Consider this a late Christmas gift. It is rough around the edges and unedited, but there’s a little coal within, as well as a small gift, it’s up to you to decide which is which.
“You’re not the REAL Santa, you know.”
“Oh, is that the case?” The man with the long white beard pushed the fur trimmed read hat further up on his head and turned away from the mall’s window and towards the little girl speaking to him.
“Yup! You’re a fake. A, a, a ‘poster!”
The old man laughed.
“Well then, it seems you have me pegged, don’t you, little lady? Well then, so who do you suppose I am if I am not Saint Nick?” The man had bent down and had his hands on his knees as he spoke to the little girl in the blue jeans, t-shirt, and cowboy hat.
“You’re some, oh, I dunno, some guy name Mack, or Joe, or Bub. You’re just a, uh, you know fella, an employee. You just work here. You aren’t the real thing.”
“Well little girl, why can’t I work in a store like this one? Or the one across the street, or anywhere in the world? Why can’t I?”
“Mister, that’d be IMPASTA-BOWL! He can’t be everyone at once. He can’t do this job AND make toys and all that. He just can’t. And besides, you just don’t even LOOK like him!”
The old man laughed and stood up straight as a bell chimed in the distance.
“Well little lady, that’s my call. Back in the saddle. I wish I had time to convince you but I don’t have it right now. You’ll see though. Just you wait.” The man winked at the girl and walked past her and towards where the sleigh was where the photos were taken. The girl watched him walk away and shook her head before running back to the toy store, where her brother was going to meet her.
This was the day after Thanksgiving.
She saw four other Santas that day and made sure to tell each one of them that they were frauds and fakes. Each one of them smiled, they nodded, and they laughed as she walked off, satisfied that she had given them what-for.
Karla had believed in Santa for nine years.
Nine years until her brother broke her heart and killed Santa.
He didn’t do it all of a sudden, no, he worked on it for months and months and months. Laughing when she talked about Santa. Sneaking scary Santa movies into all of the boxes where the Christmas movies were. He even drew pictures of Santa Claus murdering his elves and would leave them under her pillow. Jack was sixteen, angry, and knew everything. He was already on the fast track to a scholarship at one of a dozen prestigious colleges and to Karla his word was only second to that of God above.
“You know he’s not real. Right? You can’t be so stupid as to think he’s real. That’s not right, is it?”
Jack had cornered her the week before Thanksgiving. Aunt Ida had asked Karla what she was going to ask Santa for and she had listed off half a dozen things without a second thought. Aunt Ida had listened intently, smiled, patted her on the head, and told her Santa was listening, and watching, and if she was good that he’d reward her. Once she had left the room to go check on a roast, mom and dad already in the kitchen with glasses of wine, Jack had appeared with a nasty grin.
“I mean, I…” She answered.
“Wow. That’s, that is really embarrassing. He’s a fake. He’s always been a fake. All of those presents – mom and dad. EVERYONE’S mom and dad. It’s a trick.”
“But why? Why would they do that?”
“Because that’s what they do. They lie. They think we are babies. They will always think we are babies. So they lie. They lie.”
“But what of…what of the other presents. The ones they forget. Or that they don’t remember? It happens every year. Every year.”
Jack looked down at his feet as laughter tumbled out from the kitchen.
“Well, that never happens to me.”
“But, but maybe that’s, maybe that’s because…”
“Because what Karla? Because I’m o the NAUGHTY list? If you wanna be a baby, if you wanna be a baby forever then you just be a baby. BE A BABY! Me, I don’t bother with babies.” Jack stormed off to the bathroom and slammed the door.
“Hey, hey Karla, Jack, what’s going on out there?” Dad had emerged from the kitchen with a sandwich in his hand.
“Nothin’.” Karla responded.
Jack didn’t speak to Karla after that unless he had to. He would look at her with a frown and then look away. After a week Karla left him a note under his door that said ‘Santa isn’t real.’ And just like that Jack was back, and they were friends again but something was different in Karla and as the holidays approached there was an anger in her that she couldn’t push down like she used to be able to. Santa was a lie. That was what Jack said, and if he said it then it must be so. It must be. So when Black Friday came and with it all of the Santas there was nothing she could do but
“You’re not real.” Karla told a man in a Santa outfit with is back turned to her as he quickly smoked a cigarette out the mall door. It was Christmas Eve and she wanted to remind the man that she knew he was a fake. The man slowly turned around and blew the smoke from the cigarette into the girl’s face.
“No shit. Boy, yer a bright one, ain’t ya?” The man smiled at Karla and she noticed his missing teeth. His yellowed beard, and the scar across his nose.
