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Midwinter

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Tires screeched against the icy grit of the parking lot outside, and Stan's eyes snapped open. He was awake.

He lifted his head, grimacing at the lance of pain that traveled down between his shoulders. He'd fallen asleep in his chair again. He really needed to start going to bed in bed. He was getting too old to sleep curled up wherever he found a spot, and his body was making him pay for it.

He heard a car door slamming outside and quietly cursed. The Shack had been closed for over a week. No point keeping it open during the holidays—winter was the off-season anyway, and nobody wanted to spend Christmas at a tourist trap. The locals were all busy with their own lives this time of year, and anyone who might be passing through would be focused on their destination. They all had families to see. No time for stops along the way. At least, that was usually true. Apparently someone had been drawn in by the billboard today.

Stan was tired and sore, and for the past week he had been working non-stop either upstairs or in the basement. He wasn't interested in talking to people. He sure as hell wasn't going to open the Shack for one carload of tourists. Maybe they'd see the “CLOSED” sign and screw off.

Nope. The next thing he heard was a set of footsteps climbing the porch. Stan cursed a little louder. Fine, he'd get up and talk to whoever was there, but he refused to put on pants.

He stood and set aside the book on code-breaking that he'd been reading when he fell asleep. He pulled a bathrobe on against the expected cold and started towards the door, a chorus of cracks and pops coming from his joints as he moved. Before he'd made it more than a few feet, however, he heard something that made him freeze.

Someone was fiddling with the lock. The door clicked and creaked open.

Stan's mind ran through names of people he knew who might want to break into the Shack, and found he was coming up with too many enemies for comfort. He reached behind the TV and quietly pulled out the Louisville Slugger he kept hidden there. Whoever it was, if they were expecting to catch him unawares they'd have another thing coming. And if it was that old broad Sweetkins again, he was going to pay her back for the broken arm she'd given them last time they'd tussled.

Keeping quiet and sticking close to the wall, Stan edged towards the door. The intruder was now moving around in the gift shop. Whoever he was, he sounded big. Stan would probably need the element of surprise. He readied the bat, and in one fluid motion pushed the door open and swung---

---The Louisville Slugger stopped mid-arc, an inch and a half away from a smiling, acne-riddled face. Stan stepped backwards and dropped the bat, adrenaline still pumping.

“Whoa!” Soos laughed, apparently untroubled by brain trauma he'd narrowly avoided---Stan wondered if a swift blow to the skull would have even affected this guy. “You almost hit me right in the head!”

“Soos!” Stan shouted, angry now that the fear had passed. “What the hell are you doing here? You just about gave me a third heart attack!”

At least Stan knew how he'd gotten in. He'd given him a key a few months ago. Sort of a non-birthday present for the day he turned old enough to actually be an official employee. (He'd been coming to the Shack unofficially for about two years now. Stan had never been one to let a little thing like 'child labor laws' trouble him.) Though to be honest, he hadn't really been sure how old the kid was until he showed Stan his learner's permit and he was able to get a look at his birthdate.

“Sorry, Mr. Pines!” Soos smiled. “I just came by to give you this!” He held out a box, wrapped surprisingly neatly in shiny green paper, tied with a big red bow.

Stan stared at it. It had been a while since someone had given him something willingly and without threats. For a moment, Stan thought he might have genuinely forgotten how to react to a gift. ...Then he noticed Soos was beginning to look nervous, probably because he wasn't taking it. He reached out and accepted the box.

“Ah....thanks.” he stared at the box another moment, then gestured for Soos to follow him, “Uh. It's warmer in the TV room.”

Soos eagerly followed him into the house. Stan sat at the card table and opened the gift, feeling strangely uncomfortable with the whole ritual. He was pretty sure he hadn't gotten a present from anyone, for any reason or occasion since he'd been living at home in New Jersey. Soos was looking at him expectantly and it made him a little nervous.

The paper fell away and Stan opened the box. Inside was what looked like a fishing trophy, but the fish was made of plastic and rubber. It was also wearing sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt. The box said it was “Sammy the Singin' Salmon,” and promised “Minutes of Fun!”

“Press the button, press the button!” Soos said excitedly. Stan did. The fish sprung to life and sang a little tune. Soos laughed. “Isn't it great? I saw it on TV and I thought you'd like it, cause, you know, you like fishing. And it's kind of weird like some of the stuff in the Mystery Shack, and, and, you know...”

