UP ON THE HOUSETOP
“Shut it, Ziggy, you dumb cat.” I rolled over in bed and tugged the pillow over my head.
“Grrr…” I sprang up, half groggy, half annoyed. Then I snapped to reality. Ziggy was outside. His meows came from above.
Like me, my cat enjoys climbing up on the roof of our house. I do some of my best thinking up there. Unlike me, Ziggy can’t seem to find his way down. I rescued him twice last week.
I glanced at the bedside clock. Ugh. Of course Ziggy would pick 2:00 a.m. Christmas morning to disrupt my visions of sugarplums. And worse, in about four hours my bratty little brother Sean would storm in here and drag me downstairs because, heaven forbid, I don’t witness his Santafest.
“All right, all right. Hang onto your whiskers, I’m coming.”
I slipped on some wool socks, raised the window, and with the coolness of Cat Woman, I hitched onto the ivy trellis and scaled up. Brrr… You could store leftovers out here. My flannel jammy bottoms and long sleeve tee barely cut the chill. Oh well. I could endure it all of the two minutes it’d take for a kitty rescue.
I carefully avoided the string of Christmas lights as I heaved myself up and over and… What the holly? Parked smackdab in the center of our roof was an enormous sleigh and eight for-real reindeer! The shock caused me to stumble back, nearly tumbling off the roof and going splat on our family of plastic snowmen.
Was this some kind of joke? Had Dad hired Reindeer R Us to pull off some big thing for Sean?
I ventured a few steps closer. That’s when I heard, “Achoo!”
I froze. Overwhelmingly and literally. I swear, it had to be thirty degrees out.
Please tell me Dad hadn’t talked some poor schmuck into playing Santa. Was some out-of-work actor waiting to Kris Kringle his way down our chimney?
I tiptoed to the side of the sleigh, careful not to spook the reindeer and get trampled like the famous grandma in the song. There, sitting on the sleigh’s edge, legs dangling, was a guy in a green sweatshirt and jeans. He kept his head down, his attention on whatever game he had going on his phone. He quickly buried his nose in the crook of his arm and, “Achoo!”
“Who are you?” I demanded with the authority of every butt-kicking cop I’d seen on TV.
His head shot up, then his expression cratered. “Dang it. No one’s supposed to see me.”
“Why? Are you a burglar? Because I know Mom hid the newest iPhone for me for Christmas, and I’ll kick you off this roof before I hand that over.”
“No,” he said, hopping to his feet. “The opposite of that. I’m one of Santa’s elves.”
I considered it. He was short. Five foot two? Maybe an inch taller than me. And he had elven features—super cute in a Marty McFly meets Frodo Baggins sort of way. He even had pointy ears. Not full-on Spock. They just tapered nicely at the tips.
I also considered this: he could be an all-out nutjob with a Napoleon complex who’d just escaped the state hospital.
He cocked his head. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
“Of course not. Santa’s not real.”
He looked down at whatever he had going on with his phone. “Yeah, well, he’s the most real guy I know.”
“So where is he?” I made an exaggeration of checking around.
Without raising his eyes, he nodded to the neighbor’s house. “Next door.”
“Next door? Then why are you on my roof?”
He shrugged a little. His [_whatever _]attitude was beginning to spike my peeve level. “It’s a great central location for the neighborhood,” he answered.
I crossed my arms, partly to show toughness, but mostly because it felt like my skin was forming ice crystals. “I thought Santa went roof to roof.”
He cut me a look. “That’d just be plain stupid. Do you drive your car over when you go next door?”
“Uh, yeah. But that’s mostly because my dad bought me a pink Jeep for my birthday and I all but live in it now.”
His elvish lips curled into a smile. “Ah. You’ve wanted one ever since getting that Barbie Jeep when you were six.”
My mouth dropped, no easy feat since my jaws were starting to lock up from the freeze. “Wait… How’d you know about that?”
He beamed triumphant. “I helped fill the order.”
No way. No way. No way.
“Hang on, I was six. How old were you?”
“That’s awful!” I spouted. “Aren’t there child labor laws up there?”
“Relax, I didn’t make the thing. I just helped Santa with the sorting. It’s fun.” His face screwed up and he buried his nose again. “Achoo!”
“Listen,” I said, taking a step back. “Since you sound contagious, and I’m having some kind of out-of-body experience, I’m going to find my cat, go inside, and hopefully wake up from this dumb Dickens dream.”
“Oh, come on, Sophie. Dickens wrote about ghosts. I’m no ghost. Achoo!”
[_He knows my name? _]At this point, I was beyond surprise, but that could’ve been the low temps numbing my brain. “I guess if you knew about my Barbie Jeep, you’d naturally know my name.”
“Sorry.” He pushed toward me and extended his hand. “I’m Pete.”
