29 Nov Secret Santa
“Secret Santa”Written by Nick Carlson Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 26 minutes
Let me tell you a true story that I made up.
You heard it right. I might not have witnessed it unfurl, I might not have heard it secondhand, thirdhand, or twenty-seventhhand. No one can even prove it happened just the way it did. But I know it really happened. Not because it’s a true story.
Because it’s a common story.
On Christmas Day, a family sits around the fireplace wondering what’s keeping their beloved uncle. Then comes the phone call. Turns out Uncle Beloved hit a patch of black ice on the freeway and spun out of control, head-on into an eighteen-wheeler. The only upside is that he probably only felt a little pinch.
I personally never heard of this specific thing happening. But I know it’s happened somewhere, to someone. Point is, there’s a significant swath of people around this country whom the Christmas season fills with dread, depression, loneliness. Despite generations’ worth of ingrained attitudes, a culture steeped in yuletide imagery and the perpetuation of good cheer, all it takes is one piece of bad news to tarnish someone, to make indelible in their souls…or, rather, the goulash of emotions and beliefs some call a “soul”…a drastic, sobering change in their very beings, brought upon simply by the time of year.
That sort of stuff fascinates me.
It’s what inspired me to help run those clinical trials decades ago. It’s what convinced me that what I was doing was for a worthy cause, that the ends would justify the means, that I was being a good, chest-thumping patriot.
And it’s what ultimately tarnished me, turned me into an inadvertent case study in my own procedure. But it’s not dread, depression, or loneliness that falls upon me this time of year.
It’s the guilt of what I’ve done.
The operation was a twelve-year program called Secret Santa. We launched it in…1946, I believe. Yes. That was it. While the rest of the country was coming down from the international turmoil of World War II, we shifted gears and got to work.
Those first meetings, the pitches, were ironically the worst. No number of charts, visual aids, presentations, or expert testimonies could effectively convince a room full of stuffy, non-creative business suits that our plan would work. All that capital poured into our proofs of concept, the years of R&D…all hinged on a nod, a handshake, a signature…some small gesture of affirmation. And of course there were the concerns for the test subjects’ well-being. Despite our heavily-researched reassurances that the subjects would walk away unscathed, never knowing what had happened to them, empathy and short-sightedness proved to be the most troublesome barriers.
I remember getting so frustrated at one of the suits, an executive from a prestigious toy company, that I had to stop myself from standing up and shouting. This was a man who had produced cartoons and action figures featuring heavily offensive caricatures of Japanese people, solely to stoke wartime political tensions and profit off young boys siphoning their fathers’ bigotries, and he was the one mulling over “ethics?”
But then that word hit me. Profit.
These people scarcely saw shades of gray amid the black and white, but there was another color they knew and loved.
So once we toned down the data, the experiments, the abstracts, and amplified the numbers, the predictions, the promises of wanting what was best for all parties involved…then the heads nodded, the hands grasped, and scratchy signatures cued the cash faucets to rain down upon us.
Again, that was the hard part. We already knew this would work.
To best explain Secret Santa, it would be appropriate to recount the story of Caroline.
Caroline was our golden girl. Six years old, white upper-middle class, Christian family, Dad had just returned home from the Pacific…a more perfect background for a test subject could not have fallen from the sky into our laps.
In the summer of ‘46, her parents had sent her to Bible Camp for a week…specifically, Blackrock Grove in Canton, North Carolina. I only refer to it by name because it’s defunct now. Hell, it was never even a legitimate operation. Blackrock Grove was a lobsterpot, and all we had to do was reach in and pluck one out.
It was her second night at camp when we commenced with phase one of the trial. It helped that young kids sleep like the dead, yet we still administered nitrous oxide as a contingency. I don’t recall whose idea it was to lace the gas with peppermint extract, but I remember marveling at the…elegant simplicity. Just one more brushstroke to enhance this canvas we were trying to paint.
Caroline awoke in the test site, under close observation, but of course she wasn’t aware of any of that. All she knew was she had risen from sleep surrounded by Fraser firs, the smell of evergreen mingling with the peppermint still in her nose. We watched her brush her hand across the needles, no trace of fear in her eyes. Just…pleasant befuddlement. She knew, for some reason beyond her understanding, Christmas had come early that year.
Regardless, she pushed through the trees and found herself on the threshold of a rustic log cabin. We pumped in cold air not just to simulate winter weather, but also to keep her from dawdling. If she had examined the polymer snow around her, or looked up and peered past the shadows to find the “night sky” was really just a few ceiling tiles masked in darkness, it could have delayed progress on the trial drastically.
