The stockings were up, the tree was strung, and the night was aging quickly, when John saw Matty sit up in bed and stare wide-eyed at the ceiling.
“He’s here,” Matty said, his smile wide.
John pulled his stuffed dog close. “Here?”
“Yes,” Matty said. “After all this time, he’s returned.” He threw his head back, throat exposed as he again stared at the ceiling. “I can hear him. He’ll be going down the chimney any minute.”
John stared at the ceiling, too, wanting to share in his brother’s knowledge. Excitement welled in his belly like a great fire. “Do you think he brought the choo-choo train?”
Matty jerked a finger to his lips. “Pipe down. Do you want Mom and Dad to wake up? Nothing scares Santa worse than awake parents.”
John clamped a hand to his mouth. No, he most certainly did not want Mommy and Daddy to wake up, not until after Santa had completed his sacred task.
Matty lowered himself from his bed, his grin back. “Do you wanna go see him?”
John’s jaw dropped. “Go see him? Santa?”
His brother glared. “Shut up, John. If you’re too loud, he’ll leave. Don’t be a dummy.”
John bit his lip. Matty would be in a lot of trouble if their parents knew how rudely he was talking; then again, sneaking up on Santa was bad, too.
“We can’t go down,” he said, squeezing Woofers until stuffing popped out the ripped ear. “We’ll get in so much trouble.”
Matty waved his hand. “Don’t be a baby, John. It’s Santa; he loves kids.”
He leaned forward until his face was right next to John’s ear. “Besides, I bet he did bring the choo-choo train, and I bet he’ll let us play with it before it goes under the tree.”
That did it. John desperately wanted a choo-choo train. And he definitely didn’t want his brother to think he was a baby.
He stood up, squeezing his lips together. “Okay. Let’s go see Santa.”
Matty’s grin reminded John of the story of Rumpelstiltskin. “Goody,” he said. “Go to the hall. I’ll be out in a second.”
John did, and when Matty came out a minute later he had a pillow case slung over his shoulder. John could see a lump protruding from its side.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing.
Matty glared again. “If you can bring that stupid dog to see Santa, I can bring something, too.”
John scowled. Woofers wasn’t stupid.
They walked down the hall, stepping extra softly as they passed Mommy and Daddy’s room, and went down the stairs. John tapped his free hand on the bannister until Matty glared at him.
As they approached the entryway to the living room, John heard a voice.
“…always cranberry, every gum-droppin’ time. You’d think the untouched plate would be a hint, but no…”
John and Matty walked into the room, and there he was. Nearly as tall as the Christmas tree (and bulkier than the thickest snowman John had ever seen), dressed in his red suit and hat, black gloves and boots, shiny spectacles over his eyes, and with a beard as white as fresh snow, was Santa. A sack brimming with toys was next to him, up to his shoulder, and he was holding one of the cookies Mommy had left out.
John couldn’t contain himself; red-faced with excitement, he said, “Santa!”
The man, the myth, the legend looked over, and smiled. “Well,” he said, “ho ho ho, kiddos.”
John rushed forward, throwing himself around Santa’s legs. He looked back and saw that, while Matty again had that odd grin, he hadn’t moved. His eyes were transfixed on Santa, and his tongue ran over his upper teeth.
“You’re here,” he said. “You’re finally here.”
John looked back at Santa and saw the great man wink. “I certainly am, Mathew.” He patted John’s head. “You two decided to hunt me down, eh?”
John laughed and released his leg.
Matty lowered his pillowcase to the floor. “Something like that, yeah.”
“Well,” Santa said, “it’s not every child who finds me as I’m getting ready to deliver presents. Is there something special I can do for you?”
John opened his mouth (the choo-choo train, the choo-choo train, I’ll do anything for the choo-choo train), but before he could speak, Matty said, “We wanna go to the North Pole.”
John turned to him, his eyes saucers. The North Pole? Was Matty crazy? There was no way they could go to the North Pole…could they?
He turned back to Santa, and the man’s laugh was so loud, it must’ve woken Mommy and Daddy.
“You don’t want to go to the North Pole, son. Pick something else.”
“No, old man,” Matty said, and John clapped his hand over his open mouth. “We definitely wanna go to the North Pole.”
Santa frowned. “Old man? Sounds like you boys don’t deserve a special treat after all.”
And before John could assure Santa that they did, in fact, deserve a special treat (he had done all his weekly chores without being told, helped Nana put her groceries away every Monday, and he even wrote Mommy an apology note after that incident during bath time), Matty pulled Daddy’s revolver out of his pillowcase and aimed it at Santa as he cocked the hammer back.
