Sharing a short fiction story for your reading pleasure and wishing you the best of the season.
A Christmas Tree Story
By: Carolyn Stearns
The wind blew over the hill in bursts of violent cold. The snow was trampled along the paths, but between the rows of Christmas trees, the snow lay deep and untouched. Even the hardiest tree shoppers cut from the edge of the field and hurried back to the hayride, back to their heated cars. The crew stomped their feet and pounded fists between sawing trees and loading them for the trips down the hill. It was difficult to tell who was on the crew as the multiple layers of heavy-duty Carhart clothes swaddled and hid the inner tree farmer. The popping exhaust flap on the tractor beat quickly, adding an urgent rhythm to those who worked to fell a tree.
“Going down the hill in five minutes” Chuck shouted. The wind grabbed the words and whipped them across the field. A couple of hands waved, they had heard the message. Two families struggled to haul their tree to the wagon. At the back of the wagon, Bob worked to write names on tags to identify trees and pile them on the back of the wagon. The families climbed in and the engine revved a little and the entourage crunched forward over the snowy road.
“Wait, I want to go down too!” The woman’s voice was caught by the wind and buried behind the trees. The tractor and hay wagon rolled away. Now she was on the hill and alone. She had stepped behind a couple of thick boughed Scotch Pine trees to read a message from her boyfriend. “Met someone else, it’s not you, it’s me, sorry.” Jerk, she thought. Then she heard the tractor rev. Now she stood among the trees alone in the winter wonderland that felt a little more like Hell freezing over. The wind whistled and swirled snow like the little girls in the Nutcracker. She remembered her childhood recitals and twirled amid the snow and trees. From a couple rows over a muffled applause began as mitten clad hands clapped.
“Bravo” A man clad in a bright red ski parka stepped out from behind another Scotch Pine. In his hand a bow saw dripped bits of sawdust. “The Snow Queen in her home environment! Hi, my name is Terry. Sorry if I startled you. It appears we were left for the next wagon load.” Despite the cold wind Sharon could feel the heat of embarrassment rise in her cheeks.
“I don’t mind, as you say it’s my home environment.”
Terry laughed, “Touché! Can I cut a tree for you?”
Sharon smiled, “I have chosen a tree but not a saw. Over here, a Douglas Fir, they are my favorites.” Terry dropped to the snow and reached under. The saw rasped across the trunk and within few swipes the tree leaned, then fell to the snow.
“What’s wrong, a little late if this wasn’t the tree” Terry commented.
“No, it’s the right tree, I just feel a little sad when ever one gets cut.” The emotions of the breakup were surfacing, and the tree was a good excuse. He wiped the backs of his mittens across her cheeks to catch the tears before they froze there.
Terry smiled and stepped closer, “Hypothermia by tears is dangerous.”
She laughed. “It’s not the trees just some bad news a few minutes ago, set me off.” She wanly smiled trying to invoke a more friendly persona. She felt like decking him right there in the field, just for being a male. With ease Terry grabbed the trunk of the six-foot fir. With his other hand the trunk of his Scotch Pine and dragged the two trees to a place along the snowy road for pick up. She followed along trying to walk in his footprints, but his stride was too long. She looked along the ridge at the suns last attempts to warm the scene. It would be gone soon, but for the moment it let long golden rays run parallel to the ground. The sun pierced the pine boughs and twinkled on the crystallized snowy road. Any other day she would be as excited as a child to be here. Right now, her heart felt dark and betrayed.
They could hear the tractor long before it rounded a bend in the farm road and came into view. They could see the expectant faces of children and adults as they viewed the acres of Christmas trees all lined up like soldiers in straight rows. Sharon smiled as a family clambered off the wagon and the parents had to run to keep up with the children let loose into the winter wonderland.
“This one, no, this one!” they called out. She climbed on the wagon as her tree was loaded. Soon they would go down and she could take her tree home. Suddenly, she realized she would be alone in getting it off the roof of her car and into her house. How? She stared out over the fields, not seeing the trees as her mind played a movie of her forthcoming struggle.
