Excerpt for Things on a Tree by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Things on a Tree

Copyright © 2016 by D.L. Finn

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever including Internet usage, without written permission of the author.

D.L. Finn

www.dlfinnauthor.com

This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, or events used in this book are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, alive or deceased, events or locales is completely coincidental.

Illustrations and Cover © Monica Gibson

monicagibson.com

Book design by Maureen Cutajar

www.gopublished.com

Library of Congress Control Number: 2016906488

ISBN Print: 978-0-9962582-5-8

ISBN eBook: 978-0-9962582-4-1

Revised Edition 2017




Table of Contents

1: Merry Sickness

2: Snowflakes and Pie

3: Operation Rescue Grandma

4: Reunited

5: A Ride through the Forest

6: Christmas Morning

7: Have Some Hope

8: Just Believe

9: Things in Her Head

10: Showtime

Author’s Note

About the Author


CHAPTER 1

Merry Sickness

The disinfectant on the old glass thermometer pushed under my tongue, had a stench that forced its way through my clogged-up nose. I hated that smell. It reminded me of sickness and hospitals. Besides, I didn’t need a thermometer to tell me I had a fever. My whole body hurt, and no matter how much wood was added to the old crackling woodstove, or how many blankets were piled on top of me, I was still freezing. I could hear my mom’s boots thumping against our hardwood floor in the hall. I knew she was coming to check on me and to confirm what I already knew. I was sick on Christmas Eve, making it the second-worst Christmas ever; following Dad’s dying last year. I sighed. I wished I still believed in Santa and would get what I had been hoping and praying for under the Christmas tree. But, how can you erase the last horrible year, wrap it up, and put it under your Christmas tree? Besides, if there really was a Santa, he wouldn’t let my father die on Christmas Eve.

“You have a fever of 102, Aimee,” Mom said, and smiled that fake smile she’s had since Dad died. What bugged me most, was that no one wanted to talk about what had happened—Dad was dead. We couldn’t smile that away. “Well, you rest, and maybe you’ll be all better for Christmas morning. I will be right outside, sledding with your brother and sister if you need anything, OK?”

“OK,” I mumbled.

I slept on and off the rest of the morning, waking up only to eat some chicken soup “guaranteed” to make me all better. I felt worse. I could see through the front window that the winter sun had moved to the front yard, which meant it was late afternoon. As I rolled to my side to study the Christmas tree, I found there was nothing on my body that didn’t hurt. I was hit by a sudden whiff of cinnamon, which meant snickerdoodles. My mom and little sister must have made the family-favorite cookies while I slept. The sweet scent usually had me waiting impatiently by the oven, for the cookies to be done. Today, I had to bury my head under the blanket to block the odor and the memories of Dad’s sneaking the first cookie before they cooled.

I tried to sleep more, but the house was so quiet it was keeping me awake. Everyone was out in the fresh, powdery snow. Our unpredictable California weather, finally gave the foothills of the Northern Sierra Mountains a white Christmas. I wondered if our pond had frozen over enough to ice skate on or play a game of hockey, like Dad did growing up in Minnesota. We used to play in the driveway that was as long as a hockey arena, year-round—no ice needed. But, boy, he would have loved this! And, I would have loved for him to be here with us, even for one more day.

Splat!

I looked over my shoulder and saw Kara smiling and waving at me through the icy window. The coolness of the dark-blue striped walls and steel-gray carpets, along with the large double-paned window, reminded me of a jail cell—and I was its prisoner. Even with the sun brightly reflecting off the snow, nothing could dispel the heaviness of the room or myself—miserable and melancholy. I sighed and raised my hand in a wave, but didn’t smile back at her. The glittering ornaments, colorful lights, and brightly wrapped presents, couldn’t take my mind off the fact that Mom, Kara, and little Alex were out playing in the snow. How could they do all the things we used to do with Dad? It wasn’t right!

I frowned, even though moving my face hurt. I didn’t need to look out our window again to know what they were doing. Alex would be bundled up in his blue snowsuit and strapped in my old wooden sled, with Mom towing him behind her. Kara would be building a snowperson without my help for the first time. Everyone would be having fun, and they shouldn’t be, without Dad here with us. Our lives changed last Christmas Eve when Dad died in an accident, on his way to finish up some last-minute Christmas shopping. I remember it so clearly. The phone rang, and the next thing I knew, we were all on our way to the hospital. I stood next to Mom as a blonde doctor wearing a red Christmas hat gave my mom the news.

“We tried everything,” the doctor said, putting her hand on Mom’s shoulder. “We believe your husband was brain dead on impact—so, he didn’t suffer. I am very sorry for your loss.”

Mom nodded and smoothed down her green holiday dress. Her blue eyes filled with tears, but she didn’t cry. The doctor glanced at me. I heard her softly tell my mom that it might be better if the kids remembered their dad how he was.

