JENNIFER HAD BEEN WATCHING TOBY sit in the backseat of her parked 2009 Toyota Prius for nearly twenty minutes. Not a long time in the grand scheme of life but quite a long time for a five-year-old to be so still and so silent. Toby stared blankly at the backside of the driver’s seat twiddling his thumbs while Mother Jennifer sat inside, near their townhome’s bay window, perplexed by his dedicated lack of action.
He was the stubbornest kid she had ever known, having resisted breastfeeding practically from the moment the doctors snipped the cord; from then on, he somehow always found bizarre ways to defy her authority to get what he wanted. Toby was her perfect—if zany—little rebel. Sure, his silent acts of defiance could be cute, but boy if it didn’t make Jennifer’s head hurt. A slow-roasting frustration began building in her chest while watching Toby sit in the back of her car. She leaned her forehead against the townhome’s cool glass and sighed.
All Jennifer wanted was for Toby to disbelieve in the gift-giving, great almighty Santa Claus—but, as any kid his age would, he resisted the notion that Santa wasn’t real and showed his resistance by refusing to remove himself from the backseat of her car.
It would be easy for her to say she wanted Toby to denounce Santa because she wasn’t religious. Or that perhaps the Christmas Machine was all just a corporate ploy, a business endeavor capitalizing on the wants of small children. Religiously, the holiday held no meaning. Logically and financially, she just couldn’t get on the Christmas bandwagon.
The holiday just truly, truly, sucked. Sucked away her spirit, sucked away her hard-earned paycheck working as a customer service agent at Arizona’s (“one and only!”) Mills Mall, sucked away any desire to interact with the peppy, holiday-spirited people she encountered at the mall on a daily basis. Working at the mall had become a black hole in her life, what with displays promoting peppermint-scented candles and Santa Claus cookie cut-outs. The radio betrayed her on her way into work, too, by playing the same Christmas songs way too early in the season and on repeat for hours and hours, days and days. The madness that came along with Christmas truly made her head spin.
But it wasn’t always like this for Jennifer. Christmas had been tolerable early in her life; she hadn’t always been so cynical toward the holiday. Everything started to change when Toby was born. Husband James was maybe just a teensie bit too religious for her, and all started falling apart when he began to teach Baby Toby about Christmas’s religious origins.
Wait! Ex-husband. That’s right. He’s her ex.
James and Jennifer met one snowy eve under the mistletoe. He went in for the kiss without saying a word to her, because, after all, it was a mistletoe. Jennifer, never having been one for surprises, jolted backward and batted him away. He laughed. She laughed. He smiled down at her and she smiled back. The two got to talking, and the almost kiss led to coffee and coffee led to dinner and dinner led to his place and his place led to . . . well, his place led to Toby.
Never a mistake, Jennifer told herself. Marrying James was a mistake, perhaps, but that issue had been resolved. And now she was putting the last, lingering tradition James had brought into their lives to rest. She decided that this was the year Toby had to find out the truth about Christmas and Santa Claus. For his sake, she reasoned. And my own.
So, Jennifer hatched a plan. On the morning of December 3, she took Toby to Mills Mall. Christmas was just three weeks away, and the mall’s atrium was decorated in all of the typical Christmas hoo-ha. The mother-son duo meandered through the mall’s assortment of stores, until eventually they landed in the main rotunda. Toby’s face lit up as they came around the corner; Santa Claus sat on a throne made of presents, jovially allowing tiny children to pop a squat on his lap.
“Mommy,” Toby had said, bouncing and tugging on her arm, “I want to go tell Santa what I want for Christmas this year!”
“Mommy has to get back home, sweetie,” Jennifer said, steering him around the long line of anxious children and tired parents.
“Can we come back?” Toby asked. She looked down at him, his big, brown eyes staring up with a hopeful glimmer.
“We’ll talk about it in the car,” she said, looking away.
And five minutes later, a voice squeaked from the backseat of the Prius: “We’re in the car now.”
Jennifer smiled and rolled her eyes. Toby didn’t miss a beat. She turned the ignition, put the car into drive, and backed out of her employee parking spot.
“So, Toby, sweetie,” Jennifer began, glancing at him through the rearview mirror, “I need to tell you something very important.”
“Is it a secret?” he asked.
“A really important secret,” she said. “You won’t tell anybody, will you?” He shook his head, which Jennifer barely saw out of the corner of her eye. “Good.”
