by Jen Frankel
Sonata knew exactly who was at the door when she heard the deep bong of the bell. She was tucked up in her bed with the green and crimson covers drawn up to her chin, the velvet tickling her nose in a way that was both comforting and subtly annoying. It was cold in the room, as usual, and the hot chocolate her mother had brought up earlier was losing its halo of steam despite the magic infused to keep it warm.
The rumbly bass of the North Polar Bear followed the bell. “We have visitors!” he called, in his NP bear dialect. Sonata was fluent in seven bear languages thanks to him, but sometimes his accent made it hard to understand him. He once claimed that she just needed to grow more fur in order to understand him properly, something that she found a little insulting since she was thirteen at the time and desperate to start shaving her legs despite her mother’s insistence she wait.
“Once you start shaving, it just comes back bristly like your father’s beard in springtime. We don’t need more than one ouchy bear in the house!”
Visitors was exactly why Sonata wanted to start shaving her legs, and armpits, and the weird white hairs that grew around her earlobes. It didn’t help that her mother liked to twist the latter into curlicues that stood out in stark contrast to her own brown hair. It didn’t even matter that no one but the elves, the reindeer, and the Bear were around to see for most of the year, and none of them would dream of commenting on her appearance. Being the boss’s daughter was generally harmless but mostly irritating, especially since it meant that no one really wanted to interact with her except in the most superficial way.
But during the midsomer nights holiday, it really hurt. Santa liked to bring children up to the workshop when things were at their quietest, show them around, and soak in the adoration. The kids loved it, of course, especially since they were hand-picked from the upcoming year’s “nice” list. Sonata suspected it was a ploy to inspire them to maintain their goody-goody status until Christmas Eve. There was nothing that got Santa more upset than a nice kid who slipped off the list.
Sonata sighed and tried to pull the covers further over her head while still staying within hot chocolate-grabbing distance. Sixteen years of age now, she’d already been through fifteen too many of these command performances: putting on her best dress, letting Helga Elfwand do her hair up in braids with holly woven through them, and standing like a good little doll beside her mother on the long, sweeping staircase in the Great Hall. There was no way she was going through it again, this pointless show of unseasonal cheer. She felt anything but cheerful. If you could put a colour on her mood, it would be as dark as midnight at midwinter, which was about the blackest thing she could imagine.
In the olden days, she mused, kids around the world probably were as shocked as delighted by the toys Santa brought them on Christmas Eve. That must have seemed insane – just this random box with a ribbon around it showing up and no one could tell you where it came from except with some fantabulous story about a jolly fat man sneaking into your house in the middle of the night. It was different if you ate dinner with the guy every night of your life.
Stupid warm-weather kids, with their electronics and their t-shirts. She bet all the girls had their own personal favourite shops online or even at a mall. There was no such thing as a mall at the Pole. She might live at the epicentre of Christmas toy production, but did she have any opportunity to express her own taste? Yeah, her dad encouraged her to write a letter to him every November asking for what she wanted to find under the thirty-foot tree in the Great Room, but it wasn’t much of a thrill when you knew perfectly well Santa was real.
Online shopping was entirely out of the question, and there was no courier service anyhow. Mail service to the North Pole was strictly reserved for Santa letters. She’d dreamed of having a pen pal when she was younger, but nothing every arrived but the mountains of mail from eager kids (and a surprising number of grown-ups).
Which meant, of course, that everything in her closet had the literal stamp of Santa’s workshop, and unless she made it herself, it was going to be tinselly, bright, and cheerful. In other words, utterly awful.
The bong of the door meant she should be ready to go with bells on, literally. Bells in her hair, ribbons around her wrists, like she was more parcel than person. Humiliating.
The question she should be asking herself was, “Does it matter?” These kids were total strangers. Not only that, but they’d wake up in the morning under the comforting illusion that the night before had all been a dream.
She turned the corner at the end of the hall and emerged onto the landing above the Great Hall. Her mother was waiting, a huge grin suddenly freezing on her face, the hand she’d stretched out to toward Sonata drooping like all the meat had gone out of her sleeve.
From below, a gasp from the collective throats of the visiting children.
Then, from Santa himself, as he twigged to the fact that all was not unfolding correctly in his carefully rehearsed pageant, a bellow.
“What in the blisteringly frozen North are you WEARING?”
Sonata looked down as if she had forgotten herself what she’d put on. Doc Marten-style boots that she’d begged Elfer Third Class Redicchio to craft her earlier in the year, with their red-and-green leather buffed over with black polish, the candy-striped tights that looked positively punkish under her black leather almost-miniskirt, and of course, her homemade Misfits t-shirt, which she’d torn in several artful places.
