Snow was falling hard outside when Bernard pulled his car into the driveway. His little sister, Cassie, was in the back, buckled into her car seat and looking grumpy. She was four, and that was a pretty understandable way for her to look at ten at night, after sitting in the back of a grocery store for hours with nothing but an old tv and DVD player with a stack of videos. Bernard was feeling pretty grumpy himself, after a morning of homework and a night at the store.
“Come on,” he said, opening her car door to undo the buckle on her car seat. “Let’s get you inside and into bed.”
“You don’t have to work tomorrow, do you?” Cassie asked.
Tomorrow, Christmas Eve. The first Christmas Eve they’d had since the fire.
“No,” he said, “No work tomorrow. Or the next day, either.”
Cassie got out of the car and stumbled towards the apartment door. They walked all the way up to the top floor. Bernard hoped Cassie didn’t notice the condom wrapper on the stairs. She was the only child in the apartments, which normally only house students who didn’t want to live on campus. But Bernard couldn’t afford to move, and his parent’s house was gone.
His parents were gone too, for that matter.
Those dark thoughts in his mind, Bernard was surprised to see a package sitting in front of the apartment door. He picked it up, a little surprised at how heavy it was.
“Is it a Christmas present?” Cassie asked.
“Maybe,” Bernard said, looking at the return address. It was a jumbled mess of foreign looking stamps.
“Looks like Uncle Richie sent us something from the base,” he said.
“Oh!” Cassie cried, “Can we open it tonight?”
Bernard thought of the paltry excuses for gifts he’d been able to afford for her. A doll from the dollar store and some play food. A pair of shoes that she needed anyway.
“No,” he said, “We’ll wrap it up and save it for Christmas morning, okay?”
“Oh, okay,” Cassie said.
“Go get ready for bed,” he said, setting the box on the table. He’d wrap it later, he thought.
On Christmas morning, Bernard was woken by Cassie landing on his stomach. He sat up quickly, hoping to stop her from kneeing him anywhere tender. “Get up, get up, it’s Christmas!” she cried, shaking him. “Come on, I wanna see if Santa was here!”
“Alright, hold on!” he said, sitting up. “Let me get my glasses on.”
Cassie jumped from the bed, bouncing excitedly as Bernard pulled on his glasses. She waited impatiently as he went to the bathroom, then almost pulled him into their tiny living room.
Bernard braced himself. When she saw that there were only three gifts, one of them from Uncle Richie, she was sure to be upset.
But instead, she plopped down and started looking through the gifts. “Santa didn’t bring you anything,” she said, looking up at him.
“No,” Bernard said, “Santa doesn’t send presents to grownups.”
“Well, why not?” she asked.
“Because he just doesn’t. He only brings them for kids,” he said, “Open your presents.”
Cassie pulled the wrapping paper off of the doll and plastic food. She seemed delighted by both of them. Then, she picked up the present from Uncle Richie. “Here, you open this one,” she said, holding it out to him.
“Okay,” he said, taking the box from her. He ripped through the paper he’d wrapped the gift in, then pulled off the wrapping that held the box closed.
Inside he found a book with a dark leather cover. The words “Story Time” were embossed onto the cover in gold.
“Oh!” Cassie said. Holding her new doll, she crawled into his lap. “Can you read me a story?”
“Sure,” he said, opening the book to the first story. He read her one, then another. Both simple fairy tales, with beautiful illustrations. Flipping through the book, he saw that it was filled with them.
Cassie spent most of the day playing with her new toys. Bernard was amused that she was able to make up so many games with so little. They ate dinner and watched some Christmas movies on tv. Cassie seemed perfectly happy when she went to bed.
Bernard was less so. He had to go back to work tomorrow, which meant Cassie would have to go back to the break room in the grocery store. He couldn’t afford Christmas for her, couldn’t afford a decent sitter or daycare.
Uncle Richie helped as much as he could, Bernard knew. But he was overseas, and he was only about five years older than Bernard himself. Much like Bernard’s parents, there’d been a wide gap between the first child and the second.
The storybook was still sitting on the couch. Bernard picked it up, thinking that he’d check the table of contents to see if he knew any of the stories.
But there wasn’t a table of contents at all. How had he not noticed that before?
Instead, the book simply started with a story. But it wasn’t the same story he’d read earlier.
This story started with a young woman, standing in a living room of a tiny apartment. There was a little boy, pushing a toy car along the carpet.
With a jolt, he recognized himself, and his mother. He started reading. It didn’t take him long to realize that he was reading the story of his own Christmas when he’d been five.
He remembered, though he’d forgotten before, how sparse that Christmas had been. His mom had scraped and scrounged to get him a car, and a little set of blocks that might have come out of a happy meal. He wouldn’t have known, there were few luxuries like eating out at that time.
He remembered, as though it was happening then, how much he’d loved that toy car. How excited he’d been, having a whole day at home with his mom to make cookies and watch Christmas movies on their staticy old tv.
It seemed like such a mirror image of the day he’d just spent with Cassie.
Bernard looked at the image again. How had the story changed?
Just then, his cell phone rang. He looked at the caller ID. It was Uncle Richie.
“Hey, Uncle Richie,” Bernard said, “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas,” Richie said, “Did I catch you before Cassie went down?”
“No, sorry,” Bernard said, “but we got your package the day before yesterday. Thanks for the book, but I have a question about it.”
There was a moment of silence on the line. “Um yeah, me too,” Richie said finally. “I didn’t send a gift. I sent a card with some money. I don’t know what you kids need.”
“Well, then who sent this book?” Bernard asked, picking it up.
For the first time, he noticed an inscription on the front cover. It said, Sometimes, we all need to be kids again. SC.
Copyright © 2017 by Nicole C. Luttrell
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