Kristen sat on the couch and stared at the clock. It was 11:30
Christmas Eve and she was going to be alone- alone on Christmas Eve and alone
on Christmas day.
She was angry with her parents. Fifteen Christmases had come
and gone, fifteen Christmas during which the three of them had never been
apart, and now- well, it was hard to blame Mom and Dad. The software deal was
going to be a nice feather in their caps, but why couldn’t they have sold the
three-D technology to someone in Silicon Valley ? Why Buffalo, New York ?
Dad was supposed to be sitting in the easy chair, smoking the first
Cuban from the box Mom somehow procured every Christmas. Mom would be
sitting next to her, smoking a cigarette. There would be the obligatory fire
burning in the fireplace, they’d be watching the Yule Log on Channel 11,
drinking hot cider. Drinking the cider and thinking about which present
they’d open at Midnight.
Oh, it was all very corny, very fifties, but it was family tradition.
It wasn’t right, being angry at them, but Kristen couldn’t help it. They’d
called half an hour ago. Mom had practically been in tears. They were snowed
in- no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Kristen opened her small purse and took out her lighter and a
pack of Marlboro Lights 100s. She’d never smoked in the house before. She had
an idea Mom knew, that any day there’d be the unavoidable round of questions,
probably a stern warning that she was still too young to be smoking, but
they’d been dancing around it for weeks now, ever since Kristen had really
taken it up. She bought her cigarettes at the Stewart’s down on the corner
and they all knew her Mom. Someone would say something.
It didn’t matter tonight. She took one last sip of her cider-
she’d made the cider around an hour ago, thought about starting a fire, but
that was Mom’s baby and she just couldn’t get into it. The Yule Log was
burning away on the television.
She opened the pack up and saw that there was just one
cigarette left. That would mean walking through the snow to the Stewart’s
trying to get there before it closed at midnight.
First things first. She put the cigarette to her lips, picked
up the lighter, lit it casually. It felt so good, so natural. She inhaled
deeply, let the smoke from the cigarette encircle her head and exhaled
slowly. Someday, maybe some day soon, Mom and Dad would realise that there
little girl was a smoker just like them and the three of them would be able
to sit together and she wouldn’t have to watch and wish.
Kristen tapped the very end of the ash into the ashtray Dad had
given Mom for Christmas last year as she thought about getting up and taking
that walk. It was bitterly cold and snowing, but she’d have to go-
It was 11:32. She took one last look at the fireplace the clock
hung over. That stupid fireplace. It had made her stop believing in Santa
Claus, because she’d looked up the flue once when she was eight and realised
it was just too damn small for Santa Claus. No amount of careful reasoning
had shaken her conviction that there was no way.
Kristen exhaled again and caught a different smell. It was like- like
vanilla. And something else was different. One second she’d been alone, the
next. She reached for the phone instinctively. It was impossible, but-
“Please don’t do that,” the fat man in Santa suit said. How he’d gotten in
the house, how he’d walked right into the living room to stand next to the
tree was beyond here, but there was only one thing to do. Absurdly, all she
could think was that William Shatner would love to get this one on 911.
She thumbed the ‘phone’ button on the hand-held, and it beeped three
times before making an harsh buzz. Battery low.
“I just stopped in to have a little chat.”
The suit was so- so real. The white hair under the cap and the snowy
beard looked so real. Probably mohair, she thought.
“I always have to prove myself,” he said, sounding a little sour. With
that he laid a finger aside of his nose and levitated three hundred pounds of
Santa meat a full eight inches off the floor.
Kristen put the phone down and swallowed very hard. She then reached
towards the ashtray to stub the cigarette out.
“Don’t,” he said, and drew on the long thin stem of his white bone
pipe. A thick cloud of smoke was exhaled, and it drifted towards her, a
heavenly cloud of vanilla scented smoke that was deep and heady.
“But-” “I’ve been smoking this pipe for three hundred years, Kristen.
I really don’t mind, you know.”
“But-” she said again. “I’m sorry to barge in, but I was passing
through and saw that you were a little lonely.
There was still some vague suspicion lurking in the back of her mind.
This wasn’t really possible. She glanced at the clock.
“Aren’t you a little early ?” He laughed. It was a deep,
natural, very corny ho ho ho. In Dolby surround sound. In the
dining room, china rattled in its closet. On the tree, one of their
oldest ornaments, a set of tiny silver chimes, tinkled violently. The
tree itself seemed to shudder faintly the same way it did when the cats
started trying to climb it.
Hesitantly, she took another long drag on the cigarette, but it did
nothing to settle her racing heart. There was still something wrong here.
“I don’t mean to be rude- Santa- but I was just on my way out.”
