Christmas Story Anthology Update

While we’re waiting to see the final winner of the 2011 Book Cover Contest (and my list of personal picks), here’s an update on Christmas Book #2.

First a word about Stolen Christmas (anthology #1). As most of the authors already know, Rosehaven Publishing helped me put this book together, providing the typesetting and ISBN number. We have come to an agreement to have Rosehaven take over the business end of this book and any future books that I create from our contests here—including this year’s second Christmas anthology.

Some time in the next few months, Stolen Christmas will become temporarily unavailable while Rosehaven corrects a few typos and moves it from my account to Rosehaven’s accounts.  

Stolen Christmas is NOT going out of print. It will be back up and ready for more sales before the 2012 Christmas season. I’ll let you know and provide links when the new version is ready.

Rosehaven is also sending out a one-time royalty to all the authors involved with Stolen Christmas. There are a few authors we’ve been unable to contact.

If you are an author in Stolen Christmas and you did not receive an email from me in January about royalties, PLEASE E-MAIL ME ASAP.

Now for Christmas Book #2.

I’ve made the first decisions on the stories to be included in the new anthology which will be available for sale in time for the 2012 Christmas season. The following authors will be receiving an email from Rosehaven Publishing this week with the contract offer:

  • Amie Borst
  • Angie Lofthouse
  • Brenda Anderson
  • Brian Ricks
  • Gussie Fick
  • Jennifer Ricks
  • Jennifer Shelton
  • Janice Sperry
  • Kasey Eyre
  • Melanie Marks
  • Michael Young
  • Rob Smales
  • Teresa Osgood
  • Wendy Elliott

I’m posting this list so that when you get the email, you’ll understand what it is.

There will most likely be additional stories/authors included later on, for editorial reasons—balance of story content and styles, length of book, or if any of the authors listed above decline the contract offer. I won’t know this until Rosehaven has collected all the contracts and determines what else is needed.

Congratulations to the authors listed above—and I’ll keep you posted on the progress.

2011 Christmas Story Contest Winners!

Are you ready for the 2011 Christmas Short Story Contest winners???

These winners are guaranteed a spot in the next Christmas collection, to be released in fall of 2012. Other stories from the contest will be included, as well.

So here we go…

And we’re starting with a TIE!

Reader’s Choice—Published Author Category
Milkshakes and Mittens
by Brenda Anderson


The Two Hundred Forty-fourth Ornament
by Jennifer Ricks

Publisher’s Choice—Published Author Category
Third Strike Christmas
by Brian Ricks

Reader’s Choice—Unpublished Author Category
Savanna’s Christmas Miracles
by Kasey Eyre

Publisher’s Choice—Unpublished Author Category
Foreign Exchange
by Teresa Osgood

Congratulations to the winners! You did some good work.

Before I Post the Winners…

I’m done! I’ve read and evaluated every Christmas story submission, tallied the scores, sent emails to all the authors and I’m ready to post the winners.

(Authors, if you didn’t get your emails, let me know ASAP!)

Thank you to everyone who came to the site, read the stories, left comments, and voted. Your honest comments are very important to the authors as it gives them a sense of where they connect with the reader and where they miss. That type of feedback is crucial to learning the craft of writing.

Although the authors have received a score sheet evaluating various aspects of story and a partial line edit on their actual story, I’ve only posted a brief critique for each story highlighting what I feel are the weakest points. The reason for the limited online critique is it takes a lot of time—up to an hour—to read and evaluate each story. It would double my time were I to include line edits in the actual posts—and honestly, I don’t believe anyone but the author will actually go back to those stories to see those evaluations—and they’re getting them in a personal email. (If I’m wrong, you’re welcome to correct me in the comments and maybe I’ll reconsider, but it would require much groveling and begging from multiple readers to change my mind.)

We had a voting issue, but it was resolved to my satisfaction. We were able to determine exactly when the email was sent and discounted all anonymous votes after that time, plus some votes that the author recognized as family, leaving her with 7 counted votes. I believe the winner to have won fair and square.

There was another voting issue that has occurred in every short story contest I’ve held. Once again, SOME OF YOU DID NOT VOTE FOR YOUR OWN STORY! I just don’t get that!!! Did the fact that a story got zero votes effect my critique? No, because I didn’t look at those votes until after I made my own evaluation. But still, PEOPLE! Can someone explain that to me????

And lastly, some good news—I now have enough quality stories to do a second Christmas collection. It will be available for the Christmas season of 2012. I still need to go through and make the final determination on which stories will be in the collection. Authors, if you’re selected for the new collection, I will email you directly with instructions and a contract—probably some time in January.

Now for the big reveal…

Voting Is Now Closed

Voting for the Christmas Story Contest is now closed.

You may continue to leave comments on the stories if you like (and feedback is muchly appreciated by the authors), but they will no longer be counted in the voting.

Contest winners will be announced on Tuesday, October 4th.

FYI: I assume that all authors will vote for their own story. (And they should. Because if you don’t believe in your story enough to vote for it, why bother submitting?) I also know that spouses, close friends and writers groups may have seen the story in its early stages and recognize it, or they may recognize the voice of the writer. That’s why I give everyone TWO votes in each category, to help overcome that natural tendency for bias toward people we like.

One of the stories received some votes that will not be counted. A well-meaning friend who recognized the story sent out an email to other friends, asking them to go vote for this particular story. They did not realize they were breaking the rules. When the author found out, they immediately contacted me about making things right. We will determine to the best of our ability which votes are legit and which are not, and adjust the total votes accordingly.

Authors in the Unpublished category will need to wait for the official announcement to determine if they’ve won the Reader’s Choice award or not.

2011 Christmas Story Voting Instructions

Please read the voting instructions carefully before casting your vote.

Voting for LDSP’s 2011 Christmas Story Contest starts NOW!

VOTE between September 26th and midnight on Friday, September 30th.

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: Due to the limitations of Blogger, all stories in a category may not 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 you’re 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, October 4th.

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

2011 Christmas Story Contest Is Now Closed

All Christmas stories have now been posted. If you sent one in and it’s not posted, then I didn’t get it. Please resend ASAP. If I get it before I go to bed tonight, I’ll post it.

The submission portion of the 2011 Christmas Story Contest is now over.

Early Monday morning, September 26th, I will post voting instructions. Please read these instructions carefully before casting your votes.

Good luck to all those who submitted stories!

23 Checkin’ It Twice

by Michael Young

St Nick was not feeling jolly. Just “Old St. Nicolas”.

He looked down and thought how his stomach was more like a half-deflated balloon than a bowl full of jelly, and his nose more black cherry than maraschino.

His job gave him every reason to feel jolly: perfect job security, cheerful co-workers, state of the art technology, travel to exotic places and unlimited hot cocoa. But today the calendar read Feb 25th. The most dreaded deadline of the year was today: the finalization of the Naughty List, based on last year’s deeds.

Sure, he could see kids when they were sleeping and know when they were awake. He knew if they were bad or good with the help of his monitoring elves. It was just so hard to make the final decisions. Though most people assumed he checked the list only twice, he often agonized over it for weeks, checking and rechecking it.

There was the regular Naughty List, which was bad enough, and then there was the Chronically Naughty List, where only the naughtiest appeared. Those on the list risked being permanently banned from Christmas privileges, with only coal to look forward to for the rest of their lives.
St. Nick didn’t like having to put anyone on the list. But, rules were rules and he couldn’t break them without setting a bad example.

He stuffed his large girth into the tinsel-draped chair behind his desk, and picked up his candy-cane striped pen. The Naughty and Nice lists lay out in front of him, filled with of names in calligraphy. Off to the side lay the third list, on which only one name stood. St. Nick’s eyebrows rose.

Several months ago, he had sent his elite elves to carry out interventions for each of those on the Chronically Naughty List. For those who remained after the interventions, he conducted a trial, with one elf as the prosecution and one as the defense.

Every year they had managed to shrink the last list considerably by the middle of February, but he had not expected this. A single name. “Dallin J. Snark,” read St. Nick. “How can we get you off this list?” There was nothing to do but conduct the trial. He’d have to call on Amras and Nerwen, his most talented elite elves.

St. Nick rubbed his black cherry nose. “Bisquat,” he said to his head secretarial elf, “could you bring me some of my Krisp Kringles? This case requires comfort food.”
Bisquat bowed, “No milk and cookies?”

St. Nick gave a “Ho, ho”. He couldn’t manage the third “Ho” today. “No, it’s usually June before I can even look at a cookie. Too many in one night. Why don’t you also fetch Amras and Nerwen?”
Bisquat bowed again and his exit was heralded by the sound of retreating jingle bells. A minute later, a full-size figure entered. St. Nick jumped in his chair. He was not used to looking up at any one around here, and briefly feared the intruder might have infiltrated the North Pole, intent on stealing trade secrets or perhaps a taste of reindeer venison.

“Amras! You’ve got to remember to shorten your cane once you’re back at the Pole.”

Amras glanced down and reddened to match St. Nick’s suit. “I’m sorry, your Saintliness. Right away.” He looked up at the red and white cane in his hand and pressed the down on the end. The cane retracted like a telescope, and, as the cane shrunk, so did its owner until he stood less than half of his original height.

St. Nick sat back in his chair, “That’s better,” he said. “Now where is—“

Another elf entered, already shrunken to the size of the door, her flushed face matching her fiery red curls. “Just in the St. Nick of time!”

She flung up her arms and waited for a response. None came. Her face fell.
“You used to laugh at that one.”

St. Nick managed a faint smile. “The first 20 times, Nerwen. You should really think of a new punch-line, or figure out how to be on time.”

Nerwen nodded and took a step back.

“Let’s get started,” St. Nick said, opening his bag of Krisp Kringles, which resembled a miniature version of his present bag. He took one red and green chip and popped it in his mouth. Each chip was designed to taste like something from Christmas dinner and this one tasted like eggnog. “I will hear three arguments to determine whether this boy should be given the Ban. Amras?”

Amras smoothed down his green vest. “Thank you, St. Nick. I’ve seen some terrible cases, but this is one of the worst. I shall endeavor to show that the subject deserves this punishment for three reasons: his disrespect for authority, his disrespect for his peers, and his disrespect for himself.” Amras withdrew a clear marble from his pocket and rolled it in his hands. It grew like a snowball into a large orb.

Amras approached St. Nick’s desk and placed the snow globe on a stand at the edge. St. Nick leaned forward and Amras tapped the globes surface. “Exhibit A,” Amras said as a young boy came into focus within the ball. The boy had a tangled mass of blonde hair and a husky frame.
“This is he?” asked St. Nick.

“Yes. Note the sinister smile, the darting, mischievous eyes.”

Nerwen’s hand shot up, “Objection! Speculation. How do we know that it’s not a friendly smile? That his eyes are not jolly?”

Amras remained unruffled. “In context you will see there could be no other explanation.”


“Thank you. “ Amras tapped the glass again and the picture came to life. Amras narrated the events that took place. “On February 14th, the school held a Valentine’s Day assembly in which students were invited to perform love poems they had written.”

Amras placed his hand over his heart. “Not exactly Shakespearean sonnets, but touching nonetheless. During the recitation of one of these poems, Dallin stood and released stink bombs, yelling ‘Love stinks!’ Pandemonium ensued, and many were injured. Dallin was suspended, pending an expulsion hearing. He’s played every prank in the book and contributed several chapters of his own.”

St. Nick scratched his beard. “Nerwen, do you have anything to say?”

Nerwen shook her head, her red curls bobbing. “I would prefer to listen to all of the arguments first before refuting them.”

“That’s fine,” St. Nick said. “Continue.”

Amras tapped the globe and another scene appeared. “You will recall my second point was that he has no respect for his peers. Look.”

The surface swirled and came into focus. It showed Dallin next to a smaller kid in front of a locker covered with wrapping paper. At the top was a sign that read “Are you ready for s’more birthday fun?”

“What’s wrong with that?” Nerwen said. “He decorated that boy’s locker.”

“He did,” said Amras. “That boy is one of the most picked-on boys in school—a foster child with some serious medical problems. Our subject told him that he had a birthday surprise for him.”
St. Nick drew his eyebrows together. “You’re defeating your own point. That’s one of the nicest things I’ve seen in a long time.”

Amras jabbed a finger at the image. “That’s exactly what makes this deed so dastardly, this act so atrocious, this plot so pernicious, this-“

St Nick cut him off. “We understand. Go on.”

Amras smoothed his suit. “Dallin filled that boy’s locker with marshmallows.”

Nerwen burst out laughing, her clothes jingling.

“Once again, you haven’t considered everything,” said Amras. “The boy’s birthday falls on July 26th, which just happened to be the hottest day of the year. That day turned each locker into a long, thin Dutch oven.”

Amras tapped the globe again and the picture advanced, showing the poor boy opening his locker, only to find it flooded with sticky goo. A couple graham crackers and pieces of chocolate had been added at strategic points, making it look as if a boy scout’s backpack had exploded.
St. Nick put his head in his hands.

“It took the janitors a week to get it all off. The hallway still smells like s’mores and cleaning solution.”

St. Nick waved his hand. “Enough. I may never be able to eat a s’more again.”

“And worst of all,” said Amras, “my third argument.”

Amras tapped the globe, and the boy was seen holding a large bag of peanuts.

Nerwen’s hand shot up.”I suppose you’re going to tell me now that he’s a terrible person, because he likes to eat peanuts and leave the shells on the floor. You’ll have to try harder.”

Amras smoothed his dark hair. “I will, little miss. He has a violent peanut allergy and carries around that bag everywhere. And whenever things aren’t going his way, he eats some just for the attention it affords him. He’s tried this at home, school, and in various public places. He becomes violently ill and blames it on all sorts of things. He would damage his body to get away from his problems.”

In the globe, Amras displayed a montage. “His cousin’s wedding, his sister’s piano recital, his first day at his new school—the list goes on.”

Amras tapped the globe and stepped back, “These incidents show that the subject is an inherently naughty person. Intervention has failed, and he shows no remorse. I call for the immediate suspension of holiday privileges without the possibility of parole.”

Amras shot an overly-broad smile at Nerwen. “The prosecution rests.”

Nerwen walked over to the desk. “That was convincing. If I had not seen what I have, I would’ve been won over. But for his three points, I have three questions: Why? How? When?”

St. Nick adjusted his spectacles. “Please be more specific.”

“Specifically, ‘Why is Dallin the way that he is?’, ‘How can he be helped?’ and ‘When are we going to do it?”

“Good,” said St. Nick, finishing a Krisp that tasted like turkey with cranberry sauce. “I’d like to hear more.”

She produced a snow globe of her own and placed it on St. Nick’s desk. An image of a Dallin appeared, all smiles gone, mischievous or not. Nerwen cleared her throat. “Dallin lives a difficult life, and not all of his troubles are his fault. He was orphaned young and placed in foster care with poor parents.”

Nerwen tapped the snow globe a number of times and it cycled through different scenes of Dallin’s life, being ignored, being yelled at, being told that he was stupid, and finally left alone, shutting himself in his closet and crying softly.

She tapped the surface a final time and the picture froze on the closed door. Before anyone could say anything, she continued. “As demonstrated by the prosecutor, Dallin is a boy of considerable brains. He’s extremely creative and courageous. Now, however, he is applying his talents in a negative way. People have tried to change Dallin’s behavior by punishing, yelling, and threatening. I understand why he is so naughty.”

A faint snicker came from Amras’s direction.

“He feels unappreciated and under stimulated. If he felt there were people that really cared about him and if he were given an outlet to do something positive, the problem would cease.”
Amras sighed. “It is one thing to say how you feel. It is another thing to see what is really there. This boy has a chronic history of misdeeds. I doubt the solution is so simple.”

Nerwen shook her fiery curls. “I can prove it to you.”

“You can prove it?” asked St. Nick. “That’s a bold statement. Would you like to explain?”

Nerwen nodded. “The proof is contained in the third question: “when are we going to do something about it?’ The answer is ‘I already have.’”

All eyes fixed on her, “You better explain that,” said St. Nick.

“I talked to him myself. I used my cane to make myself a little bit taller and wore a cap to disguise my ears. I found him out walking by himself and started talking to him. His first reaction was ‘buzz off,’ but after we got over that hurdle, things went along nicely.”

Amras choked, even though he was not eating. “You actually risked talking to him? Don’t you think that’s a bit reckless when you’re the right size to get stuffed in a locker?”

Nerwen lifted her chin another inch. “Reckless, but necessary. I had to be sure that he was really the worst apple of the bunch. And you know what?”

Everyone leaned forward.

A broad smile broke over Nerwen’s face. “The outside is rotten, but the core is sweet.”

“Did you put on your rose-colored glasses this morning?” said Amras with a scowl, “You don’t get on the Chronically Naughty list by having a good core.”

Nerwen met St. Nick’s gaze. “I would like to invite you both to come with me. I have something to show you.”

With a sigh, Amras rolled his eyes. “We don’t have time to go looking at your snow angel gallery, Nerwen.”

Nerwen’s face did not flinch. “With respect, that is not what I had in mind, though the gallery is exquisite. I promise this will prove enlightening.”

St. Nick rose and nodded, brushing colorful crumbs off his suit. “I’d like a diversion. Lead the way.” He glanced over in Amras’s direction. “No snarky comments.”

Nerwen led them out of the workshop and up the snow-covered rise that overlooked the surrounding area. At the top, a railing marked off an observation area. The snow blew in thick flurries, carried on a wind that tasted of peppermint, so that every breath felt like brushing your teeth.

“With respect,” he muttered, “what are we supposed to see? I’ve been up here dozens of times.”

Nerwen pointed at a cluster of buildings below. “I’m sure you remember that you commissioned us to build a new gingerbread village.”

St. Nick ran his hands through his beard. “Yes,” he said, “But it was my understanding that construction has been delayed, because our chief candy designer has taken ill.” St. Nick fell silent. It was yet another thing that dampened his jolly attitude.

“I invite you, your Jolliness, and even you, your grumpiness, to look down at it now.”

They craned their necks over the edge and glanced down at the gingerbread village under construction. The village teamed with activity, with great carts pulled by reindeer lugging stores of candy down from the factories, and candy masons, sculptors, and artists swarming over buildings in various stages of construction.

“Donner and Blitzen!” cried St. Nick. “Everything is in full swing. How did this happen?”

Nerwen pointed down to the square where a single figure stood atop a fountain pouring streams of hot wassail. “There is our supposed bad apple.”

