- Today—Final typesetting done and e-mailing “bluelines” to authors. Authors, normally you’d have a couple of proofs and a few weeks to get back to me, but check your e-mail first thing in the morning and get back to me by Wednesday afternoon.
- Thursday A.M.—Send to press. Will be posted on Amazon.com soon thereafter. Print copies should be available for sale no later than Nov 20th. Maybe sooner. Watch for announcement here.
- Friday—Working on e-books. They should be available around Nov 18th.
Thank you to everyone who submitted a story and to those who read them and commented and voted. I was really pleased with the variety and the selection this year.
As always, I will make comments on each of these stories during the week, giving you my opinion on what was done well and what needed a little more polish. If you’re not a winner and you’d like to take credit for your story, you may do so in the comments section.
Drum roll, please. . .
Readers Choice Published Author Category:
Stolen Christmas by Sarah M Eden
Publisher’s Choice Published Author Category:
Shepherds and Kings by Angie Lofthouse
Readers Choice Unpublished Author Category:
From Dad by LT Elliot
Publisher’s Choice Unpublished Author Category:
Christmas Joy Ride by Gussie Fick
Remember, these four winners are guaranteed a spot in the Christmas book. Others will be included, as well. I will notify all those whose stories will be included in the book via e-mail by the end of the month.
VOTE between Monday, August 17th and Saturday, August 22nd.
(Time/Date stamp on comment determines vote eligibility.)
- There will be four winners:
Readers Choice (Published authors)
Readers Choice (Unpublished authors)
Publisher’s Choice (Published authors)
Publisher’s Choice (Unpublished authors).
- Publisher’s Choice winners will be judged on a variety of criteria, according to a point system which I will explain later. But it basically boils down to quality of writing, uniqueness of story and what I think will best sell the book.
- You can vote by whatever criteria you want, just don’t make it a popularity contest.
- You MAY vote anonymously.
- You MAY vote for yourself. (In fact, you should.)
- You may vote twice in each category: Published and Unpublished.
Click HERE to read all stories by Published Authors. Vote for two.
Click HERE to read all stories by Unpublished Authors. Vote for two.
NOTE: There are 23 stories by Unpublished Authors entered in our contest.
Due to the limitations of Blogger, only 19 of them show up when you click the link above.
After you’ve read those, click the OLDER POSTS link at the bottom right to get to the last four stories.
(If anyone knows how to change this, please let me know ASAP. I’ve tried changing the # posts to display on the main page setting, but that doesn’t work.)
- You may only vote for a particular story once. We’re on the honor system here.
- You may make all the comments you like, but VOTING COMMENTS must clearly indicate that it is a vote. (Ex: I’m voting for this one…)
- AUTHORS: Please tell your friends that you’ve submitted a story and to come read and vote, but DO NOT tell them which story is yours. We want the stories to win on merit, not personal popularity.
- I’ll announce the winners on Monday, August 24th.
It’s going to take a lot of time for me to go through these stories, write feedback, and pick winners. Therefore, the regular LDSP blog posts are suspended this week.
[P.S. Voting and other comments on the stories will also enter you in the Monthly Comment Contest.]
All the stories have been posted. While you’re waiting for voting to start, we’re having a sub-contest.
This book needs a title and a cover.
Leave suggestions for titles in the comments of this post. I’ll pick the winner.
If you are a graphic artist and would like to be considered to design the cover, please send sample of your work and a brief descriptions of what you’d plan. (I know, this is hard to do before the title is chosen, but do your best.)
Both winners will receive the same prizes as the story winners—acknowledgments, brief bio, free electronic copy of the book.
There are 23 stories by Unpublished Authors entered in our contest.
Due to the limitations of Blogger, only 19 of them show up on the main page when you click the “09C Unpublished” link.
After you’ve read those, click the OLDER POSTS link at the bottom right to get to the last four stories.
I had originally stated that voting would start today, August 16th, but I am not staying up until midnight on Saturday to post any last minute submissions.
Voting will start at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, August 17th.
Official voting instructions will be posted then.
I shifted the screaming toddler in my arms and cast my eyes at the clock against the wall of the crowded terminal. There was still another two hours before our connecting flight would be here. “It’s okay. We’re going to Grandma’s for Christmas.” I told him with a smile, but my eighteen month old was so tired that words had no meaning. He continued flailing much to the annoyance of the dozen people within five feet of me. What he needed was a nap, but there was no space on the floor and I feared that if I stood I’d lose my seat and be forced to stand the rest of time.
Beside me, my husband held our three year old who slept in his arms. The day before Brian had a slight fever but seemed fine that morning. He slept during most of the flight, and I envied him. As Marcus’s cries intensified, I reached into my large carryon and pulled out his last full bottle. He finally took it, but I knew the reprieve would be a short one.
It was my own fault. To save money I had purchased tickets with three layovers which meant we could afford to rent a car. But between the snow, fog and other delays it took us over twenty six hours before we finally arrived in Medford. Then we began the three hour drive to the ranch where my husband grew up with Marcus still crying, and Brian still sleeping, As we rolled past the vast snow-dusted pastures filled with fat cattle huddled together to stay warm, my only thoughts were of how much I couldn’t wait to flop in a soft bed and close my own eyes.
We pulled up to the door in the middle of the chilly December afternoon and were greeted by an exuberant crowd. Greg’s parents, brothers and sisters swarmed around us. Yolanda, his older sister, was perhaps the most excited. She had arrived the day before from Utah with her two sons who were just the same ages as my own. The boys had never met, and we were all looking forward to seeing the young cousins become friends. After exchanging hugs we entered the main room where the bedecked tree in the corner sat swaddled in hundreds of homemade ornaments, the result of many crafty family nights over the years. Underneath it laid a fan of brightly covered packages. One of Greg’s younger sisters ran out to the car and got the bag that added our offering to the mix. It looked to be the perfect Christmas.
I volunteered to go upstairs to try and get the children settled down for a nap, hoping I might be able to steal one at the same time. Greg deposited the sleeping Brian on the bed beside me and headed downstairs to his family. Poor Marcus, still hiccupping and blotchy from his hysterics, was covered in sweat. As I peeled off his wet clothes, there was no question the child needed a bath. I started the tub, left him on the bathroom floor playing with a bottle of soft soap and hurried back to the bedroom to wake Brian.
“Honey? Come on.”
With his eyes still half closed, he sat up, took my hand and shuffled to the bathroom where Marcus was lifting the toilet lid to play with the water inside. I yanked off his diaper and stuck him in the half-filled tub and then turned to his older brother. Brian stood before me swaying slightly.
“Hey, can you believe we are here? This is going to be so much fun.” I said, trying to get the child alert and excited. “Tomorrow we’re going to see Santa in town, and the very next day is Christmas!”
Brian let me pull his shirt over his head and begin to unbutton his trousers, when I looked in his eyes and stopped. “Brian?” I said taking him by the shoulders. “Look at me.”
I could tell he was trying to comply, but he could barely focus on my face. There were dark rings around his eyes and his lips were pale, almost white.
“Brian?” I said again.
He said nothing in reply.
An awful fear gripped me, and I screamed for my husband who rushed upstairs. “We need to take Brian to the hospital right now. Something’s wrong.”
“Are you sure? I mean,” Greg stammered.
“How many times have I ever said that? Listen, I know something is seriously wrong. Please, we need to go now.”
Clutching Brian in my arms, I grabbed a blanket and ran to the car. Greg was right behind me, pausing only to give his mother instructions on caring for Marcus. The entire twenty-minute ride I tried to get Brian to respond, but he seemed to be fading further and further away. When I lifted his arm, it fell with no resistance and his eyes looked is if they had sunken slightly back in his head. I felt as if he was struggling to cling to life and had no idea why.
With the hospital in view I was filled with relief and threw the door open while the car was still moving. Rushing through the emergency doors, I screamed, “Help, my son is dying!”
The doctor was standing right there and without triage rushed him into a room and began an IV while asking for details. Through my tears I told him of our arduous plane ride and that he hadn’t been feeling well before we left. The older physician looked in my son’s eyes with his pen light and gave a faint smile. “Little Brian here was severely dehydrated. Twelve percent of children under five who pass away do so from dehydration. Your gut was entirely accurate. Another half an hour and he might have not made it.”
“But he never said he was thirsty. I didn’t think about it.” Guilt washed over me.
“We’ll need to admit him and run some tests to see if this stress has affected his organs. If all goes well and he’s eating and alert, you’ll be home for Christmas.”
Greg left, and I stayed that night, cuddled beside my small son in the narrow hospital bed. Brian smiled at me now and then but said very little and would only take a sip or two of the bright red, yellow and blue liquids I offered. The next morning he opened his eyes but still looked so tired. He drank a bit more but would only nibble at his food. In the afternoon the family arrived, hoping for the best only to have their Christmas Eve ruined by the news that Brian would be spending Christmas in the hospital.
I hugged Marcus and patted Greg on the shoulder. “Have a great day tomorrow, and don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.” As I watched them leave, I wished things could have been different. I wondered why we couldn’t have a miracle of healing where Brian suddenly recovered and would be magically home on Christmas day. Instead, I looked down at my normally talkative three year old and sighed. He lay in bed without enough energy to even care that he was missing the day he had looked forward to the last four months. The evening hours inched by and somewhere in the night Christmas began, but not for us.
The day was lonely and uneventful. A few good Samaritans came caroling and delivered stale candy canes. Some people I never met before came by to tell me they knew Greg as a child and heard we were there, but that was usually followed by awkward silence before they left. Greg came alone and spent the afternoon reading Brian a story and bringing me a much needed change of clothes. When I bid Greg goodbye at the hospital entrance, I could tell we both felt more somber than the season should allow. Walking back into my son’s room, Brian looked at me and said, “Mom, is it really Christmas? It doesn’t feel like it.”
I smiled and brushed his blond hair from his forehead. “You know, sweetie, we can celebrate Christmas whenever we want. Christ was really born in the spring, but we remember the day in the winter to make us happy. We’ll have Christmas as soon as you get home. It will still be there waiting for you.”
He seemed comforted, but I wondered how he would feel when he saw that his brother and cousins had all opened their presents. I knew he’d miss the anticipation of being surrounded by family and the wonder of walking down the stairs to a room filled with plenty. There would be other Christmases, but in that hospital room with my arm around my frail son, I felt abandoned and alone- like Christmas had left us behind.
Still weak, Brian slept through the night again. I watched the clock on the wall tick away the last minutes of Christmas before falling asleep beside him. Any hope of my Christmas miracle ended at midnight.
The next morning I awoke to someone shaking my arm back and forth. Brian was kneeling up and smiling. “Am I going back to Grandpa’s now?”
Seeing his bright blue eyes sparkle, I nodded. “I think so.”
The doctor was impressed by his recovery and discharged him first thing that morning. By ten we were headed back to the ranch. Brian was talking away in his booster chair. “I can’t wait to see Grandpa. Justin’s my age, right? Where’s Marcus?” He looked at the empty car seat beside him.
“They are all home waiting for you.” Greg smiled over his shoulder as he turned into the driveway.
It looked like a repeat of three days earlier as the family congregated on the front porch and greeted us with hugs and cheers. But when I stepped into the living room, I had to stop. It was like Déjà vu. Under the tree the bright presents sat still unopened. Suddenly from the kitchen the sound of sleigh bells jingled through the air.
“Uh oh,” said Grandpa. “I think Santa finally found our house. You boys better hurry upstairs and jump in your beds as fast as you can so he can come or he’ll have to make his way back to the North Pole.”
Brian’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “I knew we didn’t miss Christmas. I knew it.”
All four little boys hurried up the stairs, Marcus managing each step as best he could and hid under the covers of the big guestroom bed, giggling and wrestling in anticipation. Before long it was time to line up on the stairs with all the children, Greg, his sisters and parents. We descended the steps to a room filled with wonder and spent the day celebrating the best Christmas I’ve ever had. So in the end, we really did have a miracle. Despite illness, time and common sense, that year Christmas waited for us.
In the moment before my first memory, I feel a wonderful lightness, a floating sensation that isn’t truly a sensation because I don’t yet know who I am or that I am. But then I feel a coming together, a sense of going that is my becoming, my awakening. And that is my first memory.
Childlike curiosity drives me to explore myself. I can feel my lightness, an awareness that I am floating in a comforting sea of white. I can also feel my body growing. Delicate tendrils of ice grow in beautiful, unique patterns from the tiny part of me that was my beginning, and I take joy and fascination in becoming aware of myself.
I feel the presence of many brothers and sisters. We are all growing, all newly self-aware, and all around is the soothing presence of our cloud-mother. She fills the world and tells us that she is happy and proud of us. We are hers and feel at home with her.
You are growing very well, she tells us. Soon it will be time to leave for the world below.
We are afraid to leave her because she is our home, our mother. If we leave her, we will die. We don’t know how we know this, but we do.
Don’t be afraid, she tells us. Every end is a beginning. You lived before you came to me and you will return here after your time below is through. You have lived from eternity before and will live for eternity after. Every death gives way to a new rebirth.
The words of our mother-cloud comfort us and help us forget our fears.
The time comes. We begin our gradual descent together, millions and millions of brothers and sisters. Staying close together helps us not to be afraid. Soon, our mother is far above us, still bidding us farewell.
When she is gone, we are alone in a sea of white, not knowing whether we are going up or down. It is silent all around us. To lift the silence some of us begin to sing silent songs of thoughts, songs that we can all hear together in our minds. We sing of our mother and our brothers and sisters, of our anticipation for the world awaiting us below. What will we find? Though we all share the same fears and anxieties, our individual thoughts and feelings are as unique as our crystalline bodies, and each of us adds something different to the thought-song to make it rich and beautiful.
We float together like this for a very long time. Soon, we feel confident and happy in ourselves. We miss our mother, but we are ready and excited to begin our lives in the world below.
After a little more time, we begin to see shapes in the whiteness: outlines that gradually become clearer and more distinct as we continue our descent. We see lights and shadows, shades of reddish-grey, and great lumbering shapes moving across the whitewashed surface of the world.
We sense the additional presence of millions and millions more of our brothers and sisters. They are the ones who came before us. We greet them and ask how they are doing.
Some of them return our greetings and welcome us with great joy. They say that they are quite comfortable and have a marvelous view of the world around them. They describe it to us, a world of trees and streets, cars and people, things we have never known while living and growing with our cloud-mother. Their words fill us with wonder, and we look about for the things they described, though in the gray darkness it is difficult to see anything clearly. The noises, too, are muffled and sound very unfamiliar.
Others reply that we shouldn’t think too much on the strange new things of this world.
After all, they say, when we arrived we had a good view for a short time, but soon we were covered by others until we couldn’t see anything. But there is nothing to worry. It is quite cozy and comfortable, and you will never feel alone.
Others, though, give us dire warnings.
Watch out! they say. Take care! These humans are not harmless creatures. They can cause pain! When one of them steps on you, it presses you so hard that it crushes your beautiful bodies into oblivion. And heaven help you if you land in the street! Instead of the unique and beautiful patterns you were born with, you will die embedded with dirt and oil and grime.
