Copyright 2015 C.L. Mozena
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
The Bestest Christmas Ever
The warm November sun shone brightly in the park near Wills Creek, but Cindy didn’t notice it. All she could think about was the fact that Christmas was a month away. Normally, she’d be excited about seeing her kids and grandkids again, whip up a feast, and spend hundreds of dollars on presents for them.
Not this year.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to spend the money, she just didn’t have it. One year shy of retirement, she lost her job due to downsizing. All her extra funds went to paying bills while she looked for another job. But who wants to hire an old gramma, anyway?
Despair filled her mind as she wandered around the park. What would her kids think if she didn’t cook up a feast for them this year? How would her grandkids react if they didn’t have dozens of presents to open?
“Hey, Cindy! Watch where you’re goin’!” A voice startled Cindy. She looked up to see Tami standing in front of her.
“Oh, hi, Tami,” she said.
“What’s eatin’ you?” Tami asked. “Th’ sun’s shinin’, the birds ‘re singin’. It’s a beautiful day and you’re down in th’ dumps. What gives?”
“I got laid off,” Cindy told her. “And can’t find another job. I don’t know what I’m going to do for Christmas this year. I ain’t got the money I used to.”
“So?” Tami smiled, “I ain’t never got no money, either. Listen,” she took Cindy’s shoulders. “Maybe you’re tryin’ too hard, ya know? Maybe it’s not th’ gifts that you’re family wants. Maybe they’ll be just as happy just to spend some time with you. Ever think of that?”
“Well…” Cindy thought about it. She always assumed the reason her family loved visiting during the holidays was for the food and presents. She always spent lots of money and put on a good show so that her family would come visit. She worried that if she didn’t, they’d stop coming.
“Cindy, do what I do,” Tami said. “Invite them over, but ask that they bring some food. All you do is make the turkey, okay?”
“Tut, tut! I wasn’t finished. Don’t buy any presents, either.”
“But we’ve got to have presents!” Cindy protested.
“Make them!” Tami exclaimed. “That’s what I do. I never gots th’ money to buy all those fancy toys, anyhow. I sew dolls and quilts and all that. What are you good at?”
“Um,” Cindy couldn’t think of anything. “Well, I got a journal,” she said meekly.
“A journal, huh?” Tami scrutinized Cindy. “You like to write?”
“Yea.” Cindy smiled. “I write down everything that happens so that I’ll always have my memories.”
“Oh, of everything.” Cindy thought back to some of her journal entries. “I wrote about when each of my kids were born, when they got married and had kids of their own, taking them on trips to the pool, the movies, and to the corner store. Not only that-,”
“Okay! Okay,” Tami interrupted. “Why don’t you take those memories an’ make stories outta them? Add some photos, wrap ‘em up, an’ have everyone read their story to everybody. Watcha think?”
“They’re not going to want stories,” Cindy argued. “The kids’ll want toys.”
“Sounds to me like they already gots plenty of toys.” Tami looked Cindy in the eye. “Try it. You might be surprised.”
The next day, Cindy sent out invitations to her kids with a note asking to bring some food. She took out her journal and searched for her favorite memories, working hard over the next month on stories for Christmas. She found ideas in a scrap booking magazine, and added colored paper, ribbons, and beads to the stories. Finally, she placed them on her dining room table on top of each setting.
Christmas morning, Cindy worried again that her family would be upset at not having a feast or lots of presents waiting for them. However, she composed herself when the doorbell rang. She was surprised that her kids brought several dishes to share. There was more food and variety than Cindy could have done herself.
Cindy explained that, instead of toys, she made everyone a story of a memory past, and showed them to the table. They spent the rest of the day sharing memories around the Christmas tree. Finally, it was time to go.
“Gramma?” One of Cindy’s youngest grandkids turned as she was being led out by her mother, “This was the bestest Christmas ever.”
Mama was strange. I know every family has their own Christmas traditions. My best friend had to wait until after pictures were taken before opening any gifts. The kids next door were allowed to open one gift Christmas eve. Not us, though. My three sisters and I had to save the ribbon on top of our Christmas gift. Since there were so many of us, and Mama never had much money, us kids only got one gift each Christmas. And our one gift was always a new doll that Mama made herself.
The dolls were nice, but saving the ribbon on the gift was just plain dumb. Mama never re-used the ribbons; she made new ones every year. She also made new name tags. Mama drew the tags, complete with the year on each one, and then tied the tags to the ribbons and saved each one every year.
That was just one of Mama’s strange quirks. For some reason, that tradition stuck in my head ever since the funeral. We buried Mama less than a month before Christmas. I didn’t think it would be the same without Mama this year. Mama always brought the family together around the holidays, now that my sisters and I are grown and each of us has our own family. Two of them even have grandchildren.
Last week, we all got together at the old farmhouse, trying to figure out what to do with all of Mama’s old things. Being the youngest, I was voted to go through the attic. Yay.
The only way in was a trapdoor which stirred up tons of dust when opened. Coughing, I reached for the only light; a bare bulb with a pull string. It didn’t do much to cut through the dust. I turned my flashlight on to maximum.
There were boxes everywhere! I never knew that Mama had collected so much junk. I wiped the dust off one, unfolded the flaps and peered inside. It was filled with scraps of paper that had yellowed with age. I rolled my eyes and turned to another dusty box. This one was filled with old lace and faded wood. I coughed as I tried to pull a handful out and stirred up more dust. Why did Mama keep all this garbage?
Frustrated, I pulled another box into what little light I had and opened it. There were faded colors inside. I reached in and carefully pulled out the crushed curls of an old ribbon that had been on a Christmas gift. Squinting at the tag, I read: “Too: Mary Ann, with love, 1977”. It was the ribbon that had been on my gift the year I turned ten years old. The memory of that Christmas came back to me. I remembered all the fun we had, caroling to the neighbors with our new dolls. I dug into the box and pulled out more ribbons, each one faded, but readable. This one was a keeper.
I went back to the box that had the faded wood in it and, holding my breath, I pulled out a piece that was wrapped in lace and unwrapped it. It was an ink drawing in a wooden frame that Mama had done over fifty years ago! The lace kept it from fading too badly. I pulled out more framed drawings that Mama had done. Several had stains or were faded from age, but each one brought back another memory of Mama.What were they doing up here instead of hanging on the wall all these years? Re-wrapping and re-packing the drawings, I turned back to the first box that held the paper scraps.
I took the top scrap and held it up to the light, recognizing Mama’s handwriting right away. The writing on it described a Christmas past, and another scrap told of her wedding day. There were cuttings from old newspapers, too. These scraps were Mama’s version of a diary! I couldn’t throw these out, either. Mama may not be here anymore, but her memory was alive and vibrant in these old, dusty boxes.
I took the boxes home with me and set up Mama’s ink drawings all over the living room, arranged the diary papers in a photo album, along with some of my own photos, and decorated the Christmas tree with the old ribbons. I invited my sisters and their families over for Christmas this year. It was amazing. It was like Mama was right there with us again.
Beatrice gazed lovingly at her old stuffed bunny. It was the teddy bear kind, with long floppy legs, arms, and ears. The bunny’s eyes were rubbed off, and the fur was so worn, it was missing in places. Beatrice ran a finger over a seam that had been broken and re-sewn a few times. The bunny had begun its life with a beautiful, chocolate-brown color, but it was now patches of dirty-brown, tan, and even off-white. There was a large, greenish grass stain on the back of the head, and glue residue from stickers on its arm that refused to come off.
She remembered when she was a little girl and she got the bunny for Christmas. Really? A bunny for Christmas. She frowned. Bunnies are supposed to be for Easter, not Christmas. She threw the bunny back in its box and sulked for a minute before turning to her other gifts.
After all the gifts were opened, little Beatrice couldn’t help but think of how sad that poor stuffed bunny was, all alone in its box and unloved. She couldn’t stop thinking about it all through Christmas dinner and carols by the piano. Finally, when she was allowed to play with her toys, she went straight to the bunny. The tag on its arm said its name was Tinsel, the Christmas Bunny. And its soft fur was mixed with silver tinsel, which made it sparkle. She fell in love with the stuffed bunny then and there.
