Saint Nick o’ Time

Living Room — Christmas Eve, 1980

I sweep my flashlight across the bounty of gift-wrapped packages, searching for one particular box. I’m careful not to step on the squeaky floor boards next to the tree. I know each of them by heart. I pick up boxes, checking labels, gauging weight and size. I’m careful to put each box back in the exact same spot it occupied before. Leave no evidence.

This isn’t my first rodeo. Pre-Christmas snooping is an art form, and I’m a virtuoso.

I don’t see it.

I start my second search, but my heart is sinking. Could I be missing it, somehow? I know the dimensions of the box by heart. I’ve picked it up and stared at the box art more times than I can count. I’d recognize it if I saw it, even beneath gaudy Christmas wrapping paper.

It’s not here.

How can that be? It’s the only thing that was on my list! How can it not be here?

Check the note.

I sweep my flashlight beam to the coffee table. An empty plate, specked with the remnants of Christmas cookies, an empty beer glass, and a note.

I tiptoe across the floor and pick up the note. I read it quickly. My eyes freeze on one word. Sorry. I force myself to keep reading. Couldn’t get the one item on your list. Maybe next year.

Next year? Fuck you, Santa. Fuck you.

The living room lights turn on. I freeze, a deer in headlights. A strange man is standing by the light switch, dressed in a long nightgown and peering at me with bleary eyes. He looks around.

“Is it Christmas again?” he asks.

I nod, not sure how else to answer.

The man crosses the room and throws himself onto the couch behind the coffee table. He pokes at the crumbs of cookies on the plate and sucks them off his fingertips. Points at the empty glass. “Beer? Isn’t it supposed to be milk?”

“Dad’s lactose intolerant,” I say.

“Don’t you mean Santa Claus?”

I roll my eyes, fear momentarily forgotten. “I’m nine. I don’t believe in Santa Claus.”

“No?” the man stands up. “Then who am I, kid?”

The fear returns. “I don’t know,” I admit. “Why are you in my house?”

“I’m not,” the man says. “You’re in my house. Or rather, your living room is. See for yourself.” He points towards the living room doorway.

I shine my flashlight into the darkened hallway beyond. It’s not my hallway. The stairwell back up to my bedroom isn’t there. The painting with the cloud giants is absent. I run to the doorway and look. No front door, no hall closet. It’s a completely different room.

“What the fuck?” I shout.

“Hey!” the man says.

I turn towards him, expecting him to scold me for cursing.

Instead, he points at his head. “Could you keep the volume down? My head’s killing me. These holiday transitions are brutal.”

“Sorry.”

He nods, then picks up the note from Santa Claus and reads it. “Atari 2600? What’s that?”

“A video game machine,” I say.

“What year is this?”

“Um…1980?”

He scratches his head. “That’s new. Weird. Anyway, what’s a video game machine?”

I raise my eyebrows. “You don’t know about the Atari?” When he shakes his head, I reach into my bathrobe pocket and pull out the creased and crumpled page of the Sears catalog and hand it to him.

He smooths the page out on his leg and studies it. “Neat,” he says. He hands the page back to me. “Give me a few minutes.” He gets up and wanders out into the mysterious hallway and disappears.

I duck my head out after him, but I’m too afraid to step out of the living room. I still don’t understand where my house’s hallway went. I turn and sprint to the doorway that connects the living room to the dining room, and find that it’s missing, too. Instead, there’s a much larger, much more elaborate dining room in its place. The table looks like it could seat twenty people easily. There’s a huge fireplace and large windows showing a brightly lit, snowy morning outside.

I turn back to my living room’s windows. Dark. I pull back the curtains and peer outside. No snow. What the hell is going on?

“Jackpot!” the man says, walking back into the room. He’s carrying a beige box in his arms, trailing wires behind him. He dumps the box onto the coffee table.

“What is that?” I ask.

“An Atari,” he says. He points at it. “Look.”

“That’s not an Atari. The game machine is black with fake wood on the front. It’s not beige.”

“Kid, look.”

I walk over and look at the beige contraption. It looks like a typewriter, only the keys are flat. Above the keyboard, there’s the instantly recognizable Atari logo. And next to the logo, the words, Atari 400.

“That’s not a game machine,” I say. “That’s a computer!” My eyes are wide.

“Is that better, or worse?”

“Better,” I say. “Way better.”

“Well, Merry Christmas, then.” He gets up and moves to leave.

“Wait!” I cry. “You can’t just leave this here. How will I explain to my parents?”

The man shrugs. “What do you want from me? I just gave you a computer, kid.”

“I need the box. I need to wrap it.” I give the man my best sad face. “Please?”

The man scowls. “Alright, fine. Stop making that stupid face. I’ll go look to see if I have the packaging stored somewhere. Don’t go anywhere.”

Where am I going to go? I’m not in my own house.

The next morning, I wake up on the living room couch. My mom looks worried when she sees me. My dad is too busy fiddling with the movie camera to notice.

I push past my two younger brothers, ignoring their protests, and reach for the large box propped up behind the Christmas tree. I unwrap the box and start screaming. My brothers, bewildered, scream delightedly with me.

“What is it?” my mom asks.

“It’s an Atari computer!” I exclaim. “It’s from Santa. Look!” I hold up the tag.

My parents look at each other, confused.

I don’t care.

Merry Fucking Christmas. To me.

 

P.S. This is a continuation of my earlier Straeon Story. So if you’re looking for context, please read it first. It’s also a completely true story from my own life. Well, not completely true. Just the time traveling part.

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