Christmas Short Story

This is the second installment of one of twelve short stories from “Christmas on Pleasant Hill”, available from Amazon.  Half of all the profits from this book are donated to 3Cs Nursery School. To read the story from the beginning, click here, then come back to this post to continue….

The last time Charise had seen her cousin, Tanya had been running barefoot through Grandma’s garden into the night, none too steady on her feet. Charise had been in college, Tanya was a junior in high school and Charise had taken her to a party in Clifton.

Charise, in a calculation she would never have made sober, had decided to bring Tanya back to Grandma’s, where she had been living since her parents kicked her out. She wanted to introduce Tanya to cocaine in a safe place, and had figured that Grandma and Grandpa would be asleep on the second floor, too far away to hear anything. They had tiptoed giggling through the house, more loudly than they realized, and gone through the French doors in the dining room onto the back patio. On a glass table under the porch light, Charise made two wobbly lines of powder.

They were poised over it with straws in hand when a shadow fell across them. Grandma stood there in the doorway in a white robe and turban, silent and flint-eyed as the angel of death.

Finally, with no visible movement, she hissed at Charise. “How dare you bring that filth into my house! How dare you drag this girl into the same evil you’ve fallen into!” Her voice rose to a shriek and her trembling became visible – “How dare you!”

Tanya leapt out of her chair, grabbed her stiletto heels and took off barefoot through the yard, apparently preferring to risk the wrath at home rather than stay for Grandma’s. Grandma, still screaming, “How dare you!” swiped the table with her arm and the cocaine disappeared into terrycloth and thin air. She finished the swipe with a shove that nearly knocked Charise over. She was too stunned to react. Grandma had never even given her a mild spanking.

While Charise was still in shock, Grandma grabbed her purse and took off through the dining room. Charise sprang after her like a tiger – there was $200 and more cocaine in the purse.

“No more!” Grandma was crying, as she wove around the dining room table – “No more. This ends tonight.”

She picked up a phone and dialed three numbers. Charise grabbed at the purse. Grandma dropped the phone to hang onto the purse, and the two of them struggled there by the kitchen door. The women picking cotton smiled down on them, until Charise, wrenching the bag away from her grandmother, scraped the purse’s buckle right into the picture, dragging it across the face of one woman and the upper body of another, piercing through a smile and a heart and a bag of fluffy cotton. Grandma sank to the ground, sobbing. Charise ran up to her room, grabbed her stash of weed, a bigger bag, threw in some clothes and shoes and ran out of the house, beating Grandpa, who was now running toward her from the dining room, to the front door. She ran south all the way downtown to the bus station, and took a bus to Nashville just after dawn.

The whole scene played again, as she stared at Tanya’s note, and the guilt washed over her in waves that made her clench her teeth. She had never seen Grandpa again – he had died two months later. She had been so wasted at the funeral she could barely remember it. Damon had driven her up, steered her through it and driven her back to Nashville all in the same day.

How had she let another year go by with no contact with her Grandma? Grandma had written and invited her to Easter and to Thanksgiving and to Christmas, but she had been too ashamed and afraid to go home. Now it was too late.

She wanted a drink. Screw recovery. She looked in every cabinet but there was nothing on the property. She grabbed her keys and headed north toward the Kroger. On her way, just before the intersection where Grandma’s church was, she saw a lit-up old house at the front of a hospital property. She could see people through the window. She remembered hearing it was used for twelve step meetings.

She passed it, but when she got to Grandma’s church she pulled into the parking lot. She sat in the empty lot, breathing heavily. Then she looked at the church entrance and saw Grandma, in a ray of light, walking through one of the doors, wearing a hat, like she used to at Easter. Grandma looked over her shoulder at Charise and lifted her eyebrows. “OK,” said Charise, to no one but the dark night. “I’ll go back to the meeting.”

***

The meeting had, as they say, restored her to sanity. The next day was Sunday. She went to church. It was the closest she could come to being with her grandma. She was not, however, ready to face up to Grandma’s friends, so she sat in the back row and planned to slip out during the final song.

She was surprised when an older man who had been sitting near her came out after her, and called to her. “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you but I thought I might have recognized you from a picture and I wondered if you might be a relative of Olivia Anderson.”

That got her attention. She watched him approach, hoping he wasn’t a pastor. He might be. He was an older white man, kind and well spoken, with friendly blue eyes and a smile.

“I’m sorry. My name is Bill Grant, and I’m a friend of Olivia’s.” He offered his hand. “I’m Charise Anderson, her granddaughter.” “Ah! I’m so glad to meet you. I was out of town the day of the funeral so I haven’t had a chance to meet her family. I’m so sorry for your loss. She was such a good person. I would even say a great person.”

“Yes.” She wondered how well he knew Grandma. Well enough to know what a screw up her grandaughter was?

“I don’t want to intrude,” he said, more tentative in her silence. “But here’s the thing – I knew your grandma from the Historical Society as well as church here, and I helped her find out as much as possible about her house. I thought that whoever lived here next – maybe they would like to hear what I know, and I could show you some files I gave her…”

“That’s very kind of you,” she mustered, relaxing a little. “I would like that.”

He smiled. “That house is a treasure. It was built in the 1850s by a Quaker named Zachary Strang. He was an abolitionist. But I’m sure you know the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad?”

Her eyes widened. “I had no idea.”

