It has been said that you should never meet your idols. It was the Christmas of 2005 that I came face to face with mine; someone the majority of people don’t believe in, after a certain age, of course. I was ten years old at the time and still held on to my beliefs, regardless of the inherent mocking it would earn.
Joanna, my older sister; Jo, or Jo-Jo to her friends and family, outright laughed at my insistence the man in the hat was real, but she was always a logical thinker. Even when she was much younger, while I was only three or four, she rolled her eyes at my excitement about the arrival of Jolly Old Saint Nick, having never bought into it even when she was just a little girl, according to our dad.
‘That’s fine,’ I thought, ‘don’t matter if you believe in him, ’cause he believes in you.’ Not the most well-thought-out inner argument, but it was good enough for an imaginative kid who couldn’t stand the thought of his sister ending up with a stocking full of coal, even if she was being a jerk about the whole thing.
When that December dragged by at a snail’s pace, or so it felt to a kid eagerly anticipating whatever new goodies may be awaiting him on the morning of the 25th, I forged together my plan to prove her wrong, once and for all. Sure, I can’t deny that the satisfaction of having a well-deserved ‘I told you so’ to greet Jo on Christmas morning wasn’t at least a little bit behind my motivations, but I also couldn’t resist the opportunity to meet the fabled jolly man in the red suit.
My dad chuckled at my insistence that I would be camping out in the living room that night of the 24th, while my mom only shrugged with a smile.
“Just be sure to get some sleep, kiddo,” dad said, still laughing at my eagerness mixed with exhausted yawns.
I held the small camera I’d received a Christmas or two back clutched in my hand beneath the blanket, prepared to take a few shots as soon as St. Nick made his appearance, but as the house fell still, I found it far more difficult to keep my eyes open. While the couch wasn’t nearly as comfortable as my bed on the second floor, the excitement of the season, along with a good deal of playing out in the snow, left my eyelids far too heavy to battle against.
I can’t be certain how long I was out for, with only the lights from the tree illuminating the living room around me, but when the creaking of the floor and jingling of the decorations hanging from the tree caused me to stir back to awareness, I instantly felt my fingers tingle with anticipation. For my plan to prove fruitful, I would have to keep up the act of a sleeping child; one fully unaware of the visitor I could vaguely see through my half-shut eyes.
From the angle I was laying in, I could only make out from the waist down of the man who fished goodies from his hefty bag, laying them gently beneath the tree, but I had no doubt I was witnessing the actions of the very man I hoped to see. With his back to me, I softly, but hastily searched my fingertips around for the camera which had fallen from their grip, after I knocked out, but I attempted to keep my actions unnoticed.
I slightly gasped aloud when my hand wrapped around the plastic shell, causing the man by the tree to spin in place, almost catching me red-handed. I snapped my eyes back shut, rolling them from side to side beneath their lids to imitate the rapid eye movement I had read about online. Whether or not I was overdoing it, acting as though I were erratically scanning them in every direction while still firmly closed, I had no way of knowing, but when I felt the air shift as the man drew closer to where I lay, I found it more difficult to hide my excitement.
I breathed in the scent of freshly baked cookies and peppermint, convincing me that I truly was in the presence of the fabled gift-giver himself. There was something else beneath the more inviting smells; something musty and aged, but I assumed the big guy had worked up quite a sweat, given his laborious profession. After a few moments, I felt the oxygen around me regulate as the light footsteps sounded as though they moved away from me again, so I took a chance on cracking open my eyelids.
Sure enough, the man in the red suit was hunched over by the tree again. I knew I had to make it quick, or I would lose this small window of providing evidence to my sister. In one swift, but silent motion, I pulled the camera free from my blanket, aimed it at the man who still faced the tree and snapped three pictures, back-to-back, moving my finger so quickly I didn’t have time to register the bright flash.
