16: A Real Tree

“What does he think he’s doing?” I asked my twin sister Ellie. Outside the front window, my father wrestled with a gigantic pine tree. I sat at the kitchen table. My homework piled in front of me. Christmas break started yesterday, and I had work to do if I wasn’t going to be behind when school started again. My twin pulled a sheet of sugar cookies out of the oven and placed another sheet in. “Couldn’t we just have a hologram tree like everyone else?”

“Kai, you forget, dad lived on Earth. He likes to do things traditionally.” Ellie said as large mechanical hands washed the dishes in the sink, and placed them in the dishwasher. An old scratched record belted out a choir singing Christmas tunes. My mother was upstairs wrapping presents. The house stocked to bursting with holiday food.

“It’s stupid,” I said. “Doesn’t he know what he looks like fighting with a tree that is bigger than him?” I leaned back and pulled at the blond hair that kept falling in my face. While I looked like my dad, down to the green eyes. My twin was a striking image of my mother, dark red hair and blue eyes, her pale skin rivaled my mothers in whiteness.

“You hate everything lately, what’s gotten under your skin?” she said as she opened a large can of white frosting. The Christmas colored sprinkles were all ready lined up on the counter. I really hated that she can read me like a book.

“Nothing,” I replied, but I knew part of it was that my friends thought my dad was old fashioned, and I heard about it all the time. Noble Standing, the Head Elder of Caledonia, and object of jokes among my friends. Ellie dipped her knife in the can and pulled out a gob of sweet white goo.

“I’m frosting cookies, want to help?” she asked as she smeared the blob onto a bell shaped cookie.

Where in the world did they find cookie cutters in Christmas shapes any way? I thought.

“Nah I’ve go to get this stupid homework done if I want to go flying with Ash and Doran over the break.” I answered. Then turned back to my electric reader where my Astro physics book was loaded, and pulled my writing pad and stylus toward me. “Ash said he’d teach me to fly his glider if I aced my Astro-Physics class.”

“Well then, you better start studying.” She turned back to the cookies. There were three more trays of unbaked cookies on the counter. I touched the button that turned the page and began to read.

“Some help here?” I heard my father ask. Outside the door a storm blew in, rain pelted the windows and I could hear thunder. There was no such thing as snow here in Hollis.

“Let me help you dad,” I heard Ash’s voice and I restrained myself from getting up and going to see my brother. I needed to pass the quiz when I got back to school to pull an A in the class. Physics bored me to death, but it was required if I was going to be a Star Captain like my brother Doran, Ash’s twin. After being gone for years, Doran and Sarah would arrive early Christmas morning.

I finished my studying and gathered my school books in my arms while Ellie arranged cookies on platters. In the living room, I heard my father and brother working on the tree. Last week, much to my friends’ amusement, my father had wrapped everything in the yard and the eaves of the house in colored lights. I didn’t live that one down all day.

“It looks beautiful, Noble.” I heard my mother’s voice as she descended the stairs. I looked up and watched her step on the black marble of the foyer. She wore her long red hair up, I remember playing with it as she rocked me to sleep.

“I’m glad you like it Lyris, it took me hours to find the perfect tree.” I turned to look in the living room on my way up the stars to my room. My dad was somewhere in the middle of putting lights on the tree. He had the strings laid on the floor and wrapped around his arms. I had to admit, the smell of real pine was much more convincing than the scented plug in things that came with the holograms. Dumping my books on my desk, I shut my door only to be startled by the ring of a million jingle bells. I opened the door to find a wreath of red bells now hung in the place I used to have my keep out sign.

“Ellie,” I groaned. She hated that sign. She took it as a personal offense that I, her twin, wanted her, to at least knock, before she invaded my personal space. I saw that across the hall, she had adorned her door with a matching wreath. Sometimes, I think she wished that I were a girl like my oldest sisters Madi and Meri. I shut the door again and lay on my bed.

Why did my family have to be so weird? I asked my self. I breathed out hard and listened to the rain as I let my eyes fall closed. I rested as I went over the equations that were most likely to be on the quiz in three weeks.


I woke to the sound of rumbling. Opening my eyes, I saw my book bag teeter on the edge of my desk and then fall to the ground, thankfully my reader and note pad were still on the desk. Leaping out of bed, I made it to the window as a large space ship flew over our house. It was so close to the ground that I could see the large black letters IPX 100 stenciled on the bottom.

“Doran!” I said and opened the window. The rain still fell, not a surprise in month ten, and I was soaked in seconds. The IPX flew away from the house toward the station flanked by two smaller ships as escort. Lights flashed in the distance until they disappeared behind the buildings of Hollis. I wanted to be in one of those ships at the helm. I wanted it so bad, that I suffered through all of the classes I hated in order to get into the academy next year.

“Doran’s home!” Ellie shouted downstairs. Making my way to the living room, I heard the commotion as my mother directed the family members in last minute preparations. I could smell the salty sweet aroma of baked ham and cheesy potatoes. It smelled so good. Much better than the instant food that seemed to be so popular lately.

“He said he wasn’t going to be here until tomorrow morning.” My mom said as she added two more plates to the adult table. “I hope I have enough food.” She turned. “Ashby do me a favor, go get two more chairs from the downstairs storage.”

“Lyris,” My dad said as she whirled to shout more orders. “Lyris,” he took her shoulders turning her to face him. I saw their eyes meet and something passed in between them that I had witnessed before but didn’t understand. “Relax, it’s Christmas Eve, don’t stress about it.” she closed her eyes and sighed.

“Your right.”

Ashby came up the stairs with two chairs under his arms. He wore his scrubs, his long black hair tied back in a braid like my dads. Although my dad kept his blond hair cut at around the middle of his back, Ash’s was to his knees.

“Hey squirt,” he said. I winced, he had called me that since I was a kid. He rubbed my head after setting the chairs down.

“I’m almost as tall as you,” I reminded him.

He laughed, “you’re height has no bearing on your nickname.”

“Are you going to work?” I asked, hoping he was not going to miss another Christmas.

“Nah I stopped at the clinic this afternoon. Everything’s calm for now. I thought I’d come early to see if mom needed help.” His wife Kira, some of my sisters and my brother’s wives were talking in the living room where the now encrusted tree stood. It looked so gaudy—I liked the more simple looking trees my friends had. One of my friends had decided that they weren’t going to have a tree this year they said Christmas was an old Earth holiday and wasn’t relevant to us Caledonians.

“You’re still going to take me gliding right?” I asked, I couldn’t help myself. The thought of it made my fingers tingle in anticipation. “I’m getting an A– in physics.”

“A deal is a deal. I’ll talk with Doran and we’ll find a day that is best for both of us.”

“Smashing!” I said.

Ash raised an eyebrow. “Go help mom and I’ll see what dad needs.”

Ellie rushed past me her long red curls bouncing as she stepped. “Mom wants you to make up the bed in Doran’s old room they should be here any minute.” She said dumping a load of clean sheets in my arms. I was happy to oblige it was noisy in here with all the gathering family.

“Anyone home?” Doran’s voice boomed through the house. “Merry Christmas!” I turned from placing the pitcher of water on the table to see my brother step in the door. He was pale from living in space and his stride looked fluid from the lesser gravity in the ship. Behind him a pale woman with brown hair and eyes stood. She held a baby in blankets. My mom was the first at the door and while my dad took their coats, she took the little bundle in her arms and started cooing. Behind them, four kids looked around timidly. I have to admit I don’t remember which one is which, they spend most of the year in space and I don’t think Doran even got time off last year to visit the family.

“Merry Christmas mom,” he kissed her forehead. “Are we going to eat?” Doran asked. “I’m starving for something that isn’t space rations.”

“Well then son, let’s have you lead us in a word of thanks before we sit.” My dad said and everyone bowed their heads.


I lay on the floor of the living room, among my nephews and nieces, the lights twinkled on the tree in between the plethora of ornaments. My stomach was full and I was feeling pretty sleepy in spite of my late afternoon nap. Ellie laid next to me braiding my hair as the adults settled the youngest ones. I let her do it. It made her happy for some reason, I guess it’s the wishing for a girl twin thing again.

The scent of pine mixed with the smell of sugar cookies and hot chocolate. It had stopped raining and the night was still. Doran had spent dinnertime telling us his adventures of the last few years. Now, with dinner done, the family found places to sit or lay with the tree as our only light. My father returned from his office with a large picture book. He sat on the piano bench next to my mom and opened to the first page.

“T’was the night before Christmas.” He began.

I closed my eyes. Dinner was delicious, I think I ate too much. I was excited my brothers Ash and Doran were here.

“And all through the house.”

I was going gliding in a few days. I finished my homework. Ellie’s cookies were really good this year.

“Not a creature was stirring,”

Maybe my friends were wrong. It was great to have a traditional Christmas.

“Not even a mouse.”

15: White As Snow

It should’ve been our worst Christmas ever.

Adam and I were both working minimum wage jobs, just scraping by. We had no money for an elaborate Christmas. No time for baking Christmas cookies with the children. No plans to spend a week with family. We didn’t have any family close by.

Not like last year, I thought with a woeful grin. Last year, Adam had been working two jobs, and my stay-at-home job brought it quite a bit of money as well. We’d also only had one child instead of two. I’d spent two days baking cookies, and we’d gone caroling at the houses of friends and family. The snow had fallen down around the large house we lived in, creating the perfect holiday picture.

Except last year, Adam and I had been on the brink of divorce.

I pushed the memories from my head and hurried to the front door, shivering as I fought with the key. Stupid copy. That’s what happens with rentals, I guess. Twenty copies later and the key hardly fits.

The freezing rain dripped around me. No snow in Alabama, but it got cold.

“Go, go, go.” I ushered my toddler into the house and bumped in after him, baby on my hip. Christmas Eve. At least Adam and I didn’t have to work tomorrow.

“Look, Mommy!” Kenneth held up the plate of cookies he’d carefully carried in from the car. “We made cookies for Santa!”

I smiled and kissed his red nose. I was grateful that the daycare he attended celebrated Christian holidays. What with all the indignation about religion being taught in schools, at least I got to pick a daycare that believed in Christmas.

The baby squirmed in my arms and I put him down. I kept one eye on him and removed jackets, trying not to pay too much attention to the state of the house. That’s what happens when both parents work. Toys scattered the living room floor. The tree, which was missing the stand, leaned sideways against the large window. Dishes piled up in the sink, and cat food trailed from the kitty bowl to the bag.

Baby Ben couldn’t walk yet. That didn’t keep him from wiggling his way to the tree, pulling at the different ornaments.

There were no presents under the tree. But I knew where they were. Stuffed in various niches in my closet. A rush of excitement pushed through me, warming my fingers and toes. I could hardly wait for Adam to get home. It was Christmas Eve.

I set about making dinner while I waited, humming in anticipation. I hadn’t planned anything for Christmas dinner. We would have a lovely brunch after presents and spend the rest of the day lounging. We didn’t have the money or the need for a large feast. I laughed to myself. Christmas Eve dinner: macaroni and cheese.

The door opened behind me, and I turned around as Kenneth yelled, “Daddy!”

“Adam.” A smile spread across my face.

My husband scooped Kenneth up and wrapped me in a hug at the same time. “Hi.”

The love that poured between us reminded me that we had made a decision, not even a year ago, to save our marriage. The result, though not entirely unexpected, was that we gave up many financial securities, including jobs and homes. A total change of scene. New priorities. But it had worked.

Kenneth wiggled away and Ben pulled at Adam.

“Well!” Adam boomed. “It’s Christmas Eve! What have you got planned, Mama?”

I disappeared into our bedroom and came out with four presents, one for each of us. I placed them under the tree, allowing my small family a moment to admire them. “First, we’re going to eat dinner. Then, I have a list of Christmas songs to sing.” Carols. Nothing brought the Christmas spirit like a carol. “Then, we’re going to read the scriptures. And finally…we’ll see what gifts the Wisemen left for us under the tree.”

I felt Adam’s arm go around me and he nuzzled my neck. “I knew you had a plan.”

The only part of the evening that went without a hitch was dinner. Ben wasn’t interested in the carols, though he sure enjoyed trying to rip pages out of the scriptures. Kenneth sang along with a few songs, then pulled out a car and began to drive it around our lop-sided tree. Adam scooted closer to me and I huddled next to him, enjoying his body warmth.

“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

I closed my eyes, listening to the deep, melodic tone of my husband’s voice as he read from Luke. The birth of our Savior. Kenneth’s voice buzzed in the background, making car noises. Ben opened a cupboard and began pulling out all the spices. My babies. Jesus had been a baby once. How Mary must’ve loved him.

I opened my eyes and studied my husband. Adam was an imperfect man. And I was an imperfect woman. But thanks to that little baby, our Savior, these two imperfect people had managed to come together and form a family. Thanks to that baby, this family had healed and was whole.

My eyes got misty and I shook my head. Adam looked at me. “You okay?”

The tears leaked out the sides of my eyes. I couldn’t contain them. Gratitude overflowed in my heart. What more could I possibly want for Christmas than this beautiful family around me? I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so happy. The birth of Jesus Christ, more than 2,000 years earlier, had saved us. It had saved my family.

I snuggled closer. “I love you. Merry Christmas.”

Adam closed the scriptures and held me, his brown eyes tender. “Merry Christmas, Kelly.”

14: From Dad

We lost Grandpa on Christmas Eve.

He was a man of strength and silence. His softness bespoke greater power than any raised voice ever would. His tools were those of reason and thought and anything shaped with their wisdom hummed with the warmth of sun-polished wood.

Where other men might have railed against the unjust discovery of an inoperable brain tumor, Grandfather bowed to the will of an all-knowing Father and trusted Him to do what was best.

And the Father called him home.

On the night the world celebrated the Savior’s first drawn breath, we mourned the loss of another great man. There was little time to reconnect to the joy of Christmas. So much needed to be done and in the midst of it, my parents strove to keep the spirit of the season from dispersing. The younger children had long awaited the joy of Christmas morning and my parents, though devastated, still planned to give it to them. Their sorrow was buried beneath loving duty.

I will never know what strength it took for my father to carry on, preparing a world of magic and wonder when his own had been swallowed beneath a mantle of loss. I imagine that many quiet tears were shed and that his heart was burdened with the unsaid. Somehow, he did what he had to.