Their words frighten us and remind us of the death that awaits us. Some of us wish they had never come, and long to return to our cloud-mother where such pain was unknown.
Others look at us as if we are mere children.
Just wait, they say. You will see what it is truly like down here. When the cloud-mother stops sending her children and the sun rises bright and terrible in the sky, you will hear the slow sounds of death and the feel the pain of losing your beautiful individuality in a sea of unpleasant, warm monotony. If you don’t die, you will each merge together until your bodies become one sheet of transparent glass, your uniqueness lost except in memory. In this way, your days will drag out until you melt into death, utterly forgotten.
Many of us don’t know what to think of these words. I don’t know what to make of them. The fear I had before of leaving my cloud-mother comes back, making me feel helpless, and for a brief moment I panic, wishing I had never come down.
But then I remember her words. Every end is a beginning. You have no memories of any time before or after, but you have lived from eternity before and will live for eternity after.
In this world below the whiteness I can see pain, and loss, and even death, horrible things that I cannot comprehend. But I know that pain, too, comes to an end. Just as my birth, the comfort of floating with our cloud-mother, or the joy of the symphony of thoughts came to an end. But I will not end. I have not ended.
I have lived before and will live again—all else flows past me, touches me, but doesn’t erase or eradicate me. Even if there is pain, there will be joy again. Even if I forget this life, there will be others. Even if I lose my individuality, in my rebirth I will again rise unique.
I look down and see a figure below me: a human, smaller than the others. She sticks out her tongue and I drift lazily towards it. But as I descend gradually towards her open mouth, I am not afraid.
Sometimes, there is a fine line between brilliant and stupid. This was not one of those times. The plan Trevor’s attorney came up with was stupid, and they both knew it. However, it was the best they could do under the circumstances. There may or not be a Santa Claus, but there is certainly no such thing as the Christmas Defense.
Trevor was in trouble. The kind of trouble that ends with a cell mate and a lot of extra time to read. It had started, as most teenage pranks do, with a germ of a bad idea nourished by boredom and hormones. And, of course, a girl. There is always a girl. As Trevor’s friend Eric explained, it would be both “hilarious” and “epic.” But Eric didn’t get caught. Trevor was the one the police found at the scene, desperately trying to put out the fire.
In a way, it was impressive. One late November evening, they decided to steal every Christmas tree they could find. Real, fake, large or small, it didn’t matter. They were going to take it all to Melanie’s house and make a display on her front lawn.
Melanie. She was beautiful. Beautiful like art in a museum. Untouchable. Unfortunately for the boys in town, she was not one of those girls who did not realize how beautiful she was. She knew it and used that to get her way. Often. She didn’t speak much, at least not to Trevor and Eric. She was way out of their league and they knew it.
Their plan, if it could be called that, was to take Trevor’s dad’s pickup truck and drive around town looking for easy pickings. They were spectacularly successful. Working in the early morning hours between midnight and 4 a.m., they assembled a variety of trees. At first, they just sort of threw them on the lawn. Then, as sleep deprivation kicked in, a grander vision took hold. They built a pyramid.
On the bottom was the display Christmas trees they took from the Main Street shopping district. These were old and big and made of steel. They made a good base. In the middle, they placed all the trees they had found stacked behind a Christmas tree lot. Unfortunately, those trees were cut down six weeks ago and trucked in from Canada. They were being thrown out because they were too dry. On the top, they put random trees they had found on people’s lawns.
After the pyramid was assembled, Trevor and Eric sat back to survey their handiwork. While it was an impressive display of field engineering, rising almost two stories next to Melanie’s house, they both agreed that it lacked a certain something. Many of the trees had lights on them, begging to be plugged in.
If they had been questioned as to what they hoped to accomplish with their pyramid of Christmas trees, they would have been stumped. More specifically, if someone had sat them down and asked them, “What are you thinking?,” things may have ended differently. However, no one intervened. And, as everyone knows, when you combine infatuation, hormones, boredom, a very late night, and a pickup truck, it usually ends in tears.
The boys strung some lights together and plugged them in. It was windy, but they didn’t think about that. The cords they used were frayed and old, but they didn’t think about that. The trees were dry, but they didn’t think about that. About thirty seconds after they lit up the trees, they saw the fire. Eric ran. Trevor decided to try to put the fire out.
He didn’t yell for help or call 911 on his cell phone. Instead, he grabbed a garden hose and tried to stop the flames. By the time he got the water going, the fire was out of control. The metal base got the fire up off the ground, where more oxygen could feed it. The wind fanned the flames and started to blow embers onto Melanie’s roof.
Eventually, Trevor started yelling. Neighbors poured out of their homes. Fire trucks came, then police cars. The rest of the night was a blur of handcuffs, confessions, tearful calls to parents and the smell of smoke.
Nobody was hurt, but Melanie’s house had been seriously damaged. At the first court hearing, the prosecutor told the Judge that Melanie’s family was going to have to replace their roof at a cost of $40,000. The Judge let Trevor out on bail, but it didn’t look good.
Trevor’s parents hired an attorney for him. Trevor liked him. He was charismatic and funny, but also brutally honest. He explained that the prosecutor wanted a year in jail and full restitution. Trevor felt bad about what he had done, but not so bad that he wanted to spend a year in jail. He wanted to finish his senior year of high school and go to college.
Trevor’s attorney went through the evidence with him. First, there was the neighbors who ran out of their houses to find Trevor with a garden hose in his hands. Although Trevor didn’t remember it, apparently he kept saying things like “it was just a prank” and “I didn’t mean to start a fire” and “what have I done?” Additionally, there was a painful to watch video taken at the police station. In the video, Trevor explained in great detail how he had built the combustible tree pyramid and accidentally set it ablaze. Finally, there was some grainy surveillance camera footage from a Main Street store which showed Trevor laughing as he ripped down a big fake Christmas tree.
Trevor’s attorney called him down to his office one afternoon to talk strategy. He explained that the evidence was not favorable and that there was not much he could do. Trevor could take the offer of one year in jail or plead guilty and try to convince the Judge to give him a lower sentence. Unfortunately, the Judge assigned to the case was a notoriously tough sentencer. The only other option was a trial.
“Trevor,” he said, “I have an idea. I am not sure it is a very good idea, but it may be worth a shot. In fact, it may be the only shot you have. It also has a big chance of backfiring. But here it is: You have a right to a speedy trial and Christmas is coming.”
He called it the Christmas Defense. He explained that he wanted to go to trial on the very week of Christmas. Christmas was on a Saturday that year and he wanted to time it so the case would get in the jury’s hands on Christmas Eve. His theory was that a jury would not convict an 18 year old kid on Christmas Eve. Trevor decided to give it a try.
On one hand, the plan worked beautifully. The trial started four days before Christmas. On the other hand, it was an endless string of humiliations for Trevor. Witness after witness explained in excruciating detail what Trevor had done. The jury saw pictures of the fire. They saw the confession video. They even heard Melanie describe, perhaps a little too dramatically, the smell of smoke and her desperate race to flee her house before she perished. In any event, the jury seemed to be taking the whole thing very seriously.
Eventually, the prosecution rested its case and Trevor had a chance to talk with his attorney. What had seemed like a bold, audacious plan, now seemed foolish and hopelessly naive. His attorney gave him one last piece of advice. “Trevor”, he said, “you should testify.” “Your only hope that this will ever work is if the jury likes you. They don’t know you. All they know is what you did that night. I am going to put you on the stand. I don’t want you to lie or minimize what you did. Tell it straight. Speak from the heart. Either that, or sit back and wait for the jury to do what you know they are going to do.”
The next day, he told his story to the jury. He explained candidly and directly what he had done and what was going through his mind. He did not minimize his guilt, nor did he ask the jury for mercy. The prosecutor smirked his way through a blistering cross-examination. The Judge, possibly warming to Trevor, intervened a little as the questioning got rough. The jury remained stone-faced.
One final piece of the plan worked. Trevor was on the witness stand all day. By the time 5:00 p.m. rolled around, the evidence had concluded. All that remained was closing arguments, all to be heard on Christmas Eve.
The next day was surreal, to say the least. Melanie sat on the front row, dressed in some kind of sexy elf outfit, as if she was headed to a Christmas party. During one point of the proceedings, Christmas Carolers could be heard singing as they walked down the courthouse hallway. Most of the female jurors wore holiday sweaters. The stern and beefy courtroom bailiff wore a Santa hat. Even the Judge got into the act, wearing a red and white robe.
The prosecutor began his closing arguments, describing all of the evidence in great detail. He explained how lucky Trevor was that no one was killed. He compared the case to a domestic act of terrorism that ruined a family’s holiday.
Trevor’s attorney spoke briefly. He did not appeal to the jurors’ Christmas spirit. He agreed that there was a significant amount of evidence presented and remarked that the person most responsible had explained his actions. He closed by stating, almost as an aside, that the reason we have juries, is that we rely on the community’s collective common sense in deciding what actions should be punished.
The prosecutor, who always gets the last word, finished with a flourish. He argued that Trevor was the Grinch that stole Christmas. As he put it: “The difference is that this Grinch didn’t return the roast beast to Cindy Who. He tried to burn her house down.”
The jury showed no emotion as they retired to the deliberation room. It was 3:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Travis sat outside the courthouse, resigned to his fate. He wondered if he would be taken directly into custody, or if he would be allowed to spend Christmas with his family before going to jail.
At 4:30, the jury was ready with their verdict. Court watchers say that time distorts during a jury trial. The time that always stretches out the longest, however, is the time between when the jury hands their verdict form to the clerk and when the clerk reads it out loud. For Trevor, time absolutely stopped. After an eternity, over the rushing blood in his ears, he barely heard the clerk as she said “Not guilty.”
The next few minutes were a blur of tears, laughter, hugs and disbelief. As Trevor walked stunned out of the courtroom, the jury foreman, a middle-aged man, pulled him aside. With a twinkle in his eye he said, “Son, go and sin no more. Also, Merry Christmas.”
It was time to trim the poor excuse for a Christmas tree, and for the first time in eighty-five years, Genevieve Taylor dreaded the task. Her aged body ached as much as her lonely heart. The thirteen years since Lloyd’s passing had been a slow decline in health, happiness, finances, and appearance. She no longer lived in the family home, but in a senior assisted living community.
Genevieve made her way over to the window. “Clear skies, and bare grounds,” she thought in a huff. “I guess there won’t be a white Christmas this year, Lloyd.” This thought only increased the heaviness in her heart. All year long, she has anticipated the holiday season, because somehow Lloyd had always found a way to spend it with her. However, this year was different for her; she couldn’t feel Lloyd’s presence.
When she entered the apartment, Anabelle saw Ginny hunched by the window. Anabelle noticed the usual holiday cheer was not only missing in the elder lady’s countenance but also in the apartment’s decor. This was unlike the Taylor Christmases she remembered.
Anabelle had known both of the Taylors since her birth and loved them as if they were her grandparents. She had spent her summers in their greenhouse watching the couple work side by side. As a little girl, she would beg her mother to sit with the Taylors at church. Ginny would bring her candies, and Lloyd would tease her that she reserved her brightest smiles for him. When his battle with cancer ended, his absence was felt heavily in her life.
“Good morning, Ginny. Would it be okay if I help you hang the ornaments again this year?” asked Anabelle, hoping to cheer her.
After a moments hesitation and a sigh, “Oh sure, honey. I guess it is now or never.” A look on her face suggested that maybe never would be preferable; however, her expression quickly changed to one of determination. “Well, let’s get that old tree to sparkle with some Christmas cheer. We wouldn’t want to disappoint Lloyd.”
“No we wouldn’t,” Anabelle said. She turned on some holiday tunes, and then she retrieved the boxes of garland, beads, flowers, and trinkets. Each ornament held a memory of the years the couple had spent together. Each Christmas they had selected something new to add to their tree. It was beautiful that their tree was not only a celebration of their Savior but also a celebration of their lives.
Familiar with the process, Anabelle opened the box and waited for Ginny to indicate where to begin. With unsteady hands, Ginny lifted the turtle doves by their green ribbon and perched them in her palm. After running the ribbon through her fingers, her hand rose to her hair. She seemed to dismiss a notion, and passed the crystal birds to Anabelle to place on the tree.
“Aren’t you going to tell me the story?”
“I can’t remember it,” Ginny said, glancing away.
“Liar,” Anabelle thought. Then she decided that she knew the stories well enough that she would tell them herself. “You were seventeen when you met Lloyd at the Christmas dinner. You were wearing the red dress your mom had sewn and a green ribbon in your hair.” She paused to see the silencing glare from Ginny, but then she continued as if she hadn’t noticed. “All the girls were jealous when he asked you to sit by him. You asked him what he was getting for Christmas. ‘A kiss from you, if I’m lucky,’ he said with his dimpled smile. You told him he was very charming, but you were all out of kisses. Instead, you took the green ribbon out of your hair and tied it in a promise knot around his wrist. What was it you said to him?” Anabelle urged.
With her eyes closed in remembrance, she said, “I promise if you stick around for a year, I’ll have some kisses for you then.”
Anabelle laughed. “He held you to that.”
“He sure did. And after a year of dating, he still had my green ribbon.” There was love in her voice as she spoke of his sentimental gesture. On the wave of emotion, she continued the memory aloud, “I can still remember the nervous look on his face as he fumbled with the gift under the tree.” Ginny looked toward the bare tree and then to the empty space in front of her as if Lloyd were there now.
“He knelt in front of me, waiting for me to open the box. The doves were sparkling so much that I didn’t see the ring at first. But when I did, he said he no longer wanted just the promised kiss; he wanted eternity.” Ginny smiled and looked directly at Anabelle. “And when a guy like Lloyd Taylor wants eternity; you promise him eternity.”
The room was silent; both women were overcome. No matter how many times Anabelle heard the story; she was always amazed at how their love touched her. She recalled the love notes, caresses, and looks of admiration she had seen pass between the two. Their expressions of affection never dwindled even in the years that Lloyd had fallen ill.
“I can’t believe you two dated a whole year, and never kissed,” Anabelle said.
“Times were different then. Love was different. Don’t even get me started on how all you whippersnappers wouldn’t know romance from a fly on your nose.” She laughed, and her smile erased some of the years from her face.
“Whippersnapper? Ginny, I’m near 30.”
“And that’s plenty young sweetheart. Now let’s get to trimming this tree. It is going to take all day if you make this old lady tell you all her stories.” She was right, but Anabelle didn’t mind.
The two ladies spent the majority of the day hanging ornaments, lights, garland, and beads, as Ginny told the stories related to each trinket.
Anabelle was completing the final task of positioning the star on top of the tree, when Ginny said, “That was always his job, you know. Even if he wasn’t able to be home to hang the other ornaments, I always saved the star for him. I told him no one could light up my life the way he did.”
The young woman hugged her friend.
