The pillow struck Will right in the face. Unharmed and unsurprised, he peeled the soft weight away with a giggle, and dropped it over the side of the bed.
“Stop it Kev,” he said, though his continued laughter robbed the command of any real force. “We have to get to sleep so Santa will come.”
His brother’s second pillow arced through the air to land, unerringly, on Will’s face. Will grabbed and wrestled with it like it was attacking, all the while using it to muffle snorts of laughter. Across the room Kevin stifled his own mirth: Santa may be able to see them while they were sleeping, but they didn’t want Dad to hear they were still awake.
With that sobering thought Will lobbed the pillow gently across the room, aiming for Kevin’s feet.
“We really do have to go to sleep. I don’t want to miss out on Santa because I’m still awake when he comes by.”
He rolled onto his side to emphasize his point, turning away from his older brother. He curled his legs underneath him and jammed a knuckle into his mouth, biting it to make sure he stopped giggling. For almost a minute the only sounds were made by Kevin, stealthily retrieving that first pillow from the floor. Then, so low Will nearly couldn’t hear him, Kevin spoke.
“You know . . . Santa isn’t really coming tonight.”
A chill that had nothing to do with the cold wind blowing past their bedroom window touched Will’s heart.
“What do you mean?” he whispered, the words sounding harsh as he flipped about to face Kevin. “I been good! Me and Mom went over my list and she said I didn’t ask for anything too big. I asked the Helper Santa we saw at the store, and he said I been good, and I even sent a letter to the North Pole and got a letter back saying I been good! What’re you talking about?”
Kev sat up in bed, the dim glow of the SpongeBob night-light enough to show his serious expression.
“It’s not you, dude. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
The tightness in Will’s chest started to relax, but that chill turned into a belly full of ice at his brother’s next words.
“It’s just that Santa isn’t real, is all.”
Now Will was just six, but Kevin was ten, and he knew things no six-year-old ever knew. Will learned a lot just from watching and listening to his older brother. Mom told people he looked up to Kevin quite a bit, and that may have even been true, but Kevin was still a ten-year-old, and an older brother; he was not above playing a trick or three on Little Brother from time to time. In fact, had anyone ever asked Will (not that they ever did, but, you know, if they did) he would have told them his older brother’s main source of entertainment was playing jokes and tricks on Will.
That’s what it has to be, he thought. A joke. He’ll laugh in a minute and tell me I’m a doofus.
But Kevin didn’t say anything. He didn’t poke Will, didn’t throw the pillow again, didn’t even smile as far as Will could tell. He just lay there looking at Will.
Finally, Will could take no more of the silent stare. “What are you talking about?” He tried to keep his voice from doing that scared little quivery thing, but he heard it in there anyway. “Of course he’s real.”
But Kevin shook his head before Will had even finished speaking—not fast, or excited, or angry or anything, but slow, like their dad did when something was really serious.
“No. He’s not. It’s Dad.”
For just a moment, Will pictured their father at the North Pole, wearing the famous red suit, the front of it stuffed with a big, soft pillow, giving last-minute orders to the elves loading his sleigh.
“Mom too,” Kev went on. “But it’s mostly Dad, I think. They get the presents and stuff and he sneaks them out there after we go to bed. Then in the morning they just tell us it was Santa.”
“That’s not true!” It was a loud, angry whisper, only a half-step away from shouting, really. “Mom told me there’s a Santa Claus, and she wouldn’t lie! Not like you.”
Kevin was unfazed.
“You remember last month when Mom took you to see Dr. O’Shea? When the doctor said you had to have a shot, what did Mom tell you?”
Will’s face felt warm, and his eyes felt hot, and that flippery thing hanging down at the back of his throat felt huge and chokey. He swallowed twice, moving that big, chokey-thing around a bit, then took the biggest chance he could recall taking in his whole, young life.
“I don’t remember.”
He’d forced a lie out past the chokey-thing. A lie, on Christmas Eve, when Santa (he’s real, I know he’s real) was sure to be watching.
Kevin wasn’t fooled for a second.
“I was there, remember? She said it wouldn’t hurt, didn’t she?”
Will nodded, slow and miserable.
It had hurt, it had hurt like a hot coal on his arm, like a hundred billion mosquito bites all at once, and he had yelled and cried and hadn’t stopped until they left Doctor O’Shea’s office and went up the street for ice cream. But he’d already lied outright, right there on Christmas Eve; Will didn’t think a small fib would hurt him at the moment.
Kevin was nodding along with him now.
“So she lied about that.”
Will said nothing. The stupid chokey thing in his throat probably wouldn’t have let him, even if he tried.
“And if she lied about that, then she could be lying about this, right?”
