Monday, December 31, 2012

The Long Flight Home

Casey Watkins jolted awake. A wave of pain coursed across her brain. She winced, shut her eyes and touched her head. An angry lump bloomed on the right side. How did she get that? As she opened her eyes to the dimness of the small jet’s cabin, she remembered her trip home. Confused, she stared at the seat in front of her and tried to remember. What had happened?

The company jet, going from London to Baltimore, had been the last flight to leave on Christmas Eve day. Only a few key people had remained onsite, and they had left with her. Something had happened after they boarded. She gasped and clutched her chest. After the jet had gained altitude, two men on-board brandished knives. The shock and horror returned to her—the fight, her screams, the blood.

Pain shot through her temples. She placed her hand over her eyes, spread her fingers and massaged both temples with her thumb and ring fingers. How could that have happened? But when she thought about boarding procedures, she understood. Private aircraft passengers weren’t required to adhere to regular TSA pre-screening procedures or standards. Her name, like the others taking the flight, had been checked off on the passenger manifest after she’d cleared customs. There were no metal detectors to screen for weapons. The terrorists' names, probably aliases, were listed on the manifest. Their plan had been so simple and devious.

One of the terrorists had approached her holding a knife. She remembered his raised arm and the heel of his fist coming toward her. He must have knocked her out with the knife hilt.

Murmurings from the aisle interrupted her discovery. Casey grabbed the seat armrests to anchor herself against whoever approached. A terrorist? Her fingers turned white under pressure, and she held her breath. But as the sound came closer, she heard a distinctive voice speaking as it progressed nearer to her seat. Timidity characterized its tone.

“Oh dear me, I’m not sure what I should do.”

Casey exhaled. The voice sounded like it came from some dear, wee man. She pictured an old English vicar like those in the historical novels she read, but she remembered no one of that description on-board. As an assistant human-resources manager, she knew everyone on the company’s London contract and tried to associate the voice with a person. No face or name came to mind. The terrorists had been ruthless so it couldn’t be one of them.

When the man finally came into view, Casey’s heart nearly stopped. She froze. In the aisle near her seat, the Specter of Death stood, his face enshrouded by the hood of his black cape. A scythe hung from his waist, which was belted by a gold rope. He wrung his hands together like a worried mother.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” the Specter said.

Casey felt herself pale. The bump on her head was worse than she thought. The hallucination seemed real.

“Whatever’s wrong, dear?” he asked. “You’re as white as a ghost.”

Casey’s eyebrows skewed at his observation, but she made no comment. He wasn’t real, an apparition caused by the bump on her head. Dreaming him up made her curious. Skepticism or fear, she wondered, and narrowed her eyes. “Are you here for me?” she asked. Her voice scratched out of her dry throat.


Although Casey couldn’t see the Specter’s face, the wrinkles of his cape bunched up like the facial muscles of someone perplexed.

“Certainly not, my dear, unless…there is this possibility…. You wouldn’t happen to know how to fly a jet, would you?” His manner seemed droll, as if he’d asked a facetious question.

Casey’s mouth dropped open. She sputtered and imitated a fish until she took charge of herself. It occurred to her that questioning her own hallucination was crazy, but she asked anyway, “No. What happened to the crew?”

“The terrorists killed them. But there are three other souls here with their feet at heaven’s door. They aren’t supposed to die yet, nor you. What am I going to do?”

Casey assumed his question was rhetorical. “What happened to the terrorists? There were also two project managers on the jet, Ernie Hollingsworth and Jack Warner,” she said.

“Both terrorists are dead, and not a moment too soon. Ernie Hollingsworth grabbed the captain’s gun after he was killed and shot the two terrorists dead. But not before they nicked one of his arteries. He’s slowly bleeding to death. Jack Warner sustained a concussion, but he also suffered a heart attack after trying to assist the crew. The flight attendant may have an overdose of chloroform. Her heartbeat is erratic. I’m worried about all of them. It’s not their time.”

If the Specter spoke the truth, then he was no apparition. She had to verify his report.

But the Specter wasn’t finished grousing. “The captain has been a nuisance, but at least his heart is in the right place. Those terrorists, my goodness, they were an unpleasant twosome.” The Specter put his hands on his hips. “Do you know they accused me of not knowing my job? The audacity. I’ve done this job since Adam’s creation. Seems they didn’t think I was pointing them in the right direction. They expected rewards for their satanic behavior. They actually thought they were bound for heaven. Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous?”

“No,” Casey said. “But we live in a convoluted world. No one knows right from wrong nor seems to have any common sense. My mother has said so for years.” Casey believed her words were true, one of the many reasons that she had no need to be in charge of anything. She had turned down a promotion offered to her by the company.

But the guy they’d hired for the position, who was now her boss, had been hired into his level of incompetence. Her boss had signed a lease on a too-expensive building putting the project into financial jeopardy and then had left a week ago. He’d taken the week before and after Christmas for his vacation without regard for the project or the people who worked for him.

Casey rolled her eyes, but she stopped when it made her feel dizzy. Had she been in charge, she would have acted more responsibly. People often overestimated their abilities and, like everyone said—especially her mother—people were promoted to their level of incompetence, the other reason she had turned down the promotion. How could anyone make right decisions in a world gone mad? The current situation proved her point.

