Merry Christmas with a Story (Sally & Gem)

“You’ve made a mistake. I can’t take her.” Gem’s tone was flat and too loud, making the social worker flinch. She gaped at the young woman, as though puzzled that her definitive pronouncement hadn’t made her vanish on the spot. No. Althea Washington remained perched on the edge of the old brocade settee.

Althea’s dark brown eyes personified empathy and her nod a reassuring pat on the back. “Yes, yes I understand Ms. Morgan—it’s an inconvenience. And a surprise too. But there’s nobody else to take her in. Would you rather your great-niece spend the holidays at a group home? Among strangers?”

Gem’s trembling jerked her small frame forward. Her gaze darted to the bay window – a perfect frame for the snow-covered pines outside – while she tried to think of something clever to say. She was too old to have a child underfoot—couldn’t this woman see that? “You seem to think repeating yourself will change something. It won’t.”

Althea lightly touched Gem’s arm, like you do with a child, to get her attention. “It’s only for three weeks. We’re trying to locate her father but no luck so far. Do you know him or how we can get in touch?”

Memories of her dysfunctional family jangled in Gem’s mind. Her niece Julie, whom she hadn’t seen in years, had gone and got herself killed. She knew nothing of the girl’s life, least of all who might be the father of the baby she’d had on her own.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Gem said. “I only set eyes on the baby once, after Julie came home from the hospital and stayed with her mother, my sister Hannah.” Gem clucked her tongue. “Colicky thing, always crying.” She twisted her fingers together, as though not knowing what to do with a pair of hands. “Julie probably didn’t know who the father was herself.” Althea pulled back as if in defense of Gem’s bluntness. Gem dug her nails into her palm, trying to rein in her bad temper. “It gives me no pleasure to say such things but my niece was troubled.”

“And Julie’s mother Hannah, is in assisted living?” Gem nodded. “I don’t suppose she would know?” Althea looked hopeful.

“My sister, Ms. Washington, has dementia and doesn’t know her own name, so if she ever knew the father’s name, it’s buried in a sea of twisted brain cells.” Gem tightened her lips to keep the hostility inside. “Most of the time Hannah doesn’t know me.” Grief threatened to bubble out of her.

In an act of surrender, Althea rose and straightened the jacket of her red suit. Gem thought the striking woman too lovely to be a social worker. Her beauty made Gem want to help her – funny how pretty people had that affect on her – but she simply couldn’t take in a child who for all intents and purposes was a stranger.

“Thank you for your time.” When she shook Gem’s hand her grip was warm and somehow comforting. At the front door, Althea stopped to admire an antique music box on the table. “How lovely.”

Gem smiled and let her defenses lower. “Yes, my most prized possession.”

“From someone special in your life?” Althea asked.

“My father. The last gift he gave me.” Gem squeezed back small tears. “He passed when I was a child. Very sudden. The day after Christmas.”

Althea’s eyes brimmed with sudden tears. “I’m so sorry. Losing a parent when you’re a child is a real tragedy. Especially at Christmas time.”

Gem nodded and her eyes met Althea’s. The silence between them arced of expectation. Gem uttered a plaintive, silent prayer to God, why me? She busied herself with rearranging the music box on the table. “How long?”

Althea’s smile seemed to cast a light into the room. Yes, she was a beauty and should have been a model or an actress—but her powers of persuasion weren’t wasted on social work. Not at all.

***

“We’re here!” Ms. Washington was very excited as the car came to a soft rolling stop. Sally resisted being coaxed out of the backseat where it was warm and safe. The cold air like needles inside Sally’s nose scratched at her cheeks. Ms. Washington took her hand and they trudged through the fresh snow to the front door. Her little pink backpack was heavy on her shoulders.

The doorbell donged inside the house as they shivered on the doorstep. Sally shifted from foot to foot as the frigid air stung her  bare legs. She worried she’d freeze before anyone came to the door.

With a whoosh the door opened and let out a cloud of warm air. Auntie Gem didn’t look at her, but talked over her head to Ms. Washington. They all trooped into the living room, where Sally perched on the edge of an itchy sofa then drifted into thoughts of her mommy and their cat, Smoochy. Before she was ready, Ms. Washington patted her shoulder, told her to be a good girl, then left.

Auntie Gem waggled Sally’s backpack at her. “What’re you waiting for?”

Sally followed Gem up the big stairs that squeaked and down the hallway until they stopped at one of the many doors. It was a big house for one lady. Auntie Gem must get lonely.

“This is your room while you’re here—and I expect you to keep it tidy. No dirty socks on the floor or cookie crumbs in the bed.”

Sally looked into Gem’s bluest of blue eyes. Her voice came out in a squeak, just barely bigger than a mouse’s. “Yes, Auntie Gem.”

She opened the door. “Just call me Gem.”

Sally gasped. It was a room for a princess. Not silly old her.

“Don’t stand there gaping. Come in,” Gem said, “it won’t bite you.”

Sally tiptoed into the room so she wouldn’t spoil its wonderfulness. Her eyes traveled over the little white bed with its pink coverlet, the baby dolls and teddy bears nestled against the ruffled pillows, all the way to the lacy curtains that filtered sunshine into the room. A table and chair just her size sat in the corner and was piled with coloring books, paper and crayons. Sally flung her arms around Gem’s legs. “Oh thank you, Auntie Gem!”

Gem patted Sally’s back. “Now, now, nothing to cry about little bird. Are you hungry?”

Sally rubbed her tummy as if to check. “Uh huh.”

“All right. You change out of that silly dress and put on something warm then come downstairs for soup.” Gem moved fast and Sally listened to her tromp down the stairs until it was quiet.

***

Sally shuffled into the kitchen dressed in old dungarees and a faded tee shirt. Gem rolled her eyes. Did the child have one stitch of decent clothing? “Don’t be shy, sit down little girl.”

Sally climbed into a chair and leaned her elbows on the table. “My name is Sally.”

Gem put a bowl of chicken noodle soup in front of the child and a cheese sandwich. “Well then Sally, milk or hot chocolate?”

The girl nibbled her sandwich. “Hot chocolate, please.”

Gem added milk, sugar, and cocoa powder to a saucepan on the stove, then stirred it slowly over a low flame.

“What’s that?” Sally asked.

“Hot chocolate of course.”

“Mommy never made it like that.” She craned her neck. “Where’s your microwave?”

Gem scoffed and turned up the flame. “People who know how to cook don’t need microwaves.” When it was ready, Gem poured the hot cocoa into mugs. She gave the little one to Sally and sat down with the other. “I like it better this way,” Gem winked.

Sally sipped the cocoa then grinned. “Me too!”

After lunch, Gem schooled Sally in the art of cookie baking. And  after the counters were lined with racks of oatmeal raisin, chocolate chip, and gingerbread men cookies, they’d earned another round of hot cocoa. With marshmallows. Perhaps it was too much excitement for the child because she nodded off halfway through her cocoa. Coaxing the sleepy up to her room, Gem put her down for a nap.

While Sally slept, Gem decorated the cookies and put them in festive tins for her Christmas visit with her afflicted sister. Poor Hannah—once bright and vibrant, now dull and lost. At least she still loved sweets, and although she wouldn’t know Gem or why she brought the cookies, Hannah would be happy to have them. Again the tiny tears appeared and she squeezed them back until they relented.

Somewhere in the middle of an old Christmas movie on TV, Sally wandered into the room, rubbing her eyes. She climbed into Gem’s lap and they watched the rest of the movie cuddled beneath a soft green afghan. And there was nothing strange about it at all to either one—as though they’d always been a pair and always would be.

***

Gem and Sally moved as a shopping tornado through Macy’s department store. Gem flung sweaters, dresses, and pants over her arm, until she couldn’t carry another thing. She fussed over each item before proclaiming it right but Sally loved them all. They left the store with lots of bags. Sally left her old clothes in the dressing room and  wore her new pink sweater, sneakers, and the puffy red parka with matching mittens. It wasn’t even Christmas yet but it felt like Christmas anyway. They tromped through the snow to Gem’s old blue Chevy and were off like two super heroes on a mission. Life with Auntie Gem was a lot more fun than Sally imagined.

When the car stopped in front of a house Sally didn’t recognize, her hands tightened inside her mittens. “Am I going here now?” The red coat and mittens were my going away clothes?

Gem scrunched her face. “This is your Grandma’s house.”

Sally raised her head to get a better look. “My Grandma?”

“Indeed,” Gem said.

Sally craned her neck. “Is she in there?”

“No, but you’ll meet her soon enough.”

Sally slouched back in her seat beneath the window so nobody could see her. “Am I gonna live with her?”

Gem opened her door and stepped out in one quick motion, then slammed the door shut. She came round to Sally’s door and opened it. “Live with her? Good lord, no. We’re here to pick up the mail.”

Gem pulled her along the walkway. “But Mommy said…”

Gem unlocked the door with one of the many keys on her big keychain. “Not for you to worry about, child.”

Inside, it was dark and smelled like old shoes. Sally wrinkled her nose and didn’t understand why Gem chuckled—there was nothing funny about the house.

Gem started for the stairs but the boxes in the entryway stopped her. “What in blazes?” She dug out her eyeglasses from her big purse and studied the labels. “What’s this, Sally?”

Breath catching in her throat scared she’d done something wrong, Sally shrugged her shoulders.

Gem tapped the box with her finger. “These have your mother’s name on them. Were you coming here? To live? With Hannah?”

Sally shrugged extra hard so Gem would see she was telling the truth. “Mommy said we were going home.” Tears formed in the corners of her eyes and they burned. Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall. “But I don’t know where home is.”

