“Words With the Big Guy” was originally a gift to readers who bought my novel Storm Chaser last Christmas; this year, it was printed in the Christmas insert of the Albion New Era, Churubusco News, and Northwest News newspapers. The story was inspired by “Santa’s Spirit”, which I wrote in 2006 for the Christmas edition of my column, “Slightly Off the Mark”.
“Words With the Big Guy” features Beth Hamlin, a popular character from Storm Chaser and its prequel short story collection, Storm Chaser Shorts; but this story takes place before those events, so no spoilers. Merry Christmas!
WORDS WITH THE BIG GUY
Santa Claus stood in front of the Noble County Courthouse, checking the harnesses on his reindeer.
The real Santa Claus.
Across the street Beth Hamlin slid to a stop and grabbed her friend Kim’s arm. “Do you see what I see?”
“I thought we –?“ Kim followed her gaze. “Oh.”
They’d planned to go caroling after the Christmas Eve service – meaning they felt like singing at the top of their lungs while waiting for Beth’s brother to pick her up – but now paused in front of the hardware store, across the street from Albion’s Courthouse. Kim, her raven hair and black wool coat brightened with a layer of snow, stood open mouthed until she breathed in a flake that made her cough. “Very realistic.”
Strings of multicolored lights hung from the Courthouse’s Romanesque clock tower, and joined with the decorative street lights to illuminate typical small town Indiana decorations: a manger, fake presents and, across from the two girls on the snow covered lawn, a painted Santa and his plywood sleigh team. Behind that, at the base of an evergreen, stood … Santa and his sleigh team.
“Well, he meets the description.” Beth glanced at her friend. “Of course, it’s Christmas Eve. You can’t swing a stocking without hitting Santa on Christmas Eve.” Too bad, ‘cause I’d like to have some words with the big guy.
Earlier, as they left the church singing “Let it Snow”, white stuff began drifting down. It seemed like a coincidence at the time, but they’d been belting out “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” when they spotted the object of that song – who had indeed come to town.
Good thing they weren’t singing about the Grinch.
“Yeah, but …” Kim rose to her tiptoes, a habit for the shortest person in tenth grade. “But those are –“
Eight calm, patient animals stood harnessed to a red sleigh while a figure worked his way down the line, giving each an encouraging pat.
“Well, maybe they’re not.” Beth sometimes tried to think like a cop – like her father. “Have you ever seen a reindeer in person? Maybe those are something people raise around here. Like alpacas. Or maybe somebody imported Japanese cows.”
“My grandparents grew up in Japan. They’d have told me about cows that looked like reindeer.”
“Okay.” Beth shrugged, adjusting the big yellow coat her mom bought her the month before. “Let’s go talk to him.”
“Let’s huh?” Beth started forward, but Kim pulled on her arm. “Just because we’re in a small town doesn’t mean he’s not some kind of –“
“Chance will be here any minute with his car full of guns.” Beth glanced toward the Lutheran church a block north, where people milled in front while cars pulled away. “If we get in trouble kick and scream, not necessarily in that order.”
Without giving her friend a chance to argue, Beth stepped off the curb and strode across the street. At least, she tried to: Kim refused to release her arm, and reluctantly trailed her at what amounted to a shuffle. “Look, he’s just some old guy who dresses up once a year to surprise kids.”
Kim shook her head. “Don’t you watch horror movies at all?”
They crossed the sidewalk, stepped into six inch deep snow, and worked their way around the fake Santa. The real one – well, more real – glanced up at the sound of their footsteps and sent them a wide smile. “Beth and Kim!”
Great, someone she didn’t know who knew her. It happened all the time – not so much in the village of Hurricane where she lived, but often here in the county seat, where everyone knew her mother and brother. “Hi, um, Santa.”
Fur lined his red outfit, as white as the full beard. He had a big belly, and Beth had no doubt it would shake if he laughed. His eyes twinkled. Of course. She had to admit, this was the best Claus she’d ever seen. “So, Santa … how’s that whole stealth thing working out for you?”
“Sometimes I need to stop and check the harnesses, and I can’t do that easily on a rooftop. You wouldn’t want old Santa falling out of the sky, would you?”
Kim solemnly shook her head, and Beth realized she’d have to carry this conversation. Which was fine with her, because from the moment she spotted the old man she had something to say. “Back when I still believed in you, you never gave me what I wanted for Christmas.”
Santa turned away from the reindeer, mouth downturned, and gave the girls his full attention. “Not even I can bring back the dead, Beth. I’m just an old soul with a little Christmas magic.”
Beth’s heart thudded. She felt Kim hug her arm, and after a moment the old man reached out to squeeze her other shoulder. “Deep down, you knew that.”
“How did you –?”
“People say everything happens for a reason.” His gentle voice didn’t sooth her mind, but instead dredged up that night: The knock on the door, the crowd of neighbors, her older brother gathering his sobbing sister in his arms. “But it’s not true, Beth. Sometimes senseless things happen, and I can’t do much about it. I hand out little pretties to children; that’s all I can do.”
She cleared her throat. “Doesn’t seem like much.”
