The shrieking of girls and whooping of boys resounded in the air, noises distant and tangled in the cold.
Maddie would every now and then visit me as part of the backyard obstacle course she had invented: up the ladder, down the slide, up the rock wall, over to the swing from the tower, across the lawn and around my legs (a little squeeze to make sure I meant to keep my feet planted on the property), and back to the ladder. Mrs. DeAngelis handed the clipboard to a tall, curly-haired man and asked him to take over registering duties. She had to attend to something inside the house.
“Sooo!” chortled Mr. DeAngelis. “Let’s take down the names of everyone’s elves.” Like his wife, he tipped his head toward the parents and lowered his voice. “This will make it really authentic.”
Elves. My heart shimmied ever so slightly.
“Norman,” said one mother.
“Mr. Piddles,” said the next.
And the worst in its sagging uncreativity, “Elfie.”
“What’s the elf’s name in your house?” Mr. DeAngelis posed his pen over the clipboard.
“Uh,” I said, finding my hands gripping each other again, “That’s the funny thing. Maddie doesn’t have one.”
“Oh, okay.” He straightened and twirled the pen back into his palm.
“She’s never liked the Elf on the Shelf,” I continued. “We tried it last year and it totally backfired!”
I heard the murmuring of the other mothers around me.
“No kidding!” said Mr. DeAngelis.
“No kidding,” I said.
The year before, Andrew and I had reacted to the suddenly popular marketing scheme the way that most other parents had, we figured. The idea was brilliant, even though we had never heard of this supposed long-standing “family tradition.” (Whose family? And in what country?) One morning, we tucked the elf in the leaves of our fake ficus tree in the living room. We were eager for this tactic to expedite good behavior for the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when normally the greed quotient, and therefore the tantrum quotient, spiked. We were not unprepared for Maddie’s angst over the elf. In fact, we had agreed that a little pressure popping up now and again in the form of this creature could prove fruitful for all of us. Never mind that his bulbous plastic cheeks were stuck in cheery overdrive and his eyes, shifted to one side, seemed simultaneously blank and useless and hauntingly alive.
Before Maddie descended the stairs the morning of the trial, Andrew and I let her know that we had spotted something—somebody?—in the house.
“We think it’s an elf,” we chimed. “C’mon! Let’s go see!”
“No!” Maddie said. “Tell him to go away!”
“But this is great!” I urged. “Think about it: he can see how well-behaved you are, and report back to Santa!”
“I am not going down there until he’s gone.” Maddie crossed her arms and backed up against one of the walls of the landing. “Hmph.” The sound escaped her throat and nose in a whimpering whoosh, like a dog that smells danger and refuses to proceed.
“Oh, Mads,” said Andrew, “He won’t do anything to you. He’s not even supposed to talk. And you’re not allowed to touch him. He’s just going to sit there and obseeerrrve.”
Maddie shook her head so vehemently that her locks of brown hair walloped her cheeks like whips. “Mm-mm!” she emitted in high-pitched protest.
Andrew and I looked at each other, our shoulders dropping. We were used to this phenomenon by now, but still found it frustrating in our own ways. Andrew believed that Maddie needed a push into unfamiliar situations. He was convinced that once she let go and took the plunge, she would fall in love with whatever anathema had originally repelled her. While I wanted intensely for Maddie to try new things, I didn’t like the idea of forcing her to the point of trauma.
I surveyed her, shrugged up against the wall on her tiptoes as though she wanted the plaster to suck her up. Her pinched blue eyes and turned-up nose said to us, Stop right there. I paused before continuing my persuasion. The whole concept was somewhat disturbing: a mute, airborne elf with spindly felt legs roosting in the house like some kind of voyeur. What kind of a culture did we live in? Maybe Maddie had the right idea, sniffing out the creepiness of this magical season.
“Tell him to go back to where he came from,” Maddie said.
And that was the end of that.
This was precisely the type of birthday party that could send her into ostracism forever. Now my own sense of self was trembling with anxiety over the inevitable judgment coming my way. What kind of parent didn’t help her child to grow into an independent, well-adjusted six-year-old? And what six-year-old balked at the invitation to petition Santa Claus in person for Christmas presents? What was wrong with her?
The troops moved inside the house to begin with customary games. Maddie willingly joined Musical Chairs, lasting until about half the children were still revolving around the folding table, then graciously bowing her head and sliding into a seat on the side of the room with her fellow outcasts. Though Mrs. DeAngelis would reward these kids for their good sportsmanship by letting them lead the next activity, I surprised myself when I had to swallow against a fist of sadness that tightened in my throat. Maddie had accepted her fate so quietly, so humbly, her face placid. Immediately I wished to see the fiery opposition I knew, the girl who wouldn’t hesitate to register her disappointment with enhanced nose-breathing or a scowl. Clearly, she was playing more than one game, here.
At this moment, my heart banged in panic against my ribs as if it wanted to spring out of my body and save her. I wanted her to behave, to avoid making a scene that would single her out amongst her peers, to acknowledge defeat gracefully. But I didn’t want her to disappear, either.
So what did I truly want?