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

*

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.

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

MONDAY

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

Until Monday, Happy Reading

*

Holiday Journey 5

Chris got up in the morning, and stretched.  Sunday morning, he thought.  Maybe he should take Lilly to church.  It certainly would not hurt for him to go.

Chris opened the door to his room and paused.  His eyes grew wide.  Someone got into his apartment in the night and decorated.  He saw Christmas decorations everywhere.  He loved them, but to be honest, he imagined, Lilly will love them the most.  He first thought to blame Mary.  She had a spare key in case of an emergency.  His second thought was to wake Lilly, to show her; and he grinned, secretly, for what he felt would be a big, wonderful surprise.

Lilly was not in her bed.

“Lilly,” Chris called.  He poked his head back into the living area and shouted toward the kitchen.  “Lilly.”  It occurred to him that maybe Mary came over early, and maybe Lilly helped decorate the place.  They said they spent an hour and a half looking at decorations.  He really did not pay attention to the bags they carried, except to carry a couple, because they said they bought him a present.  He wasn’t supposed to peek.  And after decorating, maybe Mary and Lilly went out for treats.  He could not imagine how they did all this, and quietly, so he could sleep.  Then again, maybe the decorating woke him up in the end.  It did seem rather earlier than he normally got up on Sunday morning.

Chris got dressed, made some coffee, and waited as patiently as he could.  At last, he ran out of patience.  He went across the hall and knocked on Mary’s door. He waited again.  He knocked again.  Mary came to the door in her nightgown, rubbing her eyes, and Chris paused on that vision.

“Did you age five years overnight?” he asked.  Mary raised her eyebrows, looked up at him, but said nothing since she did not appear to be awake.  “I figured you for a college girl.  How old are you?”

“How old do you want me to be?” she asked softly, and somehow, the opening of her mouth to talk caused her to yawn.

“Is Lilly here?”  Chris got to the point.

“No,’ Mary said, and opened her door as if inviting him in to check.  He stepped only into the entranceway; enough to look around.  He had never actually been in Mary’s apartment before.  All he saw was Christmas.

“I see the Christmas bug got you, too.”

Mary looked down, shyly, like she did not know what to say, except she did not want to lie to him.  “Old family tradition,” she finally said, like an admission.  “Most of these decorations are like the decorations on your tree.  They are older than I am.”

Chris paused with one eye on a porcelain Santa doll, before he turned and eyed her, suspiciously.  “You weren’t there when I mentioned that to Lilly.  How did you know about the decorations for the tree being older than I am?”

Mary fidgeted, and would not look him in the eye.  “You mentioned it over supper.  Maybe Lilly mentioned it.  But what is this about Lilly being missing?”  She needed to change the subject

Chris shook his head.  “There are other kids in the building.  Maybe she is feeling better and went out to play so she would not disturb me.  There are a half-dozen kids she played with over the summer.”

“Has she done that sort of thing before?” Mary asked, “Leaving without telling you?”

“No,” Chris admitted.  “But maybe she did not want to wake me.”  He looked at Mary who returned a look of concern, anticipation, and something else Chris did not want to think about.  “I made coffee,” he said, quickly, before he said something out of line. Mary looked very attractive in her nightgown.

“I’ll get dressed and be right over,” Mary responded, and Chris watched her close her door.  He stared for a moment at the outside of the door, thinking improper thoughts, before he went into his own place and called again for Lilly.

Mary did not take long.  While she poured, and sipped some coffee, Chris noticed the window.  It looked unlocked and cracked open just a bit. That felt odd, since he never opened that window, and did not even know it could be opened.  The feeling that Lilly may have been taken in the night washed over him.  He felt very afraid for her, and got upset, imagining the worst.

Chris pushed up the window, and saw the screen in place, but for a small hole which had been cut to allow an electric wire inside.  He followed the cord to the plug before he craned his neck against the window.  Something looked lit up on the outside of the building, and it appeared to stretch the entire length of the building beneath his windows.  It looked like Christmas lights.  He went to his bedroom to see if it stopped there, or if his electric bill would have to cover the cost of something lighting up the whole outside of the building.  Mary came on his heels, coffee cup in hand, and he turned to her.

