by Lady Li Andre
Published by Lady Li Andre at Shakespir
Shakespir Edition Copyright 2016 Lady Li Andre
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Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. The characters and events portrayed here are fictitious or used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Brookfield Zoo is a real place in Chicago with an amazing collection of animals who are ambassadors for their species. You can learn more about this amazing place at https://www.czs.org/Brookfield-ZOO/Home.
To my grandson, Brandon, and his little sister, Lydia. And to Santa Mike, wherever you may be. You are missed and will always be remembered for the joy you brought to others.
My eyes were burning but I had decided not to cry. There was no way I was going to let my eyes win. Everyone around me was sniffing and wiping their faces. My mom and sisters anyway. My little brother wasn’t old enough to really understand what was going on. The only thing he got was that dad wasn’t coming home anymore.
Sam had been asking me every day for a week where dad had gone. But what do you tell your three year old brother? Dad is dead. He can’t come home. But Sam doesn’t understand death. We could never have any pets and we never had any grandparents. They were all dead before even I was born. Nobody Sam knew had ever died before.
He bugged everyone. It just made mom cry harder. Even Amy couldn’t seem to get him to understand. She tried to explain it using her dolls. That didn’t help because the dolls never went away. They were just in the toy box and Sam found them. Six-year-olds never think about that, especially girls.
Rachel was no help. She was hiding in the closet most of the week. Sam figured dad was in there, too, but nine-year-olds don’t like little brothers invading their space. Even Debra, as smart as she is supposed to be, couldn’t give him an answer. So much for being a gifted twelve year old.
Now I was stuck here at a funeral my Aunt Sarah had arranged. It wasn’t my mom’s idea. I don’t think she wanted to be here either. Aunt Sarah came over to my mom and hugged her. “Don’t worry, Jennifer. You’ll get through this. I know it was hard for John and me when our parents died but having a service helped bring some closure.”
Mom wasn’t looking at her. “You really didn’t have to go through all this trouble, Sarah.”
“Nonsense. I took care of John after our parents were gone. It’s only fitting that I see to his eternal needs now.” When mom didn’t say anything, she looked over at us. “The children look so nice today.”
I looked down at the suit I was wearing. I’ve never worn one before that I can remember. I hated it. It felt like the tie was going to strangle me. The man at the store Aunt Sarah had taken us to tied a funny knot that I knew I was never going to remember how to do. Good thing he showed me the trick of how to loosen it enough to slip it over my head.
Rachel was even more miserable. She hates dresses. Period. She had spent most of the past couple of hours on a folding chair by the wall with her arms crossed. Amy didn’t mind hers. She just pretended she was a princess. I don’t think she really understood why we there.
I looked toward the front of the room where the long, shiny wooden box sat on a table. It was closed. Mom had said that was a good thing. She hadn’t really told us what had happened but I got the feeling it was bad. All she had said was that dad had an accident at work.
Aunt Sarah moved on to other people in the room. Mr. Davis, one of my dad’s best friends, walked over. “I’m so sorry Jen. I wish there was something I could have done.”
Mom took his hand. “Oh, Jim. I just don’t understand. He was only working the holiday to get a little extra money for Christmas.”
He looked like he was fighting not to cry as hard as I was. “Everything happened too fast. By the time I got there, it was too late. He was already gone.”
I moved a littler closer, hoping to find out what had actually happened. Mom pulled out another tissue. “This is like some unreal nightmare. I keep waiting to wake up but I never do.”
Mr. Davis covered his face with his other hand. I’d never understood why grownups did that before. Now it made perfect sense. That way they could cry and no one would see it. He sniffed and let his fingers rub away any sign of tears as he pulled his hand away. He looked over at me and cleared his throat. “Well, Micah. I guess that makes you the man of the house now.”
I fell like I’d been tagged in a game of Freeze. Mom put her free arm around my shoulder and hugged me. “That’s hardly fair, Jim. He’s only fifteen.” She managed a thin smile. “But he has helped out so much this week. I’m not sure what I would have done without him there to keep an eye on the other kids. Between all the paperwork and Sarah dragging me all over the place to make arrangements, it would have been impossible if I had to take all the kids with me.”
“It’s okay, mom.” I’d missed almost a week of school. This was day four. But I’m not sure I could have handled it anyway. It was easier to hang out with my brother and sisters.
My mom looked around. She got that look, the one that made the top of her face wrinkle up. “Where’s your brother?”
I was used to this by now. It seemed that when I had to start sharing a bedroom with him, I had to know where he was every moment. “I’ll find him.”
I started moving through the crowd. I didn’t even know who most of these people were. Some were people my dad worked with and others were old friends of my mom who she hadn’t seen in forever. At least that’s what she said. The rest of the people were there because of my Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ben. This was their church.
I finally found Sam looking at the lit-up plastic people in the front hallway. They were almost as tall as he was. They were standing inside a painted cardboard shack looking down at a box of dried grass. Aunt Sarah came through a different doorway and got to him before I did. “Oh, look what you found, Sammy. Do you know what that is?”
Sam was shifting back and forth from one foot to the other. “Are they nightlights?”
Aunt Sarah looked shocked. “Sammy! That’s Mary and Joseph. Don’t you know what Christmas is about?”
Sam stopped rocking and turned to her. “Oh! I know Christmas. That’s when Santa comes from the North Pole with his reindeer and brings us presents.”
Aunt Sarah sighed, not just a little one, but the really big kind. “Sammy, Christmas is the day Jesus was born.”
“Who is he?”
Aunt Sarah’s face started to turn colors. I’d seen that happen before so I knew it meant she was really upset. She knelt down, trying to get to his level. “Jesus is God’s son. He was born on Christmas. He was the first Christmas present.”
Sam shuffled his feet on the carpet. He looked back at the light-up people. “So they are waiting for their Christmas present?”
“Yes! That’s right, Sammy. They are waiting for God to bring them Jesus.”
Uncle Ben came out into the hall. “Oh, there you are. Pastor Hansen is looking for you.”
My Aunt and Uncle hurried away but Sam just stood there staring at the plastic glowing people. I figured I’d better get him back before Mom totally fell apart. I walked up to him and sat down on the floor. “Hey, Sam. What’s up?”
Sam was still staring at the display. “Why is there a bunch of weeds in that box?”
“Uh, maybe the lady is expecting to get a chicken.”
Sam giggled. “No, that’s not right. They are waiting for Santa to bring them a present. He’s gonna leave them his son.”
Sam turned to me and put his hands on his hips. It was something Debra always did when she was being too smart. Sam had picked that up. “Don’t you know what Christmas is? It’s a birthday party for Jesus but we get the gifts. Santa is so cool.”
Music began to play in the other part of the church. I wasn’t sure what to tell Sam so I got up and held out my hand. “Okay, if you say so. Anyway, we have to go back in now. Mom needs us.”
Sam took my hand. “Can we go home soon?”
“I hope so.” I didn’t say it too loud but I felt the same way.
I turned to lead Sam back into the room where we had spent the last couple hours but people started pouring out of it and going into a different room. Mom and our sisters came out and Mom motioned for us to join them. We went through some fancy doors into a room filled with long wooden seats. Uncle Ben came up to Mom. “We reserved a pew for you and kids up front.”
When we sat down on the hard wood bench, mom looked over at me. I could tell she had been worried. “Where was he?”
“Looking at the plastic people in the hallway.”
Debra closed her eyes. “That’s called a nativity.”
“Whatever.” I hated that. She is such a show-off.
We had to sit and listen to some guy wearing a black dress and a long scarf talk about God and how great he was. How could he say that? If God was so great he would have kept my dad from dying. I thought it was stupid. So did mom. I’d asked her about God before when Charlie’s Grandma took me to church when I stayed over at his house for a weekend. Charlie hated having his grandma there because she always dragged him to church. That weekend he felt better not having to go alone. And I understood how he felt.
But the stuff they said at that church didn’t make any sense to me. When I told my mom about it she said I didn’t have to go there if I didn’t want to. But here we were, sitting in a church listening to some guy who had never even known my dad go on and on about how great God was.
I was really relieved when he was finished. Sam was, too. He was off that bench before I could grab him. The guy was now standing in front of the casket, talking to Aunt Sarah. Sam went up and patted him on the leg. He looked down. “Well, hello there. What can I do for you?”
“Do you know where my dad is?”
I was ready to cover my face with my hands now. I moved forward to grab him. The man smiled at Sam. “Of course I do. He’s with God.”
Sam smiled. “Oh, thanks!” He turned and ran right into me. He looked up. “We can go home now. I found out where dad is. He’s at the North Pole!”
Mom had spent most of the morning writing out thank you notes to the people who had given us things at the funeral. There had been a lot of flowers. Mom had only brought one of them home. It sat next to her at the kitchen table. I sat down in a chair and glanced at the list she was working from. A few people had given her money. I got the feeling that was more important right now.
She tucked the card she’d been working on into an envelope and sat back. “That’s the last of them.”
I poked at the flowers. “Why did you only bring this bunch home? Are they from someone special?”
Mom picked up the pot and pulled the flowers and leaves aside. “This one is real.”
“Were the other ones fake?”
She stuck her fingers into the dirt inside the pot. “No, they were dead. I hate dead flowers. It’s depressing.”
“Oh. So what’s going to happen to the rest of them?”
Mom put the plant down and leaned back in the chair. “Some of them will go to the cemetery. I talked Sarah into giving the festive arrangements to the church and I asked Maggie to take the smaller ones over to the hospital. The ward she works in has patients that are stuck there for awhile.”
Maggie was Mom’s best friend. She’d been over everyday since my dad had died. She had been making most of the meals for us. It was a nice change from the regular stuff Mom always made. Maggie was from somewhere in Louisiana. She had a funny accent and used words I’d never heard of before. “Is she coming over again tonight?”
Mom was sticking stamps on a stack of the envelopes. “I don’t think so. She told me yesterday that she had to work an extra shift today.”
Rachel stalked into the kitchen. She stopped next to me and folded her arms. “Will you come and get Sam out of our room?”
Her tone was tight. “What did he do?”
She started tapping her foot. “I am trying to draw up some new plans for my tree house and he keeps stealing my crayons. He has his own.”
Mom put the stamped envelopes in a bag. “Sam can have his crayons if you watch him. Just make sure he keeps them on the paper this time.” She grabbed her coat. “I’m going to drop these in the mailbox. I’ll be right back.”
I went into the girls’ room and found Sam perched on the top bunk, swinging his legs. “Sam, you know you’re not supposed to be up there.”
He looked ready to cry. “Ray won’t let me use her colors.”
I held out my arms and he launched off the edge. I caught him and brought him down to the floor. “Mom said you can have your crayons as long as you promise not to draw on anything except the paper.”
Debra looked up from the book she was reading. “I told him to go ask but he wouldn’t listen.”
I looked around the room. “Where’s Amy?”
Debra pointed toward the bottom of the bunk bed. I heard the muffled scraping and lifted up the blanket. “What are you doing under there?”
She looked back up at me from the floor. “Are they really going to bury him in the ground? I was just trying to figure out what that would be like.”
Sam tugged at my hand. “I want my colors.”
I had no idea what to say to Amy. I looked at Debra. “This one is yours. I’ve got the crayon fiend.”
Debra rolled her eyes and put down her book. “Fine. Just make sure he doesn’t eat any this time.”
I let Sam pull me out of the room. I helped him into the plastic riser at the table and moved the remaining envelopes well out of it his reach. I found the box of broken crayons Mom had stashed in a drawer and pulled some scratch paper from a box. “Remember, keep the color on the paper or Mom is going to take them away again.”
Sam scrunched up his face. “I try to, honest.”
I put the paper down and gave him the crayons. He opened the box and started sorting the colors. There was a knock on the door. “Oops. I bet Mom forgot her key.” I ran to the door and opened it.
A man in a suit was standing there. He was carrying a briefcase and had a long coat draped over his arm. “I’m looking for Jennifer Starling.”
“That’s my mom. She just went down to the mailbox. She should be back in a minute.”
He stood there staring at me. I wasn’t sure what to do. Mom didn’t like strangers in the apartment when she wasn’t there. He cleared his throat. “May I come in and wait for her?”
I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. I was relieve to see Mom. “There she is.”
He turned to her and extended his empty hand. “Mrs. Starling, may I offer my condolences.”
She looked confused but shook his hand. “Thank you. And you are?”
“Oh, forgive me.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a card. “I’m Harry Trulin, the local manager for Gordon Shipping.”
She glanced at the card. “Well, come in.”
I backed away. “Sam is coloring at the kitchen table. Do you want me to take him to our room?”
She took off her coat and hung it on the peg. “No, we’ll use the living room. Thanks, Micah.”
She and Mr. Trulin moved toward the chairs and sofa and I went back to the table. Sam had been scribbling with red and green. At least he’d kept it on the paper. I leaned over his shoulder. “Looks interesting. So, tell me about your picture.” I had learned the hard way not to just ask what things were.
Sam pointed to the red scribble. “That’s Santa.” The green one was a tree. Then Sam picked up a brown crayon. “And this is dad.”
I sunk into the chair next to him. “Sam, you know dad isn’t going to be here for Christmas.” My voice broke and I realized my eyes were burning.
Sam kept scribbling. “I know. He has to stay at the North Pole now. Maybe the elves hired him to move all the toys around. That’s what Daddy did at work, right? He moved stuff.”
I was afraid to say anything. All I could do was nod. I sat there watching my little brother add more scribbles to his drawing.
I could hear mom talking to Mr. Trulin. The only thing that separated the kitchen from the living room was an open counter Mom called a breakfast bar. He had a stack of papers that he was going through. Mom was quiet for a moment. “I don’t understand. I was told it was an accident.”
Mr. Trulin cleared his throat. “Yes, it was. Unfortunately it seems that John was at fault. Our insurance carrier has a fault cause in their documentation. They won’t pay out death benefits if the employee was the cause.”
“Oh, I see.” Mom’s voice sounded shaky.
“I’m truly very sorry, Mrs. Starling.”
Sam patted my arm. I almost fell out of the chair. I turned to see what he wanted. He was pointing at his picture. I tried to remember which of the scribbles was what. “So, what’s Santa’s plan?” My voice sounded wrong.
Sam didn’t seem to notice. “The elves have a big stack of toys they made. Dad has a new job. He has to load all those toys into the sleigh for Santa.”
I felt the wet trickle down my cheek. “That’s a great picture, Sam.”
He started shoving the crayon pieces back into the box. “I want to show Mommy.”
I brushed the tear away before it could fall on his picture. “Not right now. Okay? Mom is kind of busy. Why don’t we pin your picture up on the cork board?”
The cork board was usually reserved for my stuff but I figured it would get Sam aimed in a different direction. I helped him down and handed him the picture. “I’ll be there in a minute. I just have to put the crayons away.”
“Can I pick the spot?”
“Sure.” I watched him run off toward our room. I dropped the crayons back in the drawer and glanced at Mom. She was crying. Again. The guy was such a jerk. I headed for my room.
Sam was sitting on his bunk, staring at the cork board. He pointed at it. “Can it go next to your tificate?”
My one and only achievement. I had gotten perfect attendance last year. So much for that again. “Sure, why not.” I pulled a pin from the edge and attached the picture.
Sam laid back and stared at it. “I hope Daddy likes his new job.”
I couldn’t say anything. I was afraid I was going to lose it. I heard the front door open and close. I took a couple of deep breaths. “Why don’t you pull out some cars? I’m going to see if Mom needs anything and then I’ll be right back.”
Sam rolled off the bed. “Okay. I’ll save you the red one you like.”
“Deal. Be right back.”
Mom was in the kitchen. She had filled the kettle with water and was turning on the stove. “How did Sam do with the crayons?”
I looked at the table. There was a small red mark. I rubbed it away. “He did okay.” I wasn’t sure if I should ask. “Anything I can do?”
She came over and hugged me. “You’ve done so much already. I’ll be fine. You need to go back to school next week.”
“I know. I called Charlie last night and asked him to get my assignments for me. Maybe I can get caught up over the weekend.”
Mom opened a canister and picked out a teabag. “I would hope your teachers would be understanding. The secretary said it wouldn’t be a problem.”
I looked at the clock over the sink. “Charlie should be here soon. I promised Sam I’d play cars with him for awhile. Could you let me know when Charlie gets here?”
“Sure.” She stayed focused on her teacup.
I went back to the bedroom. Sam was already pushing the cars around, making sound effects, and talking for the drivers. I found the red car that he’d set aside for me and joined in.
Charlie finally showed up. I parked my car next to the block that Sam had said was my house. “You keep everyone busy while I talk to Charlie, okay?”
Sam pushed one of his cars over toward mine. “How long will you be broken down?” His attempt at a deeper voice was hilarious.
I turned the red car around. “Not too long, I hope.” I patted Sam on the head and got up.
Charlie was leaning on the door frame. “Wow, you still have it.”
I grinned. Charlie had given me that red car for my birthday back in second grade. “I gave my cars to Sam but he still lets me use that one when I play with him.” I went into the living room. Mom was back at the kitchen table, sorting through paperwork. I settled into the sofa. “How’s school been?”
Charlie collapsed into a chair. “It’s really a drag when you’re not there. Glisby cheated off my math test and then blamed me when we got one of the problems wrong.”
I laid my head back and studied the lumpy white ceiling. “I am so far behind.”
Charlie pulled a stack of papers out of his backpack. “It’s okay, Most of the teachers were nice about it. I think they get it. All except Ms. Fillmore. She doesn’t get anything.” He pulled a stapled packet from the others. “This is due on Monday.”
I grabbed it. “Great. Guess I know what I’ll be doing this weekend.”
“Paul wants to go to a movie Saturday afternoon. Do you want to come? It just opened and it’s supposed to be awesome.”
I added the packet back to the stack. “I think I’ll pass. I’ve been trying to help my Mom with stuff and I’ve got a lot of homework now.” It was an excuse but at least it was a good one this time.
“Yeah, I guess.” Charlie flipped the zipper of his bag back and forth. “Are you okay?”
Charlie and I had been best friends forever. At least since kindergarten. You’d think I’d be able to tell him how I really felt. But I didn’t know how. “I’m good.”
He shuffled his feet on the rug. “Well, I can’t stay. I promised my mom I’d be home by the time she got back from work.”
I walked him to the door. “Thanks for dropping this off.”
“No problem. I’ll call you Saturday night and tell you how the movie was.”
“Sounds great.” I stood in the doorway watching him disappear down the stairs. That was the only way I ever knew about the current movies, listening to him and Paul go through the play-by-play. I shut the door.
Mom looked up. “How bad is it?”
I knew she was talking about my homework but all I could think about was how much worse things were with dad gone. We’d always been tight on funds. That was how Dad always put it when I asked for a few bucks to go see a movie. I stared at the stack of papers on the table. How much worse could it get?
Sam was having a good time. Mom had been right. Getting him out of the apartment for awhile had helped everyone, including me. I had been ready to throw my homework out the window. Sam had been pestering everyone. He just wanted to play.
I found another rock that I thought might be flat enough. I slung it out across the water and watched it skip several times before disappearing. Sam came running up. “Can you teach me that?”
“Maybe next time.” I looked at my watch. “We’d better get home. I don’t want Mom to worry.”
Sam pouted. “Do we have to?”
I shivered and looked at the gray sky over the lake. “Aren’t you cold?”
“No. Watch me run!” He took off across the sand.
I gradually steered him toward the tunnel. “Okay, Sam. You know the rule.”
He stomped over to where I was waiting and took my hand. He made funny noises that echoed along with the rumble of the traffic above us on Lake Shore Drive. We came out on Division Street. “Do you remember which way to go now?”
Sam looked around and pointed toward Elm. “That way.” We crossed the street and headed for our own. Sam swung our arms with each step. “Can we come back again tomorrow?”
We got to Elm and turned away from the water. “Have to see. I still have a lot of homework to finish.”
Oh, no. I was not about to get looped into one of his games. He did it all the time. I refused to say anything. He tugged on me a few times, repeating his question. “Sam, enough. Okay?”
He went back into pout mode and stayed that way until we got to our building. We started climbing stairs. By the time we got to the fourth floor landing, Sam was dragging.
A flash of red and white ahead of us startled me. I looked up. Our neighbor, Mr. Carole, had just stepped out of his apartment.
Sam gasped and pulled away from my grip. He flew toward the man laughing. “Santa!”
At least Mr. Carole had a sense of humor. I guess a guy who dresses for the part is probably used to it. He gave a traditional laugh. “Well, hello there, Sam. Have you been a good boy?”
Sam had thrown his arms around the guys legs. He looked up at him. “Oh, I have! Can I tell you what I want for Christmas?”
Mr. Carole gently extracted my brother from his legs and knelt down beside him. “Well why not. It’s good practice. I’ve got the first big Christmas party of the year tonight.” He pulled Sam up on his knee. “So, what do you want for Christmas?”
Sam leaned toward his ear and whispered loudly. “A reindeer.”
The guy’s eyes went wide. He hummed. “That’s an unusual request. I’ll have to check the rule book and see if that’s allowed.”
Sam wrapped his arms around Mr. Carole’s neck. “Thank you, Santa.” He hopped down and headed for our door.
Mr. Carole stood up. He looked at me. “A reindeer?”
I had no idea what was going through my little brother’s head. “Uh?”
Sam was pounding on our door. It opened and Debra let him in. She looked down the hall at me. “What is going on, Micah? Get in here. We have company.”
“I have to go. Hope you have a good party.” I hurried down the hall and slipped into the apartment.
Mom was trying to take Sam’s coat off but he was wiggling all over the place. “Santa was here!”
Mom finally got the zipper down and Sam squirmed away. She looked at me. “My goodness! I thought you were going to tire him out.”
“Sorry. He was winding down until we ran into Mr. Carole in the hallway. He’s dressed up for a party.”
Mom hung his coat on a peg. “Well, that explains it.”
Sam was bouncing around the living room. Uncle Ben finally caught him and began a game of capture the hand with him.
I groaned, not loud enough that anyone heard me. Aunt Sarah had Amy in her lap and was reading a book to her. I hung up my coat and went into the kitchen. Debra was helping Mom arrange cheese and crackers on a plate. I waited until Mom carried it out into the living room. “What are Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ben doing here?”
Debra squeezed her lips into a tight line. She pointed toward her room. I got the message and let her lead. Once inside, she shut the door and leaned her back against it. “Aunt Sarah wants us to move in with them.”
“What? No way!”
She hushed me. “Mom doesn’t want to either. It’s Aunt Sarah’s idea. Since Scott went to college, they have three empty bedrooms.”
Debra closed her eyes. “So Mom doesn’t have to pay rent.”
I leaned against the bunk bed. “There is no way I could handle living with them. It’s hard enough when we go to their house for a visit.”
Debra moved to her own bed and flopped down on it. “I know. But they do have a really big house.”
“On the other side of town. How would we get to school everyday?”
“I doubt Aunt Sarah has thought about that.”
There was a scuffling sound under the bed. I leaned over and pulled up the blanket.
Rachel glared up at me. “Do you mind? I’m hiding here. Find your own spot.” She grabbed the blanket and pulled it out of my hand.
Debra rolled on her side at looked at the space under the bunk bed. “It won’t do any good to hide. If we move, the bed will get taken apart and you’ll be found.”
Rachel gave her a raspberry. “Whatever. I’m not coming out until they’re gone.”
I was relieved not to be the only one that felt that way. I almost wished I could still fit under the bed, too. My mind started churning and stopped with a bang. “And all of our friends live here.”
Debra covered her face with her pillow. “If you’re going to be that depressing, you can leave.”
I heard Sam run down the hall toward our room. “I’d better go coral him before Mom gets another complaint from Mrs. Graham down stairs.” I went out and caught Sam, lifting his feet away from the floor. “Hey, have you forgotten where we are? Running feet are for outside. Remember?”
He gave up twisting and squirming. “Okay.” He pointed at the floor.
I put him down and he walked back into the living room. I reluctantly followed.
Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ben were pulling on their coats. Amy handed the book back to Aunt Sarah. “Thank you for reading the story to me. I was kind of disappointed that the animals didn’t talk. I think they should have. They would have a lot to say about being stuck in a boat all that time with a bunch of other animals.”
Aunt Sarah smiled but I could tell she wasn’t happy about Amy’s viewpoint. “There are lots of other stories like this one. I’ll bring a different one next time.”
Amy twirled her fingers in her hair. “Do you have any about princesses in castles with dragons?”
Aunt Sarah’s face started to turn different colors. Mom pulled Amy away. “Why don’t you go wash your hands so you don’t get cheesy fingers on everything.” Amy headed for the bathroom.
Uncle Ben shook his head. “These kids are missing out on so much, Jennifer. I really hope you’ll think about our offer.”
Mom assured him she would and walked them to the door. They said their good-bye’s and left. Mom sighed deeply. “Oh my.” She went back into the living room and began picking up paper plates and napkins.
I sat on the arm of the sofa. “We’re not really going to go live with them, are we?”
Mom dumped everything into a paper bag. “I don’t know, Micah. I’m not sure what we’re going to do. I’m not sure how I’m going to pay the bills this month, to say nothing of next month’s rent.”
I followed her into the kitchen. “But Mom, Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ben would drive us crazy. And what about school? They live so far away.”
Mom wiped down the counter. “You’d have to go to a different one.”
Debra came from the hallway. “What? No! Mom, I can’t change schools now. I worked too hard to get on the list for the Academy.”
Mom’s face scrunched up. “I’m sorry.” Her voice broke and I realized she was crying.
I pulled Debra out of the kitchen. “Let’s give Mom some space. I have the feeling Aunt Sarah was pushing her buttons this afternoon.” That had been Dad’s way of saying it.
We paused by my bedroom door. Sam was on his bottom half of the bunk bed, playing with a couple of plastic animals and singing his own version of Jingle Bells. Debra gave me an odd look. “What is with him tonight?”
I looked up at the ceiling. “He told Mr. Carole that he wanted a reindeer for Christmas.”
“A what? You can’t be serious.”
The idea was crazy. “There’s no way I can get him a reindeer. Our apartment building won’t even let us have a dog.”
Debra gasped. “No kidding. A reindeer wouldn’t even fit in our apartment. Besides, they eat lichen from the tundra. It’s not like you can get that at the corner market.”
I looked at my sister. “Oh, really? Did you honestly think I was even considering it? There’s no way.”
Debra crossed her arms and went to her room. “It’s not like we’re going to get anything this year, anyway.” She shut the door.
I went in, knelt down next to the bed, and leaned forward. “Hey, Sam.”
He held up the animals. “Do you want to be the lion or the tiger?”
I shook my head. “Neither right now. So why did you ask Santa for a reindeer?”
Sam pointed at the picture hanging from the cork board. “How else am I going to get to the North Pole?”
I looked across the ball fields. Everything looked blurry because of the sleet coming down. We were safe from it under the pavilion but I could hear the slushy sound of the cars passing on LaSalle Drive.
Charlie stretched his legs. We’d been sitting on the rickety picnic table for at least an hour. “Hey, maybe it will turn to snow and we won’t have to go to school tomorrow.”
I looked back at the assignment I’d been working on. I had to interview someone from class. No problem there. The questions were easy. I probably could have answered most of them on my own. It was what we were going to have to do with them later. I hated standing up in front of the class.
I had finally gotten to the bottom of the page. “Last one. What do you plan to be when you graduate from school?”
Charlie grinned at me. “Free!” He started laughing.
There was no way I was going to write that down. Ms. Fillmore would have a fit. “Come on, seriously. Do you still want to be an astronaut?”
Charlie mellowed. He picked at some peeling paint on the table. “Yeah, sure. As if that could ever happen.”
I stared at the page. “Well, don’t feel bad. I’m not exactly doctor material.” I rolled up the paper and shoved it and the pencil back inside my coat. “I don’t know that I’m material for anything.”
“How are we supposed to know anyway? My daddy tried to get out of driving trucks but there isn’t anything else he can do. And your daddy drove a fork-lift. What kind of career do you call that?”
I felt empty. Dad was gone. His career title didn’t matter anymore. He didn’t have one now.
Charlie tapped me on the shoulder. “Sorry, man. My bad.”
“It doesn’t matter.” I began tracking the cracks in the cement. “At least I’m almost done with my homework.”
Charlie whistled. “Wow, you got through that whole stack already?”
“I finished about half of it yesterday and the rest this morning. All except the geometry.”
Charlie groaned. “Don’t remind me. I don’t get why we have to prove stuff. I mean, what’s the point? That’s already been done. Stupid.”
There was a lot of stupid stuff in school. I figured it was just one more piece of it. I glanced at my watch. “I’d better get home.”
Charlie slid off the table. “Yeah. Wish I didn’t have to.”
I flipped up the hood of my coat and left the shelter. “Things not good at home?”
“They started to go at it again this morning. Man, what a drag.”
I stuck my hands in my pockets. “What about this time?”
“Can’t you guess? I hate the holidays. Why can’t my grandparents just get over it?”
“Your parents are fighting about your grandparents?”
Charlie stomped a pile of slush. “They do the same thing every year. Both sides want to see me and my sister but my dad’s parents don’t want my mom to come and her parents don’t want my dad to come. I just don’t get it. If my daddy is too black, why do they want to see me and Anna? Aren’t we too black, too?”
It seemed like a weird question to me. “So why does your grandma come to your house and stay with you if she doesn’t like your dad?”
“She only comes when Dad is on the road doing a long haul. She won’t come over if he’s home.”
We had to wait at the light to cross Clybourn. “It doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Anna is almost as dark as your dad is. Does she have an issue with that?”
We crossed the street and walked down State. Charlie went into great detail over his grandmother’s views of his Dad. “Anna is her grand-baby.” He screeched his voice trying to imitate his grandmother.
We got to Scott Street. The sleet had mostly stopped. “Doesn’t look like we’ll get any snow.”
He paused at the corner. “Guess not. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
Charlie turned down Scott and I continued on State. People with ladders were hanging decorations on lamp posts and buildings. Everyone was getting into the holiday spirit. Except for me. I didn’t want to think about Christmas.
I turned down Elm. The houses on this block were a lot fancier than those by our apartment. They had been remodeled a few years ago. I could see people inside watching big screen televisions. We didn’t have one at all. Mom had always claimed it was because she didn’t approve of the programs. After watching her working on the bills at the kitchen table this morning, I realized there was a more likely reason. We couldn’t afford stuff like that.
I turned up the walk that led to our building. Mr. Carole came out the door as I approached. I wondered what all the little kids in the neighborhood thought when they saw him leaving our building. He really looked the part. He was kind of plump and had a thick white beard. Dressed in the traditional white-trimmed red suit and black boots, he was hard to miss.
He had his typical smile across his face. “Micah, how are you today?”
What was I supposed to say? I was miserable but I’d learned a long time ago that adults didn’t really want to know the truth. They were just being polite. “I’m okay. Sorry about my little brother yesterday.”
He laughed. “He was a lot easier than the bunch I faced last night. Corporate parties can be challenging. The kids there either want outrageous presents or don’t believe in the spirit of Christmas at all.” He pulled a handful of small wrapped candy canes out of a bag and handed them to me. “A little treat for you and your family.”
“Thanks. Another party?”
“The suit gives it away I suppose.” He paused. “I’m a little puzzled by your brother’s request. In all my years as a Santa, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked for a reindeer before.”
I sighed. “Sam is all confused now, thanks to Aunt Sarah. He got the idea that Jesus is Santa’s son from some stuff she was telling him at the church. And now he thinks my dad is at the North Pole, working for the elves. So he wants a reindeer.” I couldn’t finish. My throat closed up around the words.
Mr. Carole was quiet for a moment. “I think I understand. Sam wants to see his father again.”
All I could do was nod. I finally swallowed enough times to make the tightness go away. “I just don’t know what to do. I don’t want to disappoint him but I can’t exactly get him a reindeer.”
Mr. Carole hummed. “Now Sam wasn’t specific about his request. He didn’t say it had to be a real live reindeer.”
I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about that. After all, he was only three. His knowledge of reindeer came from pictures in a book. I felt better all ready. “You’re right. Thanks, Mr. Carole.”
He smiled at me. “Glad I could help. I’m afraid I have to go. My ride is here.”
I turned around and found a yellow cab at the curb. I managed to laugh. “Looks like I better keep my eyes open for a sleigh, too.”
He laughed, one of the big jolly kind. “Thanks, Micah. I usually do drive myself but my employer tonight insisted on paying for a taxi because of the weather. Have a good night.”
I watched him drive away then went in. When I stepped into the apartment, there was a screaming match going on between Rachel and Sam. Amy was cowering under the propped up sofa cushions and Debra was trying to separate the combatants. I shoved the candy into my pocket, waded in, and picked up Sam. “Volume off.” Sam became quiet. I was relieved.
Rachel’s face was red. She crossed her arms, whirled around and stomped out of the room. Debra looked ready to cry. “Mom just went down to the laundry room to bring up the clothes. I don’t even know what they were yelling about.”
Amy crawled out. “Rachel says it’s a tree house but Sam wants it to be at the North Pole. Rachel says only Christmas trees grow at the North Pole and you can’t build a tree house in one of those.”
Sam turned into my neck and began sobbing. Rachel threw up her hands. “All this over a cushion fort.” She pulled the blankets off and started folding them. Amy’s face puckered up and looked ready to spill.
Mom came in with a full basket of clothes. “My goodness! What happened?”
Amy burst. “Debra just killed our tree house!” She ran for her room.
I was patting Sam and rocking him. He finally settled. I didn’t want to set him off again. “Debra is just picking up the pieces. It was a dispute over location.” I figured Sam wouldn’t understand what I was saying.
Mom put down the basket and took him from me. “Why don’t you take your coat off. I was just going to start dinner.” She looked at Sam. “How about you have a dream before dinner?” She carried him toward our room.
I peeled out of my coat and my homework hit the floor. I hung up my coat and retrieved the rolled up packet. Debra finished straightening the cushions and disappeared with the blankets. I closed my eyes, enjoying the silence.
Mom called to me. “Did you get your assignment finished?”
I looked at the packet. “All except the last question. Charlie doesn’t know what he wants to do yet.” As if I did. I moved to the kitchen and found mom picking up the stacks of bills. “How did you do?”
She dropped them all into a cardboard box. “Sounds like Charlie and I are in the same boat.”
Rachel came into the kitchen. Her face was streaked with tear tracks. “Mamma, Debra says Christmas trees don’t grow at the North Pole. Is that true?”
Mom controlled her face. “I’m afraid she’s right, Ray. There’s no ground at the real North Pole. It’s all ice.”
Rachel pouted. “Then why do they show all the Christmas trees in the story of Santa?”
Mom put the box on the counter and gave Rachel a hug. “Because it’s a story. Santa doesn’t live at the real North Pole.”
I looked at the box of bills. They were very real. My little brother wanted a reindeer to go to the imaginary North Pole. I realized it was up to me to find him one.
The last bell rang. Finally. This day felt too long. I went to my locker and dumped my history book in. I stared at the other books, wondering what I really wanted to take home with me. I grabbed Biology and Geometry. Not that I wanted to. I had a test to study for in Biology and I still had homework to finish in Geometry.
My locker door banged. I shut it, not even surprised anymore. I’d given up telling Paul not to do that. He frowned. “What’s with the books?”
I shoved them into my backpack. “It’s called homework.”
“Whatever. Charlie should be here by now. Wonder what’s taking him?”
I zipped the bag closed and pulled the strap over a shoulder. “We could probably go down and meet him by the band room.”
“Saved! Here he comes.”
Charlie had his trumpet case in hand. That was unusual. “What are you going to do with that? I thought your mom wouldn’t let you practice at home.”
