Three drinks: that's the point at which the Christmas songs blaring from the radio become tolerable. A few more and I have the horrible urge to join in, any less and I'm not drunk enough to have that warm, pleasant feeling about humanity that only a few stiff drinks can bring about. The thing about this time of year is that you don't drink in order to get a date but to make yourself more bearable. It's not a nice time of year to be alone, but no time really is.
All of which is a damn long-winded way of saying I was mildly drunk, which might be reason to dismiss everything else I'm about to tell you. I don't much care if you do, but I'm going to tell you anyway. Because you're here, and he isn't, and you bought this round.
I think, looking back on it, that the bartender had the Christmas music on to get us to go home. All it did was make the old guy in the far booth weep into his drink. Me? I was at the bar, half-considering finding out what a Christmas Shot was, wondering what Emily had got the kids, if they'd call me tomorrow morning to wish me a merry Christmas: the usual litany of sorrows you don't care about and I can't be bothered to explain.
When he slipped into the barstool to my left I didn't think much of not hearing the door open: who does, really? I did a double-take when he ordered a scotch on the rocks: his voice was soft and scratchy, like a kid who'd had whisky since he was seven you know? He was – hah! You'd think I'd remember what he looked like, but each time it’s like learning it again. He was small and thin and pale, long and lanky hair reaching down past his shoulders. I'd have thought he was a kid except his eyes were darker than his hair and full of adult things.
The bartender served the stranger with barely a glance, his thoughts on overtime and whoever waited for him at home.
“Thank you,” the boy-man said in a soft, raspy voice and for a moment I felt uneasy. There was something almost familiar about that voice, like someone on the telly or some long-forgotten dream. The bartender hesitated a moment and then just nodded and moved down the bar to polish it. Part of me wanted to move away, but I couldn't without being rude and besides the seat was warm already.
I offered up my name and the peanuts from beside me.
“Peter,” said he and smiled. His teeth were baby-teeth small, but all thin and sharp, his fingernails the same when he reached for the peanuts. His fingers were too long, too thin, too sharp, but if he noticed my unease he ignored it entirely as he ate a handful of peanuts, one at a time, chasing them down with the drink as he stared into space with the thousand-yard stare as common to drunks as to soldiers lost in memory.
You know how they say eyes are windows to the soul? His weren't windows at all, just dark pools, bogs under clouds at night. I've never thought myself a poet, never had much use for that crock, but something about him drew that out of me. He looked so small and deeply sad that I spoke.
He turned. He was quick, no doubt, his smile all hard and brittle as though he knew what I was going to say and had already prepared a comeback about my own appearance.
“You okay?” I said.
“I'm here,” he said, as if that was answer enough. It was, at least on Christmas Eve. “Why do you care?”
“I don't.” If my honesty surprised him, the surprise didn't touch his face. “I thought you might have a story to tell and I'd rather not think about my own.”
“Heh. I might at that,” he said, and then half to himself, “I might at that,” as though it had simply never occurred to him before that night. Peter stared down at his strange hands on the counter – not misshapen – you understand? – merely different, but I couldn't read anything in the angles of his face when he looked up.
“I'm told I was born in the far north,” he said, and his voice dropped to a low chant, as if he was reciting a story told to him long ago. “in the wind and cold and the high mountains. The Old Man told me I was cast aside, left to the winter wolves and ugly snows. But I don't know. I've never met another like me in all my years. My first memory was of his shop: cherry smoke and sawdust, sparks on an anvil.
“And work,” he added, flexing his fingers. His veins stood out, a pale red under flesh: a network of faint scaring criss-crossed his hands. I looked up and the same thin scars covered his face, fading as he relaxed his hands. “Much work, for such a long time, all toward one night. The Old Man would head out into the world with his gifts and wonders and magic. Entire nations waited for him, kings and emperors ceased their endless wars at his coming and the children of the world worshipped him.”
Peter gulped back cider. “Worship is nothing, you know. Children offer it up to parents, dogs to masters. It was awe the Old Man needed. And you don't have awe without fear. I was given a cloak made from nightmares and lost dreams, a whip forged from harsh words and a name. He called me Black Peter, and I was to punish the guilty. Oh, only the children, because only children can be changed.
“The Old Man would stand, huge and terrible behind me, and pass judgement. The good children received gifts. The others, me. I whipped them, and they cried, and I was called a monster in the stories that came later, when the Old Man was the Sinister, and then the Santa but my story never changed at all.”
I made a sound at that, half a laugh, and Peter looked up. His face was all hard lines, his eyes deeper than human eyes went and the small man just drank another gulp of cider and continued talking. I don't know if he knew I was there at all anymore.
“Yes, I whipped them, but he watched. Sometimes he even smiled,” Black Peter said. “He saved his laugh for the good children, but the others saw his smile. Those the whip could not touch became his elves in time. Taken from parents only too grateful to see such monsters out of their lives and so eager they never asked many questions. In time they become jolly, in the stories that came later, and even kind.”
He looked up. He could see me again and was here again, and his smile was terribly gentle and sad when he spoke. “The Old Man let me go today,” he whispered, clutching the drink hard in his hands. “I shouldn't be sad but I am. Funny, isn't it? Everything he made me I never wanted to be but I can't find it in me to hate him for it. I don’t know if that makes him the better monster. I think – I think it’s not that simple.”
I said nothing, but my silence must have spoken for me because Peter looked up from his drink. “You don't believe me.” He seemed actually surprised by that.
“You are trying to tell me you're an elf who works for Santa Claus,” I said, and figured my sarcasm would tell enough of a story.
Peter was silent a few moments at that, then said something. I won't repeat it. We all have our quirks, our fetishes, things we want and never should, desires never voiced. He said one of mine, one I'd never dreamt of acting on, never told anyone about. He mentioned a second as I stared at him, and then a third, softer still.
I tried to punch him without thinking, to stop him from saying any more truth, and he caught my wrist between his fingers lightly. His grip was solid, his arm not moving at all as I tried to get free. “I know precious few tricks,” he said as he let go. “That was the kindest of them.“
“The kindest,” I said and my voice was a shaken rasp.
Black Peter drew back at that and looked away. “I apologize; I should not have done that.”
“Santa gives gifts,” I said, my voice closer to my own.
“Sometimes, yes. More than he used to. Sometimes in your world you call people freedom fighters, name them heroes in the hope that they will live up to that name. He has changed and I am no longer part of that change, no longer part of his story. All things change over time, even truth,” he said and he seemed far too small to contain all the sadness in his voice.
I bought more ciders. Perhaps I shouldn't have, but I had been wrong to call him a liar.
His smile of thanks was as fragile as dew as he drank, then asked why I was there, on that night.
I told him; I won't bore you with the details: you can probably guess them for yourself. He listened in silence and I filled the silence with other things: small bitterness, old wounds, resentments. He knew the worst of me in some ways and I felt obligated to offer up more until the drinks were done.
The bartender dimmed the lights as we stood. I shrugged on my coat, leaving a tip I could ill afford and only then noticed that Peter wore no shoes. He walked out into the snow with me as though into summer, his thin shirt and second-hand jeans pressed against flesh.
“What will you do?” I said.
“Wander. Travel. Wait. He will want me back in time,” Black Peter said, his voice full of yearning and certainty. “If he does not, another will.”
I know what my kids want for Christmas. Not in a shit-father way, but a real one. I know what you want. What your kids want. I know things now. I don’t know what he did to me, but I know these things. Just as I know you have a gun under your coat and that I don’t want to be a monster. Please, use it. Because it is Christmas. Because you are all the hope I have left, officer.