The final story of the year is something that’s a lot more light-hearted. I am aware that I killed a couple readers’ feels with the last story, so I thought it’d be nice to have a change of pace (maybe I’ll kill everyone’s emotions next month). This is a holiday story I wrote last year for a winter/holiday anthology that I don’t think ever got published. I had a ton of fun writing this and doing the research for it. In the video above, I mention it takes place in 1950, but I found my old notes for it and the story takes place in 1953. I still can’t remember if the story was supposed to take place in New York City or Cleveland since my notes mention both cities, so we’ll never know.
As stated in the video, this is a LONG short story as compared to the previous two I read and posted (it’s around 5,000 words). If you enjoy the story, consider sponsoring me at Patreon. Hope everyone has a great New Year’s Eve/New Year!
Download the PDF version of this story here!
The Heist by Sheenah Freitas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
ete never thought he’d see snow. Actually, he never even knew what snow was. But as Pete looked around at the cheering crowd and felt the girl wrapping her arms around him, Pete couldn’t think of a better place to be—it was better than Africa. You see, Pete was a hippo.
* * * * *
Ever since Gayla Peevey told the world on The Ed Sullivan Show that she wanted a hippopotamus for Christmas on that fateful October day, children everywhere seemed to be in a hippo frenzy. John sorely wished that children could just ask for their two front teeth again, but since both of his children had all of their teeth (however, Lucy’s back molar was loose) it wasn’t exactly something that they could ask Santa. He glanced down at the letter to Santa both of his children worked so desperately hard on. It broke his heart to watch the two, huddled around the table as they had both deliberated on the one perfect gift to ask Santa and of all things they had to ask for, it was a hippo.
Things weren’t exactly going the greatest. With the strike happening at the plant, they barely had enough money to cover groceries. Just trying to come up with a plan for something under the tree for his children was proving to be difficult. The thought of making a new set of Pick-up Sticks had crossed his mind—at least it was something—but trying to explain the homemade aspect of the gift and that Santa’s elves were on an elf strike paralleled home life too much. John knew his kids would see through the façade and he didn’t want their disbelief in Santa to be on him. No. If his children were going to lose their childhood innocence, it was going to be someone else’s fault.
The snow swirled around him. He knew it was stupid to be wandering around downtown at this time of night. Shops were closing and one or two workers eyed him suspiciously as they turned off the lights to their window displays. John didn’t blame them. He suspected he probably looked like some sort of homeless person.
The window displays were like a whole other world. Or maybe a portal to another time—a time when he could actually afford things. He and his wife had scrimped and saved to give their children a special Christmas this year, but neither had foreseen that their Christmas savings would be the only thing that would help keep them fed.
A giant stuffed hippo smiled at him. John frowned at it. It was mocking him. He was sure of it. The urge to break the window and grab it crossed his mind for a second—the time it took for him to glance around, notice the sales clerk leaving the store and studying him closely—before he whisked the idea out of his head. Wrapping his coat tighter around him, he marched back home.
The night was far colder than what the meteorologists had promised; everyone was bundled up in their warm homes leaving the streets quiet. Jack Frost had even kept the most rambunctious and adventurous kids and teens inside. Not one soul, but for John, was out. At least, that’s what he thought until a Cadillac pulled up beside him.
“Get in,” a man gruffly ordered.
John looked around. “Excuse me?”
“Don’t make me repeat myself.”
The man, in his dark suit and hat, didn’t look like the type who was willing to repeat himself. A scar that looked like it came from a burn covered half his face; the other half had what appeared to be a scar from a knife running across it.
Hesitating for a moment, John steeled his courage and got in the car. Warmth washed over him as soon as he sat down. He could feel his bones melting, welcoming the sudden change in temperature. The imposing man seemed to loom over him, and despite John’s fear of the man, he couldn’t help but feel relief.
The man looked John over. “You from the plant?” he finally asked after a long stretch of silence.
John couldn’t seem to find his voice. He nodded.
“You need money?”
John nodded again.
“My employer,” the man said slowly, “well, he’s rich. Has lots of money, you know?”
John nodded slowly. He was following the conversation, but anyone could say that anyone was rich. How was he to really know?
“Anyway, there’s a job. A big job. Interested? It pays big.”
“I-I’m not sure . . .”
“Nonsense! Look. You look like a family man. Got a pretty broad at home I’m assuming? And kids? One? No. Two. The strike . . . it’s taken a toll on families. And good men. Good men like you. So you do this job and you get paid. In cash. Lots of cash.”
