Holly clutch Christina’s arm as they rode side-by-side in her dad’s pickup truck. Christina smiled back at her. The warmth of happiness filled her like a mug of hot chocolate on a cold, snowy day. Holly leaned over to lay her head on Christina’s shoulder. The last few months with Christina and the villagers were better than any wish or dream Holly ever had.
She loved the villagers and visited them as many times as Christina would allow. She closed her eyes to bring up all their faces and tried to remember their names. Her favorites were the ten-year-old twins, Kel and Uda.
She felt sorry for Kel and Uda who had begged and pleaded to go along. “If my grandparents or my uncle’s family saw you, they’d keel over and die. And Clara Bell, my grandma’s cat, would chase you around and eat you up.”
“But we’ll be good,” Kel pleaded.
“And we like cats,” Uda added.
Kel placed his fists on his waist and glared at Uda. “How can you say you like cats when you’ve never seen one?”
“I’ve seen plenty.”
“No you haven’t.”
“Yes, I have.”
Holly fell to their persistence. She attempted to convince their father, Baldur, to allow them to come along. But his firm “No” led Holly to bid Kel and Uda a Merry Christmas and made a hasty retreat. She ran to the kitchen to help Christina pack her home-made Christmas cookies to take along to the party.
The truck radio played, ‘Over the River and Through the Woods’, while they were enroot to her grandparent’s house for a Christmas night dinner. In Ian’s nervousness, he sang a very off key version of the song.
“Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go. The horse knows the way …”
“… to carry the sleigh –.”
Holly groaned. “You’re hurting my ear drums. Sometimes dads are so weird”. Holly fret that his bad singing would push Christina away. Holly hoped her father wouldn’t take too long to ask Christina to marry him.
Christina bit her bottom lip, but smiled at Ian.
Holly knew that her cousin, Marley, will be there tonight. Holly remembered what Marley had said. “If Uncle Ian waits too long Christina will find another guy.”
But they met three months ago. How long did it take adults to fall and love and get married? She knew her father loved Christina. They were always holding hands and kissing and whispering secrets to each other. Didn’t that mean they were love?
Maybe she should ask Grandma, but not during the Christmas dinner. Grandma could tell her dad to hurry and ask Christina to marry him so she wouldn’t find another guy.
Holly took a deep breath and smelled the chocolate and peppermint candy she and Christina had made for tonight’s dinner. The wrapped tin box made the treat special. Baking treats with Christina was now her newest Christmas memory. Marley said that Christmas memories were the best.
“What are you grinning about?” Ian asked.
“Grampa likes pretty girls. He’s going to really like Christina because she is the prettiest. Don’t you think she is the prettiest, dad?”
Christina gave a small tsked, “I bet you say that to all your old girlfriends.”
“Dad didn’t have any old girlfriends.”
Ian snapped a stern look to Holly.
Is saying a man had no girlfriends to his new girlfriend a bad thing? Again, will this affect any chances for Christina to want to marry her dad? Holly decided to talk to Marley about this.
Holly glanced out the window and spotted a girl and a boy throwing snowballs at each other. That scene made her think about Kel and Uda. Those two could be very naughty. She hoped they wouldn’t cause her dad to not ask Christina to marry him. Sometimes her dad rolled his eyes and shook his head when those two got into mischief.
Ian cleared his throat. “Here we are.”
Christina leaned forward with a nervous look on her face.
Holly patted her arm. “Don’t worry Christina. My Uncle Jake and my cousin Marley will be here. You already met them. You’ll like everyone else.”
Ian winked. “And everyone will love you, guarantied.”
“Sure – the girlfriend,” Christina said in a nervous tone. She took a deep breath. “Thank you, Holly.” She touched Holly’s face. “Don’t worry about me. This is your special day; your eighth birthday. I am very happy to be spending the day with you and your family. It’s just – I hope your family will accept me.”
“Are you kidding? They will be crazy about you. Just like me and Holly are. Right kiddo?”
They got out of the truck and walked to the door. “Grandpa put up a lot of Christmas light this year. Their house looks like a gingerbread house,” Holly said as she stopped to look around and admire all the decorations.
