For your Christmas reading pleasure, here is the entire story of the Last Christmas. For those of you who have followed along on this little adventure of mine, thank you.
For those of you who may have thought you didn’t have the time to read it, the sad truth is you are right. Time is a limited commodity we all have too little of. Perhaps you may find the time spent reading this makes good use of some of that most precious time.
Read it to your kids, your grand kids, your dog or cat, or just yourself. You never know, it just might bring a smile to your heart.
How this came about
In keeping with an old tradition, I bring you the entire story of The Last Christmas written during the Christmas season, 2019, in fifteen parts.
Millions of years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the Pawtucket Times would publish a story over the two weeks leading up to Christmas.
I, along with many others, anxiously awaited the arrival of each new chapter culminating in the ending on Christmas Eve. So, over the past few years, I have started my own version beginning with today’s opening segment. We will read this story together as I have no idea where it will go or how it will end. My only advantage is I will read it as it is born, while you my dear friends will see it just moments after its arrival.
I will just tell the story, like Charlie Brown and Linus, of something worth holding onto. Let it take us where it will…Merry Christmas!
The Last Christmas Part I
Joe followed his mother down the hallway, lagging, slowing his steps as he tried to avoid reaching the room.
The incessant beeping of the machines, the determined movements of the doctors and nurses, the sounds of laughter, and crying, all crowded his mind.
He hated this place.
“C’mon, Joe.” His mother, waiting for him, motioned with her hands. “We have to get in to see grandpa before visiting hours are over.”
Joe sped up a bit as his mother continued down the hall, then slowed once again. The dread of seeing his grandpa in the hospital bed frightened him.
“Joe!” his mother called, standing at the doorway to the room, “let’s go, c’mon.”
Joe stopped at the door and peered inside. Sitting up in his bed, wearing a Santa hat with flashing lights and jingling bells, his grandfather smiled at him. “Get in here, Joe. The batteries in this thing might die before I do.” He let out a laugh.
“What? They are old batteries. I’ve had this thing since before you were born. Got it for that first Christmas, just before you interrupted our Christmas Eve dinner by being born.”
Joe’s mom shook her head and plopped down on the edge of the bed. “So, how are you feeling?”
“Dying, I’m dying. But other than that, just fine.” He let out a laugh. “The poison they call food here doesn’t help.” He turned to Joe. “Did you bring it?”
Joe glanced at his mother, then reached into his pocket.
“Never you mind, Peggy. This is between Joe and me. Why don’t you go see if the nurses have an updated betting pool on when I will check out? I’ve got ten bucks on Saturday.”
Joe’s mom rolled her eyes and watched the two of them. Joe turned his back to his mom, then handed the candy bar to his grandfather.
“Yes! That’s my boy. Nothing like a Mounds bar or an Almond Joy.” With a twinkle in his eye, Joe’s Grandfather ripped off the wrapping and admired the two chocolate bars.
“Dad, you know you’re not supposed to eat junk. Give me that.” Joe’s mom tried to grab the candy.
“I,ffdo’t fink so,” the old man said, shoving a piece in his mouth, handing the other to Joe.
“He doesn’t need it either. He’s got a dentist appointment tomorrow.”
Joe’s grandfather winked. “No worries, we’ll wash it down with the hot chocolate you’re going to get us, and it will remove the evidence. Hot chocolate is magic.”
“Fine, I’ll go get the hot chocolate.” She stood up from the bed. “Please do nothing crazy while I’m gone.”
“Have I ever?”
“A better question is when have you ever been normal?”
Joe’s Grandfather stuck his tongue out at his mother. She rolled her eyes once more and headed out. As she got to the door, the old man stuck his tongue out and waggled his hands, thumbs in his ears.
“I saw that,” Joe’s mom said, without turning around.
Joe laughed. “She couldn’t see, Grandpa, she wasn’t looking.”
“Oh, she could see, Joe, she could see. There’s more to seeing than just looking. Sometimes you just have to believe.”
“Believe in what, Grandpa? Seeing is not believing it’s. well, it’s seeing.”
“Come here, Joe. I want to tell you a story for my last Christmas.”
Joe felt the tears in his eyes. He stood still, unable to move.
“Joe, there is nothing to be sad about. The last Christmas is just as important as the first Christmas. More so in fact. Come here, now, no tears. They ruin the taste of the candy.”
“But I don’t want this to be your last Christmas, Grandpa. I want to have a hundred more with you.” He hugged the old man, resting his head on his chest.
Joe’s Grandfather laughed, the lighted hat jingling on his head. “And so you will, Joe, so you will. All you have to do is believe…”
“So, what was this big secret your grandfather shared with you?”
“Moooom, I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.” Joe looked at his mother as she started the car. “I promised.”
“That grandfather of yours is up to something, isn’t he?”
“I do not understand what you are suggesting, Mother. Grandpa and I have no nefarious plans, no secret missions, nothing to cause any alarm.”
Joe’s mother gave him a sideways glance, shaking her head.
“However, I shall require a brief stop at Kringle’s Hardware store where I will need to borrow your credit card.”
“My credit card? I don’t think so. Not without more of an explanation.” She put her hand up before Joe could argue. “And stop with the pre-arranged speech your grandfather gave you. I see the note hidden in your hand. Where is this Kringle’s place, anyway? I never heard of it.”
Joe stuck his hand under his leg. “Whoa, grandpa is right. You can see without looking.”
His mom let out a short laugh. “He has himself to blame for that. He’s the one who taught me.” She steered the car onto Rt 146 and headed north. “This doesn’t involve anything that will explode, does it?”
“I hope not,” Joe mumbled.
“What did you say?”
“Ah, I said no mother. Of course not.” He smiled at her, sensing he needed to tread lightly here. “Kringle’s is on the Woonsocket-Lincoln line. Right near the plaza.”
“Never heard of it, but I suppose we have time to go there. Although why I would consider helping that grandfather in his latest harebrained scheme is beyond me.”
“There is one other thing, because this is a Christmas surprise, you have to do something.”
“Hmm, and what’s that?”
“Promise to close your eyes when I come back.”
“Joe, they will not let an eight-year-old use a credit card by themselves. I have to go with you.”
Joe grinned, enjoying the moment when he had a secret to tell that no one else knew, and couldn’t wait to blurt it out. “No, you don’t. Grandpa already called and placed the order. He explained everything and I just have to ask for Mr. Kringle.”
“Ah, of course, another one of your grandfather’s mysterious friends.” Joe’s mother sighed and focused on the road. As they passed Interstate 295, she spotted a sign. Kringle’s Emporium and Hardware Store If We Don’t Have It, You Don’t Need It. She turned off into the parking lot of Kringle’s. “Never saw this place before.” She pulled into a spot and parked.
Joe threw open the door, stepped out, then leaned back in, hand out. “The card, Madam, if you please.”
Reaching for her purse, she pulled out the card, and handed it to him, pulling back at the last moment. “How much are you going to spend?”
Joe smiled, “No worries, Grandpa already transferred the money to your account. We got it covered.” He snatched the card from her hand, shut the door, and ran inside. Mr. Kringle was waiting for him.
“So, you’re this year’s co-conspirator, eh?”
Joe scrunched up his face. “A what?”
“You’re helping Nicholas, your grandfather, this year with his annual Christmas, ah, project?” Kringle’s face, red with fat cheeks, twinkled with amusement. He winked, then steered Joe toward the back room. In the storage area sat a huge box. It towered over Joe and was twice as wide. Joe’s eyes bulged, trying to take it all in.
“How my gonna fit that in my mom’s car? How my even gonna carry it out?”
Kringle chuckled. “I assume Nick gave you a note for me?”
Joe nodded and reached into his pocket, still staring at the package. He handed the note to Mr. Kringle.
Kringle read it, chuckled, then handed it back. “Read it.”
“What? Read what?”
“The note, Joe, the note. I gotta give it to the man, your grandfather. He always finds a way.”
Joe looked at the note and read it to himself. Kringle tapped him on the shoulder.
“Out loud, Joe. Out loud. It works better that way.”
Joe looked up. The box was still there, still huge, but it seemed somewhat smaller. Joe glanced at Kringle, then read the note.
“Big things fit in big packages
Small things fit in small
Believe in things you cannot see
And you can see them all.”
Joe looked up from the note and Mr. Kringle handed him a tiny box. Joe looked around. The big box had vanished.
Looking over the small package, Joe said, “What’s this?”
