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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

Secretly Santas

           Santa tried not to adjust the fit of her lifelike mask. She wanted to look like someone who was not wearing a mask, and people who are not wearing masks do not use their hands to adjust the fits of their faces.            

Why was she wearing a lifelike mask? Because secrecy was of the utmost importance. Why was secrecy so important? It was right there in the name: secret Santa. The practice derived all of its power from the secrecy. The less secrecy, the less potent the ritual, the less satisfying for everyone involved.

Santa had come to The Multioak Homemade Christmas Gifts & Christmas Crafts Expo on Friday afternoon to avoid the heavier weekend crowds. The MHCG&CC expo was held annually in a long, barn-shaped hall used for nothing, as far as Santa knew, except various seasonally-themed homemade gifts and crafts expos. Santa was here because she needed a gift for Hogan, and she needed him to be surprised – yet pleased – at both the gift itself and the revelation that she was his Santa. The card Santa had drawn with Hogan’s name on it was also supposed to include a short list of his interests and tastes, but he had written only one unhelpful two-word phrase: “unique things.” Where would Santa find something unique for Hogan that also fell within the office’s strict 20-to-30-dollar price limit? Well, she hoped that The Multioak Homemade Christmas Gifts & Christmas Crafts Expo was the answer. If it wasn’t, then that would mean she had spent all morning struggling with the fit of the lifelike mask component of her disguise for nothing.

The rest of Santa’s disguise was entirely made up of clothes she’d never worn before, including her underwear. She’d ordered the clothes online so no one would see her ordering them. She had purchased only used clothes so as to ensure that no one’s attention would be drawn by excessive newness. The clothes were also of a style she did not prefer, though not the exact opposite of what she would prefer as that could be interpreted as a too-desperate attempt to point away from herself. Santa hadn’t had a lot of choices when it came to the lifelike mask because her skin tone had proven difficult to match, but she’d gone with a woman’s face, at least, to make performing a false voice a little easier.

As Santa wandered from booth to booth, she tried to appear as if she was not gauging the extent to which people nearby accepted her disguise as genuine while doing exactly that. Most people didn’t seem to notice her. That was good. Those who did seem to notice her did not take undue interest, peer with suspicion, arch quizzical eyebrows, or perform double-takes. That was better. One would think Christmas music would be playing in the event hall, but no. The dominant sound was the mingled voices of crafty shoppers, the Christmasy sweatshirts of whom seemed to mostly be also homemade.

Santa wanted to scratch her cheek, her chin, her other cheek, any or all of the above, but she would have needed to gouge through sturdy latex to have any success, and then where would her secrecy be? Gone. She resolved for the dozenth time to focus on her task. What good would all this secrecy have been if she settled for a bad secret Santa gift in an effort to get home and out of her disguise and into her cold-weather pajamas and into book 7 of a 12-book sci-fi series as soon as possible? A waste of discomfort.

The event hall was organized into two long aisles. Along each wall was a row of booths facing in, and two parallel rows of booths running down the middle of the hall faced out. These booths were really just folding tables displaying Christmas gifts and Christmas crafts, some in great teetering piles, some in arrangements demonstrating care. Behind these tables sat solitary women, pairs of women, man-and-woman teams, solitary men, and pairs of men. The items for sale were of a type. They were festive, rustic, clever, cute, and cutesy. They were flimsy and flawed, they were sturdy and stout. But not in contradictory ways. They were, in many cases, not very unique. But some of them were unique. And these were the items Santa sought.

               “What’s this?” asked Santa, handling an object. She stood before a booth two-thirds of the way down its row, one of the against-the-wall booths.

               The tiny woman seated behind the table in a black canvas camping chair said, “It’s a candlestick holder.” She seemed miffed at the way Santa held the item, though it didn’t seem fragile.

               “A candlestick holder?” asked Santa. Inside of her lifelike mask, her face displayed confusion, but her lifelike mask displayed only placidity, she assumed.

               “Yes,” said the woman. “A candlestick holds a candle. The candlestick holder holds the candlestick. And this is a Christmas candlestick holder, as you can see.”

               “Yes,” said Santa, noting the red-and-white candy cane striping that adorned the candlestick holder. “Well, it certainly is unique.”

