The clatter was tremendous.
Decorative brass fireplace implements clanged off the brick hearth and a fine black cloud of soot billowed, and when it had cleared, there stood a man who looked just like the one in the Christmas cards — right down to the red suit and black boots.
The small boy at the table stared, a cookie poised at his mouth.
The rotund man in the red suit turned with an impossibly big bag slung over his shoulder and sneezed, when he opened his eyes after the sneeze, he saw the boy. “Wh-wh-why, Max! What are you doing up at this hour … and say, aren’t those cookies for me?
The boy’s face flashed from amazement to defiance. “I ate them because I don’t believe in Santa anymore. I don’t believe in anything good anymore!”
Sadly, Santa had become used to people not believing in him anymore. But it especially saddened him when children no longer believed. He set down the huge sack before the forlorn little tree.
There were but two presents beneath it — one with Max’s name and on the other one was a childish scrawl in crayon that read, “Mom and Dad.” The Ds were backward.
“So what do you believe in then?” Santa asked the boy.
“Nothing and no one!” was the reply. “I prayed for Skipper to get better, but the veterinarian let him die. School is stupid. The teacher thinks every letter has to be right when I spell, and … and…” His lip trembled, “And we won’t be a family this Christmas, ‘cuz they won’t let my daddy leave the war.” He bit his lip furiously. He was not going to cry!
The old man pulled up a chair beside the boy. It creaked under his girth. “Well,” he said, “When I heard about Skipper, I felt pretty bad. How old was he, anyway?”
“Nineteen,” said the boy. “My dad got him when he was about my age.
“Now, I remember,” Santa said. “But you know, 19 is an awfully long time for a dog to live. Last Christmas, he was too worn out to bark at me …”
“I know,” said the boy, whose eyes were red-rimmed with tears. “But he was my best friend. Except when he tipped over his water dish. Dad said Skipper was a cluck.”
“Klutz,” Santa corrected. “There’s a difference. And that’s why your teacher wants you to spell things exactly right. Why, in the old days, I was a terrible speller. And my handwriting was atrocious! One year, I delivered a dog to a little girl who wanted a doll.
“Turns out, she was allergic to the poor little pup, so I had to leave him under the tree of a little boy whose mother “absolutely, unequivocally, under no circumstances” would allow a dog in the house.
“That’s how my Grandma acted when he got Skipper for Christmas. Daddy told me Grandma and Grandpa had a humdinger of a fight about it.”
“Oh, they did,” Santa said. “I felt bad about it, too. Because it was my fault.”
“But it worked out great,” Max told Santa — or whoever he was — “Dad and I both had Skipper and he had us. It was the best mistake ever!”
“I see you smiling now,” Santa said. “Isn’t something that Skipper still makes you smile? He’ll always be alive in your heart.”
“I know, but it’s hard to have Christmas without Skipper and Dad — all because of the Army. “Why do people have wars, anyway?”
Santa sighed. “I can’t put my finger on it, but it seems to me wars started about the time people stopped believing in me — or in hope.
“Not everyone stopped believing, mind you. There are always enough people who have hope — and that’s good, because it is hope that keeps me alive. And cookies!” He took a bite of the last cookie on the plate.
“I’m sorry, Santa,” Max yawned. “I didn’t mean what I said …” But before Santa could reply, Max’s eyes were closed.
When they blinked open again, Max realized he must have been dreaming. The sun was only beginning to rise. He trudged down the stairs slowly, but when he heard a rustle, he began to run. “Santa!” he cried.
But the man leaning over the tree, which was nearly buried in colorfully wrapped presents, was much too thin to be Santa.
Besides, he was in an olive green uniform. His hair was tightly trimmed and when he turned, he had a huge grin on his face.
Max didn’t remember exactly how he landed in his father’s arms. He might have flown.
“I got a pass,” Max’s father explained softly, so as not to wake his wife. “One of the fellows gave up his leave for me. Imagine that. I barely know him. It kind of gives you hope, doesn’t it?”
Max nodded, speechless, and before he found his voice, the padding of slippers could be heard at the steps and his mother flew like he had into the thin man’s arms. The three of them held on to each other so tight, Max could barely breathe.
They hugged until they heard a little growl.
They turned just in time to see a wee puppy ferociously tugging on a strand of garland. He pulled so hard the tree toppled.
“Harry! How could you,” Max’s mother scolded his dad. “Another dog!”
Well, that led to a humdinger of a fight. But it was the first time Max had ever seen his parents grin through an entire argument.
His mother threatened to banish the pup to the garage. “Look at the mess he made at the fireplace!” The poker, broom and scoop were scattered amidst a fine powder of soot.
“But … but …” Max stuttered, “It was Santa.”
His mother looked at his father and he smiled.
“Of course, it was,” she said.
Max never again waited up for Santa because, well, if it was a dream, he didn’t want to know.
But every Christmas Eve, he left cookies and milk on the table. And every Christmas morning without fail, they had been eaten.
His mother blamed the dog.