23 Days Before Christmas

Happy holidays to all of my lovely readers!

🎁

It was cold. This time of year, Autumn would normally be heading South or heading home.

But when her flight had been delayed and then cancelled, when all rental cars were out and the train had a mysterious breakdown, Autumn took the hint the universe was dropping in her lap and took the convoluted bus route with all the overnight-or-longer layovers.

She had been a little concerned about the first town on her list, since a quick internet search had told her it had a population of just over a thousand, and shrinking. 

While she loved small towns more than most things in the world, in the last couple years, Autumn had been having a little more trouble finding, as it were, room at the Inn.

Airbnb turned out to be her friend, and although three of the five places available in or near North Van Der Zee were booked, and the fourth one look a little too questionable even for Autumn, the fifth one was open and even affordable, all things considered. 

It was, however, a 2-mile walk from where the bus had dropped her, which, while well within what Autumn normally walked in a day, was getting a little cold for her.  She was an 8-hour bus ride more or less north from where she’d been, and her fingers were getting chilly less than a mile in. 

She thought she might be getting soft, but she thought she’d leave thoughts like that for  her sisters to tease her with.

The wind was blowing and her fingers were starting to freeze about halfway into her pilgrimage, when a family restaurant beckoned her. 

She stepped through the double aluminum-and-glass doors to the smells and sounds of an aging small town late on a Thursday afternoon. 

She didn’t know if she drew gazes simply because she was a stranger, or the marks that some were sure to assume were tattoos which were showing on what little skin she had bare, or the wild mess she was sure her namesake (autumn-leaf red) hair was tangled into by now, but she smiled at anyone who happened to look her way while she took a moment to get the feel of the place. 

She picked a 2-person table she was fairly certain wasn’t someone’s chosen spot and settled in where her side – not her back not her face – was to most of the old-timers.  The noise picked up again; she probably’d done the right thing.

The waitress  — Cassie, she said — brought her water, hot coffee, and a menu without asking, as well as a big plate of hash browns still piping warm.  

“Just out of the fryer, and Dan changed his mind.  Judy won’t eat them on account of her teeth, Carla’s on South Beach or Atikins or Keto or something and won’t eat anything white or some nonsense, so you might as well have them,  Miss, if you don’t mind?”

“Might as well tell her about Carl’s ulcer, too,” an older man called over.  “And don’t forget Trudy’s affair.”

“Trudy’s not having an affair, you ridiculous warthog,” the waitress scolded.  “She’s never been having an affair and she still isn’t. Now you let the nice lady enjoy her hash browns, you hear?”

Autumn let out a breath and relaxed her shoulders.  “Thank you, ma’am. I’ll have whatever you recommend that’s hearty and filling.”

She was only two bites into her food when the woman she was pretty sure was Judy plopped down across the table from her.  “New in town or passing through?”

“Just passing through,” Autumn admitted.  “The Greyhound, Trailways connection’s here.”

“We get a few every year.  Staying at one of the Air B-n-bees?  We used to have a real B-n-B, but I mean, two people every couple months isn’t enough to keep one of those up, and this isn’t exactly tourist country.”  She smiled at Autumn with teeth that looked disturbingly white and bright. “It’s barely even country for kids. What’d you say your name was again? I’m Judy Johnson.”

“Autumn Roundtree.”  Autumn took a couple bites of her food and swallowed them down politely.  “It seems like a very pretty place.”

“We work hard at that, but pretty doesn’t really draw the tourists so much.”  Judy shook her head. “Bus comes tomorrow? Pity.  Day after tomorrow’s R.”

Autumn wondered if that was why the Air-BnB contact had insisted they’d hold the room for her a second night.  “R?” she prompted; Judy obviously wanted to tell her, and it gave her a chance to get a couple more bites in. 

“So there’s a town tradition.  Every year, from the 1st through the 23rd of December, we give little gifts – sort of Secret-Santa things but we try to make them mean something if we can – to everyone who’s name starts with, well, A for the first, B for the second…”

Autumn made the appropriate slightly-puzzled face, although she already had a guess, because Judy clearly wanted to answer the question she hadn’t asked yet. 

