20 Nepotism

“And you are, um—” the secretary scanned her appointment book.

“Rachael, 7:10, here,” Rachael pointed to her name, trying hard to look casual while placing her finger over her last name. Behind her, a wall clock chimed the hour.

“Y-es, I see,” Molly Frampton, according to the gold nameplate on her desk, said. “Well, they’ll be with you in a moment, Miss—uh, Rachael.” She looked down at Rachael’s instrusive finger.

“Do the building lights always glint the snow like that?” Rachael smiled and gestured toward the window, leaning away from Ms. Frampton’s desk as unconcernedly as possible.

Her nonchalance worked. Ms. Frampton turned to the full-wall window and sighed. “Yes, it does, but it’s getting worse, and it’s not going to be nice to go out in it.” Still frowning out the window, the secretary absently closed her appointment book. Mission accomplished, and, apparently, Rachael was the final interview of the evening.

“This isn’t quite where you want to be at seven o’clock in Christmas Eve, is it?” Rachael said, trying to continue the easy conversation. It was the best way to relax her nerves. Besides, she could just imagine the poor secretary taking five minutes to pack up for the day but having to sit around, staring out the window and jiggling her crossed leg, for the remaining forty-five minutes until Rachael’s interview was over so she could go home.

Ms. Frampton looked up sharply, and Rachael remembered too late that if she got this job, she would be one of Molly Frampton’s many superiors. So much for harmless chit chat to calm her nerve. She should have realized that this wasn’t an office where joking or light-hearted sarcasm was appreciated or encouraged.

In an attempt to avoid further awkwardness, Rachael stood and pretended to examine the blizzard more closely while trying not to pace.

Although she had been in denial for years, she had always known—ever since choosing her career path as an undergraduate—that she would one day be in this trying predicament. It was a nasty trick of fate that made her occupation the same as his, but there was nothing she could do about it. Her success in getting to this point proved that. When all was said and done, all paths in this field led to Donlan & Associates, the best in the business, so here she was.

But besides unavoidable inherent discomfort of the situation, she was dealing with it much better than she had imagined. Years ago, she could only think of an interview like this ending in a shouting match, but now she didn’t care about confrontation, or blame, or anything anymore. She wanted this job—the best she could get at this point in her career—and she wanted it despite the awkwardness. Still, she couldn’t stop the fleeting thought that everything would have been easier if she was married by now. But, then again, she was still working on trusting males—about personal things—fifteen years later, thanks to him.

At 7:10, on the dot, the door to the conference suite behind Ms. Frampton’s desk opened. A disheveled man emerged from the room, the strained, fake smile melting off his face as he turned himself out of the door. He strode down the hall toward the elevators without a word to Rachael or the secretary, but he was muttering to himself and raking his fingers through his hair.

Rachael’s best defense at a terrifying moment like this was to pretend that she had no fears at all, so she was smiling when Ms. Frampton said, “They’re ready for you, uh, Rachael.” She looked down at her closed appointment book, that little frown lining her forehead once again, but Rachael moved forward immediately, gave her as much of a smile as her terribly dry mouth would allow, and headed toward the foreboding door.

There were five of them, as she had known there would be, although she had only met one of them in person before. These opening formalities were easy. It wasn’t the first time that she was in the room with a handful of very rich and powerful business executives who happened to be all grey-haired and male—quite the opposite of her. She was well practiced at making her round about the room in greeting quickly enough so they could only half rise to shake her hand. She knew that they loved being excused as much as possible from the formality of playing the gentlemen.

Luck was on her side that Mr. James E. Donlan was the last in the circle that she had to greet. That made it easy for her to make the obligatory handshake as brisk as possible and eye contact nonexistent. It also meant that her chair—the closest to the door—was also farthest from him.

“Miss, uh—” the man in the middle—Mr. Jeremy P. Grace—looked down at his papers as if he had forgotten her name, but his uncomfortable glance around at the others, and pointed look at Mr. Donlan, gave him away.

“Rachael, please,” she cut in. Her smile was confident, approachable, yet competent.

“Er, yes,” Mr. Grace looked around at his colleagues, but none of them seemed bothered by her insisted informality—the best way she could think of to deal with the situation. They were all looking at either her or Mr. Donlan, who was apparently reading a portfolio brief and not paying attention at all. That was fine with her—it would be very even easier if he decided not to take an active part.

“Well, then, Ms. Rachael, do you know how many candidates you have been competing with over the past several weeks?” Mr. Grace said.

It was an odd opening question, but Rachael knew that this interview would be full of surprises. “Twelve at this point, I assume, sir, and I’d assume ten times that initially.” It was a quick calculation. At seven o’clock in the evening, they would have been working for twelve hours, with one for lunch, and they would have had applicants from all over the world.

“Yes, you’re quite correct. Quick, even,” Mr. Grace said, frowning and looking around.

Ten years ago, Rachael would have fretted that she had come off too smart, but she had learned that it was confidence and equal competency that men wanted from female colleagues in the business world, not weak submission. Even though she was young and female, there was no reason to hold back her skills or her intelligence. Using everything she had was what had made her so successful so far.

“You will understand then, Ms. Rachael,” Mr. Grace continued, “that this position is of utmost importance to our company. We take our director hires very seriously and we require a unanimous decision from this board before we can move forward.” His eyes scanned the table briefly and rested longest on old Mr. Donlan.

Ah, so they definitely knew. All the better, Rachael thought. They knew, but she was still here. That meant that—to them—it didn’t matter.

“Yes, of course,” Rachael replied.

And so it began. The rest of the hour was the grueling, strenuous, and taxing ordeal that she had anticipated—the hardest interview she had experienced yet, of course. But Donlan’s insistent apathy to the rest of the room simplified things immensely.

But after forty arduous minutes of picking out her professional weaknesses, regurgitating a full history of Donlan & Associates products and profits for the past five years, and speculating advantageous directions for their future, the pummeled questions slowed and then stopped altogether. Rachael wanted to whip her head back and forth to follow all the silent messages—raised eyebrows, tactful shrugs, discreet nods—whizzing around the room, but instead she kept her face open and relaxed as she pretended to ignore the silent meeting—about her—that she wasn’t invited to.

After a brief but excruciating pause, Mr. Grace cleared his throat—which must have been a signal to end the mute conversations—and addressed Rachael once again.

“We appreciate your time, Ms. Rachael.” She almost looked down and slumped, that preamble sounded so much like an apology before a flat-out rejection, but held her emotions back as Mr. Grace continued. “You are the last of a long, tiring day.” He looked around at the gaunt faces around him, Mr. Donlan’s still immersed in what must have been the most interesting report ever submitted. Rachael was sure she had failed.

“Yes, a long, tiring day,” Mr. Grace repeated, “and a great attempt to find anyone who would outshine you.” Rachael clamped her mouth close to keep herself from gaping in shock. “To be completely frank with you, Ms. Rachael, you are our top candidate for this position.” Now she had to keep from beaming. “Your qualifications are outstanding,” he looked down at the resume and portfolio that she could easily recognize from half a table away, “and your experience valuable. We would be happy to snatch you away from your current employer as soon as possible,” Rachael was ready to burst her acceptance, “but there is just one more question that we wish to ask.”

So there was a catch. Maybe everything was too good to be true.

“We want to know why, if you really want to work at Donlan & Associates, you haven’t applied here sooner?” As Mr. Grace spoke, all eyes were focused on Rachael, except Mr. Donlan’s, but she had noticed that he hadn’t turned a page for a long time now. “We could have used your professionalism and skill set much earlier in your career,” Mr. Grace said. “Most of the other division directors have been trained up within our own company. So if you didn’t want to work with Donlan & Associates before, when we certainly would have considered you as at least a manager several years ago, why do you feel we are a good fit now?”

There was no doubt that the eight eyes fixed on her were all avoiding looking a Mr. Donlan. But it was the type of question that Rachael had expected, and she had her honest answer ready.

“Well, to be honest, I knew that Donlan & Associates was the best in the business the day I started training for my career. But while most of my peers shot for Donlan & Associates right away, I knew there was wisdom in waiting—waiting for Donlan & Associates to be ready for me and for me to be ready for you.”

She stopped talking, hoping that her brief, honest answer would be adequate. At first it seemed that the room accepted what she had said—and what she had meant—positively, but it only brought on another agonizing pause. She kept looking at Mr. Grace expectantly, but Mr. Grace wouldn’t catch her eye. They were all looking—peripherally, of course—in the direction of Mr. Donlan. It was such a marked and awkward silence that the corner of Rachael’s eye was drawn involuntarily in that direction as well. Only the hum of the ventilation system made a noise in the quiet conference room, despite the vicious—yet silent—blizzard lashing at the full-wall glass window that was certainly the best city view this side of town when unobstructed by snow.

“Well, come in Monday morning,” broke in the gruff, hoarse voice at the end of the table that she hadn’t heard in fifteen years. “Ms. Frampton will take care of the necessary paperwork,” Mr. Donlan said as he dropped the ever-enthralling report in front of him. He looked up briefly and saw her looking at him, but he didn’t smile and she flicked her eyes away as instantly as possible.

The whole room relaxed into a relieved sigh, and the faces before her—excepting Mr. Donlan’s—now wore tired, assuaged smiles instead of stern blankness. She was given hearty handshakes all around, but when she got to Mr. Donlan’s end of the table, she just saw the edge of his briefcase striding from the room with Mr. Grace jogging behind in close wake. Only then did Rachael let herself relax. In spite of everything, she had done it.

She smiled at the remaining three executives’ friendliness as they chattered about how “they knew it had to be her, from the start,” “She’d be reporting to Charlie”—that is Charles J. Bennett, Sr.—“anyway,” and, “It’s not like there was ever any legal obstruction, after all.” Amidst all these relieved comments, Rachael kept thinking to herself in half disbelief that it was over with and things were going to be fine. She was going to be reporting to Charlie. The contact she had with Donlan tonight was all that would be necessary for a long time. They would continue living separate lives just as they had for fifteen years. Sixty floors was going to be enough space for two members of a severed family to not have to interact more than necessary.

As if confirming the easy solution, the executives’ conversation walking out of the tortuous interview room rapidly turned to a burst of holiday spirit as the three partners began bantering about their grandchildren and Santa Claus plans. They gave Rachael friendly waves on their way to the elevator while Rachael stayed behind to make her appointment with Ms. Frampton.

“Whew, it’s over.” Rachael exhaled herself into the leather armchair she had barely touched an hour before.

Ms. Frampton looked surprised again but this time more curious than shocked or incredulous.

“I suppose you’ll need an appointment to complete the hiring papers on Monday, then, ma’am?” Ms. Frampton clipped.

“Oh, no, Molly,” Rachael smiled, purposely retaining her collapsed slouch.

“You don’t want—” Ms. Frampton began. She didn’t know that the poor secretary’s eyebrows could lift even higher.

“No, no,” Rachael laughed, a real, friendly laugh that she truly felt. “Not ‘ma’am,’ please, Molly. Just Rachael.”

Molly Frampton looked shocked for a second more, but gradually her face hesitantly relaxed. “Monday morning then—Rachael?”

“Yes,” Rachael smiled again. “When do you come in?”

“Uh, six-thirty, but the bosses won’t be here until seven. But exactly seven,” she emphasized.

Rachael laughed again. “Oh, I know enough about Donlan & Associates to thoroughly understand the mandate for punctuality.”

“Well,” Molly’s mouth slid into a faint smile, “I guess knew that already. You don’t want to know what a raking eleven o’clock got this morning.”

“You’re right. I don’t,” Rachael said in full honestly. “Well, let’s get out of here, huh?”

She grabbed her bag and waited for Molly to pull on her coat so they could head to the elevator together. Molly looked just briefly puzzled at this consideration, but she brushed her skepticism away almost immediately.

“You know,” Molly said conversationally as the elevator descended, leaving her secretary façade up on the sixtieth floor, “I never knew that ‘Donlan’ was such a common last name.”

Rachael finished pulling on her gloves with forced calm before looking up. The question would have come sometime anyway, easier to just get it out now. And there was no sense lying. “Well, it’s not really,” she said.

Molly’s brow furrowed. “So are you—”

“Yes,” Rachael said, a little too soon. She smiled again to make up for the brief sharpness. “Well, I used to be, I mean. His daughter.”

“Used to be—” Molly looked more puzzled than ever, but Rachael didn’t mind. She had thought about this question often, but she had never pictured her “interrogator,” as she called them in her mind, as kindred of a spirit as Molly. But despite the difference, the moment proved that it didn’t matter who the asker was. Her answer would have to be the same.

Maybe someday she would let it all out, all of it. She’d tell about being adopted and not knowing about it until she was fifteen when her dad walked out on Mom right in the middle of her first chemo treatment, how it was easy to cut her tie to that failed father as part of the divorce proceedings when there was never any biology involved anyway, and how she had made her successful way in the world alone, after Mom’s passing, despite an ex-father living in the same city for all these years. She could tell how she had always known that their common industry would one day lead her to his doors, but she had wanted to make it there on her own merits. It had seemed a hideous possibility to work for him when she started her career, but now it had been long enough that she’d cried and hurt as much as she could over him. Now it was time to rise above. He was going to stop ruining her life because she was not James E. Donlan’s daughter anymore.

“Yes,” Rachael said firmly, “used to be.”

Molly looked puzzled for another moment, but then she busied herself with tying her scarf. The elevator opened into the abandoned lobby, and they finished their bundling and buttoning on their way to the street doors.

“Well, see you, Rachael,” Molly said brightly but so naturally that Rachael really believed that she didn’t mind her lack of explanation. Maybe moving on was going to work.

“Yeah, see you,” Rachael said, trying to smile a thank-you for Molly’s kind acceptance and genuine tact. “Oh, and Merry Christmas.”

“You too,” Molly said warmly. She pulled her collar up, took a deep breath, and plunged into the street.

Rachael took one last look at the empty lobby, “Donlan & Associates” in bold brass letters high on the wall, grateful that, despite the possibilities, it hadn’t been another worst day of her life after all. Instead her Christmas wish for a fresh, new beginning was coming true.

19 An Unlit Fire

Nancy had never felt more awkward in her life. She blinked and looked from the closed living room door, to the bedroom door, and then back to the living room door again.

Slowly she felt her senses turn back on. Her hands felt wet. She looked down and saw that she was still holding a freshly peeled potato under the kitchen faucet. She tasted the stale gum in her mouth smashed paper-thin between her clenched teeth. Relaxing her jaw, she forced herself to take a deep breath. Five minutes ago, the kitchen was full of Christmas cheer as she chatted amiably to Julie, Chad’s arm around her waist, with Fred interjecting something silly with every armful of firewood he brought in from the garage. Now the house felt like a funeral home. Even the CD of classic Christmas songs had gone silent, as if Bing and Frank found it too awkward to make any noise.

Nancy felt angry, embarrassed, and confused. A moment ago, she was telling herself how smoothly things were going with both Julie and Fred giving her thumbs up behind Chad’s back. Now here she was, alone with her boyfriend in the kitchen, wondering what would happen. What did he think? She’d never worried about Julie and Fred being a problem, but now she felt desperate. How could Chad keep liking her if his only encounter with her sister and brother-in-law was a sudden fight ending in two slammed doors?

Eventually she looked over at Chad who looked like he was coming out of his own stupor. He looked around, made brief eye contact, and then slowly started peeling another potato.

“What was that all about?”

Nancy shrugged. “I–I don’t know. I’ve never seen them fight like that.” She turned off the faucet and grabbed a towel to dry her hands.

Chad kept peeling his potato without saying anything, and she just stood there looking at him. Flick, flick, flick. He was peeling the same spot on the potato over and over, his brow deeply furrowed. Flick, flick, flick. She crept a few feet toward the living room door. She couldn’t hear Fred. Flick, flick, flick. She saw Chad rotate his potato, but his face was still clouded over. Nancy crept over to the bedroom door. No sound from Julie. She lifted her hand to knock but withdrew it. Hands at her sides, she walked back to the kitchen.

Flick, flick, flick.

She felt like crying. She wanted Chad to hold her, but what was he thinking? Maybe he wanted out of this crazy family before he even entered it.

She walked over to the CD player and restarted the music. Ella’s voice filled the room. The sound of “Silent Night” dampened the beat of Chad’s peeler, but the house still felt terribly empty and still.

“My parents argued like this a lot before the divorce,” Chad said without looking up. He put his potato in the pan and started on another.

Nancy walked closer to him, her hands jammed in her pockets. “Yeah. What did you do?”

Chad stopped peeling and a small grin spread across his face. “One time I ran around the house yelling ‘Fire! Fire!'”

Nancy looked at him. “How did that work out?”

Chad went back to peeling. “Not well, they took turns blaming each other for my delinquency.”

Nancy sat down next to Chad and started on her own potato. She chanced a glance at the two guilty doors but they remained closed. “It’s Christmas Eve, they have to forgive each other, right?”

Chad shrugged. “They sure took the Christmas cheer with them, didn’t they?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry, I didn’t think this would happen. They’ve only been married for a couple of years, and they’ve always been fine when I’m around them.”

Chad stopped peeling. “What’s that supposed to mean? Only a couple of years? Do you mean it’s okay for couples to fight if they’ve been married for, what, five years? Ten?”

Nancy looked over at him. His face looked strange. She’d never seen him looked so steeled.

She looked back down quickly and felt hot tears swell in her eyes. “No, no, that’s not what I meant. I’m just surprised and–and embarrassed. I wanted this visit to be about them getting to know you, not,” she gestured at the closed front room door, “this.”

Chad was silent for a minute and she heard the flick, flick, flick of his peeler again. They’d never made mashed potatoes together before, and she was impressed at how well he was doing. It made her feel even worse that he was angry.

Flick, flick, flick. Soon there was only one potato left. Nancy grabbed the cutting board and started chopping the pile of potatoes while Chad started peeling the last one. She wondered how long Julie and Fred would stay in their respective fortresses. Maybe they did this all the time; maybe they would stay in there all night.