Since then, Beatrice took the bunny with her everywhere she went; out to play in the backyard, shopping with Mommy, and to her friends’ houses. She and the bunny were inseparable. Tinsel rode in the basket on her bike, and on her lap in the car. She learned how to sew when Tinsel’s side seam popped apart for the first time. Even as a teenager and young woman, when all the other childhood toys were thrown out, Beatrice kept her stuffed bunny. Tinsel had long since been retired from going out to play, and had a prime spot on the small, marble-topped table where Beatrice could see it everyday.
While shopping in an antique store, she spotted her old, stuffed bunny in its prime. A perfect condition ‘Tinsel, the Christmas Bunny.’ It must be fifty years old, but it looked new. What luck! Her little granddaughter was going to be in for a surprise this Christmas. She took the bunny home, placed it in a box with tissue paper, and wrapped it with a large bow.
On Christmas morning, Beatrice watched her granddaughter open her gifts. When she got to the one with the stuffed bunny, the little girl cried out, “Bunnies are for Easter, not Christmas!” and dropped the bunny back into the box. Beatrice smiled and thought about all the happy memories her granddaughter was going to have with that old, stuffed bunny.
Chris’s Christmas Surprise
Chris stood in the backyard and breathed in the frigid, late autumn air. There was a lot of work to be done, but it would be worth it. Because his parents said they’d get him a dog! Actually, they said ‘maybe’. Which was just as good as ‘yes’ to Chris. He had wanted a dog for so long, but he was never allowed to have any pets in the old apartment. Now that they got a house, Chris knew it was just a matter of time before he could get a dog.
Of course, there were improvements to be made before they could get a dog. Chris worked hard with his dad to fix up the back yard. Hopefully, his parents would see that he was ready for the responsibility of having a pet. “Enough work for now, let’s go for a drive” meant a trip to the shelter, and “We’re just going to look” meant that Chris could pick out his new best friend.
The trip took so long, and Chris couldn’t keep still. What kind of dogs would they have? Did they have puppies, or would his new dog be half grown? Black or white? Big or small? Floppy ears or short? What would his dog, his very own best friend, look like?
His dad pulled up to the shelter and cut the engine. Chris tripped on the seatbelt getting out of the car and rushed inside. He hopped from foot to foot while his dad spoke with the warden. Finally, the door was unlocked and Chris dashed inside to the kennel.
There were all kinds of dogs at the shelter. Which one would he pick? The big black one? No, too old. The saint bernard pup? No, too big. An excited yipping caught his attention. He turned around to see a little cream and brown puppy spinning in circles and jumping against the bars of the kennel. Its tail wagged so hard, its whole back half wiggled.
“This one!” Chris said, pointing to the puppy. “I want this one! And I’m gonna name him Spinner, since he likes turning in circles so much.” The puppy spun around again to prove Chris’s point. “And I’m gonna teach ‘im tricks and-,”
“Slow down, son,” his dad said. “We can’t adopt one today. Christmas is just around the corner, and there’s still so much to do. Remember, we’re just here to look. Maybe after the holidays.” Which meant, “Come January, this puppy will be yours, but not now.” January was still a month away.
“Aww,” Chris groaned and turned back to the puppy. “Bye Spinner. I’ll come and get you after Christmas.”
Christmas morning came, and Chris forgot the puppy in his excitement over the presents under the tree. His mom directed him to a large one first. He pulled the bow off and tore the paper. The box was brown and ordinary, with no clues as to what was inside, so Chris opened it. Inside was a rubber ball, a piece of rope with knots at either end, a matching leash and collar, and a large bowl with paw prints and the word ‘Spinner’ painted on it.
Chris’s heart skipped a beat. He turned around just as his dad set a little cream and brown puppy with a big red bow around its neck on the floor. It was Spinner! The puppy yipped, ran over to Chris, and spun in circles in front of him.
Finally, Chris had his very own dog. He picked up the puppy and squeezed it. It was the bestest Christmas surprise ever.
Gerald was not in a good mood. He only had five days left before Christmas, and a lot of shopping left to do. As a father of six and a grandfather of two, plus his three sisters and their families, Gerald had a very long list of Christmas gifts with only a few things already crossed out. He usually got an earlier start on his shopping, but the accident at work left him unable to drive or go anywhere for a few weeks. Which just happened to be during the prime shopping season.
He stood in another long line with all the other last-minute shoppers. Dead-beats, he used to think. Why would anyone wait until the last week to do their Christmas shopping? And now Gerald was one of them. His ears burned. A poster on the wall advertised the local Christmas parade. He had promised to take his younger children to the parade this year. It was a family tradition.
The parade started in less than an hour.
He tapped a finger on the cart handle. Four cartloads in front of him, the cashier was checking some paper and punching in buttons on the register. And turned the line number light to blink. Just great. Some yahoo or other came shopping without a way to pay for his stuff and now everyone had to wait while the cashier called for help. Maybe he should just abandon his cart of silly toys so that he could make the parade on time. But then again, he had been in this store and in line for hours and didn’t want the whole day to be wasted. His family would understand and forgive him for skipping the parade this year, right?
Gerald shifted from foot to foot and tapped his fingers as he kept glancing at his watch. His wife and adult children might understand, but the younger ones wouldn’t. Gerald made up his mind to abandon the cart load of toys just as another lane opened up. He quickly wheeled his cart over and was able to check out and get home in time.
His impatience didn’t go away at the parade that evening. The announcer said that there were almost fifty new entries that year, and Gerald knew that that meant standing there in the cold snow that much longer. The floats went by slowly, one by one, until they became little more than a blur. Each one seemed to be the same thing as all the others that went by – loud music, flashing lights, cold people waving at everyone, and someone dressed up in a goofy costume. He rubbed his face. Maybe one of the children would misbehave so he’d have an excuse to yell and take everyone back to their warm home before the parade was over. No such luck.
“Oh! Look at that one, Daddy!” Gerald’s youngest grabbed his arm and pointed. The float didn’t have flashy lights or loud, secular music. There was no snowman or santa claus running around with sacks of candy. Instead, a pickup was pulling a flatbed trailer that had bales of straw set down the middle for seats, and loose straw all over. Above the middle of the trailer, there was a large glowing star that shone down on a goat and a lamb resting in the straw. There was someone dressed as an angel with feathery wings at the front, and three men in fancy robes and crowns followed the float. The rest of the people wore drab robes and cloaks, most of which were carrying shepherd’s crooks. The two in the middle were holding a baby, all wrapped up in rags. Tears started streaming down Gerald’s face as he watched the living nativity roll by. Gerald had lost the Christmas Spirit amidst all the shopping without even realizing it.
After the parade, Gerald settled down in his recliner surrounded by his children and grandchildren and read them the Christmas Story. He made sure never to forget again.
The Best Present
Sarah wasn’t as excited about Christmas coming this year as she had been in the past. At only eight years old, her eyes always lit up at the thought of Christmas morning and all those presents under the tree. She loved to pull out all the presents with Mommy and Daddy sitting nearby. Daddy always had a video camera set up and Mommy liked taking pictures.
But not this year.
This year, Daddy had to leave to serve in Iraq during the summer. It was now December, and Daddy hadn’t come back yet. He called and video chatted a lot, but each time he contacted Mommy and Sarah, he said that he had to stay longer. Sarah missed Daddy so much, and she knew that Mommy did, too.
Mommy tried her best to decorate the house for Christmas just like she always did, but somehow, it just wasn’t the same. The tree was droopy, the lights were dull, and the pretty candles just didn’t cheer her like they used to. Even helping decorate the tree and hanging the stockings didn’t make Sarah antsy like it used to.
On Christmas morning, Sarah tiptoed down the stairs to the living room where the tree sparkled with lights and all the presents underneath. It was always hard to wait for Mommy and Daddy to wake up before diving into her presents, but this year she just sat and waited patiently. She didn’t jump up when Mommy came into the living room and sat down with a cup of coffee and said she could start opening her presents. Daddy wasn’t there. Sarah just sat on the floor and stared at the tree.
