This wasn't the first time I'd worn a foil dress. It was, however, the first time I'd done so in a family-friendly setting.
Santa's voice rang out above the mall crowd, and I hurried away from where I'd been corralling a group of Burberryclad kids. It wasn't actually Santa Claus calling me, of course. The man sitting in the holly-and-light-bedecked gazebo was named Walter something-or-other, but he asked that those of us working as his "elves" refer to him as Santa at all times. Conversely, he had christened all of us with either reindeer or Seven Dwarves names. He took this job very seriously and said the names helped him stay in character. If we questioned that, he'd start regaling us with tales of his extensive career as a Shakespearean actor, one that he claimed had come to an end because of his age. We elves had our own ideas about what might have cut his career short.
"Santa needs another drink," he told me in a stage whisper, once I reached his side. "Grumpy won't get me one." He inclined his head toward another woman dressed in a green foil dress. She was holding back a squirming boy while Santa and I conducted our conversation. I met her pained expression and then glanced down at my watch.
"Well, Santa," I said, "that's because it's only been an hour since the last one. You know the deal: one shot in your coffee every three hours."
"We made that deal a week ago!" he hissed. "Before the crowds picked up. You have no idea what Santa endures." I didn't know if it was part of his acting method or just a personality quirk, but he also referred to himself in the third person a lot. "A girl just asked for SAT scores good enough to get her into Yale. I think she was nine."
I spared him a moment's sympathy. The mall where we were earning holiday pay was in one of Seattle's more affluent suburbs, and the requests he got sometimes went beyond footballs and ponies. The kids also tended to be better dressed than me (when I wasn't in elf-wear), which was no small feat.
"Sorry," I said. Tradition or not, I sometimes thought putting children on an old guy's lap was already creepy enough. We didn't need to mix alcohol into it. "The deal stands."
"Santa can't take much more of this!"
"Santa's got four hours left of his shift," I pointed out.
"I wish Comet was still here," he said petulantly. "She was much more lenient with the drinks."
"Yes. And I'm sure she's drinking alone right now, seeing as she's unemployed." Comet, a former elf, had been generous with Santa's shots and also partaken of them herself. Since she was half his weight, though, she hadn't held her liquor as well and had lost her job when mall officials caught her taking off her clothes in The Sharper Image. I gave a curt nod to Grumpy. "Go ahead."
The little boy hurried forward and climbed onto Santa's lap. To his credit, Santa switched into character and didn't pester me (or the boy) further about a drink. "Ho ho ho! What would you like for this nondenominational winter holiday season?" He even affected a slight British accent, which wasn't really necessary for the role but certainly made him seem more authoritative.
The boy regarded Santa solemnly. "I want my dad to move back home."
"Is that your father?" asked Santa, looking toward a couple standing near Grumpy. The woman was pretty and blond, with the look of someone in her thirties who'd been preemptively hitting the Botox. If the guy she was plastered all over was old enough to be out of college, I would have been very surprised.
"No," said the boy. "That's my mom and her friend Roger."
Santa was silent for a few moments. "Is there anything else you'd like?"
I left them to it and returned to my post near the line's start. Evening was wearing on, increasing the number of families turning out. Unlike Santa's, my shift ended in less than an hour. I could get in a little shopping time and miss the worst of the commuting traffic. As an official mall employee, I got a considerable discount, which made drunken Santas and foil dresses that much easier to bear. One of the greatest things about the happiest time of the year was that all the department stores had extensive cosmetics and fragrance gift sets out right now, gift sets that desperately needed a home in my bathroom.
My dreams of sugarplums and Christian Dior were interrupted by the sound of a familiar voice. I turned and felt my heart sink as I met the eyes of a pretty middle-aged woman with cropped hair.
"Janice, hey. How's it going?"
My former co-worker returned my stiff smile with a puzzled one. "Fine. I . . . I didn't expect to see you here."
