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A Christmas Gift
"Joe, please spell 'judgment.'"
"This is stupid," Reese whispered, twisting around in his seat to address his best friend, Aly. She did some odd mix between a shrug and a grimace in return. "I hate the spelling bee," he continued in a low voice while Joe screwed up his face in concentration, no doubt trying to remember if there was an e after the g in judgment. "It takes forever, and the same kids win every year."
He looked around. A few kids were gazing wistfully at the winter wonderland outside; the window framed a beautiful snowy scene as flakes floated gently to the ground. A couple of his classmates were passing notes. Some were staring into space. One kid was actually drooling into his desk.
"Maddie, your word is 'shtick,'" came Ms. Berry's rumble of a voice, jerking Reese out of his stupor. Ms. Berry was, by far, his least favorite teacher. She was the kind of cranky old lady who asked you a question about the Ottoman Empire the second she knew you weren't paying attention. And when you failed to answer, she didn't say, "Well, I hope you start to listen from now on." No, she let you suffer. She glared at you expectantly. She let the class snicker at you for a solid two minutes before she'd say with obvious disdain, "Alright, well, then, anyone else?"
While Maddie struggled through the word "shtick," Reese became lost in thought. Today was the last day of school; Christmas break was right around the corner. Who cared about Ms. Berry, really. He could last twenty more minutes, couldn't he?
"Reese, your turn."
With a sigh, he stood up, trying to project an air of defiance. Maybe Ms. Berry got the message a little too well, because he saw her eyes stray farther and farther down the list, to the very bottom, where he was sure the egregiously long words were listed, the ones that defied the "I before e" rule and had multiple silent letters.
"Reese," she said, just barely concealing a smirk, "your word is arachibutyrophobia."
The entire class jolted awake. Jaws dropped. One girl gasped. Reese himself blinked in bewilderment, positive he’d heard wrong.
"You're kidding, right?" he blurted out without thinking. He indicated Maddie. "You gave her 'shtick'!"
"Correct. And I'm giving you arachibutyrophobia."
He heard Aly's indignant voice somewhere behind him. "That's --"
"Arachibutyrophobia, Reese," Ms. Berry said, cutting her off.
"Uh..." He had no clue what to do. "A-R-A-C-H-I-B-U-T..." He gave it some thought and realized he'd lost his place. "Wait -- shoot -- can I start again?"
Ms. Berry smiled at him. "No."
He swallowed his pride. "Can you repeat the word, then?"
"Arachibutyrophobia." She barely moved her lips. Was she pronouncing it differently?
"Can you give me the defintion?"
"The fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth."
What? Was she joking? Was that even a phobia? "Uh..." He struggled with himself. "Could you spell it for me?"
She gestured for him to sit. She was really grinning now. "Take a seat, Reese."
"I hate her," seethed Reese in an undertone to Aly, who rolled her eyes. He hadn't shut up for the entire half hour they'd been on the bus. He fogged up the bus window with his breath and began drawing what looked like Ms. Berry being flattened by a semi. Aly couldn't tell. "She hates me, doesn't she?"
"Yeah," Aly replied, sympathetic but also matter-of-fact.
"I know what I'm gonna do," he said viciously. "I'll go to her house and break all her Christmas lights, and then I'll toilet paper her house and when she comes outside to check it out, I'll sneak in and tip over her Christmas tree."
Aly absentmindedly wrapped a strand of her blond hair around her finger. "Reese, let it go. You can't hold a grudge." She watched as he kicked moodily at the seat in front of them, and she snickered. "Arachibutyrophobia."
He stared at her. "How come you can say it? I can't even say it!"
She shook her head. "C'mon. She's just a bitter old lady. You'll get over it. Hey," she added, trying to steer him away from any thoughts of Ms. Berry. "I know... come over to my house. Our dog had puppies a few weeks ago, remember? We gave most of them away, but there's still two left... let's teach them to whiz in my sister's shoes before have to get rid of them."
This idea once would have struck a chord with him, but today he wasn't in the mood, and this alarmed her. Reese didn't hold grudges. He never did – not even when she'd accidentally whacked him on the side of the head with a shovel when they were nine. He'd gotten seven stitches, but five minutes later he was cracking jokes. Now, however, he was holding a grudge. She could tell by the way he made little additions to his drawing on the window; Ms. Berry now appeared to be in the path of a rampaging polar bear holding a chainsaw.
She sighed. What a happy holiday this was going to be.
A tap on Aly's window alerted her to the fact that there was someone right outside.
She threw open the window and gaped at Reese, who was clinging to her window sill. "Reese, I was supposed to come to your house."
