I think there should be a law banning math for the whole month of December. If that was the case, I could have been sledding with my friends or building snowmen instead of slaving away over equivalent fractions and decimal numbers. I hear a lot of adults say that they wish they were kids again, but let me tell you, the life of a nine-year-old isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! I have a lot of hard subjects to study in school and I have several hard jobs that I must perform every day (the worst being cleaning my room).
But I’m sorry! I’ve been rather rude. Let me introduce myself. My full name is Zoe Mai Trust Morris, which is crazy long and really hard to remember. Everyone just calls me Zoey. Well, everyone except Mom. She calls me Honey Bun or Baby or Bunny Bear. Don’t ask where the nicknames came from; there are some stories best left untold. Ahem.
I live in an itty bitty town in central Minnesota. I’ve lived here for all 3,530 days of my life (you all should be very proud that I was able to get that number. I was using my brilliant math skills to figure it out). Even though I’m homeschooled, I know just about everyone here. One of my favorite holiday activities is going from house to house singing Christmas carols with my family. Mom, Dad, my older sister Kinsley and I get all bundled up on Christmas Eve and we head out a little before dark and we sing to our neighbors. It’s awesome! When we get back home, we always feel like popsicles (it gets really cold here) so Mom or Kinsley will make hot coco and we’ll sit around the gas fireplace in the living room and Dad will read the Christmas story to us. December is my favorite time of the year! And Christmas is my favorite day ever!
This is the story of my Christmas that had the potential to go horribly wrong. Dad likes to say that in pain and hardship, we grow in ways that we would never have grown otherwise. I didn’t believe him…until I experienced this Christmas.
The wish list
Two weeks before Christmas
“Mom!” I groaned and pulled at Mom’s shirt, trying to get her attention for the hundredth time.
“What, Zoey?” Mom’s eyes looked very tired behind her glasses. I don’t understand why grownups always look so exhausted. Maybe it has to do with that stuff they drink. I’m pretty sure that coffee is responsible for world fatigue.
Mom shook her head and turned back to the computer screen that she had been staring at for hours. “Go play with your friends.”
“I can’t!” I wailed. Being bored is a fate worse than death. “They’re all busy Christmas shopping or school!”
“Well, go do something with Kinsley.” Mom has three go-to answers when she’s busy doing computer work. That was number two.
“Kinsley hates me, Mom. All she ever does is to tell me to go away! Is there anything at all that I can do?! I’m going to implode and die if I have to sit here for much longer!”
“Go read a book.” Answer number three was spoken.
I sighed and walked off, knowing that Mom’s ideas were done. She has this online business thingy that she says is really important, and on days that she has to work on it, she gets very entrenched in it. Those are the good food nights – we get pizza or frozen waffles.
I pulled my neon blue snow pants on and stuffed my arms into my bulky coat. Getting ready to go outside can be a chore if you live in Minnesota. When the temperatures drop into the single digits and there is at least a foot of snow everywhere (with more falling rapidly), it’s important to dress right.
I put on my thick gloves and stepped outside. A gust of wind blew snow-flakes into my eyes. I blinked quickly and then hurried to the sledding hill that was a three minute walk from my house, hoping against hope that I would find someone to play with. If any of my friends were available, that’s where they’d be. We are very proud of our hill. There isn’t much elevation in Minnesota, so this beauty is quite a treasure!
I found the sledding hill looking desolately empty. There was a half of a cracked sled sitting at the top but that was all. I groaned and was about to return home to write my will (in case I didn’t survive my severe case of Boredom), when I spotted something dark moving against the huge swath of white ground. I ran towards it and found that it was my neighbor, Max. He’s six months older than me and isn’t the nicest kid around. Once he put a smaller kid in a trash can and pushed him down the sledding hill. It’s rather unfortunate that my house is so close to his, but he doesn’t scare me anymore, because I grew an inch taller than him (finally).
“Whacha doing, Max?” I asked.
He looked up. “Oh, hey, Zoo.”
I hate that nickname. He was the only kid in town who thought that I was born in a zoo and continued to call me Zoo or Zooey. Annoying, right?
Max raised up a piece of paper, held tightly between his gloved fingers. “I’m writing my wish list for Santa! I can’t wait to see what he brings me this year!”
I’m wise beyond my years (or so Dad says) and I know that Santa isn’t real. I decided to forgo breaking the news to Max. It would only devastate him. So instead I said, “What’s on your list?”
“First of all, I want a million dollars.” Max smiled proudly, pointing to #1 on his wish list (his list had about forty points, I saw). “After that, I asked for a new bike, my own phone, a laptop, a TV for my room, fifty new video games, unlimited candy for a year –”
“That’s great, Max.” I interrupted. Talking to Max Cur for more than five seconds was something only desperately bored people did.
“I’m pretty sure that I’ll get them all this year. I’ve been a really good boy for the past thirteen months. Santa will have to reward me!”
“Uh hu.” I shook my head. “What about that kid you pushed into the snow bank two days ago?”
“He deserved it.” Max shrugged. “He was standing in the way of my feet.”
“I’m going home.” I turned and trudged back through the ever-thickening snow. When I reached home, I went straight to my beautiful pink room and sat down at my little desk. I pulled my diary out of one of the (hopefully) secret drawers and ripped out a page.
My Christmas Wish List
#1 I’d love a new pillow case to match my bed spread (Kinsley’s cat tore up my last one)
#2 I want a REAL candle and real matches to make my room smell nice
#3 A diary with a lock on it so that Kinsley won’t come in anymore and read it
#4 Jamie Soles CD’s
I folded up my list and smiled. Grammy (Dad’s mom who lives in Idaho) had been bugging Kinsley and I about what we wanted for Christmas, so finishing that list was a good thing.
I heard the front door open and Dad’s deep voice filled the house. “I’m home!” I bounced out of my room and into his arms. Dad is famous for his bear hugs.
“How’s my Pumpkin Pie doing?”
There’s another nickname I forgot to mention. I really don’t understand why grownups use such weird names for their kids….
“I’m dying, Daddy!” I said. “First of boredom and now of hunger!”
Mom looked up from the computer. “Parker, could you get the pizza out of the freezer? I thought we’d just have that tonight.”
“Yay!” I cheered.
Twenty minutes later, Mom, Dad and I sat around the dining room table with big, cheesy pieces of pizza lying on our paper plates. Glorious, if you ask me.
