“John, don’t be ridiculous.” Sarah’s mother’s voice rang down the hall.
Sarah staggered out of her room and into the hallway rubbing fitful sleep from her eyes. She hesitated, listening to her parents argue. Lately, it seemed that’s all they did.
“C’mon Nikki,” her father said in a gruff voice, “It’s Christmas. Let’s spend it together.”
Sarah’s ears perked up. She couldn’t remember the last time they had all been together as a family.
“You know I have this big project due. The pressure’s on.”
“That’s why it’s such a good idea. You need a break.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nikki asked.
“Sarah needs your time as well. When’s the last time you kissed her goodnight or read her a bedtime story?”
“Oh please. You know the demands of my job.”
“You’re running, Nikki.”
“Running?” Nikki let out a sharp laugh. “From what?”
“From the past. From Amb—“
“We are not talking about that!”
John voice became gentle. “You’ll have to talk about it sometime.”
Nikki’s voice was hard, “We’re done with this conversation.”
Sarah trudged down the stairs and entered the kitchen. Both of her parents looked up at her.
“Good morning, Pumpkin,” her father said as he set the morning paper on the table.
“Morning,” Sarah mumbled, giving her father a kiss on the cheek.
“Sarah, we’re doing some shopping in town today.” Nikki said.
“Can’t I stay here?” Sarah pouted.
“No. Your father has to work so you’ll be coming with me. Now go get your coat on. I’ll be waiting in the car. We’ll pick up breakfast on the way out.”
Sarah looked at her father dejectedly.
“Don’t worry, Pumpkin,” he said. “Maybe while you’re shopping you can make a wish list for Santa.”
“There is no such thing as Santa,” Nikki called over her shoulder as she walked out the door. “C’mon, Sarah.”
Traveling in silence, Sarah watched the gray clouds out the window. “Do you think it will snow?” she asked her mother.
Nikki shrugged. “Maybe.”
“I hope so. It feels like Christmas when it snows.”
Nikki flipped on the radio and Sarah sat back in her seat, smiling. Christmas was only four days away and she couldn’t wait! A familiar Christmas song began to play.
“Oh, I love this song!” Sarah cried and started singing along.
Nikki abruptly turned the radio off.
“What did you do that for?”
“I don’t feel like listening the radio.”
Sarah folded her arms and stuck out her bottom lip. “Why do you hate Christmas?”
“Don’t start that again.”
“Christmas is fun,” Sarah said, “the lights, the music, the presents…”
“You could go sledding with Dad and me. That’s free.”
Nikki sighed. “Someday you’ll realize that Christmas isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
Sarah shook her head. “I’ll always love Christmas.”
Nikki turned a corner and pulled against the curb. “We’re here.”
Sarah thrilled at the lights and street decorations as she climbed out of the car. “It’s so pretty.”
Her mother grabbed her hand and started walking down the sidewalk. Sarah skipped happily next to her, gazing at the multi-colored lights framing the store windows. The displays in the shops beckoned to her. One window caught her eye and she stopped to stare through the glass. It was a giant toy store.
Inside sat a decorated Christmas tree with a bright red train set—its cars carrying tiny bundles of candy cane and licorice treats—circling it. Underneath the tree sat two of the most perfect glass dolls Sarah had ever seen. The one with tight blonde curls and blue eyes wore a lacy pink dress and matching hat. The other had beautiful red hair, set in ringlets. Her blue dress looked silky and she carried a frilly umbrella.
Sarah turned to her mother. “Can we go in, Mom? Please?”
Nikki pulled on Sarah’s hand. “No. I have a meeting this evening and have to get all of my errands done before it gets too late.”
“But Mom, look at that doll.” Sarah pointed to the glass doll with blonde curls. “It looks just like me.”
Nikki gave a quick glance at the display. “Okay, let’s go.”
“And that other one is so beautiful. Can I have one for Christmas? I don’t care which one.”
“I’ll take really good care of her.”
“Sarah,” Nikki warned, pulling Sarah away from the display.
