"Cosmic Deathbringers! Cool!"
Susan gave me a questioning look. She hated violent toys with a vengeance, and knew I knew it. I could only shrug and gesture toward Becky; I hadn't bought that one.
Eric was ignoring the rest of his Christmas presents, absorbed by the gun-toting plastic cyborgs. I could already see the beginning of a malevolent gleam in his eyes. I imagined the haranguing he was going to get from Susan if he grew as attached to the toys as the other neighborhood boys seemed to be. Cosmic deathbringer, indeed.
"Thanks, Mom. How'd you know?" Becky was smiling and holding up a studded leather jacket, the sort of thing a Hell's Angel might wear. Now it was my turn to look incredulously at Susan, who was just as befuddled as I. This one was a real mystery. No way could Eric have afforded something like that, not even on a year's allowance. And no way would either Susan or I have bought it.
But that didn't stop Becky from giving Susan a quick hug and kiss and heading for the nearest mirror to try it on. Eric was still mesmerized by his cyborgs.
"Paul, are you trying to pull some kind of prank?"
I looked at Susan and shrugged again. "I have absolutely no idea where those packages came from. Come to think of it, I don't remember them being there last night."
And in fact, all the packages I had seen the previous night were still there, under the tree, untouched and apparently unimportant to the kids. I could only sigh and look out the window.
For a change, it was a white Christmas. Very white. Our yard had been buried under a foot of snow for the past week. Icicles hung from the overhang. It was the first snow we'd seen here in, oh, nearly twelve years. It was the first snow our son Eric had ever seen in person.
There was a loud cracking sound from overhead.
"Wonderful. There go the pipes," I said. I'd been afraid something like this would happen. Our solar water heater and its plumbing weren't designed to have snow piled on top of them.
Well, there was nothing to do about it but go up and see what had broken. I headed for the garage to find the ladder.
When I got to the roof, the first thing I noticed was that the solar panels were bent at an odd angle, nearly vertical.
The second thing I noticed was what was leaning against them. A large red sleigh, filled to the bursting with burlap sacks.
I climbed slowly toward it. In retrospect, it probably should have been obvious what I'd find there, but at the time I couldn't figure out how the hell something like that would get on top of our house.
He hadn't been dead long, the fat man in the red and white suit. There was a thin layer of snow on his body. Maybe four hours' worth. The look on his face was anything but jolly. His eyes were wide open, filled with fear and pain.
By now, of course, I'd realized who he was, even if I wasn't quite ready to believe it. The fact that four reindeer were lying dead on the other side of the roof was pretty compelling evidence, though. They appeared to have choked to death after getting twisted in the reins, presumably trying to free themselves. The remainder of the team had gotten away.
That night, we dined heartily on venison. Susan was never one to let things go to waste.
The difficult part had been getting everything down from the roof without the kids noticing. Becky would have been grossed out, but she was old enough to have stopped believing. Eric, we weren't so sure about, and we didn't want to break his heart.
Under pretense of reseating the pipes, I'd broken the sleigh down into firewood up on the roof. The old man, Susan and I had wrapped in black plastic garbage bags and loaded hastily into the car. The sacks of toys were sitting in the garage. They seemed to pour forth an endless supply of trinkets. Next week, if the roads cleared up, I'd take them to the Salvation Army.
The phone rang. It was Dr. Anderson.
"What's the verdict?" I asked.
"Lung cancer," he said. "This guy had more soot in his lungs than any ten chainsmokers. Not really much of a surprise, I guess, considering."
I thanked him, hung up, and quietly told Susan the news. "Just goes to show," she said, but didn't elaborate.
All that was eight years ago. Today Becky is God knows where, riding around with the gang from her junior high. Seems a fancy leather jacket was her ticket into the bad crowd, and she'd stayed there ever since despite our best efforts. Eric has three more months in Juvenile Hall for holding up a liquor store. Suffice it to say that Susan and I both wish every day that we'd never even heard of Christmas.
But it didn't turn out completely bad, though we both daily mourn the loss of our kids. Susan was able to quit her job and devote full time to her poetry after I opened the third ToyTown store. I'm undercutting my competitors something fierce. I laugh every time I imagine them trying to figure out how I operate on such low margins.
We like to think of it as revenge for what Santa did to our family that snowy Christmas day.