Yawning, I stretch out, arms extended overhead on an army surplus cot. Legs stiffly together, there's still two extra feet to a gray iron bar across the bottom. Sitting up, legs hovering over the floor, I jump down. I walk across to the bathroom and sit on a "Kiddy-Craft" toilet to relieve myself.

Afterward, I wash face and hands in a sink especially lowered for my use. Rubbing fingers over my lower face, I feel a little stubble, still not long enough to bother shaving. At twenty, I scrape a little fuzz off about every week. Dressing in jeans and shirt bearing the label "Jackson Street Orphanage" in a greenish circle with yellow print, I'm ready for breakfast.

It’s only 5:30 in the morning. Most of the residents are still in bed. The cook, one overnight counselor, and myself are the only ones up. Me, I'm an assistant janitor, working for little more than room and board.

A couple of years ago, at eighteen, I graduated from student to employee. At my small size, along with extended slightly-pointed ears and a large bulbous nose, nobody saw fit to pick me for adoption. Not having official paperwork, no one is certain about my age.

Back then, I was called into the director's office....

"John," Ms. Mathews told me, "we can't keep you here forever. You must be at least eighteen by now, so you'll have to graduate."

Fidgeting and, frankly, being afraid of the outside world, I replied, "But, where can I go, ma'am? I have no training, and no one will hire me. I'm too short to use a shovel or drive a car. Even too small to reach an assembly line at the Ford Plant. I'm screwed."

"You're an excellent worker. I'm certain you'll make out okay. You need confidence in yourself and your abilities."

"Huh! What abilities? Last time I was on the street, three dogs chased me for blocks. I went out with a couple of kids, a month or so ago, to a movie. For Christ's sake, I couldn't keep up with them without riding a tricycle, bicycles being too large for me to reach the pedals. We were laughed at all the way there and back."

"Well, let's leave the subject for now," she said, "while I check around. I know some people, and we'll come up with something." She paused for a few moments, obviously thinking. "Tell you what, to satisfy state inspectors you can work for Mr. Smithers. The two of you can fix up that old coal room down there for you to live in."

"That would be swell, Ms. Mathews."

"Just until I find you something better. You really are a good worker, and intelligent. But you need more self-confidence. Size isn't everything, you know? We can't pay you much, but you can eat with the rest of the staff."

"What about the kids? They'll still pick on me."

"John. Face it. Bullies will always pick on you. Here, though, like with other staff, you can't let them give you any flack. You're an employee now, one of us, and have the same authority as the rest. If they give you trouble, tell me and they'll be punished. You're one of the bosses, John, not a kid anymore. Don't you hassle them, and they'd better not hassle you."

It took the rest of the day and into the night for me to clean that coal room. Before we changed to oil heating, it had held coal for maybe fifty or sixty years. The stuff was coated onto all the surfaces, having to be scraped then washed off. Mr. Smithers – it felt strange to call him Pete now – knocked off a doorway to a utility closet next door and made me a bathroom. Water was already installed, so that didn't take long. By morning, I'd snuck into my old dormitory and gotten my stuff out. The kids were asleep and didn't bother me. I even got a couple hours sleep.

What I really loved was the way the rest of the staff changed toward me. I suspect they'd been warned not to screw with me, but they did treat me like one of themselves. Of course, we all knew each other from before, when I was only one of the kids. After a few awkward hours, on my part, I felt accepted. It was the first time in my life I ever felt that way.

Nobody bullied me or made special allowances except for Miss Edwards bringing me a stool from a classroom so I could get my own coffee out of the machine in the staff lounge.

The kids, though, took longer. Tommy Noname deliberately kicked over my mop bucket, like he was used to doing. Before, Ms. Mathews would never do anything. That time, though, she called him into her office and chewed him out. She, get this, made him my assistant for the entire day. I gave him orders, making him do all the heavy work. After that, the kids got the idea and left me alone. Some of them even call me "Mr. John."

