The plot I suggested in my last post, with the coffee and the tree and the Christmas date happened to be a short story just waiting to be written. Humor me as I attempt some fiction, decidedly Hallmark-like, with a bit of a Christian twist. It is totally predictable and a little unrealistic, with a healthy dose of the thing we all want so much- love. I introduce to you:
“Not Single for Christmas: A Short Story”
She had seen him before, actually many times over, but never had she seen him so flustered. It would’ve been funny, except for the fact that there was a stream of coffee running down her coat. It was her favorite coat, too, the one with the faux fur around the collar. She had splurged more than a little on that coat, and it remained to be seen whether the stain would come out.
He was all apologetic as he pulled napkins off the nearest table and mopped up the floor on his knees. She stood there awkwardly and assured him it would be fine; the stain would wash out, surely.
“And I thought I was clumsy,” she said aloud, before realizing it wasn’t exactly a polite thing to say. Then, as the redness swept over his face again, she knew she had only made matters worse. She tried to redeem her mistake. “I meant that as a joke,” she tried desperately. “I really am clumsy, but I shouldn’t have insinuated that you are as well. Really, it could’ve happened to anyone.” She stopped, and underneath her warm coat and hat, she suddenly felt as though she was the famous chestnut roasting in the open fire.
He rose from the floor and tossed the bulky mess of coffee-laden napkins in the trash. “I don’t know what happened to me today,” he confessed. “I’ll buy you another coffee.”
He turned to the young curly-headed barista. “We’ll have another one exactly like she had, and I’ll have the peppermint mocha, please.” The barista appeared to be inwardly amused by the incident, but she graciously refrained from laughing.
As they waited for their drinks, the man turned to the woman. “I know you from somewhere,” he said.
She grinned. “I hear that often. It happens when you’re a public face out of the proper context. Yes, you’ve seen me before. I work at the library.”
Recognition appeared. “Exactly,” he said. “I should’ve remembered. You look like the bookish kind.”
“I do?” She asked.
“Why, yes. The plaid skirt and the glasses.”
She frowned. “Is that a good thing?” Now it was his turn to realize he should’ve bitten his tongue. He, too, tried redemption.
“Of course,” he said hastily. “I’m very attracted to intelligent looking women.”
She had thought she was roasting before, but now she was sure she was burning up with embarrassment.
“I’m serious,” he assured her, and the barista mercifully handed them their coffees. The librarian stumbled over her thank yous and hurried out into the refreshing cold.
As she got into her little red car, she saw him getting into an old truck. It looked exactly like the picture hanging in her kitchen, red and vintage. The only thing it was missing was the tree in the back. He waved as he drove away.
The next time she saw him, she was having a moment of frustration. She was at a Christmas tree farm, for she had resolved to buy a real tree this year, in lieu of the tiny fake one from Dollar General. The money had been handed over, and now, she was trying to direct the less-than-helpful employee as to its placement in the car.
“Yes, I want it in the back seat,” she said, and the employee resumed his baffled teenage look.
“I don’t think it’s going to fit,” he stated.
“Can we try and see?” She begged.
“I think you’d be further ahead to strap it on top of the car,” he said in a way that meant, You’re being difficult, woman.
“I don’t have straps,” she said stubbornly.
“Well, lady, it’s not going to fit in the back.”
“Do you deliver?”
“No. Now look lady, I need to go help the next customer. Find some straps, and then I’ll help you.” He strutted off with his teenage know-it-all self, and our unfortunate woman was left in despair.
There was a tap on her shoulder, and she jumped. “I’m sorry to frighten you, Miss Librarian,” he said, “but the tree isn’t going to fit inside your car. Fortunately, I happen to be driving a truck, which will hold your tree and the one for my grandma. Give me directions, and I’ll deliver it to your house.”
“You are a knight in shining armor,” she said gratefully. “I was nearly ready to cry. Thank you for coming to my rescue.”
He laughed. “Glad to help. Perhaps you’ll find me less clumsy today.”
Together, they loaded the tree into the truck bed. Well, actually, the truth of the matter is that he loaded it, while she made an effort to be of assistance. Her tree looked rather small beside the giant one for his grandmother, but it was a living tree. Or, it had been, before it was sawed down. His red truck followed her red car, back into town, past the library two blocks, and into the parking lot of a tax accountant.
“Don’t worry,” she said when he got out of the truck with a perplexed face. “I don’t live in the office. How could I? I despise numbers. My apartment is underground. I’m a hobbit.”
She liked to hear him laugh. “Lead the way to your hole then, Rosie,” he said, “and Sam will follow.”
“I can get it,” she tried.
“I’d hate to underestimate your abilities,” he replied, “but your tree is heavy, even if it is small. I’ll do the honors.”
