My heart felt heavy and I rubbed my eyes. They were dry and crusty from all the crying I’d done the night before. But it made me feel calmer. And hungry. Very hungry, especially thinking about all the food I didn’t smell baking downstairs.
After a long while of listless lying in bed feeling sorry for myself, I was bored. I couldn’t figure out how Taylor could stay in his room for so many hours. I pushed back my blanket, deciding I might as well get up. I rose and padded down the hall to the bathroom, noticing Taylor’s bedroom door was still closed. That made me both sad and mad. He’d kept the door open the past few days so I could see Thor first thing when I woke up.
Downstairs, the kitchen was empty. My parents’ bedroom door was closed. Wasn’t anyone getting up today? I wondered. Was everyone just going to sleep through Christmas?
I went into the living room and saw the ornaments that Taylor and I had bought for my mother lying on the coffee table. The boxes filled with lights and ornaments for the tree were still in the corner, unopened. Mama had moved the easy chair out from the corner to make room for the Christmas tree. That was over a week ago. Every time I saw that empty space in the corner of the room, it made me feel bad. I mean, who didn’t get a Christmas tree?
My lips tightened and I felt a surge of renewed anger. Daddy wasn’t going to ruin Christmas, I thought. Not for me, not for Taylor, and, most of all, not for Mama. He didn’t buy me my dog. I couldn’t do anything about that. But I’d show him. He wasn’t the only one who could get a tree!
I hurried upstairs, feeling like a man on a mission. I dressed warmly—long underwear, hiking socks, my thick boots—while my mind formulated my plan. I felt my blood racing. I was actually getting excited. I’d be the hero. I’d bring home the tree all by myself. I’d save Christmas for my family.
Maybe not all by myself, I thought again. I’d never been foraging in the woods by myself. Mama had always come with me. Then it occurred to me that I’d be safe with Thor.
With that thought in mind I quietly walked down the hall and pried open Taylor’s door, cringing when the hinges creaked softly. When I stuck my head in, Thor was already sitting up and watching me with those big dark eyes. Taylor was still sleeping on his belly, snoring.
“Thor,” I called out in a loud whisper. I waved my hand. “Come.”
Thankfully he came right away. I patted his head and guided him outside the room.
“Want to go for a walk?”
Thor understood that, and he pranced in joy down the hall, excited at the prospect of going out. The kitchen was cold, even at this late hour. Not even the smell of coffee. I moved quietly but quickly, pouring out kibble for Thor, adding extra to the bowl because I knew we’d be going for a long walk. While Thor noisily chowed down his kibble with relish, I made myself a bowl of cold cereal and wolfed it down, too. I kept an eye on the door and an ear cocked in case someone woke up and came into the kitchen. I wanted to sneak out before anyone could stop me. I put my bowl in the sink, then went to fetch my backpack from the hooks by the back door. I emptied the contents, a bunch of end-of-semester notices, onto the floor. Then I went to the pantry and filled it up with cookies, a box of peanuts, some raisins, and, with great luck, a stick of beef jerky. I tossed in a bottle of water, then, remembering Thor, added another. The backpack was getting heavy so I stopped there. We would only be gone a few hours.
That done, I donned my parka, hat, and gloves. Knowing I’d be in the woods, I wrapped a scarf around my neck. I was already hot and eager to get outside. Thor was watching me with happiness in his eyes, knowing we were going out. I often took him out for his morning walk, so he was used to me putting his leash on. I grabbed my backpack, opened the back door, and we slipped out.
The sky was a grayish blue and filled with fat white clouds. The air tasted sweet and moist, a bit like rain. I didn’t think it would and picked up the pace. Thor and I had made good time, dragging behind us the red wagon filled with my backpack and my father’s ax. It was heavy but I could swing it. I was strong enough. I’d be able to cut down a tree, I felt sure. We were already at Mama’s path—our secret path—into the great Marion National Forest.
“Come on, Thor. Let’s find ourselves a tree.”
Excitement thrummed in my veins as we made our way through the forest, following the well-worn path my mother and I had marched upon only weeks earlier. It seemed much longer ago since we’d gone for our Christmas Forage. On that trip Christmas had loomed as bright and rosy as all the holly berries we’d collected. Mama had said it was going to be our best Christmas ever, and I’d believed her because that was back when I still held hope I’d get Sandy. Back before Taylor had returned home with that awful PTSD. Back before Daddy ruined Christmas. I spotted several holly trees laden with rosy berries that my mama would surely have stopped for. I didn’t want to go near their prickly leaves. It had been unseasonably warm that day, not cold like today. But I was warm in my heavy parka and dragging the wagon alone was hard work. The ground was covered with rusty longleaf-pine needles and a thick covering of damp, molding leaves. I was stupid not to think that Mama had dragged the wagon most of the way. My arm was getting sore and I worried a bit how I’d manage once the tree was in the wagon. But it was too late to chicken out now. Thor and I were on a mission, I thought, putting one foot in front of my other while dragging the rusty wagon behind me over the ruts and roots.
“We’re going to find the most beautiful tree in the world,” I said to Thor, bolstering my own resolve. He looked at me quizzically, wondering what I was asking of him. I laughed and reached out to pat his head. “Never mind. We’re almost there.”
At least I hoped we were. We’d been walking for what must’ve been hours. I couldn’t be sure because I didn’t have a watch. The deeper into the woods we went, the thicker the overhang of branches and needles and the darker it grew. I could hear birds calling from high up in the trees, and once I heard the high-pitched kreeee of a hawk and, looking up, saw one soaring over the tops of the trees. Daddy had told me that even from way up there, the hawk could spot a mouse running along the forest floor. As we hiked, I’d sometimes hear the sharp crack of a branch caused by something bigger than a bird. Much bigger. A deer, maybe? A coyote? I was glad I had Thor by my side.
“I reckon I won’t try to find the grove of trees Mama was telling me about. We’ve been out here too long already, and I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a mite cold.” I looked up beyond the long stretch of towering pines to the bit of sky showing above. It was ominously gray, miserly with the sun. “We should head back. Keep your eyes open for any tree that would do for a Christmas tree.”