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by Olivia Tejeda
Christmas carols rang out from the speakers, serving spoons clanged against dishes, and waves of laughter and conversation filled the busy dining room. The noise continued even after everyone started digging into Christmas dinner. It wasn’t the way it used to be, Grace thought, but it would have to do.
She sat back in her chair to relax before eating and ran a hand through her thick gray hair. Today was special, and she wanted to savor this meal, make it last a good long time. She looked around the room enjoying the decorations. The Christmas tree brightened a dark corner of the room with its tiny white lights, tinsel, and ornaments. Even in the midst of all the commotion she thought it was comforting and found a sense of peace just looking at it.
She remembered celebrating Christmas with her kids when they were little. She and Hal never had money to be extravagant, but as a young wife Grace learned how to stretch a dollar so her family wouldn’t have to do without, especially on the holidays.
Her eyes moved from face to face around the table, resting finally on the three kids sitting closest to her. She watched them for a moment and turned to their mother.
“The children look just beautiful,” she said.
Janice looked up cautiously, slowly finishing what was in her mouth. “Thank you,” she said finally.
“It’s hard, you know? They don’t want to dress up and …” she stopped. “The holidays … We just want it to be special for them.”
She kept looking at her children and forced a smile when she felt her tears rising. She glanced at her husband Tim who looked away as soon as their eyes met.
Grace nodded, letting Janice know she understood. “How are they doing in school this year?”
“Pretty good,” Janice said, relaxing a bit. “Jessica’s in second grade. It’s a new school, but she likes her teacher.”
“And the boys?”
“Justin and Jordan are in kindergarten this year,” Janice said, drawing out the word to reinforce for the twins how exciting it was. She leaned in closer to Grace, confiding. “It’s full-day, so that helps.”
“Well, they’re beautiful,” Grace said. “You should be proud.”
“And you should be quiet,” Hal teased when he stopped eating long enough to say something. “If you two don’t stop talking and start eating, someone’s going to come and gobble up your dinner.”
“I’ll do it,” Tim volunteered. He stuck his fork into Janice’s plate and scooped up a mouthful of potatoes.
“Hey,” Janice said, slapping his hand away and laughing.
When the twins followed suit and started stealing food from each other’s plates, their sister took charge.
“Boys, stop it,” she hissed. “Behave.”
“It’s okay, Jessica,” her mother said. “Let them be.”
The boys kept playing and Jessica grew more frustrated, horrified that her mother wasn’t hollering at them already.
“Mom!” she said when she couldn’t take it anymore. “Do something!”
“Jess, I said let them be.”
Jessica glared at her mother, sat back hard in her chair, and folded her arms.
“She’s such a grown-up little lady,” Grace said to Janice, and Jessica softened up at the compliment.
“7 going on 27,” Janice said, reaching out to touch the girl’s cheek. “She’s the best, my girl, and such a help with her brothers.”
Jessica got up and squeezed onto Janice’s lap tucking her head under her mother’s chin. Janice kissed her daughter’s head and rubbed her back as she finished eating dinner with one hand.
After his third helping, Hal stuck out his gut and patted it. He was a skinny man, but he made like he had a big round belly.
“Ho ho ho,” he said to the twins.
“You’re not Santa!” Jordan said.
“You’re too skinny to be Santa,” Justin said.
“And too old,” Jordan added.
“Jordan,” Janice cautioned.
Hal waved it off. “That’s right. I’m not Santa, I’m the Grinch, and I’m gonna eat you up” he said making his best monster face.
“No,” the twins screamed in laughter.
“You’re not the Grinch,” they said together.
“The Grinch is green,” said Jordan.
“And he doesn’t eat kids,” Justin added.
“No?” Hal asked. “What does he eat?”
“Roast beast,” Jessica chimed in.
“Roast beast? I don’t think there’s any roast beast around here,” Hal said. “What about dessert? Does he eat dessert?”
“Yes,” all three kids shouted at once.
“Good, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
Grace shook her head. “I don’t think you can fit another thing in that stomach.”
“Oh, I got some room right over here,” he said, poking at a spot under his ribs. “Besides, if I wait ‘til that guy’s done, I’ll never get to the pumpkin pie.” he said motioning to Tim who was well into his third plate and still going strong.
“I’m just trying to keep up with you, old timer,” Tim laughed. “How many servings did you have?”
“Ah, who’s counting,” Hal said waving his hand.
After dinner was over and present were opened, the kids played with their toys as the adults sat around the table with their coffee.
“Such a lovely dinner, I’m sorry to see it end,” Grace said.
Janice smiled, but Grace saw the sadness in her eyes. She wanted to tell her things would get better, but she couldn’t do it.
“We should get going,” Tim said quietly to Janice. “I’m gonna get the kids.”
Janice nodded slowly.
“Do you have a place tonight?” Grace asked. “Maybe there’s room with us.”
“We’re at St. Vincent’s Shelter,” Janice said. “Where are you?”
Janice shrugged. “We wanted to stay there but they said there was no room.”
Hal brought Grace’s coat around the table and helped her put it on. She stood close to Janice, feeling maternal, wanting to protect this stranger.
“I wish I could tell you it gets better,” she said.
Janice watched her young family walking back toward her. “It’s got to,” she said, “for them.”
Thank you for reading my flash fiction. Please share any constructive criticism you can offer. To read more flash fiction from a great group of writers, search #fridayflash on Twitter or visit Mad Utopia.
© Olivia Tejeda and Liv Loves Lit, 2008-2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Olivia Tejeda and Liv Loves Lit with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.