I had only intended to post the one segment of this story, but I have since been convinced that I should give a bit more. Who wants a Christmas story that ends on a sad note, after all. I will give a few more bites, and hope to leave off with a sweeter taste in the mind.

Christmas Morning started very early for Rachel and Mommy. Mommy carried Rachel across the street still wearing her forested, footy pajamas in the dark. Still half asleep, Rachel thought it odd that the Grammy-like person who met them at the door wore a robe that matched Rachel’s pajamas but then the girl was tucked into a nice, warm bed. Someone soft and fuzzy was tucked in with her just as her Bear had been before he disappeared into the big box of toys which never came. With a contented if sad sigh, Rachel hugged the bear-like person and knew no more until sunshine kissed her face and the smell of fresh sticky buns and coffee tickled her nose.

Rachel was not quick to get out of bed and go face someone else’s Christmas. First, she had to assemble her Very Brave Girl face. She would be good. She would be quiet. She would not cry if there was a Daddy there that was not her Daddy. She would not mope or pout about presents that were not her presents. She would eat what she was given if she could, and not complain.

Rachel was still putting together her instructions to herself, frowning sadly at the ceiling when a soft, small, gentle voice asked from quite close by, “Don’t you want any sticky buns?” It paused for a breath or two before continuing, “They are quite fine cold or reheated, of course, but I’ve always thought the very best ones are still warm from the oven.”

Rubbing her eyes and trying to smile, Rachel sat up and looked around for the speaker, but the door stood closed and she could see no one. Rachel let her smile slip and gave a small sigh. She squeezed the soft, furry body warm from the stay under the covers and rubbed her cheek on the top of his head for comfort like she would with her bear. This stuffed animal had antlers instead of round, baby-chewed ears but they were soft with short fur just like the rest of his body and seemed almost to caress her face so she did not mind.

Rachel slipped sideways out from the covers and felt carefully for the floor. The strange bed stood taller than hers, made taller still by the soft blankets and the heavy, old quilt with a big patchwork Christmas Tree. Rachel made it to the floor without a stumble and barely a sound before looking around the room.

A rocking chair sat beside the window with a round embroidery hoop framing an almost finished pattern of roses and ivy. The dresser had someone’s things upon it and a book sat on the little table by the bed so Rachel decided it was someone’s bedroom and not a guest room, or at least not an unused guest room, so she did not explore, but she did not see any clothes set out for her. Rachel thought about last year’s Christmas dress and spending all day at someone else’s Christmas in her pajamas and it was very hard not to cry.

Rachel moved over to look into the big, oval mirror with the pale wood frame standing taller than she in one corner of the room and smiled for practice. The first try looked tired and sad. It was Mommy’s smile, which did not help. Rachel tried again, imagining that Daddy came home early as a surprise and swept Mommy off the ground in a big circle like he did sometimes when he was very happy. Mommy would scold and slap his shoulder, demanding to be put down, but she would be laughing, too. Rachel held hard to that image and found her Brave Girl smile, hugging the stuffed animal tight, then she went in search of a sticky bun, finding enough brightness in that thought to hope for lots of walnuts, raisins, and dried cranberries like Grammy put in the ones Daddy would not eat.

Rachel pulled open the door to find another girl standing in the hall hugging a mass of dark red cloth with her eyes and mouth open wide in surprise. The girl in the hall was older though she was not much taller. She had a good start on a woman’s figure but some lingering baby fat. Rachel’s smile was nearly all real when she saw flannel footy pajamas with a snowy winter forest behind the red fabric.

The other girl looked down at her feet and said, “Even when it is too warm for snow, the linoleum floors get gold, socks get dirty without shoes, and I always end up losing one slipper,” by way of explanation. “We usually do not dress before breakfast, partly for comfort and partly in case of sleep induced clumsiness, okay?”

Rachel nodded, smiling her nearly entirely real smile and parroted, “Okay.” A shadow loomed up from further down the hall, nearly as tall as Rachel’s Daddy but thinner.