Nikki exhaled in frustration. “You know, I have a schedule to keep. Time does not stand still so that we can look at a bunch of useless toys.”
“You are wasting my time.” Nikki pulled hard on Sarah’s hand. “Now come on!”
Sarah jerked back and folded her arms in front of her. “No.”
Nikki’s eyes widened. “You do not tell me ‘no’.”
Sarah’s lower lip began to tremble.
Nikki put her hands on her hips. “Now start moving or you will have no Christmas. Do you understand me?”
“You can’t take away Christmas!” Sarah shouted as tears began to fall down her cheeks.
“Oh, yes I can. You wait and see.”
“I hate you!” Sarah said with gritted teeth and clenched fists.
“Sarah Marie Roberts!”
Sarah gave her mother a seething glare, turned on her heels and ran, ignoring her mother’s calls.
Sarah’s legs burned. It wasn’t until she stopped to catch her breath that she looked up to find the faces of complete strangers surrounding her.
“Mom?” she squeaked, but the sound didn’t carry. The people had fierce looks on their faces and it frightened her. Dashing to the end of the street, she turned into the entrance of a park. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she wandered aimlessly, lost and alone.
Sinking to the ground at the base of an old oak tree, she pulled her legs toward her and wrapped her arms around them. Her body shook with her sobs, the only sound echoing through the empty park.
Sarah jumped at the unexpected sound and looked up to see a beautiful young woman in a flowing pink dress standing next to her. This young woman seemed familiar and instead of being afraid, she felt comforted and safe.
“Are you okay?” The young woman asked.
Sarah shook her head. “I’m lost.”
The young woman sat beside Sarah and put her arm around her. “My name is Amberlee. What’s your name?”
“That’s a pretty name.”
Sarah gave a shy smile. She looked up at Amberlee and noticed her curly red hair and bright green eyes. “You look just like one of the dolls from the window at the store.”
Amberlee laughed like a tinkling of a bell. “I’d like to see that doll.”
“The other one looked like me,” Sarah said, tugging on her blonde curls. A burst of cold wind blew past them, making Sarah shiver.
“You must be so cold. Here,” Amberlee removed a beautiful white, lacy shawl from her shoulders and draped them around Sarah. “Is that better?”
Sarah nodded. “It does feel better. I just…” She began to cry again. “Can you help me find my mom?”
“Sure, honey. Where did you last see her?”
“At the giant toy store.”
“Well, let’s go there then.”
They stood up and Amberlee took Sarah’s hand as they walked along the path that led to the entrance gate.
“Are you excited for Christmas?” Amberlee asked.
Sarah shrugged. “I guess. My mom hates Christmas.”
“Your mother has had to deal with a lot of heartache and sadness. She’s trying the best she can,” Amberlee said, “but you can help her.”
“There’s a Christmas carol my mother used to sing to me.”
“I love Christmas carols.”
Amberlee started singing, her voice smooth and calming, fit for an angel.
See the babe in the manger
Swaddled and warm
As the angels watch over
Protecting from harm
Silent night, Peaceful night
My soul is at rest
Little babe in the manger
Through him I am blessed
Does he know he’s the Savior
Shepherd to all
If I will but follow
And answer his call
Silent night, Peaceful night
My soul is at rest
Little babe in the manger
Through him I am blessed
He will carry my burdens
He’ll calm my fears
When I pray he will listen
And dry my tears
Silent night, Peaceful night
This comfort so real
Little babe in the manger
His love I feel
Sweet babe in the manger
Before Thee I kneel
“That’s beautiful,” Sarah whispered.
“My mother wrote it.”
Amberlee laughed. “I’m going to teach it to you. I want you to sing it to your mother.” She kissed Sarah on the head. “It will remind her of the true meaning of Christmas and that the Savior will heal any heartache she has.”
They spent the rest their walk singing the song. Amberlee would sing a line and then Sarah repeated it. Soon they were singing it together, over and over.
