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Lacy High School Christmas Short

Lacy Steele was lacking Christmas spirit. Did being sixteen make a person cynical? Perhaps. Her sister, Riley, had loads of spirit, if her pages-long Christmas list was any indication. Maybe fourteen was too young to realize it wasn’t about the presents. Maybe when Riley was older, she too would begin to wonder what it was all about. Somehow Lacy doubted it, though. A few days ago, Riley had asked her how to spell platinum. Lacy thought it was for science homework, but it was actually for the jewelry portion of her list.

She was numb from the cold, but the numbness matched her mood, so she didn’t mind. She sat on the freezing bench and stared at the town’s giant, unlit Christmas tree. In a few days, the city would have its’ annual lighting ceremony. Would it feel like Christmas then? Lacy hoped so. In the meantime, she would search for her own solution. Something had to work to recapture her long-lost Christmas joy.

On the other side of the voluminous tree and obscured from view, Jason Cantor was having similar feelings. Unlike Lacy, this wasn’t the first year he had held no love for Christmas. No, Christmas spirit had abandoned him long ago, the first Christmas after his brother died, to be exact. That was the first year his parents had spent the day drunk and unconscious. Compared to now, that had still been a pleasant holiday memory. At least then there had been presents and a meal and an attempt at normalcy. Now they started their pre-Christmas drinking on December 23rd and didn’t stop until January 2nd. Presents were a long-forgotten memory, and so was food unless Jason managed to scrounge something on his own. This year he vowed to make things different, but how? What would make this hideous season a little bit better? Not only was it a sad time of the year for his family, but it was the long pause between sports, so he had no outlet. He sat on the cold park bench, delaying the inevitable walk home, thinking.

The next morning in his office, Tom Middleton wasn’t lacking Christmas spirit. Not only had he never been one to dwell on his feelings, but he had much to be thankful for, if he stopped to think about it, which he didn’t. He worked, day in and day out. Someday when work was done, maybe he would reflect on his life and all that was missing, but for now he finished his days with the satisfaction of a job well done. Just because he didn’t have a family with which to spend the upcoming holiday didn’t mean he didn’t have a family. They were out there somewhere, safe, secure, and happy. What more could he ask for?

A gentle tap on his door caused him to look up from the latest grim budget statistics. How was he supposed to run a school with so little money? Just one of the constant challenges of being a principal. “Yes.” He pushed aside the paperwork as his oldest granddaughter entered the office. She didn’t know she was his granddaughter, of course, so he kept his face in the same placid mask he always used with students. Inside, though, there was always that little thrill of recognition. Though she was a dead ringer for her biological grandmother, Barbara Blake, there had always been something about Lacy that reminded him of himself. Maybe it was wishful thinking.

She hovered at the back of the room looking terrified. The good kids were always afraid of him; he didn’t know why. If they were well-behaved, they had nothing to fear. “Lacy, what can I do for you?” he prompted.

“Um, I wanted to talk to you about the toy drive,” she said.

“Mrs. Applegate is collecting toys and donations for that,” he said.

“ Yes, I know, I already gave a toy. But I was thinking.” Her hands wrung nervously in front of her. “Can I sit down?”

He motioned invitingly to the chair across from his desk. She sat and licked her lips, wringing her hands some more. “You probably know everyone, and while I think the toy drive is a good idea, I was sort of wondering about other kids, older kids like me. Aren’t there people in our school who need things?”

“Yes,” he agreed.

She dug in her pocket and laid a pile of money on the desk between them. “I want someone who needs it to have a nice Christmas, anonymously.”

His heart squeezed with pride as he stared at the stack of bills between them. “This is a lot of money,” he said.

“It’s all my babysitting money from the last six months.”

“Are you sure you’ve thought this through?” he asked.

She nodded. “What’s the point of having money if you can’t do something good with it?”

“All right. I’ll see what I can find.”

