--by Anne (12.16.09)
A swirl of snowflakes accompanied the young eight-year-old boy that bounded across the threshold as soon as Jessica opened the door.
“Aunt Jess!” he shouted gleefully. “We’re here!”
Jessica sank to one knee so she could give Little Frank (no, not so little anymore - Young Frank, she reminded herself) a hug. “Yes,” she sighed happily, “you’re here.”
Grady and Donna followed their son inside at a more sedate pace. As Frank sat on the bottom step of the staircase to tug off his boots, Jessica rose and gave her nephew and his wife each a hug and a kiss.
“How was the drive up from New York?” she asked.
“Long,” Grady said as he unwound his scarf and hung it on a peg. “Fortunately, the roads were fine and traffic wasn’t very heavy.”
“But Frank spotted license plates from twenty different states and four Canadian provinces,” Donna said as Grady helped her out of her coat. “I guess lots of people are traveling this Christmas!”
“I suppose so,” said Jessica. “As for me, now I have everything I could possibly want right here at home.”
Frank had no sooner gotten out of his winter jacket and boots when he was back in them again, eager to go outside and play in a back yard full of fresh snow that he had all to himself. While he he was busy building snowmen, Jessica, Donna and Grady spent the afternoon baking Christmas cookies to give to the neighbors. By the time Frank finally was cold enough to come back inside, the house smelled wonderful.
After dinner they decorated the Christmas tree that Seth had brought by earlier in the day, trimming it with ornaments that Jessica had been collecting for years. When they were mostly finished Grady turned on the tree’s colored lights, and it shone and sparkled like magic.
Finally, Jessica tucked Frank into bed, told him a story, and kissed him good-night. As she was about to turn off the light, Frank spoke up with a question.
“Do you believe in Santa Claus?”
Jessica was taken aback by the question. Stalling for time, she said, “Why do you ask?”
“Some of the kids at school say that Santa doesn’t exist,” Frank said with a frown. “They say he’s just a made-up story that grown-ups tell to children. What do you think?”
Choosing her words carefully, Jessica answered the question as truthfully - and vaguely - as she could. “I don’t know for certain, Frank. When I was your age I absolutely believed in Santa Claus. Even now, I still like to believe in him - or at least the spirit of him.”
“But you don’t know for sure he exists?”
“I don’t think anyone can know for sure he exists,” Jessica said. “There are some things that will always be unknowable. Santa Claus is one of those mysteries.”
“You’re good at solving mysteries,” Frank said, brightening. “I bet you could find out for sure if Santa exists. Would you do that for me?”
Jessica smiled and shook her head. “Oh, Frank - that’s an awfully tall order ...”
“But I have to know!” the boy said. His pleading eyes met Jessica’s. “Please, Aunt Jess - can’t you find out for me?”
Jessica’s heart melted - the innocent hopefulness in her nephew’s expression was more than she could bear. “All right,” she said, leaning down to give him one last kiss on his forehead. “I’ll try my best.”
Frank settled in his bed with a happy sigh. “Thanks,” he said. “‘Cause I asked Santa if I could have my very own kitten for Christmas this year. That’s all I want - so I really, really hope he exists.”
Grady and Donna were putting the finishing touches on the Christmas tree when Jessica came downstairs. Grady looked up and noticed her somber expression.
“Why the long face, Aunt Jess?”
Jessica sat down in her chair and looked up at him. “I can’t believe what I just did.”
“What?” Grady asked.
“Frank asked me to prove that Santa Claus exists ... and I said yes.”
Donna gasped. “Oh no!” she exclaimed, her eyes wide.
“And,” Jessica continued, “not only does he want me to prove the existence of Santa, he also asked Santa for a kitten for Christmas.”
“A kitten?” Grady said. He glanced at Donna. “He never said anything to us about a kitten.”
“I’d be okay with Frank having a cat,” Donna mused. “But where do we find one?”
“I don’t know,” Jessica sighed. “Tomorrow morning I’ll call the vet’s office. Maybe Dr. Henderson will have some ideas.”