She pulled onto the highway, which put her mind at ease. Only ten minutes and they would be at home. The conversation would be over. The hardest part would be over.
“Sweetie, this is no fun to tell you. But the reason we couldn’t see Santa today is because Santa Claus isn’t real.”
She saw Toby squint his eyes and tilt his head slightly to the side.
“But if Santa isn’t real, then why was he at the mall today?” asked Toby. “I sawed him.”
“You saw him.”
“Right, I sawed him.”
Jennifer took a breath.
“That wasn’t Santa Claus, honey. That man’s name is Donny and he works with me at the mall. He was wearing a suit with stuffing in it to make himself look fat. They gave him a beard to put around his chin so that he looked really old.”
“I don’t believe you.” Toby pursed his lips, frumpled his eyebrows, and crossed his arms over his tiny chest—the first form of defiance.
“Well, I’m right. You better believe it,” Jennifer said.
Exit sixty-four came sooner than she anticipated. She pulled off the highway, took two right turns, and entered into Apache Junction’s Indian Summer Condominiums. Every few seconds she glanced back at Toby, who continued to sit like a little grumpy goose.
He was confused. She could understand that. She imagined the gears turning ever so slowly in his brain, putting her words together with logical thought. Or, at least, trying to. Toby’s five-year-old brain couldn’t distinguish what reality truly was. He saw Santa (or sawed Santa) and to him that was reality. Jennifer’s words wouldn’t make the same, lasting impact as the image of the very real, fat, cheery-faced man sitting on a throne amid a pile of presents. Toby truly, whole-heartedly believed that Santa Claus existed.
She would have to change her tactic.
Upon parking, she craned her body to face Toby.
“Did you know there are lots of Santas in the world?” Jennifer asked.
“So he is real!”
“Nope. Still isn’t real,” she said, shaking her head. “In fact, Santa is evil.”
Toby gave her a look. “I thought you said he wasn’t real.”
“Well, he’s not,” Jennifer said. “The Santa you saw and the Santa you know is just a piece of make believe. Like how you play with your airplanes and give them voices. Planes don’t actually talk. You’re pretending that they talk.”
“But Santa brings me presents,” said Toby.
“Yeah, see,” said Jennifer, knowing she was about to throw him another curveball, “that’s not true. I’m the one who brings you presents.”
“But Santa brings you and, and . . . Daddy presents, too.”
“Well, no,” Jennifer said. “I buy the presents from the store and your daddy wraps them up, writes that they’re from Santa, and puts them under the tree when you’re sleeping. See, they’re not from Santa. They’re presents to us, from us.”
“So Daddy is Santa Claus! Cool!” Toby said, grinning widely at this newfound idea. “That’s why he’s been gone for so long!”
“Honey,” Jennifer said, contemplating her words. She would need to choose them carefully. “Just believe me when I say Santa isn’t real.” Yeah, because those words are really going to convince him, she thought.
“Well, I don’t believe you,” Toby said. His face was starting to get red, out of excitement about the possibility of his dad being Santa or anger at her insistence that no such Santa existed, Jennifer wasn’t sure.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Everybody believes in Santa Claus,” Toby said, his voice beginning to rise. “The whole wide world does. So maybe you’re the one making it up that he doesn’t exist.”
Jennifer sighed as a bead of sweat dripped off of her face and onto her chest.
“Why don’t we go inside,” she said, stepping out of the steaming car. A soft wisp of cool air floated past Jennifer’s face. “Don’t you think it’s hot in here?”
She leaned back into the car to pick up her purse, looked at Toby in the backseat, and said: “Come on, sweetie.”
But Toby continued to sit with his arms crossed and unmoving. From outside, she watched him as he stared at the driver’s side headrest, hoping he would drop his defiant stance to unbuckle his seatbelt. Instead, he burrowed his little fists deeper into the crooks of his arms and sunk further into the seat.
“Toby, enough of this,” she said with raised eyebrows. Almost imperceptible, she could see him press his body further into the car’s leather interior, becoming a live extension of the backseat.
“Aren’t you hot?” she asked, fanning herself with her hand. “There are popsicles inside.”
Toby stayed silent.
“Toby,” Jennifer said again, her voice deepening. “Get out of the car.”
His arms stayed crossed as he shook his head back and forth.
