by Angela C. Johnson
It's never snowed in Hell's Burrito. Never. Never in the course of the town's entire existence has one flake of snow ever bothered to drop here. It doesn't snow in New Mexico! At least not this part of it, and yet, here's my car, (and it's a Jeep, mind you), buried up to its headlights in a snow drift on the side of the road in the freakin' middle of nowhere. It's way past dark and it ain't gonna get any brighter, not for a long time. As far as signs from God go, I think this one couldn't be any clearer if it had neon lights.
My best friend of my whole life, Jane, is with me on this excursion into holiday hell, and with her ever present Jane-ness, she offers me her insight.
"You're a freakin' idiot, Sarah." She stamps her feet in the snow, her fur-lined pink snow boots buried almost up to their fluffy tops in the snow. She's wearing three sweaters under the pink parka, and a knitted ski cap complete with pink reindeer and little puffy balls dangling from stings. Her jet black hair sticks out wildly with static electricity and her rosy face looks like it's been scrubbed raw with a Brillo pad. "And stupid me. I can't believe I agreed to come with you on this junket. You suck, Sarah."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." I mutter. She's not the first person to tell me that tonight. She's not even near the head of the line. I don't blame her for hating my guts right now. It's Christmas Eve. We're stranded on the side of the road in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere when we could both very well be at home, in the company of family we love (or in my case, family we tolerate because you go to jail for killing people) eating bad food and listening to bad Christmas music.
We're on this odyssey for one very specific reason. It's Christmas. It's the season of giving and this year, I am bound and determined to win my brat niece Jordan's affection if it means blowing Hell's Burrito completely off the map. Jordan is my big brother Jeff's little girl, she's four, and she hates me. She's hated me since the day she was born and has shown it in so many not-so-subtle ways that it's become something of a running gag to take this child and throw her into my arms at every available opportunity just to watch the carnage ensue.
I hate this child. I hate her with a vengeance and she knows it. She hates me more. But I am determined to win her over this Christmas by buying her the gift she wants more than anything else in this world and then cramming it down her whiny little throat. She's broken every gift I've ever bought her on purpose and in front of everyone she'll throw a temper tantrum and the family inevitable turns on me because I made the baby upset. We'll see how this ends this year. I will be victorious.
Jane walks around the Jeep, staring at it like a quantum physics problem. "How are you gonna get us out of this, genius?"
I look at my watch. The shipment of Pretty Princess Patsy dolls is supposed to be at the Wal-Mart at eight. It's past seven thirty now. My sort-of boyfriend Scooter Bob works there. No one is supposed to know about the shipment, but he called me at home just an hour ago and told me to haul-ass pronto if I wanted to get one of these before everyone found out. I have to get a Pretty Princess Patsy. I have to get there by eight. If I don't, I'll never see another one of them ever again. It's the most sold-out toy of the year. The company can't make them fast enough. Wal-Mart sold the first shipment within the first ten minutes they hit the shelves and it's taken them this long to get another order. It was an old fashioned Christmas miracle you hear so much about but very seldom see. I have got to get there. The fate of the world rests on me having this toy. If Jordan isn't happy there will be hell to pay and somehow it will be my fault. It always is.
"Get behind the Jeep and push." I say.
Jane stares at me like I've lost my mind. "Me? Push? This was your big hairy idea, idiot. You push. I'll drive."
"Fine." Inside, I realize this is probably for the best. I can't imagine what people driving by would think of a Jeep being pushed out of a snowbank by a pink marshmallow, and Jane is a girlie- girl in every sense of the word. In my baggy flannel jacket and my baseball cap turned around backwards, I look more like her redneck boyfriend than her best friend anyway.
Jane gets in the Jeep and I get behind it. We all know where this is going. I know what's going to happen. Jane puts the Jeep in gear, the tires spin in the mud, I put my shoulder to the tailgate and shove. The Jeep sprays mud all over me, in my face, hair, mouth, eyes. And, to add insult to injury, the Jeep's tires finally catch and it shoots out of the rut. I fall flat on my face in the mud and flail like an owl that's been hit by an eighteen wheeler.
Jane doesn't even bother getting out to see if I'm all right. I wipe the mud out of my eyes and hock a big wad of it into the snow and stand. She's glaring at me in the rear-view mirror, her dark eyes like coal chucks of snowman's eyes.
