Last Christmas, my lovely and talented friend Rita asked for some Christmas stories for a special Twelve Days of Christmas series at her blog. This was my little contribution. Please remember that this story is copyrighted. I ask that you don’t repost it without linking back here. Thanks!
The Reindeer Ride
The snow wafted down on Pete’s head, gently at first, but harder as the evening wore on. He leaned closer to the little fire pit he’d dug in his corner of the Christmas tree lot. There were still an awful lot of trees here. People just weren’t in a festive mood this season.
It had been a bad year all over the county. The fish cannery up in Tilghman Heights had closed, its owners having moved their operations to a cheaper facility in Mexico. That meant over 300 folks scraping by on unemployment. A summer hurricane had destroyed the promenade next to the beach, so the usual tourist trade had never shown up. And even the town newspaper had become a free online weekly, so that was another twenty-five people who weren’t actually getting paid for the work they did. Not to mention the suggestion that the town was so dead, it didn’t even have enough news worth printing.
Little wonder almost no one had bought a tree from Pete this year. This was the downside of being a Christmas tree farmer. You spent all year tending those little trees for one big event. If it didn’t go well, you were stuck for the rest of the year. The pre-cut trees here on the lot would get ground up for mulch. Then he’d have to cull a fair number of trees on the farm, sell the larger ones to a cabinetmaker near Tilghman Heights who used them to make knick-knacks he sold in a gift shop on the promenade.
The farm was paid off now, so he’d get by okay, supplementing with the income from the organic eggs and cheese he sold in his roadside stand. But it sure wouldn’t be a year of extravagance.
The wind picked up and whipped the snow into a whirl around Pete’s face. He was getting too old for all of this. Since Ellie had died, it was hard to find the point in maintaining Evergreen Acres Tree Farm. The farm had been the dream of their youth. In the early years, they’d even had a couple of reindeer. They would spend the whole off-season making crafts—Ellie’s ornaments for the tree and Pete’s snow globes. Thirty years ago, when Pete and Ellie had started, Christmas had still revolved around family time—not 24-hour shopping frenzies. People came to Evergreen Acres in droves then. They toured the farm, fed the reindeer, bought handmade ornaments, then cut down their tree and took it home.
A few years back, the county had made them surrender the reindeer because it said the deer might harbor some obscure Norwegian mite that could infect other mammals. Then Ellie got sick and couldn’t make the ornaments anymore, and Pete just lost heart. He’d even stopped making the snow globes. Last year a couple of high-powered lawyers from the city had gotten into an honest-to-God fist fight over who saw which tree first, and that was it for the cut-your-own business. It was the last and worst in a series of increasingly unpleasant occurrences. People were so hurried and so angry nowadays. This year, Pete had only done the pre-cut trees and even that wasn’t going well.
Maybe it was time to sell to the developers. Let them turn Evergreen Acres into a monstrosity of McMansions or even a business “park.” He’d go live with his son’s family in Texas. Sleep late, go fishing, finally enjoy what was left of his life.
“Excuse me,” a small voice intruded on Pete’s lavish bout of self-pity. He looked up from the workbench he used as a counter. At first, he didn’t see anyone. The twilight and the snow definitely made visibility poorer, but this was ridiculous. Pete stood and saw a little girl in a knit reindeer hat. Her cheeks and nose were ruddy with the cold. She looked to be maybe ten years old.
“Well, hello, little lady,” Pete said. “How can I help you?”
“I want a tree,” she chirped.
“Where are your parents?”
“Daddy’s hurt,” she said. “He can’t move around too well anymore, and Mommy is sad all the time lately, so she doesn’t think she wants a tree. I decided to come and get one for her.”
Pete swallowed hard. “Well, you’re a good girl to do that. What kind of tree do you want?”
“A big one!” she said, and her eyes lit up. Pete came out from behind his counter and knelt down beside her. Up close, he could see she had big brown eyes. Just like his dear Ellie.
“I can pay for it,” the little girl said. “I was saving up all year to buy presents, but I —” She stopped abruptly. “I decided to get the tree instead. I have $20. I saved it from my allowance.”
Pete chuckled. Normally, that would buy a small tree. But what the hell? It was Christmas Eve and no one else would be coming in this weather.
“Pick whatever tree you want, sweetie,” he said. He straightened and patted her on her reindeer hat. The little antlers jingled when he did so. There were tiny little bells on the ends.
The girl beamed at him and ran ahead, up one aisle and down the next. Finally she came to a tall, fat balsam fir.
“What kind is this?” she asked.
He told her its common name. Then he added, “Some people call it Balm-of-Gilead fir. There was an ointment in the Bible called Balm of Gilead that was supposed to bring healing to anyone who used it.”