Santa’s forehead turned as red as his cheeks. His fat, friendly white eyebrows snuggled themselves closer together than she’d ever seen them before, making the twinkle in his eyes more of a sinister glint.
Mrs. Claus was making a jerky transition from stunned to horrified, each element of her face twitching before changing, the expression defying all description until it finally settled. She hadn’t said a thing, but her hand finally picked itself back up to grasp her own throat, as if she couldn’t understand why she’d abruptly become mute.
There were a few dozen kids circled around Santa below, still bundled up in their winter coats and scarves. As Sonata scanned their faces, she noted as many different reactions as there were children, but all of them seemed to live in the neighbourhood around “confused.”
“Hey,” she said, giving an inadequate little wave.
Santa breathed in, swelling his round chest enough to threaten a couple of the coal black buttons. “Hey? Is that honest to Christmas all you’re going to say?”
Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all.
Instinct told her to prop a chair under the door handle. It was a candy-cane-back one with a bright crocheted seat. She waited for the inevitable – either the thump-thump-thump of her father’s big fist, or the softer but just as firm rap of her mother’s knuckles.
Instead, there was silence, or at least silence in the hallway outside her door. She could hear carolling from below, some round of “Up On the Rooftop,” she thought. Her hot chocolate was still warm, and she plunked down on the edge of the rug beside her bed to drink it.
Finally, when she had almost convinced herself that she’d been blissfully forgotten, the door bumped inwards, dislodging the chair as if she hadn’t even tried to block everyone out. The yellowish point of the North Polar Bear’s head, black shiny nose in the middle, poked in. “Sonata, Big Guy wants to see you.”
Of course he did. The Bear wouldn’t meet her eyes. He knew she was in for it; usually, it was something he’d done that required Santa’s stern finger-shaking. Sonata knew she wasn’t a bad kid; she didn’t set fire to the Christmas tree even though the real candles made it a serious temptation when she was in her worst moods. She didn’t scream “Boring!” when the time came to hear her mother read ’Twas the Night Before Christmas for the millionth time. She didn’t steal the boot black from the elves and try to use it to dye her hair. Not after the first time anyhow.
But then, the North Polar Bear wasn’t a bad bear either. Well, he was probably a bit bad for a bear, because he liked to live indoors at the North Pole in the stable with the reindeer, and drink hot cocoa, and never tried to eat any of the elves even though they were the same size (and some of them the same shape) as the seals he preferred for his dinner. But he was good for a Bear who lived with people (and elves, and reindeer). The trouble he got into was usually accidental, and he was very accident-prone, in part because his friendly nature convinced him he could attempt tasks that, for example, would have been much better for someone with thumbs.
Sonata wasn’t sure what a child at the North Pole was supposed to be, exactly, because in all the centuries Santa and Mrs. Claus had lived here together, she was the first one. There wasn’t exactly an instruction manual. Even if there had been, Sonata couldn’t see herself following it, because it would necessarily have been written by someone who wasn’t her. Someone who didn’t know what went on inside her head or her heart, and who obviously wouldn’t suggest that punk rock or heavy metal were worth listening to, or that asymmetrical haircuts including at least a little shaved scalp should be chosen over neat bangs and a centre part.
No one was going to write that manual, and so she was going to continue to get into trouble, she supposed. But tonight felt different. Tonight, her parents had let the North Polar Bear come to get her instead of coming to her room themselves to talk over what she’d done. She finished off the cocoa, and followed the Bear out to discover just how bad she’d been.
Santa’s office was in the heart of the Big House, just off the huge kitchen for easy access to cookies and milk. It had its own wide hearth beyond which burned a cheerful fire. Sonata shuffled her feet, far too conscious of the black boots covering them. She imagined herself answering him, “But you have black boots! Why do mine have to be all green and red?” She was so sick of green and red.
Santa himself was fluffy sideburns-deep in a large leather-bound ledger, the North Pole guest book that every child signed when they arrived on their special once-in-a-lifetime journey here. Every now and then, there’d be a squeal from one of them as they saw the name of a parent or other loved one on a preceding page – Santa encouraged them to look through the book for just this reason. Once a kid, eyes wide, had whispered to Sonata that seeing her mom’s name in there was “like magic.” Or a PR stunt? Sonata had almost replied, but bit her tongue instead. So what if the Big Guy liked to manufacture a little extra sizzle for his young guests? Everything at the North Pole was manufactured one way or another – including Sonata herself, if you thought about it.