“He hasn’t come this year,” Ginny confided. “I’ve been waiting, and waiting. But—”
“He will. He always comes. He couldn’t miss Christmas with you,” Anabelle said. She was already familiar with Ginny’s belief that Lloyd had spent every Christmas with her since the year they met—even the ones after his death. With the detail of the conversations Ginny had related, Anabelle was inclined to believe her. “Now don’t you worry yourself sick over this! You get some rest, and I will be back in the morning for our Christmas breakfast.”
“You are right dear. He will come,” she agreed, but there was doubt in her voice. “You shouldn’t worry about being here for breakfast; you should be with your family.”
“I will see them for lunch. Besides you are family, and you are welcome to join us for lunch.” Before Ginny could protest further, Anabelle said, “See you at eight o’clock. If you are good maybe Santa will leave you something nice.” With a kiss on the cheek and a hug, Anabelle bid her farewell.
After her friend’s departure, Genevieve turned off the overhead light and allowed the glow from the tree to fill the room. She stared at the tree full of memories, but she still felt empty. She should be thankful that her mind was clear enough to recall those memories, but somehow it only emphasizes the void she now felt. Why hadn’t Lloyd come to be with her this Christmas? She knew it was selfish—some would say crazy—to believe he could be there with her, but she never doubted that the comforting voice she had heard year after year was his.
Before closing the blinds, she took one more glance out the window. “Still no snow. Still no Lloyd,” she thought. She settled into the rocking chair. From the radio she heard the King belting out the lyrics of Blue Christmas, and for the first time, she felt like a widow. The pain was not only in her heart but her body. She closed her eyes and massaged her arthritic hands.
The disc jockey announced something about Santa being spotted in the Tri-state area and cheered that in a few short hours it would be Christmas. Then, Bing Crosby began singing White Christmas. Genevieve opened her eyes wishing for white flakes to create a blanket outside, but she was certain nothing was there. She shut her eyes again.
“Genevieve?” It was a whisper—a sweet melody to her ears.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said. The tears of pain and relief could be heard in her voice, and a few escaped from the corners of her closed eyes.
“I know, my love. I am so sorry it has taken so long.”
“You’re here now. How long can you stay?”
“I’m afraid I can’t.”
“Oh, please Lloyd, don’t leave me here. I can’t bear it.” Ginny was so afraid of being separated again. Each year the burden of separation was harder, and she was too old to do it again.
“Has this year been so bad?” His voice seemed remorseful. “I should have come sooner.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I had preparations to make.”
“I recall a certain girl promised me eternity. It is getting pretty lonely up here alone.”
“You mean—” she was unable to finish as the realization of his implication filled her heart.
“It’s time for us to be together dear. Eternity has been mighty lonely without you.”
“Take me home.”
Anabelle had entered the apartment quietly when no one answered the door. After setting the cinnamon rolls on the counter, she had opened the blinds so Ginny could see the snow when she woke. Ginny was reclined in her rocker with her quilt tucked under her arms. Anabelle set the table for two; the noise had not disturbed Ginny’s slumber.
As she crossed to wake the sleeping women, she noticed Ginny’s pale face. There was no rise and fall in her chest. When Anabelle lifted a lifeless hand to check for a pulse, an envelope slid to the floor. Struggling not to cry, she replaced the hand to Ginny’s lap in reverence, and bent to retrieve the fallen envelope.
She gazed in wonder—it was addressed to her. She removed the letter. It read:
He came. My Lloyd made it.
We are together for Christmas.
We love you.
The simple note said it all. Anabelle wiped her eyes. She pressed a gentle kiss to Ginny’s brow and whispered, “Merry Christmas. I love you too. Go enjoy eternity.”
Bob Dugert jogged up the path the front door, looked at hisnwatch, and for the thousandth time got ready to explain that it wasn’t his fault the bus was late. Brushing the snow off his construction helmet and overalls he pushed open the front door.
The front room was empty—his son’s books were strewn across the floor, but he wasn’t there and neither was Alice. The light wasn’t even on. Bob slipped off his boots and helmet and listened for sounds of life. Around the corner he heard soft music—the music from one of Alice’s Yoga videos. He took a deep breath and stepped around the
The TV was on showing dozens of women in the same strange contortion. Alice’s yoga mat was there, but there was no Alice. He took another few steps forward and then saw her curled up on a chair staring—somewhere.
“Hi,” Bob offered.
Bob kneeled down next to her chair. “Darling, I’m really sorry I’m late, I know you needed me home early but the bus was really late…”
Alice remained silent.
Bob looked at her eyes, but she did not stop her nowhere stare. He sighed. “I really told me boss that I needed to get off early because we had Christmas shopping to do and. . .”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Are you worried about your parents this Christmas? Maybe we should look at the tickets again—maybe they’ve gone down in price since we looked and we could . . .”
Alice looked up. “Your son won’t talk to me anymore.”
Bob paused. “Our son won’t talk to you?”
“He’s not supposed to learn the silent treatment until he’s a teenager. He won’t forgive me and it’s your fault.”
“Me? What did I do?” Bob said. “What’s he upset about?”
Alice took a deep breath. “His class started singing Christmas carols today and they sang that special song and everyone is making fun of him—again.”
“He’s letting that get to him?” Bob asked. “He went through this last year.”
“And he thinks he’s going to have to go through this every year for the rest of his life—every time it’s Christmas everyone will make fun of him.”
“Oh, they’ll grow out of it—did he tell you all this while he was giving you the silent treatment?”
Alice ran her hand through her hair. “He told me why he was upset and then declared that he will not speak to me until he is eighteen, when he legally changes his name.”
Bob stood up. “Change his name? He should be proud of his name! I’ve told him time and time again how important his name—that name—is. Why, that’d be ludicrous.” He pulled over a swivel chair and sat down. “Did you ask him what he wanted to change his name to?”
“Tom or David.”
“Oh, then people would just call him Tom Thumb or David…” Bob paused, “or David and Goliath or something like that. All names can be made fun of—”
Alice cut him off. “He says that the kids named Tom or David don’t get persecuted every December.”
“I bet he didn’t say persecuted.”
“Made fun of.”
Bob looked at the TV screen for a minute. “Did you tell him they’d stop teasing him if he’d just stopped responding?”
Alice nodded. “And that he should be proud of having a unique name, and that he would learn to grow proud of it, and that his grandfather turned out just fine with the same name, and everything else we’ve ever told him when this happens.”
Bob didn’t answer for a minute. “Well, what did he say to all that?”
“That he won’t talk to me until he gets his name changed in ten and a half years.”
“Oh, he doesn’t mean that, he’ll probably bound down the stairs tomorrow as if nothing happened.”
Alice shook her head. “That’s not the point, Bob.”
Bob frowned at her. “Then what exactly is the point?”
“The point is that our son is being made fun of all the time, and I think it’s beginning to wear on him. He’s not doing well on his homework, and he’s not even going out to play with his friends anymore. It’s not healthy, Bob.”
Bob threw up his hands. “Well in that case I guess we should just go find a judge and change his name to Thomas right now and solve all his educational and social distresses permanently. It will probably only cost a hundred dollars. And when he’s tired of Thomas we’ll pay another hundred so he can change his name to David. And next Halloween when a song comes out about a pumpkin named David we’ll be
the first ones in line to change it again.”
Bob pointed at her. “You agreed to this you know. You said it was okay to keep the name in the family.”
“I wanted it to be his middle name, not his first name.”
“That’s not what I remember.”
“I told you from the very beginning it would be a bad idea!”
“Well you didn’t tell me well enough because we did it!”
They both fell silent. Alice looked at her knees. Bob let out a sigh. He glanced up at her but she didn’t move. He sighed again. She still didn’t move.
Finally he said “I’m sorry, honey, I’m sorry.”
She put her hand on his shoulder.
He put his hand on top of hers. “I really didn’t mean that, it was really all my idea, I just didn’t realize . . .”
“I know you didn’t mean it—I didn’t realize what it would be like either.”
They stayed there for a minute, his hand on top of hers, silently sitting.
“Maybe he should start going by his middle name,” Bob said, “I guess Edwin would be better than Rudolph.”
Tyler sat on his grandfather’s golf cart, sucking on a peppermint candy cane. He looked out the open carport at miles of desert rimmed by jagged, treeless mountains. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, big deal. He could hardly wait for it to be over so he could go back home. His snowbird grandparents lived in Idaho six months of the year and flew south as soon as the weather cooled in October. “It’ll be fun!” Tyler’s mom told him, when his parents decided to spend Christmas in Arizona with Grandma and Grandpa. “You can bring your skateboard.” Bad idea. Every time he rode his skateboard the old fogies in his grandparents’ trailer park complained. There was nothing for a twelve-year-old boy to do here. He had no friends, no video games, and since his Ipod had lost its charge, no tunes either. Tyler was bored.
“Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” The merry jingle came through the open kitchen window. Grandma and his older sister were baking Christmas cookies, singing along. Tyler frowned. He wished it would snow. It wasn’t Christmas without snow. He needed only a sweatshirt to keep warm in Arizona. If he were home in Utah, he’d be snowboarding right now. Dang. Winter wasn’t even winter in Arizona.
Tyler grabbed the handlebars and pretended he was on his four-wheeler at home. That’s when he noticed the key. Without a second thought, Tyler started the engine and drove out of the carport. Grandpa wouldn’t mind; he was watching the afternoon news. Mom and Dad wouldn’t be back for hours. They’d gone to Phoenix to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. The golf cart was quiet. No one heard him drive down the street, not even the old fogies next door.
In minutes he was in the desert. Spindly creosote bushes and clumps of prickly pear cactus grew on both sides of the dirt trail. Black lava bombs lay where they’d fallen thousands of years ago when the volcanic mountains erupted. Grandpa had said there was an old mine up in the hills. Tyler wondered how far.
The road suddenly dipped into a wash and he slowed the engine. A scraggly mesquite tree grew on the bank and hidden in its low branches, an old car lay half-buried in the sand. Tyler stopped the golf cart and went to explore. The sedan had been black once, maybe sixty years ago. Now the metal was rusted and corroded. All the windows were broken out. Tyler looked inside at the smashed dashboard, trying to figure out if it was a Chevy or Ford. Someone had taken the steering wheel. There were no seats either–nothing but rocks and dirt and dried weeds. Maybe there were more old cars junked in the desert. Sweet, he thought. Arizona wasn’t so boring after all.
He climbed back in the golf cart and drove up the sandy wash. Each time it forked, he chose the less rocky path. He met a family of saguaros standing on the hillside holding up the sky. The old-timers had six or seven arms. The babies had none. Their shadows stretched out behind them like giant sun dials. Tyler looked over his shoulder and saw the sun, smoldering red-orange above the horizon. How did it get so late? He turned the golf cart and started back. The motor bogged down in the sand, and he pressed the gas pedal to the floor. Then without warning, the golf cart stopped.
“Come on, come on!” Turning the key again and again, Tyler tried to coax the engine awake. No luck. He’d run out of gas.
It was going to be a long walk back to Grandpa’s house. Tyler felt a nervous knot in his stomach. He had no cell phone, no flashlight, not even a bottle of water.
Stay calm, he thought. Keep your head. Tyler remembered what he’d learned in scouts: Hug a tree till somebody hugs you. He almost laughed, thinking of the saguaros. He had to get back to the road and follow it to Grandpa’s trailer park.
Tyler took off in a race with the setting sun. The sand slowed his pace and he breathed through his mouth, gasping for air. Twenty minutes later the cart tracks were no longer visible in the dark. Pain jabbed his side and Tyler stopped to catch his breath. Had he gone the right way? A coyote barked in the hills, and a moment later, another answered. It sounded close, too close. Their eerie howls left him feeling more alone, and he shivered in his sweatshirt. By now Grandpa must have discovered that the golf cart was missing and Tyler along with it. Would he be angry? Tyler was sure Grandma would be worried and the thought saddened him. He didn’t want to upset his grandparents.
Gazing up at the night sky, he searched for the Big Dipper. It wasn’t easy to find among the millions of tiny points of light that spilled across the heavens. Tyler stood in awe, wondering if the stars shone as brightly on the night Christ was born. He wished he was back at the trailer park singing Christmas carols with Grandma.
Running blindly in the dark, he crashed into something solid and shouted in pain. It was a barrel cactus, prickly all over with fish-hook spines that had stabbed him right through his jeans. Limping now, he covered ground at a slower pace.
Out of the darkness two lights appeared and Tyler heard the rumble of an old truck. “Grandpa! Grandpa!” he yelled, running toward the lights. He tripped and fell, got back on his feet and scrambled through the brush. Just as quickly as they appeared, the lights vanished. “Grandpa! Come back!” His hands stung where he’d scraped them, and he tasted blood on his lips. “Grandpa, I’m over here!”
Tears filled Tyler’s eyes as he dropped to his knees in the sand. “Dear Father in Heaven,” he prayed aloud, “I’m sorry I took Grandpa’s golf cart. I’m sorry I left and didn’t tell them where I was going. I promise I won’t do it again. Please help me get back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.” He ended his prayer in Jesus’ name and kept his eyes closed, listening for an answer.
For a while there was no sound except the wind whistling though the bare branches of a mesquite tree. Then the coyotes yipped and an owl hooted mournfully in the distance. Tyler didn’t hear a still, small voice. He didn’t hear the sound of his grandfather’s truck either. Heavenly Father hadn’t answered his prayer.
Disappointed, he opened his eyes and watched the moon rise above the mountains. It was almost full, bright enough to reveal the outline of a low rise not too far away. He hoped he could find the road from up there.
Tyler was half-way up the hill when he heard the truck motor again. He turned and saw the headlights. The road was visible too, a dark line winding through the foothills. He hobbled toward it, shouting for his grandfather to stop.
By the time Tyler reached the road his voice was hoarse. The truck slowly advanced toward him, horn blaring, and Tyler waved his arms for his grandfather to stop. Moments later he fell into his grandfather’s arms. “I’m sorry, Grandpa. I shouldn’t have gone off like that.”
“Thank God, you’re safe.” Grandpa put his arm around Tyler’s shoulders as they walked back to the truck.
Tyler explained that he’d run out of gas. “We’ll go get it tomorrow,” Grandpa said.
“Could you hear me way out there?” Tyler asked. “I saw you drive up into the mountains. How did you know I was here?”
“I didn’t hear you, but I had a strong feeling that I should turn around.” Grandpa’s voice cracked with emotion. “It had to be the Holy Spirit, because I thought you’d gone up to the old mine. That’s where I was going to look first. I’m thankful I obeyed the prompting.”
Tyler was thinking about what his grandfather said as he climbed up into the truck. “Heavenly Father did answer my prayer,” he said.
“He answered my prayers too. Let’s get back to the house. Grandma has some Christmas cookies for us.”
Hannah hurried to the stage. It was time for the choir to warm up. Her new white dress, long and flowing, made quiet whispers as her silver slippered feet took her down the hall. Her long red hair was a beautiful contrast to the white silk. Her hair and the twinkle of happiness in her deep blue eyes were the first thing others noticed about her.
