He wanted to quit, desperately, but what would his wife say? He had plans, big plans, secret plans he had never dared tell her. They could just disappear, duck out, not tell anyone and never look back. There was an island off the coast of Brazil he found on a website called PrivateIslandsOnline.com. They were asking four million Euro for the land, and maybe he could come up with the ten percent if…
A noise at the back of the shop broke his reverie, shoes scuffling on the wooden slats. He looked down at his hands, surprised to find them still holding two Toprol pills, beta blockers that were supposed to help with his anxiety. He'd been about to take them when his mind drifted to that island, and leaving this place, and getting the hell out of here, and getting lost in sandy beaches and daylight and warmth, and so he popped them now, dry-swallowing eighty milligrams before his visitor approached. He hid the prescription bottle in his coat, quickly checked his eyes in the mirror and moved out into the light.
His visitor was short and stocky and dressed in a dark coat and slacks.
"Are you Tony?" was all he could think to say and immediately regretted it.
"Who else would I be?" the visitor barked.
Tony looked around the shop, frowned, and blew into his hands to warm himself. "How can you stand it here?" Tony asked.
"That's…" He thought about blurting out everything, telling Tony how, in fact, he couldn't stand it here, how the walls, the winter, the endless coldness were closing in on him like a straight-jacket, that there were times when he was so close to screaming it took every ounce of strength in his body to stifle the terror in his throat, but instead he finished, "that's none of your business."
Tony nodded, like he didn't really care about the answer, he was just making conversation. He had the look of a man who thought anyone he talked to was wasting his time. The two of them stared at each other for a moment longer.
Finally, Tony offered, "So."
"You have my money?"
"Do you have my… stuff?"
"The money first."
The man nodded, thinking about his wife and what she would say when he proposed this idea to her. Maybe she felt trapped too, maybe all this time she just went along with it, with this life, with him in this job, because she thought she had to. Maybe she was doing it for him. Maybe the walls were closing in on her as well. The man held up a finger, disappeared inside the back office, opened up a drawer under a workbench and fished out a tin. Inside was a roll of bills, thick as one of his fingers, bound by a rubberband.
He took it out to Tony, who was now stamping his feet, shifting his weight from side to side as if that would somehow raise his body temperature.
"You can count it if you want."
The man had never done anything like this before and Tony made him feel it. Tony stared at him as if he were the gum on the bottom of his shoe. Instead of answering, he just tucked the wad into his pocket and withdrew a small satchel. He started to hand it over, and then stopped. "One more thing," Tony said.
This was new. The man suspected that if he lay down with this sort of dog he'd wake up with fleas and here it was, the hook, the catch, the trap door underneath his feet. What was Tony going to ask for? More money? A favor? What?
Tony jerked his finger at a box over his shoulder. "I want one of those."
"Yeah. The big one."
"It's already spoken for, inventoried…"
"That's your problem."
"I'd have to replace it with…"
"You want the goods or not?"
The man sighed. "Fine." He didn't know at this point what it would take to remedy the situation with Mr. Spackles in inventory, but he reached over his shoulder and pulled down the box and handed it over to Tony, who tucked it under his arm and then handed over the bag.
"Pleasure doing business with ya." And with that, Tony exited the way he came.
The man breathed a sigh of relief. By the time Mr. Spackles figured out the box was missing, he'd come up with an excuse. Blame it on quality control or he could claim he stepped on it—he was always doing clumsy things anyway, it was plausible. They could make a new one by the deadline.
He carried the satchel into the back office again and dumped the contents on to the workbench, then pivoted the desk lamp over so he could take a better look.
Tony was an artist. It was him all right, but it wasn't him… freshly shaved, hair dyed blond… Tony had done it all in Photoshop from the photos he'd provided and transferred them to these IDs. Driver's licenses, passports, social security cards, all for he and his wife. It was happening. It was real. They could do it. Forge a new life for themselves. The Toprol was starting to take effect; he felt even-keeled, steady, positive. The ceiling in the shop seemed a little bit higher, the endless shelves a little less oppressive.
He looked at his pocket-watch… it was well past midnight. Not a creature was stirring. He put the fake identities back in the satchel, turned off the desk lamp, and headed home.
His wife was up, surprising him when he came into the house and stamped the snow off his boots.
"Where were you?" she asked.
"You have to get some sleep, Chris."
"I will, I will."
"This is the homestretch."
"I know. Listen…"
Maybe it was the beta blockers, maybe it was the way she looked, her smile, the light in her eyes like he'd married her yesterday, maybe it was the lateness of the hour and the warmth of the fire, but he thought he might as well spring his idea on her now, before he had a chance to stop himself.
"I want to go," he said.
"I want to leave. Now. Just pick up and go. Get out of here."
"I mean it, Miriam. We can do it. We can disappear." He stumbled ahead, now a bit unsure of himself but trying to find his footing. He pulled the satchel out, dumped the contents on the table in front of her.
"You can help me shave, dye my hair to match this picture. I've put some money away…"
"And go where?"
"Brazil. There's an uninhabited island there…"
"Yes… I can put a down payment on a..."
"Are you out of your mind?"
Her words stopped him cold. "I just…"
"You just what?"
"I just thought maybe…" The walls were starting to close in on him again, like they were on rollers, pushing closer.
"What about the children?"
"Someone else can…"
"There is. No. One. Else. Chris."
She picked up the fake identifications and threw them in the fire. He watched them blacken, curl.
She walked over and slapped him across the face. He could feel his cheek redden.
"Now we're going to pretend this never happened. You're gonna get up from here, take off your damn suit, get in bed, and when you wake up tomorrow, you're gonna walk smiling back to the shop, you're gonna tell the elves that they're doing a hell of a job, and you're going to get your ass in that sleigh on Christmas Eve and do what you do best… get the toys out to all the good children in the world. Do you understand me?"
"Tell me you understand me."
"Good." She jabbed her finger under his nose. "Because I didn't spend the last two-hundred and fifty years building this empire to watch you blow it away because you don't know how good you got it."
She took her finger down, patted his cheek, softer this time, and walked toward the bedroom.
Chris swallowed and looked up at the ceiling, then at the fire, where the charred remains of his dreams lay curled in the coals. The walls pushed closer until his eyes clouded and he couldn't see them anymore.