Santa's Visit by Kirstin Pulioff
“Get away from that window!” Maria yelled, bursting into the room from the dim hallway. “What do you think you’re doing? You could catch a cold, or worse.” Her dark hair, fresh from the bath, froze above the lace collar of her nightgown as the wind struck her. Reaching behind her younger brother, she shivered as the heavy windows clicked into place.
Peter hung his head, hiding from her exaggerated scowl. “Worse?” his quiet voice peeped.
“Maybe,” she said, softening at his trepidation. Knocking his elbow, she felt his cold skin beneath the worn edges of his flannel pajamas and pulled him close. “What do you think will happen if you get sick and Mom has to miss more work to stay home and take care of you?”
“I didn’t think about that,” he whispered. His breath warmed her arms.
“You never do, Peter. You never think beyond the immediate. When are you going to grow up and be more responsible?”
He squinted up at her. She felt him sizing her up, before he spoke. “I suppose when I’m eight, like you.”
She met his smile with her own. “Then I guess you have a few more years to dream. What were you looking at, anyway?”
Pulling free, he leaned against the window. “I was looking for Santa. I thought if I stared real hard, I might find him flying toward us.”
His breath clouded the window as he scoured the sky.
She sighed, seeing the hope sparkle in his wide eyes. She hated seeing him disappointed.
Leaning against the windowsill, she watched the stars twinkle in patterns. If there was ever a year they needed Santa or his miracles, this was it.
“Santa will come, he always does, but you know the rules. He won’t come if we’re watching. Peter, you really have to go to bed. Mom’s already asleep, and we —”
“Mom’s already in bed?” he interrupted. “Again?”
“Shhh, yes,” she said, dragging him toward his bed. Grabbing the rough edges of the thick wool blankets, she pulled them down and settled onto the far edge of the bed. The bumpy springs gave way beneath her. “It’s late. And besides, you know how it is. She’s been working hard, she’s not feeling well, and Dad’s gone. She needs her rest. What she doesn’t need is another reason to worry.”
She watched his eyes puddle, and softened her voice. “Now, into bed so we can read our story, like we do every year. It’s Christmas Eve.”
Without waiting for a response, she shuffled up the bed and leaned back against the wall, resting the large leather-bound book against her knees. She drummed her fingers impatiently across the cover.
“I’m coming,” he mumbled, climbing into bed beside her. After a glance back to the window, he cuddled close, sneaking underneath her arms.
Hunched over, they looked closely at the delicate designs illuminated by the small flashlight. A treasure, passed down through generations, this book held the memories and Christmas dreams of their family. Its torn leather binding felt smooth as she opened the book. A moment of awe fell over them as they looked at the pages in front of them. The flashlight highlighted the old, but still captivating, illustrations. Visions of Santa in his velvety suit, sugarplums laced with sparkly sugar, dolls crafted to life with golden hair, and trains that stretched across the bottom of every page. This book held more than a story: it overflowed with wishes and dreams.
Maria balanced the large book on her lap, cringing as the pages crinkled beneath her touch, a reminder of its age and fragility.
“’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,” she whispered, trying to find a balance between theatrics and quiet.
Soon, all awareness disappeared into the wonder of words and faded designs. They held their breath, as if repeating the traditional words would conjure up the image of Santa. For a moment, the only sounds were the crinkling of pages and shuffling of sheets.
“There arose such a clatter—” she stopped to glare at her brother. “Peter, if you’re going to wiggle like that, I am going to stop. Mom would be furious if she knew we were still up. She would kill us, or worse.”
“What do you think she would do if we were bad on Christmas Eve? I bet she has a letter to Santa all ready to go in cases like this”
“You really think she would?” his soft voice quivered.
Peter’s lips grew tight and his forehead wrinkled. She knew he was thinking back over the last few months, remembering the long workdays, shortened tempers, and sleepless nights.
“No, not this year, she needs this as much as we do.” A flicker of doubt stayed in his voice.
“As long as we don’t wake her,” she warned. “You’re right though, she needs tomorrow as much as we do, and I think she’s going to be really surprised with our gifts.”
A proud smile spread on her lips as she looked over at her bed. Neatly made against the far wall, the soft glow from the flashlight lit up her bed and the small treasures leaning against her bedside table. A carved branch that Peter had worked on and a new necklace she had made, pieced together with random beads she had found over the past months.
“I think she’s going to love them. Now, back to the story, we’re almost to my favorite spot,” she yawned. The dark pages came to life again under the light.
Their eyes locked on the pages in delight as the eight reindeer flew under her beam. Soaring through the air with ease, they carried the ruby sleigh over-filled with toys and treasures. Page after page, they lost themselves in delight.
“…that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly. What was that?” she asked, jerking the light to the door.
Peter looked up at her in surprise. “It wasn’t me, I promise.”
“No, not you, listen.” She held her fingers to her lips, waiting for the sounds again. After a moment, a soft shuffling started.
“That, did you hear it?” she asked. She dropped the book to the bed and pointed the flashlight to the door.
In the silence, the sound magnified. Peter grabbed at her arm, knocking the flashlight to the floor. The thread of light rolled away until it pointed against the far wall. They huddled close as the thump of the flashlight gave way to silence.