“Sorry, Jessica,” Tipper Henderson said when Jessica called her at her veterinary clinic the next morning, “but you’re a few months too late – or too early, depending on your point of view.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not kitten season. We usually stop seeing litters being born around late October, maybe early November. They don’t start showing up again until March.”
“So you don’t know of any litters that have been born recently.”
“What about the animal shelter?”
Jessica’s sigh was audible on Tipper’s end of the line.
“Wait a sec - I thought you didn’t want any pets on account of your hectic travel schedule,” said Tipper.
“I don’t!” Jessica assured her. She glanced out the kitchen window to make sure that Frank was still busy building his snow fort in the back yard before continuing. “It’s not for me, it’s for my grand-nephew. All he wants for Christmas is a kitten.”
“Oh, gee,” Tipper said sympathetically. “That’s rough!”
“And it gets rougher,” said Jessica. “Frank asked me to provide him with evidence that Santa Claus exists – which obviously I can’t do, unless I can come up with a kitten by Christmas morning.”
“Oh no!” Tipper wailed aloud as the gravity of Jessica’s predicament hit home. “How’d you get roped into that?”
Jessica gritted her teeth. “Let’s just say I have a hard time saying no. Look, I know this is a tremendous long-shot, Tipper, but if by some miracle you do hear of a litter of kittens up for adoption, give me a call, would you?”
“Of course I will,” Tipper said. “But don’t hold your breath.”
“I won’t. Thanks, Tipper – talk to you later.”
Grady entered the kitchen just as Jessica hung up the phone. “Was Dr. Henderson any help?” he asked.
“No,” Jessica said, filling her tea kettle and setting it on the stove to boil. “Tea?”
“Sure.” Grady slid into one of the chairs at the kitchen table. “You know, Aunt Jess, it’s not the end of the world if Frank doesn’t get his kitten this Christmas. Donna and I know you tried your best.”
“I know you and Donna know that,” Jessica said as she removed her box of tea from the cabinet and set it on the table. “But it’s what Frank thinks that matters.”
Later that afternoon Jessica met up with Seth, who was emerging from a store on Maine Street laden with packages.
“Why do you always wait until the last minute?” she asked him, laughing. “It’s Christmas Eve already!”
“Oh, and I suppose you had your Christmas shopping finished by Labor Day,” Seth grumbled. Jessica followed him to where his car was parked at the curb, and helpfully opened the door so he could dump his purchases into the back seat.
“Not by Labor Day, no,” she admitted. “By Thanksgiving, yes. I like to get my shopping out of the way early so I can actually enjoy the holiday season.”
“You don’t look like you’re enjoying it much at the moment,” Seth observed, looking at her closely. “What’s the matter?”
“Well, there is still one important gift I have yet to find, and I’m not having much luck. I ...”
Before Jessica could tell him about her dilemma, a voice sang out, “Hey, Santa - got anything for me in that sleigh?”
They both looked up to see Tipper crossing the street towards them.
“Ho, ho, no,” Seth replied dryly.
“Aw, c’mon,” Tipper said, grinning. “I’ve been a good girl this year!”
“That’s not what I hear,” said Seth. “I got an earful about your office Christmas party from Kevin Fahey when he came in to see me the other day.”
Kevin, a fisherman, was the husband of Tipper’s head technician, Carolyn. “And what did Kevin tell you about it?” Tipper asked warily.
“He said it was quite memorable,” Seth said. “And I imagine it was - what with the jello shots, the illegal fireworks ...”
Tipper blushed a deep crimson.
Coming to Tipper’s rescue, Jessica changed the subject. “I don’t suppose you have any new leads on kittens, Tipper?” she asked hopefully.
Tipper shook her head. “No such luck. I’ve tried everywhere I can think of. I even tried calling up some of the other veterinary clinics in the area - no one knows of any adoptable kittens.”
“Well, thank you anyway,” Jessica sighed.
