by Kent Rosenberger
He stood like a gleeful, glowing guardian to one side of the end of the long walkway, a small reminder of simple yuletide cheer. Although molded into a permanent frieze from a single sheet of thin but sturdy plastic, the mirthful grin and smiling eyes he offered to all passers-by would most likely be his expression anyway, if given the choice. One green-mittened hand was drawn up in an eternal, friendly wave that never tired while the other gripped a sack of toys that slid over his shoulder and disappeared down his back, weighing nothing. The low wattage bulbs placed strategically in his head and stomach made him radiate full happiness throughout the neighborhood when dusk came and the electricity was switched on.
To his right, directly across the where the path met the sidewalk, his constant companion illuminated an equally glad, silent message of season's greetings. Equal in four foot high stature, outdoor durability and Underwriters' Laboratory safety, the snowman hugged his broom with undying affection and clenched his artificial pipe between dots of fake coal without any effort at all.
Although they were situated to stare straight ahead at the street traffic outside their owner's home, they were able to see things around them peripherally, including each other. Their unremarkable mouths never moved, but the two of them somehow communicated in a wordless, motionless language they believed only they understood. The only motion they ever experienced was when they were being hauled to and from the dark attic with the rest of the Christmas decorations or when a bracing December wind tugged at their sandbag-weighted bodies. Of course, every so often one of them would get knocked over and have to wait patiently in their upset position until help arrived, but even that did not detract them from delivering their warm holiday wishes in whatever direction they happened to end up facing.
It was their sense of purpose and love of the season that drove them to perform their singular duty so dedicatedly, even on the coldest days, during the fiercest storms, or in the deepest snows. Luckily none of those extreme conditions were upon them so far this year, and they both found additional joy in watching the light snowfall that had started earlier that afternoon fill up their scenery with elegant, clean whiteness.
The snow is certainly beautiful, the snowman said to the steadfast Santa without speaking. An extra element of festivity for the evening. And for the holiday.
Yes, the Santa agreed. Little Jack will be so excited. He loves when it snows on Winter Festival night.
There was a stillness between them filled only with the sound of glistening snow before the snowman replied. Yes, the Winter Festival. How I wish I could go just one time to see what it is like.
A dream we have both had for years, the Santa concurred. Jack is always so excited about it when they leave and talks about it nonstop when they get home, even if it is so late at night and he is so tired he can barely see or walk straight to get into the house.
They shared an inaudible laugh at the image
He is growing up so fast.
I know. I realize we only see him about two months out of the year, but the time has flown swiftly. He is already nine years old. There may not be too many Winter Festivals left when he will enjoy it with such childlike innocence.
I do not know about that, the Santa countered his companion. It seems to me no matter what age these people get to be, they get excited around this time of year, and not just for the Winter Festival. I wish I could go and find out why.
Just then the front door opened behind the plastic duo and Jack and his parents came out dressed for the weather and prepared for the annual community event. Jack was his usual excited self, running in circles up and down the snow-free, salted walkway in his boots, scarf and hat, too impatient to wait for his father to lock the door behind them. "Winter Festival!" he cheered as if Christmas Day itself had already arrived. "Winter Festival! Ice skating! Hot dogs! Eggnog! Snowman building contest! Caroling! Candy!"
"Don't forget you have to tell Santa what you want for Christmas," his father reminded him as they made their way toward the car parked on the street.
"Santa! Whoopee!" Jack shouted, pitching himself backward onto the lawn, cycling his arms and legs furiously. After several strokes of swimming in place in the snow, he carefully pulled himself to his feet and stepped back onto the walk to regard his handiwork. "Look, ma, a snow angel!"
"Santa," she coaxed, trying to get him in the car.
"Santa! Whoopee!" he yelled again. He had not dashed two steps when he uttered, "Uh-oh," and backtracked to his figure on the lawn. With a gloved index finger he drew a horizontal line across the top of his head's impression, nodded approval and skipped toward the car. "Every angel's gotta have a halo," he explained to his puzzled mother. Less than a minute later they took off down the street and disappeared around the corner.
The Santa sighed in the cold, tranquil evening.Another Festival.
He'll come home smelling of gingerbread and hot cocoa, the snowman added, almost cheerlessly. His unchanged facial caste would never have let on his downheartedness. If only we could go. Just once.
"Perhaps I can help," fluttered a third party from behind them.
Who said that? The snowman asked warily.
It wasn't me, was the Santa's equally stumped reply.
"I'm right here, in back of you. Oh, yes, but you cannot turn around, can you?" A shadowy image drifted between them and hovered above the sidewalk so both of them could see. "There, is that better?" The image was a blue-gray asymmetrical cookie-cutter-like cherub with a crooked dash over the disproportionately small head that kept equal, unattached distance from the rest of the body as it bobbed up and down in ghostlike fashion.
Who are you? The snowman finally asked.
"Why, I'm a snow angel, of course."
You...you can understand us?