Terry helped load the trees and then helped a family struggling with tree and toddlers. He loaded their tree while the mother shepherded children and the father carried the tiniest child. He looked up at the wagon and noted Sharon’s distant look. She looked sad. Only a few minutes earlier he had seen her get off the wagon. He watched as she walked down a row of trees. Her bright red wool coat was a bold seasonal commentary among all the green boughs. He had quietly watched her view each tree as each was a painting in some museum gallery. He selected his own and had just finished cutting it down when he stood and caught her twirl. A childlike, graceful response to a wind driven swirl of snow. It was magical, he wanted to know more. At that point he had only seen the coat and not the woman under the deep cowl hood. A thought flitted across his mind, was she as pretty, as she was graceful? Now he knew she was indeed pretty, but also hurt. She emanated a mistrust and anger of a wounded animal.
He offered a light “You had bad news; can I do anything for you?” She shook her head. Behind the edge of the hood he could see her downcast eyes. He shrugged and watched the families as they clambered onto the wagon. One of the kids tripped and went flying in his direction. His hands flew out and caught the child just before her face hit the deck. He set the snowsuit bound girl on her feet.
“Be careful there you don’t want any boo-boos for the holidays.” She turned with big frightened eyes and looked up at the stranger that had just righted her. Her lower lip began to quiver. Her mother quickly crossed to her and wrapped her in a hug.
“Can you say Thank -You to the man for protecting you from a bad fall?” The child shook her head no.
The mother looked at Terry with grateful eyes, “Thank You, she’s a little stunned, I think. You were very quick to catch her!” They settled into seats as the tractor revved for the trip down the hill.
Sharon offered, “Good save!”
Terry smiled at her, “Kids move so darn fast, that was close! I teach third grade we have a lot of near misses!”
The wagon rumbled along and jostled those riding. The trees bounced in a green heap at the back. The children giggled, except for the little girl who stared intently at Terry.
They rode through a wooded section and a boy called out, “Look the monster trees! I told you there were monsters here!” Everyone turned to look. He pointed to a row of Oak trees. Their bare boughs reached out like dark arms against the snow and fading light. Terry smiled, that one had a great imagination.
He spoke to the boy, “Those are the guardians of Christmas. The Snow Fairy put them there to guard against tree thieves and people who don’t care for the earth. They will reach down and scoop them up and make them into a stone for the wall they are building over there.” Terry pointed out a snow-capped stone wall that ran along an ancient field boundary.
The boy’s eyes widened. “Can they move?”
Terry shrugged. “I’d put that candy cane wrapper in your pocket, I wouldn’t want to litter to try to find out! Land doesn’t stay this beautiful by accident, it takes a lot of work to steward land, so it is beautiful and useful now and one-hundred years from now.”
The boy nodded and swiveled his head to look around. “What was here a hundred years ago?” the boy asked with a natural curiosity of youth.
Terry smiled, “The land, the fields, the stone walls, the Oaks but they were mere babies then. There were farmers and boys who could dream up a story of monsters on a shadowy afternoon. It was like it is today, just younger. It is like it will be when you are an old man I hope.” The boy looked thoughtful. The parents smiled, not sure who this man was with the ready-made lessons for their children. The wagon came to a stop and they had arrived back at the farm to pay for their trees and hurry home to decorate. Terry was surprised to feel a tiny red mitten encased hand slip into his.
The little girl he had saved from a fall tugged at him. “Help me down?”
He smiled, “Of course, no boo-boos, right?” He held her hand as she carefully managed the steps down.
The mother was smiling at him. “Thank You, I hope my children get a teacher like you someday!”
Terry returned the warm smile with his own. “These are good kids. You seem like you’ve got a good handle on the parenting challenges. Enjoy the holidays.” Terry grabbed his tree off the wagon and carried it to his car. When it was tied to the roof he turned around and took the colored ribbon to the tiny building to pay for it. As he walked back to his car, he noticed the red coat woman struggling with her tree.