There was a buzz in the air. Everyone was busy rushing here and there. White robed orchestra members, their trumpets gleaming with recent polishing made their way quickly down the hall . The gold of the french horns gleamed in the light. Timpaniis and cymbals also made their way to the gathering place. Excited chattering filled the hall as the orchestra hastened to their assigned places. This would be the best performance ever. Hannah turned when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Thank you for being here.”
It was Kathryn, the choir director and one of Hannah’s best friends. The smile on Kathryn’s face was reflected in her deep brown eyes. Yes, tonight’s performance would be the best yet.
“My stomach is dancing in anticipation. But I am so glad you talked me into joining the choir.” Hannah replied. “I know that I am not the most talented singer in the choir and my notes are off key more often than not, but I do so love the music you chose for this program.”
“You’ll do just fine.” Kathryn gave Hannah’s hand a final squeeze of reassurance and then turned to put her music in order.
Kathryn stood. Her brown hair made a halo around her shining face. Hannah looked around the room. It was so full that she could not see the beginning nor the end of the audience. There was no time for Hannah to feel nervous. Gabriel began his narration.
“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”The curtain opened on the stage and the lights were brighter than Hannah remembered them being in rehearsal. In fact it seemed that one light shone almost as a spotlight, making itself brighter than all the others.
The strains of music began in the brass section with the trumpets. That beginning of the music always brought a quickness to Hannah’s heart. She looked at Kathryn in anticipation. Kathryn’s face was beaming. That beaming seemed to be reflected in everyone . In fact, it seems as if the whole heavens were filled with this light, a light that spilled to the earth and bathed the shepherds in glory.
Kathryn raised her arms. The choir stood a little taller.
“Glory to God. Gloria in excelsis Deo..”
Hannah was overwhelmed with feelings of love and gratitude. It was time to sing the first noel- the proclamation of a royal birth- and the strains were glorious and beautiful and filled her entire being. It was here, the birth onto earth of her beloved elder brother, and she got to tell the world.
It was a week before Christmas. I sang along with the carols on the CD player as I washed my mixing bowls and scrubbed down the counters. The scent of pine from our tree mingling with the cookies baking in the oven brought a smile to my face, and I reveled in the Christmas spirit.
“Give that back, it’s mine!”
“I had it first.”
“Did not, baby.”
I sighed as another bout of squabbling broke out between two of my five children. I thought Christmas was supposed to be about love and miracles.
I became increasingly frustrated as the fighting rose in pitch, drowning out the carols. I tossed my oven mitts on the floor and turned to storm out of the kitchen, determined to put an end to the fighting once and for all.
Beep. Beep. Beep. The timer sounded signaling the cookies were ready to be plucked from the oven. I threw up my hands, turned and yanked it open. The children’s voices had settled some, but my frustrations hadn’t. My mind was running over the lecture they would receive when a sharp pain coursed through my hand.
I yelped and yanked my hand back, staring at it dumbfoundedly. Idiot. I cursed myself as I spotted the mitts I had thrown on the floor. I dashed to the sink and cranked the water on cold. Stupid. Stupid.
“Mom are you okay?”
“What did you do?”
“Mommy, mommy ‘kay?”
I looked at the faces of my five young children clustered around the counter vying for the best spot to see what was going on. Irritation seeped into my voice. “I grabbed the blasted pan with my bare hand.”
Concern flooded my oldest daughter’s face. “Mom! Will you be okay?”
“I’ll be fine. It wouldn’t have happen—” I cut myself off. I wouldn’t bring the spirit of Christmas back into the home by tossing off petty accusations. “It was an accident.”
I shut off the water and gently towel-dried my hand. The burning sensation seared my fingertips and angry red blisters were beginning to appear. “Get me the burn cream and band-aids.”
I couldn’t help but sigh as my three oldest raced each other down the hall to the bathroom, and was amazed when no one fought or complained about being shoved out of the way. I applied the cream and band-aids and examined my three burnt fingers. My second youngest boy toddled around the corner.
“Kiss?” He smacked his lips together, and I lowered my throbbing fingers to him.
“It’ll be fine now that Jacob kissed it,” Emily, the third, announced.
I smiled at her and tried not to cringe as I scooped a crying James, the youngest, into my arms.
“Yeah, Mom,” Elizabeth said, “they’ll be ready to play the piano in the Christmas program, no sweat.”
I stared at her in horror. I had completely forgotten about the program. I looked blankly at my fingers. I thought of the complicated passages I had worked on and practiced and knew the possibility of obtaining a sub who would be ready to play in two days was impossible. Tears pricked my eyes as another horrible thought washed through my mind. It would be a Christmas without music. There would be no more evenings of us gathered around the piano singing carols at the top of our lungs. It was one of the rare moments when the kids never fought because their mouths were to busy doing something else. Somehow I knew this was going to be the worst Christmas ever, and the new outburst of squabbling in the next room confirmed it. What I really need is a Christmas miracle.
“Hello all you lucky people, I’m home!” my husband called as he opened the door.
A spontaneous smile found its way to my face as my husband made his entrance amidst cheers and flying tackles. I tried to plaster that smile in place, and hung back waiting when he turned to me.
“Don’t I get my hug?”
I nodded and stepped forward. He read my face immediately.
I mutely held up my fingers as tears began spilling down my cheeks. Between my garbled mumblings and the children’s excited additions he finally managed to discover what happened. “What do I do?”
He wrapped his arms around me and a squeaky whisper worked its way out of my throat. “Do you think you could give me a blessing? To most people three fingers wouldn’t be a big deal, but—” I broke off, fighting the wave of intense emotion sweeping through me. “But, I’m a pianist, and music means so much to me and our family, especially now. Besides, the ward Christmas program is the day after tomorrow.”
“Of course.” He walked to the phone and dialed Brother Johnson’s number. After a brief explanation he hung up. “He’ll be down in just a few minutes.”
I nodded my head and gathered the children together.
That evening was strangely quiet as we put the kids to bed without our traditional singing first. As I came out from the last hugs and kisses, my eyes landed on the piano. I remembered briefly the promise I was made in the blessing. “Though you’re fingers will hurt, you will feel no pain when you play the piano.” I glanced down at my band-aid clad hand. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t ignore the burning pulse in my fingers, and I shook my head. I’ll try it in the morning.
Saturday dawned with four excited children bouncing on our bed, and the fifth watching with wide expectant eyes from his nearby crib.
“Wake up Mom and Dad, it’s snowing!” Dorothy called.
I grinned as white snow-light filtered through our window. Snow in the Northwest just before Christmas was extremely rare. We piled into the kitchen and stood around the sliding glass door watching the flurries descend.
“How about some hot chocolate? I’ll get it ready while you practice. The music will make the mood complete.” My husband grinned at the cheering children as he put water on the stove and looked at me expectantly.
I made my way to the piano and pulled out the Christmas music for the program. I laid out the sheets of music and let my fingers hover a moment above the keys. The intense burning had increased, if anything, over night and I tried to mentally prepare myself for the pain I knew would come. My fingers became a yo-yo lowering slightly and then bouncing back up as I chickened out.
“The cocoa is ready,” Paul called from the kitchen.
I sighed in relief and bolted from the bench, joining my children as they swarmed around the table.
The day was full of snowmen and snowball fights and with all the excitement the kids weren’t fighting. The world looked white and pure, but nothing had changed in my fingers— they still throbbed, and I was still afraid to play in the Christmas program the next day.
Sunday morning I jolted awake as my fingers brushed against my pillow causing waves of pain to surge through me. Light was just beginning to creep around the edges of the curtains and I realized no one else was up. I tiptoed out to the main room and stood staring at the piano. The promise I had received pounded in time to the throbbing in my fingers. Well, do you have faith or don’t you? I scolded myself and forced my body onto the bench. The music hadn’t moved since the day before and I tentatively began stroking the keys, picking up speed as the pain eased from my fingers. I ran through each song, saving the hardest for last.
“You’re playing!” My husband stood at the entrance to the room with the baby in his arms.
My fingers came to an abrupt halt as I smiled back at his grinning face. “Yes. I—” I sucked in my breath as the burning pain returned once more. I cringed and chuckled slightly. “I think I had better keep playing.”
I promptly turned back to the piano midst my husband’s laughter. Once again, the minute I began to play the pain fled from my fingers. The difficult fast passages flew by like they were nothing. I knew Heavenly Father was keeping his promise. I smiled and thought of my desire for a Christmas miracle. Today I would play the music for the choir and musical numbers in the Christmas program during Sacrament meeting. The hearts of the congregation would be touched, and I wouldn’t let anyone down.
My playing was interrupted by a blinding light as Elizabeth opened the curtains. “Guys, come look! There is so much snow!”
We crowded around the window in amazement. The snow was over a foot deep and as we shoveled a way out we found a thick layer of ice beneath it. The children were in awe. They had never experienced snow this deep, let alone just before Christmas.
Paul and I exchanged meaningful looks. “You don’t suppose they would c—” The ringing phone cut me off and I watched as he answered it. After a short exchange he turned to me and confirmed my thoughts.
“Church is canceled. The roads are really bad.”
“But, the Christmas program,” I protested.
“They will have it next week.”
“But that can’t happen. I mean, my fingers— my fingers were healed because I needed to play in the Christmas program.” I hesitated. “If not for the Christmas program, then why?”
“Maybe Heavenly Father wanted to try your faith,” my husband suggested. I nodded my head and proceeded to mull over the many thoughts and questions surging through my mind. He interrupted my thoughts. “Let’s have a homemade Sunday school class since we can’t attend church.”
Later that afternoon, I looked at my family gathered around me and began my lesson. “Let’s start with reading in Mosiah about what King Benjamin taught about service.” My eye was drawn to Dorothy as her older sister read. I watched as she made faces at the baby and fiddled with the lint on the carpet. Pushing down the feelings of frustration I continued. “What does service have to do with Jesus Christ?”
Emily raised her hand eagerly, but while she answered I once again found my eyes drifting back to my second oldest as she rolled on the floor and poked her brother, making him squeal. Please, I thought desperately, I don’t want to get angry today? How can I reach her? I waited a moment, trying to push the rising heat back down into the pit of my stomach.
Music. Teach her with music.
I rose and went to the piano and opened the children’s songbook to “He sent His Son.” The spirit swelled as I listened to my family gathered around singing as loud as they could. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Dorothy. Her eyes were bright with joy, her mouth, though opened wide in song, sported a beautiful smile. We finished that song and launched into “Away in a Manger”. While I listened to Dorothy’s voice rising above and carrying the others, tears came to my eyes as the Holy Ghost spoke to my heart.
Suddenly it all made sense. It wasn’t about Christmas programs and fancy piano passages, or even nightly singing around the piano. It was about bringing the spirit into our home when it was most needed. It was about the quiet Christmas miracle that crept in on a still and silent night.
Today is the last day to submit!
Prize: Publication in a Christmas collection that will be published and ready for sale in October.
Submission deadline: August 15th at midnight.
(Date/time stamp on e-mail determines deadline.)
Jaina’s eyes popped open, her red hair sprawled out around her head like a crown for a goddess. She sat up in her bed, leaning on the wall behind her. Her green eyes scanned the room for the clock, attempting to read the numbers. It gave off a faint blue glow, assisting the night light in its job of filling shadows of the night up with light. It read 5:42, but she decided to get up anyway, against her parent’s wishes.
She flung her blankets aside. Jaina put her bare toes on the carpeted floor, her white night gown falling down past her knees and gracefully flowing around her legs. She bent down, reaching under her bed and grabbed the red flash light she treasured so much. She carefully felt her way to the door, bare feet thumping on the cool carpet. She silently opened it, slipping out into the hallway. Jaina edged down the little passage way between the wall and the banister, where five brightly colored Christmas stocking hung on a garland covered in bright red and green lights. She froze, and reached out to touch her own. It was last in the row, a small black dog with a bright, festive collar poking out of the top. Jaina giggled quietly, and attempted to grab it. Then she pulled her had back.
“If you touch something, the magic will fade,” The words of her mother whispered out of Jania’s mouth. She didn’t really believe it, but it all looked so beautiful… and magical.
Jaina continued on, reaching the end of the hallway. She looked to her left, seeing the front door, the street lights shining through the cracks. She looked straight ahead, scanning the two pianos and a tiny Christmas tree covered in different colored lights. She spotted a glittering snowman head from where she stood from almost 10 feet away. Although she couldn’t see them she knew that, hidden in the tree, there where many other figures. Some made of plastic, others made of wood. She remembered back to the night before, when her parents had helped Jaina fulfill the task of placing the small characters on the tree. That little tree was her job to decorate, and… She turned her head to the right, her feet slowly following. ….the other one was her parent’s job to decorate. Jaina walked up to it, it’s gorgeous statue even more magnificent in the dark.
It stood, towering over her. The tip of the glowing yellow star missed the ceiling by only a few short inches, making Jaina feel like a baby kitten beside a full grown adult. It was alive with little white lights, shining on the green branches that reached out to her. Some of the branches had red or green glass balls clinging on them, making the tree look simple, yet beautiful. Jaina let her eyes go out of focus, the lights turning into little dots of white beside other fainter green and red dots. How long had she been waiting for Christmas? When had she and her mother put together the count down chain that now stood bare on the wall behind her? It had all seemed to crawl by so slowly. But now that she looked back, all she remembered was rushing through every week, hurriedly wrapping her gifts and not looking back. Maybe Christmas was meant to be taken slower, and to be enjoyed with family. Jaina now felt a sight bit guilty, and she promised herself that she would take Christmas day slower so that she wouldn’t miss a thing.
Jaina broke out of the trance, and turned her flash light on. She slowly led the beam over rows of presents, all wrapped in colorful paper and balancing small bows on top. Some had Santa’s face printed on them, while others were covered with ornaments like the ones on the tree. Jaina glanced behind the tree, finding an oddly shaped package wrapped in golden paper. She leaned over it, checking to see the name tag.
“To Jaina, from Kate,” Jaina read out loud. “I can’t wait until I get to open Kate’s gift! She always knows just what to get.” Kate was Jaina’s older sister. Kate looked a lot like Jaina, only with darker hair. She always gave Jaina the best gifts, and was one of the sweetest people Jaina had ever met.
Jaina spun around and looked back at the banister where the stockings hung, and then to the stairs descending beside it. Kate slept down those stairs.
Jaina turned off her flash light and hobbled over to the kitchen table. The wood flooring was cold beneath her bare feet, but she ignored it. Jaina looked at the table top, finding both the plate with Santa’s Cookies printed on it and the cup beside it empty.
“Santa’s always hungry,” Jaina said to herself, grinning. She walked back into the living room, and then lay down on the soft carpet. She would just sleep out here until her parents woke up. They wouldn’t mind. Jaina closed her eyes, the soft glow of the Christmas lights soothing her back to sleep like the glow of a small fire.