“Oh yes. I thought your Grandma would have told you. It has quite a heritage. Strang used to pick up runaway slaves in a wagon that had a false bottom. He’d hide them in the wagon and put crops on top and bring them up the road to the house. Then after they’d eaten and rested, he’d smuggle them up to the next safe house. You may be wondering why they were still running in a free state, but the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it legal for owners to pursue people into free states and recapture them, so they couldn’t really be free till they got to Canada…”

He talked on, swept up in his own narrative. Charise already knew about the Fugitive Slave Act. She’d written a paper on it before she’d dropped out of college. But she had no idea the house had been an actual hiding place. Grandma must have only found out recently…

“ …I guess you don’t know about the little room they found, then?”

“What?”

“Yes – a few months ago. We’re pretty sure it was one of the places people hid when strangers were seen coming up Hamilton Pike. You see, there was a warning system. Homeowners further down the road, and students from the Ladies’ College and the Farmers’ College, would keep a lookout and send messages to the safe houses. Then they’d hide slaves in basements or attics or sheds when the owners came looking. Your Granma was sorting things in the attic and she uncovered a false wall that could be slid sideways in the attic, and there was a little room back there with blankets and books…it was so exciting!” His enthusiasm was hard to resist. Charise asked, “You wouldn’t have time to show me now, would you?
***

Mr Grant shifted the wall panel, enough for them to squeeze into the dormer space. There was an ancient curtain on the window, its small flowers almost faded out. Covered in plastic, there were old brown wool blankets, a Bible, a book of fairy tales and two history volumes. Grandma, always orderly, had laminated a page of writing and placed it on top of the blankets.

It read, “These things were discovered in September of 2014 by Olivia Anderson, along with Mr Bill Grant, a fellow member of the Pleasant Hill Historical Society. He has heard a second hand account of a letter written during the Civil War. The writer said that Pleasant Hill had become too well known to be a safe stop for runaways, so the little room in the Strang attic had been retired. We have not been able to find the letter. But we have found these blankets, this Bible dated 1846, and these other old books. It is my prayer that this house will always be a refuge for those in need of safety, comfort and beauty.”

Charise read the note over and over, unmoving. Mr. Grant shifted awkwardly.

Finally he said, “She asked me, the last time I saw her, to make sure her grandchildren kept all our files, everything we gathered about the house. Can I ask you on her behalf to keep these things, and all the papers downstairs? They were very important to her.”

“I can promise that much.”
***

After he left, she sat on the small back stairs of the house, the ones servants used to use. It was where she went to be alone as a child. Now, her mind was pierced with images of those runaways, hurriedly being smuggled up these stairs – ragged, wide-eyed people smelling of sweat and fear. She followed the images up the stairs, back to the little room. She sat on the floor facing the dormer window, which looked down on the garden. She re-read Grandma’s note.

“A refuge,” she whispered. Then louder, to the empty space, to the whole precious house and garden and all the people who had sheltered there, she admitted, “I need a refuge. I’ve been a slave and I need a refuge.”
***

This story will be continued in the next post…

Christmas Short Story

This is the beginning of one  of twelve short stories from my book, “Christmas on Pleasant Hill”, available from Amazon.  Half of all the profits from this book are donated to 3Cs Nursery School. It’s set in College Hill, a Cincinnati neighborhood, so it has an added appeal to locals. This redemptive story, “The Refuge” draws on our neighborhood’s fascinating history as a stop on the Underground Railroad: 

     No one had told Charise that her grandmother had died. The funeral was over by the time she heard. A lawyer had sent her a letter requesting that she contact him concerning the estate of the deceased Olivia Anderson. She had stared at the paper until her hand began to shake. Then she drank a bottle of her boyfriend’s Red Stag and slept
hard.

final cover That had been a relapse; she had actually been sober for over two months when the letter arrived. When she emerged from her stupor, it was to her boyfriend, Damon,
grinning down at her. He picked up the almost empty whiskey bottle, took the last swig and said, “I knew pretty soon you’d be giving up on that sobriety crap.”

Two days later, Charise stood in the front yard of her grandmother’s Cincinnati property, shivering in her leather jacket, wishing she had brought up a winter coat from Nashville. She had packed in a hurry, while Damon was out so he could not talk her into taking him with her.

She had wanted to be alone, but now she wondered. Standing in front of the glorious old house in the quiet and the cold, she wondered if the loneliness might do her in. It was a grand Victorian frame house, built in the 1850s, recently painted a bright yellow with white trim and green shutters.

That had been Grandpa’s last big job before his stroke. He had painted first floor trim while the grandkids got on tall ladders to paint the rest. Why, Charise wondered, why hadn’t they inherited the house instead of her – those cousins who were always there, always helping?

She was reluctant to call her family until she met with the lawyer. She would just have to wait, for three days. That was the earliest the lawyer could schedule her to go over the will. She hoped anxiously that there might be a note for her, something personal from her grandmother. In the meantime, she would go through the house, plan what to do with its contents and find a realtor to put up the place for sale.

She zipped her jacket, cold but reluctant to go into the house. She had bare feet in high-heeled sandals, skin tight crop pants, a silk shirt and the inadequate jacket. Her bracelets and necklaces were like ice on her skin. She never thought of being comfortable any more, only of looking hot. It was the uniform of the life she had chosen. Damon liked a good looking woman. That was the first thing he’d told her. He walked into the club where she was sitting with some friends, surveyed the room, saw her, walked straight to her and said, “You are by far the best looking woman in this place. You might be the best looking woman I’ve ever seen, and I keep my eyes open.”

He’d bought drinks for her and her large group of friends and took them all back to his place, dazzling them with his black swimming pool, his collection of African art and his limitless supply of Cinderella weed. A week later she’d moved in with him.