He ran over and pushed it the last bit onto the Subaru roof rack. “Let me help, he picked up the strings and began to tie the trunk to the roof rack. She went around the opposite side ad tied it there.
When finished she offered her hand, “Thank You, you’ve been very helpful. Those kids sure got something out of today too. I agree you must be a good teacher.”
Terry smiled at her. “I’m a frozen teacher right now.” He paused, it was not like him to put himself out there, he hesitated. “I’m going to get a hot coffee up the road at the coffee shop. Would you like to join me?” There was a long quiet pause. He could see she was struggling.
“I’m sorry I shouldn’t have said anything.” He turned and walked away. Sharon just stood there by her car, her mind whirling with an inner struggle. Could she go for coffee with a stranger when she just got dumped minutes ago. She bit her lower lip and was thinking hard when she saw his car drive away. She felt an urge to jump in hers and follow. She got into her car and sat there until she was numb.
Sharon drove home in the near dark. Her headlights pierced the distance in front of her and she followed them as if that was the world she could manage. Once home she looked at the empty corner waiting for the tree. But the jerk wasn’t coming to help her carry it in, or to decorate it like they had planned. She had been making plans. He had been making out with someone else. She crawled into bed leaving the tree tied to the roof of her car and parked alone in the cold garage. She awoke to her phone pulsating next to her. She looked at the screen 5:30 a.m. it was the temp agency she had signed up with for odd jobs. She was a writer but needed some other income to sustain herself.
She mumbled “Hello?” as if there might not be someone there. The voice on the phone had obviously consumed a pot of coffee already. It was far too cheery for the hour.
“We have a three-day position we think you will like. The job is a school secretary.”
Sharon, sat up, “Yes, I can take it, could you email the info over while I get myself going?”
“Of course, it’s on its way, have fun!” The phone clicked. Sharon stumbled to her kitchen and hit the brew button on her coffee maker.
“Shower, dress, coffee, then drive.” She said to no-one but herself. A little while later the printed job description in hand she went to her car. She stopped in her tracks when she saw the tree. “Ugh, this is what I get, well no time. Tree you better not get stolen today while I’m at this school.” She drove away the wind ruffling the green bough that danced at the edge of her windshield.
Terry pulled his tree up the stairs to his apartment and stood it in its stand. He got a pitcher of water and slowly filled the stand. Over the next couple of hours, the lights and all the student made ornaments went on his tree. He stood back; there it is the accumulation of seven years teaching in glitter, glue and cardboard! He smiled and went to bed leaving the lights glowing out from his bay window over the street. In the morning he shut off the tree and wrote a post-it-note to himself to pick up a timer to shut them off for him. He threw corrected papers in his canvas bag and a brown bag lunch. He drove into the school parking lot and slowed to a crawl. A Subaru was parked in the front line of cars with a tree tied to the top. It couldn’t be he thought. He parked and walked slowly toward school. Slowing at the Subaru he looked, it is her. He was curious beyond belief. He knew all the staff, who was this? He walked into the office still puzzling and waited to get a turn to get his school mail. The secretary was just finishing stuffing the boxes with colorful memos.
She turned saying “Excuse me.”
His eyes scanned up and down, “Hi again!”
Sharon looked closely, “Oh my God, the tree teacher! Good morning!”
Terry grabbed his mail and stuffed it in his bag. “I see your tree came to school, are you the temp secretary?”
“I am, and yes it has. I ran out of steam last night and just went to bed. I suppose you got yours all up and decorated.”
He smiled sheepishly, “Guilty as charged.”
The first bell of the day rang, “See you later.” Terry called out as he turned and sprinted from the office and down the long corridor.
The other secretary looked over, “You know our Terry?”
Sharon smiled, “We met yesterday at the Christmas Tree farm. Such a funny coincidence that we meet again today. He was wonderful with the children there!”