“Yes, but dear, your mother says many things that aren’t true.”

Casey cocked her head and drew her eyebrows down in consternation. It had never occurred to her that her mother’s words were untrue. “But, but—.”

“Get yourself together, dear. You have work to do. You must step up to reach your full potential. Really, you’ve been a slacker.”

Casey’s jaw dropped.

The Specter stepped back in the aisle and pointed to the front of the plane. He made a sweeping gesture with his arms, the sleeves of his black robe billowing out, and ushered her from the seat. “Lucky for me that you’re here. I can’t affect the real world, but you can. If you only would, that is.”

Shocked, Casey paused at his unexpected and snarky editorial. What did he expect? Surely he knew that flying a jet required a professional.

When she stood, black spots appeared before her eyes. She placed her hands on the seat in front of her own, pausing to acclimate herself to the jet’s motion. Her head cleared, as did her vision. Four bodies lay on the cabin floor between the seats and the cockpit door.

Shuffling from her seat to the aisle, she stepped forward and tiptoed to the fore cabin. To her left, the dead terrorists’ bodies were sprawled against front seats. To her right lay Ernie and Jack, flat on their backs. Ernie was covered in blood leaking from his neck. Casey touched his arm, and he moaned. She turned to Jack, who had less blood covering him, but he was comatose.

“Quickly now, Casey. You can’t do anything for them. Get the jet to Baltimore so they can get medical care. Come now, into the cockpit. Hurry.” He motioned toward the cockpit door.

“Where’s the flight attendant?”

“She’s sitting in the rear. Don’t bother to check on her. There is nothing you can do to help her. You’re dithering. The sooner they get to Baltimore, the better.” Although the Specter had spoken from behind her, he suddenly appeared before her at the cockpit’s door, melted through it and disappeared.

Casey felt the jet shudder, as if it were losing speed or altitude. Her stomach lurched. She grabbed the doorframe and clenched her jaws together so her teeth wouldn’t chatter. Her stomach churned with foreboding.

 She thrust-open the cockpit door. Blue sky greeted her through the front window. No one sat in the pilots’ seats. Three crewmembers lay on the cabin’s floor. She quickly bent down and checked the officers’ pulses. All of them were dead.

Casey stood. From blue sky in front, she turned to look down the aisle to the rear of the passenger cabin. She was on a jet maybe 32, 000 feet up over the Atlantic Ocean—without help—and she had no idea how to fly.

The trembling started in her chest and radiated out to her extremities. When her knees buckled, she fell on the pilot’s seat backrest. She maneuvered around the console instruments and dropped into the seat. She looked out the window into the blue beyond. Mesmerized by the clouds flying toward her face, her mind emptied—too petrified to think—except for one question. Where was the Specter of Death now? She wasn’t sure if his presence was a comfort or an omen. But then, he appeared at her side.

“I don’t know how you’re going to fly the plane, but you must,” the Specter said.

Casey stared at him in disbelief. “And how am I supposed to do that?”

“I don’t know, dear. None of these people are scheduled to die so something must happen.”

“Yeah, right. Sure. Something’s going to happen.” Casey shook her head and ignored him. The blue sky seemed infinite—to heaven and beyond—the irony bit her. She had played it safe, kept her head down, didn’t take chances and where had that gotten her? Her abdominal muscles were clenched so hard she wondered if her ribs would break. Curling into a ball and disappearing seemed like her best option. She closed her eyes.

“Casey, you can’t just give up.”

The Specter sounded like an old nag, but then she heard something else. Her shoulders rose around her neck. Had the terrorists survived? She hadn’t forced herself to check, having been reassured by the Specter of their deaths. The sound turned into a moan close to her, as if coming from one of the crew. She whipped around to look at the bodies on the floor behind her. The bodies remained motionless. But the moaning increased in volume filling the cabin. She covered her ears with her hands to block the horrible sound.

“What’s that?” she asked the Specter, but he had disappeared.

Casey slid off the seat and knelt on the cabin floor. She looked around the cabin’s walls and sought the sound’s source. The radio? But the sound didn’t come in the direction of the control panel. She looked at the crews’ bodies.

A tiny light sparkled from the chest of the captain. It grew into a dark plume over his chest, expanded into a six-foot-high cloud centered by a red pulsing dot. Casey blinked. Her vision was clear, but she wondered if she were hallucinating again.

The cloud formed into the shape of the captain. His uniform appeared and changed into navy blue like the one clothing the body on the floor. His facial features formed, as did hands from the sleeves of his jacket. The hands clenched into fists. Her eyes traveled from his hands to his face. Blue eyes bored into hers with an intensity that made her shrink away from him.

“Damn it!” he said.

Casey’s mouth opened, but no words came out.

“I can’t believe this.” The captain flung his hands out as if exasperated. As his form continued to solidify, Casey saw his name “Jason Stuebin” embroidered in gold on the front of his jacket. He floated to one side of the plane to the other. Then, he drifted toward the window and retraced his path toward the cabin door as if checking the perimeter. But he stopped by the door, facing her. “Can you believe this?”

“No, I can’t,” Casey said. “It’s too horrible to believe.”