Kringle smiled. “The beginning of a Christmas adventure. All you have to do is believe.” He put his hand on Joe’s shoulders. “You’re a lucky little boy, Joe. You are about to create a magical memory of a lifetime. Now get out there before your mother comes looking for us.”
Joe took out the credit card and handed it to Kringle. He handed it back. “No need. It was just so I could be sure of who you are.” He glanced around. “Can’t be too careful about you know who.”
“Who?” Joe asked.
“Ah, Nick hasn’t told you yet. Probably better that way. You’ll learn soon enough.”
Joe shrugged, stuffed the box in his jacket pocket, and ran to the car.
“Did you get it?”
“I think so.” He handed her the card back.
“You think so?”
Joe smiled. “Well, I believe I did. I believe it.” He turned to look out the window. Kringle waved from the front of the store as snow fell.
“Who are you waving at?”
Joe’s mother looked out the window. “Who? I don’t see anyone.”
As the car left the lot, Joe turned back one more time. Kringle and the entire building faded away as the snow swirled in the wind.
Part III Some Assembly Required
Joe ran in the house, dropped his backpack on the floor, and dashed up the stairs. As he jiggled the mouse to wake the computer, he paused. Running back down the stairs, he went into the living room where his mother was working at her desk.
“That’s better,” she smiled, “I thought you’d forgotten about me.”
“Nope, never. Can I use the computer for a bit? I have to do some research.”
“What about your homework?”
“I did it on the bus. Just math, a piece of cake.”
His mother put out her hand. Joe ran to his backpack, grabbed his homework, and ran back, handing her the paper.
She ran down the list, checking his work. “Hmm, not bad. You have the mind of a mathematician like your grandfather. Maybe you will grow up and be a pilot like him.”
“I might. I haven’t figured it out yet. I’ll let you know.”
She handed back the paper. “Not to worry, lots of time before you have to pick a career.”
“So, I am good?”
“You are. What’s this research, anyway? Is it a school project?”
“Nope,” Joe yelled over his shoulder as he ran to the stairs. “Just something Grandpa and I are working on.”
Ten minutes later, armed with the information he needed, he dressed in warm clothes and headed back downstairs. The package he got from Kringle’s safe in his pocket.
“Where are you off to?”
“I’m, ah, going to meet Chrissy. Just hang out for a while before supper. You know.”
His mother smiled. “I do Joe, I do. Okay, be home before your father gets here.”
Joe turned to leave.
“If this little meeting involves something your grandfather put you up to, please be careful. Your grandfather is a wonderful man, but a little, ah, a little—”
“Crazy, insane, off-his-rocker, whack-a-ding-hoy?” Joe interrupted.
Laughing, his mother nodded. “I see he’s been filling in your vocabulary. But, yes, he can be unusual. Just be careful.”
Joe ran outside and down the street. Chrissy Snow waited in front of the bike path entrance.
“So, what is this big mystery?” she said.
“I’m not sure, but my grandfather said I needed to get you to help me.”
Chrissy’s eyes narrowed. “This isn’t one of your practical jokes, is it? Because if it is, I will pound you into the ground.” She made a fist and shook it in his face.
“C’mon, Chrissy. You have to admit that the fake snake was funny. I didn’t think your mother could climb a tree that quickly.”
Chrissy chuckled. “Yeah, that part was funny. Still, this better not be one.”
“Oh, it’s not.” Joe led the way down the bike path, then veered off onto the old trail leading to the abandoned barn.
“What are we doing here?” Chrissy said.
“Not sure yet.” Joe took out his mother’s cellphone, pushing a few buttons.
“Does your mother know you took that?”
“Not exactly, but she is always losing it. She won’t notice—.” He held up his hand for her to be quiet. “Yes, could you connect me to room 1225, please? Thanks.” He tilted the phone away. “I have to talk to my grandfather. He said to call when we got here.” Turning his attention back to the phone as a voice came on the line.
“Hi, Grandpa. Yup, we’re here. Me and Chrissy. Un-huh, un-huh, okay got it. See ya.” He ended the call and put the phone away.
Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out the small box.
“What’s that?” Chrissy asked.
“Something we have to build?”
“Build? That small? And it takes two of us?”
Joe shrugged and led the way into the old barn.
“You sure this is safe?”
“Grandpa said we needed to open this inside here, so I think it is.”
“You think so?”
Joe smiled. “Here we go.” He placed the package on the ground and stepped back, pulling Chrissy with him.
“What are you doing?”
“Following instructions. Now please be quiet for a minute, I need to focus.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the crumpled note.
“What once was hidden, let it now be shown, and share the magic we have known.”
“Is this some kind of joke, Joe, cuz I will not be happy if it—.”
The blinding light and sound knocked them back. Smoke filled the room, then swirled out the roof.
Joe stood, staring at the scene. Chrissy held his hand. “Wha, wha, what is that?”
Piled before them were parts of a colossal machine. Red velvet covered some pieces; others were shiny metal. Gold tinsel peeked from its wrapping, and leather straps with bells hung from the rafters.
A book, thick with pages, floated to the ground in front of them. Joe bent down to pick it up.
“What’s that?” Chrissy said, leaning over his shoulder.
Joe held the book up for her to read the cover.
“Operating Santa’s Sleigh: Some Assembly Required.”
“You’re gonna build this thing?” Chrissy asked.
“Nope,” Joe shook his head. “We are both gonna build this.”
Part IV: Gathering the Herd
Did you bring them?” Joe called out as he stood on the bike path
“Yes,” Chrissy answered, running over to him. “Seems a little crazy since you don’t have a dog.” A smile crossed her face. “Unless they’re for you, boys can be weird like that.”
“NO! they’re not for me, but my grandfather said we would need them.”
“Need them for what?”
“The wolves.” Joe turned and headed down the path. “Now c’mon, we have to be quick about this and back before dark.”
“Wolves? Did you say wolves? We’re gonna give dog biscuits to wolves?”
Joe didn’t answer, and she ran to catch up with him.
“There are no wolves around here anyway,” Chrissy said, falling into step with him as he headed down the old dirt path. She looked around the dark, grey woods. “This is another one of your tricks.”
“Shh,” Joe said. “Listen.”
Chrissy stopped and looked around. The cold wind swirled the snow from the evergreens and shook the branches. She heard nothing but the sounds of the wood.
“Joe, this is crazy. There haven’t been wolves in New England since—.”
The plaintive cry of the wolf, echoing off the valley wall of the Blackstone River, sent a chill up her spine.
“What was that?” she said, moving to stand next to Joe.
“A wolf. C’mon, let’s go. And put a dog biscuit in your hands so they can see them.”
Joe left the path and headed down the slope toward the river. Chrissy, holding onto a handful of biscuits, clung close behind.
“Was that a real wolf?” she asked.
“Sort of,” Joe said. “My grandfather said they’re special wolves. They guard the reindeer during the year until Christmas comes around. We need to let the wolves know we are friendly and that my grandpa sent us.”
“What happens if they don’t believe us?”
“Then they eat us, and someone else will have to do this.” Joe smiled. “But don’t worry, my grandpa is very smart. He knows if something happened to me, my mom would kill him. He’s brilliant like that.”
“Somehow, that does not make me feel better.”
The wolf’s call echoed one more, closer this time. The trees began to thin out, and a field appeared through the branches.
Chrissy ran in front of Joe, backpedaling along as she faced him. “What do we do after we find the wolves?”
“We feed them, and they lead us to the reindeer,” Joe said, stopping dead in his tracks.
A soft crunching of snow and the crack of several branches caused Chrissy to turn around. Emerging from the shadows, a lone wolf stood staring at them. A low growl reverberated from deep within his throat.
“Give him a biscuit,” Joe said.
“You give him a biscuit,” Chrissy answered, frozen with fear.
“O, o, okay, I will.”
Joe held out the biscuit, and the wolf raised his snout sniffing the air. In one leap, he was next to Joe, towering over him. Joe barely held onto the biscuit because of his hand shaking. The wolf leaned down, gently took the biscuit, and swallowed it whole.
Chrissy stood transfixed at the sight of this giant animal just feet away. The wolf turned to her.
“Here, here you go, boy, or girl, or whatever you are.” Holding out several biscuits.
Once again, the wolf gently took the biscuits. After finishing them off, he rolled onto his back right in front of Chrissy.
“I think he wants his belly scratched,” Joe said, kneeling next to the wolf.
