A SHORT CHRISTMAS SCENE JUST FOR YOU
Christmas music drifted through the little apartment, adding to the festive atmosphere of ornaments, shimmering garland, and pine.
Marx readjusted the scrawny, crooked pine tree in the corner of Holly’s living room, but no matter which way he tilted it in the stand, it was still crooked.
“Of all the trees,” he muttered. He made another effort to straighten it, and a handful of needles dropped to the floor. “Why this one?”
There had been plenty of pre-cut trees to choose from, but Holly picked the one that was better suited to firewood.
Holly looked up from the box of thrift store ornaments she rummaged through, a tiny eyeball on a string dangling from her fingers. “What’s wrong with it?”
Marx arched an eyebrow. “For starters, it’s half bald. This tree is already over the hill. And it leans.”
The bells on Holly’s hairband jingled as she cocked her head. “If you tilt your head, it’s not so . . . lean-y.”
“I am not walkin’ around with my head tilted. I’ll get a neck cramp.”
With a crinkle of her nose, Holly set aside the eyeball ornament. “It looked so sad and lonely. Nobody wanted it, so I thought I would give it a home and some much-needed love.”
He should’ve known. Holly had a heart for the rejected and overlooked, like the fat cat now lounging beneath the tree like it was his royal umbrella. He slapped a paw at Marx’s toes every time he stepped too close.
“Trees don’t have feelings,” Sam said, working his way through a tangled ball of lights at the kitchen table. “And these lights are ancient. When are they from, the 1920’s? There’s literally paint chipping off the bulbs.”
“It was all they had left at the thrift store.”
“I think, between the five of us, we can afford to buy you some new lights, sweetheart,” Marx said.
This was Holly’s first official Christmas in her own apartment. Before her foster brother was arrested, she didn’t buy things she couldn’t stuff in a bag and take with her, which meant she was starting from scratch with her decorations.
“There’s nothing wrong with used Christmas stuff.” She squinted at the wooden snake on a string. “Except that. That’s not going on my tree.”
“What could go wrong with a serpent and a tree?” Jordan teased, trying to remove strips of tape from used garland.
Holly shot him a smile. “If only there was a book with a story about that somewhere . . .”
“We are not puttin’ that ancient strand of fire hazard on this half-dead tree without reinstallin’ your smoke alarm,” Marx said, indicating the place on the ceiling where it used to be mounted.
Holly’s shoulders drooped. “I hate that thing. It screams for no reason.”
“Mmm hmm. This is non-negotiable.”
She sighed. “Fine.”
Jace rolled into the room with a tray of mugs in her lap, the scent of sweet vanilla and cocoa in the air. She passed one to Sam and then to Holly. “So, bestie, what’s your Christmas tradition?”
Holly shifted onto her knees as she took the beverage, a line of thought between her eyebrows. “Can’t this be my Christmas tradition? All of us decorating my tree and spending time together?”
“Oh totally, but maybe we could play some kind of game or something.”
Holly sucked her bottom lip into her mouth as she pondered that, one hand dropping to pet the head of the contented canine sprawled beside her. “What sort of game?”
“Whatever makes your heart happy, I guess, but I’m really hoping it’s not Twister.”
Jordan let out a snort of amusement. He and Sam were probably the only ones here flexible enough or willing to play Twister. Jace couldn’t maneuver in her wheelchair, Holly had wide boundaries, and Marx would end up at the chiropractor.
Holly’s eyes brightened. “I have an idea.” She got to her feet and hurried into the kitchen, opening the snack cupboard.
“What do you bet this idea involves marshmallows?” Sam asked.
Marx smiled. “When doesn’t an idea of hers involve marshmallows?”
“When she’s dashing into danger,” Jordan offered, tossing aside a de-taped strand of metallic pink garland.
“Hey, I don’t dash into danger,” Holly objected from the kitchen.
“Stumble into, then,” Marx amended.
“Wander obliviously,” Sam added.
“Throw yourself into it without a second thought,” Jace chimed in.
Holly scowled at each of them as she returned with a large bowl of marshmallows. “I’m taking all of your presents back to the thrift store.”
Jace scoffed. “Liar. So, what’s the game?”
Holly motioned everyone into a circle. “I’m gonna play my favorite Christmas song, and every time he says ‘marshmallow,’ you toss up a marshmallow and try to catch it with your mouth. The winner gets to put the star on the tree.”
Jace interlaced her fingers and pretended to crack them. “I hope you all are prepared to lift me up so I can top that Charlie Brown tree.”
Jordan brushed garland bits from his jeans as he rose from the couch. “What makes you think you’re gonna win? I have excellent hand-eye coordination.”
“Athlete.” Jace pointed to herself and then to Jordan. “Guy who wishes he had my skills.”
Jordan laughed. “Challenge accepted.”
“You’re all forgettin’ that Holly probably eats marshmallows in her sleep,” Marx pointed out.
“That doesn’t mean she can aim,” Sam said. “And I’m not sticking my hand in a bowl that everyone else is sticking their hand into.”
Holly held up a second smaller dish. “Just for you. I shook them out of the bag, so . . . no germs.”
Sam grimaced and took the bowl. “Thanks.”
