Pink Santa is a Christmas novelette of twelve chapters, posted serially by me, your immunologically reinvigorated host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Christmas is sappy. You can't escape it without actively being religious in a decidedly non-Christian way. Being an atheist is not sufficiently non-Christian to exempt anyone except the most hardcore of anti-social nihilists. Even my Bengali-born friend has to tap the Christmas sap. Hinduism is not enough to insulate you. Friendly Daoists can't help but enjoy it. Agnostics aren't sure, but they're not against Christmas.
No, to steer fully clear of the True Meaning of Christmas you have to go that extra mile to actually be grumpily Jewish or furiously Islamic or expensively Scientologist.
Even I'm giddy with it, heathen as I am. Last night I gave my step-father a letter telling him how he's always meant to me and my family, and how been instrumental in shaping the kind of man I am. The letter was all about the kinds of things we should say to each other every day, but we don't.
Feels nice. Can you appreciate the sap? It's seasonal so it's okay.
And now, we continue our tale:
When Chloe woke up in the morning she was very stiff. She had slept inside a cupboard in a fake kitchen, and now she had a pain in her neck. She rubbed her neck as she blinked and yawned, looking around at all the appliances. Through the windows she could see the pink light of sunrise shining on the tall buildings outside.
She hugged Polly the dolly. "I guess we're all alone now," said Chloe. "I hope Mike is okay."
Polly had nothing to say, because she was just a doll.
People who worked in the department store began to arrive for the work day, so Chloe hid behind a rack of aprons with funny sayings on them. She watched the workers set up their cash registers. They chatted with one another, wondering about the popcorn cart toppled over in the sporting equipment section. "Maybe the cat did it," said one girl.
"I doubt it," said an older woman.
Older people were always doubting things, Chloe knew.
At nine o'clock they unlocked the doors to let in the shoppers, who quickly filled the store. Chloe came out of her hiding place and walked around with the shoppers, holding Polly close. Chloe's tummy was grumbling because she was so hungry, and it was making her cranky.
She decided to walk to the toy section, where she had last seen Mike, to see if she could find any clues about what might have happened to him.
The toy section was very busy, but it wasn't shoppers running between the aisles: it was people in business suits, carrying clipboards and talking on tiny telephones. Chloe noticed that the toys the security guard had broken were gone, and the display he had taken them from was covered in a shiny piece of red fabric.
Two very busy grown-ups were standing around the cash register, scratching their heads over a pile of money in which every bill had been folded into the shape of a different animal: a duck, a horse, a fish, a dragonfly. One of the grown-ups pointed to the money and said, "You know what's funny? This is exactly the cost of the missing toys."
The second grown-up chortled. "An honest thief? I doubt it. It's probably just a coincidence."
"Still," said the first grown-up, "I wonder who would fold money into shapes like this. Isn't it strange?"
"It's bizarre," agreed the second grown-up.
Chloe kept walking. At the end of the section workers were setting up bright lights on high stands, all pointing at the red fabric covering the toy display. Another man was putting a camera on top of a tripod while his friend plugged the camera into a wall socket. "Okay, people!" called a busy business man with a tiny telephone, "Mr. Baron will be here in five minutes for the rehearsal. We have five minutes, people."
Four minutes and fifty-nine seconds later a tall, thin man in a dark suit with a grey tie walked into the toy section. Everyone stood up straight and smiled. "Good morning, Mr. Baron," they each said as the tall, thin man walked past them. He did not say "good morning" back to anyone and the expression on his face made him look like he had just bitten into something that tasted awful. He had a mustache so thin it looked like somebody had drawn it on his face with a marker.
"Where's the child?" asked Mr. Baron sharply, looking at his watch.
"Um," said one of the business ladies, "the talent has a cold, but we'll find a new child in time for the press conference. Don't worry, sir."
Mr. Baron looked down his long nose at the lady as his frown became even deeper. "Don't worry?" he repeated, his eyes narrow.
