2010 Christmas Story Contest Winners

Thank you to everyone who submitted a story and to those who read them and commented and voted. We had 42 stories submitted this time. I think that’s a record!

I will make comments on each of these stories during the week, giving you my opinion on what was done well and what needed a little more polish. If you’re not a winner and you’d like to take credit for your story, you may do so in the comments section.

Drum roll, please. . .

Readers Choice Published Author Category: With Wondering Awe by Jennifer Carson Shelton

Publisher’s Choice Published Author Category: Slushballs by Janice Sperry

Readers Choice Unpublished Author Category: A Soldier’s Story by Amie Borst

Publisher’s Choice Unpublished Author Category: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh by Wendy Elliott

Remember, these four winners are guaranteed a spot in a future Christmas book. Others will be included, as well. I will notify all those whose stories will be included in the book via e-mail by the end of the month.

2010 Christmas Story Voting Instructions

Please read the voting instructions carefully before casting your vote.

Voting for LDSP’s 2010 Christmas Story Contest starts NOW!

VOTE between December 20th and midnight on Friday, December 24th.

Voting Info:

  1. There will be four winners:
    Readers Choice (Published authors)
    Readers Choice (Unpublished authors)
    Publisher’s Choice (Published authors)
    Publisher’s Choice (Unpublished authors).

  2. Publisher’s Choice winners will be judged on a variety of criteria, according to a point system. But it basically boils down to quality of writing, uniqueness of story and what I think will best sell a book.
  3. You can vote by whatever criteria you want, just don’t make it a popularity contest.
  4. You MAY vote for your own story. (In fact, you should. I am constantly amazed by the number of stories that receive no votes. What’s wrong with you people?)
  5. You may vote twice in each category: Published and Unpublished.

    Click HERE to read all stories by Published Authors. Vote for two.

    Click HERE to read all stories by Unpublished Authors. Vote for two.

    NOTE: There are 20 stories in the Unpublished Author category and 22 stories in the Published Author category. Due to the limitations of Blogger, they do not all show up on one page. After you’ve read the first batch, click the OLDER POSTS link at the bottom right below the last story to go to the next page of stories.

  6. To Place Your Vote: The word “VOTE” must appear in your comment. Leave a comment for the story your voting for with the words, I VOTE FOR THIS ONE or THIS ONE GETS MY VOTE or some other phrase that CLEARLY indicates you are voting. Comments that say, “I like this one…” will not be counted as a vote.

  7. You may make all the comments you like, but VOTING must contain the word VOTE.
  8. Anonymous votes count. We’re using the Honor System here and trusting that no one will over vote.

  9. AUTHORS: Please tell your friends that you’ve submitted a story and to come read and vote, but DO NOT tell them which story is yours. We want the stories to win on merit, not personal popularity.
  10. I’ll announce the winners on Tuesday, December 28th.

[P.S. All comments on the stories and Voting Comments will enter you in the Monthly Comment Contest.]

[P.P.S. I won’t be posting this week. I’ll be very busy reading stories.]

Christmas Story Contest Is Now Closed

The submission portion of the 2010 Christmas Story Contest is now over. We had 42 entries. That’s wonderful!

Tomorrow morning at 7:00 A.M. (MST) sharp, I will post voting instructions. Please read these instructions carefully before casting your votes.

Good luck to all those who submitted stories!

42 Feeling like the Grinch

“My heart is not two sizes too small Connie.” Kaida yelled annoyed that her little sister could be so ridiculous. It was two days before Christmas and Kaida wasn’t quite feeling the Christmas spirit.

“Mom I’m going to take the bus to the ski resort.” She called right as she was about to walk out the front door.

“Actually.” Mom said “Your Father and I thought that since it was so close to Christmas we could go skiing as a family.”

“Mom.” Kaida groaned.

“We’ll be ready in fifteen minutes.” Mom called as she made her way down the hall.

“Why are we going skiing?” Connie whined as the family piled into the car.

“To feel the Christmas spirit.” Dad said.

“More like you want to ruin my hair.” Connie griped turning her scowl out the window to the frozen landscape. “Why couldn’t we go ice skating. That’s so much more fun.”

Mom and Dad chose to ignore that comment.

Kaida wanted to gripe too but she stayed silent. They would probably have to go home and share the Christmas spirit by watching Frosty the Snowman if she started complaining also.

As soon as they were on the cross country skiing hills Mom told Kaida that if she tried to ditch them they she would be grounded for at least a month. Kaida decided that being grounded was definitely not worth it.

As they started skiing Kaida tried to show Mom and Dad what a terrible idea this was by glaring at everything that lived or breathed.

This didn’t work for long though because Mom had somehow gotten Connie into the Christmas Spirit or had given her too much candy. Either way Connie was giggling and laughing at things that didn’t seem at all funny to Kaida.

At one particular moment Connie was giggling like a hyena about something dad had whispered to her when they rounded the corner to a hill and Connie began slipping down the hill faster than she meant too witch made her grab onto dad trying to balance herself. This made dad start to fall also.

Kaida looked back at them and smirked. “Amateurs.” She muttered. But before she realized it they had run into her and the three of them had fallen onto the ground. Then mom who was bringing up the rear became part of the mess as she was unable to swerve out of the way. The three of them tried to get up but it was really hard because their skis were all tangled together.

Suddenly Connie started laughing and Kaida almost started to yell at her but then she realized what a scene they were making and she joined in laughing so hard that she almost fell over. Maybe the Spirit of Christmas wasn’t so bad after all.

41 The Christmas Mouse

‘Twas a few days before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except for one blasted mouse.

J.D next to me snores his peaceful sleep, the sleep of hard work. The children are nestled all snug in their beds, unaware of the havoc that one wretched little creature wreaks on my sanity. I hear him. I slide my feet into slippers and creep, ever so softly, to the dresser where he has taken up residence.

Flashlight in hand I crawl down on all fours and shine it into the space between the floor and bottom side of the dresser. His black beady little eyes shine back at me for an instant, and then he’s gone—shot straight into a hole on the bottom side of the wood.

I yank the drawers out, tossing them onto the bed—thus disturbing my dear husband’s rest.

“What are you doing?” He struggles up on one elbow and peers at me.

Whirling around, I shine the light in his face. “That mouse is going to destroy this house.”

“I’ll get a trap in the morning. Now come back to bed.”

The sheets are now cold, and I swear under my breath at not only the mouse and his demolition of my home, but at J.D.’s comfort in sleeping through such racket. I try to snuggle in. My toes hit an especially frigid spot in the sheets. I clutch the cold metal of the flashlight and listen. Nothing. I start to doze. That rascal must have been watching, for as soon as my eyes close, he begins again, this time from somewhere higher. I flip on my light and shine it at the little monster. He glares back at me, mocking me. In his tiny mouth he holds a bright red string off my favorite sweater. Did he just smile at me? Oh, you rotten little critter. I take careful aim and hurl the flashlight at the dresser. It skims across the top knocking over an array of perfume bottles which go clattering to the floor. The last thing I see in the beam is his little tail flip out of view where he disappears behind the mirror.

“What in the blazes are you doing?”

“I saw the mouse again.”

J.D. is standing next to the bed. “I told you I’d take care of it tomorrow.”

Sheepishly, I pick up the decanters, some of which spilled, and now the room reeks of a mixture of wildflowers, musk and wood scents—all at once.

He opens the window letting in a blast of frozen air, climbs back into bed and bids me a gruff good night.

After cleaning the surfaces with Lysol wipes I crawl, shivering, back into the now icy sheets. My toes are numb. My nose is running, but I refuse to drag my hands out of the covers and reach for a tissue, so I keep sniffling. To which my husband asks, “Are you crying?”

“No, just cold.”

He pokes me. “I’m trying to sleep here.” And then he rolls over and begins snoring again.

He better buy that mouse trap.

Next morning I shuffle out of bed into the frigid air, close the window and turn up the thermostat. The aroma of eau de par fume has dissipated. J.D. still sleeps soundly, and I scuffle off to the bathroom for a hot shower. What do I see on my countertop? Mouse droppings, not many, but enough to make me nauseous.

“J.D.!” I shrill at him. “You better get that trap today!” I drag out more Lysol wipes and disinfect not only the flat surfaces, but the tub, sinks and floor. Satisfied, I reach for the faucet in the shower and grab, not the nozzle, but a fuzzy mouse tail. Another scream pierces the early morning.

“Mommy?” Little Megan peers around the door. “What’s the matter?”

“Mouse!” It’s not that I’m afraid of them. I’ve seen enough of them, even fed one to a snake once. But to come upon one like that sent heeby-jeeby chills down my spine.

I looked again. It’s only the tail end of the nylon loofa sponge. My heart still races, my palms sweating.

J.D. patted the top of Megan’s head. “Hi, Sweetheart. Your mommy is having mouse issues.”

“Today, John! It’s either me or that mouse.”

True to his word, J.D. buys, not only several mouse traps but poison as well. I began laying them out—a little dab of peanut butter on the spring, a little sprinkle of powder. That ought to do it. I rest assured that little critter doesn’t have a chance.

After three days I don’t seen a trace of him. At last I am rid of him. Yet each trap I check is sprung, the peanut butter stolen, and there are no paw prints in the poison. This is no ordinary creature. Thinks he can outsmart me, huh?

We begin preparations for Christmas Eve. The tree set up in the front room, garlands on the banister, and lights around the house. I reset all the traps, even putting a tad of poison in with the peanut butter. That will show him who is boss.

Christmas eve I wake up to his chewing, hear a little pop and the soft lights from the living room that shine upstairs abruptly blink out. I poke J.D. “There’s someone in the house.”

He rolls over, gives me a quick pat on the hip. “You’re hearing things.”

Again I poke, this time harder. “Look, the lights went out.” I point toward our open bedroom door. “Go see what it is.”

“If there’s a burglar downstairs, I am not going face to face with him.”

I hand him the phone. “Then call the police.”

The squad car pulls up to the curb, and J.D gets up the nerve to open the front door and let in the officers.

“There’s a burglar in the house.” I stand behind J.D. My heart racing.

The uniformed man pulls out his pad and begins scratching notes on it. “Tell me what you heard.”

“This pop came from down here and then the lights went out.” I point to the tree. “See.”

The officer’s partner begins a search of the downstairs. By this time two of our four children have come down the stairs and are standing in the front room. Jake in his baggy t-shirt, Megan rubs at her sleepy eyes. Baby James starts yelling from his room next to ours.

“I don’t see anything.” The officer returns to the living room. “I’ll make a quick check upstairs.”
I follow him up the stairs and into Micah’s room. My fifteen month son reaches for me, and I hoist him onto my hip. Micah stirs in his bed but doesn’t waken.

“Honey.” I hear J.D. holler up at me.

With the baby in my arms I lead the way back down the stairs into the front room.

“Here’s your problem.” The officer shows me one of the cords to the light strand. “Your husband tells me you have a mouse problem.”

“You have got to be kidding me.” I examine where it is chewed through.

“Mrs. Collins, I can assure you that while this intruder isn’t harmless, he isn’t dangerous. I’m surprised he didn’t electrocute himself.” The policemen bids us good night. I can hear their chuckles all the way to their squad car. And I catch the sound of my husband’s snickers as well.

With the baby back in bed, Jake and Megan given drinks of water and quick kisses I reassure them all is well. I curl back into bed which is chilled again, knowing I am living with a marauder under my roof. Once I close my eyes, I am sure I hear the sound of giggles followed by gut splitting peals of laughter. I imagine that white-furred demon is rather amused at his antics. I make a mental note to redouble my efforts in the morning. He will not get away with ruining my Christmas!

Christmas morning comes before dawn has a chance to even show her face. All four children run squealing into our room and pounce on us. Bleary-eyed we roll out of bed, trudge down the stairs and stare at our rapscallion-darkened tree. Never-the-less, Santa has arrived anyway, and a plethora of gifts beckon for attention.

A half hour later wrapping is strewn across the floor. I hope I will be able to sort out what are gifts. J.D. hands me a lovely box wrapped as only a gift shop can do. A sheepish grin spreads across his face. Since I hadn’t opened my traditional pistachio nuts, I figure this must be it. Excited, I peel back the wrapping with all the wild abandon of my four little merry makers. I scream. Not with delight, but terror. There in the box looking up at me is two of the beadiest eyes I’ve ever seen. I think he screams. Or maybe I imagine that, too. He leaps from the box, runs for the kitchen and dashes behind the refrigerator.

Laughing J.D. put his arms around me.

“That’s not funny!” I fling the box at him, scattering nuts everywhere. Apparently, the little rascal chewed a hole in the packaging.

“I didn’t put him in there.” J.D. shrugs. “I’ll buy you another bag tomorrow.”

I don’t want to spoil the children’s Christmas so I smile sweetly up at him and through gritted teeth I say, “I would rather you get rid of that mouse!”

“Mommy, Mommy.” Micah tugs at my robe. “We forgot to put the baby Jesus in the manger.”

In all of the commotion of the mouse last night, and then the early awakening this morning, we had indeed forgotten the most important of our family traditions. “I’ll get him.” I wander into the kitchen to retrieve the porcelain figurine when I stop short. There on the counter is that wily rascal. He runs behind a cookie sheet propped against the backsplash. I grab the first two cups I see and slide them from each side of the cookies and close in on that critter. He has nowhere to run. I scoop him up as I close both cups over him.

“Ha! Thought you’d outsmart me this time.” I gaze into his terrified little eyes through the plastic. This mouse is history.

Triumphant, I walk into the living room and hold up my prisoner. Victory is sweet. “I know what I am going to do with you, my four footed furry fiend.” I march into the bathroom, the whole family in tow. They stand and watch as I toss him into the toilet. I hear my family gasp. Before I change my mind I give the handle a resounding flush, and smile with satisfaction as it struggles against the current—his little legs pumping faster than I’d ever seen him scamper across my floors.

Puzzled I give the toilet another flush. Panic on its face, he stares up at me. I reach for the handle again.

J.D. places his hand over mine and draws it back. “It’s Christmas.” He reaches into the toilet and fishes out the drowning bit of a thing. Holding it up by its tail God’s creature looks back at me, pleading in its face.

Defeated, I hold out the cup. J.D. drops it in. Together we walk to the back door where our house butts against the forest. While there is no snow on the ground, it is cold. I lay out a dishtowel, set the mouse on the rag. He buries himself among the folds, sticks his nose out once. And for a moment, just a brief moment, I could have sworn I heard him say, “Merry Christmas.”

And I couldn’t help but think that my Savior loves that little mouse, too.

40 Christmas Stash

“But why would Jeremy’s boss do such a thing?” Mom shook her head.

“Oh, it’s simple,” Claire said as she pinned up another section of the garland. “Eat and be eaten, you know,” she gave a significant nod, her eyebrows arched high.

“But will he really be able to find a new position?” Mom insisted.

“Don’t worry about that,” Claire responded merrily. Her swollen belly jiggled to and fro as she bustled with some ribbons. “Jeremy will be snatched up in no time.”

“But, dear,” Mom said with concern, “it’s got to be before—”

“Stop worrying, Mom!” Claire laughed. “I’m sure we’ll just have time to get hired—somewhere—and find a new house—someplace—before little Isla joins us.”

Mom’s lips were still a thin line, but she didn’t voice any more doubts.

“Angie!” Claire set down the figurines she was arranging on the mantel and hurried over. “You’ve got it all wrong!”

“What are you talking about?” Angie countered.

“You’re supposed to do the advent counting down, not up.” Claire pulled the tole-painted pieces from Angie’s hand and began rearranging them the other way.

“But this way you just think of the date,” Angie protested.

Claire ignored her. “There,” she said, stepping back and smiling, the advent numbers beautifully arranged counting down. “Now you can turn them to today.” Claire waddled back to the box of decorations to select her next prey.

“Christmas Nazi,” Angie muttered. It had always been like this, ever since they were little children. Claire was always taking charge, always arranging, always bossing, and setting up the Christmas decorations topped it all. Now that Claire was married, and Angie still was not, it was even worse. “Jeremy and I like to do this” and “Jeremy and I like it like that” had droned on and on, day and night, since Christmas vacation had begun.

“Angie! Can you help me with the star?” Claire called from the living room. Yes, leave it to Angie, the giant, to put the star on the Christmas tree and answer Claire’s every beck and call.

There were only two years between them, but the way Claire treated Angie made it seem like ten. “Now you can do this, Angie? Now you can do that?” Who did she think she was—a second mom or something?

Angie perched the star on top of the tree. She cleared the paper and bubble wrap strewn in the wake of Claire, the decorating diva. Then Angie pulled the empty boxes into the garage and set them back in the rafters. All the while, Claire was jabbering away to Mom about her plans for the baby room, when she and Jeremy got a new house, that is. Nobody said a word to Angie. It was like she was some mute servant hovering in and out, assisting when needed, as invisible as her six-foot height could possibly be.

“Angie, can you lift this?” Claire asked, pointing to a sack of flour in the kitchen.

“Now, Angie,” Claire said when the flour was on the counter, “you spray the pans, but I’ll roll out the cookie dough. You always get it uneven, you know.”

Angie tried not to grind her teeth. Apparently she had stumbled into a bake shop and had volunteered her services.

“I know these are your favorite, Mom!” Claire called cheerfully as she pulled the ball of sugar cookie dough from the refrigerator. As if Angie hadn’t been the one to mix the dough the day before.

“Now, Mom,” Claire said. “We’ll just bake these up and frost them after dinner. Then Angie can go delivering, just like the good old days.”

Angie kept her gaze on the countertop, cutting each cookie deliberately and violently while trying to suppress the memory of how she had always been the one to pull their little red wagon around the neighborhood with the Christmas goodies while little Claire pranced ahead singing Christmas carols.

“No, no,” Claire said, bustling over to Angie and tearing up the tree-shaped cookie forms. “We wanted angels, right Mom?” Claire rolled Angie’s trees back into a ball. “There, start again. Here’s the angel.”

Angie bit her lip and punched at the ball of dough. Now there was a cookie dictator in the house.

“Honestly, Mom,” Claire smiled, returning to her cup of cocoa at the table. “I’m glad that I came home early to help out. What a state the house would be in without my touch!”

“Stop!” Angie jumped to her feet and put her hand over her ears. Sticky crumbs of dough fell along her cheek, and there were probably hand marks of flour in her hair, but she didn’t care. “Just quit it, Claire, all right? I’m right here, you know. You don’t have to talk like I can’t hear.”

It was like someone had pressed the mute button, the kitchen was so silent. Claire’s eyebrows were nearly to her hairline, and Mom looked like she was about to cry.

“Look,” Angie stammered, already ashamed of her outburst, “I’m sorry, it’s just–” she grabbed a towel off the counter and brushed the flour off her hands, stalling as she tried to find the words to express what she felt.

“It’s okay,” Claire said, shrugging her shoulders and turning back to the cookie cutters. “That time of the month, huh? We all get it, Angie. No big deal.”

Angie threw down the towel and stomped out of the room. Her coat was hanging on the rack by the door. She ripped it from its hook and tore out of the house, the sleigh bells on the doorknob jingling behind her.

The winter air cut at her flushed cheeks, but between a fast walk and a fuming temper, Angie wasn’t cold. She couldn’t believe that Claire would make a PMS crack at her. It was the lowest of the low.

The sun was just about to set, and after a few blocks Angie knew she wouldn’t be able to stay out much longer. Mom always worried if Angie or Claire was out alone in the dark, and Angie still didn’t like to make Mom worry.

Up just up the street, Mrs. Miller was bringing a set of poinsettias back into her house. “Merry Christmas!” Mrs. Miller called, and Angie gave a wave. As angry as she had been a few minutes ago, Angie liked Mrs. Miller. She was a little deaf and talked to her cats, but she always said hello and used to let Angie and Claire pick her apples every fall when they were little girls.

“How’s your mother, Angie?” Mrs. Miller called.

“Great,” Angie said. “The doctor says the transplant is taking really well.”

“Wonderful!” Mrs. Miller’s smile lit her face up to her sponge curlers. “I like to give ’em a little sun,” Mrs. Miller explained as she picked up the red leafy plants and gave them a shake. “Keeps ’em nice longer.”

Angie smiled as she said good night and watched Mrs. Miller’s carpet slippers shuffle back into her glowing house.

It was dinner time by now, but Angie was far from hungry and even farther from wanting to confront her family. Sure enough, Dad’s car was in the driveway and the lights were on in the dining room. Angie snuck in through the side door and upstairs to her room.

The gentle rumble of dinner table conversation filtered up through the vents. Maybe they wouldn’t notice Angie was home before they left to pick up Jeremy, who was finishing up his last days of work, from the airport. Angie plopped on her bed and pulled a novel from the stack she had picked out for Christmas break. After the fifth attempt of reading a page and getting nothing out of it, she dropped the book on her bedside table and went to the bathroom for a drink.

It was the same bathroom that Claire and Angie had shared all growing up. At first it was nostalgic to see all Claire’s cosmetics lined along the bathroom counter once more, but the stray tissues and bits of packaging that Claire dropped everywhere were getting pretty annoying. It only took a few days for Angie to remember how much she hated her sister’s carelessness, probably Claire’s one imperfection.

As Angie took her cup from the corner of the counter to fill it with water, she noticed Claire’s ring tray glittering with its delicate charges. The rings were probably there for safe keeping from the cookie dough. Angie looked at the ring tray for minute, and then poked her head out into the hall. The sounds of clinking forks and talking were still floating up the stairs. Angie returned to the bathroom, shut the door, and picked up the rings.

The dainty circlets of smooth, elegant, white gold glinted in the soft bathroom light. Angie glided the rings onto the tip of her finger, the three diamonds sparkling like exquisite stars, but the rings slid no further. Claire’s hands, like her whole figure, were willowy and thin, while Angie had always felt like she had too many limbs.

Angie returned the rings to the tray and looked in the mirror. She was angry at herself now for being so selfish. Claire meant well, she always had. Yes, she still was a bossy older sister, but she had taken care of Angie all her life. It was Claire who had known what to say to everyone when Mom was sick with kidney disease. It was Claire who always helped Mom while Angie locked her dreaded fears in her heart along with her voice.

A pounding on the staircase made Angie jump. She ran the sink and splashed her face with water so Claire would know the bathroom was occupied. The hand towel had been left on the floor, thanks to Cluttery Claire, so Angie bent down to the cupboard under the sink to grab a clean, new one. Her hand hit something hard and she heard the crinkle of wrapping paper. Reaching farther into the cupboard, Angie pulled out a box that was almost a perfect cube and about the size of a tissue box. It was wrapped in the prettiest shimmering gold paper and tied with a bright, silky red bow. “To Angie” the top of the handmade gift tag read.

Angie gave the box a little shake. She heard something heavy clunk around among its tissue-paper padding. Her shake had turned the tag over, and she noticed a longer note on the backside: “Dear Angie, I wanted to get you something really special for Christmas this year. I know I’ve been pretty bad at giving you things I would want—like makeup and spa packages—in the past, but this year I really wanted you to know that I care about you, not just what you might think I want you to be, if that makes sense. I’m so proud of how well you’re doing in school. It’s not what I would, or did, want to study, but I’m glad you’re figuring out your thing. I hope this will help. Thanks for being my little sister and putting up with me for all these years. Love, Claire.”

The click of the light switch and the shuffling sounds of a pregnant lady’s waddle in the next room made Angie’s heart beat fast. She flipped on the sink again, shoved the package back into its hiding place, turned off the sink, and fled to her room. A minute later, through the double doors, she heard Claire’s muffled knock to see if Angie was still in the bathroom. It was early, but Angie flipped off her light and dived into her bed. Maybe no one would bother her if they thought she was asleep.

Half an hour later, the back door slammed, the garage rolled open, and Angie heard the family van pull out the driveway. When she was sure they were far enough down the street, Angie sat up and flipped on her bedside lamp. She leaned her back against the wall and spun a decorative pillow up and down into the air: swish, plump, swish, plump.

It surprised Angie that she felt no curiosity about the gift. Claire had certainly written quite a lead-up to it, but it was what Claire had said about giving meaningful and wanted gifts that kept rolling through Angie’s mind. Most of Claire’s gifts Angie really hadn’t valued at all—she had always hated the perfumes, eye shadows, and nail polish that Claire gave her—but now, she felt kind of bad about her ingratitude.

It was the rings, Angie finally settled on, that had started the change. The particulars of Claire’s wedding—the zillion lists of décor, gourmet food, protocols, plans, and all the other trappings—still brought on nightmares. However, now that Claire and Jeremy had lived a new life together for a few years, Angie had to admit that those rings represented more than just the expensive white dress and perfect roses Claire had ordered. Angie thought of what Claire had said about Jeremy just that day—Claire’s faith, devotion, and loyalty to him—and it made Angie a little awed—and a little jealous–that Claire was such a good wife and so happy.

Angie slid off her bed and dug beneath it for her hidden stash of Christmas gifts. They were still unwrapped. Claire always said that Angie wrapped presents like a fifth grader—like they had been chewed up by a dog before they were placed under the tree. Shrugging the thought off, Angie pulled out her proposed gifts, one by one.

There was the CD of old favorites that Mom would probably cry over. Sure, Angie’s parents still had all the songs on vinyl record and liked them best that way, but the CDs would be useful in the car.

Angie took out the box of chocolate-dipped peppermint sticks for Dad. It was a running joke between Angie and him that this was all he ever wanted for Christmas. If he could count on her to get his favorite treat, he’d have a Merry Christmas no matter what. Angie smiled and put the peppermint aside.

Next she pulled out the Wii game she had bought for Jeremy. She was still figuring him out, but she thought he would like it. He and Claire had friends over a lot, and this party game was one of Angie’s favorites for group dates at school.

The last thing in the box was Angie’s gift for Claire: a wimpy bottle of lotion. It wasn’t even the on-brand that Claire liked, just the generic. Angie had picked it up without a thought, and picked up the cheap bottle thinking that with Jeremy being let go and all they’d have to learn to economize anyway.

Angie pushed the box of Christmas secrets away with her foot. The lotion tipped and rattled against the cardboard side. She was ashamed of her gift now after reading Claire’s heartfelt note. All this time, Angie had thought that Claire was the lame sister, the sister who didn’t listen, who didn’t care. Okay, Claire definitely had her faults, but her intentions were good. Maybe their broken relationship, which was getting rockier as the years passed, was Angie’s fault—Angie who wouldn’t speak her mind, Angie who didn’t communicate, Angie who had given up when Claire never had.

Angie reached into the cardboard box, grabbed the lotion, and tossed it into the trash can under her desk. After a minute, she thought better of that move, retrieved the lotion, and took it to the bathroom and added it to Claire’s line of cosmetics on the counter. Then she returned to her desk and switched on her computer.

Mom had been thinking of throwing a baby shower for Claire with all her old friends, the neighbors, and the church ladies that they had known their whole lives. Before, Angie had cringed at the idea of another party for Claire, but now she realized it was just what Claire needed—and what Angie needed to make up for all her sour sister moments. She cruised through several party supply sites and picked out invitations, decorations, and favors—all the ones she had heard Claire describe to Mom the week before. Angie printed the list. She could show it to Mom tomorrow. Maybe they could even make the shower a surprise.

Next she browsed Claire’s online baby registry. She picked out a few gifts that she knew would be really meaningful to Claire—one for the shower, one for Christmas, and one for the birth. She was taking stock in this baby after all. If she was going to compete with Jeremy’s sisters for favorite Auntie, she had better start right now.

Finally, Angie went downstairs and pulled the golf catalogue out of the trash in Dad’s den. Maybe it was time to give a little more in her other Christmas gifts too. This year peppermint sticks would just be part of the wrapping.

