Grandma would always warn me that the elf on the shelf was watching to make sure I wasn’t bad. Growing up, even when it was nowhere near Christmas, the elf would observe me. The elf would judge me.
With my brother and cousins around all the time, it wasn’t easy to be good. But I tried. I tried really hard. When I’d make a mistake and be mean to one of them, I felt the elf staring at me. It would remember that moment. I’d picture it waiting until I was in bed, then running and tattling to Santa. No matter how much I screamed and sobbed to it, the elf wouldn’t answer. It would just watch and wait for me to do something bad again. It knew me too well.
On the fourth of July, I burned Marisa with a sparkler. I didn’t do it on purpose. I mean, I meant to burn Marisa, but I didn’t want to hurt her. I just wanted to see what would happen. Unfortunately, she got hurt pretty bad. Grandma had to take her to the hospital, but not before she got out the belt and whipped me until I couldn’t sit down.
After Marisa’s mom came over to give me a beating of her own, I was left watching Neil, my little brother. Grandma was still at the hospital. Neil watched TV while I tried to walk off the pain from the beatings. Before Dad died, that’s what he’d tell me to do. “Walk it off, you little faggot.”
I walked a lot.
When I got to the living room, the elf was watching me. It knew. Its wooden mouth was open, almost like it was screaming accusations.
“You’re a bad kid.”
“No one likes you.”
“Santa thinks you’re terrible.”
“You’ll be a bad man when you grow up.”
It didn’t actually speak, of course, but it was obvious that’s what it meant. It was the same stuff Grandma said to me, day in, day out. And somehow, I always made sure to live up to it. Try as I might, I couldn’t be good. At the age of eight, I was already certain I was rotten to the core.
Months went by and my best efforts yielded punishment. If I wasn’t accidentally knocking over a vase in the kitchen, I was tracking mud into the hallway. It invariably ended with my pants around my ankles and my grandfather’s old leather belt smashing into me as I tried not to scream. Screaming would only make the beatings last longer.
When it was finally over and I inched my jeans and underwear back up, I told myself I’d be better; that I’d be a good kid from here on out. And for a while – for the entire month of November and into December – I was.
Grandma, Neil, and I went to get our Christmas tree on December 4th. We came home and decorated it while cookies baked in the oven. I remember Grandma lifting me with her strong, solid arms so I could put the star on top. The star had been her daughter’s. My mother’s. It was one of the only things left that had belonged to her.
On December 5th, after Neil and I had gotten home from school, we were playing around. Like all brothers, we played rough. With him being six and me being eight, I was quite a bit bigger. When we were wrestling and I was spinning him by his arm, I made a mistake. I let him go and send him right into the Christmas tree. It fell onto the hardwood floor. Ornaments broke. Lights went out.
The star shattered.
In an instant, I was panicking. I knew Neil would tell Grandma. I knew the elf in the other room would learn what I’d done. I’d been good for so long that I’d started hoping I might get Christmas presents. After this, though; after breaking the one thing Grandma had left after her daughter was killed by Dad, I’d be doomed. Grandma would beat me senseless. The elf would tell Santa. I’d get nothing. And Neil would taunt me with his presents.
Something sparked inside me. What if the elf hadn’t seen what happened? What if Neil didn’t tell Grandma?
I was very busy for about an hour, but I finished. Grandma would be back from work any minute. I knew I might not fool her, but I’d fool the elf. That was most important; it was he who talked to Santa. Not Grandma.
I wore Neil’s face into the living room and looked at the elf on the shelf. He stared back with his black, judgmental eyes.
“I’m sorry I knocked over the tree and broke the ornament,” I said, doing my best impression of Neil’s high voice. I thought about his body cooling on the kitchen floor and his blood making a mess everywhere. Maybe Grandma would believe he fell on a knife if I cried hard enough.
Under the mask of my brother’s skin, I peered at the elf through the eye holes. The skin tasted awful, but I had to breathe through my mouth because the nose holes didn’t line up right. I wondered if the elf believed me.
“I’m sorry, elf,” I squeaked again. I heard the garage door rising and a car pulling inside. Grandma was home. I felt a new rush of panic. I glared through the cold mask at the arbiter of my Christmas fortune. The door connecting the garage to the kitchen opened and I heard my grandmother’s shrill, hysterical shriek.
“Elf,” I whispered, as tears mixed with my brother’s blood and cascaded down my face.
The elf on the shelf cocked its head at me as its mouth opened and closed. It spoke.
“You’ve been very bad, Neil.”
I fell to my knees in fervid, incomprehensible relief. Some part of me heard Grandma still screaming, somehow even louder when she came into the room and saw me. Again, the elf spoke: “You’ve been terrible, Neil.”
Grandma whirled around and looked at the elf, but then shook her head back and forth like she was trying to get ahold of herself. I stood up. Not wanting to ruin the illusion for the elf, I held the mask to my face until I left the room and sat down in the kitchen. Grandma didn’t try to hit me. She didn’t touch me at all. I plopped the skin back on Neil’s head and told Grandma he fell. She didn’t answer.
It didn’t matter, though.
20 days later, in my own, warm room at the hospital, I got some very nice Christmas presents. The doctors and nurses were so kind and gentle with me. One even hugged me after I’d opened my gifts.
The gifts weren’t exactly what I’d hoped for, but they were better than nothing. So much better. I giggled to myself as we hugged. When the nurse asked what I was laughing at, I lied and told her I remembered a funny joke. She smiled, and I was surprised to see a tear running down her cheek. I didn’t think much of it, though. All that mattered was I’d won. I’d finally fooled the elf on the shelf.
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