"After Christmas Sale"
by "Matrix Refugee
Disclaimer: I don't own American Gods, which belongs to the incomparable Neil Gaiman, and to HarperTorch Fiction. I don't own the gods, either: they own themselves.
Author's Note: I had to bend the mythos (heh...) just a bit: this happens somewhere around the beginning of "Part Two: My Ainsel" in the book, but it plays fast and loose with Wednesday and Shadow's trip toward Wisconsin. In keeping with nightofcydonia's prompt for " American Gods, 'the spirit of Christmas, literally'", I'd tried writing a story involving a put-upon department store Santa, but then the spirit of Christmas took on a completely different form and refused to allow the story to go the way I wanted, so I realized I had to do what Neil himself said he had to do when he was writing Delirium in the Sandman Comics, and that was to sit back and listen to her rant a bit...
En route to Wisconsin, Wednesday had them take a detour at a large shopping mall, the kind that used to be built on the edges of small towns just off the highway, but which now are built just off a highway and seemed to gather small towns around them. He said they had an especial person to visit, but Shadow inwardly puzzled at who they would find here. He and Shadow entered by a department store entrance and made their way past the lines to the returns and the customer service desk, Wednesday leading the way to the rear of the store, past clerks taking down Christmas decorations -- plastic snowflakes the size of dinner tables hanging from the ceiling -- and marking down the jetsam left in the aisles that held the Christmas stock.
"The rush is over, so she's likely to be a little more at ease," Wednesday said, pushing through a set of double doors marked "Employees Only."
They entered the labyrinthine back room: rows of steel shelves lined the walls, now mostly devoid of bland brown shipping boxes. They passed by several large plastic bins on casters marked "Recall" and "Damaged". At the rear, they found a short woman in a red polo shirt over khakis at a computer terminal on a stand-up desk, typing with one hand, while with the other she used a scanner gun that looked like a lumpy 1950's toy raygun to scan the barcodes on a stack of crunched-looking boxes, mostly toys that looked as though they had taken a tumble from a flying sleigh.
The woman looked up; she had a harassed but cheerful-looking face, her ice-blue eyes peering through gold-rimmed glasses. She had a pleasingly plump figure, but she was far from looking fat, and her long platinum blonde hair was pulled back from her pink face with a green and gold hair scrunchie. A lanyard with her store associate name tag -- "Yulia" in blocky letters -- hung over her chest.
"Hey, authorized personnel only," she snapped, then paused, looking up at Wednesday. "Oh, it's you, old one-eye. What brings you here?"
"Not letting old acquaintances be forgot," he said. "I'm not surprised that they have you back here, taking care of the misfits."
"Yeah, shoved back here like the decorations they're already taking down," she said.
"Couldn't be better. Another record breaking -- and back-breaking -- year," she said, setting down her ray gun and reaching for a cardboard cup of what looking like lukewarm coffee that stood on her desk to take a sip from it. "Come, you can't be just making a courtesy call. I've had my ear to the ground as much as I can between making everyone's season bright. And keeping an eye open for the spooks in black."
"It's about those very spooks," Wednesday said.
The woman looked past Wednesday and up at Shadow; a small smile crossed her face. "The Christmas you were twelve: you wanted a new bike, because you were outgrowing the one you had, but your mother told you to wait till next Christmas since you were moving again."
"How did you know?"
"I know you were expecting a jolly old elf with a white beard and a little round belly, bur he didn't come till later, not till Nicholas of Myra threw the bags of gold down the chimney of that poor family with the three daughters and he later got a make-over courtesy of several generations of Europeans with young families," Yulia said. "I've been around a lot longer than that, though I know the gent you were expecting.
"No, I was up and kicking when the Romans were whooping it up at Saturnalia and the followers of Mithras were performing their secret rites at Sol Invictus. I was there when the Druids cut the sacred mistletoe at the turning of the winter, when the lengthening nights turned into the lengthening days."
"So you took care of Yuletide before there was a Christmas?" Shadow asked.
"You betcha," she said, with a grin.
"What about Christ's birth day?"
"Ah, that factors into the festivities, and while it's one of the main reasons for the season these days, it's not the only one," the woman in red said. "The Christians just built on foundations that had been laid ages before: the light overcomes the darkness, whether it's a literal light in the turning of the seasons, or it's a symbolic light."
"So what's the true meaning of Christmas?" Shadow asked.
"Ask anyone scurrying through the malls, and you'll get a hundred different answers," Wednesday said. "All of them right and all of them wrong."
"Hey, that's my line," Yulia snapped, her tone as pungent as a balsam fir twig in the mouth. "You might have loaned me an eight-legged horse that became the eight tiny reindeer of a friend of mine, but it doesn't make a fair trade."
"Life isn't fair," Wednesday growled, grinning puckishly.
"Three hundred sixty-four days till the next big day, and he's already on the naughty list," Yulia muttered.
"No better place: I'll be in good company," Wednesday said.
"Incorrigible," she snarled, but a grin crossed her face.
"So about the matter that brought us here?" Wednesday asked.
"I'm a lover, not a fighter, you know that," Yulia said. "But I'm not without my dark places. The berries of the mistletoe contain one of the deadliest poisons found in nature. Christmas eve was once a night for telling ghost stories: Charles Dickens understood that well. The Light might have come and triumphed over the darkness, but the darkness is still there, lurking beyond the glow of candlelight and the fairy lights on a fir tree. There's still George Baileys wandering in the snow: some find their angels second class, but not all succeed. I've been pushed back before: Cromwell and his Puritans thought he could quench the light and so did the Soviets; and I've had a few problems with some over-zealous school administrators over here recently. Non-denominational Winter Holiday, be damned. I don't go down easily, though there's some who think I'm a pushover just because I'm generous." This side of Christmas chilled Shadow, not like an arctic blast, but like that insidious chill of a ten below night. She kept her voice calm, which made her passion seem more frightening somehow, even more than if she had shouted or snarled the words.
"Prepared to boil them in a Christmas pudding and bury them with a stake of holly in their hearts?" Wednesday joked, dead serious. "You do realize this could cut into your business."
The fierce calm in her voice and face relaxed into her previous cheery annoyance. "Generosity is my business, as is human pleasure," she said. "I'd rather keep the joy and the laughter, than see it paid for with the coin of stress and credit card debts."
"Sacrifice is still in order: animals must be slaughtered to pile the festal board, and trees must be cut to deck those halls," Wednesday pointed out.
"I know that, but when people start to pay with their souls, then the price needs to be lowered, even if it means a paycut for me," Yulia said, meeting his gaze.
"Then I suppose we're counting you in," Wednesday said. "Ready to arm the toy soldiers and have them march to the defense of Toyland?"
Yulia glared at him, then laughed, a tinkling laugh like silvery bells on a one-horse open sleigh. "That would give the spooks something to think about. You'd better get going: my break's about over."