The moon shone like a blade frozen in blue ice. Cool and ethereal light streamed through the room, lighting the back of the old man’s head. His white hair glistened silver, a sharp contrast to his red suit. A video screen lit up his gentle face. He sat engrossed, intently watching images on the screen. The moving images were dismissed with a perfunctory swipe of his hands, quick movements that barely gave a glimpse of the many tasks they had accomplished.
The regular movements went on without pause into the night as they had for many centuries, unforgiving and uncompromising. And then they stopped.
The old man sat in his chair staring at the screen. On his screen was a letter on an empty table in an empty room. He read the letter and sighed. It was a long purposeful sigh, one borne of having to see sadness again and again in its true and unadulterated form. Outside the winds grew chillier. He glanced out of the window at the fading lights of the distant train, the train that bridged the other world with his own timeless city. This was his flying pet, Sleipnir, the one who picked up deserving souls and guided them forward into their next life.
He leaned back in his chair and closed his tired eyes. For the past few years, every winter solstice he had sat with the boy, and together they had conquered the longest night of the year. The boy had asked for nothing more, and the old man had obliged. Of all the many he had rewarded through his lifetime, only this boy had wished nothing but his company. And together they settled in the warmth of a house amidst the scent of baked cookies, moments that seem to vanquish his centuries of loneliness. They spoke of the snow country, how everyone gets exactly only one chance to visit it, and of the many adventures the old man had undertaken over the years across the universe.
This was how things were. In person he existed in his timeless city on the snow country along with timeless ghosts, but in soul and mind he belonged nowhere. Through the year he kept track of the souls and spirits of humanity, and rewarded those who deserved; an untiring journey which he had undertaken for a long time.
He had been known by many names before – Odin, Tomte, Nisse, Sinterklaas, and Father Christmas. No name stuck, guided by the vagaries of language and culture. But throughout it all, the snow country had always been his home. From here he guided humanity through the cold winter, gave them hope, and did his part in transforming melancholic dross to spiritual bliss.
He looked back at the screen and read the letter again. The boy had made his choice, and it was a bold choice. This was no longer at the whims of his fickle train. No one had ever come to the snow country this way, not since his own journey. It had to be a long and arduous trek, but unlike the others, the boy would return. Hopefully.
He toggled the buttons and found himself staring at the operation theatre.
This wasn’t right. Was he already too late?
As the boy inhaled the musty scent of the anaesthetic, the old man touched his mind. The boy found himself at the tunnel, staring at the train. The old man quickly walked out into the snow. The young boy needed him.
Moments later, he found himself staring at a scrawny figure in the snow. The boy’s mind watched him, a dot of red amidst the snow. He instinctively jerked forward when he saw the boy stumble. He could feel the boy’s emotions swell up, reach a crest, and then collapse. He heard screams – the doctor scream for epinephrine, the boy scream in heart-wrenching pain, and his own silent scream of anguish.
He watched the body slowly fade away into the snow, and then walked back home and stared at the screen, at the inert body on it. The light of the operating table shone on it. A tear dropped down his cheek. He quietly tagged the screen red, and swiped the screen to a smiling face of a girl with a broken tooth.
In the distance, Sleipner once again came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. In the midst of the crowded apartments was a conspicuously empty seat.