Christmas Eve had to be the longest day of the year, no matter if Tulie knew that it wasn't, in actual fact. It was closer to the shortest day. But the hours on December 24th ticked by like the hands of the grandfather clock in the front hall were determined to drag out every second. Even breakfast seemed dull although it was the same breakfast Tulie usually enjoyed every morning. She toyed with her scrambled eggs.
“I wish it was tomorrow already,” she said to Gran.
“Well, if it was, I'd be busy making Christmas breakfast, just like I do every year.” Ticking them off on her fingers, Gran went over each item, even though Tulie knew them all. “French toast, raspberries from the garden, frozen last summer, Canadian bacon, and plenty of real maple syrup. None of that sugar syrup they sell nowadays,” Gran insisted. “Maple syrup comes from maple tree sap and don't try to tell me any different.”
After they did the breakfast dishes together, Gran got out the special Christmas dishes and they washed and dried those, too.
“What can we do now, Gran? It's only nine o'clock in the morning!”
“I hope you're not going to spend the whole day fussing, young lady. I know. Let's us go sit in the living room. I'll get the fire going and we can just relax in front of the Christmas tree. Remember, Wal-Mart closes early today and your mom will be home before dark.”
“That will really be the start of Christmas, when Mom's here.”
“Until then, you're just going to have to live through the day, somehow.”
Tulie turned on the radio and fiddled around until she found a station playing carols instead of rock. Gran was reading the newspaper and Tulie had her library book, ÔThe Gypsies Never Came.' It was a good story about a handicapped boy who was hoping that gypsies would visit him some day, but she couldn't concentrate.
Her mind kept drifting and Tulie would find herself daydreaming about tomorrow. Finally she gave up on her book and did something she had been doing every Christmas since she could remember. She got down on the floor, crawled right under the lowest branches of the tree and turned over. She lay there quietly, just gazing up through the branches. When she half closed her eyes and squinted through her eyelashes at the twinkling lights, it seemed to Tulie that she was in another world, an enchanted land. She imagined she could see pixies and elves who came to life only at Christmastime leaping from branch to branch as they played on the glistening ornaments. It was an imaginary land she had visited since she was a very little girl and she hoped she'd never be too grown-up to return to it every Christmas.
“Tulie, honey, I'm going in the kitchen now to peel sweet potatoes for the marshmallow casserole. Are you going to stay under the tree all day?”
“I'm okay. It's nice here. I like looking at my favorite ornaments.”
“Which ones, honey?” asked Gran coming close to the tree and peering into the branches.
“The little old tin sleigh, even though most of the glitter has fallen off. And the Santa with the curly beard that I always comb before I put it on the tree. I love him even though his face is all tarnished.”
“No wonder he's a little worse for wear, those ornaments were on our tree when I was a little girl, a long, long time ago. Christmas is a time to get out old memories and dust them off, just like the old ornaments,” Gran said. Tulie could hear her blow her nose as she headed for the kitchen. Tulie was beginning to understand what Gran meant. She searched the branches until she found the Mickey Mouse from that trip to Walt Disney World, the last vacation they had together before Dad left.
The clink of dishes and the rattle of pans told her that Gran was busy in the kitchen. Tulie started thinking about tomorrow morning, about the presents. She had the things she was giving all wrapped and waiting in her bedroom closet. There was the recipe scrapbook she'd made for Gran and it had turned out even better than Tulie had hoped. For Mom, she had bought a pretty purple muffler that came in a special silver gift box with a knit hat and gloves. It wasn't cashmere, but almost as soft and Tulie was sure it would be nice and warm. That was important because sometimes the heater in the Honda refused to work on the coldest mornings.
They always put the presents under the tree after supper on Christmas Eve. Tulie knew that she'd wish she had X-ray vision like Superman so she would be able to see what was inside the wrapped packages without having to wait until Christmas morning. Tonight she'd be looking for a box big enough to hold the doll in the blue gown. If only she knew the size of the packages with her name on the tags, she could be sure if one was the doll or not. That way, she'd know and she could practice not looking disappointed if the doll wasn't there under the tree tomorrow. It would be awful for poor Mom if Tulie didn't hide her disappointment. Why, it would spoil Mom's whole Christmas, wouldn't it?
Mom always hid the presents in the cupboard under the stairs. Tulie never peeked. She liked being surprised too much to peek. Until this year. Just one look and she'd know. It wasn't like she would open a present, or anything. She wouldn't even tear a little corner of the wrapping paper. What harm could there be in just looking at the packages for a minute?
Gran was busy in the kitchen. Tulie could hear her softly singing, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and as usual, getting the lords-a-leaping all mixed up with the swans-a-swimming but belting out the five-golden-rings loud and clear. Tulie tiptoed to the hallway, making sure to avoid the two floorboards that squeaked loudly. She opened the closet door very, very slowly. It was dark inside, but she didn't dare pull the string to turn on the light. She could make out a stack of boxes. There were two boxes big enough to hold the doll. Two! That was confusing.
“Tulip Mae O'Brien!” Gran's voice right behind her was so loud that Tulie jumped and screamed. She turned and saw Gran standing with her hands on her hips and her eyes blazing. “I thought you could be trusted. Just what do you think you are doing? Sneaking around like this, why I don't know what's got into you.”
“IÉIÉIÉ” Tulie stammered, feeling herself blushing brightly.
