Mark is going to see Santa today. Last year, his mom said the mall was too crowded. Instead, she bought him a Santa made of white chocolate, but he never ate past the legs because it was too sweet. This year, he begged her to take him just this once, and she finally said yes.
The line for Santa snakes on, winding back and forth between the red velvet ropes that hang level with his head. The other kids fidget and jump about, sticky with candy canes and gummy reindeer that Santa’s helpers hand out. Their moms and dads murmur with growing irritation at the length of the wait.
Mark’s mom taps her right foot against the floor. She does that when she’s really mad. “This line isn’t moving at all,” she mutters.
Mark worries that she may decide to leave. He clenches his fists.
She rolls her eyes as her frustration overflows its banks and looks down at him.
“Mark, I want you to stay right here in line,” she says. “I’m just going into that store right there” — she emphatically points to a clothing store filled with looming, wasp-like mannequins wearing women’s underwear — “to look for a present for Aunt Jill.”
Mark nods, bites off the head of his gummy reindeer, and grins, indifferent to his mom’s departure as long as he gets to see Santa.
She steps over the rope, marches off to the store, and disappears within.
“Hello,” says a woman’s voice, behind him.
He turns around and sees an elf crouching down so her face is even with his. He knows she is an elf because her ears are pointed, and he has watched all of The Lord of the Rings DVDs with his dad, even though his mom says it’s too violent.
The elf smiles at him. Her hair is long and black and wavy, as if each lock had been carefully mussed. Her skin is dark like Niral’s, his friend at school who comes from India. She is wearing a long silk gown as green as the grass.
Santa has elves, too. Mark wonders if they are good archers.
“Hello,” he says.
“This line is getting awfully long, so we’re going to start another one,” she says.
“Will I get to see Santa quicker?”
“You’ll be the first one on the other side.”
She lifts up the rope with one hand and extends the other to him.
He glances over his shoulder in the direction of the clothing store. His mom is nowhere in sight.
The elf’s eyes are the color of his dad’s dark chocolate that comes from Switzerland; they seem both bitter and sweet. He takes her hand and ducks under the rope to join her in an adventure.
They wind their way among shoppers down the length of the mall, passing scarlet banners and flashing flame-shaped light bulbs and miniature houses made of gingerbread.
The mall opens onto a circular atrium enclosing a ring of pine trees cut like Christmas trees but bare of any ornaments. The sun glimmers through a glass roof far above.
They step between two trees into a swirl of snow spiraling upward at the center of the ring. The snow is not cold and damp, like the snow Mark played in on the day school closed. Its flakes are thick and feathery, more like the snow in a snow globe.
The elf stops and crouches down again. Her eyes glint as if they too contain swirls of snow. “We’re almost there,” she says. “If you want to come the rest of the way, you need to give me a kiss.”
Over her shoulder, beyond the trees, he sees his mother pushing her way through the crowd, as angry as the time he swallowed her earring.
He leans forward and presses his lips to the elf’s cheek, finishing with a smack.
She pulls him close in a warm embrace against the soft silk of her gown, and he feels as buoyant as when he floats in the neighborhood swimming pool. A hot wind, dense with the strange snow and suffused with the rich, acidic fragrance of dark chocolate, picks up about them like a summer storm. The mall drops away beneath their feet.
He will not see Santa after all, but he does not mind. Not one bit.
Stephen Gordon writes science fiction and fantasy, mostly short stories. During the day, he works as a technology advocate for a high-tech startup in the Washington, D.C. area. Stephen lives in the Washington area with his wife, children, and an outrageous number of books on subjects ranging from history, philosophy, and computer science to science fiction and fantasy. He prefers scotch but will settle for bourbon. He regularly attends a number of SF conventions.