*** *** *** *** *** ***
Jaina looked at the mess of paper and bows scattered around her, and the pile of gifts that sat in the corner of the room. The board game from her father, a new stuffed dog from her mom, the baby doll from her grandparents, and the giant stuffed bee from her uncle. In the center of the mess was her treasured gift from Kate. It stood on four legs, the polished wood glinting in the light. It was her very own wooden horse, carved and painted by Kate and her friends.
When she had torn the gold wrapping away, she had frozen and turned to Kate who had a large smile on her face. Jaina tore off the rest of the paper faster then even she could believe, and then turned and ran at Kate with all her might, knocking her down backwards on the brown carpet. Jania had hugged, kissed, and thanked Kate for the wonderful gift, and then gone over every little line of paint with her finger admiring the quality.
Jaina snapped back into the present, and started picking up the mess around her. As she did so, she thought back to earlier that morning. Jaina had promised herself that she would go slower. Had she done so? Yes. Jaina had slowly opened each gift (With the exception of Kate’s, of course.) and then, instead of rushing to the next package, had looked the gift over and thanked the person who had given it to her. (If they where in the room.) Then she had placed it with her other gifts before moving on.
Jaina felt very good with herself as she sat down to eat her breakfast of special Christmas tree shaped toast. But when she turned around and saw the Christmas tree in all it’s glory stripped presents, she felt a bit sad. She hadn’t believed her mother’s words about the magic fading just a few short hours ago. But now, as Jaina starred at the tree, she agreed.
“I have my gifts, but the magic is gone,” Then she looked around the table at the smiling faces of her family. “Well, not all of it…” She reached over underneath the table, and slipped her hand into Kate’s. Kate turned, surprised!
Jaina just smiled at her, and then said to herself, “The magic of family is mine forever.”
Andrea had pretty much given up on Christmas. Sure, she liked all the trappings that came with the season – the trees, the ornaments, the lights. But it was all so…commercial, fake. No one really meant any of the things they said when they wished you a Merry Christmas. It was just like someone saying hello or goodbye. It didn’t mean anything.
She’d felt this way since she could remember. Or rather, since her father had gone away two days before Christmas leaving her family to fend for themselves. That had been the worse year in memory, and she often partied and worked and shopped as hard as possible during the Christmas season just so she would be too tired to remember it.
But this year was going to be better.
Tonight was her company party, the last of a string of parties she’d been to for the week. It was Friday, and Christmas was Sunday. She looked forward to the party – lots of noise, music, food and the yearly bonus the boss handed out. She needed the bonus to finish paying for her trip, booked for Christmas Eve, a trip she’d been saving for and dreamt about for months. It made things cramped for time, but she’d already packed most of what she’d need.
It seemed the perfect solution to the yearly angst. Her brother was going to be out of town, and she didn’t want to spend it with any of her married-with-children friends who’s happy holidays brought nagging and painful memories.
This year she was going to be gone on a cruise ship known for it’s partying atmosphere. The only worry was that despite having saved all year for it, her bank account was still on the red side – needing that bonus money to cover everything. This cruise was her present to herself. The only catch was she’d hoped to have a friend going with her and had booked a room to herself. That had caused the redness in her bank account – the friend part had fallen through. Regardless, the bonus would make up the difference and this meant that she wouldn’t have to share with anyone.
Andrea looked around the apartment, satisfied with it’s clean condition. She hated going on vacation to come home and have to clean – nothing like reality biting really hard. Glancing in the mirror by the door, she appraised her appearance. The red satin dress with the slit up the side, fit her almost like a glove, set off her light skin and showed her greatest asset – her legs. The shiny black stilettos added to the effect, and she smoothed her hair as it lay in dark curls around her shoulders, knowing the stylist had been worth every penny. She wouldn’t have to do anything to it during the cruise.
Satisfied, she grabbed her wrap and clutch, stepped out and locked the door. Passing the apartment next door, a twinge of guilt invaded her satisfaction, but she firmly pushed aside. Everyone at work would be bringing a friend – but she hadn’t invited anyone. She hadn’t been on a date for weeks and her last relationship had ended very badly. Her neighbor, Jared, was the only male she talked to regularly, but he wasn’t exactly someone she wanted to take to a social function – he seemed so laid back. What if he didn’t have a suit?
She shrugged away the idea that it shouldn’t matter and stepped outside. The clouds were heavy and hung low in the sky, a sure sigh snow was on it’s way. She flagged down a taxi and told him the address where the party was being held. This was going to be the kick off night – she could hardly wait.
Packages were mis-delivered to his apartment all the time. Jared was used to telling people that he had their stuff. In fact, the postman regularly left them with him now, figuring it was sure to get to the right people that way. When the package came for his neighbor, his heart skipped a beat.
Not one to push his company on anyone, he hadn’t seen her much in the past week, exchanging even fewer words. His neighbor was gorgeous and he definitely wanted to get to know her better. It didn’t help that he day dreamed about her all the time.
But he hardly ever saw her, and they had been neighbors for almost five years. Perhaps now…now she would have to see him, and he wondered if it would make any difference.
At two in the morning Andrea stumbled up the stairs, so tired she couldn’t see straight as she fumbled with the door key. The party had been even better than last year, the bonus had been exactly as expected, and she could hardly wait for Christmas Eve. Stopping in front of her door, she wobbled on the stilettos and tried to focus on the post-it note stuck there, frowning her confusion. A package? Who would be sending a package?
Squinting at the note, she spotted Jared’s name and shrugged. It would have to wait till tomorrow – there was no way she was going to knock on his door this time of night.
Jared thought if he waited till late in the morning, she might be up. When he knocked and got no answer he realized, with a sinking stomach, that she wasn’t up yet. He was debating on the wisdom of knocking again when she suddenly flung open the door.
Seeing her disheveled state and the thick robe wrapped haphazardly around her shoulders, he became embarrassed. At least she was wearing pajamas, not something more revealing. Cute teddy bear ones too, he noted, quickly trying to shift his gaze to her face.
“Yes?” she mumbled, eyeing him warily.
“Um, you got this package,” he said, feeling like a fool. What was he thinking? This was the stupidest thing he’d ever done…
“Oh yeah.” She stared at it and then at him blankly, before opening the door. “Come on in.”
He gulped and entered before she changed her mind. “Uh, did you get the note?”
“Yeah, but I got in real late,” she said, sitting down on the couch and tucking her feet under her robe.
She didn’t reach for the package, so he placed it on the low coffee table.
“Does it say who it’s from?” she asked, eyeing him wearily.
Surprised, he looked at the return address. “It says Morgan Waterson.”
“That’s funny, he already sent me a present.” Andrea glanced up at him. “Morgan’s my brother, I don’t think you’ve met him.”
Jared shook his head as she reached out and picked it up. She tried pulling the tape off, but couldn’t get it to pull off enough to open it.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his pocket knife. “Need this?”
She flashed him a grin, taking the knife and cutting open the tape. She pushed back the paper packaging to pull out a thin felt stocking, the kind kids used to hang for Christmas years ago.
There was no sound – she stared at it, her mouth hanging open as she held it from her fingertips as if afraid it would bite.
“That’s…um, that’s cool,” Jared said, feeling awkward. “Is it yours?”
She nodded, her eyes looking suspiciously moist. “I – I didn’t know it was still around.” There was a small note tucked in the top, and she pulled it out, wiping at her face.
“Mom found these before she died,” she read out loud. “I forgot to send it on to you. Merry Christmas, Morgan.”
Sighing, it seemed as if she deflated, the air leaving her body and the stocking falling to her lap from her limp hand. She looked so forlorn, Jared wanted to pull her into his arms.
“I haven’t seen this stocking since I was a girl,” she said, absently stroking the faded felt and tracing her name with it’s glittered outline. “Not since my dad left us.” As she rubbed her fingers over the fabric, there was a crinkle of paper. She looked up at him startled before feeling inside to discover an envelope, yellowed a little with time, her name written on it.
“What in the world…” she slipped a finger under the flap and ripped it open to read it through before looking up at Jared, her face draining of color. “It’s – my dad – I,”
He reached over and gently pulled the paper from her fingers, since she wasn’t going to be able to get anything else out and read it for himself.
“Dear Andrea: Never doubt that I love you. Leaving you this Christmas was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’m going away to battle, and it’s likely I won’t come home, so I didn’t want you to have to deal with that. Its probably the coward way out, but I wanted you to remember me here, and not think of me wounded or dying half the world away. Take care of your mother, she needs you, and remember your brother loves you too. You will always be my little sprite, Love, Dad.”
Tears were running down her cheeks when he looked back up, feeling a catch in his throat and an ache in his heart. “I –,”
She shook her head, wiping now at the tears. “You see, I thought he’d just left us. Mom never explained why, only that he was gone. We never knew…or at least I didn’t.” She took the letter back and pressed it flat on her knees with shaking fingers. “I always hoped he come walking back someday.”
Jared wished now he’d never come. What a terrible thing to have during the Christmas season! It was like getting a telegram from the past that someone had died.
“I’m glad you’re here, Jared,” she said softly, still looking down at the paper and touching it softly.
He stared at her in surprise. “Why?”
Andrea smiled through her tears, as if her heart wasn’t breaking. “You understand. I’ve watched you. You know everything that goes on in the apartments. Everyone knows they can count on you, even the mailman.” She tilted her head to one side and regarded him with curiosity. “I’ve never seen you date or with a girl though. So, why haven’t you ever asked me out?”
He gulped, feeling his palms start to sweat. This was a little more than he’d expected. “I – I was afraid you would say no – you are always, um, busy.”
Her giggle surprised him, her face still wet with tears, her eyes sparkling with a light that captivated him. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to ask you. How do you feel about cruising?”
I think I’m on the forgotten list this year. My friends at school didn’t even remember to get me a gift. Mom and Dad almost forgot me. New baby and all. Grandma didn’t get me anything. There are a lot of gifts for the baby though. I feel sorry for my younger brother. Everyone forgot him too. Forgetfulness is in full force this year.
I wonder if there are other people who feel forgotten, especially around this time of year. Are there people like that here? I’ll ask Mom. If she’s awake, that is…
The little girl named Clarissa sighed as she closed her diary. Her parents were with the baby. The bedroom door opened. David, her brother, peeked in. She smiled as he entered.
“Mom and Dad are with the baby.” he said as he plopped down on her bed. “We’re going out for dinner again. Mom’s tired.”
“She’s been tired a lot lately,” She replied, shifting onto her stomach. “makes you feel left out, huh?” He nodded.
“I want to go out and buy Christmas presents.” He moaned.
“I have an idea,” she whispered. “Why don’t we go out and find people who don’t have much and get them gifts so they have something nice at Christmas.”
“Let’s go ask Mom and Dad if we can.”
After walking for a while, they found a big house, the driver way covered in snow. Peering through the windows, they decided nobody was home. Glancing at each other, they ran back home and came back with shovels. After catching their breath, they started shoveling.
Three hours later, they finished. “We’d better go home now,” David said, shivering. “It’s getting dark.”
As they headed home, a old man’s face appeared in one of the windows. A smile formed as he watched the kids walk away.
“Where have you been? Do you realize you’ve been gone for three hours? Where did you go?” Their father said. “We were worried sick.”
“I’m sorry. We were shoveling that old man’s driveway. We didn’t realize how long we were gone.”Clarissa explained. David was hiding behind her.
“Well, at least you got home safe.” Her mother turned away, paused, and turned back. “What old man’s driveway?”
We have begun our forgotten list. We have seven people so far. Oh! And the retirement home needs a new tree. Somebody stole their fake tree. I think we could get a good one from that nice man, Gerard?, we got ours from. He said he’d save us a tree until we could pay for it. And he’ll deliver it! I’m going to give a poor homeless man a pair of shoes and his daughter a nice warm scarf. I wonder who lives in that nice house with the unshoveled driveway? There is this widow with five kids near school. She works all the time. David and I are saving up every penny we can to pay for the tree and gifts. I don’t think mom and dad suspect anything….
The clerk at the counter glanced up as Clarissa and David came in. Clarissa went over to a basket of yarn while David studied picture frames.
The clerk, whose name tag read Mandy, watched the pair wandering around the store selecting various items. The girl picked up skeins of yarn, the boy found a picture frame. They continued for some time then approached the clerk with their arms full.
“What are you going to do with all this?” she asked as she rang up the sale.
“We’re giving it to people, of course.” the girl replied. “Do you know where I can get really good shoes?” Mandy nodded.
It’s finally Christmas Eve! All the gifts are ready. Mandy from the store is coming over to help us deliver them. Thanks to her and Dad, I got a really good pair of shoes for Charles! Mom helped with the scarf. We barely have enough for the tree. That’s our last stop! The old man who lives in that house we shoveled asked us to come over. We’ll go there just before the tree. The poor widow is getting socks and scarves for her kids. I’m giving Mandy five rolls of film. She loves photography. It’s snowing too.
“This is for you,” Clarissa said, holding out the gift she was carrying. The woman at the door stared at the girl, then took the gift. Clarissa turned and rejoined Mandy and David on the side walk. Clarissa took hold of a wagon with a plastic bag full of gifts on it and David’s hand in her free one.
“Merry Christmas!” They called. The woman waved as Mandy pulled out a camera and took a picture of her. She watched the group make their way down the street, Mandy snapping a picture of the two children while they were still ahead of her.
Clarissa approached the homeless man and his daughter. She held out a gift for each of them. Tearing off the wrapping paper, the little girl discovered a hand-made scarf. Charles held a nice pair of shoes. “My dad said these are the most lasting kind.” she explained.
“Thank you,” He managed.
“I made the scarf myself. Do you like it?” Clarissa asked his daughter. She nodded.
The old man heard the knock at his door. He stood up, guessing who it was. When he opened the door, he smiled at Clarissa and her brother.
“I never gave you a reward for shoveling my driveway for me. Come in, you must be freezing. And you,” he called to Mandy, who stood at the end of the porch. “you’re helping them so come in.”
“We are trying to get this done soon,” Clarissa said. “We need to pick up a Christmas tree for the retirement home.” she held out a wrapped box to him. He took it and beckoned them into his living room. When they had all sat down he began to open the gift.
His smile widened as the wrapping fell away. He held a well made pair of gloves. “I hope they fit,” Clarissa murmured. “I used my dad’s hands for sizing.” He pulled them on, then held up his hands to make sure they fit.
“Wait here. Now I have something for you.” He stood and went to a chair with a blanket on it. Pulling the blanket off he revealed two gifts, one purple, one green. Picking these up, he gave the purple wrapped one to Clarissa and the green one to her brother. They opened them and gasped.
Clarissa gently lifted a beautiful porcelain doll wearing a ice blue dress. The boy held a hand carved horse and rider. She looked back in her box and carefully set the doll aside. Rising she pulled out a beautiful dress the same color as the doll’s. Mandy stood and took the dress from the girl. She then held it up to the girl to see if it was the right size.
David also set aside his toy and out of his box came a black jacket. Clarissa set the dress down and walked over to the man. Smiling she hugged him, saying, “Thank you. I love the dress.” David joined them, still holding the jacket. Mandy secretly took out her camera and snapped a picture of the group. And then just as sneakily slid it back into her bag.