“Did you put up all these decorations?”

“No. I did not do any of the decorations in your apartment,” she said, honestly.  “Why?  Don’t you like them?”

Chris went back to the kitchen, and Mary followed.  He picked up a porcelain Santa that looked remarkably like the one he saw in Mary’s room.  “I like them well enough, but now I am seriously worried.  If you didn’t do this, who did?  I have to find Lilly.”  He headed for the door and grabbed his coat, and his phone.  Mary still followed, but offered a thought on the way out.

“I don’t think anyone who would sneak in and decorate your rooms would kidnap Lilly. I mean, Merry Christmas, and by the way, I am kidnapping your little girl doesn’t make sense.”

Chris did not answer.  He began knocking on doors, starting with Missus Minelli next door, and then where he knew the children lived, beginning with the apartment of the little girl in Lilly’s class who sometimes visited.  No one knew anything about where Lilly might be.  Chris and Mary checked the laundry room in the basement, and the roof, where the children were never supposed to go.  Chris knocked on the building manager’s door, and no surprise, no one answered.

He had a terrible thought and called the hospital, though he could not imagine medics coming in an ambulance and stealing a little girl; and without waking him.

Chris walked out of the building front door, but said to Mary, “She wouldn’t go out. Her coat is still hanging upstairs.” He walked to the side of the building, and saw the lights hanging perfectly beneath his windows.  It appeared to be a blanket of little gold and silver lights that stretched the perfect length of his apartment.  Carved out of the gold, in red and green letters, and surrounded by the gold and silver, the sign said, “Merry Christmas”.  To be fair, the main part of Chris’ heart and mind loved the sign.  Only a small part worried about his electric bill.

“It is cold out here,” Mary admitted, as she made a small snowball and tossed it to him, rather than at him.  “She wouldn’t come out here.”  Chris ignored the snow, but nodded to the cold.  They went back up to the third-floor hallway, but did not get back to Chris’ rooms before he had his phone out again to call the police.  Mary tried to say something, but Chris put her off.

“But, she is only six-years-old.”  He had to say that, several times.  Finally, the police agreed to send someone out, even if it was Sunday.  Chris hung up.

Chris looked both angry and upset.  “They say the law for minors requires a twenty-four-hour waiting period before they can do anything.  That is so stupid.  A child could be frozen to death, or abused and left for dead in some dumpster alleyway in twenty-four hours.”  He sat heavily on the couch.  “Now I am scared for her.  I thought she was with you.  She wasn’t. I thought she was with her friends. She wasn’t.  I thought she was off playing.  Again, no sign of her.”  He found a few tears, and spoke from his heart.  “I thought I could raise her.  I fought to get her.  I’m the only family she has.  She is the only family I have.”  He cried softly and briefly.  Mary found some tears, too, as she sat beside him on the couch, and surrounded his hands with her own.

“We will find her.  She will be all right.  Believe that. Why should we believe she is in trouble?”

“Um, decorations,” Chris said, as he moved his hands so he could hold Mary’s hands more securely.  “Someone came in here last night, and now Lilly is gone.  That can’t be coincidence.”

“Okay,” Mary said, and reluctantly let go of his hands to point out certain things. “So, let us look at the evidence. Everything here says love, joy to the world, peace on earth, and good will to all people.  There is no evil in any of it.  Judging by the evidence, if we believe the decorators took her, we should think only good has happened to Lilly.  We have to believe that.  Sometimes, you just have to believe.”  She touched the roof of the little table-top manger before she sat down and reached for his hands again.  Chris hesitated, before he nodded and gave her his hands; and Mary’s face lit up with her smile, like a Christmas light.  Chris smiled, too, but on the inside.

Holiday Journey 4

Chris set up the real tree right away, and got out the box of old ornaments. “Some of these ornaments are older than I am,” he admitted.  “Grandma enjoyed decorating every year.”

“I don’t remember,” Lilly admitted, sadly.

“You were very young.”  He blew the dust off one ornament, and saw how old and stained they really were. “But the amazing thing is, she put so much love into the tree, I swear it shined like the stars at night.”  Lilly wanted to put the angel on the top. Chris had to lift her.

