Half an hour and it would be over – another Christmas for the books. Nick could hardly wait for his day to finish, to be done with it all and get back to reality. Every year for the last 12 the so-called holidays were “everything but” for him. Except for his work, his world always went gray shortly before Thanksgiving and stayed that way right through the end of the year, Christmas being the worst of it. Not even the freshest snow or the brightest lights could delete the memory.

His daughter Julie was just 17 when she slammed out the front door, turning that year’s family Thanksgiving into tragedy. Her “I hate you” still screamed through him, piercing with every remembering. Ronnie, Julie’s mom, stood helpless and ashen while Nick poured himself another drink, swearing that Julie could go to hell for all he cared.

“Let her go,” he said to his wife. “She’ll never hurt us again.”

 “Nick, the last thing you need right now is another drink,” Ronnie said, crying.

“You can go to hell, too,” he muttered, heading for the basement and the TV.

Julie disappeared. Not even her friends would admit to knowing where she was and not long after, Ronnie found a lawyer. All Nick remembered about the divorce was letting Ronnie do it, signing the papers and finding the nearest tavern afterwards. From then on his life slid into his own hell.

Eventually, he found AA, or rather, the courts found AA for him. Surprisingly, something took, though far too late for him to reclaim his marriage.  Nick started coming back, one hack job after another. The Santa Claus stint stuck, though. For the past nine years it gave him a break from his handyman jobs, the heavier holiday doldrums and especially kept him out of bars – if not from the painful memories.

The kids coming through Hefner’s Department Store helped, but they didn’t make Christmas mean anything more to him than that. Playing Santa was simply an escape. He had little trouble faking it.

He checked his watch and the line of kids. None. Just the little girl in her mother’s arms. Before Nick could shake his foam belly and lean over to greet the child, her mother said, “Mom told me you were working here.” Nick jerked back, looked up and met Julie’s misted eyes.

“Tell Santa what you want for Christmas, Nickie,” Julie said. Nickie, as if her mom had pulled a Mattel cord hanging out of her back, said, “I want my Grampa…”

“What …? How did you …? Who …?  “was all Nick could manage as Julie reached for his gloved hand, saying, “Don’t you think it’s time?”

Julie and Nickie had waited at the end of the line, until just before closing. Nick looked around, thinking, “Ronnie?” but of course she wasn’t there. Julie still held his hand and could feel the shock at seeing her running through him. Nick turned back to the little girl, grasping for time to control his feelings.

“What did you say you wanted Santa to bring you, Sweetie?”

“Mommy said my Grampa …”

Nick looked again at Julie, then her daughter, then Julie and asked, ‘Nickie?”

“Nicole,” Julie answered. “She’s almost three.”

“Who’s the fa …?”

“Not important anymore, Dad.” She hesitated, held his eyes, and said, “I am tired of running. I want to come home.”

Nick blinked but didn’t break contact with his daughter‘s eyes. He stood down from his Santa chair and hugged them both, very tightly.

“Me, too, Jules. Me, too,”