The quiet rattle of pine needles on glass woke Bobby from his doze. He pried open his bleary eyes and took in his surroundings. He was on the couch, snuggled beneath the afghan Grandma had crocheted for him last year, a cup of hot cocoa his mother had poured for him still sitting, untouched, in a Frosty the Snowman-shaped mug on the coffee table. No steam was drifting up from Frosty’s stovepipe hat, so Bobby knew that he’d been asleep for a while. The rattling that had woken him was coming from the Christmas tree, the pine’s swaying limbs scratching at the shiny baubles with stiff green fingers.
Bobby was still a little muzzy-headed from his nap, but it looked like something was hiding behind the tree. He sat up, rubbed at his eyes, and pushed the afghan aside. “Santa?”
A sigh heaved out from the branches and a bearded face in a bright red hat poked out. “Yeah. You got me, kid.”
Bobby gasped, his eyes widening in amazement. He’d done it! He’d actually caught Santa Claus! He opened his mouth and started to draw a huge breath to scream for his Mom and Dad.
“Don’t even think about it,” Santa interrupted, holding up a white-gloved hand. “You start screaming, and I’m gone before you hit the second ‘m’ in Mom.”
Bobby froze with his mouth hanging open and a confused look on his face, as if he’d just bitten down on a jawbreaker made out of gummi. A large red sack flew out from behind the tree and struck the hardwood floor with a tinkling crunch, like someone stomping on a jar full of celery, and the tree shook even harder as a fat man in a red suit struggled to emerge from its boughs.
“Goddamn it,” Santa muttered, slapping at the clinging branches. He tossed a half-hearted kick in the tree’s direction and turned to face Bobby. “Couldn’t you have gotten a fake like everybody else in the world? The sap is going to be impossible to get out of all this felt.”
“It… it came from the woods out back,” Bobby stammered.
“Jesus. You actually went out and felled a tree for Christmas? What the hell is wrong with you, kid? Haven’t you heard of global warming?”
“But… it’s Christmas,” Bobby replied.
“Yeah, yeah,” Santa said, flapping one hand at Bobby dismissively. “And according to the television it has been since Halloween.” With a weary grunt, the not-so-jolly old elf squatted down next to his fallen sack and began rummaging around inside. “Now where the hell did I put that list?”
Bobby’s ears perked up. “You mean the naughty list?” he asked.
“Oh, you won’t need that,” Bobby declared with the brash certainty of a seven-year-old. “I’ve been a really good boy this year. I got all A’s on my report card, I helped Mom put the dishes in the dishwasher every single night since Thanksgiving, and I even emptied my sister’s Diaper Genie.”
Santa snorted. “If that’s the best you’ve got, I wouldn’t get my hopes up.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, kid, Ol’ Santa was forced to adjust the Naughtiness Index a few years ago. The demand for Christmas presents is a lot bigger than it used to be, and the only way I could arrange for anything close to fair distribution was to significantly raise the threshold for nice status.”
“It’s a complex system, kid. I mean, back in the day it was just one gift for each of the Christian kids. But now? Shit is crazy.” Santa pulled one hand out of his sack and absently waved it over his head in a circle. “Everyone wants in on Christmas these days—Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists. I’ve got Jewish kids on my delivery list for Chrissakes, and they don’t even believe in the guy. Plus, I can’t just bring each nice kid a single present anymore. Oh no. Nowadays each of you greedy little turds wants a whole sled-load of crap.”
“But isn’t delivering presents what you’re supposed to do?” Bobby asked.
Santa looked up from rooting around in his sack and glared at Bobby. “Do you have any idea of the logistics involved in delivering a hundred million toys, kid?”
“It’s a nightmare, is what it is. I mean, even if you ignore the fact that I have to work the elves like nine-year-olds in a Shanghai sweatshop to manufacture everything, you still have to admit that a flying sled isn’t exactly the most efficient shipping method—especially when it’s powered by farm animals. Do you know how many reindeer I’ve ridden to death trying to keep the time-manipulator that allows me to deliver everything in a single night from rupturing the space-time continuum? I had to put Rudolph down last year after he broke his leg dodging a 737 coming out of Cleveland, and I couldn’t even afford to stop and bury him. I had to leave him to rot in a ditch outside Parma, Ohio like a piece of road-kill.”
