Checking It Twice - a Christmas short story

Ask any little girl on Christmas Eve whether she’s been bad or good, and she’ll tell you she’s been good. Ask any little boy if he deserves to get presents or coal, and he’ll say presents every time. Maybe she wants a new doll. Maybe he wants a new bike. Maybe she’s been extra good helping her daddy rake leaves. Maybe he’s been extra careful to stay out from under his mother’s feet while she’s baking. Maybe they’ll leave cookies for Santa, or carrots for his reindeer. Maybe they’ll dream of toys or games or other delights if they can get to sleep at all. But always, always, always they know that on Christmas morning they’ll find nothing but fun and excitement.

Then again, if every little boy and girl were good, why would Santa even need a list of naughty children? What about the teasers, and the bullies, and the loafers, and the brats? What about the victims, the lonely, and the neglected ones? Do they know that they’ve been bad? What do they dream of? No child expects coal and switches on Christmas morning. Ever.

Tim did, though, as he lay in his bed. It was Christmas Eve. His brother slept quietly in the bunk below him, knowing with utter certainty that his new PlayStation would be under the tree in the morning. After all, that’s what he had asked Santa for at the mall, and all he’d talked about for two months, especially after his report card came back full of A’s and B’s. Though he would be happy with anything on the lengthy list of requests… the remote controlled car, the new bicycle, the video games for the PlayStation he didn’t have quite yet… Joey had a feeling that Santa would come through for him. After all, he already had what his brother wanted.

Tim sighed and put his hands behind his head. His eyes wouldn’t cooperate with him. Every twinkle of every light on the tree downstairs made its way past his eyelids. The sound of snowflakes hitting the roof was audible. Soft scents of candles and pine and cinnamon cookies found their way to his nose and forced themselves violently into his head. After a few minutes of pretending that he could still force himself to fall asleep he slid off the bed quietly so as not to wake his brother and padded downstairs to the living room.

After the cold of the rest of the house the living room was warm and welcoming. He shut the sliding doors and sat on the big chair near the hearth where the remains of a fire valiantly glowed. Wordlessly he watched the embers fade and die. He pulled his mother’s quilt around him and turned toward the sparkling tree.

It sat, and twinkled at him. On and off, on and off, on and off, on and off. It only took about a minute before he pulled his eyes down to the pile of presents underneath the tree. He fought the urge to go examine them all looking for ones with his name on them. No, no there wouldn’t be that many. Christmas wasn’t like it used to be when he was Joey’s age. It was all lights and food and music and fun and everything else that the best day of the year should be. But things were different now that he was in eighth grade. Now his parents gave him clothes, and things for school, and money. They didn’t understand the music he liked, didn’t know which video games he played, didn’t realize that most of the time they thought he was studying, he was instead wallowing in self-doubt and pity.

He sighed again. Of course they didn’t… how would they know? How could they. He didn’t tell them he was unhappy. He didn’t have to hear it to know they weren’t proud of him. It never took a word for him to be certain that he had been a disappointment for as long as he could remember. Joey made better grades than he ever had, of course. Joey had gone out for sports, and spelling bees, and martial arts, and never got into arguments or fights or got suspended for punching a bully. Joey had never tried to run away from home out of sheer embarrassment. Joey was always good. He was naturally his parents’ favorite, and why not? Joey had no reason to hide from them. Joey didn’t wear diapers.

His parents didn’t know, of course. Tim was no fool. He had always been careful not to get caught. Not even his brother, sharing the same room, had any idea. Tim was certain. He had become very good at hiding after so many years; shame, embarrassment and worry were good teachers but not good company. Still they were infinately preferable to the reactions of his parents if they ever found out their older son liked to wear diapers and pretend to be a baby. Babies were adored. Babies were cared for. Babies were loved, just like his brother. His parents wouldn’t understand, they couldn’t understand… and they couldn’t love him, not like they loved Joey.

But he wanted them to! He wanted them to be proud of him, to smile at him, to know who he was and to love him anyway. He just… knew they couldn’t, that was all. If they knew him, they wouldn’t love him… and since they didn’t know him, they couldn’t love him.