               “I’m the only person in the world who makes them,” said the woman. “I’ve checked.”

               “And how much does this cost?”

               “38 dollars,” said the woman. “And it comes with a carrying case.” She pointed at a velvety purple box on the table.

               “I’m sorry,” said Santa. “That’s more than I’m willing to spend.” She would have preferred to explain that 38 dollars was 8 dollars beyond her office’s secret Santa price limit, but that would be far too un-secretive. Anti-secretive, even.

               “Well, that’s the price,” said the woman. Her tininess seemed to give her confidence the way bigness gave confidence to some kinds of others. “But I have different things here that cost less. This candlestick holder carrying case tote bag, for example.” She held up a tote bag with a photograph of the candlestick holder carrying case screen-printed on the side. She rotated the bag to show that the same image was also printed on the other side. “This is 13 dollars. And it comes with a candlestick holder carrying case tote bag pin, which is this pin with a picture of the candlestick holder carrying case tote bag on it.”

               “I’m sorry again,” said Santa. “But that’s less than I’m willing to spend.”

               The tiny woman’s eyes narrowed, first one and then the other. “You seem to have a very specific price range you’re trying to operate within. Almost as if…”

               Santa felt sweat break out all over her face inside of her lifelike mask. She scurried away without another word, down the aisle and around the corner, away from the tiny woman’s probing gaze. Seeking refuge, Santa spotted a booth manned by a man standing with his arms crossed behind his back, smiling serenely as he waited for anyone to ask him about the Christmas-colored ropes of varying thicknesses that lay coiled on his table.

               “Ah,” said Santa as she approached. “Christmas-colored ropes?”

               “Sure, yep,” said the man in a reedy voice. “I just call ‘em holiday ropes. But you’re on the right track. I could just as easily call ‘em Christmas-colored ropes if I wanted. Which, nah, I’ll stick with ‘holiday ropes.’”

               Santa glanced over her shoulder, paranoid that the tiny candlestick-holder-maker might pursue her. “Can I, uh, handle the holiday ropes?”

               “Sure,” said the man. “Go right ahead. And you can call them ‘Christmas-colored ropes’ if you want to. I’m just saying I’m not gonna start calling them that.”

               Santa picked up a loop of sparkly silver rope with gold threaded through it. “Hmm,” she said. “It feels nice. These are pretty unique, aren’t they? I mean, you don’t see many holiday ropes around?”

               The man brought his right hand around from behind his back and up to his face so he could scratch his chin with his pinky, a black bruise showing through the fingernail. “You know,” he said in a way that made it clear he was not answering Santa’s question. “I’ve been seeing customers my entire adult life. I mean, I saw them before I was an adult, but I’ve been truly seeing them my entire adult life. I’ve seen how different customers carry themselves, how they talk, how they move, their idiosyncrasies. But I’ve never seen a customer like you before. By your appearance, I expected you to behave one way, knew you would behave one way, but then, the way you picked up that rope, the way you felt it, what you said about it, no, something is wrong, something is off. You don’t add up, ma’am. Can you explain why?”

               Santa fled toward the exit at the other end of the hall. The pressure at the expo was building, she felt her cover could be blown at any moment. Leaving empty-handed was a bad outcome, but exposure would be worse. What if someone were to forcibly unmask her? It was impossible to know who here might know Hogan, who might tell him about the woman at the expo revealed to be wearing a lifelike mask, who might then describe Santa post-unmasking in a way Hogan might recognize, who might remember that she was looking at unique items, commenting on the uniqueness of items, which would bring Hogan’s secret Santa gift specifications to his mind thereby giving him everything he would need to piece together the identity of his secret Santa.

               But just as she was about to walk out the door and into the unpredicted snow flurrying onto the half-full parking lot, the booth closest to the door caught Santa’s attention. The young woman behind the table looked, to Santa’s eye, naïve, gullible. Safe. The table in front of the young woman held a square hand-mirror and three mannequin heads, each of them wearing headbands with small antlers attached so that it looked like the mannequin heads had antlers like reindeer except smaller, sort of. That was the intended effect, anyway, or so it seemed. When the young woman saw Santa looking at her, she waved and said, “The antlers move! They wave around on your head! It’s really funny! I bet you’ve never seen anything like it before. Do you want to try it out? They’re only 25 dollars!”