“That’s terrible,” Bobby gasped.
“No shit,” Santa said. He returned to digging around in his sack, eventually pulling out and powering up an iPad. “But that’s enough whingeing. Let’s just get this over with.”
Bobby stood and walked over to Santa, watching over a red-felted shoulder as the chubby old elf flipped through page after page of names. “Did I make it?” he asked. “Am I nice?”
Santa gave a rueful chuckle and shook his head. “Not even close, kid.” He tapped the screen where Bobby’s name was written with a large red ‘X’ beside it. The tablet’s display changed and began scrolling through a long list of Bobby’s misdeeds.
“Look at all this. Tantrum-throwing, cookie smuggling, sister-punching—you’ve got quite a rap sheet here, kid. Most of this is the sort of stuff I used to overlook, but not anymore.”
Tears began filling Bobby’s eyes and his lower lip started quivering like a character from a Japanese cartoon. “You mean… I don’t… get any presents?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Santa said, rising to his feet. “Easy now, kid. I’m sure your parents got you plenty of presents. No need for any waterworks.”
“But… you just said… I was naughty. Naughty kids… don’t get presents,” Bobby sobbed.
“That just means I can’t leave you anything,” Santa said, gently patting Bobby on the shoulder. “Just because I’m not leaving you any gifts doesn’t mean you’re not going to get presents.” Santa pointed to the mantle, where a plate of cookies and a glass of milk sat. “I mean, the only thing I can do is eat those cookies, drink that milk, and chuck a lump of coal in your sock. But that’s the same thing I’ve done for the last six years, and you got presents then, right?”
Bobby nodded and a rivulet of snot dribbled from his nose.
“See? Everything is cool then. I’m sure your parents will take the coal out and cram a chocolate orange or a pair of socks or something in there instead.”
“So… you’ve never left me a present?” Bobby sniffled.
“Nope. Not a one.”
“It’s been my Mom and Dad this whole time?” Bobby asked, wiping his nose and glazing the sleeve of his flannel pajamas with snot.
“Yep. Hell, I wouldn’t even be surprised if this is the year they try to convince you Santa Claus isn’t real.”
“But you are real.”
Santa grabbed a sugar cookie from the plate on the mantle, bit into it, and shrugged.
“Then why would they lie?” Bobby asked.
“Well, kid, the way I figure, it’s all about managing disappointment. It’s probably a lot easier to tell your kid that you’ve been lying to them for most of a decade than it is to tell them the truth. Which would you rather believe—that your parents played a relatively harmless prank on you to make you happy, or that you’re a vicious little shit-ass who doesn’t deserve any presents?”
“I dunno,” Bobby said.
“Trust me, kid. The lie is the way to go on this one. And I guarantee that buying you a few toys is a hell of a lot easier for your parents, because even though you are a little shit-ass, they love you anyway. You’ll probably do the same thing for your own rotten kids someday, and then you’ll understand.” Santa tossed the remains of the half-eaten cookie back onto the plate. “Those cookies are terrible, by the way.”
“Sorry,” Bobby replied.
“Don’t sweat it. They’re always terrible.” Santa reached down and popped open his sack. He powered down the iPad and stuffed it into the bag before pulling out a chunk of coal and pitching it underhand to Bobby.
“I guess I’ll just have to try harder next year,” Bobby mumbled as he caught the jagged black lump.
“You can, but I probably wouldn’t bother if I were you,” Santa said. He hoisted the bag over his shoulder and stepped up onto the hearth to depart.
Bobby raised the hand that wasn’t holding his lump of coal and gave a tentative wave.
“Merry Christmas to all…” Santa began, but trailed off halfway through with a weary sigh. “Ah, fuck it. Take it easy, kid.” He laid a finger to the side of his nose, and with a nod of his head, disappeared up the chimney in a puff of soot.