Christmas Day, 19841

Five year old Nicholas slumped glumly on the couch. Christmas cartoons flickered across the Merriman's TV, showing him the joy of others on this day, the joy he could not share. It was 11:00, and all of Nicholas's gifts remained unwrapped under the tree. He had been up since 7:00, and he had not opened so much as a single present.2

It was all because of his father, of course. Almost everything bad that happened to Nicholas was because of his father. Gabe Merriman had left in the middle of the night without so much as a word of explanation. Twelve hours later and he still was not back. Nicholas's mother, Maria, had told her son to wait until Daddy got home to open presents. WEll, it was looking like Gabe was never going to get home. And when he did, Nicholas knew it wouldn't be pleasant. Whenever his daddy left for a long time for no reason, he was always DRUNK when he returned. At five years old, Nicholas knew already, with great insight, what DRUNK was. DRUNK meant his daddy's eyes would get small and mean, red-rimmed and puffy. DRUNK meanthis daddy's clothes were stained and his breath smelled. DRUNK meant his daddy was loud and easily angered. DRUNK meant his daddy had trouble walking straight, but he never seemed to have trouble with his fist connecting solidly to his wife or son's face. That was the worst part about when his daddy got DRUNK: he would often hit Nicholas's mother or Nicholas.3

Maria Merriman paced the room before Nicholas, a nervous look plain on her face. She wrung her hands compulsively. When she saw Nicholas watching her, she tried to smile. It didn't convince either of them.4

" Daddy will be home soon. Then you can open presents."5

" Where is daddy, Mommy?" Nicholas asked once again. " When is he coming home?"6

" He'll be here soon. He just had something to do, I'm sure," Maria lied.7

But he wasn't home soon. It was lunchtime before Gabe Merriman finally came home, throwing open the door with a resounding crash. Nicholas jumped up, his heart in his throat. Daddy was finally home! He could open his gifts!8

" Daddy, where have you been?" he asked, running to the door. When he saw his father he stopped short. Gabe was dressed in a cheap red Santa suit, the jacket hanging loosely and half open without the pillow to stuff it. The hat on his head was cockeyed, and the fake beard hung loosely, showing his stubbly chin. Nicholas could smell the alcohol on his breath from where he was standing, and the look in his eyes was horrible.9

" What are you looking at, Nicholas?" his father slurred. " It's Santa Claus! Ho ho ho and merry christmas!"10

Nicholas took a step back. He swallowed, his eyes rooted fearfully to his father. 11

" We've been waiting, Daddy," he said. " Can I open my presents now?"12His father glared at him.13

" I'm the one who bought you those presents, and I say when you can open them! You can sit your ass down and wait some more!"14

He stepped inside the house, shutting the door with a bang. From her position in the middle of the living room, Maria jumped. 15

" But you didn't get me those gifts, Daddy," Nicholas said, puzzled. " Santa Claus did."16

His father glowered at him. Maria sucked in her breath, knowing what was coming. She wanted to stop him , but she knew it would only turn him on her. She stayed silent, closing her eyes.17

" And just who do you think Santa Claus is?" Gabe leered. '' A jolly elf in a red suit? Wrong! There is no Santa, Nicholas. I'm the only Santa. I got all your presents, those I wish to hell I hadn't."18

Nicholas gasped, his eyes growing round. Surely it wasn't true! There had to be a Santa. Surely he was lying! He looked at his mother for reassurance, silently begging her to deny his words. But when he saw tears coursing her cheeks, he knew the truth. Nicholas tried not to cry. At five years old, his favorite dream had been shattered.19

Seeing the look on his face, Gabe laughed cruelly. That laugh was what finally made Maria speak up.20

" Did you have to do that, Gabe? Did you HAVE to? He's been waiting for you to come home all day, and then you have to go say that!"21

Gabe's mean, drunken face took on a look of disbelief. He turned slowly to Maria. His expression made her tremble. Instantly she tried to take it back.22

" I'm sorry, I didn't mean it! I-"23

Gabe was stiding over to her as she spoke. Her eyes widened with fear. When he reached her, he struck her across the face, hard. Her eyes grew huge with pain, and she cried out.24

