Readers Choice Published Author Category: Christmas Story #9—Too Old for Santa by Janice Sperry
Publisher's Choice Published Author Category: Christmas Story #21—A Real Baby in the Manger by Christine Thackeray
Readers Choice Unpublished Author Category: Christmas Story #11—A Lesson for Sylvester by Lori Labrum
It was hard for me to select a winner in the Unpublished Author category. In my opinion, while many of them were very close, none of them were quite ready for publication. All would need a little more tweaking. There were four that I felt had a lot of potential: #4 Cricket's Gift, #7 The Choir Practice, #10 Untitled (The Animals Knew) and #13 Santa's Gift Card. But I could only choose one as a winner. . .
Publisher's Choice Unpublished Author Category:
Christmas Story #10—Untitled (The Animals Knew) by Rachel Jensen
Winners, please send me an e-mail with your mailing address ASAP.
And thanks again to the Christmas Story Contest Sponsors.
Publisher's Choice, Published Author Category Prize: The Spirit of Christmas by Jennie Hansen, Betsy Brannon Green, Michele Ashman Bell
Rekindle the spirit of Christmas with this touching trio of timeless stories told by some of the finest LDS storytellers — each with a heartwarming message for the Season.
Will Sophie really be able to get what she needs by spending the holidays alone? Will Miss Eugenia be able to give a struggling family the Christmas they want? Has five-year-old Janie's visit from Santa really been canceled because she was bad?
Take a journey into the minds and hearts of three engaging characters who each need to believe in their version of Christmas — and discover that believing in people is what the spirit of Christmas is all about. A perfect assortment for sharing and celebrating the holiday season.
Jennie Hansen was born in Idaho Falls, Idaho. She lived in many farming and ranching communities in Idaho and Montana. Her family moved more than 20 times as she grew up. Born the fifth of eight children, Jennie had a ready supply of playmates during her childhood. Her brothers and sisters are still among her closest friends. She married Boyd Hansen of Rexburg, Idaho, and over the next ten years they became the parents of five children. They have made their home in Utah since their marriage.
Jennie graduated from Ricks College in Idaho then continued her education at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah. She has been a receptionist, a model, a Utah House page, freelance magazine writer, newspaper reporter, editor, library circulation specialist, mother and grandmother.
She has nineteen published books to her credit, three stories in compilations, and has two more books currently under contract. Her published books include: Run Away Home, Journey Home, Coming Home, When Tomorrow Comes, Macady, The River Path, Beyond, Summer Dreams, Chance Encounter, All I Hold Dear, Abandoned, Breaking Point, Some Sweet Day, Code Red, High Stakes, Wild Card, The Bracelet, The Emerald, The Topaz, and The Ruby. She is one of three contributors to The Spirit of Christmas along with Betsy Brannon Green and Michele Ashman Bell. Jennie also writes a monthly review column for Meridian Magazine.
Betsy Brannon Green was born on June 1, 1958 in Salt Lake where her father was attending the University of Utah. After he finished his undergraduate work, the family moved to Birmingham, Alabama for medical school. When her father graduated from medical school he joined the Army so over the next few years her family had the opportunity to live in several different cities, including Honolulu, Ft. Knox, San Antonio, and Colorado Springs. They finally settled in Decatur, Alabama where she met and in 1979 married Robert (Butch) Green.
She has always loved to write but decided to make a serious attempt at writing a novel during the fall of 1999. It took her 8 months to complete her first book which was later rejected by publishers. Her second attempt, Hearts in Hiding, was published in May of 2001.
Michele Ashman Bell—What can I say, I'm a middle-aged mother of four, who, after ten years of hard work, perserverance and a lot (and I mean A LOT!) of rejection letters, finally got a book published.
As a young girl I was a devoted journal keeper. I would express my most personal thoughts and feelings in my journal in a way I could never express them verbally. Coupled with my great love for reading it only seemed natural to become a writer.
During the course of having and raising my children, as a beginning writer, I spent any free time I had writing and learning the craft. I attended workshops and conferences, joined critique groups (I have the scars to prove it) and sent many of my stories and novels off to magazines and publisher, only to receive rejection after rejection. I came close a few times, but something wasn't quite right.
Still to this day I wonder why I didn't give up. You'd think after ten years of rejections I'd finally get the message. Actually I know why I kept writing, I couldn't not write. It's in my blood. When I get cut, ink comes out. There's something so wonderful and fulfilling about the creative process of developing characters and storylines and pouring your heart out on paper that can't be matched by anything else. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to write. And I want to encourage anyone who has the desire to write to never give up on their dream. If you want it bad enough and are willing to work hard enough, you will become published. I believe that with all my heart because that's exactly how it worked for me.
I grew up in St. George, Utah, where a lot of my family still lives, but now reside with my husband and family in the Salt Lake City area. My favorite thing to do is support my kids in their many interests. Between basketball, ballet and piano lessons we squeeze a lot into a week, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
Readers' Choice, Published Author Category Prize: Brick of Mormon Stories by Steven Van Wagenen
Brick of Mormon Stories is a collection of scripture stories from the Book of Mormon, with LEGO bricks and character illustrations.
Parents and children now have a resource for reading actual Book of Mormon scripture text with illustrations that bring the scripture stories to life. What a better way for children to become familiar with the scriptures than by combining them with the toys and characters children use during play?
Twenty-six illustrated LDS scripture stories from the Book of Mormon are presented in an easy to read format for parents who are reading to their children, or young readers who are becoming familiar with the scriptures.
The purpose of Brick of Mormon Stories is to acquaint children with the passages from the Book of Mormon, provide illustrations that will help them remember the stories, and motivate them to include discussions of people and events from the scriptures in their playtime activities.
Steven Van Wagenen —I wondered how playing out some of the Book of Mormon stories with my boys using LEGOs would compare with all of the other ways we can teach our children the stories from the Book of Mormon. The thought came into my mind that there should be a children's book that uses actual scripture verses to tell the story, illustrated in such a way that children could find a way to bring the stories to life. I wanted something that would help my boys learn how to read the scripture text and still have the fun illustrations.
I am not sure who had more fun in building the LEGO sets, me or the boys, but I think it was a great experience for us to spend all of that time together. Regardless of whatever happened with the book, I wanted to put together the book for our family as a reminder of that time and all that work and the experience overall.
Publisher's Choice, Unpublished Author Category Prize: Counting Blessings by Kerry Blair (d0nated by Taffy Lovell)
Spiritual refreshment is only pages away in this down-to-earth collection of inspiring stories and essays.
Like a wise and witty friend, Kerry Blair leads you through the rough spots of life by poking gentle fun at herself in such a vivacious way that you'll be smiling at your own foibles.
You'll laugh out loud — and occasionally be moved to tears — as you discover some of life's greatest truths hidden within these simple pages.
Reclaim your sanity and enrich your soul with this humorous and poignant anthology that celebrates the joy of being alive and shows how greatly each of us is blessed.
Kerry Blair wrote her first novel when she was eight years old and promised herself that she would do it again when she "grew up." She makes her home in West Jordan, Utah, with her husband, Gary, and four children.
Kerry says, "I’d always said I wanted to be an author when I grew up—and forty is pretty darn grown up by anybody’s standards. The Heart Has Its Reasons was released in 1999 and I’ve since published 8 more books (one was a collaboration) and been included in a compilation of inspirational essays for mothers. I’ve edged from LDS romance into romantic mystery into murder mystery with romantic overtones into romantic comedy into the new Nightshade series— books one reviewer said is what you’d expect 'if you watched Buffy join CSI on the Romance Channel.'"
Readers' Choice, Unpublished Author Category Prize: Sharing Through Song: My Eternal Family by Alison Palmer
Music can teach when word fail. Combining words and music creates beautiful opportunities for children to learn things they will always remember. When music and gospel lessons are combined, young minds are enlightened and better able to understand gospel messages.
Combine music and gospel principles with the help of these 24 easy-to-prepare sharing and music time lessons. Each lesson includes a list of materials, necessary preparations, teaching suggestions, and relevant songs to help children learn the gospel principles about, "My Eternal Family." Perfect for choristers, leaders, and parents. Make teaching children more effective and fun with Sharing Through Song: My Eternal Family. Also available on CD-ROM!