“Roman alphabet!  That way it fits tidily with Christmas Eve being a big chorale thing in the town square. J-names go with I, U and W with V.  Usually still not a busy day. There’s usually a little regifting but since you never knew who gave you what, we try to keep it to a minimum.”

“So – everyone in the town buys something for everyone else in the town?” Even at 1000 people, that had to be huge. 

“Well, everyone but your own letter.  Little things, usually. We generally – well, I do, at least – look around all year.  Carla crochets something little, she starts usually about now for next year, and a lot of times she’ll work the letter in.  Her husband helps. And Loura and her husband, they carve little wood figures. The way we see it, that’s less than three a day.  I give jarred mixes, you know, ‘make a brownie from a jar’ or something like that, some years, other years it’s something like these new electric hand-warmers or just a new ice scraper.”

“Have you told her about the trees?” the older man who thought Trudy was having an affair called out.  The way his voice carried, Autumn wondered if he was going deaf – but he seemed to track conversations pretty well. 

“I’m getting there, Dan.  We’re just on how you give everyone in the town a gift.  So they’re usually small things, yeah, maximum like, an hour of work or $5 or so.  Every so often someone goes a little over the top, sold their land or came into some money or something, and everyone gets something a little special, but mostly, yeah, $5.  But this year.”  Judy leaned forward.  “I have been living here for twenty years – moved here after my first divorce because, believe it or not, a job opened up downtown – and I have never seen anything like this.  This year it’s gotten kind of weird.”

“Mmm?”  Autumn had been caught with a mouthful of food, so she settled for a raised eyebrow. 

A friend had once joked that there was nothing that would catch Autumn’s attention faster than “it’s gotten weird.” She tilted her head in what she hoped looked like polite curiosity. You’d have thought she’d had enough practice at that, but sometimes she still screwed it up. “Weird how?”

Weird weird! Weird like ‘how are they affording all this‘, weird like, ‘what is going on’,  Weird like ‘what is this leading to?‘ Weird like, ‘are we supposed to up the stakes too?'”  The more she went on, the lower Judy’s voice went, so that she ended up in a very intense whisper. 

“Up the stakes?” Autumn could keep this up all night.

“Yeah!  I mean, I told you what sort of stuff we or we usually do  for gifts, yeah?”

Autumn nodded.

“So, somebody is leaving fruit baskets,”  Judy gestured about half the size of the table.  Autumn wasn’t sure if she was exaggerating or not, so she waited patiently.  “Really nice fruit baskets. Nuts and chocolate, and fruit, really fresh fruit.  And on top of the whole thing…” This time the gesture was smaller than the plate Autumn was eating off of – or at least trying to eat.  “A tree.”

“A tree?”  Autumn let herself lean forward a little. 

“Yeah, a tiny tree in a pot.  Most of them have like one leaf,  maybe two, and they come with planting directions, and what you’re supposed to do with them until it’s warm enough to plant them. Mine’s in the garage,” she confided.  “I check in on it every day, just to make sure it’s still there.”

“So… someone is giving everyone an expensive fruit basket, with a tree.”

“Yeah!”  Judy grinned manically.   “And it comes with a little card.  And on the card, it says-” She started digging in her purse. 

Dan piped up, clearly having not stopped listening at any point.  “The card says, ‘plant yourself a future; plant yourself a link to the past.'”

“That sounds like a beautiful gift.  You know, that’s why ‘Johnny Appleseed’ planted apple trees – building a link to the future.”

Judy and Dan smiled at her, but she clearly wasn’t understanding the enormity of this gift.

“So.”  Judy leaned towards her.  “So. You’re not part of this, nobody’s expecting you to leave gifts, so what do you think? Do you think we’re supposed to up the game for the rest of the alphabet?

