In early 2020, temperatures over the Arctic spiked, and Santa Claus finally relocated to Lower Manhattan. He rented an apartment in a neighborhood he called SoHo-Ho, along with Ms. Claus and several elves, and when springtime hit, he came out onto the balcony sometimes to cheer for the health workers. In the fall, when the U.S. Postal Service faced a hitch and the letters from children failed to arrive on time, Santa set down his reading glasses, cupped his chin in one palm, and took on a look so somber it made the elves shudder.
Santa resolved to complete his mission anyhow and to make this a Christmas unlike any other. With the elf factory teetering on an ice shelf set to break off, Santa and his elves requisitioned an aviation factory in Virginia. Instead of fighter jets, they assembled sophisticated toy planes and drones and robots and baby dolls. Together, Santa and Ms. Claus personally turned a Texas oil refinery into the world’s largest producer of eggnog.
On the news, they called him a trespasser, a thief, a Communist. Just short of Christmas, INTERPOL issued a red notice for Santa Claus, alias Father Christmas, alias St. Nick, alias K. Kringle. Undeterred, and aided by magic, Santa continued his schemes all the way to Christmas Eve.
He left presents in hospital COVID wings. He went inside prisons and inside homes that had never seen him before. Santa went on a special search for children who were not nestled all snug in their beds. Relying upon his elves for research, he found every single lonely, frightened child in the deepest, hidden holding cells of ICE detention centers. And Santa realized the stories he’d heard about the missing kids were true, and it was only due to magic and a bit of luck that he’d found them at all. He stood still for a solid minute in front of the children sleeping under aluminum foil blankets, put a finger aside of his nose, retrieved a red handkerchief, and wept.
Santa and the elves broke the sleepy children out, corralled them into Santa’s sleigh. They found their astonished parents, the ones being held in other centers, took them back to their most recent homes, slipped them into soft beds. He said he would’ve done it long before too, if he’d ever gotten their letters. Santa hadn’t known there were so many children separated from their parents. He hadn’t known about the children whose parents said he wasn’t real because they couldn’t afford to believe in him. Santa hadn’t even known about many places where Santa doesn’t come at all, and he was so very sorry he hadn’t stopped to think of it, and worse, sorry for the hurt he’d caused all the children he hadn’t known to visit. Santa began to believe that perhaps he was not so magical after all, or at least didn’t possess anymore the kind of magic the world so deeply needed.
It was in that dark hour, just before the dawn of Christmas morning, that something in Santa broke. Just before the sky turned pink and orange, in that slow quiet hour, Santa took three sleeping pills, crawled into his bed, and not even Ms. Claus or Rudolph could rouse him. When the police showed up at his door later that morning to ask a few questions, he didn’t resist.
In the days that followed, he was charged with trespassing, property destruction, and a host of charges he didn’t understand. He was made to turn in his red suit. Some commenters on the Internet laughed at the size of his belly and made memes of him, which hurt Ms. Claus far more than it hurt Santa, for Santa had always relied on traditional mail, didn’t have the Internet, and didn’t know what a meme was. Ms. Claus was questioned and released, but Santa went into a high-security prison complex in California. News commentators fought over him for weeks.
By this time, the Arctic shelf that carried Santa’s factory and Christmas Village broke off, and the elves and Ms. Claus had no other home to return to. One day, Santa was allowed to call Ms. Claus. After asking about his health, she told him in her way, gently, that she’d learned a few things from living in Manhattan. She said good and bad were more complicated than she’d thought before, and he might’ve overdone the coal in years past. Santa was a bit quiet after that, and she wondered if she’d hurt his feelings. Ms. Claus, still living in SoHo-Ho, went on to tell him that she leaned out over their balcony some winter nights, and with the moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow, saw children slipping out of their rooms, gathering, plotting quiet things. She had taken to inviting some of them in for hot chocolate and observed a mysterious joy when they told her of their plans.
“Do they want to break me out then?” Santa asked.
“No,” she said in her slow way. “But have you thought of retirement? These ambitious kids—they want your job. Wouldn’t do it with magic. But still.”
Santa Claus, who had been doing this job for hundreds of years, let out a relieved laugh for the first time in months, the kind of joyful noise he used to make when Rudolph and the others leapt into the air and scampered through the snow back home. It sounded like jingle bells. As his laugher echoed through the phone booths, the prison’s walls bowed out, there arose such a clatter that the guards came running, and before they had even arrived, cracks appeared in the foundations. The whole prison complex buckled and shook like a bowl full of jelly. When the guards arrived and found the prison telephone booths completely empty, no one could explain it.
Lauren D. Woods is a Virginia-based writer of fiction and CNF, with recent work in The Forge Literary Magazine, Hobart, the Roanoke Review, Lit Hub, and elsewhere.