I looked at it dumbly. “Uh…you seem like a nice elf and all, Pete, but I really don’t want to catch your cold or whatever that crud is that’s making you sneeze.”
“It’s not a cold. It’s an allergy.”
I went ahead and shook his hand. After all, I was at an advantage. If he tried anything funny, I could jerk hard and fling him off the roof. But something weird happened. The second our hands touched, I felt a tingle that trickled through me, all the way down to my toes. Yeah, it could’ve been the frostbite setting in, but I didn’t think so. The warmth Pete emitted was like warm gingerbread straight from the oven.
“It’s nice to meet you, Pete,” I said, reluctant to let go. But he quickly dropped my grip and went, “Achoo!”
I thought about Ziggy, slinking around here somewhere. “Are you allergic to cats?”
“No, magic dust.”
He sighed. “Yep, I’m the only elf at The Pole allergic to magic dust. And tonight Santa was flinging it like confetti. I think I inhaled most of it.”
“Magic dust,” I murmured. This night could not get any freakier. By now I was visibly shaking, and my teeth chattered. “Listen, it’s been educational and all, but I’d rather die peacefully in my sleep and not from exposure on the roof of my house. So I’m going to find my cat and go in.”
He thunked his head with the heel of his hand. “Wow, where are my manners?” He reached into the sleigh and brought out a large gift bag. He pulled a red monogrammed robe from it and slipped it on me.
I tried to shrug it off. “No, I can’t take someone’s present.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, placing that gingerbread-warm hand on my shoulder. “It’s mine. Santa gave one to all his employees this year.”
“Oh.” It fit great, and it felt cozy. I glanced at the initials. P.W. “What does the W stand for?”
I cocked a brow. “Your last name is Winter?”
He cinched the belt at my waist. “Elves tend to have names tailored to their environment.”
“It suits you.” I noted his sweatshirt and jeans. “Aren’t you cold?”
“Nah, it’s warm down here.”
I guess if you’re used to arctic regions…
“Thanks, Pete. But now I really do need to find my cat.”
“I’ll help,” he offered.
I paused. “Shouldn’t you be helping Santa?”
“Nah, Santa does all the heavy lifting. I’m the designated driver.”
“Wait, what? Why would Santa, of all people, need a designated driver?”
That elfish grin was back. “You know the whole milk and cookies thing?”
Pete checked left and right like there might be someone other than the reindeer to overhear. “Lots of people leave eggnog.” Then he whispered, “Spiked. The big guy loves it.”
A vision of an eggnogged Santa flashed through my mind. “I’ll file that under things I’d rather not know.”
To my delight, Pete held my hand to steady me and we made our way across the landscape that was my rooftop. He walked it like a circus performer. But here was the thing: my roof is like most everyone else’s—a peaked top with two sloping sides. There weren’t too many places to hide. Scratch that. There weren’t any places to hide. And yet, Ziggy had done a Houdini act and managed to disappear.
“He must have climbed down,” Pete said.
“Not Ziggy. He has to gather courage just to jump off the couch. You think one of the reindeer ate him?”
“No, they mostly eat grass and veggies, though I saw Cupid gulp a mouse once.”
One of the reindeer snorted.
Pete rolled his eyes. “He always knows when I’m talking about him.”
“Uh…right.” I huffed a sigh. “Where is my cat? Ziggy!”
“Shhh…” Pete placed his finger to my lips. It smelled like peppermint. I was tempted to take a lick. “If I get discovered, it’d look really bad.”
“And if I don’t find my cat, his whiskers will freeze off.” Along with the rest of his kitty parts.
Pete’s face flashed like he’d had a breakthrough. “I bet I know where he is.” He led me back to the sleigh, shoved aside three large bags, and opened the fourth—a sack full of pet toys. There, strung out on catnip, was Ziggy.
“Bad kitty,” I said, lifting him out. I tucked him in my arms and turned to Pete. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure.” The expression on his adorable face reiterated it.
The truth is, if this guy wasn’t a figment of my imagination, I’d be tempted to kiss him.
“Soooo, I guess I should go now.”
“Okay,” he said, sounding disappointed. Designated driver must be a lonely business. “Take care of yourself, Sophie.”
“You too, Pe—”
I was interrupted by an approaching jingle of bells that scared the wee out of Ziggy. It sent him into a frenzy as he tore out of my arms. I lost momentum and tumbled back, rolling and sliding (and yes, bouncing) down the roof. “Help,” I managed in more of a stage whisper than a shout.
I toppled over the edge, knowing in two seconds I’d likely be impaled on one of our Christmas lawn gnomes. But just as I pitched off to my doom, a warm hand reached out and grabbed me.
“Hang on,” Pete said.
I clasped his wrist with my other hand as I dangled over the edge. “Don’t let go.”
“Never,” he murmured.