Mary knocked, and came in with macaroni and cheese, a big jug of milk, and a whole plate of red and green iced Christmas cookies; the homemade, melt-in-your-mouth kind. They had more fun and happy laughter. Then Lilly got tired, so she got ready for bed without having to be told.

“But Uncle Chris, what are we going to do with the artificial tree?”

Chris smiled and kissed her on the forehead.  “I guess we will have to be a two-tree family.”  Lilly liked that idea, and curled up under her covers.  Chris left the door open a crack, and found Mary in the kitchen, ready to leave.  He found her crying again.  He asked what was wrong.  He wanted to hold her, but did not dare.  She left the milk and leftover macaroni and cheese in the refrigerator, and left the cookies on the counter.  Then she did something that utterly surprised Chris.  She got on her toes, kissed his cheek, and left quickly without looking back.

Chris sat by the window for a long time.  He thought about the court taking Lilly away and sticking her in some horrid foster home.  He imagined Courtney laughing at him for getting him fired and arranging for Lilly to be taken from him.  Chris had nothing left.  His parents were gone.  His brother died.  He thought he had some cousins in the east somewhere, but he never talked to them, and could not rightly remember their names other than Aunt Linda.  He loved Lilly like she was his own.  He did not want to lose her.  She was the only one he had left.  He touched his cheek where Mary kissed him, but went to bed feeling broken.

One hour later, while Chris slept, his apartment door opened slowly and quietly, and a dozen Christmas elves and one fairy came in.  The elves immediately set about decorating the whole apartment for Christmas, and filled every corner with Christmas cheer.

 

Cue: Deck the Halls

A Holiday Journey, The London Symphony Orchestra

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

 

The fairy went to wake Lilly, quietly.  Of course, Lilly shouted.  “Fairy.”

“Hush,” the fairy said, and surprised Lilly by coming close and hugging the girl, her little fairy arms around Lilly’s cheeks.

“Sorry,” Lilly said, softly.  “But…fairy,” Lilly added.  Lilly reached up and gently touched the Fairy’s pointed ears, but her attention stayed on the fairy’s face, which brought out her smile.  She watched carefully as the fairy fluttered back to the foot of her bed.

“Lilly,” the fairy said, in a voice that surprisingly sounded like a full-grown woman. “My name is Miss Serissa.  That is the Christmas rose, and I am your mother.”

“My mother?”  Lilly tried to keep her voice down.

Serissa fluttered to the bed and got big, which is to say, her wings disappeared, and she took the form of a full-grown woman, though honestly, one too beautiful to be an ordinary human.  Lilly gasped when Serissa spoke again.

“My baby. I have spent these last six years worried about you.  You were born human sized.  I thought you would live best as a human, in the mortal world.  I knew your father would take you to where you could be safe—away from the war.  I cried when Ricky, your father, died; and I grieved for you, but I never gave up hope that you would have a good life.  But then some of the Christmas elves found you and watched for a time.  If you were mostly human, you were where you should be. But it seems you are more like me than like your father.”

“But I am not like you.  You are a fairy.”

“And so are you,” Serissa said.  She wanted to smile, but looked hesitant.

“Seriss…” Lilly could not remember.

“You can call me Mother,” Serissa said, and Lilly jumped forward, threw her arms around the woman, and cried.  Serissa wept with her.

“Come,” Serissa said, after a good cry.  “We have to take you home, where you can get well.”

“But what about Uncle Chris?” Lilly asked, and she and Serissa both looked toward Chris’ room, though the wall blocked their view.

“First, we get little, which for us is our normal size.”  Serissa took Lilly’s hand and instantly, two fairies, one being a little, naked fairy child, hovered over the bed, their bumble-bee-like wings pumping away.  “Now, keep hold of my hand.  You have not practiced with those wings yet.”

“Yes, Mother,” Lilly said, in her regular voice, and Serissa cried again for the sheer joy Lilly expressed; but those were happy tears.

The fairies followed an elf sneaking into Chris’ room.

