20 Sometimes It Pays After All

In the North Pole there’s a certain order to things. Elves begin to work early in life usually by age 50. They start out in the Peanut Palace sorting and counting raisins and peanuts. Why not Peanut Raisin Palace you ask?” Well as everyone knows there is always more peanuts in the mix. One year, pounds of peanuts and racks of raisins later each elf gets a chance to move up to the next level. An evaluator is dispatched to rate each elf’s performance. If an elf is always on time, works hard, and does a good job he or she will get to move up. This happens each year of an elves working life, he moves up stays the same, or in some rare instances moves down.

Gilldorff was a good worker, really he was, but he’d been stuck in Chocolate Covered Brazilian Nuts for the last 10 years. He passed Peanut Palace, and conquered Candy Cane Cave just fine, but for some reason he couldn’t move beyond Chocolate City. Every Elf’s dream including his own was to make it all the way to the Sleigh Safety Staff. Those fortunate fairy folk got to take the reindeer out for test runs, and it was rumored that they even got to accompany The Big C on Christmas Eve every once in a while. Gilldorff would have loved that, but he had no hopes of reindeer riding especially after yesterday. After yesterday, he’d be lucky if he wasn’t sent to the Deer Droppings Disposery. That’s where elves that like to cause trouble are sent. His neighbor, Willy, was sent there for planting an exploding marshmallow Santa in the Big C’s outhouse. It really was kind of funny; the clausmyster was stuck in his winter underwear until mid July, and besides Willy was part Wood Sprite, it was in their nature to practice pranks. Gilldorff had pleaded with the Elf council to give Willy another chance, but it was no use. When someone offends the Big C it’s not taken lightly no matter how humorous the offence may be. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t get out of Chocolate. Maybe they don’t promote prank supporters. Gilldorf supposed that it didn’t matter much why he was stuck there anyway because he was quite sure he’d be leaving soon.

Yesterday was evaluation day. The tight-lipped pointy-nosed evaluator had just finished chastising Gilldorff for being late to work, again, when a conveyer belt loaded with Chocolate Covered Brazilian Nuts spun sporadically out of control. The appalled evaluator was repeatedly pelted with chocolates. One even managed to get past his gritted teeth. He had turned varied shades of blue before Gilldorff was able to expel the chocolate with a forceful application of the Heimlich. The Evaluator was ungrateful for Gilldorff’s service and left in a haughty huff, steam billowing excessively out of his elf ears.

As the energized evaluator left, Gilldorff heard his co-worker Darogantatious, Dar for short, laughing, “you will never get out of hear now!” Dar was a very young elf that had progressed quickly from Peanut Palace to Chocolate City, skipping Candy Cane Cave entirely. He was always 10 minutes early to work and stayed 10 minutes later than everyone else; a model elf; the evaluators loved him. Gilldorff had tried all his working life to be early to work in fact, he always left home 30 minutes early, but for some reason everyday he ran into dastardly delays. Just last Monday for instance, he was only a block away from work with plenty of spare time, but as luck would have it, he found a bawling Abominable – abominable snowman that is, but not being made of snow, they prefer to leave that part off. Gilldorff couldn’t just leave the poor freezing fur ball to drowned in his tears so of coarse he stopped and found that the Abominable had a silver sliver in his toe. One hour later the Abominable left with a thoughtful thanks and a treated toe. Gilldorff was 20 minutes late to work when he’d planned to be early. This kind of thing seemed to happen everyday. There was the wood sprite who wished his weeping willow away, the penguin with the parted pizza, a bear without his bankcard, and the disoriented duck just to name a few. Gilldorff wanted to be early so very bad, but he just didn’t have the heart to ignore his needy neighbors.

Gilldorff went home from work that day feeling desperately down in the dumps. He slowly sauntered down the street towards home kicking a stray silver jingle bell. He stopped at his mail sock, pulled out a pile of letters, drudged through the doorway and plopped in his poof chair. He opened a reminder about his tailors appointment, and a letter from the Elf Pet Affairs Department informing him that he could not have a pet malamute and remain living in the suburb of Sugar and Sweets – elves being on the smaller end of the food chain must be careful of the animals they choose for pets. As Gilldorff was about to stand up, he noticed a small card he hadn’t seen before. It had the letter C raised and embossed in red and silver glitter. Gilldorff felt a lump in his throat because he knew who used that emblem on his stationary. The card read.

Gilldorff, need to see you tomorrow. Meet me at Clause Central – noon.

What would the Big C want with me thought Gilldorff, “Oh ya, I’m going to be sent to the reindeer doo doo den, boy that evaluator didn’t waste any time?” He went to sleep with a heavy heart. He didn’t feel much better the next morning either. When he arrived at Claus Central he was ushered into “The Office” by two large elves dressed in green and purple, they were the Big C’s right hand dudes. As he entered the room visions of shovels haunted his head. Then in an instant his hand was being shook vigorously by a round bearded man decked in red velvet. “So glad you could make it Gilly old boy, I’ve been watching you since you were knee high to a snow beetle, “Here it comes,” thought Gilldorff, “Willy’s new bunkmate.” Santa continued, “due to your superior service and unceasing kindness to the citizens of the North Pole, I hereby promote you to the highest order of Elf worker. Gill, welcome to the EIA.” Amazement and relief swept through Gilldorff’s body. He wasn’t in trouble! He was going to be part of the EIA, whatever that was, but before he could ask, a trap porthole in the floor opened and he was sucked inside. Gilldorff found himself inside a musty dark room. He heard footsteps at the far end; a door opened and in it stood Willy the Whistler.

“But . . but . . I thought you were in . . .”

“I was but the big C gave me a second chance thanks to you, and here I am head of Elf Intelligence agency. Gill you have been chosen because of your compassion, caring and kindness to be a part of the most important team an elf can be on. Your mission will be to inform the Clausemyster of the naughties and nices of the children from the 39th parallel to the 67th. You will begin your training tomorrow and enter the field in one-week, congratulations.”

Gilldorff was one elated Elf. He skipped smiling all the way home and thought to himself, “maybe it pays to be a nice elf after all.”

19 Remembering Christmas’s Past!

Christmas 1969 was a magical time, one that represented the holidays clearly and without fanfare. How nostalgic!

With the stars glowing brightly in their shimmering armor, and Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song softly playing in the background; a nostalgic haze looms across the sky, and I’m transported back to 1969, and the most riveting Christmas of my childhood. Hence, every time I see a child riding a bike, or making a cake in an Easy Bake Oven, my mind drifts back to that incredible Christmas 41 years ago.

As I recall, excitement was in the air as I rushed into the living room, where I saw my grandmother putting the finishing touches on the turkey. Peering at the stove, she asked me what I was looking for. Slightly flustered, I remarked, “my presents.” Smiling my grandmother responded, “Well you’ll have to wait until everyone gets here.”

As my grandmother pointed to the tree crammed with twinkling lights and colorful ornaments, I saw stacks of presents just waiting to be opened. Checking the names, I asked her if there was anything for me. Without changing expressions, she nodded at the presents in the corner. There were at least 10 gifts in all.

“Oh boy,” I thought, “all those presents, and they’re mine.” Like most children, I couldn’t wait for the rest of the family to arrive, I wanted to tear into those gifts right then and there. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to wait long.

With my parents, aunts, uncles and grandmother looking on; I let out a shriek as my hands tore away at the beautiful wrapping paper. I opened up one box after the other, finding inside toys, money, shoes, clothes and a deluxe Easy Bake Oven. A smorgasboard for any kid. However, the piece de resistance, was a blue bike that had been carefully hidden in the bathroom the night before.

Straddling my bike, the flash from my mother’s camera caught me off-guard, as she snapped a photo of me attempting to “burn rubber”. And before you ask, yes I looked goofy. My feet barely touched the pedals and I had difficulty with the handle bars. But I didn’t care, because I was so happy.

As the remaining gifts were opened, I strolled into my bedroom and put on one of my new dresses, a pink and white ensemble dripping with lace. Hey, believe me when I say it was gorgeous!!!!! Remember, this was the 1960s and lace was hot, so no giggling, okay? Now back to the story. When I entered the living room, modeling my new dress, my family was seated at the dining table. Looking at me, my mother smiled as everyone commented on my frilly duds. After that it was time to eat.

For the next 20 minutes we dined on turkey, stuffing, potato salad and every dessert imaginable. Looking at everyone seated at the table, my heart was warmed by those seven people as we basked in the holiday spirit.

At that tender age, I couldn’t grasp the true meaning of Christmas. For me it was a time for getting gifts and eating candy. The only thing on my mind, was me. And honestly, isn’t that the way most kids feel?

After we ate, the rest of the day was a hubbub of fun and thrills. My aunts took turns riding my bike, which I didn’t mind, since it was a tad too big for me. And they eliminated any displeasure I may have felt, by riding me on the handle bars. Wow, talk about a wild adventure! For the rest of the day we rode up and down the street, with me encouraging them to go faster and faster.

Hours later the day was over, and we returned home. As we entered the door my grandmother’s humming could be heard. That was music to my ears. Smiling broadly she asked me if I wanted to join her in finishing off the remainder of the pecan pie, to which I replied with a gleeful “yes mam. “

As we ate our pie, we reminisced about the day’s events. Sensing my joy, my grandmother asked me if I had enjoyed my day. She only had to take one look at me, to know what the answer was. Afterwards, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and wipe away the stickiness of the pie from my hands.

A minute later I returned and our conversation resumed. If anyone had wandered into that kitchen, with its red tile and checkered wall paper, they would have seen a little girl and a middle-age woman quietly enjoying one of those poignant conversations, only grandmothers and granddaughters share.

As my bed time neared, I put on my pajamas and took my teddy bear and placed it on the pillow next to me. And as I lay in the darkness, the cold air nipping at my ears, I took a moment to reflect on December 25, 1969. Unfortunately, the more I thought, the sadder I became. I was a kid, yet I remember feeling remorseful, that never again would my entire family spend another Christmas together. Little did I realize, that my thoughts were a premonition of things to come. The next year, my two uncles celebrated Christmas in Vietnam, and things were never the same.

I have celebrated many holidays since then, but I can still recall that one with total accuracy. I can still visualize those smiling faces. My parents’ joy, my uncles so young and handsome, my aunts wide eyed with wonderment and my grandmother’s hearty laughter.

Today, my family and I still gather around the tree and open presents. But for me, Christmas has lost much of its magic. My youngest uncle was killed in Vietnam and my grandmother proceeded him 17 years later. Moreover,commercialism has replaced the true spirit of the holidays.

And as I write this passage, thoughts of Christmas Past gingerly tug at my heart. It is then that I close my eyes and return to that marvelous Wednesday 41 years ago. Back to a day forever woven in the joy and simplicity of a child’s memory.

18 Leaving Everything Behind

My name is Emma and I’m upset. In my forlorn eyes it shows. My disposition displays my doldrums. My mood defines my disappointment. Three weeks before Christmas and we’re moving – moving. Father took a new job and timing was horrible. Father’s first day, somewhere in Montana, was two weeks before Christmas so we piled into the Suburban. Yesterday we experienced the emotions of father being released as bishop and saying goodbye to our ward family. Saying goodbye to my best friend, Sarah, tore at my soul. My stomach turned in circles and my heart ached. What could possibly be good about Christmas this year when I was leaving everything I cared about behind.

I was not alone in my despair. My sisters, Norma and Judy, shared my sorrow. Patrick, my six year old brother, didn’t understand. He was happy going with dad; he didn’t care where we were going. But I was sixteen and I was leaving my best friend behind. Moving to Montana made no sense to me. Why couldn’t we stay in Salt Lake where everything was familiar? Christmas would be a waste of time this year without my friend.

“Why do we have to move right now?” I blurted out. “It’s so unfair, dad.”

Father knew my pain and in his compassionate voice, said, “You’re going to love Helena, sweetheart. You’ll make new friends and you’ll be happy before you know it.”

I appreciated my father’s optimistic outlook; although I must admit I didn’t share in it. The future I foresaw didn’t appear rosy. Sure, I might make new friends, but not in time for Christmas. Dad couldn’t understand why I needed friends to share my Christmas stories with.

We pulled out of the driveway towing the u-haul. I curled up in a fetal position feeling sorry for my plight. I stared blankly at the city I loved. Snow fell from the darkened sky which meant travel would be slower. That was okay because I planned to sleep. Snowflakes turned from solid shapes to disconnected images as I began to dose.

I awoke when we stopped for lunch. I couldn’t believe I’d slept for three hours. However, my sleep had done nothing to improve my spirits. I looked out on unfamiliar surroundings and resumed my binding connection with remorse. I wanted to scream out at my father to turn around. He could work in Salt Lake. He should do it for his family. If he loved me he’d do it for me. But who was I kidding. We weren’t turning around just because I wanted to. Instead, father turned north. Our new home and the end of life as I knew it lay ahead.

I rode the rest of the way in silence. I felt no desire to talk to anybody. Random thoughts of growing doom passed through my mind as I stared uncomprehending at the passing landscape. Before I knew it my dad, always cheerful, announced we were nearing Helena. My despair reached a new low.

Helena was larger than I expected. It wasn’t like Salt Lake, but maybe there’d be things to do. I couldn’t stay at home and hang out with my family 24/7. I got enough of that with all those family things dad insisted we participate in. Scripture reading, family prayer, family home evening; it all piled up and sometimes suffocated me. Family would always be there, but I needed a friend, someone who understood me and related to the burdens I carried.

We pulled into a driveway rimmed with snow. Someone had used a snow blower to clean a space. Snow walled the driveway almost five feet high. I immediately wondered why we pulled into the driveway. Dad had said nothing about a house, but this must be where we would live. I had assumed we would stay in a motel for awhile until dad and mom found a place. I hoped dad would see how miserable life was going to be away from Salt Lake and decide to move back.

“Everybody pile out,” my over exuberant dad led the way. “Welcome to our new home.”

I was crushed. That was it then. We had really moved. A new home meant we were staying. Norma, Judy and Patrick raced after mom. They showed much more enthusiasm than me. My devastation obliged me to become lethargic as I approached the house. I moved through thick molasses, each step heavy laden. The only silver lining I considered with my current situation was maybe dad would skip family home evening. We’d traveled all day and the hour was late. His next words smacked of a double whammy. Not only would we have a short family home evening, but it would be preceded by scripture reading and family prayer. Dad sure knew how to pile it on.

Dad kept his word. Family home evening was short. I read one verse. It was something from Alma about trusting in the Lord when things were crumbling down around you. I didn’t want to read but something about the words in the verse stuck with me as I lay down in my bed. I felt a strange kind of comfort invade my rebellious soul.

I hated mornings in the Thomas family. We were always getting out of bed way too early. My inclination was to pull the covers over my head and curl up in a ball. Let the world pass me by, I noted mutely to no one. Next thing I knew dad jostled my shoulder.

“Time to get up, sweetheart,” his tone was soothing, with an abrasive edge. You, Norma, Judy and Patrick must get registered at your new schools.”

What? I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. Was there no God? At least let me wait until after Christmas to start going to a strange school. I couldn’t go through new girl syndrome right now. Not when I thought back on how we often treated new kids coming to our school in Salt Lake. Suddenly I realized how cruel people could be. I had been cruel more than once.

“Do I have to go to school, dad?” I asked. “Can’t I wait until after Christmas?”

“Christmas is three weeks from now, Emma. You can’t stay out of school for three weeks.”

I could do it without working up a sweat I wanted to blurt out to my dad. Instead, I got out of bed and began dressing. I couldn’t think of anything good happening to me living in Helena. All I could expect was sorrow and torment. I had no way of knowing that a heartbreaking incident involving people from Helena and Salt Lake would help me realize I was perhaps the most fortunate person on the earth. I would come to understand I’d left nothing important behind.

I was quiet the first couple days at school. This was not normal for me; no, definitely not normal. Sarah, my best friend, would have been shocked. She would’ve said this is not the Emma she knew. Emma is much more talkative and friendly, she’d say. I would ordinarily agree with the assessment, but something about the kids in Helena was different. There was a girl named Lani, who I’d talked to a couple times. She seemed genuinely nice. Still, I decided to put caution first as I chose new friends. Lani couldn’t be the kind of friend Sarah was.

Sunday came before I had time to prepare for it. I must face a new ward for the first time in many years. I considered, briefly, asking father if I could stay home, but I knew he’d never allow that. Truthfully, I wanted to go. I couldn’t blame Heavenly Father for my father taking a job in Helena, Montana. So I dressed in my floral ankle length dress, put on a respectable amount of eye shadow and chose some modest earrings.

The ward in Helena matched the one I’d left in Salt Lake. There were fewer people, but everyone extended their hands. I went to Sunday school and was surprised when Lani sat down next to me. I had no idea she was LDS. I hadn’t seen her in the chapel. Maybe, just maybe, I should pursue a friendship with Lani. After all, she would think like I did and have the same standards.

“Hi, Emma,” Lani’s greeting was enthusiastic. “I didn’t know you were LDS.”

“I didn’t know you were LDS either,” I said. My mind explored the possibilities of having Lani for a new friend. The more I thought about it the more I liked it. A friend would make living in a strange city bearable. But Sarah was my best friend and I didn’t want someone else to take her place. Could I have two best friends? I knew Lani was far from being a best friend, but I felt I could have two friends. I knew I needed somebody to be my friend right now.

Two days before Christmas news came from Salt Lake that brought my world crashing down. At the same time I would learn the true meaning of friendship; of Christ like love when I needed it most. The icy roads of Salt Lake claimed many accident victims, but I was oblivious to most of them. That changed when Brother Brown called my father. His daughter and my best friend, Sarah, had collided with a truck on a slippery intersection. She was in the hospital and the next forty-eight hours would be crucial. Father didn’t tell me the details. He just brought our family together to pray for Sarah.

I retreated to my room and curled up on my bed. Tears streamed down my cheeks unabated. I loved Sarah so much. She had to be okay. Christmas would be completely ruined if Sarah died. My anger rose when I thought of father’s new job in Helena and me being too far away to be with Sarah. My heart ached with the pain of separation. Later exhaustion took over and I fell asleep.

A bright sun shone off the white snow when I awoke. The pain in my eyes reminded me of the pain in my heart. I rushed downstairs to see if dad had heard anything new. Brother Brown had not called back. Dad reminded me it was still early. A feeling I’d never experienced before tormented my soul. I had to talk to someone, someone my own age who could understand. I went back to my room and dialed Lani’s number.

Lani answered after the third ring, sleep evident in her voice. “Hello,” she said, disoriented.

“Hi, Lani, this is Emma. I’m sorry for calling so early. Something terrible happened. I needed somebody to talk to.”

Lani’s voice cleared almost immediately. “I will be right over,” she said.

“Are you sure you can come over?” I asked. “I don’t want to take you away from your family.”

“It’s fine. I want to be there for you. That is what a friend does. My family won’t mind. They would expect me to be there for my friend.”

Lani’s words of friendship unfeigned brought new emotions to me, unexpected, but welcomed. My worry for Sarah didn’t lessen, but Lani gave me a reason for hope. I couldn’t explain where the feeling came from. It simply was there, fighting for space in a troubled heart.

Thirty minutes later Lani knocked on our front door. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She didn’t take time to put on makeup nor did her beautiful face need any. I hugged her at the door. Her arms embraced me tight in response. Lani understood, perhaps instinctively, my sorrow and fear. I hadn’t made any attempt to keep it at bay. My face showed evidence of continuously falling tears.

“Good morning, Brother Thomas,” Lani greeted my father, who’d come to see who our guest was. “Emma asked me to come over. I hope I’m not intruding.”

My father always knew what to say. His voice had a velvet touch that naturally soothed. “You’re welcome any time, Lani. I assume Emma told you about Sarah.”

I grabbed Lani’s arm. “We’re going to my room, daddy,” I said.

“Okay, I’ll call when mother has breakfast ready.”

“Please let me know as soon as Brother Brown calls.”

“Of course, sweetheart.”

I climbed onto my bed and motioned for Lani to sit near me. She sat down facing me and waited for me to open up. My emotions churned near the surface and Lani knew I needed her strength. Instead of speaking, however, my cheeks once again became stained with falling tears. I began to sob. I tried to control my emotions, but couldn’t. As I began feeling embarrassed, with tender hands Lani dried my cheeks with a Kleenex.

“Can we pray for Sarah?” Lani asked.

Feeling an immediate need for the strength I knew prayer could provide, I slipped off my bed and onto my knees. Lani followed, kneeling next to me. Her head was bowed in reference. For a moment we knelt there saying nothing, perhaps waiting for some guidance.

“You should pray for Sarah, Emma. But, if you can’t, I will,” Lani spoke softly.

“I can do it,” I replied. “I want to do it.”

After a few moments of silence, words began forming in my heart. They transferred from my heart to my brain and from there spilled forth in humble prayer. I can not remember the spirit taking me over so completely before. Yes, I was young, only sixteen, but father had taught us children to pray from an early age and we had done so often. But something different was happening now as I prayed for Sarah. I, for the first time, really felt the words and wanted, really wanted this prayer to be heard and especially to be answered. Accompanying my prayer were tears I could not restrain. Soon I would see that Lani could not stem the flow of her tears either.

I finished with a customary “Amen” and heard Lani repeat it, adding confirmation to my prayer. Now I truly felt Sarah’s recovery was in the Lord’s hands. An indescribable joy filled my soul as I received confirmation from the Holy Ghost that Sarah would be okay.

