’Tis the Season
(Two short stories)
~ ~ ~
Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved
Published by J. Y. Harris Books
~ ~ ~
Good people can make good things happen
Oh, great, popcorn and gummy candy in spilled soda. What a mess! Gina sighed. Generally she liked her job at the movie theatre; it was work she could do easily, and, more importantly, she could do by herself. When she wanted to socialize, there were always co-workers around with whom she could chat. But most of the time Gina preferred to be by herself.
Except that wasn’t likely today. It was two days before Christmas, and of course the movie theatre was slammed. People everywhere: kids, parents, teens, college students home for the break. It was an ‘all hands on deck’ scenario, the manager had told them.
So here was Gina, cleaning up a sticky mess on the sticky carpeting. When that was completed as thoroughly as possible under the circumstances, she took a breather, ducking behind a large advertising standee in a corner of the lobby. Someone else must have had the same idea, as she found herself privy to one side of a phone call.
“No, I’m here with my kids—why the nanny couldn’t bring them to the movie, I have no idea; it’s not like I don’t have better things to do today. … Yes, I know, we need to close it up right away—shut down the office entirely. After everyone leaves, change the security code so employees can’t get in tomorrow. I don’t want— … No, nobody in or out except you and me; I want things cleared out. And by cleared out, I mean— … (laugh) Yeah, I knew you’d know what I mean. Luckily, with the holiday, I think we have a few days before the regulators show up. We’ll take care of it tomorrow. Let me know if you hear anything else in the meantime.” The man clicked off the call.
Gina watched him walk away. Picking up her little broom, she followed him, inconspicuous in the crowded lobby. When she got close enough, Gina thumbed a few buttons on her cellphone, careful not to attract the notice of any coworkers or, worse, her supervisor.
Her phone buzzed in silent confirmation. Slipping it back into her pocket, Gina stopped at the nearest trash receptacle, replaced the full bag with a fresh one, and carried the rubbish to a door at the end of the hallway.
Outside, Gina tossed the bag into the dumpster and pulled out her phone. Out of sight of any external security cameras, she looked closely at the information on the screen. And then more closely still.
~ ~ ~
Nick sighed. Down the hall in his office building, people were enjoying a holiday party. Two of his employees were gone on vacation. The third would take his time off over the New Year holiday.
With luck, business would be slow.
His desk phone rang, and the screen showed ‘unknown number.’ Well, so much for it being slow, he thought. New clients are good, but they usually wait until after the holidays to get a new security system. With another sigh, he picked up the phone.
“Aston Security Consulting, Nick Aston speaking.”
“Nick, it’s me.”
“Gina?” His sometime partner-in-crime. The two worked together a few times to help people who’d been wronged—people for whom there was no legal recourse. Nick and Gina simply provided… extralegal recourse.
“Yeah, sorry to call from out of the blue. Listen, have you ever heard of Rick MacLeod?”
“Have I— Rick MacLeod?” Setting aside his questions, he tapped at his laptop. “Oh yeah, I thought his name sounded familiar. He’s a businessman, some sort of financial guru.”
“Clean or dirty?”
Nick evinced no surprise at the blunt question. “Umm, well, hard to tell without digging deep, but it looks like there’s some questionable activity, a couple of state investigations. But nothing’s stuck. Why?”
“Well, he’s here, at the movie theatre. I happened to overhear him on the phone, saying something about closing down the office and cleaning it out before regulators came in, that sort of thing.”
“You mean shutting it down for good? Hmm, it looks like he’s involved in a couple different operations, so it could mean any one of them. You don’t know which office, or a company name—”
“He didn’t say, but I got close enough to clone his phone, so I looked into MacLeod’s call history. I think he was talking about Dynamic Services Group—how’s that for a generic name? Anyway, his last call was to an Alan Weisberg.”
“Weisberg… yeah, looks like he’s MacLeod’s financial guy. Gina, I hate to say it, but I don’t think this is really our sort of thing. A guy closing his office—even if it is for shady business dealings—is not really the kind of thing we do.” Even as he said it, Nick knew there was more to come… another shoe to drop.