“They must have worked really hard to get all of this done. I thought they were out of town visiting a relative. Maybe they had help from Santa’s elves,” Christina said.
Ian and Holly laughed at her joke. Now that they knew the secret of the village, the thought of Nils or Baldur helping put up these lights was comical. “We did this before they left and in warmer weather. I’m afraid I was the elf who had to help,” Ian said. “I just hope they don’t ask this elf to help take all those lights down.”
The front door opened. Her grandparents welcomed them in with hugs and kisses. Ian introduced Christina. “Ho, ho, Jake was right. She is a lovely lady.”
Holly latched onto Christina’s elbow and watched her turn red. She let go, kicked off her boots and strolled into the living room while her grandparents talk with Christina.
The smell turkey and other delicious things her grandma had cooked wafted through the air. Evergreen boughs and lights strung across the archway of every room. She spotted the bulging Christmas stockings hung on the fireplace mantle. The Christmas tree stood in its usual place in the corner of the dining room. Grandma liked to put the tree to observe from the kitchen.
Grandma held Christina’s hand. “I’m so sorry we didn’t get to meet you at Jake’s house at Thanksgiving. We were unexpectedly called away to my brother’s house.”
“I was sorry not to meet you as well,” Christina replied.
A deep voice called out from the kitchen. “There! I told you Christina was real mother.” Uncle Jake walked into the room.
Jake turned to Holly. “And a happy late birthday to you.” He held a present in his hand while he spun it back and forth like a steering wheel.
Holly took the present and hugged him. “Thank you, Uncle Jake. My birthday was only two days ago, so it’s not too late.”
The sound of feet thundering up the basement stairs drew her attention. Her cousins Marley and Mark and her Aunt Kelly charged into the room to greet them. They all talked at once and Holly hoped they did not scare Christina with all the noise. She felt reassured when she saw her smile.
Mark stepped in front of Holly. “What did you get for Christmas?”
“Lots of good stuff. Nicholas…I mean Santa Claus, was very good to me.”
“Did Santa visit your house?”
“Oh, you can say he did.” Christina said with a chuckle.
“What a beautiful sweater,” Grandma said as she smoothed her hand on Holly sweater and gave her another hug. “Did Santa bring you that?”
Holly took hold of the bottom of the sweater and pulled it out. She looked at the deep forest green yarn, mesh. Narrow bands of maroon yarn wrapped around the bottom, sleeve cuffs and collar. “I got this from Ola and –.” Holly caught herself and gave Christina a cautious glance. She stopped speaking about the villagers before the magic would prevent her to speak any further.
Christina smiled back and gave her a wink of reassurance.
“Who’s Ola, Ian?” Grandpa asked in a suspicious tone.
“Well, she’s –.” he stopped in mid sentence as Christina spoke up.
“Don’t you remember, Ian? Ola was the name of the woman behind the counter who sold you that sweater?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s right.”
Jake frowned. “Wait, wait. You told Holly the name of the woman who sold that to you and not tell her Santa made it.”
“I guess that slipped out when she opened the present.”
“Well, that certainly took the magic out of that present.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that, dear brother. There most definitely lots of magic at our Christmas morning.”
“Shhh, dad.” Holly hissed.
Before anyone else had a chance to continue their line on Christmas magic, Aunt Kelly took hold of Christina’s arm and led her into the living room. “How did Ian manage to snag such a beautiful woman?” Everyone else followed them.
Ian entered the room. “Hey, what do you mean? How did I manage to snag her?” Ian raised his eyebrows in a comical look and put his fingertips on his chest. “Naturally, she was attracted to my good looks and charms from the start.”
“Oh, yeah, right Ian. And Santa Claus is real.” Uncle Jake said sarcastically as he laughed and slapped Ian on the back.
“Uncle Jake. How did you know Santa Claus was real and — oops.”
Uncle Jake groaned and put his hand over his mouth. He bent down to Holly’s level. “Of course Santa Claus is real. Kids who don’t believe never get anything for Christmas.”
Holly watched Christina and her dad to check their reactions. Her dad shook his head.
