“What do you do with your kids’ outgrown toys, Kiki?” Vanessa Johnson asked me. She was working on a fun project, crocheting matching hats for everyone in her family. “I ask because I’m trying to figure out what to do with the toys my son has outgrown. I hate to see them thrown into the trash.”
“Don’t do that!” Clancy Whitehead, my second in command and my BFF, gave a furious shake of her head. “There are so many needy kids in this world. Think of how thrilled they’d be to get those things.”
I agreed wholeheartedly. “Last Sunday we went through all of Anya’s old things and outgrown clothes. I can’t believe how quickly her teen years are flying by. We packed up an entire box. Then I tried to get Erik to do likewise.”
“How did that go?” Clancy raised an impeccably groomed eyebrow curiously. With a tiny shrug, she added, “I know that moving here has been hard on him. He’s probably not ready to give anything up.”
Her years as a teacher have served her well, because Clancy understands children very well. As usual, she’d nailed it in one. Erik had refused to let go of anything he’d brought here, to St. Louis, from California. The prospect of saying goodbye to his belongings overwhelmed the little guy. He burst into noisy tears and threw himself onto his bed. Watching her brother cry, Anya had slipped an arm around my waist. She whispered in my ear, “This is just too much for him, isn’t it?”
I hugged my oldest child and planted a kiss on her forehead. “You’re so right, honey. I’d hoped to make space in his room so when Santa visits, there’ll be room for more presents.”
“Not working.” Anya’s smile was one of compassion.
“Sooo not working.” I sighed, taking a place next to Erik on his bed. “Come here, buddy.”
Reluctantly, he let me hold him.
Erik came to live with us after Detweiler’s first wife, Gina, died in a car crash. Because she was legally married to Detweiler when she had Erik, he’s legally Detweiler’s child. Biologically he isn’t. As the teenagers say, “It’s complicated.”
Over the past year, Erik has settled in, although the birth of Ty, our youngest, caused a bit of a regression for the five-year-old. We’ve been patient and understanding. I’ve done my best to explain why babies need so much attention, and I’ve emphasized their fragility and neediness. At the same time, I’ve explained to Erik that he’s a big brother. He likes that. He’s naturally a sweet and loving child, so taking care of the baby has become a point of honor for him.
In fact, Erik can be quite the little martinet, demanding that we change Ty’s diaper or pick him up or pay attention. From time to time, I’ll ask Erik to watch Ty, which is code for retrieving the baby’s toys and reading to him. Being in charge of someone else has given Erik a sense of pride, a certain glow.
Slowly we’ve noticed that he no longer talks like a toddler. He’s becoming increasingly independent. But, as I admitted to Anya, “He’s not ready to give up his toys.”
“Or his blankie.” Anya pointed to the ratty square of blanket that Erik has slept with as long as I’ve known him. Over time, the red plaid had faded to a dull pink. The edges of the blanket had been worn so thin that Brawny, our live-in nanny, had cut them off and trimmed blankie to a more manageable size.
“Or his blankie. That’s okay, honey.” I stroked Erik’s curls and planted a kiss on his forehead. “Even if you have to take blankie to college with you, that’s cool, sweetheart.”
Anya came over to join us. Kneeling carefully beside her younger brother, she whispered loudly, “I’m going with Mom to take my things to the Salvation Army. Why don’t you come with? That way you can see what we’re doing. Maybe she’ll even take us by Bread Co. to get pumpkin muffies for a treat.”
The old “pumpkin muffie” trick worked like a charm. Erik was willing to ride along with us in return for a “muffie,” which is the top slice of an oversized muffin. Once we arrived at the Salvation Army, he agreed to help us carry bags inside the drop-off area.
“What do they do with Anya’s things?” he asked.
Anya leaned close and explained, “People come here to shop. They don’t have much money, so they buy gifts here rather than going to other stores. Come on and I’ll show you.”
She took him by the hand, marched him out the front door, and around to the other entrance. I followed but I didn’t say a word. I wanted to see how they would handle the situation. Not surprisingly, Erik’s eyes were huge as he watched people make their selections. Anya took him for a quick tour of the place while I spoke to the manager. She helped me find several old wool sweaters that I hoped to turn into felt for future projects.
“In the car on the way home, Erik was quiet. Thoughtful even. I believe that was his first brush with poverty,” I told Clancy and Vanessa. “He’s lived a privileged existence. His step-father was incredibly wealthy.”
