TRUTH ... OR TRUTH
Mark R. Hunter
“Do you mind if I breakfast with you, young lady?”
Dorothy Gale looked up to see Santa Claus approaching. It said something about her life that not only was he not the strangest visitor she'd ever had, he wasn't even the strangest visitor she'd had today. “Of course, Santa, welcome.”
One of the palace staff followed him, holding a platter as he gazed with adoration at the jolly old elf. Santa, it seemed, was having a fruit plate and toast for breakfast, with milk on the side. While Santa thanked the man profusely, Dorothy stuffed her last strip of bacon into her mouth, and covered her eggs with a piece of toast. One thing she'd learned about being a princess was the value of not offending guests.
“You know you can call me Kris, my dear.” Santa started with the toast, while his gaze quickly swept over her plate. “How was that bacon?”
Santa laughed. “I go all over the world, Dorothy—I've learned not to be offended by ways different from mine.” His belly did not shake like a bowl full of anything, Santa having lost weight in recent decades. “Especially in this case, where I know for a fact the staff just this morning harvested the bacon trees.”
“Well ...” She had to laugh at getting caught. In the Emerald City, people laughed more than they did about anything else, which was a far cry from any other place she'd ever been to. At the moment she and Santa sat on a balcony of the Royal Palace, looking out over the explosion of colors that made up the Royal Gardens. The Emerald City was far from just green.
“Watermelon.” Santa held his fork up, with a slice of the fruit on it. “It tastes better here. Everything tastes better here. That's why I like to vacation in Oz.”
Smiling, Dorothy decided teasing could go both ways. “And you're already itching to get back to work, aren't you?”
“You caught me.” Slices of apple were next. “I believe the Outside World would call me a workaholic. On a related note, where has Ozma gotten off to this fine morning?”
A voice came from under the table. “She's moderating some dispute between the Hammerheads and the Fighting Trees. Over apples, I expect—I found it boring.”
Peeking under the tablecloth, Dorothy discovered her dog in his favorite position—in other words, he'd been napping. “I didn't know you were down there, Toto.”
“I'm a dog of few words.” Which was true enough. “The Cowardly Lion and Hungry Tiger are with them, but I don't expect Ozma needs security.”
“We all have our duties.” Santa looked over his orange at Dorothy. “You're not sitting in on the Royal Court this morning?”
“She'd get bored.”
“Toto, stop it!” But it was true, of course. “Ozma asked me to entertain you, but I didn't think you'd be up this early.”
“I didn't think you would be up this early. Once a farm girl always a farm girl, eh?” He'd almost finished his meal, without Dorothy even noticing. “I saw the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman off yesterday, and Jack is back in his pumpkin—the Palace is practically abandoned at the moment. Shall we pass the time playing truth or truth?”
“What's truth or truth?”
“It's like truth or dare, without the foolish dares.”
“But you already know all about me.”
“Nonsense, your thoughts are your own.” Santa sat back and patted his no longer so ample belly. “I'll start, because I'm very curious about this: Do you miss winter?”
Dorothy had never given it much thought, but she didn't have to. “No. Winters were horrible in Kansas. Seemed like all we did was huddle around the stove, and just when the chill's chased off a little we'd have to go bring in more firewood, or take care of the animals, and we'd chill to the bone all over again. The food was no great shakes, either.”
“I'd thought of asking you to come visit the Laughing Valley—during off season, of course.”
Visit the place where Santa Claus makes his toys? “You know I couldn't say no to that.”
“I thought not.”
“And you too, Toto.” Now Dorothy looked at her guest. “My turn: Don't you get hot in that get-up?”
“Oh, no.” In fairness, Santa had removed his hat and gloves, but still wore the fur-lined red coat and pants. “This outfit protects against both cold and heat. It's a magical thing, you know—the same thing I can use to keep you from getting cold in the Laughing Valley. Now, my turn: Why have you chosen to not grow up? It's all very Peter Pan.”
What? Dorothy frowned. “Well, we don't grow old ...”