               The 25 dollars – that it was dead center of the office secret Santa gift price limit – that’s what convinced Santa to spare a few more minutes. Another look around indicated the no one was after her, not visibly anyway, but she was right by the exit if she needed to get away quickly, and it would be nice to accomplish her mission so she wouldn’t have to endure this kind of ordeal again.

               “How do they work?” asked Santa.

               “You can see for yourself,” said the young woman. She took one of the antler headbands off of the mannequin head and extended it toward Santa. “Put one of the display models on. You can use this mirror. You’re gonna laugh!”

               Santa took the headband and fitted it around the forehead of her mask.

               “Here,” said the young woman. “Pull it down a little more.” She reached for the headband, but Santa took a quick step backward.

               “I’ll adjust it myself,” she said. She didn’t want the young woman to feel how un-lifelike the lifelike mask’s flesh felt. She slid the headband down so that it rested just above her eyes. “Is this good?”

               “Perfect,” said the young woman. She handed the mirror to Santa.

               Santa took the mirror and held it up so she could see, well, not her own face, but the face she wore. And when she did, a sense of calm came over her, a steadying reassurance. The mask really did look very lifelike. Sure, the expression never changed, but the world was full of stoic people, and stoicism was a valuable trait at The Multioak Homemade Christmas Gifts & Christmas Crafts Expo where apparent indifference was a boon to one’s dickering ability. “All right, it’s on,” said Santa. “Now how do I make the antlers move?”

               “Simple,” said the young woman. “A volunteer consultant recently improved the design. Up until a couple days ago, you had to flip a little switch with your finger to make them move, but now there are tiny sensors inside the headband, and all you have to do to activate them is wiggle your eyebrows.”

               “I…I don’t think I’m interested,” said Santa. She tried to hand the mirror back to the young woman, but she wouldn’t take it.

               “What’s wrong?” asked the young woman. “Just wiggle your eyebrows. That’s all it takes.”

               “I don’t want it,” said Santa. “It makes no sense. Why would antlers move around? Real antlers don’t move.” She set the mirror down on the table and yanked the antlers from her head.

               “Real antlers don’t move around,” said the young woman, her voice suddenly cold, sharp. “But real eyebrows do.

               “I…I’m…” Why was Santa trying to explain herself? It was time to go. She whirled toward the exit, tried to bolt, collided with a man wearing a blue business suit with bulky snow boots, knocking him to the floor, but she kept her feet by briefly crouching to steady herself on the man’s fallen form.

               “Security!” shouted the young woman. “Security! Over here! This person is wearing a mask! She’s trying to trick people! She’s up to something! Security!”


               Rolling onto his back and staring up at the event hall ceiling, Santa took stock of what had just happened. An expressionless woman had run him over, then run away. With that settled, he sat up. A few middle-aged women had gathered to watch him, their hands hovering near their gawping, circle-shaped mouths, but they seemed only startled, not concerned. Beyond them, two security guards stood at the open event hall doors and looked out into the parking lot. They were watching the expressionless woman flee, probably. They were also letting warm air escape, letting cold air inside. Santa was again glad of his own lack of self-consciousness regarding his incongruous choice of foot wear. Though his boots did not visually complement his suit, they did keep his feet warm, which was no mean task. His feet were difficult to keep warm. They had circulation problems. Santa’s doctor said it wasn’t a circulation issue, but Santa disagreed. He could feel his blood not circulating to his feet enough; he could tell his blood didn’t often make it down there.

