Governor Gene Gatling stepped into the hallway of the medical center, ready to greet the children and their families in the pediatric ward. With the rest of his staff pitching in, too, he was sure the holiday party would be a success. His secretary, Marcy Hill, came out of the women’s staff room, dressed as Mrs. Claus.
“You make a great-looking Santa, sir,” she told him.
“Thank you, Marcy.” The governor patted his waist. “I didn’t need as much padding as I thought I would, though.”
“I know what you mean. I guess that Thanksgiving dinner’s going to take a while to burn off.”
Benson DuBois and Gretchen Kraus, head of the governor’s household staff, arrived just in time to see Pete Downey, the press secretary, emerge in his elf costume. Everyone burst out laughing at the sight of his red-and-white striped body suit, and long, dark-green belted tunic. A green hat with pointy plastic ears attached and pointy-toed shoes completed the outfit.
“If you think I look funny, wait till you see Clayton,” Pete said.
“I can’t wait.” Benson grinned, holding a camera.
The governor looked at the clock. “We need to get down there soon.” He knocked on the door to the men’s staff room. “Come on, Clayton! Everybody’s waiting.”
“I’ve changed my mind, sir,” his chief of staff, Clayton Endicott III, called out. “I’m not coming out dressed like this.”
“Would you like me to find a replacement for you?” the governor asked.
“All right. Hopefully, you’ll find another job soon….” The governor waited for him to get the message.
A moment later, Clayton reluctantly came out of the room, in a costume identical to Pete’s. Everyone howled with laughter.
“If only I didn’t need this job…,” he muttered.
“Oh, quit complaining,” the governor told him, gasping for breath. “It’s only for a few hours. We’re doing this for the children, remember?”
“I had no idea elves were so tall,” Miss Kraus added, wiping her eyes.
“Or that they wore glasses,” Benson said, pointing to the pair hanging around Clayton’s neck.
“You can’t expect me to abandon my entire wardrobe,” Clayton replied, trying to maintain some dignity.
“We’ll just tell the kids he’s the elf who reads Santa’s mail,” Pete said, and everyone laughed again.
Clayton looked at Benson. “How come you don’t have to wear a ridiculous costume?”
“Because I’m helping Kraus with the party set-up,” he explained.
“And we’d better get going, too,” she told him. “Have fun, everyone.”
They all walked past the nurses’ station to the end of the hall, and entered a large playroom with tall, vaulted ceilings, and a skylight that allowed some winter sunshine to spill into the room. A large Christmas tree was in the corner, next to a fake fireplace.
“Ho, ho, ho!” the governor said in his best Santa voice. The kids and their parents cheered.
“Well, hello, Santa and Mrs. Claus!” the woman in charge greeted them. “As you can see, everyone’s ready to have a good time.”
The governor sat in Santa’s chair, beside the tree, and Marcy stood next to him, ready to give each child a wrapped gift. The director handed Clayton a red cloth bag.
“You can hand out the candy canes,” she told him. “One per child.”
He nodded, smiling weakly. After she left, he turned to Pete. “Wouldn’t you rather do this?”
“I can’t,” Pete said. “I’m taking pictures of the kids with Santa. You’ve got the easiest job.”
“Yes, but...” Clayton looked around, still uncomfortable. He had enough trouble relating to normal, healthy children. These kids were sick, or had serious injuries, and had to spend the holidays in the hospital. How could he ever relate to them?
At least everyone else seemed to be having a good time. And to his surprise, the candy canes were very popular. Kids swarmed around him, waiting for their turn. He tried not to stare at the ones with no hair, or who were hooked up to a bag hanging on a pole with wheels.
“Can I have another candy cane?” a little girl asked.
“Uh….” Clayton wasn’t sure what to do. The woman had said only one each, but did it really matter if—
“It’s for my sister,” the girl added.
“Well, why can’t she come get her own candy cane?” he asked.
“She can’t walk. She’s over there.” The girl pointed to a younger girl sitting in a wheelchair. Both of her legs were in casts.
“Oh,” Clayton said, feeling guilty. “What’s her name?”
“Stephanie,” the girl replied. “My name’s Nicole.”
“Well, Nicole, I can see that you’re a very good sister.” Clayton walked over to the girl in the wheelchair, and handed her a candy cane. “Merry Christmas, Stephanie.”
She smiled up at him.
“She thinks you look funny,” Nicole told him.
“Nikki!” a woman chided her. Her mother, Clayton guessed.
“That’s quite all right,” he said, smiling. “I think I do, too.”
Benson was decorating the tables in the family room, which had a small kitchenette, when he noticed a young black boy sitting in a corner.
