BY TOM MCALLISTER
Thirty years after the incident in the greenhouse, Karen would relate it to her second husband as a turning point in her life—an ostensible adventure that would become the focus of countless therapy sessions, that would lead to investigations and the incarceration of a fumbling magician who had, she now realized, been the victim of gross injustice, caught up in supernatural circumstances and felled by the power of whimsy, he was made not only to give up his magical hat but to spend three years in a medium-security prison and register as a sex offender, now unable to work birthday parties or take his act to elementary school functions, which had been his primary source of income. He never left the town, because no matter where he lived, he would have been legally required to knock on neighbors’ doors to announce his presence as A Man Who Harms Children. The one summer she went home to visit her parents, she saw him, the magician, at the grocery store, and he avoided eye contact, muttering messy, messy, messy through chalky lips, his mustache twitching and tensing like an antenna sensing danger.
Her disappearance and reappearance had been the biggest story to hit the small town in decades. Everyone had seen the image of her, bony legs sticking out of that hand-me-down coat while she shivered on the roof—why had they left her on the roof? Nobody ever would have known if they’d just put her on the ground—and a fireman climbed a ladder to rescue her. On the ground, her father joked that she should have just gone down the chimney, and he seemed to think this joke had closed the chapter on the traumatic event. His dumb affability was, she realized much later in life, the reason she’d immediately felt so close to the Snowman, and also the reason her parents eventually divorced. Her father had always meant well, but he was a limited man.
Even though the Snowman did return every year on Christmas Day, as promised, things would never be quite the same with him. She couldn’t look at him without remembering the anguish on his face as he melted inside the greenhouse, too dumb and helpless to just open the door and save himself. He melted from the bottom up, and as his head sank lower to the floor, she saw his eyes cloud over with regrets and terror and his panicky, open-mouthed smile threatened to engulf her in all the world’s trauma at once. She would see more than her share of frightening sights in her life—a boyfriend throwing her computer out the window in a jealous rage, a sorority sister having a drug-induced seizure in the middle of the night, a different boyfriend blowing his hand off with defective fireworks—but nothing would ever compare to seeing her friend’s death that night, like watching a cancer consume someone in fast forward.
Her mother had forbidden her to see him ever again, and so when he returned he had to hide in the fields behind the elementary school until she could sneak out at night. The first time back, he hugged her and then she hopped on his back while he slid down the nearest hill—still a champion belly whopper—but at the bottom of that hill they had nothing to say to each other. She didn’t want him to let go of her, and she was too young then to understand exactly what she wanted from him, but many years later, a therapist would finally force her to admit the truth: she loved him. It could never have lasted, of course. There were too many logistical hurdles: they would have to live at the North Pole, for one, and she would have had to abandon human contact in favor of the helpful woodland creatures, each of which had their charms but which were still in the end just raccoons and deer andsoforth, and, let’s cut right to the chase, how would the sex even have worked?
They’d tried, once, had affixed a carrot in the appropriate place, but there was only so much magic in that hat. The next year, for the first time ever, the Snowman mentioned that he had some other towns he had to visit too. Other friends. I have a life outside this town, he’d said. What do you think I do all year? Just wait around to come here?
As soon as she was old enough, she moved away. College in New Mexico, where she would never see snow again. She lasted in school for three semesters—an endless succession of parties and one night stands with boys who could never make her forget the Snowman—before she failed out and had to get a job waitressing at a second-rate sports bar, where she served novelty shots and hot wings to guys in their early thirties who tucked their t-shirts into their jeans and had mid-level jobs in marketing and wanted desperately to be eighteen again.
One night, sometime between the calamity of the first marriage and meeting the second husband, there was a freak snowstorm in her New Mexico town, the first in twenty years. She saw the first flakes drifting slow past her window, and she stepped outside in shorts and a t-shirt—she’d abandoned all of her winter clothing when she moved, left it behind in her mother’s attic with vague promises of coming to pick it all up someday. There was a dusting on the ground, swirling around her feet like vines trying to ensnare her. She let it fall on her skin, and listened for his voice, longed to hear it one more time: Happy Birthday!
She tilted her head upward and opened her mouth, waiting to catch a snowflake, to feel the cool dissolve on her tongue, to take it all back into her and feel whole again.
[ed. note: over the next two weeks, we’ll be catching up with characters from beloved Christmas movies, learning how their lives have turned out after the cameras stopped rolling. We’ve invited some of our favorite writers to share these stories.]