The heat in the room was almost too much as Sonata waited. She wished she could magically transport herself to the stable where the thin, uninsulated walls would allow the harsh wind to cool her down. She could bury her face in Donner’s velvety neck, inhaling the musky scent of the doe’s fur. Donner was probably the least talkative of the reindeer in the team, and Sonata loved her for that as well as for the animal’s appreciation of Sonata’s cello-playing. The other deer could take it or leave it, but Donner was happy to sit for hours while Sonata practiced, her legs folded neatly under her, liquid eyes half shut.
It was always a bit of an ordeal to find a temperature that was comfortable for both of them, not too hot for the snow-loving reindeer but warm enough for Sonata to play without her fingers freezing up.
In fact, it had been Donner’s suggestion that Sonata look for a way to pursue her music, even if it took her beyond her home and into the world below the Arctic Circle. If she was not mistaken, Sonata could even now see the envelope she’d been desperately waiting for sticking out of the pile of letters on Santa’s desk, the distinctive Julliard logo on the corner. A chill went through her, then a flush that made the room spin a little. Not today, of all days! Not when she was already in so much trouble.
Not that it even would be good news. After all, she had sent in her audition recording knowing that the distance and the cost of the prestigious music school were both prohibitive if not the most serious barriers to her attending.
Some errant, and definitely naughty, gust of air from the roaring fire caught hold of the letters on the corner of Santa’s desk, the stack containing the one with the prominent Julliard crest.
Sonata actually said, “Whoops!” as if she was a cartoon instead of a desperate daughter-of-a-Claus (a version of something she’d heard her mother call Santa when she was really, really mad at him). She made a grab for the letter, hoping past hope that she’d be able to snag it mid-air and stash it before Santa saw, but instead, she knocked over the whole pile. She tripped backwards over the edge of Santa’s cheery deep-shag green rug, and landed with a snowfall of envelopes drifting down onto her supine form.
Santa reached out with one of the big fingerless mitts he wore even inside, and caught the nearest letter. It was the exact one she had hoped to hide.
“Sonata!” Claus rumbled with concern. “Are you all right?”
Sonata scrambled to her knees. It was all she could do not to scarper forward and snatch the dangerous missive out of her father’s fist. Instead, she made a quick inventory of all her parts and found that they were in order and mostly unharmed.
“I bumped my bum a little,” she said ruefully.
“Come here,” said the jolly man. The serious mood he’d seemed to be stewing in when she entered apparently evaporated by the fear she’d injured herself. Sonata ran to his arms and was enfolded in the familiar softness and warmth of his embrace.
She found herself tearing up in relief, and when he realized she was crying, he said, “Oh sweet Sonata, my heart’s music. Run off and get some cocoa. We can talk about earlier after that.”
She did, almost tripping over her own boots in her haste to depart. She said nothing about having barely finished her last hot chocolate and ran as fast as she could, not to the kitchen but through it and into the bitter cold outside.
She couldn’t let him find her again, not until she’d hidden the letter she’d managed to swipe out of his hand during the hug. Not until she knew what it said, and maybe not even then. Maybe she’d just keep going until she hit Alaska and hop a bus to parts unknown. If he saw the letter, it was going to get even colder at home.
Read on for the rest...
Donner was tucked into the corner of her stall on the straw-patterned blankets Mrs. Claus had had made for all the deer, her legs tucked under one side.
“What’s wrong, Sonata?” she said immediately, before the girl could even crawl into the pile of soft fabric and nestle her face against the reindeer’s flank.
In response, Sonata raised a fist. In it was clenched the letter from Julliard.
Donner, whose ability to read was limited to bear scratches and deer sign, blinked her long-lashed eyes.
“It’s from Julliard,” said Sonata.
Donner’s big liquid eyes opened even wider. “And?”
In response, Sonata flipped the envelope over in her hand and ripped it open. She opened the official-looking page inside, with its embossed seal and creamy paper, and started to sob.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said the deer, fuzzy brow furrowing in sympathy. “You must be disappointed.”
“It’s worse,” said Sonata through her tears. “I got in.”
It was never really night here, not in these summer months at least. The extraordinarily long growing season was what made it possible for the candy canes to grow properly into their traditional shape, and for the bon bons to develop their brightest colours. Below the Arctic Circle, no one had ever even tried to grow tinsel, as far as Sonata knew at least. And gingerbread houses had to be constructed, not matured from tiny gingerbread cottage seeds.
Dawn lasted for hours in summer, and it was Sonata’s favourite time of the day. It wasn’t quite as warm as it got at noon, a balmy eighteen below, but it was warm enough to evaporate a little of the night-rime. Silence and fog surrounded the field that spread out before her, the gentle slope downwards revealing rows of chocolate foil bells. Their wrappings were still dull and barely ripe enough to tell what colour they’d be eventually when harvested just before Christmas, when they would be not just vividly hued but have a bright shiny metallic glint.