Morning came, our front room littered with Santa’s gifts in bright red, green, and white. Stockings brimmed with treats and essentials; toothbrushes, lotions, and a traditional orange. Not a single thing had been forgotten, despite the tragedy that befell our family.

It was family tradition to open one gift at a time, oldest to youngest, so that the joy of Christmas could last just a bit longer, to linger in heart and mind long after the last parcel was unwrapped. Everyone took turns picking gifts for others and passed them around the room until they reached their addressed recipient.

The tags were the true treat. Witty messages like, “To ‘Ariel’: From Flounder”. The fun was in deciphering the message and unwrapping the gift to see how it matched. It was one more gift that Dad gave us, silliness in the face of sorrow.

The circle went around and it was my Father’s turn. Someone spoke, “This says ‘To Craig Field.’”

Everyone paused, knowing that my dad and brother have the same first name. No one calls dad, “Craig”; not even on Christmas tags.

The gift was passed, a small square shaped present in plain paper. Neither Christmas bow nor dash of festive color adorned it. It fit easily in the palm of my father’s hand.

My father’s face, writ with confusion, softened as his eyes flickered over the words scrawled in ink. With a teary whisper, he read, “To Craig Field: From Dad.”

Tears welled in every eye, many slipping free to glide over our cheeks as we watched my dad unwrap the small gift with trembling hands.

A glint of gold was all we saw before my father began to cry. He raised a hand to cover his eyes, overcome by surge of peace and love that was palpable in the still, winter morn. Not a one of us could stifle tears.

In his hand, my father held a small picture of Grandpa.

It was one last gift from father to son, to remind him that the journey wasn’t over, that Family is Forever.

That Christmas, though heavy with loss, was one of the most powerful our family has ever had. We came together, united by grief, and sought to carry one another. We came to understand Christmas as we never had before; it was more than a season of giving, it was a time of sacrifice and service. Where the world could not reach, love spanned.

We came to understand what God had given to us as mankind. In giving up a man we loved dearly, we better understood the love of an Eternal Father, giving up His Son for the sake of the world. In giving up our grandfather, we were given a great truth; This was not the end. This life was but one moment in a greater whole.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

With each Christmas that comes and goes, my grandfather still reaches out. He reminds us that death is not the end and that families can be together forever.

And under the tree each year, he says it with a small, plain package that reads: To Craig Field: From Dad.

13: The Missing Figurine

Emma wiped sticky lime juice off her fingers before she answered the phone. She suppressed a sigh as she heard Cheryl, her oldest daughter, on the line.

“Have you decorated for Christmas, yet?” Cheryl asked after the initial chit-chat.

Emma turned her back on the plate of hot rice and vegetables before her, and leaned wearily against the counter.

“Not yet, dear,” she answered.

“Mom it’s the middle of December—“

“It won’t be the 15th until next Wednesday.” Emma said.

“That hardly makes a difference.” Cheryl turned off the Christmas music playing in the background. “I know it’s going to be hard for you without Dad this year.”

“I really need to eat dinner, dear, it’s getting cold.”

“Mom, Dad loved Christmas. He would want you to celebrate. The kids are going to come over this year and they’ll be disappointed because the house isn’t decorated. They always love how pretty the house is every year.”

Emma wondered if Cheryl realized how much effort it took to get the house in that type of shape every year. Sure, Cheryl had a whole army of children to make her paper chains and cotton snowmen, but she must realize how hard it would be to get the Christmas tree up alone, and to string the lights. It was hard enough this year with Ethan gone.

“I’ll talk to you later, dear.” Emma said with a touch of motherly firmness that stopped further argument. She put down the phone and returned to squeezing fresh lime-juice over her dinner. It was a trick she had picked up from her daughter-in-law, Maria. She put lime juice on almost everything now.

Late Saturday the doorbell rang when Emma wasn’t expecting it. She opened it to find her son William on the doorstep with a Christmas tree in tow.

Emma’s fingers fluttered up to her forehead. “What’s this?”

“We thought you could use a little Christmas cheer, and some help getting a tree,” he said.

Emma peered around him to see her bright brown-eyed grandchildren bouncing to come in and surprise grandma. She laughed and invited them in. Maria came trailing in last with a mug of hot wassail.

“Feliz Navidad,” Maria said. As usual her dark hair was beautifully arranged and she had chunky jewelry dancing along her thin wrists.

“Merry Christmas and thank you,” Emma answered and gave her a hug. She had a hunch that Cheryl had complained about Mom to her older brother, and they had come up with this little plan.

“The idea was our little Marcus, truly.” she said. “He wanted to help his abuela.”

William asked her where the Christmas decorations were, and Emma directed him to take out the nativity boxes, the wreath for the door, and a box full of Christmas linens so she could decorate the table. It wouldn’t be as elaborate as when Ethan was alive, but it would do.

The little children were so excited to decorate another Christmas tree, especially for grandma that she couldn’t help but be touched. They gave her little ornaments they had made themselves: picture frames made out of popsicle sticks. Five grinning faces smiled at her from the branches of real pine-tree.

She stopped them as they tried to get the nativity out. “I’ll set that up tomorrow. Leave it be.”

Before they went home William insisted on reading the scriptures as a family. They decided on Luke, and Emma listened as William read.

“And there was one Anna, a Prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; and she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, in which departed not from the temple but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.”

Could she live without Ethan for eighty years?

Imagining such a thing brought such a sudden rush of grief that she trembled with emotion. She hid it from her grandchildren, but she knew by the way Maria herded the kids out of the house that she had noticed. William left her with a bear hug, and Emma sobbed softly on his shoulder a few moments before he left.

“Will you be alright? I can stay or Maria…” he asked.

Emma shook her head. “I n-need to b-be alone.”

He nodded. “I’ll call in the morning.”

Emma shut the door.

Emma lifted each figurine of her Nativity from their boxes. She unwrapped each piece from its packaging, and then set it on the table. She hesitated to withdraw her fingers from each figure, as she set them upon the table, as much as to insure their steadiness as to caress them with affection.

Each piece brought back a tender memory to her. Ethan had given Mary to her the first year they were married, poor and living in his parent’s basement. She thought it rather depressing that she stood alone on their table that Christmas, a symbol of the poverty and simplicity of their situation.

She remembered the warm Christmas the next year, living in a city far from family where Ethan had recently gotten a job. The strong lines of the Joseph figurine curved ever so slightly in a protective stance. He seemed to represent to her the unity of their relationship. The safety and security they had achieved over the last year.

The gift of the little Christ child came as she was pregnant with her first child, her strong William. That Christmas was especially tender, as she often pondered the look of love carved into the gentle Mary’s face, and the joy of an innocent and new born babe.

She smiled as she took out a little lamb. Each one represented the births of her other children. The wise men were bestowed in times of wealth along with their camels. A shepherd stood for a new home, an angel for the death of her mother. A stable, a star, and other miscellaneous animals reminded her of a lifetime of Christmases spent together.

This year she was alone.

Tears rolled into her collar as she set the pieces in good order, but she didn’t organize them as precisely as she usually did, fingers lingering over precious memories. Each memory only reminded her more fully of her loss. Ethan had died several months earlier from a brain tumor. She’d hoped for one last Christmas together but he had faded too fast. The lack of a figurine this Christmas would be symbolic of her husband’s death.

The nativity felt wrong when she looked at it. In previous years, she made a habit of clearing a space, a little hole in the design in preparation for a new figurine, a new memory, a new Christmas. She hadn’t made a space this year. It seemed the hole hadn’t taken its place upon the table but in her heart. With a heavy sigh she headed off to bed.

That night she dreamed that she was walking down an empty street. Buildings made out of rough off-white stone surrounded her. The road was made of the same stone, but worn smooth from use, and covered with a fine layer of dirt that crunched beneath her sandals.

The morning sun warmed the air, and she walked through the streets until she saw a large structure ahead that looked like the ancient Jerusalem temple. She stood and wondered at it until she saw an older woman pass by her. She wondered why she took her notice when so many other people were wandering by now.

She wore a worn grey dress with a white shall over her head. She was old, very old. Her shoulders hunched over thin legs that hardly seemed strong enough to support her. Yet the old woman moved with a surprising energy. Emma followed her, watching as she approached a couple with a child.

She was close enough now to see the old woman’s face. The angle of her cheek bones were sharp, and her blue eyes sunk into sagging folds of skin. Yet, there was something piercing about those eyes, a light that told of a continuing lucidity and intelligence.

“God be praised!” her trembling voice carried across the air. “I’ve lived to see the child who will bring redemption to those who have waited upon the day of his coming.”

A thin, trembling had smoothed the downy infant hair, as she smiled down into the babe’s face.

The parents looked surprised, but the mother turned the baby so the woman could see him.

“The day of rejoicing is at hand!” the woman cried.

The old woman’s eyes met Emma’s over the head of the child, full of joy and hope. A thrill shot through Emma, emotion stirred in her chest, and she reached out to touch the child too. Then she awoke.

Emma glanced at the clock and found that it was 6 am. As her hands worked through her morning routine her mind lingered on the dream. It wasn’t until she sat down to read her scriptures after breakfast that it came to her.

She had dreamed about Anna the Prophetess. William had read the story when the children came to decorate the tree. She turned to the story in her bible. Anna had seen the Christ child and rejoiced despite being a widow for many years.

Emma still felt the strength of her voice. “The day of rejoicing is at hand!”

There hadn’t been much to rejoice about recently with Ethan gone, but as she read of this woman’s example, she felt hope. What kind of redemption did the babe in Mary’s arms signify to Anna? Christ redeemed everyone from their sins. Emma had a feeling that a woman who prayed and fasted to God all day in the temple really didn’t have any earthshaking sins.

Perhaps Anna would feel happiness for the fact that Christ made it possible for her to be reunited with her beloved again. The grief Emma felt over the last month was still so close, so real, and the emptiness inside her was still there. Yet, she did believe like Anna. She knew she would be with Ethan again. Why didn’t she feel more peace? Shouldn’t she be more excited to celebrate Christ this year instead of missing Ethan so desperately?

That night Emma made herself a cup of cocoa and curled up in front of the fire. The Nativity scene lay before her. The memories of Ethan were pleasant in the warmth of winter fire. Though, she ached for him to be next to her on the couch.

Her thoughts focused on the little babe in the manger, and the face of Anna in her dream, so full of joy. She wanted to feel the happiness and warmth of the season she had felt in years past. Capture a little bit of the childish excitement she had seen in her grandchildren’s faces when they decorated her tree.

She wanted to find comfort in the memories of the past instead of grief. She spoke no words in her mind, but pictured putting her sorrowful heart into the cupped hands of her savior. With only the crackling of the fire filling the silence, the warmth on her skin slowly spread around the heavy places around her heart. The heaviness in her chest was replaced with lightness. She saw Anna’s face in her mind again full of joy, but also with the light of love.

Then Emma’s heart filled with love as the quiet moment continued, feeling grateful for her savior and life full of happy memories with a wonderful husband. In that moment she could feel Ethan’s love surround her like a hug. He would wait patiently until they could be together again.

Their Christmas traditions should continue. The nativity shouldn’t go without a new figurine this year or any other year. Tomorrow she would find a statuette of Anna the Prophetess.

12: The Secret Santa

The icy streets of Chicago were silent save for the sound of a single pair of tennis shoes pounding against the pavement in a steady run. Noel’s breath turned white in the frigid nighttime air and though it was Christmas Eve, there was no sign of it on the dirty, run down streets she was traveling. Her greasy hair flew behind her in a bright banner of gold as she desperately clutched the brown paper bag full of tiny trinkets for her brothers and sisters. Technically there was no blood relation, but the living at St. Clarence Orphanage was the closest thing she had to family. Weaving her way through parked cars and alley ways, she hurried through the darkened streets, praying she wouldn’t meet with any trouble. She had to get home as soon as possible, the precious gifts she carried were the only presents the younger children of the orphanage would receive from ‘Santa’. While at an early age her own illusions of Christmas had been shattered, Noel didn’t want the same for the tiny tots of St Clarence. They deserved to hold onto what little magic they were able to grasp.

Using a parked car as leverage, she leapt over a large patch of ice, a small grin touching her lips as she made it safely to the other side. A quick glance around told her she was not too far away from the place she called home, and if she hurried the front door would still be unlocked by the time she arrived. It would save her from having to climb the rusty chain link fence and climb through the back window. She had almost made it to the corner of S. Harmony when a patch of black ice sent her sprawling. Pain exploded behind her eyes as her head met with the sidewalk. Dazed, it took a moment for her to recover, but when she did, she pushed herself to her knees gingerly. Noel looked down to see her frozen red hands cut and torn, one knuckle bleeding slightly.

“Perfect.” She muttered to herself as she rose to her feet, her sharp eyes instantly searching the ground for her gifts. The brown bag lay a few feet away from her and she picked it up counting the gifts quickly, she was missing three. Not seeing the gifts on the sidewalk she began to dig through the snow, her already frozen hands becoming useless.

“Crap.” Her search became more and more panicked as she found two gifts, but not the remaining third. She was so engrossed that she didn’t hear the car door slam behind her or the person approaching her.

“Is everything alright here, Miss?”

Noel jerked around, startled and slightly miffed at being taken by surprise. There standing above her in the street was a cop, his gold badge peeking through the blue jacket he wore to ward off the cold. Though he was a member of the city police, Noel had learned that this didn’t always equal morality. She’d met her fair share of crooked cops, and in her eyes there was no difference between them and the one standing in front of her.

“Yeah, fine.”

He raised his eyebrows as the young girl began searching the snow once more. If his calculations were correct she couldn’t be more than twelve years of age, though the shadows he saw in her eyes suggested otherwise.

“You want to tell me what you’re doing out so late on Christmas Eve, honey? Your parents are probably worr-“

“I don’t have parents.” She snapped.

Well alright-y then, he thought to himself. Not only was she a street rat, but she was also street rat with plenty of fire and gumption. As he looked at her, he saw the tell tale signs: jeans with holes in the knees and fraying along the hem, a shirt too small covered by a jacket that wasn’t fit for a cat to have kittens in.

“Listen, I can’t just leave you here alone so can I give you a ride somewhere? Buy you a cup of coco? Help you find whatever it is you’re looking for?”