Actually, he wasn’t too sure about that. Ellie was the Bible reader and after her lingering, painful death, Pete hadn’t felt inclined to pick the big book up ever again. But it made a good sales pitch, so he used it a lot.
The girl clapped her hands. “That will be perfect! It’s just what they need.” She fumbled in her coat pocket—it was a red cloth coat, the sort a child might wear for a special occasion, like going to Midnight Mass. Pete checked his watch. It was still early yet, only 6pm. He’d been planning on closing around 7pm, because he knew that no one else would bother coming in this weather.
The girl had dug out a rumpled clutch of five-dollar bills and was holding it out to Pete. He thought about the Dad—injured in some unnamed accident and no doubt short on funds because of it. He remembered a few rough years when he and Ellie were young and he’d actually swiped some money out of Tommy’s piggy bank to buy the Christmas turkey. Even though Tommy couldn’t be home this year, he called often. He’d even arranged for the grandkids to do a Skype session with Pete before midnight Mass tonight. Pete had been grumpy about the whole thing, but now he realized what a little technological miracle that Skype call would be. Looking at the little girl, Pete realized his somewhat dreary life could be a hell of a lot worse.
“What’s your name, sweetie?” he asked.
“Tell ya what, Abby,” he said. “You keep that money. This’ll be my Christmas present to you and your family.”
He expected a mild polite protest, but the girl stuffed the money back in her pocket and nodded solemnly.
“That’s a good idea,” she said to him, and she suddenly seemed older and wiser than her jingling reindeer hat would’ve indicated.
Pete went and got some netting and twine, bound the tree up and then dragged it to his truck. Getting too old for this sort of thing too, he thought, his breathing catching a bit as he hoisted the seven-foot tree into the truck.
“Hop up!” he called, and the little girl climbed onto the running board and then scrambled up into the passenger seat. Pete banked the little flame in the firepot, then closed and locked the gate around the tree lot. He joined the girl in the cab of his Ford F-350.
“Where to, Miss Abby?”
“It’s not far. The Manning house, on Briarcliff Road.”
“Ah, so you’re one of the Mannings,” he smiled. “Sam Manning went to school with my Tommy.”
“I know,” the girl said.
Pete stole a glance at her. “Really?”
“He used to talk about playing football with Tommy Parrish a lot. He misses football most of all.”
Pete grunted a response, avoiding some trite expression of sympathy. Also, he was focusing hard on the road. The Ford had 4-wheel drive, but even so, best to take care in conditions like this. The snow was coming down harder, fat, wet flakes that would turn to rain later tonight and make an icy mess of the road when the temperature dropped in the wee hours of the morning. Pete turned the windshield wipers up higher. A dim memory scratched at the door of his brain. A car skidding on an ice-covered road last winter. Tommy had mentioned it in one of their phone calls. Sam Manning had been badly injured the day before Christmas, he’d said. Might never walk again.
Pete gave a heavy sigh. “Must be hard on your dad.”
The girl agreed that it was. “But the tree will cheer him up, especially when he knows it came from me!” She giggled, a laugh full of mischief and merriment. Pete laughed too.
“I sure hope you haven’t given your parents a fright, sneaking out on a snowy night like this.”
“They won’t know,” she said.
They drove down silent, deserted streets, their only company the yellowish glow of the streetlights and the occasional whistle of the wind. Pete turned off of Main Street, making a left onto Briarcliff. It surprised him that he remembered the way to Sam’s house, no doubt from driving his son there back in high school. But that was what? Twelve years ago. And would Sam still be living in the same house, the house he’d grown up in?
Apparently so, because little Abby pointed straight ahead and piped up. “There it is. The grey house on the right.”
“I remember it,” Pete said.
The house was on a little hill, but the sturdy Ford easily traversed the distance in the accumulating snow. Pete halted in the driveway beside the house.
“You coming, Miss Abby?”
She shook her head until the bells on her little hat jingled. “I’m going to wait here for you to get the tree, if that’s okay.”
Pete hesitated, and then cursed his own cynicism. The girl’s feet couldn’t even reach the brakes.
“Well, you stay warm in here, and I’ll go let your mom and Dad know about their surprise.”
He traipsed up the path, noting the wheelchair ramp that had been built next to the front stairs. Poor Sam. Pete remembered him as a lanky, broad-shouldered quarterback for the high school team some fifteen years ago. Never easy to be wheelchair-bound, but must be even harder for an athlete.
Pete stepped onto the covered porch and stomped the snow off his boots. Then he rang the bell. After a few moments, a short, round woman with long red hair opened the door.
“Hello, Mrs. Manning, Merry Christmas to you,” he said. “I have your daughter’s special Christmas surprise here for you.”
The woman’s freckled face darkened. “Is this a joke? Because it’s in very poor taste.”
