Warning: This is not a tale of heartwarming enchantment.
Seven-year-old Shelley thought it was a little strange that there was a Department Store Santa seated at the far end of the playground. It was Christmas Eve and so much snow had fallen that Daddy had to spend hours yesterday and today just shoveling it all off of the driveway.
After lunch, she begged Daddy to take her to the playground. She could see it from her backyard and there were other kids playing on the snow-covered swings, slides, and other equipment. Mommy had just put her little brother down for his nap and agreed Daddy should take Shelley out to play. She had a lot of cooking to do to get ready for the rest of the family to come over on Christmas, and wanted them both out of the way.
Daddy took a folding chair with him and sat at the edge of the playground with his cell phone surfing the web.
Shelley took off to play with the other kids, but now they were all gone. Instead, there was Santa sitting on a red chair smiling at her.
She wasn’t sure if she should go up to him. Mommy and Daddy told her not to talk to strangers, but they took her to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap last week and she got to tell him what she wanted for Christmas, so Santa must not be a stranger.
Shelley walked up to Santa, but he looked different from the Santa she saw at the mall. He had pointy ears and even pointier teeth.
“Hi Santa. What are you doing here?”
“I’m granting the wishes of the little girls and boys who play here.”
“Where did they go? I saw other kids playing here earlier.”
“They got what they deserved.”
“You mean like coal in their stockings? Were they bad?”
“What about you?” Santa changed the subject and Shelley noticed a wicked gleam in his eyes.
“Why do you look different from last week at the mall?”
“Oh, all those mall Santa’s are fakes. I’m the real one, the only one. I’ve been around a long time.”
Shelley had sort of known the mall Santa wasn’t the real one, but figured he must be one of Santa’s helpers, since the real Santa was so busy this close to Christmas.
“You mean I won’t get the presents I told the other Santa about?”
Grinning evilly, he replied, “Why don’t you climb up on my lap like the other children did, and tell me what you really want.”
Shelley took a step forward and stopped. She looked down and saw there were red speckles in the snow at the foot of Santa’s chair. There were red spots on Santa’s black boots as well (and it was funny they were shaped kind of like a goat’s hoof).
“C’mon, little girl. I don’t have all day.”
“How come you don’t know my name, Santa? I thought you knew every kid’s name.”
“Now little girl, I have time for just one more meal…child. If you make me wait, you won’t get presents this Christmas.”
It was an effective threat, but Shelley wasn’t convinced. In fact, she was beginning to have big doubts about this really being Santa at all. Mommy and Daddy had told her bad people sometimes pretended to be good to trick little girls and boys.
“Shelley, it’s starting to snow again. Time to go in.” It was Daddy calling from the other side of the playground. All the equipment was in the way and he couldn’t see where his daughter was or who she was talking to.
She turned away from Santa. “I’m coming, Daddy.”
Shelley turned back to say good-bye to this strange Santa, but all that was left was the curious red speckles in the snow. There weren’t even any marks showing where he’d put his chair.
Shelley believed Santa used magic, so she was only a little surprised that he’d disappeared so suddenly. As she ran back to where her Daddy was waiting, she felt a strange sense of relief that the old elf had gone before she could sit on his lap.
“Hi, Daddy.” She ran up to him, jumped up and hugged him.
“Hi, Angel. What was that for.”
“I just wanted to let you know I love you.” Daddy was the opposite of the strange Santa. Daddy made her feel loved and safe. She trusted that whatever he told her to do was the right thing.
Shelley and her Daddy walked home hand-in-hand, looking forward to tomorrow and all the food, and family, and gift-giving that makes Christmas for households all across America.
That evening, after Shelley and her brother were sleep, her Mommy and Daddy were horrified watching a TV news story about six children who had disappeared from their neighborhood just hours ago. All of them had been last seen at the playground where Daddy had taken Shelley, a playground visible from their backyard.
The only clue to their disappearance were drops of blood at the scene. A DNA analysis was pending.