Tim squeezed his eyes shut against the light of the tree. In his self-inflicted blindness he sat and let the shame wash over him. He wasn’t like his brother… he hadn’t been since his brother was born. It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t. All he wanted was to be like Joey… why couldn’t he? It was because he wore diapers. It was because he liked to be cute and sweet and all. But he was the older brother. That wasn’t allowed. It had never been allowed.

He opened his eyes again and let them drift up to the fireplace. Stockings were hung, with care, of course, in the hopes that Santa would fill them with toys or candy or other surprises. Tim smiled mirthlessly. No, not even Santa knew what he wanted for Christmas. He wouldn’t bring a pacifier, or a bottle, or a stuffed animal. His stocking would probably bulge with oranges, apples, those cheap chocolate candies from the bargain bin, and maybe a new toothbrush. Even Santa Claus couldn’t come through for him tonight. But it was all right. He didn’t deserve what he wanted anyway.

Tim wasn’t surprised that his eyes weren’t even wet. Trying to cry never worked. He stared at the tree lights as his eyes began to sag and the crispness of the twinkling points gradually phased into starry blurs.

A reflection caught his eye and he blinked twice to clear his vision, turning back toward the fireplace. Quickly his mind grappled with and immediately allowed the utter impossibility of what he was seeing; any other night, his first instinct would have been to yell for help or run from the prowler who had snuck inside his house. Tonight, it was simply to stare at the tall, round, white-haired man in the red suit. Tim was sure he was dreaming. Santa Claus himself was standing right there in decidedly un-imaginary glory. Noticing Tim, the man turned toward him, his corpulent belly swinging around to balance his almost comically sized rear end. His eyes sparkled as bright as the lights on the tree, his beard was not only curly but as white as the blank paper in any child’s picture, and his boots glowed with a mirrored shine that would have made any Marine proud.

Santa paused a moment and smiled at Tim. The corners of his eyes crinkled delightfully as he winked at him like… well, like only Santa could. “Ho ho ho.”

Tim stared dumbly. “…hey Santa.”

The warm smile rested easily on the old man’s face. “Hello, Tim. Merry Christmas.”

There wasn’t really anything for Tim to say. He knew Santa Claus didn’t exist, the large man in his living room notwithstanding. “Um… yeah. Merry Christmas, I guess.” He shifted a bit uneasily.

With glacial speed, Santa’s jolly smile turned sympathetic. It was a few more moments before he spoke. “Not quite what you expected?” He glanced down at his own feet. “Boots too shiny? That elf always goes overboard with the polish… I keep telling him not to.” He droped his large brown sack unceremoniously next to the fireplace.

“Huh?” Tim said eloquently as his eyes went straight to Santa’s feet. “Boots? No, uh, they’re fine…” Why in the heck would Santa be worried about his boots of all things? “Um, don’t take this… I mean…”

“Ah!” The sympathy turned back toward genuine warmth again. “Am I really Santa Claus, right? It’s fine, I get that all the time.” He winked again, his eyes twinkling, and Tim blinked. “You don’t believe it, but yes, it’s true.”

Tim frowned slightly. “How do you know I don’t believe it?” Of course he didn’t. The man had said he was Santa Claus. He had to be some wacko. Yet somehow, somewhere deep down, Tim didn’t feel scared of him. Wouldn’t a real wacko have tried to scare him? Or at least done it accidentally?

The old man chuckled and shook his head. “Teenagers.” He opened his sack with one hand and rubbed his temple with the other. “Why don’t you guys ever just know things? How do you think I know? Didn’t I just say I’m Santa Claus?” Shaking his head and smiling he began to fill the stockings with businesslike precision.

Oranges, apples, chocolates… Tim watched him pause and look back at him with a wink and add a toothbrush to his stocking. Tim frowned. “Yeah, but… wait… how’d you know my parents always do that?”