I believed him. But he only stayed roof-bound by digging the toes of his sneakers into the shingles. Not much of a match for gravity. Inch by inch, he slid, still trying to pull me up. The reality was, we were both about to be lawn gnome victims. Of all the embarrassing ways to die.
I was completely off the roof at this point, Pete pretty much halfway. That’s when his face scrunched again. With a powerful sneeze, he went “Achoo!”
Gross! But instead of snot, he sprayed glittering magic dust, showering me and him alike. In an instant, we were airborne—floating, drifting, then soaring up like Santa’s magic reindeer. I’d never felt so light or alive.
Once secure on the roof, Pete pulled me into his arms. His heart beat wildly against mine.
I put my lips close to his pointy ear and whispered, “Bless you.”
The approaching bells jingled again.
“Quick,” he said, “you can’t be found here.”
“I know.” I swooped up Ziggy and hurried to the ivy trellis. I steadied onto it as Pete watched. Then I remembered. “Wait…your robe.”
“It’s no big deal,” he said. “Santa’s got a supply room full of them. Go.”
I ducked down just as the big guy tromped onto our roof.
After setting Ziggy inside, I climbed through my window and closed it tight. Brrr… I tossed the robe on the far side of my bed by the wall, ripped off my cold, damp socks, and crawled under my warm quilt. As I snuggled down, I heard a whoosh, like a small plane had taken off from the roof. I closed my eyes, thinking, I hope I remember this dream in the morning.
On schedule, Sean burst in my room at six, shaking me awake. “Come on, Sophie! Mom and Dad won’t let me at the presents till you come down.”
My eyes popped open. It’s a good thing I couldn’t see them. They were probably as red as Santa’s suit. Santa. My dream of the cute elf on the roof came back to me. I looked at the side of the bed. No robe. Silly.
Turns out, Mom and Dad really came through this yuletide season—Burberry cologne, heart-shaped locket, new boots, and the coveted iPhone, complete with designer cover. Then, about ten, Nana and Gramps showed up bearing the usual gift cards. There was music and games and enough food to feed a small nation. I should’ve been pumped, giddy, full of glad tidings. But my heart wasn’t in the games, I barely sang the carols, and I pushed the food around on my plate like someone working a jigsaw puzzle. I can’t say I felt sad, just hollow.
Of course no moping goes unnoticed by Mom. “Are you feeling okay?” she asked.
“Yeah. Maybe. Sorta.” I had to be careful that she didn’t mistake my emptiness for ingratitude for the gifts. “I’m just sleepy. I’m going to go take a nap.”
She gave me the squinted Mom-eye. “All right. Remember, we’re going to the movies around four.”
No Christmas is complete without Dad driving us to see the latest Disney film or some lame comedy that got a whopping six percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I gave her a thumbs up in reply.
Once in my room, I plopped onto my bed and fiddled with my new phone. Ziggy curled up next to me. My mind would not erase last night’s dream—Pete’s warm hand, his peppermint scent, and that sensation of floating after his sneeze. It seemed so genuine.
“Stay here,” I said to Ziggy. I raised the window and, making sure no one saw, I climbed to the roof.
I don’t know what I expected to find. Sleigh tracks? Glitter? Reindeer poop? It was just our roof, same as ever. I sat, hugging my knees, and looking out at the smoke curling from the chimneys. Pete, why aren’t you real? I stayed there, contemplating life, until the cold of the shingles penetrated my jeans. Nothing will drive you inside faster than a freezing tush.
A little after three, Mom knocked softly on my door. She peeked in. “Sophie? It’s time to go.”
A good movie would take my mind off the dream. But, as stated above, our Christmas movies always sucked.
I pulled the covers up to my neck. “Can I stay home? I think I’m coming down with a cold.”
She shot me the Mom-eye. “It’s Christmas, Sophie. We can’t go without you.”
“But I don’t feel good. Hack, hack.” I’m the world’s worst cough-faker.
“All right. We’ll stay home.”
“No,” I blurted. “’Cause then Sean will get mad.” And find various ways to torture my very existence as revenge. Little brothers.
“Are you sure?”
[_“Hack, hack.” _]I made a shooing motion. “Go. Enjoy. Eat some extra popcorn for me.”
She sighed. “I hate this, but okay. I’ll keep my phone on vibrate in case you need me.”
“Thanks, Mom. Hack, hack.”
After going through the same routine with Dad, I finally had the house to myself. At last, I could pine away in silence. I looked at Ziggy. “You were there. Was it real?” He answered by licking his butt. I rolled over and stared at the wall. [_Get over yourself, Sophie. Go watch _]Love, Actually [_or something. _]Good idea. It’d be nice to know someone had a happy ending, even if it was just an old movie.
