Her bedroom lay quiet and warm. She listened to the breath of the wind outside her window. Quietly, she stepped out of bed, grabbed her teddy bear like an afterthought, and tiptoed to the window. She nudged the curtain aside. Her lips curled into a grin and she let her forehead touch the glass. Snowflakes brushed across the sill, like the wings of white moths.
The street was white with fresh snow—pure and untrammeled. The world was silent and new.
She hugged her bear to her chest and crept to the doorway. The heavy door was cracked open. She peered through into the hallway and could see Mommy and Daddy’s room, black and hushed. She imagined them in there, curled together and dreaming dreams like her own.
She wondered what time it was.
Had Santa Claus come and gone? Or had he not yet arrived?
That last thought sent a thrill through her.
She remembered talking with Daddy earlier in the evening about Santa Claus and his reindeer.
“And he’ll squeeze down the chimney with his big bag of gifts, and he’ll place presents under the tree for you and me and mommy . . . and I bet he’s even got something in that bag for Teddy.”
Virginia, despite the excitement of impending gifts, had given Daddy’s speech some thought. She furrowed her brow, then pointed with a diminutive finger at the fireplace.
She scrunched her nose, then became alarmed. “But it’s all black and gross in there. What about the crow that died up there in the summer? Remember the smell? What if Santa can’t get by the bird and turns around and goes to another house instead?”
Daddy was tapping his knee with his finger.
“I’m sure Santa already knows about the bird,” Mommy jumped in, bringing a tray of cookies into the living room, where Virginia and Daddy had been admiring the Christmas tree. She set the tray on the coffee table and sat next to Daddy. “In fact, while he’s here, he’ll probably help the bird and take him to a place where she’ll be happier.”
“The North Pole?”
“That’s right, honey, birds go to the North Pole to be happy, and Mommies go to the South Pole.”
Daddy suddenly laughed, startling Virginia.
The three of them sat there on the couch for a while, listening to Christmas music and nibbling on cookies that were in the shapes of Douglas firs and snowflakes.
Virginia mumbled, “I’m not sure Santa can fit anything I want down that chimney, and I don’t want anything to get dirty. Maybe we should leave the front door open or something.”
“I think he’ll manage,” Daddy said through a mouthful of cookie.
“I have a very strict list,” Virginia reminded him.
“Don’t I know it.”
“I turn 10 in a month, and I can’t play with kiddie toys anymore.”
Virginia stared at the fireplace. The family’s stockings hung from the mantel, backlit by smoldering embers. Thoughts were almost forming in her mind—thoughts that might be hurtful or disillusioning, and she had to consciously not think them. Of course Santa Claus was real, he had been a part of her entire life, and to think that he was just a lie was—
She craned her neck to peer back into the faces of her parents. She gave them a smile but felt it tremble on one side of her mouth. Her parents wouldn’t lie to her.
Virginia stayed up long past her usual bed time, but in the middle of a Perry Como Christmas album, she crashed into sleep, wedged snugly between her mommy and daddy.
Now, she gave their room another long stare, making sure they were asleep, then pulled her bedroom door silently open. She stepped carefully onto the landing and peered down the stairwell. She could just make out the edge of the living room, where the tree stood glistening with tinsel and brightly wrapped gifts sat brimming with potential.
In stockinged feet, she crept to the top stair and began to descend. One hand tightly gripping her bear and the other out to her side as if for balance, she locked her eyes on the tree and the area surrounding it. If Santa had come, new shiny gifts would be sitting there, not wrapped, just waiting for her to play with them.
But no, the living room was just as she’d left it, the cookies still on the plate they’d left out, the milk still tall in the glass. The only presents down there were wrapped up tight. Her stocking hung deflated against the brick of the fireplace.
Head to her chest, she made her way back up the stairs and to her bedroom.
Virginia walked softly back to bed and climbed in. She watched the window for a while, feeling abuzz with nervous energy.
She pulled the covers to her chin and closed her eyes tight. Surely, if she tried hard enough, she’d fall asleep.
She tried imagining herself waking from a deep slumber, rubbing her eyes and yawning. But when she pictured herself waking, all she could think about was the excitement of racing downstairs and greeting her parents in front of the tree, where Santa would have placed the toys from her strict list. She closed her eyes even more resolutely, and clenched her teeth against wakefulness.
Something thumped on the roof. Twice, three times.
Virginia bolted upright.
Trembling, she leaped from her bed and returned to the window. She wiped at it with her pajama sleeve to clear the condensation away. Craning her neck, she tried to look up toward the roof. All she could see were falling snowflakes, spiraling down at her as if to block her sight. She unconsciously waved a hand in front of her face, forgetting that a window separated her from the snow.
