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On christmas eve, p.1
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       On Christmas Eve, p.1

           Ann M. Martin
 
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On Christmas Eve


  For my father, who showed me the magic of Christmas

  It was Christmas Eve of 1958 when I saw Santa Claus, the real Santa Claus.

  That was last year, when I was eight. Now I am nine, and it is December 24th again, and I am lying in bed, waiting. I open the window so that I can feel the crackling Christmas Eve air. I watch as the light from the big star above the trees beyond the Andersons’ barn shines brighter and brighter. And I jump when I hear a noise in the hallway.

  “Tess? Are you awake?” Evvie pokes her head into my room.

  I let out my breath and tell my heart to stop beating so fast. “I’m awake,” I reply.

  My sister dashes barefoot across the floor and leaps onto the bed.

  “I can’t sleep,” she says, and I know why. Evvie is twelve years old, and she has asked our parents for a makeup kit for Christmas. She is beside herself with excitement over the idea of being able to wear lipstick and maybe some blue eye shadow in order to impress Wesley Johnson, who is a year ahead of Evvie at Hopewell Junior High. Our parents would have a fit if they knew that’s why Evvie wants this present, which I don’t think they have bought for her anyway.

  “I can’t sleep either,” I tell Evvie.

  We are excited, but for very different reasons. I don’t say anything about this to Evvie, though. Evvie does not believe in Santa or in the magical world that is part of our everyday world — the one that is there sort of at the edges, something you might be able to see out of the corner of your eye if you turn to just the right place at just the right moment.

  If you truly believe.

  Contents

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Prologue

  One

  Two

  Three

  Four

  Five

  Six

  Seven

  Eight

  Nine

  Ten

  Eleven

  Twelve

  Thirteen

  Fourteen

  About the Author

  Also by Ann M. Martin

  Copyright

  The autumn of 1958 blows in on a wild and chilly wind. People in Hopewell say they can’t remember an October like it. By the beginning of November, Evvie and I have to bundle up in scarves and mittens and woolen hats, and then in our galoshes as the snow starts to fly.

  Each weekday morning we stand at the end of our lane and wait for the bus. Evvie still goes to my school this year. I am in third grade and Evvie is in sixth. While we wait, we stamp our feet and rub our mittened hands together. Sometimes during this autumn that feels more like a winter, our mother even sends us off to Hopewell Elementary wearing ski pants under our dresses, but we have to take them off when we get to school because of the “no pants for girls” rule.

  “We’re going to have a white Christmas for sure this year,” Dad keeps saying.

  I am thrilled. The snow is part of the excitement of an autumn that has left me nearly breathless.

  * * *

  It is on a Saturday early in December when I decide that I am going to see Santa for myself — the real one, not a department store Santa in a faded suit with a limp beard. And I am going to see him in our own living room during the time of enchantment that I am sure begins at midnight on Christmas Eve. Midnight is a powerful hour on an ordinary night, but on Christmas Eve it’s the start of an especially magical time.

  I wake up early that Saturday, long before Evvie, who could sleep for hours and hours on weekend mornings.

  In the kitchen I find Dad standing at the stove stirring a pot of oatmeal. Mom is hanging up the phone, brows knitted, eyes serious.

  “Good morning,” I say as I slide into my seat at the table.

  “Morning, pumpkin,” says Dad.

  “Morning,” says Mom. “Tess, that was Mrs. Benjamin. Sarah’s going to spend the weekend with us again.”

  Something tightens in my stomach. Now I know why Mom looks worried. “I thought Mr. Benjamin was going to come home,” I say.

  Mom shakes her head. “Maybe next week.”

  “So he’ll be home for Christmas.”

  “I hope so,” Mom replies.

  The grown-ups have promised that Mr. Benjamin will be home for Christmas. Promised. He has to come home. Christmas is not a time for things to go wrong.

  Sarah is my best friend. Her mother is Mom’s best friend. Mrs. Benjamin and Mom met when they were in the hospital giving birth to Sarah and me. (I am two hours older than Sarah.)