Since Christmas was on Sunday this year, Mommy took Sarah to church to pray for the baby Jesus and all the soldiers in Iraq, especially Daddy. Sarah asked baby Jesus to bring Daddy home soon.
After church, Sarah sat back down on the floor in front of the Christmas tree with all those untouched presents underneath. With a little prodding from Mommy, Sarah crawled over to the tree and picked up the first present. It had a big bow on top and her name on the tag. Before she got the bow off, the doorbell rang. Mommy got up to see who it was.
A cold draft reached Sarah as the door was opened, followed by a cry. Sarah tiptoed to the edge of the wall and peeked around the corner. Daddy was standing there with his arms around Mommy. Sarah squealed and ran to him, and he picked her up. Sarah threw her arms around Daddy, a present better than all of those under the tree.
The Gift of Giving
Leslie’s little girl was a snob. There was no denying it. A seven-year-old hurricane, Kayla was never satisfied with any of her Christmas presents. Not even the ones she asked for! Tracy remembered when her sister, Leslie, told her that Kayla went gaga over the new doll house in the store. So, Tracy, thinking that she’d be able to make Kayla smile for once, went and spent almost a hundred dollars for the special doll house. Tracy had never spent that much money on any one gift. Especially a gift that wasn’t even for one of her own children.
So, did Kayla like her new doll house? Nope. Kayla was mad because she only got one present from auntie Tracy, while all the other kids got four. Never mind that the four presents together only cost forty or fifty bucks and the doll house cost twice that. No, Kayla was still upset and whining. There was just no making that girl happy.
Tracy had had it. She was fed up with Kayla’s whining, and didn’t want to buy her anything this year. There was just no making that girl happy, so why bother? Maybe that’ll teach her. But the more Tracy though about it, the more she realized that she wasn’t really trying to make Kayla happy, she was buying the presents to make her sister happy.
On Christmas day, Tracy resolved to endure Kayla’s all-day whining and complaining as she set the table for dinner. She had a turkey roasting in the oven, and the presents all neatly arranged below the tree. Soon, her doorbell rang.
“Welcome, Leslie!” she hugged her sister. “And welcome, Kayla. Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas, Auntie Tracy,” Kayla flashed a big, brace-y smile as she slipped off her coat. “When’s presents?”
“Not until after dinner,” Tracy took their coats. “I’ll pass them out.” Last year, Kayla had gotten into the presents early, and had ripped open more than just hers. “The kids are all in the playroom. Why don’t you go play for now?”
“Okay,” she sounded disappointed, but not upset like usual. Tracy dismissed it and helped Leslie bring in the food and presents that she brought.
Kayla squirmed in her chair all through dinner. She didn’t leave it, nor did she get into the presents early, but she kept glancing over at the tree. It was just a matter of time.
She couldn’t put it off anymore. Kayla looked like she was going to explode if she didn’t get to open a present. “Time for presents.” She barely got the sentence out before Kayla was halfway under the tree. But she ignored the pile of presents that Tracy had bought and wrapped. Tracy had even put Kayla’s presents in front with big name tags so that she wouldn’t miss them, but Kayla didn’t seem interested in her own presents. Instead, she dove into the presents that Leslie brought, and pulled out a handful of small ones that were hidden in the back.
“Here, Auntie Tracy,” she pushed a small, wrapped package into Tracy’s hands. “This one’s yours.” She looked up at Tracy expectantly. Tracy glanced at the name tag, which had her name written in red crayon. The package wasn’t square, or even box-like. It had an unusual shape and a lot of tape. Still, Kayla stared at Tracy with her big eyes and big braces sparkling. Tracy found a fold that wasn’t covered in tape and slid her fingernail under it.
It popped open and small, beaded necklace slipped out of the mass of wrapping paper and dropped into Tracy’s waiting hand. The beads were all plastic except for a large one in the middle that looked like it was made of clay and painted.
“I made that for you!” Kayla said, hopping up and down. “And I wrapped it myself. Do you like it?”
“I, uh, love it,” Tracy let the necklace hang off of one finger. “Um, thank you.”
“You’re welcome!” Kayla dashed off to hand another present to someone else.
“You should have seen her,” Leslie sidled up to Tracy, “when I suggested that she give out her own presents this year. Her eyes lit up and her mouth hung open. I thought she was going to say how she’s just a kid and couldn’t give out presents. Instead, she ran right to her room and began making necklaces for everyone.”
“She’s so excited about it,” Tracy put her necklace on. It clashed horribly with her dress. “She didn’t even notice the presents for her under the tree. Who knew that giving would make her so much happier than getting?”
Sheri had an awful Christmas tradition. She’d always wait until the last minute and do all of her holiday shopping, wrapping, and decorating. The decorations ended up haphazard, and the gifts were all wrapped sloppy. Several people on her list would end up with gift cards.
But not this year.
Sheri planned on getting an early start this year. She’d get her list and all her shopping done with plenty of time to wrap the gifts neatly. And top them with hand-made bows rather than those store-bought ones. She’d also get the tree and all the decorations out with enough time to enjoy them before taking them down again. She’d roast walnuts, like they do in her favorite childhood storybook. This year, she was going to enjoy the season.
When the leaves started falling from the trees, Sheri sipped her cup of coffee. She had plenty of time. It was only the beginning of November, after all. Near Thanksgiving, Sheri went shopping, but all she bought was a chocolate bar. She’d do the bulk of her shopping on Black Friday.
Black Friday came and went without Sheri setting foot in a single store. The news reported a man getting trampled to death by Black Friday shoppers, and numerous accidents. There was no way Sheri was going to risk it. She huddled in a heavy blanket and watched television. She could shop another day.
December came quietly as November slipped away. Sheri didn’t notice any difference in the change in months. She still had nearly a month left to shop. The first snowfall wasn’t a good time to shop, either, because of how slippery the roads were going to be. She’d wait until a day with no precipitation. And a day that wasn’t too cold, either.
One morning, as Sheri sipped her coffee, a movement out the window caught her attention. Her neighbors had just returned home. And there was a freshly cut Christmas tree strapped to the top of their car. Sheri dropped her coffee and rushed to the calendar hanging on the fridge. December fourteenth. She only had a week and a half before Christmas, and didn’t even have a single gift bought yet! Not to mention none of her holiday decorations up. She gulped the rest of her coffee, grabbed her purse and rushed to the stores.
And planned on getting an early start next year.
Christina marveled as the snowflakes floated and danced all around her. She held her arms up and twirled. The snow started last night while she slept, and now everything was covered in sparkling white. It must take lots and lots of angels to make all those pretty snowflakes, since no two snowflakes were alike.
She flopped backwards and swung her arms and legs, making a snow angel. This was her favorite time of year. Maybe she could help make snowflakes with the angels someday.
Twenty years later, Christina tightened her scarf and braced herself for the frigid temperature as she left the store. She was overloaded with overflowing bags of things she had just bought. She was anxious to get herself, her bags, and her little girl in the car and get home. Her eyes searched for her car in the gigantic parking lot. She had been in the store for hours, and snow had begun to fall while she was inside, turning every car white. Including hers. Snow was still falling, making it that much harder to see.
A car sped by the sidewalk in front of the store. Its tire hit a puddle and splashed muddy slush onto Christina’s jeans. “Hey!” she yelled, but of course, the driver couldn’t hear her. Nobody else seemed to care. A gust of icy wind blew, causing Christina to stumble and drop one of her bags. The contents spilled out everywhere. The wind grabbed some of the things she just bought and blew them further away, into the line of traffic. As she scrambled to gather her things, she lost track of her seven-year-old. When she got back to the front of the store, her daughter wasn’t there. Christina’s heart skipped a beat as she searched the snowstorm for her little girl.
“I got it, Mommy!” Christina’s daughter skipped over to her, waving some box or other in the air. Relief mixed with anger at her daughter’s behavior. She didn’t know whether to hug her daughter because she was okay, or yell at her for running off. “Know what, Mommy?” her daughter looked up at the overcast sky. “My teacher says that no two snowflakes are the same. How many angels does it take to make all those snowflakes?” The little girl looked up at Christina with big, brown eyes.