“Where’s Kinsley?” Dad asked, looking towards the empty place where my sister should have been sitting.
Mom sighed. “She’s probably in her room. Zoey, honey, could you go get her.”
A sentence worse than cleaning my room. I trudged to Kinsley’s room. Like always, the door was closed and I heard music blaring inside. I pounded on the door, hoping that she could hear me. When she didn’t answer, I tried jiggling the door handle (I would have opened it, but she had locked her door. Teenagers. I don’t understand ‘em!). That got her attention. The music stopped and a few minutes later, Kinsley appeared at the door. Her short, frizzy hair was a wreck and she was still in her pajamas. She hadn’t left her room all day.
“What do you want?” She glared at me from tired eyes.
“Supper time.” I gave her my best I’m-a-cute-little-girl-who-means-you-no-harm smile and then raced back to the table, hoping beyond hope that my pizza hadn’t morphed into an ice cube. By the time Kinsley arrived at the table and Dad had finished his prayer, my delightful food had turned rather chilly. I sighed and popped it in the microwave for a few seconds before devouring it.
Dad wiped his hands on his napkin and cleared his throat. He always does that before he has big news to tell us. “Kids…uh…” Hesitating is never a good sign. “My company is really busy this time of year, as you know. They asked me to take a business trip in a couple weeks and I have to do it.”
My jaw hit the table. “A couple weeks? But Christmas is in a couple weeks!”
Dad rubbed the back of his head. “I know. This is the worst possible timing for this, but it is a really important trip. I can’t just say no.”
“Will you be gone on Christmas Day?” My voice quivered.
Dad sighed. “It’s likely.”
Kinsley pushed back her mostly-uneaten pizza and left the table. I gulped back tears and hurried to my bedroom, closing the door behind me. I grabbed my Christmas wish list and tore it into pieces and then dropped them into the trashcan. I pulled out a fresh paper and started again.
All I want for Christmas this year is that my family will all be together for the holiday and that we’ll all be happy.
I heard loud music blaring from Kinsley’s room. The tears that I had been trying to withhold, sprang to my eyes and raced each other down my face. I collapsed on my bed and cried. I was in the midst of my deep grief when I felt someone lay a hand on my shoulder. I looked up and saw Dad. He sat down beside me and smoothed my ruffled hair.
I threw my arms around his neck and soaked his shoulder with my tears. “Why do you have to go on so many business trips, Dad?! And on Christmas? Don’t the people at the company know that I want my daddy for the most special day of the year?!”
“I’m sorry, Pumpkin, I really am.” He hugged me tightly. “But I’m sure that you’ll find a way to make this Christmas special.” He bopped by nose. “You are a clever girl.”
Twelve days before Christmas
“Moooooom!” I waved my math homework in front of Mom’s face. “I need help!”
Mom’s eyes didn’t leave the computer screen as she said, “I’m right in the middle of this, Zoey. Can you have Kinsley help you?”
“Mom, I haven’t even seen Kinsley today! She’s locked herself in her room. Again.”
“Then you’ll just have to wait, honey.”
I left before she could give me the go-read-a-book line. Ever since Dad had made his unfortunate announcement, the house had been very glum. Mom busied herself with her online work, Kinsley played her annoying rap music and I attempted to make everyone happy. When that didn’t work, I gave up and went sledding with my friends.
I’ve gotta figure out a way to make this Christmas work. I thought to myself. I’m going to make sure that Dad is home for Christmas!
I snuck into the living room (where Mom was working) and saw that she had left her phone on the coffee table. As soon as she was distracted, I grabbed the phone and hurried to my room. I found the phone number for Dad’s company and I dialed the number.
“Hello, my name is Zoey Mor– Zoe, and I am calling about one of your employees. His name is Parker Morris. Can I speak to someone about him?”
“What is this about?” The lady’s voice on the other side said.
“I’ve heard that Mr. Morris is supposed to go on a business trip over Christmas.”
I heard computer keys clicking in the back ground. After a second, the lady said, “Yes, that’s correct. May I ask what this is about?”
I bit my lip. “Is there any way that you could cancel that trip?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not the –”
“Because I really want my dad – I mean, Mr. Morris should be home with his family for Christmas! It’s not fair that he has to work.”
“I’m sorry, who is this?”
I hung up and melted onto my bed. So much for that idea. I thought about making protest signs and hanging them up around town, but decided against it because it was so cold that not a lot of people would be out.
What if I let the air out of Dad’s tires before he leaves! That way his flight would get canceled and he would have to stay! Although if I did that, I’d be grounded for a month and that would spoil Christmas….
A thousand ideas went through my head (some as simple as hiding Dad’s good suit to as complex as shutting down all the airports in the world) but none of them would work for me. I decided to put that mission on hold and turn to the second thing on my wish list.
I want everyone to be happy for Christmas.
I sighed. That one had the potential to be even harder than the first wish. You see, life in the Morris household was pretty normal until Kinsley turned fourteen. Then everything changed with her – and with us. Kinsley became really withdrawn and quiet. She stopped enjoying things that had been impossible to separate her from before. She seemed extremely sad for no reason and spent a lot of time crying. Oh, and did I mention that she completely forgot about me? She stopped playing games with me and hardly ever talked to me. Mom and Dad worried about her a lot. They tried to figure out what was going on, but they didn’t really have any leads. For the last year I’d been praying that God would heal her and make her love me again… He hadn’t yet, but I was confident that he would….someday.
I was mulling over ideas, wondering how to make Kinsley happy again, when one brilliant one popped into my mind. I jumped up and ran to find my mom.
“Mom! Mom! Can I make some cookies?”
Mom must have been really into her computer work because she nodded and waved me towards the kitchen. For the next two hours I painstakingly followed Grammy’s sugar-cookie recipe. Finally, I held in my hand a plate of perfect (and rather abstractly shaped) frosted cookies. I took a deep breath and walked to Kinsley’s room. I tapped on the door and when Sis opened it, I smiled and held out the plate.
“I noticed that you’ve been sad lately, so I made you some cookies to cheer you up!” If there was one thing that always made Kinsley smile, it was Grammy’s cookies.
“Uh…thanks, I guess.” Kinsley looked at the cookies like they were snakes. “You can put them in the kitchen.”
“Aren’t you going to try one?”
