Addy Stuart didn’t like Christmas any more than she liked missing a day of school. Her Dad, though, really needed her help filling out job applications, and she really wanted him to get the maintenance job at the mall. However, missing a day of school meant missing out on end of the semester test reviews, and she had preparations to make and notes to take. Beside, all of the Christmas nonsense at the mall was just too much for her. To Addy Stuart, Christmas break was a time to get a jump on the reading for the rest of the school year.
Her Dad wanted to get this job so that he could ‘give her a good Christmas,’ as he put it, as though there weren’t a ton of other things to worry about, like where her drunken mother had gotten off to and whether not Addy’s too generous Dad would take her back. Addy knew that if he got this job, they could find a small apartment and move away from her bitter, old grandma, who couldn’t find anything better to do than blame her Dad for her mother’s drinking.
On top of that, her school friends had gone gaga over Christmas coming. It was all they talked about. Yesterday, at the top of the cafeteria lunch line, hearing two younger boys behind her talk about what they wanted Santa to bring them, she had looked at these two fourth graders and said, “Santa Claus? Really? You are nine! Grow up!” and walked away to fetch her free lunch. Honestly, she thought, people just needed to come to their senses and take care of business.
Presently, this twelve year old cynic, with her straw colored hair, faded jeans and a jacket just beginning to get too small for her, had come to “Christmas-Silly Central,” Foxmoore Mall in a posh eastern suburb of Louisville. Her Dad’s old van rattled to a halt in the rear parking lot near Shere’s department store. He jumped out with a large pan in his hand to catch the van’s oil that ran out. Addy sighed and struggled with the sticking passenger door. When she hit it with her shoulder, it popped open, spilling her out onto the chilled, wet parking lot. She landed with a thump and a weak cry of protest. Her long hair, for added insult, collected wet grit from a dirty puddle.
“Great. Just freaking great,” she mumbled.
“Baby girl? You okay?” her father Jake asked from the other side of the van. From his ground level view, he had seen her fall. Addy pulled her sodden hair out of the puddle and stroked away the grit. Her wide gray eyes winced as she surveyed the expanse of the parking lot from ground level, gravel pricking at her hands and knees.
“Yes sir, I—“ Addy’s words froze in her mouth. An icy wind whipped round her, turning to ice the puddle below her. Her thin denim clothes did nothing to stop the polar wind from lancing through her. Addy didn’t budge, though, for at that second, in her direct line of vision, a sleigh materialized in midair and slid to a metal grinding halt two rows over. Eight huge reindeer, their hooves, legs, flanks, and antlers sparkling with frost, trotted to a halt in the parking lot and stood steaming and stamping, tossing their heads and snorting. The bells on their harness rang loud in the crisp air. They turned curious eyes back towards the sleigh, from which a tall, fur-clad man stepped and tossed the reins to a smaller bearded fellow in the front of the sleigh. Another smaller green clad man, still as tall as her Dad, who stood 6’3,” hopped out of the back of the sleigh and produced a bale of mossy looking stuff, which he broke up and tossed at the reindeer’s feet. This they munched in contentment, suddenly content.
“Daaaad?” Addy called. She hadn’t budged. “Are you seeing this?”
“What honey girl? Yeeeoow that’s hot!” he exclaimed from the front underside of the van.
“Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad, Daaaaad!” she cried. The big man who had stepped out of the sleigh strode towards them. At his side he swung a long- handled hammer, bigger and meaner looking than any sledge she had ever seen. Its thick head bore heavy, melty scars as though it had been struck by lightning. Addy got to her feet and stood pointing at the sight. Just before her Dad came around the front of the van, the big man flipped the hammer into the air and let its cruel head skip on the asphalt. A bright spark leapt to the sky, and the sled, reindeer, the two other men–even the ice crystals that had clattered down around the sleigh when it landed—vanished. The big man with the hammer smiled at her, wiggled his bushy eyebrows, and strode toward the mall doors.
“What’s the fuss, darlin’?” her Dad asked, sliding his arm around her shoulders. “Oh, you got your hair wet, and your pants are a mess.”