"As plainly as you can understand me." It spoke aloud, like the humans did, but evidently had the ability the hear things outside the normal range of man. The soft, lilting trill it used to communicate sounded distinctly girlish, strangely unusual considering it was made by a boy, the Santa thought. Where did you come from?
"Jack made me, of course."
But lots of kids make lots of snow angels when it snows. Why is his so special that you were able to come to life?
The angel used a silhouetted wingtip to gesture toward her head. "He gave me a halo. That makes me an authentic snow angel. Without this, I would just be a snow choir member, junior class, like all the rest of them."
Oh,said the Santa, evidently accepting of the explanation.
The snowman asked gently,Excuse me, but did you say you could help us?
The snow angel nodded once. "Well, yes. I heard both of you say you would like to go to the Winter Carnival."
Festival,the snowman corrected. And yes, we very much would like to do so.
"Well," the angel sang, "I can make that happen."
You can? Oh, that would be so wonderful.
Only what? The Santa asked.
Then angel dropped from flight and stood before the two plastic friends as an equal. "Well, since I am a real snow angel, I have the power to grant one wish."
She turned to the excited snowman who continued to express only one emotion outwardly. "I can only grant one wish to one person. Or, in this case, one Christmas lawn ornament."
The snowman hesitated. So...we have to choose which one of us gets to go.
"Well..." started the angel.
The Santa cut her off. You go, he told the snowman.Maybe you could win the snowman contest.
No, you should go,the snowman insisted, looking back at his friend from the corner of his coal-colored eye. You've been telling me for years how you would love to have the children flock to you like they do to the real Santa Claus. How you would like to put smiles on their faces by giving them the toys in your sack.
But you were the first one to mention wishing to go after the family left. You are the whole reason the snow angel came out in the first place. It should be you.
Thank you kindly, but...
"Excuse me." Her voice was no louder or harsher than a cooing turtledove, but it did command attention. The two plastic figures ceased their gentlemanly exchanges and steered their attention back to the patient winter-hued being. "What I was trying to say was, there is really no choice as to who should go."
The snowman asked, Oh?
"Yes." The snow angel fluttered at just about ground level. Though she had no face to speak of, an apologetic droop was visible in the way she carried herself as she approached the stationary snowman. "I am sorry. Truly I am. I have the ability to bring one of you to life enough that you can walk, talk, eat, drink and act human, but I cannot make you look completely human. And I can only cast my spell on someone in my presence. Whoever goes must get where they want to go of their own accord." She sounded sincerely forlorn, then, as she told the electric decoration before her, "I know it is a Winter Festival, but frankly, a plastic snowman moving around in the city square might attract undo attention, especially since you have no feet. Although the plastic Santa may have similar problems passing himself off as real, he has a much more human appearance, is able to walk like others on two legs, and would be much less conspicuous outside of the crowd. Please forgive me for this decision."
There was no way for the snowman to convey whether he was dejected or accepting of the decision, so the other two in his presence had to take his statement at face value when he said,I understand. It is well. If I cannot go myself, I shall rejoice and be glad for the good fortune of my friend. I have but one small request.
Anything, the Santa promised.
When you return, you will tell me everything.
I will. It is a deal.
The snow angel turned to the Santa. "Are you ready?"
Yes, he said without hesitation.
Like a gentle breeze, the snow angel sailed up to the porch roof, snapped a good-sized icicle, and returned to land directly in front of the Santa. "I need something to direct the magic," she explained, showing him her frozen wand. "Otherwise the spell would discharge anywhere it liked. I could accidentally turn the whole house into a living creature. Would that not be something to see? Okay, here we go." Dramatically the snow angel traced three large circles in the air, sparking blue trails of magic puffing from the tip of the swirling icicle. On the third pass she aimed the pointed end at the Santa and sparkling magical energy flowed from it, surrounding his plastic shell of a form. As it slowly faded the twin lights inside him dimmed to nothingness, the translucency of his body became less and less visible until it was gone all together.
Almost instantly he began to move, suddenly burdened by the weight of the sack he carried, his arms stiff and uncomfortable from holding such an unnatural position for so long. "Oh," he grunted out loud, dropping his burdens and flexing the joints of his elbows and knees to make them feel better. "Is this what it feels like to be alive?"
"Yes," the angel answered him, "you are alive. Well, almost alive. You are still plastic. I made you solid so you do not look too out of place, but you will still have to be careful. Walking and talking and moving around will take a little getting used to, but you seem to be adapting fairly well already."
The Santa experimented with the way his newly bendable body twisted and turned. He could swivel his head left and right, up and down. His arms bent easily open and closed as did his separate thumb against the rest of his hand. Unseen knuckles crimped a crease in his mitten, then straightened to factory smoothness again.
With effort he lifted his right foot, put it down, then did the same with the left. "My boots are heavy," he commented, experiencing his first strains of personal mobility. His legs made a hollow, rubbing sound as they brushed against each other.
