Hey, friends. Those of you who have been visiting my various sites for a while now know of my little tradition. Every year, I write a new Christmas-themed short story. Sometimes it’s a spin-off of an existing project (“Lonely Miracle”, for example, included characters from Other People’s Heroes), and sometimes the inspiration comes from somewhere else entirely (“Clarence Missed,” for example), but somehow I manage to find the proper yuletide inspiration every year. The story you’re about to read comes from two sources. First, on the day I arrived in Pittsburgh for my Thanksgiving visit, I was reading Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader: Jingle Bell Christmas, and I came across an interesting little tidbit about a post office where they got a very unusual letter to Santa Claus. The second came a week later, back home, when I was rehearsing with my church choir (made up of all family members) and my sister suggested trying to learn a wonderful little song that just made everything click together. Heather also graciously made the logo for me. Anyway, I’ve gone on enough. I had fun writing this story, and I hope you guys enjoy reading it. Oh… and Merry Christmas!
RETURN TO SENDER
“If you are who you say you are, you will put this to good use.”
Hans Lyman had worked in the post office at North Pole, Wyoming, for 52 years now, ever since he graduated high school. Because of the name of the town, selected apparently as a lark by some old town council that thought it would stir up tourism, his post office was deluged every year with letters intended for another Pole, much farther north. Hans and his wife, Meredith, had no children of their own, but he took great joy in opening the Santa Claus letters every year. Partially, he just liked hearing the blissful wishes of the local children, but every year he tried to find one or two children he could help somehow. One year, the two of them provided blankets for a family that couldn’t afford to fix their heater, and they took up a collection to get the clinker repaired as soon as the mechanic was available after Christmas. Once, he tracked down a Pomeranian puppy that was picked up by the Humane Society and returned it to a little girl who missed it very much. Once, he even managed to give a job to a mother who had lost hers, and she still worked with him every day. She was the most conscientious, dependable employee he ever had, and he was sure she would be that way even if she wasn’t acting out of constant gratitude.
But he had never seen anything like the letter he was holding in his hands right now: “If you are who you say you are, you will put this to good use.” Nothing else was written on the small slip, generated by a computer printer. There was no name, no date, no Christmas wish. There was no return address on the envelope, although the postmark was local. All Hans had was this strange, cryptic little note.
That and $10,000 in cash.
He looked down at the wad of bills in his lap, speechless. He’d never seen this much money in his life, and here it was with no name, no owner, no way of tracing it. He could easily slip the thick packet of bills into his jacket and no one would be the wiser. The only problem, of course, was that the envelope was not addressed to him. It was for Santa Claus. Whoever sent this wanted Santa Claus to “put it to good use.” Hans prided himself on delivering every piece of mail that was physically possible, but this…
It was too much for him. He did the only thing he could possibly do. He put the money and note back into the envelope, put the whole thing into his jacket pocket, and took it home.
“Ninety-eight, ninety-nine… one hundred,” Meredith said, finishing her counting. “A hundred one-hundred dollar bills. Hans, this is incredible.”
“I know. I just can’t fathom what to do about it.”
“What usually happens to the Santa Claus mail?”
“The stuff I don’t take care of personally winds up sent down to the dead letter office. They go through it, auction off anything valuable and destroy the rest. I guess I could have sent a fortune there over the years.”
“But this isn’t dead anymore, is it?”
“No… no, it’s not.”
“So what do you want to do about it?”
He thought, but not for too long. “I want to find out where it came from. I want to know what makes a grown person put this much money in the mail for Santa Claus.”
“I thought as much.”
“But where do we start? The postmark is local, but all that means is that it was mailed here. It could have been some crazy billionaire driving through town and dropping it in a box on the way.”
“Or maybe it is someone who lives here.”
“Who, in this dinky little down, would have that kind of money?”