“Well, listen. MacLeod got an email from a Joy Maddox—well, he was cc’d on it. Apparently Joy Maddox works in that office, and headed up one of those Christmas sponsorships that a lot of companies have—you know, like an Angel Tree sort of thing. This email is to the employees who contributed to sponsorship, and says she can’t wait to deliver the gifts to the Children’s Hospital tomorrow.”
“That’s nice,” Nick said.
“Nice? Nick, didn’t you hear what MacLeod told Weisberg? He wants security access cut off tonight. That means nobody will be able to get into the office tomorrow. Those gifts—in the office—won’t get delivered.”
And there it was—the other shoe. The hell with the shifty businessman; it was gifts for a children’s hospital that Gina was concerned about. “Ah, now I get it. You want to—”
“Wait, hold it! MacLeod just got a text from Weisberg. ‘Everyone gone for the day; security code changed. What to do with presents in conference room?’”
“Okay,” Nick said. “Is MacLeod texting him back?”
“No, he’s calling him. Here, let me loop you in.” Nick heard a beep, then the ringing of a cellphone.
Alan, what’s this about presents in the conference room?
Oh, the office volunteered to collect and donate gifts for the children’s hospital.
Yeah? Anything good?
Uh, I don’t know. They’re wrapped.
[_ *Hmmph* Well, I guess my kids don’t need any more presents anyway. _]
So what should I do with them?
Well… you said they’re to be delivered tomorrow?
Good. Meet me at the office at ten tomorrow—we’ll deliver the gifts. And drop a line to our contacts at the newspapers, and ask for a photographer too. We could use some good press, especially with that investigation looming.
Yes, sir. See you at ten.
They clicked off.
“Nick? You still there?”
He sighed. “Yeah, I’m here. What a slimeball! MacLeod actually considered taking those presents for his kids!”
“Yeah, yeah, I know: we have to do something.”
“You don’t have to. All I was going to ask is, what can you tell me about the security of this Dynamic Services Group?”
He tapped his laptop again. “Their office is in the Imperium Building—luckily it’s one of my clients, so I can get you in the front door with a click of the mouse. When it comes to Dynamic Services, though, you’re on your own.”
“Not a problem,” Gina said. “I just didn’t want to stand out on the street trying to break in the front door without knowing the security set-up. So, you can get me in, say about ten?”
“Let’s make it midnight.”
“I’ll be there. Thanks.”
~ ~ ~
That night, Gina stood in an alley next to the Imperium, scanning the empty street. When her watch said midnight, she called Nick.
“You ready?” she asked.
“Just about. Okay… there. Now you should be able to walk right in.”
Gina checked the street again, and saw only one car stopped at a red light at the end of the block. Security cameras on nearby buildings didn’t cover the front of the Imperium, so she stepped out of the shadow. Tugging her cap down and keeping her head low, she walked purposefully to the front door and pushed it open.
The lobby was empty, and Nick had advised her that the cleaning crew shouldn’t be a factor. Gina went directly to the elevator and rode up to the fourth floor.
DSG had a standard office entrance: wooden door with full-length twelve-inch-wide windows on either side.
The security keypad didn’t pose much of a problem; as Gina had predicted, the new code proved no match for her special skills, and she was inside in under thirty seconds.
The office wasn’t large: a reception area, cubicled workstations, offices, and a meeting room. Sure enough, the conference table was covered with gifts. Some large packing boxes sat in a corner, no doubt put there for the convenience of transporting the goodies to the hospital.
She had just started filling one of the boxes when her phone buzzed. It was Nick.
“I’m at the office door,” he said. “Let me in.”
Gina walked to the outer office and looked through the window. Sure enough, there was Nick.
“What are you doing here?” she asked as she opened the door. “You did your part by getting me inside the building.”
He shrugged. “I couldn’t let you have all the fun on this one, especially with the Santa factor.”
