By Steve Finegan
“Destiny grants us our wishes, but in its own way, in order to give us something beyond our wishes.” — Goethe
Robby emerged from under his covers that Christmas Eve morning to a sensation much like static electricity playing on his skin and crackling at the roots of his hair. He could even smell it, like the tang of ozone before a summer thunderstorm, only this smell was wintery and made him shiver from head to toe.
He just knew it meant—snow! And soon. Never mind that it had rained during the night, and looked like more of the same today, with a few flakes mixed in just to get everyone psyched up. That was Portland. You had to be able to sniff out when a “wintery mix” was going to turn into the real thing—the kind of snow that piles up on the grass and pillows on the branches and even covers the wet black streets.
At breakfast, Robby’s finely tuned instincts were confirmed: the weather forecast in The Oregonian newspaper for December 24th called for off-and-on rain showers, but it also held out the tantalizing possibility of snow overnight.
And now, with lunch in the rearview mirror, Uncle Hank, the family’s walking, talking Farmer’s Almanac, had just paused from wrestling with the cranky old oil furnace and told Robby, “We gotta get this baby humming before you’re stink-deep in snow, ’cause it’s coming, and soon.” Robby had never known Hank to be wrong about the weather. His uncle credited his forecasting ability to all the shrapnel he’d taken in the Ardennes in the winter of ’44—tiny sharp splinters creeping up and busting out through the scar-pits on his shins, even all these years later.
Yep, thought Robby, tromping up from the basement, if Uncle Hank was right, it was shaping up to be an unusually snowy winter for soggy Portland, maybe even a white Christmas. And the way Robby felt right now it’d take a good foot of snow, no, two feet, to salvage this Christmas from the dumpster. He banged through the door and into the kitchen. “You called?” he boomed.
“Oh, there you are, Robby my boy,” said Mom. She was plastic-wrapping her Christmas cookies. “It’s a wonder you could hear me. You must be driving poor Hank nuts with that noise.”
Robby’d tuned his dad’s old Zenith console radio in the basement to Portland’s Mighty Ninety-Wonderful KISN 910 AM and cranked it up good and loud. “He loves it, Mom! Just ask him what he thinks of ‘Rocky Raccoon’?”
Mom shot him a look. “Loves the Beatles? Unlikely. Anyway, I need you to deliver these cookies to the Strombeckers’ and the O’Neills’ chop-chop.”
“I said chop-chop! It’s not like you didn’t know.”
Robby felt put out. “Okay, but Uncle Hank told me it’s gonna to snow a buttload.”
Mom glanced out the window. “Not today it isn’t, and watch your mouth. Now take these and get going.” The two cookie trays she stacked in his waiting hands were made of flimsy plastic, decorated with jolly little Santas and Rudolphs with bright red noses. The frosted-and-sprinkled sugar cookies under the plastic wrap—stars, Santas, and Christmas trees—smelled slightly burned. Robby bet if he picked one up and turned it over, the underside would be a bit too caramel brown. Not so much as to make it inedible, but … well, you could always lick the frosting off.
Behind them on the kitchen counter, Walter Cronkite, in black horn rims, delivered an Apollo 8 mission update on the rabbit-eared portable black & white TV in a way that managed to sound like he’d just beat feet around to the backdoor to give them the low-down. The gist of it was: the Apollo 8 space capsule, with three astronauts aboard, had safely completed its quarter-million mile journey, the first of its kind, and was even now orbiting the “vast, forbidding expanse” of the moon. And that’s the way it is …
“And don’t forget to wish them a Merry Christmas,” continued Mom. “You can’t just drop these off and leave. Got that? Time to start behaving like an adult.” She ran her fingers down his cheek, fresh from a mostly unnecessary shave, and abruptly dropped her hand to zip up his navy blue Sir Jac. “After all, you’re thirteen now—old enough to have the good sense to wear a real coat on a day like this.” Then her soft blue eyes crinkled wryly at the corners. “But that doesn’t mean you’re old enough to go drinking Ed O’Neill’s eggnog!”
“Okay, Mom. Jeez.”
“So? Don’t just stand there, get going!” She turned and surveyed the kitchen like a general on a battlefield. “I’ve got lasagna and, oh, everything else to cook for tonight. And if I don’t make every second count, it’ll be five and your father’ll be home and underfoot, just like Hank was before I sent him downstairs.”
Robby obediently pivoted and made his way down the hall toward the front door. His brother Bill met him there; actually, he was holding it open. “Hey, buttlips! Have fun in the rain.”
“Thought this was your job,” growled Robby.
“Was, when I was a little doofus like you. I got bigger fish to fry now.”
“Yeah, like your face. Better run down to Gilman’s Pharmacy for some Clearasil.”
“Ha ha. You’re crackin’ me up. Hey, when was the last time I broke your face!”
Bill made a grab for the delicately balanced cookie trays, but Robby scooted past him and out the door. It slammed with a heavy wooden thud.
“Missed, zit-head!” he shouted triumphantly.
Half expecting an attack from behind, Robby glanced back—no Bill in sight, just the Christmas tree lights softly glowing red and blue and green in the front window. Shifting his load to the crook of his arm, Robby marched down the porch stairs and out into the cold and drizzly afternoon. So it was supposed to snow. He prayed it did. Tonight. The very thought of it brought back the pleasant memory of that staticky, skin-tingling feeling from this morning. Better yet, snow might just make this feel like a real Christmas Eve. So far the whole season had been about as bah humbug as it could get. Worse than last year.
