For Robin and Grace, with love
Tim Clarke took just a second to remember the moment. His daughter Grace sat beside him on the couch in front of the empty fireplace. She was looking at the cover of the book on her lap with the kind of concentration that only a seven-year-old can muster. He could smell the cookies that had just finished baking; a plateful was sitting on the mantle with the usual glass of milk. He could see the snow falling outside the house, the large flakes dancing in the glow of the front porch light.
He took a half-second too long.
"Are we gonna start?" Grace asked.
"Sure," Tim said. "You go first."
Grace opened the book — a book that she had owned since her fourth Christmas and no longer really needed to use — and began to read.
"'Twas the night before Christmas... '"
"' ... and all through the house, '" Tim read, taking his turn.
"'Not a creature was stirring. Hey! You were supposed to start this year!"
Tim laughed. Grace had said the same thing the previous Christmas.
"Too bad," he said, sticking out his tongue. "' ... not even the Mouse.'"
Grace gave him a mock glare. Tim just smiled. Even now, four years after the accident that had claimed his wife's life, it was sometimes hard to look at Grace without seeing Sarah's blue eyes and blonde hair. And it was hard not to remember that she didn't care for the nickname that Sarah had given her.
Grace returned to the book.
"'The stockings were hung... '"
"' ... by the chimney with care."
"'In hopes that Saint Nicholas... '"
"' ... soon would be there."
Tim watched Grace turn her head to look out the window at the snow. Even in this snow-jaded part of upstate New York, this counted as a big storm. Grace's head slowly turned to the fireplace.
"Don't worry. Santa won't let a little snow stop him."
"It's snowing pretty hard, Dad."
"Not too hard for reindeer, honey."
"That's good. I had a dream about Santa last night and he told me he was going to get me what I asked for."
"I hope you didn't ask for anything that wasn't in your letter," Tim said.
"Sort of," she said, a sly look spreading over her face. "I wished for a mom."
"Yeah. I miss her."
"Me too, Mouse."
"And I know it won't be the same, but I think we need another one, y'know?"
"Don't say 'y'know, ' Grace," Tim said. Thirteen years of teaching high school English had left him with certain reflexes. "Santa Claus doesn't usually bring people on his trips. It would be awfully cold in his sleigh."
"He told me he would," Grace said. "Don't you like girls, Daddy?"
"Of course I like girls," he said. "I married your mom, didn't I? And we had you."
"Did you go on dates and stuff?"
"Sure. We went to the movies and out to dinner. And we liked taking walks together and going skating and cross-country skiing."
"Don't you want to do that again?"
"If I find the right girl, sure."
"Well, that's what I asked Santa for," Grace said. "The right girl. Santa told me to ask for anything I wanted. So I asked him for something for both of us."
"And what did he say?"
"He said I would get a new mom before I got a new PlayStation."
Tim laughed. That was a pretty safe bet, given the cost of new gaming platforms.
"I didn't even know you wanted a new PlayStation. What's wrong with your old one?"
"Nothing. It just doesn't play all the new games."
"I'd rather have a mom anyway."
"Well, thank you for asking, Grace," Tim said. "For both of us. That was very thoughtful. Just don't be too disappointed if we don't find a woman under the tree tomorrow morning, okay?"
"Whatever you say, Dad. I love you."
"I love you too. We need to finish so someone can go to bed."
"Yeah, right. I'm gonna catch him this year."
"I meant me, honey. Daddy's tired. And he knows who's going to be waking him up at seven o'clock. Just remember the rules."
"I know, I know. I can't go downstairs before seven. But I can still sleep on the stairs, right?"
"On the landing," Tim said with a nod. "I'll get your pillow and your comforter as soon as we're done. Deal?"
When Tim's alarm clock went off, he looked over at the red numbers. Eleven o'clock. Just enough time to transform the living room and still get some sleep. He got up as quietly as he could and crept out of the room. The hundreds of miniature multi-colored lights on the Christmas tree cast a festive glow on the staircase. Good thing too, Tim thought. Without the light, he would have tripped over his daughter, sleeping peacefully on the landing.
