Surprise Santa

     I gripped the steering wheel and dragged in a heavy breath.

     Walmart. Christmas Eve. I could do this.

     My wallet sat in the passenger seat, mocking me with its meager contents.

     “You’re the reason I’m here now,” I grumbled at it. “Instead of sitting on my couch wrapping gifts I wanted to get weeks ago.”

     The boys were at home with their daddy, hoping Santa would be bringing their gifts that night. I sniffed as I recalled childhood Christmases watching the pile of presents grow day after day. My children’s Christmas memories were turning out quite different from my own.

     “Well, you can’t change it now, and you can’t change it sitting in the car. So get your pokey butt moving.”

     I grabbed the wallet and stuffed it into my purse. Then I hoisted myself out of the ancient station wagon and trudged across the slushy parking lot, stomping snow off my boots as I entered the store. Michael Bublé crooned “I’ll be Home for Christmas” from the speakers and my heart smiled a little, though not enough to reach my lips.

     My boots squeaked across the linoleum and people glanced my way as I passed. I felt their gazes burning into my back as I tucked my hands under my arms and kept my head up. The judgement I imagined in their eyes was likely projected by my own insecurity, but I speed walked toward the toy section anyway.

     It still took me a while to get through the store though, as I detoured around several sections, loathe to pass by luxuries I couldn’t afford. When I finally reached the toy aisle, a relieved sigh eased past my lips, followed by a grimace.

     The few toys left on the shelves were scattered amidst slightly squashed packaging. As if this trip wasn’t hard enough already. I tried to stay focused on the cheaper toys I could actually afford, but my eyes kept wandering up to the top shelves. Giant Lego sets, fancy Leap Frog gadgets, trikes featuring every billion dollar character every kid could want to be. The lowest price up there was still double the total amount I’d budgeted for all my Christmas shopping. My heart squeezed as I tore my gaze back to the stocking stuffers my kids would be getting as their regular presents.

     I avoided eye contact with the other shoppers as I tallied up various gift combinations, trying to figure out how to get the most for what little I had to spend. The results came down to either a large handful of Hotwheels cars and trains or two larger individual toys, one for each boy. As much as I loved the notion of giving them the illusion of lots of gifts with separately wrapped cars, I didn’t want to repeat my parents’ gifts from last year. And even if I couldn’t get them exactly what they wanted, I was still going to make darn sure they got something special.

     So I slid off the shelf one set of toy instruments for my one year old and a small Lego police set for my four year old. Not quite as special as I had wanted, but it was the best I could afford.

     As I squeaked back through the store again in search of the registers, I held my chin high. The shame and guilt might have been crushing my spirit, but I was determined not to show it.

     The lines were mercifully short and I did my best to smile and look normal. The older man in front of me gave me a smile and a nod. He wore wrinkle free jeans and a sleek grey jacket that made his light grey hair appear lighter than it probably was. Or the hair made the jacket look darker. I couldn’t figure out which.

     “Christmas shopping for your kids?”

     I blinked and refocused on his face.

     “Uh, yeah. Two boys.”

     “Really? How old?”

     “One is about nine months and the other is four.”

     His eyes lit up.

     “My daughter just had our first grandchild.”

     “Oh, congratulations.”

     “Thank you. We’re really excited.”

     I smiled, but couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to reply. He glanced at the toys as they inched closer to the checkstand and I tried not to let the sting show on my face. Then he looked back at me. I pasted on another smile.

     “Would you … Would you let me pay for your gifts?”

     The smile froze and I stared like a deer in headlights. As his words sank in, a spark ignited in my belly and spread to my despairing heart.

     “Oh, you don’t have to do that.”

     “Please. It would be my pleasure.”

     I so badly wanted to accept. But my pride poked out its ugly head, holding back my words. It was bad enough that my wallet was forcing me to choose subpar gifts, I didn’t want someone else thinking I needed help paying for them. Then, over the tug of war in my head, my heart reminded me of a sentiment I’d read recently.

     If we don’t receive, we are depriving the giver of the joy found in giving.

     I looked back at that incredibly generous grandfather and shoved my pride back into the depths from which it came.

     “All right. Thank you”

     “You’re very welcome.”

