For all his life, Charlie Brown just wanted to kick a field goal. Other kids wanted to play quarterback or wide receiver, so that they could try to break records and score more and more points, but Charlie Brown had milder aspirations. He didn’t want to score the game-winning points or lead the team to victory. Charlie Brown just wanted to help when his team needed him, so that he could fall back the rest of the game and focus on cheering on his teammates. But it never happened, and the thoughts were a burrowing rodent in Charlie’s young mind, eager for acceptance and a few degrees of warmth from the people around him. It kept him awake at night, and in his sleep he’d have dreams about connecting with that ball one solid time and sending that pigskin right out of the stadium.
But it never happened.
Charlie was at times resistant to those fitful moments of longing, but he was never immune, and even on a night like Christmas Eve, he lay awake in bed, gazing outside at the moonlit landscape with an empty, hungry pang in his stomach. He debated the value of getting up for another drink of water when he heard a peculiar sound outside his window. It almost sounded like a train, but there was no way a locomotive was operating in his neighborhood, there weren’t tracks anywhere near! Sure enough, a train whistle howled into the night. It was so loud Charlie covered his ears and watched the windows shake, sure that they would shatter from the piercing shriek. The sound of the train coming to a halt, right outside his window, spurred his imagination and his fears.
He summoned his courage, then donned his coat and galoshes while muttering a list of possible explanations. There was no way he’d be surprised here, nothing special ever happened. His hands, wearing hand-me-down mittens that his father wore a few years previously, reached for and opened the door, and Charlie stepped outside into the crisp night. It almost felt like he didn’t need his coat at all. As he walked towards the street, he looked ahead and did a double-take. There really was a train in the middle of the street, riding on some invisible track. After only a few moments, a man dressed as the conductor stepped outside the train and asked young Charlie for his ticket.
“Sir, I don’t have a ticket, but I sure wish I did.”
The conductor checked his watch and tapped it twice, “Are you sure, son? You’re on our route, and it is a route that has been planned meticulously. This is the Polar Express, and we do not make mistakes.”
Charlie was flabbergasted, and the conductor said, “We are now 16 seconds behind schedule.”
Charlie did not know how to respond, so he checked his pockets, “You see, sir, I really don’t have anything,” but no sooner had he finished saying the word, than had “anything” made its presence known. Charlie removed a small ticket, made out of gold leaf and with the most enchanting artwork.
The conductor grabbed it quickly from Charlie’s hand, inspected it, and punched the ticket before handing it back to Charlie. “Very well, son, let’s get moving, we are on a very tight schedule. Welcome aboard the Polar Express.”
Charlie nodded dumbly and stepped on the train. The cars were full of children, all making their fair share to the collective ruckus, each excited about the adventure they were on together. Charlie did not know anybody else on the train, and when they asked him questions about what sports he liked and what he thought of, well, anything, he was able to answer honestly. The children were not thinking that Charlie was stupid or a blockhead, they listened and patted him on the back and made him feel welcome, and that made Charlie feel incredibly sad.
Somewhere in his thoughts, he knew that this trip was temporary and the experiences fleeting. Nobody was allowed to hold onto magic like this forever, he reasoned, and while he enjoyed the sound of his own laughter, rare as it had been in other days of his life, he knew he would soon be the pathetic Charlie Brown again.
The train had wandered through the mountains and forests and over frozen lakes for what felt like days, but the stars and the moon never gave the impression that they were going to relent to that glory hog the sun. Soon, the trees were replaced entirely by snowy hills and mountains of ice, and as quickly as he had set foot on the train, Charlie found himself standing in the court of Santa Clause himself. Charlie’s heart was thumping like wild, and his body faintly tingled with excitement and vindication that Santa Clause was very real, and right in front of him.
The jolly man let loose his trademark laugh and welcomed the children. Charlie heard Santa say that each of the passengers on the Polar Express were here tonight for a reason, because they were doubting the existence of magic in the world, but young Charlie Brown wasn’t really listening. Again his thoughts would creep to remembering that he wasn’t going to be here in the morning, and that nobody would ever believe his story even if he did decide to share it. He was just a blockhead, and he would remain a blockhead come morning. The thoughts hurt him so deeply that he was half tempted to turn around that very instant and start the long journey home on foot.
Charlie hadn’t realized that everybody was looking at him now with warm, sometimes jealous eyes. “Good grief,” he muttered to himself, and searched the faces around him quizzically. The air was silent but seemed charged in energy.
That booming voice spoke again, “You, young man,” Santa pointed to Charlie, “I said that you are the lucky child who gets to choose.”
Charlie went pale and began fiddling his fingers together, “G-get to choose what, sir?”
The people around him erupted in laughter and at first Charlie felt the familiar sting that came with the sound, but he then realized that, for the first time, these people were laughing with him, and not at him. It made tears form in his eyes.
Santa seemed to understand the situation now, and he deftly approached with a different tact. He stepped down from his titanic sleigh and walked to Charlie. His coal black boots crunched the snow, and he extended his mighty gloved hand for Charlie to hold, which the young boy sheepishly did. Santa began, “I said, you are the lucky child who gets to choose your gift from me tonight. You deserve it, Charlie Brown.”