What I liked best: Loved it.

Publication ready: Needs a little tightening up, but overall, it was wonderful. I want this in the book.

39 The Legend of the Broken Candy Cane

As you may know, the Christmas candy cane represents the staff of the shepherds who visited the baby Jesus when He was born. What has not yet been explained is the reason that some candy canes are broken. . .

There was once a shepherd named Eleazar. He was not very old, but he was on his way into manhood. One clear night Eleazar was watching over his little flock of sheep on the same small hill where several of his friends also watched their flocks. This evening was like any other; it was calm and quiet. The darkness was barely lit by the pale moon and the distant stars that sparkled in the sky.

While watching their flocks by night, the shepherds were startled when suddenly there was a glorious brightness that filled the sky. They shielded their eyes with their hands while they gazed about to see where the light was coming from.

The shepherds soon realized that the light was descending from heaven, and an angel was speaking to them. They were very afraid, but the angel told them not to fear. The messenger declared that a baby had been born in Bethlehem, and He would be the Savior of mankind. The angel also told them about the bright new star that appeared in the sky. Before they could fully comprehend what was happening, the angel was gone. Eleazar and his friends stood in stunned silence for a moment. They could hardly believe what had just happened. An angel had come to announce the marvelous gift the world had been given.

Eleazar gazed up and saw the new star which was so brilliant that it illuminated the dim sky unlike any other. All they had to do was follow that star to a stable to see the special baby in the manger. The shepherds went hastily to witness the event. Eleazar went too.

As the shepherds traveled to the stable, Eleazar lagged further behind them. Eleazar was a dreamer, and this night was no exception. As he slowly walked, he played with his sheep and imagined the scene that would lie before him in the stable that night. Eleazar would catch up to his friends later.

As Eleazar was deep in thought, he did not notice that Nuri, his youngest and tiniest lamb, had wandered a little way off from the rest of the flock. In the light of the new star, Eleazar caught a glimpse of a smoky-gray wolf in the distance racing toward his precious Nuri. The wolf was hungry, and Nuri was in danger.

Eleazar’s heart started to beat wildly. The shepherd dropped his staff to the ground and sped as quickly as he could to his little Nuri. As soon as he reached her, he bent down and scooped up the fluffy bundle in his arms just as the attacker raced past Eleazar and snapped its teeth angrily at the young man’s leg. The wolf circled around while Eleazar ran with Nuri clutched tightly in his arms. The shepherd rushed the lamb back to the flock to escape the threat.

The wolf was not about to accept his defeat. Any lamb would do now. As the wolf headed back toward the flock, the shepherd raced closer to his staff that he had abandoned earlier. Before he could reach it, the wolf ran near him, eyes focused on his next meal. The shepherd was barely close enough, but he reached out and swiftly kicked the wolf in one of its front legs. The hungry animal collapsed and scraped the side of its jaw hard on the rocky ground and yowled in pain. The wolf slowly regained its stance, shook its head, and headed again for the flock of sheep.

Eleazar rushed to grab his staff as a weapon against the menacing animal. His heart was pounding. He ran back to the wolf which was nearing his flock. Holding the rounded part of his staff, Eleazar swung it low and struck the wolf across its chest. He hit the beast so hard that he could hear his staff crack.

The wolf landed on the ground with a forceful thud and was hardly breathing. Eleazar did not look back but used this opportunity to get away. He scurried up a low, rocky hill to rejoin his sheep. In his haste, the shepherd’s foot slipped on a rock. He twisted his right ankle and fell onto his hands and knees. As he fell, his right leg was struck below his knee by a sharp rock which cut deep into his flesh. Cringing, Eleazar fell to his side and gripped his shin with both hands as he realized the pain. Warm crimson fluid flowed from his wound with every heartbeat.

Eleazar needed help, but his friends were too far ahead of him to realize what had happened. He gently wiped what red liquid he could from his leg with his course wool robe, but the blood still trickled out. Holding tightly onto his fragile staff for support, Eleazar gently lifted himself up and hobbled to his flock. Eleazar suddenly recalled why he was traveling. He resumed his journey and limped after the new star. He still needed to reach his destination—the baby born in the stable.

As the shepherd and his flock trudged slowly onward, Eleazar noticed the silhouettes of other shepherds close to a tiny village off in the distance. He decided to stray from the path that would lead him to the stable to seek help from them.

As he approached the strangers, Eleazar greeted them feebly. Seeing his injury, the shepherds helped Eleazar sit down on a sizeable rock, and one kind shepherd tended to his wounds.

While his bleeding leg was washed and bound and his ankle was being wrapped, Eleazar related the events of the angel’s visit. He explained to them that he was on his way to see the miraculous baby born in Bethlehem. To his surprise, they laughed at him. These other shepherds did not believe him because they had not seen the angel for themselves. The shepherds scorned him for such a frivolous journey. Eleazar showed them the new star in the heavens, but they still did not believe.

After resting briefly, Eleazar thanked the shepherds for the bandages and the bread and water they shared with him. But the bandages could not bind up the pain and humiliation he felt in his heart. As he limped into the night, he could hear the shepherds mocking him for his endeavor. Eleazar decided it did not matter. He would press on to his destination. Clutching his staff tightly, Eleazar got back on course and followed the star once again. It would take him much longer to reach the stable at his slow pace, but his little white friends urged him on. The young man worried that his fractured staff would not be sturdy enough to hold his weight, but he leaned on it for the rest of his journey to the stable.

As the darkness began to withdraw, Eleazar realized that it would soon be morning. His friends had surely reached the stable much earlier, but he had journeyed the entire night.

Weary and sore, Eleazar was grateful to finally see the light of the new star resting on the stable. When he finally took his last feeble step and reached the entrance of the stable, he heard a loud crack, and his staff broke completely. Thankfully, the shepherd no longer needed the staff for support. Now he could fall down and worship the Holy Child.

When you receive a broken candy cane, be grateful. Think of Eleazar’s staff, and remember that the broken candy cane is the most special one of all.

Eleazar is a Hebrew name meaning God has Helped

Nuri is a Hebrew name meaning My Fire

38 The Gutierrez Girls Save Christmas

It was a typical Thursday in December. Typical, except for the fact that tomorrow will be Christmas Eve. Lea and Heneka, The Gutierrez Girls, were busy doing their homework, Aunt Silvia was cooking dinner, Chimichanga, their pet burro, and Churro, their giant puppy dog, were playing tug-of- war over an old sock. Uncle Jesse and his friend Josh were watching wrestling on TV. The wrestling program they were watching was sponsored by a national department store. The advertisement came on between wrestling matches. A kindly looking old gentle man came on the screen….

Hello, My name is Grinchwell S. Duggins for The Grinchwell Department Stores. I would like to invite you to come in and see the wonderful deals that we have for the holidays. We have all of the latest toys for girls and boys at the Grinchwell Department Stores. Bring the Kids in on Saturday to meet the Grinchwell Holiday Elf…..

Lea thought it was kind of odd that the department store had the Grinchwell Elf instead of Santa Claus, but, oh well….The family had a nice dinner that evening, Lea said the prayer, and everyone was happy.

Suddenly the phone rang. Heneka said, “may I be excused” as she got up to answer the phone. The voice at the other end of the phone sounded familiar. “Aaaaaah, hello, aaahhhh, is this the Gutierrez Girls?” Heneka answered, “This is Heneka Gutierrez, can I help you?” Yes this Bo Yamma.” Heneka said “Bo Who?” “You know, President Obama!!, that is my code name when I call you.” “oh, right” Heneka said, what can I do for you President Obama?” President Obama said “Heneka, there is an impending crisis and your nation needs the help of the Gutierrez Girls.” “How can we help?” Heneka replied. President Obama went on to explain “Our foreign intellegence agency has uncovered a covert operation taking place in the northern hemisphere.” Heneka asked “do you mean Canada?” “No, further north” President Obama said. Heneka said, “but if you go north of Canada, you’re at….”

“That’s right,” President Obama said, “THE NORTH POLE.” President Obama went on to explain, “We’re getting credible intelligence that someone is trying to disrupt businesses and bring down the economy of the entire northern region. That could have far reaching effects on the economy of the rest of the world.” Heneka said “The Guiterrez Girls will go up there and see what we can find out.”

Heneka gave Lea the secret Gutierrez Girls signal to let her know that that it was time to go on another mission. The girls ducked into their bedroom, to the trap door under Chimichanga’s bed in the closet and down into their secret hideout. Heneka said, “quick, let’s fire up the flying BMW.” But Lea had a different idea. “Why don’t we take the Rocket Bikes with lazers and rocket launchers? That way we’ll have more weaponry in case we have to fight our way out of a bad situation.”

They hopped on their Rocket Bikes and The Guiterrez Girls were off on another mission. As the rocket bikes drifted into the arctic air space of the northern hemisphere, Lea and Heneka noticed that there was a giant factory surrounded by a village of small cottages and there was snow everywhere. The one thing they didn’t see was people, no one.

Even the factory appeared to be closed. Lea said, “we’d better go look around”. They put on their protective winter gear and walked through the village. As they approached the dark dingy factory the girls looked in the windows and saw that nothing was going on. What appeared to have once been an active and thriving production line had come to a complete halt. Suddenly to her dismay, Heneka noticed piles of unfinished and incomplete toys on the floor. Then it hit her like a ton of bricks as she cried out to Lea in dismay “Oh No, It’s Santa’s workshop!!!!” Lea became very upset as well. “What will happen to Christmas?” she cried, but there was no one there to answer. As they made their way around to the front of the building they saw a large chain on the door and a sign that said….


Heneka cried to Lea, “This can’t be happening… The Gutierrez Girls have to save Christmas!!”

Lea found a rusty crow bar laying in the snow. The girls used all of their strength to pry open the chained up door to the factory. Once inside, Lea said, “we need to set up an office and command center.”

Heneka looked around and found just the spot. There was a big room with phones, computers and a giant map of the world. Heneka flipped a switch on the wall and the map lit up. It had lights that showed time zones and flight patterns all around the globe. Lea said, “This is it. This is where all the magic happens. This is where they track and control Santa’s journey every year.” Heneka said “Yeah, but not this Year.” Lea said“We’ll see about that one little sister.”

As the girls rummaged around the command center looking for clues, Heneka started getting distracted. There were just too many toys and stuffed animals that she couldn’t resist playing for a while. She set up a tea party with the Fairy Princess Doll and for the prince she found a stuffed doll dressed like a Gnome. She would have them dance and then she sat them at the table and shaped their little arms to hold the tea cups. She took the gnomes little hand and placed it around the cup.

She thought heard something, a voice saying, “ouch”, but she wasn’t quite sure. She heard it again…”ouch, it’s too tight”. Now, Heneka loves to talk to her toys, but this was even freaking her out.

“I’m sorry little gnome” she said. The little voice said, I’m not a Gnome, I’m an elf, and I don’t appreciate you treating me like a toy.

Heneka said “do you have a name mister elf?” He said , “of course, doesn’t everybody have a name?. I’ll bet they even gave you one.”

“Well yes, she replied, they call me Heneka.” Heneka? He said, hmmmmmmm, let me see, you live on Middletown Rd. and as I recall, you were just a little bit naughty this year.” Heneka said, “I guess it’s true, Aunt Silvia doesn’t like it when I roll my eyes at her, and I’m trying to control that because I know that Aunt Silvia deserves my respect.” Just then Lea came bursting out of the office, “ I’ve got it, all we have to do is find one of Santa’s Help—pers” as she noticed Heneka and the little elf standing there. “Allright”, he said “you’ve found one of Santa’s helpers. They call me Withers. At your service.”

Withers the Elf told Lea and Heneka a very sad story. It seems that old Mr. Grinchwell S. Duggins came to the North Pole and convinced Santa to go into a partnership of sorts. Grinchwell would use his trucks to get all of Santa’s toys to local distribution centers where Santa would pick them up for each local area and deliver them. That way Santa’s sleigh would not be so heavy and it would save him a lot of work. Grinchwell convinced Santa to mortgage the toy factory to buy into the deal. Santa neglected to read the fine print in the contract and within a week Grinchwell took over the factory and shut it down.

Lea said, “that’s enough, Grinchwell took advantage of a kind and jolly man through means of fraud and deception and that will never hold up in court. Suddenly, the giant computer moniter on the wall started flickering and Grinchwell appeared on the screen. “Why have you ruined Christmas?” Heneka yelled. “I haven’t ruined Christmas” said Grinchwell, “I’ve only made it more profitable for meeeeeee. Tell me, how can I make a profit on toys if that jolly old fat man is just giving them away?” Lea said “I want to see the contract that Santa signed.”

Grinchwell got very mean and said, “we’re beyond that now, you have 2 minutes to get out of my factory.” “Or what” Lea said. “you’ll see” said Grinchwell, “You’ll see”. Suddenly The Guiterrez Girls heard a loud buzzing noise outside. They ran outside only to see that the air was full of Grinchwell’s flying holiday elves. There were hundreds of them and they weren’t really elves at all, they were more like the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz and it looked like they were in attack mode. Lea yelled to Heneka and Withers, “we had better run for the rocket bikes.”

As they ran toward the area where they left the rocket bikes, it was like a combination of a video game and the worst 3-d movie you’ve ever seen. They ran as fast as they could. They jumped over fences and ran under bridges but the flying monkeys kept on coming. Finally they got to the bikes. Heneka grabbed Withers the Elf by the arm and said “you’re riding with me.” Now that they had the rocket bikes things changed. They could not only out run the monkeys, but they had fire power. Lea and Heneka started firing their lazer guns at will. It was just like playing a game in the arcade, except it was real and flying monkeys were falling out of the sky everywhere. Finally the flying predators formed a hasty retreat. All except for one. Lea grabbed one of the Flying Monkeys by the scruff of the neck and took him back to the abandoned factory.

Lea asked the prisoner “Where is Santa Claus and what have you done with all the rest of Santa’s Elves?” He didn’t say anything. “I’m going to ask you one more time.” Lea said, “What have you done to Santa and his Elves.” The little flying monkey got a very sad look on his face and started crying. “Can’t you see” he said, “We are Santa’s Elves. Grinchwell turned us all into these hideous creatures and we have to do his bidding.”

Withers said “Blinky?, Is that really you?” They hugged and Blinky told Withers how lucky he had been to escape when Grinchwell captured the others. “You see”, Blinky said, “Grinchwell has a plan to dominate Christmas and take the place of Santa, except he’s not only going to charge for the toy’s, He’s going to triple the prices.” Heneka said, “parents won’t be able to afford that. It will destroy the spirit of giving.”

Lea asked Blinky, “Where is Grinchwell holding Santa?” Blinky said, “What? He’s not holding Santa anywhere. Santa is in his own home behind the toy factory. The poor fella hasn’t been out of his bed since this whole thing began.” Lea said, “that’s were we have to start. If we’re going to save Christmas, we have to get Santa to lead the way.” Lea, Heneka, Withers the Elf and the newly recruited Blinky made their way to the end of the street to the big stone house behind the toy factory. A kind elderly lady answered the door. Heneka said, “We would like to speak to Santa Claus.” Mrs. Claus said “Oh I’m sorry, but that isn’t possible. He isn’t taking Christmas wishes any more.” Lea said, “we’re not here to ask for our Christmas wishes, We’re here to deliver his. We are here to win Christmas back for him.” Mrs. Claus said “well, I don’t know….” Before She could get the words out of her mouth, the four intruders ran past her and up the stairs to the bed room.

“Darling, is that you?” said Santa. “Would you please bring some more of those soft cookies and a glass of milk?” Lea said, “I think you’ve had enough milk and cookies. Now it’s time to win back Christmas.”

“What” said a startled Santa, “Who are you?” “We are Lea and Heneka, The Gutierrez Girls, and I think you already know these two guys.” Santa said “Heneka? I know that name. Weren’t you just a little bit naughty this year?” Heneka said, maybe I was, but I’m going to make up for that now.”

Santa was under the covers. His beard was all tangled and gnarley. He did not look one bit like the heroic figure of Christmas lore. They pulled Santa to the side of the bed. Heneka said “Let’s hear it….Let’s hear a Ho, Ho,Ho.” Santa said, “I’m sorry, I can’t” and started to lie back down. Lea said “we’re serious Mr. Claus, let’s hear your best HO, HO, HO.” Santa said “O.K., I’ll try.” He took in a big deep breath and reared back and went, “Ho, Hi, Hi ,Hi, Hiiii, I can’t.” “I can’t do it anymore, I can’t. I can’t be jolly.” Heneka said, “you have to be jolly, you have to be Santa Claus for all the boys and girls around the world.”

Santa said “I’m sorry, I just can’t do it anymore.” Just then Mrs. Claus appeared in the doorway with a big red box. “I think you can do it” she said. I think that with the help of these girls it isn’t too late to save Christmas.”

With the encouragement of Mrs. Claus, Blinky, Withers the Elf and The Gutierrez Girls, Santa led them back down to the abandoned toy factory. “Well” he said, “where are we going to find a work force able to get this factory up and running?” Blinky said “I think I can help. I don’t think all the elves really want to work for Grinchwell, even if he did turn them into flying monkeys, I think their hearts are with you Santa.” Lea said, ‘why don’t you and Withers go out and recruit the other elves while Santa, Heneka and I stay here and get this place back up and running.” Santa went to the basement and flipped the giant main switch and suddenly the conveyor belt started moving again.

Creakily at first, but then it started to pick up speed. Before it got up to maximum speed the elves started returning. And within an hour it was like nothing bad had ever happened. Christmas looked like it was back on for good. Everything would be merry after all. Suddenly Heneka heard something she had longed to hear for a longtime… “Ho, Ho, Hoa, Whoaaa, Ho, HoHoooooo. Ho, Ho, Hoooo, Ho, Ho, Hoa, Whoaaa, Ho, HoHoooooo. Ho, Ho” Santa just could not stop laughing. The Gutierrez Girls had done it, they actually saved Christmas……or did they?

Everything seemed to be right with the world. The toy factory was in full operation. Christmas lists from all over the world were being sorted by zip codes and being directed to the head elf of each individual department. The fabricating department was making the parts and putting them on the conveyor belt to the assembly department. All the while the elves were singing happy Christmas songs as Santa and Mrs. Claus looked on. The Guiterrez Girls were saying their farwells, but not before checking with Blinky and Withers to make sure that they had received their own wish list. Suddenly there was a commotion on the floor. Work stopped and the elves were frozen solid in fear. “He’s back” Lea said. And sure enough on all of the computer screens was Grinchwell. His threats were echoing throughout the factory.

“Christmas will be mine, I say…All mine and only mine…Haaaa, haaaaaaa, haaaaaaaaaaaaa.

Santa grabbed a microphone and said “I’m not afraid of you anymore and there is nothing you can do to stop Christmas.” Grinchwell said, “Oh you, of course not, I won’t touch a hair on your chubby little head. But tell me laughing boy…. How are you going to deliver all of those presents with no reindeer?? Haaaa, haaaaaaa, haaaaaaaaaaaaa.”

Heneka said “you better not harm those reindeer, you’ll be in big trouble.” Grinchwell said “oh, no I wouldn’t harm them at all, I just mixed little sleeping powder in with their feed so they can get some well deserved rest. They should be waking up, oh about New Years Day, Haaaa, haaaaaaa, haaaaaaaaaaaaa.” Quickly the computer moniters switched back to the Christmas music but no one was in a mood to sing. Heneka took the news hardest of all because she loves her animals and didn’t want to see the reindeer hurt. Suddenly she had a brainstorm. She said “Come on Lea, I have a plan. Santa, keep the factory going at full speed. Lea and I will be back in 2 hours.” Lea and Heneka hopped on the rocket bikes and were gone in a flash. While they were gone Santa found some left over magic dust from last year and poured it in the heating vent to circulate it throughout the room. His plan worked.

There were no more flying monkeys, only happy productive elves, making toys and having faith that the Guiterrez Girls would be back with a way to deliver them. Suddenly Santa heard the roar of a rocket bike outside. He looked out the window and saw that Heneka was towing a large trailer. She yelled to them “everyone come outside for a moment.” Heneka said “I want you all to meet this years reindeer.” you to meet Jackie Black the bunny and next we have Ertle the turtle. Behind him is Wiley the Bear. Next to him is Lola the Hedgehog, Next to her is Churro the giant puppy dog and this years head reindeer will be my own pet burro Chimichanga”.

Heneka handed Santa a remote control and said “push this button.” Santa pushed the button and heard “Heeeee-Haaaawwww.” Heneka said “see if you come upon a flock of geese, Chimichanga will clear them out for you”. Santa pondered for a moment “yes, I suppose with enough magic dust they could pull the sleigh, I think we’re back in business”. The Elves let out a loud cheer and everyone went right back to work, singing Christmas carrolls and filling wish lists. The Gutierrez Girls said their goodbyes. Heneka gave Chimichanga a great big hug and said “Christmas is Saturday, tell the others I’ll be back to get you on Sunday” and with the flash of a rocket Lea and Heneka were headed back home.

It was a typical Friday evening. Typical except for the fact that tonight is Christmas Eve. Aunt Silvia was surprised that Lea and Heneka had slept in until after noon today, but now they were wide awake and filled with anticipation about Christmas. Aunt Silvia mentioned that she “might run down to Grinchwell’s Department Store after dinner “because they’re having a gigantic Christmas Eve sale”. Heneka said “I’ts too late, they’re closed.” Sylvia said “No, I saw the advertisement on TV, it said Open until midnight on Christmas Eve”. Uncle Jesse said “The newspaper says that Grinchwells is closed for good and that Grinchwell S. Duggins has been brought up on charges of fraud and racketeering. It says the President Obama Himself appointed a task force to look into Grinchwell’s criminal activities.” Aunt Silvia said “really, but how would Heneka know anything about that?” Heneka said “gee, I don’t know, I’m just a little girl”. It was all that Lea could do to keep from laughing out loud. When the girls went to bed that evening they weren’t sure if they were dreaming or not, but they both heard it outside their window…. “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good….Heeeeeeeeeeee-Haaaawwwwwwwww”.

37 Reindeer Poison

It was the Christmas Grandma and Grandpa were in the Philippines on their mission. Instead of going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for the holidays, Uncle Grant drove down from school to our house. I idolized Uncle Grant. Everything he did, I did. Everything he said, I repeated five minutes later. Every joke he told, I remembered. He was the perfect combination of grown-up and kid. He was old enough to drive but not too old to have fun.

I could hardly contain myself when Dad told me Uncle Grant would be coming for Christmas. He said that Grant’s girlfriend had uninvited him from meeting her parents, but that was gibberish to me. All that mattered was that he was coming. It was like getting Christmas a week early when he strode through our front door, a duffle bag thrown over his back just like Santa’s sack. Then he dropped the duffle, scooped me up in a big hug, and tickled me until I couldn’t breathe.

Uncle Grant was the exact opposite of Dad. Dad hadn’t picked me up since I was four because of his back, but Uncle Grant picked me up every time he saw me. Dad’s work made him shave every morning; Uncle Grant had so many whiskers that they scratched me every time we wrestled. And Uncle Grant didn’t talk about boring adult things. Mom, Dad, and my other relatives just talked about kids, work, and politics. Uncle Grant talked about sports, video games, and girls. I wasn’t interested in girls, but I loved sports and video games. After Dad showed Uncle Grant his room—it was right next to mine—he sat down and watched me play Mario Kart. He even jumped in as the second player and we spent an hour racing together until Mom called us down for dinner. He even showed me some shortcuts that I didn’t know.

The best thing about Uncle Grant was that he wasn’t gone all day at work. That week was a flurry of playing football in the snow, watching Christmas movie after Christmas movie, and playing Mario Kart until the Wii overheated. Once he stopped in the middle of a race to take a call from his girlfriend. He didn’t come back for an hour, but when he did, he drove like crazy. He even created a third player called Kristie that he’d smash into every chance he got. I asked him who Kristie was, but he didn’t want to talk about it.

The climax of Uncle Grant’s visit came on Christmas Eve. We spent the afternoon putting up a tent in my bedroom that was big enough for two. Uncle Grant tied a rope to the top of the dresser so we could drape a blanket over it. During dinner, Mom and Dad kept telling us to go right to sleep, but Uncle Grant just winked at me. I knew I would never, ever get to sleep with Uncle Grant camping in my room.

Our goal was to stay awake until Santa came so we could hear the reindeer. Uncle Grant had heard the reindeer for at least five years running. Each time Mom and Dad came to check on us, Uncle Grant would flip off the flashlight and we’d dive under the covers. He really fooled my parents with his loud snoring noise. As soon as they were gone, we’d pop our heads out from under the covers and he’d tell me another story. He knew so many stories I’d never heard before. Stories like the one about Blizzard—Frosty’s evil twin brother that terrorized the town until Santa came and ran him over with his sleigh.

It was almost ten o’clock when I started to get super tired. Uncle Grant really wanted me to stay up to listen for the reindeer, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. He thought Dad slipped a sleeping potion into my glass, which explained it all. Finally, Uncle Grant agreed that I should probably get some sleep, and he settled into his blankets too. Tomorrow was a big day for him, he said. He was going to be really rich.

I cracked open an eye and asked him if he’d asked Santa for money.

Oh, no. There was a rich hunter in Montana that wanted Rudolph’s head on his wall. For years, people had tried to capture Rudolph, but he was so smart that they never could get him.

This caught my attention, and I sat straight up.

Every year, Uncle Grant said, more and more people tried to capture Rudolph, but they all failed. Two years ago a group of guys had used a modified bear trap. They caught Dasher, but the rich guy, whose name was Stonerfeller, didn’t want just any of Santa’s old reindeer, he wanted a reindeer with a red nose. This year, Mr. Stonerfeller had raised the bounty for Rudolph.

I pleaded with Uncle Grant to tell me how much it was.

Five hundred dollars.

I couldn’t believe it. That was probably enough to buy every video game ever made. But how would Rudolph ever survive with such a bounty on his head?

Uncle Grant explained that Rudolph had learned not to trust anyone or anything. Instead of landing on roofs, he just hovers in mid-air so he doesn’t land in a reindeer trap. And he never eats anything unless it comes right from Santa’s own glove. He doesn’t want to be poisoned.

I nodded vigorously through this entire explanation, because I knew a lot about Rudolph—I’d watched the movie before Uncle Grant had come over and another time while he was on the phone with his girlfriend.

Then he put his hands behind his head. But that’s why he was going to be rich tomorrow. He had figured out how to catch Rudolph. I waited for more, but he didn’t say anything, he just lay there smiling up at our tent.

I was aghast. I couldn’t believe it. I felt betrayal and awe swell up in me in the same moment. I loved Rudolph like—like—almost as much as Uncle Grant.

My mouth was dry. Somehow I gasped out a question: How was he going to get Rudolph?

Elementary, he said. Reindeer poison.

Reindeer poison? What did that mean?

He rolled over on his side. I couldn’t believe it—he was actually smiling. Rudolph only eats out of Santa’s hand. That was the trick. The lettuce out by the fireplace wasn’t just lettuce. It was tainted with Uncle Grant’s special blend of poison. When Santa came up from the chimney, he would hand it right over to Rudolph and—Uncle Grant raised his hand and let it fall on the blankets. Thump. There was enough poison in that lettuce to kill an elephant.

There was only one thing to do. I had to save Rudolph. I had to stop Uncle Grant’s evil plan. I leapt from my blankets and ran to the door. Uncle Grant called out to me, but I didn’t listen. I careened into the hall and I heard him bounding after me. He ran in front of me and blocked the hall. Don’t go into the front room, he said. He was just kidding. No reindeer poison, no Mr. Stonefeller, it was all a story, a joke.