“Plum,” Serissa whispered sharply.  “You were told to stay out of his room.”

“Got to,” Plum said, and he went to the window where he pulled on a string. Something lit up on the outside of the building, but the fairies could not see what it was.

Serissa frowned at Plum and tapped her foot in mid-air.  “You and Roy are the worst.  You don’t listen, and you don’t follow instructions.”  She might have said more, but she got distracted when she got a good look at Chris.  “He looks so much like his brother.  But he will be all right.  I have a feeling that Merry will be there for him.”  Lilly looked up at her mother and nodded.  Serissa gave Lily another small kiss before she brought them again into the hall, gently closing the door with her wand and a touch of magic sparkles.

Lilly saw the main room then, and loved all the beautiful decorations and knick-knacks of Christmas that were everywhere.  “I feel better already,” Lilly said, not that she ever really knew what ailed her.  Serissa still held her wand and sent a small stream of sparkling lights at the window, and the window opened.  The elves escaped that way, and Serissa and Lilly only paused to speak, though it seemed to Lilly that no one remained to speak to.

“Come, our work is done,” Serissa said, and Lilly thought of Mary.

“Take care of Uncle Chris,” Lilly expressed her own thought.

“My work is not done yet,” a thought returned to them both, and Serissa smiled, knowingly, though without elf eyes, it would have been too hard for an ordinary human to see the knowing smile on her little fairy face.  Serissa and Lilly flew out the window, still holding hands, and disappeared into the night.  Mary, in her own room, cried some more.

Holiday Journey 3

In the morning, Chris and Lilly heard a knock on the door.  Mary came in, a look of concern on her face.  “I was worried about Lilly.  She struggled yesterday.”

Chris nodded.  They had kept Lilly entertained, and happy during the season so far, but both Mary and Chris knew how poorly she seemed, even if Lilly never complained.

“I’m feeling better today,” Lilly insisted.

“This will be a good day,” Chris said, trying to sound positive, though he feared it would not be his best day what with DSS and the court hovering over his shoulder.

“We are going to get a real Christmas tree,” Lilly said, in her excited voice.

“I have the weekend off,” Mary responded with a big smile, it being Saturday.  She looked at Chris.  “Maybe I could help.”  She made it a statement, but really asked if she could come.

Chris did not hesitate to nod his agreement.  “I could use the help,” he said.  And with that settled, they climbed into Chris’ pickup and went out in search of a real tree.

They drove to several places, Lilly in her car seat in the back, looking out the back window at the Christmas on the street, and Mary sitting close beside Chris, grinning the whole time.  Chris wondered what might be wrong with the girl.  She was what, twenty-one?  Perhaps not even that.  He was turning thirty, practically a father figure.  Why was the girl grinning?

They stopped at several places, but none of the trees seemed quite right. Finally, they got to the supermarket lot, and Chris excused himself to pick-up milk, bread and a few things for home.

When Chris left, Mary turned to Lilly and asked why she had such trouble picking out a tree.  The balsam fir has such a great scent.  “It smells like Christmas,” Mary said.

“I just can’t picture it,” Lilly said, looking at a blue spruce.  “I like this one.  This tree looks nice, but how will it look when it is decorated?”

Mary nodded, like she understood something.  “I think we can give some substance to what we visualize,” she said, but Lilly looked like she did not understand.  Mary found a little stick.  “Pretend you are a Christmas fairy, and this is your magic wand. Point your wand at the tree…yes, like that.”  Mary stood behind Lilly and laid her hands gently on Lilly’s shoulders.  Something sparkled, silver and gold in her touch. “Picture in your mind the way you want the tree to look, and wave your wand to make it happen.”

Something happened.  The silver and gold sparkles went out from the stick and covered the tree.  The tree lit up with lights. It had garland, ornaments, and tinsel all over it, and Lilly gasped, a delighted sound.

“I did it.  It’s beautiful.” Lilly squeaked her words.

“Hey. Save the decoration for home.” The man in the lot yelled and came running up as Lilly collapsed.  The decorations and lights returned to silver and gold sparkles and fell to the ground, like bits of ash after the fireworks.