“Lots of angels,” Christina dropped her bags and knelt down on the frozen asphalt to hug her daughter. “Lots and lots.”
What Money Can’t Buy
Melinda had everything. A rich husband, a big house, three children, and all the luxuries money could buy. And a best friend named Susan who was living in a small apartment with no family and no money.
Susan had a good job as a waitress, and babysat Melinda’s children on the weekends. Every year, Susan would join Melinda and her family for Christmas. Melinda insisted that Susan didn’t have to bring presents, but Susan felt weird not giving her friend something for Christmas. But what do you give someone who has everything? Especially since Susan didn’t have much money to spare.
She thought about buying a new movie for Melinda for Christmas, but when she babysat her children two weeks before Christmas, she peeked at Melinda’s massive collection of blu-rays and knew that they already had every movie ever made. Susan didn’t own a single blu-ray. She still had a VCR dinosaur and VHS tapes.
Susan was at her wit’s end. Christmas was just over a week away, and she didn’t have a single present for her best friend. She stood in the middle of her one-room apartment and looked around for an idea. Her small bookshelf caught her attention. She didn’t have very many books; she usually borrowed from the library. But there were lots of notebooks stacked on the shelf. Susan loved writing short stories. She loved her stories like Melinda loved her children.
“That’s it!” Susan lit up brighter that a light bulb. She could write Melinda a story. A personal story about her three children. That was something Melinda didn’t have. Susan pulled out a notebook, turned it to a blank page, and began to write. The next time she was at the library, she typed it out and formatted it so that she could turn it into a booklet with a picture of Melinda’s children on the front.
Christmas day arrived with Susan standing on Melinda’s enormous front porch, ringing the doorbell. Melinda greeted her warmly. The tree stood in the middle of a mountain of torn wrapping paper, boxes, and toys. A small fire burned from a fireplace Susan could have stood in. Susan felt the pang of envy she always did when she came over and wondered for a moment if she shouldn’t just forget about the lame story and just enjoy herself. But when the time came, Susan sheepishly pulled the small package out of her coat pocket and handed it to Melinda. Melinda opened and examined it, reading the summary on the back.
“You wrote this?” Melinda held the little booklet up. Susan nodded. “You wrote this,” she turned back to the booklet, flipping through the pages. “This is absolutely amazing! It’s the one thing money can’t buy.”
Her First Winter
Gray clouds floated by overhead without a break. No snow, but lots of clouds. Car headlights flashed everywhere even though it was the middle of the day. Filthy slush from yesterday still splashed over the road. Tori rubbed her forehead as she sat in traffic. This was not how she imagined winter.
Originally from the south, Tori was excited about her first real winter. With real snow. She had seen hundreds of pictures of country roads and bare trees covered in white. Fields and fields of white sparkling in the bright sunshine. But not this. Dark clouds and disgusting slush. And cold. Very cold. A drop of water hit her windshield, followed by another. Rain. Perfect. Tori just wanted to get home and snuggle under her warmest blanket.
The light changed and the cars in front of her inched forward. Her commute took a lot longer than normal, but she finally pulled into her own driveway. She hunched against the downpour, scurried through the front door, and flipped the lightswitch. The house stayed dark. Not even her digital clock in the hall greeted her with its bright red numbers. A blackout. Great.
She dumped her bag of groceries in the kitchen and blindly searched for a flashlight. No such luck. But she did find a few candles. She shivered as she lit them. No power meant no heat. Thankfully, she had a fireplace and some wood that a neighbor insisted she take. “Just in case,” he had said. Keeping cut wood around the house was as foreign to her as this cold, dark, slushy day.
After a few tries, she got a fire going and, with it, light and warmth. She got up to put the groceries away and noticed some hot chocolate packs. Her stove was gas, so she boiled up some bottled water and mixed the drink. She topped it off with marshmallows and returned to the fire with her chocolate drink and the comforter from her bed. Nice and cozy. Maybe she’ll just sleep out here tonight.
When she awoke, sunlight poured in through the large living room window. The fire had gone out, and the power was back on. She shed the comforter and stumbled to the window, half-asleep. The rain froze overnight while it still clung to the trees. And everything else. The trees appeared to be made of silvery glass, and a light dusting of snow covered the ground. Nothing moved.
She stared in silence at the beauty of the frozen world. It was her first real winter.
The Magic of Christmas Snow
Sparkling rain fell down to earth and dampened the mood of the little girl who watched through the window. Christmas was tomorrow, and not one snowflake had fallen. Yet. Mommy told stories of the magic in Christmas snow, and the little girl had been looking forward to seeing it for herself. But as the rain came down, it looked like she’d have to wait another year.
The little girl rested her head against the cold glass. Her warm breath fogged the glass and obscured her view of the miserable rain. Rain made things muddy. Sure, splashing in puddles was fun, but so was sledding, building snowmen, and having snowball fights. She turned around and sat among the rumpled blankets on her bed.
It may have been raining outside, but inside, a blizzard was in full force. Paper snowflakes hung from the ceiling and waved when the heater came on. Some hung lower than others; each covered in silver glitter to catch the artificial sunshine her ceiling lamp cast. Snowmen couldn’t be made with these snowflakes, though.
The constant drone of the raindrops on her window followed her into the night and into her dreams. The rain became a thousand drums of a thousand drummers in the clouds marching onward through the gloomy sky. A pinhole in a black cloud let a ray of white sunshine through. It hit one of the drummers and he fell silent and looked up. The hole grew and multiplied, and more drummers stopped their insistent drumming, until the entire collective stopped to stare at the sun.
The little girl woke up to sunlight streaming in through the window. Brighter than usual. Or maybe it was the glitter from the paper snowflakes? She blinked and shielded her eyes as she pulled the curtain away from the window.
A world of white met her watery eyes where mud ruled the night before. Actual sunshine danced off the delicate white covers all over the ground. Icy flakes clung to the trees, lighting them up in silver and white. Even her window had frosty patterns in the corners. A smile came to her lips. She finally understood the magic of Christmas snow.
The women’s gift exchange was coming up. Tara browsed the department store. She needed a gift that any woman would like, but nothing too expensive. Ten dollars was the limit. All ages would be there; teenagers to seniors. If she was sure which age group would get the gift, it would be a lot easier to pick one.
Stuffed Christmas bears stared at Tara from one shelf; glass ornaments from another. The next isle had all kinds of gift baskets and boxes, in all price ranges. The cocoa mix gift box looked nice, but it cost too much. The soap gift basket was only nine dollars, but it only had a bar of soap and a bottle of lotion. Not worth it.
Not only did she need a gift, everyone was bringing cookies to share. Tara was going to make cake cookies. She found the recipe in a magazine over a year ago and made them several times. Everyone loved them. Tara abandoned the gift isles for the baking isle.
How many boxes of cake mix should she get? One box, one batch would make forty cookies. There weren’t going to be that many people there, but she figured everyone would want more than one. Two boxes, then. But which two? There were three different flavors. Plus with the little extras she used, she was able to make lots of different kinds. Maybe she could make several batches and take a few from each. But what would she do with the extras? Surely they wouldn’t all get eaten in one night, especially with all those other cookies. She could always give them to someone. That’s it! Tara grabbed two of each flavor, plus baking chips and nuts and rushed home.
The gift exchange was in two days. Tara typed out the main recipe for the cake cookies plus tips and extras. She spent the next five hours mixing, baking, and taste testing her cookies. Maybe she taste tested one too many. Finally, the cookies were done and split between two trays; one to share at the gift exchange, and the other with the recipe got wrapped in plastic and topped with a bow
At the gift exchange, each package was given a number. Tara’s cookies were number six. Each person picked a number from a hat and got to keep the gift with the same number. As the gifts were picked and opened, the smell of scented candles filled the room. Nearly all the other gifts were candle sets, and each one got passed around so that everyone could smell it.
When the party was over, everyone gathered their new gifts along with their coats and said their goodbyes.
