“Tonight, I’m going to find out where Santa’s elves come from.” Zekielina stroked her long nose and peered sidelong at Patty, her voice as dark as chocolate. They sat together in cotton panties and sleeveless t-shirts that bumped out where pubescent nipples hid, in a newspaper fort beneath the dining room table. Zekielina said they were playing hide and seek with her mother. Or, maybe it was cat and mouse.
Grace called from the balcony, the deck, the basement, the upstairs bedroom, her footsteps pounding on the stairs, her voice rising in pitch with every shriek.
Patty chewed on the tip of her braid, one of a medusa mass that arched from her head. “Last April, you wanted to find the Easter Bunny’s warren and it took the park rangers three days to find you.” She lifted the strings on Zekielina’s fingers, twisting them into a cat’s cradle.
“A few more hours, Patty. That’s all it would have taken. I would have been free.” She let her eyes slide over Patty’s lips and down to the white silk bow pinned to the neckline of her t-shirt. “You know, Patty, a warren doesn’t provide privacy for Grace’s bunny-cuddle-games, no matter how small you are.”
“How small were you?”
“I kept both sides of the mushroom.”
“Zekielina!” Grace’s voice rattled the paper over their heads. Zekielina’s mother’s support-hosed ankle gleamed above her black pump inches from the lower edge of the newspaper fort. Zekielina arched a brow at Patty and stretched out a thin finger. She wanted to touch the stocking with her fingernail, stretch the Lycra into the hollow between her mother’s anklebone and heel, just until her nail brushed the skin through the stocking. Patty shook her head and pulled Zekielina’s finger back.
Then Grace stumped away, and the moment was lost.
“Grace doesn’t see the real me, Patty.”
“The lament of children everywhere.”
Zekielina folded her long fingers, one after the other, over her hands, squeezing until they turned white. “I have to get out of here,” she whispered.
“You push too hard, Zeke. In August, you laid a trap for the Tooth Fairy that severed the tip of your middle finger, and where is it now? Maybe the Tooth Fairy didn’t want to play your games,” Patty said. “Don’t go looking for Santa’s elves.”
“But Grace enslaves me, Patty.” Zekielina slid her fingers inside her panties. “She’s redecorating. She rips up tile and strips old dressers. She loosens floorboards and pulls antique showerheads from their sockets on the wall. She wants to create faux finishes in every room of the house. I have to paint until my arms fall off, until I’m overcome by turpentine fumes, until black cats break mirrors under my stepladder.”
“You’re exaggerating, Zeke.”
“Do you want to come with me?”
“Tonight. A man who claims to be an agent from the North Pole is coming at midnight. I met him yesterday.”
“Don’t trust agents of the North Pole, Zeke.”
Zekielina slid her eyes beneath half-closed lids to look down at the smaller girl and took the string from her hands. “You’d better go home, now, Patty. Your mother is waiting.”
Patty slithered out from beneath the newspaper fort with a fluid motion that belied the softness of her round belly. “Let it go, Zeke. You have everything you need right here. You have your newspaper tent. You have me to play Patty-cake.”
“That’s not enough, Patty. I’ve taught you all of Grace’s games. I’m going. Good-bye, Patty-cake.” Zekielina slipped without a breath of sound, from beneath the paper fort to worm her way between paint cans and boxed treasures, stacks of tile, old televisions and conversationally grouped floor lamps, to hide, first in the dumb waiter, then in the scrubbed, sanded and masking-taped pantry, and finally, as the sun set, beneath the netting of her princess-style bed.
“Oh, my poor boo-boo,” Grace said when she found Zekielina scrubbed, brushed and tucked to her chin under fluffy duvets, within the light of the tiffany lamp. “I’ve been looking for you all day, searching for you high and low. I thought we could have so much fun together, tatting lace curtains for your French windows.”
Zekielina stared with frog-eyed solemnity at her mother. “I like blackout blinds.”
“There, there, Lina-lina. You’ve had a long day. Go to sleep. Tomorrow, you and I can glue doilies to your claw-foot end-tables.”
“Yes, Love Child?”
“Where do Santa’s elves come from?”