Upon entering the cabin, she discovered…well…just about the perfect Christmas morning. Tree twinkling with rainbow bulbs. A crackling fire in the hearth (fake, of course…she could have stuck her hand in the “flames” and not felt a thing). Bing Crosby piping through a record player. And presents spilling out from under the branches…more than even a privileged little girl like her had ever remembered receiving. Caroline dashed over to them and opened them one at a time, overwhelmed by the shining colors and the treasures that lay within…the most wanted toys of the times, the desire of every little girl. Dollies with all their accessories, teddies, model houses, even a few bottles of play makeup.
We watched her play for fifteen minutes, down to the last second. We did not want the risk of her growing bored…or concerned. Then, we cued our actor.
The flames died down…and Santa Claus descended the chimney. Preoccupied with dress-up, Caroline didn’t even notice until he had fully emerged from the fireplace, covered in a light dusting of ash, silver bells in his suit jangling. As we hoped, the expression on her face was…mystified. Yet ecstatic. We knew she had been getting close to that age of doubting Santa, of asking questions about flying reindeer and elves. Now…all those years of developmental progress…nullified.
Our Santa gave a warm smile, and delved into the script.
“Merry Christmas, Caroline. Of all the boys and girls on my list, you really stood out to me.”
“Me?” she whispered.
“That’s right,” Santa said with a wink. “You were a very good girl this year. Why else would you receive all these amazing presents?”
“Was I that good?” Caroline replied, glancing at the discarded wrapping paper. “I don’t remember being that good…is…is it even Christmastime?”
We had planned for this. “Oh, Caroline…of course it’s Christmastime!” Santa boomed jovially. “I’m standing right here, aren’t I? Unless…” His jolly face turned sober. “You don’t believe it’s Christmastime? You don’t believe in me?…”
“Oh no, Santa!” Caroline rushed forward and tackled him with a hug. Her arms barely encompassed the girth of his belly. “No no no, Santa, of course I believe in you. I do! I do!”
“There we go,” he cooed, patting her head. “I knew you were good for a reason.”
When she finally let go, Santa genuflected and raised a gloved finger. “Now listen closely, Caroline. Because you were so good this year, I’m going to ask you a very special favor.”
She nodded, eyes glowing with attention.
“I want you to keep a secret for me. And don’t you tell anyone.” Santa leaned in, cupping a hand over her ear. “There are other ways of being good…and there are much better rewards than presents under the tree.”
“Like what?” said Caroline.
But Santa pressed the finger to his lips. “I’ll tell you that next Christmas. In the meantime, though…will you continue to be the best little girl on my list?”
“Of course, Santa,” Caroline smiled. “I will. I promise.”
“Very good.” Santa gave another wink. “I have to get going now. There are lots more houses to visit. But I assure you, I won’t be sticking around them as long!”
Caroline laughed. “Goodbye, Santa Claus!”
He stepped up into the hearth and gave a friendly wave. Obscured by the chimney, the rig lowered down, snagged the hook fitted in the back of his suit, and hoisted him back up. The flames blossomed back to life.
Beaming, Caroline returned to her toys. Once our actor was secured in the green room, we pumped more nitrous oxide into the air, this time laced with scents of hot chocolate and warm milk. Within a minute, Caroline was drowsy again. After three, she was fast asleep on the carpet next to the fire.
We carted her out of the facility and back into her cabin aboveground. She would not remember what happened that night. But the experience…the sensory imprints, the swelling emotions…would remain stuck in her brain like a cyst.
That was phase one.
We moved in at the end of the week, Caroline’s last night at camp, fast asleep after five summer days of group activities and Bible studies. We administered the gas again as a trigger. Again, she awoke in the conifer forest. Again, she pushed her way through the artificial winter and found the same log cabin. Inside, the exact same setup, bursting with Christmas cheer. She explored the room slowly, but with more confidence. She remembered. And most importantly, she was not suspicious. In her mind, it was just another Christmas that had come.
Resolutely she grabbed the first present she saw and opened it up, pulling out the dollie and walking it across the carpeted floor.
That’s when we administered the first shock.
Caroline screamed and practically threw the doll. She stared at it with confusion, rubbing her palms, whimpering against the pulsing discomfort. The doll sat innocently in the corner of the room, gazing at her with those saccharine eyes. Caroline gave a frown and turned her back on it, moving onto the next present.
The yo-yo was a lovely bright red, but when Caroline went to try it out, it too sent an electric shock up her hand. The second yelp of pain was accompanied by a quivering bottom lip. We observed her then, with a sort of suppressed anxiety, tearing open present after present, each of its contents delivering a shock. Eventually she stopped, leaving nearly two thirds of them untouched, staring at the discarded, innocuous toys the same way a rodent stares at mousetraps.
Then we cued our Santa to come down the chimney again.
“Santa!” Caroline cried, rushing up to the fat man. “Something’s wrong! All these presents are…hurting me!”