I almost believed him. Then I heard a noise come up the stairs. It was Santa. I could hear him talking. He was probably picking up the lettuce right now.

I yelled to Santa as I ran under Uncle Grant’s arm. I tumbled down the stairs two at a time with Uncle Grant grasping at me. Just as I was about to run into the front room, a man came around the corner. It wasn’t Santa, it was Dad. He started to say something, but I didn’t stop. I dodged around him and right into the living room where I stopped dead in my tracks.

There was my mom, sitting next to the mantel piece. It wasn’t the startled look on her face that stopped me. It was the bit of lettuce she was had in her hand. She had almost eaten it all.

“Quick, quick! Spit it out! Spit it out!” I screamed.

“What?” Mom said. “Spit what out?”

“The lettuce! Spit out the lettuce!”

Mom smiled. Oh, she hadn’t eaten it; these were just the leftovers Santa hadn’t taken.

I gasped. I was too late. Santa had come and gone. There was only one thing to do. I dashed out of the living room, past Dad and Uncle Grant, to the kitchen. I grabbed the phone, and did what they had told me to do since kindergarten. I dialed 9-1-1.

The kitchen exploded with the voices of my parents as they followed me as Uncle Grant frantically tried to explain everything. Mom was laughing heartily, but Dad didn’t think this reindeer poison thing was very funny. I felt proud of my Dad.

While they talked I spluttered an explanation to the emergency receptionist on the phone. I’ve never heard anyone sound so confused. It took my parents about a minute to figure out Uncle Grant’s story enough to focus on what I was doing. When they found out who I was calling, the kitchen erupted into chaos once more. This time Mom was scowling while Dad roared with laughter. Uncle Grant dashed for the phone and tried to explain what was going on. Evidently the ambulance was faster than Uncle Grant, because before he had finished explaining, an ambulance was in our driveway and two EMTs ran into our house in hopes of saving Rudy from being poisoned.

Uncle Grant tried to explain what was going on when three firemen ran in. He started over, and then had to start over once again when a squad car arrived with its sirens blazing. By this time, several neighborhood parents had arrived, some in funny Santa outfits. Our kitchen was a riot of explanation and re-explanation until one of the firemen piped up. A few blocks away, they found Rudolph on the side of the road. He wasn’t looking good, but luckily they had an ample supply of reindeer antidote on hand. It had only taken Rudolph thirty seconds to be back on his feet and flying again.

Everyone laughed, and then the EMTs and policemen took turns telling stories about the other reindeer they’d rescued on Christmas Eve. Mom boiled water for hot chocolate in her biggest pot while Dad handed out Christmas cookies. Eventually the neighbors had to go check if Santa had visited their houses, and the fireman had to get ready in case someone else tried to poison Rudolph again. When the house finally quieted down, Dad suggested that we just open presents then. Mom wondered aloud if Santa had left Uncle Grant coal for what he had done, but apparently Santa felt more forgiving than I did.

Uncle Grant left two days later. I hoped he’d come back the next year, but he didn’t. Instead we drove to Oklahoma for his wedding. The following year, he and Aunt Kristie came to visit us, but it wasn’t the same. He said he had pulled his back and couldn’t lift me up anymore. He sat down to play Mario Kart with me, but he got bored after one game, and went to talk with Mom and Dad about kids, work, and politics. And every morning he shaved.

36 The Lone Airman

Man, I haven’t seen these guys in years. It’s gonna be great to finally get back together with ’em; it’s been nearly 13 years since we were out there, flying air superiority missions over Russia. I pulled into the parking lot and put on my winter coat. It was that time of the year again, everyone’s in the Christmas spirit, and with it came the gifts, laughter, and fun, which I sorely missed.

The year was 2035, and my old Air Force buddies were having a Christmas party at a local bar. I had only stayed in contact with one of my former squad-mates since the war with Russia, 13 years earlier. James Macmillan was his name. He spoke with a stereotypical Scottish accent, being a second-generation American citizen. We had been the best of friends since our junior year of high school. He invited me to this party on December 17th, and there was no way I could say no to my best friend.

December 17th. That date has a significant meaning to me, but I’d rather not remember why. Something had happened on that day, years ago (and not just once, either) but it was too painful to think about.

As I stepped into the bar, everyone stopped what they were doing, looked up at me, and unanimously broke into a round of applause, like I was some sort of hero. Wow, it seems they really missed me.

“Hey, hey! There’s the fighter ace himself!” James remarked, “Why don’t ya come have a seat over ‘ere?”

“Whatever you say, Jim. I’m no ace, just got lucky a couple times,” I replied as I sat down next to my brother-in-arms.

We went on with an ordinary conversation: sports, politics, etc. Gradually the topic shifted to the war, and what our lives were like before fate happened. Like any war veteran, we each had our fair share of stories.

“So, what’s your story?” One of them inquired.

“Uh, I don’t think you guys would really want to know,” I replied.

“Come on man, I think it’d be cool to hear what you’ve got to say,” my friend, Dave, said.

“No, I’m serious, I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“Please, man. I haven’t talked to you in 10 years.”

“Are you sure? Do you really want to know what I went through? This is a painful thing for me to talk about. But, you know, maybe it’s time for me to get this off my chest. I can’t hold in my emotions forever. And I’d hate to let a friend down. ”

“It all started back in ’21. I was 25 years old, fresh out of the Air Force Academy with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering, at the top of my class, too. My life was going great,” I began, my buddies listening intently to this rarely spoken-of chapter in my life, “I felt like I was invincible. And I had plans. Plans to do a lot of cool stuff.”

“Hey, Taylor,” Dave interrupted, “didn’t you have like… a Camaro or something too?”

“Yes, Dave, I did. A 1969 Z/28, with the small-block 302 and the 4-speed transmission. It was stolen a week after we were sent to Europe. The only thing left was the Z/28 emblem from the front grille. I had taken it off and kept it with me as a reminder of home. I considered getting rid of it, but I have held on to it all of these years, in hope that I find my car some day.”

“Where was I? Oh, right, plans. I was gonna change the world, or so I thought. I wanted to be an astronaut. I had someone, backing me up every step of the way. She was the best girlfriend a guy could ever have. She was hot and feisty, yet cute and sweet at the same time. She was incredibly smart, too. I swore to myself I was gonna marry her someday. But, for whatever reason, she decided I wasn’t worth her time anymore. On December 17th, she left me. Ah, that’s it. That’s the memory I tried to erase, but now it’s come back to haunt me again. I still remember the last thing I ever said to her, ‘No, please don’t leave, I… I love you.’ I haven’t talked to or even seen her since. That year was the last ‘real’ Christmas I’d had up until now. 13 years, 3 of which were spent literally freezing in the Russian winter.”

“Wow, that’s some pretty depressing stuff. I see why you never told any of us about this,” Dave responded quietly, everyone nodding in agreement.

“Yeah, but that’s not the end of it, either. After my heart was broken and my dream shattered,” I said, trying not to get choked up, “that recession hit and I lost my defense contractor job at Boeing. I had absolutely nothing. Then, as y’all know, China declared war on Russia, and our brilliant president decided he wanted a piece of the pie. You know what they say, ‘Never get involved in a land war in Asia’, ‘course this is Eastern Europe, but same theory. We ran into the same two problems Napoleon and Hitler did: logistics, and the Russian winter. Our boys on the ground were doing great until uh… December 17th, 2023. They tried to get to Moscow before winter hit, but they didn’t make it and were completely screwed. Then some genius had the great idea to send a squad of F-15s to attack some random towns. Seriously, F-15s. They should have retired those things 20 years ago! Flying nearly blind over hostile territory, in a 30-year-old jet. What could go wrong? Jim and I, we were the only ones that made it out of there alive. Barely. We were shot down just outside of St. Petersburg. A whole lot of bad stuff went down after that. Jim knows exactly what I’m talking about.”

“My friends,” James said, “What Taylor and I went through over there, nothing can describe it. Every time I think about that day and the weeks after, it send shivers down my spine, and I realize that God and John Browning are the only reasons we made it back to Germany without spending 50 years in a prison camp or being crushed by a Russian tank. You really get to know a man when you’re alone with him, with nothing except a pistol and the clothes on your back, for three weeks.”

“After we found each other,” I continued, “I knew we had to get away from there as soon as possible. Trust me, you do not want to be taken prisoner by the Russians. Actually, after we had been on the ground a week, we were almost captured by a bunch of Russian soldiers. They went on a patrol right through our little camp we had set up. I can’t believe they didn’t find us. If they had, we’d most likely be dead. A Christmas miracle, I suppose. We spent the next two weeks walking west. January 7th was the day we were rescued. I was about to give up hope, when we came across the Army’s First Infantry Division. When I saw them coming to help us, I literally fell to the ground and cried tears of joy. I had never been happier to see the ol’ US Army. They fixed us up, and we went back to flying combat missions. Then, the war ended in a stalemate and we got sent back home. I guess that’s the end of my story.”

“Wait, dude, I wanna know what you did after you came home,” Dave said.

“I went home and tried to live a normal life, but I just couldn’t do it. I hated having a desk job. My passion was for flying. I’ve been trying to find my car, too, but I never have been able to. What also sucks is that, every Christmas, I’m reminded of these two events, so I haven’t really been able to have a ‘real’ Christmas ever since, but I have a slowly-fading hope, that maybe some day, I’ll be able to find my Camaro and my girl.”

After the party, Jim and I talked for a while outside. He invited me to go to dinner with him and his wife the next day. He said his wife was bringing along a friend, who I might like to meet.
“Okay, I guess I could try meeting someone new,” I replied., “I’ll go with you, it’s worth a shot.”

I sighed as I got into my truck. You know, maybe it’s time to give up. 13 years without any luck with either problem. Maybe I need to move on. My mind says I should, but my heart isn’t sure if it’s the time for that yet.

When I arrived home, I noticed a note on my doorstep. Curiously, I walked over and picked it up.

“Don’t give up hope. What you seek is closer than you think,” is what it said.

That’s really strange. Why is that here? What could this mean?. I gave the note no further thought that day, but deep inside, it reignited the flame of hope.

The next night’s dinner date went fairly well. I had a good time with my best friend and this new girl. She seemed like a nice girl, and was exactly my type, but there was something missing. I felt no real love towards this woman. The ‘spark’ wasn’t there. My mind wandered back to the note on the door, and I realized that I could love no one else. There was only one person that I could ever truly love, and she had left me over a decade earlier.

Feeling slightly depressed after dinner, I returned home and was about to go to bed, when the phone rang.

“There is a package on your doorstep. Open it immediately,” stated a deep, unknown voice.
Indeed, there was a package on the doorstep. There was a date on it: December 17th, 2021. What’s the deal here? Why would somebody taunt me with this date? Oh well, I guess I’d better open it and see if there’s anything inside. I opened the box, and inside was a second note, and a Chevy Super Sport logo from… 1969!

“Turn on the radio and set it to 93.3 FM,” is what was written on this new note. Hmm… that’s my favorite station. This is pretty weird.

Wanting to find out what the big deal was, I turned on my radio, already tuned to the classic hard rock station. “Why Can’t This Be Love” by Van Halen was playing. “Wait a second… that’s our song! We always used to listen to them, and this song reminds me of her every time I hear it,” I thought aloud, “I don’t think today could get any stranger.”

I glanced out the window, and I couldn’t believe what was happening. There was a truly surreal feeling as I watched a blue and white 1969 Z/28 pull into my driveway. There was no front emblem on the car. I turned the radio off and went to go sit down for a minute. No way, there is no way this is happening. That’s my car out there. My car… it’s back. What if she…

I didn’t have time to finish my thought, as there was a knock at the door. I hesitated, wondering if I should answer, it felt like the outcome of the rest of my life depended on this very moment. I knew I had no choice, I opened the door, and there she was. She looked as though she hadn’t aged a day since I last saw her.

“Hello, Taylor,” she said.

“Why… how did you… what are you doing here?” I stammered, “I… I’m so glad to see you. Where have you been all these…”

“Slow down sweetie, I’ll explain everything in just a minute,” she replied, “why don’t we go for a drive?”

“Oh, yes, I’d love to.”

I was ecstatic. My Camaro and my girl, both returning on the same night. I quickly hopped into the driver’s seat, and I immediately felt right at home. I listened to the rumble of the engine, felt the cold of the leather seat, and a surge of power and joy as she sat down next to me. I switched on the radio. The name of the song was “Caught Up In You” by .38 Special. How fitting. An awesome 80’s love song, in an awesome 60’s car, with the girl of my dreams.

“Okay, I know you’ve gone through a lot over the last few years,” she began as we cruised down the road, “I know you feel like I abandoned you. But it was all for a good reason. I’m probably not allowed to tell you this, but a week before I left, I was contacted by the CIA. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. They wanted me to work for them, as an intelligence officer in Eastern Europe. What you said to me the day I left, it has stuck with me ever since. I loved you since the day we met, and I couldn’t wait to return. I was supposed to come back the day you deployed to Russia. I knew you weren’t gonna be at home, so I decided to continue my work. I kept an eye on you ever since, like a guardian angel. That mission you and James flew, it did a lot of damage to the Russians. When I heard the news that you two went missing, my heart was broken. I thought for sure you were dead, but my heart had a little piece of hope that said you were still alive.”

“Wow, I can’t believe it. I had no idea. I thought you were dumping me,” I said, dumbfounded.

“Of course not, silly. The day you were almost captured, I had some knowledge of the Russian army movements in that area. For some reason, I had a feeling that something bad would happen if I didn’t do anything. I persuaded your commander to send a mission to try and stop the Russians. It looks like it worked. They stopped a tank division from rolling through there. And you’re clearly still alive.”

“That’s amazing,” I responded, “It really was a Christmas miracle. But why didn’t you return until now?”

“I wanted to come back sooner. I really did. But, as fate would have it, Congress ordered my team to stay over there for an extra 9 years after the war to spy on the Russian government.”
“But what about the 10th year?”

“I spent that whole year looking for your Camaro. I knew that this car meant a lot to you, and it made me really sad to find out it was stolen, but I found it! It’s, as far as I know, exactly the same as you left it.”

“How did you find it, and who told you it was stolen?”

“That’s another story, for another time, dear,” she stated, “Now, let’s go home and have a real Christmas.”

“Oh, I love you.”

“I know you do.”

With my dream girl by my side, and my dream car in my driveway, I had the greatest Christmas of my life. It was the happiest day I’d had in a long time. My heart had healed and all my desires were fulfilled. Thus, from December 25th, 2035 forward, I was no longer a lone Airman.

35 A Soldier’s Story

On a cold Christmas night, a mother sat alone in a hospital room holding her newborn son. She rocked the infant in her arms.

“I’d sing you a lullaby, my love, if I had a song.” The mother stroked the face of her baby. “But my voice is weak and I have no rhythm.” She gazed out the window, a longing in her eyes. Then the mother reached into the pocket of her robe and withdrew a folded slip of paper. “I have something much better than music,” she said meekly. “You’re father made me promise I’d share this with you.”

With a tender voice she read from the page in her shaky hand.

“I know we met, once long, long ago

In a place called heaven because I know

Without any doubt we had great joy

In our home above, my sweet little boy.

We lived there and loved without any pain

Without sorrow, or sadness or financial gain.

Then called to earth to grow and to learn

Our unmarked paths were hard to discern.

But I met your kind mother, a woman so true

Without her and great faith, there wouldn’t be you.

Although our family is one that’s quite small

I hold it dear, most precious of all.

I may not be there with you to play games

Or cards or watch sports or build stations with trains.

I will miss your first words, the giggles and smiles

Each step, your accomplishments and even the trials.

It’s adverse but true, my sweet little boy

That life brings us lemons along with the joy

I know that the journey will be long and quite rough

Be there for your mother, stay strong, kind and tough.

For those who are smart and tender and meek

They learn when they’re hurt to turn their cheek.

They comfort the weary, the sick and the sad

They find ways to be happy when things turn out bad.

There’s comfort in knowing we’ll meet once more.

It’s a grand place called heaven with a welcoming door.

We lived there before and were filled with great joy

I’ll see you someday, my sweet little boy.”

The mother gazed into the face of her baby and a tear rolled down her cheek. “In the morning we’ll go home and you’ll meet your daddy,” she said. Then she placed the baby in the bassinette and lay down to sleep.

When the morning’s rays seeped into the room the mother gathered her infant son and her things, then drove to her small apartment. A Christmas wreath hung on the door and baskets of flowers flooded the steps. Although she was grateful for the thoughts and wishes, she left them in place, never touching them or reading their cards.

Inside her humble home, she noticed the undecorated tree, the boxes of ornaments still strewn on the floor. She continued past it, to her room, chose a blue dress – the one her husband always said made her eyes sparkle – and slipped it on. After she put up her hair, she walked with her infant son a quarter mile to the chapel.

“Mrs. Chambers,” the Chaplain said as he shook her hand.

The mother nodded without saying a word, then gazed around at all the people seated in the pews. She walked slowly down the aisle straight towards the pulpit. “Thank you,” she said simply. There were no other words.

She took her seat and listened while the Chaplain spoke. His words filled her head and she struggled to make sense of it all. But as he testified of bravery and valor, Mrs. Chambers felt a stirring within.

When the Chaplain finished, Mrs. Chambers stood. “Chaplain – wait.” She raced towards the pulpit. “I have something else to say.”

He stepped back and waved his hand, guiding Mrs. Chambers forward. “Of course,” he said gently. “Take all the time you need.”

She approached the microphone, unsure of what to say or how she’d hold herself together. She reached into the pocket of her dress, curling her fingers around the folded slip of paper. “I’d like to recite a poem.” With a confidence she didn’t know she had, she patted her pocket and withdrew her hand. “My husband wrote it before he left,” she said. “However, I’ve made a few changes.” She stroked the face of her baby, holding back the tears which waited to make a display down her cheeks. Then, gazing out at the crowd, she recited, from memory, a poem.

“I know we met, once long, long ago

In a place called heaven because I know

Without any doubt we shared a great love

One that was divine, a gift from above.

We lived there and loved without any pain

Without sorrow, or sadness or financial gain.

Then called to earth to grow and to learn

Our unmarked paths were hard to discern.

Mine brought me to you – a man true and brave

Who saluted the flag with each and every wave.

A soldier so noble, with valor and honor

You’d make a great husband, friend and sweet father

You may not be here for the journey ahead

Some soft words of love will be left unsaid

I’ll miss your great warmth, your love, your kind smiles

Each hug, each kiss and even the trials.

It’s adverse but true, my sweet husband dear

That life won’t be the same when you are not near

I doubt not, that you are without pain and grief

It is my only comfort, my solace, relief.

For you were smart, tender and meek

You learned when you hurt to turn your cheek.

You comforted the weary, the sick and the sad

You found ways to be happy when things turned out bad.

There’s comfort in knowing we’ll meet once more

It’s a grand place called heaven with a welcoming door.

For we lived there before in the blue sky above.

We’ll join hands there again, forever, my love.”

When she finished speaking, she listened briefly to the soft sobs of her friends and family. But she tried her best to maintain her composure and walked back to her seat in the front row of the chapel.

The Chaplain stood again and said some final words which Mrs. Chambers never really heard. Her broken heart was aching too much.

At the end of the service after everyone had gathered their things, paid their respects and given their condolences, she sat in quiet reflection. After a while she walked to the front of the chapel and knelt on the low bench at the side of the casket. “Nicholas,” she said softly as she held the baby close to his father. “I’d like you to meet your daddy.” The mother soothed her baby and looked into the sweet face of her husband. “Nick, meet your son.”

With all the strength she had, she kissed her husband’s cheek one last time. She ran her fingers against the fabric flag strewn across her husband’s casket. “I’ll see you once more,” she said. “It’s a grand place called heaven with a welcoming door.”

34 Dauphine the Christmas Doe

Now you have all heard the story about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the biggest misfit in all the North Pole, who managed to find his place when he saved Christmas by leading Santa’s sleigh through a terrible blizzard. There is a lesser known story however, about Rudolph’s granddoe, Dauphine, a misfit just like him.

You may not have noticed it, but Santa’s sleigh is traditionally pulled by all male deer, or bucks. Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and of course the most recent addition, Rudolph. Does weren’t considered strong enough to pull Santa’s sleigh with all the children of the world’s toys. Instead, they were expected to stay home and raise the fawns. For the most part, the does were all very satisfied with their lot in life, tending their young and making Christmas fun for all of the North Pole.

But Dauphine was different; she always knew she wanted something else for herself. The bucks just always seemed to be having so much more fun! They had all these special reindeer games to help them learn to fly Santa’s sleigh, and she so wanted to join in! The other does were always playing house and dress up, things she had very little interest in; she wanted to fly, to run, and someday to travel the world. The bucks would never let her join in though! They all laughed at her, saying she was too weak, she could never join in any of their reindeer games. The other does picked on her too, saying that she was a misfit, who would never fit in with either group.

Dauphine was very unhappy, she felt like she didn’t fit in anywhere, and she didn’t see anything changing, this was the way things had always been. One day, she went to her Grandbuck Rudolph for advice, for who else could truly understand what she wanted to do and the reactions of the other deer? Rudolph told his granddoe that she must keep working towards her goal, building up her skills so that she could match any of the bucks. Rudolph told her that as long as she worked hard, and kept an eye out for any chance to prove she could equal any other reindeer, things should work out. She could only do her best; there was no way to force the other deer to accept her.

So Dauphine did what her Grandbuck Rudolph had told her, every chance she got she would go off alone and practice her flying, even carrying increasingly heavy objects with her and upping the distance she flew, to improve her endurance. Her confidence was growing, she knew she was now as good as the members of Santa’s team, and she hoped that the opportunity Grandbuck Rudolph had told her to wait for would come soon.

The day of the tryouts for Santa’s sleigh team had arrived, and nothing had changed for Dauphine. She was sorely disappointed; she had so hoped something would have cone up by now! She couldn’t stand to sit with the other does and watch the backs showing off for Santa, and getting the one thing she had always dreamed of. So Dauphine decided to go to one of her favorite practice spots, Santa’s Icy Trail, a frozen river near a few of the dens further out of town. There had been a surprisingly warm spell in the North Pole that year and the river was now more of Santa’s Slushy Trail, because of which the fawns had been ordered to stay away from it. This order allowed her the needed privacy to practice without ridicule.

Dauphine had gotten so used to the river being isolated, that she didn’t even pay attention to her surroundings as she approached. Suddenly, she heard terrified screams and a cracking noise. She looked around for the rope she had used to practice carrying things with, then dashed towards it. Running along the bank to catch up with the fawns, she took off and landed neatly on the moving ice chunk. Dauphine instructed the fawns to try to tie the rope to a chunk of ice sticking up from the piece they stood upon, using their teeth to maneuver it, a method she had practiced to perfection. With her guidance the fawns succeeded, and then tied the other end around Dauphine, their hopes rising after witnessing her skillful flying.

Dauphine did a stationary take off, no easy feat, just as Jingle Falls came into sight. She flew with all her might, upstream and towards the river bank. It took every last bit of strength she possessed, the fawns and ice had been much heavier than anything she had practiced lifting, especially against the current of the river. She managed to pull the ice close enough to the bank for the fawns to hop off. With a sigh of relief, Dauphine landed, and all her energy spent, collapsed to the ground. The eldest fawn, Flash, whose father just happened to be Comet, dashed for help, quickly returning with some panicked mothers, and a large gathering of other bucks and does. They gathered up Dauphine and the younger fawn, and took them to be checked out by Santa!

While Santa checked the younger fawns out and Dauphine slept, the eldest fawn told the group the whole story of Dauphine’s daring rescue. The does and bucks were astounded and ashamed of the way they had treated Dauphine, just because she had different dreams than the other does. Santa was extremely impressed, she had shown the qualities he valued most on his reindeer team; innovation, determination, strength, and concern for others. As the auditions for his team had been disrupted by the emergency, Santa came up with an idea, which he ran by the gathering of reindeer. He felt the best reward for Dauphine’s heroism was to award her a spot on his team, and the reindeer agreed unanimously!

The first thing Dauphine saw upon awakening was her Grandbuck Rudolph, who happily informed her of the new developments while she had been sleeping. She couldn’t believe it, her dream had come true! She was a member of Santa’s team of reindeer, and she had won her place among their other herd members. Dauphine the doe had followed her Grandbuck Rudolph’s footsteps as a former misfit, who now felt like the happiest doe that ever lived.

33 All I Want For Christma

The song playing on the radio felt like a heavy brass bell in my heart.

“All I want for Christmas, is you…baby.”

Right, I thought, weaving through the busy holiday traffic, heading toward my apartment.

I was spending Christmas alone this year, with my roommate jumping ship to fly home and be with her family. Some people had all the luck. My family was too poor to send me money, and I didn’t have enough to fly back, so I was stuck. In the big city.

It would be my first Christmas alone.

Mariah Carey continued jazzing through the song as I pulled into the parking lot next to my building and found an empty spot. It was easy for her to belt out the lyrics with her million dollar voice, but it didn’t bring any cheer. The words of the song only brought frustration.

If only…

I shook my head determinedly and headed up to my apartment. It was Christmas Eve and everyone was partying. The neighbors down the hall had invited me to come spend the evening with them, but that didn’t sound very fun. Think red neck reindeer hat, and you’ll get the idea.

I opened the door to the apartment, and switched on the lights. Going to the livingroom area, I switched on the lights for the small tree, lighting up the corner of the room with multicolored festivity.

Tossing my gloves and coat on the couch, I turned on the stereo to some instrumental music, and headed to the kitchen for something to drink. Eggnog sounded good and festive, I thought, searching through the fridge. I spied some on the top shelf and grabbed the container, along with the milk. We usually diluted it with sprite, but milk would have to do.

Friends from work had invited me to a Christmas Eve party at one of their houses, but while I didn’t want to be alone for Christmas, I didn’t want to be around drinkers. Most of my co-workers weren’t members and their definition of a party was to see how drunk they could get.

Fortunately, one of the families in the ward had invited me for Christmas dinner tomorrow, so I could look forward to that.

I took my drink back into the living area and turned on the gas fireplace before relaxing on the couch.

What a day. There were times that I wondered why I’d taken a job so far from home, family and friends – and this was one of them. Sure I used my college degree, the pay was okay, though always could be better (thus my unable to afford to go home state), and would look good on my resume, but surely money wasn’t all that mattered.

I closed my eyes and leaned my head back, hearing sounds from down the hall indicating the party had started. The words to the Mariah Carey song floated through my head again, and I groaned.

“Okay!” I said out loud. “I’m stupid and lame and should have given him a chance!” Standing up, I set my glass down hard, the liquid sloshing onto the table.

To be honest, the reason I’d picked this job was because I’d been running away from Jared Hatch. The guy had been my whole world. He’d come home from his mission and we’d discovered much the same interests, goals and desires. We’d even talked marriage, though he never proposed. Then the old flame from highschool moved back home for the summer, and it was as if I’d dropped off the face of the earth.

I paced back and forth in front of the Christmas tree, reliving last summer as if it were an open wound that needed cleaning.

At the end of the summer he’d come to my parents home, wanting to talk to me, but I couldn’t bear to see him. It had hurt too much. Then this job had come up and I’d jumped at it, never saying goodbye. I’d left right after Christmas last year and hadn’t been back. It wouldn’t seem like that big of a distance from Salt Lake City, Utah to Astoria, Oregon – but I didn’t have enough vacation days to drive home and not enough money to fly.