“That’s really nice but—“
“My boss don’t take no for an answer.”
John licked his lips. “Fine. But . . . This job . . . There’s no, uh . . . You know . . .” He took his finger and pretended to slice his own throat.
The man laughed. That is, if one can call something that sounded like a cough and an exhale a laugh. “We don’t ask just anybody off the street to take care of people for us. You need trained professionals for that. Like me.” He gave a sly smile.
John cleared his throat and hastily looked out the window. “It’s getting a bit warm in here . . .”
“Too warm for ya, eh? Hey! Charlie! Lower that heat! Anyway, as I was saying, we don’t ask just anybody off the street to take care of people for us. Murder is a serious business, you know? You don’t want some crazy yahoo out there who’s never held a gun.”
“O-Of course.” John was beginning to wish that he didn’t have the sudden urge to go window shopping. But being at home all of the time was making him stir-crazy. He wasn’t sure how his wife could stand being home all day, taking care of the house. He supposed that was one of the reasons she was so involved. It seemed that someone was doing something every single day that required her presence. He should’ve taken up her offer to go to the book club. He should have—
“There’s a few guys we suspect are double-crossing us, see?” the man said slowly. He glanced out the window as headlights came down the street and nodded to the driver as they passed them by. “My boss, he checked around. Wants someone loyal. Like you. Someone with a good head on his shoulder who knows right from wrong. Look, I saw you eyeing that toy hippo in that window shop. You wavered there, but you stayed strong. That’s good. You resist temptation.”
“You’ve been following me?” The car suddenly felt smaller. Much, much too small.
The man waved a hand. “Details aren’t important. We need you to go on a heist for us. Watch the crew. If they do anything stupid, you report to me. I’ll tell them you’re a trainee. Learning the ropes, you know? Pull this off and my boss will pay you.” He reached behind him and grabbed a large manila envelope. “An advance for your services. You’ll get more when the job is complete.”
John licked his lips and reached for the envelope with shaking hands. “I do this job . . . And that’s it? You won’t bother me anymore?”
“Well, you never know. But rest assured. This won’t be a regular thing.” The man reached over and opened the door for John. “Tomorrow night. Ten sharp. The zoo. No questions.”
John nodded and stumbled out. The door slammed shut and the Cadillac drove off. He waited for five minutes, the snow starting to fall all around him. His heart was racing. What was he supposed to do? He feared that if he didn’t do as what that man said, he’d end up with a professional taking care of him. He gulped. His children were still so young. And he couldn’t bear the thought of his wife as a young widow.
With trembling fingers, he peered inside. There was enough money in there for two weeks of grocery. Real food. John couldn’t remember the last time he ate supper without sleeping hungry. It had been a rough couple of months for sure, but he was still positive that things could turn around. They had to. And this, whatever this was, it just had to be the start of his life changing for the better.
* * *
If Pete knew what the concept of hell was, he would have deemed himself in it. At the same time that John had convinced himself that his life was changing for the better, Pete’s life was inevitably worse. For starters, he didn’t even know where he was. The place was just so dark and cold. He had never experienced such a coldness before. Tanzania—or as he referred to it as That Place That’s Warm With The Large Water Hole For Me And My Pod To Swim In—was a place with a tropical climate. Grant it, this place didn’t have crocodiles that enjoyed nipping at their unsuspecting feet (it was some sort of rite of passage for them he had concluded one day), but it was also cramped. And cold. He didn’t think he could emphasize the coldness enough.
In this dark and cold place, he had been bustled around and moved to various locations. At least that was his best guess. Pete heard . . . Something. It was a sound that he had never heard before. A cacophony of cries and shrills almost as if there was some sort of animal beyond the coldness communicating with its kind. His ears flickered. Whatever this animal was, there was a lot of them. A lot more than the number of hippopotamuses in his pod. Being a hippo, Pete wasn’t used to the concept of fear. He had felt the emotion twice: Once when his mother told him she could no longer care for him because he was an adult now, and once when he had finally ventured away from his pod to grab some food and had found himself momentarily lost. But as the sound of the animals loomed closer and closer, Pete felt fear. Fear and coldness.
* * *
John rubbed his hands together and blew his hot breath on them. It helped de-thaw his fingertips, but overall, he feared his hands were permanently numb. Last night had been a heat wave compared to tonight. He regretted even more than ever that he had went out window shopping. The zoo was closed and occasionally, he could hear animal sounds. He had never visited the zoo before. His children had requested it, but either he never had the time to take them or he was just too exhausted from working too much overtime.