The snow angel agreed. "Yes, but they will help you balance and keep you from falling over easily in the snow. The weight of the sand still serves its purpose even as you move." She gestured to the abandoned sack lying in the snow. "As for your bundle, it is heavy as well, but the toys are now real. Since there is no spark of true life in any of them, it was no trouble at all to turn them into usable playthings. Feel free to give them out to the children as you wish. Just remember, when they are gone, there are no more."
The Santa smiled widely at the prospect of making children happy. "It will be a labor of love to carry it with me," he said happily. Though he struggled under its weight, he slung it over his shoulder and stood erect. "This will be the most amazing night for me." He turned to the snowman, beaming silently in the falling snow. "For both of us," he amended. "What do you think?" he asked his partner, marching and dancing as best he could, his jubilation uncontrollable.
When no answer came he stopped and leaned in closely to his friend. "Snowman?"
"You cannot hear him now," the snow angel informed him. "You are more like the humans and can only see and hear things as they do. He says he is happy for you and wishes you well."
The Santa felt his gladness melt away as he realized the drawbacks of his newfound freedom. "I cannot hear you?" he asked the plastic snowman reluctantly. "I suddenly feel very lonely."
"He says it is the first time the two of you have ever been apart and feels sad as well, although he reminds you that it is only temporary."
"Yes, only temporary," the Santa echoed, feeling his words choke in his throat. "I will miss you, my friend, even if only for a short while. But I will leave you with something until I return. Something I could never do before." For a second time he let his toy bag drop to the snow as he opened both his arms wide and hugged his immobile friend. The embrace was brief, but deeply significant to both of them. "I will return to you soon, my friends, with enough stories to last until next Christmas."
"And I shall keep him company while you are gone," the snow angel offered. "As for your return, please cast your eyes skyward."
As he lifted his sack one more time, the Santa looked up into the cold, black heavens. It was quite a spectacle for someone who had never been able to look any direction but straight ahead before. There was no moon, and the sparkling of stars scattered through the clear night seemed extra bright.
"Do you see that blue star directly overhead?"
With all the dots of light filling his excited eyes it was almost unfair to be asked to distinguish one from another, but there was no denying the sapphire brilliance of the singular celestial gem dead center in the sky. "Yes, I see it."
"Good. That is the Wishing Star. It appears to someone whenever they make a wish with an expiration attached to it. It starts at the center of the sky and slowly makes its way toward the horizon. You will be able to see it even under the brightest lights and through any cloud cover. Once the star drops below the horizon, the spell will be broken and you will return to your old self again, no matter where you are or what you are doing. So please allow enough time to return and resume your position before the spell is gone. Do you understand?"
"Good." She pointed down the street with her makeshift wand in the direction Jack and his family had taken. "Go down to the next street and turn left like you saw the car do. From that point there are signs with arrows that will lead you to the Festival. It is not far, but since you are walking there and back I suggest you get going."
"Okay," he said distantly, taking one last look at his friend before backing away to head out. "How can I ever thank you, snow angel?"
"Just be back before the spell is broken."
"I will. I promise."
Slowly but surely he trudged down the street, leaving boot prints in the snow as he went.
The snowman and the snow angel watched him go. He looked back several times and waved as he went. Then he turned the corner and they could see him no more.
The Santa's progress was slow, but despite his excitement for his destination it was understandable as to why he was taking his time. How can anyone be expected to rush through all this? he asked himself as he looked around while he walked. The spectacle of lights and decorations pouring out of every door and glinting off the fresh evening snow was breathtaking to say the least. It was a splendid new experience in itself to be on a street other than the one he had been stationed on all of his existence. Combining the new setting with a plethora of Christmas elements and seasonably pleasing weather made the suburban neighborhood a veritable winter wonderland.If the Festival is even half as beautiful as this, it will truly be an experience I will treasure forever.
He wanted to quicken his pace since he was now getting used to walking on the deposits of unshoveled snow dotting the sidewalks, but the heaviness of his boots made anything above a brisk walk a real chore. He knew there was a small stopper in the bottom of each of his feet that could easily open to remove some of the sand, but he thought perhaps that might not be a good idea. Since he relied on that weight to keep him from blowing over and sliding around it was better to leave things the way they were and tough it out.
On one of the rare occasions when he did slip, some of the lighter items in his bag fell out, landing harmlessly in the snow. A couple of them were toys, but he noticed most of them were small, light, easily lost wrapped confections. He retrieved several gumballs, four lollipops, a couple of candy canes, one of which broke in the fall, a gingerbread man, two chocolate Santas and a pack of chewing gum. After rummaging the snow bank to make sure he had not missed any stray pieces, he rooted through his bag to retrieve all the goodies and placed them safely in the pockets of his velvety red coat. "Safer for you here," he told the sweets as he patted the pockets, "and easier to find and hand out too." His pack now slightly lighter, he repositioned it on his back and began his journey again.
Soon he came across another one of the arrowed signs that read:
WINTER FESTIVAL 1 ½ MI.