“Yeah. Presents… kids in the hospital… Christmas Eve…. What’s more Santa-y than that?” He sat down at one of the cubicle computers. “Besides, I did a little more than just get you into the building. I put the security cameras on a loop, so it’ll look like we were never here.”
Gina went back into the conference room. “You gonna come help me, or what?”
“Yeah. I just… have to….” His voice trailed off as she heard the clicking of a keyboard, and then a printer hummed to life.
“What are you doing?” she called. “We’re here for the presents, remember?”
“I know,” he assured her. “I just thought a little explanation might be in order. We don’t want the kindhearted Ms. Maddox to worry that her generous efforts have gone to waste.”
Gina brought out one of the filled boxes and set it next to the door. She knew Nick was still on the computer, but her thoughts had turned instead to the gifts she was packing. One rattled in a way that sounded like a jigsaw puzzle; another was the size and shape of a Lili doll, likely dressed in one of her signature fashionable outfits. Other gifts couldn’t be wrapped, or at least, not well, like a skateboard and a soccer ball.
She filled more boxes, piling them next to the one at the office door. “Thanks for the help,” she said wryly.
“What?” Nick looked up with a smile. “Oh, I’m helping. You’d be surprised how I’m helping.” He picked up the papers he’d printed and ducked into the conference room, and then, grabbing a handy roll of tape, went to the office door and affixed a sheet to the inside of the glass next to it, gloved fingers smoothing the tape in place. “Okay, I’m good. You ready to get these gifts out of here?”
The two midnight elves carried the boxes to the elevator, and then loaded them into Nick’s car. Gina watched as Nick used his phone to access the Imperium Building’s security system and have the interior cameras resume live coverage.
“Want to wait until morning—later morning—to deliver these?” he asked.
“Nah, let’s go now. It’s the overnight shift at the hospital, so there shouldn’t be many people around, which suits me fine. I’m parked around the corner; I’ll follow you there.”
Fifteen minutes later the two pulled in to the hospital parking lot. They stood next to their vehicles for a moment as Gina spoke emphatically and handed something to Nick, which he reluctantly accepted. Then each carried a box of gifts inside and up to the Pediatric wing.
A nurse they encountered as they stepped off the elevator looked at them oddly, but pointed the way to the dayroom. There, Nick set down his box under some festive holiday decorations, just as the charge nurse came to find out what was going on.
“We’re delivering Christmas gifts,” Gina explained. She had donned a bright red wig with pointed ears attached, and truly did look like an elf. “The Children’s Cancer Center was adopted by a local business for the holiday. I assume you’re familiar with that?”
“Yes,” the woman, Ms. Karolla, replied, eying them skeptically, “I knew there would be gifts delivered, but I assumed it would be during the day. I didn’t expect them during my shift, in the middle of the night.”
“We have a couple more boxes,” Nick put in, hoping to distract her from asking too many questions. “We’ll be right back.” He adjusted the Santa hat Gina had pushed on him in the parking lot, and the fake beard that went with it; he felt silly, but now was glad for the disguise.
The nurse nodded. “I’ll get an orderly to help unpack these two.”
A few minutes later Gina and Nick returned with the rest of the gifts. “Here, let me help with that,” another nurse said as they tried to maneuver their burden out of the elevator. The young man grabbed one of the two boxes that Nick was juggling, and followed him to the dayroom.
Ms. Karolla was as good as her word, as the presents from the first two boxes had been piled in front of the big window overlooking the courtyard. Nick directed the nurse to set his carton in the center of the room, as he and Gina did. The three of them added gifts to the pile, which soon encompassed the entire wall of the dayroom, between an inflatable snowman in one corner, and a rocking horse outfitted to look like a reindeer in the other.
The charge nurse returned. In her forties, the tolls of a demanding job were visible on her face, but her eyes softened when she saw the bounty. “This is wonderful.” Her smile took a few years off her age, Nick thought. “It’s unusual for gifts to be brought in the middle of the night… although I guess that’s what happens at this time of year, isn’t it? What company did you say you’re with again?”