He put the case down. “She won’t. I have to go to a program tonight. The Jazz Ensemble is playing at Washington Square Park tonight for the lighting of the Christmas Tree.”
I should have remembered that. Debra had stuck the notice on the fridge. “My sister’s class is singing for that, too.”
Charlie grinned. “Cool. Maybe I’ll see you there.”
Paul didn’t look thrilled. “What fun. I was hoping you might want to come over tonight. Marco got a new video game over the weekend. I thought we’d try it out.”
I didn’t play video games. Charlie tried but he was about as good at them as I was. Which means he lost every time. But he was into that kind of thing. At least I had an excuse. “Sorry. My sister has been practicing for weeks for this.”
Charlie retrieved his case. “Same here. Being part of the Ensemble comes with gigs like this.”
Paul headed down the hall toward the door. “Well, we can at least walk as far as Clybourn together. You missed a really good movie, Micah.”
He and Charlie started into the play-by-play. I hadn’t actually been to a movie since Charlie’s tenth birthday. His dad had taken us. It had been fun. It seemed Paul went to a lot of movies. Marco got him tickets to all the new shows. I thought it was weird that he called his step-dad by his first name. But what did I know. I’d never had a step-dad.
Most of the small shops along Clark street had decorations in their windows. One caught my eye. I stumbled. Paul looked back at me. “What’s with you?”
“Sorry.” I moved closer to the window that had drawn my attention. There was a colorful reindeer in the middle of a bunch of other stuff. It was pretty big, about the size of a large dog. I wondered what it was made of.
Paul hit my shoulder. “Since when are you into antiques?”
I hadn’t noticed the gold letters painted across the double windows. “I’m trying to find something for my little brother.”
Charlie moved to my other side. “What would Sam want from here?”
“He wants a reindeer.”
Paul laughed. “You’re looking at that lawn ornament? That’s a joke!”
Charlie tilted his head to one side. “That’s almost big enough that Sam could ride on it.”
I’d finally found the tag hanging from an antler but I couldn’t read what it said. “That’s kind of the idea.” I looked past the decorations. The lights were on inside. I moved toward the door. A plastic sign indicated the store was open. “You guys go ahead. I just want to see how much it costs.”
Paul was still laughing. “That thing looks dorky! You can’t be serious.”
Even Charlie looked skeptical. “It is a little crazy. Well, I’ll see you later.” He and Paul continued on without me.
I went into the shop. It smelled funny. I went to the other side of the window display and leaned closer, trying to see the small tag.
“Can I help you?”
I almost lost my balance. I turned around. I was shocked. I knew her. She was in a couple of my classes in school. I couldn’t remember her name. “Uh, I was just looking at the reindeer.”
She smiled and walked forward. “I can bring it out of the window if you want to see it better.” She reached into the display and lifted it with one hand.
It must not weigh much. “What is it made of?”
She set the reindeer on a counter. “It’s an old kind of plastic called Bakelite. This is pretty well preserved. There aren’t any cracks.”
It looked more like a horse with a deer’s head wearing a Christmas colored blanket. “How much does it cost?”
She turned the little tag over. “$59.99.”
I felt like a flat tire. I had a small stash tucked in a sock in my drawer but it was more in the neighbor of eight dollars. “Oh. That’s a lot.”
An old man came from the back of the shop. He had a small black round hat that only covered the center of his head. It would be the prefect way for a guy going bald to keep his head warm but this guy didn’t need it. It looked like he had plenty of white hair. He looked up. “Oh, Christy. We have a customer.” He moved toward us.
“He’s interested in the reindeer decoration, Grandpa.”
The old man smiled. “Now that is a special piece. It was made in 1910 right here in Chicago. It’s one of the first examples of a Bakelite Christmas decoration. And it’s in splendid condition.”
I wasn’t sure how much I should say. They might think I was nuts. “It’s for a gift. I don’t have that much right now. It might take me a week or two to come up with it.”
The man put it back in the window. “Well, no one else has paid it much attention so it will be waiting right here for you. You just let me know when you want to take it home.”
A woman walked into the shop and the old man moved off to greet her. Christy turned back to me. “That’s an unusual gift. Who is it for?”
I still wasn’t sure if I should tell her. “I don’t know much about Bakelite. How strong is it?”
She went behind the counter and pulled out a small dish. She handed it to me. “This is made out of Bakelite, too. It’s pretty strong.”
I tapped my finger against the piece then gave it back to her. “It does seem pretty tough. Do you think that reindeer could handle the weight of a three year old?”
She pushed her glasses up and it made her eyes look too big. “You mean, like a little kid sitting on it? I suppose so. That rocking horse on the back shelf is made out of the same stuff and it was made to be ridden.”
I felt a little better. “Cool. Now I just have to figure out a way to come up with the rest of the money. Thanks.”
She leaned on the counter. “You’re in my history class, aren’t you?”
I was grateful she had remembered because I’d been racking my brain trying to figure it out. “Yeah. I usually sit in back.”
“You wrote a really good essay on the Constitution a few weeks ago.”
I started to feel a little warm. “Thanks.” The other customer left and the old man started moving back in our direction. “I really should go. I still have some homework to catch up on.”
“You were out all last week. Were you sick?”
I swallowed hard. “No. my dad died.” I heard her say she was sorry but I was already headed out the door. The cold air smacked into me. It was a relief.
I hurried the rest of the way home. I was trying to think of ways that I could earn the rest of the money. My parents had never given us allowances. I realized why now. My sock money was from birthday gifts. I’d been saving it up to buy a rock collection kit I’d seen at last year’s science fair. But Sam was more important than a bunch of rocks.
I got to the apartment door. I could hear voices on the other side and braced myself. I went in. Mom was talking on the phone and Maggie was showing Debra and Amy how to weave dough. I relaxed.
Maggie looked up at me. “Hey, kiddo. How was your day?”
She was always in such a good mood. I had to smile. “I survived it.” I could tell Mom was upset. She was pacing as far as the phone cord would stretch. I glanced around the room. Rachel was on the sofa with her nose buried in a book. “Where’s Sam?”
Maggie put the pan in the oven. “He’s in his room. I hope you don’t mind I added something to your décor. There was a slightly broken art table in the kids wing that was getting tossed out. I doctored it up a little and thought Sam might like it.”
“Don’t tell me you actually gave him crayons.”
She laughed. “Don’t worry. This table has been decorated many times. That’s what it’s for. I thought it might solve that problem.”
I went into our room and found Sam sitting in a wooden chair just his size at a matching table. One leg was wrapped in white tape. Sam was humming a tune and totally focused on his picture. I slung my backpack up on my bed. “How do you like your new art table, Sam?”
He didn’t even look away. “I like it.”
I knelt on the floor next to him and studied his scribbles. “Tell me about your picture.”
Sam put down the crayon and pointed at a colorful swirl in the center of the page. “That’s a big pile of toys. The elves have been busy.” He motioned to a red scribble. “That’s Santa. He’s making sure everything is ready for Christmas.”
I noticed a dark blue form. “And this?”
He smiled. “That’s Daddy! Remember? He wears blue when he goes to work.” Sam pointed to a blob of brown and green on the other side of the picture. “And that’s me on a reindeer when I visit the North Pole.”
I couldn’t say anything. It was like my voice just dried up. I kissed him on the top of his head and got up. I went back out and found Mom and Maggie sitting at the kitchen table.
Mom’s face was red. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. I just don’t have enough to cover all the bills.”
Maggie put a hand on her shoulder. “Hang in there, Jen. Something will come up.”
Mom covered her face. “Maybe Sarah is right. Maybe we should move in with them.”
“No!” My voice had come back without warning.
She looked up at me. “Micah. We have to face reality. We were just squeaking by as it was. Without an income, we’re sunk.”
“But I can’t stand Aunt Sarah. She’d drive us all crazy. Even Uncle Ben can get annoying. There’s no way we could survive living in the same house with them. Sometimes just being in the same city is bad enough.”
“Micah Andrew, that’s enough! I know how you feel about them but Sarah and Ben have made a generous offer. I can’t afford to go back to work. I looked into the cost of daycare for Sam and after-school care for the girls. It would cost more than I would bring home.”
Maggie massaged Mom’s shoulders. “I still don’t understand how the company can deny you death benefits. That seems wrong. You should look into that. Maybe there’s some way to fight it.”
“I can’t afford a lawyer, Mags.”
Debra came into the kitchen. “Will the twist rolls be done soon? We have to leave by six.”
Mom groaned. “I almost forgot.” She looked up at the clock. “I don’t know if I can go.”
Debra gasped. “Mom! This is important!”
Maggie stood up. “Hey, Pumpkin. Tell ya what. Your mom has had a rough day. How about I walk down there with you?”
Debra didn’t say anything. She nodded but her face was all scrunched up.
Mom was crying now. “I’m sorry. I just can’t do anything.”
Maggie hugged her. “You know what you need? A good hot soak in the tub.” She looked up at me. “Would you be willing to hang out with the three Tiny Wonders while your mom takes a bath and I get Debra to where she needs to be?”
I couldn’t say no. Mom was falling apart and Debra would be impossible to live with if she missed this concert. “Sure.” I went into the living room where Debra had dropped into a chair. “I don’t like it any more than you do.”
She looked up at me. Tears were on the verge of spilling out of her eyes. “Why did this have to happen? It’s not fair!”
I had no answer. I looked over at Rachel and Amy who were both huddled together on the sofa. I was going to be spending the evening with them instead of hearing Charlie play with the Ensemble. And we might have to live with our Aunt and Uncle who drove us all crazy already. I was ready to agree with Debra. It wasn’t fair.
The cafeteria was noisy. Charlie and I carried our trays to an empty space at a table and sat down. There was a commotion a few tables away. “Wonder what the deal is?”
Charlie swallowed his bite. “Can’t tell. It’s a big crowd.”
A teacher wandered over and broke up the knot of kids who had gathered around what ever had been going on. I couldn’t believe it. Christy was in the middle of things.
Paul came over to the table. He was snickering. “Derek spilled his milk all over Bottle Eyes.”
Charlie laughed. “Maybe she couldn’t see him.”
They both laughed. I didn’t join them. “So she wears glasses. What’s the big deal?”
Paul looked at me like I was an alien. “Are you kidding? Those aren’t regular glasses, those are magnifying glasses in frames.”
I didn’t feel like arguing with him but that’s basically what all glasses did. I’d seem them yesterday. They were pretty thick. I turned to Charlie. “Do you remember Ron in fourth grade?”
Charlie stopped laughing. “Yeah.” He concentrated on his lunch.
Paul stared at us. “What? It’s still funny.”
“No, it’s not.” Charlie and I had been good friends with Ron. He had the most amazing card collections. It was his thing. He collected all different kinds of cards – sports cards, game cards, movie cards. He even had some awesome autographs. He had been a cool kid. We both wished he wouldn’t have moved again but his dad had been in the Navy and they got transferred around a lot.
Charlie sighed. “Do you think he’ll send us Christmas cards again this year?”
“He always does. Wonder where he is this year?”
Charlie grinned. “It must be cool to travel all over the world like that.”
“And Ron is cool. Even though he wears some serious glasses.”
Paul had been ignoring us. He did that when we started talking about stuff that we knew or had done before he pushed his way into our company last year. There were times that I wished we would have ignored him back then. I missed the good old days when it was just me and Charlie.
Charlie finished off his apple. “So what did you find out about that reindeer?”
I groaned. “It’s pretty expensive. I’m going to have to figure out how to earn some more money.”
“If it snows, you could shovel the walk. I did that last year and the manager gave me ten bucks.”
That would be a start. “Now if I could just get the weather to cooperate.”
Paul put on a smug expression. “My older brother makes a lot of money. He bags groceries at a super market.”
I hadn’t even considered a real job. “Where does he work?”
“At Walmart down on the South Side.”
Not like that was close by. “Must be nice.”
The bell rang. I dumped the remains of my tray. “On to Geometry.”
Charlie looked about as thrilled as I felt. Paul headed in a different direction. He was still in Algebra. That made me feel a little better. Charlie went into the classroom and moved to our regular seats in the back. “Are you caught up yet?”
I dropped my books on the desk. “No such luck. I didn’t get anything done last night. I got stuck hanging out with the three munchkins.”
“So you didn’t make it to the Park last night.” His voice betrayed his disappointment.
“Sorry. I wanted to but Mom wasn’t doing well. Maggie took Debra down there.”
Charlie paged through the text book. “It was awesome.”
At least Debra had come home in a better mood. “I think that’s the first time I ever got a play-by-play from my sister. She thought the Ensemble was fantastic.”
Charlie brightened a little. The bell rang and I looked up to see what the teacher was writing on the board. A few seats in front of me was a bright green shirt. Charlie covered his mouth. He leaned toward me. “Looks like somebody had to borrow a shirt from the nurse’s office. Derek must have really gotten her good.”
Why had I never noticed she was in our math class? Not that I paid much attention to the other kids in school. I had learned last year to mind my own business. Class dragged on. I tried to follow the examples on the board but they got all turned around in my notebook. “Man, I’m never going to get this.”
When the class was over, Mr. Russel stopped me by the door. “I know you’ve had a rough time but don’t let yourself get too far behind. Let me know if you need some extra help to catch up.”
“I’m sorry it’s taking me so long. I’ve had to help out my mom with my younger brother and sisters.”
“I could assign you some study hall time with a tutor if that would help. A lot of what we did today built on material that you missed last week.”
That was worse than detention! Everybody thought you were totally dumb if you got sent to the skills center. “I think I can get it. Thanks.” I hurried to catch up with Charlie.
Paul was already at his locker. Charlie closed it. “Did Russel give you a hard time about your homework?”
“How did you guess.”
Paul huffed. “Homework is over rated.”
“Not in our class. It counts for a lot of the grade.”
Paul didn’t say anything. We made it through English. We split up for the last class period of the day. I went into history. Christy’s bright green shirt was hard to miss. I felt bad for her. I decided to sit in her row. I paused by her desk. “Sorry about what happened in the cafeteria.”
She looked up at me. Her eyes were exaggerated by the lenses. “Thanks.” It was barely a whisper.
I moved back to the last seat in the row and flopped into it. This was one of the few classes that I really liked. We had a good teacher. Ms. Mack made it feel like it was worth learning about, like it really mattered.
Charlie was waiting by my locker by the time I got there. His face twisted up funny. “Are you okay, Micah?”
“Fine.” I swapped out the same books and shut the door before Paul could smack it.
Charlie was watching me. “Hope you aren’t coming down with something. The last time you looked like that you were out sick for a week with the flu.”
I didn’t feel ill. “What makes you think I look sick?”
“I don’t know. Your face is kind of red.”
Paul laughed. “That’s a good one. Micah is as white as they come.”
“Gee, thanks.” I’d never once said anything about Paul’s darker skin and black hair. I knew he was Hispanic. It was never a big deal. I quickened my pace to walk ahead of them.
Charlie caught up with me. “Hey, you know I didn’t mean it that way.”
We got out into the cold air. Maybe I had been a little warm. It felt good. “I’m fine, really. We just had a debate in history class. Election year politics is a hot topic.”
Paul managed to get back in front of us. “Oh, no kidding. You should have heard Marco and Alex yelling about it after the results were announced. Whew! My brother was so mad and Marco kept saying that he told us so. It even made my mamma mad.”
Charlie shrugged. “Not like it matters to us. We can’t vote.”
Paul stopped and turned around. “It’s a big deal to my mamma. My dad, my real dad, had to go back to Mexico. That’s why she married Marco.” He whirled around and started stomping down the street.
Charlie looked at me like Paul had hit him. “What was that all about?”
Paul looked back at us. “Are you guys coming or what?”
We caught up with him. He and Charlie started talking about the best scenes of the movie they’d seen. I just stayed out of it. I glanced across the street at the Antique Shop. The reindeer was still in the window. I wondered if Christy was there. Would she have to wear that bright green shirt to work?
Paul smacked my arm. “Hey, want to go over to the Park?”
My backpack felt heavy. “I can’t. If I don’t get this Geometry figured out, I’m done for.”
Charlie sighed. “Sorry, dude. I hope you catch up soon.” He and Paul headed into the Park. I continued on.
There was a small market on the corner before Elm. I thought about what Paul had said about his brother getting paid to bag groceries. This was a lot smaller than a Walmart. It didn’t hurt to try. I went in. There was an older woman at the counter. I wasn’t sure how to even ask. “Excuse me. I was wondering if there are any part-time jobs here.”
“You’re Jennifer’s boy, aren’t you?” She had a thick accent, maybe Italian.
“Yes, mam. I was hoping there might be something that I could do a few hours a day.”
She started rummaging through stuff under the counter. “And how old are you now?”
She stopped and sighed. “Oh, I’m sorry. You have to be at least sixteen to get a job. It’s the law. I really wish I could help you. We heard what happened to your papa. So sad.”
I felt deflated. “Thanks anyway.” I went back out. So much for that bright idea. I trudged the rest of the way home.
Debra was trying to convince Rachel to come out from behind the sofa. She scowled at me as I walked in the door. “What took you so long? We’ve been home for an hour.”
I peeled out of my coat and hung it on the hook. “Lucky you. Your school is only a few blocks away. It takes me almost two hours to walk home from mine.” I got down on my hands and knees next to the sofa. “What’s up, Ray?”
“I’m not coming out!”
I looked up at Debra. “What did I miss?”
She crossed her arms. “Aunt Sarah.”
I groaned. “Not again. What did she want this time?”
“More of the same. She read another one of her dumb stories to Amy and tried to convince Mom we should move.”
I hung my head. “Great.” I took a couple of deep breaths and focused on Rachel. “That looks like a really tight fit. How are you going to eat dinner or sleep back there. It doesn’t look like much fun.”
Rachel gave in and squirmed out. “I don’t want to live with Aunt Sarah.”
I sat back on my heels and gave her a hug. “Neither do I.”
Mom emerged from the back hall. “I can’t imagine what got into Sam. He hasn’t wet himself in months.”
Debra’s mouth turned up slightly. “She got what she deserved. She didn’t put him down when he made the potty sign.”
“You mean he peed on her?”
Debra struggled to keep from laughing. “Right down the front of her dress.”
I did laugh. Mom came out of the kitchen. “Oh, Micah. I didn’t realize you were home.”
I gave Rachel a final squeeze and let her go. “I was just rescuing Ray from the jaws of a sea monster.”
Rachel giggled and ran toward the bedrooms. Mom looked confused. Debra pointed at the sofa. “She was behind it.”
“Oh.” Mom sighed. “Maggie should be here soon. She told me she had something special planned for dinner.”
I got up. “Sounds great. I’ve got to get some homework finished.” I headed for the kitchen table. “So where is Sam?”
Mom opened a paper bag and began putting food items away. “I thought he could use a nap. I hope he’s not coming down with something.”
I opened my Geometry book and went back to work on the homework assignment. Charlie had thought I was getting sick, too. That was weird. Maybe Sam and I were getting the flu. That’s all I needed.
Maggie brought over a casserole that she had baked at her house. I had to pause in the middle of a problem and vacate the table. She didn’t stay long. She had to work the night shift. I tried to remember what I had been doing but the problem didn’t make sense any more. I slammed the math book closed. “I hate geometry.”
Mom came over and sat down at the kitchen table across from me. “I used to feel the same way.”
I rested my chin on my crossed arms. “Did you pass it?”
“I did.” She leaned back and closed her eyes. “There was this guy in my class who was really smart. He helped me understand it.” She huffed. “And then he asked me out.”
“Did you go?”
She got up and grabbed the teapot. “No. I was afraid to. All of the prissy girls in school thought he was so cute. I was afraid that if I went out with him, they would make my life hell.” She put the kettle on the stove.
“What about Dad? You met him in High School. Was he smart?”
Mom hissed and I regretted my question. She leaned on the counter and stared into the tea canister. “I think he could have been, if he hadn’t been so angry. I didn’t meet him until my Junior year. We were in the same counseling program the last hour of the day.” She picked out a teabag and put the canister back. “Your dad and I had one thing in common. Neither of us wanted to be there.”
I understood that. “I’m just worried that Mr. Russel is going to set me up with a tutor.”
“Would that be such a bad thing?”
I groaned. “The worst. Everyone thinks you’re a complete dork if you have to see a tutor in the skills center.”
Mom rested her hand on my shoulder. “Well, maybe you could ask one of your classmates for help instead. Is there anyone that seems to be getting it?”
I thought about it for a moment. Only one person had gotten a good grade on the last test. I closed my eyes. She had done such a great job during the debate in history class. But what would Paul and Charlie think if I asked her to help me with Geometry? I felt mom’s hand on my head and looked up at her.
She was frowning. “You look a little flushed but you don’t feel too hot. I hope you and Sam aren’t both sick.”
It was like deja vu. What was going on? Now mom thought I was sick. It hit me like a rock. There was only one thing in common. Both times I had been thinking about Christy!
Charlie and I had Study Hall second period. I had him look over the problem that I gave up on the night before. He squinted at the page. “I got this one wrong, too.”
I rested my chin on my palms. “Oh, great! I really don’t want to have to go to the skills center.”
Charlie turned back to his own desk. “Sorry.”
I got as much done on the rest of the questions as I could. Maybe others had gotten it wrong, too, and I could ask Mr. Russel to go over it in class.
We went our separate ways next period. He went to history and I went to general music. I tended to stay in the back of all of my classes. It had become my motto – stay out of view as much as possible and just get through it. So I took up my regular spot in the back row of seats. Others filled in the seats in front of me. Christy came in right as the bell rang. She dropped into a chair in the front row. How did I not know that she was in this class, too?
We were singing more Christmas songs again. Sam would have loved it. We also learned the history of the songs. It wasn’t a bad class. At least we didn’t have any tests. I was feeling better by the end of the period.
Charlie and Paul met me in the cafeteria. Charlie didn’t look happy. I moved closer and dropped my voice. “You okay?”
“History class was depressing.”
I added a grilled cheese sandwich to my tray. It was one of the better lunches we got. “Oh, great. At least it’s my last class of the day. What was the topic?”
Charlie went to a table. “Pearl Harbor.”
Paul sat next to me. “Marco says it was all a hoax. The government made it all up to get us into the war.”
I swallowed down a bite. “Seriously? That’s crazy. Why would he believe that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he’s right. I mean, it happened all the way in the middle of no where.”
I laughed. “The State of Hawaii might disagree with your definition of nowhere.”
Charlie poked at his lunch. “We watched this video of guys who had survived the attack, Paul. I’m pretty sure it happened.”
“They could be actors.”
I focused on my lunch and tuned him out. There was a tremendous crash. The room went silent. We all looked around. I saw a tray on the floor, the contents scattered everywhere. I recognized the back of the shirt. It was Christy. “Oh, man.”
Derek was sneering at her from a different table. Paul snickered. “Looks like Bottle Eyes is eating off the floor today.”
Something snapped. “Grow up, Paul.”
A custodian pulled a garbage can over and began picking up the pieces. Christy was wiping splatters off of her pants. The napkin shredded. She threw it into the garbage. She slumped forward. I could only imagine how she felt.
I wasn’t hungry anymore. I picked up my tray and pulled out of the table. Charlie looked up at me. “We still have five minutes.”
“I lost my appetite.” I headed toward the mess. I dropped my unused napkin on the table in front of her and dumped the remains of my lunch in the garbage can.
Christy looked up at me. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” I left the cafeteria and headed for my locker. I pulled out my Geometry book and notebook.
Charlie came up to me as I turned toward the math wing. “What’s up with you?”
I didn’t feel like explaining everything, especially since I didn’t really understand it myself. “Nothing.”
Charlie turned down a different hallway toward his own locker. I didn’t go with him. I just kept walking and didn’t stop until I got to the door of the classroom.
Mr. Russel was already there. I went in and he looked up at me. “Hey, Micah. What can I do for you?”
My brain seemed sluggish. I opened the textbook to the problem I’d been struggling with. “I’m really having trouble understanding this one. I was wondering if you could go over it.”
He glanced at the book. “You’re not alone. Several others in class missed that one, too. I’ll start off with that.”
“Thanks.” I moved to the back of the room and took my seat.
Christy came in. She moved down the row and took the desk in front of me. She sat sideways in the seat and looked at my notebook. “That one took me awhile, too. My dad helped me figure it out.”
“He must be really smart.”
“He’s a carpenter. He uses geometry all the time.”
“So that’s what you do with this stuff.”
She pulled out a page from her notebook and handed it to me. There was a carefully sketched diagram with a bunch of numbers on it. I started matching the numbers to the problem. It started to make sense. “This is really cool.” I handed it back to her and looked at the problem in my notebook. “I was way off.”
Charlie came in and sat down at the desk next to me. He didn’t say anything. I decided not to push it and stayed focused on correcting the mistakes I’d made in the problem. The numbers finally worked.
I got more out of Geometry class than I had in a long time. The bell rang and we got up to leave. Christy handed me some folded papers. “These might help you. They are some other diagrams that my dad did for some of the earlier problems.”
I tucked them into my Geometry textbook. “That really does help. Once I saw how the numbers all fit, it finally made sense.”
Christy smiled at me and headed off in a different direction. Charlie was staring at me. “What was that all about?”
“Christy gave me a diagram that helped me make sense of that math problem.”
We swapped books and headed for English class. Paul was waiting for us outside the door. He pointed at the list taped to it. “Looks like Micah gets to entertain us today.”
I groaned. “Just my luck.” Somehow I survived without fainting.
History was as rough as Charlie had said. The video was depressing. Christy looked like she was crying by the end of it. It was hard for us to discuss the events afterwards. We were a quiet class as we left the room.
Charlie met me at my locker. “So, how was history?”
“Definitely depressing.” I pulled on my coat. My backpack was a little lighter. “But for some good news, I got my Geometry finished at the end of class.”
“Cool. Here comes Paul.”
I wasn’t excited. “Are you ready for the Biology test?”
Paul frowned. “Hey, the bell has rung. Why are we still talking about school?”
I slung my backpack over my shoulder. “I was just wondering if we wanted to study for this Biology test together.”
Paul made a rude noise. “Why bother? There’s better stuff to do. We could try out that new video game. Marco is working late tonight.”
Charlie grinned. “Cool!”
I shook my head and headed for the door. “You two go ahead. I have to get home.” I didn’t even wait for them.
I walked alone for the first time in a long while. I came to the block of the Antique Shop and decided to cross the street. I wasn’t really planning on going in. Christy was getting out of a car as I approached. She waved and the car drove away. She looked surprised to see me. “Have you come to buy the reindeer?”
I stuck my hands in my pockets. “I don’t have enough yet. I’m still working on it.”
She smiled. “It will make a cool present.” There was movement in the shop. “I have to go to work.”
I didn’t know what else to say. “Thanks for the help in class today.”
“You’re welcome.” She disappeared inside the shop.
I moved toward the window and stared at the reindeer for a moment. I could see her talking to her grandfather. At least she had a job. She was lucky.
“Are you still gawking at that stupid reindeer?”
Paul and Charlie had caught up with me. I turned away and started walking. “It’s important.”
Paul started to laugh but Charlie interrupted him. “Hey, it’s for his little brother. Give him a break.”
I just walked away. I was in a haze most of the rest of the way home. I had to pause a few blocks from Elm. A guy was unloading bundles of news papers. It gave me an idea. I waited until he came back out of the shop. “Do you know anything about paper routes? My cousin used to have one.”
The man closed up the back of his truck. “Aren’t any around here. You have to be farther out in the suburbs.”
“Oh. Thanks.” I watched him drive away. So much for that one.
Everything was calm at home. It was a nice change. I managed to get some studying done before dinner. I had gone back to it and was working at the kitchen table. There was a knock on the door. Debra and I exchanged looks as Mom went to answer it. I think we were both afraid of the same thing.
But it wasn’t Aunt Sarah. Jim Davis followed Mom in. He was carrying a bag. He set it on the kitchen counter. “Mary and I just figured you might like these. She gets an extra discount at work.”
Mom looked into the bag. “There’s a lot here, Jim.”
He shrugged. “It’s the least we could do. I hope you’re getting stuff settled.”
Mom put stuff away. “It hasn’t been easy. The company denied death benefits.”
Jim frowned. “Why?”
“The guy who was here said the insurance company wouldn’t pay out because the accident was John’s fault.”
“That’s crazy! It wasn’t John’s fault at all.”
I stared at the problem on the board. Mr. Russel had spent most of the period explaining it and I still didn’t get it. “Why is Geometry so complicated?”
Charlie looked up from his notebook. “I wrote it down but it still doesn’t help.”
Christy tore a page from her notebook and handed it to me. The sketch looked like a street map of the area. She had added numbers from the board to the picture.
It was like a light came on. “I get it!” Several other kids around us looked over at me. I ignored them. I used the picture to work the rest of the problems in the textbook. When I finished, I tapped her on the back. “This is so cool.”
She looked back at me. “It helps to visualize it.”
I turned to Charlie. “You gotta see this.”
He had an odd expression on his face. He leaned closer. “What are you doing?”
I held up the page. “This is how these problems work.”
He shook his head and went back to his notebook. I didn’t know what his issue was. I was impressed. The bell rang. We got up to leave. I handed the page back to Christy. “This really helped. Thanks.”
Christy smiled at me and held up her hand. “You can keep it.”
I walked with Charlie to his locker. He swapped out his books and then followed me to mine. “What’s up with you, Micah? Suddenly you’re so nice to Bottle Eyes.”
I slammed my locker door closed. “Not you, too. I thought you were over name calling. Her name is Christy and she was helping me with Geometry. I got the problem set done. Did you?”
Charlie scowled at me. “Why her?”
I headed for the English classroom. “Because she’s the only one in our class who gets it. What’s the issue?”
Paul joined us. “Whoa! What did I miss?”
Charlie moved to the back of the room. “Nothing.”
I sat next to him and Paul took the desk in front of me. He studied both of us for a moment. “Come on, fess up.”
I ignored him. It was hard to focus on class. I was glad when it was finally over. We left the room and split up. Charlie didn’t say anything to me at all.
I got to history class. Ms. Mack was standing at the door handing out sections of the Tribune. “Find an article that might become a historical event.”
I took my piece of the newspaper to my seat and began scanning the headlines. There was a lot to choose from but everything seemed current. I looked up at her. “Ms. Mack, this is what’s happening right now. How are we supposed to know what will be considered historical in the future?”
She smiled and her cheeks got so big that her eyes almost disappeared. “That’s an excellent question, Micah. We’ll start off our discussion with that. Could you please write it on the board?”
Ugh! Me and my big mouth. I dragged my feet the whole way. I found a piece of chalk and started writing.
I heard others snickering behind me. “Could you make that a little bigger? I can’t see it from here.” Derek laughed.
I finished the sentence and dropped the chalk in the tray. I went way around him to get back to my seat. I looked back at the board. If I could read it from the back of the room, Derek should be able to see from two seats back. “Maybe Christy should let you borrow her glasses.”
There were some oohs from the guys around Derek. He stared at me. “Better watch out or you might be a headline.”
I buried my face in the paper. This is why I generally tended not to get involved.
Christy came in and sat down in the desk in front of me. She looked at the board. “Wow. That’s a really good question.”
I felt a little better. We spent most of the period talking about it. The bell rang and the class rushed to escape. Ms. Mack nodded to me as I followed the herd. “That was a great question, Micah. It was the perfect way to begin the discussion.”
Christy waited for me outside the classroom door. “That was your question? That was awesome.”
The world felt like a better place. “At least you had an article that fit the list. I doubt anything from my section was really significant.”
“How much of the daily news really is? Most of the stuff that happens only affects a few people. The stuff that becomes history has to affect whole regions or countries.”
We came to the hall where my locker was. “Well, see you tomorrow.” She waved and kept going.
I turned around and almost collided with Paul. He had a vicious grin on his face. “What has gotten into you? No wonder Charlie looked freaked out. Why are you hanging around with Bottle Eyes?”
I pushed past him and went to my locker. “She helped me with Geometry. What’s the big deal?”
Paul leaned against the locker next to mine. “Dude, she’s so dorky. Why would you want to be seen with her?”
I fought the growing feeling to smack him in the face. I pulled out my coat and shut my locker. “Why do you have to be such a jerk?”
Charlie came toward us. Paul pushed away from the lockers and grabbed Charlie’s arm. “Come on, we don’t need this looser. He likes to hang out with dorks.”
Charlie’s face morphed through different expressions and settled on extreme dislike. “Yeah, lets go.” They walked away.
I felt like I’d been gut punched. My best friend had just unfriended me. I couldn’t breathe. Somehow I walked out of school. It was unreal, like being part of a horror story. I kept waiting for the people around me to turn into zombies. Through the haze, I saw Paul and Charlie ahead of me on the street. The last thing I wanted to do was to deal with them right now.
I turned down Cleveland. I didn’t go this way often. I used it when the snowplows were working on Armitage as they tended to splatter road slop up on the sidewalk. But not today. I just kept walking.
A guy coming out of an alley almost collided with me. I realized he was there at the last moment and stopped. He just kept on swaying along. White matted hair poked out from a dirty knitted hat and he had a large cloth bag slung over his arm. The contents rattled every time he lurched.
He disappeared into a doorway a short ways down the street. I expected him to get tossed out so when he didn’t emerge again I paused to see what the place was. The door was all glass. I could see the guy sorting bottles and cans into different boxes. There was a sign on the wall behind the counter that listed the current prices for aluminum, glass, plastic, and steel by the pound. A man in a black apron took each box, set it on a scale, and gave the guy some money.
My heartbeat began pounding in my ears. I could do that! I waited until the old guy had stumbled away then went in.
The man with the black apron looked over the counter at me. “Hey, kid. What have you got for me today?”
I didn’t have anything yet. “I was just wondering what you accepted?”
He smiled and tore a page off a packet on the counter. “Here’s the list. Hours of operation are on the bottom of the page.”
I took the sheet. Reynold’s Recycling stood out in bold red letters at the top. There were pictures of various items and an estimate of how many of each would make a pound. I looked at the price board again. This was my chance. “Thanks, see you later.”
He hooked his thumbs behind the apron straps. “Looking forward to it.”
I went back out. It suddenly didn’t seem as dreary as it had before. I quickened my pace and headed for home. Maybe I could make I sign and hang it by the mailboxes in the entry of our building. I had heard several neighbors complaining about the recycling containers in the alley being too high. Maybe I could volunteer to take care of their recycling for them.
Mrs. Graham was pulling a cart loaded with groceries up the walk as I approached the building. She wasn’t my favorite person in the world as she lived right below us and often bothered Mom about the kids running around over her head. I decided to be nice. I ran ahead and opened the door for her. She didn’t even say anything, just trundled on by. She headed for the stairs. Even with the big wheels, she was having a rough time pulling the cart up. “Can I help you with that?”
She looked at me through squinted eyes. “What’s that?”
I pointed up the stairwell. “I could pull that up for you.”
She looked surprised. “That would be nice.”
I waited for her to move forward then pulled the cart up to the third landing. She took over from there. I decided to try my idea. “Do you have any recycling that needs to go out?”
She stopped and stared at me. “You want my recycling?”
“Yes, mam.” I thought fast. “I’m doing a community project. I’ll be helping everyone in our building with recycling for the rest of the month.”
Her wrinkled face turned into a smile. “Well, how nice. Yes, I do have some recycling to go down. Just a minute and I’ll get it for you.”
I took her bag of recycling up with me to our floor. Debra scowled at me when I brought it in. “What are you doing with that?”
“It’s recycling stuff. I need it for a project.”
She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “This is why I want to go to Academy. Regular High School sounds so stupid.”