“I have to save these people.” The lines between his eyes deepened. “I blew it in every way I could.” He looked away. “I was the only one with a gun. I hesitated. I’ve never killed anyone before. I buckled. It’s my fault.”

The Specter of Death appeared by the captain’s side. “When you refused to go to heaven…it never occurred to me. Are you an emissary?”

“A what?” The captain’s jaw went slack. He raised his eyebrows. “I’m a pilot, and I’m flying this jet to Baltimore. These people need help.” He sat down in his seat at the controls.

“Oh dear,” the Specter said to Casey. He held out his arms as if imploring her to intervene.

“Oh yeah, right,” Casey said, looking up from the floor.

“But he’s such a new spirit, he doesn’t understand his limitations.” The Specter put his hands on his hips. “Unlike you.” His gesture seemed like an accusation. Where his mouth would have been his cape bunched to form a disgusted expression.

Casey noticed that the captain wasn’t listening to them. Focused on flying the plane, his hands moved in sequence, as if he were enacting a routine he could mime without thought, and he stared out the front window. Except that his hands never moved any of the controls. The levers and knobs remained motionless at his touch. His hands were of no substance. He didn’t notice.

Leaning against his seat, Casey asked, “Is the jet descending?”

“Yeah. Have to maintain altitude or we could collide with other craft. The GPWS is about to go off.”

“What’s that?”

“Ground Proximity Warning System.”

Casey gasped, and then squeaked out, “We’re about to hit the water?”

“No, anytime we lose altitude quickly, it will go off. We’re still about five hundred miles from Baltimore, but we’re endangering other lives by not maintaining altitude. We weren’t scheduled to land for another hour, but I’m increasing our speed. We have the fuel.”

“Did you let anyone know about the terrorists?”

“No time.”

“As you can see, Casey, this isn’t working,” the Specter said. “You have to fly the jet.”

“I can’t do it.” Casey raised her voice and jumped to a stand.

“Then you die and take these people with you.”

“Would you guys shut up, I’m trying to concentrate,” the captain said.

Casey faced the Specter, her arms folded against her chest. She swallowed. His cape folds still reflected his disgust with her, causing her to ask the captain, “Could I help you?” To the Specter, she whispered, “Like this is really going to work.”

“Don’t know until you try, Missy,” the Specter said.

The captain turned toward Casey. His one glance told her that he thought she was crazy. “If you want to learn to fly, try a Piper first, at a local airport, not near an international airport the size of BWI. Okay?”

She gritted her teeth. Anger mounted in her chest. First, the Specter goaded her to fly, then the captain ridiculed her for offering to help. Were all spirits so exasperating? “I don’t think we have a choice,” she said.

He frowned. “How about I fly the jet?”

“Be great if you were actually doing it.”

“I am flying.”

“No, you’re not.”

He looked at the controls, tried to make adjustments and looked incredulous as the controls failed to respond to his movements. “What the hell?” he said, as his hands thrashed through the control panel. “Something’s wrong. We must have sustained damaged. Maybe a bullet shot into the electronics.”

Casey leaned toward him. “Captain,” she said, faltering. “You sustained the damage. You’re a spirit. You can’t move the controls. Look down at your hands.”

He looked at his hands as he tried and failed to move the controls.

Could he see their transparency? “Maybe I can fly if you tell me how. I can’t without you,” Casey said, inhaling at the reality in her words. The passengers and her own survival depended on her—flying the plane. She closed her eyes for a moment and pleaded with God to help her. Then, she pointed to the captain’s body.

The captain’s eyes followed her finger. He stared at his body, but then he turned to her. “But these people were my responsibility. I have to get them to Baltimore safely.”

“If you give me instructions to fly the jet, we can get everyone back to Baltimore. If you don’t help me, I’ll die too. I can’t do it by myself.”

His gaze penetrated all the way to her soul. He seemed to grasp reality in that moment. His death became real. “Of course. You were in my charge.” He stopped trying to fly, floated out of the seat and went behind her. “Get into the seat. I’ll tell you what to do.”

Casey swallowed, bit her lips as she lowered herself into the seat and gazed at the controls, which appeared to be as complicated as the NASA flight command center she’d seen on TV.

“Okay, first we have to return to our planned altitude. Put your hand on this lever and gently pull down,” the captain said.

Casey did as she was told, but the plane shot upward thrusting her into the seat. She screamed.

“It’s okay,” he said, in a calm and steady voice. “You pushed it too far. Just push it a little in the opposite direction.”

“I’m shaking too much. I’m afraid I’ll put the plane in a spin.”

“Maybe I can guide you. Here, I’ll put my hand on yours. Can you feel my hand?”

“Yes, I can feel it.” She failed to tell him how cold his hand felt.

“Okay, now feel me push it forward.”

Casey imitated his hand movement. The jet’s angle decreased. It went up, but not at as steep of an angle.

“The good thing is that you took us back up to our altitude really fast. You okay?”

“Yes.” She was unsure of her affirmation, but she knew there was no alternative.

“Flip this switch,” he said while pointing at the controls. “We’ll cruise on automatic pilot for a while.”

She did as she was told and flipped the switch.

“When we approach Baltimore, I’ll want you to radio the tower and let them know what happened. Let them know that you’re a total novice. They’ll have emergency crews ready for your landing. But don’t worry. You won’t need their services. I’ll get you down.”

