Holiday Journey 15

When Chris woke up, he found his blue jeans replaced with trousers, and his boots replaced with shoes he had to tie.  In place of his pea coat, he found a thick winter vest, and a Victorian double-breasted frock coat that he buttoned up because it felt cold enough, even in his room.  He figured they had not finished going back in time, and he wondered again how far back he would have to go to find Lilly.  He had a cane, and a top hat, probably made of silk, which he carried.  He was not a hat person.

Merry waited for Chris in the hall outside his room.  She paced in her rich green Victorian dress which poked out below her long red woolen coat.  Fortunately, the bustle kept the back of the dress off the ground, so at least she would not step on it.  Even so, she paced because she had to get used to walking in that bustle, hidden though it was beneath her coat.  She stepped to the mirror in the hall and felt glad she did not have to wear crinoline hoops.  She dressed in traveling clothes.  Hoops would not have been good for sitting all day on the train.

Merry checked the pins in her hat when Chris came out carrying his top hat and cane. She immediately took the hat and placed it correctly on his head.  “Don’t play with it,” she said, as she put the cane in his right hand so she could take his left arm.  She decided she could use the help walking because the millions of undergarments and attachments, especially the bustle, threw off her whole center of gravity. They walked to the elevator side by side, and waited quietly until Merry thought to say something.

“I ditched the corset.”

“I don’t blame you,” Chris said, though his eyes stayed on the elevator button and he never looked at her.  “I see you are dressed in green and red.  A bit overboard on the Christmas theme, wouldn’t you say?”

“I didn’t pick out the clothes.”

“Who did?” Chris asked, as the elevator door opened and they got on.

Merry pushed the button for the ground floor.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“You don’t seem to know much, for a Christmas elf, I mean.”

“You know what I know.”

“I find that hard to believe.”  He faced her, took her by the shoulders and turned her to face him.  “So, where is Lilly?”

Merry looked up into his eyes and yelled, even as the elevator door opened.  “I… DON’T… KNOW.”

Chris looked at the startled elderly couple ready to step on to the elevator, and he spoke in a calm and steady voice.  “Well, I’m glad that is cleared up.”  He offered his arm, and she took it.  They got breakfast and walked to the train without another word.

###

They arrived at Victoria Station by four in the afternoon.  “Thursday evening,” Chris said, out loud, just to keep his mind straight.  Then he added, “Dickens.”

“The Dickens, you say?” Merry teased.

“Yes,” Chris sounded certain.  “I just figured it out.  My grandmother collected Christmas villages before she passed away.  I have no idea what happened to them.  I was only six or so when she died.  I remember the one from the sixties, Middletown, including the Yuletide Diner.  I guess that was nostalgic for her.”

“Oh?” Merry sounded curious, but maybe like she knew something.  Chris looked at her, but continued.

“Yea. I remember she had a whole Dickens village—a kind of London Town.  It included the Victoria Station, several churches, toy shops, candy shops, plenty of Ye Olde Shoppes.   Open stalls on the green where people sold all kinds of sweet meats, chestnuts, and apples in the snow.  Of course, Grandma’s set did not have so many people.  It is crowded in this square.  I can hear the Christmas carolers, but I can’t see them.”

“What are you suggesting?” Merry asked.

“I’m not sure,” Chris admitted.  “I don’t understand 1914 in the trenches.  But, this place and Middleton are right off my Grandma’s shelf.  Maybe we are not actually traveling through time like I keep thinking.”

“What? Like we are getting smaller?”

“No,” Chris said, quickly.  “Something…”

“I’ve thought about that,” Merry said, and looked up at Chris as they stopped walking. “I’ve been to the City of London, and know this place a bit, but not in this time.  We are back before my time.”

“1863,” Chris guessed.  “We seem to be moving in fifty-one  or fifty-two year jumps.”

Merry nodded slowly, like she would think about that.  “The thing is,” she began again.  “Back home, there are Santas everywhere.  They are in the malls, department stores, and every Christmas parade in every town in America.  They make movies, and write books, and everything.  But all they can do is imitate, like model bits and pieces of the real Santa.”  It became Chris’ turn to nod slowly as she continued.  “I feel like this is the real Christmas town that your Grandmother’s models were based on. I don’t know.  It seems Christmas gets in the head and heart—the Spirit of Christmas, and people model the reality of it all.  Like all those fake Santas in the world.  Maybe they are not entirely fake, but vaguely similar to the real thing, and maybe that is why people recognize them, like they are glimpsing the reality behind the model.”

Chris nodded more firmly, and thought to say something, but he did not get the chance.

Something slammed, a loud Bang!sounding almost like a gunshot.  The apple stand collapsed.  A ragged boy ran, holding tight to a prize apple.  He bumped right into Chris, and Chris grabbed the boy by the arm.  The boy tried to wriggle out of his jacket, to escape, but Chris clamped down on the boy’s wrist and spoke.

“Hold on there, Oliver,” he said.  “Christmas is a time for giving, not stealing.”

“Let me go,” the boy protested, though it was too late.  The round, older woman from the apple stall arrived, staring daggers at the boy as she pulled her shawl up around her shoulders.  A crowd began to gather.  The boy looked at Chris’ smiling face for the first time and asked, “How’d you know my name?”

Chris knelt to face the boy and reached into his jacket pocket where he kept his wallet.  He found three one pound notes which he figured he would never need as long as Plum and Roy covered everything.  He jumbled with the wallet while he held the boy, but Merry knelt and held the wallet for him.  He smiled for her and pulled the notes one at a time.

“Give this to your master, Fagin,” he said.  The boy held the apple with his free hand, so Chris put it in the hand where he held the boy’s wrist.  The boy stopped struggling as he clamped his fingers around the pound note like it meant the difference between life and death.  “Tell him…the Christmas Shepherd said don’t be greedy, and Merry Christmas.”  He pulled out a second note and handed it to the woman.  “One for Dame Apple,” he said.  “To cover the cost of the apple and any damage the boy may have caused. Merry Christmas.”

The woman’s eyes got big, like she did not see many such notes in her line of work. “Very kind, Mister Shepherd,” she said, and thought to add a little curtsey while she said, “Happy Christmas to you.”

Chris pulled out one more note and found a pocket in Oliver’s coat.  He slipped it in and said, “One for the little boy who lives down the lane.  So you and Nancy can have a special Christmas treat.” Chris saw a policeman push through the crowd.  He recognized the big brass badge, red and white checkered cuffs on the uniform, and the club the man held.  “No trouble. All taken care of,” Chris said, as he let go of Oliver so the boy could run off.

“Happy Christmas everyone,” Merry shouted, as the apple lady went back to her stall and the crowd began to disperse.  Many people responded with the same.

“Merry Christmas, officer,” Chris said, as he and Merry stood, and she took his arm.

The police officer almost grinned.  He used his club to salute and returned, “Happy Christmas.”

 

Cue: Traditional 19thCentury Christmas Hymns (background).

 

Merry pulled Chris toward the hotel, pointing out a few things along the way. “London Bridge is behind us.  That is the Tower Bridge.  The Tower of London is there, where the hardened criminals get locked up.

“That castle?” Chris asked, and Merry nodded but turned serious as she noticed Chris’ furrowed brow.  “I wonder if they have anyone to share come Christmas cheer with them.”

“What?” Merry asked, and Chris answered.

“Why can’t people just love one another?  Why can’t we be good and kind to each other—just for one day a year, at least.  Is that too much to ask?”

Merry could not answer that, but fortunately, Plum stood on the hotel steps. “Maybe we will find Lilly in the morning,” he said.  “I feel we are getting close.”  He smiled for the couple, but they appeared occupied.  Chris and Merry spent supper as quiet as they spent the whole day on the train.

************************

MONDAY

A Holiday Journey: From the trenches in France to Victorian London, and Lilly is still ahead of them.

Until Monday, Happy Reading

 

 

*

Holiday Journey 14

“Over here,” Roy said, and the four of them piled into an ambulance.  They headed out toward the front, and Chris had yet to say a word.  Mary sniffed, but pulled a cap from her backpack.  It had a big red cross on it.  She had two arm bands that also showed a red cross.  Without being asked, Chris helped tie the arm bands around her upper arms. Then they sat, like a couple of rag dolls, tossed by every bump in the road, but never opening their mouths.

When the ambulance came to a stop, as the sun started to set, they came to the trenches. Plum, Roy, and Chris got escorted one way, and belatedly, Chris noticed Merry got taken off in a different direction.

“I don’t want to lose her,” Chris said.

“Good to hear you say,” Plum spoke right up.  “I’ll tell her you said that.”

“No. Yes.  You know what I meant.”

“Yes I do,” Plum said, though Chris could not be sure if the man, or elf really knew.

“Welcome to the front lines,” a sergeant said, in a heavy cockney accent.  “I am Sergeant Digby.”  He showed them first where they could relieve themselves. Then he brought them into a dugout bunker where some cots lined the wall.  “You’ll be resting here tonight.”  He put four trays of some kind of food on the table that had six seats around it.  The table also had four cups, but nothing to fill them.  “Keep the lights in the bunker so some German sniper doesn’t see and draw a bead on your head.  We are not expecting a blow tomorrow, but you never know what the Germans might have in mind, even if it is Christmas Day.  Sorry the accommodations aren’t better.  We haven’t had many newspaper people up here.  Colonel says we need to treat you as well as we can, but let you get a real look at life in these god-awful trenches.”  The Sergeant quickly came to attention, and saluted when another man entered the dugout.