Around the back of the office and down the basement stairs the tree went, and the kind gentleman deposited it on her living room floor.
“Do you accept hot chocolate as payment?” She asked. “I really am very thankful you came along.”
“Certainly,” he said.
“Make yourself at home then,” she said, “and I’ll get the chocolate.”
When she returned with the mugs, the cat was sitting on his lap. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have warned you. George is a big baby, really, but he can be a little too friendly.”
The man smiled. “He’s fine. Typically, I don’t enjoy cats, but this one seems to be quite likeable. Why George?”
“I named him after Mr. Knightley in Emma,” she explained. “He’s a respectable, distinguished, handsome fellow, except when he’s hungry. Aren’t you, George?” Kitty purred.
“Speaking of names,” the man said, “what’s yours? We never were properly introduced.”
“It’s Charlotte,” she said. “Charlotte West. And you are William. Although I don’t remember your last name.”
“It’s Fike,” he said. “Do you remember the names of all your patrons?”
“Oh no, only the regulars.”
“And I’m a regular?”
“Not unless you call a weekly Thursday visit a regular,” she said. “Of course you’re a regular! And you get books on almost everything from homesteading to business. You’re well read.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Coming from a librarian, I take that as a compliment. You seem to be rather versed in literature yourself.”
“Albeit a different kind, perhaps. I like old classics, stories with depth.”
“I used to read classics,” he said, “for fun. These days I don’t have time to read for mere enjoyment.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a carpenter.”
“Then why the books on gardening and agriculture?”
“I want to have a homestead someday,” he admitted, “with a carpentry business on the side. Find a wife, have children, and let them grow up on the land.”
“I think that’s a wonderful dream,” she said, “and one I have a great deal of respect for. I’d like to buy a little house with some acreage and try homesteading myself, believe it or not. But our dreams often take a lot more financing than what is possible in the forseeable future. So, I live in this little basement and feed my book addiction with my job.”
“You seem to have your own library right here,” he remarked, looking at the bookcases on every wall.
“I read aloud to George in the evenings,” she admitted.
The hot chocolate gone, William made his way to the door. “I need to deliver Grandma’s tree,” he said, “but I enjoyed the chocolate and the company. I’ll see you Thursday?”
After he left, Charlotte set up her tree, to the great interest of George, who tried to eat the ornaments. It must be said, she was a little distracted, and didn’t notice George licking out the chocolate mugs. It must also be said that her preoccupation was not regarding the tree, but rather the man who delivered the tree. Of course, she saw him every week at the library, but she had never noticed just how charming he actually was. Or how handsome. Why had she never observed how delightfully dark the man’s eyes were, browner than the chocolate they just shared together?
She was reshelving books when she heard someone walk up behind her. It was William, coffee in hand. “Good morning, Charlotte,” he smiled. “I brought you some coffee to counteract the effects of a dreary December day.”
“Thank you,” she said. “That’s very thoughtful of you. Can I help you find anything today?”
“Actually, yes,” he said. “Do you have a manual on how to ask a nice girl to go with me to the Christmas Tree Lighting tomorrow night?”
“I don’t think I have a book that will outline the proper etiquette,” she replied, “but my personal opinion is that bringing the girl some coffee is a good way to start.”
“Does that mean yes?” He asked.
“I believe it does,” she said, smiling at him. “Thank you for the invitation; I’d be delighted.”
“Would you care to join me for dinner as well?”
“I’d like that a lot,” she said.
When William was safely out of sight, Charlotte did a victory dance in the aisle. She’d been asked out! Unfortunately, her exultation was witnessed by a little old lady, who shook her head and mumbled something about the irresponsibility of youthfulness. Happily, Charlotte was unaware that she had been observed, and the little old lady never told anyone, thinking it was a disgraceful thing to mention, how the librarians of today jumped around in the aisles.
If she was honest with herself, which she was in the habit of being, she was dreading the fact that she’d be single for Christmas again. She’d never been fortunate when it came to her love life, as all the guys she’d secretly fallen in love with ended up with other girls, never her. Christmas was always the same; her brothers and sisters showed up at their parents’ house with spouses, kids, and friends, and she came alone, year after year. This year, she was considering not even making the trip. It was a four hour plane ride back home, and the more years that passed by, the more awkward she felt around her own family. They were always happy to see her, of course, but it seemed to turn into a matchmaking session, where they’d try to pair her with all the eligible bachelors they’d met in the past year, and they’d comment on how maybe she’d have more success if she wasn’t such a nerd.
Nerdy. Old-fashioned. The labels bothered her, yet she couldn’t change her values, even if they were considered out-of-date. Yes, she liked books, she wasn’t what anybody would consider a successful career woman, her wardrobe was decidedly vintage (she refused to call it old-ladyish), and she went to church because she believed in God, not merely as a social obligation. Therefore, she was misunderstood, often.