“Hey! Over here!” Gerard turned toward their shout and smiled. “Is our tree ready?”
“Finally,” He walked over. “I hope I saved the right tree. Come and make sure for me, will you?” They followed him to the tree, then grinned at the man.
“Yep, this is the one. How long do you think it’ll take to get it there?” They asked, anxious.
“Not too long, I promise. Hey, clerk lady, leave the other trees alone, will ya? They have to withstand people tormenting them all through December. Give ’em a break for Christmas.”
Mandy walked over to the designated tree and began to examine it. “Hey, kids! Look over here!” Turning back towards Gerard, all three of them saw he had a camera right as the flash went off. Mandy gasped and dug through her bag, then glared at Gerard, looking angry.
“Why you-! Give it back! That cost me a month of savings! You’d better not damage it or I’ll-!”
Gerard ran off holding up the camera. She followed, snatching up snow for a snowball.
Clarissa and her brother glanced at each other. “I didn’t even know she had a camera.” David said with a bewildered shrug.
“You’re helping them with their little errands, so you get to be in the pictures too! You can’t always hide behind the camera!”
“I’m going to burn that picture when it’s developed! I always look horrible in pictures!”
“But it’s such a lovely picture! You should have copies made!”
“Give it back!”
The sound of two children’s laughter and the shouts of two adults playing could be heard through all the lot.
“This is such a lovely tree! All the residents will be thrilled! We’ll decorate it tonight!” The retirement home worker said. “I couldn’t believe that someone stole our fake tree.”
“I’ll have to get it settled in place first. Just a little longer kids.” Gerard was adjusting the base of the tree while the children held it still. He gave a final twist to the screw. “There! You can decorate it now.”
“We’ve just finished getting all the decorations together. Hey, everyone! The tree is ready for decorating!” A group of elderly people and retirement workers gathered round the tree trailing decorations. In a short time, the tree was fully decorated.
“Alright, who should get to put the star on?” The receptionist asked. “The girl!” A elderly man called out. “Yeah, and have the tree seller help her!” Another one cried. The receptionist nodded, then opened a box in her arms. She fished through the tissue paper inside and pulled out a white angel holding a golden star as tall as the angel. She carefully gave the angel to Clarissa, then Gerard gently picked her up and put her by the tree where she could reach the top. As carefully as she could, she placed the angel securely on the tree.
One of the male caregivers had stolen Mandy’s camera. “Not again,” she moaned. “You four get in front of the tree,” He instructed. The others pushed them into place. When they were ready, he took the picture.
“Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t all you young people go outside and build a snowman while all us elderly people watch.” The woman who had received David’s gift mused.
“Yes, “ The others agreed. “You go have some fun.” They pushed the young people out the door. The residents lined up to watch from the porch.
The snowman slowly took shape as the young people worked. Right as they finished, David yelled “snowball fight!” and hit one of the retirement workers with a snowball. Everyone dove for cover before throwing their own snowballs. One young man ended up in front of the snowman trying to protect it. He snatched up snow as fast as he could and threw it at anyone he could see.
Everyone else ran around trying not to get hit and throwing snowballs at each other. The tenants were laughing and cheering various individuals in the fight.
“That’s enough! Come inside before we all freeze.” A tenant yelled. Four of the adults seized the two children and carried them, laughing, back inside. The rest followed panting and grinning.
Two hours later, Gerard, the man from the tree lot, dropped Clarissa and David off at their home. He drove a dark red pick up truck. Mandy grinned from the passenger seat. “Merry Christmas!” They yelled from the side walk. The pair in the truck waved back.
I hate Christmas, Laurie thought as she scanned the barcode of yet another vampire romance. She jabbed the touch screen on the register and waited impatiently for the receipt to roll out. It was Christmas Eve at the downtown bookstore. Plastic garlands and twinkling lights decorated the walls, Manheim Steamroller blared over the loudspeakers, and the checkout lines snaked all the way to the doors.
Laurie glanced up to see the store manager jostling through the crowd. Red-faced and scowling, Mr. Vaughan looked like an evil Santa in his furry cap with the white pompom dangling over his ear. “Where’s your hat?” His voice was a harsh whisper.
“Just a minute.” Laurie grabbed the thing from where she’d stashed it under the counter and pulled it on. Blondes and brunettes looked cute in Santa caps, but freckled-faced, red-heads like Laurie looked positively feverish. Besides, it itched.
“I’ll take over here,” he said. “Straighten up the kids’ books. It’s a mess up there.”
Bing Crosby was crooning “White Christmas” for the umpteenth time as Laurie climbed the stairs to the children’s section. What a mess. Picture books were strewn over the floor and stacked on the table and chairs. Laurie pushed back her Santa cap and rubbed her forehead. Why didn’t parents watch their kids? They left them to wreck havoc in the children’s area and expected someone else to pick up after them. Laurie might have been more tolerant if she had children of her own, but she was a college student working part-time at the bookstore, single and determined to stay that way.
One boy sat on the floor playing with a Christmas pop-up book. He laughed as Santa and his reindeer flew up from the page and then folded back down–again and again. Laurie snatched it away. “If you tear that book you’ll have to pay for it,” she said.
He ran off crying for his mommy.
The other children glanced at Laurie suspiciously. She loomed over them, hands on her hips, her name tag dangling from her neck on a long lanyard. “Merry Christmas,” she snarled.
The children fled. Only one little girl remained. Bundled up in a furry, red jacket, she sat on a child-sized chair hugging a book. Laurie guessed the child was three or four, too young to read. Someone would have to read it to her. Laurie glanced at her watch. Why not? Santa Vaughan was busy downstairs gloating over the cash registers. “Would you like to hear the story?” Laurie asked.
The child held up the book. She didn’t speak or look at Laurie’s face. Her dark brown eyes moved from the floor to Laurie’s dangling name tag and to the floor again. Laurie had enough nieces and nephews to know that this was a special-needs child. Why was she alone? Where was her mother?
Sitting on the floor beside her, Laurie opened the book. To her surprise, it wasn’t about Santa. “Mary and Joseph are going to Bethlehem,” she began, telling the story in her own words. “Mary’s riding on a donkey because she’s going to have a baby.”
Still silent, the little girl leaned her head against Laurie’s arm.
“There was no room at the inn.” Laurie turned the page and pointed to the cow and the donkey. “So they slept in a stable with the animals. That’s where Baby Jesus was born.”
Laurie smiled, enjoying the moment. She hadn’t thought about Christ’s birth in days. Christmas had become nothing more than noisy crowds, “credit or debit?”and Mr. Vaughan’s unpleasant face.
“An angel appeared and told the shepherds that Jesus was born.” Laurie recited the Bible verses she’d memorized in Primary: “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.” Laurie turned the page. “The shepherds came to worship Jesus.”
“Chandi!” A dark-haired woman rushed over to the little girl and scooped her up in her arms.
Laurie smiled, watching Chandi snuggle against her mother’s neck. But Laurie’s smile quickly disappeared. Was that an Indian sari the woman wore under her coat? And was she speaking Hindi? I’m in trouble now, Laurie thought. If Chandi’s mother was offended by the Bible story and complained to Mr. Vaughan, Laurie was afraid she’d lose her job.
She tucked the Christmas book under her arm, hoping the East Indian woman hadn’t seen it.
“Thank you. Thank you so much” The mother spoke clearly but with an accent. “I thought Chandi was with me but when I turned around, she was gone. I’ve been looking everywhere. Thank you for taking care of her.”
“You’re welcome,” Laurie said. The little girl leaned from her mother’s arms, reaching for the book.
“Let me see that,” the mother said. “I think my daughter wants it.”
Trying not to appear nervous, Laurie handed her the book. Chandi’s mother sat down on the little chair and Chandi climbed in her lap. Laurie wanted to dash downstairs but she still had work to do. She shelved books while the mother read to her daughter, translating the words into their own language.
“Gee-jas,” the little girl said.
Surprised to hear the child’s voice, Laurie turned and saw Chandi pointing to the picture of the baby Jesus. The mother hugged her daughter close and continued to read. When they got up to leave a short time later, Laurie gestured with a little wave. “Bye-bye.”
Chandi didn’t respond.
“My daughter is autistic,” the mother said, clutching Chandi’s hand. “That’s the first word I’ve heard her say. Thank you again.”
“Merry Christmas,” Laurie said. And she meant it.
Claire sighed as she looked in the window of the store. Some scraggly tinsel had been strewn around the usual half-clothed mannequins in a way that was decidedly depressing. Christmas in Africa was not what she had hoped it would be. Logically, she’d known that, south of the equator, the weather would be getting warmer just in time for the holiday. But that still made it feel a bit wrong. And being in a Muslim country meant that any nod to Christmas was purely for commercial reasons. People were in fact much more excited about the approach of Ramadan than they were about Christmas. Still, life in Zanzibar was interesting and her research kept her busy, so she didn’t dwell on the lack of holiday spirit. She’d try to make up for it next year when she’d be home with her family again. But that didn’t mean that she wouldn’t try her hardest to explain it to Omar.
“You should see Temple Square at Christmas, Omar,” she began, “They wrap hundreds of lights all around every single tree—it’s nearly as bright as daylight! It’s so pretty!”
“Does it make it look like Times Square, then?” Omar asked, amused. Something about the rounded vowels and jaunty cadence of African-spoken English made listening to Omar a delight. Despite the accent, Claire was aware that Omar knew more about most major American cities than she did, having obsessively read up on them.
“Well, no, nothing like Times Square. But it’s happier than Times Square,” she added lamely.
“What about in your city, then, in Pilgrim Square?” He was still grinning cheerily.
“Pioneer Square,” she corrected, glancing up at him, “No, they don’t do a whole lot in Pioneer Square. It’s mostly just a bunch of homeless people, really… In other parts of Seattle they decorate more. They used to put up a huge star on one of the buildings. I wonder if they still do that?
“Wait a second,” she paused, “how do you even know the word for pilgrim, let alone that there’s a square like that in Seattle?” she suddenly demanded.
Omar laughed, making his short corkscrew curls of black hair shake merrily, “I am just teasing you. Of course we know about pilgrims! Most Africans know more about American history than about our own continent!”
“That’s so weird to me. Aren’t you proud of your home?”
“Yes.” Omar answered, suddenly serious. “We are very proud. But we know that if we want to make Africa great, we need to study other nations which are also great. That is why I wish to travel to America some day.”
Claire thought about that for a moment. She had been on Zanzibar, a small island off the coast of Tanzania, for nearly four months now, almost half her internship, and she had known Omar since she stepped off the plane. It was Omar, with his fluent English and competent help, who had managed to get her luggage shipped from Dar es Salaam back to the island, a fact for which she would always be grateful. Omar had a respectable job working for the tiny airport on Zanzibar, but his real dream was to travel, ostensibly to America, but he would probably be happy going just about anywhere.
“But you still didn’t explain how you knew about Pioneer Square.”
“Ah, yes, I read about it somewhere when I was reading about Chief Sealth. He is who your city was named after.”
“Yeah, I know of him.” Claire grinned, “But I still think you’re weird.”
Omar pushed at her arm playfully and laughed again.
“Here we are,” Omar announced, stopping in front of an intricately carved door. It was one of the many things that Claire loved about Zanzibar—for all its jungles and palm trees—things that seemed to breathe Africa—it was also very Arabic. Stone Town, with its winding, narrow streets, looked like it could have been taken straight out of 1,001 Arabian Nights.
“Who lives here?” she asked. In order to improve her Swahili and her understanding of the island, Omar had helped her to set up casual interviews with people he deemed important.
“Her name is Tatu. Her grandfather used to be a great slave trader.”
Claire tried to conceal her shock. “Is she African or Arabic?”
“Who knows? She is Zanzibari,” Omar laughed again, then spoke using Claire’s Swahili name, “Kamaria, we are so mixed here that there is no longer any difference to us. But Tatu will be interesting to speak with.”
“But I thought… I thought just white people had slaves.” Claire felt awkward and embarrassed just saying such a thing.
“No, no, Kamaria,” and now Omar’s smile was gentle and kind, “Many Africans were also involved, buying and selling tribes that we warred with. The slaves that came through Stone Town were all sent to the Middle East.”
Claire just swallowed and tried to not feel horrible. She wondered how people could be as forgiving and kind as Omar.
A couple hours later, Claire was finished with her interview. She was glad for her meeting with Tatu, but tired from having to concentrate for so long as she tried to follow the rapid Swahili. It was a relief now to wander the streets of Stone Town alone. The first week she’d been here, she had been afraid of getting hopelessly lost. But she’d quickly realized that for all its crazy, twisted streets, Stone Town was actually very small. If you missed where you were going, eventually you’d either get to the beach or the Portuguese Fortress, so you could never be too lost. This knowledge had given her much more confidence and now she walked easily through the streets. Taking a long route that avoided the reeking fish market, Claire finally arrived where the main stores and shops were located. This time, though, Claire wasn’t just critiquing the Christmas decorations. She was looking for a Christmas gift for Omar. It was proving difficult because most of the stores all sold the same basic items—rice, Fanta, toilet paper—nothing that would make for a very good Christmas gift. A few had rip-off watches and electronics (Claire still smiled every time she checked the time on her fake Nike watch that read “Nikef”), but nothing that was very unique or that Claire thought Omar would particularly like. What could she possibly give him to express how much she appreciated his friendship?
After an hour of wandering, Claire gave up. She was sweaty and tired and needed a break from the intense tropical sun. She bought a bottle of cold water—maji poa—from a street vendor and hurried to her room in the guesthouse. The key that unlocked her door looked like something out of a mystery novel—old and twisted and somehow romantic—except for the block of wood attached with a giant “3” scribbled in pen. A small newt was crouched in the corner of the ceiling of her room and she smiled at it. “Hey, buddy, eat plenty of mosquitoes for me tonight, hey?” she called, and kicked off her shoes and flopped onto the soft bed. A few pieces of cotton leaked out of the mattress and fluttered to the floor. Ah, Africa, Claire thought, You gotta love it.
It was when half her water was gone that Claire noticed the Swahili Book of Mormon on her suitcase. Her Mom had sent it to her a few weeks ago, pointing out that missionaries often studied the scriptures in the language they were trying to learn, and maybe it would help her out, too. Claire had been annoyed. Her mom was always bothering her about serving a mission, but Claire just didn’t feel that that was what God wanted her to do. Claire didn’t mind—she felt sure that there were other important things that she could do with her life. But convincing her mother was proving difficult, and it had become a sore subject between them.
She picked up the Book of Mormon and flipped the pages. Suddenly the answer was so obvious she couldn’t believe she’d wasted so much time wandering around the market place.
* * * * *
Five years later, Claire was juggling her baby over to her other hip in order to answer the insisting ring of her cell phone. The number of the incoming call was unfamiliar.
“Kamaria?” the deep voice on the other end asked. It was a name no one had called her in years.
“Ndiyo!” she answered breathlessly, and then, automatically switching to English, “Who is this?”