“But you can. Most children in Oz choose to become adults, sooner or later. But Outside World children who come to live in Oz—you, Betsy, Trot, Button-Bright—none of you have never aged a day. I've watched this go on for a century now, and it makes me curious.”
“Why—it's fun to be a kid.”
“This is Oz: It's fun to be anyone.”
“I don't know, I guess ...” She never gave a lot of things much thought, now that she—well, thought about it. Dorothy spent much of her time wandering around the four countries of Oz, as what Ozma called a 'traveling representative'. Really it was just to explore and meet new people … as well as “people”. The ones who stretched the definition were the most fun. When she was here in Emerald City she seemed to spend every moment at dinners, or events, or if she was really bored she'd sit and watch the Magic Picture scan around the world.
Santa was looking at her with a curious expression.
“Maybe it's because where we came from, adults never seemed happy. I don't think that's changed much in the last century, even if the problems are different ones. Back then we were always half-starved, working every day just to pay the mortgage, and never getting ahead. These days, I don't know—from what I've seen everyone's so busy chasing happiness, they never take time to be happy.”
“Hm.” Santa took a pipe from his coat pocket and lit it. Santa, like anyone in the fairy lands, never had to worry about cancer, or other lung diseases. As long as they didn't meet with an accident, they could essentially live forever. Maybe that explained why Ozma was unhappy whenever Dorothy took off on another adventure—she could be killed by a fall, or by some angry personage in a backward corner Oz. But at least she'd never die of consumption.
She squirmed a little under Santa's gaze. Toto poked his head out from under the table, to see what was happening. “Santa, are you playing psychiatrist with Dorothy?”
He laughed. “I like to see people happy, and Dorothy's one of my favorite people. There's so little I can do, really—just a present or two, and a little cheer thrown around—so I thought I'd go into more detail in her case.”
Toto laid back down. “She stays too busy to be psychia … trized.”
“You're putting me on the spot, Santa. But as long as I stay this age a lot of people underestimate me, and a lot of others help me on my travels just because they think of me as a kid.”
“Useful.” Santa puffed a smoke ring.
“Plus, I don't have to wear a bra, shave my legs, or go through that whole puberty thing. You know, we can grow up here if we want to, but we can still only do it at regular growing speed. So … puberty.”
“That's so.” Another smoke ring.
“Do you think I'm being selfish?”
His eyebrows shot up. “You're one of the least selfish people I know. No, I just like everyone to be happy, and it's harder and harder these days for anyone to just be content with themselves. The Outside World is full of those who try so hard to become something else, they never realize how good it could be just to be … them.”
“You are a psychiatrist,” Toto said. “At least, I think so. We don't have any in Oz, but I've heard about 'em.”
Reaching out, Dorothy took the old man's hand. “Maybe you spend too much time worrying about others.”
“Oh, but that's my job, Dorothy.”
“My turn to psychi … trasize you. Promise on your next vacation you'll just spend a week here relaxing, instead of trying to make everyone else happy. I'm fine. I really do like being a kid, even if I'm not really. Betsy and Trot, they run around with me playing tag in the gardens, and the same night we're all talking about the latest book we've read—adult book. Button-Bright … well, he's Button-Bright. He always has been happy to be himself, wherever that lands him. Maybe he's the one we should want to be like.”
Santa paused in his smoking, then set the pipe down. “You're right—I promise next time to just sit around like a lump, and be fed, and be happy. But you know: I do have the best job in the world.”
Dorothy thought she had the best job in the world, but she wasn't about to argue.
They heard a call, and turned to see three “children” walking through the garden toward them. Santa waved, then reached into his pocket. “Merry Christmas, Dorothy.”
“It's August.” Smiling, she held her hand out, and found herself holding a golden ticket. Of real gold.
“Anytime you want to come visit the workshop. Just choose who you want to go with you—not too many at a time, please—and think it, and it will be. And you can just keep wearing that pretty silk dress if you want, because I'll arrange for the warmth.”
Dorothy stood to hug him—because, who didn't want to hug Santa Claus? “You always do.”