"Um," said the lady again. She was having trouble with her smile.
"Go home," said Mr. Baron.
"Pardon me?" asked the lady.
"You're fired," said Mr. Baron. "Get out of here."
The lady's smile disappeared. Tears gathered at the corners of her eyes, and then she turned around and ran away. She was very sad that Mr. Baron had taken her job away.
Mr. Baron looked around the toy section and saw Chloe. "You!" he barked. "You're a child, aren't you?"
Chloe gulped. "Yes sir," she said, nodding.
"Do you want to make some money?" asked Mr. Baron.
"I'm hungry," said Chloe.
"Well then," replied Mr. Baron, "we'll give you some money and you can buy food. That's how money works. Where are your parents?"
Chloe said, "They're not here."
Mr. Baron's frown twitched upsidown for a second, making his thin mustache push up into his nose in a funny way. The man behind the camera told Chloe to stand on a little X of tape on the floor. Mr. Baron stepped up and pulled Polly out of Chloe's arms. "What's this?" he asked.
"That's Polly my dolly, sir," said Chloe.
Mr. Baron snorted. "Looks like garbage to me," he said, tossing Polly into the trash bin beside the cash register. Before Chloe could say anything Mr. Baron shoved a new doll at her. "Here, take this one," he said. "It's much better. You're a very lucky little girl."
"I want my dolly back, please," said Chloe. She was trying not to cry. Everyone was looking at her.
"What's that?" said Mr. Baron. "Nonsense! This is a Baron Toys Doll. It's brand new. It costs over sixty dollars. Why don't you play with it and see how you like it?"
Chloe looked at the doll and wrinkled her nose. "She smells like plastic," said Chloe.
"Why don't you show us how it looks when you give it a hug, honey?" suggested the man behind the camera.
Chloe gave the doll a hug and its head popped off. "Oh my gosh I'm sorry!" cried Chloe. She reached down and picked up the head. The paint had scraped off the doll's eyes where it hit the floor. "She's wrecked," said Chloe sadly.
Mr. Baron grinned, showing a mouthful of long, grey teeth. "Nonsense," he said again. He grabbed the broken doll from Chloe, threw it into the trash bin with Polly, and then took a new doll from the shelf. "You see? Good as new!" he said, offering the new doll to Chloe.
Chloe frowned. "But that's a different doll," she said.
"No no no," said Mr. Baron quickly. "Not at all, child. It's the exact same doll, except this one isn't broken. That's the beauty of the whole idea. You'll never have to worry about broken toys again if your parents get you a subscription with my company."
"What's one of those?" asked Chloe.
"Well," said Mr. Baron, "a subscription means whenever your toys get broken you get a new one, exactly the same, right away! Isn't that wonderful?"
Chloe was confused. She looked at the new doll in her hands and frowned. "But it's not the exact same," she said, "it's a different doll."
Mr. Baron patted Chloe on the head and mumbled to one of the grown-ups, "She's not very bright but she'll have to do. When do the reporters arrive?"
"Half an hour, sir," said the grown-up.
"Fine," said Mr. Baron. "Don't let the child out of your sight. If her parents show up, pay them something."
Mr. Baron rushed away followed by some busy businessmen talking on tiny telephones. A shop girl set up velvet ropes to block off the area where Chloe stood next to the covered display, but Chloe ducked under so she could get to the trash bin to fish out Polly and the broken doll head with the scraped eye paint. The poor doll had only been hugged once before being thrown into the trash, which made Chloe sad. She took Polly and the broken doll head and hugged them both. "You two can be friends," she whispered.
A grown-up put a hand on Chloe's shoulder. "Don't wander away," said the man behind the camera. "You're going to be on television. Isn't that exciting, honey?"
Chloe tried to smile. "Do you have anything to eat?" she asked.
The man patted his pockets. He said, "Do you like gum?"