“I don’t know honey. It’s just magic.”
Chance was not satisfied with his mother’s answer. He remained there, looking at her with his brown eyes wide open. She left the candle on the table and turned towards him.
“Honey,” she said, “I really don’t know. He’s not like you, or me. He just can and he does it. Take it on faith.” She caressed Chance’s cheek and smiled. She kissed him on his forehead. “Now go on and write your letter. If you don’t, how will he know what to bring you?”
Chance walked away and sat at his little table, next to the Christmas tree. He grabbed a green crayon and continued. It had become a tradition on its own, to write his letter to Santa and decorate it with a little drawing. This year it was a turtle. His mind wasn’t completely in the task at hand, though, and he kept thinking until it hit him: if Santa Claus could deliver presents to children all over the world in a single night, wouldn’t he also be able to know what he wanted for Christmas without him having to write it down? He should be magical, after all.
His father returned. He had spent most of the previous half hour looking for his football magazine’s pre-season special issue. It had been buried for far too long somewhere in his studio, and it was time to take it out again and remember the stats and forecasts about how the teams were likely to perform throughout the season. He sat on the couch, a couple metres from Chance, and continued to watch the game, while skimming through the mag. Not long after, mom approached.
“The wreath is ready,” she said while sitting on the couch’s arm.
Dad glimpsed at her. “Third quarter’s ending,” he said nonchalantly and resumed his watching. Silence fell as he felt his wife’s gaze, still upon him. “Five more minutes,” he said.
“Five. No more.”
His father nodded.
“I’m getting Marnie,” said mom. She walked towards the staircase. “Chance, get ready for the wreath.” She proceeded upwards.
Chance looked at his father, who winked at him. Ten minutes later, the four of them were sitting at the dining table.
The Advent wreath was a family tradition. Every Sunday, for the four weeks before Christmas, they’d light each of the wreath’s four candles, have a family activity and say a little prayer. It was the first week, so the activity was that his parents recounted how they prepared for both his and his sister’s births. Chance already knew the stories. He remembered them from the previous year, and the year before that. His mind began to wander and he drifted away, until his mother called him.
“Chance, do you want to say today’s prayer?”
He gently shook his head. His mother then turned to Marnie, who shook her head as well.
“Okay, I’ll do it today. But one of you is going to do it next Sunday.” The four held hands. His mother went on to give thanks and to ask for health and prosperity for the whole family. Their rite was over.
His parents started to question Marnie. They asked her how she felt about high school and if she already had any idea of what college she’d like to go to. Since Chance wasn’t interested, he returned to his little table and his drawing. When he finished, he got up and approached the stocking.
“Need help, shrimp?” asked his sister. Unbeknownst to Chance, she had sat on the couch and was reading some brochures.
He knew he couldn’t reach it. Chance turned to her sister, stuck his tongue out and started to drag his little chair towards the wall.
Marnie laughed and got up, walked towards him. “Don’t make a fuss, shrimp. Here… give it to me,” she said as she reached out.
“Don’t call me a shrimp,” said Chance self-consciously. He thought that, even for a nine year old, he was a little bit too short.
“Okay bro,” said Marnie after a silent moment. She reached out again.
Chance gave her the letter. “Don’t read it!” he shouted when Marnie started to open it. She smiled and closed it, then threw it in the stocking. “Have you written yours?” he asked.
“I want something that Santa can’t bring me,” she said as she walked back to the couch. Chance followed her.
“But… he’s magic, isn’t he? What could he possibly not bring you?” He sat next to his sister.
“You will understand when you’re older,” she said. “Besides, I don’t want to hog Santa. What if I ask for something so big that he doesn’t bring anything to you?” Chance’s eyes widened and Marnie laughed again. She stroked his head. “See? Now, don’t worry. He’ll get you what you want.”
“Marnie?” His sister looked at him, expectantly. “How does he do it? How does he manage to bring toys to kids all over the world in a single night?”
“I don’t know, you little creep. Now go away,” she said as she waved Chance off. She picked up a brochure and kept on reading.
The next weeks dragged slowly for Chance. Even more than in previous years, he found himself painfully waiting for Santa Claus, and for the presents he would bring, of course. The moments he found the most comforting were when he talked with his friends about what they had asked for. It was funny how they said to be sure that they had made it to the ‘nice’ list, but remained cautiously doubtful within. If he was to be asked, Chance would probably say that the most interesting conversation he had was one with his friend Thomas.
“I don’t believe you,” had said Chance.
Tom shrugged. He began to walk away.
Chance ran after him. “But, I mean… tell me how.”
“I just woke up, okay? Jesus, I shouldn’t have told you!” Tom hastened his pace.
