The Cost of Holiday Cheer
by Amy L. Sauder & by Jaclyn (proprietor of Amica Mea)
“Santa didn’t like me.”
“Madlyn, eat…” her father Greg frowned.
An awkward Fischer dinner was to be expected, the weekly pad thai a miniscule pretense of normalcy. Greg would look with pleading eyes at his wife, Lilith. Lilith would force a sad smile for their daughter, Madlyn. And Madlyn would make pretend that all was right in her 4-year-old world.
“My lil’ pet,” Lilith comforted. “Why would Santa not like you? You’ve been such a champ. I’m sure Santa is eager to bring your gift.”
“No, Santa frowned. He shuffled me off.” Madlyn had emptied her box of noodles long ago, but opened and closed the paper flaps as if more pad thai might magically appear.
“Honey, what’s she talking about?” Lilith patted Greg’s hand, but he quickly reached for his water. His hands would be clammy from the cold glass rather than the conversation.
“Salty food…” Greg said. “Should complain, get a coupon.”
Lilith turned her attention back to Madlyn. “Santa is sorry, pet. He had an off day.” Lilith poked Madlyn’s nose. “Your Christmas will have everything you’ve ever asked for. Promise.”
Greg sputtered and coughed. “I wouldn’t get too excited…”
But it was too late. Madlyn clapped with glee. “Anything?”
Lilith laughed. “If you asked for a Zoo Unicorn, you might have some trouble convincing daddy to clean the poo, but maybe you’ll get a GlowFish. Why, Santa might even leave a Pocket Panda under the tree.”
Lilith was beaming, not the false smile she’d grown accustomed to. “We may need to get a Pocket Panda, Greg. What did she ask for? a Zoo Unicorn? or did she ask you to design a docile T-Rex?”
Greg stuffed his arms with empty takeout boxes and hurried toward the kitchen. “All this clutter…”
Lilith wheeled out from the table and followed. “Greg, what’s with you?”
Greg dumped the boxes on the counter and drooped. “Lilith, she told Santa she wants you here for Christmas.”
Lilith’s smile froze. “But she knows…”
“What she knows,” Greg said, “is that magical Santa will give her whatever she wants, now thanks to you.”
“This isn’t my fault,” Lilith spat. “I didn’t choose any of this.”
Greg drummed his fingers on the countertop. “I’d do anything…”
Lilith rolled her wheelchair to his side and rested her head on his hip. “You can only do so much. We’ll be fine.” She nodded and smiled desperately.
Greg pushed away and tromped to his makeshift lab. “There’s got to be some way…”
The double doors to Barry’s office were shut tight like the gates to Oz, and Greg marched straight through the cavernous foyer to knock, stack of papers tucked firmly under his elbow.
“Mr. Fischer!” hissed Barry’s assistant Felicia, her canary blouse rippling as she waved her arm for attention. “Mr. Fischer! He’s already on the call. You’re late!”
Greg jerked to a stop in front of Felicia’s desk, mere feet from the doors, and let out a breath, barely keeping the papers wedged between his elbow and side. He deflated and rubbed the back of his neck. He didn’t care that Felicia was curt; he just needed to talk to Barry and hoped he wasn’t too late.
“I can wait.” But Felicia had already gone back to work. They let silence fall between them, and it filled the gleaming, cold room.
Felicia typed vigorously on a slim laptop, eyes flicking to the upper right corner of the screen, where Greg assumed her phone application was docked. You never knew whether these meetings would run long or short, not with Barry.
Greg rubbed his face and sat in the lounge to review his calendar. The meeting with Barry had been scheduled for nearly two hours ago, but he’d been too occupied. The meeting between Barry and TecGenToy shareholders was not supposed to have happened without Barry and Greg’s meeting first. Greg rubbed his neck again, but he didn’t sweat.
Felicia stopped typing. “Look, Greg. I’m sorry to be abrupt. It’s just been so crazy around here.”
Greg didn’t smile, but nodded in a sort of bow. “No harm done, Felicia. We’re all going a little crazy with all this.”
She smiled and went on typing. “I think they’re wrapping up. One of the shareholders hung up.” She looked up at him again. “You’re next in five.”
Greg nodded again, though less to Felicia and more to himself.
“Thanks, Felicia.” He coughed with a rasp into his elbow and flipped through his papers one last time, but it was like reading cooking directions for toaster strudels. Too familiar.
Next thing he knew, he was walking towards a low leather chair facing the desk of Barry Weismont. An aquarium lined the wall behind Barry’s desk. The fish scurried through the water, eyes bulging.
Barry stood behind his desk, slowly pacing. The blue glare of the office light cast Barry’s face in partial shadow, so that Greg couldn’t tell if Barry was pleased or angry.
Barry slapped his desk. “Greg! So glad you could come in. You were supposed to meet with me before the shareholder call, but this works just as well. Except, of course, the shareholders expected an answer. Especially Boscoe. That guy is trying to balance his checkbook and wants to know whether he can get that second sub.”