“Kamaria, this is Omar!”
“Omar! Where are you? HOW are you? What have you been doing?” Claire was so startled she could hardly get the words out.
“I have just come to the United States. Finally I have come to improve my English! Kamaria, you did not tell me—“
Claire broke in, “In America? Where in America? You have to meet my husband and meet my little girl and, oh, Omar, I can hardly believe that you’re suddenly in America! How did you ever save up for it?”
“Yes, that’s what you did not tell me! After I finally joined your Church—“
Claire couldn’t help it and broke in again, “YOU JOINED THE CHURCH? When did that happen?”
“About two years ago. It happened about a year after I lost your address, so I could not tell you. The missionaries knocked on my door and when I told them that I already had a Swahili Book of Mormon, instead of leaving, they just kept asking me questions and telling me things and before I know it, I am Mormon, too!”
“BUT THAT’S WONDERFUL, Omar!” Claire could hardly keep from screaming in excitement into the phone, “I NEVER thought you’d read it after you looked so disappointed when I gave it to you! I thought that was the end of our friendship!”
“Yes, I was sort of hoping for more from my rich American friend, but it turned out to be a much greater blessing than money. I am grateful for you sharing it with me, now. I’m sorry that I did not—how you say, react?—in such a way at the time…”
Claire paused for a moment, trying to gather her thoughts. She felt like there were more questions than she could possibly ask in one phone conversation. She finally went back to one of her previous questions, “But how did you come to the United States?”
“That was another thing that I didn’t understand for a long time. But many months after I joined the Church, I learned of the Perpetual Education Fund. I am studying with help from it.”
Claire had sunk down into her chair by now, setting the baby gently on the floor to kick her fat little legs.
“Omar, I never knew. The things you’ll be able to do now…”
“Yes,” and he laughed again that rich, round laughter that Claire had missed for five years now, “Yes, finally, I can see Temple Square at Christmas time. And perhaps Pioneer Square, too.”
An old ugly lamp. That’s what was sitting on their front porch in the morning; an old ugly lamp. They were expecting some pretty decoration, or a fun game, or at least a yummy treat, but this wasn’t pretty, or fun, or yummy. It was just ugly.
The family had been looking forward to this morning for several weeks. Several years ago the families in the neighborhood had started a tradition of giving a secret gift to one of their neighbors on the morning of December 13th. It came to be known as Christmas Breather, since it was an exciting break in the middle of the busy holiday rush. Every family in the neighborhood picked a house and left a gift on the doorstep sometime after sunset on the evening of the 12th or before sunrise on the morning of the 13th. If the giver found that there was a gift already there on the intended porch, they had to move to another house until they found an empty doorstep to leave their present.
It started with just a few neighbors, but had grown to include several blocks. The gifts had become more elaborate as well: fancy cheesecakes, decorative wreathes, and even large lawn ornaments. Everyone got excited about Christmas Breather. The lengths that people would go to deposit their presents that evening had almost become a sport in itself. Many Christmas decoration storage boxes throughout the neighborhood now included several pieces of stealth equipment, such as motion detectors and night-vision goggles. This family was no exception. Little did the neighbors suspect that interwoven in the Christmas lights on the roofline of the house were several low-light cameras put there specifically for that evening. Due to various schemes the previous year, Dad had not gotten out to deliver the family’s gift until just after sunrise on the 13th. He finally found a small dark house several blocks away that didn’t have a present on the porch. This year, with the aid of an elaborate diversion, he managed to place the family’s present much earlier in the evening.
Today, most of the family members were wearing their Christmas socks that they had received last year for Christmas Breather (all except Landon who had ruined his socks during the summer in building a gopher trap). The socks were warm and comfortable, and had been a memorable Breather gift for the family. This year’s gift was bound to be memorable as well, but not for the same reasons.
It was so ugly and old. It might be different if it were either ugly or old, but both – that was just too much. It was made of some kind of white ceramic or plaster, which could be seen in the numerous spots where the paint had been chipped off. The entire lamp was in the shape of a giant mushroom house, with several smaller mushrooms forming various annexes. Interspersed among the windows and doorways were several miniature gnomes – old, ugly gnomes. The entire thing stood nearly four feet tall and weighed close to 50 pounds. On top of the lamp was a cheap faded yellow shade.
Dad hauled the monstrosity into the front room and the whole family stood around it staring. The looks on their faces ranged from wonder to loathing to fear. After a very long pause, Landon asked with an air of genuine concern, “what is it?” Dad replied that it appeared to be some kind of lamp and proceeded to plug the thing in. The room was immediately engulfed in a sickly pail yellow light. After yet another long and silent pause, Mom stated that it was getting late and that everyone needed to get ready for school or work. Each family member slowly pulled their gaze away from the lamp and dragged themselves away from the spectacle in their front room now sucking holiday cheer from the air. Each one of them had a dazed look on their face as they left the room, as if they had just witnessed a car accident.
Over the next few days, the family just tried to wrap their minds around the whole situation. Several neighbors came over to gaze at the thing and speculate who would have owned such a hideous object, let alone possibly conceive of giving it to another human being as a gift. Nobody had any ideas. In all the years the neighborhood had been participating in this tradition, no one had received anything like this. It had to be some kind of horrible mistake.
The lamp was placed in a back room of the basement. Several times various family members went down and stared at the lamp with a feeling of awe mixed with revulsion, except the younger children who were just afraid of it. The lamp appeared to be hand painted and the detail was impressive, but that didn’t make up for horrific form of the overall piece. Breaking it up and throwing it away had been discussed several times, but no one wanted to follow through with it. They really wanted it out of the house, but they also wanted to solve the mystery of where it came from. Besides there was also some unspoken feeling that damaging it might offend whatever demonic spirit originally created it or currently possessed it.
As Christmas day drew closer, the lamp was largely forgotten as other preparations and celebrations took over everyone’s time and thoughts. A few days before Christmas, a letter arrived from a local attorney’s office. It contained a forwarded letter that the attorney had been instructed to deliver to the family. The letter read:
Dear sir and family,
I hope you like my lamp. You don’t know me. I’m the man whose house you left the present at last year during the Breather Holiday. You see I’m alone. My wife died last year and we had no children. Last year was my first Christmas alone. I have no family so I wasn’t going to get anything for Christmas. It seems silly for an old man to say, but you can’t imagine how hard it is to have Christmas all alone. No one had ever left me a Breather present before. I stayed up the whole night just waiting for one. I didn’t expect to get one, but it was my only hope of getting a present this year. When the sun came up I broke down and cried because I didn’t get one and I felt so alone. Then you came and left me a present. You can’t imagine how happy I felt. That present got me through Christmas and gave me hope to continue on. This year I wanted to give you something. I don’t have much. The thing that I have that is worth the most is my lamp.
When my wife and I were first married, I bought her an unpainted lamp for our first Christmas. We were so poor and our apartment was so empty I wanted to get her something to decorate it with. The lamp was all I could afford. She almost cried because it was so ugly. I guess I have no taste for those kinds of things. She painted it anyway as best she could. Over the years we joked about it. It became a symbol of Christmas to us. It’s the only thing we still had from when we were first married. It’s the only thing I have of her now. I know it’s not as fancy as the other stuff you will get for Christmas. But I want to show you how much your present meant to me last year. Now I know why you call it the Christmas Breather. It was like a breath from heaven to me.
I can never thank you enough.
The attorney’s letter added that the old man was very ill, and had passed away on the 20th. His letter to the family was among his papers.
After finishing the letter, Dad immediately carried the lamp up into the front room and placed it next to the Christmas tree. For some reason, it wasn’t nearly as ugly as the family had remembered it being. The glow from the yellow lamp cast a warm hue over all of the Christmas decorations and bathed the room in a golden glow. Every family member sat and stared at it with a look of reverence. The care that had been taken to paint it so precisely was evident, as was the delicate repairs here and there around the sculpture.
From that year on, there were some new points added to the family’s Breather tradition. The evening of the 12th is the day that the lamp is brought out of storage and displayed in a prominent location next to the tree, and the letter read and discussed. The family also gives two Breather presents: one in the regular tradition, and a second one to some small dark house without a present (no matter how far Dad has to drive to find such a house).
No matter what colorful adjectives visitors use to describe the lamp to the family, and how much they try to convince them to dispose of it (and many have tried), nothing can dissuade them from seeing it for something else: a breath from heaven.
I awoke with a start, my body full of the tingling relief that comes
with the end of a nightmare. But I knew it hadn’t been a dream, and the
metal band encircling my head proved it. I quickly sat up, heart
pounding, and looked around apprehensively. The room was my own. The bed
was my own.
The time before me was my own.
I leapt to my feet and dashed to the bookshelf, gingerly removing an
old, leather-bound copy of Great Expectations. “They’re still here!” I
cried, running a hand across the spines of my most treasured works. “I’m
here, and they’re here, and they haven’t been sold on eBay!” And they
never would be. I had the chance to make things right.
Returning the book, I fumbled to remove the metal band from around my
head. Dressing as quickly as I could, I hurried from the bedroom. I
stopped short at the sight of the half-eaten cashew chicken, still
sitting on the coffee table where I had left when the trouble began.
Without thinking I glanced towards the door, remembering my surprise at
seeing Jacob’s face through the peep hole – Jacob, my once dear friend
and partner, who had left the executive ranks to become a research
engineer. He’d been as good as dead to me all the years since, until he
and his engineering interns had walked through my door.
He’d brought three interns with him: the girl, petit and blonde, looking
more like a child than a graduate student; the large red-headed boy
wearing the green plaid shirt – I had to look twice to make sure he
wasn’t carrying an ax; and the third boy, with the unruly black hair,
heavy eye makeup and long, dark trench coat. He came in last, wheeling
the machine ahead of him.
Jacob’s time machine.
I turned and saw it next to the La-Z-Boy, the bright silver streaked
with soot; a faint smell of ozone lingering around it. I reached out and
gently touched the ruined control panel on top, running my fingers along
the now melted and buckled plastic, still warm to the touch.
“You don’t actually travel through time,” the girl had told me as she
connected a bundle of wires to the band on my head. “But every action on
this world creates ripples in time and space, and this machine gathers
and condenses them.” Then, one by one, each of Jacob’s assistants took a
turn focusing the machine, guiding me through the events of my life.
How long had it actually taken? I had no idea. I felt suddenly faint at
the memory of what I had seen, and flopped into my easy chair, landing
clumsily on my television remote.
The boxy old set across the room flashed to life, and Crazy Marty
shouted out above the peal of church bells, extolling the virtues of his
After Christmas Home Theater Sale. After Christmas? Had I missed it, then?
I turned off the television, sprang to my feet, and ran to the window.
Walking along the street below, I spied a young boy in his Sunday
clothes dawdling on the sidewalk as his family hurried ahead. I’d have
opened the window and called to him, had the window been the opening
kind and I not been twenty stories up.
Instead, I reached into my pocket, grabbed my cell phone, and dialed my
“What’s today?” I asked, as soon as he answered.
“Eh?” he replied.
“Today, today – what day is it?”
“Today? Why, Christmas Day.”
“It’s Christmas Day!” I said to myself, holding the phone to my chest.
“I haven’t missed it, then. The interns have done it all in one night.”
Returning the phone to my ear, I asked, “Do you know Crazy Marty’s Home
Theater Systems, a block from my apartment, on the corner?”
“Of course,” replied the concierge.
“Wonderful. Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize TV – not the LCD,
but the giant plasma one?”
“What? The one with the screen as tall as me?”
“Yes! That’s the one,” I said.
There was a brief pause, followed by a soft clicking sound. “Their
online store says it’s still in stock.”
“Excellent!” I said. “Go and buy it.”
“Shut up!” exclaimed the concierge.
“No, no,” I said. “I mean it. Go and buy it, and tell them to deliver
it. I’ll send you the address. There’s a hefty bonus in it for you if
it’s there within the hour.”
I hung up the phone and laughed, imagining the look on my assistant
Bob’s face as the delivery men arrived with that hulking screen. Ty
Pennington never played a better joke, I thought.
Moving quickly to my computer, I sent an email to the concierge with
Bob’s home address. I was about to stand, when the memory of a discarded
email forced its way into my consciousness.
Opening the Deleted Mail folder, I was filled with sudden regret at the
sight of an unopened email from a member of my board, requesting a small
donation for his charitable trust. Without a moment’s hesitation, I
opened the message, clicked the online donation link, and in less than a
minute was ready to send a substantial sum via PayPal.
“This includes a great many back payments,” I wrote in the comment box
before clicking “Submit.”.
The room filled with a deafening silence as I shut down my computer, and
I was overcome with the urge – completely foreign to me – to leave my
lonesome home and seek out the company of friends.
“Why, of course,” I said to myself, taking my phone in hand. “I’ll go
visit Fred and his wife.” I began to dial my nephew’s number, but
cancelled before all of the digits were in. It simply wouldn’t do to
call ahead – a surprise would be much more fun.
I giggled as I instead rang for a driver and car. The poor dispatcher
apologized profusely as she told me there would be a thirty-minute wait
on account of it being Christmas. Though I’m sure she expected a furious
tirade, I simply thanked her, told her not to worry, and wished her a
The dispatcher’s speechless response brought on a return of my giggles.
It was all I could do to stifle them in time for one more joke.
I dialed the number of my assistant, and the phone rang but once before
a trembling voice answered.
“What do you mean by staying home today?” I asked in the gruffest voice
I could manage.
“I’m very sorry, sir,” came the reply. “I…”
“I’m not going to stand this sort of thing any longer,” I roared. “And
therefore, I’m going to raise your pay grade, effective immediately.” I
paused for effect, and then continued. “Which, of course, makes you
eligible for the executive benefits plan. Now you can ditch that crummy
HMO and take your kid to a real doctor. Merry Christmas, Bob.”
I disconnected the call before he had a chance to reply, and laughed
with a mirth I hadn’t felt in years. Light of heart, I gathered my coat
and hat and prepared to meet the car downstairs. I was just reaching for
the door when my cell phone chimed. Someone had sent me a text message.
Curious, I stopped and took the phone from my pocket. The message was
from Bob. I read it, and then read it again. It wasn’t from Bob after
all. It was from his child. A tear escaped my eye, and I felt as though
my heart would burst as I read the message over and over: “God bless us,
— With the deepest of gratitude to Charles Dickens
Everyone has a favorite Christmas. Mine, without a doubt, was the year I stole each and every one of my family’s Christmas presents.
We were fairly newly married, though at the time I felt like a very seasoned and wise wife. We had a one-year-old son whom I had never forgotten at the grocery store, therefore, I considered myself a terribly successful mother, as well.
Our adorable little family had earlier that year packed up our meager belongings, donated our non-operating car, and moved from the mountains of Utah to the arid deserts of Arizona. My husband was in his first year of graduate school with what felt like decades stretching out ahead of him. He was gainfully employed, if one could consider paychecks in the double digits “gainful.” We lived in a tiny apartment just below a heavy metal enthusiast whose enormous set of speakers were, apparently, only capable of playing extremely loud music, and only between the hours of midnight and five o’clock in the morning.