But I heard nothing from Salt Lake. The day before Christmas I went shopping with mom, Norma and Judy. At my request, Lani also joined us. Patrick spent the day before Christmas with dad doing whatever men did the day before Christmas. It was usually the day dad got mom her present. Even as I window shopped, I thought of Sarah. I wanted so much to hear her voice; to know she was okay. Lani reached for my arm and led me away from my mom and sisters.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Follow me,” she whispered. “Your mom and sisters will be fine.”

I wasn’t worried about mom or my sisters, but I wondered if they should know where I was going. When Lani pointed toward a painting her eyes moistened with true emotion. I looked at the painting then at my mother standing about twenty feet away. The scene was a peaceful place and center stage was Jesus, my Savior, looking with loving eyes into the troubled eyes of a teenage girl. I knew beyond any doubt the young girl was me. I wanted so bad to be with Sarah as she lie in her hospital bed, but my Savior spoke softly saying I was where I needed to be. I felt it so strong in my heart. My mother’s smile told me she had been party to my revelation all along. Later I went to sleep feeling much different than a few weeks before.

I imagined Christmas morning in our home wasn’t unlike Christmas morning in many other homes. We began with family prayer, as we did each morning. My brother gave a short prayer. Next we opened presents and smiles and hugs were offered abundantly. Each of us had gotten several material things we’d asked for in our lists. It was still early when my mother opened the final gift, another family tradition, and held up a beautiful blouse from my father for all of us to see. Then, to our surprise, while I helped mother prepare waffle batter for breakfast, the phone began ringing.

My father answered the phone and moments later motioned toward me. His smile told me I soon would be very happy. The phone call would be the Christmas gift I’d hoped for most of all. I lifted the phone to my ear and said, “Hello,” my voice hoping, yet tentative.

Then beautiful words filled my ears. “Hi there, Emma,” Sarah’s sweet voice was stronger than I expected. “I wanted to call my very best friend and tell her Merry Christmas. I am feeling so much better and the doc says I can go home soon.”

“I was so worried about you,” my words were broken, genuine emotion touching my voice. “Then Lani asked if we could pray. I felt so much better after we prayed.”

“Who’s Lani?” Sarah asked.

“Sarah, when we moved here I thought I was leaving behind my best and only friend. Lani showed me I could have a second best friend. She is so nice and she’s been there for me when I really needed someone.”

“Lani sounds wonderful,” Sarah said, now sounding tired.

“You’re tired, Sarah,” I didn’t want to stop talking, but knew I had to. “You need to rest.”

“Thank Lani for taking care of my best friend. I look forward to meeting her when I come to see you in the summer. I am tired, Emma. I need more rest. I love you. Bye, bye.”

I closed the phone and I was no longer upset. The curve of my smile confirmed my joy. My disposition now displayed the delight in my soul. And I was a very, very happy girl.

17 ‘Twas the night before Christmas

Jane and Max Schaefer scurried around their bedroom wrapping the last of the Christmas presents for their son, Billy.

“To: Billy, From: Santa. There, all done.” Jane smiled as she set the last present in the pile of other presents waiting to be taken downstairs. “I hope Billy enjoys the Super two-thousand whatever you call it gun.”

“That’s Super Soaker Two-Thousand Water Pistol. He’s only been asking for it for the past four months. He deserves it after we put him through so many years of getting him nothing but knit sweaters.”

“Hey! I happen to like those knit sweaters.” Jane pouted as Max laughed and walked across the room to console her with a hug.

“Let’s go put Billy to bed so we can take the presents downstairs.”

“Okay,” Jane said as she walked into the hall and yelled down the stairs, “Billy! Come up here and brush your teeth!”

“There,” Billy said as he set the last mouse trap near the bottom of the stairs. He carefully tip-toed through the barricade of mouse traps until he reached the fireplace. He cautiously picked up his check-list and read it carefully so he wouldn’t forget anything.

“Tacks inside the fireplace? Check… Trip-wire across the fireplace entrance? Check… Mouse traps from the fireplace to the staircase in case he tries to escape? Check.”
Billy walked over to the small table where a glass of milk and plate of cookies sat, along with a note addressed ‘To: Santa Claus, From: Billy.’
“Let me see; Glue in place of milk? Check… Oatmeal cookies? Check.” Once finished, Billy quickly checked his list for a second time before he was satisfied.

Jane, still standing at the top of the stairs, was growing impatient. “Billy! I mean it, mister!”

“I’m coming, Mom!”

“Move it, young man, or you’ll get coal in place of presents.”

“It’d be better than clothes again,” Billy muttered under his breath. Billy slowly maneuvered back through the maze of traps and raced up the stairs leaving the list safely hidden. His mother was waiting impatiently at the top of the stairs.

“Did you remember to set out the milk and cookies for Santa? It’d be a shame if you forgot after all the work you put into those oatmeal raisin cookies.”

“Yeah,” Billy smirked as he thought to himself, ‘those aren’t raisins.’

Jane leaned down and kissed Billy on the cheek. “Now get to bed.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Billy ran to his bedroom and quickly got ready for bed. After Jane tucked him in and turned off the light, she went back to her bedroom to wait for Billy to fall asleep. She paced the room restlessly.

“Be patient, my dear. We have to wait for Billy to fall asleep.”

“I can’t wait to try those cookies Billy made. He wouldn’t even let me taste test one when he was done making them. He said he made them especially for Santa.”

Billy slowly slid out of his bed and crept through the darkness to the corner of his room. He turned on a flashlight, trying not to shine the light towards the door. He shined the light into the small cage and whispered softly to the rabbit, “You did great, Pebbles. I just wish I could see the look on Santa’s face when he takes a bite of those oatmeal raisin cookies. Santa will soon learn never to give Billy Schaefer clothes again.”

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. With Jane creeping forward, and I at her back, we crept down the stairs to—SNAP SNAP SNAP SNAP.

16 Christmas at the Hotel Bill

The hook bit into the plaster, and Bill swore under his breath as plaster dust rained onto his glasses and a large chip shattered on the floor. This corner of the ceiling, over the check-in desk, gave him trouble every year.

“It looks pretty, Bill,” chirped Karma, the day clerk. The string of lights threatening to fall on her head cast shifting rainbows over her face. She’d outlasted most of the perky college students he hired. Within a month or two at the Hotel Williams—the “Hotel Bill,” as the long-term residents called it—they usually saw more of the real world than they cared to. But Karma had stayed two years.

The easy-listening station finished “White Christmas” and started “From a Distance.”

Bill snorted. “Whitney Houston?”

“Bette Midler,” Karma corrected. “I hate this song.”

“Yeah, me too.” Bill ducked to avoid hitting his head on the curved place where the ceiling met the wall. The Hotel Williams was nearly a hundred years old, and the ceilings arched inward. Visitors exclaimed in delight at the elderly architecture—at least the guests who weren’t wrestling wild children, or strung out on drugs or booze when they checked in. Someone had redecorated in the 70s, with dark, chunky furniture. Luckily, chunky meant sturdy. Even a heated domestic argument, complete with thrown furniture, only dinged the already-dinged finish.

To Bill’s eye, the blasted place always looked dark. No matter where he installed lights and placed lamps, shadows always muddied the edges, same as the traffic patterns in the old carpet, or the grime around the window frames. The shadows were ground-in. Every Christmas, he played with lights, but the shadows always showed up better to his eye than the lights did.

God is watching us, from a distance, Bette Midler sang.

“You believe that, Karma?” Bill crackled and popped his way down the ladder.

She looked up from the cleaning schedule. “Come again?”

“You think we look all shiny and pretty from where God sits?”

“The gospel according to Bette Midler?” She sniffed. “God has better eyesight than that. He sees sparrows.”

A pair of sharp blue eyes behind wire glasses and a head covered in wispy grey hair appeared behind the counter. Bill jumped. He hadn’t realized Agnes had crept up on them. “I rode the double-decker bus!” she crowed.

“Great, Agnes!” Karma said. “Was it worth the eight bucks?” Some entrepreneur was selling evening tours of the Christmas-lighted downtown.

“Got off at the library,” Agnes answered. “Drug conviction in room 212.” Agnes spent most of her time spying on the other guests, or looking for their criminal records on the library Internet.

“When, Agnes?” Bill asked.

The blue eyes narrowed. “1972.”

Bill nodded solemnly. “I’ll keep an eye on him.” Every couple of months, Agnes’ information came in handy. Even paranoids could have actual scary neighbors—especially at the Hotel Williams.

And there are no guns, no bombs, and no dis-eeeeease.

Bill slapped his forehead. “Thank you, Bette Midler!” He tossed Karma the sticky notes. “Could you ask Mariana to check the drawers when she cleans 115? I’m thinking he’s got guns in there. And keep an eye on those Montoya kids—the two-year-old looked like he had pinkeye, and he was trying all the doorknobs on the third floor. Maybe you could give his mother the address for the free clinic.” That took care of guns and disease. At least they hadn’t had a bomb scare in a while.

Karma nodded and made two notes.

No hungry mouths to feed, sang Bette.

From the corner of one eye, Bill glimpsed the six-year-old Montoya sneaking an orange from the bowl on the coffee table. “Heads up!” Bill called. He tossed another orange in a long, easy arc toward the kid, who cringed sharply. The orange hit the carpet and rolled off.

Bill hurried out from behind the counter, grabbing the orange off the floor. He squatted and held it out as a peace offering before the boy could bolt. The boy looked up, eyes pink and oozing pus.

“Sorry, guy,” Bill said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

The kid grabbed the orange and darted down the hall, and Bill flopped onto the lobby’s worn green couch. From here, the curved walls seemed to close in around him, and the twinkling Christmas lights just multiplied the ground-in shadows.

Karma looked at him over the counter. “Remember your hand sanitizer, or you’ll have a pink Christmas.”

“You should ride the Christmas bus,” Agnes said, somehow appearing between Bill and the coffee table. Bill had forgotten about her. She usually wandered off after delivering her daily report.

“Yeah, I’ll think about it, Agnes.” But thinking about paying eight bucks just to see Main Street made him more tired.

The radio announcer cut off Bette’s final, pleading note. “Great song to kick off the Peace-on-Earth season, folks! Now for another Bette Midler hit!” Two notes into “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Karma switched off the radio, though Bill would have preferred to toss it out onto Main Street, where rush-hour traffic roared by in the snowy twilight.

“Go see the lights,” croaked Agnes, pointing at his nose. Agnes had come off the street about a year before, when her Social Security checks finally caught up with her and she could afford a room at the Hotel Williams. She still dressed like a bag lady. She took off her glasses and polished them on her shapeless grey sweater.

Bill waved a hand around the decorated room. “I’ve got Christmas lights right here.”

She put her own glasses back on and tapped Bill’s, catching his eye in her bright blue gaze. “You should ride the Christmas bus.”

Bill bit his tongue. “I’ll think about it, Agnes.” He didn’t want to become the center of her latest obsession.

He was too late. Agnes shadowed him all the next week, constantly telling him to ride the Christmas bus.

After exactly a week, the requests stopped. Instead, Agnes’ rolling grocery basket sprouted a selection of Christmas decorations made of cereal boxes, cotton puffs, and plastic holly she’d probably filched from the cemetery. She attempted to sell these to everyone she saw. If “customers” declined, she asked for donations instead. Bill bought a few decorations and added them to the little tree on the counter. Later, he saw her going door-to-door at the hotel. He waited for complaints, but none came.

He was just as glad. Christmas brought a rush of offers to provide Christmas dinner, Christmas gifts, and on and on. No one seemed to remember that Bill was a hotel manager, not a social worker, so he tried his best to hook the Montoyas into Sub for Santa, and to match up his three resident alcoholics with dinner invitations where they wouldn’t shock the earnest suburban families (Karma rolled her eyes when these left). With luck, the police would arrest the drug dealer before Christmas. Karma had arranged for Agnes to eat Christmas dinner with her family. Or Christmas milkshake, if Agnes mislaid her teeth again.

On Christmas Eve, Bill spent the day giving statements to the police about the drug dealer, now safely incarcerated. The bells on the front door jingled behind the last cop, but somehow they didn’t perk up Bill’s holiday spirit. He turned on his Christmas lights, scowled at the omnipresent shadows, and sprawled on the lobby couch looking for something on TV that wasn’t a “holiday” special.

He’d dozed off when Agnes appeared at his elbow like the ghost of bag lady Christmas, jolting him awake.

“Bus leaves in ten minutes,” she said. The Christmas lights haloed her head in light and ground-in shadow.

“The bus?” Bill shook his head to clear it. “Agnes, Karma’s parents are picking you up tomorrow morning.”

She pushed a grubby little card at him. “The double-decker bus.”

Bill squinted through his bifocals. “Senior, 55 and up. $8,” it said in scrolling gold. “Main Street Christmas Bus.”

“You’re riding again? Great.” He tried to hand it back, but she rummaged in her mounds of clothing and pulled out another ticket.

Bill turned over the ticket in his hands. “Agnes,” he asked, “did you buy this for me?” Suddenly, the cart full of rickety Christmas decorations made sense.

Agnes nodded so hard her glasses bounced on her nose.

“Well, thanks, sweetheart!” Bill switched off the TV and hauled himself off the couch. “I guess we’re going on a date.” Shoving down his distaste for the Main Street commercial pageant, he grabbed his coat and locked the front door. Agnes reached up and took his arm, as though she really was his date.

Out on the front step, snow was falling. As he made a mental note to shovel and salt, Karma walked up the steps, bundled in a parka.

Bill frowned. “What are you doing here?” She had the next three days off.

Karma shrugged, smiling. “Same as you. Riding the Christmas bus.” She winked at Agnes.

“Hey, what is this? Some sort of conspiracy?”

“Yep.” Karma took his other arm. “Hurry, or we’ll be late!” The two of them led Bill down the steps, where a crowd of people waited under the streetlight.

“What the—?”

Bill’s three drunks, Bob, Ramon, and Ivan, smiled crookedly at him in the gentle snow. The six Montoyas shouted and grappled, clearing a slushy spot of mud on the sidewalk. Mariana hurried up, late as usual, and even the family who’d checked in today because Best Western was full gave him a shy wave.

Bill snorted and tried to look gruff. “So, we’re having ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ on a bus?”

“Not exactly,” Karma answered. “You might have noticed that Agnes asked you a time or two if you’d like to ride.”

“A time or two, yeah.”

“Well, she took up a collection. Then everyone wanted to go, but not everyone could afford it, so she—”

“She?” Bill interrupted. Agnes’ checks scarcely covered her room and the little food she ate.

“Okay, we helped out.”


“Too late!” The bus roared up, flinging dirty slush, and everyone scrambled aboard the top deck, which was fortunately covered. No one would freeze, and the Montoyas couldn’t pitch each other overboard. A group of laughing college kids fell silent as Bob and Ramon collapsed into the seat behind them, and a well-dressed mother hurried three well-bundled children down the stairs to the lower level, glancing anxiously back to make sure no one from the Hotel Williams followed them. Shaking his head, Bill stepped aside for them and helped Agnes down the narrow aisle.

Agnes plopped herself down beside Bill. Then she gave him a toothless grin, removed her own glasses, and tapped Bill’s.

Bill jerked his head back. “What? Why?” The bus left the hotel and turned back toward the business sector, passing three pawnshops, a Salvadoran restaurant, and two bars. Then they entered the “historic” section, where upscale shops sold the toys, clothes, and gadgets no one at the Hotel Williams could afford. Christmas lights covered the trees and outlined details on the stately old buildings.

The Montoyas started in on a new fight, and Ivan’s whisky-infused breath surrounded Bill’s head like a fog.

Bill set his jaw to endure the ride, but Agnes’ reproachful gaze, vulnerable and childlike without her glasses, reminded him he was here on her dime. “Okay, sweetheart. You win.” He took off his bifocals and looked out the window over her shoulder.

It was still Main Street. If he squinted, he could read the signs.

Agnes whacked his shoulder. “The lights,” she croaked. “Look at the lights.”

So Bill looked. Without his glasses, the Christmas lights, traffic lights, and street lights had grown into glowing orbs, twinkling slightly with the falling snow. Bill leaned toward the window. The lights were so thick that their round auras overlapped, creating a single, multicolored glow punctuated by fuzzy pinpoints of light—and no shadows. Even the garish store windows seemed to shine now, rather than glare.

Bill discovered his jaw hanging open and hastily closed it. Karma grinned from the seat in front of him. “Great, huh?”

“How do you know?” Karma didn’t wear glasses.

Mariana also turned around, and Bill, leaning forward, saw they both had their eyes crossed.

“‘From a Distance,’ it’s not so bad,” Karma murmured.

Bill looked out the window as the bus passed the glowing library. With the lights melded, the darkness receded into the background. “No, it’s not.” They rode in silence for a while.

“Wait a minute,” Bill said. Karma turned around. “Does this mean Bette Midler was right?”

“Of course not!” She grinned. “But Agnes was.”

15 It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

From a window, Celia watched, as snow fell like dew drops on her battered pickup. Shivering, she pulled a blanket over her head, as the wind banged against the tiny clap-board house.

Inside the one bedroom shack, three children wrapped in blankets lay on a bed covered with debris. Darla, the youngest of the three rubbed her eyes and reached for her doll.

Looking around the room, she watched as her mother continued to stare out the window. “Are you looking for Santa Claus mommy?” The voice seemed far away, then it grew louder. Had someone spoken? Then she heard it again. “Are you looking for Santa, mommy?”

Celia turned in the direction of the voice, and saw Darla, holding Miss Muffett, her doll. With so much on her mind, Celia had forgotten about Christmas. Besides, she didn’t have any reason to celebrate. She lost her job, her husband of fourteen years divorced her, and there was a grand total of $3.50 in her checking account.

Stifling a sob, Celia turned to her daughter. “No honey, mommy’s not looking for Santa Claus. Are you?” Nodding her head, the girl began rattling off a list of toys she wanted. Knowing she could not afford them, Celia asked the girl to choose one gift. But Darla was persistent, and said she wanted everything or nothing at all.

Although she was only six, Darla knew exactly how to manipulate her mother. “I bet if daddy was here he’d buy me all the toys I wanted.” Bursting into tears, Celia turned and looked at her daughter. She wanted to take the girl in her arms, and tell her how sorry she was that she couldn’t afford presents this year. But she knew it was a no-win situation.

The girls had always chosen her ex-husband Eddie over her. No matter how hard she tried, Celia never measured up to their father, who in the girls’ eyes was a saint. But realistically, Eddie Cantrell was a scumbag. Handsome with extravagant taste, his weakness were women and money, in that order. And it was those obsessions that caused him to divorce Celia ten months ago. Now she was left to raise her daughters alone.

Although she received $700 a month in alimony, in addition to child support, without a regular paycheck she could not keep the girls in the lifestyle they had become accustomed to.

When she married Eddie, she had no idea she was marrying into one of the wealthiest families in Banton Grove. Raised by parents who were dirt poor, Celia reveled in her role as an aristocratic housewife. She drove a Lexus, wore designer clothes and lived in a luxurious home with six bedrooms and 5 bathrooms. Now as her eyes scanned each crumbling particle in the tiny room, it was apparent she had hit rock bottom.

It was two days before Christmas, and moments ago she received word from her former in-laws, that a bad investment had wiped out Eddie’s savings. So the checks would be delayed, temporarily.

Wringing her hands, Celia stepped away from the window. She had taken three steps when she looked at the bed and lovingly peered at her daughters. They were the love of her life. Chebre, thirteen, was the oldest. Feisty and independent, she was the replica of her father. Sarafina, nine, was the quietest. Diagnosed with sickle cell at four, she was the spitting image of Celia. Then there was Darla, the chubby little girl whom her parents nicknamed “Boo, Boo.” At nine and thirteen, Sarafina and Chebre knew the truth about Santa, but Darla waited in anticipation for the Big Guy’s arrival.

Celia didn’t have any money so she couldn’t afford to buy presents. The girls were already angry at her for divorcing their dad. Now she had to tell them Christmas would be less than merry this year. Refusing to put it off any longer, she walked over to the bed. All three girls appeared to be sleeping. “Darla,” she cried, instantly awakening the little girl.

The sound of Celia’s voice awakened the other children. “Darla, Chebre, Sarafina, sit up. I want to talk to you.” Before going on, she reached over and tickled Chebre’s toes. Regaining her composure Celia spoke again. “Your dad’s checks are going to be a little late. So, instead of getting your presents on Christmas, you will get them the day after New Year’s.” Darla stared at Celia. What was she talking about? Moreover, what did her dad have to do with Christmas?

After telling the girls the bad news, Celia sat back and waited for the fireworks to begin. “If you had stayed married to daddy none of this would have happened,” muttered Chebre. “Now we have to spend Christmas in this run-down shack with no food and no presents.” “We’ve got each other honey,” said Celia. “Chebre, Christmas is not about gifts and food. When you were little do you remember me telling you the story of baby Jesus?” “So what does that have to do with Christmas?” asked Chebre matter-of-factly. “All I know is that we’ll probably end up going to the homeless shelter down the street and eating turkey with a bunch of strangers.”