He did not know how far a MI was, but since the first sign said 2 MI and he had only traveled half that distance, he decided he had better stop lollygagging and get moving. A quick scan of the sky show him that, although the Wishing Star hand not moved far, it had definitely dropped toward the horizon a noticeable bit.I'll get to the Festival, spend as long as I can there, but leave enough time to enjoy the sights on the way back,he reasoned. Without a second glance toward any of the silent, elegantly festooned homes, he pushed forward as fast as he could down the street.
He had barely passed the half-mile marker when the sights and sounds of the Festival came dimly to his senses. A warm orange glow in the center of the town, radiating with people, decorations, games and food, was impossible to miss. A sparse number of people parked their vehicles on the road wherever they could find space and began migrating toward the celebration cacophony. The number of individuals headed in the same direction as him grew as he got closer to the square, until finally he was amidst a throng of citizens of every shape, size, color and age, dressed for the weather and ready for fun.
"Hi, Santa," children began to call as they recognized the trademark outfit and sack of toys.
The Santa waved slightly and felt the advent of a grin slip between his beard and mustache. He was not used to people talking directly to him, and never before had he responded to them. But with each cheerful greeting and wide-eyed look he became more and more comfortable with the role he was made for, until a sultry, "Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!" passed his artificial lips in the heartiest baritone he could fathom.
When he finally reached the edge of the Festival grounds where the milling and constant buzzing of people reached its climax and the air was filled with the aroma of smoked sausages, fresh baked pies and apple cider, he paused for a moment, let his bag slide from his person, and stared at the awesome gathering.
Food of every kind was served from carts on wheels or stationary booths with miniature kitchens in them. Lights of all sizes and hues were strung in twinkling array across the square from building to building and pole to pole. Decorative plastic soldiers stood at 60-watt attention on one side of the campus, while a legion of snowmen in various stages of construction were being erected at the other. Clowns, elves, magicians, politicians and beauty queens intermingled with patrons, sales people and children going in rough circles in either direction around the gargantuan Christmas tree lit up in the center of town. It was surrounded by the track of a working train ride that puffed smoke as it encircled the base of the tree, where mammoth fake gift boxes in wrapped shiny paper and topped with pretty, oversized ribbons lay in quaint adornment.
It was an overwhelming sensation on so many levels that the Santa did not realize for several moments that a ring of anticipatory children had gathered around him.
"Oh. Um...ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas, children."
"Do you have any presents for us, Santa?" one dewy-eyed girl wanted to know.
"Presents! Presents!" a young boy of about four repeated as he jumped up and down with elation.
"Well, let's see what old Santa has for you, shall we?" He pulled out the first gift and handed it to a boy of about nine or ten years old. "Here you go, son. A football."
The boy took the ball with a bright pink ribbon around it and looked at it as if he had just been handed an artichoke. "Football? What am I going to do with that?" He tossed it disappointedly into the crowd. "Don't you have any soldier figures? Or a toy machine gun?"
"What?" asked the Santa, shocked at the notion. "No. How horrid. Why would I have something like that?"
The second gift, a rag doll he handed to the dewy-eyed girl. "For you," he said. "Merry Christmas."
"What does she do?"
"Does she walk?"
"Go to the bathroom? Make a mess? Run a temperature?"
"How lame." The girl tossed the doll on the ground and walked away.
The rest of the children exploded with shouts. "I want a video game system," one kid whined.
"Cell phone! Cell phone!" pleaded a girl who was barely old enough to talk.
"Sports magazine subscription," another hollered loud enough to be heard on the other side of the square.
The Santa never experienced claustrophobia before. Never had he in his wildest dreams imagined any children who would reject the wonderful toys offered to them. In a flurry of panic he gathered up what was left into his pack in hopes of leaving behind the crowd of ungrateful imps. As he lifted the bag, however, he lost his grip and several items came tumbling out of the open end. He grabbed it up quickly enough to keep possession of it, but the things which spilled out fell victim to the merciless preying children.
One boy drop-kicked a drum so hard it broke and stuck to the end of his snow boot. He laughed maliciously as he shook the smashed instrument to and fro until the drumhead was completely in shreds.
Another kid sent a rubber band powered airplane purposefully into a concession trailer where it buzzed over the heads of the cooks and servers, making them duck to avoid being struck. It hit hard against the wall above the stove and fell straight down into a steaming pot of vegetable soup.
A third child, a boy about Jack's age, came running up, lunging for a fluffy teddy bear. "I'll take that," he claimed, scampering away as quickly as he had arrived. The Santa watched him go, thinking perhaps one person appreciated what he had to offer. His eyes followed the boy, who took a zigzag path of twenty yards or so through the crowd until he ended up at the snowman building site. Although the Santa could not hear, the brief conversation between the boy and another, older kid, whom the Santa presumed to be the boy's older brother, he realized with sinking horror the ulterior motive behind the boy's desire for the item. With complete disregard for the quality and cuddliness of the bear, the older boy yanked both of the button eyes from it and placed them on his snowman's face instead. As if that were not wincingly despicable enough, he then ripped the head off the shoulders of the bear at its seam, plunged his hand down the neck hole and disemboweled the plaything of its fiber innards. Gingerly he placed the curly, downy, cream-colored stuffing atop his frozen behemoth like an obscure wig, then carelessly discarded the husk of a body and blind, decapitated head into a nearby rubbish can.
