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The angel tree, p.1

The Angel Tree, page 1

 

The Angel Tree
 


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The Angel Tree


  For my sister, Sam

  Contents

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Prologue

  Chapter 1 Twenty-Two Days until Christmas

  Chapter 2 Twenty-One Days until Christmas

  Chapter 3 Twenty-One Days until Christmas

  Chapter 4 Twenty Days until Christmas

  Chapter 5 Twenty Days until Christmas

  Chapter 6 Eighteen Days until Christmas

  Chapter 7 Seventeen Days until Christmas

  Chapter 8 Seventeen Days until Christmas

  Chapter 9 Sixteen Days until Christmas

  Chapter 10 Fifteen Days until Christmas

  Chapter 11 Fifteen Days until Christmas

  Chapter 12 Fifteen Days until Christmas

  Chapter 13 Fourteen Days until Christmas

  Chapter 14 Thirteen Days until Christmas

  Chapter 15 Twelve Days until Christmas

  Chapter 16 Twelve Days until Christmas

  Chapter 17 Eleven Days until Christmas

  Chapter 18 Eleven Days until Christmas

  Chapter 19 Ten Days until Christmas

  Chapter 20 Nine Days until Christmas

  Chapter 21 Eight Days until Christmas

  Chapter 22 Six Days until Christmas

  Chapter 23 Six Days until Christmas

  Chapter 24 Six Days until Christmas

  Chapter 25 Four Days until Christmas

  Chapter 26 Three Days until Christmas

  Chapter 27 Three Days until Christmas

  Chapter 28 Christmas Day

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Copyright

  It happened every year, late at night, long after darkness had settled over the small town of Pine River. No one knew who it was that got up in the icy midnight hours to erect the towering evergreen, its branches thick and full. But each year it would appear in the town square, the green pine and the strings of glowing lights a lone splash of color against the slate gray of the Town Hall and the powdery snow. The first person to see the tree was always Harold Dobbs, the village trash collector, who began his day before the rays of the frosty sunrise spread across the blanket of snow covering the town. The sight of the tree would warm him against the biting cold of the Pine River winter and he would linger, watching the first of the town workers arrive, happiness blooming across each of their faces as they witnessed what for them was nothing short of a miracle: the Angel Tree.

  The instructions were simple, and by now the townsfolk knew them by heart. People in need should tie their wishes to the tree and those able to help should take those wishes and make them come true. A boy needing new basketball sneakers for the championship game would write down his request on a piece of paper, size and favorite colors included. Then he would carefully attach it to one of the springy branches of the tree. Those first few hours the boughs would remain empty. But then it would begin, the scraps of paper slowly cloaking the tree as though a swarm of white butterflies had stopped for a rest. Then over the next few days and weeks the scraps would dwindle down as helpers came and took off wishes, beginning the work of making them come true. Each year the Angel Tree brought great joy to the little town, felt by those who received much-needed help and those who could experience the singular pleasure of giving that help. Even those who merely witnessed the lives of their neighbors improve felt touched by the magic of the Angel Tree. It was a tradition the town looked forward to every year, holding its breath just the tiniest bit until that morning when the tree appeared, its presence as mysterious and wonderful as Christmas itself.

  There were always those who boasted of plans to stake out the town square and discover who was behind the tree, of course. But in the end no one ever followed through. Even the most curious children knew that whoever was behind the Angel Tree wanted to keep their role a secret. And so it was that each year the Angel Tree appeared, wishes were made and granted, and the town of Pine River had just a little bit more to celebrate when Christmas arrived.

  Until the year when everything changed.

  Lucy was shivering when she walked through the front door of her family’s old Victorian house, her fingers icicles in the thick woolen gloves that she had knit for herself back in the fall. Though December in Pine River was always frigid, by now Lucy was used to it and knew to wear three layers, to always keep a hat pulled over her ears, and to walk fast. It was the last part that was the problem, though. Valentine could not walk fast and that meant that Lucy, who relied on the Seeing Eye dog to guide her wherever she needed to go, could not walk fast either.