The secretary nodded her head, “Not surprised, he is a great teacher, probably the most popular with the students. He has a lot of fans here at school.” She handed Sharon a pile of envelopes to sort and put in mailboxes. The morning flew by in a series of paper sorting activities and parents delivering late arrivals and picking up kids for appointments or because they were sick.
“Lunchroom is down the hall, sixth door on the right. You have thirty minutes, enjoy.” The secretary told Sharon. With brown-bag in hand she wandered down the hall. She looked over the colorful bulletin boards and peered through glass pane doors at busy classrooms. The chatter of children seeped out to the hall. This was a warm and inviting school.
Terry had settled for lunch with a pile of papers to correct and his brown bag. The room was a buzz with conversations. Few seats remained as the first wave of teachers settled in for lunch. Sharon walked in with three other teachers who immediately went to join their team members to confer over their day and lessons. Terry looked up and saw Sharon pondering the room, there were no seats left.
He jumped up, “Here take mine and I’ll run over to my classroom and get another chair.” He was out the door in a heartbeat. She quietly sat but noticed the room had quieted while the teachers looked at her. She felt a blush although there was nothing, she need blush about. “Hi everyone, I’m Sharon, the secretary the temp agency sent for the main office. Heads nodded and a few greetings were offered.
Terry returned with a chair. “Could you squish so I can sit with Sharon please?” The chairs scraped on the floor as room was made and he slipped in.
She slid his bag toward him. “Thank you for the seat, this is a popular lunch destination!” He laughed, “It’s the only lunch destination!” She nodded as she pulled out her salad and two Clementines.
“I’ll trade you an oatmeal cookie – low sugar, for a clementine, I’m out of fruit at home?” Terry asked. She smiled and held out the bigger of the two fruit to him.
“Mmm, these look homemade did your wife make them?”
He responded, HA! No, I’m single. My Mom made them and sent them in the mail!”
Lunch passed with small talk around the table. Teachers asked Terry questions about an assembly coming up. There were student conferences discussed and classroom issues solved or talked about and tabled for later.
Thirty minutes flew by. Terry got up, “Kids will be in from recess soon, I’ve got to beat them to the door!” He smiled took his chair and left. Sharon got up and slid in her chair. The teacher next to her caught her sleeve.
“Excuse me, welcome, you seem wary but just so you know, he’s a good guy.”
Sharon smiled back, “Thanks.” She didn’t know her hesitation showed so visibly. She returned to her desk. The end of the day was madness with announcements and pickups, lost and found items and phone calls.
The head secretary Joyce patted her back when it finally quieted. “You did great for a first day here. It gets easier when you learn who all the players are. We stay until 4:30 we get a head start on tomorrow’s madness!”
Sharon smiled, “The day goes quickly when it’s busy and the kids are so cute! I’ve never done a school secretarial position, far more interesting than a law office or dental practice!”
Joyce smiled, “I couldn’t stand to work in all that quiet. Some days I think that’s what I want then some child reminds us of how important what we do is. I’m here until I retire.” Sharon nodded, and slid the notebook of signatures signing children out across her desk and tidied it up. Terry came in a few minutes later with assembly notices for teacher mailboxes.
“I can take care of those.” Sharon rose to take them from him.
“Thanks, if you file all these for me, I can carry that tree in for you later. “Sharon thought, she didn’t want to give him any ideas. Help would be nice though.
As she wavered, he spoke again, “Just take me 5 minutes and I’ll be out of there.”
She looked at him and smiled, “I had expected help but that fell through, I would appreciate it, but I warn you it’s a second-floor apartment.”
He laughed, “I’ll go back to my room to rest up for it and correct papers until 4:30.” She smiled, “Thanks.” As she finished putting stamps on some letters to go out in the mail she thought about their plan. Maybe she should try to slip away without him. It was awfully forward to have him come to her house. She would have to face him tomorrow though. She sighed; how did it get this complicated so quickly.
Joyce walked over, “You all right?”
Sharon looked up at her, “Oh, yes, I’m fine. Life just gets complicated sometimes when you least expect it.”
