I breathe deeply. In. Out. In. Out. The air moves between my muscles, settling my bones.
“You seem so happy,” my companion says with a tinge of bitterness. “How is that so?”
“I am happiest when I conjure another story, or surrounded by those who love me when it’s too hard for me to love myself. So guess: which is it?” I breathe deeply again. In. Out. In. Out.
“You conjured another story, didn’t you?” It was difficult for them to comprehend how it could be both, but I nod anyway. ” Are you ready to hear the waking dream that begged to be written?”
“If only so you can inspire me to finish mine,” they reply dryly.
The snow fell slowly at first, then came down hard, a blizzard streaking across their neighborhood. “Finally!” Egan cried. “It’s been so long since there has been any snow around here!”
His father smiled, wrapping his arms around his son and holding him tightly. “Perhaps it was waiting for a sign that it could return again.”
Egan wriggled in his strong arms but could not break away. It frustrated him, how much stronger his father was than him. One day he hoped to carry the same strength as he did so that no one, especially Pruitt Simpson, the pig nose monster that lived two rows down, could push him around like a ragdoll. “But I don’t understand why the snow had to go away in the first place,” he whined as only a child could.
“Because” his father’s smile faltered as he recalled that last snowy day. The flakes fell softly yet stuck to the road like glue. There had been a squeal, and the tires skidded across the unseen ice, sending them spiraling off the side of the road. Flip. Flip. Flip. She laid there motionless, blood dripping down the side of a face he loved so much. His son had been tossed, a ragdoll with loose limbs flailing, and landed in a snow drift. He was gone, or so he had believed. “Because sometimes it has to stay away so we can be happy.”
“But snow makes me happy,” Egan slipped from his father’s arms, who had loosened his grip as his mind was swept away by memories of long ago and went and pressed his face against the kitchen window. There house sat at the end, with a deck hanging on the back which overlooked the line of pine trees edging around the backyard. Off on the left, standing at the entrance of a trail leading deep into the woods was a young buck, his nose sniffing the snow while his growing antlers tried not to get in the way of low hanging branches. He suddenly looked up, his ears pricked in alertness. As Egan pressed his little nubby hand to the glass, the buck ran, disappearing into the woods behind.
“Can I please go outside and play?” There it was again, that whine that only a child could make.
His father laughed. “Not yet. We still need to eat breakfast and open presents. I’m surprised you haven’t asked to do that yet.”
“Because Santa couldn’t give me the one thing I asked for: Mom.” The kitchen went silent, an uncomfortable stillness filling the air. “But I know that’s impossible, so I settled on snow. And he delivered!”
His father sighed but said no more. Instead, he went to work, slaving over chocolate chip pancakes sprinkled with powdered sugar and topped with fresh strawberries and blueberries. By the end, the kitchen was filled with a sweet aroma that made even the driest throat salivate. Warmth and comfort emanated from their hearts, fusing with the air to create a blissful euphoria. Egan clamored drunkenly for another plate, and his father obliged, although before he could fill it the doorbell rang.
Over and over, it rang in quick succession. Egan shot his father a puzzled look. “I thought it was going to be just the two of us. Are we expecting anyone?”
“Maybe…” his father was evasive. A knot of dread twisted inside of his stomach. Please, no. Please don’t let it be who I think it is.
The bell kept on ringing. Reluctantly, he answered the door. Egan, his curiosity too strong to withstand, darted from the table, beating his father to greet the stranger standing on their doorstep.
“Ho,ho,ho! Merry Christmas!” a pot-bellied man dressed in red greeted them with rambunctious jolly. A thick white beard covered his face and deep wrinkles surrounded his eyes. “I hope everyone has been behaving themselves!”
“Santa!” Egan cried. “Did you bring what I asked for?”
The big red man laughed. “Tell me, have you been good lately? Because Santa only gives to those who deserve it. And he takes away from those who don’t.” He eyed the father ominously.
Egan, not noticing the exchange, shook his head eagerly. “Yes, yes I have! Oh boy, dad why didn’t you tell me you knew Santa?”
“Well, young man, your father and I go back a few years,” he now shot across a dark look. “And I’m here to remind the importance of being good. So far, he’s been very good. But a lot can happen in a year. Why do you think I watch out and keep a list?”
Egan’s father’s face went pale. Egan swore the thin lines of grey beginning to creep in along the black strands just turned stark white. The big red man held out a box, one wrapped in silver paper, and Egan’s father reluctantly took it. “And for you, young man, well you get to keep your snow, since I can’t get you what you want. Merry Christmas, Clive, and you too, Egan.” He nodded and left, seemingly vanishing within the blink of an eye into the frosty air.
“Ooh, what is it, what is it, what is it?” Egan pulled on his leg, and the tiny hole in his pants tore, growing wider and longer like the knot in his stomach. Carefully, his fingers tear through the paper, exposing the brown box beneath. He took a deep breath, steadying his nerves, then flipped the lid. Inside the box was the same thing he received last year, the year before, the year before, and the year before, ever since that day he begged for his son’s life on the side of the road.
Inside the box was a ragdoll. Mangy and thin, with black buttons for eyes. A ragdoll. Somehow it replicated the shape of his son.
“What’s that? What’s that? What’s that? Can I see, please?” Egan pleaded, hopping up and down, his short head trying to see into the box. His father yanked it away.
