I spent the month reading and critiquing Christmas stories for my Turn the Page book reviews. I’ve never actually written a Christmas story before and thought it might be fun to try. What if a mysterious package suddenly showed up under the tree a full week before Christmas? That’s the idea behind this story I have titled The Christmas Gift. I hope you enjoy it. It is a bit long to publish as a single posting so I’ve broken it into two segments. Part 2 will appear Christmas Day.
Josh sat at the kitchen counter, hunched in his chair and staring morosely into his bowl of soggy Honey Nut Cheerios. He despised Cheerios, but all the other cereal was gone. When he complained, his mother offered to make oatmeal, eggs, or pancakes, all of which he turned down. He’d woken up in such a lousy mood that he decided an equally lousy breakfast would be the perfect accompaniment. He was almost disappointed when he discovered the carton of milk hadn’t yet gone sour.
Josh was in Mrs. Fuller’s fifth grade class at Thomas Wolfe Elementary in Clayton, North Carolina. He liked Mrs. Fuller, and the school was okay. He had several friends and had even negotiated a tentative truce with Calvin, the big-mouthed bully that sat two rows behind him. Calvin liked to think he was n charge, which probably had a lot to do with the fact that very few people were willing to argue with him. He was three years older than every other student, already nearly six feet tall and had to be over two hundred pounds. He towered over Mrs. Fuller and even Mr. Tyson, the school principal, seemed reluctant to enforce too much discipline, even after Calvin poured a gallon of laundry detergent into the fountain in front of the school. The moron still struggled with even the most basic aspects of reading and writing, but Josh figured he’d be moved on to the middle school just so poor Mrs. Fuller wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore.
For once, Calvin had nothing to do with Josh’s foul mood. It was Saturday. That meant he wouldn’t have to look at that ugly, oversized face for the next two days. Thank goodness for small favors. Josh glanced out the large kitchen window, which his mom had decorated with cling-on stickers of Christmas trees, candy canes and snowmen. He thought they looked nice. The whole house looked nice. Virtually every piece of furniture was adorned with a Christmas blanket, pillow, plush toy or some other type of decoration. She had Christmas coasters, a huge stuffed moose, a crystal sleigh, complete with reindeer, a ceramic Christmas village, a beautiful nativity scene Josh knew had belonged to her grandmother, a Christmas carousel, a Christmas music box and a whole collection of Santa Clauses in an astonishing variety of different sizes and styles. And of course, they had a Christmas tree. He and his mom had picked it out the weekend before and Josh had been given the honor of cutting it down himself. Using the handsaw was a lot tougher than he’d expected but he managed. He felt very proud of himself as he’d dragged the tree back to their car. It now stood in a corner of their small living room and Josh could see the tiny colored lights reflected in the window glass. It was all very peaceful and pleasant. There was just one problem. Once you stepped outside of their tiny two bedroom home, it didn’t look or feel anything like Christmas. How was he supposed to get into the spirit with blue sky, sunshine and temperatures warm enough for shorts and t-shirts?
Josh had spent the first eight years of his life in Fulton, New York, only a few miles from Lake Ontario. That’s where winter was really winter. The entire area would get blasted with wave after wave of lake effect snow. Josh loved it. His family had a big house with a big yard, at the very top of the world’s best sledding hill. Sometimes there was so much snow that he couldn’t sled, but that was okay too. He’d get a bucket and shovel and carve out huge, elaborate snow forts, and he and his friends would have epic snowball battles that lasted all day. Then, they’d trudge inside, frozen and weary, and collapse in front of a roaring fire with plates of cookies and mugs of steaming hot chocolate. That all ended when his parents divorced. Josh and his mom headed south, and in the two years that followed, he hadn’t seen enough snow to make a single snowball. It rarely got cold enough to snow, and even when it did, the precipitation was usually in the form of rain or sleet. Was there anything more depressing than December rain? Josh didn’t think so.
For the most part, he didn’t mind North Carolina. It was great to be able to play baseball almost all year around. At Christmas time, though, living in the south just plain sucked. He’d been watching Christmas specials on TV. Frosty, Rudolph and Snoopy were still fun but mostly just reminded him how much he missed his old life. More than anything, Josh wanted to go sledding again and he didn’t think he’d ever get another chance.
He scraped the last of his Cheerios into the garbage, put the bowl in the dishwasher and turned to go into his bedroom. He figured he’d fire up the Playstation 3 and try to connect with one of his old friends online. Maybe they could play a little Madden. But as Josh reached for the doorknob, he caught a glimpse of something shiny out of the corner of his eye. He turned to look. Under their Christmas tree, he saw a squarish package no larger than a toaster. It was wrapped in glossy silver paper patterned with snowflakes and tied in a bright red ribbon. The gift hadn’t been there before. He knew that for sure because his mom hadn’t put any gifts under the tree yet. She wouldn’t do that until Christmas Eve, which was still a full week away. Josh went over to investigate and discovered a small tag hanging from the ribbon. It said To Josh, Merry Christmas.
“Hey,” he called. ” What’s this?”
“What, Dear?” His mom came out of the bathroom. She wore yellow rubber gloves and held a toilet bowl brush in one hand.
“This.” Josh pointed. “It’s here early. Does that mean I get to open it early?”
His mom came over to look. “I have no idea where that came from,” she said, and looked like she meant it.
Josh wasn’t fooled. His mother imposed a strict honesty policy but it didn’t really apply from December 1st through the 25th. Odd as it seemed, it was somehow okay to lie at Christmas.
“Uh-huh,” Josh said, trying to sound skeptical. “Will you tell me if I guess?’
“You can guess all you want,” she said, still looking at the package. “I don’t know where that came from or who put it there.”
“Is it from Dad?” Josh asked. His dad always sent him cool stuff.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” his mother replied and returned slowly to the bathroom.
Josh wasn’t buying it for a second. He and his mother were the only ones that lived in the house. He hadn’t put the present there, which pretty much narrowed down the options. But why was she being so secretive? Sure, she liked to tease. She’d frequently say things like I know what you’re getting for Christmas, or, I picked up something really nice for you today, or, you’ll never guess what’s in that box. She’d sometimes even given him hints, although they were always misleading and never did him any good. He still enjoyed playing the game. This time, however, it felt different. Her flat out refusal to divulge any information, misleading or otherwise, was totally out of character. What was she up to? He asked about the present every day. Each time, she insisted she didn’t know anything about it. It was maddening and Josh decided that, whatever was in that box, it had to be something really, really good.