I felt my breath catch in my throat as he spun to face me; something I could barely make out through the lingering effects of the blinking bright lights on my eyes, which had grown accustomed to an otherwise darkened room.
“That’s against the rules, little boy,” his deep voice said with his posture unchanged, from what I could tell.
“I-I’m so sorry,” I stuttered, feeling my eyes well up, “I j-just wanted to prove….prove to my sister that you’re real!”
“You’re not the first…unlikely to be the last, but it is still forbidden, I’m afraid.”
I could see the silhouette rising back to his feet, with the blotches of lingering light still blocking most of my view. He moved closer to where I lay, only slightly raised with the camera clenched between my trembling fingers.
It wasn’t fear that caused my extremities to shiver, but that sensation of guilt and embarrassment from being caught doing something I shouldn’t have. Were this any other man, I would likely be so scared that I couldn’t even form the stuttered words I managed to utter, but I was comfortable in the fact that Father Christmas would never harm a child, regardless of how naughty they were acting.
“Give it to me,” he said, holding his padded mitt just beneath my face.
I gently raised the camera, placing it in his waiting hand, keeping my guilt-ridden gaze fixed on my wrinkled blanket.
“There’s nothing to feel bad about, my boy,” he said, sliding the camera into his pocket with one hand and tousling my hair with the other, “go back to sleep now.”
“B-but…will I…I mean, does this make me naughty?”
“No, young mister Cobb, you have graced my nice list exclusively for years,” he said with a hearty chuckle, “I was a curious child myself once, so very long ago.”
Finally feeling comfortable enough to raise my eyes to meet those of the man who stood beside the couch, I found my voice silenced when I met his smiling face. While things were still somewhat out of focus from the lingering effects of the camera flash, what I saw through the haze was far from what I expected.
Whether it was the fact that the skin tone of the left side of the face was not the same as the right, the green and red threads holding the mismatched flaps of skin together, or the two different colors and sizes of the eyes were what caught me more off guard, I didn’t know. Whatever aspect of this crudely priced together thing, for lack of a better term, I was certain that this could not truly be who I had expected a visit from this snowy Christmas morning.
As my jaw fell open; a scream caught in my throat as the creature in the red suit swiftly and firmly placed a hand over my mouth.
“Now, now,” he said, smiling so widely that a few stitches popped where his mouth was hemmed on the left side, “there’s no sense in allowing your curiosity to wake everyone else in the house.”
I was frozen when the sight of this patchwork man caused my guilt to be replaced with a fear I had never known. My whole body trembled as the one green and one hazel eye glared into mine. Tears were streaming down my face and over the padded glove that rested over my mouth while my mind fought to wrap around what I was looking at.
“There’s nothing to fear, my boy,” he said, winking the brown eye; his words now accompanied by a whistle through the gap on the side of his mouth, “I may not look as you imagined, but I assure you I am who you sought to meet this night.”
“Wh-what are you?” I asked, pulling the hand from my mouth with my shivering fingers.
“You know who I am, Edward.”
“No…you can’t be…” I shook my head almost violently as I pushed my shoulder blades against the back of the couch, as though this would somehow grant me freedom from this hideous thing.
The smile faded from the patchy bearded face as those opposing eyes glared down at me. While he hung his head, turning away from me, he strolled to my father’s recliner, which sat diagonally across from where I lay. When he spun again to face me, lowering himself into my dad’s favorite chair, we just glared at one another; my eyes still filled with terror and his with something resembling shame.
“I have been doing this for a long time, Edward,” he said in a strangely compassionate voice, “immortality, I can assure you, does not come without cost.”
“You can’t be him…I won’t believe it,” I said, still shaking my head in denial.
“I am, young Mr. Cobb. I am so sorry that I am not what you expected, but I assure you there is no need to be afraid…I would never hurt a child.”
“N-not even the n-naughty ones?”
“Not even…not when they’re still young enough to change, anyway.”
“Even if…if they’re really bad?”