“That, that, that man,” she whispered, pointing at the tall, alien figure in the flowing red cape. The man’s arms were bare and corded with muscle. They were covered with odd, blue tattoos, and his cape, pants, tunic, and fur trimmed cap were all a deep red. Grayish white fur trimmed the top of his black boots, the rim of his cap, and the collar of his cape. The massive hammer rested on his shoulder.
“Who? Old Saint Nick there?” her Dad asked. “He’s just headin’ inside. Shift about to start, I guess. Hey, if I get this job, I bet that I can get you in to see him for free.”
“Dad, that was not Santa Claus! I mean, look at ‘im. He looks more like a defensife end for the Packers than Santa Claus. He’s huge. I’ll bet he’s near seven feet, and those tattoos—“
“Whoa, Addy girl,” Jake said. He turned Addy’s face to him and looked in her eyes. Jake had seen a normal man in a Santa get up. “Are you okay? Did you hit your head when you fell out of the truck?”
“No, I mean, yes, a little, but I’m fine,” she returned with an impatient roll of her eyes. “It’s just that I saw him and that whole contraption, the sleigh and the reindeers just—“
Jake’s eyes grew wider and the corners of his mouth turned down. “Oh, Addy,” he murmured, pulling her closer, “All this job stuff is really getting’ to you, huh? I’m so sorry—“
“Well, just look at him!” she shouted, pushing out of his embrace. She pointed to the huge fellow in red, who had already reached the mall doors. He would have to stoop low to enter, Addy thought, but when she blinked and looked at him again, she too saw a man in a typical Santa suit, just about as tall as her Dad, opening the doors and walking into the mall as easy as could be. His hammer looked like an umbrella.
“You know, you need to get more sleep, Addy. I know those advanced classes are important to you, but wouldn’t it be better to take it a little easier? I mean, you’re just a kid,” Jake said, holding her hands. “If I get this job, we’ll certainly be able to eat better, and in our own place, you won’t have granny ranting half the night.”
Addy shook her head. The last thing she wanted was for her Dad to worry more about her. He had enough on his plate
“No, no, no, Daddy, it’s just that—” she sighed, looking up into his sad eyes. “Okay, okay. You’re right. I’ll try to get more sleep, okay? I just thought I saw…never mind. Not possible,” she said. “Let’s just go ahead and go see the manager like we said we would.”
They met the manager of maintenance and janitorial services, Mr. Phelps, who looked like a nice enough fellow but overworked. All through the process of helping her Dad read and fill out the new forms, Addy tried to make some sense of what she had seen in the parking lot, for she did not doubt the evidence of her eyes. Phelp’s dingy, windowless office was down a narrow corridor above the main concourse. With a shock, Addy recognized that the last of the paper-work they filled out were tax withholding forms, which, she hoped, meant that her Dad had gotten the job, but she said nothing about this. She didn’t want to get it wrong and see him disappointed again.
Mr. Phelps watched Addy and her Dad work on the forms and then asked her to step out while he and Jake talked a little business. Phelps handed her two dollars as she got up and said, “Maybe you could get a soft drink, young lady, maybe visit with Santa? Tell Miss Sue at the booth that I sent you, okay?”
“Sure,” she said, stuffing the two bucks in her jeans pocket. She winked at her Dad and headed out to the Mall. She would just go take another look at Santa, she thought.
With a small hot chocolate that warmed her cold fingers, Addy took a seat on the upper concourse where she could see the Santa Land fluff below. There he sat, looking exactly like a Mall Santa should, though she was sure of what she had seen earlier. Addy wasn’t given to fancies, and she reasoned that she had seen something that no one else could, though she did not know why. The camera flashes where children sat on Santa’s lap showed her that he was there still, though his appearance was a fake. She considered that maybe she had lost her mind, but a quick run through the twelves times tables and a mumbled recitation of the Declaration of Independence, which she had put to memory earlier in the school year, helped her confirm that if she was insane, she did not know it. Still, she could think through things well enough. She ran through the budget that she and her dad had planned if he got this job at $15.75 an hour. She could still think. She was still as rational as her hard life had made her.