Aunt Kelly bent down to Holly. “Uncle Jake was being silly – again.”
Holly’s cousin, Mark jumped into the crowd. “Grandpa, guess what I got for Christmas. Take a guess. Go on.”
“Ooh, let me guess. A G.I. Joe with the kung fu grip?”
Mark laughed. “No. I got a dog.”
Kelly tsked and shook her head. “I couldn’t resist. It’s a little Springer spaniel. It is the cutest thing.”
“Yeah,” Jake said to Ian while imitating a spastic little girl, “it was the cutest thing.”
Marley folded her arms. “Yeah, cute. It just jumps around, poops and sleeps. It’s a pain like my little brother.”
“You know you like him,” Mark said to Marley and then turned to his grandfather. “I brought her along with us. Can I bring him in?”
“Well, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. He and Clara Bell might not get along.” He turned to Kelly. “Will she get too cold in the car?”
“We brought a dog carrier to keep him in.”
Christina jumped, then froze. “Oh!” A white, long-haired cat stood on two legs and placed her paws on Christina’s leg. The cat turned its head and jumped down to sniff at Christina’s purse on the floor near her chair.
Grandma reached for the cat. “Shame on you. Don’t pester Christina.” The cat struggled to get out of her hands and continued to stare at Christina’s purse.
“Maybe I’m making her nervous because I’m a stranger.”
“She just needs to get to know you.”
Grandpa reached for the cat. “I’ll take that fur-ball. We’ll put her in the basement while we eat dinner. Otherwise, she’ll beg for scraps.”
Holly smiled to reassure Christina. Her smile vanished when she noticed Christina’s purse move. She watched it for several moments but it didn’t move again. Maybe Christina bumped it.
Christina stood and walked to the family Christmas tree, lit up and full of ornaments. “You have a beautiful Christmas tree, Mrs. Thoen.”
“Thank you. You can see we have some of Ian’s carvings on the tree. He is very talented and such a nice man. And such a good father to Holly.” Ian’s mother’s sales pitch reminded her how Ian talked to his customers at carving shows when he was trying to convince them to make a purchase.
Jake came into view with a chuckle. “Yes. He’s quite a catch. He knows how to do his own laundry and wash dishes, as well.”
Marley rolled her eyes. “He can tie his shows and write his name, too.”
Ian sighed. “That’s enough of the commercials on my behalf.”
“I can tie my own shoes, too,” Holly said as she stood next to Christina.
Christina put her arm around Holly. “That’s great. You and your dad are both very talented. I’m lucky to know you.”
Holly grinned and gave Christina a hug. She turned in time to catch her grandma and grandpa giving each other a big smile.
Grandma sniffed the air. “The rolls are done. Let’s eat. Come, everyone, gather round the table while I get the food.”
Christina put her hand on the back of her chair, then paused. “May I help you?”
“No, no. You are our guest. Do sit and make yourself comfortable.”
Kelly stood. “We’ll help her.” She grabbed Jake’s arm in one hand, “and you two can help too,” she said to her children.
“But grandmother told us to sit,” Marley said.
Marley stood and frowned at Mark. “You too, squirt.”
Jake stood at the threshold of the kitchen door and gave his kids his “NOW!”
Mark stood and they both followed their mother.
“Grandpa, can I bring my dog in after we eat?” Mark asked as he left the dining room.
“We’ll see. Maybe later.”
“Which means no,” Mark said to himself.
“What did you name your dog?” Holly said.
Mark stood at the door to the kitchen. “We didn’t name him yet. Mom said we have to live with him for a while so we can figure out his personality. I wanted to call the dog Rex, but she said no. She said Rex is not a good name for a girl dog.”
Jakes voice called out. “Now, Mark.”
A short time later the food was brought out. They sat. Grandpa closed his eyes and folded his hands. The rest followed suit. After grace, grandfather said, “Let’s eat. I’m still waiting for the story of how Ian and Christina met.”
They all laughed. Ian and Christina looked at each other as if trying to decide who would speak first.
Jake grabbed a biscuit and passed the basket to Kelly then smiled at Ian and Christina. “Let me tell the story.”