“Thanks,” Casey said, but she imagined the worst-case scenario.

The Specter appeared by her side and smiled. “I told you so.”

“Oh, shut up.” Casey said. “I didn’t think I’d have help.”

“Ye of little faith.”

“I don’t have a crystal ball, you know.”

“No one does, dear. You must have faith.”

“But what if I make mistakes. I could crash this plane. It would be my fault then.”

“Not trying makes no sense. The jet would crash without you. But with you, there’s a chance you’ll succeed.”

The captain addressed the Specter, “If you don’t mind, we have work to do.”

“Of course,” the Spector said and disappeared.

“What’s your name?” the captain asked.


“I’m Jason. If you don’t mind, I’ll ride in the seat with you. It’s easier than leaning over. It also will be more accurate to steer and control the plane that way.”

As he slipped into the seat, a deep chill descended on Casey. She started to shiver.

“Maybe a blanket will keep you warm.” He floated out of the seat, but then he doubled back. “There’s a blanket on the shelf over here. Guess I won’t be able to bring it to you.”

Casey retrieved the blanket, wrapped it around her body and returned to the seat. When Jason occupied her space, this time the cold didn’t bother her as much.

“So what’s his problem?” Jason asked.

“He called me a slacker. Told me my mother had lied to me.”

“How are you a slacker?”

“Don’t know, unless he means that I turned down a promotion at work.”

“Why would you do that?”

Casey thought about the question. She formulated responses, but she had to admit that it came down to one thing. “I guess I’m afraid.”

“Of what?”

“That I won’t be good enough, that I’ll make wrong decisions, that I’ll be held responsible.”

“But if you don’t try, you’ll never know.”

“Yes, but isn’t that better than failing?”

“No. When you fail, you learn. Then, you can improve until you get it right. You should have seen my first landing. I bounced the plane.”

“Yes, and everyone saw you do it and ridiculed you.”

“No, but then I also made fun of myself. Better to beat people to the punch. The instructor said it wasn’t a bad first attempt. Look, Casey—there are always going to be people with greater and lesser abilities than yourself. If people want to sit around and judge, that’s their problem.”

“But I don’t want to look foolish.”

“And what do you think people would say if the plane crashed, and they found your body in the passenger cabin? They could determine how you died, and if they knew you just sat there, without trying, they’d probably think you were a loser. Maybe even deserved your fate.”

Tears formed in Casey’s eyes. She felt damned no matter what she did. “Maybe. It’s hard. Mom’s so critical. I feel as if I have to be perfect, and I know that isn’t a possibility so I’m defeated before I begin.”

“How old are you?”


“Do you think it might be time to get away from your mother?”

“Living with her has saved me a lot of money.”

“But at what cost? If you accepted a promotion, you’d get a raise. You need to surround yourself with more positive people. People of faith.”

“Maybe.” Casey sniffed tears that were forming. Could her mother have no faith?

“You ready to radio Baltimore?”

“We’re there already?” Her arms started shaking. What if she failed?

“Within fifteen minutes.” As if he could sense her feelings, he said, “The only thing to fear—”

Casey finished his sentence, “Is fear itself.” How many times had she said that quote to herself and failed to heed its advice? She steeled her core muscles. There was no place to duck and hide. “Okay Jason, show me how.”

Jason explained how to work the radio. Casey pushed a button to talk. She told the controller of her situation. Then, as Jason instructed, she set the radio to speaker. The controller handed her off to a pilot in the tower who guided her into descent and landing. She barely listened to the pilot’s radioed instructions as he followed her descent on radar. She concentrated on following Jason’s movements.

Sweat streamed down her arms as the jet descended. “I’m going to crash.”

“You’re fine. The angle is just right.”

“But it looks like the nose of the plane will hit the runway.”

“We’ll level off before we land. Now lower this lever.”

Casey followed his instruction and felt the landing gear lock into position.

“We’re going to slow the jet down.” The decrease in power caused the nose to rise.

“Oh, that’s great. I don’t feel like we’ll nosedive,” Casey said. He showed her how to extend the flaps and trim the plane for landing. Just before they touched down, Jason’s hands illustrated how she needed to level the plane. When the wheels touched, he guided her to reverse the engines and apply the brakes.

Casey concentrated on Jason’s movements, doing exactly as told. They landed the jet in a textbook fashion. When the jet stopped on the runway, she let out a sigh of relief, gave thanks to God for lending her Jason and heard cheers over the radio. From the view out the window, she saw fire engines, police and rescue vehicles barrel down the runway toward the jet. She climbed out of the seat around the controls and stood. Her body felt limp, like a wet noodle boiled too long.

“You okay?” Jason asked.

“I guess.”

“You just landed a jet and saved lives. You’re not happy?”

“The Specter was right about me.”

“But you can change that, you’ve given yourself the opportunity.”

“Without you, I wouldn’t have had a chance.”

Jason’s eyes glanced at the window. “You’ll get a hero’s welcome. Prepare yourself for the cameras.”

Casey’s mouth dropped open. Her eyes popped wide. She saw all the people approaching the jet. “No.”

“Maybe it will shut your mother’s mouth. There will be no denying what you did and what you are capable of doing once you put your mind to it. But do me three favors.”