They craned to see, and nearly lost their footing. It was Dallin, decked out in full Christmas attire, with an enormous green pointed hat wreathed with sprigs of mistletoe and holly. He carried a large notebook in which he wrote with an enormous quill pen and shouted instructions to craftsmen as they approached.

“I don’t believe it,” muttered Amras.

“Correction,” Nerwen said softly. “You didn’t believe in him. I spoke to his foster parents and told them we’re a new kind of school willing to take him in to teach him a wonderful new trade. I had already seen how clever he is with sweets. I know it’s not a typical course of study, but he’s already shaping up to be one of the greatest gingerbread architects we’ve ever had.”

St. Nick removed his cap and scratched his head, marveling that he hadn’t noticed. “Remarkable.”

“It’s like that motto you’re saying all the time–the one that you put at the bottom of all your correspondence. You’ve even got it written above your office door.”

St. Nick nodded. “’Tis the season. Remember the reason.”

St. Nick leaned against the railing, staring down with wet eyes at the scene. “I think,” he said in a low whisper, “perhaps I’ve been doing things all wrong. The One whose birth we celebrate does not have a Naughty List. He serves everyone in the world and offers them incredible gifts, no matter what they have done. It’s true many people do not accept His gifts, but He is willing to give them anyway. I, on the other hand, have given my gifts conditionally. I’ve made it my business to judge people, and I wonder how many times I have misjudged them.”

St. Nick arose, the color returning to his cheeks, the cherry-like quality to his nose, the twinkle in his eye, and even the jiggle of his belly. “From now on, I will be setting the example. In celebrating Christmas, I will be more like Christ.”

He turned to Amras and Nerwen, his face aglow. “Come, I’m eager to see that snow angel gallery.”

Nerwen beamed to match St. Nick, but Amras frowned. “But, sir, do you have time? I’m sure you have more pressing duties.”

“No. Without the Naughty List, I’ll have plenty of time. Now that I think of it, so much of my time was spent judging people that I’ve hardly had a chance to appreciate them. Why don’t you come along? I promise we’ll pay a visit to your candy cane mosaics afterwards.”

For the first time that day, Amras’s lips rose in a genuine smile. “Really?’

“Really,” said St. Nick.

Amras fell into step and all three broke out in a rousing Christmas carol. When they had finished, St. Nick drew in his breath and let out a complete “Ho, ho, ho,” feeling jollier than he had in years. This Christmas was going to be different. This year, he’d be makin’ a list, but he would not have to check it twice.

[This was sent in time, but didn’t get to me. If you’ve already voted but would have voted for this one had it been posted on time, go ahead and vote for it.]

[If you haven’t already voted, never mind.]

Critique: Loved it. The only suggestion I have is to differentiate the two elves just a bit more through dialog, actions, quirks or something. Otherwise, it’s great!

What I liked best: Santa’s words about Christ. Loved that message. Great writing.

Publication ready: Absolutely!

22 The Two Hundred Forty-fourth Ornament

by Jennifer Ricks

Two hundred and forty-three glass ornaments of all colors and sizes. Some were shiny Christmas red and gold. Some were frosted with sparkling paint. A few were clear with dainty pictures or patterns inside. Rich plums, crisp ice blues, even a few orange and yellow, glowing and blinking on the Christmas tree.

It was a fetish, Kayley knew that well enough. Hadn’t her mother complained about it enough over the years? Even in high school Kayley couldn’t resist picking up a box of shimmering orbs from the clearance aisle of the department store.

Now there were two hundred and forty-three, but Kayley also had a townhouse of her own and a Christmas tree of her own, so Mom couldn’t complain about storage boxes anymore. Kayley sat back on her heels to see the effect of her last sprig of tinsel. The tree looked just perfect.

Christmas was Kayley’s favorite time of year. It meant a two-week vacation. It meant crunchy snow and melted marshmallows in warm cups of rich cocoa. It meant a tangible excitement in her second-grade classroom that drove her crazy and giddy all at the same time. It meant talking of Santa Claus and wearing red and listening to old-time holiday favorites on the radio. It meant enough of a holiday—a whole season in fact—that it filled up her time and she didn’t have to worry about anything else in her life, or anything else that her life lacked.

The Monday of the last week of school, Kayley had started easing into what she liked to call “Holiday Week.” The kids were too excited for vacation to focus for the last five days, and Kayley was an experienced teacher enough to know when to give up. For the past three years running she had observed Holiday Week. She scoured all her materials and the internet to find enough “review” activities to cover most of the week—review activities that were all about Christmas: worksheets with trees and holly and snowmen, history excerpts of events that happened in December, and even science demonstrations about the water cycle and snow. The spelling list for the week consisted of evergreen, sleigh, reindeer, tinsel, carol, pumpkin, and (just to be more culturally universal) dreidle.

The week had gone as Kayley had planned: borderline mayhem the entire time. No one wanted to stay in their seats. Everyone wanted to compare Christmas lists. Slowly crude versions of the most popular Christmas songs spread around the school to be snickered at in corners. And someone was told that Santa Claus wasn’t real.

This year it happened to a little towheaded boy named Jackson. When she caught a glimpse of his tear-stained face after recess, Kayley couldn’t believe that she hadn’t seen it coming. Jackson was one of those rare sensitive second-grade boys. He liked to draw more than tell jokes or play kickball. He didn’t talk to his neighbor during lessons. He hardly ever raised his hand, but he always focused on everything Kayley said and followed instructions perfectly. It was one of the injustices of education that most of Kayley’s attention went to the rowdy troublemakers while star students like Jackson hardly ever worked with her one-on-one, but that’s how it was.

“Don’t forget your spelling test tomorrow,” Kayley warned just before the bell rang at the end of the day. “It’ll be first thing, so be ready.”

“And then the party?” yelled Howell, who never raised his hand.

“Yes,” Kayley decided to let the hand raising discipline pass just this once, “so don’t forget to bring the snack your mom signed up for.”

The bell rang and the students jumped to their feet. Kayley used the shuffling of twenty-eight pairs of eight-year-old feet as cover to quietly ask Jackson to help her wipe off the board. He jumped out of his seat eagerly and went to his task with a will.

Kayley stood behind watching him for a while. Every truth about Santa Claus case was different. She had seen many in her short lifespan in the second grade. Each one took special care and handling.

“Jackson,” Kayley said decidedly as she took her finger from her lips and moved a step towards the blond boy.

“All done, Miss Kelly!” Jackson said as he finished with a flourish.

“Jackson,” Kayley repeated, “I need someone to do something special for me at the class Christmas party tomorrow.”

“Really?” Jackson’s eyes widened. He was the only eight-year-old in the class who could look as eager as that. “I’ll do it!”

“Well,” Kayley leaned against a desk in the front row and put on a serious face. “I need someone to read a story aloud for part of an activity.”

“Sure thing!” Jackson agreed, nodding vigorously. “I’ll do it.”

Kayley was inwardly relieved. Talking in front of the class was not Jackson’s favorite thing to do, but she had started noticing that this wasn’t because he was afraid, just because sometimes he would rather think about things than talk about them.

“You can practice it at home tonight?” Kayley asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Jackson said, “I already have the spelling words memorized, so I don’t have any other homework. And,” Jackson paused for a second, “this isn’t really homework, right, Miss Kelly? I mean, it’s just a favor and all, right?”

“Of course,” Kayley smiled. “I wouldn’t dream of giving a good student like you extra homework.”

Jackson’s shoulders relaxed with relief, and Kayley turned away to hide her broadening smile.

“This is the story,” she walked to her desk and took a sheet of paper from a side drawer.

“A Gift for Santa Claus,” Jackson read from the sheet Kayley had handed him. He looked up at her doubtfully. “I don’t know, Miss Kelly,” Jackson shifted his feet, “Santa Claus and all—it’s just kid’s stuff, right?” The last word of his question hung in the air desperately.

“This,” Kayley said seriously, pointing to the paper, “is a really important part of our Christmas party,” she paused for emphasis. Second-graders were good at picking up on dramatic pauses like that. “Do you think you can do it?” she asked again.

“If you really need me,” Jackson beamed. He unzipped his backpack and placed the paper carefully in his folder.

“And remember,” Kayley called as Jackson tromped out of the classroom, “it’s a favor, not homework!”

Keeping with tradition, Kayley spent that evening in the most relaxed way possible, which this year happened to correspond with the TV rerun of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Occasionally she smiled at the thought of all her students’ parents rushing around at the grocery stores to pick up the packages of cookies they forgot to bake for the party or hot-gluing pom-poms to popsicle sticks to set up for the Rudolph craft. Those were things Kayley had learned parents are good at—and fully capable of stressing over—while she could take the night off because no homework was due the next day, or the next two weeks.

As for the solitude of her situation—in her own living room, on her own couch, eating her own bowl of popcorn—that was what she was especially savoring on the last day of school eve. She would miss her students during the vacation a little, but not until after the first week, and with all the family events crammed into the holidays, she knew from experience that she would have few, if any, leisurely nights like this until New Year’s was over. And the thought of her mother commenting on why Kayley couldn’t find a nice man like George Bailey prompted her to dig out another handful of popcorn and continue savoring the evening alone.

The room moms came early to school the next day to set up the classroom for the party. Every year was the same. The construction paper garlands and decorations that Kayley had taught in art lessons all month were not sufficient. There was always at least a couple interior-decorating intensive moms who would come and make the whole classroom over that morning with trees, garlands, and lights strung everywhere. It was something that Kayley didn’t mind. She had a thing for ornaments, after all, so she could be patient with other people’s holiday obsessions.

By the time the morning bell rang, the classroom looked like it was part of the North Pole display at the mall. Two years ago a dad had even dressed up as Santa Claus and made a guest appearance at the party, but Kayley was grateful that such an elaborate scheme was not in the works this year because what was most on her mind that morning was Jackson and the story she had given him to read.

“Miss Kelly!” he whispered as she crossed by his seat to start class. “I’ve got it learned by heart!” He was grinning like crazy, and Kayley was relieved. His enthusiasm was a good sign. She only hoped it would carry her plan through when Jackson had to stand up for himself in front of the whole class—in front of Howell and the other boys that Kayley was sure were the culprits of Jackson’s tears the day before.

“Welcome to our class Christmas party,” Kayley said when the class went quiet. “Welcome to all the parents who could come. We have a fun day planned with lots of food and activities, so we’ll let Bridger’s mom get us started.”

And that opening speech was pretty much Kayley’s largest task for the day, until it came to Jackson’s story in the afternoon. Like all wizened teachers, Kayley knew that “class party” pretty much meant a day off for the teacher.

All day she wove in and out of rows of desks commenting on the crafts and activities, helping parents open glue sticks, and chatting with the room moms. She was ready with a fresh roll of paper towels from the back of the classroom for the inevitable large spill of punch during snack time, and she was the only one who could thread Janey’s frayed yarn for her stocking craft for the twentieth time. But all of these tasks were easy—a cinch—when compared with teaching the concept of multiplication for the first time, something she tackled every February.

At two o’clock, things were winding down. All the trashcans in the room were filled to the brim with red and green construction paper clippings, punch-stained paper cups, and paper plates sticky with paste or frosting (or maybe both). All the children were squirmy and beaming and wearing glittered homemade hats. All the parents were bleary-eyed and exhausted and looking at Kayley like they couldn’t believe that she spent every day in this classroom with these kids. Everything was just as it should be.

“I want to thank everyone for making our class party such a success,” Kayley smiled, “especially all the parents. We have just one activity left before it’s time to go home. I’ve asked Jackson to read a special Christmas story for us to end our day.”

Kayley nodded at Jackson and he moved to the front of the classroom. His dad was standing at the back of the room, a tall, thin man with glasses. Kayley could never remember if he was an accountant or a stock broker, but he had never come to a class party before and she was so glad he was there today.

“A Gift for Santa Claus,” Jackson began. Kayley could see that his hands were shaking a little, but his voice was firm. “Once upon a time, and a long time ago,” Jackson read slowly and clearly, just as Kayley had taught them all to do when reading in front of the class, “there was a snowy village high on top of a mountain. The village had never seen a car, or a train, or an airplane. They didn’t have cellphones, or computers, or TVs, or anything. But they had big fur coats to keep them warm in winter and a lot of hard work to do every day.

“All except one boy in the village. He was sick and couldn’t walk. Everyone else in the town did so many things—pushing carts, making shoes, baking bread—but the boy couldn’t do anything except lie in bed or sit in a chair and watch out the window.

“At Christmastime, all the children in the village would write down what they wanted for Christmas, roll the paper up in a scroll with a ribbon tied around it, and leave it in the windowsill of their house for—” here Jackson faltered and gulped. Out of the corner of her eye, Kayley saw Howell nudge his neighbor, but Jackson didn’t look at Howell. Instead, he saw his father at the back of the room, took a deep breath, and read on.

“For Santa Claus,” Jackson continued firmly. “And on Christmas Eve this year, Santa Claus would come by each house, read the notes, and leave a gift.”

“This year the little boy who couldn’t walk almost didn’t write a note. Even though he had something very big to wish for—that he could walk again—he didn’t think he deserved a Christmas gift. Everyone else in the village worked so hard, but he couldn’t do anything. Finally, just before he went to bed on Christmas Eve, he thought of what he wanted to write and left his note on the windowsill just like everybody else.”

“The next morning, Christmas morning, was sunny and bright. All the children of the village ran outside, bundled in their soft fur coats, to play with their new toys, all except the little boy who couldn’t walk. On his porch was a note written on the finest paper he had ever seen and in beautiful gold ink. This is what the note said: ‘Thank you for the best Christmas gift ever. Love, Santa Claus.’

“Most people in the village didn’t know what had happened to make the boy that couldn’t walk so happy, but a few had peeked at his note from the night before. ‘Dear Santa Claus,’ he had written, ‘Please, I would love my gift to be that you have a Merry Christmas.’ And those people knew that no one had a greater gift for Christmas than the boy himself because he had given a gift of joy to another.”

The classroom filled with applause and Jackson took a few bows before retreating, flush-faced and beaming, back to his seat.

Kayley shook all the parents’ hands as they left the classroom and wished dozens of students a Merry Christmas in return for their snickered, “See you next year, Miss Kelly!” Twenty minutes after the last mom left with her four boxes of artificial pine boughs, Kayley locked the classroom door and drove away from the school. She would be back later to redecorate the classroom for the new unit in January, but all that could wait at least a week, if not a few days more.

She had not had a chance to speak with Jackson after he performed his part so well, but she had not meant to either. His confidence throughout the reading was enough to show her that the story had worked its magic. It was enough that she had given it to him and that his father was there to hear him read it.

But on Christmas morning, Kayley was pleasantly surprised to find a small, beautifully wrapped gift box on her porch. Tied in the ribbon was a piece of paper rolled into a scroll with this note scrawled in second-grade handwriting: “Dear Miss Kelly, Thank you for letting me read the Christmas story at the party. I asked Santa Claus to give you a Merry Christmas this year because you are the best teacher ever. And then Mom said we could help Santa by leaving you a gift, so here it is. Love, Jackson.”

Kayley felt like her smile was as broad as Jackson’s had been when he finished reading the story as she untied the shiny red ribbon of the box. Inside was ornament number two hundred and forty-four.

Critique: We lose the ornament theme. I’d suggest weaving it in throughout the story, perhaps have her trying to decide which is her favorite. Add a description of the ornament Jackson gives her. The first three paragraphs were a tad slow for me, but then it picked up and kept me involved in the story. A few awkward sentences, but overall very good. Oh, but don’t use the word fetish. Obsession works better.

What I liked best: I could just picture her poor tree groaning under all those ornaments! Great classroom scenes. Great voice.

Publication ready: Yes, with just a bit of editing.

21 Third Strike Christmas

Kevin was on his third strike this Christmas, and he knew he was in trouble.

He blamed it all on those charming jewelry commercials that start airing after Thanksgiving. It’s early Christmas morning. Prince Charming and Perfect Hair are sitting under a large tree in their ironed red pajamas. It looks like all the presents have been opened, but no, Prince Charming whisks out a small box with a red bow. Perfect Hair’s eyes glimmer. Charming opens it. Hair gasps. They hug. Then they kiss. 365 more days of marital happiness are guaranteed because the Prince Charming brought out the perfect present on Christmas morning.

For twenty-five years Kevin was indoctrinated that Prince Charming husbands always produced the perfect surprise on Christmas morning. No worries, he mused as December approached a few months after his wedding, I can cook up that perfect open-gasp-hug-kiss moment easy.

Deeply in debt for dental school, he and his wife Katie stretched and gave themselves twenty dollars to spend on each other. The visit to the jewelry store and the chuckle of the employee (Son, we don’t sell anything for less than two hundred dollars) had left him stumped, but nonetheless confident.

His break came two weeks before the big day when Katie ripped her favorite A-line dress with her violin case after coming home from church on Sunday. Kevin didn’t know what made a dress an A-line meant was (he still doesn’t), but he hatched a plan. Kevin had a sister in town that had a sewing machine—he and his sister would make a new dress for Katie.

The good news was that Rachel, his sister, knew what an A-line dress was and had a pattern. The bad news was that twenty doesn’t go far at a fabric store. In the end Kevin managed to get the very end of a roll that was mispriced and, with the help of two coupons and a growing line of increasingly impatient holiday shoppers behind him, he was shooed out of the fabric store with enough fabric for the dress.

Well, at least he thought it was enough fabric. Rachel said two yards wasn’t enough to make a skirt, not to mention a dress. Nor did she seem to think that one hundred percent wool was the right fabric. But Kevin was insistent that they try (It’s our first Christmas, we have to try!) and they spent a whole afternoon sewing. They had barely finished the bodice when Kevin had to go, but Rachel promised she could finish it on her own.

Two days before Christmas Kevin picked up the already wrapped dress from his sister. “Oh, it turned out beautifully,” Rachel insisted, “Katie will just love it.”

The sun rose on Christmas morning to find Kevin and Katie sitting in front of their borrowed three-foot Christmas tree drinking candy cane hot chocolate. The night before had ended with a reading of Luke 2 and promises that neither of them would wake up before sunrise, but all the same they sprang out of bed while it was still dark, ready to share their first Christmas together. When their few presents had been opened and laughed over (Oh, your aunt’s sweater will never fit! and How did your brother know we needed a plunger?) Kevin though the moment was right. Katie’s hair wasn’t perfect, but he was feeling like Prince Charming. “Ah, you probably thought that dental school recruiting t-shirt was your Christmas present,” he said with a grin, “Just you wait.” He ran into the bedroom and pulled the box out from its hiding place under his gym shorts.