Salt Lake was okay – I mean, snow was a big plus! I’d never had a white Christmas before, so I was enjoying that aspect of it. Though learning to drive in the stuff was a real experience! Some people can be so rude…

Anyway – now I was stuck in Salt Lake, and Jared was probably in Astoria, married to the old flame.

“All I want for Christmas, is you…”

The song wouldn’t leave me alone! I was going to loose my mind. I sighed and went back to the couch. It was pretty pathetic, really. I should have let him come in and talked – found out when they were getting married and all that. In fact, mom had forwarded a wedding invitation a couple of months ago that I’d tossed when I’d seen it what is was. I didn’t want to know who was getting married that I wouldn’t be able to see.

Sitting down, I looked over at the tree and the few presents underneath. One from my roommate, a couple from my family that had arrived this week, and a couple from friends. Quite the haul, when you think about it. But what were presents anyway? Did they even matter in the eternal scheme of things? No. None of the materialistic things we lived with day by day mattered. Only people – family, friends and love.

Love. I snorted and looked away. There was no love in my life. No one had asked me out since I’d moved here. The singles wards were packed with available women in this area, and I wasn’t anything special. There were more blue eyed, blondes here than there were in California, or at least that’s what it seemed like. If they weren’t going to BYU, they were at the U, determined to show that a good LDS girl can go to school anywhere.

I should have gotten a job in Portland.

My stomach growled and I realized it was dinner time. I hadn’t even really thought about what to eat. Getting up, I went back to the fridge, this time spotting a note from my roommate.

“Hey Bridget –
If I know you, you’ll be moping around here Christmas Eve. Well, I’ve stocked you some party supplies, so call some people and have a party. There’s cheese, crackers, shrimp, all sorts of stuff. I didn’t break the bank, but that’s part of your Christmas present from me. Have fun, see you in a couple of days. Janet.”

I laughed and really looked in the fridge this time. Sure enough, there was the makings for quite a party, and I shook my head in amazement. Janet was the best. We’d never met before being roommates, but we’d sure clicked the moment we’d met. She was from Logan and had gone to school in some small town in central Utah. She worked for a vet downtown so she didn’t make loads, but her parents were rich enough to make up the difference. They felt this was a ‘good experience’ for her.

“Well, Janet, my friend,” I said, raising my eggnog glass in salute. “Here’s to you.” I swigged the remainder and put the glass on the counter. Time to party.

Following through on her requirement was difficult though. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable calling people. Surely they would all be at a party they’d already been invited to? I picked up the ward directory, figuring I could start there. I glanced through the names, and stopped at one that had been written in. Mark Young.

Frowning, I tried to picture a face to match the name, but no luck. I think Janet mentioned that she’d met a new guy at a church activity last week, but I’d had to pull a late night and hadn’t paid any attention. Was that the guy? I shrugged and kept going through the names. Nah, all these guys had girlfriends, family and places to be. This was stupid.

I tossed the directory by the phone and went out to the livingroom again. It was snowing, small little flakes that looked like powdered sugar and covered the railing of our little balcony with a light dusting of white. I leaned against the doorframe and folded my arms. At least it was a beautiful night.

I stood there for several minutes, and then remembered that I was hungry. Shrimp calls, I thought with a grin.

Before I reached the kitchen though, there was a hesitant knock on the door. Stopping in surprise, I stared at the door, waiting for the knock to come again and prove that I hadn’t been hearing things.

Knock, knock.

Okay, it wasn’t my imagination. I slowly walked over and peaked through the peep hole, but it was shadowy in the hallway and I couldn’t see anything other than a big figure.

“Who is it?” I asked, feeling stupid.

“Um, is this the apartment where Bridget Haynes lives?” It was a rich deep voice, but it cracked a little, as if he was nervous or embarrassed.

I giggled, feeling silly about talking through the door. I threw it open to reveal a handsome man, tall, broad shouldered and sleek in a black leather coat, lightly dusted with snow. His short hair was light brown, curly on top and looked wet. I looked at the dark blue eyes that gazed at me, and felt like the world had tilted slighted at the core.

“Uh, I’m Bridget.”

“Oh, uh, wow.” He gulped and glanced around the hallway, as if he didn’t want anyone to witness his nervousness and then stepped a little closer, pulling out a tall, slim package wrapped with a large bow. “I’m, uh, my name is Mark – Mark Young. Your, ah, roommate mentioned that,” he looked in the apartment and realized there wasn’t anyone else there. “Oh,” he looked utterly embarrassed now, and I sighed.

“Janet told you I was having a party?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

I smiled, mentally throwing darts at my roommate’s picture. “She wanted me to, I just hadn’t gotten around to calling anyone. Come on in.”

It was the least I could do.

He chewed his lip, (a rather nice looking mouth) looking doubtful. “Well, I don’t want to horn in on anything if you aren’t having the party.”

I shrugged. “This whole thing was Janet’s idea,” I admitted. “I just don’t know who to call. Come on in and we’ll figure out some more people, or you can just eat something and then go when you’re ready.”

He still seemed reluctant, as if he’d had to talk himself into coming in the first place. Poor guy, he must be as lonely as I was to have taken her up on the offer.

“Your roommate gone home for Christmas too?” I asked, hoping to encourage him in. The hallway was chilly.

He flashed a white toothed smile. “Yeah, how’d you know?”

I shrugged and stood back, holding the door open. “Come on in, we can commiserate together.”

He took a deep breath and then nodded, walking past me with a slow step. I closed the door and started toward the kitchen.

“Come on back here. I was just going to start pulling things out of the fridge. I didn’t even know she’d planned this – the sneak.”

He gave a weak chuckle behind me, and then cleared his throat. “I, um, brought this. She said you liked candles.”

I turned and he handed the nicely wrapped tubular type present to me, his eyes sincere and his mouth pulled up at one corner in a wry smile.

“Well,” I said slowly, reaching out for it. “That was totally unnecessary and very sweet. She’s right, I do collect candles.” I waved a hand at the other room where I had several large ones placed around the room and just hadn’t gotten around to lighting yet.

He whistled in appreciation and then waved a hand at the gift. “Go ahead and open it,” he said with a shrug.

I tore off the wrapping to reveal one of those specialty homemade type candles that had layers of colored wax with dried flowers and berries inside. It wasn’t very large around, but it was almost a foot tall, and smelled heavenly.

Oh my.

I looked up at him with greater appreciation – this wasn’t your average candle.

“Where did you find this?” I asked, feeling the heavy wax with caressing fingers. “It’s amazing!”

He grinned. “I have my sources.”

Embarrassingly, my stomach growled again and I rolled my eyes as he laughed. “You said something about food?”

“Right in here,” I said, holding the candle close. I searched through a cabinet, finding the perfect small red plate with a gold trim. Setting the candle down, I found the matches and quickly lit it.

“Janet stocked all sorts of stuff,” I said, my back to him. “Should we try and call people first or would you rather just eat?”

“Well, would you mind if I’d rather not call anyone else?”

I turned around with wide eyes to see him standing behind me with a sheepish expression, my pulse racing with the implication of his words. “What?”

He licked his lips and shifted on his feet. “I asked your roommate about you and she showed me your photo and said you weren’t seeing anyone. She also said you’d be alone for Christmas and,” he paused, his mouth twitching for a moment. “I wanted to get to know you. Janet indicated that you haven’t been real big on dating, so I figured calling you up to take you out wouldn’t go over very big.”

“This, um, evening was your idea?” I asked, taking a step back to the counter and leaning against it. I wasn’t sure what to feel. He’d set this up? I was all alone with a man who could be anything from a serial killer to a date-raper. What had I done? What had Janet done?

He must have seen the wild look in my eyes, because he put his hands out, palms up and stepped back from me as far as the small kitchen would allow. “Hey, wait, don’t panic, it’s okay! I just wanted to get to know you – nothing sinister!”

Sure, anyone would say that, I thought, reaching for the phone.

He shook his head, his face going from anxious to resigned. “Wait, I’ll leave, okay? I didn’t mean to scare you.”

I watched as he started toward the door, my fears fighting with the knowledge that he’d wanted to spend the evening with me and he didn’t even know me. It was kind of…romantic.

“Okay,” I said, blurting it out before he reached the door. “You can stay. I – I’m sorry for being paranoid.”

He slowly turned around, a slightly hopeful expression on his handsome face. Man, he was good looking!

“You’ll give me a chance?” His voice was lower as he started back toward me, a light in his eyes that made me somewhat uneasy again. “I can’t believe it. Most girls wouldn’t give me the time of day after this.”

I blinked. He’d tried this before? “Um,”

He made a face. “I don’t mean this,” he said, waving a hand at my apartment and the burning candle (which was really starting to smell wonderfully of apples and cinnamon with a bit of pine thrown in). “I mean, I usually end up with girls dumping me. My family jokes that I’m the one-date wonder.”

I stared at him, feeling a little dismayed at the admission. What was wrong with him that girls wouldn’t go out again? He seemed normal and very good looking to me…

He sighed. “Man, this is not going anything like I’d hoped. Can I start again?”

I giggled. “You mean, at the door?”

“Please?” His eyes pleaded with me, and my stomach was suddenly full of butterflies.

“Okay.” We walked back to the door and he went out, closing it behind him.

I waited a few seconds, thinking he’d knock right away, but it was a good minute before I heard the doorbell ring. Okay…

“Who is it?” I asked through the door, deciding it could possibly be a neighbor and he’d taken off.

“Delivery boy.”

I opened the door ready to give him a bad time, to see him holding a sprig of mistle toe over his head.

“Uh, delivery boy?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

“I’m Santa’s Helper,” He said, with a determined tone as he stepped near. “Santa sent me. He said you needed a Christmas Kiss.”

Before I could even form a thought, he was pulling me close, kissing me with a gentleness that blotted out any other feeling. Oh my!

He slowly pulled back and looked down at me with a satisfied expression, his eyes warm. “Merry Christmas, Bridget.”

I gulped. “M-merry Christmas, uh, Mark.”

I put a hand to my throbbing lips, wondering what to think. What now?

He smiled, slowly releasing me. “I hear there’s a party tonight.”

I giggled, feeling silly repeating everything – especially after that kiss. “I don’t know, I haven’t been able to call anyone to come.”

“Do you want anyone else to come?” he asked, his face hopeful as he gazed at me, those blue eyes still warm and lingering.

“Only you,” I found myself telling him, holding the door wide, the last verse of the Mariah Carey song playing in my head.

“Oh I don’t want a lot for Christmas
This is all I’m asking for
I just want to see my baby
Standing right outside my door “

Wait till Janet heard about Christmas Eve, she was never going to believe me, but I decided Santa worked in strange ways as I shut the door.

32 Satan is Bringing me Little Pieces of Coal this Year

It takes a lot to surprise me and even more to leave me speechless. I can honestly tell you ‘silent stupor’ is written across my forehead and I’ve been scratching my head trying to remove it and establish reason to what I have just witnessed. Where do I begin this story…I’m not sure when the events started; surely it must have started months ago…for this monumental feat to have occurred we are talking arduous timing, careful coordination, clandestine maneuvers, sheer determination, and outright fearlessness.

For those of you that didn’t know; Chris & I bought a 100 year old house give or take 2 years ago; moved in with our growing German Shepherd puppy named Mowgli, and knew from the get go our kitchen needed a remodel. With lots of help we ripped out old cabinets, refinished the hard wood floor, squirted insulation in all the crevices, heaved granite onto lopsided surfaces, and finally got a dishwasher to match our other stainless steel appliances. Why am I telling you about our kitchen?…because that is where the events leading up tonight have been secretly taking place.

Chris is finishing up her night float month; which means tonight was her last night to go into work at 8 PM and admit all the kiddos until 8 AM the next morning. At which point she drives aimlessly home, drops all of her medical accoutrements on the table, walks up the stairs eyes half closed, and crawls into bed for her daylight zombie hibernation. From all the zombie movies I’ve seen and observing my wife during the past month; I can tell you that without a shadow of a doubt: Zombies do not cook.

Barbeque Chicken pizza has got to be the most savory (Chris’ favorite word) and easiest meals to prepare; especially when your freezer is stocked with the CPK variety. My growling stomach was telling me it was time to scavenge some food; luckily Mowgli was volunteering his help. While licking his lips and shadowing my every move, knowing he would likely inherit at least one piece of crust, he escorted me to the freezer and guarded the care package to the stove while I set the oven for 375 degrees.

Being environmentally friendly and neighbor sleep cycle conscious I slipped on my shoes and hauled the clunkity clunk wobbly loud blue recycle container out to the street prior to my elderly neighbor’s bedtime. Upon my return from the silent street I could smell someone burning garbage? Maybe manure? Maybe a live cow? Those were my best guesses anyways. Just as I got to the back door the wintery silence was broken: Meeeep!! Meeeep!!! Meeeep!!!! I opened the door and a plume of black smoke billowed past all of my sensory organs. Apparently I was the one who had lit the filthy bovine on fire.

Mowgli was the first to greet me with a frantic slightly guilty look on his face. I made my way into the kitchen in search of flames, but found only an angry oven with dark smoke coming from behind, beneath, and around it; even through the front glass window. What’s the first thing you do when you see smoke? Drop to your knees crawl to safety? Grab your loved ones? I suppose you don’t really know what you’d do until faced with that situation. Well, I rescued the pizza off the top of the stove and headed for the back door. You’re probably thinking what about the sleeping zombie upstairs? Well to my credit I yelled her name on the way to open the back door.

After setting the soot stained pizza down outside, I returned to the action brandishing my childhood Boy Scout valor, or should I say pyromania mindset, and opened the oven. “Wooosh! Vwoooom!” said the oxygen deprived flames. Singed and rattled by my most recent move I released the handle and the oven door slammed shut containing Hell’s fury. Having inhaled plenty I shut the oven off, and tried to remember where the fire extinguisher was as I opened all the outside doors to let the noxious cloud escape into the night.

I’m not sure what finally woke Chris up: the smoke alarms, the suffocating air, or the offensive odor. Coughing and tiredly stretching my name out, “Wyaaaatttt?” she made her way down the stairs, Mowgli met her in a frenzy, I think to tattle on me. With my dinner plans now ruined and the frigid Massachusetts winter air rushing in the detective work was about to begin.

“What did you do? What did you burn?” she asked.

“What did you spill in the oven?” I replied.


“Did the turkey drip out of the pan?” (Thanksgiving in mind)

“No, it was a huge pan.”

Skeptical about lack of spillage, I started opening windows, and Chris headed back upstairs to get ready for her last night shift. Mowgli sauntered around the living room chasing his tennis ball as if nothing had happened. My breath in sight, I outfitted myself with a hat and gloves and set up some fans to clear the air and disarmed the caterwauling (my favorite word) smoke detectors. Soon Chris had grabbed her things, we said goodbye, and she walked out the open door into an equilibrated environment. The last thing she said to me, “We need a new oven.”

Now I’m no fire marshal, but for there to be that much smoke, and having my eyebrows witness the fire first hand, I was fairly convinced some sort of “fuel” was to blame. I garnered a flashlight and set out to find the culprit. The oven air space now cleared; I could see nothing, no sticky residue, no smoldering carcass, no leaking jet fuel, no rubber tires, nothing.

Time to dig deeper, I reached for the pink toolbox (yes we have a pink set of tools-it was free so no judging), and began to dismantle the oven floor. Half dozen bolts later, I jimmied out the flat metal plate, and to my amazement: dark steaming rocks and hundreds of them. Small, round, flat, maybe 1 centimeter in diameter black rocks, pebbles, stones whatever you want to call them. Each rock is laid-out, side by side perfectly spaced. That’s strange I thought; why are there rocks in the bottom of an oven? This being the first time I’ve been in the underbelly of an oven, I started pondering their function.

My brain starts storming: ((( Maybe they are like ceramic stones that hold heat? Perhaps they help with convection and speed baking times? Is this what keeps the warming drawer warm? Is this some sort of insulation? Little permanent pieces of coal that help power the oven? ))) I pick one up and try to break it; it’s solid; it feels like a piece of brick. Stumped and bewildered I do what I normally do when I have a question, I consult Google.

Search Box: “Little black rocks in your oven” “black warming rocks in stove” “Why does my oven have rocks in it?” Those Google scientists are totally useless; they couldn’t give me one good answer. I’m thinking how is it that no one has ever asked this question before? Why in the hell is my oven the only one with rocks? I think myself as a resourceful individual; why not ask the oxy Moron who put them there and then put the words “Frigid Air” on the front of the oven. I Googled Frigidaire’s headquarters contact info and dialed with haste.

(15 minutes later after holding on the phone staring at my oven rocks)

“Good evening, may I have your name please?” -Wyatt

“When did you purchase your appliance sir?” (fearing my warranty had expired and therefore maybe not getting the help I need…..I lie.) -Uhhhh maybe 10 months ago?

“Ok sir, how can I help you?” -My oven caught on fire…I took it apart…and now I’m staring at rocks…can you tell me what their function is?

“Rocks? What do you mean sir?” –Beneath the oven floor there are hundreds of little round rocks

“What is the model number for the oven?”…. “you said it caught on fire?” ………

“Um sir let me put you on hold for a minute”….

(Another 5 minutes pass and I notice I’m shivering and Mowgli has cool steam coming from his nose and around the tennis ball fixed in his mouth)

“Sir I’ve discussed this with my supervisor and their shouldn’t be rocks in your oven”

“Let me give you the number for the closest appliance repair service, can I have your zip code?”

Phone numbers obtained; I’m now freezing my tail off and no closer to solving the mystery.

“Would you like to complete a customer survey tonight?” –Um I don’t have time; I have to deal with these rocks in my oven.

At this point I close the doors and windows. Mowgli signals to me he is hungry by going to his empty dish and giving me a suffering puppy dog look over his left shoulder. I pick up his dish and go to the ‘feed barrel” on the back porch and scoop his bowl full and go back into the light of the kitchen. My eyes happen to glance into the dog bowl as I’m motioning it to the floor. I stop, half-stooped over, and bring the bowl closer to my face for a better inspection; Mowgli’s hunger will have to wait.

I take his food to the oven, it doesn’t need to be warmed; it needs a side by side comparison to my black oven rocks. Peculiarly they are the same size, same shape, even about the same number-a big dog bowl full of oven rocks: but not the same color. I think I have a near match; in appearance anyways, but it still makes no sense?

Literally in my head I’m thinking:

“Why would the previous home owners have spilled dog food in their oven?”

“Judy, a friend (who house/dog sat for us 2 weeks ago), surely she doesn’t cook some sort of casserole with dog food?”

“Did Mowgli barf in the oven?”

Google, Frigidaire, and my own appliance knowledge have hit a brick wall of black rocks: so I call my Dad-a man’s man he’ll know: Damn it’s busy. Hmmm I’ll call up Chris’ Dad, he’s handy, remodeled houses; He has probably taken apart a stove at least once in his life. I take some pictures of the rocks and their symmetrical layout, I’m still not certain what their origin or composition is, and I send them to his email.

“Maybe it’s vermiculite” he says. I’m no geologist, but that sounds like some sort of rock. “It’s used for insulation” Our discussion continues and I half jokingly suggest it looks like burnt petrified dog food. The think tank session shifts and he suggests that we may have a rat, a squirrel, or mouse hoarding food. I’m starting to believe it but still can’t quite grasp the magnitude of what this all means. We say our goodbyes and I set to removing the extrinsic black rocks from the stove (Now that I am 99% certain they don’t belong)

Mowgli is now chomping down his food. The oven now back to its original factory form and the pink tool set put away, I turn on the oven for a test run. As it is warming up, slowly nearing that earlier critical temperature, I’m left with so many questions and thoughts:

1. Rat’s don’t live in Springfield? Do they?

2. Squirrels run in fear of Mowgli, how would they get in our house? And surely they can’t fit beneath the oven floor.

3. A mouse could fit; How long would it take a mouse to amass that much food?

4. That is one organized geometrically founded mouse, those rows of dog food are near perfect alignment. How could a mouse be more organized than me?

5. Has this mouse really figured out how to harness natural gas technology to warm his every meal during the winter months?

6. Do I want to kill a genius mouse? Can I trap him alive, and test his mathematical skills? Is it worth my house catching on fire?-maybe

7. 300+ pieces of dog food: 12 feet from Mowgli’s dog bowl: What is the ground speed velocity of an unladen mouse, let alone a laden one.

8. How does a mouse carry a dog food pellet? In it’s mouth? Can mice dislocate their jaws like snakes?

9. This mouse must have done it in the dead of night; why have I not seen any mouse poop on the floor between the dogs dish and the stove? Does this mouse not poop?

10. Maybe this explains why Mowgli is so skinny? His food is repeatedly stolen.

11. Has all my food lately been coated with dog food grease: Don’t they put dead horses in dog food? Does that mean I can say I’ve eaten horse?

12. Maybe this is why all my poker buddies rave about my brownies?

Conclusion: I have a nocturnal calculating genius mouse; who lives beneath open flames; who steals from starving puppies; who does not defecate; and most recently, tried to light my house on fire. What shall we call this demon? How about ‘Satan’? Satan the mouse.

BEEEEEEEEEEEP! We’ve reached 375 degrees. No smoke. No fire. No pungent smell. All is back to normal in the Rivas oven. Time for some BBQ chicken pizza, actually let’s postpone that. The oven needs to run a few cleaning cycles first.

Have a happy holiday; and remember ovens don’t come with little black rocks, Google doesn’t have the answer to everything, and if you are ever in need of a signal fire-use Eukanuba dog food.

31 The Book of Zev

The Book of Zev
An Irreverent Recount of the Journey to Bethlehem
By Zev

I, Zev, the son of Yaw who was begotten by Zot the son of Tev whose great-greatgreat-great-great-great-great…… great-great… uh… great grandmother was the servant of Balaam and first among our kind to see the angel of the Lord and speak the tongue of man whilst Balaam smote her.

So all the generations from Zev unto the smiting of Balaam’s ass were sixteen generations.

And I, Zev, having been born of goodly parents and therefore trained in all the labours of my fathers, yet seeing many great and wonderous things in the number of my long days, heretofore set forth to create a record of those proceedings.

Yea, I establish this record in the tongue of my fathers—HEE HAW—in which I bore a young woman, great with child, to a lowly manger far away from our home in Galilee.

And I bear witness to this record as it brings much truth, and I make it according to my knowledge.

For it came to pass, long ago in Nazareth (which was in Galilee) that I was in the service of a simple carpenter, who was gentle and stalwart in nature, and his betrothed whose father I had also served…

And it came to pass that a decree went forth across the lands, by order of Ceasar, that all men should return to their Fathers’ houses to be taxed.

So I, Zev, was burdened and laden with the great weight of all the supplies for this perilous journey and tethered whilst the Carpenter placed my waddling, rotund mistress also upon my back.

Notwitholding the hour of the day, we started through the streets of Nazareth, busy with the bustling about, to and fro, of many wonderous people and goods, which did cause me to gawk, though I had crossed this square many times before. The Carpenter did tug hardily upon my rope, despite my steady plodding, to which I withheld the expression of my displeasure, and into the countryside we did go.

Spring had stretched upon us mildly this year. The sun lay over us and though it offered some warmth, my bones still protested against the chill in the air. They moved stiffly at first, like dead branches in a winter breeze. Yet I kept on, diligent in my servitude, even though the weight upon my back seemed to wax heavier by the hour.

Yet not withstanding, I remained constant and true, a worthy mount even for a king. Imagine thus—a king upon my back wreathed in glory and many sundry sparkly trinkets tinkling about me. And I, Zev, would be Lord of the Asses, and I would carry Him proudly hitherto and fro.

Ah, alas, would it be so. But no. Here I was, indentured to a carpenter and my mistress, barely past girlhood and already heavy with child. Oh so heavy, as my back reminded me now, and my legs ached from the walking. Why was it my task to carry her forth?

I had heard people speak slander against her condition. Twas not my fault then Carpenter tied me nigh the market whilst he loaded my back with an order for delivery. How was I to avoid overhearing such language with the great long ears the Lord had blessed I and my kindred with? If it was not to overhear, nay eavesdrop a little, than what purpose did they serve sitting upon my head and flopping about?

Now it was not my place to judge my mistress, who did weigh greatly upon my back, for dearly, dearly did I love her, and indeed she had stood by my side all the days of my own youth, and foreasmuch I should serve her likewise, despite the slanderous things I had heard. For surely I would be rewarded for such loyalty, and be borne away to a better life and become Zev, Lord of the Asses! In which kings would fawn over my greatness and feed me sweet clover.

Now it came to pass that I did see sweet clover by the wayside of the road, and delighted in partaking, but the Carpenter did prod me onward, scolding me for my slowness. But my stomach did rumble and quell in a manner befitting a hungry beast. On and on we did go, pushing the limits of all our strengths. Did this man have no concept of supper?

Finally my mistress did make her own weariness beknownst to him, much to my relief, and noted that we should forebare my own welfare, to keep it in mind that we might make it to a land called Bethlehem. Twas nigh unto the Hill Country of Judah, home to the house of my mistress’s cousin which we had visited many years before. I knew the way, yea I could find it with my eyes closed—for that is how I had come by it before, at the hand of my mistress’s father and half asleep all the while.

Yea, I could fly there, if it were not for my mistress’s great weight and delicate condition. But now that she no longer burdened my sore and aching back, I could fly. Aye. Even with wings betwixt my hooves like unto the myths of the cloven hoofed swine kind. Ah, were it the day! Then, then even, the bovine would come home.

When darkness fell upon us, The Carpenter did pitch a light camp and built a warming fire, and we circled round about it. I listened as they spoke of their coming child. Mistress, young as she was, seemed comforted by the fact that her carpenter had raised three grown sons of his own, being the elder that he was. Yet I could sense a trembling in the air inherent of all new and nervous parents.

The Carpenter broke camp before the break of dawn and I, while not fully rested, was once again burdened with the great weight of my round mistress. We continued on our way in the darkness, passing others on the high road, who also were journeying to be taxed. The Carpenter made his way toward the house of his fathers in the south. We continued this way until the many days turned too hot to journey by the sunlight, and began making our way at night instead.

Once we were waylaid by brigands, to which end I did dart into the woods with my mistress, despite my aching joints and weariness. The Carpenter found us in the morning by a little running stream with Mistress safely at my feet, to which end The Carpenter did reprimand me profusely for not only being a coward, but a danger to my mistress!

Perish the thought that I, Zev, Lord of the Asses, even, should ever be a danger to my mistress. And a coward… okay, perhaps a bit of a coward, but my belly was not yellow, and I was not stupid, nor was I any other thing The Carpenter chose to accuse me of being. I mean, the fat-rumped girl… er… my sweet mistress, was safe, was she not?

As she was placed upon my back, I let this Carpenter have an ear full of what I thought about the situation and that he was making many assumptions in which he was not entitled to by my account, and we all know what it happens when we just ASS-UME, don’t we?

Despite my discontent in the matters, The Carpenter chose to ignore my choice of words, yet I did not give up on my cause and found many assundry ways to express my feelings the rest of the way. For I was Zev, Lord of the Asses, and son of Yaw who was begotten by Zot the son of Tev whose great-great-great-great-great-great-great… well you get the idea. This man was just a Carpenter, and I refused to be treated thusly.

It went on like this many days henceforth, that I murmured and protested all of these things to my great displeasure, until we entered Bethlehem, a city of David. O little town of Bethlehem, how still I see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamfilled sleep, we silent stars go by.

Such thoughts perplexed my mind as hopes and fears of finding, or not finding, a place of restitute waxed strongly on my confidence. Yet suddenly a great cry arose from my Mistress and was met with the very thunder of threatening storm clouds.