It tugged the other girl’s long, dark, sleep mussed braid, “Are you going to tell her about that great mass in your arms or carry it around all day?” The other girl rolled her eyes but she still smiled. Before she got the chance, the tall shadow spoke again. “I bet you have not even introduced yourself yet. Have you?”

“No, I haven’t  and if you don’t pause for longer than a breath. I will never get the chance,” the girl said with her head tilted back to look him in the face, somehow looking down her nose at him even from that angle.

“The little slowpoke here is Susan,” the shadow said, flipping Susan’s braid in her face.

Susan shook her head and easily flipped her hair back where it belonged. “And the giant’s beanpole up there is my brother, Raymond. As there is no justice in the world, he is actually my Younger brother by over a year. Anyway, I heard your mother mention to Nan that you outgrew your Christmas dress and I thought that since you are so tall for your age and i am so small for mine, you might like the one I outgrew. It may still be a bit big but I am certain we can fix that. If we don’t cut where we raise the hem or take in the seams, they can be let out again when you start to outgrow it again.” Susan adjusted her grip on the bundle of fabric and lifted it by the shoulders so Rachel could get a better look.

The dress was made from a heavy, shiny, cranberry red fabric embroidered with burgundy poinsettias, snowflakes, and ornaments. The skirts were long, full, and many layered like the princesses in many Disney movies but more practical (and less itchy) than they often were in real life. The long sleeves buttoned tightly from wrist to elbow with buttons like tiny, multi-colored Christmas lights. Susan turned it around so that the row of similar buttons ran down the back from the high collar down the back past the waist.

“It is not horribly comfortable if you want to spend a long time leaning back against something with these buttons but i could not resist when we found them. Look!” Rachel laid the dress partly over her shoulder and fiddled with something inside the right cuff and the buttons all lit up and started to blink in merry patterns.

Rachel laughed spontaneously. “LED lights, right? They are tiny, they last a long time, and they do not get hot. Daddy and I hung them all over the house last year,” Rachel caught herself and tried very hard to keep smiling. She barely slowed down at the end of the thought and bravely went on, almost immediately, trying to remember the way the words went when Mommy helped her with thank you cards. “It is a beautiful dress and if you are sure, I would be very thankful to have it.”

“She’s sure. Just wait until you see what she has come up with for this year. She and Nan have done nothing else for the last week to get it ready on time,” Raymond teased and Susan very maturely and seriously put her tongue out at him.

“Children, stop playing in the hallway and come eat before all my work goes cold or I feed it all to the Mooses. They will at least appreciate it,” a warm alto voice called from the kitchen.

“Nan,” Susan mouthed with exaggerated enunciation to be sure Rachel got it. Rachel nodded and Susan said in a louder voice, “Coming, Nan. I just want to lay out this dress for Rachel.” Susan and Raymond ushered Rachel out first so Susan could get into the room Rachel woke up in.

“Go ahead and try, Nan. You know very well the Mooses would not let us go hungry and anything from the Valley would be at least as good as what you have,” Raymond added side stepping around Rachel once they reached the wider living room area on the way to the kitchen.

“Well, pook. I should never have let you two have those books. It takes all the umph out of my threats now that you have probably read them as often as I have,” Nan said, stepping out where they could see with a steaming mug in one hand and a plate heavy with sticky buns, fried eggs, and rashers in the other.

Without a word, the Grammy-like person held her mug out behind her and handed the plate to Raymond. The boy did not come close to spilling even a crumb when he swept the plate out to the side with a straight arm and bowed deeply with his empty hand over his heart to the tall, grey haired older lady. Her smile sat comfortably on what once must have been a beautiful face made warm and full of character by filling it with laugh lines. “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”

“What? I feed you and now you want me dead by poison and treachery? Ungrateful boy. Hamlet was a melodramatic idiot,” Nan said frowning with pursed lips.