“Yes, little girl,” Santa replied, stroking his beard. “How I wish there were another way to do this…”
“What do you mean!” Caroline pouted. “Where are my real presents? Ones that won’t hurt me?”
Santa smiled again, but without any of the warmth from their last encounter, as per direction. “Little girl, I’ve been watching you all year, and I must say, I’m not impressed.”
The girl’s eyes went shiny. “W…what?”
“You’ve become possessive,” Santa said regretfully, shaking his head. “You only think about yourself. Christmas isn’t about toys or sweets or silly games anymore. It’s come time for you to grow up and leave all these things behind.” He swept a hand across the toys spread out across the floor.
“Santa…no!” Caroline went in for a hug. “I’ve been good! I promise!”
Santa pushed her away. “I’m afraid, little girl, that just isn’t ‘good’ enough.”
The tears broke. She slunk away from him like a scared puppy, sobbing in the corner. “What…what about that secret?”
“Hm, what do you mean?” Santa mused, stroking his beard again, his gaze averted from the crying child.
“Last Christmas…you…you said you’d tell me a secret,” she choked, wiping her nose. “Are you not gonna tell me now?”
The fat man gave a sigh. “I guess so. A promise is a promise.” He straightened up, his rotund physique a monolith towering over her. “There’s more to Christmas than these selfish things,” he explained in a dry, lecturing tone. “This glittering, sugary magic you know now is gone. There exists magic beyond what you’re capable of knowing.”
Caroline sniffled. “What sort of magic?”
Santa shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s for me to know, and you to find out.” He turned back to the hearth.
“Wait!” Caroline pleaded. “Don’t go!”
“I have many more houses to visit,” he said as the rig lowered down. “In the meantime, work on making yourself better.”
The rig winched him up. Caroline dashed towards the fireplace. We watched her actually throw herself into the hearth to catch one last glimpse of him…but the hatch had already closed, nothing but impenetrable darkness between her and the green room above.
She crawled out of the hearth and fell to her knees, hands clasped to her face. We watched with fascination, a small amount of disgust with ourselves. We were all thinking it: how cruel this seemed, how elaborate our construction and deconstruction of this destroying fantasy was.
But those feelings did not linger for long. As we triggered the gas again, unscented this time, and watched her fall into another amnesiac slumber, we knew that everything was going to be fine.
That was phase two.
For three years we kept tabs on little Caroline. In that time they had welcomed a baby boy into their family, and a few holiday seasons had passed in which Caroline had to learn to adjust to Christmas mornings that weren’t just about her. And she suffered through those winters. She would fall into depressive episodes and tell anyone who would listen about the “sort-of dreams” she would have: half-baked ghostly recollections of Santa Claus on Christmas morning calling her horrible and selfish, urging her to grow up and taunting her with promises of strange magic she was too stupid to understand.
This was all great news. Although she was still too young to fully grapple these intense themes, the fact it had taken up residence in her psyche was proof the trial was proceeding according to plan. Mentally, she had moved past the childish self-centeredness of Christmas, and was open to malleability.
When she was nine and December rolled around, triggering her depression again, her parents finally relented and took her to see a child psychiatrist, Dr. Floyd Menken. Again, I only mention him by name because, well, you can probably guess whom he was affiliated with.
Dr. Menken welcomed Caroline into his study, and informed her parents that it would be a closed session their first time.
As soon as the oakwood doors closed, Dr. Menken donned a gas mask, and Caroline hadn’t the energy to shout as the peppermint-scented gas flooded the room once more.
She came to in the evergreen forest, nervous with recognition. She had undoubtedly seen this place before in her “sort-of dreams.” Like a movie where you know what happens next, she pushed through the fronds and through the front door of the log cabin.
We’d made a few alterations to the scene for phase three. There were no Christmas presents under the tree. But in the center of the room on the carpet, was a crib.
Caroline inched towards the crib and peered over the railing, her face registering repulsion. There, squirming in a bundle of blankets was a baby doll…a mannequin, specifically, eerily lifelike and fully articulated, except for the face…a perfect plastic mold of her baby brother Cameron’s, blankly frozen amid the excited movement.
As she stared in bewilderment, the mannequin started to cry, piercing robotic shrieks that even got under our skins. Hands pressed to her ears, she wandered the room, looking around wildly for something, anything to make the crying stop.
With no available options, she tried leaving the way she came. But not even a cannon could have broken through the titanium locks we’d engaged.
She pounded on the door, shouting for help, trying to make herself heard over the mannequin’s crying, now having looped the same audio track four times.
If not for her desperation, she might have noticed what we’d dropped down the chimney.
Eventually — a bit longer than we’d anticipated, but it did happen — she saw the Christmas present sitting at the base of the hearth. Her demeanor flipped like a light switch. No more agitation or despair, no signs of even registering the antagonizing noise. She drifted over to the present and opened it up, slowly, like a student dissecting a frog.
