“Where’s Tina?” Bob asked.
“Not here yet!” Gene yelled from the kitchen.
Tina poked her head around the corner. “Sorry,” she said. “Traffic was horrible.”
“You live in the basement,” said Bob.
“I know. And boy, are my arms tired!”
Bob stared at her.
“Get it?” she said. “Because I flew in, and now—”
“I get it,” he said, cutting her off. “Go help your mother. I gotta go check the meat.”
“Mom?” Tina called.
Linda ran around the corner. “My baby’s home from college!” she cried, hugging Tina aggressively. “My little baby bird, all grown up and flown away from the nest.”
“She goes to community college. She lives in the basement,” said Bob.
“Oh, Bobby. It’s her first apartment! So grown up.”
Louise looked up from her tablet. “No one listened when I said I wanted an apartment,” she said bitterly.
“You could come stay with me,” Tina offered. “Have some fun times with your cool older sister.”
“Thanks, but I’m good. I think this might be the year for me. The year that the whole Santa thing really all comes together. I’m just updating my list.” She flipped the cover of the tablet closed. “Tina. Come with me.”
“You girls go on,” said Linda, shaking her head. “I’ll be fine in the kitchen. I’ve got Gene helping me!”
Gene dashed out of the kitchen and vaulted over the coffeetable, landing on one of Tina’s feet. “Nope!” he announced. “I’m one of the girls, and you can’t stop me!” He hugged Tina’s leg.
Louise rolled her eyes. “Ugh,” she said. “Come on.”
* * * * *
“OK, soldiers,” Louise announced, pacing her bedroom. “Here’s the plan.” She looked down at the tablet, furrowed her brow, and tapped it several times. “No, ok. Here’s the plan.”
Gene and Tina looked at her in bewilderment. She sighed heavily and spun the tablet around to face them, and they looked just as bewildered as they had before she’d shown them.
“That’s really good, Louise,” Tina said, trying to make her voice as soothing and reasonable sounding as she could. “Why don’t you tell us about what you’re expressing here? We’ve been studying—”
“It’s a TRAP,” Louise said. Her eye twitched a little bit. “This is gonna be it. This is the year. It’s the ultimate Santa trap. I’ve been working on it for months.”
Gene squinted at it and made a sad trombone noise. “It looks kinda…”
“Awesome?” Louise demanded. “Were you going to say ‘It looks kinda awesome’? Because you’re right! You’re right, Gene, it does look awesome.”
He nodded vigorously.
“That’s what I thought,” said Louise. “So here’s what we do…
* * * * *
In the kitchen, Bob was peering into the oven at the beef, his face squinched up in concentration. Linda was singing.
Singin’ my Christmas song
Wish it was Christmas all year long
We’re all having Christmas fun
Presents for everyone
“Lin! Lin, will you stop it? I’m trying to cook here.”
Linda poured herself another glass of wine. “Hey, I’m helping! Anyhow, don’t be such a spoilsport, Bobby. Have a glass of Christmas cheer!”
Bob shook his head. “That’s not cheer, Lin, that’s wine. And you should—how much of that have you had?” He peered suspiciously at the bottle. Something crashed in the other room.
“Mom, dad, hi.” Tina walked into the kitchen, visibly working at seeming casual. “What’re you guys up to? Everyone good?” She tugged on one of the drawers, and, when it failed to open, tugged harder. The drawer and all the silverware crashed to the floor. Tina bent over and quickly picked something up. “Right, glad to hear it, just wanted to be sure. Gotta go, I think I hear someone calling me.”
Tina backed out of the room, still holding whatever she’d picked up, leaving the silverware on the floor.
Bob shook his head. “Maybe I’ll have a glass of Christmas cheer after all,” he said.
“Yay!” crowed Linda.
* * * * *
Tina burst into Louise’s room, panting. “I got it,” she said, brandishing a small kitchen knife. Louise was nowhere to be seen, but her voice came from under her bed.
“Well done, soldier. Now—”
The door swung open again, and Gene burst in carrying the specials board, crashing into Tina and knocking her to the floor. “I got it!” he said.
“Great,” Louise said, scooting out from under the bed. “Everybody in. Come on. Close the door. Tina, get off the floor—this is war, not naptime!”
After a moment of awkward, backwards motion punctuated by the occasional curse, Louise sat on the floor, surrounded by what looked like a giant pile of shredded bedsheets. "And here,” she said, panting a little bit, “is our nuke.”