Noel stood then, looking the cop up and down and scrutinizing him carefully. He looked like what she always pictured a decent cop would look like, clean cut with something of a friendly smile playing around his mouth. His skin was a warm brown that reminded her of chocolate with eyes to match that watched her with interest. But could she trust him?

“Show me your badge and your I.D. so I know you’re a real cop.”

Slowly, as if he knew sudden movements would scare her off, he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a black leather wallet. He showed it to her before he tossed it to her over the short distance that separated them. Noel opened it and glanced at the badge before reading the name on the I.D.

“Officer Kristopher Nelson.” She eyed the cop in front of her and decided that if he were going to try and pull something funny, he would have done so already. She tossed back the wallet cradled the bag against her.

“I dropped a small toy and I can’t find it in the snow.” She said her voice strained with distress.

He smiled wide and pulled a ball from his pocket.

“Hey that’s mine!” She cried snatching it from his hands and place it protectively back in the bag before backing away hastily.

“What’s your name, honey?”

“Noel Kings.”

“And how old are you, Noel?”

“Somewhere around thirteen, I think.”

“You think?” Officer Nelson asked with raised eyebrows.

“I was dumped on the doorstep of St. Clarence as a baby. Sister Allen and Sister Martinez think I’m about thirteen but they aren’t sure. I didn’t come with any papers or birth certificate.”

Ah, the cop thought, not a street rat but an orphan. He cocked his head to the side before gesturing to the car behind him.

“Would you like a ride home?”

Noel shrugged her shoulders and let her gaze fall to the snow covered ground, but when he turned to walk back to the car she followed. She climbed into the passenger side while Officer Nelson climbed in behind the wheel and turned the car on. Noel sat back in her seat and looked around the inside of car with a touch of wonder in her eyes.

“I’ve never been inside a car before.” She murmured quietly. He stopped what he was doing and looked at her incredulously.


Noel shook her head.

“St. Clarence doesn’t have a lot of money, in fact, it’s amazing when everyone is able to eat until they’re full.” She looked at the dashboard with curiosity as the sleek buttons lit up suddenly. “Though there are only twenty five of us including Sister Allen and Sister Martinez it’s still hard to get by. The older kids like Jacob, Sissy, and Celeste all manage to bring in what money they can but it’s not much.”

“And those toys? How did you manage that?”

Noel was quiet for a moment before she answered softly.

“I work under the table for certain businesses, doing grunt work and the jobs that no one really wants to do. I’ve been saving what little I’ve made since August, knowing that this month would be the hardest for us. The little kids don’t-“ She stopped, and when Officer Nelson glanced over at her he saw a glimmer of tears. “The little kids don’t understand that Santa isn’t real, and that no matter how good they’ve been there will be nothing under that tree for them. For the past few years, I’ve done my best to save and buy them what little I can so they won’t know the truth. They’re so young and so full of hope and faith, and they believe so much in the magic of Christmas. I just. . .”

“You just, what?”

“I just can’t bear to take that away from them.”

Officer Nelson listened with something akin to shock and amazement as the young girl began to open up to him, and share the somewhat painful details of her upbringing. He thought of his own daughter, Kelsey, who had just turned thirteen in November. She was a bright lively girl, smart and full of wit. He and his wife had always made sure that Kelsey and her brother wanted for nothing, and he had never thought anything of it until now, sitting in his car listening to Noel’s soft voice.

“What about you Noel? Will there be anything waiting for you under the tree?”

She snorted and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.

“No, there never is. Though I wish sometimes there would be. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive, just something that will bring the magic back.”

The wistfulness in her voice tugged at Nelson’s heartstrings, and he wished there was something more he could do. Unfortunately, he had just pulled up to St. Clarence; Noel was already unbuckling and thanking him. Before he could utter a word, the passenger door slammed shut, and she waved to him before disappearing over the chain link fence. As he pulled away a thought suddenly slammed into him. Reaching for the radio he called into the station.

“This is White, go.”

“White, this is Nelson. You know that project we were discussing earlier? Project S.S.?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I found the perfect place to execute it.”

A smile on his face, Nelson quickly related all the details to his partner and laughed when White immediately jumped on board with the idea. Come morning one way or another, magic would be brought to St Clarence.

Screams of delight was what woke a tired Noel from a deep sleep. The air was surprisingly warm as she pushed back her covers and sat up in her bed. Two small figures raced to her beside, laughing and talking at once.

“Noel come look, Santa came! He really did! There’s decorations, and food, and-“


Noel was confused as they grabbed her hands and dragged her from the crowded bedroom to the downstairs common room where she was properly dazzled by everything. Ribbons and glittering ornaments decorated a large tree right next to the fire that was currently burning in the fireplace. The smell of something delicious wafted into the room from the direction of the kitchen, if she wasn’t mistaken it smelled like sausage and eggs. Boxes of every size, shape, and color, sat beneath the brightly lit tree and eager young eyes darted from one thing to another, never fully stopping to rest on one particular thing.

“Noel, huwwy up. We can’t open pwesents until you come sit down!”

Noel quickly made her way over to Sister Allen who was grinning from ear to ear as she came into the common room from the kitchen.

“Sister Allen, I don’t understand, how did we afford this?”

“We didn’t dear. When Sister Martinez and I woke it was all here. There was a note on the tree that said “Merry Christmas from your Secret Santa.”

Noel stood dazed amidst the laughter. She was startled from her thoughts by a package thrown toward her head.

“That’s for you.” Sissy called with a grin.

With trembling fingers, Noel unwrapped a box no bigger than her palm, hardly daring to believe it was hers. Carefully she opened the box and caught her breath when she saw a delicate silver bracelet with small silver stars dangling from it, a piece of paper nestled in the center. She read the words scrawled across it.

‘Merry Christmas, Noel.’

Tears burned her eyes, and Noel smiled her first real smile in a long, long, time. The magic was back.

11: Creating Christmas

My mom was never the typical homemaker. She didn’t sew or make crafty things with her children. When the house was clean, it was because someone had been hired to do the dirty work. And dinner menus were planned around local fast food restaurants. My mom certainly was not like the moms I saw at school helping with the talent show or bake sale.

Mom was also different because she worked outside of the home to help support our family. Traveling to and from work, my mom often passed a group of homeless people huddled together on the sidewalk. As the weeks went by, the group remained. On occasion Mom would stop and have a chat with a few of them or bring by some of her famous dinners from the local fast food joint. Poor and cold, they were in need of many things that we took for granted. Warm clothes, food, a bed to sleep in and the comfort of a home.

Christmas was approaching and Mom came up with the perfect idea. One thing we learned as kids was that when Mom had a plan, there was no stopping her. Full speed ahead, Mom came home and told us about her friends. We talked about her idea and what we could do to get things moving. While we had little money ourselves, Mom was determined to make a real Christmas for her new friends. I listened in as she made phone calls to business owners and vendors, asking them to help create a true Christmas for these people in such desperate need.

In a short time Mom had two complimentary hotel rooms where we could host our Christmas celebration. At the hotel our friends would be able to enjoy warm showers and comfortable beds to sleep in for the night. Soon we had a local caterer donating a full Christmas dinner, a tree lot owner giving us a fresh cut pine tree to decorate and friends donating basic hygiene items and small gifts.

Christmas Eve arrived and Mom took my sister and I to meet her friends at the hotel. We sat a talked with people who really needed a listening ear. We watched them become overjoyed at receiving simple gifts like a toothbrush. And we saw the tears stream down their cheeks as we sang Christmas carols and hymns together. One lady told us that we were her angels. I knew the true angel that Christmas was my mother. She had organized all of this in such a short amount of time and with the pure love of Christ in her heart. It was her ability to love people even when they seemed unlovable, and her willingness to step out and try something new that made a meaningful Christmas for all of us.

I was nine years old that Christmas and am grateful to my mom for teaching me how to give to others and helping me learn that talents do not come in prepackaged boxes. Even though her talents were not as visible as some of the other moms I knew, they were just the right ones to help those around her feel the joy of the Christmas season and the true spirit of Christ.

10: Love’s Last Stand

The children were out of school for the long awaited Christmas break, but in the Brooks home, it was not a welcome alternative to school. In fact the children in the Brooks home would have rather been in school all the way through Christmas.

“Why,” do you ask? Mr. and Mrs. Brooks are at wits end and are about to become Mr. and Miss.

Kevin the oldest would rather have a chemistry test than be at home. Kayla their youngest would leave early in the morning to spend the long days with her girlfriends.

Jeff Brooks is a bit of a business man who does not get as much business as his wife Sandra would like. Sandra is a reporter and an aspiring writer. She has written several books but published none of them. Her free lance work she does for the local paper barely pays the mortgage.

The Brooks home looks normal from the outside, on the inside things are clean and well kept, yet the air is cluttered with accusations, excuses, and mordant words of blame.

One night Jeff got on his side of his bed and was just drifting off to sleep as Sandra came into the room. She bustled about the room getting ready for bed, asking questions like, “How are we going to pay for the kid’s Christmas?” and, “What family activities do you plan on doing this Christmas since we don’t have any money.”

Jeff sat with his back to Sandra his eyes open looking at the wall. He did not say anything to Sandra, because he just felt the questions were only attacks, instead of actual legitimate questions.

Sandra got in the bed, making sure she stayed on her side. She said “You know what? You just go and do whatever you want this Christmas, I just don’t want you here messing it up for the kids and me.

The lights went out, but Jeff sat looking into the darkness. He needed refuge, he felt so mad at Sandra but he was done telling her. He had never before in his life ever considered anything extreme. It was only weeks before Christmas and the love was all gone, and his life was spinning out of control.

Jeff got up early. He called one of his contacts he had met weeks before. She had given him her number, and Jeff was out of options. “Yes,” said Jeff talking on the phone, “I will meet you at the park.”

Jeff grabbed a breakfast donut and some papers off the printer. He tucked them along with a few other things into a duffle bag and walked out the door. As he was walking down the road Jeff had too many emotions to sort out, so he let them consume him. He was scared, angry, jealous, and a bit hopeful. A bit hopeful that he would find the refuge he was looking for, even if it was in the wrong place.

At the park Jeff saw Erin’s car. Jeff met Erin a few weeks earlier, she was attractive, about ten years younger than Jeff, and she was an ambitious business woman. Jeff would have never thought he would do anything like this, even when Erin had given him her number.

Jeff got in Erin’s car and she smiled at him and said, “So, did you get out of your house Ok? Did your wife see you at all?” Jeff’s hands were trembling when he said “She does not suspect a thing, let’s go.”

That night Jeff sat at the dinner table quiet as usual, so nobody noticed anything out of the ordinary. Kevin and Kayla waded though the atmosphere to finish their dinner. Sandra sat and looked at Jeff. He felt in a way he had betrayed her, but what else did he have left? What he was doing was risky, but he felt Sandra left him no choice.

That Friday came and Jeff got up early in the morning like he always did. He was expecting a phone call. He sat and ate some breakfast as his children and wife slept. The phone rang and Jeff answered, “Hello,” Jeff said. “Jeff, this is Erin. Everything is good, so what does your day look like?” “I am free today.” Jeff replied. “Great,” Said Erin, “Meet me in ten minutes.” “I’ll be right there.” Jeff said. He hung up the phone. Up in his bedroom Sandra put the receiver back to where she had carefully picked it up from, she never guessed that Jeff had it in him.

That night rolled around and Jeff came home kind of late. He use to be afraid of Sandra whenever he came home late, but now he knew there was nothing she could say that could hurt him. He had taken risks in life but nothing this big and in a way it made him feel sort of invincible. Sandra could say anything.

“So Jeff, who is Erin?” Sandra asked as Jeff walked through the door. Well anything but that. “How do you know Erin?” Jeff asked. “That does not matter how I know.” said Sandra. “She is an associate I met on my trip to Denver last month.” Jeff said. Sandra removed herself and shut herself in her study. She knew where Jeff was going with the conversation, if she were to accuse him of anything she would have to get proof.

One morning Jeff called Erin back up and said, “What are you doing today?” Erin told him, “This all was so exciting.” “When can I meet with you next?” Jeff said, “how about in one hour only this time, at your office.” I will be there Erin said.

Jeff grabbed his coat and walked toward the door. Sandra came out of the hall way and said, “Who was that, and where are you going?” Jeff told her “I thought you told me you didn’t care what I did as long as I was gone, so here I am leaving.” Jeff walked out of the house and left Sandra fuming. She knew that is what she said, but that is not what she meant. What she was hoping to accomplish by using the hurtful words, was to be a catalyst of change for Jeff, but instead he was shutting her out.

Christmas morning came Sandra’s and Jeff’s bedroom was as cold as the December frost. Sandra and Jeff made their way downstairs. Jeff looked at Sandra and his children and then he felt ill. He wished he could have been a better husband, and a more loyal father. There were gifts under the tree which all belonged to the bank. And Sandra felt a little bit of guilt. Had she not been so hard on Jeff maybe he would have had more success as a business man.

Jeff felt culpable as well, and though it was Christmas morning there was a small piece of him hanging on for a Christmas miracle. Not because of him, but in spite of him. In his quest for peace he still felt he might have ruined anything he had left with Sandra.

After all the gifts were opened Kevin and Kayla left the room to go their separate ways with their new toys.

“You know,” said Sandra, “They were so much cheaper to shop for when they were younger.” “Amen to that,” Jeff said. Jeff sat in the Chair in the living room wanting to come clean with Sandra. He knew it was about time, and it was now or never.

“Sandra,” Jeff said. “There is something I need to tell you, I am not sure how you will react. I wanted the Children to be out of the room so I could tell you.” Sandra stood in the messy living room and braced herself emotionally, and Jeff pulled a brown package out from under the chair he was sitting on, and he handed it to Sandra.

“What is it?” Sandra asked. “It is a year’s worth of unpaid parking tickets.” Jeff said. “Just open it.” Sandra tore the paper and it fell to the floor. Shock came across Sandra’s face. The novel that came out of the package was, “The Gauntlet Request” The cover looked clean and new. It had the author’s name written in bold letters across the top, “SANDRA BROOKS.” What is this? Sandra said in shock.

