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“Did you just kill Santa Claus?”
Dr. Peter Davidson white-knuckled the steering wheel as he stared at the huge structure sandwiched between his car and the tall snowbank on the side of the road.
As the airbag deflated, his mind buzzed from the impact.
Fat flakes stuck to the windshield but were quickly cleared with the rapidly moving wipers he’d yet to register were still running because of the massive structure in front of him.
A sleigh. A Christmas sleigh to be exact.
Shifting the car into park, he replayed the moment when the object appeared in front of his car and… what happened, again?
“Peter? Dad?” The frantic voice of his daughter, Polly, filled the car with worry. “Are we going to get put on the naughty list?”
It took a few moments for Peter to register the word “Dad” because he’d only discovered he was a father three weeks ago. Not only a father, but the father of nine-year-old twins. A boy, Digory and a girl, Polly.
He held his hand up. “Give me a second, Pol. Trying to think.”
“Okay,” she whimpered, which sent Peter’s protective instincts in overdrive.
He popped the seat belt and turned around. “Are you two okay? Digory? Polly? Anyone hurt?”
Both children still had on their seat belts and they looked shaken, but no one appeared injured.
Digory pointed, his hand shaking. “You’re bleeding.”
Touching his forehead, Peter pulled back red soaked fingers. He examined himself in the rearview mirror. “Dammit.”
“Dammit is a naughty word, Dad… Peter.”
“Sorry, Digory.” Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the fat tears rolling down his sweet daughter’s face, her bottom lip trembling. His heart sank to his feet. “Polly, it’ a cut. It’s fine. I’m sorry. I’ll try not to say that again.”
“But you’re bleeding, Peter… Dad.” She sobbed. “You’re bleeding really bad.”
“Head wounds normally bleed a lot, Polly.”
“Okay, Peter.” She sniffed. “Dad.”
As the Charlie Brown Christmas theme played softly on the XM radio Christmas Station, Peter gathered his thoughts. With all the changes that had gone on for Peter in the last few weeks, he had to remember, his kids were getting used to calling him Dad as much as he was adjusting to hearing it. “All I’ll need is a few sutures and some glue, kids. It’s going to be fine.”
His daughter grimaced. “Glue? Like Elmer’s glue? You can’t use Elmer’s glue on your face. Lizzie Carlton already tried that at school and when she tried to glue her lips closed and it didn’t stick for that long.”
“Not Elmer’s glue, Polly.” He searched for something to soak up the bleeding. The last thing he wanted to do was take off his hoodie to clean himself up. That and the jeans, T-shirt, and light jacket he wore were his only defense against the bitter cold.
“Are you going to be okay?” Digory asked again, his voice laced with concern. “You’re not going to die, are you?”
The painful tone in his son’s question pinched Peter’s stomach with vice-like ferocity. The last thing his kids needed was to suddenly lose the only remaining parent they had.
They’d been through enough, suddenly losing their mother and finally meeting a father who never knew they existed.
Why didn’t she tell me?
How am I supposed to do this by myself?
Am I doing the right thing bringing them here?
He hated the sudden uncertainty in his life.
Ever since he’d been a teenager, he’d to take complete control of his world after the death of their father.
Peter had been the steady one.
The one who always had all the answers.
The one everyone turned to for guidance.
Now he sat, crammed between a pile of snow and a sleigh, in the middle of nowhere with two children he had no idea he’d fathered until he’d met them last month.
His usual rational brain had no logical thought.
What the hell?
A round of rapid sniffs brought him back to center.
The kids. Think about your children.
“Polly. Digory. I swear. It’s only a cut.” He heard the harshness of his voice as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Calm down! You can’t lose it. “I’m sorry, kids. It’s going to be fine. I promise.”
“This is the OnStar operator, Carlee. Are you okay?” The voice of a woman with a strong Southern accent stopped the Christmas music before causing Peter’s heart to jump to his throat.
He let out a long breath, getting his head around the situation. “Yes. My name is Peter Davidson. I’m with my children outside of, what’s the name of this town again?”
“The closest town I see on the map is Marietta, Montana. Is that where you wanted to be?”
“Marietta, right.” He spotted the fast-food bag from the stop they made less than an hour ago and grabbed it. “We hit a sleigh.”
“I’ve called the local EMS department and they are on the way.” A long pause before… “Sir, did you say you hit a sleigh?”
“Yes.” Peter dabbed his forehead with some napkins from the bag.
“Was anyone driving the sleigh, sir?”