Nancy watched Chad put the last potato in her pile and then slink off to look at the pile of unlit wood in the fireplace. “We used to have a fireplace when we lived in Colorado,” he said, almost to himself. Nancy stopped chopping. “I used to lie on my stomach, watching the sparks float up the chimney and wonder where they went. One time Dad told me they turned into fireflies.”

Nancy got up and took a furtive step toward him. “I love the fire, too,” she said. “Every Christmas I’ve stayed at school that’s what I’ve missed the most. I was really glad when Julie invited me over because I knew we’d have a crackling fire.”

Chad glanced over at the living room door. “Yeah, I guess we will if they ever come out.”
Nancy took another step closer, and then another, until she was only a foot away from him. “I bet I could find the matches. Dad kept them above the mantle before he died. I bet that’s where Fred keeps them.”

Chad looked over at her. “I wouldn’t know how to start it. After the divorce, Mom moved into an apartment. The few times I saw Dad we never went camping or anything. Can you start it?”

“No, Dad always did it. Then Mom couldn’t handle the smoke once she got sick.”

They stared at the stack of wood. Nancy tried to think of something to say, but she didn’t know what. Maybe this was the end, maybe not. Chad had mentioned how much he hated couples fighting one time, but she didn’t know he would be this sensitive.

A creaking noise made them both look up. Julie’s tear-stained face poked around the corner. Nancy ran over to her and gave her a hug. She heard Julie mutter something but couldn’t understand it. She glanced over at Chad but he was staring at the fireplace again.

“I’m sorry about all this,” Julie finally said, and Nancy released her grip. They walked into the kitchen. Julie blew her nose and picked up the knife. “I guess we’d better finish making dinner.”

“I’ll get another knife,” Nancy said and started rummaging through drawers. She looked over at Chad again to see if he would join them, but he stood there with his back to them, still staring at the fireplace.

They finished chopping the potatoes and put them in the pot of water. It had just started bubbling when Fred’s face appeared in the kitchen. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Julie burst into tears, ran to him, and threw her arms around him. He staggered backward under this sudden attack but soon regained his balance. He put one hand around her back and started stroking her hair with the other. After a moment, they both straightened up and looked at Nancy and Chad.

“Sorry about that,” Fred said, “I guess I lost my temper.”

“It’s okay,” Nancy said, feeling the words tumble out too quickly.

“You can light the fire if you want, Chad,” Fred said after taking a deep breath. “The lighter’s just above the mantle.” He looked down at Julie. “Julie’s Dad always kept the matches there, and I wanted to keep up the tradition, you know.”

“I’ve never lit a fire before,” Chad said. “I guess I’ve always been afraid I’d get burned.”

“Can’t say I’ve never been burned,” Fred shrugged, “but an unlit fire won’t keep you warm. Here, let me show you.” Fred pulled the lighter off the top of the mantle and held it out to him.

“Okay,” Chad said with a quick glance at Nancy, “I’ll give it a shot.”


17 Stan the Snow Elf

There are all sorts of elves in the world. There are toy-maker elves, there are shoe-maker elves, there are cookie maker elves, and there are even mean, trouble-maker elves. Impellakrykustenapo was a snow elf, with a typical snow elf name, but his friends called him Stan.

Deep underground, where it stays cold all year, Stan woke from his summer hibernation. He stretched. And he yawned. And he scratched his belly. Sniffing the air, he could tell that the weather outside was nice and frosty. He hopped out of bed with thoughts of all the frozen fun that awaited him.

Stan went to his closet and picked out a green pair of pants, a green shirt with white trim, and a sparkling white cap. He dressed as quickly as he could and dashed out of his home to look for his friends.

First he went to the meadow next to farmer Frank’s barn. – No one was there.

Then he ran over the mountain to where the stream trickled through the hidden dale. No one was there – except for a pair of squirrels sitting in their tree.

And finally, he traveled along the river, past the old mill, and next to the waterfall where his friend Cecil lived. He called for Cecil to come out and play, but Cecil didn’t answer.

Leaves still gathered at the entrance of Cecil’s home. When he peeked inside everything looked neatly put away, just like Stan’s home in the spring, before he hibernated. Stan heard the whistling sounds of Cecil snoring.

Stan didn’t want to wake up his friend. Especially if winter hadn’t arrived yet. Maybe he had woken up early, which he sometimes did. So, he skipped through the hills, and the forest, and farms until he reached the nearest town.

On tippy-toes he sneaked into the candy shop. Then he waited for the candy-maker to walk into the back of his shop. When the man left, Stan hopped up on the counter and looked at the calendar that hung on the wall.

It was December 23rd.

How could that be? It was almost Christmas and none of the other snow elves were awake. If the snow elves didn’t get together and dance and sing, there would be no snow. Who ever heard of Christmas without snow?

This was serious. Snow elves had the most important job of all the elves – making snow for Christmas and they were almost too late.

Stan ran all the way back to Cecil’s and didn’t even bother asking to come in. He went right up to Cecil, sleeping in his bed, and shook him.

Cecil didn’t budge.

Stan pulled the covers off Cecil and shouted out his full snow elf name: Beguscelidosilatu.

Cecil snorted once and turned over.

Something was horribly wrong. It was plenty cold enough that the rest of the elves should be awake by now. They should have been awake for Thanksgiving.

In Cecil’s closet, Stan found a storm horn. He grabbed it, took a big breath, and blew it at Cecil. Then he blew it again. Louder.

Cecil’s eyes opened just a tiny bit and he said, “Go away Stan. I don’t want to wake up.”

Then Cecil closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

Stan tooted the horn, shook the bed, and shouted at Cecil, but he couldn’t wake him up again.

Maybe he didn’t need the other elves to make it snow. After all, he was in charge of the entire area between the Wilson’s pond and the line of oak trees that bordered the Desmond Dairy, and from Mary Mosswood’s picket fence to Mockingbird road.

He dashed home to get everything ready for a grand winter party. Stan took his finest string of jingly bells from under his bed. He mixed a big batch of Ice Punch and put it in a jug to keep it chilled. Then he visited his cousins, the cookie-making elves, and got a whole bag of snow-flake shaped cookies.

Stan went to the clearing where all the snow elves gathered. He ate some cookies. He drank some punch. He took out the string of bells and jingled them as he danced around an old evergreen tree.

He continued until all the cookies were eaten, all the was gone, and his feet hurt from all the dancing. No snow fell.

It sounded like Christmas. It smelled like Christmas. It even tasted like Christmas. But it didn’t feel like Christmas. And if it didn’t snow it wouldn’t look like Christmas.

Something was preventing the rest of the elves from waking up and it was preventing Stan from making snow. He decided to go into town and see if he could find what that something was.

From the church bell tower, Stan watched the people below. He watched until it was dark. He watched all night. And he watched in the morning. Finally, it came to him.

There was no Christmas spirit. It wasn’t anywhere to be found. People passed each other in the street without saying hello. They didn’t even smile. With packages clutched tightly in their arms, they bustled from place to place without any of the warmth that made Christmas special.

While it was true that heat made snow elves sleepy, the Christmas spirit was a different kind of warmth. It made the elves want to dance and sing with one another. When they did that, it snowed. The merrier the gathering the more it snowed. However, unless something changed the cold hearts of the townspeople, there would be no snow this year.

Stan knew just what to do.

He climbed down the bell tower, into the church, where he borrowed some children’s clothing that he found in the donation box. He dressed so that nobody would recognize him as an elf and then walked outside.

An old woman shuffled slowly on the icy side walk. She carried many packages and looked as if she might fall.

Stan skipped over to her and said, “Please may I help with your packages? I can carry them and you can take my hand so that you don’t slip on the ice.”

The woman scowled at Stan.

But Stan didn’t care. He smiled back at her. He smiled until her frown went away and she handed the packages to him. They walked across the street and down the block until they reached a small green house. Stan waited for her to open the door and then took the packages inside and laid them on the kitchen table.

“Merry Christmas,” he shouted as passed the woman on his way out.

She waved good-bye. “Merry Christmas to you,” she said with a smile.

That made Stan feel good inside. It felt like Christmas.

Walking down the street, Stan came across a hospital. If any place needed a little cheer, it certainly had to be here.

In one of the rooms a little boy sat in a bed. He was all alone in the room and looked very sad.

Stan walked in and said, “Would you like to hear a story.”

The boy sat up straighter and nodded his head.

“Once upon a time,” Stan began the story. Then he told the little boy about a shoe-maker elf who liked children and made them magical shoes. He happened to know that particular elf pretty well, but told the story as if it were make believe.

When he had finished the story he told the boy good-bye.

“Thank you, friend,” the boy said. “I’m so glad that you came to visit me.”

So was Stan. He didn’t know the boy. Still, he was glad he had come and visited him, all the same.

As he walked out of the hospital and along the sidewalk, Stan whistled. At the end of the block, a man worked in his yard, raking up leaves. It was a big yard. There were a lot of leaves.

“If you have another rake,” said Stan. “I can help you and we’ll get these leaves raked up twice as fast.”

The man’s face brightened at the suggestion. He went into his tool shed and came back with another rake.

Because the rake was so big and Stan was so elf-sized, it took him a little while to get used to raking the leaves. The man introduced himself as Mr. Henke and the two of them sang Christmas songs while they worked. Before he realized it, they had finished raking the entire yard. It had hardly seemed like work at all.

“Now I have time to help Mrs. Sutters,” said Mr. Henke. “I can fix her door and then she won’t have any more trouble getting in and out of her house.”

Mr. Henke shook Stan’s hand and then put the rakes away and walked over to the house next door.

Now it really felt like Christmas.

Stan returned to the gathering place. He picked up his jingly bells and started to dance and sing. This time it was different. He thought of all the giving he had done today and it brightened his heart. As he danced, a snow flake drifted down from the sky and landed on his nose. Then a few more came down and rested on his shoulder.

He started to dance again. Only this time, Cecil was there to join him. They took either end of the string of bells and danced around the old evergreen tree.

One by one, the rest of the snow elves joined Stan and Cecil. Some brought bells. Some brought flutes. And Lora brought a huge pot of Ice Punch.

They danced and they sang until morning. And when they returned to their homes, the town and all its surroundings was covered with a blanket of pure, white snow.


16 David’s Rose

Stopping only to retrieve a shovel, David carried his wife’s body out to the circle of rosebushes she had tended so lovingly in life. The snow had fallen thick, coating the land, and even now flurries danced around them. He knelt in center of the bushes, laying his wife gently on the snow.

A tear froze to his cheeks as he considered her silent form before him, so peaceful, so still.  He knew the ground would begrudge him every shovelful of dirt, but he would not leave her for the wolves.

It took him only a few scoops of his shovel to clear the snow, revealing the frozen ground. With an anguished cry, he stabbed the shovel into the earth and felt it yield only slightly. Time after time, the shovel rose and fell, tearing the soil with agonizing slowness.

After several minutes of hard labor, David rested on the shovel, his breath forming roiling clouds in front of his face. No tears came now, and he wondered if any water could escape into the frosty air.

Footsteps crunched in the snow behind him, and David whirled towards the sound, swinging his up in front of him. He lowered it a moment later as he recognized the robed figure.

“Father Praetorius,” he grumbled. “What brings you here?”

The priest approached, pulling back the hood of his robe slightly to reveal his weathered face and balding head. “A feeling. You and your wife have been in my thoughts for days and I thought to inquire as to your welfare.”

David rested again on the handle of his shovel, his face frozen with hard lines. “I will have to speak for both of us, then. My wife will not be speaking anymore.”

Father Praetorius lowered his head. “Then I am come too late. Was it the plague?”

David nodded. “She fought it for as long as she could. The remedies she made with these rose petals seemed to do some good, but in the end, her spirit slipped away. Heaven has angels enough. Why must they take mine?”

The priest cleared his throat and took the final steps to David’s side. He rested a hand on David’s arm. “I know you do not wish to hear about God’s mysterious ways now. I am here only to comfort and mourn with you. I can assure you, my son, that because of the boy who was born this day, your wife will rise again.”

Shaking off the priest’s hand, David turned away, letting his shovel fall. “But when, father? In some long-distant day when I too have taken my final breath? I need her now—the whole village does. Without her, many more will die.”

Father Praetorius and David waited in silence, letting the snow settle around them. Then, the old man stooped to retrieve the shovel. “Do you have another shovel?” he asked. “I could scrape with these old fingers, but I fear they would give out before the ground does.”

“Aye,” whispered David.

Together, they completed their task in silence as the clouds cleared, revealing a night replete with stars.


A week before the next Christmas Day, David rolled out of his bed onto his knees and found that he could not stand. When he pressed against the ground with both feet, he found both legs as unsteady as a new lamb. Coughing wracked his body, and when he glanced down at his hands, he found them speckled with blood.

David slumped back onto his bed, letting the terrible truth sink in. Though he had escaped the plague’s influence for so long, he could not run from it forever. In only days, he would wither away, and his own body would be tossed into the cold earth.

The days passed in a blur, in which he did not leave his hut, not caring about the fate of his sheep or of any in the outside world. Long hours he prayed as the sickness progressed, wishing that he could simply give in and soar from his body towards a reunion with his wife.

On Christmas Eve, the snows fell hard again, as they had the night of his wife’s departure. After lying bed for days, he had recovered a sliver of strength, and he knew what he would do with it. Steadying himself with his shepherd’s crook, David rose to his feet and stumbled towards the doorway.

Step by agonizing step, he made his way through the snow, traveling the familiar path towards his wife’s garden and final resting place. Reaching his destination, he fell on his knees, ignoring the cold and the pain. “Rose,” he whispered. “I am coming to be with you. I tire of this life, with its cold and lonely days. There is nothing left for me here.”

He lifted his eyes in an attempt to gaze into the heavens, but stopped halfway there, his eyes riveted on the strangest sight he had ever beheld.

A rose—scarlet and full, dusted with the diamonds of a thousand snowflakes. It burst from the center of the rest of the wilted bushes, like a piece of summer perfectly preserved for the middle of winter.

David blinked hard. Perhaps it was a trick of his tortured mind. He reached up and ran one finger across one of the smooth petals. It felt real enough. Many times, David had cursed his foolishness for not saving some of the rose petals for winter for himself to make his wife’s healing concoction. Instead he had given them all away. If he wished it, this rose could be his salvation.

But why would a rose bloom in the middle of winter? He knew he hadn’t seen any other roses, not even buds the last time he had checked. Why strange twist of fate had brought him a new rose on the anniversary of the night he had lost his Rose?

As he stared on, barely comprehending, he noticed something else that defied comprehension: the rose bore no thorns. Though it held more petals than any rose he had seen, not a single thorn jutted out from its stock.

He was about to write the whole matter off and lie down in the snow to die, when a familiar voice spoke from behind him.

“David,” said Father Praetorius, “I thought I might find you here.”

David shook his head and then lowered himself onto the snow. “It is too late for me, father. You should leave here. I am riddled with the plague.”

The old priest coughed several times. “As am I, my son. But while the good Lord allows me to live, I shall serve on. There has been an outbreak in the village. There is barely a sole that does not lumber towards death’s door.”

“I stand at the door and knock,” rasped David. “But I guess death is busy as of late. I only pray that he will answer soon.”

David felt the pressure of the priest’s hand on his back. “David, the Lord sent me to bring you back from that door. You must consider the possibility that your work on earth is not yet finished.”

Coughing into the snow, David saw his vision darkening. Red flecks of blood stained the snow, so much like the color of the flower blooming bright before him. “You will have to produce a miracle, I fear. The doorknob is already turning.”

“A miracle?” said the priest in a light voice. “I believe we have one already. I have never seen such a perfect flower.” He reached out and plucked a single petal. “I would ask you back inside, but I fear that you do not have the strength. Fortunately for you, your wife shared the secret of her rose remedy, and today, that act of kindness will save you.”

The priest’s footsteps crunched away through the snow and David could not muster the strength to argue. The priest returned only minutes later, holding a wooden bowl with both hands, it contents letting out a continuous trail of steam into the frigid air.

Father Praetorius brought the bowl to David’s lips and tipped it gently, splashing some of the deep red liquid over David’s mouth. David’s cracked lips parted, accepting more and more of the liquid until he had drained the bowl.

“I feel…warm,” whispered David, managing a sitting position.

“As well you should,” said the priest. “Now I do not want to hear any more of this death nonsense from you tonight. There will be a time for you to be reunited with your wife. Come, I will help you inside.”

Leaning heavily on the smaller man, David made his way back to his cottage and into his bed. The pain in his limbs had subsided and even the storm of anxiety in his chest had given way to calm. The priest placed another blanket over David and rested a hand on his shoulder.

“Rest now, my son. I will stay with you though the night.”

David nodded slightly and shut his eyes, finally slipping into a peaceful sleep.


When he opened his eyes again, the priest’s face hovered over him. “How do you feel, David?”

His eyelids drooped again, and he took stock of his body, limb by limb, section by section. For once, in the past week, his stomach did not churn and cramp, his head did not pound, and his muscles did not cry out for rest. On the whole, the answer was ‘remarkably good.’

Not daring to believe that he might have been cured, David slipped one foot over the side of the bed and then another. With a silent prayer in his heart, he shifted his weight onto his feet and attempted to stand. His trembling legs held and he managed to keep himself completely upright. His face broke into a broad grin and he let out a boisterous laugh. “I feel like a new man!”

The priest returned the smile and clasped David on the shoulder. “That is the perfect sentiment for Christmas morning. Renewal and healing.”

David nodded and ran a hand through his unkempt beard. “Was it the rose then? I cannot imagine what else it might be.”

“Yes,” said the priest. “Though I have prepared that remedy many times before and never have I seen it work so quickly or so well. That rose truly is a gift of heaven.”

David whirled towards the door, clutching his heart. “The rose! We must see if it survived the night. If it is a gift from heaven, then it is surely a gift from my angel, Rose. She has sent it to me to remember her by, and to preserve my life.”

He ran out the door, before the priest could respond, tramping through the snow towards the garden. Fearing that the wintry blasts had destroyed the rose during the night, he prepared himself for the worst. When he arrived, however, he saw that the rose still stood, as resplendent as ever.  With a sudden feeling of reverence, he knelt before the flower and considered its pristine beauty.