               Since no one offered him a hand, Santa stood under his own power, reflexively smoothing his pants and suit jacket. The run-in with the expressionless woman had brought a sour note to the end of his otherwise successful scouting trip to The Multioak Homemade Christmas Gifts & Christmas Crafts Expo. But Santa was not hurt, and a little embarrassment didn’t negate the fact that he was now well-prepared to return to the event hall overnight, break in, and steal a gift for his aunt Rhonda, whose name he had drawn as a part of his family’s secret Santa gift exchange. Santa was not usually prone to thievery, but he could think of no more secret way to acquire a gift. It was possible that his heist would make the news, or at least hit the Multioak rumor mill, but even if it did, Aunt Rhonda would have no reason to connect him to the story until she opened the gift, and that realization, if it even happened, had the potential to make the moment even more surprising, so it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

               It would have been easy to simply break the lock on the opaque window in the event hall men’s bathroom, but Santa had broken it in a way that made it appear to be not broken, and that had taken more than force. Now, merely looking at the window from even a short distance would not suffice to determine its integrity. A security guard would need to investigate the lock with his or her hands to discover Santa’s tampering. And Santa couldn’t imagine any of them felt they were paid well enough to bother. Look at how they’d reacted to the vendor screaming for their help with the expressionless woman: by wandering over too late to do anything and registering no emotion beyond mild curiosity. They hadn’t even asked Santa if he was all right after the collision and fall.

               “You all right?” asked one of the security guards as Santa walked past her on his way out the door.

               “Yeah, I’m fine,” said Santa in his least memorable tone. Better to stand out in people’s minds – especially the minds of security guards – as little as possible once the theft was discovered the following morning.

               “Merry Christmas,” said the other security guard.

               “Same to you,” said Santa, not even looking at him.

               The parking lot had become snow-powdered slippery, but Santa was sure of his footing thanks, again, to his boots. Yes, he mostly wore them for warmth, but in moments like this, he was also grateful for the additional traction they provided. One good thing about winter was that Santa’s boots drew fewer strange looks. Of course, some people asked why he was wearing such big boots but no coat, so he still had to occasionally explain his body’s circulation foibles, but not as often. Which didn’t really make up for the increased danger of his feet becoming cold as a result of the low outdoor temperatures, but it was something.

               Santa tucked his hands into the pockets of his suit pants and leaned against the wind as he strode across the parking lot and onto the sidewalk that lead through the residential neighborhood where he’d parked his car. The snow flurries flurried more frantically as if straining to shed the “flurry” designation. Some people still had their outdoor Christmas lights turned on even though it was early afternoon, and not a dark one. Was that not a waste of electricity? Santa knew it was.

               He was almost to his car when a man he was about to pass on the sidewalk heading in the opposite direction turned out to be, to Santa’s disappointment, his doctor. Deepening Santa’s disappointment, his doctor stopped to chat.

               “Still wearing the boots, I see.” Dr. Taff shook his head, also disappointed. He wore a puffy black coat, thick gloves, and a stocking cap, yet his shoes were normal black dress shoes not at all suited for snowy weather.

               “Why shouldn’t I wear boots?” asked Santa. “It’s winter. These are winter boots. It makes perfect sense.”

               “They’re several sizes too big,” said Dr. Taff. “Don’t think I don’t recall. How many layers of socks are you wearing?”

               “I have terrible circulation in my feet,” said Santa. “I don’t care what you say.”

               “Your problems are not physical,” said Dr. Taff. “How many times have we hooked you up to the circulometer?”

               “The circulometer is junk science,” said Santa. “I looked it up.” The conversation had become contentious enough that he did not feel guilty about ending it without saying goodbye. As he drove away, he looked in the rearview mirror just in time to see Dr. Taff slip and fall on the sidewalk, saved from injury, probably, by his coat’s bulk.

               Santa spent the rest of the day warming his feet in a bubbling foot bath and watching a marathon of the Jolly Old Saint Nick series of Christmas movies. The first movie was called Jolly, the second movie was called Old, the third movie was called Saint, and the fourth movie was called Nick. It was a very uneven series. Jolly and Saint were good, Old and Nick stank.

               Shortly after 11 p.m., Santa put on several fresh layers of thick socks, put his boots back on, got back in his car, and returned to the neighborhood where he’d parked while scouting the expo, although he parked a few streets farther away this time. During the walk to the event hall, Santa’s feet almost got cold in spite of his precautions. He could feel them teetering on the very edge of coldness. And furthering his sense of earthly injustice, he now noticed that some of the houses where the Christmas lights had been left on during the day had them turned off overnight. He wanted to pound on their windows and shout that not everyone has the same bedtime, that perhaps night owls would like to enjoy their Christmas lights while it’s, you know, actually dark?