His world spun around. Peter swallowed hard before closing his eyes tightly and opening them again as the world slowly came back into focus. “Yes, I believe so.”
No, no, no concussion. I can’t have a concussion right now.
“Is there someone in the sleigh, now?”
“I’m pretty sure there was someone in the sleigh, ma’am.” Polly twirled the tail of a small stuffed unicorn Peter bought her in the airport gift shop during their layover in Chicago.
Sitting up, he placed his head on the headrest as his headlights illuminated the rich wood of the structure. “No idea. I don’t see anyone now. It could have been sitting here on the side of the road.”
But Peter didn’t remember the sleigh being in the road beforehand. In fact, he had no idea where the damn thing had come from.
Tall evergreens stood like toy soldiers on either side of the snowy road and swayed with the gusts of artic wind. They kept a hill of precipitation between themselves and the highway.
Peter anticipated he’d have to get out and inspect the scene, something he wasn’t looking forward to because cold weather and he did not mix.
“Sir? Did you say guy in a sleigh?” Carlee’s voice quivered as though she were barely holding on to a gut-busting laugh. “And the man is wearing a red suit?”
“No, I didn’t say he had a red suit. I don’t see anyone right now.”
“No reindeer?” The operator snickered.
“Did you send help for us or what? I’ve got kids in the car.” Glancing around, Peter tried to figure out how the sleigh even operated.
No horses or cattle or reindeer. What the hell?
Best he could remember he heard what sounded like the roar of a lawn mower and then bam! They stopped where they were right now.
“Yes, sir. EMS has already been contacted. They are getting there as fast as they can. According to their dispatcher, the roads are a mess and they’re cleaning up a site south of town. You said you have children in the car.”
“Yes.” His brain wobbled and he prayed to stay awake until help arrived. I can’t flake out on my kids.
“Is everyone okay?”
“Operator. Peter’s bleeding,” Digory yelled, making the ache in Peter’s forehead vibrate into his teeth.
“I hit the airbag. I’m okay.” Peter let a long breath out. Stay calm. Stay focused.
“Is there anyone in town that I can call for you, sir?” Carlee asked as the snow appeared to be coming down heavier and faster than before.
“You can do that?”
“Yes. Who can I call for you?”
So much for surprising them. “My brother, Edmund, and my sister, Lucy, both work at the ER in town. I’d have to look up their numbers to get their cells.”
Quick tapping on a keyboard could be heard through the speakers. “I’ve located the Marietta Regional ER. Is this the hospital, sir?”
The world began to uncomfortably spin. “Yes.”
“I’m calling the ER now. Please stay on the line.”
“What are we supposed to do?” Polly asked as she clutched her stuffed animal to her chest. “Can you go check and see if we hit Santa’s sleigh?”
“We’re supposed to stay here, Polly. It’s too cold to go outside.” Taking slow deep breaths, he calmed the spinning for a moment.
“For you.” Digory rolled his eyes as he held his plush penguin in a white-knuckle grip. “You don’t have a good coat.”
“You’re right, Digory. I didn’t get a great coat. Been taking care of a few things.” Ever since he met his son, they had been oil and water. Peter hoped the animosity of their relationship would calm a bit now that the children’s mother’s funeral was over and they were out of school for the Christmas holidays.
“I’m worried about you, Peter… Daddy.” Polly’s sweet voice filled the car with angst. She’d been nothing but helpful and loving since Peter walked into their lives, but he worried her syrupy demeanor served as a defensive act to keep herself from facing the sadness of instantly losing their mother.
To bring the kids to this winter wonderland to meet two of his siblings would be a solid way Peter could get his feet underneath him and his mind on straight. He needed to be grounded by Edmund’s level head and Lucy’s loving heart since his instant “father” title had thrown him sideways. “It’s going to be okay, Polly. I promise.”
“They’ve been notified at the ER.” The operator cleared her throat. “Who was driving?”
“I was driving.” The bleeding in his forehead slowed, but he would need some sutures and glue for sure.
“Now, Mr. Davidson—”
“My apologizes. Dr. Davidson. Who drove the sleigh?”
The sleigh? That’s right, a sleigh. Thoughts raced through Peter’s brain like runners with no sense of direction. His sight temporarily blurred then stung as a warm red drop fell into his line of sight and another on his hand. He pressed the napkins on his forehead again.
Glancing up again, Peter noticed a figure slumped over in the front seat of the sleigh when the wipers cleared the windshield and the snowfall decreased. Reality slammed him to center and his doctor brain took over. “Oh, crap! There is someone out there.”
“Peter-Daddy, hit Santa!” Polly screeched.