  Her parents had given Valentine to Lucy two years ago, on her ninth birthday. Her birthday was actually in May but Valentine felt like the perfect name for the dog who had filled Lucy’s heart. From the moment Lucy had first touched Valentine’s velvety fur, feeling her new dog sniff her hand and then give it an affectionate nuzzle, Lucy had loved Valentine. Valentine was Lucy’s independence, the ability to walk places on her own, to get through the halls of her school without worrying about stabbing someone in the shin with her walking stick.

  But Valentine was more than Lucy’s ticket to freedom. Lucy knew it was silly, but she secretly felt that Valentine was her best friend, the one she could tell anything and the one who was always there for her. And now, the way things were with her parents, the heavy silence from her normally too-chatty dad, the way her mother snapped over the tiniest things, the cloud of tension that had moved into the house like an unwanted house guest — well, now Lucy needed Valentine more than ever. Which was why it broke Lucy’s heart that she couldn’t be there for Valentine, not in the way her beloved dog needed.

  “Lucy, hi, I didn’t hear you come in,” her dad said. He’d lost his job as an architect seven months ago, but it still felt weird to have him there when she got home in the afternoon. His steps were muffled as he walked into the front hall. He was probably wearing his old leather slippers that softened the sound of his steps on the hardwood floors. There were no rugs in the house because rugs could be a tripping hazard for a girl who could not see.

  “Hi, Dad,” Lucy said, trying to sound cheerful.

  “How was your day, Sweetness?” he asked, gently rubbing her hair as she unlaced her boots. Sweetness was the nickname her parents had given her when they adopted her from China ten years before. When her birth mother had left her on the steps of a hospital under the cover of night, she had wrapped infant Lucy in a blanket, set her in a box, and put a sugared orange next to her. The women at the orphanage had explained to Lucy’s parents that this meant she wished a life filled with good fortune and sweetness for her daughter, despite being unable to keep her. And Lucy’s life had been sweet, mostly.

  “It was a good day,” Lucy said, searching for something interesting to tell her dad. “I think I did well on my quiz in English. And the school is collecting donations for Max Callahan and his family.” Four weeks ago Max, who was in sixth grade with Lucy at Pine River Middle School, had lost his home on Church Street in an electrical fire. “I was thinking I could knit them a couple of scarves and maybe some hats too.” When Lucy was five her mom went on a kick to help Lucy find a hobby she could enjoy without her eyesight and knitting was the one that had stuck. Her mother helped break down patterns and pick out colors but Lucy’s nimble fingers did the rest, turning out everything from gloves for her family to winter coats for Valentine. “I could even do gloves if Mom has a guess about what sizes might work.”

  “Great idea,” her father said. “And I might have a football lying around somewhere that I could give to Max. He plays, doesn’t he?”

  “I think so,” Lucy said. She and Max had a few classes together but weren’t friends.

  “Yeah, I’m pretty
sure I’ve seen him out in Long Meadow Park with the flag team,” her dad said. She heard the chair he was sitting on creak and a moment later Valentine let out a contented sigh. Her dad was probably rubbing the dog’s belly, something she adored.

  Lucy slid off her first boot, setting it carefully to the side of her seat so it wouldn’t trip her when she stood up. Then she started on the second one.

  “How’s Valentine doing?” her dad asked cautiously. Her parents loved Valentine almost as much as Lucy did, which was part of what was making it all so hard.

  “Um, okay I think,” Lucy lied. Valentine was anything but okay.

  “Did she slow you down?”

  “No, it was fine.” Lucy worked to get the boot off so she could escape this conversation. If there was nothing they could do, then there was no point in discussing Valentine’s symptoms and how they were worsening.

  Her dad was silent for a moment, and Lucy could hear that he had stopped petting Valentine. The boot was off and Lucy set it aside, then stood up. As she rose to her feet she could hear Valentine struggling to stand, the dog loyal to Lucy even now.

