Noel locked his apartment and pushed the button for the elevator. He knotted his tie on the way down and finished his coffee on the short walk to the subway. Emerging in the toy district, he waited for a Walk light, breathing frosty clouds in the morning sunshine. The little footsteps running up behind him barely registered.
“Mommy, I’m sitting in Santa’s lap. See?” said a toddler voice.
“Virginia! Don’t sit on the ground, sweetie. It’s dirty.”
Noel turned around to see a small child staring at him. “You have a Santa Claus shadow,” she said, smiling.
“I’m sorry,” the girl’s mother said. She turned to her daughter. “We don’t talk to strangers.
Noel nodded. The light changed and he crossed the street. Kids were so unpredictable. Toys that seemed like a sure thing at the spring shows often bombed by Christmas. Like last year, when Julia was certain the Fates dolls would be hot. He wondered what she was doing now.
“I want a horse,” said a freckled boy wearing a school uniform.
“Me too, and a cowboy hat,” said the boy walking with him.
Score. The Cowboy Town Collection was Noel’s idea. He’d even negotiated the production price down himself. Parents weren’t going to shell out for toys that didn’t do anything, not like when he was young.
At least, that’s what people said. Noel didn’t remember being a child, although he knew he couldn’t have gotten to twenty-eight without it. He wondered what it was like to wake up Christmas morning and run to see what Santa left, instead of nursing a hangover while fixing breakfast for last night’s companion.
“A Barbie car,” squealed a little voice. Noel turned around to see a schoolgirl chasing his shadow. “And a red skirt and a baton even though Mommy won’t let me, but if you brought it what could she do, right? And that time we took Manny’s lunchbox, it was Sophie’s idea.”
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Talking to Santa,” she mumbled, reddening.
“Do it somewhere else.”
She backed away, giving him a clear view of his shadow. Noel was built like a beanpole, but his shadow could have been the jolly old man in the Macy’s parade.
He touched his pompadour. A bulky shadow arm touched a stocking cap. He jumped back.
The Santa shadow came with him.
“Nice trick,” said a woman in a business suit. “Peace on earth and a bull market.”
“A lump of coal for Marcus,” whispered a woman with a bruised cheek.
Noel strode down the sidewalk, dodging the morning crowds.
“An A in math.”
“A jump shot.”
“Shoes that light up.”
“Study. Practice. Make your mom take you shopping,” he muttered.
Noel turned a corner and hugged the line of storefronts, walking in shadow. He heard only one more plea before he reached his office building.
“All seven children home for Christmas. Like always.” The voice tugged at him.
He saw nobody.
“Dad needs dentures,” said a tall woman looking at her phone.
“What?” In the diffuse light of the elevator, Noel had no shadow.
“Oops. Reading out loud.” She looked up. “Are you okay, Noel?”
“I’ve had a bit of a morning,” he said to his department’s receptionist.
“Rough time of year for young people.” She mimed a toast. “Big Christmas plans?”
He blushed. “Skiing in Colorado. And you?”
“We’re going to Connecticut. My daughter has a new baby. His first Christmas.”
“How nice,” he said, exiting after her. Not that he knew. But it was nice. A normal exchange in an elevator. Everything would be okay. This evening, he’d be sipping scotch on a plane to Colorado. And his toy instincts were proving right. Cowboy Town figurines were the best stocking stuffers they’d sold in years.
“Cool shadow. How’d you do that?” asked a secretary.
Noel ducked into his cubicle and looked at the floor, heart pounding.
Santa was stalking him.
He sat down, squashing the shadow in his ergonomically correct chair, and logged into his email.
–Santa, bring Daddy home from the war,” read the subject line. He marked it as spam.
-Can I have a guitar? A real one, not a
-I want Cody to think I’m cool. He’s this
-A bike with purple flappy things and a
-That doll on TV that wee wees and cries
-How come you don’t visit Jews? Mrs. Lo
-A Winchester like Jimmy’s, and a camo
Nick’s text alert beeped.
How do reindeer fly? was followed by a text about Santa’s favorite cookie.
“Gingerbread,” Noel responded. He put his head down. His text alert beeped. And beeped.
He silenced it.
The phone on his desk rang.
“We moved to a new house. Can you still find us?” asked a tiny voice.
“What? Of course.” He hung up and put on his coat. “I’m sick. Cancel my appointments,” he told his secretary.
“Rough night, huh?”
“CAN’T A GUY BE SICK WITHOUT GETTING DRUNK?”
Eyes glued forward, he raced to the subway, dodging requests. A ring. A car. A Cowboy Town ranch. A tree. Grandchildren.
Adults talked to Santa?
“Santa, I need a raise.”
Noel passed through the subway cars, shedding pleas for pain relief, a sales bonus, a new boss, a cowgirl skirt.
“Lakeisha wants –”
He closed the connecting door and entered the last car. Empty. Thank God. He sat down and waited for his stop.
Which took a long time. He hadn’t boarded an express, had he? He would have to get off on –
The train stopped. The doors popped open. He stepped onto a platform overlooking a dusk-blue snowscape.
When he turned around, his train was gone. A cold wind blew across dark snow as far as he could see. The only break was a red light, blinking in the distance. Moving.
He pulled his leather coat close and shivered.
As the light grew closer, he made out animals in formation, pulling something boxy.
The sleigh pulled up to the station. Without thinking, he ran to the reindeer on the front left and threw his arms around his shaggy neck.
“Dasher always was your favourite,” said the elf manning the reins.
Noel stared at him.
“It’ll come back. Last year we were halfway to the house before you remembered you knew the reindeer. At least you were calm. I had to wrestle Carol into the sleigh. Navi jumped in because he was wearing running shorts and he saw the blankets.”
Blankets. Noel snuggled down, breathing in the furry scent of cinnamon, orange and memory, while the reindeer pulled the sleigh towards, towards . . .
A cabin came into view. Warm light spilled out the windows onto the dark, snowy plain.
The cabin from his dreams.
The cabin where he grew up with six siblings and a father who worked one night a year. The cabin where they returned each Christmas no matter what plans they had made, plans they laughed about over gingerbread cookies. Plans they would later think they fulfilled.
“You made it!” Mom’s hug was warm. She handed him a mug of eggnog and he joined his brothers and sisters, while their Santa shadows danced in the firelight.
Nina is a pastry chef, artist and writer from Nashville, TN, where she lives with her husband, a slightly peculiar dog and a passel of scenic chickens. Her writing has appeared in Nashville Noir, Everyday Fiction, 101 Words and Work Stew. She’s a contest reader for the Claymore Dagger Award and a volunteer at the Killer Nashville Writers Conference.