Off the Shelf
The pine needles poke his cheeks; one sticks in his eye. For the fourth year in a row he has been dispatched to watch this child. He always lands in the tree. Shickabusch waits until the house is quiet. He stands up. The tree shimmies and the lights blink on.
The first year the child could barely sit up. She tried to grab him but he is not to be touched, the parents said, and moved him out of her reach. The second year she staggered around the room. The fur on the cuff of her red velvet dress was soaked with slobber.
Each morning when he escaped the tree, he put himself under the coffee table, hid under her bed, snuck into the bathroom and hid next to the tub. Always the parents found him first, lifted him, showed her. The child pointed, squealed but before she could touch him, he was whisked away. Put back on the shelf.
From there he watched her. She colored on the carpet. She threw herself into tantrums. She refused to go to bed. Each night he returned to the North Pole to log his report. Coal. Coal for this one. They sent him again the next year.
An antique clock in the foyer clicks off seconds like a stopwatch. The big hand lands on the 12 and chimes ring out. One. Two. Three.
The lights glow. Schickabusch leans forward, looking for the windowsill he knows is a little higher than the floor and a safer climb. Above him, Schickabusch sees the underside of a red glass ball. It bounces on a narrow limb, the hook nearing the tip of the branch. Three, maybe four shakes before it lets go.
The windowsill is on the other side of the tree. Schickbusch sees it when the colored lights glow again. He thrusts one leg forward, lands a tiny black boot on the interior limb, looks up to see if the red glass ball is wobbling.
The lights blink off. The lights blink on.
He reaches for the branch above the leading boot and pulls himself across. Both arms wrap around the trunk. The tree shimmies. Legs spread, arms wrapped, left cheek pressed into the bark, he eyes the red glass ball. It bounces.
He pulls his trailing leg, his boot is caught. Shickabusch tugs. The tree shakes. He holds his breath, twists his foot at the ankle, pulls gently. The boot comes free. Legs together, arms still wrapped, face turned, cheek to bark, he breathes.
The tree is still.
Last year it took the family three days to find him in the tree. His belt had gotten caught when he arrived and he hadn’t been able to put himself in view. The parents finally wondered where he might be, pealed the branches aside, found him, and put him on the shelf.
He watched her. She took a toy from her baby brother, tore pages from her mother’s books, and fed broccoli to the dog. Each night Schickabusch traveled to the North Pole to log his report. She was an angel. She belonged on the nice list. She didn’t need an elf to report. She could be trusted.
Yet here he is.
Shickabusch’s right cheek is pressed to the tree trunk. The lights blink on. He looks up. The red ball bounces. The lights blink off.
He knows the mandate. He knows he should be within view when the child wakes. He knows each evening he’ll return home: a journey of pressure on every nerve, wind in every orifice, eyes dry out, head gets dizzy.
He’ll stand in front of the List Elves while they search for the child’s name. They’ll say they can’t find it. He’ll make sure they’re spelling it right. They’ll ask for his paperwork then tell him he’s missed a few spaces and send him away. He’ll scribble with a tiny, dull pencil and get back in line. He’ll wait.
Just before his turn, the elf in front of him will take longer than everyone else, arguing over some bureaucratic nonsense that no one can change. Schickabusch will want to punch the guy. Then it will be his turn. He’ll wish he could just phone it in. He’ll wish there was an app for that.
Then he’ll come back. Suffocated, nauseated, humiliated, he’ll land in the damn tree again. For twenty five days he’ll do this.
Schickabusch makes the other side of the tree trunk before the next light strand blink. He turns his body so his back is against the trunk and he is facing the window. The branch below him is crushed against the sill. The needles are bent and overlapping. It looks like an evergreen net.
Schickbusch smiles. His lips are chapped and one cracks. His teeth close around a shred of skin. He tugs. Blood spills over his mouth, drips onto his red suit. He sucks his lip. The lights blink off.
His arms curve behind him, hands clutching the trunk of the tree. His felt suit snags on the bark, rips free, the tree shimmies. Shickabusch draws back, looks up, over his shoulder, at the red glass ball, now poised to crash to the ground. He estimates the distance to the end of the branch. One more bounce.
This year will be different. This year the kid is four. She’ll find him, she’ll grab him. The spell will be broken. He won’t be able to return to the North Pole. He’ll stowaway with the shredded wrapping paper in the garage, ride the garbage to the curb. He’ll be free.
The lights blink on. Schickabusch jumps. The tree shimmies. The red ball falls. It lands on the fireplace and shatters. The tree goes dark.
Schickabusch is in the windowsill, pressed against the glass. It’s cold. His chest is heaving. The bent branch rebounds. The feathered needles form a solid net behind him.
Schickabusch hears the bedroom door open.
The tree is heavy against his legs. He tries to reach behind him; his hips are pressed to the window. Palms to the glass, he shoves away from it. The branch is stronger than he is, it resists and he’s pinned. In the glass he catches the reflection of desperation in his eyes. He turns his cheek to it, sucks his bloody lip, looks up to a red bulb glowing over his head.
There’s a jingling outside of the branches. Shickabusch listens. He squints trying to see beyond the branches. A sniffing sound and hot breath and the stink of slobber come to him.
“What is it, boy?” a sleepy voice asks. Then the parent comes to the tree and tugs on the plug. The lights go off. Footsteps recede.
Schickabusch looks up. The tree branches are closed, a canopy above him. He cannot see the angel at the top. It’s dark. The tree is still. Schickabusch is trapped against the window.
The child. There’s still a chance she will find him.
Schickabusch closes his eyes and waits.