" Gabe!"25

" Are you correcting me IN FRONT OF MY SON?" he roared. He slapped her again. Maria began to cry.26

" Gabe, I'm-"27

" What makes you think you can speak to me like that?" he shouted. He hit her again and again, harder with each blow. Nicholas watched, horrified. He was going to hurt her, like he had hurt her before- and on Christmas Day!28

Nicholas ran to him thoughtlessly, leaping onto Gabe's back and beating him with his small fists. 29

" Stop! Stop hurting Mommy!" he cried.30

Enraged, Gabe let go of Maria and turned on his son. Nicholas closed his eyes as the beating began. After a while he didn't feel it. And soon he was gone, spiraling into blackness.31

It was a long time before Maria could get her husband off of their son. Even longer before the ambulance came to take him away. 32

Nicholas was in the hospital for a long time after that, healing his broken ribs, nose, and collarbone. When he finally got out, he was placed in foster homes, most of them as bad as his own home, until he turned 18.33

Nicholas never did open his presents that Christmas day.
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Holly and Joseph Snow stood in the long, noisy line in the crowded mall with their four year old daughter, Eve, waiting for her to take her picture with Santa. It was almost Eve's turn now, and Eve, excited when she first got in line, now was irritable and impatient. They had been waiting 45 minutes.35" When can I see him?" Eve asked impatiently. 36

" Three more kids and it's your turn," Holly told her. " Just a few minutes."37

" I want to go now."38

" Why don't you sing Jingle Bells while we wait?" Joseph suggested. He knew with all the noise surrounding them, the child's singing wouldn't bother anyone.39

By the time Eve had sung that and also ''Silent Night," it was her turn. Suddenly shy, she hesitated about walking to Santa.40

" Come on, you've been waiting. Now it's your turn," Holly prodded. She gave the little girl a gentle shove. Evie walked to the Santa, stopping right in front of him. The Santa, rather than smiling, looked at her gravely.41

" Well hello young lady," he said, taking her onto his knee. " What's your name?"42

" Eve," Eve replied shyly.43

"What a lovely name. Have you been a good girl this year,Eve?"44

"Uh huh. Well, my daddy says I'm bad sometimes. But mostly I'm good." 45

"Oh, I find that hard to believe," the Santa told her. "I think your daddy's wrong. Daddies usually are,you know. I'm sure you were a good girl. Now, what would you like for Christmas?"46

Eve told him what she wanted, growing bolder as she spoke. The Santa nodded.47

" I'll see what I can do."48" What do you want for Christmas, Santa?" Eve asked innocently. " Do you get presents too?"49

The Santa shook his head. A shadow crossed his face, and his expression darkened. Eve didn't notice, nor did anyone else in line.50

" No,I don't," the Santa said. " What I want for Christmas is impossible."51

" But you can do anything, can't you? Why can't you get what you want?" Eve asked.52

The Santa shrugged and smiled.53

" Maybe I will this year. Well I'll be sure to stop by your house tonight. Merry Christmas,Eve."54

" Don't forget!" Eve said anxiously. " I live at 712 Keely RD. In Upton. My house is white with a nice big chimney. Okay?"55

" I got it,'' he smiled. " Goodbye!"56

" Merry Christmas!'' Eve called. " I hope you get what you want this year!"57

She hopped off his lap and skipped to her parents.58

" Let's go to the toy store,"she said brightly.59

" No, we're going home now. We've been here long enough," Holly told her.60

Eve stuck out her lip, pouting. 61

" I don't want to go home. I want to look at the toys."62

" You'll get plenty of toys tomorrow. Now come on."63

"No!" shouted Eve. Breaking away from her parents, she ran toward the toy store, determined to get her way. Her parents ran after her, and her father finally grabbed her arm.64

" Don't you ever do that again, Eve! We're going home,and that's that! Don't ever run away from me like that!" Joseph toldher sternly, giving her a pop on the bottom for good measure. Eve, surprised at the pop and angry that her wishes were denied, began to cry. Her father dragged her over to her mother, who firmly took her hand. By the time they had left the mall, Eve had calmed down enough to just pout. And by the time they wre home, she was singing again.65