“Like… Like do I think it’s a challenge.  I mean…” Autumn did her best to think this through seriously. Judy and Dan and all the others were looking at her with obvious bated breath.  “I mean, that seems unlikely and unfair, frankly, to ‘up the game’ midstream? If it’s a challenge, I’d say it’s a challenge for next year.   But these things… things like this, they generally have to be about the spirit of it, so I don’t think someone’s saying ‘spend more money.  For one, it’s a lot of gifts and a lot people couldn’t afford it.  You guys could – what do you do, sit down with a phone book?”

“We have a directory of every last name in New Van Der Zee, and how they’re sorted by household,” Judy explained.  “I, at least, I try if there’s two Smiths in a house to give a bigger gift but if it’s a Smith and a Wilson they get a smaller gift for one person.  It seems a little unfair to me; I feel like married couples ought to get the one shared gift, but then you’re only going with one person’s last name, when they clearly wanted both last names…. you know?

Autumn could at least guess, so she nodded. She wasn’t sure where she’d been going with that, [I might cut this bit], so she changed directions. 

She mulled it over while sipping her coffee.  “People who, mmm, need a little extra?”

“Two ways we handle that.”  Judy had a slightly affronted look, like she shouldn’t have had to ask.  “One, all of us who have a little extra, we put in to a sort of fund, something anyone in the village can pull from, to take care of gifts. Even if you bake things, so it’s super small, you’re still spending over $100 just to get all the ingredients, not to mention wrapping it, and that’s $100 more than some people can actually afford sometimes.  So anyone can give gifts.  And two – it’s a small town.  Someone always knows when someone’s been hurting, lost a job, gotten ill, you know.  So you just start their present with a hamper that you happen to line with new towels and new blankets that you bought on sale, and you but in some extra toys and books for the kids. ”  She lifted her chin. 

“Nobody, nobody  in New Van Der Zee has a bad holiday season.  Nobody.  Everybody has enough, even if only for the month.  We ain’t cheap; we take care of people, and even if some of us are cheap, ’cause you know somebody will be,” she sighed, “the rest of us know and make up for it.”

Autumn took a nice long time-buying drink of her coffee.  “I’d say-” though she could tell that she wasn’t going to get much sleep while she was here.  “-I’d say that it’s not a challenge, then. I mean, how could it be? I’d bet it’s a reward. You know, ‘Keep up the good work’?  That sort of thing.”

She watched the way they relaxed and smiled at them, took another few bites of her food and chewed on the problem as well.  In theory, there was nothing wrong.  If someone had put some happy strand magic into making their gift giving Hallmark Movie perfect, that wasn’t in any way a bad thing. 

But she was curious.

She flipped her phone to her gallery. “So, I’m an artist. I like to do portraits of towns I stay in… ” she really wasn’t getting any sleep tonight. “And I’d like to do one for New Van Der Zee. I like to get a feeling of the town’s history… the library probably isn’t open this late…”

“No, it closes at 6 these days.”

“So, who’s, do you know, who’s been here in town the longest?”

Judy pursed her lips. “My mom’s the oldest, but she moved here after me. Let’s see… Dan?”

“Trudy. She’s been here twenty…. Six or seven years, let’s see, likes to say she came in with Clinton, so oh, twenty six. Not the only thing she has in common with…”

“Daniel Hernández Flores! You stop that nonsense right now! Trudy is no more having an affair than she is the Queen of England! Now, though, she might be one who’s been here the longest. She lives in the little Elder Care place down off Maple. She’s really quite old,” confided the elderly woman, “and a little batty, but she usually knows what day it is.”

Autumn glanced out the window.  She still had maybe an hour before it got dark.  

“When you finish up here,” Judy told her, correctly interpreting her gaze, “I’ll walk you over there.  It’s not far at all, and if I introduce you, Trudy will open up faster. We’ll just leave Dan here behind, all things considered.”

Autumn chuckled a little, picturing Dan bringing those accusations to this elderly woman in a old folks’ home.  “That would be great, thanks.”

“No problem at all. Just finish up your dinner, take your time. It’s still pretty early and none of us have anything exciting going on in our lives. Well, except the gifts. That’s about as lively as things get around here.”

