December 24, 5:00 a.m.
The morning of Christmas Eve, the Workshop dining room was busy. Blair and the other kitchen elves were kept hopping, not only because the exhausted workers had required more food and a lot more coffee than usual, but also because of the many requests for dinner boxes they could take with them as they helped Santa deliver presents. Blair also learned there would be plenty of temp worker elves coming and going through the night--and they'd all need to be fed.
After completing as many toys as he could, Jim came down to lend a hand. He was currently setting up the dinner boxes, ready to be filled with sandwiches, snacks and thermoses of coffee, tea or cocoa.
H wandered into the kitchen, greeting everyone, then stopped to talk with Blair and Jim. "Hey, you two, take a break and come see the magic that happens on the Big Day," he said.
Blair thought his fellow workers would complain if he left, even for a few minutes, but was surprised when they encouraged him with smiles and nodding heads. "This is your first Eve," said Wally, the elf he'd previously nicknamed "Grumpy", explained. "You have to see this for yourselves. We'll be fine here."
H brought them to the rafters, where they had an excellent view of all the rooms, every one of which was humming with activity. "There's where the elves get their assignments," he said, pointing to the largest room. "Each takes a fair share of the gifts and drops them off. If they have time, they'll come back for more."
"So, that's how Santa gets to all the children in one night?" Blair asked, his eyes widening with wonder as he watched the scene.
"Well," H replied, "it's more complicated than that."
"Is it because the naughty kids don't get anything?" Jim asked.
"Well, there's naughty and there's naughty," H replied. "Run-of-the-mill naughtiness and they still get a present. After all, kids will be kids. But what I meant is that here at the Workshop we only make presents for very small children. As kids get older, they tend to want the kind of presents you buy in stores." H shook his head. "It's because Christmas has become so commercialized. Anyway, for those presents, we use our outlying elf network. They buy, wrap and deliver store-bought toys to those kids."
"But, don't they get suspicious if they get a Barbie doll from Santa?" Blair asked.
H sighed. "Not really. By the time kids ask Santa for a commercial product, they're one step away from not really believing he exists anyway. And, once that happens, we don't deliver to them anymore--we let their parents take over. You know, 'this is from Santa, nod-nod, wink-wink', with parents and kids just accepting that he's a myth. Of course, there are exceptions, but that's a conversation for another time." He pointed to two rooms, one larger than the other. "That big room is where we sort through the letters written to Santa. The smaller one is where we handle the letters where a child asks for something special. I wanted to show you that one."
"Okay," Blair said, 'but I've got a few more questions."
"He always has a few more questions," Jim said. "Just so you know."
Blair smacked him lightly on the shoulder. "Hush, you!" He turned to H. "So, he's got a lot of helpers, and we don't visit the kids that don't believe any longer and the elf network takes care of the bought toys, but that's still leaves a lot of children for Santa to visit. How does he do it all in one night?"
H shook his head as if the answer was obvious. "Magic--elfin magic. He slows down time so every elf can complete their list. On top of that, the elves can transform themselves. So, if a kid accidentally catches 'Santa' at their house, all they see is a jolly old man in a red suit saying 'ho, ho, ho."
"But isn't that, well, cheating?"
"Think of Santa as a sheriff and all the elves are his deputies. They do the same job, follow the same rules and people see them the same way. Believe me, we've been doing this for a long time, and it works well. Okay?" They both nodded. "Then, let's go to the Special Room. I've got something to show you."
While they were in the rafters, the hubbub of activity was quite loud, but in the Special Room there was almost a solemn quiet. Elves shuffled letters between themselves, having discussions and making decisions. In the far corner, Santa sat in a large red velvet armchair, hitching forward so he could consult with elves and read letters.
Perry approached, nodding a greeting, and gave H an opened envelope. "This is what I wanted to show you," H said. "It's a letter from a seven-year-old boy named Barry. Normally by that age children have already stopped believing, but in this case…" He pulled out the letter and gave it to Jim to read.
Jim read quietly:
My name is Barry Flowers. My dad is helping me write this so I can ask it right. I hope you are not too busy to grant my Christmas wish. My Grandpa doesn't remember things too well, but he remembers having a toy when he was little. He showed me a picture of it. Dad says they don't make them anymore. I have lots of toys, so I don't need anything, but I'd like to give Grandpa that toy. Do you have one in your Workshop?
Thank you, Santa.
PS-Mom is making your favorite cookies and we have carrots for your reindeer."
"Jim," Blair said excitedly. "Look at this!" He showed Jim the picture Barry had included. It was a page torn from an old story book that showed three boys. The toy they were playing with was an exact match for the large, old-fashioned top Jim had made his first day at work.
H said, "Yeah, pretty amazing. I think something brought you here besides wanting a job. Santa usually fills these special orders himself. Would you like to accompany him to Barry's house?"
Jim and Blair looked at each other and grinned. "Yes!" they both said in unison.
"Good. So, wrap up that top for Grandpa and why don't you pick another one of your creations for Barry--maybe the train? I have a feeling he would love it. Be ready to go when Santa calls."