They strode out of the park and into the busy street, where a police officer stood at the corner.
“Sir,” Amberlee said, approaching the officer, “This is Sarah Roberts. She’s lost and looking for her mother.”
“Sarah Roberts? Yes…” He held up his finger, telling them to wait as he spoke into his radio. “Command Center, this is Officer Jones. We’ve got Sarah Roberts. She is safe.”
Amberlee turned to Sarah. “Sweetie, I’ve got to go now. Officer Jones will take good care of you.”
Sarah nodded and began to take the lace shawl off her shoulders but Amberlee stopped her.
“Keep the shawl…to remember me by.”
“I love you,” Sarah said as she held on tight to Amberlee.
“I love you too.”
“I’m going to miss you.”
Amberlee smiled. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again. Remember to sing the Christmas carol to your mom. Help her remember the true meaning of Christmas.”
Amberlee gave Sarah one more quick squeeze and kissed the top of her head. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, Amberlee.” Sarah’s eyes filled with tears as she watched Amberlee walk away. She felt as if she had known Amberlee her entire life.
Officer Jones led Sarah to a parking lot holding several police cars. Her mother was standing by one of them.
“Mama,” Sarah squealed as she raced to her mother.
“Sarah!” Nikki stooped down and gathered Sarah up in her arms. “Oh baby, are you alright?” Nikki stroked Sarah’s hair, tears streaming down her face.
Sarah nodded meekly. “I’m okay.” She looked up into her mother’s bloodshot eyes. “I’m sorry I ran away.”
Nikki stood up and addressed Officer Jones, “Thank you so much.”
Officer Jones nodded, “I’m glad everything worked out okay.” He stooped down to look Sarah in the eye. “You take care now.”
“No more running away.”
Sarah shook her head vigorously. “Never.”
“Okay then. Goodbye.”
Sarah waved goodbye and Nikki took her hand and led her to their car. As Sarah started climbing into the back seat, her mother reached out and pulled her into her arms. “I’m so glad you’re safe. I was so worried about you. I prayed that we would find you.”
Sarah’s eyes got big. “But you never pray.”
“This is the first time I’ve prayed in a very long time,” Nikki’s voice cracked.
“God answered your prayer, Mama.” She grinned. “He sent Amberlee to help me.”
Nikki stroked Sarah’s hair. “Who?”
“Amberlee,” Sarah said in a bubbly voice. “She was beautiful. She looked just like the glass doll I saw at the store. She had red hair and sparkling green eyes and she helped me find the policeman and gave me this to keep me warm.” Sarah pointed to the white lacy shawl, still draped across her shoulders.
Nikki reached out with trembling hands and fingered the shawl. Tears sprung to her eyes as she brought her hand to her mouth.
“Mama? Are you okay?”
Nikki shook her head. She tried to speak, but words didn’t come out.
Sarah placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Mama. Amberlee wanted me to sing you a song— See the babe in the manger, swaddled and warm…”
Tears freely fell down Nikki’s cheeks.
Nikki brushed away the tears with the back of her hand. “I want to show you something.” Digging through a pocket of her purse, she pulled out a rectangle piece of paper and handed it to Sarah.
Sarah looked at the paper and saw the picture of a girl staring up at her. “Mom, it looks like Amberlee.”
“It is Amberlee.”
Sarah gazed up at her mother, confusion filling her eyes.
Nikki studied the picture for a moment. She put her arm around Sarah, pulling her close. “Amberlee is your sister,” she said, her voice thick with emotion. “This picture was taken when she was seven—your age.”
“My sister?” Sarah said, gaping at her mother with wide eyes.
“I have a story to tell you. It’s a sad story, but I have a feeling it will end up happy.”
“Okay,” Sarah said, watching her mother intently.
“A long time ago, before you were born, Daddy and I had a little girl. Her name was Amberlee and we loved her very much. She always wanted a little sister and kept asking us when her sister would come to live with us.” Nikki gave Sarah a quick squeeze. “We had a very happy family and Christmas was our favorite time of year.”
