The Cold Christmas Present

book

His fitted jeans and striped hoodie were not nearly enough against the crisp bite of wintry air that came against him the moment he stepped out of the rustic bookstore and began to crunch his way through the fresh powder on the sidewalk. Cold. Converse made horrible snow boots, and he was a city boy, not too familiar with the snow in his adult years, but he liked it nonetheless. He liked how the Christmas lights hung loosely on Main Street and reflected against the piled up snow. They were mostly the large colored bulb lights that in some way had survived from the early 80s, creating some mysterious form of nostalgia. On the corner of the street, a short snowman stood appearing ready to direct traffic with his branch arms sticking out.

The bookstore was peaceful, mostly full of the common classics. He could tell that the owner was not up-to-date with the newest trend of pop novels. No teen wizards or sparkling vampires for people to romance about, and after trying to warm up inside, there was nothing more to really interest him in there for the moment.

The entire town seemed out of vogue by a good 20 or maybe 30 years. There were no signs of smart phones or tablets. No Starbucks or energy efficient hatchbacks. Just locally owned mom and pop store fronts—some even still had wooden hand painted signs hanging outside near the snowy streets. These streets were lined with a few worn down, parked trucks that made his own stand out as something new. And oddly, he liked it all. All except the cold.

A vibration buzzed in his left pocket. He pulled out his phone, quickly swiping open the screen to a new text: Did you find what you’re looking for yet?

He hesitated to text her back for a moment and then responded: Not yet, but I think I’m glad I came.

Then I’m glad too, I wish I didn’t have to work tonight.

And he wished the same although there had been a distraction in their relationship. Things had been off and on again for a while now. She was a sweet and patient girl, but before he could move on to make the relationship something serious, he had to take care of something first. He didn’t drive alone for over three hours from home just to see the snow. He had a purpose in mind, even though he wasn’t exactly sure what it was yet.

He walked down Main Street until the cold became overbearing again. He looked into a window that was half fogged over, and envying the warmth, he opened the heavy door as sleigh bells jingled from the handle. Unlike the franchised coffee shops that he was used to in the city, this coffee shop appeared full of warm and hospitable life. It was obvious that people weren’t there to quietly read a novel or to do web searches on their laptops; they were there for each other, laughing loudly and sharing stories.

Classic Christmas music could still be heard over the gregarious groups of people. He noticed there were even more people in the back of the coffee shop. It almost appeared to be a Christmas party as people hugged and patted each other on the back. They greeted him too—an unknown stranger—with a joyful “Merry Christmas!” although Christmas was still a few days away.

He ordered a cup of hot apple cider and sat down listening to the loquacious townspeople interact with each other. Then he noticed a man stand up from a table in the corner. He was an older, heavier man, about in his 60s, wearing a Santa Claus costume with a fake white beard hanging loosely below his double chin.

“Hello there, welcome to Bells Town. I reckon you’re not from these parts,” the man said as his fake white beard bounced with every word.

“I actually used to come up here every Christmas. My grandma lived just down the street—Maple to be exact.”

“Ah, Maple Street. Yes, just two blocks down and take a right and then your second left.”

“That sounds just about right. Honestly, I haven’t been in the area since I was 10.”

“That seems like a long time to stay away. Most people visit Bells Town a lot more than that.”

“Yeah, well, it doesn’t really look that way,” he thought of the open streets outside. “Honestly, my grandma died when I was 10, and then my parents separated. I guess she was the glue that held everyone together. We didn’t live here with her, but we came up a lot to visit. And every year, we spent our Christmas here, and it always snowed.”

“There’s something about the Christmas season that brings back the past, isn’t there?”

“Yeah, it kind of makes things difficult.”

“The past does?” the man asked.

“No, the present does.”

The man rubbed his heavy face a little, “Haven’t you ever heard that the present is a present?”

“Of course.”

The man pulled his beard up over his lower face, fitting him well, and asked, “So what do you want for Christmas this year? Maybe I have a present for you?”

He smiled a little and responded, “You know what, you’re alright. I’m Scott, what’s your name?”

“Santa Claus.”

“Of course, how didn’t I know that?”

