“Hello there,” Santa said to Cara as the elf lifted her onto his lap. Cara stared into Santa’s dark appraising eyes.
“Hi.” She looked around the store. Paper chains and flickering lights dangled from the ceiling, illuminating Santa in an eerie glow. A table along one wall was laden with toys. Her eyes lingered on a doll, her heart full of yearning.
“Do you know the meaning of Christmas?” Santa asked.
Cara turned to him her nose touching his. “It’s Jesus’ birthday.” Her gaze flickered to the doll.
“Are you an honest girl?” he asked. “Hell is filled with naughty liars.”
Cara nodded, transfixed by the shadowy fire of his eyes. Santa kissed her cheek.
“Smile!” The elf said.
Cara started at the camera flash and blinked her eyes to clear her vision. She felt herself pulled from Santa’s lap and set on her feet. The elf shoved a box into her hands.
“Had fun?” Cara’s mother asked, leading her out of the gas station. A bell rang overhead as they departed.
“Uh-huh,” Cara said. Santa’s words rang in her mind, making stomach lurch.
They climbed into the car, and Cara’s mother started the vehicle. Cold air blasted from the vents, slowly warming on the drive home. Cara studied the box in her lap. Inside was the doll she had admired, its empty blue eyes shining in the dashboard lights. Cara tucked it under the seat, away from her and out of sight.
*Author’s Note: This story is slightly autobiographical, but of course I exaggerated and condensed the experience. Also, when I met the Santa this tale is based on, it was in a butcher shop next to a convenience store. It wasn’t until I was an adult that it dawned on me how creepy that was.