Grace laughed a tinkle-laugh and mussed Zekielina’s hair. “Bitty-Boo! They’re born in flowers that open on the first day of spring and dance to his workshop in golden shoes to the music of snow-melt waterfalls.”
“Like the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.”
Zekielina let her lids droop.
“No kiss-kiss tonight? No? Then, maybe tomorrow. Night-night, Doodle-bug,” Grace whispered. She slipped the book from Zekielina’s fingers and closed the door quietly behind her.
Zekielina flipped the duvet back and sprang, fully dressed, from her bed. She listened at the door, locked it, and pulled her backpack from her closet, already filled with stolen mushroom, a pinhole camera, her favorite ukulele with one string missing and a pack of chocolate eggs. She threw in a trashy magazine, just in case the search took a long time.
She pushed aside the blackout blind, lifted the sash on her window and stepped out onto the roof over the garage. Patty was already sitting on the roof over her garage. “What took you so long?”
“Grace wanted to talk about tatting lace.”
“I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I’m here to keep you from a fate worse than death.”
“Do you think it might snow?”
“At the North Pole? In December? It’s a sure thing.”
Zekielina looked at the low clouds, dull grey above the pools of streetlight. The odd flake, scorching cold, drifted lazily from the sky. She closed her eyes and let her brows rest on her knees, arms wrapped about her legs against the cold.
“He’s here. The agent,” Patty announced.
Raising her head, Zekielina saw the tall, thin man in the blue stovepipe hat and tailcoat. He sat in a small sleigh harnessed to a single, velvet-antlered reindeer. Grey pinstripes on his pants made his legs appear enormously long. He took the hat from his head and held it in the crook of his arm. “Zekielina. And a friend, tonight.”
“I’m not coming,” Patty said.
“Zekielina?” The agent gestured toward the seat beside him.
Zekielina walked her feet down the roof, dragging her rear end over the shingles.
“Don’t go, Zeke.”
Zekielina stopped at the drain spout. “Haven’t you ever wanted to know, Patty? Wanted to know why? Wanted to know how?”
“Yes, but not this way, with a stranger in the middle of the night.”
“Zekielina!” Grace’s voice shrilled from the window, through the muffling of blackout blinds and locked oak door.
Zekielina dropped from the roof edge to the pile of discarded carpet on the corner of the driveway, and onto the frozen lawn. She sprinted to the sleigh and threw herself in just as Grace’s face appeared in the window.
The sleigh rose lightly into the air, and Zekielina gripped the agent’s bony arm as the wind streamed past her face.
The ride was magically short, whisking them over patchwork Christmas cards of snowy lanes, farmhouses with twinkling lights and peaceful villages punctuated with quaint church steeples. Then, a vast blanket of pillowy snow stretched out before them. A cozy house, stables and workshops appeared, curled up next to a candy-cane pole.
Zekielina’s breath stopped as she stepped from the sleigh. She opened her eyes as far as she could to take it all in. A feeling of deep peace welled up inside her.
“Santa’s in the workshop,” the agent said.
“I want to see the elves. I want to show them new games.”
The agent led her to a long, low building with snow collecting on the roof and drifting across windows frosted like candy. He opened the door to a brightly lit room filled with the aroma of sugar and the music of tiny hammers and saws. Color and motion swam before her eyes. “Santa’s elves don’t play games, Zekielina. They work.”
Zekielina crossed the threshold.
As she did so, a peculiar buzzing sounded in her ears. They tingled and seemed to move on their own. She put her hands up to them, felt the cartilage shift shape, grow into points. She looked up at the agent, taller than ever, as she shrank to the height of his waist. Her clothes, puddling momentarily about her feet, shrank as well, changing form and color to green and red waistcoat and breeches, with a short, natty jacket.
Santa stepped up to the entryway. “Ho, ho, ho, Zekielina! I think you could start on . . . ukulele repair.” He pointed the way and waved a jolly mitten.
She looked down at the assembly lines, filled with sorrowful-eyed elves, row after row stretching into the dim distance, all stringing the ukuleles. The agent gave her a nudge. “So, Zekielina. Now you know where the elves come from.”