This and Every Christmas by Jaycee Weaver

Clari

December 23

Thirteen years old

  

Arms crossed and slumped against the cold window, I flashed my parents an eye roll from my spot in the backseat. Only because they couldn’t see, of course. Flashing an eye roll anywhere within my dad’s line of sight was a surefire way to find myself grounded for a week.

But come on, I was missing out on Bailey Jones’s Christmas party tonight just so my parents could drag me two hours away to the same stinking tree farm we visited every year on December twenty-third, or as we called it, Christmas Eve eve.

To be clear, I loved our annual tradition and looked forward to the smell of the pines, the hot chocolate and tiny candy canes they gave to everyone, the photo op Mrs. Appel decorated in a different theme every year—always with the best Santa. We made a lot of fond memories at Appel Baumfarm, which meant Appel’s Tree Farm in German.

While part of me was excited for the night ahead, I was miffed they refused to come a different day. No matter how I begged, we had to come tonight because it was tradition.

Ugh. As much as I liked Bailey and we were friends, I didn’t trust her. We’d both crushed on Charlton Ayers since school started in August. He was the cutest boy in the eighth grade, and though I’d spent the whole semester trying to catch his eye in pre-Algebra, Bailey would be at the party to edge me out of the competition. She already told me how she planned to get his attention. The brat.

“Come on, crabapple, let’s go have some fun.”

Dad turned around and winked at me before climbing out of the car. As soon as his head was turned, I set another eye roll free behind my red-framed glasses. Ever since I hit my tweens and my feelings grew until I was sure they’d consume me, Dad had taken to calling me what he thought were clever nicknames based on my mood.

He was never mean about it. My dad was the best (though I’d never say so to my friends). Teasing was his way of lightening the mood, despite how often it backfired. Mom never missed a chance to nag me to give him credit for trying.

“Can we go see the train first?” My six-year-old sister, Cindy Lou, clicked her seatbelt and leapt from her booster seat.

Yes, Cindy Lou. As in the character from Dr. Seuss’s Grinch tale. I’d have more pity for her, but my other sister was named Charlie after both Charlie Brown and the kid from The Santa Claus—my parents thought they were having a boy until she came out, but they decided Charlie was a cute girl’s name and kept it.

When my Christmas-obsessed parents created a tradition, they went all out. The three of us were named for Christmas movie characters that begin with C, starting with me, Clarice. After a lame bow-headed puppet reindeer from my grandma’s childhood.

So embarrassing.

“Clari, come on!” Charlie, who was nine, glared at me for taking too long to get out of the car.

I stuck my tongue at her. Immature, but whatever.

Oh well. We were here now, I should suck it up and try to have fun.

My eyes were drawn to the brightly lit Christmas town, a cluster of shacks with painted plywood façades to resemble shops in the North Pole or a European village maybe. My mom and I spent ages, year after year, admiring the arts and crafts booths, hand-blown glass ornaments, and other Christmas trinkets while my dad and sisters taste-tested every flavor of candied popcorn imaginable.

Dad paid our admission and he and Mom led us toward the rows of trees way at the rear of the farm. It was a long walk, so we stopped for cocoa first to keep the younger girls from whining the whole way. The farm had a pre-cut lot at the very front near the other activities, but my tree-hugger—ha!Christmas-tree-hugger—parents had a standing reservation for a potted tree we planted after the holidays so it could live on.

“Hello, sir, can I help you?”

My head shot up at the sound of a young voice. The boy was around my age—thirteen—or close to it. An inch or two shorter than me with a voice still in the weird stage between kid and man. Kind of skinny, but he had awesome wavy blond hair. Far too young to have a job, but here he was, working in a coat and beanie with the Appel Baumfarm logo on them in old school lettering where the A was a Christmas tree.

Dad told him about our tree, and the boy nodded with a grin I felt deep in my belly. His gaze flicked to me and the grin broadened.

Oh. My.Goodness.

Dad handed him a claim ticket and the cute boy’s eyes never left mine as he took it from my father’s fingers. His warm brown eyes reminded me of the hot apple cider I planned to get later. My dad coughed and cocked his head to the side the way he did when someone was a little slow on the uptake.

The boy—I wish I knew his name—blinked, and the weird zing evaporated. With a head dip toward my father, he turned and disappeared into the trees. I had the strangest urge to follow him.

“Someone’s got a cru-ush,” Charlie sang loudly. “Someone’s got a cru-ush!”

My cheeks burned as I realized my whole family had heard her and were now gaping at me. As if our quintet of reindeer sweaters weren’t horrific enough. Dad’s eyebrow lifted way up on one side and Mom’s lips twitched. I wanted to die. Right there. Preferably before that boy came back and Charlie said worse things where he might actually hear.

Shut up, Char!” I hissed, searching for a way to disappear. Or at least a place I could run to—maybe on the other side of the galaxy.

“We don’t tell people to ‘shut up,’ Clarice,” Mom said with her patent look.

I apologized with my eyes, but my brain still scrambled for an escape. “Can I take Cindy Lou to the train?”

“The train! Yes! Yes! Please, Mommy?” Cindy skipped in place, seconds from whining.

Please, please, please, I willed my parents to give in. I was old enough to babysit when they went on dates, and I often helped in the nursery at church. Cindy and a train thirty yards away would be a piece of cake.

My gaze darted to the trees, praying they’d let us go before the cute boy returned. When they nodded, grinning like embarrassing freaks, I thought I’d melt in relief. Instead, I reached for my sisters’ hands and dragged them toward the Christmas village as fast as my feet would carry me.

