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The Christmas Room
This is a work of fiction.
This story has two endings. This blog post and podcast episode contains the entire story.
The tree was at least twenty feet tall.
How such a gigantic pine had been uprooted, transported, and set up there without any apparent damage, I had no idea.
Every branch was hung with strings of great big red, green, and white lights.
At the top, there was a brilliant gold star, and I don’t mean it was gold-colored, I mean it was made of real gold. Either that, or it was made of pyrite, but I was pretty sure this was no fool’s gold.
The tree was so full of lights that nothing else could be suspended from its brances.
Below it, surrounding the enormous wooden container that it was in, there was a veritable mountain of gifts wrapped in various shades of glossy wrapping papers.
On the other side of the room, there was a fireplace with logs and kindling carefully prepared. I even saw a box of matches.
On one side of the fireplace, there was a long row of wooden pegs.
Other than the tree, presents, and fireplace, the room was empty. The floor here was made of white marble, unlike the wood, vinyl, or carpeted floors in the rest of the house. The walls were white, and so were the curtains, which were closed.
I looked up, but there was no light fixture. The only electrical outlet was on the wall beside the tree.
I heard footsteps, and turned to see Dylan, my boyfriend, standing in the doorway.
“Merry Christmas, Elaine,” he said. “What do you think?”
Before I could even try to formulate an answer to that, his mom came up behind him, pushing a cart laden with yet more gaily-wrapped packages.
Dylan came fully into the room, and she pushed the cart inside.
“Wow,” Dylan said. “I think this is the most presents I’ve ever seen in one place.”
“Yeah,” his mom said.
She smiled at me.
“Have you put yours out yet?”
I shook my head.
“I think this room has made her a little bit speechless,” Dylan said.
“Yes, I think you’re right.”
She pushed the cart up to the edge of the pile of presents and started stacking the new ones carefully, as if she were setting up an enormous game of Jenga.
I wanted that game after playing it at school, but Mom just gave me one of her sad smiles, and I knew we couldn’t afford it.
“Can I help you?” Dylan asked his mom.
“I’ve got it, thanks,” she said.
“Awesome. To be honest, I’m beat, but I wanted to be here when Elaine saw this place.”
“It’s amazing,” I said.
That, at least, was true.
“I’m glad you like it,” he said.
I decided not to tell him that wasn’t what I had said.
He leaned in for a kiss, and I gave him one, not because I was feeling romantic, but because I didn’t know how I felt.
“Night, Eline,” he said. “I hope Mom lets you get some sleep.”
“Oh, I will,” his mom said. “I’m just going to hang up the stockings, and then I’m off to bed.”
She and Dylan said goodnight, and he left the room.
I was happy she didn’t seem to feel the need to chat as she hung the stockings on the pegs beside the fireplace.
I knew about stockings from kids at school, but we’d never had them at home.
She hung the last overstuffed stocking and smiled at me.
“Well, that’s all of them, so if you’re comfy here alone, I’m going to go crawl into bed.”
“Yes, I’m fine. Goodnight.”
The house is quiet.
The room is full of light.
I walk over to the wall where all the stockings are hanging.
One of them has my name on it.
When I was a kid, I used to wish for mountains of presents.
I walk across the room, my footsteps echoing on the marble floor, and look behind the tree.
On the wall, there’s a bunch of electrical outlets, many of them occupied by plugs for lights.
Christmas came, but there were only the presents Mom and I could make for each other. I would save bits of twine and pick up things people threw away, and make bracelets and necklaces for Mom.
She’d make me clothes that needed to last for the next year.
She wore my handmade jewelry, and I tried not to get the clothes dirty or outgrow them.
Back here, there’s a door, and Dylan’s mom has given me the key.
Does anyone in Dylan’s huge family even know what Christmas means?
I doubt it.
They’ve never been cold like the baby Jesus.
One winter, we couldn’t pay our electricity bill. It was either that or no running water, so we piled on the blankets and ate out of cans.
This room is a mockery of Christmas. Gold without wisdom, light without meaning, and gifts without love.
I get teh cart and begin to take down the stockings.
When it’s full, I open the door and push the laden cart out into the night.
The cold air in my lungs makes me feel sure that I am doing the right thing.