Gem’s eyes creased and she scooped Sally into her arms. “Oh peanut, home is here. With me. Don’t you cry now. Nothing at all to cry about.”

Sally sat on the steps while Gem dug through the boxes as though there were a secret hidden in them that she wanted to know. Maybe she put something in her big shiny purse or maybe Sally dreamed it—her eyelids were heavy and dreaming seemed a good idea. A stack of mail in her hand, Gem ushered Sally out the door. “We’re off.”

Snuggled into the backseat of the car, Sally fell asleep to the rumble of the engine. When she woke, Gem was tucking her in with her teddies and dollies. “I’m not sleepy.”

Gem stroked her hair. “You just rest your eyes for a bit, then.”

***

Gem brewed a pot of coffee and stared at the manila envelope on her kitchen table. The words, ‘will’ and ‘insurance’ scrawled across it like a curled finger trying to draw Gem in. So there it was—the name of Sally’s father, sitting in a envelope on her table. Calling to her – open, open, open me…

The second the coffee finished brewing Gem had a big mug of the stuff in her hand – but she teetered between the counter and the table. If she sat down she’d have to open the envelope. If she didn’t sit down, she could stall a bit longer.

The bell chimed and Gem flew out of the kitchen to answer the door. Caution prevented her hand from turning the knob—the man on her doorstep was a stranger. Skinny and nervous from the way he shuffled from foot to foot. The smell of his cigarette had managed to steal its way inside. He caught Gem watching him through the side glass and his smile was put on and sudden. “Hello!”

Gem turned the knob and cracked the door just enough to speak. “May I help you, young man?”

His dull green eyes looked over her head into the house. “It’s about Sally.”

On that alone, Gem wanted to slam the door shut and lock it against this stranger and any who’d come after him. “Who are you?”

He looked over her head again. “It’s awful cold out here. A nice cup of coffee would be great about now.”

Gem braced all of her ninety-seven pounds against the door. “Again, I ask you, who are you?”

The man leaned closer and he stunk of cigarettes and stale coffee. “I’m Sally’s father.”

Suddenly, the envelope on her kitchen table wasn’t nearly the threat it seemed earlier. Gem glared at the man. “Indeed. Have you any proof of that? You don’t think I’ll turn that child over to you on just your word, do you?”

His smiled collapsed and the dull eyes came alive with something sharp and jagged that frightened Gem. “Where is she?”

Suddenly a little tug on Gem’s sweater turned her around. Sally looked up at her, eyes still sleepy. “Why is Eddy here, Gem?”

Gem was taken aback and crestfallen. “You know this fellow?”

Sally peeked around Gem at the skinny fellow leering at them. “He’s Mommy’s friend.”

Eddy knelt and opened his arms. “No hug for Eddy, little Sal?”

Sally clung to Gem’s leg. “No thank you.”

Eddy took the rejection in stride and rose to his feet. “That’s okay honey. I understand.” His gaze fixed on Gem. “Must be the shock about Julie.”

Gem pointed to the sidewalk. “I’ll thank you to leave. Now.”

Eddy rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. “I’ll just be back.”

So fierce was her urge to protect Sally that Gem pushed him and he fell backwards onto the icy porch. “You had better not return. Not without proof.”

Stunned, Eddy flapped his jaw but words wouldn’t come. Gem responded by closing the door. The deadbolt made a satisfying and resounding snap.

She took Sally by the hand and pulled her into the kitchen—away from Eddy who persisted in peering through her window. She lifted Sally into a chair and bent so she could look the child in the eye. “Do you know that man, Sally?”

Sally nodded.

“He says he’s your daddy. Is he?”

Sally shook her head. “No.”

Gem trembled – partly with anger but also with fear. “Are you sure? Maybe your mommy didn’t want to tell you yet.”

A big tear pooled in Sally’s eye for a moment then rolled down her cheek. “I don’t have a daddy. I told you. Eddy is bad. Mommy said so. We didn’t talk to him anymore because he stole Mommy’s  money.”

***

Despite her impassioned pleas, Althea informed Gem that Eddy would still undergo paternity testing. If in fact, he turned out to be Sally’s daughter, they would have no choice but to start custody proceedings. Gem now had another reason not to open the envelope with Julie’s handwriting on the front. The thought of turning Sally over to that wretched creature made her soul ache.

How could she ever give Sally back? Give up the child of giggles and light? No, she couldn’t. She wouldn’t. She hung up the phone and absent-mindedly ran her fingers over the ornate music box from her father.

“What’s that?” Sally murmured.

Gem jumped with a start and turned to the child. “You scared the Dickens out of me.”

Sally stood on tiptoes and tapped the box with her pudgy finger. “What’s that?”

Gem’s finger caressed the carving gently. “It’s my music box.”

“It’s pretty.”

Gem picked the box then led Sally into the living room. Sally climbed into her lap and rested her little head against Gem’s chin. “My papa gave this box to me when I was a little girl like you.”

“I love it,” Sally said. Her clear blue eyes searched Gem’s face. “I don’t have a daddy.”

“Oh honey, everybody has a daddy.” But please Lord, don’t let it be Eddy.

Sally shook her head. “Nuh uh, Mommy said I don’t have one and it was just us.” Her head dropped against Gem’s chest. “Now I don’t have a mommy either.”

Gem stroked Sally’s silky hair. “But you have me. You’ll always have me, sweet girl.”

Sally looked up at Gem and smiled. “My Gem!” She hugged Gem’s neck. “My Gem, my Gem, my Gem,” she murmured.

Gem cried into Sally’s soft hair. “Yes, I’m your Gem. I’ll always be.” And no one shall ever tear us apart.

***

With the decorations up, and the sparkling tree in at the bay window, Gem couldn’t remember the last time she’d loved Christmas so. Cross-legged on the floor, Sally eyed the packages stuffed under the tree. “Are those all for me?”

“Most of them, yes.”

Sally gaped at Gem as shocked as a six year old could be. “Really?”

Gem nodded. “Now, get away from temptation, we have visiting to do.”

Sally let Gem tug at her dress and pat down her hair. “You look just like a little princess in that dress.” Gem smiled and squeezed back tears. “Do you like it?”

Sally twirled and giggled. “It’s the most beautifulest dress I ever saw.” Tears sprung to her eyes and she threw her arms around Gem. “How come you love me so much, Gem? Am I a good girl?”

Gem kissed the top of the girl’s head. “You are. Such a good girl. The best, my little monkey.”

No time for blubbering, Gem bundled up Sally, loaded the bags filled with presents and cookie tins, and away they went in the old blue Chevy.

The home where Hannah resided stretched wide across the snowy ground and the old pine in front was strung with Christmas lights, a lonely wreath hung on each of the double doors and that was the entirety of the holiday cheer.

Sally trailed after her as she walked through the halls, passing out cookies and small packages. And people seemed more cheerful and happy than in Christmases past and that put a little spring in Gem’s step. No doubt, it was her sweet Sally that had the magical effect on the sad old sacks and tired nurses. Saying hello and Merry Christmas, blowing kisses and passing out giggles. Yes, a little child can be a wonderful elixir if you let her. And no word from snaky Eddy was a reason for good cheer too.

But the mood changed when they reached Hannah’s door. Would Sally understand? She squeezed Sally’s hand gently. “Are you ready to meet your Grandma?”

Sally nodded.

“She won’t know you, honey. She’s sick and doesn’t remember things. But she’ll still be glad to see you. So you give her a smile and a hug and don’t feel bad if she doesn’t know you, all right?”

Sally stood up straight as if to prepare herself for the task. “Okay Gem, I will.”

Only a small lamp shined lit the room and the sad little tree on the bedside table tried to be happy but wasn’t. Hannah was so small that the bed seemed to swallow her up. “Hannah,” she whispered.

Sally brought two cookie tins to the bed. “Hi Grandma, I’m Sally.”

Hannah’s eyes were empty when they looked at Sally but Hannah’s eyes were always empty. Undaunted, Sally set the cookie tins on the bedside table. “These are your cookies. Gem and me cooked them for you. They are very yummy. Would you like one?”

Hannah cocked her head and met Sally’s gaze for a moment, a whisper of a smile danced at the corners of her mouth. “Cookies?”

Sally grinned, opened a tin, and offered it to Hannah. “See? Cookies. Very yum-yum.”

Hannah grabbed at the cookies with both hands. She bit the head off a gingerbread man. “Mmmm, yum-yum,” Hannah mumbled through a mouthful.

Sally giggled and stuffed cookies in her mouth too. “Mmm hmm, yum yum.”

Sally told Hannah all about her room, her clothes and the big Christmas tree in the living room then helped Hannah eat up the cookies.

And when all the cookies were gone, Gem said, “It’s time we say goodbye, Sally.”

Sally nodded and took a napkin and wiped crumbs from Hannah’s mouth. “Good bye, Grandma. I love you.”

Sally hugged Hannah and Hannah said, “I love you too, Julie.”

Gem’s heart broke and soared at once. Hannah thought Sally was her own daughter Julie. If only Gem had cared more, maybe it would’ve been Julie there, hugging her mother. She peered into her sister’s eyes. “You remember Julie?” Hannah’s eyes sparked for a moment and Gem nodded. “Yes, that’s right, your little girl.”

Hannah’s eyes emptied again and she was gone, disappeared into the prison that was her mind. But Gem thanked God for that one moment he gave to her sister. A moment when she remembered being loved.

Gem turned to Sally, “Okay chatterbox, time to go.”

Sally waved and blew kisses to Hannah as Gem pulled her away.

