Tori was between students when the phone call came from her niece.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Tori,” Debi sounded like she was trying not to cry. “Josh has to take an extra shift – and the storm is closing off the roads through the pass…we won’t make it in time for Christmas.”
Tori fought back the emotions that were choking her. It wasn’t the first Christmas since her husband, Sam, had died, but somehow this Christmas with all the political terrors creeping into every nook and cranny of life, had made fighting despair harder than ever before. And Debi, Josh and their two pre-schoolers were the only family she had left.
She said all the right things to Debi and hung up the phone. Fighting back gasps, Tori clenched her fists until her knuckles whitened and her fingernails dug into her palms. She wouldn’t give in to this. Sam would be disappointed if she gave in. Wouldn’t happen. No one would see her misery. Christmas was just another day. She’d have the good coffee in the morning, watch some TV shows that fell into the guilty pleasure category, then…
“Hey Tori,” Linda stuck her head in the door. “The cookie exchange is in ten in the staff room. And that little shit, Devon, is waiting to see you again.”
“Okay, right,” Tori said and forced a smile. “Take my cookies, will you? And maybe make up a box for me, please? Devon might take some time.”
She fumbled around for the tin of old-fashioned shortbread she’d made. Sam’s mother had taught her the way her own grandmother had taught her years before. She imagined the tradition went back decades if not centuries. All in the handling…
Stop Tori, she scolded herself. Get a grip. Being alone for Christmas isn’t the end of the world…other people have it worse…
A party. She could have a party…
Not two days before the holiday, she realized with desperation.
Nothing can fix this one, Tori.
She sat a moment longer, did some deep breathing, then pulled up Devon’s file. Hardly a week went by without the fifteen-year-old being in hers or the principal’s office. Always back-talking. Always razzing other kids. Always doing whatever would irritate the teachers the most. He really was a little shit.
Tori went into the hallway where Devon was lounging, feet sprawled out. He stared with an insolent smile that felt like he really wanted to stick a pencil into her.
“Come on in,” she invited. “Let’s talk.”
When he had draped himself into the chair in front of her desk, and resumed his hard stare, she smiled somehow, “So, Devon, what is it this time?”
He shrugged. “Coach Dick has it in for me.”
Tori took a breath. “And did Coach Richards have a reason to have it in for you today?”
Devon shrugged again, but a flicker of bitter amusement crossed his face before his expression returned to disdainful stone. “Maybe,” he muttered.
“Want to give me some details?”
“I’m missing my cookie party for this,” Tori snapped, and then couldn’t believe she’d said that. Like she cared about a dozen Christmas cookies. Like it was more important than the boy in front of her.
She dropped her head in her hands. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m really sorry, Devon.” She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t.
She was sobbing.
And then, she felt Devon’s hand, awkwardly patting her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Ms. Mac,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean to make you cry…you’re always nice…I was just so mad.”
“Oh, Devon,” Tori grabbed one of the tissues placed for students and mopped her face.
“You got mascara all over your cheeks,” he told her. She had to laugh and mop some more.
“You didn’t make me cry, Devon,” she said. “My Christmas just went to hell, and with my husband…you know…I’m going to be alone and I’m acting like a baby about it.”
“No you ain’t,” he muttered. “My stepdad split so it’s me and my mom and the kids.”
“The three little ones. There won’t be no Christmas at our place. If he doesn’t come through with child support in January, there won’t even be a place to live.”
Tori and Devon slumped in their chairs.
Duty called. Tori roused herself and tried to think. “There are some agencies I can call that will make sure your family gets toys for the kids and a Christmas dinner.”
Devon gestured angrily. “Charity. Screw that. I got to earn some money. And that damn coach telling me in front of all my friends that I need to man up in class or I won’t amount to anything. And all the while he’s sitting there stuffing his face. So I grabbed his sushi wrap and threw it at him.”
Tori nodded. She remembered a few infuriating interactions with Coach Richards – she’d been tempted to call him Coach Dick herself.
The two of them stared out the window. Snow was falling thick and fast. It was just about certain that school would be cancelled for snow for the last couple of days before the holiday. Now she’d have nothing to do and nowhere to go for even more days. And she would have to shovel out her long driveway. Tori sighed then looked at the lanky teen before her.