“At ease Sergeant,” the man said, as he dropped a pack on one of the cots.

“This here is Lieutenant Smith,” the sergeant introduced the new man.  “He’s been assigned to act as your liaison for tonight and tomorrow.”

“I was wondering who the other meal was for,” Chris said.  “Lieutenant,” He reached to shake the man’s hand.

“Lef-tenant,” the man responded.

“Christopher Shepherd, American,” Plum said, with a thumb point at Chris.

“Oh,” the lieutenant and sergeant both sounded like that explained everything.

“One question,” Chris needed to ask.  “Where is Merry?  The red cross worker that came with us?”

“The woman?” the Sergeant asked for clarification.

“She is at the little hospital bunker we set up at the rear of the line, I am sure,” the lieutenant said.  “They do what they can for the wounded to comfort and prepare them for transport to the rear and real medical facilities.  Don’t worry.  She will be fine.”

“His fiancé,” Plum said, with another thumb jerk in Chris’ direction.

“Is not,” Chris protested, and paused a second before he added, “I haven’t asked her yet.”

The sergeant, lieutenant, and Roy all smiled for him, and the lieutenant spoke. “She will be well taken care of, no worries, Mister Shepherd.”

“I must go, get back up to the line, and all that,” Sergeant Digby told his commanding officer.

“Merry Christmas,” Chris said, wanting to distract himself from his thoughts about Merry.

“Happy Christmas to you,” the sergeant said, smiled, saluted, and left.  The others sat and had a fine supper.  Then, no one stayed up late.

In the morning before dawn, Chris went to relieve himself, and he heard what sounded like singing in the dark.  Drawn to the sound, he wound through the trenches until he reached the most forward position.  The soldiers there were singing Silent Night, and the Germans across the way were echoing with Stille Nacht.

Despite the warning, Chris poked his head above the edge of the trench.  The soldiers did not know what to do.  Being a civilian, they could not exactly order him to keep his head down.

Chris squinted in the dim light before dawn.  He saw a small group of men standing in the field that served as no-man’s land between the trenches.  They appeared to be talking.  He thought he recognized Sergeant Digby in that group.  One private poked his head up beside Chris and commented.

“Maybe we will have a temporary truce, it being Christmas and all.  Whad’ja think?”

As the sunlight cracked the sky, Chris, grabbed the tin of cookies the soldier was enjoying, slipped the white handkerchief out of the pocket of the soldier on the other side, and climbed out of the trench altogether before anyone could stop him.  To be honest, he acted out of ignorance of war and killing more than inspiration and courage.  But he did think that men should not kill each other, at least, and especially on Christmas day.

The two privates followed him, concerned about their stuff.  One said no guns, so they both laid down their rifles while Chris raised his hands, waved his white flag, and tried singing.

“O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,

Wei grun sind deine Blatter!

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,

Wei grun sind deine Blatter!

“Nein, nein,” Chris heard the response right away from the German line, and a big German corporal climbed his own ladder, put his hands up, and corrected the only line in German Chris knew.  “Wei Treu sind deine Blatter!”

“You sing it,” Chris said quickly, as two more Germans crawled out of the trench, and laid their rifles down in imitation of the British.  “Please.  Bitte.”

The man sang, a clean and fine baritone, while Chris at first, and then the corporal, walked toward each other.  He just about finished the song when Chris and the corporal met in the middle. Chris held out the tin.

“Christmas Cookie?”

The corporal smiled broadly.  “Danke.”

“Merry Christmas,” Chris said, and he said the same as he gave cookies to the two soldiers that followed their corporal out of the trench.  Then he turned and walked boldly up to the group in the center, his two privates following him like faithful puppy dogs. The men there had long since stopped talking in order to stare.  Chris did not hesitate.

“Christmas cookie,” he offered to the German soldier who smiled and said thank you is reasonable English.  He turned to the German sergeant, and the man looked ready to grab a handful when his Captain interrupted.

“Ein.”

The sergeant took one.  When Chris turned to the captain, he said, “Got any schnapps?”  The captain slowly smiled, and the British captain turned immediately to his trench and shouted.

“Willoughby.”

“Sir.”

“Fetch the brandy.  The good one I keep hidden in my duffle.”

“Sir?”

“And no weapons,” Chris said.

The captain did not hesitate.  “And no weapons,” he shouted.

The German captain said “Brandy,” but it sounded like he was not impressed.  He turned to his own line and shouted a series of instructions to his men.  Chris could not follow all that German, but he did hear the word schnapps several times. It seemed a prominent part of whatever the officer said.  When the man turned back to face the group, he found the British captain holding out his hand.

“Merry Christmas,” the captain said.

The German captain shook that hand, and responded in English, “Merry Christmas.”

“And a Happy New Year,” Chris said.  Both captains looked at him, so he felt it necessary to explain.  “I have no vested interest.  I am an American.”

Both captains mouthed “Oh,” as if that explained it all.

It did not take long for soldiers on both sides to start coming out, unarmed.  By noon, people all up and down the line were exchanging presents, sharing food and smokes, sharing letters from home, playing games, and generally enjoying the Christmas spirit.  Chris had no idea how long the truce might last, but he felt glad that at least on one day, they had Peace on Earth.

Plum and Roy found Chris early in the morning.  They kept up their disguise of being newspaper reporters, and Roy took plenty of pictures.  Merry found her way to the field by lunchtime, bringing tea and biscuits, as she called them, for all.  It felt like a good day, but there was one sour note.

One German, apparently egged on by one of his own red cross workers, produced a handgun. He pointed it at some British soldiers and made threatening noises.  Merry saw and shouted.  Chris ran up and stepped into the middle.

“No, no, no,” he said, in as soft and calm voice as he could muster.  “Nein.”

“Weihnachtstag,” Merry said, as she arrived to stand with Chris.  “Frieden heute.”

The man began to cry.  He dropped the gun and Merry hugged him.  Chris looked at the German Red Cross worker, but she turned to walk off.  Apparently, she laughed, and in that sound, and from her appearance, Chris could only imagine Courtney.”

Before sundown, Chris, Plum, Roy, and Merry made their way to well behind the British lines.  A food truck there just dropped off Christmas dinners for the troops.  It headed back to the train depot where it dropped off the foursome and picked up another load for the front.  Plum led them to a hotel in the town.  Plum checked them into rooms while Roy got them a table in the restaurant.  Over a fine meal, they discussed things they saw that day.  They laughed plenty, and cried a little over the whole idea of war.

Finally, Plum said they had a train to catch early in the morning.  “Just what they call a continental breakfast tomorrow, on the way back to the station.”

“Fine,” Chris said, and added the only anxious note of the day.  “Tomorrow is Thursday back home.  Maybe we can catch Lilly tomorrow, or, at least…are we getting close?”

Roy spoke before Plum could come up with an encouraging lie.  “She is more than a day away, but we have caught up some.”  He turned his head away from the table.  He did not want to look Merry or Plum in the eye.

Plum finally said, “We should go up.”  He stood, so they all stood.  Chris, who had not said anything directly to Merry all day, did not walk beside her to the elevator, and did not look at her in the elevator, though she looked only at him.

Chris gave a general “Good-night,” and went directly into his room.

Merry went into her room and spent the night weeping.

Holiday Journey 13

When Chris rose in the morning, he found someone came in the middle of the night and replaced his down jacket with a pea coat.  It felt like wool, so he imagined it would be warm enough.  Elves, he thought.  He shrugged it off before he thought to check for his wallet and keys.  He found them in his coat pocket, where they should be, but someone replaced his American dollars with old looking British pounds that he thought looked more like sheets of paper than money.  He shrugged again, grabbed his backpack, and went outside to find Mary.

Mary came out when he did.  Perhaps she heard his door open.  She came dressed in a white dress that fell to her ankles, edged with tatting, the same as her collar and her sleeves.  She wore boots that had laces up the side.  Chris imagined it would take him half the morning to lace those boots. She also wore a pea coat of her own, though hers went to well below her knees.

“Are we ready?” she asked casually as she buttoned up her coat against the cold.

“I take it we are headed into the past,” Chris surmised.

“That would be my guess,” Mary answered, and did not appear shaken in the least by that suggestion.  That brought back all the questions Chris struggled with all night.  Before Chris could ask about that, Roy and Plum arrived.

“Ready to go?” Plum asked.  “We will be taking the train today.”

Chris looked at the two men who appeared dressed in some kind of uniform.  Roy carried a big box, and a tripod, which suggested to Chris the box might have an old-fashioned camera in it.  Plum carried two small duffle bags, and pretended he had the heavy load.

“We best get going,” Roy said, quietly.

“Yup. Don’t want to miss breakfast,” Plum agreed, speaking with some volume, and patting his ample stomach.  “But we got to make it quick.  It’s a long walk if we miss the train.”

Chris stepped from the motel, Mary beside him.  Mary put her pink backpack up on her shoulder as Chris spoke.  “Polar Express.”

Mary laughed, and shook her head, “No.”