***

Althea Washington was a vision in a green pantsuit and beaming smile. They sat at Gem’s kitchen table, drinking coffee and nibbling Christmas cookies. Gem had finally worked up her nerve to open Julie’s papers. As suspected, Sally’s father name was in them. Thankfully, it wasn’t Eddy’s name she found though.

Althea read the papers slowly and carefully. Finally, she set the papers aside, took Gem’s hand, and looked at her. “You’ve given Sally a great gift by finding her father.”

“We don’t know anything about him. He could be a drug addict for all we know. Or worse.” She made a face. “Like Eddy.”

Althea’s smile dimmed. “Yes, of course, that’s possible. But I’ll make sure Daniel Keller is a fit parent for Sally. It’s a good name, isn’t it? Strong and simple.”

Gem felt a small surge of hope. “And if he isn’t a fit parent?”

Althea raised a brow. “Are you…?” She laughed. “No, of course you aren’t.”

“I’m not, what?” Gem asked.

“You aren’t saying you’d want to keep Sally. I mean, if her father…isn’t fit?”

Gem bit hard into a sugar cookie as if to emphasize her point. “That is most certainly what I’m saying.”

Althea looked genuinely surprised. “That’s the last thing I expected you to say.”

Gem reared back. “Is it so unthinkable that I might want her?”

Althea went to the window and waved to Sally who worked on building a snowman.

“What’s wrong?” Gem asked.

Althea turned away from the window, but couldn’t look Gem in the eye.

“You don’t believe they’d give Sally to me?”

Althea fixed her gaze on the floor. “There may be a question of suitability…”

Gem cocked an eyebrow. “I was suitable enough when Sally had no one, wasn’t I?”

Althea carried her coffee cup to the sink. “When it was a choice between foster care and an actual relative.” She finally gave Gem her eyes. “I know it’s not fair, but Sally is a little girl and the preference is to place young children with families.”

Gem scoffed. “Not some old battleaxe that might kick the bucket any day?”

Althea reached out her hand but Gem went to the window and watched Sally, happy as a little bird. “I’m her blood, Althea. I love that child.” She turned her tear-stained face to Althea. “Don’t you know that?”

Althea clasped Gem’s trembling hands. “It’s obvious she adores you and you her. She isn’t the same child I brought here two weeks ago. It’s just that a permanent placement is different…” her voice trailed off, clearly not wanting to hurt Gem’s feelings. Althea beamed another smile and patted Gem’s hand. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, okay? Let me locate Daniel Keller and see where that puts things.” Resigned, Gem nodded. “No matter what, you’ll have Sally through New Year’s Day—so let’s focus on that, okay?

Gem surrendered to the emptiness already nesting in her heart. At the front door, she threw her scrawny arms around Althea and whispered. “Bless you for bringing me Sally and a Merry Christmas to you, dear. A very Merry Christmas.”

***

Christmas Eve had Sally twitching and jittery, full of anticipation. Gem read The Night before Christmas to her but was peppered with questions every other line. “What’s a sugar plum? Do you wear a cap to bed? I don’t. Will I hear Santa’s sleigh when he lands on the roof? Are the elves coming too? What do I call them if they come to my room?”

Gem finished the story and tucked the covers in tight around Sally. Such a little angel. Who couldn’t love this child? She didn’t turn off the light and then shush Sally to sleep as was her custom. She sat on the bed next to the child.

“I’ve something to tell you, honey.”

Sally’s sleepy eyes popped open. “Is it a secret? I love secrets. Don’t you, Auntie Gem?”

Gem stroked Sally’s silky hair. “Not exactly a secret but perhaps a surprise.”

Sally’s face flooded with light. “Tell me, tell me.”

Gem forced air into her weary lungs to push the tears deeper inside. Sally mustn’t see. “Well now, remember when you said you didn’t have a daddy?”

Sally lowered her lids and tapped her pudgy fingers against the quilt. “Uh huh.”

Gem patted her cheek. “Turns out you made a mistake. You do have a daddy.”

Sally shot up and craned her neck. “Where is he?”

Gem tweaked her nose. “He’s not here, honey. But Ms. Washington is looking for him.” Sally made a suspicious face. “No honey, it isn’t that terrible Eddy, I’m talking about. His name is Daniel Keller.” She peered into Sally’s face. “Do you remember your Mommy telling you that name?”

Sally shook her head.

Gem let out a weary sigh. “Well, that’s his name. And as soon as Althea finds him, we’ll be seeing him.”

Sally scrunched her face. “How do we know he’s my daddy? How will she find him? What if he doesn’t want to come?”

Gem hugged her. “Don’t you worry, if he’s out there, Althea is the gal who’ll find him. And you, like all good little girls, will have a daddy of your own.”

“Will he take me away? From here?” Sally asked.

Gem nodded. “I expect you’ll live at his house, yes.”

Tears wet Sally’s cheeks. “But I live here. In my pretty room. With you.”

“Well honey, you can come to see me any old time you want. That room will always be yours.”

“Too many things change all the time,” Sally complained. “I don’t like it.”

Gem’s heart soared at Sally’s loyalty, but one look at her father would change her mind. Once Daniel Keller came into her life it would never be the same and Sally would never let go of the father she should always have had. Why would she?

After Sally fell asleep, Gem and went downstairs. She sat cross-legged on the floor and struggled to put together a bicycle and a dollhouse. She muttered and cursed as she hadn’t in years and understood just a small aspect of the stress that modern parents experienced. As Gem staged and re-staged the bike and dollhouse, the doorbell rang. “Who on Earth?” Gem said as she rushed for the door, worried the racket would wake Sally.

Gem opened the door without thinking and when her eyes fell on the handsome blond man she knew. “Daniel?”

He nodded and gave a quick smile—and Gem knew instantly he was Sally’s father. Because that was Sally’s smile. Those were Sally’s eyes. There was no doubt.

Gem held the door open. “Come in.”

“I’m sorry,” he said in a rush, “but I couldn’t stay away. Ms. Washington asked me to wait until after the holidays. I wasn’t going to bother you, I just drove by to see the house and the next thing I knew I was ringing your bell…”

“Take a breath, boy,” Gem said, “we’ve plenty of time.”

They went back to the kitchen for coffee and conversation. And Daniel Keller’s energy and kindness woke up the old house just as Sally’s had. There was no denying that Daniel would be a fine father to Sally.

“From your enthusiasm, I’m guessing you want Sally?”

“Of course,” Daniel said without hesitation. “Julie never told me about Sally. She just disappeared one day, leaving me a Dear John letter on the pillow.” And the hurt in his blue eyes assured Gem that he had loved Julie deeply.

“Why didn’t you go after her? Julie, I mean?” It was none of Gem’s business but she wanted to know anyway.

Daniel shrugged. “Pride, I guess. Maybe I thought Julie would realize she’d made a mistake and come back. I wrote to her but the letters always came back and I don’t know. We were young and stupid.” Daniel smiled sadly. “Julie was my first love. And always will be.”

They talked into the night and Gem learned that Daniel had his own design company, and was married to a pretty redhead named Marsha. Both wanted children but hadn’t been able to conceive.

“I think Marsha might be more excited about Sally than I am,” he beamed. “She loves kids – she’s going to be a great mom, she really is. Sally will never want for anything. I swear, on my honor, that we will cherish her.”

Gem’s heart broke in two. And yet the joy she felt for her little Sally made her smile. “You had better young man, or you’ll have me to deal with.”

***

Gem hadn’t laughed so hard and jolly in all her life. Just watching Sally rip through her presents and zoom across the dining room on her bicycle, falling in a heap on the floor and dissolving into a pile of giggles was more than Gem could take.

“This is the bestest Christmas ever!” Sally sang.

And it was. For both of them.

***

Sally sobbed. “But I don’t want to go.”

Gem hugged her. “I know, sweet girl—but it’s all for the best.”

“Nuh uh,” Sally whimpered.

Gem smoothed Sally’s hair and smiled through her own tears. “Yes it is, honey. Where’s the little girl who always wanted a daddy?”

“I don’t want a daddy—not if I can’t have you too.”

Gem rocked Sally in her arms. “Oh silly girl, you’ll always have old Gem. Always.”

They sat on the bed and watched the sun sink below the horizon. Sally whispered in the dark. “Gem. When will I ever see you?”

“Any time you like. My trusty old Chevy will take me anywhere I want to go. I’ll be there lickety split, any time you need me, honey.” That assured Sally but Gem but knew it was a promise she wouldn’t be able to keep.

“I always need you,” Sally said.

The doorbell rang and they stood like soldiers going to war. Gem picked up Sally’s backpack and her little pink suitcase, and they walked hand in hand down the stairs to the front door.

Althea, Daniel, and Marsha smiled as if on cue, as the door opened.

Daniel had a bagful of gifts and Marsha looked like she would explode from happiness. “Hi!”

“Hello,” Sally said and looked up at Gem.

“It’s your daddy, honey. Give him a hug.”

Daniel bent down and Sally hugged him lightly. “Hi, Daddy.”

“Hi, Sally.” He opened the bag for her to see. “Santa left these for you at our house.”

“That’s a lot,” Sally said without accepting the gifts.

Gem shivered, and waved them inside. “Come in, come in. Let’s have some coffee and sweets. And toast to the New Year.”

Daniel and Marsha looked at Althea. “It’s a long drive and the Kellers just want to get Sally back to their hotel before the roads get too bad. There’s a storm coming.”

Gem was surprised. “Hotel?”

Althea’s smile dimmed. “Yes, the Kellers live in New York.  They’re catching an early flight tomorrow morning.”

