The Winter King


Wake. Now. And so he did.

Caleb jolted upright to the sound of nothing at all. Nothing, that is, save the call of an alarm clock hardwired into his brain letting him know it was time. A strong dose of laudanum could not have kept him in bed a moment longer than mandated by the supreme and absolute Grand Law of Parental Requirement That We Not Get up until at Least Six on Christmas Morning, for Pete's Sake.

His eyes sprung open, wide and alert, with not a hint of lingering drowsiness, and his body sprung from his bed as though bitten from underneath. A creature of the forest–the kind more likely to be prey than predator, that is–could not have achieved full wakefulness faster.

Caleb darted from his bedroom with fantastic force. Had the proper scientific instruments been present, they might have detected a brief tremble in that barrier that separates how fast a thing moves from how fast a sound can travel. A moment later, he burst into the bedroom where his parents lay sleeping, though that would soon change.

It should be noted they did not achieve full wakefulness as easily as their dear Caleb.

When at last he had stirred them from their slumber, Caleb's mother and father allowed that he might lead them downstairs to the bounty he imagined lay beneath the balsam fir in front of the bay window. Caleb did not know the word, but he would have chosen "resplendent" to describe the tree if he did. Glass bulbs of red and silver and blue, intricately carved wooden birds of bright yellows, oranges, and purples and a twinkling golden star at its top made the tree a magnificent sight as the first predawn light snuck in through the window behind it.

And there, decorating the tree's circumference, were the only objects in the universe that mattered–a menagerie of gifts just waiting to be revealed. He had imagined this moment for what he could only assume had been 75% of his entire life, though he understood it must be less. Somewhere in the distant recesses of his memory, he remembered a time called Thanksgiving. His grandparents had asked him then what he might want for Christmas, and his imagination could scarcely bear the weight of all the possibilities. Caleb looked up at his mother and father asking permission with his eyes. His mother gave him a nod, and his father tottered off to the kitchen to fix some coffee while Caleb dove into presents.

The moments that followed unfolded in a blur. Caleb found toys and games and chocolates and treats, more of everything than he dared expect. When his father reentered the scene with two mugs casting off wisps of steam, he noted that Santa had considered this a bountiful year, more so than most. When it was done, he thanked his parents with hugs as strong as he could muster, so grateful was he for what he had been given.

But then, an odd thing happened. The excitement of the morning faded, and it began to feel like just any other day. Caleb found himself with a feeling he could not explain, a nagging anxiousness that was all wrong. He had looked forward to this morning for weeks and weeks, which for the scope of his tiny life was little different than waiting decades. Why, now, did he feel so let down? So...disappointed? It made no sense.

So he asked his parents, and his mother, her eyes patient and kind, explained something to him.

"Sometimes wanting something is better than getting it. After you have it, what is there to look forward to?" she said.

Caleb was unimpressed at this, but his father nodded, his nose peeking over the mug of coffee as he finished a sip and explained further. "When I was a boy, only a year or two older than you, I wanted a bicycle for Christmas. I imagined all the adventures I would have on it, all the places I would go and people I would see. And when Christmas came, I got it, the exact one I wanted. But it turned out it was only a bicycle."

"You never had adventures on it?" Caleb asked.

"I had adventures on it, even some great ones. But they could never match the ones I imagined."

Caleb frowned. "That's kind of sad, isn't it? You got just what you wanted, and it still wasn't enough."

Caleb's mother pulled him in, and set him on her knee.

"That is one way to look at it, but it's not the only one."

The boy squinted in consternation, unsure what his mother could mean.

She continued. "I see two other choices for you. First, you can decide not to be excited at all, to not even let the anticipation matter so that when you get something, it cannot possibly disappoint you. If you expect nothing, than you can't be let down."

Caleb made his face into the one he used to communicate how he felt about broccoli. He did not like broccoli, and he did not like this idea of never being excited about something. It seemed dreadfully boring.

"What's the other choice?" he asked.

"I thought you might not like that one," she said. "Here's the other. You can choose to be excited, to imagine all the possibilities that ever were or could ever be, but then you have to remember that the excitement is the best part."

His father chimed in again as well. "Haven't you been happy these last few weeks? Ever since we put up the tree after Thanksgiving?"

The boy considered that. "I guess," he said, but he was not yet convinced.

"You'll decide in time, Caleb," his mother said.

At that point his mother got up and began to fix breakfast. His father helped her prep and then was released to read the newspaper. Meanwhile, Caleb was left to his own devices and set about rediscovering some of the magic he had felt when he woke and had lost after opening his gifts. Surely playing with his new gifts would restore everything to order.

But he looked through the bay window and saw the world outside looked nothing at all like Christmas ought to. The ground was brown and trampled, the trees bare and lonely. It looked like he felt, and that, in turn, made him feel worse.

And then he had an idea. Maybe he could fix it. If he tried really hard, maybe he could make it look like Christmas.

So Caleb stood at the window, closed his eyes and stretched out his arms, reaching them high and wide over his head. He whispered something to himself and then looked out at the hazy sky. Using all the power he could summon, every ounce of magic and dream, Caleb called snow down from the heavens.

And it so it was that billowing cotton ball clouds, congealing where only gray expanse had been a moment earlier, drew close in clusters around Caleb's house. They collided into each other and snowflakes burst from them like sparkling, crystalline firecrackers. The storm whirled and blew under the sway of Caleb's powers, and he felt a rush of excitement as he commanded the elements like a wizard from some great tale.

Everywhere–the ground, the forests, and the rooftops was soon covered in soft blanket of white. Tree branches struggled under their fresh burden, and neighbors emerged from their homes to behold the sight, staring in wonderment at the boy who could summon winter. Christmas morning was once more as it should be, and Caleb took for himself a new title. Henceforth, he would be known as the Winter King, Liege and Commander of the Squalls.

From then on, Caleb sat atop his throne, clearing the skies when he wished and filling them with snow when his mood changed. His mother and father were his trusted aides and confidants, providing counsel and wisdom when he needed it. The people of the surrounding village, once only his friends and neighbors, were now his loyal subjects. They came to pay him tribute and to marvel at the magic he commanded. He was good and just, the Winter King, and his reign was long and prosperous.

Or, at the very least, that's what Caleb imagined.