My mom nodded in agreement at the doctor’s suggestion without even glancing my way to see how I felt. My mind shut down at that point. I went to stand by my brother and sister as I watched my grandma rush through the ER doors and throw her arms around my mom. After the doctor filled her in, my grandma looked at me as she held my mom.

She nodded toward Kara and Alex and said, “Stay with them, Aimee. We will be right back.”

“OK,” I replied.

I felt numb as I watched my grandma and Mom follow the doctor to say good-bye to my dad. I knew what the doctor wasn’t saying around me, my brother, or sister. I knew my dad wrapped his red pickup he used for work, around a large pine tree. I had overheard the paramedics talking about the accident when I came out of the bathroom. They had to cut him out of his truck, and they hadn’t been able to retrieve his legs from the wreck. When Cam, who barely looked like he was out of high school, spotted me standing there, he and the woman I never saw, stopped talking and quickly exited the hospital. I never told anyone I had overheard this.

I tried to catch Kara’s eye. She was too involved watching our little brother sleeping in her lap. The lady on the television was talking about the weather Santa would have tonight, as he delivered presents. I sighed and sat down next to my little sister and brother while studying the empty green and pink waiting room that smelled of disinfectant. It was decorated with red tinsel and a small fake Christmas tree, loaded with ornaments made by local schools, including mine, although I couldn’t spot the painted clay tree I had made. I knew nothing would ever be the same from that moment on.

Three days after Dad’s funeral, we scattered his ashes behind our house in the forest he loved and the pond he fished in. The very next day, we celebrated a late Christmas. Mom insisted that was how Dad would have wanted it because it was his favorite time of year. He always insisted he still believed in Santa, to which our mother would always respond with a smile. But, I can barely even remember opening any of our presents that cold, sunny day in January. Mom had quietly put Dad’s presents in the attic after his funeral. The presents are still sitting there, unopened. I stared blankly at our tree as I relived the memories from last year. I wasn’t really seeing anything but a blur of lights.

This year is going to be different, I had thought, without Dad. It was, but not in a good way. Everyone was smiling on the outside, but not the inside. I sighed, something I did a lot of, I was told, and turned my back to the Christmas tree and on Christmas. I let the warm tears fall freely down my cheeks onto my pillow, leaving a damp spot next to my face. I didn’t bother to move or turn the pillow over, though; I just waited until sleep overtook me again.

Clink.

“Throwing snowballs at the window, Kara? I’ll get you later,” I mumbled.

I flipped over on my stomach and studied the scene out the window. Kara was nowhere near the window. I could see her in the distance through the foggy glass. She was pulling Alex around on his sled in an area where our lawn normally ruled the landscape. Mom was over by the huge cedar tree, adding a carrot and some buttons to a snowperson’s face. Neither were tapping on the window or throwing any snowballs, either. Suddenly, I felt dizzy. I shook my head to clear it. It helped, but made my headache worse. Confused, I looked for anything that could have hit the window. Maybe a branch broke off a tree, or a pinecone?

Tap! Clink!

Wait, it was coming from the tree! I rubbed my eyes, trying to wake up. Carefully flipping to my side while keeping my throbbing head still, I analyzed the Christmas tree. It had to be coming from that little Santa’s workshop ornament where his hammer tapped away. I frowned and pushed my matted brown hair behind my ears and listened. No, it wasn’t that. Maybe it was the little train circling around on its enclosed train tracks in the plastic globe. No, neither ornament made that sound.

“Kassy?” I called.

Miss Kassy Cat was always knocking off the bottom ornaments. Mom was forever shooing her away. But Kassy was lounging by me on the carpet, grooming her long, gray fur. Her golden eyes had their usual bored look. It wasn’t her, and she didn’t seem interested in the sound—or me.

Clink!

There was that sound again. I fixed my eyes on the tree, but didn’t see anything. Maybe it was those awake dreams that Dad used to tell us about. Even though I still felt a tug in my chest every time I thought about Dad, I didn’t want to forget him. So, I would always try to remember things he used to tell me. It was my secret, since no one else wanted to talk about him. Even our therapist thought it was time to move on. Yeah, right. I often pictured Dad sitting on my bed next to me after a bad dream, wearing the Led Zeppelin PJ set we got him for Father’s Day.

“Aimee, sometimes after a dream or nightmare like you just had, you can still see or hear the dream when you first wake up. I call them awake dreams. I get them myself. I know it’s scary, but it’s not real. Shake your head or give yourself a pinch. That will wake you up.”

Maybe so, but this was different. I was fully awake.

Tap, tap, tap.