***

Early November

Present day

  

Bang!

The workroom’s industrial three-hole punch echoed louder than an air hammer at a construction site. Clari braced for the next slam, then placed the punched sheets on the pile and straightened the next set. Only forty more to go.

She was four months into her third year of teaching music, her first at this K-12 school in mountainous northern New Mexico, hours away from where she’d grown up in Albuquerque. A huge adjustment from a city school district, but the slower pace of this small town was worth it.

Clari’s next class started in fifteen minutes, and in ten she had her entire stack of copies punched and neatly sorted crisscross in a pile. After school, she would stick them inside the bright red paper folders she’d purchased on sale last fall and be ready for winter concert auditions this afternoon.

A satisfied smile tilted Clari’s lips as her steps bounced toward the small outbuilding that housed her music classroom. She sucked in a lungful of crisp mountain air and squeezed past Ms. Roybal’s class already in line on the ramp.

Clari adjusted her grip on her copies, wishing she’d brought a tote with her, and slid her key into the lock. She held the door open for the children with her shoulder, exchanging a few polite words with Ms. Roybal before releasing the door and reminding the students to hang their coats on the pegs along the far wall.

“Welcome, welcome,” Clari sang.

The students echoed her melodious greeting.

“Everyone find your marks on the carpet, please.”

Three quarters of the class raced to the brightly colored rug at the front of the classroom. Clari frowned at two boys engaged in a playful shoving match a few feet away. A shout of caution was on her lips as she bent to set the pile of papers on her desk, but Gage shoved Dalton before the words came out.

Dalton tripped and hurtled into little Lucy, who stumbled toward Clari’s legs. Clari’s hands flew out to brace for impact. Papers went airborne as Lucy’s head knocked into the corner of Clari’s desk with a loud thunk.

Lucy burst into tears. Clari thrust into action mode. With no other adults in her building’s vicinity, she had no choice but to call and inform the nurse. She tried to send Lucy to the office with Dalton and Mia for an ice pack—strength in numbers, of course—but the poor girl clung to Clari so tightly there was no chance of peeling her away without a crowbar.

Instead, Clari carried the girl to the front of the classroom and offered a seat on the carpet beside her. Still wrapped around Clari like a Velcro monkey, Lucy shook her head and sobbed harder.

“I—” gasp, “want—,” sniff, “my—,” another gasp, “daddy!” She wailed.

Clari made soft shushing noises and prayed for a brilliant idea to distract the five-year-old with. She peered down and found an angry red goose egg growing on the child’s forehead. Unsure what else to do, she dialed Ms. Roybal and explained the situation. Within minutes, the teacher had lured Lucy out of Clari’s arms and to the nurse for ice.

Last class of the day, usually one of her favorites, and it was a train wreck.

Summoning her perkiest voice, Clari returned her attention to the rest of the class. Gage frowned when she denied them the basket of rhythm instruments, but the added noise would only make things worse.

Forty minutes later, Clari eyed the pages strewn across her desk and floor behind it. There wasn’t enough time to brush them into a pile, sort, and stick them in folders before auditions now.

Not when she had to visit the office to file an incident report. She trekked over to the administration office and had been at the desk only two or three minutes, rapidly jotting down her version of events so she could get to the auditorium on time, when she sensed a shift. Glancing up, her eyes widened at the sight of a rather tall man wearing a wool-lined denim jacket and a scowl as he barreled into the room.

A small child with a familiar purple polka-dot backpack hid behind his legs.

While Mr. Alvarado, the principal, addressed the scowling man, Clari approached the little girl. She dropped to a crouch and brushed the girl’s pale blond bangs off her forehead to get a better look.

“Hey, honey. Did you put ice on your owie?”

Lucy nodded, one hand buried in the man’s grasp, the thumb of the other in her mouth. Clari frowned. Five was a little old to be sucking a thumb in public, wasn’t it? The child was hurt, though. Perhaps it was a comfort she’d outgrow.

“Make sure you put more ice on it at home, okay?”

“M’kay,” Lucy murmured around the thumb.

“Are you the negligent music teacher?” A deep voice boomed from above.

Clari straightened to her full five-feet, five-inches and still had to tilt her chin to look the man in the eye.

“Negligent? It was an accident, caused by two roughhousing boys.”

“On your watch.”

Her eyes narrowed, and she forced her nose not to flare. Charlie and Cindy were forever provoking her just so they could make fun of her dancing nostrils. The tall guy glared at her with apparently zero concern over his own. There they went, in and out with each breath as he stared.

Might’ve been funny if he hadn’t called her negligent—twice—in front of her boss.

Clari rolled her shoulders and sucked in a breath to unleash a mouthful in her defense and put this rude man in his place. Her jaw clamped shut as she considered her surroundings and thought better of it.

“I assure you, Mr. Appel, Ms. Sinclair is a fine, attentive teacher—”

Clari flashed a grateful look to Mr. Alvarado before turning to the hulking father now eyeing her with suspicious curiosity.

Appel? Lucy Appel.

Made sense. The school was only a few miles away from the road to Appel Baumfarm where she’d spent so many Christmas Eve eves with her family.

Her head tilted to the side as Clari searched for signs of the familiar boy she once crushed on. His honey brown eyes peered at her in similar scrutiny. Taller than the last time she’d seen him—by a long shot—he still had those same unruly blond waves she used to drool over every year visiting his family’s tree farm. His eyes were colder and filled with irritation, but she’d know them anywhere.

“Noah?”