Gene drummed thoughtfully on the daily specials board he was holding, still bearing the burger of the day. (Wise Manchego Burger, comes with free gift.) “I dunno,” he said. “That nuke looks an awful lot like Mom’s sheets.”
Louise tugged on her ears. “It’s not sheets,” she said. “It’s a Santa net. It’s going to trap him like a dolphin in a tuna net. That jolly old elf is going nowhere until he and I have a very serious talk.”
“Uhhh,” Tina began. “Dolphins are really majestic creatures, Louise. It’s a really serious pro—”
“Fine,” Louise said impatiently. “Like a butterfly in a net, or a guinea pig in the snake cage at the zoo. The point is that this is going to be the year. For sure this time.” No one argued with her.
* * * * *
“Kids!” Linda called, “Dinner’s ready!”
“Be right there!” Gene responded. “We’re just going to wash our hands! Like we always do before dinner!” His sentence ended with a yelp when Louise kicked him in the shin.
The three of them crammed into the bathroom, scrubbing super glue off of their hands. “When we get out there, just act normal,” Louise whispered loudly. “Act normal!”
Gene sniffed his hands again and giggled. “It’s all sticky,” he said to himself.
“Ew,” said Louise. “Not for the first time, huh?”
“I love the smell of glue,” Gene said dreamily.
They meandered into the dining room.
Bob stood at the head of the table, holding onto his chair for balance. “I’d like to make a toast!” he said, slurring a bit. “This is—”
The doorbell rang, and everyone stood up.
“Wait, guys,” said Bob. “I’m doing a toast! Don’t you want to wait until later to answer the door? After the toast?”
Gene shook his head. “Nah.”
“Ooh,” said Linda, leading the way to the door. “I hope it’s carolers!”
The doorbell rang again, and Bob looked at the wine bottle. “Well, buddy,” he said, “here’s to us! And that great meal we made. Yeah, that’s gonna be great, huh, wine bottle?”
“You know it!” Bob said in falsetto.
Bob blushed a little. “Oh, wine bottle. You always know just what to say.”
In the entryway, Linda quickly adjusted her hair and started singing. She opened the door and stopped. “Oh,” she said, sounding disappointed. “Are you caroling?”
Tina peered around her mother. “Jimmy Jr! What are you doing here?”
“Hi, Tina,” Jimmy lisped. “I just wanted to bring you this.” He handed her a small, wrapped box, then awkwardly stuffed his hands back in his pockets.
Linda clasped her hands together. Louise groaned, and Gene ducked into the other room and returned holding his keyboard.
“Open it, Tina!” urged Jimmy.
Seating himself on the floor, Gene began to play Silent Night, the keyboard providing a synthesized backup band.
“Oh, play something romantic,” said Linda, never taking her eyes from Tina.
Without missing a beat, Gene changed songs and began to sing. “Tina doesn’t want a lot for Christmas. There is just one thing she needs—”
His singing was drowned out by the sound of Tina tearing the wrapping off of Jimmy’s gift. “Thanks, Jimmy, it’s just—uh. What is it?”
“It’s a VHS tape of my very first dance recital! Zeke recorded it for me.” He looked pleased with himself. Leaning in, he added, very quietly, “There’s a lot of shots of my butt. Like. A lot. We put them in just for you.”
“Anyhow,” continued Jimmy, “uh, merry Christmas. I gotta go.”
Jimmy disappeared down the hall. Closing the door, Tina clutched the tape to her chest with one hand. Butts, she thought happily.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Linda. “Ooooh, Jimmy likes Tina! Tina, he likes you! Don’t you think he likes her, Louise?”
Louise made an exasperated noise. “I’m going back to talk to dad and the wine bottle,” she said.
* * * * *
In the dining room, Bob and the wine bottle were having a nice time. Bob had given a toast and put a napkin around the wine bottle’s neck, just in case. “You came back!” he said as the rest of the family came back into the room.
“A boy likes my teeny tiny Tina!” said Linda, sniffling. She sat down and piled her plate high with mashed potatoes, creating a small lake of gravy in the center.
Tina was the last back to her chair, still holding the VHS tape and looking dazed.
“My toast!” said Bob, climbing to his feet. He hiccupped. “I’d like to propose a toast! To—to us! And—Christmas! And my friend the wine bottle! And—” he hiccupped again. “And everybody dig in! Time to eat.”