Kinsley blinked. “Did Mom help you make these?”
“Nope! I made them all alone!” I was very proud of myself.
“Really? I should have known.” Her voice was demeaning.
“What is that supposed to mean?!”
“Oh nothing.” Kinsley’s eyes mocked me. “I’m just glad I didn’t eat one. I probably would have died of food poisoning.”
The door slammed in my face. “Kinsley! You nasty, mean –” I bit my rebellious little tongue. Tears of disappointment fought to overflow the boundaries of my eyes.
Here I am trying to make her feel better and this is how she treats me?!
I stormed to the nearest trash can and threw the whole plateful of cookies into it and watched them crash into each other and crumble.
See if I ever make anything for her again!
I threw on my oversize coat and stomped outside into the cold evening air. Even though it was only four-thirty, it was already dark outside. My plan was to find someplace to sit and then have a huge self-pity party. But angry voices caught my attention.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Someone yelled. “You know what, I don’t have to stand here and take this from you!” I heard my neighbor’s front door fly open and then slam shut as Mrs. Cur speed-walked to her car and drove off.
So much for ‘love, peace and joy’ this Christmas season! There sure isn’t much of that going around this neighborhood.
The Cur’s door opened again and Max stepped outside. He sat down on his front steps and buried his head in his hands. Inside of me, a subtle voice whispered, “Max needs a friend right now.” I groaned. Could this day get any worse? First a fight with Kinsley and then having to talk to Max Cur? Great.
“Hey, Max!” I waved when he raised his head.
“Go away.” He growled. “I’m busy.”
I ignored the warning bells blaring in my head and crossed the snow-covered yard. I sat down beside Max and stared at the dancing Christmas decorations that lined all of the houses on our street.
“What do you want now?” Apparently, Max thought that I had wanted something from him sometime in the past.
“I was just wondering if you wanted to do something.” I shrugged. “I had a rough afternoon and, well, it looks like you’re having a rough evening.”
Max glared at me. “You know what? I’m having a great day! I’ve never been happier! So why don’t you just go back to your little goody-two-shoes house and spend time with your warm, fuzzy family and leave me alone?!”
I once heard Mom say that hurt people hurt others. I was pretty sure that was the case with Max. I didn’t know much about him or his family, but he (and his parents) never seemed very happy.
I took a deep breath and said the words I never dreamed of saying, “If you ever want a friend, I’m here. Maybe we could hang out sometime.”
I thought I caught a hint of surprise in his eyes before it was quickly covered up by his usual angry look. “Just go.”
I shrugged. “Just think about it, okay?”
Mission: Christmas Cheer
Ten days before Christmas:
Some people say that life can improve drastically in forty-eight hours. I don’t believe them anymore. If anything, my life had only gotten worse. I, however, was too busy to notice. Okay, scratch that. I did notice, but I kept myself very busy in an attempt to keep from dwelling on it.
Someone rang the doorbell. I answered it and saw, to my great astonishment, Max standing on the porch. He kept shuffling his feet back and forth and messing with the zipper on his coat.
“Yeah, hi. Uh…I was wondering…” Poor guy. I wondered if he knew how awkward he looked. “Did you really mean it when you said you wanted to hang out sometime?”
My mouth dropped open. “You wanna hang out?!”
“Well…yeah.” Max gathered his macho-manliness that he had apparently lost for a moment. “I mean, I’m so bored. It’s not like I actually wanted to hang out with a girl. Maybe I’ll just go back –”
I motioned for him to step inside. “C’mon. You can help me with something. It’ll be fun.”
“What is it?”
“I call it Mission: Christmas Cheer.” I smiled. “We’re going to bring some holiday cheer to our houses!”
Nine days before Christmas:
I was up before the sun (which, in Minnesota, in the winter, wasn’t a huge accomplishment), with big plans in mind! Max had surprisingly compliant the day before and had agreed to help me spread the Christmas cheer through our neighborhood. Deep down inside, I think both of us were just trying to avoid thinking about our own dismal family situations.
I had written out a list of rough ideas to make my house feel festive. I hoped that if I could do one each day until Christmas Day, it would get us into the Christmas spirit, thus making us happy. I looked over my list in satisfaction.
- Day one: play Christmas carols all day and wrap gifts
- Day two: burn cinnamon candles and watch old Christmas movies
- Day three: hang lights up everywhere
- Day four: put on Christmas costumes and get Max to help do a fun play for Mom and Kinsley (and Dad if he’s home)
- Day five: have a Christmas party and invite all of my friends
- Day six: make paper snowflakes and Christmas tree ornaments
- Day seven: Set up a hot chocolate bar in front of our house and use the money earned to buy something special for Kinsley
- Day eight (CHRISTMAS EVE!!!): OUR ANNUAL CHRISTMAS CAROLING!
“CHRISTMAS JOY HERE I COME!” I shouted happily.
“Hey quiet down in there!” Kinsley yelled at me.
I sighed. Somehow this Christmas just isn’t going to be the same as other years….
Eight days before Christmas:
I think there must have been some kind of curse over our house because no matter how hard I tried, things just kept going wrong.
“Zoey!” Mom walked into my bedroom where I was busy wrapping gifts and gasped. “What happened in here?!”
Shreds of wrapping paper lay scattered everywhere. Half covered gifts stood sadly beside my bed. I was sitting in the middle of the whole mess, attempting to get glue off of my hands.
“Is that superglue?!” Mom saw that my poor little fingers were quite stuck together. “Zoey?”
“Sorry, Mom. I just wanted to help get us into the Christmas spirit!”
“Is that why ‘I want a hippopotamus for Christmas’ is playing on repeat?”
One week before Christmas:
“MOOOM! HEEELP! THE CANDLE IS BURNING OUT OF CONTROL!!! HURRY!”
Six days before Christmas:
“Max, can you help me hang Christmas lights up?” I held out a box of very tangled red-and-green blinking lights.
“Your house already has lights on it.”
“That one big tree in our back yard doesn’t have any yet!”
“That tree?” Max pointed to the very large, very snow covered, very old tree.
“The one that’s been dead for at least two years?”
“Dead?” Come to think of it, I always wondered why that tree stayed leaf-less all year long. “Uh yeah.”
Max shrugged. “Fine. You unravel them and I’ll hang them up.”
It took an eternity, but at last I held up the end of the string of lights.