“Don’t tell me that you don’t believe?”

“Maybe I could believe in God or angels, but definitely not Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. Oh, and definitely not the tooth fairy either,” Scott rolled his eyes.

“What if Santa Claus is really just an angel sent here to help people?”

“Then he’s an angel that has a problem with the sin of gluttony.” Scott looked down to Santa’s large stomach hanging over his wide, black belt. “No offense, Santa.”

“None taken at all, and if you ever had the cookies in Ms. Mary Smith’s bakery, you would have a problem with gluttony too,” he smiled joyfully through his fake beard. “So what do you want for Christmas this year?”

Scott thought about it for a moment, wanting to answer honestly. “I really just want to go back and see my grandma’s old house and see a little bit of life the way it used to be.”

“Well then, let me take you there; trips into the past can be difficult to go on alone.”

“Thanks, Santa. I could probably use some company tonight,” Scott said sincerely. He took a deep sip of hot apple cider, which already seemed to have gone cold.

The two walked out of the vibrant coffee shop, and as the door closed, a serene silence came over the street, only broken by the crunching snow and sporadic gusts of wind.

Scott couldn’t help his obvious curiosity of the town and finally said, “I just can’t get over it. The same decorations are still being hung in the same places. Like that house right there, the same decorations were hanging up when I was a kid. And that pizza shop is exactly how I remember it; my grandma took me there a few times with just me and her. But it’s just so damn cold here.”

Santa said, “I feel fine.”

“Oh, yeah. You’re Santa Claus—North Pole and all.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

As they continued walking, bright yellow lights and muffled sounds came from a building up ahead. It was actually a small country-style church with a tall steeple.

“Looks like a Christmas party,” Santa said with delight.

“I remember this church. It’s the only time my family ever went to church. Everyone was really nice here.”

Santa opened the large door to a bright sound of happy laughter. “It sounds like they still are. After you, Scott.”

People were mostly sitting at different tables stacking together gingerbread houses with large piles of assorted candies.

Santa said, “Oh, one of my favorites, the annual gingerbread house competition!”

“Yeah, I remember my grandma won one year. She was so excited that she talked about it for weeks.”

Santa said, “Maybe you can reclaim her title. There’s an open table right there with all the materials ready to go.”

“Come on, Santa, let’s build a gingerbread house. I mean, how could I not win with Santa Claus on my team?”

In the midst of a combination of a boisterous crowd and classic Christmas music being played on an old wooden record player in the corner, the two worked diligently as Santa stealthily bit off a piece of gingerbread every now and then for himself. But the two were disrupted suddenly when a chair was pulled out from the table and a young woman, appearing about Scott’s age, asked, “Okay, so my team is being totally lame, can I join you two?”

She looked oddly familiar to Scott, and there was something about her inviting eyes that locked onto his when she spoke. She was charming to say the least, and her voice was one that mesmerized his soul with every word. It was like she had never experienced the things of this world that make one calloused—so innocent and trusting.

“Sure, if you don’t mind being on the winning team,” Scott smiled. “I’m Scott, and this is, ah, Santa.”

Santa said with glee, “Merry Christmas!”

“Wow, Santa Claus? Well, I don’t think we’ve seen each other since I was six.” She turned to Scott, “And you aren’t Scott Simons, are you?”

“Yes, I am. Don’t tell me you’re Melanie Harper?”

“I am!”

“No way! Santa, Mel and I used to play together as kids when I would come up.”

Melanie added, “I remember looking forward to Christmas break every year because I knew I would always have a friend to go sledding with. And then, when my parents told me that our neighbor, your grandmother, passed away, I was sure that I would never see you again. I felt like a part of my childhood ended then, but now here you are right in front of me.”

“It feels like nothing has changed here. Even you look just like I would have imagined you to look all grown up.”

“So I look like a little girl still? Is that what you’re saying?” she teased.

“No, you actually look beautiful.”

She smiled and then noticed him rubbing his hands together. “Are you cold?”

“I’m fine. I don’t know why, but I can’t seem to get warm here, which is odd because I’m hardly ever cold.”

“Well, it’s supposed to snow again tonight.”

Santa looked at Scott’s cold hands and his red nose but didn’t say anything at all.