     My eyes started to burn as he finished the transaction with the checker and I tried not to embarrass myself with my gratitude. I eased around him to retrieve the paper bag containing my now free items. When I turned to give him one last heartfelt thank you, he reached out and took my empty hand.

     “Have a nice Christmas.”

     I looked down at our hands and spotted a hundred dollar bill tucked between them. I stared back at him, the withheld tears pooling in my eyes. My jaw fell open, but no words came. He just smiled and gave my hand a squeeze before letting go, leaving the bill in my trembling hand.

     I gave a final whispered thank you, then turned and walked away, clutching the gifts to my middle. All the conflicting emotions swirling inside were making me feel almost nauseated. Gratitude, shame, guilt, giddiness. My body couldn’t seem to process them all.

     Then as I approached the doors, I heard a familiar song over the speakers.

     “The only gift I’ll ever need is the joy of family. Oh why? Cause that’s Christmas to me.”

     My shoulders relaxed and I finally took a full breath as, for the first time in a long time, I found myself looking forward to Christmas.

The Currents Of Life

(If you’d like to listen to this story, you can find the abridged audio narration at the podcast 600 second saga, narrated by Mariah Avix)

 

Somewhere above the endless sparkling blue of the sea floated a regal osprey. It had been a long exhausting day of hunting and he had nothing to show for it. The summer was almost over. He could feel winter’s encroaching fingers clawing at him more and more each day. The once abundant buffet below him was now no more than scraps left over by the sharks and dolphins. Scanning the glittering, undulating waters beneath him, he spotted plenty of loose kelp and bits of flotsam, but only the smartest fish must have been left because he couldn’t spot any lingering near the surface.
For a moment he allowed the flow of the wind to distract him. He tipped his wings just slightly and spun in a wide, slow circle, rising in altitude. Avid bird-watchers might have contrived some complex purpose for the movement – from the precise angle of the wings to the exact height to which he rose – but to the casual observer he appeared to have done it simply for the enjoyment. Casual observers were right more often than they realized.

He leveled off and, with a sense neither bird-watcher nor casual observer could ever be aware of, he zeroed in on one small spot of ocean. To untrained eyes it would seem identical to every other watery ruffle. To this predator, it was a target. He tucked his wings and sank, cutting through the wind and spray like an arrow.

A snap of suddenly outstretched wings.

A splash.

The fish wriggled and squirmed in the hunter’s claws. Somewhere in its tiny brain it was aware of the great peril, but that awareness didn’t leave enough room for devising a way of escape. All it could hope for – though there wasn’t any room left in its brain for hoping either – was the slim possibility of a larger predator attacking the owner of the claws wrapped around its slimy body.

Then a loud screech split the air and the very thing the little herring would have hoped for – had it had any brain left to hope with – happened. A massive albatross swooped in on the now less regal looking osprey and the fish was free.

Another splash and the herring took a deep breath. The cool, tangy water flooded through its tiny body while salt, algae and other unwanted bits filtered out through its gills. It twitched through the water for a few seconds as its various systems got back into working order after the shock of all that stark air. Then it simply floated down toward a small bed of coral where it would hide for the foreseeable future. However, given that it was incapable of foreseeing further than a few seconds, it was unlikely to remain in hiding for very long.

The trip south was mostly unremarkable. The shallow water held not much more than algae and plankton and as the herring floated down, the sea simply grew murkier with added particles and minerals. Then it began to swim away from shore, following some mysterious instinct that told it where its safe haven was. And as it pushed further and further out, the murkiness began to fade away.

When the view finally cleared, it honed in on a small cluster of coral and mollusks a few yards away, though measurement was far beyond its limited capabilities. Had its brain capacity been slightly larger it might have been able to appreciate the vast beauty surrounding it. Its little heart might have warmed at the undulating shades of blue and green beckoning the courageous to explore. It might have sighed at the vibrant colors covering the ocean floor, the sandy bottom teeming with life of all kinds. It might have paused to take in the gentle sway of the kelp and seaweed as the tide pulled it to and fro. Perhaps it would have taken a scenic route, past all the sea star and muscle encrusted rocks and stopped to chat with the hermit crabs digging in the sand.

As it was, this particular fish was not equipped with the necessary brain synapses to appreciate, or even notice, the surrounding magnificence. In fact, it was so oblivious to its own surroundings, it failed to spot a new predator lurking in the shadows. Though, in defense of the simple fish, poor eyesight could have easily lead it to believe that the turtle shell was really just another rock.