She grinned as she neatly untied the bow (We should save it for next year) and then noisily ripped off the wrapping paper (We can’t save that) but instead of Katie gasping at the sight of the dress, Kevin gasped.

The dress was beautiful. The light of the dawn shining through the window made the dress shimmer. In fact it looked perfectly soft and silky. “Let me see that,” Kevin said, grabbing at the dress. She tried to stop him, but it was too late. One touch made it clear it was silk. Katie crossed her arms and put on her pouty face as Kevin turned it over and found a tag in the collar.

“Funny, I didn’t think my sister would bother sewing in a Dillard’s tag,” he said sarcastically.

She frowned. “I was hoping that if I acted excited enough you wouldn’t notice!”

Humph. He didn’t feel like Prince Charming, he felt like a fool. He marched off into the kitchen on the pretense of getting more hot chocolate.

A few seconds later he heard the pattering of bare feet as she followed him in. “Honey, it was awful sweet of you to try and make me a dress. Rachel called me last week in an awful fret. There wasn’t nearly enough fabric and she knew that I couldn’t wear a wool dress.”

Kevin just put another candy cane in his hot chocolate.

“And when I got a check from my grandparents, I thought it was the thought that would count.”

Kevin cast a sideways look at his wife and saw her how her face, wrought with a mix of guilt and hope, was completely sincere. He was really disappointed, but eventually he laughed, she laughed, and they laughed every time she wore that dress to church.

Right after the next Halloween they found out that Katie was pregnant, and if ever there was a time for a Prince Charming moment it was now. Kevin’s homework load was getting more intense and a very morning sick Kate found working almost unbearable. The evenings and weekends of carefree running around had turned into quieter, more meaningful nights. Sometimes Kevin would read as Katie laid her head in his lap until she fell asleep, or, more likely, she’d read silently as he tried to cram yet another hundred anatomy terms into his overfull brain.

Kevin knew that Christmas would be the perfect time to show how much he really appreciated Katie. He had been saving for months now, skipping a lunch here and there and saving as much change as he could. Their budget was now only ten dollars, but with all that he had saved, he had enough for two pounds of See’s Chocolate. At first Rachel’s suggestion of chocolate had seemed ridiculous (Girls don’t gasp over chocolate!), but he had changed his mind. Everything Katie wanted since the pregnancy chocolate had turned into a major food group. If Kate ever felt bad about something (which happened a lot) then chocolate was surely the answer.

So chocolate it was that found its way under Kevin’s gym shorts three days before Christmas. Once again, Christmas found them out of bed early despite vain promises to the contrary. Once again, hot chocolate was the treat of choice (Katie had three mugs of it) as they opened presents under a tree that they now owned. Once again, Kevin waited for just the right moment to announce that the pens inscribed with his dental school logo were not her real present, and he sprang up to get the box of chocolates. He shook it gently as he came around the corner. Katie grinned and Kevin knew this was the moment. His whole life he had waited for this.

She gasped as she opened it. She pulled off the lid and immediately threw one of the chocolates into her mouth. She hugged him, gave him and a kiss that left chocolate on his cheek and then threw another chocolate in her mouth. She looked like she was in heaven.

“What kind is your favorite?” Kevin asked as he picked up the lid and started reading the list of what was inside. Cherry, double chocolate, caramel—and his personal favorite, orange.

“Here, have one,” she tried to say between chewing the two chocolates that were already in her mouth, “they’re great.”

He looked at the box but didn’t see anything that looked like orange. Of course maybe one of the two that Katie had been taken was the orange chocolate one. He was just about to ask when he noticed that instead of two empty chocolate slots there were three empty chocolates slots.

Katie seemed to notice the disparity in math, too, because she quickly started talking about the new sweater her aunt had sent.

Kevin interrupted. “Darling, you took two chocolates, but three are missing. Maybe they gave us a bad box…”

Katie’s guilty face made it clear that it had been a mistake. At least not See’s mistake. “I found them,” she confessed, “when I was doing laundry…” Kevin didn’t seem to understand so she went on, “I needed chocolate so bad yesterday. I couldn’t live knowing there was chocolate right there and I couldn’t have it. So I snuck one, put the wrapping back on, and this morning I took two in hopes that you’d lose count and not notice.” She burst into guilty sobs and Kevin swallowed his pride, gave her a big hug, and told her it was okay. It was at least a week before Kevin realized that her gasp, hugs, and kisses had all been faked. He really hadn’t gotten that perfect moment after all.

The next twelve months had brought an end to the pregnancy and the beginning of parenting. Somehow Kevin managed to survive his classes even though baby Charlotte didn’t seem to believe in letting anyone sleep. In fact he even managed to love Charlotte to death despite his desperately baggy eyes. Katie gave up work and took up feeding, changing diapers, and blogging. She also took on most of the shopping, budgeting, cleaning, and worrying about the house. All her extra work was vital to Kevin who was staying at school later and later every day. What free time he had was spent sending off applications to residency programs and he already had two interview trips planned for the holiday—one right before Christmas and one starting the day after. The only thing Katie really wanted this year was time, and it was the one thing he couldn’t give. Kevin need some way to say I love you, it had to be something amazing, something heartwarming and meaningful. And something that she wouldn’t find beforehand. If he couldn’t deliver a surprise this year, he knew he probably never would. It was a Prince Charming Christmas or nothing this year.

But things were getting complicated. One of this interviews would leave him coming home late Christmas Eve. There would be no time to shop before Christmas morning. He started talking to all his friends at school and of the course of a few days he formed a fool-proof plan. Maybe this wouldn’t be a third strike Christmas after all.

Katie’s sat hunched over the edge of the bathtub scrubbing Charlotte’s hair when Kevin came in the door a week before Christmas. Without looking up she said hello and started talking about how this was Charlottes third bath today. Kevin listened quietly without saying anything.

“First she had an accident, and then she dumped my lunch on her hair and then ten minutes ago…” she trailed off as she realized something was different. Looking up from Charlotte’s hair she turned to see Kevin in the doorway holding a large sack.

“What’s that, Baby?”

Kevin grinned, said Ho, Ho, Ho, and walked over to their Christmas tree (placed on a table out of little baby reach) and silently started pulling presents out of the bag. Katie wiped her hands on a towel and walked up behind him.

“Honey, what’s going on? We only had eight dollars each this year, how…”

Kevin gave her a kiss on the cheek. “They’re not for you. At least, all but one aren’t for you. I was elected chief secret keeper for the dental school this year. None of the other guys can hide presents from their wives, so they gave they all to me. I’m keeping them here and they’ll come pick up their respective presents on Christmas Eve after I get back. Their presents will never be alone in their houses without them watching.” He pulled the last present out with a flourish and placed on top of the tall stack.

“You said all but one…that means…”

“That means one of them is yours. But none of them are labeled, so you don’t know which is yours. When I’m out of town interviewing, my present to you will be as safe as if it were still at the store.” He kissed her again. “You better keep your eye on that girl.”

Kevin’s interviews went well but left him drained. He called every night from his hotel to say good night to Charlotte (She’s smiling, Dear, I think she knows your voice) and then to say good night to Katie (Once we get a residency we’ll starting making some money—it won’t be much, but it will be something). The days melted away until the twenty-fourth and Kevin found himself being picked up at the airport by Katie and a sleeping Charlotte.

Their conversation on the drive rolled from his interviews, to her updates on the neighbors, at the blogs Katie followed, and finally to the blogs the neighbors followed, but it never quite managed to land on the subject of Christmas presents. Kevin tried to move in that direction (he enjoyed teasing), but every time he did, Katie quickly moved on to something else.

They made it home and at the prearranged time all of Kevin’s buddies showed up to collect their loot. They were all full of chuckles and winks as they went on their way, thanking Kevin heartily for providing a surprise Christmas this year (Elsa knows the minute she sees the package what’s inside) and it was past midnight when all the presents were gone except one very thin, rectangular one.

“We really should keep our promise and not get up early tomorrow,” Kevin said with a yawn. “I don’t think I’ll be very cheery before about nine tomorrow.”

“Actually, we’re setting the record for our earliest Christmas. It’s technically already Christmas morning.”

Kevin gave her a tired half smile as he climbed into bed. “May this be the latest we’re ever up on Christmas Eve.”

“It won’t, in a few years we’ll be up even later putting our presents for Charlotte,” Kate said sleepily as Kevin turned off the light and quickly fell asleep.

An hour later, Kevin felt Katie sit up in bed. Kevin clicked on the light and rolled over to look at her. She just sat there with a frown on her face. “What’s up, Baby? Bad dream?”

She looked over at him sheepishly. “I can’t sleep. This is the third year you’ve tried to keep your present a secret from me and I know how important this is to you. The first two years I could fake being surprised, or at least try, but this year I can’t. I just have to let you know, I can’t go on pretending.”

Kevin sat up straighter in bed. “You found out what the present is? How? I thought I had the perfect plan.”

Katie grabbed his hand. “I tried so hard this year, Kevin, honest. I didn’t lift a corner of wrapping paper or even shake one of the presents. But a guy from Craig’s sheet music called and asked if you liked violin the song you bought. It’s really sweet of you to get me some sheet music, I’m genuinely excited, but I can’t try and fake that gasp you’re looking for.”

Kevin patted her on the hand. “When did you find out?”

She looked down at the covers. “The day after you left. It wasn’t hard to guess that it was the thin package.”

Kevin gave her a hug. “Thanks for telling me, Honey. Don’t worry about it. It’ll still be a great Christmas.”

It was. Charlotte loved all the wrapping paper and ignored all the fancy toys from grandparents (They never spent this much on me for Christmas!). When all the presents were opened and Charlotte was down for her first nap, Kevin and Katie went back to the tree and he handed her the floppy, thin present.

“Thanks in advance,” she said sheepishly as she carefully untied the bow and then ripped off the paper, throwing it in the pile for Charlotte.

Then she gasped. Then she threw her arms around Kevin and gave him a wallop of a kiss. Fallen to the ground in the midst of all the embracing was a single sheet of paper with the following printed in green and red letters:

“I really don’t have an interview next week. We get to spend it all together. Merry Christmas.”

Critique: Other than a few typos and what are probably cut and paste errors, I LOVE THIS STORY!

What I liked best: Love your writing style—the humor, the cleverness.

Publication ready: YES! You’re in!

20 The Parable of the Coal

“And what did you get, Joy?” Mrs. Leaneon asked the little fourth grader in the front row. Mrs. Leaneon was worn out. She had only started class four minutes ago, and already Broody brought up the one subject that little kids found impossible to drop: Christmas presents. It was a nightmare. Every year, right after Christmas break ended, somebody would bring up presents, and then all the kids would chatter on about it all day, even in the middle of a difficult test. It was terrible, particularly for an elementary school teacher.

It took her a moment to realize that Joy hadn’t answered. “Joy?” Mrs. Leaneon prompted. The girl finally replied, looking strangely content.

“I got a big box of coal.” As Joy said this, there was a huge gasp that came from all corners of the room at once; the children clearly thought that Santa was punishing Joy. Mrs. Leaneon didn’t know what to say. Joy was the sweetest student that had ever entered Mrs. Leaneon’s classroom. Was the coal a cruel joke? And why did Joy look so happy?

“I’m sure Mr. Claus made a mistake,” was all the teacher could think to say.

Joy shook her head. “There was no mistake. I got what I asked for.” Before Mrs. Leaneon could reply, Joy started to explain: “We don’t have electricity. Our stove takes coal, but lately we haven’t been able to afford the coal that would keep the house warm.”

Mrs. Leaneon suddenly knew why Joy was always asking other students for outgrown clothing or leftover pieces from their lunches.

It felt like years had passed before the bell rang at the end of school. When Mrs. Leaneon asked Joy to stay a little longer so that she could write a note to Joy’s mother, Joy looked as if she was trying to figure out what she did wrong. The child was, in fact, shocked when Mrs. Leaneon said she was asking for permission to take Joy clothes shopping, and offered to buy her anything she wanted. “And feel free to drop by for dinner any time.”

Critique: It needs some smoother transitions. And more—more character development and arc, more dialog, more from the students, more internal thought from the teacher, more setting and sensory imagery. What you have is a nugget that needs to be expanded.

What I liked best: I really liked the clever twist of a girl asking for coal.

Publication ready: No. But with some depth and development, I think it has real potential.

19 Happily Ever After!

Once upon a time there was a princess who lived in the wintry kingdom of Anolivia. She had reached that age of accountability, where tradition said she must learn homemaking skills. It was Christmas Eve and she had a wonderful breakfast in store for her parents. She was going over the supplies and realized that she didn’t have the eggs and milk that she needed. She knew that she wouldn’t be able to get the needed supplies in the morning. She knew curfew would be coming up very soon and the castle doors would be locked for the night. She and her ladies maid decided to risk it by running out to the dairy shed. They made it out to the shed in good time. They gathered the supplies and they were much more weighed down on the way back to the castle and could not run as fast. They had seen the mean guard at the doors and knew they had to hurry. The hurried back to the castle as fast as they could move. They heard the clock chiming and they could the see the castle doors. The guard was closing the door and he could see and he wasn’t going to wait for them. Just when they thought that they would have to spend the night on the cold steps the white knight appeared to battle the mean guard. They watched as they battled and the white knight prevailed. He showed his true chivalry and held the door open. They were able to save to bring the needed supplies for Christmas breakfast and the white knight saved the day. They were able to spend a wonderful Christmas and lived happily ever after.

Critique: This is not really a short story. It’s a very quick & dirty, bare-bones plot line for a story. You need to beef it up. Give us some characterization, dialog, sensory imagery. We need a character arc, where the princess learns something or grows and changes. And personally, I’d rather see the princess save herself, instead of being rescued by a white knight. It has potential, but it needs work.

What I liked best: That the princess sneaks out to get eggs and milk. Shows she has a bit of a rebellious streak, and I like that. (But not sure it’s entirely believable or accurate for a princess in a castle to run out of eggs and milk.)

Publication ready: No.

18 The Christmas Angel

“John, don’t be ridiculous.” Sarah’s mother’s voice rang down the hall.

Sarah staggered out of her room and into the hallway rubbing fitful sleep from her eyes. She hesitated, listening to her parents argue. Lately, it seemed that’s all they did.

“C’mon Nikki,” her father said in a gruff voice, “It’s Christmas. Let’s spend it together.”

Sarah’s ears perked up. She couldn’t remember the last time they had all been together as a family.

“You know I have this big project due. The pressure’s on.”

“That’s why it’s such a good idea. You need a break.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nikki asked.

“Sarah needs your time as well. When’s the last time you kissed her goodnight or read her a bedtime story?”

“Oh please. You know the demands of my job.”

“You’re running, Nikki.”

“Running?” Nikki let out a sharp laugh. “From what?”

“From the past. From Amb—“

“We are not talking about that!”

John voice became gentle. “You’ll have to talk about it sometime.”

Nikki’s voice was hard, “We’re done with this conversation.”

Sarah trudged down the stairs and entered the kitchen. Both of her parents looked up at her.

“Good morning, Pumpkin,” her father said as he set the morning paper on the table.

“Morning,” Sarah mumbled, giving her father a kiss on the cheek.

“Sarah, we’re doing some shopping in town today.” Nikki said.

“Can’t I stay here?” Sarah pouted.

“No. Your father has to work so you’ll be coming with me. Now go get your coat on. I’ll be waiting in the car. We’ll pick up breakfast on the way out.”

Sarah looked at her father dejectedly.

“Don’t worry, Pumpkin,” he said. “Maybe while you’re shopping you can make a wish list for Santa.”

“There is no such thing as Santa,” Nikki called over her shoulder as she walked out the door. “C’mon, Sarah.”

Traveling in silence, Sarah watched the gray clouds out the window. “Do you think it will snow?” she asked her mother.

Nikki shrugged. “Maybe.”

“I hope so. It feels like Christmas when it snows.”

Nikki flipped on the radio and Sarah sat back in her seat, smiling. Christmas was only four days away and she couldn’t wait! A familiar Christmas song began to play.

“Oh, I love this song!” Sarah cried and started singing along.

Nikki abruptly turned the radio off.

“What did you do that for?”

“I don’t feel like listening the radio.”

Sarah folded her arms and stuck out her bottom lip. “Why do you hate Christmas?”

“Don’t start that again.”

“Christmas is fun,” Sarah said, “the lights, the music, the presents…”

“The money.”

“You could go sledding with Dad and me. That’s free.”

Nikki sighed. “Someday you’ll realize that Christmas isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

Sarah shook her head. “I’ll always love Christmas.”

Nikki turned a corner and pulled against the curb. “We’re here.”

Sarah thrilled at the lights and street decorations as she climbed out of the car. “It’s so pretty.”

Her mother grabbed her hand and started walking down the sidewalk. Sarah skipped happily next to her, gazing at the multi-colored lights framing the store windows. The displays in the shops beckoned to her. One window caught her eye and she stopped to stare through the glass. It was a giant toy store.

Inside sat a decorated Christmas tree with a bright red train set—its cars carrying tiny bundles of candy cane and licorice treats—circling it. Underneath the tree sat two of the most perfect glass dolls Sarah had ever seen. The one with tight blonde curls and blue eyes wore a lacy pink dress and matching hat. The other had beautiful red hair, set in ringlets. Her blue dress looked silky and she carried a frilly umbrella.

Sarah turned to her mother. “Can we go in, Mom? Please?”

Nikki pulled on Sarah’s hand. “No. I have a meeting this evening and have to get all of my errands done before it gets too late.”

“But Mom, look at that doll.” Sarah pointed to the glass doll with blonde curls. “It looks just like me.”

Nikki gave a quick glance at the display. “Okay, let’s go.”

“And that other one is so beautiful. Can I have one for Christmas? I don’t care which one.”

“We’ll see.”

“I’ll take really good care of her.”

“Sarah,” Nikki warned, pulling Sarah away from the display.


Nikki exhaled in frustration. “You know, I have a schedule to keep. Time does not stand still so that we can look at a bunch of useless toys.”


“You are wasting my time.” Nikki pulled hard on Sarah’s hand. “Now come on!”

Sarah jerked back and folded her arms in front of her. “No.”

Nikki’s eyes widened. “You do not tell me ‘no’.”