Ian sighed. “I think I can tell the story a little better than you can.”
Everyone laughed. Ian cleared his throat. He told them about how he first laid eyes on her at the Holiday Art and Craft show at the Duluth Auditorium in early October. Marley interrupted to mention how much of a slob her uncle was at the show. They laughed again.
Christina chuckled. “I didn’t notice that, Marley. I’m glad you pointed it out. I only noticed that he had his shoes tied.” Everyone burst out laughing.
Jake was the last to stop laughing. “Christina, I think you’ll fit in quite well.”
Holly felt relief when she heard Uncle Jake’s words. If everyone liked Christina then her dad would have no reason not to marry her. Her train of thoughts derailed since she thought she saw something move in the living room and glanced in that direction. Her sights landed on Christina’s purse. The flap was wide open. She was sure Christina had closed her purse.
“Oh!” Holly said as she felt something move on her leg under the table. She looked down and saw Kel and Uda climbing up her leg like two mountaineers on a mountain. Panic made her drop her fork onto her plate.
“Is something wrong, Holly?” Grandma asked.
“Is something wrong with the food?”
“The food?” Holly looked down at her plate in confusion. Kel and Uda had once again snuck into Christina’s purse and were now climbing up her leg. What should she do? If anyone saw them it would be a major mess. Dad would be mad and Christina would furious at the brats but mostly embarrassed.
She looked at her grandma. “The food is great. I just need to take a moment to rest from eating,” Holly said. “I have to go to the bathroom. May I be excused? We…I mean, I will be right back.”
Before any adult gave her permission to leave, she reached down, grabbed the two woodcarvings, and leapt from her chair. She held Kel and Uda behind her back and maneuvered around the table. She dashed through the hallway and into the bathroom.
Holly shut the door and placed the twins on top of the toilet tank. “What are you doing here?”
“We wanted to see your grandma and grandpa,” Kel said.
“We wanted to see your Christmas night,” Uda said.
“But you can’t be here. You’re going to ruin everything.”
Kel’s eyes widened. “Are you going to tell Christina?”
Uda mirrored Kel’s face. “She will be mad if she sees us.”
“You should have thought of that before you jumped into Christina’s purse. You know my family doesn’t know about the magic.”
“I do, but they don’t. I told you what happened when my dad found out? He went crazy. When I first saw Astrid move I nearly wet myself. You can’t be here.” Holly put her hands on her hips and stared at them.
“We’ll be good,” Kel said.
“We promise,” Uda said.
“You always promise, but then you never do.”
Kel raised his right hand. “This time we really promise.”
Uda spread her arms out. “We want to see your Christmas. Nicholas gets to go all over the world on Christmas and we’re stuck in the attic.”
“We asked Nicholas to take us along, but he always says no,” Kel said.
“And our parents always say ‘no’ to everything,” Uda said. “We never get to go anywhere.”
“Do your parents know that you’re gone?”
“No,” Kel said. “We told them were going for a long walk around the house.”
Uda chuckled. “It will be hours before they even suspect we’re gone. And we’ll be back in Christina’s purse when she gets home.”
“You are giving me a big headache.”
Kel and Uda wore identical sad faces. “Oh, please, please?”
“All right, but they can’t see you. And I mean it. Christina and dad will be furious if they see you. And they’ll be mad at me because I didn’t tell them right away.”
“We’ll be good,” Uda said.
“We just want to watch your Christmas night,” Kel said.
Holly concentrated. After a moment she smiled. “I got an idea. Stay here and don’t move from this toilet.”
“We’ll stay,” Uda said.
Holly tipped-toe out of the bathroom and into her grandma’s sewing room across the hall. She found a skein of yarn and cut off two long pieces. She tiptoed back to the bathroom. She opened the door in time to see Uda holding Kel’s hand with his foot on the toilet handle. When Uda saw Holly shut the door behind her, she jerked in surprise and let go of Kel’s hand. Both girls watched Kel slip, bounce off the toilet seat and made a splash into the toilet bowl.
Uda laughed as she watched Kel swim around.