He snatched a cookie from under the plastic wrap, and licked the sugary frosting. He remembered how Christmas was back in the third grade and before that. Magic! From the first day of Christmas vacation to Christmas Eve, the night of their big family celebration—the night Santa Claus came.
He even remembered, in a vivid dreamy sort of way, one especially magical Christmas Eve, back when he still believed in all of it—the North Pole, elves, and especially Jolly Old St. Nick. Sometime during the night, he’d climbed out of bed, all goose bumps, to wait for Santa’s jingling sleigh and eight tiny reindeer to land on the roof. It was a long, sleepy wait with his nose squished up against the frosty window, while outside the moon drifted silently through mist and swaying bare branches, turning the world to shimmering silver and shadow. Eventually, still waiting for Santa, his ghost-pale arms propped on the sill, he’d fallen asleep in the light of that magical winter moon.
Robby paused mid-lick. Santa Claus! Holy crap! Santa was for kiddies. All that moonlight and Santa garbage was just a kid’s dream. Mom was right, time to grow up. Even Bill the zit was right—there were bigger fish to fry. He tossed the violated Santa cookie in a bush and walked on down Alameda Street.
Rounding the bend with Deadman’s Hill and the O’Neills’ house dead ahead, Robby suddenly thought of Amy O’Neill. Worse, he started to get the jitters thinking about what he’d say if he saw her. He’d had a thing for Amy ever since the sixth grade, when he used to walk her home from Saturday catechism class at Madeleine. Even if he dragged his feet on those walks, he had twenty-minutes, tops, side-by-side with Amy O’Neill. It was the highlight of his week. How lame is that?
Still, he smiled, remembering their weekly stop by Pixie Market to buy a fist-full of Bazooka Bubble Gum. Even on cold days, when the fresh gum broke your jaw, Amy managed to turn a hard block of Bazooka into a thick wad of pink goo in no time flat. And she could blow the most humongous bubbles, the kind that looked like pink flesh-eating aliens when they popped and wrapped themselves around her face right up to her eyebrows. Talk about busting a gut laughing. Sometimes they had to stop and sit on the curb to catch their breath.
Robby’s smile faded and his rain-wet cheeks flushed hot in the cold air. They used to share their Bazooka Joe comics with their heads so close they almost touched, so close he could secretly inhale the sweet, squeaky-clean scent of Amy’s Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, so close her flying honey-blonde hair tickled his face sometimes. “Amy, Amy, Amy,” he murmured. Even with stops along the way, those walks ended way too soon.
Amy had been pretty back then, but she was even prettier now, in every way imaginable. And though Robby still liked Amy—a lot—she’d moved on. It was as if he woke up one Saturday morning at the start of the seventh grade to find that Amy was super popular and had a boyfriend, Jimmy Hughes, the first of many (but not Robby), and that, after catechism, she walked home in urgent, whispered conversation with Lisa Palmer and Kelly Cunningham.
Robby and Amy hadn’t talked a whole lot since the start of eighth grade, although he was pretty sure she was the one who’d left a giant pink wad of Bazooka—he could tell by the achingly familiar smell—plastered to his school locker a couple of Fridays ago. That was it, just gum, no Bazooka Joe comic, no laughs, no lingering scent of baby shampoo, no nothin’. He should have been pissed. Instead, though he had no reason to, he hoped that wad of gum meant something.
And what if it did?
For chrissake! Robby was on his way to Amy’s house with a tray of his mom’s Christmas cookies! He felt like a gigantic dork. What would he say if she answered the door? “Cookie delivery man!” No way! Too lame.
Deep in thought, Robby crossed in front of the Stairs at the top of Deadman’s Hill … and stopped dead in his tracks. Something glittering-white had caught his eye. Something resting against the curb. On closer inspection, it was a tiny Christmas ornament, about the size of a golf ball. That it was here and unbroken amazed Robby. It should have been splintered into a million jagged pieces. He shifted his load of cookies so he could lean down and scoop it up off the wet asphalt. The ornament was made of white frosted glass, complete with a hook attached.
Once he got over his surprise that it’d survived a fall from a passing car or truck or whatever, he wondered how come it hadn’t rolled down Deadman’s. It was the steepest hill in the neighborhood, one of those hills that only the bravest kids would sled down, because at the bottom you found yourself doing a hundred miles an hour into crisscrossing traffic on all sides, and that included the Broadway Bus, which could cream you as it came down Regents Drive.
Robby raised the white ball by its hook for a better look. Its grainy, glittered surface gave it the appearance of a tiny icy world. It made him think of … He looked up into the solid mass of clouds, wondering where the moon was right now, amazed for the first time that men were up there orbiting it in a ship. “Wow!” he breathed, and held his palm under the ornament, careful now that it shouldn’t fall and break. Hey, a good luck charm for Christmas. He carefully pocketed the tiny globe and walked on.
