Chapter One: Finding Faith
By the time my friends turned seven, not a single one of them actually believed in Santa.
Ironically, that’s the year my faith in the big guy began.
I was skeptical from the start. A fat, bearded man shoots down chimneys or climbs through windows to deliver presents to lots of kids he doesn’t even know? He travels via a sleigh that’s powered by flying deer?
I always gravitated toward science and math, because their clear-cut answers helped make sense of the world. I learned about Occam’s Razor while preparing my science fair project in second grade. It dictates that all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. That’s why, the Christmas after I turned seven, when all my friends were catching up to what I’d known all along, that Santa’s a big, fat, phony, I began to believe.
After all, that year I woke up to a decorated tree with blinking lights, and a whole truckload of fancy, beautifully wrapped presents. My options to explain this baffling event were: 1) a red-suited man who lives in the North Pole brought me toys in a magical sack; or 2) my dad actually saved some of the money he would otherwise spend on beer to buy the presents for me as a surprise. I could count on one hand the number of times Dad left the house, if I excluded walking around the corner to the auto-repair place where he worked, or walking to the convenience store for more alcohol.
In fact, if I hadn’t learned to steal tiny amounts of cash from my dad’s paycheck stash, my little sister Gertrude and I wouldn’t have even had hotdogs and ramen to eat. Trudy and I still twitch every time we pass a hotdog stand.
It was clear, given what I knew, that Santa must exist.
I stand up, and clear my throat. Almost a hundred sets of eyes turn toward me, and the thrill I feel every year when Sub-for-Santa season commences fills my chest. Large nutcrackers stand guard by the door, and faux holly garland drapes along every surface. A sparkly, rainbow lit tree covered in ornaments we’ve been given by grateful parents as thank yous over the years decorates the conference room. It looks cheerier than usual, but it’s still essentially one big table with a podium up front, and a hundred folding metal chairs in rows toward the back.
“Welcome to the organizational meeting for this year’s Sub-for-Santa program, sponsored locally by the United Way. I’m delighted you’re all here. We can’t wait to work with you to bring a little wonder to a lot of children who haven’t had enough of that in their lives. My name is Mary Wiggin, and I’m the President of the Sub-for-Santa program here in Atlanta.”
Smiles sprout on the faces of volunteers all around me, which is more impressive given the fact that they’re all sitting on hard, metal chairs.
I continue. “We are here to uplift the lives of as many kids as we possibly can. I’m proud to say that this program has grown consistently each of the eight years that I’ve been in charge, and I hope to be able to say the same next year.”
Everyone claps and I wait for them to finish.
“Many of you are familiar, and I’m so pleased to see you returning year after year. Do any of you repeat sponsors recall the number one rule?”
Three hands shoot up. I point at a lady in a bright pink sweater sporting a reindeer wearing magenta lipstick.
“Only nominate families who are super poor?” she asks.
I nod my head. “We do want to ensure the families placed on our list are in need, mostly because our resources are limited and we want to help as many people as we can, but it’s not our number one rule. Anyone else remember that?”
Now that one of them was wrong, they’re all nervous about answering. Only one hand stays raised, the green polished fingers waving wildly, like a kid waving down an ice cream truck. “Yes, Paisley?”
My perky secretary from work is helping me run the program for the third year in a row. She’s paid for some of her time, but at minimum wage. Ironically, she doesn’t seem to care about anything at our real job where she’s paid far, far more, but she’s my most enthusiastic volunteer with Sub-for-Santa. Paisley’s just made for Christmas, I guess.
She beams. “Don’t ruin the magic.”
“Exactly, yes, that’s rule number one. We do not want any of these children, not a single one, to know where these presents really originate. The reason this program works is that these kids believe in the cultural fiction that a jolly fat man with a loving, hardworking wife supervises a host of tiny elves. The kids need to believe that someone has noticed the kind things, the good things, and the right things they’ve done this year. They need to believe that someone cares about them. If they think these presents stem from pity, how will they feel instead?”
Paisley’s hand shoots up again, and she bounces up and down in her chair. I suppress my grin and call on the heavy-set man sporting a full beard with his arm raised behind her.
“But isn’t that kind of a lie?” he asks. “I mean, eventually they’ll figure it out, and they’ll either be mad or feel like idiots.”
I frown. I should never have trusted a man with howling wolves on his t-shirt.
“Were you ever a recipient of Christmas gifts, something like the Sub-for-Santa program?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Nah, my parents didn’t need handouts.”
I grit my teeth. “As someone who was a recipient, trust me. They won’t be angry when they find out people cared enough to keep their donation a secret.”
“You’re only one person. You don’t know how everyone will feel.”