“Okay, just climb up the tree and drape them over the branches.”
Max or I should have known that attempting to climb a snow-and-ice covered tree with heavy snow boots is nearly impossible. I was amazed when I saw that Max had pulled himself up onto one of the lower branches. Things were going great – until we heard a sickening creaking noise. It was quickly followed by a cracking sound and then a shriek as Max plummeted towards the ground.
“MAX!” I ran towards him. He was lying face down in the snow, the branch broken beside him. I yanked his face out of the snow. “Speak to me! Tell me that you’re alive!”
He coughed and spit out a chunk of ice. “My whole life flashed before my eyes! And I realized that I’d spent way too much time around you!”
I couldn’t help smiling. “You’re gonna be okay.”
“Hardly! Look, I tore my coat! My parents are going to kill me!”
“I’m sure they’ll be more lenient. It is the Christmas season after all.”
“Uh hu. Sure.” Max brushed the snow off of his head and picked up his hat. “Christmas is doing wonders for everyone this year.”
I held up the Christmas lights and put on my cutest smile. “Wanna hang some more?”
“Not a chance. See ya.”
Five days before Christmas:
Christmas day was coming faster and faster and our house wasn’t anywhere near feeling festive – unless you think that funerals are joyous and festive. But I had planned a special play that night for my family. I tried to get Max to help me, but after his near-death experience the day before, he said he needed to “regain his strength” before he risked his life again.
After supper, I had Mom, Dad and Kinsley follow me into the living room.
“I have a special Christmas play for you guys. If you’ll kindly find your seats, I’ll bring you hot cooc and then start your entertainment.”
The play was about this little rabbit who goes on this great adventure (with plenty of drama and suspense) to bring back a fruitcake for its family. It was rather complicated (especially since I had to do it all alone! Being twenty different characters is hard) but all in all it went rather well. Mom and Dad applauded and Kinsley smiled and said, “That was actually pretty good!” I went to sleep that night with a smile on my face.
Maybe there’s hope that this Christmas really can go well!
Bad turns worse
Four days before Christmas:
“Hey Mom, can I have a few friends over today? They’d just stay the afternoon.”
“Uh…I guess that’d be okay.” Mom shrugged. “Just try to keep the house clean, okay?”
A few hours later, everything for my little Christmas party was ready. I had filled paper cups with eggnog, Christmas carols were blaring from the speakers and there was a plate of candy canes and Grammy’s cookies (made by Mom, two days before) sitting on the counter. I took a deep breath and smiled. All fifteen of my friends (plus Max) were set to arrive at three-fifteen exactly. Around three-thirty, the doorbell began to ring and my friends flooded the house. Mom’s tranquilly silent house was immediately destroyed. Actually, it had already been partially destroyed by the music I had put on three hours before my guests arrived.
“Zoey, what are all of these people doing here?!” Mom walked towards me, avoiding at least three puddles of spilled eggnog. “I thought you said you wanted to have a few friends over! This is half the neighborhood!”
I scratched the back of my neck. “Uh, well, I didn’t expect them all to show up!”
Mom groaned and retreated to the peace of her bedroom. I raised my voice and said, “Attention everyone, attention!” As soon as the room quieted down, I cleared my throat and attempted to look very official. “I want you to help me with something…. My mom and sister need a good dose of Christmas cheer! Here’s the plan…”
A few minutes later, seventeen children stood in front of Kinsley’s bedroom door. We knocked and, to my surprise, she opened it. She gasped when she saw everyone. “What are you guys doing here?!”
“Bringing you Christmas cheer!” I shouted. That was the cue. My friends and I began singing and dancing wildly around my sister. We sang all of her favorite songs and when we were done, she smiled at us.
“Well, you know what guys? You weren’t half bad!”
That was the nicest thing she had said to me all December! I was elated.
Three days before Christmas:
So much for being ecstatic nineteen hours ago. I was despondently sitting at my window, drawing circles in the condensation that had formed on the glass.
“Hey, honey.” Mom came into the room and sat down on my bed.
“Did Dad leave for the airport?” I focused on the snow that was falling outside.
Mom nodded. “He won’t be back until the twenty-sixth.”
“Great.” I mumbled.
Mom rubbed her forehead and sighed. “I’m sorry this Christmas isn’t going the way that you had hoped.”
Mom left the room and I heard her walking towards Kinsley’s Room of Blaring Music. I sighed.
Get up, Zoey! This can still be a good Christmas! You just need to work harder!
While I was giving myself inspiration speeches in my head, in all honestly I didn’t want to move at all. I wanted to cry and have a big self-pity party about how unfair my life was.
But really, what good is that going to do? Maybe I can salvage something out of this Christmas season.
I dragged myself out of bed and forced my red little eyes to read my Christmas list.
Make paper snowflakes and Christmas tree ornaments
I groaned and went to the kitchen to find some scissors. On my way, I passed my parents’ bedroom and heard someone sniffling.
Well, that’s strange.
Inquisitive as always, I stuck my head through the door way and saw Mom sitting on her bed, with her face buried in a tissue.
She jumped and furiously rubbed the tissue over her face. It kind of fell apart and little white chunks rained down on her lap. “Zoey!”
“Are you okay, Mom?” I sat down beside her. “Why are you crying?”
Mom grabbed another tissue. “I’m okay, Sweetie. Just worried about Kinsley.”
More tears. More hugging the tissue. “She’s…she’s taken a turn for the worst, I think. I’m really worried about her.”
That was the last straw (and the one that pretty much killed my Christmas). I hurried out to my room and threw the paper and scissors against the wall. I flung myself onto my bed and kicked my feet angrily.
“LIFE IS NOT FAIR!” My voice was muffled because I was screaming into my pillow. “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?! FIRST OF ALL, DADDY CAN’T BE HERE FOR CHRISTMAS! AND NOW KINSLEY IS WORSE AND MOM IS CRYING! THIS IS THE MOST AWFUL CHRISTMAS EVER!”
Something hit my window. I ignored it and continued with my muffled screaming.
“WHY COULDN’T SOMETHING LIKE THIS HAPPENED ON NEW YEARS DAY INSTEAD?! WHY DID IT HAVE TO BE MY FAVORITE HOLIDAY?!”
I got up to investigate the noise at my window and found that it was Max. He was throwing snowballs towards the glass. I scowled at him and was about to go back to bed, but his frantic arm motions stopped me.