“Much ink has been spilled glorifying the mystery of the moon,” said the rich British voice on the radio in response to an interview question from a news reporter. “Under the many names and guises I’ve already mentioned—perhaps the greatest of which is the Greek goddess Selene—the moon has awed and inspired storytellers and poets for countless centuries. Now she has drawn the human race out on this great adventure, the greatest advent—”
Normally, Robby would’ve thanked Ed O’Neill for turning off the radio in the middle of some old fuddy-duddy’s speech about the moon and poetry and all that crap, but today he’d been listening. He’d had no idea the moon was a she and had a name, a lot of names. Anyway, the Apollo story had kept him from having to carry on a conversation when he had no idea what to say.
“Blah, blah,” said Ed O’Neill, taking a seat. “That’s all you get on the news today. TV. Radio. Doesn’t matter. It’s all about Apollo and the moon and beating the Russians. Almost wouldn’t know there’s a war going on in Nam. You need another towel? Rain doesn’t take Christmas break.”
“No, sir. Hair’s dry. Thanks.”
Robby was sitting on the edge of the couch in the O’Neills’ living room, nibbling on one of his mother’s cookies, while Ed O’Neill sampled from the tray he’d just placed on top of the console, a mahogany radio-turntable stereo setup the size and shape of a small freight car.
“Your mother’s a wonderful cook, you tell her I said that,” said Ed O’Neill, munching.
Liar! “I will, Mr. O’Neill.”
“How’s your dad been? Had a good year?”
Hope so, he missed all my football games because of work. “He’s great.”
“How ’bout that brother of yours?”
“Yeah, how’s he?”
He’s a dickhead! “He’s great, too.”
Ed O’Neill nodded. “Want an eggnog?”
YES please! “No thank you.”
“Well, I wish Mrs. O’Neill was here to sample these groovy cookies—that’s what you kids say, isn’t it?—but she’s out doing some last-minute shopping with the kids.”
The letdown surprised Robby. “Oh. Sorry I missed her.”
A long pause while Ed O’Neill finished his cookie and dusted his hands. “But let me get Amy down here to say hi and Merry Christmas.”
“Amy? She’s here?” Hot blood flooded Robby’s cheeks. “I thought you said …” All at once his heart was fluttering like a bird trapped in a chimney and he coughed to clear his throat.
“I just remembered, Amy didn’t go.” Ed O’Neill stood and walked to the bottom of the staircase. “Amesy!” he shouted. “Hey, Ames, Robby’s here! Come say hi!”
“Who?” came the muffled reply.
“Robby Pryce from down the street! He’s here!”
Robby fidgeted nervously at the flat sound of that reply and of footsteps on hardwood somewhere up there behind a door. She was coming. He shot up from the edge of the couch, forgetting the Strombeckers’ cookie tray perched on his lap. He caught it in the nick of time.
Ed O’Neill turned to look at him. “Well, good seeing you, kiddo, have a great Christmas. Hope you get everything you want. Now, I’m going to have an eggnog whether you join me or not.” He laughed and left the room, headed toward the kitchen. Robby followed him, stopping at the foot of the stairs, not sure what to do next.
Robby looked up to see Amy gazing at him from the top of the stairs. “Hi,” he said.
She moved down, fingers fumbling with a button at her throat, her long shimmering hair half hiding her pretty downturned face like Peggy Lipton’s did on the Mod Squad. Robby breathed deeply; he could smell that baby shampoo smell from where he stood. Nice to know she still used it.
“Sooooo,” she said, pausing on the last step, “what’s up?”
Robby shifted from foot to foot, then held up the Strombeckers’ plastic-wrapped cookie tray. “Ah, I’m the cookie delivery man!” Dumbass! Why’d you say that? He noticed Amy was wearing nylons and a skirt and a white blouse. “You going somewhere?”
“Confession.” She rolled her pretty green eyes. “Dad’s orders.” He inhaled as she swept past. “You been already?”
“Maybe later.” In that moment, he would’ve dropped everything and run to confession with Amy. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned … with Amy O’Neill! Okay, she was better than pretty Peggy Lipton, she was beautiful, and he was ready to go up on the rooftop—to the spot where Ed O’Neill had placed a painted plywood Santa sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, one of which was a red-nosed Rudolf—and shout out to the world that he loved Amy O’Neill.
Behind her, in the big hallway, towered a Christmas tree at least twelve feet high. Strings of soft white twinkle lights spiraled up through its decorated branches like an unraveling galaxy whose dancing rays turned the tumbled pile of presents below into rough rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. Robby’s chest heaved with a silent sigh. Suddenly the room had taken on a golden glow, and Amy looked like a Christmas angel. All she needed was a magic wand to complete the picture.
“Janice’s having a party tonight,” she said, walking over to the cookie tray and poking around in it with her finger. “Her parents are anyway, upstairs. Janice’s party’s in the basement.”
Her words acted like a dimmer switch, turning down the magical golden glow that had filled the room, the whole house. Robby fumbled for the right reply: “Oh yeah, ah, Jack told me.”
“We have our family thing tonight, but—”
“I’m going,” said Amy, and paused. “With Becka.”
Blonde and blue-eyed Becky Maguire was Amy’s best friend and super popular at both Alameda and Madeleine, and even with the kids at Beaumont. Like most of his friends, Robby had admired Becky from a distance, but he only had eyes and ears for Amy right now.