“So… you just woke up and there he was? In your room?”
“No dummy, not in my room.” Both stopped. “I went downstairs and there he was, next to the tree.”
“And what did you do?” Chance’s voice fluctuated between awe and bewilderment.
“Nothing. I went back to my room.”
“I don’t believe you,” had said Chance, again.
Now, it was Christmas Eve. The tree’s lights played their usual symphony of bright and dim, while Chance and his sister watched special holiday cartoons on the TV. Mom would cook a feast, and dad would go out, to buy some last minute necessities. It was all too slow. Chance felt that even the day’s religious rites and the Christmas dinner unfolded too unhurriedly. He was eager for the nightfall. He had devised a marvellous plan.
Just before bedtime, Chance drank a litre and a half of water. The need to go pee woke him up at two thirty in the morning. His footsteps were not heard as he made his way downstairs. The floor kept from creaking and the doors kept from squeaking. And there it was, at last. The Christmas tree was still without presents. He thought about sitting on the couch, but feared that its leather would sound, giving his position away. He sat on the floor. By two fifty, it was uncontrollable and he went to the bathroom. He did it as fast as he could, and rushed back without even flushing or washing his hands. However, Santa had already come and gone. Disappointed, Chance went back to bed.
His sister woke him up later, urging him to “not being a pig” and to “flush the toilet when he went”. Downstairs, he opened his present. It was the superhero action figure he had asked for, wrapped in a silver box with a golden bow. Family breakfast, lunch and dinner came, as well as a series of board games in which Chance didn’t partake. He was sitting next to the Christmas tree, ignoring all distant sounds, just playing with his new toy. At night, he felt like he slept for a long, long time.
The year that saw Chance turn ten was a blur. He had vague recollections of the moments he had experienced and of the things he had seen all through the year. The only certainty he knew was that autumn had come after summer, and that they both had followed spring. It was winter again, and eleven months had gone by without a moment’s notice. Chance was putting on some formal black pants, a formal white shirt and a black bow tie. The calendar marked the date as December 24th. They were spending Christmas with their grandparents. Probably. Before long, Chance was once again thinking about Santa Claus, mainly how he’d know where to deliver his presents if he was away, visiting family far from home. His mother called for him and the road trip began.
Christmas dinner was great. Chance had always loved grandma’s cooking, especially her duck à l’orange. Everyone was having dessert after the main course. Well, everyone but Chance, anyway. His grandparents were chatting with Marnie, inquiring about what she wanted to do with her life. Chance excused himself and started to roam. He went down to the cellar. There, he found a long string with many rattle bells attached to it. He smiled and took it with him, hid it in the guest room where he and his sister were going to sleep in. After everyone had gone to bed, he sneaked into the living room. He tied the string to the chimney, right next to the Christmas tree, and returned to his room. He was not sure how he was able to do it without waking everyone up, since the bells rang wild and loudly.
Chance woke up to the chiming. At first, he was little bit scared. When he remembered that it was his doing, he rushed to the living room. He was so excited that he didn’t notice the empty bed beside his, or the sunlight that was already filtering through the drapes. His sister was standing there, playing with the rattle bells, as if composing a song. It was too late, and the presents were already beneath the tree. Chance’s parents and grandparents arrived at the living room and stood around, until Marnie finished fooling around. Afterwards, the presents were opened. Chance got a pair of skates. He went outside, tried them, and didn’t return until it was time to go back home. Then, sitting on the back seat, he fell profoundly asleep.
Chance was tucked in bed. He lazily opened one eye, then the other one. He got up and out of his room. The whole house was dark, and the only thing Chance could hear was the living room clock’s distant ticking. He made his way downstairs, and even further into the cellar. There was a big calendar, which he didn’t recognize, on the wall. He felt so drowsy he couldn’t read it. Yet, somehow, he knew the date. It was December 25th and another year had gone by without him really acknowledging it. Everything was foggy, out of focus. He made an effort, but couldn’t even remember his birthday party. He had turned eleven that year. The clock marked two in the morning as he returned upstairs.
The kitchen floor was impeccable, and the pantry was full with cereal boxes and bread. And flour. Chance grabbed the big flour package and brought it to the living room. He was just going with the flow, moving mechanically, even when he started to pour the white powder all over the floor, starting at the chimney and all the way up to the Christmas tree. Chance felt tired, and didn’t fully understand why he had spread the flour. Maybe, on a subconscious level, he felt like Santa’s footprints would be valid proof of his ability to run the world in a single night. He returned to his bed, leaving the package on the first step of the stairwell.