The Santa, however, did not know this. All he had seen was the child running away from her parents, then her tears after her father had hit her. He watched them, a dark expression on his face. Long after they left, troubling thoughts raced through his head.66

He's just like my father, Nicholas Merriman thought. He's just like my father was.67

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In the Snow household, Holly and Eve were making Christmas cookies. Eve was really not helping much; she was making more of a mess. Holly had to explain several times that she couldn't eat the cookie dough; there were raw eggs in it.69

After dinner, Joseph made a fire, and he and Holly read the Christmas story to Eve. Eve was full of questions.70

'' How come the sheperds were afraid of the angels? Why didn't the innkeeper let Mary sleep in his bed? How come Jesus wasn't Joseph's baby? What's myrrh?"71

Holly and Joseph tried their best to satisfy her questions,and finally seh was satisfied. After hearing the story, Joseph helped her hang up stocking and she laid out cookies and milk for Santa. Then Holly tucked her into bed nice and early.72

" Good night, Evie. Santa's going to come tonight while you're sleeping," Holly smiled. She gave her a kiss and left. After they were sure she was asleep, she and Joseph set out all of Eve's presents,and their own too. It was around midnight when they went to bed.73

They didn't know that someone had been watching their festivities; someone had been standing outside the window, dark thoughts swirling in his head.74

Nicholas Merriman watched from the living room window as Holly and Joseph put Eve's presents under the tree. Oh, now they're acting loving towards her, he thought darkly. Sure they are now, when it's only Christmas Eve. My father was the same. Christmas Eve, he was as pleasant as could be. But come Christmas Day...75

Nicholas's mind flashed with images of that terrible morning, the last day he ever saw his father. The memory was burned in his mind; he had few memories of him beside that traumatic one.76

Yes, tomorrow Nicholas knew what would happen to that little girl, this sweet child about the age had had been that morning. Her father would show his true colors, and the little girl's Christmas would be ruined. She would be plagued with its memory for the rest of her life.77

He had seen her fear of her father, how she had run away from him in terror. He had seen how her father had struck her, the anger on his face. And almost as bad, he had seen how the child's mother had stood by and watched, as his own mother had done, almost as if she approved.78

He couldn't let this child go through the same hell he had endured tomorrow. He had to stop it from happening. There was only one thing he could do. It wasn't pleasant, but it was necesscary.79

He waited another hour after the parents had gone to bed, just to be sure they were asleep. Then with the stealth of a cat stalking its prey, he slid the window open and landed silently inside the house.80

He walked into the Snow's living room, looking at their gifts and tree. Yes, it was much like when he had been a boy. But if he didn't do something, Eve Snow would never get to enjoy any of it. Resolved to his mission, Nicholas silently crept down the hallway, looking for the bedroom of Holly and Joseph Snow.81

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Eve awakened at approximately 1:00, hearing the sounds of someone walking around. Their house was older than most, and the floor boards creaked and made thumping noises when anyone walked, no matter how quiet they tried to be. Eve's heart pounded in excitement. Maybe it was Santa Claus! Maybe he was in her house RIGHT NOW!83

Evie tried to stay calmly in bed, but her curiosity got the best of her. I'll just take a peek, she decided to herself. I'lljust look real quick and see if it's Santa.84

Throwing off her covers, Eve ran to the door of her bedroom and opened it. She tiptoed down the hallway. When she reached the entrance to the living room, she peeked around the corner. What she saw made her eyes grow huge. For there was Santa Claus, his back to her, standing right in the middle of her living room, with piles of presents everywhere!85

Eve stared, enchanted. She couldn't believe she had actually caught Santa, in her own house, giving presents! She was sure no other little girl had been so lucky.86

Eve Snow did not notice the fake, storebrought whiskers not actually growing out of Nicholas Merriman's chin. She didn't see that his face was young and his belly was stuffed with a pillow. Eve saw with the eyes of a child, and her childish eyes saw only taht Santa was in the room. 87

Anxious lest Santa see her and take back the presents, Eve scurried back to her room, leaping into bed. She closed her eyes and tried to will herself to sleep.88

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Meanwhile, in the living room, Nicholas did not notice the child watching him, nor did he hear her go back to her room. She had barely shut her door before he was following her tracks down the hall, in search of her parents' room.90