Holly walked to her laptop to turn on her favorite song—A Marshmallow World, by Dean Martin—and then scampered back to the circle. The third word in the song had all of them tossing marshmallows and swaying with their mouths open like starving baby birds. They would look ridiculous to anyone who walked past the windows.
“How did you manage that?” Jordan asked, as Holly happily chewed.
“I have excellent mouth-marshmallow coordination.”
Everyone else’s marshmallow had hit the floor, but Riley was happy to sweep up the mess with his tongue.
Round two came, and Marx managed to catch his this time. Sam scowled as his landed on the floor. Jace jabbed Jordan with an elbow, distracting him at the last second, and his marshmallow bounced off his chin. There were six chances, the last three in rapid succession. Holly won, catching four out of the six.
“All hail the marshmallow queen,” Jace announced, high-fiving Holly.
Holly laughed. “Jordan came in second.”
“As always,” Jace added, slanting a mischievous grin his way.
“Low blow,” Jordan said.
“I’m four feet tall. What do you expect me to do, karate kick you in the head? All my blows are low.”
“All right,” Marx cut in, before the who's-Holly's-best-friend debate could spiral out of control. “Let’s decorate this tree already.”
Sam grabbed the lights, and he and Marx wound them around the outside of the tree, the heavy bulbs weighing down the branches.
Holly set aside the bowls of marshmallows and hurried to her apartment door, unlocking it and throwing it open. Marx’s focus lingered on her as they draped the garland. Who else could she be expecting?
She teetered on her toes at the threshold, avoiding the snow, and called out, “Spencer!”
After a moment, a man bundled in a winter coat and gloves stalked into view. Spencer was the maintenance man, a veteran who had lost his entire unit to a bomb, only to come home and lose his wife to cancer. Between grief and debilitating PTSD, he was struggling to make it through each day.
“What are you doing for Christmas?” Holly asked. When Spencer didn’t offer up any plans, she added, “Come help us decorate and have dinner.”
Spencer dipped his head. “This is a time for family and friends.”
“And a time for making new ones.”
He frowned. “I don’t wanna impose.”
“You can’t impose if you’re invited. Please.” Holly stepped back from the door, but Spencer still hesitated.
“She'll hold that door open all day, Spencer. Get in here before the rest of us freeze to death,” Marx called out.
“Yes, sir,” Spencer said, as though Marx were a superior officer. He stepped inside and shrugged out of his coat, looking around the crowded apartment before adding it to the pile of winter layers on the table.
Jace lifted her chin in greeting. “Sup, Spence.”
Holly returned to the tree and scooped up the box of ornaments. She held out a bell to Spencer. “This one’s for you.”
Spencer glanced at Marx as he approached, uncertain. He knew a little of Holly’s trauma from the news. Marx nodded for him to take the ornament. If Holly felt safe enough for him to be within touching distance, Marx had no objections.
Spencer took the ornament, careful not to let their fingers brush. “Thank you.”
“Hang it wherever you want,” she said.
“Except the bottom half,” Jace clarified. “That’s reserved for the shorties.”
Spencer hung the bell on a high branch and stepped back. Holly rewarded him with a sweet smile that could put anyone at ease. From the moment she learned about Spencer’s past, she became determined to add a little brightness to his days.
Marx grabbed an ornament, only to realize it was broken. “Your snowman is missin’ an arm. You still want me to hang it?”
“What’s wrong with hanging a disabled snowman on her tree?” Jace asked, staring him down.
Marx’s lips parted as he tried to form a response, but Sam cut in. “She’s messing with you.”
“Oh Sam, you ruined it,” Jace huffed. “I could’ve dragged that out for like ten minutes and gotten to see Mr. Southern squirm and stumble over his words.”
“Funny.” Marx hung the snowman near the top of the tree.
Sam frowned at the furry blob he plucked from the box. “What is this thing?”
“I think it’s supposed to be a bird,” Holly said, but her tone was more questioning than certain.
“Looks like somethin’ your cat hacked up,” Marx commented.
Jordan flicked the blob, and it let out a warbling sound. “You would pick the squeaky hairball.”
Grimacing, Sam dropped it back into the box. “I need to scrub my hands.”
Holly picked a sparkly ballerina and hung it as far up as she could reach on her tiptoes. Once the box of ornaments was nearly empty, Holly climbed on the couch with a silver star. Marx stood ready to catch her if her precarious balance on the arm of the couch took a turn for the worse.
She topped the tree, and they plugged it in before stepping back to take it in.
“Well, it’s . . . certainly one of a kind,” Marx said. It was a hodgepodge of a tree, if ever he had seen one. Hot pink garland, hairballs, baby booties, one-armed snowmen, broken bells. Even Mama’s tree, with her lifetime’s collection of ornaments, had some semblance of order. This was . . . anarchy.
Holly rocked onto her toes, glowing with joy. “I love it. It reminds me of us.”
“How so?” he asked.
“The ornaments might be a little damaged, mismatched, and from different backgrounds, but . . .” Holly wrapped an arm around his waist and rested an arm on Jace’s shoulder. “They all come together to make something unique and wonderful.”
Marx smiled and kissed the top of her head. “Merry Christmas, sweet pea.”