“Hold on!” I mouthed the words and then raced to the front door. Max was already there, hoping from one foot to the other.
“I’m bored. Wanna do something?”
I thought he had something IMPORTANT to say.
“Max, I’m kind of busy – ”
“Please?” Something in his voice that stopped me from running back inside.
I sighed. “Fine. Wanna sled?”
Sledding ended up being a welcome distraction. At last, we dragged our sleds to the top of the hill and sat down. We were both panting and covered in snow.
“Adults should sled more!” Max laughed. “It’s such good exercise, I’m sure they’d lose a lot of weight!”
I giggled. “Yeah, well, there aren’t a lot of big hills here, so it could be hard to market.”
We sat silently, watching the wind swirl the powdery snow in front of us.
“Hey, Max, is everything okay with your parents?”
He answered quickly – too quickly. “Yeah, everything’s great.”
“I’m just wondering. I mean, I’ve seen them fighting and stuff.”
“Everything’s fine, okay? It’s none of your business!”
I bit my lip. “Sorry.”
“What about your family? What’s wrong with your sister?”
“My sister? She’s fine.”
Max shrugged. “She just seemed…strange, I guess. When we were singing the Christmas carols, she seemed really sad.”
I sighed but didn’t respond.
“Christmas sure is different this year, isn’t it?” I said sadly.
“Christmas is my favorite time of the year because of the lights and the festive feelings –”
“And the presents!”
I giggled. “Yeah, that too. But this year things are so different.”
Max got a faraway look in his eyes. “On Christmas morning my dad always makes his famous macadamia nut pancakes and then we have coco and open gifts.”
“We always have apple cider and Dad’s chocolate pudding on Christmas morning.” I blinked back tears. “But my dad’s going to be gone this Christmas.”
“Mine, too.” Max ran his gloved hand over his eyes. “He and Mom are… never mind.”
The silence spoke louder than a thousand words. Here we were, two sad kids, both wishing for all the hurt and pain to disappear again. And that bonded us in a way that nothing else would ever have.
“Hey Max, what if you and your mom came over to our house for Christmas brunch?” The idea popped into my mind and came out of my mouth before I could fully process what I was offering. “I mean, I’d have to ask my mom, but if she says yes, would you come?”
Max’s eyes lit up. “Uh…I’d have to ask my mom.”
I nodded. “Well, I gotta get home. Let me know what your mom says!”
Two days before Christmas:
“Hey Mom, I have an idea…” I put on my cutest smile and watched Mom as she cooked breakfast.
“What is it, Honey?” Her eyes were puffy and her nose was kind of red.
“Can Max Cur and his mom come over for Christmas brunch? Mr. Cur is going to be gone for Christmas, too, and I don’t want Max to be lonely….”
“Zoey, I don’t know –”
Phase two. I fell to my knees and hugged Mom’s legs. “Please Mom? It would be so much fun!”
“I thought you didn’t like Max.” Mom stirred the oatmeal.
I shrugged. “He’s not my favorite person in the world, but I think he needs a friend. I’m sure this would mean a lot to him.”
“I don’t know.” Mom sighed. “It would be extra work. We’d have to cook extra food.”
“It’s only two more people, Mom!”
“Yes, but if Max eats like you do, we’ll have to pick up an extra ten pounds of potatoes!”
“I don’t eat that much.” I laughed. “Please?”
Mom groaned. “Well….I’ll stop by the Cur’s house this afternoon and talk to Ruthanne. If she thinks it’s a good idea, I guess we’ll do it.”
“Yay! Thanks, Mom!”
I was in the middle of putting a letter into the mailbox, when I was hit smack in the middle of my face with a very cold snowball. After I wiped the snow out of my eyes (and they thawed out a bit) I saw Max’s little face.
“Why’d you throw that at me, Max?” I growled. “My eye balls are shivering!”
Max laughed. “What do you normally have for your Christmas brunch?”
My mouth watered and I would have drooled all over my face if I hadn’t been standing in front of Max. “Mom cooks the best honey baked ham and we eat it with cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes with marshmallows and sugar on top! We have mashed potatoes and gravy and a fruit salad. And mini raspberry muffins! It’s glorious. And then for dessert, Kinsley makes her special double-layer triple chocolate cake! It is soooo good!”
Max licked his lips. “Sounds good! I can’t wait to taste it!”
“So you’ll be here tomorrow?”
“That’s great!” I smiled at him.
“Yeah.” He gave me a tiny smile and then ran off.
Seven hours before Christmas Day:
“MOOOM!” I shouted, shoving my feet into my boots. “TELL KINSLEY TO HURRY UP! WE’LL HAVE TO GET GOING BEFORE IT GETS COMPLETELY DARK!”
Mom walked into the room. She had her hand on her head and she looked like she was in pain. “Zoey, don’t scream.”
“Sorry, Mom!” I lowered my voice. Apparently adults get a lot of headaches very frequently. “Can you tell Kinsley to get out here so that we can go?”
Mom blinked in that way that people do when they have no idea what you’re talking about.
I bobbed my head up and down. “Mom, remember?”
Mom’s face was blank and she shook her head slowly.
“The Christmas caroling! Let’s go sing before it gets too dark!” I grabbed my coat.
Mom groaned and leaned against the wall. “Zoey, honey…without your dad here and with Kinsley being….” She bit her lip and tears filled her eyes. “I just don’t think we’ll be able to do it this year.”
People talk about their worlds being shattered in an instant. That was my instant. Everything seemed to go in s-l-o-w motion for a minute or so. By the time the world had returned to its normal speed, my jaw had also picked itself up off of the floor.
“But Mom!” I fumbled for the right words. “This is my favorite thing to do this season! I look forward to it all year!”
Mom squeezed me really tight. “I’m sorry, Zoe, I really am.”
I attempted to gulp back the lump that was growing bigger and bigger in my throat. “Can’t we….I mean…this is all….” Words failed me and I buried my head in Mom’s shoulder and cried like a baby. “Life is so unfair! Why would God let all of this stuff happen – and at Christmas time?! Isn’t this supposed to be the happiest time of the year? You know, the time of peace and hope and joy?”
Mom’s voice was broken as she said, “I wish I could answer you, Zoey, but the truth is that I have the same questions as you do. I guess sometimes God gives us times of hardship and testing so that we can grow in our faith in him.”