“Kitten?” Seth asked in surprise. “Since when have you been looking for a kitten?”
“Since Young Frank asked Santa for one for Christmas,” Jessica replied, “and at the same time asked me to prove that Santa exists.”
Seth winced. “That’s one case even you can’t possibly solve, Jess.”
“I know. I’m stuck. And most of all, I’m dreading seeing Frank disappointed on Christmas morning.”
Tipper snapped her fingers. “I have an idea,” she said. “How about you get Young Frank everything he would need to take care of a kitten, and then slip in an I.O.U. note from Santa promising him one as soon as springtime comes? It won’t be quite the same, but at least he’ll have some kitten-related presents to open and a kitten to look forward to in the future.”
Jessica and Seth looked at each other. “It’s not a bad idea,” Seth admitted. “It might even leave the boy’s faith in Santa Claus intact, at least for another year.”
“Okay,” she agreed. “It’s certainly worth a try. But I don’t have the faintest idea where to begin.”
“That’s okay, I’ll help you,” Tipper told her. “Come on. Vern’s Hardware is right up the street, and I know they have pet supplies.”
With Tipper’s guidance and Seth’s input, Jessica picked out a bed, a pet carrier, ceramic bowls for water and food, a sturdy litter box with a scoop, and an assortment of cat toys that looked like they would stand up to rambunctious play.
“Great,” Tipper said as Vern rang up the purchases. “Now all you need is the I.O.U.”
“I’ll take care of that,” Seth said. “Not much chance that the boy will recognize my handwriting.” He picked out a red pen from from cup on the counter and wrote on a piece of note paper, “Dear Frank - You’ve been a right good boy this year. As soon as Mrs. Claus’s cat has kittens, I promise to bring you one. Love, Santa.”
“Not bad,” Tipper said, looking over his shoulder. “And I can actually read it.”
“Come on, Jess,” Seth said, giving Tipper a dirty look. “I’ll drop you and these things off at your house.”
“Thanks for your help, Tipper,” Jessica said as Seth added her kitten supplies to the back seat of his car. “Join us tomorrow for breakfast?”
“I’d love to,” Tipper said. “I’m not expected at my parents’ house ‘til afternoon. What time?”
“I’ll be there.”
Frank was taking a nap when Jessica arrived home, so she was able to sneak her kitten-related items into the house and get them wrapped without him suspecting a thing. But although she knew that Tipper’s suggestion was the best - if not the only - way out of a bad situation, it still felt incomplete, and left her with a hollow feeling inside.
That night, after Grady, Donna, and Frank had all gone to bed, Jessica performed a ritual she had not had the chance to do since Grady was a boy: she collected all her wrapped gifts from their hiding spot in the cellar, went upstairs with them as quietly as she could, and placed them under the boughs of the tree.
When she was finished she stepped back to survey her handiwork. It had been years since she had been up at midnight, arranging gifts beneath the Christmas tree and eating her own cookies to preserve the illusion that Santa had been there. It gave her joy to be able to do these things again, to make Christmas as magical as she could for Young Frank, just as she had for Grady when he was growing up. But would her own “magic” be good enough, she wondered as she slipped Seth’s promissory note amidst the wrapped kitty toys, or would the absence of the yearned-for kitten shatter a child’s fragile myth into brittle shards of reality all too soon?
With a silent sigh Jessica turned away from the tree to head upstairs, but as she did her eyes fell upon a doll set upon a shelf. Forgetting her purpose of going to bed for the moment, she took the doll down from its perch and smoothed its hair and its dress, lost in a memory from back when she had been only nine years old.
That year the one thing she had wanted more than anything else in the world for Christmas was a Madame Alexander doll - and not just any doll, but the one she had seen in a shop window once, which had braided golden hair the same color as her own, a dress of embroidered ivory satin, and bright green eyes that opened and closed. She had told no one of this wish of hers, for the war was going on and everything was in short supply - she knew full well her parents could never afford to buy her such a doll. Yet she had kept wishing, hope straining the limits of her faith, praying that Father Christmas, if he existed, would grant her wish.