Me and Pete get along well. Now, he comes in later in the mornings, leaving me to start work early and get off early. I'm trusted to do things like adjust the heat in winter and clean the walks before the workers come in. I can even drive the lawnmower in good weather and our small snowplow in winter, like it is now. They trust me to do all those things.

When two kids broke some windows last month, I fixed them myself and they didn't have to call Pete in. The same when Billy Bates plugged up a toilet and didn't tell anyone. I had it cleaned up before wakeup. It's nice to be wanted ... and what a normal-sized person must feel.

Anyway, this morning I go in for early breakfast. Ms. Mathews is in already. She don't usually come in before eight. While I'm eating eggs and bacon, she comes over and sits across from me.

"I wanted to talk to you, John. We're expecting an inspection by the state. They want to do it before Christmas. That only gives us a couple of days.

"I want you to take charge of the kids and supervise them cleaning their rooms. The rest of us have to do paperwork. Mr. Smithers will be busy with other things -- so that leaves you."

Jeez, I think. The thought scares me, of telling all those kids what to do. How can I do it?

"I dunno, ma'am. They won't listen to me."

"You'd be surprised, John. Remember how I told you to be self-confident? Now's the time to show me you can. You'll have to take charge, and don't take no crap about it. You can do it, John. I have confidence you can.

"After you're done eating, you go down and get the cleaning supplies together. I'll make an announcement during regular breakfast, so they'll be expecting it."

I hurry up to finish, gulping down the rest of the meal. I hope nobody sees how much my fork's shaking, banging off the roof of my mouth. Then I go downstairs and get all that stuff ready. We have four dormitories and over a dozen smaller rooms, which means a lot of stuff to get sorted out, which goes where and for what.

I'm still working when a dozen kids come thundering downstairs to get the stuff. I point it out to them and, kidding around with each other, they push and shove as they head for the stairs.

"Don't I get any rags, Mr. John?" Cynthia Spelling asks me, and I give her some out'a the bin.

Upstairs, most of the kids are already at work. Ms. Mathews both put the fear of God into them, and told them I would release them only after I thought they were done. Since classes are canceled for the day, that means they'll have the rest of the day off -- and on MY say so. That's why they're in a hurry.

By noon, a couple of the small rooms, used by the older kids, are finished. Some of them are angry, thinking their part is over, when I tell them to clean the halls, windows and all. At first, I try to reason with them, then remember when I was a "kid" there, and simply tell them, “Don't argue, just frickin' do it. You won't be finished until you do.

"I don't care how long it takes," I tell them, "but I ain't gonna release you 'til those halls are spick and span. Take all day and half the night if you want."

They talk among themselves for awhile, then Joey Knight comes over and asks, "You got any of that Windex stuff, Mr. John? We need it for the windows."

After lunch, I have to search for a couple of the younger girls who are goofing off. I find them hiding in the laundry room.

"You get your butts back to work," I order, and I am angry by then.

"Aw. We already cleaned our areas. Why should we have to clea--"

"Because I told you to," I tell them. "Now, get moving."

"Alright. Alright, Mr. John."

It isn't until the work is done, and I inspect it and let them go, that I really look around.

I realize that it's both a good job and that those kids have actually done as I told them -- and without a lot of trouble. Man, I think, there's something to this authority stuff.

***

Here it is, Christmas Eve, and I'm sitting in my room, watching tv on a set Pete gave me. Earlier, I went to a party upstairs with everyone, kids and staff.

I'm feeling mellow, feet up and watching that big Christmas tree in Washington or somewhere, when I hear activity outside. My window faces the back parking lot, and I see some sort of spaceship, airplane, or something parked back there.

All these little guys are running around, some unloading and others towing floating sleds or something toward the orphanage. They look like tiny Santas, wearing that kind of getup. I have to shake my head to clear it.

I put on my shoes and baseball cap, grab a metal coal-poker -- maybe four feet long -- run out to the hallway, then upstairs to the rear door. I gotta find out what's going on out there.