Santa had moved on to his brother’s stocking, putting more chocolates and less fruit than he had in Tim’s. He smiled again, tucking a toothbrush casually into Joey’s stocking. “Do what? The toothbrush?” When Tim nodded, Santa went on. “You should both brush your teeth more often. You, especially.” He turned back to Tim’s stocking and added a tube of toothpaste. “Quit skipping out before bed, you know?”

“Um… right.” How did he know?! Maybe he was Santa after all, but that didn’t explain… no, come to think of it, it did. “So, you’re… Santa Claus.” Tim shifted to get more comfortable in the chair. It actually surprised him how easily he had accepted not only the idea that Santa Claus was real, but that he was standing right before him on Christmas Eve. “Like, really.”

“Like really.” With the stockings done, Santa had hefted his bag over to the tree and had opened it again. “Let’s see… your brother wanted a PlayStation, right? Here we go…” The large box was wrapped all in blue. “Your mother… moms are hard, aren’t they? Heh… that’s for her.” He paused, glancing over at Tim before setting the bulky package down. “It’s a photo album of you and your brother. You probably didn’t hear her complaining to your dad about not having all those baby pictures organized…”

Tim blushed and shook his head. He hadn’t heard that, actually. “Um… are you sure she wants that? I guess it’s more Joey?” The response had come automatically. Of course it would be, she wouldn’t be nearly as interested in pictures of him as in the ones of his brother.

Santa stood up to his full height. All traces of a smile were gone as he stared at Tim. “Actually, it’s precisely as much you as it is Joey. She wants to see both of you.” As he turned back to his sack, his face retained the somewhat stern look that Tim didn’t quite like. He withdrew two boxes, one long and narrow and one blocky, both in green. “Tent for your dad… old one is about done, I think… and a camp stove. He keeps talking about taking you kids camping.” His voice didn’t sound as cheerful as before, and Tim caught it.

“Wait… no he doesn’t. Does he?” Tim frowned in thought. “I never hear him say it…” It wasn’t quite true, he admitted to himself. He had heard his father talking about it, but he hadn’t really listened because he knew it wouldn’t happen. In the end he would suggest that Tim bring his schoolwork with him, and it would degenerate into an admission that it might be better if Tim stay home and do his homework there. Tim knew it was just a way for his dad to let him do his own thing without seeming like he was abandoning him. “He never wants to take me anyway… he always says I should stay home and finish my homework.”

Pulling out other gifts, Santa sighed again and finally stopped. He rubbed at his forhead some more. “…of course he does, Tim… because he knows how important school is for you, and he wants you to do well. Have you ever been caught up on a weekend he wants to camp?”

Tim started to open his mouth and froze. No, in fact, he hadn’t. Actually he had in the past deliberately left work for the weekend after his father announced a planned camping trip. Had he ever noticed himself doing that before? “…no, I guess I haven’t.”

Santa raised an eyebrow at Tim’s evident honestly. “You might try it… you should hear your dad talking about how he wishes you were there every time you’re not.” He nodded once in Tim’s direction and his eyes began searching the room. “Ah, that’s what I need… have a cookie, Tim? I promise I won’t tell.” He reached for the plate of cinnamon cookies and offered it in Tim’s direction. “Hmm, and… warm milk. Who drinks it, you know?” He smiled again, the warm smile he’d first shown when he’d arrived.

Taking a cookie carefully, Tim couldn’t help but smile back. “Yeah, it’s kind of dumb… I guess you get tired of it, huh? All those glasses of milk, sitting out all night…” He’d never considered that Santa Claus might not like all the things kids left out for him. Santa nodded to him, his mouth full of cookie, and his words echoed in Tim’s head. Did his dad really want him on the trips? Well, he thought he did, anyway. All things considered, if he knew what Tim was doing in his room while his brother was gone for the weekend, he’d probably never leave him alone again.

With some effort Santa swallowed the cookie and took a sip of the milk. He grimaced briefly and set it down, looking at Tim and turning serious again. “So.” He gestured to the tree. “You’ll notice I haven’t put anything out for you yet. I didn’t get a Christmas list from you this year… what would you like? Aside from diapers, of course; I don’t think you really want to open those in front of your family.”