“Aren’t you supposed to be visiting Santa?” he asked.
The boy scowled. “That’s not Santa. It’s just some white dude in a Santa suit.”
“You seem awfully young to be so cynical,” Benson remarked. “How old are you?”
“Hmm. I wasn’t that cynical till I was at least ten.” The boy said nothing. “Well, don’t you want to get your present?”
“No. I just want to go home,” the boy replied.
Benson sat in a chair near him. “I’m sure you do. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun here at this party. And you’re right about that white guy—he’s not the real Santa.”
“Yeah. We know the real Santa’s black,” Benson said.
The kid stared at him. “No, he’s not.”
“You mean, you didn’t know? Why not?”
“I’ve never seen a black Santa,” the boy replied.
“Well, I have,” Benson told him. In fact, he’d seen a black Santa across the street from the hospital parking lot, ringing a bell for some charity.
“Then who are all those white guys?”
“Oh, they’re just Santa’s helpers. The man can’t be everywhere at once, you know.”
The boy looked thoughtful. “I guess not. But I still don’t believe you.”
“Would it help if he came here to see you?”
“When?” the boy asked.
“Right now,” Benson said. “I’ll go call him and invite him to the party.”
“Sure you will.”
“Okay, now I have to do it. I never back down from a challenge.” He stood up. “What’s your name?”
“Jeffrey,” the boy said, looking a bit confused.
“All right, Jeffrey. You wait right here.”
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Benson told Miss Kraus on his way out.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“To keep a promise.” He sure hoped that bell-ringer was still outside.
Santa, Mrs. Claus and the two elves went from room to room, visiting the kids who were confined to their beds. Clayton stood in the doorway, feeling a bit awkward. He envied the others; they seemed to have no trouble chatting and joking with the young patients.
“Hey, Mr. Elf,” a little boy in a blue bathrobe called out, motioning to him from down the hallway.
Curious, Clayton walked over to him. He was standing next to a boy in a wheelchair.
“We were playing catch, but the ball bounced up on a shelf in there.” The boy pointed to a supply closet across from him. “I can’t reach it. Can you get it for me?”
“I suppose so,” Clayton said, although it seemed odd that they were playing in the hallway. He entered the closet. “Which shelf?”
“All the way in the back,” the boy told him. “Top left.”
He looked at the shelf. “I don’t see it.”
Suddenly, the door closed behind him. He heard both boys giggling.
“What’s going on?” he demanded. He walked over and grabbed the doorknob, but it wouldn’t turn. “Open this door!”
More giggling, but now it sounded more distant.
“Come back here!” Clayton shouted, pounding on the door. “Let me out of here!”
How, he wondered, was he ever going to explain this to the governor?
Benson got off the elevator and saw the governor heading back to the playroom with Marcy and Pete. “Sir!”
“Oh, Benson.” The governor looked at the black man in the Santa suit beside him. “Who’s this?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” he quipped.
“Name’s Owen Jackson,” the man said, shaking the governor’s hand.
“Nice to meet you. What’s going on?”
“Mr. Jackson’s here to make a special delivery,” Benson explained. “Do you have a gift for a boy named Jeffrey?”
Marcy looked in her bag. “Yes, here it is.” She handed the wrapped box to Benson.
“Thanks. We’ll see you at the party.” He and Mr. Jackson went on their way.
“I wonder what that was all about,” the governor said. He looked around. “And where is Clayton?”
“He must’ve wandered off,” Pete replied.
“You don’t think he left, do you?” Marcy wondered.
“He wouldn’t dare,” the governor said.
“I’ll go check his locker,” Pete told him. He returned a few minutes later. “It’s still closed.”
“Well, then he must be here somewhere,” Marcy concluded. “He certainly wouldn’t have gone outside in that getup.”
The director came over to them. “Sir? I just got a call from one of the janitors. He said he just freed a large elf from a supply closet down the hall.”
“Freed?” the governor exclaimed. “What was he doing in there?”
“Apparently, a couple of our little charges tricked him into going inside, then tied the door shut,” the woman explained.
“Oh, no,” Marcy said, though she couldn’t help smiling.
“Is he all right?” the governor asked.
“Not too happy, but otherwise okay. I’m sorry, sir.”
“Well, thanks for telling me,” he said. “I’m not sure I would’ve believed him.” He sighed. “I was hoping he’d have a positive experience today.”
“He’ll probably never want to come back here again,” Marcy agreed.
Clayton came over to them, looking a bit sheepish. He handed the director the belt from the boy’s bathrobe.