“That won’t be necessary,” he said, smirking like the know-it-all he
was. “Don’t you want to know whether you were naughty or nice ?”
Kristen had to laugh. She exhaled another sweet smell cloud of smoke.
Thought about that. “You just caught me smoking in my own house. That’s got
to be worth a few lumps of coal.”
He smiled, puffed on the pipe, and even as she was hoping that
he would blow the smoke in her direction, he did. There was something
heavenly about that vanilla smell.
“Only if you were disobeying your parents, and you’re not,
whether you know it or not. But I’ll explain in a moment.”
He then did the strangest thing yet. He unhooked a Newton from his
belt and tapped the screen. “Kristen Lee Handley. Straight A’s, volunteered
at the Senior Centre Thanksgiving dinner, Toys for Tots, Happy Face summer
camp day counsellor. You’ve been very good this year. You’re in for a
“Why are you here ?”
“I told you,” he said “you looked like you were lonely. And frankly,
I need to take a rest every few hours. I’m not as young as I used to
be, you know. Do you mind if I sit down ?”
Kristen moved to the far end of the couch and took the seat
she’d vacated. She saw the couch sag under his weight. This sucked.
Stewart’s would be closed soon.
“Things have changed so much.”
“Aren’t you on a schedule ?” Kristen asked, trying to remain pleasant.
“That whole midnight thing is a myth. And I know a few time-related
Kristen took another long drag on her cigarette, trying to enjoy it
as much as possible. This was going to be her last one for a few days, and
she was determined to enjoy it.
“I came to give you a special gift.”
“Why me ?” she asked, trying to decide if there was any doubt left
that this was Santa Claus.
“You should see the email I get these days.” He affected a higher
pitched, almost feminine voice. “I don’t mind if you stop by and leave some
presents, but for God’s sake, put out that pipe. I don’t want my
children/pets/plants exposed to second hand smoke.”
“You’re not serious ?” Kristen asked, noticing how alarmingly fast
the cigarette was burning down. Soon it would be gone. She inhaled deeply,
loving the faint sensation of light-headedness. Saw that there was only one
more pull left on the stubby cigarette between her fingers.
“Yes I am. I’ve had to separate the trip into smoking and
non-smoking. It’s very annoying. The pipe is part of the allure of the job,
but these days I might just as well fill it with soapy water and blow
“So you stopped her because you could have a pipe ?”
“And some cider ? Could I-“
Kristen sighed. She took that last inhale, stubbed out her final
cigarette of Christmas and strolled off to the kitchen. When she came back
she handed him the mug and sat down, looking at the empty pack sadly.
“Your parents know you’ve been smoking. I came here to give you
something special, Kristen.”
“How do you know ?”
He gave her a condescending look. “Please. Isn’t it tradition that
you open a present on Christmas Eve ?”
“Yes,” she answered hesitantly. He took a long draw of the
pipe and she leaned closer. He obviously noticed and went out
of his way to blow the sweet smoke towards her.
“Go over to the tree,” he said pleasantly.
She did as she was told. Saw him wave his hand. Two of the presents,
a long rectangular one and a square box, began glowing. Any last doubts
started to melt away.
“Which one ?” she asked, feeling seven again.
He dipped his head. “I’m here. Make it two.”
She did as she was told. Both boxes had tags. “From Mom and Dad,
with love.” The wrapping paper had never come off easier. She opened the
square box first. ‘Lennox’ was imprinted on the top. She looked inside, and
there was a crystal ashtray, identical to the one that her mother had.
The anticipation as she opened the second box was murderous. She
knew the shape. It was something she had looked at many times in Stewart.
A carton of Marlboro Lights 100s.
“Go ahead,” he said, and she tore the end off, extracted a pack.
“Come back over here and sit down.”
She carried the ashtray in one hand, worked the cellophane off the
pack with the other.
He reached into a pocket. Handed her something.
It was a solid silver lighter. One of the old- she thought it was a
Zippo but she wasn’t sure. Etched on the front casing was his face. Santa’s
She opened the pack, took out a fresh, brand new cigarette. Felt her
mouth water. Santa Claus took the lighter from her hand, lit the cigarette
for her with an experienced touch.
She turned to thank him, but he was gone, as quickly as he had
come. The lighter was sitting on the couch as though he’d never held it.
For a split second, she thought it might have all been a dream. But
she saw the empty cider mug. Saw it and smelled the sweet vanilla of his pipe.
She looked to the fireplace. There was a blaze going inside it, the
wood she’d stacked there in anticipation burning brightly.
The clock read 11:32.
She inhaled deeply, and now there really was no doubt.