Sarah’s lower lip began to tremble.

Nikki put her hands on her hips. “Now start moving or you will have no Christmas. Do you understand me?”

“You can’t take away Christmas!” Sarah shouted as tears began to fall down her cheeks.

“Oh, yes I can. You wait and see.”

“I hate you!” Sarah said with gritted teeth and clenched fists.

“Sarah Marie Roberts!”

Sarah gave her mother a seething glare, turned on her heels and ran, ignoring her mother’s calls.


Sarah’s legs burned. It wasn’t until she stopped to catch her breath that she looked up to find the faces of complete strangers surrounding her.

“Mom?” she squeaked, but the sound didn’t carry. The people had fierce looks on their faces and it frightened her. Dashing to the end of the street, she turned into the entrance of a park. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she wandered aimlessly, lost and alone.

Sinking to the ground at the base of an old oak tree, she pulled her legs toward her and wrapped her arms around them. Her body shook with her sobs, the only sound echoing through the empty park.


“Hello there.”

Sarah jumped at the unexpected sound and looked up to see a beautiful young woman in a flowing pink dress standing next to her. This young woman seemed familiar and instead of being afraid, she felt comforted and safe.

“Are you okay?” The young woman asked.

Sarah shook her head. “I’m lost.”

The young woman sat beside Sarah and put her arm around her. “My name is Amberlee. What’s your name?”


“That’s a pretty name.”

Sarah gave a shy smile. She looked up at Amberlee and noticed her curly red hair and bright green eyes. “You look just like one of the dolls from the window at the store.”

Amberlee laughed like a tinkling of a bell. “I’d like to see that doll.”

“The other one looked like me,” Sarah said, tugging on her blonde curls. A burst of cold wind blew past them, making Sarah shiver.

“You must be so cold. Here,” Amberlee removed a beautiful white, lacy shawl from her shoulders and draped them around Sarah. “Is that better?”

Sarah nodded. “It does feel better. I just…” She began to cry again. “Can you help me find my mom?”

“Sure, honey. Where did you last see her?”

“At the giant toy store.”

“Well, let’s go there then.”

They stood up and Amberlee took Sarah’s hand as they walked along the path that led to the entrance gate.

“Are you excited for Christmas?” Amberlee asked.

Sarah shrugged. “I guess. My mom hates Christmas.”

“Your mother has had to deal with a lot of heartache and sadness. She’s trying the best she can,” Amberlee said, “but you can help her.”

“I can?”

Amberlee nodded.


“There’s a Christmas carol my mother used to sing to me.”

“I love Christmas carols.”

Amberlee started singing, her voice smooth and calming, fit for an angel.

See the babe in the manger
Swaddled and warm
As the angels watch over
Protecting from harm

Silent night, Peaceful night
My soul is at rest
Little babe in the manger
Through him I am blessed

Does he know he’s the Savior
Shepherd to all
If I will but follow
And answer his call

Silent night, Peaceful night
My soul is at rest
Little babe in the manger
Through him I am blessed

He will carry my burdens
He’ll calm my fears
When I pray he will listen
And dry my tears

Silent night, Peaceful night
This comfort so real
Little babe in the manger
His love I feel

Sweet babe in the manger
Before Thee I kneel

“That’s beautiful,” Sarah whispered.

“My mother wrote it.”


Amberlee laughed. “I’m going to teach it to you. I want you to sing it to your mother.” She kissed Sarah on the head. “It will remind her of the true meaning of Christmas and that the Savior will heal any heartache she has.”


They spent the rest their walk singing the song. Amberlee would sing a line and then Sarah repeated it. Soon they were singing it together, over and over.

They strode out of the park and into the busy street, where a police officer stood at the corner.

“Sir,” Amberlee said, approaching the officer, “This is Sarah Roberts. She’s lost and looking for her mother.”

“Sarah Roberts? Yes…” He held up his finger, telling them to wait as he spoke into his radio. “Command Center, this is Officer Jones. We’ve got Sarah Roberts. She is safe.”

Amberlee turned to Sarah. “Sweetie, I’ve got to go now. Officer Jones will take good care of you.”

Sarah nodded and began to take the lace shawl off her shoulders but Amberlee stopped her.

“Keep the shawl…to remember me by.”

“I love you,” Sarah said as she held on tight to Amberlee.

“I love you too.”

“I’m going to miss you.”

Amberlee smiled. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again. Remember to sing the Christmas carol to your mom. Help her remember the true meaning of Christmas.”

“I will.”

Amberlee gave Sarah one more quick squeeze and kissed the top of her head. “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye, Amberlee.” Sarah’s eyes filled with tears as she watched Amberlee walk away. She felt as if she had known Amberlee her entire life.


Officer Jones led Sarah to a parking lot holding several police cars. Her mother was standing by one of them.

“Mama,” Sarah squealed as she raced to her mother.

“Sarah!” Nikki stooped down and gathered Sarah up in her arms. “Oh baby, are you alright?” Nikki stroked Sarah’s hair, tears streaming down her face.

Sarah nodded meekly. “I’m okay.” She looked up into her mother’s bloodshot eyes. “I’m sorry I ran away.”

Nikki stood up and addressed Officer Jones, “Thank you so much.”

Officer Jones nodded, “I’m glad everything worked out okay.” He stooped down to look Sarah in the eye. “You take care now.”

“I will.”

“No more running away.”

Sarah shook her head vigorously. “Never.”

“Okay then. Goodbye.”

Sarah waved goodbye and Nikki took her hand and led her to their car. As Sarah started climbing into the back seat, her mother reached out and pulled her into her arms. “I’m so glad you’re safe. I was so worried about you. I prayed that we would find you.”

Sarah’s eyes got big. “But you never pray.”

“This is the first time I’ve prayed in a very long time,” Nikki’s voice cracked.

“God answered your prayer, Mama.” She grinned. “He sent Amberlee to help me.”

Nikki stroked Sarah’s hair. “Who?”

“Amberlee,” Sarah said in a bubbly voice. “She was beautiful. She looked just like the glass doll I saw at the store. She had red hair and sparkling green eyes and she helped me find the policeman and gave me this to keep me warm.” Sarah pointed to the white lacy shawl, still draped across her shoulders.

Nikki reached out with trembling hands and fingered the shawl. Tears sprung to her eyes as she brought her hand to her mouth.

“Mama? Are you okay?”

Nikki shook her head. She tried to speak, but words didn’t come out.

Sarah placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Mama. Amberlee wanted me to sing you a song— See the babe in the manger, swaddled and warm…”

Tears freely fell down Nikki’s cheeks.


Nikki brushed away the tears with the back of her hand. “I want to show you something.” Digging through a pocket of her purse, she pulled out a rectangle piece of paper and handed it to Sarah.

Sarah looked at the paper and saw the picture of a girl staring up at her. “Mom, it looks like Amberlee.”

“It is Amberlee.”

Sarah gazed up at her mother, confusion filling her eyes.

Nikki studied the picture for a moment. She put her arm around Sarah, pulling her close. “Amberlee is your sister,” she said, her voice thick with emotion. “This picture was taken when she was seven—your age.”

“My sister?” Sarah said, gaping at her mother with wide eyes.

“I have a story to tell you. It’s a sad story, but I have a feeling it will end up happy.”

“Okay,” Sarah said, watching her mother intently.

“A long time ago, before you were born, Daddy and I had a little girl. Her name was Amberlee and we loved her very much. She always wanted a little sister and kept asking us when her sister would come to live with us.” Nikki gave Sarah a quick squeeze. “We had a very happy family and Christmas was our favorite time of year.”

“Even yours?” Sarah asked bewildered.

Nikki laughed. “I loved Christmas. Remember the Christmas Carol you just sang to me?”

Sarah nodded.

“I wrote that Carol.”

“You wrote it? Mom, it’s so beautiful.”

“During the Christmas season, I used to sing it to Amberlee every night before bedtime.” Nikki sighed and stared off into space. “Then, seven years ago, just two days before Christmas, a terrible thing happened. Amberlee was crossing the street while walking to her friend’s house and…a car came out of nowhere and hit her.” Nikki shook her head and fingered the shawl on Sarah’s shoulders. Her voice quivered. “I made this shawl for Amberlee when she died.”

Sarah reached over and held her mother’s hand. “Is that why you don’t like Christmas? Because it reminds you of Amberlee?”

“Christmas has been very hard for me since Amberlee died. But now I have a happy Christmas memory—finding you.” She hugged Sarah tight. “I love you, Sarah.”

Sarah hugged her mother back as her body filled with warmth. “I love you, too.”

They sat in each other’s embrace for several minutes, tears streaming down both of their faces. Nikki let go of Sarah and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.

“We’re a mess.”

Sarah laughed.

“I guess we had better get home.”


Sarah awoke to the sun streaming through her window. Sitting up in her bed, she rubbed her eyes. Today was Christmas! She jumped out of bed and threw open the door, running down the hallway and into her parent’s bedroom. Christmas music drifted upstairs from the radio in the kitchen.

“Mom! Dad!” Sarah cried.

“Merry Christmas!” John said as he wrapped Sarah in his arms.

“Merry Christmas, Sweetie,” said Nikki, “Did you sleep well?”

Sarah gave a vigorous nod.

“Are you ready to see the tree?” John asked, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.

“Yes, Yes,” Sarah exclaimed, jumping up and down.

Both Nikki and John laughed.

They all marched down the stairway like toy soldiers. As Sarah turned the corner, she shrieked with delight. In the living room sat a beautiful tree decorated with shiny garland and red and gold bulbs. A beautiful angel topped the tree. Underneath the tree stood a present wrapped in candy cane paper with a big red bow on top.

“For me?” Sarah gasped.

Her father nodded.

She gently ripped the paper to find a white box. She gently opened the lid.

“Oh, Daddy, It looks just like me!”

Inside laid the porcelain doll she had seen at the store. She lifted it out of the box, brushed the wrinkles out of the pink dress and rearranged the blonde curls.

“There’s another present,” Nikki said, nodding her head toward a box wrapped in blue polka dots with a white bow on top.

Sarah gingerly picked up the package and hesitated.

“Go ahead,” her mother urged.

Sarah opened the present to find another white box. She lifted the flap. “Oh,” she gasped as she pulled out the doll with the blue dress and red curls.

“Momma, it looks just like—“

“Amberlee. I know.” Nikki said with a smile.

Sarah held both dolls in her arms and gave them a hug. “Thank you so much.”

“This way you can always remember your sister.” John said as he walked over and put his arm around Nikki.

“I’ll never forget her,” Sarah said, hugging her dolls again.

That night, after her mother and father tucked her in bed and kissed her goodnight, Sarah said a prayer, thanking God for sending Amberlee to help her family. She looked out the window at the lights lining the rooftops and a wave of comfort and warmth washed over her.

“I love you, Amberlee,” she whispered.

She thought she saw a star twinkle a little brighter.

Critique: Mom is too mean in the beginning for such a quick change of heart to be believable. Pacing is inconsistent. It slows down too much when Mom is telling Amberlee’s story.

Personal note: In a realistically based story like this, it always makes me a little uncomfortable when you throw in corporeal visitations from the deceased. I don’t mind dreams or even a waking vision, but when you can hold their hand and they give you their clothing, it sort of creeps me out a little. Maybe it wouldn’t bother other readers.

What I liked best: Great dialog between John and Nikki at the beginning.

Publication ready: Not quite yet, but it has potential.

17 Shoe Box of Memories

Andrea gazed out the window as the first snow fell, blanketing the ground with its grace. It was Christmas Eve and any other year she would be jumping for joy at this wondrous sight. Andrea and her Dad would try to build a snowman or sprinkle reindeer food with dashes of glitter scattered about so that Santa’s sleigh could find the food easily.

Those moments were only memories now. Her father had passed away the day after Christmas one year ago. As she cried herself to sleep many times in the past year, she tried to hold on to his embrace and the image of his gentle face. Her loneliness had continued to grow rather than subside.

Especially now.

Andrea wanted to stop the arrival of Christmas Day unless it could bring her father back to life! No other gift could be greater than his self-assuring presence and constant love for her.

Her mother tried to create the excitement of past holidays by continuing family traditions. Beautifully wrapped packages sat under a balsam tree decorated with favorite ornaments and twinkling lights. Homemade dressing was being prepared for a feast of all feasts.

Yet, none of these holiday trimmings seemed to fill the gap and make Andrea whole once more.

Fortunately, she had her shoebox. It was neatly decorated with hearts of many colors and golden stars. Beneath the cover, photographs, travel brochures, post cards including a trip to Niagara Falls, a broken wrist watch, a tie clip and other treasures symbolizing her father’s life filled the container as well as the barren spot in her heart.

Tonight, it was time, time for Andrea to feel safe, secure and loved. So, she went to her dresser drawer and carefully pulled the box from it’s’ place, cradling it like a baby in her arms. After many minutes, she spread the contents of the box on the floor to be touched, read and admired.
She felt close to him now.

But on the floor nestled in her collection was an advertising card that Andrea had not seen before. It was a rectangle in blue and advertised the top automobile glass companies with their phone numbers and addresses on it.

The third company on the card was her father’s “Glass Sales and Service” and beside the name, his familiar phone number. Andrea couldn’t even begin to count the number of times that she had dialed that number, anxious to share her accomplishments at school or simply to tell him “yes, it had been a good day.”

After he passed away, her mother had sold the business and the new owners changed its name, requesting a new phone number. Had that number which offered Andrea private words of concern with her father been disconnected forever? Maybe it had been issued to another business or home for those to share similar conversations as Andrea had experienced
A voice, deep within, had prompted Andrea to find out. Why, she didn’t know, but, still the whisper of the unknown urged her on.

Cautiously, she picked up the receiver and dialed the number…

There seemed to be a connection! The number had not been discontinued after all!

After two rings, a voice responded.

“Good evening, Glass Sales and Service,” followed by a brief pause, “Hello, Andrea.”

The voice was distant and almost inaudible due to crackling on the line but there was no question whom the voice belonged to.

“Dad?” she stammered, her throat parched, her heart throbbing as she shut her eyes quickly, hoping to hear a response over the pounding in her chest.

“Yes, Sweetheart,” her father said calmly and deliberately.

Andrea could not believe what was happening or how and why. All she knew is that her father was finally here. Tears of joy began to flow freely down her face, “Dad, are you really alive?” she asked. There was a pause that seemed endless.

“Andrea, I cannot come back to the life as you know it. But…..”

“No! It wasn’t true! Andrea had been dreaming, a long and dreadful dream this year. He was really coming home soon and……..

“What you are hearing, Andrea is the voice of your heart, my spirit that will always be there.” She was so confused and at a complete loss for words. Though buried within her soul, Andrea knew he was right. His funeral had been too vivid, too horribly real and that indistinguishable voice inside of her convinced her that death was final, final in the physical way.

He did not wait for her reaction because he knew it would be too difficult for her to understand. So, he continued.

“Regardless of where I am today, death cannot tear us apart. If you believe in the importance of your life and look inside your heart, you will always find me waiting. Waiting to guide you through problems and loving you as you are and will be. Don’t ever lose hope for what is hidden in your heart. Just open it, Andrea, like you do with your shoebox of memories and you know what, if you listen carefully, you can hear the angels……………..”

Static drowned his words.

“Dad, I love you…….” Her voice suddenly dropped dramatically, “Dad, are you there?”

Within seconds, she heard a click followed by a dial tone. He was gone.

Instantly, Andrea dialed the number again. It began to ring and suddenly she heard, “I am sorry, that number has been disconnected.”

As she hung up the phone, Andrea slumped to her knees, shaking with emotional exhaustion. Shock trembled through her, but somehow, she felt a peace that she had not experienced for a long time. The peace found a place in her heart that had been barren. She truly believed her father’s words and she knew life could go on in her world as well as his.

She heard her Mom call so she made her way to the bathroom to wash her tear-stained face. She glanced at her reflection in the mirror above the sink and smiled. She not only saw her her own features but the wonderful love of her father standing behind her. And as her Mom called once again, she thought she heard other voices as well.

“If you listen carefully, you can hear the angels……..sing.

Critique: I like the idea of Christmas being a time of spiritual reunion with those who have gone before, but this was a little too magical for my tastes. I’d probably put the phone call in a dream sequence and also have her dad reference Christmas and that we celebrate the birth of Christ, who will make their reunion in the future possible. Need a little more personality for Andrea and more time exploring the change that just happened. Also, I have no idea how old she is—and I need an indication of it. I’m guessing around 12?

What I liked best: Her box of memories.

Publication ready: No. It has potential, but it needs some work.

16 Snow

Sarina Howard crossed her fingers on both hands, as she hit the send button. I hope I win, I hope I win, she silently chanted in her head. Just then she caught a glimpse of her hair in the now dark computer screen. She reached up and tugged at the offending strands. Her hair was just like her, too short to put up in a ponytail and too long to just leave. Sarina was way too short for her age and most of the time this didn’t bother her that was until someone, usually an adult treated her like a baby instead of the 11 year-old she was. That was one of the reasons winning this essay contest was so important to her. This was the first year she was old enough to enter. Wouldn’t it just burn Valerie’s britches if I won and she didn’t. She’s been calling me baby all year at school, we’ll just see who is the baby now. Sarina turned of the computer and walked into her room. Now all she had to do was wait, hope and pray she won.

Ten days later the leaders of the colony began reading all the essays for this years contest and at first fast then, slower and slower tossing out the ones that didn’t fit what they envisioned for the contest. Some were just silly, others an obvious rewrite of the encyclopedia. This year the leaders were particularly picky. There must be something special about this years winners. After all it wasn’t everyday that a colony celebrated it’s 150th anniversary. The leaders of Snow knew that somewhere in this pile of essays was “the one” now they just had to find it.

“Sarina, Sarina hey, I’ve been calling you for at least two minutes. Where is your mind today?” Yelled Gina, Sarina’s best friend as she ran to catch up with Sarina.

“Gina, did you enter the essay contest for the snow day?”

“Ah Sarina, you know the older kids always win that after all They have a lot more experience writing than we do.” Gina glanced at Sarina. “Oh no, you didn’t, you did didn’t you. Sarina, some day your going to go too far and one of the older kids is going to get you.”

“I know but I just had to try, maybe they won’t find out.”

“You better hope not. Now what did you get on you math test?”

Sarina was glad Gina didn’t push although she would have loved to have another opinion on her essay. It wouldn’t do her any good though because it was already sent.

