She opened the restroom door, feeling more than a little foolish.
Daisy stood back and brought both hands to her face. “Oh, this is just perfect.”
“I look okay?”
“You look wonderful. The children are going to be so excited.” Daisy glanced at her watch, then led Cassie to an elevator. Silently they rode to the second floor, where a crew of men seemed to be waiting for her. Eight—or was it nine?—life-size plastic reindeer were lined up against the wall beside an authentic-looking sleigh.
Before Cassie had a chance to ask any questions, two of the men stepped forward and strapped her into a harness. They moved her arms, each grasping one, lifting them up and down.
One of the men murmured something in Spanish. She couldn’t understand what he’d said, but got the gist of it when he made the sign of the cross and raised his eyes heavenward.
“Don’t look down,” the other man advised her tersely.
“You don’t have a thing to worry about,” Daisy said with a grandmotherly smile.
Suddenly a voice came over the loudspeaker system. “Boys and girls, moms and dads—is that Santa’s sleigh I hear?”
The man next to her jingled bells and everyone looked up to where Cassie stood.
“Okay, boys,” Daisy whispered and stepped back.
Suddenly Cassie was hoisted from the ground. Her feet made running movements as she scrabbled to find her footing and instead found only air.
“Play to the crowd,” Daisy instructed in a loud stage whisper.
“Santa’s on his way!” Cassie called out, doing her best to sound enthusiastic although she was absolutely terrified. “I can see him now! Look, here comes Santa.”
And then it happened. Cassie gasped as her tights rolled down, catching on her thighs. She didn’t know what to do. The tights slid farther down and everyone in the entire mall seemed to be staring up at her.
“I can see the elf’s underpants,” a little boy called, pointing at her.
Suspended above the ground, Cassie watched as several mothers covered their children’s eyes.
“Get her to the ground fast,” Cassie heard Daisy hiss.
The men released the rope and Cassie plunged downward. “Yiiiiiii!” she screamed, all the while struggling to pull up her tights. She’d partially succeeded—then saw that she was about to make a crash landing.
Just when it seemed she was destined to slam into the ground, a tall man emerged from the crowd and deftly caught her in his arms. The impact would have been enough to send them both sprawling to the floor if not for the fact that he’d braced his feet. Together they staggered backward until her hero recovered his balance.
Cassie opened her eyes to see that the stranger who’d rescued her wasn’t a stranger at all. Her startled eyes met Simon’s, and they both breathed a sigh of relief. For a long moment, they stared at each other. Cassie’s arms were tightly wrapped around his neck. It took time for her to find her voice and, when she did, it came out in a high-pitched squeal.
“You’re paying for this,” she told him, her pulse hammering in her ears. Why she’d ever agreed to this ridiculous scenario she’d never know. One thing was for sure; there wouldn’t be a repeat performance.
Simon lowered her to the ground. “A simple thank-you will suffice,” he said calmly.
Fortunately the audience was distracted by the flying reindeer, and no one could hear her X-rated response. Santa made his appearance, slipping out from behind a curtain. Santa Floyd carried a large bag over his shoulder, presumably filled with candy canes.
Santa ascended to his special chair, a huge cushioned monstrosity set up on the curtained dais, and Cassie took her place beside him. She looked around for Simon but he was nowhere in sight. The boys and girls lined up with their parents, and the photographer was ready with his camera.
The first boy clung to his mother. “He’s a little scared,” the woman explained, prying her son loose from her leg.
The poor kid was panic-stricken. Cassie couldn’t understand why the mother felt it was so important to make him sit on Santa’s lap.
“There’s no need to be frightened.” Cassie crouched down and tried to reassure the boy, who couldn’t have been more than four years old.
“Go away!” he shouted.
Cassie straightened and stepped back. Her timing was perfect. The boy, without even a hint of warning, vomited on one of her shoes.
“Oh, dear. I’m so sorry,” the mother said a dozen times. “I had no idea Jason was going to do that.”
Cassie hopped around on one foot until the photographer produced a small towel. If Jason was any indication of what she should expect, Cassie could only imagine the rest of her day.
“Why don’t you sit on Santa’s lap with your son,” the photographer suggested. The mother appeared eager to do anything that would remove attention from Cassie and the results of her son’s queasy stomach. She clambered onto Floyd’s lap, her son dangling from her arms.
After cleaning off her shoe, Cassie returned to her duties. The next few children had obviously had prior experience. They all told Santa their Christmas wishes, rattling off everything on their lists.
The line moved relatively well for the next half hour or so. There was the occasional crying baby and one pair of twins who took up more time than allotted, but all in all, it was a smooth-running operation.