“We didn’t,” Nick said, before Gina could say anything. Drawing an envelope from his jacket pocket he handed it to the nurse. “This should explain what you need to know; please pass it on to the staff of the next shift, too. It’s possible that some newspaper or TV people might come by, and you’ll want to have this handy.”
Karolla was again regarding Gina and Nick skeptically, but she looked at the paper in the envelope. Her brows rose as she read, but finally she nodded and folded it back inside. “I take it you two aren’t mentioned in this note, and I don’t really want to know why—not looking a gift horse in the mouth, and all. But I know the children will love the gifts, and any smile we can bring to their faces while they’re here—that’s priceless. And their parents—well, as you can imagine, having a child in the cancer center pretty much consumes their time and energy every waking moment. Most of them don’t have the luxury to even think about Christmas, so knowing that people are thinking of them, and that their children will have a gift to open, that’ll mean the world to them. And the buffet sounds wonderful! I don’t know how we can thank you.”
Nick shook his head and pointed to his elf. “The delivery is her doing.” Pointing to the envelope he added, “The gifts are from the generosity of others.” He shrugged self-consciously. “I guess we’ll be going.”
Gina nodded. “The sleigh is double-parked. Merry Christmas to you and everyone here.”
Nick echoed her sentiment and followed Gina to the elevator.
“What was that about a buffet?” she asked once they exited the building.
“Oh, well, while I was in the Dynamic Services computer, I… played around a little. Nothing too terrible, nothing that’ll be missed all that much. I placed an order for a buffet dinner to be served on Christmas day.”
“At the hospital?”
“And at the Hospitality House—the facility where parents stay while their kids are in the cancer center. Nothing fancy, but hopefully a little festive, and one less thing for the families to worry about. All bought and paid for by DSG.”
“You devil!” Gina said with a laugh. She removed the wig as they reached their cars. “I guess everyone’s going to be a little surprised tomorrow.”
“Especially MacLeod and Weisberg, when the regulators show up after the holiday.” He didn’t explain, and Gina didn’t ask. Her priority had been getting the gifts delivered to the hospital—and MacLeod not being able to take credit for them. That mission had been fulfilled.
~ ~ ~
8:01 a.m. Christmas Eve
Joy Maddox and her co-workers Brad and Missy exited the elevator on the fourth floor. It would be a half-day for Joy; her main objective for the day was to deliver the gifts she and the others had contributed for the Children’s Center at the hospital.
As they approached the office, they saw a handwritten sign taped to the door. Dynamic Services Group – operations closed, office shut down effective immediately. Final checks paid next Friday.
The three were dumbfounded. Joy tried to get in the door, but her security code didn’t work. She and Brad and Missy looked at the sign, then at each other, their confusion and disbelief evident. After a few tumultuous minutes Missy noticed the other sign, taped to the glass from the inside.
The typed note was addressed to the participants in the hospital sponsorship: The gifts you collected for children have been delivered, and your generosity gratefully acknowledged. Today’s events are bound to be troubling, but rest assured there is ‘compensation’ in your accounts to assist you.
No less puzzled than before, the three wondered about this, but on a whim Brad checked his bank account, and discovered what was meant by ‘compensation.’ The others checked their own accounts and realized that they too now had a little breathing room to get them through this rocky time.
~ ~ ~
9:58 a.m. Christmas Eve
Richard MacLeod and Alan Weisberg approached the Dynamic Services Group office deep in conversation. Weisberg entered the new security code onto the keypad and opened the door. The typed sign next to the door went completely unnoticed.
Weisberg let his boss precede him inside. A news photographer and reporter would meet them at the hospital to document MacLeod’s generosity, he said.
MacLeod stopped short in the conference room doorway. There were no gifts—not on the table, not piled in a corner of the room.
No gifts. None.
Weisberg pointed. A sheet of paper lay on the conference table, a white island in a sea of mahogany.
MacLeod picked it up and read it.
