Mr Maypenny struggled against his little-used suit jacket in a futile attempt to draw the two sides together. With a faint grumble of annoyance, he gave up and raised his hand to knock on the partially closed door before him.

Joyce Pettigrew admitted him, almost managing to cover her astonishment at one of Sleepyside's most confirmed hermits paying an unscheduled call. Genuinely pleased to see him, she offered him coffee and waited until he was seated before broaching any topic more personal than the weather or the state of his winter herbs.

“What brings you to Sleepyside Hospital today?” she finally asked.

Mr. Maypenny shifted uneasily in the hard plastic chair, and even though it was ten degrees below zero, he wished he were chopping wood, or checking on the feeding stations. But Dan did all of that this morning, he reminded himself, and recalled why he had ventured into the tiny, overly-warm office of the Volunteer Director of Sleepyside Hospital.

“I'm sorry, Joyce, but I won't be able to help you out this Christmas.”

Joyce's friendly smile disappeared in a wave of concern. “Is everything okay? You're not ill, I hope,” she said, then coloured at the presumption of her question. “I mean--”

“I'm fine,” Mr. Maypenny assured her. “It's just that I have some family obligations this year. The boy, Daniel ... well, I don't think he's had a real Christmas for a few years, and it's time he had one. I thought about bringing him along, but he already volunteers so much of his time to help me, and the Bob Whites with all their projects, that I decided this Christmas, his first Christmas here, should be as normal as possible. I don't want to leave him alone on Christmas morning, or pawn him off on anyone else. He deserves better than that.”

Joyce listened attentively to the longest speech she had ever heard Mr. Maypenny utter. Her kind brown eyes radiated sympathy. “I completely understand,” she told him, her voice firm. “It's a fine thing you've done for him, giving him a home.”

“He's a good boy.” The simple statement was high praise.

“I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.” Joyce smiled at Mr. Maypenny's obvious relief that the meeting was over.

He was almost to the door when he remembered the large plastic bag he had left outside the office. He handed it to Joyce, swallowing a pang of regret. “Since I won't need it this year, I thought whoever you find to replace me could make use of it.”

“That's very generous of you, Mr. Maypenny. It's yours whenever you decide to take it back.” She took the bag gratefully.

“It's no problem,” he said gruffly. “And it's just plain Maypenny. You know that, Joyce.”

Ms. Pettigrew's eyes twinkled. “I'll remember that, sir.”

Mr. Maypenny was still chuckling when he reached the parking lot.



Two Weeks Later

Dan paused and rested his maul on the neatly stacked pile of chopped wood. His breath was visible in the frigid air, a thick white vapour that clung in windless quiet and evaporated only reluctantly. After a moment's respite, he raised the maul, but stopped at the sound of trotting horses. An easy grin crossed his face when Trixie and Honey rode into the clearing astride Susie and Lady.

“Dan! We were hoping to run into you!” Breathless from riding in the brisk winter air, Trixie called out to Dan from across the clearing.

Observing the excited snapping of her blue eyes, Dan didn't know whether to be amused or worried. In the spirit of Christmas, he opted for cautious optimism. It was obvious that Trixie was up to her neck in either a mystery or a charity project. Or both, Dan thought wryly.

Trixie scrambled off Susie while Honey dismounted with smooth, easy grace.

“Would you like a cup of hot chocolate, Dan?” Without waiting for an answer, Honey filled three plastic mugs from a steaming Thermos. “It sure is cold today.”

Dan accepted the hot drink, nodding his thanks. Though chopping wood kept him warm, he appreciated the feel of the hot drink in his hands.

Seemingly untouched by the frigid temperature, Trixie took only a perfunctory sip before starting on the topic forefront in her mind. “We're calling an emergency meeting of the Bob Whites, Dan. Can you be at the club house in an hour?”

Dan assessed the extensive pile of wood he had split. “I think so. I won't be able to stay long, though,” he warned. “I still have to finish stocking the feeding stations.”

Capturing the information that Dan could make it to the impromptu meeting, Trixie beamed. “Perfect! Honey and I have just enough time to finish our ride and groom the horses. We'll see you at the club house, Dan!”