Gem’s heart sunk, her old blue Chevy wouldn’t make it back and forth to New York.  She nodded and smiled. “Of course, no reason you’d want to lollygag around here.” She bent down to Sally and buttoned up her coat. “Now, you be a good girl and listen to your daddy. Okay?”

“I don’t want to go to New York, Gem. I want to stay here with you,” Sally whispered.

“Oh, but you must, child.” Gem hugged Sally tight. “You’ll see, it’ll be grand. You’re going to have a beautiful room and clothes and go to a nice school. I’ll come visit you all the time.”

Tears spilled down Sally’s soft little cheeks. “Okay.”

Gem smiled at her child of light and love. “That’s my big brave girl.”

Marsha took Sally by the hand. “Come on, Sally, let’s get you in the car. You’re going to love our house, it’s so big, and we have a dog named Homer.”

Sally’s face lit up. “A dog? Really? I have a dog?”

“You bet.”

Gem watched as Marsha led Sally away, already moving into her new life. The life she was always meant to have.

Daniel gave Gem a quick hug. “Thank you, Ms. Morgan. Thank you for everything.”

Gem clutched his arm. “You take care of her. Promise me?”

Daniel hugged her again. “It’s a promise I will be happy to keep. Please don’t worry about her. We love her so much already our hearts are busting open.”

Gem released him and watched him rush toward his new family and future.

Althea and Gem stood on the doorstep and waved them good-bye until the car was out of sight. Althea put her arm around Gem. “It’s for the best, you know?”

Gem leaned against Althea, unable to hold back her tears any longer. “Yes, I know. I don’t like it, but I know it.”

Althea hugged Gem. “I promise you, she’ll be loved.”

“If she isn’t, I shall move heaven and earth to get her back.”

***

When Sally left she took the sunshine with her and left only shadows behind. Gem couldn’t bear to open the door to Sally’s old room because it made her miss her even more.

Gem busied herself with baking, cleaning, and visiting her sister Hannah. Her heart jumped every time the phone rang or the doorbell sounded, hoping against hope that it was Sally. Sometimes it was, but less and less as the months passed. It was what Gem had expected—she was never meant to be a permanent part of Sally’s life. She was merely a temporary sanctuary until the world righted itself and reunited Sally with Daniel.

Daniel Keller had kept his word, for Gem got regular reports from Althea that Sally was well and adjusting and most important, happy.

***

Soon, another Christmas nipped at Gem’s heels, and she felt emptier still. She wanted to lock herself in the house until it was all over, but instead she went out and bought a Christmas tree. Not as grand as the year before, but nice enough. And that led to buying bags of toys and gift-wrap. And that led to adopting a cat from the animal shelter—a charming orange tabby that she named Smoochy.

Gem wrapped the toys in bright paper and bows, then packed them and tins of cookies into her old blue Chevy.

And no one was more surprised than Althea Washington when Gem walked right in, put down her packages, and said, “Merry Christmas, Althea.”

Althea grinned. “Merry Christmas to you too, Gem. What’s all this?”

“Let’s not dilly dally. You’ve got lots of kids that you look after, don’t you?”

Althea’s eyes went wide. “Yes, many.”

“Foster kids? Kids with no folks or family?” Gem asked.

Althea nodded. “Sadly, we always have more kids than homes to place them in.”

“Well, this all is for them then. Nothing special mind you, just toys, and sweets. You just go ahead and pass them out as you see fit. Okay?”

Althea beamed. “Okay, I will.” Gem could practically see Althea’s thinking wheels spinning. “I know just where to take them too. We have a couple of group homes where the foster parents are wonderful but things are tight. This will be such a blessing to them.” Giggling, Althea threw her arms around Gem. “You always surprise me, Gem. I never know what to expect. You’re a wonderful lady.”

Gem felt her old wrinkled cheeks flushing. She patted Althea’s back. “All right—Merry Christmas, and I’m off.”

Althea caught Gem by her coat sleeve. “Wait, where are you going in such a hurry?”

Gem shrugged. “Home I suppose. Why?”

Althea’s eyes danced with mischief. “Do you have time to meet someone?”

Gem laughed. “Why not? It’s Christmas, after all.”

“I’ll be right back.” Althea disappeared down the hall—her high heels clacking against the linoleum floors. A few minutes later, she returned with a pretty little girl sporting long dark braids and a spray of freckles across a pug nose.

“Gem, this is Zoë.”

Gem smiled at the bashful girl. “Hello Zoë, glad to meet you.”

In a tiny voice, Zoë said, “Hello, ma’am.”

“Do you like cats, Zoë?” Gem asked.

Zoë nodded.

“Well I have a big ol’ cat named, Smoochy. He sure needs a friend though. Would you like to be his friend?”

Zoë smiled and bobbed her head up and down. “I love kitties.”

“That’s grand,” Gem said tugging on Zoë’s braid. “And how about cookies and hot chocolate?  Do you love those things too?”

Zoë giggled. “Of course.”

Gem grinned at Althea and whispered. “Thank you.”

Althea patted her back. “No, thank you.”

Gem put her arm around Zoë. “How long?”

Althea shrugged. “Three weeks? Maybe longer?”

 

The End.

Merry Christmas!

Copyright © 2013 Anita Rodgers

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Free Holiday Story

I don’t know about you, but I love, love, love the holidays. Even though I’m in Sunny California, I still dream of  the white Christmases of my childhood. I remember as a little girl, I would sit at the window wrapped in my blanket, determined to stay awake until Santa arrived. Because of course, i wanted to see him with my own eyes. More often than not, I woke up Christmas morning with my face stuck to an ice cold window and a stiff neck. That darn Santa never did let me catch sight of him.

Another thing I love about the holidays is giving gifts. It’s so fun to see people’s faces light up in anticipation of what is in the brightly wrapped and ribboned package, isn’t it?

As my gift to you I wanted to give you a holiday story called, Sally & Gem.

You can download it at Noisetrade or Instafreebie

The story comes in PDF, Mobi, and ePub file formats. If you do not have a Kindle or eReader you can download kindle for pc, tablet, or phone here.

And an ePub can be read with Digital Editions as well as an eReader.

And a PDF can be read on your phone, pc, laptop, or tablet.

Please feel free to share this post and/or the download links to the story with friends or family. I love spreading holiday cheer.

Big love and Happy Happy Holidays.

Annie

Free or Almost Free Things to do During the Holidays That Won’t Stress You Out

I don’t know about you but I am so over, stressing myself out because of Christmas. Worrying about the perfect gifts, the perfect meal, the perfect venue just guarantees your holiday is gonna be stressed.

To this day, I remember childhood Christmases where my mother was so intent on creating the perfect everything that she was utterly miserable by the time the day arrived. It still makes me sad that because she tried so hard to make Christmas wonderful for everyone else that she missed the joy herself.

Christmas is the time for family, fun, and reflection.

I offer the following ideas as some easy but fun and peace inducing activities to indulge in this holiday season.

Collect pine cones. They are everywhere. Even here in Southern California we have lots of pine trees. They come in all sizes, smell wonderful, are great fire starters for the fireplace, and make great elements in decorating and craft projects. Plus the walking in the cool air and doing something as simple as collecting pine cones will give your mind and body time to breathe and relax.

Tour the neighborhood for light displays. When the weather turns cold we tend to shelter inside and we tend to eat heavier foods too. Why not bundle up after dinner with the kids, a friend, or your special someone and do a little walking tour of the neighborhood lights. In my neighborhood, we have quite a few people who go all out and something about sparkling lights or entire Santa Workshops shining in the night makes the air feel magical. Plus you burn a few of those Christmas cookies off while you’re at it.

Baking parties/cookie swaps. I love the idea of baking parties and if you have a big kitchen or a friend has, that’s definitely something that can be fun do with some friends. Especially if you have a nice bottle of wine or mulled cider. But you can also work out a cooperative with friends and family. Instead of making all the many treats and dishes you make every year, get with some friends or family members and work out swaps. You make the sugar cookies, your sister makes the pumpkin loaves, your mom the jello mold and so on. It’s actually easier to make a lot of one thing that a little of a lot of things. And when it comes time to swap it’s fun.

Sign up for Book Bub or Instafreebie and get some free books to read by the fire. The colder weather also makes people slow down and want to curl up with a good book. Book Bub and Instafreebie (as well as other sites) are free to sign up for and you can choose from free and discounted books (from traditional best sellers to brand new indie authors) to download. All you need after that is some warm fuzzy socks and a mug of hot chocolate.

Christmas movie cooperative/marathon. Personally, I have a huge collection of Christmas movies and there is at least a few days during the holiday season that I want to just watch sweet Christmas movies. Work out a little lending library among friends and family to share your Christmas movies. Or just cook up some popcorn and hot chocolate and host a Christmas movie marathon. You can even make it a potluck.

Take winter photos. We’ve all seen them – those beautiful winter wonderland photos that all seem to possess some magic in them. Why not create some of your own? Grab your phone or your camera and just take a walk. Find something that strikes your eye and take few snaps at different angles. You get some fresh air, burn a few calories and come home with some possibly beautiful photos that you can use in holiday cards or as prints. Free online photo editing sites like Canva, iPiccy, and Pxlr can help you further enhance and design with your photos.

Share a little bit of yourself. I know I know, we’re all so busy with everything during the holidays but don’t forget your elderly neighbors or family members who can’t get out much. Offer to shovel their sidewalk. Make an extra batch of cookies or increase that soup recipe and bring it to a shut in or local shelter. Or offer to read at the community center or local library. Giving of yourself really costs so little and can mean so much to another person.

