My 2018 Christmas story. I hope you enjoy.
Marcia looked out the windshield at the throngs of people standing outside the toy store. It wasn’t seven in the morning yet and people lined the sidewalk and stood in the parking lot six and seven deep. She took a heavy breath. There was no way she would find what she wanted with this many people here.
She shook her head. She flipped her hair back over her shoulders and let the breath out.
“I should have done this sooner.”
But she knew she couldn’t. It had to be on this day. It had to take place on Christmas Eve.
Marcia opened the door, got out of the car and closed the door back. She walked toward the crowd, stopping when she heard the murmuring excitement of rabid shoppers as the electronic doors opened and they began the mad rush for toys. People pushed forward, as if they tried to pack the store on the corner of Mall Drive.
“We’re going to be like sardines in there,” she whispered.
After most of the patrons had gone inside, Marcia made her way to the doors, took another breath, bracing herself for the craziness she was about to face, and stepped inside.
It was as bad as she feared it would be. People pushed by one another without bothering with an ‘excuse me,’ or a ‘pardon me’ or anything even close. Some folks with buggies had no problems bumping into others to get them out the way. She thought there might be a couple of fights as some customers gave dirty looks or snappy, sarcastic remarks.
Marcia made her way by most people, detouring in and out of aisles where the crowds were the worst. Though she walked and shuffled nonstop, it still took her twenty minutes to get to the back of the store where the stuffed toys were. Thankfully, there were only a handful of people back there, in the section that boasted the toys that weren’t highly sought after and worthy of being fought over. She thought it a shame that so few people thought their children might like one of the plush bears, dogs, rabbits and kitty cats.
She frowned. The pickings were thinner than usual. All of the rabbits and doggies were gone. There were still a couple of kitty cats, but none that screamed ‘buy me.’ The small teddy bears were mostly the same, each one a solid color (either white, brown, tan or gray) with a bowtie around its neck, glass eyes, pink stitched nose and mouth. She shook her head and stood straight; her hands went to her hips. She rummaged the shelves until she came across a pink teddy bear and plucked it from the pile. She thought it was right for one of the two gifts she needed. Still, there was the other one, the one she knew would be harder to pick.
Marcia left the aisle and went to the next one over. No stuffed animals. The next one over from that one also held no stuffed animals. Neither did the other two. She backtracked and looked at the original aisle of misfit animals. She dropped to her knees and rummaged through the various teddy bears. Just as she began to give up, Marcia saw it, the animal that called to her, that said, ‘I’m the one.’ She reached for it, pulled it free.
It was a white lamb. Its eyes sparkled blue. Its lips and nose were the same pink stitched type as on the teddy bears, but on the tips of each foot was a split hoof. Its tail was a curly-q and the fur was fluffy and soft. Marcia hugged it and knew it was the one.
She didn’t mind standing in line for almost an hour. She didn’t mind putting the purchase on her credit card. She didn’t mind sitting in traffic for another hour, trying to get out of the mall area. She didn’t mind that she got home well after lunch. She didn’t even mind that she would have to get up early again the next day to make the two hour drive to Hope, South Carolina, a little do nothing town on the edge of the nowhere. She was happy. She found the toys she hoped to find.
It was cold when she arrived in Hope the next morning. She drove through the little town, across the overpass and down a road with sleepy houses on either side. She made a left and drove a couple of blocks. Then she made a right and pulled through the large entrance and onto the dirt road that ran between graves older than her grandmother, who was in her upper eighties. She continued along until she came to a grassy area along the side of the path where she pulled over and parked.
“Come on,” she said and grabbed the lamb. It was colder out in the open cemetery on Christmas day than it had been in the parking lot of an old toy store the morning before. She zipped her coat up and her body gave a shiver. Marcia crossed the lawn, passing gravestone after gravestone, touching some as she went. Finally, she stopped near a chipped headstone with the carving of a square wooden wagon on it. Just below the wagon was the word UNKNOWN BOY. Below the name was a presumed age: AGED FOUR OR FIVE.
The first time she came here was eleven years previous. Her little sister, Donna, was six then and her hair was pulled back into a ponytail that bobbed when she walked. Her green eyes dazzled and she had been excited to go on one of Marcia’s Christmas traditions, this time to the little cemetery in Hope.
Donna had a fake flower in one hand and she gripped Marcia’s hand with her other one.
“Why are we here?” she asked in all of her innocence.
“One of the things I do at Christmas is I go to a cemetery. I take a flower with me. Then I search the headstones for a name or a grave that I think would like a visitor. I place the flower on the grave and tell the person, ‘Merry Christmas.’”
“Why do you do that?”
“Because everyone should receive love on Christmas day.” That wasn’t the total truth, but it was really all Donna needed to know. She didn’t need to know that a friend of hers does something similar at the cemetery where her father is buried, only telling the dead, ‘Someone loves you’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’
“Oh.” Donna stood, staring at her flower for a minute. Then she looked up with that wide-eyed innocent look of hers. “Can I pick the grave?”
“Sure,” Marcia responded. “Go. Find the lucky person.”
Donna hurried toward the rows and rows of graves. She searched, diligently, pondering each stone, though she couldn’t really read the names. She asked questions about the ages of each person. Then she came across the stone with the wagon on it. “What does that say, Marcia?”
“Unknown boy. Aged four or five.”
“He doesn’t have a name?”
“I guess not.”
“And he was four or five?”
“I guess so.”
“What does that mean?”
“I guess they didn’t know who the boy was and they thought he was maybe four or five years old.”
“That’s younger than me.”
Donna looked at the flower again, then placed it at the base of the headstone. “Merry Christmas, Unknown,” she whispered, and patted the top of the stone three times gently.
As they walked back to the car, Marcia holding tight to Donna’s little hand, her sister looked up and asked, “Can we come back next year, but bring him a toy instead of a flower?”
Marcia nodded, smiled. “Of course.”
That’s what they did. On Christmas Eve the next year, they went to the toy store—the same one Marcia has gone to since.
“What type of toy would you like to get him?”
“A stuffed animal.”
“A stuffed animal it is, then.”
“But it can’t be just any stuffed animal. It has to be the right one.”
Like when searching the graves the year before, Donna took her time searching for the right toy, the right stuffed animal, and when she had, her eyes shimmered and her smile was as bright as it had ever been.
That was a long time ago, and so much has changed since the first year Donna went with her and now. She stood in front of Unknown with the lamb in her hand and tears spilling down her cheeks. Her heart hurt, but she thought it would break later. She knelt, set the lamb in front of the headstone, said, “Merry Christmas, Unknown,” and then stood straight again. She tapped the top of the headstone gently three times. When she took a deep breath this time, she let it go with a rattle and a sob.
Marcia tucked her hands into her pockets, protecting them from the cold. She hunched her shoulders and walked away. When she reached her car, she looked back, saw the little ghost of a boy standing at his grave. He was pale and his hair was black. He wore a white button-down shirt and dirty black pants. His eyes held bruised bags beneath them. He was holding the lamb in his arms. When he looked up, he raised his hand in a wave.
Marcia’s breath caught in her throat, but her hand lifted and her fingers moved in a slight wave. She watched as the boy faded, leaving behind the stuffed animal where she had placed it. She got into her car and looked at the stuffed bear on the passenger’s seat. She would make the drive home now, this time to a different cemetery, one with a grave still not a year old. She would go and sit next to it, ignoring the cold. She would set the pink teddy bear on the grave and pat the headstone gently three times. Then she would say, “Merry Christmas, Donna.”
And she would cry …