12 Epiphanies

ix. It’s seldom what we expect.

Kate found a Christmas tree propped against her door when she returned from shopping for the feast on Christmas Eve.

“Found this in the alley. Heard you were having a party. Thought you could use it. –A Neighbor”

She hadn’t planned to get a tree–environmental reasons: Trees belong with their roots in the earth and their crowns in the air. But since it had been found abandoned, and since it had been delivered here in a gesture both thoughtful and kind, she hauled it into the apartment and set it up in a corner.

She strung popcorn and cranberry garlands and found lights and decorations in the donated boxes.

The apartment smelt sweet, spicy, and deliciously acrid. It smelt like Christmas.

Near midnight, the tree decorated and a fresh batch of cookies out of the oven, Kate sat to plan the meal for tomorrow. She didn’t know what people’s dietary restrictions and preferences would be, so she planned a vegan feast, with plenty of gluten-free dishes. Vegetables were remarkably accommodating!

Kate had no idea what to expect the next day.

She certainly hadn’t expected that one of her neighbors would come dressed in a full raccoon costume.

Nor that Bertha would wander up in her nightgown and bunny slippers.

“Are you feeling all right, Bertha?” Kate asked, wondering if she should call her son.

“Yes, yes, dear. Quite well. Quite merry. Merry Christmas, dear.”

And Bertha began to dance and hum to Bing Crosby.

She hadn’t expected that one of her neighbors was Ishaan, the artist she’d spoken with at the center earlier that week, nor that he’d be one of her guests, along with a fashionable young woman about her own age.

She hadn’t expected that by the time the meal was ready, the apartment would be filled with happy, dancing people, strangers who were neighbors who were in the process of becoming friends.

She hadn’t expected she’d pull out a tiny bell from the box of decorations and call her guests to dinner, using the same words her father had used to announce the serving of every Christmas feast:

“Supper is on!
Hunger begone!
Let’s feast with friends
Until the year ends!”

Everyone contended that they’d never had such a fine meal, and no one, not once, asked where the meat dish was.

They shared stories and memories. They laughed and joked. They sat in that comfortable silence that comes after a good meal.

She hadn’t expected that the guests would bring presents, but they had, each and every one, so after the meal, they gathered around the tree.

“I hope you like it,” said the raccoon. “Just something I found while out foraging one day!”

But it was a real gift that her neighbor had brought her, not a raccoon’s idea of a joke: an infuser and a bottle of pine essential oil, “to keep the spirit all the year.”

“Now you relax,” said Bertha, after the presents were opened. “The host never does the dishes!”

So Bertha and the fashionable neighbor cleared up, while Kate relaxed on the couch, listening to more stories.

As her neighbors began wondering about coffee, desert, and tea, the doorbell rang.

Kate hadn’t expected, when she answered it, that she would learn the identity of the neighbor who had started this all, the one who’d left the box of decorations beneath the bulletin board.

“I hope I’m not late,” said Geeta, Kate’s next-door neighbor, whom she was meeting for the first time. “I just finished up at my son’s and thought I’d swing by, since I said I would come.”

“You’re just in time for desert,” said Kate.

“Oh, the place looks lovely!” said Geeta. “So much better than all those bangles sitting in a box in my closet, yes?”

She hadn’t guessed that it would seem that her neighbors would never leave.

The meal had been eaten and cleaned up, the presents had been opened and admired, the coffee drank, the tea sipped, the cake eaten, and still, they lingered.

Perhaps no one wanted to end this feeling of community they had crafted together on a Christmas day in the city, when each of them, otherwise, might be feeling very much alone.

She hadn’t guessed that, even after they decided on a late-night walk in the cold Christmas air, and each one went down to their own apartment to put on their winter clothes, and they met up on the stoop outside the building, then strolled and raced along the waterfront, that they would return, breathless, tired, and happy, all of them together, to her apartment, once again, to continue the celebration.

And she certainly hadn’t expected to find their landlord there, dressed as Father Winter, handing out a last batch of presents to his tenants.

He gave a box to each of them.

A coupon for a month’s free rent!

