasnít exactly encouraged there. Iím not going back with you. Youíd better get finished and go. I imagine that the Arnolds will be coming home pretty soon. You donít want to get caught."

"No fear of that, or donít you remember?" Nick settled into another chair, looking like he could wait forever. From one pocket of his jacket he produced a blackened briar pipe. He inspected the bowl, produced a small bag of tobacco, refilled the pipe and put it between his teeth. A long thin line of white smoke emerged. "Have you forgotten, on Christmas Eve at midnight, time all over the world stops until Iíve finished all my rounds? I have, literally, all the time in the world. "Now, you can come with me willingly or not, your choice. I donít mean to leave without you."

"I could just leave, you know. You canít hold me here." Larry looked toward the door.

"Go ahead and try," Nick urged.

Larry collided with something at the door that threw him back across the room, rolling to a stop at the base of the Christmas tree

"What?" he cried, and tried again. Picking himself up, this time from in front of Nickís feet, he understood what Nick had been trying to tell him. The only reality at that very point in -- time -- was that very room. The only way to get out was for Nick to let him out.

"Oh, I see. Iím stuck, huh? Well, go on, leave your presents for all the good little girls and boys and go on to the next house. I told you, Iím staying."

"You werenít listening. Iím not leaving without you. Youíre not supposed to be here, Laric. Youíre an elf, not a human. You donít fit in."

"Yes, I do. I do fit in," Larry insisted. "More than I ever did at the workshop. That bunch can be intolerant of alternate lifestyles. Iíd be miserable for the rest of my life. Besides, I hated smiling all the time. OK, OK, I have to smile a lot now, but now I donít mind. Iím doing something I enjoy. And Iím planning open my own shop soon.

"At least Iím not tied down to the same thing day in, day out. I hated putting those toys together. It was boring. Talk about a dead-end job. Even a ditch-digger can aspire to better things, here. At the North Pole itís either elf, reindeer or you. Iím obviously not a reindeer and I canít see you retiring soon. Iíll do anything you want if youíll let me stay here."

Nick hesitated, his eyes locked on Larryís. "Iíll consider it. First, return what youíve taken tonight. Oh, I know what youíve been doing. Iíve known about it from the beginning, but I could never catch you. Second, no more, what do you call them, shopping expeditions. Then, pay back every one of the people youíve stolen from. How you do it is your business, but it has to be done by Christmas next year."

"Nick, give me a break. I donít make that kind of money!"

"Then take a second job. Take it or leave it, Laric, your choice." Nick pushed himself to his feet and began to place additional presents around the tree. "Now hurry up. Iím not even half through and Iíve got a hot bath waiting for me at home."

"All right, I said Iíd do anything. Iíd better hurry if Iím going to return the other things. After all, itís midnight, isnít it?"

"It is. Iíll tell you what. Weíll pick up the other two packages from your car and Iíll deliver them for you. You can go on home and think about how to repay the rest of the people you stole from Oh, by the way, Iíll be back next year to check on you, now that I know where to find you."

# # #

"Larry, what a nice way to thank your clients for their patronage," Mrs. Richardson commented as she handed Larry a red and green foil coupon with the words "Complimentary VisitÖMerry Christmas" printed on it.

Larry had tried to calculate the values of all the Ďgiftsí he had acquired from his clients over the past several years. Then he figured how many free salon visits it would take for each client to be compensated for what had been stolen. It turned out to be quite a tidy sum. If Larry hadnít had enough customers he had never "shopped" from, he wouldnít have been able to pay his station fees to the salon owner, or to cover his own living expenses.

"Itís the least I can do to show my appreciation to my very favorite clients. Now, not everyone got my Christmas coupons, so letís be discreet, shall we?"

"Of course, Larry. I certainly wouldnít want to embarrass anyone. You have a wonderful holiday, and Iíll see you on New Yearís Eve." Mrs. Richardson waved her fingers as she left the salon.

He had exchanged nearly those exact words several times this week. That last appointment with Mrs. Richardson had completed his obligation to repay all his debts, and by Christmas Eve, as promised.

"Just let Nick come. Iím ready for him," Larry thought defiantly as he cleaned his station before leaving. He was spending Christmas Eve with the Ryans. Last Christmas he hadnít been able to give them anything, due to his unfortunate meeting with Nick. Heíd apologized to his friends, but they had been entirely unconcerned.

"Larry, your friendship is the best gift you could possibly give us. Now donít be silly and come eat."

However, this year he wouldnít show up empty-handed. Heíd shopped early and frugally for them, and had done better than heíd thought he would. Heíd found sweaters for Marilyn and Chuck at a close-out store, and CDs for Tracy and Stacy there, too.

This year he was spending the night with them, and going to sleep before midnight. He didnít want to repeat his encounter with Nick.

# # #

"Merry Christmas, everybody!" Larry cried as he watched his friends opening their presents.

"Larry, there are a couple of envelopes on the tree with your name on them," Marilyn said.

"Oh, yeah. A couple of my clients gave them to me yesterday, so I brought them with me to open today." Larry had brought only one envelope with him, but he had an idea where the other one came from.

He opened the unfamiliar one first. It was just a piece of paper with the words "Well done" printed on it. Even though it had no signature, he knew who it was from.

The other one was from Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Mr. Smith had dropped it by the salon yesterday, but had said not to open it until Christmas Day. Inside the Christmas card was a handwritten note "We have a business proposition for you. If we can come to an agreement, we might be willing to financially back you in opening your own salon. Come see us after New Years."

 

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