Breakfast at the Yuletide Diner did not take long.  No one spoke, except Mary mentioned she felt glad the sun came out, and Plum, who said they should eat up because who knew what sort of food they might have on the train.  Otherwise, they ate in silence and nursed their coffees.  Roy had tea.

Chris spent that time staring again at his three companions.  He tried to imagine what Roy and Plum might look like in their elf form.  He felt a bit disturbed at how easy that was to imagine.  Roy went back to staring out the window, and said nothing, but Chris expected that.  Roy never said much.  Plum spent the whole time nervously playing with his food.  He kept looking like he wanted to say something, but kept changing his mind.  Then, there was Mary.

He had to find out how old she was.  He did not even know her last name, which shocked him when he thought about it.  In fact, he knew nothing about her, and yet, somehow that did not matter.  He decided he did not care if she was eighteen, he wanted to be with her.  As he thought about it, he felt a touch of surprise.  He felt like he wanted to be with her forever, if possible, or as near to that as he could manage.

The station proved not very far down the road.  When they got on the platform, Chris took a long look back at the town. Something registered in Chris’ mind, but before he could put it into words, he had to hustle up to the train. He did catch a glimpse of the diesel engine up front, and wondered how far in the past they had to go.  That engine would not have been in service before the 1940s, maybe, the 1930s.

“Here,” Mary said, taking his hand, and directing him into the bench seat beside herself.  He made her get in first so once again he could trap her and she could not escape. She did not seem to mind sitting by the window.

 

Cue: We Wish You a Merry Christmas

A Holiday Journey, The London Symphony Orchestra

conducted by Don Jackson.  Ó℗CD Guy Music Inc., 2001

 

Chris watched over Mary’s shoulder as they pulled out from the station.  In fact, he watched all morning.  He saw the quaint sixties housing development built on the edge of town.  He imagined in another thirty or forty years, it would become urban sprawl.  Too bad about that.  They quickly got out to the countryside, and it became a pleasant ride. They went through one short tunnel, and stopped briefly at two village stations before Mary turned to face Chris and said, “What,” rather sharply.  She looked down, her ears and cheeks red from so many conflicting emotions.

Chris took one last look out the window.  He saw a horse pulled plow out in the field.  He turned to focus on Mary, and couldn’t help what came out of his mouth.  “I really like the way you look in that dress.  Do you dance in that dress?”

Mary looked up.  “I could learn,” she said, with massive amounts of hope in her voice and eyes.

“Maybe we could learn together,” he suggested.

Mary grabbed him, threw her face into his shirt, and wept.  He put his arms around her, encouraged her, and said, “Hush, hush.” Plum turned around in his seat, pulled his head above the back of the bench, and totally interrupted.

“Lunch.”

Plum and Roy stood, and Chris and Mary followed, but they refused to let go of each other.

“You know, I will have to ask you some questions,” Chris whispered.

“And I will answer honestly,” Mary said, as she wiped her eyes.  “I don’t ever want to lie to you.”

Chris paused.  He had not thought she might lie, but he supposed that was important for her to say.

The next car turned out to be a dining car.  They got a table for four right away, and ordered sandwiches and lemonade. Chris asked if they had coffee. The waiter said he would serve espresso with desert.  Chris turned up his nose a little, but accepted it as the best they could do.

“American,” Plum told the waiter, and the waiter said something in French, no doubt an insult.

“So, where are we?” Chris asked.

“Somewhere outside of Paris, I would guess,” Plum said, but quieted when he looked up and saw Chris talking to Mary.

“You know what I know,” Mary said, and frowned at using her defense right at the beginning.

“So, where are you from?” Chris asked, first thing.

“Norway. I was born in Norway,” Mary said and got quiet as two men in uniform came up to the table.

“Monsieur Plum and Roy.” one said, and Chris thought he recognized the uniforms. They were both army captains, one French and one British.  “Mademoiselle,” the Frenchman nodded to Mary.  “And…” he looked at Chris.

“American,” Plum repeated.  “He is here to observe, so treat him well.  It would not hurt to have the Americans on our side.”

The Frenchman frowned, but the British officer seemed delighted.  “Bravo.  Welcome to the bloody mess.  We will try to keep the Hun out of your way.”  He reached over and shook Chris’ hand.

“Le Boche,” The Frenchman said, and followed with a bunch of words in French that Chris had no hope of following.  When Mary answered the man in French, however, Chris raised an eyebrow. The men left, but the food came, and once again they ate in silence.  When the espresso and desert came, Chris finally asked Mary what the man said.

Plum spoke.  “He said they did not need the help of the know-it-all Americans.”

“And what did you answer him?” Chris asked.

“She said, you have reached a stalemate.  You better hope the Americans can tip the scale in your favor.”

Chris and Mary gave Plum hard stares, and Roy thought to intervene.  “Maybe we should go back to check on our equipment.” He practically hauled Plum to his feet and escorted him out of the room.

Chris and Mary sat in silence for a minute, but finally, Chris had to ask. “So you are from Norway.  And what is your last name?”  He shook his head.  “There is so much I don’t know about you.”

Mary got up and sat on the other side of the table to face him.  “I haven’t got a last name.”  She reached out for his hand, and he gave them to her, but he did not otherwise move.

“Your parents?”

“My father is Juletre.  That means Christmas tree in Norwegian.  My mother is Willow, named like the tree.  My brother is Rowan, like the tree with berries that feeds the reindeer.”

“Older or younger brother?”

“Older. Much older than you.”

“So, you were born in the woods?”  Chris smiled, but Mary couldn’t smile.  Her anxiety exploded on her face and in her body language.  She began to worry the hand that held his.  She bit her lower lip.

She finally said, “I am not who you think I am.”  He just raised one eyebrow.  “Well, for one, my name is not Mary.  It is Merry.”

Chris nodded and smiled.  “That is the most sensible thing you have said so far.”

Mary returned his smiled when she realized he could not possibly hear the difference.  “I mean, my name is not Mary, like the mother of God.  It is Merry, as in, Merry Christmas.”  Chris said nothing.  Merry swallowed.

“Second, you needn’t worry about how old I am.  I’m one hundred and thirty-seven-years-old.  I am a full-grown adult.”

Chris’ smiled until it became a bit of a laugh.  “So, maybe you are too old for me.”

“Third, I’m an elf, technically, a Christmas-elf-maiden.”  Merry removed her glamour of humanity and looked at Chris through eyes that were even bigger and more puppy-dog than before.  Chris returned her stare, and at least she was happy to see that he did not snatch his hand back like it was on fire or she had cooties or something.  Then again, he might be in shock.

“And…” Chris coughed to clear his throat. “And Lilly?”

“You honestly know what I know,” Mary, or rather, Merry said.  “We are dependent on Plum and Roy to find the way she has gone.”

Chris stood, and Merry started to get up, but he waved at her to keep her seated. “No, no,” he said.  “Finish your custard.  I need to be alone for a bit.”

“Flan,” she called it.

He started toward the passenger compartment, but remembered Plum and Roy. He went the other way, found a seat, and stared out the window for a long time.  Merry spent most of that time crying.

 

Cue Reprise: We Wish You a Merry Christmas

A Holiday Journey, The London Symphony Orchestra

conducted by Don Jackson.  Ó℗CD Guy Music Inc., 2001

 

When Chris found his way back to the others, he took his seat beside Merry, who looked like Mary again, though she remained Merry.  He said nothing, looking straight ahead.  She said nothing and did the same.  Then the train pulled slowly to a stop in the station.

Plum tried to hurry them.  The sun got ready to set.  Chris got his backpack, and Merry got hers.  Chris offered his arm, and Merry took it, but still, without a word, they walked off the train.

Holiday Journey 12

Chris nodded.  “To be honest, I am afraid if I question too much, I may wake up back in my apartment, Lilly still gone, and me with no way of ever finding her as you all vanish.”

“I won’t desert you,” Mary said abruptly, and Chris took and held her hand beneath the table, which made her smile, the tears long forgotten.

“You say it is 1965.  That makes no sense whatsoever, but okay.  Where do we go from here?  I hope we don’t have to go all the way back to a manger in Bethlehem, because that might take longer than a week.”

“No,” Plum said between scoops of pudding.  “Not nearly that far.”

Roy nudged Plum, but Plum took a moment to lick his pudding bowl before he moved. “We need to find which route they have taken,” Roy said.

“That’s right,” Plum agreed.  “We will cover the bill, so no worries on that score.  Your money wouldn’t work here, anyway, unless you have some really old bills.  We will catch you up in the morning.  I recommend some good sleep.  We may have a long day of travel tomorrow.”

As they headed off, Mary fidgeted in her seat, like one looking for a comfortable spot on the booth bench.  Chris pushed in so their sides touched and he pushed Mary right up to the window.  She could not escape.  She looked at him, and the anxiety returned to her face.  This time, she did not look surprised by what he asked.

“Are they human?”  Chris had begun to let his imagination run wild.  He thought maybe Lily got abducted by time traveling aliens, and he…and Mary…got lucky to find a couple of aliens that did not approve of kidnaping.

Mary sat silently staring up at Chris for what seemed like an eternity.  Chris stared back and revised things in his mind. He decided she might be as old as twenty-three, and not the eighteen he first thought.  Twenty-three would be a reasonable age for someone who was twenty-eight.  He shouldn’t feel like he was robbing the cradle.