  Sarah and I have grown up together. I have spent more time with Sarah than with Evvie. (Sarah doesn’t have any brothers or sisters.) Sometimes Sarah and I pretend we are twin sisters, even though we look nothing alike. We have sleepovers all the time, and our own private club called Twins Not Twins, and we were in the same class in nursery school and first grade, and now in third grade. In kindergarten we had the same teacher, but I was in morning kindergarten, and Sarah was in afternoon kindergarten, and it was horrible because that was also the first year I had to ride the bus, and the only person I knew on our route was Evvie, who wouldn’t let me sit with her, except on the first day of school. After that I was on my own.

  The Benjamins live three miles away, but Sarah and I see each other almost every day, even when we are not in school. The bottom bunk in Sarah’s room is called Tess’s bed. Last summer I went to the mountains with the Benjamins, and Sarah went to the beach with my family.

  Then, in October, when the chilly wind was starting to screech around the houses and barns of Hopewell, Mr. Benjamin said he didn’t feel well. He went to the doctor. He went to the hospital. And the grown-ups began to talk of cancer. They always said the word in a whisper. “He has … cancer.”

  The more time Mr. Benjamin spends in the hospital, the more time Sarah spends with us. Sometimes she is here for whole weeks. (It is so unfair that kids aren’t allowed to visit people in the hospital, not even when those people are their own parents.) Mr. Benjamin was supposed to come home from the hospital yesterday. Sarah even strung together eleven sheets of construction paper to make a sign that reads WELCOME HOME, one big letter on each piece of paper. She said she was going to hang it over the front door to surprise her father.

  “Why didn’t Mr. Benjamin come home?” I ask Mom.

  Mom shakes her head. She doesn’t know. Nobody seems to know much about the cancer. “Sarah will be here by lunchtime,” says Mom.

  And this is when I decide that I must see the real Santa. I have to talk to him. It’s very important.

  I am poking at the oatmeal Dad spooned into my bowl when I think I feel someone staring at me. I peek under the table and there is Sadie. She is sitting at my feet, looking up at me with her happy squinty eyes.

  I consider Sadie my second best friend. Which frankly dumbfounds Evvie.

  “A dog can’t be your best friend,” she has said many times.

  I don’t see why not. Sadie and I spend as much time together as Sarah and I do. And I talk to Sadie, tell her all sorts of things. Especially things Sarah doesn’t want to talk about, like her father’s illness.

  Sadie always looks at me when I talk to her and cocks her head, and if I tell her something particularly interesting, she lifts her ears as if she understands me. Which is what a best friend is all about. I wish Sadie could answer me, but I guess that isn’t possible. If it were, Sadie surely would have spoken by now.

  I found Sadie in the ditch by our road when she was a puppy. We took her to our vet, Dr. Leighton, and he guessed at her age. “About sixteen weeks, I’d say, judging by her teeth.” Now Sadie is three years old. She looks like a miniature golden retriever with a cocker spaniel head and a terrier body.

  “She’s a mutt,” Evvie says, but Evvie loves her too
.

  I finish my breakfast and leave Mom and Dad reading the paper at the kitchen table. Evvie is still asleep. I want her to wake up. I am hoping Maggie, who is Evvie’s best friend, will come over today so Sarah and I can watch her and Evvie do eleven-year-old things. Sarah always says this helps her forget about the hospital. We will try not to be pests.

  I know better than to wake up Evvie, though, so I decide to take Sadie for a walk.

  “Bundle up,” Mom calls from the kitchen.

  The snow is flying again.

  I bundle up until I feel like a pillow stuffed into its case. Then I call to Sadie, and we set out down our lane, fluffing our feet through the snow. When our lane meets the road, we turn left and walk by the Andersons’ farm. Their house is even older than ours — built in 1756 — and I am positive the Andersons share it with at least one ghost. Over the years several people have died in the house, and Mrs. Anderson says that sometimes when she’s in the kitchen she can feel another presence in the room, even though no one else is at home. And Sadie will happily go into the Andersons’ house, but she refuses to enter their kitchen.