Alison Palmer is a life-long member of the LDS Church. Born in Mesa, Arizona, she grew up in West Virginia and holds a bachelors degree in Nursing. She currently lives in Michigan.
Over the years, Alison has held many callings in the Church, including several that have helped develop her great love for the Primary children. She has served as nursery leader, pianist, chorister, teacher, den leader and Primary president. She has also been spotted teaching Sunday school, and serving as a teacher or leader in Relief Society and in Young Womens.
Writing is Alison’s favorite past time, but you can also frequently find her reading, playing piano, cooking, attending the temple, taking long walks, sewing, or playing with her family.
Other works by Alison Palmer include: multiple volumes of Sharing Through Song, Planting Seeds of Faith: Fun Character-building Activities for LDS Children and Walking the Path of Faith: More Fun Character-building Activities for LDS Children.
Votes timestamped before 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, December 14th, will not be counted. If you voted too early, you may come back and vote again.
- VOTE any time from 12:01 a.m. on December 14th through 11:59 p.m. on December 20th. Time stamp on the voting comment determines whether or not your vote will count.
- Anyone who visits this blog may vote.
- You may make all the comments you like, but VOTING COMMENTS must clearly indicate that it is a vote. (Ex: I'm voting for this one...)
- You may vote twice in each category: Published and Unpublished. You may only vote once per story. We're on the honor system here.
Easiest way to read and vote:
To read the stories by Published Authors, click THIS Link, read the stories and vote for two.
To read the stories by Unpublished Authors, click on THIS Link, read the stories and vote for two.
- You MAY vote for yourself.
- You can vote by whatever criteria you want, just don't make it a popularity contest.
All stories have been posted anonymously. You may take credit for your story after the winners have been announced. Authors, please let your friends know that you've entered this contest and encourage them to come vote, but don't tell them which story is yours. We want the stories to win on merit, not the popularity of the author.
Due to the previously mentioned personal issue, I will announce the winners on Monday, December 22nd. I will post comments on the stories beginning December 22nd and continue until I've commented on every story. Then I will take a break until the new year.
Good luck everyone!
“Like my new shoes?” I took a step back and twirled. It had taken me a while to find a black skirt that was both slinky and swirly. Christmas lights glinted off the subtle sparkles in my red sweater—also slinky, but not too slinky. I kicked a foot up behind me so he could appraise my new shoes.
“Whoa! Don’t point those heels at me! You’re dangerous.”
I sniffed and grabbed my jacket. “They don’t call them killer high heels for nothing, you know.”
“Just don’t try them out on me. Seriously, Miri, you look gorgeous.” He walked me to his car and opened the door for me.
“You really think so?” I’d been so busy glorying in my new Christmas finery that I’d managed to ignore the sinking pit in the bottom of my stomach. Until now.
Jed smiled. “You’re a knock-out. A pretty knockout, and at these parties, those are scarce as frog-hairs.”
“Um, thanks, if that’s a compliment.” Sometimes you couldn’t tell with the country-boy accountant.
“Come on, Jed. Trevor’s sweet.”
“So is antifreeze, but dogs die if they drink it.”
“Uh...yeah.” I was pretty sure that wasn’t a compliment, so I changed the subject. “Thanks for driving tonight, Jed. It means a lot to me.” Jed had
“No problem.” He patted his pocket. “It should be entertaining to watch, but I’ve got my book, just in case.”
I bonked [awkward] him lightly on the shoulder. “That’s what you call my desperate, so-far-unrequited passion? Entertainment?”
“It, the party, not it, your unrequited passion.” I could see him smirking at me out of the corner of my eye.
[Need a transition]
At the door, Cindy, my boss from the art department, greeted me with a hug. “See if you can find where I hung the mistletoe,” she whispered in my ear, with a meaningful flick of her eyes toward her living room.
I followed her gaze. Trevor. Gesturing as he told an apparently hilarious story to a crowd of admiring women. The pit in my stomach sank somewhere under the front porch, and I followed Jed as he made the absolute minimum social conversations, grabbed a soda, and headed for the kitchen.
He was already settled in a chair with his feet up on another, opening his book. “Miri! What are you doing in here?”
I grabbed his footrest chair and sank down on it. “Chickening out. Did you see how Ashley Owens was falling all over him?”
“No more than she usually does in staff meeting.”
“No, you’re trying to make me mad on purpose.”
He didn’t look up. “Seems to be working great.”
“Fine!” Secretly grateful for the rush of adrenalin, I dropped my purse on the table for him to watch and stomped out of the brightly-lit kitchen, into the dim living room. Then [I] almost fell off my killer heels as I ran right into Trevor.
“Whoa! Careful.” He grabbed my shoulders to steady me, sending tingling electricity all through my body. I knew my one big chance when I saw it, so I looked up at him from under my extra-thick eyelashes.
That just meant it was time to get to work. “Trevor.” I tried to sound surprised, and glad, and enticing, all at once.
It, or the heels, or the Christmas magic must have worked. “Would you like a drink?” he asked, releasing my shoulders but taking my elbow. My previously leaden stomach was suddenly leaping and dancing for agitated joy.
When we’d chosen some snacks, he led me
Ashley Owens glared. Jessica Frampton pouted. I glowed, and giggled, and snuggled. Halfway through the evening, Trevor’s arm was around me. An hour later, we were standing under Cindy’s well-concealed mistletoe, in a secluded doorway toward the back of the house.
“Miri.” Trevor was a man of few words, it seemed, but his arms around me, and his deep, fervent brown eyes said all sorts of things I liked to hear.
“Trevor.” I tipped my head up, and his lips touched mine.
A warm, enticing tingle ran through me. Then my lips started swelling up. [Lead into this just a bit more slowly. Have her notice the tingle in her lips getting stronger, hotter, etc.]
I took a step back from him, shrugging his hands off, and clamped my hands to my mouth as my tongue suddenly ballooned to twice its normal size.
“Shrimp,” I gasped, as my throat and neck started to block off my air. “Did you eat shrimp?”
“Shrimp?” I was dying, and he was rubbing those four brain cells together, trying to make a spark. “Well, that one salad, I guess...”
“Help,” I squeaked, grabbing the doorframe behind me.
That, he understood. As I struggled for air and sank to the floor, he dashed toward the living room,
At least Trevor’s long legs were good for something. Cindy arrived a moment later, skidding to her knees beside me on the floor.
He met my eye as he triumphantly produced a bright-yellow tube and flipped off the cap with one hand.
“Hurry,” I croaked. My vision was turning dark and swirly around the edges. All I could see was Jed’s face, swimming in the darkness.
“Stand back!” he cried to the crowd [.] [It would be better to include this earlier, have her hearing then] of coworkers who’d gathered to exclaim, “Allergies!” and then tell each other stories about their relatives’ dire bee stings.]
Tube clutched in his fist,
Jed held the needle, which stung like crazy, in the side of my leg until long after all the medicine had drained from the tube. He didn’t let go until I’d drawn a long, shaky breath.
Everyone else must have been holding their breaths, too, because they all sighed at once. People started crowding in, asking what they could do to help.
I struggled [to] find enough breath to ask them to please all go away.
Then I threw up. That did the trick. I didn’t miss the look of shocked disgust on Trevor’s face as he beat a hasty retreat, Ashley Owens already clinging to his arm.
By the time the paramedics arrived, I was sitting up and breathing after a fashion, but I thought some other party guests might need medical care if one more person asked, “Are you sure you’re OK?” The paramedics didn’t make me ride in the ambulance, but they extracted a firm promise—from Jed—that I would go straight to the emergency room to get checked over.
Dressed in a pair of Cindy’s pajamas, I leaned gratefully on Jed as we walked slowly to his car. He opened the door for me, but then he grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face him, his face [change one] stern, almost angry.
“Miri, didn’t you promise yourself never to go out with anyone until you told him about your shrimp allergy?”
“Well,” I stammered, “it wasn’t exactly a date, and it’s not very romantic, and—” I clamped my mouth shut and met his eye. “Quit yelling at me. I almost died just now!”
I'd never seen Jed so deadly serious before, and it scared me almost as much as my swelling throat had
I pulled away first, my teeth chattering. “Come on. We promised you’d take me to the emergency room.”
He didn’t let me go, and I suddenly realized how close his face was to mine—and how warm his breath was, and how nice he smelled, and how glad I was that he'd come with me this evening.