As Autumn, belly full of warm food and brain fueled by warm coffee, ambled with Judy down the road, she began to second-guess the thought that there was some mystery here. Judy had said it: the alphabet gift thing was the excitement around here. So someone had made it a little more exciting. Nothing wrong with that. And how much of the excitement had grown in the telling? She wasn’t exactly going to ask to see the baskets, after all. That would sound like she didn’t believe them, or, worse, like she thought something was wrong.

“Do you mind if we go a block out of the way?” Judy interrupted her thoughts — and her own monologue on the businesses and homes they’d passed — to ask. “Something I want to show you.”

Now that sounded interesting. “Not at all. A little bit of walking is always nice.”

Hadn’t she just been complaining (internally) about the walk? Or at least about the walking in the cold?

This was different, she told herself. It was interesting, for one, and she wasn’t hungry , for another, and she wasn’t already cold, for a third.

“It is,” Judy agreed. “Most days I take a walk all the way around the town, one corner of ‘downtown’ to the other and back. Gives me something to do. Retirement isn’t as exciting as it was cracked up to be.”

“Funny, I hear that a lot.” Autumn smiled as they took a left turn down a darkened street.

This would be the part in a horror movie where it turned out to really be a bad idea to wander off with strangers, but Autumn hadn’t worried about that since her sisters got old enough to twist the Strands.

“Yeah? You talk to a lot of old folks?”

“Retirees, at least,” Autumn temporized. “When you spend a lot of your life wandering aroudn small towns, the people who have time to talk to you are often the retirees. It’s that and children under five, and people are usually more nervous about me talking to their children than their grandparents.”

“A sweet girl like you?” Judy looked her over. “It’s not nineteen-seventy,” she scoffed. “You might look a little like a hippy but you don’t look dangerous. You look wise, if anything, wise and kind.”

“That is the nicest thing anyone has said about me this year.” Autumn smiled back at Judy. “I might write it on a nametag for myself. Autumn Roundtree, known as Wise and Kind by Judy of New Van Der Zee.”

“You should. Anyone questions it, you have them call me. I’ll set ‘em straight.” Judy rounded a corner and a street light made a halo of light behind her head. “Just this way, here.”

This was something like a Main Street, although the sign said Maple Street — a pharmacy, a florist, a used book store, all in storefronts that were probably as old as the town itself. And then Judy stopped and gestured.

The building was pressed against one on either side, two stories tall, but it had a pride to it, a dignity, that looked like it had just been put up. It was called the Community Center, in letters carved in stone, and it was flanked on either side of a proud glass foyer with pillars carved to look as if they were twisting.

Autumn didn’t need to draw a single line of ink to feel the connections in this place; she had a feeling every single person who had ever lived in New Van Der Zee felt a sense of belonging attached to the Community Center.

There were two big stone urns outside that were full of winter plantings — holly, mostly — and circled with wreaths. In one of the windows, she could see a series of childrens’ drawing of something she was pretty sure was the park she’d walked through on her way to the diner.

“Day care in the mornings, senior activities in the afternoons, and half the time we old folk and the young folks hang out together and cut up paper and things.” Judy’s voice was more reverant than the flippant words suggested. “Weddings, funerals, parties eight times a year, the big Craft Fair and the annual Garage Sale. That one draws people from adjoining states,” she added proudly. “This place, you want to draw New Van Der Zee, you draw this.”

Autumn took out her phone and clicked a series of photos, getting every angle of the place. “Thank you.” She wasn’t faking the reverence in her own voice. “Thank you for showing me this.”

“And now,”. Judy shifted gears like the sincerity had made her uncomfortable, “Now I’ll go introduce you to Trudy.”

Autumn sat in the cute breakfast nook in the adorable little cottage that had turned out to be her Air B-n-B and sketched the Community center. Into the twists of the pillars, she added a few swirls here and there, just enough of a pattern to not only tell her what was going on but to convey that feeling forward.

“Oh, the gifts, the alphabet gifts.

Trudy was an ailing woman who looked more to the past than to the present, but her voice was clear and her clouded eyes seemed to see Autumn clearly. “I remember the first year I was here, I thought it such a strange thing. Who thinks they can give gifts to everyone? But the answer was, New Van Der Zee did. They thought they could, and they did.”