Jason held up one finger. “Don’t tell anyone about me or they’ll think that you’re crazy. Be gracious, accept their compliments. He held up a second finger. The next time you’re offered a promotion, don’t turn it down.”

Casey smiled. “No problem. I can do my boss’s job better than he can.” Tears formed in her eyes. “I’m sorry about what happened to you. But you completed your mission—you saved us.”

His eyes softened. “So am I, it was a good life, but I only helped you.”

“So what’s the other favor?”

“When the Specter of Death comes to visit next time, tell him off.”

“But he was right.”

“Yes, but then he wasn’t very confident in himself either. All he did was wring his hands and fuss at you to do all the work.”

Casey laughed. “Yes. I don’t think I’ll fear him very much, and maybe I will tell him off.”

“Live a brave life, Casey. Merry Christmas,” Jason said and disappeared.

Casey heard banging on the exterior door. She knew when she opened it her life would change—for the better. “Merry Christmas, Jason, and thanks,” she whispered, but then she put her hands on her hips. “Merry Christmas to you too, Specter.” And then, she opened the door.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas Story

Christmas Story
Wishing a happy holiday to everybody. My gift to all of you is the story below.
Warren Bull

Many years ago in Beckley, West Virginia, a coalmining camp, there lived a family named Wilson with four sons and one daughter.  Like all of their neighbors, they were poor. However they were healthy and happy, enjoying each other’s company all year long but especially at Christmas time.
They liked the caroling, the church service and, although they did not have much they liked giving each other presents for special occasions.
In the town there was a company store that sold things people needed like flour, salt and work shoes.  But the store manager, James Hall, tried to spruce up his stock for the holidays.  One year in addition to wreaths and ribbons, he displayed an eight-piece tea set, even though when it found it in his storeroom he didn’t remember how he had acquired it.
When young Amy Wilson saw the set she thought it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.  The saucers and cups were ivory and cobalt in color, trimmed in gold.  The storeowner, abandoning his usual disinterest, showed her that when a teaspoon gently tapped a cup, it made a sound like a bell. The teapot showed an exotic animal Amy had never seen before. The owner explained it was a dragon. 

Her older brothers noticed that she stood looking at the set as if mesmerized.  It cost more than anything any of them had ever owned.   
Ma and Pa Wilson gave useful gifts at Christmas. Each child got new shoes and warm clothing big enough for them to grow into during the year.  If there was any extra money they might get nuts or even an orange.  They didn’t expect gifts from the children but they encouraged the children to do something special for each other such as doing chores assigned to someone else.
On Christmas Eve morning Ma got a call that a neighbor was ailing. She left a stew simmering and went off to help.  Pa got a call offering the chance to work overtime, servicing machines at the mine. With money always scarce he gladly took the job and told the children not to expect him until early on Christmas morning.
The youngest son, David, had saved the dime he got for his birthday and pennies he earned doing odd jobs for the neighbors so that he could, for the first time in his life, buy a Christmas present.  Since he could only afford one present, he decided to buy something for Amy. 
He prowled through the aisles of the story, asking the price of dolls and hair ribbons before settling on a round cherry-filled chocolate candy as his gift.  He clenched the paper bag holding his present tightly and when he got to his family’s modest cabin he slipped the candy into Amy’s stocking hanging on the hearth. Then he went off to bed thinking about how happy and surprised Amy would be tomorrow on Christmas day.

His older brother, Caleb, came in later from chopping wood for a neighbor. He noticed the round bulge in Amy stocking. He knew his older brothers and parents were not home yet. How could there be a gift for his little sister?  To satisfy his curiosity, he reached into Amy’s stocking. Caleb pulled out the chocolate.  It looked so good that, without even thinking about it, he popped it into his mouth and swallowed it.
Caleb was immediately horrified by what he had done.  He saw that only his two younger siblings were home.  He figured out David must have somehow come up with enough money to buy Amy a Christmas candy.  Caleb knew he had to replace the gift. He counted out the money he had received for cutting wood and added all that he had saved from doing extra chores.  As he headed out the door he passed his older brother, Ben who was headed toward the cabin. 
Ben was every bit as curious at Caleb.  When he saw his younger brother walk rapidly away from the cabin, Ben waited for a few moments and then turned to follow Caleb to see what he was up to.  Ben followed Caleb to the store and waited outside until he left.  Once, Caleb left the store carrying a paper bag, Ben entered and asked the storekeeper what his brothers had purchased. 
Upon learning that David had bought a round chocolate candy for Amy earlier that day and that Caleb had rushed in searching for a round gift before deciding on a saucer, Ben made a pretty good guess about what had happened.   Ben had enough to purchase three cups and two saucers.  He left the store, whistling Silent Night.  When he got home he noticed that Amy’s stocking held a round shape.
Smiling, Ben slipped a cup into Amy’s stocking to join the saucer Caleb had already put there. Then he placed his own bag next to the stocking and labeled it: To Amy.  Ben went to bed secure in the knowledge that on Christmas morning Amy would be the proud owner of three of the most beautiful cups and saucers that she had ever seen.  As it turned out he was wrong.
The oldest brother, Adam, had headed home only to see Ben trailing Caleb through the snow.  Adam worked in the mines with his father and hunted on weekends.  He easily avoided being seen by his brothers and waited until both were through before entering the store.
The storekeeper greeted him with, “I was wondering when you’d show up.  You Wilson boys have all been in my store tonight starting with the youngest and ending with the oldest.”  Bemused, he told Adam about each visit and every purchase.  Although Adam did not fully understand what had happened, after hearing what the owner said he took out money he had saved from various jobs all year long and bought the rest of the cups and saucers.  When Adam got to the cabin he added one cup and one saucer to Ben’s gift. He printed Amy in big letters on the bag he brought from the store and fell asleep dreaming about Christmas Day.
Ma and Pa each came in early on Christmas morning.  Amy awoke when they came in but she knew it was too early to celebrate the holiday so she went back to sleep.