Jeff said “I will let Erin explain it to you.” Jeff stood up as he dialed a number and handed Sandra the phone and Sandra said, “hello?” “Is this Sandra Brooks?” Erin asked. Sandra was still confused looking at Jeff she said “Ya..yes,” “It is so good to meet you. What you have in your hand is a rough unedited copy of the next best seller. Your husband really believes in you and said I had to look at your book. I am glad I did. This is going to be the best thriller since; well, ever.

Sandra stayed on the phone with Erin for a few more minutes, while Jeff stood next to her trying to listen to the conversation. Sandra then hung up and looked at Jeff speechless. “So are you mad?” Jeff asked. Sandra looked at her husband and she for a moment saw a little boy, vulnerable and thoughtful. “Jeff I am not mad, you gave me a Christmas present that nobody else could have given me. Something I have been searching for, for years; confidence.

“You had no idea how I would react, yet you…” Sandra stopped, tears filled her eyes. Jeff was crying too, Sandra hugged him. “We can love again,” Sandra said. “I would not want another woman in my life,” Jeff said. The two best friends, lovers, and confidants stood in the living room knee deep in wrapping paper hugging. “Merry Christmas my love,” Jeff said. The road ahead was not easy but it was bright, and a place where love could grow.

9: Calico and Lace

The cries roused Herman, but his memories kept him awake.

Peaches and Christmas, dreadful day that it was, and a girl dressed in calico and lace.

“Lily, what’s wrong?” Reflected from the snow outside mid-afternoon sun blazed through the window. Herman squinted against it and raised a gnarled hand to his brow to shield his eyes. He’d fallen asleep right in the middle of reading the Farmer’s Almanac. Right in the middle of trying to determine the best days for pruning peach trees next spring.

“Lily? You say somethin’?” He looked across the room to where his wife was taking a nap on her bed. “Where’s John? Nah!” He drew a shaky breath. Cobwebs of sleep still draped his mind. Yes, every fruit farmer knew that a good pruning is the key to a successful harvest.

His son always helped. “John, time to prune.” Herman tried to get up, but his arms lacked the strength and his lower body refused to cooperate.

Disinfectants mingled with bitter medicines and human suffering assailed his nose and all at once the cobwebs dissipated, cotton candy dreams thrust under a stream of water. Herman thumped the armrest of his wheelchair with his hand. Unable to bear the truth he’d turned to the almanac in an attempt to erase the horrors of his life. Impossible. He could no more hope to attend to pruning than he could stand on his own two feet. He was a crippled old man in a nursing home. John was far away. There were no trees anymore.

And it was Christmas Day.

“Ohhh.” The piteous cries that first awakened him pulsed through the hallway.

“Nah!” Herman craned his neck toward the door of the room he shared with Lily.

“Oh. Ohhh. No.”

The moaning unnerved him. “You okay?” He mustered his loudest voice. “Hello?”

Grasping the wheels of his chair, he inched forward. Grab, pull. Grab, pull. “Hello?”

No reply.

Darned nurses. Where were they when you needed them?

At a snail’s pace he moved into the hallway. The hub of the chair grated a scratch into the wall. Grab, pull. Grab, pull. Arthritic fingers gripped rubber and metal. Grab, pull. He shuffled his feet against the floor in an effort to speed himself along.

Christmas wrote itself on every surface. Gaudy wreaths and bows on doors. Trees and lights and popcorn garlands. A bulletin board with glaring red letters: Today is December 25.

Herman moved his head rigidly from side to side. He didn’t need a reminder. A piece of emotional shrapnel, the anguish he associated with Christmas had embedded itself in his soul.

Grab, pull. He kept track of his progress with the tile squares on the floor. There were eighteen squares between he and Lily’s room and the room next door; he knew from visiting Miss Annie, Lily’s girlhood friend. She’d occupied the room until two weeks ago. Herman pulled his lips into a tight grimace. Now she was gone, death had taken her in the night.

Nine squares. Halfway there. He paused. His near-century-old body throbbed with exhaustion.

“Oh. Ohh. Awh.”

Herman’s chest tightened. “Hello?” No answer. Hallway empty. No one in sight.

Grab, pull. Darned old fool. What did he think he could do? Lily couldn’t withstand anyone suffering. She’d expect him to help. But how? Grab, pull. A rivulet of perspiration trickled over the rough terrain of his cheek. He dabbed a crooked forefinger at it. Thoughts of Lily bathed him in bittersweet pain.

He could still remember the moment he first saw her. Harper’s Mercantile. Spring of 1932. He’d stopped to buy flour. With him one step away from the door she walked out, the most breathtaking girl he’d ever seen.

He was twenty. She was seventeen.

Grab, pull. Grab, pull. Memories drove him as the tile squares inched beneath the wheels.

That day Lily wore a calico dress. He’d never forget the color. Azure. Like the soothing waters of some far away ocean. The lace at the neckline, against her milk-white skin, made the spring day turn summer. He nearly dropped to his knees when she looked at him. Those jade- green eyes of hers taking in his work boots and torn overalls—all he could afford at the time— she smiled her approval.

“Now here’s a man who doesn’t mind hard work.” This to the friend accompanying her, Miss Annie.

Three months later they married.

Grab, pull. Five squares left. Grab . . . pull. Images of his bride drifted through him. Lily.

Radiant in her wedding dress. Lily. Damp with sweat on the bed as she proudly presented his son, years later a daughter. Lily. Ever beautiful, dancing with him in the moonlight on their twentieth anniversary, their fiftieth, and then on the unprecedented mark of seventy years together. Surely, they’d teased, eighty was in the bag.

That was before her mind began to go.

Herman’s throat spasmed. Lily now retained scant recollection of their years together.

Most days she didn’t even know who he was.

Herman felt alone and angry. Tears of frustration pricked at his eyes. Gone was the Lily he’d shared his life with—gone was his life. Why hadn’t God been merciful and allowed them to die before it came to this?

At the nurses’ station Christmas carols blared from a radio, the lyrics salt in old wounds.

Grab . . . pull. Miss Annie’s room. Herman bit his lip and reminded himself the room no longer belonged to Lily’s friend. Now another poor soul was imprisoned in it, awaiting the inevitable.

He tapped on the half-open door with his knuckles. “Hello? You . . . okay?”

Head turned to the wall, the figure in the bed issued a feminine whimper that tugged at his heartstrings.

Grab, pull. He moved closer.

“Mr. McClure.” The crack of the nurse’s voice made him jump. “You know Miss Annie’s gone. What are you doing in here?”

“Nah!” Herman growled. “Came to see what was the matter . . .” His voice trailed off then softened. “She was cryin’.”

“Yes,” answered the nurse, “Nell’s had a rough day.”

The name unleashed a rush of sentiment. Herman rubbed at the stubble on his chin.

“What’d you say?”

“I said she’s had a rough day.”

“No. The name. What’s her name?”

“Nell.” The nurse pointed to a tag on the bed. “She’s having a hard time getting used to being here.”

“None of us like it much.” Herman bristled. “Just what happens when you’re old.”

“Ah, but for Nell it’s different.”

The nurse smoothed the woman’s hair, drawing Herman’s attention to something he hadn’t noticed. Instead of white or silvery gray the figure in the bed had hair the color of chestnuts. Young looking.

The nurse took a hold of the handles on the wheelchair. “Almost time for Christmas dinner, Mr. McClure.”

“Christmas. Nah! What’s wrong with her?” Herman bolted the words. “How old?”

The nurse pushed him into the hallway before responding. “Nell has a neuromuscular disorder. She’s lost the use of most of her body. Her family can’t care for her anymore.” She paused in front of the bulletin board. “Today’s her birthday. She’s twenty-three.”

The words pierced Herman’s heart. “Her folks comin’?”

“Probably not.”

“Take me back.”

“Excuse me?”

“Take me back.”

“Mr. McClure, it’s almost time for your medicine . . .”

“Not for another hour. Now I’m askin’ please, or I’ll do it myself.” He groped for the rim of the wheelchair.

She leaned over and cocked her head. “You sure?”

“Course I’m sure. Nobody should be alone . . . today.”

“Alright, but only for awhile and only if it doesn’t upset her.”

The nurse positioned Herman next to the bed. “Nell, you have a visitor. Mr. McClure from next door. He’d like to stay with you for a few minutes. Is that okay?”

Herman made out a nod—ever so slight—in the affirmative.

“I’m going to turn you over so you can see him.”

The eyes of the young woman searched Herman’s face. As the impact of her condition settled on him his chest constricted, stealing his breath. Only a girl she would never have the chance to dance in the moonlight on her anniversary, give birth to her children, or walk in the soft dirt of a peach orchard hand in hand with the one she loved. And, by the looks of the feeding tube attached to her nose, she would have no Christmas dinner.

Embarrassed by his own selfishness he couldn’t meet her gaze. He let his head drop. His mind raced trying to think of what to do, what to say.

And there was something more.

Long-ago lodged in his soul that emotional shrapnel, festering for decades, tore into his senses. He fought back tears. Then, thinking of how Lily would face the situation, he rallied courage and spoke.

“I had a daughter once.” He stuck out his chin in determination, “Her name was Nell, too. Nellie Hazel. It’d been a terrible winter. She had the croup. Couldn’t lick it. She died on this day back in 1944, just seven-years-old. I haven’t celebrated a Christmas since.”

Overcome, he let his tears brim and spill down his face. Tears for his Nell, who never lived out her childhood. Tears for Miss Annie, whose passing he’d not yet mourned. Tears for Lily, losing herself to dementia. And, tears for this Nell who, so young, bore burdens he couldn’t even comprehend. Why? Why did life have to be so hard? Why was there so much pain, suffering, and sorrow?

Herman looked up through his tears into Nell’s eyes.

She blinked twice, slow and deliberate, as though to communicate she understood his grief.

He reached out and placed his hand on hers. “Happy birthday, girl. I’ll be comin’ round to visit, that is if you can put up with a cantankerous old man like me.” He forced a smile.

Nell’s eyes smiled back.

From behind him came the sound of shuffling. His wife appeared at his side.

“Nell!” Lily clasped her hands in front of herself like a joyful child. Moving to the side of the bed she began to sing, “Away in a manger no crib for His bed the little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head. The stars in the heavens looked down where He lay . . .”

Herman couldn’t be certain how Lily knew Nell’s name. Did she see it on the tag? Or had her mind convinced her this was the child she lost so many years ago?

It didn’t matter.

The fan on the nightstand billowed the hairs on the top of his head, a three-quarter halo of white. Lily sang, radiant. Nell’s eyes smiled with increasing light. Herman looked from one woman to the other. Could it be that suffering was the catalyst to bring about the best in folks? If so, it would appear God knew the same thing fruit farmers knew: a good pruning is the key to a successful harvest.

“ . . . Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay close by me forever and love me I pray.”

Warmth wrapped Herman, a quilt of serenity. He knew it wasn’t a coincidence that brought Nell into their lives on this particular day.

“Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care and take us to heaven to live with Thee there.”

He closed his eyes. The words of the song reminded him of the soothing waters of some far away ocean—azure—the color Lily wore that first day when she’d been dressed in calico and lace.

8: A Gift at the Midnight Hour

Erica looked at her mother’s red eyes. Tears flooded her own eyes as her mother explained their Christmas would be different because her father had been out of work for awhile. They needed to keep food on the table for Erica and her little brother, Michael. There would not be any gifts this year.

Later, after Erica and Michael had been put to bed, their mother, Angie, worked feverishly crafting special gifts for her children. She did not want them to do without. For children this was a special time of the year and she knew at six and four years old they couldn’t comprehend the meaning of their father not working.

“I see you’re at it again,” John said to his wife. After another unsuccessful day his spirits were down. “How do you do it?”

“If you had seen the look in Erica’s eyes you would know,” Angie replied to her husband. “She doesn’t understand. I know she’ll be devastated if there isn’t a gift under the tree.”

“With all our problems and adversity you find time to think about what is most important,” John said, continuing to marvel at his wife’s commitment. “It’s no wonder I love you so much.”

“I need to keep working. Tomorrow night is Christmas Eve. Dinner is in the fridge. You’ll have to warm it up.” Angie returned her attention to the homemade gifts.

Dawn of the next morning brought a chill wind. Blowing across the already frozen ground covered in white, it tossed around the little sparkles of crystallized flakes. Erica and Michael scurried into the kitchen for breakfast. A small bowl of warm cereal awaited them. Powdered milk and a spoon full of honey to sweeten were poured on top.

Erica looked at the cereal and wanted to complain. Her mother had given her and her brother the same thing every morning for the past week. Michael wasn’t bothered by the repetition, he was hungry. Erica began eating, thankful there was something.

It was a special day, the day before Christmas. There was loads of activity as people finished preparations for Christmas day. Shoppers bought last minute items, knitters finished their knitting, and sewers finished their sewing. And Angie worked hard to finish her homemade gifts.

Bundled up, the children played in the yard giving their mother the needed extra time to work on their gifts. Because John was out of work, they could not afford to buy gifts for their children. One homemade gift under a small tree from the woods behind their house was all they would see in the morning. Even the day before Christmas there was nothing under the sparely decorated tree.

As Erica and Michael played, their mother worked. The children played so well together. Erica loved her little brother and doted over him. She thought she was his guardian. Angie watched her daughter and smiled. At such a young age she saw the signs of a caring person. Her heart was warmed by the actions of her daughter. She watched and remembered that Christmas was about more than receiving gifts. It was about family and love and being together. It was about loving one another and loving Jesus, whose birthday they would be celebrating. She thought about her emotions in the morning when they listened to the story of Jesus’ birth. But, she also knew children needed a gift under the tree.

“I’m hungry, mommy,” Erica said, startling her mother. “What are you doing?”

Angie looked up at her daughter and then at the wall clock. She had gotten so involved in finishing her children gifts that she had lost track of time. It was three in the afternoon and she hadn’t fed her children any lunch. Ashamed, she put her work down in the basket beside her feet and rose from her chair. “I am so sorry, sweetheart. I will get something for you and Michael right now.”

She handed her children a slice of bread with a thin spread of jam on top moments later. Erica took note it was the same as the past few days, but she did not complain. Instead, she looked at her mother and asked, “Are we going to have Christmas this year? It is okay if we don’t, mommy. We can wait until next year. Maybe daddy will be working.”

“We will have Christmas, I promise. It will just be a little different.”