“Why don’t you run along and play in the snow? Make sure you’re dressed properly. And remember: no big hill without me.”
Egan gave a salute, then rushed off to slip into his baggy snow pants and oversized puffy jacket. As he ran back down the stairs, he fell, tripping on the ends of his snow pants which dragged behind him. His father went to help him, but Egan waved him away.
“I can do this,” he blew a strand of black hair out of his eyes, then dashed out the door and into the fresh, cold air.
His father watched him go, his fingers subconsciously squeezing the rag doll. A loose thread poked out from beneath the eye and he wrapped it gently around the button.
“It is time,” the voice of the big man in red crept up beside him. Clive stiffened, and he squeezed the rag doll tighter, more protectively and possessively rather than an act of anger.
“No, it can’t be. You said if he was good, if I were good, then he could stay,” he forced the words from his throat. The idea that Egan would be gone, wrenched abruptly once more from his hands, was unfathomable, and it made it difficult to breathe. It didn’t help he was standing in the cold, up on the stairs that overlooked the sidewalk below, the sidewalk where Egan was skipping merrily, stopping to scoop and roll up a snowball.
“Yes. That is true. I said as much that Christmas Day all those years ago when I found your car flipped, caused by a careless, and pointless, argument between you and your wife. And I am a man of my word, so it will remain true so long as you make it to midnight, when my watch is over, and the year begins again. I am here to collect, just like I did for your wife,” the big red man with the swollen belly played with his beard, picking out flakes of snow caught in it like debris in a net.
Clive gulped. He had begged for the lives of his son and wife, and his plea was granted, on certain conditions. Lara couldn’t uphold the condition, her misery contributing to the decline of their marriage and leading her into the arms of Dave Stratford. He glanced across the street at the end house. The lights were off and the driveway empty. It hadn’t been occupied since Lara was taken and buried back into the frozen ground where she belonged. The ragdoll made in her likeness- stringy blonde thread and a stitched frown underneath small, beady buttons- still sat at the bottom of the hallway closet, his reminder of what would happen if they ever crossed onto his naughty list.
“Why are you here? We didn’t do anything,” Clive rasped, turning his eye back on Egan. He was creating a fort, shoveling handfuls of snow and packing it hard until it creating a layer.
Two rows down, the door opened. A large boy wrapped in a white coat streaked with blue exited, carrying a metal sled. He started walking down the sidewalk, on his way towards the big hill behind the last set of brick townhouses, his path inevitably meeting with Egan’s.
“I know things, Clive. I know when someone is going to be good and when they are going to be bad. I’m there when their time comes because inevitably it does. You can’t keep running forever.”
“I know,” his shoulders sagged. “I accepted your gift a long time ago. I also know I can’t live in fear, although that hasn’t stopped me from being afraid anyway.. Whatever happens, happens, and I thank you for the extra time I got to spend with him. With the both of them.”
He knew the boy inching slowly closer and closer, his cumbersome feet making him awkward yet his strong frame providing him the extra confidence. Pruitt Simpson was a monster of a boy who took great pleasure from those he thought were weak. Often times he took his son and tossed him around like a ragdoll, too powerless to overcome his brutality. But Clive saw the spark in his son’s eyes and knew it was only a matter of time before it lit and caught fire.
Pruitt Simpson deliberately stomped across Egan’s fort. The fire went up in a whoosh. Egan struck Pruitt from behind, and the abruptness surprised Pruitt, sending him forward. He landed face first across the ice, scraping the skin from his cheeks clear off. Egan grabbed the metal sled and raised it over his head.
“No more!” he shouted, his young voice suddenly harsh and deep, more adult. “No more! I. Am. Not. A. Ragdoll.”
From the stairs, his father gripped the railing. The cold rattled his bones, and his nerves popped like a firecracker. Don’t do it. He closed his eyes, but the big red man told him he needed to watch.
Egan lowered the sled to his side. There was something in Pruitt’s fearful eyes that stilled him. Around the edges Egan saw light bruises, not the kind received from a poor night’s sleep but rather the strike of a fist. The sled clattered onto the sidewalk. Egan extended a hand.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. Pruitt took it gratefully, returning a thin smile.
“I’m sorry, too,” he said. Then he walked over to the remains of the fort and bent down, scooping up snow and re-piling it to make another mound. Egan joined in, and together they set to work creating a new fort, one that carried both of their strengths.
“He is not weak,” his father turned and looked the big red man straight in the eye.
“I never said he was, but I knew you had your doubts. He won’t be like your wife; he’ll take after you.”
“Then you won’t take him?”
The big red man winked. “I don’t think I will, at least not this year. Besides, I have corporate scrooges and self-righteous senators to take care of.” He rolled up his sleeves, exposing smooth, white skin whiter than the clouds. Clive could have sworn he was translucent. “And believe me, it’s going to get messy. Until next year, Mr. Evans. Merry Christmas!” He disappeared in the blink of an eye, and so too did the snow. It stopped, the last of the flakes dropping slowly, dancing like angels. Egan and Pruitt looked up, disappointed that it was gone. But they quickly moved on, instead choosing to play with what remained to them.
“Merry Christmas,” Clive sighed, the knot in his stomach dissolving. He played with the ragdoll in his hands, tossing it back and forth. It was time to put it away, but not in the closet. No, he would place it where all could see the young boy smiling, happy and free.