*the usual disclaimers apply— a belated Christmas story --just hope it's not a total mish-mosh—thanks to everyone who answered my strange questions and to Anne and Ermintrude for their help with this. References made to 'One Flew East' and 'Forgive Us Our Trespasses' by Two Ladies By the Shore. *

A Wonderful Christmastime

345 Cunningham Ave.

Los Angeles, CA.

7:00 AM

"Have everything you need?" Sandra asked.

Jamie wrapped his arms around Sandra, pulling her body close to his. "Pretty much," he said. "There's just one more thing I'd like to take along with me."

Sandra sighed. "Jamie, we've been over this—"

"My dad's out of town for Christmas with Carrie's family— but you'd love to meet my mother—and I know she'd love you. My stepdad's great too—"

"Right—and your brother?"

"Well let's see—Phillip's okay when he's not being a dork—and there's my little sister Jenna, my Grandma and her husband—"

"Quite a family."

"They really are. So what do you say? You and Caitlin could be packed and ready in twenty minutes."

"I think you know the problem with that," Sandra said. As if on cue, a door slammed upstairs.

"Caitlin," Sandra raised her voice slightly. "Why don't you come down here and say goodbye? Jamie's just about to leave."

"I don't want to say goodbye to Mr. King," Caitlin called. "I don't like him and I'm not going to."

'Look, I don't like the guy. I'll never like the guy.' In his head Jamie could hear his own voice saying those words about Lee so long ago. He winced.

Sandra closed her eyes, pressing her hand against her forehead. "I swear, that girl.—"

"Sandra, it's okay, really," Jamie said. "We'll just give Caitlin some space and everything will be fine."

Sandra smiled. "I love you, Mr. King."

"Love you too."

Sandra's lips met his in a brief but passionate kiss. "Call me when you get there, okay?"

"Count on it," Jamie said.

Sears—Ballston Common Mall

11:30 AM

"This is the new Kenmore Ultra Wash 665, sir." The young salesgirl, who was named Lindsay and dressed as one of Santa's elves, pointed to the machine. "It has a top consumer rating and plus it's ultra-quiet."

"Ultra-quiet and ultra wash, huh?" Lee said. Lindsay said nothing, just stared blankly at him with her heavily-made-up blue eyes. 'Jingle Bells' played in the background, reminding everyone of how much fun it was to ride in a one-horse open sleigh. Lee, who had been to three appliance stores in the last hour, had a sudden urge to shout 'Bah Humbug!' at everyone.

Back in the old days it had been so much easier just to buy everyone a scarf. He ran a hand back through his hair, drew in a deep breath and blew it out in a giant whoosh.

"At the moment it's the best model we have," Lindsay replied, parroting phrases learned at some sales seminar and completely oblivious to how Lee was feeling at the moment. "Kenmore's a very reliable brand-name."

"How much is it?" Lee asked.

"Well it's already a bargain at only $649—but I'm sure that we could work out an in-store discount—like maybe ten percent or a reasonable payment plan."

Lee hesitated. They really did need a dishwasher—despite Amanda's jiggling of the blue wire the old one was over twenty years old and beginning to fall apart. But then his mind went back to Tiffany's and the open-heart diamond pendant he'd found there. He pictured Amanda's face and how she would smile when she went to unwrap it on Christmas morning—the way the diamonds would glitter against her skin when he placed it around her neck—

Was it possible to afford both? Lee wasn't sure.

Yep, scarves had definitely been easier.

"Sir?" The salesgirl's voice broke into Lee's reverie. "What do you think?"

"I—ah—I'll have to think about it," Lee told her.

SMK SMK SMK SMK

4247 Maplewood Dr.

12:00 PM

"I really don't think that Captain Curt would do that to you, Mother." Amanda balanced the cordless between her neck and shoulder as she scraped the food from the plates.

"To be honest I'm not sure either," Dotty sniffed. "I mean, I have a feeling, but sometimes feelings can be misleading. They tell you on all those talk shows to trust your instincts, but I've seen so many women on those shows be completely wrong. How would you really know?"

"What makes you think that Captain Curt is cheating on you?"

"Well he's been very secretive lately. He's sneaking out at all hours—making strange phone calls—and yesterday he left his cell phone here and a strange woman called asking for him. I told her that I could take a message, but she hung up on me. I asked Curt about it, of course."