Yet if she looked with squinted eyes at the Santa Claus sitting on his fake gilded throne, she could still trace his true outlines, see the long hammer at his side that others saw as an umbrella.
With hot chocolate in hand, she made her way down the stairs, past the line of kids waiting to see him, right into the partitioned Santa Land. Someone called to her that the line to see Santa started much further back, but she ignored them. Squinting hard, she saw the huge alien looking man, and his eyes met hers. A happy little kid bounced down from his lap as Addy watched. He smiled, took up the hammer and tapped its head onto the floor. A cold shock wave blew her hair back. All motion and sound stopped around her, except for the ringing sound of the steel hammer head on the tile floor. The air grew colder around her as she stood staring at the huge figure rising from his throne. Everyone in the mall froze on the spot, and the color seemed to drain out of everything, except her and the man on the throne.
“Who are you? What are you?” she demanded. Now that everything had stopped, Addy found that she didn’t need to squint to see him as he really was. He was clear. He took two strides and stood before her. She bent her head back to look up to his face. He smiled down at her. It had a pleasant feel to it, that smile, though his craggy nose and brow and his scarred cheeks looked as though he had fought hard all of his long life. Somehow, Addy knew she had nothing to fear from this man, though he had just managed to stop time. A brief shiver of excitement ran through her.
“Do you not know me, Addy Stuart?” he asked, bending down to look in her face, smiling still, with his elbows on his knees. “I can see you do not believe in me, though you see me, where others do not, cannot.” His voice, a rolling deep thunder from his chest, used the English words with care. His accent, German or Russian maybe, rang strange in her ears. “Come close and know me better. Do you doubt the evidence of your own eyes?”
Addy had grown tough in her twelve years of unstable life, living out of her Dad’s Econoline from time to time. She knew to take care around people and even to cop a bit of an attitude, when she had to.
“Are you going to quote the rest of the Christmas Carol, Mr. Fake Santa Claus, or just part of it? I’ve read it, you know,” Addy said, though her hands shook a little as she sipped her hot chocolate. She breathed a little harder. He had stopped time. He was a giant. Could anyone help her if things turned bad here?
“And what did you learn from it, Addy Stuart, this Christmas Carol of Mr. Dickens?” he asked.
“That… people,” she said, growing more nervous by the instant, “will tell themselves stories that they wish were true, so that they can live in a world that is unfair and hard,” she returned, meeting the big man’s gaze.
His smile broadened, and he said, “Better ask me who I was, Addy Stuart, since you know that story,” he said, drawing a slight smile from her. She liked talking this way, with the words of a story woven into the conversation, though what Marley had come to tell Scrooge she didn’t think had much to do with her.
“Alright, who were you then?” she went on, offering him her own curious smile.
“I was a monster slayer, me and my trusty friend here,” he said patting the hammer. “Giants, dragons—all of the old beasts, like the Rahab and Leviathan, the beasts of the outer dark and early creation. I fight—fought them to help your kind.”
“Why?” Addy asked.
“Well, for one, that is what I was made to do. We must all live as we were made, to do honor and glory to Him who made us,” he said, rubbing his hands together.
“O…okay,” she said, wondering if this giant who could stop time intended to convert her. She thought little of God. Typically, she rejected God-talk as irrational. The people who talked like that seldom did you any good, except to tell you to be good and take care of yourself. Addy didn’t need more of that. She knew that she could take care of herself.
For Addy, people were what they were, a mix of weaknesses and strengths, unevenly applied, so she could think of no argument against the idea of his doing what he was made for. He would be a great warrior, she thought, taking in the long powerful limbs. He also had abilities that appeared magical, for they were clearly beyond human potential. She knew better than to think that just because she had never seen or read about something that it couldn’t exist. But for the first time in her young life, a shiver of recognition went through her. Maybe this man’s being here was proof of this God that everyone put so much stock in. Just maybe. She pushed the thought aside as irrelevant, irrational.