Chrissy bent down, hand still trembling, and ran her hand down the warm fur. The wolf wiggled with delight.
“Why he’s just a big baby,” Chrissy said, rubbing the wolf’s belly as the giant creature nuzzled against her. “So now what do we do?”
“Now, we let the wolf decide.”
“To help us or eat us.” Joe laughed. “Just kidding, Grandpa said we had to pass this test first, meaning not get eaten, and then the wolf will lead us to the reindeer when we’re ready.”
“Ready? How do we get ready?”
“We build the sleigh and prepare the barn to hold the reindeer until Christmas.”
Chrissy shook her head, still rubbing the wolf’s belly. “I wonder about all this, Joe. I still think it’s one of your—.”
The snap of a twig brought the wolf to his feet. He sniffed the air and moved between the two kids. His head swung back and forth, searching the woods for the source of the sound.
A dark shadow emerged from the wood. A swirling mass of nothing and something all at the same moment. The wolf’s growl grew deeper and louder.
A voice, raspy and chilling, rose from the apparition.
“I see this year’s assistants are very young. Nicholas must be desperate for his last time. It will make it all the easier to end this Christmas nonsense.”
The wolf leaped at the apparition, which dissolved away. Off in the distance, fading in the rising wind, the voice reached them once more.
“Mark my words, Joe and Chrissy, you’ll regret helping that old man. If I were you, I’d run as fast as I could and leave this place.”
The voice faded, and the wolf nudged Joe toward the path.
“Time to go, Chrissy, We’ll come back tomorrow and start gathering the herd.”
“Come back? Come back? Are you crazy? Did you hear that thing? I’m not coming back.” At the sound of her words, the wolf snuggled against her. The warmth and strength calmed her.
“You have to come back, Chrissy. We’re in this together. Come on. Look, with that wolf next to you and me, no one’s gonna do anything to us.”
Chrissy leaned into the wolf, whispering in his ear. “You’ll take care of us?” To her surprise, the wolf turned to look in her eyes. She could swear his head nodded, and he smiled. Her mind raced with both fear and wonder.
“I’ll think about it.”
The wolf licked her face and then bounded away into the woods. The wolf call now different, almost like a song, echoing in the forest as if spreading the good news.
Part V Care and Feeding of Reindeer
Joe looked out the window as the snow swirled in the wind. Please, please, please, call it off. Please. He listened to the muffled sounds of his mother and father talking as they listened to the radio.
The familiar voice, bringing joy to kids throughout Rhode island, wafted up the stairs as he lay in bed.
“No school Foster-Glocester. No school Barrington. No school Bristol.”
Please, oh please, call it off.
“No school East Providence.”
What? What? They skipped us!
“Sorry there, folks. I missed one. No school Cumberland.”
Joe stopped listening; the rest didn’t matter. In seconds he was dressed and down the stairs. Running to the table, he wolfed down his breakfast.
“Be nice if you would move that fast when you have school,” his mother said.
“Ah, the simple pleasures of youth,” his father sighed then headed off to work. “No rest for the cops though, we go no matter what. See you all later. Oh, almost forgot. That bag of deer feed is in the garage. Do I want to know why your grandfather had me pick that up?”
Joe swallowed the last of his milk and smiled. “Nah, Chrissy and I want to put some feed out for the deer since it’s been so cold. That’s all.”
His father stared for a moment. “Yeah, right. Okay, we’ll assume the best. Have fun.”
Joe brought his dish to the sink and ran for his boots. “I’ll be back later, Mom. Did you need anything before I go?”
“Now I am worried. Up, dressed, put the dishes away with me asking, and you want to know if I need anything. Something’s up here and I see the hand of your grandfather mixed up in this.”
Joe stood still, not sure what to say.
“But, no, I don’t need you for anything. Just be home before dark and whatever it is he’s got you doing, please be careful.”
“I will.” And he was out the door.
Ten minutes later, dragging a sled with the deer feed on it, he met up with Chrissy.
“Where are we gonna find these reindeer?” she asked.
“We don’t. The find us. Now help me pull this thing, it’s heavy.”
Dragging the sled behind them, they struggled up a small hill in the woods. Joe kept stopping to look around.
“What are you looking for?”
“Dunno, my grandfather said look for the reindeer signs but I don’t know the difference between reindeer hoofprints and other animals.”
Chrissy joined in the search, looking on the ground for something helpful. She stopped and turned, looking up at the treetops.
“You ain’t gonna find reindeer hoofprints in the trees. They fly, they don’t climb.”
“Listen, smarty pants, there’s a reason your grandfather asked me to help,” she pointed up and behind Joe. “It’s because I’m smarter than you.”
Joe spun around and hanging from the trees was a big sign.
“Hi, Joe. Start the trail here.”
“What the…” Joe starred at the words.
“Not animal signs, real signs. Obvious once you think about it. I bet we walked right past others. I should have known better than to listen to you. So now what?”
Joe pulled out a small knife and cut a hole in the bag. Grabbing a handful of feed, he tossed it on the ground then headed back to the barn.
“I’ll pull the sled, you scatter the feed so it leads them to the barn.”
“Okay, but they’ll just eat the feed and run off when it’s gone,” Chrissy said, grabbing a handful of feed.
“We’ll see,” Joe said. “We’ll see.”
An hour later, they stood outside the barn, the trail of feed winding its way back into the woods.
“Now what?” Chrissy said, huddling against the wall of the barn trying to block the wind.
“Now, we wait.” Joe said. “But let’s go inside. At least it will be better than out here.”
“Not much, there are—” Chrissy stopped pointed over Joe’s shoulder. “Joe, look.”
Converging through the woods, following the trail of feed, came eight reindeer. They walked to the door of the barn, all lined up, and waited.
“You think they want to go inside?” Chrissy asked.
“I guess so. My grandfather said to just follow their lead, they know what to do.” He walked between the reindeer, petting their heads, then stood at the door. “Ready?”
“I suppose,” Chrissy said, making her way to his side. “But I don’t understand why they want to go inside this place. It’s so full of holes and….” Once again, she stopped mid-sentence.
As the door swung open, the inside was lit by a roaring fire. Elves stood by waiting to lead the reindeer into their warm stalls. The parts of the sleigh were all organized on the floor.
Chrissy blinked twice, not believing what her eyes were seeing.
One elf came over to Joe
“So, you’re the lucky one I see. You’ve much to learn Joe.” He turned to Chrissy. “And you, young lady, you’re the most important part of this. You have much to learn as well. But that can wait. Now we need to get the reindeer ready for training. You’ve done well, so far. But take care on your travels from now on.” He glanced around the room. “The spirit of doubt will soon learn of your presence. Be on guard.”
He let them back to the door and hustled them back out into the weather. “Take care now and come back as soon as you can.”
Closing the door behind them, the barn once again took on the appearance of an abandoned shell.
Part VI Building a Sleigh (Deluxe Model)
Joe and Chrissy spent several hours organizing and assembling parts. Slowly, the sleigh began to take shape.
Turning the page in the manual, Joe read the next step. Engine testing, part 1. He handed the book to Chrissy, found the controller test button, and gave that to her.
“Just follow the instructions while I get things ready.”
“Are you sure about this, Joe?” Chrissy said, studying the manual. “It doesn’t look right.”
“Look, I know what I’m doing. When I say so just push the button so I can test it.” Joe stood at the back of the sleigh near a huge exhaust pipe.
“Why does Santa’s sleigh even need a booster engine?” Chrissy asked. “I mean isn’t that the job of the reindeer?”
Joe looked around the sleigh. “Grandpa said they added the booster when the number of kids got huge. Even flying reindeer have limits. He ducked back behind the sleigh. “Now push the button.”
“Okay, here it goes.” All the elves came over to stand next to her. Although she noticed some hiding behind the reindeer stalls. Hmm, she wondered, maybe they know something I don’t know. She shrugged, grabbed the controller, and pushed the button.
She pushed it again.
“Did you push it?” Joe yelled.
“Okay, whatever you do don’t push it twice.”
“Uh-oh,” she said as the rest of the elves began to scatter. It started as a low rumble, then grew to an enormous roar. A huge flame shot out the back of the nozzle, igniting a pile of hay. The engine went silent. Elves poured water to douse the flames.
Then one more explosion erupted from the engine followed by a huge black cloud.
Joe stumbled from behind the sleigh. All she could see of his face was his eyes. Black soot covered everything else. He brushed himself off as he leaned against the sleigh rail.