A man hobbled into view over the woman’s shoulder. It was Sam, equipped with crutches and leg braces. Pete looked forward to telling his son that Sam was back on his feet, however unsteadily.
“Mr. Parrish!” He bobbed his head by way of greeting and hobbled up to his wife’s side, the braces clanking as he approached.
“Hello, Sam. Sorry I haven’t seen you in an age. Don’t get off the farm much, now that Ellie’s gone.”
“Tommy always said his mom was your social director, sir.”
“Indeed she was, Sam, indeed she was.” After an awkward pause, Pete remembered his purpose. “I have a special Christmas surprise your little girl wanted me to bring you.”
Husband and wife exchanged what could only be termed a significant look. Pete had seen this look once or twice recently when he spoke to people younger than himself. It seemed to him to resemble the look he and Ellie used to exchange whenever his eccentric old grandfather spoke. Surely he wasn’t old enough to be looked at that way yet.
“That’s really not funny, especially at Christmas,” the woman said.
“Chrissie, I’m sure he doesn’t know,” Sam said to his wife. “I used to help out on Mr. Parrish’s farm back in the day. He’s a great guy.”
Sam turned his head to look at Pete. “You must have the wrong house, Mr. Parrish. Our girl died last year in the car accident.”
The wife gave an audible wince at the word “died.” “You don’t have to be so blunt,” she protested.
“Yes, I do,” Sam said. “We need to be able to say it.”
Pete sighed heavily. “Like cancer. Took my wife and me a long, long time to be able to say that word.”
He turned and looked back at the truck. He couldn’t see the little girl’s head in the window anymore. Of course she wasn’t there anymore. That was how stories like this always ended.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “A little girl in a red coat picked out the tree. She rode in the truck with me. Told me to come to this house.”
He raised his hands in a gesture of utter helplessness. The motion of a man acknowledging that he was trapped in the grip of an inscrutable power. It was true that Ellie was the Bible reader, not Pete. But that didn’t mean Pete had no belief in things unseen.
“Listen,” he said. “Why don’t I bring the tree up to your house anyway? Consider it a gift.”
“What am I going to do with a tree?” the woman fumed.
“I don’t want a tree!” she cried and she ran away from the door, into the dining room at the back of the house.
“It’s been a bad year,” Sam sighed.
“I’m sure it has,” Pete agreed. “I thought I was having a bad year, but I see now I was wrong.”
He raised a hand in a farewell gesture. “I’d tell you to have a Merry Christmas, but I know how much that annoyed me after Ellie died. Hope the new year treats you both better.”
He turned away from the door and took hold of the railing, preparing to head back to his truck.
“Mr. Parrish?” Sam called after him. Pete halted and turned to face the younger man.
“Why don’t you bring the tree up anyway? It might be a nice thing to have a tree after all. My mom’s coming over tomorrow. She’ll be glad to see we made the effort.”
Pete smiled. He remembered Sam’s mother as a fairly stern, strong-willed woman. He could imagine Sam wanting to have that tree in order to avoid an afternoon of nagging and criticism.
The snow was tapering off as Pete returned to his truck. He half-expected the tree to be gone. Wasn’t even sure the truck would be there. In fact, he wasn’t entirely sure he was awake.
In any event, he knew the girl would be gone and he was right. But when he opened up the passenger door, he found her reindeer hat sitting on the seat.
“Thank you kindly, Miss Abby,” he murmured, and he stuffed it in his pocket before going around to lower the truck’s liftgate.
Sam had opened the front door wide, but Pete left the bundled tree out on their porch. The young wife, Chrissie, had returned, wiping at her eyes and nose with the sleeve of her oversize sweater.
“I’ll let the snow melt off of it before bringing it in,” Pete said to them. “You can always decorate it on Christmas morning. I got nothing to do tomorrow, I could come back and help you get it up, put the angel on top if you’d like.”
“I’m sorry I was so rude,” Chrissie said to him. “Please come in for a minute.”
Pete stomped the snow off his boots and stepped into the foyer.
Unexpectedly, Chrissie Manning took hold of Pete’s hand. “I don’t know who you saw, but my little girl is gone. A year tonight.”
“I know,” said Pete. “I remember seeing it in the news stories now. I’m so sorry for your loss. But you see, a little girl in a red coat DID come to my tree lot this evening.”
He squeezed Chrissie’s hand in his own. “She said she’d saved up her allowance money and wanted a really big tree. Picked a balsam fir. That’s also called Balm-of-Gilead fir. It’s from a Bible story. The balm was supposed to heal the sick and—” Here he remembered something else Ellie had told him. “And it was supposed to help the dead rest easier.”
This time, the familiar sales pitch caught in his throat. He felt a stinging in his nostrils as he spoke.
