Talbot glared at Charlie. “I didn’t think any such thing. I just got bad information from a moron who used to work for me…Bob?” Bob deflated like a balloon as every eye turned to him. Talbot felt more in control now. “You’re fired, Bob.” Bob collapsed into a chair, dumbfounded at his sudden misfortune.
Charlie looked over at him and winked. “Merry Christmas, Bob. Good thing you didn’t loan me that money, seems you might be needing it.”
Bob ignored the comment and sulked. Chief Sandoval looked around the room and motioned to his officers. “Well, it looks like there’s nothing for us to do here. Carl, Kevin, you boys had best git home and put them guns up before you hurt yourselves. I promise you’ll get to play commando again soon. In the meantime, those cookies over there look like some kind of contra band… I’d better taste them to be certain though”
“I think I’ll join you Chief.” Talbot took the Chief by the arm and led him to the refreshment table, talking to him like a long lost son each step of the way.
“…have I told you what a great job your department is doing…” Shannon walked over to Charlie, her eyes still moist from laughing at the ludicrous events. He avoided her eyes as she stood in front of him, looking him over with a smile on her face. She took his chin gently into her hand and raised his head, looking him in the eye with amusement. “So cowboy, you still haven’t told me what this is all about. Why did you go home to get that cheap, but cute, little K-mart tree?”
Charlie grinned sheepishly, but before he could answer a young voice piped out from below them. “It’s for me!”
Charlie and Shannon looked down to see little Wendy, staring at the tree in Charlie’s hand, her eyes wide with excitement. Shannon looked at Charlie, her eyes soft and moist. “Is that what this is all about?” Charlie looked into Shannon’s eyes, and she could see that his were a bit moist as well, not to mention the cat-that-ate-the-canary grin on his face. “She’s never had a tree, and she wanted a small one. I figured this little thing of mine was perfect for her. Her grandparents had no money to buy her any presents, and your bank wouldn’t loan them a measly hundred bucks. I sure don’t have a hundred bucks, but I had this tree. I couldn’t let that cute, young gal go home empty handed.”
“That’s what you wanted the hundred dollars for…to give to them?”
“Yep,” Charlie was embarrassed, “I’ll pay you back, you know I will.”
Shannon was silent for a moment, then looked at Charlie sternly. “No, Charlie.”
“No, I won’t lend you the money.” Her stern look melted into a big smile, “But I will give it to them, as my Christmas gift.”
Charlie was speechless, and before he could utter a word Shannon reached over and kissed him lightly on the cheek, before walking over to where the elder Garcia’s were still sitting. Mr. and Mrs. Garcia exchanged a look as she approached, both wondering if this bank was loco all the time.
Charlie sighed, then knelt down next to Wendy. “Is this tree OK, darling?”
“Oh yes Santa, it’s just the best tree I’ve ever seen, it’s perfect!”
Charlie smiled. “Sweetie, I gotta tell ya, I’m not really Santa Claus.”
Wendy just grinned as she hugged Charlie tight, giving him a kiss on the well-disheveled beard before whispering, “Oh yes you are.”
Charlie’s heart melted. He returned her hug and wished her a very Merry Christmas. “Santa had better be going now. You don’t want me to be late tonight do you?”
Wendy looked at him sadly, but smiled. “Well you don’t have to come to my house, Santa, you’ve already given me the best Christmas present I’ve ever had. I love you.”
Charlie smiled, trying to control the tears welling up in his eyes as he turned and walked towards the door. Shannon was busy trying to convince the Garcia’s to accept the crisp new 100-dollar bill in her hand, and didn’t notice as he walked out the door and into the crisp Raton night. As Charlie shuffled up the walk to his house, he noticed that he had left the door standing wide open. “With my luck I probably got robbed by now.” He dismissed the thought quickly. “They didn’t have many burglaries in a town like Raton, and many people never bothered locking their doors.” He also noticed that his dog Jake was quiet out in the back yard. He’d have been barking up a storm had someone been in the house.
Charlie walked in the door and fumbled for the light switch. When the light came on he started for the back door to let Jake inside, but stopped almost immediately. He took a step backward and turned the light switch back off, rubbing his eyes in the darkness for a moment before turning it back on. He thought he might have been seeing things the first time, but he was wrong.
In the corner of the living room stood a six-foot tall Christmas tree, decorated to the hilt, a small angel dressed in silk perched at the top. Charlie walked closer to the tree, dumbfounded. He spotted a note wedged between a few branches. He took the note and unfolded it. People always ask me how I can be everywhere at once on Christmas Eve. I usually just give them a grin and a wink, but the truth is that people like you are the reason. You are the “real” Santa Claus, Charlie. Merry Christmas! Kris Kringle.
