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The Case of the Ghost of Christmas Presents

by Mark Friedman

The store employees finished setting up the display before stepping back to admire their work. They'd been working for quite a while, and were tired but happy with their work. The display consisted of Ultra Mecha Man merchandise, a franchise which over the past few years had caught on in popularity, particularly with the under-25 crowd; it had, like several other franchises aimed at youth, started out with a card game (based on various Japanese card games, but this time created in the U.S.) and had expanded into other areas (including an anime TV show) once it had increased in popularity.

This particular setup was for what experts were saying would be this year's hot new Christmas toy, and anticipation was high, and understandably, management wanted everything to go perfectly. The town was the home of the U.S. headquarters of the franchise, where the show was made, and the main factory producing the other merchandise was located; a store devoted specifically to the merchandise was located in a nearby mall, where the display setup in question was occurring.

A few months before, the company's management had made the decision to have a contest where fans could submit their own ideas for new characters for the franchise. Three winners would be selected from the submissions, with the three individuals making the submissions each receiving $5,000, as well as formal creator's credit for their respective character. The new characters would soon be introduced into the official franchise canon, along with the usual accompanying merchandise, to be released in time for Christmas.

Along with the 'regular' merchandise, the company would also release very special limited edition versions of the action figures - more high-tech and using a die-casting method that would make the items of higher quality than their regular counterparts. The limited edition versions would be sold at a higher price at special sales held in several cities just prior to the official release of the regular merchandise, with the proceeds (along with 10% of the profits from the sales of the 'regular' merchandise for the new characters for the month of December) going to local charities (the charity selected for this particular sale was a local women's shelter). This particular sale was also the first, where the winners would be announced and their respective submissions revealed to the general public.

"Well, that looks great," said the store's manager, Mr. Orwell, looking over the display. He was about to have the employees start cleaning up and return the remaining toys that hadn't been used to storage when he heard something that didn't sound like one of the normal sounds heard in the area at that time of the morning. "What is that?" he asked, puzzled.

Everyone stopped to listen. At first, no one heard anything, but a few moments later they heard a sort of "wooooooo" sound. Everyone looked puzzled. Then they heard rattling from the leftover pile of toys. They turned in time to see a strange glowing humanoid figure rise up out of the pile. It looked like a person made out of the toys. Around it floated figures that looked like black blobs.

"Woooooo!" the ghostly toy figure said before it started to move towards the employees, followed by its ghostly blob companions.

Several employees screamed as pandemonium erupted in the store. The ghosts moved about the area, chasing the employees around. All the employees eventually dove for cover in various locations, and they huddled until the place suddenly went quiet. Slowly the employees poked their heads out from their respective hiding places to find the ghosts gone.

"What happened, boss?" one employee asked Mr. Orwell.

"I don't know," he said.

"All right, we're here," Mr. Welker said as he pulled the van up to one of the mall's back entrances.

The four youth and one dog tumbled out. They'd been asked to help out with some of the activities surrounding the Ultra Mecha Man announcement and charity sale, to which they'd happily agreed.

"I wonder what's going on," Mr. Welker's son, Rick, said as they headed over, noting the group of people milling around, looking uneasy.

"Hey, what's going on?" Casey Rogers, Rick's boyfriend, asked one of them, a girl about their own age.

"A bunch of ghosts appeared and chased us around," she replied, her voice quivering. "One of the ghosts even possessed a bunch of toys and made a sort of monster out of them."

"Now, Kelly," a man said as he walked over, "remember what we said about monsters?" He was trying to sound confident, but the slightly shaky tone of his voice made it sound otherwise.

"You must be Mr. Orwell," Rick said.

"Yes, I am," he acknowledged.

The two other people of Rick and Casey's group, Ashanti Novell and Nichole Chan, exchanged a glance. "What's this about possessed toys?" asked Ashanti.