I also hadn't expected to be seen here. It was one of the reasons I'd chosen to work outside the city, to specifically avoid anyone from my old job. "Likewise. Don't you live in Northgate?" I tried not to make it sound like an accusation.
She nodded and rested her hand on the shoulder of a small, dark-haired girl. "We do, but my sister lives over here, and we thought we'd visit her after Alicia talks to Santa."
"I see," I said, feeling mortified. Wonderful. Janice was going to go back to Emerald City Books and Cafe and tell everyone that she'd spotted me dressed as an elf. Not that that could make things worse, I supposed. Everyone there already thought I was the Whore of Babylon. It was why I'd quit a few weeks ago. What was an elf dress on top of that?
"Is this Santa any good?" asked Alicia impatiently. "The one I saw last year didn't get me what I wanted."
Over the buzzing of the crowd, I just barely heard Santa saying, "Well, Jessica, there's not much Santa can do about interest rates." I turned back to Alicia.
"It kind of depends on what you want," I said.
"How did you end up here?" asked Janice, with a small frown.
She actually sounded concerned, which I supposed was better than her gloating. I had a feeling there were a number of people at the bookstore who would have loved the idea of me suffering - not that this job was so bad.
"Well, this is just temporary, obviously," I explained. "It gives me something to do while I interview for others, and I get a mall discount. And really, it's just another form of customer service." I was trying hard not to sound defensive or desperate, but with each word, the intensity of how much I missed my old job hit me more and more.
"Oh, good," she said, looking slightly relieved. "I'm sure you'll find something soon. Looks like the line's moving."
"Wait, Janice?" I caught hold of her arm before she could walk away. "How . . . how's Doug?"
I'd left behind a lot of things at Emerald City: a position of power, a warm atmosphere, unlimited books and coffee . . . But as much as I missed all of those things, I didn't miss them as much as I missed a single person: my friend Doug Sato. He, more than anything, was what had spurred me to leave. I hadn't been able to handle working with him anymore. It had been terrible, seeing someone I care about so much regard me with such contempt and disappointment. I'd had to get away from that and felt I'd made the right choice, but it was still hard losing someone who'd been a part of my life for the last five years.
Janice's smile returned. Doug had that effect on people. "Oh, you know. He's Doug. The same, wacky Doug. Band's going strong. And I think he might get your job. Er, your old job. They're interviewing for it." Her smile faded, as though she suddenly realized that might cause me discomfort. It didn't. Not much.
"That's great," I said. "I'm happy for him."
She nodded and told me good-bye before hurrying forward in line. Behind her, a family of four paused in their frantic texting on identical cell phones to glare at me for the holdup. A moment later, they hunched back down again, no doubt telling all their Twitter friends about every inane detail of their holiday mall experience.
I put on a cheery smile that didn't reflect what I felt inside and continued helping with the line until Sneezy, my replacement, showed up. I got him up to speed on Santa's drinking schedule and then abandoned the holiday nexus for the mall's back offices. Once inside a bathroom, I shape-shifted out of the foil dress, trading it for a much more tasteful sweater and jeans combo. I even made the sweater blue so that there would be no confusion. I was off the holiday clock.
Of course, as I walked back through the mall, I couldn't help but notice I was never off the clock for my main job: being a succubus in the illustrious service of Hell. Centuries of corruption and seduction of souls had given me a sixth sense for spotting those most vulnerable to my charms. The holidays, while ostensibly being a time of cheer, also tended to bring out the worst in people. I could spot the desperation everywhere - those hoping to frantically find the perfect gifts to win over the ones they loved, those dissatisfied with their ability to provide for their loved ones, those dragged along on shopping trips to create a "perfect" holiday experience they had no interest in. . . . Yes, it was everywhere if you knew how to look for it: that sorrow and frustration tucked in amongst the joy. Those were exactly the kinds of souls that were ripe for the taking. I could have picked off any number of guys if I wanted to tonight and taken care of my quota for the week.