At some point, he awakened to look out the window, seeing the wall of snow that flew by the window, identical to what he’d seen when he’d boarded the train several days ago. Again, he chose to ignore the view, instead concentrating on keeping himself occupied with sleeping and keeping warm on the chilly train. The heating system on the train was working hard to keep the cabins warm, and the winds outside weren’t helping.
Eventually, hunger pangs brought him out of his self-induced trance of sleep and ignorance. Fully awake, he looked around the roomette, trying to remember where he was. The thuds of the track underneath him and the wall of snow out the window quickly reminded him.
He was momentarily startled as he noticed an elderly gentleman sitting on the bench seat across from his berth. Then the memory of a distant click of the door in his subconscious reminded him that the door had been opened and closed while he’d been asleep.
“Ah, so your awake, Blake?” it was more of a statement than a question.
He shook his head slightly, trying to get his barring and untangle himself from the blanket. Disengaging himself from the cover and trying to get his legs and arms to move had proved to be more work than he remembered it being.
“Yeah, and you are?”
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Nichols.” He straightened up and held out a white-gloved hand. Blake shook it tentatively. There was something vaguely familiar about the old man. The suit he wore was bright red trimmed in white fur along the main seams and hems of the jacket. The whole ensemble had a very familiar look about it.
“I’m going to find some food. Would you like some?” He asked more to be polite than anything else.
“Why yes, a cup of coffee would be very nice if you can manage it.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Blake left the cabin and went down the narrow hall to the next car.
A few minutes later, he returned to the cabin carrying two cups of coffee and a flat box filled with various breakfast foods. Setting the box on the small table between the bench seats, he handed Nicholas a cup of coffee. Nickolas thanked Blake for the coffee and a bagel. They sat silently for a few minutes, concentrating on their food and waiting for the coffee to cool down to a drinkable temperature.
After finishing his bagel, Blake eyed Nicholas warily. “Funny thing, the porter said they hadn’t stopped all night, and no new passengers got on board.”
“She’ll be there. I know you are worried that she will be there for you.”
“Huh?” Blake looked up from the coffee he was trying not to spill.
“Laura. She loves you.”
Then, Blake remembered that he’d called him by name earlier. Something he hadn’t noticed at the time, as he wasn’t completely awake.
“And you know this how?”
“Oh, there’s not much I don’t know about the kids I care for. You wanted that car, a sixty-five corvette, that year you turned sixteen.”
“How’d you know about that?”
“I told you. I know about all the kids in my care.”
“Her too.” He snickered. “She wanted a boyfriend that year. She had to wait a few years for that.”
“I’ll say.” That was all Blake could say. Laura was now in her early twenties and had started seeing Blake only in the last year or so.
Slowly, it began to dawn on Blake. The red suit, the long white beard, and his knowing things about him and Laura.
Nicholas nodded yes. “Santa Clause.”
“I thought you were a figment of my childhood, like the easter bunny or tooth fairy.”
“I‘m very real and very tired. I need someone to take over.”
“Getting ready to retire? Yes. I’m here on the train because I can’t handle the cold like I used to. And even my reindeer, as strong as they are, can’t get across this land as they used to.”
“They’re in the baggage cars, along with about a million presents to be delivered.”
“OK, I get it. You can’t deal with the cold anymore. I understand that, but why are you here in my cabin?”
“I need someone to take over for the next few years.”
The last bit of information sunk in, and Blake asked, “You mean decades?” Santa nodded yes.
“And…?” Blake left the question hanging.
“I’ve been watching you. You show the most compassion and patience of anyone I’ve seen in ages. You’ll be a good fit.”
Blake almost spilled the remainder of his coffee. “Be a good fit?”
“Yes, I’d like you to be the next Santa Claus, and of course, Laura will be the new Mrs. Clause.”
He sat down his cup. “Wait a minute. I can’t just go traipsing all over the world like that.”
“Actually, you can.” Santa reached onto the seat beside him, where a large brown package lay unnoticed by Blake—handing it to him. Santa nodded. “This will fit you, and inside is all the information you need.”
Blake felt the package in his hands. It was heavy. As he stared at the package, the old Santa disappeared, as If he was never there. Only the red suit remained. Blake was alone in the cabin as the train rumbled through the snow-covered mountains.
He opened the package and found a neat typewritten note addressed to him. It explained how to use the suit. Shrugging to himself, he put the suit on over his clothes.
Within seconds, he felt his beard growing out and turning white. The suit conformed to fit his body, and the cabin, which had been chilly, was much too warm for him. The longer Blake wore the suit, the more he began to understand.
The porter, walking down the narrow corridor, heard a noise and looked out the train window in time to see a sleigh with eight reindeer soaring through the night sky.
He always wondered what had happened that night when Mr. Blake disappeared.