“Lilly,” Mary caught her and held her head up.  To his credit, the man turned from the tree to concern about the little girl. Lilly turned pale, ashen white, and her skin felt clammy.

“Christopher,” Mary shouted for Chris, as Lilly fluttered her eyes open.

“I want that one,” she breathed, but did not have the strength to lift her hand and point.

Mary nodded for the man.  He picked up the tree and set it in the pickup, while Mary scooped up Lilly and opened the door to get her in her seat.  Chris came out and pulled out his keys.  He stared at his keys for a second.  He thought he locked the truck.  He overpaid the Christmas tree man and hustled.  He got out his phone, but Mary snatched it out of his hand. She dialed the doctor, and held it up for Chris to talk while he focused on his driving.

The nurse saw Lilly first.  She weighed her and measured her while she spoke.  “How old is Lilly, now?  Five?”

“She is nearly seven,” Chris said.  “First grade.”

“Oh.” The nurse seemed surprised. “Developmentally, she is on the chart for a four-year-old.”

“She behaves like she is four often enough,” Chris admitted with a face that could not decide between a frown and a smile.  Lilly tried to smile, and they sat in the examining room for a long time, waiting for the doctor.

An hour later, the doctor strongly recommended Chris take Lilly to the hospital.  The doctor wanted to keep her for a couple of days of observation, and run an MRI on Monday.

“I can’t do that,” Chris replied.  “I just lost my insurance yesterday, but I could not afford the deductible anyway. Besides, you already ran two MRIs in the last four years.  I don’t see how that is going to drastically change.  You said you don’t know what is wrong with her…”  Chris let his voice trail off.  Probably not a smart thing to say to a know-it-all doctor.  The doctor looked like he had to control his response.

“I could send the ambulance and fetch her.”

Chris shook his head.  “Nothing is going to happen in the hospital on Sunday.  Let me keep her this weekend.  I’ll bring her in Monday morning, and we can talk about it.”

The doctor said nothing.  He left the room with a look of frustration and anger.  Chris did not blame him.  Maybe Chris did not feel angry, but he certainly felt frustrated, not knowing what he could do to help Lilly.  Lilly’s condition seemed to have all the doctors stumped.  Lilly felt a bit better by then.  Her condition appeared to get better or worse without reason.  Chris dropped a hand to her shoulder, and Lilly held the hand with both of hers, looked up at him, and tried to smile again.

Chris and Lilly went out to the waiting room and saw that Mary had been crying. Chris felt shocked.  Mary always had a smile.  He felt an urge to hold her and comfort her, but stopped himself.  How could he hug this young woman without suggesting something he did not mean to suggest?  Lilly, of course, did not break her stride.  She threw her arms around Mary, and Chris decided he could add his arms around the two of them, briefly.

“I’ll be all right.  You’ll see,” Lilly said, and tried to smile.

“I am sure you will, little one,” Mary whispered in Lilly’s ear. Then she wiped her eyes and they drove home.  Mary let them go, and went into her own rooms where she wept.  Then she opened her window, as the twilight came, and she spoke softly into the air.

“It is as we feared.  She is dying, being smothered by her humanity.  It is not her natural state, I am sure.  We must rescue her.  Come quick.

Mary left the window open to let in the cold and snowy air.  She stepped into her kitchen and thought something for supper might hit the spot.

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

MONDAY

A Holiday Journey: Lilly goes missing.

Until then, Happy Reading

*

Holiday Journey 2

Chris picked up his phone.  Mary sent him a text.  Mary lived in the apartment across the hall from his own apartment.  She became his semi-permanent babysitter over the last six months, since his mother got so sick.  Mary picked up Lilly from first grade, and they were presently in a department store downtown, looking for a Christmas present for him, so don’t hurry. Chris smiled.  He hurried, though he figured in his small Midwestern city, nothing could be that far away.

Mary seemed a godsend.  She appeared to be young.  He guessed she attended some local college, and maybe mostly took classes on-line. That, or she recently graduated and was filling the gap between graduation and a good job.  She always seemed to be available when he needed her, but he never would have noticed her if he had not broken up with his fiancé, Courtney, some six months ago; about the time his mother went into hospice.