She hesitated picking up the rattle, some shadow of a memory implying that there might be pain, but no electricity came this time. We saw the connection click in her eyes, and she wandered back to the crib, placing the rattle on the screaming mannequin’s open, inert hand.
The crying ceased immediately.
We observed her pick up the mannequin, holding it softly, cradling its head, as she’d learned with her own sibling. The saline solution we’d triggered to leak from its eyes simply added to that cunning authenticity.
We allowed her to have a few quiet moments. Then we cued our Santa actor.
He didn’t leave the green room this time. Instead, his amplified voice piped down the chimney.
“You’ve been improving, Caroline,” said Santa. “But you’re not quite there yet.”
Uneasy recognition brightened in Caroline’s face as she turned to the hearth. A sprinkle of ash trickled down from above, goading her to approach.
“See what happens when we do things for others?” he implored. “See how many problems we can solve? For this is the greatest gift of all. The gift…of giving.”
As she peered up the chimney, we triggered the gas.
Within the hour, Caroline was walking out of Dr. Menken’s office, and Dr. Menken was relaying to her parents how much progress they’d made today, and that they were to schedule more sessions with him, once a month, until “optimum results” had been achieved.
That was phase three.
As Caroline grew older, the imagery associated with her “dreams” became more and more fuzzy. This was good. We wanted the physical sensations associated with the trials to fade over time, but the emotional impact to remain the same, to ensure that the new behaviors we wanted would appear spontaneous, organic, involuntary. Of course, all those sensory aspects would come roaring back with our environmental triggers. It was important to have to “recall” that hidden, shadowy part of her life whenever the occasion arose.
By the time she hit fourteen, the nation was deep in the maw of the Red Scare. For many, it was a headache, or a nightmare. For us, it was an opportunity. Our test subjects, now teenagers, their heads swimming with propaganda about the communist threat and nuclear armageddon, were freshly tilled for more…creative sessions.
The next time Caroline found herself in the log cabin, the scenario had changed drastically. There was no tree or presents, the fireplace was lifeless, and the music piping from the record player was slow and atonal. She could only stand on the threshold and stare in horror and confusion at what laid before her.
The victim’s face was covered with a burlap sack, but it was obvious he was an old, corpulent man, stripped down to a pair of briefs. Cables and nodes bound him to a wooden chair. Wires snaked from the rig and ran up the walls like creeping vines.
Naturally, Caroline turned and fled when she saw our setup, sprinting out the front door and back into the pine forest. But the undergrowth was too thick to push past. This trial could only be completed with forward progress.
“You have to help me, girl,” the victim pleaded when he heard Caroline reenter. “They caught me…they made me like this…”
“Who?” said Caroline, her voice small.
“They did,” he growled, struggling against his restraints. “The Soviets. Those godless bastards. Please, Caroline, you must free me from this trap…”
Her eyes widened. “Wait…how do you know my name?”
This was all part of the script. The victim looked up at her, the bag shifting around his face. “Because…many years ago, I marked you down in my list as a good little girl. One of the best.”
Her lips parted. “No. No no no…this isn’t real,” she muttered, turning back to the door. “You were never real, you’re just made-up, it was just a dream –”
“This is real, you small-minded, impotent child!” Santa roared, straining against the cables. “They kidnapped me and made me this way because they want to come for you next! Lord knows what more they’ll destroy!”
“No!” Caroline shouted, covering her ears and turning away. “I hate these childish dreams! I want them to stop!”
“Save me, you little brat!” Santa howled, throwing his head back. “You’ll doom more than you know if you leave me to them!”
“Okay, okay!” she screamed, stamping the ground. She rushed over to the bound man and tugged on the cables, but a spark flared across her hands and she recoiled with a yelp.
“No, no!” Santa scolded. “There should be a lever on the wall. They said that would be the key to my release.”
“What does that mean?” Caroline said, eyeing the large rusty lever stationed next to the door.
“No questions! Pull the lever!” the fat man demanded.
Her face screwed up, Caroline rushed to the lever and yanked on it. It was stiff and slow to engage, but she squeezed it tight and practically hung off of it until it budged.
Overhead lights above blazed to life — the cold, heartless whitish-pink of fluorescence. Electric humming filled the air. And Santa Claus let out a bellow of pain, thrashing in his chair as the nodes exploded with voltage.
“Oh my God!” Caroline shouted, pushing the lever back up. “I’m sorry!”
“It has to work!” Santa seethed, slumped over and breathing raggedly. “Just…just do it!”
The tears came through again as she pulled the lever again. Santa spasmed and stiffened as the fluorescent lights glowed again. The hum was like a symphony of monotone…accompanied by the one-man choir of death emanating from Santa’s throat.