  “Let’s say hi to Peanut, Sadie,” I say.

  Peanut is Evvie’s horse. She got him on her ninth birthday, which was exactly one year after she turned horse crazy. She stables him at the Andersons’.

  Sadie and I wander through the barn. I stop to pat Peanut on his nose. We call hello to the Andersons when we see them sweeping snow off their porch. Then we fluff across their yard and continue down the road.

  It is later, after we have turned around and are on our way home, that Santa Claus comes into my head again. Sadie and I are wrapped in this silvery light, the snowflakes whirling around us, no sound but the small howl of the wind. I am looking ahead trying to see our house in the distance, and all of a sudden I can’t see anything, anything at all. It is as if Sadie and I are inside a milky bubble. I stop, stand still as a statue, and — for just one teeny moment — I am in a room, a cozy room with a fireplace, a Christmas tree in one corner. And I hear two words in my head. I don’t know who says them, but there they are.

  Santa Claus.

  And then, in another instant, Sadie and I are back in the snow, and I can see the barn and, in the distance, our house, smoke wisping out of the chimney.

  “Did you see that?” I ask Sadie. “Did you hear that?” Sadie looks up at me, then down at the snowy road again.

  Under all my warm clothes, I shiver.

  Santa Claus.

  It is a sign, I think. A sign that I am going to meet the real Santa this year.

  I know that Santa comes to our house every Christmas Eve, and I feel I have gone long enough without meeting him. For one thing, I need to talk to him. But also it’s actually a little rude — letting him come into our home year after year and leave presents for us, and never thanking him in person. I’m not sure I’ve ever even written him a thank-you note, although I have thanked him in my heart many, many times.

  “Santa,” I will say. Or maybe I should address him as Mr. Claus. “Mr. Claus,” I will say.

  No, too formal. “Santa, it’s me, Tess McAlister.”

  Well, I suppose I don’t have to tell him my name. Santa already knows who I am. “Santa, I want to thank you for all the great gifts you have given me.”

  That’s how I think I’ll begin. Then I will ask him my questions. And of course I will watch the magic. I have always wondered how, exactly, Santa arrives, and what the magic looks like.

  I realize Sadie has stopped walking. She’s standing a few feet ahead, staring at me. I have the spooky feeling she knows what I am thinking.

  “Sadie, do —” I start to say, but Sadie turns around then and heads up the lane to our house. So I follow her.

  * * *

  That afternoon I make the mistake of telling Evvie and Maggie about my plan.

  Sarah and I have spent two hours making Christmas tree ornaments, two hours talking while we pin and glue and snip and string and paint.

  “Why didn’t your father come home yesterday?” I ask.

  Sarah shrugs. “Something about his blood. They tested it on Thursday and said if it still looked good the next day he could come home for a while. Dr. Evans said he expected it to look good. But when they tested it again it wasn’t good after all. So he can’t come home yet.”

  I am about to ask Sarah what she has done with the sign she made when she says, “I folded up his sign and threw it away. I think I’ll make him a new one with red and green paper.”

  “To put up when he comes home for Christmas,” I say.

  Sarah nods but she doesn’t speak, and I see tears in her eyes.

  We work quietly. Sarah is painting pieces of macaroni and stringing them onto a length of red yarn. I am making an enormous ornament that I plan to hang near the top of our tree. I am sliding beads and sequins onto hat pins and sticking the pins into a big Styrofoam ball.

  I jab a pin into the ball and suddenly say, “Sarah, I have an idea!”

  “What?”

  “You said your father is on the second floor of the hospital, right?”

  “Right.”

  “And he can see the parking lot from his window, right?”

  “Right.”

  “Then we could visit him sometime. We could stand in the parking lot and sing Christmas songs to him.”

  Sarah puts down her macaroni chain. “Oh!” she says. “Yes!”

  “We could sing ‘Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Away in a Manger.’ ”

  “And ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ ” adds Sarah. “That’s his favorite.”

  “We can prepare a whole concert,” I say.

  “But we might not get to put it on.”