Jesus suffered for all of us, and the man I thought I loved knows nothing about what Christmas means.
In the garage, I see how old and rusty my truck is compared to the other vehicles parked there.
I unload the cart and go back to the house.
After I’ve put the last gift into my truck, I get my big flashlight and roll the empty cart back into the house.
Carefully, I unplug all the lights, and then I leave, making sure the door locks behind me.
Back in the garage, I notice there are some cans of gas. My tank is almost empty, so I fill it.
I get into my truck, start it up, and press the button to open the garage door.
Once I’m out, I press the button to close the door, and then I get out of my truck.
I walk back into the garage through the regular door, put the key on a shelf, go out, and make sure the door locks behind me.
As I drive away, I wonder what Dylan and his family will think when they open the door and find the Christmas room dark and empty.
Maybe they’ll understand, maybe they won’t, but the deed is done, and now it’s time to go home and get some sleep.
To whom it may concern:
This is Elaine. I took everything out of your Christmas room on Christmas morning and have thrown it all away.
Enclosed, you’ll find a check for an amount that I believe is equal to or greater than what you paid for all of it. It made such a big dent in my bank account that I won’t be able to finish college, but at least you might now have gained some miniscule understanding of what you are mocking with that room full of gold and expensive gifts.
Oh, and Dylan, it’s over.
The house is quiet.
One of the stockings has my name on it.
It’s right beside Dylan’s.
All of them bulge with presents.
The pile of gifts under the tree blocks quite a few of the lower branches.
I look at some of the tags on them. They’re in no particular order.
There’s a tiny one that says it’s to me from Dylan.
I haven’t bought him anything nice. In fact, I haven’t bought him anything.
I step behind the tree. There’s a door leading out into the night, and I open it. I step out and close the door behind me.
With the door closed, it’s dark, except for a full moon and the stars.
“Silent night,” I whisper. “Holy night. All is calm, all is bright.” I inhale. “‘Round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”
The air holds my words for a moment and seems to caress them, and then the song is gone into the night.
It strikes me that I’ve never sung Christmas songs outside before. At school, we always put on our concert in the auditorium, and I practiced in the living room with Mom.
“Silent night, holy night, shepherds quake at the sight. Glories stream from Heaven afar. Heavenly hosts sing allelujah. Christ the Savior is born. Christ the Savior is born.”
I start walking toward the garage.
As I walk, I keep singing.
“Silent night, holy night, Son of God loves pure light. Radiant beams from thy holy face. With the dawn of redeeming grace. Jesus Lord at thy birth. Jesus Lord at thy birth.”
It is definitely a silent night out here.
If there are any more verses, I don’t know them.
“Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
I reach the garage and can’t remember the next verse.
My truck is old, gray, and smells of years of spilled juice, spilled coffee, and memories of Mom.
I’ll have to face Dylan in the new year, and I doubt our relationship will survive, but for now, I’m going home.
I stop at a fork in the road to check my map. Dylan sure lives far out in the country.
I’ve just determined that I should turn right when the engine dies.
I look up at the sky, but the moon and the stars have vanished behind what must be thick clouds.
Desperately, I try to restart my truck, but nothing happens. I’m stranded on a loney road in the middle of Nowhere, USA.
I search frantically and find a flashlight.
I have a decision to make: stay here in my uninsulated truck and try to wait for morning, or start searching for help now.
I put my key in my purse and touch something rubbery.
Oh, right, my phone. It’s a cheap plastic one in a cheap case, and I only use it when I must.
I press the button to wake it up.
I’ve forgotten to charge it.
Well, actually, I’ve forgotten about it completely. It’s not the kind of thing I want Dylan and his rich family to see me with. My purse at least is made of leather, although it’s ancient, but this phone is what I am — poor.
I step out of my truck into what was a beautiful, silent night, but which has now become a perilous one.
With the light in hand, I start to run down the road.
First my lungs start to burn, and then my legs start to feel heavy.
I stop running and start walking. I’ve been perspiring heavily inside my cheap clothes, and now I’m starting to shiver.
Where am I?
I realize that I’ve left the map in the truck and have no clue where I am.
I look behind myself at my trcks. Maybe I can follow them back to my truck, get the map, and keep walking.
