Dottie was old.
She knew this because a young boy with a backwards baseball hat and a neck tattoo called her "grandma" when she got in his way and made him miss his train on the subway.
She also knew this because on Thursday, she bought a box of brown die and applied it carefully while listening to a Dean Martin record. And today, Monday, she looked in the mirror and saw gray had already taken back her roots.
Lucy was young.
So young that in the last few months, she had been turned away from a roller coaster ride, handed a kid's menu at the diner (A KID'S MENU!), and her dad had flatly refused to remove the training wheels off her bike.
That's what made the alliance so improbable.
It all started on an unseasonably warm Christmas morning. Dottie was at her mailbox, picking up her Special Edition Riverside Gazette when she spotted little Lucy standing in her fuzzy pink robe on her family's front lawn.
"Merry Christmas honey!" Dottie called out with a smile and a wave.
"Merry Christmas Miss Dottie," came the quiet answer. But Lucy didn't turn towards her neighbor. Instead, her eyes, and in fact her entire posture, were trained on the roof of her house.
"Looking for something dear?" Dottie asked, crossing her driveway to join the little girl. She looked up but saw only a blanket of snow on the house's roof, brown shingles peaking out in a few places where the sun had hit.
The squeaky whisper was barely audible, but Dottie heard it and knew all that it implied. Crossing her arms, the older woman let out a deep sigh.
“It’s frustrating how sneaky that jolly old man can be,” she murmured.
Lucy’s attention immediately turned to her neighbor. Her chocolate brown eyes were round with curiosity.
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean,” Dottie said with what she hoped sounded like the confidence of a seasoned Santa expert, “Is that Mr. Claus is way too good at his job to leave behind footprints in the snow. That’s amature stuff.”
“Yep, if you want to catch Santa, you have to do some serious planning.”
“Well,” Lucy said, matching Dottie by crossing her arms in front of her, but with the fierce determination that only a six-year-old can possess, “I want to catch him. Actually, I need to.”
Dottie sized up the young lady next to her. Truth was, that spunky little firecracker reminded her of herself. Once she got something in her head, there was no stopping her. At least that’s what Leonard used to say.
“I’ll tell you what,” she said and leaned down to look Lucy right in the eyes. “I think it’s too late to figure out how to see him this year. But if we really plan it out, maybe we can corner him next Christmas.”
“Yes, ma’am. I want in on this operation. If you’ll have me that is.”
The little smile and gleeful giggle were all Dottie needed for an answer.
They worked all year on the plan. Lucy lost some interest in the summer months, when school let out and beach trips began, but by the time the local supermarket started carrying stockings and wrapping paper in September, her enthusiasm had returned.
A lot of the brainstorming came from Lucy.
She came up with the idea to bribe the elves. It was genius really, her plan to mail candy and hot chocolate packets to the little guys in an effort to buy their loyalty. Once she had them hooked on her sugary treats, she intended to use their high level access to St. Nick to gain valuable information about the time he planned to arrive at her house.
Dottie dutifully supplied the funds needed to ship the goods off to the North Pole. Even when Lucy’s parents protested the waste of money, she insisted. Sadly, Lucy never received a response and declared the elves to be a lost cause.
There were many other plans to execute, some more well thought out than others. More attempts at bribery, this time at the post office. A letter to the president (who surely got to meet Santa as part of his official duties). A search on Google Maps for the Claus residence (Dottie was little help on that one). An interrogation of a patient but confused Amazon.com customer service representative. An attempt to buy up all the candy canes in the world and force him out of hiding. An Ancesty.com search to see if any distant Clausian relatives were living south of the pole.
Unfortunately, for all the hard work, the ladies garnered no positive results. Lucy began to wonder if she had been wrong about Santa and Dottie began to wonder if she had been wrong to lead the girl on. What had seemed like harmless fun had turned into something that she feared would break Lucy’s heart. She wondered why she hadn’t just told Lucy the truth standing there in the front yard that day.
But then came Christmas Eve.
With all other plans having failed, the ladies turned to their last ditch efforts first thing that morning.
Dottie supplied a crate of carrots that Lucy in turn laid out in her backyard in a huge “X”, so as to draw the reindeer to a landing spot that was more conducive to a little girl meeting them after touchdown.