She smiled, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. In the last few months, he had noticed a change in her, and he knew what caused it. Ever since Riley started high school, Lacy had seemed more withdrawn and morose. And after his first close-up observations of Riley, he knew why. She took great delight in lording her popularity over her shy sister. Riley was one of those kids whose shift to adulthood looked seamless. She didn’t have braces or glasses or a bad complexion. There was no physical awkwardness as she grew into arms and legs that were too big for her body. She was moving swiftly from adorable child to adorable grownup while her older sister seemed hopelessly trapped in the ugly duck stage of things. If Lacy had any idea how she would someday transform, she wouldn’t be nearly so insecure now, but he thought he preferred her as she was. Though it was a painful time, it was no doubt developing character and, to him, that was more important than popularity.

“Are you okay?” he couldn’t help but ask. She seemed surprised by the question.

“I’m fine,” she said.

“Your lip is bleeding.”

“It got stuck in my braces. It happens a lot. I can’t eat citrus anymore. It burns.”

He let it go when what he really wanted was to offer advice or comfort or even a hug. A little bit of her melancholy tried to steal over him, but he pushed it away. There was work to be done, and no time to indulge in distracting sulkiness. “I’ll make sure this present finds a good home,” he promised.

“Thank you,” she said. She offered up a tentative smile and eased from the room. He watched her go with a combination of wonder and pride. In some small way, he was responsible for her, and yet he wasn’t. Genetic material couldn’t account for the sweet woman she was becoming. That was mostly due to one person: Lucinda Craig. His thoughts strayed to Lucinda, and he pulled them back again. Maybe it was time to retire if he couldn’t keep his mind on business anymore. A few more years, after Riley was safely through school, and he would hang up his hat for good. Then what? He wouldn’t dwell on that just now. As luck would have it, another distraction arrived in the form of a student, one who diverted his mind from his own problems.

Jason Cantor poked his head around the partially opened door, his tentative expression reminiscent of Lacy’s, but with more bravado. “You wanted to see me, Mr. Middleton?”

“Yes, come in and sit down, Jason,” he commanded.

Jason entered and sat. He crossed his arms over his chest in a defiant gesture that didn’t suit the boy who had always been a good kid. He sat back and studied the boy a minute before he spoke. Jason was one of those kids who could break a guy’s heart, if he let it be broken. He had promise, but he was straddling a fence, one that could knock him into a downward spiral of anger, bitterness, and bad behavior. While his home had once been a good and nurturing place, it had devolved into the sort of nightmare that far too many students had to endure. What was most frustrating was that it didn’t have to be that way. His parents didn’t wallow out of ignorance; they were wallowing in grief. Someday they would get their act together. Would it be too late for Jason? As soon as Mr. Middleton learned the unhappy truth of Jason’s home life, he had determined not to lose him, but how best to save a proud kid who didn’t want anyone to know how much he suffered?

“Jason, rumor has it that you upended Tony Argillite into a dumpster this morning.”

Jason shrugged.

“That doesn’t sound like you. You usually reserve your aggression for the field.”

“He was pelting Jimmy in the face with snowballs. The snowballs had rocks in them,” Jason said.

Jimmy Kester was a mentally handicapped freshman, small, weak, and a popular target for bullies like Tony Argillite. Tony, on the other hand, was a brute of a kid, even bigger than Jason. Mr. Middleton worked to quash a little bit of pride that Jason had not only meted due justice, but had been able to take the bigger kid. “While I sympathize with your intentions, vigilantism is never a good idea. It will lead to trouble for you, and a suspension would wreak havoc with your sports schedule.”

Jason’s eyes rounded with alarm. He clearly hadn’t thought of sports when he took matters into his own hands. “Am I suspended?”

“Since the event happened before school hours, we’ll let it go with a warning this time.” Mr. Middleton templed his fingers on the desk and studied Jason some more. Jason tried not to squirm under the inspection. “I had a letter last week asking if I could recommend any kids for a special camp being offered by the state.”

“What kind of camp?” Jason asked, his tone wary. The distrust in his tone made it clear that he thought he was being set up for a trick or possible punishment.

“It’s run by the state trooper’s association and the bureau of criminal identification, for kids who have an interest in law enforcement. Your guidance counselor mentioned that you had marked that as a possible career choice.”

Jason shifted, excited now and trying not to show it. “When is the camp?”