As I’m standing there thinking about this, something lands on my nose.
It’s starting to snow.
I’d better follow my tracks back to the truck.
I look for them, find them, and start walking.
The snow falls more thickly, and soon, I can no longer find my tracks.
The light seems to be getting weaker.
Where the heck is my truck? Why did I leave it?
I’m standing at a fork in the road, and I have no idea which way I should go.
Well, I went right before, so maybe left.
I’ll have to try and keep moving until morning.
I turn left and walk. My light is definitely dimming, and it won’t last much longer.
The light dies in a whirling cloud of falling snow, and I stand in darkness.
I’m at the side of the road and I sit down.
Maybe a car will come by and somebody will find me. Maybe nobody will find me, and I’ll freeze to death out here on Christmas morning. I haven’t heard any cars, and it’s not likely that any will come.
I sit there with snow blowing around me and with the gathering knowledge that I am probably going to die tonight.
Why didn’t I check my gas gauge?
Why didn’t I take the map?
Why did I run instead of walking and keeping track of where I was going?
The wind dies.
The snow settles.
I’m still shivering.
I’m young and healthy, and it’s going to take me a long time to die.
All I want are Dylan’s arms around me and for that strange room full of presents to have been a dream.
Dylan and I met on a cold day in January this year.
It was lunch time, and I was very hungry.
I went to my locker and found it hanging open. The lock was still closed, but somehow, it had been opened.
The books that had been in there were gone, and so was my lunch.
I slammed it shut.
“Is everything okay?”
I turned to see a tall, friendly-looking young guy with a concerned expression. He was wearing blue jeans, a gray turtleneck sweater, and new-looking black leather shoes.
“No. Somebody broke into my locker.”
“Oh, that sucks. They’re so cheap and crappy here. I’m Dylan Thomas, yes, named after the poet, what’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you. What are you studying?”
He’s been to my house, but he doesn’t know that I’m poor.
I see a light.
It’s across the road and to my right.
Do people dying of hypothermia imagine things?
I get up and start walkng toward it.
As I get closer, I see that it’s coming from a house.
It’s a lamp shining in a window.
I climb the porch steps and press the bell.
A few moments later, the door is opened by a woman with graying hair.
“I’m Elaine, and I’m sorry to bother you. My truck’s out of gas and I’m lost.”
“I’m Sophie. Come in and I’ll make you a large mug of something warm.”
She shows me into her living room. At one end, there’s a small tree with some presents under it.
“Please make yourself comfortable. You can wrap yourself in that blanket.” She points to the couch, which has a folded blanket at one end. “What would you like? I have hot chocolate, tea, or coffee.”
“I’d love a mug of hot water please.”
She nods and goes into the kitchen.
I sit down on the couch and wrap myself in the blanket, but I can’t seem to stop shivering.
The little tree has some lights on it, but there are also colorful decorations, and at the top, the star appears to be made of aluminum foil, probably wrapped around cardboard.
On an armchair beside the tree, I see what looks like most of a hat on knitting needles.
Sophie comes back in holding a tray with a tea pot and two mugs.
“Here you are,” she says, and hands me a wonderfully warm mug.
“Thank you,” I say and take a scorching sip.
She puts the tray down on the coffee table, moves her knitting, and sits down in the armchair.
“Are you having tea?”
“I sure am. It should be ready now.”
She pours a cup and takes a sip.
“Who’s the hat for?”
“Oh, this one’s for John, my eldest grandson. I haven’t been able to sleep so well since Jeremy died this summer, so I knit.”
“I’m sorry. I lost my mom last summer.”
“Oh dear. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
I shake my head.
“I don’t have anybody. Well, I had a boyfriend, but not anymore.”
“One day, you’ll find the right one. I had two before Jeremy.”
“The thing is, he is the right one, but . . . well, his family’s too rich.”
“They have a whole room dedicated to Christmas.”
I drink more water.
“That sounds interesting. Would you like to tell me about it?”
I describe the lavish room.
“Dylan and his mom went to bed and I was supposed to bring in the presents I’d bought, but I didn’t buy anything. It’s all handmade.”