The gifts were important. She drew in the lines of the planters and added, around the outside, a few small boxes and a couple larger.

“It was my second year, I crocheted until I thought I would never crochet again. I found this yarn over in the city, they had twenty-three colors, so there I was. Well, there were twenty-five, but two of them were so ugly I left them in the store. Twenty-three colors, and I was making scarves from January through the 23rd of December. “

Autumn considered the planters and wrapped a sketch-line of a scarf around each one, a few bumpy bits for the crochet. People making for one another. That was important. That was always important.

“But oh, I hadn’t been here all that long and someone — I never did figure out who, they went all the way overboard. They packed up this huge hamper and they put a tree on top of it. For Every Single House, can you believe it?”

“You daft old bat.” Judy’s voice had been full of affection mixed with exasperation. “That’s this year.”

Autumn drew a calendar just over to the side of the right-hand window. It wouldn’t have dates, just a sort of sketchy feeling of time passing.

She could already feel it beginning to work. There were really tight Strands here in new Van Der Zee, really tight connections binding everyone together. They sang out to her; they sprawled across the whole town and further, reaching all over the country and maybe even further.

“Don’t you call me an old bat, you old bat. Just because I can’t see so good don’t mean I can’t tell the difference between an election year and not, between the nineties and the teens, between the presidents. I know when it was, and I was not really young anymore, but I was still working. Down at the Deposit and Guarantee, across the street there from the Community Center.

Autumn thumbed through her photos until she found one that had a reflection of the Deposit and Guarantee in the windows of the Community Center and added, that, too, pulling from a couple internet archives as well. She just needed the suggestion of it, to tie Trudy’s story to the lines already twisting on the paper. It wouldn’t take much more than that, with the paper almost reaching out to grab her.

Autumn had sketched out, drawn, painted questions to the Strands before. Never in all her time doing this — back as far as kindergarten — had she felt the Strands reaching back to tell her quite this strongly, this eagerly.

There was a story in New Van Der Zee, and it wanted to be told. 

Or it wanted to be seen, at least. 

Twenty-three years ago, the twenty-three day holiday’d had an addition of trees.  This year, it had an addition of trees. 

And people didn’t stay in New Van Der Zee more than twenty years?  That could be related, but on the other hand, that could be a factor of it being a very small town not all that close to anything but happening to be on a bus line.   

She needed a library, but the library was closed. A quick internet search found only a wiki page and the town’s static, thin web page.

She flipped through the web page’s gallery until she found an old sepia photo of the Community Center, and then a faded, yellowed 1970’s photo, and one from the too-bright film of the 80’s. She kept adding details to her drawing, filling in two little trees to either side of the center, then, on an urge, making them a little taller, a little taller.

There weren’t any trees there now, but the photo from the 70s showed two flanking the center, in front of the [] and what was now the used book store. They were slender and new-looking; the caption read New Van Der Zee plants for the future.

As Autumn understood it, trees planted in sidewalks never lasted as long as their wild counterparts. They’d grow big enough to threaten the sidewalk or the buildings, or they’d be in the way of construction, or they’d simply fail to thrive in an artificial environment with salt in the winter and too many people packing the soil in the summer. A tree planted 46 years ago might have already been replaced twice, but they hadn’t been replaced.

She looked at her own photos and tried to remember. Had there been blank holes, or just sidewalk? You didn’t plant trees in winter anyway, as far as she remembered.

The trees on the page seemed to move, just a little, like their branches were swaying in the wind. She added the slightest hint of snowfall — she didn’t want it to “cover” the presents, after all — making sure the wind went the way it ought to.

Plant a Future. Plant a link to the past. It sounded modern, sort of hippy-like, something Autumn would know well.  23 years ago – that would be pretty late for hippies, but 23 years before that…  That would be prime hippy time. 

She moved back to the drawing and sketched in a few more lines.  It was time to add ink, and she still didn’t know all the facts. 

A memory from her mother tickled at the back of her head.  You ask questions to find the answers, Miss Autumn, not because you already know them all.  