Staring at Darla and Sarafina, Celia noticed the anger etched on their faces. Celia tried to reason with the girls. But the more she talked, the angrier they became. With tears in her eyes, Celia wondered what she could do to alleviate the hostility in her daughters’ hearts. The more she thought about it, she knew what she had to do. But was it too late?

Christmas was just two days away. Thinking aloud, it occurred to Celia to check her jewelry box. Maybe that was a sign or something. Opening the gold-plated box, she checked the compartments. They were bare. She felt foolish. What was she expecting to find–money?

Walking into the tiny room, Celia looked at her daughters who were now watching TV. “I’m hungry mommy,” exclaimed Darla. Finally, one of the girls spoke. Celia was so happy to hear her daughter’s voice; she quickly asked the girl what she wanted to eat. “Cheeseburgers,” shouted Darla. “Yeah, mommy cheeseburgers” they all chimed. “Okay, cheeseburgers it is,” said Celia. Gone was the three angry children she saw moments earlier; her precious angels had returned.

Opening the refrigerator, Celia saw that there was just enough beef to make three burgers. And since she wanted the girls to be happy, she reasoned that, instead of a cheeseburger, she would eat the moth-eaten apples in the pantry.

After making the cheeseburgers, and watching the girls wolf them down, she felt bad that she didn’t have money to buy presents.

Leaving the kitchen, Celia plopped down on the couch and began watching TV. The news was on. Staring at the screen, the distraught woman listened attentively as a representative from the local blood bank told a reporter that due to the increase in accidents based on holiday travel, people were encouraged to donate blood. “That’s it,” Celia declared. “That’s the answer to my problem.” Quickly, Celia wrote down the number to the Blood Bank. In the morning she would call and get more details. Now if things went as she expected them to, the girls would have a great Christmas.

The next morning Celia phoned the Blood Bank. The woman at the other end of the line gave her all the details. She then asked about the cost for donating blood. “That much,” said Celia when the woman told her the amount. Feeling a brainstorm coming on, Celia proposed that if she went to both of Banton Grove’s blood banks, she would have enough money to buy presents. Celia knew she was jeopardizing her health by donating so much blood. But her kids needed presents, and by God, she was going to give it to them, even if it caused her, her life.

Realizing what she had to do would take at least three hours, she took the girls over to her sister Maxie’s house. At the first blood bank, she was asked to fill out an application. With the application completed, finally her name was called. Afterward, her weight was taken, along with other details, and then it was time to give blood. She had expected the procedure to be physically exhausting, but when Celia left the blood bank she felt great.

At the second blood bank, she went through the same routine as the first. By now, Celia was feeling light headed, but insisted on going through with the procedure. Hours later with money in her purse, Celia stopped by a chic boutique that specialized in clothes for kids and teens. She found several bargains at La Revitale, where items were being discounted as much as 75%.

As Celia left the store she was so happy, she decided to spend the rest of the money on food. So she purchased a small duck, a liter of Coca-Cola, 1 fruit cake and 2 pumpkin pies. Thinking that was not enough, she remembered she had sugar, eggs, butter, frosting and assorted cake mixes at home.

After picking up her daughters from Maxie’s, the girls spotted the packages in the back seat of the car and let out a squeal. Seeing their reaction, Celia knew that donating blood was worth it. But if she was so happy, why did she feel so sick?

That night Celia baked the cakes and went to bed. She had been in bed for 20 minutes when her head began hurting. At first the pain was like a gnawing tooth ache, and then it became more severe. She went into the bathroom and took two aspirin from the medicine chest, but the pain didn’t stop. The pain then became so severe, she screamed in agony. The blood-curdling shriek awakened the kids. However, by the time they reached Celia, she was lying motionless on the floor. The girls, overcome with fear, tried to wake her up. Semi-conscious, Celia told Chebre to dial 911.

The girl did as she was told. When the dispatcher asked the frightened teen, what was the problem, Chebre told the woman her mother was lying on the floor, unable to move.

Within minutes an ambulance was enroute to 1376 Vista Boulevard. The girls were told one of them could accompany Celia to the hospital. And since Chebre was the oldest, it was decided she would go.

As the ambulance raced to the hospital, Chebre prayed for Celia’s recovery. Although she had treated her mother badly, she loved her, and couldn’t bear the thought of living without her.

At the hospital, the doctors and nurses rushed to Celia’s side. After examining her, she was whisked away, where she went Chebre didn’t know. Visibly upset, Chebre stood in the hospital, feeling alone and helpless. Since there was nothing she could do, she decided to sit and wait. Looking up, she spotted her Aunt Maxie, along with Darla and Sarafina.

After Celia was rushed to the hospital, Sarafina phoned Maxie, told her what happened and the three of them rushed to the hospital. Maxie inquired about her sister’s health. A nurse casually informed her she was “holding her own.” After twenty minutes the doctor came out.

“Are you related to Ms. Cantrell?” They all nodded. “She’s lost a lot of blood, but with rest and proper medication she’s going to be just fine.” “Lost a lot of blood? How did that happen?” asked a stunned Maxie. “Well, in talking with her, it seems she donated a lot of blood yesterday,” said the doctor. “So much that it almost killed her. Did you know Ms. Cantrell’s blood pressure is extremely low?” “No, I didn’t,” said Maxie. “Doctor wouldn’t that have been detected during the pre-examination or when she filled out the questionnaire?” “Yes, but apparently it wasn’t since she went to two blood banks, and no one noticed the condition of her blood pressure.” “What would possess her to do something that irresponsible?” asked a startled Maxie. “She said she did it so she could buy her daughters Christmas presents,” the doctor said.

Maxie looked at her nieces. Celia had already clued her in on her financial situation. “Didn’t your mother tell you she couldn’t afford to buy presents this year?” “Yes,” the girls said in unison. “So what did you do when she told you?” “We got mad and said mean things to her,” blurted Darla. “And made her cry.”

“Don’t you know what Christmas is all about?” asked Maxie, disgusted by her nieces’ greed. “Mommy tried to tell me, but I guess I had to find out for myself,” explained Chebre. “Now I know, and I want to tell her personally.”

Seeing how upset Chebre was, Maxie asked the doctor if the girl could see her mother. “She’s still weak, but this being Christmas Eve, yes she can see her.”

Entering the room, Chebre saw her mother . She looked old and frail. Chebre now realized how much she loved her, and how much Celia had sacrificed for her and her two sisters. She really was a great mom, and Chebre wanted to let her know it.

Celia awakened briefly, and looked into her daughter’s red eyes. “Hi, honey. How’s my baby? “I’m all right,” whispered Chebre, choking back tears. “How do you feel mommy?” “I’m feeling a little woozy right now, but I’ll be okay,” said Celia, trying her best to smile. “I know the true meaning of Christmas now mommy,” said Chebre. “It’s about a father who gave his greatest gift to the world…his only son. And that’s what you did mommy, you were willing to do anything so we could have presents.”

“Yes,” said Celia. “That is what Christmas is really about. It’s about giving love unselfishly, not all the trappings associated with the holiday like food and expensive gifts. But most of all it’s about a miracle that took place upon a midnight clear thousands of years ago.”

Shaking her head the teenager smiled at her mother. “Mommy, this year we’ve got the greatest gift of all.” Thinking Chebre was referring to the packages she saw the day earlier, Celia muttered, “Well, those gifts are for you and your sisters.” “No mommy,” said Chebre, casting a loving glance at the woman on the bed. “The greatest gift we have is that you’re okay, and we love you. With her voice cracking, the girl continued, ”You were willing to sacrifice your life to buy us presents, and that’s worth more than anything in those packages.” Choking back tears Celia touched her daughter’s face. “Merry Christmas honey, and Merry Christmas to the world.”

14 The Magical Lights of Christmas

The girl was so angry. But she didn’t know who she was more upset with, Santa for not being real… her mother for finally admitting it… or herself for having fallen for that big fat – ho, ho, ho – lie in the first place.

Now, on Saturday the 21st, she was feeling mad again because her brother, Nick, still believed and even though it was sort of fun leading him on or saying “Now, Nick, be good because you know Santa won’t bring you anything if you hit me,” she had sworn to her mom under pain of death that she would not say a word about what she knew in front of him. So, alone in her room, it was pure agony to remember that this year would be different. HOW COULD THEY DO THIS TO HER?

The cookies and milk, gone in the morning, a few crumbs left, or more if Santa was particularly full or in a hurry…

The letter explaining what it was she really wanted, hard to decide when there’s just so darn much…

The waiting up, willing your eyes to stay open and your ears to stay tuned because this time you were determined to not fall asleep so you could once and for all catch the speedy guy in the middle of his act…

Now, all things of the past.

So, what’s the point? What’s the point of Christmas this year, she whined to herself.

Sure, your parents, the ones who probably got you all that stuff to begin with, will get you plenty again, even if just to make you feel better, somehow.

But, where’s the excitement in that? Heck, you can always tell them what you want, but the thing is they might not get it for you. That was the cool part, you always had a chance with Santa. And you didn’t have to listen to why nots, too expensives, or any of that. It was just a direct line, from you, the kid, to him, the KING of presents.


Then, giving herself up slowly to the flitting lights and shadows of the moving t.v. screen, the girl finally stopped thinking about it for a while.

* * *

At the universal North Pole, Roena, looking more than a little distressed, was saying to Loreano:

“Sometimes it makes me so mad that we have to lie to those kids. Look! Here’s another list of children who are having serious trouble with being told.”

“Now, now, you know the rule, 10 years old and that’s the top limit. Some of them are lucky to remain unsure for the last couple years, or to convince everyone else that they have no suspicions. But by age 10 all that stops.”

“Yes, I know that it has to be done, but I just feel so badly for them. Why can’t we just tell them who Santa is? Why do they have to figure that out for themselves?”

“Were you sleeping during all ten classes of Santa-Ethics 101? If we told them, or even worse, let them still believe in Santa, until, say, 22 years-old or something, they might never do anything on their own. They might never learn what gift-giving is really all about or what the true gifts really are.”

“But do they learn this way? Some are so disappointed that very first year, they can’t be open to anything.” Roena was thinking how she would feel if she lost her faith in the spirit of the holiday, and she shivered, just at the thought.

“Oh, most of them get over it,” the more logical of the two was explaining. “They get bored with feeling left out so they start to make gifts, wrap presents, bake cookies and even become friendly to relatives they never paid attention to before. They start to appreciate the real meaning of giving. And only when they do, do they begin to see.”

* * *

On the 22nd the girl’s house was aglow with lights. She and her brother, who was actually cooperative for a change, had put all of the ornaments on the tree just after Thanksgiving and now she was putting the gifts for her teacher, mom and dad underneath. She had even wrapped up some of Nick’s toys – ones he had lost behind the t.v. and under the beds and couches – and put a pretty green striped bow on the box because she knew it was his favorite color.

She was beginning to feel a little better about this Santa thing, because Christmas wasn’t a total wash out after all. It was actually fun to know that you know something that someone else doesn’t know so you think up more stuff to wrap so that they know less and less… well, something like that, anyway.

And as it got closer to Christmas Eve, she realized she wasn’t angry… or sad… or disappointed… any longer. And on that night, while helping Nick get the cookies ready on “Santa’s” Christmas plate and pouring the milk into the green-and-red holly etched glass, she could have sworn she heard a sound on the roof.

“Nick, get into bed,” she counseled. “Santa won’t come until you’re fast asleep.”

“How do you know, Kristen?”

“Because I used to stay up and he never, ever came while I waited.”

“Oh,” responded her little brother resignedly.

* * *

Roena and Loreano were now busy with all the gifts. They sang and laughed while they wrapped the small bright boxes of light.

Each box glowed in a different blend of color, some rainbow-like and others the multi-shaded hues of a single brilliant tone. There were green ones… purple/orchid ones… pink, pearly ones… and so on and on. All different, and each one just as beautiful as the other.

All of them would be gently guided to the Earth, then float above the houses… then drop into the chimneys… or even slide through the tiniest crack in a wall, window or door.

And wherever they landed, there would be magic.

* * *

Kristen’s mom and dad had let her stay up later than usual that Christmas Eve, and eventually she fell asleep on the couch during the movie they were watching.

That’s when she heard it again, something thudding on the roof.

Getting up, still groggy, she noticed a strange glow and went into the other room to see if the Christmas tree was turned off. Hmm, it wasn’t the tree. Then what was it?

Standing at the parlor window she saw them: Dozens of sparks of radiant light… all of different colors… creating a vast rainbow dance in the sky. So beautiful, so soft and so peaceful, they swirled and twirled in the air, and then landed on the ground and on the rooftops of the houses. Once in a while, a single light would make its way inside a house and for a moment, just a quick moment, that house would blush with its specially tinted hue.

Then one light was coming closer. It seemed to be waltzing outside the parlor door. Without thinking, she opened the door and watched it gracefully glide in and float above her head. She continued to gaze in amazement it as it settled on the floor until it slowly faded and then finally vanished.

* * *

The next morning, Kristen awoke in her bedroom with the strangest feeling that something had happened during the night. Oh, yes, she recalled in excitement. It was Christmas morning. SANTA HAD COME!

She ran into the living room.

As usual, the cookies were gone and the gifts were piled high all around the tree. And for a moment, it was the same as it always had been. She was tempted to scream for Nick, mom and dad to GET UP and begin to open the presents.

But, instead, she quietly sat down… and began to remember.

The red and green light that had come into the house is what had given her this feeling. As it twirled around and around, finally stopping just before it disappeared, it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. It was better than all of the Christmas presents in the world put together, and she just wanted to remember it forever.

But just as suddenly as the memory came it was leaving and now Nick was up and staring at all of the brightly colored wrappings. Christmas morning at the Bachta house was just beginning.

* * *

“Well, that’s done until next year.”

Loreano stretched while Roena added, “Yes, the red and green ones came out especially well and the yellow ones that look like stars were a lot brighter than usual.”

Roena smiled to herself as she recalled what Santa had taught them during that very first session: “Most of them won’t actually see the lights; or if they do, they won’t remember. But what they will remember every year during this season, especially when they see the Christmas lights on the trees, around the rooftops, on the streets and in the stores, is a sense of peace-filled wonderment. And that is really the gift they will spend the rest of their Christmases sharing.”

* * *

“Merry Christmas, Nick.”

Kristen gave her little brother a big hug and kiss and took him by the hand to wake her sleeping parents.

13 Our Basement Christmas

Following the end of World War II, millions of G.I.’s returned home, got married and started raising families. Many of them purchased affordable track homes built in rural regions just outside of major cities all across the country. So it was with our Italian family.

Our house was small but seemed opulent to my two brothers, sister and me. We three boys slept in the large, upstairs bedroom barracks style, complete with foot lockers and single beds. My sister and parents got the main floor bedrooms. The one thing the tract homes lacked was a formal dining room, something our family desired very much. And so began the tradition of the basement Christmas.

Our home had an unfinished basement and like so many Italian families in those days, we converted it into the dining room for holiday dinners. I remember my father rounding up my two brothers and me, handing each of us a paint roller and saying, “Now watch me for a minute and just do what I do.” I couldn’t believe our father was going to let us paint the basement walls!

Of course, there was nothing in the basement, so there was little risk of any real damage being done but I can still hear my mother, shouting from the top of the basement stairs, “You gonna make a bigga mess and I’m a no gonna clean it uppa for you.” I loved her beautiful Italian accent. Undaunted, we started rolling on the white paint and soon had as much paint on ourselves as the walls. We eventually finished while Dad stood back and supervised with a beer in his hand. To this day, I don’t recall ever hearing him laugh that loud again.

After the painting adventure, Dad and my uncles put down gaudy, pink and black linoleum squares on the floor. My uncles kept asking, “Where the hell did you steal these tiles? From the back of some garbage truck?” They were ugly tiles but Dad was as proud of them as if they were hand cut marble.

Next came a second hand dining table, a collection of slightly mismatched chairs and a china cabinet with sliding glass doors to house and display my mother’s finest dinnerware. It wasn’t long before we were planning our first Christmas party in the basement.

Christmas dinner in our house was not just a one day event. It took hours of planning, food preparation and skilled cooking. My mother and father were incredibly talented cooks and our meals often rivaled food found in the finest restaurants, although I didn’t realize that until many years later. Everything was home made. There was no running out to the supermarket to pick up a can of this or a jar of that.

My mother and sister would start making ravioli-like desserts filled with sweetened ricotta cheese, fried to crispy crunch and topped with powdered sugar. My mother, who was from Naples, called them Casadeddi, a treat she and her mother made when she was a little girl. “Please, can we try one now, Ma?” my brothers and I would beg. If we were persistent enough, we would get to eat the ones my mother wouldn’t serve to her guests. To us, the rejects were simply heaven.

Next she would spend hours making gnocchi by hand. As she rolled and cut them to size, we kids would carry them from the kitchen to her bedroom and carefully place each one on a clean bed sheet laid over her mattress. By the time we were done, the bed sheet was totally covered with the tasty little pastas. There they would sit for several hours until my mother somehow knew they were ready to put in a bowl. Because our tiny refrigerator was already overflowing, she would store the bowl in the milk chute until it was time to cook dinner.

Being the oldest son, I was usually enlisted to help Dad make sausage. He would clamp the shiny, cast iron meat grinder to the counter and say, “Okay, start grinding the handle slow and steady while I stuff the meat into the top.” It wasn’t too long before he began adding his favorite seasonings to the ground pork mixture, including a healthy portion of home made red wine. The one thing I remember the most about making sausage with him was being given my own glass a wine. Dad would say, “You can’t make sausage without drinking a little wine. Besides, it’s good for you.” That made me feel really grown up for an eleven year old. The most anticipated moment, however, was the sharing of “taste burgers”, small patties of his sausage meat fried in an old iron skillet. He used the burgers to taste test the recipe before he actually stuffed the sausage. It was always perfect.

Stuffing the sausage into their casings was the most fun. It was like a magic trick to all of us kids. Dad would place the meat into the grinder while I turned the handle slowly and out came the perfectly shaped sausage from the funnel on the other end. Dad would put them in a large, roasting pan and keep them in the garage until he was ready to cook them. With another glass of wine in his hand, he would say, “Gotta keep that garage door closed…the damn dogs around here will have a feast if we don’t.”

We went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve in order to get an early start the next day. Christmas morning was best described as joyous bedlam. Opening presents seemed like just the beginning of a day full of excitement and fun. Even before the gifts were opened, Mother had already started preparing an enormous pot of tomato sauce. The house was soon filled with the aroma of simmering garlic, basil and oregano, aromas that forever define a part of my childhood memories. The small kitchen stove and oven were brisling with pans full of bubbling water and pastas, roasting sausages, and even chestnuts. The precision of the cooking was like that of a symphony orchestra performing.

Before we knew it, guests had started to arrive. Dad had friends with the most colorful names I had ever heard. Scoofer, Speedway and Presti, were like characters in an old gangster movie. Along with my uncles, aunts and cousins, we had a houseful. Everyone knew to go to the basement. Dad had set up a bar in the laundry sink, complete with blocks of ice and crystal glasses precariously placed on a piece of plywood covered with one of Mom’s best pillow cases.

After all of our guest arrived, the food parade began. Everyone carried a pot, plate or bowl of something from the upstairs kitchen down to the basement. Mother had hung some clip- on Santa and snowflake decorations to the overhead light bulbs adding festive color to the long dinning table. Of course, all the adults sat at the big table and me, my bothers, sister and cousins, all sat at the ‘kids’ tables. It seemed to me that the adults had more fun than we kids ever did.

The ensuing commotion can only be best described as that found in a present day casino. The din of clanging silverware and plates, tapping wine glasses being raised in one boisterous toast after another and of course, a thick, blue haze of cigar smoke that permeated the air signaled the party was in full swing.

After days of preparation, the basement feast was over in less than an hour. The festivities, however, would continue well into the evening. Mind-numbing, post meal football games had not found there way to television yet, so after dinner, Dad poured shots of Crown Royal for all the men and they began playing a rowdy game of poker. I remember standing behind Dad, having him flash his cards to me over his shoulder and ask, “Should I raise him?” I said yes every time, just to hear him laugh. Then someone would yell at him, saying, “Come on Mono, shit or get off the pot.” Someone used that line at every game and I still smile when I think about it.

While the men played cards, the women all gathered around the big, twin tub, concrete laundry tub and washed dinner dishes. That was always a sure sign that dessert was coming. A pot of steaming hot coffee, sweet ravioli cakes, cannollis and angel wing cookies were the perfect way to finish our first basement Christmas.

It was perfect then and still is today. And although my brothers, sister and I still have Christmas together, no one has to eat in the basement anymore. But we still gather “downstairs” for a glass of wine and a toast to those glorious memories of our basement Christmas’ that crystallized our family’s traditions and legacy for the generations to come.

12 Snow Day

It was one of those dreary, gray winter days just after Thanksgiving yet not close enough to Christmas so that, even though vacation from school was just around the corner and almost here, it wasn’t. It was still weeks away. And so you had to sit in a classroom and just look out the window and then at the big calendar and try to calculate the number of days you had to go until V-Day: Vacation day.

Today was Thursday, a school day. But today wasn’t like Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, or even like Friday, the day before the weekend, because on Friday you still had to sit in class and mentally cross off the calendar or erase and re-draw the minute hand on the clock-face you’d drawn on your notebook; the clock that counted down to 3:15. No. Today was Thursday but there wasn’t any school at Monroe Elementary. You see, the night before it had snowed 2 feet and 6 point 5 inches. The buses couldn’t run and the schools couldn’t open. It was a Snow Day!

