Keeping Christmas - a holiday story

Last year, the delightful Cecil Castellucci invited me to take part in a  limited edition holiday anthology book published by Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena.  My contribution was a little story called "Keeping Christmas."  This week, I'm sharing it with you, dear reader, and wishing you the merriest of Christmases and happiest of new years!

"Whaddya want for Christmas?"
I sigh.  What I want doesn't involve sitting on the lap of an old man in a red suit that smells like cigarettes.  I'm almost fourteen, for crying out loud.  I stand next to the guy.  "Take the picture, Cheever.  Hurry," I say to my best friend.  Cheever may be a boy, but he's pretty cool.  He holds up his iPhone and snaps the shot.
"Thanks, Gramps," I say, and step down to make way for a screaming toddler.
"What's next?" Cheever asks as we squeeze our way through the last minute shoppers.
"Well, that's the annual picture for my mom's collection.  I've got thirty-eight dollars left, and we still need is a tree.  This sucks."
Cheever pats me on the back.  "Cheer up, Olivia.  It's Christmas!"  I want to punch him, but he's just trying to be a friend.
"I really wanted to do it right this year," I say.  This is my first Christmas alone with my mom since the divorce.  At first I was stoked—who wouldn't want to move from Pennsylvania to Hollywood?  But it's not so glamorous—we live in a tiny apartment in the Valley instead of a beachfront mansion.  Then Momma lost her job.  Without it, there's no tree or presents—nothing.  Christmas without that stuff might as well be Labor Day.
"Can thirty-eight dollars buy a tree?" I ask, pushing through the mall door.
Cheever scratches his head, his giant purple parka screeching like an insulated cricket leg.  "Maybe an air freshener?"
            "Thanks a lot, 'Barney,'" I says, and shut the door on him and his ridiculous dino-sized parka. 
Behind the mall there's an empty tree lot.  Strings of white lights, lots of pine needles but no trees.  I pull my jacket closer.  Cheever follows me.
            I spent last Christmas at my dad's place.  The tree was freaking awesome.  It was one of those weird spruces with the separated branches, so you can see the trunk in the center, like a cell phone antennae tower disguised as a tree.  So, maybe it looked a little unnatural, but at least we had a one.
            "It's got to be perfect," I tell Cheever as we stomp down the sidewalk.  It's getting chilly out and my nose is starting to run.  Why did I wear a skirt today?  I should've put on a Barney coat, too.
Cheever jogs to keep up with me.  I can see his breath as he puffs his way up the block.  "Why not get your mom a gas card for her guzzler and call it a day?"
            I stop stomping the pavement to glare at him.  "A gas card?  That's not a gift.  That's just…fuel.  We need a tree.  It's her favorite part of Christmas."
            "It's not her favorite, Olivia, it's yours.  And it's Christmas Eve, and you have less than forty bucks.  You can't HAVE a tree," Cheever says.
            Before I can stop myself, I punch him, right in the nose.
            "Ow!" he yells, clutching his face.  "What'd ya do that for?"
            "For making fun of me," I say and keep walking.
            "I didn't make fun of you, Crazyface.  I said you couldn't have a tree."  His voice sounds all nasally with his hand clamped over his nose.  "Why am I even here?" 
I turn around.  He's standing in the middle of the sidewalk looking hurt, which he probably is.  I mean, his nose isn't bleeding or anything, but it's bright red.
            "Merry Freaking Christmas, Olivia."  Cheever shakes his head and walks away. 
"Cheever," I say, but nothing else comes out and he keeps going.  Which is fine.  I don't need a friend right now.  What I need is a tree.