Lilly, who he had mostly taken care of over those last couple of years when his mother got so sick, had come to live with him by the time Grandma went into hospice. Chris recalled his fights with Courtney were all about Lilly.  He depended a lot on his babysitter, Missus Minelli, at first.  When Lilly finally and permanently moved in with him, Courtney called it the last straw and broke up with him.  Mary moved in that very day.  Lilly seemed immediately drawn to Mary, and Mary volunteered to sit whenever he needed her, and without him even having to ask.  Truth be told, he felt bad about paying her minimum wage, even if he paid her under the table so she got to keep the whole amount.

“Mary.” He saw her right away.  The brisk three-block walk faded as he warmed in the ambient heat of frantic shoppers.  Mary’s smile helped—and Lilly’s hug, when Lilly ran to him.  “And what have you two been up to?” he asked, pretending innocence.

“Buying you a Christmas present, but you are not supposed to know,” Lilly said, as he set her down and took her hand.  “It’s a surprise.”

“A surprise?”  He pretended surprise, while Lilly vigorously nodded her head, before she coughed.  Chris knelt-down to hold her until the coughing fit passed.

“I’m sorry,” Mary said.  “She seems to be struggling today, but I thought a fun outing might do her some good.”

“No, it’s all right,” Chris said.  “It was a good idea.  Lilly always gets sick around Christmas, especially.”

“But maybe an hour and a half since school is enough.”

Chris shook his head, and confessed himself.  “I just got laid off, so Lilly and I will be spending lots of time home in our little apartment this Christmas.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mary said, and barely held her hand back to keep from offering a physical touch to comfort him.  Lilly stopped coughing, but instead of backing out of the hug, she put both arms around Chris and returned the sentiment to him.  Even if she did not entirely understand, she knew being laid off would not be a good thing.

“No, I think maybe it was a gift.  Maybe, if the economy picks up in the new year, I can get a job that actually uses my college degree.  Who knows? I might even find a job I like.”

“It should be one that you love, no?” Mary whispered.

Chris heard, but did not answer.  Instead, he stood, kept hold of Lilly’s hand, and proposed.  “What say we go to Vincinni’s tonight?  What would you like: spaghetti or pizza?”

“And Mary?” Lilly asked with the name, and reached out with her other hand.

“And Mary,” Chris said.  “If she doesn’t have other plans…” he turned to Mary.  “If you would like.”  He did not want Mary to think he was asking her on a date.  He wanted to be sure she knew she could make an honest choice, but Lilly interrupted.

“Mary is family, too,” Lilly said.

“Like family,” Chris admitted, and he thought of Thanksgiving, and that great turkey Mary made.  She called it the first turkey she ever made, but it turned out perfect, so he found the first turkey confession hard to believe.  Still, she asked him, and Lilly to Thanksgiving supper.  She brought everything over to his apartment, turkey and all, since Lilly had a fever that morning, and lay curled up on the couch. Not exactly a date, Chris imagined. Not the same as him asking her out.

Mary looked at Chris with a look that said she would not mind being family; but he did not notice.  They walked, both holding one of Lilly’s hands, and no doubt the people who saw them thought a mom, a dad, and their little girl.

“So, what did you do for an hour and a half?” Chris asked Mary, but Lilly answered.

“We counted the decorations all up and down the street—all the beautiful trees and lights.  And we said Merry Christmas to everyone.  I love Christmas,” Lilly said.  She let out her biggest and best smile, but she felt warm, like she had a little fever even then.

 

Cue: Silver Bells

A Holiday Journey, The London Symphony Orchestra

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

 

After spaghetti, and lots of love and laughter, they walked home together, since Mary lived just across the hall.  Chris picked up his mail on the way and said good night to Mary, who lingered a bit before she went in to her place.  He carried a tired Lilly inside, after a last look at Mary’s door.

Mary closed the door to her rooms gently. She put her back to the door and found a small tear in her eye.

