December 6, 1910
Olympia Paris crushed the cheap paper of the tax collector’s letter in her fist. Trying to talk to him had been less than useless. And worse, she’d had to waste a dollar on the fare to Morristown for the privilege. A headache collected like a storm cloud behind her eyes. She had three weeks to come up with more money than she’d made in the last six months or they were going to lose the house.
Still clutching the letter, she all but flung herself from the still-moving train as it pulled into the German Village station. How could she come up with that kind of money? She walked quickly, head down, not wanting to talk to any of her neighbors. She wasn’t just going to lose the house; she’d lose the children, too. She wrapped her scarf more securely against the snow flurries trying to tickle her face and marched up the mountain to Mrs. Strauss’s house.
She reached her destination huffing and puffing, but found that the exercise hadn’t relieved her feelings one bit. She circled around to the back and gave a perfunctory knock before opening the kitchen door and walking in. Immediately, a warm cloud spiced with the scent of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg engulfed her. A balm to her troubled heart.
Alice’s earnest little face lifted from where she was playing with scraps of pie dough. “Limmy!” She broke into a grin and clambered from her seat, running for a hug.
Despite her inner fears, Olympia found a smile for the girl and scooped her up. “Have you been a good girl for Mrs. Strauss?”
Their good-natured neighbor dusted flour off her hands. “Of course she was. A regular angel.”
“Good.” Olympia kissed Alice’s nose. “Are you helping?”
A big nod. “We’re making punkin pies.”
“Would you like to walk over to the school with me and wait for the boys?”
Alice pursed her lips. “Can I bring Lucy?”
“Of course. Go find her and she can come along.” Olympia let Alice wriggle out of her grasp to look for her threadbare teddy bear.
Mrs. Strauss waited until Alice left the room then looked at Olympia with raised eyebrows. “Were you able to talk sense into old Arland Keckly?”
Olympia plopped into one of the chairs at the cozy kitchen table. “He said his hands are tied. Someone wrote to the state office and inquired about the back taxes owed. Since they haven’t been paid, the state can auction the whole property off.” Mechanically she accepted the cup of coffee Mrs. Strauss handed her. “And they have every reason to do just that. They have a buyer who can pay my back taxes, purchase the property, and presumably continue to pay the taxes going forward.”
Mrs. Strauss sat beside her and put a commiserating hand on Olympia’s arm. “How long do you have?”
Olympia sighed. “The auction is scheduled for December 26.”
Mrs. Strauss pulled back, her mouth dropping open. “They’d kick children out of the only home they have on the day after Christmas? How much do you need? Maybe if we band together—”
“Two hundred fifty-six dollars and eighty-four cents.”
The kind lady’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my. I just don’t—how can— That’s outrageous.”
Olympia let her head rest against her balled-up fists. “I don’t know what to do.” Hot prickles stung her eyes.
Alice re-entered the kitchen. She had Lucy, missing one of her button eyes again, hooked in one elbow. “Limmy, are you okay?” She raised a hand to touch Olympia’s cheek.
“I’m fine.” Olympia found another smile for the little girl. “Are you—” Her voice cracked and she cleared her throat and took in a deep breath. “Are you ready?”
“Wait.” In seconds, Mrs. Strauss had wrapped up a freshly baked pumpkin pie in a napkin and handed it over. She squeezed Olympia’s hand. “To go with your supper this evening. And don’t fret, Olympia. The Lord hasn’t gone anywhere.”
Olympia nodded. “Thank you.”
She took Alice’s hand and they set out.“Father Christmas will come, won’t he?”
Startled from her gloomy reverie, Olympia blinked. “I’m sorry, sweetheart, what did you say?”
Alice frowned up at her.
Olympia found a smile to display for the child and pulled her close for a one-armed hug. “I’m okay. Now what was that about Father Christmas?”
“Do you think he will come this year? Ellie Trout said Father Christmas wasn’t coming up the mountain this year. She said that ’cause Heath House closed, we’re not gonna have Christmas.”
Olympia’s heartstrings twanged. “Of course we’ll have Christmas. But I’ll let you in on a secret. Sometimes the presents we get from Father Christmas are more valuable than toys and candy.”
Alice’s eyes lit up.Olympia continued. “Things like love and hope and joy.”
Alice slumped with the cynicism of the young. “I’d like a doll.”
Olympia bit the inside of her cheek. She knew just how Alice felt. At the moment, all Olympia wanted was two hundred fifty-six dollars and eighty-four cents. Without a miracle, neither one of them was going to get what they wanted for Christmas.