            It's not even six o'clock, but the streets are full of red taillights.  Everyone's windows are rolled up and the seat warmers are probably on.  The sky is hazy and I'm wishing I was wearing more than big black boots and a corduroy skirt.  Those 12 inches of exposed kneescape are deadly. 
I trudge my way across Camarillo.  There's a tree lot on the corner at Sepulveda.  They'll be open.  They have to be.  The sidewalk ends and I find myself skirting along the lumpy asphalt bordering the houses.  Look at those houses.  So warm and cozy-looking, with little holiday lights wrapped around the rooftops.  Jolly snowmen glow white on bright green lawns, year-round roses bloom, matching the potted poinsettias red for red.  I breathe into my hands and wonder why I thought fingerless gloves would be so cool. 
            What I wouldn't give for a hot chocolate.  I'll have one just as soon as I find a Christmas tree.  Steaming hot chocolate with a pine-scented finish.  I smile and feel my nose hairs crackle.  The streets are quiet, even though there are a ton of cars.  This is the night the stereotypes go to grandma's.   And the originals, like me, freeze to death looking for Christmas trees.
            When I reach the tree lot, it looks like there was a battle between trees and giant beavers, and the beavers won.  Nothing but wood chips.  I bend down and scoop up a pile of rocks and needles, already turning brown, and let them sift through my fingers.  A jingling sound rings across the lot.  I look up and see a man locking up the mobile trailer they use as an office here.
            "Hey, Mister," I call out and run over.
            "Merry Christmas," he intones, like he's offering me French fries with my order. 
            "Merry Christmas!" I exclaim, throwing my arms wide in my best Scrooge after the third ghost imitation.
            The guy steps back.  I smile and step forward.  "Got any more trees?" I ask.  "Maybe a secret stash somewhere?"  I indicate the mobile office, like it's hiding a warehouse or a pine forest behind its beige metal walls.
            "We sold out this morning," the guy says.  He's tired-looking and needs a shave. 
            "What about that one over there?" I ask, spying a beautiful fir tree, all trussed up with twine and ready to go on somebody's car roof.
            "That's for my mom.  She's sick.  It'll cheer her up."
            "Yeah, it will," I say, and suddenly I don't feel so hopeful anymore.  We're not the only ones who could use a tree tonight, I guess. 
            "Try the grocery store, kid," he tells me, trudging off through the sawdust to his truck with its perfect tree payload.  "Or better yet, go home.  It's Christmas Eve."
            "Thanks," I call after him.  There's a Pavillions a few blocks away, and a CVS Pharmacy.  Sometimes they have trees, I think.  Then there's that Ralphs, and that other Ralphs. 
            I start walking again. 
            I walk a lot.
            And then I go home.

            "Baby, where on earth have you been?" Momma asks. 
            "Looking for a tree."
            "In this weather?" she says.  She's rustling around in the kitchen making dinner.  "Did you find one?"
            I look around our dingy little apartment with its sorry excuse for a window with a view, and the reindeer dishtowels we hung over the curtain rods for the holiday. 
            "Yeah.  It's just, you know, one of those clear ones that don't smell much.  Pretty, ain't it?"
            Momma doesn't answer.  It's funny.  She hears all kinds of stuff you don't want her to hear, but she doesn't hear sarcasm.  She just ignores it until you talk nicer.
            I pull myself up out of the chair I've dropped into and take off my jacket before stomping into the kitchen.
            "No.  No luck," I say.  I stare at the blue flame on the stove as Momma heats up a can of chicken noodle soup.  Before I know it, the flames start to get blurry and I'm crying.  My face gets all hot, so I pull off my hat, and I keep on crying, crushing the knit cap in my hands , punching it like it's my hat's fault that we didn't have enough money to keep Christmas.
            "Oh, hush now," Momma says.  She puts her spoon down on the stove top and pulls me into a hug.  I collapse into her arms all snotty and wet-faced.  I don't try to talk or make any sense because Momma says sometimes you just have to cry it all out.  When I can't cry anymore, Momma takes my hat from my hands.  "Go get some tissues for your face." 
In our tiny bathroom I wash my face, blow my nose and look at myself in the mirror.  My braids are bristling like angry cats.  I run a hand over them and they crackle with static electricity.  I give up and go back into the living room where I trade my boots for slippers.  Momma's at the table with two bowls of soup.  We don't say much over supper.  I go to bed early, without drinking any hot chocolate.  I couldn't stand to, without a tree.
            Christmas morning comes bright and early.  I can hear my mom, banging around in the kitchen, singing.  I'm cocooned in my blankets and I don't want to move.  The apartment is freezing.  The heat is off.  Another thing that we didn't have the money for.  I stick my nose out of the covers and it gets cold.  Cold enough to make me imagine we're back in Pennsylvania at my dad's house and there's snow outside.  It's almost enough to make me jump out of bed.  Instead, I sit up, and I wrap my blanket around myself.  I stick my sock-covered feet into my slippers and I shuffle like a giant bed burrito into the kitchen.
            My mom is dressed in snow pants and a jacket.  She's packing a thermos into an insulated bag.
            "Merry Christmas," I say to her.  She turns around, and laughs at my walking bed imitation.
            "Go on and get dressed.  We've got places to be."
            "Places?" I say.  "At eight in the morning?"  The stereotypes have places to be on Christmas.  They go to Mass, or grandma's house.  They eat big dinners and play touch football in the backyard and sit around the tree singing carols and opening gifts.  Stereotypes are families like you see on TV, with both parents, kids, a dog— all the working parts.  That's not us.  Not anymore.
            "Do you want to go, or not?" my mom asks.
            I want to go.
            I get dressed.  Taking a cue from my mom, and last night's frozen trek, I put on wool tights and jeans over top.  I pull on a sweater, stick my boots back on my feet and grab my hat and coat from the hook by the door.
            "Scoot," Momma says.  I take the insulated bag from her and scoot.

