Santa’s Visit

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.

11:32.

            “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

pleasant surprise.”

            “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

tricks.”

            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

bubbles.”

            “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.

Longingly.

            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

face.

            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.

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