“True, but it still sounded good,” Raymond said rising with a smile. He turned in search of silverware and continued while opening a drawer, “How about, ‘May squads of Mooses dance among your thick, grey curls?”

Nan laughed, shaking her head. “It is better but it needs work.” Then she looked over and saw Rachel and her smile brightened, “Hello, my dear. Did you get enough sleep? I hope the two hooligans did not wake you.”

The Nan seemed genuinely concerned so Rachel answered the second sentence before the actual question. “They did not. I thought I heard someone ask if I wanted any sticky buns but I did not see anyone, but I was awake already…” Rachel saw Nan and Raymond exchange smiles and trailed off. Maybe she should not have mentioned the voice. She hugged her antlered sleeping companion up under her chin.

“Well, Would you like any sticky buns?” Nan asked, still smiling. Rachel hesitated a moment but then she nodded. “Oh good. You like extra walnuts, raisins, dried cranberries, and cinnamon in yours,” Nan said with no trace of a question as she turned to one of the baking pans of rolled, filled sweet dough on the peninsula of counter space that divided the kitchen area from the rest of the room. Nan loaded two large buns, oozing filling onto a plate and gave Rachel a thoughtful look. “Scrambled eggs for you, I think.” Nan added a generous helping of fluffy yellow eggs from a plate by the stove, moving around Raymond as he made his way to the dining table with plate, knife, fork, and a large, steaming, blue mug which smelled strongly of chocolate.

When Raymond passed Rachel with a wink, Nan caught the girl’s attention again with a, “Hmm,” and narrowed eyes. “Salt but no pepper or any of the more exotic things Raymond and his father load into their eggs. Though, I am certain we could find an omelet to suit you if we started from scratch,” Nan ground a careful amount of salt onto the eggs, like a brief flurry of ice crystals onto the tiny yellow mountain range.

Nan said with another glance, “Rashers? On no, thin and crispy, a girl after my own heart.” Nan added several strips of crispy bacon to the plate. “If you want to go sit with Raymond, I will bring this out to you with the utensils. It is a bit much for you to manage one handed, I think.”

Rachel looked from Raymond at the table to Nan and back.” I can put her down and get my own plate. It is no trouble,” she said, unconsciously tightening her hug as she spoke.

“Don’t be silly,” Nan said, picking up a second, already filled plate with an assortment of silverware and headed towards the table, herding Rachel towards the chair Raymond pushed out with one foot. “Mooses appreciate hugs before breakfast. Now, would you prefer juice, milk, or hot chocolate?” Nan asked, turning to look at Rachel after sliding her mug in front of one place, the plates in front of two, and arranging the silverware in front of three.

Rachel wanted to say, “Whichever is the least trouble,” but before she could, Nan seemed to see a different answer somewhere about Rachel’s person and Raymond distracted her.

“He’s a him, not a her,”he told her quietly.

Nan nodded her head sharply and went back to the kitchen mumbling, “Hot chocolate it is with real whipped cream and a touch of peppermint.”

Rachel looked back and forth between Nan and Raymond a little out of her depth as she slid into the chair pushed out and in front of the plate filled for her. Rachel looked back after Nan with a touch of wonder. Grammy could not have chosen better what Rachel would best like. Rachel turned back to Raymond and said, “What?”

“For the most part, you can tell the boy Mooses from the girl Mooses by their antlers. The girl Mooses have antlers darker than their fur and the boy Mooses have antlers that are paler,” Raymond explained patiently.

Rachel took her first good look at the boy Moose in the crook of her arm, holding him out in both hands to look him in his furry face. His fur was a pale blue, with a darker blue on white print antlers and hooves. She tilted her head slightly to the side looking at the Moose then over at Raymond.

He smiled and said, “His antlers are more white than blue.” Rachel nodded and hugged the boy Moose, again.

Nan came back with two mugs held by the handle in one hand and another filled plate in the other. Raymond had only sipped at his mug and neither he nor Nan ate once they were seated so Rachel waited too, presumably for Susan.

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