Kel looked up “It’s not funny.” He stopped swimming and bounced up and down in the water like a bobber cork.
Uda laughed. “Hey, remember how Cora always threatened to flush us down the toilet for punishment? She said we would go through the sewer and wait for Nicholas to pick us up in the river? Let’s see if that works.” Uda turned around and reached her foot out to the toilet handle.
“You better not, mother will be so mad at you.”
“No.” Holly grabbed Uda before she could flush the toilet.
“Get me out of here.” Kel said treading water.
Holly reached for Kel, but stopped inches away. “Eww, “I can’t put my hand in there, that’s toilet water.”
“Get me out.”
“Will you promise to behave?”
Uda kept laughing. “I still think we should flush him and wish him a Merry Christmas.”
Holly held her breath, plunged her hand in and plucked Kel out of the water and place him next to Uda.
“Hah hah, you’re all wet Kel,” Uda said.
Holly washed her hands in the sink.
“You can dry me too,” Kel said, as he watched Holly wipe her hand on the towel.
Holly reached for Kel using the tips of her fingers with her pinky extended. She brought Kel over to the towel and wiped him.
“Now you made Holly mad,” Uda said with disgust in her voice. “We won’t get to join them for Christmas.”
“You two have problems with keeping your promises. If you mess this up my dad and Christina will be furious with me. If you do I will never speak to you again. And that’s my promise.”
Kel shook his head to get the water off. “We really, really promise this time.”
Uda smiled at Holly. “We will be good because you’re our best friend.”
Holly sighed and shook her head. “I think this is a terrible idea but you two promised to be good. This is your last chance.” She took a length of yarn and tied each around their midsections with a loop on the other end. She left the bathroom with Kel and Uda behind her back. She snuck over to the Christmas tree in the corner and stood in front of it.
“Holly, are you all right?” Ian asked when he spotted her by the tree.
Jake shook his head. “Oh, come on now, grandmas cooking can’t be that bad.”
When all turned annoyed eyes on Jake, Holly took a step back to the Christmas tree and hung Kel and Uda like Christmas ornaments. As promised, at least at first, both froze like wood ornaments, innocent and motionless. Holly went back to the table.
The dinner continued. Holly glanced at the Christmas tree when nobody watched her. Once or twice Kel and Uda moved. One time Kel tried to kick Uda, another time Holly watched as each made faces to entice the other to make the first move. Each playful incident ended when they saw Holly’s stern expression and both froze. When Holly turned again, Kel and Uda began a “see how high can you swing,” contest. Kel hit a large red glass ornament.
Grandpa tilted his head to one side in time to see the branches move. “Is that cat up here again?”
“You put the cat down the stairs, remember?” Grandma said then turned towards the table “Anybody ready for pumpkin pie?” She stood to clear the table.
Ian patted his belly. “Not for me, at least not for now. I’m stuffed.”
“I’m stuffed too,” Jake said.
Aunt Kelly stood and lifted a plate. “We’ll help you clear the table.” She gave Uncle Jake and Marley a look that caused them to stand and help bring the dishes into the kitchen.
“Can I bring my puppy in now?” Mark said to grandpa.
Before Holly’s grandpa spoke, Marley intercepted from the kitchen door. “No. She’s a pain in the butt so leave him out there.” Marley returned to the table for more dishes. “She is.”
Her mother gave her stern mother’s face.
Christina stood to help.
“You stay there,” her grandmother said to Christina. “You’re a guest. Ian why don’t you show Christina you’re old room? You can show her your trophies from high school.”
Ian groaned. “I’m sure Christina is not interested in seeing old trophies, mom.”
“What were the trophies for?” Christina asked.
“For being a big nerd,” Jake responded as he returned for more dishes.
“Very funny. They were from track and field and they’re very old.”
“I’d love to see them and –.” Christina stopped talking and Holly turned to find her staring at the Christmas tree. Her gaze turned to lock with Holly’s, then swung back to the tree.
Holly sank down into her chair.
“And, what?” When Christina did not reply Ian whispered. “What’s the matter?”
Christina tilted her head toward the tree.
His frown increased. “Did I do something wrong?”