He stepped over her and silently went about the bittersweet task of creating Christmas. It was something that Sarah had loved to do, even before Grace was born. The old farmhouse that they had bought twelve years ago seemed to come to life at Christmas, as if the other seasons of the year were simply appetizers. After Grace, the decorating had grown to occupy nearly two hours. Tim had scaled it back in recent years, but still spent the time necessary to convince Grace that Santa had visited.
When he was finished, he toyed with the idea of taking her back upstairs; kids that age were like rag dolls when they were asleep. But Mouse would be disappointed not to wake up on the stairs. It would still be dark, but in the light of the tree she would be able to see the filled stockings, the plate where the cookies had been, and the empty milk glass. She would convince herself that she had just missed him. Next year, she would tell herself. Next year, provided nobody had spilled the beans about Santa Claus, she would catch him in the act.
Tim tiptoed upstairs and returned to his bed. He was counting on seven hours of sleep before Grace burst in to wake him up and drag him downstairs.
The knock at the door was faint at first. Grace wasn't sure how long it had been going on before it finally woke her up. It grew louder and more frantic, becoming more of a banging, until she quite distinctly heard a woman's voice say, "Shit, shit, shit" on the other side of the door.
She glanced upstairs, wondering whether to wake her father. On the one hand, that usually took a good deal of shaking; Dad was a pretty sound sleeper. On the other hand, there was the Christmas Day injunction: she could go to the bottom step, but no further, until Dad was up and ready.
She went to the bottom step. A quick glance at the tree brought a frown to her face. She had obviously missed him again.
"Oh, please," the woman said again, her voice cracking as she gave the door a final blow with the side of her fist.
Grace decided that the woman's obvious distress represented an exception to the rule. She walked over and pulled the door open a foot. The woman had turned around to stare at the snowstorm and hadn't heard the door open. She was wearing a short parka and apparently little else. Her long blonde hair flew back and forth in the wind. Her bare legs were covered with goose bumps. She was wearing high heels that added four inches to her height.
Perhaps she was a retard.
The woman whipped around. She was obviously tired and she had been crying.
"Oh, thank God," she said. "My car skidded into the ditch in front of your house and my cell doesn't work here. Could I, um, use your phone, please?"
Grace's eyes traveled up and down the woman.
"You forgot your pants," she finally pointed out.
"Yeah," the woman said. "I am a little cold standing here, honey."
"Maybe you should have worn pants."
"Sweetie, could I please, please, please come in?" the woman begged. Tears were forming in her eyes again.
Grace rolled her eyes and let the woman into the foyer.
"You're not, like, a retard, are you?"
I'm sorry?" the woman said, turning around to talk to Grace. She had been staring at the tree.
"You're not wearing pants, your phone doesn't work, and you crashed your car."
"What's your name?"
"Hi, Grace. I'm Claire. It's a long story, Grace. Could you tell me where the phone is, honey?"
"In the kitchen, on the wall."
Claire walked through the dining room toward the doorway to which the young girl pointed. Grace was right behind her.
"Thank you," Claire said as she picked up the phone. "I'm just going to call my Dad. He'll come pick me up and you can get back to sleep. I guess Santa's been here already, huh?"
"Yeah. I knew you weren't him anyway. He comes down the chimney."
"That's right. Gracie, are you going to stand right here while I call?"
Grace nodded solemnly.
It was an old-fashioned, black dial phone, one that matched perfectly the house in which Claire had found refuge. She dialed the numbers as the little girl watched.
"Stupid machine," she muttered. "Dad? Mom? Dad! Mom! Are you guys there! Pick up the phone! Hello! Shit. Call me back, please?"
She read the number off the phone and then looked over to see that Grace's eyebrows had shot up underneath her blond bangs.
"You said a bad word," Grace said.
"I'm sorry. Don't tell your parents, okay? It looks like I'm going to be here for a while."
"It's only my dad," Grace said. "My mom is dead. Do you want some pants?"
"Um, sure. That would be very nice. Thank you, Grace. Maybe you should wake up your father."
"I know where the pants are."
.... There is more of this story ...