Uncle Johnny Santa Claus
The Christmas of 2001 was not an easy one to be a father, or a firefighter. Nor was it an easy Christmas to be a boy of nine and a half. It was a Christmas when old traditions gave way to new traditions, that weren’t necessarily wanted or welcomed, when those new traditions first arrived.
As mid-December came to Eagle Harbor, Alaska, John Gage wished he could turn the calendar back one year. Trevor had still believed in Santa Claus, meaning the magic of Christmas that is present when one has a young child, could be found in abundance in Johnny’s home. The holiday season of 2000 had started early for Johnny and Trevor, with the arrival for Thanksgiving of Roy and Joanne DeSoto, Jennifer DeSoto Sheridan and her daughter Libby, and Dixie McCall. It had been a wonderful four days spent with old friends who were, in every sense of the word, family. After Dixie and the DeSotos had returned to Los Angeles, the month of December was heralded in with Clarice’s annual Christmas cookie baking project and gingerbread house construction. Theses activities took place in Johnny’s kitchen over the course of two weeks, with Trevor as Clarice’s eager helper. After that, came Eagle Harbor Elementary School’s holiday program, and then on Christmas Eve, the pageant at the First United Methodist Church, where Trevor attended Sunday services with Clarice. Trevor had had parts in both these productions since the age of five. Stage fright was foreign to Johnny’s son, and he could easily memorize any dialogue assigned to him, meaning he was always in demand for a child’s speaking role.
Johnny looked back upon all the Christmases he’d spent in Eagle Harbor with nothing but fond memories. He’d arrived here in May of 1993, when Trevor was one year old. The traditions that had started that first holiday season were special to Johnny and Trevor both. Thanks to John Gage, the fire department initiated the Christmas Parade that took place down Main Street the Friday evening after Thanksgiving. Then came the toy drive, clothing drive, and food drive, also initiated by Johnny, for those families in and around Eagle Harbor who were in need of assistance as Christmas approached. That Christmas of 1993 another tradition started, as well. That tradition being the arrival of Johnny’s father, stepmother, and sister, on December 23rd. John’s family stayed through New Year’s Day. It was good for Trevor to have Grandma Marietta and Aunt Reah in the house during that time. There was a special something Johnny couldn’t quite name, that women added to the holiday. Maybe it was simply the maternal feeling that was prevalent, or the way women organized the holiday from the food that was to be served, to the time the gifts would be unwrapped. All Johnny knew was that Marietta’s and Reah’s presence never felt like an intrusion, but rather, was welcome during that magical week of the year. It was a time to reconnect with family, and a time for Trevor to climb in Grandpa Chad’s lap for stories told in front of the fireplace, and for bucking bronco ride’s on Grandpa’s ‘trick’ knee.
Although Johnny didn’t realize the significance of it at the time, the first indication that Christmas would be different this year came back in April. Johnny and Trevor had been taking a hike in the woods behind their home that Saturday afternoon. It was one of the first days that spring, when winter began to release her grip on Eagle Harbor. As father and son carefully climbed a path slick with slushy snow, Trevor announced matter-of-factly, “There isn’t a Santa Claus, Pops.”
Johnny hadn’t turned around at that moment to look at his son, but instead, answered with, “Oh there isn’t, huh? And just who told you that?”
“No one. I just know. Only little kids are dumb enough to believe a fat man in a red suit travels around the whole world in one night in a flying sleigh, and delivers presents to every single house by coming down the chimney.”
Johnny turned to face his son then. “You’re sure about that?”
“Papa, I’ll be nine next month. Of course, I’m sure.”
And because Trevor sounded so sure of himself, and because he was soon to be nine and Johnny had been expecting the fantasy aspects of Christmas to fall by the wayside sometime that year, the fire chief simply nodded his head in confirmation. What Johnny didn’t see when he turned back around to resume their hike, was the crest-fallen expression on his son’s face as a result of that nod. Yes, in recent months Trevor had been pretty certain Santa Claus was a myth, but still, it was hard to let go of something that had brought him such joy for so many years.
A portion of Trevor’s childhood died that afternoon, as happens to every boy and girl when the belief in Santa Claus comes to an end. Johnny silently mourned that death, then chastised himself for being a sentimental old fool. If anyone had told John Gage when he was twenty-five, that at fifty-five he’d be the father of a nine-year-old, and fighting off the urge to shed a tear or two because his boy no longer believed in Santa Claus, Johnny would have told that person he or she was nuts. But as he took Trevor’s hand that day as they walked through the woods, Johnny did fight off the urge to shed a tear or two over the fact that his boy, little by little, was growing up like all children do.
Johnny wasn’t certain when the holiday really started to unravel that year. He supposed, to some extent, the first foreshadowing of what was to come had occurred that day in the woods when Trevor announced he knew Santa Claus didn’t really exist. With the arrival of the new school year at the end of August, came a series of upsets and disappointments. The first upset arrived on September 11th. The tragedies that occurred that day in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania, touched Trevor deeply. He had never feared for Johnny’s safety before, but in the weeks since September 11th, Trevor often mentioned to Johnny that he wished he’d find a new job, or that, “Papa, isn’t it time for you to retire?” Johnny’d had several discussions with his son on this subject. Each time those discussions took place he seemed to calm Trevor’s fears for the time being, while emphasizing that no, he wasn’t going to get a new job, and that no, he most certainly wasn’t old enough to retire. Although it hardly seemed possible, Johnny knew that last statement wasn’t true. His years in service to various fire departments put him at a point where yes, he could retire with full pension benefits. But, he was far from ready for that. He loved his job in Eagle Harbor, and he had every intention of putting Trevor through college. Therefore, short of major health problems coming his way, Johnny wasn’t considering retirement until Trevor had earned his college degree.
The next upset came in early November. Johnny and Trevor had been planning that the DeSoto family would visit them once again over the Thanksgiving holiday. But, then Roy called to say it wasn’t possible for Joanne or Jennifer to get the weekend off. Joanne worked as an assistant manager at a bank, and Jennifer was a doctor in the emergency room at Rampart General. Johnny was disappointed that Roy had to cancel their plans, but he understood. Trevor was a different story, however.
“You mean they’re not coming?” Trevor asked when Johnny broke the news to him after school on the day Roy called.
“No, Trev. They’re not.”
“Because Aunt Joanne and Jennifer have to work on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving.”
“But they didn’t have to work last year.”
“No, they didn’t. Which means this year it’s someone else’s turn to have the holiday weekend off at the bank, and at the hospital.”
“But when we were at Uncle Roy’s in July they said they’d come. They said they’d see us at Thanksgiving.”
“Trev, they said they’d try to come. You heard Uncle Roy tell me that it would depend on whether or not Aunt Joanne and Jennifer could get time away from their jobs.”
“Son, I’m sorry. But that’s just the way it is. We’ll have Thanksgiving with Carl and Clarice like we used to.”
“But I wanted Libby to come here. We were gonna ride in the parade again, and we were gonnna go sledding, and you and Uncle Roy were gonna take us to Juneau to see Harry Potter, like you took us to see The Grinch last year, and—“
“I’ll still take you to see Harry Potter.”
Trevor leaned back in his seat in the Land Rover and crossed his arms over his chest. He dropped his head as his lower lip jutted out. “It won’t be the same.”
“Why?” Johnny teased lightly. “Because Libby’s better company than me?”
“It just won’t be the same,” was all Trevor would say. “I wanted it to be like last year. Exactly like last year.”
“I know you did, Trev, and so did I. But no matter how much we want things to stay the same from year to year, there’s no guarantee that will be the case.”
“So how come the good things don’t stay the same, and the bad things don’t change?”
“What bad things?”
“I have to be a stupid elf in the school holiday program again this year. I’m always Eddie Elf. I’ve been Eddie Elf since kindergarten. I hate being Eddie Elf.”
“You’ve always liked being Eddie Elf before. He has the most lines in the entire play.”
“I’m nine now, Pops. A nine-year-old boy shouldn’t have to be an elf. I wanna be Father Christmas.”
“I thought only an eighth grade boy was picked to be Father Christmas.”
“Exactly. Which is why I’m stuck being Eddie Elf again. Man, another year of stupid green tights. I hate those things. Tights are for girls. At least Father Christmas gets to wear his gym shorts underneath his robe.”
As evidenced by Trevor’s upset over the DeSotos’ canceled visit, and his role in the school’s program, the trials and tribulations of that changing holiday season were both big and small. One of Clarice’s sisters, Josephine, fell on the ice outside the Wal-Mart in Juneau and broke her hip on the weekend after Thanksgiving. That meant during December Johnny’s housekeeper, and Trevor’s nanny, divided her time between the Gage home and the home of her sister. Only half the number of Christmas cookies got baked, and the gingerbread house, which this year Trevor had requested to be designed like a fire station, didn’t get made at all. Again, Johnny didn’t anticipate the magnitude of upset that would prevail over this alteration of Gage holiday traditions, until he picked Trevor up from school on his day off, and they settled at the kitchen table for an afternoon snack. Johnny had poured two glasses of milk and retrieved a handful of the homemade cookies Clarice and Trevor had baked the week before. Johnny was surprised to see his son head for the kitchen cabinet where the Oreos were kept.
“Trev, we’ve got an entire container of Clarice’s cookies on the counter. Pick out some of those for your snack.”
“No, I want Oreos.”
Johnny cocked an eyebrow with surprise. “You’re turning down homemade Christmas cookies in favor of Oreos?”
“But why?” John asked, as Trevor carried his plate containing four Oreo cookies to the table.
“ ‘Cause she didn’t make my favorites.”
“Honey, there’s dozens of different kinds of cookies in that container.”
“I know, but she forgot to make my favorite, Papa. I like the peanut butter ones best with the Hershey’s Kiss in the middle, and Clarice forgot to make them. She’s too busy taking care of Nana Josephine. She was in a hurry and she forgot.”
“Well, I’m sure Clarice will make them if you ask her to.”
Trevor’s eyes dropped to his plate as he shoved his Oreos around with one finger. “It’s not the same when you have to ask. If someone knows it’s your favorite cookie, it’s just kinda nice if they know to make it for you without being asked to.”
“Clarice has a lot on her mind this year, kiddo. She didn’t forget on purpose.”
“I’ll ask her for the recipe. You and I can make the cookies this Sunday when I’m off.”
“No, forget it. It won’t be the same.”
“ ‘Cause it’s just something that Clarice and I always did together. Same as making the gingerbread house we’re not making now ‘cause she’s too busy. It was a tradition that’s all over with.”
“Only over with for this year, Trev. Next year things will be like they were.”
“Maybe not. You said yourself that there’s no guarantee things will stay the same from year to year.”
“Forget it, Papa. It’s not important. At least Grandpa Chad, and Grandma Marietta, and Aunt Reah, will be here.”
Johnny had smiled at his son as he reached over to tousle the boy’s hair. “That’s right. Grandpa, and Grandma, and Aunt Reah, will be here. We’ll have the tree cut down and ready to decorate when they arrive, just like we’ve always done. Then on Christmas Eve we’ll go to your program at the church—“
“There’s not gonna be a program at the church.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s kinda of a program, but more like with candles and prayer. A candlelight prayer service, Pastor Buchanan called it. He wants us to pray for the families who lost people the day of the terrorist attacks, and he wants us to pray for the soldiers in Afghanistan.”
While Johnny thought both those things were good and noble endeavors, he also felt that the children who attended the Methodist Church should be allowed to celebrate Christmas in the way they were accustomed to, this year more than ever. But, it was just another tradition that had been altered, and Johnny was determined to make the best of it for Trevor’s sake.
“That’s okay. We’ll still go. And on Christmas Day, Grandpa and I will cook breakfast like we always do, and then we’ll open presents.”
“But there won’t be any presents from Santa Claus.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Johnny said as he bit the head off a gingerbread man. “You might be surprised. Old Santa still might make a visit this year.”