Everyone was outside, sledding, snowboarding, skating or just plain sliding on the ice and drinking hot chocolate from a Thermos. Way better than school! There were the twins Emma and Lily, athletic Shayne, rambunctious Clay, talkative Taylor, funny Jeffrey, and even shy Violet. The entire third grade class was outside. Everybody was playing in the snow and loving it. Everybody, that is, except Kate. She had just moved to the neighborhood about a month ago after her mom had gotten the job transfer.

“It’s either move with the job,” her mother had explained, “or there’s no Christmas.”

Kate had thought “I’d rather have no Christmas.” She didn’t really mean it. But she gave a try thinking it. It didn’t change anything, though, and here they were. Inside and no school.

Kate didn’t like being outside with all those other kids from her class; so snooty. No. Kate liked being at school, especially in the library with Mrs. Bainbridge the librarian. Mrs. B was nice, and she let Kate have her own small table near the back corner where she could read without being bothered. There she could read books about far away places and times. Books like The Azure Arrow, about a little girl who lived in a castle in the middle ages. It took place around Christmas time. That little girl was lonely, too. But did she complain? No! She picked herself up and went for walks in the nearby forest. She made her own fun. And she even made a friend and had great adventures.

Well, ma’am. That was what Kate was going to do. She would get up, put on her coat, mittens and boots, and walk in the woods next door and make her own fun. Alone! Just like in that poem where the man stops his horse by a snowy woods and watches the snow fall, with his horse just sort of shaking his head wanting to get home. Well, what did horses know, anyway?

“Who needs those kids in the front yards?” thought Kate. She would go out the back door unseen and walk in the woods and – well – she’d just see what. So that’s what she did.

The woods out back were beautiful and white and still. You could taste the snow on your tongue and the cold made your cheeks red. It was wonderful. So quiet. So peaceful. SPLATTT! A very, very huge snowball disintegrated against the tree next to Kate. She turned and ducked at the same time shouting, “Hey!”

“I could have hit you if I’d have wanted.” It was Kevin from two houses down. He was in fourth grade. Who did he think he was throwing snowballs at innocents, and being in Kate’s private woods?

“Great day, isn’t it?” said Kevin, rather rhetorically.

“Rather be in school,” returned Kate.

“I’ve seen you in the library. Not many kids go there. But I like it. It’s quieter there. Gives you time to think,” he said. “Have you ever read The Azure Arrow? It’s about some kids who hung out in a woods like this. I think you’d like it,” continued Kevin.

Kate stood there gape mouthed. Kevin had read The Azure Arrow? She couldn’t believe it. This Kevin may be alright after all. All she could say, though, was, “It was a forest.”

“Yeah. That’s right. Hey, look.” said Kevin. “There’s a snowball fight across the street. Come on. You’re on my side!”

“Sure!” called Kate, as they raced into the melee hurling snowballs like professional jai-lai players.

“This is a great day,” thought Kate. “And this is going to be a wonderful Christmas.”

11 The Suit

“Give me a sucker!” the eight-year-old on Cameron’s lap whined. The boy lurched for the candy in Cameron’s gloved fist. Stacy, the Christmas Palace photographer, laughed at the struggle. Cameron only hoped she caught the precious moment on camera.

“Ho! Ho! Ho!” Cameron boomed as the boy jumped off Cameron’s red velvet lap. Cameron formed his lips into an “O” for resonance. It was still hard to sound like an old, fat guy when you were fat but not old.

Next in line was a little girl. “And what do you want for Christmas?” Cameron said as he leaned down to her. Unfortunately, his white beard dangled into her face and the girl went into hysterics.

“We got the photo,” Stacy said loudly, “move it along.”

Cameron’s palms itched beneath his thick leather mittens. Actually, he itched everywhere. What did the real Santa do about chaffing? This red wool racket was intolerable. The holiday job at the mall idea had certainly come back to bite. Work with children, spread Christmas cheer, he had thought. What a joke.

“And what have we here?” Cameron said to the next kid, rumbling his vowels.

“I’ll take these video games,” the boy shoved a long list into Cameron’s gloved hand, “and a new MP3 player, and a new laptop, and, if you really want to surprise me, a remote-control helicopter.”

“Whoa, tiger!” Cameron’s Santa-voice said. “Have you been a good boy this year?”

“Oh, whatever,” the boy shrugged, sliding off Cameron’s lap. “I’ve already texted the list to my dad.”

“Psst!” Cameron hissed when the boy was gone. “Stace!”

“What?” Stacy said. “Aren’t the elves up on the latest computer models?”

Another kid clambered onto Cameron’s lap before he could retort. Stacy walked a few steps away to snap a picture. Thank goodness no one could tell whether Cameron was smiling beneath his outrageous beard.

“Stace!” Cameron hissed back before another girl ran up for her turn. “Is it near closing time yet?”

Stacy took another picture, and Cameron pretended to listen to the little girl’s interest in mechanical ponies and female pop CDs while inwardly cringing at the wad of bubble gum lolling back and forth in the child’s mouth.

In answer to Cameron’s question to Stacy, the sickly-sweet voice of the closing notice echoed up and down the halls of the mall: “Pleasant Valley Shopping Pavilion will close in fifteen minutes. Please visit again soon, and Happy Holidays.”

“There you go,” Stacy said. Her camera clicked and another boy slid off Cameron’s lap.

Hallelujah, Cameron thought. Just fifteen minutes until the stores closed. All the employees would go home, and he’d get to see—

“Oh, and what do you want for Christmas?” he exclaimed to a toddling girl. Picking her up and cringing at her bubbling nose, Cameron wondered if his mittens were virus-proof. That would make the incessant itch worth it.

Finally the line in front of the Christmas Palace began to dwindle. The halls of the mall emptied, and the drone of shopper’s walking, talking, screeching, and moving dissipated. Once again Cameron wondered if his ears would ever stop ringing with the echoing sounds of a commercial Christmas.

“Well, that’s a wrap,” Stacy said, snapping off her zoom lens. “You can probably come out now, Mr. C. in disguise—get it? Cameron—Claus? Ha!” Cameron wondered why it irked him so much that Stacy snorted when she laughed. Or maybe it was that she laughed at her own jokes, or that her jokes were lame. Maybe all three.

“Finally,” he said aloud, pulling off his white and red hat/hair/beard turban. He stood and stretched his back. “What a day. I don’t know if I can survive many more,” he pressed his shins gingerly, assessing the damage.

“On to pipers tomorrow,” Stacy said vaguely, pulling off her elf hat.

“What?” Cameron screwed up his face. “What are you talking about?”

“‘Eleven pipers piping,’” Stacy rolled her eyes, “duh.”

Cameron shook his head in disbelief. Sometimes he seriously considered what planet Stacy came from. She was nice and all, and had an awesome shutter finger, but the combat boots and bright green hair extensions did not say Venus.

“So, what’s the record?” Cameron asked.

“Looks like,” Stacy ran her finger down a clipboard, “Five hundred fifty-seven.”

“Gosh,” Cameron said, “no wonder I feel like I’m about to break.”

“Not with all that padding, sleigh-boy.” Stacy snorted.

Cameron threw up his hands. “Geez, you could lay off the fat jokes for once.” It was a touchy subject because, despite popular belief about Santa impersonations, Cameron didn’t wear any padding. “I’m going home.”

“Mayday! Chick sighting! Angela at two o’clock!” Stacy actually pinched her nose for a submarine effect. The girl was out of control, but Cameron had no time to complain. He scrambled to locate his Santa head entourage and flung it over his face. Pulling haphazardly, he peeked through the mouth hole of his beard.

There she was, coming out of the store across the way: Angela.

The thought, the sound, the sight of that name, and that babe, made Cameron want to drop something and crawl on his sagging belly whithersoever the goddess willed. She was wearing pinstripes and those pointed heels that made his jaw gape.

“Later, Mags!” Angela called in the sweet voice that was music to Cameron’s aching ears. He watched those click, clickety heels propel that specimen of female perfection out the north doors of Pleasant Valley Shopping Pavilion, and Cameron’s nightly fast from drop-dead beauty began once again.

“Get over it already,” Stacy rolled her eyes.

“You just don’t get it,” Cameron said, shaking himself. “What’s so bad about Santa asking for something for Christmas?”

“Mop up the drool before you go, Santa Baby,” Stacy smirked before following Angela into the parking lot.

Cameron pulled his askew Santa gear off his face and melted into his throne with a groan. This was not the life plan that Cameron, high school improv comedy all-star and class clown had in mind a decade ago. He pulled his bag from beneath a Christmas tree and shoved his headpiece inside. The whole deal—Santa, Stacy, Angela, Christmas—was despicable.

Why did he have to be the one to come back home to take care of his aged mother? “Oh, Cameron can do it,” his older brothers had said. “He’s the only one not in the middle of a serious career. Come on, Cam, what’s the point of an acting MFA, anyway?”

Out in the parking lot, Cameron slammed his trunk shut and grumbled into the driver’s seat. The chipped leather steering wheel was icy cold, but he was sick of itchy mittens. The starter squealed and caught, and Cameron screeched out of the parking lot.

It had been ten years—a whole decade—since that fateful day at graduation when Angela had dropped her program on her way down the steps from receiving her diploma. Cameron, who was on the front row because he had performed in the drama skit earlier, had retrieved it for her. He could still picture it all, the hundreds of flashing cameras, the freshwater pearls bouncing playfully on Angela’s graceful throat, her lips forming the words, “Thank you.” He remembered the electricity as their fingers brushed. For a moment, all that was between them was a single sheet of folded paper and a thousand whistling parents.

They had gone to different colleges. Cameron had heard—and read on Facebook—that Angela had graduated in the top of her class in PR. What brought her home for the holidays to sell perfumes at Madame Monique’s, Cameron could not figure out, unless it was some internship for her Master’s work.

As Cameron downshifted and turned onto Main Street, he thought of the girls he had dated in college. Yes, he had forgotten about Angela–okay, tried to—for a little while, but when he saw her setting out holiday gift boxes in front of Madame Monique’s, the old electricity came back.

And why shouldn’t she go for a guy like him? What was keeping him from strutting up to the perfume shop and sweeping her off her feet?

It was simple: 80 extra pounds, an empty wallet, and a sweaty, itchy, smelly, unpadded Santa Claus suit.

Cameron banged on the radio buttons to find a station that wasn’t playing Christmas music. He had enough decking, jingling, merry spirit at the mall. All he wanted was some peace.

An explosion of sound made Cameron jump, his lap belt stretching taunt across his thighs. No, it wasn’t the refreshing sound of an electric guitar; it was the engine.

Cameron pulled to the curb. By the time he shut off the car, the cab reeked with the putrid aroma of burnt rubber and oil. Cameron groped for the glove box catch to find his cell phone. Punching buttons brought no response; it was dead.

“Great! Just great!” he banged a few times on the steering wheel. He got out of the car, locked it, and, pulling up his furry white collar, headed down the street.

Cameron reached the city park just as he was sure his nose was going to freeze off, Santa coat or no. As he turned into the park, a crackling sound and the smell of a wood fire caught his attention. He had no idea who would have a bonfire in the snow late at night, two days before Christmas, but cutting through the park was a shortcut anyway, so he decided to investigate.

Skirting around a large pine tree, his Santa boots crunching through a foot of uncleared snow, the fire Cameron had heard and smelled came into view, lit in one of the park charcoal barbecues. A lone old man sat on a picnic bench looking into the flames.

“Hey, mind if I join you?” Cameron called. It was a little awkward approaching a stranger while wearing a red suit, but Cameron was pretty desperate for warmth. Besides, everybody loves Santa, right?

“Humph,” the man grunted.

If his knees weren’t about to shatter with cold, Cameron probably would have turned right around and left the grumpy bum, or whoever he was, alone, but Cameron took the grunt as a yes and rubbed his palms in the heat of the flames.

“So,” Cameron started after a few moments of heavy silence, “what brings you here, Mr.—uh?”

“Kr–” the man coughed loudly, “excuse me, uh, Crandle. Stephen Crandle.”

“Right,” Cameron raised his eyes. “I’m Cameron.”

The man nodded, still scowling and looking at the fire. Cameron had about decided that the frigid conversation was not worth the physical warmth of the fire, when the man spoke again. “Been waiting for someone,” he said.

“What?” Cameron asked.

“You asked,” grumbled the man, shifting his position on the picnic bench, “what I was doing here. I’ve been waiting for someone.”

“Oh,” Cameron said. This seemed like a nice time to leave. “Well, nice meet–”

“What about you?” Mr. Crandle cut in.

“Come again?” Cameron asked.

“What about you?” The man repeated impatiently. “What are you doing?”

“Oh,” Cameron replied. “Well, uh, something’s wrong with my engine, so I was walking home.” He waited to see if this was a satisfactory answer so he could get out of this conversation.

“No, no,” Mr. Crandle shook his head. “I mean, what are you doing in life?”

“Uh,” Cameron didn’t know what to say. This guy was whack. “I work at the mall?” he ventured.

“Right. That’s it,” the man nodded. “Anything else?”

“Umm,” Cameron stalled. There wasn’t much else to say. He spent his evenings playing a lame, online RPG. He bought a lot of Chinese take-out. Sometimes he thought about practicing free-throws on the driveway, but never bothered to retrieve a ball from the attic. Other than that, his hobbies included terrorizing his mother’s blind tabby cat and thinking about Angela.

“Look,” Cameron said, shaking his head. Why was he letting this guy get him all introspective? “I gotta go. See ya,” he gave a little wave and turned around.

“You’ve got one thing right,” Mr. Crandle said, “you have got to go.”

“What?” Cameron said, turning back around.

“You’ve got to get out of here,” the man said, rubbing his hands. “Get out; get a life.”

“What are you talking about?” Cameron asked. Would it be rude to just walk away?

“You’re mother’s better now, right?”

“Yeah, so?” Cameron shot back. “Wait! How–?”

“So what are you hanging around here for?” Mr. Crandle pursued.

Cameron shook his head again. Was this a dream? Who was this guy anyway? “Look,” Cameron said, “I don’t know how you know about my family, but I’m not just ‘hanging around.’ I’m going places. I just have to finish this Christmas job, and then I’ll be–”

“What?” the man spat. “On your way to the North Pole? Ha! Ha!” Mr. Crandle laughed, his head bawled over and his hands grasping his knees.

“Come on!” Cameron yelled over the crazed man’s laughter. “It’s a costume! Just a job, okay? Get over it!”

“No!” Mr. Crandle was looking up again, completely sober. “You,” he pointed to Cameron, “get over it.”

“Whatever,” Cameron shrugged, but he felt his brow furrow. “Later, man, whoever you are.” He turned away and continued plowing through the park. He looked back after a minute, but the flicker of the fire and the smell of smoke were gone. Weird.

Cameron trudged home, wondering if this were a prank, but who would go to all that trouble for him? Still, what Mr. Crandle had said bothered him. He had thought about what a loser he was a lot—twenty-eight, over-weight, no dates—but it sounded a lot harsher coming from a stranger—a fat, old guy hanging around the city park at night. Wait—what? What did Cameron care about a stranger?

He pulled up his furry collar again and walked more quickly. It wasn’t that bad of a trip home, he guessed. If it were summer, maybe he’d start hoofing it to work and lose the soda belly.

What had Mr. Crandle meant about going places? Okay, maybe the deadline for re-enrolling in the MFA program had slipped by—what of it? Cameron could reapply next semester, no one was stopping him. All right, playing Santa Claus wasn’t exactly the living as an actor he had in mind, but try-outs for “The Christmas Carol” had conflicted with the World Series; that wasn’t his fault.

Girls was one subject Cameron could not rationalize away. He was going nowhere there. When Stacy found out about Cameron’s lifelong syndrome of Angelaitis, she had spent three days throwing encouragement at him. “Just do it!” she said. “The worst that can happen is she’ll say no. It’s just a date.” But Cameron knew that if Angela, who had gone out with all the jocks in high school, knew he was wearing an unpadded Santa suit, she would laugh.

The wind grew chillier, but, looking up, Cameron saw that the sky was clearing into a star-lit night. He was nearly home. Going places, he had said to Mr. Crandle. Well, at least he was going home. Maybe he could lay-off the ESPN and the RPGs tonight. It was nearly Christmas; maybe his mom would want to watch that old Jimmy Stewart movie that she loved so much. It wouldn’t be so bad, just once.

Maybe it really was time for him to get back on his own again. He could try for late enrollment, if he threw on his best charms and got the theater department to pull some strings. Maybe some buddies at school would want to hit the racquetball courts with him once in a while. It wouldn’t make him Angela date material, but he might be able to shed a few pounds.

Cameron trudged up the front walk and banged his heavy Santa boots on the doorstep. Maybe his job wasn’t so bad. The kids were kind of cute. It wasn’t their fault that their parents were dragging them around the mall for hours. Maybe he could get the boss to invest in more lollypops.

His hand was on the doorknob when he nearly tripped over something. Squinting in the lack-of-porch-light darkness, Cameron bent down to find a glittery star-shaped gift box. He took a few steps out from under the porch awning so he could examine the box in the star light. “To Cameron,” the envelope taped to the top of the box said. He gave the box a gentle shake, and the wiggly lid let out an aroma he knew well: fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.

Inside the envelope was a Christmas card: “Dear Cameron, Sorry we haven’t been able to chat. I always have to run to the 9:05 bus. Are you going to the mall employee Christmas Eve party? Can’t wait to catch up, Angela.”

Cameron stared at Angela’s curvy handwriting in disbelief. He blinked once and pinched himself. Nope, this was real. Cameron let out a whoop and punched the air with his fist. In his excitement, Angela’s card dropped face-down in the snow. Grasping at it, he noticed there was some writing on the back of the card. “P.S. Nice suit,” it said with a smiley face. But the minute print at the bottom of the card was what arrested his attention: “Kris Kringle Press, Ltd. North Pole Distribution.”

Cameron looked up, cocking his head to one side and squinting at the stars. Crandle—or Kringle?

Nah, Cameron shook his head. Couldn’t be.

What I liked best: A nice feel-good Christmas story. Good sensory images.

Publication ready: Close. I’d like to see an unexpected twist somewhere, either characterization or plot. A little too much telling us about Cameron. You could easily show us some of this with more bits of conversation between him and Stacy.

10 Stranded

Sarah crouched low in the front seat of her little blue Geo, waiting for the light to change. The defroster fan sounded like a DC3 ready for takeoff but only a small section of the windshield had cleared of frost. Cold weather couldn’t dampen Sarah’s spirits though. Finals were over and she was headed home after finishing her classes at BYU-Idaho. She felt like a snowboarder on a downhill run. What pure delight, no obstacles in sight.

Except Christmas.

Sarah fidgeted with the silver CTR ring on her left hand, dreading the traditional family get-together at her parent’s house. Aunts, uncles, and all 42 cousins would ask the same nosey question. Why aren’t you married yet? Her younger sister had already started a family. Sarah didn’t even have a boyfriend.

The light turned green and Sarah made a quick decision. Instead of turning west on Highway 20, she turned right. Her roommate had told her about a scenic short-cut through the national forest. It would be less crowded and Sarah was in no hurry to get home.

Snow-covered pines looked like a picture on a Christmas card as the two-lane road climbed higher into the mountains. Christmas music played non-stop on the radio. The overcast sky looked threatening but Sarah was in such a holiday mood, she didn’t care. She sang along with the radio, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”

At first it was just a flurry but now the snow fell thick and heavy. The Geo’s windshield wipers swung frantically back and forth but Sarah couldn’t see. She was in a white fog.

Sarah kept driving. If she stopped, she might be rear-ended. If she kept going, she’d eventually climb above the clouds. Somewhere the sun was shining.

Thoughts of bright sunshine brought memories of her mission in Arizona. Sarah loved the pale blue color of the desert sky. Last Christmas in Tucson, she and her missionary companion had strung chili pepper lights on the Christmas tree. Sarah remembered the fun they had delivering secret Santa gifts when suddenly, she was thrown forward against the steering wheel.

She’d run off the road. Fear tightened her stomach as she reached for her jacket and scarf. She forced open the door and stepped into a snow bank. Wet, chilling snow spilled over the top of her Rocket Dog boots.

She searched for a shovel in the trunk under the wrapped packages she was bringing home to her family. There was none. She flipped open her cell phone and dialed her parent’s number. No signal.

It would be dark in an hour. The thought of spending the night in the car was frightening. She’d been warned never to leave a stranded car in a snowstorm. Surely that didn’t apply in her case. She’d climb through the trees and find a signal, call for help and then wait in the car for it to arrive.

Dressed in her warm ski jacket, gloves and fur-lined boots, Sarah set out through the snow, pausing every few minutes to check her phone for a signal. The temperature had dropped well below freezing and her nose felt tingly. She wrapped her bright pink scarf around her head, leaving only her eyes exposed to the cold. When she turned around to look where she’d been, her footprints were filling fast with snow.

Climbing through a thick stand of spruce trees, Sarah heard a sad whimper. It sounded like a wounded dog. She pushed aside the snow-laden branches and saw a man with a rifle less than thirty feet away. As if in slow motion, he aimed his rifle at the helpless animal and fired.

Sarah’s heart was pounding in her ears. She stomped through the snow to confront him. “I saw what you did,” she shouted.

