A Christmas story with a message.
It was the first day of the summer holidays. It had rained heavily during the night, but in the early morning the sun shone brightly and the birds sang.
"Mum, can I go play in the woods," Jay asked.
"After you have done the dishes," his mother replied.
A few minutes later, Jay was skipping along the footpath, and splashing in the puddles. He was soon knocking on his friend's front door.
A slim, middle-aged African American woman answered the door.
"Can Hap come out to play?" he asked.
"Of course. Harper, Jay's here; he wants you to go play with him."
Harper cringed when he heard his name. Only his mother used it. Everyone else called him Hap for short - that's Hap that rhymes with 'cap', not 'carp'. It was an abbreviation of his name, but he was also called Hap because he was always smiling and happy - except when his mother called him Harper, that is.
The two boys were dawdling along the path that led to the woods, when Hap had an idea.
"Isn't that Sid's house over there?" he asked.
"You mean Sid the nerd?"
"What of it?"
"Why don't we go ask him to come play with us?"
"Do you think he will?"
Hap banged on the front door. There was no reply, so he tried again; this time knocking even louder.
After a few moments, there was a sound from inside. The bolts were shot back and a man flung the door open. He was wearing boxer shorts and a singlet, and his auburn hair was long and untidy.
Hap looked into the man's face. He hadn't shaved for a couple of days. "Excuse me...Mr..., I mean, sir, can Sid come out to play with us."
"Sid's already playing on his Xbox. Why don't you come in and ask him?"
They followed the man into the living room. Sid didn't look up. He was concentrating on his game.
"Sid, would you like to come with us to play in the woods?" Jay asked.
The plump boy looked up and threw down his controller. "You just got me killed," he said.
"Sorry," said Jay. "How can that be? You look perfectly alive to me."
"I mean I was killed in the game, silly."
"You boys like some popcorn?" the man asked.
"No thanks," said Hap. "Popcorn's not healthy."
"No, thank you," said Jay.
Meanwhile Hap was looking at the man's computer screen. It was open on a page titled 'Friendsphere'. Hap had never seen this site before.
He spoke to the man "Why does it say you've got 3,761 friends?" he asked.
"That's friends on Friendsphere. I don't really know them."
"So why do you call them friends? I've only got...um...nine good friends in all the world. How can you have so many?
"Well, I don't. It's just to prove I've got more friends than most other people."
Hap was not impressed, so he repeated, "Can Sid come out to play?"
"You want to go, Sid?"
Sid whispered into the man's ear. "No, I'll stay here and play with my Xbox. That's much more fun."
The man whispered a reply.
Sid turned to Hap and Jay. "My step dad says I can't go with you."
"Oh, is this your step dad?" Jay looked disapprovingly at the dishevelled man. "Where's your mum?"
"She's spaced out in the bedroom."
"You know, she's still not recovered from last night."
Jay didn't know what Sid was talking about. "I see," he said. "Come on, Hap, let's go."
A few minutes later Jay and Hap arrived at the playground near the edge of the woods. It was deserted except for one girl who sat motionless on one of the swings. They immediately recognized Delight from their class at school.
"Hi, Delight. What's up?" Hap sat down on the swing beside her.
Delight looked up and smiled. "Nothing," she said. "It's just lonely here. No one seems to come here anymore."
"We're here," said Jay. "We're going to play in the woods. You want to come with us?"
"You bet," said Delight. She smiled broadly and jumped up from the swing. "Let's go. I'll race you there."
Delight set off as fast as she could run in the direction of the woods. Her blonde curls flew out behind her as she raced along. Hap and Sid soon caught up with her, and the three of them collapsed laughing on the damp ground.
They wandered into the woods. It was a little dark inside the trees, and water still dripped from the branches overhead.
"It's a bit cold in here," said Delight.
Let's play tag. You're it," Jay said to Hap, running off into the thicket.
Hap chased after him and Delight followed behind. Suddenly they all stopped in their tracks.
A large animal stood staring at them from behind a tree.
