This short story won First Place in The Florida Times Union 2014 Holiday Short Story Contest. It was published in the The Florida Times Union on December 18, 2014.

I glided down the slide and instantly regretted my decision to do so. It was a kindergarten mistake. The chrome playground equipment was worthless this time of year—wet with snow and colder than a broken heart. Kids with good heads on them didn’t use slides in December. But I never was one to learn my lessons the easy way.

Isabella Valentine got off her swing and sauntered toward me. She had blonde hair, a reckless smile, and scarlet lips—the kind of deep red only a Tootsie Pop can give you. This girl lived in detention and made every boy in the third grade want to spend it with her.

“I hear you know your way around this dump,” she said.

“That so?”

“People say you know how to get things done. They say you got chops.”

“People say a lot of things,” I said.

“When they got a reason to.”

“Some reasons don’t stick around.” I said. “I cleaned up my act.”

“That’s not what Olivia says.”

“Olivia’s not the kind of mop you trust.”

Valentine smiled. Apparently she agreed

“What was in the box?” I said.

A crimson package rested at my door that morning. There was no return address and no name; the only words on the package were “Help me, and more will come.” The letters were written with black ink in near perfect cursive. Whoever did this trusted her penmanship more than any third grader should. It was bold but foolhardy, and nothing good ever came from that combination.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Valentine said.

“Look, Sweet Cheeks, recess doesn’t last all day. If you’re just here to play games, then I’d rather be on the monkey bars.”

“Fine. I did it. Now, will you help me?”

“You should listen more often. I’m clean.”

“You really didn’t open the box, did you?”

“I wasn’t interested. There are only so many referrals a kid can take,” I said.

“I can pay. I fell into a small fortune of Christmas sweets.”

“And you’re willing to share?”

“I already did. And I’m willing to hand the whole thing over if the job gets done.”

“Candy canes?” I scoffed.

“Snickerdoodles. Extra sugar.”

She had my attention.

Valentine looked back at her still vacant swing, and for a second I could see the indecision on her face. Somewhere down inside she just wanted to forget about the whole reason she came to me in the first place. Maybe getting me involved wasn’t worth it after all. She was innocent once, an honor roll student. But third grade had a way of beating that out of you.

“Nicolas Rendyn,” she said. “He’s a door monitor that’s been giving me some trouble.”

“Rendyn’s no door monitor,” I said. “He’s Al Capone with a hall pass.”

“I need him taken care of.”

I raised my eyebrows. “You want the kid expelled?”

“No, I could never—” She stopped herself and started again. “I just need him taken down a peg. That’s all.”

“I do that, and I’ll have detention by lunch tomorrow.”

“Something tells me that doesn’t scare a kid like you.”

“You got a history with Rendyn?” I said.

“Just a history in general.”

I looked into her green eyes and saw fear. Valentine put on a tough front, but there was vulnerability there. Maybe she truly did need my help.

“Think about it,” she said and walked away.

I skipped out on the last hour of school and took my bike home. Valentine’s package was still on my porch. I opened it up to find a dozen snickerdoodles—just as promised.

I closed the box and tossed it into the nearest trashcan. Valentine seemed sincere, but a kid can’t involve himself in that kind of dirty business so close to Christmas. Cookies or no, you don’t take risks like that with Santa Claus coming to town.