Three Sisters, Santa & A Billboard by Laura Smith

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In hindsight, it would have been smart to belt Santa into the passenger’s seat before heading home. In all actuality, it would have been smarter not to have contacted the CraigsList poster about buying Santa at all. This was Chrissy and her last minute plan to win the neighborhood decorating contest and surprise her sons at the same time. It was also Emily and her idea to drive with Shannon’s convertible top down and stick one of Santa’s arms out the window so that everyone would notice him driving by.

Shannon’s fault was in letting them talk her into picking up the beast of an ornament. She had to admit, though, Santa did look real with his sparkling blue eyes, rosy nose and cheeks, and doll-hair smooth white whiskers. His suit was thick and form-fitting around his big, round belly, the white trim faded to a yellow and spots of brown speckling his dull, red coat. He even seemed to weigh as much as the real Santa, with most of the weight in his doughy middle. Shannon had lifted up his coat to take a peek at his bare belly and figure out what he was made of before Chrissy yelled at her to, “Stop fondling Santa!”

It took all three sisters to pile him in the car with long-limbed Chrissy wrapping her arms around his trunk to lift him into the seat, chunky Shannon pulling him into place from the driver’s seat, and short, skinny Emily manipulating his limbs so that his boots were flat on the floor mats and his green mittens were positioned with one on the crack of the open window and the other on his left thigh. Santa had taken two cheap shots at her in the process, whacking her once in the eye with a mitten and once in the shoulder with his right boot. Her right contact was still watering when she and Chrissy climbed into the back of the convertible to leave. Chrissy, too, was panting like she had carried him on her shoulders like a soldier in battle, wondering how she was going to get the big oaf on her roof, even with her husband’s help.

Santa’s previous owner, Jan, stood under her porch in shorts and a tent of a sleeveless flowery top, waving her three, crisp, ten dollar bills like a Chinese folding fan and watching the three-on-one wrestling match play out, happy to be down one piece of her late husband’s junk collection and even happier to have a hearty stack of cash for Saturday Bingo. Shannon waved a quick goodbye to her, a half-genuine, half-sarcastic “thanks for your help” wave before she slid into the driver’s seat with Santa by her side.

He smelled like unworn clothes that had been sitting in a closet too long. The fresh air of the convertible ride home would do him good. The weather had thawed out the past two days, making the roofless ride home bearable for late December, something that Emily whined about as they pulled away from the curb. She had begrudgingly unbuttoned her black pea coat as the mid-60’s temperatures beat her into submission to embrace the heat wave, revealing two Dalmatians in Santa hats on her white tshirt underneath.

Chrissy rolled up the sleeves of her hoodie and tied her long, brown hair back to keep the wind from matching the wavy volume of her sister’s next to her. Shannon’s hair came out of its twisted knot and blew backwards, each strand brushing Chrissy’s cheeks so that she had to sit all the way back in her seat to keep it out of her face.

“God, Shan. It’s like I’m being slapped back here!” Chrissy yelled over the wind as Shannon picked up speed, heading out of Jan’s neighborhood and into town to take the tunnel back to the suburbs.

“Sit back, then, or better yet, tie my hair up!” Shannon cried back, both hands tight on the wheel as traffic slowed on the way to the bridge.

People were everywhere, lined up in blobs at the crosswalks, smoking against the McDonald’s, coming out of rotating doors with Macy’s bags in hand, carrying boxes of tacos and drink caddies to the park where the pigeons were flocking in the bright but matted grass. Some were in shorts and t-shirts like Jan, juxtaposed against the wreath-shaped lights hanging from each lamp post on the avenue. Others were festively clad in their long winter coats and scarves.

Chrissy pulled a spare hair tie from her bag and leaned forward to tie up her older sister’s hair at a traffic light. Shannon, grateful for the relief from the blow drying effect her beloved car had on her knotted mane, leaned back to let her. After tying it in a sloppy ponytail, Emily snorted at Chrissy’s asymmetrical work, the hair tie closer to Santa than the middle of Shannon’s head.

“Way to go, Chris,” she sneered, “Good thing you have all boys.”

“Shut up,” she said, then sighed and griped, “Fine, I’ll fix it.”

“No, it’s good. I’ll fix it when I get home,” Shannon insisted.

“No, Emily’s making fun of me. I have to fix it now.”

Just then, the light changed, and Shannon pulled ahead.

“Ah! Wait!” Chrissy cried.

“I can’t wait. The light’s green.”

She pulled forward, grateful that the traffic was clearing the further down the road she got. She picked up speed, hoping to make it through the next four lights before they changed. Chrissy decided to fix her hair anyway, reaching from the confines of her seatbelt and her sister’s head bent unconsciously forward as she drove.

“Ha ha! People are waving at Santa!” Emily exclaimed as they drove past a parked minivan with three kids pressing their noses to the window and waving wildly as they mouthed “Santa!” from behind the glass.