"What is it?" Delight shivered as she spoke, not from cold, but from fright. "It's got such big horns."
"They're not horns," said Jay. "They're antlers, and that's a reindeer."
"I'm scared," said Delight. "Is it going to hurt us?"
Before either of the boys could say anything, they heard a new voice coming from behind. It was a deep voice, and a kind one.
"He won't hurt you, my dear. Come here, Rudolph," he said.
The reindeer trotted past the three wide-eyed children. His hooves clicked as he moved, and bells attached to his neck began to jingle. He made a low bellowing sound.
The children turned around slowly and gasped. The man was short and plump and had a white beard.
"You're not...?" Hap spoke for the three of them.
"Nicholas Claus at your service," he said.
"But it's the middle of summer!" Jay exclaimed.
"Of course it is," said Nicholas. "You don't think I only come out when it's winter, do you?"
"But I thought you lived at the North Pole." Delight looked imploringly at the kind-faced old man.
"Stuff and nonsense.!My toy factory is at the North Pole, but I don't live there. Me and my reindeer, we live in these woods."
"Have you got any presents?" Jay asked.
"As you have already told me, it's summer. As you can see, I'm not even wearing my red coat. It's too hot. Now is not the time for presents, but I will give you one thing."
Nicholas rummaged around in his pocket, and pulled out a small ball, about the size of a golf ball. It appeared to be made from glass and emitted a glow of light.
They all gasped again.
"What's that?" Delight asked.
"It's a magic sphere. You have to close your eyes and rub it with your hand, and it will grant you a wish. You can each use it once. But there are two conditions: you can't wish for anything bad to happen to somebody, and you can't wish to change what's happened in the past."
"Wow!" Jay's jaw dropped. "What do you call the ball?" he asked.
"I call it the Friendsphere."
"Friendsphere?" Jay and Hap spoke in unison.
"Why, that's the name of the internet site Sid's step dad was on," said Hap.
"Oh, he's just a nerd who goes to our school. He wouldn't come out to play with us."
"You asked Sid to come out to play?" Delight turned up her nose as she spoke. "I don't like him."
Nicholas handed the sphere to the girl. "What's your wish?" he asked. "Close your eyes."
Delight rubbed the sphere and said, "I wish it was Christmas today."
"Open your eyes."
The ground was covered with snow and the branches of the trees hung low from the weight of the white powder. When she heard bells jingling, she turned her head and gasped again. Six reindeer, pulling a sleigh piled high with presents came to a halt in front of her.
Delight ran forward and grabbed a present. It had her name on it. She tore the present open. "It's a new scarf," she said, flinging it around her neck.
While Delight was busy opening more presents, Hap took hold of the sphere.
"I wish all the Xboxes, Nintendos, Playstations, computers, iPods, and all the other modern gadgets could be destroyed," he said.
"I told you, you can't change history," said Nicholas.
"All right then. I wish Sid would stop playing those stupid games, be my friend and be happy like me."
Hap heard the bells of another sleigh approaching. When he opened his eyes, he saw three people sitting on the sleigh. It was Sid, his mum and his step dad. They were all singing and laughing.
"Hi guys," said Sid. "I've given away my Xbox. I want to be your friend and have fun."
While Sid and Hap were having a snowball fight, Sid's step dad spoke. "These are my friends," he said, "my wife and kid. I don't need all those so-called friends on Friendsphere. I've given up going on that site."
"Jay, it's your turn," said Nicholas.
Jay closed his eyes and made his wish.
"I wish for a big Christmas feast, with turkey, roasted potatoes, ice cream and jelly, and a big iced cake."
"Open your eyes and turn around, Jay."
He saw a huge table laden with food.
"Everyone come and eat," said Nicholas. "There's turkey, roasted potatoes, ice cream and jelly, and a cake. But there's also broccoli and carrots; you must eat them too."
"Jay, if you want a world the way it used to be, where people have fun together; and where they enjoy the fresh air and sunshine instead of staying indoors all day playing electronic games. If you want these things, then you must also eat your broccoli and carrots. They're healthy."