He leaned even closer, but I jerked my head back. “Hold on! There was shrimp in one of the salads.”
“Didn’t eat any,” he murmured, gently putting his hand on the back of my head and pulling me in again. “I never eat shrimp when I’m with you, Miri.”
Our lips touched as he whispered, “Just in case.”
What I liked best: I liked the twist with the lips swelling up. Funny.
Magazine ready: Close enough, although I agree with the commenter who said this felt like part of a longer work. Could be expanded to be part of a novel.
Matt glanced at his watch.
He looked out the window.
A few moments later, a woman walked into the store.
“Matt, I’m so glad you are still open.”
“What can I help you with Martha?” Matt’s grandmother had come over from Europe with Martha Johnson’s grandmother. Their families had been friends ever since. Martha now lived just a block over from where he and his wife, Tracy, lived with their daughter Annie.
“I’m looking for something for my grandmother. I’ve been all over town, but have found nothing she’d like.”
Matt understood. He knew Martha’s grandmother had to be in her mid-nineties by now. His grandmother had also been hard to buy for too, when she was still alive.
“Any idea what she would like?”
Martha shook her head. “No. I’ve racked my brain and can’t think of anything she’d like. I really need your help on this.”
Matt looked at each of the glass topped cases as he walked along the counters. He tried suggesting several items, but couldn’t come up with anything either. Just then, he remembered something.
“I do have something. Just a moment.” Matt walked into the back room where he did most of his work. He reached up on a shelf and pulled down the box, then returned to the front.
“I’d almost forgotten about this. Your grandmother came in with your mother a few months ago. She told me about a music box she’d had when she was a little girl.” He lifted the silver music box out of the box, then opened the top. The music playing was Blue Danube.
Martha sucked her breath in, then reached for the box. “Matt, it is beautiful. I’d forgotten about the story she’d told. The music box actually belonged to her mother. She told us she was supposed to have gotten the music box, but was unable to before they had to leave.”
“I had my grandmother’s music box, and your grandmother said it was just like hers. I had no trouble making this one. But, your grandmother fell shortly after that and didn’t come back in. I guess I should have brought it over to her.”
“No, don’t worry about it. This will make a perfect gift for grandmother.” She hugged it to her. “What a wonderful gift this will be.”
It was fifteen minutes later before Matt was finally able to lock the front door. He finished closing the store, then went to the back door. He glanced at his watch. It was now six thirty, and snowing hard, as he turned the light off and shut the back door. He got in the car and pulled out onto the road. If he hurried, he could still make it to the church in time to see his daughter sing in the pageant.
He turned on the radio and listened to Christmas music as he drove. The snow plows were out, but traffic was light. And the roads were a bit slick. He knew he’d have to be careful. As he drove, his mind went back to the silver music box. He smiled when he thought of what Martha’s grandmother was going to say when she opened the music box. Yes, it was the perfect gift. And, the necklace in his pocket was the perfect gift for Annie.
Matt was five minutes away from the church. He was making good time, despite the fact he could hardly see where he was going. Just then, the song ‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem’ came on the radio. Suddenly, he saw an SUV come up quickly behind him. He had no where to go, so he sucked in his breath, waiting for the SUV to hit him, but it pulled over to go around him. He let his breath out in relief, but just as the SUV was almost around him, it began to fishtail, slamming into the front of his car. He lost control, his car spinning and sliding on the road. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get it under control. He couldn’t see where he was going. Suddenly, something large loomed in front of the car, but he couldn’t stop. The last thing he heard was a loud crash.
[This is a new story. It's a little confusing at times. Needs more work.]
When Matt opened his eyes, it was dark. He was sitting on the ground next to a wagon. His head hurt. When he touched his head, he found a large knot in of his forehead. As he stood up, he found he was a little dizzy, so he leaned against the wagon for a few moments. He felt a broken wagon wheel next to his feet. A wagon? he wondered.
He could barely see, but ahead of him, was a town. There was a nearby bonfire, but most of the houses were dark. Just a few houses had faint lights showing in the windows. He remembered something had happened. His car, of course. His car had slid off the road and he had hit something. Maybe if I go into town I can get some help, he thought.
As he began walking he realized, he stopped. There was no snow. Something was wrong. Where am I? Suddenly, there was a bright light overhead. It lit up the area enough so he could see what was ahead of him. It was a small town, nestled near a mountainside. When he looked up, he saw a star. A very bright star. A star whose tail began lengthening towards the earth. It settled somewhere on the other side of town.
A few moments later, a group of men in robes and sandals walked quickly passed him. As he watched, he saw they were heading towards where the light had settled. Matt followed the men. The star was bright enough to clearly see the road they were on. They walked to the other side of town, stopping in front of a barn. The light of the star ended here.
“What is going on?” Matt asked the men. They turned towards him.
“You didn’t see?” one man asked.
Matt shook his head. “See what?”
“The man who talked to us.”
“No. What did he say?”
“He said the son of God had been born.”
A chill ran down Matt’s spine. “What is this town?”
Matt looked at the barn. He now understood. Opening the wooden door, he walked in. In silence, the other men followed him. Inside, there were wooden posts and beams. Stalls had been built in, and cattle and other animals were secured inside them. His eyes scanned the inside. A long trough ran across the back wall of the barn. There was a small trough sitting separated next to the longer one. It was filled with straw and there was a cloth laying on top. A large pile of straw was in the corner of the barn. Bags of feed were to his right in the other corner.
Behind the smaller trough was a wooden bench. Sitting on the bench was a young woman holding a baby, her husband standing next to her. They looked surprised to see the men walking in, then the woman’s face softened and she smiled. She stood up, placing her newborn baby in the makeshift cradle, then sat down again.
Matt walked up to the cradle. The baby was laying quietly, his arms stretched out, and his eyes open. He knew this just wasn’t any baby, this was the Savior. A baby so powerless now, he knew would have all power later. Without thinking, he got down on his knees, tears running down his face. Father, forgive me, he prayed. He looked up at the young mother. She smiled at him, as he stood up. He looked again at the baby. The baby was looking at him, smiling. The Savior looked at him. Feelings flooded over him. Peace, comfort. Most of all, a feeling of overpowering love.
As Matt walked back out into the night, he was numb from the feelings running through him. He now understood why he was here, and what he was supposed to learn. It brought him comfort. As he walked along the road, he pondered what he had seen and heard. Suddenly, he tripped over a broken wagon wheel, hitting his head on the wagon.
Matt slowly opened his eyes, and looked into the face of his wife, Tracy. He felt his daughter’s hand in his.
“Are you alright?” Tracy asked.
“Yes. I think so.”
Tracy leaned over and kissed him. “Good to have you back,” she said.
He looked out the window of his hospital room. It was still night.
“I didn’t miss it.”
“Didn’t miss what? Annie’s concert is over.”
“I didn’t miss Christmas.”
“No, you didn’t miss it.”
Matt closed his eyes. “It was beautiful. The most beautiful scene I’ve ever seen.”
The room was quiet for a moment. Then, Annie leaned over the side rail of the bed.
“You saw the baby Jesus, didn’t you?” she asked.
He looked over at her. “Yes, I did.”
A big smile came across Annie’s face. “I prayed you’d learn the true meaning of Christmas.”
He nodded. “I sure did.” He squeezed her hand. He looked over at his wife. “I’m taking a week off from work. We are going to talk about some changes.”
Tracy shook her head. “If I’d known it was going to be that easy, I’d have hit you in the head instead of you running into that semi.”
“Is that what I hit?”
She nodded. “Yes. I don’t know what happened to change your mind, but we will talk about it.”
“Yes. You know, tonight I sold Martha Johnson a gift for her grandmother. She said it was the perfect gift. A silver music box. But, tonight, I found the perfect gift.” He looked up at Tracy. “Honey, I know I haven’t been home much lately, but that’s going to change. Tonight taught me there is only one perfect gift.”
You've got two stories here. One which is the storekeeper helping his friend find a gift for her mother. The other is the trip back to Bethelehem. Make them into two stories.
Watch out for passive voice. You've got a lot of it. Also, identify the he's and her's more frequently so your reader doesn't get lost.
What I liked most: The music box part of the story.
Magazine ready? No.
“Yes!” The customer snapped—at the two sticky, whining children in her stroller.