Note to self: install ejection seats before next year’s opening meeting.
“I can’t speak for everyone,” I say, “but neither can you. Respectfully, speaking from ten years of experience with this program, I think you’re wrong. I’ve seen a lot of reactions and heard from a lot of children. I’ve heard from kids who were participants year after year on both sides. Many of them are involved to this day, just like me. We aren’t lying to these children, and anyone who believes that Sub-for-Santa is perpetuating a lie should leave.”
I pause and glance meaningfully toward the back door. No one stands up. “If you’re all staying, I’d love to share something with you that might help you understand how this will work. When I was younger, my mom left our family. My sister was not quite four years old. After Mom left, our dad started drinking heavily. Now I have a label for what he was: a poorly functioning alcoholic. Those were difficult times in the Wiggin household.”
Paisley gives me two thumbs up and I want to stop this presentation to hug her.
“That Christmas I was old enough to know that Santa wasn’t real. He was a lie, and I knew we’d wake up Christmas morning the same as every other morning. I’d make ramen for my sister, and we’d pretend it wasn’t the crappiest day of the year.”
I make eye contact with a dozen people, making sure they’re all listening.
“Except that’s not what happened. For the first time in a very long time, something great happened to us. Santa Claus was real, and he brought us a beautiful tree with multitudes of presents underneath it. Once a year, I knew that even if my parents thought I was worthless, someone somewhere cared. When I did finally discover that it wasn’t Santa, but in fact a group of extraordinary people who wanted me to have a fantastic day, that meant more to me than the fiction of Santa.”
A tear springs to my eye, as it always does this time of year when I think back to that first Christmas. I wipe it away.
“Sub-for-Santa,” I say, “is a program that allows good people to give to those who need love, for no benefit to themselves. We should be doing things like this all year, but that’s too tall an order, so we settle for one day a year of selfless service and love to children who will truly appreciate the gesture. The real reason we never, ever, let the children know where the presents come from is that—”
Paisley’s waving so frantically I’m worried she’s going to poke the guy next to her in the eye. A lawsuit would eat up all our funds and the program would collapse. I sigh, but the corners of my mouth turn up a little anyway.
“If the kids figure out it’s coming from a charity, they’ll feel patronized. We want them to feel like someone values them, like they’re worthwhile, not like they’re getting presents out of pity or guilt. Eventually, they’ll be old enough to realize that there may be a real Santa somewhere, but he can’t really reach everyone, so other people help out and do some of his work for him.”
There may be a real Santa somewhere? I can’t help but smile, because other than her small delusion, she’s spot on. If she exhibited half this much zeal in the tax office where we both work, she wouldn’t still be my secretary. She’d have been promoted to office manager.
“Well said Paisley, thank you. If these children believe in Santa, they also believe that they matter to someone. If these children know rich people are donating things to poor kids who aren’t loved, they’ll feel lesser. That’s obviously the opposite of our goal.”
As I work my way through the rest of the rules, my heart lifts and it finally starts to feel like the holiday season is upon us. Eventually, it’s time to pass out nomination forms and sponsor requirements.
“I have a list of volunteers that we’ve collected from several church groups and businesses, as well as employees, friends and neighbors. You’re all here because you offered to sponsor a family, or be part of my core team to help administer the entire operation, or both. I appreciate that greatly. We still have one more week to collect volunteers and then I’ll finalize the nominations for participants. Please write down the information on anyone you have now, and bring it to me. The sooner we have nominations, the sooner we can contact them for permission, and request the documentation we need to ensure our efforts go to the right place. Last year, we helped five hundred and thirty-two families, with more than eleven hundred children. My goal for this year is to reach six hundred families and fifteen hundred children. If you’ll all help, I think we can get there.”
Paisley passes out nomination forms, and cards with the website URL where they can submit nominations once they’ve left tonight. “Thank you all, and please feel free to call me with any questions. My phone number and email address are both on that card, below the website listing. I try to reply as promptly as possible during the holiday season. I don’t want details to impede our desire to bless these children.”
Pais and I each take a door and people hand us nomination forms on their way out. Once the last person waves and walks out the door, I lock it behind her and blow out all but one of the Christmas Cookie candles. Paisley and I buckle down to work immediately, compiling a list of people to contact. A few people added names to the volunteer column as well, and my heart swells. Several others indicated they’d be willing to sponsor more than one family.
“We’re almost done with the nominations,” I tell her. “Why don’t you take the volunteer names and update that spreadsheet for me. I’d love to send out the introductory email tomorrow. We always get a flurry of new sponsors when that goes out, plus maybe you can post our numbers and our mission statement to the Facebook group and hopefully get some shares that way.”
