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A little Christmas story

Mark R. Hunter

Beth Hamlin was not opposed to tights.

On the contrary, they added a nice layer in winter, and when it came to northern Indiana winters, layers were a good thing. She owned three pairs of yellow tights, and three pairs of white.

What she did object to were red tights, especially when combined with a green minidress, and she wasn’t a big fan of the green Santa hat with the bell, either. Santa was clearly a sexist.

Turning away from the line of eager kids and tired parents, Beth stuck her tongue out at Santa. Granted, this particular Santa didn’t choose the outfit, which had been the standard costume for Santa’s helpers ever since Hurricane Photography had been M.C. Black’s General Store, a hundred years ago. Or so she’d been told, but she had a pretty solid B minus in Indiana History.

Santa briefly stuck his tongue back at her, then motioned for the next kid. This year “Santa” was Rich Foster, who’d lost a bet with Beth’s brother and so had been growing his beard out for six months. Two weeks ago he’d died it white, and an overstuffed red suit did the rest.

“Ouch!” Rich cried as a grimy faced kid of maybe six tugged on his beard. “I told you it was real!”

Ha. That’s what Santa’s of the world got, for dressing up fifteen-year-olds in skimpy costumes that, well, actually covered everything except her hands and face and were pretty thick, but never mind.

Rich got the little tyke extricated from his beard and turned, so Allie Craine could get a photo of them. Allie owned the place, and had devoted the evening to giving out a free picture of each child as they visited Santa. Earlier she’d confessed to Beth that chasing tornadoes was way easier than this.

Turning, Beth saw that their next two customers, and broke into a smile. They were regular customers, in fact: Faith and Conner Chandler, who lived the next town over. They claimed she was there favorite babysitter, when Grandma wasn’t around.

Grandma was, though, as was their Dad, Logan, and as a group they smiled and waved. The kids broke free and ran to her for the kind of big bear hugs only kids could provide. “Rugrats! What in the world are you doing here?”

Conner, the five-year-old, pointed past her. “We’re here to see Santa.”

“Oh! I never would have guessed.”

The ten-year-old, Faith, smiled. “I’m glad he’s got a good crew working for him this year.” Beth knew from previous conversations that Faith had reached, maybe a bit too early, that unfortunate age when she’d figured things out, but didn’t quite want to admit it to herself.

“You bet. I’m getting free candy canes, and Allie’s going to take my picture with Santa, too.” She wasn’t actually certain about the free candy cane part, but nobody was getting paid at Hurricane, Indiana’s annual Christmas party.

“So ….” Grinning, Faith gestured toward Rich. “Is this the real Santa?”

“Duh.” Her brother hung on Beth’s skirt, and she wondered if they had a replacement if it ripped. Considering the tights were thick enough to be turned into a coat, she wasn’t all that worried. “That Santa’s real. Grandma said so.”

“That’s right.” Dropping to her knee, Beth added, “Besides, it’s okay if you tug on this Santa’s beard. It’s how you prove he’s the real one.” She heard a chuckle from their father, and wondered if he’d heard her tell the last kid the same thing.

She and Rich, her neighbor and Hamlin family friend, had recently fallen into a war of mild practical jokes. At first she did it to take his mind off his divorce, but now it was just fun. Of course, when he found out she’d been putting all the kids up to the beard pulling—and she’d make sure he did, once she was safely away—she’d have to watch her back.

With Beth now on their level, Conner leaned in close. “Can I ask you a question?” he whispered.

Faith gave him a puzzled look, but Beth nodded. “Sure thing.”

“Can Santa bring anything you want?”

Uh oh.

Looking panicked, Faith grasped her brother’s arm. “Not anything.”

“Well, even he has his limits.” Beth had practiced this one. “He has budgetary concerns, you know—so many kids wanting stuff, and only so many resources to make what they want.”

“Oh.” Conner’s brows furrowed. “Like when Dad’s coffee shop has a busy day, and they run out of stuff.”

Beth glanced up at their father, who was leaning forward with increasing concern.

“Yes, just like that. And the other thing is, even though Santa’s sleigh is magic, it can only hold so much stuff. I mean, there are billions of presents in there, after all.”

“Right.” Faith nodded brightly. “There you go.”

“But ….” The little boy’s voice lowered even more, and the two girls leaned forward to hear him.

“Can Santa carry people?”

Oh, crap. Beth’s confidence completely evaporated, and she found herself tugging on one of her blonde braids, like she used to as a kid. “Well … no, not really ….”

“Mom’s in Heaven, Conner.” Faith’s voice stayed low, even, and calm, and it broke Beth’s heart.

“I know, but ….”

“She watches us every day, but she can’t come back. And up there she’s happy, and she knows she’s loved, and she can drink coffee and eat cookies all day, and there’s no cancer.” Now Faith paused, just for a moment, as her throat caught. “There’s no sickness at all, and there’s definitely no cancer.”

Conner looked back at his father and grandmother, giving Beth time to swipe an errant tear from Faith’s cheek. “We all miss her.” Beth had been with the kids when Logan swept in and shooed them into the car, for that one last trip to the hospital. “Hey, group hug.”

That hug gave Beth a chance to give a thumbs up to their Dad and Grandma, who no doubt would have a question or two for her later.

“Do you think …?” Conner worked up his courage. “Do you think maybe an iPad?”

“All you can do is ask.” Beth gave him one last hug. “And don’t forget to tug on is beard, to make sure he’s real.”

She pushed the two on, then stood up to find herself face to face with Santa Claus.

Who laughed.

“You kids get right on up there, I’ll be with you in a second! I just have to check in with my little helper, here.”

As soon as Faith and Conner left for the chair, Rich leaned in. “That was you with this bear tugging thing, wasn’t it?”

“Heh. Kids will be kids, huh Santa?”

“So they will, even the older ones. By the way, don’t you have a wee crush on that guy who just came in with his little brother?”

Beth tried to look without looking. Yep. “Oh, he’s okay.”

“Next time my beard gets pulled, your brother finds out that guy asked you out for a date.”

“You wouldn’t!” she screeched, if one could screech at a whisper. “I can’t date, I’m fifteen!”

“And your brother’s on duty tonight, so that means uniform, cop car, the whole intimidating thing. Ho ho ho!”

And Santa went back to his chair, where a certain five-year-old was practicing his best hair-pulling clench.

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