“What do you mean, mommy?

“I can’t explain it, sweetheart, but you will be happy. I will make sure of that.”

Angie noticed the rosy redness on her children’s cheeks when they’d come in and decided they needed to stay inside. She scooted them off to their room and she returned to her work. If the gifts were to get done, she would have to work into the late night. She looked down at the two baskets and the creations taking on the form of a finished product. It began to look as if her children would have a gift under the tree in the morning. She hoped they would like what she had worked so hard to make for them.

Unbeknownst to Angie, her husband also worked hard into the night of Christmas Eve. His project had special meaning, but it was not directed toward the children. He loved his son and daughter, but knew instinctively their mother was much better equipped to satisfy their needs and make them happy. What he worked on was for her and he wanted to finish so he could give it to her early. His fingers were sore from twisting and molding wire into a special gift for his wife. Angie had been so wonderful to him, never complaining about the hardships she lived with and always being there for the children, knowing exactly what to say to them and do for them to keep them happy. He marveled at the women he’d married and loved her so much. He hoped she would like what he was making for her. It was nothing much, but it was personal and came from the heart.

He worked in his shed, glancing toward their bedroom window. He saw his wife rocking in the chair given to them by his grandfather several years before. She worked to complete the gifts for their children by candlelight so they would find something under the tree in the morning. John looked at the homemade gift he continued to craft for his wife. She would expect him to come in soon so he needed to work faster. He wanted to present it to her before they went to bed. She deserved to be first. It was meant to be a piece of jewelry. John hoped Angie would see it as something pretty and not a bunch of wires strewn together.

Erica and Michael rushed into their mother’s room. “What do you want, momma?” Erica asked.

“It is time for you and Michael to hurry off to bed or Santa won’t come to visit,” Angie said.

The embrace from her daughter brought a smile to her face. “But you said we wouldn’t get any gifts this year because daddy wasn’t working.”

“I know I said that, but then I remembered Santa and Santa’s job is making little children happy, isn’t it?” Angie asked.

“I guess so,” Erica said.

“I want Santa to come tonight,” Michael said to his mother, his small cheeks flushing red, “because I want to be happy in the morning for Christmas.”

“I want you to be happy, too,” Angie said, smiling and brushing the top of her son’s head. “I will put in a special request just for you.”

“Mommy, when I say my prayers tonight I will make a special request, too.”

“Me, too,” Erica echoed her brother.

“I think that is a wonderful idea,” Angie said to her children. “Now hurry off and get your pajamas on and don’t forget to brush your teeth and wash your face and hands. I will come up in a few minutes to help you say your special prayers.”

Without another word, Erica and Michael ran out of their mother’s room. She listened to the bustle of her children preparing for bed on this special evening pulling the basket behind her chair. She would need a couple more hours to finish making the gifts Erica and Michael would find under the tree in the morning from Santa.

When it became quiet she left her room and walked to the small room her daughter and son shared. It would not be long before the two would need to be separated, she mused. Erica would soon be a young lady and Michael a young man. But, for now, at six and four years old, both she and John felt the sleeping arrangement was appropriate. And the children felt the security of being together, which they needed at a young age.

After she had helped both of her children with their prayers and stayed with them as they dosed off, Angie stepped quietly out of their room and returned to her own. She glanced at the wall clock as she passed it. Only three hours to midnight. Three more hours to Christmas, the day she loved more than any other.

Nearly three hours later, just a few minutes before midnight, she heard John come in. She worried and had almost gone to check on him, because he usually came in when the children were going to bed. He liked to say good night and tuck them in. But tonight he hadn’t. After rummaging around the kitchen for several minutes, presumably finding a late night snack, which was true to his character, he walked into their bedroom.

John set the saucer, covered with apple slices, down on the chest-of-drawers and kissed his wife. “You’re still at it, I see,” he said.

“I’m almost finished,” Angie responded. “Just a few more stitches. Erica and Michael will have a gift under the tree when they wake up in the morning.”

“Wonderful,” John said, reaching around to rub his wife’s shoulders.

After a short silence, Angie turned around and saw the tender look of love in her husband’s eyes. She stopped crocheting and met her husband’s gaze. “What is wrong, dear? You look sad.”

John pulled his wife into a tight embrace. He didn’t want to let her go. Angie was everything he’d ever dreamed of and he often felt he didn’t deserve her. And yet, he loved her very much and knew he couldn’t be without her.

“Please put your beautiful creations down for a minute,” he said. “The children are not the only members of this family who deserve a gift. Mother deserves a gift, too. I made something for you.”

He reached into his pocket before his wife could respond. “Please close your eyes,” he said. John then reached around his wife and clasped the homemade necklace with locket at the nape of her neck.

Angie opened her eyes at his request. She looked at her husband’s gift and began to cry. It was made from fencing wire that he’d taken the barbs out of. The clasp was his creation and the locket touched her chest just below her Adam’s apple. “It is beautiful,” she cried, hugging her husband. “I love it.”

“Open it up. There’s something inside.”

Angie found the release pin and opened the locket. Inside John had placed a picture of Erica and Michael. She looked at the small picture for several moments and then closed the locket back up. She didn’t say another word, but returned to the gifts she had nearly completed for Erica and Michael. She soon finished and placed the homemade gifts under the Christmas tree.

She looked at her husband, sleeping soundly. She kissed him on his cheek, lingering for a moment. She opened the locket once more. At the midnight hour, just as Christmas began, he gave her a special gift and a memory she would never forget.

7: Christmas Imposter

Jake lifted the piano key and slammed it down. A tiny distorted noise echoed from the piano. He dropped his forehead on the keys with a loud thud. “I hate this piano.”

“I thought it sounded great,” his mother said.

“It’s hard to recognize Jingle Bells on this piano. You’ve never heard me play at Le Chic. Last night I played O Holy Night and made one lady cry.”

“I can’t afford to eat at your work,” she reminded him as she draped a popcorn garland over a pathetic little tree.

The women at Le Chic wore tight dresses in shades of red, green, and black. Jake looked over at his mother dressed in old sweats and a worn sweater. She would never fit in with the bright lights and beauty of Le Chic.

Jake stood and pulled a faded felt strip over the piano keys. The last thing the old beast needed was dust in the keys. “I’m going for a walk.”

“Don’t be too late. My sister and her kids are coming over for dinner.”

Jake lifted the door as he pulled it closed so the latch would shut all the way. He regretted going outside the moment he saw the row of plastic Christmas ornaments decorating the houses that surrounded his. It was like Christmas just upchucked everywhere except his house. Christmas vomit was too expensive.

It was warm, for Christmas Eve. Most of the snow from last week’s storm had melted and the roads were clear. He got on his motorcycle and headed for the mountains. They would be free of Christmas decorations.

A strange melody wrapped in the roar of his engine began to play in his head. He listened to it for a while and tried to identify the tune, but soon gave up. He pulled to the side of the road and cut the engine, expecting the melody to fade, but it grew stronger.

A cold wind caressed his face and pushed him toward a fallen tree. He shoved the branches to the side and found a trail winding its way up the mountain. He hid his bike behind some branches and forced his way past the tree to the trail. The trail widened as he distanced himself from the freeway. As he walked, the melody grew louder and he could make out the distinct tone of a piano.

The trail opened into a small meadow sheltered by snow-covered trees. Jake pushed a low tree branch out of the way and stepped off the path. There, in the center of the meadow, sat a glistening black grand piano. Who would put a valuable piano like that outside in weather like this?

“Hello? Your piano is going to be ruined.” How did someone haul it here in the first place?

Wind rustled the evergreen trees and a light dusting of snow blew around the meadow. The melody in his head grew insistent. He had to play that piano. It was a need as unrelenting as hunger.

The snow around the piano showed no footprints. He looked at the rich dark color of the piano and played middle C. The note rang out, clean and pure, unlike the piece of junk piano he had at home. He slid onto the piano bench and ran his fingers over the rest of the keys. They were warm and inviting. The song flowed from his head and into his fingers. Jake let it take over.

As he played a light appeared behind him and reflected on the shiny black piano. At first it bobbed up and down to the beat and then it started to sway. The light grew as the music swelled and took on a human shape, legs splitting from the bottom half, arms extended from the middle and a head formed on the top. Then it danced.

The light leapt and twirled with the music its form solidifying as he danced. His hair spiraled around his head as he floated around the frozen meadow. His face was young and handsome except for the eyes. His eyes were nothing but black voids.

Jake saw him as he danced around the piano but he couldn’t stop playing. The music had him. He couldn’t tear his hands away from the haunting melody and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to. It was too beautiful to stop.

The ghost floated over the piano and stopped, his face inches from Jake’s. Jake’s fingers froze. His heart pounded as he stared into the face.

“What are you?” Jake meant to ask, but his voice didn’t work. He looked around and found himself staring at his own body, still playing the piano. The strange spirit was gone. But why was he looking at himself? What was happening?

Jake’s body stopped playing the piano. It stood and looked around. “Don’t bother complaining. I can’t see or hear you.” He stretched. “Man that feels good.” He paused for a moment. Jake tried to get back to his body but he didn’t know how to move.

The imposter stood and Jake felt a pull as his body started down the trail. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” He asked as if Jake could reply. He smiled. “I can’t remember the last time I got to smile.” His chest expanded as he took a deep breath. “Or smelled the snow. Snow does have a smell, but you don’t realize it until you haven’t smelled it for a while.” Water dripped on his head from an overloaded branch and he laughed.

Jake couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed. It was a nice sound. He wondered why he never did it.

“Wow,” the imposter said when they arrived at the spot where Jake’s motorcycle was hidden. “I’ve heard these thing roar down the road but I never imagined I’d get to ride one.”

If Jake had been connected with his heart, he was sure it would be pounding. This jerk was going to destroy his bike! It was the only thing he had. But he was powerless to stop the imposter from lifting his bike and climbing on the seat. Jake drifted behind the motorcycle like a kite tied to the handlebars.

“So this is what you call Christmas vomit,” the imposter said.

Jake struggled to concentrate. How did they get home so fast?

“That’s funny. It is a strange thing—and very large. But look.”

Jake’s attention was forced on a giant blowup Santa. His neighbor’s kid played in the snow at its feet, making a snowman. The kid looked up at the Santa and smiled. “You’ll tell the real Santa that I’ve been good, right? I even built him a snowman.”

“Jake, you’re home.”

Jake forced his attention to his own house. His mother stood in the doorway wearing an old stained apron over her faded best dress.

“Merry Christmas, Mom,” the imposter said. He swept her into his arms and wrapped her into a hug.

Jake waited for his mom to notice something was wrong, that the guy wearing his body wasn’t him, but instead she smiled. “I don’t think you’ve hugged me like that since you were ten.”

“The mountain air cleared my head,” the imposter said. “And I realized what a jerk I’ve been. So I hurried back to see if you needed any help.”

Her smile lit her face like a Christmas tree and Jake realized that she was beautiful—just as beautiful as the wealthy women he played for at Le Chic.

Images blurred past him. Sounds of laughter boomed around and a warm feeling enveloped the evening. Jake found himself watching his body wave goodbye to his cousins and aunt. He couldn’t remember anything that happened that evening but the feeling in the air was almost tangible. He longed for his hands so he could reach out and touch it.

Anger stirred him. That imposter made him miss the entire Christmas Eve celebration. Then he remembered that he’d planned to spend the evening moping in his room.

“I’m so tired,” Jake’s mom said around a yawn. “Thanks for all your help tonight.” Her face glowed with tired happiness as she hugged the imposter.

Jake longed to feel his mother’s love. He tried to move to his body but once again he was powerless.

“I can feel you fighting me,” the imposter said after his mother had gone to bed. “I don’t understand why you want your life back. You hated it. You are poor and you can barely afford to eat. Your piano won’t even play Middle C. You could go back to the meadow and take the next body that comes along. You will be happier.”

No, he wouldn’t be happier. He wanted his life back. He loved his mother and the silly popcorn she’d draped over the tree. The piano wasn’t so bad. His mother had saved for years to buy it. It reminded him of her. He longed to feel the worn keys under his fingers.

It was such a familiar feeling it took a moment before he realized that he was sitting at his piano playing the same haunting song that started the whole mess. He yanked his fingers from the keys. A door opened at the top of the stairs and he saw his mother in her white night gown looking down on him like an angel.

“Where did you learn that song?” she asked.

Jake stared at his hands, still unsure if he was really attached to them. “I…umm…”

“It sound like the song your father wrote before you were born. It was supposed to be your first Christmas present, but he died before he could play it for you.” She smiled, her eyes staring at something far away. “You reminded me so much of him tonight. I’m so glad you found that song.”

Jake felt a chill creep up his spine. “I’m glad too, Mom. Merry Christmas.”

6: Christmas with the Hutchinsons

It was the night before Christmas and all through my house, it was nothing but noise, glitter, and gaiety. If you had stood outside my small two story home you would have thought we had a full house while in actuality it was just the six of us, well eight if you included the dogs. Our small house on Nightengale Drive was lit up from top to bottom as my siblings raced from room to room playing hide and seek, one boxer and one shiatsu hot on their heels. Mom sat on the couch her blonde hair pulled back and laughing as I began to entertain her by lip synching Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas.” The Christmas tree sat quietly out of harm’s way in one corner of our living room decorated with multi-colored lights, tinsel, and mismatched ornaments. I loved our ornaments and no two were the same. Some had been broken in our many moves, some were homemade and one of a kind, and some we found in our big blue totes where we kept our Christmas decorations. The top of the tree was bare however, our star having been broken the year before and the current tree topper lost somewhere amidst the chaos that was Christmas. A few presents lay on the blue and snowflake pattern tree skirt while the rest of them would magically appear after Erin and Sean, the youngest of our family, went to bed.

Our living room was small as Patrick proved by measuring the distance from the far wall to the kitchen in ten steps. There was a couch, a love seat, a black leather ottoman torn by the dogs claws, and one giant green chair. They sat in a semi circle around the blazing hearth while six stockings sporting everything from polar bears to penguins hanging from the mantle. The flat screen rested on the mantle top next to two family photos that had been my gift to my mother a few years before on Mother’s Day, and a wooden plaque that read “And they lived happily ever after.” The song changed and I took a seat on the hearth in front of the fire, rolling up my flannel bottoms as I laughed at Mom who was near tears from all the laughter. It wasn’t just me now, my dad was playing the harmonica, the single most annoying instrument in the history of instruments, and causing the dogs Riley and Roosey to howl. It was the same whenever I played the violin, and we weren’t sure if they were singing along, or crying from the grating sound in their ears. Still it never failed to make mom laugh.