“Whoa!” Dan called as Trixie made to leave. “Aren't you going to tell me what this is all about?”

“Oh, Dan, it's the saddest thing.” Honey's hazel eyes were troubled. “We were at the hospital this morning for our Volunteen Day and you'll never guess what we found out.”

“Honey,” Trixie warned, “we'll be late to our own meeting if we don't keep going.” She turned to Dan, a serious expression on her face. “We haven't told any of the Bob Whites what the meeting is about. There simply hasn't been time.” She glanced at her watch and hoisted herself back into the saddle. “We'll explain everything at the meeting; I promise.”

Honey repacked the Thermos and cups, and the two girls were off.

Forty-five minutes later, Dan opened up the club house and turned on the heater. After pacing restlessly for several minutes, he sat down on one of the cold wooden chairs and stared at the heater. I haven't even been here a year, and already it feels strange to be able to heat a room without lighting a fire. With surprise, he realized that he had become accustomed to the rustic lifestyle he shared with Mr. Maypenny. His thoughts were interrupted when the club house door opened, letting in a blast of arctic air.

“Thank goodness!” Honey exclaimed as she removed her leather gloves and held her hands less than an inch from the heater.

“I thought you looked a little cold,” Dan said as Honey wiggled her fingers.

She nodded. “I misplaced my fur-lined gloves. You would think cleaning the tack and grooming the horses would have warmed me up, but I'm still freezing.” She shook her head at Dan, noting that he had already removed his jacket. “I don't know how you do it. And I don't think Trixie is ever cold, either. I'm downright jealous of you, you know.”

Dan laughed at his beautiful, wealthy friend. “You'd be plenty warm if you had been splitting wood. Riding is good exercise, but it's not the same.”

“I should think not!” Honey's good humour was returning as she regained more feeling in her fingers. “Just the other day, Trixie was saying--” She stopped short and peered around the club house. “Trixie isn't here yet?”

“I haven't seen her.”

“Uh oh. She probably got waylaid at Crabapple Farm.”

Dan raised his eyebrows. “Why did she go home? I thought you were both taking care of the horses, then coming to the meeting. What happened?”

Honey smiled. “Bobby happened.”

“I can see where this is going,” Dan groaned. “Did he run away again? Try to 'help' Cook? Offer to brush the horses' teeth?” he asked, remembering the little imp's latest escapades.

“Dan,” Honey admonished, “He's not always getting into trouble!”

“Well?” he questioned, when it appeared that Honey wasn't going to share the reason Trixie had taken Bobby home.

“Let's just say that Bobby now knows why only big boys shave.” She covered her mouth to hide a giggle.

Dan's lips twitched. “And did he discover this on his own, or did he have help?”

“Bobby's not the only one who learned a lesson today.” She began to laugh in earnest. “Poor Jim! First he has to listen to Bobby howling about a tiny scratch, then he has to explain to Trixie what happened.”

“I'm not sure which would be worse,” Dan admitted. “Jim really needs to learn how to say 'no' to blue-eyed blondes.”

Honey waved a hand dismissively. “Trixie never stays mad for long. She was just worried about being late.”

At that moment, Trixie burst into the club house, once again breathless. She was followed by Jim, Brian, Mart, and Diana. As she slung her parka on the back of a chair, she gasped, “We made it!”

Mart panted exaggeratedly and collapsed onto the seat beside Dan. “Now, what was so important that you felt it necessary to call an emergency meeting?”

Trixie and Honey sobered and provided the others with a concise synopsis of their latest project. When they had finished, everyone else was serious, too.

“You're right, girls. I think this is a very worthwhile idea. Studies have shown that maintaining a positive attitude helps patients to recover more quickly. I think we should do whatever we can to help.”

Trixie beamed at her oldest brother, knowing that the others would follow his lead. “It really shouldn't require much effort on our part. Ms. Pettigrew said that the gifts for the sick children have all been donated. The only thing missing is the Santa Claus to hand them out. She said the person who usually does it has new family obligations, or something.”

“Someone probably doesn't want to miss their kid's first Christmas,” Diana guessed.