Finally, Mary shook her head, but said nothing.  She turned her eyes to her coffee and worried her cup.

“So, they are aliens?” Chris said, with a straight face.

Mary let out a laugh, and a touch of spit which she just caught with her finger, and then her napkin.  “No,” she said, and once again turned her smiling face to look at him.  He looked curious.  She told him.  “They are elves.  They are Christmas elves, which is why I believe they can take us to Lilly, if anyone can.”  Mary watched Chris’ curious eyebrows go up.  “And clearly, they are morons, too,” she added.

“No,” Chris countered.  “Roy seems to have a brain.”

“Yes,” Mary said.  “But he mostly doesn’t use it.  He just goes along with whatever Plum says, and Plum says too much.”

“He does like to talk,” Chris said.

Mary laughed and nodded.  Chris decided he was not ready to ask Mary how she knew Plum and Roy were Christmas elves. He did not want to consider asking about herself for fear of the answers, so instead, he took her hand and pulled her from the booth.

“We need to rest, as Plum said.”  He took her outside, and she did not resist him.  They got to the sidewalk, Mary holding tight to his hand.  Chris did not want to let go of her hand.  He distracted himself as an elderly black woman walked by on the sidewalk.  She looked about fifty, in a thin winter coat and wearing a plain hat, and she carried several Christmas presents in her hands as she headed toward the parking lot. He said, “Merry Christmas.”

The woman looked startled, but only for a moment.  She turned her head, and the serious and sad look left her face and got replaced by a smile.  “Merry Christmas,” she returned, and kept walking.

Mary tugged on Chris’ sleeve to regain his attention.  “You have questions?”  Her voice sounded flat, like she knew he had questions, and she was prepared to answer whatever he asked.

Chris looked at her and nodded.  “How old are you?”

For the third time, Mary did not expect that question.  “How old do you want me to be?” she answered, and grinned on the inside.  The grin nearly burst out of her, but they got interrupted.  The old woman got stopped at the edge of the parking lot by bikers.  Two blocked her way and the gothic looking girl behind them laughed to watch.  When one of the bikers knocked the Christmas packages out of the old woman’s hand, Chris ran to them.  Mary followed.

“Hey,” Chris yelled to get their attention.  “Come on, guys.  It’s Christmas,” he said.  He bent down to pick up one of the packages, so Mary helped.  ‘Give it a break for one day a year at least.  Okay?”  Chris looked over the lot and saw a policeman by his car, just three cars in.  The policeman watched, but did not appear inclined to do anything, so Chris shouted to him, “It’s Christmas.”

“Who the hell are you?” one of the bikers asked.

“She’s a negro,” the other said, as if that justified anything, and the gothic girl, who looked remarkably like a gothic version of Courtney, looked angry.

“She is a human being,” Chris responded.  “She is a good Christian woman who deserves better than hassles on Christmas Eve.”

One of the bikers looked ready to raise a fist, but the policeman decided to come over. “Okay boys,” the policeman said. “Move along.  You need to take your fun somewhere else.”

The biker fist unclenched, and they did not argue.  They got on their bikes.  The gothic Courtney still looked angry as she sat behind the big one, and they roared off. Mary handed the last package to the woman.

“Thank you,” the woman said, and smiled.  “Merry Christmas,” she said again, before she glanced at the policeman and hurried to her car.

“Merry Christmas,” Mary responded.

“And a very merry Christmas to you, too, officer,” Chris said, as he caught Mary’s hand and walked her toward the motel.

The policeman’s annoyed face softened, and he responded with the same before returning to his patrol car.

Mary got serious when they came to the motel doors.  They had rooms beside each other, but despite the long day, Mary did not appear ready to go to bed.  “You have questions?”  She tried again.

Chris hesitated, but only for a moment as he put his hands to Mary’s shoulders and looked into her eyes.  “Nothing that can’t wait” he said, leaned down, and kissed her.  He went in his room right away, and left her outside her own door, in the cold, where she looked up at the stars with those big eyes and gently touched her own lips.

************************

MONDAY

A Holiday Journey:  1965, and the journey has just begun.

Until next time, I hope you get in some Happy Reading

*

Holiday Journey 11

Chris saw an Ambassador police car parked outside the donut shop.  He saw the dress shop, the hardware, the bakery, the butcher, and a very big toy shop.  He had another thought.  “That was a time machine and we went back to 1957.”

“No,” Plum laughed.  “Middleton is not reached by time travel, though the town is stuck somewhere in the early sixties.  I always figured about 1965 or 66.”

Chris stopped.  Plum bumped into him for not watching where he was going.  Mary let go of Chris’ arm and looked worried.  Roy got their attention.

“It is getting late.  We better get rooms before we eat.”

“Lilly came this way.” Mary said as a statement to Chris, but her voice made it enough like a question for Plum to answer.

“She did. We are certain about that.  Roy and I will have to spend the night detecting to figure out where she went from here.  But she certainly came here, so we are on the right path.”

No telling what Chris thought.

Everyone stared at Chris, to make the decision.  He pointed as he spoke.  “So, we get rooms at the Holiday Motel before we eat at the Yuletide Diner.”  Everyone breathed, and Roy started walking.  They followed, but Chris had not finished speaking. “Then I think you all have some explaining to do,” he said, with an especially sharp look at Mary.

The diner looked like a train car right out of the 1960s.  They had a speaker with a volume control at each booth for whatever might be playing on the jukebox.  Chris turned the speaker off when he looked at the menu.  There were enough speakers in the place turned on, so he did not need it blasting in his ear.  Chris sat on the outside with Mary next to him, while Plum squeezed Roy up to the window on the other side.

“The french-fries here are really good,” Plum said, before he swallowed.  Maybe he should not have said that.  He got busy with the menu.

Chris gave him a hard look and got ready to ask a question, but he got interrupted.

The waitress, in a green uniform with a red apron, and a silver and gold bell lapel pin that jingled every time she moved, brought waters in hard plastic red cups and asked if they were ready to order.

“Sure,” Chris said.  “I’ll have the turkey and stuffing.  Mashed potatoes and…” he looked at Mary.

“Green beans,” Mary said.

“Green beans.” Chris said, and shrugged.

“I’ll have the same thing,” Mary agreed and handed the menus to the waitress.

“You want gravy on your potatoes?” the waitress asked.

Chris and Mary said, “Yes” at the same time.

“Gravy on everything,” Mary said.

“Except the green beans,” Chris countered.

“Except the green beans,” Mary nodded.

“And coffee,” Chris added.

“Yes, coffee, please,” Mary agreed, and looked around the diner, being uncomfortable under Chris’ stare.  Roy and Plum ordered, and then they had to wait.  Elvis finished on the jukebox, and Gene Autry came on, singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Roy looked out the window, being next to it.   Plum twirled his fork, and looked ready to whistle along with the music. Mary found something fascinating about the couple two booths down and across the aisle.  At least she stared in that direction, effectively taking her attention away from Chris’ eyes.  Chris thought of all sorts of things to say, but only one thing bothered him.

“So, where is Lilly?”

“We honestly don’t know where she may be at this point,” Plum spoke right up.

“But you have been to this place before.  You said they have good fries here.”

“Yes, yes,” Plum admitted.  “I’ve been to places further on, too, a bit.  The thing is, we don’t know which way she may have gone from here.”

Chris turned to Mary.  “1965?” he asked her.  Mary shrugged, but looked nervous.  She bit her lip, but decided for the sake of her feelings for Chris, she had to tell the truth, even if she did not have to tell everything just yet.

“It is Christmas eve here, and tomorrow will be Christmas day, even though back at the apartment it is still a week before Christmas.  I don’t know how it works, but I know that is true.  The motel diner will be open tomorrow so we can get breakfast, but after that we will have to depend on these two…fine gentlemen to lead the way.  As far as Lilly goes, you know what I know, and I am as worried about her as you are, but we have to believe she is fine and well.”

The waitress came with supper, and Chris paused in his questions, though he did not stop staring at the three while everyone ate.

Chris had a lot to digest beyond the turkey and dressing, which tasted good.  He had been hungry, but now, as he satisfied that hunger, he began to think again about what he was doing, where he was, and when he was.  It did not make any sense.  They left his apartment on Monday morning, a full week before Christmas.  He had every hope of finding Lilly safe and sound before Christmas.  But Mary said they were in 1965, or 66.  And even if they were actually still in regular time, she said it was Christmas Eve, like he lost a whole week of time.  That did not make any sense.

The waitress came to fil their coffee cups, and he asked.  “So, this is Christmas Eve…”  He let his voice trail off and tried to sound casual about it.

“That’s right,” the waitress said, with a smile.  “You expecting something special under the tree tomorrow?”  She smiled harder, like she thought that might be a good idea.  “Merry Christmas,” she said, and left.

Chris stared at Plum who picked at his food.  Mary stared at him with her big eyes, but said nothing.  Chris ignored them and focused on his food, as Roy turned on the speaker.