“But it’s not the same now that I know Santa Claus is you, Papa.”
And with that, Trevor scooped up his cookies and retreated to his room. Johnny shook his head as he watched his son trudge up the stairs with stooped shoulders. He wished he knew how to bring the magic of Christmas back for a little boy who was, far too quickly, growing into a young man.
It wasn’t just a nine-and-half-year-old boy in Eagle Harbor, Alaska, who was having difficulty finding the Christmas spirit that year, but as well, a fifty-eight year old man in Los Angeles, California.
Christmas hadn’t been a joyful holiday for Roy DeSoto since his grandson, Brandon, had died from cancer at the age of six in April of 1998. Brandon had been Jennifer’s youngest child. In looks, he’d taken after his Uncle Chris – a mop of pale blond hair accented by big, sky-blue eyes. In personality, Brandon had taken after his mother and his Uncle John - outgoing and personable, the kind of child who had never met a stranger. He’d been Roy’s only grandson, and Roy’s namesake in the sense that Brandon’s middle name had been Roy. Roy missed the child terribly, and had never quite forgiven God for the devastating illness that had wreaked havoc on Brandon’s small body.
Joanne was at work the day in mid-December that Roy sat in their home office, or what used to be John’s bedroom, looking through photo albums that contained pictures of Christmases gone by. There was so much it hurt to remember, yet it hurt just as much to forget. There was the first two Christmases of Brandon’s life, when he was healthy and strong. A chubby, rosy-cheeked baby, and then an energetic toddler, tearing open packages to get at the gifts inside. By the time Brandon was three, Christmases when he was healthy and felt good were no longer to be. His face was bloated from drugs that third year of his life, and his fourth Christmas he wore a Santa hat to hide the fact that chemotherapy had taken all his hair. The child who smiled at the camera during his fifth Christmas celebration looked like a wise old man who knew his time on earth would soon be over. The smile was weary, as though celebrating Christmas now brought more effort than his little body had to expend. Brandon never lived to see a sixth Christmas. He’d given a Christmas list to Roy just weeks before he died. Why Brandon had been thinking of Christmas in March, Roy never knew, other than to say that later, he would come to realize that Brandon, better than any of the rest of them, knew death would claim him before another Christmas came to pass.
Roy crossed to his desk drawer and dug the list out from where he kept it hidden under notebooks and paramedic study guides. He’d never shown the list to Joanne or Jennifer. Right after Brandon died it would have upset them too much to see it, and now. . .well, now three years had passed since the little boy’s death, and showing Joanne or Jennifer a Christmas list printed by Brandon’s young hand would only bring the pain of his passing into sharper focus. Christmas was hard enough to get through without that.
Roy looked down at the list that he’d helped Brandon with. The boy had done all the printing with red and green crayons, but Roy had spelled many of the words for him.
A Barbie Doll for my cousin Brittany
A Big Bird doll for my new baby cousin Madison
A Yankee Candle for my grandma.
A Christmas tree ornament for my Aunt Wendy.
Charms for my mom
A Bruce Springsteen CD for my Uncle Chris
A snorkel fire truck for my Uncle John
Books for my Great Grandma DeSoto
A visit from Santa Claus for me and my grandpa.
A small smile touched Roy’s lips as he read the list. Each request had a story, or special thought, behind it. Joanne collected Yankee candles in every scent available, just like Wendy collected Christmas tree ornaments. Roy’s mother loved to read, and had such a wide range of interests when it came to the literature she favored that it was easy to add to her library each year. Jennifer had a charm bracelet Roy and Joanne had given to her as part of her eighth grade graduation present. Every year on her birthday and Christmas thereafter, Jennifer could always count on being given more charms to add to the bracelet she treasured, and that in many ways, depicted parts of her life through the charms that hung from it.
The requests for Libby and Brittany summed up their Christmas desires three years earlier, and to a large extent, still summed up their Christmas desires yet today. Chris’s youngest daughter, Madison, was just a week old when Brandon wrote out his list, but evidently he somehow knew that Big Bird would, in fact, come to be her favorite Sesame Street character as she grew. Or maybe Brandon had chosen Big Bird for Madison, simply because that was his favorite character.
Chris had liked Bruce Springsteen’s music ever since he was in high school, so that explained Brandon’s request for him. And then the snorkel truck for John. That was another painful memory for Roy.
From John DeSoto’s first Christmas, through his fifth, John Gage had given him a piece of Tonka Truck fire apparatus. A paramedic squad the Christmas of 1979, a hook and ladder truck the Christmas of 1980, a foam truck in ‘81, a pumper truck in ’82, a battalion chief’s station wagon in ’83, and then in 1984 a heavy rescue truck. It was the snorkel truck that John had requested from his Uncle Johnny for the Christmas of 1985, but by the time that Christmas came, John Gage was no longer living in Los Angeles. Roy felt he had only himself to blame for that, and the estrangement that would exist between himself and Johnny for the next fifteen years. However, Johnny had assured him many times since the rebirth of their friendship in July of 2000, that he had achieved great personal fulfillment as a result of all he’d experienced since leaving L.A. in 1985. In many ways, Roy supposed Johnny was correct when he said that he wouldn’t be the fire and paramedic chief of Eagle Harbor, Alaska, or have his son Trevor, if it hadn’t been for the events that prompted him to leave Los Angeles and start anew in Denver. Nonetheless, Roy knew Johnny had experienced some personal hardships during those years that might not have been so difficult on him had their friendship been intact.
Though Brandon never knew John Gage, Roy’s children had told the little boy enough about Johnny for Brandon to understand the essence of his spirit. Roy had pointed to the request for John that day and questioned, “Don’t you think Uncle John’s a little old for a snorkel truck, Branny?”
“Nope,” Brandon shook his head. “That’s what he was supposed to get from Uncle Johnny a long time ago when he was a little boy about my age. That’s what Uncle John told me last Christmas he wanted more than anything, Grandpa. The snorkel truck for his collection.”
“Oh, I see,” was all Roy had said then, not even aware until that moment that Brandon knew of John Gage.
“Uncle John said Uncle Johnny used to come to the house dressed as Santa Claus, and that he always pretended he didn’t know it was really Uncle Johnny underneath the Santa suit.”
Though Roy had been in no mood to relive memories of John Gage at that time, he couldn’t help but smile at his grandson’s words. Jennifer had been four, and Chris seven, the year Joanne sewed a Santa Suit and asked Johnny to wear it while delivering a bag full of presents to the kids on Christmas Eve. Even with the padding Joanne had sewn in the costume, Johnny was an awfully scrawny Santa as far as Roy was concerned, but the kids had been thrilled and had been all over ‘Santa Claus’ from the first, “Ho, ho, ho,” called from outside the patio doors. It wasn’t until the kids were getting ready for bed that night that Roy heard Jennifer say softly to Chris, “Santa Claus was really Uncle Johnny, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Chris had said. “But don’t tell Mom and Dad, ‘cause they thought it was a neat surprise. And don’t tell Uncle Johnny, ‘cause it’ll hurt his feelings.”
“I won’t,” Jennifer promised. “It’s okay if Uncle Johnny wants to pretend to be Santa Claus. It was fun digging in his bag for presents, and I like the way he said, “Ho, ho, ho,” like he had a sore throat. Besides, the real Santa will come tonight and fill our stockings and leave my Baby Secret doll, ‘cause that’s what Mommy helped me write on my list.”
Chris nodded his agreement, which caused Roy to breathe an internal sigh of relief. Though the kids had figured out the Santa who visited them was really Johnny, he was glad their faith in the existence of Santa Claus allowed their imaginations to reconcile Johnny’s visit, to the upcoming visit of the ‘real’ Santa Claus.
By the time John DeSoto was born, the belief in Santa Claus was a thing of the past for thirteen-year-old Chris and ten-year-old Jennifer. Joanne asked Johnny to pull that Santa suit out of his closet again for John’s first Christmas. Johnny happily did so, and resurrected the hoarse, “Ho, ho, ho,” Jennifer well remembered. John’s belief that Johnny was the ‘real’ Santa Claus lasted until he was three. That Christmas he figured out who the man was under the fake white beard, but like his brother and sister before him, didn’t reveal to the adults what he knew. It was only later, when Joanne heard John tell one of his playmates that, “We have two Santa Clauses who come to our house. First there’s Uncle Johnny Santa Claus, and then there’s the real Santa Claus. I love my Uncle Johnny Santa Claus ‘cause he brings me fire trucks.”
Though Joanne had shared what she’d overheard with Roy, just like years earlier Roy had shared with Joanne what he had overheard Jennifer and Chris say, neither of them ever told Johnny the kids knew who the person was behind that Santa suit. Each Christmas until Johnny was gone from Los Angeles, Joanne would say to Roy, “Tell Uncle Johnny Santa Claus to get his suit ready for another year,” and then they’d exchange a smile over John’s phrasing, and over the secret they kept from Johnny, who was almost more excited than the kids each year he put that Santa suit on.
As Roy read his grandson’s last request, sorrow filled his heart. Jennifer had promised Brandon a visit from Santa Claus in the weeks prior to his last Christmas. She had made arrangements with a man who played St. Nick each Christmas, to visit Roy and Joanne’s house on Christmas Eve. Despite how ill he was feeling, Brandon had spent the night kneeling on the couch, keeping watch out the window for Santa’s arrival. By nine o’clock the man was an hour and half late. Jennifer had called his home three times, but had gotten no answer. By ten o’clock they all knew Santa wasn’t coming, including Brandon. He’d tried hard not to cry as Roy put him to bed in Chris’s old room.
“Santa will come tonight after you’re asleep, Brandon,” Roy had assured as he sat on the boy’s mattress.
“I know. But it’s not the same as seeing Santa Claus for yourself, Grandpa. Uncle Chris, and Uncle John, and my mom all got to see Santa Claus when they were kids, my mom told me so.”
Brandon was right. His mother and uncles had seen Santa Claus when they were kids. And that Christmas Eve night of 1997, Roy was reminded once again of how he’d always been able to rely on ‘Uncle Johnny Santa Claus’ and how, if Johnny was still living in Los Angeles, Brandon’s wish to get a visit from Santa would have transpired. But Roy had been out of contact with Johnny for twelve years at that time, and had no idea where the man was living. It was just another sorrow for Roy to feel when he thought of Brandon. A visit from ‘Uncle Johnny Santa Claus,’ would have been so easy to arrange had Roy not made it clear to John Gage after Chris’s injury, that he had no longer had a place in the DeSotos’ lives.
Roy sighed and refolded Brandon’s Christmas list. He returned it to its hiding place and shut the desk drawer, before sitting down on the daybed once again. There was so much that was water under the bridge now, and there was little use in attempting to right the wrongs of Christmases past. Holiday movies like Scrooge allowed you to believe that were possible, but when the movie ended, reality made you know different. No ghosts from Christmas Past were going to visit Roy that year and allow him to fix mistakes he’d made, nor allow him the power to heal Brandon and bring him to life again. Roy knew much of his affection for Trevor Gage came, not only because Trevor was Johnny’s son, but because Trevor was the age Brandon would be now if he were living. And like Brandon, Trevor was outgoing and personable. Rather than those factors making it difficult for Roy to be around Trevor, just the opposite had occurred. He was drawn to the boy, and admittedly, spoiled him like one would a favored grandson.