“It…has…to…work!” Santa gasped. “More!”
“I’m sorry!” Caroline cried, engaging the lever more. “I’m sorry, Santa Claus!”
“Stop talking!” he roared. “Do it!”
She blubbered incoherently, trembling at the knees. We watched with silent fascination. Regression, we concluded, giving each other knowing looks. Years of confidence, maturity, growth…trounced in a heartbeat.
With each subtle tick of the lever, the lights intensified, the hum became a buzz, and Santa was almost jumping from the chair, threatening to topple it over. “What is this doing!” Caroline screamed, trying to make herself heard over the electrified agony. “I don’t understand! Please — I’m sorry!”
Santa only let out a guttural rasp. His hands were curled into fists, his veins were pulsating worms under his skin.
Letting out one final yell, Caroline yanked the lever down all the way.
The lights exploded. The electric growl died away. And Santa fell limp, the chair emitting smoke, the acrid scent of burnt hair and flesh lingering through the room.
Entranced by the carnage she’d incurred, Caroline failed to notice the Christmas present tumbling down the chimney. We had to cue a bicycle bell sound effect to grab her attention.
Making the connection, she rushed over to the present and unwrapped it. She gingerly plucked out a nondescript silver key, staring at it for a moment. Then she meandered over to the limp body, the key held out as if she were presenting a priceless treasure. The look on her face was just…sheer, unyielding nothingness. Complete forfeiture of any doubt, any inclination of returning to the reality she once knew. Caroline was ours. Our perfect little test subject.
Examining the body, Caroline found the thick old-fashioned lock binding the cables together at Santa’s side. She unlocked it. It fell away and the wires shedded off, flopping to the ground in a heap.
Our Santa showed no signs of life. His skin was crispy and marked with black striations. Caroline’s lip trembled. In her mind, she had killed Santa Claus…she had been subjected to one end of a torture of most insidious design, propagated by the vilest and most shadowy of her nation’s enemies…
But then Santa stood up.
Caroline yelped, scrambling away from the burnt, walking corpse, the bag still covering his head, which had locked onto her with a hidden gaze.
“See what you had to do to save Christmas?” he croaked. Even his voice sounded gristly and charred. “To preserve the status quo? You killed me, Caroline. I saw the light. I watched my spirit flee from my body.”
“Go away,” Caroline pleaded, making contact with the far wall. “I hate you…”
“Now that’s not very nice,” Santa simpered, approaching her like a ravening hound. “Would you have pulled that lever if you did not love me?”
She looked away, attempting to resist the cold, confounding logic. We could see it in her face: her attempts would be in vain.
“In order to save the spirit of Christmas,” Santa continued, word-for-word from the script, “sometimes you must brutalize it first. Keep it alive by killing it over and over again. Is that clear?”
“No!” Caroline protested.
“Put it this way, girl,” Santa sneered, lowering his bagged face near hers. “If you had left me to flounder in that chair, the Reds would have won. They’d have held onto that key and ravaged everything you knew and loved. The only reason this country limps along and you can live in smiley bliss is because horrors are committed to keep them at bay…even if that includes killing Christmas.”
We cued the gas to flood the room again. Caroline slumped down the wall, clawing at the air as amnesiac sleep overtook her.
“All those values, those virtues of the season you’ve learned…forget them,” Santa hissed. “If it means doing the right thing.”
When she was completely out, our actor removed the sack from his head, revealing the oxygen tube supported in his mouth. He walked towards the rig in the chimney, the prosthetics and burn makeup barely hindering his movements. Caroline had also failed to notice the skin-colored cosmetic product that had flaked off his body and exposed the “wounds” when we’d cued the “electricity,” really just a mild application of heat.
We could have celebrated right then and there; our most elaborate and creative setup had transpired without a hitch. But there was still one phase left.
We gave it a few more years before enacting the final trial. The trauma of electrifying Santa Claus to death needed adequate time to sink into our subject’s psyche. Plus, as Caroline teetered on the cusp of eighteen years old, she was also prone to enter society as a useful, productive adult.
We apprehended her after her high school prom. The alcohol her peers had snuck in had done well to incapacitate her, but we applied the scented gas anyway, just to dredge up that mindset one last time.
“Not this again,” she muttered upon coming around in the pine forest. “What the fuck did they put in that punch?…”
Thankfully the soundproof walls were enough to conceal our laughter. Then it was back to business.
Like a well-rehearsed play, Caroline pushed through the forest, needles and branches snagging on her pretty turquoise dress. She shivered against the artificial cold, almost bursting eagerly into the warmth of the log cabin.