His mother’s shouts woke him up. Chance ran downstairs. His mother was extremely upset and his sister was laughing uncontrollably. His father had started sweeping. The whole living room was covered in a white layer of flour, as if it had snowed indoors, and the family’s footsteps were everywhere, except for a narrow path that ran from the chimney to the presents in front of the tree: a couple of brand new bicycles, for Chance and his sister. Chance smiled incredulously. His mother, upon discovering his grin, made him vacuum the whole house.
The cold breeze felt good on his face as he rode his new bike downhill. His sister had also gone out on hers, but he didn’t know where she went. The only thing that mattered now was the ride. He raced the wind, pedalling against it as fast as he could. He returned home late in the afternoon. His parents were watching the Christmas football match on TV. His sister’s door was shut; she probably had returned and was minding her own business. Chance felt exhausted, so he entered his room and went to bed. He didn’t make too much out of the fact that he, in the entire day, didn’t get out of his pyjamas.
Chance’s stomach growled. He woke up hungry, feeling as if he hadn’t eaten a thing for a long time. The house was, once again, in darkness. Marnie’s door was wide open, so he peeked inside. She wasn’t there, so he kept going. He stopped at the living room, where it struck him as odd that the clock was nowhere to be found. His stomach growled again. He entered the kitchen and opened the fridge. It was filled with Christmas leftovers. He picked a salad bowl and took it with him. He sat on the living room’s couch. A ray of moonlight was the only thing that disturbed the stillness of the room. It pointed directly at the Christmas tree. He noticed the stocking that hung right next to it. He walked over to it.
The stocking was full. Inside, Chance found a letter. It was his handwriting, but he had no recollection of writing it. He tried to read, but there was not enough light. A chill went down his spine. He put the letter back in the stocking and went upstairs. He went into his sister’s room and looked for her old video camera. He didn’t find it, so he went into his room. He wasn’t sure of what he was searching for until he found it. Inside a box that had a note that read “Happy Twelfth” he found a camera of his own. It didn’t matter. He was moving mechanically again, without thinking too much about anything. He placed his camera on the living room’s couch, pointing towards the tree. He hit the record button and returned upstairs, without even thinking how tall he was, and how he had already reached the stocking, high on the wall.
His mother woke him up. He had left the salad bowl on the couch, unattended, which was not the right thing to do. Chance apologised and followed her downstairs. He didn’t bother opening his Christmas present, which was some videogame he had wanted for some time. He picked his camera up and fast-forwarded through its most recent video. Before he could examine it meticulously, mom called him for breakfast. When he asked where Marnie was, his parents told him that he already knew she was not returning from college for the holidays. After eating with his parents, he excused himself to his room. He played the video again, and watched its entire seven hours. The camera’s angle was not so wide, and it didn’t show the lower or upper part of the tree. For the seven hours in which he looked at the tree’s midsection, he found nothing out of the ordinary. He took a piece of paper and wrote that he didn’t want any presents. All he wanted was to know how he did it, how Santa Claus delivered his presents to every kid all over the world in a single night. When he placed the letter in the stocking his parents told him that it was too early for writing to Santa. He didn’t care and just smiled. He returned to his room and tried to fall asleep. After a long time, he managed to do it.
The man was wearing a red suit and he had a long white beard. He wasn’t as fat as one would have imagined, though. Chance found him downstairs, sitting on the couch, waiting for him with a goody smile on his face. He no longer knew what was happening.
“Santa?” asked Chance, finally.
The man in red nodded.
“Am I… dreaming?”
“After all that has happened to you, all that you have experienced, what do you think?”
Chance shrugged. He really didn’t know anymore.
Santa smiled. “A time machine,” he said as he showed Chance the letter he had left in the stocking.
Nonetheless, Chance frowned.
“I use a time machine, Chance. It’s the only way I can deliver presents all over the world in a single night.” Santa got up from the couch. “Come along. I’ll show you.”
It looked like a sleigh, painted in red and gold. The reindeers that pulled it had weird-looking hooves. Rocket boots, Santa had said. Their brown-leathered reins hung over a strange panel at the front of the vehicle. Santa pushed a couple of its buttons, and then pulled a lever. The sleigh didn’t seem to move. The surrounding world, however, thrust itself over them. Soon before long, every light rushed past, only to end like a glimmering dot in a far and foreign space.
Chance and Santa stepped out of the sleigh and re-entered the house. It seemed as if they had never left, yet the air smelled different. When they reached the living room, Chance noticed that Santa was carrying a couple of presents, which he left under the tree, and some candy, which he poured into Chance’s stocking. Santa grabbed Chance by the shoulder and both stepped out of the way just in time for a younger Chance to rush into the room and find that he had missed his opportunity of catching Santa by going to the bathroom.