“I know I wouldn't,” Jim agreed. “Christmas is all about family.” He sighed. “But those sick kids need Christmas, too.”

“I don't want to be a wet blanket,” Diana said slowly, “but I can't see my Mom letting me go anywhere Christmas morning. All the staff have the day off, and we're going to do a big pancake breakfast, just like we used to when we lived in the apartment.” Her eyes shone in anticipation of the family event, and her friends smiled with her.

“I see what you mean,” Honey said. “Mother wouldn't be too impressed if we deserted Ben on Christmas morning.”

Looking slightly green at the thought of spending the holidays with his practical joke-loving cousin, Jim agreed, although reluctantly.

“And Moms made us promise we wouldn't go anywhere over Christmas,” Mart reminded his sister. “She wouldn't admit it, but I think it was hard on her last year when we were all in Arizona.”

Trixie's face fell. “I know,” she admitted. “We're going to have to find someone, and fast.” She looked around the table, the blank expressions on her friends' faces matching her own. “Let's adjourn for now, and everybody can try to think of someone.”

The meeting broke up and the Bob Whites left silently, each trying to think of the perfect person to bring Christmas cheer to sick children. The mid-afternoon sun shone palely, but shed little warmth on the pre-occupied teenagers.

Dan returned to the task of filling the feeding stations, his actions accurate, but mechanical, as his thoughts took him years and miles away from the Wheeler's game preserve. As though it were yesterday, he saw one of the few Christmas parties he had attended with his parents. Tim Mangan and most of his company had been on leave, and one of the officers had hosted a family Christmas party. With a surge of both pride and regret, Dan remembered how he had stood in awe of his father in uniform. And he remembered the sense of wonder he had felt when, later in the evening, when Santa Claus had talked to each child, and presented each with a small gift. He had recognized his father's eyes and voice, even though they were obscured by a thick white beard. He hadn't been old enough to be bothered with questions of whether Santa Claus was real or not. He only knew that it was Christmas, and that the world was a magical place.

With surprise, Dan realized that he had completed his circuit and was only a few feet from the clearing in which Mr. Maypenny's cabin stood. The pale light of the winter sun had been over-taken by a clear twilight. The first star of the night shone brightly above the humble cabin.

Mr. Maypenny nodded to Dan as he entered the warm room. After handing him a cup of steaming coffee, Mr. Maypenny returned to the simple meal of venison, potatoes, and canned vegetables he was preparing, and Dan slid into a chair at the kitchen table.

“You're late,” Maypenny commented, checking the venison. “Did you run into any trouble?”

Dan grinned from behind his mug. “No, I didn't get lost.”

“I didn't say you did,” the older man replied calmly. “And, since the cold obviously hasn't robbed you of your smart mouth, I'll stop worrying about hypothermia.”

Dan continued to grin, pleased that his guardian cared. “Trixie called an emergency meeting. I finished chopping the wood before the meeting, but I filled the feeding stations after.”

Mr. Maypenny set two steaming plates of food on the table and said a brief blessing. When the edge of hunger had been blunted, he asked, “So, what was the emergency this time? Should I be keeping an eye out for poachers?”

“Nah. Trixie and Honey are just worried that the hospital won't find anyone to dress up as Santa Claus and hand out gifts Christmas morning.” His attention focused on his food, he didn't notice Mr. Maypenny look up sharply. “I'm sure Trixie would do it herself if she thought Mrs. Belden would give her permission,” Dan continued. He grinned around a mouthful of food, picturing the pert blonde in a Santa suit. Or, better yet, an elf costume, he thought, before he could stop himself.

Mr. Maypenny grunted. “I'm sure they'll find someone.”

Dan shrugged. “Maybe. But how many people are willing to be away from their own families on Christmas morning?” He shovelled a fork loaded with yellow beans into his mouth.

Mr. Maypenny studied the dark young man who shared his table and his home. “Family is pretty important.”

Dan pushed his half-full plate away from him. “Would you be okay with... I mean, do you think I could...” Though it couldn't really be called a blush, Dan's face changed colour slightly.

