“Michael? That thing of yours is broken.”
Michael looked down at his little brother. Usually it was cute, the way Trent said his name. My Coal. It wasn’t so cute now.
“What’s broken?” He kept everything that Trent could break up on his bunk bed. What could Trent have gotten his little hands on?
“That thing…of yours…that’s broken.”
“What’s broken?” Michael struggled to keep his voice calm, especially with Mom listening. Nine-year-olds are too old to believe in Santa. Michael knew that Mom was Santa. The magic of Christmas was dead, but getting presents was still fun. Even Dad behaved himself at this time of year.
“That thing.” Trent said.
“Mom!” Michael said. This conversation was going nowhere.
“Calm down, Michael.” She got down on her knees and made Trent look at her. “Trent, honey, can you show Mommy what’s broken?”
Trent nodded and took Mom’s hand. Michael followed, wishing Trent could move his little legs a bit faster. After an eternity they entered the crime scene. There sat his favorite airplane – minus one wing.
“My airplane!” Michael cried. He and Dad had worked for weeks on the plane. “You ruined it.”
“Michael,” Mom said. “Calm down. Did you put the airplane away? How did Trent get to it?”
“I had it on my bed.” Michael knelt by the plane and gathered the pieces in his arms.
“Oh.” Mom’s cheeks turned pink. Michael folded his arms and glared at her. She felt guilty about something. “Michael, I forgot to tell you. Trent managed to climb to the top bunk bed yesterday while you were at school.”
A sick feeling settled in Michael’s stomach. His bed was his last refuge. The last place he could go to get away from his little brother. The last place where his stuff was safe from Captain Destructo. He was too old to cry so he blinked away the tears that were threatening to fall.
“Sorry,” Trent said.
“Maybe we could glue it back together?” Mom said.
Michael ran his finger over the splintered wood and shook his head. “I don’t think so, Mom.”
Mom scooted over and put her arm around Michael. “Maybe Daddy can do something with it.”
Dad could do some amazing things, but fixing the airplane was impossible. “Sure, Mom.”
Mom squeezed his shoulders. “I really am sorry, sweetheart. He climbed up yesterday but couldn’t get down. I thought he’d learned his lesson.”
“Michael, look at me!” Trent called from the top bunk bed. “I’m big!”
“Get off my bed, Trent,” Michael yelled. “It’s bad enough you ruined my plane.”
“Michael, don’t yell at your brother.” Mom grabbed Trent and pulled him off the top bed. “Don’t forget, Santa is watching.”
“Mom, I’m nine years old. I’m too old for Santa. And, if there is any justice, Trent won’t get anything for Christmas because all he does is break stuff.” Michael knew he’d just made a huge mistake when he looked in Mom’s eyes. She looked like she was ready to shoot laser beams with her eyes.
Mom put Trent down. “Trent, why don’t you go see where your sister is?”
“Okay, Mom,” Trent said. “Linda!” [Maybe “Minda”] he yelled. It wasn’t fair. He never got in trouble. He couldn’t even pronounce their sister’s name right. Me-lin-da.
Mom sat on the bottom bunk bed and took Michael‘s hand. “You don’t believe in Santa?”
Michael shook his head, too scared to open his big fat mouth.
“Then I guess it’s time for you to be Santa.”
Michael almost dropped the sad remains of his airplane. “What?”
“There are two sides to Santa. You’ve experienced receiving from him. Now you get to be him.” Mom explained this like she explained how he should make his bed after he slept in it. Both were beyond his comprehension.
She had to be kidding. He only got a dollar a week in allowance and that was only when he actually did his chores. There was no way he could be Santa. “I may need a raise in my allowance.”
Mom laughed. “That’s not what I mean. I want you to find out what your brother and sister want for Christmas. Report back to me and then we’ll go to the store and pick out their presents. You can help stuff the stockings on Christmas Eve too.”
Michael smiled. That was more like it. This year there would be no nasty candy canes in his stocking. Nothing but chocolate.
When Dad got home from work, Michael couldn’t wait to tell him the plan, but Dad wasn’t smiling. “I don’t know,” he said. “Christmas is going to be lean this year. We aren’t going to get our Christmas bonus.”
Mom’s cheerful smile faded and was replaced by worry. “But we depend on that bonus for Christmas presents,” she said. “What will we do?”
Michael felt his excitement drain. Not only was he not going to be Santa, there wasn’t going to be much of a Christmas this year.
“We have enough for the clothes the kids need,” Mom said.
Clothes for Christmas?
“We can give our parents some of those peaches you bottled,” Dad said.
Mom nodded. “And our brothers and sisters too.”
Even worse. “We’ll still have some peaches left, won’t we?” Michael asked.
“Of course. Our trees gave us more peaches than we could eat in a year.” Mom mussed Michael’s hair. “We’ll have plenty for us.”
“Oh, good.” Michael let out a sigh of relief. “But what about our presents? I don’t think that Trent or Melinda want peaches in their stockings.” He thought of his own Christmas list. He hadn’t really expected to get a Wii, but now there was no chance.
“We have a little bit of money,” Mom said. “We’ll just have to keep it simple. Do you still want to play Santa?”