More tears on my part.
“Sweetie, do you know what Jesus said once?”
I shook my head and sniffled.
“He said that in this world we will have trouble and tribulations. He didn’t promise us that life would go smoothly 24/7.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better, Mom.”
“But he didn’t stop there, Zoey. He said to take heart because he is with us. He didn’t make a mistake in this Christmas.” Her voice broke. “He didn’t make a mistake when he gave Kinsley her struggles. And you know what? He has a special plan for all of us and this pain that we feel right now has a very important role to play in that bigger story.”
“That doesn’t make it hurt any less.”
“I know, honey, I know.” Mom squeezed me hard. “It’s in the pain that we have to hold tightest to our faith in God. He’s got us, kiddo. And nothing can take us away from him. But we’ve gotta be brave.”
“I don’t feel very brave.”
“Neither do I.” Mom’s eyes were swimming in warm tears. “But if I put my little brave with your little brave, then we’ll have double the bravery. How about that?”
I managed a little smile. “Sure, Mom. We’ll be brave together.”
“That’s my girl.” Mom wiped the tears off of my face. “Now, do you want to have a cup of hot coco with me?”
“Can we add marshmallows and whipped cream?”
Mom faked a gasp. “Marshmallows and whipped cream?” She tapped her chin. “Well, okay. It is Christmas time after all!”
“Hey Mom, while you make it, I’m going to ask Kinsley to join us. Maybe she can add her little bravery to ours.”
A perfectly imperfect Christmas
“WE WISH YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS! WE WISH YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS! AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR!”
I rubbed my eyes and glared towards my holiday-themed alarm clock. Why did 5 AM come so soon?! I jumped out of bed and dashed to the bathroom and dunked my head into a sink full of freezing water.
“Perfect!” I cheered as I dried my face on a fuzzy towel. “This is going to be a great Christmas!”
I ran to the living room and smiled at the pile of presents I saw under the tree. I could hardly wait for breakfast to be over so that we could open them! Of course we needed to make breakfast before we could eat it.
Mom’s still asleep….what if I made it? Mom would be so proud!
I was about to put my plan into action, when Mom came to the kitchen, rubbing her eyes and yawning.
“Zoey, what are you doing awake?”
“It’s Christmas, Mom!” I bounced around the kitchen. “Who could sleep on a day like this?! Well, besides Kinsley?”
“So what are we having for breakfast?”
“Hold on, Zoey. I can’t think before I have my coffee.” She dumped the gross black stuff into her mug and took a long drink.
“How about you and I make something special?”
“Yay!” I cheered. “What are we going to make?”
Mom scrolled through a list of recipes that she had on her phone. “Hmm. Well, these cinnamon rolls look pretty good!”
My mouth watered as I stared at the picture. “Perfect.”
The cinnamon rolls were piping hot and the table was set. I raced to Kinsley’s room and was surprised to find that the door was unlocked. I slipped inside and found my sister with her head buried in a pillow.
“Kinsley?” I tapped her back. “C’mon! We made cinnamon rolls!”
“Go away, Zoe.” Kinsley’s voice was muffled.
“It’s Christmas, Sis! We’re going to have a good day!”
Kinsley raised her tear-stained face and glared at me. “Christmas?! Are you serious?! This is an awful year! Dad can’t be here and –” She shoved her face back into the pillow.
“Mom says –”
“I don’t care, okay?! Just go away! Christmas is ridiculous and I’m sick of hearing you blab about it. Just leave me alone, alright?!”
I crossed my arms and glared at the back of her head. “Fine! If you want to be miserable and grumpy all by yourself, go right ahead.”
I was almost finished with my fourth cinnamon roll when Mom hit me with some bad news.
“I know this is a really bad time, but I need to run into town for a couple hours.”
Mom sighed and ran her hand over her forehead. “Business stuff. I’ll be gone from ten to one. I was thinking that we could open gifts tonight.”
“But Mom!” I wailed. “It’s Christmas! Can’t work stop for Christmas?”
Mom’s face answered my question. I stuffed the last of my breakfast into my mouth and then asked, “So I’m gonna have to be stuck at home with Kinsley?”
Mom nodded. “Yeah. She’ll babysit you.”
There is nothing worse for a mature nine-year-old than to hear that she is going to be babysat. By her grumpy older sister. For three hours. On Christmas Day. I protested the best I could, but once Mom makes up her mind about something, not a lot is going to change it. Ten o’clock came and Mom was gone.
At first I wandered around the house. Kinsley was busy emailing or something. She made it very clear that she was not pleased at having to be babysitter and that she was planning on ignoring me for all 186 minutes that we were forced to spend together.
I heard the doorbell and when I opened the door I saw Cassandra Fleming standing in front of me. There are two things that any normal person would notice immediately about Cassandra. The first is her bright blue hair. The second is the sneer that seems permanently glued on her face.
“Oh, it’s you, Zoe.” Cassandra stared down at me like I was a slime covered dirt clod. “Where’s Kinsley?”
Kinsley shoved past me with her coat and hat on. “Zoey, I’ll be back later.”
“Wait, Kinsley, Mom won’t be happy if you leave –”
“I’m just going to help Cassandra with Christmas stuff. Bye!”
And the door slammed shut. I was left all alone.
Oh great! So now I’m all alone on Christmas morning! First Dad had to go for work, and then Mom and now Kinsley just abandons me?! Ah, this is a rotten Christmas. I mean, seriously!
I was indulging in another self-pity party when something caught my eye. It was the huge bag of sweet potatoes that lay on the kitchen counter. And that gave me an idea. I yanked on a sweater and raced to the Cur’s house. If I was going to put my plan into action, I would need some help.
“Explain this to me again.” Max was standing in the middle of my kitchen, looking very worried.
I smiled confidently. “Well, Max, my mom is gone right now so I thought that we could surprise her when she gets back!”
“Tracking so far.”
“Making Christmas brunch is a lot of work, and Mom is always so tired after she’s done. Sooo I was thinking, we’d make it for her!”
Max burst out laughing. I waited impatiently until he was done and then said, “Max, I’m serious. I know where she keeps her recipes. It’ll be a breeze! But I need your help, otherwise I’ll never get it finished.”
Max stared at me. “You’re crazy.”