Just like Christmas traditions in Eagle Harbor had been altered due to change, Christmas traditions at Roy’s house were being altered. For years after the DeSoto children had been gone from home, it was a tradition for all of them to return on Christmas Eve with their spouses and children. Everyone spent the night, and then on Christmas morning, the grandchildren ran for the stockings hanging from Grandpa’s mantel. After the contents of those stockings had been dumped on the floor and thoroughly inspected, the children scrambled for the tree to see what else Santa Claus had left. Admittedly, Joanne and Roy’s house was bursting at the seams those two days, but they loved every minute of the activity. As parents, Roy and Joanne knew they’d done right by their children during their growing up years, since those same children were eager return to home with their own children. This tradition had carried on after Brandon’s death, even though that Christmas of 1998 had been difficult for all of them. Not only was Brandon missing from the festivities, but so was his father, Dan Sheridan. Jennifer and Dan were separated that Christmas, and divorced shortly after the new year. Despite those two empty places at the Christmas table, Roy and Joanne could always count on Jennifer and Libby, Chris, Wendy, and their two daughters, and John, being present to carry on the family traditions. But this year, a year when Americans were staying home in record numbers for the holiday and gathering their loved ones close, Roy’s loved ones were scattering. Joanne had to work until noon on Christmas Eve, Jennifer had to work both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Chris, Wendy, and their girls would be in Santa Barbara on Christmas Day, at the home of Wendy’s parents, and John wasn’t coming home at all until the weekend of his twenty-third birthday in mid-January. The youngest DeSoto was a forest ranger at Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, and engaged to be married in June of 2002 to a fellow ranger, Shawna McNeil. John was working Christmas Eve, and would spend Christmas Day with Shawna’s family in Wyoming. The kids had apologized for their various obligations this year, and Roy could do little else but accept those apologies. After all his years in the fire department, he understood and accepted that Jennifer and John had jobs that required holiday employment. Ironically enough, even Joanne now had a job that required holiday employment to a certain extent, which greatly altered how Roy had once pictured their lives would be, as they both broached sixty years old.
Somehow, though, in years past, the kids had done whatever switching around they could of their work schedules in order to keep the tradition alive that Roy held dear – the tradition of having his children and grandchildren in his home on Christmas morning. This year would be different, however. Christmas would be lonely with just Joanne, Roy, Libby, and Roy’s mother, at the house. Libby was eleven and no longer believed in Santa Claus, so with Chris’s girls absent, even that magical part of Christmas was not to be. Roy sighed and leaned against the cushions on the daybed with the closed photo album in his hands. Christmas was eleven days away, and rather than looking forward to its arrival, Roy just wished it were over with.
When Joanne arrived home at six-thirty that Friday evening, Roy’s Porsche was in the driveway, as she’d expected it to be. He’d finished his most recent term as paramedic instructor the previous day, and didn’t have a new class of students scheduled to start until January 14th.
Joanne studied the front of the house with puzzlement as she got out of her car. The interior of her home was dark. Roy hadn’t plugged in the lights on the Christmas tree that stood in front of the big picture window in the living room, nor had he flipped the switch that would turn on the icicle lights that were strung from the eaves.
I wonder if he took a walk?
Walking was Roy’s chosen form of exercise now that he’d grown older, but he usually took his daily walk after supper.
The woman walked into the garage past their Dodge mini-van, and used her key to enter through the door that led into the laundry room. She couldn’t smell supper cooking in the oven, which was again, unusual. Since she’d started working full-time when John went to college, Roy handled many of the household duties that had, for years, been Joanne’s. He was, for the most part, semi-retired now.
Joanne flipped on the kitchen light and set her purse on the counter. She looked past the dining area and down the hall that held the bedrooms. She could see a light shining from the office.
Joanne slipped off her black pumps. She picked them up and carried them in her right hand as she walked down the hall.
The woman entered the room to see her husband sitting on the daybed holding a photo album.
Roy looked up, his expression revealing that he’d been unaware Joanne had arrived home.
“How long have you been home?”
“About five minutes. Didn’t you hear me calling you?”
The man moved over, making room for his wife. Joanne sat sideways on the bed. She set her shoes on the floor and curled up on one hip, leaning into her husband’s side.
“So you’re taking me out to supper tonight?”
“Supper? Since there’s nothing cooking, I assume you’re taking me out.”
“Oh...oh, sure. We can go out.”
Joanne rested her head on Roy’s shoulder while placing a hand on the photo album resting in his lap.
“What were you looking at?”
“Just...pictures.” Roy gave his wife a weak smile. “Just some old pictures.”
Joanne didn’t press her husband for details. She knew he’d been looking at pictures of Brandon. Every year at this time, he pulled out this particular photo album that contained pictures going as far back as 1966, when they celebrated Chris’s first Christmas, and extending as far forward with holiday photographs as last Christmas.
“Roy, don’t do this to yourself year after year.”
“What? Remember Brandon? Are you asking me not to remember Brandon?”
“No. I’m just. . .” Joanne let her sentence trail off. After all, what could she say? “I’m asking you not to grieve for Brandon.” or, “I’m asking you not to bring your heavy heart to the Christmas festivities year after year because you miss the grandson you loved so much.”
Of course she couldn’t make those requests. Joanne grieved for Brandon, too, and yes, Christmas was often difficult to get through now that he was gone. There were times when memories of the little boy made Joanne smile. Like when she came across the ornaments he and Libby had made for her one year out of construction paper and glitter. They’d used so much Elmer’s Glue that you could still smell it on the paper angels, reindeer, and candy canes. At other times, memories of Brandon made tears well up in her eyes and run silently down her cheeks. Like when she pulled out the gold ornament shaped like a little boy’s head that had his name and birthdate engraved on it. Ornaments in the shape of little girls represented each of her granddaughters, as well. Joanne would never consider not hanging Brandon’s ornament on the tree, even though that act was a painful reminder of the child who would never grow beyond six-years-old in the memories of his family, and who would, forever more, be with them at Christmas in spirit only.
“You’re just what?” Roy asked, bringing Joanne out of her private thoughts.
“Nothing.” The woman leaned forward and kissed her husband’s cheek. “Nothing. Never mind. It wasn’t important.”
Silence lingered in the room several minutes before Roy finally broke it.
“Christmas will be quiet this year with just my mother, Libby, you, and me here.”
“Yes, it will be.”
“And what are we going to do Christmas Eve?”
“What do you mean?”
“John won’t be here at all. Chris, Wendy, and the girls will be here on Christmas Eve afternoon. Jennifer won’t be here until after six on Christmas Day – if she doesn’t get hung up at the hospital and have to work even later, so I was just wondering how we were going to hold our family gathering.”
“I guess in bits and pieces,” Joanne said. “Chris and Wendy will only be here long enough to have a quick bite to eat and open gifts. I was thinking I’d make lasagna, garlic bread, and toss a salad. There’s really no use in planning a drawn-out meal. They want to be on the road, headed for Santa Barbara, by seven. We’ll have sandwiches and left over lasagna at noon on Christmas Day, and then have our big meal when Jennifer arrives after work in the evening.”
“When are we going to open gifts?”
“Same way we’re doing everything else - in shifts, depending on who’s here. Did you mail the packages today for John and Shawna?”
“And the box I had ready for Johnny and Trevor, too?”
“You should thank me,” Roy smiled. “The post office was a zoo.”
“I’m sure it was. I wish we could see Trevor’s face when he opens his Hogwarts Castle.”
“Me, too,” Roy acknowledged of the gift they’d gotten Trevor. In the popular Harry Potter books, of which Trevor was a huge fan, Hogwarts was the boarding school for young wizards that Harry Potter and his friends attended. “Oh, and I sent a separate box to Johnny for Trevor.”
“A separate box?”
“Yeah. I was...wandering around Wal-Mart this morning and saw some Harry Potter action figures. I thought he’d like those for his castle. A clerk wrapped them for me, and then I bought a box at the post office.”
“Exactly how many figures did you buy?”
“Every one they had.”
“And how many was that?”
Roy gave a sheepish gin. “Fourteen.”
Joanne laughed. “Johnny’s going to accuse you of spoiling Trevor.”
“I’m sure he will, but that’s okay. It’s not like he didn’t spoil our kids when they were little by giving them more gifts than they needed for Christmas.”
“That’s true,” the woman agreed.
“Oh, and speaking of spoiling kids, a box arrived today from Johnny that’s filled with presents for all of us. I emptied it and put everything under the tree. Even the packages that are for John and Shawna. They can open them when they come for John’s birthday in January.”
Joanne nodded her agreement before shifting the subject back to what they’d been discussing. “Do my plans for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day sound all right to you?”
“What choice do I have?”
“Pardon?” The woman’s tone made Roy realize she’d taken offense at his answer. As though he didn’t approve of the way she’d structured their holiday.
“Yes, yes. What you have planned sounds fine.”
“Then what did you mean by, ‘What choice do I have?’”
“I meant. . .well, I meant that I’m disappointed the kids won’t be here together, all three of them and their families, at least one of the two days. I know it’s getting to be too much to ask that they’re all here on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as we’ve done in the past. Between their jobs, and the distance John now lives from us, I realize our family traditions are changing. I’d just like to keep one day for all of us, you know? I’d just like one day when I can count on Chris, Wendy, Jennifer, John, Shawna, and our three granddaughters, all being here with us. This year it’s more important to me than ever given recent events.”
Joanne nodded. She understood what her husband meant. When catastrophic events happen you realize how important family is. You realize that, no matter what might be taken from you, your family is the one thing you can’t replace, and is the one thing you’d fight to defend. The house, the clothes, the cars. . .those things were expendable. But your children and grandchildren aren’t, and they were the things that this Christmas of 2001, you wanted to hold close.
Roy took his wife’s hand and squeezed. “Sometimes I feel so damn old.”
“What?” The woman was shocked by her husband’s remark.
“Our oldest granddaughter is eleven, Joanne. She’s not a little girl anymore, and one of these days I’m going to turn around and she’ll be graduating from high school. It just doesn’t seem possible that eleven years have passed since she was the baby I used to rock in my chair in our living room. All too soon, Libby, and then Brittany and Madison, will be grown. Traditions change quickly enough as kids get older. I just...for a few years yet I’d just like things to stay the same. I’d like Christmas to be what it once was.”
“Roy, wishing for that won’t bring Brandon back.”
“I know. But...”
Roy simply shook his head. Because Joanne didn’t know about Brandon’s Christmas list, Roy couldn’t say what he wanted to.
But I’d like to turn back the clock and give Branny the one thing he asked for. A visit from Santa Claus. Now I’ll never be able to do that, and now our kids are scattering hither and yon this Christmas, meaning the traditions we kept when Brandon was living have come to an end. These changes make Brandon’s memory grow even more distant, and I can’t voice how much that hurts.
Roy stood and put the photo album back where it belonged. He left the room without saying anything more to his wife. Joanne sighed, as she stood as well. Unfortunately, no matter how much Roy wished it to be, you couldn’t bottle up past Christmases and carry them into the future. A growing family meant change. When John and Shawna married they would make their home in Wyoming, meaning any children they had would be raised there. And Roy was right when he said Libby was eleven, and no longer a little girl. But Joanne couldn’t stop these changes that were a natural part of life, anymore than Roy could. The good thing about traditions is that they brought comfort. The bad thing about traditions, is that when they were broken, the changes that came with that were often hard to accept.
Christmas has been so difficult for Roy since Brandon’s death. I wish I knew of a way to keep our traditions the same for him this year, but I don’t. He’s just going to have to accept that new traditions are taking the place of old ones. What else can either of us do?
Joanne picked up her shoes and went in search of her husband. There was no use lamenting over Christmases past. Besides, she was hungry, and Mr. DeSoto owed her a dinner out.
It was Wednesday afternoon of the following week when the phone rang at the DeSoto house. Joanne had the day off work, and was in the kitchen getting ingredients out for the Christmas cookies her granddaughters were helping her bake after school. She reached for the portable phone on the counter.
“Johnny! Hi. How are you?”
“Fine,” John Gage replied from his office at the Eagle Harbor Fire Station. “I just got back from the post office. I called to thank you guys for the gifts you sent. What’d you do? Buy Trevor half a toy store?”