“I’m going to count to three,” Jennifer said, placing a subpar-manicured hand on her hip. “Don’t make me count, Toby. You know what’ll happen if I get to three.”
“No,” Toby said, even though nothing in what Jennifer said warranted a verbal response. That measly, two-letter word was the second tier of rebellion.
Across the street, the gray-haired Mrs. Wilson pulled into her driveway. She waved over to Jennifer through the car window and gave a quiet sort of smile. With the car in park, she cautiously braced her hands against the opened door while swinging her crotchety legs out onto the pavement. Then came the pink zebra-patterned cane. Everything in place and ready to go, Mrs. Wilson pushed herself out of the seat and stood up, her body teetering as she leaned onto the cane for support.
“Hi, dear,” Mrs. Wilson called over, raising a hand.
“Hey, Mrs. Wilson,” Jennifer said back, returning the gesture. Jennifer turned her gaze back to her stubborn son. “Toby, I’m counting now. This is your last chance. Now or forever hold your peace.”
“No,” he said in a short, clipped voice.
“Fine. Have it your way,” she said. Then began the counting of the most menacing of all numbers.
The Great Countdown, as Jennifer dubbed it (even though she never actually counted down; she just liked the ring of it), had been perfected in the years since she became a mother. The steps were simple:
- A warning needed to be given prior to the countdown’s commencement. The child had to be given a chance to “do the right thing.”
- A second warning should to be given (to be courteous and fair) if the first warning has failed.
- After two warnings, the parent(s) could begin the Great Countdown.
- Upon reaching the last number in the countdown (typically the number three), the child could be justifiably punished.
In this scenario, which Jennifer rightfully used on Toby many times when he silently demonstrated, she allowed him the four opportunities (FOUR!) to listen to her. He understood the consequences, and most of the time, he caved before she ever got to experience releasing that fateful number three, an ally to parents everywhere.
“Oooonnnne,” Jennifer started, drawing out each letter. She had learned over the years that extending these short words gave Toby enough time to come forward and correct his ill-behaved manners, if he so chose.
“Having some trouble with your boy?” Mrs. Wilson asked, picking up a grocery bag from her car’s trunk.
“Oh, just the usual,” Jennifer said, waving a hand as if swatting at a pesky fly. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
“I remember those days with my Johnny boy,” Mrs. Wilson said, smiling at some fond memory. “He seemed to never listen to me, that boy.”
“That certainly causes some trouble,” Jennifer said, giving Toby a knowing look in the hopes he would see her and understand just how difficult he was being.
“But you’ll look back on this day and smile, just like me,” Mrs. Wilson said. “The most difficult experiences as parents are the ones we seem to remember and cherish most.”
Jennifer raised her eyebrows and nodded, even though she found that hard to believe.
“Well, best of luck to you,” Mrs. Wilson said, slamming her trunk door closed and turning to waddle up the sidewalk.
“Have a good night,” Jennifer called over. Her attention returned to Toby. “Twwooooo. You’ve got one more number, little man.”
“No,” Toby said, right on schedule.
“Okay, you asked for it,” she said. “Three.”
Nothing. Toby said nothing, made no move to unbuckle his seatbelt, to get out of his seat. He didn’t even seem to be blinking, though he was, of course. Toby just sat there, as if he was a plastic toy waiting to be picked up and played with.
“You brought this upon yourself. Just remember that,” Jennifer said. “No video games for a week, little mister.”
She waited for some sort of reaction from him, but, just as before, Toby stayed immobile and silent.
“Do you hear me?” Nothing. “I’m only going to ask one more time before I leave you here, Toby. Do. You. Hear. Me?”
Oh, he heard her. She knew with ever fiber of her being that he heard her. He simply chose not to listen. And so, at a loss for what else to do, Jennifer began walking toward the house. He could stew in his anger and confusion, and maybe (just maybe) the gears would start turning and the bulb would light up.
Toby’s behavior was unusual for a five-year-old. She knew that. But Toby putting on a little show by silently demonstrating wasn’t a new tactic. He silently demonstrated almost whenever he wanted something that Jennifer didn’t want to—or couldn’t—give him. Like that second ice cream cone from Dairy Queen last week. Or the newest Avenger’s action figure for his birthday, which Jennifer couldn’t afford to buy him. Once, he even silently demonstrated when he wanted to eat broccoli instead of green beans for dinner. And it was hard, so hard, for Jennifer to be mad at the kid. It wasn’t like he was throwing a full-blown screaming and crying tantrum that every other child from California to New York had perfected. He was sitting. Quietly. Out of trouble. Doing nothing but staring a hole into whatever was in front of him. What more could a parent ask for?