Breathing hard, Father Praetorius joined David near the rose. “I have never seen a rose of such virtue,” whispered David. “I will preserve it in memory of my wife.”

The priest cleared his throat. “It is a fitting tribute, but it might serve a higher purpose. There are still many in the village who suffer who could also be healed.”

David turned and caught the priest’s gaze, furrowing his brow. “You mean, grind turn it into tea? How could you suggest that? It is all that I have left of her.”

Though David’s voice swelled, the priest remained calm, folding his hands in a prayerful gesture. “Please consider, David. Think of the day, which has just dawned and the child who was born on it. This is not the time to hold something precious to ourselves, but to give it to all, just as our Father in Heaven gave his precious Son for all of us.”

David’s fists clenched and he turned away. His cheeks burned with more than the cold. “What if I sicken again? If I give this away, I will surely die. We must preserve this rose so that it can continue to preserve my life, as my wife intended it to.”

The priest stepped forward and placed a hand on David’s shoulder. “My son, you must ask yourself what she had intended. Perhaps the rose is here to save all of us. Even if one man must lay down his life to save others, would not that also follow the example of our Savior?”

David fell silent, his emotions to full for speech.

“The wassail bowl,” continued the priest. “On Christmas night, all the town will drink from it. If we mixed the roses petals into the wassail, we could spread this gift of healing to all.”

“My son, I will give you some time to mull this over,” said Father Praetorius. “There are others who need my attention today. I will call on you again when the sun begins to sink. At sundown, we will pass the wassail bowl around.”

“Thank you, father,” muttered David, not able to meet the priest’s gaze. “You have given me much to ponder.” David sunk to his haunches and listened to the priest’s feet crunch in the snow. He likened this kind of food for thought to a royal feast, and he had only until sundown.

Instead of returning to the warmth of his hut, he remained in the snow. Sometimes he sat and stared at the rose, others he paced the garden. He remembered the nights lying in their bed alone, because Rose was still making her rounds in the village. He recalled the charming, lilting melodies she had hummed cultivating the roses, and the light dances she performed when she thought no one was looking.

Finally, he sunk to his knees and bowed his head, his thoughts lapsing into prayer.


David heard the priest before he saw him. The old man whistled a tune David did not recognize as he stamped through the snow. After drawing in a long breath, he rose, turning to face his old friend. “What is that tune, father?”

The priest smiled. “Oh, that? It does not yet have a name. It came into my head today as I thought about that rose of yours. It is just the thing to inspire art, wouldn’t you say?”

David nodded and crossed his arms. “I would wager that it is one of a kind. Much like my wife. How fitting that they should have shared a name.”

Father Praetorius managed a chuckle, tempered by deep sorrow.  “Yes. That much is sure. What remains unsure is the flower’s fate. Have you decided what to do?”

Keeping his gaze steady, David smiled. “I have. In the past hours I have thought much about what she would have done. I can think of only one thing.” He turned and reached for the rose, his hands shaking. His fingers slipped around the thornless stem, pausing slightly before snapping it. The perfect rose in his hands, David turned and offered it to the priest.

The priest held up both hands. “No, you keep it for as long as you can. Follow me.”

David followed Father Praetorius through the snow, winding their way toward the village. They reached the town square in which the other monks and priests had already gathered around the massive, steaming wassail bowl. On a normal year, the entire square would be bustling with townspeople, though now only a handful accompanied the robed men.

The holy men parted as David approached, holding the rose aloft for everyone to see. All eyes tracked the perfect bloom, many bowing their heads in a silent gesture of respect. David and Father Praetorius reached the bowl, and David turned and handed the flower to the priest.

Offering a genuine smile, the priest took the rose and plucked the petals one by one, dropping them into the wassail bowl. Scarlet spread across the amber liquid, until it permeated the entire wassail.  Plucking the last petal, the priest handed it to David, who let it fall into the center of the bowl.

The priests lowered the bowl and raised wooden goblets.  Each in turn dipped his goblet into the main bowl and withdrew it full of scarlet liquid. As soon as he had filled his goblet, each priest or monk turned and hurried off in their pre-determined direction to share their life-giving offering to a stricken household.

Father Praetorius offered David a goblet and filled his own. Together, they made their way to a cottage on the outskirts of the village, entering to find a family on their sickbeds, languid and approaching death.  Humming the tune that the priest had coined that evening, he and David stooped to each bedside, offering sips of the wassail.  When they had finished with this family, they moved to the next, until they had drained their goblets.

They returned to the square, filling their goblets and dispensing them again, until all in the village had drunk and every goblet ran dry. Father Praetorius came to David, placing his arm around the larger man. “Now, David, your Rose lives on in all of us and not only in you. You have done a great thing this day.”

David shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “I have not done anything. God has.”


That Christmas night turned into a string of snowy winter days, which gave way to Spring. The plague vanished from the village, never to return. David took his flocks and his wife’s garden and gave them to the monastery. Before the spring thaw, David took his vows as a monk, founding a new charitable order known as the Order of the Rose.  The rosebushes flourished, and every Christmas night, they placed the brightest rose into the bowl, sharing with all the symbol of their salvation.

15 Grandpa’s Last Christmas

“It’s snowing!” Russell’s face pressed against the window framing his image to the frosted glass.

“Looks like we’ll have a white Christmas,” his father said.

“Are we going to grandpa’s for Christmas, dad?” Russell asked. Russell’s grandpa had been sick for awhile and this would most likely be his last Christmas. Grandpa lived by himself in the mountains where snowfall could be heavy. Roads were closed before the holidays many years. Since grandma had died a few years before it became a tradition for Russell to see his grandpa on Christmas.

His father answered, “If the road is passable we’ll go.”

Russell acknowledged his father. The last time he’d seen his grandpa was during a summer visit several months ago. During that visit grandpa had mostly rested in his cabin saying he felt tired. Very unlike grandpa. He’d always been active. Either he worked the ground or he hunted or fished. But resting was foreign to Russell’s grandpa. Grandpa was Russell’s pal and he was very concerned about him. Watching the snow continue to fall he began to silently pray for his grandpa’s health and that he would be able to see him for Christmas.

“Does grandpa know we’re coming to see him?” Russell asked.

“He knows we’re going to try, son. But he knows if the road is closed we can’t make it.”

“What if this is grandpa’s last Christmas? We’ve got to see him no matter what.”

“Son, the roads will determine if we go or not. I can’t control how much it snows. As soon as I finish work on Friday we will get packed and leave early Saturday morning. The truck will go through deep snow, but if it’s too deep we’ll have to turn around.”

“I know we’ll make it. Grandpa isn’t doing very good and I have to see him.”

Russell knew his father felt the same way about grandpa and would do everything he could. The fact that grandpa didn’t have a phone or worried Russell. What if he’d already died and Russell didn’t get the chance to see him and say “goodbye” or “I love you, grandpa.” He would be devastated.

A buzzing sound diverted Russell’s attention. His cell phone had vibrated indicating an incoming text message. Grandpa may be old school when it came to technology, but Russell knew the advantages of these advances. Pressing a couple buttons on a vibrant multi-colored touch screen brought up a message from his good friend, Ryan.

Ryan wanted to know if Russell could play XBox with him. He’d just received a new game as an early Christmas present.

Replying, Russell declined the invitation saying he needed to pack for a trip to see his grandpa. His father had to work for three more days, but Russell didn’t want to be distracted from the focus he had. Grandpa was very important to him. Hunting or fishing with grandpa was always fun. Even working with grandpa had its rewards. Russell always enjoyed his time with grandpa and he learned from him as well.

One thing he learned was the importance of family. Grandpa was heartbroken when grandma died, but he told Russell about a thing called eternal marriage. He and grandma were separated but it was only a temporary separation. Later they would be reunited. Russell didn’t fully comprehend his grandpa’s words, but he knew it had something to do with grandpa’s faith and religion.

Russell and his father were baptized LDS. But they were not active nor did they pursue the doctrine of the church. Grandpa and grandma had been active all their lives. They had talked to Russell many times about the church and what they believed but they’d never been pushy about forcing him to believe as they did. He guessed they hoped their example would be enough.

Not having the same commitment did not equate to not loving his grandpa, however. He loved his grandpa very much. He’d felt the same for his grandma before her passing. Now with Christmas approaching Russell knew he must see his grandpa. It could be the last time he saw him. After the holiday there wouldn’t be another opportunity until summer.

After his father left for work Russell continued to watch white flakes fall to the ground, no two flakes the same. Yet all looking exactly the same to him. As each melded together with another to form a white blanket Russell found his despair growing. He loved the snow and all the activities, like skiing, associated with it. Too much snow, however, meant a trip to see his grandpa could be in jeopardy. The forecast on his phone did not look good. Snow was expected the rest of the week and into the next. Russell frowned with displeasure.

The drive to grandpa’s place was three hours. The first two hours on a paved highway and the last hour on a single lane Forest Service road which he’d been reminded too many times was not maintained in the winter. Russell knew if snow was falling in the valley it most certainly was falling in the mountains where grandpa lived. Curse the darn snow he fumed.

Russell considered his young life. He was fourteen years old, those years filled with good times and bad. His mother was killed by a person texting while driving when he was ten. For the last four years his and his father had leaned on each other. Two years later grandma died leaving his grandpa alone in their mountain cabin. Russell took on the responsibility of caring for his grandpa. He couldn’t physically accomplish the task living so far away, but he felt it was his duty. This feeling made it important to see grandpa for Christmas and make sure he was okay. He and dad would make sure there was enough wood chopped to keep grandpa warm until spring and enough food available to stave off hunger.

An eternity and several inches of snow later, at least it felt like an eternity to Russell, Saturday morning arrived. Dad finished packing the truck and Russell helped by getting breakfast prepared so they could eat before leaving. Cheerios with milk made for a quick meal with minimal cleanup. Russell wanted to be going. Grandpa wasn’t in good health.

“Eat up, dad,” Russell urged when his father finally sat down.

“Easy, son. Don’t get all worked up. I know you’re anxious to see your grandpa. I am too, but we have to eat and we also must drive safe.”

“Fine.” Dad always spoke with the irritating voice of reason at the most inopportune times. “But hurry!”

An agonizing thirty minutes later Russell and his dad pulled onto the highway. Patrols had scraped most of the snow to the side but the road was still slick. His father kept the truck’s speed at 50 miles per hour making life a veritable nightmare for Russell. Could he possibly go any slower?

Large flakes of snow started falling moments later adding to a rapidly growing frustration. If they had to turn around Russell wouldn’t be able to handle his disappointment. Wiper blades began swishing the snow back and forth across the windshield, streaks of setback laughing menacingly in Russell’s face.

“What do you think, dad? Will the Forest Service road be open?”

“I called the district office before we left. They said the snow is getting deep in places but it was opened as of this morning. The ranger would check later this afternoon and update the office.”

Russell checked his watch. “It’s ten thirty now. We should reach the turn off in an hour. With luck we should be at grandpa’s before that ranger can close the road.”

“Remember, son, the ranger doesn’t have to officially close the road. If the snow is too deep we will still have to turn around. I won’t put our lives in danger. Your grandpa wouldn’t want us to do that.”

“Grandpa won’t understand if I don’t see him for Christmas. I told him I’d be there.” Tears began indiscriminating falling down Russell’s cheeks leaving trails of sorrow.

“I will do all I can, Russell. I promise. Grandpa is important to me, too, you know.”

As soon as Russell’s father turned onto the dirt road he engaged the four wheel drive, not a good sign. They were immediately bucking eight to ten inches of snow. Their tires were creating the first tracks in the fresh snow. Russell saw concern in his father’s eyes and it spoke volumes. No way were they turning around. They just couldn’t.

Soon the drifts became deeper and the truck began to struggle. Even with four wheel drive engaged the strain on the motor couldn’t be ignored. Russell felt the jarring motion each time his dad bucked another drift. Each drift produced more of an adventure than the one before. His dad kept going, shifting to a lower gear, gaining elevation with each mile they passed. Russell’s heart swelled with confidence. He knew they’d make it and he’d spend Christmas with his grandpa.

Only a few minutes later Russell felt the thud of his heart, vibrant and happy not long before, dropping into his stomach, now filled with anguish and sorrow. His dad pulled the truck to side of the road. The snow no longer took the form of a drift here and another there that they could get a run at and blast through. Now it showed itself as a continuous blanket as far as they could see and the side hill told them it was at least two feet deep, maybe three.

“I’m sorry, son. We can’t go any further.”

“I’ve got to see grandpa. Can’t we at least try?”

“No, son. The truck may make it a hundred yards in that deep snow and then we’d be stuck. We’ll have to turn around and go home. Grandpa will understand and we’ll see him as soon as the snow melts.”

Russell’s mind raced trying to think of some way he could get to his grandpa’s cabin. “How much further is grandpa’s cabin?”

His father surveyed their surroundings. “It is at least three miles, son. Perhaps closer to five.”

“That doesn’t seem too far, dad. We could walk that far. You brought our snowshoes, didn’t you?”

Russell’s father looked into his son’s eyes. He saw hope mixed with possibility counterbalanced precariously by doubt and apprehension. “Yes, I brought our snowshoes. They’d be needed at the cabin to gather wood for grandpa and for hunting rabbits if we found the time, but we have all these supplies for your grandpa. We can’t just leave them here in the truck and there’s no way we can carry all of them.”

“I can carry my backpack and a satchel filled with food and you could carry a couple bags, dad. We can take what grandpa needs the most. Please, can we try.”

“Okay, son. Get as much stuff into two bags as you can and I’ll do the same. We’ll also need to take some water and a first-aid kit. I know how badly you want to see grandpa, but this is not going to be a walk in the park. When we get there, if we do, you’ll be tired and all your muscles are going to ache. This walk is all up hill, son, and on three feet of snow.”

“I don’t care, dad. Let’s get going.”

Just as they strapped their snowshoes on and his dad locked the truck new snow began falling. Under his breath Russell cursed. His father pulled his scarf tighter around his neck and started up the road. Russell kept pace but soon noticed his breathing become labored. When his dad turned around he waved him off and motioned for him to continue. Even if it came to crawling through the snow he would make it to see his grandpa for Christmas. Every moment he thought this could be grandpa’s last Christmas and that consideration gave him the motivation he needed.

After two miles they stopped to rest. “How are you doing, son?”

“I will make it, dad. If we stop once in a while to rest, I will be fine. I know I need to start exercising more instead of playing video games.”

“Yeah, all that exercises is your fingers and your bum,” his father joked.

The road led directly to the cabin Russell’s grandpa lived in which meant any chance of getting lost was remote. That, at least, was positive. The weather, on the other hand, was a major negative. Along with continual snow the lateness of the day was making it colder and shadows began to stretch out across the snow. Russell prayed again that they’d soon see grandpa’s cabin. He’d prayed every few steps for the last mile or so.

Taking another swallow of water and noticing his canteen near empty another feeling assaulted Russell. It wasn’t yet panic, but it was panic’s predecessor, fear. He still couldn’t see the cabin and suddenly he felt very thankful his dad was with him. Each step now made him feel foolish for pleading with his father to walk in such bad conditions.

Roundly another turn in the road Russell tugged on his dad’s coat, an indicator he could go no further without resting. Tears filled his eyes and rolled across his cheeks reddened by the cold. He removed his glove to swipe at the dampness. “I am so tired and cold, dad. I don’t know if I can go any further.”

“We will rest here for a few minutes. Then we’ll start again. Grandpa’s cabin isn’t too much further, son. You will make it. Remember how important it is for you to see grandpa for Christmas.”

The words encouraged Russell. Finding a reserve strength he got to his feet and they started walking again. The incline didn’t make it easy. Fifteen minutes later his strength seemed fully restored along with his smile. A quarter mile away sat his grandpa’s cabin and smoke spiraled upward out of a weathered chimney. If he could have ran that last quarter mile he would have, but the deep snow made it impossible.

Russell and his father reached the front door and entered the warm interior, not bothering to knock. Letting his eyes canvass the room Russell saw his grandpa sitting in his favorite chair, sleeping.

“Should we wake grandpa, dad?”

“No. Let him sleep. We’ll have plenty of time for visiting. Let’s get this stuff unpacked and put away.”

An hour later Russell could wait no longer. He gently nudged his grandpa’s shoulder. No response. He nudged him a second time. The rise and fall of grandpa’s chest told Russell he was alive. Then he opened his eyes and looked at his grandson. A smile creased his weathered face and his eyes lit up in recognition.

“It is so good to see you, Russell,” his grandpa engulfed him in one of his famous bear hugs. “Where is your father?”

“He’s outside chopping some kindling. He noticed you were getting low. Should I tell him you’re awake?”

“No, Russell. I will put my coat on and go help. It is my job, after all.”

“I will help too, grandpa. I can chop wood.”

“Of course you can. Each time I see you you’ve grown a little more. I believe you’re shaping into a fine young man.”

When they reached the woodpile father and son embraced. “How are you feeling, dad?”

“I feel okay, but it seems I sleep more than I should. Definitely more than I like.”

Russell stood next to his grandpa. He looked different than what Russell remembered. His shoulders sagged some and his waist was much thinner. Only a tightened belt and suspenders kept his pants in place.

“After I finish chopping enough kindling to fill the box I’ll go chop down a tree we can decorate for Christmas.”

Grandpa smiled. “When is Christmas?”

“It’s tomorrow, grandpa.”

“Goodness. I didn’t realize it was that late. I need to get a gift for you and your dad.”

“No, grandpa. Our gift is getting to spend Christmas with you. We love you.”

“I love you, too, Russell, but I feel bad. I’ll see what I have out in the shed.”

Later that evening after a tree was cut and decorated Russell and his dad and grandpa sat near the fireplace drinking hot cocoa and telling family stories of a wonderful past. Remembrance of past family adventures never seemed to get old. Russell knew each story, whether happy or sad, would be of great importance for the rest of his life and no one told a story like grandpa.

Christmas morning came after a few short hours of sleep. Russell awoke first. A few minutes later his father was dressed and preparing bacon and eggs along with potatoes for breakfast. They would wake up grandpa when breakfast was ready.

Russell ran out of his grandpa’s room. “I can’t get grandpa to wake up.”