Dang. Caroline handed the woman her receipt. “Merry Christmas.”
Paper angels fluttered on the angel tree as mother, children, and stroller whisked by.
Caroline turned resolutely back to her post. There were still customers in the bookstore, and still forty-five minutes until closing time.
“Good evening. Did you find what you needed?” she recited, sizing up the next customer.
“Yes, thank you dear.”
Polite, elderly, well-dressed—tidily dressed, Caroline corrected herself. Purchasing a dictionary and an unabridged Les Miserables. “Would you like to donate to our angel tree? Each angel shows a disadvantaged child’s Christmas book wish.”
She wasn’t supposed to solicit for the angel tree, but her boss Judy was in the storeroom, and this customer would obviously want to donate, as soon as she knew. To Ellen.
Caroline had Ellen’s paper angel ready. Ellen wanted the latest teenage paranormal romance, but Caroline had penciled in some additional ideas.
“What’s this?” The customer picked up the angel. “Ellen, age 14,” she read. “Wants...” Her voice trailed off into a frown, until she reached Caroline’s suggestions. “Oh! Pride and Prejudice! Of course!”
Of course. “There on the back wall, top shelf.” Caroline pointed. She didn’t know any more about Ellen, or the other children, than what was written on the angels, but she had imagined stories for them all. Caroline felt certain that Ellen, who’d requested Book Four in the romance series, was ready to move on to something meatier. She could always check out the romance from the library.
Caroline watched the elderly woman’s back as she hurried to Aisle 14. Was this the One? Someone had to be, and soon. She had thirty-nine minutes until closing time, and nineteen angels to go, if the nice old woman really did choose a book for Ellen.
A woman using a diaper bag for a purse—or perhaps a purse for a diaper bag—bought angel books for the three remaining toddlers on the tree. On her way out she [who?] passed the old lady, who purchased an upscale, hardcover Pride and Prejudice.
“Merry Christmas!” The lady had a nice smile, too. [which lady?]
Caroline’s reply was sincere [what reply], as she added the lovely book to her growing angel pile. But sixteen angels still remained.
“Am I too late?” A man laid a copy of Goodnight Moon on the counter.
“No. Certainly not too late.” Even before she looked at him, Caroline knew he had to be the One, whether he liked it or not. The store closed in eighteen minutes.
The Goodnight Moon man had lots of hair, white evenly mingled with darker brown [this sounds like he's old. Two elderly people?]. His collar was frayed along the edges, but a glance at his keys revealed a new-looking key fob for a quality auto make. It might hurt a little—Caroline’s seven angel books had hurt her student budget more than a little—but she thought he’d manage.
“Goodnight Moon! That’s one of my favorites.” Caroline’s fellow English students teased her about the piles of children’s books she checked out at the library.
He nodded, green eyes softening. “Yeah. The baby’s crib is secondhand, but he really needs his own, new copy of Goodnight Moon. The other kids went through one apiece.”
Seventeen minutes left, and the One had finally arrived! Judy hurried down Aisle 12, straightening books and whistling her nearly-closing-time song. Caroline racked her brain. Even if Judy hadn’t been close enough to hear, Caroline couldn’t just suggest that this man purchase every single angel. She had to think of a way to help him figure that out for himself.
“‘Went through’?” she inquired brightly, stalling for time.
The man chuckled. “Wore ‘em right out. It’s not easy to be a favorite book in our house.”
“That’s a lot of reading.” She slowly turned the book over, praying for help. She was starting to scan the UPC when inspiration hit. “By the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off,” she murmured.
The man’s battered wallet matched his frayed collar, not his car keys. His Visa said George Schaeffer.
Now [delete] Mr. Schaeffer’s hands stopped moving. “Shoot. What’s that from?” His brow creased. “It doesn’t happen to people who break easily...something-something...all the hair’s worn off...” He looked at Caroline. “What’s that from?”
Caroline blinked innocently and made a noncommittal noise.
Judy was bending over in Aisle 11. Caroline quickly murmured, “Would you like to donate to our angel tree?” She pushed Eddie’s angel toward Mr. Schaeffer.
“‘Age seven. A book about love’,” he read, frowning.
“There are more on the tree.” She cocked her head that direction.
“Huh.” His brow wrinkled as he wandered over to the tree. “It doesn’t often happen to people with sharp edges...your eyes fall out...What is that from?”
You’re the One! Take them all! But he took only four, in addition to Eddie.
While he shopped, Caroline mentally rearranged her own budget half a dozen times, failing each time to fit in another eleven books.
He returned to the counter with four books at 9:59. “That’s about all I have time for, I guess,” he said as Judy slid the iron gate shut and lights went out in the mall. “Too bad...” He laid Eddie’s angel on the counter.
“Oh, don’t worry. No one else can come in, but we can wait until you finish.” Caroline pretended not to notice Judy’s exasperated glance. Maybe she’d be looking for a new job after Christmas vacation.
“That’s OK. I’ll try to come back tomorrow.”
“The angel tree ends tonight,” Caroline replied without looking at him.
“Oh.” Judy stepped briskly to the back of the store and turned out the lights in Nonfiction. “Hold on.” He pulled out a cell phone and stepped into Aisle 11.
Caroline’s heart sank. It hadn’t occurred to her that the One might have to consult with someone else—like his wife.
She straightened the bookmark display, trying and not trying at the same time to hear his conversation. At last he emerged again, smiling broadly. “I’m buying them all!”
“OK, sir!” She wanted to hug him around the neck, but instead she hurried out from behind the counter to help him pull the remaining angels off the tree. Judy rounded the counter with a red face, but she stopped short when she saw what they were doing.
Like most book lovers, Mr. Schaeffer had strong opinions about books. He called home to consult with his older children twice. Caroline did talk him out of Agatha Christie for Zach, who wanted a mystery, steering him instead toward The Westing Game. And Judy nearly got into an argument with him over Narnia vs. The Hobbit, for Lexie. Before long, Mr. Schaeffer had a pile of sixteen books—fifteen angels, plus his original Goodnight Moon.
“There!” he said again.
Mr. Schaeffer paused while opening his wallet.
“What about Eddie?” The last paper angel lay alone on the counter.
Mr. Schaeffer and Judy let out simultaneous sighs—his troubled, hers frustrated. He picked up the angel and frowned at it. “Do you have any suggestions for ‘A book about love’?”
Caroline hadn’t had any good ideas, not ones that sounded exactly right, until tonight, so Eddie’s angel had no penciled notes. Now she knew the perfect book, but she also knew that Mr. Schaeffer had to think of it himself. “When a child loves you,” she whispered, “really loves you...”
“...then...” Mr. Schaeffer was staring toward Aisle 11, but Caroline could tell his thoughts were much farther away than that—maybe back in his own childhood. Suddenly, his eyes popped wide open. “...you are Real! That’s The Velveteen Rabbit!”
Judy hurried back to the children’s section to find the book—and turn out more lights. A minute later she brought it back.
Caroline tucked Eddie’s angel under the front cover, rang up the book, and handed it to Mr. Schaeffer.
He flipped through it, scanning text. “Here we go.” Upside down, Caroline could see a picture of the old Skin Horse talking to the Rabbit in the nursery. She nodded encouragement.
“Real isn't how you are made,” he read, “It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you...” His voice trailed off. His white hairs glinted in the darkness, and Caroline noticed that the cuffs on his shirt were frayed like the collar. “...then you become Real.” He read silently for a moment. “Once you are Real, you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” He pulled out Eddie’s angel, nodding back as if it had spoken to him. The cash register blinked Christmas red in the half-light. “Yeah, it does.”
What I liked best: The idea of stretching a little to help others have a Christmas.
Magazine ready? Yes.
I huffed, putting down my clipboard. “Those darn shepherds, what is it this time?”
The entire cast of almost one hundred people was shivering under their sewn up sheets at the dress rehearsal of our live nativity. This event had become a wonderful tradition for over twenty years running, and the entire town looked forward to coming on the Saturday before Christmas to watch the Mormon pageant. It was a great missionary tool, using the talents and resources from all three wards in our building. The angels sang in perfect harmony and the three kings wore lavish costumes with gifts of real myrrh and frankincense. We even had a real donkey that behaved beautifully-- if only I could say the same thing about the shepherds.