“Sit back at least!” Chrissy ordered.

“Here!” Shannon cried and pressed her head to the back of the seat so that Chrissy couldn’t get to it at all in front of the head rest.

“Oh that’s helpful,” she cried, “Wait. My arms are tired anyway.”

Chrissy sat back to rest her arms for a moment, the most perfect moment for her sake because that’s when the box truck from the opposite direction crossed over the line and its distracted driver, laughing at a funny Christmas GIF that his buddy sent him on his phone, plowed headfirst into them. The impact was at first sudden and blunt followed by the chimes of headlight glass breaking and falling to the ground. Shannon saw nothing but the dark pillow of the airbag as it deployed in her face followed by the smell of burnt fabric. Emily’s perfect view, though, was of Santa being launched out of the car like a pumpkin in a catapult before her forehead slammed into the back of his seat. Chrissy flew forward too, the hair tie popping from between her ready fingers and flying backwards into the road where it landed in the sewer, never to be seen again.

A horn honked after the fact. A woman screamed from the sidewalk. A man yelled, “Whoa!” from the opposite side of the street. The box truck had hit the driver’s side front end before skidding back in his lane and pulling over to his side of the street, taking advantage of the free parking that week.

“You guys okay?” Shannon asked, shaking the fuzziness from her head.

“Yeah,” they each replied, equally stunned.

“I’m calling the police now!” a woman on the sidewalk shouted to them, “Does anyone know CPR?”

“CPR?” Chrissy asked. “No, we’re…fine?” Emily said quietly.

“Oh my God. Is he all right?” the man driving the truck shouted as he ran up to them.

“Who?” Shannon asked.

“Him!” he cried.

Shannon peered around the car, and there was Santa lying face down in the street, arms outstretched, legs apart, a pool of red fluid draining out from under him.

“What the…” Shannon called.

“My God. I think he’s dead!” a man shouted from the sidewalk, stepping down into the street, gathering the courage to check his pulse.

“Girls! Girls! Come up onto the sidewalk!” the woman on the phone motioned to them.

None of the sisters could have been categorized as girls for a solid decade. Emily ranked as the youngest at 25. Chrissy was pushing 30 with three boys under her belt. Shannon had just attended her 20th high school reunion the month before, but the woman had mistaken them for college girls, perhaps volunteering at the children’s hospital with a professional Santa who now lay splattered on the street.

“What’s his name?” the man asked him.

“Santa,” Emily said, matter-of-factly.

They didn’t have a scratch on them, not even a shard of glass from the spidery windshield, which, by the way, Santa had totally cleared in his high jump. He was a good 15 feet from the car in the middle of the road, and Shannon was staring at the puddle, trying to determine the source of the reddish liquid that appeared to be coming out of him.

She looked up just then and saw a billboard right above them. The ad was for butter. To the left, a little boy in a Christmas sweater made a face while holding a snowflake-shaped sugar cookie with a bite taken out of it. Next to him was a tub of margarine with a red circle around it with a line drawn through it. Below the two pictures was a sentence in white letters that read, “That’s not how cookies are made!” The logo for the butter company was displayed proudly in the corner. When Shannon saw it, she burst out laughing and pointed at the ad to signal that that’s what she was laughing about.

Chrissy and Emily looked over at the billboard.

“That’s not how cookies are made,” Emily read aloud to herself.

Then, she burst out laughing too. That kid thought he was having a bad day? Try freaking out a bunch of bystanders with a dead Santa. Chrissy joined in, mostly laughing at how ridiculous those two sounded. The strangers around them shot them horrified looks before they turned to looks of sympathy. They must be in shock, they thought. Temporary insanity.

“Come on. Let’s get him out of the street,” Shannon said.

“No! Don’t move them!” called a voice behind them.

“It’s okay!” Shannon said, holding up one shaky hand at him.

As they approached the limp Santa, an unsuspecting car from the forming line behind them decided to take advantage of the break in traffic and cross over the lane to get around them and on to the next light. As the driver hit the gas, she didn’t notice Santa till she was halfway over him. She hit him like a speed bump, sending him jumping and falling over and causing the forming crowd on both sides of the street to scream out in terror. The sisters shrieked out in surprise, just inches from reaching Santa when he was hit a second time. The driver sped away, thinking she had run over a dead animal or a piece of metal from the crash and zoomed through the red light up ahead, in a hurry to get her Christmas shopping done.

Santa had been flipped clean over, his face now tattooed in tire marks, his belly deflated, revealing itself to be the source of the liquid spilling onto the road. Mr. Jan’s work, they suspected. The sisters really lost their minds then as people in the crowd turned away and made ungodly noises of terror at what they had just seen. They laughed so hard that no sound came out, and they clutched their stomachs and stumbled around like three drunks, having narrowly escaped tragedy twice in two minutes.

Now, whenever a plan went horribly wrong with any of them, they always exclaimed, “That’s not how cookies are made!”