Going out into the snow, I run over to the spaceship. There's a thin normal-sized young man there, seemingly giving orders to the little guys. He's also dressed like Santa, but with no gut or beard.

"Jeffery. You load more goodies on that cart. We can't take all day here. We're already behind schedule. Now, move it. Cathy, watch that giraffe. It's getting ready to fall off. We can't give out dirty toys."

I reach up and grab the guy by the arm. "What'a you doing?" I ask.

"Where you come from? Nobody's supposed to see or hear us."

"I can. You're making enough noise to wake the kids. Stop or I call the cops."

"Bu ... But, but you can't see us. Nobody can see us."

"You gonna explain yourself, or you wanna do it to the police?"

"Take over, Samuel," he orders one of the little guys. “I gotta deal with this."

Samuel, an older dwarf, runs over. Looking me over closely, he jerks off my cap.

"Look, Santa. Look. He's one of us. That's why he can see us."

Indeed, they do look familiar. In all the activity, I hadn't noticed before, but they have my nose and pointy ears.

The boss guy gives out a yell and a dozen of those guys grab me, holding on tight.

"Put him in the sleigh," he tells them. "We'll sort it out later. Right now, we got a job to do."

I struggle, but they take me in and tie me to a seat, using bright orange-and-red ropes. There ain't nothing I can do, except get angrier as I fight the bonds. I have to sit and watch them as they run inside, grab numbered sacks, and hurry back out, presumably giving presents to the kids in the orphanage. It's over in a few minutes.

Santa, or whoever it is, gives me a funny look before going up front. Seconds later, we take off, only to land in a few minutes, him and the elves running around like crazy. This goes on for the rest of the night. In fact, it seems to go on forever. Can these idiots stop time, itself? I wonder.

Then, eventually, we take off on a long trip. This Santa guy must be driving, cause it's Samuel that comes back in, sitting across from me.

"Are you AWOL?" he asks.

"I ain't telling you nothing. Take me home or I'll have your butt in jail."

"You really aren't one of us, are you? Yet, you are.... Jeez, Santa One has to see this."

"Tell you what, Jack. You take me home right now, and I might not call the cops."

"Where did you come from? You must have come from Christmas Island. There aren't any of us anyplace else."

"I came from this orphanage. Dropped there as a little baby."

"But you must have come from the Island, originally."

"It's a big world, buddy." I am curious, though. "What's this Christmas Island?"

"You don't know?"

"Would I ask if I already knew?"

"It's ... It's where we and the Santas live. Are born and live. We spend a year buying and making toys for kids. Then, on Christmas Eve, do this stuff, delivering them to the good kids. Why, you should see our Accounting Department, where we keep records on all the children in the world. A huge building, a skyscraper, it's a technological masterpiece."

"Who's this Santa guy, here? He ain't got no beard or nothing. The guy don't look any older than me. Santa's supposed to be an old fat guy."

Samuel laughs. "You're thinking of the old guy we had in charge hundreds a years ago. He's dead and buried long ago. We got Johnnie14563 Santa driving this rig. There's thousands of Santas on the Island. Even with our Time Decelerators, it takes all of them to cover the entire Earth in one night. Are you stupid enough to think one man can do it?"

"I never gave it any thought." I shrug. "I guess you're right."

"So? Where did you come from, really? I don't remember hearing about any AWOLs. I'm a supervisor, so I should have."

"I told you. I was left at the Jackson Street Orphanage, and been there ever since."

"We'll be at the island soon. Someone must know something. You seem like a good kid. You gonna behave if I untie you?"

I nod and he cuts my ropes, then goes forward to what seems like the control room or something. For the rest of the trip, I sit, anger down to a slow simmer. Some bureaucratic mix-up, I figure. The orphanage has a lot of them things. Turning around, I see an empty bay behind me, elves sleeping on the floor, with several of them playing cards in a corner. They seem happy enough, though tired.