“Yup.” I nodded and shoved a piece of paper into his hands. “Now, you make the sweet potatoes and I’ll work on the muffins.”
“Zoo, are you kidding me? Do you expect a manly man like me to slave away in the kitchen?!”
“Yes I do! And don’t call me that!”
“Why should I help you?!”
“Because you’re such a nice guy.” I smirked. “And because we’re having you over for Christmas.”
Max groaned but grabbed the bag of sweet potatoes and stared at the recipe.
“Uh, Zooey, this recipe looks really complicated. How are you supposed to boil sweet potatoes?”
I grabbed the recipe and glanced through it. “Eh, I think you just fill a pot with some water and dump the potatoes in.”
“Do I have to cut them up?”
I shrugged. “Just throw them in whole. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Mom cut them up….but then again I’ve not really paid attention to her cooking before.”
Max sighed. “You sure you want to do this?”
“Yes. YES!” I clenched my fits in determination. “This is going to be perfect.”
“If your mom asks whose idea this is, I had nothing to do with it, okay? Remember that.”
An hour and thirty four minutes later:
“Zoo, do you smell something?” Max was hacking away at a strawberry for the fruit salad. “Like, smoke?”
I sniffed and then gasped. “Oh no! OH NO!” I ran to the oven and yanked it open. Smoke billowed out at me. I yelled and jumped back. When the smoke cleared, Max stifled a laugh and I groaned.
“Max, there is absolutely nothing funny about what’s happened here.” I stared at the chunk of charcoal in front of me.
Max put his hand over his mouth. “Sorry, I’ve just never seen a ham cooked with such….heat!”
I glared at him. “Mom’s going to kill me! It’s totally ruined! And I just wanted to help out!”
“Well, I’m sure your mom will still be happy. I mean, we did finish the sweet potato casserole and the muffins.”
I glanced towards the counter and saw a sad little pile of half-cooked raspberry muffins lying in a puddle of batter. Next to them, sat a huge pan filled with chunks of sweet potato thrown together with equal amounts of sugar and raw marshmallows.
“Somehow, it doesn’t look the way Mom makes it.” I shook my head. “How’s the fruit salad coming?”
“I’m almost done.” Max pointed to a bowl filled with rather large (and squashed) chunks of fruit. “I’ve already cut up the apples, pears, peaches, grapefruit, tomatoes–”
“Wait. You added tomatoes to a fruit salad?”
“Everyone says that tomatoes are really a fruit and I saw that you had some in your fridge, so I added them.”
“What do we have left?” Max dumped the last of the fruit into the bowl and wiped his hands on his shirt.
“Let me see….Uh, we need to make the cranberry sauce and the mashed potatoes and gravy.”
“What about dessert?”
I was near tears and the stress of cooking was killing me. “Kinsley normally makes that, but since she’s not here, I guess we’ll have to make it, too!”
“How much time do we have left?”
“Not much!” I grabbed the stack of recipes. “You work on the gravy and I’ll do the cranberry sauce.”
I dumped some Craisins into a pan and added sugar and water. I turned the stove on and waited for them to magically turn into the perfect sauce that Mom always served.
“Uh, Zoo, I think we have a problem.”
“This recipe says that we need the fat dripping from the meat.”
“Oh no! Say it isn’t so!” I glared towards the oven where the burnt ham still sat. “Anything connected to that ham is history now!”
“What should we do?”
“You know what, I think we can survive without gravy this year. Work on the mashed potatoes instead.”
I went back to the stove top. “Hey Max, does this look right to you?”
Max glanced inside the pot. “Eh…it looks kind of watery. Isn’t it supposed to get thick?”
“Maybe it will later. I think I’ll turn the heat up on high.”
“That idea didn’t work to well for poor Mr. Ham.”
“Oh be quiet, Max.”
Forty five minutes later:
“How’s the cranberry sauce, Zoo?”
“It’s not looking good. Half of it is glued to the bottom of the pot and the other half is really strange looking. Should I start over?”
“How are the potatoes?”
“They’re done baking. But they’re really hot. How do I get them out of the oven without burning my hands?”
“Mom just grabs them with tongs.” I pointed to the drawer where the metal things lived.
“Okay.” Max said. “I’ll just put them in this bowl and pour some milk and butter on them and we should be good!”
“Don’t you need to mash them up?”
“Oh, yeah. That too.”
I sighed. “I’m going to start on the cake. The only problem is…” I searched franticly through the stack of papers on the counter. “I can’t seem to find the recipe for the double-layer triple chocolate cake! What am I going to do?!”
“Just make it up as you go along!” Max dumped half a gallon of milk on top of the burnt potatoes. “I mean, how hard can it be?”
Turns out, baking a cake is extremely hard. My attempt was so embarrassing that I’m not going to even write about it. All I’ll say is that the whole escapade included coco power (that may have ended up all over the kitchen) and a huge container of Nutella (that SOMEONE “accidentally” tried to throw at my head….but it missed and broke a pane of glass in the kitchen window instead…).
“We’re done!” Max raised his hands in triumph. “Your mom is going to be so proud!”
“Uh hu. I’m sure she will be.” I stared miserably at the, ahem, cake that sat at the head of the table. Around it stood the rest of the failed food. The ham graced the bottom of the trashcan.
“Shouldn’t she be getting home soon?”
“Unfortunately, yes. Max, we gotta get this kitchen cleaned up! It’s a total wreck! There is stuff everywhere!”
Max grinned. “Uh, sorry. I’m not good at cleaning. I’ll see you later!”
But he was already running towards his house.
“Max Cur! You –”
The front door opened and somebody ran inside. I was relieved to see that it was Kinsley (and not Mom). Kinsley stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the kitchen.
“Zoe Mai Trust Morris!”
Whenever anyone uses my full name, I know I’m in huge trouble.
“What in the world did you do in here?!” She gingerly stepped around piles of chocolate batter and puddles of milk.
“I tried to make the food for Christmas.” My voice resembled that of a mouse (well, that is, if mice could talk, I’m sure they’d have very small voices).
Kinsley kept shaking her head back and forth. “Zoey, you are in so much trouble!” She shoved a rag into my hand. “Hurry, we’ve gotta get this cleaned up before Mom gets home!”
“We? You’re going to help me?”
Kinsley glared at me. “If Mom sees this mess, she’ll know that I wasn’t here to babysit you and I’ll get in trouble.”