"What did he say?"

"He said there was a rational explanation, but that he couldn't tell me what it was."

"There probably is," Amanda said. "Maybe he's planning a special Christmas surprise for you."

"I certainly hope that's all it is, Amanda—personally I have a bad feeling about this."

"Mom?" Jenna appeared at the entrance to the kitchen. "Can I ask you something? It's kind of important."

Amanda put her finger on her lips, signaling for Jenna to wait. "I'll have to call you right back, Mother—Jenna needs to talk to me about something."

"All right—we'll talk later." Dotty said. "I love you."

"Love you too, Mother," Amanda said. "And don't worry—I'm sure that everything with Captain Curt will work out just fine. Goodbye." She hung up the phone and turned to Jenna.

"Are Grandma and Captain Curt okay?" Jenna asked.

"They're fine," Amanda said. "What did you want to talk to me about?"

"Well there's this party tomorrow night—it's at Michelle Mardis' house and a lot of people are coming— Lisa and a lot of my friends are going too—we've all been invited. Can I go?"

Amanda sighed as she stacked the plates in the dishwasher. "Jenna, exactly how long have you known about this?"

Jenna stared down at her feet. "I got the invitation about a week and a half ago."

"Then how come I'm only hearing about it now?"

"I was putting off telling you because I wasn't sure what you'd say."

Amanda put detergent into the dishwasher and closed the machine, starting the cycle. "Sweetheart, you've been to parties before—what's so different about this one that you're telling me at the last minute?"

"It's not exactly the last minute," Jenna said. Amanda gave her daughter a look and Jenna sighed. "Well the different thing about this party is that boys are invited too."

"Sweetheart—"

"But it's going to be chaperoned by Michelle's parents—they'll be there the whole time."

"Okay," Amanda said. "Do you have anything to wear?"

"That dress I wore for the school play—the one with the glitter designs on the bottom, you know—that would look nice. So—can I go?"

"You know the answer, Jenna—your father and I will have to discuss it and make a decision together."

"I was worried you were going to say that," Jenna said. "Mom, he'll never say yes."

"You don't know that."

"Maybe if you don't tell him about the guys—"

"No," Amanda shook her head. "We are not going to lie to your father. I'll discuss it with him later and we'll make a decision then. All right?"

Jenna's voice was low. "All right. Um—Mom—the floor—"

"Oh my gosh," Amanda watched as soapy water poured from the bottom of the dishwasher. "Jenna, go upstairs and get some towels." At that moment the doorbell rang. "No, I'll go get some towels and you answer the door—it's probably either Phillip or Jamie."

SMK SMK SMK SMK

"Jamie!" Jenna gave her brother a hug. "How was the flight?"

"Not bad." Jamie returned the hug and then held Jenna at arms length as he looked at her.

"What are you doing?" Jenna asked.

"Wondering how you are, that's all."

"I'm okay."

"Are you sure?"

"Why?"

"Mom didn't give me any details," Jamie said. "But I kind of got the impression that you had a rough time this summer."

Jenna hesitated, her face flushing slightly. "Well there were some bad things, but I did get to go on vacation to London and see Emily—that was fun." Her gaze fell on the paper bags in his arms. "What's in those?"

"Just some stuff I picked up at the grocery store," Jamie said. "Some egg nog, cookies, chocolate and stuff for that rum punchthat Grandma likes—most of this needs to be refrigerated."

"Okay," Jenna said. "Just be careful about the water on the floor when you go in the kitchen—don't slip."

"Jenna, why is there water on the floor?" Jamie asked.

SMK SMK SMK SMK

7:30 PM

"I'm sorry the dishwasher overflowed," Lee said.

"It's okay." Amanda put the dinner dishes in the sink, filling the sink with water and suds. "I mean it's over twenty years old—I was just so used to jiggling that blue wire that I guess I thought it would keep working forever.

"I understand," Lee said. "Amanda—can I ask you a strange question?"

Amanda nodded. "Sure."

"If you had the choice of getting a present you wanted or a present you needed, which would you pick?"

Amanda was silent for a moment. "I don't know," she said finally. "I would hope that maybe they'd be the same thing, but either wouldn't be bad. Does that help?"

