His fork cut through the chicken cacciatore too quickly and scraped plate. Her spoon slid sideways and
launched a pea under the table.
The dog scrambled to his feet and darted under the table to snatch it up between his teeth. And the boy
giggled when the fur brushed his bare toes, grabbed a handful of his own peas, and scattered them across the
“James!” the woman, the boy’s mother, exclaimed. “Don’t throw your food.” As she edged her chair away
from the dining room table, she added, over the top of James’s head, “Sweetheart, where are your paper
“Don’t worry about the peas,” the man at the end of the table told her. “Picasso will get it.”
The dog’s ears perked up at the sound of his name as he finished his work vacuuming up the peas and
positioned himself under James’s chair.
“See, James? Now you made him beg.”
“Sorry, mom,” James mumbled.
“Go on, Picasso. Go lay down,” Rick ordered.
The dog got up slowly and slunk out through the doorway to the living room.
Rick shook the table as he sawed away at another bite of cacciatore. Angela sipped at her glass of sparkling
cider. James chased a clump of his saffron rice around his plate with his fingers.
“James,” Angela said in a warning voice. Her eyebrows arched high over her slate grey eyes and she stared at
the small blond boy who sheepishly flicked the pieces of rice off his finger and dropped both hands into his
He pursed his lips into a frown and scowled at the evergreen tablecloth.
“I don’t know why you have to act like this, James. Please sit up and eat your dinner,” she added.
He whimpered. “I don’t like it.”
“What are you talking about? It’s chicken, rice, and peas. You like those just fine.”
“They taste funny.”
Rick leaned forward in his chair. “That’s because they’re, uh, fancy.”
James blinked at Rick. “What?”
“Look, it’s fancy chicken. And fancy rice.” He poked a piece of chicken with his fork and lifted it to his lips.
“They’re delicious. See? Mmmm…”
Rick shot Angela a poignant look. She shot straight up in her chair, grabbed up her own fork, and scooped a
bite of rice into her mouth.
“Mmmm, fancy,” she said around the food.
James looked between his mom and her boyfriend. They waited on edge, hoping he’d break into one of his
toothy smiles, grab up his own fork and exclaim ‘Mmmm’ with them as they ate.
Angela dropped her fork next to her plate and slumped back in her chair.
“Sweetheart, don’t you have anything for James? A sandwich, a piece of pizza… Something?”
Rick took the napkin from his lap and set it next to his plate.
“I think I have some hotdogs in the fridge,” he said and slid his chair back from the table. “I’ll go see what I
“Great. Thank you.” She smiled and patted his arm on his way past. As the sound of the refrigerator opening
and closing and cupboard doors rattling began coming from the kitchen, a sharp, incessant ringing also
started. Angela sighed and hurried into the living room, where the ringing cell phone hid in the depths of her
A moment later, she hit ‘end’ on the call and returned.
She moved swiftly past James and continued on into the kitchen.
“I have to go into work,” she announced in a deflated tone.
“What?” Rick asked as he spun away from the counter where he constructed a hotdog.
“Seamus just called. Apparently, working fourteen hours today wasn’t enough. He wants me to go to the
downtown office and help with the Christmas promotion.”
She wandered to the counter Rick had abandoned and leaned against the granite surface. She peered through
her long, dark eyelashes at the plate for James and plucked up a potato chip.
“Are you kidding? “
“I can’t get out of it. Apparently, it’s our busiest night yet. Could you watch James?”
Rick brushed her hands softly away from the plate and set to mopping misfired squirts of ketchup and
mustard up off the ceramic dish. “How long are we talking? Like an hour?”
“A couple hours at most. Please, Rick?”
He popped open the lid of the garbage can and dropped the yellow and red paper towel on top of a heap of
chocolate wrappers, wine, and his first attempt at the saffron rice.
“Yeah, okay,” he sighed. “But a couple hours at most. The whole point was to spend tonight together.
“Deal,” she agreed with a smile just before planting a light kiss on his anxious half-smile.