She walked a winding path to the center of the garden. Even in December it was beautiful, with the pond and the statue of a little girl holding a basket, smiling bravely into the wind. Dead leaves whisked across the path in front of her, stirring up memories. She saw Grandpa on the porch, rocking back and forth in the white chair, staring into the woods as he sucked on the pipe his wife would not let him smoke in the house. She saw her cousin leaning on a carved porch pillar, wiping his face on his shirt, drinking a pop after mowing. She saw Grandma on the other side of the pond, gathering an armload of lavender to dry and make into sachets for the drawers.

A strange little cry escaped her throat. It was out before she knew it was coming – despair at how memory brought the past alive, then left you bereft. This empty yard was what seemed surreal. Grandma and Grandpa both gone, and Charise estranged from the whole family…. This was a bad idea, coming up here early and alone. How did she think she could stay in this place, alone?

She thought about the bar down the street that had live music on the weekends. She would go down there, just for dinner. Just for company. Tears spilled over her cheeks, running mascara. When Grandma was done in the garden, she used to call Charise and say, “Come in with me, baby. Keep me company in the kitchen.” Charise could see her on the steps right now, scooping a loose, strong arm toward her. “Now Baby. It’s time.”
I’ve done too many drugs, Charise thought. Her brain had floated in and out of delusion too many times, so now memories turned into ghosts that seemed real. With a great effort of will, tears still flowing, she got her suitcase out of her car and went into the house. Once inside she expected more hauntings that would tear her heart with remorse. She deserved that. But being back in the entry, seeing the hallstand draped with familiar hats, and the grand curving staircase, she felt welcomed, she felt home. Her courage rose. She would not go to the bar. She would get groceries, come back here and face the music, let all the memories whack her in undulled sobriety.

She put down the suitcase and ran her fingers over the floral picture carved into the newel post of the stair railing; she had etched it on paper as a little girl, rubbing with the side of a brown crayon. She looked into the first room on the right, the office where Grandma did her paperwork and needlework. She had liked to look out the front window on her garden as she worked.

Charise looked into the work basket, remembering knitting lessons. There was a half- finished scarf still on two needles. It was not like Grandma to stop in the middle of a row. Maybe she was knitting when she had the heart attack… Charise dug her fingers into the scarf, tears now running down her neck. She found a tissue, blew her nose, and walked into the dining room. She stood in the big room, always light-filled, looking at the rich scarlet walls hung with quilts, local art and historical scenes of Pleasant Hill. What a legacy. The thought crept up on her – this is mine. She said it out loud, low, to the empty table and chairs, ‘This is mine.’ She smiled at the sweet fantasy of it – of keeping this heavenly house.

But not for long. Damon had crunched the numbers. She had no income. Even though the house was paid for, it was still far too much for her to keep up with taxes, utility bills and maintenance costs. She knew that even with a good job it was too much for one person.

“It’s a money pit, babe,” Damon had said, emphatically. “Don’t you be letting family talk you into trying to hang on. You call me if you start to feel the squeeze. I’ll straighten them out…”

Charise shuddered. Something had kept her from even giving him the address. She forced her eyes to the largest painting in the room, the one Grandpa said would never let them forget where they came from. It was a romanticized picture of black people working in a cotton field. Women in bright dresses and turbans smiled as they bent over the plants, a few in the foreground laughed as they balanced full baskets on their heads. Grandpa had said to Charise, “They might look happy, but those baskets are heavy and that sun burns. You do not want to spend your days doing that kind of work. That’s why our families came up here.”

Now she looked at the bottom right of the picture, expecting a gash, or at least an ugly line. It looked fine. She had to squint from inches away to see the slightest line showing that the canvas had been repaired. She realized that she had been holding her breath, and released it in a big relieved sigh. She went into the adjoining kitchen. If the heart of her childhood could be located in one place, this would be it, right here helping Grandma chop food, reading her recipes, listening to her stories. Charise had lived in an apartment nearby with her mom and dad, but here with Grandma and Grandpa was where she always wanted to be.

Back then, Grandma had been the cook for the house’s owner, a remarkably kind woman who welcomed Olivia’s grandchildren any time. Grandpa had worked first shift at a factory, then done a few chores at the house in the evenings and all day Saturday. The owner had no children, and when she had died, she had preferred to leave the house to this faithful couple who had lived with her for years, than to some distant relative. Charise’s grandparents had been stunned. Their parents had been poor farmers in Alabama, and suddenly they found themselves owning a mansion on six acres, along with all its contents.Even years after it happened, Grandma would pause at her work of chopping or mixing or scrubbing, look around and say, “I still can’t believe it’s ours. It’s like I got to go to heaven early.”

Charise noticed a note on the counter. It was in her cousin Tanya’s round, loopy hand. “Welcome back to Cincinnati. Your mom said you were coming up sometime this week. I left you some soup in the freezer and cornbread like Grandma used to make.” Charise shook her head, astounded at this kindness. After how she had treated the family, she was afraid that no one would want to speak to her, let alone Tanya.