Same tree, same crackling fire, same Christmas carols through the record player. Yet the opposite wall was dominated by a set of bay doors, held shut by a padlock. Caroline subconsciously knew what to expect. A lone present sat under the tree. She wasted no time opening it up, removing the silver key, and unlocking the doors, throwing them up with a noisy clatter.
Only the dark hallway beyond was new to her. She was hesitant, but endowed with new confidence as she crept forward towards the light of the other room at the end of the chamber. By this point, she understood she was a rat in a maze — only by embracing the adversity would she nab the prize.
Room Two featured another man tied to a chair. Despite the inclusion of another sack over his face, he clearly wasn’t Santa Claus…younger, thinner, trembling with dread. He babbled breathlessly in a strange tongue, one that Caroline seemed to vaguely recognize…the language of the times’ unseen national enemy. And unlike our Santa, he more fell under the category of an “involunteer.”
A new voice belted from the nearby chimney. “I was hoping you’d come to help, Caroline,” said Santa. “This is one of the communist rats who kidnapped me and forced us into that horrible torture. It would befit the spirit of the season to do something about him. I’d do it myself, but…I am in no condition. Our previous trial has left me a mere ghost of myself.”
The “involunteer” continued to beg, but his Russian words had little effect on Caroline as she regarded him stonily. “What do you want me to do, Santa Claus?” she murmured.
A new present fell down the chimney. Caroline retrieved it and opened it up, like it was all routine. Its contents were shocking, yet not wholly surprising.
“It’s amazing how ingrained the Christmas season is within the national subconscious,” Santa explained as Caroline pulled out the handgun, her eyes wide. “Kill Christmas, this country goes down with it. Economies collapse. Faith dies. Every day the communists bang on our front doors, calling for Christmastime’s head. Perhaps…we ought to answer.”
Caroline’s gaze flitted from the involunteer to the gun resting in her palm. This hesitation was fully expected. Santa continued with the script. “Without Christmas, there is no money. With no money comes no love. With no love comes no family. And if you tear down family, there is no country. That is what these people seek to rip away from us. Deny them that chance, Caroline.”
As if hypnotized, Caroline meandered to the victim, the gun rising to waist level. We knew her father had taught her to shoot, but now this fresh, disturbing context had disseminated all she had learned before.
The involunteer’s speech became indecipherable. He was shaking his head. Sweat visibly ran down his body.
Caroline squeezed her eyelids shut. Her hand trembled, but her finger managed to flex.
The click of the empty chamber seemed as loud as any gunshot. Shocked at her own gall, Caroline dropped the weapon. The involunteer had slumped over silently; we suspected he had fainted.
“Wonderful work, Caroline,” Santa mused. “No blood will be shed by your hand. But you killed him in your heart. That is all that is needed.”
To her right, another set of bay doors opened. Caroline was quick to vacate Room Two, leaving the unconscious man to his dubious fate, and run down the hallway to Room Three.
We had updated the Cameron mannequin, aging him up to his early teens. This time, however, it was suspended in the air on a noose around its neck, swaying slightly above a giant industrial meat grinder on the floor.
As soon as Caroline took in the scene, we activated the machine. The spiked rollers began to run, emitting a rumbling whir, and the rope began to lower…almost imperceptibly slowly.
“Would you let your brother die?” Santa’s voice asked. “If you could save him otherwise?”
She looked around frantically and saw the other setup — at the base of the chimney laid a pile of presents. She dashed over to the presents and hurriedly opened one up — and she immediately threw it away in disgust. The box landed on its side and its contents spilled out — the cow heart had long putrefied. “Goddammit!” she cursed, wiping her hands on her dress.
“They are not for you,” Santa’s cold voice laughed. “Have you regressed to selfishness so easily?”
Caroline stammered, stealing frantic glances at the strung-up mannequin, Cameron’s face frozen blankly on it. It was almost halfway to the meat grinder. We watched uneasily from our observation room. For the first time with this subject, doubt began to creep in. Had we made this stage too obtuse?
But then her face snapped with realization. She picked up a second present, unwrapped it, and dumped the severed pig’s foot into the meat grinder. It coughed and sputtered, as if jammed, but continued chugging. A machine of its caliber could make short work of a live horse without so much as a hiccup, but of course, that wasn’t the point of this trial.
The mannequin had lowered beyond the halfway point. Caroline tore open the next present and tossed its contents, a pile of dead feeder mice, into the grinder. It stalled temporarily, but it wasn’t enough. Grimacing, she resorted to grabbing the boxes and lobbing them whole into the grinder. Present after present disappeared down the grinder’s gullet. It shrieked and groaned in protest, spitting up shredded cardboard and wrapping paper.
“Come on, come on!” she pleaded, throwing them in two at a time. The mannequin’s dangling feet were a few inches from the grinder’s teeth…
Finally, after what we determined would be the final gift, we disengaged the grinder. The whirring noises lowered in pitch, and the rollers slowed to a stop, caked in bloodied garbage.