“That’s … great,” he said.
“Uh-huh.” Amy pronounced the two syllables slowly, separately, meaningfully.
But meaningful in what way? wondered Robby, not daring to hope that Amy wanted to meet up with him at the party, but daring anyway. He blushed, knowing how hard he was staring at her.
“Look, I wanted to ask you something …” She trailed off.
Suddenly the golden glow and the Christmas angel were back with a vengeance, and Robby was crawling with goose bumps—the good kind.
“Never mind,” said Amy, smiling at the floor.
“Never mind what?” he managed to say, suddenly firm in the belief that Amy O’Neill was actually flirting with him. In spite of his hammering heart, he did his level best to sound halfway casual: “Why’d you stick that wad of gum to my locker a couple of weeks ago?”
Amy tossed her shimmering hair and laughed. “Just cuz.”
The Stombeckers’ cookies nearly slipped out of Robby’s trembling hands. Ohmygawd! She likes me!
Without another word, Amy reached into the console and clicked on the turntable. A record, a forty-five by the sound of it, dropped and things started to happen inside the freight car. A moment later, Paul McCartney was singing “Hey Jude.”
Amy turned to face Robby, hands clasped in front, hair in place again, like a good Catholic girl waiting to take communion.
Robby moved closer to her, no longer certain what they’d been talking about, certain only that he was ready to take Amy-the-Christmas-angel into his heart, ready to lift her face with his two hands and kiss her like he’d always imagined doing, but had never dared.
“Um, okay, here it is …” said Amy abruptly.
Suddenly the golden glow dwindled in the late afternoon gloaming. In place of an angel was a girl, her eyes fixed on the floor, the nervous edge to her voice breaking the spell of the moment.
“Ah, yeah?” said Robby thickly.
She hesitated, then suddenly looked up. “You’re friends with Mike, right? I remember you came to Sally’s with him and Jack Whatshisname a few weeks ago.”
Robby shifted his cookie tray. For a minute there, he’d forgotten he was carrying it. “So …”
“He like anyone?”
It wasn’t so much Amy’s words, but the quivering, eager way she’d said them that ripped away what remained of the warm glow like an icy east wind. Oh you stupid idiot! How could you be so blind? She likes Mike! Unlike a moment before, Robby could hear it in her voice, see it in her glinting green eyes and in the way she was standing. He could feel the vibe. He didn’t even bother to kid himself that she’d asked for Becky’s sake. He knew what Amy had meant now, what she was up to. A trade—Becky for Mike. Just old friends helping each other out. How could he have been such a moron?
All at once Robby felt as if he’d eaten an entire batch of cookies and the whole wad had turned to stone in the pit of his stomach. “Jeez, I don’t know who Mike likes …”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Amy, almost breathlessly. “Could you tell him about the party tonight?”
Why don’t you tell him! “Yeah. Sure,” he said, feeling a little breathless himself, and so, so stupid. He had to get out of here. “Look, I-I gotta go. The Strombeckers are expecting me …”
“Okay,” she said. “But you’ll remember to tell Mike, right? And don’t forget, Becka’ll be there.”
Whoopee! “Yeah, sure. See ya.”
“See ya, bye. Oh, Merry Christmas.”
Fat chance! “Merry Christmas.”
His face on fire, Robby turned and made for the door as “Hey Jude” faded out.
Out on the rain-wet sidewalk, Robby stood for a moment blinking stupidly as his stinging eyes adjusted to the late afternoon dusk. Magic hour, that’s what his dad called this time of day. Some magic hour. The girl of his dreams—formerly that is—had just asked, more like begged, him to play go-between for her and Mike. One of his best friends! Just as he, Robby, was about to … Well, screw that!
It wasn’t even five o’clock, yet it was dark enough that most of the houses up and down Alameda were lighting up in Christmas reds and blues and greens—some steady, some flashing on and off. A few houses were even strung with what looked like twinkling icicles or crystal. But to Robby it was a dull light show, robbed of any possible magic by what had just happened to him on the other side of that door.
Worse, what seemed like a horde of plastic waving front-yard Santas, peeping elves, and grinning snowmen looked like they were having a good yuck at his expense. For chrissake! He’d almost tried to kiss her! Clutching the Strombeckers’ cookie tray like a Frisbee he was about to send into orbit, Robby moved away from the O’Neills’ house at a fast walk. And not once did he look back to see if Amy was watching him from a window.
Ignoring the cold drizzle and his stinging eyes, Robby picked up his pace. He walked right past the Strombeckers’ brightly-lit front porch—no way could he bear to smile and say “Merry Christmas” for anyone else, not till he cooled down, if he ever cooled down. Of all the stuck-up, conceited things to do to him. Becky, my ass. Amy knew how he felt; she had to know. She knew! The cookie tray nearly made its trip into low earth orbit right then and there, but something inside made him hold off. Instead, he dragged his sleeve across his eyes and broke into a run—up Regents Drive, past the run-down community church, and down Mason Street toward busy Thirty-Third Avenue and Wilshire Park.
Robby pounded to a stop at the corner. Thirty-Third was a blur of cars heading home or who-knew-where for Christmas Eve, their tires sizzling on the damp asphalt. At the first gap in the stream of traffic, he dashed across the street and into the shadows gathering under the widely spaced Douglas firs and other trees bare of leaves—his refuge.