“The young lady left this in my truck.”
He disentangled his hands from Chrissie’s surprisingly sturdy grip. Then he pulled the reindeer hat out of his coat pocket.
Sam, who’d been the calm, equable one up until now, turned white as a sheet. He staggered back from them and slumped against the closet door in the foyer. Chrissie gasped and held out her hand for the little hat. It was beige with big white googly eyes sewn on to it. It had little pink and beige ears and a pair of black stuffed antlers with tiny bells on the tips.
“Oh, Mr. Parrish!” she sobbed and sank to the floor on her knees, burying her face in the hat.
“It smells like her shampoo,” she said, rubbing the hat against her face.
“Chrissie—” Sam murmured, his voice pleading. She looked up at him, seemed to realize his frustration. She rose and held the hat out to him. Sam’s weight still rested on the crutches, but he stretched a hand out and fingered the hat. His jaw twitched with the effort to keep his emotions under control.
“I washed her hair that morning,” Chrissie said to him. “That weird watermelon shampoo she loved. Smell it!”
She held it up higher and he sniffed at the hat. Pete thought his heart would break, watching the two of them clutching at that hat.
“I stayed behind to finish wrapping gifts that night,” Chrissie said to him. “I was going to meet them at church and then we were going to go on to my mom’s from there. But I never got to the church. And except for the funeral, I haven’t been back since. I saw their wreck on the road when I left an hour later. I made this hat with my own hands, and she loved it so. I buried her in this hat. I buried her in it.”
Sam and Chrissie stared at him, as if expecting him to explain the impossible, the ineffable.
“I guess she wanted you all to know she’s thinking of you wherever she is. She was very jolly. Laughing a lot.”
“That’s good, that’s good,” Chrissie said. “Thank you, thank you for coming. And for not running away when I yelled at you earlier.”
She kept staring at the hat.
“It was no trouble at all, Mrs. Manning, no trouble at all.”
“Will you have some cider and stay a while?” Sam asked, his voice full of emotion.
“I think I will at that,” Pete agreed.
They took his coat and hung it on a rack with some other wet things. Then they ushered him into their home, past the dining room and into the cluttered kitchen. Chrissie knelt and helped her husband adjust the leg braces so he could sit at the table with them. She brought out a box of Girl Scout cookies and took a kettle of warm cider from the stove.
Pete ate the cookies and drank the cider. He listened to Sam and Chrissie talk about their daughter, and he even told them about his Ellie.
Suddenly, during a lull in the conversation, Sam spoke up. “How does something like this happen?”
None of them had an answer.
“Why doesn’t everyone get a miracle?” Sam went on. “And why don’t we get to choose what the miracle is?”
Chrissie gave a laugh. “Because we’d all waste it on winning lotteries and being rock stars.”
“Too true,” Pete admitted.
He thought about the little girl in the reindeer hat, coming so far just to get a tree for her parents, and he thought of his Skype call with his grandkids later tonight—and then he checked his watch. It was only eight p.m. He still had a couple of hours to go.
“You know, I thank you all for the cider,” he said, rising from the table. “I think we should get that tree up tonight. It just seems right.”
Chrissie and Sam murmured their agreement, gazing at the hat that was now sitting on the kitchen table.
“Do you have a stand?”
“No,” Sam admitted. “We had an artificial tree last year.”
Pete gave him a darkly comical look. “People like you are why I’m going to wind up retiring to Texas soon.”
Sam exchanged a sheepish shrug with his wife.
“I’ll go back to my lot and get a tree stand,” Pete said. “But I have some errands to run, so I might be a little while.”
He was thinking about Christmas trees and miracles and how we don’t get to choose the miracles but sometimes we do get to make one happen.
Pete drove back to the lot and loaded a bunch of the smaller trees into the bed, along with as many stands as he had. Then he headed up to Tilghman Heights, where the fish cannery had closed and people were scrabbling to survive on food stamps and unemployment and not much hope at all. He figured he’d just start knocking on doors and see who wanted a free Christmas tree and a story about miracles.
That was the first year. Every year afterwards, it got bigger and bigger. Soon Pete wasn’t just delivering trees, he was delivering Christmas dinners and toys too. He sold a piece of his land to help pay for it all, but he still had plenty of room to grow his trees.
After a couple of years, Sam joined him on the rides. He always walked with a pronounced limp and he wore a back brace and couldn’t do the heavy lifting, but he drove the truck for Pete. Sometimes he brought the reindeer hat with him, if they’d heard there was someone on the route who had a real need to hear about a true miracle.
Now people call it Abby’s Reindeer Ride, after the little girl with the reindeer hat.
copyright Linda Reynolds-Burkins, December 2013 / reindeer hat by “The Queen of Subtle” on Flickr – reposted from Pinterest