"A little," Lee said. "Did you manage to get a hold of Phillip?"

"Yes I did," Amanda said. "He won't be coming until tomorrow—he told me that his flight had been cancelled because of all the snow in Norfolk but that he was hoping to catch a flight to Dulles early tomorrow morning. If that doesn't go through he'll just drive."

"Sounds good," Lee said. "Hey, is Jenna all right? She hardly said a word during dinner."

"Well that's what we need to talk about," Amanda said.

"About what?" Lee began to get an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. "What's going on?"

"Jenna was invited to a party tomorrow night—over at Michelle's house—you remember Michelle."

"Sort of." Lee had a vague memory of the group of giggly girls that had made up Jenna's thirteenth birthday slumber party—he was pretty sure that one of them had been named Michelle. "What about the party?"

Amanda rinsed and scrubbed the dishes one by one, putting them in the drainer. "It's going to be supervised by Michelle's parents," she said. "It starts at six and is supposed to end by ten o'clock."

"Amanda, there's something you're not telling me. What is it?"

"This party doesn't just include other girls, Lee—boys were invited too."

"Boys?" Lee shook his head. "No way—she's too young for that."

"She's thirteen—in another month she'll be fourteen." Amanda countered.

"It's still too young. We agreed—no dating until she was sixteen."

"We let her go out with Geoff and his friends in London, remember?"

"That was different."

"In what way is it different? And anyway, a party isn't dating. Personally I don't see a problem—I trust Jenna –I'm sure she'll be just fine."

"I trust Jenna too," Lee said. "It's the boys I don't trust. I used to be a boy that age, Amanda—I know what's on their minds."

"Urges." Amanda said. "Lee you've told me this over and over."

"Because it's true—I don't want Jenna around that."

Amanda finished the last of the dishes and turned around to face him. "What if you could be there too? To supervise?"

Lee stared at his wife. "Be there? How do you mean?"

SMK SMK SMK SMK

8:00 PM

"Mom you didn't." Jenna's eyes were wide with horror. "Please say you didn't."

"I did." Amanda said. "Mrs. Mardis said she was looking for chaperones and I volunteered your father."

"But that's –Mom, isn't there some way that you could chaperone instead?"

"I can't, sweetheart," Amanda said. "I've got a lot of errands to run tomorrow, plus the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners. You and your dad will have a good time, trust me."

"There has to be some other way—" Jenna said. "Maybe dad could run the errands instead and you could—"

"Munchkin, that's enough," Dad said. "This was the compromise we came up with. Now do you want to go to the dance or not?"

Jenna's eyes brimmed with tears. "No one else's dad will be there, I bet. You're treating me like a kid."

"Only because you're acting like one," Lee said. "Now do you want to go or not?"

"Sweetheart—" Amanda started to say but Jenna didn't reply. Instead she whirled around. Her feet could be heard as they pounded up the stairs—the entire house shook as she slammed her bedroom door.

SMK SMK SMK SMK

Monday, December 23, 2002

2:30 AM

"Couldn't sleep?" Lee asked Jamie as he walked into the kitchen.

"It's not that," Jamie took another sip of his coffee as he sifted through the pile of photographs. "I'm just burning the midnight oil—have a deadline the week after Christmas."

"I understand," Lee said.

"What about you?" Jamie asked. "I heard you and Jenna arguing earlier—you can't sleep?"

Lee sighed. "No, I guess not."

"Does Jenna always go to sleep with her lights on?"

Lee ran a hand through his hair as he sat down at the kitchen table. "Well she had a pretty rough time this summer."

"That's what Mom told me too—but she didn't really give many details. Neither did Jenna."

"Let's just say that Jenna found out what your mom and I really do for a living—it landed her into some pretty hot water."

"How so?" Jamie asked.

"Someone broke into the house and kidnapped her again—kidnapped all of us."

"Oh my God," Jamie said softly.

"Yeah, " Lee said.

"I remember when I found out—back when Mom was pregnant with Jenna—things got bad, but not that bad. How is she coping?"

"She was in pretty bad shape right after—flashbacks and nightmares—it was one of the reasons we took that vacation—to help her heal."

"And is she healing?"

Lee nodded. "I think so— she's not completely there yet—we still have issues—but I think she'll get there."

"Good to hear." Jamie said.