Robby moved quickly across the squishy outfield grass between the two baseball diamonds. He stopped under a tall fir and looked around through a warm cloud of his own breath. A few shapes moved in and around the open building in the middle of the park. The sound of laughter and barking caught this attention. A little girl was skipping down the path toward the warmly lit houses on Skidmore, followed by what looked like an enormous black Lab. The girl’s happy shrieks sounded high and excited—a kid-at-Christmas sound. They must be heading home, thought Robby, looking back over his shoulder toward Thirty-Third. After all, it’s just about dinnertime. He rubbed his stomach, relieved to discover that the hard lump there had melted away somewhere along the line. He was halfway hungry.
He started to turn for home. Stopped. With an angry flush, he thought of Amy and how she’d used and humiliated him, how she’d snuffed out the golden glow. Naw! He didn’t want to go home. He didn’t want company.
Robby scanned the dark fringes of the park. That’s where he’d go, up there by the wire fence, and just drop down on the wet grass, in the dark, and … and … He glanced at the plastic-covered cookie tray. To hell with the Strombeckers! He’d gorge himself on his mom’s half-burnt, and probably soggy, cookies. That’d be a feast fit for this Christmas Eve.
Wait! What’s that?
For a moment Robby thought he saw what looked like a tiny red star, fallen to earth and twinkling in the shadows among the trees. Peering harder, he saw it was a flickering, furnace-orange glow. Very close to the fence. A fire?
“No way,” he murmured.
Then again … It sure looked like a fire of some kind. He sniffed the cold, rain-washed air and caught what he thought might be a whiff of wood smoke among the smells of wet grass, moldy leaves, and evergreen. Who the hell would build a fire in the park? Dumb question. He knew lots of kids who’d do it. Jeff Reid came to mind, and Danny Duncan, aka, Pyro. But on Christmas Eve? And such a tiny, steady blaze. Pyro liked big fires. Bonfires. Like the one they built on that beach on Government Island last summer when Pyro’s dad had taken them boat camping.
Curious, Robby moved toward the flickering light. All around him, tree trunks rose like tall pillars out of the darkness, propping up the cloudy sky.
At the path, he stopped for a closer look. A slight figure was bent over something that held the flickering glow of a tiny camp fire deep in its heart—a glow that put a rosy blush on the slender-looking hands warming over it—a coffee can fire! Robby’d learned to make one of those in the Boy Scouts, or was it the Cub Scouts? He couldn’t remember.
Robby stood for a minute gazing at the huddled figure. For some reason his heart was thudding away in his chest and his mouth was dry. He looked at the building. He couldn’t see who was under the covered area from here, if anyone was there now. Everything was pretty quiet all of a sudden.
When he looked back, he was surprised to see that whoever was by the fire had looked up and was waving. He waved back. Why’d I do that? Hesitating for a moment longer, he slipped the cookie tray from one arm crook to the other and cast a glance back toward Thirty-Third. At last he crossed the path and approached the miniature blaze.
The waver stopped and rose. It was a girl! As he moved closer, Robby could see her more clearly in the flickering fire glow. He didn’t know her. Had never seen her before in his life. She looked to be about his age, maybe a little older: a pale heart-shaped face framed by dark shoulder-length hair. Strangely, her hair wasn’t all limp and wet, but glistened as if the rain had barely touched it and run off. Dark circles, like faded bruises, were visible beneath her large, shining eyes, which were maybe light blue or gray. In spite of her slight and somewhat tattered appearance, she held her chin up and was very pretty, regal-looking even, like a princess fallen on hard times. He pictured her barely escaping a band of vicious Viking raiders as her father’s castle burned in the night. Robby, you read way too many comic books, he told himself.
It was hard to see the rest of the girl beneath the faded black leather jacket zipped up tight over a mud-spattered white ankle-length dress—or was it a nightgown? Robby wasn’t sure. Most surprising was the sight of her wet, shoeless white feet. They looked so cold on the mushy grass. Fact was she looked kind of like a hippy chick, but somehow he was positive she wasn’t. Even hippy chicks wore shoes in the cold.
The girl looked like she had every reason to be miserable sitting out here in the rain and cold, a lot more reason to feel awful than Robby did, but she wasn’t frowning. In fact she was smiling.
“Hey,” he began, “you’d better be care—”
“Hi,” she interrupted in a soft, slightly husky voice that sounded like the cold was getting to it, although her hi was steady, casual even, and there was no sign of chattering teeth.
“Ah, I’m, ah, Robby. Hey, if the guy who lives on the other side of this fence sees this fire …” He stopped and stared at Diana’s bare feet again. “What are you doing out here all alone? In the rain!”
“Keeping warm. Isn’t that kind of obvious.” She held out her hand and glanced up through the trees. “Anyway, it’s barely sprinkling now.” She showed him her mostly dry palm. “See.”
Robby just couldn’t understand how she could be so, so … serene, if that was even the right word for the way she was acting. Just like a princess, he thought. “It’s gotta be thirty-something degrees! And shouldn’t you be home on Christmas Eve?”
“Shouldn’t you?” said the girl. The corners of her pretty mouth drew up and she flashed Robby the brightest smile he’d ever seen.