 

Cue: White Christmas

Bing Crosby (1942) Original Version

 

Chris considered when they left the minister, not much more than an hour ago. The police car with the flashing lights made plenty of noise when it arrived.  He went through what looked like a back door to a warehouse—maybe a six-story building.  The sound, flashing lights, and everything cut off instantly.  He stepped through a room not much bigger than a walk-in closet, and came out in this place, where the white snow made deep piles beside the well plowed road, and the old winter trees stood as tall or taller than any of the buildings.  He looked back and saw no sign of a six-story warehouse, much less the eight to twelve-story apartment and office buildings that filled the previous area.  More than that, he heard nothing.  The traffic and general sound of people on that busy street should have been obvious, even a block away.

Chris looked at Mary, and she quickly turned her eyes to her nearly empty plate. He said something she did not expect. “Apple pie?”

Mary looked up, her face trying to smile, but looked ready to cry any moment. “Yes, please,” she said.

Chris got the waitress and ordered.  Fat Plum wanted Figgie pudding.  Tall and skinny Roy stayed away from the sugar. With one last hard look at his companions, Chris explained.

“The important thing is to find Lilly, safe and sound.”  He looked away, though the others all stared at him, like the condemned, awaiting their sentence.  “For some reason, you people seem to know where she is, or at least where she is headed. I figure, if the only way to reach her is to follow you, then that is what I must do, no matter how strange the journey gets.  You said a week.”

“Maybe not so long,” Mary interrupted, and immediately covered her mouth and quieted.

Holiday Journey 10

They had lunch in a small sandwich shop in a shopping center.  Mary and Roy had salads.  Plum and Chris got burgers, and with the food, the fog seemed to lift from Chris’ mind enough to ask a couple of questions.

“Mary,” he said.  “Don’t you have to go to work?”  Mary paused with her fork near her mouth, like he asked a surprise question.

“No,” she said rather quickly.  “I called. I got the week before Christmas off. It is the first time in forever I am not running around like a crazy woman the week before Christmas…”  She began to ramble.  Plum kindly interrupted.

“Lucky you,” he said, and pointed at her, but nudged Chris to get his attention.  “Christmas is our busy season…you know…for detectives…”  Plum also got ready to ramble, to no doubt tell an expertly crafted bit of half-truths, but Chris interrupted.

“As much as I appreciate you taking us to Lilly, who exactly is paying your fee.  I assume this isn’t for free.”

“Well, um…” Plum had to think about that.

“We are not at liberty to say,” Roy interjected.

“Exactly,” Plum said, and brightened.  “Our lips are sealed.  Wouldn’t be good detectives if we couldn’t keep confidentiality.  But I can tell you, it is someone who has your best interests at heart.  Those others took your little girl.  Tsk, tsk. Even if we weren’t getting paid, it is our moral duty to take you to her.  Yes sir. Our lips are sealed…”  He finally rambled off for a verbal stroll, stretching his tongue and lips the way others might stretch their legs.  Chris wondered what it might take to seal the man’s lips.

Chris interrupted with another question.  “So, where did they take Lily?”

“Taking her, still, I imagine,” Roy interjected again.

Plum looked at the beanpole of a man who appeared tall, even when sitting down.  Plum glanced at Mary, passing unspoken words, before he spoke.  He grimaced, like telling the plain truth about something might kill him, but the others were not going to say it, and Chris kept staring at him, waiting for an answer.

“Okay,” Plum said, and let out his breath, like he had been holding it, expecting something bad to happen.  “They are taking her to the Christmas village to see Santa Clause.”

Chris stared.  He swallowed. Then he laughed before he got out the words.  “There are Santas all over the place.  I took her to see Santa just last week.  What do you mean they took her to see Santa?”

“The real Santa,” Plum said, in all seriousness.  “The original, you might say…”  Plum let his voice fall away.  Chris continued to stare.  He did not know how to interpret that bit of information.  Roy stood up before Chris decided to call Plum crazy, or plum-loco.

“Are we ready to find Lilly?” Roy asked, diverting Chris’ attention back to the important point.

Mary stood.  “Think of Lilly.”

Chris stood slowly and picked up his backpack.  Lilly mattered, wherever those people may have taken her.  “Do I need to give you money for lunch?” he asked, trying to hold on to something concrete in his mind.  All the same, his mind raced, thinking Lilly got kidnapped by some cult that used the idea of a real Santa Claus to lure in unsuspecting kids; who knew for what nefarious purpose.

“All taken care of,” Plum assured him.  “Follow Roy.”  Plum pointed. Roy already stepped out the door and Mary stood in the door, looking back at Chris, with her eyes big and full of concern.  She appeared to be wondering about something.

Chris walked.

They walked all afternoon, and Chris figured they had to be at the edge of the city, if not out of the city altogether. They wandered through some neighborhoods which were not the best.  In those places, Chris found his worry for Lilly grow.  He hoped she did not end up in such a place, like tied in the back room of a warehouse, or some such thing.  Then again, he considered the poor people who had to live in such conditions.  The more poverty he saw, the more his feelings turned from worry about Lilly to worry about all the people who might be trapped there in one way or another. He wished for something he could do to make their lives a little easier, or at least a little happier.  Chris noticed much less snow in that place, and what remained had turned to a dirty, cold gray slush that stuck to his boots and gave no cheer.

Plum stayed unusually quiet in the afternoon. He followed behind the couple, his head lowered most of the way, like a man doing penance for something terrible.  He looked like a man who spoke out of turn, and maybe ruined everything.  Chris had to fight the urge to tell the man to cheer up.  But then again, if Plum knew something he did not share about Lilly’s situation, he needed to think about that.  He needed to share what he knew.  Chris turned to look at Mary

Mary walked dutifully beside him, her head lowered like Plum, but she sighed now and then, and appeared anxious about something.  Chris decided something important.  He reached over and took Mary’s hand.  Immediately, Mary lifted her face and smiled at him, and Chris decided he liked to see Mary smile.  He spoke over his shoulder.

“Hey, Plum.  Whatever you are fretting about, it can’t be that bad.  Cheer up.  The important thing is finding Lilly safe and sound, and I am trusting we will do that.”

“Good of you to say,” Plum said, though his expression changed little.

Chris continued.  “So, the real, original Santa Claus.”

“Yes. That’s right,” Plum said, and at least he looked up.

“And he lives in the Christmas village? … Of course, he does.”  Chris paused before his next thought.  “So, the kidnappers are taking Lilly to this Santa, and we are following?”  It was a question.

“Yes,” Plum assured him.  “As near as we can figure, that is where they are going.  Roy tracked them to the entrance to Middleton.  Roy is the tracker, you know.  The thing is, we don’t know the way they may have gone from Middleton.  The trail should be good and fresh, but that is why I said prepare for a week.  We don’t know how long a trail we might have to follow, if you see what I mean.”

Chris nodded before he shook his head.  “So, you basically don’t know where you are going.  You don’t know where this Christmas village is.  We are just hoping we don’t lose the trail.”

“You could say that,” Plum admitted, and dropped his head again.

Chris looked at Mary, who shrugged as she spoke.  “They are the only lead we have.  We will find Christmas town.  Sometimes, you just have to believe.”

Chis slowly nodded for her.  Somehow, he could believe it when Mary said it.  He wanted to smile for her, but he saw something that made him drop her hand instead.  An old minister set up a nativity scene on what appeared to be church grounds.  Two young men were harassing him, and the young woman kicked the baby Jesus into the dirt.  Chris rushed between the combatants.

“What is wrong with you?” he asked.  “It’s Christmas.”

“Christ crap,” one young man said.

“We don’t want any sky god shoved down our throats,” the other said.

“It is illegal to make a public display of your stupid religion.”

“It is illegal to promote discrimination.”

“Like a hate crime.  Like hanging nooses and burning crosses.”

“You need to get it off the street.”

“I’m offended by your stupid religion.”

The young woman, who looked like a poor copy of Courtney, merely laughed.

Chris spouted back.  “What offends you?  Christmas is about love, joy, and peace.  Are you against love, joy, or peace, or all three?

The young men paused and stared, surprised at being interrupted in their intolerant rant.  The young woman gave an angry growl.

Look. We have a family here, and a baby. Christmas is about family, and children. Are you offended by family or children? We got wise men bringing gifts. Christmas is about giving.  Are you offended by gifts, or by generous people? So, the shepherds bring in the sheep. They are kind and gentle.  And the Angels sing Joy to the world, and on Earth, peace to all people.  Christmas is the time when the light came into the world.  Even if you don’t believe in the light, plenty of people do, and a reminder is a good thing to help people remember to strive for the light. Would you rather be surrounded by people who follow the light, or those who live and do evil under the cover of darkness?  Are you offended by the light?  I understand some people are offended by the cross, and some by the resurrection. Some people don’t think they need forgiveness, and that is sad.  But Christmas is all about hope and good will toward all people.  There is nothing to be offended by.  It is a beautiful celebration of all that is good.”

Before the others could respond, a police car pulled up, blue lights flashing. The three thugs took off running as the police officer got out to talk to the old minister.  Chris heard the officer say they could not watch twenty-four hours.  Those young people would probably be back to vandalize the nativity, or some others just like them.  Chris did not understand.  A nativity does not force anyone to believe anything. It is simply a reminder that there is good in the world.  Christmas is the only celebration in the year that encourages people to be good and do good for each other.  How can anyone be against that?