Merry Christmas, Mr. MacLeod. As you see, the gifts your employees collected aren’t here. They’ve been delivered to the Children’s Cancer Center in the name of the generous, hardworking people who donated them. The children and their families are thrilled, and the hospital is very grateful to those who cared enough to think of others and share their blessings during this season of giving. You get no credit in the matter, and you deserve none. While you’re here at the office you can work on trying to hide the inconsistencies in your books before the regulators show up. Good luck with that!
MacLeod’s hand shook as he read it. “Who’s been here?” he demanded, his voice rising. “Who’s done this? Who are these people?”
~ ~ ~
2:32 p.m. Christmas Eve
Gina replayed the video that appeared in one of the news sites. It showed children—children who held IV poles as they walked, children in wheelchairs, children too weak to get out of their hospital beds. But every single one of them was smiling. The nurses with them were smiling, and the parents—who would gladly take the insidious malignancy into their own bodies to spare their children—were smiling too, many through their tears.
Gina smiled as well and sat back in her chair. Her gaze fell on the bottle of champagne on her counter, a gold bow tied around its neck. She looked forward to getting together with some friends later for Christmas Eve dinner.
She felt she’d been a very good elf indeed.
Was that the alarm clock, or the phone, or… maybe just part of a dream? It could’ve been the next room’s alarm clock, the walls here were kind of thin. Hmmm… no, it was the alarm clock in her own room. Chrissie woke, remembered where she was, turned off the alarm, got her bearings, and yawned. Marko was in the next bed, safe and sound, just where she’d left him. Time to get up, she told herself. This is the first time I’ve woken up in a motel on Christmas morning, she thought. As a kid Christmas morning was always special, waking up at the house, her mom and dad and the rest of the family there, the tree, the presents. Then as an adult it was either at her mom’s or at Carl’s parents’ place. With Carl deployed overseas, this year it was at her mom’s.
Chrissie had known they wouldn’t be able to make it all the way in one day, so, not wanting to either miss the morning or spend all day Christmas driving, she’d stopped over here at the Six Pines Motel in central-west Ohio, leaving just four hours to go in their trip. We should be there before noon, she thought. It’ll still be, technically, Christmas morning. Good.
She woke Marko, improvised something for his breakfast, set it out, and began her shower. Thirty five minutes later they were in her Civic heading west. But before they decamped she left two bills on the motel room bureau, a five and a ten. A $15 tip for burdening the housekeeping staff almost not at all, for although they’d slept in the room and used the towels, that was about it; they hadn’t left a mess and had only required one change of bedding. But after all, she reasoned, it’s Christmas. The housekeeper has to work on Christmas morning, missing the chance to spend it with whoever she might have hoped to spend it with. So she left the $15. It’s little enough, she reasoned.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Charlene Daviess finished with room 121 and moved into 123. The door was open so she hadn’t needed to knock; the room was empty, the guests had obviously already checked out. Hmmm, she thought, fairly neat for a change. Some people were such pigs, inconsiderate, messy. I wonder how they live at home? she thought. But some were nice, you could tell they made an effort. These people had made an effort. She went through her regular routine, changing out the linens, the towels, vacuuming, doing the bathroom. She’d noticed the fiver on the bureau, thought it was generous. It might turn out to be a decent day after all, she surmised. She returned to her routine and finished everything up, then picked up the five. Underneath it she found the ten. Which surprised her. And gratified her.
Charlene finished her shift at 3:30 that afternoon. Instead of going home immediately to Pete and the kids and Christmas and dinner and, let’s face it, more work, she decided to stop and have coffee and a danish. She often stopped off at the Koffee Kup after work but today was Christmas and she felt a twinge of guilt for not wanting to hurry home. On the other hand she knew that along with the joy and fun of Christmas there would be more work, always more work, and this might be the only window of time in the day when she could have a few minutes to herself. So she stopped in, to enjoy the coffee and savor the danish.