"Oh, it's just that something really weird happened a little while ago," Mr. Orwell said. "A bunch of toys seemed to take on a life of their own and apparently seemed to create a monster that was surrounded by black phantom blobs. I'm sure, though, that there is a logical explanation for it all."

"You didn't seem to think it was all mundane when they were chasing you, Mr. O," said one of the other people hanging around, an older teen who looked and dressed like a punk rocker (as compared to most of the other people there, who were sporting various Christmas attire). "I don't think I've ever seen you move so fast." The teen chuckled.

"Well, uh, Pete..." Mr. Orwell stammered out.

"Mr. Orwell, we'd like to help," Rick said. "We do have some past experience in dealing with these kinds of things."

"Well, I'd certainly appreciate it if you did," Mr Orwell said. "I'll be darned if I can figure out what happened."

"Can we take a look around the area where it happened?" Nichole asked.

"Sure," Mr. Orwell said. "Right this way."

As the four teens followed Mr. Orwell, Casey gently took Rick by the arm, and the two hung back a bit as they followed the others. "Rick, why do you keep doing this?" Casey asked in a low voice. "Why do you keep dragging us into these kinds of things?"

"Casey, I keep telling you there's no such things as ghosts," Rick replied. "Mr. Orwell is right. There's got to be a logical explanation for what happened."

"Maybe the logical explanation is that there are ghosts running around possessing toys," Casey said. "Remember, the mall was built on that old cemetery. Who knows what kind of paranormal activity that might stir up?"

Rick thought for a moment. The mall had indeed been built on the location of an old pioneer cemetery that had been the original town cemetery more than 150 years ago. As the city had grown and expanded, the city council had eventually decided to relocate the cemetery to a newer cemetery that had been established about 75 years before in another location so that the land the old cemetery was on could be developed as part of the larger commercial district that had grown up in the area since the old cemetery was originally founded. The graves had thus been relocated, under the watchful eye of the local historical society, and the now-available land developed.

The move, though, was not without its share of controversy, though, as many thought the cemetery should stay where it was, both because of the history of it and out of respect for those who'd been buried there. Some of the more extreme viewpoints being much along what Casey had said - some had believed that moving the graves, even respectfully and carefully (and even though it was to what many thought was a much nicer location), would disturb the spirits of those buried there and cause them to come back to haunt the place.

"Oh, Casey, think about it - it's been almost 20 years now since the mall was built, and this is the first time there's been any reports of any hauntings here. And besides, of all the times we've ever taken a look at a claimed haunting, when has it ever actually turned out to be the real deal?"

"I know, but still..." Casey said.

"Relax, really," Rick said, discretely caressing Casey's hand, knowing that the action would help calm Casey down.

"All right," Casey said, noticeably relaxing.

The group arrived at the back entrance to the store. Mr. Orwell looked back at the group. "Oh, I didn't realize the dog was with you," he said, referring to Casey's dog, Shaggy Dog, a mutt whose fur had given rise to his name. "Normally we don't allow non-service animals inside."

"When we spoke with Mr. Carson," Rick said, referring to the member of the mall management who'd talked to them about helping out with the fundraiser (as other stores in the mall, after learning of the Ultra Mecha Man company's plans, had decided to also hold special promotional activities of their own to coincide with the announcement and sale, many also pledging to make donations to various charities as well), "he said that it was all right for Shaggy Dog to come inside, as long as he didn't make a nuisance of himself, which we can assure you he won't. He's really a very good dog."

"Unless you're a bad guy," Ashanti said with a grin, thinking of the amount of times the group's furry companion had helped them solve a case.

"Or a sausage," Nichole added.

"Please stop with the food references," Casey said. "You're making me hungry."

"Casey, you just ate," Rick said.

"Yeah, but that was, like, an hour ago!" Casey said. The other three rolled their eyes.