What? Wait! Oh, it was just Mom at the window. Red-nosed and smiling in her long green-striped cap with her frozen blonde ponytail on her left shoulder, she pointed to the snowperson. I gave her a thumbs up. Mom grinned and went back to the snowy creation. But, what about the other noises? They sure sounded real to me. I rested my pounding head on my pillow, puzzling over the sounds. My eyes felt heavy and swollen as I waited in silence, but sleep finally won. I awoke only once to eat more soup. Mom covered me in another blanket and kissed the top of my head. At least I was going to get to sleep by the Christmas tree. I had never been able to do that before. I almost felt excited, but then reality flooded me and I closed my eyes to shut it out. Thankfully, sleep overtook me before the tears fell again.

Clink, clink, clink!

I carefully opened one eye very slowly, foolishly hoping it was Santa and that the last year hadn’t happened. Although it wasn’t Santa, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I snapped the other eye open and sat up.

Two tiny white kittens were silently running down my blanket toward the Christmas tree. They jumped on a branch and ran toward the lit-up red heart on the light string that usually had white kittens wrapped around it, but right now was bare. One of the kittens had a golden ribbon in its mouth, and the other kitten took a swipe at the ribbon. They both glanced back at me at the same time, meowed, wound themselves around the heart, and stopped moving. The tree branch was motionless, as if it never happened. The red heart with kittens was suddenly again the ornament that my grandma had bought for me two years ago.

I blinked my eyes and shook my head. I pinched myself. Ouch! Was this fever making me hear and see things? Had what I just seen, been part of a dream or . . . ? Or what? I could hear my mom’s TV. Kara, Alex, and Mom were watching our traditional Christmas Eve movie, A Christmas Story, all snuggled up in Mom’s bed. I glanced back at the tree again and pulled my purple comforter over me with a shiver. The rest of the house was quiet and dark except for the TV. I fell back to sleep, wondering how high my fever was to make me hallucinate small white kittens.

It was still dark outside when I awoke again. The only light in the silent house was coming from the tree. Everyone had to be asleep. What a weird dream that had been about the Christmas ornaments-turned-kittens running around. I shook my head and grabbed the top of the velvet grey couch to pull myself up. I slowly glanced at the tree and nothing was moving—good. I smiled and noticed the lights from the tree filled the room in their cheerful colors. The striped walls looked like blue candy canes, and the presents brightly reflected the cheery glow from the tree. The wood stove was radiating warmth while the cast-iron train on the stove, had steam chugging from its stack. I took a deep breath, noting my nose had cleared up—I could smell the peppermint my mother had added to the train water and the pine from the tree.

I pushed my damp hair out of my face and pulled down my nightshirt. I really needed to change out of my fever-drenched San Jose Sharks jersey that I had used as a nightgown since Dad died. Number 12, Patrick Marleau, was Dad’s favorite hockey player. My favorite player was number 57, Tommy Wingels. I had a poster of him in the bedroom I shared with Kara. I had missed their game yesterday and wondered whether they’d won or lost. I bet they won. I grinned and realized my mouth was so dry, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I needed some water, which Mom had left for me by the couch. At least I was finally feeling better.

I checked our stockings hanging by the wood stove, and they were still empty. Good, because I had awoken with a purpose to prove once and for all if there was a Santa or not. Logically, I knew there wasn’t a Santa, and I was way too old to even be considering this; but, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had to do this. Either I was completely losing my mind, as Grandma would always joke about herself, or everything was suddenly clear to me for the first time since Dad died.

“Maybe this Christmas won’t be completely awful,” I said to Kassy, checking to see if Kara and Alex had remembered to leave Santa his milk and cookies; they had.

Kassy rubbed against my legs as she passed by to go sleep with Kara. Kara kept a fuzzy red pillow for her to sleep on at the foot of her bed. Her side of the room was all pink and red glitter with pictures of cats, fairies, and moons. She loved all things moon, and if it had a cat on it, even better.

I tiptoed into the room and pulled on my new red flannel snowflake Christmas nightgown that I’d found on my bed. I added the jersey to the overflowing laundry basket. I was careful not to awaken Kara. I didn’t want her to ruin my pilgrimage to see Santa.

Kara had developed this new, grown-up attitude right after her birthday last May. I would get her eye roll and smirks when I talked about hockey or anything that didn’t interest her. It amazed me how much we looked alike with our brown, curly dad hair and brown eyes, but we couldn’t be any more different. She was practical, like Mom, and hated hockey, while I have been called more of a dreamer, like Dad, by both Mom and Grandma. I always loved that comparison to Dad. But, none of that mattered right now, because I had a small spark of hope that I hadn’t felt in over a year. I certainly wasn’t going to lose it by waking up my little sister.

I focused on my side of the room that was lit only by a cat on the moon nightlight. The teal comforter and purple pillows, did not have the socks on them I was looking for. I definitely did not want to open the dresser drawer and make extra noise. I knew there had to be a pair around here somewhere. I glanced at our team’s center, Tommy Wingels on my wall, and smiled. My dad had found me that poster last year and was with me when I found the northern lights photo right next to it. I would never get rid of either of those pictures…ever. Although, the pride of my room was a large purple rose that Grandma had painted. Kara had a matching red one on her side, our only thing in common—with the exception of our glow in the dark stars. As much as our room and personalities clashed, we both could agree on the stars and roses.