A Story for Christmas…

christmas-pic-for-blog

I wrote the Christmas story,”Nick,” years ago when I was feeling blue about Christmas. Every few years, I pull it out and putter around with it. Change the title, revise, edit…a writer’s prerogative, I suppose. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it. And I wish you a Merry Christmas. Anita

Nick

With one sweep, I cleared my desk of the eggnog, cookies, and fruitcake into the trash and made for the door.

Just as I was about to make a clean getaway, Ellen blocked me at the exit.  “Where are you going, Sarah?” her red curly hair and green eyes really made the elf hat work for her and I secretly wondered if she worked for Keebler.  “It’s Christmas,” Ellen said in that dreamy Christmas voice everybody seemed to get that time of year.

I rolled my eyes.

Ellen giggled which sent her red curls into a spasm of bounces. ‘Okay, this party is pretty lame but I was hoping we could go catch some lunch and talk.”

“I can’t, Molly will be home soon,” I said hoping that if I played the kid card Ellen would let me off the hook.

Ellen smiled.  “Oh how is she? Is she excited about Christmas?”

“Yep, just like every other six-year-old in the world,” I said – although probably not as excited as Ellen, from the looks of it.

“Okay, well you want to get home and who can blame you?  But I wanted to give you this,” Ellen took a folded piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to me.

I looked at the paper without unfolding it.  “What’s this?”

“It’s the flyer for the shelter I told you about? A bunch of us are going there on Christmas morning to help out.  Remember?  Anyway, you said you wanted the information, so there it is.”

I nodded and jammed the paper in my coat pocket. “Okay, I’ll see if I can make it.” Which we both knew was code for, not in a million years would I go to a homeless shelter on Christmas morning.

Ellen smiled. “Right.  Okay then, Merry Christmas,” she said and gave me an awkward hug.

“Merry Christmas,” I mumbled and put my hand on the doorknob.

“Sarah?”

I turned back. “Yes?”

“What’s your beef with Christmas, anyway?” Ellen asked, her big green eyes sparkled – even under the hideous flourescent light.

“I don’t’ have a beef with Christmas,” I lied.  “It just doesn’t get me all crazy like it does most people.”

Ellen nodded, sketched a wave and walked away.

<<>>

I felt guilty on the ride home.  I should have admitted to Ellen I wasn’t going to the shelter on Christmas day.  But it was hard to say no to her.  She was a sweet, caring person who always saw the good in people. I on the other hand, lost my rose-colored glasses long ago. How we had remained friends over the years was a mystery to me, except that Ellen never gave up on anyone – even lost causes.

When I got home, I felt safe from all the sparkly, tinseled good will and let out a sigh.  I dumped my coat and purse on the living room chair and went to the kitchen.  Molly would be home any minute, needing a hot lunch and then a nap. I went to the kitchen and got going on her favorite – tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Just as I was finishing up the soup, the back door slammed, announcing Molly’s arrival.  “Mommy!” she sang out and it was my favorite song.

I turned away from the stove and bent down to grin at my angel, ally rosy-faced from the cold.  Golden strands of hair fell into her eyes, refusing to obey the barrettes I’d put in her hair that morning.

Molly threw her arms around my waist.  “Mommy, Mommy, I’m so excited!”

I stroked her plump cheek.  “Why Pumpkin, what happened?”

“I got a new friend.  He’s so nice.  Can he eat lunch with us?  We have lots of food, can he have some too?”

I pushed the hair out of Molly’s eyes.  “Sure.  Where is he?” I looked around the room for another pint-sized companion but saw no one.

Molly’s eyes wandered to a spot on the ceiling.  “Outside.”

“Outside?”  I said and stood up, trying to see through the backdoor window.  “Tell him to come in the house before he freezes his nose off.” I said and turned to the cabinet for another place setting.

“You’re sure it’s okay?” Molly asked in that voice that kids get when they’re looking for confirmation after having just tricked you.

Bowl and soup spoon in hand, I stopped and looked at her. “Molly, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” she said and shot out the back door.

I shrugged and chalked it up to the Christmas season when children stuffed themselves with sugar and bounced off the walls on a regular basis.

As I ladled the soup into bowls, the back door whooshed open and closed.  The rush of icy air made me giggle.  “Okay kids,” I said, my back still turned, “sit down, and eat it while it’s hot.”

“Looks mighty good,” a man said.

Startled, I turned toward that baritone and stifled a gasp when I saw my daughter’s new friend.  “Molly, who is this?”

Molly made busy work of sitting down and getting her friend to join her and without looking up, said, “This is Nick, Mommy.”

Nick was 50 if he was a day and his clothes were ragged and threadbare and he smelled of the street – yet, his hands were clean.  Still, all I could do was stare as I was frozen to the spot holding two bowls of soup in my hands.

Molly recognized the look but met it with a defiant look of her own and said: “Nick’s a nice person.  You don’t have to have new clothes to be a nice person, right?”

Nick grinned and exposed a beautiful smile.  He stuck out his big, calloused hand.  “How do you do, ma’am?  Thank you for your invite to lunch.  Appreciate it.”

Pretty good manners for a bum, I thought.  I knew I couldn’t stand there all day holding two bowls of soup, so I set one down in front of each of them.  The time had passed for a confrontation anyway, and Molly was so enamored of her new pal that I went along and decided we’d have a talk, later.

They ate like prize fighters and laughed and chatted like were lifelong friends.  All I could do was watch and listen and wonder about the rapport between them.

After lunch, I loaded the dishwasher.  “Go wash up, honey.” Molly obeyed without protest – another first.  When she was out of earshot, I decided to have a little heart-to-heart with Nick.

“How exactly did you and Molly meet?” I asked.

Nick blinded me with another smile. “She was waiting on her bus one day when I was collecting bottles over near the stop and she smiled a sweet, little smile . . .”  His deep blue eyes sparkled and I could see how easily a child could come under their spell.

He shook his head.  “No, it ain’t what you think.  I’d never do nothing to little children that would hurt them.  I think they are the most precious things.  Had some myself, once . . .” he disappeared into his own world for a minute.

I don’t know why, but I believed him.  I nodded.  “She smiled at you and?”

The sparkle returned and Nick continued.  “She asks me, what are you doing looking for bottles?  So I says, if I can get enough I can get a hot dog down at the minimart.  So, she gives me her cheese sandwich and apple that she didn’t eat for lunch.”  He grinned.  “You sure do have a sweet, little girl.”

“Yes, I have,” I said, still standing with my arms crossed over my chest.

Nick squirmed in his chair and put out his leg to ready it for flight.

“Did you tell her, Nick?”  Molly appeared in the doorway.

My heart skipped a beat.  “Tell me what?”

Molly joined Nick at the table, pulling her chair closer to the old man so she could pat his arm and reassure him.  “Bobby Miller tried to steal my lunch.  He pulled my hair so I’d let go,” she rubbed the back of her head to illustrate the point.

“Just kids being kids,” Nick interjected.

“It hurt!”  Molly insisted. “I almost cried, but Nick came and chased him away.”  She beamed at him like he was a super-hero. “He saved me, Mommy.”

Getting rid of Nick was going to be trickier than I thought.  It was clear my daughter Nick as nothing less than a saint and if I tried to force the issue, it would only make things worse.  I uncrossed my arms and forced a smile.  “Thank you, Nick for coming to my Molly’s rescue.”

Nick stood up and bowed with such grace that I wondered if once upon a time Nick had been an entertainer.  “My pleasure, ma’am.”  He stood,  pulled on his shabby coat and moved toward the door. “Thanks for the eats.”

I don’t know why but I suddenly noticed how pitiful his clothes were and how they would be no protection from the cold and darkening day he was about to face.  “Don’t leave just yet, I’ll be right back.”

I went out through the connecting door to the garage where we kept the donation bag.  Digging through it, I found my brother’s old overcoat, a pair of trousers and a shirt that would fit Nick and brought the clothes back to the kitchen.  “Maybe you’d like these.”

Nick flushed and bowed his head.  “Thank you, ma’am.”

Something about the small show of humility made me feel a pang at the hundreds of times I’d scowled at the homeless in the park, loitering at storefronts and on the streets.  In an instant that indistinct mass of huddled wanton need became part of humanity.  “I’m sorry,” I murmured.

Nick just stared at his feet and cleared his throat.

Molly jumped up and down and beamed.  “See Nick, now you won’t be cold!”

He smiled.  “Yes, little Molly, you’re right.”  His big beefy hand patted her shoulder gently and then he stepped back.

Lest we all become a molten mass of sentimental jelly, I nudged Molly toward the living room.  “Time to say good bye to Nick and go clean your room, honey,” I said trying to nudge her along.

The glow in Molly’s eyes went down a notch, “Okay.  Bye Nick, thank you for coming to lunch and for walking me home and for being my friend.”  She blew Nick a kiss and he pretended to catch it and put it in his pocket.

“Bye little Molly, you have a good day.”

After Molly left the kitchen, I put a fifty in Nick’s hand.  “Maybe you could get a room tonight, and a good night’s sleep,” I said, surprised by my own charity.

Nick shook his head, “No, ma’am I couldn’t …”

I forced the money into his hand.  “I want you to have it.  Really.  It would make Molly happy to know you weren’t sleeping on the street tonight.”

“Bless you,” Nick mumbled and he was out the door.

<<>>

The next morning, I awakened to the sound of scraping outside my window.  It was barely light out and I peered through the bedroom window.

And there they were, Molly in her red snowsuit and Nick in his new clothes, shoveling the front walk and having a grand old time.  Dread did a little dance in my stomach.  “Just like a stray cat,” I mumbled, “once you feed them, they’re yours forever.”

I threw on some clothes and went outside.

“Hi Mommy,” Molly chirped.