I set the bag on the floor of the front closet. I went into the kitchen to look for our recycling. Maggie was sitting at the table with Mom. I waved to them and opened the cabinet under the sink. I sorted through our recycling and found most of it was on the page. I pulled a bag out and started dumping stuff into it.
Mom leaned in her chair. “Micah, what are you doing?”
“I’m looking for certain recycled stuff for a project.”
Her eyebrows went up. “Well, that’s different. I didn’t know you had an art class this semester.”
I bit my lip. I had to tell her something. I thought about our discussion in history class. One of the articles we talked about had been about old landfills. “It’s not for an art project. It’s a history project about statistics.” That sounded impressive.
Maggie laughed. “Well, at least they are being progressive.”
I added our recycling to the other bag in the closet. How was I going to get this stuff to the recycling center? I couldn’t exactly shove it into my locker. I glanced at the hours on the page. They opened at 7am. Cool! I could drop it off on the way to school!
Mom’s tone caught my attention. “Mags, how am I supposed to do that? I’m not sure how I’m going to pay the bills this month. There’s no way I could afford a lawyer.”
Maggie tapped the table. “Why didn’t I think of this before. You’re great with kids. There’s a family that lives down a block toward State. They have a couple of boys. Maria works in the lab. She doesn’t like the daycare her boys are going to. Maybe you could watch her kids. They could come here. Sam would probably love it. Her boys are two and four.”
Mom’s brows wrinkled up. “I’m not a licensed provider.”
“You wouldn’t have to be for just one family. That’s covered under babysitting.”
Sam came out of the back hall. He saw me and launched in my direction. “You’re home!”
I caught him. “Yup. How would you like to help me with a picture?” I carried him to our room.
He squirmed out of my arms and grabbed his crayon box. “Are we going to draw the North Pole?”
I pulled out two sheets of paper. “Tell you what. You draw the North Pole on this page and I’ll draw my poster on mine.”
He settled into his chair and began humming some strange combination of Christmas carols. As long as I could keep him focused on his drawing, Sam would let me draw my bottles and cans. I was determined to make a poster that would stand out and get everyone’s attention.
I left the apartment early and roamed through the building. I was happy to see several other bags of recycling beside doors. The poster I’d put up by the mailboxes had worked. I took them all down to the recycle bin in the alley and quickly sorted out anything that wasn’t on the list. I carried the rest of the bags to Reynold’s Recycling.
There was a woman at the counter now. “Well, good morning. Up bright and early I see.”
I set all the bags down on the counter. “Yes, mam. I tried to sort these out beforehand to make it easier.”
She pulled some bins from under the counter. “Wonderful. Just dump each group into a bin and I’ll get everything weighed up for you.”
I followed her instructions and watched the scale as she weighed four bins. She rung up the totals at a register and handed me two dollars and some change. I tucked it into my pocket. “Thanks, see you later.”
She waved as I slipped out into the cold morning. Frosted steam hung around my face when I breathed. I looked up at the sky, wondering what it was planning. I’d given myself plenty of time, not knowing how long the new route was going to take. I got to school before the doors even opened.
They finally let us in. Ms. Sanders, the secretary, called me over. “Did you come early for breakfast?” I had no idea what she was talking about and shrugged. “It’s okay. Lots of kids on the Low Income lunch program eat breakfast, too.” She motioned toward the cafeteria.
Why not? I had worked up an appetite hauling all those bags to the Recycling Center. I got in line with the other kids. The food was even better than lunch. There were hot waffles, scrambled eggs, cups of yogurt and juice, even chocolate milk. If I would have known about this sooner, I would have used it.
The first bell rang and I dumped the empty cups in the trash and added the tray to the stack. The halls were already crowded. I went to my locker and left my coat and backpack. At least I didn’t have to lug the Biology textbook to class today. I had studied from my notes last night. I was ready.
I went to the classroom and took my regular seat. Charlie and Paul came in soon after. Charlie sat down next to me. “I didn’t think you’d be here today. Didn’t see you on the route.”
Paul took the seat on the other side of Charlie. He didn’t look at me. He sat staring at his notebook. I ignored him. “I came in early. Found out that I get free breakfast.”
“Oh.” Charlie traced the designs on the front of his notebook with his pencil. “Paul thought you might have walked to school with her.”
“I don’t even know where Christy lives. How could I walk to school with her?”
Charlie shrugged. “I just hope you’re over that now. It’s supposed to snow today. I was hoping you’d be interested in making a snowman in the Park.”
It was a tradition with us that on the first good snowfall, we’d roll up a good snowman. “Sounds great. Maybe we’ll get lucky and it will be a good wet one.”
Charlie looked relieved. He looked over at Paul. “Want in on a snowman?”
Paul frowned. “I’d rather have a snowball fight.”
“We could do that, too.”
Mr. Witten came in as the bell rang. He stood at the front of the room. “All notebooks on the floor, please. Closed and upside-down.” He passed out the tests.
I was glad I’d spent so much time studying. The test seemed easy. I finished mine and turned it over on my desk. Mr. Witten came back to retrieve it. He stopped a few steps away. “Paul, the chair by my desk, please.”
Everyone turned and looked. I noticed Paul had his notebook in his lap. His face was red. He dropped his pencil and went to the chair.
Mr. Witten took his test and picked up mine. He looked around the room. “Everyone knows my rules when it comes to cheating. You loose the points. When you cheat, you only cheat yourself.”
Charlie sighed and kept working. I sat quietly, watching Paul get a lecture. He was the one who didn’t want to study for this test. Served him right. He was sent out before the bell rung.
Charlie finished as it did. “That was awful.”
I moved toward the door. “That’s why I suggested studying for it.”
We both got books from our lockers and went to Study Hall. I was determined to get last of the English assignment finished. Charlie looked over at my desk. “That isn’t due until Monday.”
“I’d rather have it done so I don’t have to worry about it over the weekend. If we do get any decent snow, Mom will probably take us to the Park on Saturday. She won’t let me take the munchkins that far by myself.”
“There are times I’m glad I don’t have any younger brothers or sisters. Anna hated dragging me around. I think she’s glad I’m old enough to go places by myself.”
I didn’t mind hanging out with my brother and sisters. As long as it wasn’t all the time. I looked at the essay I’d been writing. That idea fit so I wove it in. I had just finished the last line when the bell rang.
Charlie went off to history and I went to General Music. Mr. Hansen was handing out instruments to everyone walking in. Not real band instruments like flutes or trumpets, but childish rhythm instruments. I ended up with a set of small bells on a wooden handle. I sighed and took my seat. It was like being back in kindergarten.
Christy was the last to come in just as the bell rang. She got stuck with a wood block and stick. I felt sorry for her. Mr. Hansen passed around sets of sheet music. We were going to be using the instruments with a set of Christmas carols we’d been working on. I managed to hold my own.
We got to the Jingle Bells Medley. Mr. Hansen called all the bells and wood blocks to one side as we were representing the horse and sleigh. I found myself standing next to Christy. She smiled at me. “You jingle very nicely.”
I tried to figure out how to compliment her playing without it sounding weird. “Nice tapping.”
She laughed. That sound was even better. “Well, here we go.”
We worked on that song the rest of the period. When class ended, we dumped the instruments back into the box and headed for lunch. “So what class do you have before music that it takes you so long to get here?”
“I have ceramics in the art wing. It usually takes a few extra minutes at the end of class to clean up and Ms. Parish forgets to warn us.”
Someone punched my arm. I turned and Paul stood beside me. “You did it on purpose, didn’t you.”
I was glad Christy kept walking. I hoped Paul wouldn’t notice. “Did what?”
He got in my face. “You turned over your test so Witten would come to the back of the room.”
“I turned over my test because I was finished. It’s not my fault you were cheating.”
Charlie appeared out of the crowd that was collecting around us. “Come on, guys. Lunch is waiting.”
I turned away from Paul. “Lunch sounds good.” I headed for the line. I didn’t really care if Paul was following or not. I turned to Charlie. “Thanks for the save.”
He shrugged. “How many times have you saved me?” He glanced behind us. “He’ll catch up.”
I wished he wouldn’t. “It really wasn’t my fault.”
We got into line. Paul pushed his way in behind Charlie, “You were walking with Bottle Eyes.”
“Oh, give me a break. We both have Music at the same time.”
Charlie frowned. “Does that mean you have to walk down the hall with her?”
I picked up a tray. “It’s not like I can tell her where to walk. Or where to sit, for that matter.”
Charlie pulled a piece of pizza onto his tray. “You need to just ignore her. Maybe she’ll take the hint and go away.”
I didn’t say anything. What had happened to Charlie? My best friend had become a jerk. I was confused. I could see her sitting alone a few tables away. I felt sorry for her. I finished my lunch and turned in my tray.
Charlie ran to catch up with me. “Hey, what’s wrong with you?”
I went to my locker and pulled out my Geometry. Was it me? “Let’s get to class.” I sat in my regular place. Charlie sat in front of me. “What are you doing?”
“Giving her a reason to sit somewhere else.”
Christy came into the classroom and hesitated. She looked disappointed but sat close to the door.
Charlie smiled. “See? It worked.”
The bell rang and Mr. Russel jumped into his lecture. I was relieved. I didn’t really want to talk to Charlie. I was torn. I liked Christy. She was smart. I missed her help in understanding the Geometry lesson.
We moved on to English. I was almost glad that Ms. Fillmore kept us busy all period. I hurried out of the classroom as soon as the bell rang. Charlie called to me but I pointed toward a bathroom and slipped inside.
I swapped out books and went to history. I went to my seat. Christy sat on the other side of the room. The class dragged on forever. She was close to the door and left as soon as the bell rang. I felt like the comic book character with a rain cloud hanging over my head.
I met Charlie at my locker and listened to him go on about building a snowman. The snowplows had already been through the main streets. The sidewalks were slushy. By the time we got to Clark Street, I was cold. Charlie pointed across the street. “Come on! There’s plenty of good snow at the park.”
I crossed the street with them. “I’m going to pass on the snowman. I don’t have any gloves and my hands are already cold.”
Paul laughed. “You are such a baby. Whatever.”
Charlie looked disappointed. “Come on, Micah. We’ve done this every year since kindergarten.”
I pushed slush around with my toe. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Paul headed into the Park and called Charlie to join him. Charlie frowned. “I want the old Micah back.” He followed Paul.
I walked home. Snow was still falling. No one had shoveled the walkway yet. I had hoped for the snow but now I didn’t feel like shoveling it. I went upstairs. The minute I stepped off the stairs I heard their voices.
Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ben emerged from our apartment with Mom. Aunt Sarah looked up and saw me. “Oh, Micah. You’re home.” I reluctantly moved forward. She gave me a hug. “How was your day?”
“It’s been a long one.” I looked at Mom. “I’m going to check on Sam.”
Aunt Sarah looked disappointed. “Just a moment, Micah. I have something for you.” She dug into her purse and pulled out a card. She pushed it into my hand. “Now you can visit whenever you want.”
I stuck the Ventra Card in my coat pocket. “Thanks.”
I heard someone else coming up the stairs and turned to see who it was. Mr. Carole moved toward his door. He looked down the hall and saw me. “Good evening, folks. Hey Micah, I saw your poster. That’s a nice offer. Thank you.”
Aunt Sarah hugged Mom. “I hope you reconsider your idea to sue the company. Lawyers are so expensive and companies like that never lose.”
Mom pulled away. “Don’t worry about it, Sarah. I’m not asking you for money.”
Mr. Carole set down his bag of groceries and came down the hall. “Lawyers don’t have to be expensive. The firm I used to work for would often take on pro bono cases.”
Aunt Sarah frowned. “I just don’t want to see Jennifer dragged through the dirt by some scummy company.”
Mom went pale. “Sarah! I’m sorry, Mr. Carole.”
He laughed. “It’s okay. Just let me know if you need to find a lawyer. I could talk to a few people at my last firm.”
Aunt Sarah pushed by him and headed for the stairs. I got out of the way so I didn’t get trampled. Uncle Ben followed a little more carefully. He looked back at Mom. “You call if you change your mind. I can get a moving van on short notice.”
Mom waved at him. “Thanks, Ben. I’ll keep that in mind.” She looked ready to pass out.
I was relieved when they disappeared down the stairs. Mr. Carole looked concerned. “So what has happened that you need a lawyer?”
Mom sighed. “The company denied death benefits because they claimed the accident was John’s fault but Jim Davis, who was there when it happened, told me it wasn’t.”
“I’m so sorry. That doesn’t sound right. Let me see who I can find to help you. The law firm has some great new lawyers.”
I slipped by mom. “I’ll be with Sam.” She thanked me and I went in.
Rachel was on her hands and knees in the back hallway, peering around the wall. “Are they gone?”
I dropped my backpack and pulled off my coat. “Yeah, Ray. The coast is clear.”
She disappeared. I could hear her reporting the news to Debra. I chuckled. She’d make a good spy. I went into our room and found Sam asleep on his bed. I went to the dresser and pulled out my money sock. I climbed up on my bunk and dumped out the sock. I added the money I’d gotten that morning and counted everything up. I almost had eleven dollars!
There was a soft knock on the door. I shoved the money back in the sock. “Come in.”
Debra looked around the door. “Where’s Mom?”
“She’s out in the hall talking to Mr. Carole. I guess he used to be a lawyer and he might be able to get her one who wouldn’t charge anything.”
Debra sagged against the door frame. “Do you think it will help?”
I didn’t really understand everything Mom was dealing with but I had a pretty good idea that death benefits meant money that would pay the bills. “I hope so.”
I woke up when Sam pulled my blanket off. I glanced at my watch and groaned. “Sam, it’s not even eight o’clock yet. Today is Saturday.”
He was bouncing around the room. “It’s snowing!”
I realized it had been dark when he woke from his nap the day before. “Yeah, it’s snowing. Can I have my blanket back now?”
He giggled and pulled it out of the room. “Get up! It’s snowing!”
I was cold without the blanket. I sighed and climbed down from the bunk. I went in search of Sam and found him at the living room window with his nose plastered to the glass. His breath was fogging up the view. I pulled him back. “Wow, we got a lot over night.”
Mom opened her bedroom door and came out. I was surprised. She was already dressed. “Are we taking them?” I pointed to the window.
“I’m sorry, guys. I can’t today. Maggie is bringing the Kellers over.” She disappeared into the kitchen. “Pancakes or waffles for breakfast?”
Sam pulled away from me and ran into the kitchen. “Can we make the pancakes look like snowmen?”
Mom laughed and told him to go wash his hands. “Micah, could you see if the girls are up?”
“Sure, Mom.” I went to their door and wrapped softly.
Rachel opened it just a crack. “Who is it?”
I leaned down so I was at her level. “Pancakes for breakfast.”
Rachel giggled. “I’ll pass it on.” She shut the door.
I went back to my room. A snowplow rumbled by outside. I was impressed by how much snow it was pushing. I wasn’t going to melt overnight. We could still play in it tomorrow.
Sam came running in. “I got to make the first pancake!”
“Cool. Maybe you should change into some clothes while it’s cooking.”
Sam went to his drawer and picked out a bundle. “I’m going to be green today.” He climbed into his bunk and pulled everything out of the underwear.
I grabbed the socks before they hit the floor. “Don’t forget this. Don’t want those feet getting cold.” I left him to change.
Debra almost plowed into me. “This isn’t fair.”
I backed up a step. “Whoa, what’s up?”
She crossed her arms. “This is the first real snow of the year. I don’t see why Mom won’t let you and me take the others to the Park.”
I knew all her arguments. “It’s too far away. She might let us take them to the beach as long as we keep them away from the lake.”
She pouted, which was unusual for her. “It’s not the same. Remember how much fun it was last year? We even went up and walked through the animals. The keepers were feeding them special treats.”
I remembered it. Mom had carried Sam, I had carried Amy, and Dad had carried Rachel. But Dad wasn’t here to carry anybody anymore. “Maybe another day.”
Debra went into her room and shut the door. Rachel was standing at the corner. I hadn’t realized she was even there. She looked ready to cry. “I want to go play in the snow.”
I gave her a hug. “I’ll talk to mom after breakfast.”
Someone knocked on our door. Mom called to me from the kitchen. “Micah, could you get that? My hands are full.”
Rachel’s face scrunched up and she fled into her room. “Don’t let it be them.”
I went to the door and looked through the peephole. “It’s Mr. Anderson.” I opened it. “Good Morning, sir. What can I do for you?”
He gave me a half grin. “You can collect the bags like you promised on the sign. I don’t want people tripping on them in the hallway.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I turned toward the kitchen. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, Mom.”
I stepped out into the hall. He squinted his eyes. “So what’s with the recycling collection anyway?”
I headed for the stairs. “It’s for a statistics project. We were talking about all the stuff that used to end up in landfills and how the recycling system has changed that. So I’m collecting and counting all the different things that get recycled from our building.”
“Hmm. Well, as long as you remember to pick them up early I guess it’s not a problem.” He started down the stairs.
I remembered what Charlie had suggested. “Do you need anyone to shovel the walkway?”
He looked back up at me. “Are you offering?”
“I don’t have a shovel but if someone else does, I’ll do it.”
He actually smiled. “You’re a good kid. I’ll put the shovel by the front door. I usually do it but my arthritis has been giving me grief this year. I can even give you a couple of bucks.”
“Thanks, that would help, too.”
He went down and I went up to start on the top floor. It took me longer than I had expected. A lot of people had left their recycling out. I took them back to our apartment to sort them.
Mom leaned out of the kitchen as I came in. “Where did you go? Breakfast is ready.” She frowned. “What is all of that?”
“It’s the recycling I need for my statistics project. I just need to sort it and then I’ll take care of it.”
“Why don’t you wash your hands and eat first.”
I ate and went back to the stack of bags. Sam and Amy sat watching me. Amy pointed at a bottle. “It goes in that bag. It’s just like a sorting game we play at school.”
I was amazed at how much recycling there was. I squashed down all the plastic as much as I could. It didn’t matter. They paid by weight. Even after that, I had quite a haul. It wasn’t going to fit in the front hall closet. I pulled the sheet out of my pocket. The recycling center was open from ten until five today.
Mom came out into the living room. “I hope you’re going to get all of that out of here soon. Maggie and the Kellers will be here in an hour.
“I’m just grabbing my coat. I may be gone a while. I told Mr. Anderson that I’d shovel the walkway for him. He isn’t feeling well.”
Mom smiled. “That’s nice of you, Micah.” She went to her room and came back with a small brown bag. “You might need these.”
I opened it and found a new pair of gloves. “Thanks, Mom.”
I hauled the bags down the stairs. I dumped all the stuff that the center didn’t take in the bin and grabbed the rest. It was heavy and clunky. It took me more than an hour to get to the center with all of it. I had to wait in line.
There was a different guy working today. He weighed out my stuff and paid me. “That’s quite a haul, kid. Great job.”
I stuffed the six dollars and change into my pocket. “Thanks. Are you open tomorrow?”
“We have short hours tomorrow, noon to four during the winter on Sundays.”
I thanked him again and hurried home. The shovel was still waiting for me. I grabbed it and dug in.
Maggie tapped me on the shoulder and I almost tumbled into the snow. “Hey, Miss Maggie.”
She looked at the section I’d finished. “We must have missed you when we came up.”
“Sorry about that. I was taking care of the recycling.”
“Wow. aren’t you the busy beaver. Just don’t freeze out here, okay? Your mom was worried about you.”
She went in and I went back to work. At least the snow had stopped. I was just finishing the last piece when Mr. Anderson came out. “Looks good, kid.” He handed me a couple dollar bills and I gave him back his shovel. “You do good work. Stop by when the next snow falls and I’ll hire you again.”
I added the money to my pocket. “Thank you, sir!” I hurried upstairs.
The living room seemed crowded. Mom relaxed when I pulled off my coat. “This is my oldest son, Micah.” She pointed toward the couple sitting on the sofa. “This is Mr. and Mrs. Keller. They live just a block and a half away. I’ll be watching their boys while they work.”
I looked down at the two boys who were pushing chunky plastic trucks around while Sam sat watching. “Cool. How about that, Sam. You get some playmates.”
Sam didn’t look impressed. “They don’t like to play cars like you do.”
I collapsed next to him on the floor. “You have to give them a chance, Sam. Looks like they play with a different kind than we do.”
“They are too big for our road rug.”
The two hadn’t even paid any attention to me. They just kept on going with their own game. “Maybe we could get out the flip frog game.”
Sam brightened. He moved forward and put his hands down in front of their trucks. “Hey, guys. Do you want to play flip frogs?”
The younger boy ran his truck right over Sam’s hand. Sam began to cry. Mom looked down. “What happened?”
I pulled Sam onto my lap. “Just a little road rage.” I kissed Sam’s fingers. “All better?”
He buried his face in my chest then drew back. “You’re all sweaty.”
“That’s because I’ve been out shoveling snow.”
Mrs. Keller stood up. “Well, this is certainly better than the daycare. Thank you so much, Jen.”
All the grownups got up and started pulling on coats. The two boys, I finally learned their names were Danny and Brian from their mother trying to get them to sit still, were bundled up. The Kellers left.
Mom let out a big sigh, She hugged Maggie. “That will help a lot. Now at least I know I’ll be able to pay this month’s bills.”
Maggie pulled her toward the kitchen. “It will all work out. Let’s make some tea.”
I looked around. “Hey, Sam. Where are the girls?”
Sam pointed toward the bedrooms. “Debra tried to read a story but them boys didn’t want a story. So Debra took Amy and Ray into her room to read.” Sam crossed his arms. “She wouldn’t let me come.” He looked ready to cry.
I hugged him. “Tell you what, after I take a shower, I’ll read you a story. How’s that?”
He brightened. “Can it be Santa at the North Pole?”
“Sure. You go wait in our room. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
He ran off and I got up. I could hear Mom and Maggie talking in the kitchen. Mom was telling her about Mr. Carole’s offer to find a lawyer. Maggie laughed. “You see? Everything will turn out okay.”
I looked around the corner. Mom was sipping her tea. “At least I can tell Sarah and Ben to stop worrying about me. Do you know she actually thinks we don’t have any food? As if. People have been giving me stuff the past couple of weeks. I’m running out of cupboard space.”
Maggie wrinkled her nose. “Is it at least good stuff?”
“Some of it. To be honest, I’m not sure when I’m going to use most of it. It’s not really the kind of stuff we eat.”
Maggie leaned forward. “Why don’t we go through it. You can pull out anything that doesn’t look useful and I’ll take it down to the food bank. They have a new voucher program for donated stuff. You’re not the only one. Lots of people get donations of food stuff they can’t use. The vouchers let you exchange it for other foods that you do eat so nothing goes to waste.”
“What a great idea.” They moved toward the pantry cupboard.
I went into the bathroom and got a shower. When I got back to our room, Sam was camped out on his bed wrapped in my blanket. “Got room in there for me?”
Sam pulled the blanket away revealing the book in his lap. The cover was an image of Santa standing next to a reindeer. “Do you think Santa will give me Rudolf?”
I sat down and pulled the blanket around my shoulders. “It probably won’t be Rudolf or any of the reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh. He kind of needs those.”
Sam traced the reindeer on the cover with his finger. “I can’t wait until Christmas.”
I hurried back up the stairs hoping Mom hadn’t missed me. She came out of the kitchen as I stepped in the door. “Micah, where have you been?”
I pulled off my coat. “I was just taking care of the recycling.”
She looked at the clock on the wall. “For three hours?”
I didn’t know what to tell her. “There was a lot of it.”
She shook her head. “Charlie called a few minutes ago. I told him you’d call him back when you came in.”
“Thanks, Mom.” I went to the phone and dialed his number.
Charlie answered. “Hey, what happened to you yesterday?”
I sat in a kitchen chair. “Sorry. We had company. But guess what? I got to shovel the walkway of our building.”
“Did you get paid?”
“Yeah. It went into the sock.”
“Cool. Anyway, Paul is going to meet us at the Park around two. You should see the awesome fort we built.”
“What happened to the snowman?”
“He’s waiting for you. That’s our thing. Know what I mean?”
It had always been our thing. “Absolutely.”
Mom came back into the kitchen. “Is Charlie coming over?”
“He wants me to go to the Park. We haven’t had a chance to build our first snowman of the year.”
Mom smiled. “Go ahead. I promised Debra I would take them over to Washington Square this afternoon. Some of her classmates are having a snow sculpture competition.”
I chewed on my lip. “Is Sam going to be okay?”
“We’ll manage. You two go build your snowman.”
I wished it was just going to be the two of us. “Mom says I can go. I’ll meet you at the Pavilion.” Charlie agreed and I hung up.
Debra came in. “Oh, great! Micah’s here. He can help keep an eye on Sam.”
I got up. “Actually I’m not going with you. Charlie and I have a snowman to build.”
She frowned. “Why don’t you both come to the Square and build it there?”
I headed for my room. “Tradition.” I went in and shut the door.
Sam was sitting at his art desk making colorful scribbles. He stopped and looked up at me. “What do you think of my picture?”
I went to my dresser and pulled out the sock. “Looks cool. Tell me about it.” I listened to him explain his creation as I added the money to the sock. It hadn’t been as much as yesterday. I only got a dollar and some change. But I still had a couple of weeks until Christmas.
Sam patted my leg. “Are you going to come play in the snow with us?”
I put the sock away and pulled out a warm sweater. “Not this time. I’m going to hang out with Charlie this afternoon.”
Sam drooped. “The girls don’t let me play with them.”
I knelt down next to the table. “I’m sorry, Sam. You know Charlie is my best friend. Hey, maybe Ray will teach you how to roll a snowball. She’s really good at it.”
He looked up at me with those big sad eyes. “Do you really think she will?”
I put my arm around his shoulders and leaned toward his ear to whisper. “Just tell her I said she was the best snowball roller and she will.”
He grinned. “Okay.”
I left him to his coloring and headed for the Park. The sun came out and any snow that was still white reflected it back with a dazzling display.
I found Paul and Charlie waiting for me on a picnic table under the Pavilion’s roof. Paul looked bored. “Took you long enough.”
Charlie led the way toward an open patch of snow on the ball field. “Good thing the sun came out and warmed things up a little. I was worried the snow wouldn’t pack anymore.”
We managed to get a good-sized ball rolled up. Paul wandered around the field, kicking at snow drifts. I pointed toward the backstop. “Let’s put him at home plate.”
We rolled him a middle and finally a head. Charlie pulled out the official carrot and I managed to find a couple of rocks for eyes. Charlie inspected the end result. “Someday I’d still like to find some real chunks of coal for his eyes.”
There was a crash from behind the backstop. Paul came to the chain-link and leaned against it. “Oops, my bad. I dumped a trashcan.”
I rolled my eyes. “Great. Let’s go pick it up.”
Paul looked surprised. “Why bother? Some guy who gets paid to do it will clean it up once the snow melts.”
I found the mess. Something shiny caught my eye. I grabbed it. “Cool, there’s a bunch of aluminum cans in this.” I started pulling them out.
Paul and Charlie stood there staring at me. I didn’t care. Aluminum was worth more than any of the other materials. I started making a good pile while chucking everything else back into the can. Charlie took a step closer. “What are you doing?”
I pulled the last one and scooped up the remaining trash. “I found a place to recycle stuff. They give you money for it.”
Paul groaned. “Oh man. He’s gone all homeless on us.”
Charlie looked worried. “You’re turning in cans for money?”
I started stomping on the cans so I could shove them into my coat pockets. “I’m not old enough to have a real job and there aren’t any paper routes in this part of the city. You wouldn’t believe how fast this adds up. I already have almost twenty dollars.”
Paul leaned forward. “Ooh, so close to being rich.”
I pushed the last one in. My pocket bulged. “Hey, it’s for my little brother.”
Paul snorted. “I thought you’d gotten over that stupid reindeer.”
“It may be stupid to you but it’s what Sam really wants for Christmas.”
Charlie turned and started walking away. “I have to get home. I promised my mom I’d be back before five.”
Paul snickered. “Let us know when you drop out of homeless mode.” He jogged away and caught up to Charlie. They walked away together.
I felt like something was unraveling inside of me. I headed for home. I was chilled all the way through by the time I got to our building, and it wasn’t just the cold. I looked up. Lights shown from our windows. They were home.
I plodded up the stairs. Mom was sitting on the sofa with the three munchkins already in pajamas when I walked in. They were reading the story of Frosty. I went to the kitchen and pulled a used grocery bag from under the sink. The crushed cans clattered as I dumped them in.
Debra came around the corner. “What are you doing?”
“Just dumping some recycling into a bag.”
She stood there with her arms crossed. “Why didn’t you just dump it in the bin in the alley?”
I didn’t feel like coming up with a reason. I took the bag and put it on the floor of the front closet. I pulled off my coat and hung it up.
Debra had followed me. She still had her arms crossed. “I hope you had a good time.” She whirled away and stalked back to her room.
Mom had stopped reading. She looked at me over the top of the book. “We had an exciting afternoon.”
“Yeah, me too.”
She frowned and put the book down in her lap. “Are you okay?”
Amy patted the book. “Aren’t we going to finish the story? We’re just getting to the good part.”
I turned away and went into the kitchen. I could hear Mom resume the story. The kettle on the stove was still hot. By the cups in the drainer, they must have made hot cocoa. I pulled out the tea canister. It wasn’t something I drank often but I’d found a couple of flavors that I liked. I uncovered one, ripped open the package, and applied hot water to it in a cup. I collapsed into a chair and sat watching the water swirl with color.
The girls ran past. Sam stopped in the doorway and looked at me, “Did your snowman fall over, too?”
Mom scooted Sam toward our room. She came in and sat across the table from me. “What happened?”
I rested my chin on my crossed arms. “I was just sitting here trying to figure out how long Charlie and I have been best friends.”
Mom copied my position. “Well, since you were five and now you’re fifteen, that would be about ten years. Did something change that status?”
I studied the progress of my tea. “More like someone.”
“Ah, the threesome blues. I know that song.”
The past week accordioned into one big splat. “Paul is such a jerk. Why would Charlie want to be like him?”
“How jerky is he?”
I started bouncing the teabag. “There’s this girl in our class. She’s really smart. She started helping me with my Geometry. But she wears these really big glasses. Paul calls her Bottle Eyes. She doesn’t have any friends in school. She was nice to me so I was trying to be nice to her.”
“And that bothered Charlie?”
“It bothered Paul first. Then Charlie started in, even after I reminded him of Ron. I just don’t get it.”
Mom reached over to the counter and grabbed the teabag dish. “Maybe Charlie is afraid that this girl might replace him.”
I squished the bag and dropped it in the dish. “Charlie is my best friend. Why would that change?”
Mom pushed the sugar in my direction. “You’re getting to the age where some guys start thinking about girlfriends.”
I dumped in more sugar than I had intended to. “Christy isn’t my girlfriend. She was just helping me with math.”
Mom grinned. “I shouldn’t complain. I’m the one who told you to ask one of your classmates for help. Is she helping?”
“Totally!” I took a sip. It was way too sweet. “Her dad is a carpenter and he uses Geometry all the time. She showed me these really cool diagrams that show how to use the stuff we’re learning about. It’s making sense.”
Mom leaned forward and put her hands around my face. “Micah, you are a kind person with a big heart. Don’t let others think for you, even your best friend. Let your heart be the judge. It will always steer you down the right path.”
I did a little better with recycling with my extra cans added in. I gladly shoved the bills into my pocket. “Thanks, see you tomorrow.”
The lady waved. “Have a good day.”
I went to school and got into the breakfast line. The warm food took off the chill. I sat by myself at a table. The other kids sat in groups, talking and laughing. I didn’t know any of them.
Charlie sat down next to me in Biology class. “Did breakfast again, huh?”
I decided to tell him the rest of it. “It’s not just breakfast. I stopped at the recycling center to drop off a bunch of stuff.” I told him about collecting the recycling from our neighbors.
He frowned. “You’re selling all the recycling from your building? Is that legal?”
I hadn’t thought about that. “I don’t know. It just gets dumped in a big bin in the alley otherwise. What’s the big deal?”
“What if the manager gets paid from the recycling money?”
I sighed. I didn’t want to cheat Mr. Anderson out of any money. Mr. Witten closed the door as the bell rang. I looked around the room. “Isn’t Paul here today?”
Charlie opened his textbook. “He’s here. He got kicked out of this class because he was cheating. He has to spend this hour in detention.”
Great, just one more reason for him to give me a hard time. I tried to pay attention to the lesson but my mind wandered. At the end of the class, Mr. Witten handed out a packet. “This is the last week before holiday break. This is a short chapter so I’m hoping to wrap it up on Friday. That means packets will be due and you can expect a test.”
The bell rang. Charlie groaned. “All this in just one week?”
“Well, at least we have study hall next hour. We can get started on it.”
Charlie headed for his locker. “I can’t. I have to finish my essay for English class.”
I didn’t say anything. I had finished it on Friday. I let Charlie work on his essay and I got started on the new packet. It turned out to be pretty easy. It even had a crossword puzzle. I was almost half way through it by the end of the period.
We parted ways. Charlie went off to history and I went to General Music. More instruments. Ugh! At least there were still a couple of good ones to choose from. I thought about Christy. She was always the last one in. I grabbed two hand bells and went to my seat.
As usual, she hurried in as the bell was ringing. I got her attention and held up a bell. She looked surprised. She sat in the chair in front of me and took it. “I didn’t know if you were still talking to me or not.”
“Sorry about Friday. Charlie was being rude.”
She shrugged. “I’m used to it.”
We took the music and started looking it over. I had the C-note bell and Christy had the D-note so we got to stand next to each other in the bell line. It turned out to be really cool, not kindergarten stuff at all. By the end of class, we sounded almost professional. Even Mr. Hansen was impressed.
Christy walked with me toward the cafeteria. “That was really fun.”
I had to agree. “It was a lot better than I had expected.”
Christy pointed toward Paul. “I think your friend is looking for you. I should probably go so you can join him.”
I saw Charlie coming from the other way. “I guess, but I won’t let Charlie steal your seat in Geometry today. He needs to get over that.”
She headed for the lunch line. I moved toward Charlie. He was waiting next to Paul’s locker. Paul was staring at me. “You were talking to her.”
“Deal with it.” I turned to Charlie. “How was history?”
“Not bad. We looked at a bunch of really old newspaper articles about stuff that became history.”
Paul snorted. “You would think so.”
I wanted to ask him how he liked detention but I realized that would only make him worse. I ignored him. “I guess our snowman turned out better than Debra’s.”
Charlie grinned. “What happened?”
We got into the lunch line. “Ray was trying to teach Sam how to roll a snowball and accidentally pushed it over.”
Charlie laughed. “Do you remember when Anna got so mad because I used her scarf on our snowman?”
“That was hilarious. How about the year you opened that bag of walnuts to use a couple for eyes.”
Charlie struggled to breathe. “And they were supposed to be a present for some friend of my mom’s.” He burst.
Paul stared at us. “You’re weird. Who cares about snowmen anyway. Snowballs are better in a fight, not stacked up.”
I took a tray and looked over the choices. “Hey, maybe next year we could use a hot dog for a nose instead of a carrot.”
Paul snickered. “I think you should put it a little lower. That way you’ll know it’s a real snowman.”
I looked at Charlie. He wasn’t laughing either. I left the line and spotted an empty table. As I made my way toward it, I noticed Derek. He had an evil grin on his face and an open milk carton in his hand. I followed his line of sight. Christy was sitting with her back to him. I looked back a Charlie. “I’m going to grab some extra napkins.”