“Look, you’re not supposed to build fires in the park. The cops will drive through and … What’s so funny?” he cried. The girl was staring at him—hand over her mouth, shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter—as if he were Groucho Marx or maybe one of those guys who gets it socked to him on Laugh-In. It was like she didn’t have a care in the world. He was beginning to suspect she was messed up on something.
Robby looked around. If anyone was in the building, they would have heard his raised voice for sure. But no one appeared to investigate. They must’ve taken off.
He moved closer to Diana and whispered like they were accomplices, “Are you, ah, okay?”
She nodded. “Why would the cops come along and take my fire away. It’s all I’ve got.”
“Well, they’ll … they’ll put out the fire and take you downtown.”
“To a nice warm place, I hope,” she said and laughed. “And something to eat would be nice,” she added without laughing.
“Forget the fire!” cried Robby. “Are you serious? You’re completely homeless?”
Diana nodded, like it was just one of those things that happened to people.
“How did you get here?”
She shrugged. “Does it matter? Tomorrow, or sooner, I’ll be gone, so you don’t have to call the cops.”
That hurt. “I wasn’t gonna do that!” said Robby. “I’d never do that!”
“You want to sit down?” she said suddenly. “You look cold and wet and hungry yourself.
“Ah, me? Heck, I’m fine. Hey, look, I’ve got an idea. You can come home with me.” Robby had no idea why he’d said it, but once it was out, it sounded so right. It felt even righter. “Yeah, we’re having a feast tonight. You can eat lasagna till you pop and sleep in a real bed or at least on a warm rug on the floor. We’ve got plenty of sleeping bags. Dry ones.”
“I’d like that very much,” said Diana and heaved a sigh. “But I can’t.”
“But why?” said Robby.
“I just can’t. Let it go at that.”
“You a run-away or something?”
“But it’s supposed to snow tonight!” groaned Robby. “What then? You’ll freeze to death.”
Diana shrugged again. “I’ve been out in the cold on my own for a long time now. Cold doesn’t bother me, not really.”
Suddenly Robby decided he didn’t want it to snow. He started to pray that it wouldn’t.
“But I won’t argue,” she added, “a little food would be nice.”
“Hey, I almost forgot …” Robby flourished the cookie tray. “I’ve got cookies, lots of ’em. More than enough for the both of us.”
He thought Diana would rub her hands together at the sight of all those cookies, but she just bowed her head and said in a quiet voice, “It’s very nice of you to share.”
“It’s nothing,” said Robby, handing her the tray. “I was supposed to deliver them to the Strombeckers’ but fortunately I didn’t. I’m tempted to go back and get the one I did deliver. No one really cares about them.”
“I do,” said the girl.
They both stood there saying nothing for an uncomfortable—for Robby—moment. The girl looked completely at ease.
“Fact is,” said Robby, “I was gonna find a place to sit and pig out on them myself. So why not here with you?”
“Then sit, please,” said Diana, sounding nothing like a kid and taking her seat, legs crossed, on the wet grass in front of the tiny fire. Funny, it was cozy-warm and flickering as brightly as when Robby first walked up.
When they were both seated, Diana carefully folded back the plastic wrap and passed the tray to Robby first. He took a Christmas tree with green frosting and white and red sprinkles, but didn’t bite into it right away. He waited, feeling the cold wet seep through his jeans, while the girl selected a red Santa cookie and inspected both sides with a big smile. “It’s beautiful,” she pronounced.
Robby looked at his cookie. Beautiful? Actually it was now that he thought of it: beautifully delicious-looking, and dry after all; and now that he had it in hand, he realized he was starving to death.
He cleared his throat.
“All right,” she said, as if reading his mind, and nibbled the edge with her eyes closed tight. “Mmmmmmmmm,” she moaned.
With that Robby tore into his cookie. Mmmmmmmmm was right. This was the best tasting cookie—best tasting anything—he’d ever eaten. After bolting the first bite, he slowed down and savored the sugary vanilla sweetness beneath the frosting and sprinkles. He even thought that the slightly burned bottom made it taste even better. After wolfing down the last bite, he licked the crumbs and last traces of goo off his fingers and reached for another. He really should have taken that tray with him when he left the O’Neills’.
When they’d finished every last cookie, Robby sighed and gazed at the fire; the mellow scent of it singed his nostrils like the Dutch Masters cigars Uncle Hank smoked. “That was the best,” he murmured.
Even Diana was sucking her fingers one at a time.
“How do you keep that fire going without feeding it,” he asked sleepily. He was comfortable even on the wet grass.
Diana glanced at him. “Oh, this and that. When you’re on your own, you learn what works.”
“Anyway,” she said, “you’ve only been here for ten minutes or so.”
“Really? Seems longer.” Actually, it seemed like a lot longer. Robby paused, looked at Diana. “An hour ago, I heard some guy on the radio say that Diana was one of the names for the moon back when it, I mean, back when she was a goddess.”
Diana smiled. “Yeah, I’ve heard that, too.”
“So why are you on your own, anyway?” asked Robby.
She placed the empty cookie tray carefully beside him. “I told you, it’s just the way it is with me.”
“Don’t you have to come in out of the cold and rain sometimes? Anyway, you look so much like a …”
“Vagabond?” she finished his sentence with arched eyebrows. “Or did you mean tramp?”
