It was early evening, and on a remote farm in a very rural part of the country a small boy, Leo, washed his hands in a basin of cold water and dried them on a thin, threadbare old towel. Despite a thorough scrubbing with the rough soap his small hands still looked dirty because of the ground-in grime that came from another day of hard work. He examined them and hoped that he would pass muster before going into the kitchen. His aunt scowled at him as he tried to get to the table without making any noise. She hated noise. The chair creaked as he sat down, and he cringed at the sound.
The stern old woman didn't speak as she thumped a bowl of chicken and dumplings in front of him. A bit of the broth splashed out onto the wooden tabletop and the boy quickly mopped it up with his napkin. He waited for her to sit with her own bowl before he began to eat. His aunt's culinary skills were unremarkable, especially for a country woman. Her cooking was always as bland and lacking in nourishment as her personality. The stew tasted thin, and badly needed salt, but the boy was really hungry, so he ate without comment. Experience had taught him not to ask for anything lest it be taken as criticism of her food. That was certain to cause trouble.
The two of them spoke not a word and the only sounds were the clinking of their spoons scraping the bowls. Leo washed the dishes and went upstairs to do his homework and go to bed. There was no television, no radio or computer in his room. His aunt would never have abided the racket. No, he lived a silent and lonely existence that was made just bearable by the wonderful hours he spent at school, but that was only five days a week.
Tomorrow was Monday and he could see his classroom again. He loved his teacher, Miss Nash, and the way she could make all the children laugh. She had decorated the classroom for the Christmas holiday and Leo thought it was beautiful. There were swags of tinsel bunting draped high on the walls and it was festooned with glittery ornaments. The children had made colorful drawings of Christmas trees, Santas, Angels and other holiday stuff, and Miss Nash had hung them all on the walls, even Leo's snowman (the best one of all). Even the windows had snowy bells and stars stenciled on them.
Leo loved Miss Nash because she always talked so nicely to him. She was about the only one who showed him any kindness. Leo was a shy boy who had never learned to speak up and talk with others because his life at home was lived mostly in silence. His mother had died when he was only two and her elderly aunt was his only living relative, so she had agreed to take him in, but she constantly made it clear that he was a serious imposition on her life. The sour old woman probably would not have agreed to keep him if the county had not provided a stipend for his upkeep.
Because he was sad and lonely the other children all thought he was weird. They had given up trying to interact with him and they thought he was strange. He tended to keep to himself, his nose usually deep in a book of some sort, and because he spoke little, people usually had no idea that he was quite bright.
When he slept that night, he dreamed that he was sitting at a long table with lots of friendly people happily dining on wonderful dishes, everyone chattering loudly and laughing while they ate. In the dream, everyone liked him, and he was happy.
Morning came much too soon, and Leo hated to wake up, but he remembered that he was going to school so he quickly dressed, quietly made his way downstairs for a bowl of tepid oatmeal and slipped out to wait for the bus. When he walked through the classroom door, he immediately noticed that the room smelled different, sort of like the forest. Then he saw the source of the aroma; in the corner was a fir tree. It was thick and green and perfectly formed and all of the children were looking at it and whispering excitedly to one another. Soon Miss Nash arrived, and everyone quieted down.
"Good morning, Children," she said with a smile. "As you all can see, we have something new today. I brought in this lovely tree and I want us all to make decorations for it. We will make it into our very own Christmas tree."
Everyone tried to talk at once, except for Leo. They all had ideas of what to make for the tree, but Miss Nash handed out construction paper and scissors to one group and told them to begin making paper chains while others drew pictures of ornaments to color and cut out. They glued paperclips to the backs, so they could hang them on the branches. To Leo she gave a special job, to make the bright yellow star for the top of the tree. He was very proud.
Once the tree was properly adorned and everyone had settled back down, they proceeded with their lessons, but everyone kept glancing at the tree and admiring how beautiful it looked. At the end of the day there was one more surprise. Miss Nash brought out a box that was wrapped like a Christmas present, with shiny red paper and a white bow on top. On the side was written, "Letters to Santa", and a slot was cut in the top.
"Children," said the teacher, "I would like for each of you to write a letter to Santa and tell him what you would like to get for Christmas. I will make certain that he gets your letters. Just drop them in this box. I'll leave it on this table by the tree and it will be here all week, so don't forget to write."
Leo was excited by the idea. He had written letters before, but Santa hadn't answered any of them. Christmas morning at his house was a bleak affair. There would be no Christmas tree, no stockings by the fireplace, no pretty presents to open. His aunt usually handed him a couple of packages of socks and underwear, still in the store wrappings. It was confusing because Leo had heard his classmates talking about previous years when they received toys, games, electric trains and even bicycles.