I changed directions. Derek was almost to Christy when I intercepted him. I turned toward the table with the napkin dispenser on it. The edge of my tray slammed into Derek’s elbow. The milk followed the laws of gravity and splattered all over him. I was already moving away. I turned with everyone else. He was standing there sputtering and cursing. I pulled a handful of napkins. “Need these?”
He glared at me and grabbed them out of my hand. “Get out of my face!”
I took a few more napkins and retreated. Christy looked shocked. I winked at her as I passed but didn’t say anything.
Paul and Charlie were both laughing like madmen when I got to the table. Charlie looked up at me. “How did you avoid getting nailed?”
I sat down. “I was paying attention and got out of his way. The guy is a klutz.”
We watched him being sent to the nurse’s office. Charlie covered his mouth. “Guess who will be wearing green the rest of the day.”
I enjoyed my lunch. I finished early. “I still have a few Geometry problems to finish. I’ll meet you in the classroom.”
Christy was in the hall by Geometry. “Mr. Russel isn’t back from lunch yet.”
I leaned against a locker near the door and opened my notebook. “Any great words of wisdom on how to solve these?”
She looked over my work and started pointing out where I’d gone wrong. Mr. Russel showed up. “I’m glad to see you’re getting some help.” He let us into the classroom.
I pointed toward our corner. Christy frowned. “I don’t usually sit in back. It’s harder for me to see the board.”
“Are your glasses the wrong prescription?”
She picked a seat in the middle of the row and I took the one behind it. “No, it’s just I have really bad eyesight. I was in an accident when I was little. It really messed up my vision.”
Charlie came in. His smile did a disappearing act. He walked slowly toward our side of the room and stopped beside the desk I was sitting in. “What’s going on?”
“Christy is sitting there so she can see the board and I am sitting here so she can help me figure out Geometry.”
Charlie shook his head and went to his regular spot. He didn’t even look at me. I got the feeling he was unfriending me again.
Christy glanced over her shoulder. “You can sit back there if you want to.”
“Or Charlie can get over being a jerk and move up.” I said it loud enough for him to hear.
He looked up at me, his face was twisted. “I’m being a jerk? I thought you were my friend.”
I swiveled in the seat to face him. “Charlie, I am still your friend, which is why I’m telling you that you’re being a jerk. I don’t really care what Paul thinks anymore. You told me the other day you wanted the old Micah back. Well, here I am. Now I want the old Charlie back. The one who didn’t judge people by the way they looked. When he comes back, I’ll be right here waiting.”
When I turned back around I discovered most of the class was staring at me. Mr. Russel was smiling. The bell rang and he called out the page number.
I opened my textbook. Part of me was scared that I’d just lost my best friend but part of me felt a whole lot better. Geometry was easier with Christy explaining things.
Charlie and I moved on to English. Paul joined us. I was wondering what Charlie was going to tell Paul but he didn’t say anything. I hoped he was thinking about what I’d said. We turned in our essays and got a bunch of stuff back. Ms. Fillmore moved to the white board and took down a sheet of paper that had been covering the next assignment. “Not everyone celebrates the holidays in the same way. For your next essay, I’d like you to describe how your family celebrates the winter holidays.”
I wrote down the assignment in my notebook. My throat felt tight. Ms. Fillmore was talking about flow in essays and how to use time to pull the reader along. All I could think about was how this Christmas was going to be different.
As I walked out, I paused at her desk. “I’m not sure I can write this.”
She looked at me over her reading glasses. “I can understand how it would be difficult for you, Micah. Think of it as a way to help your younger siblings remember the good times. Many famous authors used their writings to overcome tragedy.”
I was afraid to say anything. My eyes were burning. I nodded and walked out.
Charlie and Paul had waited for me in the hallway. Paul smacked the stack of papers in his hand. “Did it help to complain about the lousy grades?”
I had done pretty good on my essays. “That wasn’t the issue.” My voice sounded funny. I tried to swallow down whatever was causing it.
Charlie didn’t look at me. “If you makes you feel any better, I’m not looking forward to this one either.”
We went our separate ways. I headed for History. Christy was already there. I broke my pattern and took the desk behind her, second from the front.
She gave me a concerned look. “Micah, what’s wrong?”
I opened my notebook. “Just the English assignment. We have to write about our Christmas memories.”
The corners of her mouth curled down. “You must have Ms. Fillmore, too. I’m not crazy about that assignment, either. It’s stressful at our house.”
“My mom’s family is Jewish so they celebrate Hanukkah. It doesn’t always fall on the same day every year but this year it happens to be the same day as Christmas Day.”
“So, what’s the issue?”
“Well, my dad’s family is Catholic. They want us to go to the church service with them. It’s the same thing every year. My mom hates it. But this year is even worse because of Hanukkah. Her parents want us to spend the day with them.”
I had never had to deal with dueling grandparents myself but I knew how hard it was because of what Charlie went through. I didn’t get a chance to say anything else because the bell rang and Ms. Mack started class.
The last bell of the day rang. I had another essay to write. I closed my notebook. “I wonder if teachers get together and plan this. That’s two essays, a packet plus a test in Biology, and top it all off with endless Geometry problems.”
Christy grinned. “I know what you mean. I hardly have any time for homework since I started working at Grandpa’s shop.” She glanced at her watch. “Oh! I have to hurry. My mom picks me up after school.”
I watched her fade into the flow of bodies in the hallway. I turned to head for my locker. I knew Charlie wouldn’t be there. He had to stay for band practice. I was relieved not to see Paul. I walked out of school alone.
There were a few inches of fresh snow and snowplows were scraping away at the side streets. I stopped at the corner near the Antique Shop. The light changed and I crossed the street. The reindeer was still there. I looked past the display.
Christy waved then motioned for me to come in. She was behind the counter, wiping down some dishes. “Hey, on your way home?”
“Yeah. I just thought I’d stop in and make sure the reindeer was still here. I’m trying as hard as I can to come up with the money.”
She put the plates back in the case. “That gift must really be special.”
I broke down and told her about Sam and his request to Santa. “It’s all he thinks about. I just have to find a way to get him his reindeer.”
She looked ready to cry. “You are a special person.” She took a deep breath. “It makes me feel selfish.”
She wiped down the counter. “The whole reason I took this job is because of these stupid glasses. My parents don’t have a lot of money so when I needed new glasses, this was all they could afford. The Optometrist told me they had started making lighter, thinner lenses in my prescription but they cost almost six hundred dollars because they need a special frame. I’m hoping to have enough saved up by April to buy a pair like that.”
“I don’t think that’s selfish.”
Her grandfather came out from a back room. “Oh, it’s our young friend. Here for the reindeer?”
“I don’t have quite enough money yet. I hope to have it soon.”
“Ah, I understand.”
I started to feel too warm. “Well, I’d better get going. I have a stack of homework and the walkway will probably need to be shoveled again.”
Christy walked with me to the door. “See you tomorrow.”
I walked home. The snow shovel was leaning against the wall by the mailboxes. I dropped my backpack in the corner and applied the shovel to the walkway. It didn’t take too long. As I returned the shovel to the entrance way, Mr. Anderson came up the stairs from the basement. I waved to him. “The walk is cleared.”
He chuckled. “You’re a good kid.” He handed me a couple of dollars.
I retrieved my backpack. I had been thinking about what Charlie had said. “Mr. Anderson, how much does the apartment building get for all of our recycling?”
His bushy eyebrows went up. “How much do we get? It more like how much to we pay.” He huffed. “I get an earful from management every time I have to tell them it’s full. It costs a lot to get it swapped out with an empty one. But we must recycle.” He sighed. “So how is your project going?”
I had actually written things down as I sorted them yesterday. “Plastic soda bottles are winning right now.”
He shook his head. “That doesn’t surprise me a bit. You know, when I was your age we used to go down to the bottling plant and pick out our soda right there, on the spot. We’d bring home a wooden box with 24 glass bottles of the best soda ever. And you just took that box and bottles back when it was empty. Nothing but the caps got thrown away. And not even them sometimes. I used to have this amazing bottle cap collection. Kids these days don’t even know what that means.”
Mr. Carole came into the entryway decked in red. “Oh, Micah. Let your mom know Scott and I will be over as soon as he gets here. I have to change.”
Mr. Anderson pointed toward the outside door. “Don’t you think he did a great job on the walkway?”
Mr. Carole looked out one of the narrow windows beside the door. “Did Micah shovel the sidewalk?”
“You bet he did. And I didn’t even have to ask him. He volunteered.”
“Nice work, Micah.” He gave a jolly laugh. “You wouldn’t think Santa would mind a little snow but I’m getting to old to have to worry about slipping.”
I followed him up the stairs. He went into his apartment and I headed for ours. I could hear the commotion as I approached. I opened the door slowly.
Mom was on her knees struggling to get Danny’s coat zipped. Brian was running around the room with his arms out pretending to be an airplane. Mom finally got the zipper up. “Your mom will be here any moment. Come on, Brian.”
I heard feet on the stairs and looked back down the hall. Mrs. Keller was coming. I looked in at mom. “Good news. She’s here.”
I held the door open for Mrs. Keller. She looked tired. She stepped in and the boys ran to her. “Hey, boys. How was you’re day?”
Danny babbled but Brian looked up at his mom with a sad face. “They don’t have a TV.”
Mrs. Keller smiled. “Happy day!” She looked at Mom. “How were they?”
Mom looked beat. “They certainly have a lot of energy. Neither of them wanted a nap so I’m betting they will sleep well tonight.”
I got out of Mrs. Keller’s way as she herded the boys out the door. I waved good bye and shut it. “I don’t know who Scott is but he and Mr. Carole will be over soon.”
Mom collected the last of the toys and dumped them in a cardboard box. “I haven’t had time to even make dinner. I hope everyone doesn’t mind a fast one.”
I hung up my coat. “I think there’s still some of Maggie’s casserole left in the fridge.”
“That’s a great idea. The girls are in their room and Sam must still be asleep. Could you get them ready while I heat it up?”
“Sure.” I knocked on the girls’ door.
Debra opened it. “What now?”
She was mad about something. “Hard day at school?”
“School has nothing to do with it. Have those two demons gone home yet?”
Amy appeared behind Debra. “Brian pulled the head off my doll.”
Rachel looked up from the top bunk. “And Danny tore a page out of one of my books.”
Debra leaned on the door frame. “I know this is how Mom is paying the bills but it’s horrible.”
I felt bad, not just because of the damage the boys had caused, but for the boys, too. “Maybe they don’t know how to play with stuff. Maggie said they used to have to go to a daycare. You guys will have to be good role models for them.”
Debra closed her eyes. “Just don’t give that speech to Sam.”
My stomach started to hurt. “Oh boy. What happened?”
Mom called from the kitchen. Debra pointed down the hall toward the bathroom and Amy marched out between us. “I wasn’t here when it happened but I guess Brian broke one of Sam’s cars. He was crying so hard when I got home that Mom finally put him down for a nap.”
“Thanks for the warning.” I went into our room. At first I thought Sam was asleep but I could hear him sniffling. I knelt down beside the bed. “Hey, Sam. Are you hungry? Dinner is ready.”
He pulled the blanket over his head. “Don’t want any.”
I gently unwrapped him. Even in the dim light I could see the tears brimming in his eyes. “What’s all this about?”
His bottom lip trembled. “Brian killed the red car.”
That hurt. I pulled him into my arms. “Come on. We’ll look at it later. Maybe I can fix it.” He let me carry him to the bathroom. We washed our hands and headed for the kitchen.
Mom, Mr. Carole, and another man in a suit were talking in the living room. Mom pointed to the kitchen. “Everything is on the table. Can you keep an eye on them for me?”
“No problem.” I took Sam in and put him in his plastic riser.
I could hear Mom asking questions. The new guy was a lawyer. “I’ve spent the day looking into the case. I even spoke with Mr. Davis this afternoon. I believe there is sufficient evidence to prove that the accident was not your husband’s fault.”
There wasn’t much recycling today so I decided it wasn’t worth the trip. I sorted it out and shoved the few things from the list into the back corner of the closet. I took the rest down to the bin and took my regular route to school. I ate breakfast and went to my locker.
Charlie tapped me on the shoulder. He was grinning. “We made the paper!”
He handed me a section of the Tribune. At the very top was a picture of the ball field at the Park. Our snowman wasn’t alone anymore. I started to laugh. “Looks like he picked up a team.”
Charlie took it back. “I want to show it to Ms. Mack. My dad said he’d get a couple of extra copies of the paper for us. I’ll bring one for you tomorrow.”
I felt so much better, not just because our snowman had earned a spot in the paper, but I’d gotten my best friend back. Charlie was his old self again. “I wonder if anyone will roll up the opposing team?”
Charlie grinned. “Now that would be funny. Maybe we could make some colored water and spray some uniforms on them.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Cubs or Socks?”
Charlie matched my glare. “Cubs, of course!”
“Sounds good to me.”
Our good mood was contagious. Charlie shared the picture with everyone in Biology and study hall. When the bell rang, he practically jumped out of his chair. “I can’t wait to hear what Ms. Mack says!”
“You’ll have to tell me at lunch.” We parted and I headed for music.
Mr. Hansen was carrying several large suitcases into the classroom from the joining band room. Maybe we were going to get a chance to play some real instruments! He set one of them on his desk. “Would you like to help me set them up?”
“Sure. What kind of instruments are they?”
He opened the first case. “This is a professional set of concert hand bells. Because the class did so well with the smaller ones, I decided to borrow these from the Philharmonic Symphony.” He handed me a pair of white gloves. “You’ll need to wear these.”
I was a little disappointed. At least until I began setting the bells on the table. They were beautiful. “Can I test one?”
“Be my guest.”
I tilted one of the larger bells. The sound was amazing, deep, rich, and clear. “This is so cool.”
He smiled. “I believed you played middle C yesterday.” He pointed to the bell.
I rang it. “Wow. What a beautiful sound.”
Others were coming into the classroom and moving around the tables, looking at the bells. Mr. Hansen gave everyone a pair of gloves and directed them to find the same bell note that they had used the previous day.
Christy came in. I smiled at her. “Check these out!”
She came over. “They are beautiful.” She started to reach for the bell.
“Wait a minute.” I handed her the gloves. “We have to wear these first.”
She put them on and carefully picked up the D-note. Her reflection and mine seemed to merge across the shiny surface. “Are we going to use these for the Bell Carol we worked on yesterday?”
Mr. Hansen got everyone’s attention. “I was so impressed by your progress yesterday that I’ve asked Ms. Kelso if this class can preform the Bell Carol in Friday’s assembly.”
There were some gasps around the room. I knew the band and choral ensemble were performing. To be included in an assembly was special. We set our music on stands and started practicing.
Toward the end of class, Ms. Kelso stepped in the door. She stood listening as we reviewed a challenging section. When we finished, she clapped her hands. “That is incredible! This will be a fantastic addition to the assembly.”
We ran through the entire song a couple more times and learned how to put the bells away in their cases. Mr. Hansen was beaming. “I’m so proud of all of you. This is a real accomplishment. Give yourselves a big thumbs up!”
We all did. The entire class was walking on air as we left the room. I could hardly wait to tell Charlie. “I’ve never been part of an assembly before.”
Christy sighed. “I wanted to last year but I got sick and couldn’t go.”
“What were you going to do?”
Her cheeks turned a light pink. “I wrote a poem in English class that Mr. Sax really liked and he put me on the list to read it.”
“I’m not sure I’d want to go up on stage all by myself. I’d rather be with a group.”
I saw the movement out of the corner of my eye. It was like the world went into slow motion. Paul came from the other side of Christy. His foot swiped out, intersecting hers. She went forward. I reached for her but I wasn’t fast enough. She hit the floor.
Paul was gone. He’d melted back into the crowd headed for the cafeteria.
I kept another student from stepping on her. “Christy, are you okay?”
She groaned and rolled to her side. “I’m not sure. My ankle hurts.”
Ms. Mack pushed her way through the students who had enclosed us. “Move along, folks. You all have places to be.”
I knelt next to Christy and helped her sit up. “Maybe you should let the nurse take a look at it.”
She rubbed it. “It’s probably nothing.”
I could hear the pain in her tone. I told Ms. Mack. She was concerned, too, and called the nurse on her radio. She made sure the rest of the bystanders left.
The nurse hurried toward us. She crouched on the other side of Christy. They started talking about her ankle. Someone tapped my shoulder. I looked up and found the principal standing next to me. Ms. Kelso motioned for me to follow her. I turned back to Christy. “You going to be okay?”
Tears were welling in her eyes. “I think so.”
I got up and followed Ms. Kelso a short distance away. I was trying to decide if I was in trouble. She wasn’t smiling. “What happened, Micah?”
I suddenly felt like a giant hand was crushing my chest. Nobody liked a tattler. “We were headed for lunch and someone came from the other hallway. He kicked Christy in the foot and kept going.”
She gave a deep sigh. “What is wrong with some of these students? Thank you for helping her. Maybe others can learn a lesson from your compassion.”
She let me go. I went back to see how Christy was doing. She was now sitting in a chair but she was shaking. I touched her arm. “Hey, so what did the nurse say?”
Christy looked up at me. She looked like a different person without her glasses. She was holding them. The lenses had fogged. “She’s worried that it might be broken. She’s talking to my mom.”
This black hole began swirling inside of me. “I’m sorry. This is my fault.”
She took my hand. “You can’t blame yourself for what other people do.”
The nurse was headed back in our direction. I squeezed Christy’s fingers and let go of her hand. “No, but now I wish I would have told the principal who had done it. If it is broken, you can bet I’m going to. I don’t care what Paul does to me later.”
The nurse rested her hand on Christy’s shoulder. “Your mother will be here in a bit to pick you up. I called the office to bring up the wheel chair. We don’t want to put any pressure on that foot.” She looked at me. “Thank you for staying with her, Micah. At least no one else stepped on her. That could have made it worse. You’d better head for lunch. There isn’t much time left.”
I looked down at Christy. “Good luck. I hope it’s not broken. That would be a bummer. I can at least get your assignments for you.”
She managed a smile. “Thanks.”
I went into the cafeteria and got a tray. I only had about ten minutes left so I didn’t take much. I saw Charlie sitting across from Paul and made my way over to the table. I sat next to Charlie. I didn’t even look at Paul.
Charlie looked confused. “Where have you been?”
I gave Paul my best evil glare. “What, didn’t you brag about you’re stupid stunt?”
Paul tried to match my glare but fell short. “I suppose you told on me, huh?”
“Not yet. But if her ankle is broken, I’m going to.”
Charlie gasped. “Who’s ankle?”
I ignored both of them and ate the chicken sandwich. I looked over at Paul. He didn’t look back. The bell rang. I finished off the food and took my tray back. I headed for Geometry.
Charlie caught up with me. “What did Paul do?”
“He kicked Christy in the foot so hard that it might be broken. Her mom has to come pick her up. She’ll probably have to get x-rays.”
We went in. Without Christy there, I moved to my regular seat in the back. Charlie followed and sat next to me. He was quiet all through class.
English was rough. Ms. Fillmore spent half of the period talking about holiday words from around the world and how they ended up in American English. She gave us the last half of the period to work on our essay.
I sat staring at the paper for a while. I had no idea where to start. Ms. Fillmore wandered around the room and eventually paused at my desk. “Having trouble getting started?”
All I could do was nod. My throat had closed up. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t swallow it down.
She leaned on my desk. “What was the best part of Christmas last year?”
My eyes burned and it got hard for me to see. I felt the tear and wiped at it before it got very far. I shook my head. “I’m sorry. I just don’t think I can do this.” All I managed was a whisper.
She dropped her voice. “Micah, have you spoken to a counselor about it?”
I shook my head. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to some stranger. I couldn’t even explain how I was feeling to my best friend.
She patted my shoulder and walked away. I slumped forward and hid my face in my arms. I could hear the kid in the next row whispering. He knew I was crying. My ears started to feel too hot.
Charlie poked him in the back. “Give him a break, dude. His dad just died a couple of weeks ago.” The kids went silent. I felt Charlie’s tap. “Why don’t you write about Sam and his reindeer wish?”
I wiped my face on my sleeve and looked over at him. “I don’t think that would fit the assignment.”
He shrugged. “It would be something.”
I picked up my pencil and thought about the reindeer. The words began spilling out onto my paper. I had filled several pages by the time the bell rang. I pushed the loose sheets into my folder. “Thanks, Charlie.”
He shrugged. “I have band practice again this afternoon.”
We started for the door. “I never got a chance to tell you. Our music class will be in Friday’s assembly, too.”
He looked surprised. “Really? Doing what?”
“Playing the Bell Carol on these really cool hand bells.”
His face wrinkled. “Sounds interesting. Well, see you tomorrow.”
He went one way and I went the other. Ms. Mack had the paper with the article about our snowman tacked up on the board. I stared at it. What had happened today? The morning had been so awesome. Now I felt like a wet rag.
I made it through class and headed for my locker. I stared at my books. I didn’t feel like doing any of my homework. I sighed and dumped the Biology and Geometry books into my backpack. I pulled on my coat and slapped the locker door closed.
Paul was standing right there. I ignored him. I picked up my backpack and walked out of school. The sky looked the way I felt. A snowball smacked the back of my head. “Go away, Paul.” I just kept walking.
I got to the corner by the Antique Shop. Paul was no where to be seen. I crossed the street and looked in the window. The reindeer seemed to look back at me. The old man was at the counter talking to a customer. I didn’t see Christy. That worried me.
I walked home. By the time I got to our building, flakes had begun to drift downward. The sidewalk was still clear. I went upstairs and walked into a war zone. Mom was struggling to pull Danny away from Sam.
Danny was screaming. “Mine!” at the top of his lungs.
Sam had his favorite stuffed dog clenched in his arms. He was crying.
I dropped my backpack and grabbed up Sam. My little brother curled into me with his damp face plastered to my neck. He was still sobbing.
Mom had pulled Danny into her arms. He was still shrieking. “Danny, that’s enough. That toy belongs to Sam. Your toys are in the box.”
Danny pointed up at the stuffed animal. “I want!”
Mom gently pulled his hands down. “You can’t have Sam’s dog. That’s his. Let’s go look in the toy box for one of your stuffed animals.”
Sam had finally quieted. “How about I take Sam into our room?”
Mom looked worn thin. “Thank you, Micah. I have no idea where Brian went.”
I snagged my backpack. “I’ll see if I can track him down.” I carried Sam into our room.
Brian was sitting at Sam’s art table. The table looked slanted. He had a fist clamped around several crayons and he was smashing them against the top of the table.
Sam whimpered. I dropped my backpack and put Sam down on his bed. “You hang out here with Rolly while I evict Brian.”
Sam’s eyes overflowed. “My Rolly.” He buried his face in the cloth body of the dog.
I went over to Brian and caught his hand before it could make contact with the table again. He looked at me in surprise. I didn’t let go. “That is not the way to use crayons.” I pried his fingers open. The blunted remains scattered across the floor.
His face scrunched up. “I don’t like you!”
“Well, we mutually agree on something.” I led him out of the room and got him back into the living room. Mom had gotten Danny focused on some strange plastic toy. “Here’s the other one.”
She pulled a bulky plastic airplane out of the toy box and handed it to Brian. He took it and began pushing it around on the floor. She got up. “Where was he?”
I pulled off my coat. “In our room.”
The phone rang and mom went to answer it. It was Mrs. Keller. Mom looked relieved. “Great. I’ll have them ready by the time you get here.”
“Their mom’s coming?”
She closed her eyes and nodded. “I had no idea it would be so hard to watch two more boys. It was never this hard with the girls, even when Sam was a baby.”
“Speaking of, I’d better go see how he’s doing. You got these two?”
“I’ll manage. Maggie should be back with the girls soon. She took them to the library. There was a special Christmas program there this afternoon.”
“Cool. I’ll be with Sam if you need me.” I went back into our room.
Sam was standing by his art table. His face streamed with tears. He looked up at me. “Brian killed my art desk.”
I knelt beside him. Splinters of wood poked through the white bandage tape. I pulled him into my arms. “The good news is that Miss Maggie will be here soon. She’s a nurse at a hospital. I bet she can make your art desk all better again.”
Sam hugged me. “Why do they have to be here?”
“Because their mom has to work somewhere. They can’t stay home by themselves. That wouldn’t be good. Would it?”
Sam shook his head. “I wish they could stay somewhere else.”
I closed my eyes and rocked him slowly. I knew how much Mom needed the money from this job. “I guess no one ever taught them how to be nice to other people’s stuff. Maybe we could help them with that.”
I heard voices in the living room. “Hey, maybe the girls are back.” I carried him out.
The boys were gone but Mom wasn’t talking to Maggie or the girls. There was a man in a suit. I’d seen him before. He’d come to tell Mom that the company wasn’t going to pay her death benefits.
Mom was faced off with him. “I’m sorry, Mr. Trulin, but I was told by one of John’s friends that the accident wasn’t John’s fault. I felt I had no choice but to get the help of a lawyer.”
Mr. Trulin had a droopy face. He pulled something out of an inner pocket and handed it to Mom. “The company is deeply sadden for your loss. They really don’t want to have to take this to court. Even though the insurance isn’t willing to pay out benefits, the company is willing to cover a settlement.”
Mom looked at the piece of paper he’d given her. “This is a very generous offer, Mr. Trulin.” She handed it back to him. “But I can’t accept it. My lawyer has assured me that he has more than enough evidence to convince the court that John was not at fault. I would think your company would be relieved. It will save them money if the insurance has to make the payments.”
Mr. Trulin’s mouth twisted in a funny way. “I wish you would reconsider. Court fees add up so fast, especially if a case drags on. This would eliminate all of that.”
The front door opened and almost smacked into the man’s back. He jumped out of the way as Amy and Rachel flew into the room. They must not have even seen him. They ran up to Mom and encircled her. Amy was giggling. “It was so much fun, Mamma. I wish you could have come, too.”
Maggie and Debra came in. Debra was carrying a pizza box. She headed for the kitchen. Maggie noticed Mr. Trulin. “Sorry, Jen. I didn’t realize you had company.”
Mom told the girls to go get cleaned up. “It’s okay, Maggie. He was just leaving.” She held out her hand. “I’m sure I’ll see you again, sir. Most likely in court.”
I was relieved to discover more bags of recycling this morning. I quickly sorted it, dumped the stuff I couldn’t use, and hurried over to the recycling center. The air was biting cold but I moved fast enough to keep from feeling it.
The lady behind the counter looked up as I entered. “Hey, missed you yesterday.”
I dumped the bags into bins. “Didn’t have enough to make the trip worth it. Coming here adds a few extra blocks to my route to school.”
She weighed everything and handed me a couple of dollars and some change. “Earning some extra for Christmas?”
I pocketed the money. “I’m trying to buy a special present for my brother.”
She leaned on the counter. “The latest game or some new hot toy?”
I headed for the door. “Neither. He wants a reindeer.” I pushed out into the cold. I expected to hear her laughing behind me but she didn’t.
Breakfast warmed me. I headed for my locker. I heard some kids laughing down a different hallway and turned to see what was going on. Christy was coming down the hall on crutches.
I turned down the hall and met her halfway. “How bad is it?”
She tried to smile. “It’s not broken. The pins held. I can’t walk on it for a couple of weeks.”
She moved toward a wall. “It was broken before. They had to put pins in to put it back together. I don’t remember much of it. I was only three when it happened.”
“That’s terrible. Did you have a bad fall?”
“I was in a car accident.”
The dots lined up. “The same one that messed up your vision?”
She nodded. “I’d better get going. I’m trying to get to class before the first bell rings. I don’t want to get caught in the mad dash.”
I glanced at my watch. “I have to get my books from my locker but I can walk with you to your class first.”
Her cheeks turned pink. “I go pretty slow.”
I didn’t care. I walked her to her English class then hurried to grab my Biology books. I came in the door as the last bell rang.
Charlie looked up from his seat. “What took you so long?”
“I walked with Christy to her class first.”
Charlie stared at me. “You walked with her?”
I opened my notebook. “Thanks to Paul, she’s on crutches. It’s a good thing nothing was broken or Paul would be in a whole lot of trouble.”
Charlie never got a chance to say anything. Mr. Witten started the lesson. After class, I hurried toward Christy’s English classroom. She had just come out of the room as I got there. She was fighting with her backpack. I grabbed the strap. “Let me carry that for you.”
She surrendered it. “These things are a menace. I’ve seen other kids on crutches but I never realized how hard it was.”
I walked with her to the art wing. “I have to get to Study Hall. See you after class.”
Charlie frowned as I slipped into my desk right with the bell. “Where did you disappear to?”
I didn’t feel like trying to explain it. “Just had something to do. Hey, have you worked on the Biology packet yet?”
Charlie reluctantly turned to homework. At the end of the period, I gathered everything together and watched the clock. His face morphed through emotions and settled on confusion. “Why are you in such a hurry? Your next class is just down the hall?”
The bell rang. “I have to do something first.” I dropped my books in my locker and went back to the art wing.
Christy looked surprised. “Are you really going to walk with me between all my classes?”
“Does it help?”
She laughed. “Yeah, it does.”
Music was challenging for her. The concert bells were a lot heavier than the regular ones. Mr. Hansen let her sit down but it made it hard for her to see him over the music stand. Since we shared the same music, I lowered the stand.
We left music together and walked toward the cafeteria. She paused at a corner. “Are you sure you want to help me with lunch? I get the feeling your friends don’t exactly like me.”
“I don’t care what Paul thinks and Charlie will come around.” At least he always had in the past.
It took Christy a while to get to the cafeteria. By the time we got there, Charlie and Paul were way ahead of us in the lunch line. I carried both her tray and mine to an empty table. The guys were a couple of tables away. Charlie looked up and saw me. His expression stuck in shock mode.
Paul turned around to see what was going on. He started snickering. I didn’t care. I focused on my lunch. I was almost done when I noticed Paul headed in our direction. He stopped next to me. “Why are you sitting with Bottle Eyes?”
I ignored him. My tray and Christy’s were both empty. “Are you done with that?”
Christy handed me her tray. I got up but Paul blocked my way. His face curled into a sinister snarl. “So, this is how you treat your friends.”
“If you are putting yourself in that category, you’re mistaken.” I held up the trays. “This is how I treat my friends. Just ask Charlie about the time he broke his arm.”
I had noticed Charlie watching everything. I saw him look down. He’d gotten the message. He got up and came over. He grabbed Paul’s arm. “Come on. Lunch is almost over.”
Paul’s snarl turned into a vicious grin. “Yeah, who wants to hang with a loser anyway. See you around, Dork.”
I walked the other way and added the trays to a stack. Paul and Charlie were gone when I came back. Christy pulled a bag from her backpack. “My grandma made some cookies last night.” She extracted one from the bag and held it toward me.
The white-frosted gingerbread man was colorfully decorated with tiny pieces of candy. “He almost looks too cute to eat.”
She bit the arm of hers. “I used to feel that way when I was little but they taste to good for their cuteness to protect them.”
We finished the cookies and headed for Geometry. Charlie was already there. He was sitting in his usual spot in the back. Christy sat in front and I took the seat behind her. Charlie didn’t say anything.
After class was over, I looked down the hall. “Where do you go next?”
“I have Earth Science.”
I was impressed. “You didn’t have to take Biology?”
“I took it last year. I didn’t have to take general science because the middle school I’d gone to had already covered those topics.”
I left her at the door and hurried to swap out my books. The bell rang as I slipped into English class. Ms. Fillmore seemed surprised. “Is everything okay, Micah?”
“I was just helping someone get to class first.”
She smiled. “I saw you help Christy this morning. That’s nice of you.”
I knew Charlie and Paul were both watching me. My ears started to burn. “I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I wrote on a slightly different topic for my essay. It’s actually about this Christmas instead of last year.”
“Do you have a rough draft?”
I pulled it out of my notebook and moved to my seat. Paul exaggerated his shocked expression. “What’s this? You’re actually sitting here? With us?”
“I’m sitting next to Charlie. You just happen to be there.”
Ms. Fillmore split the period again. Since she’d taken my essay, I really didn’t have anything else to work on the second half. I started reading from the packet of Christmas poems that she’d passed out at the beginning of class. Someone had written the classic story of the Little Match Girl into poem format. We had that story in our book at home. I’d never liked it because the girl died at the end. Whoever had written the poem must have felt the same way because it ended differently:
But on that street, in the dark of night. An open door shed its light.
Helping hands reached out with care, And welcomed in that orphan there.
When that Christmas morning dawned, The Match Girl gave a dreamy yawn.
There before her stood a fir, Ringed with presents just for her.
The bell rang and startled me. I tucked the packet into my notebook and headed for the door. Ms. Fillmore stopped me by her desk. She handed me my essay draft. “I think this is a perfect start. How will it end?”
I took the paper. “I don’t know. I’m still trying to get enough money to buy the reindeer.”
I walked with Christy to history class. She was quiet. We sat down. She was flipping the edges of her notebook. “You know that question you asked last week about how can we tell what news today will be history in the future?”
I looked at the articles we had stuck on a board. “Yeah, events that affect a lot of people.”
She sighed. “The events we were talking about last period affect people and they don’t even know it. Right now, those events are affecting polar bears and penguins. People aren’t really paying attention yet.”
“Is it in the news?”
She pulled a paper from her backpack. “Mr. Kramer gave it to me.”
I stared at the picture that went with the article. A lonely polar bear sat with his head slumped forward on a beach. The caption read, “Got ice?”
Christy gave the paper to Ms. Mack and we spent most of the class period talking about the news that people don’t read, even though it’s out there and important.
I walked with Christy to the front door and waited with her until a van pulled up. She looked at me. “Thanks for the help today.” She hobbled to the van and got in. I could see the lady in the driver’s seat. She looked a lot like Christy. The van drove away. I noticed the license plate was one of the special handicapped ones.
I walked home alone. Charlie had band practice again. It felt even colder than it had in the morning. I paused by the Park and decided to go see our snowman. I walked along La Salle Drive toward the ball field. As it came into view, I noticed people walking through at least fifty snowmen. Not only had someone created the opposite team, but there were other snowmen watching on the sidelines. It was great!
I got to our block as the Keller boys followed their mom down the walkway from our building toward a waiting car. I was relieved. I waved at them as they drove away. I went upstairs.
Mom was in the kitchen. She leaned around the corner as I hung up my coat. “Everything okay? I was starting to get worried. You’re pretty late.”
“Sorry, I had to stop at the Park and see the game.”
I told her about the snowmen. “Charlie and I never expected that.”
“That’s the best kind of gift.”
Someone knocked on the door. Mom was stirring noodles. I got up from the chair. “I’ll get it.”
I peeked through the hole. “It’s Mr. Davis.” I opened the door and let him in.
“Hey, Micah. Is your mom around?”
“She’s in the kitchen.”
I followed him. Mom was draining the noodles. “Hi, Jim. I’m just putting dinner on. Would you care to join us?”
“Wish I could but I just stopped in on my way home to see how you were doing.”
Mom looked at me. “Micah, could you get Sam and the girls ready for dinner?”
“Sure, Mom.” I moved toward the bedrooms. I could hear Mom telling him about the lawyer and Mr. Trulin’s visit.
Debra took charge of the girls and I went in to get Sam. He was sitting at his repaired art table drawing with some new crayons. He held one up. “Look at what Brian’s mamma gave me.”
I hugged him. “I see you’ve been busy with them already. Nice picture. Mom has dinner ready. Why don’t we wash up those fingers and you can tell me about your picture.”
The girls left the bathroom and I helped Sam up onto the stool. He chattered away about his picture of toys at the North Pole. I knew the theme. We went into the kitchen. I lifted Sam into his chair. He waved at Mr. Davis.