“Morning,” I said to Nick.  “What brings you here?  And so early?”

“I seen your walk needed shoveling,” Nick said as he scooped up mounds of snow as though they were light as feathers, with my snow shovel.  “Thought if somebody didn’t get to it pretty soon, you or Molly might slip and fall.” Amazing, the man had shoveled most of the walk and continued as we talked but not a huff or a puff out of him.

Nick was right of course.  Overnight, the snow had piled up like laundry in a frat house.  The whole neighborhood was knee-deep in it.  “That was very thoughtful of you but my brother usually comes over for this stuff.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he showed up any minute with his snow blower.”

“Mommy, can Nick have some coffee?”  Molly asked completely ignoring my polite attempts to get him to leave.

Nick caught my frown.  “Now, Molly, we don’t want to bother your Mama.  She’s got better things to do than make coffee for an old man.”

Molly disagreed, “but you’re our friend!  Isn’t he, Mommy?”

I nodded and smiled – besides my teeth were chattering and it was too cold to argue.  I went inside and made coffee, pancakes, bacon, and juice.

After breakfast, Nick insisted on doing the dishes.  Molly pulled a chair to the sink and helped him.  I don’t know which was more shocking, that I had a homeless man washing my dishes or that my daughter was happily doing chores.  The effect he had on Molly was magical.  I wondered what Ellen would say if she walked in on the scene.  Me, the original Scrooge, doling out free food and clothes.  I’d never live it down.

When they finished the dishes I said to Nick, “Thank you, it was very sweet of you to come by and help us.”

“That bottom step on your back porch is a little loose,” Nick said.  “Where do you keep your hammer and nails?”

Molly ran to the garage door and threw it open.  “In here!” she pointed the way.  “Come on!” she cried as though Disneyland was just beyond the door.

Nick followed Molly out to the garage and I could hear them discussing what tools they needed.  And then they stepped through the door and headed outside – Nick with a tool box and Molly with her enthusiasm.  “This is going to be fun!”

I poured myself another cup of coffee and watched them through the kitchen window for a few minutes.  They were so happy to be in each other’s company and clearly in no hurry to finish, that I left the two of them to their repairs and went to my bedroom to wrap Molly’s presents.

<<>>

The morning zipped by without notice until I heard loud noises coming from the garage.  “Now what are they doing?”  I yanked open the garage door.  Nick huffed and puffed as he swept, dragged, and stacked – his favorite helper, Molly, right beside him.

“Look Mommy, we’re cleaning the garage,” Molly sang.

I smiled and nodded.  “What would you two like for lunch?”

So went the day.  Every time I thought I could persuade Nick to leave, he found another chore to do.  Each time he did a chore, I felt obliged to feed him.

By the time we ate dinner, did the dishes and Molly was in the bath, it was seven o’clock.  I found Nick in the garage, sweeping up the last of the dust.  “Nick?  Can we talk for a minute?”

He smiled.  “Yes, ma’am.  At your service.”

“About all this help you’re giving us . . .” I got distracted by the transformation of my garage.  What was once a bottomless pit of junk and unloved castoffs was now something out of one of those remake-your- space-in-a-day shows on cable.  I had no idea there were shelves, tool pegs and even a workbench out there.  After Nick’s magic there was even room to park the car.  How could anyone so resourceful have ended up homeless?

“You know, ma’am, a lot of people think I’m a bum.  I can’t blame them.  I got no home, don’t own anything.”

Nick’s other superpower was that he could pull people’s thoughts right out of their heads, like he had done to me with those few quiet words.  I opened my mouth to protest but there’d been no accusation or judgment in his words, so what was there to protest?

His blue eyes were bright as Christmas lights, and his shaggy hair sparkled like spun silver.  And if I hadn’t known better I would have thought he emanated a golden aura.  And then something twinkled inside of me and this man was no longer a suspicious stranger, but a friend.  Was it the same thing Molly had felt?

“But I ain’t a bum.  I always try to return every kindness with a kindness.  I don’t want to live off other folks.  I want to earn my keep, just like anybody else.”

I forgot what I wanted to say as I stood in my clean but chilly garage.

“Sometimes, you just have a run of bad luck.” He bent over and picked up the dustpan, then emptied it in the trash can.  “But it don’t mean you ain’t trying to get back on your feet.”  He smiled shyly. “Maybe you know what I’m saying?”

I nodded.  “Maybe I do.”

Nick put the dustpan on a shelf and leaned the broom against the wall.  “It’s late and I best be getting on,” he said shrugging into his coat.  “Thanks for your hospitality.  Tell little Molly I said, good night.”  He pulled the garage door open and exposed the night, blanketed in white glitter.  All of Nick’s shoveling a memory – but something told me, he didn’t mind.

The cold air raised gooseflesh on my arms.  “Where will you go?”  I asked and sounded like Molly.

Nick buttoned up his overcoat and pulled on a pair meager gloves.  “Shelter down the road.  If I’m there before eight, I get a cot.”  He patted my arm.  “Ain’t nothing to worry about, ma’am.  I’m old and I lived a long time but I get by.”

I wanted to bring Nick back into the house where it was warm and safe.  Give him hot chocolate and cookies and offer him the guest room for the night.  Maybe for as long as he needed it.  Everything in me wanted to stop him from leaving but I just stood there – and I didn’t know why.  Did I think he would refuse? Was I just not ready to accept that I could feel differently about things – about people?  Was I afraid to trust this new part of me? I didn’t have any answers, so instead, I smiled and said, “Good night, Nick.”

“Night, ma’am.”  Nick paused at the open door and smiled. “I’m glad we got the chance to talk.”

“So am I.”

I watched him as he trudged through the snow, bent against the night wind and my heart hurt a little.

<<>>

The next morning, I jumped out of bed with a plan.  I’d bake cookies all morning until the smell woke up Molly.  When Nick arrived, we’d have breakfast and then we’d go to the park and ice skate. Just like they did in that old Christmas movie – maybe I’d even fine a bonnet to wear.  Afterwards, I’d invite Nick to stay in the guest room until he was back on his feet.  People had live-in housekeepers, why couldn’t we have a live-in handy man?  It was a perfect plan.  It was Christmas after all, and it was the time year to be merry and jolly and the whole idea really grew on me.

I sung while I baked and when I realized, it was a Christmas Carol, I laughed out loud.

“Mommy?”  Molly stood wide-eyed in the middle of the kitchen.

I grinned.  “Good morning, my little sugar cookie!”

Molly giggled and twirled.  “Morning, my gingerbread mommy.”  She gaped at the disaster that was the kitchen and laughed. “What are you doing? This place is a mess!”

“Making cookies!”  I said as I slid a cookie sheet into the oven.

“You are?”  Molly dragged a chair over to the counter, got up, and looked for herself. “You are!”

“I am!” I giggled.  “Want to help?”

We made more cookies than we’d ever made in our life.  Flour and cookie dough clung to our clothes, our hair, and our faces but we didn’t care – because it was Christmas, you know?

“When is Nick coming over?” I asked as we frosted gingerbread men.

“I don’t know.”  Molly looked at the clock and frowned, “Maybe he’s not.”

I noticed the time – half past ten.  I had expected him much earlier.   I threw off my doubt for Molly’s sake and said, “Of course, he’s coming.  Nick’s your best friend, isn’t he?  Of course, he’s coming.”  But I wasn’t so sure.

A knock sounded at the back door.  Molly squealed, “He’s here! He’s here!” She jumped down to from her chair and ran to open the door.

“Come on in,” I said as I finished with a gingerbread man, “coffee’s on.”

“What’s got you in such a mood?” my brother Michael asked.

I looked up from my happy gingerbread man to see my brother dripping snow all over my kitchen floor.  “What are you doing here?”  I asked and couldn’t keep the disappointment out of my voice.

Michael shrugged his broad shoulders.  “What do you think?” He jerked his thumb toward the backyard.  “I came to shovel you out.  It snowed all night, sis.  Haven’t you looked outside?”

“No,” I said and glanced out the kitchen window.  If the snow drifts in the back yard were any indication of what was out there, it was going to be a long, cold day.

Michael took off his gloves and helped himself to a cup of coffee.  “Digging your car out is going to be a pain,” Michael griped.  “You should have pulled it into the garage,” he chuckled.  “As if that would ever happen.”

“We cleaned the garage,” I said remembering my nice, clean and orgainzed garage – courtesy of Nick.  “But I forgot all about the car.”

Molly came to me and threw her arms around me. “Mommy, is Nick okay?”  Tears pooled in her blue eyes. “Is he buried in the snow too?”

I picked Molly up and hugged her tight.  “No, honey, I’m sure Nick is safe.” She rested her head on my shoulder and cried a little.

“Who’s Nick?”  Michael helped himself to a sugar cookie and took a big bite. “Man, these are good cookies.  Who made them?” He finished the one he had and shoved another one into his mouth.

“I did!”

“We did,” Molly corrected.

“Right, Molly, and I made them,” I said.  I looked around my kitchen and was in awe of just how many cookies we’d made.  There wasn’t a clear surface in the entire room – gingerbread men, chocolate chip, sugar cookies, iced cookies, sprinkled cookies, Christmas tree cookies, angel cookies – and for the life of me I couldn’t remember where I put the cookie tins.  I put Molly down and started to search the cabinets.

Molly started looking in the lower cabinets.  “What are we looking for, Mommy?”

“Cookie tins, honey.”

Michael sat at the kitchen table, still munching cookie looked at me and laughed. “Who are you and what have you done with my sister?”  He grabbed a few more cookies and stuffed them in his pockets.

“What do you mean?”  I asked and cried out in victory when I found two empty cookie tins.