Christmas morning was full of surprises. Amy was amazed and delighted that her stocking held a beautiful cup and saucer with a note that said, “from David.” David was even more surprised that the chocolate he bought had transformed into a cup and saucer.  Caleb smiled knowingly until he found that his gift had changed from one cup into a cup and a saucer.  Ben was no less amazed to find out that his gift had also multiplied by itself.    Adam was happy to see that his brothers had each sacrificed to make each other and Amy happy.   
Ma and Pa allowed as they had never seen anything prettier than the cups and saucers.
Not long after breakfast someone knocked on the cabin door.
“Who could that be?” asked Ma.
Pa got up and answered the door.
“Merry Christmas,” said the visitor.  It was the storekeeper, carrying something wrapped cloth.
“Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, your boys cleared me out of tea cups and saucers last night from the fanciest tea set I ever had.  Unfortunately they left me this.”
He uncovered the teapot showing a dragon.  “Nobody will buy this teapot without the matching cups.  It’s just taking up space that I could fill with something that would sell if I could get rid f it. The least you could do for me is take it off my hands.” He set it on the table. 
“Can you sit a spell, Mr. Hall?” asked Ma. “I’m sure I have some tea left we can sweeten it with honey.”
“Thank you,” said the shopkeeper.  “But I have an errand or two to complete before I can join my family.  On the way I thought I’d see if you could be convinced to relieve me of this unsellable item. I’d hate to have to haul it back to my store again.”
“Thank you,” said Amy.  “It’s beautiful.”
After the storeowner left, Amy removed the lid of the teapot. 
“What is that wonderful smell?” she asked.  “It reminds me of oranges.”
“Let me see,” said Ma.  She reached into the pot and pulled out a packet.
“It’s spiced tea.” She pulled out another packet.  “ And sugar.  Even if he couldn’t have sold the pot, which I don’t believe, he surely could have sold the tea and sugar.”
“I’ve never known that stingy man to give anything away,” said Pa.
“Just because you haven’t known about it doesn’t mean he hasn’t,” said Ma. 
“You’re right,” said Pa.  “It’s Christmas.  Let’s have a cup of tea. I’ll get my fiddle and we can sing Christmas Carols.”
For the rest of the winter every time it snowed Mr. Hall found the steps and porch of his store swept clean. He never saw anyone sweep it.  No matter how much wood his potbellied stove burned the woodpile outside never got low.  He never could catch anyone adding to it.  He had his suspicions, though.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Splitting Christmas

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

I remember these words from the Christmas story Mama used to read to me. I wish there wasn’t a creature stirring in my house, but there is, and it’s not a mouse. It’s a rat. My younger brother, Toby, letting himself in my room.  I close my eyes and bury myself in the covers, but he doesn’t take the hint.  The floorboards squeak under his SpongeBob slippers. “Erin? You awake?”


The squirt jumps on my bed and jerks the covers off me. “Santa came! We have to open presents. Come on!”

I stifle the urge to enlighten him about who Santa really is. He’s only six so maybe he should hold onto the Santa concept a while longer. I’m fifteen, but I lost Santa long ago.  I blink open an eye to look at the clock. “It’s only seven!”

“Mama’s up. She won’t let me open anything till you come. So get up!” He pulls the pillow from under my head and pounds me with it. So young. Soon to be so dead if he doesn’t stop.

Nowhere near ready to face this day, I stumble out of bed.

And mama in her kerchief …

“Merry Christmas, Erin,” Mama says, hugging me. She smells like coffee. She’s wearing her tattered pink bathrobe with the mutant candy cane pin Toby made at school.

“Presents! Let’s open presents!” My brother is bouncing up and down like a basketball and pointing to his haul under the artificial tree.  Mama nods and he dives in, paper and ribbons flying as one present after another is attacked. A new baseball glove.  The matchbox cars from me. The roller blades Mama said she’d never get him. An “Operation” board game.

“Why don’t you open yours?” Mama says.

I stagger to the tree and drop. I can see the yellow sweater in the Gap gift bag that I’d asked for. I didn’t think she’d buy it because of the low neckline. But I’m almost sixteen now, even if Dad refuses to believe it.

I spot a larger wrapped gift that I have no clue about. I tear into the brightly starred paper. “A TV?”
“You’ve been wanting one for your room,” Mama says, grinning. “I guess Santa heard you.”

“Santa spent too much.” I frown. Mama doesn’t have this kind of money, even now that Dad’s paying child support on time. Finally. And speaking of Dad, he’s supposed to come for us in just another hour.