“You pushed it twice, didn’t you?”
“Perhaps you should have told me that before we started the test.” Chrissy handed him the controller. “Stupid boys, never tell you the whole story.” Then she started to laugh. “You look ridiculous. You better clean up or your mother will kill you if you drag all that soot into your house.”
Joe tried to look angry, but then joined in the laughter. Several elves ran over and poured buckets of water on him. “Hey, how am I gonna explain being soaked to my mom?”
With that, one elf opened a compartment in the sleigh’s side. Pulling an enormous red blanket with initials NM from inside, he wrapped it around Joe. Within seconds he was dry and warm.
“What is this?”
“That,” said the elf, “is Santa’s warming blanket. He hits all kinds of weather in his travels; ice, snow, wind, and rain. The blanket keeps him warm and dries him if he gets wet.”
Joe handed the blanket back to the elves. Spotting the initials again, he said, “Who is NM?”
The elves looked at each other and scurried away, all except for one. He put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “When the time comes, you’ll learn the whole story. You’re not ready, yet. I think you’ve done enough for today.” He placed the blanket back in the compartment and moved off.
“Well, I guess that’s it for the day. Let’s go.” Grabbing their jackets, they headed back out into the cold. As they got to the edge of the woods, Joe stopped.
“Did you hear something?” he said.
“I did, and I think it’s over there.” She pointed to a huge pine tree. At least she thought it was a tree until it moved. Another one moved. Then a whole army of trees began moving toward them.
A voice—raspy and hissing—came to them on the wind. “I warned you to stay away. Now, you’ll learn to listen.”
“Run, Chrissy, run.”
They took off with Chrissy in the lead and Joe right behind her. The trees tried to cut off their escape. Joe dodged one of the swinging branches, but another caught him from behind, knocking him to the ground. He could feel the roots of the tree wrapping around his feet.
Chrissy, realizing Joe was not with her, ran back. Grabbing a large stick, she wacked at the roots until Joe was free. Helping him to his feet, they dodged their way back to the bike path.
“Thanks,” Joe said, “I thought I was a goner.”
“No worries, that’s what friends are for.” She pointed to the wall of pines, stopped at the edge of the path, blocking the way. “How we gonna get back there?”
Joe didn’t hesitate a moment. “Let’s get back to my house. My grandfather will know what to do.”
Part VII Defeating the Piney Army
“So, let me get this straight. You hate visiting the hospital but now you want to go right after school?” Joe’s mother said as they sat eating dinner. “Why the sudden change?”
“I just want to go see him. I can’t wait until he comes home, I need to talk to him privately.”
Joe caught the look between his parents. Something wasn’t right and they weren’t telling him everything.
“Joe,” his father said, “there’s a good chance your grandfather may come home in a few days. He will be under hospice care. Do you know what that is?”
Joe shook his head.
“How about we go see grandpa tomorrow after school and we can all talk about it together.”
“Great, I can’t wait to tell him what happened—.” As the words came out, he knew he’d said too much.
“What do you mean happened?” Joe’s mother studied him. “Is there something we need to know?”
Joe glanced between his parents and knew what to say. “Well, Grandpa gave me some secret instructions to follow. Chrissy and I brought the small box to the abandoned barn. When I read the words, the box turned into a disassembled sleigh that we have to put together before Christmas.
“Meanwhile, we used the deer feed to gather all eight reindeer into the barn so the elves could take care of them and get them ready for Christmas Eve. Oh yeah, the barn looks abandoned on the outside, but inside it’s a magical place full of elves.
“When we left there the other day, after the engine test fire went crazy, an army of pine trees attacked us. Chrissy was able to save me from one of them. I need to see Grandpa so he can tell us how to defeat them and get back to the barn.”
Joe waited a moment to let it sink in. “Other than that, not much.”
Joe’s father sipped his water and his mother just stared at him.
“Where in the world does that imagination of yours come up with this stuff?” she said after a moment of silence. “You should write a book, Joe.”
“I will, Ma. After this adventure is over, I will.” Joe brought his dish to the sink then ran upstairs. He had lots of questions for his grandfather. Even if his parents thought he’d made it all up, the piney army was still out there and the voice, whatever was behind that, was another problem.
Standing at the edge of his grandfather’s bed, he waited for his mother to leave.
“Are you sure about this, Dad?” his mother said.
“Go, Peggy. Let me explain things to Joe and it will be fine.” He waved his hand towards the door. “Now go get those nurses some coffee and pastry. They deserve it for putting up with me.”
“I am sure about that,” Joe’s Mom said, and headed out the door.
As the door closed, Joe’s grandfather motioned for him to come closer. “Sit on the edge of the bed, Joe. We have a few things to take care of.”
There was always one thing about his grandfather that Joe loved most. He always talked to Joe as if he were just like him. He told him the truth—good, bad, or indifferent—no matter what.
This truth hurt the most, but he knew in his heart his grandfather wanted him to be ready and he was glad he thought him old enough to handle it.
“There are a few things I want you to remember, Joe. First, never be afraid to do the right thing no matter how others might try to talk you out of it. Second, the pine trees can only stop you if you’re afraid. Trees can’t think. They are controlled by Doubt. Doubt is a specter. Do you know what that is?”
Joe shook his head.
“A specter is a ghost. While it lives as a being, it can enter any creature. Doubt is the one thing that can cause you to fail. Never let doubt tell you what you cannot do.”
His grandfather pointed to the drawer next to the bed. “Open it up and hand me the small back case in there.”
Joe pulled the drawer open and pulled out the case, handing it to his Grandfather.
Opening the case, Joe’s Grandfather pulled out a medal on a gold chain. A Good Conduct medal he’d gotten when he was in the Marines.
“Take this, Joe. Keep it with you to remind you about the things I said. Everything you need to know, and do, is in your heart.”
Joe took the medal, turning it over in his hand, then placed it around his neck. “You’ll be coming home soon, won’t you grandpa? Then we can talk more.”
His grandfather smiled. “Like I explained, Joe. I’ll be coming home, but I won’t be with you long. This is the end of my time here, but it’s not the end of you and I being partners in this.
“Go back and build the sleigh. Don’t let a pine tree army or Doubt get in your way. There is a great adventure ahead. One that has lasted a thousand years. Soon, you’ll understand.”
The door opened and Joe’s mother returned. “Ready Joe?”
“Yup,” Joe said, jumping from the bed. He tucked the medal into his shirt.
One nurse came in. “Are you comfortable there, NM?”
“NM?” Joe’s mom said. “Who’s NM?”
“He is,” the nurse said, pointing at Joe’s grandfather. “Nicholas’s Magic. It’s what we all call him because he makes us smile all the time, no matter what. We’re gonna miss him when he leaves.” She went to his side, checking the various machines.
Joe’s mom kissed his grandfather. “By, Dad. We’ll be ready for you tomorrow.”
As they walked out, the light went on in Joe’s head. NM. NM like on the blanket. I wonder…
“Mom, can I use your phone for a minute?”
Joe called Chrissy. Whispering into the phone, he said. “I just talked to my grandfather. I know how to get past the piney army. Meet me at the same place after school.” Joe turned his head so his mother couldn’t hear what he said next.
“Remember the initials NM on the blanket the elf put over me? I think NM is my grandpa.”
Part VIII Doubt Comes to Visit
“Do you want to tell me how we’re gonna get past an army of pine trees?” Chrissy asked as they walked along the bike path. “In case you forgot I had to save you from them last time.”
“I know, and I appreciate it. But my grandfather said we can’t let doubt stop us. Doubt is the problem, not the trees.”
“Doubt? He’s apparently never seen trees like this then.”
As they approached the old path into the woods, several of the trees shook snow off their branches and moved right to the edge of the paved path. The wind picked up, shaking the branches even more.
“They don’t look happy, Joe. How we gonna get by them?”
“Remember what I said, doubt is our real enemy. Do you trust me, Chrissy?”
“I do. Do you think I’d be wandering around these woods in the freezing cold facing an army of trees if I didn’t?” She paused for a moment. “I either trust you or I’m just crazy, but either way here I am and there they are,” pointing at the angry trees. “Now, what?”
Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out two glow sticks. “I had these left over from Halloween, take one and break the seal when I tell you to.” He handed one to her and kept the other.
“What are we gonna do with these? Light the way? I’m not the crazy one here, you are.”
“Listen to me, what is the one thing every tree fears?”
“Beavers?” Chrissy said, “or termites?”
