“It is two days before Christmas,” Vanessa grumbled over the noise of her daughters’ bickering.“Can’t you at least try to get along?” “Mom’s right,” Mike piped up as he leaned into the steering wheel and checked the oncomingtraffic. “I’m not doing anything,” their youngest, Maggie, whined.
Starting right over top of her sister, Julia exhaled and rolled her eyes. “I was just kidding!” “You were making fun of me,” Maggie corrected her. “Mom, she’s teasing me because of myteeth!”
As she tattled, Maggie’s mouth fell open just enough to show the new hole in her gums whereher two front teeth had been last night.
“Judith Mari Campbell,” Vanessa snapped, wriggling out of her seat belt to cast an icy stare intothe back seat. “Stop teasing your sister about her lost teeth. And both of you straighten up. Your aunt anduncle didn’t invite us over so we could fight all day.” Both girls slumped down into their seats and stared out their respective windows as the carturned onto a residential street.
“Besides, girls,” Mike warned, “it’s Christmas Eve tomorrow but that doesn’t mean it’s too latefor you to go on Santa’s naughty list. I’d be careful if I was you.” “Yeah, right,” Julia started sarcastically.
But the remark was interrupted by the sound of Vanessa opening her door. “Alright, everyone out,” she ordered, unbuckling her belt and stepping out onto the sidewalk infront of the white, wooden house. “Daddy’s going to get the bags. You girls come with me to say hi toeveryone.”
Reluctantly, each of the girls undid their seat belts and climbed out into the frozen, Decemberair. As their dad killed the engine of the van, Julia and Maggie scampered up onto the driveway at the heelsof their mom. “I’m just saying, sis: don’t smile in any pictures,” Julia hissed into the hair that covered Maggie’s ear. “That’s mean! Why would you say that?”
Doing her best to ignore the small voices that had started back up on either side of her, Vanessaballed her hand into a fist and wrapped strongly on the front door. “What?” Julia shrugged. “I’m just saying not to do it unless you winner scare everybody withyour ugly all week.”
“Vanessa! Girls!” Spotting her sister-in-law as the front door swung open, Vanessa’s grim expression immediatelybrightened. She stepped past the girls as they matched each other, glare for glare, and enveloped the womanin a warm hug. “You have no idea what kind of drive it’s been,” she mumbled. “Oh, I think I have a pretty good idea,” Angela reassured Vanessa.
“Oh my…! Are these the twins?!” Vanessa squealed, pulling back and brushing past Angela.The twins had certainly grown since the birth announcement had come in the mail. Still, Vanessa couldrecognize her little niece and nephew as they scampered around the entryway on their hands and knees.
“And hello to you girls,” Angela said evenly, diverting the girls’ attention from their latest spat. “Isure hope that’s not an argument I hear stirring. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, after all – and I’m sure youboth know who’s paying close attention this time of year. Now come give me a hug and then I’ll help yourfather with the bags!” ___
As everyone had settled into the living room, dragging suitcases at their heels, the doorbell rangagain. Angela traipsed back through the hall with the twins scooting along at her heels. Swinging the frontdoor wide open, she found the rest of her company waiting out on the front porch.
“Welcome back,” she piped, going down the line to hug George, Martha, and their son James.Turning to her husband, who had shuttled the company home from the airport, she added, “And welcomeback home. Come in.”
Angela stepped aside and allowed everyone to shuffle past; her husband, Rick, wandered in last,carrying the last of the suitcases. As he passed, he planted a quick kiss at the edge of her lips.
“Where is everyone?” Martha asked, ruffling James’s hair.“The kids are downstairs in the playroom.”“Playing nice, hopefully,” Vanessa added from her corner on the couch.
“Except for these two squirts,” Rick said, kneeling down to grab up the nearest of his two one-year-olds. Straightening, he balanced Henry against his side.