“Just get to work.”
The words had barley left Kinsley’s lips when we heard the sound that we both dreaded most. The house door opened and Mom stood in front of us. Before then, I had no idea how wide her mouth could open in shock. For a minute, she didn’t say anything. She just stared at both of us with wide eyes.
“W-what happened here?” Mom finally managed three words.
“It’s not my fault, Mom! Zoey did it all!”
Thanks a lot, Kinsley.
My lip quivered and I felt tears rush to my eyes. “I – I…”
Mom’s voice was stern and her eyes were literally shooting sparks of fire. “Zoe, I want the truth about this mess and I want it now. What happened to the kitchen?! And, oh my! Is the window broken?!”
I burst into tears and threw my arms around Mom’s waist. “I’m sorry, Mom!” I cried. “I just wanted to help! I really didn’t mean to make this mess!”
Mom gasped. “What is that in the trashcan?!”
“Oh my goodness.” Mom caught sight of the table. “What is that stuff there?”
“Christmas Brunch.” I sobbed.
“I don’t know what to say.” Mom sounded so disappointed. “Kinsley, how could you let Zoey make such a mess?”
“She wasn’t here.” I blurted out. “She went with Cassandra after you left.”
“Zoey!” Now I had two pair of eyes shooting flames in my direction.
“Kinsley?” Mom groaned and shook her head. “Go to your rooms now, girls.”
“I’m sorry, Mom.” I whispered one last time before walking to my room, shoulders bent and tears still streaming from my eyes.
I buried my face in my pillow and cried hard.
I tried so much to make this Christmas special! And look how it’s ended up? I’ve ruined all the special food and left a huge mess for Mom to clean up. Maybe I should just stop trying to help anyone. All I do is fail. This is awful.
“Zoey?” Mom sat down beside me and stroked my hair. “Hey, Baby.”
I lifted my head and sniffled. “Mom, please believe me –”
“I know, honey. You were just trying to help. And I’m thankful for that. But you shouldn’t have done any of that without permission.”
“I know, Mom. I’m sorry.”
Mom nodded. “You and Kinsley are going to have to clean up the kitchen.”
“Yes, Mom.” I sighed. “What are we going to do for brunch?”
“I don’t know.” Mom looked so tired, it hurt my little heart. “All the food is, well, we won’t be able to eat it. And I don’t have time to buy replacements. We’ll figure something out, okay?”
I nodded and hugged Mom tightly. She smiled and then pointed towards the door. “Now get to work, young lady! We have guests coming!”
Four o’clock brought with it Mrs. Cur and Max. Mom welcomed them in and hurried to bring them mugs of apple cider. Kinsley and I were putting the finishing touches on the kitchen.
“I’m exhausted.” I groaned.
Kinsley just glared at me. “Thanks to you, our Christmas is ruined.”
I sighed and went to greet Max.
“Was your Mom proud?” He asked. “Hey, where’s the food we made?”
I forced a weak smile. “Let’s just say, we’re not going to have a traditional Christmas meal this year.”
“What are we having then?”
I smiled for real. “You’ll see.”
“Hey everyone, come to the table for brunch!” Mom called.
Once we were all seated, Mom prayed. “Dear God, we thank you for this special holiday season. We thank you for all of the wonderful people sitting at this table and for two kids who tried to lighten the load of a tired mother by cooking Christmas Brunch. Most of all, we thank you for sending your son to give us hope and life. We love you, Lord.”
“FOOOD!” Max and I yelled together.
Mom smiled and handed a take-out box to Kinsley. “Pass this around, honey.” She turned to Mrs. Cur. “I’m sorry we aren’t having a more traditional meal.”
Mrs. Cur scooped some fried rice onto her plate. “Chinese takeout is one of our favorites!”
Mom laughed. “I’m glad! It was the only restaurant that was open!”
“Give me the sweet and sour chicken!” Max reached across the table and grabbed the container.
“Max.” Mrs. Cur gave her son the glance and he quickly quieted down.
“What are we having for dessert, Mom?” I asked. Dessert is a very important part of life, and it needs special attention.
Mom smiled at Kinsley. “Your sister agreed to make a single-layer double chocolate cake. She’ll work on it after we eat.”
“YAY!” Max and I cheered at the same time.
I was shoving another piece of chicken into my mouth when I heard someone fumbling at the front door. I hopped off my seat and opened the door. When I saw who was standing there, I froze and stared.
“Hey, Pumpkin Pie!”
“D-dad?!” I stammered. “But how? When?”
Mom rushed past me and threw her arms around Dad. Kinsley stood beside me; a huge smile washing away the anger and sadness that was normally there.
“You came for Christmas!” I whispered, when it was my turn to hug him. “I thought you were supposed to be gone!”
“I finished the work early and flew out this afternoon. I thought I’d just make it home in time for Christmas Brunch. Man, I can’t wait to taste some of that ham!”
I giggled nervously. “Oh, uh, can we just say that this whole Christmas is a surprise?”
That Christmas was the most unique one that I had celebrated in all nine years of my life. My whole family and Max and Mrs. Cur shared Chinese take-out and single-layer double chocolate cake along with a million laughs and a couple special, meaningful moments.
When Max and Mrs. Cur were about to head back over to their house, I pressed a little gift into Max’s hand.
“Hey, thanks for coming over.”
He smiled and nodded. “Yeah, it was fun.” He reached inside his coat pocket and held out an envelope. “Uh, I didn’t have time to get you anything, but here.”
“This doesn’t mean we’re friends, okay?”
I giggled. “Sure, Max. Whatever you say.”
I gasped. “Did you just call me Zoey? Not Zoo?”
But he was gone. I opened the envelope and pulled out a tiny card.
Thanks for inviting us over for Christmas time. No one has ever done that before. I know that Mom appreciated it a lot. Merry Christmas!
P.S. If you ever need help in the kitchen, give me a call! I’m quite an expert now.
“Max.” I laughed.
“Hey, Zoey! We’re going to have hot coco and open present! C’mon!”
If a passerby had happened to glanced through one of our windows, he would have seen a little family, all together, sitting before the fireplace with tall cups of hot coco, laughing and cheering together.
“Thank you, God.” I whispered. “Thank you for bringing my daddy home. Thank you for my family.” My eye caught the flickering Christmas lights of the Cur’s house. “And thanks for Max.”