The main streets had been busy, and it had frightened Sarah so much that she had forgotten not to lose her mother. And now here she was, in a back street, with the sky growing darker high up above the shabby buildings surrounding her.
They had been on a noble quest – exchanging Christmas gifts for things they really wanted. Sarah’s mother had insisted on taking her along since the babysitter was still visiting with her family. Sarah would have preferred to stay at home and play with her new doll, she was afraid of all these people in town. Mum had taken the doll from her, handed her the worn teddy bear and dragged her here. Why did grown-ups never listen?
However, she had to find her mother. There was a curtain lecture waiting for her… as if she had got lost on purpose! But, first – how could she find her way back? This street certainly wasn’t the right one, it was smelly and had tiny rivulets of water with oil rainbows crossing from one side to the other. Trash cans gathered in a corner, as if they were planning nasty things – like bullies at school. And wasn’t there something moving behind them? Sarah stood still, clutching her teddy bear. Yes, of course, there was somebody behind the trash cans! In the weak light it was difficult to see, but she thought she spotted something red. Then she heard a groan, and Santa Claus sat up in the street, yawning and rubbing a dark spot on his coat.
“Hi Santa”, Sarah said.
Santa’s head swiveled around unsteadily, and for a moment it looked as if he might fall back again. “Hi there, young lady,” he croaked.
“Are you drunk?”
Carefully, Santa put the bottle in his left hand down on the street. It was not completely empty. “Why, of course not. I was just… picking up some rubble, and then I got tired and fell asleep. And what about you, young lady?”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Call you what?” Santa struggled to stand up.
“Young lady. I know you know my name. It was on all my presents. You write funny.”
“Well, uhm… I don’t have my glasses with me. I can’t see your face properly. Are you… Anne?” Santa leaned forward and squinted. “Mary? Susan?”
Sarah giggled. He looked too funny. “Not Susan, it’s Sarah!”
“Oh, yes, yes, of course… Sarah. You are a very good girl. I remember.”
Sarah tried not to blush. She was still afraid if he found out she had taken the chocolate cookies from grandma’s pantry, she might have to give her doll back.
“Now tell me, what are you doing here?”
“I – that is, we… my mother and I wanted to…” How did you tell Santa that the presents had not been good and that you were exchanging them for better ones?
Santa smiled. His teeth were yellow and slightly crooked. “Did my helpers mix up your orders?”
“Not mine, Mum’s. You know, it can be difficult to get the right present for her. It’s not bad if you got something wrong”, Sarah tried to comfort him, “at least she can still exchange them for what she really wants. Dad never is that smart. They always fight on birthday.”
“Your parents fight? I guess I’ll have to take a closer look at them. Seems they are not good parents.” Slowly, Santa came towards her, steadying himself with one hand on the dirty wall.
“Oh, they are okay.” Sarah thought about something nice to say about her parents. Then she took a closer look at his clothes. “Won’t Mrs. Santa get angry if you come home dirty like this?”
He looked down, puzzled, as if he had not realized the stains before. “Oh, you’re right. I’d better sneak home and put that in the laundry.”
“I have to go back and find my Mum”, Sarah said. She held her teddy close, taking a careful step backwards. Close up, Santa Claus smelled funny, like old fruit and older socks.
Santa tried another smile. “Come on, I’ll help you find your mother.” He squatted a few steps away from her, trying his best to look harmless. Somehow his beard was – lopsided. Boy, Sarah decided, he really had to practice shaving.
“See? Over there is the mall, and there are the other big shops. I am sure your mother is over there, and she is worried you ran away.”
“Over there?” Sarah looked doubtful. “But all those houses are empty, and there are rats in there!”
“Then I’ll come with you and take care so they don’t come too close.” Santa offered his hand. The sky had turned a dark blue, and Sarah got more and more afraid. Hesitant, she took his hand.
Santa had to make sure his steps weren’t too wide, his legs were much longer than Sarah’s. While she was looking around, he told her stories about the reindeer, who were on holiday. “Hawaii, that’s where they wanted to go.”
“Hawaii? What are reindeer doing on Hawaii?”
“I don’t know. Maybe taking surfing lessons.” Santa shrugged.
They had passed the dark houses with their empty doors and windows, and suddenly Sarah could see the lights of the mall again. And there – her mother was standing right at the end of the street! She started waving, “Mum! Mum! I’m here! And look who’s with me!”
A slender figure came running towards her. “Sarah! Here you are! Why didn’t you listen? I told you not to wander about! It’s dangerous all on your own!”
“I wasn’t on my own, Mummy”, Sarah insisted. “Look who was with – “ and she turned around to introduce her to Santa. But he had disappeared. “Where is Santa?”
“Santa?” Her mother smiled. “I am glad he took care of you. But now we’ll have some hot chocolate, and then we’ll go home. And next time you’ll stay right beside me, okay?”
She wondered where Sarah had got her vivid imagination.