“Where’d you come from?” He wore snowshoes, a ranger’s hat and insulated coveralls. A ski mask hid his face.

Coming closer, Sarah saw the dead animal. A dog or coyote had been caught in a trap. The hunter had put it out of its misery.

“Someone’s setting illegal traps,” he said. “I’ve got to find out who it is.”

“My car’s stuck in the snow.” Sarah felt foolish now for raising her voice. “I need to call for help.”

“You’re out of luck, Pinky. There’s no signal up here.”

She stiffened at his rudeness, poking fun at her pink scarf. “My name is Sarah Griffith,” she said. “I live in the Bear Lake Valley. I was going home for Christmas.”

He ignored her, checking an ear tag on the bloody carcass in the snow. Sarah stood aside and waited while he released the dead animal and recovered the trap.

“My cabin’s not far from here,” he said. Powdery snow had collected on the brim of his hat. “Come with me.”

“Was it a coyote?” she asked.

“No. A wolf.”

Sarah glanced nervously through the darkening forest. He’s mistaken, she thought. There are no wolves in Idaho.

The hunter carried his rifle slung on his shoulder and the bloody trap in his gloved hand. Sarah followed. Wearing snowshoes, he stepped on the snow; she sank down in it. He took long strides; she struggled to keep up.

He switched on a flashlight and waved the beam of light through the trees. “Wait here,” he ordered and disappeared in the forest.

Sarah was shaking. Why had she trusted this man? He wore a ranger’s hat but that didn’t prove anything. It was completely dark now and she was alone and scared. Lord, please help me, she prayed.

He returned with another trap. A larger one. “That looks like a bear trap,” Sarah said.

“It’s an antique.” He dropped it in the snow beside the other one. “Must weigh 40 pounds.”

“Are you a trapper?”

“No. But sometimes it’s part of the job. I work for the Idaho Fish and Game in the wolf recovery program.”

“Wolves?” Sarah had no sympathy for the wolves. They didn’t mix with sheep and her family had been sheep ranchers for generations. “I thought the wolves were in Yellowstone.”

“Not anymore.” He handed Sarah the flashlight. “Take this. I’ve got my hands full.”

Sarah carried the heavy flashlight, packed with “D” batteries. The game warden carried both traps and the rifle. They trudged through the snow in the dark for a half-hour before arriving at his cabin. Sarah noticed there was no vehicle parked in the yard. She took the cell phone from her pocket. No signal either.

The warden unstrapped his snowshoes and propped them against the log wall. “Home sweet home,” he said as he opened the unlocked door. It was dark inside. A woodstove in the corner gave off the last of its heat. He pulled off his gloves, struck a match and lit the kerosene lamp.

The lamp cast a cozy glow on the red-checkered tablecloth and rumpled quilts on the bed. Sarah glanced about the room. There was a gun cabinet, bookshelf, sink and dish cabinets. Above the sink, canned vegetables were arranged on a shelf. She took off her gloves and loosened the pink scarf around her neck. “You live like a pioneer.”

“It’s my grandfather’s cabin. I live in Driggs.” He removed his hat and then the ski mask.

Sarah couldn’t help staring. He had a dark, full beard, dark eyes and a handsome, straight nose. She guessed he was still in his twenties although the beard made him appear older.

“There’s a chair,” he said, motioning with his hand.

Sarah remained standing. She watched him shove a few sticks of kindling in the firebox and build up the fire.

“Coffee will be ready in a few minutes.” He set an enamel coffee pot over the heat.

“No, thanks. I’d like a drink of water.”

He filled a tin cup for her from a pitcher. It tasted like spring water, delicious and clean. “How do you get to Driggs?” she asked. “I didn’t see your car.”

“My truck’s parked down at the trail head.” He unzipped and stepped out of his coveralls.

Sarah felt uncomfortable watching him undress but she didn’t turn away. Under the coveralls he wore a green uniform with the Idaho Game and Fish shoulder patch. He hung the coveralls and hat on wooden pegs on the wall.

“I don’t want to be a bother, but I need to get home tonight. My mother’s expecting me.”

He raised a dark eyebrow. “What about your husband?”

Sarah blushed, embarrassed. “This isn’t a wedding ring,” she said, lifting her left hand. “It’s a chastity ring.”

“Is that supposed to scare off guys like me?” he asked, chuckling.

Sarah walked to the door. “I have to go.”

“Where? It’s dark and snowing. You’ll be wolf bait out there.” He shrugged. “I’ll drive down the road and find phone service, but let me get something to eat first.” He rummaged through utensils in the drawer and pulled out a can opener. “Hope you like chili.”

Sarah sat at the table in the only chair and watched him dump two cans of Dennison’s in a pan on the stove. The water in the coffee pot was already making rumbling noises.

“I don’t know your name,” she said, feeling awkward.

“Sorry, I don’t get much company out here. My name’s Josh Poulson.” He looked over at Sarah. “I forgot your name.”

“Sarah Griffith.”

“You’re lucky I found you. You could freeze to death on a night like tonight.”

“You didn’t find me; I found you. You’re an answer to my prayer.” She realized as soon as she said it that he might misunderstand.

He stirred the chili. “What did you pray for? Snow?”

“No, of course not.”

“They say God answers prayers in mysterious ways.” He scooped the chili into bowls. “I prayed once.”

Sarah waited, wondering if he’d explain. He didn’t.

“God hears and answers our prayers,” she said, “though not always the way we want Him to.”

Josh reached for a framed photo from the bookshelf above his bed. He handed it to Sarah. It was a picture of a beautiful young woman holding a baby.

“Is that your family?” she asked.

“They died in a fire three years ago.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice was a whisper.

“Nothing could save them. Not even prayer.”

Sarah handed back the photograph. “I believe that families can be together forever.”

“That’s what I’ve been told.” His eyes narrowed. “You’re a Mormon, aren’t you?”


“I should have known when you turned down the coffee.” He set her bowl of chili on the table and sat on the bed to eat his. “I work with a Mormon guy,” he said. “Even went to church with him a few times. But it’s not for me.”

“Why?” Sarah mumbled with her mouth full.

He smiled. “I was the only one with a beard.”

They ate in silence, listening to the fire crackle in the woodstove. The cabin was warm now. Sarah shrugged off her jacket and hung it on the back of the chair.

“What’s your major?” Josh asked.

She realized he was staring at her BYU-I sweatshirt. “Occupational therapy. I want to help people reclaim their lives after an accident or a stroke.”

“Good choice.” He took her empty bowl and set it in the sink. “It makes more sense than tracking wolves most people don’t want here in the first place.”

“How do you feel about it?” she asked. “The wolf problem?”

He sat on the edge of the bed and stretched his long legs toward the stove. “They deserve a place in the ecosystem.”

Sarah yawned, only half-listening as he explained the wolf recovery program. You’re a lone wolf yourself, Josh Poulson, she thought—definitely not my type. I’m going to marry a returned missionary, not a mountain man who rescues wolves.

He must have noticed her squirm because he changed the subject. “Are there any bears left in the Bear Lake Valley?”

Sarah assured him there plenty of bears, even bald eagles and moose. She learned he’d grown up in Jackson, Wyoming. Josh hated the way it had changed. Too many fancy resorts, tourist shops and movie stars.

Josh made instant hot chocolate with the water boiling in the coffee pot, and while he cleaned his rifle, Sarah talked about school and her mission for the LDS Church in Arizona. She found Josh was easy to talk to and laugh with.

“Does this cabin have a bathroom?” she asked.

“Out back. Here, take the flashlight.”

Sarah walked out into the frigid night. Snow was falling fast and heavy. She was used to outhouses on the back trails, but she’d never get used to a frozen seat.

When she returned to the cabin Josh had on his jacket and boots. “I’ll be back soon,” he said. “The truck is about a mile down the trail.”

Sarah was worried. “It’s snowing hard.”

“I’ll be okay.” He paused, looking down into her eyes. For one heart-racing moment she thought he was going to kiss her. She was surprised to find that she hoped he would. But he didn’t. He took the large flashlight from her hand and exchanged it for a smaller one. “In case you need it.”

It was lonely in the cabin now. Sarah missed Josh.

She added wood to the fire and washed the dishes. Finally she relaxed on the bed, closed her eyes and wondered what her parents would think of Josh when he came to Christmas dinner. She hadn’t asked him yet but she felt sure he’d accept. The tricky part would be keeping the conversation away from wolves and sheep. When she opened her eyes the room was colder. The fire in the woodstove had burned down to coals.

Josh had been gone almost three hours. He’d said it wouldn’t take long. What happened? Sarah knelt by the bed and prayed. When she got up, her anxiety heightened. Josh was in trouble. She knew it. And she knew she had to go find him.

Sarah pulled on her jacket, scarf and gloves and grabbed the flashlight. Before leaving the cabin she blew out the kerosene flame.

It was still snowing, a fine white flurry. Which way had he gone? The flashlight beam illuminated the imprints of Josh’s snowshoes and with a thankful prayer, she followed the trail through the woods.

The only sound was the crunch of her boots in the snow. Her breath blew away in white vapor. The flashlight dimmed and in a moment of panic, she realized it might fail. “Josh!” she called. “Josh, where are you?”

She waited.

A moment later a wolf howled. It was close, too close. Sarah’s hand shook on the flashlight. She shined the light into the trees and saw two eyes reflected in the beam. With a gasp, she backed away and fell down in the snow. When she scrambled back to her feet, the eyes had disappeared.

Sarah ran through the forest, sure the wolf was stalking her. Lost and disoriented, her heart pounded in her chest. Was that a light in the distance? Yes, the beam of a flashlight. “Josh!” she called.

“Sarah! Over here!”

Sarah followed his voice and found him lying in a crumpled heap in the snow. She knelt by his side with tears in her eyes. “What happened?”

“I stepped in a trap.” The jagged teeth had closed on his leg above his boot. His pant leg was stained with blood. “Didn’t see it in the snow.” His voice was weak and slurred.

Sarah leaned close. His lips were blue, his voice weak and slurred—symptoms of hypothermia. She worked with both hands to pry the trap open. It wouldn’t budge. Her gloves became wet with his blood.

Her flashlight fell from where she’d tucked it under her chin, striking the metal. It gave Sarah an idea. She used Josh’s big flashlight as a lever to pry open the trap. Again and again the flashlight slipped but Sarah kept trying. Finally the jaws opened.

Josh groaned as the steel teeth pulled out of his flesh. Panting for breath, he pulled his leg free. Sarah released the trap and it snapped shut.

Josh rolled away, shivering violently.

“Is your leg broken?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” He sat against a tree, pressing his gloved hands against the wound.

Sarah tugged the scarf from her neck. “I’m going to try to stop the bleeding.” She wrapped her scarf around his leg just above his knee and pulled the knot tight.

“Pink clashes with my uniform,” he said through chattering teeth.

Sarah smiled. If he could joke at a time like this, she knew he was going to be all right. “You’re making a new fashion statement. It’s called staying alive.” She took his arm and draped it over her shoulder, helping him to stand. Josh leaned heavily against her, and together they hobbled to the trail head.

The truck engine started up and in a few minutes the heater was warming the cab. Sarah wrapped Josh in a blanket he kept in the cab.

“I know how you found me.” He caught his breath. “You’re the answer to my prayer.”

Sarah’s boots barely reached the pedals. She was reaching for the lever to adjust the seat when Josh slipped over unconscious against her shoulder. With a prayer in her heart, she drove the truck down the snow-covered road. A mile or two later she checked her cell phone and found a signal.

Sarah explained Josh’s condition to the 911 dispatcher and gave him the GPS coordinates from the locator on the dash.

“We’ll send an ambulance out to meet you,” he said.

Sarah called home next. “Where are you?” her mother sounded frantic. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. I got lost.” The signal was breaking up but Sarah had just enough time to say, “Set another place for Christmas dinner. I’m bringing home a friend.”

09 My Worst Christmas

Had they forgotten me? Again? Shiny green and red packages littered the floor around me; small ones, big ones, and oddly shaped, ugly ones all pile around the tree. I pick them up one by one. To Daniel Merry Christmas; To Heather Love Grandma; To Mom From Ryan; Where are the ones that say To Susan? I’m not asking for a million dollars, or Caribbean vacation here but it would be nice to know that somebody in my family thought to buy me a gift! The presents cascade out nearly halfway into the room. It takes me thirty minutes to check each package. As I work my way closer and closer to the tree my heart pounds louder and louder. There has to be something, right? Thirty presents checked and nothing yet. I’m starting to feel desperate. The count rises to forty four and I still have found nothing. Blood rushes to my face and I feel tears trying to push their way out. One final package is shoved back in the corner. “That has to be it,” I think as I wriggle under the evergreen. The needles prick my body and I breathe in the pine scent. I reach for the tiny silver box and awkwardly pull myself out from under the tree. Taking a deep breath I turn the box over to find the tag. To Aimee From Heather. With that my heart breaks. The tears on my cheeks reflect the twinkling lights of the tree.

They did forget me. Forty five presents and there is not a single one for me…Maybe I should feel mad, but I don’t. I feel stupid, worthless, and unwanted. I’m alone in the crowd, but I guess that’s nothing new. I am the middle child of nine; there’s only so much attention to go around. But these are the people who should care about me the most! I sit amidst all the gifts, crying my eyes out, all the pain escaping through my tear ducts. I hear mom in the kitchen talking with my sisters while Christmas music plays in the background. Dad is with the boys in the other room while Grandma holds her newest grand baby, a crowd of aunts and uncles coo around her. Everyone is busy laughing, talking and celebrating. Nobody notices my tears.

I’m glad we eat Christmas Eve dinner by candlelight. I like it that way, so nobody can ask why my eyes are red and puffy. After dinner my parents give each child their traditional holiday pajamas. After we change, all the kids traipse to the basement for an all night slumber party. My youngest brother is determined to stay awake playing video games until the official 4:00 am wake up call. This year all I want to do is sleep.

The hour arrives. Although I’m still exhausted I join the rest of my siblings in the annual race to mom and dad’s bedroom. It’s the one time each year that we can get back at them for waking us up each morning to the belting sounds of “Rise and Shout the Cougars are Out.” Few things in life are more annoying than hearing your dad sing the cougar fight song at the top of his lungs at 6:45 every morning.

“Wake up! Wake up!” we yell, as Dad protests sleepily.

“It’s still too early,” he groans, but youthful exuberance pulls him out of bed soon enough. Following Dad into the family room I see the evidence of Santa’s magic firsthand. The lights of the tree wink happily, reflecting a soft glow everywhere. A cache of gifts even larger than yesterday fills the comfortable room. I find my stocking overflowing with treats and begin a breakfast of chocolate candy as Dad hands out gifts. My family smiles and jokes, laughing at each others’ bed head. I smile along with everyone else, but in the back of my mind I haven’t let go of the loneliness from last night. I push the sadness away as best as I can. Christmas morning is no time to feel sorry for myself.

Dad hands Mom a gold wrapped rectangle that is addressed “To Julie, From Carl, Santa’s curator for the North Pole Fine Art museum.” Mom rips open the paper and stares at the framed print in her hands. We sit in silence, waiting for her to show us what the gift is. It’s quiet for just a little too long. My brother gives me a sideways glance, silently asking “what’s going on?” Mom’s face reddens and a tear rolls onto her cheek. The mood of the room is instantly serious. Everyone focuses on Mom.

“I love the story of Elizabeth in the bible. She holds a special place in my heart,” Mom says, her voice trembling. She gazes lovingly at the artwork in her hand, unaware of the group of people staring at her. “Think how Mary must have felt in her situation. Pregnant and unmarried; probably being shunned by those around her, but Elizabeth welcomes her with open arms. Elizabeth may have been the only one to believe Mary’s story because of her own experience with a miraculous pregnancy. She supports and loves Mary when Mary most needs it. That’s why we gave Susan the middle name Elizabeth.” As she turns the frame in our direction she looks directly in my eyes. Her gaze is all tenderness, her cheeks red from crying. My throat closes up and I look away to keep from crying. My heart melts like the falling snow outside.

Yesterday I felt alone and forgotten. This morning I feel like the star on top of our Christmas tree. Maybe I’m not as unwanted as I thought I was. Maybe the people in this room really do care about me, even though they forget to show it sometimes. The best gift I got that year was that look from my mother. It didn’t cost anything, but it was perfect for me.

That Carl Bloch print now hangs on my wall, a gift from my mother when they moved seven years later. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, is at the top of a short staircase with arms outstretched. An expression of pure love is on her face, as Mary approaches from the bottom of the stairs. Each time I pass it I remember my mother looking at me the same way one lonely Christmas morning. And each time I pass it my heart melts a little more.

08 A Salad for Santa

Two days before Christmas, while stuffing his sack,

Santa Claus found himself craving a snack.

“Candy cane? Fudge?” suggested the elves.

“Cocoa and cookies are here on the shelves.”

“I’ll gobble the goodies tomorrow night.

Right now I’m longing for something that’s light.

Here is the list, you know what to pack.”

He slipped outside, promising, “I’ll be right back.”

Santa summoned the reindeer, hitched up his sleigh,

and in less than no time they were up and away.

They sped south-southeast for an hour or more,

‘til they saw the bright lights of a grocery store.

The reindeer touched down with a brisk trit-trot,

claiming five spaces in the parking lot.

Santa joined shoppers in holiday mood,

filling their carts with festive food.

Turkey and ham, fruitcake and pie…

Not for today, Santa thought with a sigh.

Turning the corner, he started to smile.

He found his desire in the produce aisle.

Iceberg lettuce will fit in at home.

Romaine reminds me of summer in Rome.

Though it’s not part of my regular diet,

good children eat spinach – I guess I should try it!

Radishes, carrots, tomatoes, and scallions,

a nice tangy dressing, too – maybe Italian.

He skipped to the check-out with cart piled high,

stacked the bags in the sleigh, and flew north through the sky.

As he chopped up his veggies and gave them a toss,

an elf bustled in to report to the boss.

“The presents are wrapped, and we’re ready to roll – “

Then he stopped short at the sight of the bowl.

“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t mean to be rude,

but you went all that way for reindeer food?”

“It’s a salad,” said Santa. “Come, pull up a chair.

It’s zesty and crisp, and I’m happy to share!”

“No, thanks,” he replied. “You know what we say:

‘A bonbon a day keeps the gray hairs away.’”

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” The elf would not budge.

Santa dismissed him. “Go back to your fudge.”

The balky elf backed out through the door.

Santa just smiled as he scooped up some more.

With a chuckle he thought, Now I understand why

elves may live forever, but reindeer can fly!

What I liked best: The idea that Santa eats salad. There are some health nuts in my extended family who would love a picture book like this.

Publication ready: Very close. A couple of lines need some tweaking, but overall, I liked it!

07 Slushballs

It wasn’t just a snowball. It was a dirty slushball. And it hit me on the ear. Slush oozed under my fuzzy pink scarf and down my shirt. I screamed and yanked the slushy scarf off my neck.
Jimmy Torbell laughed.

I glared at him while I used the dry end of the scarf to clean the icky slush off the side of my face and neck. “I hate you, Jimmy Torbell. You’re such a jerk.”

Jimmy stuck his tongue out, which was so very juvenile. “I know you are, but what am I?”

I stomped my foot, but I knew better than to answer his taunts. His chappy red hands were reaching for more slush. I ran.

“You run like a girl,” he yelled.

I turned around to inform him that I was a girl but he hit me in the mouth with another slushball before I could speak. Gross. I spit the slushball out. My mother taught me that every girl is a princess and that I should be a proper lady, but princesses and ladies don’t get hit in the mouth with a slushball. I ran at him and hit him in the chest with my head. He fell on the pile of snow between our driveways. I was cramming snow in his face when my brother, Matt, dragged me off and carried me inside, kicking and screaming.

My mother was disappointed in me. But Jimmy always threw slushballs and I’d had enough. They were cold and filthy and my favorite scarf was too dirty to wear to school.

“Megan, what possessed you to tackle Jimmy and mash snow in his face?” Mom asked. It sounded like a bad thing, the way she put it.

“He hit me in the ear and in the mouth with a slushball,” I told my wet socks.

“Jimmy is having a rough time right now.”

I rolled my eyes. “I know. I know. His dad lost his job. They have to move. Blah, blah, blah. That doesn’t give him an excuse to be mean. Plus he gets to move in with his grandparents which might as well be heaven.”

Mom closed her eyes. I could tell she was counting because her lips twitched. “You are older than Jimmy.”

“By a year. I was teaching him a lesson,” I said. “If he doesn’t learn it from me, he’ll learn it from someone even older. And bigger.” I almost added meaner, but I didn’t want to push my luck.

“The Torbells are moving the day after Christmas,” Mom said. “Please try to be a good neighbor until then. This move is hard for them.”

I couldn’t help but smile. Having the Torbells move was the best Christmas present ever. But I knew better than to say that out loud. Then I felt a tiny twinge of guilt. Jimmy’s little sister, Sam, was a sweet kid. I couldn’t help but feel bad for her. She would never escape Jimmy.

“I’ll be as good a neighbor as he is,” I said. And that was when I knew I’d gone too far. Mom had that look in her eyes, that lifting of the brow, that slight raise on the left side of her mouth. She had an idea.

“That is a wonderful suggestion,” Mom said, smiling sweetly. Oh gag.