Mary collected Chris, taking his arm and pulling him aside.  Roy stood by a non-descript door in a building across the street.

“This way,” Roy said, and opened the door for Plum.  Mary escorted Chris through the door and into a small, empty room that smelled of pine and sawdust.  She held his arm as they walked through the back door.  Chris imagined it would let him into the main part of the building. His jaw dropped when he saw it led them back outside, and to a very different outside than he imagined.  The snow looked white and deep, and a 1957 Chevy rolled down the plowed road in front of them.  An old Ford followed.  Chris recognized the tailfins.

“An antique car show?” Chris asked.  He noticed the buildings were not very tall, and they had space between the buildings and parking lots where trees and bushes grew.  He did not doubt that beneath the snow sat well-cut lawns and probably plenty of flowers on a spring day.

“Nope,” Plum answered.

“We are in Oz and suddenly everything is in color,” Chris tried again, as he looked at all the neon signs, and the streetlights decorated for Christmas. For that matter, everything looked decorated for the season.

“Um…nope,” Plum said.  He had to think about that one for some reason.

Holiday Journey 9

Monday morning, Chris got up to the sound of someone rummaging around in the kitchen. “Lilly?”  He called out of reflex, before he shook his head.  It could not have been Lilly.  It had to be Mary.  He remembered kissing her.  He felt confused.  He was not certain what he felt, but she kissed him back, young as she seemed.  He did not know how to process that.

“Mary. Mary who?”  He spoke out loud, but paused when he realized he did not even know her last name.

“What?” Mary stood there in all her youth, big eyes, bright cheeks, ears open to the sound of his voice, and skinny, though with plenty of bumps and curves where she needed them.  In fact…  He shook his head.  He did not need to think that way.  Mary licked her fingers before she wiped them on the apron she wore.  “What?” she repeated in her most innocent voice, like everything was perfectly normal.

Chris laughed at the thought of life being normal.  He sat at the table.

“Good,” she said.  “I made an omelet.  I hope it is okay.  I don’t cook much.  I’m sorry.”

“I am sure it will be fine,” he said, as she came to the table.  She brought him a cup of coffee and set it down.

“Let me know if I put too much milk in your coffee,” she said, with a big grin. He frowned, and she spouted an explanation.  “I am Lilly’s babysitter.  I know some. Sometimes I asked, some…  I hope you don’t mind.”

Chris took her hand, paused, looked at his own hand holding on to Mary’s hand, and then spoke his heart.  “I don’t know what I mind.  I’m too busy being worried about Lilly.”

“Of course,” Mary turned from a happy young woman to serious in a second.  “I am sure she is fine… Oh!” she slipped out of his hand and raced to the stove.  She got the omelet in time, grabbed the toast, and joined him at the table.

The omelet tasted very good.  Chris smiled for her and said how good it was. She returned his smile and said thank you. He said, “No, thank you,” and then he stopped speaking for a minute and ate.  He also watched her eat, and realized she must have gone home in the night and changed her clothes.  She looked closer to his age for some reason, so he thought maybe she changed some makeup stuff, too.  Still, she remained the same person he got to know when she first moved in.  She remained Lilly’s babysitter, and that triggered the question.

“Tell me about Lilly.” He could not get over the feeling that Mary knew more than she was saying.

“I can’t. You know what I know.  But you must believe that she is all right and in no danger.  More than that, I cannot say.”  Mary looked sad.  Chris picked up his plate, and hers.  He gave her a kiss on the top of her head and took the plates to the kitchen.  He decided, if she wanted to be with him, who was he to argue?

“I’m ready,” he said as he loaded the dishwasher.  “When do we leave?”  He looked at Mary.  She touched her head where he kissed her, and looked frozen with her mouth open in a smile of sorts.  “When do we leave?” he repeated.

Mary shook herself back to the topic.  “As soon as Plum and Roy get here.”  She put one hand to her ear and leaned toward the front door.  “I’m surprised.  I usually show uncanny timing.”  She paused to think.  “I don’t believe I have forgotten to tell you anything.”

“Like where we are going?”  He trusted Mary, and chided himself for thinking she knew something she might not be telling him.

“Ah,” Mary smiled.  “But I know what you know.”

Someone knocked on the door.

Mary rushed to answer it.  “You were not my choice,” she whispered to the two, as she ushered in two people who looked like men, in an odd sort of way.  Chris had to squint a little.  Their odd appearance was not helped by their sizes and shapes.  Mister Plum looked short and stout, like the proverbial teapot. Roy stood tall, taller than Chris, but he appeared terminally skinny.  Mutt and Jeff, Chris thought.  Abbot and Costello.

“Mister Christopher,” the short one spoke.

“Christopher Shepherd, or Mister Shepherd, or just Chris,” Chris corrected, but the short one waved him off like Chris was confusing the issue.

“Name’s Plum.  Not Mister Plum.  Just Plum will do.  My partner is Roy.  Private eyes. We have a long journey ahead of us. I hope you are ready.”

Chris paused, but only for a second as he decided which question to ask first. “You know where Lilly is?”

Plum nodded.  “Roy followed them right up to the door.”  Roy nodded, but said nothing.

“What door?” Chris asked.  “Why did you say a week-long journey?”

“Middleton,” Roy said, without explaining.

“The door to Middleton,” Plum said.  “That is the door we need to go through.”

“Middleton?”

“A lovely community, full of good souls.  That is why I know your Lilly is all right,” Plum said, and Roy nodded again.

“But, why a week?  You said no passport, but I can get to anywhere in this country in a day; three or four at most if I sight-see along the way.  Why a week?”

Roy looked at Plum, and Plum thought before he responded.

“It’s like this.  I am sure they have moved on from Middleton.  That is where we will pick-up their trail, but we will have to travel across country from there, you see?”

Chris shook his head.  “I don’t see. And I don’t see how you can be so sure Lilly is not in danger.”

“Sometimes, you have to believe,” Roy said.

Plum looked at Roy like Roy just gave a long-winded speech.  “Trust is the word I would use,” he said.  “You got a trust she is all right.  No one captures children without some purpose.  You might get a ransom note, but for now, you gotta believe she is okay.”

Chris slowly nodded.  Mary looked like she watched the exchange and managed to keep herself from biting her nails. She thought to interrupt.

“Take the truck?” she asked.  “Do you have a car?”

“No, no,” Plum responded.  “The door is a good walk from here, but nowhere to park on either side.  No suitcase.  You got a backpack?”

Chris looked at Mary.  Mary said, “I can use Lilly’s school pack.”  She added for the two men, “It’s pink.”

“Did you see who decorated my apartment?” Chris asked, ignoring Mary for the moment.

Plum and Roy eyed each other before Plum spoke.  “Yes, we did.  And Lilly went with them, willingly, as far as we could tell, but there were too many of them to stop.  So that is why we followed them to the door.  But they seemed like very nice people, and that is why we figure she is okay. Now, let’s get going.”

Chris looked at Mary again.  She said, “I don’t see that we have any choice.  These two are the only lead we have.”

Chris nodded and turned to his room to empty his suitcase and repack his things. Roy followed him into the room, but Chris ignored the man.  He had Ricky’s old army pack.  He had Ricky’s gun as well.  He got it out from the little safe and looked at it, to think.  He glanced at Roy, and saw Roy shake his head and hands.  Chris did not know if that meant he felt Chris would not need the weapon, or if he generally did not like guns.  Chris put it away.  He did not like guns either.

It did not take long to transfer what he could from his suitcase to the backpack. He put on his hiking boots, and followed Roy back to the main room.  Mary stood there, ready.  Chris felt a little surprised.  He figured she would have to go back to her apartment to get her things, but it seemed she already had her things in Lilly’s school backpack.

“Speedy,” he told her.

“I like to travel light,” she said.

Chris nodded before he smiled.  “A woman who travel’s light,” he laughed.  “Hardly makes you feel human.”

Mary frowned and pushed Plum out the door.  She was not ready to go there.

The sun came out that day, and it helped Chris’ mood.  The snow did not really melt, but it glistened in the sun.  Roy walked out front, and kindly said things like, “This way,” and “Over here” to keep them walking where they needed to go. Mary stayed beside Chris all morning, but mostly looked at her feet, like one deep in thought.  Chris walked, head up, and tried to think about the twists and turns of his life.  He found he could not concentrate for worry.  His mind felt like it was in a fog.  Plum talking the whole time did not help.  The man pointed out things as they went, and Chris wondered if the man doubled for a tour guide.  He politely looked at everything as Plum pointed, but it did distract him.

 

 

Cue: Here We Come a Wassailing

London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

 

Chris tried to keep track of the route they followed, but it felt like his life. He could not concentrate.  He felt surprised at how quickly they came to an area of the city he did not know.  After that, he got completely lost.  He might have panicked, but Plum pointed out and named a few tourist-type things that he heard about but never went to see.  Still, it felt strange to know there were so many businesses, streets, back alleys, shopping centers, neighborhoods and all that he did not know. His little city also seemed much bigger than he imagined.

************************

MONDAY

A Holiday Journey: The journey begins in earnest, and doesn’t get too strange, at first.

Until then, Happy Reading

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Holiday Journey 8

“So how can I help you?” the priest asked.

