He hated being late, and they knew it. He had sent out memos before about last-minute projects, but still they kept pushing for more time. Their enthusiasm was appreciated, but it had to stop. If his schedule was off even a few minutes, people could be missed, children would suffer, and that was completely unsatisfactory.
Final arrangements were made and the last of the merchandise was loaded into the vehicle. Once in the air, he went over the itinerary again. Re-calculating arrival and departure times, with some luck and good weather, he could make up for the late start over water, pushing the team a little harder than he normally did.
Work was going smoothly. There were no surprises, and drop-offs were made without incident. He cut some time by skipping his usual snack breaks. Not wanting to hurt feelings, he pocketed most of the cookies and poured the egg nog and milk into out-of-the-way places. Cutting back on the drinks would also reduce the number of necessary potty breaks.
Back on track, he finally relaxed and began to enjoy the trip. It was a gorgeous night. Crisp and clear, he could see for miles. Holiday lights flooded the landscape. Big cities were ablaze in red and green, smaller towns were rainbow beacons in vast fields of white.
Occasionally a flock of geese would pull along side, keeping him company while over open space, peeling away while he made a descent to the next drop-off sites.
He wasn’t sure what went wrong, he never had this problem before, but he began to nod off. Over the years, staying up all night was second nature. He thrived on the adrenaline, he lived for the excitement of the job.
Somewhere over the Panhandle of Florida, he just couldn’t keep his eyes open. Without his firm hand, the girls began to slow down. The sleigh moved in an erratic pattern, tilting dangerously to starboard. A cry from Blitzen as the first bag of packages fell, jolted him awake and into action.
He never maneuvered the sleigh with that kind of precision before. As the packages tumbled toward the earth, their trajectory taking them directly into a small pond, he swung the team around, zigzagging through the sky, capturing each box as it fell. Grabbing the last present as the sleigh skids cut through the water, he thought he had rescued all the missing pieces.
Climbing to altitude, a glint off the water caught his eye. There lying around the sandy bank, and at the pond’s edge, were dozens of green apples, spilled out of the bushel basket the Missus had loaded as he was leaving.
Checking the time, he knew, as scattered as the apples were, he could not stop to collect them. It would waste too many precious minutes he just couldn’t spare, and he couldn’t chance being seen. This one time, this one year, they would simply have to be left off.
It was with a heavy heart, that he left the apples where they laid and continued on his night’s mission.
Standing in front of her, his five-year-old fist was planted firmly on his hip, the other hand holding a familiar stocking, his name lovingly embroidered on the cuff. The stocking was obviously devoid of the traditional Granny Smith that should be filling the toe.
His head cocked to one side, his mouth held in a thin frown, he held out the stocking to his mother.
“And, that is why Santa didn’t leave an apple in your stocking this year, Sweetheart.”