“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?”
“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.”
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?”
“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?”
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.
“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?”
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.