The old man staggered through the sliding doors, their glass clearer than the fog settling over his thoughts. Tinny music washed over him, mixing with the chill air pounding against his back. Glancing up, he winced and raised a hand to block the twinkling lights arching over the threshold.
“Excuse me,” said a brisk woman in snow pants heaving at rickety cart.
“Pardon.” The old man hobbled forward and angled to the side to give her room.
“Thanks,” said the same woman, adjusting her purse on the cart’s child seat as she pushed by. A pair of sparkling diamond earrings twinkled in the old man’s thoughts like tiny stars in an otherwise empty night sky. Then the casters of her cart thunked over the entrance grate and hummed onto the tiles.
“Mommy…” said a little boy wearing a thick blue hat pulled low around his ears. He pointed one mittened hand at the old man while the other clutched his mother’s knee length coat.
The image of a blue bike with a shiny frame and reflectors on the spokes burst into the old man’s mind. He shook his head and the burnished tires and flame streaked handlebars faded.
“Come on, Eddie.” Reaching down Eddie’s mom snagged Eddie’s hand and kept his pace from slowing.
The old man watched Eddie’s mouth gape and eyes bug out above rosy cheeks. Eddie waved his other mittened hand.
Waggling his fingers, the old man found his hand covered in dark leather gloves with hand stitching. Downy fur the color of freshly fallen snow ringed his wrist. Rubbing at his temple, he brushed against soft fluff around his head and a pair of wire thin glasses.
“Are you alright, sir?” A uniformed clerk stepped slowly toward the old man. Her brown eyes sparkled with concern and reflected the blinking decorations. Her cherry red shirt carried a name tag with flickering lights around the letters CAROL.
“I’m afraid I’m a bit turned about,” said the old man. He let out a low chuckle and felt his belly shake. Swirling into his thoughts came the image of a fireplace warming a cozy living room wrapped in mist.
“You look a little shaken up,” said Carol, her frown fading slightly beneath a red stocking cap lined with white faux fur. She gestured toward a nearby bench roped in fake pine ribbon. “Would you like to have a seat?”
“Yes, I think I will.” Leaning one hand against the concrete wall, the old man guided himself toward the wood slatted seat. His hand brushed aside plastic garlands and caused the ornaments to clink against one another. He hefted himself down onto the bench under Carol’s watchful gaze.
“Is there someone I can call for you?” She smiled and dropped down into a crouch so she had to look up into his face.
Bubbling laughter and the scent of apple pie joined the hazy living room clinging to the old man’s thoughts. The old man stared down at his hands, blinking away the sudden image. In the place of the fading homestead, his bright red and furry pants came into view and disappeared into shiny black boots.
“Sir?” Carol tilted her head and her hat jingled.
The old man looked over at her and shrugged. The frown returned to Carol’s tired eyes.
“I’m afraid I’m a bit muddled at the moment.”
“Why don’t you wait here and I’ll get my manager.”
“I think I just need to catch my breath.”
“Take your time,” she said, patting the bench railing. “I’ll be right back.” Carol straightened and took a few steps backwards before pivoting and walking briskly down the line of checkout stands.
The old man watched her leave and then trickled his gaze over the clustered registers. A few inquisitive faces turned toward him. The mouths of children hung open and a few whispers were exchanged along with credit cards and bills. Scattered images of video games, a crisp office, money, and distant destinations swarmed across the old man’s mind as he lingered on various individuals in the checkout lines.
Shaking his head, the old man shifted his gaze to tiles between his boots. Lifting one foot, he found soot falling off in tiny puffs, leaving prints on the floor.
A pair of neon green rubber boots stopped next to his and the old man glanced up.
“Hi,” said a girl with a pair of pig-tail braids dropping off her shoulders and a set of tortoise shell glasses perched on a stub nose.
“Hi there,” said the old man. He caught his own reflection in her thick frames. His beard drooped onto the chest of a fuzzy red suit and a cap, like Carol’s, sagged above a set of snowy eyebrows.
The little girl drew her mittened thumb to her mouth. A hazy image of a woman’s face swirled in the old man’s thoughts.
“Are you him?”
The old man managed a weak smile. “Him?”
The little girl leaned in conspiratorially and raised her other hand to her mouth. “Santa?”
A wash of ice and brisk wind, the smell of hay and horse, the sweet scent of cookies and pine plowed over the old man in a chilly wave. The fog hanging over his thoughts cleared as if swept away by swift broom. Another belly shaking laugh burst from him, his whole body wallowing in the jiggle.