"I guess Santa must have gotten their letters," he thought. Miss Nash's letterbox might just give him the chance he had waited for, and maybe, just maybe, his letter would make it this year. It was worth a try. Leo sat in his corner of the classroom and picked out the prettiest crayon from the box, his favorite, purple, and on a clean sheet of paper he wrote, in his best hand:
this year I only want one thing for Christmas.
If you can, please send me a friend.
P.s. I hope you get this letter.
Leo folded the letter carefully and slipped it into the letterbox. When he turned, he saw that Miss Nash was smiling at him. Her smile made him feel warm, so he smiled back.
Far away, in a large room that was warm and cheerfully decorated, dozens of small people sat at long tables carefully sorting through stacks of paper. As they read each one, they placed them into piles, depending on the request contained in each. Most of the stacks were very large, but one was noticeably smaller than the others. A supervisor walked along collecting the papers, so they could be entered into a database of wishes.
He picked up the small stack and said, "Elf Ringo, I take it these are the more difficult wishes."
"Yes, Elf Jingles, most are quite difficult, but many, I'm afraid, are just impossible. It's terrible the number of children who want their deceased parents back, or want jobs for their families, or any number of other things that just won't fit into Santa's sack."
Both elves shook their heads in sadness. Jingles said, "Yes, it's tragic that all children can't be safe and happy, especially at this time of year, but Santa will do all that he can. I'll take these to the old man and let him go over them. Thank you, Elf Ringo."
Before turning the letters over to Santa, Jingles scanned through them. One particular flash of purple caught his eye. It was Leo's request for a friend. Jingles sensed that this was a very lonely child and it made him sad, but it also gave him an idea. He tucked the letter into his pocket and after delivering the others he paid a visit to Elf Waldo, their own version of a tech-elf.
Waldo was taller than most other elves and unlike the others he had a strong interest in and great talent for science. Waldo had been responsible for the technological innovations that made Santa's job easier in recent years. He put their manufacturing processes into computer control which made record keeping much easier. He had also worked on the sleigh to make it faster and increased its storage capacity. The other elves were impressed with his innovations, but they still thought of him as a nerd.
Jingles showed Waldo the letter from Leo and said, "Elf Waldo, do you think it's possible to make a toy that looks and acts like a boy? Young Leo needs a friend, and this might just fit the bill."
Waldo thought about it for a moment and new ideas began to race through his clever elvish mind. He quickly grew excited and said, "Yes, yes. I think I know just what to do, Elf Jingles. Just leave it with me. Yes, this will be great fun."
Pleased, Jingles left as Waldo began to clear off a work table. He gathered his materials and immediately set to work. Waldo worked all through the night and everything came together perfectly. Finally, he pressed the toy's belly button, which was his ON switch, and it opened its eyes and looked at him. There on the table was a perfect facsimile of a boy, with deep blue eyes, brown hair, freckles and the cutest nose. It smiled a glorious smile and said, "Hi, I'm Toby. Will you be my friend?" His voice was musical.
Waldo grinned with triumph and replied, "How marvelous! Yes, Toby, I would love to be your friend! Tell me, Toby, how do you feel?"
"I feel wonderful and happy and good."
"That's amazing, Toby. Could you stand up for me?"
Toby stood and grinned at the elf. Waldo said, "Wait right here for a minute. There is someone else who wants to meet you."
Waldo raced from the room to find Elf Jingles and excitedly dragged him back to the workshop where he introduced his creation.
"Toby, this is Elf Jingles. Elf Jingles, this is Toby."
Jingles stared at the boy, unable to believe that it was a toy. "Are you certain this is not a real boy?" he asked. "He's absolutely perfect from head to toe. Why did you name him Toby?”
“Because he's a toy boy, so... Toby.”
“Right, turn around, Toby, so I can examine you."
Toby slowly turned and laughed as he did. Jingles saw that he was only an inch or two taller than the boy. Toby looked like a perfectly normal nine-year-old boy... in every detail.
"Er, um, Elf Waldo, I think you might want to find some trousers for our friend Toby," he said.
Waldo slapped his own forehead and said, "Of course, I completely forgot. Toby will catch a chill running around like this. Come Toby, let's find you something to wear."
Jingles said, "Yes, and then I think I had better introduce you to the big man. He will be very interested in you, I'm sure."
Finding clothes to fit was not a problem and the elves led their new charge around the North Pole complex. Toby's eyes were open wide as he saw the colorfully dressed elves going about their business of preparing for Christmas.