His dad was immediately alarmed. “What you mean he won’t wake up? Did you nudge him or just speak to him?”

“I nudged him, dad, just like yesterday, but nothing happened. I didn’t see any movement. Something’s wrong.”

“Stay out here, Russell,” his father pointed to a chair. “I will go in and wake up your grandpa. He’s probably just sleeping soundly.”

Walking toward his father’s room he knew he wasn’t sleeping. It had been in his eyes the night before and in the stories he’d told. All of them had focused on grandma, his one true love. He’d sensed dying was close at hand. As he approached his father his suspicions were confirmed. No breath from his nose or mouth. His eyes were permanently closed.

He returned to his son. “Grandpa died during the night, Russell. Grandpa and grandma are reunited. They’re both happy again.”

Russell said, his eyes moist with emotion, “I got to spend grandpa’s last Christmas with him. I am happy, too.”

13 Cardboard Christmas

by Teresa G. Osgood

Lisa reached into the back corner of the closet. She stood on her toes and tugged with her fingers, and finally the box came free. She carefully pulled it out and stepped down from the chair. The last box. She hoped it was the one she wanted.

As she set it next to the other boxes on the floor, Lisa heard little feet coming down the hall. Was naptime over already?

“Mommy, I waked up,” Josh announced. “What’s in the boxes?”

Caleb followed his brother on loyal little legs. “Peasants?” he suggested hopefully.

“No, not presents. Just some things we haven’t unpacked yet.”

Josh peered into one box and pulled out a tiny sweater. “Whose is this?”

“You used to wear that when you were a baby. And so did Caleb. Put it back, please.”

Caleb toddled over to Lisa and patted her belly. “Baby.”

“Yes, the new baby will wear it, too. But not for a while.”

Josh was already investigating the clothes in another box. “Did I wear these?”

“Yes, but–”

Caleb pulled a skirt out of a third box, and knitted his blond brows together. “I wear this?”

“No, that’s mine.”

“Mommy was baby?”

“Mommy wore that before you were a baby, and hopes she’ll be able to wear it again someday.” Lisa sighed, and refolded the skirt. “Anyway, I’m not looking for clothes right now. I’m–no, don’t touch that one!”

Lisa swung Caleb away from the box containing the equipment and remnants from her stained glass class. Someday she’d get back to that again, too, but it was not a safe hobby to practice with toddlers in the house.

“What are you looking for?” Josh asked.

“Christmas ornaments.”

“Kiss-miss?” Caleb repeated.

“Yes. I’ve looked through all the boxes but this one. Shall we see what’s inside?” Lisa picked up her scissors and slit the tape. Her heart thumped with anticipation. The bright colors, the familiar shapes, must be right there beneath her fingers. She opened the flaps.

Papers. Kevin’s college notes. No wonder the box was so heavy.

The little boys looked inside. “No Kiss-miss?” Caleb stuck out his lower lip.

Lisa sank to the floor. “No. The movers must have left my box of ornaments in Grandma’s garage.” She wiped a tear from her eye.

Josh wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “It’s okay, Mommy. Come on, Caleb. Let’s play trains.”

“Choo-choo!” Caleb hooted as the boys pattered back to their room.

Lisa knew she should put away the boxes and prepare the room for guests. But she felt drained after her fruitless search. She went downstairs for a glass of water, hoping Kevin would be home soon to help with the lifting.

She looked around the small living room. It was comfortable, but not very festive. She had hoped to be all ready for Christmas before Kevin’s parents came to visit. She’d bought the groceries and done most of the cleaning. But Kevin had been working late, training for his new job. He was too tired to decorate when he came home. They had not even bought a tree.

Lisa brightened. Maybe Kevin’s parents could find the box of ornaments and bring it along tomorrow. She gave them a call.

No answer. They must be still at work. Lisa left a message, and hung up with a little more hope.


It had been a blessing to live with Kevin’s folks, Dale and Donna. They had invited the young family to stay after Kevin graduated, just until he found a good job. The few weeks he expected had turned into two years, though, as Kevin applied for position after position. He worked some odd jobs during that time, and played with the little boys, but he’d spent more and more time grumbling about the economy and playing video games. Lisa was grateful that they’d had a comfortable place to live all that time. They’d never gone hungry. But she knew her husband hated depending on his parents.

Everyone was thrilled when Kevin was hired. Lisa loved the fresh sparkle in his eye, his new sense of purpose and responsibility. She also looked forward to setting up their own home, having their own space, and starting their own traditions.

As the moving van rolled away, scattering the fallen leaves, Donna pulled Kevin into a tight squeeze. “We’ll miss you so much, but we’re so proud of you.”

“That’s right.” Dale gave Josh a tickle before buckling him into his car seat. “But you’ll be back for Christmas, won’t you?”

Lisa looked at Kevin with concern. His parents’ Christmas celebrations were too glitzy for her taste.

“I won’t earn much leave by then,” Kevin said. “We’ll probably be staying in our new home.”

Lisa breathed a small sigh of relief as she buckled her own safety belt.

“Then we’ll come visit you,” Dale declared.

“You bet,” Donna agreed. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without a child in the house!”

Kevin waved as he drove the car away, but Lisa felt frozen.


She’d had some time to thaw over the past couple of months, and had determined to show her in-laws a Christmas her way. A nice dinner on Christmas day, not a Christmas Eve extravaganza. Homemade cookies. Singing carols around the–well, someday she’d get a piano. Singing carols around the CD player, then. And a real tree. A small one, to be sure. Expense and living room space dictated that. But she looked forward to arranging her small collection of ornaments on a sweet-smelling fresh tree. Lisa closed her eyes, imagining the aroma.

“Behold the conquering hero!”

Lisa’s eyes flew open as the front door slammed. Little feet pounded down the stairs, and cries of “Daddy!” filled the air. Lisa struggled up from the couch.

Kevin swung the two boys into the living room, then caught Lisa in a hug. “I’ve completed my certification. I’ll meet my first client after Christmas!”

Lisa gave him a kiss. “That’s wonderful, dear,” she said. “Oh, look at the time. I haven’t started dinner yet.”

“No big deal,” Kevin said. “Let’s pick something up on the way.”

“On the way to where?” Josh asked.

“To buy a Christmas tree.”

Lisa and the boys cheered, and the family piled into the car. After supplying everyone with hamburgers and fries, Kevin drove straight to the tree stand in the mall’s parking lot. The brightly colored lights turned off as they approached. Kevin stepped out to talk to a man who was sweeping pine needles.

“All sold out, sir,” Lisa heard him say. “They went fast this year. You could try the supermarket, or the lot on Old Holly Road.”

There were no trees left at the supermarket, either. Lisa and Kevin had different ideas about how to find Old Holly Road, and it took them a while to reach it. When they finally found the tree lot there, it was empty, too.

“Maybe this is why Mom and Dad use a fake tree,” Kevin said, leaning on the steering wheel. “Is it normal to run out the day before Christmas Eve?”

“I don’t think so,” Lisa answered. “Where I grew up, most lots had a few scraggly trees left even after Christmas.”

“Huh. Well, we’d better take the kiddos home.” Kevin nodded at the boys. They were asleep in their car seats, and Caleb was losing his grip on a handful of fries.


After helping Lisa set up the guest room, Kevin spent most of Christmas Eve shopping. Lisa wondered if he would come home with a fake tree. If he did, she’d be stuck with it, probably forever. Ugh. But having no Christmas tree would be worse.

She tried not to think about it as she rolled out sugar cookie dough. She helped Caleb wield a star-shaped cookie cutter with his pudgy fingers. Josh cut out a cookie and held it up. “Is this what our tree will look like?” he asked. He wiggled the tree shape until it broke and fell to the counter, leaving just the point in his hand.

“Probably so.” Lisa squished the dough together and rolled it out so Josh could try again.

“Will we put up a ‘table?” he asked.

“This is the table.”

“No, a Christmas ‘table.”

Lisa frowned, trying to read Josh’s mind. “Oh.” She remembered that Dale built an elaborate train set on the coffee table each Christmas. “You mean like Grandpa’s? We don’t have anything like that.”

“Why not?”

Lisa slid the cookie sheet into the oven, and the front door opened.

“Don’t look,” Kevin called, sweeping past with something held behind his back.

Josh covered his eyes with his hands. Caleb put his hands on his own face, but missed one eye.

“Did you bring a tree, Daddy?” Josh shouted.

Kevin looked around the corner. “No, but I have an idea. Come here, kiddos.” They followed him to the living room, and he shut the kitchen door.


Lisa finished baking the cookies and started some soup for dinner. A pair of headlights swept up the driveway as she stirred. Donna’s sweater sparkled as she came through the door. “Merry Christmas Eve, Lisa, honey,” she said with her usual broad smile.

Dale followed her inside, carrying a box. “We couldn’t find your box, Lisa, but we thought you might like these.” He set the box on the table.

Lisa’s face fell as she looked inside. Instead of the treasures her own grandparents had sent each year, or the cute ornaments her crafty aunts had made, there were packages of silver bells, violet balls, strings of blue lights, and a huge silver star. They had never been opened.

“We can’t use these.”

“Sure, you can! We bought them all on clearance last January,” Donna said with a wink.

“But we don’t have a tree.”

The kitchen door opened. “Yes, we do,” said Kevin. “Come see.”

The little boys rushed at their grandparents, who paused for hugs and tickles. Kevin took Lisa by the hand and led her to the living room. On the floor she saw that a large moving box had been cut in the shape of a fir tree. The boys had obviously been coloring it, with large swathes of green ink and little patches of green crayon.

Tears came to Lisa’s eyes. Kevin put his arm around her. “It doesn’t smell great, but I think we can have some fun with it. Okay?”

Lisa wiped her eyes and smiled. “I’ll go find the construction paper.”


After supper, Kevin led the way to the living room, flexing his muscles. “So, I cut this tree myself, and hauled it all the way from the shed with my bare hands. Let’s dress it up.”

Dale frowned. “That’s no tree. That’s a tree by-product.”

“Start producing some decorations for it, then.”

Dale chuckled. “I’m no artist. You kids go ahead without me.”

“I’ll help you.” Josh handed his grandfather a piece of orange paper. “Draw around my hand, Grandpa.”

“Me, too,” insisted Caleb, and the decorating began.

Donna snipped lacy snowflakes to tape to the cardboard tree. Lisa tied yarn into bows. The boys colored their handprints, then drew stars, train engines, and more abstract shapes.

Dale traced his own hand, colored it like a turkey, and cut it out, too. “I call it, ‘Self-Portrait,’” he said, taping it onto the tree.

Donna rolled her eyes. “That’s you, all right. Full of stuffing and nonsense.”

Kevin searched the Internet for origami instructions, and busied himself with sheets of aluminum foil. He showed Lisa his creations.

“Christmas cranes?” she asked.

He grinned. “Silver swans a-swimming.”

Soon the flat tree was covered with colorful, fanciful, utterly original decorations.

“This certainly is unique,” Donna said, surveying their work. “I’ll never forget this little tree.”

“Neither will I,” Lisa agreed. “But how will it stand up?”

“Got it covered,” said Kevin. “Make me another big bow, will you?” He looped some yellow yarn through a hole near the point of the tree. After attaching Lisa’s bow, he hung the loop on a hook in the ceiling. The cardboard tree dangled, swinging slightly in the breeze from the heating vent.

“Pity,” said Caleb.

“Yes, it’s a very pretty Christmas tree,” Lisa said, hugging her sons, “though I feel like I’ve forgotten to do something.” She yawned.

“What about a ‘table?” Josh asked.

“Not now, Josh.”

“The tree is just fine this way,” Kevin declared, “and you’re tired. Go ahead and get the boys into their pajamas. I’ll take care of the dishes.”


Lisa woke with a start. “Did you hear that?”

Kevin did not respond. How could he not hear it? Lisa shook his shoulder. “Kevin, what’s that sound?”

He rolled over and grunted at the darkness. “Huh?”

“That rustling sound. Listen.” Lisa sat up, heart pounding. “There’s a light on, too.”

Kevin raised himself up on one elbow. “I doubt our presents would attract burglars,” he said.

“Well, probably not.” The gifts they had set out, after tucking the boys in, made a pretty meager pile.

“I bet it’s Mom and Dad, sneaking some more packages downstairs. Go back to sleep.” He rolled over again.

Lisa lay down, breathing deeply, willing her heart to stop racing.


She woke again to the sound of giggling. Weak sunlight glowed around the edges of the window blinds.

Kevin sat up. “It must be Christmas morning,” he said, grinning.

Lisa pulled on her robe and headed for the boys’ room. “I wish your dad wouldn’t tickle the boys awake.”

“He was already awake, weren’t you, little man?” Dale laughed along with the toddler.

“Merry Kiss-miss, Mommy!” Caleb called when he caught his breath.

“Merry Christmas, sweetie. But where’s Josh?”

“I dunno.” Caleb collapsed in a fresh round of giggles.

Lisa walked down the hall to the guest room. “Josh, are you bothering Grandma?”

Donna put down her magazine. “He’s no bother, but he isn’t in here.”

Lisa grabbed handfuls of her own hair. “Where’s Josh?”

Kevin looked out of the boys’ room, surprised. “What do you mean?”

“He isn’t there, he isn’t here.” Frantic, she hugged herself. “I heard noises last night. Maybe someone took him!”

Kevin put one hand on Lisa’s shoulder, and smoothed her hair with the other. “Calm down, Lisa. He’s probably getting a head start on the presents. Let’s take a look downstairs.”

Caleb and his grandparents followed silently as Kevin led Lisa down the stairs. At the bottom, she closed her eyes, afraid of what she might see. Kevin stepped out into the living room.

Soon he returned and took Lisa’s hand. “Come and see,” he said quietly. Lisa let out the breath she was holding, and followed him.

The gifts had not been disturbed, but there was a mess beneath the dangling cardboard tree. Josh lay curled there in a nest of crayons. Lisa dropped to his side, giving his round cheek a grateful kiss. Josh’s blue eyes opened in the pale morning light.

“What are you doing down here?” she asked. “You gave me such a fright.”

Josh looked surprised. “Sorry, Mommy. In the night I waked up, and I made the ‘table you forgot. Look.”

He pointed to a folded piece of cardboard, standing near the trunk of the swinging tree. Lisa picked it up.

Brown crayon marked walls and a roof. A yellow star with eight or nine points shone at the top. Smiles split the round faces of three figures within—one wearing blue, with long hair, one with a pointy brown beard, and a small one between them, balanced on an X. Curly-hided animals stood nearby, smiling, too.

“The stable. You’re right, that’s just what we need.” Lisa wiped her eyes.

Caleb knelt down next to her, and pointed reverently to the central figure in the drawing. “Baby.”


Lisa sat on the couch, sipping hot chocolate. She watched as Dale chased Josh through a tunnel of empty moving boxes. She leaned her head on her husband’s shoulder. “The boxes were a great idea, dear.”

Kevin shrugged. Dale poked his head through a window in one box. “They’re just like you. No matter what we gave you, you’d just play with the boxes.” Then he roared, and crawled after Caleb while Donna snapped photos.

Lisa looked around the room. She could barely hear the Christmas music from the CD player. The cardboard tree swung. Wrapping paper, crayons, and packing peanuts littered the floor. It was not quite the vision she had had for Christmas morning. But it was perfect. She picked up the cardboard Nativity and studied it again.

“Your mom was right, Kevin.”


“It just wouldn’t be Christmas without the Child.”


12 Rollier than Thou

Erin held her breath, rolled toward the wall, and, at the last moment, pivoted backward and skidded to a halt on her toestops. The team cheered, and Chelle skated toward her. Chelle served as coach, manager and head cheerleader, and skated as Michelle O-Bomb-Ya.

“See? You never forget!” she said. “Just like riding a bike.”

“Yeah—after a month of practice.” Erin had rollerskated a lot as a teenager, but she still felt a little shaky. And thinking about joining a roller derby team at age thirty-eight made her feel even shakier. Chelle had seen Erin skating at the rink with her three kids and invited her to roller derby practice. The team had welcomed her like an old friend, and skating burned 476 calories an hour.

“I decided.” Erin said. “I’m in.”

“Woot!” As they took off their skates on the bench, Chelle lowered her voice. “The timing’s perfect. Katy’s pregnant. Again.”

“Oh, my,” Erin said. Katy—“Hurricane Katrina”—already had one toddler, with no husband in sight.

“Hey.” Chelle’s glance was sharp. “None of that pinch-lipped Mormon stuff. You have opinions about what the team does, you leave ‘em in the parking lot.”

Stung, Erin nodded and leaned over to remove her kneepads. She’d never thought of herself as a “pinch-lipped Mormon.” But even in high school she’d never hung out with a crowd as varied as the Derby Demons.

“Nice boutfit, by the way,” Chelle said.

“The pants were sort of a mistake.” Erin had been overjoyed to discover size-XL bike shorts that fit. When she found a pair in the team’s purple, she’d gotten them home and removed the tags before she noticed “Too cool for school” in shiny gold letters across the rear.

“Just, um, you might want to lose the fishnet stockings.”

“Really?” Other girls wore tutus, sequins, nose rings—the more outrageous, the better. Was Chelle judging  her, now?

“They look awesome,” Chelle said. “But fishnet burn is the worst. None of us wear it anymore.”

“Ah. Gotcha.”

Chelle shoved her gear into a “Sin-tral Utah Derby Demons” duffle and stood. “You’re joining at a good time. Regular season’s over, and the Reindeer of Terror bout isn’t until December. That gives you almost two months.” She looked Erin over. “You’ve got the height and bulk for a blocker—once we beat that hesitation out of you.” As Erin started to protest, Chelle held up a hand. “Yeah, you’re gonna lose twenty pounds between now and Christmas. We all say that.”


Erin called her friend Becky on her way home. “Well, I did it.”

“That is so great!” Becky said. “I can’t believe I know a roller derby queen!”

“Yeah, right. But, uh, don’t tell anyone. Not yet, anyway.”

“Why not?”

“It’s…I don’t know. Kind of embarrassing.”

“Whatever. I’m coming to all your matches.”


“Whatever. I’ll bring ice, for your very first black eye!”