The Carpenter, in great concern, sought out the inn, to which extend the innkeeper refused us. The Carpenter begged and bartered as my mistress let out another cry which did split my very ears. I protested at the pain of it, to which the innkeeper took notice of me.

Lo, you may enter, save for your donkey. For I shall have him, sayeth the innkeeper.

Nay, said The Carpenter, I shall not be parted from this beast. Forasmuch of a burden he is unto me, he is also a boone, and all the riches of Solomon could not buy him from me.

Finally, I received a little respect! It was about time. The innkeeper seemed oddly enough impressed, and took pity on us, that he led us to a secret place that was little more than a lean-to, resting under a great rock. It was cave like and did smell of fowl animals.

The cries of my mistress grew louder and I saw her face draw with pain as The Carpenter laid her on his mantel, spread upon the ground.

I watched in great astonishment what came to pass as my mistress travaileth, and her cries were so tumultuous that even the fowl animals flittered about on wing. It was a noise so great I had only formerly thought the ass kind could exceed it. Yea, even the bovine lowed at the pitch in their ears, while the fowl animals continued to be frightened on wing.

I, however, withdrew myself to a dark corner, nigh a watering troth, for I could not bear to see my mistress in such throws of agony.

Only moments later was the tempest outside quieted as a new voice was ushered into our tiny manger.

I figured my mistress was no longer great with child at this heralding, and finally we would have some peace and rest. I had looked forward to this time of respite nigh unto a fortnight!

After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked round about me and finding myself alone, I bowed my head and offered the desires of my heart up unto the Lord.

It would be nice, Lord, to have some sweet, dewey clover, and to really be Lord over all ass kind. For I, Zev, son of Yaw who was begotten by Zot the son of Tev whose great-great-great-great-great-great-great…… great-great… uh… great grandmother was the servant of Balaam, have served selflessly and with honor, have I not?

At this moment, and to my great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the mid-day sun, which descended gradually and fell upon me. I saw a personage whose brightness and glory exceeded that of all my own aspirations, and it called me by name.

“Zev, thou ungrateful sot, realize not the precious cargo thou hast borne into Bethlehem?”

“Is that thee, Lord? Why hast thou visited me, of all creatures, this very night? I am weary from carrying this oversized girl all of these days, and do long for the delights of my supper.”

“Look, see, Zev, the creator of this world, the saviour of mankind, there in the arms of the woman thou hast carried this long fortnight. Behold my son, and all the while thou hast murmured and not withheld thy malcontent. Because of this, I shall punish you. Henceforth thou and thy posterity will bear the burden of my Son all the days of thy ungrateful life.”

And when the light faded, I dropped my head to the waters of the trough before me and was astounded to see how my countenance had changed. There across my back was the shadow of a great cross. Upon my legs were bars, like unto nails. And a shadow of a crown of thorns appeared betwixt my eyes.

I gazed across the manger at my mistress, her Carpenter, and the babe in their arms, who had always loved and cared for me, and realized how foolish and ungrateful I had been. Surely now I was Lord of the Asses.

Now, as I look back across the years, I know how vain I have been. And again I bear witness to this record as it brings much truth, and I make it according to my knowledge, that all who will hear my message may receive it.

It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you already have. Please count your many blessings, one by one. Count your shelter, food, freedom, and loved ones twice, and you will realize how great a bounty our Lord has blessed you with. Often it is more than most others have, as I have come to realize.

And when it comes to pass that you gather with your loved ones to celebrate the birth of my Master, even the Lord, Jesus Christ, and you rush to open all the gifts you had to have, think of me, and how I, through my slothful and ungrateful ways, got exactly what I wished for—to be Zev, the foolish Lord of all Asses.

30 The Least of These

They drove for some time in silence, and Joshua wondered if Sarah was sleeping. He himself was feeling quite tired.

He thought of their wedding, several hours earlier. The Justice of the Peace showed the effects of some early holiday cheer, as did his wife and brother-in-law, who served as witnesses. But they were all sufficiently sober to perform the ceremony and sign the register.

Sarah, he thought, looked lovely in the second-hand maternity dress. She’d be beautiful to him in an old sack; what she wore didn’t matter.

He glanced over as she stirred slightly in the seat beside him.

Smiling, he took her hand, and spoke. “How is my wife feeling?”

She squeezed his hand and responded. “Your wife is fine. So happy to be ‘your wife’.”
“It was a nice wedding,” he said thoughtfully. “But I kind of wish at rabbi had married us.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, still holding his hand. “If God’s out there somewhere, he doesn’t care if a rabbi, judge or preacher married us. He’s smiling down on us anyway.”

They continued in silence, broken only occasionally when Sarah looked at a map to assure they were heading in the right direction. Cleveland was a long way from Baltimore, but an acquaintance of Joshua’s said he’d give him a job there, and there were no jobs to be had in Baltimore. Even if he’d graduated high school, it wouldn’t have made a difference. And with the baby on the way, employment was more important than finishing high school.

“You think I’ll be a good mother?” Sarah asked shyly, after several miles of silence.

He looked over at her. “Sarah, you will be the most wonderful mother ever.”

“Well, you know, we never had very good examples.”

“We learned everything not to do.” He smiled at her. “We’ll do just fine.”

In central Pennsylvania they drove into some light snow, and the strong winds pelted it against the small car. Sarah wrapped the sleeping bag tighter around her. Joshua glanced over at her.

“You’re cold. We’d better stop for the night.”

“I’m not cold. This sleeping bag is warm as anything.”

He saw a sign for ‘Lodging, next exit,’ and took it.

“We’re in luck. We’ve been driving for a long time without seeing anything.”

They drove off the highway and down the small, country road for several miles, before seeing a small, rundown motel advertising a vacancy. Joshua pulled into the lot.

“I’ll just be a minute.” He jumped out of the car into the cold and hurried into the motel office.

True to his word, he came out quickly. He sighed deeply before speaking.

“One hundred and twenty dollars a night. Sarah, we just don’t have that kind of money.”

“Of course we don’t.” She smiled. “Maybe we ought to buy ourselves a motel and charge $120.00 a night for a room.”

It was just before 6:00 p.m., but Joshua was tired. They’d been driving since 8:00, stopping briefly to get married, and then for meals and gas. He started the car and followed the signs leading back to the highway. Before he’d gone a mile, he spotted an old barn. He slowed the car, stopped, and hesitated before speaking. Sarah spoke first.

“Something wrong?”

He sighed. “No, nothing’s wrong, but we need to get warm. Without any heat in this car, my fingers are getting numb.” He forced a grin. “What do you think about winter camping?” He looked over at the barn.

“Sounds fine to me,” she said, smiling.

Joshua pulled the car into the overgrown driveway leading to the barn, and stopped.
“I’ll go take a look around; you wait here.”

He returned in a few minutes. “Looks okay. And the walls are solid; you can’t feel the wind at all in there.”

She climbed out of the car, and he moved it around to the back, so it wouldn’t be seen from the road. Then they went into the barn, stopping for a moment so their eyes could adjust to the dim light.

“You know,” she said, “I’ve always seen pictures of that baby Jesus they say was born in a little barn. I wonder if it was like this one.”

“Well, our baby won’t be born in a barn. We’ll be in Cleveland tomorrow, and you’ve still got a few days.”

Joshua retrieved sleeping bags and blankets from the car, and, in an old cow stall, arranged as comfortable sleeping arrangements as were possible. They snuggled close, the only smells remaining in the barn those of straw, making it not unpleasant.

After a short time, Joshua spoke. “Sarah, Honey, I’m real sorry about this.” She turned to look at him, her face showing her puzzlement.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, look at us here. Newlyweds, sleeping our first night in an old barn.” He looked away, but she reached up and gently turned his face toward hers.

“We’re in this together, husband and wife. We’re warm and safe, and I need to tell you,” she said, looking deep into his eyes, “I have everything in life I want. All I’ve ever wanted since the day we met was you. Now we’re married.”

He smiled at her. “We’re together for the rest of our lives,” he said, pulling her close and wrapping his arms around her.

She was quiet for a moment, before responding. “Joshua, do you think there’s anything that comes after? I mean, ‘the rest of our lives.’ Is that the end?”

“I don’t know. I never thought about it much.” He looked directly at her. “What do you think?”

She paused for a moment, then turned to look at him directly again. “Well, I think there’s a God out there somewhere, and he never made a man as good as you just to throw him away in sixty or seventy years. I just can’t think of a time when you will never be.” She paused, and then continued. “Sometimes I think there never was a time when we weren’t, you know what I mean?” She put a hand on her stomach. “Do you think this baby just never was before we got together? I mean, I can’t really explain it, but I just think there’s something bigger than all of us.”


A few miles away, Bishop Wilson left work, and drove the short distance home. Approaching his house, he hit the button to open the garage door, and slid the car into the garage. Three days to Christmas, and tonight was the Stake Youth Dance. His daughter had talked of nothing else for weeks; she’d just turned 16, and Kyle, the stake heartthrob, had asked her to the dance. He smiled as he walked into the house, appreciating the elaborate decorations, and smelling the roast beef. He entered the kitchen where Carol, his wife, was preparing dinner. Sounds of laughter and conversation – the typical sounds of a family of six – came from all directions in the house.

“Hey,” he said, giving her a quick kiss.

“Hey, yourself. Did you remember to get the straw for the manger outside? Jenna says that’s the last thing needed, and she wants everything perfect when Kyle arrives.” She rolled her eyes as she said this.

“Oh, I forgot the straw. I suppose she can’t do without it?”

“Of course she can.” Carol smirked at him. “I’m just not sure the doting daddy can do without getting it for her.”

He grinned. “How soon until we eat?”

“Half an hour. But where on earth are you going to get straw at this hour?”

“I’ll get some from the barn. It’s not scheduled for demolition until the 29th.”

She made a face. “Just make sure you don’t bring back any rodents in it.”

He kissed her again and returned to his car, backed out of the driveway and headed down the road.

Driving to the barn, he thought of the investment he’d made. He and a few others had purchased a tract of land, and construction would start on the townhouse development in January, if the weather cooperated. The several acres had just a few old buildings on them, and he remembered seeing straw in the barn when he’d walked over the property with the realtor. He’d grab a few handfuls, sufficient for the outdoor manger on their lawn, and be back in time for supper.

Joshua and Sarah finished the sandwiches they’d bought at a sub shop earlier, and she dozed off and on while he held her. It had grown dark; although only about 6:30, with the cloudy sky, and the lateness of the year, it seemed much later. They’d get a good night’s sleep and start early in the morning, Joshua thought, and arrive in Cleveland by mid-afternoon.

He saw the headlights before he heard the car. Perhaps it was just someone turning around. But no, the car pulled in and stopped by the barn. He nudged Sarah. “Someone’s here. Could be cops.”

“We’re not doing anything wrong.”

“We’re trespassing.” He spoke tensely. “Just be very still. Maybe they won’t see us.”

They crouched together as closely as possible, and peered out to the main part of the barn through a crack in the wall of the cow stall.

Bishop Wilson pushed in the door, which creaked loudly. He’d grabbed a leaf bag before leaving the house, and now he switched on his flashlight, reached over and picked up a few handfuls of straw and stuffed them into the bag. When the bag was full, he stood up.

There was something he couldn’t quite define, but he knew he wasn’t alone. He wasn’t afraid, and wondered if he should be. There could be no good reason for someone to be lurking in this barn, yet he had no feeling of fear.

“Who’s here?” he called out. Silence. He shone the flashlight around the barn, up to the loft, but saw nothing. “I’m not going to hurt you. Where are you?” Still no response. “Please don’t make me walk all over this barn; I’m not dressed for it.” He shone the light around again, very slowly this time, and as it passed the wall of the stall behind which Joshua and Sarah hid, their frightened eyes reflected the light. Bishop Wilson slowly walked toward them.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he repeated. “I’m a clergyman. I just needed some straw for a Christmas display.” He walked toward them. When he was still several feet from the stall, Joshua stood up.

“We’re not here to hurt anything. We just needed a place to stay for the night.” His voice cracked, showing his nervousness. “We’ll leave now if you want us to.” Sarah slowly stood up beside him.

In the light of the flashlight, Bishop Wilson saw a teenaged couple, the girl very pregnant, and both of them scared and vulnerable. He thought quickly that there was a reason he’d forgotten to get the straw earlier.

“Where do you live?” he asked.

“We’re moving to Cleveland; I got a job there. We’re from Baltimore.”

The bishop couldn’t imagine what kind of job this young man thought he had in Cleveland, but that was not his immediate concern; that could be dealt with later.

“We didn’t hurt anything,” Joshua continued. “We just got here a while ago. If this is your barn, we’re sorry, and we’ll leave right away. Our car is parked in the back.”

“No, please, you don’t have to leave. I mean, you do, and yes, it is my barn. But you can’t stay out here. It’s too cold. Come home with me, stay the night and you can be on your way tomorrow.”

“No, thank you,” Sarah said, stooping to pick up a blanket. “We’ll just be on our way.”

“Please, you don’t have to be on your way, and you don’t have to stay here. I live just a few miles away; we can be there in 15 minutes.”

Joshua looked as Sarah; he hated to have her sleep in a barn, didn’t know where they’d go if they left, and thought that this man seemed sincere. He had his arm around here, and pulled her a little closer as he spoke.

“That’s very nice of you. It is kind of cold, and as you see, my wife is due in a few days. I hate to have her sleeping in a barn, but, well, money-“

“Just come with me,” Bishop Wilson said, smiling. He extended his hand to Joshua. “I’m Bishop Wilson.”

“Nice to meet you,” Joshua said, shaking hands.” I’m Joshua Feinburg, and this is my wife, Sarah.” The bishop and Sarah shook hands.

They quickly gathered up the sleeping bags and blankets, and tossed them into the trunk. “What about our car?” Sarah asked.

“It‘ll be safe here,” Bishop Wilson said. “Do you need anything from it tonight?”

Not needing anything but the blankets and sleeping bags, they climbed into Bishop Wilson’s car and were soon home.

They entered the kitchen, now empty, and the bishop called out. “Anyone home? We have company.”

Carol came into the room, smiling, and greeted them. “Hello,” she said warmly.

Introductions were made, and Carol and the bishop quickly moved dishes, opened the table to add a leaf, and quickly reset it. He then called the others to dinner.

The younger children weren’t even mildly curious; they greeted the guests politely, but were more concerned with finishing dinner and getting back to their other activities, then they were with Joshua and Sarah. Jenna, dressed for the formal dance, sat and chatted, but ate nothing.
“Jenna, darling, you have to eat something,” her mother pleaded.

“I can’t, Mother, I might spill something on my dress.”

They conversed about nothing in particular, finishing dinner. The three younger children excused themselves, and the rest sat at the table. They were still there when the doorbell rang.
“It’s him! Daddy, will you answer it. I need to check my hair!” Jenna stood and ran to the nearest bathroom, as her father went to answer the door.

A moment later, the bishop re-entered the dining room, accompanied by a handsome young man, dressed in a dark suit. Introductions were made, and Kyle sat down to wait for Jenna. She entered the room and heard Kyle saying, “My father’s an ob-gyn; why don’t you ask the bishop to give him a call? I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”

Kyle stood when he saw her, a broad grin lighting his handsome face.

“Sorry, to keep you waiting, Kyle,” she said, smiling.

After a few more minutes of conversation, Kyle and Jenna left, walking into the cold night, down the front path to Kyle’s car.

“Jenna, you’re beautiful,” Kyle said softly, opening the door for her.

“Thank you,” she said, hoping that the darkness prevented him from seeing her blush.

He went around and slid in behind the steering wheel, started the car and drove off.

“I like those friends of your dad’s.”

“Yeah, they seem real nice.”

They drove a few minutes in silence. Then Jenna spoke abruptly. “Kyle, I don’t think we should go to the dance.”

He pulled over and stopped the car, then looked at her in amazement.

“Jenna, you look beautiful. This is the biggest dance of the year.” He paused and looked straight out the windshield. He spoke softly. “Are you sorry you said you’d go with me?”

“Oh, Kyle, no!” She took his arm and looked directly into his face. “But I just can’t get Joshua and Sarah out of my mind! They never had a chance to do any of the things we do. Do you know what she said at dinner? She said something about ‘that baby Jesus,’ like she doesn’t even know who he is! She doesn’t even know who Jesus is! Let alone ever going to a Church dance, or Young Women’s camp, or Seminary or anything.” She rushed on. “They’re no different than us in some ways, but we know so much more than they do. Do you know, they didn’t even finish high school! And here we are, in our fancy clothes, and your dad’s fancy car, off to a dance, when they don’t even know if there’s a God! I just think we need to talk to them. “ She repositioned in the seat slightly, looking out the windshield, then back at Kyle.

“I’m sorry, Kyle, but we need to go back. I want to be with you tonight. Please come home with me. You’ve been out with the missionaries a lot. You can teach them the first discussion, can’t you? Please?”

“Jenna,” he said, laughing, “Let me get a word in edgewise, please. Yes, we’ll skip the dance. They seem like real nice people, and as you said, we have plenty of dances.” He paused for a minute. “One condition, though.”


“You have to come with me to the next dance.”

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “It’s a date!”

He started the car and did a u-turn, and headed back to her house.

29 Substitute Santa

The cell phone vibrated in Kurt’s pocket. He grabbed it before the Pink Panther theme blasted out in the candlelit dining room. “Yeah,” he answered, too rushed to check the caller ID. He was surprised to hear his wife’s voice.

“Are you busy?” Courtney asked.

“I’m always busy.” Kurt managed the Chez Henri, a black-tie restaurant in Park City.

“You have to go to the ward party tonight. Bishop Nielson needs a Santa. The fellow from second ward got sick at the last minute.”

“What?” Kurt had forgotten all about the ward Christmas party tonight. “That’s impossible.”

“I told Bishop Nielson you’d do it. He’s desperate.”

Kurt felt his blood pressure rise. It was Christmas Eve and the diners were in a holiday mood. “I’ve got a restaurant to run.”

“Tell that to the bishop.”

Kurt knew he’d lost the argument. “All right. When do I have to be there?”

“Ten minutes ago. The program’s already started.”

Kurt explained the situation to Zack, his assistant manager.

“Hey, you’re covered.” Zack was an over-achieving college student, single, and eager to work extra hours. “Your family needs you tonight, man.”

Kurt grimaced. “Merry Christmas. Ha, ha, ha.”

Fifteen minutes later he walked through the meetinghouse doors. The sound of children’s voices singing “Christmas Bells” came from the cultural hall.

Bishop Nielson was waiting in the foyer. He rushed up to grab Kurt’s hand, obviously nervous. Perspiration glistened on his balding head. “Thanks for coming on such short notice.” They hurried down the hall. “Change in my office,” the bishop said. “I’ll wait out here.”

The Santa suit lay draped on a chair. A box containing the white, fuzzy beard and red hat had been left on the desk. Black, one-size-fits-all irrigation boots completed the outfit. Kurt knew why Bishop Nielson had asked him to fill in. No extra padding was needed for the suit. As he flung the large black garbage bag of goodies on his back, he had only one worry.

“I don’t want my kids to know I’m Santa,” Kurt said, closing the door behind him.

“The beard hides your face.” Bishop Nielson patted Santa on the back. “You’re a natural.”

The bishop escorted him up the steps of the curtained stage at the far end of the cultural hall. “Watch for Sister Skinner’s clue,” he said and left Kurt on his own, itching his whiskers.

Kurt plunked the heavy bag next to the decorated Christmas tree and parted the curtain a crack, searching for his family. The room was crowded. He found his boys in the choir, singing “Silent Night”. Ten-year-old James wore his plaid bathrobe. A towel was tied on his head with a rope to make him look like a shepherd. Seven year-old Sam wore an aluminum foil crown. Where was McKenna, his five year-old daughter? Not surprised, he spotted her dressed as an angel with a golden halo and cardboard wings.

Courtney looked like an angel too, smiling sweetly at the children. The chair next to her was empty as if she had been saving it for him. Kurt wished he could be seated there right now. He was perspiring in the furry, red suit.

Sister Skinner said, “Boys and girls, let’s sing “Jingle Bells”. If we sing it loud enough, I think Santa might hear.” The pianist played a short introduction and then the children joined in. Some sang, “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg.”

“Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” Kurt shouted as the curtain parted.

Everyone clapped and cheered and for one crazy moment he felt like a movie star.

Bishop Nielson took the microphone. “Santa has taken time out of his very busy schedule to be here tonight.”

You got that right, Kurt thought.

“He has gifts for each of the children. Let’s form a line and one by one, Santa will listen to what you want for Christmas.”

Sister Skinner led the children to the stage door. Parents with cameras stood ready. With a deep sigh, Kurt sat in the metal folding chair next to the Christmas tree and opened the black plastic bag. He hoped Santa didn’t lay an egg tonight.

One by one, the children climbed on his lap. Kurt asked what they wanted for Christmas and listened, nodding as though every wish was granted. Then he gave each child a paper sack filled with Christmas candies, peanuts, and an orange.

Kurt knew the parents were trying to guess his identity. So far, none had. As his family approached on line, he heard a friend ask Courtney, “Where’s Kurt?”


“He had to work tonight? That’s too bad.”

She laughed. “He practically lives there.”

Kurt winced at the sarcasm in her voice.

Courtney took pictures while the boys sat on Santa’s lap. Sam, the ten-year old, asked for a four-wheeler.

“Ho, ho, ho,” Kurt laughed. Not on your life, he thought. A remote control, maybe.

Seven year-old Jimmy asked for an Xbox.

“Ho, ho, ho.” In your dreams, Kurt thought. Maybe when your math grades improve.

And then five-year old McKenna sat on his lap. “You can’t fool me,” she said, fidgeting with her halo. “I know you’re not Santa. My daddy is Santa. He puts the presents under the tree. Mommy helps him too.”

“Ho, ho, ho!” Smart kid, Kurt thought. “What do you want for Christmas, little girl?”

McKenna leaned close and whispered in his ear, “When you come to our house, break the TV.”

“You want a new TV?”

“No, I want you to break our TV. The big one in the living room.”

Kurt stiffened. What was she thinking? He’d bought that TV last summer. It cost over a thousand dollars, a lot of late nights at the Chez. “Why?” he asked, forgetting to disguise his voice.

“Daddy’s at work all the time,” she said, “When he comes home, he just sits in front of the TV. He doesn’t play with me. He doesn’t even talk to me.”

“Ho, ho, ho.” Kurt laughed but he felt nervous. He was tired when he came home from the restaurant–definitely not up to playing with a five year-old. Didn’t she know that her daddy had to work? He’d explain that to McKenna when he got home. But then he remembered—he wasn’t going home after the party. He had to return to the restaurant. Kurt probably wouldn’t get home until after midnight tonight and McKenna would be sound asleep by then.

“Boys, hurry. Stand next to Santa,” Courtney said. Jimmy and Sam crowded close on each side. “Smile.” Courtney clicked the picture.

Kurt glanced at his daughter. She didn’t smile.

“Thanks, Santa,” Courtney said, blowing him a kiss.

Kurt watched her help McKenna with her coat and mittens. He wanted to go home with them. It was strange, watching his family leave. Without him.

Later in the bishop’s office, Kurt looked like himself again in his suit and tie. Bishop Nielson stood at the desk folding the red suit. “We had a good turn-out,” he said. “Almost all the candy bags are gone.”

“Santa gave me a gift too,” Kurt said.

“Oh? What’s that?”

“A new perspective,” he said, pulling on his coat. Kurt smiled as he left the bishop’s office. He was going home to spend Christmas Eve with his family.

28 The Real Magic

Stephen stood in the doorway, watching his little girl kneeling before the Christmas tree. The sparkling array of colorful lights cast an etherial glow around her brown hair. Daddy’s little angel, that’s what Jane looked like. From her Christmas light halo to her long white nightgown, she fit the picture beautifully.

He moved to take a step toward her, wanting to share one brief moment of her innocent anticipation of the coming holiday, but noticed her hands balled into fists at her side and stopped. She only made fists when she was angry. It was the first tell she’d developed as a small child. Her bright red face and wailing lips had faded as she’d gained the self-control and composure of a ten-year-old, but her fists had remained the same.

Jane’s head was bowed low as she examined one of the ornaments. A Santa ornament. Stephen took a long slow breath and closed his eyes, trying to think of what he was going to do. He had hoped she wouldn’t learn the truth about Santa for at least another year.

Before he had a chance to compose an explanation, Jane stood and turned, freezing when she saw him. Her eyes sparkled with a combination of the moist residue riming her lower lids and the reflection of the lights from the Christmas tree. She watched him silently, her brow creased in what looked like disappointment and betrayal. His stomach tied in knots at the sight. This was going to be a lot harder than he’d expected.

“Can we talk?” He asked, gesturing for her to take a seat on the couch.

Jane nodded and moved to the overstuffed sofa, her lips pursed in a frustrated line.

Stephen took her place at the tree, pulling the Santa ornament from the sagging limb then sitting next to her. “Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”

“No,” she answered, shaking her head and staring blankly at the coffee table in front of them.

Stephen held up the ornament, watching the carved wooden Santa twist and twirl on the end of its silver string. The little Kris Kringle had been his favorite holiday decoration as a child. He ran his thumb over its chin, the white-washed beard a few soft rubs away from oblivion.

“I wonder if your problem might have something to do with this.” He held the ornament between them, and noticed, for the first time how the wooden figure seemed to hang limply from its string. He imagined how the tiny Santa must look to Jane. An overused decoration that was as worn out as the lie it was carved from.

Jane’s eyes refilled with tears, the pain of a crushed childhood dream running down her cheeks. “Hannah said Santa isn’t real. She says you and mom are lying.”

“Who’s Hannah?” Stephen asked, cupping the ornament in his hands. He wished bitterly that Hannah hadn’t been so selfish, spoiling what he had hoped would be her last magical Christmas.

“A girl from school,” Jane said, sniffing. She ran her sleeve across her wet cheeks then under her nose.

“So, Hannah from school told you that Santa isn’t real?” Stephen studied the red sack slung over the wooden Santa’s shoulder. It bulged with dozens of small lumps, all different shapes and sizes. “Did she tell you we were lying?”

Jane nodded, “Yeah.”

“And you believe her?” He studied her carefully, ready to weigh more than the words in her response.

“I don’t know.” She leaned back into the couch, her head sinking into the cushion leaving her staring at the ceiling.

“Do you think your mother and I would lie to you?”

“Maybe.” She lifted her hands and let them flop back onto her lap as she turned to face him. “Hannah says you lied about Santa, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny.”

“We don’t believe in the Easter Bunny,” Stephen said. The Easter bunny was one candy-filled diversion he wasn’t willing to perpetuate on such a sacred holiday.

“I know. But what about Santa and the tooth fairy?” Jane sat forward, her eyes watching him with an earnestness they had never held before.

Stephen placed the carved Santa on the coffee table and sunk back into the couch, turning sideways and tucking his foot under his knee so he could face her. “Let me ask you a question.” He hesitated for a moment before continuing. “What made Santa so special to you?”

Jane’s brows furrowed as she concentrated on the Christmas tree. “I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do,” Stephen said, nodding. “Just think about it.”

Jane was silent for a moment, her focus shifting from the tree to her father. “Well…because he brings presents.”

Stephen failed to suppress a small chuckle. He quickly cleared his throat, cutting the laugh short. “Is it only the presents that make him special?”

“No,” Jane said quickly, shaking her head in defense of her answer.

“Okay. What else makes him special?”

“He brings toys to everybody.” She pressed her index fingers together, as if getting ready to count off a list. “He has reindeer that fly and a magic sleigh…”

Stephen watched as an innocent excitement returned to her face, her eager voice making a case for a man she no longer believed in.