Mr. Maypenny waited patiently. “Spit it out, boy. I'm sure whatever you're thinking will be fine.”

Dan mastered his embarrassment and took a long drink of milk. When he set the empty glass down, he said, “I think I'd like to dress up as Santa for the kids at the hospital.”

A mixture of surprise and pride battled in Mr. Maypenny, though his features remained stoic. “You want to spend Christmas morning at the hospital?” he asked.

Dan nodded. “I know you invited Uncle Bill to come over for breakfast after he takes care of the horses Christmas morning, but maybe we could do lunch instead? I know we have the big Christmas dinner thing at the Wheeler's, but...”

“I'll talk to him,” the older man promised.

Dan pulled his plate back and began to eat with gusto, spooning gravy over his potatoes, while Mr. Maypenny ate at a more sedate pace.

When the dishes were washed, Dan eagerly used the phone to leave a message for Ms. Pettigrew at the Sleepyside Hospital. After he hung up, he looked at Mr. Maypenny with a thoughtful expression. “You don't think they'll mind that I'm a teenager, will they? I mean, I don't exactly look like Santa.”

Mr. Maypenny didn't look up from the thick book he was reading. “I'm sure the costume will take care of that. Now, how's that essay coming?”

Dan sighed and returned to his school-issued copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He reluctantly turned his thoughts to the misplaced love matches, though images of a tall, dark man dressed in a deep red velvet suit continued to distract him. Sometime later, he became aware that Mr. Maypenny was reading over his shoulder when he heard a surreptitious cough.

“I like the tie-in about the course of true love never running smoothly, but you might want to re-work the part where you discuss Lysander's unrequited love for Demetrius.”

“Oh, sh-” Dan bit back the expletive and followed Mr. Maypenny's finger to the questionable content. By interchanging a few character's names, he had created a drastically new and unintended dynamic into the love quadrangle. “Bonus marks for creative thinking?” he suggested.

Mr. Maypenny snorted. “I doubt it.”

Dan crossed out the offending name and replaced it with the correct name. “Better?”

“Much.” Mr. Maypenny squinted at the hasty scrawls on an ink-blotted sheet. “And you've booked computer time so you can make it look presentable?”

Dan nodded, and returned to the essay with renewed vigour. Before long, the second of his three proofs was finished, and he snapped his book shut. He yawned broadly. “The rest can wait until tomorrow.”

Mr. Maypenny glanced at the polished clock on the mantle. Though it wasn't very late, they both knew that the morning chores would come all too soon. Dan's face lit up when the older man placed a plate in front of him.

“I still can't believe how good your Christmas cake is.” He grinned around a healthy mouthful. “I used to hide whenever Mom tried to get me to eat hers.”

“Well, not all Christmas cake is created equal. I use my grandmother's recipe, and I've never gone wrong. But I'll never forget the year my great-aunt Mildred came out for a visit and insisted on making the cake herself.” He shook his head. “Waste of ingredients. We used the lousy thing to play hockey.”

Dan helped himself to a second slice. “That sounds like fun. Where did you play?”

“The Wheeler's lake, of course. Back then, the Manor House hadn't been built and there were only small houses like Crabapple Farm in this area.” He smiled, remembering the happy times in his childhood.

“We haven't done much skating this year,” Dan lamented. “There always seems to be too much going on.”

“That's too bad. I know how much you enjoy it.”

Dan shrugged. “I was never big on hockey, but there's something special about skating fast.”

Mr. Maypenny took a second slice of cake for himself, making sure to choose one with plenty of walnuts. “You skated in the Police Athletic League,” he stated.

Dan nodded, and started on the crumbs on his plate. “Yes. My dad-” He stopped and cleared his throat. “My dad got me into it.”

Mr. Maypenny nodded shrewdly as he finally put his finger on what had been bothering him ever since Dan had announced his intention of spending Christmas morning at the hospital. “Dan,” he said carefully, “you know that you don't need to prove anything to me, or anyone else, right?”

“What do you mean?” Dan asked, confused.