I take one step forward and my feet fly out from under me again. I land rear first in the mud, cracking my tail bone all the way up to my brain box. I hear Jane's laughter, complete with little piggy snorts. Yeah, thanks for the sympathy. I'll be sure to pay in kind when the time comes. For a long time, I don't even bother getting up. I just lay in the snow-mud and make me a little snow-mud angel, wondering what the hell I'm trying to accomplish.
I get up one more time and, pulling myself hand-over-hand along the Jeep's side, finally make it back into the driver's seat. Jane's been nice enough to move over for me, though she's trying so hard not to laugh that she looks like she's getting ready to blow out an eyeball from holding it all in. I just glare at her, so furious I want to scream. Apparently that's more than she can handle. She cackles and slaps her knee, shrieking her laughter like some demented clown from hell.
I pull a clump of mud from my hair and shove it into her face. She screams and slaps at me like a sissy-girl. "What did you do that for?"
"You did it on purpose, I know you did." I say. "Payback's a bitch. At the holidays, so am I."
Pouting, she roots under the seat for a box of handy-wipes I keep in case of emergency. Being the only pizza deliver girl for fifty miles around means I run into all kinds of interesting accidents and accompanying stains. I start to reach for one, then stop. There's not a handy-wipe in this world big enough to clean up this mess. Mud is starting to dry on the seat of my pants, my back, and the backs of my legs. It's already dried in my hair. My ponytail sticks out in the back like it's been electrocuted. Merry frickin' Christmas.
"Jerk." Jane mutters.
I put the Jeep in gear and the transmission grinds like I've dumped a box of nails into the engine. It finally catches the right gear and shoots out onto the highway, fishtailing until I can get it back under control. Wal-Mart, here we come.
Wal-Mart is the only store within fifty miles of Hell's Burrito that carries Pretty Princess Patsy. I can hardly see the store for the cars parked three deep in the lanes. I gawk. I open the door and hang out the window so I can look like an ever bigger idiot and gawk at the same time. There are people backed up into the parking lot, five deep in places, waiting for the release of Pretty Princess Patsy. Apparently Jordan isn't the only brat wanting one of these.
Jane's eyes are as big as eightballs. "That is a lot of people."
I mutter a few very unmerry words. "How in the world are we even gonna get in there?"
Pretty Princess Patsy is set to release at eight exactly. There's not enough in stock for all these people, and I'm not leaving without one. Not if I have to beat some little old lady down in the parking lot and tear it out of her gnarled old hands.
I take off my baseball cap and scratch my head, which is beginning to itch terribly. Mud flakes off in my hands, and I get an idea. I grab Jane's hand and pull her out my door.
"What are you doing?" she asks as I pull her bodily out of the Jeep. "You can't park here. This ain't even a parking space."
"I got an idea to get us through the door, anyway." I drag her along behind me. She keeps tripping over her boots, mainly because I don't allow her enough time to get her balance. At the door, a man with three toddlers, one strapped to his back, stops us. "I hope you ladies aren't planning to jump line. I've been waiting here since four o'clock today."
I put on my best pissed teenager face, which isn't too hard. "Look at me, sir." I say, turning to give him a good look at the mud caked on my backside. "I just got back from a mud wrestling match, which I lost, thank you very much, and I'd like to get cleaned up so I can get to my job at Kitty's." Kitty's is the local strip club with a reputation for being very popular with the Hell's Angels. "I need some dough to bail my boyfriend out of jail again. So excuse me."
He stares at me open mouthed and I move right past him and inside, Jane trailing behind me. More than a few people heard my story, all the better to part the crowd. The line goes all the way to the back of the store. I dodge down the toy aisle so people won't see us heading to the service desk like a cruise missile locked on target. There's an ever deeper crowd at the service desk, which is where the toys are being doled out to hopefully avoid a riot. Good luck to them.
"We'll never get through that line." Jane says.
"Thank you, Unnecessary Exposition Girl." I peek around the corner, judging the crowd. We're so close to the service desk I could reach out and touch it if I wanted to. If I wanted to. I have no desire to have my arm ripped off by irate parents and then be beaten to death with my own severed limb.
The check out boy is shaking like a Chihuahua. The villagers are getting restless, and his head is the first one they'll go after. One minute til. Time is running out. If I don't get to the head of that line now, it's all over.
"Well?" Jane plays with a teddy bear, holding it by both arms and dancing it back and forth on the shelf. I grab the teddy bear and shove it up Jane's shirt.
