Eight-year-old Katie was seated at the dining room table, in her bluebird pajamas and fuzzy slippers, swinging her feet, waiting for breakfast.
“Mom, why didn’t Buddy move?”
There was a snapping noise and toast rose up from the toaster.
“What?” Mom said, not really wanting to hear.
Mom put the toast on two plates, one for Katie and one for Wayne, her six-year-old cousin,. She pried the top off the tub of butter and dipped a knife in. She lifted out little curls of butter and spread them around on the toast.
“Why didn’t Buddy move?” Katie repeated.
Buddy was the elf on the shelf. Each night, while they slept, Buddy would move to a new location to watch who was being naughty or nice and report it to Santa. When Katie went to bed last night, Buddy had been on the second shelf of the cabinet in the dining room. This morning, Buddy was still there.
“Maybe he just decided to stay there,” Mom said. “That’s a good place to watch everyone.”
Katie wasn’t buying it. Buddy was under orders from Santa to move around. She looked at Wayne for support. Wayne was holding toast in front of his face and licking it.
“Wayne, don’t play with your food,” Mom said. Mom’s eyes were red. She was tired a lot since Dad moved out.
“Yeah, Wayne,” Katie said. “Buddy’s watching.”
First thing each morning, she noted Buddy’s location. Then, whenever she was where Buddy could see her, she made sure to share, to not talk back, and to play patiently with Wayne, even when he was driving her crazy. Buddy’s reports surely were racking up tons of goodness points for Katie at the North Pole.
“Katie, would you eat an egg if I fixed it?” Mom asked.
She didn’t want an egg, but Mom wanted her to eat one. Pleasing Mom was a good deed, and it probably counted double if it was something you didn’t want to do.
Katie had reasoned that a few good deeds were enough for little presents or things she didn’t want, like socks. The good presents on her list probably required lots of good deeds. She had asked Mom, but Santa didn’t publish guidelines, which she thought was unreasonable. Katie was writing down all her good deeds in a notebook in her room, just in case Buddy had missed any.
After breakfast, Mom gave Wayne the iPad so he could play Minecraft, and told them that she was going to pay bills. Katie set up her construction paper and markers beside Mom, where Buddy could see. She was going to draw a Christmas picture for Mom, probably a tree with presents and a snowman.
However, Katie was concerned that this good deed wouldn’t count in her point total. Buddy hadn’t moved. Yesterday was over, and Buddy hadn’t reset to count today’s good deeds.
“Do you think Buddy is sick?” she asked.
“Buddy’s not sick,” Mom said, not looking up from her bills. “Elves don’t get sick.”
“Elves just tend to be healthy.”
“Is Buddy covered by health insurance?” she asked.
She’d heard Mom talking with Dad over the phone about Katie being covered under Mom’s health insurance because Dad had lost his job.
Mom looked up and smiled. Whenever Mom smiled, Katie felt good inside.
“Yes, Buddy is covered,” Mom said. “Santa has health insurance for all the elves, but Buddy’s not sick. He’s fine.”
“How come there’s not an elf at Dad’s house?” she asked.
Mom and Dad were divorced, which meant they lived in different houses, but they both were still her mom and dad.
“I don’t know,” Mom said. “You’re here most of the time, so I guess that’s enough for Santa to know if you’re being good.”
This bothered Katie. If I’m good at Dad’s house, how does Santa know? Katie wanted to ensure that an accurate tally of good deeds was being kept. It wasn’t like Santa would cheat her, but if he had bad information, she wouldn’t get all the presents she deserved.
“Wayne, use a tissue,” Mom said.
Wayne was wiping his nose on the arm cover of the couch and Katie wondered why Wayne ever got any presents.
“Do you have an elf at your house?” Katie asked Wayne.
She wondered whether Wayne’s elf was just stupid or if Wayne only misbehaved when his mom wasn’t around.
“Does your elf move?” she asked.
“Mom, the elf at Wayne’s house moves,” Katie said.
Mom looked up. Wayne and Katie both were looking at her.
“Wayne’s elf moves,” Katie said. “Something’s wrong with Buddy.”
Mom was mad, but not as mad as she would be if Wayne wasn’t here.
“Don’t worry about Buddy,” Mom said. “Maybe he was just tired and forgot to move. Maybe he overslept.”
That seemed plausible. Sometimes, Dad overslept and would forget to pick up Katie on his weekend. Katie looked out the window.
“It’s snowing!” she said.
She and Wayne went to the window and watched the thick flakes. They were falling fast and covering the ground.
“It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” they said. Saying it over and over made it fun.