“You what? I'm rather curious to find out just what possessed you to do such a thing. It's not like you, not a bit.”
“It's just that I wanted to know if the doll was there,” Tulie said, almost in a whisper.
“That doll! I'm sorry you ever laid eyes on that doll in the first place. Ever since then, we've heard nothing night and day but that doll, that doll. Honest to goodness, I'm going to hate having to look at it every day, I'm sure.”
Tulie's eyes opened wide. “You mean I am getting it? I am! I am, aren't I? It's here in the closet, isn't it? Oh Gran, I'm so happy. I'll act surprised, really I will.”
Gran just shook her head and looked sad. “Well, I hope it does make you happy, Tulie. Your Mom wanted you to be happy so much that she spent her Christmas card money from Uncle Bob to buy you that doll, so you better appreciate it.”
“You mean she isn't going to use the money to buy those snow tires?”
“No she isn't. It's gone. All of it, just like that. She went to that funny little store at the mall and spent her whole fifty dollars on that doll you want so much, every penny,” said Gran and she turned around and went back into the kitchen.
Gran did not start singing again.
Tulie stood still by the open closet, just thinking. She felt terrible. In fact, she had never felt so bad in her entire life. She didn't have to think about what to do next. She knew. Tulie shouted, “I'm going outside for a while, Gran. Maybe I'll see if Brenda wants to do something. See you later!” Then she reached into the closet and picked up one of the big boxes. It was so heavy, she could hardly lift it. Oh. The computer. That's what it had to be. So the doll had to be the other big box. Quickly she took it to the front door, put on her boots, her coat, her scarf and hat. She pulled on her gloves, picked up the box and went out.
* * *
Luckily the weather predictions for a White Christmas said it wasn't going to snow until midnight, so the sidewalks were clear as Tulie pedaled her bike across town to the Buckeye Center Mall. It was tricky riding because the box was so big it didn't fit into the wire basket on her handlebars and Tulie had to balance it and steer at the same time.
There were several people shopping in the “Collectibles Cupboard” when Tulie walked in. For a change, they were not just looking, but were lined up at the cash register, paying for things. Tulie joined the end of the line and she thought Herb probably was sorry that nobody was haggling today. They were in too much of a hurry. After all, they were last minute shoppers and they were happy to pay full price.
“Oh, hello, there little lady,” said Herb when Tulie reached the front of the line and placed the box on the counter. “What's this we have here? You didn't have to bring me a present,” he teased with a twinkle in his eye.
“Oh, it's not for you, Mr. Herb. It's for me. Well, it was going to be, but now I don't want it and I want my mom's money back, please.” With that, Tulie started tearing off the ribbon and wrapping paper to reveal the doll.
“Oh, I recall now,” said Herb, rubbing his chin. “So that lady was your mother, huh? Nice enough, but she sure didn't know much about haggling. No, sire-ee, she didn't. I felt kinda sorry for her, not knowing how to haggle, so I sold her that there doll for a song. Yes sir-ee, just fifty dollars, that's all.”
“Well, you can have it back now. So may I please have my mom's fifty dollars back?”
Herb's eyes narrowed. “Well, see that sign over there that says ÔNo returns, no refunds, no foolin.' That's my policy, yes-siree. But I might be willing to buy that doll back from you.”
“That's okay. Just give me the fifty dollars, please.”
“Oh, not so fast, not so fast, young lady. I'm not offering to buy it back for fifty dollars. No sir-ee, that's not the way I do business. I'm prepared to offer you twenty-five dollars, take it or leave it.”
“What? Twenty-five dollars? That's not fair! I need fifty dollars to give to my mom so she can buy snow tires.”
“Ain't my problem. Now, if you had anything else to sell, maybe we'd be able to make some kind of deal. You want the twenty-five, or not? Make up your mind. There's customers behind you, waiting. It's Christmas Eve, you know.”
Tulie sighed. She knew Herb was a better haggler than she could ever hope to be. “Okay, I guess I have to take the twenty-five,” she said and held out her hand while Herb counted out the money to her. As she turned to leave the store, the bell on the door tinkled and there stood Katherine Bannister, her arms loaded with shopping bags stuffed full.
“Hi Tulie, Merry Christmas!” she said with a bright smile. “Doing some last minute shopping?”
“Me too! My mom and dad say I'm so hard to buy for that they just give me money for Christmas and I buy all my own presents. They're in the Caribbean on a cruise ship, but Mrs. Lloyd, our housekeeper, will wrap them all up tonight and then I'll open them tomorrow.”
It didn't sound like much fun to Tulie. “You mean you'll be home all alone tomorrow? All alone on Christmas?”
“Oh no! Mrs. Lloyd will be there. My brother was going to come home for Christmas but he got invited to a party with his college friends. So he'll be in Aspen.” Katherine looked at Tulie's empty hands and asked, “Didn't you find anything to buy in here? I think it's a wonderful little shop. I came in here last week and guess what I bought? Some wonderful old paper dolls! Winsome told me all about your club and the play you're doing. It sounds like so much fun. You sure are lucky!”
Lucky? Tulie didn't feel lucky. Suddenly she had an idea. She'd have to hurry. It was a long bike ride home and back to mall again, but she could do it.
“I've got to go now, Katherine,” she said as she quickly went to the door. “Have a Merry Christmas!” she called out over her shoulder as she raced away.