“Jamie, you can be my assistant,” Julia announced proudly, surveying the toy oven and itsaccessories carefully. “And Maggie can be my customer. Pretend she’s sitting here in her chair and there’s amaginary table. And you just ordered some cakes but Jamie slipped on this ball when he’s trying to take themto you.”
“That’s what I asked Santa Claus for, you know,” James exclaimed as he pantomimed taking adish of cakes from Julia. “A new ball.” “What for?” Maggie asked, taking her seat in the little chair in the corner of the play room. “So I can play four square with my friends.” “Like it matters,” Julia grumbled. “Santa doesn’t even exist. Could you just trip with the cakesalready, Jamie?”
“You’re being mean!” Maggie accused in one of her high-pitched tones. She folded her arms overher stomach and sank into the chair, sulking. “What?” James shrugged as Julia’s glare crossed him. “You are being kind of mean.”
“I’m just trying to help all you babies. But if you want to be lied to, fine by me. Enjoy yourChristmas with your stinky Santa Claus, you stinky toothless sister!”
Her cheeks starting to burn red, Julia turned on her heel with a loud huff ! and let herself quicklyout of the playroom, slamming the door closed after her. Immediately, Maggie’s bottom lip started to quiver.
“Aw, come on. She’s just grumpy because she knows Santa’s not going to get her anythingtomorrow night,” James explained kindly. Pretending to hoist his platter of cakes above his shoulder, hemarched in a straight line for Maggie’s chair.
“I don’t know about that,” she admitted lowly. “Look out for that ball.” “Thanks, ma’am!” James exclaimed. “You just saved me and your cakes! Here you go. Is thereanything else I can get you?” Maggie pretended to take the dish from James. But when she’d received it, she just stared glumlyat her empty hands.
“My two front teeth,” she suggested quietly. “Don’t look so down, kid,” he instructed with a broad smile. “Julia might not know it but SantaClaus does too exist.” “How do you know?”
“If I tell you the story, can I share your cakes, ma’am? It’s been an awful long day and my momforgot to pack me a lunch.” “Of course, my kind boy,” Maggie agreed, snapping back into character and motioning to thespot across form her chair.
James loyally took a seat on the other chair. “Thank you, ma’am,” he nodded and motioned as if taking a cake form the invisible platteroffered to him by Maggie. “Most delicious! Now, it wasn’t too long ago that I was having a rough Christmas,too. But that all changed when I saw my mom kiss the real, live, actual Santa Claus…” ___
The sleeping bag rustled as Maggie crawled to the opening, on all fours, and poked her head outinto the darkness. And if she breathed quietly enough and sat still enough, she could hear all the adultsmoving about on the floors above. But the morning was generally still. Leaving her sleeping bags and a mass of tangled blankets behind, Maggie stumbled to thedoorway of the playroom. As she snuck outside and tiptoed up the staircase, she left behind her sister whereshe slept curled against the couch.
“What are you doing up already, bear?” Angela blurted quickly over the brim of her coffee cup asa little pair of eyes appeared around the corner of the stairs. “Is everyone else up?”
“Just me,” Maggie replied, scrambling the rest of the way up to the second floor. Warm smells of brewing coffee and baking bread filled the kitchen. Angela sipped at her drinkcasually from her perch atop an island stool. But Vanessa and Mike worked around her, setting pans to warmon the stove and rearranging boxes of ingredients into different bowls.
“What are you guys cooking?” “Starting all our Christmas treats,” Vanessa replied. “How’d you sleep, sweetheart?” “Good, I guess. Is everyone else asleep too?” “Just your grandma and the twins. Everyone else is in the dining room finishing up breakfast.Are you hungry yet?”
“Don’t know,” Maggie mumbled on her way past as she padded her way into the dining room. “Hey, there’s another one now!” one of the guys exclaimed as she wound her way to an emptychair and climbed up. “Morning,” she mumbled lowly.
“Show your grandpa one of your smiles, eh? Your dad’s been telling me you’ve been losing teethleft and right!” Grandpa George exclaimed, flashing her a cheesy smile of his own as if illustrating therequest. Maggie slowly shook her head ‘no.’
