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The House at the End of the Road
by Andrew L. McFarlane

The visitor sped toward his final visit of a very long night, tired but satisfied. The last stop, his predecessor had told him, was always the most difficult.

John Connors sat in his favorite leather chair in the house at the end of the road. The house was large by any standards and far larger than one man required. It and the many expensive furnishings within were a testament to the litigious successes of one John Connors. The Christmas tree, a special order 13' Norway Pine, was tastefully appointed with tiny white lights and glass icicles. Underneath, a mound of presents, each meticulously wrapped, waited.

John cared nothing for these presents, purchased by a legion of personal assistants to the rich and powerful who were his clients, just as his own assistant had done for these clients. He gave a bitter four in the Christmas morning laugh at the picture of thousands of secretaries buying millions of gifts for people who couldn't be bothered to do it themselves. He would open none of their offerings, having already opened the only present he needed.

The dying embers in the fireplace to his left gave off a fitful warmth, as did the seven scotches in his belly from the bottle on the table to the right. Neither was enough to warm him. Idly, he stroked his present to himself as he mused.

At forty-two, John Connors was the area's most sought after lawyer Otter Creek Music of Suttons Bay--on and offline, the best source for all your music who commanded fees to match. A full partner by the age of thirty-three, John had made a name for himself that was heard and, he felt, respected even farther away. He had never married as such opportunities always seemed to come at times inconvenient to his career. He wondered, without much caring, if the presence of a wife and kids would make much difference to his current state of mind. Probably, he thought. Mockingly, he raised his present to his ear, burlesquing a phone call.
"This is Mr. Connors at 523 Woodlawn. I require a wife and one--no make that two children."
"Can you have them shipped next day air?"
"Oh? No shipping on Christmas? Well thank you anyway."
He could smell the sharp, metallic tang of his present as he removed it and switched to the proper grip. The pistol, as yet unfired, was heavy with dark promise.

A strange, huffing sound from the vicinity of the fire jolted him from his reverie. He swung his attention and the pistol round to behold the most unlikely of sights. There, straightening up in the careful manner of the old and overweight was a snowy haired man in a slightly sooty red suit with white trim.

The man regarded the gun for a moment with eyes crinkled from much smiling before dismissing it. When his gaze locked with John's, Connors felt no more than three years old.

"Don't shoot," the visitor said in a pleasant baritone, "It's only me."

Words were the realm of the lawyer, and now that some had been spoken, John's confidence returned quickly. "Mr. Claus," he said mockingly, "What the hell are you doing in my house?"

The stranger gave a "Ho-Ho" right out of a storybook and replied, "Your house is my last stop and it's been such a lovely evening. Please, call me--"

"Santa," John cut in. "Yeah right buddy. Listen, I don't know who you are or how you got in here. If you're some Christmas theme-burglar, help yourself to anything you want and come back in an hour for more. I'm busy right now."

The white-bearded face shifted to the slightest of frowns and the bushy eyebrows rose slightly. "Busy? Oh, I can see that you are very busy." His eyes flicked to the still-leveled gun."

John felt a guilty stab.

"I'm not here to take, quite the reverse actually, and you can call me Santa."

The sneer that had made him hundreds of thousands of dollars came easily into his face. "All right, Santa, and what do you have in your bag for me?"

The visitor regarded him for a long moment, simultaneously giving an impression of great weariness and satisfaction. His eyes were the eyes of one who has beheld ten thousand towns, ten thousand bedecked Christmas trees, the sleeping faces of ten thousand children and found them all to be good. His face was one worn by frozen winds, seared by fire's heat and crinkled by many smiles. The smile which finally came to his lips was the smile of Santa Claus. "Got any cookies?" Santa asked.

The incongruity of the question jolted John from his posturing and the gun, no longer guided by his intent, lowered. "Cookies?" he couldn't help but laugh a little.

"Yes, cookies, and a maybe a carrot and a large glass of milk as well--you wouldn't believe the hunger one can build in my line of work." John gestured vaguely in the direction of the table at the side of the room.

Santa moved to the long table with an easy grace which belied his large girth, sorted through the collection of expensive goodies before settling on a small tin of butter cookies. He returned, crunching as he came. "Milk?" he asked hopefully.