They had a tradition as best friends and next-door neighbors. Every Christmas, Aly would climb up to Reese's window, or vice versa, using the tree that stood between their adjacent windows, at exactly midnight. They used to do this in an attempt to catch Santa Claus in the act. Now it was simply a tradition that their parents had long since accepted. As it was Christmas Eve, this was expected. But they had both agreed that Aly was supposed to go to Reese's.
"I know," he said, panting with the effort of holding on. "But -- I'm going to Ms. Berry's. And I thought I'd see if you wanted to come." He indicated the four rolls of toilet paper tucked under his arm.
Aly stared. "You're not serious."
His eyes darkened. "Yeah, I am."
"She's an old lady! It was a spelling bee!"
"It's not just the spelling bee," snapped Reese. "Remember that project? Mine was a working model of a volcano, and Jerry's was a cup of water. She gave him an A, and I got a D-."
"And when someone stole all her colored pencils? She looked right at me and sent me to the principal's office!"
"Shame on her."
"I'm sick of taking this from her," he insisted. "One word, Aly: payback."
She struggled to come up with a good objection. "You don't even know where she lives."
Reese pretended to look stumped. "I knew I was forgetting something!" He rolled his eyes at her. "I opened the phone book. It's not rocket science. She lives three blocks away." He glared at her. "Are you in, or what?"
This whole idea had her conscience screaming, "Idiot!" She sighed. Reese was going whether she agreed to come or not. The least she could do was follow; maybe she'd be able to talk him out of it before he did any real damage. She nodded to him. "Let me grab my coat."
They were both shivering. Despite the obvious sophistication of this entire plan (sarcasm), neither one had brought a thick enough jacket to combat the brutal effects of a winter's night.
"I can't believe we're doing this."
It was Aly's constant refrain; Reese gritted his teeth and tried to tune her out. She'd wanted to come, after all. His passionate, white-hot loathing of Ms. Berry was near boiling point as he remembered every little mishap; when Marco pushed all of his books off his desk and Ms. Berry told Reese off for "disturbing class," and the time she'd looked at his latest test score and said, "Well, you were close. Next time let's try for a D , shall we?"
"I can't believe we're doing this..."
Reese rubbed his hands together for warmth.
"I can't believe we're doing this..."
"Aly," he said, "will you shut up?"
"I'm freezing to death, just to get revenge on a teacher you hate," she retorted. "I think I've earned the right to complain about it, at least."
He couldn't argue with that, so he said nothing. After another minute of walking, the wind at their backs, Aly cast him a sideways glance. "Reese?"
He exhaled sharply. "I hope you didn't come all this way to try and make me see reason. I'm doing this, Aly."
"But -- come on, Reese -- I thought, maybe, if you just --"
He cut her off. "There's her house. Let's go."
They crept quietly up to 7765 Willow Road. It was a large white house at the end of the street, but Reese was struck by how empty it looked. For a second he thought he'd gotten the wrong house. There were no Christmas lights or fancy outdoor decorations. He figured she was a scrooge. Well, then. All the more reason to go through with this.
He was just about to chuck a roll of toilet paper when Aly grabbed his arm and pointed. "Wait. There's a light in that window."
They crunched their way through the snow, right up to the front window. Aly stayed low as she crept directly under it. "I'm afraid to look," she confessed in a whisper. "The old geezer might be looking right back at me." She took a deep breath, then quickly popped her head up to look inside. Just as quickly she ducked back down, looking stunned.
"What?" Reese was alarmed. "Did she see you?"
"No," whispered Aly, slowly straightening up to look in the window again. "Not exactly."
Now Reese was definitely intrigued. He joined her at the window.
It was Ms. Berry, but her back was to them as she sat on the couch. A pine tree stood in the corner, lonely and undecorated. A few cardboard boxes were stacked next to it; ornaments peeked out, as if Ms. Berry had attempted to decorate but had lost heart. Her shoulders were shaking with -- what, with laughter? Was she listening to Dane Cook on the stereo or something? But no -- Reese felt his stomach drop when he realized she was shaking with repressed sobs.
In her hand was a framed photograph -- a man and... was that her? In the wedding dress? It had to be -- it was a younger Ms. Berry. She was actually pretty. Her hair was blond, her face bore no wrinkles, and she was a solid three inches shorter -- no heels. The feeling was something like missing a step on the way down the stairs.
A scrapbook sat next to her. PHILIP BERRY -- followed by a date of birth... and the date of death.
It took Reese a second to realize that both of the laughing lovebirds in the wedding picture were gone, because when her husband died, Ms. Berry died a little too. All the boxes of Christmas ornaments, the gesture of picking out a tree and finding herself unable to decorate it -- it proved Ms. Berry hadn't always been a heartless witch. She used to be festive. She used to decorate for Christmas. But now it wasn't worth it.
It was Christmas, and Ms. Berry was alone.
Aly took Reese's hand. "Let's go home."
