The lean and dusty man pronounces the truth.
I'm close behind him, hot in my heavy red coat, burdened by my sack of presents. I pull out a present for the dead man. It's an ice cream. Not much good for a dead man, I'm afraid. Ice cream melts. It needs the interaction of a pair of living jaws. Still, it's what comes out of the sack, so it's what I give him.
I'm thinking about children as we move through the building. I shouldn't, really, but sometimes I can't help myself. Well, even if I'm thinking naughty thoughts, I'm still doing penance as I should. I'm being the best Santa that I possibly can, and I'm gifting the fallen to salve the hurt of the fall.
I remember the little room with the stale bread gone solid on the trigger-tab of the rat trap, and the congealed light gelid in the lightbulb, the lightbulb heavy with exudate, hanging there, shedding a gray junksick light over the evolving scene, and I remember Micron the crow hopping toward the fingerless child, beak not yet red, not yet.
A child has two eyes. Did you know that? It's surprising, when you think about it. It's surprising how many surprising things there are about a child. When you think about it.
This time it's an old man, propped up against the wall, haloed by splatter-splinters of blood. I give him a pair of shoelaces, shiny new shoelaces. Personally, I don't much care for brand new shoelaces. They tend to be a bit stiff, don't they? Still, that's the present that comes out of the sack, so that's what I give him.
I don't know how long I've been doing this. A long time, I guess. I can remember Vietnam. Korea. The retreat from that place, what's it called? The Chosin Reservoir. Cold, and snow, and the teeth of the mountains eating into your dreams as you slept, if you slept.
The shot in the head is diagnostic. Particularly in the snow. A flush of red blood. A rivulet. There's no blood if they're already dead, you see. That pumping blood requires a pumping heart.
You don't know what I mean? Robert Capa, the war photographer, has a photo sequence. A man shot in the head by a sniper. The diagnostic blood spilling and pooling and spilling some more as it flows across the floor. Which must be canted a little, when you think about it.
I'm losing track. What's this? It's a woman. A collateral casualty, I guess. Can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, you know. I reach into the sack and bring out an electric can opener. Something she'll be able to use for years and years. If the voltage is right, that is. I do worry about the voltage. Still, it'll be a while before they get the electricity back on.
But the electricity will come on, eventually. We'll get it all fixed up. And these people won't believe how much stuff they're going to get once we've finished what we're going to do. Not just ice creams but refrigerators to put them in.
And then there's nobody in front of me. None of ours, I mean. Something's gone wrong. I took a wrong turn or something. What's in front of me is a kid. And I imagine him in pajamas, yellow pajamas, yellow has always done something for me, yellow is the color of bananas, maybe that's why.
And I remember the doctor saying, "No, you don't have to think that way, you're a creature of free will, you know."
Saying it gently as he eased the red hot wire further up the Painful Channel, saying it gently as he cured me.
And I must be cured, because the evil vision of yellow pajamas blinks away, and what I see is reality, a kid in broken sandals and filthy clothes, a face pinched with fear, afraid yet still coming forwards, and that's not a present in his hands, that's a grenade.
I don't know where the rifle comes from, but suddenly it's in my hands, and I do the right thing. I forget all about yellow and pajamas and bananas and cream, and I shoot him, center mass, that's doing the right thing, and he goes splattered back in a shower of exclamation marks.
"Dead now," I say.
And I throw aside the rifle, because I think I won't be needing it any more, I think they're all dead now. And I reach into the sack for something for the boy, hoping for something good, and what I find is a puppy, a happy little cute-nosed Christmas puppy, and I give it to the kid.
"Here, kid. For Christmas."
The puppy nuzzles up to the kid and starts licking his little face clean, taking away the red stuff.
I like my job. Okay, the uniform is heavy and hot, and the hours are evil, and I'm trapped, there's no way out, I'm going to be doing this job for the next thousand years, or however long it takes for me to make good on my vow of penance.
But the thing is, I'm doing the right thing. I'm a Good Citizen now, thinking the right thoughts (well, most of the time, anyway) and gifting people, bringing them chocolate bars and ice creams and shiny new harmonicas and all the rest of that good stuff.
American beauty, that's me. God bless America.