Mom brought the pot of spaghetti to the table. “He offered to settle out of court. It was a lot of money. I’m not sure if I did the right thing.”
Mr. Davis had a concerned look. “Was it a company check?”
“Looked like it. At least it said Gordon Shipping on the top.”
He sighed. “Then it’s a good thing you didn’t take it. Gordon Shipping just declared bankruptcy today.”
I walked the entire building. There were only two bags of recycling and most of it was not on the list. I kept the few pieces and took the rest down to the bin. There was a light dusting of snow on the walkway but Mr. Anderson hadn’t put out the shovel.
The walk to school seemed bleak. The sky looked red. I knew it was just the lights of the city reflected on the clouds but it felt oppressive. Scattered flakes drifted down as I slipped into school. There were a few other kids headed for the cafeteria. They looked hunched over. It was like the sky outside was pressing down on everyone inside.
I hung up my coat and left my backpack in my locker. I decided to carry my Biology stuff so I wouldn’t have to come back after I walked Christy to English. At least the breakfast was good.
The first bell rang and I headed out, not sure where I was going to find her. It turned out to be easier than I thought. I just followed Derek’s voice. He was taunting her about the crutches. “Bottles for eyes and sticks for legs. What kind of creature is it?”
I wanted to smack him. I pushed through the other kids and put myself between him and Christy. “I bet you’re on the naughty list. Maybe you should find a way to correct that.”
He glared at me. “Are you a sissy boy who still believes in Santa Claus?”
“Hard not to when he lives next door.” I held out my hand and Christy gave me her backpack. We started down the hall toward the science wing. The other kids moved off toward their lockers leaving Derek standing alone.
Christy stopped at her locker. “Santa lives next door?”
I was concerned by her tone. “Uh, yeah. Sort of. The guy who lives next door dresses up like Santa every year. Looks just like a Santa, too. Has the white beard and hair. He even has the jolly laugh.”
She forced a smile. “Must be a sign of climate change. Santa has moved from the North Pole to Chicago.”
She sounded like she was going to cry. “Is your foot hurting bad this morning?”
She shut her locker. Her eyes looked glassy. “It’s not my foot. Someone came into the shop last night. He was interested in the reindeer.”
My throat closed up. I struggled to swallow it down. We moved down the hall toward English. I paused at the door. “Did it get sold?”
She shook her head. “My grandpa said if you didn’t come in for it tomorrow, he is going to have to sell it to someone else.”
A black hole started swirling around me. “I’ve only got thirty two dollars so far. I’ve been trying everything to come up with more.”
The bell rang. She put a hand on my arm. “You’re going to be late. You’d better get to class.”
Ms. Fillmore came to the door. “Micah, where are you supposed to be?”
Reality shook me. “Biology. Sorry. I’d better run.”
Mrs. Fillmore handed me a hall pass. “Hurry now.”
I knew we weren’t supposed to run in the halls. I walked as fast as I could back to the Science wing. I went into class, handed Mr. Witten the hall pass, and dropped into my seat.
Charlie stared at me. “I thought you were coming early?”
I opened my notebook. “Long story.”
Mr. Witten gave us a little time at the end of class to work on the packets. I finished mine. The bell rang. Mr. Witten reminded us about tomorrow. “It’s going to be a short period because of assembly in the afternoon. Fortunately it will be a short test, too.”
I dropped my packet on his desk and headed down the hall. Christy was already stumbling toward the art wing when I caught up with her. She looked uncertain. “Did you get in trouble?”
I took her backpack. “No. Mr. Witten took the hall pass and didn’t say anything.” I left her in the ceramics room and made it to study hall before the bell. I dropped into my seat.
Charlie frowned at me. “Are you walking Christy to all of her classes?”
“Do you remember when you broke your arm? Those first few days you couldn’t do much with it because it hurt too much.”
Charlie stared at the Biology packet. “That wasn’t much fun.”
I opened my notebook. “Neither is trying to get around school on crutches with a backpack full of books. She doesn’t have time to get to her locker between classes.”
Charlie didn’t say anything. He started working on the packet. I turned back to my Biology notes and tried to guess what would be on the test.
Music class lifted the gloom that had settled on me. The Bell Carol sounded so cool. We were working toward perfection. At the end of the period I put away our bells. “I can’t wait until tomorrow. This is going to be awesome!”
Even Christy managed a real smile. “I wish my family could come to the assembly but they are all working.”
“My mom has to work, too. She’s babysitting these boys from down the street. They are little terrors!”
The bell rang and we moved toward the cafeteria. There were decorations on the walls and some strung from the ceiling. A big paper sign on one wall read, “A gift from the Class of 2017.”
Christy looked around the room. “How pretty. We’ll have to remember this for our Senior year. It’s a cool idea.”
We got into line. “They must have done this the first few periods of the morning. It wasn’t like this at breakfast.”
Christy picked out the items she wanted for lunch and I carried our trays to a table. I held the chair for her. She grinned. “You are such a gentleman.”
I sat across from her. “Just something I got from my dad, I guess. He always did stuff like that. Not just for my mom but for my sisters and even random ladies at stores.”
Christy sighed. “Sounds like my dad. He’s like that, too.”
We ate quietly. I was almost done when I looked up and realized Paul was staring at us. I dreaded another confrontation with him but it never came. I was relieved.
We moved into the afternoon. Geometry was kind of fun. We were measuring the angles of Christmas trees. Charlie informed me at the end of English that he had band practice again. “I’ll be glad when the assembly is over tomorrow. I’m starting to hate these songs.”
Paul had been unusually quiet during class. As the bell rang he glared at me. “Off to walk Bottle Eyes to her next class?”
I moved toward the door. Paul followed me. As I got to the front of the room, he shoved me in the back. “Oops.”
I went forward but caught myself on the corner of Ms. Fillmore’s desk. A stack of papers slid to the floor. Ms. Fillmore turned to face us. “What’s going on here?”
My face felt like it was on fire. I scooped up the papers and put them back. “Sorry. I must have tripped.”
Paul snickered. I glanced back. Charlie was behind him. At least he wasn’t laughing.
Ms. Fillmore wasn’t either. “Paul, did you have something to do with this?”
Paul’s face went blank. He put on an innocent look. “No, he tripped.”
I shook my head and went out. I didn’t even look back. I met Christy by her locker. She had grabbed her coat. “Are you leaving early?”
She closed her locker. “No, I just didn’t want to come back here for it after history.” She frowned. “Are you okay, Micah?”
I took a deep breath and tried to rearrange my expression to something less angry. “Sorry. Paul and I had a run in. No big deal.”
We got an interesting lesson on the history of Santa Claus based on newspaper articles. I’d never considered that a fictional character might make the news. It was surprising and in some cases, hilarious.
The bell rang and we headed out of class. I’d been turning things over in my mind all day. “I don’t know what to do about the reindeer. There’s no way I can come up with that much money by tomorrow.”
Christy squeezed my arm. “Maybe I can ask for an advance. I don’t get paid until the end of the month but my grandpa might let me take a little out early.”
“I can’t ask you to do that. You need that money for your new glasses.”
I held the door open for her. The van was waiting. She shrugged. “It’s not that much.” She took her backpack and got into the van.
I waved as she drove off. I was doing some mental math in my head when a snowball splatted across the side of my face. It stung. I turned to stare at Paul. “Knock it off!” I went back in and headed for my locker.
Ms. Kelso called my name. I sighed and turned around. She was frowning. Was I in trouble? “Could you join me in my office, Micah?”
I groaned but followed her through the glass doors into the offices. Ms. Sanders looked up from the front desk as I passed. She made a brushing motion at her shoulder and pointed at me. I felt my shoulder and found the lingering snow. I dumped it into a trash can and hurried to catch up with the principal.
Ms. Kelso paused at her door and motioned for me to proceed. She shut the door behind her. “I know things have been difficult for you lately. Several of your teachers are concerned about you.”
I dropped into the chair in front of her desk. “I really don’t want to talk to a counselor about it. I don’t feel comfortable talking to people I don’t know.”
She sat in her own chair. “Then how about talking to me. I know you’ve been helping Christy Dickenson around school. I hope it’s not because you feel guilty over her ankle.”
I studied the top of her desk. Paul was already giving me grief. I didn’t want more. “I just feel bad for her. I can tell it hurts. I saw her struggling with her backpack and just wanted to help.”
“Is that why Paul Rodriguez threw a snowball in your face?”
I bit my lip. I didn’t know what to say. I’ve learned that grownups always twist stuff to fit their own ideas. I just sat there, listening to the clock on the wall tick.
She sighed. “I know you don’t want to get him in trouble but he’s doing just fine on his own. I had several other students tell me he was the one who kicked Christy.”
My face started to burn. “It was my fault. He did it because I was walking with her.” I felt a few pounds lighter.
Ms. Kelso sat back in her chair and laced her fingers. “Mr. Russel told me Christy had started helping you with your geometry. Is that Paul’s issue?”
It wasn’t that simple but I had no way to explain that. Paul had been a pain from day one. This was just his way of trying to push me completely away from Charlie. I knew she wanted some kind of an answer. “Paul has a lot of issues. It’s not really about Christy. It’s me. She’s just a new way for him to bug me.”
She leaned forward. “Micah, I don’t think you’re the problem at all. I think you are one of the kindest students I’ve ever seen at this school. It’s okay to admit that Paul is the problem.”
My eyes started to burn. “I’m sorry. I really do have to get home. My mom worries if I’m late.”
She stood up. “Just think about it. If you need help with Paul, don’t be afraid to ask.”
I escaped from her office. I got my coat and backpack from my locker and hurried outside. A snowplow rumbled by pushing a curling wave of fresh snow. I looked around. There had been a lot falling during the day. I’d have a sidewalk to shovel.
I headed for home. Everything the principal said rolled around in my mind. I wished it was that easy but when it came to Paul, I knew no one else was going to solve the problem. They would more likely make it worse. Grownups never got that. They got involved and life became hell.
I paused at the corner across from the shop. I didn’t have enough to buy the reindeer yet. It was snowing again. Maybe I could ask Mr. Anderson for a raise. I hurried home.
The snow shovel was waiting for me. I dropped my backpack and started on the walkway. I discovered the earlier snow had turned to ice under the new layers. I scraped away at it. A car pulled up and Mrs. Keller got out. She paused. “Is that you, Micah?”
I stood up, grateful for a chance to stretch. “Yes, mam. You should probably walk on that side of the walkway. I’m still fighting with the ice on this side.”
She smiled at me. “Thank you for the warning.” She hurried past.
I went back to work. She and the boys came down a few minutes later. Brian was in tears. Mrs. Keller was pulling him along. He tried to stop but slid across the icy sidewalk. Then he tried to sit down. “I didn’t mean to.”
She just pulled him along. She paused when she got to me. “I’m so sorry my boys are so naughty.” She looked at them. “Santa doesn’t bring presents to naughty boys.”
Both of them looked terrified. Brian began to wail. She pulled them to the car and stuffed them inside. She got in and drove away.
I finally got the last area of ice to break free. I worried what I was going to find upstairs. I brought the shovel back inside.
Mr. Anderson came out of his apartment. “You were really working on that. I could tell it was fighting back.” He handed me a five dollar bill. “You earned it.”
I handed him the shovel. “Thank you, sir. It looks like it might keep snowing for awhile. If you leave the shovel out, I’ll clear the sidewalk before I leave for school in the morning. That way it won’t turn to ice.”
His smile took over his face. He leaned the shovel in the corner. “You’re a good kid, Micah.”
I said good evening to him, grabbed my backpack, and headed upstairs.
The apartment was quiet. I peered around the corner into the kitchen. Everyone was eating. Mom looked at me. “That must have been some tough snow.”
I pulled off my coat. “There was a layer of ice under it. I had to scrape it off. I don’t want anyone to slip.”
Mom dished out some food on my plate. I sat down and started eating. Mom kept watching me. She finished her dinner. “I got a call from Ms. Kelso this afternoon.”
The black hole appeared and started sucking me toward the center of darkness. I controlled my voice. “About what?”
“She wanted to know if I was coming to the assembly. It seems you’re going to be in it.”
The black hole wavered. “Yeah, our music class is playing the Bell Carol.”
Debra looked over at me. “Playing it? On what?”
Mom hid her smile behind her napkin. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
The black hole fizzed out. “I figured it didn’t matter. You’re kind of busy.”
Mom sighed. “I’d still like to know.”
Someone knocked on the door. The girls all froze. Rachel looked ready to make a run for it. Mom got up. “Finish up your dinner.” She disappeared.
We all listened as she answered the door. Debra and I relaxed. Rachel looked uncertain. “Who’s that?”
Debra finished her peas. “It’s the lawyer who is helping Mom.”
I could hear them talking in the living room. The lawyer sounded happy. “The subpoena came through. Not only did I get the surveillance video but I got the repair log that John had submitted. We’ve got it. The mechanic on duty testified that he never looked over that lift after John submitted the work request. Mr. Davis said John asked about the log but the floor supervisor told him it was left in the shop.”
“What about the company going bankrupt? Will that have an impact on the case?”
“No. We’re not going after Gordon Shipping, we’re suing their insurance company. The company admitted that Gordon Shipping was insured by them at the time of the accident. We’ve got everything we need. I’ve got a preliminary trial set for next week.”
Mom leaned into the kitchen and I focused on my plate. She sighed. “How long will it take?”
“If all goes well at the preliminary, it’s more than likely the insurance company will give in. You could have your first payment before the end of the month.”
I got up early. I couldn’t sleep. I laid awake watching the snowflakes fall past our window. I’d have a sidewalk to shovel. I got out of bed and dressed quietly. I took the sock out of the drawer and stuffed it into my pocket. I was up to thirty seven dollars and some change. It wasn’t even close.
I made my rounds of the building. There was only a little more recycling but I decided to take it all in anyway. I shoveled the walkway and headed for the recycling center.
The lady was happy to see me. “Business slows down when it snows. Harder for folks to find stuff.”
She handed me the dollar and change. I was disappointed. I forced a smile. “Hope you have a good day.” I paused at the door. “I don’t know what time you get off but there’s an assembly at the high school this afternoon. There will be a lot of Christmas music.”
She waved. “Thanks, I may just check it out. Have fun!”
I got to school as Ms. Sanders was opening the door. “You’re here early, Micah. Breakfast should be ready soon.” She watched several other students pass by and disappear. “I saw what happened yesterday.”
I didn’t want to be rude. I liked the secretary. “It was no big deal. Thanks for warning me about the snow.”
She gave me a sad smile. “Well, you’ll have a couple weeks off. Maybe Paul will come back with a better attitude after break.”
“I hope so.” I headed for my locker. I shoved my coat inside. Something fell out of the pocket. I picked it up. It was the Ventra card Aunt Sarah had given me. I shoved it back into my pocket and shut my locker.
The cafeteria was cheerful this morning. Someone had added strings of colored lights around the edges of the ceiling. It dispelled some of the normal gloominess of the room. The breakfast was even Christmas themed. The waffles and pancakes were in the shape of Christmas trees and snowmen. Sam would have loved it.
I ate alone, as usual. I didn’t need anything from my locker. I had studied a couple of hours last night and I felt prepared for the test first period. I found Christy at her locker. She was all hunched over. Her eyes looked red. I touched her arm. “Hey, are you okay?”
She wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry, Micah. I tried. I really did.”
I felt like the world was folding in on me. “What happened?”
She didn’t look at me. “My grandpa wouldn’t give me an advance. He gave me some dumb speech and said I should save my money for important things.”
I swallowed down my fear. “I brought all that I have. I’m hoping if I can pay him the thirty nine dollars I have now, he’ll hold the reindeer until I can give him the rest. We still have a week until Christmas.”
She pulled back her hair and tucked it behind her eyes. “I guess you could ask.”
I picked up her backpack. “The first bell is going to ring soon. We should get started.”
She managed a smile. “I really do appreciate your help.”
“It’s what friends do.”
We got to the English room. She took her backpack from me. “Thanks.”
Other kids were pushing past us to get into the classroom. I wished I could say something to make her feel better. “I’ll see you after class.”
“Good luck on the Biology test.”
I hurried down the hall back to the science wing and slipped into the classroom as the bell rang. Charlie was sitting at his desk, flipping through the chapter in the textbook. I sat next to him. “Are you ready?”
Charlie frowned. “Not really. I was up late finishing the packet.” Mr. Witten called for everyone to put their books under their chairs. Charlie slammed his book closed. A piece of news paper went flying. He grabbed it and handed it to me. “I forgot to give this to you yesterday.”
I didn’t have time to look at it. I put it under my desk as the tests got passed out. I started on mine. It turned out to be easy. I was glad I had spent the extra time studying last night. I finished my test and turned it upside-down on my desk.
Mr. Witten came back and picked it up. He left my finished packet on my desk. There was a note across the top in red. Great Work!
I felt better. I remembered the newspaper scrap and retrieved it. I unfolded it and found the snowman article. I smiled. Charlie’s dad had come through. I read the article over a few times before the bell rang. I looked over at Charlie. “Thanks!”
He grinned. “Have you been to the Park lately?”
“I went the other day. There were a lot more snowmen there.”
Charlie handed in his test. “I think we started something pretty cool. Maybe we should add some more this weekend.”
I headed for the door. “I’ll have to see what my Mom has planned. See you in a few.”
I rushed through the crowd. I found Christy fighting her way toward the art wing. I grabbed her backpack. “Sorry it took me so long. There was a pile up at the door. Everyone was turning in their tests.”
She started down the stairs. “These short periods don’t help. I hope the piece I’ve been working on is out of the kiln. I really wanted to be able to take it home today.”
We got to the art room. I gave her the backpack. “See you after class. I have to grab my Geometry from my locker. I’m going to try to finish up the last few problems in study hall.”
She disappeared into the art room. I grabbed the books and went to study hall. Charlie also had his Geometry book. He looked at me as I sat down. “How is Christy doing?”
“She’s having a rough day. I wonder if she’s worried about the assembly.”
“We’ll have to get up on the stage. She really struggles with stairs.”
Charlie looked down at his paper. “I didn’t have that problem with my arm.”
I pulled out the protractor. “No, but you had other issues.”
The study hall monitor gave us a look. We focused on our work. I kept watching the clock. I did manage to finish the worksheet. I trapped it in the textbook and headed out of the room.
Christy was just leaving the art room as I got there. I was relieved to see her smiling. “How did your project turn out?”
“It’s finished. I wrapped it up to protect it. I’ll have to show you later.”
We hurried as fast as she could manage to the music room. There was a note on the door. We were supposed to go to the auditorium. We found Mr. Hansen arranging everyone on the stage. We left our stuff on chairs and I helped Christy up the stairs to the stage. Mr. Hansen set up a chair for Christy. “I’ve told the stage manager about this. He’ll make sure the chair is there for our performance.”
Practicing on the stage was different. The bells echoed in the empty room. We only got a couple of chances to run through it. Christy looked worried. “I just hope it will sound okay. The echoing makes some of the notes overlap.”
Mr. Hansen collected the music. “Don’t worry. It won’t echo as much when there are people in the auditorium.” He got everyone’s attention. “Meet back stage as soon as you are dismissed from your last class.”
We went to Geometry. I helped Christy to her seat. “Seems weird coming here before lunch.”
She put her crutches down on the floor beside our desks. “I know what you mean. My stomach thinks it should be eating even though it’s early. At least we’re only off by one period.”
Charlie came in. I was surprised when he sat behind me instead of going to the back of the room. He pulled out the worksheet. “Did you get the last one?”
“Yeah. Christy showed me the trick to that yesterday.” I pointed out the angle he’d missed.
Class went fast. We handed in our work. I leaned back in my desk and closed my eyes. “Ah, no Geometry for two whole weeks!”
The bell rang. I followed Christy down the hall. Charlie actually walked with us. He looked over at Christy. “Thanks for the help.”
She smiled. “Glad to.”
We got into the lunch line. I looked around. “I haven’t seen Paul at all today.”
Charlie frowned. “Guess you didn’t hear. He called me last night. He got suspended for the day because he beaned someone in the face with a snowball at the end of the day.”
I felt weak. “Did he tell you who he hit?”
Charlie didn’t say anything. Christy looked at me. “Micah, are you okay?”
I was visualizing all the stupid things Paul was going to do to me. We got up to the food. I still had my Geometry stuff. I pulled a tray and balanced it on the books. I picked up a second one. “So, what do you want for lunch?”
Christy was frowning at the selections. “I suppose it’s their idea of a Christmas theme but Reindeer burgers isn’t really my idea of a holiday meal.”
Charlie laughed. “Maybe Grandpa got back at them for taking out Grandma.”
Christy and I both laughed. I pointed to the tree shaped chicken nuggets. “Sound better?”
“Sure, why not.” We each took some fries. I chose a couple of Christmas cookies and found a table. Christy looked up as Charlie paused at the table. “Why don’t you join us?”
Charlie shrugged and sat down. I looked over at him. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell Paul.”
We finished as the bell rang. I walked Christy down to the science wing and hurried back to English. Charlie was sitting in his regular spot. I came and sat next to him. He held up his essay. “How did yours go?”
I looked down at mine. “It was hard to write an ending because I still don’t know what’s going to happen. Christy told me someone else is interested in the reindeer. I only have thirty nine dollars. I’m hoping he’ll hold it for me if I give him that.”
“Like a layaway.”
“Yeah. I left the end kind of vague. I’m sure Ms. Fillmore will scribble all over it.” We turned in our work. Since it was a short class period, Ms. Fillmore spent it talking about the famous poem The Night Before Christmas.
The bell rang and I headed for my locker to swap out books. I met Christy half way to history class. She was quiet. We got to class and she slumped down into the chair. She pointed out the window. “It’s snowing again.”
“Cool. Mr. Anderson actually gave me five dollars last night for shoveling the walk. Between that and the money from recycling, I’m sure I could earn the rest by Christmas.”
History went fast with the short period. Ms. Mack was talking about many of the historical things that happened at the end of December. Near the end of class, she stopped early. “I hope all of you will have a safe holiday, in which ever way you spend it.” She let those who were participating in the assembly go early.
I dumped my books in my locker as we passed. Christy dropped off her backpack. We headed for the auditorium. Mr. Hansen was talking to Ms. Yanke, the other music teacher who directed the choruses. We climbed the steps and went back stage. Others from our class were already there. Christy collapsed on the folding chair. “I just hope I don’t lose my place in the music.”
I patted her shoulder. “You’ll do fine. Don’t worry.”
The final bell rang. Other students began filing into the back stage area. The teachers came in and began giving directions. The band went first. I moved to the side where I could see. Charlie did a great job on his solo. I was proud of him.
Then it was our turn. I carried out my bell and Christy’s. One of the stage crew brought in her chair. She sat down and set up our music. When we started to play, I forgot about all the kids watching us. The bells sounded better with all the people in the room. It went perfect. When we finished, everybody stood up and clapped. I helped Christy stand. She was finally smiling.
We listened to the chorus sing as we put away the bells. Ms. Kelso thanked everyone that participated. Mr. Hansen called us all together after it ended. “I have something for all of you.” He passed out large envelopes. “Ms. Sanders took a picture of the class while we were playing and printed out a copy for everyone.”
I opened the envelope and glanced at it. I was on the end of the row and Christy sat next to me. Even though she was sitting, she was still visible. I felt better about that. “This is cool. Even though our families couldn’t come they still get a chance to see what we did.”
She handed me the envelope. “Could you carry it to my locker for me so I don’t bend it?”
“You bet.” We retrieved our coats and backpacks. It felt light without all the books.
The van was waiting. “My mom is here.”
I handed off her backpack. “Will you be at the shop?”
“That’s where she usually drops me off.”
“Great. I’ll see you there.” She got in the van and drove away.
Charlie called to me. I found him in the crowd. He was carrying his trumpet case. “That was pretty amazing. Those bells really sounded cool.”
“Thanks. I liked your solo.” We started walking toward home. When we got to the corner by the Antique Shop I paused. “I’m going to see about the reindeer.”
“Good luck. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The light changed and I hurried across the street. As I approached the shop, I noticed the reindeer wasn’t in the window. A part of me went cold. There was a sign on the door: Open everyday until Christmas. I went in. Christy and her grandfather were at the counter with a customer. She was helping to wrap something in newspaper. She didn’t look happy.
The customer gave her grandfather some money. “Thank you so much. I can’t tell you how much this will mean to my mother. It looks just like the one in the pictures from my parents’ first Christmas. She’s in a nursing home now. She’s going to love it.” He picked up the package and carried it out.
The phone rang. “Christy, will you finish cleaning this up while I get that?”
“Sure, Grandpa.” Her voice trembled.
He went into the back and I walked toward her. I was afraid to ask but the package had been the right size. “Was that the reindeer?”
Tears escaped her eyes. She nodded. “He wouldn’t hold it when that guy came back. He had the money.”
The black hole appeared and sucked me down. I had wanted this for Sam. Now what could I do? I doubted I could find another reindeer like that in a different shop. I hadn’t been to a department store in a while. There weren’t any downtown. Maybe I could take a bus to Walmart and see if they had some kind of reindeer.
Christy dropped the stack of papers on the counter. A few escaped and fluttered to the floor. I scooped them up. My own eyes were blurry but the picture caught my attention. It looked like a real reindeer. What was I seeing?
Christy wiped her face on her sleeve. “I’m so sorry, Micah.” She tapped me on the shoulder. “What is it?”
I blinked my own eyes a few times to clear my vision. It was a real reindeer. I read through the ad. The black hole faded. I held up the page. “Look at this.”
She leaned on the counter. “I’ve never seen reindeer at the Zoo.”
I pointed to a line. “This isn’t Lincoln Park Zoo. This is at Brookfield Zoo on the other side of town.”
I read the ad carefully. “If you adopt a reindeer, you get a reindeer pendant and your picture taken with Bunny the Reindeer.”
She looked closer. “It doesn’t say how much it costs.”
I pointed at the strange square of squiggles at the corner of the ad. “You’re supposed to scan that or go to the zoo for more information.”
“I don’t have anything that scans QR codes. I’ve seen other people do it. You have to have a smart phone or tablet.”
I leaned on the counter. “I don’t have either of those. We don’t even have a computer. Guess I just have to go to the zoo.”
She looked up at me. “How are you going to get there?”
I shoved my hand in my pocket and pulled out the Vestra card. “Aunt Sarah gave this to me so I could visit. She didn’t say what I could visit. I bet there’s enough for me to get to the zoo and back.”
“You’re going to take the bus?”
I shrugged. “I’ve never been there but I’m betting it would be too far to walk.” I looked at the page. “Do you mind if I keep this?”
She straightened the rest of the stack. “We just use these to wrap stuff.” She sighed. “I really am sorry.”
I covered her hand with mine. “It’s not your fault.” I closed my eyes and tried not to let my disappointment show. I looked back down at the ad. “Besides, this will be awesome for Sam. This is a real reindeer.”
Her grandfather finished his conversation and hung up the phone. I let go of her hand. “I’d better go. I’ll let you know how it turns out.”
She waved as I walked out of the shop. I folded the page and shoved it into my backpack. The window looked as empty as I felt without the reindeer. I walked home. There was a thick layer of snow on the sidewalk. The shovel stood in the corner waiting for me. Right under the sign for the recycling. So much for that. I pulled it down and grabbed the shovel.
I had just finished when Mrs. Keller arrived. I put the shovel back, grabbed my backpack, and followed her up the stairs. The boys were in their coats waiting for her. I pulled off my coat.
Mrs. Keller and Mom were talking while the two boys danced around their feet. Mrs. Keller picked Danny up. “I was hoping you might be able to watch them a little longer in the evenings. I’m trying to get a few things done before Christmas.”
“As long as it’s not Thursday morning. I have to be in court.”
Brian was tugging on his mom’s leg. She took his hand. “I understand. I’ve got that covered. See you tomorrow.” She and the boys went out the door.
Debra came out of the kitchen. “Tomorrow? Seriously?”
Mom sighed. She looked at me. “How did your assembly go?”
I pulled the envelope out of my backpack. “The school secretary took a picture and made copies for our class.”
Mom smiled. “Wished I could have been there.”
Debra came over to look at it. She glanced down in my backpack. “What’s with the newspaper?”
I picked it up before she could grab it. “It’s for a project that I have to do tomorrow.”
Debra frowned. “Tomorrow? No way. If I have to stay here and put up with a whole day of those two, so do you.”
“I have to do this, Deb. It’s for a school project.”
“School is out for break. Haven’t you heard?” She turned and stomped away.
Mom handed the picture back to me. “I should find a frame for that.”
Rachel came out of the kitchen. “Are we going to eat soon?”
Mom patted my arm. “Go get cleaned up. Dinner is almost ready.”
I went down the back hall. Our door was open. I leaned around the corner. Sam was at his desk coloring and singing to himself. I couldn’t get him a reindeer he could sit on. It was gone. I was determined to get the reindeer adoption for him.
I woke up early. I’d gotten used to it over the week. I rolled over and pulled back the curtain. More snow had fallen over night but the sky looked dark. The clouds must have cleared. I got up and dressed quietly.
Sam was curled around his Rolly dog. Half of the blanket was on the floor. I pulled it back up and tucked him in. The rest of the apartment was dim. The streetlight filtered through the living room window and the nightlight shone in the kitchen.
I pulled on my coat and gloves. The shovel was still there. I cleared the walkway and even most of the sidewalk in front of the building before my hands got too cold to hold the shovel. I went back in and replaced the shovel.
I climbed the stairs back to our floor. Lights were on in the kitchen of our apartment. I pulled off my coat and peered around the corner.
Mom looked up from measuring coffee. “Goodness, Micah. Are you up already? Where have you been?”
“I was out shoveling the walkway. I wanted to get it cleared before people started walking on it.”
“You certainly are dedicated to that.” She plugged in the coffee pot.
I hung up my coat and returned to the kitchen. “What are you doing today?”
She was pulling out pancake mix and the big bowl. “I’ll be watching the Keller boys for a few hours today. Maria is trying to get her house cleaned up. Her parents are coming to visit for the holidays.”
Part of me felt bad for leaving Mom with them again but the other part was relieved. “Are they getting any better?”
She began mixing the batter. “Slowly. They picked up a lot of bad habits at the daycare center. I am glad their mother brought over some of their own toys. That has been the biggest challenge. They are pretty hard on stuff.”
I thought about the little red car that was tucked in the corner of my drawer. I had no idea if I could fix it or not but it was too special to me to throw it away. “I know what you mean.”
Debra came into the kitchen. “Hey, Micah. I was hoping you could help me take the younger three over to Washington Square Park today. Sam has been begging to play in the snow all week.”
“Maybe when I get home.”
Debra frowned. “Home? You took the recycling sign down. I thought you were done with that project.”
I picked up the plates and set the table. “I am. I have to go pick up some information today. I don’t know how long it will take.”
She put on a pout and leaned against the corner. “That’s not fair. You’re gone all the time. I get stuck with them all the time.”
Mom put the first steaming platter of pancakes on the table. “We’ll talk about it after breakfast. These are hot. Why don’t you call the others and eat.”
I got Sam and she got the girls. We ate in silence. Debra kept glaring at me when Mom wasn’t looking. I cleared the table and helped wash the dishes. It was nine o’clock by the time we finished. I had no idea what time the Zoo opened or even how long it took to get there. I made sure Sam was occupied and grabbed my coat.
Debra looked up from the sofa where she was reading to Amy. “Mom! Why does Micah get to go where ever he wants?”
I rolled my eyes. “I need to get some information for a project. I’ll help you when I get back.”
Mom came into the living room. “How long will you be gone?”
I had no idea. I’d never been to that Zoo before and I still wasn’t sure how many buses I was going to need to get there. “I’ll hurry as fast as I can.” I turned toward the door.
There was a knock. Mom glanced at the clock. “I didn’t think she was going to bring them until ten.” She opened the door.
Maggie came in with her arms full of bags. “Hey, girlfriend. Wait until you see what I have.”
Mom closed the door and followed her to the kitchen. Debra, Rachel, and Amy followed. I tagged along, too. Rachel got up in her chair and leaned on the table to see in the bags. “What is all that, Miss Maggie?”
She laughed and began pulling stuff out. “The kids in the ward were making gingerbread houses yesterday and there was a ton of stuff left over. I didn’t want to throw it away. It’s all still good. I thought you girls might like to make some gingerbread houses.”
Rachel wrinkled up her nose. “Can mine be a gingerbread tree house?”
Maggie and Mom both laughed. Maggie gave her a hug. “Have to see if we can manage that.” She turned and looked at me. “How about it, Micah? Do you think you and Sam want to make one, too?”
Debra scowled. “Micah has to go somewhere.” Her singsong tone annoyed me.
“This is important, Deb.”
She put on a pout face. “He just doesn’t want to play with the little kids anymore. He won’t even help me take them to Washington Square this afternoon.”
Maggie hugged her. “Micah is growing up, kiddo. He’s got stuff to do. I don’t have to work until five tonight. How about I hang out, help you build some houses, and then we can go down to the park together.”
Debra smiled. “Thanks, Miss Maggie.”
Mom leaned on her shoulder. “Thanks, Mags. That will help a lot. Maria is bringing the boys over soon. It will give Sam a break if he can get out of the house and away from Danny and Brian for awhile.”
Maggie frowned. “Things not going well there?”
Mom started filling her in on the confrontations. I waved to them. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” I slipped out the door.
Mr. Carole was putting a bag by his door. “Good morning, Micah. Sorry this is late.”
I looked at the bag of recycling. I didn’t really have the time to take stuff to the recycling center today. “I kind of finished that project yesterday. School is out for winter break.”
“Oh, I should have thought about that.”
I picked up the bag. “I can still take it out to the bin for you. I’m headed down.”
He smiled. “That’s nice of you. Thanks.” He looked down the hall toward our door. “How are things going with your mom?”
“It sounds like the lawyer found stuff that can help. I’m not sure what a preliminary is but they are going to one next week.”
“Wonderful! I knew Scott would come through. Well, I have to get into costume. I have two parties today.” He waved and shut the door.
I went downstairs. Mr. Anderson was putting up a string of lights around the mailboxes. He came down from the step-ladder. “There you are! You’ve been busy already this morning. Sure looks nice.” He pulled a five dollar bill out of his pocket. “Wish I could give you more but it’s getting toward the end of the month and I don’t have much left.”
I took the bill but I felt bad. “You don’t have to pay me any more this month. I’ll just do it when it snows.”
He looked almost sad. “Are you still collecting recycling? I noticed the sign was gone.”
“I’m taking it out for Mr. Carole. I guess he didn’t realize I’d finished the project.”
“I know others were disappointed, too. We have a few elderly folks in the building who were more than happy you were taking it for them.”
I looked down at the bag. I didn’t know how much the adoption would cost. I might need more money. “I could still take it out for them if it helps.”
He smiled. “You’re a good kid, Micah. I’ll let them know and leave a note by the shovel of which apartments to check.”
“Okay. Have a nice day, Mr. Anderson.” I took the bag out to the alley and tossed it in the bin. I headed for the closest bus stop at the corner of Elm and Lake Shore Drive. I knew that bus would take me downtown. I looked at the reader board on the pole. I’d just missed one. The next wouldn’t come until a few past ten.
Someone called my name. I looked back down the street and saw Charlie and Paul headed in my direction. Charlie slid the last few feet. “Where are you going? I thought we were going to work on adding more snowmen?”
I was watching the emotions morphing Paul’s face. I shrugged. “The snow is pretty dry. It’s not good for packing. Besides, I have an errand to run.”
Paul frowned. “Oh, that sounds so important.”
Charlie looked confused. “What kind of errand?”