As soon as they’d finished eating, Louise hopped up. “Well,” she said, “guess it’s time for bed! Don’t want to delay Santa, ha ha ha.” When no one followed her, she glared at Gene. “I said that we don’t want to delay Santa, Gene.”
Gene plunked out Greensleeves on the keyboard. “Nope,” he said, not moving . “Sure don’t. Night!”
“Uhhhh…” said Tina. “Uhhh… I’m going to go watch Jimmy’s recital. I mean, to bed! To bed. In my room. Alone.” She left the room, still holding Jimmy Jr.’s gift.
Finally giving up on subtlety, Louise grabbed Gene’s ear. “Well, guess it’s time for bed!” she said with forced cheerfulness.
Gene nodded, and Louise’s grasp on his ear tightened. “Oh!” he said, suddenly getting it. “Time for bed! Gotta put out cookies for Santa and get to bed so that Santa can come and we can definitely not try to trap him.”
Louise led him out of the room, accompanied by a tinny stream of Christmas music from the keyboard. At his bedroom door, she stopped, then shoved him inside. “Remember,” she said. “We go on my signal.”
Gene nodded and yawned. “Signal. Got it.”
* * * * *
Louise sat on her bed, surveying her supplies and waiting for her parents to go to sleep. She’d lasted through the dinner cleanup, and the subsequent bottle of wine, and the bottle after that, and any minute now they’d be going to sleep.
Finally, the house was quiet. She cracked open her bedroom door and gave the signal: two owl-like hoots.
No one responded.
She did it again, and still had no response.
The third time, Tina’s door opened a crack and she stuck her head out. “Louise!” Tina said. “What’re you doing?”
“It’s the signal,” said Louise. “You know. The one you were supposed waiting for?”
“Oh, right. Just let me get my—um, slippers. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Louise marched into Gene’s room and launched herself at his bed, where he was snoring happily, keyboard in his arms. He woke with a fart. “What?!” he yelped.
“Gross. Nice one, Gene,” said Louise. “Come on. You missed the signal. It’s time.”
Gene rubbed his eyes, but crawled out of bed. “OK,” he said agreeably. “But dibs on the cookies if Santa hasn’t eaten them yet.”
* * * * *
In the kitchen, Gene ate Santa’s cookies while they recapped their plan again.
“Obviously, the first trap is the tripwire. If he hits it, we pounce, and then we’ve got him. If he gets past that, phase two is the snare in the kitchen. We just have to…”
Ten minutes later, she was finally winding up. “…and hide the specials board under the tree skirt. When he puts a present on the board, it’ll trigger the weight sensor that I’ve attached to the back. And that will lift up the net, trapping him. He’ll be all ours.”
Tina looked skeptical. “Where did you get a weight sensor?”
“I traded Andy and Ollie a bag of dead batteries in exchange for their help with the electronics,” said Louise.
“Huh,” said Gene. “That explains yesterday—neither of them could talk, and both of them had tongues swollen up like slugs.”
“See?” Louise looked pleased with herself. “Everyone wins.”
They got to work.
* * * * *
Louise raced out of her bedroom. She hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but it had just happened, somewhere between setting all the traps and actually catching Santa. It took her a minute to understand what had happened, but when she did, her shout woke the house.
“WHAT?! You’re not SANTA!”
Tina and Gene joined her, with Linda only a few steps behind. The four of them stared at Bob, who was near the ceiling, awkwardly cradled in the net Louise had made.
“Maybe,” said Tina, hesitating, “there’s something we should talk about? Dad?”
Before Bob could answer, Louise and Gene realized that there was something behind him—not just the tree, but…
“Presents!” they yelled in glee.
In moments, the Santa trap was forgotten. So, it seemed, was Bob.
“Hey, uh, guys? Would someone please cut me down?”
* * * * *
Much later, Bob and Linda were in bed.
“You did a good job today, Bobby,” said Linda. “Louise really wanted that trap to work.”
“It almost did,” he said. “I mean, sure, I had to jump on the weight sensor, and the net wasn’t tied on one side so I fell out the first time, but aside from that… But look, we gotta tell them. We can’t do this forever.”
Linda smiled. “I know. But we made it another year! You did great, Santa.”
“Merry Christmas, Lin.”
Linda rolled closer to him. “Merry Christmas, Bob."
Bob hit the light switch.
"And to all a good night."