The snow crunches beneath your boots. It still falls, glittering in the yellow light of the streetlamps.
You glance left. Then right.
You try to catch your breath. A peek around the corner—
Your heart jolts as you jerk your head back. The flash of red echoes around in your mind.
You try to quiet your breathing. There’s an alley aheaad. Maybe you can hide there?
You try to move quietly, you really do, but these boots, these awful, bulky boots, crunch so loudly in the snow. You know everyone must have heard you…
You’re sure you’d remove them if you could, and brave the snow in your bare feet, but you can’t. They’re as stuck as the white beard upon your face. You never wanted the hair, but there it is.
You had no choice. No conscript does.
Anyone’s son, anyone’s daughter, it doesn’t matter. If they are chosen, they become like you. They get the boots. The beard. The cloak. The hat.
They are conscripted.
You peek into the alleyway. Empty.
The tall dark stone buildings tower above.
A crack of light shines through a barely-opened door. A child’s eyes gaze through the crack, searching.
“Santa?” the child calls again.
“Ryan? Ryan, close the door!” hisses a terrified voice from inside.
A man peeks out. He spots you. His hand darts to his mouth.
“I’m terribly sorry, Santa, he’s just a kid, he didn’t mean anything, please forgive, please… no coal?”
“Don’t call me Santa,” you reply automatically.
Then you remember where you are. Who you are running from.
You dart into the sahdows.
“Dad, I want to talk to Santa,” whines the kid.
“Shh!” His father closes the door. Then the blinds. Finally, the lights.
You can’t run home. You can’t run to family.
They think you should accept your fate. You were conscripted. It’s your duy. It’s what they raised you for.
Never even gave you a name. Just “Santa.”
You were made to start watching your siblings by the time you were five. They made you start watching your parents when you were seven.
You knew when they slept, when they woke. If they were good… Or…
At first, it was just the way it was. You were a Santa. One of SANTA’s footsoldiers. It’s how you were raised. How you were born. No sooner were you out than they had plopped on the red hat, the red cloak, and the tiniest pair of boots.
Perhaps it was the beard that started it. Only Santas grew beards. Only Santas…
Your eyes droop.
You can’t sleep. They’ll know. They always know.
This won’t work. You need to get out. Away. Somewhere where even they cannot reach. Somewhere beyond The Wall.
They always know. You know that, now, after Annabelle…
You liked Annabelle. You really did. You were sure she couldn’t have liked you the way you liked her.
But she had a name. She had thrown off the name of Santa, and had made one for herself, a name she only ever entrusted with you.
Annabelle. Anna. Belle. Anna-bella, Annabelle.
And you knew you wanted a name, too.
“Follow me,” she whispered, beckoning for you to leave the dorm with her, careful not to wake the other Santas.
Nobody would know, you had thought.
It was easy. You would spend all day learning how to watch; how to know; how to monitor the cameras. You and Annabelle knew exactly how to dodge them. You had assumed that cameras were all there was.
“My uncle’s house is near,” she told you as she pulled you out through the imposing front gates.
You ran through the streets, barely bothering to dodge out of the way of the Santas seemingly on every street corner.
What you were doing hadn’t sunk in yet — you were far too giddy for that.
“He’s just down the road,” she told you. You looked where she was pointing, and then—
You fell as she tackled you into the snow. Your red coats shone in stark contrast to the white.
She straddled you, and whispered into your ear…
“You need a name, not-a-Santa.”
You looked up into her eyes, bit your lip nervously, and smiled. “And what,” you asked, “should my name be?”
She stroked her long, white beard.
She leaned in towards you, her hand brushing away the fluffy white ball of her red hat. Her lips were inches from yours…
Crunch! Booted feet were trudging through snow in the nearby alley!
She rolled off of you and pulled you to your feet, then down the street.
She knocked on her uncle’s door. He didn’t answer, so she took out a hairpin and picked the lock in seconds, in full light of the streetlamps.
You thought you saw a flash of red around a conrer… but she pulled you inside and closed the door.
She giggled at your clumsy attempts, but hers were no better. Neither of you had ever had the opportunity — neither had ever been allowed.
You raised the razor to try again.
Slowly, her beard comes off.
She had never wanted it any more than you had yours.
The last traces almost eradicated, you leaned in towards her.
“Your turn,” she said.
“This first,” you returned, and leaned in…
You fell off of your perch on the bathroom counter, right into their arms.
Black boots. White beards. Red coats.
“You show great promise, Santa,” rumbled the Santa in front of you. He was quite old.
His eyes twinkled behind his glasses. He felt warm, even within the harsh cold of the stone room, even across from the hard metal table.
“There are several,” he continued, “who think you should get coal.”
Your eyes widened in fear.
“But I think different.”
“Anything,” you said. “Anything! Not that…”
He smiled. “Ho-ho-ho, very good. I know you can be a good Santa. But you must rid your life of temptation, Santa.”
You offered a promise you weren’t even sure you could keep: “I’ll never speak with Annabelle again!”
Santa frowned. “I can see the corruption of Santa, whom you illegally accompanied out of this compound, taints you still, my dear Santa… But do not worry. We know exactly what to do. Come.”
He beckoned. You followed.
He led you to the coal chamber.
You shivered in spite of the heat of the room emanating from the pit of glowing coals at its center.
Several Santas were raking the coals, getting them nice and hot.
The Santa guiding you handed you a rope.
For a moment, it didn’t sink in. For a moment, you forgot what the rope was.
Your eyes followed it up, up to the platform above the pit, up to where she stood.
“You must remove temptation,” repeated the Santa beside you.
He put his hand on your shoulder. He no longer felt warm. His hand was a brick of ice upon your shoulder.
“Pull,” he commanded. “Pull, and remove your temptation. Just a tug. It’s not difficult. Just pull.”
You looked up into Annabelle’s panicked eyes.
You couldn’t. You shook your head. You couldn’t! You wouldn’t!
You dropped the rope.
Santa shook his head at you in disappointment. Almost negligently, his large, old hands grasped the rope, and pulled.
The bottom of the platform opened.
Your eyes followed as she fell, fell into the pit, fell into the hot coals.
She screamed in agony as she burned!
And you screamed with her. You screamed as you fled, out of the coal room, out of the academy… Into the night.
You run! You’re almost there!
The Wall lies ahead. All the good little kids know never to approach the wall. Outside of that wall, it was dangerous. Outside that wall, the Santas could not protect you. Outside that wall, the Santas could not watch over you.
It was coal to the hand for any who neared it — the scars on those few who foolish enough to try deterred the rest. Any who actually reached it…
You near The Wall.
It must be your imagination. Is it brighter? Are the clouds not so dark here? Is it not snowing?
The wall stretches up in front of you.
Santas run at you from all directions.
You’re sure you can make it! You’ve got to!
It’s warm here.
Your face is bathed in the heat from the sun as it shines with a bright orange fire through the woods all around.
There’s not a flake of snow to be seen, not a cloud to be found.
You wonder how Annabelle would have found it.
You can almost feel her here with you now.
You can almost hear her whisper a new name — a new name just for you — into your ear…
You can almost feel her lips against press up against yours…
It’s so bright here…
You close your eyes, and smile.