Even with the theatrics, Greg could never read him. Barry never smiled with his teeth showing, not even now, as he tugged on the cuff of his sport jacket. He only ever seemed to smile flatly, “just like the Mona Lisa,” Lilith always said.
Greg coughed roughly again. “Do you have any word from the Pocket Panda team?”
Barry leaned back and cocked his head. “What does the Pocket Panda team have to do with you delivering on the exceptional, groundbreaking product you promised? You and the team are the brightest and the best and more than capable of cranking out our record-breaker. You—”
“You didn’t give us enough time. You wanted a fast turnaround. I asked for help. Without the Pocket Panda team it’s not possible to execute…properly…” he said in a low voice.
“Not possible to execute, is it? Are you saying we don’t have a product when I just spent the last 45 minutes apparently wasting my time assuring our shareholders of your unmatched character, work ethic, and reliability? That they had nothing to fear? That Boscoe is getting his sub in time for the Reef? That—”
“Sir, what I’m saying is that I’m asking for the Pocket Panda team. If we had them for 24 hours…”
“It’s not possible.”
“Greg, I know that you’ve been a scientist longer than I’ve had a driver’s license. You’re a scientific genius, a laboratory legend! But what you lack is what I bring, which is business know-how. I know you’d like to continue working on your cool little science projects, and you’d like to continue to take home that paycheck to your wife and daughter. To do that, you have to focus on the science and the lab, and I give you full freedom to do that. I know you know that! See—“
“Sir, I’m sorry, no.” Greg winced and rubbed his neck. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
Barry leaned on his desk with both hands. “We can’t ask for help from the Pocket Panda team, or they’ll have claim on a piece of our success Your job is to make sure we sell this year’s number one fantasy pet, better than Pocket Pandas, Zoo Unicorns, and all this year’s pets combined.”
Greg looked as if he was holding back bile. Barry continued.
“I’m more than happy for your hard work in the lab to benefit your family, especially when it does so much good for this company and its shareholders. I just worry that all this chat and debate is taking away from you and your team finishing in time.” Barry smiled.
Greg blinked hard against the shimmer in his eyes and stood. “I’ll get it done.”
Barry gave a clap and a smile-less laugh. “That’s my mad scientist! Have it in production by midnight, and go ahead and use the expense card to help yourself to a nice dinner at Fagioli’s tonight.” But Greg was already out the slowly swinging doors, heading for the stairs.
“Ho ho ho, merry Christmas!” Greg’s boisterous façade masked the tremor in his voice. His arms gripped the gift like his life depended on it.
“I’ve been good, I’ve been good, I’ve been goooooood.” Madlyn bounded to his side and hugged his leg. “Is Mommy back? Is she here? Did I get my magic Santa present?”
Greg swallowed. He hadn’t rehearsed the words. Of course he hadn’t – he was always a man of action, not words. He could never articulate to Madlyn what was happening. It was always Lilith who explained she was dying. Lilith had said her next steps would be out of the wheelchair and into a new world where all things are possible, even life after death. Mere fairy tales.
Greg had never told Madlyn that he was trying to save her mother. He didn’t know how to say that he couldn’t raise Madlyn alone. Now, it was Christmas morning, and he still did not know how to tell Madlyn what had happened. What he’d done.
Madlyn peeped her head up. “Is Mommy here yet?”
“Let me sit down.” Greg forced a laugh.
Madlyn raced to the couch, and Greg followed reluctantly. He plopped next to the antsy girl and set her gift tenderly on the end table. Madlyn tugged at her jumper pocket. “Look how big it is! If that’s a Pocket Panda, I’m all ready – even if it’s huuuge.”
Greg gave a tight smile. “About your mom….”
“Is she running late?” Madlyn pouted her lips.
“No, no,” Greg reassured. “She’s always punctual. You know that.”
Madlyn squirmed. “Oh.”
“Well,” Greg stumbled for words. “Well here, why don’t you open your gift? We’ll talk after.”
Madlyn didn’t need to be told twice. She tugged the green ribbon off the cherry-red wrapping, then lifted the box lid.
“What’s inside?” Madlyn asked.
Greg pulled out a small aquarium. “Is it a GlowFish?” Madlyn asked, already forgetting her Pocket Panda excitement.
“No,” Greg said. “Not this one.”
Madlyn peered into the glass and saw a creature swimming. Shimmering purple scales and billowing pink hair flashed between the green plantlife. The creature creeped out, curious, questioning.
“A Micro-Mermaid!” Madlyn exclaimed. “All the kids asked Santa for one.”
Greg smiled, and it almost reached his eyes. A twinkle of hope.
Madlyn plastered her nose to the glass. The mermaid splashed to the surface, reaching for Madlyn’s finger. “Lil’ pet,” the mercreature said, its voice a gurgling squeak.