"So why didn't Sandra come down with you?" Lee asked. "From the way your mother talks about her you two are practically engaged."

"We are," Jamie said. "It's just—she has a daughter—her name's Caitlin and she's nine years old."

Part of Lee wondered where the time had gone—when had Jamie become old enough to date a woman with a child? "That sounds okay," he said.

"It's not okay," Jamie said. "Caitlin can't stand me— she thinks that I'm trying to take her father's place. I try to talk to her, but—"

"She shuts you out, right?" Lee finished the sentence and Jamie nodded.

"I don't know what else to do. If she was a boy it might be easier, but girls—I mean, how do you deal with girls?"

"I'm not exactly the expert," Lee said. "My own daughter's not very happy with me right now."

"You've always been a little overprotective of Jenna."

"Well there are times when she's given me good reason to be." Lee sighed. "I know that Jenna probably thinks I'm being mean right now, but I'm just—I'm having trouble getting used to the idea of her being a teenager, being interested in boys and dating—I remember the things I got into and how I was at that age and I just want to protect her from some of that."

"Believe me Lee, I understand." Jamie paused. "Do you think you ever will get used to the idea of Jenna being a teenager?"

"Maybe— when she's about thirty," Lee said. "But seriously— the only advice I can give you about Caitlin is to be patient—take an interest in her life, listen to her, talk to her from your heart—and eventually she'll come around."

Jamie fell silent for a moment. "Is that what you did with me?"

Lee nodded. "Pretty much, sport—and look how you turned out. Give her time."

Jamie smiled. "Thanks, Lee."

SMK SMK SMK SMK

3:45 PM

"Finally made it," Phillip said as Lee opened the door, dropping his bag in the entryway. "Ended up having to drive here, though—all the flights were either delayed or cancelled. Where's Mom?"

"Upstairs with Dotty—helping Jenna to get ready for her party. Where's the wormbrain?"

"Phillip, don't—"

Phillip grinned. "Sorry Lee—couldn't resist."

"I'm in here, dorkbreath," Jamie came in from the kitchen. "What took you so long—did you get lost or were you just delayed by one of your many girlfriends?"

"Hey, I'm not the one who came all the way from Lala land."

Now was the time, Lee thought—there wouldn't be another chance. "Guys," Lee said. Phillip and Jamie both turned to look at him. "I think we need to have a talk."

"Sure," Phillip said. "What about?"

"Your mother's Christmas present."

SMK SMK SMK SMK

5:30 PM

"Munchkin, your Mom asked me to see if you're ready." Lee said.

Jenna turned around. For a moment Lee couldn't speak—he just stood there looking at his daughter.

"Jenna," he said finally. "You look—"

Jenna's face fell. "I knew it—it's awful, isn't it—I look horrible—the make-up's all wrong and I told Mom I didn't want my hair up like this—" she started to reach her hands up but Lee stopped her, taking her hands in his.

"What I was going to say is you look wonderful."

Jenna smiled. "Really?"

"Really," Lee said. "Can we sit down and talk—just for a minute?" Jenna nodded and they sat down on the edge of her bed.

"I know you're not very happy about me being a chaperone," Lee began.

"Dad, it's not like that—" Jenna began but Lee held up his hand.

"It's okay, I understand. I mean you're getting older now—the last thing you want is your parents hovering around you all the time." Lee took a deep breath. "It's certainly the last thing I wanted when I was your age. The thing is that I made a lot of mistakes back then, when I was a teenager and a young man—I'd like to keep you from going down the same path."

Jenna nodded. "I understand."

"I also want to keep you from being hurt by anyone," Dad said. "So if I seem a little overprotective, that's the reason."

"Because you love me," Jenna said. "I love you too, Dad—but you can't protect me from everything, and you can't protect me from mistakes—anyway, my teacher says that stupid mistakes are how teenagers learn."

"I know all that— but it doesn't stop me from wanting to protect you."

Jenna didn't reply, staring down at her hands. Lee took a deep breath.

"So, how do you want to play this tonight? You want me to pretend I don't know you or something?"

Jenna grinned. "That would be silly," she said. "Just—give me some space—if a boy asks me to dance don't go all crazy."

"We're talking about regular dancing, right? Not any weird kind of dancing."

"Dad, it's just regular dancing," Jenna said. "Maybe some slow dancing."