The first door he opened was a closet. He shut it quietly and went on to the next. Opening it, he peeked inside. Bingo. There they lay, Holly and Joseph, sleeping soundly in their bed. Nicholas's pulse quickened. He had found them. 91

With a malevolent smile, Nicholas stepped into the room, adjusting his cap more securely on his head. He noticed with distaste how Joseph snuggled close to his wife. Sure, he wanted her body, but Nicholas knew how he really felt about her, how he really treated her.92

Nicholas felt a twinge of uncertainty as he gazed at the sleeping form of Holly Snow. He wasn't sure if he could go through with it with her. Was it possible she could be spared, that she and Eve could build a new life together, without the father?93

No! Nicholas crushed those thoughts as quickly as they came. He thought about his own mother, passively allowing his father to beat her and Nicholas. He saw the blank expression on her face as his father kicked and punched his five year old self into unconciousness.94

He thought about the woman before him, standing without protest as her husband struck her daughter. No, he couldn't spare her. She didn't deserve to be spared. She was just as guilty as her husband, just as guilty as Nicholas's mother.95

With that thought, Nicholas reached inside his robe and pulled something out from his belt. Something silvery glinted in the darkness. Crouched ominously over the sleeping couple, Nicholas drew the blades quickly across their throats- first Holly, then Joseph. They didn't make a sound, for they never felt the pain of the knife's sharpness.96

A merry smile lit Nicholas's eyes. They twinkled with glee.97

" Ho ho ho," he said softly, walking out of the bedroom and shutting the door.

Eve lay as still as she could in her small bed, trying to go back to sleep, but her delight would not allow her to. She had seen Santa- she had really seen him! Wait till she told her cousin, Gloria! Gloria was seven and had told her that Santa wasn't real- but just wait till Eve told her what she had seen! Gloria would be so jealous!98

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a doorknob turning, and someone pushed open the door and stepped inside Evie's room. Eve gasped. There he was- Santa Claus, standing in her bedroom!99

" Hello, Eve. Merry Christmas!" he said merrily.100

" Santa!" Eve cried in panic. " I didn't mean to see you! I'm sorry I was peeking. Don't take my presents away!"101

The Santa looked stunned. A look crossed his face that Eve could not read.102

" You saw me, did you? When did you see me?"103" Just a few minutes ago," Eve replied. " But I went right back to my room! I really did, I promise!"104

The Santa's expression didn't change.105

" Where was I?" he asked. " When you saw me, where was I?"106

Eve looked at him, puzzled by his tone. 107

" By the tree! There were presents everywhere! Did you eat the cookies, Santa? I helped Mommy make them!"108

The Santa looked pleased at her response. His face relaxed, and he grinned at the little girl.109

" Yes I did, child. They were very good."110

" You're not going to take my presents away because I saw you, are you, Santa?" Eve asked anxiously. 111

The Santa shook his head, smiling at the child.112

" No, of course not. In fact, I have a big surprise for you."113

" Really?"114

" Yes. You've been such a good girl this year, that I want to give you a special job. You HAVE been a good girl, haven't you Evie?"115

Eve nodded eagerly.116

" Yes, I have! I've been really really good! What do you want me to do?" she asked excitedly. She couldn't believe her good fortune! It was almost like a dream.117

" I want you to be my special helper, Eve. I want you to come live with me and help me with everything I have to do."118

Eve's eyes shone. This was too good to be true! She, Eve, being Santa's helper! Living with Santa!119

" Oh yes! Yes, I want to! I'll be so good, I'll do anything you tell me to!" said Eve. Jumping off the bed, she ran to the Santa and gave him a huge hug. He hugged her back, squeezing the child close.120

" Good," he murmured. " You'll be my first helper, Eve. You can help me get more- one for each year. You can be their boss."121

Eve, still smiling, drew back. Suddenly a thought dampened her happiness.122 But what about my mommy and daddy? What if they don't let me go with you?" she asked worriedly.123

A slow smile spread across the Santa's face.27124

" Why, I'm quite sure they will. I don't believe they'll say a word against it," he promised. " Come along, Evie. It is late, and we have much to do."125

Trustingly, the child took the Santa's hand and followed him into the night.126