I hate the cold.
I’ve flattened the drifts under the tree as I pace around it in the moonless night, while I try to keep warm. The screen on my cellphone flashes 2:17AM. The old man’s always on time – just five minutes longer.
It’s that ‘most wondrous time of the year’. People are feeling generous, and safe, and so they’re more likely to leave their doors unlocked. Let’s face it – a lot of them aren’t true believers. They think the jolly old man might come to their house, but they don’t believe the part about the chimney – who could blame them? Those things are so tight, it would be hard for a squirrel to get through, let alone a milk and cookie addict in a fluffy red suit. Some deliberately leave a window unlatched or a door unlocked, just to hedge against that bit of unbelief.
I know better, because I’ve seen him.
The first time was five Christmases back, at this very same house. I’ve never been such a heel that I’d go after the poor; the Winthrops were the richest people in town, and they had plenty to spare. I was easing a window up from the sill when I heard the jingling. It sounded like it was coming from over my head, maybe from the second floor. I thought there might be someone in the house who was on to me, watching from an upstairs window; I froze with my fingers still gripping the underside of the window. And then I saw him come right out of the fireplace – not sure how he did it, but there was Jolly Old Saint Nick, red suit and all. He unloaded a dozen packages from his bag and set them around their tree, and then he went back to the fireplace. He took a cookie from the plate on the mantle, washed it down with some milk, and then, like they say, “up the chimney he rose.”
Now this wasn’t all leisurely, mind you. I mean, he didn’t look like he was rushed, the whole thing just sped up like a video playing on fast-forward. He’s not just hypered-up from all the sugar – it’s something else.
I heard the jingling again right after he went up the chimney, and then nothing. I thought about going out into the yard and looking up at the roof to see if I could see his reindeer, but I didn’t want to take the chance of being spotted out in the open, so I gave it a bit to make sure he was gone.
I looked through the window at their tree. I could see where he put all the new stuff he brought, and I looked at all those packages and realized that if I just lifted those, no one would know I’d been there. After all, none of it was there when they went off to sleep, all snug in their beds. They wouldn’t know anything had been taken – they’d just think the fat old man wasn’t as generous this year, or that maybe he just didn’t come at all. So I slid the window open, climbed in and rustled them all up and I was in and out in a flash. Not as fast as him, but I’m still pretty quick.
He brought them some really good stuff – better than he ever gave me as a kid. Maybe it takes more to impress the rich; what do you give to someone who has everything? Saint Nick knew, and he had the wherewithal to do it. There was enough loot there that I didn’t have to work for the next month or two. I still have to keep busy the rest of the year, but I love Christmas. If there were maybe ten Christmases a year – that would be enough for me. Imagine, only having to work ten nights. But I guess it wouldn’t be as special then, would it? Well, I’ll just have to be happy with one special haul per year.
So here I am five years later, standing behind the trees off to the side of the house waiting, and at 2:22 I hear that telltale jingle. I can see the glint up on the rooftop from the sleigh and the harnesses and all – for some reason it’s easier to see there’s something there when there’s no moon; the lighter it is, the more it looks like there’s a haze hanging over the shingles. I don’t think it’s camouflage; it could be the whole assembly is hyper-speeding or something like that, so the shimmer is all there is to see, but it’s easier to notice in the dark.
He’s in there now, so I shift around on the packed snow trying not to shiver too much while I wait. Then I hear the jingling and the shimmer disappears, and I spring quickly but quietly across the new-fallen snow. I slide the window up and slip inside.
I realized the second year that I didn’t have to watch Saint Nick to know which ones he left – it’s always this old-looking Victorian paper that shimmers funny under the tree lights. None of the fancy wrapping this family buys are anything like it.
I’m bagging things up when I see it – the jolly old fellow’s left his sack by the fireplace, and it looks like there’s something in it. Lucky me – I get a bonus this year. It’s too dark to see anything, so I reach in and grab what’s at the bottom.
That’s when I know I’ve made a mistake, but I don’t have time to think about it, because I feel a couple of pairs of hands grab mine, and I’m pulled off my feet and into the sack. I try to get out of it, but I can’t find the opening, and then it’s like the whole world is jerked upwards. I’m knocked off my feet, and I’m bouncing back and forth as I’m dragged up the chimney.