My quiet search for a pair of socks, led me to my shark’s shelf above my bed. The shelf had a couple of mystery pucks I had gotten from attending games where you could buy a puck for charity, but did not know which team member had signed the puck. I had my favorite player’s puck—plus the team’s new captain, Pavelski, and Brent Burns… more favorites of mine! A Logan Couture bobble-head added to my collection, along with several Legos sets of individual players and the team mascot, Sharkie. There were also some cups, pins, and other little things, like beads and signs I had saved over the years. Behind all of that was what I was looking for… a pair of San Jose Sharks socks I had gotten that last horrible Christmas. I had stuffed them on my shelf and forgotten about them, until now. I pulled them off the shelf and put them on.

The clock chimed eleven, startling me. I quickly finished my change, with my brand-new Christmas slippers and my bathrobe that matched my nightgown that had been set neatly on top of the dresser. A shower would have been nice, but I had to get moving and I didn’t want to wake anyone up. I scurried to the kitchen and grabbed a couple of snickerdoodles. They had never tasted better. Still hungry, I took out the makings for a peanut butter and banana sandwich, my favorite. I carefully spread the creamy peanut butter over the bread and then added a really ripe banana that I mashed into the peanut butter. To top it all off, I made an x with the honey across the peanut butter and banana, then swished it all together with a second slice of bread. I poured myself some eggnog, adding milk and nutmeg, just like Mom did and then took my snack back to the couch. I popped the last bite into my mouth as I climbed back under my blankets, ready to wait and see who would put the presents under our Christmas tree. At least if it were Mom, I could catch her and finally let go of my last little bit of hope, I had budding inside me.

After I knew the truth, I could “get on with life.” Once, a neighbor had visited and told Mom to do that. When that neighbor left, I saw Mom crying in the kitchen. She didn’t think anyone was watching. I was. It was the only time I had seen her break down. It was kind of a relief for me to see her really show some feelings besides fake cheer. It was real this time.

This quest of mine was real, too. It wasn’t just a byproduct of the flu that first had me sad, feeling nothing could ever be right, to now I was hoping to see Santa. I knew it sounded irrational, but I think a better word to use was “confused”—a word the adults liked to throw around a lot this last year. The one thing I was positive about was I had to see if there really was a Santa, for Dad and me.

“Don’t they say you have to be asleep for him to come?” I said to Kassy, who had ended up by the Christmas tree instead of with Kara. She watched me as she began to clean her front paws. “I’d better look like I’m asleep then.”

Kassy closed her eyes. I guess she figured she should be asleep, too. OK, I still might slightly believe in Santa, or at least the idea of him, but, I knew the cat had no clue what I was saying. I carefully arranged the heavy purple blankets and shut my eyes. I waited and waited. I peeked at the clock; 11:45 p.m. I stayed as still as I could. Time passed so slowly. I felt myself getting sleepy again as the clock chimed twelve times. No! I had to stay awake. I had to do this!

Clink, tap, clink, clink!

That sound again. I thought it had been the fever or a dream, but when I opened my eyes, not only were the tiny white kittens running around the huge tree’s branches, but the whole tree was full of moving ornaments. Well, almost the whole tree. The round ball ornaments weren’t stirring, but anything that had a face was now dancing around cheerfully—everything on the tree had a new glow. I couldn’t believe the ornaments I had carefully placed on the tree several days ago were interacting with each other, and that wasn’t all; Santa was standing above me, eating a cookie and drinking his milk. He wasn’t paying any attention to me, though; he was whispering softly to all the little things running around on our tree.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t swallow. And, I’m pretty sure I forgot to breathe. At least I could move my eyes and saw that the needlepoint stockings Mom had made for each of us were filled with presents. Each one had a candy cane sticking out the top. To top it off, new presents had been added under the tree. But, how could he have done that? Was this a dream, or was he real? I shook my head and pinched myself like Dad had instructed me to do.

I was awake, I was sure of it.

Santa was already back at his toy sack. What if he left before I could talk to him? I leapt up and called out, “Santa!”

He turned around with his white-gloved finger to his lips. “Shhh. We don’t want to wake anyone up, Aimee.”

I didn’t answer. Santa gathered me into his arms and sat me back on the couch. His long, white beard tickled me. He wrapped me in the comforter and sat down next to me. I finally remembered I needed to breathe.

“Seeing these ornaments running around, surprised me, just as much as you, the first time I saw it,” Santa said with a chuckle.

I sat there with my mouth wide open. I didn’t know what to say. I mean, I was sitting next to the real Santa, talking about living ornaments. All I could think about was Dad’s smile and his talking about Santa like he was real. Now I understood, I thought.