“What about this one, pop?” Rick wanted to know. “Remember when we were kids and everytime we lost a tooth we’d try to best each other at tongue twisters? Try this one out, kiddo. Repeat after me:‘Sister Suzie sitting on a thistle.’” Maggie shook her head again, a little quicker this time.
“What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” “Or should we say: teeth?” There was a round of laughter lifted from the group of men as Vanessa wandered in from thekitchen. “What’s this? Picking on poor little Maggie already, are we?” she wondered.
“They sure are,” James hollered over the racket. “Julia, too.” Immediately, the laughter lessened and Vanessa’s expression turned more serious. She leanedagainst the back of one of the chairs. “What about Julia?”
“She’s being mean. Last night, she told Maggie there is no such thing as Santa Claus. Then shemade fun of her missing teeth and wouldn’t play with us anymore,” James let out, all in one breath that lefthim looking both relieved and concerned. “Is that right, Maggie?” “Yeah, mommy.”
Poor Julia doesn’t believe anymore,” George mumbled into his mug of coffee. “Not to mention I can’t get these two little monsters of mine to get along for the life of me,”Vanessa added with an exhausted sigh. “Well, Julia’s asleep for now. Come on, kids. You can help mix thechocolate chips into the pancake batter.”
“Pancakes?!” one of the kids exclaimed as they both leapt down from the chairs and rocketedtoward the kitchen. “Can we fill the whole thing with chocolate?” “We’ll see,” Vanessa laughed as she disappeared with the kids in tow.
“This ought to be an interesting Christmas,” George grumbled. “What kind of kid doesn’t taketheir parent’s word for it anymore? Ah, that girl needs a nice time out, is what she needs.” “Or maybe she needs something else,” Rick suggested, drawing the words out as he stared intothe distance and a plan formulated in his mind. “Dad? I think I have an idea.” ___
“Alright, kids. That’s by far enough. Everyone grab your blankets; we’re going to bed.” “But mom! The movie’s not even over yet,” Julia whined, squishing herself deeper into the couchcushion and not bothering to quit staring at the television.
“We could finish it tomorrow,” James suggested as he got up from the floor and placed the pillowback onto the armchair. “Or I could let you borrow it.” “We already have The Grinch,” Julia informed him snidely. “I want to watch it tonight.”
“Sorry. No-can-do, kiddo,” Mike reaffirmed. Wordlessly, Maggie stumbled to her feet and wandered over to her dad’s side, grabbing for hishand. She waited patiently as James wandered over and Vanessa rounded up Julia.
“Bed,” she ordered, shutting off the DVD player. Julia launched herself for the remote control. “That’s not going to work, Judith. That’s not the remote for the DVD player. Now, we can sithere and argue all night. Or you can go to bed with your sister and James and fall asleep so Santa Claus cancome,” Vanessa explained evenly, her eyebrows raised in a disappointed expression. “And I don’t want to hearany more about Santa not being you-know-what.”
With a final huff and a large rolling of the eyes, Julia slowly slid off the couch. Mike started offfor the playroom with Maggie and James in tow. Bitterly, Julia stomped after him, grumbling the entire wayto bed.
“Get up! Get up! Do you hear that?!” Maggie wriggled her toes free of her sleeping bag and scrambled, on her hands and knees, toJames’s sleeping bag. “Come on,” she hissed. “Listen! Don’t you hear the bells?”
“Is it Santa?” James blurted, sitting up and dumping the blankets off his torso.“I think so,” she nodded quickly, wide awake. “We’ve got to get Julia, too. Let’s go peek upstairs.”
Maggie hurried on her knees to Julia, whispering instructions to get up and shaking her sister’sshoulder. James hurried to the door and pulled it open an inch or two. “Julia, Santa’s upstairs. James and I just heard him.”