“Thanks for making the cookies,” the woman who got them whispered to Tara. “I’m not a fan of scented candles and your cookies are so good.” She smiled. “Don’t tell anyone, but I think you brought the best gift this year.”
She couldn’t throw them away. Those greeting cards were all too pretty. She had a special place on her wall where she hung birthday and Christmas cards until after the day, but she couldn’t bring herself to toss them afterwards. Instead, she stored them in a drawer.
And now, the drawer was overflowing.
Not only was the drawer crammed so full that it was difficult to open and close, cards were also piled on the desk. She promised herself that she’d go through them sometime. But sometime never came.
She had a large extended family, which meant lots of cards and lots of presents every Christmas. To keep up with it, she bought presents throughout the year and bought supplies like wrapping paper on the first weekend of December. That way, she had the rest of the month to wrap.
She just made it home on Saturday evening just as the wind picked up. The radio DJ said a storm was coming and that it would dump lots of snow everywhere. Which meant no driving for a few days. That was alright. She had lots of wrapping to do.
The gifts waited in her dining room, separated and labeled, to be wrapped. She loved wrapping, and went all out with ribbons. She finished curling the ribbons on the first package and reached for the name tags.
They weren’t there.
She searched everywhere. The room, the shopping bags, and eventually, the whole house. No luck.
She forgot to buy name tags.
Such a simple thing, but it brought her wrapping to a halt. She needed name tags to know who got what after everything was wrapped. She couldn’t use the same plain paper labels; they were ugly. She tried cutting a piece of wrapping paper into a folded name tag, but it didn’t look right and tore too easily.
Outside, the wind howled. It reminded her that it was too late to go back to the store. She’d have to wait until the storm was over and the snow was plowed before she could continue wrapping presents. So, what now? She wandered around the house and glanced at her Christmas decorations; the tree with twinkling lights, pine rope and garland along the ceiling, and her wall of greeting cards. Maybe now would be a good time to go through the old ones.
She grabbed a handful off the desk and sat on the couch. Most of them were ordinary enough; a Christmas or winter picture on the front and a message inside that wished her a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, followed by the name of who sent it. It was those pictures on the front that kept her from throwing them away. One card had a picture of a snowman with a big, black top hat. It reminded her of the gift she just wrapped. The paper had snowmen on it, too.
That gave her an idea.
She got out her scissors and a hole puncher. She cut a rectangle around the snowman, punched a hole in one end, and slipped some ribbon through the hole. She taped the ribbon to the gift and curled the ends. Perfect! The cut card made a beautiful tag, complete with a holiday picture on one side and a blank white underside for a name. And she had so many old cards.
She never bought another name tag again.
Teddy Bear Tree
Christmas was just around the corner. Amanda stood back and admired the tree, which sparkled and glistened. The rainbow lights blinked off the silver tinsel, and the round, red ornaments shone against the dark green pine boughs. There was a gold star at the top and a gray kitty face just under it.
Amanda gasped. How on earth did her little tabby kitten get all the way up there? And how was Amanda supposed to get her down?
“C’mere, kitty,” Amanda reached for the little rascal. The fuzzy face mewed and disappeared back into the tree. “No, not that way!” The tree shook. Amanda lost her balance. The kitten jumped out of the tree as it fell. Red glass shattered all over the wood floor.
Two hours later, the tree was back up with its rainbow lights and gold star. But the ornaments sat in pieces in the dustpan. It was too late to go back to the store to buy another set of ornaments. Besides, if the kitten knocked the ornaments off, she didn’t want to have to clean up broken glass again. As if on cue, the kitten hopped up to the lowest branch and climbed on up. Amanda rubbed her eyes as the tree shook.
She coaxed the kitten out with a toy and shut her up in a kitty carrier. But the kitten wouldn’t be able to stay in there for long. Let alone the rest of the holidays. She could get a spray bottle and squirt the kitten when it approached the tree, but what about when she wasn’t home? It was too risky to have shattered glass all over the floor if the kitten knocked ornaments down, or the tree fell.
She let the kitten out and flopped down on the couch. The kitten ran right up the tree. Again. It shook, but the tiny animal wasn’t heavy enough to knock the tree over by itself. The kitten crawled out on a thin limb that held the last red ornament. Unable to hold both the glass ball and the kitten, the branch bent and deposited both on the floor. The kitten got up, shook, and disappeared in the tree again. Amanda sighed and cleaned up the broken glass. Looked like she wasn’t going to have any ornaments on her tree this year.
But why not? Not all ornaments were glass. She just needed to buy plastic. Or stuffed. Amanda’s eyes flew open. She leaped to her miniature shelf where all her tiny teddy bears sat. They were about the size of traditional ornaments, and most already had a string. She gathered them up, hooked a wire on the string, and placed them on the tree. Not as fancy as glass, but much more interesting.
Sure enough, her little kitten was in the tree, too. And down came the first ornament, and the kitten came with it. But there was no crash; no broken glass all over. Amanda simply picked up the little stuffed bear and hung it back up.
She picked up her kitten and sat down. Little fuzzy faces smiled at her from every nook and cranny of her teddy bear tree.
The snowfall had started the night before. This morning, three inches of the sparkling white stuff lay all over the house, the yard, and the car. And the road.
Snow day! Ann jumped out of bed and ran downstairs in her pajamas. The man on T.V. confirmed it. No school for anyone today. Just lots of fun in the snow. Wait a minute. Everyone also meant the kids down the road. The ones who liked to throw snowballs at girls and knock over snowmen that other kids spent hours building. Ann had made a great snowman last year. It took all day. And when Ann went back inside for dinner, the kids down the road snuck up and toppled the snowman. Ann cried all night.
She really wanted to build a snowman this year. But she didn’t want it to get toppled. It was too hard getting those big snowballs to stay on top of each other.
“Why don’t you build a snowman lying down?” her mom cut a peanut butter sandwich in triangles and set it in front of Ann. Ann rolled her eyes. “How about a smaller snowman, then?”
“They’ll still knock it down.” Ann slumped in her chair and munched on her sandwich.
“Whatever you decide, you need to play outside for a while.” Ann’s mom cleaned away the plate. “Don’t forget to bundle up.”
A half hour later and nearly hidden in an oversized winter coat, Ann patted some snow into a ball. She still wanted to make a snowman, even if it was a small one. She held the fist-size snowball in the palm of her hand. A small snowman.
Ann brushed the snow off the porch banister and set the snowball on it. She made another, slightly smaller snowball, and put it on top. A third, tiny snowball topped it off. She found little twigs for the arms, and pebbles for the face. No hat or scarf, though. It was cute. At less than one foot high, it was the smallest snowman Ann ever made. But it was lonely. So Ann made it a friend. And another friend. As the sun sank, Ann set the last snowman in the last empty spot on the banister. It was fun to make them all, but Ann knew that the kids down the road would be coming tonight to topple all the snowmen. She took one last look at her little snowmen and headed inside for the night.
The next morning, Ann was surprised to find that, not only were her snowmen still standing, but each one had a tiny green army helmet on. One even had a tiny gold star on its chest. Her mom sipped a cup of coffee and winked. Those kids down the road weren’t going to mess with Ann’s frozen army.
Black smoke filled the kitchen. The source? Mabel’s trusty ol’ oven. It just blew. Bang! Just like that. And only a week before Christmas.
“Gran!” Lacy, Mabel’s teenage granddaughter, ran to the kitchen and waved her hand. “Gran! Are you okay? What happened?”
“I’m fine,” Mabel opened the kitchen window. “But the oven’s shot. Go open the windows and doors before-.” Too late. The shrill whine of the smoke alarm filled the house worse than the smoke. Mabel took a dish towel and a chair to the smoke alarm and waved the smoke away. A few minutes later, the alarm sat silently on the wall and cold air blew through the house. Mabel and Lacy stood in the kitchen with their coats on.