"So, Santa," Blair said as they whisked away on the sleigh, the wind making his cheeks rosy. "I gotta ask an important question."
Santa gave a whistle and the reindeer picked up speed. "What is it?" he asked.
"What is your favorite cookie?"
Santa peered at Blair over his glasses. "Can you keep a secret? If Wally finds out, he'll have the kitchen staff make so many that I'll gain a hundred pounds."
"Word of honor, sir," Blair said solemnly.
Santa let out a deep belly laugh. "Just kidding. I have more will power than that! Barry's mom will have a plate of snickerdoodles waiting for us. She adds just the right amount of spice."
"Cool! Can I ask one more question?"
Santa looked at him, then at Jim, raising his eyebrow.
"You're on your own, sir," Jim said. "In my experience, he never asks only one more question--but they're usually good ones."
Santa let out another whistle, then said, "Okay, elfling, ask away."
"I've seen lots of pictures of Santa and they look different from each other, and you look different from them. You're not fat and jolly and, of course, your skin and hair are different. Don't the children get confused?"
Santa shook his head. "It's all part of the magic. Children see a Santa that looks like themselves. So, my appearance changes with each child. Not that many of them catch me out, but, sometimes, when a child really needs to believe, I let them see me." Santa's eyes twinkled behind his glasses, and Blair couldn't help but smile. "So, any other questions, kid?"
"A million, but right now I just want to enjoy the ride." Blair snuggled under a blanket.
When they arrived at Barry's house, all was dark except for the twinkling lights on the Christmas tree in the living room. They didn't bother with the chimney, but just left the presents under the tree. Santa picked up a big bunch of carrots and handed them to Blair, then took the decorative container that held the cookies. They went back to the roof, where Blair started to feed the reindeer. As he looked around, he could see movement everywhere. Elves were busy delivering gifts all around them. Blair patted the reindeer and got back in the sleigh. Santa opened the cookie tin and offered the snickerdoodles to the two friends, who eagerly accepted them. They were the best cookies Blair had ever tasted and he slipped one into his pocket, hoping Jim could use his sense of taste to help him figure out how to make them.
Then Santa clicked his tongue and the reindeer took off. Blair looked at the position of the moon and realized that time really had slowed down -- it was almost in the same place as when they arrived. It was a good thing, too, because Santa's route was long and meandering as he traveled from one special request to another.
Dawn was just breaking when they headed back to the Workshop. Blair had lost count of how many places they'd visited, and he was anxious to get back so he could sit down and talk to Jim about the experience. They'd had little time to do anything except deliver packages. Blair kicked himself for forgetting to pack food boxes for them. Luckily, the treats left out for Santa sustained them and H had remembered to pack thermoses of coffee and cocoa.
When the sleigh touched down, a team of elves was waiting for them. They unhooked the reindeer and led them to the stables. Three more approached Santa, Jim and Blair and threw warm wraps around them. H carried a clip board and waited for Santa, who stopped and turned to his newest elves. "Gentlemen, I want to thank you."
"We were happy to help, sir," Jim said.
"It was fun!" Blair chimed in at the same time.
"No," said Santa, "I mean for what you did for me and my family." They stood stock-still in shock. He chuckled. "You know, sometimes it takes a while, but eventually Santa finds out everything," he said with a wink. "This Christmas wouldn't have been the same without you. I hope you'll decide to stay on." With that, he turned toward H and they walked into the Workshop.
They were sitting in the kitchen, or, at least, Jim was. Blair couldn't seem to sit still longer than 30 seconds. He went to the coffee machine, but stopped when Jim asked, "Are you sure coffee's the right choice?"
Blair sighed and chose a cup of ginger-lemon tea instead, making another attempt to sit calmly.
Wally walked in and greeted them. "Oh, I'm so sorry I flaked out on helping," Blair said apologetically.
Wally waved his words away. "No problem. I heard you two accompanied Santa all night. Riding with the Boss Man takes precedence. We got along just fine," he said, putting his hands on his hips and looking around proudly. "Hey, you should probably get some sleep. How about you take the day to recoup and help us with dinner?"
"That would be great, thank you," Blair said, giving him a shy smile. Wally waved goodbye and went out to the dining area.
Blair looked at Jim. "There's no way I can sleep. This day--this week-- has been so awesome. We gotta celebrate!"
Jim chuckled. "Well, we've got until dinnertime. What d'ya have in mind?"
Blair looked at his friend--maybe the best friend he'd ever had--and was practically vibrating with excitement. "Well, I'm starving and I gotta get out of here for a while." He looked sideways at Jim. "You know," he said slyly, "you've met my mom. I think it's only fair I meet yours. And maybe, while we're in Cascade, you could take me to the fabulous Wonderburger?" He looked at Jim with big, begging eyes and a hint of a smile.
"You know, you don't have to twist my arm," Jim said, grinning. "We have time for a Double Wonder with the works, a pile of fries and then a nice long visit with Mom. Chief," Jim said, putting his arm around Blair's shoulders, "she's gonna love you."