“It’s okay now,” Greg whispered. He rested his hand on Madlyn’s shoulder. “I fixed it.”
Madlyn shivered. “Mom?”
The lab was a flurry of white coats and black tablets, a normal pace for a Tuesday. Greg sat at his desk, alone in the lab lead’s office.
Gulping coffee from a red and green Snoopy mug, he scrolled through his inbox full of after-holiday sales, end-of-year giving, and stem cell mini-brain kits.
He clicked on an Urgent calendar invite:
Shareholder Celebration Dinner!!!!
We’ve broken our sales records and DESTROYED the competition. Our shareholders are flying in for dinner tonight. We’ll be feasting at Fagioli’s and strategizing how to further annihilate Pocket Pandas and Zoo Unicorns!!
BE THERE!!!!!! J
Greg swallowed too much, too hot coffee, and started dialing his phone. He’d planned for situations like this, but he hadn’t predicted it’d come up so soon.
“Hi Mom… Yes, I had breakfast… ”
Greg tossed the toaster strudel wrapper in the wastebasket.
“I’d love to chat, but I’m actually at work. I just need to ask if you would pick up Madlyn from school today… You don’t need to bring her home. That is sweet, but Lilith is very drained from treatments and can’t have visitors. Would it be too much trouble if Madlyn stayed the night with you? I will pick her up in the morning to take her to school… Ok, great, thank you Mom. I have to work now… Love you… Yes, you too. Bye.”
Greg tapped the hang up button. He stared at the notes on his desk: specs for Micro-Mermaids v1.0, notes for v2.0, and drafts of a Koala Kubs prototype. They leaned in sloppy stacks. They wouldn’t get filed until the college interns returned from break.
Of all the lead scientists, Greg was the only one still using paper. Tablets and floor-to-ceiling touchscreens made paper obsolete. In fact, in the lab proper, fire regulations prohibited paper notes or charts. But Greg thought all those screens muddled his mind. It was a strange thought, since he had no evidence to support it. And as he stared at the slouching hills of paper, he wondered how he got to this point, having acted on two scientifically unsubstantiated ideas.
“Hey Greg!” It was a bright, round man in a white coat with teal piping.
Greg coughed. “Hi Bob. How is your team today?”
“They drank too much and came back fat and happier than me, but they seem ready to get at it again. Did you see the call center report? All positive comments!” He patted Greg’s shoulder. “We really made something special. This could put us in the books.”
“All right! Well get that blue jacket and come on!” Bob had already started turning toward the lab, when he caught sight of Greg’s coffee mug, and his face fell. “I’m sorry, Greg. I get too excited. How’s Lilith doing?”
Greg coughed again. “She is doing well. Resting at home from her last treatment.”
But Bob’s round face had already begun to pucker with tears. “I’m sorry, Greg. I just noticed that you’re using the same Christmas mug from last year. Lilith always gets you a new mug for Christmas.” Bob gasped with the effort of crying and trying not to cry, which sounded like a cough and a honking goose. “I just can’t imagine what you’re going through. Oh Greg, can I give you a hug?”
“Sure,” said Greg, frozen, as Bob was already embracing him and wetting his shoulder. With a few firm pats on the back, Bob released him and sighed as if he’d finished a marathon.
“Thank you, Bob,” said Greg. “I appreciate it. Lilith really is doing…. She actually ordered a mug online on one of her better days. It hasn’t arrived yet.”
Bob beamed, wiping his shining face with his lab coat sleeve. “Oh Greg, that’s wonderful. I don’t know how you do it. If my Hannah was sick, I’d be a wreck.” Greg was adding an alert to his phone out of Bob’s sight: Xmas sale, new mug.
“Ha… You would do great.” Greg glanced at his watch. “We better get to work.”
Greg grabbed his coat off the hook and pulled it on while walking toward the lab. He overheard Bob sighing to himself, “Poor guy… going through so much.”
Greg worked many a late night, no longer to save Lilith, but to keep his end of the bargain. There are always consequences for cheating death. The gods of scientific breakthrough and holiday commercialism demanded sacrifice.
His white labcoat would redden as hours waned. Lilith would know how to get the stains out.
It began with a butcher knife. If he was quick enough, the shock would ward off pain, for a time. Then came the melding and morphing, the redhot sizzle that rendered the creature unconscious. But it would always wake in time for the scissors.
No one could know the cost of holiday cheer. The creatures were meant to have a childlike glow and bring joy to the world. There would be no merry Christmas if they were to share their tale of torture and modification, and so the ability for speech must be eliminated.
“Stop squirming!” Greg insisted. “This won’t hurt much longer.” The scissors slipped through her mouth with precision. It was used to slicing the tongues of the wicked. A fit punishment for the likes of smooth-talking criminals, he assured himself, but a tear fell from his face to the beating heart of the Micro-Mermaid he created.