“And what if I was?”
The little girl’s sapphire eyes widened.
Susan shot a quick glance over her shoulder and stopped her words by stuffing more of her thick mitten into her mouth.
Following her startled gaze, Santa spotted a man with hair as dark as Susan’s in a wooly coat looking around the bustling crowd.
“Daddy!” said Susan with a timid wave. Her father wheeled at the sound of her voice and locked on to her with a similar set of bright blue eyes. Gathering his groceries into his arms, Susan’s dad hurried over.
“Daddy,” said Susan pointing, “look it’s Santa.”
Susan’s dad squeezed Susan’s shoulder while he hefted the bulging canvas sacks on his hip. “I see,” he said with a weak grin. “Sorry about this,” he said to Santa.
“No, no,” said Santa. “It’s quite alright.”
Susan clutched at her father’s hand and tilted her head far back so she could see his face. “Can I ask him daddy?”
“Susan…” Her dad winced and cast his gaze anywhere but his daughter’s upturned face. “I’m sure he doesn’t have time…”
Santa held up a quieting hand. “Ask me what, Susan?”
Susan’s eyes flickered with hope as her gaze bounced between her father and Santa. She chomped on her mitten before taking one small step forward, her other hand trailing on her dad’s arm like an anchor.
“He’s over here.” Carol weaved through the clustered customers, a balding man in a thin suit coat scurrying in her wake. Slowing as they neared, Carol gave the father-daughter pair a small smile.
“Hello, Jim. Susan,” said Carol, glancing between the trio.
“Hi.” Jim’s mouth hung open as if to say more but closed into a timid grin as the balding manager arrived.
“What’s…going…on…here,” huffed the manager.
“Nothing,” said Jim. He rested his hands on Susan’s shoulder while his smile steadied. “We’re just fine.”
Carol’s cheeks flushed as she twiddled at the decorating on her name tag.
Santa gestured toward Susan. “This young lady was just saying hello.”
“Um hum,” agreed Susan, pulling tighter into her father’s protective grasp. She stared up at Carol, eyes wide and resumed gnawing on her mitten.
“I thought you weren’t on until tonight.” The manager’s broad forehead furrowed as he scowled.
“Well, tonight is very important,” said Santa, giving the manager a merry wink. “But I couldn’t help stopping by.”
“Do you…ah…have a ride?” asked Carol.
“Yes, yes.” Santa heaved up onto his heavy boots. “And I think I should be going.”
Susan looked over quickly. “But Santa…”
“Susan,” said her dad with a squeeze.
“I’m sure Santa’s very busy,” added Carol. She dropped down to one knee before Susan, the little girl following her movements like a hungry bird.
“I think my work here is done anyway.” Santa chuckled and patted Susan’s dad on his shoulder.
“Right, right…” said the manager, crossing his arms. “We should all be getting back to work.”
Wincing, Carol stood.
“On second thought,” said Santa. “I could use some help out to the parking lot.” He wobbled and steadied himself on the bench’s railing.
“Of course.” Carol stepped up to catch his elbow.
“Me too,” said Susan, hurrying to the other side.
“I think I’ll be just fine now.” Santa gave the manager a broad smile and started shuffling toward the door.
The manager snorted and scuttled back through the departing customers.
With Carol on one arm and Susan on the other, Santa reached the sliding doors. A brisk gust chilled his cheeks and Carol let out a small whimper at the cold smacking into her short sleeves.
“Here,” said Jim. He stepped around Carol as if to take her place at Santa’s side.
Santa however took two strides forward and slipped free of Carol’s grasp. Susan clung to his other arm as he turned. Jim and Carol shared a glance and smile as his arm wrapped around her instead of Santa. After a moment, Carol dropped her gaze and rubbed at her bare arms.
“Thanks, Santa,” whispered Susan.
Glancing down, Santa gave the little girl a wink and then patted her head. Santa put one finger to his lips and Susan nodded as she released her hold on his arm. Santa gave the two grown-ups a broad smile neither seemed to notice.
As he back stepped into the parking lot, Santa’s boots crunched thickening ice and another cloud began to descend across his vision. The mist smeared over the neon sign set above the store’s florescent doorway and obscured the departing customers bundled in their winter attire. A hazy circle wrapped around Carol, Jim and Susan like a soft halo until the fog thickened and took them out of sight.
“To all a good night,” said Santa as the brisk winds swept him up and carried him like a dream, out into the growing night.