"Well, if it's all right with Mr. Carson, I suppose there's no harm," Mr. Orwell said, opening the door and ushering everyone inside, first to a utility corridor that ran behind the stores on that side of the mall (presumably there was a counterpart corridor on the other side of the mall as well) and up a flight of stairs to the second-level utility corridor before taking them into the back of the store itself, in the "employee only" part of the store. Taking them into the front of the store, he took them over to where the Ultra Mecha Man display was set up. "This is where it started," he said. "The area is to be blocked off from the public's view until the 'big reveal' of the winning submissions. Toys like these ones over here," he pointed to a heap of toys off to one side, "just seemed to take on a life of their own."

"Are they electronic?" Nichole asked.

"Yes," Mr. Orwell said, "but not in such a way that would make them act the way they did."

"How long ago did this happen?" Ashanti asked.

"Not quite two hours ago," Mr. Orwell said. "Mall security and the police just finished up their initial investigation, and I was about to send everyone back inside to work when you showed up."

"May we look around?" Rick asked.

"Be my guest," Mr. Orwell said. "Just please avoid telling anyone about the toys themselves before the big announcement."

The four looked around while Shaggy Dog sniffed around in various corners. "It's curious," Nichole said after a few minutes.

"What is?" Rick asked.

"Well, this display," she said. "I was just talking with Mr. Orwell, and he said that all the limited edition toys made it into the display. The leftovers were just regular toys that had been set aside to use as fillers in the display as needed. Yet all the limited edition toys seem to be untouched. You'd think that if someone staged the haunting with the intent to steal them, they'd have at least tried to grab some of them before leaving."

"So...the haunting, if it's fake, was for some reason other than theft?" Ashanti asked hesitantly.

"Now you're beginning to sound like Casey," Nichole said.

"Good for her!" Casey called out from across the room, where he was inspecting an emergency exit door.

"No, I'm just trying to think outside the box here," Ashanti said. "Remember, not all the cases we've solved have involved financial motive."

"True," Nichole said, "but what else is there in a situation like this, what other motive is there other than money? The price is very high, and even if someone wasn't planning on selling them off, they still might want to obtain the toys for themselves without having to pay for them. Besides, I haven't heard of any other threats being made recently to either the Ultra Mecha Man company or the mall that might justify a fake haunting."

"Yes," Rick added in, "but don't forget that companies don't always broadcast threats they've received. And this might be over something from quite a while, rather than something recent. Don't forget that not everyone was happy with them moving the old cemetery to build this place."

"Hey," came a voice from the direction of the store entrance, "what are you doing back there?"

The four teens moved over to the front entrance, where the roll-down cage-like door separated the store from the central walkway that went through middle of the mall, where they found a young man in his early 20's who looked very much like the stereotypical image of a nerd. He had a nametag on from the electronics store a few stores down that indicated that his name was Mike.

"We're helping look around for clues about some weird events that happened this morning," Rick told him.

"Oh, that haunting?" Mike said. "I heard about that. Kinda creepy. Although," he added with a shrug, "I'm surprised that some sort of haunting hasn't happened years ago around here, what with the old cemetery having once been here."

"That's what I said!" Casey replied, glad someone seemed to finally side with him.

Rick cleared his throat before saying to Mike, "Let's just say for a moment that the 'haunting' was faked. Do you have any idea of who might do such a thing?"

Mike thought for a moment before saying, "I suppose there's always the possibility that it might have been faked, but nobody in particular comes to mind. I just hope that it doesn't disrupt the announcement on the Ultra Mecha Man line. I submitted a couple of ideas myself, but alas, they weren't selected." He struck a dramatic long-suffering pose, then said in a conspiratorial whisper, "Hey, I don't suppose you could help me get a sneak peak of the winning designs, do you?"

"No, sorry," Ashanti said. "We promised we'd keep that particular secret."

"Well, can't blame a guy for trying," Mike said. "I suppose I'd better get back to work. We just got in a shipment of the latest electronic gadgets that the boss wants unpacked yesterday."