This story will be continued in the next post…

 

 

Free Christmas Story

final cover     This is one  of twelve short stories from my book, “Christmas on Pleasant Hill”, available from Amazon. I wrote it for adults, but most of the stories are good material for families. One fourth grader borrowed it from me and read the whole thing to his five year old sister! It’s set in College Hill, a Cincinnati neighborhood, so it has an added appeal to locals. Here’s the cover story:

                        THE BALLOON
The day before Christmas, three year old Damon sat up in his new big-boy bed, which was shaped like a red fire truck. He climbed onto its roof, about four feet from the ground, and did a flying dive onto a mattress, which his dad had put on the bedroom floor “for a few days”, when he had bought a replacement for it. That was a year ago, and Damon had safely mastered quite a few acrobatic moves because of it. It had been a fixture for so long, this queen-sized cushion for heroism, that he couldn’t remember living without it. When he visited his aunt on Thanksgiving, he had stared at the bare floor of his cousin’s room bewildered, and asked, “Where’s your mattress?”
Damon rolled around for a while, then somersaulted off the mattress and ran into the room of his sleeping parents. He scrambled onto their bed and jumped up and down until he tripped on his dad’s leg and fell in between his parents, who would have liked to sleep a little longer.
“Are you ‘wake, Dad?”
“Yeah, buddy. You’ve made that happen.”
“Can we go for pancakes now?”
His dad was going to take care of him all day long while his mom cooked for Christmas. They would go to the restaurant with the smiley-faced pancakes, followed by
riding the little train at the mall, and other fun things. They would do all these fun things one after the other, not like with his mom, who always had other things to do in between
the fun.
Damon’s dad, Will, stroked the little boy’s spikey hair, pulled him down on the bed and blew on his belly until the shrieking made his mom groan and cover her head with a
pillow.
“Come on, we’ll let Mommy sleep more,” Will said, and carried Damon out of the room. He was a hefty little kid, not fat but strong and muscled, with a round belly still, and soft chubby cheeks. Will loved how steadily cheerful he was,how ready to talk, learn and play at every moment. He might be obstinate or bossy sometimes, but he never
whined. In his monotone, matter-of-fact voice, he was always asking questions about how things worked. He had an enormous vocabulary, and an answer for everything.
When his preschool teacher asked him to do crafts, which he hated, he would say things such as, “I’d like to, but I just got my fingernails cut so my hands don’t work very well.”
Will took him to the pancake house, then up to a nearby funeral home that had a live nativity. They fed carrots to the donkey. Will told Damon that baby Jesus had been born in a place like this, out where the animals lived.
Damon stuck his hand into the greasy wool of a sheep as it stood by the fence. He examined his fingers, rubbing them together. Will assumed he had not been listening, but Damon asked, “Why didn’t they go to the hospital?”
“There wasn’t one back then. Babies were born at home, but Mary was far away from home in a crowded place and there wasn’t even room in the hotel.”
Damon peered in the shed where statues of Mary and Joseph, shepherds and baby glowed under spotlights.
“That’s not a real baby,” Damon observed. He stuck his lanolin-greased thumb in his mouth, but Will pulled it out. “Keep your hands out of your mouth, Damon, you’ve
got animal germs on them. You’re right, it’s not a real baby. Jesus was a baby a long time ago. He’s still here, but he’s…invisible now. We can’t see him.”
“Why doesn’t he ever show up? Santa does.”
Will thought fast, as he often had to with Damon’s incessant curiosity.
“The Bible says Jesus is always with us, forever and ever.”
“Well, I never see him anywhere.”
Will did not answer. He suddenly remembered having the very same thought as a child. He recalled the empty disappointment when he understood that no one ever
actually saw God. He didn’t know what to say to his son. “Should we go get a present for your mom now?”
When they finished their stop at the dollar store, where Damon had picked out a pair of pink socks with silver bells on them, (“Because mom’s a girl and girls like pink,”) and a
large plastic angel so luminous it possibly glowed in the dark (“Because Grandma likes pretty things and this is just beautiful,”) they went home for a nap. They laid together on
the couch by the Christmas tree. Damon smiled, settled in with his head on Will’s chest, and stuck his now-washed thumb into his mouth.
Will thought he was asleep, but then he opened his eyes, pulled out his thumb and said, “I still wish I could see the real Jesus like the shepherds did.”
“You’re still thinking about that?”
“Yeah.”
Will started to formulate a response about having to wait for the next life for that, puzzling over how to make this palatable to a three year old, then, on a better hunch, he
just said, “Me too.” Then he smiled and asked, “So if Jesus wasn’t invisible and you could see him, what would you do?”
Confidently, Damon answered, “We’d wrestle, and ride a swan.”
“A swan?” He guessed Damon was remembering a fall walk in a nearby cemetery where white swans glided around a lake.
“Yeah. In heaven there’s lakes with big swans, and Jesus could ask them to give us a ride.”
“So what else is in heaven?”
He shrugged with a frustrated frown. “I don’t know. I can’t get up there.”
Will went up on an elbow so he could see Damon’s face.
“I know what you mean. Sometimes I just want to go right up to Jesus and talk to him. I wish I could see into his eyes.”
“He should show up. Then we could give him a present.”
“Well, when you give other people presents, like Mom and Grandma, it’s kind of like you’re giving them to Jesus. He really likes it when you do that.”
The boy’s head shook back and forth patiently. “It’s not the same thing, Dad.” He snuggled against Will’s chest and fell asleep.
When Damon woke up, he lifted one of his father’s still-closed eyelids.
“I have an idea,” he whispered, his face a few inches away.
“Why are you whispering? You woke me up.”
Much louder, he said, “We could get him a balloon!”
Will rubbed his eyes. “Who?”
“Jesus! It’s his birthday and no one ever gets him anything. If we get a balloon, and let it go up in the sky, he can catch it.”
Will grabbed him, lifted him high and brought him back for a hug. “That’s a great idea, buddy.”
Right away, before the stores closed, Will dressed Dammon in his red coat and drove him to a party store that made helium balloons. They got a red one that said, “Happy
Birthday” on it. Will wrapped it several times around Damon’s hands and tied it.
“We’ll save it for tomorrow morning.”
Christmas morning, Damon had his parents up as early as they had feared.
They would not let him open his stocking or any presents until they had made coffee.
Damon said, “Well, then, I’m getting my coat on and my boots on and I’m giving Jesus his balloon.”
His mom deferred making coffee to throw on a coat and join him. Will hastily followed, grabbing his camera. He handed Damon the balloon, which was still tight and
buoyant, pressed against the ceiling. Will prayed that it would rise in the cold outside.
Will got the picture just as Damon let go of the string, the crimson coat and balloon against the green of juniper bushes. Damon’s eyes were wide and shining.
“Say something to Jesus,” his mom urged.
As the balloon rose and diminished in the cold clear sky, Damon yelled, “Jesus – get that balloon!”
They sang happy birthday as it disappeared.
Will took Damon’s hand. “He’s got it. He got your present.”
“Yeah,” Damon nodded with satisfaction. “Now, he won’t feel left out.”

