All year long, Camden’s mother told him to be good.
“Santa is watching,” she’d say.
When he was four, he had heard that no such person existed. Now, at the ripe old age of six, he was certain it was just a fairy tale.
Too smart for his age, Camden had a streak of mischief that matched his intellect. He used his wit to keep his mother from suspecting that he knew the truth, acting immediately in fear of judgment whenever he was caught being bad.
His misdeeds that were discovered was merely a small percentage of the ones he did. As he got older, he grew better at hiding them. He had graduated from drawing on the walls and pulling the dogs tail, to things like pushing his sister over with such precision that everyone, even she, thought she had tripped. When his mother showered, he’d sneak through her purse, collecting the penny’s and dimes from the bottom, knowing she’d never notice them missing. He’d horde the pilfered money, hiding it carefully in the floor vent, among other treasures. Then, when he’d saved enough, he’d buy an extra dessert at school, or some coveted trinket from the book fair.
His actions grew bolder and more cunning with each passing month, which was like years for a child that age. Despite his bad behavior, every year, the presents came. Either there was no Santa watching him, or he had yet to do anything black enough to cross the line to the naughty list. He assumed the former. If anyone were keeping a close eye on him, seeing him when he thought he was alone, he’d have earned a piece of coal big enough to crush the house. Camden had never seen coal before, but this image amused him.
After an ineffective year of naughty list threats, Christmas Eve had arrived. Camden hurriedly ate his fancy dinner. All but the brussel sprouts, that is. Those he slid to the dog, knowing full well that they would fill his sister’s room, where the dog slept every night, with the most noxious farts imaginable. Holding back his grin, he passed the last ball to the lab as he begged greedily from under the table.
Convinced he had eaten his dinner like a good boy, his mom allowed him to have one cookie. He ate three. After that, he ran to the bathroom to get ready for bed. He ran the faucet, taking a drink from the spout, then wet his brush. He let a trickle of water run down his chin. If his mother were to check, his brush and face would provide alibi for his claim that he had brushed his teeth.
A kiss on his forehead and an extra tight tuck-in accompanied him to bed. His room glowed from the night light that sat in the corner. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the dark, in fact, he much liked it. No, he had convinced his mother to provide the light by feigning fear, so that he could stay up for hours after bed time, playing with the toys in his room, while his door stood closed.
As he did most nights, he amused himself with action figures and coloring books, intentionally marking all the spaces the wrong hue. Finally, the rustling sounds of the waking house silenced. All lights, but the holiday ones and the small one in his room, were turned off.
He placed an ear to the door. He heard nothing. Sure that all were in bed, he slowly twisted the knob to his door. Carefully, and quietly, opening it, he peeked his head into the hall. A quick glance in both directions confirmed that all were asleep. He had decided that this year, he was having Christmas early.
He tip-toed along the hall, then down the stairs, with the soft glow from the tree lighting his way. He liked the tree. Besides the colors and assurance that presents were soon to come, he admired it’s defiance. His parents were always insisting that they turn off the lights whenever they leave a room. But here, this tree stood, all alight with no one to see it.
But now, in this moment, it was all for him. As he decided all the presents were, as well. He turned his attention from the tree to the gifts beneath it. A tremendous pile of shiny boxes were laid all around. He went from one to the next, checking the tags, so he could open the ones labeled Camden first. But bag after box, they were all marked for his sister, with one or two for his mom or dad.
Perhaps they’re not done putting them out? He wondered.
He looked at the table. Santa’s cookie had a trademark bite removed. The milk was gone from the glass. The house was still quiet. Whatever his parents were planning on putting out tonight, it was all here.
Anger grew hot in his cheeks, and tears filled his eyes. He picked up one of his sister’s gifts, tore at the paper, and held it high above his head, ready to smash it on the ground.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” said a boisterous voice from behind him.
Startled, he nearly dropped the toy. Holding it tight, he lowered it slowly to his side, and turned around. His jaw dropped quicker.
Standing in his living room was an overweight man in a red coat. His hair was white, both head and beard. He cheeks were nearly as flush as his suit.
“Santa?” Camden asked, disbelieving.
The fat man laughed.
“I didn’t think you were real,” Camden said.
“Indeed I am, dear boy,” he said.
“Santa, I’m so sorry. If I had known,” he lied.
“I know all, Camden. Perhaps you’d have been a little better if you knew, but not much.”
Camden felt angry again.
“You’re so smart. Why can’t you use your cleverness for good?”
“Good? Bad’s more fun.”
“I think you’re wrong. Give it a try. And maybe next year I’ll have a gift for you,” he said.
With a shower of glitter, he disappeared.
Up for any challenge, Camden took what Santa said to heart. His parents gave no notice to the lack of gifts. The following year, he spent doing good. Santa was right. It was just as fun to surprise someone happily as it was to torture them. The next year, Camden was blessed with many gifts. But none as good as the one that Santa had given him the year before. The gift of a life set right.