After Mike left, an older woman, in the outfit of a nearby boutique, who was nearby said, "If you ask me, whomever did it is probably some Christmas Scrooge. It's bad enough to practically see Christmas decorations going up before we've even gotten through Thanksgiving without listening ad nauseam to all those Christmas songs for months on end. And then there's the commercialization of the whole thing. It's enough to drive anyone batty."

"Yes, but do you think there's any particular reason to target this store specifically?" Rick asked.

The woman shrugged. "Admittedly, no. They're actually one of the tamer stores around here as far as in-your-face Christmas decorations and such, though I suppose there's still the commercialization aspect of it, even if it is ostensively for a good cause."

"So you've heard about what they're planning on for today?" Casey asked. "No disrespect, but this doesn't seem like your type of store."

"It isn't," she replied, "but I do have grandkids who are crazy about the whole thing. Don't see the attraction, myself."

They thanked the lady and went back to taking a look around. They didn't see much, although Mr. Orwell did mention in passing that there seemed to be fewer toys in the "leftover" pile than he remembered, though he'd have to have an inventory taken just to be sure. ("I didn't want to touch anything until the police had a chance to look over everything," he'd explained. "I didn't want to run the risk of messing up any potential evidence.")

They headed back into the utility corridor behind the store, and looked both ways. It wasn't a straight corridor, but rather curved with the shape of the overall mall itself, and it had a lot of equipment, electrical boxes, and plumbing that jutted out, making it hard to see too far in any one direction. "Let's split up and take a look in each direction for a bit," Rick said. "Maybe we'll find something back here."

Rick and Ashanti went in one direction, while Casey, Nichole, and Shaggy Dog went in the other. After a couple of minutes, Casey asked Nichole, "So what do you really think is going on, if it's not a haunting?"

Nichole shrugged. "Let's face it - we've had a few unusual motives over the years. With the way things have gone in the past, this haunting is probably being staged because someone with the Ultra Mecha Man company didn't like someone's cute cat video on YouTube or something like that."

Shaggy Dog made a noise that sounded like a "Hrumph!"

"I know, boy," Casey said, patting Shaggy Dog on the head. "Not liking some dumb cat video is hardly a reason to turn to haunting a place, huh? Otherwise, you and I would be suspects!" Shaggy Dog barked in agreement, while Nichole rolled her eyes.

"Hey, look at this," Casey suddenly said, picking up a piece of black cloth that almost looked like something used in a Halloween costume. "Wonder what this is doing back here."

Before Nichole could answer they heard a "wooooooo" sound. They looked around, trying to figure out the source of it; then Shaggy Dog let out a whine. Casey and Nichole slowly turned to face the direction Shaggy Dog was looking in, and found themselves looking at a glowing apparition that seemed to be made out of the kind of toys that would be found in the store they were just in. Floating around it were little apparitions that looked like black jellyfish.

"Woooooo!" the toy ghost said, gliding towards the trio, who let out a yelp and started running in the other direction, with the ghosts giving chase. They ran for a couple of minutes before Nichole saw a spot that would make a good hiding place, and she quickly jumped into it, dragging Casey and Shaggy Dog with her. They pressed themselves in as far as they could, hoping to remain unseen...

Rick and Ashanti looked around. "Honestly, I wouldn't even know where to begin to look," Ashanti said. "If the haunting is really being faked, there are so many hiding places back here that we could look for a week and not find anything."

"I know," Rick muttered. "Perhaps what we need is some way of drawing out the 'ghost' and capturing him."

"Yes, but if this is a real person, we'd have to be careful," Ashanti said. "You know what they say about the dangers of a cornered animal with nothing left to lose."

"Hey, when has that ever stopped us before?" Rick asked with a grin.

Ashanti suddenly shrieked, and Rick turned around to see a ghostly figure made of toys gliding towards them from the direction they'd been heading in; several miniature ghosts were following behind it. Rick and Ashanti took one look at each other before they started running in the opposite direction. Rick wasn't going as fast as he would have liked. Because of his 6'1" height, he kept having to duck under low-hanging pipes, and that was slowing him down. He and Ashanti were just getting out of sight of the ghosts when two pairs of hands reached out and grabbed them, pulling them into a dark corner. They couldn't yelp because of the hand that clamped over each of their mouths. They relaxed a moment later when they realized that it was Casey and Nichole.