* * *
It was a short list, to be sure. In a town like North Pole, Hans was able to narrow it down very quickly. Edwin Mellich had made his fortune in real estate. His father practically built the town, and Edwin sold it, bit by bit, for a tidy profit. Neal Grayson was one of the few dot-com millionaires that didn’t lose his shirt getting out of the business while the getting was good. He rolled his investment in an online video game magazine into an actual game producer, and still rode a wave of royalty checks every year. Myra Chester was the last generation of an old oil family. She was a famous spendthrift in North Pole, and while she was pretty much set up for life it was widely assumed that her two grown children would have a tough time trying to continue living in the manner in which their mother had raised them. She was Hans’s top suspect – the frivolity of the letter seemed to him to be the sort of crazy thing she would do. However, he also knew she was out of town, not yet returned from her annual holiday vacation to someplace far too warm to actually feel like Christmas. Rather than wait for her, he decided to begin his investigation with Mellich.
Edwin Mellich’s father had been in Hans’s high school graduating class, the two of them representing nearly five percent of the seniors at the time. The town was a little bigger now, but not so big that everyone wasn’t kept abreast of everyone else’s business. Edwin Mellich was one of the few exceptions. His father, God rest his soul, had passed seven years ago, and Mellich lost his wife suddenly not long after. Now he and his stepson, Cade, lived alone in their big, drafty house, and kept to themselves. The only time anyone saw them was at Church on Sunday – every Sunday, like clockwork – and on occasional trips to the grocery store and to empty out his box down at the post office. They were visible, but they never took the time out for friendly conversation. It got to the point that kids would spread stories about their house at Halloween, and it stood black at Christmas.
One of the advantages to being old, though, is that it was hard to be intimidated by a man whose daddy you caught sneaking frogs into the girl’s bathroom once upon a time. Hans girded himself and marched up the walk to the Mellich house. He wasn’t surprised to find it devoid of Christmas cheer: no lights, no decorations, no six-foot inflatable snow globe showering animatronic carolers with little snowflakes made of Styrofoam. Hans didn’t really think Ed Mellich was behind the letter, but he’d seen enough schmaltzy Christmas specials to know the most miserly person in town could hide a heart of gold.
It was Cade who opened the door for him. The 15-year-old looked out through the opening, brow furrowed, clearly surprised to see him.
Hans tried to remain friendly. “Hello, Cade. May I speak to your stepfather?”
“Uh… sure. Dad?”
Griping the whole way, Edwin Mellich made his way to the door. He looked far worse than the last time Hans had seen him. He was thinner, almost gaunt, and his hairline had receded badly, as if it was fleeing from his dark, sunken, angry eyes. Every wrinkle on his face was pronounced and none of them were what you would consider “laugh lines.”
“Oh, Mr. Lyman,” he said, seeing the visitor. “What brings you here?”
“Well…” Hanks froze. He realized he hadn’t quite thought this through. How was he supposed to inquire about a situation like this?
Mellich frowned. “Well? What is it?”
“This is going to sound strange, Ed, but… well, I’ve been going through the mail down at the post office and… um…”
“What? Spit it out, man.”
“Did you write a letter to Santa Claus this year?”
In the foyer behind his stepfather, Cade rolled his eyes and quickly wandered off. Edwin just glared at him, incredulously. “Are you serious? You came here to ask me if I wrote a letter to Santa Claus?”
“I know it’s a strange question, Ed, but I got a weird letter and I really need to find out where it came from.”
Mellich snorted at him. “What, are you reading other people’s letters now? Isn’t that a federal offense?”
“Oh come off it, Ed, you know I go through the Santa letters every year.” Hans shook his head. “And obviously it wasn’t you who wrote the letter. Sorry to have wasted your time.”
“Wait, what was in this letter that even made you think it could have been me?”
“Sorry, Ed, can’t tell you. It’s a matter of Santa/Elf confidentiality.” He doffed his hat and started down the walk. “Merry Christmas.”
* * *
Neal Grayson was in his early 30s, not married, but never lacking in female companionship either. Having a few million dollars rolling around in the bank had the effect of drawing a certain type of girl, Hans noticed. The women that rotated in and out of Neal Grayson’s home weren’t what his mother would have called “the marrying kind,” but Hans doubted very much that was Neal’s goal anyway.