“You should have flushed,” whispered Santa in Chance’s ear, as they both watched the kid stumble back upstairs slowly.
“Thanks Marnie,” said Chance sarcastically. He tried to walk forward, but Santa stopped him.
The clock’s ticking increased its pace, and time hastened its speed. Chance and Santa saw everything move faster. How young Chance remained just there, alone, playing with a toy on his own. Time only slowed down when everyone had gone to bed. Santa guided Chance back to his sleigh. They got in and Santa pressed another combination of buttons. This time, it was they who started to move.
The sleigh landed next to a house that was very familiar to Chance, and they arrived just as a car was parking in the house’s driveway. Chance’s grandparents greeted him, his sister and his parents merrily.
“Duck’s always a popular choice,” said Santa. He was biting a candy cane. “Do you know what your sister is studying at college?” he asked.
Chance was unable to answer. He didn’t remember. Maybe, he didn’t even know.
After everyone went to bed, Santa and Chance entered the house through the front door. Santa left a couple of boxes, containing skates, and some chocolates next to the tree. Chance tried to touch the rattle bells that hung from the chimney, but Santa grabbed him before he could. They stepped outside and waited for everyone to wake up. They listened to Marnie play with the bells, and saw a young Chance rush outside, put on his new skates, and steal into the horizon.
“Do you want to know what your family did while you were away?” asked Santa.
Chance shrugged. He did feel a little curious.
“Oh,” said Santa as he looked at his watch, “no time… maybe on another occasion,” he said. Both returned to the sleigh and flew back home.
The living room was covered in flour. Santa had just put the two bicycles next to the tree, not even bothering about the footsteps he had left. Now, he and Chance were just waiting, sitting on the couch. The sun started to rise, and Chance was looking at Santa nervously.
“You left your footsteps all over the floor.”
Santa smiled. He nodded, like a small and mischievous little boy.
Chance heard a door open. He rushed towards the stairwell, grabbed the flour package and spread it on the floor, covering Santa’s tracks. He then stood idly by as his mother made his younger self clean everything up. He saw how his sister and he went outside, and then how Marnie returned alone, crying.
“Why is she crying?” Chance asked.
“Don’t you remember?”
“I…” Chance hesitated, “I don’t know. Where are mom and dad? Why aren’t they here?”
“I don’t know Chance,” said Santa, “I wasn’t here… either. We should go now,” he said and guided Chance back to the sleigh. “I believe we have time for one last delivery.”
When they arrived, Chance knew what had to be done. He grabbed the gift box and started walking towards the tree. Santa stopped him. He pointed at the video camera that lay on the couch. Santa turned it off and turned it back on only after Chance had put the gift under the tree.
“I don’t understand. I watched… I will watch… no, I watched the whole footage in that camera,” said Chance.
“Yes, you have,” said Santa laconically.
“But… I should have noticed in the video’s timer that you turned it off for a moment.”
“The most important details of life are often the ones we pay the least attention to.”
Chance was still thinking of Santa’s last phrase when they jumped out of the sleigh. He knew they had returned to the moment when they’d first meet. Santa walked him to his room and waved goodbye. Maybe Chance was a thirteen year old now, and he felt like maybe he had lived with a blindfold over his eyes for five years. Maybe he had gotten both answers and questions to things he didn’t even think of before. Maybe… this was all a dream and there’s more to Christmas magic than he had ever thought. Chance cuddled in bed and waited for a long time, hearing his heartbeat and the sway of his lungs. He fell asleep.
The Christmas tree was refulgent, as usual. A ray of light filtered through one of the windows and hit it directly, like a spotlight for the important houseguest that returned every year. Under the tree lay a silver box with a golden bow. Chance’s present. He gulped and opened it slowly. It was the superhero action figure he had already seen. He smiled. Maybe Chance had a second chance.
He didn’t speak through the entire breakfast, so his mother finally asked what was wrong with him.
“Nothing,” Chance muttered.
“Are you sure?” asked his mother.
Chance nodded. “I think…” he said after a while, “I think I know about Santa.”
Chance’s mom’s eyes opened widely. There was a scope of fear in them. She looked at Chance’s father, who shook his head lightly. Then, she looked at Marnie, who shrugged and shook hers as well. “What do you mean, honey?” she asked carefully.
“I think he uses a time machine. You know, for delivering his presents.”
Mom sighed with relief. “Maybe he does.”
“No, he doesn’t. That makes no sense,” said Marnie. She shut up just as she felt her mother’s gaze upon her.
“But I think it doesn’t matter anyway,” said Chance. “So… what games are we playing today?”
Short Story. December, 2014.