###

Chris turned on the light switch, and made sure his Christmas tree got lit. Lilly had always been a sickly child, but she always got worse during the Christmas season.  Curiously, she also drew strength during the season. The lights and treats, the trees and decorations, the hymns and songs of joy, the giving and receiving gifts of love, and wishing absolutely everyone Merry Christmas always lifted her spirit. They did not have much in the way of decorations in their little apartment, but as Chris explained to Mary, he really had a choice of buying decorations or presents, and he imagined Lilly would be better off with presents, even if they were things she needed, like clothes, and not so many things she might want, like toys.

He set the mail on the table and carried Lilly to her room, where he got out her things to dress for the night.  “Now, get ready for bed,” he told her.  “And don’t forget to brush your teeth.”

Lilly nodded, a tired nod, but had a question to ask.  “Uncle Chris, could we get a real tree this year?”

Chris paused.  He had the big box of decorations his parents put on the tree every year, so a real tree would not cost more than the tree itself.  His artificial one turned ten that year and began to show signs of age. “Maybe we can do that,” he said. “But not tonight.  Now, go get ready for bed.”

Lilly did not argue.  She felt tired, and in a way, she felt more than tired just from a long day.  She did not feel well at all, but she did not want her Uncle Chris to worry.

Chris checked the mail, and found a letter from the court.  He felt curious, but paused first to consider how Lilly came to be his sweet responsibility.

Chris’ brother, Ricky, went into the military, and served overseas in the war. Lilly’s mother, Serissa, who no one ever met, was an American service woman Ricky met at Christmas time.  Those were hard days, as Ricky wrote.  The country they were in did not allow for any Christian celebrations, so Ricky and Serissa had to celebrate on the sly.  Ricky said he lost her after the season, and did not see her again until the following Christmas, when she showed up with a three-month-old baby, Lilly.  Christopher paused in his reflections as Lilly went to brush her teeth,

After that, Serissa became lost in the war zone and was presumed dead.  Curiously, when Chris’ mother checked with the defense department to see if Serissa had family, like Lilly might have other grandparents and such, the Defense Department had no record of her as ever having served, and so they could not give Mom any information—not to say that bloated government agency knew anything.  Mom probably got transferred to the wrong department.  Anyway, Lilly came home with Ricky at one point.  No one could imagine how he worked out the paperwork for that; but then he did another tour and in the end, he came home in a box.  Dad had already passed away from heart trouble, but Mom was still alive back then. She raised Lilly until Lilly nearly turned six.  Chris helped-out as much as he could; but then Mom died suddenly at the age of sixty-three.  At twenty-nine, Chris felt devastated.  He clung to Lilly as much as she clung to him.

He opened the letter from the court.  He read and found some tears.

The court knew he became unemployed, and the Department of Social Services was suing him for custody of Lilly.  Courtney, he thought right away.  She canceled their engagement, because, in her own words, she had no intention of being wet nurse for someone else’s child.  She worked for the company, in the main office, and got him a job there back in the days when they were supposedly in love.  No doubt, she arranged for him to lose his job.  But she made a mistake.  The DSS suit got initiated before he technically got fired; not that the court would care about that technicality.  She probably figured if she waited a week, he might find another job and ruin the whole plan.

“So, what?” he mumbled.  “Does she think she can swoop back into my life once I no longer have a child to care for? Or is this just a vindictive, hateful act?”

“Uncle Chris,” Lilly called.

Chris stood, wiped his tears, and went to Lilly’s room.  He smiled his best smile, and read her a Christmas story.  She fell asleep before they got half-way through.

Holiday Journey 1

Christmas came on a Sunday that year.  The old radio played a mix of Christmas carols and Santa music.  Six-year-old Christopher Shepherd curled up on the couch and marveled at the Christmas tree.  It even smelled like Christmas—evergreen, and Turkey roasting in the kitchen.  He thought happy thoughts, and reveled in the joy of the season.  He felt the love everywhere, and wondered why he could not feel such Christmas spirit all year long.  He felt peace on earth and good will to all with whom God is well pleased.  His older brother apparently felt something quite contrary.  Nine-year-old Ricky had a new dart rifle.  He presently hid behind the Christmas tree where he could poke his head out and shoot the bad guys.  They had plenty of first person shooter video games, but they were not allowed to use them on Christmas morning before church.  Christopher did not mind.  Ricky whined.

