Sunday, December 25, 2016

Cindy Who, Lou?

Merry Christmas, WYMOP readers!
For Christmas this year, I’m shooting you your regular Monday blog a day early—I plan to be busy tomorrow trying to recover from all the overeating last night and today. If I can do more this evening than moan and whine about not being able to move from the couch because my stomach won’t let me, well, then it just ain’t Christmas.
Even today I’m not doing much, just introducing you to an old Christmas story of mine that was a lot of fun to write. I hope you have as much fun reading it.
Have fun, be good to each other—every day, not just today—and have a merry Christmas.

Cindy Who, Lou?
Rob Smales

Just like the Grinch, thought Lou. Now that guy had the right idea! With the theme song from his all-time favorite Christmas special running through his head, Lou quietly stuffed gifts into bags.
The first bag was anything that Lou could tell, from the size, shape, weight, and feel, held either toys or clothes. There was something that felt like a 10-pack of socks, a catcher’s mitt, a wrapped package in the obvious shape of a gun (honestly, sometimes he wondered why people bothered with the wrapping at all), and a few somewhat squishy boxes that were just the right size to hold sweaters. Maybe a couple of shirts or pairs of slacks, but Lou was pretty good at guessing package contents without actually peeking, and he was guessing sweaters. There was other stuff in there too, but at the moment Lou was focused on the other bag.
The second bag was anything portable and valuable. Two boxes that looked like a matching set of iPods, one box with an oddly-shaped corner he was pretty sure held a new iPhone, every gift card holder he could find, and every unopened Christmas card that might hold a little cash as well. Going through the stocking marked Mom, he’d found what might turn out to be the biggest score of the night: three small boxes—two square, one long—all with hinges running along one side for someone to feel through the wrapping paper, if they had careful fingers.
And I have the most carefullest fingers of all, thought Lou. If those ain’t matching jewelry boxes I’ll eat the paper they’re wrapped in.
He added those three boxes to the bag with the rest of the more expensive gifts he’d found, as well as some more electronics he’d spotted about the house, like the cell phones from the kitchen and the iHome stereo adapter from the living room. He was getting everything ready for transport out to his van; unwrapping here would make far too much noise—he’d bring it all home for the real sorting, then do some re-wrapping. He looked at the bags and chuckled again at the thought of gifts leaving the house in sacks rather than being brought in that way.
“I’m like the Anti Santi,” he whispered, twisting Old Saint Nick’s name to make the rhyme, impressed momentarily at his own cleverness.
“I have an Auntie Darla,” said a small, clear voice behind him, freezing the grin on Lou’s face. “Does that count?”
Lou whirled: a small figure standing in the doorway behind him, blonde hair falling down about big blue eyes in a pink Winx nightgown.
“Who are you?” The question was reflex: his first night as a burglar and he’d been caught by a little girl who reminded him of—
“I’m Cindy, Lou.”
“Who?” He was stunned. How did she know his name?
“No, Cindy Lou Martin. But I get that a lot this time of year.”
She heaved a little sigh. “My name. Cindy Lou Martin. But I get the ‘Cindy Lou Who’ thing a lot. At school and stuff. Forget it, just call me Cindy, okay? Now, what’s your name?”
Just for a second there he’d have sworn she used his name, but he wasn’t that rattled. “I, uh, I don’t think I wanna tell you that, Cindy.”
She waved a dismissive hand in a surprisingly adult manner. “Fine. You don’t want to go there, that’s okay. So.” She put her hands behind her back and leaned forward, big blue eyes squinting at him through the long blond bangs. “What are you doing?”
Lou thought as fast as he could, but all that kept running through his head were scenes from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
“Well, I’m one of Santa’s helpers,” he whispered. “I was just putting out the presents, and I noticed that this, uh—” He looked down at his hands to find they were holding a clock radio with a built-in CD player. “This, uh, this clock had a number that wouldn’t light up all the way, so I was just going to pop back to my workshop in the North Pole and—”
“And does the Christmas tree,” interrupted the girl, “have a light that won’t light on one side? And you’ll fix it up there and bring it back here?”
“I, well, I, uh, well you—”
“I’m Cindy, Lou, remember?”
There was that pause again; he could swear she wasn’t saying it like Cindyloo, but as two distinct names, as if she knew—
“I’m six, not stupid. I’ve seen the special.”
“Um, right,” he mumbled. “Of course you have. But that doesn’t mean I’m not one of Santa’s helpers, right?”
She looked up at him. “Aren’t you kind of tall? For an elf, I mean?”
“I had good nutrition as a youngster,” he babbled. “Look, if I wasn’t one of Santa’s helpers, would I know . . . uh . . .
He turned and thrust a hand into the first bag, rummaged for a half-second, then came up with a wrapped package, oddly coffin-like in shape.
“If I wasn’t Santa’s helper, would I know there’s a doll for you in here?”
The girl stared at him. “How did you know that?”
“Huh?” Lou held out the package to her. “Don’t you wanna check?”
The girl ignored the brightly wrapped present, staring instead at Lou. “What kind?”
“What kind of doll is in there, Lou?”
“What?” Lou was rocked. “What did you call me?”