Seany-bear, the youngest of my siblings, was doing his best to tip toe from the hall that led to the stairs and into the kitchen without letting his giggles give him away while he hunted for Erin and Patrick.

“Bear! Tst!” I called over to him from my perch on the hearth, feeling particularly mischievous.

He looked over at me with his large brown hound dog eyes and cocked his head to the side in that familiar pose I knew as well as my own face. I grinned as I pointed to the dryer and he broke out in a toothy grin and he padded over to the dryer and opened it.

“Found you.” He said smugly as he danced out of range of the large hand that shot out of the dryer.

Two long legs unfolded themselves from their hiding place, followed by a skinny body and an slightly annoyed face. Blue eyes shot me an accusing look as a frown took hold of his mouth.

“It doesn’t count, Taeg told you where I was.” Patrick said, his voice a deep growl.



“Hey Flotsom, Jetsum, cool your jets.” I said to them with a smile. “Ahnin’ come on out babe, Pat lost.”

A pale pixie of a girl with a dark brown bob and impish gray-blue eyes crept down from her hiding place on the counter behind the fridge and smirked triumphantly at her brothers. Patrick scoffed and rolled his eyes while Sean gave her a play by play of his win. Except for the color of their eyes and the difference in their skin tones, Erin and Sean could pass for twins given the closeness in age. They were exactly one year, one month, and one day apart, and to be honest I think they rather enjoyed it

Patrick walked into the living room and flopped down on the couch with Mom, talking away about the things he hoped he would get for Christmas and the elaborate dinner we would have the night after.

“Erin and Sean why don’t you come sit down so we can read now?” My Dad called. Though they mumbled they did as they were bid and situated themselves as Dad pulled a blue book from his backpack. They were the scriptures, four books bound into one for our convenience. Dad opened up to Luke and waited for everyone to settle completely before he began reading about a King born a long time ago in Bethlehem. Erin cuddled behind dad’s legs, Sean sprawled out on the floor half under the ottoman with the dogs, while Pat snuggled down under a Christmas blanket with Mom. I watched the events as they unfolded from my seat on the hearth, listening to the words my Dad read. There was something about the way Dad talked, the way he told and recited stories that never failed to entrance us kids. So he read, about the Savior born of a virgin in the city of David, the story behind the holiday we were currently celebrating and as always we listened and even recited passages along with him. When it was over, Erin said our family prayer, and with kisses and hugs Erin and Sean were sent to bed.

A short time later Patrick and I sat in one room with our siblings gifts, wrapping them rather badly, but as best as we could manage with the odd shaped parcels as our parents sat in the other room whispering and wrapping ours. When we were sure they weren’t paying attention to us, we grabbed our own gifts to the family and placed them beneath the tree, giggling at our own craftiness. As we finished wrapping gifts, Patrick sang “Rudolph” to us in a falsetto voice, incorporating random accents into the mix as well. I joined in until I fell over laughing, my sides hurting as I gasped for air. By midnight the last preparations for Christmas morning were done and the rest of the Hutchinson clan turned in for the night.

It was when I was lying there in my bed thinking of the torn paper that would surely come tomorrow and the squeals and smiles of delight that I had an epiphany of sorts. While the gifts and decorations of Christmas were certainly nice, the reason I loved it so was because of the time I spent with my family just being stupid and silly. It was a time for staying up late and watching movies or playing board games and sometimes doing nothing at all. It was a time for unspoken traditions like watching old music videos that were popular when my Mom and Dad were high school, and lazing around by the fire at least one day of each week in December. It was these things that made Christmas in the Hutchinson clan, and we rather liked it that way. So rolling over I shut my eyes and let myself drift asleep to the soundtrack of tinsel, snow, and the Little Drummer Boy, waiting for the break of dawn that would bring about Christmas day.

5: A Sudden Resolve

“You find me wicked, don’t you?” Ava jutted her fingers outright, exhibiting her newly acquired diamond. Her ring finger buckled slightly under the bulbous rock’s weight—the thing must have weighed nine pounds.

“Cider?” I asked, looking away, then grasped the Styrofoam cup before me.

“A diversion!” She laughed, flashing those florescent teeth, her grin matching the cheer of her family’s Christmas party. “ Logan , why can’t you seem to care?”

Because you’re supposed to marry me?

But I laughed, indifferent. “It’s better than the cocoa.” And then I squeezed the thermos button, steaming liquid engulfing the flimsy cup.

“We haven’t chosen a date yet,” she took the cup from my hands, brought the warm liquid to her lips. They parted. Just a slit. The precise crack I needed to tell her how I felt.

“Told your parents?” The careless words fell from my lips. I must tell her. But to remove the façade…

“Richie’s speaking with Daddy right now.”

I traced her nose, the smoothness of her cheeks. The scar peeking under her left eyebrow—evidence of her love for that brutal game, hockey. Three years ago. Her choker had unclasped, whiplashed into her face. She had meant to buy another.

And so I had.

At last.

The most intimate Christmas gift I had ever purchased.

“Well, aren’t you going to go on about how I only love him for his money?”

I considered it. But I couldn’t toss the ring from my mind. Such a comparison—my necklace, resting patiently in my shirt pocket: fragile, cheap. Absurdly pubescent.

And his?

Enormous, impenetrable. Timeless. Horrific.

“Logan! Talk to me! Rave about ‘no-neck!’”

Her reference forced me to smile. He was rich, and built like the hulk. I had once spray-painted my entire body green, stalked into her dorm room, pretended to clean out my ears with five dollar bills. But I maximized his one flaw as often as I could—his chiseled form lacked the completion of a neck. I’d dropped my chin to my chest, mimicking his look. She’d cried, laughing. Laughing so hard.

But she was asking me to tease her? Something wasn’t quite right.

Arms folded, the enormous gem protruded behind her elbow. She twisted it around, agitated, the workings of a nervous thumb.

“Ava, what’s wrong?” I couldn’t tease when she was like this. Maybe she knew how I felt. Understood the wrong of her recent engagement.

Her eyes darted around, seeming to plead for the guests to leave.

Franz and Lola, quasi-friends of Ava’s, appeared to know nothing of our exchange. Lola was inching backward toward the mistle toe. Franz was as eager as she.

Ava’s Aunt Tory was completing her latest cross-word puzzle. Only the pen she tapped against her face in contemplation was leaking, a splotch of ink messing her cheek.

The other guests were in the front of the home, by the piano, singing carols.

No one knew our conversation. It was safe to begin.

“Ava, there’s something I need to–”

“I’m pregnant,” she cut in, her softened voice most pronounced.

A conduit from the ceiling had opened. Vinegar poured inside my lungs. I tried to smell it, make sense of it, but the fluid was drowning me inside.

Taking a deep breath, I forced the fluid out. “Your dad… Richie’s telling him now?” I hated him. He touched her? I hated him. She’d wanted to wait.

“I love him, Logan,” she whispered softly. “I love him and Daddy’s going to kill him. I love him. And Daddy will always hate him.”

The both of us, I tightened my fist. But calm was my practiced skill. “Your dad will get past that,” I offered, but then realized her fear. Confused, I added, “He, of all people, will be willing to forgive.”

“You’re wrong,” I could barely hear her words, had to read her perfect lips. “He doesn’t forgive. That’s why you don’t see Paul.”

Her brother. The one who left her faith.

To abandon his own son?

“So you’re only marrying him because—” Perhaps I still stood a chance.

She shook her head miserably. “No, I couldn’t love him more, Logan . He’s everything to me. But Daddy—he’ll cut us off.”

My gift, that abject token, slithered into a sharpened blade. The snakelike necklace writhed in my pocket, lacerating my useless, wretched hope.

“Ah,” I frowned, successfully minimizing the pain.

That fear she felt. I had seen reason for it only once. I’d golfed with her father—volunteered to be his caddy. Only, when we were late and her mother complained, her father punished the complaint, verbally attacked Ava’s poor mother. I’d wished I hadn’t been present.

But that authoritative man suddenly strode into the room. Blackened eyes purposeful, he pulled Richie forward.

“Let us see this magnificent rock!”

I’d forgotten her father was a jeweler.

“I’ve seen it, to be sure,” he winked at me, “but to see it on Ava’s hand is quite another matter!”

Ava’s arms were still folded, but quickly melted to meet her father’s advance. Her hand shook, it trembled. I’d never seen her so scared.

“Flawless,” her father beamed, lifting her gem-clad hand into the light. “And nearly one point five carrots,” he whistled. “It’s nice to know my daughter will be taken care of.” He laughed, jubilant, then noticed his daughter’s silence.

“Ava?” he asked, then saw her face.

“You…” her lip trembled, “You didn’t tell him?” Her eyes pled with her fiance’s.

He apologized with a smirk.

“Tell me what, darling?” Her father’s hand clutched hers, his eyes searched her desperate face. “It’s quite all right that you want to marry so soon.”

“But he didn’t tell you why!” she cried. She pulled her hand away. Determined to face this alone.

But I couldn’t allow it; and she had made her choice. She would truly marry the louse. I now had but one purpose.

Smiling broadly, I grasped Richie’s shoulder. “Thanks for savin’ my bacon, pal!” I squeezed it three times. “Ava knows I had no intention of marrying. Give the little tike my name! I pray he doesn’t get my nose.”

I faced Ava’s Richie, only to watch her father’s reaction. He stiffened, clenched his fist. This would hurt.

“What did you do to my daughter?” He snatched my shoulder, pulled it toward him, pummeled his knuckles into my jaw.

I sailed to the floor. Face down. It burned.

“Merry Christmas, Ava,” I was going to say while handing her the necklace, exposing my regard. “Only don’t be a fool and wear it on the ice. I simply won’t stand here and watch you get hurt.”

4: Shepherds and Kings

Leila was dying, and she knew it, and death tasted bitter in her throat. She’d really blown it big this time, and now there was no way out. I’m a failure, just like everyone said I would be. Leila shut the blinds in her tiny one room apartment to keep out the lights and general good will of the world around her, the cheer of the stupid holiday she would probably never celebrate again. Some neighbor’s Christmas music floated through the walls, and the memories sprang unbidden into Leila’s mind.

She could see herself as a little girl again, happy and hopeful. Before everything started to go wrong. She’d always set up the little Nativity scene near the Christmas tree. She pictured the shepherds and the wise men gathered around Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus, offering the Christ child their gifts. All shining softly in the glow from the tree and surrounded by the scent of pine.

Now it was gone, all of it. She couldn’t go back to the past and she had no future to speak of. Now there was no way out.

* * *

The carpenter sits in his solitary cottage deep in some forgotten forest, and picks up a shapeless piece of wood to begin carving another figure. What this one will become, he doesn’t yet know. He just works as his hands direct him, lovingly and with great care.

* * *

Something about remembering Christmas got Leila to thinking that maybe she should try to set things right before it was too late. She hadn’t a phone in her apartment, so now she shivered in the cold at a pay phone on a corner. Trembling, she dialed the phone number that she had never forgotten though she hadn’t dialed it in years. Almost, she hung it up when it started ringing, but she stayed on the line.


Leila hesitated for the briefest moment. “Mom?”

Silence on the other end. Cold, deep silence. Then at last a single word. “Leila.” Her mother’s voice was icy, and Leila could picture her standing at the phone in the gleaming white kitchen with her lips pinched together in disapproval. Just the look that Leila tried to escape when she ran away all those years ago.

“Mom . . .” Her voice caught, and she coughed for a time before she could speak again. Still her mother kept her silence. “I had to call, mom. I’m . . . I wanted to set things right with you. You see, I’m dying. I have AIDS.”

“AIDS,” her mother said at last. Her words were crisp and clipped. “Good lord, Leila, I always knew it would come to this. You think that you can just desert your family and run wild, and have all the ‘fun’ you like, and then when it’s time to pay for your mistakes, you crawl back to us and expect us to take care of everything. Well it doesn’t work that way, Leila. You dug your own grave, now you lie in it.”

Leila sat silent through the tirade, then quietly said, “I’m sorry,” and hung up. A burning anger flared up in her when she put down the phone. How dare she say those hateful things?

But the anger left as quickly as it had come, as though Leila just didn’t have the strength in her body to sustain it. Her mother was right, anyway. It was all her own fault. She had left them. There was no reason why they should accept her now. And she resigned herself to the fact that she was alone in the world. A failure and a disgrace.

* * *

Surrounded by years and years of shavings and the sweet smell of soft pine, the carpenter moves his carving knife skillfully and gracefully across the wood. The figure is beginning to take shape now. The carpenter smiles. It will be another fine work.

* * *
Leila wanted to just curl up on her bed and never get up again, but something kept tugging at her heart, urging her out of her isolation. She couldn’t stop thinking of Christmas. In all her years away from home, Leila had forced Christmas from her mind. The memories of happier times were too painful. But now that she was certain that she was seeing her last holiday, Leila couldn’t keep Christmas out of her mind.

She found herself aimlessly wandering around the streets, staring at the lights and decorations, watching the busy shoppers move like a sea around her. She felt like she was searching for something, but she didn’t know what. And whatever it was, she couldn’t find it.

The disease that ravaged her body left her too weak for walk for long, so she simply sat on a park bench and thought. That was the hardest part, thinking. Thinking about all she would miss out on when she died. Thinking about how she would never see her family again, and worst of all, how she would never have a family of her own. She was surprised to find that there was no more room in her heart for bitterness or anger. Only regret and despair.

A light snow began to fall and Leila knew she should go home, but she couldn’t seem to remember how to get there, and she couldn’t make herself care. As the snow fell harder, her mind became more and more muddled. All her thoughts slipped away before she could grasp them, and tears welled up in her eyes. Not much time left now. Not much time at all.

It surprised her when, through the haze of her thoughts, a little girl stepped up to the bench, and held out a candy cane. Leila took the offered gift and looked questioningly at the little girl with a face like an angel. “Merry Christmas,” she whispered then scampered shyly off to grasp her mother’s hand. As they left, the little angel turned and waved to Leila. Then they disappeared into the crowd.