“Great. Now we’re on the naughty list.” Digory groaned. “This Christmas stinks.”
“Calm down. It’s not Santa, but I am going to check on him.” Unbuckling his seat belt, Peter struggled to figure out how to unlock the doors of his rental car. “Dammit, how do I get out of this thing?”
“Daddy, dammit is a—”
“I know! I know, Digory!”
Carlee interjected, “Sir, don’t get out of the car! It’s twenty degrees before wind chill. There’s a storm moving in. Sir! Peter! Dr. Davidson! Can you…”
“Kids, stay in the car!” But her voice became a distant whisper as soon as he opened the car door and struggled through the knee-high snowbank to get closer to the other driver.
A hard slam indicated his car door had been closed.
To slow the wound on his forehead, he grabbed a handful of snow and held it against his cut, cringing at the cold bite against his skin. “How the hell does anyone live here?”
Staring at the steel-gray sky of the afternoon, Peter couldn’t believe two of his younger siblings impulsively decided to remain in this freezer of a state instead of basking in the endlessly warm climate of the beach town where they all grew up.
“All in the name of love?” The snow fell into his tennis shoes, soaking into his socks. “Bah humbug.”
“Be careful, Peter, I mean Dad!” Polly yelled out the window.
“If that’s Santa, I’m not with the guy who hit you, sir!” Digory added before they rolled the window up again.
Way to throw me under the bus, kid.
A groan from the driver distracted Peter from his annoyance and steadily growing headache.
Wiping the remaining ice from his face, Peter tapped the man’s large black boots. They were a stark contrast to the plush green lining on the floor of the sleigh that sat at Peter’s chest level. “Hey! You okay?”
Stumbling back a few steps, Peter took in the massive structure.
There had been no imagining it.
A sleigh with carvings on rich mahogany. Perfectly sculpted flowers alternated with an intricate wooden braid ran along the edge. All along the panel, it appeared to be a village with a large star sitting over the town.
The magnificent craftsmanship took Peter’s breath away as did the wicked gust of wind that slapped him in the face. If it had been about forty degrees warmer, he’d go over the structure inch by inch because he could only imagine the time it took for someone to make this beautiful piece.
The driver rested on his right side in the front bench seat and appeared to be sleeping. The slow rise and fall of the man’s chest, gave Peter temporary relief that the driver had probably only been temporarily knocked out.
“Sir. You okay?” He tapped the man’s shoulder before his own head spun a three-sixty and the winter wind sliced at his skin. The chill easily permeated through Peter’s hoodie, T-shirt, and thin jacket as the wet cold seeped into his tennis shoes and jeans.
He cursed himself for not stopping in Bozeman to get a heavy coat, a hat, and gloves, but his sudden decision to board a plane and come to Montana hadn’t been well thought out.
Before today, the only time Peter ever needed any sort of jacket had been when the “winter” temperatures of Jupiter, Florida would—rarely—plummet into the forties.
He shivered, knowing full well he’d freeze to death if he didn’t get out of this weather soon, but he couldn’t leave this man here. Assuming it was a man.
Where the hell is EMS?
The person wore a richly thick red suit that made the wearer resemble a scarlet bear. “Hey! You okay?”
Crawling up the short ladder, he noticed the front of his rental car had been crushed in, but the sleigh appeared to be no worse for wear.
In fact, it didn’t appear to have any damage at all with the exception of a large evergreen wreath that had fallen off and sat on top of the hood of Peter’s car.
Merry Christmas to my insurance company.
Still, there had to be damage he couldn’t see. Mentally shoving that concern aside, Peter quickly scanned the injured man for obvious signs of broken bones or bleeding.
Nothing. In fact, if Peter didn’t know better, he could have sworn the man had fallen asleep.
In the snow? Wearing a red suit while sitting in a sleigh?
Peter shook his head, wondering if he’d hit his face harder than he originally thought. Maybe the overcast sky played tricks with the colors?
Nope. Big person wearing a Santa hat and red suit sitting in a two-bench seat sleigh.
He peeked over the back seat and there sat a large velvet drawstring bag.
This has got to be the concussion. I have to be imagining this.
Digging into his rational brain of why this man would even be here, he recalled his sister Lucy mentioning something about a town holiday event.
Polly rolled her window down again and stuck her head out. “Is it Santa?”
“I don’t know, honey. Please, Polly. Stay in out of the cold.” The pain in his forehead kicked in again, making him see stars. He plopped down next to the guy on the bench as he shivered uncontrollably. “Way to make an entrance into town, Peter. Kill Santa less than a week before Christmas. Brilliant.”
