He heard a quick rap on his office door.
“Come in,” he said, but the door was already opening. It was Martin, in a sleek navy suit and patterned tie, holding the door with one tanned hand as he casually leaned into the opening.
“Hey, Chris! Glad to see you’re still here,” Martin said, flashing a brilliant smile. Some of his dark hair was beginning to slip free from the rest, which was neatly slicked back.
“Martin, what can I do for you?” Chris asked, swiveling in his office chair.
“Just wanted to remind you that we need to get those reports before next quarter.”
“I remember," Chris said gently. “I’ve been doing my best to get everything done.” He leaned back in his chair, hearing the old familiar creak, and brushed one hand down his beard. The wavy whiskers, white with age and a bit yellowed around the edges, were long enough to drape over his round belly. “It’s been hard, you know, being the only one. Glenn was very helpful this time of year.” Chris kept his tone amiable, grandfatherly. Still, Martin winced at the mention of Glenn’s name.
“I know, man, I know. That wasn’t my decision, you know.” Martin shook his head. “Maddox has been making cutbacks. He says it’s for the budget.” Martin quickly glanced up and down the hallway, almost instinctively, but apparently found nothing and returned his attention back to the old man in the office.
“Is Maddox still in the building?” Chris asked, still absently stroking his beard as he leaned back comfortably.
“Nah,” Martin shook his head again, “Maddox cut out early yesterday to leave for vacation. Bahamas with the family.”
Chris nodded. “Well, how will he know if I even get the paperwork done on time, hmm?” He allowed himself a little chuckle at the quick look of surprise on Martin’s face. The younger man brushed his hair back out of his eyes.
“I never took you for the type to turn in your work late. Is it really that bad?” Martin asked, furrowing his brow.
Chris took a deep breath and let the air whistle out through his teeth. “It’s just too much work for one man, that's all,” he said. He swiveled his chair back around to face his desk, grunting a bit with the effort, then shuffled a few papers. “I’m getting too old for this, Martin.”
“Nah, you’re the best in the biz!” Martin said quickly. He took one step into the little office and patted Chris twice on the shoulder, hard, then went back to leaning in from the hallway. “We need you here, man. The company is counting on you. Just, Maddox told me to remind you and I gotta do my job, you know. Don’t shoot the messenger!” He flashed that white smile again and then laughed, holding up his hands as if offering surrender. Chris laughed a little with him, leaning back in the office chair again. Creak.
“I’ll get them done on time, Martin,” he said reassuringly, and then smiled. His mouth could hardly be seen under his white moustache, but his blue eyes crinkled up at the corners.
Martin seemed to feel better, and he clapped the door frame before giving Chris a wave. “Well, don’t hang around here too late, man. And enjoy your vacation!”
“Okay,” Chris replied warmly, “you, too.”
As Martin’s footsteps retreated away from his office, Chris heard him shout, “Happy Holidays!” He wasn’t sure if it had been meant for him or for someone else in the office. Regardless, Chris bellowed down the hall, “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” in his deep, booming voice. When Martin heard the reply from the old man, he stopped in his tracks. He was suddenly filled with a comforting feeling of warmth, like the first sip of a fresh cup of coffee in the morning. But, the sensation was gone as soon as it had arrived, and he convinced himself that it had been nothing and continued on down the hallway.
In his office, Chris surveyed the pages he still had left to check before leaving. He could see that the hallway lights had been dimmed, half of them shut off, to signal the end of the workday. He sighed, his large belly lifting him up a little as he did so. Shaking his head, he pulled his briefcase from beneath his desk. It was hard for him to bend over that far with his plump frame, and he wheezed a little from the effort. With one hand he popped the case open, and with the other he grabbed up the papers and tossed them in, snapping it closed again.
Checking his watch, he scowled. His wife was going to be upset with him for being late to dinner. He snatched up his raggedy, fleece-lined denim jacket and tugged it on as he stepped sideways out of his office. In his old age, the tasks that once seemed easy - pulling on a coat, locking an office door, bending down to pick up a briefcase - now challenged him. By the time he felt ready to go outside, he was huffing and puffing from the exertion.
