As the season pounces on us...I want to wish you all the very best. Over the year I have met some wonderful people and made a few REAL friends. So, as I will not be here for the next few days in order to spend the holidays with my family, I leave you this little story...
Yes, Rindy, There is a Santa Clause
By TW Brown
Rindy Farmer peeked out from the shadowy doorway. This house had been a good find, sitting all by itself on a hill looking out over a vastness that everyone was pretty sure must be somewhere in Wyoming. A steady rain continued to fall, adding to the gloom felt by everybody the past few days. Nobody could be absolutely certain, but the general consensus placed it to be sometime in December. This would be the third Christmas since them. Most folks called them zombies, not Rindy. That was the nickname she had given her little brother Zimbalist—named after some long dead television star that her dad liked when he was little.
When her parents brought him home the first day and told her the name they had picked, she wrinkled her nose in distaste. From that day, he’d been ‘Baby Zombie’ to her. He was dead now.
Same as her parents.
At age twelve, Rindy Farmer had been trapped in a bathroom while her mom, dad, and little brother clawed at the door. Then, the soldier came. His name was Morgan, and he had shot each of them in the head.
He saved Rindy.
Over the next two years, she traveled with Corporal Morgan. He taught her to shoot. He also taught her not to shoot. Noise always brought more of them. That was why he also taught her how to use a knife, a spear—for jabbing, not throwing—and a bow and arrow. He showed her how to search a room and then secure it after ensuring an escape route existed.
He taught her other stuff, too. He taught her how to tell if a can of food was bad, how to make fire with a flint and the blade of her machete. And he taught her how to hide.
“Never trust anybody,” Corporal Morgan said time and again. “Especially men.”
“You’re a man.” Rindy had pointed out the obvious the first time.
“Yep,” Corporal Morgan agreed. “And my daughter was about half your age.”
“They got her?”
The corporal nodded. “But not everybody had daughters. Some men will see you differently.”
Rindy knew what Corporal Morgan wasn’t saying…was too embarrassed to say. The past few years, she had seen gruesome examples of exactly why he had given that warning.
Two hundred and thirteen days ago, Corporal Morgan died. Then, he sat back up. Rindy put him down. Then, unlike with her brother and parents, Rindy was able to take the time to bury him. Afterwards, she had been alone for almost a month. Just like when she travelled with Corporal Morgan, sometimes there were others; sometimes not. One morning, twenty-six days after she buried Corporal Morgan, Rindy discovered a motel all by itself on an empty stretch of what was left of a highway. That wasn’t a very big deal. The big deal was finding Marjorie, Brad, and Amber.
Marjorie was only a few years older than Rindy. She was Brad and Angie’s big sister. She was also very pregnant. She and her brother and sister didn’t have a Corporal Morgan. They had found out the hard way that they couldn’t just trust anybody. Especially men.
Brad, age nine, and Amber, age seven, didn’t talk anymore. Marjorie told Rindy that they had seen things. Rindy didn’t ask. She didn’t want to know. The four of them lived in one motel room together for a week. Rindy didn’t like staying in one place too long.
One morning, she woke up, ready to say farewell to Marjorie, Amber, and Brad. Only, Marjorie wasn’t there. She checked in the bathroom…empty. She went outside, peering through the dusty plastic blinds first just like she’d been taught.
In the room just to the left, the door was open. Rindy peeked inside, finding Marjorie on the bed. Something was sticking out between her legs. It looked like tiny feet. Marjorie was dead…she didn’t have a Corporal Morgan. Rindy covered Marjorie with a blanket and left the room closing the door behind her.
Just leaving the two little ones wasn’t a choice. After all, where would she be if Corporal Morgan had just left her behind? So, she went into the room and woke up Brad and Amber. After breakfast—the last can of beef stew—Rindy explained what happened and held them as they cried. It was okay to cry, Corporal Morgan said. Holding everything in wasn’t good for you. When things happened that upset her, he always told her, “One good cry…get it all out and move on. It ain’t like the old day when you had time to let one tiny problem own you for weeks.”
Rindy let them cry. It was obvious that they needed it, because they cried for a long time. Then something strange happened, Brad stood up and asked, “Can we leave? I don’t want to stay where my sister died.”
Little Amber got up next to her brother and wiped her red, runny nose with her sleeve and sniffled. “Me, too.”
Rindy helped them gather their few belongings and they began walking up the long, empty road. Two days later they met Ryan and Penny; they were both twenty-five. Ryan was a cook and Penny was a dancer. Rindy tried not to giggle when Amber asked if Penny could teach her to dance.