“All my gifts are handmade. Lara, my daughter, buys gifts for John, Tracey, Steven, and Natasha, but I prefer to knit things for them instead. Christmas is about unwrapping toys and games, and also about unwrapping thoughtful gifts made with love and favorite colors.”
“I think it might not be in his family. I mean, they have so much money, they don’t need me to make them things. I made clothes for them, but I didn’t buy anything. It’s all stuff given to me or things I find. I made toys for his younger siblings and clothes for everybody, but it’s all poor stuff.”
“Are the toys brightly-colored and fun to play with?”
“I think so.”
“Are the clothes the right size and designs his family will like?”
“Yeah. I spent a lot of time finding out everybody’s favorites, but none of it cost anything.”
“Well, Jesus was wrapped in rags, and they kept him warm, so I’m sure the clothes you’ve made will look a lot nicer than rags and also keep Christ, or anybody, warm.”
She smiles at me.
“Finish your water and then I’ll help you get back to that room full of Christmas.”
She has a map, and I recognize the spot where I left my truck. She keeps a can of gas in her garage, and my truck is soon running again.
“Merry Christmas,” she says.
“Merry Christmas. Thanks for your help. Say, do you know the second verse of ‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem?’”
“No, but I’ll pull it up on my phone.”
She takes it out, taps on the screen, and shows it to me.
Together, we sing.
“For Christ is born of Mary and gathered all above. While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. Oh morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King and peace to man on Earth.”
I push the cart into the room and start to add to the pile of gifts.
As I work, I sing softly.
“Must be Santa, must be Santa, must be Santa, Santa Claus.”
Dylan is the oldest, and has three sisters and three brothers. Then there are his parents. Nine presents, all told.
Then there are all the other relatives and friends who will be coming for dinner.
I have a notebook full of their names, ages, and bits of information gleaned from careful listening.
“Mommy, Santa came!”
Megan is four and the youngest of Dylan’s siblings.
“Of course he did. Now, we just need to wait for Daddy, and then we can start opening our stockings.”
As if on cue, Dylan’s dad comes in, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and rubbing his eyes with the other.
“Okay, everybody, grab your stockings,” Dylan’s mom says.
I go to the hooks with everybody else and take down my bulging stocking.
We all sit on the cold, hard floor.
Dylan’s mom says, “Go!”
Hands dive into stockings and pull out gifts.
I’m feeling giddy and almost drop the first present I extract.
I catch it and tear off the paper like everybody else is doing.
It’s a chocolate orange. A girl at school gave me part of one once. Yummy.
The room fills up with wrapping paper, chocolate oranges, pairs of socks in every color of the rainbow, packages of underwear, mittens, hats, and pyjamas. Mine have butterflies printed on them. Dyaln’s have cars.
Nobody will need or even want my handmade junk.
Sophie was wrong.
“This one’s from Elaine,” Dylan says. He hands it to Megan.
She rips the paper off, all the while saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you Lainey!”
I’ve made her a doll.
“Oh, a pretty doll!”
“A Chess set!” Dylan’s dad says. He looks at one of the knights. “This is amazing. I need to meet the man who made this.”
“The man who made this?” I say.
“Oh yeah. He’s one very skilled craftsman.”
“Look at this sweater!” Dylan’s mom says. “It’s perfect. It looks handmade. How do they do that?”
“Mommy, look! Clothes for my doll.”
“Wow, those are so pretty. Elaine, where did you buy them? I’d love to meet the designer. How does she make them look handmade?”
Adam, Dylan’s eight-year-old brother, says, “Dad, I got a train!”
“Wow, that’s awesome. I think it was made by the same guy who made these Chess pieces.”
“Elaine?” Dylan’s standing beside me, holding the tiny box that I saw under the tree earlier.
I look up at him and smile uncertainly.
“Dylan, look, my train!”
“It’s great, Adam. You guys, I need to ask Elaine something important, so can you like, wait for a second please?”
“Sure,” his mom says.
Dylan gets down on his knees on the hard floor and looks me in the eye.
“Elaine, will you marry me?”
I smile at everybody.
“I’m going to answer your questions in order. Um, I made the Chess pieces. The clothes look handmade because I made them by hand. Yes Dylan, I’d love to marry you.”