His house was considerably flashier than Mellich’s had been. It was a huge, ostentatious place with three cars in the garage, an immaculately-tailored lawn (when it wasn’t under a blanket of snow), topiary sculptures of what Hans assumed were popular video game characters, and an enormous swimming pool covered over for the winter. The only indulgence missing, Hans noted, was any trace of a Christmas decoration.
The redheaded girl who answered the door was wearing sandals, a pink bikini, water droplets, and nothing else. Hans was briefly distracted, but shrugged it off. He was a mailman, he’d seen far stranger things when people opened their doors. “Is Neal here?” he asked.
She scoffed. “Yeah. Jerk made me get out of the hot tub when the doorbell rang so he wouldn’t have to pause his game.” The town noted how frequently Neal’s female companions rolled over. Hans had a suspicion that this one would be out of the picture by New Year’s Eve. She led him into the house, where Neal was comfortably seated in front of what could only be designed as the Ultimate Entertainment Center. An enormous flatscreen TV was the show piece of the room, mounted on the wall, flanked by gargantuan speakers, and wired into an endless array of game systems, DVD and Blu-Ray players, receivers, and something labeled “Tivo.” On the walls, dozens of shelves were full to overflowing with video games, movies, CDs, and even the occasional book, along with a refrigerator, microwave, and shelves with assorted snack foods. The furniture consisted of overstuffed bean bag chairs, a table for food, and the hot tub where Neal’s door greeter was again situating herself.
Neal was comfortably melting into a bean bag right in front of the TV. He was wearing a headset and waving a wireless game controller as, on the screen, he watched a first-person view of a soldier blowing up aliens or mutants or demons or something. Hans tried to keep current with modern technology, but there were some things he preferred to remain blissfully ignorant about. “Hey-hey, Hans Lyman! Postal worker extraordinare! What can I do for you? Laci, shake it over to the fridge and get Mr. Lyman a beer.”
“The fridge is right there!” she howled. “Let him get it himself!”
“Um, that’s okay,” Hans said. “I really can’t stay too long.”
“Hold it, hold it…” On the screen, a mothership of some kind was vaporized in a spectacular explosion, and Neal hooted in triumph. “Sweet! Yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Okay, guys, back in a few. I’ve got a real-life guest here? What? Yeah, that’s what your mother said.”
He took off his headset and looked at Hans for the first time. “So, what’s on your mind?”
Hans was better prepared this time. “I’m trying to track down the person who sent out a sort of unusual piece of mail. There was no return address, but it’s important I figure it out.”
“I doubt I can help you. No offense, man, but I don’t do much outgoing mail. Bills get paid online, e-mail takes care of the rest. The only time I send anything myself is when I’ve got a business document I’ve got to sign personally, and I always send those certified.”
“So you haven’t sent any letters lately? Nothing… out of the ordinary?”
“Just my letter to Santa.”
“What?” The words sent a flow of adrenaline down Hans’s back. It was Neal! It—
“Dude, relax, I was just kidding,” he said. “Gee, the way you looked you would think… oh my God, it was a letter to Santa?” He started laughing. “Man, you should be over at the elementary school instead of wasting your time with me.”
“Yeah, I guess so. Sorry to take you away from your game.”
“No problemo.” Neal put his headset back on, still laughing, as Hans went to show himself out. “Dudes? You’re not gonna believe this one…”
* * *
Myra Chester, the only other person on Hans’ list of suspects, was still out of town, so he had to abandon the search for a few days. Work was busy enough anyway: people mailing packages, sending out Christmas cards, picking up piles of both from their P.O. boxes… a lot of people had abandoned the USPS for the same alternatives as Neal, but in December, they could still just barely keep up with the rush.