“I’m terribly sorry about this, Mr. Endicott,” she said.
“Well, no harm done,” he replied.
“Let’s go find the culprits.” She led him back to the playroom.
Benson went into the family room, where Jeffrey was now helping Katie, the governor’s young daughter, fill cups with fruit punch. He cleared his throat, and the boy looked at him.
“Well?” He still sounded suspicious.
“Merry Christmas, Jeffrey,” Mr. Jackson said, coming into the room with the wrapped gift.
Jeffrey’s eyes widened in amazement. “Santa?”
“My friend Benson here tells me you didn’t think I existed.”
“Oh…no. I just meant…I never saw a black Santa before,” the boy tried to explain.
“Well, I like to keep a low profile,” the man told him. “That’s why you’re supposed to be asleep when I deliver your gifts. But since you’re away from home this year, I’ll make an exception.” He handed him the box.
“Thank you, Santa!” Jeffrey said. He tore off the wrapping paper.
“How did you get that man to leave his kettle?” Miss Kraus asked Benson in a hushed tone.
“I just offered to make a sizable donation,” he explained.
She smiled. “Nice going, Benson.”
He looked up at the ceiling.
“What are you looking for?” Miss Kraus asked.
“Just making sure you didn’t hang up any mistletoe,” he said. She swatted his shoulder.
It didn’t take long to find the two little pranksters. They were sitting together in the playroom, looking as innocent as the other children. After Clayton pointed them out, the director walked over to them.
“I believe this is yours, Alexander,” she told the boy in the bathrobe, handing him the belt. He took it, looking nervous. “Why did you trap Mr. Endicott in the closet?”
“It was Miguel’s idea,” he said.
“No, it wasn’t!” the boy in the wheelchair argued. “Alex said—”
“I don’t care whose idea it was,” the woman interrupted. “It was a bad one. You know you weren’t even supposed to be that far down the hallway.”
“We just wanted to watch Santa visit the other kids,” Miguel told her.
“And then we decided to play a little joke,” Alex admitted.
“Is that any way to treat our guests?” the director demanded. “They came here today to make this a special day for everyone. Now, I think you both owe Mr. Endicott an apology.”
“We’re sorry,” they chorused.
“We were going to let you out for the party,” Alex added.
“You were?” Clayton asked, surprised.
“Yeah. We didn’t want you to miss it.”
“Well, that’s very nice of you,” the director said. “But I’m afraid you two will have to miss it. I want you both to go to your room.”
They both protested. “Aw, that’s not fair!” Alex complained. “We said we were sorry.”
“Uh, Mrs. Williams, could I speak to you for a moment?” Clayton asked, feeling guilty again.
“Sure. Hold on, guys.”
They headed over to a corner of the room.
“I don’t want to undermine your authority here, of course,” he began. “But it seems a bit harsh to make these boys miss the party because of a harmless prank.”
“You mean, you want them to go?” she asked.
He nodded. “I’m sure they were looking forward to it. And I know it must get rather tedious being cooped up here, especially during the holidays.”
“Well, that’s very understanding of you,” the director said. She turned back to the boys. “Okay, guys, Mr. Endicott has graciously persuaded me to let you go to the party. But no more tricks. Understood?”
“Yes! Thank you!” Alex hugged Clayton around the waist, and Miguel wheeled himself over and held out his hand. Clayton shook it, surprised.
“Come on!” Alex said. He pushed Miguel’s chair to the family room.
“I think I may’ve just witnessed a Christmas miracle,” Marcy said.
“And I’ve got it on film,” Pete added, holding up his camera.
“Well, you didn’t think I was a Scrooge, did you?” Clayton asked, smiling. The others laughed.
“Come on,” the governor said. “Let’s go celebrate!”
As the governor had expected, the party was a big success. How could it not be, in a festively-decorated room with good food, holiday cookies, and the singing of carols? He put his arm around Katie, taking in the scene.
After the group sing-along, it was time for a solo. Everyone quieted down as the lights were dimmed, piano music began playing on a tape, and Benson sang “Silent Night” in a captivating baritone.
Clayton felt a small hand tap his arm. He looked down and saw Nicole, the little girl who’d asked for a second candy cane for her sister. He smiled at her as she took his hand. Alex was on his right, watching Nicole. Clayton took off his ridiculous elf hat and put it on the boy’s head. Alex tried not to laugh while Benson sang.
Maybe Marcy was right, the governor thought. Unexpected things were happening all around him. He saw the other little boy, Jeffrey, standing happily beside Mr. Jackson, the black Santa Claus. He couldn’t wait to hear that story later.
It truly was a magical day.