“That was Roy’s doing,” Joanne smiled. “You can thank him for spoiling your son, not me.”
“I’ll be sure to do that. Is he home?”
“No. He went to pick up Libby and Brittany from school, then was going to swing by Chris’s house for Madison. The girls are helping me bake Christmas cookies this afternoon.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“Sounds more like a mess to me,” Joanne chuckled, “but it’s a tradition.”
“Ah, the magic word this Christmas.”
“Yes. Trevor’s having trouble dealing with some broken Christmas traditions.”
Johnny briefly explained Trevor’s disappointment in all the events that had transpired to alter his holiday season since the DeSotos had canceled their plans to come to Eagle Harbor for Thanksgiving.
“And then my dad called here this morning to say that he and Marietta won’t be coming for Christmas like they always do.”
“Oh, no,” Joanne voiced her disappointment for Trevor. “Why? What happened? I hope they’re all right.”
“They are. It’s Marietta’s mother, actually. She’s ninety-five and in failing health. She’s been in a nursing home the past three months, and she’s steadily going downhill. Marietta wants to be close to home in the event the end comes soon.”
“I can understand that.”
“So can I, but Trevor will be another story.”
“Well, at least Reah will be there.”
“No, she won’t be.”
“No. Dad suggested we all get together at his house for a late Christmas celebration sometime after the new year, so since it’s hard for Reah to get away as it is, she agreed to that.”
Reah was a nurse mid-wife in a remote area of Newfoundland, and based on what Johnny had told Joanne and Roy, was often the only form of maternity care many of her patients received. So again, Joanne could understand how it would be difficult for a woman as dedicated to her job as Reah was, to get away very often. For that reason Joanne knew Reah was conservative with her travel plans.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll all enjoy the gathering at your father’s home.”
“I’m sure we will, too. But, just try explaining that to Trevor.”
“It’s been a tough year for him, huh?”
“If you mean a tough year of growing up a bit, then yeah, it’s been a tough year for him. He’s trying hard to cling to traditions that just aren’t meant to be this Christmas.”
“He sounds like his Uncle Roy in that respect.”
“What do you mean?”
Now it was Joanne’s turn to explain how their Christmas traditions had been altered by the various plans and commitments of Chris, Jennifer, and John.
“Christmas is just so hard on him, Johnny. Roy misses Brandon so much, and at Christmas, I think the pain of Branny’s death is just that much sharper. The one thing that’s eased that pain for Roy is having all our children and grandchildren here together to celebrate the holiday. But, that’s just not going to happen this year, and Roy is having a hard time accepting the changes to our past traditions.”
“I see,” came Johnny’s response. “I know it’s rough on Roy. I—“
Johnny’s sentence was cut-off by a knock on his office door.
“Sorry to cut this short, Jo, but my assistant needs to talk to me. I’ll call Roy later tonight.”
“Okay. And I’ll let him know you called while he was gone.”
“Thanks. Oh, and hey, tell him to quit spoiling my boy.”
Joanne laughed. “Never, Johnny. Never. Roy loves that boy of yours too much to quit spoiling him.”
Johnny chuckled at Joanne’s words, then said good-bye. When their connection was broken, Joanne returned the phone receiver to its cradle. She resumed her cookie baking preparations, determined to make this one tradition that didn’t come to an end anytime soon.
Johnny called the DeSoto home later that night as he’d promised Joanne he would. He could hear the girls laughing in the background as he talked to Roy. Though Roy put up a good front, Johnny could hear the disappointment in his voice when Roy mentioned that the kids were coming for Christmas in shifts that year, and that John wasn’t coming home at all. Johnny wished there was something he could do to ease Roy’s pain over this changing holiday, in the same way he wished he could ease Trevor’s pain, but Johnny had no easy answers for his friend, just like he had no easy answers for his son.
“If I don’t talk to you again before the holiday, Pally, Merry Christmas,” Johnny said as he brought the conversation to an end.
“Merry Christmas to you and Trevor, too, Junior. Tell my boy Uncle Roy said hi, and to have a nice Christmas.”
After he hung up the phone, Johnny sat in his recliner and reviewed the conversation. Roy had sounded depressed to Johnny, and the fire chief hoped his friend made it through this holiday season without too many painful memories surfacing.
It’s too bad the kids can’t all be there like Roy had planned. I wish they knew how much this means to him.
Knowing there was little he could do about Christmas in the Desoto household this year, Johnny pushed his thoughts aside. He rose to check on Trevor, who was finishing his homework in the study nook Johnny had created for him on their second floor balcony.
Johnny wasn’t certain if he was doing the right thing or not when he chose to delay giving Trevor the news about his grandparents’ and aunt’s canceled visit. School let out for a two week ‘winter break,’ as was now the politically correct term for what had been called ‘Christmas vacation’ when Johnny was a kid, on Friday, December 21st. Johnny’s own two week vacation started that same evening when he went off-duty at six o’clock. After giving it much thought, Johnny decided to wait until Saturday, December 22nd, to tell Trevor of the further change to their Christmas tradition. He was hoping the news would be softened by the promise of cutting down and decorating the Christmas tree that day, and then going into Juneau that evening for dinner and to see Harry Potter.
Johnny waited until after he and his son had eaten breakfast, cleared the table, and started the dishwasher, before breaking the news about the canceled visit from Trevor’s grandparents and aunt. Johnny took the boy into the great room and sat next to him on the couch.
“You mean they’re not coming?” Trevor asked with disbelief after his father had informed him of the latest change in plans. “But they always come!”
“I know, son, but this year—“
“It’s different. I know. Things change. You already told me.”
“Trev, we’ll still have Christmas with Grandpa and Grandma and Aunt Reah. We’ll go to Montana and celebrate at Grandpa’s house. Probably in late January, or maybe early February. Grandpa’s going to let us know when—“
“It won’t be the same as having Christmas with them here, on Christmas Day, like Christmas is supposed to be.”
“You’re right, it won’t be. I’m disappointed, too, Trev, but there’s nothing either one of us can do about it.“
Trevor hung his head. Johnny suspected his son was trying hard not to cry.
“I wish I was a wizard like Harry Potter, ‘cause if I was, I’d wave my wand and make Christmas like it used to be.”
Johnny pulled his son into his side. He put an arm around the boy and held him close.
“I know you would, kiddo.”
“So what are we gonna do for Christmas? Are we gonna be here all by ourselves?”
“No. We’ll go to the prayer service at the Methodist Church on Christmas Eve, and then Clarice and Carl invited us to their house for supper afterwards. And on Christmas Day, we’ve been invited to go to Nana Marie’s.”
Trevor sniffled and gave a small nod. Nana Marie was one of Clarice’s sisters. The women took turns hosting family gatherings during the various holidays throughout the year, which meant Clarice’s nine siblings, their spouses, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, would be in attendance. Trevor and his father were considered to be just as much a part of Clarice’s family as Clarice and her son Carl were. But still, as far as Trevor was concerned, it wasn’t the same as having your own Christmas, in your own house, with your own family.
“I thought we could cut down the tree this morning and then decorate it this afternoon. Afterwards, we’ll go into Juneau to eat, and then see Harry Potter.”
“We always decorate the tree with Grandpa and Grandma and Aunt Reah. And we always do it on December 23rd. That’s tomorrow. Today’s the 22nd.”
“You’re right, it is. But since Grandpa and Grandma and Aunt Reah won’t be coming tomorrow, I thought we’d go ahead and decorate the tree today.”
Trevor pulled away from his father and gave a half-hearted shrug. “If you want to.”
“I expected a bit more enthusiasm than this,” Johnny teased lightly. “You act like I just told you I’m going to pull half your teeth with a pair of pliers.”
“You just don’t understand, Papa.”
“What don’t I understand?”
“It doesn’t feel like Christmas without our traditions. Everything changed this year. It’s like. . .like what made Christmas special is over with forever.”
“You mean believing in Santa Claus?”
“That’s part of it, I guess, but not all of it.”
The boy shrugged again, unable to put his feelings into words. “I don’t know.”
Johnny thought a moment, then asked, “Trev, what have you learned all these years in Sunday school that Christmas is about?”
Trevor looked up at his father. Though Papa came to all the church programs Trevor participated in, the nine-year-old rarely heard his father openly talk about religion.
“About the birth of Jesus.”
“That’s right. And what about the birth of Jesus?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why was Jesus born?”
“He was a gift from God to all of us. It’s because Jesus was born that we’ll have eternal life in Heaven.”
Johnny smiled at how well his son had learned his Sunday school lessons. Far better than Johnny himself had as a boy.
“That’s right. God gave us a gift. Which is why we exchange gifts on Christmas Day. So, once a boy gets to be your age, and he no longer believes in Santa Claus, he has to remember that Christmas isn’t always about getting gifts, or about things staying exactly like they’ve always been, but instead, it’s about a feeling you get inside yourself when you do something nice for someone.”
Trevor gave a slow nod of understanding. “I always feel good when we collect toys and clothes at the fire station during December for the poor people.”
Johnny chuckled at Trevor’s verbiage, but he agreed. “Yeah, that does feel good, doesn’t it?”
“Yep.” Trevor chewed on his lower lip a moment, then looked up at his father. “I wish I could do something better than that even.”
“Yeah, you know, something really big. I wish I could give someone something really big this Christmas.”
“You mean like a present?”
“No.” Trevor shook his head. “I wish I knew of someone who needed something. . .special. It doesn’t have to be the kind of present you buy. Just. . .something you give them because they can’t get it for themselves, and it would be a big surprise and make them really happy. Does that make sense?”
“It makes sense,” Johnny said. “But collecting clothes, food, and toys for people who needed those things was special.”
“I know, but the whole fire department does that. And besides, everyone’s expecting it ‘cause we do it every year. I wanna do something nice for someone who isn’t expecting it. Like when I believed in Santa Claus, and he always brought me something that wasn’t on my list. Something that surprised me, and that I never thought I’d get until I found it under the tree or in my stocking.”
“I see,” Johnny said, happy to hear that those ‘surprises’ he’d planned for his son year after year had meant so much to the boy. “Well, let me think a minute. Maybe I can come up with something you and I can do for...“ Johnny grinned and grabbed his son by the hand. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“First, we’re making some phone calls, then we’re going shopping, then we’re digging something out of my closet.”
“You said you wanted to do something really special for someone, right?” Johnny asked as he led Trevor into his home office off the great room.
“And you said it has to be a big surprise, and make someone really happy, right?”
“Well, Trev, a long time ago, long before you were born, there was a man called Uncle Johnny Santa Claus. I think it’s past time that Uncle Johnny Santa Claus, and his helper, Eddie Elf, comes to life again.”
“Do I have to wear tights?”
“Not if you don’t want to.”
Trevor raised a fist in victory. “All right!”
Trevor watched as his father pulled his address book out of a desk drawer. Johnny opened the book, then started punching numbers into the touchtone keypad on the phone. Thirty minutes later the phone calls were finished and Johnny was scribbling out a Christmas list, aided by ideas given by his son.
“Get your coat, hat, and mittens on,” Johnny said as the pair ran up the stairs to their bedrooms.
“Where are we going?”
“First stop is at the airport to see Gus. Next stop is the shopping mall in Juneau.”
“And after that?”
“After that we come home, wrap presents, and pack our bags.”
“And then Uncle Johnny Santa Claus is gonna make some deliveries?”
Johnny laughed. He hadn’t fully explained the ‘surprise’ to his son, though Trevor had guessed most of it based on the phone conversations he’d just listened to.
“Yep, kiddo, Uncle Johnny Santa Claus is gonna make some deliveries. Now go on, get your coat on. Christmas Eve is just two days away, so we haven’t got much time.”
Trevor hopped and twirled as he ran to his room. He’d never been this excited about Christmas before, not even when he’d believed in Santa Claus. Papa was right. Christmas was about the feeling you got inside when you did something nice for someone. And, even more so, when that something nice was a secret.