“That wasn’t perfect,” said Santa as Caroline exhaled and wiped her brow. “But you passed. That is the price of keeping the Christmas season alive…its appetite for things to be satisfied with the gift of giving. Or we risk letting our loved ones get consumed too.”
Caroline gazed morbidly at the blatantly passive expression on mannequin-Cameron’s face. But then the next set of doors opened, and Caroline was quick to vacate the space for Room Four.
Room Four was dominated by a massive mahogany table, laden with Christmas presents. Caroline circled the table, observing them warily. The chimney was silent. It wasn’t until she leaned in and examined the tags on the presents that she saw this room’s glaring distinction. Instead of names or to’s or froms, their tags were labeled with common desirable outcomes. Everlasting love. Drunken bliss. Amazing sex. Eternal happiness. World peace. She turned to the chimney, as if expecting an explanation, but our Santa was instructed to remain silent.
Tentatively, she reached for the present labeled Eternal happiness. But its metal surface transferred an electric shock up her fingertips, and she recoiled with a yell. She groaned, squeezing her fingertips. We could almost see her shrink down to her six-year-old past, shocking herself over and over again on an electrically-charged collection of toys…
Objective truth shocked her next. Unyielding faith also induced pain. Each erroneous sting seemed to weaken her resolve; her motions became shy and awkward, every subsequent shock appearing to hurt her more and more, despite the voltage throughout remaining consistent.
The seventh present she touched delivered no shock. It was labeled Undying patriotism. Spurned by the lack of pain, she tore it open and pulled out another silver key. She looked at the next set of bay doors. It was held shut with five padlocks. Her fist closed around Key Number One as she resumed her search.
It took four guesses until Economic stewardship yielded Key Number Two. Two guesses until Frugal supersense yielded Key Number Three. Keys Four and Five were found in, respectively, Capitalist vigor and Yuletide cheer. Those had been recovered without any further errors.
“Well done, Caroline,” Santa’s voice lauded as Caroline undid the bay doors’ locks with her keys. “I’m glad you’ve come to learn what makes the Christmas season worth fighting for. What you must hold in your heart above all else this time of year.”
Caroline simply carried on opening the door, the words seeming to buffet over her like a crashing wave. But the final room still took her breath away.
It was a department store aisle, an interminable hallway flanked by metal shelves, lit by harsh overhead fluorescent rods. Signposts lined the path forward like an honor guard, broadcasting their urgent, exclamatory slogans. “SALE!” “GET THEM BEFORE THEY’RE GONE!” “FOR THAT SPECIAL SOMEONE.” “SAVINGS HERE!”
She stepped into the aisle, ignoring the bay doors locking behind her, and observed the shelves to either side of her. They were all devoid of products, only a few tags and scraps of paper remaining. The tinny music emanating from speakers above garbled eerily. The whole place had an unpleasant yellow tinge; even from the observation room we could almost smell the cleaning solutions and musty cardboard. Our design department had really pulled out all the stops.
When Caroline traversed about half the length of the desolate aisle, she saw it…the lone Christmas present on a pedestal at the far end, surrounded by miniature spotlights. The music cut out, and Santa’s voice came through.
“Hot ticket items,” he explained, his voice reverbing off the shelves. “That is the lifeblood of Christmas. That is what puts breath into this country’s lungs. That is how we ward off threats, how we save ourselves, how we make each other feel worthwhile. It seems there was a sale at this particular store and you missed out…save for one. It’s yours. You want it. You need it.”
Caroline strided forward, eyes locked on the present.
“Show them that you love them,” Santa goaded. “Show them that you care. Do your part for your country. Buy that gift.”
She quickened her pace, her high heels clicking on the tile floor.
Santa then emitted a dark chuckle. “But…can you make it in time?”
And at those words we released our second involunteer.
Caroline stopped and gasped — a haggard, monstrous woman had shambled out from behind the shelf nearest the present. She was a few years older than Caroline, but she was tall and ropy with muscle. Her limbs and torso bore constrictive metal braces, and a rig of twisted headgear had been nailed into her skull. Leather straps were plastered across her face, distending her jaw and forcing her tongue to loll out.
Like the first involunteer, she was another Soviet political prisoner, generously donated by the CIA. But Caroline didn’t know that. Nor did she know that the involunteer had been instructed to grab the present if she wanted to live.
Nevertheless, when the woman stumbled toward the present, Caroline gave another gasp, her fists clenching. We held our collective breaths…the moment of truth…everything we had done culminating into this one crucial moment…
She snapped. Caroline tore down the aisle, reaching the present just as the involunteer’s fingers closed around it. Her sheer force tore the present from the woman’s hands, but it also sent her careening into the wall, knocking over the podium and the spotlights.
