Prayers to Santa

The night was bleak, but the Big Guy delivered — sort of

By Ashley Walshe

When you’re 5 and the sole object of your desire can only come from the mythical Dude in Red, Christmas morning is a very, very big deal.

But suppose you spent the night someplace else on Christmas Eve. Could Santa still find you? And if he couldn’t? What then?

These were all very, very real questions, none of which I’d considered until Christmas Eve, 1992, when, at the last minute, I was told we’d be spending the night at my grandparents’ house — three grueling hours away.

My pint-sized stomach was in knots. I wanted to stay strong for my younger brother, I really did. But the further we drove, the bleaker things looked. My breath grew shallow. My mind raced. I could slip into a tailspin at any moment.

Perhaps you don’t understand the gravity of my situation. I’d been waiting an entire year for Santa to bring me a Puppy Surprise. Three-hundred-and-sixty-five whole days. Have you any idea what kind of veritable agony that is for a such a small and anxious human? Each time I saw the commercial — “Surprise, surprise! Puppy Surprise! How many puppies are there inside?” — the pang of desire intensified. I ached to hold that plush toy dog and the — which would it be? — three, four or five puppies packed inside its Velcro tummy. Frankly, my life was incomplete without it.

And yet, as Christmas drew near, I began to see the light. I’d held up my end of the bargain, after all. I’d been good. Very good. I was certain that Santa would reward me. That is, until my parents threw a wrench in our Christmas.

My grandparents’ house was located nearly 200 miles away from our two-bedroom apartment. Small potatoes for a flying sleigh, you might say. But this type of detour could really screw up Santa’s route, especially so last-minute. If only I had time to send him a map.

“Can you call Santa to let him know where to find us?” I asked my mom. “Pleeeease?”

I knew she had his number. In fact, she’d once used it to rat me out for squabbling with my brother. It was a close call, but the Big Guy kept me on the Nice List when, sobbing, I repented. I dropped to my knees, vowing to forsake my naughty ways forevermore.

“He knows where to find us,” Mom replied.

“But how?” I asked. And how could she be so sure? It was Christmas Eve, after all. Had she considered that Santa was a bit preoccupied with the list-checking and whatnot? A change of address seemed like something that could easily slip through the cracks.

I felt helpless, lost and scared. And so, I did what any young Catholic child might do. I closed my eyes and prayed to Saint Nicholas.

When we pulled up to my grandparents’ house, Papaw greeted us outside with Charo, the cream-colored teacup chihuahua whose apple-shaped dome was slowly breaching my grandpa’s breast pocket.

“Merry Christmas, grandbabies,” said Papaw, eyes twinkling.

As I wrapped my little arms around his great, round belly, Charo suddenly emerged from his pocket, growling and gurgling like a tiny, adorable demon.

I loved all dogs, but that 4-pound terror was the very worst kind of puppy surprise.

She bared her teeth at me. I cried. Christmas Eve couldn’t have gotten any worse. 

I must have stayed up half the night fretting. Puppy Surprise was all I’d ever wanted, and quite possibly all I’d ever need. If Santa couldn’t find us here, what would I do? Would I have to wait another full year for my fur baby and her darling litter of three, four or five? I wasn’t sure my tiny heart could take it.

Fortunately, I worried myself into a deep and peaceful slumber. In the morning, I discovered the miracle of all Christmas miracles: Santa had come!

I woke up my brother, and the two of us sat in the dark, tails wagging. We knew better than to wake the adults before 6 a.m.

Well, perhaps you know how this story ends. I tore open my Puppy Surprise and pulled out one, two, three little bean bag pups from the mama dog’s underside. It was thrilling, but surely there were more. I dug my small hand deep into that Velcro pocket, but — surprise! — it was empty.

Rats. I’d asked Santa to stuff five puppies in there. I don’t know why he didn’t. It was really all I ever wanted.  OH

Ashley Walshe is a longtime contributor and former editor of O.Henry.

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