  “Sweetness —” her dad said.

  “Dad, I should start my homework,” Lucy interrupted him, heading for the stairs that were a left turn and ten steps from where she had taken off her boots.

  “Sweetness, I’m so sorry,” her dad said, the chair creaking slightly as he, too, stood.

  “Dad, it’s not your fault,” Lucy said.

  Her father ruffled her hair again, then walked toward the kitchen with his slow, shuffling old-man gait while Lucy headed upstairs, waiting patiently for Valentine, who struggled to make it up the steps.

  “Good girl,” Lucy told her as they walked the fifteen steps to Lucy’s bedroom. For the past two years she had not needed to know how many steps it was to anything, not when she had Valentine to guide her every move. But Lucy knew that she might need that information again, knowledge that twisted her chest into a tight knot.

  In her room she heard Valentine pad over to her dog bed, the one her mother said was purple and the perfect complement to Valentine’s rich brown fur. The labels brown and purple were not something Lucy, who had been blind her entire life, could imagine. But the words, like so many others, had their own texture and tenor and even their own taste in her mind. Purple was the sleekness of her satin bedspread, a low C ringing out from the piano, the soft sweetness of a banana. Brown was the warm down of her comforter, a bow drawn across the strings of a cello, the richness of chocolate-covered raisins.

  Usually these images and the familiar sound of Valentine circling before settling down in her bed, calmed Lucy. But today calm was as far away as the place she had been born, and just as impossible to imagine. Because if something didn’t change and change fast, these sounds would become a memory as well. Because Valentine, her beloved helper and companion and yes, her best friend, was dying. And her family did not have the money for the surgery and medication to save her.

  Valentine had cancer. Burrowed into her soft fur was a tumor that was going to spread if it wasn’t treated and wasn’t treated fast. The vet, Dr. Lazarus, had been very optimistic about Valentine’s chances. The cancer had been detected early and it was curable with surgery and follow-up chemotherapy. If they moved fast the vet was confident that Valentine could live a full, happy life. The problem, of course, was that surgery for a dog was expensive. Too expensive. Lucy’s family simply did not have the thousands and thousands it would take to fully rid Valentine of the cancer. And so they were just treating the pain, hoping that the cancer would move slowly and Valentine could stay with them just a bit longer.

  In any other place it would seem like a hopeless situation. But in the darkness of Lucy’s deepest fears of losing her Valentine there was a thin ray of hope, golden and bright. The Angel Tree.

  Lucy picked up the wish that she had already typed out with her voice-activated software and folded up tight, ready and waiting to be tied to one of the piney branches of the tree. It would go up any day now and when it did, Lucy was ready.

  She only hoped it wouldn’t be too late.

  There were still a few last stars shining in the inky-blue sky when Max staggered out of his unfamiliar bed in the unfamiliar apartment that smelled like old boiled cauliflower. He groped his way down the dark hallway into the living room crammed with furniture, its wallpaper ripped and its ceiling crisscrossed with water stains. Max hated the run-down apartment that his family had been forced to move into after an electrical fire destroyed their home while they were off at school and work four weeks ago. All of them did. But as his dad kept pointing out, in the middle of a bitter Pine River winter they were lucky to have a roof over their heads.

  The town had rallied around them, starting up collections and fund drives to help them move and to provide the family with the essentials — clothes and blankets and some toys for Max’s little sister, Fiona. But what no one outside his family knew was that the expense of building or buying a new home was out of the Callahan family’s price range, plain and simple. Which was why Max had been waking up well before the sun each day to check and see if the Angel Tree was up. He figured you had to get your wish up early if that wish was big. And the request for a house was about as big as it got.

  Max peered sleepily through the window at the town square. In the dim splashes of light cast by the streetlights, he saw something that sent a current through his whole body, jolting him wide-awake: the Angel Tree.

  For a moment Max just looked out at the tree, its branches swaying in the predawn wind. Then he ran to get dressed and grab the wish he had prepared two days after the fire.