“I guess we’re not gonna have any cookies this year, huh?” Lacy put her hands on her hips. Mabel said nothing. It was worse than not having cookies for Christmas. Mabel couldn’t afford a new oven. She had retired several years ago, and her fixed income wouldn’t allow for large purchases. She shook her head and sat on the couch. “Gran?” Lacy sat beside her and put an arm around her shoulders. “It’s gonna be okay.” Her smile was warm. Mabel nodded. Her old gray tabby stretched and rubbed against her legs, as if he was trying to say the same.
Besides making a tray of cookies for Christmas dinner, they were the primary gift she gave to each of her children and their families. No oven meant no Christmas gifts from Gran.
“You could try no-bake cookies.” Could Lacy read her mind?
“Don’t you worry about me, dear,” Mabel patted Lacy’s hand. “I’ll figure something out.”
Lacy’s mother was Mabel’s eldest, and welcomed her to use her oven for cookies. At least Christmas wasn’t ruined. But it was only a temporary fix. Mabel needed a new oven.
Christmas morning, the family gathered at Mabel’s house. The place was roomy for Mabel and her tabby cat, but with her five adult children and all those grandchildren the house was small and cramped. After opening presents and turning Mabel’s living room into a disaster area, the little ones were sent outside to play in the snow while the adults cleaned up and got dinner ready.
“Mom?” Lea, Lacy’s mother, stuffed torn wrapping paper into a trash bag. “Not all the presents are opened, yet.” Mabel stopped clearing the living room. “There’s one more. Danny, bring it in.”
"It's just Dan," Mabel's son hopped up. "I haven't been called Danny since I was a kid." He grabbed his coat and dashed out the door. He was back a moment later with a huge gift on a ???. He wheeled it in and set it in the kitchen.
“What on earth?” Mabel and her other children followed the package.
“For you, Mom,” Lea gestured to it. “From all of us.” Mabel glanced at each of the beaming faces and untied the large red bow on top. She ripped the paper.
“Oh, for crying out loud.” Danny grabbed a handful of paper and tore it off. The others joined in. Mabel’s breath caught in her throat and she covered her face with her hands.
An oven. A brand-new oven. Her brand-new oven.
Andrea sprinkled red and green sugar on a star-shaped cookie. It was going to be perfect for Santa. All the cookies would be perfect. Even the ones her little brother, Sean, decorated. Because Santa Claus was coming to their house! And they were going to meet him! He would have lots of presents for her and Sean, and Mommy said he was bringing a big surprise, too. Andrea couldn’t wait.
Christmas eve, Andrea and Sean waited by the tree with Mommy. It sparkled with rainbow lights in front of the bay window. The cookies were spread out on a silver tray with a tall glass of milk. She even left a carrot for Rudolph.
Andrea squirmed in Daddy’s big stuffed chair. It was her favorite spot in the whole house. She used to love climbing into Daddy’s lap, but the chair seemed too big since Daddy had to leave. Mommy said that all the soldiers had to go fight the bad guys, and that Daddy would come back someday. She liked to curl up there and pretend that Daddy was standing there, about to pick her up, sit down, and hold her on his lap. But he wasn’t there and he never did. Maybe she could ask Santa when Daddy was coming back.
A car’s engine drown out the low Christmas music. Who would be driving this late? And on Christmas eve? It didn’t matter. Santa drove a sleigh, not a truck. But the car didn’t drive away. It pulled up to their house and the engine died. Mommy got up to see who it was.
A moment later, a loud “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” filled the house. Santa was here! And he had a big bag full of presents! Andrea squealed and jumped off the chair. Santa! It was really him! Santa set his bag of presents on the floor. Andrea stopped short. He reached up and took his hat and beard off. It wasn’t Santa after all.
It was Daddy.
Tears welled up in Andrea’s eyes and she gritted her teeth. Daddy in the Santa suit knelt down and opened his arm wide. Andrea flew to him and squeezed his neck. She couldn’t stop the tears. Mommy and Sean joined them.
It was the biggest, bestest surprise ever.
It was the ugliest ornament she ever saw. It was supposed to be a snowman. Maybe. But the fur was discolored and it looked like something chewed on the hat. And it was missing an arm. Not anything like the beautiful glass balls that hung elegantly form the Christmas tree limbs. The glass ones sparkled and shone against the dark green pine. The fuzzy snowman stuck out like a sore thumb. And of course, Kara’s parents insisted on putting that one in the most prominent spot of the tree.
For years, Kara tried to get rid of the snowman. And each year, her parents put it right out in front. How could anyone like that thing? It was so embarrassing. All of her friends liked posting selfies of themselves in front of their trees, but not Kara. Not with that thing hanging there.
Two weeks before Christmas, Kara decorated the Christmas tree with her parents. The glass ornaments were wrapped and kept in a plastic tub with cardboard separators. The snowman was kept right there with them. Its discolored fur clashed horribly with the smooth, sleek glass.
Kara had had enough. “What’s with this ugly thing?” She lifted the snowman between two fingers gingerly. It was just as gross as it was in years past.
“Careful with that, honey,” Mom’s eyes widened.
“You can hang it here,” Dad pointed to a limb near the top of the tree. “It’ll look great there.”
“It’ll look better in the trash.” she held it at arm’s length. “I mean, why do you keep it? It makes the whole tree look bad.” Mom and Dad stopped decorating.
“Let me tell you a story,” Dad took the snowman, put an arm around Kara’s shoulders and led her to his big easy chair. He sat down and tapped his lap with his hands.
“I’m too old to sit on your lap, Dad.” Kara folded her arms. “And I’m too old for stories. Why can’t you just tell me why you and Mom go gaga over that thing?”
“Fourteen isn’t too old.” He tapped his lap again. Kara rolled her eyes but obligated. “A long time ago, a little girl got a new toy for Christmas.” Kara groaned. “It was stuffed, and played the music to ‘Silent Night.’ The little girl loved it.
“One day, a fire broke out. The little girl was scared and decided to hide from the fire. Her parents searched for her. But they couldn’t find her. They called for her, but she didn’t answer. They didn’t know what to do.
“Then they heard it. Music from ‘Silent Night.’ It was coming from a spare closet on the second floor, near the little girl’s bedroom. They ran to the closet and found the girl huddled in the corner hugging her toy, which played the music when it was squeezed. The three of them got out of the burning house safe and sound.”
“Great story, Dad. So, what?”
“You were too young to remember the fire, honey,” Mom rubbed Kara’s shoulder. “But this snowman,” she took the ornament form Dad, “saved your life.” She hung it on the tree. “It was too damaged to give it back to you, so we made an ornament out of it.”
“And it’s stayed with our regular ornaments ever since.” Dad gazed up at the tree. Kara did likewise. The snowman didn’t seem quite so ugly anymore. Kara hopped off Dad’s lap and grabbed her phone. Time to blow up facebook with Christmas selfies. And an incredible story to tell her friends.
Rain, rain. Go away. It wasn’t supposed to be raining. They weren’t supposed to be lost, either. Ron flipped the brights on. Nope. There was just no visibility in this downpour. He had to find a town somewhere along this winding road to stop for the night. This night. Christmas night. They weren’t supposed to be out here at all, but his sister insisted they come over for dinner. And now they were lost. In the rain. In the dark. In the middle of nowhere.
“I’m hungry.” Danny pulled on the driver’s seat.
“Go to sleep, son. We’ll be there soon.”
“I can’t sleep. I’m too hungry.” He flopped back in the backseat. A little girl moaned. Figures. Now Jessica was awake, too. All he needed was for the baby to wake up and start crying.
“Your father’s doing his best,” Natalie twisted around. “Close your eyes and think about all those presents Aunt Patty will have for you.
“Will we have hot cocoa, too?” Jessica yawned.
“All the cocoa you can drink.” Natalie sat back in the passenger seat. Ron frowned. They weren’t having presents or cocoa if he didn’t figure out where they were or how to get to his sister’s house. Natalie slipped a hand over Ron’s. She was scared. He was too. He wasn’t used to these two-lane roads that wove through hills and forests. And went on forever. He glanced at the gas gauge. The needle was near the ‘E’. What would he do if they did run out of gas? He shivered. He should have topped off the tank yesterday. But no, Patty’s house wasn’t that far away. Half a tank would be enough to get them there.