There were a lot of kids, of course, who wanted to personally drop off their letters to Santa Claus. The parents with them typically wore an expression that said, “Just humor the kid.” Hans would take each letter, smiling, and add it to the pile. Today, though, a lot of the parents were chuckling as they dropped off the mail. One even looked him dead in the eye and said, “Now this letter belongs to Jacob, and it’s going to Santa. Got that?”
It didn’t take Hans long to figure out what had happened – one of his interviewees, probably Neal, had blabbed about his little search all over town. If he was younger, it would have bothered him, but Hans just laughed it off.
“Found your elf, Hans?” one of them shouted.
“Not yet!” he replied cheerfully.
The questions and jokes continued until the crowd died down. It was about 2 o’clock – the lunch rush was over, the after-work mob hadn’t arrived yet – and Hans was pausing to take a breath when Edwin Mellich came in. He shot a glance over at Hans and scoffed, then went off to check his P.O. Box. He came back a few seconds later holding one of the cards that indicated he had a package too large to fit in the box.
Hans quickly retrieved the package and handed it over, trying to be friendly. “Here ya go, Ed. Doing some online shopping? Got a gift for your son there?”
“Stepson,” Mellich snapped. “And we don’t do your Christmas.” He took the package and stomped away, glowering. Hans suddenly felt very bad for Cade. The boy had never really known his father. After he lost his mother, Edwin Mellich was all he had left. It wasn’t a position that Hans envied.
A week before Christmas, Myra rolled back into town in the middle of the night and, before the sun came up, decorated her house with the lavish, over-the-top Christmas display everyone in town had come to expect from here. There were lights, standees, inflatables, robots, a moving train, a small ferris wheel, a display of Santa facing off with the Grinch on the roof, a Nativity scene in the corner, and Hans thought he even saw a Menorah in there somewhere. It was like the reindeer in flight voided their bowels directly over the house.
He was anxious when he rang the bell, he admitted to himself. Myra Chester was a human butterfly, flitting about from one reckless adventure to another. Even though she had technically lived in North Pole her entire life, she was never in town long enough to make any lasting friendships, and most of the hard-working, hard-saving people of the town would have rejected her friendship had it been offered. Still, there was no one else in town – perhaps in the universe – who had both the money and the mental capacity to send ten thousand dollars to Santa Claus via the U.S. mail.
“Hans!” she cried, opening the door. She flung her arms around him, hugging him like an old friend, even though he couldn’t recall the last conversation they’d had that lasted longer than three minutes. “So good to see you. Come in, come in!” She ushered him into the house, where he saw that her Yuletide zealotry wasn’t limited to the yard. Inside was bedecked with garland, lights, wreaths, bells, and a Christmas tree in every room, each with a different color scheme and decoration motif.
“Lovely place you have here, Myra,” he said, inhaling the distinct aroma of pine, even in a plastic forest.
“Oh, I’m so glad you like it. It’s a chore, trying to decorate this way every year, but it’s worth it when people show their appreciation.”
He nodded weakly and had a seat on a couch with a snowflake-pattern throw across the back. She joined him and offered a gingerbread man, which he politely declined. “Listen, Myra, I’ve been running around town trying to solve a little mystery and… heck, you’re probably the first person I’m going to ask who won’t think I’m crazy.”
“Is this about you trying to seek out the person who wrote a letter to Santa?”
He laughed. “Word travels fast, I guess.”
“Well, look no further! I’m your girl!”
“Really? You wrote it?”
“I write one every year! Oh, I know it’s a little silly, but we all have our traditions, don’t we?”
The word “tradition” stopped Hans’s inner celebration. Even Myra couldn’t afford to traditionally drop thousands of dollars in the mail. “Um… if you don’t mind me asking, what did you write about this year?”
She leaned in towards him conspiratorially, and whispered, “Diamonds.”
“This new diamond pendant I’ve had my eye on. That’s what I asked Santa for.” She laughed, shaking at her own cleverness. “Of course, if Santa doesn’t come through, I’ll just buy it for myself.”
* * *
He went home to Meredith feeling despondent. If it wasn’t one of his three suspects, he had nothing to go on. If some random passerby had dropped the letter into the mail on his way through town, Hans knew that finding him would be nearly impossible.