“No,” Joe raised the glow stick in front of him. “Fire. These glow sticks look like they’re burning. All we have to do is act like they are fire and the trees will get out of our way.”
Chrissy looked at the glow stick, then at the giant trees rocking back and forth in the wind. “Really, you think it will fool them?”
“Have no doubt, Chrissy, have no doubt.” Joe broke the seal, shook the stick until it glowed brightly, then ran at the trees waving the stick back and forth.
And it worked. The trees backed away, shrinking back into the forest.
“C’mon, Chrissy, it’s working.”
Breaking the seal on her own stick, she followed behind Joe. Taking delight in scaring giant trees just by believing she could, she’d never doubted it for a moment.
Five minutes later, they arrived at the barn. Sliding open the door, they found the elves busy with the reindeer and polishing the parts of the sleigh.
They got right to work, Chrissy read the instructions while Joe and the elves hammered, tightened, stretched, and snapped together the various parts. It took several hours, but it was looking like a sleigh.
“The next few steps are critical to the safe operation of the navigation and flight control systems,” Chrissy read aloud. “Use extreme caution in assembling each part, following each step precisely.” She looked up from the book. “Maybe we should take a break, we’ve been at this awhile and it will be dark soon.”
“Good idea,” Joe said. “We’ll come back tomorrow
Crissy placed the book on the bench and came over to admire their work. “Can you believe we’re building Santa’s sleigh?”
“I know, it’s amazing. I wonder when Santa shows up to check things out?” Joe saw the elves exchange glances as he spoke. “They’re not telling us something,” he whispered to Chrissy.
“Let’s head home.” Joe walked over to the bench. “I’ll take the manual with us so I can read it when I get home. Might make things go faster if I have time to study it.”
“Do you think that’s a good idea, Joe? Shouldn’t we leave it here?”
“Nah, it will be fine. C’mon let’s go.”
Grabbing their coats, they headed out the door. After a few feet, Joe stopped.
“Oh, wait a minute. I forgot the other glow sticks in case the trees come back.” He handed her the book. “Hold this, I’ll be right back.”
He ran back inside the barn. As he started back, a scream shattered the air. “Chrissy,” he yelled and ran outside, followed by several elves. Chrissy was lying on the ground rubbing her head.
“I don’t know. A sudden wind came up and I turned away from it. Next thing I knew something hit me in the head and I fell down.” She rubbed her head, checking her hand for any blood.
Joe helped her up. “You sure you’re okay?”
“I’m okay, I’m okay. Must have been a branch blown out of a tree or something. Let’s go.” She looked around on the ground. “Where’s the book? I had it in my hands when I fell.”
The book was gone!
Part IX Facing Doubt
“Grandpa!” Joe yelled as he saw the old man sitting on the couch. “You’re home!” He ran to him, wrapping him in a hug.
“You have a talent for stating the obvious, Joe.” The old man smiled.
“Never mind. I am here. Tell me about this problem your mother said you wanted to talk to me about.”
Joe explained the battle with the trees, and his trick with the glow stick. He told him about the progress they made with building the sleigh. Then he told him about the book’s disappearance.
“It’s my fault. Chrissy told me not to take it home, but I didn’t listen to her.”
“I see. Well, Joe, just a little advice. Unrelated to our immediate problem, but a little secret to remember as you grow up. When someone who cares for you, especially a nice little girl like Chrissy, gives you advice it would make your life much happier if you listened. But you’ll figure that out later.
“Now, we have to get the book back. I know where it is, and who has it, but getting it from them will not be easy.”
“I don’t care what it takes, I lost it and I will get it back.” Joe stood in front of his grandfather waiting to hear what he had to do.
“Are you sure your grandfather knows what he’s talking about?” Chrissy asked.
“He said we had to walk to the north side of field. One we got there we’d know what to do.”
“But how, Joe, how?”
“I don’t know yet, but he told me to pay attention to the things you say and listen more to your advice.”
“Well, it would seem your grandfather is a smart man. Let’s do this.” Chrissy moved past Joe, striding through the snow to the edge of the woods.
A light, dim but visible, flickered from within the woods. Shadows moved between the trees. Then the voice of the specter called out to them. Raspy and cold, the chilling words carried on the wind.
“Soooo, yoooou’ve coooome foooor thaaaa booook haaaave yooou? IIIII doooon’t thiiink yooou haaaave thaaa couuuurage tooooo taaaaaake iiiiiiit.”
“Chrissy, you stay here. I’ll go get it.” Joe started into the woods, but Chrissy grabbed his arm.
“And what did your grandfather say about listening? We will both go. I know the power behind this thing is fear. If we are not afraid, it will be afraid of us.”
She took his hand and the two slipped behind the trees and walked toward the light.
The flickering shadow of the specter fluttered back and forth. The book lay on a fallen tree stump. It was the magic within the book lighting the woods. As the specter passed by, the book would fade then reappear, a little dimmer each time. Chrissy understood what was happening. The specter was drawing away the magic.
“Joe, you go one way, I’ll go the other. We have to act fast before all the magic is gone.”
“I don’t know about this, Chrissy. That thing looks strong.”
Chrissy pulled him closer. “Remember what your grandfather told you, listen to me and don’t let doubt control us. I’m telling you what we should do and that’s doubt right there in front of us. We can do this, Joe.”
The light dimmed once again.
“Now, Joe, now.”
Chrissy dashed to one side, Joe to the other. The specter, surprised by the sudden movement, pulled back. Joe grabbed for the book, but the specter recovered and blocked his way. It enveloped the boy in the swirling darkness.
Chrissy saw her chance. Grabbing the book, she ran toward the field, then stopped. Looking back at Joe she knew she couldn’t leave him.
“Run, Chrissy, run. I can take care of myself.”
But she was already on her way back. Running straight at the specter, holding the book out in front of her, she screamed, “Let my friend go. You can’t stop us.”
The light from the book grew ten times brighter. The specter fled from the light back into the shadows. Joe collapsed to the ground. Chrissy ran to him.
“I am now, thanks.”
“C’mon, Joe. We need to get the book back where it will be safe. I’m glad we’re done with that specter.” She helped Joe to his feet, and the two headed out of the woods.
“Not that we’re keeping score. But that it the second time I’ve saved you. See, your grandfather is right. Listen to me and we’ll be fine.”
As the two made their way back to the barn, the specter trailed behind them, hiding in the shadows. Thiiiiiisss isssss faaaaar froooom ovvverrr, we’eeerrr juussst geettttttting staaarrrted.
Part X Flight School
“We’re gonna what?” Chrissy said, as they admired the finished sleigh.
“Take it for a ride.” Joe slapped her on the back, then walked to the front of the sled. The elves were lining up the reindeer, hoisting the harnesses on their backs, and connecting them together.
“Maybe, you’re taking it for a ride, but not this girl. This girl wants to survive until Christmas not be remembered.”
“C’mon, Chrissy. You’re the one who read the instructions.”
The final step before beginning the loading process is a test flight. All operations of the sleigh are controlled by the onboard navigation system. The front seats must be occupied by a minimum of two volunteers and the rear seat left open until certain conditions are achieved.
“Doesn’t get any simpler than that. Remember what you said about not being afraid or having doubt?”
Several elves came over and handed them fur lined parkas, hats, and gloves. Joe put his on and climbed aboard, aided by the elves. Chrissy was slower to follow.
“I’m not sure about this. What if we did something wrong?”
“We didn’t. Now c’mon we’ve got a test flight around the town to complete.”
Chrissy shook head, took a deep breath, and climbed aboard. Joe handed her the book open to the section on the test flight.
“You read the checklist; I’ll go through the system check. Okay?”
Chrissy shrugged. “Ah well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means I am either gonna die or create one incredible memory. Ready?”
Chrissy ran through the checklist, Joe flipped the switches, tugged the reins, and programmed in the codes to the navigation system.
“Everything seems ready to go. Checklist complete.” Joe handed Chrissy the reins. Her eyes got three times bigger than normal.
“You steer her out of the barn, I couldn’t have done this without you.”
Giving the reins a gentle flip of the wrist, the reindeer pulled the sleigh out into the cold. Joe flipped the last of the switches on the checklist and the heated seats warmed.
“Nice touch, eh? My Grandpa told me how to add it in. Said it would warm his bones although I’m not sure how he’d ever sit here. Okay, anyway, we are ready for takeoff.” Joe took the reins back, hit the button to start the navigation system, then looked at Chrissy.