“It’s a Christmas miracle!” chuckled Stefan, and each one shared what they’d do with the godsend.

Kate hadn’t expected any of it, not the strangeness, nor the weird joy, nor the happy feast, nor the sudden friendships, nor the feeling of community they created, which maybe, had always already existed, and they had only to discover it.

When, after all the other guests had finally left, and she discovered Ishaan curled up, peacefully asleep on the loveseat in her study, she realized that, Christmas means “all are welcome,” and she had never expected to discover that.

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Captain’s Christmas: Chapter Six

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Gran’s laughter echoed across the straight, calling to Sarah. She flew over the dark water, looking for her.

“I’m here, Sarah Two-Pockets! I always will be!”

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They flew up to the sky, twirling, laughing, until Gran said, “It’s time for you to go now. I will always be…”

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Sarah opened her eyes. She felt warm and happy. What was it that Gran would always be?

Never mind, Sarah thought. The dream must be a good sign.

In the kitchen, she discovered that it really was Christmas–Jacob had hung wreaths and lights, and a stack of brightly wrapped presents waited beside the breakfast table.

She felt too jolly to notice Jacob’s somber mood as he gazed into his tea.

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He dished up special Christmas breakfast French toast. It smelled sweet like vanilla and nutmeg.

“Can I have extra butter?” she asked.

He added an extra pat.

“Your mom is coming in a week,” he said, when they sat at the table. “She’ll be here for New Year’s.”

“Is Gran well, then?” Sarah asked.

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“No,” he said. “She passed on early this morning.”

“But she was in my dream,” Sarah said.

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Jacob listened as she told about the laughter, the soaring over the water, the feeling that Gran was there, with her, though she couldn’t see her.

“She said she would always be,” said Sarah, “but I don’t know what. Why would I dream of her, Great Uncle Jacob? And what will she always be?”

He sat quietly for a good few moments.

“It happens, sometimes,” he said at last, “that when someone passes, their spirit pays a visit to all those they love the best. Your grandmother loved you dearly, Sarah, and I have a feeling that what she will always be will be beside you, with you. She will always be.”

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Sarah wondered if that meant that she was not really gone. If she closed her eyes, she could feel her grandmother’s hand in hers. When she opened her eyes, she heard Gran’s voice.

“Gran loves Christmas,” Sarah said.

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She wasn’t sure how to feel. Mostly, she felt that this was a different day, a special day, somehow. It had a texture to it, like someone held a blanket over the sun, and all the busy noise of life quieted down somehow.

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After she washed the dishes, she heard tiny mewing. Two kittens crawled out from behind the pile of pillows on the floor.

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“Look, Jacob!” she said. “It’s kittens! Where’d they come from?”

“Those are Pippa’s kittens,” Jacob said. “Walley’s the father.”

“Were they just born?”

“No,” he said. “They were born before you came.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” She thought it would have been more fun to play with kittens all those days leading up to Christmas.

“Twasn’t my secret to tell!” he replied. “It’s up to the mama cat to decide when she will share her babies with us.”

“Maybe that’s why Pippa was so grumpy with me!” Sarah said.

“Could be,” said Jacob. “A mama will do anything to protect her young.”

“But they’re old enough now, aren’t they, Pippa?” Sarah pet the panther on the head, and she didn’t even growl. She purred, and her ears stayed up, and her tail hardly twitched.

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“They haven’t names yet,” said Jacob. “What would you like to call them?”

“Sweetie and Cubby,” said Sarah, “because they are sweet panther cubs!”

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She followed Cubby into the parlor.

“Do you think I could have one, Uncle Jacob?” she asked. It was Christmas, after all, and she had just lost her Gran.

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“The kittens belong here,” he said, “where they have a big conservatory to roam and lots of skylights to let in the sunshine.”

She grew very quiet.

“But I’ll tell you what,” he continued, “you choose one to belong to, and then every time you come to visit, we will all know that you are that cat’s girl.”

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She chose Cubby. Cubby seemed to trust her already.

“I do have good news for you, though,” said Jacob. “Your mom says you can take Senator Jones with you.”

The senator howled when he heard his name.