“Devon, would you be willing to help me out by shoveling my driveway and sidewalk? My house is easy to get to by bus, and I’ll pay you. I could really use the help…I have trouble doing it all myself…”
Devon eyed her, frowning. His hands convulsed on the arms of the chair. “No charity,” he snapped.
“Not a chance,” Tori told him. “I can’t do it and there’s supposed to be a lot of snow over the next couple of weeks.”
Devon eyed her suspiciously, then nodded. “What time?”
“When can you come?”
“I’ll be there an hour after school. Got to check if it’s okay with my mom.”
Tori scribbled her address and cell phone number on a stickie note and handed it to him. “See you then.”
Tori spent the rest of the afternoon watching snow drift by her window, making phone calls to parents and agencies, and checking in with students facing a tough holiday season.
Tougher than me, she chanted in her mind. They’re only kids and they have it tougher than me. And it’s Christmas…
Devon was waiting when she got home, bundled in a coat that was too big for him, no gloves. While he looked around her disorganized garage for a shovel, Tori dug into her hall closet for a warm pair of gloves that had been Sam’s.
“You can’t work if your hands freeze,” she told Devon. “I expect a good job done here.”
“Yeah, sure,” Devon muttered, then he headed down to the foot of the property.
Tori watched him in the gathering dusk, his arms moving rhythmically as he shoveled the heavy snow from her driveway, then the sidewalk, then her front steps. When he was done, he knocked on the door.
“No, I got to go. My mom has to go to work and I have to babysit.”
She handed him the money; he pocketed it and turned to go.
“Devon, I’ve got more work around here that needs doing…any chance you would have some time over the next few days to help me out?”
He scowled. “Yeah. I’ll come by tomorrow morning, if you want.”
When he had disappeared, Tori sat down in her empty living room. She had intended to decorate tonight, but it hardly seemed worthwhile now. The box of stockings, all ready to be hung, sat to one side of the fireplace. The artificial tree twinkled, but she hadn’t hung any ornaments. She had been waiting to do it with Debi, Josh and the boys. Her presents for the family were unwrapped, sitting in bags in her bedroom.
Even the outside lights were still untouched in their totes brought up from the basement. Josh had offered to put up the lights when they arrived.
“Better late than never,” Debi had observed merrily the week before. The week before the storm cancelled their time together.
“There will be other Christmases,” Tori told herself. But she wanted to take the boxes and throw them in the garbage. There might be other Christmases, but she was in the middle of this one.
“Oh stop it!” She ordered herself.
Angrily, she hung ornaments, slammed snow globes onto tables, and wished the window decorations would fall and shatter. When the room was done, she turned out the light, and went to bed.
Devon was at her door before she’d had her second cup of coffee. And with him, he had three kids, a girl and two twin boys ranging in ages from about six to eight.
“My mom got a second shift and we need the money,” he told Tori as though she had already yelled at him. “They won’t be trouble. What do you need done?”
Tori eyed the kids dubiously. She didn’t do small kids. They seemed to always need bathroom help, or noses wiped or zippers fixed. She infinitely preferred the high schoolers’ snarky comments and life-altering stupidity. That seemed clearer to her than the physical maintenance needed for younger kids.
“So, do you want me to do anything or not?” Devon demanded. “Shut up, you,” he snapped at one of the silent boys.
The kid poked him and Devon flickered a smile.
Tori smiled too. “There are a bunch of branches in the back yard that came down in the last windstorm. I need them collected, broken up, and put in the yard waste.”
Like a peeping Tom, she watched from the kitchen window as Devon got the young ones picking up the small sticks under the snow-free shadow of the pines. He cut and broke the bigger branches, then with a quick look around, laughed and chased the little girl until she screamed with giggles.
The boys flexed their muscles to impress their big brother. Tori could hear his admiring comments even though the twins’ jackets hid their biceps. He kept them working and playing for nearly two hours.
Then Tori called them into the house. “The kids probably need to go to the bathroom,” she told Devon before he could argue. “And I’m not letting anyone get pneumonia.”
He glared as she dished up hot chocolate and stuck candy canes in for stir sticks.
