1 - Smoke
"COME ON, you're going to be late, Lora," Jamie said.
"No, I'm not. There's still a few minutes before I need to be with Santa." I reached out and ran my hand along the smooth, shiny surface of the skis. I pulled one ski from its place amongst the dozens of pairs in the rack. "Blue is the best. The purple ones look funny."
"If you stand there looking at them all afternoon, you'll never get them. You don't know my dad. He's got this thing about earning what you want. I've got to go. Mens Wear needs more gift boxes. Can you imagine? Wonder how many pairs of socks they sell?" Jamie crossed his eyes. "Look Dad, I got you a pair of purple and orange socks. Aren't they just what you always wanted?" he asked in a baby voice. "I'm off. Have fun with the wet babies!"
I grabbed the candy canes I was supposed to bring to the Wonderland and raced down the stairway.
"Hi, Elf. Glad you're here. We're just about ready to open up again. Did you bring more candy canes? I only have a dozen or so." Santa looked into his sack.
"Sure." I answered. "Hey, your hair is slipping a bit."
"Not again." Santa patted his white wig.
I hurried toward the wooden path leading to the artificial forest. I passed Twyla, the other elf. She was casually looking at her fingernails.
The photographer moved into position and everyone began. I lifted little children onto Santa's lap, dried tears, and walked toddlers to their proud parents. The photographer's flash went off over and over. More bright lights flashed as Moms and Dads took extra pictures. The time passed in a blur.
"Time for Santa to feed the reindeer. I'll be back in just ten minutes." Santa made his way to the waiting line. "It won't take very long," he promised the children. He waved and then turned to leave. Twyla and the photographer left for their break as well, but I stayed to watch.
Robo-Santa appeared right on cue. He was a robot, but dressed as Santa. He was complete with a beard, fur-trimmed toque and sack full of goodies.
There was a series of clicks, a buzzing, whirring sound and then his right arm extended itself up and backwards and then down again. It spun around, clicked and then withdrew a red plastic bag. By now all the children in the area were quiet and watching, their eyes wide in amazement as Robo-Santa did his tricks. Holding out the bag from his body, he gave it a shake and started rolling toward me, saying, "Here, Elf, have a bag of goodies for all the kiddies, compliments of Santa Claus."
I took the bag and watched as he continued on through the crowd, beeping and twinkling and singing "Jingle Bells" so crazily that most of the children were laughing.
As he rolled along, I studied him closely. The body was basically barrel-shaped, but someone had done a really good costume design to make him into a Santa Claus. Where his "legs" ended, there was a section of black leather that had been made to look like two boots side by side. The wheels were hidden in the solid looking boot base. His big fluffy white beard came to his belt buckle. I thought it probably covered a speaker. The left hand held the big black velvety sack, which seemed to have a frame inside to keep it open.
My uncle had been smart to put a robot into the display. It caught everyone's attention. The toy department was crowded today. Parents were trying to do their last minute shopping and it looked like a lot of small children still had to talk to Santa.
"Hi, Thanta," a little red-haired fellow lisped as he stroked the fur on the costume.
"Ho, ho, ho. And who have we here? I bet I know what you want for Christmas." The robot's head turned to face the child.
Other kids clustered around the robot. While they talked, I ran around and handed out candy from the bag I'd been given.
Eventually, Robo-Santa moved away from Wonder-land and Santa came back. He was seated on his throne talking to a little girl. The photographer and Twyla, the other Elf, were nowhere to be seen. I guessed Santa had decided to start a minute or two early to keep the kids happy. There was a long line of people waiting.
Suddenly I froze. The high-pitched siren of a fire alarm broke through the voices and Christmas music. It took only a split second before people started to react. The toy department had been crowded and noisy a moment ago but now it was wild.
"This way everyone. This way." Santa rose from the throne he was sitting on. With his booming voice, he began to direct customers to the stairway behind the scene. He sounded calm. "Lora, go through the scene and make sure there are no straggling children," he ordered.
I raced off down the wooden path through the artificial snow and plastic trees. The animated figures kept dancing and the Christmas music continued to pour from the speakers hidden throughout Santa's Winter Wonderland.
"This way, toward the back please." I found myself automatically shouting as I tried to keep from panicking. I raced past a small clump of trees and skidded to a halt. I'd almost tripped over a child seated on the walkway.
"Where's your mom?" I asked.
Tears streamed down the little girl's face and her mouth opened to let out a howl of fear.
"Come on, let's see if your mom is over by the door. If she isn't, you can come with me. We'll go find Santa." I forced myself to speak quietly. I hoped if I remained calm, the child might stop crying. "Here, we'll follow the path."