“Hear that, Big Dog?” Sarah asked. “We belong to each other now!”

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“Presents now, or presents later?” Jacob asked.

Later. The morning still had that hushed feeling to it, and Sarah didn’t think she would find excitement in unwrapping the shiny red paper. Maybe when night pressed against the windows, and the lights and candles shone, she would feel the joy Christmas usually brings.

“Let me give you this one, now,” said Jacob, handing her an unwrapped volume of Little Men.

While she read, he played carols, sometimes singing along in his gruff baritone.

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It was a different kind of Christmas, without Mom and Gran, with so many cats and kittens and Senator Jones, with Great Uncle Jacob who talked to her as if she were capable of understanding everything and as if she didn’t have a timid heart that might break at the slightest sorrow.

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She supposed that captains had to be strong, for out on the straight, sometimes the wind kicked up, and the frightened hearts jumped under deck. But captains steered onward, even when they were the only ones left, and the waves crashed over the bow.

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Jacob made grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch, and he played more of that concert-style music while she ate.

“What’s that music called?” she shouted in to the parlor.

“Beethoven!” he shouted back.

It sounded like captain’s music, brave and bold and sometimes saucy and sometimes sorrowful and often stormy and then calm. It sounded like she felt in her heart right then, over-packed with everything: happiness, sleepiness, gratitude, even a creeping touch of excitement, sadness, homesickness, loneliness, and even joy.

How could so many feelings fit inside her heart?

She didn’t know–but the music knew, and it said to her that everything was all right, for this was life.

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In the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun, Senator Jones raced the captain through the meadows behind the conservatory.

She ran after him, hearing again her grandmother’s laughter.

“I’m coming, Big Dog!” she shouted. “I’ll be with you always! I’ll always be!”

We all have one Christmas we always remember. For Sarah, this was it. Throughout her life, whether she sat near the tree, surrounded by her children, or her children’s children, or whether she sat alone with a cup of tea, she remembered this morning, her grandmother’s laughter, her great uncle’s piano, and the boundless friendship of a good dog. With this magic, even a little girl could be brave, and bravery like this can last us through life.

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Captain’s Christmas: Chapter Five

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During the afternoons, when the sun warmed the meadows and beaches, Sarah could believe that this was the best winter of her life. When she raced with Senator Jones, she forgot that her mother wasn’t there, that her Gran was very ill, and that she’d been stuck out here with a great uncle she hardly knew.

When it was just her, the big dog, and an island to explore, she felt all the happiness a young girl could feel.

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And if looking out across the sea to the far horizon brought less happy thoughts, Senator Jones stood ready to lead her back to the joy of the chase.

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Coming home after one long afternoon of exploration, she found Jacob on the phone in the conservatory.

“It’s the body’s way of shutting down,” he was saying. “It won’t be long now.”

His grave tone stopped her.

“I will tell her that,” he said. “Sasha, you take care of you, too. Can’t be easy.”

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Sarah’s throat grew tight.

At supper, she didn’t talk. Jacob didn’t seem to mind. Or maybe he didn’t notice. He enjoyed quiet.

She went straight to bed as soon as the dishes were washed.

“Is all right with the world, Captain?” Jacob asked when he came in to turn off the light.

“What were you saying to my mom on the phone?” she asked.

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“Your mom asked me to tell you Merry Christmas,” Jacob said. “And to say that she loves you.”

“When will she come?” Sarah asked. “Will Gran come, too?”

“She won’t be too long now,” Jacob said. “But it will be after Christmas. Gran won’t be coming.”

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“What does it mean when the body shuts down?” Sarah asked.

“It means the person is passing,” said Jacob. “Won’t be long. A day or two.”

“But in two days is Christmas! And nobody can die on Christmas! It’s not what Christmas means!”

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“What does Christmas mean, then?” Jacob asked.

“It means family, Santa, candies, presents. All good things. Nothing bad happens on Christmas!”

“I think we should do some reading,” Jacob said. “Have you read many Christmas stories?”

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“‘Night Before Christmas,’ ‘Grinch,’ ‘Rudolph,’ ‘Frosty.’ Lots and lots.”