Stan looked back at the silly, chintzy thing in his hands and pressed the button again. It sang the ditty a second time.

“Oh man. Each time it gets funnier on a different level.” Soos laughed. He looked back at Stan and his smile slipped. “You're uh, not smiling....do...do you not like it?”

Stan had seen these things advertised on TV before. Beyond a distant admiration for whatever scam artist had conned people into actually buying them, he hadn't given them much thought. But Soos had seen this and thought of him. He'd ordered it and waited for it to be delivered, and then wrapped it and brought it to him through two and a half feet of snow.

“Soos. This is....without a doubt the greatest present I've ever gotten!” Stan stood, grinning broadly and threw an arm around Soos, slapping him hard on the back. Soos's grin returned. “I'm gonna put it up in the gift shop behind the cash register, you know, so everyone who comes to the Shack can see it!”

“Really? Aww man, I knew you'd love it!” Soos smiled. “I'm glad you were home. I wasn't sure if you'd...I dunno, gone out of town for Christmas or something.” He looked around the room. “I never see you put any decorations up or anything, so...”

“Nah...” Stan set the fish down. “I don't have anywhere I need to go.”

“Oh man...are you Jewish?” Soos suddenly looked worried. “It's okay that I gave you a Christmas present, right? You're not gonna have to....like...go confess your sins to Moses for this, are you?”

Against Stan's will, a brief memory of the few occasions that his pop had actually felt motivated to drag the family to temple came up. He shook his head and shoved it aside, into the corner of his mind reserved for most of his memories of home.

“I'm not really anything anymore. So don't worry.” Stan glanced around. “Uh....in fact...I got a little something for you, too.”

“Really?” Soos's eyes lit up.

“Yeah! It's right over....Oh wow, what's that over there?” Stan pointed over Soos's shoulder.

“Huh?” Soos turned in the direction Stan was pointing. “Uh...it's just the TV set.” He narrowed his eyes with suspicion. “Although...maybe if I look closer...

While Soos was occupied with that, Stan looked desperately around the room. He wished he'd stayed in the gift shop---Soos loved crap from the gift shop. But then he saw a coffee mug sitting on top of the aquarium. It was one of a few hundred he'd ordered recently, stamped with a question mark. Perfect. He grabbed it and stuffed it into a shoebox that was lying on the floor.

“I don't know. I'm beginning to think this TV may be more than meets the eye. Possibly a robot in disguise?” Soos said, still facing away.

“Never mind that.” Stan held out the box, smiling. “Here. Merry Christmas.”

Soos eagerly opened the box and his eyes widened. “A coffee mug! And it's even pre-stained!”

Stan looked over Soos's shoulder and winced. ...Right. Wish he'd noticed how dirty it was before he'd grabbed it. Soos didn't seem to mind, though. He looked at it as if it were the most precious thing in the world. He turned and wrapped his arms around Stan.

“Thanks, Mr. Pines! I'll use it every morning!”

“Okay. We're done hugging now.” Stan said in a strained voice.

Soos let him go and sighed. “I should probably go. Reggie's coming over for Christmas dinner tonight, and there's some stuff that needs to get done around the house.”

“Right...” Stan said, suddenly wanting to extend the visit as long as possible. “I'll walk you to the door.”

Stan followed Soos out onto the porch. When he opened the door, the cold wind cut right through his thin robe, straight to his bones.

Soos hesitated and looked back. “So, uh...since you're not going anywhere for Christmas...I dunno, if you wanted to come check out Christmas dinner at my place, Abuelita makes a pretty amazing pecan roll.”

“Yeah?” Stan smiled. “...Maybe I'll stop by.”

Soos grinned, looking thrilled. “Six o'clock! I mean, it's at six, but you can come earlier if you want.”

“You should get going, there's about an inch of snow forming on your shoulders.” Stan said.

“Right! I'll see you later!” Soos waved and hurried to his car.

Stan closed the door, shivering as he turned back into the empty house. A shower would warm him up. And he should probably take one anyway if he was going to be presentable tonight. He turned upstairs and then hesitated, walking back into the TV room. The singing fish was still lying on the card table. Stan pressed the little red button on it's front. It made him smile.