She held her breath, listening to the deafening beating of her heart. Out of the darkness, a rhythmic thump started.
Peter gripped her tighter, eyes pleading, as the sounds grew louder. Thump, thump, thump.
“Wait here, I’m going to go look,” she said, summoning up courage.
“You can’t leave me in the dark,” his soft voice quivered.
“I don’t have a choice. With father gone, it’s up to me to protect Mom.” She retrieved the fallen light and headed to the door.
Swallowing her fear, she tiptoed over to the wooden door. She barely felt the chill of the floor as she held the brass handle. The loud clink of the door, combined with her brother pummeling into her, ruined her attempt at stealth.
Her fear disappeared under a wave of frustration. She didn’t need the flashlight to see the sorrowful glance from her brother. His strong grip on her sleeve told her enough. He was scared.
“That’s fine, but don’t let go, and stay behind me at all times. We’re just going to peek downstairs. It was probably just Sprinkles.” She turned away quickly before he could see her face. The excuse sounded implausible, even to her.
Sprinkles, their gray cat, spent most of his days lounging in the windowsill in the front of the house. Old and fat, while he might make a thumping sound when he jumped, he didn’t do that nearly enough to make the noise they heard.
Maria moved the flashlight, turning to the door, leaving Peter’s frightened face in the darkness.
They crept slowly to the stairs and knelt down. Tucking the loose strands of hair behind her ears, Maria leaned over the edge. Her stomach twisted with fear she waited for the sounds to return. A wave of emotion fluttered through her as she surveyed the living room.
In one corner, their tree stood. A banner for the season, the green limbs sagged under the weight of their ornaments. Hand-painted trinkets, golden bells, colorful trains, and her favorite, the antiqued lace stringers that her grandmother had made encircling it. In a place of honor at the top, leaned a golden star. Surrounded by frazzled strands of tinsel, the star’s surface seemed dull. The only part resembling the intended shine was the flickering flame that reflected off its surface.
Every day since their dad’s deployment, their mother faithfully lit the candle, praying for the day he would return. They had gone through more packages of candles than Maria could count. There were nights of missed homework, and lunches that were not made, but Mom never forgot to light that candle.
As if knowing they were looking for him, Sprinkles jumped off the couch and jingled past the tree, disappearing into the shadows of the kitchen. The soft ringing of her collar faded and the thumps began again. Maria held her breath.
“I don’t like this.” Her brother’s grip tightened around her as she struggled to lean farther down without being seen.
“Hush. Do you want to see or not? Someone’s coming.”
A sharp intake of breath surprised her. She turned in time to see her brother’s trembling hand pointing. “It’s him.”
“Him, who?” she asked, turning to where he pointed.
She watched thick, polished boots walk across the room. They stopped by the tree and the boughs shook and swayed as items were placed below. The shadow of an overstuffed bag leaned against the far wall. Lumpy and out of shape, the bag seemed to overflow.
“It’s Santa,” Peter whispered in awe.
“It can’t be.” Maria shook her head in disbelief, but even she had to admit it made sense. Everything added up in her mind — the bells, the boots, the shuffling, even his overstuffed bundle of toys. Was there anyone else it could be?
Her smile lit up her face. For the first time in a long time, excitement burst through her small body.
“See, Peter, we’ve been good. Now off to bed. We can’t let him see us. I’ll finish up that story now.”
They ran back to their room, silent except for the soft pitter patter of their toes.
A smile played on Maria’s lips as she excitedly finished their story. Guided by the narrow light, her eyes skipped over words, speeding the rhymes together.
“Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night. Good night Peter,” she whispered.
With a sweet kiss, she tucked in her brother, amazed that he could sleep with the excitement of the moment. Cradling the treasured book in her arms, she traced the illustration of Santa, and let visions of sugar plums dance in her head. Magical images of the polished boots walking across the floor and the overstuffed bag kept her up longer than she intended. She could hardly tell the difference between her dreams and wakeful imagination. She heard the shuffling slowly shift into silence, and the dark sky start to brighten before her eyes finally shut.
When Maria awoke, she jumped out of bed with a flop. She gently shook her brother.
“Peter, it’s time. Wake up. Let’s go see what Santa brought us.”
His groggy eyes shot open. Without a word he grabbed her hand and fell in line next to her. His eyes shone beneath his messy hair. “Do you think it was really him?” he yawned.
She raised her eyebrows. “We heard him, we saw him. It was him, I’m sure of it.”
“Right,” he said, excitement building in his voice. “Who gets to wake mom?”
Sharing a smile, they dashed across the room to the stairs, each wanting to be the first. Their toes froze on the cold morning floors as they bounded down the stars.
“Mom, you’ll never guess what we heard last night. Santa —” she yelled running down the stairs and stopped.
Entering the room, her words caught in her throat, and her gaze stopped on the couch. Huddled underneath thick wool blankets, she saw a familiar head of mopped curls and freckles. Next to him, leaning against the molted couch, his overstuffed bag threatened to fall over. And placed neatly by the door stood his brightly polished boots.
“Dad?” her voice trembled. “Dad!” she cried, running down the remainder of stairs and jumping into his arms.
“Santa was here last night,” her brother whispered from behind her, struggling to find room to fit in his arms as well.
“Yes he was, Peter, and he brought us the best gift of all.”
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