The two had met at a FEMA evacuation center. One night the soldiers in charge simply up and left. Ryan said it got bad fast. A couple of men were ‘hurting’ Penny when he found them. He had a .22 pistol and shot one of the men. The other man walked away. That night Ryan and Penny left the FEMA center. They’d been on the road ever since.
The five of them travelled together. Twice they thought they’d found a place to hold up through the winter. Once, a large gang rolled into the area. Nobody wanted to wait to find out if they were friendly, and they slipped out under the cover of night.
The second place, a non-descript house in a partially burned down development seemed perfect. Even though many of the houses had burnt down, the whole community was behind a waist-high wall. A stone’s throw away, a river swept past. Ryan said it was the Platte River. The blessing became a curse when a terrible storm thundred through. For three days they watched as the river flowed over its banks, creeping just as slowly and steadily across the flat plain as any zombie. Every hour it came closer to the houses. Eventually, water began flowing down the razor-straight grid of streets.
They travelled for two more weeks when they found the biggest, most amazing house Rindy had ever seen. It sat on a hill looking over a valley that stretched off to the east and west. The valley was bordered by enormous rocky cliffs to the north and the south.
Unlike many houses these days, this one still had most of its windows intact. It stood three stories high and had a huge fireplace inside that seemed bigger than Rindy’s bedroom in her old house with mom, dad, and ‘baby zombie’. The only disappointment proved to be the pantry. Easily the size of a small apartment, it was full of bags and bins. These people had obviously not believed in food out of a can. Not a single box of macaroni and cheese. There were a variety of herbs and spices…all rotten and useless.
Looking around, they found a large plot that Ryan said was a garden. Of course it was dead and full of weeds, but Ryan said it held promise. It looked like they had found not just their winter home, but maybe a place that they could stay. At least that’s what Ryan and Penny kept saying. Rindy wasn’t so sure. She didn’t like staying any place too long.
The days grew shorter, colder, and gloomy. Rindy continued to teach Brad and Amber the things Corporal Morgan taught her. Sometimes Ryan and Penny watched, whispering back and forth. For some reason, watching her, Brad, and Amber train seemed to make them sad.
One morning, Rindy was out early before the sun came up. She’d made herself a breakfast; roasting a chunk of pumpkin and eating it with her fish that Penny caught and smoked a few days before. She liked going out early by herself. The first day, she’d come back with three rabbits. That had been quite a feast. She hadn’t been out twenty minutes when she saw it: an enormous deer.
An hour later, she, Ryan, and Penny were hauling the field-stripped carcass back to the house. While Rindy and Penny went to work cutting it up, Ryan and Brad went foraging for some editable winter greens. Ryan was really good at identifying plants.
Late that afternoon, Ryan and Brad returned. Ryan was very excited. The two had gone off searching for some greens and hopefully a few herbs he could use to spruce up the night’s meal. They found a road, mostly washed out. Curiosity getting the better of them, they’d followed it. It was Brad who found the sign: Elkhart 2 mi. A town was a mere two miles away!
“You know what that means?” Ryan asked.
“That we’ll need to be more careful and keep our eyes open for roamers and stragglers,” Rindy said.
“Gloomy much?” Penny snorted.
“It means that we might be able to salvage some useful stuff,” Ryan ignored Rindy.
“It will be like a shopping spree,” Penny said, sounding like she’d just won the grand prize on a game show.
That night, everybody sat around the fire, eating venison, a bitter salad that Amber took one taste of and refused to take another, cups of steaming hot water from the creek nearby, and the big surprise that Ryan had kept hidden and sent Brad for once dinner was done…apples! One of the houses on the outskirt of the newly discovered town had a pair of apple trees in the yard. They were kinda shriveled, but everybody snacked away with ear-to-ear grins.
“You went into town?” Penny asked.
“Naw,” Ryan shook his head, “just this one house on the outskirts.”
That night, the rest of the talk centered on the possibilities of what they might find. The next day, Ryan and Penny left early with empty backpacks. They were gone all that day and night. The next day, they came back with full packs and huge smiles.
“We got the makings of a regular feast,” Ryan crowed. “Just in time for Thanksgiving.”
“Did you find turkey?” Amber climbed up onto a stool next to the counter as Ryan and Penny unloaded their packs.
“Nope, but we got venison, just like the pilgrims ate, and…” He produced two bottles carefully wrapped. “I found corn syrup.”
“Ohhhkay,” Rindy raised an eyebrow.