Unable to contain his shock at this disreputable behavior any longer, the Santa gave out a shriek of disgust, snapped up his bundle and hurried back the way he had come.
Many of the dissatisfied and selfish children followed him, wanting their yuletide wishes granted, deeply displeased with the fact that they did not get gifts like the other children.
As the Santa pressed his way through the crowd, he decided the only way to be free of this unappreciative bunch was to give them something. "You want Christmas gifts?" he asked as he kept moving. "Here!" He reached a mitten into his pocket, threw a fistful of candy to the ground and kept right on walking. The kids in front of the group scrambled to gather all the treats, hampering the ones behind them from getting by or gathering their own confection treasures. By the time they had retrieved the final lollipop from the trampled snow the Santa Claus had disappeared.
Crouching behind the far side of the mess tent, away from the light and crowds, the Santa peered around the corner to see if the children had gone yet. It appeared they had finally departed, giving him the opportunity to move safely without being attacked again. Above him, the Wishing Star had covered a wide area already, about one third its trek, he estimated. If he was going to enjoy any of the festivities he had better get moving.
He was just about to steep back into the light when a sinister voice behind him whispered huskily, "Okay, buddy, hands up."
"Excuse me?" The Santa moved to face whoever was in back of him.
"Naw, don't turn around." Something hard and round pressed into the middle of his back. "Get your hands up. Over your head. Now."
Bewildered, the Santa complied. "Is this some kind of game?"
"Yeah," the scruffy voice agreed with a hint of sarcasm. "Yeah, it's a game. It's called 'Gimme All Your Money'."
The Santa relaxed a bit. He was glad someone was finally including him in one of the Festival events. "Oh, okay. All you had to do was ask. It's in the sack." He pointed down with his left lump of a hand.
"Get it for me. Now. And no funny business."
Happy to oblige, the Santa leaned over and dug into his gift bag until he found what he was looking for. He extracted a pile of bound, neatly stacked notes, passed them back to his encounter, then resumed his reach for the sky.
"What's this?" The felon turned the wad over in his free hand. The bills were too large to be standard money, and featured funny faces and cartoonish pictures on them. "This isn't real money. It's play money. What do you think this is, a joke?"
"That's all I have."
"Oh yeah?" The robber knelt down and began sifting through the Santa's stash. "What do you got in here?"
"Toys. They're for the children."
"Uh-huh. I seen the way them kids responded to your toys. My advice would be not to quit your day job. Still, there's some nice stuff in here. I might be able to get a couple o' bucks for it." He gathered the end of the sack closed in his fist and set it behind him. It clattered as plastic, wood and metal bumped all over each other.
"What are you doing?"
"Taking what you got and putting it to good use. What's in your pockets?"
"I know, I know, for the children. Figures." The crook felt around each felt-lined pocket to discover this guy was telling the truth. "Okay,Santa, tell you what. The candy ain't worth nothin' to me, so I'm just gonna take a chocolate you and leave you with the suckers. Heh, heh, heh. Now, how about you sing me "The Twelve Days of Christmas" out loud and I'll be on my way."
"But the children..."
"Start singing! Oh, and Santa; have a merry Christmas."
The Santa could hear his toys being spirited away by the bad man who chuckled under his breath as he faded into the darkness, underscored by the Santa's a cappella dissertation. When he finished the song, he put his arms down and looked around.
No one was in sight. His bag of toys was gone.
With a heavy heart he drew a sad breath and let it out slowly. There was no steam from his mouth to rise into the night since he was not really breathing, but it was the notion of exasperation that counted. Perhaps he should just go home, he thought, checking the Wishing Star again to see if it was worth his while to explore the Festival further. So far everything had gone wrong and he had very little optimism that the rest would be any different.
The gleaming blue marker in the sky hung at about its halfway point. He still had time to try one or two things before starting back if he chose to do so.
He was seriously weighing his options when he caught sight of something familiar out of the corner of his eye.
Jack and his parents were heading out of the mess tent and into the crowd. They had evidently eaten and now it was time to play.
Following his instinct, the Santa stepped out of the shadows and hurried in behind them.
"Jack! Hey, Jack," he called without thinking twice about it.
Jack and his parents turned around to see if a neighbor or friend of the family was addressing them. When Jack caught sight of the red and white clad man, his eyes lit up and he hurried toward him. "Santa!" he squealed excitedly.
The Santa realized his error way too late. Of course Jack would recognize him as Santa Claus, but there was no way the boy could know he was the decorative holiday guardian that stood proudly in front of his house every year. He had to play along like he was part of the celebration. "Hi there, Jack. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to you too."
Jack's parents looked at each other, wondering who it might be beneath the traditional St. Nicholas disguise. "Do we know you?" Jack's father asked quizzically. "How do you know my son's name?"