“As I’ll ever be.” She gripped the edge of the seat as tight as she could.
“Five, four, three—.”
“What are you doing?” Chrissy asked. “There’s nothing about a countdown.”
“I know,” Joe chuckled. “But I always dreamed of being an astronaut. Two, One, blastoff.” Joe shook the reins, hit the engine start control button, and nothing happened.
“Did you follow the instructions?”
“Yup, everything looks good,” Joe said, scanning the dash. “All systems are good.”
Chrissy noticed it first. The reindeer were all looking at them, staring.
“Joe, look at the reindeer. They’re staring at us.”
And then he understood. The story his grandfather told him every Christmas Eve for as long as he remembered was preparing him for this moment.
“Hang on, Chrissy, There’s one more step.”
Chrissy grabbed her seat and leaned back.
“Now Dasher! Now Dancer!
Now Prancer and Vixen!
On Comet! On Cupid!
On Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch!
To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away!
Dash away all!”
As the words came out, the reindeer as one leaped into the air, the engine came to life, and they were flying.
Climbing up out of the trees, the sleigh settled into a smooth flight path. Chrissy relaxed and looked over the edge, Cumberland High School was right below them. Joe tugged on the reins and the reindeer climbed higher.
Turning from Mendon Rd. they crossed over Nate Whipple Highway, over the small Cumberland Reservoir, heading toward the big Pawtucket Reservoir. As they reached Reservoir Road, Joe took out his list.
“Okay, we have to try a couple of things.” He looked at the note, then handed it to Chrissy. “Here, we go.”
Tugging back on both reins, the reindeer slowed and descended. Leveling out just above the water. Gently releasing his tension on the reins, the reindeer responded and brought the skids of the sleigh lower, skimming the edge of the water and sending up a spray.
Joe pulled back again and the sleigh leaped back into the sky. Climbing higher and higher, they circled Diamond Hill twice, then headed home.
“Chrissy, at the bottom of that list are some numbers, enter them into the navigation system for me.”
“What are they?”
Joe shrugged. “Don’t know. My grandfather said to put them in when we finished the tests and were on the way back.”
Chrissy entered the numbers and they both felt the sleigh make slight course corrections. Close to the barn, they both prepared to land. But at the last moment, the sleigh turned slightly away, descended to tree top level, and slowed near Joe’s house.
Hovering just outside the room over the garage, the reindeer brought the sleigh even with the window and held it there.
“What are they doing?” Chrissy said. “Someone’s gonna see us.”
“And that someone would be me.” Joe’s grandfather stuck his head out the window. “I see you can both follow simple instructions. That’s good.” He made a whistling sound and somehow the reindeer brought the sleigh right to the edge of the window.
Joe’s grandfather climbed into the back seat.
“What are you doing, Grandpa? Mom will kill us both if she sees this.”
“No worries, Joe. In my case it doesn’t much matter and in yours, no one would blame you for taking a tired old pilot on one last flight. Now head for that star and take me once around the world.”
“The world?” Chrissy said.
The old man smiled. “Okay, how about once around the town?”
Joe tugged on the reins and they were off.
“You’re a natural at this, Joe. You’ll do just fine.”
“Fine at what, Grandpa?”
“All in good time, my boy, all in good time.” He leaned back, looking out at the stars and the world, a smile spread wide across his face.
Joe and Chrissy walked out of class at Ashton School and headed to lunch Just before they got to the lunchroom, Ms. Geddes, the principal, came over to them.
“Joe, go get your coat. Your mother is on her way to pick you up.”
Joe looked at Chrissy then back at Ms. Geddes. “Why?”
“She’ll explain everything when she gets here, now hurry along. Chrissy, you go eat. You can talk to Joe later.”
“Call me and let me know what’s going on, okay Joe?” she said, and disappeared into the lunch room.
When the car pulled up, and Joe saw his mom and dad, he knew something was wrong. In his heart he knew what it was, but he pushed away the thoughts. But the look in his mother’s eyes said it all.
“What’s going on?” he said, as he climbed in the back seat and buckled his seat belt.
His parents glanced at each other. His father nodded as his mother turned in her seat to face him.
“Grandpa is very sick, Joe. He wanted to talk to you one last time…” The words caught in her throat.
His father took over. “Remember how he explained about hospice and spending his last few days at home? Well, the time has come. We need you to be brave about this. Can you do that?”
Through the tears in eyes he looked at his father. “I can do this, Dad. Grandpa explained it all.” He turned and stared out the window as the car headed home. He wondered if he believed his own words.
Following his parents into the room, he peeked from behind them. His grandfather lay on the bed, a slow breath moving his chest. One eye opened, and then the other. A smile crossed his face.
“No need to thank me for getting you out of school early.” He laughed, coughed, then smiled again. “Now come here a moment. I have one last secret for you.”
Joe came around from behind his parents, looked at his mother as she smiled through her own tears, then ran to the bed.
“Now there’ll be none of the sadness nonsense. This is all part of the deal. If you want to live, understand you will someday die. But look at my life.
“I had a wonderful woman that I married, Even though she left us before you came along. I had a special daughter who grew to be an amazing woman, met your father, and brought you into this world.
“And now I have you. I never could have had any of it if I wasn’t willing to see it to the end. I wouldn’t change a thing. Now come here.” He motioned with his hand for Joe to come closer as he sat up in bed.
Whispering so only Joe could here, he said. “Joe, I won’t be here to help you from now on. There’s still much to do before Christmas. Everyone is counting on you to see this through.
“Remember these things. Be brave, be honest, and be willing to listen. If you believe in yourself, you can do anything. If you doubt yourself, you will fail. Never let doubt make your decisions for you, let them come from your heart.”
The old man lay back on his pillow. Catching his breath, the smile still wide on his face, he closed his eyes for a moment.
Turning once more to look at Joe, his eyes twinkling with magic, the smile broad and bright, he seemed full of life. “And hold fast to your memories, for in those memories everyone you love will always be with you.”
The old’s man head slumped to the side. His mother and father moved closer. Joe held the old man’s hand.
“Gotcha’,” the old man said, eyes now wide open. “I believe I have time for one last hot chocolate.”
“Dad,” Joe’s mom said. “That’s not funny.” But Joe and his father were both laughing along with the old man.
“C’mon, you two,” Joe’s mom said. “Help me make the hot chocolate.”
As they left the room, Joe’s grandfather smiled. He knew it was always meant to be this way. He never doubted it for one moment. Happy with the thought of passing on the tradition, he faced the final path in life with a joyful heart.
“I’m so sorry about your grandpa, Joe. He was a really nice man.” Chrissy stood with Joe in his living room as people milled about. His parents sat on the couch as everyone told stories, remembering things about his grandpa.
Joe looked around, motioned for Chrissy to follow him into the other room, then took two large envelopes out of his pocket. He handed one to Chrissy.
“What’s this?” she asked, seeing her name emblazoned in red letters on the gold envelope.
“My grandfather left them in my room for me. Look on the back, it says you’re supposed to open yours tomorrow and I open mine on Christmas Eve.”
“What do you think is in them, Joe?”
He shrugged. “No idea, but they must be important. Let’s meet first thing in the morning and we’ll open yours. It’s Saturday, so we’ll have the whole day to do whatever it says.”
“Okay,” Chrissy said, “See you then.”
Outside the window, two figures appeared. Listening and watching. “He’s given them the final instructions. But they’re new at this calling. This is our best time to stop this once and for all.”
“Yeeessss, iiiiiitt isssss tiiiiiiime tooooo eeeeeeend Chiiiiiistmaaaas.”
Laughing and joking as they ran along the path, Chrissy beat Joe to the edge of the field. They both stopped dead in their tracks.
The barn was gone.
“Joe, the barn. It’s gone.”
“Like my grandfather always said, you have a gift for stating the obvious. I can see that it’s gone. Now we have to figure out who did this and how do we get it back.”
They walked around the edge of where the barn once stood, looking for something, anything that might help.
Chrissy spotted it first. “Joe, look, there’s a note stuck to that tree over there.” She ran toward it before Joe could stop her.
Joe yelled, “Chrissy wait.” But it was too late. As she neared the woods, the trees surrounded her, lifted her into the air, and shuffled off into the woods. Joe could hear her muffled voice yelling for them to let her go. Soon, the voice faded.
Joe started to run after her, but a wall of trees blocked the path. He tried to force himself through, but the branches pushed him back. He ran as hard as he could at them, yelling and screaming, but all to no avail.