“I mean important. You look too important. Too special. Too much like you belong to someone, with someone. Ah, I’m tired. I babble when I’m tired.”
“Yes you do.”
“Look, I’ll come right out and say it, but don’t laugh, okay?”
“Okay,” said Diana.
She crossed her heart.
“Okay, here goes: when I first saw you I thought you looked like a princess.”
Diana uttered a husky chuckle. It sounded kind of sexy.
“Hey, you promised!”
“Sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay. Sounds stupid, I know. Princess. Ha!”
“I didn’t say it sounded stupid.”
“I’m always serious. But I’m also a hopeless romantic and a dreamer. Princess, now that’s very romantic.” She smiled.
“You’re weird, you know that?” said Robby. “Hey, I don’t mean that in a bad way. Suddenly he looked around. “Where is everybody? I’ve never seen this park so empty this early, even on Christmas Eve.”
“You should probably get going yourself,” said Diana. “You have a family to go home to, and it may be later than you think. Thank you for sharing your cookies. I won’t forget your kindness.”
“Now you’re starting to sound all formal, like my mom and dad do sometimes.”
“But you do have to go home,” said the girl, lowering her head and glancing up at him.
There’s the princess again! thought Robby. Now it was his turn to look down at the grass. “Yeah, I guess …” He slipped his hands in his jacket pockets. “Hey!”
“What?” asked Diana.
“I almost forgot.” Robby produced the little ornament and held it out in his palm. “I found this today at the top of Deadman’s Hill.”
Diana’s eyes were suddenly bright. “It’s so beautiful.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
She looked up, and Robby followed her gaze. Directly overhead, floating between tattered fingers of cloud, was the shining crescent moon. When had it stopped raining? When had the clouds broken up? “Yes,” she said. “Very beautiful.”
They were quiet for a moment.
At last, without a word, Robby scooted closer to her. “So you want to see it?”
“Oh, yes.” Almost a whisper.
Robby held up the tiny trinket by the hook and slowly circled it with his finger. “You know, it does look like the moon. And you know something else? There are men up there right now orbiting the moon. Astronauts. They’re broadcasting pictures and everything. But I guess everybody knows that, right?”
Diana didn’t answer, but as she leaned in closer, her gaze fixed on the orb dangling by its hook, it seemed to take on a pale shimmering glow, almost identical to the moon above.
Robby’s breath caught in his throat, partly because of the ornament’s unnatural brightness, but mostly because of Diana’s skin-prickling nearness. Somehow she smelled like pine boughs and … and apple blossoms and Amy’s baby shampoo and the Sandy River on a berry-scented summer afternoon, and every other smell he’d ever known and loved. And suddenly Robby knew that this was it! Magic. Just like on that moon-pale Christmas Eve night when he was little and waiting for Santa, only so much more … magical. He felt a breath of wind brush his lips and cheeks, which tingled as if the girl were tracing something there with the lightest touch of her finger.
Robby suddenly couldn’t sit still. Handing Diana the tiny Christmas jewel, he stood up and paced back and forth. She watched him quietly, her wide eyes shining with reflected moonlight.
Breathing excitedly, he stopped in front of her for a moment, about ready to say something, then resumed pacing. Actually, he was having a hell of a time fighting off an urge to go down on one knee before Diana and pledge his life to her, like a knight. It was crazy weird, but it felt fantastic, and so right—as if he could really do it, protect her, that is. As if anything were possible tonight. He stopped again in front of the girl, trembling hands clasped behind his back to hold them still. “No,” he murmured, shaking his head.
“No what?” asked Diana.
No way could he just walk away from her. It was out of the question. No way! He could barely speak, but at last he managed to ask, “Are you sure you won’t come home with me?”
A sad little smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. “I’ve told you, I can’t do that.”
That did it! If she wouldn’t come home with him, he’d have to bring the feast to her.
“Look,” said Robby urgently, going down on one knee in the mushy grass, just as he’d imagined, and grasping Diana by her shoulders, which felt thin through her damp leather jacket. “Just wait here, okay?”
She didn’t seem the least bit bothered by his suddenly taking hold of her; she never took her eyes off of his. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“If you won’t come to the feast, I’ll bring a feast to you. I don’t live that far away, I’ll be back in fifteen minutes, twenty max.”
Diana tilted her head to one side, her dark hair draping her shoulder, her eyebrows knitted together, her pale eyes searching his, hard now, as if reading something there. At last she smiled, a flash of perfect white teeth that made his fluttering heart feel as if it would burst from his throat and fly off into the night. “You’d do that, for me?” she asked.
“Just you wait and see!” he cried, fighting back an almost overwhelming desire to take the girl in his arms. At last he jumped to his feet. “Wait right here!”
“What about your ornament?” she said.
“Keep it for me. I’ll be back. Promise!”
An instant later he was running on light, racing feet toward Thirty-Third. Seriously, he hardly felt he was touching the squishy grass or the path. And why not? There was magic in the cold, shimmering air. Real magic. Once-in-a-lifetime magic, maybe.