Slow dancing. Lee could feel sweat beading on his forehead. "Exactly how many boys are we talking about here?"

"Not very many," Jenna said. "But I don't know. Lisa said there were a couple of guys she wanted me to meet, so—dad are you okay?"

"Fine," Lee said. "Really. I'll be okay. We—um—we should probably get going before we're late."

They stood up. Jenna grabbed her clutch purse and Lee put her shawl over her shoulders. He held out his arm.

"Ready?' he asked her.

Jenna smiled, taking his arm. "I'm ready. I love you, Dad."

"I love you too, munchkin."

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

9:30 AM

Christmas morning. Amanda stood in the middle of her bedroom with the door closed. Usually they would be having breakfast in the kitchen right about now, and getting ready to open their presents. Instead, her husband had pushed her in here, telling her to stay put and wait. When Amanda had asked him what she was waiting for, he'd just winked and smiled.

"It's need to know," he'd said. "Don't worry about it."

From downstairs she heard a thud.

"Jamie, don't bang it into the wall," Jenna said. "You'll dent it."

"I'm not trying to," Jamie said. "It's Phillip that's not holding up his end."

"Very funny, wormbrain." Phillip told him.

"Jenna let me take that end, okay?" Lee's voice. "I'm a lot stronger than you—just stand to the side."

"Yeah munchkin," Phillip said. "Let the men handle this."

Jenna's voice rose. "That's not fair!"

Another thud. Just what was going on? Amanda was about ready to march downstairs and find out when the phone rang. Amanda picked up the cordless. "Hello?"

"A new car!"

Amanda held the phone away from her ear slightly. "Mother, what are you talking about?"

"That's what Curt was planning—that's what all the sneaking around was about, and the woman on the phone was the saleslady." Amanda tried to keep up with her mother's rapid-fire speech. "Oh dear— and I practically accused her of being the other woman, I hope she understands."

"I'm sure she does," Amanda said, hearing the sound of footsteps on the stairs.

"Call it woman's intuition—I just had the feeling that something was going on behind my back. I'm glad to know that it was something good."

"Yes, Mother, I know the feeling." Amanda saw Lee's face appear around the corner. She opened her mouth to say something but her husband shook his head, putting a finger over his lips and motioning to her.

"I—um—I need to let you go—someone wants me for something."

"All right, darling," Dotty said. "It's just so wonderful—I'm going out to drive it right now and we'll be over with presents later, Amanda—Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas to you too, Mother." Amanda said.

SMK SMK SMK SMK

"Right this way, Mrs. Stetson," Lee murmured into his wife's ear.

"Lee I still think that blindfolding me is ridiculous," Amanda said. "If I trip over something—"

"You're not going to trip over anything, not while I'm holding you," Lee said. "Don't you trust me?"

"Yes, up to a point, Stetson." Amanda said.

"Good—now just turn right this way—" Amanda could hear Jenna giggling in the background. "We're almost there."

"Almost where? You've turned me around so many times I don't know where we are."

"That was the whole idea. Now look." Lee removed her blindfold.

Amanda looked. The dishwasher sat in the middle of the kitchen floor, a giant red bow resting on the top.

"Lee, it's—" For a moment Amanda was at a loss for words. She felt a smile spreading over her face. "This is just what I needed."

"Someone is coming tomorrow to install it for us," Lee said. "I just thought you'd like to see how it looked in the kitchen."

"Well it looks great," Amanda said. "Thank you."

"Why don't you open it?" Lee asked her.

Amanda looked at her husband. "There's more?"

His dimples deepened as he smiled. "Open it and find out—go on."

Amanda opened the dishwasher, looking inside. "Lee, I don't —" Then she saw the pale blue box with the ribbon tied around it.

"Oh my gosh." With trembling fingers Amanda took the box and slowly opened it, looking at the open heart pendant—the diamonds shining against the grey velvet background.

"It's beautiful," she said. "But Lee—how did you afford—"

"It's from all of us, Mom," Phillip said. "We all chipped in, even Jenna put in a little bit."

"Here, let me." Lee took the pendant from the box and placed it around her neck. "Merry Christmas, Mrs. Stetson." He bent down, his lips gently brushing hers. "I love you."

"I love you too, Mr. Stetson."

The End