In the past it had always been an ‘adults only’ experience, but for some reason this year the Bishop had gotten the idea to use the sixteen-year-old priests as shepherds. It was a huge mistake. Everyone else took their parts seriously, but the shepherds had spent most of their time joking around or pulling pranks. They had sort of devolved into their own shepherd gang with my son as the ringleader.
As I quickly rounded the corner where the boys were supposed to be waiting for their cue, I nearly fell on my face. Josh had been holding his crook out to intentionally trip me. I barely caught myself and turned to face him, “What are you thinking? This isn’t funny.”
The three other boys held in their snickers while Josh shook his head, “It wasn’t supposed to be for you. Ty had asked Bro. Fortner to come over…”
“Listen, you guys, I am serious. This play is important and I want to see you change your attitudes.”
“Mom, we don’t even want to be here. You can fire us and we won’t mind.” The other boys nodded their heads in agreement.
I looked at them and took a deep breath. “The pageant is tomorrow. Please, I beg of you, just behave for one more day.”
Ty shook his head, “This is stupid.”
“It is so sad you can’t see what we are doing here. [comma]” I said to him and then turned to all the boys. “If you try to feel the spirit of this event and remember what we are celebrating, you might get something out of this.”
I walked away feeling hopeless. When the shepherds started poking fun at the ugly doll in the manger, I let them go home early and we finished the dress rehearsal without them.
The next day the weather was not cooperating. It rained all day. The cold gray added to the dread that filled my heart every time I thought about the manger scene and those darn shepherds. As we started loading everyone in the car to head over for the performance, I cornered Josh in the garage.
“Honey, please, can you…”
“Mom, stop,” Josh shook his head. “I’m going to this stupid thing for you but the truth is I don’t even want to be part of it. All the guys feel that way.”
“But, Josh, we are celebrating Christ’s birth. This is important.”
“Is it?” My son clamped his mouth shut.
I looked at him seriously. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Josh ran his hand through his hair. “I don’t know. I guess I’m just not feeling it this year. Don’t you ever wonder if all this crap really happened or if it ‘s like some myth.”
“What are you saying?”
He shook his head, “Oh forget it. I’m doing it, aren’t I?”
My son’s words struck me with fear. He always attended church and seminary and had never mentioned doubting before. I looked at my watch and was already later than I should have been. I would have to deal with this later. Maybe this was the reason the Bishop had felt so impressed to include the boys, so I could face my son’s feelings. As I drove I said a silent prayer that somehow I could help to touch my son’s heart.
We pulled into the church parking lot as the sun was going down. With many willing hands, the costumes and makeup were complete and everyone was in place at the right time. My stomach was doing flip-flops and I wasn’t sure if it was more from the anticipation of the pageant or from my son’s words. I could see him laughing with his friends in the dim light and didn’t know what to do or say to him.
At that moment a young mother walked up to me. She held her infant in her arms. “Sister Adams? I don’t know why, but I want to ask if you would like to use my baby for the baby Jesus.”
“Usually we don’t use a real baby because of the cold and fear that they might cry.”
“I know.” The young mother bowed her head. “But are you sure? Sammy is a good baby and the night is so warm.”
She was right. I hadn’t noticed that the weather had turned. The sky was clear and I guessed it was probably in almost sixty degrees, warmer than it had been all day. Suddenly I doubted my original reaction and took the small bundle. “Thank you.”
I gave the baby to the sister portraying Mary just moments before the performance began and stood on the sidelines watching the story unfold, while the shepherds seemed oblivious to what was happening under the floodlights on the lawn before hundreds of people watching on blankets and lawn chairs.
Mary rode on the donkey with a caring Joseph. The couple were turned away over and over again until one kind innkeeper led them to the stable. There amid the animals, Mary held her new baby and laid him in a manger.
The lights cut out and suddenly a spotlight danced across the shepherds who were swaggering around at the back of the lawn. When the light shone on the angel, they pantomimed extreme shock with a comical attitude that brought chuckles from the audience. Once the full choir appeared, they stole the show by one of them full out fainting. I shook my head in frustration.
The angels finished their musical number which was beautiful and Josh stood and said, “Let us go and see where the child lay.” He said it with a flat meaningless tone that made me cringe. The boys walked in unison across the lawn as though they were in a music video, moving their shoulders and hips from side to side. I covered my face and didn’t want to look but peeked through two of my fingers.
As they came to the stable, they each looked and then did a double take. Josh fell to his knees, followed by his friends. They bowed their heads in rapt silence and the angels began to sing. I lowered my hands and felt the Spirit fill my heart. The sudden change seemed to affect the entire audience and the power of that scene made the reality of Christ’s birth and life once again shine in my heart.
The pageant ended and people flocked forward to congratulate everyone in the cast. Many said it was the best one we had done and more than one person mentioned the shepherds and how they had been so touched by their performance.
Late that night I finally got in the car where Josh was waiting for me. Before I turned the key in the ignition, he reached out and touched my arm. “Mom?”
“Yes.” I turned to him and couldn’t read the look on his face.
“That was awesome.”
“You did an incredible job, by the way. When you knelt before the manger, people said they felt like they were there. I never knew what an incredible actor you were.”
“I wasn’t acting.” Josh swallowed. “No one told me it was a real baby. I was expecting that dumb doll. When I walked up and saw the real baby- it totally caught me off guard and I fell to the ground. I realized that was how I was looking at the church. I was thinking it was something plastic and fake, not real. As I looked at the baby, I knew there was a real baby in Bethlehem all those years ago. There was a real Christ who died for me. It is real, you know?”
I looked at my teenage son smiling, “I know.”
What I liked best: Everything. This one makes me cry every single time I read it. It's perfect. I can't find a single negative thing to say about it.
Magazine ready? Absolutely! It would be the lead story.
Inside a frantic crowd of last minute shoppers mirroring the vehicular mayhem in the parking lot outside jammed every isle. Standing tall, I boldly began to pick my way through the maze of harried customers angling for the lay away desk at the back. As the desk came into view I noticed two lines one moving and one not moving. Obviously, I took a place in the line that was moving and was soon at the cash register.
"Wow, that was fast”, [comma inside quote] I remarked to the young clerk behind the register.
She smiled curtly and asked for my lay away card in a distinctly mechanical manner. I obligingly handed over the card and a $20.00 bill. She raced through a practiced routine pushing several buttons then announced in a disinterested flat tone, "that'll [capitalize] be $17.79". I smiled and pointed out that she already had my $20 bill in her hand. As if on auto pilot, she pushed several more buttons then dropped some change, my card and a cash register receipt that had THANK YOU, PLEASE COME AGAIN printed across the top into my extended hand. I smiled and she excused me with “step to the line to the left; Next?”
I turned around in search of the end of the line to the left which wound around women’s apparel, through the toy department and ended in sporting goods. A bit dejected, I took a spot at the end of the line, adjusted my hips and proceeded to wait.
After a reasonable 20 minute wait, I inquired of those in front of me how long they had been in line. One person said she had been in line for about half an hour. Another said he had been there over an hour. Soon the entire line was engaged in a lively conversation consisting of hours and minutes expressions [awkward]. As the odd conversation subsided, a person several spaces ahead turned around and offered, "I heard that the person who just got to [at] the front of the line has been here since the store opened this morning a 7am [at 7:00 a.m.]”.
"7:00 am”, I mumbled in disbelief. I left my coveted last place in line and walked up to the lady at the front and casually ventured,
[move to previous paragraph]
"...so I heard you came in six hours ago...” [No ellipses here. "So, I heard you came in six hours ago?"]
“Yup”, was her disinterested reply.
“...and you paid for your lay away...”
“...and you’ve been waiting in this line ever since...”
“And still haven't gotten my lay away”, she added very matter-of-factly completing my obvious question.
I expected some additional verbal banter from the lady and when none came I wandered back to my spot in sporting goods, set my hips and continued to wait.
For the next 45 minutes I watched the mechanical clerk at the cash register take in a small fortune in admission fee’s [no apostrophe; plural, not possessive] to the line to the left which had now extended beyond sporting goods into home improvement. While the clerk took in cash several store employees walked by and engaged her in casual conversation. Numerous calls for ‘help in the lay away department’ were announced over the intercom. But the line to the left refused to move and just grew longer.
A very frumpy looking store manager dressed in a dingy white shirt, crooked tie and baggy trousers appeared from a room behind the clerk and asked how things were going.