Well, she snorted cheerfully, all right then.  That was clear enough. 

She picked a few pens, almost at random, and started putting down the lines.  The building here, the trees there, the snow just a suggestion in the palest blue.  Then there was the reflections in the windows, the calendar showing a flipping page – a hand flipping the page, her mind insisted, and so she put in a suggestion of a figure with pencil before adding in their hand, flipping that calendar page. 

The garlands around the big planter-urns added a splash of green and the red to the drawing, and it began to come to life.  She’d gone as big as she had supplies for, a sheet of 11 x 17 watercolor paper kept carefully rolled in a tube in her bag. She felt she was going to need the whole space to do this justice.

Her hand was drawn to the mousepad, so she flipped a little further back in the gallery, finding a picture from the early fifties.  This time it was the Deposit and Guarantee, and now she had a feeling of who she was drawing, a young girl standing there with her father as two trees were planted in front of the stately building. 

The girl had been maybe five then.  She’d be in her seventies now. But her, her father, that’s where the Strands led. 

But the old folks in the town didn’t know anyone who’d been here longer than twenty years.  Interesting.

Autumn started on a frame for the image, two very tall trees, the sort that were over a hundred years old, their branches interweaving above.  Right next to them, two tiny saplings, barely more than sticks. The trees flanked the image and held it in, seeming to shelter the whole town. 

She was done, she knew it.  She pulled out her watercolors and more pens and worked furiously on the image until the sun rose again in the sky. 

~*~

Autumn snuck in a brief nap before packing up the next morning to walk to the diner. The sky was clear, the sun was shining, and her Air B-n-B host had left her a basket full of bus-friendly foods and a small sketchbook and pens, just the right size for the lap desks in the good busses.

She was glad she’d spent an hour of her sleepless night working on a drawing of the little cottage, a small thing on a palm-sized notepad but as detailed as full as her drawing of the Community Center.

She was certain New Van Der Zee was going to leave its mark on her memories for a long time.

The diner was open already, the same waitress, Cassie, working with a teenaged busboy to get the tables set.

“Ah, you did come back. I thought you would. Come on in, the biddies will probably be in soon, they always are. Breakfast and dinner. They like it here almost as much as the Community Center.”

Autumn followed Cassie’s gesture to the table she’d sat at the day before and sat down, pulling the tube out of her bag. “I can see why.” She looked at the woman’s face again — yeah, she could definitely see the resemblance to the little girl. More than that, she could feel the Strands tugging at her, tugging at Cassie, tugging at the drawing.

“I—“

She was cut off by the “biddies” bustling in, talking about the next letter of the alphabet, talking about the gifts they wanted to do next year. For a few minute, the diner was full of the bustle of coffee orders and greetings.

Autumn took the moment of peace to unroll her drawing. In the light of the diner, she could feel the story of it even more. The twenty-three gifts, the twenty-three yers, the foreshortened alphabet to fit into December.

She was pretty sure the tradition was as old as New Van Der Zee. She wasn’t certain of just about anything in this case, but it was woven into the foundations of the town, definitely into the foundations of the diner.

“Oh, you made it back here, good!” Judy plopped down at her table. “We decided you counted as an honorary part of — oh, wow. You did that yesterday?”

“Last night,” Autumn agreed. “I figure I can sleep on the bus.”

“This is amazing, did you know that? Of course you know it. That’s the Community Center there, oh you put in the gifts, look, look Dan, look!”

Cassie paused with Autumn’s coffee and set it down on the table next to her. Her eyes raked the drawing.

Autumn looked up at her in all innocence in time to catch her mouthing “thank you”. She nodded slowly.

The figures were all there. The clues were just the way Autumn had found them. A familiar hand turned the calendar, but the figure was hidden by the shadows and the reflections. The Strands sang out from the drawing, talking about tradition and connection and cycles. But there was nothing in there except the hand to point to Cassie.

“I want to give it to the town,” Autumn told them all, “which for me means this diner. But I’d like to take it home and scan it and then mail it to you, so I have my own copy as well.”

