“That can’t possibly be a thing,” I said to my friend.
“It is,” Derren said, punching his palm with his other fist. He was an angry gay man, he had beaten down plenty of assholes who had made fun of him when he was out with his boyfriend. Fit with rippling muscles, hitting the gym almost every day, I was sure he was messing with me. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“And it’s tonight? During the holidays?” I made sure to use that word simply because it annoyed him.
“During Christmas, yeah.” He waved at me to come outside of the grocery store. “Come on.”
I was holding my grocery bags, reusable bags only because I wanted to save the environment but was only willing to do the bare minimum. “But I haven’t paid for these,” I hushed at him.
He shrugged. “So? Live a little.”
I took one step to leave. I turned around, feeling caught. But, nope, the grocery store’s clerk was helping out an old lady, he wasn’t paying any attention to me. I took another step and felt horrible. Derren just glared at me, car keys in his hand. “I haven’t stolen a thing in my life,” I whispered, hugging my groceries.
Derren snorted and got into the car.
I looked back, biting my lips. Then I took out twenty euro from my wallet, juggling the groceries in my hands, and left them on the counter. The clerk was still dealing with the old lady, she couldn’t locate something but didn’t remember what it was.
I got inside the car and threw my groceries in the back seat.
“You’re such a whimp,” Derren said and took off.
“No I’m not,” I squealed, exactly like one.
“How are you ever gonna get a girlfriend if you’re such a pussy yourself?” Derren asked, driving like a madman.
I opened my mouth to complain, but he had a point. No, not about stealing, I wouldn’t do that. But I was always second-guessing myself, never taking the plunge.
“Check out the bags in the back.”
I reached out behind his seat and grabbed a duffel bag full of something soft. I opened the bag’s zipper on my lap, held the red fabric high, then turned to Derren. “You have got to be shitting me.”
“The first rule of Santa Fight Club, is…” the Santa in the middle of the ring said.
“YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT SANTA FIGHT CLUB!” everybody shouted in unison.
“No one’s gonna believe you anyways,” the Santa chuckled. He punched the air, rubbed his fake beard. “Now. If you’re here for the first time, you gotta get in the ring. No exceptions.”
I didn’t take the step, of course. Timid, remember? My fake beard itched a lot and I scratched my chin reaching around it. The Santa suit was also some cheap fabric that would definitely irritate my skin.
A Santa stepped inside the ring, he was shorter than me, but had a fat suit underneath, with a big belly. “What’s the padding about?” I asked Derren.
“You said it, extra padding. For taking the punches. I guess it helps,” he shrugged.
“Then why didn’t you give me any?” I squealed like a wimp.
“Suck it up, Bob.”
“We got the first fighter, all right!” the Santa organiser said, and the crowd cheered.
I looked around the dank basement we were gathered in. It was in a bad part of town, police response if anything should happen would definitely be over fifteen minutes. The place was a dirty open space, now crowded with fifty or so Santas in all shapes and sizes, nobody was out of uniform. And they were holding small, wrapped presents. The only lights coming in were from a streetlight next to a high-up window and from the, I shit you not, Christmas lights twinkling all around the ring, forming a circle. On the one hand, I hated Derren for dragging me into this sleazy deal. On the other, my blood was pumping and I was anxious to see some fighting. So was everybody in there, eyes darted around from everyone to everyone else to see who would take up the challenge.
And then Derren shoved me into the middle of the ring.
I lost my footing and tripped, the Santa pants were a cheap layer over my own jeans, I wasn’t gonna let that itchy fabric directly on my skin. I fell beard-first in front of the organiser Santa.
He laughed, “Ho, ho ho!”
The crowd laughed the same way.
Bunch of assholes.
I pushed myself up, the floor was filthy, thankfully not sticky, and it had dubious stains. I looked at my enemy Santa, he was…
I had no idea what he was. Short, padded all over, big bushy beard, I couldn’t make out anything. All I could tell was that he was eyeing me like a Santa eyed his milk and cookies. The Christmas lights twinkled in his eyes, making them multicoloured.
This whole experience was so surreal. I looked back at Derren, he nodded at me. Okay, so he thought I got this. What the heck, why not?
“Place your bets, please,” the organiser Santa said and someone gave him a red sack. He went around the ring of Christmas lights holding it open, and the Santas dropped their wrapped gifts inside it. Once he was done, he held the sack high. “The loot, Santas! Whoever wins, gets the sack,” he joked and laughed at his own pun, with an additional, ‘Ho, ho, ho.’
“It’s not that funny,” I mumbled, angry at taking the shove.
“What was that?” organiser Santa said, cupping his ear in my face.
“It’s not that funny,” I said louder.
“We have a gloomy Santa, it seems,” organiser Santa said to the crowd. “We can’t have that. You,” he pointed at my opponent. “Beat some Christmas spirit into him, alright?”
And then the short Santa came straight at me with a fist.
I took the punch, straight in the kisser. It hurt, a lot. I dodged the second punch, that fucker was fast. Derren had shown me a couple of moves, just so I could avoid some blows and keep some prick occupied in his endless brawls, just as long as for him to finish up and deal with him.
