At noon, the waiting line for Santa’s North Pole Palace had seemed miles long, snaking its way down aisles and winding in and around racks of merchandise. But now, at half past eight o’clock at night, the ponderous styrofoam entrance gateway held back but a handful of restless children and their exhausted parents. At the head of the line stood an auburn-haired boy, slight of build and with a calm and contemplative face that seemed far older than his mere seven years. As if oblivious to the rambunctious pushing and urging of his peers behind him, he patiently stood his ground until beckoned to by the jocular, crimson-clad figure seated several yards away atop an opulent papier-mâché throne. Slowly and somewhat tentatively, he ambled over.

“And what is your name?” chortled the man.

“Thomas, sir. Thomas Quence,” the boy replied.

“Thomas Quence! Ha ha!” The man convulsed with implausible mirth. He then seized a great leather binder overstuffed with looseleaf sheets, and flipped through it, pretending to search for a particular page. “Ah, yes… Thomas… well, you seem to have been a good little boy this year; come and tell old Santa Claus what you want for Christmas!” He motioned for Thomas to take a seat, which the boy did.

“Well, sir—Santa,” Thomas began, “I’d like a new CD player; the kind that can also read electronic books. And a chemistry set. And a telescope.”

Santa paused and scribbled some notes. “Excellent choices, my boy!” he grinned, “Anything else?”

“Um, well…” Thomas stammered for a while and then blurted out, “And I want my mommy and daddy to be back together again!” He stared down at his feet.

In an instant, all playfulness had left Santa’s face, and he regarded Thomas carefully for what felt to him like minutes. Finally, Santa said evenly, “They don’t love each other anymore, Thomas; you know that, don't you? Were they to return to each other, it would only be for you.” The you hung weightily between them; it seemed to suck all the air from Thomas’ lungs. “Is that what you want, Thomas Quence?”

“Yes,” the boy said quietly. “It is what I want.”

Santa roared with laughter, and scribbled more notes. “Then you shall have it!!” He patted Thomas’ shoulder gleefully, “Merry Christmas!!!”

Holding back tears of mixed emotion, Thomas opened his mouth but no words came out. He had intended simply to thank Santa and leave but he couldn’t. Something incomprehensible to him made him stay as if rooted to the spot, though he felt about to burst. “S-Santa?” he finally managed.

Santa raised an eyebrow. “What is it, lad?”

“If you can do so much, why is there still so much sadness and suffering in the world?”

“Thomas, Thomas… you know that Santa only rewards good little girls and boys!”

“Yes,” said Thomas mournfully, “I thought you would say that. I used to believe it, too. But now I am not so sure. It seems, sometimes, that good children are not always rewarded; and, all too often, the bad ones go unpunished. Even at Christmas.” He could sense that he was starting to push his luck, but was unable to stop. “Especially at Christmas,” he added defiantly.

Santa’s face became hard and cold; his eyes narrowed. “Thomas Victor Quence,” he pronounced, “you are no longer a child. It is time for you to learn the truth about Christmas.”

“Yes,” begged Thomas. “Please.”

Santa Claus took off his rounded spectacles, revealing eyes of the darkest coal black. He faced Thomas squarely. “Look into my eyes, Thomas. Look deep within them and see the truth.”

Reluctantly, but fearlessly, Thomas looked into Santa’s eyes. He felt the blackness wash over him, seeping into his very soul…

His bloodcurdling scream could be heard a mile away.

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