“Oh, I have a flatbed scanner in the back!” Cassie exclaimed. Autumn did the best to hide her cringe, thinking of the sort of chap scanners she’d tried to work with in the past.

Cassie’s pat on her shoulder told her she hadn’t done that well at hiding it. “I’m digitizing everything I can find of town records,” she told Autumn gently. “This thing can fit your whole drawing there and let me tell you, it will find and scan details you didn’t even know were in there. More pixels per inch than any monitor or printer; you can see the twinkled in Old Man Van Der Zee’s eye from a photo older than the town. It’ll do this amazing work justice. And then neither you nor we have to trust the postal system, mmm?”

Autumn acquiesced, and the two of them – much to the “biddies'” dismay – headed into the back room of the diner to scan her drawing. 

True to Cassie’s word, it was a scanner equal to, if not better than, the one that Autumn kept at home for just this purpose.  It also, unlike Autumn’s, seemed to glisten with Strand Magic. “Where,” she whispered, “did you get that scanner?”

“Oh, I have a friend who has a friend,” Cassie told her far too breezily.  “I’ll send you the contact information with the files. Email?”

“Autumn at RoundTree – my sister was a computer major for a semester,” she really-didn’t-explain.  “oh, dot family.”

They got that settled and Cassie brought the drawing back out into the diner proper, spreading it out on an unused table and admonishing everyone “don’t even think of going near this with food.  Or touching it. I’m going to have it framed on Monday.  Until then you’ll have to look at it very very carefully.”

 Even then, it was only a moment before she came out with a clear piece of plexi – the sort over most of the tables already – and put it over the drawing.  

Now can we talk to her?” Judy demanded, sounding more like a toddler than a retiree. 

Cassie smiled broadly at them, approving or at least amused.  “Yes. Now you may talk to the nice travelling lady.”

Judy huffed and plopped back down at Autumn’s table.  “We talked, and we decided just because you’d miss R, you shouldn’t be left out, and like we said, we decided you were so interested in the town – even before that gorgeous drawing, I want a print so if you’re selling prints, let me now – that you were an honorary member of New Van Der Zee, so we put together a basket for you.  It’s obviously not from everyone in the town, we can’t move that fast, but even Trudy put in.”  She pushed forward a very nice travel-ready small duffel bag. 

Autumn found a warm feeling pressing in her chest.  “Oh… oh, wow.” She looked around. “Should I – should I wait ’till tomorrow to open it, then?”

“Maybe just give it a peek today,” Judy decided, to chuckles from the rest of the biddies.  The townsfolk.  

Autumn slowly opened the bag and peeked inside.  Everything looked very well packed up, with little bits of foam in between presents so they didn’t rattle, but on top was a hand-carved ornament: an oak leaf stained the same red-orange as Autumn’s hair. 

“That’s from Loura and her husband.  The rest, we left cards, because most of us, we’d know who was giving something just because we know the town.”

“And this one is from me.”  Cassie set down a very small pot – no more than three inches across – with a very small oak seedling in it, and then, with a smirk, set down a little gable doughnut box, just big enough to hold the plant and, when Autumn peeked inside, set up with a cupholder to set the pot in the middle of the box.  “I thought since you were, well, an honorary part of New Van Der Zee now, you ought to have a little piece of our town with you as well, so I nipped down to the nursery once the biddies started planning. Plant it where your Round Tree lives, and then you can remember us, whenever you’re home.”

Autumn could feel the Strands of connection coming off of the tree, off of the bag of presents.  When they said part of New Van Der Zee, they meant it, and they meant it with all of their being. 

She was sniffling. She smiled at them all. “Judy… do you think you could email me that list of town residents? Since I’m part of the town now, and all.”

She wasn’t sure quite what she’d do, but she knew exactly where in her mother’s yard the tree was going, and she knew she was going to mail every house in New Van Der Zee a present next year.  

You could get a lot in an envelope without going over the current first-class postage, after all.

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One thought on “23 Days Before Christmas

  1. Oh this is WONDERFUL.

    Thank you so much for the lovely holiday present. I love the tradition. And I love the sense of community.

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