"What are you doing?" she shouts.
"I'm desperate!" I say with the conviction of a madman. "Go into labor."
She tries to pull away from me. "What?"
"You're nine months pregnant!" I shout. "Now make with the labor pains."
"Either you make with the labor pains or I'm going to the lawn and garden section and getting an axe and hacking my way to the head of this line! How many dead people do you want on your conscience?"
Jane shakes her head, not believing the depths of madness I've fallen into. I shove her out of the toy aisle. She stumbles, as self conscious as kid in a school play. She starts puffing, and then lets out a strangled cry. Several people at the service desk look behind them, puzzled. They turn back around, pretending not to hear what's going on.
"Drama!" I hiss from the shelter of the teddy bears.
Jane screams again. "It's coming!" she shouts. "Oh, it's coming! It hurts. Ow!"
"Miss?" A lady at the counter breaks her place in line and comes up to her. God bless the caring stranger. "Are you all right?"
"No, she's not all right!" I shout. "She's having a baby."
Jane puffs like she's going to hyperventilate. I think she's trying to do Lamaze breathing but she's confused. Whatever. It's working. The crowd at the service desk thins as people come to help her. She sinks to her knees in the middle of the floor, one hand to her head, finally into the role.
"Here, lay back." one says as another props her head up with a folded jacket. "Just take it easy. Slow, deep breathing."
The line parts like the Red Sea and I bolt to the front. "Give me a Pretty Princess Patsy." I whisper.
The check out boy looks past my shoulder at Jane, who's gotten way too far into her role. She's screaming about how her jerk boyfriend told her he would take care of her through all this and then left her to run off with a topless dancer named Lola. Drama Queen. If she pulls this off, I'll see she gets an award.
"I think I should call my manager." Clerk-boy reaches for the phone. I grab his shirt front and jerk him across the counter. "Either you get me that doll or I make you a new face. Get it?"
He stares at me, open mouthed. I realize I'm drawing attention from Jane, which is not good. Line jumpers would be tolerated here about as well as transsexual drag queens. I let Clerk-boy go and he hands me the box with shaky fingers. I pay and turn to go.
Seeing that I've gotten the Holy Grail of our quest, Jane starts to calm down. "I think I'm okay now." she says. "Sorry to scare everyone like that."
A few suspicious murmurs go through the crowd. Before anything else can happen, paramedics knock people out of the way. "Take it easy, Miss." one says as he kneels beside her.
"What's going on?" Jane shouts.
"It's going to be okay. We're going to take you to the hospital." The second paramedic forces her to lie back down and keep breathing. How the hell did they get here so fast?
Jane tries to struggle. They put her onto the stretcher, assuming her panic is due to the pain of her labor and not her fury at me. "Sarah, do something!" she screams.
Jane has been my best friend my whole life. She came with me on this trip, she's stood by me when crap flew all over the place and never once asked why. I've got to bail her out of this situation. It's my duty as a best friend.
In the season of giving, I shrug. "I think you have me confused with someone else." I say, and bolt from the store. Jane screams after me but I leave her to whatever fate hands out. I'll get mine, I know it. But until then, I'm riding this one as far as I can.
In the parking lot, I figure out why the paramedics arrived so fast. There's been a ten-car pile up at the intersection. No major injuries but there are a lot of pissed off holiday shoppers. My Jeep is right where I left it, in the middle of a grass median. I hop in and make like Burt Reynolds, heading for home. If I'm lucky, I'll get there just in time for presents.
I break every traffic law known to mankind on my way home. I pull up into the driveway, parking on the lawn, the only available space left. I wrap the gift in the Jeep and then sprint to the house. At the door, I actually grin. This year, you hell-spawn. I've got you this year!
Mom is waiting on me at the door. She heard the Muffler-less Wonder long before it ever reached the driveway. Inside, I shake the snow out of my hair and slap my baseball cap on my thigh to shake the ice crystals loose. Mom takes my jacket, checking out the wide stripe of mud up the back and on the seat of my pants. She doesn't ask. She knows better. She keeps looking over my shoulder and out the door expectantly. When Jane doesn't materialize, she looks at me, puzzled. "Where's Jane?"
"She got caught up at Wal-Mart." I say.