Leila stared numbly at the candy cane in her hand. Why would she do that? What was a skinny, sickly looking stranger to a little angel girl, that she would want to wish her a Merry Christmas? She scanned the park to see if she could see the little girl again and thank her, but she couldn’t see her anymore.

Instead, her eyes were drawn to a billboard depicting the holy family, all bathed in a soft light. The baby Jesus smiled and reached for his mother, Mary. “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” the billboard proclaimed. Leila stared at it for a long while, and found her thoughts getting muddled again. Her vision blurred until all she could see was the shining face of the Christ Child.

And suddenly she was a young child again, sitting in the warmth of her living room, looking at the Nativity scene while her father told her the story of the first Christmas; of the angels and the shepherds and the wise men and the star, and why they had all come to worship the little baby Jesus. The memory hit her right in the heart.

“Oh, God,” Leila gasped. “God, please forgive me. Please help.” Then she wept as the cold, numbing snow continued to fall around her.

* * *

The figure is finished now, and the carpenter is pleased. It is a shepherd this time, another humble shepherd. The shepherd is a woman, her face thin and sad. She kneels to worship the Christ Child, and in her hands she holds her gift for Him. Her broken heart.

The carpenter gently sets the shepherd down in his carefully carved Nativity scene to join the countless other worshipers, some shepherds and some kings, who all kneel before the baby Jesus and offer Him their hearts.

3: The Second Best Christmas Story

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Grandpa closed his worn Bible. “And that’s why we celebrate Christmas,” he said, smiling down at the children at his feet, and their parents, who had gathered behind them.

“Tell us the other Christmas story, Grandpa!” said young David.

Grandpa stroked his mustache. “Now, what story would that be?”

“You know, Grandpa! The story about the crash! And I’m in it!” Peter said, nearly bursting with excitement.

“Oh, that story,” Grandpa said. “Let me see if I can remember. Because it happened a long time ago, you see . . . ah, yes, I’m beginning to recall . . . But it’s a very ordinary type of story, about ordinary people.”

“No it’s not!” the children protested. “It’s our family’s very own story!”

“All right, then.” Grandpa smiled and the children settled on the rug again.

It all began on the day before Christmas, in a terrible blizzard. The snow came down like millions of feathers from millions of pillows, and the wind was so strong, it felt even colder [than what?]. The roads were icy and slick and drivers couldn’t see where they were going.

And driving through this blizzard was a little family, a long way from home: a mother, a father and a baby, The father saw the flashing red and blue lights of a police car ahead, so he slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road. And then—

“Bang! Crash! Smash!” the children said. “They had a smash-up,” added Annie.

“Yes, indeed, they did. There were two cars behind them, going too fast. Both hit the family’s car and spun it around.”

“It was all squished,” said Peter.

But [I don’t like starting paragraphs with But, but even if I let that slide, you’ve got two in a row. Lose this one.] The mother and father and baby were all right. So were the other drivers.

But because their back window was broken, the snowstorm came whooshing in, right inside the family’s car. Even with their coats on, they were very, very cold.

Just then a man knocked on their door. “I saw the accident happen,” he told them. “I’ve called for help. Come and wait in my car. You can get warm. By the way, my name is David.”

So they all got in David’s car, where it was warm and cozy. It wasn’t very long before a Highway Patrolman came by. He said the family needed to be checked by a doctor.

An ambulance came. It was big and it had red and blue and white lights on it, almost like Christmas lights, and the siren was wailing. The family got in and David followed them to the hospital. The doctors found that the mother had a bruise on her face and a sore neck. The father’s knee hurt but nothing was broken. And the baby didn’t have a mark on her. So the doctors said the family could go home. They gave them blankets to wrap over their coats, because it was so cold.

“But they couldn’t drive their car because it was all squished,” said Matthew. “And they had nowhere to stay.”

“That’s right. So David invited them to come home with him.”

“Even though it was Christmas Eve?” Luke asked.

“Especially because it was Christmas Eve.”

The snow and the wind had settled down some, and David drove carefully to his house, which wasn’t too far away.

A beautiful lady opened the door. Behind her, they could see the glowing lights of a Christmas tree. They heard the crackling of a log burning in the fireplace and they smelled a turkey roasting in the oven. Music was playing, too: “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

Suddenly a little boy in stocking feet dashed down the hallway, over the shiny wooden floor, and nearly skidded into the little family. He looked up, and when he saw a man and woman with blankets draped over their heads and shoulders, and a baby in the woman’s arms, he said—

“He said, ‘It’s baby Jesus!’” the children chimed in.

“That’s right.”

Another boy came running in. He stared at the family, too.

David chuckled and closed the door behind them. “No,” he said, “it’s not baby Jesus. In fact, this little baby is a girl.”

The boys, whose names were Michael and John, were disappointed at first. But then the baby opened her round blue eyes and smiled at them.

David’s wife, Anna, took off her apron and hurried to the door. “Come in,” she said. “We’re so glad you’re here.”

“Are you sure you have room for us?” they asked.

“Of course.”

Soon the little family was sitting by the warm fire. Michael and John brought some toys for the baby to play with. She sat on the rug with them and giggled when they pretended the toy cars were going to run into her.

There was a scratching noise at the back door. David opened it and in came a big German Shepherd, who shook snow all over the rug.

“Lizzie!” the boys laughed. “You brought the storm in with you!” Lizzie padded over to the visitors and gently sniffed them. The father scratched her behind the ears and she wagged her tail happily.

Soon dinner was ready. It was delicious, just as ours was tonight. And, just as we have done tonight, David read the Christmas story from the Bible.

Michael whispered something to his father. “Shouldn’t we give them some presents?”

“You are a wise young boy,” his father said. “We can change the tags on a few gifts. There are so many, we won’t even miss them.”

And soon there were gifts for everyone under the tree.

David and the boys climbed upstairs to the attic. They came downstairs carrying a baby’s crib.

“This is where you two slept when you were babies,” their mother said, but they couldn’t remember ever being that small. She dusted the crib and took sheets and a soft baby blanket from the cedar chest, and the bed was ready for the baby.

Michael and John got sleeping bags from their closet. “They can have our room,” they told their parents. “We’ll sleep in the family room.”

And soon their room was ready for the young family. The mother wrapped the baby snugly in a blanket so she would feel safe and loved, and laid her in the crib. Soon she was fast asleep.

Then her parents stepped outside into the night. The storm was over and it was clear and quiet, very different from the big city where they lived. The woman looked up at the sky. “I forgot how bright stars can be,” she said. And indeed the dark sky, especially to the east, was sprinkled with twinkling stars that shone down upon the snow, making each snowflake sparkle like a diamond. They stood on the porch for a long time, their arms around each other, as they marveled at the sparkling stars and the calm, peaceful night.

When they came back inside they realized they were very, very tired. So they said goodnight to David and Anna and went into the boys’ bedroom.

A moment later Lizzie pushed her nose against their door, which wasn’t completely latched. [transition him into the hallway] David reached for her collar, to pull her away, when he heard soft voices in the room. He stood very still. The mother and father were kneeling by the crib, praying. Lizzie padded into the room and settled on the rug. David knew she would keep watch over them though the night. He smiled and closed the door quietly.

David and Anna turned off the Christmas lights, put out the fire in the fireplace, and headed upstairs to bed.

And so on Christmas morning, there were presents for everyone, and they sang the beautiful old carols like “Away in a Manger” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

That afternoon, the snow plows cleared the roads and the family was able to take a bus back to their home.

“And that’s the end of the story,” said Grandpa.

“No, it isn’t!” protested the grandchildren. “There’s more!”

“Well, now, let me think. Oh, yes.”

Every Christmas after that the two families sent letters and cards and presents to each other. And their children grew up.

“The end.”

“Tell the rest!” the children begged.

“What else is there to tell?” Grandpa asked, but his eyes twinkled. “Oh, yes. Now I remember . . .”

The children all grew up, as children do, and went away to college.

One Christmas Eve, John was at the airport, waiting to fly home to be with his family, but there was such a terrible winter storm, the airplanes couldn’t fly. And then the roads were closed, so no one could drive anywhere, either.

John would have to spend Christmas at the airport.

But John always made the best of things. There were other people who missed their planes, too, so they all decided to have a party, right there at the airport. The restaurants at the airport brought them food, and the people from the airlines gave them blankets and pillows. They ate and sang and laughed and shared stories, all of them missing friends and family they couldn’t be with, but still happy to be celebrating Christmas with new friends.

There were half a dozen students who sat in a circle with John, and each told a Christmas story of their own. Kate, a pretty girl with blonde hair and blue eyes, told hers: “My very first Christmas was spent in the home of kind strangers, after we had been in a terrible accident during a blizzard . . .”

As Kate told her story, John’s heart began to thump. Could this girl be the baby who had stayed with his family? He remembered her smiles and giggles.

“Really?” he said when she was through. “When I was three years old, we took in a little family that had been in an accident. There was a mother and a father and . . .” he looked up at the young woman, “a beautiful baby girl.”

“Did you have a dog?” asked the girl, who didn’t remember it, but had heard the story of her first Christmas many times from her parents, “named Lizzie?”

“Yes!” said the children, beaming at each other. “Yes, they did!”

Kate and John smiled at each other. And that was how they met again, on another Christmas Eve, during a terrible storm. Suddenly the airport felt warm and friendly. Everyone who heard their story came over to meet them.

And it made everyone smile.

“The end.” Said Grandpa.

“Grandpa! Tell the rest!”

“Oh, did I forget to say that they fell in love and got married a year later, on Christmas Eve? And that the boy was my son John and the girl was indeed the baby in the story, our very own Kate? And that they had three children, Annie and Gabriel (who is this? David?) and Peter? And that Kate’s mother and father are here with us tonight, too?”

“You were David, the man who brought them home from the hospital, and Grandma was Anna, who cooked the dinner and fixed the crib for Kate, my mom! And the little boy who thought she was baby Jesus was John, my daddy! It’s the best Christmas story ever!” said Annie, who sat on her mother’s lap.

Grandfather looked at his family and then at the nativity scene on the mantel, “I think we could say it was the second best Christmas story ever.”

For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in . . .Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Matthew 25: 35, 40

Critique: The biggest issue I have with this is tracking who is who. I know that’s part of the story, but I found myself not knowing who was an adult, who was a child. To help with this, I wouldn’t name the children after any of the adults. I’d also cut down the number of children in the story. Oh, and find another time transition word besides “soon”.

What I liked best: I know it’s improbable, but I love those quirky twists of fate.

Publication ready: Yes, as soon as the naming and who is who issues are resolved.

2: Kidnapping Mary: A Tale of Two Nativities

It was a simple plan: leave a piece of a nativity set on the doorstep of an unsuspecting recipient on each of the twelve nights preceding Christmas.

Mary was the first to go.

The next morning we celebrated our supposed success and spoke of how Joseph would be next. Then we compared notes and discovered the awful truth. Mary had been delivered to the wrong address.

Eyes were wide. Mouths too. How could this have happened? The intended receivers needed the nativity. They had to have it. That’s the way we’d planned it. Joseph needed a wife, the Christ child needed a mother. We had no choice.

Mary couldn’t stay.

We didn’t know the people at the wrong address. We rationalized that they didn’t want a nativity, especially a lone Mary. “How do you kidnap a nativity piece? One of us is going to have to ask for her return. I’m sure they’ll understand it was all a mistake.” Amidst our scheming to recover her someone in our group felt inspired to present a differing opinion. What if it wasn’t a mistake? What if we were supposed to take Mary to that address? What if the people there needed her just as much as the first family?

We mulled over the situation and felt embarrassed. Asking if we could have Mary back implied we thought the people at the wrong residence weren’t as deserving—as important—as those we anticipated taking her to. A few questions to their neighbors and a short time later we discovered that by any standard—mortal or heavenly—the family who received Mary very much needed her. Those who knew them, we found, had been praying that their lives would be blessed and their hearts somehow touched by the Christmas spirit.

Humbled, we purchased a second nativity.

Joseph from the first nativity went to join his Mary that night.

Critique: You’ll notice that there are no red marks within this story. The reason is, there’s nothing wrong with what is there. This critique covers what is NOT there. Word count was low, so you have room to expand. Add a little more depth and tension to the story. I’d like to see more live action, “in the moment” feelings, dialog. Also, I prefer individualized characters, rather than an anonymous “we”.

What I liked best: The concept that Mary was delivered to the “wrong” person.

Publication ready: Yes, but not for my purposes. I want more active stories.

1: Seargent Ward: A Christmas Miracle

Sergeant. Spell check the title.

Nestled in the foot hills of the Bavarian Alps is a little not very well known [awkward] US [U.S.] military installation called Hohenfels. There, abandoned German villages left since World War II now have large trees growing through their ruins while in the surrounding valleys and mingled among the crumbling structures US, and coalition forces train together to prep [prepare] for their turn in the middle east. [Middle East]

Teah was excited to move to Hohenfels with her husband, Jade. [This is an unusual name. I’d recommend using one easily recognized as a man’s name—like, Jaden.] one summer. She had watched her husband He had secured a nice nondeployable job as observation and control for the training forces. The quaint village with the pitched roofs and the heavy timber with stucco was picturesque to say the least and neither Teah nor Jade could wish for anything more.

At the end of a Bavarian summer, Teah, and Jade somewhere at the end of a Bavarian summer were blessed with a pregnancy. While Jade went to work each day Teah worked on organizing her home, getting baby clothes, crib, and toys ready for the anticipated arrival.

“Looks like the end of April or first of May,” the doctor said. Jade put his arm around Teah. She looked so beautiful, his wife, a mother, the mother of his children. [repetitive]

Jade moved into full swing with his unit that fall. Units were on the move and were constantly transforming which kept the young Sergeant busy for most days. Jade had early mornings and late nights. Night operations in the training aria often had several iterations with several [drop one of the “severals”] platoons and squad size elements moving through urban training sights. [a lot of telling; show us a few scenes instead]

Thanksgiving came, accompanied with a four day weekend. On the last day of that break, Jade and Teah spent the day getting ready for their favorite holiday; Christmas.