“No. Not ever. Never a child; not if I can help it. Besides, that’s what the train is for.”
“Nothing to concern yourself with, my boy; I can promise you that much.”
Again, we gazed at one another for so long that my eyes began to burn from my refusal to blink. Not only was I still so horrified by what sat across from me, but I dreaded to think what he might have done if I took my eyes off him for a second.
My whole body continued to tremble while I still forced my back against the plush cushions of the couch, with my blanket pulled up to my quivering lower lip. Every fiber of my being was in complete denial of what I was looking at, regardless of the fact he clearly had no ill intentions at the time; a fact I grew steadily more uncertain of after what came next.
“Stop looking at me like that,” he said, barely louder than a whisper, both sides of his uneven brow pinching tightly on his upper eyelids.
I didn’t stop; I couldn’t. I had no control over it at the time. He may as well have asked me to levitate three feet above the cozy sofa with how much I was able to manage what my body and mind were going through at the time.
“Stop it!” he repeated, leaning forward to lean his elbows on his knees, “Do you have any idea what I have endured over the centuries!? Do you have the slightest semblance of appreciation for what I put myself through to continue to give you ungrateful children a happy Christmas!?”
I shook my near-spasming head; not in response to his question, but in further denial of what I was witnessing.
“I turned myself into an abomination, for you! You and all of the other kids out there! Is that not good enough!?”
I turned away from him, finally allowing my gaze to drift from his.
“LOOK AT ME!” he shouted, reclaiming my unyielding attention, as he practically leapt to his feet, whipping the hat from his scalp and tearing open his coat.
The scars and stitched together, mismatched shades of flesh across his emaciated chest almost caused me to scream out so loudly, I may just wake the dead, as well as my sleeping family. The stringy and matted, patchwork hair and mangled scalp looked as though the thread holding it together would pop apart any second, unzipping the seams to reveal little more than the skull beneath.
“This is what I had to become to continue on my chosen path,” he said in a cracking voice, pulling his coat back shut, “I became this…monstrosity…for you; for all of the children of the world.”
He paced closer to me again, inspiring me to attempt to force myself deeper into the cushions. As he crouched down to look directly into my eyes, my tears let loose, transforming from the trickling stream to a veritable hurricane.
He gripped his fingers around my shoulders so tightly, I thought he planned to claim my arms; to stash them away for a rainy day. While I became aware of the fact that one of the hands felt so much larger than the other; far stronger as well, that only drove the madness of it all so much deeper into my brain.
“Look at the wonders I brought you,” he said, removing one hand to gesture to the pile of neatly wrapped presents, “is it too much to expect a little gratitude?”
The mismatched scowl softened to reveal his own glassy eyes, glistening in the soft illumination of the festive lights upon the tree. In that moment, even through my horror-stricken vision at the time, I could finally make out the melancholy and hurt-filled expression of the kind face, hidden away behind the grotesque patchwork flesh.
“Th-thank you,” I said, my tears finally dissipating, “and I’m sorry…sorry I got scared. It’s just…”
“No,” he said, his grip softening on my shoulder, “it is I who should apologize, my dear young man.”
His hands fell limp to his sides, tracing his padded gloves across the carpeted floor. As he hung his head, shying his eyes away from mine, I let the blanket slip from my fingers, raising my hand to his cold and wrinkled cheek.
“It actually feels kinda neat,” I said, running my no longer shivering digits across the seam holding the upper flap of his face to the lower, “does it hurt?”
He just shook his head, still seemingly studying the floor beneath his knees.
“Only at first…goes numb after a time…”
“I bet that’s a good thing when it’s really cold out,” I said sincerely, shifting myself closer to him, “I played in the snow today, and my skin felt like it was on fire after a while.”
“Is that right?” he said with a chuckle, raising his eyes back to meet mine, “it has been a long time since I felt anything like that.”
“It really sucked, ’cause I wanted to stay out there, but I couldn’t even make my fingers move, they were so cold! When I came back inside, I got crazy pins and needles!”