Jennifer set down a few shopping bags on the stairs leading to their bedrooms, then hustled herself over to the bay window looking onto the driveway. She moved the front room chair closer to the window and settled in. She wasn’t sure how long Toby would be out there, but she had to make sure he’d be okay all by himself. The Indian Summer neighborhood was a mostly safe place, but she knew there were all sorts of weirdos in the world.
James came to her mind. While he wasn’t on the weirdo end of the spectrum, he was at least weird enough for her mind to make that leap. Weird? Asshole? When it came to James, the two words were synonymous.
The divorce hadn’t been easy, by any means. No divorce ever is. James had stayed quiet throughout the whole ordeal—perhaps this is where Toby got his own silence from—only showing up to legal meetings when absolutely necessary and speaking only when obligated. Rarely did their eyes ever meet sitting across that wide, mahogany table. But when it happened, she could see that he was overcome with guilt, yet he made no move to apologize, to reconcile, to fight for his chance to be Toby’s father. He had given that right up all too willingly, and it made Jennifer wish Toby had never learned to depend on him, to love him.
“I’m leaving you,” James had told her one night after she had put Toby to bed. “This isn’t working. I’m not happy. You’re not happy. Toby’s happy only because he doesn’t know any better.”
Thinking about these words now, staring at Toby in the backseat, didn’t hurt any less.
“I can’t keep pretending I’m your husband. And I can’t keep pretending to be a father.”
She had tried to remind him of those first few years, when they had been a family. She removed photos from their dust-covered boxes and set them in places James was guaranteed to see them—in front of his computer keyboard, taped to the bathroom mirror, stuck by a magnet onto the refrigerator. She had tried harder to be a perfect wife, by making him home-cooked dinners, doing all of their laundry, loving him better in bed. Nothing seemed to work.
“Jennifer, I just can’t do it anymore. We’re not a family.”
“No, we’re still a family,” Jennifer had said. “Toby and I, we’re still a family. You’ve just chosen to leave.”
On a cold morning in early January, James quietly snuck out of the house before she could try to convince him to stay. In her mind, Jennifer imagined James opening the front door, stopping, looking back, retreating to give their sleeping baby boy a kiss on the forehead, whispering his goodbye. However, James had been quiet, so Jennifer slept right through his escape and had no way to know what he did or didn’t do for certain.
He had left her to explain to Toby where Daddy went. As best as she could, she tried to rationalize to him what had happened. At first, she told Toby that Daddy had left for a business trip.
“To Canada,” she said. “He doesn’t know how long he’ll be gone. The cell service is bad, so we might not hear from him.”
Toby accepted that explanation for a while, but after a month, he began asking more questions.
“Mommy,” Toby asked, “why hasn’t Daddy called yet?”
“I’m not sure, sweetie,” she said. “We just have to wait and see.”
More and more time accumulated until eventually Toby stopped asking questions altogether. Within a few months, the word daddy was all but eradicated from his vocabulary.
At the five-month mark of James’s escape, Facebook informed Jennifer that he had gotten engaged. To a Christmas-loving, religious, peppermint-spirited woman. Everything Jennifer was not. She rolled her eyes, cursed him for being such a horrible excuse for a man, and cracked open a bottle of wine after Toby had fallen asleep.
That goddamn bastard, she had thought.
Was Jennifer’s affliction towards Christmas why he had left her? Was she not spirited enough for him? She had tried, she really did. Shouldn’t that have been enough?
It had been eleven months since Jennifer and Toby had last seen James, and this year would be the first Christmas without him.
Jennifer’s stomach grumbled and she glanced at the clock sitting across the room. Lunch time. She walked into the kitchen and made Toby and herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She placed both on a plastic plate and headed back outside. Only twenty minutes had passed, which in the grand scheme of life wasn’t very long. But Toby looked as though he hadn’t moved a muscle. She was impressed by his patience and perseverance; he would accomplish great things in his life with these abilities.