"Fine, I guess”, she said in her flat absent tone. “We do need to start retrieving again though, I guess. The line is getting pretty long."
The manager eyed the long line, shook [nodded] his head in agreement then walked over to a popcorn machine on the candy isle and watched the freshly popped kernels fall into a big tub. Obviously no help was coming soon.
My patience, like the heated popcorn
Turning, I calmly replied, "I thought I would help you out by getting my own lay away”.
"Well, you can't do that," she said, her concern increasing. "Only store staff can retrieve your lay away”.
"Unfortunately," I reacted with a chuckle and a smile, "I bought these gifts for Christmas this year not for next year”.
It was obvious from her irritated look that I was not winning her over with my charm and humor. After a quick standoff marked by narrowed eyes and a deep sigh from the clerk, I shrugged my shoulders and continued up the stairs. By the time I was at the top of the stairs the clerk was frantically yelling into the intercom phone, "security to lay away, security to lay away".
I figured it wouldn't take long before my chance to retrieve my packages was over so I started jogging down the center isle of the loft. Not to my surprise, store security turned out to be the frumpy manager with the popcorn fetish [not the right word]. He scurried up the stairs as I was jogging past the rows of package laden shelves.
"You know," he said in a labored voice, "you can't come back here."
"I didn't see any signs telling me to specifically not come back here," I said. "I got to thinking that maybe Lay Away is self service.”
Like the mechanical clerk, the manager didn't like my humor. He motioned for me to follow him back down the stairs.
"Unfortunately," I replied, "I can't. [can't what?] "I am not prepared to spend the night”.
"You know there are others who’ve been in line long before you got here," the manager snorted, "you [capitalize] could be more considerate of their feelings".
"You’ve got to be kidding?”, I shot back.
"Lt is our busy season, and the law says I have to provide lunch breaks to employees".
"Yea, and I hear that the popcorn diet is real effective for the manager on the move", I added pointing to a popcorn kernel stuck to his tie.
The manager pushed me towards the silver door and said he would get some help. I watched him slide behind the mechanical clerk at the cash register pointing my way with his finger.
"Nice try", the lady at the front of the line said.
"Oh I am not done yet," I replied with raised eyes. "If I don't see this line moving in a few minutes I am going to get really ugly."
I sauntered back to my place now in men’s wear and began to count backwards from 500. Soon an overdressed security guard passed by to receive orders from the manager. With their command session complete, the manager stared me down on his way back to the popcorn machine. When I reach one, I left my place in line and headed for the silver door again.
My second attempt at freeing my packages was easier than my first. The clerk was so busy mechanically taking admissions for the line to the left that she didn't see me sneak through the silver door. The security guard was so busy watching the clerk he had no idea I was on the stairs. And I can only assume that the manager was so mesmerized by the popcorn machine he hadn’t noticed I was no longer in line.
I got to the platform without interruption and raced down the center isle looking for the shelf with my package. I was at more than half way across the loft when the security guard yelled in gruff security guy language, "Hey you".
I glanced over my shoulder once then resumed scanning for my shelf. As expected, the manager came huffing and puffing around the security guard demanding to know why I was disobeying his instructions.
"I told you to be patient and I would get this problem resolved", he barked.
Turing I answered very methodically, "look [capitalize], I paid your clerk at the cash register almost 3 hours ago for my packages and it is clear that you aren’t going to get things moving. I am pretty sure my packages are right there," I said pointing to the first shelf at my right. "If you let me get my packages, the line to the left will have one less person in it and you can go back to managing your lay away problem from the popcorn machine”.
My intelligence did not impress the manager or the security guard, although the mechanical clerk now standing at the bottom of the stairs was snickering at my managing from the popcorn machine remark.
Hiking up his trousers the manager authoritatively announced, "you [capitalize] will have to leave or I will call the police".
With out hesitation I quickly replied, "not if I call them first”.
The manager brushed popcorn residue from his mouth. "Why would you call the police first”, [?"] he asked confused"? [.]
"This receipt says I bought and paid for $135.00 dollars worth of merchandise from your store and that you will surrender said merchandise when paid in full. Since I paid my bill in full over three hours ago I can only assume that you are holding my packages hostage. So, I demand that you surrender my goods at once or I will call the police"!
The manager and the security guard were taken back [aback] by my logic and didn't immediately respond. By this time a small crowd of folks from the line to the left had taken positions at the bottom of the stairs behind the mechanical clerk.
"I think he's right, [.] I'm going to call the police to" [, too,"] a customer yelled.
Another person started chanting ‘free [, "Free] our gifts, free our gifts’. Soon, others joined in the chant. It didn't take long before the customers waiting in line to the left were all joining in.
After an exceptionally menacing exchange of dirty looks, the manager grabbed my ticket, retrieved my package and seething with disdain said, "Leave. Now".
I smiled as the chanting grew louder. "Not so fast," I said
The crowd was electrified. The manager was soundly licked. He looked over his shoulder and barked for the security guard and the mechanical clerk to gather receipts. The chanting turned to a full scale stadium roar.
Moments later as I was loading my packages into my car, people driving by honked and waved. I felt pretty good. Winning on the holiday field of battle with a crowd of worthy shoppers was indeed satisfying. As I pulled away from the curb the radio began to play, 'Santa Claus is coming to town' ["Santa Claus is Coming to Town"] and I smiled hoping he would judge my recent antics as nice and not naughty.
Brush up on your grammar and punctuation rules. Punch up the humor. It gets a little confusing trying to imagine where things are here. You mention stairs and a silver door sometimes, and just the door at other times. Be very clear about place descriptions. Also, is this a man or a woman? I suppose it doesn't matter, but readers usually like to know. I'd like to see more interaction with those around him/her in the line. Also a little more contrast between expected Christmas cheer and the reality of the store.
What I liked best: We've all been there. Good to see someone finally doing what we all wish we had the nerve to do. I also like the last paragraph, bringing Santa in.
Magazine ready? No. Needs some work. FYI, an editor would reject this after the first few paragraphs. It needs too much clean up work. They don't have time to sit and correct for you, like I did.
“Hanukah! Kwanza! Christmas!” the children shouted.
“And what do all of these holidays have in common?” she bit her lip, hoping for a good response.
Nathan raised his hand as high as he could. Waving it so hard he kept hitting Daniel on the head [why? insert where Daniel is in relation to Nathan so that this makes sense]. “Nathan, what?”
“Presents!” he said, exposing his missing front tooth with a proud grin. As soon as the word hit the air, all the other children latched agreed.
She [who? Need to identify] walked over to the dusty chalkboard. “Class, today we are going to make a wish list. I want everyone to think very seriously about what they want for the upcoming holiday. Then we will go around the room and write or draw it on the board.”
Keisha threw her hand in the air while calling out, “Miss Wright, can it be anything? Anything in the world?”
“Well, what do you think, class?”
Suddenly Brian raised his hand. Shayna remembered meeting Brian’s haggard mother for the first time at parent-teacher conference a few months ago with a child on her hip, two in the stroller and another son ready to start kindergarten. The young teacher knew right away that they must be Mormon. Since moving away from Utah, Shayna had yet to look up where the church building was. This was her second year teaching and she was amazed how easy it was to let go of that part of her life.
Brian looked very serious, “I think we should only write what we really need, Miss Wright.”
“That is a great idea. There are things that each of us need.” She looked at the cruise tickets sitting on her desk. There was no doubt in her mind that she needed this vacation, but why was her mother making such a big deal of her not coming home for Christmas? Her mom had called over a dozen times, since she had found out. Finally, Shayna had hung up on her. Why couldn’t her mother understand?
“You know, maybe if we wish hard enough,” the young teacher added, “we will get what we want.”
They went around the room with each child taking turns writing and drawing his wish, which included various games and game systems, sports equipment and a new Plasma TV with HD. Then it was little Brian’s turn. He wrote the word “suit” and sat down.
Daniel yelled, “What kind of suit? A spaceman suit?”
Brian passed the chalk to his neighbor, “No, a suit for church.”
Riley crinkled up his nose, “Like with a tie? Why would you want that?”
“Well, my dad wears one, the missionaries wear one and the boys who pass the sacrament. I only have plain pants and I want to be like them.”