The involunteer shrieked, and she attacked.
We watched as the woman pounced on Caroline, pinning her to the floor, and struck at her with her fists, screaming and blubbering demented curses. Caroline screamed too, curling into a ball to shield her face, the present clutched to her chest like her firstborn child…
Fight back! we wanted to shout, but we could only stare in gritted-toothed fascination as the onslaught commenced. The involunteer punched Caroline in the back of the skull, and she unraveled for the briefest of moments…the assailant reached down and yanked the present back. She staggered away, holding the present out like it was her own firstborn child, bellowing incoherent noises of delight. Fight back, dammit! we silently implored. Have you learned nothing?!
Like a revenant, Caroline rose to her feet and tackled the involunteer, and they both went down again. Two pairs of hands grabbed the present and they tugged, hair tangling, saliva flying…they slid into a nearby shelf that rattled and listed on its hinges…the involunteer pressed herself into the shelf and shielded the present underneath her…
For the briefest of moments we considered intervention. But as if possessed by a manic spirit, Caroline ripped the stiletto heel off her foot and drove it straight over the involunteer’s kidney.
Screaming, the woman arched her back and exposed the present — Caroline snatched it up — she flipped onto her back and lunged at Caroline — but the girl was ready this time. Her other stiletto heel found the soft flesh under the involunteer’s ribs.
The assailant collapsed, wheezing and sobbing, while Caroline scrambled backwards, arms wrapped protectively around the present. Her eyes seemed to clear as she regarded the weeping mess of a woman before her, and for a moment her grip on the present slackened.
The CCTV camera mounted on the wall swiveled towards the involunteer. Unlike the others hidden throughout the various rooms in the trials, this one was not for observation.
The gun mounted inside it went off. Instantly the involunteer fell still. Caroline stared frozen at the pool of blood blooming under the woman’s skull.
We took advantage of the sudden silence and cued our Santa. “Absolutely perfect,” he lauded over the intercom as Caroline’s arms went limp, the present still in her grasp. “You won. You’ve completely embodied the Christmas spirit. As you have seen, some will be left behind. But not you. You will go forward and become a crusader for the season.”
We triggered the gas for the last time. “Forget all you have seen,” Santa implored as she swayed sleepily. “But remember…all you have learned.”
When Caroline awoke in a hospital not too far from her school, the doctors were informed she had engaged in a drunken scuffle with another student. They assessed her injuries and deemed them “insignificant.”
When pressed about the details of the fight, Caroline could not recall a single detail. Since they couldn’t pin a name or a face, and no one admitted to engaging with her, the case was dropped.
She was discharged before noon the next day, ready to go out into the world and apply all she had learned.
Secret Santa wasn’t without its exceptions. Some children did not buy our Santa actor, either through suspicions or lack of belief. Others failed the later phases and were cut from the program after several more attempts. Caroline was the standout, but overall, the vast majority of them passed. None of the children were killed or severely injured, the worst comparable to Caroline’s cuts and bruises. And of course the “involunteers” we cycled through were simply written off once the program dissolved. At the time, no one cared for a population of unaccounted, condemned communists.
So where is little Caroline now? She’s out there somewhere, in a sense. Turn on the news, pull up YouTube clips, or take a trip to a retail store on Black Friday, and you will see the fruits of our contagion. When you see floods of consumers pouring through the doors, fighting over hot-ticket items, trampling over each other to take advantage of sales and discounts, you see Caroline, and the tens of thousands of others we successfully reprogrammed…a raucous, amorphous, walking infection…the perfect economic storm.
It should come as no surprise that nearly a trillion dollars of this country’s GDP is dedicated to Christmas, or that companies on average rake in nearly a quarter of their profits in the weeks between November and December. Simply put, the final weeks of the year keep this country chugging along, bolstered by consumers overturning the season’s supposed virtues of charity and goodwill to all, in the name of materiality. And you have us to thank for it.
But as for Caroline’s actual whereabouts…I wish I knew. I wish I could find her and the others we reprogrammed. I wish I could sit them down and tell them what we’d done, that their behaviors had rubbed off on an entire country and spread throughout it, independent of our help. Reverse the process somehow. Convince the masses that it was all based on a lie, it was all a corporate scheme to make money and empower our institutions.
Only then would I feel at peace during this so-called “peaceful” season. Only then would the guilt I’ve accumulated recede. Every year I feel for those we influenced, and I feel more for those who were…what were the words our Santa used? “Left behind?” Those who disappointed their children? Those who lost everything during Christmas? Those who sacrificed their health, or even their lives, just to take advantage of the economic bounty we had sown?
But then again, if that happened, we’d ruin Christmas. And that wouldn’t be the “right” thing to do after all.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableNick Carlson Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Nick CarlsonPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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