“ROCKING AROUND the Christmas tree at the Christmas party—”

Cal reached over and viciously stabbed the power button of the car stereo. Flexing his fingers around the steering wheel, he relished in spiteful delight effectively cutting off one of the most annoying Christmas songs ever. It was a small relief, one he didn’t have at the mall, forced to endure the countless hours of holiday staples blaring over the speakers while he worked. In his car, though, it was his rules, and that included no Christmas music.

His younger brother, Brock, looked over at him from the passenger’s seat with a raised eyebrow. “What did Brenda Lee ever do to you?”

“She sang a song with too many syllables crammed into one line,” Cal replied.

Brock rolled his eyes, unimpressed, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he fiddled with the air vents in an attempt to coax more heat into the car. It didn’t work.

The sun had barely risen when Cal and Brock blearily stumbled out of their house that morning, the air frigid and a sheet of ice coating the beat-up two-door. Not even the quick run to the drive-through for coffee had managed to warm either of them, and they huddled in their coats, hats, and scarves until Cal pulled in to the desolate parking lot of the city mall. He parked in the employee lot, his car sputtering as he idled for a moment.

“Excited for your first day at work?” Cal asked as they gathered their things.

Brock shrugged. “Not really. It’s just the food court.”

“Yeah,” Cal agreed, “but it’s money and experience.”

“Unlike you, big bro, I’m not planning to make a career out of working at the mall. Not that there is anything wrong with that,” Brock hastened to add.

It was Cal’s turn to shrug. “I like my job.”

He did. He worked as a manager for the sporting goods store. It wasn’t glorious by any means, but it was good money, and he liked sports. He enjoyed it, except for the Christmas music, and it was the closest he was going to get to working in sports since he had blown out his knee. It wasn’t a bad job for a twenty-four-year-old who was still trying to figure life out.

“Just try not to be an asshole to the customers,” Cal said as he killed the engine, and they both climbed out of the car.

“I promise nothing.”

They picked their way across the icy parking lot until they made it to the employee door. Cal used his key, and they pushed inside to find a handful of mall employees already there, shuffling off to their various jobs. Cal and Brock parted ways at the candy stand, Brock heading for the food court and giving Cal a halfhearted wave over his shoulder.

The hour before mall opening was usually quiet. No music overhead, no hordes of teenagers on holiday break, no harried mothers pushing babies, no frantic boyfriends looking for presents. It was just silence, and Cal liked that, reveled in it, because it was literally the only silence he would experience for the next nine hours. Except today, when Cal rounded the corner toward his end of the mall, he was confronted with the loud sounds of construction and the bane of his existence—Santa’s Village.

Cal groaned. For something that he loathed each Christmas, and actively tried to avoid, he had totally forgotten that today was the opening of the village. He should’ve known; Thanksgiving was around the corner, and Black Friday loomed ahead of the retail season like the soul-sucking beast of consumerism it was. Somehow it had slipped his mind until that very minute as he slowly walked past the candy cane lane, the decorated trees, and the large plastic gingerbread house with the bench outside. Santa would sit there, take requests, and hand out sugar to spoiled hellions who would then run into Cal’s store and proceed to touch everything with their candy-sticky saliva-wet fingers.

Cal glared at the monstrosity and inwardly aimed all his holiday-themed dislike at the Rudolph positioned a few feet away and staring directly into his storefront. Just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse, he heard a workman shout, and then the village was plugged in. The ornaments on the trees lit up in headache-inducing flashes. The cotton snow twinkled with small lights. The reindeer bent their heads and blinked their vacant eyes, but that was nothing compared to the music—the grating, cheery music that sounded like someone was hammering on a child’s xylophone. It was awful, and Cal stared in wide-eyed horror at every single holiday cliché rolled into one giant mechanical Santa hell.

He turned away and hurriedly unlocked the rolling grate at the front of the store. He slid it high enough to duck under and fled to the relative safety of the sports store break room.