Michael snorted.  “What do you mean, what do I mean?  When was the last time you made cookies?”

I stopped and looked at him.  “Now is  not the time to make fun of your little sister.  Now is the time to find cookie tins, so we can pack these up.”

Michael pretended to struggle to his feet, patted his stomach and then belched. “Okay, and then what?”

Molly and I continued to find cookies and stacked them on the counter.  “And then we better get dressed and grab a shovel,” I said.

<<>>

After we secured the cookies in tins, we all trudged outside to do our winter duty.

“Mommy, look!” Molly cried and launched off the porch.  “It’s Frosty!” she pointed a mittened hand.

On my front lawn stood a snowman that was so intricate in design, I expected him to wake and introduce himself.  He wore the clothes I’d given Nick just a couple of days before and he sported a cigar in his mouth.

Molly trudged hip-deep through the snow to hug  the snowman.  “I love you, Frosty.”

I trudged right behind Molly and the closer I got to the snowman the more impressed I was with him. He was no ordinary snowman, he was a work of art.  An envelope was pinned to the snowman’s overcoat.  I unpinned the envelope and opened it.  Inside was a Christmas card that had a happy Santa on the front and a note from Nick scrawled inside:

Thanks for sharing a few moments of your precious life with a grateful, old man.  Merry Christmas. 

Nick

He’d also enclosed a fifty dollar bill and I wondered if it was the same one I had given him.

“Who’s it from?  What does it say?”  Molly hopped up and down.

“It’s from Nick.  It says, Merry Christmas” I said and gave her the card.

“Where is he?”  Molly asked.  She studied the card, and searched it front and back, as though it contained a hidden clue to Nick’s whereabouts.

“I don’t know, angel.  He doesn’t say.”

Molly gasped when she recognized the coat on the snowman.  She tugged at the snowman’s sleeve.  “Oh no! Is this Nick?  Did he get all frozen last night when it snowed?”

Michael tramped across the yard, dragging the shovel behind him.  “Who’s Nick?” his words came out in smoky gusts in the cold air.

I stared out at the blanketed landscape and imagined the worst.  “How bad are the roads?”  I asked my brother.

<<>>

We drove around for hours looking for any place Nick might have gone.  Many of the roads had been plowed or salted but the bitter cold and gray skies kept most people off the roads.  And it felt like we were on a lonely impossible mission to find something that fate would deny us.

“How many more shelters can there possibly be in this town?”  Michael complained.

“Just a couple,” I said, peering out the window of his truck.  My eyes searched for anybody huddled in doorways or by heater grates but the streets were deserted.

Michael pulled over to the curb and put the truck in park, but left the engine idling.  The heater whispered warm air into the cabin and the windshield wipers offered a steady syncopated beat to wind’s song. “What’s with you?”  Michael asked. “Molly brings home a bum . . .”

“He’s not a bum.” Molly explained from the backseat. “He’s our friend, isn’t he, Mommy?”

“Yes he is, honey.” I shook my head at Michael to let him know we wouldn’t be referring to Nick as a bum in front of Molly and to mind his manners.

Michael smirked.  “Okay, a friend.  Who mooches a few meals and few bucks for doing some work – which I could have done for you by the way. Then he gives you back the clothes and the money? And you’re upset?”

“Uh huh.”

Michael rubbed his face with his hands and shook his head.  “You finally get rid of him.  He’s out of your life. . . and now you want to find him again?”

“I want to make sure he’s all right,” I said and watched as the snow came down harder and piled up on the hood of the truck.

“Why?  What’s it to you?”  Michael was confused.

“He’s old.  He hasn’t any family or friends or a home.”  I moved my face closer to the window and strained to see through the wall of white.

“Yeah, but why do you care?”  Michael asked.

I looked at my big brother and put my hand on his shoulder and smiled.  “I don’t know.  But I do.”

Michael threw up his hands in surrender, put the truck in gear and we continued our trek through the snowy night.  And though we met many misplaced, and sad people that night, we didn’t find Nick.

The snow was relentless and though the plows kept going, the roads got worse, but I pretended not to notice.

The windshield wipers worked full-speed but Michael still had to lean forward to see through the windshield.  He gripped the steering wheel so hard I thought it would burst the seams on his gloves. “I just came over to do my brotherly duty.  To shovel my sister and her kid out of the snow . . .” he muttered

It wasn’t fair to force Michael into this – he was exhausted and nervous about the roads.  Molly could barely keep her eyes open but she would never admit it.  I had to face facts – Nick was gone and we weren’t going to find him.

I leaned over to Michael and said, “Okay, let’s go file a police report and then go home.”

Michael took my hand and squeezed it.  “What’s gotten into you, sis?”

“Christmas,” I whispered and wiped at my tears.

<<>>

“You don’t know his last name?” Detective Stefanski asked, rolling his eyes at his partner.

“Nick, just Nick,” I repeated and regretted giving him two tins of cookies.  From the looks of it, the detective had eaten plenty of cookies in his life.

After Stefanski finished typing the report and I signed it, he said, “You know we ain’t going to find him, don’t you?”

Molly’s eyes brimmed with tears.

“I know you’re going to try,”  I shifted my gaze to Molly.

The cop softened, “Ah, yes ma’am, we’re going to try.  And thanks for the cookie.  Merry Christmas.”

Michael hustled us toward the exit but a young officer stopped us.  “Don’t let Stefanski bother you, ma’am.  He’s pulling a double and chewing everybody out.”

I appreciated his kindness and gave him a tin of cookies. “Thank you.”

The young officer opened the tin and grabbed a cookie. “No ma’am, thank you!”  He bit into a chocolate chip cookie and grinned.  “I’ll keep an eye out for your friend.  If I hear anything, I’ll give you a call.”  He took another bite of his cookie, winked at Molly and went on his way.

<<>>

Once we got home, I made dinner since none of us had eaten anything but cookies, all day.

Michael gobbled his food so quickly, I doubt he even chewed.  Molly played with her food.  I nibbled a gingerbread man I’d made that morning.  His cheerful face mocked me and I deserved it.  If I hadn’t been so judgmental and suspicious, Nick wouldn’t have disappeared.

“We’ll see you tomorrow for Midnight Mass?”  Michael asked putting his coat back on.  I didn’t answer him.  “Sarah?”

I flicked him a look and nodded.

He picked me up and gave me a bear hug.  When he put me down, he said, “Don’t worry so much.”

I couldn’t remember the last time Michael had hugged me and my face said as much.  He grabbed a couple of tins of cookies and laughed like a little kid.  “Let’s not get all mushy just because it’s Christmas.”  And then he was out the door.

A sleepy Molly, went willingly to bed.  I pulled the quilt up to her chin and kissed her soft little cheek.  “Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, are you excited?”

“Why did Nick go away?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

She threw back the covers and sat up.  “Is he coming back?”  Molly asked.

“I don’t know that either,” I said tucking her back in.

“I’m worried, Mommy –  do you think he’s out there, in the cold?”

“Let’s say a prayer for Nick and ask God to keep him safe and warm.”  I knelt down at Molly’s bedside, closed my eyes and for the first time in a long time I spoke to God.  I asked Him to keep Nick safe and warm and to protect him from any harm.  And I asked Him to forgive me for being so out of touch.

When I opened my eyes, Molly was asleep and probably dreaming of her friend Nick.

<<>>

Somewhere in the middle of watching Christmas in Connecticut, I fell asleep on the sofa.  When I awoke Molly was braiding my hair.  “Hi, Mommy.”

“What are you doing?”

Molly continued braiding my hair. “It’s Christmas Eve.”

I smiled.  “I know, muffin.  Are you happy?” I tried to tickle her but she dodged my hands.

She shrugged.  “I don’t know. I guess so,” she sighed.

I pulled her into my lap and hugged.  “But Santa’s coming tonight!” Then I laughed at myself because I sounded like one of her friends.  Or Ellen.

Molly crawled out of my lap and pouted. “But I won’t get what I want.”

I grabbed at her and tickled her.  “Oh yes, you will.  You’re the best little girl in the world.  Santa will give you anything you want.”

Hope rushed into Molly’s face.  “Do you think so?  Will he bring Nick back?”

All my good cheer and jolliness came to a screeching halt.

Molly frowned.  “I thought so.”

But there wasn’t time to think or worry about Nick.  I had food to prepare for the family feast.  And Molly had parties to attend though I had to force her.  “What if Nick . . . ?” she kept asking.

“I’ll come and get you.  We’ll come and get you.  I promise,” I kept responding.

When her ride arrived, Molly marched off like a soldier to war – ready to do her duty but none too happy about it.

Despite the decorations and our dazzling tree, the house felt cold and empty.  Every time the phone rang my heart leapt, only to fall when it wasn’t news of Nick.

A fund raiser for a local shelter called to solicit a donation, which I was happy to make.

“You want to give us how much?” she asked.

“A hundred dollars?  Will that help?” I looked at my check book and saw I could afford more. “How about two hundred?”

“Yes!  Thank you!”  I thought she’d leap through the phone.

“Great,” I said.  “I’m a little crunched for time though, can you send someone by for the check?”  Silence. “Is something wrong?”

“Wrong?  No, not at all.  It’s just that I’ve called you every year for the last five years and you never gave us anything.  Last year, you hung up on me before I even finished.”  She was right and I remembered hanging up on her the year before and I felt ashamed of myself.  “I almost didn’t call you, this year.”

“I’m glad you did.  I’ve changed my mind about things.” And I meant it.

<<>>

When Molly got home, we both went down for a nap.  The past few days had worn us both out and Christmas hadn’t even arrived yet.  And we would have probably slept until Christmas morning if the phone hadn’t rung.