On her lunch break, Charlotte sent her two best friends a group message. Help me out tonight? I need fashion advice. I’ve been asked out tomorrow night. When she got home at 5:15, Sara and Sammie were already in her parking lot.
“I say we go shopping,” Sara said, hugging her friend, then proceeding to dance around her in a circle.
“Can’t,” Charlotte replied sadly. “I already spent my budgeted clothes money for the month on my Christmas tree, which is quite beautiful, by the way.”
“Unfortunately, you can’t wear a tree,” Sammie said. “And I told Sara you’d never agree to buy something new, even if it is your first date ever. So, we’ll improvise. We searched our closets and found some options. Grab some bags, ladies! We’re going to have some fun.”
They piled the clothes on the bed and debated dresses for the next hour. Not too formal, because she had no idea where they were going for dinner, but not too informal, because it was a special evening. Not something too heavy for dining, but something warm enough for the tree lighting.
“Are all dates this much work?” Charlotte groaned, after the twentieth dress or so. Then she saw it. A wine colored sweater dress. “This. Absolutely this,” she said with satisfaction. “I have those tall leather boots I can wear with it. It’s dressy, but not too much so, and it’ll be warm as well.”
Sara and Sammie nodded in agreement. “I like it,” Sara said. “It’s simple enough to suit your taste, but fashionable enough to be acceptable.”
“Do you have a coat that’ll work?” Sammie wondered. “And your hair.”
Charlotte laughed. “Yes, the coffee stains came out of my coat nicely. That’s how this started after all. I’ll tell you the story sometime. And I can do my own hair, although I’m sure you’d be happy to do it for me. I like my vintage updos, and I wouldn’t be me with my hair down.”
Sammie agreed. “You’re an oddity, my dear, but I like you that way.”
“Why, thank you,” Charlotte did a mock curtsy. “Now if you could convince my family, I’d be thrilled.”
“Watch them be transformed by Sammie’s opinion,” Sara giggled, and the night ended with lots of girl talk and ice cream.
The dinner and tree lighting was a success. How could it not be? William was the perfect gentleman, and Charlotte looked beautiful. Add to that the enchanting feel of nearly every house in the neighborhood with a light display of some kind, the carol singing around the tree, and the snow that crunched underfoot. It was a magical evening, and riding in William’s old red truck made Charlotte unreasonably happy besides.
“Are you busy Sunday night?” He asked when he dropped her off. “My family has a Christmas tradition each Sunday evening of Advent. We get together at my parents’ house for coffee and dessert, light the Advent candles, and my father reads the Scriptures. I’d love for you to be a part of it.”
Charlotte gladly accepted. “That’s the sweetest Christmas tradition I ever heard of. I’d love to be there. And to meet your family, of course.”
“They’re wonderful,” he said. “You will love them, and they will love you. I’ll see you Sunday night, then. Oh, and my mother would like to meet George. You can bring him, too. She’s a little obsessed with cats.”
“Then I love your mother already,” Charlotte laughed. “I like anyone who appreciates George.”
She was too thrilled to go to bed at a reasonable hour, although she knew she’d regret it at work the next day. There were good men left in the world, and she knew in her heart that William was one of them. She finally fell asleep on the couch at midnight, with her open journal in her hand, and George curled up at her feet. She dreamed of Christmas trees and a young man who fed George Christmas cookies. The Christmas trees turned into people in a church, and there she was, wearing white, and William drove up in his truck and offered her a piece of wedding cake. She ate it, and then she and William drove away in his truck to a land filled with chickens.
Mrs. Fike came to the door to invite them in. She was a plump woman with a big apron tied around her middle, and she had the most welcoming smile. Without waiting for the proper introductions, she hugged Charlotte in a motherly embrace. Then she took George from her son’s arms and cooed all over him.
“I just love cats,” she explained to Charlotte. “I used to have one years ago, but when it died, I decided it was in the best interest of my marriage not to get another one. My husband doesn’t like cats. Speaking of husbands, where is he? Honey, Will is here with his girl!” She led them to the living room, and Mr. Fike got up from the recliner to greet them.
“Glad to have you join us, dear,” he said, shaking Charlotte’s hand heartily. “Hello there, Will. Thanks for bringing your girl with you.”
Mrs. Fike set George down on the couch, and bustled back to the kitchen, telling Mr. Fike to introduce the girl to the others; she must check the pies. The living room was full, and Charlotte wondered if William’s family was as large as hers. She soon realized it wasn’t, but it seemed like a lot of strangers at first glance. There was William’s older sister Kate, with her husband and their three children. Then an older brother as well, Joel, with his wife and two children. And lastly, there was the little sister, Marsha, with her boyfriend. They both looked to be about 18.