Tim sat in shock. “Um, what?” He knew about the diapers?

Santa nodded toward the tree. His boots reflected some twinkling lights. “What do you want for Christmas, son? I’m all ears.” He smiled that sympathetic smile again.

“Uh… what did you… did you say that, before, what I think you did?” It was as delicately as he could manage it without saying outright what was on his mind. Of course he would rather have diapers, and a few other things too… but it felt wrong asking Santa for them.

“You mean did I say the word ‘diapers’?” He nodded calmly. “You heard right.” He took another cookie off the tray but didn’t bite into it. “You don’t want to ask me for those, so I’m not going to leave any for you. You can’t have anything you’re afraid to ask for, you know. How about a new sweater? Maybe some music?” He opened up the sack and started digging around. “I have a whole pile of those gift card things in here… I hate those things myself, they’re not very personal… but what’s your favorite store?” He looked up at Tim expectantly, his face neutral.

Tim paused. He didn’t want any of those things. He shook his head reflexively. “Um… no, it’s cool, I don’t really need anything.” Was he saying that for real? Santa Claus had just asked him directly what he wanted, and he was turning him down? He hesitated. “Well… um… I don’t know… nothing in particular, I guess…” He smiled, completely transparently.

Santa watched him and closed his sack. He sat down on the hearth and chewed his cookie thoughtfully for a moment. “Tim… how to put this… I’m Santa Claus. I see when you’re sleeping, I know when you’re awake, blah blah blah. I know if you’ve been bad or good, and, well… you really haven’t been that good. You’ve been unfair to your parents, you’ve been resentful of your brother, and as for yourself… well, frankly, you deserve coal, but I don’t want to do that to you.” His cheeks looked less rosy as he shook his head. “I’d rather give you something you want. Honestly though… and I’ll tell you a secret here… I don’t think I can do it.”

It took a moment for Tim to register everything he’d heard. He pulled the quilt more around him. “Oh… right. Sorry. Yeah, I guess I should have been better. Sorry.” He avoided Santa’s twinkle-less eyes. “Um… I understand, if you can’t do anything. Just the CD’s or the sweater or whatever is totally fine… I don’t really have a list, that’s just the stuff I get every year.”

Slowly, Santa nodded. “I think you’ve heard me wrong. I didn’t mean because you were bad, or because I don’t know what you want, because I do…” He smiled apologetically at Tim’s questioning face. “Yes, I was kidding about not knowing before, I’m sorry… but what I meant is that what you want isn’t in my power to give.” He took another drink of the lukewarm milk, made another face, and folded his hands over his belly to give Tim a moment to digest the statement. “I’m great at the material things but not so good on the intangibles, like love and hope and courage and faith and all that. So…” Opening the sack again, he drew out several presents, all in the expected shapes and sizes for clothes and movies and other things a young teenager might seem satisfied with, and set them quickly under the tree. “…that takes care of that. Incidentally, one of those is my favorite movie of all time.” He winked and smiled for a moment before turning serious again. “Now, I’ve got two more presents for you. How does that sound?”

Tim could barely nod. He was practically in shock. Was Santa guessing right about what he actually wanted? “Um… thanks…” Tim actually managed a genuine smile. He was honestly grateful that he wasn’t being teased about wanting diapers, but once he got past that, he was more confused than anything else. “Um… you’re not… you said I’m not in trouble?” His eyes strayed to the gifts with his name on them under the tree. “…I mean, these are nice and all… you don’t need to do anything else for me.” He tried to smile and hurriedly added “I really appreciate it though.”

