Tom stared at a greeting card of a chubby man in a red suit with a face obscured by a beard. Tom had heard of beards, but he’d never seen one. Only grown-ups could grow them.
He looked to Anna, the closest person he’d ever known to a grown-up. She was busily taping cardboard over the broken windscreen of a rusty, roadside car, which was to be their brand-new home. Earlier, glass fragments and crimson stains had covered the seats. Anna had sent Tom away until she’d cleaned.
Tom scrambled into the front seat and held up the card. “I found this. Who’s he?”
Anna stopped work to look. “Oh, wow, that’s Santa. I’ve heard of him. They say that long ago before the robots took over, he travelled the world one special night each year, giving toys to kids.”
Tom had no toys. Just a knife for protection, glue left over from mending his shoes, and a flashlight. Anna had a few extra things—a can-opener, bandages and a compass. But neither of them had any toys.
“Santa visited every single kid,” Anna went on.
“How did he find them all?” Tom asked.
“Before the robots, humans didn’t have to hide.”
“Still, there used to be lots more people than there are now,” Tom said. “Finding them would have been hard work.” He studied the card. Behind Santa, a tree sparkled with lights. The tree probably showed Santa where to visit, like towers guided the robots’ spaceships to the ground. “What special night did Santa visit?”
Anna shrugged. “People lost track of dates ages ago. There’s no way to know.”
That night, Tom lay awake, unable to shake the feeling that he’d found the card for a reason. He was sure that night was Santa’s special toy-giving night. He was also certain that if he lit a tree, Santa would find him.
Tom peeked into the front seat where Anna slept. She’d say it was too dangerous to light a tree, that they didn’t need toys. But she was wrong. They couldn’t have parents or a home. They couldn’t make noise when they played. They couldn’t feel safe from the robots no matter how well they hid. But maybe they could have a toy.
With the card and his tools under his jacket, Tom slipped from the car, scooped up handfuls of the shattered windscreen glass and tiptoed into the night.
Far from the car, he climbed a pine tree. He dabbed glue on glass pieces and pressed them to the pine needles. In the darkness, the fragments were insignificant, but when he shone his flashlight on them, they sparkled just like the tree on the card. He added glass to every branch, then returned to the ground.
“Please visit,” he whispered then raised the flashlight overhead and flicked it on.
Where the beam hit, the glass twinkled. By swaying the light back and forth, every branch had a chance to illuminate, each dancing like stars, like magic. It was so beautiful Tom was sure Santa would come. How could he resist?
Something shifted in the trees behind Tom and he spun to face the dark forest. Leaves rustled. Bushes shifted.
Tom gripped the card to his chest and held his breath. “Santa?”
A silhouetted figure appeared between the trees, but he was thin, not chubby. Stepping from the shadows, his form transformed into the sharp angles of a robot. Its arm joints clicked as it raised a gun.
Tom tried to scream but he could only choke. He attempted to run but he was frozen. As the robot approached with heavy, rigid steps, Tom held his arms out, as if that would somehow protect him.
Bonelike fingers snatched the card from his hand. The robot studied it then tipped its head, to peer into the tree. Lights beamed from its eyes, making branches twinkle.
“I just wanted a toy,” Tom croaked. “Just one. Just for once.” Fighting tears, he squeezed his eyes closed and waited for the click of the robot’s trigger finger and the crack of its deadly gun.
But time and silence stretched. No clicks. No cracks. Tom opened his eyes. The robot was gone. Before it could return, Tom sprinted to the car, curled in a ball and trembled until sleep took him.
Tom opened his eyes to Anna gaping over the car seats. On the seat beside Tom were two presents.
Anna hesitantly smiled. “Is it possible? Could it be? Did Santa visit?”
On one box sat the greeting card, last seen in the robot’s hands.
“Not Santa,” Tom said. “But someone just as kind.”
Beyond the car, Tom could just make out a robot tower blinking in the distance, a single silver ship racing towards it, and oddly, strangely, the ringing of bells.
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Emerging Worlds is a Zealot Script Publication.