Joyce pulled a chair closer and sat, “Look if this is about Terry, he’s okay, my husband has known him a long time. He is probably the nicest guy we know. He was a police officer, he left that to see if he could make a difference before the kids hit the streets.”
Sharon looked at Joyce with a surprise. “Really, I didn’t peg him for the police type at all. Thanks, I do feel safer knowing that about him. I don’t think I’m a very good judge of men. I moved here recently, followed a boyfriend. He dumped me via text message. He was a jerk!”
Joyce shook her head, “Oh boy, that is really low. Where did you move here from?”
Sharon smiled, “I used to live about two hours from here, just outside Boston. His job transferred him down here, I followed a week ago and signed up with the temp agency to get some work. I’m a computer content writer and am writing a novel. I can work anywhere. I take the temp stuff then do my work night and weekends. I guess I’ll have more free time.”
Joyce got up and answered the phone on her desk. She spoke for a few minutes.
When she hung up, she spoke again, “Sharon, do you want to stay longer, my co-worker won’t be back for six weeks at least she had emergency surgery today.”
Sharon’s eyebrows rose in surprise and delight. “I’ll call the agency and ask if I can do that.”
“If they say yes, I’ll go over snow day protocol and some other details. That will take us through the holiday, we have a week vacation, you won’t need to come in. We resume January 3 and we will need you another two to three weeks.” The call was made, the agency agreed to have her there for the duration. Sharon was pleased with the steady place to go and the schedule with weekends off. Between vacation, nights and weekends she could get her writing done. Joyce gave Sharon a packet of school information and went over a couple of new duties she could take on the next morning. Before she realized it, the clock said 4:30 and Terry walked in the door. She pulled her long red coat from the closet and slipped her arms in.
“Looks like I’m going to be here for a few weeks” she said.
He smiled, “Great, well, sorry Nancy won’t be back but I’m glad you are able to fill in.”
She smiled at him. “Yes, it is, today went by so fast, I loved it.”
Terry held the door, “After you” he said, and Sharon walked out. Terry leaned back into the office.
“Goodnight Joyce, see you tomorrow.” Joyce waved. She couldn’t wait to get home; her husband just wasn’t going to believe the story about Terry and the secretary. She hadn’t told Sharon how his heart had been broken. She was leaving that up to him to share if he chose. This was the first sign in four years that his heart might be healed and ready to move on.
Terry and Sharon carried the tree up the two flights of stairs and into the living room of the Victorian home. He saw the space and the empty tree stand and headed for it. A few minutes later it was standing by a window and watered. Sharon stepped back and eyed the tree.
“I guess I could have gotten a taller one with these high ceilings but that’s plenty big enough to wrestle with and to decorate.”
Terry pointed to some boxes, “Are those the lights? I could help you string them on the tree.”
She laughed, “No that’s the unpacking that still isn’t done, mostly books. The lights are in the boxes on the dining room table.” In minutes they had them on the tree but there was no outlet near that window.
“Do you have an extension cord?” Sharon shook her head no.
“What if we move that chair and put it over by that window. We could just swap the two. There is an outlet there. These old houses were built before code and Christmas lights.” She grabbed the chair and started sliding it across the room. He started sliding the tree. A trail of water slid behind it. “Oh no! I forgot about the water, got some towels and a turkey baster. We can get some water out before we move it any further.” They cleaned up, resettled the tree, added fresh water and stood back to look.
“I think it looks better there anyway.” Sharon added. There was an awkward silence.
After a minute Terry picked up his coat. “I’ll get out of here as promised, see you at school tomorrow.” He walked to the door.
She didn’t want to just let him go. “Save me a seat at lunch tomorrow, and, thanks!” She watched out the window as he walked to his car, then drove away. She stood there watching until the red taillights disappeared. Sharon picked up the box of ornaments and began decorating her tree. She hummed and thought about her week. Just maybe that dump text message was an early gift. She pulled her phone from her pocket and deleted his contact info. See you tomorrow she thought.
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