From the Heart
by Tara Manderino © 2009
Shoving his hands deeper into his coat pockets, and hunching his shoulders to pull his coat collar closer to his neck, Steven stared at the animated display in the store window. Nearly life-sized penguins wearing brightly colored toboggan hats rode up the escalator, and slid down the plastic slope, waddled across the silver pond to start all over again. Smaller home sets of the display were stacked strategically in the display area. The wind ruffled his hair, and he took it as a cue to move to the displays on the side of the building where nearby buildings made a windbreak. He stopped to watch the animated figures decorating the Christmas trees.
Steven had always enjoyed this time of the year, looking at the displays, sharing the warmth of the season and the people he would meet. The glow of the light from the department store window was usually enough to send a warmth through him, but not this year. He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets, and ignoring the sounds of cars and buses on the street behind him, gave a lingering look at the display, and then moved to the next one. He wanted the warmth that came from the familiar scenes, one after the other. He made his way back to the penguins. They brought a smile to his lips in spite of the chill, and he knew they would do the same for his youngest brother, 4 year old Nicholas. He caught himself with that thought. When he had he started thinking of Nicholas as his brother?
At 16, Steven was the oldest in what they now called a blended family. He snorted at that as he stepped away from the window and headed toward the fast food mart where he worked after school. What a stupid name for a bunch of people who were forced to live together. Now with his father gone, he was the one forced to live with Michelle and her family. His own mother had been gone before he called her mom. He should be glad to help Michelle out, after all he had a place to live, but now he was the only one old enough to help earn money. He would rather be doing a dozen other things, but he knew his responsibility;
Lord knew he heard it often enough. He really didn’t have anything to do with Michelle’s 10 year old twins, but Nicholas had been a wide smiling, drooling baby when he came to live with them. He hadn’t lost that smile in four years. He would adore that penguin toy, but twenty dollars was not something he had to spare. He frowned, disgusted with the situation, as he opened the door to the food mart.
“Yo, Steve, you haven’t even clocked in yet. Why the look?’
Steven smoothed his brow as he headed to the back of the store. “Just the whole holiday season, Franklin.”
The boy working the register chuckled. “I hear that,” he said before turning to wait on a customer.
Concentrating on stocking the shelves, Steven waited for the spate of after work customers to leave before making his way over to the counter and talking with Franklin. The kid was a year older than Steven, but his growing up years were different than Steven’s own. While he felt his childhood had been cut short, in his eyes, Franklin never had any.
He flicked the little packages of mistletoe hanging on the board resting on the counter. “I really hate this time of year.”
“You’re crazy. This is a great time. Most people seem a little nicer.”
“You really think so?” Steven rested his elbows on the counter and leaned forward, lifting his feet off the floor. “I think people are more stressed. You know, what to get people for a Christmas present. Who to buy things for and there’s not enough money.”
Franklin shrugged. “We don’t do that, so it’s not a problem.” He waved Steven aside when another customer came into the store.
Not buy presents? Steven couldn’t even imagine not exchanging presents. “Isn’t that what Christmas was all about?
Franklin shook his head and gave Steven a half smile when he asked. “Haven’t you learned anything?”
“What? You mean Christmas is peace on earth and goodwill to men, that kind of stuff?” It was his turn to shake his head. “You don’t believe that, do you? That’s a story for those church people to make them feel good.”
Two more people entered the store and Steven left to find the mop. This time of the year brought in slush and water from the melting snow each time the door opened.
He leaned on the handle as he talked to Franklin. Was there something that he didn’t know? “Come on, seriously, what are you getting your brother and sister for Christmas? I know they’re little kids yet. You have to get them something.”
Franklin gave him a self-conscious smile. “Okay, I did get them something. I’ve been saving a long time. I think I have enough money to get Jackson and Janelle new coats.”
“New coats?” Steven knew he sounded stupid, especially when Franklin looked at him as if he was confused by his tone. But new coats? How was that a Christmas present? “Oh, you mean like those team coats?”
“No, new coats. I don’t think those kids ever had new ones that they picked out. I’m going to take them shopping and let them get the ones they want.”
“I’m sure they’ll enjoy that.” He knew his voice sounded flat, but he couldn’t imagine any kid would think that was fun. Well, maybe Harley, Michelle’s daughter would. She loved clothes.
“What about your mama? What are you getting her?”
“Why do you care?”
“I’m trying to get some ideas here. I never got Michelle anything.” He shrugged, “And I don’t know what to get Nicholas. He’s too little not to have Christmas.”
“What are you talking about? Christmas is coming.”
Steven rolled his eyes. “There you go, all that church stuff again.” He walked away and started doing the other chores that needed done in the store. Franklin could get too preachy if you let him.
A few days later, and a few days closer to Christmas, he and Franklin were working together again. “Did you get your shopping done,” Franklin teased him.
Steven shook his head. “I don’t have the money, I told you.”
Leaning against the counter and crossing his arms, Franklin shook his head. “What are we going to do with you? You said it yourself, the kids are little, you have to give them something.”
How many different ways could he say that he couldn’t afford it? Even when he said it again, Franklin shook his head.
“Gifts are from the heart.” He thumped his chest with his fist.
Was that what the coats were, he wondered. Maybe. “But this should be fun stuff, something special, especially for little kids.”
“Hey, Baby Jesus wasn’t born just for fun stuff.”
“Come on, he had kings give him great gifts, gold and all that other stuff.” That was all he could remember.
“Gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
“See, gold is rich stuff. I don’t know about the other stuff.”
“They’re costly spices.”
Steven braced his legs and crossed his arms as he looked at Franklin. “How come you know all that stuff?”
“Because it’s all in the Christmas story.”
“I don’t remember that. All I remember is Ralphie.” He relaxed his stance and headed for the back for cleaning supplies, but stopped when Franklin let out a bellow of laughter.
“I meant the real Christmas story. The one all of the Christmas carols are about.” Suddenly, he stopped and snapped his fingers. “You know, one of my favorite Christmas Carols is The Little Drummer Boy.” At Steven’s blank look, Franklin sang a bit of it until comprehension dawned.
“I don’t remember all of the words.”
“But you should know that the little drummer boy couldn’t afford to give the Baby Jesus anything, so he played a song for him on his drum.”
When the bell over the door rang, Franklin went back to the register. “Think about it,” he said.
Not that he had much time to think, but by Christmas morning, he did have a gift ready. Maybe he couldn’t afford that penguin on the slide, but he had found a small stuffed penguin that he hoped Nicholas would like. To make his gift one from the heart, he had created a song, especially about Nicholas and the penguin.
With tears in her eyes, Michelle told him that his present was the most precious Nicholas could have received. The smile on the little boy’s face said the same. When Nicholas threw his arms around Steven and gave him a bear hug, Steven realized what Franklin had meant when he said Christmas was in his heart.
Author Tara Manderino loves to create stories and situations for the people running around in her head. She first began writing in third grade when she realized she couldn't afford her reading habit. Her novels include Regency, U.S. Historical, paranormal/vampire and inspirational.
Tara resides in her native town in southwestern Pennsylvania. When she’s not writing her own stories, or reading, Tara likes to bake, watch old movies, and do a variety of crafts.