Shortly thereafter, we said goodbye to Vanessa. The sign in our front window read that we were closing at three on Christmas Eve. At five after, I locked the front door. Clancy and I hugged, wishing each other Merry Christmas. For me, the holiday had finally arrived.
Later that evening, after our family had dinner, we bundled up to spend time outside in the cold. Each year the church in our neighborhood hosts a Christmas pageant, a live reenactment of the birth of Christ. Although Anya is Jewish, we all enjoy seeing the nativity come to life. Part of the attraction is that the church borrows Monroe, the donkey owned by our former landlord, Leighton Haversham. When Leighton is traveling, as he often is during the holidays, we take care of Monroe. That means that walking him to and from the pageant is our responsibility. Yet another reason for us to attend and watch the pageantry.
This year Erik took Monroe by the halter. My husband, Detweiler, winked at me over the little boy’s head. Unbeknownst to Erik, Detweiler also had a grip on the donkey’s bridle. Just in case. However, Monroe adores Erik and the feeling is mutual. Last year, Erik was both beguiled and scared of Monroe. Many apples and tummy rubs later they are fast friends. I couldn’t contain the smile that bubbled up inside me as I pushed Ty’s stroller. Anya chatted happily with Brawny, who’s more a part of our family than a nanny. In the space of twelve months, we’d truly become a united front. A family, en route to see the birth of another family, one that promised peace for all mankind.
As we walked, I tried to ignore the stinging slap of cold air against my skin. The weatherman predicted a drop in the temperature, and he’d been spot on. While Erik and Detweiler delivered the donkey, Brawny, Anya, and I took our places in the crowd, using the stroller to secure a bit of real estate. Erik and Detweiler returned, and we huddled together for warmth. I pulled Ty’s blanket up around his face for extra protection. He seemed fine, but I guess the worry showed on my face.
Brawny had been watching me. She shook her head. “It’s getting colder by the minute. I best take young master home. ‘Tis too brutal for a wee tyke.”
Detweiler and I agreed. Reluctantly, I told my littlest one that we’d meet him back at the house. The ever resourceful Brawny guided the stroller through the crowd and headed for our snug home.
Thanks to the nip in the air, the pageant moved along swiftly. Detweiler hoisted Erik onto his shoulders so the boy could get a good look at the event. Erik was fascinated by the show. His bright blue coat stood out in stark contrast to the gray of the winter sky. His little face was intensely interested in every aspect of the Christmas story. We’d been reading books explaining why the couple had taken shelter in a manger. We’d talked about the shepherds and the star. We’d been pointing at angels for six weeks now. But seeing the timeless tale was different. Erik was totally focused on the unfolding drama.
In fact, he was reluctant to leave when the pageantry ended. “I want to see that baby,” he told Detweiler, as he tugged at his father’s hand. We waited until most of the crowd had cleared. Then we made our way to the crèche. Although actors had played the part of Mary, Joseph, and others, the church had wisely decided to substitute a doll for baby Jesus. I knew from experience that they would leave the toy in the manger until they took the makeshift manger scene down for the year. The people would be replaced with statues. The holy family would decorate the lawn of the church for weeks to come while we took our donkey and went home.
Christmas morning dawned bright and frigid. I awoke to the tantalizing scent of bacon and pancakes. Brawny always gets up before the rest of the household and cooks our breakfast. However, I’d expected Erik to be our alarm clock on this special day. Detweiler rolled over and hugged me. “Merry Christmas.”
I returned the greeting. “I guess the pageant tired Erik out, huh?”
“I guess.” Detweiler chuckled. “But I heard water running in Anya’s bathroom. Squeals of happiness can’t be far behind."
However, he was wrong. We managed to pull on clothes in silence. I even ran a brush through my hair. Anya knocked politely at our door, and I opened it, expecting to give her a hug—but I froze at the look on her face.
“Erik’s gone! He’s missing. I’ve looked everywhere!”
“What?” I thought I’d heard her wrong.
“He’s probably playing with one of the toys that Santa brought.” Detweiler moved past my daughter and me. His feet galloped down the stairs. “Erik? Erik!”
I raced after him. Brawny and Anya joined us in the family room. The tree was dark. The presents hadn’t been touched. I ran back upstairs to Erik’s room. It was empty.