There was also the final, worst-case-scenario measure that Lucy insisted on. It was a letter which she planned to leave on the red brick hearth of her family’s fireplace. She asked Dottie to write it, since her penmanship was far superior. Lucy was so absorbed in her dictation that she didn’t see tears forming in the older woman’s eyes as she wrote:
I know that generally, you do not like children to see you. But my parents told me you were real and then Tim from school said they were liars. I really need to know you’re real and that what my parents told me was the truth. Please come wake me up when you get here. I will try to stay awake but I’ve never stayed up the whole entire night before. I would really like to see you. I want so badly to believe.
She insisted on the seasons greetings part, something she had read in a catalogue that sounded properly formal. Once complete, she looked it over with approval, complemented Dottie’s perfect script, and sealed it with a generous piece of tape.
After that, there was nothing left to do but wait, so Dottie headed home. For the millionth time, she contemplated what to do. She’d considered it all, from chomping bites out of every one of those filthy carrots to paying someone to scale the roof and leave behind footprints. She had even eyed a mall Santa for a full fifteen minutes last week, deciding if it was insane to pay him to visit the girl. He had looked pretty convincing. Real beard and everything.
But in the end, it all fell flat. It didn’t feel right.
Hours ticked by, and finally darkness fell and cloaked the houses in the magical gray blanket that is Christmas Eve night. It was only then that Dottie knew what to do. She sat down at her kitchen table with a red felt tip marker and a piece of her finest stationery and started to write.
She had just poured her tea on Christmas morning when she heard a soft knock on her door. Dark liquid sloshed over the top of the poinsettia patterned mug as she put it back on the counter, and she hurriedly rushed to pull open the door. When she did, she automatically looked down, knowing who would be there.
Lucy was still in her pajamas, a pastel pink winter coat on but open, her plaid flannel pants stuffed into a pair of flowery snow boats that were lined with purple faux fur. All of this Dottie noticed in her first glance followed by the forlorn expression on the little girl’s face, the obvious attempt to hold back tears.
“He didn’t wake me up.”
Dottie took Lucy by the hand and led her into the warmth of the house, closing the door behind them.
“Mommy said I could come over for a few minutes,” Lucy went on, telling Dottie what she already knew. She had heard as much last night when she dropped off the letter.
“But he left this.” Lucy held up the piece of folded paper, delicately sandwiched between her tiny thumb and pointer finger. “Could you read it?”
“Of course,” Dottie answered, treating the paper just as carefully and unfolding it. Clearing her throat, she looked at the words written in her own handwriting, which she had worked hard to disguise, then back up at Lucy. What she saw nearly broke her heart. Moisture brimmed at the edges of the chocolate brown eyes, and the little lips trembled. Surely this had all been a terrible idea. The poor thing.
She allowed herself one more throat clearing and a deep sigh before she started reading, praying all the while that the words were the right ones.
I’m sorry I didn’t come wake you up. I wish I could have, but that’s just not the way this works. I know how nice it would be if you could see me and know for sure that I’m real. Though you may not understand it right now, that very act, the act of seeing me, would steal something very special from you. Belief. Trust. Faith.
If everyone saw Santa, what would it mean to believe in me? Not very much I’m afraid. See, you are in an exclusive group, Lucy. You are one of the people that believe anything is possible. You believe even though you don’t see. Because of that, you have the potential to dream bigger than others, to attempt the task thought undoable, to love the people thought unlovable.
Some might argue that believing in me is for little children, or that believing even as a child is foolish. I hope you see that it isn’t at all. Never stop believing. Such belief is the fuel that can light a fire and change the world. Always, always believe. Even when all others have stopped, when all else has fallen away.
And your parents? They love you so much. I would take their word over that bully Tim’s any day.
I can’t wait to see where the years take you, Lucy. You are one special young lady.
A little sniffle escaped Lucy as Dottie’s words faded to a finish.
“It makes sense, I guess,” she said quietly into the carpet.
“I think it does.”
Lucy rose, accepting the refolded letter from Dottie and making her way towards the door. Dottie followed her, shuffling in her white satin slippers as Lucy waddled in her snow boots. At the door, Lucy paused and turned, arching her back to look up at her older friend.
“Yes dear?” Dottie leaned down and put her hands on the girl’s shoulders.
“I still believe.” Another sniffle. “Do you think that’s silly?”
“No,” came the answer and a soft, happy laugh. “I don’t think that’s silly at all.”