The group continued to work on their gingerbread house as Scott and Melanie reminisced about their childhood adventures of sledding, snowball fights, building snowmen, and venturing through the town together for hot coco and last minute Christmas gifts. But neither of them bought up the time when they kissed softly on the lips the night of Christmas Eve outside his grandmother’s house in the fresh snow—their first kiss. That story was left out of conversation although it was on both of their minds.

Their playful laughter and long private stares took precedence over the competition as Santa gladly partook in other interactions with people he knew. Hours went by, and people slowly began leaving the church. Eventually, Santa came back to Scott and said, “Miss Harper, would you mind being this young man’s guide around town tonight? It’s getting a little late for this old man.”

“I wouldn’t mind one bit. Tis the season.”

Santa replied, “Tis the season indeed, and Merry Christmas!”

As Scott and Melanie stepped out onto the snowy street, Melanie stated, “I know we’re older now and all but that doesn’t mean we can’t still hold hands, does it?”

Scott, living completely in Bells Town now, reached for her tiny hand, and the two walked down Main Street together as icicles hung off of buildings, and the icy road reflected the large bulb lights back into their eyes as they gazed at each other. Her hand fit so perfectly within his—so soft. And for a moment, Scott started to think that he had finally found what he was a looking for. He had found home, his good memories come back to life.

“Look, it’s snowing!” she pointed eagerly.

“I love it. It’s like a real life snow globe.”

“Yes, and we’re the tiny, little couple holding hands in it,” she leaned her head on his shoulder as they turned down towards Maple Street. The snow started to fall a little heavier now in large flakes.

Melanie whispered, “I wish you hadn’t stayed away for so long.”

“I don’t know if I did.”

She faced him, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’ve always been here in my heart. This place and even with you. In this season and this snow. I don’t think I ever really left.”

The two slowed to a stop, and she put her arms around his neck and finally asked, “Remember that one time we were together in the snow?”

“Like I said, I never really left.”

Her eyes sparkled as she stared deep into him, and she was now more than a dream as two cold lips once again touched in the falling of the white sky that freshly painted another layer on the winter wonderland, visible even in the dark of night. For the following lost moments, they held each other close, and when he opened his eyes again, he saw lights on in his grandmother’s old house down the street.

“There’re people still living in it—my grandmother’s house!”

“Of course.”

He started moving quickly to his destination and said without looking back to her, “I always heard that it was left vacant.”

“No, not at all,” she hurried up to him.

“As he arrived in front yard of the house, he saw the same classic Christmas lights faithfully hanging from the rafters. The windows lit up in bright yellow as black silhouettes moved back and forth inside. The front door burst open, and a little boy came running down the steps with a scarf flowing behind him as he struggled to put on his second mitten with the hood of his bulky coat falling over his face.”

“A little boy lives there, like me. I’m so glad.”

Melanie responded, “Yeah, he finally came back.”

“Who? The little boy?”

She replied stoically, “Yeah. You.”

The front door opened again, and a familiar voice yelled out, “Scotty, only a few minutes now. I don’t want you catching a cold before Christmas,” and as Scott’s eyes focused in through the night, it was her—Grandma.

Then a younger version of his father ran out after the boy yelling with a wide smile on his face, “Watch out, Scotty! I’m going to get you back,” and the boy threw a snowball at him. It was all clear now.

Scott couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t smile. He could only watch this historic scene of his family play out in front of him. Soon his mother came out too and swung a snowball at his father, and he playfully wrestled her onto the snow with tickles. He then hollered out to his son, “Scottie, come make a snow angel with us.”

His grandmother peaked through the window and then hurried to the front door, “Did I raise a bunch of crazies? I don’t want my entire family sick on Christmas. You all get in here right now. The pies are about ready now. Come now, hurry on!”

The wind blew violently, making a deafening sound. Instantly, all the figures froze as the scene of his past now stood still in front of him like life-size sculptures. The wind brushed painfully against his ears, and the frozen figures began to disintegrate into nothing more than snow, being taken away with the unforgiving wind. Soon all that remained was a dark, lonely, weathered house standing half open and damaged by years of neglect—only barely visible now in the dark.