Johnny laughed at his son as Trevor shot past him. The boy was still shouldering into his coat, and carrying his mittens in his mouth, as he raced through the house and out the door, headed for the Land Rover. Trevor was beeping the vehicle’s horn in an effort to hurry his father as Johnny was tying the laces on his boots. Less than a minute later, the Rover was headed down the driveway, its occupants on their way to begin Operation: Uncle Johnny Santa Claus, as Trevor had already dubbed their Christmas mission.
“But, Chris,” Joanne was saying into the phone receiver as Roy entered the house on Sunday afternoon, “we planned that you’d be here no later than four. I just finished cooking three pans of lasagna, and the girls’ gifts are wrapped and under the tree. Even the ones from Santa Claus. Dad thought we’d tell the girls that Santa knew they were spending Christmas Day at their other Grandma and Grandpa’s house, so he made an early delivery here.
“I know, honey. I understand. I really do. But it’s just that—-
“Okay. All right. Yes, I understand. Yes, we can make arrangements to get together New Year’s Day. Yes, I’m sure that will work if that’s the best you and Wendy can do. I’ll talk to your dad about it and get back to you.
“No, no, I’m not angry. Have a safe trip. And have a Merry Christmas.”
Roy could see the tears in his wife’s eyes as she hung up the phone.
“What was that all about?”
“Chris and Wendy aren’t coming over tomorrow afternoon.”
“Wendy’s parents have to start the holiday celebration earlier. Something about Wendy’s brother and his travel plans.”
“What about our plans?” Roy asked, not attempting to hide his irritation.
“It can’t be helped, Roy. Jake’s orders were changed and he has to return to base Christmas Day.”
Jake was Wendy’s younger brother and only sibling. He was a sergeant in the Army, married, and the father of two young boys. It was rare that Wendy or her parents saw Jake and his family at Christmas time, so this was a special year for all of them.
“Okay, fine. So Chris and Wendy can come here Christmas Day.”
“I suppose they could, but Chris said they’re staying in Santa Barbara until Thursday. They’d like to celebrate Christmas with us on New Year’s Day.”
“Since when do the DeSotos celebrate Christmas on New Year’s Day?”
“Honey, don’t be like that. I’m disappointed, too, but Chris and Wendy are thirty-five years old. We can’t dictate to them where to spend the holidays.”
“No, we can’t. But I would think they could at least give us a few hours on Christmas Eve like we planned.”
“If I wasn’t working that morning they could have come over then and—“
“Don’t make excuses for them, Jo. They knew months ago that you have to work until noon on Christmas Eve. They also knew what the plans were for our get-together with them. Hell, they were the ones who made the plans!”
“I know. But, really, Roy, it can’t be helped. Please don’t be upset with them.”
“Like you’re not upset with them?”
“I’m not upset.”
“Then why are you crying?” Roy asked as he turned and walked away from his wife.
Joanne swiped at her tears with the back of one hand. Sometimes it wasn’t easy being a wife and a mother, and this was one of those times.
Trevor Gage could hardly contain his excitement as he ran up the stairs of Gus’s plane on Christmas Eve. He wore his winter coat over his sweater and blue jeans. The green and red striped elf tunic Clarice had made for him, along with the red pointed slippers with the bells on the toes, and the red elf hat, were folded neatly in his backpack. He wasn’t going to wear the stupid green tights, though, since Papa had promised he didn’t have to. Instead, he’d wear his blue jeans with the costume.
Johnny climbed the stairs behind his son. He carried a big red sack swollen with gifts over his right shoulder, while over his left arm he carried a zippered garment bag that contained his Santa Claus coat, pants, beard, and hat. Clenched between his fingers were his black Santa boots. Gus followed John. He carried the suitcase that contained Johnny and Trevor’s clothing and personal necessities for their time away from Eagle Harbor, as well as a basket of sandwiches, snacks, and drinks that Clarice had packed for the trip.
Gus’s wife, Evelyn, was already on the plane, as was the luggage that belonged to her and her husband. They were headed to San Francisco to be with their daughter and her family for the holiday. Johnny and Trevor were going that far with them, then were transferring to a helicopter piloted by a friend of Gus’s to make the rest of the trip to Los Angeles. Even though Trevor didn’t believe in Santa Claus any longer, he thought it was neat that he and Papa would arrive in L.A. via the helicopter. He had a storybook at home that depicted Santa Claus delivering presents by helicopter to children in parts of the world where it was too warm to snow. Therefore, Trevor thought it was fitting that he and his father would arrive in Southern California using that same method.
The past two days had been filled with shopping, wrapping, packing, and multiple phone calls in order to make all the final arrangements. Considering how little time they had to get this surprise underway, Trevor felt like a real elf working overtime on Christmas Eve. But all those last minute preparations had been worth it, and now Uncle Johnny Santa Claus, and his faithful assistant, Eddie Elf, were on their way to carry out the last, and the best, part of their Christmas surprise.
“Uncle Roy’s gonna be so happy, huh, Papa?” Trevor asked as his father made sure his seatbelt was cinched tight around his waist.
“I’d say so.”
“That Santa suit Aunt Joanne made really does make you look fat. And like Santa Claus, too. I bet Brittany and Madison will think you’re the real Santa Claus for sure.”
“Well, Trev, let’s put it this way, though your Uncle Roy and Aunt Joanne don’t know I know this, I never fooled Chris, Jennifer, or John, so I’m not holding out a lot of hope I’ll fool Brittany and Madison, but that’s okay. Sometimes it’s simply the man inside the Santa suit that matters, and what he represents to the children who know him, as opposed to whether or not they believe he actually is Santa Claus.”
Trevor nodded his understanding. As the plane’s engines came to life he settled back in his seat. It wasn’t until that moment that the boy realized he and his father never had time to cut down and decorate a Christmas tree, nor had Trevor been given any gifts to open before leaving home. The funny thing was, though, none of that mattered to the nine-year-old. He didn’t feel even a twinge of disappointment. He was too excited over the prospect of the gifts they were going to give, to be concerned with the gifts he hadn’t received. As Trevor looked out the window at the snow-covered ground that was speeding by he knew, for the first time in his life, exactly how it felt to be Santa Claus.
For Libby’s sake, Roy hid his anger from Jennifer when she dropped her daughter off at eight-fifteen on Christmas Eve morning and said, “Dad, I’m really sorry, but I won’t be able to make it tomorrow night.”
“I’m pulling a double shift. I won’t get off until Wednesday morning. You don’t mind keeping Libby until then, do you?”
“Well, of course not, but your mother and I, and your grandmother, were counting on your being here tomorrow evening.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. I really am. But it can’t be helped. Another doctor had a family emergency and I said I’d cover. He couldn’t get anyone else. You understand, don’t you?”
“Sure,” Roy said as he turned away from his daughter. “Sure, I understand. I’ll see you Wednesday.”
“We can have breakfast together and open our gifts then,” Jennifer suggested.
“Yes, whatever. We’ll see. I’ll talk to your mother when she gets home from work.”
“Okay.” Jennifer gave her father a quick peck on the cheek, seemingly ignorant of his foul mood. “Libby, behave yourself for Grandma and Grandpa, and have a nice Christmas!”
“I will!” the girl called from the living room, where she had put the original version of Miracle On 34th Street into the VCR.
Roy couldn’t believe how casually Jennifer and Libby had exchanged good-byes. Considering Jennifer wasn’t going to see her child on Christmas Day, he thought a bit more was called for than, ‘Have a nice Christmas.’
This generation just doesn’t understand what family is all about.
Roy settled in next to his granddaughter on the sofa to carry out at least one tradition they both held dear – the watching of classic holiday movies on Christmas Eve. Later, when Joanne arrived home, Roy broke the news to her about the change in Jennifer’s work schedule. The woman shook her head, but because Libby was in the living room, kept her thoughts to herself. She leaned into Roy when he put his arms around her and ran a hand up and down her back.
“It’s going to be such a quiet Christmas,” Joanne murmured against her husband’s shoulder. “I don’t think we’ve had a quiet Christmas since before Chris was born.”
“We haven’t, but I guess we’d better get used to it.”
Despite the fact that Joanne thought she had accepted the changes to family traditions this Christmas brought, she realized she wasn’t nearly as ready to carry out those changes as she’d previously assumed.
It was Roy who said, “We’ll make the best of it,” as he placed a kiss in his wife’s hair before heading back to the living room.
Joanne knew they had no choice but to ‘make the best of it,’ as Roy phrased it. Still, she found herself swiping at tears for the second time in twenty-four hours. With just herself, Roy, and Libby, here for Christmas Eve, and then the three of them, and Roy’s mother, on Christmas Day, the holiday was going to be quiet. Quiet and lonely. Or at least lonely when compared to past Christmas gatherings.
The woman walked to her bedroom to put her purse away and change her clothes. After that, she’d start the preparations for their new tradition of a quiet Christmas.
It was growing dark when Johnny and Trevor made the transition from Gus’s plane to the helicopter piloted by Gus’s friend, Lyle ‘Pete’ Peterson. Johnny had arranged to have a rental car in the form of a Chevy Blazer, waiting for him at the small airport in L.A. where Pete would land.
Prior to making these arrangements, Johnny had questioned Gus as to Pete’s experience and flying hours. Gus assured Johnny the man was an excellent chopper pilot. Because of his son, Johnny no longer pursued things with few questions and little thought, like he had been prone to do in his younger days. John was comfortable with what Gus told him, though, so didn’t hesitate to board the chopper and assist Trevor in getting secured in his seat.
Flying conditions were excellent until they were within ten miles of Los Angeles. A light rain began to fall, and because of fog, visibility dropped to almost zero. Pete brought the chopper up, then down, up, then down, leading Johnny to guess he was trying to get above or below the fog, whichever worked. The problem was, nothing seemed to work. Trevor had fallen asleep shortly after they’d left San Francisco. The erratic movement of the helicopter didn’t wake him, and for that, Johnny was grateful. He reached over and made sure the boy’s seatbelt and shoulder harness were tight, then Johnny made sure their luggage and the bag of gifts were secure in the cargo hold behind his seat. There wasn’t much else the fire chief could do after that but keep quiet and allow Pete to concentrate. The last thing he remembered the man saying over the roar of the blades was, “We’re within five miles of the airport, John.” Less than a minute after that, the chopper took a wild bank to the left. Johnny threw his right arm out, bringing it down across his son’s chest. He heard Trevor’s terrified, “Papa! Papa!” as the helicopter spun out of control. Johnny had no time to answer his son before he felt the jolt of a powerful impact, and then the world around him went black.
Johnny groaned as rolled his head back and forth.
Oh damn. Bad idea.
The man shot up and instinctively turned sideways. Someone else’s instincts were sharp that night, too, as an emesis basin was held beneath Johnny’s mouth, ready to catch what his stomach expelled.
Without opening his eyes Johnny laid back. It took a few moments for the voices to come into focus.
“Uncle Johnny? Uncle Johnny, open your eyes.”
“Johnny,” a female voice urged as a damp cloth was wiped across his mouth, “Johnny, come on. Open your eyes.”
Johnny finally did as voices commanded. He squinted as the overhead light assaulted his eyes and made his head pound worse than it already was.
“Hey there, Santa Claus, it’s good to see you awake.”
“Dix?” The man questioned in a harsh croak.
“Who else were you expecting?” The woman asked as she held a paper cup of water to Johnny’s lips and assisted him in rinsing his mouth out. “A reindeer with a red nose to pull your sleigh?”
Johnny’s eyes traveled to the other woman bending over him.
“Two for two. Despite that big lump on the side of your head, you’re batting a thousand so far, Uncle Johnny.”
Johnny knew where he was, but how he got to Rampart’s emergency room was still a mystery to his addled brain.