 

Christmas on Pleasant Hill, Excerpt 4

This is the last section of the short story, “Kyle Helps Santa”, from “Christmas on Pleasant Hill.” This is one of 12 stories in the book, available from Amazon. To read “Kyle Helps Santa” from the beginning, click here.

When Christmas Eve arrived, Kyle’s excitement about delivering presents to Andre turned into fear. He had a plan. He had a clear description of which house Andre livedProduct Details in; one from the corner with the nasty couch on the porch. But the obstacles that had seemed like no big deal loomed enormous that night, when Kyle climbed into bed. He knew he needed to wake up before it was light outside. He didn’t want to deliver the gifts in the middle of the night though, because he didn’t want them stolen. He was going to knock on the door, hide and wait for someone to come and take the bag inside.

He had asked his dad when it would get light on Christmas morning and his dad had said, “Don’t worry about that, buddy. You’re not going to get us till it’s eight o’clock, no matter how long it’s been light.”

Kyle googled, “When does it get light?” and the sun calculator told him seven fifty-two. That was too late. People would be up and around by then. He set his phone alarm for 6:30 am.

When the alarm went off, Kyle turned it off as quickly as he could. He put on boots and a coat over his pajamas. He picked up the bag, which he could barely carry, and walked out to the stairs. The boards of the old house creaked alarmingly. His parents wouldn’t notice at first, thinking he was going to the bathroom, but he knew if he took the stairs they might get up and tell him to go back to bed. So he wound the top of his bag around his wrist twice, and, wincing at the weight of it, held it over the stairway railing, letting the thick wood rail take most of his weight. He carefully moved sideways down the stairs, holding the bottom of the bag with one arm and keeping most of his weight off his feet. It worked. The creaks could barely be heard as he slid himself down the railing. He hauled the bag to the back door, and slipped outside, closing the door softly behind him.

Outside, the ground was covered with snow, and the cold of the air made him gasp. As quickly as he could, he moved to the place at the back fence that was easiest to climb. It loomed high in the darkness, and he realized he had no plan for how to get such a heavy bag over it.

He couldn’t risk dropping a game system. It took all his strength to get the bag to the top, but the fence was smooth on the other side and if he tried to slide, the weight of the bag would make him fall. A car passed by, its headlights flashing through the trees. Kyle froze, afraid the world was waking up and he was running out of time. Tears of frustration clouded his vision. He couldn’t slide and he couldn’t risk dropping the bag. Then he thought of lowering it with a rope. He had a rope in his tree house.

It was excruciating to haul the bag back over the top of the fence, slowly climb back down and run to the tree house. Adrenaline zinged through his arms and chest as he ran through the snow, aware that he could be seen from his parents’ bedroom window. He felt an intense urge to pee, but ignored it. He grabbed the rope, glad he had untied it from the tree last week when he was pretending to be a cowboy. He looped it three times around the bag, double knotted it and went through the whole painful climb again, carefully lowering the bag to the ground on the other side.

He was glad to find that the tied-up bag was a little easier to carry. He stomped through the snow as fast as he could, through the neighbors’ side yard to the street. He paused at the curb. He had never crossed the street alone before. Looking both ways twice, he breathed deeply and trudged across. He felt like a runaway who was leaving home for good.

As he faced the empty street ahead, his heart thumped hard. He had never been out alone, and it was dark. Passing the park out in the open he felt exposed, with the lights of a retirement home illuminating him. But it was worse when he cleared the park and had to walk past small, dark houses. He was afraid of someone looming behind every tree and car, ready to grab him.

When a car came down the street, he crouched behind a parked car, shaking with fear. It was going so slowly, he was sure it must be his dad, looking for him. Slowly it passed and crawled around a corner, leaving him in the dark again.  Staying still had rooted Kyle in his fear. He had an urge to drop the bag and run home. He slowly rose and looked ahead. The end of the street was only four houses away. He was almost there.

He found the right house, the couch on the porch lit by a street lamp. He climbed up onto the rickety porch, carefully set the bag down just to the left of the door. He looked for a door bell but there was none.  He would have to knock. He looked around for a hiding place, settled for a car parked nearby on the street, closed his eyes and thumped hard three times. He tore down the stairs, slipped on the second last one and fell. He scrambled up and dashed to the car. He hid behind it, terrified that another car would come down the street and spot him.

It seemed as though minutes passed. He wondered if he should go knock again. He waited for another car to crawl down the street, crouching down near the parked car’s headlights to stay hidden, hoping the driver didn’t look in the rear view mirror. He decided to go knock again. This time he pounded as loudly as he could, seven times, then closed the top of the bag into the screen so it could not be missed.