Paisley is a whiz with lists of any kind. Sometimes I think she manages lists better than the computer. Whenever I comment on it, she says her parents had her working on lists of things before she could even talk. I’ve never asked her about her parents, and she’s never volunteered much more than that.
“Sure boss, right away.”
“I’m not your boss here, Pais. You’re a volunteer same as me.”
She rolls her eyes. “Except you’re the Chair, and I’m still getting paid. But whatever you say, boss.” She salutes me.
Paisley hops on the computer with a saucy grin on her face, and the clacking of her fingers on the keys soothes me. After a long and exhausting tax season, it’s a relief to be focusing on the one thing I love more than taxes for a few weeks before we start all over again.
“Umm,” Paisley says, “I found something a little odd on this list.”
I tilt my head sideways. “Odd? What does that mean?”
“Well, I need to compare something first.” She walks across the room and peers over my shoulder at the list I’m finishing up of nominated families. “There.” She points. “That says Lucas Manning, right?”
I squint at the screen of my laptop and nod. “Yes, Lucas Manning, at 236 Sunset Cove.”
“Can the same person be both a nominee and a volunteer?” she asks.
I scrunch up my nose. “No. If they’re a legitimate participant in the program, they shouldn’t be able to afford to sponsor a family.”
Paisley walks back over to the desktop, and I follow. About a third of the way down her list, there’s his name again. Lucas Manning, 236 Sunset Cove.”
“Gah,” I say, “what a mess. We must’ve included his name by accident. We’ll have to go over the initial forms and figure out which one he really is.”
We search and search, but sure enough, we didn’t make a mistake. His name and address are listed here on the nominee form, and someone filled his name and address out as a sponsoring family as well.
“Now what?” I wonder out loud.
“Has this ever happened before?” she asks.
I shake my head. “Not that I know of.”
“What do we do?”
Take the bull by the horns, I suppose. “I’ll call him and set up an appointment to discuss the program. I don’t think it’s a subject I should broach over the phone, because if he’s a sponsor, he’ll be offended someone nominated him, and if he’s a nominee, he’ll wonder if other people disapprove of him taking things as evidenced by his name being listed as a sponsor. What a snarl. Hopefully the answer will be glaringly obvious once I reach his house, and I can play it off as a standard preliminary meeting either way.”
“Good idea,” Paisley says.
I dial the number listed, and the phone rings and rings. Finally it goes to voicemail. Lucas Manning has a deep voice with a faint accent I can’t place, at least, not from hearing only ten words. I leave a message asking him to call me at the United Way office.
Not five seconds after I end the call, my phone rings and the words UNKNOWN CALLER pop up on the screen. Probably Lucas returning my call.
“Wow, that was fast,” I say.
“Mary?” My boss Shauna’s voice, even just saying my name on the phone, is unmistakable. “What was fast?”
I cringe, not that she can see it. “Your phone number came up as unknown, and I thought you were someone with Sub-for-Santa returning my call.” Which was stupid, because I only gave him my office number.
“Ah, okay. Are you busy tonight? I was hoping you could meet me for dinner. I need to talk to you, and it’s important.”
“That sounds ominous,” I say.
She laughs. “Well, we do have a lot of data to review. I got our analyst’s reports on numbers and performance for the year.”
My stomach turns. “You’re not firing me, right?”
“I’d hardly do that over dinner. I’d have to wait until the end of the meal to tell you, which would be beyond awkward when I finally got around to firing you.”
She also wouldn’t be making a joke about it if it were happening. I relax a little bit. “Where did you want to meet?”
“Bentleys, eight sharp. Dress nice.” Shauna hangs up the phone.
“Was everything okay?” Paisley asks.
“I’m wearing black pants and a red sweater. Does this count as ‘nice enough for Bentleys’ do you think?” It’s one of the premiere steakhouses in Atlanta, and I’ve only been once.
Paisley scrunches up her nose. “Well, I’ve never been there, but. . .”
“That bad?” I sigh. “Shauna wants to see me, and she said to meet her there. She reminded me to dress nice, like I need someone to tell me how to pull my pants on the right legs.”
“Bizarre. Although you are her rising star. Probably just another client that asked for you specifically. If she’s giving you more work, I know it goes against every part of your character, but you need to demand a raise. You already work harder than everyone else in that stupid office.”
I wish. “No way is she calling me over to give me a raise. In any case, I have forty-five minutes until I’m supposed to arrive, and it’s fifteen minutes to get to my house for a change of clothes. Bentleys is a solid twenty minutes away from home. I’m sorry to ditch you, but I better run.”
“I have a cocktail dress in my trunk. If you ask nicely, I might be persuaded to share.”