               By the time Santa got to the event hall, crept around to the back corner, and located the men’s bathroom window, his mood was much less “jolly saint” than it was “old nick.” His spirits lifted slightly when he discovered that no one had repaired the sabotaged window lock. He used a screwdriver from his suit pocket to pry the window out enough to get his fingers behind it and pull it open. It swung upward and clicked into position, designed as it was to remain in place when fully opened. Santa had checked and double-checked this feature during his earlier scouting mission. Now, Santa would climb up and through, then pull the window closed behind him so it wouldn’t attract attention in the unlikely event of passersby. Although the window was narrow and positioned just above the level of his eyes, Santa was confident he’d make it inside without much trouble. He gripped the lower edge of the opening with both hands and jumped, his feet scrabbling against the wall as he used his arms to boost his head and shoulders inside. With this accomplished, all he needed to do was tilt forward and try to hit the bathroom floor as gracefully as possible, catching himself with his hands, maybe rolling over his shoulder onto his back. But as he attempted this maneuver, the window – in direct and flagrant violation of its design –swung closed just as his legs were sliding through. The bottom edge of the window caught Santa’s boots right above the backs of his ankles and peeled them off cleanly, dropping them in the snow outside while Santa, without them, went sprawling inside, the window banging shut between.

               Whatever other discomfort may have resulted from the awkwardness of Santa’s landing, he was aware of only the bitter, icy, deadly cold assaulting his feet. He managed one final thought before giving himself over completely to the cold: someone had further sabotaged the window. But who? And then his faculties abandoned him, overwhelmed by the penetrating ache in each foot.

Santa didn’t know how long he’d been screaming in panic before the bathroom door eased open and a figure bearing a flashlight appeared. Santa could not see the figure’s face, blinded as he was by the light and the pain. He was only dimly aware when the figure departed, the door closed, and the light disappeared. He did not have it in him to experience the cold in his feet and hope for help at the same time.


               The inexplicable arrival of the shoeless, shrieking man in the bathroom had alarmed Santa, but having now decided that the man posed no immediate threat, and having also decided not to directly assist the man because doing so could expose him to questions from people he wanted to avoid, Santa left the event hall through the emergency exit in the back, triggering the alarm on the way out. Someone would respond to the alarm, they’d find the man in the bathroom, and they’d help him or punish him or do whatever needed doing to him. For his part, Santa would spend the rest of the night in his car brooding over the unlikely circumstances that had led to him missing out on yet another chance at decent sleep.

               Earlier, just before The Multioak Homemade Christmas Gifts and Christmas Crafts Expo was set to close for the day, Santa had left his car in a gas station parking lot, and, projecting an aura of harmless wandering, made his way down the street, into the expo, and, when no one was looking, into the back hallway where he had picked the lock of an unused office, slipped inside, re-locked the door behind him, and stretched out on the industrial carpet to rest. He had known he wouldn’t be able to relax enough to fall asleep until all of the customers and vendors were out of the building and he had gotten through the security guards’ final checks without detection, but it felt good to lie still in a heated space while listening to the gentle sounds of collective gift-and-craft-browsing muffled by the concrete walls. And other than a rising hunger that the shoplifted granola bars in his coat pocket had done little to assuage, the first part of the night had gone exactly as Santa had hoped it would. The security guard who checked on the office hadn’t even opened the door; just rattled the handle and moved on.

               But then: the commotion in the bathroom and Santa was on the street again. The glow of the gas station sign drew him through the night – the wintriest time of any given 24 hours of winter – to his unreliable SUV, a family car, one of the smaller models. He’d purchased it from a private seller with cash a few weeks after faking his death, a tentative test run of his new identity. The Christmas gifts for his kids and wife – probably ex-wife, now – were stacked behind the back seat. They represented the bulk of the cash Santa had been able to accumulate since the SUV-purchase had wiped out most of what he’d saved up over the years in preparation for the execution of his plan. But wouldn’t his family be surprised when they awoke on Christmas morning to a pile of presents on the porch? Those presents having appeared overnight from an unknown source? A source they would never, never discern since they believed he who was the actual source of the presents to be dead and gone? They would guess and they would guess wrong. A lesser man than Santa would perhaps have been bothered at the idea of his children and the woman who had been his wife, and possibly still was, inevitably and incorrectly attributing credit to someone else, someone who was not him. But Santa was not a lesser man than himself, he was exactly the quality of man that he was, and although faking his death and abandoning his family perhaps pointed to some flaws in his character, he was delighted that he would not receive credit for the surprise Christmas gifts. That meant that the secret of his identity would be maintained even after the gifts were opened, enjoyed, worn out, tossed out, and forgotten. A secret Santa forever; Santa’s secret eternal.