Though the smile he returned seemed to lighten up his face, a few more stitches popped loose on the side of his mouth, almost reawakening the fear I had begun to bury away. When he raised a gloved hand to the loose thread, I could see that shame returning as he turned his gaze from mine once more.
“Want me to help you fix it? My mom showed me how to sow a bit when I kept tearing up the knees of my pants.”
“No,” he said, with a half-smile on the side of his mouth that wasn’t affixed with thread, “but I certainly do appreciate the offer, young Edward.”
With that, he got back to his feet, smiled back down at me once more, and walked back to where his bag lay beside the tree.
“I’m afraid I must be going, my young friend. Many more children on my list, before the sun rises.”
I pulled back my blanket, jumped to my feet, and approached the man in the red suit, no longer afraid of what he had in store for me.
“I really am sorry, Santa,” I said, feeling my back tense again from my guilt.
“No, my boy,” he said, turning to face me, “it is I who owes you an apology. It has been many years since I have allowed…this,” he held his hands to his face, “to be seen by anyone, aside from those I work alongside. I almost forgot how jarring it can be to the unsuspecting.”
I reached up to wrap my fingers around the puffy mitten of his left hand. He winced at first, as though shocked by this act, but when I tightened my grip to reassure him, I felt my heart skip a little when my hand closed around the empty section of padding.
I looked up at him, as though wordlessly asking if it was alright before I slipped the glove from his hand. I felt my jaw fall loose when my eyes met the sight of the three missing fingers, leaving only a forefinger and thumb in their stead.
“W-what happened?” I stuttered; not from fear this time, but from the sadness awakening within me.
“A small accident some weeks back,” he said, almost dismissively, “nothing to worry about, young lad.”
“Can you get new ones?”
“Soon enough, my boy…I just need the right donor,” he replied with a warm smile.
“But…you said you wouldn’t hurt nobody…” I said, feeling my heartbeat quicken again.
“I would never hurt a child, dear Edward,” he said, pulling the mitten back over his hand, “but a few lumps of coal are not quite as effective to a naughty adult.”
With that, he gave me a wink, tousled my hair again with his fully fingered right hand, and picked the large bag back up again.
“You had better get some sleep now.”
While I was still pretty freaked out by everything that night had presented me with, I no longer felt afraid of the patchwork man in the red and white suit. Before I walked back to the couch, I wrapped my arms around him, apologizing one last time for acting like such a jerk. He just laughed, gently returning my hug.
“Merry Christmas, Edward Cobb,” he said with a slight crack in his voice.
“Merry Christmas, Santa,” I replied, finally releasing my grip to head back to my warm blanket.
When I climbed back under the covers, I glanced back to the tree to see no trace of jolly old Saint Nick, but I think I expected that. I heard no hooves stomping across the roof, high above, no jovial chuckles as he rode out of earshot, only the silence of the house at rest.
By the time I awoke the following morning, greeted by my loving parents, excited sister, and a good many presents to open up, I had already convinced myself that I had eaten far too much junk food the night before. That was always a safe enough explanation for my more bizarre and far-out dreams. I even found my camera hidden away beneath the blanket, with not even one picture having been taken.
After Christmas morning proceeded like normal; well, normal from what I had experienced over my handful of years by that point, my father received a phone call. He looked almost puzzled when he glanced at the caller ID before answering, but the confused expression on his face quickly turned to something more concerned and uneasy.
He whispered to my mother words I could not make out, causing her face to mimic his at the time, but he turned down her offer to accompany him as he threw on some warmer clothing, almost sprinting out the front door.
“Where’s dad going?” Jo asked, turning her attention away from her new iPod for the first time in hours.
“He has to go meet your Uncle Bob,” mom replied, appearing uneasy about this rendezvous.