My entire family, mom and dad's brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and God only knows who else that's decided to wander in, are crammed into the living room. As usual, Jordan is the center of attention, sitting in the middle of the floor surrounded by a mountain of opened presents on one side and a landfill of discarded toys on the other. She shreds the paper from the huge box in her lap and squeals with delight. She raises the toy above her head and squeals, "A Pretty Power Princess! I wanted this so much! Thank you, thank you, thank you!" she carols. Then she throws the doll aside and goes. "Next! Next!"
I gawk. "Pretty Power Princess?" I ask. "Not a Pretty Princess Patsy?" Inside, I curse every toy company on the face of this earth to the depths of hell. A hell filled with small, insatiably capitalistic hellion children. How could I have been so stupid? How was I supposed to know the difference between a Pretty Princess Pasty and a Pretty Power Princess? They even look like the same damn doll! Pink dresses, blond flowing hair, magic wands with real sparkling action. I suddenly realize just how badly I hate pink.
"Sarah's is next." Jeff spots me trying to skulk into the kitchen to hide the gift and maybe find a pair of scissors to give his brat child to run with.
"No, really." I say, trying to keep the box away. "It's not, it isn't-"
Like always, Jeff ignores me and takes the box from my hands. He gives it to Jordan, who accepts it but only begrudgingly. She eyes the package like there might be a bomb in it, and I wish there was. She peels the paper off distastefully, one dainty piece at a time, and sniffs indignantly when she holds up the doll I sacrificed my best friend to get.
"I don't like it." She throws the doll in the floor in front of her and kicks it with her foot. Her face goes from pink to crimson and she lets out a banshee wail. "I hate it! I hate it!"
"Then choke on it and die, you little witch!" I shout.
Mom turns six different shades of red, each one specific to whatever rage or embarrassment the slot machine of her emotions flies through. Please land on embarrassed, I think as the colors fly across her face. If it's embarrassment, I'll have time to apologize. If it's anger, I don't think I can get out of the range of her Fists of Death fast enough.
I barely hear the knock on the door over Jordan's screams of pure fury. Mechanically, Mom opens the door. On the other side, standing in the ankle-deep snow on the stoop, are two pink-faced police officers. Jane stands between them, furious. Her dark eyes narrow. She points and me and mouths You.
"What on this earth?" Mom says, stunned enough by the officers flanking Jane that she forgets Jordan. "Jane, what happened?"
"Apparently," the first officer says. "She and your daughter, Sarah, staged a little impromptu play at the Wal-Mart tonight, which involved Miss Jennings pretending to be pregnant while your daughter jumped to the head of the line to purchase a toy. The paramedics were not amused. Neither are we."
The entire living room has gone silent and every relative I have is looking at me like I've sprouted a radioactive head. Jordan looks from the face of one adult to the other and realizes that she is no longer the center of attention. She takes the doll and throws it across the room, but no one even bothers looking. She starts crying again and her mother swats her across the mouth. Stunned, Jordan shuts up without another sound. No one has ever raised their hand to her. It's almost worth it. It would be so worth it if I wasn't about to die. For the first time in my life, I'm the center of attention, and I'd give anything to become Transparent Girl.
"We need you to come down to the station with us," the first officer continues, speaking to Mom but glaring at me. "To straighten this mess out."
Mom glares at me with the mom-look that scares marine drill-sergeants. It's a whole conversation in itself. Get your butt out that door and I swear just as soon as we're alone again your ass is mine.
I slink out the door, feeling everyone's eyes on me, boring holes into my back. The first officer puts his hands on my shoulders and steers me out of the house and into the police car. This is my first ride in a police car. I really think I'd enjoy it more if the metal grill didn't block my view of everything.
Jane sits beside me in silence for a long time. I can hear the snow patting wetly on the roof of the squad car. Mom is talking to the cops, holding it together amazingly well, considering that I can see the vein in her forehead throbbing from here. The whole family is gathered in the front yard, staring. I've given them a better show than uncle Harry dancing drunkenly around the Christmas tree playing a tune on a comb with a piece of paper taped to it.
Jane leans over to me, still staring straight ahead with a murderous lividity I've only seen in the wanted pictures of sociopaths hanging up at the post office. "When we go to jail," she whispers in my ear, "you had better find the biggest, butchest woman named Bertha and be her bitch. You're going to need all the protection you can get because I swear I'm going to find the meanest, most skanky-assed woman I can to beat the hell out of you, no matter what I have to do to get it done."
Tis the season.