“Not what I was thinking,” Jacob said.

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“Christmas means a lot of things, and it means nothing. In nature, it’s just a day–another day after the solstice as the days slowly grow longer. It’s people who have pinned all these meanings onto it. What interests me is not so much what it means to all the various people, but the fact that people feel they need something so much that they have created this day to contain it. What do you suppose it is that they feel they need so much in their lives that they needed to create this holiday for it?”

Sarah didn’t have to think long. “Magic,” she said.

Jacob laughed. “Suppose you’re right.”

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They started with Dickens.

“Everybody knows of Old Scrooge,” said Jacob. “But do you know ‘The Haunted Man’?”

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“Everybody said he looked like a haunted man. The extent of my present claim for everybody is, that they were so far right. He did.

“Who could have seen his hollow cheek; his sunken brilliant eye; his black-attired figure, indefinably grim, although well-knit and well-proportioned; his grizzled hair hanging, like tangled sea-weed, about his face,—as if he had been, through his whole life, a lonely mark for the chafing and beating of the great deep of humanity,—but might have said he looked like a haunted man?”

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The story was spooky and cheerful and harsh and tender, all at once, and people died, or nearly did, and they forgot, and then they remembered, and so much happened and it was all right at the end, and before she went to sleep, Sarah thought back on the final words:

“Lord keep my Memory green.”  That must have something to do with Christmas.

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The next morning, a cold wind blew in rain. There would be no exploring the island that day!

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Jacob said,”I have the book for you! This one, you read yourself.”

It was a very thick book, and she wasn’t sure if it was something she would–or even could–read.

“What’s it called?”

Little Women,” said Jacob.

“Women are boring,” said Sarah, “especially when they’re little.”

“Ah, but not these girls!” said Jacob. “I think you will especially like Jo March.”

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She would try a book with a girl named Jo.

She started reading after breakfast. It was, in part, a Christmas story, but it was also so much more.

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There were plays and adventures, and hardship and loss. A war was going on, and some people had very little. But the girls, even though they had so little, shared whatever they had, and then they found that they had more.

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And someone died in the story, too, a girl named Beth.

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One Christmas, she got well, and that was the miracle. But then, one spring, she died. And what happened to the miracle then?

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“Everybody dies,” said Jacob, when she asked him. “I suppose a fine early spring day can be a good day for that, when one’s time comes.”

“But what if somebody’s time comes at Christmas? The miracle will keep them alive, right?”

“If Christmas is the time when it is their time to leave, then there can be no better time,” said Jacob. “It is, of all the times of the year, full of love and good feelings. To leave then could be a kind of blessing.”

Sarah’s eyes felt heavy from a day of reading.

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She curled up on the couch and sunk into a quiet sleep.

She didn’t feel alone there on the island anymore. She felt very much at home, and very loved. She didn’t think her mom would make it home for Christmas. That was OK. There were all sorts of ways to have Christmas, as the March sisters and Dickens had shown her.

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On Christmas Eve, Jacob said that he would read her the greatest Christmas story of all.

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“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

“‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'”

“That is Christmas,” said Jacob. “Though it likely didn’t happen in winter. Still, that is what it is about: a birth, good tidings, peace, and good will.”

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“Magic,” said Sarah.

“Magic,” said Jacob, “and our great need for it.”

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Captain’s Christmas: Chapter Two

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She woke to music. She hadn’t heard music like this except once, when her mom took her to the concert hall with the golden chandelier in the city.

The room she slept in had a tall window, all the way up to the ceiling. It looked out on a jungle, with flowers and ferns and a wild white panther with a black tail racing down the path.

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She supposed she might as well go find some food. She’d skipped supper the night before, and she felt so hungry that she thought maybe she was ill.

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She followed the music, thinking it would take her to Great Uncle Jacob.

A fluffy white cat with a raccoon tail sat on the edge of the couch, glaring at her as she walked past.

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A fluffy orange cat, with an orange raccoon tail, sat guarding the fridge, giving her the stink-eye.

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The black-tailed panther sat on the kitchen high-back, looking at her with curiosity.