[Start your story here. Weave in a few of the facts from above.]
Excitement and love adorned the small German cottage as the two Jade and Teah decorated for Christmas. Teah was up on a step ladder pinning up the garland she had recently purchased from the Post Exchange, when Jade came through the door, and said, “I am going to need more fasteners… now, Teah you know you shouldn’t be climbing around on things.” Teah laughed and said, “Jade, I am pregnant not incapacitated. Plus this is my favorite holiday.”

Jade walked up to the ladder and grabbed Teah and she let out a scream of surprise as she fell back into his arms. Jade cradled her and kissed her forehead and lips. Jade was a romantic, the type of man that nauseated most men, but Teah adored him, and they were both in love.

That night after decorating, Jade sighed as he sat down on a thirty dollar Goodwill couch and Teah followed suit. She curled up next to Jade and he looked into her eyes and Christmas lights shimmered in the deep blue sea that surrounded lonely islands in her eyes as she smiled. Jade wrapped his arm around Teah and placed it on their unborn child. “This will be the best Christmas ever.” Jade said.

December came with a visit from winter’s old man and christened the earth with a thick blanket of powder. Training for Jade’s unit had slowed somewhat, and by mid month they were down to half days as part of the unit started block leave.

Jade loved spending the afternoons and the weekends with Teah. Whether it was a road trip to Prague, or lazy afternoons watching through the living room window, frail flakes of snow complete their journey to the ground, all while sitting in the amber, red and green quiet.

When things go too good for too long we ignorantly think we have beat opposition, and that somehow trials forgot us. It is in the panorama of life, we in retrospect realize, life’s most harrowing changes graced our mortality at the close of those vistas.

Coming to work one day Jade’s platoon sergeant said “SGT Kempton I need to see you in my office.” Jade stood up from his desk in the hanger and went to see his Platoon sergeant. [repetitive]

“SGT Kempton,” said Sergeant first class Gambill, “1st armor division is deploying and as you know none of us are safe.”

[new paragraph with each new speaker] Jade cut off SFC Gambill and said, “Well, you didn’t call me into your office to tell me you are deploying with the 1st Armor, so how much time do I have?”

[new paragraph with each new speaker] “They want you over in Baumholder Germany by the 23rd of December and the unit is leaving for Afghanistan on the first.” Said SFC Gambill. [correct punctuation: “…the first,” said SFC Gambill.]

That afternoon Jade left his car parked at the hanger and walked the four miles to his village. Humid crystals of ice clung to Jade’s black fleece turning it to match the frosted backdrop on the lonely highway. Jade did not feel the cold. How could he?

That afternoon Teah sat on the couch as Jade expounded on the details of his Christmas he was going to spend in barracks on the west side of Germany before his deployment to the Middle East for the next year. After he got done explaining he stood with straight arms and fists clenched in his pockets.

“So that’s it, you are going away.” Teah said. “I have less than ten days.” Jade added. “Maybe you can fight this?” Teah suggested. “Fight what?” Jade said, “This is coming from United States Army European command. This is above my unit I don’t have a choice.”

That week the cold humid air put enough moisture on the snow to make it disappear. Teah sat in her bed awake as Jade left early on a Friday morning. She looked out the window to the last summer’s dead lilacs standing naked against grey horizon and brown fallow. She had a tear in her eye because she started bleeding the night before, but did not have the heart to tell Jade.

Jade was ignorant for only a short time, because it was he who rushed his sweetheart to the University Hospital in Regensburg.

It was four days before Jade had to get on a bus leaving for West Germany then off to War, but he was not home. Jade was in a German hospital holding Teah’s hand as she winced in pain. Her body was rejecting the baby and it was not far enough along to save. Jade would not wish that pain on his worst enemy, yet his best friend lie in agony.

When they released Teah from the hospital Jade and Teah had one night. Teah sat in Jade’s strong arms one last time, hours before he got on the bus. Jade watched with her for a time then she slept. He got up and kissed Teah’s forehead and walked out to the road and met SFC Gambill.

Jade watched the black forest rush by on the autobahn as he stared out his window on the bus. The Northern parts of Germany were often bitter and cold without snow to justify its bite, and the grey sky was without silver lining.

The next morning Jade woke up in his barracks room alone and empty. He had deployed before but never had he felt so dark and helpless.

At the first formation of the day Jade watched some of the single soldiers’ horse around and talk of their wild weekends. A fairly dark skinned E6 walked up to Jade and said, “Hi I’m Sergeant Williams, so who are you?” Jade said, “I am your new medic. I got in last night.” “Oh no, we were expecting you but… hold that thought.”

“Fall in,” a First Sergeant said with a commanding voice. Jade stood by SSG Williams and the First Sergeant took the report from the platoon sergeants.

After the formation the squad leader went to the first sergeant and said “Here is our extra. I will get him on the bus today top.” “Extra?” Jade thought. “Isn’t that just precious,” said the first sergeant, “A little Christmas miracle in our own ranks. You can thank that other medic SGT Ward who just showed up out of the blue. Now get out of my face.”

The squad leader pulled his car up and said, “Common we need to get you a bus home.” Jade said where is SGT Ward? I have to see him.” Staff Sergeant Williams said, “You will miss your bus.” “I have to see him.” Jade said more determined than before.

Somebody put their hand on Jade’s shoulder. Jade turned and saw him. His name was Ward he was a sergeant just like Jade. He said to Jade, “Go home Jade, your wife needs you.” “Where did you come from?” Jade asked. “It does not matter. My higher told me you needed to be with your family.”Sergeant Ward smiled turned and disappeared into a sea of uniforms. [needs some foreshadowing here]

Teah sat on Christmas Eve, plucking peddles petals from blossoms on holly, then letting them fall to the floor. Too sick, to stand yet in too much pain to sleep, she wept in the beautifully decorated living room. The early dim evening fled from the dark village. Teah went to turn off the colorful lights her and Jade had put up. Then she stopped.

A knock on the door startled Teah. She went to the door and saw a masculine shape behind the amber glass. Jade smiled as she opened the door Teah recognized her husband and leapt into his arms. Large flakes of snow fell, as Jade spun Teah around in her bath robe on the frozen grass.

The next day the sun came out and it was shining bright on heavy snow that blanketed the country side the night before. “It’s Christmas,” Teah whispered in her husband’s ear. He smiled and kissed Teah.

Later that day they sat and opened presents from family back in the states, which had been placed under the tree.

“And this one is from your Mom,” Teah said. Jade opened the brown paper and there was a note from his mom along with a binder.

Dear Jade, Here is a collection of Journals from your grandfather who died in the service. Included is his story of World War II and a picture, enjoy. Love, Mom

Jade, Opened the binder then he stopped. Teah never before seen Jade cry but his eyes watered some as he picked up the photo and said, “Teah, this is Sergeant Ward.”

Critique: Work on spelling, sentence structure and grammar. Each new speaker gets it’s own paragraph; some of your dialog tags are awkward and interfere with the story. Work on your dialog—differentiate the voices. Using third person is fine, but it’s too distant and you hop heads a few times. We need a little more characterization, more personality; more sense of place and sensory-based images. You spend a little too much time on things that don’t add to the story (like the beginning) and not enough in other areas (like losing the baby). The story has too much “telling”—we need more showing, action.

What I liked best: The twist at the end. I like those goose-bumpy things.

Publication ready: No. The basic concept/idea is fine, but the delivery doesn’t do it justice. Keep working on it.

Time for the Stories!

LDSP’s 2009 Christmas Story Contest

Prize: Publication in a Christmas collection that will be published and ready for sale in October.

The stories will start posting in just a few minutes. I have them scheduled to post four per day, a few hours apart. If we get more submissions in, I may need to post a bunch on Friday and Saturday.

Just a quick review of some very important points:

  • SUBMIT your story any time between NOW and Saturday, August 15, 2009. Yes, there’s still time, if you hurry. Details HERE.
  • If you submit more than one story, I’ll split them up to post on separate days, if possible.
  • Please tell your friends that you’ve submitted a story and to come reade and vote, but DO NOT tell them which story is yours. We want the stories to win on merit, not personal popularity.
  • We will have Reader Voting for the best stories, as we have done in previous contests. The winners are guaranteed a spot in the book. Voting will take place August 16–22nd. I will post voting rules then. You may comment any time your like, but voting doesn’t count until the 16th.

Send Your Stinkin’ Story Already!

I had planned to start posting Christmas stories today (I’m now up to 8 submissions) but since voting is nearly two weeks away, I think I’ll hold off until next week.

Submissions are low and I was trying to determine why that is and came up with this:

  1. You aren’t inspired to write about Christmas in the summer time—to which I say, deal with it because most seasonal books/magazines are like this, calling for submissions out of season
  2. You are intimidated because the prize is publication—to which I say, suck it up because if you want to be published you have to get past that and I promise to be gentle when I tell you your story didn’t make the cut
  3. You hate me, think I’m a loser, think my book idea stinks, and you’re trying to make my life miserable—to which I say, grow up and send your stinkin’ story because chances are you’re going to hate your publisher/editor/agent at one time or another.

Whatever the reason, get with it and write, polish and submit.

The clock’s a-ticking!

Christmas Story Contest Reminder

LDSP’s 2009 Christmas Story Contest

Prize: Publication in a Christmas collection that will be published and ready for sale in October.

Submission deadline: August 15th.

Details HERE.

I will start posting stories next week.

Right now it’s slim pickins. Only 5 entries. Get those stories finished and send them out to me ASAP.

Christmas Story Contest

Updated 07/08/09 (see bolded purple info below)

Writing Tip Tuesday: Enter contests. Like this one. . .

Remember that Christmas Story Contest I mentioned last month? Well, here it is.

LDSP’s 2009 Christmas Story Contest

Prize: Publication in a Christmas collection that will be published and ready for sale in October.

Submission Rules:

  • FOLLOW rules carefully! In the past, I’ve let some of you slide a little. But since this is for a publication, I’m going to be as sticky-picky as I am when receiving real submissions. Why? Because this is a REAL submission!
  • Write a short Christmas story in any genre. Stories should be positive and family friendly. I reserve the right to refuse any story I deem inappropriate for this blog/book.
  • Maximum word count: 2,000; no minimum.
  • Story must be previously unpublished. Stories published anywhere other than your personal website or blog are ineligible. (That includes books, magazines, e-zines or other contests.)
  • Stories submitted for previous years’ contests are also ineligible for this contest. (But may be selected for publication in the book.)
  • Paste entire story into an e-mail. NO ATTACHMENTS, please.
    —Put “Contest: Title of Story” in the subject line of your e-mail. (Example: Contest: A Christmas Gift for Mary)

    —At the top of the body of your e-mail, type your name, mailing address, phone number, e-mail address, word count and whether you are a published or unpublished author (defined below). (Example:

    LDS Publisher
    123 My Street
    My Town, ST 00000

    word count: 1990
    published author

    —Skip a line, then put the title of your story

    —Skip a line, then paste in your story.

  • “Published”—as in published author—is defined as someone paid you money or comp copies (in the case of magazines) for any story or book written by you. (So either a publisher paid you, or you self-published and people bought your book.)
  • If you are a published and/or agented author, check with your publisher and/or agent before submitting. They will want to know the information listed under “Book Details”.
  • You may submit more than one story. Send each submission in a separate e-mail. Include all your info, as outlined above, with each e-mail/story.
  • SUBMIT your story any time between NOW and Saturday, August 15, 2009.
  • I will post the stories beginning on August 1st, in the order that they arrive.
  • We will have Reader Voting for the best stories, as we have done in previous contests. The winners are guaranteed a spot in the book. Voting will take place August 16–22nd. I will post voting rules then.
  • You may tell your friends that you’ve submitted a story and to please go vote, but DO NOT tell them which story is yours. We want the stories to win on merit, not personal popularity.

PRIZE: Publication in the Christmas Collection

  • There will be four winners:
    Readers’ Choice/Published Author
    Readers’ Choice/Unpublished Author
    Editor’s Choice/Published Author
    Editor’s Choice/Unpublished Author.

    These four winners are guaranteed a spot in the book.

  • As usual, I reserve the right to not award one of the Editor’s Choice awards if I feel none of the stories deserve it.
  • Other stories in the book will include my choices from this and previous Christmas contests held on this blog, selected based on providing a variety of stories and book size.
  • All authors to be included in the book will be notified by the end of August, 2009.

Book Details (Read Carefully):

  • By submitting a story to this contest, you are agreeing to all the conditions below.
  • Authors shall give LDS Publisher One-Time Publishing Rights for inclusion of story in the as yet untitled Christmas story compilation. This is the non-exclusive right to publish your story in this compilation, in various formats, and to retain your story in the compilation until LDS Publisher takes the compilation out of print.
  • Authors shall retain all other rights and copyrights to their stories and may sell this story to any other party with a publication date after December 25, 2009.
  • Compensation for use of story in this compilation shall be: one free e-book copy of the published book sent to author upon publication; author’s name listed in the Table of Contents and on the first page of the story; and rights to use this compilation as a publishing credit. No royalties, advances or other monetary compensation will be given to any author. Author may not print or sell the e-book files.
  • Compensation exception: If sales of the book exceed costs to produce it, LDS Publisher shall notify authors and arrange an equal royalty split between all authors. Conditions and terms of royalty and payment shall be determined at that time.
  • LDS Publisher shall assume no rights to any future works by author.
  • LDS Publisher shall have full editorial rights to the stories included in the compilation, including, but not limited to, title changes, editing for space and content, design and layout of book, title of book, and book cover.
  • The compilation will be available for purchase online in both print and e-book formats by October 31, 2009.
  • The compilation may or may not be made available to bookstores at discounted pricing, but in any case, no marketing will be done by LDS Publisher to guarantee placement in any bookstore.
  • Authors agree to help spread the word about the contest and the book by any or all of the following methods:

    —Word of mouth to friends and family

    —Website/blog buttons, links, posts, etc

    —Facebook, My Space, Twitter, or other networking sites or forums

I think I’ve covered everything. If I update any of the above, I’ll post a notice and mark it in bolded purple. I’ll have buttons created later this week that you can post on your blogs/websites.

Help spread the word! Post about the contest on your blog, in your forums, and e-mail all your friends.

Buttons for your blogs:

Standard Sidebar (220px)

Smaller Sidebar (125px)