A Christmas Gift, a short story.
It was a week before Christmas. The sky was dark and it had begun to snow. The sun set in a bright orange-red splendor and the air grew noticeably colder. Thirteen-year-old Tammy wrapped her coat tighter around herself to try to keep out the biting cold. She looked around her at the empty sidewalks and slush-filled streets and sighed. When her mother asked for someone to go out and get milk, Tammy, being the oldest, had volunteered; but she didn't expected it to be so cold. She sighed again and took another step towards the store. Deep down inside she really hoped that the store hadn’t closed because of the wet snow. It would be horrible to realize that the freezing cold trip had been for nothing. She decided to keep her hopes high as she took another step.
A scream to her left frightened her. She turned and saw two young children racing around their house trying to catch snowflakes. She giggled at their antics and turned to continue her journey. Absently she fingered the bills in her pocket as if reassuring herself that she hadn’t dropped them along the way.
She reached Front Street and turned to her right. She could see the store from there and all of the lights were on. She breathed a sigh of relief and picked up her pace. When she reached the sidewalk that led to the front door, she was joined by others whom she figured had braved the cold wet snow to pick up some essential that they felt they would urgently need; like the milk her mother insisted they would run out of before the storm ended. Everyone seemed to be in a dark mood so Tammy did her best to avoid any kind of contact with them. She entered the store and realized that the cold had penetrated even to the inside of the building. She shivered and headed towards the dairy department along the front of the store.
Just before she reached the department, she heard crying and looked up the aisle near where she stood. There sat a young girl, about six or seven, was crying pitifully. Tammy made her way to the little girl’s side and stooped down.
“Hey there,” she said cheerfully, “what’re the tears for?”
“I…" sniff "…can’t remember what my…" sniff, sniff "…Mommy asked me to get. I have to…" sniff "… get it for her because she’s sick and can’t…" sniff "…come herself. What am I gonna do?” and the child put her head in her hands and began to sob uncontrollably.
“Hey, calm down, sweetie,” Tammy said not knowing what else to say. “I’ll help. My name's Tammy, what’s your name?”
“You will?” the girl asked on the end of a breath that whoosh from her in her excitement. “I’m Judy.”
“Sure Judy,” said Tammy, “now, let’s see,” Tammy put her finger against her chin as her mother often did when she was thinking hard. “What do you remember your mommy saying just before you left the house?”
“Well, she told me to bundle up because even though the store was next door it was cold outside,” Judy said wiping a stray tear from her cheek with the sleeve of her coat.
“You live next door?” Tammy asked excitedly.
“Yes, right over there,” Judy said pointing to the produce side of the store.
Tammy thought hard about what she could do. Judy, she felt, was too young to be out on her own especially in this storm, even if the town was a safe one. But if Judy's mother was really sick, she might need whatever it was that she sent Judy out for. On the other hand, Tammy’s mother had told her not to dawdle and she would be worried if Tammy didn’t get home soon. She wondered what she should do. A cold breeze wafted around her from an open door and Tammy shivered. Her mother might be angry with her for helping, but she couldn’t just leave the poor kid sitting there crying like that. The little girl reminded her of her own little sister who would be petrified to go out alone especially on a day like today.
“Judy,” Tammy said again. “Are you sure you can’t remember what your mother wanted?”
“Well, uh, actually, uh, oh,” and Judy broke into tears again.
“What is it?” Tammy asked, not sure how to handle this crying child.
“Mommy didn’t send me,” Judy finally blurted out. “I came on my own, because, you see, Daddy said Mommy won’t be here for Christmas and I wanted to give her a gift before she left. When Daddy left the house to get the doctor, I came here to try to get something. But I don’t have enough money for it.”
Judy burst into fresh tears and buried her head in her hands once more. The sobs shook her whole body as she cried. Tammy wanted to cry with her.
“Judy,” she asked again, “how much do you need?”
“I..uh..don’t really know,” Judy said, “a man just told me I didn’t have enough.” Tears rolled unchecked down her cheeks.
“Well, what did you want to get and I’ll know if you have enough,” Tammy said trying to sound cheerful.
Judy pointed to a small angel ornament that sat on the shelf near where Judy had been sitting. Tammy picked up the ornament and looked at the price tag. It read six dollars. Tammy looked at Judy who was still sitting on the floor and smiled.
“How much do you have?” she asked.
“I broke my piggy bank,” Judy said, “and this was all that was in it.”
She held a bundle of crinkled bills and some coins out to Tammy. Tammy took the money and carefully counted it. Judy had four dollars and seventy-nine cents. A lot for a six year old to have, but still not enough to buy the angel ornament. Tammy looked at the bills her mother had given her for the milk and absently counted it. Her mother had given her six dollars for a gallon of milk. Tammy didn’t know what to do. If she gave money to Judy to buy the ornament, she wouldn’t have enough for a gallon of milk; but she felt so bad for Judy and wanted so much to help her out. Silently, she handed Judy her money back and then took two dollars from the money her mother had given her and gave it to Judy.
“Here,” she said, “now you have enough to get the ornament for your mom.”
“Oh wow,” Judy said rising to her feet and nearly jumping for joy. “I’ll pay you back, I promise!” she said taking the money and then hugging Tammy tightly.
“It’s alright,” Tammy said, “I have some money at home. I’ll give it to my mom and we’ll be square.” She took the ornament down and handed it to Judy. “Go on, now,” she said, “your mother is waiting.”
Judy grabbed the ornament and raced to the cash registers to pay for it. Tammy went to the milk aisle and picked up a half-gallon, all she could afford with the four dollars she now had. She went to the registers and paid for the milk and headed home.
The cold wasn’t as bad, or at least didn’t feel as cold as Tammy made her way back to the house. She kept thinking about Judy and her very sick mother. She hoped Judy’s mother liked the ornament that she got her. She hoped Judy’s mother was able to hang on till Christmas for Judy’s sake. She hoped her own mother wouldn’t be too angry with her for giving the money away.
Back at the house, she took a deep breath before opening the door and entering the loud kitchen. Her brother and sister were working with construction paper on the kitchen table and her mother was sipping a tea at one end while she watched their industry. Tammy approached her mother with the half-gallon of milk and sighed.
“Mom,” she said, “I…uh…well…..”
"What is it, Tammy?” her mother asked, “whatever it is it can’t be all that bad.”
“Well,” Tammy said again and then she told her mother the whole story.
“Oh,” her mother said sighing softly, “you must have run into Mabel’s little girl.”
“Mabel?” Tammy asked.
“Yes, Mabel is the woman we were talking about after dinner yesterday, remember? She has cancer and is very bad. Her husband brought her home so she wouldn’t have to die in unfamiliar surroundings. I was saying how bad I felt for her little girl who would not only witness her mother’s death, but would have to spend the rest of her life without a mother.”
“Oh,” Tammy said softly. “Uh, are you mad at me, Mom, for giving her the money?”
“No, sweetie,” her mother said gathering her into her arms and hugging her tightly. “That was just about the best Christmas present anyone could have given. I’m proud of you!”
Tammy hugged her mother back as tears began to fall from her own cheeks. Tears for Judy and her very sick mother and tears for the wonderful mother she herself had.
© 2011 Cheryl Simonds
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