  “Because he’ll probably come home soon.”

  “But just in case,” says Sarah. “We’ll plan it just in case.”

  “We can write up a program that your mother can give your father so he’ll know what to expect. Like he’s at the theater.”

  “In case he doesn’t come home soon,” says Sarah. “But he probably will.”

  * * *

  By four o’clock that afternoon Sarah and I are tired from all of our talking and planning and pinning and gluing and stringing.

  “What do you think Evvie and Maggie are doing?” Sarah asks.

  “I don’t know. They’re up in Evvie’s room.”

  “Can we go see?”

  On our way up the stairs, I say, “Evvie slept until almost noon today.”

  “Wow,” says Sarah.

  We stand in the doorway of Evvie’s room and see that Maggie is putting curlers in Evvie’s hair.

  “It takes a long time if you want to do it just right,” Maggie is saying importantly. Carefully she combs out a strand of Evvie’s hair. Then she takes a brown rubber curler, shaped like an hourglass, from a draw-string bag she has placed on Evvie’s dressing table, winds the hair around its skinny middle, folds one half down over the other half, and starts all over again with another strand of hair. Evvie must have ten pounds of curlers bobbling on her head. And Maggie is not done yet.

  In the mirror Evvie’s eyes shift from herself to Sarah and me. “Hi,” she says.

  “Hi,” we reply.

  “What are you two doing?” asks Maggie, looking up from the bag of curlers.

  “We were making Christmas ornaments, but we got tired,” I tell her.

  “Can we watch you?” Sarah asks.

  “Sure,” says Maggie.

  Evvie and Maggie have been extra nice to Sarah lately.

  We step into the room, sit on the floor, gape at the girls and the curlers and another bag, which I think might have makeup in it.

  “So what’s going on?” Maggie asks us.

  I glance at Sarah. I know she doesn’t want to talk about her father, so I try to think of something interesting to say. And that is when the words that I wish I could take back leave my mouth. “I have decided to meet the real Santa Claus this year.”

>   I see Evvie’s eyes meet Maggie’s in the mirror. Maggie stifles a laugh. Evvie says, “Really?” And Sarah is staring at me. They are waiting for me to explain.

  “Yes. It’s really going to happen. I’ve had a sign.”

  More stifled giggling from Maggie. But she composes herself. “What kind of sign?” she asks.

  I hesitate. I have a feeling that what happened on the walk this morning should be a secret between Sadie and me, that I should not tell anyone about it, not even Sarah.

  “Just a sign. But I know what it means.”

  “And how are you going to see him?” Evvie wants to know. “Stay up until everyone else is asleep, then sneak downstairs and wait?”

  Basically, yes. But there is a little more to my plan. I had thought about it until Sarah arrived, and I decided that on Christmas Eve, I will have to be very, very alert and aware of signs of magic. And I must concentrate on truly believing.

  All I say, though, is, “Do you think that will work?”

  “I guess,” answers Sarah. I know that Sarah doesn’t believe in Santa any more than Evvie and Maggie do, but she believes in me.

  Maggie snorts, but doesn’t answer.

  Evvie is kinder. “Who knows, Tess?” she replies. “It might work.”

  I know she thinks I won’t be able to stay up; that I’ll try and try, then fall asleep and wake up on Christmas morning. Which is what happened when I tried to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve last year, except that when I woke up it was New Year’s Day, of course, not Christmas Day.

  But I have my plans, and I have had my sign, and I know I am going to meet Santa Claus.

  It is Friday night, nearly a week after my magical sign, when Dad disappears into our attic and returns with a large cardboard carton labeled XMAS LIGHTS. I know what is in there: a big tangled mess of strings and bulbs. The strings with the fat red and green bulbs are for the fir tree in the front yard, and the strings with the tiny gold lights will be for our inside Christmas tree.

  Evvie and I are sitting on the floor in the living room cutting strips of red and green construction paper to make into chains for our tree. When I see the XMAS LIGHTS box, I grin. “Look, Evvie. The lights,” I say. “Dad, when are we going to get our tree?”

 
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