The walk home was subdued. Reese ditched the rolls of toilet paper in a nearby trash can. He walked with his hands in his pockets, his eyes on the ground. He was struggling to come to terms with what he had just seen -- Ms. Berry... the invincible, the impossible, the menace of his life. He'd never once imagined that there wasn't anything she couldn't control (and irritate to death). It was hard to accept that she didn't have that power.
And suddenly Reese was seized with the same impulsiveness with which he'd planned to get back at Ms. Berry -- this time he had an idea that would help her.
Aly realized that Reese had stopped, and she turned to find him standing, irresolute, ten feet behind her. "What's up?"
He looked cheerful. "I've got an idea."
"I can't believe we're doing this."
Reese grinned at her. "I take it you mean that in the best possible way. C'mon, it'll be cool. We'll be like Santa Claus, only she'll never know it was us."
Aly regarded the basket in her best friend's hands. It was cushioned with a red velvet cushion she'd found in her basement. A matching red bow was wrapped around the handle. Inside the basket, however, was the prize -- one tiny, wriggling yellow labrador puppy. Her bright eyes took in the surroundings with eagerness, and her tail was wagging frantically. Reese kept lightly shoving her back into the basket as she made a bid for freedom.
"C'mon," he said, seeing the look on Aly's face. "Your mom wants these puppies gone, right? And they're the right age -- "
Aly shook her head. "For all we know, Ms. Berry's allergic to dogs. With our luck she'll probably dump him on the side of the road on Christmas Day!"
"She's lonely," Reese insisted.
"Our parents are going to kill us," mused Aly. "You know, if we get caught sneaking back in. Or they might just assume it was all because of our little tradition." She looked at the puppy again. "I can't believe this is all because of arachibutyrophobia." The puppy perked up slightly and looked at her. Aly smirked at her friend. "Just out of curiosity, can you spell arachibutyrophobia?"
Reese scoffed. "A-R-A-C..." He stopped. "-hibutyrophobia. Happy?"
"Arachibutyrophobia. Say it with me. You don't even say it right."
"I wonder why," he fumed. "Ms. Berry kept changing the way she said it! Don't make me change my mind about this."
Two kids plus one puppy made their way to the familiar house and crunched their way across the lawn. All the lights in the house were off -- Ms. Berry had apparently gone to sleep. The darkness made this entire thing feel forbidden. Reese gingerly placed the basket on the porch and Aly put a note inside. The puppy immediately pounced on it, and Aly pulled it back. She tucked it safely beneath the basket and beckoned to Reese. "Let's get out of here."
The sky was getting lighter. He could see morning on the horizon. He hopped up onto the porch and did three loud knocks that resounded like gunshots in the silence. He waited until he heard movement in the house, and he turned to go. Aly was already halfway across the lawn -- and, to Reese's intense dismay, the puppy was trying to follow her.
Aly saw the problem too. "No! Go back! Stay in the basket!"
Reese jumped forward and lunged for the puppy, but she darted out of his way. He heard footsteps descending the stairs within the house. "Come!" he pleaded to the puppy as Aly tried circling around; the puppy jolted out of her way at the last second, delighted with this new game.
Aly was pale as she regarded Reese. "If we can't get that thing back in the basket, we're dead."
The footsteps were growing louder.
"Come on," he begged of the puppy, as if it understood. It cocked its head cutely and promptly dodged him as he tried to grab it. "Just sit in the basket for about twenty more seconds!"
Aly threw her hands in the air. "I blame arachibutyrophobia!"
To their utter amazement, the puppy perked up at this, and then, as if by magic, trotted right over to Aly. The realization hit them both at the same time.
"Oh no," whispered Aly.
"You've got to be kidding me," moaned Reese.
Ms. Berry was grumpy. It was Christmas. Who knocked on the door this early on Christmas morning? All she wanted to do was sleep until the sun was high in the sky. What did she have to get up for, after all? So it was Christmas. Big whoop. She had never felt so lonely in her life.
She thundered down the stairs and flicked on the lights with a scowl, unable to contain her annoyance. Her eyes fell, for a moment, on the empty Christmas tree in the corner. The sight was bittersweet. She wrenched open her door and glared outside, nearly ready to spit at whoever had disturbed her.
But -- what was this? A basket, adorned with a red bow -- with a puppy inside?
The adorable little bundle of fur tripped over its own feet as it tumbled out of the basket. She realized there was a soggy piece of paper in its mouth. She bent to grab it, feeling numb.
Dear Ms. Berry,
This puppy is a gift to you from us. She's here to make sure you aren't lonely this Christmas. She enjoys cuddling, playing in the snow, and... oh yeah, she responds to the name of Arachibutyrophobia.
The note was signed anonymous, implying that the clever gift-giver wanted to remain so, but Ms. Berry was pretty sure she knew who it was.
Hackettstown, New Jersey
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