It's daylight when we make a bumpy landing. The door opens onto a tropical island, brightly-colored palm trees mixed with parking lots filled with tiny brilliantly-painted cars. The elves file out, get into vehicles and take off. Presumably for home, I guess. I see what appears to be a city in the background.

Finally, Samuel and the young Santa -- Johnnie14563? -- come to get me. After introductions, we leave, getting into a normal-looking Ford van.

"We're stopping at a McDs," Santa tells me. "Christmas Eve takes a lot out of a guy, and I could eat a horse." He laughs.

Darned if we don't find one of those fast-food places. Is there anyplace on Earth that doesn't have a McDonalds?

"I thought you guys lived at the North Pole."

"Would you like to live at the North Pole?" Santa asks, Samuel passing out hamburgers and fries.

"Uh, uh."

"'Nuff said."

We eat in virtual silence, only a burp or two interrupting the quiet. Afterward, I sit quietly, watching the scenery as we drive to a large building. What I haven't seen, since landing, are any slum areas, like around the orphanage. Everything is clean and neat. Also, all the buildings are brightly-colored in mostly-primary colors. It doesn't seem real, more like a surrealistic dreamscape by Salvador Dali.

Walking down brightly-lit corridors, we come to this door. A silver plaque saying "Santa One" adorning it. Inside, there's a receptionist -- a beautiful girl with ears and a nose like mine. That's the only similarity -- as the rest is all woman.

"Santa One will see you now, and who's," she says, licking luscious lips and batting lovely green eyes, "this handsome fellow?"

"This is John. We found him during our trip," Santa tells her.

"My name's Allie," she tells me, smiling sweetly, "and you can call me anything and anytime."

I can only force a smile. Samuel also grins, staying close beside me as we follow our Santa into one of three inner offices, labeled “Santa One.”

Inside, behind a large desk, sits an older man in a pinstripe suit -- only the stripes are red, green, and yellow -- quite flashy. I can see the family resemblance to our Santa.

He rises to shake my hand.

"While you were flying home, I checked our computers," Santa One tells me after we're all seated. "Over in the fifth quadrant of the island, twenty-two years ago, a baby was lost.

"Although an immediate search was taken, he wasn't found. Since it was on Christmas Eve, it seems that you were somehow loaded along with the toys. How you ended up on Earth is still a puzzle, but must have happened. Maybe someone found you in their stocking? Not knowing what to do with you, they sent you to the orphanage. That's about all we can figure.

"Anyway, you're back home now. We can test your skills and put you to work."

"What about my real parents? When can I meet them?"

"Not hardly, John. See, here on the island, baby elves leave their parents as soon as weened. Finding yours would be impossible," Santa One tells me, shaking his head.

"You mean they all go to orphanages?"

"You could say that, though we say it differently."

"Then, I'd like to go home," I tell them. "I'm comfortable there, among all my friends."

"Don't you feel out of place on Earth, with all those big people?" Samuel asks. "And we could use someone with your orphanage skills, at one of our Children's Hostels."

"Na," I tell them. "I'd just like to go home."

"Maybe you can stay for a vacation first?" Santa One suggests. "It might change your mind."

"If I did," I reply, shaking my head, "I'd lose my job. So I better not."

"That's no problem," he says, "since we have limited control of time. We can take you back to the orphanage on this very Christmas Day ... after Allie shows you around the island for a few months."

Now, that definitely catches my attention. How can I resist?

***

"Honey. Bring me another soda," I call out to my wife. It's the best part of my day. The kids are still at school for band practice or something. My day's work is finished and I'm planted securely in my easy chair. Wife Allie is in the kitchen putting finishing touches on a beef roast. All is right in the world.

After a six-month vacation on Christmas Island, a guest of Santa Prime, Allie decided to return to the orphanage with me. We had a huge wedding with the staff of the orphanage, over a hundred orphans and several Christmas Island guests. It was the first time a Santa One had visited, except at Christmas, for hundreds of years.

The End.
Charlie – hvysmker