Charlie’s mouth was dry, and he took a few moments to reply, “But sir, I don’t think I deserve that.”
Santa laughed again, this time not a booming chuckle but a warm and earnest laugh. “Young man, you deserve this treat more than any child I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.”
Charlie looked up at Santa, saw no poison behind the words, and smiled for the first time in what felt like his entire life. He mulled the thought over in his head. By the time the pair reached the sleigh, Charlie had his answer.
“Sir, I thought I wanted to kick the football. It’s the only thing I ever really wanted. But now, I think I’d like a bell from your sleigh, so that I can prove to everybody that you exist. Nobody who hears that bell can ever think you aren’t real! By golly, even if they don’t care to see what’s right in front of their faces, I’ll have it, and I’ll always remember that magic is real.”
Santa leaned back and appraised Charlie. It was a wise choice for a gift, one the jolly fat man had never been asked of before. The possibility that Charlie might… well, no…. it was a good gift, no matter what the future might hold. With his mighty hands, Santa removed a single sterling bell from his sleigh and handed it to Charlie, who reached out with eager hands and awestruck eyes. He held the bell silent for a moment, and shook it. The ringing was crystalline, pure. He closed his eyes and whispered, “Thank you,” and drifted off to sleep.
Morning came and Charlie Brown woke in his bed, no galoshes or coat on. It was as if he’d never left. He reached into his pocket and, there it was! His bell! He shook it gingerly and giggled in delight at the tone that resulted. He hugged the bell close to his heart, sighed heavily, and went back to sleep. It was the only present he would need to open that year.
As the years went on, Charlie would jingle the bell every time he felt blue and he was always reminded of that magical night when he was a passenger on the Polar Express and got to meet the real Santa Clause. The other children heard it too, all except Lucy. She insisted the bell was broken and stormed off in tears when the other children swore that it rang true. Charlie thought she looked as sad as he felt on any other day in his life, and he never talked about it with her again. Eventually the other children said they couldn’t hear it, either.
When he was 12, Charlie would jingle the bell from Santa during the winter season. It always put him in the holiday spirit, but a ring or two each season was all he needed. The girl with the red hair in his class asked Charlie to go to the winter dance with him, and the possibility of getting a single smooch occupied the entirety of Charlie’s thoughts.
By 16 he had forgotten about the artifact buried in his desk drawer, another useless bauble from his youth.
20 years went by, and Charlie was cleaning out his old belongings from the family home. Life had moved on, and Charlie was now feeling very much the deeply pained and isolated child while he stood in his room. His parents had both passed away within weeks of each other, and Charlie was now thinking how he was officially a grown-up now. His sister Sally was downstairs sifting through archives of family photos, while her husband Linus was moving out the heavy furniture Charlie had elected to hold onto. Charlie chuckled when he thought of how his blanket-bound friend had grown up to be the biggest, strongest guy he’d ever met.
Charlie found a box wrapped in gold leaf with articulate artwork, and he hazily remembered that it was important, but not why. He opened the box and admired the shiny bell. He turned it over in his fingers, and muscle memory kicked in. Charlie shook the bell.
It made no sound at all.
“Huh”, he pondered, “A broken bell. Why would I have kept this?”
He shook it again, and pocketed the artifact quietly. Christmas was only a day away, and his wife was at home with their children on the other end of town. They were making popcorn decorations to hang from the tree. The childish messages he found in his old room, left untouched from the day he left years ago, made Charlie feel a familiar sort of sadness. He told Sally and Linus that he wasn’t feeling well and would return in the morning, and the pair surrounded Charlie in a hug, promising him that things would be okay.
Charlie walked in his front door, hugged his family and helped them finish their decorations. They all shared hot cocoa, watched a few Christmas specials, and went off to bed. And for the first time in decades, Charlie couldn’t sleep. Nothing could convince him to wander into dreamland, and his mind began to drift. He thought of his youth, of the days when he felt like he would always be a blockhead and was forever a pariah. He thought of his parent’s house and how hard he was working to scrub away any memories of life there for the next person to claim as their own. Charlie thought about the tragic news stories that seemed to be a part of life as an adult.
Charlie felt tired, but not because he couldn’t sleep.
His mind drifted to the bell in his pants pocket and chuckled, slipped quietly out of bed so that he wouldn’t disturb a single of his wife’s red hairs, and held the bell in his hand. He shook it, and in the deepest, most secure grotto in his mind he heard an echo: sterling, crystalline, and all-together soothing. His worries and his fears and his anxieties were coerced back into their carefully constructed abodes, dwelling inside him as a part of him without being his identity. Charlie believed you took the bad with the good and valued one because of the other. It was something he learned from his childhood, learned on a Christmas from a different part of his life.
Charlie Brown would make a ritual of this night, when he would shake a broken bell in the solitude of the night on Christmas Eve. He would close his eyes, and visit some far-away time between memory and dreams, and Charlie Brown would welcome another holiday where magic was real.