Erin blew out her breath. “That  shouldn’t take long.”


At the beginning of November, Erin and her husband Dave made small talk with the bishop in his office. She rubbed a bruise on her elbow from Tuesday’s practice and wished he’d get to the point. He’d asked to see them both, so he planned to call one of them to something big.

At last, he looked at Erin and said, “I’d like to call you as the Relief Society president.”

Erin’s throat clenched nearly shut. “Relief Society? President?” The bishop nodded—only confirming he was part of this weird hallucination. “No.” She leaped to her feet, shrugging off her husband’s hand. “No.”

She squeezed between the chairs by the desk and paced in the narrow space behind them. “Bishop, my food storage is three bags of chocolate chips and a package of Cheetos.”

And  a ten-pack of Dr. Pepper.” Dave met her glare with a grin.

“Anyway,” Erin persisted, “you can’t call a Relief Society president with no food storage.”

The bishop smiled. “Sure I can.”

She made another lap. “And I am  the  world’s worst visiting teacher.”

The bishop leaned toward her. “Sister Turner, unless you beat your ladies with baseball bats, you’re only in a forty-way tie for  ward’s worst visiting teacher.”

“But, I can’t sew blanket sleepers for every new baby, and cook dinner for every sick person! I’m not Janie.”

The bishop blew out his breath. “You don’t have to be Janie. You’ll just have to do some delegating.” The words unlike Janie  remained unspoken.

Erin stopped short. “Bishop,” she said, “I am on a roller derby team.”

As soon as she said it, she wished she’d kept quiet. She wouldn’t turn down a calling—not really. But what if he counseled her to quit the team?

She had ab muscles for the first time in three babies. She got out of the house once a week, and Dave and the kids were bonding on their “nights off.” She’d made friends—Meg, a British paralegal who went by “Margaret Fracture.” “The Terminatrix,” an oversized school teacher named Yolanda. Chelle and Susan and Debbie and…

“Roller derby?” The bishop’s frown was puzzled, but not disapproving. “As in, pro wrestling, on skates, with fishnet stockings?”

Erin straightened. “It is  not  like pro wrestling. It’s a real sport—no fishnet.” Good thing he hadn’t asked about tutus or black leather.

“Huh.” The bishop opened a blue manual. Erin slipped back into her seat as adrenaline turned to lead in her veins.

“The Church handbook,” he said after flipping a few pages, “doesn’t say anything about roller derby.” He looked up hopefully. “Do you have any more objections? This is the most entertaining interview I’ve had all week.

Erin shook her head. “I accept—but, let’s keep the roller derby thing quiet.”

He nodded. “Whatever you say, President.”


When Becky called five days later, Erin was compulsively eating chocolate and playing solitaire.

“I just got a new calling,” Becky said. “Thanks a lot.”

“I’d like you to know I prayed about that,” Erin answered. “You’ll do a fabulous job with Enrichment—or whatever it’s called these days. I feel bad, but I have to skip the Christmas party next month—it’s our first bout.”

“You as Relief Society president.” Becky’s voice was flat, as though she hadn’t gotten over the shock. Erin knew the feeling. “Talk about the last days.”

“No kidding.”


“And…drop!” Erin and Meg crashed to the floor and slid on their kneepads.

Erin’s new calling helped a lot in training. She thought of the visiting teaching coordinator, who’d gone out of town, leaving Erin to make all the phone calls.  Wham! Kneepads landed in the sister’s imagined face.

They scrambled to their feet and did it again, and again. Erin could fall on demand now, on either knee, both knees, or knees and elbows. But her specialty remained falling on her rear. She’d upgraded her butt-pads twice in the past two months.

Someone switched off the overhead lights and turned on the disco ball.

“We’re done here,” Maggie said, as half-size skaters wobbled onto the floor. “Race you to the bench!”

They took off, running on toestops, but as Erin started to roll, a little kid collapsed in front of her. He was flailing around, unlike the six-inch-high obstacles she’d practiced jumping earlier. With a lurching prayer, she crouched, then jumped, clearing the boy with room to spare. But as Erin’s skates hit the floor, a little girl darted toward her, already reaching down to help the boy.

With no time to evade the girl, Erin grabbed her and slid into the wall on her rear, holding the girl clear and taking the force of the crash in her hips.

She groaned, not sure if the pretty lights she saw were coming from the ceiling or her brain.

As the girl scrambled to her feet, Meg skated over and gave Erin a hand up. “Brilliant!” she said. Somehow the compliment sounded even shinier in Meg’s British accent. Erin grinned shakily.

She hadn’t caught her breath when a voice behind her said, “Sister Turner?”

Erin turned slowly. No one called her “sister” here. “Janie!” she gasped. In her month as Relief Society president, it hadn’t occurred to her to wonder whether the former president even owned a pair of blue jeans, much less wore them to skating rinks.

“These is my granddaughter Beth,” Janie said. She gathered the girl into her arms with a mother-bear glare at Erin, and a pointed frown at her skates.

Erin’s stomach sank. So much for keeping her derby habit a secret. She knelt in front of Beth and asked, “Are you all right?”

Beth nodded. “It was fun!” Before Janie could say anything, she wobbled away.

Wearing her Margaret Fracture game face, Meg said, “I thought Sister Turner showed extraordinary presence of mind when your grandson fell down in front of her.”

Janie’s lips compressed.

“Didn’t you?”

The staring match stretched out. “Um,” Erin said finally, “Sister Janie Clayton, this is my friend Meg.”

“How do you do?” Meg said. She extended her hand. Janie eyed Meg’s elbow-pads, but had no choice but to shake her hand.


“How do you do?” Becky repeated in a fake British accent, then busted up laughing. “I would have loved to see her face!”

“I dunno,” Erin said. “It was a little scary in person.”

“What’s she going to do—get you fired?”

“I wish.”

“So, why are you still stewing about this? Who cares what Janie thinks?”

“Maybe…maybe she’s right. What’s a nice Relief Society president doing on a tacky, low-class roller derby team?”

“She said that?” Becky sounded skeptical.

“No, she glared it.”

“Well, you did almost cream her grandkids. But I think you’re telling yourself stories.”


The next morning, the doorbell rang. Erin answered it holding a laundry basket. “Janie!”

Janie wore a navy-blue Sunday dress and a frown. Erin wished she’d made the kids clean up the inevitable mess of boxes and bags from decorating the Christmas tree. And that she’d chosen something other than Bruce Springsteen to fold laundry by.

Janie stepped inside. “Roller skates?”

Erin suppressed a cringe. She wore her skates every moment she could. Going up and down stairs in them had improved her balance a lot.

“I’m on my way to the temple,” Janie said, “but I felt impressed to talk to you first. About roller derby. Does the bishop know, Sister Turner?”

“He does,” Erin said. The urge to explain, justify, or apologize was strong, but Erin clamped her mouth shut. The self-appointed judge and jury could do all the work herself.

“Then he obviously does not know much about the ‘Sin-tral Utah Derby Demons,’” Sister Clayton said, her nostrils flaring. “The risqué names, the fishnet stockings, the men in the audience, just waiting for buxom girls to crash into their laps.”

As she took a breath, Erin held up a hand. “Wait. How do you know about my team?”

“Someone tagged your picture on Facebook,” Sister Clayton replied loftily.

Erin’s thoughts spun. Why did Janie despise roller derby? Was she just mad at getting replaced, and determined to take it out on the new president? And since when did old ladies with blue hair get on Facebook?

“Sister Turner, it doesn’t matter what the bishop thinks. If you continue this degraded, salacious sport, I will personally tell everyone in the Relief Society.”

And I will look up what ‘salacious’ means as soon as you leave. Erin stepped forward, remembered too late she was on skates, and nearly rolled over Sister Clayton in the slippery entryway. Sister Clayton smiled grimly as Erin flailed for balance.

“You raised your hand to sustain me,” Erin said, after she regained her footing. “You’re going to do that by gossiping about me?”

“I sustain the office of Relief Society president.” Sister Clayton drew herself up, if possible, even straighter. “And I won’t share any false information.” She eyed Erin. “Roller derby seems like an odd choice for such a matronly, middle-aged person.”

Erin gripped the laundry basket tighter, so she didn’t throttle her sister in Zion. “Now that you’ve called me old and fat to my face, please have a lovely morning at the temple.”

She shut the door behind Sister Clayton, skated to the couch, and sat staring into space for a long time. Then she called Becky.


“Middle-aged? Matronly?” Becky snickered. “Who’s  Janie  to judge?”

Erin sighed. “I wanted to deck her, right there in my entryway.”

“Hey, you know the moves! Hip check? Shoulder block? She’s messing with the wrong derby chick!”

Somehow, Becky’s indignation made it easier to defend for Janie. “Yeah, well, maybe she’s got a point.” It turned out “salacious” meant “lewd, vulgar, sleazy.”

“Wait a minute,” Becky said, as the pause stretched out. “You’re not thinking about quitting, are you? Because no one will care what Janie thinks. I’ll bet they’ll think it’s cool.”

“Some of them. Maybe.” Erin blew out her breath. “I thought I could keep all the parts of me separate—president, and the Mominator, and just plain Mom. But I decided I’d better get it out in the open. Maybe next first-Sunday lesson, I’ll teach about judgment, or diversity. Bring my skates, tell everyone—”

“Everyone?” Becky interrupted. “And, can I tell, too? Like, even before the lesson?”

“Uh, sure, but—” Something in Becky’s voice was making her nervous.

“’Kay! Bye! Good luck at your match tomorrow!”

“Bout,” Erin corrected. But Becky had already hung up.


“Okay, girls.” Chelle stood before a heap of pushed-back shelves in the empty grocery store where they held their bouts, since the rink didn’t have enough room for their audience. Duct tape marked the track and the crash zone on the concrete floor. “Yolanda’s the first jammer. Meg, you’re pivot. Erin, I want you in the middle of the pack. Remember why God gave you hip bones!”

Katy, who’d quit because of her pregnancy, wore her sparkly boutfit but not her skates. She whistled as the team skated out. She was starting to show, an adorable young-mom bulge.

Admission was half off for spectators who dressed up. The crowd on the south—guys with beer bellies wearing Grinch shirts, kids in Santa hats, teenagers with green hair—yelled and whistled as the Demons warmed up.

Erin felt her stomach turning to concrete. What was she doing here? She wished she could hide behind the darkened freezer cases—or better yet, slip home. But Dave and the kids stood in the purple section, wearing tinsel garlands and yelling “Mominator!”

Someone hip-checked her. “Wake up,” Meg said. “I just lapped you.”


She managed to focus on warm-ups. As she stood with the team watching the Ogden Scarlet Vipers skate out, the door opened, letting in a blast of frigid air and a swarm of women and teenage girls. The newcomers, dressed in Christmas and purple and holding signs and quilts, headed for the south end, pushing toward the front and spreading out their quilts.

Erin squinted. A woman in felt antlers was shaking hands with Dave.

Then the women flipped over their signs. Each one said “Mominator” in big, purple letters. They screamed and waved and clapped. Becky, draped in Christmas decorations, caught Erin’s eye and gave her a thumbs-up.

Erin stared. “But, it’s Enrichment tonight,” she said to no one in particular. “Or whatever it’s called now.” She belatedly remembered she hadn’t even wished Becky luck on her first Relief Society activity. Then she remembered the unholy glee in Becky’s voice the day before.

The ref blew his whistle at Erin as she zipped across the ring, making two Vipers crash. She collided with Becky, as everyone who’d come to Enrichment that night gathered around her.

“Sister Turner!” one of the Young Women said. She was draped in paper chains and wearing Christmas balls for earrings. “This is  so awesome!

“Uh, really?” The Young Women  never wanted to come to Relief Society. Becky smirked at Erin over the girl’s shoulder.

Then the sisters stilled, shuffling back like an embarrassed Red Sea. Janie stepped into their midst, wearing a brown dress and looking ill at ease.

Erin frowned. Janie must have shown up tonight, ready to tell Erin’s awful secret, only to find everyone making “Little Jammer Girl” signs and wearing the party decorations. But, why hadn’t she stomped home? Why was she here?

The ref blew his whistle again and shouted. Katy skittered across the track, narrowly avoiding an irate Viper. She rushed past Erin and threw her arms around Janie.

“Grandma!” Katy cried. “You came!”

Grandma? Things suddenly came clear. If Janie blamed Katy’s bad decisions on roller derby, of course she’d be appalled at the Relief Society president in roller skates.

“I…came.” Janie’s stringy neck clenched, then she relaxed it with an obvious effort. “It’s important to support family.” She looked at Erin, then Becky. “And church leaders.”

Katy’s jaw was hanging open, and Erin had to snap hers shut as well. Janie would set foot in a roller derby bout, just to “support leaders”?  Old vulture. She’s an innocent victim, virtuously living the letter of the law, even when her leaders drag her to a den of iniquity.

Erin glanced at Janie. She didn’t look particularly scandalized, or smug, or self-righteous—not like she had on Erin’s doorstep. Mostly, she looked uncomfortable.

Had Janie’s strict obedience given her a path to showing acceptance for her granddaughter—and maybe also for her Relief Society president?

I think you’re telling yourself stories, Becky had said. So, why not choose the more generous story?

“Well, then—” Erin started.

But Katy was way ahead of her. “I’ll tell you what’s going on, Grandma!” The other ladies gathered close, obviously hoping to overhear. Katy found Janie a folding chair near the quilts and gave her a “Season’s Beatings” sign.

As the teams formed up on the track, Erin caught Sister Clayton watching her. The old lady managed a wan smile as the ref blew his whistle and the bout began.


10 Hark!

It was definitely going to be the weirdest Christmas ever. I was seventeen, and this should have been my last Christmas as a kid, my last chance to ask for video games without worrying about being responsible, but it wasn’t.

Okay, backing up a little. So I was seventeen and a senior. Cool, right? Well, no. Actually, to be totally honest, and I’ve promised myself a million times I would be, I was a total dweeb, a nerd, a nobody. Before you roll your eyes and think I’m exaggerating, let’s just get it straight that I passed the AP calculus test as a sophomore. I was also the school web programmer for the third year in a row, and I was in the running for the president’s scholarship at BYU. Yep, no doubt about it: total geek.

All right, but those smarts came in handy later (or will whenever I get out of grad school—hey, doctorates take a while, okay?). The point is, it wasn’t just my brainiac tendencies that made me by all high school coolness meters a total loser; there was also my family situation. See, money was pretty tight, and that president’s scholarship was going to be a literal Godsend to our family later that school year.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Christmas. So the other major thing that was marking me as a nobody and far from a normal seventeen-year-old kid was that I had a job and Dad didn’t.

It wasn’t like I was supporting the family or anything—there’s no way I was capable of that—it’s just that at the same time as my summer job asked me to stay on to work Saturdays during the school year, Dad got laid off. Yeah, that was as awkward of a dinner table conversation as you can imagine.

We pushed through it though. Dad kept going to alumni gatherings and networking meetings, and I kept going to work on Saturdays. But I did stop asking Mom and Dad to buy me stuff—clothes, books, fast food, and, of course, video games—because I knew it would be too much for them. Sure, I appreciated my newfound financial independence, but a lot of times I just wished I could be a normal kid wearing sweet brand-name clothing that my parents bought me and driving some rich aunt’s cast-off Corolla. That Christmas was one of those times that I was wishing for the impossible. Like major.

I didn’t mention it before to try to spread out the account of my seventeen-year-old overwhelming dorkiness, but I’ve got to fess up sometime so I can get to the real story. Where was my fancy summer/weekend teen employment? Deseret Industries. Total uncool. Not just retail, but thrift retail. The lowest of the low. (Correction: washing dishes at the Chinese take-out down the street the summer before was the lowest of the low. But DI was still pretty far down the totem pole, you have to admit.)

All right, so that’s a perfect portrait of me that Christmas: total geek meets (almost) lamest job ever. But at the time, I didn’t complain. How could I whine about anything when I had a job and Dad didn’t? But I still felt pretty bummed that I wasn’t making Christmas lists on my phone between classes to text to all my relatives. I was pretty sure that I wasn’t even going to have a Christmas at all.

So that’s about how I was feeling the Saturday before Christmas, the first day of Christmas “break” from school that wouldn’t be a break at all for me. All retail is insane leading up to Christmas and even crazier afterward, and good old DI is not an exception. As I swept up a beanbag spill in aisle 17 that Saturday, I kept thinking how I would never have a real, beat-the-latest-RPG chillaxed Christmas ever again. Instead I was working overtime both weeks of the “break” and trying to figure out how to smuggle my extra pay into Mom’s purse or pay for as many groceries as I could without her, and especially Dad, knowing.

About midway through these complicated thoughts was when I met Harold.

I know that’s usually the name of someone’s great-great-grandfather, but Harold was a kid, just like me. Actually, he was a lot different than me. He was at least ten years older but acted about ten years younger. I found out much later that Harold was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, meaning his birth mother drank before he was born which damaged his brain. His parents adopted him as a days-old infant, fully knowing about the challenges that he would face in his life, and are some of the best people I have ever met. But I didn’t know any of that when my manager, Steve, appeared with Harold in tow in aisle 17 the Saturday before Christmas.

I had worked with a lot of people with special needs at DI. “Vocational rehabilitation” was a main mission of the store, and it included all sorts—people of all ages with disabilities, others overcoming addiction and putting their life back together, unskilled workers needing a leg-up, and high school students, like me, looking for a summer/weekend job. But meeting Harold was the first time I was asked to train a coworker—any coworker, let alone one with special needs.

“Just show him the ropes,” Steve smiled, “and tell me later how he does, k? When you’re done with this spill, start with sorting books. I think he’d like that.”

All I could do was nod as Steve left Harold with me—me, a scrawny, nerdy, high-school kid who didn’t know anything about anything when it came to people with disabilities like Harold. Was the holiday rush addling Steve that much?

“Well, come on, buddy, let’s get started,” I said. It was strange to talk as if I was working with Mom’s Primary class when I was looking at a dude I knew was older and even bigger than me. But Harold smiled when I said “buddy” and simply said, “Yeah!”