“… he’s magic—” She faltered in the middle of her list, her hands balling into fists again. “Santa isn’t real. Magic isn’t real.”

“Magic isn’t real?” he asked in a stunned, sober tone. It was hard enough to watch her discover the truth about Santa, but he couldn’t bear to let her cast aside the gift of magic.

“Magic is for babies,” Jane retorted. She folded her arms across her chest and glared at him with a stern gaze that left him feeling as if the role of parent and child had been reversed.

Stephen fished a small coin from his pocket, careful to keep it hidden. He slid it between two fingers before reaching behind her ear. “Then what’s this?” he asked, producing a penny. He let his mouth hang open in surprise, as if the penny had magically appeared and he had merely rescued it.

“That’s just a stupid trick. I already know how you do it.” She scoffed, her lips turned down in a disgusted manner that convinced him he was glimpsing the teenager to come. She pulled the penny from between his fingers and replicated the magic trick using his ear.

“See.” She presented him with the copper coin.

“You used to think it was magic.” He took the penny from her waiting fingers and placed it on the coffee table next to the wooden Santa. “What changed?”

“You showed me how to hide the penny between my fingers.” Her words sounded like an accusation, as if he had been the one to spoil magic tricks and Santa, all on the same night.

Stephen looked at his knuckles, picturing the day he’d taught Jane how to hide the penny between her fingers. She had been excited to learn and even more eager to show her friends. Why couldn’t this discovery be the same? Why couldn’t she see the magic of Santa as the gift he had always intended it to be, not some frivolous lie? Somehow, he had to find a way to show her that there was more to Old Saint Nick than reindeer and presents. “Do you think,” he said, grabbing the penny and handing it to her, “that I lied when I said I was magic?”

“No,” Jane held her fists stiffly in her lap, leaving the penny untouched.

“Why not?” He extended the coin further toward her.

“Because you were….I don’t know. But you weren’t lying.”

He loved the way she defended him, as if his honor was at stake. “I’m glad you don’t think I lied. But what’s the point of a fake magic trick? Why would I persuade you to believe in something that wasn’t real?”

Jane rolled her eyes and forced out an agitated breath, “I don’t know.”

Stephen let her answer hang in the silent room. It was true, convincing a child magic tricks were real did feel harmless, fun even. Yet somehow that standard didn’t hold true for Santa. Why?

He returned the penny to the table and picked up the ornament. “Well, I know why. It’s part of the magic of childhood. For a brief moment in our lives we get the chance to believe whatever we want to believe. We get to believe that reindeer can fly, that there’s a toy shop in the North Pole filled with elves who spend their entire lives preparing for Christmas. We get to believe that a chubby old man can fit down a chimney and that somehow, with the help of his magic sleigh, he can fly to every single house, all over the world, in the space of one night.” Stephen’s voice softened. He brushed a lock of hair from her eye and whispered, “Only a child can believe in things like that.”

“But it’s a lie.” Jane leaned away from his touch, her voice filled with longing.

Stephen recognized her yearning. He had felt the same way when he learned the secret about Santa. Christmas hadn’t been the same since. It had taken him decades to recapture even a hint of the magical feeling that had permeated the Christmases of his youth. That was the true magic of Christmas. It was a feeling, not a toy. That’s what she needed to learn. “Jane, Santa isn’t a lie. Don’t you see? He’s a gift.”

“How can lying about Santa be a gift?”

“Your mother and I wanted you to believe in Santa because, in a way, he is real. And I don’t mean he’s real because your Mom and I pretend to be him. If that’s all it was then we would be lying.” Stephen rose from the couch and returned to the tree. He reached deep within the thick boughs to the heart and removed another ornament. He held it in his hand for a moment, watching the Christmas lights reflect in the simple golden image. He sat back down, the fresh scent of pine accompanying him as if the ornament itself were the source of the holiday fragrance.

“By allowing you to believe in Santa, we were letting you believe in something impossible. Something wonderful but completely impossible.” Stephen held his breath and said a quick prayer. He wanted to find the right words to help Jane feel what he was saying. Not just hear it but feel it. If she could feel it, then the transition he hoped she was about to make would hold special meaning. “Did you ever stop and wonder why Santa was so generous? Why an old man would spend his entire life giving gifts to children all over the world? Children he doesn’t even know.”

“I guess.” Jane’s brows crumpled in confusion.

“And did you ever come up with an answer?”

Jane searched some unseen corner of the room for a moment before she responded. “Because he loves children.”

Stephen smiled and nodded in encouragement. “I’ve always believed that Santa spent his whole life giving to others because the real gift he was giving wasn’t toys and candy, but a feeling. A feeling so elusive most adults are incapable of capturing it. He gives presents to children hoping he can touch their hearts. Then—” he opened his hand, producing the ornament he had pulled from the tree, “—when we are older and have lost the magic we will recognize the feeling when we find it again.”

He extended the ornament, holding it next to her hands. “When we find Him.”

Jane picked up the ornament and cradled it in her small hands. A simple, golden silhouette of the nativity rested quietly in her fingers.

Stephen followed her gaze and when her eyes fell on the inscription carved into the bottom of the ornament he read it aloud, “The real magic is His love.”

He let his voice fade so that she could absorb the words. When she looked up, her eyes were glistening.

“If you can believe in Santa and everything that goes along with him, then you can believe that 2000 years ago a baby was born in a stable. And you can believe that this baby wasn’t just a regular baby, but the literal Son of God. And if you can believe that this baby…” Stephen’s voice caught. He cleared his throat quickly not bothering to wipe away the tear trickling down his cheek. He pointed tenderly at the golden silhouette of the Savior. “If you can believe that this baby is the Son of God then you can believe that not only did he live a perfect life for us, but he atoned for our sins. He endured every imaginable pain, both physical and emotional, so that he could care for us. He suffered in the garden of Gethsemane so that in our most desperate times of trouble and pain and sickness he would know how to help us. Every feeling we have ever had, He has felt. Every agony we will ever experience, He has endured.”

Stephen wiped away a tear running down Jane’s cheek then dried his own. “We celebrate Christmas because Jesus was born. And because he was born we will be saved. Far too often people get caught up in all the presents and the goodies and they forget about the Savior. And that’s unfortunate because when that happens, the feeling Santa is trying to share with us gets lost.”

A tingling rush of chills swept across his skin and he knew, in that moment, that he had found the answer he’d prayed for. The elusive spirit of Christmas he was hoping his daughter would feel had settled into his heart, warming him with the comforting feeling of peace. He watched Jane’s face, searching for some sign that she felt it too.

It took several minutes for Jane to speak, and when she did her voice was barely audible. “Dad, does this mean I won’t get presents anymore?”

Her answer startled him. “No, dear. You’ll still get presents.” Stephen tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice. Was that what all this was about? Presents?

Jane’s face relaxed. “Thanks, Dad.”

“You’re welcome,” he whispered. He gave her a kiss on the forehead and watched her leave the room.

“Uhh,” he moaned, rubbing his hands across his face. Her response to his explanation was troubling. Had he failed to teach her the importance of the Savior at Christmastime? Was it possible that he had taught her to worship presents instead?

Suddenly, he felt like a failure. All the years of trying to mix the magic of Santa with the gift of the Savior had backfired. Obviously all she cared about were the toys.

But could he blame her? What child could possibly see past the twinkling lights and shiny new toys into the humble manger? How could something as simple and tender as the birth of Jesus compete with all the excitement of the commercial holiday?

Stephen felt sick as he realized that maybe he had been wrong all along. Maybe it was impossible to celebrate the birth of the Savior and perpetuate the myth of Santa. Maybe there wasn’t room for both.

But that didn’t make sense. Wasn’t Santa’s generosity the perfect example of love and service? He’d always thought so. The undeniable warmth he’d felt during his explanation seemed proof that the two could co-exist. The feeling was palpable, almost a tangible presence in the room. Surely she had felt it too.

The muffled shuffle of feet on the carpet caught his attention and he looked up. Jane was standing in the doorway, the nativity ornament dangling from her fingers.

“What about the tooth fairy?” she asked, handing him the golden decoration.

“What about the tooth fairy?” He said, retrieving it from her grasp.

“Do I still get money from the tooth fairy?”

“Yes.” He nodded, unable to manage the sinking feeling in his gut. “You still get money for your teeth.”

“Good,” she said, standing still, her head perked to the side as if she had one more question.

“What?” Stephen couldn’t imagine what more she could ask. How many childhood fantasies did she have?

“Why do you pretend there’s a tooth fairy?” Her hands rested expectantly on her hips, the corners of her mouth on the verge of a frown.

Stephen shook his head, that was the last question he’d expected. “Because the promise of a couple quarters is all it takes for you rug-rats to find the courage to let me pull your teeth.”

“Oh,” Jane said, surprise evident on her face. She moved to leave but hesitated, her eyes filled with something he couldn’t identify. “Thanks, Dad.”

“For what?” He was growing even more confused by her behavior.

“For Santa.” She wrapped her arms around his neck, squeezed tightly and whispered in his ear. “For using Santa to teach me about the real magic.”

“The real magic?” His voice croaked. Had she felt it after all? Did she really understand?

Jane grabbed him by the shoulders and stared tenderly into his eyes. “The real magic of Christmas is believing.”

Stephen felt a lump rising in his throat. She was right. The real magic of Christmas wasn’t found behind a red suit or under a Christmas tree. It went deeper than that.

The real magic of Christmas lay in our ability to believe.

26 Seven Swans

“I hate Christmas,” Danielle growled as she let herself into her flat. She really didn’t, but after the day she’d had, she had to let her feelings out on something. The weather was stormy, rain mixed with snow, and she was soaked since she’d had to walk home. The string of lights she’d put up in the window had shorted out, leaving her flat dark and unwelcoming. The postman had come, but there were no Christmas cards and no packages, not even the books she’d ordered, just a big, official-looking, padded envelope. She dropped it on the hall table with a sigh, thinking that she’d open it later, after a warm cup of cocoa … but there was no cocoa left. She’d used the last of it to make cookies over the weekend, and had forgotten to buy some that afternoon. Not that she could have spent any money anyway. She’d become more and more frustrated while browsing the Christmas Market, looking for something to give friends and family who already had everything they needed and wanted, and then she’d discovered that her wallet had been stolen.

After dealing with all the technical issues that such a theft invoked, Danielle sank onto the couch and clicked on the television, but the weather was messing up the satellite reception again, and there was nothing on. Remembering the official-looking envelope, she decided she might as well finish her bad day by opening it up, and then she could go to bed and hope for something better to-morrow.

Inside the envelope was a book, and a card from her Uncle Eric that said simply It’s your turn to be an angel.

An angel? What exactly did he have in mind? The book didn’t hold a clue; it merely illustrated the song The Twelve Days of Christmas, which as far as Danielle remembered did not feature angels. And Uncle Eric wasn’t her true love, either. An old friend of the family in every sense of the word, he’d been more like a doting grandfather, even now when he was living far away in a retirement home.

Danielle flicked through the pages. The book felt very old, and yet each illustration looked new and real. She stopped at the picture of the seven swans and swore she could see the water of the pond lapping at the shore. Yet, if the water were moving, why weren’t the swans? It must be some kind of optical illusion. She turned the book slightly to see what would happen, but it still looked the same. To see if she could discover what had made the effect, Danielle put a finger onto the picture.

She felt a powerful whoosh, and then she was no longer sitting on the couch, but teetering precariously in the shallows of a pond complete with swans. In the darkness behind her, there were cheers and applause, but then Danielle lost her balance and sat down hard. Cold, black water enveloped her up to her waist, and she gasped, both at the temperature and at the sudden change of scenery. The cheers turned to laughter that was quickly silenced, and Danielle glanced over her shoulder to see a group of people standing on the bank, some holding torches, and all watching her with obvious amusement. Wrapped in cloaks, they looked like something out of the Middle Ages.

The swans paddled towards her, coming from all directions. Frightened of a possible attack, Danielle scrambled to her feet and floundered towards the bank, not caring as the cold mud sucked her slippers away. One of the men met her there, helping her the last few steps onto dry land and wrapping his cloak around her. It was warm and soft with animal fur.

“Welcome, angel,” he said, guiding her towards the others. They all echoed him with a joyous, “Welcome, angel!”

But the youngest child protested, “The angel last year was a man.”

“And this year, it’s a woman,” the girl’s mother announced. To Danielle, she said, “Welcome, angel. Let’s get you some dry clothes before Mass. Poly? Polyhymnia! Run and find something for her to wear!”

“Yes, my lady,” said one of the teenage girls from the back of the group, then raced away. As they followed, Danielle glanced around. In the light of the torches, she saw a stone bridge over the pond – moat, actually – that led to a medieval-looking stone gate complete with portcullis. Ahead of her, the girl wormed her way through the crowd until she was standing right in front of them, walking backwards so that she could keep an eye on Danielle.

“I’m terribly sorry, but I think you must be expecting somebody else,” Danielle said as they crossed the bridge. “I’m not an angel, my name is Danielle, and truthfully, I’m not even sure where I am.”

“This is the village of Seven Swans,” said the older woman. “I’m Lady Faustina, and you’ve met my husband, Lord Maximian.”

“My name is Aurora,” the girl said. “That’s my brother Decebalus. And my other brother Laurentinus. And his wife …”

She bumped into Decebalus, and Lady Faustina said, “Aurora, watch where you’re going!”

Aurora turned around with resigned obedience, and Lady Faustina sighed. To Danielle, she said, “I’m sorry. She gets so excited at Christmastime.”

“Doesn’t everybody?” Danielle replied. They’d passed through the gate now, and were in the courtyard of a castle. Lady Faustina steered her towards a set of huge wooden doors, and they entered into a great hall where servants were bustling around, clearing away the remains of a huge feast. The heat was pleasant after the outside cold, but Danielle noticed that it came from more than just the roaring fireplace.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, looking down at her feet. “These stones are warm!”

“Hypocaust,” Lady Faustina explained. “Now come.”

The room was decorated with greenery of all kinds, and Danielle recognized both holly and ivy. There were also little wreaths made of something white that she wasn’t close enough to identify. Following Lady Faustina up a spiral staircase, Danielle came to an upper chamber, lit only by a few candles, but showing signs of greenery as well. The girl Poly straightened up from a chest, unfolding a dark green garment onto the four-poster bed.

“This is for summer, my lady,” she murmured, but Lady Faustina said, “It’s dry, and she’ll be warm enough under the cloak. Come, Danielle, get out of those wet things. Poly will dry them by the fire in the kitchen.”

Danielle stripped off her clothes and Poly helped her into the dress. It was a bit short, as were the boots that Poly had found, but both were manageable.

“Let’s get over to the church,” Lady Faustina said. “We’ll just make it if we hurry.”

Poly held out the cloak and Danielle pulled it on as she hurried down the steps. The church was on the village side of the moat and the bell stopped ringing as they crossed the bridge. Lady Faustina made shooing motions with her arms, and Danielle increased her speed, so that they entered just before the service began. The nave was full of people, and as Lady Faustina worked her way up one side, Danielle realized that there were no seats or pews at all; everybody had to stand. At least the church had its own hypocaust as well, so that the floor was not cold.

Part of the church service was a Nativity play which started with the Holy Spirit coming to Mary in the shape of a swan. Lord Maximian, dressed in a cloak covered with long white feathers, spread his arms wide and enveloped the woman playing Mary until nothing but the top of her head was visible. There was a bit of rustling from under the cloak, and when he released her, “Mary” had stuffed something up her dress to indicate pregnancy. Staring at this in utter astonishment, Danielle thought that someone must have mixed up the Bible with the Roman legend of Leda and the swan.

The swan motif did not end there. Not only did the angels who told the shepherds the good tidings also wear cloaks of swan feathers, but the play also included a scene about a Bishop Cygnus. Having become worried about one of the members of his church, a poor shepherd who lived far outside the village, Cygnus went out on the day before Christ’s Mass to check up on him, but became lost in a blizzard. After praying for help, he opened his eyes, and saw a swan waddling in the snow, a most unusual sight. Thinking that it must be a sign, Cygnus followed the swan, which led him right to the shepherd’s door, then lay down and died. Cygnus found the shepherd ill in bed, but was able to make a meal from the swan’s meat, which restored the shepherd to health the next day. Every Christ’s Mass day from then on, Cygnus followed the example of the swan, giving food to the poor.

It was like the legend of Bishop Nicholas and the stockings by the fire, Danielle thought, only different. She must have fallen into another dimension, an alternate universe of some kind, where the Roman influence had lasted much longer than in her own. It would explain the mixture of a stone castle with Roman underfloor heating and people with Roman names wearing medieval clothing and boots rather than togas and sandals. But at least they still celebrated, and even remembered the Christ part of Christmas, which was reassuring. And really, the swan element was no stranger than Santa Claus, reindeer, or elves.

A touch on her shoulder turned Danielle’s attention to Lord Maximian, and when she gave him a questioning look, he took the green cloak from her shoulders and replaced it with the feathered one he’d been wearing for the play. He also placed a wreath of feathers on her head, then guided her to where the priest was standing.

“And now the angel of the swans will bless us all,” the priest announced, “and when she’s finished, we will hand out the cakes.”

Smothering a nervous giggle, Danielle smiled at the sea of expectant faces in front of her, wondering exactly what to do. She had neither angelic authority nor special powers, but she could at least wish them all well. Taking Lord Maximian by the hand, Danielle said, “May God bless you in this Christmas season and throughout the year.”

He looked surprised, then pleased, then leaned down and kissed her. “Thank you!” Lady Faustina put her hands on the sides of Danielle’s face and kissed her as well. Following the example of his parents, Decebalus briefly touched his lips to Danielle’s cheek, blushing. Under the watchful eye of his young wife, Laurentius gave her a quick peck on the forehead.

“The other angel always just did us all at the same time,” Aurora said when it was her turn. She held up both arms and quoted, “God bless us, every one!” Recognizing the line from Dickens, Danielle grimaced because she hadn’t thought of such a thing. Then Aurora threw her arms around Danielle’s neck and gave her a loud, wet smooch. “But I like this way better.”

Danielle went through each member of the congregation, fighting the temptation to shorten her sentence simply to “Bless you” as though responding to a series of sneezes, and got a kiss from everybody in return. She couldn’t remember ever having seen such delighted, grateful faces, and soon forgot that she was not a real angel.

The priest had been handing out swan-shaped cakes from baskets behind the altar, and when Danielle finished with the last villager, he gave her one, too. She’d already bitten into the wing of the spicy treat when she noticed that the baskets were empty and he did not have one. Breaking the other wing off, she offered it to him, and he accepted with an embarrassed smile.

“My lord, my lady, whenever you need my help with playing Cygnus, I am ready,” the priest said, but Lady Faustina shook her head. “Elpidius, go home to your wife. She needs you more than we do.”

“Well,” the priest protested, but Lord Maximian pointed firmly to the door. Bowing, the priest hurried away.

“Poor man,” Lady Faustina said to Danielle. “His wife’s been ill ever since they lost the baby.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?” Danielle asked, wishing she were a doctor.

“You could bless her when we play Cygnus,” Decebalus suggested. Danielle glanced at him, wondering if “playing Cygnus” meant what she thought it meant, and saw that he was blushing again, which made her smile.

“Yes, exactly,” Lady Faustina agreed. “We’ll do them first. Poly, go and see if Fulvius has brought the cart around yet.”

Poly rushed to the door of the church, then came back to say that everything was ready. Danielle followed Lady Faustina and the others outside to where an old man with a lantern was guiding a horse and cart. The cartbed was covered by a tarpaulin, but there were large lumps visible underneath.

“To Elpidius first,” Lady Faustina told Fulvius, and he clicked his tongue to the horse. As they walked behind the cart, Aurora said, “Can I be Cygnus this time, please?”

“Do you think you’re strong enough?” Lord Maximian asked, and Aurora nodded. “Yes! I’ve been practicing all year!”

“All right,” he replied, and Aurora squealed in delight. They soon reached Elpidius’ cottage, and Danielle noted with surprise that they parked the cart around the back. Aurora folded back the tarpaulin, but it was Laurentius who lifted out a large bundle and placed it into her outstretched arms. She staggered happily away under the weight, and Laurentius looked over to Danielle. “Your turn.”

She put out her arms, expecting to receive a similar bundle, but hers seemed to be wrapped up in the same kind of feathered cloak that she was still wearing. As she followed Aurora around to the door of the cottage, however, part of her load slipped from her grasp. Thinking she’d dropped something, Danielle looked down, and almost dropped her burden in horror. It wasn’t a cloak she was carrying – it was a dead swan, with its head and neck dangling over her arm!

“Merry Christmas!” Aurora shrieked. The cottage door had opened and Elpidius motioned them to come in. The room was small, with a mattress on one side of the fire, and a table with two stools on the other side. Aurora dropped her sack onto the table, and Danielle laid the swan next to it, glad to be rid of the corpse.

“It’s the angel,” she heard Elpidius say, and turned around. He was kneeling by the mattress, stroking his wife’s hair away from her face, then he glanced imploringly at Danielle and moved aside. The woman’s eyes fluttered and focused on Danielle as she knelt down, but although her lips moved, no sound came out. Danielle put her hands on either side of the woman’s hot, dry face and said what she had said to all the others. “May God bless you in this Christmas season and throughout the year.”

The woman put her hand over one of Danielle’s and clasped, smiling briefly, then relaxed and closed her eyes. Afraid that she might have died then and there, Danielle felt for a pulse, then sat back on her heels in relief when she found it. “She’s still alive.”

“Swan soup will have her well in no time,” Aurora announced, “just like in the legend.”

The woman opened her eyes again, glancing beyond Danielle to the table, and this time she whispered, “Swan?”

“I’ll make it,” Elpidius said, and straightened up. Grasping Danielle by the hand, he said, “You’ve given us hope, angel. Thank you, and thank God.”

As she and Aurora went out, Danielle thought that hope must be the best gift of all. She felt so buoyed by the thought that she hardly minded when Laurentius put another dead swan into her arms for her next visit, telling herself that it was just like a frozen turkey, only different. This time, it was Decebalus who lugged the sack to the door, and he and Aurora alternated accompanying Danielle to the various cottages.

When the cart was empty and they were walking back to the castle, Aurora announced, “This was the best Christmas ever! I love playing Cygnus!” and then yawned until it seemed she’d never get her mouth shut again. Smothering her own yawn, Danielle nodded silently.

“Too bad you won’t be here to-morrow,” Decebalus said. “There’ll be dancing.”

“But will you come next year?” Aurora asked. “Or will the other angel come again?”

“I think I’ll come next year,” Danielle said. As they approached the bridge, she scanned the moat, but there were no swans. Instead, there was a powerful whoosh, a moment of complete blackness, and the surface under her feet was suddenly so yielding that she lost her balance and thudded into the wall of her living room. Clinging there, she realized she’d materialized on top of her couch, and was still wearing her borrowed clothing. Carefully, Danielle climbed down, taking an extra big step to avoid the book which lay open on the floor.

Well! No wonder Uncle Eric always had a secretive smile on his face whenever he spoke about Christmas. Being an angel! Travelling to other dimensions! Danielle leaned over and picked up the book, closing it gingerly. She didn’t want to be accidentally whisked to the next adventure before she’d had the chance to recover from the first one. Or did the book only work once each day? That would be logical, and because she’d started in the middle, she had a feeling she could pick and choose which page she’d try next. What would it be like, she wondered, to be an angel to twelve drummers drumming?

25 Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

Every bulb on every tree stabbed at Jack’s bloodshot eyes like being poked with sharp sticks. Every other night of the year he’d slept in the comfortable, incognito darkness of the downtown park. A few months ago, someone had taken it to mind that the old dump needed sprucing up, seeing as how it was only a couple of blocks from the new, glittering downtown. First, they’d started up a farmer’s-slash-flea market every weekend, then when winter hit, they brought in a bit of T.L.C. for the season.

As if throwing some lights on a few trees is gonna make the world’s problems go away, Jack thought, then growled at himself. Truth was he’d enjoyed the lights for the first two or three nights. Then again, he’d been on a good buzz then, and a few hits off a brown sack wrapped bottle made everything seem to look better. No, the world didn’t get any kinder, nor the people in it, but the slow burn of alcohol in his guts made him just not care.

Tonight he was just too ripping sober to think anything in the world was good or kind. The painful truths of life came into way too sharp of a focus when he actually had the mind to think about them. That was probably why he’d stayed pretty well sloshed for the last fifteen years. Right this minute, all he could think about was how to get his hands on another bottle of anything that could be called ‘rot-gut’, and sink himself back into the comfortable, hellfire pit of drunkenness.

A couple strolled hand in hand down the sidewalk, and Jack held out a shaking hand. They were both well-dressed, well groomed, and from the names printed on the sides of the shopping bags they carried, they obviously had money.

“Got any change you could spare?” he asked, the words grating on his soul. Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, he’d actually had some pride. He’d almost forgotten what it felt like, but every once in a while – usually when he was forced into involuntary soberness – that pride reared its head to torment him. Once, way back before the current ice age, he’d had a life with all the trimmings. ..

The young woman leaned closer to her companion, who gave Jack a dirty look, pulled his wife closer to his side, and hurried past. Three steps on the other side of him, they stopped, and the young woman leaned her face close to the young man’s ear. The man turned around, leaving her there, and stepped toward Jack, pulling his wallet from his pocket.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, slipping something into Jack’s hand. Saying nothing more, he turned back to the woman, who smiled broadly at him. They walked off arm in arm, no doubt happy with themselves for their Christmas generosity.

Let ‘em be smug. Jack didn’t care, especially after he unfolded the bills and found three twenties in his hand. That would buy a nice bottle or two.

He shoved the money deep into the inside pocket of his overcoat. He’d let the couple get out of sight before he headed down the street to Charlie’s Liquor. He’d let them think he spent their noble gesture on food, or to buy a house and turn his life around and become a pillar of society.

They can have their illusions; he said to himself, Heaven knows I don’t have any. They’ll have to have enough for both of us.

He staggered a bit as he stood up. He’d been sitting on that bench a bit too long, and his right leg had gone to sleep again. He hated it when that happened, but it was not as bad as when his arm did the same thing. What was a little staggering from an old drunk, anyway? People expected it, blamed the booze even when a body hadn’t had any.

He was swimming in deep thoughts of amber liquid and its accompanying floating feeling as he got to the corner of the park and almost tripped over what he thought was a big rock on the edge of the sidewalk. What? Had they decided to relandscape, too, he wondered. But as he turned to take a closer look at the boulder, it looked up at him with the sweetest face he’d ever seen.

She was all dressed in black; the backpack slung over one shoulder gave her an irregular shape. Her hair, what he could see of it peeking out from under the hood of her sweatshirt, was dyed black as well, but her eyes were as blue as the dawn. And scared.

“What the devil are you doing there?” he growled at her. He surprised both of them by speaking to her, he hadn’t intended to.

“Just trying to keep warm,” she said, her eyes wide with fear.

“Why don’t you go home?” he asked, “Don’t you know it’s dangerous out here at night?”

“I can’t go home,” the girl answered.

“Why not?” Jack glanced down the street. If he didn’t hurry, Charlie’s would close and he’d be out of luck for the night. “What? Fight with your mom? Don’t be stupid, go home!”

“I don’t have a way to,” the girl stood up from her crouched position. “I got here on the bus. I don’t have any money to go home.”

Jack sighed deeply, his hope for the warm burn in his belly from a bottle of booze fading.

“How long you been out here?” he asked, gesturing to the park around them.

“Since this afternoon.”

Jack watched a single tear drip down the girl’s cheek, another one of those ugly realities he’d rather be avoiding.