The little one wrapped her arms tightly around my neck and sobbed quietly into my ear. I raced off through the rest of the scene looking for any lost shoppers. "This way. Just follow the path and go behind the throne." I repeated the directions over and over again. Finally there was no one else on the path. The voices had disappeared. The fire alarm continued to ring. My ears hurt. The little girl in my arms was getting heavy.
"Lora! Where are you?" Santa's voice boomed through the trees.
"Coming!" I sped off down the path toward the back stairs and the emergency exit.
The toddler had stopped crying but continued her strangle-hold. I tried to loosen one arm enough to breathe but the child tensed as soon as she felt her grip being pried open. We made record time going down the stairs. The doors at the bottom of the stairs were open. A blast of icy air reached us even before we were out.
On the sidewalk and street were hundreds of dazed shoppers. The noise was deafening. Children wailed and parents tried to calm them.
"Lawrence! Lawrence!" a woman screeched in my ear.
The toddler tightened her grip and let out a wail of fright. I held her close. The shoppers had their coats with them. The store clerks were in shirt sleeves and I was in a ridiculous little elf costume. I began to shiver.
"Who's this?" Santa asked.
I felt the little head look up from my shoulder. The child took one peek at Santa and screamed louder than before.
"I don't know who the child is. I found her in the middle of the forest. She seemed to be all alone." I shouted to make myself heard above the other sounds. The fire engines made all further attempts at communication impossible.
The whole thing was almost too much. I found myself hugging onto the little one. I buried my face in the soft curls. The tiny arms never let up their grip on my neck.
Then abruptly the sirens ceased and some of the voices stopped the screaming and shouting. The toddler's arms relaxed a fraction and I could finally draw a full breath of air. I opened my eyes and lifted my head. Staring directly into my eyes was a hysterical woman.
"Oh! You've got her! I thought I'd never..." and at that point the woman started crying again. Her arms were full. One twin on either side kept her from grabbing the child I held.
"Is she yours?" I asked.
"Oh, my dear, yes." The woman tried to talk between sobs. The voice must have been familiar because now the child I held was reaching for her mom.
Santa appeared from somewhere and took the twins from her. The woman immediately grabbed the little girl. I took a deep breath. It was hard to let go of her. The twins were not at all pleased to find themselves in the arms of Santa because they both started wailing at that point.
I tried to tune the whole thing out. Where was Jamie? I realized with a start I hadn't seen him since early morning. He probably got his breaks whenever there was a lull. I hoped my cousin was safe out here on the sidewalk somewhere. I wrapped my arms around myself and started hopping a bit to keep warm.
"Hello there. We certainly have plenty of excitement at the moment don't we?" Carl, the photographer, pushed his way past a few shoppers. "What do you think happened?"
"No idea," Santa said. "With any luck it'll just be a false alarm and we can go back in the store in a few minutes."
"I'm sure there was smoke in the air," a voice from nearby said.
"Did you see flames anywhere?" someone else asked.
The stories spread as I waited silently and shivered. I was freezing. I kept looking anxiously for Jamie. There was still no sign of him. The next person to find our group was Twyla. She arrived in a buzz of excitement. Even so, her blond hair and makeup were perfect.
"What's going on?" she asked. Her eyes looked toward the photographer but he was looking elsewhere. "I go for a walk and look what happens."
"I was just on my way back to work when the alarms rang. Just had time to dash for the camera and then head out." The photographer held onto the heavy portrait camera and the tripod it was mounted on.
"Have you seen Jamie anywhere?" I asked.
"No. But there's television cameras mounted on that truck over there. Do you think they'll want pictures of us?" Twyla patted her hair.
There was no time to answer. Some of the office staff were coming round with loudspeakers. They announced the store was open again for business. The crowd poured back in through the doors and rushed off to complete their shopping. We were swept along with the flood of people.
The third floor looked like it had when everyone raced out. Nothing appeared changed and the music continued to pour from the loud speakers in the Wonderland forest. It didn't take long before the lineup to see Santa started to grow again. I found my place beside his throne, ready to help.
"Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please." A voice crackled from the overhead public announcement system. "During the fire there was a major theft on the main floor. We would appreciate hearing from anyone that saw anything suspicious in the jewelry area." The voice paused. "The main floor is now closed to shopping. We apologize for any inconvenience. Please follow the center aisles as you enter and leave the store. Have a pleasant day and a very happy holiday season from all the staff at Hammond's Department Store."
Copyright © 2000 by Marion MacDonald