It took me a day and a half to even start to figure Harold out. He would work and work, pulling books and checking tags as if nothing would stop him, and then he’d suddenly collapse like he’d just run a marathon. I kept trying to get him to pace himself, but he was too anxious to please me. Eventually, we developed a game between the two of us that involved lots of talking and me slowing down to work at Harold’s ability level so he wouldn’t feel bad, stress out, and overdo it. Luckily, whenever Steve came around to check on whatever we were doing—sorting donations, hanging up clothes, whatever—he seemed really pleased that things were working out with training Harold, even if I wasn’t working as fast as usual.

Those last few long days before Christmas, working before the store opened and after it closed, passed a lot most quickly than I had imagined. Before I knew it, it was December 23rd, and Harold and I were real buds. The guy had the funniest sense of humor. He’d just point out the littlest thing in some picture somewhere and crack up so much that it was impossible to keep from cracking a smile. The customers felt the same, too. It was like a burst of goodwill and joy right by my side throughout Harold’s part-time hours every day.

The 23rd was DI’s “Christmas Eve” because we were closing that night until the 26th. It wasn’t going to be much of a break, but I was looking forward to those two days like they were the only vacation I was going to get that December because, besides Sundays, they were. I was pretty exhausted from working such long hours, too. I also knew that those two days would only be a small reprieve before the post-holiday craziness that would soon be upon us. This was why I was pretty sure that Steve was the only person in the universe that could have been so optimistic to think that any of us would want to “spread holiday cheer” by caroling outside the store, in the cold, for the last two hours of our Christmas sale. I don’t know how it was possible for Steve to think it up—or convince us to do it—but he did.

The worst thing about working at DI was avoiding anybody I knew. Well, okay, it actually wasn’t the hardest thing in my life at the time. Really, no teenager wants to be seen in DI, right? Working there, shopping there, or your mom shopping there were all pretty equal on the uncool scale. But I had to be there every day. I was over it—mostly—and I generally found that anyone I knew from school was as eager to avoid eye contact as I was whenever I ducked down a different aisle to avoid them. But singing Christmas carols out in front of the store? That was a totally different story. I might as well hold up a flashing “loser” sign. What in the heck was Steve thinking?

Well, he was thinking of dressing up like Santa Claus and giving out free miniature candy canes while we all sang Christmas carols, apparently.

So I was in the emergency staff meeting in the break room half an hour before the festivities were to begin. Harold was with me, of course, and Launa, the moody cashier with the nose ring, was in charge. Who knew that she could sing? And who knew that I could, for that matter?

“So thanks to Steve we’re all here, right?” Launa looked down at a clipboard and read off names. Seriously? This was like roll call in kindergarten. My life was just getting worse and worse. Why did I have to be tortured so bad before I could have my two flippin’ days of hard-earned vacation?

“Okay, Launa, Jeff, Mary, Charlie, Jake, and,” Launa looked up quickly, “Harold?”

“Here!” Harold said, much too loudly, jumping to his feet, his hand shot straight up in the air. I flashed him a big smile that said, “Way to go, buddy,” but Shauna didn’t look very pleased.

“Uh, Jake,” she said to me. “Could you come here for a minute?” Discretion was obviously not the girl’s forte. She pulled me into the corner, which in that tiny staffroom was only a few yards away from everyone else, and hastily hissed, “What was Steve thinking? Harold can’t sing. This is going to be awful. Oh, I hate my life!” She pressed her hand to her forehead, and I seriously wondered if she was going to have a panic attack. I didn’t know why this caroling thing was such a big deal. Okay, so we all detested the idea, but why was Launa so incredibly upset?

“Hey, it’s cool, right?” I said. “He’ll just stand in the back and wave at people and stuff. That’s okay, right?”

“It’s okay in the store,” Launa said, “but not out there in front of anyone who drives by–”

And at that brilliant moment, Harold chose to break out into an extremely loud and nearly unintelligible rendition of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

“Bah!” was all Launa said in exasperation before she started pacing.

“Hey, buddy, let’s hold it for now, k?” I said gently to Harold. I didn’t want to make him feel bad, but I was seriously starting to worry that Launa was going to have a total freak-out, and I had no idea how to deal with that.

“Yeah,” Launa stopped pacing and put on a huge and very fake smile. “Do you know what we need, Harold?” She was talking to him like he was less than two. I didn’t really understand why, but I felt a touch of anger bubble up in my chest. He could hear, and he could talk, didn’t she know? Why was she acting so unintelligent—or like Harold was?

“What?” Harold asked. He always spoke loud, but I knew he could hear everything just the same. So his words came out funny—kind of slurred—so what? We still had tons of conversations together. Why was Launa acting like he could do less than he could?

“We need someone to wave while we sing, like this.” Her wave was a gross exaggeration. No one put their whole body into an arm sway like that. Was she trying to be ridiculous?

“But, I sing,” Harold said slowly.

“Oh, but I really need someone to wave,” Launa’s voice was like artificial sweetener. “Can’t you do that for me?”

“Jay,” Harold turned to me. I never let anyone call me that before, but I didn’t mind that Harold did. “Do I get to sing?”

I looked at Harold’s confused face, then at Launa’s. She was standing behind him, shaking her head vigorously. How obtuse did she think we all were? I think that anger inside popped a steam hole because I turned back to Harold and said, “Yeah, dude, we really need you to sing, if you’ll do it.”

“Yeah!” Harold did a fist pump, I’d spent all week teaching him that.

Launa stalked from the room with a, “Fine, you guys do it then.” I had called her the moody cashier for a reason.

Thus began the first supervisor project of my life. I’d never been in charge of anything, except teaching Harold how to sort books and stuff, before, but after the drama with Launa, everyone—Jeff, Mary, Charlie, and Harold—suddenly looked at me like I was in charge. We came up with a plan, practiced a few tunes, and everyone seemed to like it. The most amazing thing was that I wasn’t worrying about singing in front of the store or Christmas in general anymore. I was only thinking about making sure that Harold had a good time. Something that I knew the dude really deserved.

So, two hours before closing, we went out and started “the plan.” It went like this: Harold, the unpredictable human Christmas jukebox, would start on a carol and we’d all join in like it was the best idea ever, which, of course, it really was. That night was probably my one and only stint in show business, but I can honestly say that the audience loved it. My buddy Harold was the cheeriest, happiest caroler you’ve ever seen, and no one passing by could do anything but join in. Brotherhood and goodwill all around, my friend.

The best moment was right in the middle of “All I Want for Christmas”—a brilliant lisp performed by Harold, our star—when he yelled and ran out into the crowd like the real Santa Claus had shown up in place of Steve and his shabby, donated suit. When Harold reappeared, he was pulling a couple by their arms toward me, and the smiles jumping off their faces told me at once that they were Harold’s parents.

“We’ve heard so much about you, Jake,” Mr. Donaldson said. “We can’t thank you enough for helping Harold be successful here.”

Mrs. Donaldson only nodded as she blinked back a precarious flood of tears.

Successful? It wasn’t really a word that I had thought about much. Usually I associated my job at DI with loserness, not success. But lately, as I thought about it, I had been linking my job with thoughts of friendship, service, and love. All those thoughts were jumbled in my mind as I stood there looking at the Donaldsons, Harold’s selfless and caring parents, but with the noise of the shoppers all around, how could I put what I felt into words?

“Come on, Harold,” I finally said, clapping my buddy on the back, “we’ve got just ten more minutes. Think you have it in you?”

Harold immediately returned to his place next to Mary and Charlie and started up the liveliest version of “Angels We Have Heard on High” that I’ve ever heard. The Donaldsons laughed—and probably cried too—and joined right in, letting Harold and me finish up our last few minutes on the clock before DI closed for Christmas.

You probably want to know that Launa never apologized to me about dissing Harold, but she was incredibly kind to him for the few months remaining in her “vocational rehabilitation,” and she even learned to cut out the patronizing and treat the kid like an equal. I heard from Mary that when she left DI Launa had some pretty serious ambitions of going into special education when she started school again at the local college.

Harold became my best friend. It was hard the next fall when I moved away from home and DI to go to BYU that I couldn’t see him every day, but we’ve kept in touch for a lot of years, and whenever I’m in the neighborhood I take him out on the town—for a milkshake. The Donaldsons are still always trying to thank me for “all I’ve done for Harold,” but I can’t help them understand that it’s nothing compared to what he did for me. I was a troubled, burdened, and lonely teenager that Christmas, but the opportunity to forget about myself to help Harold changed my life and taught me what the spirit of Christmas—and the spirit of Christ—really is.

It wasn’t until my clock radio woke me up on Christmas Eve that year that I realized that Harold had omitted a very important Christmas carol from our repertoire the night before, the one the radio was playing that made me think of how I had heard Harold, a real-live angel, sing.


06 Christmas Valentine

There was nothing extraordinary about Christmas Valentine—except for the fact that she was about as white as you could get without being diagnosed as an albino. Her skin was so pale you could almost see all the way through it. Christmas always showed a blush of baby-petal pink in her cheeks, and the skin beneath her eyes was streaked through with teensy-tiny pale blue lines that brought to mind miniature icicles, like the kind that grow all skeewampus on your roof edge during a really bad blizzard, going all which-away they want, totally ignoring gravity.

Christmas had pale green eyes, the color of the underside of a baby alligator. That’s how they knew she wasn’t really albino. But although her eyes were pale, compared to the rest of her, they looked almost electric green, which was such an unusual color for eyes, that if she were more than nearly nine years old, people would swear she was wearing colored contact lenses. But her eyes were real—as real as rainbows. And so was her name. Born on Christmas Day to Jack and Judy Valentine, her parents couldn’t agree on a name. But when Grandma Lacie held her for the first time, she called her a Christmas angel and that’s what ended up on her birth certificate: Christmas Angel Valentine. No one realized in those first moments of her life, that Christmas’ skin would take that name as a challenge and try to match it, snow for snow.

Christmas was so frog-bellied white, she couldn’t go outside when she was a baby. They discovered she had little to no darkening ability when they brought her home from the hospital. It was an unusually sunny day for the season, bright light glaring off snow drifts and sending rainbow prisms everywhere.  During the twenty-minute drive home, that poor baby’s face blistered with near second-degree sunburn. The doctors poked and prodded poor Christmas for over a year, until she hollered like a hellcat on fire every time her parents took her out of the house. That was when Grandma Lacie put her foot down and told her son to quit letting them doctors poke on her Christmas Angel. Which was just as well because all those book-learned specialists threw their hands up in complete and total surrender. They couldn’t figure what was wrong with Christmas, not one bit. It wasn’t one of those famous diseases; her body seemed capable of making bucket-loads of melanin, but it just didn’t want to. Under the order of the highly skilled yet still confused experts, her parents kept Christmas indoors, only going out with her at night.

On the day Christmas turned four, Grandma Lacie came to live with her forever. Grandma’s heart nearly broke over the lonesomeness she saw in those big green eyes, and she decided it was time for a miracle. Grandma was reknowned all throughout Marion County for her ability to pray miracles into existence. She prayed and prayed, and then she consulted her great-great-granny’s healing diary that had been handed down for generations. When she wasn’t reading through it, it sat on her night table right beside her very creased and marked up Holy Bible.

Grandma Lacie spent a couple of days a-mixin until the kitchen smelt like a chicken farm on a  hot summer day. But when she was done, she had a miracle all right. She smeared that smelly stuff all over Christmas, then took her outside every day right after it got dark. Every new week, Grandma would take Christmas outside exactly one minute earlier than the week before. She worked Christmas into the sunlight so gradually that her skin was right tricked into toleratin’ it. By the time Christmas started school at age five and three-quarters, she could stand the sunlight well enough to get to and from church and school and other necessary outings, just by wearing a big floppy hat and slatherin’ on regular store-bought sun block. Christmas didn’t much care for the hat, but she thought the sun block smelled much better than the chicken farm salve.

Christmas also didn’t much care for the fact that she had to stay indoors during recess most days, while all the other kids got to go outside and rip and run and jump and holler. Some of the kids made a point of teasing her. They would run up to the classroom window, stick their thumbs in their ears and waggle their fingers at her, while singing, “Na-na-na-na-na-nah.” But Grandma Lacie had taught Christmas to tolerate life’s dismays and injustices, while she was teaching her to tolerate the sun. Christmas just ignored the teasing until the kids got bored and moved on to someone else. She found other things to do while the kids played outside—mostly, she watched and thought.

Nope. There wasn’t much extraordinary about Christmas Valentine, once you got past Grandma Lacie’s miracle. And today, at nearly nine years old, Christmas sat in the window of her fourth grade classroom at Boar Hollow Elementary School, watching the other kids play outside. Christmas in the South wasn’t really known for lots of snow, but this year enough had fallen over the weekend that they had to plow it off the blacktop playground making piles about knee high to the kids from her class. Christmas watched them rip and run but it didn’t bother her too much because her birthday—and Christmas—were only six days away.

Christmas turned away from the window. The glare of the sun bouncing off the snow hurt her eyes just a little. As she walked back to her desk, she pushed her long white hair back behind her ears. It hung limply to her waist, the scrunchie Momma had pulled it back with this morning was now languishing about half way down her back. There wasn’t a barrette or a rubber band invented that would stay in place longer than ten minutes in hair that was still as fine and thin as a baby’s. Grandma Lacie called it angel hair, and said you could tell angels had long fine hair because in all the paintings of the nativity, their hair was billowing out behind them in a great cloud of glory. If angels had regular hair, it would hang down toward the earth in locks so heavy the angels wouldn’t be able to fly. Grandma said that Christmas’ long white angel hair meant she was something special, that she had angel blood in her. Christmas wondered if that meant that some day she’d be able to fly like an angel, but so far, when she jumped off the front stoop, stretching her body out as long and thin and angel-like as she could, she only landed with a thump, flat on her tummy just like any normal person would.

Today, Christmas wasn’t the only person staying in from recess. Today, Mitchell Haywood  was there too. He was was held in from recess because he was a little bit of a bully. Not that he beat anybody up—at least, not very often. He was just ornery talkin’ to the other kids at school. Because he and Christmas spent lots of recesses together, she had plenty of time to watch him. And even though they rarely spoke, she probably knew him better than anybody else did. Mitchell didn’t like to wear flannel shirts because they itched his neck. She knew that because he was always pulling at the collars. When Mitchell was mad, the tip-tops of his ears turned just a little red. And when he was sick, Mitchell got just the faintest shade of blue-gray in the pockets under his eyes—sort of the color of a storm brewing on the far away horizon.

Today, a Monday, the blue-gray under Mitchell’s eyes was much darker than usual. Christmas stared at him trying to puzzle out the reason, until he stuck his tongue out and turned his back to her. That’s when she noticed the tiny drops of perspiration on the back of his neck and the little bit of red on the tops of his ears. Christmas knew if Grandma saw those clues, she’d say a big sickness was brewing in Mitchell and it was about to pop open like an angry volcano.

“Mitchell, you know you’re sweatin’ like a stuck pig?” asked Christmas.

Mitchell looked at her over his shoulder and huffed. “Pigs don’t sweat, stupid.”

And that was the end of that conversation.

Sure enough, on Tuesday, Mitchell wasn’t at school. Christmas noticed first thing after the Pledge of Allegiance that his chair was empty. On Wednesday, the teacher announced that Mitchell was home with the chicken pox and they’d probably all been exposed. On Thursday, a few more kids were out with poxy sores. And on Friday, the last day of school before Christmas break, the teacher told the class that Mitchell was doing poorly. He was having an unusually bad case of pox, with sores inside his ears, mouth and throat. It was cold and blustery outside that day, so the children spent their recess time making Mitchell get well cards. Christmas drew a picture of an angel flying over a snow-covered house with a big holiday basket in her hands. Then she added holiday greetings to her get well wishes and put her card with all the others.

When Grandma picked her up after school, Christmas told her all about Mitchell having the chicken pox.

Grandma tsked, then said, “Darlin’, I do believe I know just the thing to clean those poxy sores right up.”

As soon as they got home, Grandma pulled out her great-great-granny’s healing diary and let Christmas read her the recipe for poxy tea. Then the two of them together started a-mixing and brewing.

The next afternoon, which was Christmas Eve, the poxy tea was done. Grandma poured it through a funnel covered with a thick straining cloth, and Christmas watched as the bright green tea dripped into several large canning jars. When they were full, Grandma screwed the lids on tight and labeled each jar, ‘Chicken Pox Tea: Mix half tea and half hot water. Sip a cupfull every three or four hours.’

“Grandma, can we put the jars in a great big basket?” asked Christmas.

“Why, sure we can,” said Grandma. “And we can dress it up all Christmas like. We’ll make that Mitchell a nice surprise.”

Grandma put all the jars of poxy tea in a big basket, stuffed some silver tinsel around them, and  tied a bright red ribbon to the handle.

Christmas wanted to deliver the poxy tea herself. As soon as it got dark, she pulled on her big puffy white coat, put on her white boots and white mittens, and climbed into the car with Grandma. They drove over to Mitchell’s house, listening to Christmas carols the whole way. Grandma parked across the street so she could keep a good eye out and Christmas carried the heavy basket up to the front door and set it down on the step. She stood there a minute chewing on her bottom lip and jiggling her boot. All the lights were on in Mitchell’s house and she could see through a big gap in the front window curtain that Mitchell was asleep on the couch. His skin was pale but his cheeks were bright pink, and his face was covered with near a hundred reddish-yellow poxy sores.

Christmas thought about how Mitchell mostly ignored her except when he stuck his tongue out at her when she tried to talk to him. Maybe he wouldn’t be happy to see her. Maybe he felt too sick for visitors. She took a deep breath and rang the bell. When she saw the curtain start to twitching, she lost her nerve and jumped off the stoop, stretching her body out as long and thin and angel-like as she could. She felt she was near flying as her feet raced across the snow covered walk toward Grandma’s car, with her straight, white hair billowing out in a big cloud behind her.

Christmas jumped into the car and slammed the door just as Mitchell’s front door opened. She and Grandma watched Mitchell’s mother pick up the basket, quickly look around in the darkness, then step back inside and shut the door. It was then that Christmas noticed Mitchell’s face peering out the big front window. He was looking right at her. Even though she knew he couldn’t see her in the darkness, she scootched down in the seat, hiding until Grandma drove away.