Addy managed to take her eyes off the man and turn to the line of children beside her, waiting to see Santa. What they would say if they really saw him made her wonder. Yesterday, she had considered the idea of Christmas magic as silly. Yet here she stood, outside of time, talking to a man, more likely an old god, out of story and legend. The cold around him, the hammer, his outfit all made sense. It was logical. No human could do this, she thought, walking up to a little boy who stood in the line, his eyes wide with expectation. She touched the boy’s warm skin, heard his quiet breathing.
“But now, Thunder Claus, you do not fight monsters—we haven’t had any dragons or ogres for a long time—except that guy who fired my Dad from his last job. Now, you bring toys to all of the good little girls and boys, huh?” she asked, turning back to him.
“Thunder Claus!” he cried. “I like that name!” The laugh that rumbled from his chest sort of hurt her ears, but it climbed the scale of sound enough to become comfortable, and the big man leaned back his massive head and enjoyed his laughter long and loud. It rang through the still concourse like joyous storm. Addy couldn’t help it. She laughed, too. A sense of joy lanced through the constant ache in her heart, where lived the cares about her hapless father and helpless mother, where the worries about rent and food money had set up residence in her young soul. A tear escaped her eye, but she wiped it away. Addy Stuart would not cry in front of anyone, even a god.
“No, no, no, no, Addy,” he said as his laughter ran down in the sudden quiet of the Mall. “Toys are not my concern. The human condition is my concern, mankind is my business.” He reached out and touched the top of her head.
Smiling, she said, “So, we’re back to Marley’s ghost?” She giggled a little, thinking about how this alien figure, this god, had come for her reclamation, as Marley and the other ghosts of Christmas came for Scrooge. A few more tears formed in her eyes, yet her heart resisted them. They came not from sadness, though, but from a strange sense of suffering relieved, impossibly, without tangible proof. Yet the sense that well up with her tears told her that some things do not need proof. That they are real, present, is enough, for a heart. One tear fell to her cheek, and the tattooed warrior god reached out and wiped it away.
“No. I do not come to teach you or give you anything except the one gift I always give: Hope,” he whispered. Rubbing the salty drop of her tear between his finger and thumb, he said, “This is what I fight now, Addy, my child. I bring hope to fight tears at the sadness of the world.”
Addy stepped back, the hardness of her battered young heart rising in the face of hope that had often failed her, especially if it was a hope that people like she and her father, her mother, too, would ever feel welcome in a world where the only true coldness came from people who cared nothing for the well-being of others.
“Really, Thunder Claus?” Addy asked. “You look more like some poster Santa for a white supremacist group,” she spat at him. Her anger rose as though in response to his gigantic joy. It swept away any sense of wonder at being in the presence of this god, the wielder of thunder, who, she thought bitterly, had traded war with monsters and ice giants for appearances at a mall.
“Yes. Really, Addy,” he said, “And I show you now,” he said, reaching out to touch the top of her head with a finger as thick as her wrist. Her vision swam, causing her to gasp, and an almost sickening dizziness swept through her as though she was flying. When her vision cleared, she hovered in the cold night air at this giant’s side, above a small cave at the back of a stable yard, little more than a wood and earth niche in which animals took refuge from the weather. The air was cold, clean, and dry. Strange cooking spice smells came to her from the other homes around that stable yard. Simple human sounds, words of comfort in a tongue she didn’t understand, came from that stable as the couple within coped with the hard choices of their lives.
At a signal from her companion, she looked up, where rank upon rank of angels mounted into the dark night, radiant and shining but silent, beings as powerful as her guide and more so. At the sound of a baby’s first cry from the stable, all of the angels above her broke into a song of praise and thanksgiving that stunned her with its pure joy. Looking at them, at the manger, she scarcely breathed. But Thunder Claus held her hand in his. Its warmed poured into her. As she looked down at the couple and their helpless child, huddled together for warmth in the night, she saw in them all, especially the infant, her own powerlessness, her own vulnerability.
“Why would hope come in someone so small, so fragile? Their very lives are at risk, exposed like they are,” she whispered.