“We could… do a puzzle.”
“Don’t know how.”
“I could show you.”
“Fine. What do you want to do?”
Rick scratched his ankle with his foot and regarded James with an aggravated expression.
“Watch the Grinch.”
“No,” Rick sighed. “No. We already did that. Twice. Pick something new.”
“We could…” James’s voice trailed off as he squinted off into space, deep in thought. “Listen to the Grinch
Rick grumbled and dropped his head into his hands.
“I don’t have that.” He got up from his spot on the couch, pulling James up by the hand along with him.
“Come on. I have an idea.”
He led him down the narrow hall and into the study where the laptop hummed and a TV in the corner played
a news station. He grabbed the controller off the filing cabinet and switched the show off. He grabbed a key
off the top shelf of the bookshelf and went about unlocking the top drawer of his desk.
“I want to show you your mom’s Christmas present.”
For a moment, James’s face brightened. He stepped closer and peered into the deep drawer as Rick fished out
a dark box. “What is it?” James asked and launched to grab it from Rick’s hands.
“No, don’t touch,” he instructed. “This is a very special gift.”
In one hand Rick held the box, covered in a checkered sheet of fabric, and with the other he eased open the
lid. Slowly he revealed a satin pillow and a polished, gold ring encrusted with circular diamonds.
“Whoa,” James breathed. “It’s pretty. What’s it for?”
Rick cleared his throat and sat in the desk chair. He looked between the six year old’s wide-eyed expression
and the velvet box and ring. “James, I’m going to ask your mom to marry me.”
A second or two passed. Rick’s chair creaked. James dropped his eyes from the engagement ring and focused
back on Rick. For a moment, Rick thought he was going to get away with it. He could just snap the lid shut,
put it back in the locked drawer, and they’d traipse back to the living room with the thrill of a secret buzzing
between their sideways glances at one another. Maybe he’d even put the Grinch on…
James dropped to the carpet and the fantasy dissipated.
“No!” he screeched, pounding his fists against the floor and kicking his legs. Tears had sprouted from his
eyes and streamed down his face, mixing with the spit that dribbled from his gaping mouth. “No! No! No!”
Rick scrambled out of the desk chair, tossing the ring into the drawer and slamming it shut. He dropped to his
knees in front of the flailing boy and tried to pry him away from the carpet.
“What?” he asked, at a loss of anything else to say. He grabbed James’s wrists but dropped them when James
continued kicking and squishing his face into the floor. “James, stop crying. What’s wrong?”
James’s violent sobbing had reduced to quiet gasps and whimpers. He lay in the middle of the floor with both
arms folded under his face.
“I already have a daddy,” he said in between hiccups.
Rick sat back.
The doorbell rang. “Your mom’s here,” Rick announced in a quiet voice. “Can you… can you not tell her
about the ring? It’s a surprise.”
James sat up, wiping at his red eyes with the sleeves of his striped sweater and nodding his head.
“Good.” Rick sighed. “Come on. Time to go home.”
“What’s wrong?” Angela gasped, dropping her purse to the frost-covered porch when Rick opened the front
door to reveal his haggard expression and James’s red-eyed one. She dropped to her knees and began
brushing locks of brown hair back from James’s eyes.
“Nothing. I wouldn’t let him watch the Grinch for the third time,” he fibbed in a tired tone.
She clucked her tongue and dropped her hands away from James’s face.
“Now, James, why do you insist on acting like this?”
James shrugged and kept picking the carpet fibers off his lips.
“Go get in the car,” she said sternly.
James obeyed, hurrying down the front steps and climbing into the passenger seat of her navy car.
“Bye, Jamie!” Rick yelled from the doorway.
He handed James’s backpack to Angela, who tucked it under her arm and picked her purse up off the porch.
“How was work?”
“Dull. Freezing. Empty. Same old, same old. Thanks for watching James. I don’t know why he’s acting like
this lately… I’m sorry.”
“He’s probably just tired,” Rick offered.