“The perfect sweetener, along with some cinnamon and ginger I found. I think I can make something close to pumpkin pie. Just without the crust,” Ryan explained.
This made everybody smile. The next day, while she was out in the morning, Rindy bagged five quail. To make things even better, she found a nest with seven newly hatched eggs. She bundled up the chicks and returned to the house.
“You’re lethal with that bow and arrow,” Ryan said. Rindy scowled and Ryan raised his hands. “Young lady…sorry.”
“That’s pretty close to turkey,” Penny offered. “But what’s with the little peepers?” she asked, tilting her head at the cluster of chicks Rindy arranged carefully in the empty kitchen sink, nestled in a ratty sweatshirt.
“Maybe we can raise ‘em and use their eggs,” Rindy shrugged.
“That’s not a bad idea at all,” Ryan admitted.
That night, they decided it was close enough to Thanksgiving. The meal was great, and everybody loved Ryan’s pumpkin custard. None of them could remember being that full—that satisfied—in a long time.
“All we need is the Detroit and the Dallas games and it would be just like old times,” Ryan said as he undid the button on his pants and stretched out on the couch.
“You were into that?” Penny scoffed.
“I’m a guy aren’t I?”
“I miss the Black Friday shopping with my sister and a few friends,” Penny admitted sheepishly.
“You are one of those people?” Ryan sat up so that Penny could sit at the other end of the couch. Amber had taken to following the woman everywhere and climbed up to nestle under her arm.
“And I suppose you were the type that did all his Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve.”
“Christmas?” Amber’s head popped up. “With Santa Claus?”
Everybody looked at each other, hoping they would speak. Rindy watched Ryan and Penny raise eyebrows at each other and shrug.
“Well…” Ryan began, drawing that first word out. “Now that we have a house to live in…I don’t see why not.”
Rindy felt her mouth fall open. What could he be thinking? Her eyes burned into the side of his head until he finally glanced her way. What? Ryan mouthed. Rindy’s eyes flash from Amber and back.
“Won’t the monsters get him?” Amber looked up at Penny with the sincere concern that only a child seemed so adept at expressing with just their eyes and their hands clasped delicately under their chin.
“Ummm…well…no,” Penny answered, caught off-guard. “His reindeer are too quick, and will protect Santa.”
Rindy stormed out of the room, heading upstairs. She heard more talking followed by squeals of laughter from Amber as she stalked into the room that she’d claimed. It caught the rising sun in the morning—when it wasn’t obscured by clouds. It helped her remember something that Corporal Morgan used to say a lot. “If you see the sun come up, then you’ve made it through the hardest part.”
Laying on her bed, the food in her stomach suddenly felt like a lead ball. It didn’t matter that Ryan and Penny were older; Brad and Amber were her responsibility. She couldn’t have little Amber’s hopes riding on some imaginary character from a world that was long since dead. Those days were gone. If this were that old world, Amber would be at about the age when Santa ceased to exist.
“Hey,” Ryan stuck his head inside the door. Rindy rolled onto her stomach, turning her face away from him. She had started crying for some stupid reason.
“What’s so wrong with letting Amber have a little piece of childhood?” Ryan asked. He sat down at the foot of Rindy’s bed. “It can’t hurt.”
“Yes,” Rindy insisted. “It most certainly can.”
“When none of her Christmas wishes are there on whatever day you decided is Christmas Day…”
“You know what she asked her?”
“What?” Rindy rolled over, curious.
“Candy and a Barbie.” Ryan laughed.
“In case you haven’t noticed, nobody makes that stuff anymore.”
“Actually,” Ryan smiled. “I found a bunch of hard candy in the grocery store. I’m pretty sure that some of it might still be edible.”
“After over three years?”
“It’s not like hard candy spoils. As long as no holes were made in the package, it should still be okay. And after this long…even if it’s stale, who’d notice?”
“And the Barbie?” Rindy prodded.
“A bit more difficult,” Ryan conceded. “But there has to be one in that town, if not in the store. We may have to wash it up a bit, but that is no biggy.”
“I still don’t like it.” Rindy scowled.
“Keep up that attitude and Santa won’t bring you anything.” Ryan laughed again and left.
Rindy laid on her back staring up at the ceiling. There’s no such thing as Santa Claus, Rindy thought. Still, she couldn’t help but let her mind wonder a bit. Had it really been over a decade since she sat on Santa’s lap? She’d been six—only a year younger than Amber is now—and it would be the last year that she believed. All thanks to Richard Gulley…the stupid boy that sat in front of her in Miss Miller’s class.