Chris wiped his eyes.  “My little girl.  She has disappeared, and I fear the worst may have happened to her.”

“Your daughter?”

“My niece.  But I have full custody and full responsibility for her.  My brother died in the war, overseas, and her mother is also presumed dead.  I promised to watch over her and take care of her, and I failed her.  We are the only family either of us has.”

“Your niece,” the priest voice sounded curious, but intended to comfort Chris.

“You may know her,” Chris just realized.  “When I used to work on Sundays, Missus Minelli, my neighbor, used to bring her here to church.”

The priest had to think for a minute before he came out with it.  “Lilly.”

Chris nodded.  “I’m the Christopher you may have heard about.”

“Uncle Chris,” the priest nodded, and smiled, but Chris could not smile.  “She disappeared?”

“In the middle of the night,” Chris confessed.  “I woke up and she was gone.”

The priest paused to look toward Mary.  He seemed to see something.  “Do not be afraid,” he said.  “You found no sign of violence.  You must believe Lilly is fine, and I have a feeling that you will find her, safe and sound.”

Chris tried to nod.  “I am glad someone feels that way.”  He sniffed to control his emotions.  “I have not done her much good.  I have a college degree, but I haven’t been able to find a job worth much, and even those I found, I haven’t been able to keep.  Maybe if she is safe and sound, maybe she is better off without me.”

“We are always better off with each other.”

“Maybe,” Chris shrugged.  “After these few years with Lilly, I don’t much like the prospect of being alone.” He tried hard to avoid crying again.

The priest pointed to Mary.  “But you do not appear to be alone.  You have one who cares about you.  I believe she may help you find the way you need to go.  I have seen that look before, you know.”

Chris shook his head.  He did not understand what the priest was talking about.  He also stared at Mary for a minute.  The angel could not be seen.

###

“Please,” Mary begged, though only the angel heard her.  “Please, most holy one.”  The angel let out the smallest sliver of a smile.

“You said your heart belonged to the one who bears the Spirit of Christmas.” the angel said.

“It does…I…”  Mary had to pause and think about that.  “I love the dear old man.  And I cried when his Missus went over to the other side.  I cried every day when he sat by her bedside and held her hand.  I cried when he said good-bye.  I cry, still.  Oh, but he is so old now, and sad.  Surely his time is ending.”  Mary wiped a small tear from her eye.  “Oh, but Chris makes me feel all the love, joy, and peace of Christmas, just to look at him…” Mary had to pause again to think about what her heart wanted to propose. It would be asking a lot.  “Maybe Chris could come to Christmas Town and share the burden, to give the dear old man a rest.”  She fell silent, and prepared for whatever answer she might receive.

“He may be the one, I cannot say, but he will have to come the long way around.”

“We will,” Mary said, with some hope in her voice.

“He will have to find out about Lilly on his own.  You cannot tell him about her.”

“I won’t,” Mary said, with determination.

“He will be tested.  He will be tested in the heart where no words can go.  If he fails a test or turns back at any time, he will find himself home, alone, with no memory of you or that he ever started the journey.”

Mary dropped her eyes once again.  “I understand,” she said.  The angel offered her a gift of hope.  It would not do to argue.

“You will have to tell him who you really are, and show him.”

“Right now?”

“No. It needn’t be now.  But it must be soon.  It will also be a test.”

Mary began to cry for fear that he might not like her the way she really was. Some humans seemed thrilled to find their fantasies come to life, but most refused to believe it, and some feared it and accused anything non-human as being demonic and of the devil.  It would be a great risk to reveal herself, but the angel was right again.  Chris would have to know long before he got anywhere near the Christmas village.

“I will do it,” she said, with determination creeping back into her voice.

“Good,” the angel responded, and nearly let out the full smile.  “Plum and Roy will come in the morning to help guide him in the way you need to go.”

“Plum and Roy?” Mary suddenly sounded uncertain again.  “Must it be them?”  Mary’s phone got a text message.

“They were charged to watch the apartment, and watch Chris and Lilly over these many months.  Plum and Roy are the ones to guide him.  That is how it must be,” the angel said, and vanished utterly from that place.

Mary looked up at a sound.  Chris left off his cry and looked up at the same sound.  A couple of men came in a side door, carrying statues of two wise men. One looked like a priest, and he spoke to the other.

“George. Did you forget to relock the side door?”

“I must have,” George admitted.

“The church is closed right now,” the priest said, nice and loud.  “Is there something I can do for you?”

“Father?” Chris said, and turned around, but the older priest he had been speaking with disappeared as surely as Lilly disappeared.

“We were just looking for a place to pray,” Mary said, nice and loud in response, as she walked over to stand beside Chris.  “Thank you, but we have what we need.”  She put out her hand.  Chris took it without hesitation, and stood, but he looked at her with curiosity and some concern.

“George, would you let them out,” the priest said, and George pulled out some keys and stood to wait for them to move.

“It’s all right,” Mary encouraged Chris.  “I know what we need to do to find Lilly.”  She gently drew him toward the door.

“What? You had a vision of some kind?”

Mary shook her head.  “I got a text,” she said, and paused to smile for George as they squeezed out the door and heard it lock behind them.  “We need to start by going home.”

Chris dropped Mary’s hand, but he did start to walk slowly toward the apartments. He could not think of what else to do. It started getting late, and he felt emotionally worn out.  “Will she be home?” he asked.

Mary shook her head, and handed her phone to him.  He read the text out loud.

“From Plum and Roy?  We were contracted to watch the apartment over the weekend and saw the ones who took Lilly.  Lilly is fine, but Roy followed them and we know where she is being taken.  We will come around on Monday morning and take you to her.  Be prepared for a week-long journey.  No passport needed.  Roy says sorry.  No charge for our service, but donations accepted.”

They walked the whole way without a word, Mary’s face scrunched-up in deep thought. She could not imagine telling Chris that she was in fact a Christmas elf.  She worried about how he might react.  She worried that he might not like her anymore.

They checked with Missus Minelli, found Lilly had not returned, and went into Chris’ apartment to sit and wait.

“Nothing will happen until tomorrow,” Mary said.  “Monday morning.”

Chris sat on the couch and Mary sat beside him.  She took his hand again, with the idea that she would offer whatever comfort she could muster, but her nervousness came out instead.  She began to worry his hand.  She kept looking up into his stone-like face.  She decided she could not imagine what he might be thinking.  He surprised her.  He bent toward her and kissed her smack on the lips, and she kissed him back with her whole heart.  They separated slowly.

Chris and Mary sat, staring at each other for several more minutes, not moving, and not making a sound.  Finally, Mary thought to say something.

“I think we finished the macaroni and cheese.  I could scramble some eggs.”

Chris laughed.  He laughed so hard, he fell off the couch.  It sounded like a kind of nervous laugh, but Mary laughed as well, empathic elf that she was.  Chris laughed himself to tears, before he finally stood and calmed enough to speak.

“I’m not really hungry.  I think I need to go lie down.”  He went to his room.

Mary curled up on the couch and cried a little.  “Please don’t let this be the end of it,” she thought out loud.  She seemed to feel like it might work out.  At least she did not disappear from the room, as the angel said, if he failed a test.  So, when the sun set, she slept, with only a brief prayer for happy dreams.

Holiday Journey 7

Chris put a note on the door.  It had instructions directing Lilly to stay with Missus Minelli, if she should come back. He got Missus Minelli from next door to watch for Lilly.  Missus Minelli, an older widow, had children and grandchildren who lived some distance away. She did not get visited very often by her own family.  She loved Lilly, and watched her from time to time before these last few months, when Mary moved in.  Chris said nothing about Lilly being missing, though Missus Minelli might have guessed something was up.  Hers had been the very first door they knocked on when they started knocking on doors.  Still, Chris let the assumption stand that Lilly had gone out, perhaps with friends, though he did not say exactly where she might have gone.

“Lilly knows, if I am not home, to stay with you until I get home.”

“I remember,” Missus Minelli said.  “Lilly is such a nice, polite child.  But where should I tell her you are going?”

“Mary and I are going to church,” Chris said.  “And thank you for being there for me, and for Lilly.”

“Happy to do it,” Missus Minelli said.  Her old, craggy face wrinkled up in a big smile as she eyed Chris and Mary. “You two make a lovely couple.”

“Oh, we’re not…” Chris started to say something, but looked at Mary, who looked back at him with those big, puppy-dog eyes, wondering what he would say, and how he might feel about that idea.  Chris let his voice drop and said, “Thank you,” to Missus Minelli.  “We won’t be long.”

He walked beside Mary to the elevator.  She dropped her eyes to the floor.  He never stopped staring at her, even on the elevator; but she never looked up at him.  At last, they stepped outside, and Chris took Mary’s hand; and then he would not look at her. But Mary looked at him and smiled with all her might, and her heart danced the three blocks to the church.

 

Cue: Angels We Have Heard on High

A Holiday Journey, The London Symphony Orchestra

conducted by Don Jackson.  Ó℗CD Guy Music Inc., 2001

 

Chris, like so many his age, made it through church confirmation, and did not go much after that.  He was not sure what he believed, exactly, but he knew he believed in love, and so did God, apparently.  That seemed to be what the church believed in, even if most Christians did not live or act that way.   He believed in love, joy, peace, goodness, kindness, and all that God supposedly taught, even if most people did not live it or really believe it for themselves. He tried to do these things in his life, and he tried go to church since he and Lilly got left on their own.  He felt it was important for Lilly to hear and learn about God—about love, joy and peace.  She certainly would hot hear about such things on the street.