The poor thing didn’t even make it past the first outcropping.

For such a large creature, with little to no streamlining, the sea turtle was remarkably fast. She was hailed as the best hunter in her bale. The rest of them were content with whatever food was easiest to get. She always went for the best first. The tough, stretchy mollusks couldn’t go anywhere, so she risked nothing by starting with the crunchy, textured fish.

Of course, once she snapped up the herring, the rest of the fish caught on and scattered, hiding in all the cracks and crevices she couldn’t reach. Oh well. She’d come back for them another day. Most fish had terrible memories anyway.

She yanked up a couple of the boring mollusks to finish off the meal, then with a swipe of her flippers, spun up and away from the rocks, heading to the surface for a quick breath. When she dove back under, she turned her tail east and swept toward her favorite ledge. She was going to take a nap.

Unlike the fish she’d just eaten, this dark green turtle took in the sweeping vistas around her as she stroked through the water. She luxuriated in the feel of the cool currents rushing over her face and flippers. She even spun around a few times, creating currents of her own.

Then the edge of a huge reef came into view to her right and she slowed. At this distance it was difficult to spot any critters along the sandy bottom, but she knew they were there. Only the smallest and least nourishing creatures lived that close to the nearby trench, though. She turned slightly and noticed a new patch of kelp growing just a few yards away. Another swipe of her flipper and she sailed toward the swaying plants. Closing her eyes, she let the soft strands glide along her belly as she swam over them. A cloud of rockfish swarmed out and she snapped up a few of the slower ones.

After one more dip to the surface, she turned back to the reef and her ledge. It was closer to the trench than most would be comfortable with. That trench hid many large predators. She probably should have been more wary, but she found the solitude peaceful. Besides, she’d never actually gone into the trench.

But she didn’t need to go in the trench to be spotted. The ledge itself might have been well hidden from larger, stronger predators, but she simply wasn’t prepared for the few predators smarter than her.

As she approached the reef, a strange untethered harpoon shot through the water. Before she could look up to determine the source of the strange eddy, it sank into her neck and through her body to pierce her heart.

She was just inches away from her ledge.

Her lifeless body sank to the sea floor, tracked by a hidden pair of strange intelligent eyes. With a speed surpassing that of the odd harpoon, the strange creature darted out of the shadows to trap the turtle in a small fishing net. His tail seemed normal enough, though one didn’t usually see a dolphin shaped tail covered in scales. With the dexterity of an octopus, the creature’s crustacean-like arms quickly wrapped up his kill. His oddly shaped head turned from side to side, seemingly watching for larger predators. Much like the turtle, his head looked as if it had been mashed onto the end of his body. No tapering, no streamlining, aside from the three fins on top with the center one trailing down his back.

But none of that detracted from his superior hunting abilities. Though most predators were larger than him, his species were by far the smartest in the sea. Smarter even than the dolphins, some believed. Superior to the sea turtle, the herring, perhaps even the osprey and the albatross. But the undines were still a simple species. Smart certainly, but lacking the passion and ambition that would drive them to seek to rule.

Not a single creature could become so elevated that a greater predator couldn’t knock them back down. All who lived in the sea or depended on it knew this. And so, as the hunters went their separate ways, the journey of life, the fight for survival, went on.

Husbands

This is another story inspired by the Jesus bracelet. See this earlier post for the picture and explanation.