“He’s probably taken an apple to Monroe.” Anya suggested, breathlessly.
“I’ll go get him.” I heard the back door slam behind Detweiler. Anya and I pounded our way down the stairs.
“I’ll look in the garage,” Brawny said.
That’s when I realized our dog was missing, too. “Anya? Have you seen Gracie?”
“Huh-uh.” Her blue eyes were wet and her voice trembled. Turning away from me, she yelled, “Gracie! Here girl!”
With a sudden flash of insight, I went to the front door. It was unlocked. That meant that Erik had voluntarily left the property. I checked the wall-mounted hanger where we keep our dog’s leash. Empty.
“He must have taken Gracie for a walk. I’ll go get Detweiler. We’ll drive around the block.”
Anya’s mouth had sunken into a deep frown. “Hurry, Mom. It’s cold out there. He’s just a little guy.” With that, she wiped away a tear.
In less than a minute, my husband and I were in his police cruiser with the windows down. He pulled cautiously out of the driveway, doing his best to control his panic. I swallowed my own fears. How could this have happened? We should be opening gifts and celebrating! What if this turned out to be the worst day of our lives? Had someone taken Erik? Had he gone with a stranger? If so, how hand someone convinced him to leave on this particular day when wrapped gifts had such a magnetic pull? I sniffled.
Detweiler took my hand. “Stay calm. We need to think this through. Let’s not freak out.”
But I was freaking out. I was scared spitless. Detweiler cranked up the defroster. The weather outside was viciously cold. Where was our little boy? My husband drove slowly up the block. He stopped at the corner. Looked left and right. Decided to go straight. “I figure we should start where we were last night.”
That made sense to me, although I was too upset to really focus.
“Is that Gracie?” Detweiler spotted the black and white giant dog first. I leaned forward, sticking my head out my window so I could see better.
“I think so.” But my response was slower than Detweiler’s reflexes. He’d already pulled into the circular drive in front of the church. Throwing the police cruiser into park, he bolted out of the door. I was fast on his heels.
Gracie barked a greeting at us, but we looked past her. A small figure in a blue coat was hunched over the manger.
“Erik? Honey?” Detweiler dropped to his knees besideour son. Slowly, the little boy turned. His chocolate brown eyes were wide with surprise.
“Are you okay?” I joined Detweiler on the cold earth. I had to see Erik for myself.
“Buddy, what are you doing here?” Detweiler snatched up the boy, hugging him tightly. “We were worried about you. You know you shouldn’t leave the house without telling us.”
“I was worried about that baby.” Erik pointed a mitten finger at the Jesus doll. “He was cold. I didn’t want him to be cold. See?”
Following his direction, I bent closer to the manger. Neatly tucked around the statue of the baby was a tattered piece of cloth. Erik’s blankie.
Note: I hope you've enjoyed this short story, and I hope you'll take time to share a little Kiki with a friend. Right now, you can send a pal a copy of "Kiki and Cara Mia's Christmas Collection" for only 99 cents. That's cheaper than you can send a greeting card! Go to https://www.amazon.com/Kiki-Christmas-Collection-Lowenstein-Mystery-ebook/dp/B01MFC9THX/ On the right is a button that allows you to give as a gift. How easy is that? Ho-ho-ho, and Happy Holidays from your friend -- Joanna
PS: Here are all the Kiki books in order with links:
- Love, Die, Neighbor (The Prequel) - http://bit.ly/LoveDieN
- Paper, Scissors, Death -- http://bit.ly/PSDKL1
- Cut, Crop & Die -- http://bit.ly/CutCropD
- Ink, Red, Dead -- http://bit.ly/IRDead3
- Photo, Snap, Shot -- http://bit.ly/PSSKL4
- Make, Take, Murder -- http://bit.ly/MTMKikiL5
- Ready, Scrap, Shoot -- http://bit.ly/RSSBook6
- Picture, Perfect, Corpse -- http://bit.ly/PPCorpse7
- Group, Photo, Grave -- http://bit.ly/GPGrave8
- Killer, Paper, Cut -- http://bit.ly/KillPC9
- Handmade, Holiday, Homicide -- http://bit.ly/KikiHHH10
- Shotgun, Wedding, Bells -- http://bit.ly/SWBKiki11
- Glue, Baby, Gone -- http://bit.ly/GBG12
- Fatal, Family, Album -- http://bit.ly/KLFFA13