You,” replied his tiny interrogator. “What kind of doll is in there, you? What’s going on, is something wrong with your ears? What did you think I said?”
“I think I gotta sit down,” said Lou. What’s going on here? he thought. What is this, guilt? Am I cracking up? Either way, I gotta get out of here! He tried for the door, but two steps later his knees folded and he sagged onto the couch, little Cindy moving to stand in front of him.
“What kind of doll?”
Lou hefted the present still in his hand. “Barbie. The salon set.”
The blue eyes before him widened slightly as the little girl nodded. “Impressive.”
He held out the present to her again. “Don’t you want to check—”
“No need. So, what, you can just tell by the feel of the thing what’s inside?”
“I told you, I’m one of . . .
The blond head was shaking before he was even halfway finished. “No. You’re not. Like I said, I’m six, not stupid. I stopped believing in Santa this year. If you can do things like that,” she indicated the boxed Barbie set in his hand, “why do you stoop to robbing houses?”
Lou tried to turn his shocked expression into one of indignant surprise. “What are you talking about? Robbing? Me?” He rose from the couch. When you completely lose control of the situation to a child, he thought, it’s definitely time to go!
“I don’t have to stand for this sort of thing,” he said over his shoulder as he strode toward the door. “You guys can just fix that clock yourselves.”
The little blond head was shaking again. “I wouldn’t do that if I were Lou.”
Lou stumbled and whirled around. “You’re actually doing that aren’t you? You’re saying . . . what are you pointing at?”
The girl’s little arm was extended, finger toward the window. “You might want to look out there before you go.”
Keeping one eye on the strange child, Lou edged to the window, peeked through the curtains, and sagged with dismay. The police car was parked right behind his van, and they were probably checking his license plate right now. They were at least making a note of it, and come morning when people in the neighborhood called about their burgled goods—
I’m screwed. I am so screwed.
“That looks like trouble,” said Cindy.
Lou staggered from the window, spaghetti legs barely making it across the room before failing completely, dropping him back onto the plush couch.
“I’m done. I’m all done. They’ll come pick me up tomorrow for sure.” He dropped his face into his hands, hiding his eyes, wishing he could just hide from the whole world as easily. “I’ll be with my kids tomorrow. It’s Christmas. Oh my God, I’m gonna be arrested in front of my kids on Christmas.”
He struggled to his feet, heading for the door on legs that didn’t feel like his own. He made a strange sound, but had control of his voice by the time he took his third step. “I should just go down there right now and get it over with.”
A small hand landed on his forearm, cutting through his visions of handcuffs and jail cells. He looked down into the bluest eyes he had ever seen, gazing up at him through a curtain of blond bangs. Cindy’s little voice with its strangely adult inflections snapped him most of the way back to his senses. “Well, we can’t let that happen, can we?”
Tiny fingers gripped him with surprising strength as Cindy pulled him into a turn and guided him back to the couch, spinning him like a slightly drunken dancer to land back in the seat where he seemed to be spending so much time.
“What?” Lou said, still a little dazed. “What can I do?”
“Well.” Cindy stood in front of him, feet spread wide, hands on hips. “You can start by answering my questions.” She held up a finger. “First, how did you know what was in that present?”
The hand bobbed, the whole arm flexing at the elbow to throw out a second finger beside the first, Lou’s eyes following the motion.
“And second, why the burglary? When you get caught and your first instinct is to start quoting a Christmas special rather than running for the hills or tying me up, well, it just doesn’t seem like your heart’s really in it.”
There was a part of Lou that was wondering exactly what was going on, that took note of Cindy’s adult stance, the way she spoke and the way she was just taking charge of the situation and wondered, briefly, if he was dealing with a midget rather than a child. The rest of him , though, just went with the flow, happy to cooperate with anyone who seemed to be offering a solution here.
“No, my heart’s not really in this. I had that special in mind because I’m trying to be like the Grinch. I’m trying to steal Christmas. For my kids. I—”
He looked down at his hands, twining his fingers together, ashamed to meet even this child’s eyes. “Look, I haven’t had a steady job since my company downsized”—he made air quotes without looking up—“three years ago. I barely make enough to get by on the temp work I can get. My kids may not live with me any more, but I’ve always been able to give them a great Christmas . . . well, not this year. I haven’t even had temp work in a while. It’s just not out there. I had nothing I could bring to them, nothing I could give, so I tried this. Tried to steal Christmas. The Grinch, he got away with it, even if he did give everything back in the end. He got away with it, but I’ll be going to jail for Christmas and I don’t think there’s a thing I can do about it.”
“One thing at a time,” said Cindy. “You still haven’t told me how you knew what was in that present. I mean, how you knew exactly what was in there.”
Lou blinked.