"Well of course you know me. I'm Santa Claus. And I know all the little girls' and boys' names, don't I Jack?"
"I'm not little," Jack protested.
"Well of course you're not. You're almost a whole head taller this year, I believe."
Jack smiled, his hurt feelings already forgotten.
"Now, then, Jack, what do you want old Santa to bring you for Christmas?"
The boy became suddenly shy. "Well, what I really want is a baby brother."
The Santa looked slightly shocked as Jack's parents tittered with nervous laughter. "Well, um, I'll tell you what." The Santa padded his pockets almost comically, feeling naked without his toy bag. "I don't know as I have one of them on me at the moment..."
The three people giggled together at what they thought was a joke. How could they know that the Santa had no idea what a brother was?
"...but how about I give you this little chocolate Santa and we'll make a wish for the rest to come later. What do you say?"
Jack eagerly snatched the candy from the Santa and readily agreed. "Okay. Thanks, Santa."
"You're welcome. And remember to keep being good. Old Santa's watching you." And he was, too, even if Jack could not fathom how.
"Okay Santa. Bye."
"Oh, Jack. One more thing." If I'm going to understand why Jack loves this Festival so much, the easiest thing to do is ask him, while I still can. "Old Santa has a question for you."
"What's your favorite thing at the Winter Festival?"
Jack's grin doubled in size as he took a healthy bite of the chocolate Santa. "That's easy," he answered while chewing. "The food."
The excitement of having actually spoken to Jack was still on the Santa's face when he approached a vendor pushing a cart with a delicious smell permeating from it. Now, even with all the bad things that had happened to him so far, he would have something really sensational to tell the snowman. According to the location of the Wishing Star, he had just enough time to get something portable to eat, per Jack's recommendation, and start the journey home. Whatever this man had in his cart was evidently a good choice since it came in a bag. The Santa saw several people get handed a small brown paper sack full of warm food when they ordered. As they walked along to the other offered activities on the Festival grounds, they would dig into it with their bare hands and pop pieces in their mouths. Since the Santa had never eaten anything before, he was curious as to what the sensation was like. This was his once chance to find out.
He stepped up to the cart, but since he had no idea what the items were called, he simply requested, "One, please."
It seemed to work, because the mustached man bundled against the cold called out, "Yes, sir. One bag of roasted chestnuts coming your way, Santa." He scooped a heaping helping of steaming brown shapes and shoveled them into a bag.
The Santa accepted it with a gracious, "Thank you," and began to walk away. He was just about to experience his first chestnut when the vendor cut in front of him, his eyebrows narrowed over his eyes at an angry angle. "Hey, buddy, you need to pay for those."
"Look, I'm all for the season of giving, okay? But I'm trying to make a living here. I need money just like everyone else."
"Money?" He remembered his encounter with the robber. "Oh, I don't have any money." Then he added for good measure, "I'm Santa."
"Yeah? And I'm the Easter Bunny." The vendor snatched back his sack of nuts. "Go freeload somewhere else."
The Santa felt it necessary to apologize for his misunderstanding, but never got the chance to do so. As he opened his mouth to say he was sorry, another man dressed just like him, flanked by two men in uniform, pointed in his direction and yelled, "There he is! There's the fake Santa!"
The Santa did not know what to do. Did they know he was made of plastic? Had someone discovered his secret? There was no way he could outrun anyone since he had only learned to walk earlier that evening and his boots were not suited for such activity. He decided to stand his ground and see what these men wanted. If it did not take long he could still make it home on time.
"I'm the Santa hired for this Festival," the man explained to the two policemen as if for the hundredth time. "That's the guy causing all the trouble."
The policemen stepped forward. "Is there a problem here?" one of them asked the perturbed-looking vendor.
"He tried to take a bag of nuts without paying."
"I see." The officer turned to the Santa. "Were you also giving out candy to children without their parent's permission?"
"They were chasing me..." the Santa tried to explain.
"And did you give out toys to only certain children while deliberately shunning others?"
Whatever reply the Santa had was cut off by the other officer, who held up a melted blue and gray glob. "Dangerous toys like this one that nearly injured several volunteers and spoiled an entire pot of soup?"
The crowd began to voice accusations. "He wouldn't give me a toy," one child clamored.
Another concerned parent claimed, "None of the toys he was handing out were wrapped. They could be old and used for all we know. That's not sanitary."
The other Santa looked relieved. "You see, it wasn't me. I had nothing to do with it."
The uniformed men nodded to each other, then to the man dressed as St. Nick. "Yes, sir. We see that now. Sorry for the confusion. You're free to go. As for you," the cop on the Santa's left said, "you're coming with us."
Oh, no! "But I have to get home," the Santa said. The blue dot of the Wishing Star was already sinking too far west for his comfort. "I have to go."
"The only place you're going is downtown, pal. Don't struggle or we'll add resisting arrest to your list of charges."