“You hungry?”

She said nothing, but nodded furiously.

“Come on, then.” He turned and walked away, half hoping she wouldn’t follow him, but she did. She stuck close to his elbow as he led her down the sidewalk, past the door of his beloved Charlie’s Liquor and across the street to the burger joint.

“How old are you?” he asked her as they waited for the food they ordered.

“Sixteen.” She looked him in the eye, without judgment or disgust, the first person to do so in years. It made him uncomfortable, that pride thing crimping in his gu againt. “My name’s Kat.”

“That’s not a name,” he grumbled, looking out the window just in time to see Charlie’s blue neon ‘open’ sign blink off. Dang it. “A cats an animal. What’s your real name?”

“Kaitlyn,” she answered, looking a little embarrassed at his remark.

“Well, Kaitlyn,” Jack said, “Where’d you come from?” He knew he’d be smarter not to pry into the girl’s personal life, but she’d made him lose out on a good night’s drunk, and he intended to share his misery.


“That’s a couple hundred miles from here,” Jack said with a frown. “How’d you get here?”

“I came on the bus.” Kaitlyn said, her eyes wandering over the tray the waitress brought and set before them. “I was going to go all the way to New York, but somebody stole my purse. So now I’m stuck.”

“Running away from home?”

“Something like that.” Kaitlyn ripped open a ketchup packet and poured the contents over her fries. “Seems a little stupid now. I wish I’d never got on that bus.”

The conversation ended as the two vagrants ate dinner, the best one either had eaten in days. Jack’s mind worked right along with his jaw, and by the time he finished his food, he’d pretty much worked out what had to happen next.

“Come on,” he said, getting up from the table as Kaitlyn slurped the last of her soda. “You and me got somewhere to be.”

“Where?” Kaitlyn asked as she slid out of the booth.

“You’ll see.”

They walked out of the restaurant, Kaitlyn silently keeping close to his elbow. They crossed the street, back past the now closed Charlie’s Liquor store, over two blocks and down one. He held the door open for her, and they walked into the Greyhound station. Jack said nothing as they walked up to the ticket counter, but he did point out the special holiday travel fare poster as they passed it. Go home for the holidays! Any city in the state – $50!

“One ticket to Springfield,” he told the man behind the counter. Kaitlyn answered all the necessary questions, and Jack dropped his life savings – the three $20 bills, minus the dinner at the burger place—on the counter to pay for the ticket.

“Do you think my mom will let me come back, after what I did?”

A face crossed Jack’s mind that he hadn’t let himself think about for a very long time.

“Trust me,” he answered, “she’ll be glad to see you come home. Any parent would.” If only children were as glad to see their parents…

Kaitlyn hugged him, an impulsive embrace that Jack never saw coming. Before he could say or do anything, the call came over the loudspeaker. The bus to Springfield and all points west was loading now at Gate Three. A grateful girl waved and smiled and disappeared through the door.

Jack sighed and headed out the door on the other side of the building. The bus station didn’t allow loiterers, he knew from experience, and he wasn’t in the mood for a confrontation with the cops. He did notice, as he stepped out into the night, that he felt warmer inside than he had before. He blamed the hamburger, but he knew that wasn’t really it. Really, it was the thought of a little girl on a bus on her way home in the middle of the night, two days before Christmas.

That face showed up in his thoughts again. He shoved his hands deep in his coat pockets, as if steeling himself for the painful thoughts that came with that particular memory. His own daughter, several years older than Kaitlyn, had refused to speak to him the last time he went by the house. To be fair, he had been blind drunk, and a little too loud, and it had been late at night. He hung his head, hearing the words she’d said to him.

…don’t want your grandkids to see you like this. Come back when you can sober up!

For the first time ever, things suddenly seemed clear. Yes, it was painful, but if the situation was reversed, and he was in Kaitlyn’s shoes, he knew he’d do whatever he could to get home to his family. He knew he had to do whatever it took, even if that meant the booze.

Metal jingled in his pocket and he pulled out two quarters, all that was left of the gift of strangers. Enough to make a phone call. Not much, but a start…

The receiver was icy cold when he put it to his ear.



“It’s me.”

A long silence.

“Nan, I’d like to come by and see the kids for Christmas.” Jack couldn’t believe the sound of the words coming out of his own mouth.

“I just don’t know…”

“I’m sober, honey.” He said before she could refuse. “And I’m going to do my best to stay this way.”

On the other end of the phone, he could hear his daughter’s tears. She invited her father to dinner, the first ever occasion since she’d gotten married. Behind the happiness, Jack could feel apprehension. He wondered if he was making promises he could not keep.

He hung up the phone feeling a whole new kind of warmth inside himself. Almost as good as booze-burn. He still wanted that drink, but since he didn’t have any money, it really didn’t matter anyway. Maybe, just maybe, he’d found something better.

With nowhere else to go until Christmas day dinnertime, he headed back to the park. If no one else had claimed that spot under the play structure, he might just burrow in there for the night. Tomorrow, maybe he could find somewhere to take a shower and clean up for his family holiday.

“Hey, Joe!” He called out a greeting to another park regular as he walked across the grass. “How you doin’?”

The old man looked up, his wrinkly face even uglier in the weird shadows of the Christmas lights on the park trees.

“Not so good these days,” he answered. “Got robbed a couple of nights back. Don’t know what they thought they were going to get off me, but they did it anyway.”

Jack noticed that his friend wore only a light windbreaker, and the rucksack he usually carried slung over one shoulder was conspicuously missing.

“Did you go down to the mission?” Jack asked. “Get another coat?”

“They don’t got any,” Joe shrugged. “They said too many people need ‘em. So there weren’t one for me.” He patted his belly with a good natured smile. “’Sides, they wouldn’ta had anything to fit me and my girlish figure.” Even as he chuckled, Jack saw him shiver violently.

“Here,” he said, slipping this own coat off his shoulders. Underneath it, he wore two tatty sweaters, neither one remotely fashionable. “Not fancy, but it’s warm.”

“I can’t take your coat, Jack!” Joe protested, but Jack held it out to him firmly.

“I’ll be fine,” Jack said. “I got two sweaters to keep me warm. ‘Sides, I’m going home for Christmas. Gonna see my grandkids.”

Joe accepted the coat with humble gratitude, and stood up to put it on. He smiled as the coat, still warm from Jack’s body, wrapped around him.

Jack said goodnight, and found his way to the playground. His spot was empty, and he crawled in underneath the slide, out of the wind. He settled in and made himself comfortable.

“Jack.” A voice, vaguely familiar, pulled him out of sleep. He opened his eyes, finding it brighter than usual for a winter morning. But then, he wasn’t under the slide anymore. And he wasn’t cold.

“I’m right here,” he answered that voice.

“Come, follow me.” A man, standing a few feet away, gestured to him. Jack went to him, thinking as he did that the man looked an awful lot like that picture of Jesus in the church building he used to go to every Sunday. “I have a place waiting for you in Heaven.”

“I can’t go to Heaven,” Jack said, shaking his head. He wanted to follow, more than he wanted anything in the world, ever. But his own recollection of the past held his feet in check. “I don’t deserve to.”

“How can you say that?” The Stranger asked him, “When you have given me the same gifts that the wise men brought at my birth?”

This has got to be a dream, he thought. I’ve never brought any gifts to Jesus. I’m nothing but an old drunk!

“You gave your gold to a stranger who needed a way home. You gave your myrrh, the gift of healing, to your daughter when you called and promised more than you have ever given before. And you laid your frankincense in the hands of a friend who needed uplift and comfort.” The man in white smiled the kindest smile Jack had ever seen. In it, he saw the same smile he had seen on Kaitlyn’s face, heard in his daughter’s voice, and felt inside himself when he saw his coat warming his friend. “Tonight, you’ve given everything for others, and there is no greater love than that.”

The Lord laid his hands on Jack’s shoulders.

“Now come, celebrate my birthday with me in the Kingdom of My Father.”

With the warmest feeling radiating through his entire spirit, stronger than anything he had ever felt before, Jack followed.

24 The Greatest Christmas Gift Ever

“Greater love hath no man than this….”

‘I remember the day as if it were just yesterday, although many years have passed.’

Those were the words the old man used. A few years have passed since he and I sat and talked, but I now understand the words and the look in his eye as he spoke.

It was a day about like any other winter day in our area – cold, windy and generally miserable. I wouldn’t even have been out in it, had it not been necessary to get a last minute Christmas gift. The last thing I wanted was to die of exposure to the weather in a Michigan winter. And yet, here I was, sitting at a bus stop in the frigid, unfriendly conditions that any sane individual would be avoiding like the plague. That’s when he approached and sat on the bench next to me. He was of average height, weight and appearance, but there was a sense of happiness that was disarming in a strange way.

“Hello, young man, how are you this fine day?” He offered his hand, wrapped as it was in glove. A bit surprised, I offered mine in return before I had even processed the thought.

“As good as anyone can be on such a nasty day, I guess.” I went back to looking for the bus and wondering if I would need to be thawed before I could get on it.

“Nasty? No, sir. It’s a wonderful day to be alive. Any day this side of dirt is a good one.”

I have to admit that I thought he might have been a bit addled to be so enthusiastic about such inclement weather conditions, but the world is full of all kinds, after all. We can’t all be sane and well-adjusted. Yet, he continued.

“I take it you don’t share my enthusiasm.” His smile did not fade in the least.

“Well, no, I have never been one to enjoy winter that much. I would rather be inside with a hot cocoa and a good movie or book right now. Instead, I need to get a gift for my niece, if there are even any left when I get there.” I snorted and huffed in disgust at the thought of the shelves being picked over or empty.

“I once felt as you do. Not anymore, though.” He clapped his gloved hands together and looked about himself as if he were sitting on a park bench in the middle of new spring flowers. There was an unmistakable joy in his gaze and countenance. It made me wish I could share it, yet I could not even understand it. “It all changed one winter, just like this one. That winter was like a gift to me.”

“Gifts….” I sniffed. “Well, this winter is no gift to me, that’s for sure. I don’t expect my last minute search will pay off, so I will have been out in the cold for nothing and my niece will still have no present of any real value.”

“Value is in the eye of the beholder, son.”

“Well, that may be, but the fact remains that I would rather be inside where it’s warm. Why Jesus chose to be born in the middle of winter is beyond me.”

At that the old man began to laugh. It was warm and infectious and somehow chased away the cranky feelings I had been expressing so openly to a stranger.

“Well, there is some debate as to the time of year he was born, but let me share a story with you while we wait…if that’s alright with you?” He raised his eyebrows in anticipation of my answer.

“Sure, why not. I have nothing else to do until the bus comes.” I was being polite. Pleasant or not, I wasn’t convinced his story was going to make me feel any better.

“Alright, then. I remember the day as if it were just yesterday, although many years have passed.”

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly and settled back on the bench as he began to weave his tale. It took only a moment to know that the story was real to him and I was drawn in, like an observer unseen and sitting in the darkness of a theatrical presentation. His words were heartfelt as he continued.

“As I said, it was a winter just like this one – the winter of 1971, as a matter of fact. I was an irresponsible, young rascal of the highest order.” He snickered softly and you could sense that he saw again in his mind the scenes of that day. “I was wrapped up in sex, drugs and rock and roll. And I was on the path to eventual destruction, I am sure. And I was not alone in my drive to oblivion, either. Several friends, so-called, were sharing the view with me along that road. We were partiers, all of us. Hard partiers.”

Suddenly, it was as if only he and I existed in the world at that moment. There was an utter and complete stillness that enveloped us. No traffic noises, no sounds at all, but for the voice of this one old man. Even my chattering teeth and heavy breathing had ceased to be noticeable. I hung on every word this man spoke, unable to pry my attention from him.

“…so there we were, Dan and I, sitting at the kitchen table, high on LSD and rambling about some inane thing that we must have thought to be very clever and insightful at the time. That’s when it happened….” He paused in a far-away gaze and sat silent with the hint of a smile on his face.

“What? What happened?” My voice seemed like a noisy intruder in the quiet that surrounded us.

“The Holy Ghost, son. Suddenly we were not alone anymore. We both knew it, too. There was no denying it for either of us. One moment we were just two stoned idiots sitting there talking and the next we had our minds blown totally by the presence of God.” He chuckled again. “LSD is a powerful drug, but this…oh, this…this was something neither of us had ever experienced in our short and impetuous lives. It was every bit like a Klieg light in total darkness. It was as if someone had snapped on a switch and suddenly we were in a different realm, you know?”

Of course I didn’t. There was no way I could, but I nodded and he continued. The strange thing is, I no longer thought him crazy. I should have, with a tale such as he was relating to me at the moment, but he was genuine in his belief that it had happened and, for some unknown and unexplainable reason, I could not disbelieve it either.

“God never takes away your personal moral agency, son. The question implied that night was, ‘is it revelation or is it hallucination?’ We both knew the answer to that one immediately. There was no denying that we both were experiencing the same event. No drug, no matter how powerful, does that. And this…..this was so much more powerful than the drug ever could have been. It eclipsed any drug-induced experience I or any man had ever had in the history of the world, I assure you. The feeling of pure and utter love was tangible, so thick you could cut it with a knife. It was like a big hug from someone you have a mutual love with.” He stared off into space for a moment in private reverie before proceeding.

“The next several hours were spent in receiving revelation. If you have never felt pure intelligence pour into you, you have no concept of the exhilaration and joy that it brings. It was as if we were plugged into the great cosmic switchboard and suddenly knew things we had never even conceived of before. Just suddenly knew them to be true. And later they proved to be so, too.”

He went on to relate how he and his friend, Dan, had sat there at that same table for hours more, each being alternately used by the Holy Ghost as a mouthpiece to teach these principles to one another. Things they never knew were being taught to them even as they spoke the words. I have to admit that if anyone but this man had been telling me the story, that is all I would have thought it to be — a fanciful story, and nothing more. But this was not your average story, nor, it seemed, your average man.

“We then took a walk, as we were unable to sleep after such an event, as you can imagine. We saw the world in an entirely new and unique way that night. The snow on the ground and the ice that we stepped on. It was like the world was one huge ball of crystal and mankind was scratching and chipping it with his every step and movement…desecrating this Urim and Thummim the Lord had formed for our use.”

The terms were unfamiliar to me, but I did not interrupt. I would look them up later. Surely, they had to be in the Bible or a dictionary. He proceeded.

“And then we were led back to the apartment we had so recently departed from. That was when the most amazing thing happened.”

More amazing than anything yet? I did not interrupt this time. I didn’t want to hear my own voice intruding in the midst of such a wondrous tale as I was hearing.

“We had been listening to many LP records when we visited that apartment. Some we had heard many times, but I have to tell you, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, things can take on a totally different meaning than you think them to be. And that is what happened that night to Dan and I. The LP was by a group called FREE and the title was Fire And Water. Do you see the analogy in that? The sense of humor God has?”

He waited but a second for my reply and I nodded my agreement.

“Oh, yes, he has a wonderful sense of humor, but he loves his children, too, and he showed us that night the error of our ways and the right path. We were instructed to place the needle on the record…you knew that they didn’t always have CD’s, right?” He grinned as I smiled back at the thought.

“The song was Heavy Load. It had this plodding, sad and heavy piano back-beat that was for all the world reminiscent of a man under the weight of sin and grief, dragging himself along a lonely and dismal road, with no companion but God, to whom he makes his complaint that he can go no further down, recognizing he has taken the wrong road in his life. As the song opens, Dan and I are suddenly pressed down under the unseen weight of our own sins and find ourselves lieing on the floor, sobbing with great, heaving gasps. As the last strains die out, the weight lifts and we are again free of that crushing pressure. We are allowed a short time to discuss the experience and are instructed to again repeat the song, with the same result. And a third time we are told to do the same thing. Each time it is the same. The same crushing weight of sin, the same crying in desperation and sorrow for our shortcomings. The same grief over our choices in life.”

That this was not your average story was more than apparent now. It was the most engaging and intriguing story I had ever heard in my life. I could not help but believe it, regardless of how improbable and far-fetched it was. The man told it as any man would after living it personally. There was no denying the truth of it, even as a listener.

“I went from being missing from home a week or more at a time, to being home every night and reading the Bible. You can imagine how perplexed my parents must have been.” Again he grinned and chuckled. “There had been a miraculous change in Dan and I. One minute neither of us knew if there was a God and the next minute we couldn’t deny it. No, sir. Not for one second since that time. Personally, I believe God saved my life that night.”

I was suddenly aware that I was no longer shivering from the cold. It was as if a warm blanket, fresh from the dryer, had been laid over me.

“Son, I learned that winter that there were more important things about Christmas than getting stoned and ‘oooh-ing and ahhh-ing’ over the pretty lights or laughing about silly and unfulfilling frivolities. I learned that the greatest gift of all was given by God himself. He knew we had to have a way to get back to him, that we were in a fallen and unworthy state, but he loves us so much that he made the ultimate sacrifice. His own son paid a price that only a God could pay — to buy us back from death and sin, if we would only accept the payment in our behalf and then live right.” At this point, the old man turned to me and looked into my eyes with an intensity that almost burned.

“How would you feel if you knew someone had given his own life to save yours?”

The question hit like a ton of bricks. I was speechless at the thought. If I had done something so wrong and so heinous as to be punishable by death, or if I were in such perils as to need rescuing, how would I feel if my rescuer lost his life in saving mine? I would be devastated, thinking that another family was altered forever because of me. I would want to reach out and take care of their every need, in gratitude, in a feeling of indebtedness for the gift I had been given of my own life. How could I waste it from then on in selfish pursuits? And that’s when it hit me; the true meaning of what the old man meant by his question. And that’s also when I began to cry, with that same sobbing he had spoken of – that sense of despair and feeling of unworthiness, knowing that the Son of God had been given as a sacrifice for me, for my measly and insignificant life. For my self-centered, egotistical and so far meaningless existence.

The old man put a hand on my shoulder to comfort me. I was still crying like a baby, face in hands. It seemed forever until I could regather my composure. And when I looked at him again, dusk had passed, the street lights had come on and there was what appeared to be a halo around the man. To this day, I would not doubt he was an angel. Maybe not in the supernatural sense, but a messenger from God, nonetheless.

“Here’s your bus, son. God bless you and have the best Christmas you ever had, alright?”

“Aren’t you waiting for the bus, too?”

“Nope. I was waiting for you. That’s my Christmas present.”

I didn’t know if he meant this had been his present to me or if sharing with me was like a present to him. It didn’t matter. I thanked him and made as if to shake his hand when, without warning, he gave me a big bear hug and said, “God bless you, son. I love you and your Father in Heaven loves you.” I swear I knew at that moment that this total stranger truly loved me for who I was. I knew it was a pure love, even as God has for me – for all his children.

‘I remember the day as if it were just yesterday, although many years have passed.’

I find myself saying these same words to my children and grandchildren, even to total strangers, to this day. And I always smile when I think of the man who said them first to me. I know that God sent that man out on that cold winter night to fix a heart that was twisted and broken; to set a lost wanderer onto the right road again. I have been led by that same Spirit many times myself since then. It never ceases to amaze me or to bring great joy to my heart when I follow those promptings and see the miraculous change in others, for I know that I am helping God to bring peace to the world, one person at a time – one child of God, one brother or sister of mine that I never knew before then. There is no greater love than that which Christ gave for mankind those two millenia ago; no greater sacrifice. It is indeed the greatest Christmas gift ever.

Here is a link to the song referred to in the story. Yes, it is a real song and it really was used by God to change my life. I hope you understand the message of it. I was like the prodigal son and so is the man in the song, except we never know if he is able to return from the choices he has made in life. Thanks to divine intervention, I was able to return to a Father who loves me.

23 With Wondering Awe

Becky Manning found a colorfully wrapped box topped with a red bow. Forgetting about what she was searching for in the closet, she retrieved the box and read the tag – To Sarah, From Becky. A tear rolled down her cheek. She’d forgotten all about last year’s Christmas gift. Unfortunatley, certain circumstances prevented her from giving it to her sister. The biggest one was Sarah’s passing.

“What’s that?”

Becky spun around, nearly dropping the box. Her fourteen-year-old brother stood beside her bed.

“What are you doing here?”

“Mom wants us all in the living room.”

Becky sighed and stepped out of the closet. She placed the box on her desk and faced her brother.

“What does she want?”

Jared shrugged, more interested in the package than the errand he was directed to run. “What’s that?”

“A present.”

Jared read the name. “Why did you get a present for Sarah? She’s dead.”

Her eyes shimmered with tears. She buried her face in her hands. Jared stood awkwardly, unsure of what to do.

“Becky? I . . . I’m sorry.” He patted her shoulder, relieved when her tears subsided.

Becky sniffed and looked at her brother. “It’s okay, Jared. I just miss her.”

“Me, too. Is that why you got her a gift?”

Becky laughed. “Actually, I got her this last year, but she never got a chance to open it.” Jared nodded. Becky put an arm around him. “Let’s go see what Mom wants.”

Upon entering the living room, Becky halted in mid-stride, as anger surfaced. She placed both hands on her hips and demanded, “What’s going on?”

“What does it look like?” her father retorted, as he untangled a large strand of Christmas lights. “We’re putting up the Christmas decorations.”


Her mother glanced at Becky and furrowed her brows. “Are you all right, dear?”

“No, I’m not all right.”

“Well, this will cheer you up. Christmas is in three weeks. Normally, we’d have the decorations up sooner, but we’ve all been busy.”

“It was because of Sarah that we had the decorations up sooner.”

Becky’s mother laughed. “That’s right. Well, we’re doing it now so join the fun.”

Daniel helped their father with the lights. He’s a year older than Becky and a senior in high school. Jared went to work looking for ornaments, and Timmy, the youngest, took care of the garland. Becky watched the display and seethed with anger. No one cared that her little sister couldn’t participate in the activities. They all acted as if she never even existed. Watching the camaraderie became too much for her. She bolted out of the room like a shot and slammed her bedroom door. Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without Sarah.

Becky had always longed for a sister. Jared was born when she was two, and Timmy came two years after that. When her mother told her she was expecting again, Becky prayed for a sister and was blessed with Sarah. Becky was six years old, but she doted on Sarah as if she were a doll. She absolutely adored Sarah.

At eight years old, Sarah was diagnosed with leukemia. Becky’s world plummeted. However, she kept the faith that her little sister would recover. It was a miracle when Sarah went into remission the following summer just before her ninth birthday. The whole family felt extremely blessed that their prayers had been answered. Unfortunately, their happiness was short-lived, when two months later Sarah’s cancer returned.

Becky, however, kept her faith alive. She never wanted her sister to see her faith waiver. Becky encouraged Sarah to strive for life in every possible way. When Christmastime arrived and Sarah took a turn for the worse, Becky refused to believe all was lost. This was a season for miracles and her entire family desperately needed a miracle. But the miracle never came.

She stared at the ceiling with a single tear rolling down her cheek. Why did you take her from me? A sister was all I wanted, and you took her away too soon.

A knock sounded on her door. “Go away,” she said, as she rolled over to face the stark-white wall, assuming it was one of her meddling brothers.

Her mother poked her head inside. “Becky, honey, are you all right?”

“Yeah, sure,” she lied. “I’m just tired.”

“Why don’t you come help us trim the tree?”

“Because I don’t want to.”

Letting out a sigh, she continued. “Come on, Becky,” her mother coaxed, as she entered the room. “You can’t hole yourself in here for the entire holiday.”

“Why not?”

Silence ensued, as Becky’s mind whirled with possible rebuttals to keep from being dragged to the festivities downstairs. She heard the click of her door being shut and turned. Her mother had left. Becky sighed with relief.

* * * * * *

The next few days left Becky feeling horrible. People were excitably celebrating the Christmas season. The festivities were blatantly obvious everywhere she turned — even in her own home. Her younger brothers were excited about presents, treats, parties, and were even hit with the spirit of giving. Becky didn’t want to give anyone a thing, because she couldn’t get passed the heartache the season caused.

On Monday night – ten days before Christmas – she reluctantly joined her family for Family Home Evening. She curled up on the couch, allowing Timmy to rest his head against her. He may be a deacon, but he still adored his big sister. Daniel offered the prayer. Their dad had the boys choose different hymns to sing.

Becky didn’t participate, especially when Christmas songs were sung. Her parents didn’t say a word regarding her silence. They just sang along with the boys.

“Would you like to choose a song, Becky?” her mother asked.

“Not really.”

“Come on. Join in the fun.”

“She’s being Scrooge,” Jared explained. “She hates Christmas, don’t you? Bah humbug, right?” he taunted.

“That’s enough, Jared,” their father scolded.

“It’s true. She didn’t help with the decorations. She’s not singing any of the songs. She’s a scrooge I tell you.”

Becky closed her eyes, wishing she could be anywhere but there. Tears leaked out the corners of her eyes.

“Look what you did,” Timmy said. “You made her cry.”

Becky opened her eyes. “Can I go to my room? Please?”

“No. I haven’t given the lesson yet,” her mother replied.

Their mother started the lesson which was on the birth of Christ. Becky heard this story numerous times in her young life, but today was different. Today, she didn’t feel the spirit, nor did she feel happy about the season. She felt anger toward God, who robbed her of the sister she’d always longed for and enjoyed having around since the moment she was born.

Becky rose to her feet. All eyes fell on her since it interrupted their mother’s lesson.

“Becky, sit down. I’m not through yet.”

“I’ve heard enough. I don’t know how you can be so cruel. You walk around the house so happy, celebrating a holiday that doesn’t deserve any celebration. Have you all forgotten about Sarah?”

“Oh, honey.”

Becky stepped back from her mother’s reach and put a hand up. Tears exploded from her eyes. “Don’t you understand? We should be remembering Sarah not celebrating Christmas. A time for miracles? Yeah right. Where was my miracle last year? Instead God took my baby sister and to make it worse, she had to die on Christmas day. That’s the cruelest thing God could ever do. Well, go on and celebrate, but leave me out of it. I’d rather remember Christmas the way it was when Sarah was alive.”

Becky stormed out of the room, flung herself on her bed, and cried herself to sleep.

* * * * * *

A fog descended on her and she couldn’t make out a thing. Tremulously, she ventured forward and saw an image approaching her. Becky paused in awe of the figure growing brighter as it got closer and closer. It was Sarah dressed in white with a brilliant light surrounding her. She took Becky’s breath away, as Sarah smiled and beckoned her to come forward. They embraced, as tears were shed on Becky’s part.

“I’ve missed you so much,” Becky gushed, as she clung to her sister. “Please don’t ever leave me.”

“There’s something I must show you.”

“I’ll go anywhere you want, as long as you come back home to me.”

Sarah smiled and took her sister’s hand. “Let’s go,” she said.

In a flash, they were taken to a remote place where shepherds watched their flock. A bright light appeared above them. Becky stared in awe, as she watched the scene unfold before her as if it were a movie. She saw multitudes of angels, yet she couldn’t hear them speak. None of that mattered though. The incredible peace could be felt all around.

“This is wonderful,” Becky exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“It’s a beautiful sight,” Sarah agreed, “but there’s more to see.”

The scene dissolved before her eyes. Next thing she knew, they stood outside a stable. People gathered inside. Becky and Sarah hovered above, not a part of the event taking place before their eyes.

“I don’t believe it,” Becky said. “That’s Mary, isn’t it?”


A tear slipped out of the corner of her eye. “Let’s go, Sarah. I don’t wanna see this.”

“Why not?”

“Because you died on his birthday. This whole season reminds me of what I lost.”

“I may not be on earth with you, but I still live on. We all come to earth for a purpose, to receive a body, and come unto Christ. My time on earth may have been short, but it served its purpose.”