“What. . .how. . .where. . .” when a portion of what happened came into focus for the dazed man he had just one frantic inquiry. “Trevor? Where’s Trevor?”
Jennifer pushed on Johnny’s shoulders, gently urging him back to the examination table.
“Trevor’s fine. He came through the crash without so much as a bruise.”
“Do you remember what happened?”
“No. I remember getting on Gus’s plane with Trev and leaving Eagle Harbor, but I don’t remember anything else. Are Gus and Evelyn okay?”
“I’m sure they are, because you weren’t with them.”
“Who was I with?”
“A helicopter pilot named Lyle Peterson. And before you ask, he’s fine other than having a broken wrist and a badly sprained ankle.”
“He was just getting ready to land when he lost control of the chopper due to a strong head wind. It’s really foggy out and it’s been raining on and off. The wind suddenly picked up, and you know how wind and helicopters don’t mix.”
Johnny had ridden in enough helicopters in his many years as a paramedic, and had been on the scene of enough helicopter crashes, to know how true Jennifer’s statement was.
“What time is it?”
“Eleven o’clock on Christmas Eve.”
“He’s covered with a blanket and sleeping on the couch in Doctor Morton’s office. Dixie had an aid get him supper from the cafeteria after we determined he wasn’t injured, and I promised I’d wake him so he can see you just as soon as you’re up to having a visitor.”
Johnny started to rise on his elbows. “I’m up to having a visitor.”
“No, no,” Jennifer said as she pushed on the man’s shoulders again. “You lay back down. You’ve got ten stitches in the left side of your head, and a concussion to go along with them. Not to mention a colorful array of bruises and scratches on your face. You’re not going anywhere for the next twenty-four hours.”
“I am, too.”
“You are not.”
“Jennifer Lynn, I am, too. I’m supposed to be at your father’s house tomorrow morning, and after all we went through to arrange this surprise for him, I sure as hell am not going to be flat on my back in a hospital bed.”
“Don’t you ‘Jennifer Lynn,’ me,” the woman said as she shook a stern finger. “Right now, it’s Doctor DeSoto to you, Mister Uncle Johnny Santa Claus.”
It was then that Johnny realized he was dressed in a hospital gown, and that his jeans, shirt, socks, tennis shoes, and winter coat, were lying over a chair in the corner of the room. Despite the pain it caused, he turned his head.
“Where’s the rest of my stuff? The Santa suit and the bag of presents?”
“Dixie and I have all of it. Trevor made sure one of the paramedics at the scene loaded everything into the ambulance, including your luggage.”
“Was anything damaged?”
“Other than Mr. Peterson’s helicopter, no, believe it or not. I guess you earned yourself a Christmas miracle where the important things are concerned.”
“Good. Glad to hear it.”
Johnny once again pushed himself from the table.
“Now, let me get dressed, and then Trev and I will spend the night at your house like we planned. I’ve got to somehow get the Blazer that’s waiting for us at the airport, too. I’ll meet you at your folks tomorrow morn—“
Black dots, accompanied by a wave of dizziness, caused Johnny to sink down to the exam table again.
When he could focus once more, he saw two females glaring at him with their arms crossed over their chests.
“And you were saying, Santa Claus?” Dixie asked.
“I was saying I’m gonna spend the night here.”
“That’s more like it,” Dixie nodded, as she crossed to the phone hanging on the east wall.
“But on one condition,” Johnny added.
“And that would be?” Jennifer asked.
“That as long as I can stand up tomorrow morning, you’re taking me to your parents when you go off-duty.”
“As long as you can stand up, and as long as I feel you’re not endangering your health, then yes, I’ll agree to that. But you’ll have to go easy on the ‘ho ho ho’s’ for a few days, and we’ll need to keep the kids off of you.”
Johnny scowled. “Keeping kids off Santa is sacrilegious.”
“Sorry, Uncle Johnny Santa Claus, but that’s just the way things will have to be this year. Doctor’s orders.”
“What about the Blazer I rented? I need to pick it up. That’s how Trevor and I are getting to San Francisco on Saturday in order to meet Gus so we can fly home.”
“Don’t worry about the Blazer. I doubt I can get a hold of anyone at the airport now, but I’ll try. Otherwise, we’ll pick it up the day after Christmas. If I don’t feel you should be driving to San Francisco by the time Saturday arrives, then I’m sure Dad will take you and Trev to meet Gus. If he can’t, someone will. Don’t worry about any of it right now. We’ll get it all worked out one way or another.”
Dixie hung up the phone and turned around.
“Well, Mr. Claus, I have a room waiting for you and your son on the third floor. There are two beds in there, both of which are empty. We’ll put you in one, and Trevor in the other.”
“Thanks, Dix. Even after all these years, you still take good care of me.”
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, some poor woman has to, Johnny Gage.” The woman smiled as she brought a wheelchair to the side of the table. “Some poor woman has to.”
Jennifer helped Johnny ease into the wheelchair. When they determined he could sit upright without experiencing any dizziness or nausea, Dixie took him up to his room while Jennifer went to wake Trevor. Fifteen minutes later father and son were reunited. After being reassured that his papa was fine, Trevor fell asleep in Johnny’s bed. Though Jennifer thought Johnny would be more comfortable if the boy was in his own bed, John wouldn’t allow her to move his son.
“He’s fine just like he is, Jenny,” the fire chief assured as he carefully wrapped his right arm, that contained an IV needle, around the sleeping boy’s chest. “He’ll be ten in May. My days of being able to do this are numbered.”
Jennifer nodded her understanding. Her daughter was six months from turning twelve, so she knew what John Gage meant. Libby no longer climbed in bed with her, and only rarely now, did they snuggle on the couch together while watching a movie or favorite TV program.
“A nurse will be doing a neural check on you every hour, so you’d better get what sleep you can.”
“I will,” Johnny agreed, knowing that if he didn’t look halfway healthy in the morning Jennifer would never release him.
“I’ll see you after breakfast unless I’m called up here before then.”
“You won’t be. I’m fine.”
“I’m holding you to that promise, Uncle Johnny Santa Claus.”
“You can, ‘cause Uncle Johnny Santa Claus never breaks his promises. Especially not on Christmas Eve.”
“I’m glad to hear it, because after all we’ve gone through to fool Mom and Dad the past couple days, I’d hate to show up at their house without you.”
“Because if Dad starts yelling, I’m pulling you in front of me.”
Johnny chuckled. “I doubt your dad will yell, Jenny Bean, but if he does, then yes, I’ll get in front of you. But I think your old man kinda has a soft spot for Uncle Johnny Santa Claus, so don’t worry too much about it.”
Jennifer smiled. “I know my old man has a soft spot for Uncle Johnny Santa Claus. We all do. So, sir, on that note, you go to sleep and I’ll see you in the morning.”
It wasn’t difficult for Johnny to do as the woman ordered. Despite his pounding head, he was asleep before she left the room.
As she opened the door to exit, Jennifer said softly, “Merry Christmas, Uncle Johnny. Merry Christmas, Trevor. You might not have come in on a sleigh, but I should have known you two would arrive in style.”
By nine o’clock on Christmas morning Roy DeSoto was in a foul mood. His mother had called an hour earlier to say there was no need for Roy to pick her up. She wasn’t feeling well, and wanted to spend the day at home. When Roy questioned the eighty-year-old woman about her health, her answers were vague, and she seemed in a hurry to get off the phone.
“Maybe you’d better drive over and check on her,” Joanne said when Roy voiced his concerns.
“I’m going to. I’ll call her in a little while, and if she seems okay then we’ll wait and take a drive over there after we eat our main meal. We can take a plate of food to her.”
“That’s sounds like a good idea,” Joanne agreed. Though their gathering would be small, Joanne hadn’t adjusted her menu, and was making enough food to feed two dozen people. Or so Roy had said more than once. She had a twenty pound turkey already cooking in the oven, and the four pies she and Libby had made on Christmas Eve afternoon were in the refrigerator. Not to mention the two and a half pans of lasagna that remained from the previous night’s meal. “We’ll have plenty of leftovers.”
“I don’t know why you made all that stuff. You should have trimmed the menu down.”
Joanne shrugged. “Habit, I guess. I can freeze most of it, and we can have it again when Chris and Wendy come on New Year’s Day.”
Roy glanced into the living room where Libby was curled in the corner of the couch reading the Judy Blume book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
“What’s with Olivia this morning?”
“What do you mean?” Joanne stood at the stove scrambling eggs for breakfast and cooking bacon, while Roy put bread in the toaster.
“She’s not interested in the gifts under the tree, and she hasn’t even looked in her stocking yet.”
“Well, she’s eleven now, Roy. She doesn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore, so maybe none of it holds much interest for her.”
“She might not believe in Santa Claus, but I’ve never heard of an eleven-year-old who doesn’t like to get presents. I’ve asked her twice now if she wants to open gifts, and she keeps saying we should wait. Wait for what? She knows we’re going to be alone today.” Roy shook his head with exasperation. “And what’s with that?”
“What?” Joanne sighed. She wished her husband wasn’t working so hard at making an already miserable day more miserable.
“Libby keeps looking out the window like she’s watching for someone.”
“Maybe the neighbors have company arriving.”
“Maybe, but I can’t understand why that holds more fascination for her than opening gifts does.”
“Roy, she’s eleven. She’s not a little girl any longer, no matter how much you’d like her to still be one. Just leave her alone. We’ll eat our breakfast, then we’ll open gifts. Let’s not make the day any more difficult than it already—“
Joanne’s sentence was interrupted by the sound of jingle bells vigorously jangling outside the house.
“Ho, ho, ho!”
Libby threw her book down and ran to the door. She flung it open, making the sounds closer and more prominent.
The bells rang again, and then there was another round of “Ho, ho, ho!”
“What the—“ Roy leaned backwards and strained to see through the living room and out the door.
“Grandpa! Grandma! Come quick! It’s Santa Claus!”
“Who?” Joanne asked, as she shut the burners off and put her spatula down. She covered the pans, then wiped her hands off on a dishtowel. “Libby, what’s going—“
“Ho, ho, ho!”
“Santa Claus is here, Grandma. And he’s got presents! Lots of presents for you and Grandpa! Come on!”
Libby scampered into the kitchen. She grabbed her grandfather’s right hand, and her grandmother’s left hand, and pulled them toward the door.
“Come on! Santa Claus is here to see you!”
“Libby, sweetheart, slow down,” Joanne urged. “I’m sure he’s just at the wrong house. He’s probably supposed to be across the street at Melissa and Brian’s. They’ve got three little boys. I’m sure they must have hired someone to—“
“No. He’s here for you! He has presents for you and Grandpa!”
“For me and Grandpa?”
“Yeah,” Libby said as she dragged her grandparents across the living room carpeting. “Come on!”
It was as they approached the front door that Roy thought he recognized that ‘Ho, ho, ho.’ He remembered Jennifer’s words from years ago.
I like the way he said, “Ho, ho, ho,” like he had a sore throat.
When the “Ho, ho, ho,” came again, Joanne and Roy looked at each other. As one, they exclaimed, “It’s Johnny!”
And it was John Gage, dressed in the old Santa suit Joanne had made for him thirty years ago, with a huge bag of presents slung over his shoulder. Standing next to him, beaming from ear to ear, was one dark-headed boy dressed as an elf. And surrounding the two of them, was Roy and Joanne’s family.
Chris was balanced on his canes on Johnny’s right, with Wendy next to him. Brittany and Madison, wearing matching green velvet dresses with big white bows at the collars, were standing in front of their parents. Jennifer and her grandmother, Harriet DeSoto, stood on Johnny’s left. The biggest surprise of all came when John and his fiancé, Shawna, popped out from behind Santa Claus while shouting a loud, “Surprise!”