  The frigid air stung his face as he headed out of the building and made his way to the square but Max barely noticed. By the afternoon there would be over a hundred paths crisscrossing through the snow to the tree, but his was the first, his footsteps silent in the powdery snow covering the square. As he came closer to the tree, the zesty smell of pine mixed with the scent of doughnuts baking at Cinnamon Bakery across the way.

  Max’s hands were shaking from the cold as he carefully tied his wish, the very first wish, to a springy branch. He knew his wish was much too big. He was acting like his little sister, Fiona, who believed her plastic fairy wand actually worked. But he fastened the wish to the tree anyway, letting go of the branch and hoping against hope that somehow, maybe, it might just come true.

  Forty-five minutes later Max was headed out again, this time to school. As he passed the tree he saw that a few more tiny scraps of white paper had joined his against all that green.

  “Hey, Max.” He was pulled from his thoughts by his neighbor Lana Levkov who had come out of Cinnamon’s with a big paper bag. Growing up, Max had always liked Lana, who could throw a football harder than most boys and always made the big kids let Max play even when they said he was too young. She’d left Pine River for college, but had moved back recently to take care of her mother, who had had a stroke. Lana was wearing a thick red wool coat and Max noticed a scrap of white paper in her hand.

  “Hi,” Max said. “Headed to the Angel Tree?”

  Lana nodded. “It’s a wish for my mom actually,” she said. “She keeps talking about these Russian pastries she had when she was a girl. I can’t make toast, let alone some complicated cream thing whose name my mom can’t remember. But I figure someone in town will be able to figure it out and help us.”

  “Yeah,” Max agreed. “I bet you’re right.” He’d never heard of a wish not coming true once it was hung on the tree. Though the wish he had put up that morning might be the first.

  “I remember coming here when I was a girl,” Lana said wistfully as she gazed at the tree. “Back then all I needed were simple things like horseback riding lessons and happiness was mine.” She turned to Max. “I bet all you want is a new football and you’ll be totally happy, right?”

  Max did not know how to respond to such a dumb remark, so he just nodded, then headed toward Brewster Street
.

  There was nothing simple about Max’s life. Not the wish he had hung on the tree that morning, not the place he was headed now. But even so, Max knew things were better now than they had been. Back in second grade — that had been the worst. That was when every other kid in his class had learned to read but Max could barely sound out the word cat. That was when he had become the class clown. Anytime a teacher called on him or he needed to share his work, Max pulled a prank instead. And while his school skills stayed awful, he became extremely good at pranks.

  Midway through the year he was tested for learning disabilities. His stomach twisted up when he thought of that awful test, of how the clock had ticked on for an eternity but it still hadn’t been enough time for him to get through all the problems. Still, after that he had finally gotten the help he needed and slowly got back on track, though not fast enough. He had had to repeat second grade, the most humiliating thing imaginable. If it weren’t for his best friend, Cami, giving the evil eye to anyone who even looked like they might tease him, Max might have become the first second-grade dropout in the history of Pine River Elementary School. Instead, he stepped up the pranks, earning a reputation that bordered on being legendary.

  “Max, what’s up!” his friend Alec shouted. Max turned around and felt the shocking cold of a snowball hit him smack in the face. Chunks of ice slid down his cheeks and he rubbed his eyes quickly to clear them. Alec, Danny, and Lucas, friends from the flag football team, were half a block behind him hooting with laughter.

  “You’re dead!” Max shouted, scooping up a handful of snow and lunging toward them.

  “It’s on!” Lucas yelled, mashing a pile of snow into a tight ball as he ran across the street. Max ducked behind a tree as Danny sent another snowball flying. Then he charged. They were a block from school now and the kids walking toward the big brick building either ran to get out of the way or began digging into the snow for their own artillery. Soon the area was a mass of flying snow, the air alive with screams — and then the inevitable whistle as the vice principal broke up the battle and herded everyone into the building.

 
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