The snow had been falling all day, as if to mark the exodus of office workers. Everyone would be gone for one week, and while Chris and his coworkers celebrated, the building would sit dark and quiet. Chris’s loafers made neat prints in the powder as he shuffled to his car, a no-nonsense sedan with good gas mileage.
The wind swirled powdery snow around him as he fumbled with his keys, and he paused for a moment, looking around. He noticed wispy little white tornadoes momentarily forming in a few places around the parking lot. The leaves had long since fallen from the trees, and the few that remained stuck on their branches were brown, curled, and crisp. He smiled, and nodded. His favorite season was upon him, and he felt at home in the cold. Finally, he got his key turned in the lock, and he took one long breath of frozen air before settling into the driver’s side. The car sank down a bit with his weight, and creaked not unlike the office chair. The snow was still light enough on the roads that he made his way home easily.
His wife had a look of frustration on her face, but she still gave him a kiss on his rosy cheek when he came in the door. His presence seemed to soften her even before she was able to express her upset, so instead she said, “I’ll go heat up your dinner.”
“Thank you, sweetheart,” he said, taking off his coat and hanging it in the front closet. He found his wife in the kitchen, pulling the plastic wrap off of a plate of food and sticking it into the microwave. He could see the remnants of the woman she had been when they first met, back before her hair had lost its color and life had written lines over the top of her features. She was bending down with her face close to the buttons on the microwave because she had trouble seeing them, even with her glasses. After she had set the timer, she stood back up, but not quite as straight as she used to. Chris reached for her and pulled her close, surprising her into smiling.
“I love you,” he said to her quietly, and she blushed.
“I love you, too, of course,” she replied, her irritation subsiding. But, he knew he wasn’t out of the woods yet.
“I really am sorry I was late,” he said. He knew better than to say more.
“I know,” she said. “I just wish you would have called.” The microwave beeped and she reacted, pulling free from his embrace to tend to his food. She used a dish towel to hold the hot plate as she carried it to his place at the dining table. He saw her plate of food, mostly eaten, across from his, and his heart sank.
“I know, I’m sorry,” he said to her as he sat down. She took her place across from him. Her silver hair was pulled back into a bun and she was wearing a modest blouse tucked into a long skirt. She looked regal, matronly. He couldn’t help but try to explain himself. “Since they fired Glenn, I haven’t been keeping up. I…” he debated whether to tell her about his unfinished work, and decided to get it over with, “I still have some accounts to check. I can drop off the papers when I’m out on Thursday.” Her face fell, as he had expected it would. For a moment, they both sat in silence while he poked at his food, his appetite suddenly waning.
“I just don’t understand why you still have this job…” she began, and he sighed heavily.
“Claudia, you know why I have this job.”
“But you don’t even need it! We’d be fine living on your other income—“
“You know I have no way of explaining it to the IRS—“
“—and then we could maybe even go on vacation—“
“Claudia, please!” he said loudly, but not unkindly, raising his hand. “I don’t want to fight with you.” She immediately softened again at his words, then looked a bit guilty.
“I’m sorry, Chris,” she said quietly. Her features sagged, and she lost the confidence she had possessed only moments ago. “I just wish there was an easier way.” She looked at her hands folded in her lap.
Chris got up from his chair, slowly and carefully, and shuffled his way around to where his wife sat. He knelt down, groaning as he did, and took her hands in his. “I’m sorry I was late for dinner, and for bringing work home. I’ll find a way to make it up to you.” He kissed her hands with his mustached lips, and she smiled. He had to use the table for support to hoist himself back up from the floor, but he managed it.
“What, are you staying home for Christmas this year?” she asked him, and he could see the humor twinkling in her eyes. They both laughed at the inside joke.
After his wife had gone to bed that night, Chris stayed up late, double-checking his sheets of numbers. Martin had ragged on him for taking so much time looking everything over, but Chris had insisted on always checking the number sheets twice before handing them in. It had been rare, but every once in a while he had caught a mistake before the reports were submitted. As a result of his fastidiousness, he was the only employee in his department who had never made a mistake, not in all his years of working there. Chris suspected that it was also the reason he was the only one in his department who had managed to keep his job as the company continued to lay off his coworkers, but he couldn’t really be sure.
On Thursday morning he rolled up his paperwork and tucked it into a pocket of the outfit he had chosen to wear later.