“It’s over Christmas break, between Christmas and New Year’s. That’s the only time they don’t have students staying at the dorms, so they open it up to civilians.”

“You mean I would get to stay there? For a whole week?”

Mr. Middleton nodded. He watched as the blatant hope and longing disappeared from Jason’s face again.

“How much is it?” Jason asked.

“Two hundred dollars,” Mr. Middleton said. Jason’s expression became bleak. He hastened to continue before the kid had to confess his lack of funds. “I just received an anonymous scholarship for that amount.” Lacy’s money had been lacking a few dollars, but he could easily make up the difference.

Jason’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t take charity.”

“It’s not charity; it’s a present. The person who provided the scholarship has been having a bit of a difficult time lately. This will help.” He held his gaze level while Jason made his own inspection, sifting the words to see if they were true. At last he decided they were and allowed himself a small smile.

“That sounds really great. Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me; I had nothing to do with it.” He pulled out the paperwork the camp had sent him and slid it across the desk. “You’ll need a parent’s signature. If you have trouble with that, let me know, and I can make a call.”

Jason nodded, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment. They had never discussed Jason’s living situation, not even when Jason sported a shiner that no one could account for. He took the paperwork and folded it. “It won’t be a problem.”

Mr. Middleton wondered if the signature would be forged. He determined not to look too closely at it when the paper came back. Jason started to go and hesitated by the door. “You said the person who gave the scholarship has been having a difficult time. Do you think it would be okay if I wrote them a sort of thank you note?”

Mr. Middleton saw his hasty scheme begin to crumble. Lacy had no idea about Jason’s home life—none of the kids did. If she found out her gift went to him, things would be awkward. “The person who gave the gift didn’t want to know where it went. If you could keep things anonymous, that would be good. Just give the note to me, and I’ll make sure it gets where it needs to go.” And if it gave too much away, then it would never be sent.

Jason nodded and left the room. Mr. Middleton sat back; being a puppet master often left him drained. He had done his best. Now all that was left was to hope everything turned out all right.

The note arrived a few days later while Lacy was eating supper with her family.

“I need two dresses,” Riley declared between bites of pot roast.

“I agree,” her mother said.

“Why do you need two dresses?” her father asked.

“Because I need to change halfway through. Dad, I’m the only freshman on the Mistletoe Ball court. This is important. See, you need one dress that looks good for the court announcement and pictures, and another dress you can actually dance in.”

“Why can’t one dress multitask?” her father asked. “It’s ridiculous to pay for two dresses for one night.”

Riley and her mother exchanged glances that agreed he was hopeless.

“Lacy’s not going. I can have the money for her dress,” Riley declared.

Lacy reached for another serving of mashed potatoes. Her mother moved them away. On her other side, her grandmother slid another dinner roll onto her plate and moved the butter closer. The mail slot clanged.

“That mailman is late again,” Frannie declared. “I’m going to complain.”

“Frannie, it’s the holidays. Think of all that extra mail he has to carry,” Lucinda said.

“I don’t care, Mom. It’s ridiculous. No one else gets their mail this late.”

“The neighbors do,” Lacy muttered.

Her father stood to retrieve the mail and returned a few minutes later. “Something for you, Lacy.”

All eyes were on Lacy as he passed the letter over the table. “Is that from Mr. Middleton?” Lucinda asked and everyone looked at her.

“You know what our principal’s handwriting looks like, Grandma?” Riley asked.

Lucinda’s cheeks pinked. “Well, I’ve seen it a few times over the years. He was Frannie’s principal, too.”

“He never seems to age,” Lacy’s father chimed in. “And his handwriting is rather distinctive.”

Lacy took the letter but didn’t open it until she was closeted in her room. She hadn’t told her family about her anonymous donation, and she didn’t want any nosy questions in case that was what the letter was about. She was sure it was; why else would her principal write to her? But when she opened the note, it wasn’t from her principal. It was from her anonymous gift recipient, and her heart fluttered.

“Thank you for the gift. You probably can’t imagine how much it means to me right now to have somewhere to go and something to do. High school doesn’t last forever, and I’m glad. I think I’ll remember this for the rest of my life. Maybe someday I can repay you, if I find out who you are. Merry Christmas.”