Charlie read the note a dozen times before shaking his head with a chuckle, walking to the back door to let the dog in. “Thanks, Santa.” He whispered.
Jake, a large black Labrador, lay curled at Charlie’s feet, sleeping contentedly now that the only master he had ever known was home, where he belonged. Charlie sat on the couch, staring at the photos of his kids on the wall, tears in his eyes. The biggest regret in his life was the fact that he couldn’t be there to watch his children grow into fine young adults, to help them through the pains of growing up. He especially missed them at Christmas. He remembered how their eyes would light up when they awoke on Christmas morning to find that Santa had visited once again.
Charlie sighed and turned his stare to the blank TV screen. He’d usually be watching a Christmas classic like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, or “Miracle on 34th Street”, but he couldn’t afford to keep the cable hook up. He had a VCR, but didn’t even have enough money to rent a movie. He’d been contemplating selling the TV and VCR too, but knew he’d be lucky to get 20 dollars for either of them.
Charlie was starting to doze off when a knock on the door and Jake’s sharp bark alerted him. He stood and yawned, momentarily not sure of his surroundings. He walked to the door trying to shake the cobwebs out of his head. When Charlie opened the door he did a double take, and rubbed his eyes. A large fir tree took up the entire doorway, then moved slightly to the side revealing the bright smiling face of Shannon Smith.
“Are you going to make the kids and I stand here holding this tree, Charlie, or are you going to help us get it inside?”
Now fully awake, Charlie took charge of the tree, dragging it into the house, followed by Shannon’s young son and daughter, each carrying an armload of packages while their mother went back to the car to grab some more. They gave Charlie a funny look when they spied the decorated Christmas tree, but Charlie motioned for them to keep silent. He propped the tree into a corner and ran out after Shannon in his bare feet.
“What are you doing here Shannon?” he asked, thinking he sounded awfully rude.
Shannon stood and looked at him for a moment with a smile, her eyes bright, then she began stacking packages into his arms. “Well Charlie, since you went and gave away your Christmas tree, I figured you might need another one. Of course I couldn’t trust you to decorate it properly, so I had to get some ornaments and tinsel for it, too. You have had a long day though, and I didn’t want you to wear yourself out decorating the tree by yourself, so the kids and I decided we should help you.
“Since it might take awhile, and you probably didn’t eat tonight, I brought some food and snacks, and even some nice old Christmas movies.”Shannon paused and reached back into the car. The mountain of bags and boxes she had stacked into his arms hid Charlie’s face. “Of course it’s been a long day for me too, so I brought this to help take the edge off!” Shannon was still smiling as she raised a bottle of wine so Charlie could see it through the mountain of packages.
“Shannon, I gotta tell you something..”
“Shh Charlie, not while you’re holding all of that stuff. Take it into the house and then come back to help me with just one more thing.”
Charlie dutifully carried the load into the house, deposited the packages, and walked back out the door. Shannon stood in the middle of the walk, her hands behind her back. “C’mere cowboy, I’ve got something for you.”
Charlie walked to her, still confused and a bit in shock. His confused look soon grew into a big grin as Shannon removed her hand from behind her back, holding a small piece of mistletoe. She held it over her head and grinned mischievously at Charlie.
“Now you have to kiss me Charlie…it’s the law. You don’t want me to have to call the SWAT team do you?”
Charlie took Shannon gently into his arms, confusion still all over his face. When they kissed, all confusion disappeared. They stood and looked into each other’s eyes for a moment, then were interrupted by a timid question from Shannon’s son, standing in the doorway.
“Mom? Why did we bring a Christmas tree when he already has one?” Now it was Shannon’s turn to be confused as she looked back up at Charlie.
“I thought you didn’t have a tree, Charlie.”
Charlie grinned sheepishly “I didn’t.”
“Did someone else bring you a tree before I did?”
Charlie began laughing, and Shannon could not help but notice that his eyes were laughing as well.
“Yes darlin, somebody got here before you did.”
“Well? Who was it?”
“The note said Kris.”
“Chris? Chrissy Morgan from the bank? I always knew she was after you.”
Charlie was beginning to enjoy this game. “No, not Chrissy Morgan, tell me who then?” Charlie continued to be teasingly evasive and she kept grilling him with questions as they walked into the house, hand in hand, their eyes never leaving each other. The distant tingle of sleigh bells drifted on the cold night wind as Charlie closed the door.