The older man paused and took the time to think about his words. “Since coming to Sleepyside, you've worked hard, and done everything that's expected of you. And more,” he added, glancing at the essay Dan was writing for extra credit. “You're getting good grades, working hard in the preserve, and making friends. We're all proud of you. Helping out at the hospital is very generous of you, but I don't want you to feel you have to. You don't need to worry about living up to anyone's expectations—not mine, not your Uncle Bill's, not anybody's.”

“What about-” Dan stopped and lowered his eyes. Immediately, he regretted putting his deepest insecurities on display.

Mr. Maypenny narrowed his eyes and searched his young charges' averted face. Though the pinched expression Dan wore was reminiscent of the sullen attitude he had adopted when he first arrived in Sleepyside, Mr. Maypenny knew that the troubled look was an indication that Dan was being too hard on himself.

“Your Dad?” he asked.

Dan nodded.

“We've talked about this,” Mr. Maypenny reminded him gently. “Your Dad would be proud of what you've done with your life.”

“I know,” Dan replied, although it was clear he had doubts. He raised his eyes, almost ashamed of how badly he needed to see the acceptance in his guardian's eyes. As much as he didn't like talking about his past, he could feel his memories stirring. He felt a strange sensation in his chest, almost as if the words were clawing their way up from his heart and out through his mouth.

The longer he talked, the more easily the words came. Slow, stilted sentence fragments punctuated by uncomfortable pauses gradually changed to a flow of run-on, over-lapping thoughts as he shared memories of skating in Central Park, making holiday treats, and watching Christmas movies on television.

“Dad had a way of making Christmas magical,” Dan concluded. “Whether he was volunteering at a shelter, doing his best to put together a toy for me, or helping Mom ruin the Christmas baking, Dad made it all fun. We didn't even have to be doing anything in particular. He just had this way of making everyone around him happy.”

Dan hesitated. “But my favourite holiday memory of my Dad is him dressing up as Santa. It wasn't just Christmas morning, either. He'd do it when we had guests, or even at my school parties. He always said the best part was seeing the smiles on everyone's faces when he walked in the room.” He shrugged. “Dad just seemed to have so much joy that he couldn't keep it to himself. If I can share that kind of joy with sick kids, I'll have done something special. And that's kind of what Christmas is about, right?”

Mr. Maypenny nodded slowly. “That's certainly part of it.”

“So, you think it's okay? I'm not doing it for the wrong reasons, am I?”

“You'll be a good Santa,” Mr. Maypenny told him, his worry-lines smoothing.



Christmas Morning

“Are you sure that--” Dan twisted, trying to pull up a pair of poppy-red velvet pants over his jeans.

“Yes, I'm sure. You don't know who's worn that suit before you, or if it's even been washed. If you want to expose your junk to who-knows-what, that's your business, but...” Regan's voice trailed off threateningly.

“I am wearing underwear,” Dan protested, but his black boxer-briefs suddenly seemed inadequate. “Yeah, okay.” He continued to struggle to pull the red pants over his heavy jeans, oblivious to Mr. Maypenny's snort of disgust.

Dan cocked his head to the side, measuring the distance he could hold the waist of the pants from his body. Eyeing the shiny black belt laying on the desk, he asked, “Will that thing help, or is it strictly ornamental?”

Regan picked it up, turning it over several times before admitting he didn't see how it would help.

“Hand that over,” Mr. Maypenny instructed, taking the belt out of the surprised groom's hands. He set the belt aside, and handed Dan a pair of black suspenders.

“You're joking, right?” Dan asked, visions of Steve Urkel dancing before his eyes as he took the suspenders and held them gingerly behind his thumb and fore-finger.

Mr. Maypenny shrugged. “Do you want the pants to stay up, or not?”

Hiding a grin, Regan helped Mr. Maypenny clip the suspenders to the pants. “I hear the girls really go for a man in suspenders,” he teased his nephew.

“Explain to me again why you two are here?” Dan demanded.

“Moral support, of course,” Mr. Maypenny told him, his face deceptively innocent.

“Yeah. Let's keep that support to a minimum, okay?” Dan pleaded.

Regan arched a russet brow. “Are you saying you don't want the protective cup?”

“That's it! Out!” Dan ordered. “We're dealing with children, not the defensive line-up of the Chicago Bears.”