John, slumping back into his chair, laid the gun on the table and picked up the bottle of scotch, pouring four fingers into his nearly empty glass. Halfheartedly, he offered the bottle to Santa.

"No thank you," Santa replied, settling into the chair across from John, still munching. He took a deep breath and blew it out. "You asked about my bag," he said after several moments and many more cookies. "I told you that this was my last stop, and in any case, I'm afraid there was never anything in it for one such as you."

John, sensing an attack, was quick to jump to the defensive. "'One such as me'? And tell me, Mr. High and Mighty Flies Through the Air Behind Eight Tiny Reindeer and Comes Down the Chimney S. Claus alias Kris Kringle alias Father Christmas alias Jolly Old Saint Nick--who exactly is one such as me?"

Santa regarded John, regarded the now empty cookie tin and with great deliberation stood up. He recrossed the room and contemplated the array of sweets. With equal deliberation, he selected a box of imported chocolates and returned to his chair. The antique wood creaked a bit at his weight.

John shifted impatiently while Santa sorted through the chocolates, settling at last upon a hazelnut cluster. He took the cluster in a Lindal Cedar Homes of Traverse City--Build your dream...single bite and an expression of deep satisfaction passed his features. "One such as you?" he finally replied. "I would not know, for certain. You have only questioned me, sharing nothing of yourself. My only knowledge is based upon the things which you have chosen to surround yourself with upon a Christmas Eve."

The gun accused John from the table, the scotch from the glass resting forgotten in his hand. John felt a tightening within him and he rose suddenly, flinging the glass still brimming with scotch into the fireplace. He was rewarded with a tinkling crash and a renewed blaze from the fire. "Well I'll tell you about one such as me! Do you want to know about working every damn day of the year, about the lies that I have to believe to do my job, the tales I've gotten juries to believe?" He roared as he stalked over to confront Santa who had just bitten into a chocolate covered cherry.

"Shall I tell you about the people I've come to trust? That would certainly be easy enough, because there's only one--me!" he said bitterly.

"And Santa, can I tell you how it felt to look in the mirror yesterday morning and realize that I hated the face staring back at me enough to have grounds for justifiable homicide?" John reeled back to his chair, dizzy more from the release of emotion than the effects of the scotch. As the flames, within and without, died down, John related the story of his life and Santa, chewing thoughtfully all the while, listened.

A long while later, when John had poured out all that there was within him and sat with some semblance of peace, Santa finally spoke. "John, I hope that you will not take it wrongly when I tell you that I have heard your story before, and more than once. From a college English professor who never wrote the book within him, from a bartender who finally realized that the drinks he served never cured the pain, only hid it and let it grow, and from others as well.

"I told you that there was nothing in my bag for you, and I wish even more that this were not so. You cannot imagine the delight that has come out of that bag tonight, the satisfaction that this night of labor has held for me. From the three toys that will be the only ones--and enough--for three brothers in Georgia to that one toy, a simple doll amidst an overabundance of talking, walking, crying laughing ones which will cause a little girl to laugh out loud and her parents to look questioningly at one another, this night has been the greatest of my life. If my bag held something like that, I would surely give it to you, but the getting is not that which you need."

John gazed with dawning wonder at the man before him. His courtroom eyes had learned to read people like books, and he knew that the man was telling the truth. In a voice little more than a child's whisper, John said, "You really are Santa Claus."

Santa leaned forward in his chair and, looking tireder, older, thinner, nodded once. "John, though this night has been the fullest by far of my life, it is also the last night. Time's law can be bent, but never broken. Though I have done the better part of a lifetime's work tonight, I am now paying the debt I owe."

John made as if to protest, but Santa held him with a gesture. "I pay it happily, John. It does not matter if the better part of a life is lived over eighty years or a single night--what matters is what is done within that span. One year ago, an English professor was sitting where you are now, life in ruins and a bottle of sleeping pills at his hand while a bartender told him the tale I am telling you now, a tale he had heard from a plumber from a politician from a long chain of lives broken and mended."

John could now see noticeable signs of degeneration in the man before him and felt a shiver course through him at its implications. Santa, reading his thoughts, nodded and said, "Santa Claus lives forever, John, but men do not."

Later as they rode North, far above a sleeping world, John listened to the whispery voice which told him what he needed to know. Far below and behind, the house at the end of the road stood, empty.

merry christmas

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