Christmas was on a Sunday this year and after church, Christmas and her family celebrated both the holiday and her birthday. The day after Christmas there was a huge storm, blowing gigantic snowflakes all over the place. Christmas watched in fascination as those flakes seemed to fly up and down and sideways, and covered the ground in a deep blanket of white.

On Tuesday, Christmas woke to find a wonderland outside her window. The snow was crisp and white, but the big blue sky was hidden behind gloomy gray clouds that blocked out the sun and threatened to break open with another storm at any minute. Snowy, gloomy, wintry days like this were some of the few times when Christmas could actually go outside to play for a bit. And what she loved to do most on these rare winter days was to go sledding. When she was on her sled, sliding out of control down the big hill by the school with her eyes closed and her silky hair whipping out behind her, Christmas almost felt like a real angel.

Christmas put on her puffy white coat, her white boots and white mittens, and grabbed her sled. Grandma drove her to the big hill where kids met to go sledding. The reflected light from the snow hurt her eyes a little bit, but not nearly as much as usual. Christmas drug her sled over to a group of kids her age who were gathered in a big circle. She was surprised to see Mitchell in the center of it. Bundled up in an oversized blue coat, with a red knit cap and black snow boots and gloves, he certainly looked quite a bit better. His face glowed a rosy pink, the dark shadows under his eyes were gone, and the few sores that were left were completely scabbed over. He sounded like his normal self, too, as he told everyone about his narrow escape from certain death, which included having to drink the nastiest pond water he’d ever tasted delivered on Christmas Eve by an honest-to-goodness Christmas angel.

As the crowd of kids broke up and began to wander off, Mitchell cut his eyes toward Christmas. He gave her his standard bully smirk, then a quick nod but didn’t say a single word to her as he turned to walk away. But that was okay. Christmas had watched Mitchell long enough to know that the smirk and the nod really meant “thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Christmas shouted after him.

“Shut up, stupid,” said Mitchell, but then he paused for a second and smirked over his shoulder at her again.

Nope. Most people wouldn’t think there was much extraordinary about Christmas Valentine, once you got past her coloring. But Mitchell knew better.

Christmas just smiled at Mitchell’s retreating back, grabbed the rope on her sled, and headed off to the hill.

03 We Need A Little Christmas

“I wish ya didn’t have to get a job, is all.”

“It’s all right, Dad, I don’t mind. I wanna help. Besides, we gotta think a Mikey.” Ellen Johnson looked at her over-sized brother, sitting on the living room floor. Humming tunelessly and rocking a bit, he was assembling their vacuum cleaner, again. He was at his favorite part: replacing the brush roller and belt. He watched with satisfaction as the roller turned under the exacting influence of the belt and began to reattach the cover plate.

When Ellen was three, their mother had realized that five year old Mikey was never gonna be right.  Gossip said she ran away with a travelling salesman, but nobody knew, really. She didn’t leave a note. Ellen’s Dad got up one morning, and his wife was gone. Ellen couldn’t remember her mother, but she knew for sure that life with Mikey was hard. In the forties, nobody knew if there was a name for what ailed him, but it didn’t matter. He was theirs. Doctors had pushed Mr. Johnson for years to put the boy in a home, but he wouldn’t have it. He had confided to a friend, “I think them doctors just don’t wanna take care of ‘im. Don’t know what to do with’ im. Want a tough case out a their hair. Well, I ain’t. Me and Ellie can take care a him, just fine. He can read and write, he can look at anything mechanical, sees how it works, can take it apart, put it back together, fixed.”

Now, Ellen was 20. Her brother, still a child, was 22. Their Dad was still working, but getting older, and it was up to her now to try and take care of them all. Mr. Johnson worked at the pickle factory in Charlestown, New York and there was an opening in the office. They needed a new office girl, and Ellen got the job. Only trouble was, Mikey couldn’t be left alone. They would need someone trustworthy to stay with him. The downstairs neighbor was a lady they had known for years, and she agreed. She could come up and knit and listen to the soaps on the radio while Mikey sat and took apart his vacuums and toasters. He didn’t really need help with anything, just couldn’t be alone, and needed someone to make him a sandwich and remind him to go to the bathroom every couple hours. And so, Ellen was going out to work, and would be paid $1.15 an hour for it.

She had been taking care of her brother for almost as long as she could remember, and if that wasn’t work, she didn’t know what it was. He used to lay on the floor and scream, would bang his head so hard they didn’t know how he stayed conscious. He didn’t do that anymore. Once he put his head right through a wall and her Dad had to get the stuff to patch it up before the landlord saw it. Once when she was 12 they took him into Murphy’s and he got mad ‘cause they had moved the toasters. They were supposed to be on the top shelf, but some imbecile moved ‘em down onto another shelf and put the irons where the toasters were supposed to be. Mikey had knocked ‘em all down and then laid on the floor screaming. Their Dad had to carry him out. Some of Ellen’s schoolmates had been in the store at the time, but she held her head high and didn’t say nothin’ to ‘em.
So, on this morning, Mrs. Lorenzo from downstairs came up, and Ellen and her father were about to leave. Mikey got real agitated and started to rock fast on the floor. “Ellen doesn’t go! Ellen doesn’t go,” he said.

“Mikey, you remember, I told you before. I was gonna go to work with Dad, so we have enough money. You’ll be fine. Mrs. Lorenzo is here, you like her, right?”

“Mrs. Lorenzo,” he said.

“Yup, and she knows all about it. At 10, she’s gonna tell you to go to the bathroom. At 12 she’s gonna make your sandwich. At 12:30, she’s gonna tell you to go the bathroom. At 3, she’s gonna give you your snack. At 3:15, she’s gonna tell you to go the bathroom. And then, at 4:30, I’ll be home. It’ll all be the same, except Mrs. Lorenzo will be here.”

Mikey was only rocking a little now and said, “Ellen will be home at 4:30.”

She touched him on top of his head, which was all the contact he would allow. “I’ll be home at 4:30.” He went back to his toaster and seemed to forget all about Ellen. As she and her father went out the door, she prayed that everything would be all right.

Mr. Johnson had walked to the factory every day for the last 25 years, and now his daughter was making the walk with him. He looked at the ragged shoes she’d had for years, all he could afford for her. Now maybe she could buy some boots. With her first paycheck, they’d go into Murphy’s and buy some boots. For now, she would have to walk in the snow. Maybe today he could take her down Main Street and look at the Christmas decorations they just put up the other day. There was a Santa out in front a Penney’s. He thought she might like to see that. Sometimes he forgot she was a grown woman.

He took her to the office and had to leave her there. She had been a mother to Mikey, but had never stopped being her father’s little girl. Now she had to work, and he felt bad. In the office was a secretary and another office girl, Betty. Betty showed Ellen what to do. They filed papers, sorted mail, ran errands and delivered messages.

Ellen couldn’t put her finger on it, but didn’t like Betty right off. She knew Betty thought she was too good to be training Ellen, even though Betty was just an office girl too. Ellen resolved to learn her job as fast as she could. Betty always looked like she was expecting Prince Charming to pick her up for The Ball and then she could leave this dirty old factory behind. The factory men would make excuses to come into the office to look at her. She had short, platinum blonde hair, like that actress, Marilyn Monroe. She had a figure like an hourglass and Ellen felt colorless and dull next to her. On that first payday, the men lined up to get their pay and the three women sat at a table on the factory floor and passed out the checks. That was the first time Ellen got to see a lot of the men that worked in the factory. The men took their checks while Ellen ticked off their names on a list and had them sign. She got the surprise of her life when suddenly there was a child there in front of her, wanting to sign for a check. She stood up a little, looked over the edge of the table, and realized it was not a child, but a midget! She’d never seen a midget before and stared at him.

“Name?” she finally asked.

“Tipple,” said the little voice. Now that she looked at him, she didn’t figure he was really much older than she was, but not a child! He had brown hair and eyes, and a friendly face.

She checked off Tipple on her list and gave him the book to sign. “Hey, Tipple, want me to give ya a lift?” said a loud, obnoxious voice. Some of the men laughed, others looked disgusted or uncomfortable. The midget looked at her and said, “Yeah, ha ha. Man, that joke never gets old, y’know? Thanks.” She nodded at him and he went off.

Later in the office, Betty was being unusually friendly and giggling a lot, and at first Ellen was suspicious. She reminded Ellen of the pretty girls in high school who were nice if you were alone, but would laugh at your old clothes if their friends were around. She had learned not to trust them girls and didn’t trust Betty now.

It went on like that for a few days, and Ellen was becoming more confident in her job. Every day after work, before getting home to Mikey, she walked downtown and looked at the Christmas window dressings. On Saturdays, she brought Mikey, but he would only look at two windows and go home. He looked at the window of the appliance store, which featured vacuums and a washing machine, all decorated with red and green Christmas ribbons. Then they would walk straight to the toy store window, skipping all the other windows in between. He wouldn’t tolerate stopping at any of the others. Every week, she let him stand at the window and stare at the running train for as long as he wanted to.

Everything was going fine at home with Mikey and Mrs. Lorenzo, and it looked like this thing was just maybe gonna work out. Betty acted like she and Ellen were old friends and Ellen wondered why. But she liked having a friend and eventually welcomed the chance to fun around with a girl her own age. The old secretary was nice and put up with them both, only getting after them if they got to giggling too much and not doing their work. Finally one day, Betty told Ellen she needed a boyfriend.

Ellen blushed and said she didn’t have time for a boyfriend. “Well, see that’s just the trouble! You need one, get out there and have some fun. I got a friend who has a friend, and this friend a his wants a girl. But he don’t have time to meet nobody, neither, and you’d be just perfect for him. He’s real nice, but shy. Today’s Friday, we could all go tonight!”

Ellen was uncertain, and at first she said no, but Betty pestered her all day. Finally Ellen said, “What’s he like?”

“Oh, he’s real nice. Cute too. His name is John.”

“John. That’s a nice name. Like John Wayne.”

“We’re gonna see that new Elvis movie, Blue Hawaii, that just come out. You seen it?”

“No, not yet.” In fact, Ellen had not been to see a movie in a couple of years, and it would be a rare treat to go. “Well, okay.” Betty told her to meet them in front of the theater on Main Street at 8.

As she walked home with her father, she felt like she was breaking bad news to him as she told him about her blind date. He wasn’t happy about it, but he knew she wasn’t a little girl anymore and he better let her go. It was just a movie anyway, and was just right there on Main.
She’d never had time or interest in boys because of Mikey and he felt bad about that. It shouldn’t be a girl’s job to take care of her brother. He told himself this as they walked silently home in the cold, she for once not veering off to see the shops on Main Street. She seemed anxious to get home and he knew she was excited about this date.
“Ellen doesn’t go at night!” Mikey was saying. It was 7:45, and she was getting ready to leave for the theater. She’d put on her best dress and her new boots from Murphy’s, and done the best she could with her hair. It was red and frizzy, but she had swiped a little of her father’s tonic and calmed it down some. Now she’d told Mikey she was going. “Ellen doesn’t go at night?” he asked.

She had thought this might happen, but she was ready for him. She had something she had been saving under her bed for months, in case of emergency, and she brought it out now. It was an old broken toaster Mrs. Lorenzo had given her. “Look, Mikey, it won’t work anymore.” His eyes lit up and he took it carefully from her. Without a word, he went straight to the room he shared with their father.

Her Dad laughed and said, “Well, that ought a take care a him for the night! Okay, now I’ll walk out with you and watch as far as Main. It’s real lit up there, and them Christmas decorations’ll sure look nice at night!” He watched her until she turned and waved, and then he couldn’t see her anymore. He saw a lovely young woman on her way to a date. He didn’t know that other people barely noticed her, and if they did, it was to remark on the frizzy red hair, the dumpy little figure, the second hand clothes. He went back inside with a heavy heart, figuring he might just lose her soon.

As she approached the theater, she saw Betty, and recognized several men from the factory. They started to laugh when they saw her, and someone said, “Hey, Tom, here’s yer date!” The crowd parted and standing there alone, staring at her, was the midget. He looked confused, and then, when he saw her stricken face, aghast.

“Date?” he said.

“Yeah, we got ya a date, so’s you wouldn’t be lonely in the balcony.” There was raucous laughter from the men, and Ellen stood there frozen. She’d dealt all her life with bullies who picked on Mikey, had once even punched a boy in the face and been sent to the principal’s office. After that they wouldn’t let Mikey come to school anymore and the injustice of it still rankled to this day.

She walked over and faced Betty. “I thought you were my friend,” she said simply.

Betty stuttered and looked like she was having second thoughts about being involved in this joke, although it was too late. “It was just a joke.” She tried to laugh. “Can’t you take a joke?”

“This isn’t a joke,” answered Ellen. “It’s just plain spiteful meanness.” She shook her head in disgust at Betty, who looked down at the ground.

One of the men took Betty by the arm saying, “Come on, I wanna see this movie.” With one last look at Ellen, Betty went with him. The others, sensing the show was over, disappeared down the sidewalk and left Ellen standing there with Tom Tipple, the midget.

“Uh, listen,” he began awkwardly. I can walk ya home, if ya want. I’m sorry about this. They just asked me if I wanted to go to the movie. Didn’t say nothin’ about a date. These guys think they’re real funny.” He looked like he didn’t think it was funny, but wished it would be, just this once.

There was a bus stop bench there and she sat down. He hefted himself up and sat down too. Ellen said, “You don’t have to be sorry, you didn’t do nothin’. But she made it sound like there was somebody who really wanted to take me out. I was a little surprised to see it was you.”

He brightened a little. “Well, I ain’t had too much luck with girls. But I would like to take you out. If you’d wanna. Girls usually don’t.” He looked uncertain.

She said, “You would? Me?”

“Well, sure. Do you really wanna see this movie?”

Actually, she had wanted to. Before. But now she didn’t, knowing that Betty was in there. “Not anymore I don’t,” she answered. He looked a little crestfallen. “You know what I would like? I love to walk up and down Main and look at the window dressings. Could we do that? I ain’t seen it at night, with the lights!”

He jumped off the bench, and smiling broadly, said, “Sure thing! Which one’s your favorite?”

“The one at Penney’s! They have this real pretty necklace in there, I love looking at it.  My name is Ellen, did you know that? They told me your name was John, but they called you Tom!”

“Ah, my name is John,” he answered, as they reached the candy shop window and stopped to look at the wonderful display. “But, they been callin’ me Tom a long, long time. Tom Thumb.”

She felt shocked, but couldn’t help herself. She laughed. “Yer kiddin’!” He laughed too, and they walked to the next window. They finished that side of the street, crossed and went down the other side. She showed him the Penney’s window and pointed out the necklace that she loved to look at. It was a simple chain, with a very plain heart shaped pendant. It wasn’t very expensive, but to a girl like her, it looked like the world. As they walked, she told him about her brother, how her mother had left, how the three of them had only each other. He was friendly and kind, and she was surprised to find herself telling him everything. He told her how his mother taught him to hold his head high no matter what. There was nothing anyone could do that he couldn’t do, and so, pass or fail, he always tried everything that crossed his path.

He walked her home. Saturday, John, Ellen and Mikey walked to see Mikey’s two windows. They went to the drug store and John bought them sodas, which Mikey loved. Sunday, they all walked to church. Monday was Christmas.
Tuesday, December 26, 1961, Ellen went to work. Wearing a huge smile, she walked straight up to Betty and said, “I wanna thank you for setting me up with John Tipple. You’re a real friend.” Ellen was wearing the necklace, her Christmas present from me, John.

We got married, February 14, 1962. We been married 50 years. We have two daughters, Mary and Joan, and two grandkids. We’re still in love.

02 The Prodigal Soldier

It was mid-afternoon, and the sunlight shone through the small window of my hospital room in the burn unit at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. I don’t know how long I had been there, but I guess it had been three or four days since the accident.

My left hand was intact, or somewhat intact, with fingers protruding from a lot of moist gauze. The other one felt like it was there, but since the stump of bandages didn’t extend far enough to reach my hand, I knew it really wasn’t. I couldn’t remember much about what happened, but the strongest portion of memory I retained was my hands burning. I guess my squad leader was right about always wearing gloves when we are out on mission. That jerk. I would punch him in the face if I still had a fist.

I didn’t answer the knock at the door, since I didn’t really want to be bothered. Typical to any hospital, the person on the other side was really only knocking to be polite before they entered the room. I did a double take after giving only a cursory glance at my visitor. The sight of the nurse that came through the door was enough to take my mind off the self pity. She was hot – I mean objectively hot, not just hot because I hadn’t seen a woman in seven months. Not many people can make maroon hospital scrubs attractive, but these seemed to fit perfectly. She had an angular face, and her dark hair was cut short so it fell along her jaw line. To top it all off, she was wearing a Santa hat. It was a deep enough red so it didn’t clash too badly with her scrubs, but it stuck out.

No soldier in his right mind would pass up this opportunity. I tried to give her a winning smile, but it turned into more of a grimace as the self-consciousness took over. The sight in the mirror this morning was not the most charming, and it would probably take a while for me to get used to the burn scars on my face. I was worried about my smile too, knowing I lost an odd assortment of teeth when my face impacted the armor of my unit’s Stryker vehicle. As a nurse, maybe she would look past all of that.

Only yesterday was my dose of painkillers low enough for my sentences to regain a lucid quality. After a few false starts I passed off as clearing my throat, I managed to say the most charming thing I could think of, “What’s with the hat?”

“It’s Christmas, didn’t you know?” She was blunt enough for me to know her question was rhetorical, but I couldn’t stop there. “This will make for quite a story, huh? Christmas in an Army hospital.”

“Uh, huh,” she said noncommittally, not looking up from the clipboard where she took notes on my vital signs.

Maybe I wasn’t really in my right mind to think she would talk to her horrifically burned patient. I persisted anyway, glancing at her nametag and giving her a line, “Still, Anne, I’d rather spend Christmas with you than anywhere else.”

I guess she took enough pity on me to at least talk to the poor, broken war veteran. She set the clipboard on the end of the bed and came a little closer.