A dress she thought. How wonderful would it be to wear girl’s clothes again? And strawberries. Take that, Santa. Rindy drifted off thinking of pretty dresses and bowls of red, ripe strawberries. As she slept, she smiled.
The next morning, Ryan was gone. He must have gotten up awfully early. Rindy was awake an hour before sunrise and already fitted out to do some hunting. Penny was a whiz at curing and drying meat. It would be wise to stock up now. Better too much than not enough. Corporal Morgan taught her that.
When she came back from hunting, nobody was outside. That wasn’t such a big deal considering that it had been raining all day. Rindy was soaked and couldn’t wait to warm up in front of the fire.
As soon as she opened the door, she went on her guard. It was silent. Drawing her machete, she crept down the entry hall. She could see the flickering glow of the fireplace and hear the occasional pop of burning wood.
Reaching the end of the hall, she paused and took a deep breath. She couldn’t smell anything. At least not anything dead. Cautiously, from a crouch well below eye level just like Corporal Morgan taught, she peeked around the corner.
“Surprise!” Penny, Amber, and Brad yelled.
In the corner, a huge pine tree reached almost up to the twenty foot high vaulted ceiling. Sparkling decorations of all kind glittered in the light of the fire. Underneath it was a dozen packages wrapped in…
“We found some fancy dresses in a box. Fortunately, the woman must have been huge, so there was plenty of material,” Penny laughed.
“Penny said that a Christmas tree would help Santa Claus find us, “Amber squealed with delight.
Rindy glanced at Penny and Brad who stood behind the excited little girl with dopey grins on their faces. She slid the machete back in its sheath and walked the rest of the way into the room. “It’s really nice, Amber,” she said, trying her best to sound enthusiastic.
As soon as she was able to pry herself away from the happy little girl, she went to the kitchen to clean the two rabbits she’d bagged. She was just finishing wrapping up the waste and cleaning the area when she heard Penny scream.
Drawing her blade, Rindy rushed towards the commotion. She heard Amber’s crying above everything else and it wrapped around her stomach like an icy fist. Reaching the door, she skidded to a stop. “Step away from him,” Rindy said, surprised at the calm in her voice.
Everyone was gathered around Ryan. He looked up at her, the knowledge already in his eyes. His face was waxy and covered in sweat. Rindy only glanced briefly at the left arm wrapped in bloody rags.
Penny was verging on hysterics, which in turn amplified the stress to both Amber and Brad. Rindy took a deep breath, the smell of death tickling her nostrils, fouling her mouth with its rank familiarity. She walked down the stairs, and as she reached Brad, she guided him over next to his sister. Then, with a gentle nudge, she sent Penny to stand beside the children. With very little effort, she’d managed to get the three in a group and place herself between them and Ryan.
“You shouldn’t have gone alone,” Rindy whispered. Then, louder, she said, “Everybody go back inside.”
“What are you going to do?” Penny sniffled.
“Inside,” Rindy repeated, keeping her eyes on Ryan.
“Go!” Ryan added, looking past Rindy.
The two waited, Rindy never taking her eyes off Ryan until the door closed with a loud, ominous click. Once they were alone, he unslung the pack from his shoulders and held it out to Rindy.
“Found a couple of Barbies and a surprising amount of candy that wasn’t ruined,” Ryan said, then coughed. “Also, found a little .22 pistol that you could probably teach Brad to shoot, earrings for Penny…she said she’d never owned diamonds before, so I figured—”
“You shouldn’t have gone alone,” Rindy snapped, cutting him off. “Is this supposed to make Christmas better? You going off and getting yourself killed to bring us things?”
Ryan hung his head, instantly taking the steam out of her anger. “I just wanted everybody to have something special,” Ryan rasped.
“And so your present to me is…what?” Rindy waved her machete in the air and pointed it at his injured arm. “I get to watch you die, then put you down?”
“Jesus, kid.” Ryan looked up.
“I’m not a kid,” Rindy snapped back.
“Well maybe you should try it every once in a while,” Ryan said with a warm smile. “That’s why I did this.” He shook the pack that Rindy still hadn’t taken from him. “It makes me sad to see somebody so young…who never had the chance to be a teenager…act like a freakin’ soldier. And the way Amber looks up to you…well…I just wanted her to have a moment of childhood before you turn her into a Rindy action figure.
“I just wanted to give her a Christmas morning, one last visit from Santa Claus before she’s drafted into your army.” Ryan slumped and the pack fell from his hand.