“Any luck, dear?” she asked as he walked in.
“None,” he said, tossing his coat on the armchair where he hibernated most days. “I’m starting to think this whole thing was a waste of time.”
“It would have driven you crazy if you hadn’t tried.”
“It’s driving me crazy now.”
She smiled and gave his hand a tender pat. “At least you tried. Let’s sleep on it and try to figure out what to do with this little gift for Santa.”
“I guess,” he said. He brewed a pot of coffee and sat down in his favorite chair. He rarely had time to read his newspaper in the morning, so it was a treat for himself when he got home.
On the front page was a headline that made his heart drop and his brain throb. “Meredith!” he shouted. “Merry, did you see the paper today?”
“No, Hans. Why?”
He jumped from his armchair and accordioned the paper open, displaying it for her. “Great shades of Jimmy Stewart, look at this!”
The headline said it all: “MELLICH INDICTED IN $10,000 SHORTFALL.”
* * *
According to the paper, a bank examination showed the books at Mellich Real Estate, Inc. to be short exactly $10,000. Edwin Mellich had been arrested and indicted on suspicion of embezzlement, but he adamantly denied touching the money. It couldn’t be a coincidence, Hans thought, it just couldn’t. But how could Mellich have done something so foolish and not know he would get caught?
He was placed under house arrest, so Hans knew exactly where to find him. He didn’t even wait for the next day – it was still early evening, and this would be worth interrupting Mellich’s dinner for.
He rang the bell three times before he got an answer, and then it was just Mellich screaming at him through the doorway. “I said no interviews! Go away and leave me alone!”
“Ed, it’s Hans Lyman! I’m not here for an interview, I’m here to help!”
“How could you help? Leave me alone!”
“I have your $10,000!”
There was a long silence, and Mellich yanked the door open. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Hans withdrew the envelope from his pocket. “Does this look familiar?”
“No. What is it?”
“A letter to Santa Claus. With ten thousand dollars in cash.”
Mellich waved him into the house, and Hans noticed he had been wrong in his earlier assessment. The house wasn’t entirely empty of Christmas decorations. On the mantle over the fireplace was a modest Nativity scene.
“Okay, Lyman, explain yourself.”
“I was hoping you could provide the explanation. A few days ago I got a letter to Santa Claus with a wad of money and a letter telling him to put it to good use. Now your company is short the exact same amount of money.”
“Are you still saying you think I sent that letter?”
“I guess not, Ed. the more I talk to you, the more it doesn’t seem your style. But that doesn’t mean the money inside the envelope didn’t come from you somehow.”
Mellich snatched the envelope and started to go through it. “This is insane! If this is the money we’re missing, how did it get in this stupid letter?”
The door opened, then, and Cade tromped into the house, tossing his backpack and coat over the first chair he saw. “I’m home, Ed!” he said, looking over to where Mellich and Hans were examining the contents of the envelope. When he saw the money sticking out of the flap, his face drained to bleach-white, and he stammered, Uh… I-I-I… I’ve gotta go!”
Hans and Mellich cast a glance at each other as Cade bolted up the stairs. Mellich roared at his stepson. “Cade! Get back here!” The boy came back into the room, tears brimming from his eyes. Mellich’s own eyes were red, and his face was following suit. “How the hell did you do this?”
“Easy,” Cade snapped. “A hundred bucks at a time, whenever I could sneak the business’s ATM card.”
“A hundred times?” Mellich screamed.
“Sue me. I wanted to make a statement.”
“Wait a minute, Ed, don’t you think you’re asking the wrong question?” He turned to Cade. “Why did you take the money, son?”
Cade looked around, refusing to meet either his father or Hans in the eye. Mellich’s face was almost purple now, rage sputtering from his lips. “Well? Dammit, boy, answer the question! Why did you do it?”
“Because all that money is wasted on you!” he shouted. “Because you never do anything! Ever since Mom died, you just sit around here and hoard your money and ignore the world! So I just… I hoped someone could find a way to be happy!”