Mr. Maypenny held up a hand. “Relax, Dan. Regan and I will wait outside if you'd like to finish getting dressed by yourself.”

Dan weighed the odds that he could get himself into the costume by himself against the ribbing he was sure to endure. He sighed. “You can stay.”

With a brisk nod, Mr. Maypenny picked up what looked to be huge cotton balls and proceeded to strap them around Dan's waist, fastening the Velcro securely. Adjusting the suspenders, Dan studied himself in the full-length mirror on the door of the room that had been set aside for him at the Sleepyside Hospital. The gap between his waist and the pants was still several inches.

“Geez,” Dan complained. “Whoever used this suit last must have had a good-sized Santa-gut to begin with.”

Mr. Maypenny rolled his eyes as searched the room for something to fill the gap. The gap that had been non-existent the last time he had worn the suit. “Shut up, boy,” he muttered, as he sucked in his stomach just a little.

Still studying his reflection critically, Dan frowned. “What was that, Mr. Maypenny?”

The older man straightened and cleared his throat. “Suit up, boy,” he said, a sheepish quality to his voice.

Dan stared at him for a minute, knowing full-well that was not what he had said the first time. “Okay,” he agreed, willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Ignoring his uncle's earlier warning, Dan removed his thick plaid shirt and folded it neatly. “It probably wouldn't be cool for the kids to see Santa sweating through his coat,” he quipped. He picked up the heavy velvet jacket and put it on over his plain white under shirt. “Although, it smells as if someone has done some serious perspiring in this thing.” He wrinkled his nose as he lifted his arm. “See? There are sweat stains under the arms.”

Mr. Maypenny searched through the box of Santa accessories with unnecessary vigour. Once again, Dan heard him mutter something that sounded suspiciously like, “Shut up, boy.”

More amused than offended, Dan asked, “What was that, sir?”

Mr. Maypenny cleared his throat. “I sad, 'Arms up, boy.” He motioned to the deodorant stick in his hand. Dan took a step backward, repelled by the notion of using a stranger's personal toiletries.

“Oh, relax,” his guardian told him. “It's brand new. I picked it up the other day.”

Though still wary, Dan accepted the deodorant, removed the packaging, and applied several liberal layers under his arms. “Okay. What next?”

Giving up on finding extra padding, Regan and Mr. Maypenny turned their attention to the finishing touches of the costume. Dan's eyes lit up when he spotted the traditional red hat trimmed with white fur. Placing it on his head a jaunty angle, he tried out a “Ho, ho ho,” dropping his voice register nearly an octave.

Both Mr. Maypenny and Regan grinned broadly at the sight of Dan in full Santa-mode. “Wait,” Regan said. “Aren't you forgetting something?” He dangled a length of soft, white curls in front of Dan.

Dan settled the beard on his chin, thankful for the elastic that held it securely in place. He frowned and adjusted the part tickling his lips. His frown deepened when he gave his reflection one last appraisal. “Are you sure there's no wig in there?” he asked, disturbed by the contrast between his dark hair and the snow-white beard.

Mr. Maypenny dutifully searched the box of accessories, though he knew he wouldn't find a wig. Why would I have used a wig? he reflected. My hair's the right colour for playing Santa.

Dan shrugged in resignation when Mr. Maypenny turned back to him, empty-handed. “Too bad I don't have some pre-mature grey streaks coming in.” He ran a hand through his thick, dark hair. “But, I guess we'll have to make do with what we have. Besides,” he added with the charming grin that had half the girls at Sleepyside Junior-Senior High swooning, “I'm not quite ready for the 'distinguished' look.”

Mr. Maypenny subconsciously smoothed back his salt-and-pepper hair. “Shut up, boy,” he muttered, turning his head to the side.

Dan's eyes danced with mischief. “What was that, little boy? Did you have something you wanted to say to Santa?” He plastered on what he hoped was a benevolent expression.

Mr. Maypenny's lips twitched. “I said, 'Time's up, boy.' Time to get out there and spread some Christmas cheer.”