He seemed to melt as he slowly sunk to the ground. He lay still for a moment. Rindy grabbed the pack and removed it from between her and Ryan. Her eyes stayed fixed on the prone figure in the mud at her feet. The first sign came from the left hand: it twitched once…twice…then curled into a claw, digging furrows in the saturated earth. The head began to rise; the familiar, dry, rattling moan escaped its lips. The face that looked up at Rindy was a lifeless, slack caricature of Ryan.
With one swing, she brought the machete down smashing through the crown of the skull with hand-numbing finality. The body collapsed to the ground as she wrenched the blade free. “There is no such thing as Santa Claus,” Rindy whispered.
That afternoon they stood over the grave that Rindy dug by herself. She’d also dragged the body, dumped it into the hole, and covered it alone. When she was done, she went inside and gathered everybody. Penny had found a bible, and read Psalms 23. Then, each of them said something nice about Ryan and returned inside.
That night, she and Penny wrapped the items they had found in the pack. Together, they agreed to wait a week to celebrate Christmas. It just didn’t seem right to skip it after Ryan had gone through so much to make it happen.
The night they declared as Christmas Eve, Penny recited as much as she could recall of T’was the Night Before Christmas. She and Rindy tucked Amber in, then went downstairs and set out the rest of the presents. Penny went to bed, leaving Rindy alone in front of the tree. She sat for a while listening to the rain. With a yawn, she got up ready for a little sleep before Amber woke the house.
Rindy Farmer peeked out from the shadowy doorway. This house had been a good find sitting all by itself on a hill looking out over a vastness that everyone was pretty sure had to be somewhere in Wyoming. A steady rain continued to fall adding to the gloom felt by everybody the past few days.
Maybe tomorrow would help pull them out of it. Before closing the door, her eyes tried to find the outline of the marker where she buried Ryan. “Merry Christmas,” she whispered into the darkness. As expected, Amber woke everybody bright and early. Rindy rolled over, the chill in the room cold enough to turn her exasperated exhale to a visible fog.
“Rindy!” Amber burst into the room, a ball of child-generated electricity. “Santa came! Come look!” Then the child dashed out. The sound of another door being flung open was followed by “Penny! Santa came! He came!”
Brad stumbled into Rindy’s room. “We’d better go downstairs before she explodes,” he yawned.
Rindy sat up and threw the covers aside. Instantly her body was pebbled with goose bumps. She looked out her window, but it was so fogged over that she couldn’t see. All that she could tell was that the sun hadn’t risen yet. The faintest hint of light was barely discernable.
As quickly as possible, she pulled on a few layers of clothes. Finally satisfied she went out into the hallway. Amber stood at the head of the stairs dancing excitedly from one foot to the other. She was barefoot, and wearing the long flannel shirt she normally slept in.
“C’mon, Rindy!” she pleaded, darting to her and grabbing her hand.
Penny and Brad came in their wake as they headed down the stairs. Rindy was already trying to figure out how to get this done as quickly as possible in order to get in some hunting. Christmas or not, they needed to continue stocking up on food.
Reaching the landing halfway down the stairs, Rindy froze. She could see outside through the giant picture window. The ground was covered in a blanket of pure white. A wave of warmth hit her, drawing her attention to the fireplace where, mysteriously, a raging fire roared. But that was only the first surprise.
Spilled out across the floor were brightly wrapped packages complete with bows and dangling tags. Three red stockings hung from the mantle above the fireplace, giant candy canes poking from each one. Rubbing her eyes, Rindy continued down the stairs in slow, halting steps. She glanced back at Penny who was wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Brad scooted past, joining Amber in the final dash towards the sea of presents.
As Rindy reached the final steps, Amber hurried back to her, a Barbie clutched in one hand. The other hand shot out holding an envelope. “This has your name on it!” she giggled, then ran back to join her brother who was wading into the pile.
Rindy looked down at the tiny, waxy envelope in her hand. Her name was written elaborately across the top. A picture emblazoned on the front showed a cluster of bright red strawberries. She shook the envelope, hearing the whispering rattles of the tiny seeds inside.
“This one’s for you, too!” Brad came up to her with a package wrapped in blue foil with a silver bow. The tag that dangled from it was in the same script with her name.
Sitting on the stairs, she opened the package to discover a beautiful black dress. Her eyes began to water a bit. She blinked to clear them and noticed something written on the back of the tag. She picked it up and read: Yes, Rindy, there is a Santa Claus.