Will wasn’t nodding his head anymore. He felt exhausted, the way he always felt after a great big cry, the kind with snot-bubbles and the hic-hic breathing, the kind of cry that usually went on until Mom hugged it away, even though this time he’d swear only a couple of tears had rolled down his face in the dark. He flopped away from Kevin, lay flat on his back. His eyes felt like a thumb in a cartoon when someone’s hit it with a hammer, all swelled up and throbbing. He could hear them thudding, just like in the cartoons. He forced the lids down over his swollen eyes, even though that squeezed out new tears that ran back across his cheeks and made cold spots on his ears.
“Mom didn’t lie. He’s coming.”
The voice didn’t sound like his own at all, and seemed to quit before the words were out, making coming sound like copik. He still heard his pulse in his cartoon-thumb eyes, and that might have been why he didn’t hear Kevin moving, but the next thing he knew there was a hand on his shoulder. It was a hand that had pinched and poked him, even punched him once, a hand that occasionally gave out the wickedest indian burns, but this time Kevin’s hand gave nothing more than a gentle shake.
“Hey, Will, I’m not trying to be mean. It’s just the truth.”
Will pulled away from the hand, turning toward the wall and pulling the covers up over his head.
“It’s not. Mom didn’t lie.”
He sniffled prodigiously.
“You’re just trying to trick me, and that’s dumb, ‘cuz it’s Christmas Eve and Santa’s watching. You’re gonna wind up on the naughty list for sure.”
The hand found his shoulder again.
“You’re gonna have to learn this sometime, and I’m getting kind of tired of pretending. You think I’m lying? That I still believe in Santa? Come on—I can prove it to you.”
~ ~ * * ~ ~
They crept down the hall on silent feet, right past their parent’s bedroom door, Will’s occasional sniffle the only sound. Kevin didn’t even shush him; he simply pointed to Will, put a finger across his lips, and made a wringing-out motion with both hands. Will understood: if he kept making noise, Kev would give him an indian burn. Maybe not right now, but Kev never forgot about giving indian burns. Will muffled his sniffles and thought Yup, he’s on the naughty list for sure!
They tiptoed into the kitchen. Light spilling in from the hall night-light augmented the trio of electric candles glowing on the windowsill
—to help Santa find us if there’s fog, Mom says, and why would she say that if—
filling the kitchen with dim light. Will had no problem seeing Kevin turn and indicate the table with a grand gesture, a flourish like The Amazing Prest-O, the magician they’d gone to see over the summer. He also had no trouble seeing what lay on the table.
A plate of cookies, and a glass of milk.
“What are you—” Will began, but Kevin cut him off.
“Santa’s milk and cookies, right?”
Will nodded. He’d picked those cookies out with Mom, special for Santa. Sugar cookies with pictures on them: Christmas trees, reindeer, and one with an image of Santa himself, sack on his shoulder. They’d put them there so the big, jolly man could have a little snack during his long night’s work. They did it every year.
Kevin picked up a cookie, still with that showy, magician’s flourish.
“Would I do this, if I really believed in Santa?”
With that, The Amazing Kev-O began to make the cookies disappear.
He munched them down one by one, eating silently until the last cookie. For the last, one with a picture of Santa on it, he made quiet Cookie Monster sounds, num-num-num-ing until there was nothing left but crumbs on the plate. Then he reached for the milk, a big tumbler Will had to hold with both hands, and glug-gluged it all away, pawing at his cheek when a little rivulet of moo-juice jumped the side of the glass and tried to escape across his face.
He placed the empty glass next to the empty plate with a quiet “Ahhh . . .” wiped a pajama sleeve across his mouth, and looked at Will.
“There. You think I’d do that if I thought Santa was real? Seriously?”
No. There was no way Kevin would do something like that if he thought Santa was real. No way he’d do something so, so . . . so in your face like that to Santa, with no way to say it was an accident, or a mistake. He was a little mean sometimes, but he wasn’t dumb. He wouldn’t give up on his chance to get toys and stuff just for a joke or a trick, even one on Will. But that would mean . . .
That means Kevin really doesn’t believe in Santa, and Kevin’s ten, and he’s smart, and he knows stuff, and Mom did lie about the shot . . . but that means . . .
“So, can we go back to bed before Dad wakes up to sneak our presents out here and finds us?” said Kevin. He leaned a little closer. “Or do you still believe in Santa Claus?”
Will stood there sniffling for a while—to heck with the indian burn—and his answer, when it finally came, was in a whisper so low he barely heard it himself.
“I guess not.”
As he said the words he felt something. Something deep inside him, way, way down where he kept things like his memories of Mom, back when she was Mommy, and Dad when he was Daddy; where he kept how he really felt about Kevin, because he’d get teased if he told his older brother he really loved him. Buried deep within his Will-ness, where he kept all the important things, he felt one small, fragile thing, as brittle as a crystal snowflake, break with a tiny snap.
“’Twas the Night Before Krampus” was originally published in Deathlehem Revisited: An Anthology of Holiday Horrors for Charity. The proceeds from the entire Deathehem series, O Little Town of Deathlehem, Return to Deathlehem, Deathlehem Revisited, and the forthcoming Shadows Over Deathlehem all come out of Grinning Skull Press in support of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.