               With his freezing fingers on the handle of his car’s back passenger-side door, Santa’s stomach groaned. He turned to look at the convenience store. One good thing about losing his spot in the event hall office –maybe the only good thing – was that he could now shoplift more granola bars. Santa crossed the parking lot to the convenience store and pushed the glass door open, activating the digital chime. The two other customers in the store perused the bottled water selection, although they didn’t seem to be together. The cashier was an eerily pale man wearing a grass-green baseball cap and a sweater visibly irritating the skin around his neck. When he heard Santa come in, he looked up from a sketchbook resting on the counter in front of him, a pencil in his left hand. “Hey,” said the cashier. “You’re not dead.”

               Santa went rigid, his feet rooted to the wet, black mat just inside the door. “What do you mean?”

               “The guy who worked the shift before me,” said the cashier. “He showed me the security camera footage of you stealing the snacks. And I asked if I should watch out for you, like if he thought you’d come back to steal some more since you probably thought you got away with it. But he said not to bother because you were dead.”

               The customers had turned from the water bottle selection and were now watching Santa, united in their curiosity.

               “Why,” asked Santa, his voice measured to the smallest increment, “did your coworker think I was dead?”

               “Someone came in,” said the cashier. “Maybe an hour after you left. He gave Ted – that’s my coworker – this flyer.” He reached under the counter and pulled out a sizable, full-color image of Santa’s sleeping face. Santa was disconcerted at how recent the photo appeared. Across the top of the photo, the words “THIS MAN IS” were printed in black, and then across the bottom of the photo in much larger red print was the word “DECEASED.” Given the context, it was easy to read the Santa in the image as not sleeping, but dead.

               “Who?” asked Santa. “Who brought the flyer in?”

               The cashier shrugged. “I guess we could check the footage.”

               “Please!” said Santa.

               “All right,” said the cashier. “But we have to go in the stock room.” He walked out from behind the counter and motioned for Santa to follow him to the back of the store. Santa obliged even as part of him bellowed that this was a setup, this was a trap, that the cashier had somehow orchestrated this.


               “Hey,” called Santa from the refrigerated drink case. “I was about to buy something.”

               “Just leave money on the counter,” called the cashier. He opened the stock room door and disappeared inside, the not-dead man close behind him, both reluctant and intent at once.

               “I don’t have cash on me,” called Santa. The stock room door stood open, but there was no reply.

               “I’ll cover yours,” said the other customer. He’d chosen a different brand of bottled water than Santa.

               “You don’t have to do that,” said Santa. “You don’t even know me.”

               “Yes, I do,” said the other customer. “We went to elementary school, middle school, and high school together.”

               “Oh,” said Santa. He downed all of the water as he walked to his car, tossed the empty bottle in the direction of an overflowing trash can, and drove away, through Multioak and out into the countryside, each turn taking him onto more and more deserted roads between emptier and emptier fields. At last, he pulled his car onto the crumbling shoulder of a road adjacent to a patch of woods.