His answer was lost to the other children, but Shayna heard every word. It tugged at her heart. She envisioned this little boy going to church on Sunday, wanting so badly to have a nice suit and having to wear hand-me-downs from the thrift store. As the class lined up for lunch, Shayna knew what she had to do. Even though she wasn’t going to church anymore, there was something she could do to make this Christmas special for him. She could make this boy’s Christmas wish come true.
The next two weeks whizzed by in a flurry of excitement. Shayna went to the teacher’s lounge during lunch and told the sad story of the little boy whose only wish for Christmas was clothes to wear to church. She told about his poor family that barely had enough money to put food on the table. [How does she know this?]
The kindergarten teacher who taught Brian’s younger brother listened in fascination and her mouth dropped open, “I never would have guessed it. They put up such a good front, but he does bring his lunch and often has leftovers- how sad!”
On the last day of school before Christmas vacation, everything was finally ready. Shayna proudly licked the envelope containing a check for $1250, money from the teachers’ own pockets. Looking at the huge pile of gifts waiting behind her desk, Shayna hugged herself. This was the true meaning of Christmas, the essence of giving, she thought.
At precisely three o’clock a stylish lady stuck her head in the door. Her brown hair was in a sporty cut and she wore a smart tan jacket with straight jeans and neat leather shoes. “Can I help you?” Shayna asked.
“Hi, I’m Amy Pratt, Brian’s mom.”
This wasn’t the over-stressed housewife she had remembered meeting. Unsure of herself, Shayna went behind the desk to her place of safety and invited the woman to sit.
Amy sat and smiled softly, eager to find out the reason for the visit, “Is anything wrong?” she asked.
Trying to sound as professional as possible, Shayna began, “Mrs. Pratt, recently we had an activity where children were asked what they wanted for Christmas and Brian’s answer had us a little concerned.”
“Really?” the mother pulled up to the edge of her seat.
“He said he wanted a suit to wear on Sunday. So we started…”
The mother’s eyes glistened with tears, “That is so sweet. What a great guy he is.” She beamed at the thought of her son.
Shayna tried to continue, “Yes, we thought so too, so we decided to take up a…”
“No, you see,” she lifted her hand to explain, “about three weeks ago I found this wonderful suit that seemed just Brian’s size at the thrift shop in town. It looked like it had never been worn. That boy is so hard to fit, being so small, and they won’t take anything back. I mean, the suit was thirty five dollars. So I blindfolded him and had him try it on. I knew he knew what it was, but at least the color would be a surprise for Christmas.”
Shayna was frustrated. Nothing was going as planned, “Then why would he have said he wanted a suit if he knew he was getting one?” she snapped.
The mother shook her head, obviously proud of her oldest boy, “Because, we’ve taught our children that they should want most what they already have. Our focus should be on the blessings around us, not beyond them. I know it may sound funny to you, but I have very strong feelings about this. I mean, we could afford a new car, but why would we when the one we own fits our family and is paid for. I probably lecture the children too much about it, but I get so tired of children wanting and wanting things they don’t need or shouldn’t even have. Our focus needs to be more on giving, especially at this time of year, don’t you think?”
An expression of sheer joy bubbled from the mother’s lips again, “I can’t believe that Brian totally gets it. Isn’t it awesome when one of them actually listens to you?”
Shayna stood up defensively, feeling like her Christmas surprise was completely ruined, “Well, we started a collection for your family- and I can’t give it to anyone else.” She pushed the envelope toward the young mother angrily who stared at it in surprise and then looked at her son’s teacher across the table with kindness.
“Thank you, I’m so sorry about the misunderstanding.”
“That’s fine… and we have these,” Shayna couldn’t understand why her eyes were edging with tears of disappointment as she handed the packages to this woman who was trying her best to be gracious but obviously wasn’t in need at all. Stiffening her jaw, Shayna decided she would just go through the motions and get this over with- there was no way she could back out now.
She helped the mother carry the mound of packages to her van and after closing the door, the woman turned around, “The children will love these things. Thank you. It must have taken a lot of your time and energy to do this. What a wonderful gift. It means a lot to me that you would make such a remarkable effort for one of your students. I am really grateful that Brian has you as his teacher.”
Shayna looked in this woman’s eyes and saw sincere gratitude. This was not how it was supposed to be, she was supposed to be thrilled to get the presents. The gifts were supposed to change their whole Christmas. Instead, it wasn’t even the gifts she cared about, but the fact that her son’s teacher had spent her personal time thinking about him.
As the mother got in her dented van and pulled away, she waved out her open window and shouted happily, “Merry Christmas.”
Shayna looked at the scene with new eyes. This woman wasn’t forced to drive that car; it was a choice- a gift, in a way. Walking back through the hall alone, Shayna felt confused. Christmas was supposed to be about cool presents, incredible surprises, just plain fun, and, well, wanting stuff, wasn’t it? But what had made the last two weeks so wonderful was the hope of giving something important, something that mattered. She had looked forward to telling all the other teachers the happy ending, but what would she say now that it was all a stupid mistake?
Looking around the empty room, Shayna shuddered. She felt cold and alone. She had a nagging suspicion that she was missing something, but she knew if she let the idea in that it would change everything. Why couldn’t Christmas just be fun? Why couldn’t she do what she wanted without feeling guilty?
As she turned to reach for her coat, Shayna caught sight of a little card on the edge of her desk where Mrs. Pratt had been sitting. Curiously, she ripped open the envelope and held the card in her hand.
It was a picture of a beautiful baby Jesus in the manger, staring warmly at her. She laughed to herself as she remembered the wild nativity plays her family used to put on with her dad as the donkey, wearing construction paper ears taped to a baseball cap. She thought about going to Temple Square at Christmas and feeling the Spirit of that sacred place. Then she thought of rounding the stairs at the visitor’s center and walking up to the large white statue of the Savior and knowing he was real. He was born in Bethlehem and died for our mistakes. And Christmas was His birthday. This was the real story of Christmas, not the silly story she had made up about little Brian’s family.
She opened the card and the message read, “What will you give Him?” Inside was a snapshot of the Pratt family wrestling around on a bright green lawn in a pretzel of arms, legs and smiles. For a long time she stood there in silence, and somewhere in the silence her guilt melted away as a feeling of peace gently spread over her. She knew she wanted to give Him- something real.
The tinny sound of “Jingle bells” pulled her from her thoughts and she looked at her cell phone. It was her mother, again. Well, she thought, this would be a good start.
“Mom, I changed my mind. I’m coming home for Christmas.”
We need some explanation of why Shayna jumps to the conclusion that Brian's family is in such need. A boy wanting a suit doesn't seem to be quite enough to me. Also, why such a difference in the way the mother looked before and now? Need some type of explanation. And I'm a little confused about the mother just taking the stuff and saying thank you. I'd rather see her involve Shayna in giving it to others who needed it more? Or something.
What I liked best: With the exception of the few wholes pointed out above, the story is told fairly well. I like the twist that the family doesn't really need the money or gifts.
Magazine ready? Not quite.
[move up to previous paragraph] Marriot stared down in surprise at the large, thickly wrapped bundle her husband placed in her lap.
The Christmas season was drawing to its close on this, the twelfth day following the nativity of the Lord. The extra rents of eggs, bread and a fine speckled hen they’d been forced to pay to help supply the baron’s Christmas feast had been somewhat offset by Lord Beckford having selected her husband as one of two peasants he traditionally invited to the castle on Christmas day. Arthur, representing the poorest of Beckford’s poor serfs, had carried away as much food and ale as he could balance in one cloth, a cup, and a wooden trencher, while the second tenant, a free farmer on the manor, had been allowed to take two friends and feast for two days at the baron’s own table. Arthur had returned all a-grumble at Beckford’s “stinginess”, claiming he’d heard that on many another manor, the lord or abbot invited all his serfs to a Christmas feast.
Still, he’d managed to return with enough good food to make a fine, if modest, Christmas dinner for their family
The food was long gone now, along with the merry games played by the villagers to keep warm in the winter snows. The ivy and holly so gleefully gathered and hung by the children to brighten their tiny thatched cottage, had grown dry and crisp, crackling off their garlands and crushed by shoes to form a fine, fragrant dust on the earth beaten floor. Today, Epiphany, the day the Magi had presented their gifts to the Christ Child, was the last day of respite her family would have from the backbreaking work in the baron’s fields.