In what seemed like a second or two, he was standing at the curb, ready to cross Thirty-Third. It was in that moment that he heard what sounded something like, yes, like the sweetly vibrating strings of a violin, played outside under the wide lonely sky and maybe coming from the far side of the park or even blocks away—a happy-sad music that soared and plunged on the night breeze. In that instant, his eyes stinging, his throat burning, his heart swelling painfully in his chest, Robby whirled and looked back, searching out the flickering glow of a tiny campfire, and Diana.
Up ahead in the shadows there was no campfire, no huddled figure. Nothing. Robby swallowed. He stopped and searched the mucky grass around the fence with both hands. Without the fire, he had to grope in the dark, which made it impossible to reassure himself that he’d sat beside Diana, on this very spot, just moments before. At last, among musty-smelling leaves and twigs, his groping hand came across the cookie tray with the loose plastic wrap still clinging to it, and on it sat the tiny ornament, barely visible in the dark.
He had just been here.
They had just been here.
It had been real, he assured himself.
Dropping down on both knees, he lifted the tiny ball by the hook and held it high. Above, thick clouds were gathered as if they’d never parted, and there was no sign of the shimmering crescent moon. Robby stared up at the ornament, willing it to glow, as if by moonlight or … The fire! She couldn’t have just … She had to be here, somewhere!
“Hey!” he shouted, returning the ornament to his pocket. “Diana!” He rose and looked over the fence into the neighboring backyard; then turned in a complete circle, his desperate eyes searching everywhere. At last his shoulders heaved and fell, and he sighed, wreathing himself in a billowing ghost-pale cloud.
Was it possible? Had Diana been … a dream? A hallucination? A figment of his imagination? Was it possible? His skin crawled at the thought, and he cradled his head in his hand. No!
He’d just had the most indescribable moment of his life. Words like amazing, wonderful, and magical didn’t really do it justice. It was all those things, and yet what struck him most now was how real it had all been—how inspired and wired he’d felt, and still felt, although the feeling was fading—and how badly he’d wanted to give everything good he had inside himself, all of it, for the sake of this strange girl he didn’t even know. He groped for words to describe it. Was it love? Maybe, yeah, but he didn’t know for sure. Whatever it was, it’d made him feel twenty feet tall. Like he could do anything. He’d never experienced anything like it—ever! And on Christmas Eve!
That was the most amazing part.
He stood there for a moment longer, then dropped his hands and lifted his face to gaze around him at the familiar park. “Am I crazy or something?” he blurted. “Of course she was real! She ditched me is all! She ditched me!” He laughed, but not for long.
He turned and stared at the spot where the little coffee-can fire had blazed just moments before. He sniffed the air, certain he could still catch the scent of it, and of apple blossoms and … But there was nothing to smell.
After that he stared in silence.
A smattering of rain made him blink, jerk his head up. Jeez, how long had he been standing there staring off into the dark? A minute? Ten minutes? Longer? He looked around. Heard girlish voices in the building; they were singing a Christmas song—“Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”
Shrugging off the heavy, sleepy feeling that seemed to drag at his legs, he lifted the empty cookie tray and gazed at it. Funny, he didn’t remember eating them, but he could still taste the sweet caramelly flavor of half-burnt cookie. He must’ve just done it without thinking about it. No wonder his mom said he walked around with his head in the clouds half the time. He needed to walk, shake out his legs. That would wake him up and clear his head.
He stomped around a Douglas fir a few times. Yeah, that’s better!
Hey, what time is it? He needed to get home for the Christmas Eve party. “Hope I haven’t missed it.” He thought of the astronauts’ broadcast from Apollo 8 as it circled the moon. His whole family was planning to watch it on TV before their big lasagna dinner, and then presents.
Yep, he sure hoped he hadn’t missed it.
He started to sing “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” under his breath, then with a flick of his wrist sent the cookie tray spinning off into the darkness, as straight up into the air as possible. It didn’t come down. Oh no, it’s stuck in a tree. Wait a minute! Maybe it made it all the way to the moon! He laughed louder and longer than his stupid joke called for, mainly because it felt good to do it. The words of “Winter Wonderland” faded into humming, and before he realized it he was whistling “Hey Jude.”
So what if he had missed the party (although his mom might not feel that way). The moon and Apollo 8 were up there somewhere right now, probably just overhead, and he felt great. He stood a moment longer, looking around, inhaling the fresh air. The drizzly rain fell steadily now, tingling his wet skin, and blurring and softening all the lights in the park and all along Thirty-Third. The golden glow was back, the old Christmas magic. He had no idea why it had returned, except that it had nothing to do with Amy O’Neill, or Becky McGuire for that matter. He grinned and snorted at the now distant memory of being so mad at Amy, so hurt by her—it might as well have been a hundred years ago. What was that all about, anyway?
Still whistling “Hey Jude,” he made this way along the path toward Thirty-Third and home. His feet felt light now that he’d shaken off the last of that weird sleepiness, like ruffling a dusty gray cobweb out of his hair. He picked up his pace, jumping into the air a few times to swat at low-hanging branches, laughing each time he sent down a flurry of fat raindrops and crackling leaves. He felt like a little kid waiting for Santa Claus, but in his case it was like he was waiting for something to happen … but he had no idea what. He just knew it was good—no, great—no, it was fantastic! Was it snow? He wasn’t a hundred percent sure, but he didn’t think so.
End Part I