With a little bit of money, they’d still get candy in their stockings. “Sure.”
Mom smiled. “Then I guess you’d better go find out what Trent and Melinda want Santa to bring them.”
“What about my plane?” Michael asked.
“Your plane?” Dad asked.
“Trent climbed on my bed.” Michael took Dad to his room and showed him the remnants of the once proud plane. “It’s ruined.”
Dad examined the plane. “It does look pretty bad. I’ll take it to my shop and see what we can do.”
“Play with me!” Trent yelled from the doorway.
Michael didn’t want to play with Trent. He was still mad that he [Ternt] had gotten away with breaking his plane.
“Good idea,” Mom said. “You two play while I finish making dinner.”
“May I help you make dinner?” Melinda asked. She was pulling the polite card. Michael grinned. This year Santa didn’t care about the polite card.
“Oh, thank you, Melinda. I still need someone to set the table.”
Michael found some memory cards and opened the box to play a game with Trent. Two of the cards were ripped in half and several were chewed on. Trent snatched a card from his hand and held the picture up.
“Monkey!” He put his hands in his armpits and jumped up on the couch.
“Don’t jump on the couch, Trent,” Michael said.
“I’m not Trent,” Trent said. “I’m a monkey!” He jumped off the couch and grabbed another card. “Lion! Roar.”
“That’s a tiger, but you can’t tell because the head’s been chewed off.” Michael pointed to the stripes.
Trent put the card in his mouth and shook his head. “Rrrrr!”
“Trent, you’ve ruined these cards. Now we can’t even play the game.”
Trent took the card out of his mouth. “Play!”
“Dinner,” Mom called.
“Come on, Trent.” Michael put the soggy card back in the box. No wonder he never ate dinner. He was too full of playing cards.
“Mother,” Melinda said, still using her polite voice. “I am going to ask Santa for a dollhouse. My dollies don’t have anywhere to sleep.”
“Yes they do,” Michael said. “They sleep on your floor.”
“Michael,” Mom said.
Her [Mom’s] eyes looked so sad. Dollhouses were expensive. She must be worried that Melinda would be disappointed Christmas morning. She probably would be.
Dad came upstairs, brushing sawdust off his pants. His workshop was so dusty you couldn’t go down there without getting sawdust all over your clothes. Then Michael got such a great idea he had to check and see if a light bulb turned on over his head. No light bulb, but it was still a great idea.
“Dad,” he whispered, “how do you feel about being an elf?”
Melinda screamed when she saw her present by the tree. It was too big to wrap so he and Dad had put a big red bow on it.
Mom put her hand over her heart and gasped. “A dollhouse! How?”
Michael couldn’t stop the grin from erupting all over his face. He and Dad had worked hard to make that dollhouse. Dad used a broken piece of furniture for the wood. They both hammered and sawed and painted. It was pretty cool, for a dollhouse, and hadn’t cost a penny.
“Santa and his elf made it,” Dad said.
Melinda ripped open the other package – the one that Michael helped pick out from the dollar store with Mom. “Doll furniture!” Melinda screamed.
Michael popped a piece of chocolate in his mouth. Delicious.
“Airplane!” Trent screamed. That was the dollar store gift.
Michael picked up another present and handed it to Trent. “Open this one.”
“What’s that?” Mom asked.
Trent and Dad exchanged knowing looks.
“Monkey!” Trent screamed. He took the thick cards out of the box and spread them before him. The finish reflected the blinking lights of the tree.
“Slobber proof cards,” Michael said. He had spent hours on the computer finding the right pictures. Then Dad helped him glue the pictures to particleboard. Slobber proofing with the non-toxic finish was the final touch.
Trent held up a picture of a cow. “Horse!”
“Now you can learn all of your animals,” Michael said. “This is a cow.”
“I see another gift beside the tree,” Dad said.
There was a box next to Melinda’s dollhouse that hadn’t been there the night before. Michael pulled the box to the middle of the room and unwrapped it. It was a large wooden toy box with a lock. His heart began to pound when he saw the lock. He tried to open the lid.
“Look in your stocking,” Dad said with a grin.
Michael dug through the chocolate and found a key in the toe of his stocking. He put the key in the lock and opened the box. There in the bottom of the box was his model airplane.
“You fixed it!”
Dad shook his head. “An elf fixed it.”
A toy box all his own that Trent couldn’t get into. It was exactly what he’d wanted and he hadn’t even asked for anything. He looked up at his parents. They were so happy and they didn’t even get any presents. That was when he realized that the magic of Christmas didn’t end with his belief in Santa. The magic of Christmas got better when you got to be Santa and make others happy.
Mom knelt next to him. “Merry Christmas, Michael. You did a great job.” She wiped a tear from her eye.
Michael put his arm around her. “I was wrong, Mom. I’m not too old to believe in Santa.”
Mom smiled. “I thought you’d see it that way.”
What I liked best: Everything. Characterization was great, dialog great. Yes, this is a story we hear every year about someone learning that Christmas comes in the giving, not the getting. But we need to hear it every year. This is a good one and very much deserving of being a winner.
Magazine ready? Absolutely!