They waited there for several minutes before cautiously poking their heads out into the corridor. Finding no sign of the ghosts, they carefully made their way back to the Ultra Mecha Man store, while Casey showed the cloth he'd found.

"I also noticed something strange," Ashanti said. "Just before I saw the ghosts, I spotted a bunch of batteries off to one side, those big kinds you use in larger toys like remote-controlled cars and such."

"What kind of ghost needs black cloth and batteries?" Casey said.

Rick started thinking for a few moments, an idea forming in his head. "Hm I wonder..." he said.

They headed to the front of the store, where they found several store employees looking like they'd just seen a ghost. A couple of mall security guards were also there. "You missed all the excitement," one of them told the group. "The toy ghost and his sidekicks just put in another appearance."

"Did anyone see where they went?" Rick asked, but no one had.

Casey moaned out. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "This is all just a bit much."

Casey then headed back into the back of the store, and after a moment Rick followed. Rick saw Casey go into the employee bathroom and shut the door. Rick went up and tried the door handle and tried it, grateful to find that Casey hadn't thought to lock it. Gently opening the door so as to not startle Casey, Rick went inside, shutting the door and locking it behind him. He looked to see Casey leaning over the sink, splashing water onto his face.

As Casey stood up and looked into the mirror, Rick went up behind him. Rick wrapped his arms around Casey and held his boyfriend to him. Casey leaned back into the embrace. They stayed like that for a few minutes, neither one saying anything.

Soon Rick's hands began roaming downward until they reached the front of Casey's pants. Rick unbuttoned the pants and pulled the zipper down. Pulling down Casey's pants and underwear a bit, Rick started stroking Casey's genitals. Casey moaned out in pleasure as his hormones started coursing through his body. Rick's right hand then grabbed Casey's member and started slowly pumping. Casey moaned out even louder as his body started jerking around. Rick continued to jack Casey off until Casey reached his climax and started blowing his load all over the sink and the wall behind it.

Casey slumped against Rick for a few moments in order to get his breath back. Then Casey pulled himself out of his boyfriend's grasp and turned around. Kneeling down in front of Rick, Casey unfastened and unzipped Rick's pants and pulled then down, along with Rick's underwear. Casey then leaned forward and took Rick's member into his mouth and started sucking. Now it was Rick's turn to moan as his eyes rolled upward. He put his hands on the back of Casey's head and pushing in, begging for more. Then Casey grabbed Rick's butt and started squeezing, and when Casey's tongue got involved in the act, Rick was lost, and he moaned loudly as he climaxed. Casey then got up while Rick was recovering.

"Feel better?" Rick managed to get out after a few moments.

Casey nodded, drawing the taller boy down for a kiss. "Thanks," Casey then said. "You always know how to make me feel better."

The two headed back out into the front of the store. He glanced out into the mall itself. Suddenly, a grin slowly spread across Rick's face.

"You ready for seconds already?" Casey whispered to him.

"No, I think that the toy ghost isn't really a ghost, and I think we know how to stop him and his little buddies..."

About 30 minutes later, Mr. Orwell, with a somewhat puzzled expression on his face, posted a sign on the front of the store that the day's events there would continue as scheduled. He then went back and quietly made sure that the back door was locked (though it was locked in such a way that people could get out, but not in, while that lock was engaged, in accordance with fire department regulations).

A crowd began to gather outside, the atmosphere feeling alive with the anticipation. A few people wondered about the 4 teenage kids with the big shaggy dog who were hanging around the back of the crowd, but shrugged it off as maybe being a part of the events that they hoped would start soon.

Suddenly some people noticed a strange sound, and as a hush fell over the crowd, everyone heard it again.