“Yes,” her giant guide said, “hope is the most fragile thing, like ice crystals under hot sun, but it is strongest when it is bound with love,” he whispered, “do you not see it in this?”
A shudder ran through her small frame. Something that words could not say, numbers not quantify rose up in her. Her fears left with her anger, and the joy, the sheer sense of hope that radiated from them, swept away the bitterness and pain of her young heart. She did not know why, but she forgave her broken, wounded mother, her bitter grandma, and cherished even more her illiterate father. She turned her grateful eyes to her companion, hovering on the desert wind at her side. The weak cries from the stable started it all.
“I took on His task when I see Him born, when I see all warrior angels in heaven gather in the sky. He came to be one with us, to bring the light of a new way of being into the world, and I knew that I would fight only one thing: that which separates anyone from what He brings, the truth.”
“And, and what is that truth?” Addy asked, needing the words to be said aloud by one who knew them by heart.
“That you are loved, Addy, from always to always, that only you can stand between yourself and the Most High one who came for you: that this is the most real thing that ever was or will be. That the weak cries of this baby boy bested all strength of mind or limb. That love and only love will win.”
Addy breathed deep and hugged that ancient, barbaric figure, as they were both bathed in the angelic music. It seemed like hours that they were there, watching shepherds creep into the stable yard, listening to the sound of all the angels in heaven singing out their fierce, holy joy.
Soon, though, she could feel again the floor of the mall beneath her feet, though the touch of the old thunder god’s finger on her head held her still. She could still see the angel choirs above her, still look down at the faint glow that came from the stable and hear the faint cooing of the newborn Prince of Peace. Other figures there were, like her guide. Some looked like humans, some like animals or creatures from nightmares. They crowded the lower airs, some looking on and weeping or smiling, while others hid their faces and shied away from the vision in the crèche as though it hurt them. She closed her eyes, then, feeling a sense of sadness for all those who turned away from the hope that had come into the world. She would never turn away.
When she opened her eyes, Addy saw before her an older man in a Santa Claus suit, like everybody else did. His hand rested, still, upon her head, but where she could see his pale skin above the cuff of his jacket, the blue lines of a barbaric tattoo were just fading from sight. People and the noise of shopping rushed back to her ears. The voices of young and old, laughing, fussing, crying, talking, filled her mind with happy chaos. A canned version of “O Holy Night’ played on the mall’s sound system, at which she shivered with delight. The sights and sounds of everything—even in a mall—struck her as beautiful, so beautiful that her heart ached. She couldn’t wait to look at her father with these new eyes.
“It’s, it’s all real,” she whispered.
“I am real. You are real. Where I am is always Christmas, Addy. Now, it will be so in your heart, too. The other stories about me are what people wish when they do not know the source of Joy, my child,” he said. “Yes, people make stories about what they wish was true, and they are always near the truth, the truth that we are loved and the hope that thought brings into a dark world. Will you help me in this long fight, Addy? Will you stand at my side in a dark world and Hope, so that love can save us?”
“Yes,” Addy whispered. “I will, Thunder Claus, or whoever you are.”
He smiled again and beckoned to the little boy at the head of the line to come see him. Addy backed away and no one bothered her. She paused at the edge of the Santa Land and looked back, squinting hard. There he was, the spirit of Christmas, the old warrior god who had taken on a new, peaceful purpose in life. Where he was is always Christmas, and Addy took that with her in her heart.
Later, they poured the oil from the pan back into the old motor, her Dad whistling and happy because the mall job was his. They drove away into a cold drizzle. Addy knew that it wasn’t a great job. She knew that her Dad was capable of doing much more, but it did not matter. It was hopeful. Her Dad had hope. She had it too.
“Gonna be a great Christmas, Addy girl,” he cried. She smiled and let him rattle on about plans to get their own place, sharing his open, hopeful view of life. “Yes, Daddy. It is always, already a great Christmas, especially with you,” for when she squinted hard at him, she could see him as he really was. ‘He might just as well have wings,’ she thought, for he was as beautiful and strong as any angel or old god; he lived in the midst of joy and hope. It was his business as well as hers, for she believed