’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the Westfield Fashion Square, people were losing their goddamn minds like it was still Black Friday. Trish Meadows was, sadly, one of those poor souls. Her chestnut hair was askew, her red pea coat was covering up pit stains from a marathon shopping trip, and her arms hung low with trios of stuffed canvas bags. As she fought her way through the crowds outside Bloomingdale’s, Trish found herself a bench on which to park her rear and assess the situation.

It was ten-fifteen at night. Ryan had put the kids to bed, and she’d absconded with their letters to Santa while they dreamt of sugar plums and Xboxes. Trish stared at the crumpled yellow sheets in her hands. Past crude but endearing handwriting, she marked her progress. Her daughter Ally had the hairbands and glitter makeup she wanted, but her boys Liam and Danny were harder to figure. One of them was some Japanese action figure—from an anime, they kept reminding her—but Trish wasn’t an otaku like her kids, so good luck with that.

Still, Liam was five going on six, and he wanted something simple like a Magic 8-Ball.

Trish could’ve wept at the request. She breathed in slowly, hiked up her jeans, and marched with her bags back into the fray of Bloomingdale’s for that particular gift.

At least it wasn’t the Disney Store. She shuddered to think of the people trapped in that mayhem.

***

Minutes later, with the 8-ball stuffed in a bulging Trader Joe’s bag, Trish scoured the second floor of the mall for a Starbucks or a Coffee Bean. Or even some indie vendor in a kiosk, manbun and all.

But what she found was Old Saint Nick himself.

It started with a plaintive sigh, followed by a whimper heard round the corner. Trish followed the noise over to the back of Santa’s Village, past fake mounds of snow and a sparkling gingerbread house. There, red-faced and quivering like a bowl full of jelly, was the mall’s own Santa Claus. He’d removed his hat and stroked at his beard. Trish couldn’t believe it, but his thick white beard was the real deal.

She would’ve kept moving but for the tears running down his face.

“Here,” she said, creeping over. The mall Santa looked up with a start, but relented when Trish offered a tissue from inside her purse. True, it was crumpled with lip balm and cookie crumbs, but he took it and dabbed his eyes anyway.

“Bless you, ma’am,” said Saint Nick. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I just… it’s been a rough night…”

“Busiest one for you, right?”

“Oh…” The Santa let out a laugh. Old and bitter. “Not anymore. I’ve, um… well, I’ve been fired.”

Trish stared. “What?”

“It’s true.” Scratching at his white head, the actor turned and shrugged. “They want someone cheaper. They don’t want Geoffrey Jordan, community theater star.” He swallowed. “Oh, no. It’s not like he needs to pay his rent, right? No, not at all…”

Trish glanced down at her shoes. “That’s horrible.”

“I’m at the end of my rope, I tell you. Truly in a rut. And it’s not like my children don’t live two states away. I said I’d go see them for New Year’s. Honestly. But then…” Geoffrey hesitated. “It’s not like I’ll be able to afford plane tickets at this rate.”

Trish could relate. She’d had this same argument with Ryan on their first Thanksigiving together, back when Robinsons-May was still in business and she couldn’t get out in time.

But that ancient frustration gave way to something she didn’t expect.

Reaching into her bag, she pulled out the Magic 8-Ball. Sheathed in plastic, she could spin it over and shake it, seeing through the box into the answers floating on the back. When she silently asked if she’d have any luck with her shopping that night, Trish read the answer:

Better Not Tell You Now.

“Here.” Offering the toy to Geoffrey, who’d sniffled into her tissue, Trish smiled. No different than consoling Liam after a bad turn at the playground. “Want a glimpse into the future?”

“Hmm?” Geoffrey stared at the toy. He lifted both hands. “Oh, thank you, but I couldn’t—”

“Why not?” Trish shrugged. “What’s the harm?”

He said nothing. But as Geoffrey looked back, his eyes softened. Tension flowed out of his cheeks, and Trish saw the ghost of a smile. Something that, one day, could become that same jolly old smile of Santa Claus greeting a line full of children.

Geoffrey took the 8-Ball from her and stared into its inky depths.

“Will I find a new job soon?” he asked.

He gave the toy a shake, and blue bubbles floated around.

Trish leaned over his arm to read the ball’s answer.

It Is Decidedly So.

“Oh, that…” Geoffrey laughed past his tears. “Oh, now that’s marvelous. Simply wonderful. I…” He caught his breath, dabbed at his face, and returned the gift to Trish. “Thank you, dear.”

“My pleasure.” Trish winked. “Call me Santa’s little helper.”

“Well, one good turn deserves another, I suppose.” Geoffrey’s voice trailed off. He shot her a look, his eyes gleaming with a curious twinkle. “Still shopping for your children, I imagine?”

“Two boys,” Trish replied, rolling her eyes. “Ages five and eleven, and it’s a nightmare.”

“Hmm. Well, perhaps not…”

“Come again?”

“Come with me, dear.” Geoffrey offered his arm. “I think I know a spot you’d like to see.”

***

Past the thickest of the crowds on the ground floor, past golden bells and towering Christmas trees, past the ad nauseam covers of “Winter Wonderland” on loudspeaker, Geoffrey led the way. He’d ditched his Santa costume for his casual clothing. All anyone saw was Trish in the company of an older gentleman in a tweed jacket and scarf, who’d rub his hands with glee and nod to other employees managing the crowd.

Finally, they reached their destination. A few turns down side corridors behind the elevators, and there it was. A massive bin full of toys, for boys and girls ages four and up. Trish stared at the collection of dolls, soccer balls, video game discs, consoles, plastic lightsabers, playsets, and action figures. Each one in a pristine plastic or cardboard box, marked with an orange sticker on the bottom left corner that read, Bargains and Expired Offers – All Purchases Final!

“What is this?” Trish asked, her voice hushed.

“This, my dear,” Geoffrey said with a laugh, “is where the store managers keep the good stuff. All the employee discounts, the last-minute shelf stocks, and every post-Christmas charity drive deposit. It’s all here.”

“But, if I take one of these, won’t you—?”

“I’m already fired.” Geoffrey shook his head. “What more can they do?”

Trish stared. Even with six bags weighing her down, the Magic 8-Ball pulled on her the most.

“Well,” she said with a growing smile, “they say ’tis the season for giving.”

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