"Oh dear," said Mrs. Clause.
He tapped the cold ash from this meerschaum and lay it on the desk before him. He looked up and stared at his wife's cherry-hued cheeks and her big blue eyes. This year he meant it, and it might break her heart. "Have you seen the reports?" he asked.The birch had not been used for long ages. He'd wanted to use it every year since 1963. That was the first year the naughty stack had been thicker than the nice. But after the Coca-Cola campaign of the 50s, with the happy, jolly, fat man image being popularized, he knew there'd be PR problems. And so, this debate became a ritual between him and his wife. But not now.
"Dear," she began her well rehearsed template, "you don't mean it. Where's the nice pile?""See for yourself." He had a single manila folder with three pieces of paper in it. "There's a kid in Wyoming, homeschooled, hardly ever leaves the house. There's that girl who puts up nice posts on Facebook for the Down's syndrome kids, and… you're in there." He pushed it across the desk towards her.
She flicked the edge of the folder with her thumb but didn't pick it up. Could this be true, she wondered. Had the world gotten that bad? "How can this be?""Do you realize," he began, "I had to buy a new external hard drive just for the porn lists? Bullying is up twenty-four percent, not minding is worse than the American national debt, and the meanness indexes… Pouting and crying are the least of my worries, but they're just as bad."
She tilted her head at him and saw something different in his eyes than in years past. "What about coal? You haven't used coal in forever. Give them a warning. Couldn't this be a coal year.""I haven't used coal because in the western hemisphere I'd be fined by the United Nations for carbon emissions. In the rest of the world it would be a reward."
She began to cry and he reached out and took one of her hands in his. "It's not for all of them," he said. "The real little kids, of course they'll get their presents. But fourth grade and up is shot. It's done. Honey, they need the birch." He put special emphasis on the word need.She said nothing but bent and placed a gentle kiss on her husband's bald head, between two liver spots she found most charming.
When she left the office he stood and stretched his back and with a heavy sigh walked to the special equipment room and opened the iron vault where the most powerful of his things were kept. Most of these relics had not made the songs. He stepped inside and looked around.On one shelf, in a jar of formaldehyde, was the red nose. He picked it up and swirled it around like he would an olive in a martini. It yet glowed. How he missed that little mutant. Tragic really, he thought, that reindeer only live about twenty years. He put it back and then saw the hoof-wreath from the others of that original team. They were thick and grey with age. Dancer's still had that big chip in his from when he'd broken his ankle and had to be put down. He'd run the hooves along a line of the original harness and had hung it in the kitchen for a while. But of course the Mrs. didn't stand for that very long. I really ought to get rid of some of this junk, he thought, but knew in his heart he was just a sentimental old fool.
"Time for reminiscing later," he said to himself. He walked to the metal cabinet that hung on the farthest wall opposite the door. It had been the medicine cabinet from their first house. He blew dust from the surface of the mirror and looked at himself, checking his teeth for bits of breakfast and thought about shaving.Then he opened the door and there was the birch. It looked like a principal's paddle from ages gone by. It was two feet long and eight inches wide. One end tapered to a handle. Holes were drilled at regular intervals along the paddle.
He hefted it in his thick hands and slapped it on one palm. "It's been too long and a long time coming. Should have used this years ago. Things might not have gotten so bad."In the early morning hours of December 26th of that year, every child above the age of ten woke from a horrible nightmare. They cried out in their darkened rooms and alarmed parents ran to find them red-faced with tears streaming down their cheeks. Their rear ends burned and emergency rooms were filled with what looked like a severe rash on their backsides. In the minds of the children rang the words, "You better be good, for goodness sake."