Cassie had worked about two hours of her three-hour shift and was just beginning to think this job was tolerable. A lot of the children, while frightened, were eager to meet Santa. “Who are you?” a little girl asked as she waited patiently for her turn some time later. Cassie’s shift was almost over by then, and there were only a few more kids in line. Other than a harrowing entrance and one small boy with a queasy stomach, it hadn’t worked out so badly.
“Who am I?” Cassie repeated the question. “I’m one of Santa’s helpers,” she said as she handed the child a candy cane.
“Are you really an elf?”
“You don’t look like an elf.”
“I don’t?” Cassie said, surprised.
“You look more like a—”
“You pushed in front of me,” the child’s mother protested, elbowing the woman ahead of her in line.
“I most certainly did not!” The second woman elbowed the other one back as her son watched, eyes wide.
“Mommy, I have to pee.” This plaintive declaration came from the first combatant’s daughter, aged four or five.
“We are not getting out of this line now. I’ll find you a restroom as soon as we’re done,” she said and shoved her way to the front, dragging the little girl.
“Would you kindly tell this person that I was ahead of her?” The comment was directed at Cassie by the other woman. The shoving match continued.
“Sorry,” Cassie said, coming to stand between the two mothers. “I really wasn’t paying attention, but if this goes on, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you both to leave.” She said this with great authority and was rather proud of herself.
“Mommy,” the little girl cried, her voice urgent now. “I can’t wait anymore.”
That was when Cassie felt the warm liquid soak into the top of her foot. She glanced down and saw a small waterfall raining down, ruining her undamaged shoe—the one unstained by vomit.
Letting out a yell, she leaped back and automatically shook her foot.
“Orange!” the woman shouted.
“It’s okay. I don’t have to pee anymore.”
“Your daughter’s name is Orange?” the other woman asked.
The first woman nodded. “We’re from Florida.”
The second mother backed away from the puddle on the floor, clutching her son’s hand—and leaving Orange at the head of the line.
“I have a tissue.” Orange’s mother—Grapefruit? Cassie thought hysterically—offered her a crumpled wad.
“I’m fine,” Cassie muttered. She intended to burn these tights once her shift was over. The shoes were probably goners, too. She wondered if Simon could possibly have known what this stint would entail.
After the two squabbling mothers had finished with Santa, a young girl, the very last one in line, approached Cassie all by herself.
“She hasn’t paid,” the photographer said as he returned his camera to its case.
Pleading eyes were raised to Cassie’s. “I need to talk to Santa for just a minute,” the girl whispered. “You don’t have to give me a candy cane.”
“How old are you?” Cassie asked, bending down so they were eye-to-eye.
Just a bit too old to believe in Santa Claus. And yet the child was so intent, Cassie didn’t feel she could turn her away.
“Forget about the picture,” she said when the photographer cast her a dirty look.
“Ho. Ho. Ho. And who do we have here?” Santa asked, ignoring the other man. He held out his arms to the child.
“Catherine,” the child said softly. She walked up to Santa but didn’t sit on his lap.
“And what would you like for Christmas?” he asked, playing his role to the hilt.
Staring down at the carpet, the child said, “I want my daddy to come home.” Huge tears welled in her eyes. “He left and now my mommy says they’re getting a divorce. All I want for Christmas is my daddy back.”
Cassie felt tears burning in her own eyes. She looked at Floyd and wondered how he’d handle this.
“That’s a mighty big order, Catherine,” he said.
“I don’t want anything else. I don’t need toys but I need my daddy.”
“Catherine?” A woman’s voice echoed through the mall.
“I’m here, Mommy!”
The child’s mother rushed up the steps to Santa’s throne and fell to her knees in front of her daughter. She seemed about to burst into tears. “I looked everywhere for you,” she cried. She threw her arms around her daughter’s waist.
“I told you I was going to talk to Santa,” Catherine reminded her. “I had to wait in line.”
“I’m sorry if Catherine caused a problem,” her mother said and, standing, took the little girl by the hand—but not before Santa whispered a few words in the child’s ear.
“We’re finished,” Santa said as Catherine’s mother led her daughter away.
Cassie must have looked as upset as she felt because Floyd gently patted her back. “Those are the tough ones. You did a great job.”
Cassie doubted that.
“What did you say to her?” she asked him.
“I said her daddy still loves her and that he’ll always love her. That it’s not her fault he left.” He stretched his arms high above his head. “Now this Santa has an appointment with Mr. Budweiser. Want to join me?”
“Thanks…but no thanks.”
“Then you’re free to go. Another elf will take over for you this afternoon.”