“My tablet’s dead,” Danny pushed a cord between the front seats. “It needs plugged in.”
“Not now, son,” Ron ignored the cord. He didn’t need anything taking up what little precious gas they had left.
“Aww! I wanna play my tablet!”
“Knock it off!” Ron turned his head and bared his teeth. Danny shrank back. A tiny cry erupted from the back seat. Ron’s head hurt. He slammed on the brakes.
“Why’re we stopping? Are we there?” Jessica looked around. “There’s nothing here. Why’d we stop?”
“D’you want me to drive?” Natalie rested a hand on his arm. She was a decent driver, in the city. She never drove on country roads before.
“No. I’m fine.” Ron pushed the gas pedal. If he couldn’t find a town, then maybe just a place to pull off the road for the night. Maybe there’d be some traffic in the morning.
Up ahead, a light! Oh, thank goodness. It blinked as the car passed the last few trees before opening up to a huge field with a house on a hill. The porch light was on. He usually didn’t like asking for directions, let alone help, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Ron turned in the driveway. Twin pine trees sat at either side of the driveway next to the road. They towered over Ron’s small car.
The small house sat a good ways away from the road. Luckily, the driveway was well-kept, or it would have been impossible to navigate. He put the car in park. What now? Should he get out and knock? Or announce their presence by honking? Was the owner asleep? It wasn’t that late. Maybe the home owner was one of those red-neck gun enthusiasts. Would he try to shoot them? A chill crawled up Ron’s spine. He couldn’t back down now. “Stay here,” he whispered.
He pulled his coat tight against the rain. He felt three pairs of eyes on him. Just knock. Get up the stairs and knock. Maybe the homeowner will help them. Maybe there’s no one home. Just knock. He stepped onto the first step.
“Nasty weather we’re having, isn’t it?” Ron froze. An old man stood on the porch and leaned against one of the rough support beams as if it was the middle of a warm afternoon. He lit a pipe. “Can I help you?”
“Uh, yes!” A human being! And with no gun in sight. Ron hopped the last few steps to the landing. Under the porch roof, he slid his hood back so the old man could see his face. “See, we’re lost. And almost out of gas.” The old man glanced over at the car. “Could you point me in the direction of the nearest gas station?”
“That way,” the old man gestured with the pipe towards the way they were headed. “Winterset’s just up yonder. But it’ll do you no good.” He popped the pipe back into his mouth.
“It’s Christmas.” The old man blew smoke rings. “Nobody’ll be open ‘til tomorrow.”
“Not even a gas station?” Ron’s shoulders slumped. The old man lifted an eyebrow. “What’re we gonna do?” Ron threw his hands up and paced. “We can’t go anywhere, and we can’t get a motel room.” He stopped pacing. “I guess we’ll have to sleep in the car.”
“Or you could stay here.” The old man bit his pipe.
“That’s what I said.” He nodded. “The missus won’t mind. It’s just the two of us.” He held out a hand. “Ben Goodheart.”
“Uh, Ron Smith.” He took the old man’s hand. What could he say? No stranger’s ever been so nice as to offer their home to him and his family. Then again, in the big city, if someone did offer their home, he’d turn and run.
“Go get your family,” the old man put out his pipe, “and come on in. We got a fire goin’ and a pretty Christmas tree your kids’ll like.” He disappeared through the front door. Ron stayed glued to the porch. Should he trust the old man? What if it was a trap? Then again, something about the old man reminded him of his own grandfather; kind, trusting, and easygoing. Ron’s grandfather died several years ago.
“Honey?” Natalie stood beside the car with an umbrella. “What’s going on?”
“Get the kids.” Ron pulled his hood up and hopped down the stairs. “We’re staying here tonight.”
“What? Are you crazy? We don’t know them.”
“I know, but-,” Ron stopped by the car. How could he explain it? Something felt right about the old man and the house. Like a divine intervention. “Look, we don’t have any other option but to sleep in the car. With no food.”
“It might be safer in the car.”
“This isn’t the city. People are different out here.”
She looked away, then glanced in the car. “Fine. We could do with stretching our legs.” They shared an uncertain smile. Ron unbuckled Jessica’s belt. “That guy said there’s a town up ahead, but no one’s open. Not until morning. Come on, son.” Danny groaned and got out of the car. Ron carried Jessica and the baby bag while Natalie fussed with the baby.
Inside, the place glowed. A tall Christmas tree stood in the middle of the far wall and sparkled with white lights. A large fire burned in one corner, and a huge dining table sat in the middle of the room. Why would an elderly couple, who lived alone, have such a large table?
“Please have a seat.” An old woman came from the kitchen and carried a tray with a teapot and six mugs. She set the tray on the table and poured a steaming drink into each of the mugs. “Have some cocoa, dears. Dinner’s almost ready.” She waddled back into the kitchen.
“My wife, Betty,” Ben took a sip from one of the mugs.
“Aww, no marshmallows?” Jessica stuck out her bottom lip.
“Aha! Knew we forgot something,” Ben set his mug down at the head of the table and joined his wife in the kitchen. Ron stared after him.
“What do you think, honey?” Natalie whispered.
“Cocoa is definitely better with marshmallows.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.” She turned to face him. Baby Emmy was asleep in her arms.
“I know.” He looked around. “We don’t know them. But I don’t feel uneasy here at all.” He wheeled around. “Do you?”
“No.” She sat down. “It feels like home. When I was little. Comfortable.”
A delicious aroma wafted in from the kitchen. “Dinner!” Betty carried a steaming bird surrounded by stuffing on a silver tray. Not a turkey, but not a chicken, either. “Goose,” she smiled. Ron’s mouth watered. His parents always had a goose for Christmas dinner, but since moving to the big city, it was easier to have turkey. Betty set the tray in the middle of the table, which, Ron just noticed, was set for six, with a high chair for the baby. Ben carried another tray and a bag of small marshmallows. His tray had the rest of dinner.
“Have a seat everyone. And we’ll give thanks together.” He took a seat at the head of the table and Betty sat at the far end. Ron and his family filled in the rest of the seats. “Thank you, Lord, for bringing us all together and giving us this wonderful feast. And a very happy birthday to Your Son, Jesus. Amen.”
“Amen,” Ron raised an eyebrow. Happy Birthday? Well, yea, when he thought about it, Christmas was a worldwide birthday party.
“Dig in, everyone,” Ben carved the goose. Ron’s stomach rumbled. Danny giggled. “Where you folks headed?”
“My sister’s,” Ron spooned mashed potatoes onto his plate. “But I think I made a wrong turn. She lives in Antrim, on Eckleberry Road.”
“That’s not too far form here,” Ben passed out pieces of goose. “Just keep going west until you get to the intersection. Turn right, and keep going for twenty miles or so. Eckleberry’s on the left.” Another twenty miles seemed like a long way to Ron. Especially on these country roads.
“I’ll bet she’s worried sick.” Betty set her napkin on her lap. “Why don’t you call her?”
“My phone’s dead. So’s Natalie’s,” Ron took a bite. Roasted goose was better than he remembered.
“You can use our phone,” Ben offered.
“Don’t know the number.” Ron shrugged. “Curse of the cell phones.” Ben chuckled. “How about you two? What’s your story?”
“We’ve been here for a long time,” Ben sipped his cocoa. “Givin’ folks a place to eat and rest. You wouldn’t believe how many people get lost out here. Not like it’s a maze, but I guess if you’re comin’ from one city and goin’ to another, a long country road can be intimidatin’.”
“Very.” Ron raised his mug.
“Everyone says we should start up a bed and breakfast.” Betty took a bite.
Danny pulled Ron’s shirt. “What’s a bed and breakfast?” Good question. Ron’s mind raced.
“It’s like a motel, dear,” Betty smiled.
“So, we redecorated a couple of spare rooms for guests.” He pointed down a short hall. “That’s where you’ll be sleepin’ tonight. It ain’t no fancy motel, but it’s warm and dry, and there’s plenty of blankets.”
“I don’t know how to thank you two.” Ron dug for his wallet. He didn’t have much cash, but he hoped it would be enough.