Sonata started down a row between plants, running her fingers along the twisted paper vines. When she accidentally dislodged an immature bell, she bent to pick it up and popped it whole into her mouth, enjoying the slightly sour metallic wrapping and the dark, bitter chocolate. Too many would give her a stomach ache, she heard her mother’s voice warn inside her head, but there would always be a twinkle in her eye when she said such things to her only child. If Santa strove always to be good, his wife seemed to know exactly how to insinuate that being naughty might just be more fun.
A voice abruptly broke into her solitude. “Hey! You’re that elf girl from the Big House!”
Elf girl? Sonata fumed, not because she hadn’t fantasized many times about how much better life would be if she was an elf and not the daughter of the boss, but because the boy who’d horned in on her peaceful escape from her home could tattle on her. He was obviously too dense to know how to keep a secret, since he’d just as obviously missed Santa introducing her as his daughter.
Or had he? Had the Big Guy even gotten that far in the usual spiel before her wardrobe choice interrupted the proceedings? And if it had, had Santa never actually returned to the introduction of his only child, or at least an explanation of who she was?
The boy was about her age with dark hair and a round, happy face. She hated him instantly. The fact he’d clearly wandered off from the tour and missed the train home should have made her consider him a potential ‘naughty’ convert, but his interruption of her hastily conceived-attempt at running away was just making a bad thing worse for her.
“Are you going somewhere?” he asked, further demonstrating that he was not the sharpest tool in the workshop. “Do elves… get vacations?”
She pshawed, rolled her eyes, and groaned, all at the same time and much less than gracefully. “No. Well, yes, they do but in shifts, because there’s too much work to ever close down the Pole entirely. I mean, I’m not… Argh!” She threw up her hands.
“That’s all cleared up then,” he said, shaking his head with a smile that made her hate him even more. “Are you coming back with us?” He indicated the smaller version of the famous ‘Santa Sack’containing her meagre selection of belongings.
That stopped her. “Yes,” she said, before she could think anything through. “Going on a sabbatical to New York City. To… see how they stock the shelves at F.A.O. Schwartz.”
It was the first thing that had popped into her mind, but he seemed to accept the explanation. “Cool,” he said. “I’m Reggie. There’s an empty seat next to me on the Polar Express, if you wanna sit together.”
So he hadn’t missed the train, and that meant that she might have an option she hadn’t considered previously.
Abruptly, Reggie’s all-too-evident niceness (from his irritating habit of smiling constantly to the fact that just being here meant he was obviously on Santa’s favourites list) morphed into something unexpected in Sonata’s estimation. He started to look somewhat, even perhaps threateningly, like a potential friend.
“Okay,” she said tentatively, and he surprised her further by hiking her awkward sack onto his own back.
“Guess we better go before we’re stranded here.”
“Wait!” Sonata said suddenly and dashed off behind the gardeners’ shed, returning in a moment dragging her cello in its case which was painted green with a silver bell motif. Disgustingly festive, of course, but when she got away from the Pole, she’d paint it black as her boots.
“Is that a cello?” asked Reggie, not doing much for Sonata’s impression of his intelligence. “What’s that for?”
She blushed deeply, her cheeks turning her least favourite colour of red. “Might stay a while. And go to music school.”
He took this in stride. “Really cool. I play a bit myself.”
Sonata took one final look at the sweet fields, and a longing glance at the Big House and surrounding workshop buildings, lingering a little longer on the stables where Donner would be. They probably didn’t have magical hot chocolate in New York. They probably didn’t have a lot of the things she was used to. But deep beneath the sense of sorrow she felt at leaving her home without a word of goodbye to anyone, she felt the stirring of something new, something she couldn’t ever remember feeling before. At first, she thought it was just abject terror, but as she dragged her cello case along behind Reggie toward the waiting Polar Express and the group of sticky, sugar-overloaded children now boarding, she realized it was excitement. And anticipation.
Her stockings felt itchy against her legs, the sweat of exertion tickling the fine hairs growing there.
“Hey Reggie,” she said before thinking it through. “Do you know where I can buy a razor?”
And she blushed again, the colour of the dancing Aurora Borealis above Santa’s workshop, the colour of Santa’s suit, and the colour of hopeful new beginnings.
Jen writes, draws, and does music, in no particular order. She is the host of the weekly literary open mic Write On! Write Now (WOWN) in Toronto, and will soon be published in Analog Magazine, a pretty darned good Christmas present if she doesn't say so herself.
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