“What foolish thing have you done?” Marriot demanded of her husband.
Gifts were only given to small children on Epiphany, especially among the poor.
Her husband’s dark eyes danced with that mischievous gleam that had won her heart ten years ago. “Sometimes a bit of foolishness is just what a man needs to bestow on the woman he loves.”
She heard a trio of high-pitched giggles from the children.
“Open it, Ma, open it!” little four-year old Lottie trilled.
“Aye, Ma. Da’s been ready to bust for days, waiting for you to see it.” [need to identify speaker--assuming it's Robin?]
She [Marriot] cast a suspicious gaze at her middle child. He bounced excitedly on the balls of his feet, the exact image of his father at the same age with his black hair and bright dark eyes.
“Do you know what this is, Robin?”
Robin smiled slyly, but neither shook nor nodded his head.
Her eldest son grinned but refused to speak.
Marriot slowly drew the cloth wrapping away. “A lute? Good heavens, Arthur, you’re as mad as milord says you are! We cannot afford something like this! Unless… Tell me you didn’t…”
“I didn’t buy it,” Arthur said, quelling her sudden fear. “I made it, with some help from that minstrel who wandered through the village last spring.”
“But the wood… Where did you find so much wood?”
He shrugged. “The minstrel was a game fellow and helped me gather it deep in the woods late at night, when there was no one about to see. He’s long gone now so his tongue won’t wag. Beckford will never know I’ve taken more than my daily quota.”
“And I went with them, Ma, and helped,” Robin said earnestly, “so the gift is a little from me, too. Will you teach me how to play it? Please?”
Also like his father, seven-year old Robin had a restless, curious mind, always eager to learn something new. Marriot feared for him when he grew older...old enough to balk, as Arthur still did, at the limitations placed on a serf who’s sole purpose in life was to work his own narrow strips of land along with the lord’s demesne.
“And what will milord think when he sees me with this?” she demanded. “He’ll want to know how one of his serfs came to possess such a thing.”
“I’ll tell him I’ve been saving for years to buy it,” Arthur said. “He knows I raise and sell excess grain at market. He must wonder what I do with the extra money I earn.”
Their eyes met for a meaningful moment of silence. They both knew exactly where that extra money went.
“What about me?” little Lottie squealed. “Did you make me something this year, Da?”
“Indeed I did, Lottie.”
Thanks to her husband’s clever hands, this day of gift giving never went unfulfilled for their children, as it did for so many others. Arthur could carve nearly any wonder from a piece of wood.
Arthur scooped his daughter up in his arms and carelessly mussed her tangled red locks with one of his large, calloused hands, then perched her atop their trestle table. Marriot, despite her misgivings about her own gift, began plucking gently at the strings. She had never played a lute before, but she was as gifted at music as her husband was with carving. She would soon discover the right combinations of sounds to accompany the lullabies she sang at night.
She smiled and glanced briefly up at the coo of glee her daughter gave as Arthur placed the new wooden doll he’d made into her plump little hands. Gilbert’s gift came next. Marriot nearly laughed at the delight on his face when his father handed him a fresh-made spade, just sized for a sturdy boy of nine. Only her practical minded older son—a trait she reluctantly admitted he’d inherited from herself—could possibly have glowed with pride to receive such a utilitarian tool for his very own.
“What about Robin?” Lottie piped. “What’d you make him, Da?”
Marriot tried to catch her husband’s eye, as curious as her daughter. Robin’s was the one gift, besides her own, that Arthur had insisted on concealing from her. She watched him reach around Lottie to pick up the threadbare cloak he’d dropped on the table when he’d come in earlier from the winter’s cold. Until now, she hadn’t wondered about why he’d rolled it up, instead of hanging it on the peg inside the doorway.
He unfolded it now and removed the object it concealed. A dull green cloth, fraying a bit at the edges, stretched tightly over a stiff rectangular frame.
Arthur placed it in his younger son’s hands. Lottie jumped off the table and ran to her brother’s side to look. Gilbert drew near, too.
“What is it?” they echoed together.
Marriot had only seen such an object once before, much, much larger, chained to the altar in the village church. By the flush of excitement that ruddied Robin’s cheeks, she realized that he, too, knew exactly what it was.
“A book!” Robin whispered the words almost reverently. Marriot set the lute aside and approached her son as he flipped the object open. “It’s a book, like the big Bible in the church! Da, is it really mine?”
Marriot gazed at the meaningless scratches of ink on the parchment pages. She could not make heads or tails of the marks. Why would Arthur give Robin such a thing?
“Nay, Rob,” Arthur said, “Father Elias only let me borrow it. Would you like to learn to read it, though? Would you like to study half-days with Father Elias?”
“That would make Robin a priest, too” Gilbert said, “wouldn’t it?”
“Eventually,” his father answered. “Well, Rob? What do you think?”
A small fire sputtered and smoked on an iron plate in the middle of the room, inadequately keeping the cold at bay, but the chill that smote Marriot had nothing to do with the drafty cracks in the cottage walls. She whirled and dashed into the bedroom.
Scattered about another iron plate, this one covered with a pile of dead ashes, were the thin pallets they slept on at night. Once one of the wealthier serfs on the manor, Arthur had given up nearly everything he’d owned, including his much larger house, to marry her, the daughter of a drunken, money-squandering cottar. He’d sold everything, his father’s bed along with his house, to raise the marriage price the baron had set for her hand, leaving them to raise their children in her father’s two-room hovel.
Aside from the pallets, only a large wooden chest that held the family’s clothing occupied the room. Marriot shoved at it desperately, but it was too heavy—intentionally so—for any but a strong man to move.
“Here, let me,” her husband spoke from behind her. “I think you know what you’ll find, though.”
Marriot’s heart hammered. Or not find.
“It’s gone, isn’t it?” she whispered. When he’d sold nearly all for her hand, he’d saved a single coin and buried it deep beneath this chest. A symbol of all he had fought so hard to achieve before they’d fallen in love. A symbol of what he’d yet sworn to achieve for them all. But now—
“Our emancipation money. You said you were starting over for us—for all of us. You slave in the fields, plowing by moonlight to raise more crops than other men. You sit by our precious kindling on moonless nights carving items to sell to our neighbors for extra coins. And I’ve seen how you count and count and count before you bury them here—” she pointed at the base of the chest— “each coin bringing you closer to your dream.”
“A dream I will never reach,” he said quietly. “Not for all of us.”
Her tears fell freely, her emotions a mixture of guilt and relief. “Because of me. Because of the children. There are too many of us to ever raise enough…but oh, how I feared you might kill yourself trying!”
He took her in his arms. “If we had a fairer lord…but Beckford never intended to let me go, with or without you. He proved that when he demanded so high a marriage price for you. And our entire family? No. I could never raise enough to persuade him to give up the labor he would lose from us all.”
“But why Robin?
“Gilbert is like you, content with the security of the manor despite the cursed rents and services. And Charlotte is too valuable for the future serfs she will one day bear.”
“But he agreed to lose Rob’s half-day labor, and if you have your way, he will lose him entirely when he is twelve. How did you persuade milord of that?”
“He agreed to the half-days’ labor because he knows I will make it up myself. And five years is a long time. He undoubtedly trusts that I’ll find I need our second son fulltime to meet all the week works and boon works he lays upon us. Or that I won’t scrape together enough money to purchase his permission for Robin’s vows when he turns twelve. Either way, Beckford will keep the money I’ve paid him for this day’s benevolence. He’s the richer for it either way.”
“But you will scrape the money together, won’t you? If it kills you, you’re determined to set at least one of us free. You’ll work twice as hard to sell more crops than ever. You’ll carve yourself blind by the fire.”
“And when I do, I’ll have your nimble fingers on the strings of your lute to bring peace to my restless soul. Five years is all I need to see Robin free.”
Free. What was it she’d heard her husband repeat so often? When Adam and Eve first walked the earth, who then was lord and who was serf?
Her husband was right. The security of manor life contented her. But even she knew that Robin’s quick, bright mind required more. Free. One day a priest. Teaching peasants like herself the story of the Magi and the gifts laid before the Christ child on this day.
What I liked best: Pretty much all of it. This is a good story.
Magazine ready? Yes. But you need to add a few more dialog markers during that last long discussion. Once or twice I had to look back to see whose turn it was to talk.