“Mel, what’s going on? Tell me you know. What’s really going on here?” He reached for her hand, taking it in his.

A sad and gloomy look came over her face, “Scott, you’re so cold.”

Her hand in his began to feel like sharp pieces of ice, and then the perfect flesh on her face flew off in ash-like snowflakes with the wind. Layer after layer blew away as her eyes sank deeply into empty voids, exposing her skull and bones throughout her body until they too drifted away into the cold snow. Standing completely alone now, the lights down the street switched off into darkness.

He didn’t know what to do, but he knew he was cold and had been for a while. It was a dangerous kind of cold that was beginning to steal the life out of his body.

So he ran. Sliding on roads of frozen ice and falling every which way into fresh snow, he continued to get up over and over again running.

Turning back onto Main Street, a ghost town now silently awaited him, lit only by the pale moonlight that managed to break through clouds and shine off the white ground. Doors hung halfway off abandoned buildings. Signs were worn off and faded, weathered by the seasons. Windows were cracked and broken. Roofs were sunken in. No vehicles were visible on the street. No merry sounds came from the church. No bright light shown from the coffee shop’s window. Nothing.

Just cold.

A cold that ate through his Converse and fitted jeans. A cold that devoured his striped hoodie. A cold that had moved through his skin and was now starting to wear inside his heart, slowing his blood. He didn’t know how long he had been in this cold, but he knew he didn’t have too much time left to find some sort of warmth as his body was slowing down altogether. Spotting his truck far down the street half covered in snow, he moved lethargically towards it.

As he treaded down the street, he felt bewildered and mouthed out with a breath of fog, “How is any of this happening?”

He felt the presence of another. Maybe it was so cold that any nearby body heat could be felt. Or maybe it was because there was some sort of sound other than the snowy wind. But whatever it was, Scott’s senses told him to turn around, and he saw him standing only a few steps behind.

“Merry Christmas, Scotty.” He stood in that same red and white suit unaffected by the cold. Although serious, his face was still jolly somehow.

“What’s going on? Please just tell me who you really are, and what’s going on?”

“You seem upset, Scotty. I’m sorry that you don’t like your present.”

“I don’t understand. You let me go back, but why didn’t you let me stay?”

“Because you would freeze to death.”

“Why?”

“Because there’s nothing in the past except for the cold. The warmth is always in the present. Look around you. There’s nothing here except cold.”

“How about Mel?”

“Melanie moved away with her parents when the town began to go under many years ago. She’s divorced now with two kids and is nothing like how you imagined her. It’s always interesting how the imagination plays up the past. And sorry to tell you this, but she doesn’t remember you at all. Not even that first childhood kiss you two shared.”

Scott looked away for a moment, flexing his jaw. “It was so wonderful here for a few hours. So perfect.”

“This was all created by your own wistful memories, and although pleasant to visit from time to time, if you live in your memories, you’ll have nothing but the cold.” Santa walked closer to Scott. “You’ll only find death in the cold, but in the present, you see, in the present, you’ll find warm life. It won’t be perfect, but it will be warm.”

Scott looked back to the snowy desolation of darkness of what used to be such a wonderful wonderland. He then looked to Santa, desperate for some sort of help. Anything. Santa took Scott in his large red suited arms and embraced him wholeheartedly until Scott’s entire body was healed by a deep, inner Christmas warmth.

‘Thank you, Santa.” He felt truly content.

“Now go home and enjoy your present. It’s still warm there, although someday it too will be cold, so enjoy it while you can, taking in all the joyful warmth that it has to offer.”

Scott got in his truck and waited a moment for it to defrost as his wipers pushed the fresh powder off his windshield from left to right. He took out his phone and texted her back: I found exactly what I was looking for. I had it the entire time.

As he drove off, the snow continued to fall heavily behind him, and Santa stood waving goodbye in his large, white gloves. Then, within a blink, Santa was gone, and the town behind him seemed even a little darker.

Whether he was the real Santa Claus bringing a young man a very special gift or a Christmas angel in disguise, Scott was now ready to truly embrace the warmth of life that would be his greatest Christmas present ever.

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