“I’m just a fill in. Part of an agency. Lots of openings the last couple days before Christmas. Whatever. It’s a paycheck. Now, if you don’t mind, I gotta get back. Here though, have a candy cane.” The man pulled a candy cane from his pocket, shoved it at Karla, who took it without thinking, and then he stormed off. Karla looked at the candy in her hand and saw that it was half-gone and with that realization came the one that made her drop it as the candy was still wet from the man having had it in his mouth not much earlier.
And with that, it was Christmas.
The extended family gathered at Karla and Jack’s house to celebrate together and the night was full of stories and laughter late into the evening. By the time Karla was sent to bed it was nearly midnight and she had already fallen asleep three times during the party. Jack got her up to her room, tucked her in, and patted her head.
“Sleep tight, kiddo. See you on Christmas!” She tried to lift up to hug him but fell back onto her bed and deep into dreams.
Karla dreamt of snow that seemed to go off far into the distance. Further than she could hope to see. She wasn’t frightened to be in the white, knee deep in the snow, because she wasn’t cold, the snow actually felt warm, and she felt safe there and like she was there for a reason, if she could only remember. She decided to walk towards the distance and see what was up ahead but before she could make it she was awoken by a scream. The scream came again and she sat bolt upright in bed and looked around her room, confused. Had the scream come from her sleep? She looked around her room again and shook her head to clear it and was about to lay back down when there was another sound, from outside. Not quite a scream but it was something. Karla looked at the clock next to her bed and saw that it was four in the morning. She looked towards the window and heard the sound again and a creeping feeling filled her. Did she really want to see what was happening out there? Before she could think better of it she was up at at the window looking at the white world beyond.
The bright white world of the snow outside with the moon upon them made Karla close her eyes then open them again at a squint but she could make out several moving shapes, as if people were out there moving. She rubbed her eyes and looked again and let loose her own scream as she saw her brother among several other young people nude and on their knees with bits in their mouths and all of them hooked together by ropes that lead from harnesses they all wore to a large black buggy that looked like it had come from a history book. Jack must have felt Karla’s eyes on him and he turned to look at her but he looked for only a moment before screaming as a red welt formed on his bare skin. She followed the motion backwards and saw a man in a Santa Claus outfit leaning forward from the darkness of the buggy, a whip in his hand. The man must have also felt Karla’s eyes as he turned to her and smiled before taking off his hat and bowing to her from the interior of the buggy. Then from within the buggy out came several other Santa’s tumbling forward like clowns. One, two, three, four, five, six, and they kept coming until there were ten standing around the buggy, all of them taking their hats off and bowing to Karla and smiling up at her. And she recognized them. All of them. She had seen then, all of them, even the first one, the one with the whip, at malls or stores over the last few weeks. They were all mall Santa’s. Her mouth dropped open and she was about to scream again but someone shushed her from the darkness behind her. She spun and saw the shape of someone standing in the shadows near the door of her room. They were big, bigger than the men outside, their head almost at the ceiling. It was hard to make out but it looked like whomever it was they were dressed like another Santa. Karla stepped back and felt the icy cold of the window behind her. The person in the corner spoke.
“Shhhhh, hush child. You need not fear me. Your name is safely on the Nice list. If you alert your parents though and they see me, if they see US, they’ll have to join the team and will serve us for every Christmas henceforth until their bodies can no longer keep up with our needs. So please, for their sake, be silent. Alas, your brother has been on our Naughty list for a good many years but this year he went too far and we had no choice but to collect him. As a way to give our condolences we have left extra presents in his stead. It is small recompense but it is all we have to offer. Now then, we must…”
Karla spoke before she could stop herself.
“But…but…there are so many of you…”
The man in the shadows leaned forward and she could almost make out his features, though she knew that if she did she would regret it for the rest of her life. She was not meant to see him. No one was.
“Oh, child, I am an old man now, older than mere numbers can count, and there are so many of you, well, I needed help and now, well, now we are ALL Santa. Always watching. Always listening. Always there. Dancing like sugar plums in all of your heads. Now my darling, to bed, to bed, and not another peep, return now to slumber, return now to sleep.”
Karla wavered, a feeling of exhaustion washing over her and all thoughts of Jack, of Santa, and of everything drained from her mind. She collapsed onto the floor before her bedroom window and fell fast asleep. From the shadows stepped the figure, its large, hulking figure taking up much of the room. It bent down to the girl and placed a candy cane beside her hand and then looked out to his brothers and to the team they had assembled. Time to go. Much work was yet to be done and they all had to be home before dawn. The figure placed a finger against its nose and disappeared from Karla’s room and appeared within the buggy where it settled in as the other Santas climbed in as well. From the darkness of the buggy came a whipcrack and the team moved forward on their hands and knees first slowly, and then faster and faster until they disappeared and all that was left behind were a handful of candy canes lying atop the snow and nothing else.