Kate and the sister-in-law, Faith, were both soft-spoken, but they were friendly, and soon had Charlotte chatting comfortably with them. Kate was nursing a baby, who couldn’t have been more than a month old, and she provided the perfect topic of conversation. When the baby was fed, Kate handed her to William, and seeing him with the little girl made Charlotte’s heart melt. He was clearly very comfortable with babies. Charlotte was still talking with the women, but her eyes kept going back to the man and baby beside her. She loved babies, and she never got to hold them. Her siblings’ children were too far away.
“Do you want to hold her?” William asked, and Charlotte nodded. He placed the baby in her arms, and she breathed in that new baby smell, so clean. The baby’s hands were tiny, and Charlotte stroked them. One of the little hands grabbed Charlotte’s finger and held it tightly. Her brown eyes stared into Charlotte’s blue ones for a moment, and Charlotte felt a lump form in her throat. A single tear slipped from her eye before she could stop it. William noticed the woman’s absorption with the baby, and he noticed the tear.
“Are you okay?” He whispered.
Charlotte nodded. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just haven’t held a baby for so long. I didn’t know how much I missed it.”
Mrs. Fike came back into the living room and sat down in the rocking chair. Immediately, two of her grandchildren climbed into her lap. Mr. Fike called the other children from their play, and everyone gathered around. Marsha got up and turned off the lights in the room. All was dark, except the fire in the fireplace and the large Christmas tree in the corner. Kate got up and lit the first candle in the wreath on the coffee table. Only then did Mr. Fike begin.
“Kate has lit last week’s candle: The Prophet’s Candle. Tonight, we will light the Bethlehem candle.” He opened his Bible, which looked to Charlotte as though it was nearly falling apart, and read from Micah 5. “‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth…’” (scripture taken from NKJV)
Mr. Fike’s voice went on, reading the familiar words, and Charlotte felt the weight of the baby in her arms. Bethlehem, “little among the thousands.’ Insignificant in the eyes of the world. Like a baby. Insignificant in the eyes of the world. And yet, one baby changed history forever. The lone candle flickered. The Christmas tree lights shone. She felt William, strong beside her, and the baby, small in her lap, and the feeling of complete peace settled in her heart.
“ ‘For now He shall be great To the ends of the earth; And this One shall be peace.’” Mr. Fike closed his Bible. For this moment, all was still, even the children. A log fell in the fireplace, and the coals popped. “Charlotte,” Mr. Fike said, “Would you light the Bethlehem candle for us?”
Charlotte gave the now sleeping baby to William. She knelt at the table and dipped the second candle into the flame from the first candle. There was a new light shining. She wanted to stay there forever, in the peace and the stillness, in the Christmas holiness. But it was not to be.
“Now Grammy’s pie!” Shouted one of the little boys, and everyone laughed. The children scrambled off laps and headed to the kitchen. The adults followed more slowly, and William and Charlotte and the littlest Fike were left alone in the cozy living room.
“That was beautiful,” Charlotte said, turning from the table and the lit candles.
William agreed. “It’s my favorite part of Christmas,” he admitted. “There’s so much peace in these moments.” He kissed the baby’s head. “Each Sunday of Advent, for just a little while, I feel as carefree as little Maggie here. I wanted you to feel it, too.”
“Thank you,” she said sincerely.
The pies were eaten, the baby passed around, George was petted, the children played, and the adults drank coffee as they talked. Charlotte had never been in any house where she felt as comfortable. She told William so when he took her home.
“I’m glad you liked them,” he said. “They liked you. I knew they would. When do I get to meet your family?”
“Oh, no,” she said.
William looked confused. “You don’t take your boyfriends to meet your family?”
“I don’t know,” Charlotte confessed. “I’ve never had a boyfriend before.”
“Nope. None. But what about you? Do you always take your dates to your parents’?”
He laughed. “No. You’re the first. I haven’t had a date since my last prom date in high school. But why don’t you want me to meet your family?”
Charlotte gave him a quick overview of her roots and her desperate escape from it all. “I usually go home once a year for Christmas,” she finished, “but it always ends up being miserable. All I learn from it is that I’m not like them. Of course I love them; they’re family. And I did have a relatively happy childhood. I have good memories. But since I left home, we’ve grown apart. Different priorities, different lives. No warm fellowship like your family tonight.”
“I’m sorry,” he said simply. “I know the type of family I have is rare these days. It shouldn’t be, but it is.” He reached over and took her hand. “When you do decide to go home,” he continued, “I’ll go with you.”
“But you don’t even know me that well,” Charlotte protested. “Why would you do that?”
His hold on her hand tightened a little. “Because, Miss Librarian,” he said, “I care about you. Is that okay?”
He hadn’t said I love you, Charlotte thought that night as she tried to sleep, but for a guy she’d only just started a relationship with, it was pretty close to the same thing.