The Cadillac pulled up slowly beside him. The man from before stepped out and straightened his hat. John wondered if the man could afford another suit, but decided to keep that to himself.
“You’re here early. I like that. My boss is a good judge of character. Nice to see he was right again.” The man rubbed his gloved hands together as a team of three men ambled out of the car. “Now! The boss wants you three to go in there and steal a shipment that just arrived right before the zoo closed.”
John frowned. “A shipment? What kind?”
The three men of the crew gasped and shook his head. John feared he might get taken out for doing something wrong that he wasn’t aware of.
The man in the dark suit shook his head. “Johnny boy, remember when I said no questions? Well, that’s rule number one: Don’t ask questions. Capisce?”
“Y-Yes . . . sir.” John suddenly realized the man had never asked him his name yesterday in the car.
The man slapped John’s back. “Since you’re new, I’m not going to do anything more than give you a warning. But next time you ask a question . . .” He took his finger and dragged it across his throat.
“I’m just kidding, Johnny boy! Well, sorta. Anyways, you go in there and grab the latest shipment. It’ll be big. Real big. Should say hippo or something similar to that on the box somewhere.”
“Hippo?!” the crew said in unison.
The man shook his head at them. “No, giraffe. Yes! Hippo! What? You guys got a hearing problem or something? Now get in there and steal a hippo!”
“But . . . how are we going to steal it?” one of the guys asked. He was the thinnest of the three. “Aren’t hippos . . . You know . . . Heavy?”
The man only shrugged. “I think so. I don’t know. I’ve never seen a hippo. But the boss wants a hippo. Every little kid in the world wants a hippo thanks to that goddamn song and the boss never disappoints his children. Especially on Christmas. Time’s a wasting! Get in there and get me a hippo!” He kicked the guy who was closest to him. He was the shortest of the crew and jumped into the other two.
Mumbling about hippos and their weight, Shorty herded the others farther down from the entrance. It was here that he revealed a way in that he had created a few days earlier. The crew took a couple of seconds to admire Shorty’s work before slipping in. Being in the zoo at night was sounding off a dozen alarms in John’s head. Everything told him to just leave and that this was a horrible idea and that he should go back home and apologize to his wife about lying to her about where he’d be that night. He desperately wanted to turn back time, but time was cruel. He couldn’t take any of this back and, he knew all too well, that if he turned back right now there was a good chance he’d catch a bullet in his chest.
They crept through the zoo, fearful of waking up any creature that shouldn’t be awake and fearful of being found by a guard. They were lucky that someone had taken the time to shovel the paths, otherwise they would have left a trail of footprints in their wake. With each footfall, John could feel his heart accelerate. This was it. He was going to steal a hippopotamus.
* * *
Pete didn’t remember falling asleep. The last thing he remembered was the sound of whatever animal was out there, looming over him in the darkness. And then he was moved and there was a high-pitched sound and then . . . and then . . . he must have drifted off.
There was a new sound now. It was a sound he had heard before; it was a rustling. Something was approaching closer. He only hoped that whatever was coming would take away the coldness.
* * *
The men stared at the massive crate before them. John knew that a hippo was big, but he hadn’t realized just how big big was. And big was big.
Real Thin Guy scratched his head. “I don’t understand how we’re going to move this thing. I mean it’s just so . . .”
“Big,” Shorty finished with wide eyes. “I’m confused. I thought they were smaller. Like the ones in Dumbo.”
The other guy in the crew slapped him in the back of the head. “Those were elephants! And FYI, elephants are big, too!”
“Yeah, but they just seem small. Like you could carry one in your pocket or something, you know?”
The three stared at Shorty and shook their heads.
“Okay,” the other guy said, “We’ll find a forklift and just take this hippo straight out of here. Easy peasy!”
Real Thin Guy scratched his chin. “But . . . I don’t know anything about forklifts. Who’s going to operate it?”
John paled. Was it possible that he had been duped into this heist? That he wasn’t here to keep an eye on things but rather to operate a forklift? He had a hard time believing that anybody here would be stealing a hippo. “I . . . I know how to operate a forklift.”
* * *
Pete felt himself being moved violently this time. He swayed as what he now referred to as The Dark Place rocked. Something sounded like it was cracking. Light peeked through cracks. Pete nudged his nose against the light as he heard that high-pitched sound again. He heard those animals saying, “Can’t you keep that thing off?”
“Sorry! It’s a caution thing! There’s no way to turn it off!”
“No worries. It’s not like anyone is here anyway.”
“Right. So like the guards just left?”