They turned to see a large glowing figure made of toys gliding towards them, followed by several smaller black blob ghosts. Several people screamed as the crowd backed up. But then suddenly something unusual happened. The 4 teenagers with the dog suddenly started shouting at the big ghost, waving their hand and dancing around. The ghost went after one, then another of the teens. The teens seemed to be drawing the ghost in a particular direction, almost as if they had a plan of some sort.

Just as two of the teenagers were bending down and reaching for something, a much younger boy, scared enough that he wasn't looking where he was going, darted in front of the teenage boy of the duo. The teen tripped over the boy, and both went down in a heap. The other teenage girl saw what had happened and tried to turn back to help, but as she saw the large ghostly figure loom over her friend and the young boy, she realized she wouldn't make it in time.

Suddenly a "WOOF!" echoed through the area, startling the ghost and momentarily causing him to slow down. A large dog darted up behind the ghost and delivered a chomp right to the ghost's rear end. The toy ghost let out a very un-ghostly "Ouch!" as he stumbled forward. The delay was enough for the teenage girl to get there and grab what her friend had been going for - the end of a rope, the other end of which was already held by the other teenage girl. The ghost stumbled into the railing of the upper walkway, a shower of sparks strangely coming from one forearm, before the ghost went over the railing with a shriek. The small ghost blobs all fell to the ground. The teenagers, after checking to make sure the boy that Casey had tripped over was all right, and several others rushed to the rail and looked down to the first level, where they saw the ghost laying on a pile of pillows that had been part of a home decor display. Two mall security guards were rushing in, and each took the ghost by an arm. Everyone headed downstairs and gathered around the ghost.

"So," Mr. Orwell said to the 4 teens, "you said this was no ghost. It looks like you might be right."

"There's no might about it," Rick said, moving over to the ghost and grabbing its head. Pulling up, Rick revealed the far more human head of Mike, the electronics store employee, underneath.

"You?" Mr. Orwell said to Mike. "But why? What did we ever do to you?"

"It wasn't you personally," Rick said. "Mike was upset because he'd submitted some ideas for the Ultra Mecha Man contest that got rejected."

"Yeah," Casey said. "Furious, he used the idea of the old cemetery to whip up the toy ghost to haunt the place in an act of revenge, hoping to scare away the customers."

"He used the utility corridor behind the stores to sneak into your store to steal some of the toys there," Ashanti said. "Using magnets he sewed into an old set of clothing, he attached the toys to him to make it look like they were possessed, and then he 'borrowed' a Segway from the store he works at to move around in that gliding motion."

"As for his miniature sidekicks," Nichole said, pulling a black sheet off of one of the miniature ghosts, "he used drones that he also 'borrowed' from the electronic store and controlled them through this remote on his wrist." She pointed out the now-damaged control on his wrist that had been smashed when he'd gone over the railing.

"And I would have gotten away with it, too," Mike said, "if it hadn't been for you meddling kids and your dumb dog!"

"All right, come on," said one of the mall security guards said, as he and his companion hauled Mike away. "We have a place for Scrooges like you."

As they moved away, Mr. Orwell came over to the 4 teens with another man. "I'd like to introduce to you Mr. Klein," Mr. Orwell told them, as he introduced them to Mr. Klein. "He's one of the company executives."

"I'd like to thank you for your assistance today," Mr. Klein said. "It really means something to know that there are still good youth today."

"Oh, it was nothing," Ashanti said.

"Still, it is appreciated. Now, Mr. Orwell here tells me that you had originally come over to help with some other things, and while your assistance would certainly be appreciated there, I was also wondering if you could still help with something else. As you know, the local charity that we'll be donating to is a women's shelter here in town. While a good part of that donation is monetary, there was another part we were going to do specifically for the holiday season. The gentleman who was going to help us with a very noticeable part of that suffered a minor medical emergency yesterday evening. While he's all right, he is under doctor's orders to take it easy for the next few weeks, which means he won't be able to help us out in the way originally planned. We were wondering if you could step in to help out."