“At first I thought it was just this house,” Santa continued as he got up and went back to the tree. “But then, after going from house to house, I realized it was almost the whole town of Maple Pines! Once I left your area, no more living ornaments. I puzzled over that the rest of Christmas Eve. When I got back to the North Pole, Mrs. Claus, who stayed home with the flu, reminded me of the accident we had had the year before.”

“Accident?” I gasped, hating that word since hearing it last year to describe what had happened to my dad.

“Oh, it was a little one. Nothing to worry about, Aimee. The reindeer, myself, and Mrs. Claus were making the final loop into Maple Pines many years ago, when my pouch of magic flying dust, fell out of the sled into the forest below. I found it right away lying open on the ground. Most of it was there, and nothing seemed amiss, so we hurried on our way to deliver the rest of the gifts.”

“But what about the ornaments?” I asked.

“What we figured out was that the magic dust fell on some of the trees in the tree farm in the outskirts of Maple Pines. So, when your family and others cut down your Christmas trees there, well, it gives life to the things you put on it. Once hung on a magical tree, the ornaments have come to life every year on Christmas Eve,” Santa said.

“How come no one noticed it besides me?” I asked.

“Well, they seem to be shy.”

“Shy?”

“Yes. Magic knows, like me, that it’s best not to be seen. No matter how real it is,” Santa said with a grin.

“Like you? But, I saw you and the ornaments!”

“Yes, because we wanted you to see us,” Santa explained.

“You did? Why?” I asked, and pulled the comforter tighter around me, even though I wasn’t cold.

Santa pointed at me. “Because the magic chose you as the next caretaker of the forest.”

“M-me?” I stuttered, covering my mouth with my hand.

“Yes,” Santa replied, picking up his red bag and pulling a green and red present out that he added under the tree. He smiled and then stroked his mustache and beard as he studied me for a few seconds. “Whatever happened that night was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. The magic has spread through the whole forest; even the animals respond to me now. It’s amazing the stories the trees have to tell.”

“But, we cut down the trees, Santa!” I stood up in alarm.

Santa held a hand up. “Oh, don’t worry, Aimee. Those trees knew they were going to be Christmas trees. That’s why they passed on their magic to the ornaments. There’s not much magic left in that tree farm now, but the wild pines and cedars that border the farm, have developed into quite charming trees. The trees don’t have mouths so they don’t talk like we do, but they can think loud enough so I can hear. You’ve noticed that only the things on the tree that have faces come alive, right? But, the living things in the forest, well, that’s different. The wild trees have somehow passed on the ability to speak, not only to me, but to each other and to the birds, squirrels, and foxes around them, like the Christmas trees did to the ornaments. But the ornaments are the most special to me, because this magic brought them into existence, much like the story of Pinocchio where the wooden puppet is granted life.”

With that, Santa put his bag down again and guided me over to the tree. He gently put my hand on a tree branch.

“Only at Christmas, Aimee,” Santa said.

“But people throw old ornaments away, Santa,” I said, as the two kittens started chasing the glass reindeer across my fingers. Their steps were feather-light and it tickled my hand. At the same time, I could feel they used their claws to hang on while they were running. The only way I could describe what the kittens felt like, was like having mice running on me. The glass reindeer felt like warm ice on my arm.

“You know, Aimee, the strangest thing of all? The old ornaments that have been thrown away have always made their way back to the forest, ending up at the huge sugar pine behind your house. I’ve already picked them up this year.” Santa pulled an old broken soldier missing a leg and an arm, an angel missing its wings, and a snowman lacking his hat and nose, from his pocket. They waved at me as best they could, but their smiles lit their faces, making up for them being broken. “I fix them and put them on our Christmas tree in the North Pole. They come back to life every year. A couple at the North Pole, a soldier and gingerbread man, have stayed alive all year. I can’t explain any of this; I only know it happens.” Santa shrugged and tenderly put them back in his fluffy red pocket.

“But, Santa, you said it was my turn to take care of the forest. Why me? And, who is the caretaker now?” I frowned. For that short moment, I had almost completely forgotten about my dad’s own accident; almost.

Santa laughed and held up his hand, careful not to knock off the snowman running up his arm. “You’ll understand all that later. Right now, you need to understand the real power of magic and your role in it. Oh no, look at the time! We’d better be on our way. Ho, ho, ho,” Santa said, picking up his sack.

“We?” I repeated.

“Yes, Aimee. We. I have some things to fix before Christmas day is over. If you come with me, we should be able to prevent your dad’s death,” Santa said, adjusting his hat.

“How?” I asked with my mouth hung open.

“He wasn’t supposed to go when he did, Aimee. I couldn’t fix it last Christmas. I found out too late. But, with your help, I can this Christmas. I warn you, it could be dangerous,” Santa said, and gently put all the ornaments back on the tree. He had his bag and was heading for the woodstove.

