The north wind was bitter, but north was the direction the children needed to walk to get home. Sylvie skipped ahead of her brothers, singing, defying the icy air to steal her voice or her happy mood. Christmas was coming.
Ted never minded walking beside his sister, though he didn’t like her way of calling him Teddy. Fifteen months difference in age seemed too short a time for her to act like she was Mother.
But today he bounced alongside his big brother Howard, who took his job as first-born seriously. Howard was ten-going-on-eleven and the hand he placed on Ted’s shoulder held authority. There’ll be no stopping to pick up rocks or look for arrowheads today, Ted understood.
At the turn by Clancey’s pasture, the children froze in their tracks. What the icy wind couldn’t do, the sight ahead did.
Sylvie wheeled around. “What’s that mean?” she demanded.
Ted studied Howard’s face, surprised at how much like Daddy he looked.
“It means trouble,” Howard said.
Howard took off running, leaving Sylvie and Ted behind without so much as a word of instruction as to what he expected them to do.
Ted sprinted as fast as his legs could take him, trailing Howard by a good 30 yards, but following the path his brother cut through the mess of cars parked every-which-way around their home. Inside, Ted weaved his way through the room packed with neighbors until he stood in the doorway to his parents’ room.
“Hello, little man.” Daddy’s weak smile greeted him.
Daddy’s head rested on the pillow, his hair matted from sweat and blood. White stuff covered Daddy’s hands and made them look strange, like boxing gloves. When he saw Howard on his knees next to their father’s face, he ran over and fell on his knees beside him.
Mother stood on the other side of the bed, hugging the baby to her chest and listening hard to Doc Wilkins. “Two months, maybe three,” were the only words Ted understood. He looked up when Howard rose to his feet, his back straight as an arrow, his jaw square.
“Come on.” Howard said. “We’ve got work to do.”
Some years were carved off their childhood that day, but it wasn’t permanent. After all, Christmas was coming.
Ted had never tasted coffee, but he loved the smell. It had been awhile since its wonderful aroma had filled the kitchen and he savored it as much as he savored the slice of orange he’d popped into his mouth.
“What a glow-rous Christmas morning!” Ted beamed. He didn’t really know what that meant but thought it was safe to repeat something Mother had said.
Daddy grinned at him. “Yes, it is. The best Christmas ever.”
The bandages around Daddy’s hands weren’t so fat now and the new ones let his fingers stick out the end. Daddy looked funny holding the cup handle by the fingertips of one hand while balancing the cup gingerly with the fingertips of the other.
Ted lifted the final piece of his orange to his lips. It tasted so good. Howard and his sisters had scarfed theirs down in a hurry but he intended to enjoy his for as long as he could. Still,the new, bright red wagon called out to him.
With the taste of orange still on his lips, Ted grabbed his coat and ran outside to join the fun. He took his place at the rear of the wagon to push as Howard pulled from the front. Sylvie and baby sisters Faye and Sadie squealed with gleeful fear.
Mother rested her hand on Daddy’s shoulder as they watched from the window. “God will provide,” he whispered.
The accident that crushed his hands should have brought a large settlement, enough to keep them from worrying for a long time about where the next meal would come from. But it was 1932. Everyone worried about where the next meal was coming from. The $100 he’d agreed to on Christmas Eve bought a red wagon and five oranges, and for Mother, a pound of coffee. If God blessed, the remainder would get them through the next few weeks until he could, at least, hold a hammer once again.
After all, it was Christmas.