“Yeah, well, he’s going to be even worse when I have to break the news that his dad canceled on him for this
Rick rested one shoulder against the doorway. “What?”
“He left voicemail on my cell. They were going to do Christmas this Saturday. But apparently, he’s already
got plans with his new girlfriend.”
“What, so Jim’s just going to cancel their Christmas?”
“Guess so.” Angela shrugged, her expression tired. “As bad as it sounds, I don’t think Jim ever planned on
keeping his plans with Jamie. He usually doesn’t. I doubt he even got Jamie anything for Christmas.”
Rick pictured the sea of red and green presents that circled the trunk of his Christmas tree. “I’ve got a pack of
Hotwheels for Jamie under the tree. I already put my name on it but we can switch the tags. Put Jim’s name
“That’s sweet,” Angela whispered. She stepped closer and fussed with the collar of Rick’s shirt. “But you
should give it to him. I’ll put Jim’s name on something else.”
“I’m serious,” he insisted. “Between work and Jamie, you have enough things to take care of. I’ve got a
couple other things for Jamie that I can put my name on. We’ll put Jim’s on the cars.”
Angela sighed, letting her eyes sink closed.
“Okay,” she whispered. “Okay.”
“Ouch!” Rick hissed as he stubbed his toe on something.
He shuffled through the dark, running his open hands along the wallpapered walls and feeling for the light
switch. His fingers closed around the cold plastic switch. He flicked it on and squinted in the sudden flood of
He spotted his cell phone next to the sink. He snatched it up and scrolled through his contact list until he
found Angela’s name.
He clicked ‘call’ and held the phone up to his head as the phone rang.
“Hey,” Angela whispered. “One second.”
Rick could hear the sound of shuffling and a door opening and closing on the other end. After a few seconds,
she came back on the line.
“Sorry. Jamie’s sleeping in my room. I guess he had a harder time with the Grinch thing than we thought.
“I’ll be quick,” he promised. “I was just thinking about this weekend. Why don’t you and Jamie come to my
place? Forget about Jim. We’ll have Christmas at my place.”
After a few seconds, Angela spoke again. “Really?”
A quiet, happy laugh escaped her lips. “Okay,” she whispered.
“Okay. Goodnight, Angie.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“Merry Christmas!” James and Angela chorused as Rick flung open the front door.
“Merry Christmas you two,” he returned. “Come on in. It’s freezing out there.”
“I think it’s gonna snow,” James announced.
Angela pushed him gently inside and shut the door behind her.
“Do you? Well, that’d be great.” Rick chuckled and freed Angela’s arms of several large paper bags.
“Be careful with this bag. All the food’s in here.”
Angela kneeled on the carpet to take Jamie’s jacket and help him off with his thick-toed boots. Rick pulled
back a corner of the paper bag and stole a peek at the blue and white wrapped packages inside.
“Two whole bags of presents?” he asked enthusiastically. “I think I’ll just sneak upstairs with these and see
what you got me for Christmas… maybe I’ll check out Jamie’s too…”
“No!” James shrieked with a lopsided grin.
He kicked the last boot off the tips of his toes. Angela grabbed it and set it against the front door with the
other one. James tore up the long stairs after Rick. Angela followed with a quiet smile.
“Bedtime in ten minutes, kiddo.”
“The movie’s not over…”
“James Alexander, I said no. Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve and I won’t have you all tired and cranky. Besides,
you’ll have plenty of time to finish the movie tomorrow.”
James’s round face crumpled into a moody glare. His eyes, however, remained glued to the TV and the image
of the Grinch that danced across the screen.
“Fine,” he huffed.
Angela smiled in spite of herself and reached out to brush the top of his head. “I’m going to go get ready for
bed, too. I’ll be back in ten minutes and then it’s time to tell Rick goodnight and get into your PJ’s. Okay?”
“Good boy,” she said and then wandered off down the hall, in pursuit of her suitcase.