“I don’t understand. You can bring back the dead?” I asked, slipping into my reindeer slippers and red-and-white snowflake bathrobe. I was ready to leave with a complete stranger, Santa or not. Well, I would do anything to have my father back with us. Besides, I was pretty sure logic didn’t apply to this situation.

Santa sighed, “No, I can’t. It breaks my heart, Aimee, that I can’t help families (including elves) who have tragically lost loved ones—even with magic. I do what I can for them but…” Santa paused, frowning deeply. “I wish we had more time to talk, but know this is a special thing we are about to do. What is important is that you understand there is a good side and a bad side. The bad side is that a man went after your dad last Christmas, thinking that it would prevent a future caretaker from taking over the forest, but, it only passed on to you. I know he’s going after your grandma, who is the current caretaker. Then, he will come after you. If we can stop him before the sun comes up on the day after Christmas this year, we might, just might, be able to erase his deeds this last year and stop him from hurting anyone else. It’s only a theory I have, but worth a try, isn’t it?”

I could only nod in response. His explanation only confused me more … especially about my dad. And as for my grandma, how did I not know she was the current caretaker of the forest? Did she see the things running around on her tree? Had she seen Santa?

“One more thing you should know. These little kittens completely healed your body and mind earlier. One of the caretaker’s ornament watches over them—for you, it was the kittens. I know you feel the healing and you might have even felt you might see me, right?” He stopped and looked at me.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“With the healing, your eyes are opened to some truths. Make sense?” Santa said, smiling.

“Yes. I think so,” I agreed.

“Good. It will get clearer to you as the night goes on. Here, put this coat on. Mrs. Claus would worry herself sick if I let you go out into the cold in your bathrobe. She sure wished she could be here to meet you. She had to keep an eye on things for me this year.” Santa tugged a fluffy red coat out of his toy sack and handed it to me.

I pulled the large red coat over my nightgown and bathrobe. It was soft and warm and smelled like gingerbread. I was about to ask Santa what he meant about Mrs. Claus when the phone rang. Uh oh. The light went on in my mom’s room.

“Hurry, Aimee,” Santa said. “The phone call isn’t good news. They got your grandma and you are the only loose end. Let’s go and save your dad.”

“But—”

Santa didn’t let me speak another word. Instead, he pulled me through what looked like a tunnel. It was surprisingly warm, but silent, and dark. My slippers were on a solid surface and it was the same feeling as when I was on that escalator at the airport, but faster. Santa’s hand held onto mine, but I could only see his hat, back, boots, arm, and my red coat and slippers—nothing else. It was like the darkness was reflecting off of Santa’s back, and was creating light around him. I wasn’t scared, though. I felt safe with Santa. I started to ask him about Mrs. Claus but nothing came out of my mouth. Santa glanced back at me and smiled. I smiled back. We rode on until I could make out a light ahead.

The next thing I knew, we were on the roof and all that darkness was gone as suddenly as it appeared. There was Santa’s wooden and brass sled with Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen, with their names engraved on their harnesses—all looking at me. Next to them was a female dressed in a furry, forest-green long shirt, with a front pocket trimmed with white over glittery green leggings and black shiny boots. An elf? She didn’t have the pointy ears like I had always read about, neither was she tiny—short, but not tiny.

“She’s safe!” she exclaimed.

“She is,” Santa said. “Aimee, this is Hope, my head elf. She’s helping out tonight. I’m sure you know who the reindeer are.”

The reindeer were all still staring at me. A couple of them nodded to me.

“Nice to meet you,” I replied, and then added as I nodded back, “Yes. I do.”

“Yes, I am glad to meet you, too,” Hope the elf said and then looked at Santa. “The poison?”

Santa frowned and shook his head.

“What poison?” I asked and pinched myself again. I certainly felt it. How could any of this be real? Santa, living ornaments, and poison? Odd was a word that came to my mind as I carefully moved my feet on our steep roof. If there hadn’t been snow on it, I would have slid right off.

“No time for that now,” Santa said. “You need to go with Hope. She will explain everything to you. I can’t miss delivering presents. Hope, find her grandma, and then him. We will meet up after at the cabin and do what we must. Until then, keep her safe.” He turned, jumped into the sleigh’s red padded seat, and was gone before I could ask any more questions.

This left me on my cold, snowy roof with an elf. I suddenly felt shy as I glanced over at Hope. She had bright-blue eyes and long red hair in braids. She held out a white-gloved hand to me. This could bring my dad back, I told myself. I took her hand.


CHAPTER 2

Snowflakes and Pie

Hope’s gloved hand was warm, but everything else was cold as the ground disappeared from underneath us. Snowflakes swirled around, blocking any view of where we were going. My hair flew out behind me like I was flying, but my feet felt like I was standing on solid ground, although there was nothing below my feet except the spinning snowflakes. It was a strange sensation, and different than what I had experienced with Santa. It was like being on a clear platform in the eye of a hurricane, where instead of air blowing around us, snowflakes circled without touching either one of us.

