The snow came early that year. The shortened days made so much shorter by the heavy mist that hung over the city. Merideth rarely found her way outdoors but when she did she was met by chill winds and icy walks. It was not something she sought out willingly. And yet, despite the gloom, Merideth could not keep a smile from her face.
It was only November but the holiday spirit was already beginning to show. Strings of lights twinkled out of the darkness while storefronts were sprinkled with fake snow. She could practically smell sugar cookies on the wind and late one night she swore that she heard caroling. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
So Merideth was not surprised when she saw Santa ringing his bell in front of the grocery store. His red donation kettle matched the sheen of his coat perfectly. Ho, ho, ho, he boomed in time to his bell as he saw Merideth approach. Spare some change for the needy?
‘Tis the season, Merideth grinned as she reached into her purse. The coins clinked merrily in the pot and Santa jingled his bell in thanks.
Merideth continued on as the automatic doors slid open, bringing with them a wave of heat. As Jingle Bells blasted from the store’s sound system, Merideth found herself singing along. She couldn’t help herself. She loved everything about the holidays.
❄ ❄ ❄
Merideth’s stocking was hung by the chimney with care and holly had decked her halls for weeks. Even Blitzen, her favorite tabby, had gotten into the holiday spirit. His new ugly sweater was festooned with bells. With every move he made, a cascade of tinkles followed. Merideth laughed as the cat’s face drooped in annoyance. They were sitting by the fire, wrapping gifts for family that lived on the other side of the country. A glass of wine sat within reach and Bing Crosby’s face swam out from the television as White Christmas provided the soundtrack for the evening.
When the doorbell rang, Merideth gave it little thought. She assumed that her new upstairs neighbor had forgotten the door code. But when she swung the hall door open, she was greeted by a much more welcome sight: a group of carolers, lead by Santa Claus himself, were arranged on the stoop.
Hark how the bells,
Sweet silver bells,
All seem to say,
Throw cares away.
Without waiting, they launched into their first song. Each of them had a large handbell which they rang in time to the music. The song was as beautiful as it was haunting.
As it reached its end, Santa stepped forward. Merry Christmas to you, he called in his deep booming voice. There was a glint in his eye that Merideth couldn’t quite recognize.
And to you a good night, she called back as the carolers moved on down the block.
❄ ❄ ❄
In her youth, Merideth had volunteered to be Santa’s elf at the mall. She loved seeing the joy on the children’s faces as they glimpsed Santa for the first time. Now, she was much too old to be mistaken for an elf but she still found an excuse to make her way to Santa’s workshop. She watched as a small ginger girl clambered up into the sleigh next to Santa. Santa’s current elf, a young blonde woman, went through the motions of snapping photos for the girl’s over-eager parents.
As she watched the girl laugh gleefully, Merideth found herself queuing up alongside the other impatient parents. Most were too focused on their own hyperactive children to pay attention to Merideth. It wasn’t until she reached the front of the line that anyone took notice.
Next, the too-skinny elf called, her voice dripping with boredom. But when Merideth stepped forward, the glaze wiped from the girl’s eyes. We don’t do cats.
Merideth frowned. It’s okay, Blitzen won’t bite. The tabby looked down on the elf from his seat in Merideth’s arms. The bells on his sweater sung as he lifted a paw to knead at her forearm.
Pets aren’t allowed, the elf insisted.
Merideth wanted to slap her. But the crowd behind Merideth was growing restless. She had just wanted to share in the joy that she had seen on the children’s faces. Blitzen hissed as her hands tightened around him. As she turned to go a voice boomed out across the mall.
It’s okay, let her up. Santa was smiling down at her from his sleigh.
Though the elf grumbled, she let Merideth climb up and place Blitzen in Santa’s lap. Now what can I get you for Christmas? Santa asked as the elf fiddled with her camera. Merideth was flustered by the question almost as much as by the famous questioner. Before she could even begin to conceive of a response there was a flash and the elf was scooping Blitzen away. The cat meowed as it was deposited back in her arms.
She turned, desperate to catch one more glimpse of Santa before she was forced away. As she did, she recognized the glint in his eye. Wait, I know you! But it was too late, the elf was pushing her out of the enclosure as Santa waved on the next child.