“Uh,” I said.

“I want you to do some nice deeds for Jimmy. Show him what it’s like to be a good neighbor.”

I didn’t roll my eyes, as much as I wanted to. “Fine. I won’t push him in the snow.”

Mom smiled. I hate that smile—sweet and deadly. “I’ll be basing your Christmas on your nice deeds.”

My jaw dropped. She couldn’t be serious. But I’ve seen that look in her eyes before. She’s not one for idol threats. I had to find a way out of this mess fast—a way that didn’t involve me being nice to Jimmy. “But you finished Christmas shopping last month.”

“I can still return presents.”

“But that’s not fair. Christmas is only two days away.” I couldn’t possibly bring myself to be nice to Jimmy by then. It takes weeks to forgive a slushball—and Jimmy threw two at me in one day! I still hadn’t forgiven him for the time he hit me on the way to school and I had a dirty coat all day.

Mom shrugged. “Life isn’t fair.”

I hate it when she says that.

Mom explained her plan to Dad during dinner. Dad liked the idea. I didn’t expect him to take my side, especially when Mom made orange fudge for dessert. I can’t compete with fudge. The best I can do is open a package of Oreos.

“We should do something nice for the whole family,” Dad said.

Matt groaned. “Why bother? They’re moving.”

I ducked, just in case Mom started spewing lightning, which would have been pretty cool, especially since it was aimed at Matt and not me.

“What did you say?” Mom asked.

Matt froze. I could almost hear the gears in his head click while he searched for a way to smooth over his previous statement. I smeared mashed potatoes all over my plate so it would look like I ate some while everyone glared at him.

“Come on,” Matt said. “The twerp threw a slushball at my little sister. He had it coming. He’s had it coming for a while. I was about ready to plant his face in some snow.”

“He has a point,” Dad said. “She was standing up for herself.”

“When will you learn that violence only begets violence?” Mom asked.

Matt and I looked at each other and shrugged. Sometimes Mom speaks a language of her own. Usually we just smile and nod but this time was different. She was either going to cry or yell at us. I didn’t want either so I said the first soothing thing that came to my mind.

“We could bring them some orange fudge.”

Matt kicked me under the table. I shrugged and jerked my head toward Mom. He made a face at the table before turning angelic and agreeing with me. “Good idea, Megan.”

Mom’s lip quivered, but she managed to hold it together. “Finally, you get it!”

“You aren’t going to take it all over, are you?” Dad asked. Mom glared at him and Dad raised his hands in surrender. “I’m kidding. I’ll get a plate.”

“I’ll help,” I said.

Mom put her hand on my shoulder so I couldn’t stand. “You can finish eating your mashed potatoes while we get the plate ready.”

I choked down my potatoes and washed the nasty texture away with a glass of milk while everyone else gathered coats, scarves, and our precious fudge. I craned my head to see if there was any fudge left. The pan looked pretty empty. At least some of it would go to Sam.

“Mom,” I said as we trudged down our driveway.


“Could you show me how to make orange fudge?”

Mom laughed and I knew my Christmas was safe, which was a good thing since giving up my fudge was about as nice as I could manage.

“Sure,” Mom said. “I can teach you how to make fudge when we get home. I’m sure your Dad will be relieved.”

Mom rang the doorbell and sang Jingle Bells. Dad joined in. Matt and I stood behind them and hoped no one would see us.

Jimmy’s mom opened the door and Mom handed her the plate of fudge. Jimmy stuck his head out from behind a box in the living room and stuck his tongue out at us. I smiled as sweetly as my lips would allow. If I reacted now, I might be stuck doing nice things for the twerp until Christmas. The adults started talking about moving trucks and packing so Matt and I went home.

The day after Christmas, I went outside to watch the movers load the moving van. Sam ran over to me to show off her new doll. I bent over to give her a hug. “I’m going to miss you.”

Sam hugged me back. “I’ll miss you. The fudge was yummy, but Jimmy ate most of it.” She stuck her lip out in a cute little pout.

I stood up and something white flew through the air and hit me in the stomach, right where my head had just been. Jimmy laughed.

“Stop it, Jimmy,” I yelled. I pulled my hand inside my sleeve to wipe the slush off my coat. But he hadn’t thrown a slushball. It was just a snowball. And it wasn’t even dirty.

I can’t say I was sad when the moving truck pulled away. But I can’t help but wonder if Mom was right. Did Jimmy switch to snow because I did something nice? There was a puddle of dirty slush next to the pile of snow and this time Jimmy picked the snow.

06 The Christmas Rescue

Based on a true story

The sound of the tires on the pavement made a low, dull humming sound as the car sped forward. Only 700 miles left until I would be ‘Home for Christmas’ as the song said.

‘Home’ was not exactly the right word to use, however. As a sophomore in college, and an Air Force brat, I was headed to my parents’ first owned home in San Antonio. In my twenty years of life I had lived in more than half of the contiguous United States and in Great Britain. So, for me, ‘home’ was not a definite place, just wherever Mom and Dad happened to be living.

“Mom and Dad must be glad to finally have moved in,” I thought to myself. “Especially Mom.”

I was just glad to have Dad back home, safe and sound. As a hospital administrator for the Air Force, he was sent all over the world setting up field clinics, base hospitals, and everything in between. He had recently returned from the Philippines and was scheduled to go back soon.
“As long as it’s not Korea,” I voiced out loud to the empty station wagon.

With only the charcoal gray pavement and the flat, brown New Mexico landscape in front of me my mind wandered to stories my father had told me of his early days in World War II as a medic and an ambulance driver in North Africa. No matter how much I had begged for reports of battles and Rommel and the Allied victory there, Dad would never say much. Instead he spoke of visiting the Sphinx and of his experiences assisting in a remote field dental clinic.

“Spiers, pedal faster,” the dentist repeated for the third time. “If General Fredendal’s root canal is going to be finished by the end of the war, I need the drill to go at top speed.”

Spiers pushed harder against the pedal. Muffled groans of pain from the General’s open mouth and the sound of the drill against the tooth made it hard to concentrate on pedaling to keep the drill going. Sweat ran down his back as the hot African morning shifted into midday and heated the room to sauna-like temperatures.

Suddenly, the general’s moans turned into a piercing scream.

“Ahh,” the dentist noted, “Now we are getting somewhere. It will all be over soon, General. I know it’s difficult without anesthesia, but I am working as fast as I can. Keep pedaling, Spiers.”

Nearly five o’clock in the evening. The Socorro radio stations were beginning to transmit more static than Christmas carols as I headed further and further east toward my destination. The sun was beginning to set in the sky behind me, casting flame colored hues across the horizon. A Spanish-style ranch along the side of the highway had lit luminaries to celebrate the holiday season. The soft glow of the candles radiated a feeling of peace and calmness despite my rush to get home.

I switched off the radio and thought more about Dad and his experiences during the war. How much more had he experienced, but never spoke about, I wondered? So few family members seemed to really know what Dad had experienced in his many years at war. Not even Mom. There was the incident that made the newspaper, though.

Grandma Rose fainted upon reading the headline of the Ogden Standard Examiner: Local Boy Declared a Hero. The photograph of the burning plane is what had stunned her the most. Grandma Rose’s dream of a few days prior had seemed so real and frightening—Don was running into a scorching fire. The dream had wakened her with its life-like clarity. She had prayed he would never have to experience such an incident in real life. And she had certainly never expected he would survive it.

But he had. And he was a hero. The article read: —

“On November 10 PFC Donald J. Spiers, a native of Ogden, Utah, was declared a hero after braving a burning plane to rescue several injured enlisted men. The downed two-engine plane, a C-47, had crash landed near the runway of the Lancaster Air Force base and immediately burst into flames.

“Despite the potential of personal injury, Private Spiers immediately rushed into the plane in an effort to save surviving passengers. His efforts helped to save the lives of three injured men: Sergeant David Williamson of New York, PFC Christopher Daniels of Pennsylvania, and PSC Brett Simonds of Arizona.

“In honor of his bravery, PFC Spiers will be the recipient of the Air Force Cross, which is awarded for extraordinary heroism. The medal is to be awarded to Spiers in the presence of his wife and family during his upcoming two-week leave of absence.”

The night sky was dark with only a sliver of the moon to light the night. The Texas landscape seemed to go on for miles and miles. Silently I cursed the flat tire I had had to fix earlier in the day. It had cost me some of the money I’d budgeted for fuel. I skipped dinner and used the last of my money to buy gasoline in a next-to-nothing town called Sonora. Only a few hundred miles to go on half a tank of gas. I did the mental math and hoped it would be just enough to get me home.

I checked the radio again only to catch bits and pieces of Elvis’ Blue Christmas and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. I knew with near certainty it would not be a white– all the more reason to leave Utah and the snow behind for a holiday break—or a blue Christmas in San Antonio. A tinsel-decorated tree would be glowing and shimmering in the living room at home. Mom always decorated to the nines and cooked a feast for the family to enjoy over the holidays. I imagined the smell of her pies cooking and my stomach growled noisily.

“Darn that flat tire!” I muttered aloud.

In an effort to distract my mind from hunger I thought back on the conversation I had had with the Dean of the Business School earlier in the week. Dean Lewis had served with Dad in Italy, and I had asked about their time together there. He was surprised I knew so little.

December 2, 1943. The bay shimmered reflections of the city lights cast down from the surrounding Italian hillsides. Sergeant Spiers and Medic Lewis leaned casually against a stone wall at the dock, smoking and watching a fleet of seventeen ships as they slowly made their way into the bay of Bari. The calm night was quiet and serene with only the lapping of water and the occasional car passing by to be heard.

“How much longer before they dock?” Lewis asked Spiers between drags on his cigarette.

“Not too long before they dock. But how long it will take them to unload the hospital supplies is anyone’s guess. Hopefully before dawn,” replied Spiers.

Silence resumed between the two again.

A short while later they could hear the low pitch of an engine rumble.

“What’s that noise?” Lewis asked as he tried to determine the direction from which it came.
“I’m not sure, but it’s getting louder.”

The two men looked at each other and then to the north. The sound was growing by the minute.
“It sounds like an airplane. Actually, a lot of planes,” Sergeant Spiers paused before adding, “German planes.”

Just then a squadron of over one hundred German aircraft came into sight, flying low and quick over the water. Within seconds the bombing began, whistling torpedoes blasting into the convoy of ships that had entered the bay. Spiers and Lewis dove behind the stone wall to wait out the deafening attack and protect themselves from the diving planes.

Broken glass, fires, and screaming men made the next hour nearly unbearable. Again and again the planes swooped over the harbor, shooting and bombing until every one of the ships was severely damaged and quickly sinking.

Then, as quickly as they came, the planes were gone. And the night air was full of the wailing injured.

“Quick, get into that rowboat. There are men out there who need help,” Spiers commanded as he and Lewis rose from their hiding place to see the devastation.

“Wait! That garlic-y odor—that’s mustard gas. There must have been some on one of the ships. We can’t go out there,” Lewis exclaimed in fear.

“We have to go out there. Too many people need help. The sooner we get there, the more we can save from the gas. Come on!” Spiers dragged Lewis to the boat and threw him a life jacket.

Finally, the lights of San Antonio came into view. I sighed audibly to myself. But my heart was racing as my mind urged the wood-paneled station wagon to keep on going. The gas gauge had been on ‘E’ for more than 20 miles. Realistically it was not going to be much longer before I ran out of gasoline and would be left stranded on the outskirts of town.

A sudden realization struck me: I don’t know where Mom and Dad’s new home is located. All I have is an address. But having never been to San Antonio before, I had no idea how to find it.
I took the first exit hoping to find a telephone to use, but the late hour revealed very few businesses to be open. A few had brightly shining Christmas lights along the roofline, but the windows were dark and empty.

My engine started sputtering about the time I spotted a Texaco station a half a mile ahead with its sign still lit. Using the last of the station wagon’s momentum, I coasted the car part way into the gas station’s lot before coming to a dead halt. After pulling my stiff but lanky, 6’4” frame from the car I slowly walked up to the attendant.

“Can I help ya?” he asked as I came closer. His blue work-shirt was stained with oil and grease, but bore a name patch that read ‘Hank.’

“I ran out of gas,” I sheepishly admitted.

“Kinda’ thought so,” Hank replied in his heavy Texan accent.

“I am out of money, but my parents live here in town. I’ve been driving home for Christmas from college in Utah. Could I borrow a dime to call home? I’ll repay you after my Dad comes to get me.”

I hoped my rambling explanation would be convincing enough. Hank was eyeing me warily.

“Please?” I added as an afterthought.

“I suppose so. What’s yer name, son?” he asked as he led me to the office and the pay phone on the wall.

“Jim. Jim Spiers,” I replied with gratitude in my voice. Then I added, “Thank you, sir,” as he drew a dime from his pocket and placed it in the machine.

The phone rang once, twice, three times before Dad’s groggy voice answered the phone.


“Hi, Dad. Sorry to wake you. I made it to San Antonio, but I’ve run out of gas and I’m broke. Can you bring a gas can and come help me?”

“Where are you?”

“I’m not exactly sure. I took the first exit off of the highway and then coasted into a Texaco station a mile or so into town.”

“What are your cross roads? Can you see the street signs?” His voice was sounding more awake now.

“Well,” I craned my neck to see what signs I could read. “It looks like I’m on the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk – no, wait! Now it’s Don’t Walk and Walk.”

“Smart aleck-y kid. Stay where you are, I’ll be there soon.”

“Thanks, Dad,” I replied and hung up the phone.

Twenty minutes later Dad arrived to rescue me with a gas can in hand and $20 pressed into my palm. He even repaid Hank for the borrowed dime.

“Glad you’re home safe,” Dad said as we filled the gas can.

“Me too, Dad,” I replied.


Nearly fifty Christmases later and Dad is still rescuing people. At nearly 90-years-old he is painting a collection of pictures showing the meaningful times in his life. His gift to me this year was one of these watercolors. It is not of a burning plane, the front lines, or field hospitals. It is of a 1951 Chevy station wagon that did not quite make it to the pumps on that December night so long ago.

What I liked best: The individual scenes are strong and your dialog is good.

Publication ready: No. The switching between POVs it tough in a short story. We don’t really connect with either the storyteller or his father. Needs a much stronger hook, a plot and story arc, and less jumping back and forth.

05 Kali’s Gift

“Okay,” our primary teacher, Sister Woodland, said. “It’s time for the gift

I was actually sort of excited. Not ecstatic, or anything. But I knew what a lot of the girls had brought, and any of those gifts would have been really great. Especially my best friend, Sara’s gift. She had made fudge and put it in this super cute bear mug. I love fudge and figured it would be fun to have the bear mug to drink hot cocoa in over Christmas.

And rich Megan Perkins had wrapped a bottle of expensive perfume. Her favorite kind, she said. Megan always smelled really good. I wouldn’t mind smelling like her for the holidays.

Actually, all the girls had brought cool gifts. Sister Woodland had us put them all on our classroom table, next to the manger scene she had set up. Sister Woodland had just finished telling us the story of Jesus’ birth. Something she did every year before we had our class Christmas party.

We opened the gifts like a game. We each drew numbers and we got to go up to the table and choose a wrapped gift when our number was called. Or more accurately put, we could choose a wrapped gift—if we wanted to. But we didn’t necessarily have to. We could take a gift from somebody else that had already had their number called—if we thought we’d like that
gift better than the wrapped ones.

Some of the gifts really got passed around. Like Sara’s. Everyone likes fudge.

Still, everybody seemed to like the gift I’d brought. I was relieved, since I hadn’t paid much for it. It was just some cheap nail polish—but in a cool color—and I’d tied a fingernail file to it with a pretty ribbon.

I’d hoped the girls would like it—but I’d been worried they wouldn’t. After all, I hadn’t had very much money to spend. I was basically broke and I still had my mom’s Christmas gift left to buy. I wanted to get her something special. Something cool. But that was the problem. Cool things seemed to cost a lot of money … and I just didn’t have any.

When it was my turn, I didn’t take a wrapped gift from the table. And I didn’t take Sara’s either, though I really wanted to. Just being around fudge was making me hungry. But I took the perfume Megan had brought, instead.

“Bummer,” Beth groaned as I took the bottle from her.

“It’s for my mom,” I wanted to explain, but I didn’t bother. It was none of Beth’s business. It was no one’s business. I didn’t have enough money to get Mom something as special as she deserved, but the perfume was really nice. She might really like it … and maybe she would let me borrow it sometimes.

I was busy thinking about the perfume and whether Mom would like it or not. I guess that’s how I missed how the incident happened. But suddenly there was a big commotion. It had been Hannah’s turn to choose. She was the last one. And no big shock, she didn’t go for the last wrapped gift on the table. Instead she’d taken Sara’s gift from Lauren.

Well, that meant Lauren had to take the wrapped gift. She’d huffed all the way up to the table. Everyone knew the last gift was from Kali. That’s why no one had chosen it. Kali was really poor. I mean, really poor. And she always brought lame gifts—gifts no one ever wanted. I guess everyone knew today would be no exception. And it wasn’t. The gift Kali had wrapped? A pair of crocheted potholders. Potholders!

“I don’t want to be stuck with these,” Lauren whined. “I want my fudge back.”

“No way,” Hannah protested, keeping the mug of chocolate out of Lauren’s reach.

“Then I want Megan’s perfume.” Lauren came over to take my perfume. “Come on, Nicole, trade with me.”

I shook my head. The game was over. I had gotten the perfume fair and square. No way was I giving it up.

Sister Woodland cleared her throat. “Nicole, why don’t you trade with Lauren?”

Because I don’t want to, I wanted to tell my teacher through clenched teeth. She was always doing this to me. Making me take the dorky gift. Last year I had to take the broken gingerbread house, and for Valentines day I had to settle for the messed up valentine. And I always, always got stuck with Kali’s lame gifts. It wasn’t fair.

I was about tell Sister Woodland off. Tell her I was tired of being the nice guy and getting stuck with the lame stuff and stinky deals. I was about to tell her what she could do with her stinkin’ potholders. But …

Then I noticed Kali sitting silently in the back of the classroom. She was sitting there all alone with her head bowed. Suddenly I felt ashamed of myself … and the rest of the class. Poor Kali. She had obviously worked hard on the potholders. And they were really nice … as far as potholders go.

And she probably didn’t want to give them to us any more than any of us wanted them. Probably her mom had dragged her to church this morning. Probably she had tried to fake sick or something so she could stay home and not have to go through this. I know that’s what I would have done.

“Sure—I’ll take the potholders,” I said to Sister Woodland. I gave my best effort to smile. But it was kind of hard. I felt sort of sick myself. “They’re really pretty.” I glanced over at Kali—wanting to say something nice to her. Wanting to make up for how horrible Lauren and
Hannah and I had acted. “Did you make them yourself?”

Kali nodded, but I already knew she had. Our class had learned to crochet as a craft project last year. None of us other girls really got the hang of it. Obviously Kali had.

“They’re really pretty,” I said again.


“Here,” I told my mom after church, handing her the potholders as soon as I hopped into the car. “They’re an early Christmas gift. I’ll get you something else too—something real.”

“They’re beautiful,” mom said, actually beaming.

She seemed so delighted with them, I was worried she was confused or something. “I didn’t make them,” I confessed quickly. “Kali Harris did.”

“I know,” Mom said, still beaming. “Sister Woodland told me what happened in class today. She says she relies on you to keep peace in the class a lot.” Mom gave me a hug. “Sister Woodland said you handled the situation wonderfully. You’re growing to be a very thoughtful young woman—that’s the best Christmas present a mother could ask for.”

I rode home from church with a happy heart, knowing next year I would be honored to get Kali’s gift.

04 Finding Clara and Christmas

Joy to the world!

“I am so excited it’s Christmas,” shouted Victoria Scarlett Jones from high atop her tree house. She listened for her echo.

Christmas Eve gloried in the little town of Archerville. Bright bulbs—red, yellow, orange, blue and green glowed on Christmas trees and shone through lacy curtains. Wreaths with big bows decorated every door.

Southern sunrays warm most Decembers in Florida. This year was no exception. Twelve year-old Victoria Scarlett Jones and her best friend, big Betty Jo Martin stood ready. They perched high in the tree house in Victoria Scarlett’s yard.

Betty Joe said, “Hanging out in a tree house is the perfect place to be, even if it is Christmas Eve.”

Victoria Scarlett and Betty Jo planned a special “gift” for snaggle-toothed, freckled-faced, hairy-scary, lean, mean, Jimbo Bean. He was not really hairy, but he was their favorite target when it came to pelting. With a stash of dirt bombs carefully laid out on the ledge of the tree house railing, they waited for Jimbo to stroll by.

“I can’t wait for Mean Bean to come,” Victoria Scarlett said as she rubbed her hands together.

“I’m going to blast his backside so hard, he’ll wish he had grits in his britches.”

“I’m sure he’ll be along soon,” Betty Jo said.

“When he does get here, I’m gonna pelt him a hundred time before he know what’s happening.”

“Girl, you know we don’t have a hundred dirt bombs,” Betty Jo said with a giggle.

. “But we’ve got enough to make him think so.” Victoria Scarlett snickered.

Something caught her eye and Victoria Scarlett bent down. She picked up an acorn that had clunked to the tree house floor. “Yes! We’ll stash a hoard of these.”

“How about those seashells the storm tossed up on the beach yesterday? We collected a bunch of them,” Betty Jo said.

