The little boy is standing over my bed like a drunk at a buffet table, tired and teetering, ready to fall face first at any moment.
His voice is way up high in his throat, even higher than usual. Apparently he just had a nightmare.
"Go back to bed," I say.
"But, Dad . . . "
I know I shouldn't do it. Because if you let a kid in bed with you for one night, you've got him there all year. But it's cold. And it's Christmastime, the season for taking in stragglers.
He settles in next to me, all elbows and knees, which jab at me like broom handles.
"You OK?" I ask.
I go back to where I was when he arrived, in that place in my head that worries about money. It's almost Christmas, too late to worry about money. But I worry anyway.
Just as I'm about to fall asleep, I hear it again.
This voice doesn't belong to the boy. It's much lower.
"Dad?" his little sister says again.
"What's the story, morning glory?" I ask.
"I can't sleep."
Five minutes later, the older sister arrives. And suddenly, at 1:15 in the morning, I'm sleeping with the enemy.
"Not a peep," I warn them. "Not a peep or it's back to your rooms. All three of you."
"Peep," my son says.
"You, out!" I say.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry," he says.
They are wedged between my wife and me, with their arms to their sides, staring at the ceiling and breathing through their mouths.
In December, all kids breathe through their mouths. That's because in December, all kids have colds. Christmas colds. In fact, President Clinton just declared December "Mucus Appreciation Month."
So as my three mouth-breathers drift off to sleep, I go back to that place in my head that worries about money. There is still no money there, but I go back anyway.
Then it happens.
"What's that?" the youngest one asks.
"What?" I say.
"I heard something," she says.
There's that pause you get whenever a bunch of people stop to listen for something. As usual, no one hears a thing.
"Go to sleep," her brother grumbles.
"Dad, I really heard something," the 5-year-old insists. "It sounded like . . . like Santa."
"I think he's checking on us," she says, breathless with excitement.
"To see if we're naughty or nice?" her older sister gently teases.
"Yup," the 5-year-old says.
Her 10-year-old brother reacts with a scoffing noise in the back of his throat that sounds roughly like someone gagging on a piece of roast beef. This gagging sound has more meaning than an actual word because if conveys pure skepticism like no word can.
"I heard it too," I say.
"See," the 5-year-old says.
"Dad?" the 13-year-old says.
I grew up a long time ago, but I haven't quite given up on Santa. That's because my 5-year-old hasn't quite given up on Santa.
Some in the family consider the two of us extremists. Others just think we're dopes. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
"Dad, tell me again," says the 10-year-old. "How does Santa visit a billion homes in one night?"
"Yeah Dad," says the 13-year-old. "And how does he get past all those home security systems?"
Tough crowd. In the old days, I could read them "The Night Before Christmas" and that was all they needed to know. Then a couple years later, I reluctantly reported that "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
"Santa exists as surely as hope and reason and MTV," I told them, improvising just a little.
But pure faith isn't enough anymore. The older ones insist on facts. And for some reason, they believe they have me trapped in a lie.
"Ever heard of Einstein?" I ask.
"Ever heard of the theory of relativity?" I ask.
"Then lie back and let me tell you about Santa Claus."
With this, the 13-year-old attempts to bolt. But she is trapped under the covers. Too bad. My leg is right in the way.
"So according to Einstein, here's how Santa does it," I begin, reciting an explanation I found in a newspaper article last year.
"According to the theory of relativity, under the right conditions, time can dilate and space contract."
"Huh?" says the 10-year-old.
"Let me out!" cries the 13-year-old.
"On Dec. 24," I continue, "Einstein's theory of relativity is fulfilled at the North Pole, the center of the Earth's rotation and the point of convergence of its electromagnetic field.
"When this happens, a rip develops in the fabric of time, allowing Santa to slip through. Until he comes back through the rip, time stands still. This allows him as much time as he needs to deliver packages around the world."
I pause a moment to let this last part sink in.
There's complete silence. I'm beginning to think I've won them over. Or at least confused them, which of course is the essence of persuasion.
"Dad, they're asleep," says the 13-year-old.
We lie there a little longer, me and the teenager. It seems like yesterday when she herself was 5 years old. Back then, she believed everything her father said.
Now, nearly in high school, she has become the village skeptic. But that's OK. I love skeptics. I just wish they wouldn't grow up so fast.
"Dad," she says, breaking the silence.
"I heard something," she says.
"It sounded like . . . like . . . "
"Go ahead, say it."
"It sounded like Santa."
I hit her with a pillow. She hits me back.
" 'Night, Dad."