Luckily Judy had still had one danish left. Charlene was a little surprised that the Kup didn’t seem much different today from any other day. Somehow she had thought it would. It was Christmas after all. But, she guessed, some people’s routines weren’t altered by that. Her own hadn’t been. So here they all were, and here she was too. The coffee was set before her, rich and hot, with a nice danish, and she set about enjoying them.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Judy looked good today. Some days she looked tired. Today she was “on.” She barely had to smile at the regulars to prompt their friendly flirting. It was all innocent. Charlene knew it, Judy knew it, Judy’s husband knew it, the regulars knew it. But it was still fun. Charlene admired Judy, admired the tightrope walk she walked every day. Serve up eggs and coffee, greet the regulars, remember their runs and their kids’ names, put up with Norm in the kitchen, ignore the occasional drunken come-on, try to be civil to the smug college kids on Thursday and Friday nights after happy hour, all while trying to keep her smock half-way clean, her hair in place, and her feet from getting sore. A great girl, Charlene thought.
Charlene paid for her meal. Reaching into her pocket for change she fingered the two bills, and thought… oh heck, I’ll leave it all. It’s Christmas. It was free to me after all. Who deserves it more than Judy?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Judy swung by the booth after Bobby bussed it and swiped up the tip. What’s this? she wondered—$15? For a $ 4.85 tab? There must be some mistake. But no, she distinctly remembered, Charlene had said “I’m all set; Merry Christmas, Judy, and your family too; I’m all set.” She’d obviously intended to signal that she’d intentionally left it all. Oh, the sweetie….
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Judy’s shift ended at 6. She’d gone in at 6 in the a.m. Not all her days were 12 hours long, not by a long shot. But Earl and Norm, jerks that they could sometimes be, did try to let as many people stay home today as they could. Judy’d had to work anyway, so why not stay a few hours longer? Earl, miracle of miracles, had even okayed time-and-half; woo-hoo! So at 6:06 Judy clocked out, exited through the back door by the lockers, and got into her blue Nissan. Then she got out of the blue Nissan, walked across the parking lot to the Save-U-More where a Salvation Army kettle stood, and dropped in the two bills. Then she returned to her Nissan and went home to spend a nice Christmas evening with her family. She felt surprisingly light.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ken Ashton was down to his last hour as a Salvation Army collector. Actually he was over his hour, his stint having officially ended at 6 p.m. He’d put down his bell, folded up the sign, and gathered up the donations to put into the strong-box given to him by his supervisor when he’d reported in that morning. Six p.m. Christmas day – the Christmas collection was officially over. The money collected was now safely in the box, the box locked in the toolkit in the bed of Raymond’s black Ford pickup. Glad I did it, he said to himself, but even gladder that it’s done. Thought I was dressed for the weather, but I should’ve gone with the long johns. Coat or no coat, fur hat or no fur hat, the legs get cold. Next year, long johns.
When Ken turned back to pull the kettle down and cart if off to his own truck is when he saw the bills, the last donation. Two bills, on closer inspection a tenner and… what the hey, another fifteen bucks. Darn, he thought, now I’ve got to find Raymond, ask him for the keys again, open the tool box again, and then the strong box… funny how an act of charity by one person could turn into an annoyance for another. It’s only because I thought I was finished and now find I’m not, he figured.
Ken never gave a thought to keeping the money. It simply isn’t mine, he would have reasoned; I don’t go keeping other people’s things. But what to do with it? he asked himself. I don’t want to walk around with it for a week, it’d feel funny. Maybe drop it in some other collector’s kettle? Nah, that’s just passing on the problem. Besides, they’d all be shut down too. Jeez, I thought I could go home now and warm up and relax, but now I have this stupid little detail to take care of. A teeny one, granted, but still…
Ken’s mind suddenly turned to something that had happened yesterday, Christmas Eve. There’d been a little girl in the Save-U-More when Ken ran in for a snack at the end of his stint. A little girl in the checkout line with her mom. Ken had overheard most of their conversation as he waited to ring up his snack. Tough situation, he remembered. Mom out of work, dad not around, cold apartment, not enough for gifts under the tree. If there was a tree. I wouldn’t get one if I was her, he thought; why bother with a tree if it was just going to mock you on the big morning by having nothing under the boughs but… cold air? No presents, no cheer.