The days wore on and Sarina tried to put the contest out of her mind. As the Christmas Holiday season grew nearer and nearer she began to feel both let down and excited. This was the magical time of the year. The Christmas holiday’s and the naming and landing here on Snow fell together and made every child’s heart beat a little faster.

Decorations that were traditional but didn’t always make sense were appearing all over. Huge white balls stacked up and made to look like people. Lacy silver and glittery “snowflakes” . Odd shaped tree’s with balls star’s, red and white hooks and many other ornaments could be bought at nearly every store in town. Everyone knew they were fake, no tree on the planet looked like that. The orniments at least made sense. Everyone knew the Christmas story, but what did the funny shaped trees and snow have to do with that? Sarina wondered, actually Sarina wondered alot and worried.

The “snowflakes” really worried Sarina. They looked so big, and she just couldn’t imagine them falling lightly on anyone with out squishing them. But all the history books said snowflakes fell. If she won this contest she would know for herself.

“Sarina, come in here.” Called her mother from the living area. “You have an official notice here and it won’t let me open it. The computer says it needs your password. Now young lady I will be standing right here. So there better be no funny business, understand?”

Sarina stared. “Mom, I think I won”

“Won, what do you mean?”

“I entered the Founders Day essay contest. I don’t think they even let the losers know anything so I must have won.”

“The only way to know for sure is to open the notice.”

Hands shaking so bad that she messed up the password twice Sarina did just that.

Sarina Howard you are hear by notified that your essay won first prize in the Founder’s Day Essay Contest. You and your family are to report to Equinox City for your prize. At this time you will be outfitted for the Dome and your winning entry will be read. It will be broadcast for the entire colony to hear and then published in the archives. Sincerely, Bradley Jameson, Matthew Chavez, Jaunita Choe, and Ingred McFarland.

The Founder’s Day dawned bright and hot like most days on Snow did. There looked to be rain in the afternoon also to be expected at this time of year. Snow a tropical planet with seasons that consisted of dry and rainy. The planet had been named from orbit because of the time of year the landing was happening. Most of the new settlers were from the Northern Hemisphere on Earth and December meant snow for them. They had bought only one Temperate Dome, that was all they could afford and they hoped to only use it until the planet could be adapted to. Now 150 years later it was used to make the only snow the planet would ever see. Fifty families were being allowed in to experience the first snow. Sarina’s family would now be one of them.

“Mom, why do we have to wear these funny clothes?”

“Sarina you know as much as I do after all you wrote all about snow to get us here.”

Suddenly over the loudspeaker came “Miss Sarina Howard please step forward.”

Sarina smiled at her Mother and Father, Waved at Gina standing in the audience and walked up to read all about snow. A substance she had never seen and was just a little afraid and in awe of. A substance her world was named after. This was the best Christmas ever.

Sarina cleared her throat and began reading.

Snow by Sarina Howard

To me snow means my home and family on this planet we live on but to my ancestors it meant something entirely different. Have you ever opened the refrigerator unit in your house? The first puff of air coming out sparkles with small drops of white. Then the heat makes them dissappear. This is the nearest I have ever come to the cold snow they knew. I have heard about snowmen, snowball fights and just snowflakes. I find myself wondering what they would think of the snow I know. Hot, loud and teaming with life. I hope that they would be proud of what snow has come to mean here and not mourn too much on what it used to mean to them. I wish there was some way of asking them and hearing first hand what the cold snow was like but all I can do is imagine and dream. Dream of a white cold substance I have never felt or seen in real life.

Sarina smiled at this last sentence for now she would have even more to dream about she was going to experience real snow now.

Critique: There are a lot of technical errors—spelling, grammar, structure of the story. The girls sound older than 11. Needs more character development, more action. The plot has a few issues, for example, it doesn’t really make sense that other kids would get her for entering the essay contest. And you’d think they’d have used the dome for snow sooner than 150 years after they landed.

What I liked best: Christmas on a planet named Snow, where there is never any snow. I like that idea.

Publication ready: No. It needs more work.

15 Foreign Exchange

by Teresa Osgood

It was a dark and stormy night. I know, that’s what they all say. Still, the rain pelted the bare trees unmercifully, and the streetlights had been on since three in the afternoon. There was no other way to describe it.

Well, I could also say it was cold. The wind that blew the rain in nearly sideways gusts was a typical moist Mid-Atlantic howler, the kind that makes you feel like your parka is a colander, and your thermal underwear might as well be cheesecloth. But I couldn’t really feel the chill, squashed as I was in the back seat of Dad’s hatchback with my little brother, Jimmy, my big brother, Matt, and Rolf, the German exchange student. Our breath was steaming up the windows, and the air was stale with sweat. Didn’t Rolf ever use deodorant?

I could also say it was Christmas Eve, but that would give you the wrong impression entirely. There were no snowflakes, no sleigh bells, and there was precious little goodwill in the back seat of that car.

“Matt’s on my side,” Jimmy whined.

Dad sighed. “Can’t we all be on the same side?”

Usually, when we all went out together, we took Mom’s Oldsmobile. Jimmy had to sit in the middle of the bench seat in front, and I was stuck straddling the hump in the back. We had clambered into the Olds that evening, laden with plates of cookies that we weren’t supposed to eat, and dutifully buckled up.

“Is everyone buckled?” Dad called, then turned the key.


“Oh, no.” Dad tried again.

“Do we need to jump-start it, dear?” Mom asked.

“No, it’s the starter. This car is not going anywhere tonight.”

Matt started to look hopeful.

“Then we’ll have to take your car,” Mom decided.

Jimmy couldn’t sit on the gearshift, of course, so he squeezed into the narrow confines of the back of the Honda with the rest of us. It was sort of a relief whenever the car stopped and we spilled out into the rain, sloshing up to someone’s front door to give them our goodies. I would have been just as happy to not stand there in the rain, singing, before we handed them over. That was our tradition, though. Rolf loved it, and sang loud enough to cover for a couple of us, so Matt kept his cracking voice down. I was just lazy, and mumbled along.

Except for a certain amount of stinking, Rolf was all right. He could juggle a soccer ball with his knees longer than anyone I knew. He taught me some words that sounded really insulting, but didn’t actually mean anything bad. I secretly didn’t mind giving up my room for him, because I got to play with Jimmy’s toy cars when no one was looking.

We had been going to museums a lot more than usual since Rolf had come, so he could have “cultural experiences.” Some of them were pretty dull, like the National Archives. Who wants to look at a bunch of old pieces of paper? But some places had cool stuff, like the light-up map at the Gettysburg battlefield. The National Air and Space Museum was the best. I could have stayed in the old Skylab module for hours, pretending I was an astronaut, all by myself in an alien world.

I wonder if Rolf ever felt that way.

Rolf came to church with us every week, as another cultural experience. The first Sunday I watched him as we drove there in the Olds. There were two or three other churches on the way, and he looked more disappointed as we drove past each one. When we parked at our meetinghouse, he looked upward in dismay.

“What sort of church is this?” he whispered as we followed my parents inside. “Where is the cross?”

“Um. . .” I had never really thought about it before, but I got a clue when we stepped through the double doors. “Jesus was resurrected, right?” I pointed at the painting over the couch in the foyer. “So we don’t put up crosses.”

Rolf considered the picture of Jesus and Mary outside the empty tomb, and gave a small nod. But his face fell again when we walked into the unadorned chapel.

The talks that day were about marriage, which didn’t really relate to us kids. The high council speaker was pretty funny, though. When he joked about having his wife iron his socks, I glanced over at Rolf to see if he got it. Rolf glared back at me. I guess he didn’t.

When Mom asked him what he thought about church afterward, he politely said it was nice. I followed him upstairs, though, to see what he really thought.

“You laugh during sermons, and leave Christ out in the hall. What sort of church is it? Heidnisch!” He shut my door in my face.

I looked it up later. “Heathen.”

Every Sunday after that, Rolf smiled tolerantly at the giggling girls in the hallway, shook hands with the bishop, and tried to sing the hymns. But he spent most of the three hours at church reading his German Bible.

As Christmas approached, Rolf took a special interest in the mail. Every day he asked if anything had come for him. Every day Mom displayed more cards we received from friends and relatives, or hid packages in her closet, but said, “Sorry, Rolf, nothing today.”

We were playing Parcheesi in the living room the day before Christmas, when Rolf spotted the mailman in his yellow slicker, coming up the walk. Rolf met him at the door, gleefully shouting, “It’s here!”

He gathered Mom and Dad and made a little speech before opening the box. “It is the Christmas schmuck from my Oma. Every year she sends. This year, she sent for you, too.”

“Schmuck?” Dad repeated. Mom wrinkled her nose.

Schmuck for the tree,” Rolf tried to explain. He handed us each a wad of tissue paper. “Open, open.”

Mine was a thin wooden disk with a star design cut out of it. The loop of thread at the top gave it away. “Ornaments?”

“Yes, ornaments. Please hang them on the Tannenbaum.” Glad that we understood, Rolf turned his attention back to the box.

“Your grandmother is so sweet, Rolf,” Mom said. Then made a face when she thought he wasn’t looking. “They don’t really fit the theme this year,” she murmured to Dad.

It was true. She had outdone herself with big, shiny, brightly colored ornaments. Instead of balls, there were onion shapes and long, twisting tubes. Coordinating strings of beads twisted around the cords of jumbo lights. Mom smiled weakly, and placed two of the new ornaments on the side of the tree, nearly out of sight.

Personally, I preferred the wooden silhouettes to the schmuck Mom had put on the branches. “Thanks, Rolf,” I said loudly, and hung my star smack in the middle of the tree. Not that he was paying attention to our little drama. After unloading a cookie tin and a wrapped gift that looked awfully sweater-shaped, he picked up one more hunk of tissue paper. As he unwrapped the ornament, his eyes started looking suspiciously bright. He gave his face a rough swipe with the back of his hand, and stuffed the disc in his pocket.

I wondered what was so special about that ornament as it dug into my hip in the back seat of the car. Jimmy poked Matt again, and Matt elbowed him back. Mom started singing, probably hoping to calm them down, or at least drown them out.

“Oh, little town of Bethlehem,” she sang in time with the windshield wipers, “how still we see thee lie. . .”

There wasn’t much traffic on the wet streets. It was about as still as you could get in these suburbs.

“Yet in thy dark streets shineth–“

“–the endless traffic light,” Dad interrupted.


Matt and I sniggered.

“Can I have a cookie?” Jimmy asked. “There’s only one plate left.”

“Don’t touch those cookies. They are for Sister Larsen.”

“Oops,” Matt mumbled. It sounded like his mouth was full.

“Sister Larsen?” I asked. Singing to the cantankerous widow didn’t sound like my idea of an exciting end to the evening. “Won’t she be with the Blakes? She usually sits with them at church.”

“She and the Blakes have had a, well, misunderstanding. I’m afraid she’ll be alone tonight,” Mom said.

Jimmy groaned. “Oh, no. Is she going to adopt us next?”

“She has no grandchildren of her own, so she needs some company. Try to be civil, boys,” Dad said firmly. He flipped on the blinker.

“She lives here?” Matt asked. “‘Whiskey Bottom Apartments.’ Classy name “

“That’s a geographic term, you know. ‘Bottom’ refers to the land around a river,” Dad explained.

“Yeah, but look at the sign.” Matt reached across me to nudge Rolf. “There’s a big bottle of whiskey and a big–“

“Matthew!” Mom couldn’t deny the sign, but she tried to change the subject. “What shall we sing to Sister Larsen?”

Soon we stood in the dingy stairwell. I counted how many times the fluorescent light flicked off. Matt kicked at the steps.

“I don’t think anyone’s coming,” Jimmy said. Just then we heard the rattle of a chain, and the door opened a crack.

“Oh, it’s you. Well, come in, then.” Sister Larsen shuffled back to her chair.

“Okay, ‘Joy to the World,’” Dad said. “One, two–“

“Stille nacht, heilige nacht,” Rolf stepped forward and sang in a surprisingly high voice.

“Alles schläft; einsam wacht,” Jimmy joined in. Surprised, I stared at him. “Learned it in school,” he whispered, and they went on. I started humming the familiar tune, and my parents added alto and bass parts. It sounded pretty good.

When the song ended, Rolf crossed the tiny living room with one step, and dug something out of his pocket. “I give this to you. Please take it.”

Sister Larsen held the ornament up to the light. A small building had been carved into it, with a pointy roof and a cross on top. The old woman looked up at Rolf in wonder. “Danke,” she whispered.

Immediately he knelt beside the chair and began pouring out his soul to her in German. Sister Larsen waved for us to sit down, and listened intently. Mom sat on the faded couch. Dad and Matt sat down too, and sank to the middle with her. Jimmy and I settled on the floor, and stroked the cats that came to investigate us.

“What is he so upset about?” Mom wondered.

I caught a couple of words. Kirche. Heidnisch. “He thinks we’re not very Christian, Mom.”

“What?” Her surprised look soon gave way to thoughtfulness.

Finally Rolf slowed down. He blew his nose on the tissue Sister Larsen handed him, then looked over at us. “I am sorry. She looks so much like my Oma. I think of home.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Mom said to Sister Larsen. “Rolf got carried away.”

“No, no, it’s all right. I understand.”

“Where did you learn German, Sister Larsen?” Dad asked.

“In Germany, of course, at my mother’s knee,” she answered. “When Jack brought me here after the war, I found that being German was rather unpopular. He took me to church and I learned to speak like an American.”

“I had no idea,” Mom said, as if she should have known.

“After Jack died in Korea, I managed to make ends meet. But I have never been able to go back to Germany. Thank you for this piece of home, Rolf.” She held his chin in her hand, and studied his face. “Now, tell me about your grandmother. What is her name?”

“Lilli Mueller.”

“I knew a Lilli, once. Bring me that picture, young man.” She pointed straight behind me. Turning around, I saw a framed black-and-white image of two young ladies wearing hats. I placed it in her wrinkled hands.

Rolf stared at it, speechless. Finally he whispered, “Oma has the same photo. When I asked about it, she only said, ‘Anna is gone, gone.’”

Sister Larsen reached for another tissue. “Is she still alive, then? After I married, I tried to send letters. They came back to me, long after I sent them. I did not know if the mail was bad, or if my family moved, or died . . . Lilli is my sister.”

Mom wiped her eyes on her scarf, and even Dad was blinking a lot. “Wow, what a coincidence,” Matt proclaimed in the silence.

“No, no, a blessing. See, Rolf, the Holy Ghost is with the Latter-day Saints, too. He brought you here tonight.”

“But,” Rolf started to protest.

“No, Christ is not in paintings or tapestries. He is in our scriptures, our prayers.” She handed Rolf a book bound in battered blue leather. “This is my gift to you. You need it more than I do, now.”

Das Buch Mormon?” Rolf looked unsure, but he held it to his chest.

“Sit with me on Sunday, and I will show you Christ among the Latter-day Saints. Now, help me up, and let’s sing again.”

We all stood, and linked our arms like Rolfe and Sister Larsen did. They started to sway as we sang.

“How silently, how silently

The wondrous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of his heaven.

No ear may hear his coming;

But in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive him, still

The dear Christ enters in.”

The stormy sky was still dark as we walked outside muffled in new hand-knit scarves, but I did not notice the wind or the rain. The back seat of the car held us in a brotherly hug. All the way home, all the way through Christmas, even, I felt warm from the inside out.

Critique: Uhmmm. Trying to think of something critical to say and the only thing I can come up with is I’m not sure how old the narrative character is or if it’s a boy. That needs to be more clear. But other than that, I loved it! The only perfect score from me this year and the only one that made me cry.

What I liked best: Loved the writing style and the message.

Publication ready: YES!!!

14 The Package

Sarah and her brother had made the same walk home from school so many times; she was convinced she had memorized every rock and shrub along the way.

Today was no different than so many others that had passed before in that respect. Ben, walking ahead of her, as usual, looking around for a stone of suitable weight and size that could serve as a projectile against the unsuspecting lizard or grass snake. While she, thinking about the day’s lessons, somewhat, but more about the handsome boy who sat behind her in class.

It was during times such as these that she enjoyed their walk home the most. The air was crisp and cool, yet today the thunderclouds to the west troubled her. Not the rain, mind you. That she could deal with and even enjoyed, especially at nightfall. No, it was the driving wind that preceded the storm which concerned her more.

So today, especially, as she saw the clouds begin to form, she hastened her steps, catching up with Ben.

“Hey sis, when you gonna stop daydreamin’ and start payin’ more ‘tention in Grammar? The ol’ man’s gonna catch ya one o’ these days and I sure wanna be around when that happens!”

Sarah dismissed the remark. Besides, she smiled to herself, she was one of the top students in the class.

And so soon, she thought, the daylight disappears even before nightfall: The clouds had now blanketed the setting sun, leaving a faint glow, almost like an aura surrounding billows of blackening doom.

“Come on, Ben, let’s get going,” she urged her brother, “I think it’s gonna be rainin’ before we get home.”

Ben was almost giddy as he started whirling around in circles. “Whadda sissy! ‘Sides, I ain’t had a good bath in days!”

Sarah shook her head. Why did he have to be my brother – she thought to herself.

The road continued to wind and as soon as the pair made their way to the top of a fairly steep rise, off ahead to the left sat a woman – all alone – sitting by herself on a large boulder. The two youngsters slowed their pace to hesitant steps.

From a distance, especially at this time of day, it was difficult to recognize appearances. As Ben and Sarah walked on, veering somewhat to the right and away from the stranger, they noticed she was more like an older girl. Sort of reminded Sarah of her older sister.

Cautiously the two continued their walk on the opposite side of the road, noticing that the woman was holding a rather strange package, of sorts.

It was kind of big, but not bulky, and looked like an old burlap sack, folded about in half. The kind father used for storing his potatoes.

Sarah thought to herself then whispered to Ben, “I wonder what’s in the sack.”

“Groceries, most likely.” Then it was Ben’s turn to urge the pair onward. “Now never you mind, Sarah, let’s get on home.”

As they approached a point just opposite of the near-motionless figure, the woman looked up, staring right at them. Then she smiled.

Sarah stopped.

“C’mon, let’s go!” Ben tugged at his sister’s sleeve.

Sarah looked at the woman, sitting there all alone, on the side of the road, holding her sack of provisions.

How odd, she thought.

Ben tugged again but Sarah remained unmoved.

Then, for no reason at all, Sarah slowly crossed the road.