The two adults were left speechless. Cade, cheeks wet and nose wheezing, bolted from the room during their silence.
“Ed,” Hans whispered. Mellich was beyond listening, though. His purple face burst in a cascade of tears, and he sat down in front of the fireplace, blubbering. Hans leaned over towards him. “What happened, Ed? You used to be so close to that boy. We all saw it. Then after his mother died, it’s like you retreated from the whole world.”
“Christine,” Edwin sobbed. “She… she was my world. I love the boy, Hans, I do, but every time I look at him all I can see is her face.”
“I can’t even imagine how that must hurt.” Hans thought of Meredith, of losing her, and of having a living reminder of that loss. Even the fantasy made his heart ache. “But listen, Ed, Cade needs you. Christine is in a better place, but Cade needs a father here and now.”
“I’m not his father.”
“You think the prefix makes you any less important to him?”
“You don’t even have any kids. What do you know about it?” Edwin continued to weep, and Hans turned and rest his head against the mantel. When he looked up, he was looking at the Nativity scene, Mary and Joseph crowded around the manger, waiting for the figure of an infant to join them on Christmas day.
“You’re right. I’m not a father. Even with a prefix. But I know this much, Ed: some of the most important people who ever lived had stepfathers.” He picked up the Joseph figure, turning it over in the light. “Or were them,” he finished.
He placed Joseph back in the scene and leaned the envelope against him, the small fortune complete inside, and he walked out.
* * *
With the return of the money, the bank examiner dropped the charges. Many people in town were skeptical of the company’s public statement that it had been misplaced due to an “accounting error,” but Hans suspected Edwin didn’t particularly care what people believed. It was over; that was enough.
Hans was surprised, though, to see Edwin arrive in the post office the day before Christmas Eve. “Got another package pick-up, Ed?” he asked.
“No, I’m here to put a hold on my mail.”
“Yes. Cade and I are going out of town for two weeks. We’ll be back right before school starts again.”
“Ah, I see.” Hans handed Ed the appropriate form and waited patiently as he filled it out. “So, where are you boys headed?”
“Colorado. Cade wanted a ski trip for Christmas.”
“Is that right?”
“His mother always wanted to go, but…” his voice trailed off and he quietly completed the form. “Um… here.”
“Thanks. You fellas have a good trip, now.”
“We will, Hans. Thanks.” He looked up at him and, with more weight in his voice, said it again. “Thanks.”
Hans winked. “I’m a postman. That’s my job.”
Well, folks, I hope you enjoyed that. The MercyMe song I mentioned back at the beginning, by the way, was “Joseph’s Lullaby.” Lovely song, if you ever get a chance to listen to it.
If you enjoyed the story, please feel free to pass the link on to your own friends and family. And check out the stories from previous years, too! Every word of every one of them is still online, and totally free:
2000: Lonely Miracle- A retired superhero is called to action once again
2001: Clarence Missed - In jail on Christmas? It could be worse…
2002: Pencil Sketches - The tale of two people who should never have been the best of friends
2003: JLZX622 - When a mother goes missing on Christmas, there’s only one way to find her
2004: Promise - A Christmas campout unearths a long-lost treasure
2005: A Long November was written as my National Novel Writing Month experiment for 2005 and became my first Podcast Novel. Duncan Marks is just like you — sick and tired of Christmas coming before the Thanksgiving turkey even comes out of the oven. But this year, a Spirit of the Season takes him on a journey that tests his resolve… and upon which Christmas itself may rise or fall. This yuletide adventure is available in 9 free-to-download episodes!
Subscribe at Podiobooks.com
Or read the book online in three parts: ONE-Preparations; TWO-Invitations; THREE-Celebrations
2006: The Helper - With his wife dying, how can this be a Merry Christmas?
2007: Circle - One good deed can change lives
Have a great week, guys. The Christmas Party isn’t over yet — expect a few more days of reviews and commentary, but this story is the centerpiece. Merry Christmas!