I raise one eyebrow. “Do I even want to know why you have a dress in the back of your car?”
She grins. “I’m single, and I like to be prepared. You never know where the night may lead.”
I always know where mine will go. My nights beeline toward a TV dinner in front of an episode of Gilmore Girls. But that’s kind of pathetic. I should have a cocktail dress in my trunk. I should be spontaneous and fun.
“I’m single too,” I say, “and the only thing in my trunk is dust bunnies, hiding amidst old tax files.”
“You want the dress, or not?” she asks.
“I might. Lemme see it.” I follow her out to her car.
She lifts the trunk and slides a black bag out. She pulls the zipper down to reveal a blood red sheath dress with black piping. I gasp. “Yes, I’d love to wear that, but I doubt it’ll fit me.”
Paisley eats like a bird and it shows, but one quick try on won’t hurt. If by some miracle it fits, I’ll spare myself a lot of anxiety about traffic and changing in time to reach Bentleys.
Paisley snorts. “It’ll look better on you than on me I imagine, especially with your coloring. I mean come on, this vibrant red with your blonde hair and hazel eyes? Not to mention your golden tan. Remind me why we’re friends again?”
I don’t bother correcting her, but my skin isn’t actually tanned. My dad’s half Italian, so my skin’s darker than your average white person.
I roll my eyes. “Obviously I’ve been using you this whole time for the day I would need a cocktail dress with no notice.”
I leave the conference room and walk around the corner to try on the dress in my office. Paisley stands guard by my door just in case. It’s late enough that everyone who normally works here is gone, but I’m not taking any chances on janitorial staff. The dress is red satin, with panels that alternate between shiny and matte in vertical stripes. It’s a little snug, which means it shoves my chest up near my collarbones.
“I don’t think I can go out in public looking like this.”
“You have to at least show me,” Paisley whines. “Come on, lemme see it. I have no exciting news, so I need to live vicariously.”
I step out of my office.
Paisley whistles and claps. “If you were going on a date instead of to meet our boss, I’d totally force you to wear that. Since it’s just a work thing, it’s your call. You’re welcome to borrow it as long as you dry-clean it afterward.”
I bite my lip while I think about it. “It will be way easier than trying to drive home first, so I’ll borrow it if you’re sure it’s okay.”
She nods. “Totally fine.”
“Thanks.” I slide into my boring black pumps and grab my purse. “Actually, I should probably use the time I’m saving to help you finalize the nominee list.”
Paisley shrugs. “I can finish the last few up here, no problem. Order the most expensive thing on the menu. Frank & Meacham owes you a nice meal for coming in on no notice, and late at night. Not during tax season.” She scowls. “Those guys abuse your work ethic.”
“I’ll order the lobster and the steak.”
“Oh man, then bring me leftovers. And to pay me back for the loan, text me and let me know what’s going on. I love firm gossip.”
“Will do.” I pull my light brown leather jacket on over the stunning red dress, and walk out the door.
I run through a list of things Shauna might need to tell me. It can’t be a promotion, because I’m a senior associate, which means she’s got the only position above mine. I can’t imagine she’d fire me. My hands shake. Could she be transferring me? There’s a rumor going around that the London office is struggling. I can’t leave my baby sister Trudy here in Atlanta alone, and she’d never follow me to London. If that’s it, I’ll have to tell her no. Can I tell her no?
I’m deep in thought, and only a few steps away from the comfort of my Honda Accord when I bump into someone.
My heart accelerates and I stumble backward, blinking my eyes in the cold air to help focus them. Strong hands wrap around my upper arms, steadying me. “Mary?”
I look up into the face of my ex-fiancé, Foster Bradshaw. He looks every bit as aristocratic and perfect as ever. I shouldn’t be surprised to see him here, since he runs United Way’s Atlanta office, but he’s not usually here after hours. His dark hair falls softly over his forehead and ears. His deep blue sweater exactly matches his eyes. He knows it, too. With Foster, nothing is ever a coincidence.
“I’m so sorry, Foster. I didn’t see you.”
“Obviously.” The humor in his tone rubs me the wrong way, or maybe it’s my body’s reaction to his cologne that makes me cranky. “Do you have a few minutes to spare? I need to talk to you about something.”
Get in line, buddy. “Sorry, I don’t actually. I just got a call from my other boss, the one who pays my bills. I’ve gotta run.”
“Always working, even after tax season has ended. Typical Mary. Well, don’t let me stop you, but I’d love to touch base sometime in the next few days before things get crazy.” He releases me and steps back. “Be careful. It’s icy out there.”
I practically sprint to my car. Whatever my boss has to say, it can’t be worse than spending another second with Foster.