It was the Christmas Grandma and Grandpa were in the Philippines on their mission. Instead of going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for the holidays, Uncle Grant drove down from school to our house. I idolized Uncle Grant. Everything he did, I did. Everything he said, I repeated five minutes later. Every joke he told, I remembered. He was the perfect combination of grown-up and kid. He was old enough to drive but not too old to have fun.
I could hardly contain myself when Dad told me Uncle Grant would be coming for Christmas. He said that Grant’s girlfriend had uninvited him from meeting her parents, but that was gibberish to me. All that mattered was that he was coming. It was like getting Christmas a week early when he strode through our front door, a duffle bag thrown over his back just like Santa’s sack. Then he dropped the duffle, scooped me up in a big hug, and tickled me until I couldn’t breathe.
Uncle Grant was the exact opposite of Dad. Dad hadn’t picked me up since I was four because of his back, but Uncle Grant picked me up every time he saw me. Dad’s work made him shave every morning; Uncle Grant had so many whiskers that they scratched me every time we wrestled. And Uncle Grant didn’t talk about boring adult things. Mom, Dad, and my other relatives just talked about kids, work, and politics. Uncle Grant talked about sports, video games, and girls. I wasn’t interested in girls, but I loved sports and video games. After Dad showed Uncle Grant his room—it was right next to mine—he sat down and watched me play Mario Kart. He even jumped in as the second player and we spent an hour racing together until Mom called us down for dinner. He even showed me some shortcuts that I didn’t know.
The best thing about Uncle Grant was that he wasn’t gone all day at work. That week was a flurry of playing football in the snow, watching Christmas movie after Christmas movie, and playing Mario Kart until the Wii overheated. Once he stopped in the middle of a race to take a call from his girlfriend. He didn’t come back for an hour, but when he did, he drove like crazy. He even created a third player called Kristie that he’d smash into every chance he got. I asked him who Kristie was, but he didn’t want to talk about it.
The climax of Uncle Grant’s visit came on Christmas Eve. We spent the afternoon putting up a tent in my bedroom that was big enough for two. Uncle Grant tied a rope to the top of the dresser so we could drape a blanket over it. During dinner, Mom and Dad kept telling us to go right to sleep, but Uncle Grant just winked at me. I knew I would never, ever get to sleep with Uncle Grant camping in my room.
Our goal was to stay awake until Santa came so we could hear the reindeer. Uncle Grant had heard the reindeer for at least five years running. Each time Mom and Dad came to check on us, Uncle Grant would flip off the flashlight and we’d dive under the covers. He really fooled my parents with his loud snoring noise. As soon as they were gone, we’d pop our heads out from under the covers and he’d tell me another story. He knew so many stories I’d never heard before. Stories like the one about Blizzard—Frosty’s evil twin brother that terrorized the town until Santa came and ran him over with his sleigh.
It was almost ten o’clock when I started to get super tired. Uncle Grant really wanted me to stay up to listen for the reindeer, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. He thought Dad slipped a sleeping potion into my glass, which explained it all. Finally, Uncle Grant agreed that I should probably get some sleep, and he settled into his blankets too. Tomorrow was a big day for him, he said. He was going to be really rich.
I cracked open an eye and asked him if he’d asked Santa for money.
Oh, no. There was a rich hunter in Montana that wanted Rudolph’s head on his wall. For years, people had tried to capture Rudolph, but he was so smart that they never could get him.
This caught my attention, and I sat straight up.
Every year, Uncle Grant said, more and more people tried to capture Rudolph, but they all failed. Two years ago a group of guys had used a modified bear trap. They caught Dasher, but the rich guy, whose name was Stonerfeller, didn’t want just any of Santa’s old reindeer, he wanted a reindeer with a red nose. This year, Mr. Stonerfeller had raised the bounty for Rudolph.
I pleaded with Uncle Grant to tell me how much it was.
Five hundred dollars.
I couldn’t believe it. That was probably enough to buy every video game ever made. But how would Rudolph ever survive with such a bounty on his head?
Uncle Grant explained that Rudolph had learned not to trust anyone or anything. Instead of landing on roofs, he just hovers in mid-air so he doesn’t land in a reindeer trap. And he never eats anything unless it comes right from Santa’s own glove. He doesn’t want to be poisoned.
I nodded vigorously through this entire explanation, because I knew a lot about Rudolph—I’d watched the movie before Uncle Grant had come over and another time while he was on the phone with his girlfriend.
Then he put his hands behind his head. But that’s why he was going to be rich tomorrow. He had figured out how to catch Rudolph. I waited for more, but he didn’t say anything, he just lay there smiling up at our tent.
