Christmas Surprise

Published 10:00 am Sunday, December 28, 2014

The sun was setting as Margie rounded the corner. She was breathing heavy and wanted to quit. Just a few more yards and she could.

Her house was in sight, and in another few minutes the silence and solitude would melt away. She would re-enter the house of chaos. She shook her head. Nope, she’d enjoy the peace a little bit longer. Three, two, one.

“Mama, mama,” six-year-old Charlotte yelled running up to Margie, “Ethan took the iPad away.”

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“Just one second, baby,” Margie said as she turned her running app off on her phone.

Margie scanned her living room. Once upon a time when she and Jack had first moved in, the room boasted a fresh coat of crÅme paint. Dirty fingerprints decorated the room now.

Crayons covered the coffee table, and construction paper was fanned out across the couch. Margie shook her head as she saw a drawing of a family taped to the wall.

“Did you do this?” Margie asked as she separated the tape from the wall.

“Yes,” Charlotte chipped and began pointing. “That’s me and you and Daddy and Ethan.”

“Who’s that?” Margie pointed to a baby on all fours.

“My little sister,” she grinned.

“You don’t have a little sister, silly,” Margie laughed tapping Charlotte’s nose before walking to the kitchen

“Not yet,” Charlotte pranced behind her mama. “That’s what I asked Santa for for Christmas.”

“I don’t think Santa brings little sisters and brothers,” Margie stuck the picture to the refrigerator.

“He does,” Charlotte answered.

“Oh good, you’re back,” Jack said walking into the kitchen. He kissed his wife on the forehead, “What’s for dinner?”

“Hmm,” she said opening the refrigerator. “We could order pizza?” she asked looking over her shoulder.

Margie saw Jack tense up for a second before nodding. “That’s fine.”

“Pizza!” Charlotte shouted before running out of the kitchen.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” Margie grabbed Jack’s hand.

“Nothing,” he said brushing her off.

“Jack,” Margie sighed.

“We’ll talk about it when the kid’s are in bed,” he said.

Margie pulled in a deep breath. “Do you want to order the pizza, or do you want me to?”

“I’ll handle it.”


Margie went through her bedtime checklist in her head. She had read Charlotte a book, checked Ethan’s homework, started the dishwasher, locked the door set the alarm. Just a shower and then bedtime. The glow of the computer still lit up Jack’s home office. She worried about him.

Jack worked at his family’s hardware store. Ever since Home Depot opened a few years ago, business had been hard.

“Margie,” he whispered with his back still to her.

“What’s going on?” she said sliding into the empty armchair near him.

“Dad’s closing the store.” He avoided eye contact.

“What? Why?” She said ordering herself to try to stay calm.

“He’s losing money. He- I don’t know. He told me with everyone else.”

Margie wrapped her arms around him.

“We’ll figure it out, sweetheart,” she said. “We’ll figure it out.”


Jack stared at the picture of Ethan holding baby Charlotte sitting on the mahogany desk in his home office.

He was only four years old at the time, and he begged for brother. But when he had first seen his baby sister he lit up. He had been so proud when he got to hold her. Margie was hovering just around the edge of the picture prepared to jump into action if something should go wrong. Ethan was a champ though – until Charlotte started crying.

Jack smiled for a second. And then he remembered Ethan’s first payment for his trip to Space Camp was coming up. And Charlotte would have to pay for his dance costumes in January. He was worried about all that before. Now, he had no idea how to come up with the money.

Margie had insisted painting his office blue – robin’s egg blue as she called it. She claimed it had a calming affect. He didn’t buy it. It definitely wasn’t working right now.

“Can I stay home from school today?” Ethan asked from the doorway.

Ethan asked this every morning. It was his way of saying he was ready to leave, but he didn’t want to seem too eager. Ethan did well at school, always did all his homework without being forced, but he’d never admit to enjoying any of his classes.

“No, bud,” Jack said crossing to the door and ruffling Ethan’s hair. “Let’s get your sister.”

Charlotte sat at the kitchen table, her legs swinging as she finished her toast. Margie had braided her hair back, but she always let Charlotte pick out her own clothes. Today, she wore pink striped tights, a green sparkly skirt and a black shirt. Her silver Keds completed the look.

“Daddy, look!” Charlotte said holding up a crayon drawing of an elephant. “I did it all by myself.”

“It’s pretty. Can I have it?” Jack squinted as if admiring a fine piece of artwork.

Charlotte nodded.

Once Ethan and Charlotte were buckled in, Jack made the rounds to their schools. They helped distract him while they were in the car, but the moment he was alone the tension flooded back. From the moment he walked in the hardware store, it was clear everyone there felt it too. The countdown had begin – nine more working days.

The store was where Jack had grown up. He spent countless hours after school here. He remembered his mama sitting at the cash register working on a crossword waiting for someone to check out. His dad was always busy with customers or handling the bookkeeping.

Jack’s first job at the store had been to restock shelves. He hadn’t been much older than Ethan was now. When the shop closed, he wouldn’t just lose his job. He’d lose his home. He’d lose the home he’d hoped to share with his children.