“Even yours?” Sarah asked bewildered.
Nikki laughed. “I loved Christmas. Remember the Christmas Carol you just sang to me?”
“I wrote that Carol.”
“You wrote it? Mom, it’s so beautiful.”
“During the Christmas season, I used to sing it to Amberlee every night before bedtime.” Nikki sighed and stared off into space. “Then, seven years ago, just two days before Christmas, a terrible thing happened. Amberlee was crossing the street while walking to her friend’s house and…a car came out of nowhere and hit her.” Nikki shook her head and fingered the shawl on Sarah’s shoulders. Her voice quivered. “I made this shawl for Amberlee when she died.”
Sarah reached over and held her mother’s hand. “Is that why you don’t like Christmas? Because it reminds you of Amberlee?”
“Christmas has been very hard for me since Amberlee died. But now I have a happy Christmas memory—finding you.” She hugged Sarah tight. “I love you, Sarah.”
Sarah hugged her mother back as her body filled with warmth. “I love you, too.”
They sat in each other’s embrace for several minutes, tears streaming down both of their faces. Nikki let go of Sarah and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
“We’re a mess.”
“I guess we had better get home.”
Sarah awoke to the sun streaming through her window. Sitting up in her bed, she rubbed her eyes. Today was Christmas! She jumped out of bed and threw open the door, running down the hallway and into her parent’s bedroom. Christmas music drifted upstairs from the radio in the kitchen.
“Mom! Dad!” Sarah cried.
“Merry Christmas!” John said as he wrapped Sarah in his arms.
“Merry Christmas, Sweetie,” said Nikki, “Did you sleep well?”
Sarah gave a vigorous nod.
“Are you ready to see the tree?” John asked, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.
“Yes, Yes,” Sarah exclaimed, jumping up and down.
Both Nikki and John laughed.
They all marched down the stairway like toy soldiers. As Sarah turned the corner, she shrieked with delight. In the living room sat a beautiful tree decorated with shiny garland and red and gold bulbs. A beautiful angel topped the tree. Underneath the tree stood a present wrapped in candy cane paper with a big red bow on top.
“For me?” Sarah gasped.
Her father nodded.
She gently ripped the paper to find a white box. She gently opened the lid.
“Oh, Daddy, It looks just like me!”
Inside laid the porcelain doll she had seen at the store. She lifted it out of the box, brushed the wrinkles out of the pink dress and rearranged the blonde curls.
“There’s another present,” Nikki said, nodding her head toward a box wrapped in blue polka dots with a white bow on top.
Sarah gingerly picked up the package and hesitated.
“Go ahead,” her mother urged.
Sarah opened the present to find another white box. She lifted the flap. “Oh,” she gasped as she pulled out the doll with the blue dress and red curls.
“Momma, it looks just like—“
“Amberlee. I know.” Nikki said with a smile.
Sarah held both dolls in her arms and gave them a hug. “Thank you so much.”
“This way you can always remember your sister.” John said as he walked over and put his arm around Nikki.
“I’ll never forget her,” Sarah said, hugging her dolls again.
That night, after her mother and father tucked her in bed and kissed her goodnight, Sarah said a prayer, thanking God for sending Amberlee to help her family. She looked out the window at the lights lining the rooftops and a wave of comfort and warmth washed over her.
“I love you, Amberlee,” she whispered.
She thought she saw a star twinkle a little brighter.
Critique: Mom is too mean in the beginning for such a quick change of heart to be believable. Pacing is inconsistent. It slows down too much when Mom is telling Amberlee’s story.
Personal note: In a realistically based story like this, it always makes me a little uncomfortable when you throw in corporeal visitations from the deceased. I don’t mind dreams or even a waking vision, but when you can hold their hand and they give you their clothing, it sort of creeps me out a little. Maybe it wouldn’t bother other readers.
What I liked best: Great dialog between John and Nikki at the beginning.
Publication ready: Not quite yet, but it has potential.