Hope turned and nodded to me. I tried to ask her where we were going, but, like with Santa in the tunnel, nothing came out of my mouth. She shook her head and pursed her lips together. I got it; no talking. I nodded back to her. Her mouth grinned back, but the rest of her face, especially her eyes, weren’t involved in that smile. It gave her face a squished look. She squeezed my hand and looked ahead. Maybe she needed to concentrate to make this all work. Her firmly holding my hand, was our only contact. I lost track of time, observing the lights flickering through the snowflakes. I couldn’t make out any shapes. Then, as suddenly as the ground had disappeared, it was underneath my feet again. The snow cleared up, and I found Hope and myself standing in a place barely bigger than my bedroom.

“OK, Aimee. We are at the North Pole. I will be right back. Don’t leave this room, OK?” Hope said, and shut the door with a loud click without waiting for my answer. Wait! Did she just lock me in?

I rushed across the plush red carpet and pulled the large wooden door’s brass handle. It was locked. Why would she lock me in here? Santa said she was going to help, so maybe there was a reason. I hoped so. I thought about pounding on the door and demanding she open it, but I didn’t know who I could trust yet, even her. I reminded myself this was for Dad and Grandma and I took a deep breath. I had to be brave for them.

More focused now, I examined the tiny space. There was a large red velvet chair, a small white desk with a laptop on it, a little pine tree with colorful lights growing in a large black-and-white checked pot, a fireplace, and a round glass table. On top of this table was a green-and-white-striped plate, overflowing with cookies shaped like candy canes. Next to that was a red mug with what looked like milk in it. My stomach grumbled. I reached for a cookie, but then pulled my hand back. No, I don’t think so, after that poison remark. This elf had some explaining to do first. The sweet vanilla scent from the cookies seemed to get stronger by the moment, but I continued to ignore it as I continued to study the room.

“It’s like I’m trapped in a Christmas present,” I said, and laughed.

The laugh sounded weird to me after the last year. I sighed again, and sank into the soft red chair. Its size made me feel small, and it was as comfortable as it looked. Yet, all I could think about was eating those cookies. I got up and stuffed a few into my bathrobe pocket for later. Then, for no good reason, I dumped the milk out in the potted pine tree.

“Poison comments would make anyone nervous about eating, and especially drinking something,” I informed the woody-smelling pine, as a kind of apology for pouring the milk on it.

I sank back into the comfy chair and appraised the room. I could have been anywhere. There was not even a window to look through to confirm or deny this was the North Pole. I swung my legs like I was on a swing or a toddler in an adult’s chair. I grew bored quickly as the excitement wore off. Besides, I wanted more answers. What was taking Hope so long? She said she’d be right back.

I rubbed my eyes and focused on the fire. Its flames encased two round logs. The warmth and gentle crackling of the fire made my eyelids heavy. How could I be tired already? I had slept all day. I tried to keep my eyes open, with no luck. I was almost asleep when I heard the door open behind me. I waited for Hope to walk in, but she didn’t. No one did. Instinct, like what told me not to eat the cookies, also warned me to keep my eyes closed. Besides, it would serve Hope right to see I had fallen asleep waiting so long for her to come back. Why was she standing there silently? Was it Hope? I almost sat up and turned around when I heard a voice. It wasn’t Hope.

“It worked. She ate the cookies. She’s done,” said a deep male voice that sounded very familiar.

“How did you know Hope would bring her here?” asked a female voice.

“Hope has to protect her mother, doesn’t she? And this is her office. So, makes sense. Had the same setup in her bedroom, too. Well, we took care of this one finally. He will be pleased.”

“Shouldn’t we make sure it worked this time?” asked the same female voice. It had to just be the two of them.

“Wasn’t supposed to kill her the first time. Just wanted to get Santa’s attention. I put enough poison in those cookies to kill all the reindeer in the stable. Plus, I added some to the milk. She must have eaten four cookies and drank all the milk. She won’t be a problem anymore. I will have to thank Hope someday for bringing her right to us. Boss is always one step ahead of everyone. He knew this would happen just like this. Let’s get out of here before Hope gets back, Sis—that is, if she didn’t eat any of the cookies.”

“Ha! How do they not know it’s us?” she asked.

“Idiots,” he said, and laughed. She joined in.

They shut the door, and I was alone again. Where was Hope? I was afraid to move in case they came back. Suddenly, it came to me whose voice that was. It was the elf from the mall handing out candy canes. Why couldn’t I picture his face? It made no sense. This was someone who made me sick, just tried to kill me, and I forgot what he looks like? What was going on?

Without any warning, snowflakes were swirling around me. I wasn’t flying in the air, though. This time, Hope appeared right before me and grabbed my hand. I opened my mouth to question her, but the room was gone before I could get anything out. The snow was circling me again, and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t talk. Frowning, Hope didn’t even look at me. What had just happened? Finally, my feet met solid ground again. We were in a large city, but not on a busy street. In fact, we were the only ones on this gloomy, snow-covered road.