Her heart was beating hard.
She held her breath and listened.
A scrape, directly above her, and another series of thumps, as if down the length of the house.
Virginia let out an excited yelp.
“He’s real, he’s real,” she breathed, then stopped, as if Santa might overhear the mantra and understand that she had doubted his existence.
She listened closely. Something was moving up there—the sound of something dragging.
Santa’s bag of gifts!
Virginia raced to her door and peered through the crack. Her parents still hadn’t budged. They could sleep through anything!
She inched back and gave the door a long look. Should she go out onto the landing? What if Santa saw her? Wasn’t it all supposed to be a secret?
She heard a faint whining noise that scared her until she realized she was making it. She clapped a hand to her mouth.
A clack and a metallic jingle from above.
Abruptly, she fell to her hands and knees and crawled stealthily out beyond the door, flat on her belly so that she could peek between the slats of the landing’s banister. She clutched one wooden column in a tiny fist and watched the fireplace with eyes like saucers.
Something was definitely descending the chimney.
She cast a quick glance at her parents’ doorway. Nothing.
In the fireplace, soot and debris rained down on the muted embers, sparking brightly under the grill. A scraping sound, and a strange melody of voices echoed down and into the living room. Finally, startling her, the dead black crow fell to the grill, a desiccated husk, its wings broken and its gray beak open in eternal squawk. The bird caught flame almost immediately, and turned to ash just as quickly.
From out of the fireplace snaked three fat gray worms. At the end of each searching worm, an eye blinked and swiveled.
Virginia’s breath caught in her throat. She wanted to flee to her bedroom and cower under the covers, but she couldn’t move a muscle. She was petrified.
The worms moved with a graceful fluidity, spreading out across the living room. One of them inspected the stockings, then spat candy canes and chocolates into them. Virginia watched the red fabric expand under the weight of items from the worm’s throat. The second Cyclopean worm rooted around between the presents, vomiting more packages, large and small, its esophagus bloating like a snake disgorging large prey. Almost comically, a girl’s bike spewed impossibly from one toothed mouth, and Virginia felt an odd mixture of delight and repulsion. The third worm sniffed at the cookies and milk, then loudly slurped the food into its maw.
The creatures emitted a faint chorus of sounds and began receding into the glowing fireplace.
And one of the eyes settled on Virginia.
The worms stopped, all three focusing and blinking. The melody of their voices stopped. Everything was suddenly extremely quiet. After a moment, the worms began extending toward her, as if gravity held no sway over them. They rose light as ether, considering her.
She couldn’t move.
They paused in the air, a foot from her face.
“Who . . . who . . . wh—” she managed.
“We are Santoth Claugog Ngarlathotep,” the worms whispered in chorus. “Who are you?”
She gulped. “Virginia.”
The one-eyed worms nodded in unison.
Virginia said in a tiny, awed voice, “Are . . . are you Santa Claus?”
The three worms regarded one another, as if communicating somehow.
“Yes, Virginia, we are Santa Claus, a function of energy, collective human energy, of which you and your parents are one minuscule part. We are merely an assimilation of holiday synergy as a form of resolute action. It’s all transitive mathematics, in a sense, and elemental malleability.”
The worms hovered and hummed.
“Oh,” said Virginia. “Did you bring me the toys from my list?”
“What you perceive as gifts, another might perceive as sorcery or science. It’s all a function of brainwaves—wants and desires and dreams. You see what you want to see.”
“Do I want to see you?”
“How old are you, Virginia?”
She suddenly gained some confidence. “I’m almost 10.”
The worms nodded sagely.
“It’s time for us to go, Virginia,” said Santoth Claugog Ngarlathotep in three voices. “Can we trust you with our secret?”
She stared at the creatures open-mouthed. “Yes,” she said, nodding enthusiastically, wanting Santa to understand that she was indeed a good girl.
“Your parents work for us,” they reminded her, musically and enigmatically, as they rose into the mouth of the chimney and disappeared.
Virginia whispered goodbye, but she was more confused than ever. Her parents had told her they worked for H.P.
In bed, she found that sleep came easily.
When she woke, she went to the window and beheld the bright white day. She let her gaze touch the tops of chimneys, one after another, down the length of the street. She touched her chin to the window, loving the icy tingle. Her breath fogged her view. She turned from the window and gave her teddy bear a long look. She left the room without it.
Her parents were waiting for her at the foot of the stairs. She raced down and embraced them and dove into Santa’s treasures.
And she allowed herself a secret smile, feeling already as if she were 10 years old.