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Scott huddled up to the near-empty furnace as he tried to capture the warmth of the last few sputtering coals. The old newspaper his dad had brought home warned them that this Christmas Eve would be the coldest in history. And they were out of coal. Scott was wearing all of the patched, old clothes he owned, and the cold still cut him to the bone. Since his dad lost his job a couple of years ago, his new position as a hired worker couldn’t bring enough income to support the family. His mother had flatly refused against sending Scott to work in the factories like the other poor children, so they were extremely short on money, and they were freezing. If only they could afford some more coal…

Then it hit him. He knew exactly where he could get coal. And for free, too. “Santa’s naughty list!” Scott whispered to himself. He took off his gloves, pressed them against the warm side of the oven, and formulated a plan. He had less than a day, so he’d have to do some very bad things. What should I do? Scott thought to himself. It was a tricky balance: he didn’t want to hurt his family, or other people, but he couldn’t think of anything serious enough that would work without doing that.

As Scott was brainstorming, the heat leaked out of the furnace, so he pulled his gloves on again and stuffed his hands in his pocket. He shivered and pressed even closer to the furnace, trying to leech out the non-existent heat. I have to do this! Scott thought frantically of all the things he could do to be naughty. Pranks. He didn’t have the materials, and he’d have to do a ton for it to count. Not doing his chores. No, that wouldn’t help his mom and dad. Stealing. He could return the money after Christmas. That might work!

Scott pulled himself to his feet and stomped around, trying to bring feeling to his numb toes. “Um, Mom? I’m going out…” he said.

His mom came over and kissed his head. “Be safe, sweetie,” she said. Her cheeks were pale and icy, and she looked sad. He hugged her and then left. Hopefully he would be done stealing by the time his dad got home. He hugged himself and headed towards the market. Hopefully he would be able to swipe some cash. He couldn’t take food since he would probably eat it all, and then he couldn’t give it back. His family couldn’t afford to be in debt since they didn’t have enough for themselves anyway. He stewed in his thoughts until he reached the market.

Shopkeepers were exhibiting their expensive wares with loud voices, proclaiming the perfect Christmas present. Earrings, scarves, spices, cloth… Scott passed all of the stands until he came to a jewelry merchant. He looked pretty well off, a well-dressed, portly merchant from the richest country in Europe. He could afford to lose some money for a couple of hours.

“So, what do you want, little boy?” he had a slight accent. “I have earrings, necklaces, bracelets… not to mention rings.” The merchant looked slyly at him.

“Um, no thanks. I’m just looking today.” The merchant leaned back, disappointed, and started calling out to passing customers.

Scott quickly palmed a set of diamond earrings and pocketed them. He bumped the table, sending jewelry sliding everywhere, and exclaimed in surprise. “Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry!” he scrambled around on the ground, gathering glittering necklaces and rolling rings. The merchant groaned and shooed him away. Scott deposited his handful of gems onto the table and took off, smiling to himself. His plan had worked perfectly. Now that the merchant had to rearrange his entire table, he wouldn’t notice the missing earrings.

He lingered by an open fire, trying to warm up his hands, and was so involved in the warmth he didn’t notice when the sun set. Stars speckled the sky in the space between the grubby buildings of the city. He should probably get going. Santa would be arriving as his house soon.

As Scott headed for home, wading through guilt, he tried to convince himself that he had done the right thing. His family needed coal if they were going to survive. To his young mind, the only solution was to be bad. Santa would punish him with coal, and his family wouldn’t freeze after all. Scott would have saved them. He thought regretfully of all the things he’d wanted for Christmas, new gloves and a warmer coat, plus the toys he’d seen some of the richer kids playing with. They were imported from China and carved to look like the dragons that the locals fawned over.

Scott suddenly stopped, snapping out of his reverie. He heard a jingling sound from the starlit sky and ducked into a nearby alley. His heart thumped in his chest as he peeked around the corner. Sure enough, it was Santa Claus, sitting in a sleigh drawn by eight huge reindeer dressed in harnesses of bells.

He looked exactly like the stories--he wore a red suit that wrapped snugly around his round belly and a large puffball dangled from the tip of his hat. He stepped out of his sleigh, looked at Scott, and winked.

“S-Santa!” Scott gasped. “I-I-I’m so sorry. I-I was just trying t-to-” he stuttered to a halt and looked guiltily up at him.

“Scott, Scott, I knew you were only being naughty to help your family. I understand,” Santa reassured him. “But, Scott-” he hooked his thumbs through his belt and regarded him. “You didn’t have to do it.”

“I-I didn’t?” Scott felt awful. He’d stolen all of those things for nothing!

“No!” Santa laughed, but it wasn’t a mean laugh. It was the jolly jelly belly laugh. His protruding stomach jiggled up and down as he chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’ll return everything. And your family will get plenty of warm clothes.” Scott stared down at his feet, shame bubbling in his stomach as he walk over to Santa and handed him all of the things that he’d stolen.

Santa bent over Scott and lifted up his chin. “Don’t worry. You were being naughty for a good cause. A good one. It’s like the phrase ‘For the greater good.’ Sometimes we have to do bad things to make them right.” Santa patted Scott on the back and climbed into his sleigh. Scott watched him disappear through the sky in a storm of jingle bells, then continued his walk for home.

Scott was tired, cold, and hungry, and he felt awful for stealing things, oh, and also, now he didn’t get any Christmas presents! He reached his family’s small house and opened the door. A wave of heat washed over him. Wait, what? It was actually warm inside their house! It was never warm! And was that pork that he smelled cooking?

His mother ran over to him and wrapped him up in her arms. “Oh Scott, isn’t it wonderful? A man, someone we’ve never seen before, just came by and gave it all to us! And you’ll never guess what he offered you father!” Scott looked to his dad, his heart thumping in his chest, a huge smile on his face.

His father hugged him and his mom and whispered into Scott’s ear, “He found me a job. A really good one! We’ll never be poor again.”

Ecstatic, they all sat down to the table and feasted on the crisp vegetables and the smooth jam preserves on hot, steamy bread with a soft crust and finished off the delicious meal with the succulent glazed ham. It was the most amazing food Scott had tasted in his entire life. He was so glad that Santa had brought it.

When they had finished their meal, his parents led Scott to the corner. They had laid a fresh pine bough there a few days ago since their cottage couldn’t fit a tree. It was wrapped in silver string-the closest thing they could get to tinsel-and underneath it were several wrapped presents, apparently from Santa. Scott looked wistfully at them and picked up the first package, ready to hand it to one of his parents. But, to his surprise, it was labeled to him! He looked to his mom, who nodded at him, and to his dad, who motioned for him to open it. Scott gently unfolded the colorful paper, the most pretty colors he had ever seen, and in the box was an exquisitely carved red and white dragon. Scott couldn’t believe his eyes. It was too good to be true! Santa didn’t say he could have presents-but then again, he hadn’t said that he wouldn’t. Scott hugged the wooden dragon to his chest. His fingers ran along the carved scales, and he realized in an instant that the dragon was a little pudgy around the middle, just like Santa. He smiled.

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