I glanced at the busy traffic but didn’t see any bus yet. “I have to go pick up a form. Someone else bought the reindeer so I’m going to get an adoption form from the Zoo so Sam will be able to get his picture taken with a real reindeer.”
Charlie’s eyes went big. “A real reindeer? That is too cool! Sam will love it.”
Paul started to laugh. “Someone else bought that dorky looking reindeer? That’s hilarious! Maybe now you’ll break up with Bottle Eyes and life can get back to normal.”
I stared at him. “What?”
The bus stopped at the curb and I had to back up to let other people get off. The driver looked at me. “Are you getting on?”
I broke out of the daze and looked at Charlie. “I gotta go. See you later.” I got on the bus and tapped the Ventra card against the reader. The display said I still had eighty seven fifty left on the card. There wasn’t any room to sit so I stood just behind the line.
The driver swung back out into traffic. He glanced at me. “So, where are you headed today?”
“I’m going to Brookfield Zoo. Could you tell me which other buses to take?”
He grinned at me. “Better to take the train, man. And you can get a weekend Metra pass that will save you a couple of bucks.”
I held up my Ventra card. “This is all I have.”
““No worries. When we get to Union Station, you can take that to a ticket vending machine and use it to get a Metra Weekend Pass. You take the Aurora BNSF line out to Hollywood Station. That puts you only a few blocks from the Zoo in a lot less time than it would take to get there by bus.”
He was even nice enough to let me know when to get off. The outside of the building reminded me of a Greek temple with the tall columns. Inside was even more amazing. The place was packed with people but the curved glass ceiling made the big room seem bigger inside than it looked from the outside.
I was pointed to a vending machine by a polite lady. I got the Weekend Pass as the driver had suggested. I also got a rider guide and followed the signs to the platform. I’d never been on a train before. It was kind of exciting. I only went through six stops before Hollywood station. It looked even older than the one downtown.
A man in uniform was directing people where to find different places. I waited until he was finished with a couple and went up to him. “How do I get to Brookfield Zoo from here?”
He led me toward a door. “Stay on this road as it curves until you get to Golf Road. That will take you right to the South entrance. It usually takes fifteen to twenty minutes to walk there. Have fun.”
I thanked him. The cold air stung my face after being on the warm train. It turned out to be easy to find. There were lots of signs. I walked up to the South Entrance. There was a short line of people waiting by a window inside of one of the large arched entries. I got to the window.
The guy inside looked bored. “That will be eighteen dollars.”
“Uh, I don’t actually want a ticket.” I pulled the newspaper ad out of my pocket. “I’m looking for more information about adopting a reindeer.”
The guy sighed deeply. “Look kid. I don’t have any forms here. You can find them in the Hamill Family Wildlife Encounters by the reindeer enclosure. It’s eighteen bucks to get in.”
I had added the five from Mr. Anderson to the sock. I was up to forty four and some change. “Can you at least tell me how much it costs to adopt a reindeer?”
The guy frowned. “I don’t know. It’s on the form. Are you going to buy a ticket or not?”
A large group of people left the zoo behind me. I had to shout to be heard over the noise. “If I buy a ticket, I might not have enough to adopt a reindeer. Isn’t there somewhere I can just get the form?”
The guy shook his head. “I don’t have one. Okay?”
The group left and a man in tan who had been with them approached the booth. “Is there a problem, Jack?”
The man pointed at me. “This kid wants a reindeer adoption form. I don’t have any here. I told him he has to get them from the box by the exhibit but he’s too cheap to buy a ticket.”
I felt my neck starting to burn. “I don’t have a lot of money. It’s a special present for my little brother. Can’t you at least tell me how much it costs so I know if I have enough for both the adoption and a ticket?”
The man in tan smiled. “It’s fifty dollars for the adoption.”
I felt like a black hole had just opened up under me. I looked down. “I don’t even have that much.” I started to turn away.
The man in tan put a hand on my shoulder. “Why don’t you come with me. I might be able to help.”
I had already come this far. “Okay.” I followed him through the gate toward an office.
He held the door open for me. “My name is Tim O’Hare. I’m the volunteer coordinator here at the zoo. I’m sorry Jack gave you such a hard time. He could have just call the office and they could have brought one to the booth.”
He pulled a colorful form off of a bundle. I looked down at the picture of a kid standing next to a reindeer. “Thanks. This is really important. It’s for my little brother.”
Tim smiled. “Is he a big fan of reindeer?”
I swallowed hard. Would this guy think I was nuts? He looked like he really cared. “It’s kind of a long story. My dad died last month and my Aunt really confused my little brother at the funeral. So now he thinks my dad is at the North Pole. He asked Santa for a reindeer. I can’t give him a real one but a picture with one might help him.”
Tim’s face drooped a little. “Wow. That’s a tough one.”
I looked at the form. “I’d been doing everything I could to save up for a reindeer I’d seen at a shop that was big enough for him to sit on but someone else bought it. So when I saw this ad, I hoped I had enough to adopt a reindeer. I don’t quite have enough yet. I’ll have to come back when I can come up with the rest.”
Tim put his hand on his chin. “I might have a solution. Are you in High School?”
“Yeah, I’m a sophomore. But I’m only fifteen. I’m not old enough to work part time.”
“That’s not a problem. Anyone in High School can be part of the program.” He motioned for me to follow. We went into a smaller office. He handed me a large envelope. “We have a special winter break program here at the zoo for younger kids. We get High School aged students to help out as volunteers. If you volunteer, the price of the reindeer adoption will be half off.”
The black hole that had been following me vanished. “Cool. What would I have to do?”
“We will have a series of stations around the zoo where the kids can make crafts to take home with them. You’ll be at one of those stations helping them make the crafts.”
“I can do that. I help my younger brother and sisters with stuff like that all the time.”
Tim smiled. “Great! Can you be here by nine thirty on Monday?”
I pulled out the rider guide I’d picked up. “Looks like there’s a train that should get me to the area by just after nine. It didn’t take long to walk here. I should be able to make it.”
“Perfect. You’ll need a parent to sign the volunteer form. Just bring that with you. You’ll even get community service hours for the volunteer work.”
That was a bonus. We needed seventy five of those before we graduated. I could get started on that. And it would be the perfect excuse to use with Mom. “Thanks for the help.”
He led me back out. “Just show the included pass in the envelope when you come Monday morning. The person at the gate will give you a map and tell you where to meet us.” He opened the door for me. “I didn’t get your name.”
I went out and he followed. “Sorry. I’m Micah Starling.”
He held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Micah. I look forward to working with you.” He left me at the gate.
I was so excited I ran most of the way back to the train station. This was going to be so amazing! Not only was I going to get a reindeer adoption for Sam but I was going to get to volunteer at the zoo. I could hardly wait to get home.
I sat on my bed counting out the money in my sock. I set aside the twenty five dollars that I would need for the discounted adoption and looked at the rest. Maybe I could afford to buy some small presents for Mom and the girls. We could still have a Christmas.
I had read through the entire packet Tim had given me. Mom had been too busy last night for me to ask her to sign the form. Mrs. Keller didn’t come get the boys until almost seven. Mom didn’t complain. She’d said it would be worth it when she paid the bills.
I heard Mom move down the hall. I picked the form out of the papers and went into the kitchen. She had the bills laid out on the kitchen table. She was filling in a page with all the numbers. She looked up at me. “Good morning, Micah. How long did it take for Sam to settle down and fall asleep last night?”
I sat down across from her. “Not too long. He was pretty tired.” I looked at the pages. “Are we going to have enough?”
She put her pencil down. “I think so. Those extra hours yesterday helped. It still looks tight but we’ll manage.”
I held up the form. “So I got the information I needed yesterday. I’m starting to work on the community service hours that I need for school. I’ll be volunteering at Brookfield Zoo for Christmas Break Camp. I just need you to sign the form.”
Mom’s forehead wrinkled. “All the way over there? Why don’t you volunteer up at Lincoln Park Zoo. It’s much closer.”
I had no idea if they even had a volunteer program there. I never saw volunteers, just keepers. “This is a special program that they only have at Brookfield Zoo.” I handed her the form.
She studied it. “This is for two weeks, Monday through Friday.” She looked up at me. “How are you getting there?”
I grinned. “Aunt Sarah gave me a Ventra card. She said it was to visit but she didn’t say what I should visit.”
Mom sat back in her chair. “Micah! You know what she meant.”
“It’s not like I want to go to her house. Why should I let it go to waste?”
She sighed. “I suppose this is a good cause.” She picked a pen and signed the form. “So, how many hours will this give you?”
I was ready for that question. “Forty of the seventy five I need. It’s great! I do this program for two years and I’m covered.”
She chuckled. “Got that all planned out in advance? Good for you. Will you need a lunch?”
“Probably. I don’t think that’s included.”
She pulled all the bills back together. “What time will you have to leave in the morning?”
I had been studying the bus and train schedules. I had been disappointed to discover the train didn’t stop at the Hollywood Station during the week until later in the day. I’d have to get off at a different station. I’d even found more information in the packet Tim had given me. “I have to catch the bus about quarter after eight in the morning. And I found out that if I show my student ID on the train, I get reduced fare.”
“Yeah, Mom. It’s fun.”
Mom handed me back the form. “Just be careful.”
I went back in my room and added the form to the things I’d need tomorrow. I pulled out clothes and got dressed. I was too excited to sit still. There hadn’t been any snow overnight but I might have some recycling to take out. I roamed through the building and was surprised how much there was. There was a lot of aluminum cans. I hated to waste them. I sorted out all the stuff. The recycling center wasn’t opened until the afternoon. I tied up the bags I was going to sell and tucked them behind a large piece of cardboard in the alley. Maybe a walk would do me good.
I went back upstairs. Mom was pulling a pan of rolls from the oven. She set them on the counter. “Where did you disappear to?”
I told her about my agreement with Mr. Anderson as I frosted the rolls. “I’ll just get up early like I usually do and collect the bags before I leave in the morning. Some mornings there’s hardly any.”
She hugged me. “That’s nice of you to help out our neighbors. And I’m sure Mr. Anderson appreciates the help with the shoveling. I’d heard he wasn’t doing well.”
Sam and the girls came running as Mom put the rolls on the table. Sam climbed up into his riser. “Look what I can do by myself!”
I pushed his chair closer to the table. “That’s great, Sam.” I sat down next to him.
Debra looked over at me. “Are you going to disappear all day again?”
“Not all day. Charlie wanted me to go see all the snowmen at the ball field. I thought I’d spend the morning with Sam and take a walk in the afternoon.”
Sam held up his sticky fingers. “We can play cars!”
I washed the dishes for Mom and spent the rest of the morning playing cars with Sam. We sat down to lunch. Someone knocked on the door. I got up. “Maybe it’s Charlie.”
I went to the door and looked through the peep hole. I groaned and opened the door. Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ben came in. They were carrying bags. Aunt Sarah handed me one. “Could you take that into the kitchen, Micah?”
I went in. Debra was scowling. “I wish it had been Charlie.”
Rachel was under the table. Mom looked down at her. “Why don’t you come up and finish your lunch?”
She shook her head. “Don’t tell them I’m here.”
Uncle Ben set more bags down on the counter. “We couldn’t pass up these great deals.”
Sarah hugged Mom. “How is everyone doing?”
Mom looked just as surprised to see them as I had been. “We’re fine. What’s the occasion?”
Aunt Sarah moved to the bags and began pulling food out of them. “I was worried about you. I don’t want you and the kids to go hungry.”
Mom came over and picked up a box of cereal. “Sarah, you really don’t have to do this. The kids don’t actually eat this, whatever it is.”
Uncle Ben frowned. “I wish you and the kids would come and stay with us. It would be so much easier.”
Debra looked horrified. She glanced at Mom and shook her head. Mom sighed. “I think the kids have eaten as much lunch as they’re going to. Debra, why don’t you take the girls into your room for awhile.”
Aunt Sarah looked around the room. “Where’s Rachel? I had a new book to share with her and Amy.”
Rachel crawled out from under the table and scooted past me to escape the kitchen. Amy slid out of her chair. “Does this one have princesses or dragons in it?”
Aunt Sarah looked disturbed. “No, dear. It has shepherds and Wise Men. I brought the Christmas Story over.”
Amy frowned. “We have a big book of Christmas stories. Mamma reads one to us every night before bed. I like the story about the nutcracker. The prince gets to fight giant rats.” She followed Debra out of the kitchen.
Sam got down from his riser. He grabbed my hand. “We can play more cars.”
I didn’t want to abandon him but I did want to get the recycling down to the center. “I have to go meet Charlie at the Park. How about when I get back?”
Uncle Ben leaned toward Sam. “I could play cars with you.”
Sam frowned. “No. You don’t know how.” He turned and disappeared down the hall.
Uncle Ben looked disappointed. I shrugged. “He’s kind of particular about that game.”
Mom was watching Aunt Sarah pull more stuff out that we never ate. “Sarah, really. This isn’t necessary.”
“It wouldn’t be if you and the kids moved in with us.”
Mom put down the cans of soup Aunt Sarah had handed her. “Sarah, we aren’t moving. The kids don’t want to leave their schools or their friends. And I’m making ends meet. I’m getting plenty from babysitting to cover the bills. And the lawyer is confident that we have a solid case. I might have benefits before the end of the month.”
I could tell by the look on Aunt Sarah’s face that there was going to be a long, boring conversation. Not something I wanted to be part of. I looked over at Mom. “I’ll try to be back soon.”
“Just be home by five.”
I waved, grabbed my coat, and escaped. Why couldn’t they leave us alone? I headed down to the alley and grabbed the bags. The walk to the recycling center was peaceful by comparison. I came in the door. The guy pulled out the bins. “Hey, how’s it going?”
I dumped the recycling into the bins. “Not too bad.” He weighed it, rang it up, and gave me three dollars and some change. “And this makes it even better.”
I decided to go by the Antique Shop and see if Christy was working. I got to the corner by the shop but had to wait for the light. I looked down the street and was surprised to see Charlie and Paul. I couldn’t imagine what they were doing here. The light changed and I walked across the street.
There was a wooden doll house where the reindeer had been. I looked past the roof. I could see Christy at the counter. I went in.
She looked up as the little bell over the door rang. “Micah! I didn’t expect to see you today.”
“I ran a load of recycling over to the center this afternoon. I thought I’d stop in and see how you were doing. How’s your ankle?”
She came out from behind the counter and pointed to a bulky black boot strapped to her foot. “I don’t need my crutches anymore. This helps a lot.”
The bell over the door rang. I turned, expecting to see a customer. I was surprised when Charlie and Paul walked in. Charlie grinned. “I thought that was you. What are you doing here?”
I tried to ignore the sneer on Paul’s face. “Actually, I just stopped to tell Christy what I’m going to be doing for the next two weeks.”
Christy leaned on the counter. “Oh, what is it?”
“I’m going to be volunteering at Brookfield Zoo.”
They all looked surprised. Charlie shook his head. “How did that happen?”
I told them about my adventures on the bus and train and getting the volunteer packet from Tim. “It’s so cool. Sam gets his picture with a real live reindeer and I get forty hours of community service credit.”
Charlie moved to look at a display of old toy cars. “That is a good deal. I haven’t even begun to think about that yet.”
Paul snickered. “Why would we? Only seniors bother with it.”
Christy hobbled toward the display. “Aren’t these neat? They were made in Detroit in the same year each full sized car came out.”
Charlie bent to look closer. “that’s a ‘64 Chevy, isn’t it?”
Christy opened the case and brought it out. “It is. It costs thirty five dollars.”
Paul snorted. “What a rip off. That much for a toy car?”
Charlie swung around and stared at him. “This isn’t a toy. This is a classic model. It’s even made of metal. My dad has a couple already.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out his money. “I think I have enough.”
Paul’s face scrunched up. “You’re going to spend your money on that?”
Charlie followed Christy toward the register. “My dad is gonna love this.”
Christy found a box and carefully wrapped the metal car in tissue paper. “I’m glad you found it. That’s the best part of working here. People come in and find a special treasure.”
Paul crossed his arms and looked at me. “I thought you were going to break up with her?”
My ears started to burn. “I’m guessing you aren’t going to buy anything. Why don’t you leave.”
Christy rang up Charlie’s sale and handed him the bag. “I hope your dad likes it.” Her voice sounded tight.
Charlie turned to me. His face morphed through various expressions and settled on uncertainty. “Well, have fun at the zoo.”
Paul laughed. “Maybe they’ll make him shovel poop around. Or maybe they’ll put him in the cage with the monkeys and keep him. That way he won’t have to hang out with us any more. I’m tired of being friends with him. Who’d want to be seen with the boyfriend of Bubble Eyes? We’d be the laughing stock of the school.”
I wanted to punch him. “Who wants to hang out with a jerk?”
Paul sneered and grabbed Charlie’s arm. “Come on. We don’t need this loser.”
Charlie pulled free. He looked at me. “Call me tomorrow night and let me know how it goes.” He waved at Christy and pushed Paul out the door.
I was relieved when they left. My whole face was burning. I sighed. “Sorry about that. Paul can really be a jerk sometimes.”
Christy didn’t say anything. She put away the tissue paper. Her grandfather came in from the back. “Oh, it’s you again. I thought we had a customer.”
Christy looked up. “We did. I just sold one of the model cars to Micah’s friend.”
The old man went over to the case. “Hmm. The ‘64 Chevy. He has good taste.”
I noticed the little round hat was off center. I still wondered why he wore it. He had lots of white hair. I noticed Christy had started wiping down the counters. I tried to think of something to say. “I don’t suppose you have any dolls that look like a princess.”
She looked up at me. “We have a couple.” She moved slowly to the other side of the shop. There was a display case of old dolls. “Who is it for?”
I looked at the collection. “My sister, Amy. She has this thing for princesses. I don’t have much I can spend. I have to keep enough to pay for Sam’s reindeer adoption but I thought I could get a gift for everyone else with what I had left over.”
She opened the cabinet and took out a small doll in a beautiful dress. “This is a miniature of Princess Diana in her wedding dress. It isn’t very old but it came in with a bigger collection. It’s five dollars.”
I was relieved that I had brought some of the money with me. “That’s cool. She was a real princess.” I pulled out my money. “I bet Amy will like it.”
Christy carried it to the counter. “This really isn’t a toy.”
“I know. She got a little box with glass doors for her birthday for her special treasures. Dad hung it on the wall for her.” The words stuck in my throat. I swallowed hard.
Christy wrapped the small doll in tissue paper and put it in a box. Her grandfather disappeared into the back room again. She looked up at me. “Did you really come in to break up with me?”
How can you break up with someone you’d actually never asked to go out with? I’d never even thought about a girlfriend. She rang up the sale. I counted out the money and gave it to her. She looked ready to cry. “I think Paul is just jealous. He doesn’t like sharing his friends. He’s been trying to push me away from Charlie since the day we met. And now that I have a different friend, he’s trying to push me away from that, too.”
She handed me the bag. “Are we really friends?”
“Of course we are. I don’t care what Paul thinks. I think you’re smart and are more fun to hang out with than Paul. I really did stop in to tell you about the Zoo.” I pulled the crumpled ad out of my pocket. “I promised to tell you what I found out.”
She glanced out the window. “Looks like Charlie and Paul aren’t doing well.”
I looked past the doll house. I could see them on the other side of the street. Neither looked happy. Paul made a nasty face at Charlie and whirled away. Charlie walked to the corner and crossed back to this side of the street. I was surprised when he came back in.
Christy looked concerned. “Are you okay, Charlie?”
Charlie shrugged. “I think I’m better than okay.” He looked at me. “I’m sorry, Micah. I hope you can forgive me for being a jerk.”
I hugged Charlie. “You’re not a jerk. You’re my best friend.”
Charlie looked over at Christy. “I hope you don’t mind if I share him with you.”
She laughed past her tears and came around the counter. “Micah has a heart big enough for both of us. Just look at how much he’s gone through for his little brother.”
She stopped next to me and I put my arm around her shoulders. It felt right. I felt like the luckiest kid in the whole world. “I have the two best friends ever.”
I woke up to the sound of a snowplow rumbling down Elm. It was still dark out but the sky had a yellowish cast from the reflected light of the city. I couldn’t see any snowflakes in the glow of the street light. I found my watch. It was after six so I decided to get up.
I fried an egg and slid it onto a piece of toast. It made for a good portable breakfast. I did the rounds of the building and carried out the recycling. There wasn’t enough stuff from the list to bother saving but I did stomp on the plastic so it didn’t take up so much space in the bin.
I was just putting the shovel back when Mr. Anderson opened his door and looked out. “You’re up early. I thought it was winter break.”
I rubbed my hands together to get feeling back into my frozen fingers. “It is. “I’m helping with the Winter Break Camp at Brookfield Zoo for the next couple of weeks so I have to catch a bus in about a half an hour.”
His bushy eyebrows rose. “You certainly are a busy kid. At least you don’t plaster your face to a screen like my grand-kids. I can’t even have a conversation with them. Well, have a good day.”
“Thanks, you too!” I hurried upstairs to grab my backpack.
Mom looked out of the kitchen as I came in. “How much snow was there?”
“Maybe an inch. I just don’t want it turning to ice like last time.” I went to my room and grabbed the backpack off my bed. I felt Sam pat my leg. “Hey, Sam. Are you awake already?”
He looked up at me. “Mamma says you have to go somewhere today.”
His tone was so mournful it made me feel a little guilty. I sat down on the bed next to him. “Dad used to go to work everyday, too.”
“Are you going to work?”
“Sort of. Except I’m not earning money. I’m getting some special points that I need for school.”
He sat up. “Will you win a prize?”
“I don’t know. Maybe later. You have to have a lot of points to win a prize for community service credits.” I looked at my watch. “I have to go or I’ll miss my bus.”
“You get to take a bus?”
I hugged him. “And a train. You be good for Mom. Okay?”
“Okay.” He let me go.
I hurried out of the room and grabbed the paper sack on the counter. “Sam’s awake, Mom.”
She walked with me to the door. “I know. He woke me up when he couldn’t find you.”
“Sorry. I should have explained it to him last night.”
She hugged me. “Just be safe. It’s such a long trip and the weather is unpredictable.”
I opened the door. “I’ll be fine, Mom.” I hurried down the hall and almost collided with Mr. Carole.
He already had his red pants on but not his coat. A pair of red and white striped suspenders held up his pants. “Looks like you’re in a hurry. Where are you off to, Micah?”
I slipped passed him and started down the stairs. “I have to go feed a reindeer!” I ran all the way down Elm. The bus was almost to the stop when I got there. I tapped my Ventra Card and found an empty seat.
The ride felt different. I wasn’t as nervous as I’d been on Saturday. I had to get off at Riverside Station and go the rest of the way on foot. I hurried as fast as I could. I didn’t want to be late. I made it to the gate with two minutes to spare. I pulled out the pass and showed it to the lady at the window.
She smiled at me. “Welcome! We love our student volunteers! Go up to the stone lion and look to your right. You’ll see the South Gate Coffee and Snack Shop. That’s where your group is meeting this morning.”
I thanked her and hurried in. There were a lot of other kids already there. I didn’t recognize anyone. Tim came in and called for everyone to take a seat. He explained the program and went over the rules. Then he gave us our assignments. There were stations all over the zoo. I’d be working in the Hamill Family Play Zoo for the day.
I followed the other kids in my group to the building. Because of the cold weather, all the activities were indoors. I went in and heard the weirdest sound ever! I looked around trying to figure out what it was. A lady came up to us. “Ah, volunteers have arrived. My name is Peggy. Sounds like the lemurs are singing you a welcome song.” She pointed toward a door.
We all went to look. There were a bunch of furry animals that looked like a cross between a raccoon and a monkey. They were running around a room. One of the kids next to me leaned on the door and it opened a little. He gasped. “I don’t want to let them out.”
Peggy laughed. “Then we should go in.” She picked up a white bucket and led the way. She had us all sit and gave us a handful of orange slices. “This is part of their breakfast. Ring-tailed Lemurs are native to Madagascar. They don’t have orange trees there, Instead they eat the fruit and leaves of the Tamarind Tree. It’s too cold in Chicago for those to grow here so we feed our lemurs a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.”
A lemur came and sat next to me. I held an orange slice on my palm. It took the fruit with tiny soft fingers. I’d never been this close to any animal except a dog or cat. It finished the piece and looked at me. I grinned. “Want another, huh?” I held it out.
Peggy had several climbing on her. “These lemurs are different from others because they spend more time on the ground foraging for food. The Ring-tails are also the most common species in zoos around the country. What’s sad is that there are more in zoos than in the wild.”
A girl sitting next to me started to raise her hand. “Why? Can’t you let them go if they’ve lived in a zoo?”
Peggy scratched behind the ear of the lemur in her lap. “Unfortunately, their habitat is almost gone. The lemurs of Madagascar are endangered. It’s not a very big island and people have destroyed most of the forests where they live.”
The boy on the other side of me seemed a little surprised when one of the lemurs started climbing up his arm. “Will they bite?”
“Not if we are gentle with them. All of these lemurs were raised by hand so they are used to people. They aren’t pets like cats or dogs but they’re not wild either.” She pulled a card from the pocket of her apron. “At this station today kids will be making Holiday Cards for friends or family featuring endangered animals. There will be three tables set up around the center. You’ll break into three teams and staff the tables. There’s plenty of card stock in several different colors, stickers of the animals, colored markers, and other small craft items. Each of you should make an example so you have one to show the visitors.”
We left the lemurs to finish their breakfast and moved to the tables. I was working with two other kids who introduced themselves as Tony and Janet. They were from different high schools in the Chicago area. We made our example cards. I had to make mine a lemur. It was too cute. I added a red triangle and a small white puffball to give him a Santa hat.
Janet felt the puff ball. “What a great idea. That’s almost as soft as the lemurs.”
The visitors began showing up and we got busy. I was used to talking to little kids because of my brother and sisters but Tony seemed to be struggling.
After one tough customer, he looked ready to give up. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
I helped a little girl get glue off of her fingers. “You just have to relax more. Use short sentences and easy words.”
The little girl held up her card. “You like? It’s for Mamma.”
“You did a great job. I bet she’ll like it.” She smiled and ran to a lady across the room. I looked over a Tony. “Don’t have younger brothers or sisters?”
“I don’t have any at all. I guess that’s the problem.”
A pair of twins came to the table. “I’ll help you. You take Miss Green and I’ll take Miss Red.” I was grateful the parents had at least dressed them in different colors. It would have been impossible to tell them apart otherwise.
By the time the girls had finished their cards, Tony was catching on. We each took a different lunch break. Peggy let us eat in the lemur room. That was really cool. The time went by so quickly. I was surprised when she told us it was time to clean up the stations. “That is the fastest five hours I’ve ever had.”
Janet laughed. “I’m so glad I decided to do this.”
Tony swept the floor and dumped the scraps into a bin. “Me, too. It turned out better than I thought it would. Thanks for the help, Micah.”
I wasn’t used to being acknowledged by others my own age. It felt kind of nice. “Glad I could help.”
Tim caught up with me as I headed for the gate. “How was your first day?”
I held up my card. “It was a blast. I can’t wait to show this to my brother and sisters.”
“Do they like books? We put together a special story book about our lemurs for the anniversary. I still have a few left.”
“They love stories. Mom and I read to them all the time.”
Tim had me follow him into the offices. He pulled a book from a box. “We gave these away as gifts so the bookstore can’t sell them. I like to give them out when I can. I hope they enjoy it.”
“Thanks!” I slipped it into my backpack. “This is so cool. Thanks for telling me about the program.”
We walked toward the main door. Peggy came in with a box of extra supplies. “Oh, Micah. I’m glad I caught you.” She set the box down and pulled a card out of her apron pocket. “This is for you. Frank was snapping pictures of everyone this morning so I made cards for all my volunteers.”
I’d met Frank at lunch. He was one of the animal specialists who cleaned the areas and made sure all the animals were safe and healthy.
I opened the card. There was a picture of the lemur taking the orange out of my hand. “This is awesome! Please thank Frank for me.”
“I will. Have a great evening!”
I said goodbye to Tim and jogged to the station. At least I didn’t have to go as far. The train was late but the bus I took home ran every three minutes this time of day. That was nice. I looked at the route map and decided to get off at a different stop.
I got off the bus and headed for the shop. Christy was helping a customer with a sale so I looked at all the nick knacks on display.
The customer left and Christy came over. “Well, how was your first day?”
I pulled out the card with the picture. “Check this out!”
She opened the card and laughed. “You got to feed a lemur? That is so cool!”
An older woman came out of the back room. “Is everything all right, Christina?” She had a very heavy accent.
“Yes, Nana. Look at this. Micah got to feed a lemur today.” She showed her the card.
The woman pulled on a pair of reading glasses and examined the card. “Oh, my goodness. What a fluffy looking creature.” She looked up at me. “And you must be Micah.”
My ears burned. “Yes, mam.”
She smiled. “What a nice young man. You just call me Nana. Everyone does.” She picked up some papers from the counter and disappeared into the back room.
I showed Christy the card I’d made and the book Tim had given me. “I should really head for home. I don’t want my mom to worry.”
She gave me a hug. “I’m glad you stopped by. It looks like such a cool adventure. Maybe I can do that next year.”
I went to the door and turned back. “Are you working tomorrow?”
“Everyday this week. I get the weekend off.”
“Great. See you tomorrow afternoon.” I pushed out into the cold. It was a relief. It was getting dark. I decided to make use of the bus. It saved me a lot of time.
The mailman was just closing up the mailboxes when I stepped into the entry. “Oh, Micah. Perfect timing. I’ve got a certified letter for your mom. Could you sign for it?”
I put my backpack down and pulled off my gloves. “Sure.” I signed the slip and he handed me a stack of mail along with a thick brown envelope. “I don’t usually see you this late.”
He picked up the mail bin. “This time of year it always takes me longer to finish my route. Santa’s elves are busy.” He waved and left.
I headed up the stairs. I couldn’t resist. I had to look at the return address of the brown envelope. It was a law firm. I hoped it was good news. I opened the door and found Danny and Brian fighting over a toy. Mom was trying to get them to share. It wasn’t working. I pulled off my coat and pulled out the book. “Here’s the mail. I had to sign for this one. How about I take over here.”
Mom looked relieved. She got up and took the mail from me. “Thanks, Micah. Maria is stuck in traffic. I was starting to worry about you.”
“I didn’t mean to worry you. I just wanted to stop and show Christy some stuff.”
She looked up from the mail stack. “Who’s Christy?”
I called down the hall for Sam and the girls. “She’s the one who’s helping me with Geometry.”
Debra and the girls came out of their room and Sam ran up to me and wrapped around my legs. “You’re home!”
“And I have cool things to share. Come on. Let’s sit down on the sofa.” I sat down. The girls and Sam snuggled in around me. Danny and Brian stood there, looking uncertain. I patted the sofa next to Sam. “Come on up so you can see, too.”
Sam frowned. “Next to me?”
I hugged him. “There’s room for them, too.” I showed them the card first and told them about feeding the lemur. Then I red them the story book. Danny and Brian were just as interested as Sam and the girls.
I had just finished the story when someone knocked on the door. Mom let Mrs. Keller in. She looked surprised. Danny insisted she come see it, too. She looked at the picture and the book while the boys gave her a shortened and excited version of the story. She hugged both of them. “That’s really neat. Now we have to get home. Daddy will be wondering where we are.”
They struggled into their coats. They both seemed disappointed. I picked up Sam. “Tell you what. If your mom is late tomorrow, I’ll show you how to make some of the cool projects the kids are doing at the Zoo.”
The boys cheered. Mrs. Keller smiled. “You are so good with kids, Micah.”
Sam hugged my neck. “He’s had lots of practice.”
They left. Sam wanted down. I wandered into the kitchen to see how Mom was doing. She was at the kitchen table with a stack of papers. “What’s all that?”
She put down what she’d been reading. “All the legal papers for the preliminary court hearing on Thursday.”
I was worried by the sound of her voice. I sat down across from her. “What’s wrong?”
Mom wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. “Some of it is just hard to read.” She sighed. “Scott is coming over tomorrow evening to discuss the details.”
“I’ll try to be home before he gets here so I can watch the kids.”
She squeezed my hand. “We’ll get through this. Somehow.”
There was no snow to shovel and only one bag of recycling so I wasn’t as rushed this morning. The bus was crowded so I had to stand all the way downtown. I had gotten a ten pack of tickets yesterday so I was able to go straight to the train platform. The conductor checked my student ID. “You were on this trip yesterday.”
I put my ID away. “Yes, sir. I’ll be taking this route for the next couple of weeks. I’m volunteering at the Zoo during break.”
He checked his watch. “Shame the train doesn’t stop at Hollywood on this trip. Where are you getting off?”
“At Riverside. It’s a little farther to walk but we had a map in our packets that showed how to get to the zoo from that station.”
“Well, have a good day.” He moved on through the car, checking tickets.
I was enjoying the train. It was different than a car or bus. I liked the rhythm the wheels made when we got up to speed. The train was on time and I made it to the South Gate by nine thirty.
Tim spent a little time giving us some history of the Zoo before dividing us into teams. I’d be working at the Hamill Family Wild Encounters today. Our team would be outside so were told to dress warm. Tim led our group over to the entrance of the area and introduced us to Jason.
Jason broke us down into four teams. “I’ve got four stations set up around this area. There’s one by the Parakeet House where kids will be making birdseed ornaments. There’s another by the wallabies where kids will be making pop-up cards. The third is by the reindeer where the kids will make their own reindeer mask using an outline of their hands for antlers. The final station will be between the goats and llamas where they will be using some real hair from our shaggy friends to put a beard on Santa.”
All of the projects sounded fun but I really wanted to see the reindeer. I managed to get into that group. I was working with two other guys, Keith and Shane. Neither of them looked very excited. I found out they were both seniors. They were trying to get all their service credits so they could graduate. I was glad I’d started early.
Jason came over and made sure everything was there. “Do you need me to show you how to make a mask?”
Keith and Shane just stood there staring at the materials. I moved forward. “It looks pretty simple. Brown paper to trace the hands and scissors to cut them out. Crayons to draw the face on the paper plate. Glue to attach the antlers. And string to use a tie.”
Jason smiled. “Have you done this before?”
“No, but I got the idea just by looking at what’s here. I have a younger brother and sisters. I help them make stuff all the time.”
Jason looked at Keith and Shane. “Did you guys get all that?”
Keith shrugged. “We’re good.”
Jason moved on to check the other stations. I made a sample and suggested they do the same. They both looked horrified. Shane pointed at my finished mask. “No way, man. I ain’t making a dorky thing like that. That’s little kid stuff.”
I used the string to hang my mask from the sign. “You’re going to be helping little kids do this all day. It helps to make your own first so you get all the steps down.”
I spent the morning helping the little kids while Keith and Shane watched. When it came my turn for lunch I picked up my backpack. “So which of you is going to take over at the table?”
They pointed at each other. Keith pushed Shane forward. “You do it. You’re shorter than I am.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
I left them to sort it out and walked over to the Oaks Cafe. It wasn’t open to the public at the moment. Other volunteers were already eating at the tables. I found a chair and sat at an empty table. Mom had made me a tuna sandwich and a hard boiled egg.
Tim came over and sat down next to me. “Jason said the guys you’re working with are making you do all the work.”
I swallowed my bite. “I think they’re afraid of the kids.”
Tim chuckled. “Well, they are going to learn the hard way. I have a special job for you this afternoon. How would you like to meet Bunny the Reindeer?”
I laughed. “A reindeer named Bunny? How did that happen?”