“Did you eat any cookies?” Hope demanded, and sprinkled what looked like glitter on me.

“No. I—” I began, and put my hand in my pocket, touching the cookies. Her eyes followed.

She reached over, took them out of my pocket, threw them on the ground and stomped on them until they were just crumbs.

“Thank goodness. I’m relieved. Well, the cure won’t hurt you, but that was close. We can’t go back to my office or room again.”

“What is going on, and where are we?” I demanded.

“We are in New York now. Before, at the North Pole, we were right in the middle of a trap. I got my mother to safety, but I guess someone anticipated what I’d do. I went to my room after relocating Mom and found a plate full of cookies. I almost ate one! Good thing my green bag shot some snowflakes at me as a warning. I detected the poison in the cookies with a bit of glitter that I wouldn’t otherwise. This is bad, really bad,” Hope said, glancing behind us.

“I’m not going anywhere else with you until you tell me why people are trying to kill me,” I said, firmly planting my slippers in the cool, wet snow. “I overheard two elves talking, one a man, and one a woman he called ‘Sis.’ They thought I was dead. I recognized the man’s voice from the mall. So, why did he give me a poisoned candy cane to get Santa’s attention? And who is their boss who is one step ahead of you?”

“That’s the problem. I have no idea who at the North Pole is working for this boss. Can you tell me what the elves looked like?” Hope raised her eyebrows.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I didn’t see them, and I can’t remember anything about the elf from the mall.”

She sighed and glanced over her shoulder. “I’m sure it was a dose of magic that helped you forget. Nothing I can do about that now; later, I might be able to help you remember. But, we need to focus on the problem at hand. The fact is, they knew I’d go back there with you. Oh, this is worse than Santa thought. The problem is, all elves call their sisters ‘Sis.’ So that doesn’t narrow it down. Well, my main concern is keeping you safe and finding your grandma. Santa trusts me. You have to trust me. You do, don’t you?”

“I guess so,” I said and shrugged.

“I see why you don’t, but I am your only chance right now.” She was staring at the buildings down the street like she expected someone to jump out at us. “Short version of this story is, we do know who this ‘boss’ is. He wants your forest and ornaments and will stop at nothing to get them, including killing. He killed your father, he has your grandma—who you know is the current caretaker, right?” Hope asked. I just nodded so she continued, “Now, he wants you dead. There is magic he wants, and his greed and revenge rule him. There is no goodwill in him or his people. His parents used to be one of us. To sum this whole thing up, if this person had their way, you’d be dead, and so would Christmas. Santa thinks he can fix this mess, so maybe he can. Got it?” she breathlessly finished and grabbed my arm.

“I didn’t even know Santa was real until tonight!” I protested, and let her drag me instead of walking with her. “Now you want me to believe that you want to save me, bring my dead dad back to life, and save my grandma, too. Which, I don’t even know if she is in trouble. I won’t walk with you until I know more.”

“OK,” Hope said and turned to face me. She loosened her grip on me without letting go. “Your grandma is safe for now. Santa is sure they won’t kill her. . . yet. We need to go, Aimee. We aren’t safe here. They can’t be too far behind us.”

“Wait,” I said, looking around. I didn’t see anyone. “So this caretaker thing passes down through my family? And my grandma sees the ornaments come to life, too?” Hope nodded. That made sense so far. Then I asked, “Who is this guy you are supposed to find? Is it the bad man?”

“Yes, we need to find the bad man. We will talk more about this when we see Santa. We can’t stay here any longer and talk. Please, we need to keep moving.”

“OK, I get that, but I can’t walk around New York in my slippers. My feet are already soaked.”

“Hmmm.” She stared at me. “You want to be a dog?”

I almost laughed, but her serious expression made me think better of that response. “No, thank you.”

“Maybe later,” Hope said and shrugged. “How about some boots? Would that be OK?”

How did she go from making me a dog to that? I nodded.

She looked around again and then let go of me. She pulled a pair of red boots out of her small green bag. She handed them to me and stood waiting. I tugged off one wet slipper at a time and covered my foot with a boot. They were warm, fit perfectly, and matched my coat. I wasn’t sure what to do with my wet slippers. Before I could ask, she grabbed them from me and threw some glitter on them, which dried them up. She stuffed them into her green velvet bag. Out of her pocket she pulled a green hat and handed it to me. Then, she went back to digging through her bag. It was glittery, with small, green stones on it. Emeralds? Had her bag always been this fancy or had it changed? I wasn’t sure about that—or anything, right now.

She glanced up at me and smiled. I had not noticed how beautiful she was, but being pretty didn’t mean you were pretty on the inside, as my grandma would always say. I pushed my eyebrows down trying to take this all in. What about my grandma? Was she OK? What about my mom, brother, and sister? And my dad? How could we change what happened?


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