“Go get dressed,” Mama says. “I’ll have breakfast ready.”
I take a quick shower and put on the new sweater. When I make my way to the kitchen, I find juice, eggs, sausage, and toast for breakfast. What surprises me is the other dish: Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treats.

“Hey, there’s cereal in them,” Mama says. “That counts as breakfast. Besides, I know they’re your favorite!” They are. I shove one in my mouth and decide this is a tradition worth keeping.

The doorbell rings, and Toby rushes to answer. “Daddy!” he yells, jumping into the hairy waiting arms. “Santa came to your house, too. Right?”

“Sure, sport.” Dad has on a red pullover that must have been knitted by a someone Toby’s age. Or his new wife, Marissa.

“We better get going,” he says to me, glancing down at my new sweater but not commenting. He nods to Mama and she gives him a little fake smile back. But hey, at least they aren’t yelling. Last year, their screaming match started in the living room and ended in the driveway as Dad sped us away.

I grab our overnight bags as the squirt stuffs his pockets with matchbox cars. When we get to Dad’s new Infiniti,  I help him buckle the seatbelt. Dad’s parked behind our Daewoo that doesn’t even have a CD player.

I worry about Mama the whole way to Dad’s house. She’s alone now. She got us for less than two hours and now she’s stuck watching The Christmas Story marathon by herself. I know Uncle Stewart gave her a bottle of wine, and I almost hope she’ll drink it to get through the day.

Marissa opens the door as soon as Dad pulls up. She’s done something with her hair—it’s layered now, but the layers are flipping in every direction. She could use a little tutoring in styling gel, but that’s not my business.  She’s wearing an identical sweater to Dad’s. Hers, however, bulges in the middle, over the baby she’s carrying. The little girl she’s “always wanted” is due in March.

Toby hugs her because he’ll do anything to get more presents. She reaches for me and I stiffen. I don’t hate her. She didn’t cause my parents’ break up. But I think she’s stupid because she doesn’t get it that Dad may walk out on her, too. He just doesn’t stand still very well.

At least, that’s what Mama said when he left us.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear …

We gather in their living room for round two of Christmas. “A Playstation! I’ve always wanted this!” Toby bellows, spinning around like some Chihuahua on speed.

“You have?” Marissa laughs. We’ve ALL known, for years, how much Toby wanted that. But he’s not touching my new TV.

Dad hands me a box with store wrapping. It’s too big and heavy to be another National Geographic gift subscription, thank God. I open it to find a leather jacket. A gorgeous tan. Soft as butter. Expensive. Very expensive, I know.

“Try it on,” Marissa coaxes.

It’s a perfect fit. The color nearly matches my honey-colored hair.

“You look beautiful, Erin. I  knew you would!” she says.

“Too beautiful. Take the damn thing off before a boy sees you,” Dad jokes, drawing an exaggerated laugh from his wife.

“I love it. Thanks,” I squeak out. It feels a little like betrayal, my liking this present from HER. But the jacket feels so wonderful. And I feel-- I don’t know-- older in it.

Toby’s enthusiasm over the Playstation is nothing compared to his elation over the new trail bike, and I grab the handlebars before he crashes it into the Christmas tree. I’m kind of pleased about the fifty dollar bill Dad slips me, too. “I know you’d rather shop for yourself,” he says. I suspect this is Marissa’s influence, but I’m not complaining. I need jeans to go with the new sweater and jacket.

Marissa serves us brunch. A full table spread—an egg casserole, sausage, croissants, fruit, and orange juice. I’m nowhere near hungry but do my best to poke at the meal as she brings out another dish: Peanut Butter Rice Krispie treats. “You can have early dessert on Christmas,” she says. “A little birdie told me they’re your favorite!”

Toby’s about to fall off his chair he’s laughing so hard and I send him a death glare that he better not say anything. I eat one to be polite.

“Well, I guess we’d better head over to your parents’,” Dad says to Marissa.

This is the part of the day that I’ve been dreading. We pull up to Mr. and Mrs. Oakland’s fancy house on Lake Katherine. Toby always acts like it’s a children’s museum, handling all their fancy glass stuff, spilling soda on their white carpets, terrorizing their neurotic Persian cat.

Meals there are torture. I feel like the Oaklands are waiting for me to choose the wrong fork.  Marissa’s older brother, William, is there with his ten-year- old son, Steven, who’s in private school, and takes piano and violin lessons.  He’s perfect, by the way.  I’m sure we’ll be subjected to a piece from his latest recital. “Flight of the Bumblebee” done on off-key violin.

I should have brought my kazoo.

Mrs. Oakland gives me a polite hug and says, “What a lovely jacket!”

“Thanks,” I say. “It’s from Santa.”

She nods and gives me a conspiratorial wink.

“So is the sweater,” I add.

“I see,” she says.

I’m furious that she doesn’t compliment the gift from Mama. I storm past her, which she doesn’t notice, and make my way to the library where I pull out my cell and dial home.

“It’s me, Mama.”

“Hey, you. Having fun?” She sounds so relaxed, I suspect she’s opened the wine. At least she doesn’t have to drive anywhere.

“Sure. How’s Ralphie?”

“Darren McGaven just opened the lamp.”