Devon stood and drank the hot chocolate, clearly uncomfortable. The kids had no qualms. They settled around her kitchen table, drank the hot chocolate, and chattered about her decorations and their own little tree with the stockings hung on pins on the wall.
“I’m a girl,” Lavvie told her, “And I’m almost seven.”
“I would like more hot chocolate, please,” Davy whispered.
“No,” Devon snapped. “That’s enough. We have work to do still.”
Silently, the three slid off their chairs. Freddy’s lip was quivering. “’s cold,” he said.
“Don’t matter,” Devon said.
“Actually,” Tori interrupted. “ I need to make some cookies…for my great-nephews who are coming…soon. Is there any chance you three could help me?”
Their eyes lit up and they turned beseechingly to Devon. He scowled. “We did all the branches. Anything else, or should I take them home?”
And suddenly Tori desperately didn’t want the children to go home. Didn’t want the house to be silent and empty. She looked around frantically, and her eyes fell on the Christmas lights that Josh had not arrived in time to put up.
“Devon, my niece’s husband was going to put up my Christmas lights, but they’re snowed in on the other side of the pass. Could you do it for me?”
A spark flashed in Devon’s eyes. “I can do lights,” he muttered. “And you three behave yourself or else!” Davy just giggled. Freddy stuck his finger in his mug and grinning, scooped out the last of the chocolate.
“What kind of cookies?” Lavvie breathed.
After that, Tori only glanced out the window a few times. Baking with three kids was like creating a flour storm in her kitchen. She showed them how to make shortbread; they decorated sugar cookies; they even made fudge. Tori put on Christmas music and found herself singing and laughing with the kids.
Devon came in, stamping his feet, cheeks flushed with cold. “Come take a look,” he said shyly.
They all bundled and trooped outside. The snow had stopped falling but the blanket of white reflected the lights’ glow.
“Is it okay?” Devon asked. Tori caught a hint of nervous quiver in his voice.
She looked around. Lights wound up her trees, twinkled on bushes, and lit the way up her sidewalk.
It was beautiful.
It was all wrong – like everything else.
“My husband never did it like this,” she whispered. Anger surged up her chest and she tightened her fists in her pockets. Her breathing came in harsh gasps and she lowered her head.
A moment passed, then Devon strode forward and started ripping the lights off the bushes.
“No,” Tori cried. She ran to him and grabbed his arm. “What are you doing?”
“It’s no good,” Devon yelled. “So I’ll take it apart.”
“No you won’t! You won’t! It’s all the Christmas I have. You can’t…”
The little ones were crying. She was hanging on Devon’s arm. And she was crying.
“No…no…no…Don’t take my Christmas…”
At last, Devon’s arm relaxed.
“I wouldn’t,” he said. He hung his head.
Tori sniffed. “Inside, now.”
For once Devon didn’t fight her. Once again, she put the kettle on for hot chocolate but wasn’t surprised when no one seemed to want it.
“The lights are beautiful, Devon,” she said. “Since Sam, my husband died, I’ve tried to do everything the same. And it isn’t. It isn’t at all. I need a little Christmas. A new Christmas, or maybe one that can’t be taken from me.”
“No one can take Christmas,” Lavvie said. “I wished and wished for Christmas cookies and we got them.” She smiled and pointed to the piled plates.
“And Devon wanted lights,” Freddy said. “We used to have lights but Mama said we couldn’t this year.”
“I just wanted hot chocolate with a candy cane.” Davy grinned.
Devon shrugged. “I can change the lights,” he said. “I did them the way we did before my Dad died and we lost the house. But I can change them.”
“They’re perfect,” Tori said. “I don’t want anything you’ve done changed at all – especially not that beautiful display.”
He grinned. “Okay then.”
She paid Devon, piled her biggest tin full of cookies for the little ones, and waved them all goodbye.
“Okay if I bring my mom to see the lights tomorrow?” Devon yelled back.
“Of course! We’ll have hot chocolate and cookies!” Tori called.
They were all laughing when the kids turned the corner and disappeared.
The house was silent again, so Tori turned on the radio to Christmas music while she cleaned up.
When she awoke Christmas morning, the sun glistened on the snow and the coffee smelled like a miracle as it brewed. Tori simply sat and allowed the perfect morning to seep into her soul.
Christmas had come at last.