“It’s a long story. Bunny has been specially trained for taking pictures. Her trainer will be giving her treats between each shot. I just need you to stand behind the photographer and hold up a green paddle when he’s ready to take the picture. Bunny has been trained to look at it.”
I finished my lunch. “That’s so cool. I didn’t know reindeer were that smart.”
Tim led me to a different building. “Reindeer are really smart. People in Lapland have been using them to pull sleighs for a long time. They also hunt them for food.”
“That’s kind of sad.”
We went in. “Not really. Humans have almost wiped out all the natural predators. The hunters keep the herd healthy by taking out the sick and injured. The wild reindeer herds are in trouble right now because of climate change. They normally eat lichen on the tundra but that lichen is dying so the reindeer are starving.”
“Wow. That’s terrible.”
We came to an area that had a bench with some Christmas trees behind it. “When Bunny comes back from lunch, her trainer will lead her behind that bench. The kids getting their picture taken will sit down and the photographer will set up the shot. He’ll tell you when he’s ready. All you do is hold up this paddle.” He handed me a green ping pong paddle.
“Sounds easy enough. Is this the same kind of picture that comes with a reindeer adoption?”
“It is. Those pictures happen this Saturday.”
A zoo keeper led Bunny into the building. “She’s a lot smaller than I expected.”
Tim chuckled. “A lot of people say that. You have to consider where they live. You’re not going to get real big eating lichen on the tundra.”
The man beside the reindeer looked over. “Unless you’re a musk ox.”
They both laughed. I felt dumb. I had no idea what a musk ox was. Families started coming in. Tim left me with the photographer and I got busy.
When we finished for the day, Bunny’s trainer called me over. “You did great this afternoon. Would you like to give Bunny her last treat?”
I looked into the bucket. “What is that?”
“Some oats and chunks of sweet potato. She’s got a sweet tooth.”
I picked up an orange chunk and held it out to her. She wrapped her soft lips around it and took it from my hand. “That is so cool. I told Santa I was going to feed the reindeer. Well, now I can say I have.”
I told him about Mr. Carole and Sam’s wish for a reindeer. Tim came over. I hadn’t even realized he was there. We watched Bunny and her trainer walk away. Tim sighed. “No wonder that adoption is so important to you.”
I glanced at my watch. “Oh, man. I’m going to have to run to catch the train.” I picked up my backpack. “So how did Keith and Shane do this afternoon?”
Tim handed me my mask. “Let’s just say they jumped off into the deep end and had to learn to swim.”
I tucked the mask into my backpack so I wouldn’t bend the antlers. “Today was awesome. Can’t wait until tomorrow. See you then!” I headed for the gate.
I made it to the station as the train was pulling in. I found a seat and collapsed into it. It took me a few minutes to catch my breath. I made it back to Union Station and caught my bus. I didn’t know what time the lawyer was supposed to be there but I wanted to stop in and see Christy first.
The shop was busy. I was surprised. Christy and both of her grandparents were waiting on customers. I didn’t want to interrupt. Christy finished her sale. Another lady was still looking. Christy came over to me. “It’s the last minute rush. I can’t talk long.”
“I can’t either. I have to watch the kids so Mom can talk to the lawyer tonight.”
Nana finished her sale. She looked up and motioned for us to join her. “Hello, Micah. Did you have a good day?”
I told both of them about the reindeer. Christy was amazed. “Are they really that small? How can they pull anything?”
“They are used to running on the tundra. They’re really strong.”
Nana disappeared into the back room and returned carrying a tin with Santa and his sleigh on the cover. “I’ve been doing some baking. Take these home with you for you and your family.”
I didn’t have a chance to argue. More customers came in. I waved and slipped out. I took the bus home again. I hoped that wasn’t going to use up all my funds. I’d have to learn how to add more.
All the kids were excited to see me. Danny and Brian were still there. Mom looked at the clock. “This time of year traffic is terrible. Maria has been working at a satellite clinic across town this week so it’s been taking her a long time to get home. I just hope she gets here before Scott does.”
I pulled the reindeer mask out of my backpack. “If she doesn’t, I’ll keep them all entertained at the kitchen table. I think we have all the supplies to make these.”
Mom touched the antlers. “Are those your hands? Wow. I still have a turkey you made back in kindergarten. I put it away as a keepsake. I should get it out for comparison.”
Sam insisted I read the story of Rudolf to them. Mom had come up with all the materials so I took the kids into the kitchen. Debra and I helped them trace their hands and cut out the antlers.
I heard someone knock and looked around the corner. It was the lawyer. I went back into the kitchen. “We’re going to have to be quiet so Mom and her guest can talk.”
They were all busy coloring. Debra looked up at me. “I think Mom is worried about Thursday.”
“I think so, too. I wish I understood what was going on better.”
Mom and the lawyer came into the kitchen. Mom’s face looked tight. “Scott thinks we could make a difference if all of us went Thursday morning.”
Debra frowned. “Even Amy and Sam?”
The lawyer nodded. “If the judge sees the family your father left behind, it might make a strong impact.”
I felt trapped. “Mom, I want to help and all but I’m supposed to be there at nine thirty.”
The lawyer looked confused. Mom explained my volunteer position to him. He looked at the paper work. “We’re first up on the docket at eight in the morning. There’s a good chance we could be done by nine. I could drive you out to the Zoo afterwards.”
I didn’t get a chance to argue. Mom agreed for me. I just hoped it was going to be okay with Tim.
I almost missed the train. We’d gotten snow overnight and there was a considerable amount of recycling. I didn’t have the time to sort it so it all went into the bin. I missed the bus I’d planned to take. Even though the next one was only three minutes later, I had to hurry through Union Station to get to the platform.
It started snowing again as the train rolled into Riverside Station. The additional snow made the sidewalks treacherous. I slipped and slid my way to the South Entrance. The lady at the window looked relieved to see me. “Some of the volunteers called in because of the weather. The outlying areas of town got a lot of snow overnight.”
I found Tim sitting with a few other students in the Snack Bar. “Hey, Micah. Glad you made it. We’re going to be short staffed today and with the weather, we’ll only be working the indoor stations. We’re expecting several daycares today so it could get busy.”
“I don’t mind. I’ve been having a lot of fun.” I took a breath. “Can I talk to you for a moment?”
Tim got up and we moved away from the group. “What’s up, Micah?”
“I might be late tomorrow. We have to go to court with my mom.”
“Is she in trouble?”
“No. It has to do with my dad’s death. The company didn’t want to pay benefits so my mom had to get a lawyer. She wants us to be there tomorrow. It’s early and the lawyer said he’d drive me here after we finished.”
“No problem. Thanks for letting me know.” We walked back toward the others.
Janet waved at me to join her table. She was in a good mood. “Where were you stationed yesterday?”
We talked for a few minutes as a handful of other volunteers came in. Tim divided us into groups. I was headed back to the Hamill Family Play Zoo.
Peggy was glad to see me. She paired me up with a quiet girl named Diane. Peggy took us to our station. The parakeets chirped at us from their walk-in area. Peggy had laid out several containers of materials. “Winter is a hard time for birds, especially in the city. We want to encourage the kids to make a present for the wild birds.”
We had pine cones, ribbon, a mixture of honey and peanut butter, and bags of birdseed. Diane and I both made examples. Diane held hers up. “This is a real cute idea.” It turned out to be a messy project. We were constantly wiping sticky fingers and sweeping up spilled birdseed.
In the afternoon, a large daycare class surrounded our table. The teacher looked uncertain. “Could you make one as you explain it so the kids can see the process?”
I picked up a pine cone. “Sure. This is the base and you’ll want a way to hang it. What on the table looks like a good thing to use?” The kids got all excited. A little girl in front pointed at the ribbon. “Great choice!” I went through all the steps, getting feedback from the kids each time.
Diane and I broke the group in half and we sat down in the middle of our sets and helped the kids with the project. By the time everyone had finished, it was time to clean up. The teacher pulled me aside. “That was a great way to explain it. It helped that you got them right into the action.” She had to run to catch up with her class.
Diane collected all the leftover pieces and I swept up the birdseed and dumped it into a bucket. “Seems a shame to throw all this away.”
Peggy came over. “Oh, it won’t go to waste. Bring the bucket and follow me.” She led us toward the door to the parakeet room.
Diane stopped by the entrance. “I’m not crazy about birds. You go ahead. I’ll wait here.”
I followed Peggy into the room. There was already a lot of seed on the ground. Peggy grabbed a handful from the bucket. “Set that down and grab some. Now stand still and hold out your arms with your hands open.” She whistled.
Parakeets came zooming from all corners of the enclosure. They perched on my arms and pecked at the seed in my hands. I noticed specks of dirt from the floor mixed in. “They won’t get sick from the dirt, will they?”
Peggy grabbed more handfuls. “Not at all. Parakeets, like many birds, actually eat dirt or tiny rocks on purpose. They don’t have teeth so they need a little help to break up the seed. The dirt goes into the crop with the seed and breaks it down so it can be digested.”
“That’s pretty cool.” We fed them a few more handfuls and Peggy scattered the rest around the room. When I moved toward the door, Diane pointed at my shoulder. I discovered I had a passenger. “Hey, buddy. You don’t want to come with me. It’s cold out there.”
Peggy walked back to the offices with us. It was still snowing. That worried me. “Do they ever close the zoo because of the weather?”
“It may close to the public sometimes but there are always keepers here. The animals still have to eat, even if it snows.”
I looked at my watch. “I have to go. I have a train to catch.”
Diane sighed. “And I have to go wait for a bus.”
Peggy paused at the office door. “Just be careful. We’ll try to call early if they decide not to open for the public tomorrow.”
Diane and I walked out the gate and headed in different directions. I wasn’t late for the train, it was late for all the passengers. The snow was building up on the tracks and a special snowplow had to clear the way. It took us a long time to get downtown. Even the buses were struggling. I worried about tomorrow.
I decided to give the extra birdseed ornament to Christy so I got off near the shop. Many people were shoveling the sidewalks and snowplows rumbled by, pushing dirty slush right back up over the curbs. It was like a battle – a real snow fight.
Christy was just finishing a sale when I came in. There was a spiky brown mat by the door so I stomped the snow off of my shoes. I noticed there were more people working behind the counter. Nana waved at me. “Goodness, Micah. You’re covered in snow. Is it that bad outside?”
I tried to leave as much as possible on the rug. “Sorry, Nana. It’s coming down pretty hard right now.”
Christy came over. “It’s so late I didn’t think you were coming tonight.”
I pulled the ornament from my backpack. “I just wanted to give this to you. This is the project I helped the kids make today.”
She held it up by the ribbon. “What a great idea! I’ll hang it outside my window at home.”
I looked around the shop. “Did your grandparents hire extra help?”
Christy chuckled. “Sort of. These are my cousins. They drove down from Milwaukee last night. They will be spending the next week with my grandparents.”
“Must be nice to have a big family. My mom doesn’t have any brothers or sisters and my dad just had Aunt Sarah.” I could have done without her.
Nana came up to us. “Why don’t the two of you run down to the bakery and get some hot cocoa?” She handed Christy some money.
Christy hugged her. “Thanks, Nana. I won’t be gone too long.” She got her coat and we went out. “I needed a break. It’s been so busy today. We got in a shipment and Grandpa wanted to get it out on the shelves.”
We went into the bakery. “Any cool stuff?”
“Lots.” We ordered some hot cocoa and sat down at one of the small tables by the window. “So what about the rest of your family? You’re getting a picture with a reindeer for your little brother and a princess doll for your little sister. Who else needs a gift?”
I sipped at the cocoa. “I’m not sure what to get Debra or Rachel and I haven’t even thought about Mom yet.”
“What do they like?”
“Debra likes horses and Rachel has this thing for tree houses. Neither will fit in an apartment. I have no idea what to get for Mom.”
Christy smiled. “I think I can help with Debra and Rachel. There were some small collectibles that came in with the shipment. Grandpa was really excited at first because he thought they were real Hummels but they turned out to be replicas so they aren’t very expensive.”
“I don’t know what a Hummel is.”
“They are small figurines made in Germany. The children figurines are popular collectors items. Some of the older originals can sell for thousands of dollars.”
“Wow. You’ll have to show me.”
We finished our cocoa and put the cups and saucers in the dish bin. It had stopped snowing. The sky was a dull gold from the street lights. We started back toward the shop. I was surprised to see Paul coming down the street toward us. He frowned. “Aren’t you two a cute couple?”
I didn’t want a confrontation. “What are you up to today?”
He sneered at me. “My mom works just down the street. What’s it to you?”
I sighed. He wasn’t going to be nice. “Well, tell her I said hi. Hope you have a good Christmas.” I tugged gently at Christy’s arm. We started walking past him.
Paul’s face morphed into anger. “First you and now Charlie. All over some dumb girl.” He shoved Christy. She lost her balance. I tried to catch her but we both ended up on the ground. Her glasses went flying. Paul laughed and stomped on them.
I helped Christy sit up and turned to Paul. “What is wrong with you?”
Christy was crying and patting the ground around her. “Where are my glasses?”
A lady came over and helped Christy to her feet. “Oh, my goodness! Are you hurt?”
Other people had stopped and were crowding around us. I got up and faced off with Paul. “Why did you step on her glasses? Don’t you know she needs them to see?”
Paul was grinning. “Those aren’t glasses, they’re the bottoms of bottles. She can get more.”
A man picked up what was left of them. He shook his head. “Both lenses are cracked.” He handed them to me.
I ignored Paul and went over to Christy. I took her hand. “I’m sorry. Paul broke them.”
She leaned on my shoulder and sobbed. “I don’t have enough saved up to buy new ones yet and the insurance my dad has from work only covers one pair a year. I just got these a few months ago.”
I hugged her. I wasn’t sure what to do. I stared at Paul. “You’d better figure out how you’re going to pay for a new pair.”
His grin faded. “No way, man. She’s the klutz.”
Red and blue lights reflected off the glass shop fronts. There was a disturbance in the crowd as several people pushed their way through. An officer approached us. “What happened here, folks?”
The lady who had helped Christy up pointed at Paul. “That young man shoved this girl down and smashed her glasses.”
Paul frowned. “She fell.”
I wanted to punch him. “You made her fall. And you stomped on her glasses. I saw you do it.”
Another officer waded in. The first one pointed toward us. “Make sure the young lady isn’t hurt.” He turned to Paul.
The second officer came over. “How are you doing, miss?”
Christy had stopped crying but was still sniffling. “Micah kept me from hitting my head but I can’t see much. My glasses went flying and Paul stepped on them.”
Paul was arguing with the other officer. “I didn’t do anything. She tripped.”
The lady beside us shook her head. “What a nasty young man.”
The officer had been writing notes on a small pad. “Do you live around here, miss?”
“No. I work over at the Antique Boutique. My grandfather owns the shop. I was on break. Micah and I had just gone over to the bakery for a few minutes.”
The officer got all of her information. The lady patted Christy’s arm. “I know your grandfather. I’ll go let him know what happened and be right back.”
The officer by Paul pulled out handcuffs and snapped them onto Paul’s wrists. “You can call your parents from the station and explain it to them when they pay your bail.”
Paul’s eyes went wide. “Bail?”
“Yeah, You’re under arrest.” He led him toward the squad car.
Christy was shaking. I hugged her. “I’m right here. It will be okay.”
The officer wanted my information, too. I gave it to him.
The lady came back with Christy’s grandfather. He looked worried. “Christy? Are you hurt?”
She shook her head. “Micah tried to catch me but we both went down.” Her bottom lip trembled. “My glasses got broken. Paul stepped on them.”
He hugged her and kissed her forehead. “Glasses can be replaced. You can’t. Just as long as you are alright. Your mamma would never forgive me if something happened to you.” He looked at the officer. “Do you need anything else? She’s shivering. I’d like to get her in out of the cold.”
“Of course. I have all the information I need. I’ll need to speak with her parents later.” He nodded and went to his car.
Christy and I followed her grandfather back to the shop. I noticed she was limping. “Is it your ankle?”
She grimaced. “I got snow inside the boot when I fell. It’s really cold.”
“I’m so sorry. There’s something seriously wrong with him.”
We went in and Nana rushed up to us. “What happened?”
Christy hugged her. “I’ll tell you in a moment. I really need to sit down.” I helped her to a chair and watched her pull off the boot.
I brushed away the snow. Her toes were sticking out of the wrap around her ankle. “No wonder it was so uncomfortable.”
Nana brought over a towel. “I warmed it in the microwave. Wrap this around your foot.”
The lady had followed us in and was talking to Christy’s grandfather. She explained everything that had happened. I hung my head. “It’s my fault.”
Christy put her hands on my shoulders. “No, it’s not. You can’t control the actions of others. And you tried to catch me. You kept me from hitting my head on the sidewalk. That could have been really bad.”
Nana hugged me. “What a good boy.” She wiped a tear from her cheek. “I’d better call your mamma and tell her what happened.” She went into the back room.
A coo-coo clock on the wall announced the hour. I looked up at it. “I hope my mom won’t be worried.”
“You should call her.” She looked up. “George, when Nana is done on the phone, could you bring it over?”
“Sure, Christy. I think it might be a few minutes. Sounds like Nana is having a rough time convincing her that you’re okay.”
Christy sighed. “She can be so overprotective.”
Questions started rolling around in my head. “You said you were in an accident when you were little. I’m guessing you got hurt pretty bad. She probably doesn’t want that to happen again.”
Christy looked down at her foot. “Probably not.” Her voice was very quiet.
Nana came back out. George brought over the phone and handed it to me. “Sorry we weren’t introduced. I’m Christy’s cousin, George Cohen.”
“Nice to meet you.” I punched in our number. Mom answered. “Hey, Mom.”
“Micah, where are you?”
“I’m over at the shop where Christy works. I just realized how late it had gotten and I didn’t want to worry you. I’ll be home soon.”
Her sigh sounded loud over the phone. “I was worried. I’m glad you called. Please don’t be too late. Okay?”
I assured her that I wouldn’t and hung up. I gave the phone back to George and felt Christy’s toes. “They don’t feel like ice cubes anymore. Are you going to be all right?”
She wiggled them. “I think so. I hope you didn’t get into trouble.”
I got up. “No, but I do need to get home. We have to go to court in the morning. Mom’s lawyer thinks it’s important for the judge to see us.”
George looked surprised. “You have to go to court?”
I pulled my coat on and picked up my backpack. “Long story. I’ll try to stop by tomorrow night and see how you’re doing.”
Nana came over. “It’s gotten so dark outside. How far do you have to go to get home?”
“It’s not too far and I can take the bus part way.”
Nana shook her head. “Christy’s mamma is coming to pick her up. She can drop you off. You shouldn’t be out on a night like tonight.”
Christy looked uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure why but I didn’t want to upset her. “It might be out of her way. I don’t want to be a bother.”
Nana flicked her hand. “Nonsense. It’s the least we can do. She should be here soon.” She moved back to the counter.
Christy used the towel to dry the inside of the boot. “I’d better get this back on.” Her voice sounded thin.
“Do you think you’re mom won’t like me?”
She slipped the boot on. “That’s not it.” She sighed. “She’s in a wheelchair. It makes some people uncomfortable.”
“That doesn’t bother me.”
George came over. “Your ride is here.”
I helped Christy into her coat. “I just hope she doesn’t mind dropping me off.”
We went out and the van door slid open by itself. Christy leaned forward. “Nana wanted to know if you could drop Micah off at his place.”
“Where does he live?”
I stepped closer. “I live on Elm, just east of State.”
“Sure, it’s on the way. Hop in.”
Christy got in first and slid over. I ducked in and sat down. It may have looked like an ordinary van on the outside but it was way different on the inside. There were no front seats. Christy’s mom was strapped into a wheel chair in the driver’s spot. The passenger space was empty. The door slid shut. I waved at her in the rear view mirror. “Hi. I’m Micah.”
Her reflection smiled at me. “Nice to meet you. My mom told me what happened. Thanks for helping Christy.”
“No problem.” I watched the shops slide by outside. She didn’t have pedals like a regular car would. She used a special lever on the steering wheel to stop and start. We turned onto Elm. “It’s the brick apartment building on the right.”
She pulled as close to the curb as possible with the snow. “Here you are. Have a good night.”
The door slid open by itself and I got out. Christy leaned over and squinted at the building. “Wow. Which apartment is yours?”
“We live in 403.” I leaned over so I could see her mom. “Thanks for the ride. Nice to have met you, too.” I waved and the door slid shut. The van pulled away.
I had to make my way over the pile of snow that the plow had pushed up against the curb. It wasn’t fun. My shoes were soaked by the time I made it to the door. I stomped them on the step and went in. I was going to need to shovel that before we left in the morning.
I hurried up the stairs. Mom was sitting on the sofa reading to Sam when I came in. He jumped down and ran to me. I hugged him. “What are you doing still up? You should be in bed by now.”
Sam clung to my legs so tight I almost fell over. He looked up at me. “You weren’t home.”
I untangled him so I could move. “Well, I am now. Head for bed. I’ll be in soon.” I waited until he disappeared. “I really am sorry it’s so late. Christy’s mom dropped me off.”
Mom moved toward the kitchen. “Have you eaten?”
“No. All I’ve had since lunch is a hot chocolate.”
She pulled a covered plate from the fridge and put it in the microwave. “What happened?” I heard the tension in her voice.
I slumped into a chair. “Paul showed up by the shop. He pushed Christy down and broke her glasses.”
Mom gasped. “Is she okay?”
“She wasn’t hurt but she can’t see well without her glasses.”
She brought the warmed plate to the table and sat down across from me. “I’m glad you stayed to help her. And thank you for calling. I was getting worried.” She watched me eat for a moment. “So when do I get to meet Christy?”
I was just putting the shovel away when the lawyer arrived. “Good morning, Micah. Is your family ready to go?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve been working on the sidewalk for quite awhile.”
He looked out the window beside the door. “Nice job.”
I heard footsteps on the stairs. “I think they’re coming down right now. I’d better run up and grab my backpack.”
Debra leaned over the railing. “Don’t need to. I’ve got it.”
Mom yelled at Debra for leaning over the railing and herded everyone down the stairs. I could tell she was nervous. They all tromped out into the entry. Debra wasn’t smiling. She pushed my backpack at me. Mom looked outside. “Are you sure we’re all going to fit in your car?”
The lawyer opened the door for us. “Our firm has a company van. It seats eight comfortably.”
We all followed him to the van and he helped Sam and Amy in. Rachel had no problems scrambling inside. Debra sat in the middle seat with the girls and I sat in the back seat with Sam.
He was all excited. “We get to go somewhere! Where are we going, Micah?”
I made sure he was all buckled in. The van had special pull-down risers built into the seats. “We’re going to the courthouse. You have to be good. Okay?”
He looked out the windows as we pulled away from the curb. “Will we get to play in the snow?”
“Maybe Mom will take you guys to the park later since she doesn’t have to watch Danny and Brian today.”
Mom looked back at us from the front seat. “I’ll try to. We need to do a little shopping first.”
The lawyer started talking about what was going to happen in court. “You probably won’t have to talk to anyone. Just being there will help your mom a lot.”
Debra stopped Rachel from drawing in the fog on the window. “I hope so. Amy and Sam aren’t used to sitting still.”
Amy crossed her arms. “Am, too! I sit still when you read to me.”
“But I’m not going to be reading to you. We’ll have to be quiet.”
The lawyer dropped us off in front of a huge building. “You go ahead in and wait in the lobby. I’ll park and be right there.”
Mom held Amy’s hand, Debra took Rachel’s, and I captured Sam’s. He was wide-eyed and looking everywhere at once. We didn’t come downtown very often. “Look at all these buildings. They are taller than the sky.” It did kind of look that way. Many disappeared into the low clouds.
The lawyer came in and we followed him through the building. We ended up in a room with lots of chairs. Several people were already in the room. I recognized one of them. It was Mr. Trulin. The lawyer had us sit in a row behind a table where he and Mom each took a seat.
Mr. Trulin was sitting across the middle isle from us. He was frowning. “This really isn’t a place for children.”
The lawyer ignored him. Mom looked behind us. “Jim is here.”
The lawyer arranged stacks of papers on the table. “Good. I’m hoping I won’t need his testimony today but part of a preliminary is being able to interview the witnesses that each side will call in the actual trial. There should be a couple more coming, too.”
Sam started squirming. I put my arm around him. “You have to be good here. Try to sit still.”
Sam leaned on my shoulder. “I wish I could have brought some cars.”
I hugged him. “This isn’t a place to play.”
People came in the room from the front doors and we all had to stand up as a man entered and sat down at the desk in the front of the room. He looked at some papers then looked at us. “Good morning. I’m Judge Peterson of the first district court of Cook County. Looks like the first case on the docket is Starling verses Universal Insurance. Will the council for the plaintiff please present the statement of the suit?”
Mom’s lawyer stood. “Good morning, your honor. This suit regards the refusal of Universal Insurance, the insurers of Gordon Shipping Company of Chicago, Illinois, to pay death benefits to the survivors of John Starling, who died in a fatal accident at said company on November twenty fourth, this year.”
The judge asked the lawyer from the other side to explain why the insurance company was refusing to pay the benefits. A man at the other table stood up. “Universal has a fault clause in their documentation that states if the accident was the fault of the person involved, benefits would be denied.”
The judge looked back at Mom’s lawyer. “Do you have proof that the accident was not the fault of John Starling?”
The lawyer stood up again. “Yes, your honor. I have the maintenance logs from the heavy lift that Mr. Starling was operating at the time of the accident. He had reported a malfunction of the lift hydraulics and completed the proper work request. I have several witnesses including the floor supervisor who claims he assumed the log had been left in the shop and told John to use the lift. I also have the only shop mechanic on duty the evening of November twenty third who has stated for the record that the lift was not seen in the shop that night nor had he seen the maintenance log for that lift. I also have a witness who has extensive knowledge of Mr. Starling’s original complaint to the foreman the afternoon of November twenty third when he turned in the lift and work order, who heard the statement of the daily supervisor on November twenty fourth claim the lift had been fixed, and who was the first individual on the scene of the accident.”
I looked over at the men sitting at the other table. Mr. Trulin looked pale.
The lawyers went back and forth a few times. Sam started squirming again. Even Amy was fidgeting in her seat. The judge finally stood up and leaned on his desk. He stared at the men at the other table. “You have nothing to base your case for denial of benefits. Why are you wasting everyone’s time? It’s obvious from just the preliminary statements that the plaintiff has ample proof of dereliction on the part of the company and that the accident was not operator fault. Isn’t it bad enough that this widow has lost her husband and these children are without a father?”
I wondered if Mr. Trulin had his own black hole growing around him at that moment. He sure looked that way. The other lawyer asked for a conference with his clients. The judge granted them five minutes. They disappeared into a side room.
Mom’s lawyer looked back at us. “How are you guys doing? We’ve got five minutes if you need to use the restroom.”
Before we could even answer, the door to the side room opened and the men came back out. They went back to their table. Mr. Trulin looked miserable. Their lawyer faced the judge. “Your honor, my client, Universal Insurance, agrees to pay death benefits to the family of John Starling if the plaintiff will drop the suit.”
The judge looked at our table. Mom’s lawyer stood up. “The plaintiff agrees.”
The judge nodded. “Good. I’m hoping that will include any back pay that the Starlings are entitled to.”
The other lawyer seemed to slump. “Of course, your honor.”
The judge tapped a small wooden hammer on his desk. “Suit dismissed.” He looked at us. “Thank you for your good behavior during the proceeding. I wish the best to you and your family this holiday season, Mrs. Starling.”
They lawyer led us out of the room. Debra sighed. “Does that mean we don’t have to come back?”
Mom hugged her. “It means we’re done with it and we’ll be able to pay our bills.”
Rachel wrapped her arms around Mom’s waist. “And we won’t have to move in with Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ben?”
Mom kissed Rachel’s forehead. “We won’t have to move.”
Mr. Trulin approached us. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry for having had to put you and your family through this.” He walked away.
Jim Davis and several other men came up to Mom. He introduce them. “We all knew John wasn’t at fault. He was always careful.” He hugged Mom. “If you need anything, you let me know.”
Mom thanked the men. She turned to the lawyer. “Thank you for everything, Scott. I feel bad that I can’t afford to pay you.”
He smiled. “That’s what pro bono is for. I’m just glad it all worked out.”
Maggie hurried down the hall toward us. “Are you done already? What did I miss?”
Mom hugged her. “I’ll fill you in on the way home.”
The lawyer turned to me. “I’d better get you to the zoo.”
I wasn’t even very late. Tim was just dividing up the teams. “Micah, you made it. How did it go?”
“My mom won. It’s going to be okay.”
I got assigned to the Living Coast. It was a real cool building. There were fish, penguins, and even sea turtles. Andy was overseeing the tables in this area. I got assigned to a table in front of the tidepools. Andy pointed out all the materials. “We’ve got a lot of donated shells and the kids can add little pieces from this tub. Just watch any really small kids who might try to put the beads in their mouth. Not a good thing.”
There was ribbon for making a hanger and each shell had been drilled with holes. I looked at the creatures in the water behind us. “Did these guys donate the shells?”
“No, they came from a company that cultures seafood in tanks instead of the ocean. Most of the animals in the tidepools can’t live without their shells. Crustaceans do shed but they don’t have true shells. It’s more like hard skin, kind of like your fingernail.” He showed us several different crab shells. “Mollusks, like snails and limpets, make true shells that are composed of calcium, like our bones and teeth are. That’s why ocean acidification is so bad for them. Acidic water can break down the shells and make them fragile. It’s becoming a real problem in our world’s oceans.”
I picked up one of the shells we were using. “So this guy never saw the ocean?”
“Nope. He was raised in a big tank and then somebody ate him.”
Andy moved off to check on the other groups. I made a sample. We didn’t have a tree to hang it on. Maybe Christy did.
I didn’t leave the building all day. We got to eat in the staff lounge. I was surprised when we came out at the end of our shift. “Is it raining?”
One of the other volunteers held out his hand. “It sure feels like it. That’s not good. My dad said it was supposed to warm up. Rain on snow makes ice.”
I was glad I had shoveled the walkway this morning. I hurried to the train station. There were a lot of people packed into the place. I went up to a man in uniform. “What’s going on?”
“The trains are stalled. The tracks iced up.”
How was I going to get home? “Is there another way to get downtown?”
He pulled a bus book from a rack and pointed out the routes. “But I bet they are going to be packed and running slow. With the ice, they have to chain up the wheels. That limits how fast they can go.”
I thanked him and found a public phone. I called Mom. “I might be late tonight.”
“I was wondering about that. It started raining by the time Maggie got us home from the store. We didn’t get a chance to play in the snow.”
I knew Sam would be disappointed. “I’m going to have to take some buses home. Doesn’t look like the train will be running. I didn’t want you to be worried.”
“Just be careful, Micah.”
“I will.” I hung up the phone and found the nearest bus stop.
I had to make several transfers. There was no place to sit on any of the buses. It was after eight by the time I finally got back home. I’d decided to call the shop and let Christy know.
Mom met me at the door and hugged me. “You’ve had quite an adventure today.”
“It wasn’t that bad.”
“Charlie called. I told him you’d call him back when you got home.”
I pulled off my coat. “I want to call the shop where Christy works, too. I hope they haven’t closed already.”
I found the shop in the phone book and dialed the number. Nana answered the phone. “I’m sorry, Micah. She’s already gone home for the night.” I explained what happened. “I’m glad you’re safe. I’ll call over at the house and let her know. Oh, I should probably tell you, we’re closing early tomorrow evening.”
I thanked her and hung up. Mom came into the kitchen. “Is everything okay?”
“I missed her and I probably won’t get a chance to see her tomorrow.”
Mom added water to the kettle. “Sounds like you need a cup of hot chocolate. Did you talk to Charlie?”
“Not yet.” I dialed his number. His mom answered and had to call him from another room.
Charlie was breathless when he picked up the phone. “Micah! Guess what! Paul got arrested!”
I sipped at the steaming cup Mom put in front of me. “I know.” Charlie was surprised. I started to fill him in.
I had gotten up early, wondering what I was going to find outside. I picked up the recycling and took it out. The walkway was wet but not slippery. It looked like some of the snow had melted. Mr. Anderson came out of his apartment. “Crazy global warming! And to think there are still some who don’t believe it! Well, looks like you don’t have to worry about shoveling today.”
“I just hope the trains will be running. It takes a lot longer to get to the zoo by bus.”
Mr. Anderson chuckled. “Ah, the train. When I was a boy, I used to jump a freight here in town and take it all the way to Gary to visit my girl. Those were the days. Can’t do that anymore.” He shook his head and went back in.
I went up stairs to get my backpack. Mom had made a lunch for me. “Is it still icy outside?”
I put the lunch in my backpack. “No. It warmed up overnight. It looks like the snow might melt, too.”
“At least the streets should be better. Are you going to stop at the shop on the way home?”
I paused at the door. “Nana said they were closing early so I’ll just come straight home.”
I made it downtown in plenty of time. I decided to buy another book of tickets for next week. The train ran on time and I got to the South Entrance with minutes to spare.
Tim came over as I walked in. “I have something for you.” He handed me an envelope.
I looked inside. It was an adoption certificate, a coupon for the photo, a pass for admission, and a silver reindeer pendant in a little plastic case. I reached into my pocket. “I owe you twenty five dollars.”
“No, you don’t. When Peggy found out that you were working so hard to get that for your little brother, she paid it.”
I didn’t know what to say. I stared at the envelope. My eyes started burning. “Wow.”
“You’re mom will have to come down with your little brother tomorrow. He has to have a parent or guardian with him.”
I slid the envelope in my backpack. “Thank you. This is going to mean so much to him.”
Tim grinned. “I’ll be working tomorrow. You’ll have to stop in and introduce your little brother to me.”
I got assigned to the Seven Seas area. There was only one table in the building so only three volunteers followed Tim through the zoo. I introduced myself to the others. I was working with Stacy and Kevin today. We went in and headed for the underwater viewing area. There was a table set up by one of the windows.
A lady in a blue and black wet suit was standing by the table. Tim introduced us to Kathy. She held up a small plastic dolphin on a string. “I found these tucked away in a cabinet. They were left over from Magic’s birthday party a couple of months ago.”
I picked one up. “Who’s Magic?”
She pointed to the window. “Come meet him. He and his buddy Merlin will be keeping you company today.”
We all moved to the window. She held up her hand and waved it next to the glass. Two dolphins came up to the window. Stacy laughed. “They look like they’re having a good time.”
Kathy tilted left and right a few times and the dolphins imitated her. “Merlin and Magic were both born here but Magic is special. His mother didn’t know how to take care of him so the staff raised him by hand. He’s the first dolphin in a zoo to be successfully hand-raised.”
I put my hand next to the window and one of the dolphins put his snout right next to it on the other side. “That is so cool.”
Kathy chuckled. “That’s a very important behavior for these dolphins. They are trained to come to our hands.”
I leaned forward toward the window, my face almost touching the glass. The dolphin turned to one side and looked back at me. It was amazing. “He’s looking at me, too.”
“I’ll take you up on your lunch breaks and introduce you in person.”
I reluctantly left the window. “Do you get to swim with them?”
“You bet. The trainers here spend almost as much time with our dolphin family as we do with our human ones. Dolphins are very social. Touch is a vital part of their lives. If you watch them swim, you’ll see how often they rub up against each other. We spend a lot of time touching them.”
Kevin joined us at the table. “You are so lucky. What an awesome job.”
I looked at the items in the bins on the table. “So the kids get to make Magic ornaments. I love the little Santa hats.”
