Noah was aware of this. And though tonight was a family event with many people in attendance, he promised me there would be time just for us. He had made sure of it by helping out in advance. If we put in two hours at the party, he promised, we could escape to the back room and exchange our gifts and watch The Grinch Who Stole Christmas together. He would drive me home, and we would stop for a while. . . .
And then, of course, my parents got arrested, and all of that went to hell.
Do you know the Flobie Santa Village? The Flobie Santa Village is such a big part of my life that I just assume everyone knows what it is, but I’ve been told recently that I make way too many assumptions, so I’ll explain.
The Flobie Santa Village is a series of collectable ceramic pieces that you can put together to form a town. My parents have been collecting them since the time I was born. I’ve been staring down those tiny plastic cobblestone streets since I was big enough to stand on my own. We have it all—the candy-cane bridge, Lake Snowbegone, the gumdrop shop, the gingerbread bakery, Sugarplum Alley. It’s not small, either. My parents bought a special table to put it up on, and it takes up the center of our living room from Thanksgiving until New Year’s. It requires seven power strips to make it all work. In order to diminish the environmental impact, I got them to turn it off at night, but it was a struggle.
I was named after Flobie Santa Village building #4, Jubilee Hall. Jubilee Hall is the biggest building in the collection. It’s the main place that presents are made and wrapped. It has colored lights, a working conveyor belt with gifts stuck to it, and little elves that turn as if they’re loading and unloading them. The elves of Jubilee Hall each have a present glued to their hands—so what it really looks like are a bunch of tortured beings doomed to pick up and set down the same gift over and over again until the end of time or until the motor breaks. I remember pointing this out to my mom when I was little; she said I was missing the point. Maybe so. We were clearly coming from different directions on this subject, considering she felt those little buildings were important enough to name her only offspring after.
People who collect the Flobie Village tend to get a little obsessed with it. There are conventions, about a dozen serious Web sites, and four magazines. Some of them try to play it off by saying that Flobie pieces are an investment. And they are worth a lot of money, it’s true. Especially the numbered ones. You can only buy those pieces at the Flobie showroom on Christmas Eve. We live in Richmond, Virginia, which is only about fifty miles away—so every year on the night of the twenty-third, my parents leave with a car full of blankets, chairs, and provisions and sit in line all night and wait.
Flobie used to make a hundred numbered pieces, but last year they reduced it to ten. This is when things got bad. One hundred pieces wasn’t nearly enough, so when the number went down to just one-tenth of that, the claws came out and the fur started to fly. There was a problem last year when people tried to hold places in line—a problem that quickly turned into people smacking each other with rolled-up Flobie catalogs, throwing cookie tins, stomping on each other’s lawn chairs, and dumping lukewarm cocoa on each other’s Santa Claus–hatted heads. The fight was big enough and ridiculous enough to make the local news. Flobie said that they were “taking measures” to make sure it didn’t happen again, but I never believed that. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.
But I wasn’t thinking about that when my parents drove off to get in line for piece #68, the Elf Hotel. And I still wasn’t thinking about it when I was drinking my eggnog latte and whiling away the time until I got to go to Noah’s. I did notice that my parents were later arriving home than usual. They usually got back from Flobie around lunchtime on Christmas Eve, and here it was, almost four o’clock. I started doing some of the general holiday duties to keep myself busy. I couldn’t call Noah . . . I knew he was busy getting ready for the Smorgasbord. So I added some extra ribbon and holly to his presents. I switched on all the power strips that power the Flobie Santa Village, setting all the enslaved elves to work. I turned on Christmas carols. I was just stepping outside to turn on the lights on the front of the house when I saw Sam advancing toward our house with his storm-trooper stride.
Sam is our lawyer—and when I say “our lawyer,” I mean “our neighbor who happens to be an extremely high-powered lawyer in Washington, D.C.” Sam is exactly the person you want to take on a huge corporation or to represent you when you’re being sued for a billion dollars. He is not, however, Mr. Cuddles. I was about to invite him in to try one of my delicious eggnog lattes, but he cut me off.
“I have some bad news,” he said, ushering me into my own house. “There’s been another incident at the Flobie showroom. Inside. Come on.”
I thought he was going to say that my parents had been killed. He had that kind of tone. I envisioned huge piles of the Elf Hotel flying off the belt, taking down everyone in sight. I had seen pictures of the Elf Hotel—it had sharp candy-cane spires that could easily impale someone. And if anyone was ever going to be killed by an Elf Hotel, it would be my parents.
“They’ve been taken into custody,” he said. “They’re in jail.”
“Who’s in jail?” I asked, because I’m not super-quick on the uptake, and because it was much easier for me to envision my parents being taken down by a flying Elf Hotel than it was to think of them being taken off in handcuffs.
Sam just looked at me and waited for me to catch up on my own.
“There was another fight when the pieces came out this morning,” he explained, after a pause. “An argument about who was holding spots in line. Your parents weren’t part of it, but they didn’t disperse when the police told them to. They got hauled in with the others. Five people have been booked. It’s all over the news.”
I felt my legs starting to wobble, so I sat down on the sofa.
“Why didn’t they call?” I asked.
“One phone call,” he said. “They called me, because they thought I could get them out. Which I can’t.”
“What do you mean, you can’t?”
The idea that Sam couldn’t bust my parents out of the county clink was ridiculous. It was like hearing a pilot come over the intercom and say, “Hey, everyone. I just remembered I’m no good at landing. So I’m just going to keep flying around until someone has a better idea.”