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Author: Nora Roberts


DECEMBER 12, 1974

Douglas Edward Cullen had to pee. Nerves, excitement and the Coke he’d had as part of his reward lunch at McDonald’s for being good while Mama shopped combined to fill his three-year-old bladder to bursting.

He danced, in exquisite torture, from the toe of one of his red Keds to the other.

His heart was pounding so hard he thought if he didn’t yell really loud or run as fast as he could, he might explode.

He loved when stuff exploded on TV.

But Mama had told him he had to be good. If little boys weren’t good Santa would put coal in their stocking instead of toys. He wasn’t sure what coal was, but he knew he wanted toys. So he only yelled and ran in his mind like his daddy had taught him to do when it was really, really important to keep still.

The big snowman beside him grinned and was even fatter than Douglas’s aunt Lucy. He didn’t know what snowmen ate, but this one had to eat a lot.

The bright red nose of Rudolph, his very favorite reindeer, blinked on and off until Douglas’s eyes were dazzled. He tried to entertain himself by counting the red dots that swam in front of his eyes, the way the Count counted on Sesame Street.

One, two, three! Three red dots! Ha ha ha ha ha!

But it made him feel a little bit sick.

The mall was full of noise, the blasts of Christmas music that added to his impatience, the shouts of other children, the crying of babies.

He knew all about crying babies now that he had a little sister. When babies cried you were supposed to pick them up and walk around with them singing songs, or sit with them in the rocking chair and pat them on the back till they burped.

Babies could burp right out loud and nobody made them say scuze me. Because, dummy, babies couldn’t talk!

But Jessica wasn’t crying now. She was sleeping in the stroller and looked like a doll baby in her red dress with the white frilly junk on it.

That’s what Grandma called Jessica. Her little doll baby. But sometimes Jessie cried and cried and her face got all red and scrunched up. Nothing would stop her from crying, not the singing or the walking or the rocking chair.

Douglas didn’t think she looked much like a doll baby then. She looked mean and mad. When that happened, Mama got too tired to play with him. She was never too tired to play with him before Jessica got in her belly.

Sometimes he didn’t like having a little sister who cried and pooped in her pants and made Mama too tired to play.

But most of the time it was okay. He liked to look at her and watch the way she kicked her legs. And when she grabbed his finger, really tight, it made him laugh.

Grandma said he had to protect Jessica because that’s what big brothers do. He’d worried so much about it that he’d snuck in to sleep on the floor beside her crib just in case the monsters who lived in the closet came to eat her in the nighttime.

But he’d woken in his own bed in the morning, so maybe he’d only dreamed he’d gone in to protect her.

They shuffled up in line, and Douglas glanced, a bit uneasily, at the smiling elves who danced around Santa’s workshop. They looked a little bit mean and mad—like Jessica when she was crying really loud.

If Jessica didn’t wake up, she wasn’t going to get to sit on Santa’s lap. It was stupid for Jessie to be all dressed up to sit on Santa’s lap, because she couldn’t say scuze me when she burped, and she couldn’t tell Santa what she wanted for Christmas.

But he could. He was three and a half years old. He was a big boy now. Everyone said so.

Mama crouched down and spoke to him softly. When she asked if he had to pee, he shook his head. She had that tired look on her face and he was afraid if they went to the bathroom they’d never get back in line and see Santa.

She gave his hand a squeeze, smiled at him and promised it wouldn’t be much longer.

He wanted a Hot Wheels, and a G.I. Joe, and a Fisher-Price garage, and some Matchbox cars and a big yellow bulldozer like the one his friend Mitch got for his birthday.

Jessica was too young to play with real toys. She just got girl stuff like funny dresses and stuffed animals. Girls were pretty dopey, but baby girls were even more dopey.

But he was going to tell Santa about Jessica, so he wouldn’t forget to bring stuff for her when he came down the chimney at their house.

Mama was talking to someone, but he didn’t listen. The grown-up talk didn’t interest him. Especially when the line moved, people shifted, and he saw Santa.

He was big. It seemed to Douglas, on the first ripple of fear, that Santa wasn’t so big in the cartoons or in the pictures in the storybooks.

He was sitting on his throne in front of his workshop. There were lots of elves and reindeer and snowmen. Everything was moving—heads and arms. Big, big smiles.

Santa’s beard was very long. You could hardly see his face. And when he let out a big, booming ho ho ho, the sound of it squeezed Douglas’s bladder like mean fingers.

Lights flashed, a baby wailed, elves grinned.

He was a big boy now, a big boy now. He wasn’t afraid of Santa Claus.

Mama tugged his hand, told him to go ahead. Go sit on Santa’s lap. She was smiling, too.

He took a step forward, then another, on legs that began to shake. And Santa hoisted him up.

Merry Christmas! Have you been a good boy?

Terror struck Douglas’s heart like a hatchet. The elves were closing in, Rudolph’s red nose blinked. The snowman turned his wide, round head and leered.

The big man in the red suit held him tight and stared at him with tiny, tiny eyes.

Screaming, struggling, Douglas tumbled out of Santa’s lap, hit the platform hard. And wet his pants.

People moved in, voices streamed above him so all he could do was curl up and wail.

Then Mama was there, pulling him close, telling him it was all right. Fussing over him because he’d hit his nose and made it bleed.

She kissed him, stroked him and didn’t scold him for wetting his pants. His breath was still coming in hard little gasps as he burrowed into her.

She gave him a big hug, lifted him up so he could press his face to her shoulder.

Still murmuring to him, she turned.

And began to scream. And began to run.

Clinging to her, Douglas looked down. And saw Jessica’s stroller was empty.


The Overburden

Go where we will on the surface of things, men have been there before us.


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