"Matthew, these bills are going to eat us alive! Look at this letter from Mastercard! We owe them thousands as of last month, and did you make the payment? I know I didn't!"
Her mother's words, from the time just after dinner but before dessert, rang in little Aggie-Agatha-just-come-here-why-don't-you Valentine's ears.
"Frankly, I thought you would get around to making the payment. You're the accountant, after all, and I'm only the lowly mechanic who puts food on the table every day - both figuratively and literally."
Aggie - she preferred to be called just Aggie - tiptoed a little further along the hallway, and she pretended that the echo of ghostly voices in her head didn't affect her at all.
"I'm in between jobs, damnit, and if I could afford a better cook than you, don't you think I'd have hired one already?"
Actually, Aggie couldn't find anything wrong with Daddy's cooking. He always looked a little rushed when in the kitchen, and he was too scary to talk to at that moment, but things turned out all right in the end.
"I didn't ask you to make a comment on my cooking. I just meant- oh, look, don't worry, I'll handle things tonight okay?"
Aggie hadn't quite understood her father's words - truthfully, the whole conversation was a little over her head - but what he'd said last made the least sense of all to her. Tonight was Christmas Eve. What else was happening?
"I'll handle things tonight," Aggie repeated softly, puzzling over the ashamed look she recalled viewing on her father's face, when he'd spoken. "I'll-" Aggie broke off at the sight of dimly flashing lights down the stairs. "Oh!"
Her child's feet rushed clumsily down the steps as she half-hurried to be front and centre to the beautiful show of alternating red, blue, green and yellow lights. Aggie squinted. It was hard to see green lights against a green Christmas tree; whoever made those lights were stupid.
She was distracted, for just a little while, by what she'd came out of her room to see. But after several minutes spent in awe of the blinking splendour on the otherwise plain tree, Aggie suddenly became aware that she wasn't alone in the living room. "What-" she began to say.
The man's left hand shot out to close upon Agatha's mouth. "Shhh, can you be quiet, little girl? Be quiet, for a while, as a favour to me." The man's gloved hand was heavy, and damp with sweat, on Aggie's lips. She could hear a slurp, as if the man was sucking back saliva, which she did sometimes when she was nervous, too, but never in a situation like this.
"I'm going to take my hand away now," he said. Aggie stood stock-still while the man took a fidgety step backwards, and she couldn't stop staring at him with wide and wondrous eyes. The man - not any man, but a special man - was dressed from head to foot in a red and furry suit. White fluffy bits lined every seam of his outfit, but although his clothes were ratty and tatty, Aggie knew this was Santa Clause because of the long white beard on his chin, and his cherry nose.
"Santa Clause!" Aggie said delightedly, albeit in a whisper because he had asked her to be quiet. "Did you bring me a present?" Santa looked unaccountably guilty standing in the middle of her house, so she unconsciously turned on the charm that five year-olds naturally possess to make older adults at ease.
"I sure did, Agatha," he replied tremulously. "I've got the present you asked for right here in my bag, but there's a rule that you can't see it until tomorrow, you know. It's bad luck to see your Christmas present beforehand, just like it's bad luck for a husband to see his wife right before the wedding."
Aggie wrinkled her nose. "That doesn't make sense! A hus-band and his wi-ife are already married. Why would they have another wedding again?" Aggie's desire to impress Santa Clause had her stretch out the syllables as she talked, and she thought it did make her sound smarter.
"A lot of things don't make sense in this world, my dear. But that doesn't mean you can break the rules. Rules make the most sense of all, and I'm telling the truth when I say that this is a real rule: you can't see your present yet."
"Aww!" Aggie pouted for exactly five seconds with remarkable restraint, and then she remembered that this was Santa Clause she was talking to. "I guess I coul-d go back to bed. But can't you give me a little hint? I asked you for two things, and Mommy wouldn't let me write a second letter to say what I wanted more."
Santa gave a significant pause. "Let's just say that whatever gift you find tomorrow will be a real surprise." He refused to say anything more after that, and he escorted Agatha personally past the creaky sixth step - how did he know? she wondered - and tucked her into bed.
"Santa Clause? Why aren't you more fat?"
"Good night, Agatha," he said emphatically, ignoring her question. Right outside her door, Aggie thought she heard Santa say, "That didn't make me feel better at all."
"Mommy! Daddy! It's Christmas Day! Please, please, wake up and take me downstairs and let's open each other's presents and then eat breakfast and then-"
"Calm down, Agatha! Give us ten seconds, and then we'll be right with you."
"She can go downstairs by herself, you know. Agatha! Mommy says it's all right if you go ahead downstairs. Give us another ten seconds."
"One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Eeeeeekkk!"
"Agatha, what's wrong, darling? Matthew, follow me this instant!"
"MOMMY! DADDY! All the Christmas things are gone! The tree's not here, and I have no presents!"
"Matthew, you said you would take care of-"
"Hush. Baby, I'm sorry, I think the Grinch must have visited us last night."
"Huh? No, I saw Santa Clause. There was no Grinch."
"What time did you go to bed? We put you in bed at ten o'clock."
"I woke up later. I mean it, I did! Everything was where it was supposed to be! Santa Clause stood by the fireplace!"
"I really think it was the Grinch playing tricks on you. He's stolen Christmas. We can't celebrate the holiday this year because the Grinch stole Christmas. I'm really really sorry about your gift, Agatha."
"Mommy and Daddy don't have any presents either."
"No, we don't. We only have you, our loving and trusting daughter, and a small mountain made up of bills."
"Daddy, Mommy said that word before. What is 'bills'?"