I roused myself up and headed for the door. Then stopped. I looked back. [_Don’t be silly. _]Like thinking that would stop what I planned to do next. I went to the end of the bed, and with a mighty heave, managed to inch it away from the wall. My heart kicked. Partly because that bed weighs as much as a small Toyota, but mostly because of what was bunched on the floor. There, along with four ballpoint pens, some loose change, my missing retainer from eighth grade, and enough dust bunnies to knit a scarf, was Pete’s robe!
It’s real. It’s real. It’s real.
I snatched it up and brushed it off. [Oh. My. God. _]I slipped it on, hugging myself into it. _You are real.
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I actually did a Disney princess waltz around the room, sans the singing woodland creatures. Then I ran my hands along the robe. That’s when I felt something in the right pocket. I pulled it out. An envelope. Lovely script across the front read: To Peter.
I know it’s illegal to open other people’s mail, but this particular piece didn’t have a stamp on it, so I figured that’d keep me from a lengthy prison sentence. I carefully unsealed it and removed a card. Another smaller envelope dropped from it onto my lap. I set it aside and read:
Mrs. Claus and I both find this Christmas to be bittersweet. On the one hand, we’ll miss you greatly. On the other, we couldn’t be prouder. You have always been like a son to us.
While we treasure all the elves, you’ve been invaluable with your ingenious skills of technology and computer science (I’m starting to get the hang of the Naughty/Nice app you developed). Still, we understand how a young elf like yourself would want to branch out and broaden your future.
We wish you the best of luck at Anderson Prep School. And while it’s a fine, distinguished institution, they will be the richer for having you.
You’ll find two things enclosed. One is to help you through your first semester. The other, keep handy, in case you ever need to get back to us in a snap.
Thank you for being a part of our lives. For your caring and hard work. But mostly, thank you for being Pete.
Wow. My heartstrings were as tight as a drawn bow. I picked up the second envelope. There were indeed two things inside. One was a check for $10,000 made out to Peter Winter. The other was a thin packet containing something that looked like pearly white glitter. It sparkled like snow. The other, keep handy, in case you ever need to get back to us in snap. Magic dust!
My eyes darted from the dust to the card to the check. The check. Pete would be needing that. The problem was getting it to him. Or maybe not.
I stood, put the card and check back into the robe pocket, then opened the packet. How much magic dust will it take? It was no time to take chances. I poured the entire contents into my hand and flung it over me. Whoa! Pete was right. This stuff does fly up your nose.
It tingled…stronger…stronger…stronger. My face scrunched, my head flew back, and, “Achoo!”
I opened my eyes. Oh my God! I’d been teleported to a strange bedroom. It looked a lot like a dorm room with shelves of books, posters of rock bands and sports stars, and a desk stacked with comic books. The bed was empty and unmade. It was then that the door opened and Pete walked in, his hair damp and glistening, a towel wrapped around his waist. He froze, eyes wide, then relaxed into a smile. “I was thinking about you and here you are.”
Heat rose to my face. I must’ve been five shades of red. “Oh,” I said, tugging off his robe. “You need this more than me.”
He put it on and tied the belt tight. “So, what brings you to The Pole?”
You were thinking about me?
He tilted me a look. “Sophie?”
I rattled my head. “Oh, yeah, sorry. There’s something important in the pocket. I knew you’d want it.”
He reached in, took out the envelope, and read the front. Without opening it, he slipped it back in. “Thanks.”
“So, is it true? Are you going to Anderson Prep School?”
His face split into a wide grin. “Yeah. I start next week.”
“The Anderson Prep School?” I asked. “The one that’s about thirty minutes from my house?”
He nodded. “Yeah, that one.”
“That’s amazing! Uh, I mean, amazing that you got accepted. It’s tough to get in.”
“You’re telling me.”
He came closer and took my hand. Ooooh, that fabulous warm and soothing hand.
“You know,” he said, “I won’t know anyone in town. Do you think maybe you’ll be able to show me around?”
Now I grinned. “If you don’t mind being chauffeured in an oversized Barbie Jeep.”
He pulled me to him, his lips brushing mine. “I don’t mind at all.”
After a minute of delicious kisses, I snapped to where I was. “Pete, I need to go. My family went to the movies, and I need to be home when they get back.”
He brushed his hand across my cheek. “Of course. But can you stay long enough to meet the big guy?”
“You mean Santa Claus?”
“Yes. Unless you still don’t believe.”
“Oh, I believe.”
I definitely believe.
Also by Dax Varley
Return to Sleepy Hollow
Dax Varley writes the kinds of young adult novels she wishes were around when she was a teen. She’s a lover of humor, horror and all things paranormal.
When Dax isn’t writing, she’s collecting odd photos online, reading recaps of her favorite shows or kicked back with a good book. She lives in Richmond, Texas with her husband, a shelf full of action figures and about a dozen imaginary friends.
Real or imaginary, you can find her at the following locations:
UP ON THE HOUSETOP
Copyright 2016 by Dax Varley
This story is a work of fiction. All characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.