But he wasn’t coming to my aid this time, and this Santa meant business. He kicked me in the shin, I backed away, but I ran out of fighting ring. I took a punch and spun 180, seeing the Christmas lights on the floor. I pushed myself up and avoided an elbow to the guts.
All this time, I hadn’t landed a single punch. The short Santa was relentless, doing some moves which I recognised as muay-thai, or at least some kick-boxing. I was definitely outmatched.
I had slightly more reach so I decided to use it. Derren was shouting to be heard over the clamouring Santas, “Plant your feet, plant your fucking feet,” so I composed myself and I did so. He had taught me a few things, planting my feet, lowering my centre of gravity.
The short ball of condensed crimson rage came at me again and this time I blocked with my joined elbows and pushed him back. He grunted and took a small hit from me, that was a win!
Or rather, Ho, Ho, Ho.
He came back even meaner, if such a thing was possible, charging at me. Oh, no. I started running around the perimetre of the ring, he came after me, grabbed my Santa pants, threw me on the floor.
I kicked back, he pulled my pant leg off, tearing up the cheap fabric. Now I had to pay Derren for the Santa suit, but it was his fault he brought me here.
I blocked with my arms against incoming blows. He was so angry, hitting me again and again, grunting in a high-pitch. He got me in the ribs, that one hurt, and then a glancing blow on the neck, that knocked the wind out of me.
Panting hard, finding it difficult to breathe I kicked the short fucker off of me and managed to get a second.
He shouted and charged at me, again.
Whoof, Santa planted his cap on my belly, and I had no padding there. That made me cry out in pain and fold up. I grabbed his head and tried to shove him away from me, somehow. I grabbed the cap and pulled it down his eyes, at least trying to do something to stop him. I grabbed his beard and pushed to the side, using my height and my planted feet.
He fell on the ground to my left. In the dim light, it didn’t register immediately, but I saw a flash of blond hair.
I looked down at my hands, I was still holding on to the white beard and the red cap.
And my opponent stood up again.
A pretty blonde girl, in a Santa suit.
Pissed off and frowning, she came at me the exact same way as before.
“Hey, wait,” I squealed, “I can’t hit a girl!”
“Oh, oh, oh,” the organiser Santa said, and the crowd repeated the same thing in a very, very eerie chorus. “We don’t discriminate in here. In Santa Fight Club, we’re all Santas, we all fight,” he added.
“You can’t possibl-” I stopped when I got the wind knocked out of me. The blonde head-butted my belly and I fell on the ground, wincing in pain.
She came on top of me, punched me again and again. I just covered my face up, and in an eerie moment of slo-mo clarity, I saw her bloody knuckles and her gorgeous green eyes behind them.
She grunted and punched me a few more times. The organiser Santa came up to the skuffle and pulled her arm away, lifting her up. “Okay, that’s enough, I think. This Santa is the winner!” he shouted, and the Santas cheered.
“Ho, ho, ho!” the blonde Santa said victorious, showing off her arms. She spat at me. Such a feisty little woman.
“Alright, Santas. Time for the sack,” the organiser Santa said and offered her the red sack.
She reached inside and only took one gift-wrapped prize.
Organiser Santa stood there, holding the sack open for her. “Only one? Damn. Okay, winner Santa, it’s your call. Seems we’ll need to have another fight tonight, let’s get rid of these gifts, yo!”
The Santas clamoured.
Derren came up to me and pulled me aside. “You did good, actually.”
“Yeah?” I said, feeling proud.
“Nah. You got beat up by a little girl,” he smiled, pointing a thumb in the back. In the mean time, she’d gotten her beard and her Santa cap from the ground and put it on.
I pushed him aside, both him and his pithy comment. I looked around. “Where did she go? Do you see her?”
I pulled a short Santa from the shoulder, but it wasn’t her.
“What man, did you enjoy getting beaten up like that?” Derren laughed beside me.
“Derren,” I said seriously.
“I need to find that girl.”
My friend stared at me for a long moment, his eyes twinkling in multicolour over his white beard. “You’re serious, Bob.”
“That bad, huh?”
We looked all over, she was gone. There was another fight between two other Santas, the fat one won and claimed the sack with the gifts.
I felt like shit, both physically and emotionally. I had bruises all over from her, but I still wanted to ask her out on a date.
“Come on, you have to know someone who has the names,” I complained and pulled my itchy beard off as the night came to a close. We headed back to the car.
“No, man, I’m sorry. That’s the whole point, it’s anonymous.”
I sagged on the passenger seat, feeling defeated for the second time in the same night. I bet I looked pathetic and avoided all the mirrors, bruised up, possibly a black eye, dressed like a Santa.
Derren took off his Santa’s suit and got in the driver’s seat. He put the key in, stopped, licked his lips and turned to me.
“You know what, Bob? I think you can meet her again next year.”
“In the Santa Fight Club,” I breathed out, feeling the surrealness of it all.
“Exactly,” Derren said and we took off.