               Santa got out of the car, crunched down into the ditch, up the other side, and into the trees. He had a flashlight in his coat pocket if the need arose, but the sky was cloudless, the trees were leafless, and the reflection of the moonlight on the skiff of snow provided all the clarity he needed for now. Once he got to the right general area, he’d use the light to assist in finding the exact spot, but until then, it was nice to-

               No. This couldn’t be. He fished the flashlight out and trained its beam on what he thought was – but hoped was not – a red-and-green pinwheel stuck in the ground. His hopes were slain. It was a red-and-green pinwheel stuck in the ground. But he knew this was not the right spot. He had not walked far enough. This pinwheel was planted next to a rotting log, whereas his pinwheel had been next to a thorn bush. Unless this was his pinwheel and someone had moved it. This thought provoked a spike of dismay. If the pinwheel had been moved, how would Santa find the gift for his girlfriend that he’d buried out here? The idea had been to keep it somewhere she’d never find it before Santa was ready to give it to her. But without the pinwheel to mark the spot, Santa worried that he would not be able to find the gift, which would mean he would have to scramble to replace it in the next couple days, which would not be possible because the buried gift was a vintage board game of which he’d only ever been able to find one copy in four years of searching.

               Santa had purchased the gift months ago, but had only managed to find the time to check on its condition on a few occasions, in each instance digging it up to ensure that the air-tight plastic tub, the bags, the layers of wrapping were still intact. Tonight was to be the last check before he came back on Christmas Eve to dig it up one last time, wrap it, and take it home to put under the tree once his girlfriend had gone home for the night. They had agreed that they would not exchange gifts this year, that money was tight enough for both of them, that it was unnecessary, that they would be getting enough gifts from their families. So the surprise would be huge, enlarged in all ways by the extent of Santa’s secrecy.

                But now, with this pinwheel here by this log, Santa was beginning to panic. But no, he needed to stay calm until he was sure that the original pinwheel was not in the original spot. The odds of two red-and-green pinwheels being placed in this specific woods by two different people seemed very slim, but it wasn’t impossible, and maybe there was a rational explanation that would occur to him once he had confirmed the gift’s location and could breathe a little easier. As he turned to walk on, his foot crushed something that did not feel like a leaf or stick or woodland animal corpse. He aimed his light down and saw there a flattened red-and-green pinwheel. Santa’s heart tilted in his chest. He hurried forward, deeper into the woods, swinging the light in all directions. The pinwheels grew thicker as he went. They were on every side. They were near thorn bushes and near logs and near stumps and near skinny young trees and near aged sentinels of the forest. They distorted his sense of distance, obscured topography, changed everything. In his panic, Santa failed to notice the rags-clad figure that slipped out of a well-camouflaged lean-to and slunk off in the direction from which he’d come.

               “Where did they all come from?” cried Santa. He knelt to examine the nearest pinwheel. Was it a different brand, did it incorporate different shades of red and green? Was there anything to distinguish it from his?


               Santa knew Santa wasn’t real. That knowledge didn’t bother her.

               She scampered out of the woods and through the ditch to the car, which was not locked. It took her a few moments to find the button in the glove compartment, but once she did, she pressed it and went around back of the car to climb inside the trunk. She ripped a scrap from the rags she wore as clothing and used it to jam the trunk’s latching mechanism so she wouldn’t be trapped inside. Then she closed the trunk lid and settled in to wait for the man to return.

               Santa knew Santa wasn’t real, and that didn’t bother her because she felt that Santa could become real. There were many great figures who had not existed before they came into existence. All of them, pretty much, depending on one’s view of certain religious figures. So Santa’s un-reality prior to the current moment had no bearing on Santa’s future reality, that was how Santa saw it. And as such, prior conceptions of Santa’s characteristics needn’t apply to the Santa-who-was-to-come. Characteristics such as Santa’s appearance, personality, tastes, goals. Santa herself, for example, could become Santa. And why not? She already thought of herself as Santa. Of course, she kept that fact a closely-guarded secret. Partly on purpose and partly by virtue of living alone in a lean-to in a patch of woods that almost no one ever visited.

               After a while – Santa wasn’t sure how long because no amount of time ever felt short or long to her – the man came back, apparently too rattled to notice the new footprints leading from the woods to his car. He got in, started it up, and drove off in a way that seemed, from Santa’s perspective, agitated, maybe distraught.

               Santa waited until she heard more cars, until stops became more frequent. Then she cracked the trunk lid and peered out. They were certainly in town, now. At the next red light, she slipped out of the trunk and darted away as the drivers of the cars behind watched in confusion. Some would assume she’d been abducted and that they’d just witnessed her escape. They would already be calling the police.