Lacy hadn’t wanted or expected a thank you, but now that she had one, her heart was overflowing. She dashed at her eyes and tucked the note into her shoebox, the one she kept for her most treasured possessions. Somewhere, someone’s Christmas was a little bit better, and she was part of that. Nothing had ever felt so wonderful. Her heart was suddenly overflowing. This must be how Scrooge felt on the morning after the spirits visited, she thought.

“Lacy, it’s time to go to the tree lighting,” her father called.

She bounded from the room and put on her warmest coat, hat and mittens while Riley watched in disdain.

“Your hair can’t fit under that hat, and it clashes with your coat. Why did you pick a red and green coat? Your face looks washed out with everything. Don’t you think about your clothes before you buy them?”

Lacy looked down with a frown. Did her coat clash with her hair? She hadn’t given it much thought before, but now that she did, she realized she probably looked like a Christmas tree. And her too-frizzy hair was lifting the hat off her head. The downward pull of her mouth caught on her braces and sliced her lip open again. Should she even go outside? High school wouldn't last forever, and Lacy was glad, glad, glad. Somewhere out there, someone was having as much of a bad time as she was, maybe even worse. If whoever it was could survive, then she could, too.

“ It’s Christmas,” Lacy said. “My hair and coat are festive.”

“I think you’re perfect,” her grandmother said. She tucked her elbow through Lacy’s and drew her forward, offering her handkerchief to assuage her bleeding lip.

Riley didn’t comment, but her sigh was loud and expressive as she fell into line behind them. Lacy’s good mood was back, though, and not even her little sister’s insults could take it away.

The tree lighting was crowded. Tom Middleton had no idea why he continued to go to the thing. He told himself it was because, as principal, he was expected to be involved in the town’s activities. In his heart of hearts, though, he still took a boyish delight in the beautiful lights. And then there was his family. Observing them at community events had become something of an obsession. Were they happy? Frannie and Larry smiled at each other and held hands. Lacy and Riley stood on opposite sides, Lucinda acting as a buffer between. Lucinda always wore a sweet smile. Her eyes were large and gentle. A man could get lost in eyes like those. He cleared his throat and forced his gaze away from the Steeles. Lacy looked happier than he had seen her in ages. She had inherited Lucinda’s nurturing spirit by osmosis, if not biology. Caring for others made her happy.

He scanned the crowd and noticed several of his students. One group in particular captured his attention. He stared hard at them until they looked up and hastily tucked a handful of unlit firecrackers back in their pockets. To their right stood Jason Cantor, alone and focused hard on the tree. He, too, was smiling, something that hadn’t happened in far too long. Maybe the boy would turn out all right after all. Maybe the camp would light a spark and give Jason something to work toward. He would be a good cop, and it would be an outlet for all the righteous indignation he had stored against his parents.

The tree was lit. The crowd oohed and aahed, and then it was over. Mr. Middleton walked to his car and drove home. The temperature was dropping; the air smelled like snow. If it snowed enough, he would have to get up before dawn’s crack to consult with the superintendent about whether or not to close or delay school. The latest superintendent was less than half his age, even younger than Frannie. He looked to Tom to lead the school district much more than people realized, and suddenly he felt tired. He was too old for this. Perhaps it was time to be put out to pasture and graze with the other retired people, but retirement stretched in front of him, long and lonely.

He climbed wearily from his car and ascended the steps to his house and stopped short at the sight of a box on his porch. Students weren’t above pranking him. He stared at the box, waiting for it to move or explode, but nothing happened. He sniffed, but didn’t smell manure. Instead he smelled sugar and vanilla. Tentatively, he picked up the heavy box, broke the tape, and opened the lid. Rows and rows of homemade cookies and candies greeted him. Belatedly, he found the attached note, plucked it, and read the simple statement.

“Thank you. Merry Christmas. Lucinda Craig.”

Smiling now, he carried the box inside. The night seemed warmer, his energy renewed. At last, it was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

Copyright 2012, Vanessa Gray Bartal. For more Lacy Steele, see her series listed on Amazon’s Kindle. Merry Christmas.

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