Pete had no idea what these animals were talking about, but at least these animals weren’t yelling and shrieking like the ones of their kind from earlier. However, he did feel like these animals, whatever it was that they were doing, were the cause of The Dark Place suddenly becoming The Not So Dark Place. He heard another crack. Pete could now fit his tail through another area where the light peeked out from.
“I got this!”
“You need to hurry it and move it to the truck!”
“He’s not gonna make it . . .”
“I got this!”
There was a series of creaks and the next thing Pete knew, the floor of The Not So Dark Place gave way and he suddenly found himself in The Very Bright Place. Fear like he had never felt before swept through his very round and very large body.
Pete stared at the animals. They looked so crushable. He wasn’t sure how they had managed to take him away from Tanzania and its warmth. He was pretty sure he could walk up to one and knock one over just by exhaling. The thought to test this theory crossed his mind, but with all of the sounds and the lights and the everything, another one of these strange animals came barreling into the room.
“What are you guys doing in—the hippo’s out?!”
There was a loud, ear-splitting crack that emitted from some sort of strange object this one held. The crack grazed Pete. Unbelievable heat seared across his skin. He bellowed in anguish. There was only one thing on Pete’s mind: He needed to find more of the coldness to get rid of this heat and pain.
* * *
There is a hippo running loose and it’s all my fault.
Those were the words that ran through John’s head. None of this would have happened if he would have just kept his mouth shut about the forklift. This lift was slightly different from the one at the plant (this one just had to be a newer model) and with all of the newness came much confusion. Lots and lots of confusion. He knew the guard was just startled by the appearance of the hippo and had shot in alarm (or so he hoped). But the most surprising thing, besides the crate crashing open, was just how fast the hippo ran. He didn’t think that anything so big could move so fast, but it was.
At that very moment John was suddenly very aware of two truths:
One: He had been lying to himself that he wasn’t working for the mob.
And two: He was going to be murdered.
The only thing he could hope for right now was that his family would somehow manage without him and that his death wouldn’t be torturous. Though knowing the mob, anything was possible.
* * *
Sounds. Sounds everywhere. And complete and absolute coldness like he never knew before greeted Pete the moment he managed to escape The Very Bright Place. He thought that the cold would alleviate the unbelievable pain and heat that seared through his knee, but he was wrong. Absolutely wrong. The cold did nothing but annoy him and make him shiver. Why was this place so cold anyway? Why wasn’t it more like Tanzania?
The place outside of The Very Bright Place was dark. Not so dark as The Dark Place, but this place, wherever this place was, had to be The Unbelievably Cold Place. Even the very ground he trampled over was just white cold wetness. Was everything here cold?
Lights appeared before him and there was a thing. He wasn’t sure what else to call it and it honked like a bird and rumbled like a lion. More of those animals came out of it, brandishing more of those Hurtful And Loud Things. He wanted all of it to stop. He wanted all of it to just go away. But really, for the first time in a very long time, he really wanted his mother.
* * *
People were rushing out of their homes to see the hippo. John had managed to use the commotion to slip out undetected by the crew and hoped and prayed that the mob wasn’t on his trail right this very moment. Not only had he managed to lose the mob boss’s special Christmas present, but he was pretty sure his wife would be a widow for Christmas. Unless he could do something to prevent that. And that’s when the idea to save the hippo entered his mind.
It wasn’t that difficult to track down a hippo in the city, especially with snow on the ground. It was actually relatively easy. The only hard part was getting through the crowds. And the police barricades. And the amount of people who were looking not only for the hippo, but for the people behind the Great Hippo Escape! At least, that’s what he heard a reporter dub it as he ran by. It was only a matter of time before he became a wanted criminal.
Taking a time to breathe, John looked ahead, trying to peer where the hippo went. If it continued on its straight path, it would inevitably find its way in his neighborhood. There was suddenly no time to breathe. There was only time for moving. And John moved with a speed he had never known he was capable of.
* * *
“Everybody, get inside! There’s nothing to see here!” the man in the black suit ordered. Why couldn’t things ever go according to plan? All he needed was a hippo for his boss. One hippo. Was that too much to ask for? And that John guy was going to have it when he found him. He knew that John was the guy in charge of the forklift, he had suggested to hire him for the job for that very reason. The guys at the plant were desperate fools for money and just like he had anticipated, John so happened to be one of those guys. Lure the men in with cash and once they used it all up, they’d be crawling back to him for more money to pay their bills and to feed their family. They were guys who would be loyal. They depended upon the mob. And, if he had his way, the strike would last for at least another year. And he always had his way. Except for tonight.