               Not all prior conceptions of Santa’s characteristics needed to apply to the Santa-who-was-to-come, who Santa was sure would be her, but she fully intended to adhere to some of them. Eating the cookies people left for her, for example. And it was already her natural inclination to say “HO HO HO” when she laughed, although she also kept that a secret, substituting a feigned “HEE HEE HA” when others might overhear. She would also be immortal. That one was a definite keeper.

               Standing on a corner several blocks from where she’d hopped out of the trunk, Santa waited for the red hand to appear on the crosswalk sign across the street. She always crossed on the red hand instead of the white human figure. Some people might find that to be un-Santa-like behavior, but they’d have to learn that the real Santa was quite different than the fictional Santa. They’d have to learn. And they would! But only when Santa was ready to reveal her secret. Only when her Santa-ness was ready to come to fruition. Which, even with maximum optimism, was probably years away. Too early, and she would be rejected, the small Santa spark inside of her would not shine with enough power to overcome society’s prior conceptions of Santa’s characteristics. Those darned prior conceptions! But there was nothing Santa could do about them now, she just needed to bide her time until she could openly defy them.

               The crosswalk sign had just changed from a blinking red hand to a solid red hand and Santa was about to step into the street when she felt a tug at her rags and a small voice said, “Excuse me.” A child’s voice.

               Santa didn’t like to be touched, and that included her clothes. She didn’t like kids, either. She turned to confront the meddler, but before she could speak, the child – a chubby boy in a neon green snowsuit accompanied by a smooth-faced man in a long coat – said, “This year for Christmas, I want a remote control car with headlights that really turn on and windshield wipers that really wipe the windshield and smoke that really comes out of the tailpipe, real smoke that really pollutes.”

               Santa staggered, she reeled. “No!” she shouted. “It’s too soon! I’m not ready!” She whirled and sprang into the street, but there were no near misses because, to her chagrin, she saw that the crosswalk sign had already changed to the white human figure.


               Father Christmas pulled a five-dollar bill from his long coat’s single pocket and handed it to the boy in the neon green snowsuit as he had promised he would.

               “Thanks,” said the boy. “Will you take me home now?”

               “Of course,” said Father Christmas, and he took the boy by the hand and walked him the two blocks back to his house. The boy’s parents – in slippers and without coats – ran down the sidewalk to scoop him up.

               “Where were you?” cried the boy’s mom, wrapping her arms around him. “We were calling and yelling for you!”

               “Thank you, sir,” said the boy’s dad, grasping Father Christmas’s hand and pumping it up and down. “Where did you find him?”

               “Here,” said Father Christmas. “He was playing in the yard and I offered him five dollars to come with me and tell a certain Santa what he wants for Christmas.”

               The boy’s dad dropped Father Christmas’s hand. The mom looked at Father Christmas with a mix of fright and fury, pulling her son toward the house.

               “I can see you’re upset,” said Father Christmas. “And I knew you would be, but I decided to tell you the truth anyway. I believe secrecy is over-emphasized during the holiday season. I believe that it’s better to be open. In fact, during this time of year, I make it my mission to take steps to thwart attempts at-”

               “What’s your name?” asked the boy’s dad.

               “Father Christmas.”

               The boy’s dad scoffed. “I thought you were against secrets.”

               Father Christmas cleared his throat. “For all practical purposes it…who are you calling?”

“That’s my secret,” said the boy’s dad, his cell phone held to his ear. He had not dialed many digits. Probably only three.

               Father Christmas turned and ran. He hated running, a fact which was no secret to any who knew him. It looked undignified with his long coat flapping around his legs, and each impact of his right boot on the pavement sent a jolt through his bad knee.

Discussion Questions

  • Would your Christmas this year have been improved or diminished by an increase in overall secrecy?

  • Would you count yourself among those who would find the flouting of crosswalk laws to be un-Santa-like behavior?

  • Have you ever forgotten where you buried someone’s gift before digging it up, wrapping it, and giving it to them? If so, how much did you hate that?

  • How much do you think you’d benefit from successfully faking your own death?

  • To what would you attribute the fact that your feet are capable of becoming colder than the feet of others?

  • Should antlers move? How come or how come not?

  • Assuming your hand was not an option, with what would you hold a candlestick?