Immediately, the stranger sat up. “Ho-ho-hooo. My goodness. What happened?”
The man’s appearance almost sent Peter backward and off the sleigh in shocked amusement.
The thick white beard and rosy cheeks were something straight out of the holiday books he and his siblings would read. The twinkle in the jolly man’s eyes sat this side of childishly mischievous or someone who’d sipped a few too many hot toddies at the holiday office party.
Peter could explain the rosy cheeks with the dropping temperatures outside and the wicked winds, but the beard? And the suit? And the sleigh? “Are you Santa Claus?”
As soon as Peter heard how he said the words, he cringed. They almost sounded hopeful, like a child’s wish.
What a ridiculous thing to say. I haven’t believed in Santa since I was ten years old.
A chuckle arose from the man’s round belly as his eyes sparkled before he waved to the car. Cupping his hands and putting them on either side of his mouth, he yelled, “Don’t worry, kids, I’m okay. You won’t be on the naughty list.”
Two honks from the car as the kids had leaned into the front seat and almost had their faces pressed against the windshield.
“Peter, don’t worry. Everything’s gong to be okay. I’m alright, but you need stitches.”
The joyous cadence of his voice immediately erased Peter’s frustration and restored his memory with crystal clarity. “You came out of nowhere, sir.”
“I’m sorry about that, Peter. I’m trying out a new motor for my sleigh. I did the Christmas stroll in town this year and my sleigh got stuck in a snowbank right in front of Big Z’s hardware. I was trying things out with this new contraption. Guess it got away from me.”
“Motor?” Did I tell him my name?
“Yes. We get some pretty rough weather here in Marietta. It’s not always great to take out the horses, so I tricked out a lawn mower motor and installed it underneath and added snow treads in case I need it or get stuck.” He pointed to the steering wheel and gearshift in the middle of the front panel. “I can use it this way or stick it in neutral and have it drawn by horses.”
A hearty chuckle escaped the man as he turned to produce a large coat from a bag on the back bench seat. “You headed to spend Christmas in Marietta? Nothing like it, you know. Houses all decked out in lights. The town’s got all its decorations up. Every storefront has red, green, and white. The air smells of cinnamon and joy.”
“Sounds great.” In fact, it sounded perfect. Just the hometown type of atmosphere he’d hoped for him and the kids.
My kids. He still had trouble processing those two words.
“And if you don’t know, the Palace Theater house plays Christmas movies Tuesday through Thursday. The last one they played was A Christmas Story.” The man held his hands on his belly. “Love that one. The lamp. Fra-gee-lay. Classic.”
“My brother and sister. They aren’t expecting me.” Peter’s teeth chattered and he hugged himself in an attempt to get warm. “Sorry. I didn’t plan to get stuck in the snow. Where is EMS anyway?”
“They’ll be along soon enough. Weather always slows things down. You need a coat.” He handed Peter a jacket and followed with what appeared to be a cup of hot chocolate. “Those will warm you up.”
“Thank you. Where did you get that?”
He held up the bag. “I always have supplies with me.”
At the first taste of the liquid to his lips, Peter instantly felt the pain leave his body and his spirits lift. “What’s in this stuff?”
“Homemade mixture I like to call a holiday harmony.”
The buzz of the drink settled deep into Peter’s bones lifting the chill off his body. “I am feeling harmonious about now.”
“Sage does a great job making some of the best hot chocolate around, but I’d like to think my recipe is special too.” He tapped his thick mittens on his knees. “Makes things merry and bright, even in the darkest of times.”
“Who’s Sage? Your wife?” Peter greedily took another drink, relishing the delicious layers of vanilla, cinnamon, and cream. The air around them warmed and smelled of chocolate.
The man chuckled, making his belly shake like, well, a bowl full of jelly. “I wish, but no. She owns and runs Copper Mountain Chocolates. It’s a shop here in town.”
Inhaling, the special hot beverage soaked into Peter’s muscles, relaxing him this side of boneless. “I’d agree. This will warm anyone up.”
“It’s got a wee pinch of a family secret, but no alcohol. I don’t hand that out and you don’t need any with hitting your head. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Nope. I don’t mind.” As he drained the cup, Peter relaxed into the seat and handed the cup back. “Thanks. Helped me stop shivering.”
“It’s my great-grandmother’s recipe. She was from Turkey, you know.”
“That’s a long way to travel.” The buzz of warm spices sat on his tongue and calmed him simultaneously.