“SARAH!” in the loudest whisper he could muster, Ben shook his head as he proceeded toward home. “All right then with ya – see ya later.”

Ignoring her brother’s pleadings, Sarah couldn’t quite seem to keep her eyes off the woman’s face. Or off the smile that just stayed there, smiling.

And then, as unexpected as a bolt of invisible lightning, all at once a thousand freezing darts whipped through her thin dress. And the winds came.

Unrelenting and without warning, nearly pushing her off her feet, the chill was like nothing she had ever felt before.

Sitting before her, the woman clutched her package even tighter, shivering as day turned to twilight in a frigid heartbeat. Yet the smile remained, unbroken.

How puzzling, Sarah thought, pondering the eerie scene as she stopped just an arm’s length away from the strange young woman.

“Hel-lo” Sarah stuttered, more out of nervous embarrassment than cold.

Their eyes continued their uninterrupted union.

“Hello,” replied the stranger, as she looked down at Sarah’s sandaled feet. “You must be cold, my dear.”

“Nah – I mean, no ma’am, I’m fine.” Sarah thought for a moment. “Why are you sitting here all alone?”

“Oh, I’m not alone.” The woman adjusted the package on her lap. “I’m waiting for my husband. He’ll be along shortly.”

Sarah smiled, then turned to leave, then stopped. Looking again at the woman, “are you sure you’ll be okay?”

“Oh yes, I’ll be all right, thank you.”

Then – from no apparent outward or external cause – the package moved.

Maybe she was simply adjusting it on her lap, Sarah thought to herself.

No… there! It moved again!

Sarah bent her head down and was very self-consciously staring as the woman pealed back part of the burlap to reveal a tiny hand and arm.

Sarah’s eyes grew big as saucers.

“You have a – a baby?”

The woman smiled. “Yes, I have a child.”

Sarah stammered. “But … isn’t he, isn’t she … cold?”

The woman smiled. “No – we’re doing all right,” as she cradled the package in her arm. Guess it ain’t groceries – Sarah thought to herself – then breathed a heavy sigh as she turned to see her brother far ahead down the road, looking back himself to see what was keeping his sister.

And the wind – the terrible cold – she hadn’t even given it another thought, until now. She took her scarf and wrapped it tightly around her neck and face.

From here, though scarcely a few more minutes walk, home seemed so very far away.

Then she was off – like a frightened cat on the run, Sarah sprinted to catch up with her brother.

Then, just as abruptly, she stopped.

The wind that had so cruelly penetrated her to the bone had also cleared the air – and, looking up, Sarah saw the stars beginning to emerge, one by one; like diamonds against a curtain of grayish-black.

She looked down, shivering as the wind took its toll on her exposed feet and legs. Then, as if in a dream, she turned back again to the woman, sitting on the rock, clutching the burlap “package”.

Sarah walked up to her; and, without saying a word, quickly removed her scarf – “Here. This is for your baby,” handed the scarf to the stranger then ran to join her brother now far off in the distance.

As she ran, tears filled Sarah’s eyes and her heart swelled.

Much as she wanted to, she could not look back.

However – if she had, she would have seen the woman sitting frozen – not from the cold, but in surprised astonishment at a young girl’s act of unselfish kindness . . .

The days became months, which became years – so many years.

Ben had quickly and entirely forgotten the incident, busying himself with his own life and pursuits.

Sarah, likewise, had grown and matured – but had not altogether forgotten that day, so many years before, that day of the frigid wind.

It was on evenings such as this one, as she looked up at the ebony sky, with its sea of glistening stars, holding the child of her own child in her time-wrinkled arms, when she would pause and ponder.

Reflecting on the singular event of years long past, Sarah could still remember how she felt after she handed the woman her scarf; and how often the feeling would return, but only at very special times.

She wondered what ever became of the young woman, who sat by the side of the road, and the package that she held.

Sitting, waiting patiently and faithfully, in the cold at the end of the day, for her husband to join her, as Sarah and her brother made their way from school, as they had done so many times before, to their home . . .

in Bethlehem.

Critique: You have a good idea. I really like the twist at the end. However, in trying to setting a secret until then, you don’t give us near enough sense of place. Your narrative is very poetic in places, but the dialog feels jarring. You have some grammar and structural issues, and we need deeper characterization. You could add more depth to the story and still have Bethlehem be a sweet surprise at the end. The idea has some real potential, but the delivery needs work.

What I liked best: That we’re not sure until the end that it’s Bethlehem.

Publication ready: No. It needs polishing.

12 The Lights of Christmas

Perhaps this may not be considered a story, it may be an event, a happening, a moment in time, it was however, something to treasure in my book of memories. I have decided however to tell this as a cherished Christmas story because it happened to me.

The year had not been a particularly good one, if I mentioned divorce that would fill in all the necessary questions, possibly the answers as well. Let’s say I found myself single, not of my choice. I had been left with the financial responsibility and the task of raising the last two of my four daughters.

The Christmas season was approaching and since this was my first without a real strong financial support besides me things were looking pretty gloomy. Even though I was working two jobs I really did not have the means or the nature to have a lot of Christmas Spirit. The girls and I had moved into a very small house in a medium neighborhood, not fancy or high end, but workable. The girls were both in their early teens and did not say too much about how things were; they just knew it was a rough time.

One particular night I had an occasion to go to a church house for Relief Society board meeting. I was picked up by the President and left my daughter at home with her friend, our Bishop’s son.

Those two had adventures written all over their faces. Mostly during that period of time in their lives it was watching scary movies, making munchies, eating an incredible amount of sunflowers seeds and just hanging out. I had left without any instructions or particular chores to be done just that I would be back in an hour or so.

Like all women that I know, I took the opportunity to visit while going to my meeting and I recall, had even talked about the lack of Christmas Spirit being a part of my home that year. I had always decorated a Christmas tree and we have never gone without some Christmas. However some years were better than others. There was always something under the tree. This was not really a test year to see how we were going to do as a family, just a year when I did not have a lot of hope or warm fuzzes about the meaning of the Christmas season and what it meant for me.

“Anyho” as my daughter likes to say, I was chatting and feeling rather down as we drove home from the meeting and knowing my house was around the corner I looked ahead as we turned down the street to a sight, that to this day, still, brings tears to my eyes when I recall the next precious moments when time stood still.

Ablaze in all of the possible glory that could be had, one house on our block was newly decorated with multi colored Christmas lights outlining the roof. There was no Santa or dancing reindeer, angels were not singing in a heavenly choir, just a beautiful simple strand of lights declaring to the world that Christmas was coming.

A hush fell over me as I marveled at the sight. My tears freely flowed trying to exclaim to my driver, joys of joys, wonder of wonder, that is was my house that was decorated. There was more excitement that I could express that night when I realized it was the two kids I had left watching movies who had dug out our Christmas lights, climbed up on the roof and strung them along the edge. How they ever did it without ladders and in the dark of night I will never know.

The lights gave to me that night the knowledge and hope that life goes on even during trials and tribulations. It was a message of the Christmas Spirit. Giving of oneself and time not necessarily material things but something else that can make a huge difference. It brought peace and comfort and assurance that life does go on.

Like the babe in the manger whose love brought awareness to the world, this also gave to me the knowledge that I too was loved and someone cared enough to give me this simple gift. I began that year a tradition that I have loved and kept every Christmas since. This included some decorations, simple as they might be, and putting Christmas lights on the OUTSIDE of my home. I also now take advantage of driving around the city finding homes and places that display the lights of the season. Finding time to enjoy and listen to Christmas harmonies which can bring thoughts of peace to the world to those who will listen. I enjoy finding places where I can sing along when possible. I have thoroughly enjoyed the songs of Christmas which tell of hope and the happiness of the Christmas Spirit that can be found.

Christmas had become a joy and not a burden to me.

Critique: What a wonderful experience! I’ve had one similar to that and it did, indeed, touch my heart, as it did yours. As for a short story, you’ve got a straightforward narrative here and there really needs to be more in the way of characterization, dialog, setting, sensory imagery, plot. It would need more work to be a true short story. But again, what a great experience and awesome memory for you.

What I liked best: The idea that God blesses us through the actions of others.

Publication ready: No. It needs more development.

11 Milkshakes and Mittens

by Brenda Anderson

Snow flurries followed Natasha Collins inside the small building that housed the Movie Shack, a modest grill combined with the town’s only movie rental store. A sparse collection of movies lined the walls which were decorated with various handmade trinkets for sale. Natasha stepped past a display of children’s animated shows and up to the worn counter separating the main room from the small kitchen in the back. A petite woman in her late thirties dried her hands with a towel and smiled at Natasha.

“Afternoon, Ms. Collins. What can I get you today?”

“Hello Jaleen. Vanilla today, I think, with a hint of cinnamon.” Natasha watched as Jaleen White spun around to begin assembling her milkshake. Her full brown curls bounced as she worked. Reaching up to pat her own graying blonde tresses, Natasha pursed her lips. Adjusting to small town life has been easier than accepting the intrusion of these gray hairs.

“Here you are.” Jaleen set the milkshake on the counter. Natasha reached in her purse and pulled out a couple of bills. She picked up the shake, but thoughts of the cold weather waiting outside kept her from moving toward the door.

“I don’t know why I buy these when it’s so cold outside. Habit I guess. Never was quite so cold in Phoenix this time of year.

“Sunshine year round?” Jaleen asked as she dried some dishes.

Natasha nodded. “Pretty much. From what I’ve heard, winters there are more like late spring here.”

“Mother Nature definitely takes her time warming things up here. I hope you’ve got plenty of warm clothes.”

“Me, too!” Natasha laughed. “How are those girls of yours doing?”

Jaleen bit her lip and looked down at a stain on the countertop. “Good.” She paused, “I suppose you heard that Kelly’s pregnant.”

“Oh, no, I hadn’t. I’m so sorry.”

Angry tears slipped down Jaleen’s nose. “Father’s run off. I guess he was one of those workers they bus in from the city to work at the casinos. Hasn’t been back in nearly a month, just after Kelly found out.”

Natasha set her milkshake down. “Oh, Jaleen. Come ’round here so I can give you a proper hug.” She wrapped her arms around the younger woman running her hands up and down her back as Jaleen allowed herself a short sob.

“I’m okay,” she said, as she pulled out of the embrace and took a step back, quickly wiping the tears from her cheeks.

Sensing Jaleen’s embarrassment, Natasha searched for a way to change the subject and lighten the mood. She spotted Jaleen’s black suede boots.

“Oh my, those are lovely boots.”

A faint smile lit Jaleen’s features. “Yes, they are quite nice. Took nearly a year of saving to buy them, so I don’t wear them too much. I thought maybe today they’d cheer me up.”

Natasha knelt down and fingered the soft fringes of suede dangling from the cuffs of the boots. “Beautiful. I used to dream about boots like these when I was a little girl. We didn’t have the money then, and when I grew up and starting teaching, they just didn’t seem practical anymore.” She stood up and patted Jaleen’s arm. “You wear them well.”

“Thanks.” Jaleen gestured toward the kitchen. “Well, I’d better get back to work. Football practice lets out soon; I’d better get some burgers grilling. Those teenage boys sure can eat a lot.”

The door opened and Jaleen’s youngest daughter, Katie stepped inside, her arms wrapped around an algebra book. She smiled briefly at Natasha before setting the book down and moving around the counter to help her mother prepare for the afternoon rush.

“And I’ve got papers to grade. It’s hard to believe the semester ends next week.” Natasha retrieved her shake and slipped out the door into the snow.

Natasha wrote a “C” on the top of the last paper and set it with the others. Sighing, she picked up her favorite mug, with a cute, fuzzy cat warning “Keep your paws off my hot chocolate,” and dropped in a few more marshmallows from the plate on the coffee table. She swirled them around before finishing off the cocoa. Her joints protested when she stood up. Not so young anymore. Moving to her living room window, she pushed the curtains aside and looked out.

The bright casino lights that dominated the town’s one major road flickered on the foot of new snow that had fallen. Natasha thought it looked like one of the Christmas postcards her daughter had sent her from Montana the last few years. “Help,” she laughed quietly, “I’ve fallen into a postcard, and I can’t get out!”

She stayed at the window a few minutes longer, watching the light dusting of flurries spiral down from the night sky. Her laughter faded, and she felt very alone. My first Christmas by myself. She thought of Tony, her youngest son, who she’d just shipped off to college in Florida a few short months ago, right before she took the teaching position and moved to a small town on the northern border of Nevada. He’d refused her offer to join her for Christmas.

“Are you kidding?” he’d asked. “Christmas in Nevada? It snows there you know.”

She’d laughed with him then–the holidays were still a long way off. Now they were practically on top of her. Looking down at the dirty mug still in her hand, she started toward the sink to rinse it out. But a movement outside brought her attention once more to the window.

At first she saw nothing but snow covered cars, roofs, and bushes. Natasha felt a pang of longing for cacti: tall, long-armed saguaro, flat-leaved prickly pears, even an ocotillo’s winter-bare, gray thorny arms would be welcome now, its life hidden until spring. Because then she would be in southern Arizona, and nothing would be covered in snow. The dark sky would be sparkling with stars, not dressed in a drab layer of storm clouds without a trace of rumbling or flashing.

The same movement in the night brought Natasha out of her reverie. In the dim streetlight near the main road, a shadowy figure trudged through the snow, leaving a trail of footprints marring the pristine whiteness. Even bundled up, Jaleen’s slight figure was unmistakable. She’s too young to look so stooped and tired. Natasha sighed. She reminds me of me. Oh the dreams I had back then.

She washed out the mug and set it in the drainer, checked on her miniature cactus garden and dressed for bed. Tonight, she lingered over the picture of Anthony she kept at her bedside. The picture was good, capturing the slight crookedness to his smile, the way his dark hair recklessly fell over his forehead. Even as a baby, Tony had looked just like his father, had that same crooked smile that had melted Natasha’s heart the first time it danced across his soft features. But Anthony’s gone. She tucked a lock of gold-gray hair behind her ear. Been gone longer now than we were married. And Tony’s gone too, off in Florida.

Shaking her head to rid it of the memories, Natasha clicked off the light and wriggled under the covers. Footsteps thumped briefly in the apartment upstairs, and then silence settled over her. She could hear only the quiet blowing of air as the furnace worked to heat the room and the low humming of the freezer as it cycled into defrost. They were comforting sounds, her usual lullaby. But sleep eluded her.

After forty minutes, Natasha turned the light back on, dug in her closet for a box of scrap yarn and her crochet hooks and began a chain. By the time she fell asleep, propped up against her pillows with her crochet hook in her hand; she’d finished a scarf and started on a pair of mittens.

School let out three days before Christmas. By then Natasha had used up her scraps and had purchased several large new skeins of yarn. A basket by her bed was nearly filled with her late night work: the scarf and mittens, two baby blankets, some booties, three bibs, three winter hats and a small handbag. When the final bell rang, Natasha watched her twenty-seven sixth graders stream out of the room, energized by sugary Christmas sweets and the promise of two weeks of no school.

As their laughter faded, Natasha grabbed a stack of papers from her desk and placed them in her bag, hoping they would keep her busy over the next few days. She stifled a yawn as she locked her desk and grabbed her ring of keys. Good thing I have a brisk walk home to wake me up.

But her feet didn’t take her home. Natasha found herself instead reaching for the door handle at the Movie Shack, her taste buds craving a strawberry shake. The door refused to open. She pulled at it again, with both hands wrapped around the handle. Nothing. Natasha pounded on the door, suddenly worried that something had happened to Jaleen. She had just turned away, wondering if she should call the police when Katie emerged from the back of the building.

“Sorry Ms. Collins. We’re closed.” Katie shoved her bare hands into the pockets of her worn coat and started down the street that led to her home.

Natasha fell into step beside her. “Is your mom okay?”

Katie kept her head down against the afternoon wind. “She’s fine. It’s my dad. She’s gone into the city to get some medicine for him. Even if Kelly wasn’t pregnant, we can’t handle the snack bar and the store by ourselves.”

Natasha had only met Jaleen’s husband once. Derreck White was a large, big muscled man who spent his weeks working on a ranch across the Idaho border, training horses and repairing fences. On weekends he came home and worked the kitchen of the Movie Shack. The milkshakes Natasha found herself addicted to were made with his recipe.

“Can I do anything to help?”

Katie stopped and turned toward Natasha, her eyes filled with tears and worry. “Pray Dad recovers quickly.” She turned away and bounded up the stairs to her front door.

Like Patricia had when I told her about Anthony. Natasha paused to say a quick prayer for Katie’s father. Only Patti was so much younger. That was when my teaching degree became more than a fall back; the day I decided to set all my dreams aside and make sure Patti and Tony reached all of theirs.

She walked slowly home thinking of ballet recitals, choir performances and dirty football uniforms. And she prayed for Derrick White.

At home, Natasha tried picking up her crochet hook and starting on the sweater pattern she’d found on one of the skeins of yarn, but the process was so familiar that she found herself with too much time to think. So she left the yarn on her bed and went in to the kitchen.

Pulling out a tattered cookbook, Natasha found the worn pages her mother had always turned to when life seemed to be unraveling around her. Soon flour covered her arms nearly to her elbows as she pounded and smashed at the bread dough, taking her frustration, fear and loneliness out on the mound on the counter.

The following day, Natasha awoke confused. The sun’s angle was wrong; it should have been lengthening toward her, not away. She slowly sat up, surprised to see that she was still dressed in the green blouse and tan pants from the day before. Beside her, resting on her untouched pillow was the half-finished sweater she’d started last night, after pulling the last loaf of bread from the oven. Squinting at the clock on her dresser, Natasha realized it was nearly four in the afternoon. No wonder the sun angle looks weird. I’ve slept the day away.

Rising from the bed, she looked toward the basket of finished crocheting projects. “All that crocheting has finally gotten to me,” she told it. She reached for Anthony’s picture and gave it her usual morning kiss. “I’m getting old Anthony. Old.” Setting the picture down, Natasha found her thoughts automatically turning from Anthony to Jaleen, and a heavy weight settled in her stomach.

She showered, dressed, and walked out to her kitchen/living room where her artificial Christmas tree huddled in one corner, decorated so heavily in handmade ornaments that the needles were barely visible, gifts from her children and former students. A red and white crocheted blanket hid the stand from view, but no gifts lurked under the tree’s laden branches.