“Well, I’ve always been pretty good at that. It’s how I got into your house, too. I have a really terrific sense of touch, I guess. Better than anyone else I know. I learned to pick locks by feel when I was a teenager, just for fun. Thought for a while I might try to be the new Houdini or something. I used to work in a department store and I noticed that just about nothing weighs the same as any other thing. Two Raggedy Ann dolls might weigh the same, but not the same as a Raggedy Andy. I used to do this blindfolded trick at company parties, telling what things people handed me by the size and shape of the box and the weight of the thing.”
His smile faded.
“That was back when I had a company.”
There was silence for a moment, then Cindy turned and marched from the room. Lou sat, not knowing what else to do, and she was back in less than a minute.
“What time will you be seeing your kids tomorrow?”
Cindy sighed. “Would you please stop saying ‘what?’ and just answer my questions? What time will you be seeing your kids tomorrow?”
“Uh . . . probably about nine o’clock. Why?”
A small hand slapped a yellow Post-It Note to the front of his coat. “Be at this address at eight o’clock then, and whatever you do, don’t be late.”
Lou peeled the note from his chest with one hand as Cindy pulled him to his feet with the other, despite her diminutive size. “What? Why?” He looked at the flowing, almost calligraphic script. “What’s here?”
“What you need. Trust me, okay? Now go home.”
She started leading him toward the front door, but he slipped loose, detouring to the window again, where he sighed.
“Look, kid, I don’t know what you’re trying to do here, but those cops ain’t going away. This is the third house I hit tonight, and I’ll bet somebody noticed. I thought they were just patrolling the neighborhood, but someone must have called the cops, and now they’re watching the street. I go down there now and they’ll probably ask to check inside my van. One look back there, at the stuff I already have in there, and it’s off to jail I go. It’s either that or wait for your parents to wake up and call the cops themselves. Even if I do slip out the back, they already have my license plate number. I parked too close or something—some kind of rookie mistake I’m sure. I’m in serious trouble, kid.”
Cindy stared up at him. “If you make it out of here, if you walk out of here right past the police and don’t go to jail, will you promise me you’ll go to that address at eight?”
Lou smiled resignedly. “Sure, kid, I promise. But there’s no way I’m gonna—”
She took hold of his arm and walked him toward the front door again. “Just get in your van and go home. Okay? And remember: you promised.”
“But how am I—” he began, but she spoke over him.
“Because not every present is delivered by a man wearing the biggest red suit you ever did see. Sometimes the miracles are right in front of you, and you don’t even see them.”
She ushered him out into the front hall. “Or, to paraphrase your hero, sometimes the miracles come without ribbons, they come without tags, they come without packages, boxes or bags. Now go on home. Merry Christmas, Lou.”
“Merry Christmas, Cindy.”
The door closed behind him and he was opening the front door to the porch before it hit him.
She DID keep saying Lou! How did she know my name?
Shaking his head and chalking it up to just another ingredient in the weirdest night of his life, Lou stepped out into the night to face whatever would come. He walked past the police car, head held high. Maybe I can bluff it.
He was just slipping the key into the lock when he heard car doors opening.
“Excuse me, sir. Can we see some identification?”
His shoulders slumped, but he reached slowly for his wallet as he turned around. “Certainly, officers. You bet.”
The first officer gave his driver’s license a hard look. “Well, Mr. Arsenault, we’ve had reports of some criminal activity in this area. I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask to take a look in your van, if that’s all right with you, sir.”
Lou thought about saying no, but he knew it was hopeless. He walked around to the rear of the van, unlocked the double doors and opened them wide, turning to face the officers. He watched the two men studiously not react as they shone their flashlights past Lou, illuminating the van interior behind him.
It was a nice try, kid, he thought. You were really convincing, almost had me believing in miracles. This is the really real world, though, where miracles don’t stand a—
“Sorry to trouble you, sir,” said one of the officers, handing back Lou’s license. “But thank you for your cooperation. You drive safe now, all right?” Lou just nodded, open-mouthed, as the other officer said “Merry Christmas,” and the two headed back to their patrol car. He spun about to look into his van, wondering if this was some sort of joke—and stared.
The back of his van was empty, no sign of the four bags of loot he’d already collected that should have been lying there. He reached in, touching the rough carpeting with his fingertips, unable to simply accept what his eyes were telling him.
It was here, all of it, right here!
The police were just getting back into their car when what they should have been doing was reading a handcuffed Louis Arsenault his rights.
I may not have anything to bring to them, but at least I’ll be spending a happy Christmas with the kids! My God, this is like a scene out of a movie or something, a real Christmas mira—
Lou broke off that train of thought and spun to face the Martin house, searching the darkened windows for signs of activity, but found none. He fumbled the slip of yellow paper from his pocket, checking to make certain he hadn’t lost the address he’d been given.
Eight o’clock, he thought. I promise.
He looked back at those dark windows.
Who was that little girl?