“Like you coming here. It’s nice you’re coming to visit Lucy and Edmund. I’m sure they’ll appreciate seeing you.” Standing, he held his finger beside his nose before pointing toward Peter’s face. “But you probably need to go to the ER, first. You’ve got a nasty cut on your forehead.”
As he threaded his arms through the heavy coat, the heavenly smells of Christmas drifted around him. “Sitting here with you, is this when I tell you what I want for Christmas?”
“Only if you want to.” The man’s eyes twinkled.
“I want answers. Guidance. A home base.” He ran his fingers through his hair, only to get them stuck in the dried blood. “Not to feel so damned lost.”
“You’re asking for a lot.”
“I know.” His body melted into the seat and his eyelids became heavy.
“But, I’d bet, you’ll find all of that when you least expect it.”
“Maybe so.” A strong yawn caused him to suck in a lungful of cold air. He coughed to calm his breathing. “I need a nap.”
The jolly expression on the man’s face waned. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Peter. You aren’t supposed to sleep after hitting your head, are you?”
“When did I tell you my name?”
“You look just like your siblings Lucy and Edmund. I’d know those kind eyes anywhere. Your sister’s treated me a time or two for my asthma and told me all about her family.”
“She’s a good doctor.” Peter began to snuggle down into the warmth of the coat.
“One of the best around.”
“What’s your name again?”
“Mr. Nicolas.” The man sat tall in the seat despite the frigid winds and the constantly falling snow. “Lived in this part of the world most of my life.”
“Did you make the sleigh?” Taking a deep inhale of the collar of the coat, Peter’s eyelids became too heavy to fight. Snowflakes continued to fall, landing in his hair, on his face, but the warmth of the coat and the magical hot chocolate appeared to be just what he needed after an extremely stressful three weeks.
“Might want to get back in that car of yours. Your kids are worried about you.” His hand rested on Peter’s shoulder. “You need to get out of this cold, it’s sucking the life out of you.”
“My kids.” A wave of panic washed over him. “My kids. Yes.”
As Peter turned to get down, Mr. Nicolas had already moved to that side of the sleigh. He extended a hand to help Peter keep his balance as he climbed down the short ladder. “How did you do that? How did you get there so fast?”
Did I fall asleep for a minute?
“Your sister, Lucy. She’s very patient. I didn’t believe her at first when she said I had asthma, but sure enough, she walked me through my medical history and it turns out I do. Stinks for an old guy like me who loves the cold weather.” He produced an inhaler from his pocket and held it up for a moment before putting it back. “I always carry it with me. Comes in handy for those long nights on the road and the sawdust I breathe in when I’m working in the woodshop.”
They slowly walked back to the car with Peter convinced this entire conversation all played in his head. That he’d hit his head harder than he thought and still sat in his car, with his kids safely in the back seat because when he’d stood near this imagined character, the world around him felt a whole lot lighter and warmer. “Asthma sucks. This coat smells like snickerdoodle cookies.”
Opening the driver’s side door, his children’s heads popped out, their eyes wide with excitement.
“Santa!” they yelled in unison.
“It’s Mr. Nicolas, kids.” Peter waved them over as he got back into the car. “Mr. Nicolas, these are Polly and Digory.”
“Please to meet you, children.” The gentleman nodded and handed them each a candy cane. “Now, EMS is almost here. Stay inside. Out of the cold, okay?”
Before any of them could answer, Mr. Nicolas gently closed the door as a massive gust of wind rocked the car and blinding snow surrounded them.
For the next couple of minutes, Peter had plenty more questions running around in his head, but he couldn’t figure out which one to grab onto.
“Dr. Davidson, are you back in the car?” Carlee asked, frustration laced her voice. “Your children sure know a lot of knock-knock jokes.”
He slouched in the seat, shielding his eyes from the late afternoon gloom that suddenly hurt to look at. “How far out is EMS?”
“They said a few minutes. The roads are difficult right now.”
“He met Santa!” Polly spoke about two inches from the dashboard.
The operator asked, “That’s nice, darlin’. Where’s Santa now?”
“He went back to his sleigh.” The back of Peter’s head touched the headrest. He reclined his seat slightly while he struggled to keep his eyes open. Inching his fingers on the door controls, he pushed the lock.
“Dr. Davidson, are you okay?”
“My head’s killing me. I just need to close my eyes.”
“Um, sir, can you keep talking to me? First responders are on the way. Do you think you can stay awake for a few more minutes?”
“I’ll do my best.” But within seconds, darkness clouded Peter’s mind and he drifted off to sleep.
End of Excerpt