Kathy left us to make some samples. The kids started arriving and we got busy. Almost every kid showed off their ornaments to the dolphins by the window. Kevin grinned. “I wonder what they think about them?”
When it was my turn for lunch, I grabbed my pack and followed Kathy up stairs. “This is a behind the scenes area where we work with the dolphins when they aren’t in a show.” She sat down on the side of a tank and patted the water. A dolphin appeared next to her. “Hi, Magic. Did you want to meet Micah, too?” She looked at me. “You were busy earlier when I walked by but I noticed Magic was really watching you. Come on over.”
I walked up to the tank and put my hand near the edge. The dolphin swam up and rubbed my hand with the side of his head. “He’s so smooth.”
Kathy laughed. “He’s a mammal just like we are. His skin is smooth to cut down drag in the water so he can come up for a breath quickly.” She made a popping noise. The dolphin blew out a light spray of water that smelled fishy. “That’s his blowhole. Unlike our nose, which is connected internally to our throat, his blowhole has no connection to his mouth.”
“I guess that means dolphins can’t sneeze.”
“Not the way people do. They can still sneeze from their blowhole.”
I ate my tuna sandwich while Kathy fed small fish to Magic. Another dolphin came up next to him and opened his mouth. “Looks like Merlin wants lunch, too. Could you pass me that other bucket?”
I got up and handed her the bucket. “Does he eat a different kind of fish?”
“No but we monitor how much each dolphin is eating so they have their own buckets.” She pulled out a fish from Magic’s bucket and held it toward me. “Want to try?”
I took the fish. It was slimy. “What do I do?”
She fed one to Merlin. I held the fish out to Magic and he took it. Kathy blew a whistle. “That’s my way of telling Magic that he did the right thing. They are used to taking fish from us. We’re like members of their pod.”
I leaned over the water to see where he’d gone. He came up and touched my cheek with his snout. “Did he just kiss me?”
She blew the whistle again. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”
I went back down to the table. I remembered to look at the window every now and then. The dolphins really were watching us.
Tim came in at the end of our shift. “Great week, guys. I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas.”
I walked toward the South Gate with him. “This has been such an amazing week. And I get to do it again next week!”
Tim chuckled. “I wish all of the volunteers were as excited as you are. Remember your friends, Keith and Shane? They dropped out early.”
“Their loss. I hope I can do this again next year.”
We paused by the door to the offices. “If you’re really interested, we also have summer camps.”
“I know someone else who might be interested, too.”
“Fantastic. I’ll be passing out additional information next week. See you tomorrow.”
He went in and I headed for the train. It was packed and so was the bus. I got off at Elm Street and walked toward our building. I couldn’t wait to tell Mom about tomorrow.
I opened the door and got surrounded. Sam, Danny, and Brian encircled me. Sam patted my side. “What animals did you see today, Micah?”
I pulled out my ornament. “Do you know what this is?”
Sam scrunched up his nose. “A fish?”
Brian giggled. “It’s not a fish. It’s a dolphin!”
Mom leaned out of the kitchen. “Can you help the boys get their coats on? Maria just called. She’ll be here in a few minutes.”
Both Danny and Brian said, “Aw!” at the same time.
I pulled off my coat and got theirs from the pegs by the door. “Sorry guys.” They started to run away from me. I held up the coats and made a funny laugh. “The coat monster is out to get you!” I chased them around the living room and caught each one. They were both bundled up and laughing when their mom knocked on the door.
Mrs. Keller looked relieved. She handed Mom an envelope. “Thank you for tomorrow. I didn’t know what to do when Jerry found out he had to work. There’s no way I’d want to take the boys to O’Hare. That airport is going to be a madhouse tomorrow.” She herded them out the door.
I followed Mom into the kitchen. “Tomorrow?”
Mom put the envelope in her bills box. “I’ll be watching Danny and Brian tomorrow so Maria can pick up her family from the airport.”
“No!” I felt like I’d been gut punched.
“Micah! What’s wrong?”
Sam looked surprised, too. I’d worked so hard for this. “There’s something we have to do tomorrow.”
Mom stirred a pot. “I already promised Maria I’d do this.”
“But this is important.”
She put the spoon down. “What is?”
I looked down at Sam. “Why don’t you get the cars out?”
Sam’s face lit up. “Okay!” He raced out of the kitchen.
I got my backpack and pulled out the envelope. “I’ve been trying to get Sam the reindeer he wanted.”
Mom’s eyes got big. “A reindeer? Good grief, Micah. Where would we keep a reindeer?”
I put my finger to my lips. “Not to keep here. It’s an adoption at the zoo. Sam gets his picture taken with Bunny the reindeer as part of the deal.” I felt so lost. I turned out of the kitchen and headed out the door. I almost walked right into Christy.
“Micah! Are you okay?”
I caught my breath and looked up at her. “Wow! You got your glasses fixed.”
“Not really. These are a loaner pair. That’s what I was coming to tell you. Remember that lady that helped me after Paul pushed me down? She’s getting me a new pair, the good ones. They’ll be ready before we go back to school after break. It’s so amazing.”
My heartbeat had stopped pounding in my ears. I struggled to control my voice. “That’s awesome. I didn’t think I’d even get a chance to see you today. Nana said the shop was closing early.”
“I know. She told me. That’s another reason I’m here.” She handed me a bag. “These are for you. I knew you were still looking for gifts.”
Mom opened the door. “Micah?”
I sighed. My eyes were still burning. I looked down at the bag. “Hey, Mom. You get a chance to meet Christy.”
Christy touched my arm. “What’s wrong?”
Everything tumbled out all at once – the reindeer, the recycling, the zoo. “I’d been trying so hard to make it special for Sam.” A tear escaped and trickled down my cheek.
Mom leaned on the door frame. “I’m sorry, Micah. I had no idea. You should have said something sooner.”
I wiped at the wet streaks. “Maybe we could ask Maggie. Could she watch them for a few hours?”
Mom sighed. “Maggie has to work tomorrow otherwise I’m sure she would.”
Christy cleared her throat. “I could watch them. As long as it doesn’t take too long. We have to go to my dad’s parents tomorrow afternoon.”
Mom looked ready to cry. “I have no idea how long something like this would take. According to the coupon, they don’t start taking pictures until eleven and who knows how many other people are doing this, too. We might have to wait in line. And then we’d have to get back here. I wouldn’t want your parents to have to wait for us.”
Someone came up the stairs. We all turned to see who it was. Mr. Carole appeared at the landing. He waved to us. “Evening folks. Just had to come home and grab a clean pair of pants in between parties. Kids with sticky fingers sure can make a mess.”
Christy shook her head. “Wow. Santa really does live next door.”
Mr. Carole frowned. “What’s wrong?”
I leaned against the wall. “I was trying to get Sam his reindeer.”
Mr. Carole chuckled and came down the hall. “That’s one tall order. How were you going to do that?”
I told him about the adoption program and the picture. He smiled. “You are one special kid, Micah.” He asked Mom about the timing. “Tell you what. I have a party tomorrow afternoon but I could drive the three of you over to the zoo and bring you back first. I’d have to be dressed up already. As long as you don’t mind that, and this young lady is willing to hang out with the younger ones, I’m in.”
I hugged him. “You really are a Santa.”
He hugged me back. “Since they start at eleven with the photos, we could leave at ten. Does that work for you, Christy?”
“Sure. I can take the bus up here from my place. I saw a bus stop on State for the route I usually take to the shop on weekends. And I’ll just have my mom pick me up here when you get back.”
We all looked at my mom. She brushed away her own tears. “Looks like we’re going to the zoo tomorrow.”
There was no snow to shovel and no one had put recycling out. I was disappointed. It would have kept me busy. I didn’t want to spoil the secret for Sam so I hadn’t told him anything yet. Mom made us pancakes for breakfast. I insisted on washing the dishes so she could get ready.
I still had an hour to wait. I went into my room. Sam was drawing a picture. I leaned over his shoulder. “Tell me about it.”
“This is a map to our house so Santa will know how to get here.” He looked up at me. “We don’t have a chimney! How is Santa going to get the reindeer inside?”
I sat down on the floor next to him. “Sam, do you think a reindeer would be happy in our apartment?”
He looked around our room. “Is he too big to fit in our closet?”
“Yeah. They are pretty big and they eat things that Mom can’t buy at the store.” I saw his chin tremble. I didn’t want him to be disappointed. “What if Santa found a better place outside for your reindeer to live?”
“Like at the Park?”
“In a place like the Park but just a little farther away. We’d be able to go visit the reindeer. Don’t you think that would be better than a reindeer being unhappy here in our apartment?”
Sam wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I guess so. I’d rather have a happy reindeer.”
I hugged him. “Me too.” I climbed up on my bunk and looked in the bag. There were 3 boxes each labeled with a name: Prayer Before Battle Replica, Apple Tree Girl Replica, and Children Candle. I’d looked at each one. Christy was right, they were perfect.
Debra knocked and looked in the room. “Micah, someone is here to see you.”
I closed the bag and jumped down. “Is it Christy?”
Debra got an odd expression. “Since when do you have a girlfriend?”
I grinned and slipped past her. Christy was talking to Mom in the living room. “Hey, Christy. Was your mom okay with everything?”
She smiled. “It works out great. She had errands to run this morning anyway.”
Debra had followed me. “Micah, it’s Christmas Eve. You’re just going off with your friend?”
“No. She’s going to stay here with you and the kids while Mom and I take Sam somewhere.”
Amy and Rachel peered around the corner. Amy wrinkled up her face. “Do you like dragons and princesses?”
Christy laughed. “Absolutely! I even brought over one of my favorite books about a dragon who goes looking for a princess of his own.”
Amy ran forward giggling. “Sounds perfect!”
Rachel only came as far as Debra. “Why does Sam get to go and not us?”
There was a knock on the door. Mrs. Keller brought in the boys. She looked a little uncertain. “Are you sure this isn’t going to be too much?”
Christy pulled another book out of her bag. “I come prepared. I think Rachel might like this one, too.”
Rachel moved forward to look at the book. Her face lit up. “The Guide to the Best Indoor Forts! That’s awesome!”
Brian pulled out of his coat. “We’re going to make forts? All right!”
Christy turned to my mom and Mrs. Keller. “Don’t worry. I babysit for the kids next door in the summer. We’ll be fine.”
Mom put a hand on Mrs. Keller’s arm. “Don’t worry, Maria. It’s only for a couple of hours. Micah has been working so hard to do something special for Sam.”
“I understand. Well, you boys be good.”
Danny and Brian didn’t even look at her. They were already sitting on the sofa with Rachel, looking at all the different ideas.
Debra looked between me and Mom. “Do I get a hint?”
Sam came out of his room. “Oh, Danny and Brian are here. Are we going to play with them, Micah?”
“This afternoon we will but you and me and Mom have something to do first.”
There was a knock at the door. Mom opened it. Mr. Carole, dressed as Santa, came in. “Ready to go?”
Sam’s eyes got big. “Santa!”
Everyone on the sofa looked up, too. Danny and Brian both gasped. Rachel waved. “That’s our Santa. He lives next door.”
I got Sam’s coat and helped him into it then pulled on my own. “We’re ready.”
Sam looked up at me. “Where are we going?”
I knelt down in front of him to zip up the coat. “To meet your reindeer.”
All the kids in the room gasped in unison. Debra collapsed into the arm chair. “Sam has a reindeer?”
Santa Carole laughed. “I may need to borrow him tonight.”
Sam grinned. “Cool.”
Christy was smiling. “Have fun, Sam.”
We went down and Mr. Carole helped Mom put Sam’s seat into the car. Sam and I sat in the back seat. Sam frowned. “Where is your sleigh?”
Mr. Carole pulled away from the curb. “That only gets used tonight. This is how I get around the rest of the time.”
He and Mom started talking and Sam and I watched the city fly by past the windows. This was a different route than I normally took on the bus and train.
Mom asked Mr. Carole how he became a Santa. He was quiet for a moment. “It was a promise I made to my late wife. Christmas was a rough time of year for us. Our only son and his family were killed by a drunk driver on their way home from our house on Christmas eve over twenty years ago now. And she died the day after Christmas eight years ago.”
“I’m so sorry, Nick. I had no idea.”
He chuckled softly. “She made me promise not to let the sadness destroy me but to become the spirit of Christmas. So I let my beard grow and I’ve been a Santa for the past seven years.”
Mom wiped a tear out of the corner of her eye. “You are a true gift.”
We got to the zoo. It was early enough that the parking lot wasn’t too full. We walked up to the window and I gave the lady the coupon for entry. She got the most amazed look. “Uh, good morning, Santa.”
Mr. Carole gave her a jolly laugh. “Just here to introduce Sam to the reindeer he’s adopting.” He winked at her.
She smiled. “Just follow the signs to the Hamill Family Wild Encounters.”
I grinned. “I know the way.”
We went in. Sam pointed at the white stone lion. “Look at that, Mamma!”
She pulled out her camera. “Do you want your picture taken with him?”
I tapped Mr. Carole on the arm and pointed toward the offices. “I promised Tim I’d let him know when we got here. I’ll be right back.” I hurried toward the building. I didn’t recognize the lady at the front desk. “Is Tim O’Hare in?”
She picked up the phone and dialed. “It went strait to voicemail. He must be on a call.”
“I’m Micah Starling, one of the volunteers. I was supposed to let him know I was here.”
She smiled. “I can tell him. Where are you going to be?”
“By the reindeer photos. I brought my little brother in for his picture.”
“I’ll let him know as soon as his line is free.”
I hurried back out. Mr. Carole was surrounded by children and parents were snapping pictures. I join Mom and Sam. Mom shook her head. “Now I understand what he meant. I guess it must be hard for him to walk around this time of year.”
He saw me and thanked the other kids for saying hello. He rejoined us. “Comes with the suit. It’s a heavy responsibility.”
We walked to the building where I’d worked with Bunny. I was surprised to see the same photographer. “Hi, Allen. I figured you’d have the day off.”
“Hey, Micah! Have you come to hold the paddle for me? I’ve been waiting for my volunteer.”
I noticed the line of people. “I’m not actually volunteering today but I can help out until your volunteer arrives.” I pointed toward the line. “Mom, why don’t you guys go ahead and get in line. I’m just going to help out until the other volunteer gets here.”
Bunny and her trainer looked relieved to see me, too. Alan started taking pictures. The line moved. It was almost Sam’s turn when a guy dressed like an elf came in. “Sorry I’m late. There were some issues with the costume.”
I handed him the paddle and explained what to do. “Have fun!”
It was Sam’s turn. He took Mr. Carole’s hand. “Since it’s your reindeer, you can be in the picture, too.”
Mr. Carole chuckled. “You’re as generous as your big brother.” He sat down on the bench with Sam and the trainer had Bunny put her head between them.
She sniffed Sam’s hair. Sam looked up at her. “Don’t worry. I’ll come visit whenever I can.”
Bunny made a little grunt. The trainer patted her neck. “Don’t worry, Sam. We’ll take good care of her here.”
The photographer called for everyone to be ready. I stood next to him. “Hey, Sam. Look up here.”
Sam and Bunny both looked up and Alan snapped the button. Alan grinned. “What a perfect shot.” He called to his assistant. “Make two of these so Santa can have a copy.”
Mr. Carole led Sam away and the next kid took his place. He pointed at Mr. Carole. “Wow, Santa got his picture with a reindeer, too.”
By the look on the faces of the other kids in line, I bet they wished they could have had that chance. “Maybe next year the Zoo will hire you for this event.”
Mr. Carole looked around. “That would be a lot of fun.”
The assistant brought over a couple of envelopes. She handed one to Sam. “Here’s your official picture.” She handed the other to Mr. Carole. “Thanks for coming. Alan wanted you to have this.”
He gave her a hug and waved at Alan. He turned and waved to all the kids and parents standing in line. “You better watch out, you better not cry.”
Many of the kids called out together. “Santa Claus is coming to town!”
He gave a jolly laugh and we turned toward the exit to the area. I heard my name. Tim was waiting by the entry. I waved and pulled the others with me. “This is Tim. He’s the Volunteer Coordinator at the Zoo.”
Mom gasped. Tim knelt and offered his hand to Sam. “And you must be Micah’s little brother.”
Sam held up the envelope. “Are you going to help take care of my reindeer?”
“You bet. She’ll have other reindeer here to hang out with and people who know what she likes to eat. Your reindeer will get the best care.”
Sam’s smile took over his face. He hugged Tim. “Thank you!”
I looked over at Mom. She looked shocked. “Tim?”
He looked up and almost lost his balance. I grabbed his arm and helped him stand. “Wait a minute. You two know each other?”
Mom took a deep breath. She looked over at Mr. Carole. “Oh, my goodness. We have to go.”
Tim looked confused. “Jen?”
She put on a shaky smile. “It’s nice to see you. We can’t stay. Mr. Carole was nice enough to give us a ride but he has to get to a party after he drops us back at home.” She pulled me and Sam toward the gate. I glanced back over my shoulder.
Tim shook his head like he was waking up. Mr. Carole pulled a small white card out of his pocket and handed it to him. “Give Santa a call. Hmm?” He winked and hurried to catch up with us.
Mom was quiet most of the way home. Mr. Carole finally asked her how she knew Tim. Mom sighed. “We went to high school together.” She glanced back at me. “Remember the guy I told you helped me with Geometry?”
“That was Tim?”
She nodded. “I was just surprised to see him. It’s been a long time.”
Mr. Carole dropped us off. “Thanks for letting me come along, Sam.”
Sam hugged him. “Thank you for the reindeer, Santa!”
Mr. Carole looked at me. “I think that’s really for you.”
I shook my head. My eyes were burning. “He did ask you.” I took Sam’s hand and led him toward the door.
Mr. Carole handed Mom Sam’s car seat. “I know how hard it is to lose someone. I hope the spirit of Christmas can bring you some joy this holiday.”
She hugged him. She was crying. “Thank you, Nick. For everything.”
We went up stairs. Rachel and the boys were hiding in a blanket fort. Christy, Debra, and Amy came out of the kitchen. Amy ran to Mom. “We have a tree!”
Mom looked around. “We do?”
Amy took her hand. “It’s drying in the kitchen. Come and see.”
Sam and I followed them in. Christy and Debra were cleaning up newspaper on the table. Christy shoved it into a bag. “Hey, Sam. How’s your reindeer?”
Sam waved the envelope. “She gets to live at the Zoo and I got a picture with her and Santa.”
Mom had walked over to the table. “That is really pretty.”
I came around the other side. “Neat. How did you make that?”
Amy held up a book. “Christy has the best books. This one has bunches of stuff that you can make for Christmas. Our tree is made out of an old catalog her Nana gave her. We folded the pages into triangles and painted it green. Debra made the star.”
Debra handed Christy a bag of paints and brushes. “I’m so glad you came over. I wish you didn’t have to leave.”
Christy hugged her. “I had a lot of fun, too.” She looked at Mom. “Everyone was good. Rachel and the boys have been experimenting with different forts. I said they could borrow the book for awhile and I’m letting Debra and Amy keep that one. My Christmas present to them.”
Mom hugged her. “You’re wonderful. Thank you.”
Christy put the paints in her bag and pulled out a box. “I have a present for you, Micah.” She handed the box to me.
“I have one for you, too. I’ll have to get it from my room.”
Sam pointed at the box. “Aren’t you going to open it?”
“In a minute. I want to get Christy’s gift for her. She has to leave soon.” I set the box next to the tree and hurried into my room. I pulled the shell ornament out of the drawer along with the money for the things she’d brought over yesterday. I went back out.
Christy was pulling on her coat. “My mom just got here.”
I handed her the ornament and tucked the money into her pocket. “For what was in the bag.”
She pulled it back out and pushed it into my hand. “You don’t need to pay me for that. Those are from Nana, for helping me the other day.” She held up the ornament. “This is really beautiful. Will you open my gift to you before I leave? I want to see what you think.”
I retrieved the box and opened it. It was a ceramic mug with a jumping dolphin for a handle. “That is so cool! I’ll have to call him Magic.”
A cellphone rang. Christy pulled it out of her pocket. “My mom is here. I have to go.”
The kids surrounded her and gave her a group hug. Sam looked sad. “I hope you can stay longer next time so I can play with you, too.”
She grinned at me. “I’d like that.”
I’m not sure what came over me. I stepped up to her and kissed her. “Merry Christmas.”
Rachel covered her face. “Oh, gross. They kissed.”
Sam patted her back. “That’s what girlfriends and boyfriends do.”
We all laughed. I walked Christy down to the van. Someone was in the passenger side next to her mom. Christy took a deep breath. “That’s my dad.”
The van door slid open. I leaned over and waved. “Hi! Merry Christmas!”
Christy’s mom smiled at me. “Thank you, Micah. This is my husband, Henry.”
I moved up to the passenger window so we could see each other. The window rolled down. He was in a wheel chair, too. His face was lopsided but he smiled at me. I smiled back. “Hi, nice to meet you. Thank you so much for letting Christy hang out here this morning.”
“I hope you and your family have a good Christmas.” His voice sounded mechanical and his mouth hadn’t moved. I realized he had a keyboard in his lap.
Christy looked uncertain. She buckled her seat belt. I waved to all of them. “Enjoy the holidays!”
The van pulled away. I walked up the pathway to our building. Charlie called to me from the sidewalk. “Micah, wait up!” I paused by the door. He ran the last few feet. “Who was that?”
“Christy’s parents. They came to pick her up.”
“She was here?” I explained everything to him as we went up the stairs. “Were her parents nice?”
I opened our door. “I didn’t get a chance to say much. They are headed to visit her dad’s family this afternoon. They seem nice.” The thoughts that had been rolling around in my head collided. Christy and her parents must have all been in that bad accident when she was little.
Sam poked his head out of the fort. His face fell. “Are you and Charlie going somewhere?”
I looked over at Charlie. “Want to see a cool fort?”
We hung out with all the kids the rest of the afternoon. I even made a special fort for Rachel on the sofa and called it her tree house. It was fun. Mom baked cookies and we took turns telling stories about past Christmases we’d had.
Mrs. Kelly arrived to pick up the boys. They didn’t really want to go home. She hugged them. “But I have a special Christmas present waiting for you in the car.” That got them moving.
After they left, Charlie looked at the clock. “I guess I have to go, too.”
Mom came out of the kitchen and handed him a bag. “Take these home for your sister and parents.”
“Awesome! You make the best cookies ever.” Charlie hugged me. “This was the best. Just like the good old days.”
I felt the same way. “I have another week of volunteering at the zoo but I’ll call you next Saturday.”
“Right on! Maybe we can convince Christy to come with us down to the Park.”
“You really don’t mind?”
Charlie paused at the door. “She’s actually pretty cool. And she sure does get the math thing. See you next weekend.” He looked at the rest of my family. “Merry Christmas!”
Debra and I put the sofa and chairs back together while Amy and Rachel folded up the blankets. Mom brought out the Christmas tree and put in on the small table between the chairs. “I wish I had something to put under it.”
I hugged her. “It’s okay. Mom. You’ve been working hard to make sure we have a place to put it. That’s more important than gifts.”
There was a knock at the door. Mom looked up at the clock. “Oh, maybe that’s Maggie. Would you let her in, Micah? I have to pull dinner out of the oven.”
I went to the door and opened it. It wasn’t Maggie. I sighed. “Hi, Aunt Sarah.”
She came in. “Ben will be up in just a moment. He’s getting something from the car.” She looked around. “Where are your brother and sisters?”
I turned around. The living room was empty. “I think they’re washing up for dinner. I’ll let Mom know you’re here.”
I went into the kitchen. Rachel was under the table. Mom set a pan on a trivet. “I’ve already heard the news.” She didn’t sound happy.
I followed her out of the kitchen. “I’m going to see if Sam has finished in the bathroom.” I slipped around the corner and almost tripped on Amy in the dark hallway.
She looked up at me. “Why are they here?”
“Because it’s Christmas.”
Sam came down the hall and held up his hands. “All clean.”
Debra joined us and we went back into the living room. Aunt Sarah was squinting at the tree the girls had made. “How festive.” She didn’t sound impressed.
Uncle Ben came in with his arms full of packages. He set them on the sofa. “Merry Christmas!”
Mom forced a smile. “That’s very kind of you.”
Aunt Sarah went to the pile and handed them all out. We dutifully unwrapped our gifts. Mine was some reference book to religious stuff. Debra had a fancy stationary set. She leaned close to me. “All the sheets have verses at the bottom. Who am I ever going to give these to?”
Rachel and Amy both got book sets. Neither looked impressed by the stories. Sam was probably the only one who really liked his gift. He held up some plastic animals. “Look, Micah. Their zoo is in a boat.” He looked through all the different pairs. “But there aren’t any reindeer.”
I hugged him. “That’s okay, Sam. You know where your reindeer is.”
Mom put down her box. “These are very nice. Thank you both.”
Amy started to say something but I shook my head. There was a knock at the door. Mom opened it and Maggie came in. Mom looked relieved. “Perfect timing. I just took dinner out of the oven.” She turned to Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ben. “I’m sorry. I had no idea you were coming.”
Aunt Sarah put on a smile. “That’s alright, dear. We’re on our way to church for the Nativity Service.” She turned to us. “I hope you enjoy your gifts.”
We were all relieved when they left. We ate dinner. Maggie brought out a bag. “I have something for you.” She opened it.
I leaned over and looked inside. I pointed to one. “Give that one to Sam.”
She frowned. “I got that for you.”
I shook my head and pointed at Sam. She shrugged and handed him a little stuffed reindeer tucked in a hat. He was overjoyed. I ended up with a stuffed dog in a hat. It was okay.
Maggie left and we started tucking everyone into bed. Debra sat by the little paper tree. “All my friends in school talked about was all the stuff they expected to find around their Christmas trees tomorrow morning.”
I sat down next to her. “You know Mom couldn’t afford extra things this month. I have a little something for everyone tomorrow morning.”
She looked at me. “I think we’ll have the most important things around our tree tomorrow morning.”
“You don’t even know what I got.”
She shook her head. “We will be around our tree tomorrow morning.”
I woke up early. Everything was unusually quiet. I peeked around the curtains. Snowflakes were falling in the light of the street lamp. I’d have a sidewalk to shovel. I realized why it was so quiet. There was no traffic on the street. I rolled over and looked down at Sam. He was still asleep. He had Rolly the dog in one arm and his new reindeer in the other.
I got up and tip-toed out into the living room. No one else was up. I had no idea if mom had any wrapping paper. I went to the kitchen drawer and pulled out crayons, scrap paper, scissors, and tape. I colored some pictures then got the bag and the other two small boxes from my room. I wrapped each present in a picture and put them around the tree. I put the supplies away.
I got dressed and started roaming the halls for recycling. Instead of bags of used plastic, glass, and metal, I found bags with notes attached. They all said pretty much the same thing: For Micah and his Family, Merry Christmas. I was surprised. I took them all back to the apartment and set them by the tree.
I pulled on my coat and gloves and went down stairs. There was an envelope taped to the handle of the shovel. I opened it to find a Christmas card with a twenty dollar bill tucked into it. Mr. Anderson had written a little note: “Management was so impressed that our walks had been cleaned they gave me a bonus. I wanted to share it with you.”
I put the card in my pocket and picked up the shovel. The snow must have been falling for some time. There were several inches but it was light and fluffy so it didn’t take long to clear the pathway and sidewalk.
I went back up to our apartment. Debra and Rachel were sitting in the living room, staring at the bags around the tree. Debra pointed at them. “What’s all this?”
I hung up my coat. “I don’t know. That’s what I found instead of recycling this morning. Want to help me look through them?”
Rachel got down on the floor. “I’ll help.”
The three of us went through the bags. There were plates of cookies, hats, gloves, and scarves. Debra held up something wrapped in aluminum foil. “Mrs. Graham made us a fruit cake.”
Mom came out. “What are you guys doing? Where did all of this come from?”
I handed her the notes. “Gifts from our neighbors.”
Mom sat down on the sofa. “Oh, my goodness. All this because you took out the recycling?”
Debra handed her a card she’d found in a bag. “Micah’s good deeds are coming back to haunt him.”
Amy came out into the living room. “Has Santa been here?”
Mom started carrying the food into the kitchen. “Not exactly. Our neighbors have been very kind. We should eat breakfast first before we get into these goodies.”
Sam came in, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. “There are presents by the tree!”
Mom came back in. “Are those from neighbors, too?”
“No, those are from me.” I passed them out.
Sam opened his little box. “It’s a reindeer!”
I helped him get the pendant free of the cardboard backing. “This is so you will always remember your reindeer, even though it has to stay at the Zoo.”
Sam rubbed the shiny silver pendant. He started smiling. He got up and hung the necklace on the tree. “Now my reindeer can share Christmas with us.”
Amy held up the small doll. “You got me a princess!”
I crawled over next to her. “This is a real princess. Her name was Diana. She lived in England but did special things for people all over the world. This doll was made so people would remember her, even though she died.”
Amy touched the lacy dress. “She’s so pretty. I’m going to put her in my treasure box.”
Debra and Rachel were comparing their figurines. Debra held hers up. “These are so cool, Micah. Where did you get them?”
“Christy helped me pick them out. They came from her Grandparents’ shop.”
Mom looked up from her box and gasped. “Those are Hummels! How could you afford something like that?”
I moved closer to her and whispered. “They are replicas. Christy’s grandpa was excited, too, until he realized they weren’t the real thing. But they still look neat.”
Rachel held hers toward Mom. “Look at the little girl climbing the tree, Mom.”
Debra put her chin on Mom’s knee. “What did you get?”
Mom held up the green candle shaped like a tree. “It sits in this holder, which is a ring of children holding hands.” She pulled it out and put the candle in it.
Debra turned it slightly to see it. “That’s pretty.”
Mom leaned down and kissed me on the head. “What a wonderful Christmas surprise.” She set it on the table next to the tree.
Sam came over to me. “There’s no present for you under the tree.”
I looked over at Debra. “My best presents are right here.” I gave him a hug.
Mom wiped the corners of her eyes and got up. “I’m going to go make breakfast. I still have sprinkles left over from cookies. You can decorate your pancakes.”
I helped Mom with breakfast. We had just finished washing dishes when someone knocked on our door. Mom frowned. “I wasn’t expecting anyone.”
Rachel dove under the table. “If it’s Aunt Sarah, don’t tell her where I am.”
I went to the door and looked out the peep hole. All I could see was red and white. I opened the door. It was Mr. Carole, all dressed up. “Hi, Santa.”
Mom smiled. “Nick, we weren’t expecting you. Come in!”
“I hope you don’t mind I brought my elf along.”
Mom looked mystified. “You have an elf?”
Tim came in the door carrying a bag. “I volunteered for the day.”
I laughed. “Hi, Tim. You can meet the rest of my family.”
All the little kids ran to give Santa a hug. Sam patted his leg. “Did Bunny do a good job pulling the sleigh?”
Mr. Carole picked him up. “She did a splendid job. She and her friends are all back in the Zoo, enjoying their Christmas dinner.”
Mom hadn’t moved. She looked at Tim. “Did you take time away from your own family today?”
Tim handed her a present. “My parents moved to California to be closer to my sister. We talked over the phone. That’s the only family I really have.”
Mom looked at the gifts that Mr. Carole was passing out. “What’s all of this?”
Mr. Carole gave a present to Debra. “I volunteer with the local Shriners International. They have an adopt a family program for Christmas and I put your family’s name in. I hope I got all the ages right.” He handed me a box. “I knew you’d like that one.”
Everyone else was unwrapping things. Amy was so excited about hers that she couldn’t even talk. Sam held up a pair of pajamas with feet. “It has a reindeer on it!”
Tim pointed at the present Mom was holding. “That’s from me to you.”
She was struggling to breathe. I grabbed a chair from the kitchen and brought it over. She almost fell into it. I hugged her. “Unless you’ve got x-ray vision, I think you should get past the paper.”
Her fingers were shaking. She got the paper off and opened the top of the box. There was a pair of pink fuzzy slippers. Mom covered her face with her hands. I realized she was crying.
Tim knelt beside her chair. “I remembered how much you wanted a pair of these.”
She pulled down her hands to reveal her eyes. “How could you remember something so trivial all these years?”
He gently took one of her hands in his own. “Because it wasn’t trivial to you. All the girls in school made such a big deal about it. They all wore them on Slipper Day but you didn’t have a pair.”
Debra looked up from a book she’d been given. “You had Slipper Day at school?”
Mom started to laugh and cry at the same time. “It was part of homecoming week. Every day was a different thing.”
Tim grinned. “I guess they don’t have as much fun these days as we did in high school.”
Debra put the book down. “You and Mom went to high school together?” She looked over at me. “I missed something.”
I shook my head. “I’m still a little confused, too.”
Sam patted Mr. Carole’s leg. “You can sit down. I bet you’re tired from going all over the world. We have lots of cookies and milk.”
Mr. Carole joined Sam on the sofa. “Thank you, Sam. But I think I’ll pass on the cookies and milk for the time being.”
Amy looked up from her new doll. “Sam, he probably ate millions of cookies last night.”
Everyone laughed. Mr. Carole looked over at Mom. “I hope you don’t mind that we joined you.”
Mom wiped at her tears. “I’m just surprised. Don’t you have to be at a party?”
Mr. Carole took off his hat. “Nope. Christmas Day is Santa’s day off.”
Sam climbed into his lap. “Do you go back to making toys tomorrow?”
He laughed. “I leave the toy making for the elves. Tomorrow I go back to being Mr. Carole, the old guy with the white beard who lives next door.”
Sam hugged him. “Don’t worry, Santa. We won’t tell anyone your secret.”
I thought Mr. Carole was going to cry. He hugged Sam. “You’re a good little boy, just like your big brother.”
Mom looked around the room. “This is a Christmas I won’t forget.”
Tim started to sit on the floor next to her. I frowned. “How about I get you a chair.”
He looked up at Mom. “So you don’t mind if I stay?”
Mom ran her hands over the fuzzy slippers. “I’m not the same person I was when we were back in high school.”
He shrugged. “We all change.”
“I figured one of the girls from the cheer squad would have claimed you.”
“I think I was allergic to pompoms.”
Mom laughed. I went to get the chair.
It turned out to be the best Christmas ever. Mr. Carole and Tim stayed to have dinner with us. At the end of the evening, Mr. Carole went back to his own apartment. Debra went to get the girls ready for bed and I took Sam into our room. He insisted on wearing his new reindeer pajamas.
I tucked him in. He looked up at me. “Do you think someone tucks in the reindeer at the Zoo?”
I kissed him on the forehead. “I’ve seen where they sleep. It’s a nice cozy barn, perfect for reindeer.”
He tucked his toy reindeer in on one side and Rolly in on the other. “That was the best gift ever.”
“Go to sleep now, Sam.”
I turned out the light and looked around the corner into the living room. Mom and Tim were standing at the door. Tim was holding her hands. “When Micah first told me about the gift for his brother, I never imagined I’d get a gift, too.”
Mom was smiling. “What gift did Santa bring you?”
“You’ve got that backwards. Santa brought me to the gift.” He kissed her.
I turned back to my room and looked in on Sam. He was already asleep. I’d gotten him his reindeer and a whole lot more. “Merry Christmas, Sam. I’m glad I could make your wish come true.”
When I was a kid I always knew Christmas was coming when my dad brought out the Christmas Count-down Case. It had 25 compartments with doors, each holding a different ornament. We would open one door each night of December while we read the serialized Christmas story from the local newspaper. “Micah’s Gift” was originally published a chapter a day at Wattpad.com. This book brings it all together and wraps it up – just like a present. It’s my holiday gift to all of my Readers! Happy Holidays!