Turning from the tree’s blatant reminder of her loneliness, Natasha saw the six loaves of bread she baked the day before lined up on the counter. She had wrapped each one in festive plastic wrap and tied them with variations of green, red, and white bows. They, too, mocked her solitude.

“No!” she told the loaves. She spun around to face the tree. “No!” She dug through the box of Christmas decorations she’d left by the tree until she found a fuzzy red Santa cap. With a look of defiance aimed at the Christmas tree, she pulled the hat on her head and emptied her oversized bag onto the table. Then she refilled it with all of the crochet projects she had completed over the last few weeks.

Natasha hooked the handles over one shoulder, loaded the bread into the now empty basket and took it all to Jaleen’s house.

Katie answered the door, her eyes heavy from a combination of sleeplessness and tears. She brightened when she saw the bread.

“This is for your family. Some of the crocheted stuff might be useful when Kelly has the baby.” Natasha looks over Katie’s shoulder. “How’s your father?”

“The medicine seems to be helping. Mom thinks he’s going to be okay, although he’s pretty weak, so it will probably be a few weeks before he can get back to work and stuff.”

Some of the heaviness slid from Natasha’s shoulders. “That’s good news. Well, I don’t want to keep you. Merry Christmas, Katie.”

“Thank you so much, Ms. Collins. Merry Christmas to you!”

On Christmas Eve, Natasha sat on the floor of her living room in front of the Christmas tree. Twinkling white lights glowed around the ornaments, and she’d tuned the radio to a station playing carols. This time she smiled as she studied the tree. She could no longer see the red and white blanket that hugged the tree stand. Instead she saw her picture of Anthony, pictures of Patricia and Tony, her case of crochet hooks and a skein of yarn, a worn pair of fuzzy pink slippers, her mother’s cookbook, a stack of her favorite novels, her diploma, and everything else she could think of that brought her joy and hope.

Except her favorite mug, which she held in her hand and sipped cocoa from as she watched the tree, the room darkening around her. Natasha stayed there until a light rap at her door brought her to her feet. By the time she arrived at the door, unlocked it and swung it open, whoever had been there was gone, leaving only a brightly wrapped package on the doorstep.

She brought it in and studied the tag. It said only her name, nothing more. Maybe I should wait until morning. Have something to unwrap on Christmas day. But curiosity got the better of her, and her hands carefully began pulling the taped sides open. Underneath the paper she found a plain cardboard box. She unfolded the flaps and gasped.

Inside was Jaleen’s pair of black suede boots. Natasha pulled them out and a small card fluttered to the floor. She picked it up, tears stinging her eyes as she read:

“You’re never too old for dreams to come true.”

Natasha wiped her eyes and set the boots under the tree with her treasures. She fingered the soft fringe and turned to Anthony’s picture. “Maybe I’m not that old.” He smiled his crooked smile.

Critique: I love this. I never thought I’d ever say to “tell” us more, but it’s a little confusing about where Natasha is and where she’s come from. We need to know that, and that she’s a teacher sooner. Also, play up the mittens a little more to make the title fit better. (Love the title.) I’d also give Jaleen more children and have the father work at the shop with her. Characterization and writing is great. Love it.

What I liked best: I love that she put the things that brought her joy under the tree.

Publication ready: Yes, with a few minor changes (notes for which I’ve sent you in the story document). Get those changes ready because this will definitely be in the next Christmas anthology!

10 Our Christmas Spirit

Way before dawn Christmas morning, my little sister tugged at me, sobbing, “Tommy, wake up! I heard a noise so I snuck down to see Santa. There was a big lumpy ghost floating around the tree!”

“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” I told her. “Maybe you saw Santa’s toy bag.”

“Santa’s bag is red, and it doesn’t float,” she wailed.

“Shh. It would if he brought balloons.” I knew that was a stretch, but I had to keep her quiet. “It must have been a burglar. Keep quiet in case he’s still here. And you’d better hide.” I was out of bed, looking for a weapon, but Jenny clung to me so tight I could hardly move.

Her chin quivered. “Nuh-uh. I’m not stayin’ here alone. Let’s go down and tell Mommy.”

“I don’t think she can stand any more bad news. I heard her on the phone after dinner. She was crying again. . .” I didn’t finish because Jenny knew the reason.

“What are we gonna do, Tommy?” Tears rolled down her cheeks.

“We can’t call 9-1-1. We gotta keep Mom from worrying, at least until she feels better. First, let’s make sure the burglar’s gone.” I didn’t tell her my knees were shaking like her lip was.

“Ghost,” Jenny corrected, tightening her grip as we tiptoed downstairs into the kitchen. I grabbed Mom’s rolling pin as Jenny turned on the light. Nobody there.

We checked under the tree. There was nothing left. “The ghost stole it,” Jenny cried.

Jenny’s like that, see? Once she makes up her mind, it stays made up. So I gritted my teeth as we snuck around, checking everywhere else. No ghost but no burglar either. We found zero presents where we saw Mom hide them before and none where we didn’t see her hide them. We knew where they should have been, and weren’t. Mom didn’t know how sneaky we could be.

Jenny sighed, wiping her eyes. “Now what?” At least she’d calmed down some.

“We let Mom sleep while we draw some nice pictures. She won’t know we ever bought her bubble-bath and perfume. She’ll probably like our pictures even better. You know Mom.”

Jenny brightened and then frowned, “What about us?”

“I’ll make you something too. Not a real doll like you wanted, but a paper doll. With real clothes cut from rags. Okay?”

Jenny actually smiled. “Okay, but won’t Mommy ask what happened to the doll she promised Santa would bring? And what about your new bat and ball?”

I thought for a minute. “We’ll say we got up early and already opened Santa’s presents and put them away as part of our gift to her.” That might even shock Mom out of her sadness.

We got to work, sitting at the kitchen table. We were almost finished when the front door rattled. Grabbing both the rolling pin and Jenny, I turned off the light and pushed her ahead of me, upstairs. As we reached the top a floorboard creaked below. I turned just as Jenny’s ghost appeared. Panicking, I hurled my missile and the lumpy white shape dropped.

“Ooooohhh!” it wailed, writhing in very ghostly fashion about half a foot above the floor.

Behind me, Jenny squeaked. “Told you it was a ghost!”

“Uh-oh,” I said. A rolling pin would’ve gone right through a ghost.

“What’s going on?” Mom shouted, charging out of her bedroom. She flipped on the light and started crying when she saw the gifts spilling from the big white laundry bag. Then she ran forward and practically fell all over the man in a camouflage uniform on the floor underneath it. She kissed his dark face and ruffled his darker hair. No wonder we couldn’t see him before.

“I’m home early, honey, trying to bring you the Christmas Spirit,” said Dad. “Surprise.”

I think Dad was most surprised of all. I doubt he’ll try that trick again after learning the hard way—his safe return from the war brought us all the Christmas spirit we need.

Critique: You have a good idea but have some issues with the delivery. Needs a much stronger sense of place, sensory imagery, and some foreshadowing about Dad. As written, there are too many unanswered questions, such as why did the ghost/Dad take the gifts? Why is Mom said? Also, we need more characterization on Tommy and Jenny. Great story idea but needs to be fleshed out.

What I liked best: The ghost. Awesome! And that Dad is in the military. Very timely.

Publication ready: No. Needs work, but this has some real potential.

09 Chaos at Santa’s Shop, Earl’s Misadventures

“You broke another toy, Earl, and Christmas is only a week away,” Santa scolded his favorite elf. His face flushed red, bright like the suit he wore. But Santa could never be mad at Earl for real. Earl knew Santa well and a hesitant smile crossed his face.

“Don’t smile, you little rapscallion,” Santa made a second attempt at genuine anger.

Earl’s smile simply grew as he cleaned up the mess before him. The toy would be replaced and no child would go without. After all, it wasn’t the first time he’d slowed production. Misadventures in Santa’s toy shop were a common occurrence for Earl. He couldn’t explain why, but strange mishaps seemed to occur whenever he was around. Santa needed all his elves working during the Christmas rush so Earl was in the shop all the time. And he was wreaking havoc minute by minute.

Santa directed his favorite bumbling elf, his words now in keeping with his jolly spirit, “When you finish cleaning up your mess, Earl, get back to work. These toys need to be ready in one week.”

When Santa left the busy shop where toys and dolls and all things children love were made Earl waved at his receding figure as a rush of cold air and white flakes rolled into the warm building. Earl took his place among the other elves and resumed producing toys. Smiles on the children’s faces Christmas morning would make Santa happy. Yet Earl’s history did not bode favorably for a mishap free week of production.

Minutes later Earl reached to grab a truck needing wheels, his assigned task for the morning, and bumped into the chubby elf next to him. The truck went crashing to the debris cluttered wooden floor.

“I don’t know how we get any toys built with you here, Earl,” the elf next to him said.

Earl gathered up the truck and responded. “Everything will be done because we all love the children.”

Who could argue with that logic?

“It won’t get done if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing. We can’t keep repairing broken toys and get done on time.”

Soon Billy, the foreman for Santa’s shop, came over to Earl’s station. “Is everything okay here?” he asked, knowing Earl’s knack for disaster. “There is only one week before Christmas.”

“Santa said that a few minutes ago,” Earl said. “Now you’re telling me and I already know when Christmas is.”

“If you know so well why is there always chaos near your station?” Billy asked.

“I will do better,” Earl promised, successfully attaching wheels to the next truck passing by. “See, I know what I’m doing.”

Toys continued to be built for Christmas morning. Children around the world expected Santa to deliver the toys to their home and place them under the tree. Earl knew Santa could not disappoint a single child and he hoped he’d have no more mishaps. His history, however, spoke of more misadventure. In fact, production would be slowed several more times that very day and Earl would be the culprit each time.

Santa’s shop continued to produce toys despite Earl’s fateful ability to interrupt the process. Toys of all kinds and bicycles, tricycles and wagons found their way into Santa’s huge bag. In just a week the bag would be overflowing and Santa would be happy.

A half hour later the bell jingled in the shop. Lunch break for the elves was signaled. Earl pushed away from his station paying no attention to his surroundings. This frequently got him into trouble. With his focus on lunch he collided with the chubby elf who worked next to him as he hurried to take his place at the lunch table. The resulting carnage was not catastrophic, but more toys crashed to the floor. It would take time for them to be repaired, if they could be repaired. With Earl one mishap followed after another.

Earl knelt down to help pick up the broken toys. “I am sorry,” he apologized.

“Watch what you’re doing, Earl,” the chubby elf replied. “I could have been hurt.”

“Oh, you’re fine,” Earl brushed some debris from the chubby elf’s arm.

As they sat eating Santa came in to speak to the elves. News, not unexpected, reached him minutes before of Earl’s latest misadventure. The time for Santa to light a fire under Earl and the other elves was right now or Christmas would be disappointing for many children. But when you’re known for being jolly and happy all the time and your cheeks are always rosy it is difficult to communicate the needed emotion to make his elves understand his urgency. Santa tried anyway.

“Do you elves know we only have one week to fill the Christmas bag with toys for all the children?” Santa’s voice held the tone of frustration, while his cherubic cheeks spoke of a well known joviality. “And Earl, you must pay attention. We can’t afford any more set backs.”

Earl listened to Santa but he didn’t say anything. He would not cause any more trouble. Santa would not single him out again. He would watch what he was doing very carefully and wouldn’t get in anybody’s way. Earl would be Santa’s best elf. Santa would see.

Work resumed after lunch and soon found Earl in the middle of yet another misadventure. Bright red fire engines built of pine passed by Earl one after another. The paint another elf had brushed on was still wet. All Earl needed to do was attach the wheels. This was Earl’s normal task because Santa felt it was the best chance to keep Earl out of trouble. But Earl naturally attracted mischief against Santa’s wishes.

Earl hurried to attach the wheel to the next bright red fire engine. He looked down the line, becoming distracted. His distraction led to his arm brushing against the moving belt. This, in turn, caused several fire engines to fall off and hurtle to the floor, colliding noisily.

Billy, the elf foreman, came running to see what had happened. “Santa’s toy shop is total chaos with you around, Earl,” he announced. “Maybe it would be better if you just went home.”

“I will not go home unless Santa tells me to,” Earl spoke defensively. “I will do better, I promise.” Once again he bent over to help clean up the scattered toys.

Billy could not stay angry with Earl any longer than Santa could. Earl was simply accident prone and he couldn’t seem to do anything about it. If they could only find something for Earl to do that kept him away from the toys. But Billy knew doing that would break Earl’s heart. He always helped build the toys Santa delivered to the children, year after year. Each year Santa and Billy wondered how they all got built, but each year Santa’s bag was full. Despite Earl’s mishaps children were never left without.

Watching Earl clean up the mess, Billy hoped this year would produce the same results. Earl noticed Billy’s watchful eye and smiled at him. Yes, the elf was full of mischief and misadventure seemed to be his constant companion, but his positive attitude was also contagious.

Earl picked up the last of the fallen fire engines just as Santa entered his shop. “What happened?” Santa asked.

“I accidentally knocked some toys off the belt,” Earl said, quick to accept responsibility for his actions. “I will fix every toy. Please don’t be angry.”

“How can I be angry with you, Earl? I am Santa.”

“Bad things keep happening when I’m around,” Earl continued. “I keep causing trouble.”

Santa placed a firm hand on Earl’s small shoulder. “We have one week to finish building all the toys needed so every child has one under their tree. So we’ve got to get back to work and not worry about the misadventures. Can you do that for me, Earl?”

“Yes, Santa, I can. I will not let you or the children down.” Earl scurried back to his work station.

The next three days went by without incident and many toys were completed and stuffed into Santa’s bag. But the bag still needed more toys and other gifts children loved to please every child on Christmas morning. Santa wanted to be very busy on Christmas Eve.

Two days before Christmas Santa came into his workshop and approached Earl. Earl had not broken anything that morning so he wondered what Santa wanted. When Santa placed his large hand firmly on Earl’s shoulder, as he liked to do, Earl became worried. A shiver ran down his spine.

“I haven’t broken anything this morning, Santa,” he said, trepidation in his voice.

“You’re not in trouble, Earl,” Santa reassured his favorite elf. “I am happy you’ve been careful and I’ve brought you a special project to work on.”

Earl’s eyes began to twinkle with excitement. “I will do anything, Santa.”

“I got a late letter this morning from a little girl and she says she’s been very good. All she wants is a doll with bright red hair and freckles on her face. Cloth her in a pretty pink dress and place white slippers on her feet and make her say “don’t worry” to my little brother who has cancer when I press her hand. Can you build a doll like that for this little girl in two days, Earl?”

“I sure can. It will be the best doll ever built in this shop.”

“I am counting on you, Earl. Don’t let this little girl and her brother down.”

Earl found another elf to take his station and hurried to a table used for special projects to begin working on a special doll. True to his proclivity for calamity it didn’t take long for another mishap to occur. In his excitement he’d forgotten to be careful and pay attention. Luckily Earl’s mishaps were usually minor breaches and easily fixed. This time Earl had cut out two left hands and two left feet for the doll. At least he could fix it and not take too much extra time.

He worked on the doll for several hours to make it just the way the little girl requested. Santa was adamant that children get just what they asked for, especially if they’d been very good during the year. Earl didn’t know what this little girl’s name was, but he knew she’d been a good girl and that was all he needed to know.

Early the next morning, only hours before Santa would leave on his sleigh filled with toys, Earl placed the last strand of bright red hair on the doll’s head. He looked at his creation. It was perfect. Earl was so excited that he tripped over his own feet racing to show Santa the doll. He clutched the doll against his chest trying to protect it from being damaged. The doll, with bright red hair and freckles and a pretty pink dress, pressed hard on Earl’s chest and caused him a great pain he’d never experienced before. The little doll was unbroken, but Earl felt like his heart was broken. It hurt so bad.

Hearing the commotion, Santa rushed to see Earl lying on the floor. Santa turned the elf over and pried the doll from his hands. Other than a few tousled strands of red hair, the doll was undamaged. Earl had protected the doll and now Santa leaned closer to see what he could do for Earl. It seemed like he wasn’t breathing. Santa looked at his chest but couldn’t see any rise and fall. But that couldn’t be possible. Earl, his favorite elf, was invincible. Always a misadventure around the next corner, but he always rebounded and came out unscathed. This time Earl laid still. He was not rebounding.

Santa lifted the small elf into his arms and called to Billy, his elf foreman. “We have to do something for Earl,” he said. “What can we do?”

“Maybe the doctor can do something,” Billy took Earl from Santa and placed him in a wagon earmarked for Santa’s bag to be given to a child who’d asked for a wagon.

An hour before Santa’s sleigh would take him to visit the children with all their toys in an overstuffed bag Billy approached him with red eyes. Santa saw tears of sorrow roll down the elf’s cheeks and soon his own rosy cheeks were stained. “It is bad news, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Billy managed. “The doctor did what he could, but Earl’s heart was bruised beyond repair by the pressure of the doll’s hand. Earl made sure this special doll was not broken when he tripped. His heroic act saved a little girl’s doll. All the other elves are calling him a hero, Santa. I think they are right.”

“I do, too,” Santa said. “And I will make sure Earl is remembered.”

With Earl’s doll and the wagon loaded on Santa’s sleigh, Santa began the long journey he made once every year. He rose into the sky with a jolly “ho, ho, ho.” But his heart was full of bittersweet emotion. Earl would not be in the toy shop when he returned.

The elves waved as Santa’s sleigh rose in the sky and out of their sight. They were shaken by the loss of their fellow elf and friend. They chided him for being a bundle of misfortunes, but they loved him as well. In their hearts Earl could not be replaced.

Santa descended upon rooftop after rooftop delivering toys to deserving children. He smiled at the sleeping children knowing they would awake a few hours later and find what he’d left for them. He also smiled because his elves had worked hard to ensure each child would be happy. A bicycle was placed near one tree, while a fire truck found its way under another. He placed a paint set under yet another tree and a football under the next. The night continued and Santa’s bag grew smaller and smaller. One thing still in the bag was a doll with bright red hair and freckles on her face. Soon this doll would also find its way under a special tree.

Over a small home in the western United States Santa pulled the doll Earl had built from his bag. As his sleigh came to a stop he hesitated. He knew with this special doll there should be a note about the special elf that’d created it. Santa hurried to write down his feelings about Earl and placed them with the doll. He placed both under a small artificial tree in the corner of a living room filled with the scent of mistletoe.