“I’m just a girl!” she said. “No need to stare.”

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Great Uncle Jacob sat at the piano in the front parlor. Sarah knelt on the high-back sofa and peered over the back at him.

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She didn’t know what fancy music it was that he played, but it did funny things to her ears. If ears could taste, then this would be sweeter than the sweetest salt-water taffy.  She closed her eyes to see the swirling colors: pink, purple, green, blue, with starbursts of yellow and red.

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He stopped when he saw her peeking above the sofa back.

“Hungry, Captain?” he asked.

She nodded. She wanted to ask him about the music, but he was already making his way to the cupboard.

“Go sit,” he said.

She sat on the couch, and the panther followed her and jumped up beside her.

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“Hi, cat,” she said. “I don’t know your name. I am Sarah Seriph.”

The panther growled.

“I didn’t mean to make you mad,” she said. “I’m trying to be friendly.”

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The panther hissed.

“OK, OK!” Sarah said. “I won’t try to be your friend! Geez!”

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“Pippa,” Great Uncle Jacob said when he brought in Sarah’s breakfast, “settle.”

The panther grumbled and lay down.

“Not used to company,” he said.

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When Sarah finished her cereal and washed her bowl, she asked Great Uncle Jacob, “What are my rules?”

“Rules?”

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“Like, where can I go, where can I not go?”

“Captain, we’re on an island. No other people around. Anywhere you can go, you can go. ”

“Aren’t you scared I’ll fall and break my leg?”

“Nope,” he said. “You’ll take care.”

She breathed it in for a moment: No rules.

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That meant, she was free!

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The panther and the white raccoon pounced on each other in the kitchen. They didn’t seem quite so frightening when they played like kittens.

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Then Pippa turned and hissed at her.

“All right! I was just leaving!” Sarah ran through the front parlor and into the jungle.

The fountain roared like a waterfall, and the air was warm, heavy, and moist.

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It smelled like candy left overnight in a wet pocket: sweet and musty all at once.

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Crickets chirped, even though it was winter outside.

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She followed a red brick path around and between the flower beds. Fairy lanterns lighted the way.

One path led to a long room, lined with work tables and all sorts of potted plants.

“This must be the plant hospital,” she said. She walked to each, offering some a sip of water, others a kind word, and still others a song.

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A funny green dwarf looked at her bossily. “Don’t worry!” she said. “I’m not breaking any rules, for I haven’t got any to break!”

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When she left the room, Pippa stood guarding the door leading back to their living area.

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“Shoo, cat!” Sarah whispered. The panther sat down in the middle of the path.

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A tall madrona grew in the center of the tower, its limbs spaced like ladder rungs.

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Sarah climbed easily, step after step.

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Soon she was up in the tree’s crown, higher than the neighboring hemlock,  where the hot air smelled like dried apples and cinnamon, and when she looked down, the panther was no bigger than a mouse.

“Ha!” Sarah called down. “I am not afraid of you!”

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She climbed until she could climb no higher, and she looked out the tower windows, out past the dock, past the breakwaters, across the straights to the mainland then over the hills, imagining that she could see the city beyond, and out past the city, down a quiet road, where the white hospice stood under the beech trees, and where her Gran lay beneath a log cabin quilt, while her mother sat beside her, singing softly and talking.

“Oh, come back!” Sarah prayed. “Come back before Christmas, with Gran, too, all well again!”

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Captain’s Christmas: Chapter One

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“There’s the island,” Sarah’s mother said, as they stood on the prow of the trawler. “You can see the lighthouse.”

“But I don’t want to be on the island,” said Sarah, “not without you. Can’t I stay with you?”

“We’ve been through this so many times,” her mother said. “A hospice is no place for a child.”

“I’d rather be there, with you and Gran, than stuck out here with Great Uncle Jacob. I don’t even know him,” she whispered.

Sarah glanced behind her at the old man at the captain’s wheel.

“But I know him,” said Sarah’s mother. “I spent one long summer with him on the island, when I was not much older than you, and it was–”

“–the best summer of your life,” said Sarah. “I know. I heard the story before.” Only a million times.