When Julia was first startled awake, she glared into the shadowy face of her younger sister.“Get off,” she grumbled.“No, come on! Santa’s upstairs!”Julia shimmied out of her sleeping bag and propped herself up.“Really?”Maggie nodded her head quickly and motioned for her to come along.
“You don’t think he knows we’re awake, do you? What if we interrupt him and he forgets toleave all the presents?” James whispered as all three kids gathered to peek out the door. “We’ll just be extra sneaky,” Maggie suggested.
“Yeah, come on. Don’t be scaredy cats, you turtlesauce,” Julia snapped, pushing past the othertwo and slipping out into the hall and up the stairs. Maggie rolled her eyes and James shrugged as they followed her lead. They scampered up the staircase and paused at the top so they could squish all together and peekjust their eyes around the corner. They inhaled collectively, grins immediately spreading across their faces.
There was Santa Claus, dressed in the cherry-red suit they’d seen him wearing at the mall earlierthis year. He stood at the Christmas tree, touching an ornament or two and chuckling as he examined thedecorations. “Merry Christmas,” he said suddenly.
Each of the kids startled back, jumping back out of sight as Santa spoke.He chuckled deeply.“While we’re all awake,” he ventured, turning from the tree. “James?”
“Yes, sir?” James whispered, reappearing around the corner. He gently got to his feet andstraightened out his pajamas as he ventured closer to the towering, broad man. “You’ve been quite the good boy this year, haven’t you?” James shrugged. “Well, I-I tried, sir.” “And you’ve done a fairly good job. You could eat your vegetables more often. But you should beproud. And Judith?”
Julia appeared around the corner next, tiptoeing the most tentative of all the kids. “H-hello, Mr. Santa,” she squeaked sheepishly. “I’m afraid you’ve been bullying your little sister a rather lot,” Santa pointed out sadly. “Is thattrue?” “I think so,” Julia confessed.
“It would do you good to recall it wasn’t too long ago that you were missing your two frontteeth,” he reminded her, producing a picture of a toothless, grinning Julia from one of his pockets. He staredat it thoughtfully, then cleared his throat and turned to balance it on one of the tree branches. “You two aresisters; you should be there for each other.” “Yes, sir,” Julia nodded quickly.
“And as far as two front teeth go, Maggie. You must be patient. I cannot give them to you forChristmas. But if you’re a good little girl and are patient, they will come before you know it,” he added asMaggie came around the corner. “It’s true,” Julia offered up in a small voice. She reached out and patted one of her sister’s arms. “It is.” “Now you three better head back to bed so I can leave your presents under the tree. Good night,you three. And Merry Christmas.”
The kids returned with a ‘merry Christmas’ as they turned and started back down the stairs. “Wait,” Julia blurted. “Santa? Are there presents for me in that bag, too?” Santa smiled and chuckled deep in his chest. “Let me ask you this, Judith: do you believe in meagain?”
Julia’s smile returned as she blushed and played with the ends of her hair.“Oh, absolutely,” she promised.“Then we shall see in the morning,” Santa promised. “Now off to bed, please.”
“Yes, sir,” she agreed promptly and hurried to catch up with James and Maggie. ___
“Alright, everyone! Gather close for a picture! Say ‘toys!’” James pulled the twins closer as Maggie and Julia gathered on either side. They each clung totheir new toys, grinning from ear to ear, and shouted “TOYS!” as Vanessa snapped a picture.
“Can we keep opening them now?” James wanted to know.“OK, OK,” she conceded. “Let’s see what else you three got from Santa. Who wants to go next?”
“Maggie can,” Julia announced. She grabbed one of the presents addressed to her younger sisterfrom under the tree and placed it gently in her lap. “Here, see what the elves wrapped in this one.”
As Maggie agreed and began tearing the paper off, Rick and Angela settled down on the couch.Mike pulled Vanessa aside and leaned in close.. “It’s a Christmas miracle,” Mike whispered to her. “Do you see those kids getting along?” “I sure do,” Vanessa smiled. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” Rick repeated. “And ‘ho, ho, ho.’”