“Yes?”  I mumbled into the phone.

“Ms. Wayne, this is Officer Morgan.  It’s about your friend, the homeless man?”

My eyes flew open and I was wide awake.  “You found Nick?” my heart had wings.

“Maybe.” He cleared his throat.  “I don’t know if it’s him. . . but this fellow we found – he’s sick . . .”

My heart crashed and burned.  “Which hospital?”

<<>>

On the way to the hospital, Molly cried.  “Is he really sick?  Or does he just have the sniffles?”

I couldn’t look away from the road because the snow was coming down once again with a vengeance.  “I don’t know, honey, we’re not even sure if it is Nick.” I didn’t want to get her hopes up but I knew we were both praying that it was him and that he was all right. “But no matter what, we have to be brave girls.  We can’t cry.  Okay?”

Molly wiped away her tears with a red mitten and sat up straight and proper.  “Okay, Mommy, I’m brave.”

I was thankful that the hospital was only a couple of miles away and that the roads were clear and empty.  It was almost as if fate had given us a special window of time to travel through without interuption. We found a parking space just a few steps from the entrance and when we walked up to the nurse’s station, no one had to convince the nurse to let Molly in either.

The hospital was decked out with wreaths and decorations but they couldn’t undo the sorrow and pain that it housed. In hundreds of rooms, there were hundreds of people suffering, in pain and away from their loved ones on Christmas Eve – some of them children.  Many of them old and alone. But there was also a reverance to this bastion of dedicated souls who tended to the sick and did so with an open heart.  I started to cry.  Molly squeezed my hand and I looked down into her beautiful child face.

“Be brave, Mommy,” she whispered.  “Remember? We have to be brave girls.”

I smiled at her, took a deep breath and we walked into the room.

The room was dark and small light at the bedside table threw shadows on the form lying in the bed.  I could hear his labored breathing and smell the ever-present antiseptic scent in the air.

We walked to the bed. “Nick,” I whispered and put my hand on his shoulder gently.

He turned his head and my heart leapt and fell in an instant.  It wasn’t Nick.  Just a poor old fellow – sick and alone on Christmas Eve. His pale eyes squinted to focus and he mumbled.

“It’s not Nick,” Molly whimpered.

“I’m sorry, honey.”  I pulled her to me and my own tears welled up.

We turned to leave but the man called out in a paper thin voice. “No.  Don’t go.  Don’t go.”

Where was his family? How could they leave him alone in a hospital room on Christmas Eve? “I’m sorry . . . we didn’t . . . we thought you were…”

“Josie,” he whispered and smiled weakly, “you came.”

“No, you don’t understand . . .”

“Is that Tracey with you?” his eyes lit up with everything in his soul.  He reached out a gnarled, bony hand. “Tracey, give your grandpa a hug.”

Molly looked at me and grinned.  Without a word, she climbed onto the bed and hugged the old fellow like there was no one else in the world she was gladder to see.  She patted his balding head and kissed his forehead.  “I love you, Grandpa.”

The old fellow’s face filled with life and he seemed to grow six inches taller.  “Tracey, Tracey,” he cooed as happy tears rolled down his cheeks.  “Grandpa loves you too.”

Molly sat next to him and I held his hand until he drifted back to sleep. And we left a tin of cookies with a note that said: love, Josie and Tracey.

On our slow trek home, Molly asked, “How come that man didn’t know who we were?”

“Because he was sick and lonely.”

Molly thought about it for a few minutes.  “Does he feel better now?”  she looked up at me.

“Yes angel, I think he does.”

<<>>

By the time we got home, my mind was made up.  I sat down with Molly on the sofa and said, “Molly, you know there are lots of lonely people in the world?  Like the man we saw tonight?”

Molly’s azure eyes darkened.  “Yes.”

“That for some people, Christmas is a very sad time?”

“Yes, Mommy.”

“This Christmas, I really want to help some of those people.  Do you want to do that too?”

She considered it for a moment.  “Yes, I do.  But how do we help them?  What do we do?

“There’s a shelter, like the places we went to with Uncle Mike.  We could go there and help.  People send money and food then cook it all up and feed people who have no place to go for Christmas.”

“Who will we feed?”  Molly asked.

“Anybody who’s hungry and comes inside.”  I hugged her.

“What about Gramma and Grandpa and Uncle Mike and Aunt Kathy?  Will they help too?”

“We’ll ask them,” I said.  “If they don’t want to, it’s okay because you shouldn’t do things for people unless you really want to.”

<<>>

The choir and lights at St. Pat’s were always magnificent to me, but this night they held a special meaning.  They filled me with the soul of Christmas.

Afterwards, Mom chattered about the coming Christmas feast and that Molly would be in Heaven when she saw what Santa left her.

“Mom . . . there’s been a change in plans.”

“A change?” she blinked.

“Molly and I are going to the 6th Street shelter this year.”

Mom was stunned at first, then broke up.  “Good one, Sarah.  You got me for a minute.”

“I’m not joking, Mom.”  And she saw it in my eyes. “  Ellen has begged me for years to help and I think it’s about time I did.”

“I’m positively stunned,” Mom said.

“Me too.  But, I’ve realized that Christmas isn’t just about me anymore.  I don’t want Molly to grow up thinking it’s all about her, either.  It’s about peace and goodwill and reaching out to other people.”

“I know that, dear.  I just didn’t know that you did.”  She searched my face with a mother’s eyes. “  Something’s changed you.”

“More like someone,” I said.

Mom hugged me like she’d been waiting my whole life to hear me say those words.  “Merry Christmas, honey.”

<<>>

Christmas morning Molly and I sprang out of bed and ran for the tree, seizing our presents.  We raced to rip off festive wrappings and squealed with each discovery.  Christmas morning hadn’t been that much fun since I was Molly’s age.  We made a mess and didn’t clean it up – the shredded paper and ribbons made the room look so happy.  Cookies and chocolate milk made a perfect Christmas breakfast.

On the drive to the shelter, Molly asked, “Do you think Nick is there?”  Her face glowed at the thought.

“No, I don’t think so, honey.”  I smiled.

“Then why are we going?”  Molly asked.

I pulled the car over to the curb.  “Because there are a lot of Nicks and I have a feeling we’ll meet a few of them today.”

“I never met anybody named Nick, before,” Molly said.

“No, I don’t mean their names are Nick.  I mean people like Nick.  Down on their luck but trying to get back on their feet.”

Molly laughed.  “Mommy, you sound just like him!”

I laughed too and pulled away from the curb.

The streets were quiet as our feet crunched across the snow and our breaths fogged around our heads like halos.  Molly held my hand tightly and looked up at me.  “I think I’m a little bit scared.”

“Me too,” I said and pulled open the door.

The smell of turkey, stuffing and sweet potatoes filled the air in a sweet Christmas perfume.  “It smells like Gramma’s!”  Molly laughed.

Our jitters disappeared and we waltzed into the mission like we were home.  The space was clean and as festive as discount store decorations could make it.  Tables and chairs were set up in long rows and several people were already seated, waiting in anticipation of a good meal.

Three women assembled a cafeteria-style serving line.  They debated about where to put the food, how many people would come, and whether they could feed everyone who showed up.  What struck me about these ladies was that they were ordinary women, probably with little of their own and yet they were here, on Christmas day, worrying about other people.

“Excuse me?”

The tall woman looked up and smiled.  “Merry Christmas.”

Molly and I approached her.  “Merry Christmas.  I’m Sarah and this is Molly.  We came to help?”

The woman shook my hand firmly.  “I’m Vera.”  She pointed to a petite woman, “this is Louise, and Mabel,” she nodded to a heavy- set woman.

Vera grinned.  “You ever done this before?”

“No,” I blushed, “I haven’t.”

“All right, then.  That way, is the kitchen, get yourself an apron and then get back here and we’ll figure out what to do with you,” Vera winked.

I saluted.  “Yes, ma’am.”

Molly looked up at Vera.  “Can I have an apron too?”

We all laughed.  Vera knelt down and tweaked Molly’s nose.  “Why, sweetie, you can have anything you want.”

Molly smiled and hugged Vera.  “Oh, thank you!”

Soon, the place was filled beyond capacity with people delighted by the smell of the feast to come.  The room buzzed with conversation and simple joy.  And suddenly, it was like any other Christmas gathering I’d known – smiling, happy people, looking forward to a good meal, and celebrating a day of peace and goodwill.

I was scooping mashed potatoes like a pro by the time Ellen sauntered in, donning a her signature Santa hat.

“Am I dreaming or is this my dear friend, Sarah Scrooge Wayne?”  Ellen grinned so wide, her face must have hurt.

“You aren’t dreaming any more than usual,” I said plopping potatoes on a little girl’s plate without missing a beat.

Molly, perched on a milk crate, served peas and waved, “Merry Christmas, Ellen!”

Ellen was so overjoyed she stuttered.  “Seriously, what are you doing here?”

“I was invited,” I giggled.

“Oh Sarah!”  Ellen threw her arms around me. “  But what made you finally come here?”  She pulled back and held me at arm’s length so she could see my face.

I thought of Nick and smiled.  “Change of heart.”

Ellen chortled.  “Like a transplant or something?”

I checked my bucket.  “We’re low on potatoes.  If some people would quit gold bricking and get to work, I’d have a fresh supply here.”

Ellen pinched me.  “Bossy, bossy, bossy,” she said and went into the kitchen for my potatoes.

As I looked around the room at my happy, simple Christmas, I sent a silent prayer to Nick and thanked him for giving Christmas back to me.

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