Even if he found a new job, he doubted they’d let the kids come in after school. They’d have to start paying for daycare. They’d – No, he couldn’t worry about this right now. Luckily, a customer walked in to distract him.


They think we don’t know. They think they can hide it, but they can’t

Mama hasn’t laughed in days, and Dad stays glued to his computer. Yesterday while Dad went to the bathroom, I went to see what he was looking at. He had left open a job application half completed. Had Dad and Grandpa gotten into a fight?

And I needed a check for $400 by tomorrow to go to space camp. “Dad,” I said knocking on the open door to his room.

“Yea, bud, what’s up?” Dad said without looking up from his screen.

“I- uh- I have to pay for camp tomorrow,” I said.

Dad breathed in and out slowly. His forehead wrinkled, and his left hand clenched.

“How much is it?” Dad asked.

“400 dollars.”

What if he said no? Could he do that?

“Okay,” he said.

He wrote the check and told me to put it in my backpack. I looked at the blue check and looked back up.

“Did Grandpa fire you?” I blurted out.

“What?” Dad’s eyes widened for minute. Then his shoulders dropped, his face got softer and his body relaxed.

“No,” he said. “He’s closing the store.”

“Are we going to be poor?” I asked.

“No, we’ll be fine,” he said.

“I don’t have to go,” I said.

I hoped he wouldn’t call my bluff.

“No, it’s fine. We’ll be fine,” he repeated.

I breathed out quickly. Good, I thought. I really wanted to go.

I ran out before he could change his mind. I carefully put the check in my backpack and looked for Charlotte.

She was standing by the window looking for Mama. She always did that when Mama went on her run. Charlotte thought that if she waited patiently all day for Mama to get of from work then that meant she should have full attention when Mama got home. Charlotte rarely got her way.

“Charlotte, what’re you doing?” I asked.

“Leave me alone, Ethan,” she said slapping her arm at me.

“What do you want Mama for?” I asked.

“I need someone to play Barbies with,” she said.

Mama was probably just as stressed as Dad. Maybe they needed to spend some time together – without us.

But the only way that was happening is if I occupied Charlotte.

“I’ll play with you,” I said.

“Really?” she said with a big grin.


I followed as Charlotte skipped to her bedroom chattering about her doll’s backstory.


The house was a racket. Charlotte Margie looked at about her wits end as she made her Christmas cookies. Christmas was her time to shine. She pulled out all the stops. From Black Friday to Christmas Eve, Margie woke up early and stayed up late preparing for Christmas. From decorating to crafting, Margie had a to-do list a mile long.

Never once did she complain, but then again she never complained anyway. When they were dating, Jack had admired that about her. She took everything in stride and just moved forward.

Ten years later, he knew it wasn’t that simple. She didn’t trust most people. She didn’t like seeing herself as weak. She struggled to let people in. He’d wait patiently beside when he knew she had to share something and wait. Just wait for something, anything that let him know she felt like she could lean on him.

Especially now. He had worked his last day at the shop. She was trying to be strong for him, but she was blocking him out. He felt helpless.

As much as he was itching to go back to work, he really had enjoyed the last couple days. Not because he hadn’t done anything, but because he had gotten extra time with Charlotte and Ethan. He had spent hours playing Barbies and catch. He didn’t remember the last time he had done any of that.

He couldn’t do anything about losing his job right now, but he could solve the noise problem. Fifteen minutes later, he was ushering the two balls of energy out the front door to the park.

At the park, Charlotte’s shoe had come untied. Jack crouched to fix the tattered shoe strings.

“Daddy, why aren’t you working?” Charlotte asked as she adjusted her gloves.

“We closed the store,” Jack answered.

“Do we not have any more money then?” Charlotte said with wide eyes.

Jack didn’t know what it said about his and Margie’s parenting skills that their children seemed so concerned about money.

“There’s a lot of people a lot worse then us,” Jack answered.

“Do some kids not get presents?” Charlotte asked.

“Sometimes,” Jack answered.

“That’s sad,” Charlotte said.

Her big eyes looked sad for a minute. Then she lit up.

“I have an idea,” she said as her grin got wider and wider. “Why don’t we give our presents to those kids.”

“Then, you won’t get any presents,” Jack said.

“I already have a bunch of toys,” she said.

“Are you sure?”

Jack watched as Charlotte nodded up and down. Jack just smiled. He figured she forget by the time they got home, but she didn’t.

No sooner did they walk back through the front door than she went the tree and started gathering presents. Jack watched as Ethan joined her. Charlotte had clearly gotten him on board.

“What are y’all doing?” Margie asked, the front of her apron covered in flour.

“We’re giving our presents away!” Charlotte shouted.


“Some kids don’t get any,” Ethan chipped in.

Margie started crying.

“Mama, what’s wrong?” Charlotte asked pausing for minute.

“Nothing, baby,” Margie smiled.

Suddenly none of their troubles seemed to matter. They had been blessed with two children who knew the true meaning of Christmas.