The Bells of Christmas
The tree looked so bare without the girls’ ornaments. Caroline had always planned to give them to Amy and Jennifer when they moved away. She just hadn’t figured they would both leave at the same time.
Her job at the Cedarville public library and volunteer work had kept her plenty busy in the months since they’d moved, and she had the cats, Callie and Chrissie, who were usually good company; but tonight the house seemed even more empty than usual.
“What do you think?” She glanced at the two matching tabbies who dozed on the sofa. They peered at her through slitted golden eyes. “Oh, you’re no help at all.”
She gave the naked fir tree one more glance before going to the hall closet for her coat. Good thing Parrott’s Department store stayed open late these last weeks before Christmas. She’d walk over and pick up some new ornaments and then maybe stop in town for a bite to eat. Cooking for one was something else she wasn’t quite used to.
Outside snow fell, drifting in lazy crystals to the already-covered ground. Caroline pulled her hood up tight against the cold December night and walked briskly to the main street of Cedarville. She passed a few folk on the way, each one nodding to her in greeting. Everyone in town knew Caroline Prescott, but did any of them know how lonely she felt tonight?
In the department store she picked out a box of blue satin ornaments and another of glass silver-frosted. They looked plain compared to the special decorations she had selected for the girls every year, but they would have to do. Besides, what did it matter? She would be the only one to see the tree on Christmas morning.
Harry’s Soup and Sandwich Shop offered good comfort food and welcomed Caroline in from the sharp air. Evening shoppers filled all the booths, so Caroline headed for the counter draped with green and red garland. She claimed the single seat available and piled her purse and package next to her.
She didn’t have to look at the menu. Harry’s potato cheddar soup was her favorite and she ordered that with a small salad. While she waited, she watched a group of junior high students packed into a booth, laughing and talking and texting on their smart phones. She smiled wistfully. It seemed Amy and Jenny should still be that age, going off sledding and skating and bringing their friends home for hot chocolate and Caroline’s special holiday cookies.
A silly lump swelled in her throat, but the sound of a package slipping to the floor followed by the tinkling of broken glass brought her abruptly around.
“Oh Joey, look what you’ve done!” a child’s voice groaned.
Caroline looked down at her package and then up at the two children standing together beside it. A boy of about six with one arm in his coat clung to the hand of a girl only slightly older. They both stared at Caroline with wide brown eyes.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” the girl barely whispered. “My brother didn’t mean to hurt anything. He was just trying to put his coat on.”
“It’s all right.” Caroline leaned down to pick up the package and inspect the damage.
In the moment it took her to pluck the package from the floor, someone else joined the children in staring at her, a tall man in flannel shirt and jeans who raked back unruly hair with his fingers.
“What happened, kids?” he asked with a resigned sigh.
“Joey didn’t mean it,” “It was an accident.” The little girl and Caroline spoke together.
The boy just looked down at his boots, tightening his grip on the girl’s hand. The man gave them both a stern frown which quickly softened.
“Okay. Let’s just apologize to the lady and see what we owe her.”
“It’s all right. Really.” Caroline tried to protest, but the man insisted she check the contents of the bag.
Four of the frosted ornaments were shattered into little silver shards.
“Let me pay you for them.” He withdrew his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans.
“Not necessary.” Caroline pointed to the blue satin ornaments. “These are just fine and there are still six of the others left.”
He looked skeptical about letting it go.
“I only left them to finish up their ice cream while I paid the bill.” His hand rested on the boy’s head in a loving gesture. “Joey is really a good boy.” He seemed to be trying to reassure the boy as much as Caroline. His gaze lifted to hers. “Are you sure we can’t compensate?”
Caroline’s order arrived just then. Before she could shake her head, he asked the waitress for her bill.
“At least let me pay for your dinner.”
There was no sense in arguing, and Caroline gracefully gave in.
When the man walked away to the cashier, the children still stayed, the girl staring intently at Caroline.
“Aren’t you the lady from the library? The story lady?” she finally asked.
“Why yes, I am.” Caroline took in the girl’s solemn expression that was far too serious for a child her age. She remembered that serious little face. Hadn’t both children come to the library last Saturday for Story Hour?
“I’m Mrs. Prescott,” she volunteered and recalled how the two had sat together listening quietly to the books Caroline read but hadn’t joined in any of the songs the other children had later sung. “Did you enjoy Story Hour?”
“I’m Sharie Kendall,” the girl said softly. “I liked one book ‘specially. The one about the teddy bear that came to life.”
“Then you should have your dad bring you to the library again so you can check it out.” Caroline loved to encourage young readers. She looked at the boy. “What about you, Joey? Did you have a favorite story?”
“My brother doesn’t talk much,” Sharie supplied. “Only to me and Dad.”
Their father had returned from the cashier, and Caroline lifted her gaze to his. Deep brown and serious as the boy’s, his eyes spoke of pain and confusion.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “I didn’t have any little boys myself, but I always figured they should be noisy and boisterous.”
The man nodded, as if he agreed with her, but offered no comment, said only, “Name’s Joshua Kendall. We just moved here a few weeks ago, so we don’t know too many folks yet. Nice to meet you, though we’re sorry about the circumstances.” He took Joey by the hand. “Well, let’s leave the lady to her dinner. Time we got home.”
Before they walked away, Caroline slid from the stool and crouched down in front of both children.
“It’s really okay about the ornaments. They’re easily replaceable. But how about you both do me a favor and come to the Christmas party we’re having at the library this Saturday? We’ll have more stories and some special surprises. Refreshments, too. Your dad is welcome to attend with you.” Something told Caroline this family didn’t include a mother. Perhaps that was the reason for the children’s solemn expressions.
“Could we go, Daddy? I like the library.” Sharie waited for his answer.
“The clinic is open till noon.” He drew both children close to him in a protective gesture Caroline found touching. “Thank you for not being upset about the ornaments,” he said to Caroline. “What time does the party start?”
“One o’clock. I’ll look forward to seeing you there.”
Even Joey gave her a shy wave when they left.