I had only met my father’s brother once, some four or five years before that Christmas day, if memory serves. Even back then, I could tell that my mom didn’t think too highly of the man, but he was only at the house for maybe ten to twenty minutes at most.
I overheard my parents arguing that night, with my mother insisting that dad’s brother was not welcome in our home. While dad seemed pretty agitated by her words, he didn’t put up as much of a fight as I expected, but the more they talked, after the yelling calmed down, the more I understood.
I would find out some time later that Robert Cobb, who was two years older than my dad, cared more about the bottle than his brother’s family. He prioritized his addiction over his own wife and kids as well, for that matter. Having only met him that one time, I had no idea I had three cousins: a boy around my age and two daughters, three and five years my senior.
With those facts in mind, when my dad showed back up two hours later, accompanied by Uncle Bob, I could understand why my mom looked fit to burst. As my father looked back at her with his eyes quivering with burgeoning tears, she looked completely lost for words when Robert threw his arms around her, apologizing for being such a terrible brother-in-law.
It was at that point, while I was completely distracted from all of the goodies I had unwrapped that morning, gazing up at the adults who were acting so strangely to my youthful eyes, that I noticed something that caused my breath to catch in my throat again.
Some minutes later, Bob would explain the bandages wrapped around his left hand; how he had awakened that morning with a wide red ribbon where the gauze now sat. Being still hungover from the binge drinking of the previous night; the same way he had ended just about every day since his wife left him, taking their children with her, he had no memory of how he had lost those three fingers, nor why he had encased the bloodied stumps in a festive ribbon.
Seeing this as a much-needed wake-up call to finally put in the work to attempt to get his life back on track, he headed straight to the hospital, placing the call to my father when he arrived. When my parents escorted him into the kitchen, pretty much ordering my sister and me to stay put, we couldn’t help but listen from the other side of the door.
Though I was still far too young to truly understand a lot of what was being said, what Uncle Bob was confessing to, Jo attempted to explain it to me later in more child-friendly terms. Essentially, Robert admitted to the abuse he had inflicted on his wife and children. While he had only gotten physical with his spouse, he was just as ashamed of that as the years of verbal abuse.
Over the following months, my father stood by his brother’s side while he fought to get clean, with the full support of my mom. Sometime down the line, his estranged wife gave him a second chance. Ultimately, they could not save their relationship, but remained friends, even when she remarried. He would; however, become far more involved in the lives of his children, as well as his niece and nephew.
To this day, Uncle Bob keeps in touch. I don’t see him as much as I used to; him or my cousins, but that’s just part of getting older, I suppose. We all still get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas; the latter being more important to my uncle than any other holiday, as that is the anniversary of when he realized the monster he had become.
Oftentimes, I allow myself to believe that the memories I still hold of the man I met that early Christmas morning are nothing more than an especially vivid dream that sticks with me to this day. The fact that the patchwork individual in the red suit was missing the same fingers my uncle lost track of some hours after that bizarre dream, I just chalked up to that unexplainable coincidence of a strangely prophetic flight of fancy of the sleeping mind.
Of course, there are those other times when I fully and truly believe that I did uncover the truth behind the mythical saint of the season; the extreme measures he took to be able to continue his mission through the centuries. Not only that, but I think it is very likely he had a fully fingered left hand by the time the sun set on that Christmas day.
Though I never saw him again after that night, I believe it was that experience that drove me to at least attempt to grow up to be a good man; that, as well as the lessons my parents taught me. Yes, there have been hard times that almost inspired me to stray from that path, as life does tend to toss a few curve balls at even the most prepared for the worst, but I have always been able to find my way back.
Perhaps it’s not the most honorable motivation; the fear of having bits and pieces of myself cut and stripped away to fix up a broken fender or two on Santa’s sleigh, so to speak, but it’s something at least.
Believe my story or not; it’s pretty far-fetched; I can’t deny that. All I ask, when all is said and done: just try to be good, for goodness’ sake.
Credit: William Rayne
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