“Honey,” she said when she reached the car. “I brought you a sandwich. You must be getting hungry.” Jennifer held out the plate to him. After a few seconds of no movement, she set his plate between them on the pavement, picked up her sandwich, and took a big bite.
“Mmmmm,” she said between a mouthful of bread and peanut butter, “this is really delicious.” She swallowed before speaking again. “I made them just how you like it. Extra peanut butter, cut into triangles.”
Toby stayed quiet, but she could hear his tiny stomach begging for food. She knew he’d crack soon.
She sat down on the grass and crossed her legs, continuing to eat. Toby’s sandwich, placed between them, challenged him to make a move.
As she ate (and waited), Jennifer listened to the sounds of the neighborhood—squirrels scurrying up nearby trees, the roar of a weed-whacker from down the street. Somewhere somebody was rolling a garbage can down to the end of a driveway. The sun was hot, even in December, and Jennifer stretched out her legs, letting her body be warmed.
And suddenly, as Jennifer placed the last chunk of sandwich into her mouth, Toby unbuckled his seatbelt. He turned away from her and gathered up his toy airplanes from the backseat. She could hear him mumbling about something but couldn’t quite discern what he was saying.
“What?” she asked. “Speak up.”
“You don’t get it,” Toby said, angrily turning toward her. He rushed out of the car and past Jennifer, who was quick on his heels.
“Honey,” she said, “slow down.”
Toby reached the front door, and he went to open it, but Jennifer forced the door shut. Trapping him, in a way, but she needed to understand what was going on.
“Please talk to me.” She rubbed the top of his head, flattening down his curly, brown hair. She hoped he felt soothed by her touch.
“You don’t get it,” Toby repeated.
“Tell me what I don’t get,” Jennifer said. She moved away from him and sat down on one of the porch rocking chairs. Toby set down his toys and sat on the steps to the porch, curling his arms around his legs and sinking into them.
“Christmas is the only thing that’s left of Dad,” Toby said. Jennifer saw the frown on his face, the wrinkle in his eyebrows, his lips pursed tightly shut, nostrils flaring as he breathed in and out. Toby wasn’t crying, but she could hear the strain in his voice as he spoke.
“Toby,” she said, getting up from the chair and moving next to him. She placed an arm around his shoulders, pulling him closer. “Your father loves you very much. He always will. And I know it might not make sense, but Christmas isn’t a holiday we can celebrate anymore.”
Toby was silent as he processed what Jennifer had just said.
“Is he ever going to come back?” he asked.
“Oh, sweetheart,” she said, squeezing his shoulder. “I don’t think so.”
The two sat next to each other in silence for a while. She could see the gears turning in Toby’s head as he remained quiet but pensive. Jennifer questioned if she was doing the right thing. Was telling Toby his father wouldn’t return wrong? Was taking Christmas away wrong? Jennifer thought most people would say yes, but she couldn’t convince herself of that. Celebrating the beloved traditions their family had cultivated would result in more pain than cutting all ties with the holiday. Wiping it clean felt good and right. It felt needed, given the circumstances.
“Well, if he’s not coming back,” Toby said, propping his head up, “then I never want to celebrate Christmas ever again.”
He stood, determination painted across his face, and went inside the house, letting the porch door slam behind him. Jennifer followed, perplexed—again—by his actions. Never had she expected Toby to so willingly give up the holiday that had seemed to mean so much to him.
Inside the townhome, Toby opened the door to the storage beneath the stairs and pointed to a box labeled in James’s blocky script: “Christmas Decorations.”
“I want to get rid of it all,” he said. “No more Christmas for us. No more Santa and no more cookies and no more anything like that. If, if . . . if Daddy isn’t here, then Santa won’t be here either.”
Jennifer raised her eyebrows.
“Toby, honey, are you sure?” she asked, a small part of her wishing Toby would take back what he had just said. If he did, it would mean he still had hope.
But Toby nodded.
Jennifer bent down and picked up the box.
“I think,” Toby said, “that we should give the decorations away.”
Jennifer turned around and smiled down at Toby, her amazing little rebel.
“I think that’s a great idea,” she said.
He picked up the four-foot tall Santa statue they had planted in their front yard each year leading up to Christmas and tucked it under his arm. The pair walked back outside to the car and dropped the items in the trunk. Two trips to the car later, the closet underneath the stairs was empty, ready to be filled with a different sort of spirit.