"Wow, look at that! That's beautiful," he shouted, pointing to the swags of greenery and ribbons that decorated the walls and support posts.
"Wow, that's beautiful!" he exclaimed as he saw his first decorated Christmas tree. He oohed and aahed and proclaimed everything to be wonderful and beautiful as they slowly made their way through the work areas. Toby kept stopping to speak to each person he saw, usually saying, "Hi, I'm Toby. Will you be my friend?"
His enthusiasm and innate joy was contagious, and everyone smiled and welcomed him. He left them feeling even merrier than usual wherever he went. It was difficult to drag him past the kitchens where he fell in love with the smell of gingerbread. He snagged a couple of cookies and announced that they were "wonderful".
Finally, after much effort, they made their way to the main office where Santa was sipping a mug of cocoa and watching the weather reports on his television. Santa looked up in surprise when they knocked on the open door to get his attention.
"Elf Jingles, Elf Waldo, what do you mean bringing a child here? You know there are rules about this sort of thing," Santa said sternly.
"We can explain, Sir," Jingles said hastily. He proceeded to show Santa Leo's letter and Waldo told him about his latest creation. Santa was greatly impressed and asked to be introduced.
Toby stood silently, mesmerized by the magical presence of the great man. When Santa bent his knee and looked him in the eye Toby felt a rush of love and warmth in his heart. He burst out with joy and said, "Santa, Santa, I'm Toby. I love you, Santa." He threw his arms around the plump old man and hugged him tightly. Santa hugged him back and chuckled at his joy.
Waldo said, "You'll have to forgive him, Sir. Everything is new to him and we have much to teach him before he is ready."
"I find him absolutely delightful. Now let me understand, you want Toby to be a Christmas present for little Leo? This is to be the friend that he asked for?"
Jingles said, "Uh, yes Sir. I asked Elf Waldo for a Boy Toy, but I didn't expect him to create something so perfect, so realistic. Don't you think he will make Leo happy?"
Santa sat down and took the beaming boy on his lap. He said, "Oh, I know he could make Leo happy..., for a while, but think about this. While Toby can be a wonderful companion, he isn't a real boy. He will always be just as he is now. He won't grow taller or older. While Leo continues to become a man, Toby will be just a boy. No, I'm afraid that Leo needs a human friend, or even better, many human friends."
The elves looked disappointed and their shoulders sagged. Then Santa said, "So, here's what we are going to do. Let us first ask Toby this question. Toby, there is a lonely little boy named Leo who has written and wished for a friend for Christmas. Would you like to go and be his friend, to love him and let him love you?"
Toby's smile grew even wider and he said, "Oh, yes Santa, yes. I will be Leo's friend. It will be great fun."
"Well then, Toby can stay with Leo for one year. After that, I will bring him back up here to live with us. Meanwhile, we will keep an eye on him and make certain that everything is going well. That will be your job, Elf Jingles. You watch him very carefully."
Jingles agreed, relieved that he had made a good decision and he hoped that it would all work out for the good.
Christmas was two weeks away and Toby had a marvelous time at the North Pole, meeting everyone and making them smile, learning about things like peppermint sticks, sugar plums, gingerbread and cookies. He helped feed the reindeer, and assisted in the toy shops, and learned how to wrap gifts perfectly. Toby learned everything very quickly and only had to be shown once how to perform a task. He remembered everyone's name that he met. He also remained extremely enthusiastic about everything and he made everyone happy.
Leo found it difficult to get excited about Christmas. It was fun to see the decorations that other people put on their houses and around the town, but his aunt said that it was all a waste of money and a bunch of nonsense. He had asked once, a few years earlier, if they could have a Christmas tree and her flat refusal was enough that he never asked again.
On Christmas Eve they had their usual bland dinner and went to bed. In his room, Leo lay on his bed and read a book. When he grew sleepy, he rolled over and started to close his eyes, but he took one last look at the snow falling outside his window and whispered, "Santa, I hope you got my letter this year." Then he went to sleep.
Early the next morning, when the first gray light of dawn illuminated his window panes, Leo opened his eyes and stretched. The bed was warm, and the house was cold, but he knew he had to rise and begin his chores, so he forced himself to get up. The cold wooden floor on his bare feet made him groan, so he quickly found his robe and slippers and made his way downstairs. He remembered that it was Christmas, but there was no use hoping for anything special this year, so he didn't hurry. If there was anything waiting for him it would be the usual socks and underwear lying on the table, still in their plastic shopping bag.