Santa emptied his bag and returned home. He sat down with his suit opened at the chest watching a big screen TV. This part of Christmas meant the most to him. Child after child appeared with smiles on their faces when they saw the toys they Santa placed under their tree. He continued to watch until finally a small girl appeared. She sat with her family in a small circle. Father and mother, a little girl and her younger brother laughed and Santa laughed, too. And then the little girl spoke to her mother and father, “There is a note from Santa with my doll.”

“What does it say?” her father asked.

She handed the note to her father. “Your doll was made by a special friend of mine named Earl. Earl had an accident protecting your doll from harm and he isn’t with me anymore. Will you remember Earl when you play with your doll? Now press the doll’s hand for your brother and listen to the words.”

Santa watched, tears moist in his eyes, as the girl placed the doll near her four year old brother and squeezed her soft hand. “Don’t worry, life is wonderful and everything will be okay. Your family loves you.” The voice speaking those tender words was Earl’s own. His final spoken words would bring comfort a young boy and warm a family’s heart.

Critique: POV is spotty. Stick with Earl in a tight 3rd person POV; do not interject your voice as narrator into the story. Give us more active scenes without the narrative, more sensory imagery, more depth in the characterization, and individualized voices for dialog.

And don’t kill the elf.

What I liked best: I like the idea of the clumsy elf making good on a special project, but that project should be something where his clumsiness actually turns into a strength, rather than a weakness.

Publication ready: No. Needs more work.

08 Alexa’s Custom Cookies

by Annaliese Lemmon

“Time to get up, Alexa,” Kelly opened the door to her ten-year-old daughter’s room. Alexa lay on her stomach, with her knees tucked up under her. Her face was pulled back in a grimace. The blankets spilled onto the floor. “Are you ok?”

“No,” Alexa groaned. “I must have eaten some gluten at Olivia’s last night.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. What did you have?” Kelly sat on the bed and pulled strands of Alexa’s brown hair from her face.

“Swedish meatballs and rice, so I don’t know where it came from. Her mom said she didn’t use flour in the sauce to thicken it.”

“Did she tell you what was in the meatballs? What did she use to replace the breadcrumbs?”

“There’s breadcrumbs in meatballs?” She sighed. “I should have known to ask about those too. I hate being a celiac. I wish I didn’t have to worry about every little thing that I eat.”

“I know, sweetie, I know.” Kelly kissed Alexa’s cheek. She worried as much as Alexa, and probably more, that the food she cooked didn’t get contaminated with any grains containing gluten. Her heart ached that this time she hadn’t been able to protect her daughter. “I’d make it go away if I could. Unfortunately, we just have to deal with it.”

Alexa sighed again and closed her eyes.

“What if I made you something special while you stay home from school? What would you like?”

After a few moments, Alexa asked, “Can you make sugar cookies?”

“Sugar cookies? Are you sure you don’t want something chocolate?”

“Rachel is having friends over tonight to decorate sugar cookies for Christmas. I’m definitely not going now, but I thought it would be nice to host my own party where I can actually eat the cookies.”

“That sounds like fun. Though I’ve not made gluten free sugar cookies before. I’ll have to see if I can find a recipe. Do you want anything to eat now?”

Alexa shook her head.

“All right. Just let me know when you’re hungry.”

After Kelly made her husband’s lunch and pushed her son Tristen out the door so he wouldn’t miss the bus, she sat down with her gluten free cookbooks. While they had recipes for other cookies, there weren’t any for plain sugar cookies. Undaunted, Kelly turned to her favorite cooking blogs and searched until she found a recipe. She printed it out and headed to the kitchen.

As Christmas carols played from her smart phone, she tied her gingerbread man apron on and opened the pantry. The recipe called for a generic gluten free flour mix, so she pulled down her rice flour, tapioca starch, and potato starch and measured out her usual ratios. When it was time to roll the dough, it was sticky even after chilling for two hours. Still, Kelly grinned as she pressed the snowman, Christmas tree, and candy cane cookie cutters into the dough. Until now, they had only been used for Jell-O Jigglers. Alexa was finally going to be able to participate in this Christmas tradition. Maybe they would actually leave cookies for Santa this year instead of fudge.

When she opened the oven, she closed her eyes and inhaled the sweet buttery aroma. Alexa wandered into the kitchen as Kelly started removing the cookies from the tray. Kelly handed one to Alexa on a spatula. “How is it?”

Alexa frowned slightly. “It needs milk and frosting.”

Kelly tried a snowman cookie. It had a light buttery taste, but it crumbled to powder in her mouth, sucking up all the moisture. “You’re right.” She poured herself a glass of milk and dunked her hatless snowman in. When she pulled him back out, he was missing his head and an arm as well. After she made some frosting, they spread it on the cooled cookies, but the cookies broke apart beneath the pressure of the frosting knives.

“Stupid cookies,” Alexa muttered as her third cookie dissolved into crumbs on her plate.

Kelly patted Alexa’s hand. “Don’t worry. I’ll make another batch.”

After cleaning the kitchen, Kelly went back to the blog to see what she may have done wrong. The gluten free mix that they used involved bean flour. She generally avoided bean flour when making sweets, afraid that the beany flavor would come through. But the flavor wasn’t really noticeable when she used the bean flour to make breads. Maybe she was worrying for no reason, and the beans would hold the cookies together. The next day, she made the recipe again, following the flour ratio provided on the site. When Alexa and Tristen got home from school, she had a plate of cookies and bowl of frosting waiting for them.

These cookies held together as they were frosted. But the butter flavor was completely overpowered by the sour and bitter tang from the bean flour. Tristen took one bite and said “My cookies are better” before running to escape Alexa’s arm jab and Kelly’s scolding.

“Don’t worry, I’ll try again,” Kelly said.

Kelly went back to the internet. The only recipes she could find either called for a generic mix, which, as she had found, might not give her the results she wanted, or called for flours like amaranth and mochi that she didn’t have in her pantry. She hated the idea of buying a bag just to use a cup. So she did what she’d done before finding these blogs – she set out to create the recipe herself.

Kelly went to the kitchen with her pink polka dot recipe journal in her hand. She had slightly over two weeks before the kids would be out of school, and then six days until Christmas. Her previous failures told her that this was a recipe that was going to take a lot of experimentation to get right. If she wanted a chance for a usable sugar cookie before Christmas, she was going to have to bake at least a batch a day.

She tried adding more starch. The cookies just fell apart easier. She tried using the ratios found in chocolate chip cookies. They didn’t hold their shapes. She tried nut flours, more eggs, less starch. Some were too grainy. Most crumbled when cool. She tried increasing the xanthan gum, which helps bind ingredients in gluten free cooking. They held together, but had a slight sour taste to them.

After trying the twelfth batch, Alexa asked, “Mom, are you going to be able to get a good recipe before school ends? Olivia’s going out of town as soon as vacation starts.”

“I don’t know. Sometimes it takes a long time to perfect a recipe. Remember those doughnuts?”

“Yeah. That took forever”

“Well, if I can’t get them done for Christmas, I’m sure I can get some for Valentine’s Day. How does that sound?”

“I really wanted to have the party for Christmas. What if I ate a couple of these while everyone else had regular cookies?”

“That could work, but it doesn’t sound fun if you have to force yourself to eat them.”

“I’ll be fine.”

That’s what Alexa had said a couple years ago when she didn’t want to take her gluten free cupcake to Rachel’s birthday party. So Kelly had let her go without it, and as predicted, Alexa came home depressed and hungry. This time wouldn’t be any different if she didn’t get these cookies right. “Let me try a few more experiments. I have three more days.”

“OK.” Alexa dragged out the letters with a sigh.

When Alexa left to do homework, Kelly dumped the cookies into the trash. Not only was she running out of time, but the grocery bills were mounting. How many dollars worth of ingredients had she dumped into the trash? It surely hadn’t surpassed the cost of Alexa’s new video game, right? She didn’t really want to find out, just like she didn’t want the scale to tell her what all these samples had done to her waistline.

Finally, two days before school ended for the year, she pulled a batch out of the oven that had held their shapes. She took a bite. It actually tasted good. It had a hint of almond, and the texture was nice and chewy. A couple hours later, she tried another. It still tasted good, and it didn’t crumble when frosted!

When the kids got back from school, Kelly started washing dishes so she wouldn’t be hovering while Alexa tasted the cookies. Alexa sat at the counter, then took her time in selecting a snowman cookie and slathering it with frosting. She took a bite. As she chewed, her eyes slowly grew round. “This one’s a keeper,” she said as she took another bite. “Can I invite my friends over right now?”

“Go for it.”

As Alexa ran for the phone, she called to Tristen. “These cookies are actually good!”

Tristen came to the counter to try one. “Not bad.” He grabbed a second cookie and headed back to the sofa to watch TV.

In a couple of hours, three of Alexa’s friends had arrived to frost and decorate the cookies. Kelly listened to them chat from the adjacent room. “Are all of these really gluten free?” Olivia asked.

“Yep,” Alexa said.

“I never would have guessed.”

Kelly grinned, the stress from the last couple weeks vanished. She’d hit the gold standard in gluten free baking – where even gluten eaters enjoyed it. But that didn’t measure up to the joy from making something that her daughter enjoyed eating.

Critique: This is a great way to raise awareness of celiac’s, but you need a little more tension and conflict to make it a really good story. It starts good, but slows down when Mom is trying all the recipes. Add some tension there. The ending is also a bit of a so-what. Add something from Alexa about how wonderful the party was and/or something about making more for Santa. And it definitely should include the recipe!

What I liked best: The uniqueness of the celiac twist.

Publication ready: Close. Jazz it up just a little.

07 The Grumpy Santa

The clatter of the sewing machine ticked away the seconds as Shauna guided the fabric through the feed dogs. She paused to adjust the fabric and checked the clock. “The kids’ll be here any minute. How am I ever going to get all four pairs pajamas done before Christmas?”

She pressed her foot harder on the control pedal, and the chatter picked up. She finished the seam, and the machine fell quiet, but instead of the expected silence, Shauna heard the roar of the school bus. With a sigh, she shoved the half finished blue and green plaid pajama bottoms in a bulging bag at her feet and rushed out of her sewing room.

About the same time she reached the kitchen, the front door opened, and four bundled children spilled into the house.

“Mom, where are you?’

“I’m in the kitchen.”

“You didn’t start without us; did you?”

Shauna met them in the dining room, wiping her dry hands on a kitchen towel to give the illusion that she had been washing dishes. “What?”

“The gingerbread house,” four voices chimed in unison.

Shauna pushed down the panic that rose up her throat and ran a quick memory check. She’d made the dough that morning and put it in the fridge. She’d bought candies yesterday when she went to the store. There was plenty of powdered sugar in the pantry. She had everything.

Shooting her dumbfounded children a dazzling smile, she answered the original question. “Of course I didn’t start without you.”

She turned to her oldest daughter. “Lacey, will you turn on the oven while I go get the pattern?” She headed out of the room and called over her shoulder, “Emily, you can get the dough out of the fridge. Boys, clear off the table, please.”

In half an hour, the smell of gingerbread tingled their noses as Shauna mixed the frosting, and the kids poured candies into several cereal bowls. When the timer buzzed, Shauna checked the geometric slabs in the oven. “Perfect. They need to cool for a few minutes. Let’s make a plan.”

Six year-old Tony stuck his finger in the frosting and licked off the resultant glob.

“Ah, Mom, we don’t want to plan it. Let’s just do it.”

Shauna frowned at him and pointed to the sink. Tony obediently washed his hands and returned to the table.

“Yeah!” Michael took up his little brother’s argument. “Let’s just do whatever we want.”

Lacy scowled. “You boys will glump on tons of candy, and it’ll look like there was an explosion at the Hershey factory.”

Emily popped a candy in her mouth. “I want to make it pretty.”

All four voices joined the fray, and Shauna’s patience faltered. “Stop it. All of you, be quiet.”

The children recognized the sound of frayed nerves and fell silent. Shauna took a deep breath, restoring her patience with the air.

“The girls can plan how to decorate the house, and the boys can do whatever they want with the trees. Okay?”

By the time Dad got home, the house perched on a foil covered board in the middle of the frosting smeared table. Cookie triangles covered in green frosting and globs of candy surrounded the carefully decorated structure.

Shauna looked up from placing the last gumdrop on the house and gasped at the sight of her husband. “Oh, Dan, is it that late? I haven’t even thought about dinner.”

Tony eyed the house and ventured a suggestion. “We could eat the house.”

His sisters erupted in protests, citing all the work they’d put into it.

Shauna shushed them and then announced, “I think you’ve all had enough candy.” She shrugged an apology to her husband. “I’ll whip something up. You kids clean off all this mess.”

Following a scrambled egg dinner, Shauna talked her husband into loading the family into the car and driving around town to see the Christmas lights. After homework and baths, the kids shuffled off to bed a half an hour later than usual.

Shauna returned to her sewing, and Dan watched a little television. After a while, he popped his head into the sewing room. “Are you about ready for bed?”

“I want to at least finish this last pair of bottoms. I have to do the rest of the shopping tomorrow, so I won’t have time to sew much before the kids get home.”

“Don’t stay up too late. You know how cranky you get when you’re tired.”

“I know. Just a little longer.”

Two hours later, Shauna dropped, exhausted, into bed beside her snoring husband.

In the morning, she gritted her teeth and pushed herself to get the kids and Dan out the door despite stinging eyes and a numb brain. Dan gave her a searching look but demonstrated the good sense to say nothing.

The crowded stores and limited supplies of the season’s most coveted gifts stretched Shauna’s morning of shopping well into the afternoon, and she had just stowed the last of the bags in her bedroom when the kids tumbled in the front door and headed to the kitchen for a snack.

Her feet throbbed from all the shopping, and her back ached from bending over her sewing machine late into the previous night. With four tops left to make, she despaired of getting to bed any earlier tonight. Tomorrow was the last day of school before the break, and then the kids would be home all day. She’d promised to take them to town to do their shopping, and she couldn’t sew with them home, anyway. The color and style of the year’s pajamas was always a surprise. If she got one of the tops done tonight after they went to bed, maybe she could get the rest done tomorrow. She could wrap them in her room later, and they’d be ready for the traditional opening of one gift on Christmas Eve.

Michael came out of the kitchen as she crossed the living room. “Mom, Timmy Booker has the flu, and Mrs. Williams asked me to take his part in the program tonight.” He jiggled with excitement. “Will you help me learn it? It’s the longest speaking part in the second grade!”

Shauna thought of the all the Christmas preparations she still had to work on. If I don’t make the cookies for the church Christmas party tomorrow before dinner, I’ll have to do it when I need to be sewing in the morning. “Maybe Lacey . . .” The look of disappointment on her little boy’s face stung her heart. “. . . can make dinner while I help you.”

Michael threw himself against her, almost knocking her over with his full body hug. She gave the other children directions for making dinner and settled down on the couch with Michael.

“Here’s my part. See, it’s almost a page long, and I have to read the whole thing.”

Shauna put her arm around him. “Let’s get started, then.” She pulled him close to her while he read, helping him with the hard words.

An hour later, Michael stood in front of his audience of one. “. . . Santa hung the last candy cane on the tree. He stood back and looked at his work. One thing was missing. He dug in his bag. It was not there. He looked under the tree. It was not there. He tiptoed down the hall and looked in Tim’s room. There it was. The joy of Christmas was in the boy’s heart. Santa gave him a smile and left the house with a ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’”

As Michael finished, loud clapping from the doorway startled Shauna. “Oh, Dan, we didn’t hear you come in!”

Michael ran over to his father and showed him the paper. “I got a big part in the school program, Dad.”

“Lacy told me. It sounds like you’re doing great.” Dan hugged his son and tousled his hair. “Can you go help the kids while I talk to Mom?”

“Okay.” Michael handed his mother the paper for safe keeping and skipped out of the room.

Shauna eyed her husband with suspicion. “What are up to, and what have you got behind your back?”

Dan smiled at her, but she saw worry in his eyes. He sat beside her, resting a large shopping bag against the couch on the side away from his wife. “Well, I’ve been wondering what I could give you for Christmas this year, and I think I’ve found the perfect present, but I’m afraid of how you’ll take it.”

Shauna scowled. She didn’t have time for this nonsense. She really didn’t care about her own gift. She just wanted to make Christmas special for the children.

“I decided to give you a break for Christmas.” He must have noticed her confusion because he hurried through a speech he had evidently practiced every bit as many times as Michael had practiced his part. “You work so hard to make the holiday special for everyone that sometimes I think you lose the joy that Michael’s story was talking about. I want to give you the time to slow down and enjoy the season.”

“Dan, what are you talking about?”

“I don’t want you to wear yourself out being Santa Clause this year. A grumpy Santa takes the joy out of celebrating Christ’s birth. I only want you to do the things that really bring peace to your heart. That will make Christmas special for all of us.”

Shauna shook her head. “But I have to . . . “

“No, Shauna, you don’t.” He took four blue T-shirts and a scrap of the pajama material out of his bag. Shauna had to admit they matched perfectly. “You can finish the pajama tops later if you want to, but you are going to bed at ten o’clock every night from now until Christmas.” He scrunched up his forehead and squinted at her in his best mock-serious glower. He reached into his bag and pulled out a package of Christmas cookies from the grocery store bakery. “They aren’t homemade, but they aren’t cheap packaged cookies, either. This is what you’re taking to the church party tomorrow.”

“But . . .”

“No buts. You are going to have a pleasant Christmas. I’ve taken the day after tomorrow off, and I’ll take the kids Christmas shopping, so you can stay home and wrap presents at the kitchen table instead of trying to do it on our bed while we’re all in the house. We’re all going to slow down and enjoy the holiday. We’re going to start when we get home from the program tonight. The whole family is going to sit down around the lit tree with the lights off and listen to this.” He took an instrumental Christmas CD from the bag and handed it to her. “We aren’t going to talk. We’re going to think about what Christmas means to us and how we can celebrate Christ’s birth and his life in meaningful ways. This is my gift to you.”

Shauna let the tears stream down her cheeks while she hugged Dan and thanked him for the best Christmas present she’d ever received.

Critique: Good idea. Work on the delivery. Watch out for long and awkward sentences. Add in more personality—I really prefer strong character driven stories. Watch your dialog tags. I think increasing the tension a little, having mother react like she’s frazzled or at least pump up her internal dialog so we know she’s really about to crack, would help a lot.

What I liked best: I love the father’s solution with the t-shirts. J

Publication ready: Not quite. Work on the characterization and I think you’ll have something good.