IT’S CHRISTMAS DAY AND YOU SHOULD ALL BE DRUNK ON EGG NOG! Hope you are all having a WONDERFUL day, and here’s your present from me: a story by one of the best people you could ever meet. I love her. Kristen usually writes adult urban fantasy and horror, but today she channeled her inner child and wrote a story for children. Read this in between rounds of Trivial Pursuit.
What Money Can’t Buy
“Don’t sit with me, Maddie.” Katelyn put her backpack on the bus seat. She used to be my best friend. This year she was more interested in being friends with the cheerleaders. Everyone laughed as I turned around, looking for a seat at the front of the bus. I didn’t cry until I sat down in the front seat, my face plastered against the window. They said worse things when I cried.
“Hey, Maddie,” Jake called to me from the middle of the bus. “Is your dad working tonight?”
Ignoring them didn’t work. I shrugged.
“I hope so. I’m going to go sit in his lap.” More laughter.
My dad worked as a mall Santa this year. No one would have known if Katelyn didn’t tell everyone. Now everyone in my class made a big deal out of having their picture taken with them, they’d even made a Facebook page with all the pictures.
I begged him to quit, but he insisted that working as Santa was the only way we could have Christmas.
Jake moved up to my seat. Of course nobody would be caught dead sitting next to me. He pulled on my braid. “So Mads, are you an elf? Do you make toys in a workshop? Santa’s little helper?”
“No.” I still didn’t look at any of them.
“She’s on the island of misfit toys.” Somebody yelled from one of the middle seats. I was the only one of the bus who didn’t think this was funny at all. Today was the last day of school before Christmas vacation. I didn’t know how much more of it I could take. I wished Christmas would just go away so I didn’t have to deal with this anymore.
“Maybe she can make herself a coat that doesn’t come from Walmart.”
“Maybe she can make some wooden boobs!”
I’d never been so glad to see my house in my life. Sitting in the front of the bus was good for one thing: I could get off before anyone could grab my bag, or push me back into the seat. I walked fast, watching for ice patches. If I was out of reach, none of the neighborhood kids could get one last swipe at me before vacation.
Our house was the only one not decorated on the block. My parents used to go crazy, competing with the houses on the block. It was awesome. We had a Santa sleigh and reindeers that lit up on the roof, and the way that the lights flashed, it looked like Santa was flying away after leaving our presents.
But everything changed after my little sister, Bella, got sick. Two years ago, she stopped acting like a normal baby. The doctors found a tumor in her brain. Some of the cancer that causes the tumor kept popping up in other parts of her body. Any day without new bad news about Bella was a really good day.
She didn’t come home much, lately. She’d just had a round of treatment to make the tumors shrink. The doctors said it was working, but I didn’t see much difference. She laid in that bed, connected to a bunch of tubes, and didn’t do much. Mom insisted Bella was always happy to see me.
“How do you know?” I asked her a few weeks ago. “She doesn’t do anything.”
“Don’t say that, Maddie.” My mom looked so tired, without her fancy work suits and makeup. She had to quit her job when taking care of Bella made it too hard for her to work. “Her face lights up when you walk in the room.”
“How does she even know who I am?” I didn’t buy it. She’d been so sick for so long. Half the time she wasn’t even awake.
“Honey, of course she knows who you are.”
Every time Bella got a little better, my parents got so excited. For a few days, they were happy again, they didn’t fight. Those were the best days, but they never lasted. She always got worse again. And so didn’t everything else.
Some days, I wished Bella had never been born. Then nothing would have changed. My mom would be working at the law firm, and my dad wouldn’t have had to take that awful Mall Santa job. My parents would have had the time and the money for me to try out for cheerleading, and maybe I would have made the team. I hadn’t practiced in forever. Katelyn wouldn’t be embarrassed to have me as a friend.