“No. And yet, you still have the police officer teddy bear you got for Christmas later that year, don’t you?”
Beth stared at him, unable to speak.
After a moment Santa turned back, to reach into the huge red bag in his sleigh. “Gifts are different things to different people. Some have all they need, so the gift isn’t as important as the thought. Some are satisfied by little comforts: a plate of cookies, a picture from home. “
He turned and held up three brightly wrapped packages. “For some – for people whose worlds crumble around them – there’s nowhere to go but up. Whatever makes it a little better opens a world of possibilities.”
“Hope,” Kim whispered. Beth started; she’d forgotten her friend still stood beside her.
“There you go.” He handed one gift to Kim and one to Beth.
Beth stared at the little package, then sniffed and rubbed her nose on her coat. “It’s a music CD.”
“You know what I wanted, when I was little? An encyclopedia.”
Kim turned to her. “Really?”
“After Dad died I just wanted to learn. I wanted to know everything in the world. But we had problems with the bills for awhile, so I just used the one at the library, and the internet.” Beth shrugged. “I guess the library was my gift.”
“Give this to your brother.” Santa held out the other present.
Beth took it, but had rallied enough to want a little control back. “Chance doesn’t need a G.I. Joe – he needs a girlfriend. Then he wouldn’t be such a bear sometimes.”
“I don’t carry girlfriends in my bag.” The bearded man climbed up into the sleigh and took the reins. “But who knows? Gifts arrive in the strangest ways, on the wind.” He waved and gave the reins a shake. The reindeer jolted forward, taking their cargo around the bulk of the courthouse. Beth watched, hoping the rig would soar into the air, but lost sight of Santa in the glare of a car that emerged from the same direction.
A blue and white police cruiser turned a corner and stopped behind them, next to the fake Santa’s plywood sleigh. As the girls turned to it the driver lowered his window, revealed a military cut version of Beth’s yellow hair. “Kim, you need a ride?”
“Um … no thanks, Chance – Mom and Dad are just up the street.” She gave Beth a look and a small wave, then headed back the way they’d come.
Beth trudged over to the squad car, then looked back. Tracks emerged from behind the Courthouse, cut through the snow cover across the square, then disappeared the other way. She climbed into the passenger seat, but instead of belting herself in sat there with the presents in her arms. “Did you see –?”
“Santa? I sure did, and I think he was the real deal.”
“I’m fifteen, Chance.”
“Okay, I didn’t recognize the guy as he passed, but he obviously enjoys it.” When she didn’t answer, he added defensively, “He had lights, and a slow moving vehicle sign on the back, so I figured … what the heck? It’s Christmas.”
“So it is.” Beth pulled herself together and handed Chance his package. “It’s after midnight.”
“So it is,” he mocked gently. He worked his fingers down the edge of the paper, trying to get it off in one piece. “When I was a kid, Santa used to bring me a pen and pencil set –“
The wrapping fell off, and Chance sat back, staring at the illustration on the box. “What –?”
“What is it?”
“It’s … a model kit. A 1967 American LaFrance fire engine. I’ve wanted one of these since I was your age.” He looked up toward the courthouse lawn. “Right after Dad died, I decided to be a firefighter instead of a cop.”
“What – you did?”
“Yeah. I thought Mom wouldn’t want me to take the chances Dad took.” He chuckled, and turned the model kit over to study the label. “As if firefighting was less dangerous … then I joined the volunteer fire department and did both.” After a moment he looked over at Beth. “Open yours.”
“It’s a music CD. I’m afraid it’ll be Justin Bieber.”
“I thought all you girls loved him. Go on, open it.”
“I’m not like other girls … but I’d be okay with Lady Antebellum.”
All thoughts of music fled when the red and green paper came off. She stared down at the thick case, which promised at least two CD’s inside, and it took a moment before she remembered to breathe.
“Really –?“ Chance set his gift down and reached out to take Beth’s wrist, steadying her hand so he could study the case. “Wow. I didn’t know they still made encyclopedias on CD. Isn’t that something.”
Beth just stared at the CD set, then looked up toward the glowing Christmas lights on the square. After a moment, apparently misinterpreting her expression, Chance patted her shoulder. “I know it’s not Lady Anthill …”
“No, it’s – it’s perfect. Multimedia, updatable …” She shivered, then patted Chance’s hand and reached for her seatbelt. Dwelling on it here wouldn’t do any good. “Let’s go, Mom’s waiting for us with hot chocolate and cookies.”
“Chocolate chip.” He started the engine, but still cast concerned looks her way. “So, what do you want to be when you grow – graduate?”
The tracks on the courthouse lawn vanished as Chance drove past the Lutheran church. Beth spotted Kim outside by her parents, jumping up and down as she gazed at something in a small box. “Oh, I don’t know.” She reached into a pocket for her cell phone, but decided it would be better to wait until Kim calmed down. Then, not wanting to pass up the chance to get under her brother’s skin, she added, “Maybe a cop.”
“Oof – there goes my Christmas spirit.”
Beth laughed, then took a breath. Would Mom let her stay up late researching? After all, she didn’t believe in Santa … but she did want to know more about him.