HoHo Shorts Countdown: "No Take Backs" by Meghan K. Barnes
We received so many wonderful submissions to our 2013 Homemade Holiday Shorts Story Contest that we wanted to share six more of our favorites with you! Every day this week we'll post a different author's story. Homemade Holiday Shorts will air live on December 15th at 6pm on WHQR 91.3 fm. Tune in (or purchase tickets to the live performance) to hear Rachel Lewis Hilburn read the winning story, Mebane Boyd's "Kurisumasu."
When I was six, Santa gave me a dusty lump of coal, the size of my fist. When I tossed it between my hands the coal dust would rub off against my fingers. I didn’t want my parents to know what he had left in my stocking, or that I woke up at four in the morning just to check, so I looked for a place to hide it. I settled for the back of our dog crate, under a layer of old carpet. I tossed an extra sheet on top to make sure that it wouldn’t dig into our Husky when she laid in there, then went to bed.
I was proud of myself. I was proud of deceiving my parents, and for keeping myself out of trouble. But the longer I laid there waiting for sleep, the more I wondered what I had done that was so bad. There were still treats— small pieces of candy, wax lips, pink and purple pencil erasers— but among them was that large, dusty, mineral. For as long as I could remember I was told that bad boys and girls only got coal. So did this mean I was partially bad? Was it a warning to be better next year? Or could it be a mistake, some error that was made between the time when the list was created and the presents delivered? I couldn’t be sure what the truth was, but I knew one thing in that moment: Santa couldn’t be trusted.
It wasn’t long before it was six o’clock, and I was to be moved to my parent’s bedroom. It was the only room in the house with a TV, so when I was sick, or they needed to accomplish something without my being present, I was allowed to crawl under their covers and watch whatever floated across the screen. Dad always put the news on because he knew I loved to watch as they blew up the balloons for the parade in New York City. Once I tired of that I usually clicked through the channels until I found something colorful that caught my attention.
This morning, though, I sat under my parents’ blankets wondering if they would see the coal residue in my stocking as they brought it up from downstairs. It wasn’t long before I realized that I never washed the soot off my hands. I tried rubbing them against the dark comforter, but the dust stuck. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get out of my parents’ room and to the bathroom until seven when my Godmother arrived, especially since Mom had made sure I used the bathroom before she put me in her room. Even cracking the door just enough to peek out was questionable. If Santa was already watching me, waiting for me to mess up again, then I would have to be careful. I would have to learn how to outsmart the man who knows everything.
I decided my best option would be to run outside to greet my Godmother, and wipe my hands in the snow. Surely if I were to fall, no one but me would know if it was intentional or not— not even Santa. Looking back I can now see that I had combined the tales from Catholic school with those of Santa, to create one all-seeing being, who punished or rewarded you for your actions. Yet, at age six, I was convinced I could get something this small past him, even though I still wasn’t sure what I was being punished for.
However, as my Godmother came into focus I lost track of my plan and rushed into her arms. She dropped the presents into the snow, not caring if the packaging got wet, not caring that she spent hours hand-wrapping them just to watch me shred her work apart within a minute of her giving them to me. She was simply happy to be there—happy to see me, and I in return could no longer hold negative thoughts in my head— until she laughed and asked, “Have you been getting into the fireplace, Megs? You look like Cinderella.”
I hid between the fish tank and the couch in the downstairs den for an hour, knowing no one would be able to find me. It had been my hiding spot for over a year now, but I was quickly growing too large to remain crouched in the space for extended periods of time. The pain of sitting there didn’t seem to bother me, though; I was too worried that everyone in my family knew I had been bad. I didn’t care what Santa thought anymore, or if he said I was good or bad. I was sure I had been good this year, and I didn’t want my parents to think otherwise. I know Dad never stayed mad at me for long, and that Mom would usually yell and then be done with it, but I had never seen my Godmother look at me with anything other than admiration and love, even when I was splashing soapy water at her face. I was terrified that if she found out she might not love me.
A few minutes later I shifted in my seat, and looked to find a piece of candy wedged behind the couch with me. “Everyone should always have a piece of candy before breakfast on Christmas,” my Godmother whispered. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell.” I couldn’t see her face from where I was hiding, but I could see that her eyes were swollen with a smile.
“You can’t tell Mom,” I said, pushing the candy into my mouth.
“About the candy, or why you’re upset, Megs?” I scooted back into my hiding place, wondering how she had found me. “How about this,” she coaxed. “I will never share a secret you tell me with anyone else, as long as you tell me it’s a secret first.”
I thought about it for a moment, and slid forward. “This isn’t a secret, but don’t tell Mom, okay?” My Godmother slid me closer to her on the floor, and I fell into the nook of her shoulder. I told her how I had snuck down early and found coal in my stocking, that I hid it in the dog’s crate. She made me show it to her. I pointed out how my hands had gotten stained with the dust from turning it in my palms, and how I thought I had been good this year. My Godmother assured me that it was a mistake, that Santa would never give a little girl like me coal.
“Well, I don’t think you can trust him,” I said. “Plus,” I whispered, “this one’s a secret.” I felt my eyes swell as I told her. “Vikki next door said he isn’t real, and then gave me a candy bar not to tell my parents. Do you think that’s why I got coal?”
My Godmother shook her head and pulled herself to her feet. She told me that everyone has beliefs and we need to respectful them, that it was wrong for Vikki to try and modify what I thought. Then she reminded me that I had presents upstairs, and she thought she saw something outside the garage with a bow on it when she pulled up.
Before she was finished speaking I ran up the stairs and took my place at the foot of the tree. I still wasn’t sure what to think about Santa, but I knew one thing: he couldn’t take back the presents he already gave me, because everyone knew there were no take-backs.
Later that night after my Godmother left, Mom sat me down and told me she thought there had been a mistake. Sometimes when little girls grew up and moved away to go to college, they made questionable decisions; it wasn’t that they were being bad, but they needed to be reminded of what was expected of them. I knew she was talking about my older sister who was home for the holidays, but didn’t say anything. It wasn’t until Mom made her come in to apologize that I knew what had happened.
“Megs, I took the coal out of my stocking and put it in yours,” my sister whispered. “I had been out with my friends, partying and drinking and …” Mom shot her a look so she couldn’t finish. I didn’t know what she meant by drinking but assumed that it was bad. That she was drinking the things that Mom and Dad always said I wasn’t allowed to have until I was older. I wondered if this meant that my sister was an adult now.
“Why?,” I asked, staring at my sister. I couldn’t think of anything else to ask, or form any other words. My throat was tight, and fiery. It was one thing not being able to trust Santa, the man who saw everything, but it was another to feel guarded around my sister. I sat still as long as I could, but ran to my room moments later.
After a few days I decided to forgive my sister, once Dad explained what awful things people sometimes do when they over-indulge. But every time after that, when I thought of Santa, I got a funny feeling in my throat, and was overcome with a single thought: Santa is irresponsible; Santa can’t be trusted.
And then I would instinctively try to wipe the coal dust off of my hands, until I realized what I was doing.
Meghan K. Barnes is a English & creative writing Instructor who holds an MFA in nonfiction from The University of North Carolina Wilmington, AWP’s 2nd ranked nonfiction program in the country, and a regular contributor to Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Her book For the Love of God, as well as many of her anthologies can be found at: http://www.amazon.com/Meghan-K.-Barnes/e/B00CGIYMQW