You’re a monster, Mr. Grinch. Your heart’s an empty hole. Your brain is full of spiders. You’ve got garlic in
your soul. Mr. Grinch. I wouldn’t touch you with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole…
Rick came into the spare room after Angela.
“That old movie again?” he asked, nodding his head back towards the living room.
“After last time? Yes,” she said with a small laugh.
The suitcase sat open on the queen sized bed. She shuffled through stacks of clothes, towels, toothbrushes,
blankets covered in race cars, and teddy bears until she found her cotton pajama set. She pulled out James’s
pajamas – covered with small green tanks – and set them aside, too.
Rick matched her laugh with a chuckle of his own.
“Good plan,” he said. He drew her close and kissed the side of her face; then headed for the living room.
You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch. You’re a nasty, wasty skunk. Your heart is full of unwashed socks. Your soul is
full of gunk. Mr. Grinch…
Rick dropped onto the couch next to James and watched as red and green bulbs dropped from the branches of
a Christmas tree and rolled into a mouse hole.
“Did you go see Santa?” Rick asked when the Grinch, dressed in a red coat and hat, pranced across the
“No,” James answered absent-mindedly.
“My daddy’s gonna take me.” James hummed happily along with the song. “He promised.”
Rick shifted uncomfortably and scrambled for something to say.
“Oh, well, how’s Santa going to know what you want for Christmas?”
James eyes left the TV screen for one of the first times that night. He scowled as he pondered the question;
almost immediately, his eyes filled with tears.
“It’s almost Christmas and I haven’t told Santa what to get me,” James whispered incredulously. Then, his
eyes widening even more, he scrambled to his feet and shouted to Rick: “It’s almost Christmas and I haven’t
told Santa what to get me!”
“Okay, okay. Jamie, don’t worry!” Rick insisted, though it did no good. Tears began spilling down James’s
face as he sniffled and his lips trembled.
“Don’t worry?” he repeated loudly. “I won’t get my present! Santa won’t bring me a present! B-but I’ve been
“Come on.” Rick sighed and stood up from the couch. He held out his hands.
“Let’s go. You have been a good boy, Jamie, and I’m going to make sure Santa remembers.”
James sniffled, nodded his head, and let Rick take his hands and lead him to the study.
“Dear Santa Claus. How are you? I am fine.”
As he dictated the letter, James fussed with the tassels on a burgundy graduation cap that sat next to Rick’s
“I miss you. Do you miss me?”
For a few seconds, Rick sat with his fingers poised over the laptop’s keyboard. “Keep going,” he suggested.
“I am,” James insisted. “Don’t listen to this part, okay?”
“Uh… okay,” Rick agreed.
“For Christmas, I want my daddy. Can you bring him home please? Maybe you could bring him in your
sleigh,” he said excitedly. “Or on Rudolph. You can pick.”
James glanced back at Rick.
“You can listen now,” he decided. “Love, James Alexander Carter.” He dropped the colored tassels and ran
over to the desk chair. He leaned close to the computer screen and asked eagerly: “Are you gonna send it?”
“I will,” he promised. “But right now, I think your mom wants you to get into your pajamas.”
“Awww,” James whined. He hung his head and drug his feet to the doorway, where Angela had appeared.
Quickly, she dropped her fingers away from her mouth, where they had hovered as James wrote his letter.
“Yes,” she said and cleared her throat. “It’s already past your bedtime. Now tell Rick thanks for helping with
your Santa letter.”
“Thank you,” James repeated automatically.
Rick barely smiled. “You’re welcome, kiddo. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
Rick turned back to the laptop. He slid his finger over the mouse pad, opened a new Internet tab, and
Googled a site to submit a letter to Santa. He clicked on the first link and began filling out the form.
Tell Santa how old you are, read the first line. Rick typed in the number six.
Are you a boy or girl? Boy.
Have you been naughty or nice? Rick clicked the dropdown menu and selected ‘nice’; then scrolled to the
box where he pasted James’s letter.
