There was a boy when Skittery was seven years old that dressed up as an elf. He had eyes like expensive chocolates set deep in his round face, and wore the most deviously impish grin. He was tiny and wiry, and Skittery couldn’t help but bounce up and down on the balls of his feet to get a better view of the boy’s glittery, curled-toe golden slippers. Skittery discovered this boy when Mother and Father took him to visit Santa Claus, who would sometimes put on a show in the park with real reindeer. He’d never been particularly partial to the Santa Claus show, since he knew Father was the only really real Santa Claus (although he did love watching as people danced in circles that ought to make them sick, and didn’t; electric lights blinked madly, dazzling his eyes, and charity gifts were handed out--in what Father called "the bad years" Skittery got one too. He never understood why these were called "the bad years," since he always considered this phenomenon a sure made his year great). The reindeer also worried him tremendously--they were humongous and looming and smelled warm and ripe and foreign. So he never rode them with the other children, opting instead to bury into the warmth of his mother’s skirts and watch the dancing and maybe steal a smile or two from his father, who very rarely smiled.
Then he saw the elf boy, passing out presents to the other children, chatting up Santa after the show ended like a grown-up, and feeding Prancer an apple.
Skittery surprised his parents. He touched his first reindeer that year, asking the elf boy shyly if he could feed the reindeer an apple too, but the elf boy didn’t have another--it had been his lunch. The reindeer seemed to like the elf boy as much as Skittery did, pressing his weird looking flat smooshy nose into his tiny hand, and the elf boy explained that he liked reindeer because they were like fat lazy horses. He liked horses. Skittery decided that year he liked horses too, and also that maybe reindeer weren’t so bad, either. It didn’t even bother him when the thing sneezed on his hand, because he sneezed on the elf boy’s, too.
The next year, Skittery was eight, and he was amazed to see the elf boy helping Santa Claus again. He thought about the boy many times during the year but kept him secret, because he liked having secrets, and also because he thought his friends at the repair shop he apprenticed for would find his affinity for Christmas elves odd. They already thought he was too frightened of everything--it was his master, Boss Johansen, that dubbed him Skittery. Sometimes he broke things he was trying to fix because while imagining the boy playing with him, maybe jacks or something fancier, but Johansen was very nice and never asked him what he was daydreaming about. And he only hit him if he broke something really expensive.
Skittery got a gift that year--it was a "very bad year" according to Father. When they passed out gifts, someone gave Mother a basket of food, and she actually looked as if she might cry. Skittery kept his fingers crossed--he hoped so badly that he would get a gift, and knew, maybe, it was too much to ask, but he wanted it to be from his elf boy, not the little elf girl down the way (even if she did have very pretty red curly hair).
God must have taken pity on him, maybe because he broke something important just yesterday and still had the bruise on his chin to prove it, because he did get a present and it was from the elf boy.
Are you sure you want this one? The elf boy asked, a wry little grown-up smile on his face. He was taller and leaner this year. They stood almost head-to-head. Last year Skittery was shorter than elf boy.
I want this one! Skittery declared, snatching the box from his hands, because the red hair girl was just down the way, and Skittery also wanted to keep the elf boy to himself for a little while. It was his last present, after all; soon he’d be off to dance again. Skittery thought perhaps he could delay him.
Well, okay, but I warned you was what the elf boy said, and then he smiled and said rather excitedly, Hey! You’re Apple Kid! I saw you last year. Your mother’s a looker.
Skittery swelled with such pride. Then the boy went away to dance some more, and Father decided to buy them canolli at Higensio.
When he got home, he tore open the package and was stunned to find a ridiculously pink porcelain princess doll in a flowing crushed velvet dress. She came with matching bloomers and you could brush her absurdly fluffy blonde hair if you wanted. All of that hair was trapped in a disgusting, gigantic lace bow that made her look like she had pink ram’s horns protruding from her head. But it was just swell to him--as a secret, he hid it in his closet, and named it Elf Boy.
Father and Mother demanded to know what he’d received from Santa Claus. He told them it was a box of candy, and he’d eaten all of it. He was very sorry, but his parents thought this was delightful. However, they secretly wondered why he ate two canollis instead of one at dinner when he’d just had an entire box of chocolates...and why that strange, mischievous little boy in the striped stockings would warn him about candy.
Father brought Skittery to the Santa Claus fair that year by himself--Mother was having a baby soon and could not walk, so the men were on their own. Skittery was rather upset it had been "a good year," because that meant he would not receive a gift, and the elf boy was giving out presents, too. He wanted so badly to talk to him, but he was very busy with the other children, and then he had to go back and do another dance.
Father was very worried about Mother, so they went home early. Skittery considered this one of his least favorite years.
By the time he was ten, he decided Christmastime was his favorite time of the year, and maybe he’d go into the ornament-crafting business. The repair shop had long given up on him.
When Skittery was twelve, he decided that he’d grown tired of listening to elf boy talk about how pretty his mom was and how cute his kid sister was, so he decided to stand away from his parents and closer to the reindeer. Prancer--a different Prancer, not the one he’d watched elf boy feed an apple to--sneezed all over him again. He’d outgrown receiving charity presents, so he had to devise more clever ways to talk to elf boy.
His parents and sister wanted to leave before the dancing started (Father hated to dance, and Skittery did a little bit, too) but Skittery had yet to speak with the elf boy. So he planted himself next to the reindeer and waited.