~ ~ * * ~ ~

“Did you get it all?”
Poppa Kringle nodded, pointing at four sacks in the sleigh that didn’t match the rest of the bags that took up every other square inch of storage space.
“Good. Thank you. Did you call Murphy?”
“Yes,” said Kringle. “And he didn’t appreciate being woken up at this hour. He’ll be there
tomorrow morning at eight, but he’s only staying five minutes. If your man there is late he’s out of luck, but if he’s on time then he has a job waiting for him at the Big Red Toy factory.” Poppa looked down at the little elf who leaned out over the edge of the roof, watching the van drive slowly down the street. “That was a good call, sending him to Big Red. He may never know it, but if he works there he really will be one of Santa’s helpers!”
The elf looked up at Kringle with a smile of satisfaction. “It was obvious, wasn’t it? Can you see someone with his skills doing anything other than quality control? That man will feel imperfections the rest of us won’t even see!”
“We still have to return what he took, you know.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No, no, not at all,” said Poppa Kringle. “In fact, I think we may even have time to swing by Big Red and leave a few things for Lou to take to his children tomorrow.”
The elf’s smile widened and he pointed a finger. “You old softie!”
Poppa laughed as the elf settled into the driver’s seat. “Look who’s talking, Cindy. Oops, sorry, I meant Harold!” A large red mitten patted the little man on the shoulder. “You know, I think you’re really starting to get the hang of this.”
“Thanks,” said Harold. Then the satisfied smile disappeared, replaced by an expression of worry.
“Say, uh, Poppa? The other elves, they don’t have to know about the whole nightgown and wig thing, do they? I mean, I’d really appreciate it if that could just be between you and me . . .
“Well now” came the deep, jolly voice. “That’s the kind of thing that’s hard to forget, you in a pink nightie. I mean, I could forget it, if I put my mind to it. I’m going to be awfully tired when we get home, though. If only there was some way I could just hop out of the sleigh and go right to bed without having to help put the reindeer and sleigh away.” He finished with a long, thoughtful “Hmmm . . .” but Harold had picked up on the hint long before that.
“Why Poppa,” he said in his most sarcastic voice. “I would be honored if you would do me the favor of allowing me to stable the reindeer and stow the gear myself when we get home. I’d like nothing better than to have you off and sleeping just as soon as possible!”
“Why thank you, Harold! I accept! And Harold?”
Harold looked back over his shoulder to see Kringle closing one eye in a broad wink.
“Merry Christmas!”
Harold grumbled, faced forward and snapped the reigns, starting the reindeer off across the roof, taking the sleigh with them. As the whole team lifted off into the night sky, the broad smile found his face once more, and the words came out of him in a happy whisper.
“It is a merry Christmas!”

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Yes, this was another Harold the Elf story. I wrote the original four—almost by accident—back in 2011. Then, when Christmas rolled around in 2012, and I decided to try my hand at another tale for the holidays, Harold threw up a thickly-mittened hand in my imagination, shouting “Dude! I’m over here!” I decided to give him another shot in the spotlight, though he was generous enough to share it with Lou.
Do I have another Harold story in me? Maybe. He’s not the kind of elf to just sit back and let the world roll by without trying to be a part of it. Check back with me next year, and we’ll see. Until then, though, merry Christmas to all, and have a happy New Year!

Rob Smales

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