“You wouldn’t rather be home? What do you usually do on Christmas?”

I couldn’t resist a little teasing, “Well, I would usually go down to the old folks’ home and play the piano. All the Christmas songs you could think of – Jingle Bells, Frosty, Let it Snow – all of it…”

I didn’t even finish the sentence before her eyes got really wide and her hands covered a look of horror. Correcting myself immediately, I gave an apology, “Oh, I’m kidding. I’ve never been able to play the piano. I promise. Sorry, bad joke.”

She punched me firmly enough in the gut to prevent any more teasing. I flinched pretty badly for an infantryman, but she must have known I didn’t have too many burns there. Recovering pretty well from the shock, she gave a frustrated screech, “You jerk! Play the piano… No, really, what did you do with your family on Christmas?”

I guess I got my foot in the door, but this wasn’t my favorite topic, “Well, you know…my mom, she was really churchy. My family did all kinds of devotionals and scripture readings. The younger kids dressed up like shepherds, blankets over their heads and stuff like that. I usually fell back asleep on the couch, or pretended to, once I opened a few presents. She always made us waffles with powdered sugar for snow. While she had a rapt audience, with mouths full of food, she would read us the Christmas story out of the Bible.”

Finally, a smile as she responded, “That sounds a lot like my family. We always had our own Christmas pageant with my little brothers, and dad read the story from the Book of Luke. What church does your mom go to?”

Another uncomfortable subject, but I tried to shrug it off, “I mean… I was raised Mormon, but I was never very good at it.”

“Oh, then there are two Mormons in this room. Did you get to go to church while you were deployed?”

“Uh,” I squirmed, “I think there was some kind of meeting with the chaplain there, but I quit doing the church thing a while ago. I haven’t been to church since before I left home.”

“You know,” she said, glancing at her watch, “Your family is probably sitting down to those waffles right about now. You should call. It will brighten their Christmas to hear you are doing better.”

“I don’t really think they care. Besides, how am I supposed to dial?” I asked. The words came out with a little more bite than I meant, and when I held up my bandaged hands her look assumed I made some kind of obscene gesture.

“I know you’re in a lot of pain, but you don’t have to be rude about it,” she corrected me gently.

“Yeah, sorry,” I mumbled.

“I helped replace your bandages last night. You should be able to use your left hand again soon. Occupational therapy will work with you as soon as the holiday is done. In the meantime, I will be happy to dial the phone for you.”

Still resisting but not wanting her to go, I came up with the best excuse I could, “I appreciate it, really, but I don’t even know the number.”

She crossed her arms and tilted her head to the side, “I don’t believe that.”

More anger came to the surface without me really intending it, “No, seriously. They don’t even know I’m here. You know that ‘record of emergency data’ the Army makes you fill out when you get sent downrange? I put ‘do not notify due to ill health,’ and I want to keep it that way. They didn’t care then, why would they care now? Believe me, no one knows I’m here.”

Her voice seemed really quiet, but held a firm conviction, “Heavenly Father knows that you are here.”

Letting my anger get the best of me, I let loose on her, “I think I yelled at the Chaplain yesterday after he told me he didn’t have the answers. Don’t you try and preach at me. I got enough of that at home, and I am never going back.”

She backed off a little bit, getting the hint that I didn’t want to talk about family or church. Thankfully, she must have still wanted to talk, “So, how did it happen? How did you get burned?”

This girl had a true knack for finding all of the worst conversation topics. I grimaced a few times, then started with the first thing on my mind, “I wasn’t wearing my gloves.”

Her eyes widened, “Was it an attack?”

I don’t know why I told her, but I couldn’t hold back, “A roadside bomb, up under the vehicle. I felt the impact like it was right on top of me, forcing all the air out of my lungs. There was fire everywhere, so it must have hit a fuel line. My squad leader saw I was hit and pulled me out as soon as it started. I don’t think anyone else made it out before the rounds in the back started cooking off. Anyone else who tried to go in after us would have been killed too. My buddies strapped me to the stretcher, with Doc Wilson working frantically.”

Tearing up, there was an empathic twist to her lips. “He did a good job,” she said.

“He’s the best medic in the whole battalion,” I said, shaking my head. “But I was sure I was a goner. To tell you the truth, it was the first I prayed in a long time. I stopped before I left home. It never seemed to do any good. I prayed for the other guys in my squad, and I prayed for my life. I called out to God, full of regret and wanting only to have another chance. The guys must have thought I was losing it. Once the morphine kicked in, I couldn’t really focus anymore. I woke up here, with the rest of the prayer still on my lips, pleading for my life. I suppose my prayer was answered, even if I didn’t finish it.”

“Does that mean you still believe?” she said through a sob.

“I know what my mother taught me. She was right, and I resented her for loving me. After all these years she probably prays for my safety every night. God protected me from the fire, I know that. Well, I guess I know… Maybe I should tell her.”

“Come on, tell me the number,” she insisted, wiping the tears from her eyes. When she leaned over to take the phone from the table on the opposite side of the bed, I got an intoxicating whiff of whatever product women put on in the morning that makes them smell so good. Through some combination of that inebriating aroma, the haze of painkillers, and her persuasive nature, I relented.

“Alright,” I said, “Alright. Fine, I will call them.” I recited the number, and she was polite enough not to point out the fact that I really did know it. Then she sat down in the chair next to my hospital bed, leaning over again to hold the phone to my ear. She was really gentle about it, which made me realize just how bad the exposed burns on my face must have been.

In a sudden eternity, there was a voice on the other line, “Hello?”

“Hi, uh…mom? It’s…uh…it’s Dave.”


01 Homeless Holiday

I looked out of the bookstore window and couldn’t see across the street anymore. Snow was coming down harder now, the white flakes thicker than they were just fifteen minutes ago. I shivered and trudged back behind the counter. Checking the time on my cell phone, I sighed when I realized I still had another hour of work. With the snow, there was no way I was getting out of here tonight. If my flight hadn’t been cancelled by now, it would be soon.

The shop was dead that afternoon. I would usually call or text someone, but all of my friends from college had already gone home for Christmas. I was stupid and volunteered to stay a week longer and work. I needed the money, but I never imagined I’d get stuck just two days before Christmas.

The bell on the door jingled and I looked up to smile at the entering customer.

“Oh, it’s just you,” I grumbled when I saw my boss, Jacob.

“Nice to see you, too, Kendra.” Jacob’s booming voice filled the quiet corners of the bookstore. “It’s really coming down out there!”

“I had no idea,” I said sarcastically. “I’m supposed to fly home today.”

Jacob came over to the counter. He straightened a stack of coffee mugs before coming back to stand next to me. “I don’t think so, sweetie,” he replied, patting my back.

I rolled my eyes. Jacob was in his fifties and reminded me of my dad with his upbeat personality and cheerful attitude. He was tall and lanky, his head buzzed while a full white beard covered his chin. I often teased him that he looked like Santa’s younger, thinner brother. “How do you know that I’m not?” he would tease back.

Jacob got a string of white lights out from under the counter and plugged them into an outlet. “I need to attract some customers. Do you think these in the window will help?”

“I don’t think a Vegas neon sign would help,” I muttered.

Jacob frowned. “I suppose you’re right.” He drummed his fingers on his bearded chin, the way he always did when he was thinking. “What about cookies and hot chocolate? I could put a table under the awning…” he trailed off and started walking to the front of the store.

“Jacob! There’s a blizzard out there. No one is coming to the store.” I felt a lump in my throat and the knot in my stomach tightened as the reality of not getting home hit me hard.

Jacob spun around. He looked at me with thoughtful eyes. “Well, then, let’s close up now. No point in the two of us staying here if no customers are coming. Do you want me to drive you to the airport?”

I sighed heavily. “I doubt my flight is going out tonight. I’ll be lucky if I make it home by New Years.”

I shuffled slowly to the back of the store. When I got to Jacob’s office I threw on my coat, slung my backpack over my shoulders and started dragging my suitcase through the store. I was on the verge of tears by the time I made it to the front entrance. Jacob was standing there, the door open just a crack, his eyes peering out into the sheet of white.

“At least let me drive you back to the dorms.”

I buttoned my coat and wrapped my yellow and red striped scarf around my neck. As I pulled on my gloves I mumbled through the scarf, “I think I’ll make it faster if I walk. And you don’t want to lose your parking space.”

Jacob opened the door for me and waved cheerfully as I ventured out into the heavy snow. I trudged home with my head down to shield my face from the icy flakes while I imagined what the holidays were going to be like: All alone in my dorm room, with no where to go, nothing to do, no one to talk to.

I tired to walk faster because the snow was piling up quickly. The parked cars had white caps on their heads and the sidewalk already had a thick layer of snow making it difficult to roll my suitcase along. When I finally got to the dorm building I stomped up the front steps, awkwardly lugging my suitcase behind me. After hitting my boots against the side of the building to get the snow off, I went inside the lobby and shook the snow from my coat. The warmth of the room thawed my cheeks and nose, the snow from my coat melting into small puddles on the floor.

As I stood in the common room, I noticed how eerily quiet it was. Not one soul was sitting on any of the couches watching television, studying in the corner or angrily banging the vending machine trying to get their package of peanut M&Ms. I looked around and felt a pang of loneliness in my chest. I longed for someone, anyone, to come down the stairs or through the font door or out of the elevator. Even crazy Diane from across the hall would be a welcomed sight.

I picked up the television remote that was resting on the table and pressed the button. The TV came to life, a winter storm warning scrolling across the bottom of the screen: Logan International Airport: all flights cancelled. Please stay tuned to your local news stations for further updates.

I flipped the TV off and walked slowly up the stairs to my second floor room, paused at the top of the stair well and waited for any sound of life in the building. All I could hear was the gentle hum of the heater and the buzzing that came from the overhead lights. I unlocked my door and went into the room.

How many times have I wished for a single room so I could have privacy and not have to worry about a roommate? I thought to myself. Now, all I wanted was for my roommate to come bursting through the door like she always did, her loud, high-pitched voice piercing the quiet. I closed the door and sat on my bed. I took out my cell phone and called home, telling my parents not to worry, I was safe and warm and had plenty to eat. My mother informed me that the weather channel said the storm would pass by midnight and flights should be up and running by the next morning. I ended the call with a cheerful lilt to my voice so my mother wouldn’t worry, but when I hung up I felt awful. Even if the storm did pass and I went to the airport I’d be on stand-by and probably wouldn’t make it home in time for Christmas. Why did I ever think going across the country for college was a good idea?

Shivering in my drafty room, I longed for the warm California sunshine, the sweet scent of the orange trees in the backyard, my mother’s sticky cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. I wanted the crazy chaos of my house during the holidays, my siblings and their families all together in our house, the banter, the laughter, the tangible excitement in the air.

I slumped back on my bed, pulled the quilt my mother had made for my sixteenth birthday around my body and started to cry. I was homesick and lonely. I wished now that Jacob hadn’t closed the store early and sent me home. Home. My dorm room wasn’t home. I wasn’t going to home for the holidays this year. Instead, I was homeless.

As the evening wore on, a dark melancholy settled over me. I had a few cups of Easy Mac stashed on my bookshelf, so I made that for dinner. Clad in sweat pants, my favorite t-shirt from home and thick socks, I snuggled under my blankets and tried to read the book I planned to take to the airport. The words swam on the pages and my mind wandered towards home. I finally gave up reading for the night, tossed the book to the floor, and crawled deep under the covers.

By the time I got up the next morning, it was past noon. I could tell without even pulling the window shade up that it was still snowing. After getting out of bed, I padded downstairs to the vending machine and had a brunch of packaged cookies.

I was walking back to my dorm room when suddenly I heard pounding on the lobby door. With my heart in my throat, I looked towards the door. I saw a figure through the window all wrapped up in a scarf and hat, coat and gloves, and there was something familiar about him. I walked over carefully and the gloved hand waved to me through the glass. It was Jacob!

I rushed over to the door and pulled it open. A blast of cold air hit my face and I gulped. Jacob pushed past me, his arms loaded with shopping bags.

“Whew! It’s nasty out there!” Jacob’s cheerful voice filled the empty room. “Kendra, help me with these bags. And I’ve got more stuff outside in my car.”

“What are you doing here?” I asked incredulously as I took three bags from Jacob and carried them over to a small table.

Jacob set his bags down. “I decided to move my Christmas Eve party here. Some of the roads are still closed and your dorm was closer for my guests than my apartment.”

I chuckled and watched as Jacob rummaged around in his bags. “You invited people here for a party?”

Jacob nodded and looked around the room. “I thought this would be big enough. You can help me decorate while we wait for the others to arrive.”

Jacob went outside and came back balancing three boxes, then instructed me which bag held the decorations.

“Who did you invite?” I asked rummaging through a bag.

“Just Marge and some of her friends,” Jacob said casually as he pulled a chair over to the wall.

I handed Jacob one end of garland and he secured it to the wall.

“Marge? You mean the homeless lady who always camps out by the bookstore?”

Jacob hung up a red bow and smiled. “Yep! I invite her to my Christmas Eve party every year. She always brings some interesting friends.”

“Jacob!” I protested. “You can’t bring a bunch of homeless people to my dorm building.”

Jacob looked down at me from the chair he was standing on. “Kendra, who’s going to know?” he asked indicating the empty room.

I shrugged. He was right. No one was going to know and I knew it wasn’t against the rules to invite people over. However, the thought of a bunch of homeless people hanging out in my dorm building made me a little uneasy.

I didn’t say anything else to Jacob for the next hour as we hung decorations around the room. There was green garland and sparkling white lights, bright red ribbon and colorful round ornaments Jacob hung from string. Soon, the room was cheerful and festive and I felt a little of my grumpiness melting away.

When we finished with the decorations, Jacob moved a few tables so he could set up the food. He had platters of cold cuts and cheese slices and bags of fresh rolls from the bakery. There was macaroni salad, crisp fruits and veggies and creamy dips. A few pies and cakes rounded out the spread along with an assortment of iced sugar cookies.

I heard a commotion at the door. I turned to see Marge, dressed in an old black jacket with a few teeth missing from her smile, and her friends entering the building. The small group clustered into the entryway of the building until Jacob motioned for them to come in. As I surveyed this motley crew shivering from the cold, I felt warmth spreading through my chest. They were just as lonely as I was and they deserved a Christmas party more than I did.

I greeted each guest as they stepped into the warmth of the room. There were older men, some plump and short, others tall and gangly. There was a young woman holding the hand of a shy child, a woman who looked the same age as my mother and a teenage girl with dark stringy hair hanging in her face.

Jacob clapped his hands together and everyone looked up at him expectantly  “Welcome! Marge has brought a good crowd this year. I just want you all to know that you can stay tonight as long as you like and don’t forget your gift before you leave. There is plenty of food so take as much as you like and Merry Christmas!”

There was a mumble among the group of Christmas greetings and then a swarming around the food table. I watched as each one of Jacob’s guests piled their plates high with meat and cheese, rolls, salad and desserts. While they mingled and ate, I watched the teenage girl stand in the corner, not participating in the festivities.

I fixed a plate of food and nervously took it over to the girl.

“Would you like something to eat?” I asked holding up the plate.

She took it carefully from me and nibbled at a roll.

“I’m Kendra, what’s your name?”

She looked up me with untrusting eyes. “Marissa,” she whispered.

“You can come and sit down, there’s plenty of room.” I waved my hand at the empty seats around one of the television sets.

“You live here?” she asked.

I nodded. “I’m here for college. I can’t fly home for Christmas, so I’m stuck here.” I regretted my words as soon as I said them.

The girl ate a few more bites and her tense shoulders began to relax. “Thanks for the food,” she said and walked passed me towards the couch.
Jacob was making his rounds at the party, talking and laughing. I noticed stack of envelopes in his hand and as he talked to the guests he handed them one. I wondered what the mysterious envelopes contained.

I got a plate of food and talked a little to Marge and the rest of the guests. As the night wore on the voices grew louder, there was more laughter and cheerfulness in their conversations. They talked of past Christmases and favorite holiday traditions and memories. There were twinkles in their eyes as they told of their hopes for the future, their dreams of where they wanted to be a year from now.

I soon noticed that I looked at these people in a different way than I did just a few hours ago. They were people just like me, with nowhere to go for the holidays. Jacob brought us together and made us friends. He gave us what we wanted most at the holidays: a home. He gave us a place where we felt like we belonged, where we were warm and sheltered from the outside storm; a place where we felt loved.

As the party wore on I snuck upstairs to my room. I pulled an old shopping bag from under my bed and began filling it with various items: an old children’s book I brought with me from home, a scarf and matching gloves, socks, a bottle of lotion, sweatshirts, an old canvas bag, toothpaste, a few bars of soap. I looked around my room and searched for something else. My gaze fell upon the coat my mother bought me before I left for college. It was yellow, my favorite color, and fuzzy inside so it was warm. It was long and fell just to my knees, the pockets lined with thick fleece. I took it off the hook, threw it over my arm and headed back downstairs.

I waited until the party was coming to a close before I handed out my gifts. I stood at the door and gave each person a hug as they left the party, their arms full of grocery bags with leftover food, water bottles and the secret gift from Jacob. I gave out my gifts as they headed out the door into the dark, cold night where the snow had finally stopped falling. When Marissa started to leave, I stopped her before she could escape out the door.

I lifted the yellow coat towards her. “This is for you.”

She looked at the coat and then to me. I saw her eyes soften as she took the coat and put it on. She smiled as she buttoned it up and stuck her small hands into the pockets.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

After the last guest had left Jacob and I cleaned up the mess. An hour later I was exhausted and it was late, but I didn’t want the night to end. Jacob and I sat on the couch and replayed events from the party.

“What was in the envelopes you gave out?” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of me.

Jacob seemed embarrassed as he answered, “I gave them all a night at a hotel. And tomorrow morning they’ll all get a good breakfast before they have to leave.”

“That must have cost a fortune!” I exclaimed, astonished at this man’s generosity. “Your bookstore must be doing better than I thought it you can afford all that.”

Jacob shrugged, “Let’s just say I have some family connections.”

“In the hotel business?” I asked.

Jacob shook his head and winked, “No, in the Christmas business.”