Ken knew who they were and where they lived. They lived in the project behind the home improvement store, that’s why they were in the Save-U-More all the time. Ken even knew what unit, he’d seen the mom on the stoop calling Ada – that’s what the girl was called – when it was time to come in.
Ken thought quickly now. Actually he was surprised how slick his mind was functioning. Must be yuletide adrenaline, he thought: holiday vibes, Christmas mojo. So he headed back into the store, over to the back in the far corner. He knew what he’d find there, and he did: a doll just right for a girl Ada’s age. They weren’t expensive. Funny how little it takes sometimes to make a big difference. And he made one more stop as well: on the way to the bank of checkout counters he stopped at a clearance rack and picked up a sequined jacket that should fit the girl. Denim with pink trim and some pretty rhinestone design. Jean jackets are forgiving, he figured, they don’t have to fit the wearer’s form; snug, loose, baggy, any look works. Ada would be happy to find it in any event, he just knew.
Five minutes later he was out the door with the two items plus a sheet of wrapping paper and sitting in his truck. His jackknife had scissors and the Salvation Army had lent him a roll of clear tape for his sign, so he managed a damn decent job of gift-wrapping if he did say so himself. Green with bright gold trim and jolly red Santas.
Lights were on in Ada’s and her mom’s apartment. Ken gently leaned the wrapped parcel against their door and prepared to softly knock. As he was doing this the curtains parted and Ada’s mom peered out. Just as he was retracting his knuckles she opened the door. She looked at Ken, then at the package; Ken looked at her, but didn’t move. To run now might alarm her, he thought. Plus, he was just a little flummoxed.
“Um,” he finally managed, “a lady left some money in our kettle but the drive was over, so we thought, or I, that is, we thought…” Ada’s mom looked down at the package again, saw “To Ada” on the tag, looked squarely at Ken again, and then smiled. Ken smiled too. She picked it up and hugged it to her chest, and just smiled. “Merry Christmas,” Ken whispered. Then wished he hadn’t; too cheesy sounding. Overly dramatic. And anyway it wasn’t like one package was going to make it merry around there. The woman was still smiling though. She nodded her head and slowly closed the door. Whether he’d ruined everything by getting caught, or not, he didn’t know, but it didn’t matter now, he couldn’t undo it. So he just walked away. A snowflake blew into his eye; it must have been that, why else would his cheek have moistened up?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Thursday the twenty-seventh. Shirley Acevedo’s client list was short today, thank goodness. A social worker’s job is always intense around the holidays. Disrupted work schedules, offices that close at odd hours, holiday expenses, bad weather, emotions running up and down like roller coasters, there was no such thing as a routine day.
Shirley liked visiting Ada and her mom, even though the mother’s mood ran hot and cold. She was a nice lady, a very hard worker when employed, loved Ada, treated her well, but there were complications that made some of the visits difficult. But on balance she was an easy client, and Shirley had precious few of those, so she generally liked the time she spent with this duo. But Ada, Ada more than made up for it all. Ada was a gem. How a little girl in that situation could be so happy, so contagiously happy, was a mystery to Shirley. But a mystery she was grateful for.
But today it was Ada’s mother herself who infused Shirley with optimism and joy. Ada’s mom literally cried when she related the story to her social worker, how she had despaired when she thought of Ada’s sad little non-Christmas and how that despair had been turned around by a surprise present from a stranger, who himself was passing on someone else’s gift. And the jacket fit, Ken had guessed right, it fit Ada perfectly! Even the wrapping paper was beautiful, she said. She had helped Ada unwrap it painstakingly rather than tearing it so she could save it for next year.
