Anthony slept lightly Christmas Eve, fully expecting the confrontation to come.
When it did, it was the dead of night; he didn’t have a clock in his room, but the worlds inside and out were hushed and still.
The figure perched at the end of the bed had done nothing to disturb the stillness, but Anthony had sensed him, in his half-dreaming state, even before the man appeared from above. Maybe he’d passed through Anthony’s dream to get here. Whatever the path to their meeting, Anthony was wide awake for it.
“Merry Christmas, Santa.”
“Merry Christmas, Anthony. I’m sorry to have to wake you.”
“That’s okay. I knew you’d be coming.”
The great elf pulled off thick leather gloves and flexed his knuckles, bringing life back to hands that had been gripping reins all night. He regarded the small boy for a minute, then—
“Are you hungry?”
“Yeah,” the boy answered him. “There’s stuff in the living room for you.”
Anthony pulled back his covers and dragged Champion—who was only barely awake and grumbly—out by his fuzzy arm.
“That’s a nice bear, is it one of mine?”
“No, Aunt Marie’s.”
“She gives a good bear, your Aunt Marie.”
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care. The embers of the Christmas fire were still bright, despite not having been stoked for hours. Anthony sat on the hearth to get the remaining heat, while Santa took to an armchair with Champion bear—already back in the Land of Nod—and a few extra cushions. They had milk and mince pies and cake, and Santa put the carrot in a leather satchel attached to his belt. He asked Anthony about school and television and football, but the issue at hand couldn’t be put off indefinitely. Diplomacy was finally dispensed with.
“Anthony, I can’t give you a gun.”
Anthony was ready with his defense.
“I’m a good boy. I’m one of the best boys ever.”
“Yes, you are. You are the best boy in the world, in fact, which is why I cannot begin to understand why you’d even ask for such a thing. What would your parents think?”
“I asked for other stuff too, they wouldn’t know. I’ll take it now and hide it and I can open the other stuff in the morning.”
“It isn’t a matter of them not finding out, Anthony. You just can’t have a gun.”
Anthony frowned. Santa didn’t react. Anthony changed it up to an angry face where he showed his bottom teeth.
“You’re really scary, Anthony. But that’s not going to get you a gun.”
Anthony sighed and the argument paused. Anthony played with the string ties of his pyjamas for a bit. Santa, meanwhile, had set to repositioning his cushions, trying to ease an aching back, his stomach shaking like a bowlful of jelly. It wasn’t working.
“Oh! Never get fat, Anthony, no matter how magic you are.”
“Do you have big glands?” Anthony asked with interest.
“I have a lot of small pies, son. They’re worse than big glands.”
There was silence for a while.
Finally, Anthony stood and walked over to where Santa was sitting and retrieved Champion bear from his lap.
“I need him for a bit.”
“That’s fine. Go ahead. I know it’s very late and a boy needs his bear at this hour. What say we be done with this gun idea and you go back to bed, eh?”
“No! I really want it. I need it. I won’t do anything bad with it. I’m a good boy. Ask Champion.”
Anthony held the bear up to Santa’s face. He moved the paw so that it appeared that the bear was giving a military style salute.
Santa’s eyes flashed, reflecting the brick-orange glow of the coals in the grate, as he leaned in towards Aunt Marie’s present. Anthony watched those reflected coals emit a single guttering flame and then, in Father Christmas’ eyes, the reflected bear seemed to move.
“Well, what did he say?” the small boy asked the old elf.
“Champion says you have whole battalions of soldiers stationed all about the house. He seems to think the situation may be well enough in hand already.”
Anthony put the bear down with disgust.
“Ah, what do bears know, anyway? My soldiers aren’t as good as me. They’re so short. And they’re just toys. They can’t really stop anything. I’ve been waiting forever to be big. I am now, and I’m going to keep the house safe. I mean, I have to. There’s a new baby coming, you know.”
The embers popped loudly in the grate; a sound like remote cannon on an an antique battlefield.
Oh, ho ho! thought Santa. You cunning little pixie.
Outmaneuvered, and neatly too, Santa had to give it to the boy for shrewdness.
It was a mixed blessing, being only ever able to hear the voices of children. Mostly, it meant you got to hear everything there was to know. In record time too. But every now and then you came across a child who was a complete anomaly and could genuinely keep a secret. With tenacity even. Anthony was such a child.
He had kept the news of a new child in the family to himself with unimpeachable discretion. It was, Santa knew, as much a demonstration for the old elf’s benefit—of how disciplined Anthony could be—as it was a game-changing tactic; forcing Santa to reconsider the gun. Luring the old elf here, ensuring he could make his revelation face-to-face, had been the master stroke.
“Another good boy,” Anthony pressed on, wasting none of his temporary advantage. “Or girl. Although, I really want a boy. He might even be as good as me when he’s seven. ‘Cept I’ll be nearly fifteen by then and even more good, I expect.”
“Yes, you’ve made your point. You don’t stay on the Nice List very long by being a show-off, young man.”
Santa took the letter from his leather satchel and unfolded it, considering the request again from this fresh perspective. He was impressed once more by the imaginative composition.
“I have to congratulate you on getting this past your parents, by the way,” he told the boy. “The misspelling is particularly elegant. Come agun to my house this Christmas in place of come again. And the little pistols in the hands of the elves, striped like candy canes. You’re a very clever little boy.”
“So, you were hoping for a handgun, then? Not a shotgun or a rifle?”
“They’re too big. You can’t hide with them.”
“Yes, a good point that. Any particular make or model?”
From under his pyjama top, Anthony drew out a square scrap of paper. He’d ripped it carefully from the TV listings, once the magazine had been put out for recycling, and kept it in his room until tonight. In the picture he’d chosen, a man in some subterranean chamber—lit only by a single shaft of light from above—was pointing a powerful looking black handgun into the shadows beyond.
Santa sighed and took out his stub of a pipe. Anthony waved an admonishing finger in front of his face, however, and Santa had to put the pipe away again.
“Are you sure, Anthony? Really sure? You know there’s a much easier wish that you could make that would mean you wouldn’t need the gun at all?”
“I know,” said Anthony, “but how long would that last? This is better.”
Santa winked his eye and twisted his head, and something very heavy slipped to the toe of Anthony’s stocking. So heavy, it pulled it down from the hook that held it up. It hit the hearth with a clatter.
Looking back to the boy, Santa said, “You realise I can’t have a boy with a gun at the top of my Nice List anymore, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I reckoned that would happen. Am I off the list entirely?”
Santa smiled, his mouth drawn up like a bow. “I think there might be room, just at the bottom.”
He kissed Anthony on the top of his head as he stood.
“Alright, we’re done here. Happy Christmas, Anthony. And good night.”
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
Anthony lifted his stocking from the hearth, extracting the heavy metal gun before hanging it back on its hook. Then, pistol in one hand, Champion bear in the other, he climbed the stairs.
He put Champion down outside the nursery door, quietly opened it and tiptoed inside.
There were toys on every surface, waiting for their child to be born, and white furniture painted with little flowers. Blankets were stacked neatly on a chest by the waiting cot. Mobiles poised for motion. Against one wall stood an ornately carved miniature armoire.
One of its doors stood a crack ajar, even though Anthony’s mother had shut it firmly earlier in the day. Anthony stood in front of it, with only the light of the moon on the new-fallen snow to see by. Very loudly and deliberately, he snapped off the safety of the large black handgun.
“I got a gun for Christmas,” he told the wardrobe door.
Not a creature was stirring: but Anthony knew they were listening, even so.