The three men stared at each other for a moment. In a gesture that had become more and more natural over the course of the last year, Regan put his arm around Dan's shoulder and squeezed. “Have some fun out there,” he advised his nephew.

When Regan released him, Mr. Maypenny placed his hands on Dan's shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes. “You make a fine Santa, boy.”

Dan's excitement was greater than his nervousness, but only by a narrow margin. He took a deep breath. “See you in a while,” he told his companions.

Regan stopped Dan just before he turned to leave them. “Are you sure Little Miss Fidget didn't figure out what you were up to this morning?”

Dan shrugged. “I don't think so. Last time I talked to her, she was still trying to pester Ms. Pettigrew into telling her who she had found.”

Mr. Maypenny shook his head. “That's one nut Trixie won't crack. Joyce knows how to keep a secret.”

Dan merely nodded distractedly and straightened his beard again. “Time to go spread some cheer,” he quipped.

Mr. Maypenny and Regan watched him go, both swelling with unarticulated pride. They continued to watch him as he entered the glassed-in common area, where a small group of children greeted “Santa” enthusiastically. Threadbare tinsel that had seen better days and other cast-off decorations filled the large room, and culminated in an ancient, dilapidated Christmas tree covered with popcorn and candy canes.

“Did you bring it?” Mr. Maypenny asked with a sly smile, his eyes still on his ward.

“You bet I brought it! How often do we get an opportunity like this?” Regan drew a small camera from his pocket. “I only wish I could have snapped a few while he was getting dressed.”

“You didn't?” Mr. Maypenny shook his head. “Amateur.”

Both men chuckled, and Regan began snapping candid photos as child after child piled onto Santa's lap, each eager to inform Santa of their wishes, and to revel in the miracle that was Christmas.



Two hours later, Dan had changed back into street clothes and was sandwiched between Mr. Maypenny and Regan in Regan's rattletrap of a truck. Barely noticing the cramped quarters, Dan beamed.

“Man, that was fun! Did you see how excited those kids were?” He elbowed his uncle. “You should have come in! You could have helped hand out presents.” He turned to Mr. Maypenny. “And you could have been in charge of the candy canes.”

Mr. Maypenny smiled at Dan's enthusiasm. “I believe both of those jobs belong to Santa.”

“Well, yes, but even Santa has helpers.” His eyes lit with sudden mischief. “Now there's an idea! Next year, you two could dress up as elves! Wouldn't that be fun?”

Regan took his eyes off the snow-covered road long enough to glare at his nephew. In one voice, he and Mr. Maypenny chorused, “Shut up, boy!”

Dan laughed aloud and placed both on arms on the backrest, lightly resting on each man's shoulder. “Thanks for coming today, Uncle Bill, Mr. Maypenny.”

The two older men exchanged a glance. “We wouldn't have missed it for the world.”

Mr. Maypenny cleared his throat. “A wise person told me that part of Christmas is sharing joy with people. I'd say you succeeded, Dan.”

Dan smiled happily. “Really? You think the kids had a good time?”

Mr. Maypenny shrugged. “I'm sure they did, but I wasn't talking about them.”

And as the truck bumped and jostled over the glorified trail that led to a rustic cabin in the woods, Dan shared the same sense of joy, and knew that he had indeed found something special.

Author’s Notes

Thank you to Mary N. (Dianafan), not only for editing, but for making these gorgeous graphics! (Photo courtesy of istockphoto.) You're the best, Mary! {{hugs}}

For the record, while Mr. Maypenny is not overweight, he isn't quite as slim as he used to be, as evidenced in The Black Jacket Mystery, where he takes Dan to school on the bus and wears a suit coat that doesn't quite meet in the middle, if you know what I mean. I, of course, couldn't resist poking a little fun.

Steve Urkel is a character from Family Matters. He wore suspenders. Oddly enough, he wasn't very popular with the ladies. {shrug} I don't own the rights to his character, and I don't have permission to use his name.

I don't own the rights to the Chicago Bears. But I am a pretty big fan. Da Bears!

Trixie Belden belongs to Random House Books. I am using these characters without permission, but I'm not making any money off them.

Originally posted December 20, 2007.

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