Chuckling, Santa rolled his eyes and grinned. “I’ll take that as a yes. My first present is some advice, and I’ve already given it to you: you can’t have anything that you aren’t willing to ask for. Remmeber that. If you want something, like say… oh, I dont know… say you… don’t feel like your parents love you, and you want them to, so you secretly wish you could be just like your brother, who they love, but you’re sure that because you want to be like him that they’d be disappointed in you since you’re older than he is…” He paused, stroking his beard thoughtfully and havng the grace not to look at Tim “…not saying that’s the case, just a hypothetical… if you aren’t willing to ask for what you want, if you aren’t willing to take the walls down and be brave, if you aren’t willing to accept that you do deserve what you want… you won’t get it. Not ever.” He looked back at Tim and nodded once. “Got that all right?”

The speech hadn’t been the one Tim had been expecting. He was unsurprised by the flawless recounting of his thoughts; Santa had already proven his identity. More than that his mind was racing ahead. What if he was right? Could it be possible that his parents wouldn’t actually disown him if he told them? The part about not getting what he wanted if he didn’t ask was definitely true. But asking… how could he ask his parents to love him if they didn’t know him? And for them to know him, he’d have to tell them… but… what if, you know? He shut his eyes briefly and opened them to see Santa looking expectant again. “Um… yeah, I think… I think so.”

Santa smiled and stood, withdrawing an envelope and tucking it into Tim’s stocking. “Okay, this one isn’t from me, it’s from your parents. But it counts as the second present, okay?” When Tim nodded blankly, he shouldered his sack with a grunt. “Mmph, man, I’m getting too old for this… there we go. I’ll need you to close your eyes, Tim; I can’t get out of here if anyone is watching, all right?”

Tim only nodded again. He was still in some shock. The prospect of telling his parents was daunting and terrifying and wonderful all at once. “Yeah, no problem. Oh, hey Santa… thanks, okay?” He smiled again, a bit sheepishly.

Swinging his round belly around toward the fireplace Santa looked back over his shoulder at the room. “You’re welcome, Tim. Oh, and say, not to be picky or anything, but if you could trade out the milk for some egg nog next year, I’d appreciate it… and, uh…” he lowered his voice "…being you’re on the last leg of my trip, if your parents want to put a little something in it, I sure wouldn’t say no!’ He smiled a conspiratorial grin, which Tim returned. “Now, what was it… Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” He waved at Tim, winked, and Tim closed his eyes.

When he opened them again Santa Claus was gone. The night was, too; sunlight was streaming through one of the windows and his brother was already digging into his stocking. His parents followed one another slowly and bleary-eyed into the room.

His mother gave him a smile that was clearly meant to look cheerful regardless of how she felt. “Morning Tim, Merry Christmas! Did you sleep out here?”

Tim looked around him. Hadn’t he gone back to bed after Santa had left? Actually, hadn’t Santa just disappeared? “Um… yeah… too many, uh, visions of sugarplums, you know…” He gave his mom back the same it’s-way-too-early-in-the-morning smile.

“Hey, wow, look at all the chocolate!!” Joey was holding up a fistful of those horrible foil covered chocolates, and Tim couldn’t help but grin.

The family quickly descended on the tree, and after a festive two hours, his father was trying to help Joey set up the new PlayStation and his mother was still cooing over her new photo album. “Oh, thank you so much! You guys were both so adorable… here, Tim, this is you in just your diaper…” She giggled like a little girl, and Tim tried very hard not to laugh at a side of his mother he’d never seen. “You look so cute! Oh, hey, don’t forget your stocking, over there…”

Tim paused. The thoughts that had started spinning through his head at his mother’s reaction to the picture quieted just as quickly as he walked over and withdrew a small card he remembered Santa saying was from his parents. It looked just the same as it had in the dream. Had it been a dream after all? Slowly and carefully he pulled it from the envelope.

Unconditional: (uhn-kuhn-DISH-uh-nl)

  1. Not limited by conditions; absolute

His hands were shaking as he opened the card.

  1. The kind of love I feel for you!

Love Mom and Dad!

Behind him, his mother put a hand on his shoulder. “Did you get everything you wanted?”

Tim tried not to tremble as he wiped at his face with one hand and did his very best not to let his mother see his swelling smile or his watery eyes. “…yeah. Yeah I did. Thanks, Mom.”