It was incredible how people insisted on dancing even with snow falling and piling up in the tree branches stretching above them. It could not have been easy for the instrumentalists to go on in such conditions, but they did. And there was Elf Boy, darting between couples with a bowl of wassail, smiling, making wisecracks, seeming far older than his silly striped stockings and buckled boots would imply.
Skittery was contemplating turning the lump of snow he was rolling absentmindedly into a deadly projectile when his gaze was abruptly filled with red and white stripes.
Apple Kid! Go dance. Elf boy’s voice deeper than it had been before, and gravelly. Skittery told him he didn’t dance. Elf boy shrugged and said when the dancers left, they could go build a snowman. Skittery said snowmen were for girls. Elf boy asked him how his doll was doing. Was he keeping her hair brushed?
Skittery was thirteen when he asked elf boy why the only time he saw him was at Christmas. Elf boy said he worked down at Sheepshead Bay, running up bets. He made lots of money, but figured he should do something good at the holidays to atone for all the gambling. Skittery asked where he stayed when he wasn’t at Sheepshead, and elf boy said he asked too many dumb questions. So that year they played dice in the snow, and then had a pretty violent snowball fight, and elf boy might have tried to kiss him on the forehead, but really, he probably just missed when he tried to head-butt him.
Skittery was fourteen when they stopped putting on the Christmas show. It was a "good year" for Father, because he worked at the unemployment office. They got lots of business there. Skittery grew very tall in a very short time and his friends made fun of him for caring whether or not there was a silly Christmas show. Skittery snapped that they were all morons and at least those people in the Christmas show had jobs, unlike any of your fathers. One of the guys popped him in the mouth.
...not as hard as he got popped in the mouth, though, when he asked his Father if he could go hang out around Sheepshead and watch a race, because he had a friend who made money there.
It was a pretty rotten year, fourteen.
For a while after that, Skittery forgot about elf boy. He met Alison-brown-hair-girl and might have mistaken her prettiness and flat chest for real love, but really, the butterflies in his stomach had less to do with romance and more to do with her commendable ability to annoy him. He never met another person whose powers of annoyance were so powerful they caused nausea. Besides, she didn’t like Christmas at all, and thought elves were childish, and wondered what was his problem, anyways?
One day, when Skittery was twenty-four, he was shopping at Macy’s for his sister. He needed a cheap telescope, a magnifying glass, and maybe a false moustache, because she loved playing Sherlock Holmes. He was always made to be Watson, and she would become very angry if he got a bit ill while she performed "bug autopsies." She said his nickname was a very good nickname, and didn’t mean it as a compliment. He decided a long time ago that if his Father had really been Santa Claus, the creep would’ve gotten coal in her stocking.
So he was shopping for gifts for her at Macy’s.
The toy section, decorated to house a fancy display where children could sit on Santa’s Lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas, was a madhouse. Mile-long ribbons of children, dirty, poor, rich, whining, well-behaved, immigrants and Rockafellers lined up in front of the make-shift stage, making navigation of the toy department by any sane person impossible.
Skittery had managed to make it to the doll aisle when he began sneezing, sneeze after sneeze in quick succession. He had a cold that was ongoing a week now, and he could do nothing to cure it. Everything seemed to make him sneeze.
He was trying to stifle his sniffles with his now soiled handkerchief when a pair of buckle shoes appeared, attatched to slender, candy-striped legs that disappeared into forest green short-pants. Startled, Skittery looked up and found a familiar hand holding up a handkerchief for him, embroidered with bells and holly and, strangely enough, dice.
A present from my grandmother. Hello, apple kid. The hell’s your name, anyway? You know how hard it is to find people who don’t even got names? He was smiling strangely, eyes sparkling and--was that--what was that look? And with a flush to his cheeks?
Obviously not. The store was boiling hot with all those ridiculous children crammed into it, which would explain the blush, and a gambler like elf boy wouldn’t ever stoop to mooning on a man’s behalf. Skittery decided one of the monsters must’ve kicked him really hard, and must still be recovering from the pain.
A little old for stockings, aren’t we? Nice bells on those shoes of yours, by the way.
It pays the bills. Absolves the sins. It’s like confession they pay you for. Gotta keep on going somehow. Elf boy--who was no longer a boy, though he remained diminutive enough that he still managed to pull off the costume--measured him up, and Skittery knew, all of a sudden, that they were--they had something. Skittery told him he was a good person for helping out with the holiday stuff. It wasn’t confession, because he didn’t have to tell anybody anything. He could keep it all secret if he had to. This was charity work. That he...got paid for.
It ain’t charity. I just...it seems I don’t know. Perhaps I care. About. People. I need a smoke. I’m off in fifteen minutes. You look sick as a dog. You okay for drinks? Okay, let’s go get drinks. How’s that gorgeous mother of yours?
Skittery wanted very much to get a drink, so they went to go get drinks. The elf boy’s name was Racetrack, and it was the only name he ever liked to go by, and had been going by it for all of his life. He didn’t particularly care either way about Christmas, but he looked forward every year to seeing that weird apple kid. He made no money at the tracks, ever, but he wanted to impress apple kid that one time at the Christmas fair.
Years later, Race decided to decorate Skitts’s flat as an early Christmas present. Skitts kept his decorations in his closet in three cardboard boxes. In the back, under a tablecloth from Race’s grandmother, he found a tattered brown container housing a handkerchief with dice on it and a pristine porcelain doll all gussied up in her bright pink Sunday best.