“Oh, we don’t want any money, dear,” Betty put a hand on Ron’s arm. It was very warm. “It’s enough that you’re here, and we have company on Christmas.”
“Can I have some more?” Jessica held her plate out to Ben.
“‘Course,” he cut her another slice of goose. “Have as much as you want, angel.” Jessica giggled.
A loud buzz came from the kitchen. Ron jumped. “Oh! The pie’s done,” Betty got up and waddled into the kitchen. A moment later, the aroma of hot apple pie filled the house. Ron hadn’t had homemade apple pie since he was little. There was no way the old couple could know, though. Must be a coincidence.
After dinner, Ben showed the way to the guest rooms. Not very big, but cozy. Natalie and Jessica took one with the baby, and Ron and Danny shared the other one. Besides the lingering smell of apple pie, Ron noticed a pepperminty fragrance. Must be the smell of Christmas. His head barely touched the pillow and he was out like a light.
Sunlight poured in through the small bedroom window the next morning. Finally. No more rain! Ron got dressed and woke Danny. In the dining room, Natalie and Jessica were already enjoying a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon. And hot cocoa.
“Good morning, dears,” Betty poured him a cup of coffee. “Here you go. Help yourself to breakfast. Ben’s out on the porch.” How did she know he wanted to talk to him?” Ron smiled and headed outside. Ben leaned against one of the support beams.
“Mornin’,” he blew a smoke ring. “Sleep well?”
“Very,” Ron sipped his coffee. The unseasonably warm weather stuck around. Or maybe it was the sunshine versus rain the night before.
“Gas station’ll be open by now. Turn left out of the drive, and keep goin’ a few miles. You can’t miss it.” Ron stared down the road. It curved out of sight behind trees. The whole area was surrounded by a thick forest with only this field, the old couples’ yard, empty and open.
“Thank you,” Ron turned to Ben. “For everything.”
Ben held up his hand. “We enjoyed having you here. It’s been a while since we’ve had any little ones around.”
“We’re ready to go,” Natalie poked her head out the door. Ron nodded.
The kids in the car, Ron waved goodbye one last time. Ben held up a hand and Betty waved from the top of the porch steps. Ron turned the car around and turned left out of the driveway. Seconds later, trees obscured the house and they were plunged back into the forest again. But this time, it wasn’t raining and it wasn’t dark. It was actually quite pleasant.
A few miles up the road, the red and green lights of a gas station glowed above the trees, just like Ben said. What he didn’t say was that there was only one pump. Hey, gas was gas. He pulled the car beside the pump and a boy in his early twenties trotted out of the building. He grabbed the handle to the pump as Ron got out of the car.
“We’re the last full service station in the county,” The boy pushed the handle. Right away, the pump clicked off. “Oh, I guess you didn’t need gas after all.”
“What do you mean?” Ron leaned on the roof of the car. “We’re nearly empty. We barely made it here without pushing.”
“Pump says you’re full,” the boy glanced from the screen on the pump to Ron. He shrugged and hung up the hose. What in the world? Ron leaned in and turned the engine on. Sure enough, the needle rose all the way past the ‘F’.
“I don’t understand,” Ron stood up. “We were empty last night.” Natalie got out of the car. “When we stopped at the Goodheart’s. We were almost completely empty.”
“I know.” Natalie glanced at the pump. “Maybe they filled the tank while we were sleeping?”
“Goodheart?” The boy pulled out the squeegee and washed the windshield. “You don’t mean Ben and Betty, do you? Our resident angels?”
“The very same.” Ron closed his eyes. Angels. That’s exactly what they were.
“You do know what this means, don’t you?” The boy tilted his head.
“That you have some nice people around here?”
“Go back to the field. You won’t find any house there.” The boy checked the tire pressure.
“What d’you mean, ‘no house’? We stayed there last night.” Ron looked down at the boy.
“See for yourself.” He glanced at the pump. “No gas, no charge. Good luck, folks, and Merry Day After.”
“Same to you,” Ron sat down and closed the door. Natalie did the same. The boy watched them as Ron pulled out of the station. Ron glanced at Natalie before turning back the way they came. They didn’t have to stop, but Ron had to see that field again. He had to know that the house was there.
Trees, trees, and more trees. Where was it? It couldn’t have been more than five miles. Finally, the trees broke and a familiar field came into view. Ron pulled into the driveway between the twin pine trees and stopped. The ‘driveway’ was no more than a car length long and led to nothing. No long driveway. No porch. No house. It was just an empty field, just like the boy at the gas station said. Ron glanced at Natalie. He knew what she was thinking. The boy’s words echoed in his head, “Goodheart? You don’t mean Ben and Betty, do you? Our resident angels?” Ron folded his hands in front of his mouth.
Natalie touched his arm and he jumped. She smiled.
“Those two weren’t really angels, were they?” Danny leaned forward. “I mean, come on. Real angels? And I suppose we spent last night in Heaven, too, huh?”
Jessica yawned. “Heaven’s got good cocoa.”
The Christmas Spirit
The Christmas Spirit. That elusive little thing that gets lost so easily amidst the big, bad Holiday Rush. Shopping, sales, bad weather, traffic, decorations, cards, and more shopping. Like so many others, Sherri was caught up in the Holiday Rush and couldn’t find the Christmas Spirit no matter how hard she tried. Even sitting by a fire with hot cocoa and a Christmas movie didn’t help.
While stuck in traffic, the radio DJ mentioned a local charity in need of toy donations. And people to wrap those toys. Why not? Sherri didn’t have much to do today. She changed direction from the department store to the charity’s location. The building itself wasn’t much to look at, but there was wrapping paper covering the windows. She hopped up the stairs, pushed the door open, and gasped.
Gifts were stacked all over the single, large room, some wrapped, some not. Joyful Christmas music rang through the room from a hidden radio. A woman greeted her and showed her to a table where a stack of unwrapped toys sat. Sherri sat down and wrapped one. And another. And another. She sang along with the music and finished the first stack quickly. And started on the next stack.
“Time to close.” The woman stood over Sherri. Wow, nine o’clock at night! She hadn’t even realized when it got dark. She was having too much fun. The woman thanked her for all her hard work and wished her good night. She took one last look around the room and smiled wide.
She found the Christmas Spirit.
The Old Man
Large snowflakes floated all around. The old man smiled and wrapped his scarf around his neck. It was cold. Very cold. He had come into the world on a cold day like this. It was only fitting that he would leave on an equally cold day.
He had lived a full life. He skated on ice-covered ponds and made snowmen in his youth. He watched as the snows melted to reveal new life springing up from the ground. Flowers blossomed and birds sang. The temperature continued to rise as he turned middle-age. He spent lazy summer days under the shade of a sycamore tree, with the sun beating down all around. It wasn’t long before the leaves changed from green to gold and red, and the rain came and went.
He got the first twinge of old bones with the first frost. The trees all lost their leaves and slept for the next winter. The ground became hard again, and he saw snow once more. That’s when he knew it was time.
He stopped to stretch his aching back and saw something coming straight towards him. It was a baby. Wearing nothing but a diaper and a sash. The old man had a matching sash. White, with four numbers embroidered on it. The baby crawled past him, oblivious to the cold. Maybe it was just those old bones of his. He stood there and stared after the baby.
“Good luck, New Year.”
What a Christmas! Hi! I’m C.L. Mozena. Chirstmas has gotten so blown up by comercialism and money, I wanted to get back to the heart of it. Kindness, being with family, and just plain joy. No Santa, no elves. Just good feelings.
Being a christian, modern Christmas makes me sick. I don’t go around preaching to anyone, but I’m tired of seeing Santa everywhere and Jesus nowhere. Really? Don’t get me wrong; I believe that gift-giving is a huge part of Cristmas. After all, gifts were given on the very first Christmas, too. But it’s blown up so much, I’m sure most people have no idea why we give gifts on Christmas.
As you prepare for Christmas this year, try not to get overwhelmed by advertisements and remember to enjoy the season. That’s the key to having the bestest Christmas ever.
Speaking of joy, why not check out my website for some free stories?