“We do wanna go, fatty, and you’d better take us,” he said, and John saw the grin had disappeared, “or I’ll shoot you full of holes.”
Santa sighed, and he placed the cookie back on its saucer. “It looks like you wound up on the wrong list.”
John thought he might faint. “Matty,” he said, “what are you doing?”
“He’s the ticket,” Matty said. “The ticket to all the toys we could ever want.”
John pressed his hands against his head. “But he’s Santa!”
Santa shook his head. “What will you tell your parents, Matty, when they find you’ve shot me? How will you explain that?”
Matty chuckled, but John didn’t think any of this was funny at all.
“How would a kid ever hurt Santa,” Matty said. “They’ll think you were some kind of weirdo-freak, not the real deal. I’ll be a hero.”
Santa shook his head again. “You sad, sad boy.”
Tears filled John’s eyes. “Matty, we can’t. It’s wrong.”
Without looking away, Matty said, “Don’t you see, John? It’s already done.” He paused a moment and said, “Anyways, think of all the choo-choo trains there must be at the North Pole. I bet yours could be the longest anyone’s ever seen. It’ll be the greatest gift ever.”
John opened his mouth, then closed it. Matty made a good point; they couldn’t exactly undo what had happened. The gun had been pulled, the threat had been made. If they stopped now, Santa still probably wouldn’t ever bring them gifts again. And…and he could piece together a magnificent choo-choo train at the North Pole.
He blinked back tears. “Okay, Matty,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
Matty’s grin returned. “Excellent.” To Santa: “You heard him. Let’s get this show on the road.”
Santa looked down at John, and John found he could hardly meet his gaze.
“I’m disappointed in both of you,” he said. “Greatly disappointed.”
Matty waved the gun. “Walk to the stairway, Santa. We can reach the roof from our room. And no funny business,” he said, leaning forward. “You try anything, and I’ll be ready to shoot.”
Santa didn’t respond, other than to hoist the sack of gifts over his shoulder and walk to the stairs. They followed him up and into their room, John biting his lip the whole time. He opened the window, and they followed Santa out onto the ledge, and clambered up to the chimney.
A sleigh was on the roof, with a team of reindeer hitched to it. A few of them pawed at the shingles.
“Hey, where’s Rudolph?” John said.
Santa glared, and John felt his cheeks flush.
Santa got into the sleigh, and Matty slid in behind him. He looked at his brother.
“Are you coming, John?”
He hesitated a moment, looking at the gun his brother had aimed at Santa’s back. Santa. This was so…but the train filled his mind, that wonderful, marvelous choo-choo train. He got into the sleigh, Woofers squeezed against his side.
Santa tugged on the reins, and off they went. The sleigh lifted up into the sky, up into the clouds, and John gripped the side of the sleigh. He had never experienced anything so exhilarating.
It was cold up there, though, and soon John’s teeth were chattering. Matty started shaking, too.
After they had flown a while, Santa spoke.
“You know, it’s kind of funny. A crack up, really. I’ve dealt with some spoiled brats over the years, but you two take the cake. Jackin’ Santa for more toys. Now I’ve seen it all.”
“Put a sock in it,” Matty said.
Santa turned, and there was a wild look in his eyes John didn’t like one bit.
“I’ve had enough of your lip, little boy. We’re in my sleigh now, and that trinket of yours can no longer hurt me.”
“Whaddya think of yourself now, hmm, Matty?”
John gasped. He stared at his brother, and saw tears.
“I…” Matty said, hands up. “I don’t…”
“What’s a matter, kid? Lose that cheeky tongue a yours?”
Matty scrambled back until he was pressed against the toy sack. He turned to John, lips trembling.
“Oh, you don’t look so good.” Santa grinned, and it was a grin far scarier than Matty’s had been. “Tell you what, why’nt you catch some fresh air?”
And with that, he grabbed Matty by the throat and chucked him over the side.
John watched his brother plummet, screaming. Matty’s mouth opened in a voiceless bellow. He fell through a cloud and was gone.
John turned back to Santa, his mouth opening and closing, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Please…my brother, I…please don’t hurt me. Please let me go.”
Santa leaned his head back. “Ho ho ho!” Looking back at him, he said, “Time to toughen you up, John. You’ll make a fine addition to my workshop.”
He looked back to the reins, and the sleigh turned north. John pulled Woofers close and moaned into the night.