And then my stomach drops and my ears pop, and I know we’re flying, and we must be really high up, because it’s so cold. It feels worse than being on one of those small commuter planes, and this pilot doesn’t care how uncomfortable the passengers are, cause we’re going to get where we’re going no matter what. And then it all stops.
Part of me wants to scream, but I have to catch my breath first. Part of me wants to run, but I’d need to get off my hands and knees, and then where would I go? I’m in the dark, trying to get my bearings when I hear a deep, jolly sounding voice, and there’s no mistaking – it’s you know who.
“Berkie. Perkie. Bring him out,” he says.
“Sure thing, boss,” I hear from two heliumed-up voices somewhere in the darkness to either side of me, and then hands grab hold of both my arms and drag me out into the open.
We’re in someone’s house. It’s the Cranford’s place – I think I recognize the mantelpiece from when I broke in there a couple of years ago, but they’ve refurnished the place. I don’t recognize the high-backed chair by the fireplace, but I do know the fat jolly elf sitting in it – it’s old Saint Nick himself, except he doesn’t look so jolly. And I don’t think he’s really an elf, neither. See, the two guys who have hold of me are elves – pointy ears and all. They’re each about the size of a ten-year-old, but their nails are digging into my biceps, and their grip is so strong there’s no point struggling to get free – I’d break my own arms if I tried. They’re dressed head to toe in green and red, and bells dangle from their ridiculously pointy shoes and caps. But I’m not laughing – I don’t dare.
“Let him go,” Nick says.
“Sure thing, boss,” Berkie and Perkie say in squeaky stereo, and they drop me face first on the Persian rug at his feet.
“Go tend to the deer,” he says. “I’ll join you in a minute.”
“Schedule’s tight, boss,” Berkie – or Perkie – says.
“You think I don’t know that? Go on, now,” he says.
There’s something in his demeanor that says ‘don’t mess with me’, and Berkie and Perkie don’t; they scurry up the chimney and now it’s just me and the fat man.
“Johnny, you’ve been a naughty boy,” he sighs.
“Is that why you haven’t brought me anything in a while?” I ask.
“What do you think?” he asks.
I feel rather stupid – I mean, look who I’m talking to. He knows my name. He knows if I’d been bad or good, and it’s not good.
“You know, little Timmy doesn’t believe in me anymore,” Nick says.
“Timmy?” I ask.
“Timothy Winthrop,” Santa says.
“Oh, the rich kid,” I say.
“You say rich like it makes a difference,” Nick says. “He’s still a boy, and he thinks I’ve been ignoring his letters for five years.”
“Oh,” I say.
“That’s all you have to say for stealing a child’s joy? His hopes?” Nick asks, then shakes his head and mutters “There’s not enough coal in the world for some people.”
He stares into my eyes, and I think about how I felt when he stopped bringing me things; it was an awful empty feeling.
“Sorry,” I say.
“Johnny, I’m not sure I believe you. Be that as it may, I have a present for you,” Nick says.
“For me? What kind of…” I start to ask, but then he hushes me with a finger to the side of his nose, and we both listen to sirens approaching from the distance.
“Don’t worry, Johnny. The Cranfords are out of town visiting relatives, so the police won’t disturb them,” Nick says.
“I wondered why they hadn’t heard us,” I say.
“My gift to you is a choice. You should wait here and surrender to the authorities,” Nick says. “And when you get out, we’ll have no more of this thieving nonsense. Be a good boy, Johnny. Understood?”
“Or?” I ask as the police pound on the front door.
“Or you can sleep with the snowmen,” he says with a wink, and then up the chimney he goes.
I’d like to use that trick myself, but there was something more menacing about that wink than I would have thought possible. I walk to the door so I can let the police in to arrest me. Neither option sounds good, but I don’t think “sleeping with the snowmen” would be the best choice.
Did I mention that I hate the cold?
You can connect with William Mangieri, see the full list of his works, his writing blog, and links to his current promotions on his WordPress writing page at https://williammangieri.wordpress.com/Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in