Sometimes the biggest surprises come when we have given up on hope. Leo couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the large box sitting by the cold stone fireplace. It was bigger than him and wrapped in beautiful paper, dark blue with white snowflakes printed on it, and tied up with a huge red ribbon and bow. He approached it slowly as if he expected it to disappear if he moved too quickly. Then he touched it, tentatively at first, and found it to be solid and real. A large tag was taped to one side and it had his name on it in large letters.
"I have a present," he whispered, disbelieving his luck. "A real present. Who would send me a present? What is it?" His hands shook as he reached for the bow to untie it.
"What's this? What's this?" his aunt demanded loudly. She was standing on the stairs and had a look of annoyance on her face. "What are you up to and where did you get that?"
Leo stammered, "I-I don't know where it came from. It was just here."
"Nonsense, boy. Nonsense. You're up to something," she sneered scornfully.
"B-but it-it's got my name on it. It's a present for me," he said, feeling a bit angry. He had momentarily felt good for once and she was spoiling that feeling. "It's mine." He turned his back on her and continued to unwrap the box. He eagerly tore off the paper and saw that the cardboard underneath was taped closed, so he peeled off the tape and let the front of the box swing open.
There was a boy inside. Leo gasped and fell back in surprise and sat on the floor. His aunt let out a small scream and shouted, "What in the world is the meaning of this?"
The boy spoke, "Hi, I'm Toby. I'm your new friend, Leo. Santa brought me. Will you be my friend?" He seemed to be just Leo's age and size. His voice was sweet and touched with laughter. He wore bright red short trousers held up with wide yellow suspenders over a green shirt. His hat and pointed shoes were green as well.
Leo and his aunt were speechless for a couple of moments and continued to stare with open mouths at the boy. Toby stepped out of the box and held out his hand.
"Let me help you up, Leo. You seem surprised. Don't you remember asking Santa for a friend? It was in your letter."
Leo took Toby's hand and stood up. "Santa got my letter?" he asked. "Wow, I was beginning to think that he had forgotten me. Hi, Toby. I'm happy to meet you." He was smiling and feeling far better than he had in a long, long time. There was something about Toby that seemed to inspire happiness in him. It was almost like magic.
"Leo! I don't know what you're up to, but this boy must leave. This is not the sort of behavior I expect from you. You know I hate jokes of any kind," his aunt snapped.
Her words shocked Leo and he flared up at her saying forcefully, "No, Aunt Myrtle. He's my friend and he's staying. Santa brought him for me and you are not going to make him leave!" He had never spoken to her like that before. Indeed, he had never shown any anger or bad temper toward her in the past, so this surprised her.
Softening her tone, she said, "Leo, this is a boy. You can't keep another person. His parents will want him home."
"No," interjected Toby. "It's okay, I'm not a real boy, I'm a toy. The elves made me. They made me just for Leo because he needs a friend. It's very lonely for him here."
A curious look came over Toby's face and he spoke to the aunt in a softer, more serious voice, "You remember, Myrtle. You remember how lonely you were when you were a girl. How you had no sisters or brothers, all the neighbors were too far away to visit, and you only saw other children at school. And there the children made fun of you, called you Sourpuss and other names. Don't you remember how it hurt to be alone with no one to play with or even to talk to? You remember, don't you, Myrtle?"
As he spoke, she began to remember it all. She saw herself as if in a movie, a sad and lonely little girl. "How do you know this?" she whispered fearfully.
Toby took her hand and said, "I know many things, Myrtle. I know even now that you are not as cold and hard as you seem. There is a heart inside of you that longs to laugh, if only you could remember how. If you let me stay, I can help you, too. You want to laugh again, don't you, Myrtle?"
She was stunned into silence and couldn't speak. She only nodded her head as she thought about his words.
Leo said, "Yea, Toby. This is so great, Toby. We're going to have so much fun." Tears of happiness filled his eyes.
Toby held his hands and bounced up and down with excitement. "Yes, Leo. We are going to have lots and lots of fun."
"Let me fix you some breakfast," said Leo.
"No, let me make you some breakfast," Toby said. "How would you like pancakes? I make great pancakes. The elves showed me how."
"That sounds wonderful. I'm starving."
Aunt Myrtle still stood frozen in the same place on the stairs and watched the strange and colorful child as he began to explore her kitchen. She seemed to be overwhelmed by the flood of new feelings that had been buried for so long in her memory. Feeling a bit shaky, she sat down on the steps.
Leo helped Toby find the flour and the other things he needed. In a very short time he was turning out stacks of delicious pancakes. "I like to put lots of cinnamon and brown sugar in them and then more cinnamon in the syrup," he explained. "That's what makes them taste so good."