“We don’t want to kill him. They’ll put us in jail. He’s not worth that. Dirt bombs and acorns will do just fine,” Victoria Scarlett said.

A strong gust of wind swiped at Victoria Scarlett’s long, honey blonde, crimpy curls. Even her Braves baseball cap couldn’t contain the massive, billowing hair. Betty Jo’s dark brown bob hardly budged when the wind blew. Victoria Scarlett was tiny, ‘peaches and cream’ while Betty Jo was a stocky, ‘suntan ‘n sandy’ sort of girl. They dressed alike most days. Today they wore jeans, matching Florida Fightin’ Gator T-shirts and red Keds. Victoria Scarlett always told everyone that her mom spelled her “Scarlett” with two “t’s” because she was ‘totally terrific.’
At that moment the girls heard a faint ‘click, clack,’ coming up the sidewalk.

“Jimbo has heel taps on his boots,” Betty Jo said.

With careful hands, Victoria Scarlett gathered two dirt balls. “It’s gotta be him. Get your bombs ready,” she said.

Before Jimbo got within walloping distance, a strange noise from a different direction troubled their ears. They picked up more bombs.

Chapter Two

“Shhh,” whispered Betty Jo. “Listen.” She put her hand to her ear and pushed it forward like it’d help her to hear.

“Ooooooh, —-el–, elp—-elp—-“

“Sounds like a kid crying, huh?” Betty Joe said. She put her bombs back on the ledge.

“It’s not loud, so it’s definitely not Jimbo. Anyway, he stopped in Billy’s driveway to shoot baskets. See him?” Victoria Scarlett said.

“Maybe it was a cat,” Betty Jo suggested. “The sound is coming from that vacant lot over there. You know there are alley cats and all kinds of creatures in there.”

“He—-lp. I nee—-d, h—-elp!”

“Whoa, that is not a cat. It’s a human,” whispered Victoria Scarlett. Her dirt bombs dropped to the floor.

“I’m scared,” Betty Jo said as she grabbed Victoria Scarlett’s arm and held onto her.

“Somebody needs help. We’ve got to over there,” Victoria Scarlett said.

With trembling, knocking knees, they climbed down the tree house ladder. Gaining courage, bullet-like, the girls zinged across the lawn. Victoria Scarlett and Betty Jo reached the vacant lot in seconds. They struggled through bushes and briars. Something moved. Peering closer, the girls saw the sound maker.

“Call 911, quick!” Victoria Scarlett ordered as she kneeled down and bent over a form.
Betty Jo shot to the nearest phone, across the street from the vacant lot. She grabbed a quarter from her jeans pocket and shoved it into the phone slot.

”The ambulance is en route. You may hang up now,” the operator told her. Rushing back to Victoria Scarlett, Betty Jo ran into Jimbo Bean and his dog, Lulu.

“Ugh,” Betty Jo pretended to be sick. “How’d you snake your way over here without me noticing? You can slither on home now.”

“A spooky noise came from those bushes. I’m gonna investigate,” Jimbo said as he began to walk beside Betty Jo.

“Go on home. And, take Little Lulu with you. Me and Victoria Scarlett have everything under control. We don’t need your aggravation.”

Jimbo gouged his boot toe into a weedy clump. “I want to help.”

“You might do. In a pinch,” Betty Jo said.

Betty Jo ran back to the vacant lot, Jimbo in tow. Lulu scampered along behind—able to keep up even though, having been bitten by a rattlesnake a few years ago, could run only on three legs. They found Victoria Scarlett kneeling beside a woman, holding her hand and talking in soft tones.

The lady was dressed nicely, Victoria Scarlett noticed, in a pink and blue flowered dress with a white lace collar. Her snowy white hair looked like she’d had it curled recently at the beauty parlor.

“The ambulance is coming,” Betty Jo said, hoping the lady could hear her voice and understand that help was on the way.

“I’m glad. The medics will know what to do,” Victoria Scarlett said. Patting the woman’s hand, Victoria Scarlett assured her, “See I told you we’d get help.”

“Her neck broke?” Jimbo asked as he knelt close to the lady’s feet.

Victoria Scarlett plastered her hand over Jimbo’s lips. “Hush your mouth. She can hear you,” she whispered. “What’s he doing here anyway,” she asked Betty Jo.

“It’s a long story, and we can’t argue in front of her,” Betty Jo whispered.

“You’re right. Okay, I guess he can stay.” Victoria Scarlett pulled at the button of Jimbo’s flannel shirt he wore on top of a blue T-shirt. “Make yourself useful, Jimbo. Give us your shirt. Her hands feel cool,”

Jimbo handed over his shirt. Victoria Scarlett put it over the lady’s chest and tucked it around her as best she could.

Victoria Scarlett could see the lady’s finger bones under the pale, wrinkled skin. Victoria Scarlett’s own hands were satiny smooth and pink beside this hand.

“Th—ank good—ness you ca—me,” groaned the little old lady. “I-I-I don’t know how long I’ve been lying here. You kids are so sweet to help me.” The lady’s voice trembled as she spoke.
She looks so pitiful and helpless, thought Victoria Scarlett. I bet she doesn’t weigh more than 90 pounds and she must be nearly 90 years old. I hope she doesn’t…oh! I can’t think that.

Chapter Three

“My-my-my name is Clara. I, uh, well, several people did come by. I guess they didn’t…hear me… calling for help,” stammered the lady.

Victoria Scarlett touched Clara’s pale forehead and gently stroked it. A few smears of blood had crusted on Clara’s face. “Your face is scratched and bleeding. How’d you get here?”
Clara’s sharp, skinny elbows gouged into the dirt as she tried to use her strength to raise her body.

“No, no. Be still until the rescue squad comes,” implored Betty Joe.

“Oh, I-I-I’m not seriously injured.” Clara’s voice seemed a bit stronger. “I was very lonesome this Christmas Eve. This is the first Christmas I’ve spent without Elmer. Elmer…my husband.” Tears trickled down Clara’s cheeks as she choked out the words: “Elmer died last month. Just after Thanksgiving.”

Clara clutched Victoria Scarlett’s hand tighter. Jimbo hung his head and squirmed. Betty Joe’s eyes grew large as she continued to fix her gaze on the pitiable heap lying on the ground.
Using the sleeve of Jimbo’s shirt, Victoria Scarlett blotted Clara’s tears and patted Clara’s shoulder with gentleness. “We understand, Ms. Clara.”

Clara said, “An afternoon walk used to cheer me up. Today I particularly needed cheering up. So, I started down the sidewalk and I saw the cutest little puppy. I only wanted to pet it and wish it a Merry Christmas. That’s what Elmer would’ve done, you know. He loved animals and children…and just about everybody, I guess.”

“I bet he did,” Betty Joe said as she sat down alongside Clara and Victoria Scarlett. Jimbo still kneeled at her feet.

Clara continued, “I followed the puppy as he scampered into these briars. Only I didn’t know there were briars. Then, I stepped on a rock half hidden in the weeds. I turned my ankle. So, here I am, lying in the brambles with a sprained ankle. I know that’s all it is—a sprain. But, I couldn’t get up by myself. Elmer is so strong. He could get me up from here in a minute.”
“But, the blood,” Jimbo said in a shaky voice.

“That’s only briar scratches. However, I was getting worried that I might be here a long time. People kept passing by and not stopping. They couldn’t hear me calling. I am so thankful you three came to my rescue.”

At that moment the ambulance arrived. Two men and a woman came got out and came over with a stretcher, stethoscope and other medical supplies. Victoria Scarlett, Betty Joe and Jimbo moved away to give the EMT rescuers space to examine Clara.

“They’re checking her out real good,” Jimbo said as the three kids stood on the sidelines looking on. To Victoria Scarlett, it seemed like the exam took forever.

As she removed the stethoscope and put it into the bag, the lady EMT said, “You are going to be fine. You just have a sprained ankle.”

“See, I told you so,” Clara said.

“All right!” Jimbo practically shouted. He bounced on one foot then the other.

Jimbo is not such a bad guy. I shouldn’t be so hard on him, Victoria Scarlett thought.

The EMTs cleaned the blood from Clara’s face and put an ACE bandage on her ankle.

One of the men rescuers said, “Ma’m, after Christmas you should have this checked out by your doctor. But, for right now you’re okay to go home. We’ll take you in the ambulance.”

“Please…can these kids ride with me?” Clara begged. “I only live one block from here.”

“Umm. I guess that’d be okay, for that short distance. Do your parents know where you are?” asked the lady EMT.

Chapter Four

“Yes, our parents know we explore this area, usually riding our bikes,” Betty Joe said. “We don’t have to be home for another couple of hours.”

Once inside Clara’s house the EMT persons helped Clara get comfortable on her sofa and checked her blood pressure and pulse again. And then, they left.

Looking around the dark room Victoria Scarlett noticed a small, undecorated Christmas tree in the corner. No other signs of Christmas existed in this house. No presents, no cookies, nothing like Victoria Scarlett had at her house.

A picture frame perched on a table at the end of the sofa. In it, Victoria Scarlett recognized Clara sitting next to a robust, balding man. For sure this must be Elmer.

“Can we get you a glass of water or something?” Victoria Scarlett asked.

“Oh, Elmer.” Clara turned her face into the pillow and began to sob. Her body trembled. Her shoulders shook as she cried.

Victoria Scarlett walked over and gently patted Clara’s arm. Betty Joe rubbed her shaking shoulders.

“Is there anything we can do to help you get ready for Christmas? Are you expecting guests…or relatives?” Betty Joe asked.

Controlling her sobs, Clara said, “No, I’m not looking for anyone to come for Christmas. Elmer and me, we had no children. We love children but were never able to have any.” Clara sat up, wiped her eyes, patted her hair and straightened her dress. “I’ll be okay. Really. You need to get back home. I know you must have a million things to do to get your Christmas ready. Your parents will be worried.”

Jimbo said, “Oh, no. They don’t care. They like for us to be out of their hair. My mama says I’m always in the way.” His face flushed. He shoved his hands in his pants pocket and looked embarrassed. Victoria Scarlett had never known Jimbo to be embarrassed about anything. Maybe he does have feelings she thought.

Fingering and twisting her lace collar, Clara began again, “The reason I wanted you kids to ride home with me in the ambulance is…I wanted to do something to say “Thank You” for coming to my rescue. But now that we’re here, I can’t think of anything to give you. I didn’t bake this year. No Christmas cookies, no pies or cakes.”

“Oh, please,” Victoria Scarlett said, “we don’t want any rewards. We just wanted to help.”
Jimbo said, “Yeah, we need to help our neighbors whether they’re next-door kind or just neighbors in this big world.”

Jimbo does have a big heart Victoria Scarlett thought. I’ve gotta remember to be nicer to him.
Victoria Scarlett walked over to the corner where the little tree stood. She said, “Ms. Clara if you’d let us help you decorate your tree, that’d be like a reward.”

Clara sprang from the sofa. Her face beamed with excitement. “I would love that. I have boxes of ornaments in the closet.” She hobbled over, opened the closet door, and pulled out several boxes and bags of icicles, tinsel and ornaments. There was even a wreath for the door.

When they were nearly finished decorating, Victoria Scarlett said, “I’m gonna run home and get a few Christmas cookies that I helped Mama make.”

When Victoria Scarlett returned she not only had cookies, but also a beautifully wrapped gift.
“You can’t open it until tomorrow,” Victoria Scarlett said.

“Let’s sing Carols,” Clara cried.

First they sang Jingle Bells, and then I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. Being native southerners, not one person in the room had ever seen snow at Christmas.

“We could be singing about the white sand out on the beach a couple of miles from here. That gives us a nice, white, Christmas,” Betty Joe said.

Victoria Scarlett thought the room seemed filled with love as everyone sang Silent Night. Clara put her arms around both girls and hugged them. Then, she reached for Jimbo. He looked hesitant, but let her hug him. The four of them made a hugging sandwich. The sandwich swayed to the music.

When the song was over Clara said, “I like hugs. I didn’t realize how much I miss them. Thank you for these special Christmas hugs.”

Victoria Scarlett Jones liked the feeling she had inside knowing that Clara was happier because of her hugs.

With a now rosy glow in her cheeks Clara said, “My life has been enriched because you became a part of it today. I’m sure Elmer is happy, too, knowing that I’m no longer so sad at this special time of year. I know he would want me to be happy and joyous. Thank you for helping bring that joy. You are special kids.”

Betty Joe, Jimbo and Victoria Scarlett exchanged happy glances.

Clara said, “I don’t want our friendship to end. Will you come visit me again?”

“Of course we will,” said Victoria Scarlett.

“If you three will stop by my house on Thursday afternoons I’ll read you a story or we can bake cookies or make a craft.”

“We’d love that,” Betty Joe said as she took a swig of milk Clara had poured to go with the cookies.

Jimbo said, “You’ll be just like a grandma to us. My real grandma passed away like your Elmer.”
“We can read books together and remember your grandma and my Elmer.”

Jimbo popped a last cookie in his mouth and said as he munched, “That’d be super.”

“You know,” Clara said, “your rescue of me this afternoon is like another story I’ve read many times.”

“What story is that?” Victoria Scarlett asked.

“In the Bible. The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Now that is the true meaning of Christmas. And you three kids are the best examples of the real Christmas spirit.”

With those words, Victoria Scarlett, Betty Joe and Jimbo hugged Clara once more and they all sang Joy to the World.

What I liked best: I loved Victoria Scarlett’s voice. It was very unique and individual.

Publication ready: Not quite. I’d ask you to pump up the characterization of Clara, Betty Jo & Jimbo a bit. They are a little too old for some of the things you have them do. I’d make them around 10, 11 tops. To me, it felt more like Georgia or Louisiana, not so much Florida. Also, since it’s called “Finding Clara and Christmas” I’d add in some internal conflict with Victoria Scarlett not having the special feelings of Christmas like she usually does.

Watch punctuation and spelling—especially of Betty Jo/Joe.

03 Who-Hah Holiday

As soon as I heard the doorbell I skimmed across the shiny wood floor in my stocking feet right into the pine-cone filled basket by the window. Forgetting the rule about waiting for Mom to greet the people first, I jumped up, open the door and shouted, “Merry Christmas!” Two people all bundled up in puffy down winter coats and bright red scarves, holding silvery wrapped boxes, repeated my greeting. My mother was just behind me and looked like she was ready to give me the whatever-is-the-matter-with-you speech, but instead she just raised one eyebrow.

“Please come in you two and make yourselves at home,” she sang sweetly while helping them with their coats. “Honey, you take their coats and put them on the bed in the back room,” she said with the company-is-here smile.

I struggled with the heavy coats, dropping one before I got to the back room. No one ever sleeps on the bed. It’s just used for decoration now, because it sags so much in the middle. In a way, I was responsible for its condition. How could I have known that jumping in one spot for long periods of time would break down the springs? From the bedroom I heard Dad’s laughter and something about the football game and how he took a bundle off the guy at the liquor store.

Mom came in and said, “Dear husband, where are your manners?” (She talks funny like that when she’s nervous.) Dad might be discussing that remark with her later. He’s very particular about what you say and how you say it. “Walter and Wanda, what can we get you to drink?”

“You can get me to drink most anything,” Walt howled, slapping Wanda on the back so hard her head nearly bumped the coffee table.

I slipped into the room and sat near the Christmas tree. The reflections of the blinking lights made the rest of the ornaments look like red and green flashing traffic signals.

“What do you want Santa to bring you this year, sweetie?”

I looked up to the full moon face of Mrs. Wanda. She was talking to me. I quickly put my head down, stared at the carpet and replied, “I’m hoping for a playschool kitchen with a table and chairs, a saucer sled, a two person tent and a….

“Honey, would you please bring in the bowl of peanuts from the kitchen?” said my mother pronouncing each word so slowly, as if I didn’t understand English. It’s an old signal. It means “children should be seen and not heard”. I know the rule perfectly well, but it was Mrs. Wanda who asked the question. Sometimes, there’s just no pleasing grownups. If I shrugged my shoulders and had said nothing, I would have gotten the “don’t be rude now, Mrs. Wanda asked you a question, dear.” But, I answered, so I was seen and heard. It’s always very confusing to me.

I stood up and said, “Excuse me, please.”

I heard my mom use that same phrase last week to her card-playing lady friends. They all replied in their sing-song kind of way, “Of course, dearie.” Believe it or not, as I left the room everyone said, “Of course sweetie – what a charming child”. I have to look up that “charming” word. Sounded like candy so it must be good.

I want to point out that I call the guests by their first names, Mr. Walter and Mrs. Wanda, because they said their last name was too hard for people to pronounce. This was okay with my parents because it still showed proper respect. If I wanted proper respect, I would have chosen to be called Captain or Your Majesty.

I placed the peanuts on the table in front of Mr. Walter. He looked at me and I noticed his eyes looked wet like he’d been crying, but the rest of his face was very pink and smiling.

“We have a little present for you,” he said handing me one of the silvery wrapped boxes with a red bow stuck right in the center. I opened it carefully, while reviewing all the rules about receiving presents:

1. Always thank the giver.

2. If you don’t like it, smile anyway, and thank the giver.

The minute it was opened, I knew I had a problem. It was one of my favorite books. I had it on the top of my bedroom library shelf. I could use rule one, but not rule two. If I said I had the book already they would be disappointed, but lying is never acceptable. I should use the “always tell the truth” rule. It was the most important one on life’s rule list.

“Well, sweetie, what do you say?” urged my mom not giving me enough time to sort through my answers.

“I love this book. I used to have one just like it, but it got lost. Thank you very much.” Well, that would have to do – half true and half polite.

I stretched out under the tree pretending to read my new/old book, played with the tinsel on the branches and listened to the mixture of the grownup chatter, clinking ice cubes and sounds of chips and carrots crunching. Once again I heard the doorbell, jumped up and was half way to the door before I realized I was breaking the rule again. I try not to do the same wrong thing twice in one day, so I waited for my mom to open the door and greet the people. It was Elliot and Owen’s grandparents from next door. Elliot calls his grandfather –“Boppa” and his grandmother – “Grandma P”. Owen is too young to talk. I call them Mr. and Mrs. Myers because their last name is easy to say.

Mom greeted them first, and I echoed Merry Christmas and took their coats to the back bedroom. This time I didn’t drop any. I ran back to see everyone hugging everyone and saying the “greeting stuff”.

Dad offered drinks to the new guests and said to Mrs. Wanda and Mr. Walter, “Can I get you another?”

“Absotootly,” laughed Mr. Walter. Mrs. Wanda whispered something in his ear and he shooed her away as if she were a fly.

“I’m fine for now,” smiled Mrs. Wanda as she turned to Mrs. Myers and asked, “How are the grandkids doing?”

Mrs. Myers’ cooed and flapped her hands as if they were little birds and talked about how wonderful and smart her grandsons were. Mr. Myers sat quietly listening to the conversation. Maybe he was told to be seen and not heard, too. I thought about asking him to sit down by the tree with me, but the second time I thought about it I decided it was better to wait until later. That’s another rule I learned this year – think twice before speaking. I only saw a gift wrapped up to look like a bottle when they came in, and they gave it to my Dad. They didn’t bring anything for me which was a little disappointing. Maybe Dad will share his gift later.

Mom brought out some more snacks. Little meatballs swimming in red sauce, mushrooms with greenish, whitish grass in the middle and toast sticks with fat olives and hairy brown things wrapped around something I didn’t recognize. I just ate the peanuts. Dad brought out two bottles with fancy labels on the side and set them on the table in front of the guests next to the snacks. One had water in it; the other had tea or something. Dad gave me a bottle of Coke with a straw. I drink Coke only on special occasions because it won’t rot my teeth if I have it just once in a while.

Everyone seemed to like the snacks, which made my mom shine like the Christmas tree star. She laughed and Dad laughed and the guests laughed. They were having a really good time. I was happy for them. But, I was a little bored. My mom must have read my mind and came to my rescue.

“Honey, why don’t you say goodnight to everyone now and watch the DVD we rented? It’s all set up on the back bedroom TV”. I said my good nights, scooted down the hall, and plopped in the middle of the saggy bed next to all the coats and watched the movie.

I must have fallen asleep before the Grinch stole Christmas. I never heard people come into the room to get their coats. I do remember hearing my parents’ whispering.

While Dad was putting on my pajamas he said to my Mom, “Good God, I can’t believe this evening. I would never have expected Walter to put on such a show. It was obvious that he was enjoying himself, but trying to recreate Santa and his flying reindeer by launching himself off the top of the stair case was flat dumb.”

“Did you see the look of shock on Wanda’s face when he landed on Bob and Paulla. It was blood chilling. Thank goodness the Myers weren’t hurt,” said my mom.

“Thank you for not screaming when he jumped off and knocked the Christmas tree into the window,” added Dad. “Every porch light in the neighborhood lit up, when Wanda started yelling at the old guy while dragging him out the door. He kept shouting On Donner, on Blitzen, so loudly that I thought someone was going to call the police. I don’t think we’re going to invite those who-hahs next year.”

Who-Hahs, Who-Hahs. I can say Who-Hahs. Mr. and Mrs. Who-Hah. Why did they say their last name was too hard to pronounce? I’ll surprise them the next time they come over.

What I liked best: I loved the hilarity of it, understated by your narrator. I could absolutely picture myself watching this scene. Good job of characterization.

