She waited for the moment.
No footsteps in the hallway. Her parents’ voices a muffled wave on the other side of the wall. The clock glowing 11:08 on her night stand.
It was time.
She grabbed Snoopy. Cracking the door, she scuttled down the hall, her shadow a silent leap ahead of her heart. Through the sheer curtains in the living room, she could see snow sink through the wonderlight. Swirling snow, tossed by an invisible hand.
It didn’t worry her. Rudolph’s nose was bright. He wouldn’t have any trouble.
The tree’s lights reflected rainbows in her eyes. She smiled with a candy-cane mouth. Excitement fizzed from some sleepy center up to dancing lips, and she clutched Snoopy tighter to squelch the squeal inside her chest. Her feet rocked from heel, to tiptoe, and back.
“Oh, boy,” she whispered. “Oh, boy.”
A crackling noise ran from her parents’ room, and up her spine. She scurried past the manger scene, and the piano bench, which still held a plate with two cookies. And the glass of milk to wash down a red star, a blue angel.
Dear Santa, I hope you have time to eat these. You must be very tired.
She crept toward the space she’d picked out. At the back of the tree, in the corner of the room. Where a tangled bow of light cords hid. But if she hugged her knees, she’d fit just so.
Picking her way through the stack of presents, she thought of the Grinch, slithering his way around the other Whos’ houses, leaving crumbs much too small for the other Whos’ mouses. Her bottom knocked down an ornament, or two, but she didn’t bother putting them back up. Not now.
Almost time. It must be. The sharpness of pine tickled her nose. Looking up, she inhaled the carnival of lights with eyes thrown open wide. Up, up, up they shot. Her head fell back on Snoopy’s tummy. Her fingers reached to touch fresh sap.
Sticky. Her dad told her that bugs could get stuck in it. Forever.
A door creaked. Footsteps pattered. She held her breath, but her heart was a drum.
Pa ra pa pum pum.
“Who’s eating the cookies?”
“You did it last year!”
“All right. One for each of us. Claire was generous.”
“I’ll take the angel.”
“Fine. But I’m telling Santa you’re the greedy one.”
She saw them. Eating Santa’s cookies. She saw them. Something like sap squeezed up the tube of her throat. And burned.
Her mouth opened.
“I wish we'd gotten one more thing for each of the stockings.”
“Stuff more candy in. They won’t notice.”
“I just don’t want them to be disappointed.”
She pressed her lips together. Hard. Tried to make herself even smaller. Crumb-like.
Daddy’s glasses glowed gold through the branches. Very close now. Her breath whistled as he set the stockings upright against the presents. He adjusted the candy canes to hook just so at the top. His face softened into creases.
She could see a bit of grey in the stubble of his chin.
The hot stuff in her throat sank lower. Into the tender part of her chest. Daddy. It warmed her. The Christmas lights—a kaleidoscope of red, blue, yellow, purple—all blurred into gold.
She had to sneeze.
She was going to sneeze.
“This will probably be the last year for Claire and Santa.”
“I’m surprised she hasn’t asked already.”
“She wants to believe. She always has.”
Snoopy’s ear tasted like dirty cotton balls. But biting down worked. She didn’t sneeze.
Instead, she would stay still and silent. As a mouse. Until her parents finished. And when tomorrow came, her smile wouldn’t waver, or break.