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They pulled away from shore, heading to the straights. Sarah looked back, wishing the mainland wouldn’t recede, wishing she could stay, wishing that Gran were well, like every other year, so they could spend the Christmastime at her house, with the tree, the stockings, the roast beef, and the tiny Cornish game hens, all golden and stuffed with chestnuts and raisins.

“Does he know how to cook?” Sarah whispered. They’d probably be eating out of cans.

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“Hey, there,” said a gruff voice. “Will ya steer the ship?”

The island hovered in the mist like a home for forgotten selkies.

“He’s talking to you,” said Sarah’s mother. “Go on, you can drive the boat!”

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“All right,” said Sarah. “What do I do?”

He showed her where to place her hands.

“That way,” he said, pointing to a cove behind the breakwater.

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Steering the ship was easy. Sarah leaned into the wheel. Now and then a wave or current moved the wheel, and she had to push against it with all her weight.

Her mother talked softly with Great Uncle Jacob.

Sarah tried not to listen, for it was about Gran and how even the cheerful nurse didn’t hold out hope anymore. But Sarah could still hope, if she didn’t hear what they said.

Seagulls called.

“Easy now,” Great Uncle Jacob said, standing behind her. “Steady round the rocks.”

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She guided the boat into the cove.

“Mighty well done, Captain,” he said. “I’ll take her into the dock, then.”

Sarah stood beside her mother in the bow. “There’s the conservatory! Your room will be in the back, with the living area.”

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If staying there hadn’t meant being apart from her mom, Sarah would have been jumping with excitement. The conservatory rose like a palace tower, with cheerful fairy windows looking out upon the bay.

As it was, she swallowed the lump in her throat and blinked away a few tears.

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She kept her head down as she shuffled up the path. Maybe if she walked slowly enough, her mother would miss the mailboat and have to stay the night.

When her mother showed her her room, she sat on the bed. She wouldn’t say goodbye.

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Her mother and Great Uncle Jacob shared a pot of tea in the kitchen. And then the mailboat blew its horn and there were hurried kisses and promises of phone calls.

“Come get me before Christmas!” Sarah said, between sobs.

“If I’m able,” said her mom. “If I can.”

Then she was gone, and the house was quiet.

Sarah got into her PJs and crawled under the quilt. Time would pass faster, if she were asleep.

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Next >>

A Box of Christmas Books

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In the winters of my childhood, the holiday season began when my mother carried down the box of Christmas stories. We had scores of picture books, hardbound anthologies, and magazine clippings. It’s funny–I don’t recall our ever having purchased any new Christmas books. As the youngest child, I grew into a holiday library already established. The hours after school or on a rainy Saturday afternoon in December were spent with these books, who became close seasonal friends. December evenings, I snuggled beside my dad on the couch as he read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. When I read the novel to myself now, I still hear it in my dad’s voice, though he left this earth 16 years ago this month.

This year, I thought it might be fun to share seasonal stories from this anthology. Maybe you’ve read them before; maybe they’re new to you! At any rate, I hope you enjoy a few yuletide stories from the past few years! And when you’re ready for more, please take a look at the index on the EA Sims Forums, where you can find past December entries from the Short Story Contest and submissions by other SimLit writers!

Happy reading! Solstice Greetings! And peace and love and the warmth of a good story to you!

Holiday Stories from CT’s SimLit Anthology

From December 2016

Coming Home

Something for Dr. J from Dr. Jasmine’s Casebook

From December 2015

One Night, from Dr. Jasmine’s Casebook

From December 2014

Plum Day Celebration – From A Houseful Of Hippies
Let’s Celebrate… What?
Don’t Know Much
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Plum!
Gnome Kickers and Home Wreckers
What Does Plum Stand For?
Fangirl
Black and White and Boring All Over
Departures/Arrivals
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Touching Ground and Scaling Heights
Friends Become Family
Another Day, Another Plum
Can you add plum to garden salad?
Sentimentality
Sweet Plums Roasting on an Open Fire
Green Plums and Plum Blossoms
That’s Plum, You Genius!
Dr. Jasmine’s Guest Book
Reflections on a Bowl of Plum

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