Right away a light came on behind the door. Kyle ran to the edge of the porch and threw himself over the railing and down into a bush, crouching lower than the porch just as the door opened. It was not Andre. It was a woman, thin and small in a big t shirt. She put her head out of the screen door, then touched the bag with her leg and looked down. She untied the rope and opened it. She opened it wide, to the light from the street, and examined the contents, bending over.

Kyle could see her through the bush, where he crouched frozen, afraid to breathe. The woman looked around. Then she stood up and leaned on the door frame. Kyle had a sinking fear that she would go back inside and leave the bag, but she just stood there. She looked up towards the street lamp, or maybe the sky. She put her hand to her throat and stayed there with the door open to the cold night, still as a statue. Finally her hand moved up to her face. She wiped under her eyes, she bent and picked up the bag, and she went inside.

Kyle stayed crouched in the bush for a minute or so, a smile spreading over his face. Then he ran across the little yard and up the street, barely aware of scratches on his hand and face from the bush, or the ache where he had fallen on his right knee. He ran, fearless and joyful, all the way up the street. As he reached his house, the joy persisted. Now he didn’t even care if he got caught.

He couldn’t climb the fence where he had escaped. He had to go all the way back to the place at the rear of the property where he and Andre came back from the woods. A tree trunk by the fence gave him height to reach the top and he swung himself over as smoothly as Andre had ever done it. As he neared the back porch, he saw his dad looking out the window.

His dad opened the door and stood there as Kyle made his way up the snowy steps. “What are you doing outside before seven in the morning on Christmas?”

“Well you said not to wake you up till eight.”

His father touched the scratch on his face. “What were you doing out there?”

Kyle wiped some blood from the scratch on his hand, looked up at his father and said, “Nothin. I was just helping Santa.”

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas on Pleasant Hill, Excerpt 3

This is the third section of the short story, “Kyle Helps Santa”, from “Christmas on Pleasant Hill.” This is one of 12 stories in the book, available from Amazon. To read “Kyle Helps Santa from the beginning, click here. final cover

That night Moriah lay in bed staring through an uncurtained window at a street light. Andre was in a sleeping bag beside her; he had heard scratching noises in the wall of his room and was afraid to stay there. She looked at him in the beam of light, at his beautiful face, narrow like his dad’s, but with her large eyes. She hated that she had brought him to this broken down house, to this uncle who had been such a joy to her in her childhood but who now was as broken down as his house. She felt trapped. Andre’s dad’s people were no good, her brother was in a group home, her auntie in Atlanta already had a house full of kids and grandkids. This uncle was her only option. She would have to make it work. They were one drunk of an old man away from homelessness. She let some tears spill out of her eyes. She realized, having cried twice in a day, how much she had let herself hope for a new start. She felt foolish.

She kept seeing Andre’s face on Christmas morning, twisting in disappointment that there was nothing to unwrap. Her biggest fear was that this hopeful, optimistic child would become bitter. Just before going to sleep tonight, he had said, “It ain’t so bad, Mom. There’s a park, and basketball courts and a pizza place. It’ll be alright.”

Moriah could see herself getting this house cleaned up and livable. She could see herself finding some emergency help to get food and bus fare. She could even see herself getting a job. But she could not imagine how she was going to find money in time for this boy to get presents on Christmas morning. She wished she could pray. She had not been able to pray since her mother had died. It seemed as though there was a wall between the light of faith and the darkness of life and she was on the wrong side of it. She stayed awake for a long time.

***

After Andre’s first visit, Kyle could not stop thinking about how the boy did not get what he wanted for Christmas.

That night he asked his father, “Dad, is Santa always right?”

“Santa? Yeah, I guess so. Why?”

“Well how come I get what I want, but other kids don’t?”

“Well, maybe they ask for stuff they shouldn’t have. Like, say, if you asked Santa for a car, he wouldn’t give you one because you’re too young.”

“But what about when they just want games rated E or something, and all they get is a sweat suit?”

“Who only got a sweat suit?”

“I don’t know, I just heard of it.”

“Well, maybe that kid wasn’t very good that year.”

“But my friend Andrew’s never good and he got rockets last year. That’s what I want this year – rockets.”

“Well, I guess Santa can arrange that.”

“But why does Andrew get rockets when he’s bad and other kids get crummy stuff?”

“Buddy, you’re asking too many questions. You need to go to bed.”

Kyle couldn’t sleep. He kept thinking of Andre getting up on Christmas morning and having nothing. He considered writing a letter to Santa but feared there would not be time for it to reach the North Pole before Christmas. Then he wondered whether Santa might just get things a little mixed up once in a while; he had so far to go in one night. Maybe some of the presents Kyle was getting were meant for Andre; they lived close, and they were about the same age. Sometimes the mail people got letters mixed up, and he always got so much stuff, more than one kid needed. This explanation rang true for Kyle, preserving the benevolence of Santa, if not his omniscience.

Kyle decided it must not happen again. He would give some of his presents to Andre. But as he thought it through he realized that wouldn’t work. Andre would still wake up and be disappointed that nothing had come to his place, and it was not likely that Kyle’s parents would understand. They probably wouldn’t let him take half his Christmas haul down to Andre, especially since he wasn’t supposed to know Andre in the first place. Then he got an idea. He could give Andre some of his old stuff that still looked new. His parents wouldn’t notice. His dad used the telescope sometimes, and sometimes they built with Legos together, but they didn’t pay attention to his other toys. He had put his old game system in the closet when he got the new X box, so he could give that to Andre, and the games that went with it.