“You look exhausted,” Claudia cooed at him, petting his hair, which had thinned on the top, but hung long and white on the sides and in the back. “You’ve got a big day ahead of you,” she reminded him, and he could see the worry in her face.
“I think you mean ‘big night,’” he corrected, smiling. “I’ll be fine. I just need an extra cup of coffee.” She seemed to be reassured, but he gave her a tight hug for good measure. She went about fixing him a breakfast of bacon, over-easy eggs, and buttered toast. He reviewed the list he would need for his job that evening.
The phone rang several hours later, and his wife informed him from the kitchen that it was Gordy, calling to confirm this year’s order.
“I think everything’s all set then,” Chris said into the phone after a while. He was stroking his beard, standing in the kitchen as he spoke on the landline. With only a few hours left until sunset, it was time to start getting the reindeer hitched up. Gordy would be there soon with his first delivery, and Chris always liked to be ready when he arrived.
Right on time, Gordy, dressed in a fur coat that reached nearly to his little boots, appeared. The tiny man, if you could call him that, handed Chris a clipboard with a pen and several papers on it, then shuffled off through the snow toward the reindeer. Chris mumbled to himself as he read over the invoice on the clipboard, then signed at the bottom of the last page. He was also dressed warmly, in high-laced black leather boots, layers of long underwear, and his favorite velvety pajama suit. It was an odd outfit for driving a sleigh, to be sure, but there was something about wearing his red, fur-trimmed robe and stocking cap at night that just felt...right, even if he was technically on the job. Gordy reached a small, mittened hand up to pat the muzzle of the nearest reindeer, standing at the front of the team. Eight of them were hitched to the front of the sleigh, paired up with red leather yokes adorned with gold, jingling bells. Chris made his way to the antique sleigh, passing the clipboard back to Gordy as he did so.
“Looks like we are good to go!” the old man said heartily. Gordy nodded, then pulled off one mitten and snapped his little fingers. A humongous red knapsack, bulging with points and lumps, appeared in the back of the sleigh. The wintery vehicle groaned under the sudden weight, and its blades sank a few inches further into the snow.
“There’s your first set,” Gordy said, then pulled the clipboard up and glanced at the top page. “Canada. It’s always Canada, first, isn’t it?” he asked, curious. Chris nodded, then shrugged. The large old man grasped the edges of the sleigh with both of his gloved hands and hoisted himself up into the driver’s seat, a bench that spanned the width of the front of the sleigh. It was not particularly comfortable, but it was only for one night. He settled himself, gave a quick wave to Gordy, then picked up the reins in both hands. The reindeer were eager, and it only took one quick snap of the leather for them to surge forward - forward and upward.
On the roof of the office building, Chris pulled the reindeer in for a landing. He checked for the papers against his breast, then headed for the rooftop door as quickly as he could. Locks were never a problem for him on this night, and he easily made his way down the stairs to his floor. Even in the dark, he found Maddox’s office at the end of the hall. He pushed through the door and went straight to the desk, gently placing his work on an empty space atop the hardwood. Pausing, pondering, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a lump of coal, still debating whether or not to leave it on Maddox’s desk. Finally, he sighed, then turned and left the office, tossing the coal into a trash can on his way out.
Back on the roof, Chris had just gotten settled into the sleigh when he saw headlights. A car was pulling into the parking lot. He felt his heartbeat quicken in his chest. The car screeched to a stop and the driver’s side door opened. It was Martin, in a navy sweat suit, and he was gaping up at Chris and the reindeer on the roof of the office building. Panicking, Chris snapped the reins hard, and he fell back against the giant knapsack when the sleigh was yanked forward. He wondered if Martin would possibly recognize him, all the way up here, as he bobbed up into the night sky.
The sleigh circled higher and higher, and Chris chuckled to himself, shaking his head. “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” he called out to Martin, his deep voice echoing through the city streets. Looking over his shoulder, he saw his manager bring two hands up to his hair, still mostly slicked back, and Chris couldn’t help but let out a booming laugh. As more snow began to fall, he guided the reindeer towards Canada, glad to have turned his work in on time. Perhaps he would ask Martin, when they all came back to work in January, what he was doing at the office on Christmas Eve...