Christina’s eyes widened and nodded toward the Christmas tree.
Ian scanned the tree, stopped then gave a frown at Holly.
Holly sank lower in her chair.
“I think you better go help grandma with the dishes,” Ian said to Holly in a low tone.
“Oh no, I can handle the dishes,” Ian’s mother said as she overheard his comment.
“I want her to help with the dishes – as punishment.”
Holly sat up straight. “Punishment! It’s not my fault. I didn’t bring them. I didn’t tell them to climb into Christina’s purse. They climbed up my leg during dinner. What was I to do?” Holly looked from her dad to Christina. Would they break up because of this newest disaster? It would be all her fault if they didn’t get married and she wouldn’t get a new mom.
Ian cleared his throat.
Grandma’s eyes bounced between Ian and Holly. “What do you mean Christina’s purse and something climbed up her leg?”
Holly sighed. “It means I will help you with the dishes grandma.” Holly got up and collected the last of the silverware and walked into the kitchen dragging her feet.
“Oh my. I hope she hasn’t done anything too serious.”
Ian watched Holly walk to the kitchen door. “Holly has been influenced by some naughty children lately and should have known better.”
Ian’s mother smiled and put her hand on Ian’s shoulder. “Just remember today is Christmas, dear.”
Before her father could respond they were all interrupted by a loud cat screech. Holly stopped at the door way to see the commotion.
“Oh, Clara Bell, how did you get out of the basement?”
Grandpa hissed at the cat. “Stop playing with the tree.”
Holly dashed back into the dining room. “The cat’s upstairs? Here? Now?”
“Stop batting the tree,” grandma said. She lunged toward the tree flapping her apron at the cat.
The commotion added volume when Mark entered into the room with his puppy. “Merry Christmas.” The dog escaped his hold and ran around the room nipping and jumping everywhere.
“No,” Jake shouted, “the cat!”
But it was too late. The puppy rushed the cat and barked in hopes to play and make a new friend. But the cat had no interest in making a new friend. The cat’s fur stood straight up, she hissed and dashed under the tree. The puppy followed. The tree shook and fell over onto Ian, then rolled to the floor.
“What –.” voices rang out as the kitchen crew spilled into the living room. Ian got up and lifted the tree. Everyone was shouting and chasing the animals trying to stop the chaos.
Christina grabbed the tree. “Let me help you with that, Ian.” She collected Kel and Uda with her other hand. As the tree was set right again, Christina dashed into the bathroom.
“Is she all right Ian?” Grandma asked with worry in her voice.
“Yes, she, she needed to go in and, eh, she got some tree sap on herself and wanted to wash it off,” Ian said in a louder voice. “Yes, that’s it, she wanted to wash the sap off her blouse.”
Grandma put her hand on her ears. “You don’t have to shout dear.”
“I do because the dog and the cat are making so much noise – you know.”
Mark returned the puppy to the car. Ian’s father slammed the basement door to lock the cat downstairs.
“Are you all right my dear?” Grandma said to Christina as she walked out of the bathroom with water stains on her blouse. “I apologize for this crazy family.”
“Everything is just fine,” Christina said with a smile and looked at Ian.
Grandma pulled on Christina’s wet sweater. “I hope the sap came out. I can make a solution to get that out.”
“Oh no, I’m fine. You could say I got them out, I mean I got it out just in the – Nick – of time.”
Holly fell onto a chair. “Wheew.”
Ian also fell onto a chair. “Wheew.”
Marley focused on the water marks. “What? It’s just tree sap, easy to remove.”
“You’re right, Marley,” Holly said. She turned to look at the entire family. “I’m just glad Nic — I mean Santa Claus came last night instead of tonight. Otherwise he might have changed his mind about bringing presents to our crazy family.” Holly ended with a guilty laugh.
Christina put an arm around Holly. “Santa will always come to those who believe in magic. I think your family has lots of magic inside them along with lots of love.” She smiled and Holly felt her spirits lift. Christina wasn’t mad after all.
Ian sprang off his chair. “I don’t know about the rest of you but I sure am ready for some pumpkin pie.”