“Oh my gosh!” Joanne cried as she brought her hands to her face in shock. “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it. How did all of you get here? How—“
Libby ran back into the house before her grandmother could finish her sentence. She pulled the camera that her mother had sent along with her, and that she’d been hiding from her grandparents, out from under a sofa pillow. She raced back outside with it. She snapped pictures as her Grandma and Grandpa began hugging their children and grandchildren, as well as hugging Great Grandma DeSoto, Trevor, and Uncle Johnny.
Joanne kept asking, “How did all of you get here?” and one by one the explanations finally came. Jennifer had switched her schedule with that of a doctor who wanted New Year’s Eve and Day off. John and Shawna had their Christmas celebration with Shawna’s family when they got off work at four o’clock on Christmas Eve afternoon. They attended a midnight service with Shawna’s family at the church where the McNeils’ were members, then caught a red-eye flight to Los Angeles. Chris and Wendy had rearranged things with her parents and brother, so the Christmas celebration in Santa Barbara took place during the day on Christmas Eve.
“We got up at four this morning so my parents could watch the kids open their gifts from Santa Claus,” Wendy told Joanne, “then we loaded the car, picked up John and Shawna from the airport, swung by Grandma DeSoto’s and picked her up, and then met Jennifer at Rampart so we could caravan here in order to arrive at the same time.”
Roy and Joanne shook their heads in amazement at all the last minute switching of schedules, and altering of plans, that had taken place on their behalf.
“We fooled you, huh, Uncle Roy?” Trevor asked, when he could contain his excitement no longer. “We really fooled you, huh?”
Roy grabbed the elf and twirled him around. “You sure did, Trevor!”
“It was a secret! A really big secret. It’s mine and Papa’s Christmas gift to you!”
“What?” Roy asked as he put Trevor back on his feet.
“Papa called everybody – Chris, and Jennifer, and John, and he got ‘em all to come here. He got all of them to rearrange stuff so they could be here. It was a surprise, and it’s our Christmas present to you because you were sad ‘cause no one could come to your house this year. Papa and me were supposed to sleep at Jennifer’s last night, but we slept at Rampart instead, right in a real hospital bed ‘cause of the helicopter crash. And then this morning--”
“The what!” Roy exclaimed as he looked at Johnny.
Johnny shrugged within the heavy Santa suit that was growing uncomfortably warm all of a sudden.
“We had a little accident. It’s no big deal. We’re fine, the pilot is fine, and the presents are fine.” To emphasize that last statement Johnny hoisted the bag up that was on his shoulder, and suddenly seemed to weigh thirty pounds more than it did when he left Rampart an hour earlier. “Admittedly, the helicopter’s not in the best of shape, but the rest of us are okay.”
“Then why did you and Trevor spend the night at Rampart?”
“ ‘Cause Papa has a bad bump on his head that knocked him out cold,” Trevor willingly supplied. “And now he’s got ten stitches, too.”
Roy turned to his daughter. “Then what is he doing here?”
“You try keeping Uncle Johnny Santa Claus in a hospital bed when he’s determined to deliver his presents,” Jennifer said with a smile. She grew serious as she assured, “He’s all right, Dad. He needs to rest, but otherwise, he’s okay. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t have released him.”
Roy looked at his friend and shook his head. He grabbed Johnny and pulled him into a hug. “You are something else, you know that?”
“So you’ve told me several times in the past,” Johnny said as he returned the hug.
Libby snapped two pictures of her Grandpa hugging Santa Claus, then set the camera on the hood of her mother’s car and ran for Santa’s arms.
“Libby, take it easy on Santa,” Jennifer warned when she saw her daughter was about to launch herself at Johnny.
Johnny didn’t attempt to pick Libby up, but instead bent and engulfed her in a bear hug. “Hey, Olive Oyle. Thanks for working so hard to keep our secret.”
“You’re welcome,” Libby said as she kissed the only part of Johnny’s left cheek that wasn’t covered by the white, curly beard. “It was hard. Grandpa was crabby, and he kept wanting us to open gifts.”
“Well, now that Santa’s here, your grandpa won’t be crabby anymore, and we’re going to open gifts in a few minutes.”
Libby released the man and turned to hug her friend, and
e-mail pen pal, Trevor.
“I like your costume.”
“Thanks,” Trevor blushed as he straightened his hat. “But I didn’t wear the stupid tights. I had to for the school program, but Papa said I could wear jeans today.”
“The jeans look good with it. Come on. Come in the house and see the Christmas tree.”
Trevor allowed Libby to take him by the hand and lead him to the house. John picked up the camera from the hood of Jennifer’s car, and everyone pitched in to unload luggage except Great Grandma DeSoto, who followed Libby and Trevor into the house.
Everyone was talking at once as the group headed for the front door. Or so it seemed to Johnny. He suddenly couldn’t distinguish the voices that seemed to buzz like annoying insects in his ears. He knew what was happening as the light began to narrow, but couldn’t sit down on the grass fast enough before he passed out.
No one had noticed Johnny trailing behind. It wasn’t until three-year-old Madison yelled, “Mommy! Daddy! Santa Claus just fainted!” that the group turned around.
Roy and Jennifer were the first ones at Johnny’s side. John, Joanne, Shawna, and Chris followed, while Wendy ushered her girls into the house.
In seconds, Roy and Jennifer had the Santa suit stripped off Johnny, including the beard, hat, and boots. He’d been wearing a pair of blue jeans and a red Eagle Harbor Fire Department polo shirt underneath the suit, which caused Jennifer to guess that, in light of his recent accident and the day’s warm temperature of seventy-eight degrees, he’d quickly become dehydrated and overheated.
Jennifer’s educated assumption proved correct when Johnny quickly began regaining consciousness. He was more embarrassed than he was hurt or ill, and he vehemently assured everyone he was fine.
“I think he should go back to Rampart,” Roy said.
“I’m not going back to Rampart,” Johnny countered as John and Jennifer helped him sit up. “I’m fine.”
“Oh, I can see how fine you are, St. Nick. You’re so fine that you just passed out in my front yard.”
“I’m fine, Roy. Just help me stand.”
“If you need help standing then you’re not fine.”
“Guys, cool it,” Joanne ordered like she used to on occasion thirty years earlier when Johnny and Roy couldn’t see eye to eye. “Roy, Jennifer doesn’t think it’s anything serious, so let’s help Johnny into the house. I’ll get him some orange juice and some breakfast. If, after that, Jen thinks he needs to go back to Rampart, then we’ll take him there.”
I’m not going to Ram—“
“Mr. Gage, don’t argue with me. If my daughter says you’re going to Rampart, then Rampart is where you’ll go. But, for now, let’s get you in the house.”
Everyone knew better than to argue with Joanne when she used that tone, including Johnny. Roy and John helped the fire chief to his feet, then continued to hold onto his arms as they walked to the house. Trevor hadn’t been aware of what happened in the yard as he and Libby nosed through the gifts beneath the Christmas tree, and the adults did a good job of keeping the incident from him.
Roy and Joanne’s house was filled with chaos for the next half hour as luggage was carried to the various bedrooms the guests were assigned, breakfast was cooked, and children ran to and fro conferring with their parents, shaking presents, and just in general getting underfoot. And Roy DeSoto loved every minute of that chaos John Gage had brought to his home, as only John Gage could seem to do.
The only one excluded from the chaos, and assisting in controlling it, was Johnny. He was made to sit at the kitchen table and was immediately given a cold glass of orange juice to drink and piece of toast to eat. He kept assuring Jennifer and Roy he was fine, and rolled his eyes when first Jen insisted on taking his pulse, and then five minutes later, Roy insisted on doing the same thing.
By the time breakfast had been eaten Johnny was feeling better. He was tired, and he still had a headache, but overall he felt up to participating in the Christmas celebration that was soon to begin in the living room. Or so he assured Jennifer and Roy.
Johnny was told to sit in Roy’s recliner, and he didn’t argue that suggestion. John carried the Santa bag over and laid it at his feet. With a smile, the young man said, “Here you go, Uncle Johnny Santa Claus.”
The man grimaced. He looked at Chris and Wendy, who were seated together on the couch.
“I’m sorry I blew it for your girls. I really wanted them to think I was Santa Claus.”
Chris laughed. “Uncle Johnny, you’ve never been able to fool any of the DeSoto kids with that costume, so don’t worry about it. Brittany had it figured out the minute she saw you.” Chris dropped his voice and pointed at Madison, who was going through her stocking with Joanne’s assistance. “But I don’t think Madison knows it was you. Wendy got her in the house before Dad and Jen took your costume off.”
As if to prove her father’s words were true, Madison ran over to Johnny. She leaned against his knees and looked at the big red bag by his feet.
“Did Santa leave his bag after he fainted?”
“Well, sweetheart, it sure looks that way, doesn’t it?”
“Should we see if there’s a present inside for you?”
Madison’s red curls bounced against her shoulders as she gave a vigorous nod of her head. “Oh yes! Yes!”
“Okay then,” Johnny said as he bent forward and opened the bag. He dug through it until he came up with a package Trevor had wrapped. “Well, would you look at this. You must have been a very good girl this year because Santa Claus does have a present for you in his bag.”
Madison jumped up and down while clapping her hands. She took the present and ran over by her parents. She ripped off the wrapping paper to find a stuffed Big Bird doll.
“Big Bird! Yay, Big Bird! I wuv Big Bird!”
Johnny had Trevor come over and pass out the presents one by one that they’d purchased in Juneau on Saturday. And Roy stood there, growing more and more shocked by the minute, as each present matched those written on Brandon’s list.
A Yankee Candle for Joanne, this one scented as gingerbread cookies.
A Christmas tree ornament for Wendy shaped as the state of Alaska.
A book on the history of Alaska for Roy’s mother.
A Bruce Springsteen CD for Chris.
A charm for Jennifer in the shape of the caduceus medical symbol.
A Barbie Doll for Brittany.
A Mary Kate and Ashley movie for Libby.
And, one of the last things to come out of the bag, was a Tonka snorkel truck for John.
“I know you’re a little too old for that now, John, but I’ve been wanting to complete your collection for years.”
John smiled as he stood to hug the man he was named for.
“And I’ve been wanting you to complete my collection for years, too. I have all the trucks, and someday my son or daughter will play with them just as much as I did. Thanks, Uncle Johnny.”
“You’re welcome, Little Pally.”
Trevor pulled a gift for Shawna from the bag next. When unwrapped, the box revealed a Teddy bear dressed in the uniform of an Alaskan Forest Ranger. Trevor had remembered hearing Shawna say that she collected Teddy bears, and since she was a forest ranger like John, this seemed like the perfect gift for her. It evidently proved to be, because the lively Shawna bounded across the room with a squeal of delight to give first Trevor, and then Johnny, a kiss on the cheek.
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you! I love it!”
The last thing Trevor took from the bag was a present for Roy. Johnny had gotten the idea for this gift months earlier. He had framed a picture he’d taken of the entire DeSoto family in July when he and Trevor were visiting. Roy’s mother and Shawna were also in the picture, and using his home computer, Johnny had imposed a shot of Brandon that Jennifer had given him into the background. The way Johnny had shadowed the picture, and the way he’d placed Brandon, made it appear as though the little boy was smiling down upon his family. The only reason the picture hadn’t been included in the box of gifts Johnny mailed to Roy and Joanne earlier in the month, was because he just wasn’t certain how this present would make Roy feel, so at the last minute had been hesitant to send it.
Roy didn’t say anything for a long moment, but simply sat staring at the picture. Johnny was wondering if his original hesitation was valid, and if he’d made a mistake. Maybe the pain of Brandon’s death was still too strong for a picture like this to be wanted.
It was Trevor who broke the silence.
“Don’t you like it, Uncle Roy?”
Johnny reached out and touched his son’s arm. He shook his head and said, “Shhh.”