No one was home. Dad was at work and Mom was at the hospital. We were having good days right now, the doctors insisted this round of treatment was working wonders. Hopefully someone would come get me soon and bring me to hang out at the hospital. It wasn’t the cheeriest place, but at least there were people around. I didn’t like being all by myself at home. Some of the older kids in Bella’s wing were really cool, when they felt good enough to hang out.
I was afraid to get too close to them. The worst days were when I went to visit Bella and found out one of my friends had died.
I microwaved some leftovers, I didn’t dare eat lunch at school anymore, and looked at the note Mom had left me for the day. She needed my help around the house now. Today’s list wasn’t long, just laundry. Laundry was easy. It did itself and I could do whatever I wanted.
After putting in a load of towels, I wrapped myself in my favorite blanket and decided to watch Elf. Dad’s Santa suit was the only decoration we had around the house. We were going to spend Christmas at the hospital.
My cell phone buzzed. I didn’t get up to check the message right away, it was probably just someone from school posting a new picture of my dad working at the mall. It kept buzzing, and I was scared to look. It could be important. It could bad.
It was my Nana. Get ready. I’m bringing you to see Bella.
“We have a surprise for you!” Nana exclaimed as soon as she walked into the house. She shook snow out of her hair.
“You do?” I could hardly believe it. It didn’t seem like anyone ever did anything special just for me anymore. But then I remembered we were going to see Bella, and my hopes fell back down.
“I’d tell you what it is, but it’s a surprise!” She practically danced in the foyer as I put my jacket back on.
I tried to make school sound like it was good on the way to the hospital. It was too embarrassing to tell her the truth. I didn’t say much to my parents about it, either. I didn’t want them to feel like they were the reason I didn’t have any friends anymore. They weren’t around enough to notice, anyway.
The hospital always smelled the same. They tried to make it festive, with garland in the hallways and the nurses in holiday scrubs, but it just made me sadder we were here.
I knew the nurses who worked in the pediatric oncology ward pretty well by now, and they smiled and waved when they saw me. I peeked in the rooms as we made our way to Bella, and all my friends looked like they were in good shape. I knew they had a special visit from some football players the other day, and I couldn’t wait to hear all about it. Maybe some of the cute ones showed up.
My mom sat on Bella’s bed, nothing different there. Nana kissed her on the head, then squeezed Bella’s hand, the one that didn’t have the IV in it.
“We have a surprise!” Mom said, almost in the same sing song tone Nana had said the same thing.
“Nana told me.” I tossed my jacket on the chair. “Is it OK if I sit on the bed?”
Bella watched the activity in the room, a good sign. A lot of times by this time of the day, she was already sound asleep after all of her treatments.
“Sure.” Mom moved over to make room for me.
“Hey, Bella.” I said as I sat down. Her eyes really did light up.
Mom put her hand on Bella’s tiny leg. Even though she was three, she wasn’t that much bigger than a baby. “Bella, honey, what do you want to tell Sissy?”
Bella sat up a little on her mountain of pillows, and took a deep breath. “Love you, sissy.”
I looked back and forth from my mom to Nana. I had to be imagining things. Bella couldn’t talk. Sometimes she could communicate by sign language, when she felt up to it.
“It sounded like she said, ‘Love you, sissy.’”
Mom nodded. “The speech therapist has been working with her, now that the tumor shrunk. She’s been teaching her little phrases.”
“Oh my God.” Tears fell down my cheeks, but I didn’t feel embarrassed about it. These were happy tears. And Mom and Nana were crying, too.
Maybe she was going to get better, for real this time.
“We wanted to surprise you with it on Christmas, but I just couldn’t keep it to myself any longer.” Mom blurted out, like she felt guilty about keeping a secret.
“It’s awesome.” I blinked back more tears. “I love you too, Bella.”
She wiggled around a little bit, looking happy.
“Does Dad know?”
“Not yet.” Mom couldn’t wipe the smile off the face. “It’s going to be his Christmas present.”
Some Christmas presents you couldn’t get at the mall, even if you worked there as Santa.