Shirley Acevedo had, then, quite the little story to tell around her dinner table that evening. Too many of her work stories were sad, sometimes desperate. Many she didn’t even share, except only with Brad when they nuzzled on the pillow at night. Little victories had to be celebrated, savored. This one brought a lot of cheer to her household. Brad, who was always proud of her for the difficult vocation she had chosen, got up from the table and hugged Shirley. Brandon and Jonny and Tiffany predictably went “Eeeuuw!” but they were secretly happy for their mom, and proud too.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The following Monday school resumed for Brandon. Mrs. Manning eased her students into the new semester. For their first day back she laid out a lot of fun and easy activities. She encouraged the kids to tell what they’d done during the holiday break, being mindful, however, of those who either didn’t celebrate the holiday or who didn’t have the storybook kind; she played down “what I got for Christmas”—they would have done enough of that already, outside of class—and encouraged them to talk about what they did during their days off, maybe traveling, cooking or other activities, or just going out sledding or making snow forts. When Brandon’s turn came he told the story of Ada and the doll and jacket, just as his mom had related it. Mrs. Manning was impressed.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Maryanne Manning related the story to her own family that evening. Her husband Mike did the same the following day when he ran into his friend Shawn, who worked at the local newspaper. One thing led to another and, through Shawn’s efforts, the story was featured in that week’s edition. They’d disguised the names and a few of the details, so Ada’s mother, if she happened to read it, wouldn’t recognize herself and be embarrassed, but they included all the essentials and presented it as a true and factual account. Numerous readers called or e-mailed the paper to compliment them on the piece. It got a lot of feedback, all of it positive, and there was a small uptick in post-holiday donations at the Salvation Army.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The week was up. Marko and his mom had had a great visit at grandma and grandpa’s. A slew of cousins had been there, a variety of aunts and uncles, a lot of playing and running around, some presents, tons of foods. And desserts? Out of this world! But all good things must come to an end, so now Marko dutifully buckled himself into his seat as Chrissie put the Civic in gear, waved her last goodbye, eased out of the driveway, and headed toward the highway.
Four hours later she exited the interstate and found a gas station. After filling the tank she and her son used the facilities and grabbed some drinks. Last minute at the checkout counter she picked up a local paper; see what’s in the news, she thought. Below the fold on the first page was a feature about a local girl who’d gotten an anonymous, unexpected gift on Christmas Day. Although anxious to get back on the road, Chrissie couldn’t help reading it all the way through.
“What are you reading, mom?”
“Here’s a nice story, Marko, you read it. It’s about a nice person who gave a little girl a very nice Christmas present who wouldn’t otherwise have gotten anything.”
“Nothing at all?”
“No, nothing at all. Here, you read it,” she said, handing the paper over to him and easing the Civic into gear.
“Wow,” Marko remarked when he had finished, “some people are pretty nice, huh mom?”
“Yeah,” she responded, mentally picturing a furtive figure leaving a brightly wrapped package on a dreary doorstep before scurrying away. “Sometimes you don’t even know,” she said, “how your kindness can trigger someone else to do the same. Set events in motion, like one domino pushing the next one.” I should be more like that, she resolved.
“Yep,” she repeated, “some people are pretty nice indeed.”
From the Authors:
Thanks for reading Stealing Christmas and Tipping Point. We hope these stories embody the spirit of the holiday, and the optimism of the season will last long after the wrapping paper has been discarded and decorations put away.
If you enjoyed this book, please take a few moments to leave a brief review on the site where you purchased it (or on Goodreads). If you prefer to contact the authors directly, they can be reached through , or J. Y. Harris Books on Facebook.
P.S. – Gina and Nick, the characters in Stealing Christmas, are featured in the series It Takes a Thief, also by Jean Louise. Novellas in this series are:
IT TAKES A THIEF ~ “A pickpocket and a security pro walk into a bar….” That’s pretty much how this one opens. Can an ex-cop and light-fingered thief work together to bring down a mob boss?
SHINY, SPARKLY THINGS ~ Someone’s stealing gems from necklaces and bracelets. Who’s doing it, and what do the thefts have to do with a 290-year-old crown?
ARTLESS ~ Gina’s excited about this ‘project’; she gets to case a museum! She and Nick have their eye on the museum’s director, who’s as subtle as a bulldozer when it comes to furthering her career.