The next day he got a big plastic garbage bag from the kitchen when Ania was cleaning the bathroom. He ran it up to his room and put the game system in it, in the original box, with all its cords and controllers and games. He hid it in his closet under some clothes, and over the next few days added to it things he thought Andre might like: a board game he had never opened, a book about pirates, a foam football that looked new, and two of his nine action figures. The action figures were a true sacrifice; he even included Batman. The bag got heavy, so he snuck another bag for reinforcement.

Kyle’s regular level of excitement about Christmas multiplied.

In the days before Christmas, Kyle saw Andre almost every day. The weather grew colder and Andre showed up with no gloves or hat. Kyle smuggled some out to him. They pretended they were in the Revolutionary War, fighting with George Washington in the middle of winter. Kyle had learned to scale his back fence, gaining access to the woods behind his house, which extended for miles to the west and south. They slid on a frozen creek bed. They spotted rabbits, deer, even an eagle. Andre had never been in the woods before. Kyle looked forward to every afternoon. He was in a new world with a friend to share it with.

Two days before Christmas, Andre said, “Can’t we go in your house? I’m cold.”

Kyle winced. “I know, but if my parents find out I’ve been sneaking around, they might not let me play with you.”

“Well when it gets all snowy we can’t be playing in the woods all day.”

Kyle sighed. “OK. I’ll ask them. But we have to wait till after Christmas. Let’s just keep everything quiet till Christmas is over.”

***

 

Christmas on Pleasant Hill, Excerpt 2

final coverHere’s the second section of the short story, “Kyle Helps Santa”, from “Christmas on Pleasant Hill.” To read it from the beginning, click here

Moriah Harris was not a woman to cry easily. She had lived through the early deaths of her parents, the shooting of her brother that had left him paralyzed from the waist down, and the desertion of her son’s father when her son, Andre, was two. Tears had played a limited role in all of these tragedies. She had allowed them for a few minutes at night after she went to bed; otherwise she did the next thing that had to be done, with a set jaw and no complaining. She found it best to keep her expectations low.

Even so, she found her eyes stinging and an awful lump rising in her throat the day she arrived at her uncle’s house in Pleasant Hill. Both the uncle and the house, which she had not seen since childhood, had deteriorated beyond recognition.

“This where we gonna live?” Andre, now eight, whispered as they waited for the door to be answered. His mom had told him over and over what a nice house it was. Now, the yard consisted of little but patches of dirt and garbage. An ancient green vinyl couch crowded the porch, stuffing spilling from the tears. When her uncle came to the door, he looked twenty years older than she expected and she could smell the alcohol on him from three feet away.

“Come on in,” he said, mustering cheer, rubbing bleary eyes. “It ain’t so nice as when your auntie was around.”

It didn’t look like he had done any cleaning in the three years since she had died. When Moriah followed her uncle into the kitchen, she saw two dead mice in traps in the corner. That’s when the tears threatened to take her over.

Moriah had lost her job, and lost the job she got after that, lost her car, then her apartment. She had made it to Cincinnati by bus with the last of her money, hoping for a new start at her uncle’s.

As the uncle rummaged for some food, Andre repeated, “This where we gonna stay?” His face wrinkled in distaste.

“Shhh,” she hissed back. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

***

Andre got out of the house as soon as he could, to explore the neighborhood. He walked up and down the main street. His mom said she remembered a big grocery store, a hardware store and the best barbeque place in Cincinnati. He didn’t see any of those. It looked like the place had gone downhill, kind of like his uncle. But there was a pizza place and a dollar store right around the corner, and a church that had a big parking lot with basketball courts, so he figured he could survive.

Pleasant Hill was an odd place to Andre, coming from an Atlanta suburb where everything was new. This place was a mix of ghetto and fairy tale. He would see a string of empty storefronts with garbage and leaves cramming the doorways, then look around a corner and see a beautiful old house glittering with Christmas lights. The big stone church less than a block from his house had a tall bell tower that looked like something out of a storybook, but next to it was a nasty looking convenience store with a bunch of young guys loitering in front of it, even in this cold weather.

At the other end of his street he found a park with a ball field and a good playground. That lifted his spirits a little. There was a water fountain that worked. That would help in case the water ever got turned off. He was trying out the swings when he looked across the street and saw a blond boy about his age looking through the iron bars of an ornate fence. He slowed the swing, jumped off, and crossed the street. He stopped near the boy, surveying the giant house behind him. It was painted three different colors. Then he looked at the boy. He was wearing brand new Nikes, top of the line.

Kyle said, “Hi.”

Andre asked, “You live in that big house?”

“Yup.”

“Is there much to do around here? I just moved in down there,” he pointed down his street, which Kyle’s house faced, as though Andre’s street was one long driveway to it.

“I don’t know,” Kyle answered. “I’m not allowed to leave the yard.”

“That’s crazy.”

“I know,” Kyle sighed. “My parents treat me like a baby.”

“You never leave this place?”

“I have to have one of them with me.”

Andre shook his head in disbelief.  “You got a lot of toys in there?”

“Yeah. I’ve got an X Box 1 and I just got the new Mario.”

“Before Christmas?  You rich?”

“I don’t know.”

“You live in a house like that with a lotta toys, you rich. Can I come in?”

Kyle shook his head sadly. “I’m not allowed. The gates are locked and only my mom or dad or Ania can open it.”

Andre looked up at the spikes at the top of the gate bars. “This thing go all the way around?”

“There’s a wood fence at the back.”