Each time, they forced him back. This last time, they knocked him to the ground. As he stood back up, ready to charge once more, the trees parted, and a tall, thin creature appeared before him.
Not human, not animal. It towered over Joe. “There, there now, Joe. No need to worry. Your little friend is safe with my trees.” The creature bent down, it’s face more like bark than skin, and came eye to eye with Joe.
“As long as you do as I say, she’ll remain that way. But I am not known for my patience. You do what I want, and we’ll return her to you. Fail me, or try to be clever like Nicholas, and she’ll become one of my pet trees.”
Joe jumped to his feet. The creature terrified him, but he would show him no fear. “What do you want? If anything happens to her, I will hunt you down and no tree army will stop me.” He glared at the creature, angered by the sinister smile on its face.
The creature’s haunting laugh echoed in the woods. “I can see why Nicholas chose you. You have his stubbornness. We’ll see if you have his courage and cunning. But no matter, bring me the envelope your grandfather left you, and I’ll release your friend. But you don’t have much time.”
The creature rose to its full height. “Be back here in one hour, with the envelope, and little Chrissy will go free. Fail in this and she’ll be a tree.”
The laughter once again shattered the quiet. The trees parted and the creature slunk back into the woods. Joe started after it, but the trees once again blocked his way.
There was only one choice. He’d bring the envelope and save Chrissy. Nothing was more important than that.
Running toward the path, a thought occurred to him. Something his grandfather said about believing in himself and not letting doubt make choices for him.
He turned back to where the barn once stood, and it all made sense. The creature’s power came from fear and doubt. Somehow, he’d hidden the barn with magic. But the most powerful magic of all is Christmas magic.
Joe walked back, standing where the door of the barn should be. He saw his grandfather’s smile, heard his laugh, and remembered his words. Hold fast to your memories, he’d said, and Joe did just that.
He remembered the barn, the elves, the sleigh and all that they had done so far, he and Chrissy, and the wind kicked up.
Snow swirled up in front of him and the barn reappeared. He was right. Grandpa was right. All I need to do is believe and anything was possible. He ran inside, gathered the elves together and explained what he needed them to do.
Dashing back outside, he ran home to get the envelope. He would save Chrissy no matter what. He knew he would, deep in his heart, he just wasn’t sure how yet.
Dashing into the house, panting and out of breath, Joe ran to his room. His mother’s voice chased him down the hallway.
“Will the two adventurers be home for lunch?”
“Dunno, Ma. I hope so.” He yelled back.
“You hope so? What does that mean?”
Joe ignored the question.
Making sure no one was looking, he opened his bottom drawer, feeling for the envelope he’d taped to the back. His grandfather had told him to hide it and how to do it.
Stuffing the envelope in his inside jacket pocket, he ran back down the hall. Slowing just as he came into the living room so as not to alarm his mother, he tried to act as if all was right with the world.
“So, where’s Chrissy?”
“Oh, she’s ah, she’s waiting for me in the woods. She likes to check out the different trees.” Joe didn’t like to lie to his mother, so this was the closest he could come to the truth with setting her off into a panic.
“Well, hurry back. I don’t want any tree monsters to snatch Chrissy away before Christmas.”
His mother’s words caused him to stop. Does she know? Is she in on this? Nah, can’t be.
“Just kidding, Joe,” his mother said, catching the confusion on his face. “Now go do whatever it is this secret project your grandfather put in your head and get back as soon as you can. It’s getting colder out there and the storm is supposed to start later today.”
Joe nodded, then dashed out the door. His grandfather’s words ran through his mind. ‘Joe, this is one of the most important things you’ll ever have to do. Protect this envelope until Christmas Eve. Very few things are more precious than what this envelope stands for, so guard it well.’
As he ran along the bike path and into the woods, he wished will all his heart he could ask his grandfather what to do. But he knew he was on his own. His grandfather trusted him to do the right thing and he would do his best.
Entering the clearing, the barn now back in full operation, Joe ran to the door. Two elves stood there, holding a big gray blanket.
“Any idea on how I can get close to her?” Joe asked.
One elf let out a whistle, and the great wolf that guarded the reindeer came bounding out of the woods. The enormous creature ran to Joe and nuzzled against him.
A plan formed in Joe’s mind. Maybe, just maybe, I can get to Chrissy without giving up the envelope.
Joe whispered in his ear. “You need to get me through the woods and close to where they have Chrissy without them knowing it. Can you do that?”
The wolf nudged him one more time then lay on the ground. Joe climbed on the wolf’s back and wrapped the blanket around himself. He heard his grandfather’s words once more. ‘Believe, Joe, believe.’ Wrapping one arm around the wolf’s neck, Joe pulled the blanket over his head.
When the wolf stood, the blanket blended in with his fur. From afar, no one could tell the wolf bore a passenger.
“Let’s go,” Joe said, and the wolf ran into the woods. Taking a long winding route, sniffing the air and looking for any signs they were being followed, the wolf tracked the scent of the creature through the forest.
As the wolf made his way into the darkening woods, the wind picked up and a snow squall hid everything. The weather was supposed to turn bad, but not this early. As the snow picked up, the temperature began to drop.
They were running blind in a blizzard through a world controlled by a creature they had no idea how to defeat, protected by an army of trees, and they didn’t know where he had hidden Chrissy.
Believing might not be enough, Joe thought. Then he forced the doubt out of his mind.
I can do this, I can do this. He repeated the words to himself as he clung to the wolf’s back, willing himself to believe them.
Part XIV The Things that Matter
The storm grew in intensity as the temperature became bone-chilling. Snuggled between the wolf’s fur and the blanket, Joe didn’t feel the cold. But he knew it was frigid and he was worried about Chrissy. The jacket she was wearing wasn’t warm enough for this.
Joe felt the growl before he heard it. The wolf stopped and crouched. Peeking from beneath the blanket, Joe could see a dim light ahead.
“Shh, my giant friend, shh,” he calmed the wolf. “I don’t want them to know we’re here, yet.” Sliding from under the blanket, he dropped to the ground. Wrapping the blanket, he wedged it between the branches of a dead tree.
Studying the area, he could see a small ridge running along the edge of the light. Behind it was the Blackstone River, raging from all the rain and snow over the past few days.
He could use the high ground and the noise to cover his approach. He had an idea but needed the wolf’s cooperation. From the deep, rumbling noises coming from the huge beast, Joe knew the wolf wanted to attack.
“Listen to me. I need to get to Chrissy before they know we’re here. You’ll get your chance, but we need to use the element of surprise. They outnumber us but, if we’re smart about it, we can catch them off guard. Do you understand?”
Joe wasn’t sure. At this moment, he was unsure of everything, But he thought the wolf nodded.
“Move around to the other side. Give me a couple of minutes to get closer. Then move in fast and draw their attention. I’m hoping it gives me time to get to her before they know I’m there.
“Once I have her, we can meet back where we hid the blanket. They’ll expect us to run right toward the barn, not to hide nearby. Okay?”
The wolf nuzzled against him one more time, then ran off into the woods.
I hope this works, Joe thought, as he headed off in the opposite direction.
“So, my little friend,” the creature said, “looks like they won’t be coming to save you. He values the things his grandfather gave him more than he does you.”
Joe peered into the cave: a small fire lit the interior. The creature stood over Chrissy, holding her envelope.
“Might as well burn this.” The creature dangled the envelope over the fire, his knobby fingers edging closer and closer.
“No,” Chrissy yelled, and snatched it from his hand.
“You have some spirit in you, I see. Pity it won’t matter as your time grows short—.”
His words were interrupted by the baleful sound of a wolf’s howl.
“Excellent. It would seem your friends have decided to join us.” The creature turned to leave the cave. Chrissy struggled against the tree roots holding her legs. “Relax, my dear. In a moment you’ll have company,” he said, and ran from the cave.
Joe could hear the wolf, gnarling and yelping as it fought the others. It’s now or never, he thought, running from his hiding spot. He took a few steps into the cave, then stopped to listen. Chrissy was right ahead of him but couldn’t see him in the flickering shadow of the fire.
Moving into the light, he ran toward his friend.
“Nice of you to show up, he almost burned my envelope.”
“Hi, nice to see you too.” He looked around, then grabbed a sharp rock laying on the floor of the cave. Hacking at the branches around Chrissy’s legs, he freed her.
“Time to go,” he said, and led the way out of the cave.