He found his Episcopal church closed and locked up tight.  He took Mary slowly down the street, and mumbled something about it being a week before Christmas, and Sunday no less, and the church had no business being closed and locked. They tried several other mainline churches in town before they got to the Catholic church at the end of the street. Chris never stopped holding Mary’s hand, and Mary never stopped smiling.  Chris did not smile at the thought of the churches being closed the Sunday before Christmas.  It irked him.

They found a small side door open at the Catholic church.  It let them into the sanctuary.  They found a very old priest there, setting up the nativity scene for next Sunday.  It would be Christmas Eve, with Christmas Day on the following Monday.  The priest noticed as they came in.  He waved, but kept to his task, while Mary genuflected briefly at the altar and Chris went to sit in a pew and cry. He wanted to cry out to God for help, but he did not know how.  He could only hope God could read what sat so heavily in his heart.

Mary wandered to an alcove where there appeared to be a statue of a saint.  It might have been Nicholas.  She was not sure, but in any case, her heart and prayers went out to the one above all the saints.  Her tears were large, but quiet.  Her words got whispered.

“He is broken.  How can I abandon him?  He is such a good and wonderful man.  I cannot leave him alone to suffer.”

“And you love him,” the words came to her, as a tall, thin blonde, with the lightest eyes, that sparkled with specks of gold, appeared before her.  It was the Christmas angel.  Mary trembled in the presence of the angel, and a holy fear gripped her heart.

“Merry.” The angel called her by her name.  “Do not be afraid.”

“Holy one,” Mary responded, and found herself opening-up, almost like her heart could not keep quiet.  “I do love him.  He is my heart,” she used the well-known fairy phrase.  “I know the little spirits are not supposed to form attachments with mortal humans, but I would become human in a heartbeat, give up all the glories of the second heavens, and never return to the land of Christmas, if only I could be with him for the rest of our days.”

“And Lilly”

“That was…I…” she could not say the angel was wrong.  Such words were unthinkable.  Clearly, the angel allowed Lilly to be taken quietly in the night. Lilly belonged with her mother, and generally, it was better if humans did not know about such things; but Mary had to express her feeling.  Neither would the angel accept anything less than the truth.  “He deserves to know what happened to her.”

“No one deserves,” the angel said.  “What humanity deserves for sin and rebellion is horrible beyond imagining.  Instead, what they got was a baby in a manger, who grew and died so they would not have to get what they deserved.”

Mary lowered her head.  She knew, and above all honored the story of how the source chose to deal with humanity on that most basic and deep rooted level.  The trouble was, as a non-human, her place was to be obedient to the source as represented in the form of the angel that stood before her.  She was to do her work in the world, and could only hope that she might be included in the miracle of grace.  Mary said no more.  She could not argue with such a statement.  All she could do was turn her head and look longingly at Chris, and maybe pray for him.

“Two brothers,” the angel spoke over her shoulder.  “The older brother, the most fortunate of men, both loved and was loved in return by a fairy for however brief a time.  Now, the younger brother has captured the heart of a young elf maiden.”

“Now and forever,” Mary said, and watched as the old priest finally stepped over to talk to Chris.

Holiday Journey 6

Someone knocked on the door.

Mister Banks came in, followed by a police officer.  Chris went for the police officer, not that he meant to snub his landlord.

“Good. You are here about Lilly?”  He assumed as much, but the police officer looked at Mister Banks, and the landlord spoke.

“I brought the police.  I wanted a witness in case you go mad or something.  I want that offensive sign off my building immediately.  You are defacing my property in violation of your lease.  It is offensive.”

“What sign, Oh…”

“I just got out of church, and looked up and see this offensive sign, on my building. My building.”  Mister Banks turned to underline his ownership with the police officer.

“But Christmas is on Monday this year, a week from tomorrow.  It is a national holiday, on the calendar, banks are closed and everything.  What is offensive?  Are you objecting to the national holiday, or the fact that I hope everyone has a happy holiday?  I didn’t know joy was offensive.”

“Don’t play games with me,” Mister Banks yelled.  “You are defacing my property in clear violation of your lease.  I am giving you thirty-days-notice.  I want you out by the first of the year.”

“Today’s the seventeenth,” the police officer said.  “Thirty-days would be January seventeenth.”

Mister Banks pointed a finger in the police officer’s face, and continued to yell. “Now, don’t you start quibbling. Get out,” he yelled at Chris and stomped out.

“Merry Christmas,” Chris shouted after the man.

“Merry Christmas,” the police officer said quietly in return, smiled, and gently closed the door.  Chris turned around, but Mary went to the kitchen area to make another pot of coffee.

Someone knocked on the door, again.

Mary came back from the coffee pot to find a sheriff explaining the paper. “The subpoena is an order for a court appearance for Wednesday, January third, after the New Year.”

“All fine and well, but Lilly’s not here.”

“The little girl?”

“If she was here,” Mary said.  “Why couldn’t she stay here at least through Christmas?”

The sheriff shrugged.  “I got a court order to pick her up and take her to a foster home.”

“Well, I already filed a missing person report with the police.  I’m expecting someone to come from the police department to take a statement,” Chris said.  “She is just six-years-old.  I am terribly worried about her.”

“We already checked all of her friend’s apartments,” Mary said.

“And out front, in the basement and on the roof,” Chris added.  “I was about to start calling her school friends, though she did not take her coat.  Come to think of it, her pajamas are on the bed, but her clothes look undisturbed. For all I know, she is walking around naked somewhere.”

“She disappeared?”  The Sheriff wanted to be sure.

“I put her to bed last night.  I went to bed, and when I woke up, she was gone.”

“Excuse me,” the sheriff said, and stepped aside to get on his radio.  After that, he left, and Chris checked Lilly’s clothes, commented again about her walking around naked, and got on the phone. Mary kept him supplied with coffee, and every chance she had, she encouraged him, that everything would work out for the best.

Finally, someone knocked on the door…again.

The policeman arrived to take a statement, at last.  Chris told him everything, honestly; including the part about waking up in the morning and discovering the apartment decorated with decorations he did not buy.

“Someone broke into your apartment in the middle of the night and put up all these Christmas decorations.”

“Yes,” Chris said.

“Yes,” Mary echoed.

That was the only question the officer asked, before he stood.  “I think I have everything I need.  I gotta go type this up.  If you think of anything else, call the station.  You got my card.  Otherwise, we will be in touch.”

“When?” Chris asked the inevitable question.

The officer shrugged.  “We will keep our eyes and ears open.”  He held a photo of Lilly, and slipped it in his jacket pocket as he left.

Mary stepped up with another cup of coffee, and Chris asked.  “Do we have anything else to eat?”

Mary looked up at him with big, sad, puppy-dog eyes.  “I got left-over macaroni and cheese.  I’m sorry, I don’t cook much.  Back home, we have great cooks, so I never get a chance…”

He cut her off by hugging her, but before he could shut the apartment door, someone else appeared.  Courtney looked dressed to kill, her face painted to perfection.  She stood, one hand near the end of her dyed hair, which made her a red head, though she should have been blonde in the worst sense of the word.  As Chris studied the woman seriously, and for the first time, he noticed everything appeared artificial or enhanced in some way.  In fact, he could not find one thing off hand that said, “This is the way God made me”.  He felt both sorry for her and terribly repulsed by that revelation at the same time

Mary let out a little shriek.  She saw devil horns, the red painted nails as bloody claws, and the heels as cloven hooves. She shut her eyes and buried her face in Chris’ shoulder.

“And who is this?” Courtney asked in a voice that suggested ownership.

“Mary, from across the hall.  She has been helping me since Lilly went missing.”

“Missing?” Courtney did not know, which saddened Chris a little, because she seemed the only one he could think of to blame for Lilly’s disappearance.  “I heard the sheriff came and took her away.”

“And how did you hear that?” Chris asked, before he had a thought.  “You have a friend that works at the courthouse? Maybe another friend works for 9-1-1?”

“What are you implying?”  Courtney stood tall on her heels, but all Chris saw was one big heel.  He wondered why he ever cared for her.

“Not implying,” Chris said.  “You got me laid off.  You got the court to review custody.  You got the sheriff to pick her up, and right before Christmas.  I got evicted.  Is this your new sport?  Finding ways to torment me?”

“I had nothing to do with you being evicted,” Courtney defended herself, while her wide-open mouth and eyes betrayed her true intentions.

“You did not plan on Lilly disappearing,” Mary said, without lifting her head from Chris’ chest.

“Right, and God willing, she is well beyond your reach.”

“How dare you—” Courtney got that much out before Chris interrupted.

“Mary and I are going to church.  You should consider it.  I understand Father Stephano hears a great confession.”  Chris slammed the door in Courtney’s face

“Church?” Mary looked up into Chris’ face, but did not want to let go.

“Right after macaroni and cheese,” he said, and he let go.

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MONDAY

A Holiday Journey: Chris and Mary seek some advice and get some unexpected help.

Until Monday, Happy Reading

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