The cop on the right already had one of the Santa's wrists handcuffed when a lady's voice shrieked above the crowd. "Help! I've been robbed!"
A scuffle not far from where the three of them were standing seemed to be moving their direction. The crowd widened into a panicked path as a man shouted, "Come on, outta the way!" Although he could not see the face of the man, the Santa recognized the angry voice as belonging to the robber who relieved him of his toys earlier that evening. Sure enough, a few moments later a scruffy-looking man brandishing a gun and toting the Santa's sack as well as a lady's purse bullied his way past gaping onlookers, heading for the dark streets. Judging from the way he carried the sack, it most likely did not contain the toys any longer. The bandit probably stashed the play items away somewhere and was making used of the container to haul ill-gotten valuables.
The people began to disperse, some running away, some following at a safe distance, others gathering their loved ones to make sure everyone was safe.
The policemen did not have time to take their current suspect into custody since an armed criminal, which was a higher priority, was getting away. "You take him in," one cop decided. "I'll go after this guy."
"He's got a gun. You'll need backup."
"We can't just leave this guy here. He'll get away."
The second policeman looked around, then affixed the empty cuff to a nearby post. "Don't go anywhere," he told the secured Santa. "We'll be right back."
As the square emptied out, the Santa slumped into despair. He slipped to a sitting position on the cold, snowy ground, his shackled arm sliding the cuff with it to the base of the post with a musical ringing sound. With sad eyes he checked the heavens to find the Wishing Star almost at the crest of the horizon. This was it. When the cops returned they would find a plastic Santa Claus strapped to this post in his place. He would never see his friend the snowman again. Never see jack grow up. Never truly understood why this horrid, terrible Festival was so special to the boy and so many other people.
Why oh why did I ever make this wish? He wondered. Why did I ever ask the snow angel to...?
The snow angel!
That was it! If one snow angel could grant one wish, then another snow angel might be able to grant another.
But when he looked about the area he realized his idea would never work. All the snow in his immediate vicinity was trampled by the departed crowds. And even though it was still snowing, there was no way enough of it would accumulate in time for him to make a proper snow angel. The only thing he had left to do now was sit and wait to resume his true form.
As he shuffled into a comfortable position to make his last minutes of sitting as memorable as possible, something rustled in his pocket. The candy. Well, he thought,I can still find out what it is like to eat food before my time is up. He reached in and plucked out the first thing that came into his mitten.
The gingerbread man.
Okay, here goes, he thought. But just before his plastic teeth bit into the permanently happy face of the brown, decorated cookie, he stopped and raised it to his eyes as if seeing it for the first time.
Quickly he gathered as much of the freshly fallen snow as possible into the lap of his coat and patted it down flat. Softly he laid the gingerbread man onto its back in the pile of powdery white. "Forgive me," he said as he snapped off first the arms, then the legs, and swirled them up and down, back and forth in position until the shape he wanted was complete. Carefully he lifted the pastry from the tiny snow bank to check his handiwork.
A miniature snow angel was evident in the snow.
"Oh, right," he blurted, remembering the last detail. Taking one of the broken arms from the cookie, the Santa traced a miniature dash across the crown of the image with a hard-baked hand. Then he squeezed his eyes tight and muttered, "I wish, I wish, I wish..."
"Perhaps I can help," a tiny voice in front of him said.
When he opened his eyes a diminutive version of the snow angel he met earlier floated before him. "Yes! Oh, yes!" He proclaimed with almost as much happiness as he felt when he got to talk to Jack. But did he have enough time to explain his situation and get home? Even now the Wishing Star was all but touching the horizontal slant where it would vanish for good. "I...um...well, you see..."
The snow angel flapped a silencing wing. "I understand your situation," his squeaky voice assured the frazzled enchanted lawn ornament. The Santa had decided this angel was a "he".
"Of course. All snow angels are born with prior knowledge of the wisher's situation. It cuts down on a lot of guesswork."
"Oh. Well, then you know I wish to go home. But will you be able to send me home before my other wish runs out?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"Well, it's just that the last angel said she could not send me here. I had to get here myself."
"That was because you wanted to attend the Festival as a real person. Or as close to real a person as her magic could make you. Turning you almost human was one wish, getting to the Festival another. She could have sent you as you were, and put you with the decorations, but that was not what you truly wanted, was it?"
"No, it wasn't."
"So you can get me home on time?"
"Just say the word. Oh, and I will need a wand."
The Santa rooted through his pockets and pulled out the broken candy cane. "Will this do?"
"Okay." He tried to speak to put his wish into motion, but the words did not come right away. In spite of his time crunch, he took a long look around at the bedecked square and all the Christmas hubbub associated with it. There were much fewer people now, and no one was paying attention to him at all. Most of those who remained were gathered at the far end of the Festival grounds at a set of portable risers where a choir softly crooned a melodious rendering of "Silent Night." Some other patrons here and there purchased late snacks and last minute souvenir trinkets while a scant few still stood on in disbelief in the direction of the criminal's flight. Even the littered ground and frozen mud that showed through the snow at uneven intervals looked spirited beneath the strings of colored lights. "Angel, before we go, will you answer me a question?"