On Christmas morning Jessica had found her doll tucked inconspicuously behind the family’s tree, a tag with her name on it tied to its dainty hand. No one seemed to know where it had come from, or who had given it to her. She had named the doll Samantha and treasured her above all her other toys for years to come.
In the present, Jessica smiled at the memory as she set Samantha carefully back on her shelf. She had believed in the miracle the doll represented then; could she believe in it now as well?
Christmas morning came early, as one would expect with a young child in the house. Frank pounded down the stairs as soon as his parents would let him, eager to see what Santa had left him. He dived into his stocking first, eagerly removing the apples, oranges, and socks at the top to get to the more interesting items at the bottom - a box of crayons, a matchbox car, and other little odds and ends that Jessica had found around town or picked up in the course of her travels.
While Frank was occupied with exploring all the treasures his stocking offered, Jessica answered a knock at her front door and opened it to welcome Seth and Tipper inside.
“Just in time, I see,” Seth said as he shed his coat.
“Yes,” Jessica said. She looked over her shoulder to see Young Frank with his arm stuck all the way to the tip of the toe of his stocking, making certain he hadn’t missed anything. “We just got started.”
Seth handed Jessica three rather artlessly wrapped gifts. “I got a little something for Frank,” he said. “There’s a little something for you too.”
“Who’s the third one for?” Tipper asked.
“Oh, well, it’s just a some odds and ends I found lying around that I thought you might like,” Seth muttered. “You deserve it, I suppose, despite those bacchanalian office parties of yours and the fact that you constantly make fun of my handwriting.”
Tipper beamed. “Thanks, Seth.”
“Can we move on to the tree now, Dad?” Frank asked eagerly, the empty stocking’s wealth spread around him on the floor.
“I don’t see why not, now that Dr. Hazlitt and Dr. Henderson are here,” Grady replied as Tipper and Seth followed Jessica down into the living room and found empty places to sit.
Jessica went to the kitchen to fetch Tipper and Seth mugs of hot coffee and refill her own. When she came back Donna, who had been elected to play Santa, had already begun distributing the gifts from under the tree. There was something for everyone; neither Seth nor Tipper had been forgotten. Tipper especially was thrilled with her gift from Seth, a set of antique surgical instruments suitable for display that were clearly not just “odds and ends” he had found “lying around.”
As for Frank, he was clearly pleased at getting to unwrap all the cat toys and cat equipment he had been given, but he couldn’t keep the look of disappointment out of his face when he realized there was no cat to go with them. “All this is great,” he said, “but I wish I had a kitten.”
“Frank, honey,” Donna said sympathetically, “I know this might be a little hard for you to understand ...”
She paused at the sound of something rustling among the presents that still remained beneath the tree.
Frank tentatively reached out and brushed aside a piece of tissue paper, revealing the tiny face and ears of a little red tabby kitten poking its head over the side of a box.
“Wow!” he exclaimed in a hushed voice. Carefully, he lifted the kitten out of the box with both hands, and looked at Jessica, a dazzling smile on his face. “Santa really does exist!”
As Frank smoothed the kitten’s fur, counted its toes, and let it climb up on to his shoulder, Grady whispered to his aunt, “I can’t believe you did it!”
Jessica looked at him, the amazement plainly written on her face. “I didn’t have anything to do with it!” she whispered back.
Grady’s eyes widened. “You didn’t?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Well, then Dr. Henderson must have found one at the last moment.”
They both turned to look at Tipper, who merely lifted her shoulders in a confused shrug - she had no more idea where the kitten had come from than they did.
Donna, picking up on the mystery, looked to Seth. “Dr. Hazlitt, did you ...”
“No,” Seth replied, “I certainly did not.”
“Then where did the kitten come from?” Grady asked.
Jessica, in her heart, was pretty sure she knew the answer, but she merely smiled and did not give voice to it. There was no need - the wonder of five adults shared with one delighted boy was all the answer that was necessary.