Ricky paused in his killing spree.  His eyes got wide and his mouth temporarily opened, when one dart accidentally knocked over the framed picture of Aunt Linda that sat on the wall unit.  He quickly retrieved his dart and put the cracked picture back up, crooked.  His face looked sorry, but his mind worked fast to figure how he could pretend he did not know what happened.

Christopher preferred peace to war—love, and joy to the world, like the angels sang in the Christmas Eve service.  He felt content to sit and look at the most beautiful Christmas tree in the whole world; at least as he imagined it to be.

Mom came over to sit on the couch beside him and she put her arm gently around Christopher’s shoulder.  He smiled and snuggled.  He always smiled on Christmas day.  He normally smiled all day long, and not just for the presents and torn Christmas wrap that littered the floor.  Christmas was the best day of the year, and he wished every day could be like Christmas.

“We need to get moving,” Dad said, as he came half-way down the stairs, and spoke to his wife.

Mom nodded and stood.  “Time to get dressed for church,” she said to the boys.  “Ricky,” she added his name to be sure he heard before she went into the kitchen to check on the turkey, pausing only briefly to straighten out Aunt Linda’s picture, and frown.  Christopher got down from the couch to walk up the stairs.  Ricky put down his gun and ran, shoving Christopher out of the way to be sure he got up the stairs first.  Christopher didn’t mind.  It was Christmas.

 

Cue: Here We Come a Wassailing

A Holiday Journey, The London Symphony Orchestra

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

Cue: opening credits …

…               Christopher Shepherd

…               Merry

…               Plum

…               Roy

…               Lilly

…     as      Courtney/Demon

and

…      as      Santa…

“You wanted to see me Mister Potts?”  Chris stepped into the manager’s office and straightened his shirt, though he imagined he knew what Mister Potts wanted to see him about.  He had been through this before.  He knew the routine.

“Chris,” Mister Potts spoke without looking up from the papers on his desk. “The district office has been reviewing the P & L statements since the summer, and I have been told I have to pare down the staff.”

“I understand,” Chris said, but he could not help the disappointment that crept into his words. “And at Christmas time.”  It caused Mister Potts to look up.

“The company is not responsible for Christmas.  Lots of people don’t even celebrate these days.  I will give you a good recommendation, wherever you go.”

“I do try to show up on time and do my work to the best of my ability.”

“I understand,” Mister Potts said, as his face wrinkled with regret.  “I understand your mother passed away.”

“Three months ago,” Chris said.  “Cancer.” Chris held back his tears.

“I’m sorry.  Your father?” Mister Potts looked up briefly.

“Passed away almost twenty years ago.  Heart.”

Mister Potts lowered his head and shuffled his papers.  “It’s that girl of yours.  You have to call out so much.”  Chris saw the rationalization for the firing scurry across Mister Pott’s face.

“Lilly is my brother’s daughter.  Ricky was military.  He died overseas two years ago.  I guess she is my responsibility now.  We never knew her mother.”  Chris figured it was pointless, but he had to say it.  “I am all she has left.  I need to take care of her.  That is why I need this job.”

“It isn’t my decision.”  Mister Potts steeled himself.  “I’m just the bearer of bad news.  I’m sorry. Good luck.”  Mister Potts went back to his papers and would not look up again. “Your last check will be mailed to you.”

Chris knew better than to argue, and much better than to complain.  “I will be putting you down as a reference, and I thank you for putting in a good word for me.”  He turned and stepped out of the office, closed the door quietly, and breathed.

Being laid off could be a gift, he thought.  Chris sniffed and wiped the tear that came up into the corner of his eye. He thought he might get unemployment through the new year.  The company would probably fight him on the unemployment.  Still, he had some money he inherited when his mother died, though she ate most of it over the years in her reverse mortgage.  He got something from the V. A. to help support Lilly.  He dreaded the idea of going to court, if it came to that.  He knew he needed to insure Lilly had a stable home environment, or lose her, and being laid off twice in the last four years did not make for a good resume.

He did not want to think about it.  His phone buzzed.