Rick glanced back at the doorway where Angela had reappeared.
“Hey,” he mumbled. He hit submit on the bottom of the form.
Thank you for writing Santa! The screen read. December is a very busy time at the North Pole! It will take
Santa some time to answer your letter. Please check back in twenty-four hours!
Rick closed the Internet and hit the power button on the laptop. The room sank into a silent darkness.
“That’s a pretty hefty request for Santa, don’t you think?” he asked as he got up out of the squeaky desk
Angela edged out of the office, followed by Rick, and turned the lights in the hall off.
“I do,” she sighed. “I’ll… explain it to him in the morning. Thanks for doing the letter, though. It was sweet.”
“You’re welcome.” Rick smiled in the darkness and ran his hand over her shoulder blades. “Sweet dreams.”
“You too,” she whispered and gave him a long, slow kiss. When they pulled apart, she said, “Goodnight,”
then let herself into the guest room with James.
She crawled under the red sheets and snuggled against her son’s balled up figure.
Rick continued down the hall to his own bedroom.
“I will count to three, young man. And if you don’t straighten up by the time I get to three, you are going to
the dining room table for time out. One…”
Rick rubbed the sleep from his eyes and flung the twisted sheets away from his legs.
He stumbled across his dimly lit bedroom, bumping into the corner of the dresser and grumbling under his
“Three! That’s it, James! Come on!”
Rick yanked open the oak door and stumbled out in the hall just in time to see the door to the guest room
flinging open as well. A disheveled Angela, with fly-away hairs sprouting out of her pony tail, stormed out of
the room, towing a very red-eyed James behind her by the wrist.
As she blew past Rick, Angela huffed, “Good morning,” and continued on to the dining room.
Rick awkwardly eased his bedroom door shut and wandered off after the pair. He could hear Angela ordering
James into one of the chairs.
By the time he got to the dining room, Angela had stormed off into the kitchen and was distracted with
violently starting the coffee maker.
“Good morning,” he said. Then, nodding toward James, who pouted at the dining room table, added:
“What’s that all about?”
Angela sighed as she slammed the paper filter into the top of the coffee maker.
“He knows about Jim.”
“You told him?” Rick opened the overhead cupboard and took out the coffee bag. He handed it to Angela.
“He won’t stop going on about Jim,” she explained, dumping an excess of coffee grounds into the filter. Rick
pried the bag out of her hands and scooped a bit back into the coffee bag. “I couldn’t let him think Jim was
going to pick him up tonight for Christmas. I had to tell him.”
“So why’d he get time out?” Rick opened another cupboard and set out two coffee mugs for later.
“He thinks I’m lying.”
“So I heard.”
“I know. I’m sorry about that.” She sighed again, closed the top of the coffee maker, and clicked the start
“You forgot the water, sweetheart,” Rick said softly and opened the top back up. He filled one of the mugs
with water from the tap; then dumped on top of the coffee grounds. He closed the lid and hit start again.
“And on Christmas Eve,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why he’s acting this way.”
Rick stared at his bare feet.
A timer on Angela’s phone went off.
“Time out’s up,” she announced. She patted Rick’s arm on her way back into the dining room.
“I bet I know why,” Rick whispered. “But I think I know how to fix it.”
James was let out of timeout. The coffee finished a while later. The day progressed and melted into a blur of
activity. Rick, Angela, and James made sugar cookies, played card games, had a snowball fight in the
backyard, frosted and decorated the cookies, drank hot chocolate, and set the table for dinner. As the stars
came out, they gathered around the base of the Christmas tree. And, with the Grinch playing in the
background, they emptied Angela’s paper bags and set the presents with Rick’s.
They each opened one gift. Angela got a pair of slippers from Rick. Rick got a Picasso coffee cup from
James. And James got a red fire truck.
They set out frosted cookies and a mug of milk. Bedtime shortly followed.
James’s eyes popped open in the dark.
There it was again: the soft ringing of a bell.