Roy looked up then, and Johnny could see the tears shimmering in his eyes. He gave a small smile and said, “Yes, Trevor, I like it. I like it a lot. Thank you.” The man’s gaze took in his old friend. “Thank you both.”
Johnny merely nodded as Trevor said, “You’re welcome. Papa worked on it for hours and hours. It took him a long time to get it just like he wanted it.”
“I’m sure it did,” Roy agreed as he looked down at the picture again. “Thanks, Johnny. I don’t know what else to say but thank you.”
“How about saying, ‘let’s open the rest of the presents,’ ” Johnny suggested with a grin.
“Yeah, Grandpa,” Brittany shouted, “let’s open the rest of the presents!”
“Yeah, Grandpa, let’s open presents!” Madison echoed.
Roy laughed and waved a hand toward the tree. He looked at his youngest son.
“John, pass the presents out for me please.”
John got down on his knees and crawled to the tree with two little girls on his heels. For the next hour gifts were passed out and opened. Johnny was proud of his son. There were no gifts under the tree for Trevor since Roy and Joanne, and the other DeSotos, had mailed the gifts to Eagle Harbor, yet the boy never complained. He watched as everyone else opened his or her gifts, and seemed to take great delight in seeing what each person received.
Finally, Johnny leaned over and said into Trevor’s ear, “Go out to Jennifer’s car and pop the release that opens her trunk. You’ll find some presents in there for you.”
excitement, Trevor had never noticed that the red Santa bag wasn’t nearly as full
when it arrived in the DeSoto house, as it had been when they’d boarded Gus’s
Johnny nodded. “Did you really think I wouldn’t have something here for you to open on Christmas Day?”
“But it’s not about what I get, it’s about what I give, remember?”
“I remember. And it’s about what I give, too, so go out to Jen’s car and bring your gifts in. I didn’t bring them all with us, but I brought a few things.”
Trevor stood and gave his father a hug, “Thanks, Papa!” and then ran out to Jennifer’s car. When he returned, Trevor was carrying a box that contained the gifts Roy and Joanne had sent to Eagle harbor for him, plus the gifts that had arrived from Jennifer and Libby, John and Shawna, Chris’s family, Great Grandma DeSoto, Dixie McCall, and there was a gift from Johnny as well.
Trevor sat with the girls in the middle of the floor and opened his gifts. Johnny didn’t even have to remind him to say thank you to each giver, which again, indicated to the fire chief that his son was growing up. When Trevor opened his last gift, the one from Johnny, he discovered an electronic Quidditch game. Quidditch was taken directly from the Harry Potter novels, and was a magical form of soccer played on broomsticks hundreds of feet in the air. Trevor ran to his father and kissed his cheek.
“Thank, Papa. It’s just what I wanted. But you left all your presents in Alaska. You didn’t get to open anything.”
“That’s okay, Trev,” Johnny assured as he hugged his son. “Papa got all the presents he needed today.”
And because he was growing up, Trevor knew exactly what his father meant by that remark.
At three o’clock that afternoon everyone gathered around the table for a meal that included turkey and all the trimmings that come with a big holiday dinner. By four, Johnny was exhausted. Roy noticed the dark circles under his eyes and suggested he lay down on one of the twin beds in Chris’s old room. Johnny and Trevor would be sharing that room throughout their stay, and their luggage had already been put there.
Johnny didn’t argue his friend’s suggestion, which proved to everyone how much the day had taken out of the fire chief. After the door to the bedroom closed, Joanne looked at her husband and daughter.
“Is he all
Jennifer glanced over shoulder to see the children were occupied in the living room playing with Trevor’s Hogwarts Castle and his Harry Potter action figures, and therefore weren’t paying attention to the adults’ conversation.
“He’s fine, Mom. He’s just tired. He didn’t get much sleep at the hospital last night, and today’s been long and full of activity. If he doesn’t wake up and make an appearance for a sandwich and another piece of pie in a few hours, I’ll have Dad check on him.”
Joanne smiled at Jennifer’s reference to Johnny’s infamous appetite, which, despite the passing years, was still pretty large.
“I sure wish I knew where he hides all those calories,” Joanne said as she, Jennifer, Shawna, Roy, and Wendy, cleaned up the kitchen.
Roy patted his stomach, which was twenty pounds more ample than it was back in the days when he and Johnny rode together in Squad 51.
“I’d like to know where he hides those calories, too.”
Roy’s family laughed at his joke. An hour after the kitchen had been cleaned Harriet DeSoto was ready to go home. Her great grandchildren and Trevor helped her gather up the gifts she received and carried them to Roy and Joanne’s mini-van. Everyone said goodbye to the woman, then Roy assisted her in making the step up into the vehicle.
Neither Joanne nor Jennifer was surprised when, two hours later, Roy hadn’t returned home yet. Without exchanging any words, the women knew Roy was engaging in his other holiday tradition – visiting Brandon’s grave.
Roy turned around when a car parked behind his mini-van on the narrow lane in the cemetery. At first he thought it was someone else visiting a deceased loved one on Christmas night, until he recognized the car as Joanne’s Grand Am, and then recognized the man who climbed out of it. He remained standing in front of Brandon’s grave as Johnny walked toward him.
“Should you be driving?” Roy asked as his friend stopped and stood beside him.
“Probably not, but if you don’t fink on me to Jennifer, then I’ll never tell.”
manage to make use of Joanne’s car if Jennifer doesn’t know you’re here?”
“Swiped her keys off the hook in the laundry room. You know something, Roy, you and Joanne are creatures of habit. In thirty years you’ve hardly changed a bit. Not only do I still know where the clean towels are kept, and where the drinking glasses are, but I also know where you keep your spare keys.”
how did you manage to get out of the house without them knowing you left?”
“Snuck out as Dixie came in. Jennifer had invited her over for sandwiches and dessert when she got off-duty. As Dix walked in the front door, I walked out the back.”
“You’re going to be in big trouble with my women, and Dixie, when we get home.”
“I’ve been in big trouble with your women and Dixie before and lived to tell the story, so believe me, I won’t lose any sleep over it.”
“No, you won’t. You’ll just charm them with the Gage pout, and then throw in the Gage grin for good measure, and all three of them will forgive you in two seconds flat.”
“Yep, that’s how it works.”
“How’d you know I was here?”
“Took a guess. . .and overheard Chris and John talking about how this is where you always come on Christmas night.”
Johnny stared down at the child’s gravestone that was illuminated by a sodium vapor light above them. He read the words engraved on the white polished granite.
Brandon Roy Sheridan
March 23rd, 1992 to
April 12th, 1998
Beloved son, grandson, brother, nephew, and cousin.
And the angels shall be his friends.
“He never met a person he didn’t like,” Roy said, as if he could sense Johnny reading the last sentence on the stone. “Everyone was his friend. Brandon was a lot like your Trevor in that regard. That’s why Jennifer put that line on there about the angels being his friends. She was certain Brandon would have many friends in Heaven.”
“I’m sure he does.”
“I’m don’t know,” Roy shrugged. “I’d like to think so. Hope so. But. . .until today it was hard to know, to really know, if I thought there was a life beyond the one we’re given when we’re born. But because of you and Brandon, I’ve come to realize that there is more, and I’ve finally come to have peace and assurance that Branny’s in a better place.”
“Because of me? What do you mean?”
Roy reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “Here. Read this.”
“It’s a Christmas list Brandon wrote out just a few weeks before he died. I’ve never shown it to Jennifer or Joanne. They don’t know it exists. No one does. But I’ve kept it, and every so often I pull it out and look at it.”
Johnny unfolded the piece of paper and held it up to the light. He read each of Brandon’s requests, then refolded the paper and handed it back to Roy.
“So, what do you think?” Roy asked, as he returned the paper to his jacket pocket. “A coincidence, or a message from God and my grandson?”
“A message from God as sent through me?” Johnny chuckled. “I seriously doubt it, Roy.”
“Then how do you explain the fact that you bought everything Brandon had on his list, and survived a helicopter crash to get it all here.”
Johnny thought a moment. “I guess I don’t explain it, because I honestly don’t know how to.”
“My point exactly.” Roy looked back down at the grave and smiled softly. “And there’s one last wish of Brandon’s that you just made come true by showing up here, at this cemetery.”
“What wish is that?”
“The one that said, ‘A visit from Santa Claus for me and my grandpa.’”
“But I’m not wearing my suit.”
Roy chuckled. “I don’t think Brandon would mind, and for some reason, I’m sure he’d still know you were Santa Claus. Or ‘Uncle Johnny Santa Claus,’ as the DeSotos refer to you.”
Johnny smiled in acknowledgement, then stood there with his friend until Roy was ready to leave. The last thing Roy did before he turned away was pull the Christmas list out of his pocket, unfold it, and place it against Brandon’s gravestone. He slowly ran his fingers over the deeply etched letters of Brandon’s name.
“Thanks to your Uncle Johnny Santa Claus, Brandon, we all received everything on your list this year, and then some. Merry Christmas, Branny. Grandpa loves you.”
As Roy stood, Johnny put an arm around his shoulders. They walked together to their vehicles, one man thankful for Christmas traditions that hadn’t been changed, thanks to help from an old friend, and one man thankful for Christmas traditions that had changed, so he could be here in Los Angeles to help an old friend.
When the men arrive back at the DeSoto house Trevor greeted his father at he door.
“Boy, Papa, are you in trouble with Aunt Joanne, Jennifer, and Dixie. I wouldn’t go in the kitchen if I were you.”
Johnny smiled as he tousled his boy’s hair. “Thanks for the warning.”
“Where were you, anyway?”
Johnny glanced at Roy, then looked back down at his son.
“Oh, let’s just say Uncle Johnny Santa Claus had one final gift to deliver before calling it a Merry Christmas.”
“Did whoever you give the gift to, like it?”
Roy smiled at the boy while nodding. “He liked it very much, Trev. I have it on good authority, that he liked it very much.”
“That’s great. ‘Cause you know, Uncle Roy, Christmas is all about the feeling you get inside yourself when you do something nice for someone.”
Roy bent and pulled Trevor to him. He kissed the nine-year-old’s cheek and agreed. “It certainly is, buddy.”
When Roy released Trevor the boy took his father by the hand and pulled him toward the kitchen.
“Come on, Pops, you might as well face the firing squad and get it over with so we can all have more dessert when Aunt Joanne’s done yelling at you.”
The men laughed as Trevor dropped Johnny’s hand and ran ahead of them. They stepped over toys, discarded wrapping paper, shoes, and two little girls playing Barbie. They followed the female voices raised in animated chatter that came from the kitchen, along with bursts of laughter Roy identified as belonging to Chris and John.
Right before they entered the room, Roy stopped their progress by placing a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. The fire chief turned to look at his friend.
“For giving me exactly what I wanted this Christmas.”
Johnny smiled. “What? A messy house, tired kids, toys spread all over the place, and guests who will overstay their welcome?”
“That’s it. That’s exactly what I wanted.”
Johnny laughed while briefly draping an arm over Roy’s shoulders.
“Well then, the only thing I have to say to that is, Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Johnny,” Roy said in return as the two men entered the DeSoto kitchen that was filled with life, laughter, family, old friends, and most importantly, love.
Roy looked around the room, drinking in each face that meant so much to him. The laughter, and shouts, and good natured scolding John was now receiving from Joanne, Jennifer, and Dixie, drowned out Roy’s soft words of, “Merry Christmas, everyone. It turned out to be a very Merry Christmas, thanks to our Uncle Johnny Santa Claus.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
*Thank you, Debbie, for the beta read, and thank you Debbie, Terri, and Audrey, for brainstorming with me on everything from popular musical groups of the ‘70s and ‘80s, to current popular toys.
*Wishing a happy and safe holiday season to all my readers and friends.
*Trevor Gage appears in several other stories in Kenda’s Emergency! Library. Dancing With the Devil, The Phantom and the Parselmouth, and A Firefighter’s Tears.