His mother glanced at the clock. “Nick, Santa won’t come if you don’t get to bed.”
“That’s right, kiddo.” From beside him on the sofa, Nick’s dad gave him a one-armed hug. “You’ve got the stockings up, the cookies out. Now it’s just bedtime. Or else.”
Or else usually meant bedtime with no dessert, or no playing on the computer, but Nick knew his dad wasn’t upset tonight. Nick hopped up and let his mother kiss him on the cheek.
“Presents tomorrow!” He ran down the hall to his bedroom, sliding on his socks over the hardwood floor before hopping into bed.
His mother and father followed him. Mom flicked off the light. “Merry Christmas, sweetie,” she said as she closed the door.
“Merry Christmas Mom. Merry Christmas Dad.” Nick pulled the blankets up over his head and lay in the dark, trembling with excitement.
This was going to be the year. The year he got his bike; the year he got his own video game system. Robbie was going to be so jealous when they went back to school. Robbie didn’t believe in Santa. He’d said if Santa had to deliver presents to all the kids in the world, it would take a hundred years, not just one night. Nick had tried to explain how magic worked, but Robbie didn’t want to believe him.
Nick jerked his heavy eyes open at a sudden clattering on the roof. Like a time-keeper on the piano, ticking throughout the house. Finding him under the blanket – click-click-click. He drew a breath. He wasn’t supposed to get out of bed, he knew that. But click-click-click sounded so much like Nick-Nick-Nick. Like Santa calling to him. Just a peek wouldn’t hurt.
He didn’t walk, but shuffled silently in his socks down the dark hall. White lights shone on the Christmas tree in the big room. And there—in front of the tree—Nick saw the red suit; the black boots. He drew a deep breath. Santa.
Nick didn’t think he’d made a peep, but Santa turned, and fixed his twinkling eyes on him. They sparked like blue fire, lit up from inside as if all of the magic of Christmas was trying to burst out. Santa gave him a smile from deep inside his white beard.
“Ah, Nick. I thought it might be you.” His voice was soft, but the words swirled and filled Nick’s head like a snowstorm.
“It’s me,” was all Nick could think to say.
Santa gazed at Nick and swung his sack over his shoulder. “Every year there’s one. Well, Nick, I suppose you want to see the sleigh? It’s what I wanted most, when I was your age.”
Nick could scarcely breathe. “You mean I can?”
Santa nodded and held out his white-gloved hand. “Up we go.”
Fingers shaking, Nick took Santa’s hand. In a whirl of silent silver, Nick found himself standing on the roof.
“Wow!” A puff of white breath came out with his surprise. “It’s like magic.”
“Yes.” Santa laughed, low and somewhat melancholy, reminding Nick of how their house felt so empty right after a big party ended. “It’s exactly like magic.”
Nick turned from staring at Santa’s laugh-lined face, to see the gleaming sleigh. It hovered just inches over the wet snow of the roof, the reindeer pawing anxiously to be on their way. Bells jingled delicately, almost too soft to hear.
“Your socks are soaked, Nick. Hop in the sleigh and I’ll get you some boots.” Santa tossed his sack into the back of the sleigh. Opening the golden cord, he rummaged inside and pulled out a pair of black boots.
Nick climbed carefully onto the front bench and peeled off his socks, bare feet dangling where he sat. When Santa passed him the boots, he ran his fingers over the soft leather. “Wow,” he said again, looking down at Santa’s own gleaming boots as he climbed in beside him. “Just like yours.” He pulled them on, the soft insides warm and embracing.
“My father always said, ‘You can tell the make of a man by his shoes.’” Santa ruffled Nick’s hair. “Here we go, Nick!”
Santa took up the reins and the reindeer sprang off the roof, into the air. Nick lurched on the bench, clasping his hands around a golden rail at the font of the sleigh. The world flashed below him, houses and trees and snowy hills raced by. And though the wind sent his hair whipping around his face, it wasn’t cold, or even uncomfortable. Nick smiled and laughed with pure joy.
“I knew you were real,” Nick said.
“Of course I’m real.” Santa tapped on an old brass clock-face fixed into the sleigh. “At least for a little while longer.”
Nick frowned, not liking Santa’s sad tone. “Does the magic go away? Like Cinderella?” It would be terrible if Santa didn’t have magic after midnight. What if he didn’t get home on time? Would he have to walk?
“No. The magic remains.” Santa sighed, and rubbed his forehead. When he turned his gaze on Nick, his eyes were darker, the fire in them dimmed. “Ah, you’re still so young. When you play on the computer, and the battery runs out, what do you do?”
Nick’s face twisted in thought. “Plug it in?”
“That’s right. The computer works again when it has new energy, new life.” Santa looked back at the clock. “One more stop, Nick.”
Nick puzzled over computers and magic as the sleigh pulled up beside the window of a small house. Hovering in the air, Santa looked in the window at two people sleeping on a sofa in front of a Christmas tree. A fire flickered in the fireplace though, from outside, Nick could only imagine how it would crackle. Three stockings hung on the mantle. Santa gave a wave of his hand, and two of the stockings plumped up, filling with gifts.
“Why only two stockings?” Nick asked, an uneasy feeling in his stomach.
“Because the third is mine,” Santa said. “And I won’t be there to open it.”
“Yours?” Nick’s heart beat faster, though he wasn’t sure why.
“Ah, Nick. Last year I was a boy like you. And minutes from now I won’t be Santa. In fact, I will no longer exist.” Santa took off his hat, and placed it on Nick’s head. He whispered something that sounded like Merry Christmas Mom, Merry Christmas Dad, and the couple on the sofa stirred slightly, before settling back to sleep.
Santa took up the reigns once more, but his white gloves seemed translucent, his hands blurred and faded. When the sleigh lurched skyward, Nick’s boots now kept his feet planted firm on planking below. Strange, since he hadn’t been able to reach the bottom before.
“I’m sorry Nick,” Santa said in a hollow croak. “It’s the cost of Christmas.”
© Aliya Smyth 2015
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