His breath caught in his throat. He lifted his head out of the pillow and turned onto his back to stare up at the
Again, the bells rang.
James eased himself out from under Angela’s arm, draped over his shoulder, and sat up as quietly as he
For a moment there was silence and James remained still. Then, this time along with the ringing bells, he
heard many paws scratching at the roof above him.
James inhaled sharply, threw the sheets back, and dropped to the carpet. Breathing heavily, his heart thudding
in his chest, he hurried to the door and spilled out into the dimly lit hall.
A light had been left on in the living room for Santa. James scrambled toward the white glow the lamp gave
off, his breaths short and quick. The second he rounded the corner, he froze.
A large figure, covered head-to-toe with a cherry red velvet suit and white fur trim, stood at the fireplace.
“Santa?” James whispered and edged closer.
The large figure turned around. James gasped and stumbled back a little.
The figure’s lips stretched into a wide grin as he threw his head back and chuckled in a deep voice. As soon
as the laughter subsided, he knelt to the carpet on one knee.
“I had a feeling you were awake, James,” the man said.
“Santa?” James asked.
The man nodded.
James approached Santa Claus more quickly and stretched out his hands to brush the fur lining of his heavy
“Polar bear fur,” Santa explained with another throaty chuckle. “Compliments of Mrs. Claus.”
Santa’s jolly expression lessened.
“My elves received your letter, James Alexander Carter. I want to explain something to you.”
Santa moved to the couch and lifted James onto his lap.
“On Christmas Eve, I bring presents to all the good girls and boys. Do you know why?”
James, wide-eyed, shook his head ‘no.’
“Presents are a way of bringing magic to people who otherwise wouldn’t have any magic. But being in love
is also magic. I can’t make your father remarry your mother because she’s already in love with Rick. She
already has magic. And it wouldn’t be very fair to your mommy, or your daddy, to take that away, now,
James dropped his eyes to his lap and shook his head ‘no’ again.
“Your father loves you very much, James. So does your mom and Rick. Understand?”
James shook his head ‘yes.’
“Good. Now, time for bed.”
James climbed down from Santa’s lap and started back towards the hall. He paused and glanced back at
Santa, who had resumed transferring wrapped gifts from his red velvet bag to open space around the tree.
“Rick loves my mom,” he thought aloud.
“Yes he does,” Santa confirmed.
“Can… can you put the engagement ring in her stocking, maybe? Or under the tree. You can pick.”
Santa Claus smiled and chuckled deep in his throat.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he promised.
“Good,” James said. He resumed shuffling back towards the spare bedroom but glanced over his shoulder
one last time. “Merry Christmas, Santa Claus,” he whispered.
“Merry Christmas, James.”
The light faded as James continued down the hall. He came to the bedroom door. Every once in a while, he
could hear one of the bells ring, or a reindeer shift his weight from foot to foot above him. But as he made his
way toward the bed, he realized the desk drawer where Rick had put the ring was locked.
He dashed back out of the room and down the hall.
But the information dissipated, unspoken, when he rounded the corner to the living room.
There was a thin bundle of mistletoe taped to the ceiling in the spot above the fireplace. Santa stood beneath
James clapped both hands over his mouth to stifle a giggle.
Santa will figure it out, James thought.
He went back down the hall, let himself into the guest room, and climbed back under the bed sheets. He
cuddled the pillow closer, still smiling, and buried his face in the warm material. The room had fallen quiet.
There were no more bells and no more footsteps. Santa had moved on to the next house.
In a minute, Angela and Santa would pull apart. She’d congratulate him; he would walk her upstairs and they
would say goodnight. Then she’d come down the hall, climb under the sheets, and cuddle her sleeping boy
until they woke to presents and cinnamon rolls in the morning.
But for the mean time, James lay cuddled in the blankets alone, grinning…
…and humming to himself.
I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night. She didn’t see me creep down the
stairs to have a peep. She thought that I was tucked up in my bedroom fast asleep… Oh, what a laugh it
would have been if daddy had only seen…