The cry of the wolf, a cry of pain and agony, echoed in the night. “I have to go help him,” Joe said. “You get back to the barn.”
Chrissy grabbed his arm. “I don’t think so, Joe. We’re in this together. We’ll both go.” She took his hand and they ran off toward the sound of the wounded wolf.
As they made their way to the edge of the river, they could see the wolf on the ground, surrounded by trees. Joe took the last glow stick out of his pocket and chased the trees away, backing them up to the edge of the forest.
As they helped the wolf to stand, Chrissy let out a scream. Joe turned and saw the creature holding Chrissy over the edge of the waterfall.
“Let her go,” Joe yelled, moving closer to the creature.
The creature held Chrissy further out over the falls. “One more move, and she goes swimming. And in this cold, with that current, she won’t last long. But there is a solution.”
The wolf limped over to stand next to Joe.
“What do you want?”
“What I’ve always wanted, the envelope Nicholas gave you. Give it to me and she will go free. Keep it, and she’s an iceberg. Your choice.”
Joe knew whatever was inside the envelope was the secret to Christmas. It was the only thing that made sense. Without it, Christmas might never happen again.
But this was his friend. He couldn’t let anything happen to her. Pulling the envelope out of his pocket, he held it out.
“No, Joe. Don’t give it to him. Think of all the kids in the world who won’t have Christmas. I’m just one kid, think of how important this is.”
“That’s what I am doing, Chrissy.” He handed the envelope to the creature. Tossing Chrissy aside, the creature moved further up the riverbank, turning the envelope repeatedly in his hands.
“At last, after a thousand years, the last Christmas has come to pass.”
A swirling dark shadow moved around the creature. Words hissed from within the specter.
“Aaaaat laaaaaastt, nooooooww Chirsssssstmaaasss issssss nooooo mooooore.”
The snarling growl of the wolf surprised them all. With one great leap, the wolf was on the creature and the specter, sending them all tumbling into the raging river.
“No,” Joe yelled, “Noooo…” His voice lost in the thundering water crashing over the rocks below.
Standing at the door of the barn, Chrissy put her hand on Joe’s shoulder. “We can do this, Joe. As long as we don’t doubt ourselves, we can do this.”
“But I don’t have the envelope. It had the secret of Christmas in it. How can we do this?”
“Joe, if there is one thing I’ve learned from this it’s there is always hope. Maybe we won’t succeed but we definitely won’t if we don’t try.” Tearing open her envelope, she read down the long list.
“Listen to me, everything we need to do to prepare for Christmas Eve is on this list. I say we do it and see what happens.” She led him inside.
The elves gathered around, listening to Chrissy dole out the tasks. Joe leaned against the wall, unsure of what to do.
“Joe,” Chrissy called, “Joe, listen to me.”
Joe looked up as Chrissy handed him the instruction book. “Go over everything to make sure it’s done right. Think about this, what would you grandfather want you to do?”
“That’s the problem. I don’t know.” Joe shrugged.
“Yes, you do, Joe. He’d want you to never give up. Now get to work, Christmas is two days away and we have a lot to do.”
Believe, Joe, believe. His grandfather’s words came back to him once again.
“I’m trying to, Grandpa. I’m trying.”
The two days flew by as Chrissy and Joe finished the items on the list. Sometimes, Joe would stop and listen. He’d walk to the door hoping to hear the wolf’s cry and see him bounding from the woods.
But the woods remained silent. Joe realized his friend, for that’s what he considered the wolf, was gone.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” Chrissy said. “The wolf was very brave, just like you when you came for me. He may be gone, but we will never forget him.” She patted his back. “Now, c’mon. We got a few more things to do before we’re finished.”
As they threw themselves into finishing the list, a nagging doubt roiled in Joe’s mind.
How am I gonna finish this? I don’t know the secret of Christmas or what the envelope held. What if I can’t figure it out?
“We’re done!” Chrissy said, and a shout went out from all the elves. Gathering around Chrissy and Joe, the elves sang.
“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells…”
Joe tried to sing along, but he just couldn’t. Doubt was winning him over. He knew this was all for nothing. He’d let his grandfather down. Walking once again to the door, he could see the first of the evening stars rising. Soon, he and Chrissy would have to head home. And Christmas would never come.
A tear slid down his face. He wiped it away and turned back inside. And then he heard it. Faint, fading in and out, then growing stronger. The wolf’s cry! He was alive.
Chrissy and the elves surrounded him, all looking for their friend. With a leap and a crash, the wolf charged from the woods. Running to Chrissy and Joe, he nuzzled the two with his warm fur and cold nose.
Joe hugged the wolf. After a moment, the wolf nudged him toward the sleigh. Joe stopped and the wolf pushed him again. “What are you doing?” Joe said, as the wolf grabbed the sleeve of his jacket and tugged him inside to the sleigh.
Everyone gathered around watching Joe and the wolf. After a moment, the wolf lay down at Joe’s feet.
“He wants you to do something, Joe,” Chrissy said.
“But what? I don’t know what to do?”
“Yes, you do,” a familiar voice said and his grandfather, dressed head to toe in red trimmed with white fur and wearing the lighted Santa hat, peeked from inside the sleigh.
“Grandpa!” Joe yelled, climbing into the sleigh and throwing his arms around the smiling old man. “But how, I mean…you’re…”
“Dead?” the old man smiled. “What did I tell you about holding onto memories and I’d always be with you?”
“That’s real?” Joe said.
“As real as all this,” his grandfather said, waving his hand around the room. “Now I have another surprise for you. Someone who’s been waiting to meet you for a long, long time.”
“Hi, Joe.” came a voice, and a gray-haired old woman all dressed in red like his grandfather, came over to the side of the sleigh. “I’m glad I finally get to meet you in person.”
Joe looked between the woman and grandfather. “Is this…?”
“It is my boy, allow me to introduce your grandmother, the woman who kept love alive in my heart for all these years.”
Joe hugged the woman, then hugged them both.
“Okay, my boy. Now we have some presents to deliver. We have to be on our way.”
“But I lost the envelope, Grandpa. I don’t know what the secret of Christmas is so I can finish this.”
His grandpa smiled. “Oh, you know it very well, my boy. Doesn’t he, my dear?” Joe’s grandma nodded and laughed.
“You do, Joe. Just look at Chrissy there. While all this was going on you both took care of each other. You risked your own lives to stand by your friends. You learned to love a wolf and the wolf came to love the both of you. You know the secret, Joe, it’s been in your heart the whole time.”
Joe thought a moment. “There was nothing in the envelope was there? The secret of Christmas isn’t a thing, or magic, or anything else. The secret is just to believe.”
“I told you he took after me,” his grandpa said. “Boy’s a genius.”
“Yeah. But without Chrissy and I, neither one of you two would last a minute.”
Joe’s grandpa laughed. “Now that is a true statement.”
“But how is it you’re Santa Claus?” Joe asked.
“Because I believe, Joe. I believe. Santa Claus is more than one person. He is an idea. All this is the power of believing in something with all your heart. This is my Last Christmas, but it is not THE last Christmas. As long as you hold it in your heart, Christmas will last forever.”
All the reindeer now stood ready, hooked up to the sleigh and straining to fly. Joe hugged his grandparents one last time and climbed down from the sleigh.
“I’ll never forget you,” Joe said. “Never”
“And that my boy is the only secret you’ll ever need. Embrace the ones you love while they’re here and hold them in your memory forever.”
With a snap of his fingers, the door to the barn opened. Handing the reins to Joe’s grandmother, his grandfather leaned back in the seat. He winked at Joe. “She’s a better pilot than I ever was.”
The sleigh gained speed and then flew up over the trees. Looping around the barn and waving at them, Joe heard his grandpa’s voice…
“Now Dasher! Now Dancer!
Now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid!
On, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch!
To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away!
Dash away all!”
“Joe,” his wife said, “time to head over to Kelsey’s house. You know she likes to get the kids to bed early on Christmas Eve.”
“Ready, just got a few things to pack before I go.”
His wife stood in the doorway. “It’s not one of those crazy pranks of yours, is it?
“Of course not, just something I need to pass on to Nicholas. Something my grandfather gave to me.” He turned to look at his wife. “Remember, Chrissy, the secret of Christmas? They gave it to us both.”
“Oh, I remember, Joe. I remember.”
Thanks for reading my story. I wish for all of you, be it your first or last, a very Merry Christmas. Remember, believe!