Becky glared at her sister, a look of horror planted on her face. “How can you say that? We didn’t get to do all the things that we were meant to do together. I was going to teach you about makeup and clothes. I wanted to be there when you started dating and when you got married. I thought we’d raise our children close by so we could have them be the best of friends.”

Tears ran in rivulets down both cheeks. She paused to catch her breath. When she regained her composure, she continued, “But God took that all away from me.”

“Don’t you see? That wasn’t my station in life.”

“You’ll never get to experience what I have or what I will.”

Sarah squeezed Becky’s hand. “I’m not supposed to. And it’s okay. I had a great life on earth. I wouldn’t trade the family I had for a chance to return.”

“You might as well. They’ve pretty much forgotten you.”

Sarah shook her head vehemently. “No they haven’t. They miss me. But they know they’ll see me again. Mom and Dad married in the temple. We were born under that covenant. As long as we live worthily, we’ll always be together.” Sarah sounded so knowledgeable, although she appeared to be nine years old in Becky’s eyes.

“But . . . but why bring me here?”

“So you can see how important this day was in the history of the world. We celebrate His birth because He came to earth knowing His life wouldn’t last that long either. He knew He’d be ridiculed, spat upon, and shamed, yet He endured all of that for us. Because of Him and the atonement, we’ll be able to return to Heavenly Father. I don’t want you to lose sight of that because you miss me.”

“I just don’t want to forget you.”

“Find a way to keep me alive in your heart, but don’t stop living because I’m not there anymore.”

Becky glanced at Mary holding baby Jesus. Such an awe-inspiring scene. She buried her face in her hands. How could she ever express her apology? She didn’t feel worthy to do so.
“I must go,” Sarah replied.

“No, don’t leave yet. I’m not ready,” Becky pleaded. “There’s so much I want to say to you.”

“We’ll have eternity. But for now, you must live your life. Do something good with it, and stay close to Heavenly Father. He’ll always be there to guide you.”

“I will, but Sarah . . . wait.”

“Goodbye, my sister. I love you.”

“Oh, Sarah,” Becky bawled. “I love you, too.”

They embraced and then Sarah was gone. Becky sat up with a start and found herself in her own bed. A dream. It was only a dream, a dream that felt more real than anything she’d ever experienced. With a prayer in her heart and a smile on her face, she drifted back to sleep content that everything would work out after all.

* * * * * *

After reciting the dream to her parents, her mother took a tissue from the box on the end table and blew her nose. “That’s so beautiful, Becky. Thank you for sharing that with us.”

“I had to share it with you. I feel so stupid for my behavior the past few weeks.”

“Honey, I didn’t realize how hard you took Sarah’s death,” her mother replied.

“I know. I’m sorry I kept you in the dark.” Becky paused for a moment. “I . . . I want to do something in Sarah’s name for Christmas.”

“What’s that?” her father asked.

“Well . . .”

For the next half hour, they discussed at length Becky’s plan. Her parents were thrilled with the idea and asked Becky’s brothers for their assistance.

The next day, the entire family went shopping. It was a happy event that Becky would treasure. She let go of the anger she’d been harboring all Christmas season and finally felt peace settle in her heart. The spirit of Christmas was contagious, and it made her whole family giddy with excitement.

Once at home, Jared and Timmy collected all the wrapping paper and brought it in the living room. Becky placed the purchases on the floor, and they got to work wrapping presents. Becky’s mother brought out Christmas cookies and hot chocolate for everyone to munch on while they worked.

Daniel glanced out the window and laughed. “Hey, everybody. It’s snowing.”

The boys rushed to the window to see how much had accumulated on the ground. Becky smiled at her parents. It was going to be a good Christmas after all.

Becky’s parents put the wrapped gifts under the tree. After dinner, their father turned on the tree lights. They sang Christmas carols and ate cookies until it grew late. Later, Becky snuggled in her bed whispering a heartfelt prayer. She fell asleep dreaming about Sarah.

* * * * * *

After breakfast, the family carried the wrapped gifts to the van and drove to the hospital. Becky and the boys wore somber expressions, as they walked down corridors toward the right department. Becky’s father explained the situation to the head nurse, who gave them permission to drop off the presents to each child in the cancer ward.

Becky’s heart melted and an overwhelming peace cloaked her, as she saw children connected to tubes or with no hair. But even through their pain, they beamed when given their Christmas present. The boys received toy cars or trucks; the girls a doll or stuffed animal. Becky also gave the girls an extra special gift – a beautiful silver-plated hairbrush, comb and hand mirror set – just like the one she intended to give Sarah last year.

“Keep the faith,” Becky told the girls. “This hairbrush set is to help you not lose hope. Your hair will grow back and you will recover, if it’s God’s will. My sister lived a remarkable life, but God called her home. I want you all to know that we care. These gifts were given to you in memory of my sister, Sarah Manning.”

Becky’s mother embraced her with tears streaming down her face. “That was beautiful, Becky. This whole idea was beautiful.”

“Thanks, Mom. I couldn’t have done it without your help . . . or Sarah’s.”

On Christmas Eve, Becky unwrapped Sarah’s present. She set the hairbrush, comb and hand mirror on her dresser. It stood as a reminder to never take life for granted. She ran the brush through her brown hair and smiled at her reflection in the little mirror. Climbing into bed, she pondered on the year that had gone by. She remembered the struggle and all she neglected to do because of her sorrow over her sister’s death. She no longer felt sorrow, but so joyful at having had nine years with the most wonderful sister God chose to send to her.

Timmy rushed into her room what seemed to Becky merely minutes after putting her head on the pillow. “It’s Christmas,” he shouted with elation, as he bounced on her bed.

Becky opened an eye and looked at her clock on the night stand. It glowed six o’clock, and she moaned as she covered her head with her blanket.

“No, Becky. Wake up,” Timmy protested, as he shook his sister awake.

Becky moaned again and flung the blankets aside. “I’m up.”

Timmy laughed, as he hauled her out of bed, acting more like a six year old.

The rest of the family entered the family room while yawning. Timmy was apparently the only one wide awake. Becky’s father turned on the lights and offered the family prayer. Their mother distributed the presents to everyone.

Becky remembered Sarah’s reaction at the gifts she received. Her face would light up and she’d squeal with delight. Remembering it brought a smile to Becky’s face. Surprisingly, these memories no longer brought pain and sorrow, just fondness and a happy feeling of having those memories to cherish for years to come.

When all the gifts had been opened, everyone gathered at the table for breakfast. Becky brought the hymn book, flipping it open to the Christmas section. She read each title slowly and paused when she read, “With Wondering Awe.” That was it! That totally described her dream. She closed the book, holding it close to her.

Thank you, Sarah. Thank you for giving me my life back. Merry Christmas.

And it truly was a merry Christmas.

22 With Love

Sometime during the evening, the gentle Christmas Eve snowfall turned into a full-fledged blizzard. Kendall lifted the kitchen curtains and watched the riot of blowing snow obscure the Christmas lights on the pine trees. No way could the Belnaps drive home in this.
She finished drying the last of the dishes and stepped back into the big family room just in time to hear her mother say, “You’ll have to stay here tonight. It’ll blow over by tomorrow. No,” she held up her hand to ward off Sister Belnap’s protest. “It’s no trouble for us. There’s plenty of room. I couldn’t live with myself if I let you drive down the canyon in this weather.”

For the hundredth time that evening, Kendall’s eyes strayed to Patrick Belnap. He was looking at her. She quickly turned her attention to a fascinating glass ball on the Christmas tree. She couldn’t help watching him from the corner of her eye. They’d known each other for practically their entire lives. Two years ago, he’d left for a mission a short, acne-covered teenager, and now he was back a tall, handsome man with a spirit of confidence and goodness about him that made Kendall want to shy away from him like a vampire away from a cross. He had been one of her best friends, but now he looked like a stake president in the making, and she didn’t know what a sinner like herself could say to him.

She moved around to the back of the tree, away from her parents, away from the constant reproach of her sisters and brothers-in-law with their perfect temple marriages, away from Patrick’s beautiful brown eyes.

Or so she thought. But Patrick came and stood beside her behind the tree. “Hey, Kendall.”

“Looks like you’re stuck with us,” she said and inched toward the wall.

“I don’t mind.” He smiled. “Why have you been avoiding me all night?”

“I haven’t,” she said.

“Then why are you hiding back here? I know you better than that.”

Kendall fiddled with a bit of tinsel. You don’t know me at all. “I’ve changed, I guess.”

“Not that much.”

Yes, that much. She moved an ornament to a different branch. Her heart felt too heavy to hold in her chest.

“I’ve really looked forward to seeing you again.”

Oh, please don’t say that. She turned around and tried to look neutral. “I’m sorry, Patrick. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I think it’s great to see you again. You look great.” She stopped. “I just feel . . . awkward.”

“Because of what happened with your fiancé?”

“Shane.” Shame crashed like a flood through her chest. She stepped back and accidentally brushed an ornament off the tree with her shoulder. It smashed on the wood floor into half a dozen pieces. “Oh, no.” Kendall knelt on the floor and picked up the broken pieces with shaking hands. It was a figurine of a little Christmas caroler in a red hat and mittens. Her grandmother had given it to her years ago. Tears brimmed in her eyes. “It’s ruined.”

Patrick knelt beside her and helped to gather the bits of glass. Someone in the family room turned on the TV.

“They’re starting It’s A Wonderful Life,” Kendall said. “It’s tradition.”

Patrick slipped his hand beneath hers. “I’ll take care of this,” he said. “You can go sit down.”

His touch felt warm and safe, comforting somehow. She wished she could leave her hand in his forever, but she let the shards fall into his hands and stood up. “Actually, I think I’ll just go to bed.” She fled up the stairs before Patrick or anyone else could say another word.

* * *

Kendall tiptoed through the nieces and nephews asleep on the bedroom floor. She had agreed to sleep with them and keep them from waking up the house too early. Not a minute before seven, she had promised. She lay down on the bed and listened to the children breathing and tried to forget about the feel of Patrick’s hand on hers.

Last Christmas Eve, Shane had proposed to her here at the cabin. No wonder she was so off-kilter tonight. The chaos and upheaval of the past year had left permanent scars on her soul. Scars I inflicted on myself, she thought. Scars that meant no matter how long she repented— and oh, it had been so long already—she would never be worthy of someone like Patrick. No. He deserved someone pure, someone strong. Someone who had never made the stupid mistakes that she had made.

She wrapped her arms around her pillow and sent up a silent prayer out of the pain in her heart. Dear God, she prayed, why was I so stupid? Why, why, why? She would have given anything to go back in time and erase the whole past year from existence.

The blizzard outside grew in fury until it drowned out the sounds of the sleeping children, drowned out her pleadings to God, drowned out everything and left her alone in the dark with the snow stinging against her cheeks. The wind tore at her coat and she pulled it tighter around herself. How did I get out here, she wondered? Was she sleep-walking? She was dressed like the little caroler in a red hat and mittens, but they didn’t protect her from the wind.

She turned this way and that, trying to find the cabin, but she couldn’t see anything. The cold bit her fingers under the mittens and covered her exposed face with icy crystals. The wind burned in her lungs. “Somebody help me!”

“I’m here, Kendall.” It was Patrick, but she couldn’t see him.

“I can’t see you! Where are you?”

The wind roared in her ears, and buffeted her from every direction. It beat against her so hard she felt as if she were shattering into pieces. I’m broken, she thought. She dropped to her knees and tried to scoop up the pieces, but the wind whipped them out of her hands and into the darkness. I’ll never be whole again, she thought in despair. I’ll be stuck in this storm forever until not even one shard of me is left.

“That’s not the way it works,” Patrick said. He sounded closer but she still couldn’t see him.

“What did you say?”

“I said that’s not the way it works. You aren’t Humpty-Dumpty. You can be put back together again.”

“I was pregnant.”

“I know.”

“I lost the baby.” Even now, the pain of it all was too much to hold.

“You don’t have to hold it,” Patrick said.

Kendall covered her face with her hands. Silence settled over her. It took her a moment to realize that the storm had ceased and she was no longer wearing mittens. A pleasant warmth wrapped around her and soft, white light filtered through her fingers. She stood up. The world had turned to pure light. She looked around for Patrick, but she didn’t see him, only the brilliant whiteness of the light.

Somewhere, a baby cried. Her heart lurched. “I lost the baby,” she whispered. “I lost Shane. I lost everything.”

The baby cried again. She turned toward the sound. Something moved toward her through the light. Or maybe she moved toward it; she couldn’t tell. The indistinct object grew clearer until it resolved itself into a small wooden manger.

Shaking, she stepped forward and looked inside. There lay a beautiful, perfect little baby. The light gathered all around him. When she reached down to touch his tiny head, his eyes caught hers and pierced her soul.

She knelt beside the manger and, holding her breath, reached down and gently picked the baby up. Peace enfolded her and washed away the bitter hurt. She cradled the baby in her arms and ran a finger down his soft cheek. She did not bother to wipe away the tears sliding down her own cheeks.

Something was attached to his swaddling clothes, a little note. She smoothed it between her fingers. It said: To Kendall, With Love. He can make you whole.

She dropped her head. Her tears fell on the baby and smudged the words. I don’t deserve this. Someone put a hand on her shoulder, and she looked up. It was Patrick.

“It’s Christmas, Kendall,” he said quietly. “Just accept the gift.”

* * *

“It’s Christmas!”

Kendall blinked open her eyes, and found her niece Chantel leaning into her face. “It’s Christmas,” she said again. Kendall glanced at the clock on the nightstand. 8:02. She sat up and swept Chantel into a bear hug. “It certainly is.”

Chantel wiggled out of her grasp and ran to join the other children tumbling loudly down the stairs. Kendall drew up her knees and wrapped her arms around them. Some of the peace and love from the dream still lingered. Just accept the gift, she thought. Could it really be that simple?

She drew back the curtains. Outside, the dawn revealed a world washed in unbroken white. She guessed at least a foot of new snow had fallen. The Belnaps wouldn’t be out of here for hours.

Something at the end of the bed caught her eye -– a gift-wrapped in red with a gold bow. Where did that come from? Curious, she picked it up. The tag said: To Kendall, With Love.

Her heart began to hammer. She pulled off the wrapping paper and opened the lid of the box. Inside, nestled in some crumpled newspaper, was her caroler ornament. “Oh, my,” she whispered. She picked it up and held it by the satin ribbon. It was as whole as if it had never been broken.

Someone knocked on the door of the bedroom and Patrick poked in his head. “Hey, Kendall, everybody’s downstairs. Are you coming?”

She held the ornament out for him to see. “Do you know anything about this?”

A warm smile spread across his face as he stepped into the room. “Well. Looks like it wasn’t as broken as you thought.” He sat down beside her on the bed and took the caroler from her. He turned it over, examining it. “Good as new,” he pronounced and handed it back to her.

“It’s a miracle,” she said softly.

“It certainly is.”

Kendall was suddenly acutely aware that she was wearing frayed flannel pajamas and had bed head and morning breath. But from the way Patrick looked at her, he didn’t mind. Maybe he hadn’t even noticed. He stood up and held out his hand. “So, are you coming?

She wrapped her hand around the caroler and glanced back out the window at the unblemished whiteness of the snow. She took a deep, steadying breath. It was Christmas, and Patrick was right. It was time to accept the gift.

She took Patrick’s hand. He helped her up, but he didn’t let go. He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Merry Christmas,” he said.

She flushed. “Merry Christmas.” Then hand in hand, they walked down the stairs.

21 The Christmas Party

Everything was perfect.

I stood back and surveyed my hard work. The house was spotless, decked with sprigs of fir and mistletoe. The Christmas tree stood strategically placed in the front window, twinkling with lights, heavy with all of my best heirloom ornaments, and strung with white garland that glittered like fresh snow. Underneath lay an assortment of beautifully-wrapped presents—well, empty boxes, really, since my husband and I never did an ounce of Christmas shopping until the week of, and, moreover, never got around to wrapping them. The dining room table was set with my best china, gleaming in the light of festive candles. From the kitchen wafted the scents of succulent turkey and baking pies. Even Mother Nature had cooperated and blessed us with an inch of gorgeous, powdery snow.

I clasped my hands together in delight. I had done it this year, I was sure of it. I had put together a Christmas party even my mother would be proud of. And I had done it all by myself.

The front door slammed and Sam came clattering in, stomping his boots and dropping his workbags on the floor. He started toward me with a smile, but I stopped him short.

“Could you take your boots off first? I just mopped in here.”

“I see that,” he said as he kicked off his boots. “It looks great. You look great.” He grabbed my waist and kissed me. “Did I get the time for the party wrong? Should I be dressed already?”

“Oh, no,” I replied, waving my hand. “I just got ready early. Everything has to be perfect by the time everyone gets here, and if I know my mother, she’ll be here an hour or two before I told her to be.”

“Do you need any help? Wow, it smells great in here. You really did the turkey all by yourself?”

I smiled. “Yep. And three homemade pies. And mashed potatoes, and sweet potato casserole, and rolls, and cranberry sauce…”

“Honey,” Sam interrupted. “When did you find time for all of this? I’ve only been gone for a day.”

“I’ve had a very busy day,” I replied.

He gave me a knowing look. “You didn’t sleep at all last night, did you?”

I opened my mouth to make an excuse but knew he wouldn’t buy it. “Not a wink. But I’m not at all tired. And you can’t even see the circles under my eyes….”

Sam tucked a ringlet of hair behind my ear. “Babe, why would you do that to yourself? Plenty of people would have been more than happy to give you a hand with everything. Your mother especially.”

“My mother,” I scoffed. “Sure, she would have helped. And rubbed in my face the entire time that she wouldn’t have needed any help. No, Sam. This is my Christmas party. The first chance I’ve ever had to show my mom I know how to do it. My only chance. If I mess one thing up, or ask for an ounce of help, she’ll never trust me to host the Christmas party again.”

Sam reached for a serving tray of fudge but I slapped his hand away. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, scowling. “It’s a family tradition, right? So the whole family should participate in putting it together.”

“This party is my mother’s claim-to-fame. There is nothing she puts more work into, and it’s always amazing. The fact that she’s allowing me to host it is mind-boggling. If I mess it up, it’s her reputation on the line.”

“It’s Christmas,” Sam shrugged. “Who cares about reputations and whether your china is shiny enough? Isn’t the point of a Christmas party for everyone to get together and have a good time?”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Sam,” I snapped.

“That’s not fair. I’m trying to understand. I want you to enjoy your party, Lucy, not spend the whole time watching your mother’s reaction.”

I crossed my arms. “If it’s all a joke to you, then don’t bother coming. Go play pool with your friends or something.”

“Who said anything about it being a joke? If it’s important to you it’s important to me. I just…”

“Forget it Sam, ok? Just go get changed. And put your bags away.”

I wandered into the dining room, straightening the already-straight table cloth and rearranging the place cards in an attempt to vent my frustration. Sam had no idea how important this party was to me. I growled to myself as I picked up a plate and studied it, satisfied that my reflection shone in its surface.

I didn’t have long to wallow in my self-pity. True to form, my mother arrived several hours early, looking lovely in a satin dress of Christmas red. My father hung on her arm, trying not to look like he’d been dragged here against his will.

Mother flitted from room to room as I showed her all my hard work. To my surprise and delight, I didn’t once hear her say, “Oh, Lucy, I would have done this….” By the time I had her and my father seated in the living room, sipping hot apple cider, my smile had brightened considerably. Apparently I was a natural at this party-hosting business.

“I have never seen such a lovely tree,” Mother declared.

“Thank you,” I beamed. “Sam cut it down himself.”

Her smile faltered for just a second. “Oh…how nice,” she said as if by “nice” she meant backwards and old-fashioned. “Sam always did dress like a lumberjack, didn’t he?”

As if on cue, Sam appeared in the doorway, decidedly un-lumberjack-looking in the carefully-pressed slacks and maroon dress shirt I had picked out for him Honestly, I don’t think I had ever seen Sam dressed so nice. I felt a burst of pride at the way my mother’s jaw hit the floor.

“You were saying?” I asked her.

She composed herself quickly. “Why Sam, I hardly recognized you!”

I took that as a compliment.

The rest of the guests arrived on time—my sister Josie and her husband Frank, my Aunt Lulu and Uncle Jake, and some of mother’s very stylish friends who pulled up in shiny sports cars. They entered the house in a whirlwind of icy air and fur-lined coats. I greeted them all with a smile and squeezed Sam’s hand every time they praised the beautiful decorations and our beautiful home.

“It’s a hit, Sam,” I whispered excitedly in his ear as all the guests gathered in the living room.

To my surprise he didn’t return my enthusiasm. “I need to go outside and get some air,” he said.

“What? It’s time for dinner.”

“Well I’m sure you don’t need my help with anything, do you?” he snapped as he opened the door and disappeared outside.

I stood stunned for a moment, not used to dramatics from my laid-back husband. I couldn’t think about it for long, though, because my mother appeared at my shoulder.

“Let’s gather the guests!” I bubbled a little too enthusiastically. “You’re going to love dinner.”

Oohs and ahhs gushed forth over the gorgeous place settings, the succulent smell of the turkey, the absolute perfection of my cranberry sauce. I stood at the head of the table and saw that everything really did look perfect, but my smile felt a little forced when I glanced at Sam’s empty seat.

“Where is Sam?” my mother whispered below the hum of conversation surrounding Uncle Jake’s latest trip to Rome .

“He just went outside to get some air.”

She raised her eyebrows. “How long does that take?”

I ignored her. “Would anyone like some more gravy?”

I was beginning to wonder myself how long it took, when the back door opened with a bang. The guests jumped. I leapt to my feet and ran to give my husband a piece of my mind. But he wasn’t alone at the back door. I found him stamping fresh snow off his boots with our grumpy old neighbor, Mr. Barlow, beside him.

“I…uh…hmmm…hello, Mr. Barlow. What brings you over?”

He blinked at me with his sharp gray eyes. “Your husband found me in the middle of a walk.”

“Oh, well we’d invite you to stay for dinner but unfortunately we don’t have any more chairs…”

“He can have mine,” Sam volunteered.

My eyes flicked angrily toward Sam. Didn’t he realize I was trying to come up with an excuse not to invite Mr. Barlow to stay?

Sam didn’t seem to notice. “I’m not very hungry anyway.”

I faked a smile. “Well, Mr. Barlow, you probably have a million things you’d rather do than eat with a bunch of whippersnappers…”

“I’ll stay,” Mr. Barlow replied, shoving his hands into his pockets.

I opened my mouth to speak but no sound came out. Sam took over. “Here, let me take your coat and Lucy will show you into the dining room.”

His coat. I wondered if it was a remnant from his days in the war, it was so stained and tattered. But the rest of his clothes weren’t much better, and he smelled like he had slept in the pasture with his cows.

He looked at me without much fondness, but then, from the day we met him, it was always Sam he seemed partial to. “Come on in, Mr. Barlow,” I said, my voice high and tight. “I’ll…um…introduce you to everyone.”

The dining room was so silent I could hear the bubbles popping in the sparkling cider. Everyone turned toward us as we entered, but I only looked at my mother. She was looking at the floor and the trail of mud Mr. Barlow left behind him.

“Everyone, this is our neighbor, Mr. Barlow.”

There were a few smiles and words of greeting. Mr. Barlow merely grunted and sat down. My mother waved a hand beneath her nose as he passed by. I returned to my seat, flushing under the heat of my mother’s glare, desperate for some clever way to turn the conversation but at a complete loss for words.

My father finally broke the silence. “Well, Mr. Barlow, I’ve heard about you. You live just up the street, don’t you? Run a dairy of sorts?”

Mr. Barlow was busy loading his plate full of turkey and mashed potatoes and didn’t answer right away. “No ‘of sorts’ about it,” he grumbled. “A dairy’s a dairy.”

“You smell like it,” my mother muttered just loud enough that only I could hear.

“Do you make pretty good money with it?” one of the men asked.

“Don’t do it fer the money.” Mr. Barlow glared at the man with those eyes that made me feel two-feet tall.

“Well what do you do it for, then?”

“Been in the family fer years.”

“I bet you’d get a good price if you sold it.”

Mr. Barlow looked at the man as if he’d just suggested selling his heart on the black market. “Is that all you think about, young man? Money?”

“I make a living off of it,” the man laughed.

Mr. Barlow apparently didn’t feel a comment like that deserved a reply, so he turned his attention to his plate; he shoveled food into his mouth at such a rapid pace he hardly had time to chew in between bites. I just stared. I couldn’t help it. The hours I had spent on the party seemed wasted as I watched gravy dribble on the table. I knew just from the corner of my eye that my mother was horrified. And I despised Mr. Barlow for it.

Josie and Frank were the first to leave, pleading the need to get home to their kids. One of mother’s friends piped up that she thought she had left the oven on at home. Another suddenly complained of a splitting headache.

As the table emptied long before it was supposed to, I glanced at my mother and read in her eyes that I needed to show Mr. Barlow to the door. I wanted to. But how?

“Would you like some pie, Mr. Barlow?” I asked. Maybe rushing him through dinner and dessert would get him out of here faster.

He shook his head. “No one can make a pie the way Abigail did.”

Indignation flared inside of me. I had slaved over those pies for hours; they were absolute perfection. “You might give mine a try,” I snapped. “Your wife is dead, after all.”

The words were out of my mouth before I could snatch them back. Aunt Lulu dropped her fork to the table with a clatter. Everyone stared at me. Mr. Barlow’s hard eyes grew sad for the first time I could ever remember.

“I, um, I meant…” There was no amending what I’d done.

Mr. Barlow scooted his chair back and left the room.

Well, I had been successful in getting rid of him. But I felt no satisfaction. Giving little thought to my remaining guests, I jumped to my feet and followed him.

He was at the back door putting on his old coat. “Mr. Barlow, please don’t go.”

He didn’t even look at me.

“Please. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said that about your wife.”

He looked at me then, his hands shoved deep in his pockets. “Well, it’s true. She is dead.”

“I know. You live in that big house all by yourself. And I didn’t even have the decency to invite you to our Christmas party.”

“It’s a very nice party.” I had never heard a compliment pass his lips. “I reckon you thought I wouldn’t fit in.”

Shame welled inside me. He was exactly right. But suddenly I realized that my focus on perfection had been completely misplaced. The party no longer mattered so much. In fact, I wanted to laugh at how much I had agonized over such trivial details. And cry over how badly I had forgotten what really mattered.

“You most definitely fit in,” I replied. “You’re my friend. I don’t even know half those people. I just invited them because they’re my mother’s friends.”

“Doesn’t sound like a very fun party.”

“No,” I laughed. “I’ve been so stressed out I couldn’t see straight. But suddenly…I feel like I can breathe again.”

Mr. Barlow smiled. It was a very nice, warm smile. “I would like to try some of that pie of yours.”

“So you’ll stay?”

“Yes, Lucy, I will.”

I smiled back. “Wonderful. But if I give you some pie, you have to tell me about your wife. Sam says she was quite the lady.”

His wife was the one subject that pulled Mr. Barlow out of his reticence. We returned to the dining room to find it empty, but I didn’t care. Sam came inside, having seen the guests off, sat down beside me and slipped his hand in mine. And as we laughed over Mr. Barlow’s story of the first time his wife milked a cow, I recognized the Christmas perfection I had been searching for all day long.

What I liked best: Very good sense of place; strong sensory images. I’m a sucker for these “true meaning of Christmas” stories.

Publication ready: Very close. The change of heart at the end feels a little rushed. I’d add more there, and include a scene of her mother leaving. Under consideration for the book.