"Of course," Rick said, after looking at the others. "We'd be glad to help. What do you need us to do?"

Christmas morning arrived at the women's shelter. Those women who'd sought refuge there, along with the children they'd brought with them, were grateful for a place to stay away from whatever abusive or otherwise dangerous relationships they'd managed to escape from, but at the same time they missed having an opportunity to celebrate Christmas.

As they gathered together in the dining room at the front of the building for lunch, as they did every other day at noon, they were startled by a loud knocking at the front door. The shelter's director moved over and answered the door. From the angle they were at, the residents could not see who was on the other side. Then, with a smile, the director stepped aside, and in walked a large man with a long white beard, who was dressed in a red suit with white trim.

"HO! HO! HO!" the man declared in a cheerful voice to the assembled group. "Merry Christmas!"

Shrieks of delight and cries of "Santa!" went up from the children, who rushed over to Santa, who moved further into the dining hall. Santa was followed by several other people, three of whom were dressed like elves, who were carrying an assortment of boxes, and a rather large, very hairy dog.

"Sorry I'm a bit late," Santa told the assembled group. "I was finishing up my other deliveries when I hit a major snowstorm over Iowa that damaged my sled. Fortunately, I have some friends around these parts who were able to help me and my elves get your presents here. Now, I'd like to hand out your presents to you while some of my friends here help fix a special Christmas luncheon for you."

The presents were quickly distributed, and the children opened them with much enthusiasm, cooing in delight over the many amazing things found within. Many of the residents chatted with Santa, with a lot of the kids giving him hugs.

"So, what's with the dog?" a boy of about 12, petting the dog, asked Santa. "Where are your reindeer?"

"The reindeer needed to stay with the sled," Santa replied. "Shaggy Dog here is one of my somewhat lesser-known assistants."

"You're taller than I imagined," a little girl said to Santa as she played with her new doll.

"I get that a lot," Santa said with a smile.

Santa soon moved towards the back, under the pretense of checking on how lunch preparations were going. One of the elves - the one male of the trio - met him back there. The elf said, "I never realized how good you were with children, Rick. I mean, I've seen you with your nieces and nephews before, but somehow...I don't know, this seems different."

Rick shrugged. "What can I say, Casey? In some ways, it just seems so...natural. Besides, these kids deserve to have a Christmas, especially after all they've been through. Helping out other people, especially those less fortunate than ourselves, is what I like to think the real meaning of Christmas is."

"Well, then, if that's the case, then where's my Christmas present, Santa? Won't you help me out?" Casey asked.

"That depends on if you've been a good boy this year."

"Well, then, we have a bit of a problem here, because I've been very naughty." With that, Casey pulled Rick down for a fierce kiss.

The boy who'd been petting Shaggy Dog earlier quietly slipped. He'd know, of course, for a few years that Santa wasn't "real" in the traditional sense of the word. He'd allowed himself to go along with things, though, because he understood the idea behind the spirit of Christmas.

He'd felt bad about the circumstances that had brought him, his mom, and his little sister to the shelter. His father, who had never really been all that kind a man to begin with, even when sober, had (after having had one too many drinks) caught him kissing another boy a few months ago, and in a rage had tried to beat both of them while screaming "No son of mine is a fag!" It was only because the man had been too drunk to stand up straight that the two boys had been able to escape. His mother, upon seeing what had happened, had grabbed him and his sister and fled.

The boy had been going to the bathroom when he saw Santa and one of his elves (both of whom, the boy realized, were just teenage boys, probably not too much older than he was) slip into a back hallway, and out of curiosity he quietly followed them to see what they were doing. He couldn't hear what they said to each other, but when he saw them kiss, it had produced one of the most amazing feelings of joy he'd ever felt. Here were two boys kissing each other in such a way that said that they weren't worried about getting into trouble if they got caught.

That simple thought was one of the best presents the boy had ever received.

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