“How about I climb it and sneak in?”

Kyle bit his lip, torn between fear and longing. “I can’t take you inside. Ania will see.” Then he brightened. “But I’ve got a tree house back in the woods; I could show you!”

Andre scaled the back fence with an ease that made Kyle jealous. They ran from tree to tree like spies, then scrambled up wooden slats into the tree house. Kyle hoped Ania wasn’t looking out any back windows.

“This is awesome,” Andre said in low tones. “I can see the church tower. I can see part of the ball field too. I could see the whole town if your house would get outa the way! If you had some of them binocular things, we could spy on everyone.”

“I’ve got a telescope,” Kyle offered. “Wait here.” He scrambled out of the tree and ran into the house, soon returning with his telescope.

Andre ran his fingers along it. “You got something like this in your house? You rich for sure.”

Kyle showed him how to use it, then they played pirates because Andre remembered that pirates used telescopes. Kyle found that Andre was boss at pretending. First they were the pirates, then they switched to being crew on the ship being attacked by the pirates and battled with invisible pirates, then they were the pirates again, going through the jewels in a treasure chest, planning what they were going to buy.

Andre said, “With this gold, I’m buying the biggest, fanciest telescope I can find.”

It occurred to Kyle that he rarely used his telescope. Sometimes he and his dad would look through the skylight at stars, but not very often. Andre thought it was the best thing ever.

He was looking through it again now.

Kyle, dropping pirate character, said, “You should ask for a telescope for Christmas. It’s coming pretty soon.”

Andre’s brows knitted, and he lowered the telescope. “I hate Christmas. I just get clothes and some dumb little stuff like a water pistol. I never get what I want.”

“Not even from Santa?”

Andre looked at him sideways and gave a strange little laugh. Kyle was floored. He had always assumed everyone got what they wanted from Santa, as long as they didn’t ask for a weapon.

“Did you ask him for guns or knives?”

“I don’t ask for nothing because I won’t get nothing.”

Then the boys saw a car drive into a carport behind the house. They both dramatically dropped to the floor of the tree house. “You gotta go before she sees you,” Kyle urgently whispered. “Wait.” He watched his mother go into the house, then said, “Quick now, while she’s taking off her coat and stuff. Quick!”

Andre was down the tree and over the fence in a few seconds. Kyle wished he had thought to ask him to come again.

“Christmas on Pleasant Hill” is available at Amazon.

Christmas on Pleasant Hill, Excerpt 1

final cover

“Christmas on Pleasant Hill,” my book of Christmas short stories set in our Cincinnati neighborhood, is a collection of twelve fictional stories in real places, that give us a glimpse into the lives of its diverse people; old and young, rich and poor, black and white. I’ll be posting one of the stories in blog-sized segments this holiday season, starting this week:

 

                              Kyle Helps Santa

When it came to decorating for Christmas, the town of Pleasant Hill gave a patchy performance. Some of the grand old houses were beautifully done-up, with lights spiraling down their columns and outlining their turrets.

The streets of the newer developments were bright and cheerful – although even ‘new’ in Pleasant Hill meant forty years old. Yards busy with statuary showed Santa fraternizing with shepherds and wise men, snowmen sharing space with the holy family. But many of the streets had smaller houses, where life was too low budget for decorating. Most of them boasted no more than a door wreath, or a tree peeking out the window, if anything. In the big apartment complexes that offered government housing, there was no evidence of Christmas at all.
No blanket of snow had yet arrived to offset the drabness of the bare trees. It was just bleak and cold. There were not many kids outside.

This, however, did not stop Kyle Sorensen from wandering around his big front yard each day after school, kicking at stones, watching squirrels, seeing how many times he could run up and down the driveway before he was completely winded. His was one of those houses with lights outlining its impressive Victorian form. His parents were painstakingly restoring it.

Loneliness could be traced in the slight downturn of Kyle’s mouth and the searching motion of his eyes. The cheerfulness of his new winter outerwear, all coordinated in oranges and olive greens, did not match his serious face. He stayed outside, even on the cold drab days, because it felt less lonely than inside.

He could watch kids playing across the street in the community center playground, where he could not go unless a parent was with him. He was literally locked in his front yard with its iron fence and ornate electronic gate, but he could pretend that kids were about to come and play with him, and once in a while someone would talk to him as they passed.

It would chagrin his mother when she drove up to the gate at six o’clock or so, to see the boy standing in the bare, dark yard, peering through the iron bars. She just had a wall knocked out between his bedroom and the room next to it to make a large play area. The room had a space theme, with planets and moons suspended in mid-air, wallpaper of sky and clouds above the chair rail, fluorescent stars on the ceiling. The kid had his own galaxy up there and here he was, peering pathetically through cold bars.

“What are you doing here?” she would ask, then before he answered, “Did you practice piano?”

“Yeah.” Ania the house keeper always supervised his piano practice as soon as he got home from school.

“Well, what are you doing out here in the cold?’

He shrugged. “Nothing.”

“Don’t you like all your toys?”

“Yeah.”

“Isn’t there anything on TV? ‘Blue’s Clues’ or something?”

He hadn’t watched ‘Blue’s Clues’ for years. He was seven now.

“No, Mom.”

“Well, tomorrow I’d like you to find something to do inside. You’ll catch a cold out here.”

But he would always go outside as soon as piano practice was over. The big house was too still, with no one but Ania vacuuming or chopping vegetables. She was a quiet person and did not speak much English. “Snack ready for you,” and “Piano now, Kyle,” was about all she said.

***

“Christmas on Pleasant Hill” is available at Amazon.