❄ ❄ ❄
When her doorbell rang that night, she was unsurprised to see a familiar figure dressed in red waving at her from the stoop. You’ve been following me, she said through a crack in the door.
What? Santa’s eyes seemed to widen behind his big bushy beard.
You’ve been following me. The store, the mall, now this.
Oh…’Tis the season and all that. Santa winked at her from behind his spectacles.
Merideth inched the door open a little more. What can I do for you, Santa?
Err actually, he said, his shoulders slumping. I forgot the code.
I just moved in upstairs and forgot the door code. Do you think you could let me in? An embarrassed glow spread out behind his beard. It only made him look more jolly.
Why don’t you just go down the chimney?
Santa huffed out a laugh that ended as soon as Merideth let the door slip closed. She watched his face contort behind the glass. Words came tumbling out of his mouth… words that were very un-Santa. Merideth turned her back, retreating into the festive safety of her own apartment.
❄ ❄ ❄
The golden frosting spurted out onto the cookie in a jumble. Merideth’s hands were shaking with anger as she used a knife to fill in the body of the bell. She could hear the footfalls of her upstairs neighbor echoing through the ceiling. It did not sound like he was wearing his big black boots—yet another way she knew that he was not the real Santa.
Merideth brushed her hands on her apron before plugging her phone into her stereo. She turned up the volume until the imposter’s footsteps could no longer be heard over the carols. She would make it right with him.
❄ ❄ ❄
She stood outside his doorway, hesitating only now at the last second. What made her think that he would accept her offering? He had been so furious at her refusal to let him inside. But she knew that she had to trust in the season. She rung the doorbell, clutching the plate of sugar cookies to her chest.
The man who opened the door looked nothing like jolly ol’ Saint Nick. He was younger than Merideth had expected. And his chin protruded from his face like an iceberg. A completely hairless iceberg.
What do you want? The question came with only a hint of belligerence.
Sorry, Merideth said. She couldn’t help but notice how lean he looked. I was looking for Santa.
Yeah, what do ya’ want?
Oh. She stared at him, still not able to connect the man before her with the rosy-cheeked figure from earlier. Well, I made you these. She thrust the cookies out at him.
He stared at the proffered plate for a long moment before reaching out and picking up a single cookie. It crunched beneath his teeth and Merideth stared. His mastication disturbed her. Maybe it was how much his chin waggled without its beard. Finally he swallowed.
’S good, he said reaching for the plate still in Merideth’s hand.
Probably want some milk? She said with a knowing wink.
The man began to laugh. I wish more people brought me cookies.
I make a lot of cookies this time of year.
Oh? She could see him relaxing as he reached for a second cookie.
I could leave a plate out for you from time to time.
I would like that.
Merideth smiled. Will do…Santa.
He grinned and, for a second, Merideth could have sworn that she saw a twinkle in his eye.
I don’t look much the part without my suit, he said as he followed his second cookie with a third.
Merideth frowned. No. You don’t. As much as she wanted to, there was no pretending that this was Santa. Merideth cast about for something to say. But suddenly she wanted nothing to do with this false Santa.
Well, he said. Thanks for the cookies. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for the next batch. But Merideth knew that there would not be another batch. This not-santa had crumbled his last cookie.
That was the moment that the tranquilizer decided to kick in. The false Santa collapsed backwards into his apartment. The thump of his body hitting the carpet was no louder than a reindeer on the rooftop.
She stepped into the apartment, shutting the door quietly behind her. Merideth noted the lack of ornaments spread throughout the place. She saw his Santa suit crumpled at the foot of the couch. A sweating bottle of beer sat on the table within reach. It was more than Merideth could handle. She closed her eyes. The faint sounds of Christmas carols could be heard drifting up through the floorboards.
Merideth opened her eyes and, with a smile, began singing.
Slay bells ring, are you listening?
In the lane snow is glistening
A beautiful sight, oh, we’re happy tonight
ZB Wagman is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. When not writing, he spends his days working at the Beaverton City Library. This might be why he is horrified of dog-eared pages, overdue library fees, and Christmas carols in November. (Though that last one might be an unrelated personal issue.)