            The only time the freeways are empty in L.A. is early Christmas morning.  A handful of big rigs barrel down the road like giant Christmas ornaments decorated with little yellow running lights.  It's 70 degrees out already and I'm wishing I was in that skirt again, but then I guess it would be freezing.  We come down the hill into Santa Clarita, Christmas carols playing on the radio.  I keep nodding off, but my mom is singing and happy. 
            When I wake up, my mom has stopped singing.  She's looking at the fuel gauge.  It's low, and I wish I'd listened to Cheever and bought her a gas card.  I pretend to sleep as I watch her frown.  She's doing calculations in her head.  However far we have to go must be too far.  She pulls to the side and thinks.
            "Merry Christmas!" she says happily.  But I know she's not happy.  She's got that look again, the same look she had when she knew she couldn't buy us a tree.  It hurts to see how she feels, and I realize I'm part of the problem.
            "I'm a jerk," I tell her.
            She laughs.  "Why?"
            "Because I've been a big baby about wanting a tree."
            "Olivia, you're not a big baby, but you are still a child.  It's okay to want things."
            "Not if we can't afford them," I say.
            "Lots of folks can't afford lots of things," she replies.  "Besides, we're here."
            I sit up.  "What?"
            "I said we had places to go," she tells me.  "I'm not sure how we'll get home, but for now, let's enjoy it."
            I look at her.  "Seriously, Mom.  This is the middle of a major freeway.  We're nowhere."
            Momma sighs and gets out of the car.  I guess that sounded like sarcasm.  I follow her.  If she's lost her mind, I'll have to lock her in the trunk and call for help.
            But she hasn't lost her mind.  When I step out of the car, I'm not on asphalt or gravel or even dirt.  It's snow.  Real, honest-to-goodness snow.  It crunches underfoot and I realize we're not in the Valley anymore.  We're in the mountains. 
            I stare at my black boots on the white ground.  My mother smiles at me.  "Look up, Goofus," she says.  I look up.
            Trees.  Tall, green and wonderful.  Dusted in snow like powdered sugar, like perfect holiday cookies.  Christmas trees.
            I feel myself break into a grin.  The cold air bites my nose but I don't mind. 
            "Merry Christmas, honey," my mother says.
            "Merry Christmas," I whisper back.  I throw my arms wide to the sky, to the whole forest and shout.  "Merry Christmas!"  And the mountains and the trees shout it back at me.
            We picnic in the car, fried ham sandwiches and thermoses of hot chocolate just the way I like it, with the windows rolled down for that  pine-scented finish.  And then, before we freeze to death, we coast back down the mountain to the nearest gas station where I give my mom her Christmas gift.  Thirty-eight dollars worth of gas.  Just enough to fill up the car for the ride home today, and to the unemployment office tomorrow, and the temp agency next week.  Cheever was right and I was wrong.  Today was about more than just a tree.  And it was the best. 
When we get home I call my dad to wish him a Happy Happy, Merry Merry, then I dial Cheeve's cell by heart.  "Hello?"  He answers the phone like he's expecting bad news. 
"Merry Christmas, Barney," I tell him.  "Sorry I socked you in the nose."
"Apology accepted," he replies.  "Merry Christmas, Crazyface."
A couple of minutes later, I hear a ping on our computer and I run to check.  "Mom, it's for you."  It's an email from Cheever.  My mom comes over and opens it.  It's the picture of me with Santa Claus.
"Oh, baby," she says, "It's perfect."  Her eyes are all sparkly when she hugs me.  A lot of things have changed for us in the past year.  But one thing is the same.  I'm just as lucky as I've always been.  I've got my mom, I've got Cheever, and Christmas.  And I'm keeping all three.