The sleigh-bells rang, but no one listened. The hoards of people waiting to see Santa stood in a haphazard line that snaked through the courtyard of Green Mountain Shopping Center and around a corner out of sight. The mall staff had gone through so much trouble, Nick noticed, to decorate the area for the holiday scene and play festive music fraught with sleigh-bells and warm, fuzzy feelings, but nobody paid attention to the sights nor sounds. From his great big chair, flanked by elves, Nick saw the uncomfortable parents herding bored children forward by a few steps every minute or so. Why? He asked himself, as he did every year. If it was such a pain, why did all these people wait through the line to get a picture with him?
He knew why. It was because they thought that they were supposed to and many of them, unfortunately, thought that way about all of the holidays. They gave presents, because they thought that they were supposed to. They sang, they decorated, they gave gifts, and baked cookies. They kissed under sprigs of a parasitic plant decorated with ribbon. They cut down trees and adorned them with shiny balls and flashing lights, to display the wilting corpse in their living room. They did all of these things at great expense of money, effort, and time, but none of it meant a thing, because they only did it because they were supposed to.
Nick knew the point of it all, but he had stopped telling people in recent years, because they just didn’t seem to understand. The point of Christmas, or any holiday for humans, really, was that it was a time set aside to show people that you cared about them. It was really very simple, but Hallmark had crammed the idea down everyone’s throat in the way large corporations did anything, making the sentiment feel fake and plastic.
All of these thoughts slithered through Nick’s mind in the time it took for one child to be taken off of his lap and another to be brought forward.
“This one,” Nick thought to himself, keeping a jolly smile on his face, “this one is going to be trouble.”
It was a little boy of about eight years old, wearing a blue jacket, a beanie, and a mischievous, determined grin. Nick appreciated determination, and thought a little mischief was a wonderful thing in children, so it wasn’t the grin that bothered him. What bothered him was a certain glean in the kid’s eyes. Nick had learned long ago to recognize that shine. It was the look of a kid who had recently “found out” that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. He was angry, learning that he had been lied to, and he was determined to prove to the fraud sitting in the big chair that he wasn’t an idiot. The kid wanted to pull Nick’s beard off and declare him a fake to the cheers of suddenly enlightened children. Nick’s beard, though, was real, and it hurt like a bitch when these angry kids tugged on it.
The two elves ushered him toward Nick, but he didn’t need to be herded, he trudged straight toward Nick. The boy’s father stood back a ways, readying his camera.
Without waiting to be lifted up onto Nick’s lap, the child climbed up himself, which was awkward and uncomfortable for all involved. Including the two elves that got there just late enough to confuse things.
“What’s your name? Little boy?” Nick asked once the child had settled down on his leg. He watched the kid’s hands. Currently they sat on his lap, but were ready to launch up at any moment and grab hold of the beard.
“Jared,” the kid stated, not an ounce of humor in his voice.
“Don’t worry about that part,” Jared’s father yelled over to them, “Just pose. He already knows that there’s no Santa.”
Nick’s eyes flicked to the line of waiting children standing behind the man, horror on their faces and the promise of tears reflected in their eyes. Nick was generally good at keeping a smile on, but he knew it faltered a bit then. One of the elves, a mall security guard named Nolan that had volunteered to help out, jumped to the man and said something quietly to him. Nick tried to regain his grin.
He saw the father glance over his shoulder at the kids and shrug. Nolan stepped aside and looked back and Nick apologetically. The father began snapping pictures with a shouted command, “smile!”
Nick didn’t believe in physical violence, but if the Overlords felt the need to vaporize this man with one of the high-precision laser cannons attached to the ship in orbit, he wouldn’t have complained. He looked back down to Jared.
Before he could say anything, Jared said, “You aren’t real!” and reached up, grasping the beard in his tiny fingers. Nick couldn’t very well slap the kid’s hand away, so he grimaced and waited, wondering if maybe next year he could shave his beard and wear a fake one.
“What makes you say that?” Nick asked, trying to keep the appearance of good humor.
“It’s not possible for you to visit every kid in one night!” Jared yelled, then he yanked.
It was a few hours later. Jared and his father had left with a memory card full of pictures of Santa frowning in pain, while Jared battled Nolan the elf with one hand, while tugging desperately at Nick’s beard with the other. Nick almost would have liked to see how that Christmas card was going to turn out, as he rubbed his chin, still sore. He made his way down into the underground parking garage. The rest of the kids in the line had been well behaved, if not a little sad. Their attentions failed to notice the sleigh-bells from the mall speakers, but one asshole adult says that there’s no Santa Claus, and not a single tiny ear goes untouched.
He walked down the gentle slope of the garage, pulling a little black box from his pocket. The parking lots on the other side of the mall were all mostly full still, despite the late hour, “’tis the season…’ Nick grumbled at the thought. The bottom level of this parking garage, though, was completely deserted. There were a few cars, but no people.
He heard arguments against the existence of Santa Claus at least a few times a year. Kids generally decided that he didn’t exist for one, or both, of two reasons. Either they, like Jared, decided that he didn’t have time to travel all over the world in one night, or they were bothered by the idea that there were Santas in Malls all over the place. They couldn’t all be real, could they?
As he raised his arm and pushed the small button on the little black box, he wished that he could explain it to them. He wished that he could show them that there WAS actually a way to do all this, but he knew that he could not. The wormhole that his little box opened made a jingling noise in the air as it caused small pressure variances. He stepped through: out of the garage and into the lab at his workshop at the north pole. All around him bustled jolly fat men that looked exactly like him, tending tall tubes that grew even more clones.
Several looked up to Nick as he passed, nodding cheerfully. Only cheerful because they thought that they might be different from the other batches. Every year, he told them that they had changed the cloning procedure slightly, and that this year it might last. Every year, the clones believed him and thought that they wouldn’t die in excruciating pain as their bodies shut down before the new year settled in, but every year it happened anyway.
He smiled back, and delivered a few winks as he walked. He had stopped looking for a procedure that would work many years ago, resigned to the fact that it was not possible, but the lie kept them happy.
Nick wanted to explain to the small children all over the world how he could actually exist, but he didn’t think that they would understand. The humans would try to take the wormhole device that he had pilfered on Xelnak 7 before coming to earth and they would use it for war. They would try to study him in an unpleasant way. They wouldn’t appreciate the morbid cycle of cloning and death, but he did it for them.
Sometimes he wondered why he even still did it, but then he remembered, he did it because the Overlords had deemed it his punishment.
He did it because he was supposed to.