It’s my favorite scene in The Christmas Story, Ralphie’s dad opening the hideous lamp of a woman’s leg. Suddenly, I’m homesick and wish I was watching it with Mama.

“You at the Oaklands?”

“Uh huh.”

“The outside fork is for salad,” she says, and tells me to have a good time. I’m nearly crying as we hang up.

I find the family sitting close to the ten- foot cedar that they paid someone to decorate. Steven explains to Toby that Santa brought the latest iPhone and iPad. Toby shows him the Matchbox cars, which he seems to think are just as impressive.

Santa has stopped at the Oaklands, too, I see.  I’m given a gift certificate for the Gap. Toby goes hyper-manic over the three PlayStation games they have for him.

Dreaded dinnertime comes.  I worry when they seat Toby across from me. He’s out of my reach and may need me to contain him. Dad’s close enough, though, and drapes an arm over the back of his chair.

I’ve never had lamb before and find I like it if I ignore that Toby is humming “Mary had a little lamb.” I’m not very hungry, but I taste a bit of everything, and pretend to listen as the Oaklands tell us how awesome Steven is.  He’s the president of the science club and his class is taking a trip to New York this spring. Steven himself tells us his dad is taking him hunting after Christmas. I think of Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun, and wonder if Steven will shoot his eye out.   

Mr. Oakland pours me a tablespoon of wine so I can toast with the adults. It’s like having Communion. But then I think of Mama, and wonder if she’s finishing her bottle as she eats a Lean Cuisine.

Marissa prattles on about the baby’s nursery, which she will paint yellow. “Like your sweater,” she says to me. I smile numbly and nod when she asks if I’ll help.

“I will too!” Toby chimes in, and I have a fleeting fantasy of turning him loose alone with the paintbrush. I wonder how the baby will look painted the color of marigolds.

When dessert arrives, it’s a tall chocolate cake thing with cherries clustered on the top. It scares me to think what the sugar/caffeine combination is going to do to the squirt. I pray Dad takes us back to his house before Toby decides to juggle the Oakland’s Hummel collection. As dessert plates circle the table, a special one is placed before me.

Mrs. Okland beams as I stare at the dish. “We made this for you special, Erin. I understand Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treats are your very favorite!”

“Yes,” I mutter, catching Dad’s grin and Toby’s gasp. I lift the bar and take a bite. My third dessert and it’s not even six.

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry …

After a while, we return to the living room and sure enough, Steven entertains us with a piano concert. I vaguely recognize the theme from Harry Potter and I jostle the squirt who’s sitting beside me. He’s a huge HP fan.

But Toby doesn’t respond, except to lean into my arm. “You okay?” I ask.

“Feel sick.” He looks it, too.  Cheeks flushed bright red. Hands clutching his stomach.

“Uh oh.” I grab him and get him to the bathroom just as the chocolate torte explodes into the bowl.  Dad comes in beside me and rubs Toby’s back while I wash off his face.

“All done?” Dad asks.

“Don’t know,” the squirt answers, looking miserable.

“We should get him out of here,” I say.

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back …

Dad collects all the packages from the Oaklands in a big sack as Marissa and I guide Toby to the car. He’s wilted against the seat as he says, “Take me home.”

Home is not Dad’s. I know it, and I think Marissa does, too. When Dad cranks up the car, she says, “Toby needs his mom.” Maybe she wasn’t ready to deal with a puking kid. Or maybe she knows what’s best for the squirt. After all, she’ll be a mother herself one day soon.

Either way, I could have kissed her.

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

It’s nine PM and we’re home. The squirt had some Pepto and went to bed without even hooking up the PlayStation. Mama’s sipping hot chocolate on the sofa beside me as we both stare at the gas logs in the fireplace.

“So how’d it go?” she asks.

“I see you’ve been generous with your Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treat recipe.”

She laughs.

“How was your day?” I ask, hoping for an honest answer.

She sets down her mug. “Good, actually. Quiet. I opened presents with Mom and Stewart—over the phone, that is. She got me a beautiful new robe.”

 I study her carefully, looking for signs that she had a miserable day but they aren’t there. I’ve already checked out the wine. Last year I came home to an empty bottle, but tonight, only one glass was gone. And Mama looks okay. Relaxed. Comfortable.

I think back on my day.  Marissa’s a pain but she’s trying. The Oaklands didn’t pass out when Toby crashed his matchbox car into their Wedgewood vase. Maybe Dad’s finally growing up, just in time for offspring number three. And thanks to the squirt, I’m home earlier than planned.

It wasn’t the day I’d been dreading. I’m splitting Christmas between three different houses, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’m almost sixteen now, after all.

“Oh, there’s one more present for you. From your Gram,” Mama says. “I promised I’d make sure you opened it before bedtime.” She hands me the gift, wrapped in newspaper and red ribbons. I tear off the paper and open the metal tin. Mama laughs and I almost barf as I lift out the plate. “With love, from your Gram: Your very favorite Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treats.”

And I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
Happy Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!

Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treats
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup Karo syrup
1 cup smooth peanut butter
5-6 cups Rice Krispies

Heat sugar and Karo until hot. Add peanut butter and bring to boil. Remove from heat, add cereal, and spread into well greased pan. Cool and cut into bars.  

Serve for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Christmas day.