Publication ready: Very, very close! But not in this anthology. While there needn’t be any LDS theme-ology in the story, it can’t be contrary to LDS expectations. The drinking and use of deity name rules you out. Sorry.

Other than that, I’d have you correct your comma errors and I’d make you pick a gender for your narrator and identify it. Some editors wouldn’t mind but I do.

02 The Clearing

Ruth gazed at the blur of passing Christmas lights, and wished they were going anywhere but to her family’s house. She knew they only had minutes before the critical moment arrived. She and her husband Darin had been married for two years, and last Christmas, they spent exclusively with his family.

“Did you bring the present?” asked Ruth.

“Of course. You must have asked five times already.”

Ruth sighed. “Sorry. I’m just nervous. I haven’t seen them since the wedding, and I want to make a good impression.” She chuckled at a sudden memory, “I can’t believe you suggested Christmas ornaments.”

Darin grinned. “They would have found some use for them. Don’t they have a Hanukah bush?”

“Watch it, mister. While I find your quirky wit funny, I doubt my father would take kindly to lighthearted comments about religion.”

“Hey, before I met you, I thought all Jews lived in Jerusalem and wore little round hats. I’ve come a long way.”

“Yes, I hope it’s enough.”

In a few minutes, they parked in her parent’s driveway. “This is it, Ruth. Ready?”

“As ready I will ever be. Follow my lead, and please…no cute comments.”

Darin nodded and they both exited.

The house was a simple brick structure with a one-car garage, a flower plot in the front, and a roof sagging with snow. The porch light remained dark, and they could hear nothing from within. Darin turned to Ruth. “They know we’re coming, right? Maybe they moved and forgot to tell you.”

Ruth sighed, “This is the place. My father wouldn’t move on threat of his life. He always used to say it was time for our people to stay put for a change.” She gestured up to the dark porch light, “And he’s very frugal. It doesn’t even have a bulb.”

Darin’s finger hovered over the doorbell. “Go on,” urged Ruth.

He pressed the doorbell, and a scampering of feet sounded from within.

The door flew open. “Ruthie!”

Her siblings pounced on her in a gigantic group hug. Ruth laughed and greeted them individually. There were two older girls, Rachel and Mary, and twin boys, Joshua and Jasher.

Ruth’s mother appeared in the doorway. She looked like a taller, version of her daughter, with the same dark eyes and hair. She stepped forward and embraced Darin. “Welcome to our home. It’s so nice to have you here at last.”

“Thanks,” said Darin. “I’m not quite sure what to expect.”

“Well,” said Ruth’s mother with a straight face, “the interrogation room is to the right, and the torture chamber is to the left.”

She let this sink in for a moment before bursting into laughter. “I’m joking. That’s the kitchen, and that’s the study.”

They stepped inside and made their way into the kitchen. “We’re grating potatoes for latkes,” announced Ruth’s mother, “Would you all like to help?”

Ruth, Darin, and the two older sisters positioned themselves around the table on wooden chairs. Each person received a knife from the mother and commenced slicing away.

Ruth smiled and took her place behind Darin. She placed her hands over his and walked him through the motions. After a minute, he started taking over. “I think I’ve got it. Thanks.”

Darin hacked away at the potato, having only limited success in retaining what he had just learned.

“So, where’s father?” asked Ruth.

“Out being the Rabbi,” said Ruth’s mother.

Ruth glanced at her husband as he took off a golf-ball sized chunk of potato, and placed a hand on Darin’s shoulder. “Why don’t you leave this to us? Go meet my brothers.”

“Okay, sorry.”

He slipped out and found the boys huddled over a table in the living room. They were spinning something between them, laughing and arguing with each other. “Hey guys, what are you doing?”

One of curly-haired boys looked up. “Playing dreidel. Wanna play?”

Each boy possessed a stack of golden coins. The wooden dreidel lay on one side with one symbol showing. “Sure,” said Darin, “how do you play?”

The boys’ eyes went wide, “You mean you’ve never played?”

“No. Is it hard to learn?”

“Not really,” said one. “But you don’t have any gelt.”

Darin gestured down to the coins, “That’s gelt?”

“Yeah, it’s money!” said one.

“It’s candy!” said the other.

“It’s both!” they said together.

“How do I get some?” asked Darin. “Do I have to go work in the chocolate factory?”

“Father always gives us some during Hanukah,” said one brother.

One brother slid a few coins towards him, “Here, you can borrow a few of mine to start with.”

“I’m Jasher,” by the way, said the brother in a blue sweater, “this is Joshua.”

“Darin. So, what do these symbols mean?”

Jasher showed the first symbol, “This is ‘nun’-you get to take one coin from the pot.”

“The second one is ‘gimel’,” said Joshua. “Then you have to put one of your own coins in the pot. That’s ‘hey’-you get to take half of the pot.”

“And the last one is ‘shin,” finished Jasher, “which means your turn is over. Understand?”

Unsure, Darin sat down in front of his pile of gelt. They spun over and over and, for the life of him, he could not make sense of it all. His turn came around again, and he was sure he had rolled the one to take half.

Jasher held out his hand, “That one means your turn is over.”

“But on your turn—“

A voice from the kitchen interrupted the dispute.

The two boys disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. Darin glanced down at the candy currency. Had he misunderstood?

Darin sauntered into the kitchen, his mood immediately brightened by the smell of savory food. The table before him was loaded with latkes, slices of cheese, fried pastries and other unfamiliar delights. In the center stood an elaborate candlestick with a line of eight candles.

They seated themselves and suddenly, the door opened revealing a short figure. He wore a dark coat and hat, and wore a full beard with side curls framing his face. He nodded as he entered, but did not smile. “Hello family,” he said, “I hope you are as hungry as I am.”

Darin rose tenuously to shake his father-in-law’s hand, “Uh, hello, sir. Mazel Tov.”

“What are you congratulating me for? Something I should know about?”

He glanced at his daughter, who shook her head. His face relaxed. “Good. I thought I was going to be a grandfather before my hair has time to gray.”

Ruth’s father, Zachariah, raised his hands for silence. “Before we partake of this bounteous feast, let us pause to commemorate the goodness of God in preserving his people as we light the last candle of our menorah.”

He lit a candle that was raised above the others. Then, he used this candle to light the others. Ruth’s mother dimmed the kitchen lights, so that only the light of the menorah reflected off their faces.

Zachariah began to speak rhythmically in a language that Darin guessed was Hebrew. The other family members joined in, and Darin felt a strange longing.

“Boys,” said Ruth’s mother, “perhaps you would like to tell Darin why we celebrate Hanukah.”

“There was this evil king guy,” said Jasher, “who took over the temple.”

“And there was this other guy, Judas, who had these huge muscles,” said Joshua. “He went in and threw the evil guy out.”

“Judas was supposed to keep the candles burning in the temple, but the bad guys messed up most of the oil,’ said Jasher.

“And it had to be special oil,” said Joshua, “It takes eight days to make…so they thought that they would run out.”

Jasher leaned in across the table. “But then, the miracle. The oil lasted eight nights. Just like the eight lights on our menorah.”

Their mother beamed. “Good job boys. Any questions, Darin?”

“From the way they tell it,” said Darin, “someone should buy the movie rights.”

Ruth nudged him on the arm.

“I’m just saying. They made it sound exciting.”

They blew out the candles, turned on the light, and then passed around the food. Darin took a latke and a slice of cheese and looked around the table. “Aren’t we supposed to have unleavened bread?”

“No,” said Zachariah severely. “You have confused this with a Seder service. That is for Passover.”

Darin sunk down into his chair, content to keep his mouth shut.

“So, do you have you plans for the rest of the evening?” asked Ruth’s mother.

“Yes,” replied Ruth, “It is Christmas Eve, and we promised Darin’s family we’d have dessert with them.”

Zachariah grunted. “That’s a strange plan.”

“What do you mean?” asked Ruth.

“It’s fine now, before you’ve started a family. But with children? What will you teach them?”

“I was thinking we could adopt traditions from both of our families,” said Ruth.

“What?” asked Zachariah. “Would you have them put up a Hanukah bush? Talk of dreidels and flying reindeer in the same breath? Put gelt in their stockings?”

“No,” said Ruth, “We’d keep them separate and teach them the importance of both stories.”

“Santa Claus too! The thought that they could get something for nothing.”

Ruth excused herself from the table, claiming a stomachache.


They rode in silence through the frosty night. Finally, Darin reached out and put a comforting hand on his wife’s knee. “Are you all right? Was it my potato grating?”

“More like my father’s people skills. I know he can be blunt at times, but I thought he’d tone it down a little. We even forgot to give them the present.”

“It’s okay,” said Darin. ”I’m glad we went. It will just take some time.”

They turned off onto a street where every house blazed with a Christmas light spectacular. “It’s even bigger than last year,” said Ruth. “I’m glad I don’t get the power bill.”

Darin pulled into a cul de sac and up to a brick house, strung up with enough lights to be seen from space. No sooner had they left the car, but they were tackled by a stream of siblings, seven in all, stretching in age from seven to twenty. They all tried to speak at once. Darin took in everything effortlessly, while Ruth felt as if she’s been dropped in the middle of a rock concert. Darin embraced his parents and went immediately for his mother’s coconut cream pie.

Ruth hung back. She had no idea what half the things were in front of her, though she figured that anything would be good. She turned suddenly as she felt a tug on her sleeve, “Hey, Ruthie. My brother said that your family gets presents every night for eight nights. Is that true?”

Ruth smiled and bent down to answer the little blonde girl. “Well, yes, but they’re small presents, like candy.”

“I told daddy we should do that.”

Soon, Darin’s father held up a hand. “Now that we’re fat and happy, it’s time we got on with the pageant.”

“Couldn’t we open presents first?” suggested one sibling.

“No,” said his father, “pageant first. Mollie, get the costumes. Everyone else figure out what parts you want to be.”

What ensued was anything but a silent night.

All the girls wanted to be Mary, but all the boys favored the “wise guys.” Once this skirmish had been resolved, a hot debate erupted as to the proper ratio of angels to shepherds.

Ruth leaned in close to Darin, “Isn’t this supposed to fun?”

Darin shrugged, “It works out eventually.”

A good half an hour later, the youngest sibling approached Darin and Ruth with a grin. “There are two parts left. Darin gets to be Caesar Augustus, and Ruth gets to be the donkey.”

Ruth’s eyelids disappeared, “Excuse me?”

“You get to carry Mary to Bethlehem. It’s very important.”

Ruth nodded reluctantly. “Uh, thanks.”

The pageant finally proceeded, and Darin’s sympathy part was finished in the first 15 seconds, after declaring that all world need to be counted and taxed.

The donkey, however, had a much harder time. After setting off for Bethlehem, the younger children loudly informed her that she was going the wrong way. She swung around, and Mary lost her balance. The audience looked on in wondering awe as Mary tumbled to the ground, and had to be rescued by a flock of shepherds.

Later, in the stable, she did not look like one of the friendly beasts.

When the pageant finally drew to a close, she came and sat next to her husband. “What’s next?”

“We all get to open a present.”

The family settled around the tree and each grabbed a present. Darin’s father held up a hand, “On three! One, two—“

Wrapping paper dissolved into confetti, tissue paper shredded into fluff, and each hand grasped a long-coveted prize.

“I wanted the blue one!” All heads turned to one of the younger girls who held a shirt in two fingers, as it if had come from a dumpster.

“I thought that you picked that out yourself,” said Darin’s mother. “You tried it on.”

“No,” said Darin’s sister. “I wanted the blue one. This one is ugly.”

Darin’s mother tried to console the girl, and the others tossed their gifts to the side, looking hungrily at the mountain of gifts under the tree.

“Off to bed with you,” said Darin’s father.

One by one, the children slunk off to bed and Darin and Ruth to their car.

Darin didn’t start the ignition. It was Christmas Eve, but they felt as if they’d been served a piece of cake full of creamed spinach.

“So, what did you think of tonight?”

She rested her head against the headrest, “I don’t know what to say.. Interesting.”

“But not really in a good way.”


“What went wrong?” asked Ruth, “We have good families, but everything seemed…wrong.”

“Yes,” said Darin. “I couldn’t wait to leave after your father started grilling us. I respect his traditions, but you know.”

“I do,” replied Ruth.

“And my family,” continued Darin, “that was embarrassing. I wish they had a little respect. ”

Darin let his mind wander. Unexpectedly, he saw a place in the woods where his family used to pick a Christmas tree. They would go at night, tramping through the snow under the brilliant stars.

Peace accompanied the memory-something that he hadn’t felt all night. He wished he could wrap it up in a box and give it to each of his siblings, or as a reward for a dreidel game.

“Darin, let’s go home.”

Darin turned to his wife with a peaceful smile. “No, not yet. Wait here a moment.”

Darin briefly explained the idea to his wife. He jumped out of the car, and disappeared into the house. He emerged a few moments later with his parents in tow. “What’s this about?” asked his father.

“It won’t take long,” assured Darin.

They stopped next outside Ruth’s house, and waited tensely as Ruth slipped inside and convinced her parents to join them. Ruth’s father grumbled as he entered the car, and Darin wondered how she had convinced him to come at all.

They left the main road for the forest, and stopped when they reached the secluded clearing. When Darin gestured for everyone to get out, Ruth’s father was not the only one who reverted to some grumbling.

Darin led the way, creating deep footprints in the untouched snow. They formed a circle in the middle of the clearing, and stood shivering in the silence.

“Would you mind letting us know what we are doing here?” asked Zachariah. “My daughter said it was something important. I hope it entails building a campfire.”

“No,” said Darin. “That would defeat the purpose.”

“What? Have you lost your mind?” asked Zachariah, “Perhaps too many Christmas cookies and talking snowmen have addled your brain.”

Darin turned to Zachariah. “Tell me, why do you celebrate Hanukah?”

Zachariah blinked repeatedly. “We explained that.”

“Yes, you explained the story, but what is the underlying reason that makes you want to celebrate?”

The rabbi remained silent.

Darin turned to his own parents, “And what about you? Why is Christmas such a special time?
His parents’ eyes fell to the snow.

“Everyone. I invite you to look up.”

They did so, and drew a collective gasp. The night was cloudless and clear, far from elaborate Christmas light displays. The undistracted sky provided an incredible view of the cosmos. Each star stood out like a miniature campfire, and the constellations could be traced like a child’s coloring book.

Darin smiled and took in everyone’s reactions. “Why did God create the stars? There’s only one we need. Others are simply gifts of beauty and light.” Darin stepped boldly into the middle of the circle.

“And they are for everyone from the richest businessman to the lowliest bum, regardless. Perhaps he gives these simple gifts because he loves all of his children?”

He gazed intently at his father-in-law, “Is this gift of light so much different than the one God gave the Israelites in Judas’s time?”

“No,” he answered reverently, “not at all.”

Darin then turned to his father, “And is it so different than the gift of light that God gave at Christ’s birth?”

“No,” said his father, “it was even marked by a new star.”

“I know our families have different traditions,” said Darin. “I feel like the expert after tonight. But we both agree on the reason we’re celebrating: we know that God loves his children and that he always will.”

His words faded into the stillness. In their faces, Darin saw many things: wonder, sadness, guilt, reverence, but most all, gratitude. No one said a word as they gazed into the jeweled heavens. For a moment, they forgot even that they were of different families.

Ruth took Darin’s hand gently. “That’s what we will teach our children.”

“Yes,” Darin agreed, “And it’s the best present we’ll ever get them.”

What I liked best: Great comparison between the two families and their approach to the season.

Publication ready: Not yet. First, you have a timing and probability issue. See Jennifer Ricks’ comment. Also, the POV jumps from Ruth to Darin. I think you’d be better sticking with Darin, since he’s the one that brings resolution to the story. Watch out for comma and dialog tags. I’d like to see a little more characterization to Darin and Ruth, as well as Darin’s family. Ruth’s family is pretty well done.

I think with some changes, this could be really good. Rewrite and resubmit for consideration in the anthology.

01 The Lonely Pony

Once upon a time in a far away land sadness was all around –
A little girl named Cindi was the only one who did not have a pony in this small town.

Every year Cindi asked her family if Santa would bring a pony her way –

And each year they answered “I don’t think so, at least not today”.

Cindi grew up with this wish in the back of her mind –

Still wanting a pony but knowing its daily care would take up too much time.

Santa watched Cindi from year to year wondering if he could ever make this wish come true.

He knew it was a challenge and he would see what he could do.

One day Santa was in the elf’s staging area where the gifts are made for all the girls & boys –

When he saw this lonely pony in the stack of unused toys.

He had an idea and put it in a store in Salado when he knew Cindi would be stopping in –

Sure enough she picked up the lonely pony and her face lit up with a grin.

Santa was happy he had found a pony for Cindi which was easy to care for each and every day.

Something that she would only have to pick up and hold and not have to feed it any hay.

Santa contacted his elf in Houston whose name was Anne

And asked if she would help in getting the lonely pony to Cindi and be part of his plan.

So now in the year 2008 in this far away land the people are happy and Cindi is too

For Santa delivered on his Christmas wish a lonely pony to Cindi whose name was “Blue”.

Blue was the name the elves gave him since a lonely pony was definitely what he had become –

But Cindi could change his name and the fact that he is a lonely pony with just a little love.

Santa told Anne to tell Cindi to be careful when you take him out of the box –

Make sure you tell her those black things are “pony poo poo”, not pieces of chalk!

What I liked best: The basic idea of substituting a toy pony for a real one. I could see this idea being developed into a Velveteen Rabbit type tale, where Cindi’s love for the pony makes it “real.” It has some potential but it needs work.

Publication ready: No. It needs a stronger story, more imagery, more involvement with the characters. I’d like to have seen Cindi’s reaction to the pony, her love for it. The poo-poo joke at the end does not fit the rest of the story. Do some research on children’s picture books and then rewrite it. As for this particular Christmas story contest, I was looking for short stories, not picture books or poetry.

Christmas Story Posts Starting…NOW!

Starting to post the Christmas stories for the contest in just a minute. I’ll post them one a day—in the order they were received—or more frequently as they increase. So far, I have 10 submissions. Keep them coming!

A few quick reminders:

DON’T TELL PEOPLE WHICH STORY IS YOURS! We want them to win based on merit, not on personal popularity.

VOTING STARTS DECEMBER 20th. Feel free to leave comments any time, but comments made before 12/20 will not be part of the voting tally.

SUBMISSION DEADLINE IS DECEMBER 18th. That means you still have plenty of time to get your story in. See Submission Guidelines here.

Okay, here we go…

2010 Christmas Story Contest

Guess what we forgot to do back in the summer???

Yep. I totally forgot about our annual Christmas Story Contest.

I know this is short notice. I know a lot of you are working on NaNoWriMo. But—

I hope you’ll find some time to write and submit a story for the…

LDSP 2010 Christmas
Short Story Contest

Submission Rules:

  • FOLLOW rules carefully! In the past, I’ve let some of you slide a little. But since this is for a publication, I’m going to be as sticky-picky as I am when receiving real submissions. Why? Because this is a REAL submission!
  • Write a short Christmas story in any genre. Stories should be positive and family friendly. I reserve the right to refuse any story I deem inappropriate for this blog/book.
  • Maximum word count: 3,000; no minimum.
  • Story must be previously unpublished. Stories published anywhere other than your personal website or blog are ineligible. (That includes books, magazines, e-zines or other contests.)
  • Stories submitted for previous years’ contests are also ineligible for this contest. (But may be selected for publication in the book.)
  • Paste entire story into an e-mail. NO ATTACHMENTS, please.
    —Put “Contest: Title of Story” in the subject line of your e-mail. (Example: Contest: A Christmas Gift for Mary)

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

    LDS Publisher
    123 My Street
    My Town, ST 00000

    word count: 1990
    published author

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

    —Skip a line, then paste in your story.

  • “Published”—as in published author—is defined as someone paid you money or comp copies (in the case of magazines) for any story or book written by you. (So either a publisher paid you, or you self-published and people bought your book.)
  • If you are a published and/or agented author, check with your publisher and/or agent before submitting. They will want to know the information listed under “Book Details”.
  • You may submit more than one story. Send each submission in a separate e-mail. Include all your info, as outlined above, with each e-mail/story.
  • SUBMIT your story any time between NOW and Saturday, December 18, 2010.
  • I will post the stories beginning on December 1st, in the order that they arrive.
  • We will have Reader Voting for the best stories, as we have done in previous contests. The winners are guaranteed a spot in the book. Voting will take place December 20–24th. I will post voting rules then.
  • You may tell your friends that you’ve submitted a story and to please go vote, but DO NOT tell them which story is yours. We want the stories to win on merit, not personal popularity.

PRIZE: Publication in the next LDSP Christmas Anthology

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

    These four winners are guaranteed a spot in the anthology.

  • As usual, I reserve the right to not award one of the Editor’s Choice awards if I feel none of the stories deserve it.
  • Other stories in the anthology will include my choices from this and previous Christmas contests held on this blog, selected based on providing a variety of stories and book size.
  • Anthology will be published before Christmas, either 2011 or 2012, depending on the number of quality submissions received. All authors to be included in the book will be notified six months before publication.

Book Details (Read Carefully):

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

    —Word of mouth to friends and family

    —Website/blog buttons, links, posts, etc

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

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

Buttons for your blogs:

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