I was aghast. I couldn’t believe it. I felt betrayal and awe swell up in me in the same moment. I loved Rudolph like—like—almost as much as Uncle Grant.
My mouth was dry. Somehow I gasped out a question: How was he going to get Rudolph?
Elementary, he said. Reindeer poison.
Reindeer poison? What did that mean?
He rolled over on his side. I couldn’t believe it—he was actually smiling. Rudolph only eats out of Santa’s hand. That was the trick. The lettuce out by the fireplace wasn’t just lettuce. It was tainted with Uncle Grant’s special blend of poison. When Santa came up from the chimney, he would hand it right over to Rudolph and—Uncle Grant raised his hand and let it fall on the blankets. Thump. There was enough poison in that lettuce to kill an elephant.
There was only one thing to do. I had to save Rudolph. I had to stop Uncle Grant’s evil plan. I leapt from my blankets and ran to the door. Uncle Grant called out to me, but I didn’t listen. I careened into the hall and I heard him bounding after me. He ran in front of me and blocked the hall. Don’t go into the front room, he said. He was just kidding. No reindeer poison, no Mr. Stonefeller, it was all a story, a joke.
I almost believed him. Then I heard a noise come up the stairs. It was Santa. I could hear him talking. He was probably picking up the lettuce right now.
I yelled to Santa as I ran under Uncle Grant’s arm. I tumbled down the stairs two at a time with Uncle Grant grasping at me. Just as I was about to run into the front room, a man came around the corner. It wasn’t Santa, it was Dad. He started to say something, but I didn’t stop. I dodged around him and right into the living room where I stopped dead in my tracks.
There was my mom, sitting next to the mantel piece. It wasn’t the startled look on her face that stopped me. It was the bit of lettuce she was had in her hand. She had almost eaten it all.
“Quick, quick! Spit it out! Spit it out!” I screamed.
“What?” Mom said. “Spit what out?”
“The lettuce! Spit out the lettuce!”
Mom smiled. Oh, she hadn’t eaten it; these were just the leftovers Santa hadn’t taken.
I gasped. I was too late. Santa had come and gone. There was only one thing to do. I dashed out of the living room, past Dad and Uncle Grant, to the kitchen. I grabbed the phone, and did what they had told me to do since kindergarten. I dialed 9-1-1.
The kitchen exploded with the voices of my parents as they followed me as Uncle Grant frantically tried to explain everything. Mom was laughing heartily, but Dad didn’t think this reindeer poison thing was very funny. I felt proud of my Dad.
While they talked I spluttered an explanation to the emergency receptionist on the phone. I’ve never heard anyone sound so confused. It took my parents about a minute to figure out Uncle Grant’s story enough to focus on what I was doing. When they found out who I was calling, the kitchen erupted into chaos once more. This time Mom was scowling while Dad roared with laughter. Uncle Grant dashed for the phone and tried to explain what was going on. Evidently the ambulance was faster than Uncle Grant, because before he had finished explaining, an ambulance was in our driveway and two EMTs ran into our house in hopes of saving Rudy from being poisoned.
Uncle Grant tried to explain what was going on when three firemen ran in. He started over, and then had to start over once again when a squad car arrived with its sirens blazing. By this time, several neighborhood parents had arrived, some in funny Santa outfits. Our kitchen was a riot of explanation and re-explanation until one of the firemen piped up. A few blocks away, they found Rudolph on the side of the road. He wasn’t looking good, but luckily they had an ample supply of reindeer antidote on hand. It had only taken Rudolph thirty seconds to be back on his feet and flying again.
Everyone laughed, and then the EMTs and policemen took turns telling stories about the other reindeer they’d rescued on Christmas Eve. Mom boiled water for hot chocolate in her biggest pot while Dad handed out Christmas cookies. Eventually the neighbors had to go check if Santa had visited their houses, and the fireman had to get ready in case someone else tried to poison Rudolph again. When the house finally quieted down, Dad suggested that we just open presents then. Mom wondered aloud if Santa had left Uncle Grant coal for what he had done, but apparently Santa felt more forgiving than I did.
Uncle Grant left two days later. I hoped he’d come back the next year, but he didn’t. Instead we drove to Oklahoma for his wedding. The following year, he and Aunt Kristie came to visit us, but it wasn’t the same. He said he had pulled his back and couldn’t lift me up anymore. He sat down to play Mario Kart with me, but he got bored after one game, and went to talk with Mom and Dad about kids, work, and politics. And every morning he shaved.