Mom looked out the window as well, but didn’t seem excited about the snow.
Katie helped Mom make Christmas cookies and the house was filled with the smell of butter and sugar. She’d been good all day and she hoped Buddy had been taking notes.
It was dark, now, and still snowing. The snow was piling up, making it difficult to drive.
“Are we going to church tomorrow?” she asked.
“We’ll see,” Mom said. “Maybe not.”
“Can we have pancakes in the morning?” Wayne asked.
“You bet,” Mom said.
“When is Wayne going home?” Katie said, then realizing that saying that might count as a bad deed because she wanted Wayne to go home, which wasn’t nice.
“Yeah, when am I going home?” Wayne asked, saving her. That changed things. If Wayne wanted to go home, Katie asking was like helping Wayne, which counted as a good deed. More goodness points.
“Monday,” Mom said. “Both of you need to hop into bed.”
Katie put on her bluebird pajamas, brushed her teeth, and hugged Mom goodnight. Mom put Wayne to bed in Katie’s room and Katie went to sleep in Mom’s bed.
She lay in bed, trying to decide whether she hoped they would go to church or hoped that they wouldn’t go. Reasons to go would be Sunday school if there was a Bible story. Katie liked stories where people had adventures. She also liked the singing in the church service and that she got to chew gum while the preacher preached.
Reasons not to go would be everything else. Church was boring and the wooden pews hurt her butt. There was nothing to do but count the tiles in the ceiling and look at the stained-glass windows.
Worrying about going to church was keeping her awake. When Mom didn’t come back to bed, she decided to get up for a glass of water, just to see what Mom was doing. She tiptoed to the kitchen but stopped and peeked into the living room. Mom was on the phone. She could tell from the sound of Mom’s voice that she was talking to Dad.
“I can’t pay our bills if you don’t pay child support, Brian.”
Katie went to the kitchen and filled a plastic glass half full of tap water. She passed by the living room on the way back. Mom was still on the phone so Katie didn’t bother her.
Back in bed, Katie felt uneasy. It wasn’t like being scared that there were monsters under the bed. She was too old for that. She just felt uneasy. She tried to think of angels. Angels were easy to think of. Katie imagined a beautiful angel and one immediately appeared in her mind in a white dress. The angel was surrounded by light. Katie knew the angel was watching over her, and she felt safe to fall asleep.
It was morning. Mom was in bed beside her, asleep. Katie slipped out from under the covers, put on her fuzzy slippers, and went to check on Buddy.
He still hadn’t moved.
Katie was impatient for Mom to get up. Katie got out paper and markers and tried to distract herself by drawing, but her heart wasn’t in it. This was a crisis. If Buddy didn’t do his job, Santa couldn’t do his.
Mom finally came into the living room. She was still in her nightgown and she was wearing her robe. Katie pointed at Buddy, accusingly. Mom looked surprised. Then she sighed.
“I’m going to tell you a secret,” Mom said.
She explained that Buddy didn’t really move each night. Mom moved him, but she had things on her mind and forgot.
“It’s a game,” Mom said. “It’s fun to pretend, but now you know.”
Katie was stunned. She’d been deceived by her own mother. Evidently, the other adults were in on it.
“But don’t tell Wayne, he doesn’t know,” Mom said, winking, as she picked up Buddy and moved him to the mantle above the fireplace.
And now I’m in on it, too.
Wayne came out, rubbing his eyes.
“Look, Wayne,” Katie said, pointing. “Buddy moved.”
Wayne saw. His face lit up and he was happy. Katie was thrilled that she knew and that Wayne didn’t.
“Everybody want pancakes?” Mom asked.
They didn’t go to church – the roads were too bad. Instead, the three of them – Mom, Katie, and Wayne – went outside to play in the snow.
She and Wayne made snowballs and threw them at each other. He lost interest and started playing with an icicle that had fallen from the gutter, pretending it was a sword.
“Let’s make a snowman,” Mom said.
Mom showed them how to start a snowball and roll it in the snow to add snow and make it bigger. She said they could each roll a ball and then they would stack them. Wayne didn’t understand, so Katie tried to help him.
As Katie patted snow into a ball and they rolled it into a bigger ball, she felt like an assistant mom, not a little kid like Wayne. She knew that Buddy was just a story, crossing the line separating adults and children.
But with Buddy out of the picture, she still had to figure out how to get her list of good deeds to Santa.
Mike Wilson is a writer in Lexington, Kentucky. He’s published poetry and stories in anthologies and small magazines including Appalachian Heritage, and authored a biography, Warrior Priest: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and The School of the Americas.