Thomas was having trouble sleeping. He always had trouble sleeping the night before Christmas; the excitement kept stirring him awake whenever he started to drift off, thoughts of toys and games and even new socks filling him with anticipation. Most years, or most years he remembered, he managed to nod off at eleven o’clock or eleven-thirty, but now it was eleven-fifty and he wasn’t remotely sleepy.
I think I’ll go have a drink of water, he thought, and carefully opened his bedroom door. He did his very best to be quiet so as not to wake the rest of the house, even tip-toed around the creaky boards in the floor on his way to the bathroom. It was when he passed the stairs that he heard it, and stopped.
Jingle-jingle. Jingle-jingle. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.
Thomas wasn’t a believer. He had found a present in the back of his parents’ closet last year that he hadn’t told them he’d seen, and then found the present wrapped in special paper and addressed from Santa. That seemed to be the end of the fantasy to his clever mind.
Yet even so, a small corner of his heart wanted it to be real, wanted there to be a Santa Claus, wanted the jingling and stomping sounds from above to be the sounds of reindeer landing on the roof. That small corner was clever, too; Maybe I’d rather have a glass of milk, it suggested, and the practical rest of Thomas agreed. He made his silent, careful way downstairs, and hid behind his father’s easy chair.
Black dust billowed out of the fireplace in a thin cloud, and down from the chimney appeared a pair of soot-covered boots. Following the boots were a set of bright red stockings, a bright red fur-lined coat, and a beard as white as a freshly baked sugar cookie.
Thomas stared. This person looked nothing like the image in his mind; he was short, and lean, and his skin was a deep tan, almost brown. He carried a small satchel made of fine leather, out of which he pulled four presents wrapped in shining paper. He placed them each under the tree, stretched his back a bit, then looked around. His eyes rested on the plate of cookies and glass of milk sitting next to the chair where Thomas was hiding. He patted his slim torso, shook his head, and picked up the glass of milk. He downed the whole thing in one big gulp, then set it carefully back on its tray, wiping his face with a sleeve.
Thomas thought about coming out from his hiding place. But what would he say? What would Santa do if he saw him? Instead he resolved to stay right where he was until Santa Claus left.
But Santa was lingering. He was looking around the house, almost as though he were casing it for a robbery. Which didn’t make sense; why would he rob them after bringing them presents?
At last, Santa found what he was looking for: a pair of twenty-dollar bills on the mantel. Cash. But why?
Thomas found himself speaking before he realized it. “What are you taking our money for?” he asked, stepping out from behind the chair.
Santa froze. “Not every family can afford Christmas,” he said slowly. “Those that can, they leave a few dollars to help keep the fires burning in the old workshop. Helps us reach more of the families who don’t have much.”
“My friend Jessica’s family is poor,” said Thomas. “Will you be bringing her presents too?”
“I will try,” said Santa. “If she was a good girl this year, I should have something for her in my bag.”
“Why don’t you bring presents to my Jewish friends?”
“It’s…” Santa sighed. “Complicated. I’m sorry, Thomas, I don’t have all the answers for you. Christmas is a challenging, enormous thing, and it means different things to different people. Happy Christmas.” He moved to the chimney, ducked inside, and was gone.
Thomas watched Santa disappear, then moved quickly to the presents he had left under the tree.
They were all of them addressed to him. He gave each of them a good shake. The first two made soft shuffling noises: probably clothes. The third one sounded like it might be building blocks. The last one, bigger than the others, made a shump sound and an oof! sound and a hey, watch it! sound.
Thomas thought that was unusual. He gave the last present another shake.
“I said, watch it!” the box said. “What kind of kid shakes their presents?”
“You can talk?” Thomas said. “What are you?”
“Open me up,” said the box, “and I’ll show you.”
Thomas carefully untied the ribbon, removed the wrapping paper. It was an ornately painted wooden box, with a metal crank.
“A jack-in-the-box?” Thomas sighed. “I’m a little old for toys like this, I think.”
“Turn the crank,” said the box. “It’ll all make sense.”
Thomas turned the crank slowly, wincing when he thought the toy’s metallic song might start playing. But it made no music. He took a breath and turned the crank more quickly. When the song should have ended (if it had been playing in the first place), the lid of the box popped open. But nothing popped out at him.
He peered over the edge of the box to look. Inside was a small woman with pointed ears, dressed like a clown, with hair the color of chestnuts.
“An elf,” she said. “Yes. And I know you won’t believe me, but I need you to listen. Saint Nick–the guy you call Santa Claus–he’s not the jolly old soul your songs make him out to be. We need someone to help us fight back. Will you help?”
Thomas, the part of him that had wished Santa were real, felt a tightening knot in his heart. He found himself wishing instead that he had just gotten his drink of water and gone back to bed.
“If my parents find you,” he said, “they won’t understand. We’ll need to find you some different clothes to wear, and a hat to cover those ears. But yes, I’ll help you. Just tell me what you need me to do.” He held out his hand. “I’m Thomas.”
The elf looked at him for a moment, then shook his hand. “Call me Chestnut.”