And John was going to pay after he got his hippo.
* * *
Pete stared at the irate looking animal before him brandishing the Hurtful And Loud Thing. He was yelling at his kind who were creeping out of their strange caves. Seeing the Hurtful and Loud Thing in this male’s hand (at least Pete assumed the animal was a male) made most of the animals skitter back inside their dwellings. But there was one small animal—an infant maybe?—that didn’t listen. It drew ever closer.
“I said to get back inside! There’s nothing to see here!” the male shouted again. The animals that were around the male tensed.
“Hey, calm down a bit . . . It’s just a kid . . .”
“A kid that should respect adults and get back inside!”
“Lucy! Get back here!” a female called. She reached for her child, but she slipped and fell, her hand just brushing across her child’s hair.
“It’s a hippo, Momma! A real life hippo!” The animal called Lucy came running out, heading straight toward Pete.
Pete felt paralyzed. He wanted to keep moving, to keep looking for Tanzania, wherever it might be, but this small animal, a kid they called it, was just so tiny that he feared just moving in its presence would break it.
“I’m warning you to get away, kid!”
“She’s just a kid, boss!”
“A kid that doesn’t respect adults!”
Pete watched as the loud male, an alpha he assumed, raised the very Hurtful and Loud Thing and pointed it at the kid.
Pete bellowed. It was the male’s only warning.
* * *
John arrived, breathless, just as he watched the man in the dark suit raise his weapon. Everything happened so fast. He thought he shouted “NO!” but he wasn’t so sure. The only thing that John knew for sure was that he flung himself in front of Lucy, his dear sweet Lucy, and feared that he wouldn’t reach her in time, that he’d witness his one and only daughter murdered by the mob. And that anguish helped launch him toward her at the same time the hippo bellowed and charged toward the man in the suit.
There was a mad scramble. The man in the suit had a few cronies with him and they all tried to rush inside the Cadillac, but the hippopotamus had other plans. It stomped on the hood of the car, crushing it as easily as if it were made of foil. The hippo bellowed again. The men inside screamed. Shots rang out, but it seemed to only make the hippo angrier and crush more of the car to stop the men from shooting.
“Lucy!” he heard his wife cry. “Lucy! Are you okay?” She scrambled off their slippery porch and reached Lucy at the same time John reached her.
“There’s a hippo! A hippo!” She pointed at the behemoth, eyes wide.
John knelt down and peered into her face, so glad that she was safe and sound. “Lucy, are you okay? Are you hurt? What are you doing up at this late hour anyway? Where’s your brother?”
“I’m fine, Dad, honest. Mom said I could stay up and help her make cookies for Santa. And then we heard noises. And then a hippo came! It was on our wishlist! I thought you and Mom were really Santa—”
“Wait.” John pinched the bridge of his nose. “You thought me and Mom was Santa?”
“Yeah! Some of the kids at school have been saying that Santa ain’t real and that our parents are really Santa . . . We knew you lost your job and all and we didn’t want you to worry about Christmas or anything so we wrote down the most ridiculous and impossible thing we could think of. I wasn’t expecting anything, honest I wasn’t, but there’s a hippo!”
A million things raced through John’s mind. Finally, he managed to say, “But . . . It’s not even Christmas Eve, Lucy. That’s tomorrow.”
Lucy giggled. “I don’t think a hippo is going to fit in Santa’s sleigh, Dad. Something this big would have to be delivered early or else all the other kids around the world wouldn’t get their gifts in time.”
John’s wife ruffled Lucy’s hair. “It’s a Christmas miracle. But Lucy, you realize you can’t keep a hippo, right?”
“Oh, I know. Can I hold him? Can I? Just for a moment?”
John was just about to tell her no. After all, the hippo just crushed a Cadillac and seemed bulletproof. He was afraid to know what it would do to his daughter, but his answer was cut abruptly by the sound of sirens and people cheering over the hippo hero.
A light snow began to fall and Lucy wrestled her way out of their hold, racing toward the hippo. The hippo walked off the car, landing back on solid ground with a big hrmph and thud. He stood perfectly still as she attempted to wrap her arms around him. John didn’t know anything about hippos, but he was pretty sure that the hippo was content for the first time since its arrival. Its ears flickered as Lucy proclaimed it to be the best Christmas present ever.
And as John stood there, wrapping his arm around his wife’s shoulder, and red blinking lights appeared ever closer, and watching his daughter’s euphoria over the hippo, he couldn’t think of a better place to be.
After all, who wouldn’t want a hippopotamus for Christmas?