I stare at the weird fatso in a red suit and I want to call the police. My every instinct is to run to the phone and dial 112 while I still have time. But a wave of paranoia paralyses me. They're going to lock me up. If I tell them I've got Santa on my balcony, they're going to lock me up in an asylum, tie me to my bed and drown me in medication.
"Ho, ho, ho," he says. "Be a nice girl and let me in."
My hand is reaching for the phone and I start to back away, toward the table where I left it, not taking my eyes off "Santa".
"No, no, it's ok, don't let me in," he says hurriedly. "I'll be off, I'll be off right now. I just need a favour to ask. I… I need a replacement."
"You need a prison cell and some serious counselling," I think to myself, "because the Santa outfit is the worst burglar idea I've ever seen. You'd need to be crazy to try it."
But I don't say anything, and he starts to relax.
"I'm… err… taking the year off," he goes on. "And I want you to take my place."
"Let me make one thing clear," I say slowly, my hand sliding towards the phone, "I've never believed in Santa Claus. Never. Not even when I was three. I've always known it was my duty to give presents to everyone I knew and pretend they were from some fat bozo instead, so I wouldn't even get the credit for the time and money I spent on them. I've been buying and making presents since before I started school. So cut the crap and get off my balcony before I call the police."
"Now, now, that is perfectly true," the man said, putting up his hands. "I know. People buy their own presents, and I don't bother with those who have someone they can get presents from. How much time do you think an old man can have, in only one night? But there are others, others who don't have children or parents to buy presents for them."
"That's what charities are for," I answer. "All those scheming politicians trying to make a good impression, all the blood-sucking corporations going after brand loyalty, all the close-minded little people trying to wash, bleach and blow-dry their conscience at the last minute, they all give like crazy this time of the year."
"Right… But they can't reach everyone. They go for the big fish: orphanages, hospitals, and for the easy-to-spot beggars who make a living off stopping people in the street to ask for money. I'm talking about the ones nobody remembers."
He's got a point.
"So you want me to be Santa for those guys? On top of everyone else on my list, who's supposed to be, according to you, your responsibility in the first place? Your list?"
I've got the phone in my hand now and I'm trying to decide if to call the police or trust the guy, believe that he's the "real Santa" and just throw the phone at him.
"You don't have to believe me," he says. "Just go see for yourself. It's just a bunch of little ones, not far from here. Here, I'll draw you a map. And here's the list of what they want. Their adoptive mother got hit by a car yesterday. It's five of them: one white, two black, one brown, one orange. You can check for yourself. Don't give them anything if you don't want to. But I know you will, I know you'll be a good Santa."
He's scribbling fast on a scrap of crumpled paper he got out of his pocket, drawing and scribbling while he speaks. He bends down slowly, as if I had a gun pointed at him, leaves the paper on the floor, and stands back.
"I'll be gone now, honest," he says. "Back to the reindeers. Have a merry Christmas!"
And he climbs back up on a rope that's hanging from the roof with a last "ho, ho, ho".
I know I should call the police, just in case, but I go pick up the paper instead. The map shows my building and the alley behind it. An X marks the spot, behind the parking lot. The list says "milk, a warm blanket, a new Mummy". I should call the police, but instead I'm thinking it's not far at all, and it's not that much, and I need to know. I get a blanket from the house, a carton of milk from the fridge, and I go check.
It's cold and dark outside. A few snowflakes start falling as I leave the building, dancing like fireflies around the bleary street lights.
"A new Mummy," I think. That's going to be the hardest. I have a friend who's thinking of adopting a child, but only one, maybe two. And she's a fierce racist. The nicest, most kind-hearted, most selfless woman I've ever known, always ready to help everybody without asking for anything in return, but a pathological racist.
Behind the parking lot it's even darker. There's no door where the X is, only a cardboard box. When I get closer, a faint sound, like the cry of a baby, reaches out from inside. I look. It is five of them, just as the man said: one white, two black, one brown, one orange tabby, five beautiful kittens. They're so small that their eyes are still blue, and so skinny that I'm surprised they've survived this long in this cold. I don't want a cat, much less five, but I can't leave them there. I tell myself I can try to find them homes once they're warm and well-fed and safe, so I pick them up, box and all, and head back home.
When I get home I find the door to the balcony broken. My TV, my computer and my printer are missing. I imagine my savings would be too if I had any. So much for the "real" Santa.
"We believe what we want to believe," I whisper to the box in my arms, and the kittens purr back in answer to the sound of my voice. "You can believe I'm your new Mummy, and believe that nice old man is Santa Claus and he was just making room for Mummy's precious babies."
I put the box on the desk, where my computer used to be. I'm going to need a new one, and I should call the police, and get someone to fix the door and alert the neighbours just in case they get a visit from "Santa", but right now all I'm thinking is that I need to warm up that milk. Everything else can wait.