These things could be overlooked, though. Christmas was coming. I had always loved Christmas, but being a wife and mother had taken my devotion to a whole new level. I desperately wanted it to be perfect.
At the beginning of December that year, I packed up the little sweetie-pie and the two dozen diapers that a one-year-old requires for an hour long expedition into the vast world of retail shopping and made a trip to my own personal Mecca: the craft store. I bought a spool of discounted ribbon that I argued was close enough to green to be considered festive and the largest undecorated wreath I could afford, one that could, after the Holidays, double as a very earthy-type bracelet. Several diaper changes and a short car ride later, I unpacked my purchases and set to work.
Glue guns and I have never truly understood one another. I cannot for the life of me manage to keep my fingers safe when using one. Tears were shed, but I soldiered on. Christmas required a wreath. I hung the final product on the front door with a short piece of silver duct tape and prayed that when the bass began thumping upstairs, the vibrations would not shake my little creation loose.
With that promising beginning, I set about decorating. We had no Christmas lights to hang and probably could not have afforded the electricity, anyway. I pulled the decorations out of storage, meaning, of course, I crawled under our bed and grabbed a tiny box. Inside sat the greatest Christmas-decorating invention since tinsel: an inflatable Christmas tree. After only thirty minutes of hyperventilation, I had an entirely portable, child-proof Christmas tree complete with ornaments painted onto its plastic exterior. Things couldn’t have been better.
At least, that’s what I told myself. In my heart I knew the entire thing was pathetic. There was no smell of gingerbread in the air or gentle, falling snow. We did not even have an electronic, animated Santa figurine in the front yard. I wanted the perfect Christmas. Years down the road when I pulled out pictures of that holiday season, there would be no sighs of blissful remembering.
Christmas was a complete flop!
I distinctly remember dropping dramatically onto my bed after putting my son down for a nap and fighting back tears of frustration. I could live without gingerbread, could manage without snow, could somehow muscle my way past the disappointment of the missing animatronic Santa Clause. I could not, however, get past the realization that we hadn’t a single dime to spend on presents. The space beneath our inflatable tree would be empty. I was failing miserably during what was supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.
The company my husband essentially volunteered for – the running joke we cashed twice a month didn’t truly count as a salary – held its annual Holiday party two weeks before Christmas that year. We tricked some unsuspecting friends into babysitting for us and made a dash for it. Two hours away from diaper duty made me miss the little guy a whole lot less.
“An evening alone together,” my husband said as we drove off into the sunset of parental freedom, “that will be a great Christmas present.”
He knew I worried about the emptiness beneath our blow-up Christmas tree. Bless his heart, he’d declared everything imaginable a great Christmas present. I appreciated the effort, but the glaringly empty space around our tree served as a constant reminder that something vital was missing from our holiday.
I began the evening in a less-than-merry mood. The company was not a large one, but covered a remarkably wide demographic. Those like my husband and I who had learned to look upon a glass of water and a plate of air as a very sustaining meal found ourselves rubbing shoulders with the Chief Everything Officers who could probably have counted out the entirety of my husband’s annual income in pocket change.
I felt remarkably disgruntled right up to the point when we were handed our ticket for the prize raffle.
“Prize raffle?” I asked my husband.
He nodded. “Apparently, it’s a tradition.”
“What sort of prizes?”
He didn’t have time to answer. Someone in a designer dress announced the first item. At the time DVD players were considered rather cutting edge and were the sort of electronic gadget that was drooled over. I required a napkin within moments.
I held my breath, but watched a man in a suit claim the DVD player. A weekend getaway at a local resort went to a woman in a pair of heels I would sprain my ankle just looking at. The list went on and on and on. A couple standing near us won a honey-glazed ham. I thought of Christmas dinner and wondered how hard it would be to find good, quality ham in a 99-cent TV dinner.
The final prize actually made tears come to my eyes. They were giving away a $100 gift card to a retailer I loved enough to consider family but had not visited in quite some time.
I needed that gift card. My Christmas needed that gift card.
I didn’t win it.
We picked up our cranky one-year-old from the babysitter and returned home that night to the sound of blaring speakers and a conspicuously absent Holiday wreath. Someone had stolen my wreath. What kind of sick, criminal mind would do something like that?
I couldn’t sleep that night. Thoughts of lost ham and my estranged relationship with my beloved retail chain kept me awake. Somewhere very near the end of our upstairs neighbor’s nightly concert, I devised a most devious and wicked plan.
I would simply steal the presents for my inflatable, ridiculous, failure of a Christmas. There was no other choice. The entire season was falling apart around me and something had to be done. Though I was desperate, sharing a cell with the lowlifes who fingered my wreath did not seem like a good idea. Subtlety would be key. That and stealing things I already owned.
The next morning, after kissing my husband and feeding our son like the loving wife and responsible mother I was, I set off on my trek into the world of nefarious activities. I flipped through our closet and selected my favorite of my husband’s shirts. We’d purchased it during better times, when ten dollars wasn’t so hard to come by. I tucked the ill-gotten goods under an arm and attacked his sock drawer. I figured taking his shoes would draw too much attention.
Our son’s belongings were far easier to pilfer. I simply pulled a couple toys from his pile and put them in storage. And, yes, that meant under the bed. This went on for the entire two weeks leading up to Christmas. I tip-toed around the apartment, snagged our more prized belongings and hid them like the hardened, Christmas-crazed criminal that I was.
I became quite adept at looking innocently curious when my husband began asking if I’d seen things, like his jeans or the salt shaker. I held off on taking his toothbrush until Christmas Eve after he’d gone to bed.
The apartment was quiet underneath the familiar thumping. I slipped from our bedroom into the living room. I took my pick of Holiday TV reruns and began a flurry of wrapping that would require two hours, an entire roll of transparent tape and all the advertisements I’d received in the mail over the previous two weeks. We couldn’t even afford actual wrapping paper.
Christmas morning dawned early considering I’d been up half the night. I followed my husband into the living room and held my breath. I had no idea if my shady activities had paid off. Perhaps I’d only made things worse, more pathetic.
“Where did all these presents come from?” my husband asked.
Somehow I didn’t think “I stole them” would be the best answer. I shrugged and his expression grew more suspicious.
We opened present after present. I was particularly happy to receive my hairbrush – another item I had pilfered at the last possible moment. My husband expressed relief at finally locating his black shoelaces. Our son mostly just ate the paper.
Within the first few presents a remarkable thing happened. We began talking about the items we unwrapped and how glad we really were to have them: soap, clothing, utensils. They became “real” gifts. We realized that, while we were not wealthy, we were also not truly in need.
After we had unwrapped the entire pile of stolen gifts, my husband brought me a gift from the trunk of our car. It was not wrapped, which was not surprising.
He placed in my hands the most hideous Christmas wreath I had ever seen in all my life. He had gathered up all the loose change he could get his hands on and made a trip to a nearby thrift store. In the back, beneath the more presentable Holiday decorations, he had found that bit of grotesque festivity and, knowing how upset I had been at losing the wreath I had spent my entire Holiday budget on, he’d purchased it for me. I realized, standing there with that monstrosity of a Christmas wreath, surrounded by so many blessings I had taken entirely for granted, that even without fancy, flashy presents I had just experienced a perfect Christmas.
That wreath still hangs on our door every Christmas. Every year we give each other gifts we’ve “stolen” from ourselves – those things we are most grateful to already have. My husband always wraps up his wedding ring. I always steal a photograph of our family.
Everyone has a favorite Christmas. Mine was an inflatable, ridiculous, crime-riddled, failure of a Christmas I will never forget.
The broken ornaments lay on the floor like scattered crumpled petals from a golden flower. Sharon stared at them in dismay, her heart beating like crazy after the loud crash, and knowing that soon her mother would come running to see what had happened.
It had been an accident–she would never have dropped the heavy box on purpose! She knew how much these ornaments meant to her mother—hadn’t the story of them been told every Christmas since she could remember?
Sure enough, the quick heavy pounding of her mother’s steps up the stairs announced her arrival, and Sharon couldn’t look, knowing by the quick gasp of dismay that her mother had already seen the mess.
“Oh Sharon! What happened?” Her mother was down on the floor, cradling the fragile broken ornaments as if afraid to break them further.
“I didn’t mean to! It slipped out of my hands,” Sharon whimpered, tears filling her eyes, awaiting the angry blast to come—having experienced it many times and never fully prepared for the anger her mother could summon at the drop of a hat—or box in this case.
But to her surprise and confusion, her mother just knelt there on the floor holding the broken class as if something precious had been lost, tears silently streaming down her flushed cheeks. It was almost worse than the anger she’d been expecting and she didn’t know what to do. She moved to pick up the box and start putting the broken pieces in, but her mother made a sharp motion with her head.
“Leave them. I’ll get it.”
Sharon bit her lip, unsure of what to do. They were supposed to be decorating the tree. Her father and the rest of the family were all down stairs, waiting for the ornaments. The music from the CD they were listening to could be heard faintly through the floor, and the voices of her sister and brother as they argued over something trivial.
There was nothing for it, she needed to get the next box.
She turned and climbed up the short run of stairs to the attic, feeling a dread in her heart that wouldn’t lighten—the picture of her mother kneeling on the floor in her worn polyester pants and plaid shirt, the old apron covering her plump chest and stomach, her gray hair gathered up in the typical clasp and her eyes, small and tired in her lined face—full of tears.
When had her mother gotten old?
She had always felt she was old, but at that moment, she looked old. Come to think of it, her father had begun to look old as well. She supposed that happened when your children began growing up and life was passing you by. Sharon was the youngest, but she was 15, and a tall gangly 15 at that. Her parents were probably in their late 50’s, and she hadn’t really given it any thought before. She also knew that this Christmas was going to be hard on everyone—dad had just been informed he was going to be laid off after New Years. It was cut backs and everything.
So, on top of everything else, her parents were worried about how to make ends meet. The ornaments probably seemed like the last straw, and Sharon felt the weight of it in her heart. The ornaments had been handed down from Grandma. She had made some of them, but most of them were just things that had been handed down from her mother. There were some made of spun glass, some that were just fragile store bought ones, a couple that had dates on them from almost 60 years ago. Her favorite had been the angel with the broken off halo. It didn’t matter if a couple of the ornaments were chipped or worn, Sharon knew that to her mother they were remnants of her family in the past.
As she picked up the last box left—the only box of ornaments they had now, she wondered if they were going to be able to enjoy it or the evening. The box in her hands was full of the hand made school stuff she and her siblings had created over the years. She had created a new one to add this year—one that she’d made in Art class in school. Her teacher said that she had real talent, and praised her highly for the object she’d created. She’d been waiting in anticipation for this very day for her mother to see it and think it was as special as the others she’d held precious. Now it would be overshadowed by her weak grip and the sadness that would not go away.
She slowly went down the stairs, wishing her father had sent her brother instead of her, wasn’t he stronger? To find her mother had already cleaned up the broken glass, and left the hallway. There was no sign that anything had even happened, and she felt her breath catch in her throat in dismay. “Oh mom!”
She gripped the box in her hands tightly as she made her way back downstairs to the front room, putting it down on the coffee table amid shouts of “You’re so dumb!” “You’re the dumb one!” “Dad, he called me dumb!”
“Shut up, both of you!” their father yelled, his voice full of frustration and anger. “Can’t you think of anybody but yourselves? Can’t you see your mother is upset?”
Sharon’s brother and sister looked in surprise at their mother, who was sitting in the rocking chair by the tree, gazing at the empty fur in a dazed, tearful silence. The lights had already been put on by their father, his only willing participation in the ceremony. It just waited for the ornaments to grace it’s branches. The room fell silent, even the CD had stopped, and they could almost hear the drop of each tear as it fell off their mother’s cheek.
“What’s wrong, mom?” Kaity walked over, slipping an arm around her mother’s shoulders. “Someone die?”
“No,” their father said, sparing his wife from having to talk. “The box of ornaments got broken.”
“The ornaments?” the two of them gasped at the same time.
All the kids knew how special those ornaments were, and the thought of them being broken now was a true shock. They looked at Sharon, who was miserably opening up the box of hand made ornaments, wishing she could sink under the floor.
“What happened, Sharon?” Jack asked, his voice sharp. “Did you trip on something?”
Sharon shook her head, her chin trembling with her own despair. “I-it just slipped out of my hands,” she whispered.
Her brother was about to rail on her, and Kaity looked as if she would join in, but their father glared at them and everyone fell silent. Sharon realized that he seemed to know it was almost as terrible a thing for her as it was for their mother.
The next hour was spent silently adorning the tree with the few ornaments remaining, and Sharon looked at it in silent reproach to herself, knowing it was never enough for the large tree they had gotten. Watching her mother and father as they spoke softly to each other, she knew that they were debating if more decorations could be afforded.
Slipping away, she went to her room and retrieved the special one she’d made at school. She felt perhaps it would ease the pain in her mother’s heart, even if it couldn’t replace the whole box that she’d broken. She quietly reentered the family room, noticing the music had been restarted, and some light conversation between her brother and sister took some of the tension out of the room.
She walked up to her mother, still sitting in the rocking chair, and placed the paper wrapped item on her lap.
“Mom, I made this in art class and I wanted you to put it on the tree.”
Her mother looked up at her, a quizzical expression on her face, but she said nothing, only slowly unwound the newspaper that Sharon had made sure protected every inch. When she was finished, she held up a large Angel, complete with wire wings and halo over her glistening glass head.
“Oh, Sharon!” her mother’s astounded whisper was like a balm to her sad heart, and it lifted with some hope. “You made this?”
Her father reached out and lightly touched the fine wire that was serving as the wings and halo, as if he was afraid it would break under his touch.
“You made this by yourself?” His voice was low with wonder, and Sharon felt she’d finally done the right thing for once.
“Yeah, um, we were working with glass and wire as an experiment this past quarter, and I thought we needed a real angel for our tree.”
Her brother and sister came over to examine the angel and their oohs and ah’s were added to her parents, and then her father looked up, a determined expression on his face.
“Jack, go grab that chair and pull it over. This angel needs to be put on the top.”
Within minutes, they were all sitting in the darkened room, the Christmas lights on the tree the only light. The glistening angel at the top of the tree seemed to glow and fill the room with heavenly light. Sharon sat by her mother, whose arm rested tightly around her shoulders.
“Thank you, dear,” she said softly, her voice full of love. “That makes all the difference in the world.”
Somehow for a few minutes, Sharon realized the worries and fears of the future, the incident with the broken ornaments—all was pushed aside while they gazed at the small representation of a miracle in their lives, and she knew her mother forgave her.
What her family didn’t know, was her glass angel didn’t have a face. But, each of them were able to see features in the glass as they looked at it. They knew that someone dear was watching over them—which was what her mother had always said about the ornaments she had cherished. She had felt that each of their ancestors was watching over them through the ornaments she had held so dear. Now they were all gathered into one item of love, and it made everything able to bear again.