"If I can."
"Jack loves this Festival so much. But ever since I arrived I have had nothing but trouble. Greedy children, angry parents, and people concerned with money and reputation and getting whatever they can at any cost."
"That is the way the world is."
The Santa sighed. "But I only see the world at Christmastime, when people are loving and giving and friendly. And this Festival is in honor of that holiday. How can something so bad come from something so good and still be appreciated as good by people like Jack?"
"Because," the snow angel soothed in as tender voice as it could make from its squeaky falsetto, "Jack sees the world through the eyes of an innocent child. He looks for the good in everything. Even in a catastrophe such as the Festival. He will come home tonight gushing about the beautiful snowmen, how good the food was, the exciting games he played and how Santa knew him by his first name."
"I contributed to Jack's happiness?"
"More than you know."
The Santa was touched, but still kept a forlorn visage. "But that's not the way everyone acts."
"No, but it is the way everyone should act. That is why they come here. To find a little of the joy in the otherwise joyless world. And to keep the spirit of the season bright and happy, even when things seem at their worst. Come. Your time grows short. We must go." He leveled the candy cane tip at the Santa.
"But how?" the Santa wanted to know. "How do they keep a bright outlook during dark times? Where do they find the strength to go on when innocence is lost?"
Even as the beam of shimmering magic discharged, the snow angel spoke. "Perhaps you did not notice what the post you are attached to is holding up."
Bathed in a swathe of red and green mist, the Santa turned to look behind him as he faded from the Festival grounds. The oscillating lights became dim and cold in his view as his body was magically transported to where he wanted to go. But before he waned completely away he caught sight of a cluster of large, plastic figures just like himself gathered beneath a wood and metal framework, one of the supports of which he was bonded to. He had no time to comment, or even react to the sight before he was whisked away completely to his proper home. Just enough time to gaze upon and cherish the scene of the electric nativity.
A moment later the handcuffs clattered to the ground, one of the loops enclosed around the crèche post, the other hollow and empty.
Just as the Wishing Star dipped out of sight in the night sky the Santa materialized at his appointed station. He was molded plastic again, positioned in his familiar steadfast stance, immobile and illuminated. Even his sack of toys had returned, the unharmed teddy bear and unappreciated doll right where they belonged peeking out the partially opened top.
There was no way for either the snowman or the snow angel to show surprise on their faces, but the Santa got the impression his sudden appearance was certainly unexpected. He was not sure if he was going to be able to explain clearly to them how he came to be here, but when he noticed the smaller snow angel had accompanied him on his instantaneous trip, he knew many of the gaps would be filled in merely by the tiny being's presence.
"My, my, my," gasped the larger snow angel, "two wishes in one evening. You must be having quite a busy night."
It has been...an education, the Santa told them discretely. Although he had only been in his magical human form for a little while, he found it strange to once again speak without using his mouth.
"As have my conversations with the snowman. But now the evening grows late and I am sure the two of you have much to catch up on. Come," she then beckoned the smaller angel, waving it to her with a shadowy wing.
The two of them set off for wherever it is snow angels go when their impressions in the white winter covering are filled in, melted away or otherwise cease to exist. "Goodbye," the snow angel visions rang together as they glided from view.
Goodbye, the snowman echoed, a bit somber.
Goodbye. And thank you!The Santa called, his one arm stuck in a permanent wave of both greeting and departure.
For a long, long time the two glowing ornaments stood quietly in the drifting snow. Well? The snowman inquired at last.
Well? The Santa asked back.
You promised me you would tell me everything.
Yes. Yes I did. The Santa was not sure where to begin. Some of it was just so wonderful, some of it terrible and ugly, and some of it still beyond his grasp of understanding. He was not sure how the snowman would react to such a confusing mixture of circumstances. But he did know one thing: whatever he told his constant companion would forever change the way he envisioned the outside world.
While debating the subject to himself, he noticed out of the corner of his unmovable eye a glint of a snowflake caught at the edge of the cool, black, molded bulge that served as the snowman's eye. To anyone else it would remain indistinguishable from the thousands of other snowflakes drifting freely in the winter night. But the Santa could tell what it really was, not just because he knew the snowman better than anyone, but because he felt his own frozen tear forming as well.I will, I promise you I will. But first, please tell me why you are crying.
Forgive me. I understand why the snow angel made the selection she did, and she was certainly glad company while you were gone. But I just cannot help but be a little bit jealous. I am crying because I didn't get to go to the Festival. Then he added,But why are you crying?
Then the Santa began his long tale of adventure, sorrow, and ultimate hope by saying, Because I did...
© 2010 Kent Rosenberger
Bio: Kent Rosenberger is the author of four novels, five short story collections, over 1700 poems, and other assorted items of interest. Publications include a short story with 365 Tomorrows e-zine on 8/17/10 and a story in the October issue of the Absent Willow Press.
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