"They're the best pancakes I ever ate," said Leo, adding more butter to his. "Aunt Myrtle, sit down and try these. They're great." He paused to go take her hand and help her to the table, then eagerly returned to his breakfast.
Toby poured the old woman a glass of cold milk and set a plate in front of her. She took a small bite and her face lit up. After that, she ate the rest eagerly and with enthusiasm. As she sat there, she tried to process the impossible arrival of this child and his effect on her. Despite her persistently bleak outlook on life and her anger at the world, she found a small spark of pleasure still alive in her heart. The boy seemed to awaken a memory, or hope, of a better world, and a reason to smile. Of course, it was ridiculous to think that his claim of being a toy from the North Pole could be true. He was certainly someone's child and somewhere someone would be searching for him, so he couldn't possibly stay. Or could he? As she questioned it, she realized that on some level she would like for him to stay. Reason told her to call the sheriff, but when she looked at Toby, she saw a magic in his eyes and a warmth in his smile and her own lips turned into a shape that had been forgotten by her face, a smile of her own. It felt strange to smile after so many years, strange but good. Reason be damned, she thought.
Months passed, seasons passed, and Leo and Toby were both very happy. Toby was the friend that Leo had dreamed of, but more than that, he had brought him the friendship of other children. Posing as Leo's cousin, Toby had come to school with Leo and there he charmed the other students and Miss Nash, just as he had Aunt Myrtle. Everyone seemed to be magically drawn to his joyous demeanor and his infectious sense of fun. Toby drew Leo out of his shyness and helped him connect with other children, who found that he was also fun to be around.
After Aunt Myrtle's initial inquiry into whether anyone was searching for a missing child proved to have negative results, she began to relax more and soon accepted Toby's presence in their lives with happiness. She changed completely and now found that her life had sweetness and each new day was welcomed with anticipation and joy because of both boys. Her internal transformation was reflected in her outward appearance and behavior. Gone was the silent, scowling old woman who tolerated a small boy's existence in her cold, gray house. Now she looked much younger and happier. She began to spend her hoarded money on the boys, buying them clothes and toys and games. She bought herself new dresses and had the house painted. Meals were now a time to sit together and talk of happy things while enjoying delicious, nourishing food.
December arrived, and Aunt Myrtle surprised the boys by putting up colorful lights on the outside of the house. She bought a big Christmas tree and the three of them decorated it and made it beautiful. It was the first one she had ever had.
A week before Christmas, Toby sat down with Leo and Myrtle and had a little talk. "When I came here last year," he said quietly, "Santa told me that I was to be your friend, but that I was supposed to help you find other friends, too. That's because I can't stay."
Leo and Myrtle both gasped at the announcement.
"No," cried Leo. "What do you mean?"
Toby shook his head sadly and said, "I'm not a real boy, I just look like one. I won't grow or get older, like you. I will always be just like I am now. I love you both, but Santa only gave me a year to be with you. After this I have to go back to the workshop. I'm sorry it has to be this way. The good thing is that you are both happier now and you love each other better. Leo, you have a lot of friends, so you never have to be lonely again."
Leo threw his arms around his friend and hugged him tightly. Tears ran down his face. Even Aunt Myrtle had to wipe her eyes and stifle a sob. She gave the boy a tight hug.
"When do you have to go?" she asked.
"I'm not sure. I expect he will come for me on Christmas Eve when he makes his deliveries. I'm going to miss both of you and I'll never forget you," Toby whispered. "But come on, let's try to not think about it right now. We will still have a great Christmas. Look at the wonderful tree that we put up and decorated, and the beautiful lights on the house. And guess what, it's snowing. That's enough to make us be cheerful."
The three of them tried to wear brave faces for the next few days. Leo and his aunt found it difficult to be sad whenever Toby was there. When they went to bed on Christmas Eve, they both prayed that Toby would still be there the next day, but when they woke up, he was gone. The house felt empty without his laughter.
Leo and his aunt hugged each other and at the same time they both said, "I love you." Santa had left gifts for them under the tree, so they sat down to open them and while they appreciated the gifts, they were most grateful for the gift of love and happiness and companionship that Toby had left them with.
When Santa arrived at their house, Toby was waiting. He was sad to be leaving but seeing Santa again filled him with great happiness. The old man gave him a big hug and said, "You did a wonderful job, Toby. You did everything you were supposed to do. Everybody loves you."
"Thank you, Santa. Will I go back to the workshop now?"
"No, Toby. You did so well here that I decided to ask if you would like to do the same thing for another lonely boy. There is a boy named Alex who needs a friend like you. What do you say, Toby? Would you like to make someone else happy?"
"Oh yes, Santa. Yes!"