They knew he wasn’t one to shy away from a dare; never in his life had he not taken up any dare thrown at him.
“We dare ya to do it, Arnie!” Willie chided him.
“No, we double-dog dare ya, ‘cause we know you ain’t gonna!” Bob jabbed at him a little more.
“You boys know better. Or ya ought to anyways,” he answered as his face went from flush to beet-red.
He never stormed around in a child-like maker but he did have a certain way of walking when his temper was flared up. And it was flared up now. Arnie went into the bedroom; all the boys shared a room, not much bigger than would fit two twin size beds.
Times were hard in the 1930’s all across the country. Life was hard in the rural Appalachian Mountains – it always had been – but especially so during the Great Depression-era.
None of them dared go in to see what he was doing; they all knew how riled up he was and what the potential ramifications of further prodding when he was this mad were!
A few minutes later Arnie emerged from the room with a piece of paper in his hand. He walked more calmly now, having an almost arrogant smirk on his face. He shoved the note out for them all to read.
“I don’t believe in Santa Clause, Arnie”, is all the paper said.
The brothers’ eyes were wide with disbelief; he had done it! They actually mad him so mad he wrote the note. But it wasn’t in the stocking yet so the deal was far from done.
“Well,” Willie said, “so what? You wrote it. But now ya gotta put it in your stocking and leave it there for Santa to find. You ain’t gonna do that, Arnie. I know ya ain’t!”
Arnie took the note from Willie’s hand and began to fold it very deliberately as he strode toward the mantle. All of the kids had an old sock, one that had been darned until it could be darned no more, hanging from the hand-hewn wooden beam that served as their mantle. Being the eldest of the children, Arnie’s stocking was the first in line of seven. He looked at them, grinned as big as he knew how and plopped the note into the sock. None of his brothers or sisters could believe he had just done that! And they knew him well enough that if he had gone this far he would leave it in there for Santa to find. They knew it for sure!
After supper May, the youngest of the kids, came to Arnie while he was stacking the firewood he had just brought in for the night.
“Arnie, you really ain’t gonna leave that note in your stocking are you? It will hurt Santa’s feelings mighty bad if’n you do.”
“Yup. It’s staying in there” Arnie answered his little sister, which brought a tear running down her cheek. “But it’s my stocking, May, so if Santa gets mad he will be mad at me, not y’all. Don’t worry ‘bout it sis”, he said trying to comfort her.
“Well, if’n yer sure, Arnie, I reckon it’ll be okay.”
“It will, May. I always tell you the truth, don’t I?”
That dried the tears and brought a smile to May’s face. There weren’t a whole lot of things in the world May knew she could be sure about, but if Arnie said so it was.
“Ah-right! Off to bed now young ‘uns; won’t be no stopping by ole Santy if all y’all ain’t asleep before he gets here. You-in’s know that!” Their father was a stern man, always had been, so when he spoke they moved. Each of them, even young May, had felt the crack of his old leather belt across their bare legs and none of them wanted to ever feel it again, though they knew it was inevitable.
The children scampered to their rooms: the girls to one and the boys the other. Within mere minutes they were all nestled into their spots, ready for Pa’s inspection; he would always look in to make sure no one was trying to stay up late for any reason. Bedtime was when he said, no matter what time it was or what might still need tending to. And as was the nightly case, his silhouetted figure soon peered into each room to be sure all was as he commanded it to be.
Like all kids do, the children woke early, before sunrise, in eager anticipation of what might be in those stockings. No one moved from their bed, not even to go to the outhouse, until their father called for them though. In most houses the kids rouse thier parents on Christmas morning but not in the Plyburn household; Pa said when it was time to get up and no one dared defy him on that, or anything else for that matter.
After what seemed like hours they finally heard stirring about in the house. Then they smelled the coffee Mama was brewing; it wouldn’t be long now.
Soon a gruff voice called out, “Christmas is here! Come see what ole Santy left fer y’all.”
It was pure mayhem when the call came every year as they rushed and pushed, tripping over one another to get to the fireplace. One year Sandy had actually fallen – maybe with a little help – and gashed her head open in the mad dash. Though blood ran down her forehead like sweat on a farmer’s brow in August, she bounced up and continued toward the fireplace; there was only a short delay for bandaging the cut on her head before all was back to normal. Any other day and she would have wailed like a cat caught in mono-thorn rose bush, but not on Christmas! This year all went smoothly; well, in comparison to other years it did.
As they eagerly lined up to wait for Pa to handout the stockings Arnie noticed his looked much less full than the other kids’. In fact, it looked empty. No obvious lumps, such as an orange or apple, no banana peeking from the top, like Sandy had. No, his hung there, seemingly weightless. Arnie was feeling a little sick at his stomach now, wondering what he might have done by leaving that note after all.
As was tradition, the stockings were handed out from youngest to oldest so Arnie had plenty of time for his anxiety to build as the other kids got their stockings. Finally, the last stocking was taken from the mantle and handed to him. His father smirked as he lay the very light feeling sock in Arnie’s hands. He could tell there was something inside when it touched his skin. It didn’t have fruit, nuts, or small toys like the other kids, he was sure of that. But being the oldest and the hardest working of the kids maybe it was money he thought, anxiety now turning more to excitement.
Arnie reached quickly into the stocking and felt paper – but it didn’t have that special feel of money. His excitement began to swing back toward a stomach ache. He slowly pulled the paper out to see a folded piece of notebook paper – just like what he had placed inside it. Had Santa not even looked inside, he thought? But as he unfolded the note he realized Santa had looked, read, and replied.
“I don’t believe in you either Arnie. SANTA” the note read. His seven year-old heart began to break reading those words. Maybe he was reading them wrong. Or maybe it wasn’t real, one of Pa’s mean-spirited jokes? But looking up from the note at his father confirmed he was reading it right, and it was very real.
“You ain’t nothing special, Arnie. What’d you think you’d get from Ole Santy, leaving him a note like ya done?” It was clear the old man was mocking him. Enjoying it, too.
Arnie figured his Pa had somehow talked Santa into doing this; Santa knew everything so he had to know that Arnie really did believe in him, didn’t he? Arnie was confused, not sure how he should react, until he looked at his mother; there was a tear running down her cheek.
Arnie wadded the note up and threw both paper and sock into the fire. “Who cares about any of that old junk anyways!” He turned, heading for his bedroom, careful to walk as normal as he could. And even more careful to make sure no one heard or saw that he, too, was crying.
© Greg Wolford 2015
This piece is linked, albeit a little late, to Ronovan’s Friday Fiction Challenge #5; comments and constructive criticism welcome.