        I slid my plane ticket onto the attendant’s desk, not bothering to look up from the email I was skimming on my phone.  I’d hoped to have at least one night to recoup after this trip.  Maybe I’d have even spent it at home with my wife.  I couldn’t remember the last home cooked meal I’d eaten.  Then again, home wasn’t as relaxing as it used to be.
        It didn’t really matter anymore, though, since I wouldn’t be getting that night anyway.  A good reporter followed the news.  And according to the email, the news was halfway across the country.
       I spared the attendant a glance to retrieve my ticket and shuffled my way onto the plane.  My small suitcase slid easily into the overhead compartment and I slumped into my window seat.  I considered pulling out my laptop to confirm the details of this additional, last minute trip and the breaking news I’d be covering.  Then I saw the first batch of travelers I’d be stuck with for the next two hours and tucked my briefcase under the seat in front of me instead.  Working on my phone would generate enough sour looks from this bunch without needing to add more technology.
        As more and more of them piled onto the plane, I noticed a lot of them carrying on large, group conversations.  And those groups merged and split like cells as they all found their seats. I rolled my eyes and groaned.  It was going to be a long two hours.
        I pulled my ear buds from a pocket and thumbed through various jazz albums on my phone.  If I had those ear buds in and kept my eyes on the screen, whoever ended up next to me would hopefully be less likely to start chatting.  It had worked on previous business trips. Then a metallic clatter brought my eyes to the aisle floor.
        A set of keys, or rather, a collection of key chains with a few keys on it, sat there in a jumbled clump.  My gaze traveled slowly up and I was not surprised by what I saw of the owner.
       Flowers.  A lot of flowers.  And who wore a hat on an airplane?  I mean, a ball cap I could understand, but that monstrosity?  Was she really going to wear it the whole time?
        Then I came back to her face and instantly felt somewhat shamed by the cynical thoughts.  She had a charming smile.  To make up for the disrespectful attitude, I gave her a small smile in return.  Her eyes lit up.
        For a moment I was transported back to the first time I had seen my wife.  Her eyes had lit up the same way.  And it dawned on me that she didn’t smile like that anymore.  Or perhaps she did and I was simply too busy to notice.
        “Hi there!”
        I came back to the present and suppressed a groan.  I hadn’t gotten the ear buds in soon enough.
        “Uh, hi.”
        “I’m Sally.”
        She was a talker.  Of course she was a talker.
        “Frank.”
        The flowery Sally gave me another charming smile.  Then she pushed her carry-on the rest of the way into the overhead compartment and bent to pick up her key chains.  She sat in the aisle seat next to me and the jangle they made grated against my already frayed nerves.  Like she was sawing my brain with them instead of flipping through them like they were a stress reliever.  And naturally she was jabbering away the entire time.
        I tried to focus on the emails I’d opened on my phone while the plane taxied out to the runway, but for some reason my eyes kept being drawn back to those ridiculous key chains.  There was Micky Mouse.  I could only imagine from Disneyland.  The Eiffel tower.  Either Paris or LA.  I couldn’t see her type enjoying LA, but I also had a hard time seeing her affording a trip to Paris.  A glittery one in all colors of the rainbow must have meant she had grandchildren.
        Then my eyes landed on one that seemed somehow different from the others.  In what way, I couldn’t figure out.  I almost dismissed it as another crafty thing her grandchildren had made her.  But something about it made me look again.  Perhaps it was the strange order in which the beads were arranged; or maybe it was the gleaming spots on some of them revealing how often she held this particular chain.  Whatever it was, I couldn’t stop glancing at it.
        Then, as the plane reached altitude, I became aware of a stark lack of chatter.  I glanced at the woman.  What was her name again?  Sally.
        She was staring at me with an unnerving look in her eyes.  Like all my sly peeking hadn’t fooled her for a second.  Like she knew every thought that had gone through my head and knew exactly what sort of man I was.  A shiver ran down my spine.
        Then she looked back down at the chain, releasing me from her piercing gaze.  I dragged in a deep breath as quietly as I could.  What was with this woman?  I started tapping out a reply to my boss’s email.
        “You know, I’ve had this particular key chain for a long time,” she said.  “I made it myself, actually.”
        I glanced sideways at her.
        “Really?  I never would have guessed.”  My dripping sarcasm didn’t phase her.
        “Yup.  It actually tells a whole story, too.”
        Oh no.  I was in …
        “Would you like to hear it?”
trouble.  Crap.  If I said yes, I would be stuck listening to old lady stories for the entire trip.  But if I said no, I’d come off as a heartless jerk.  Which normally wouldn’t bother me, except we were both stuck on this plane.  Being rude to embezzling CEOs, criminal masterminds, and multimillionaires was one thing.  Being rude to harmless, kindly old ladies – especially kindly old ladies I would be sitting next to for two hours straight – was just … Well, let’s just say I was even less eager to endure her glares for the entire trip.
        I glanced back at Sally and nearly groaned at the hopeful look in her eyes.  What was I getting myself into?
        “Why not?  Tell me the story.”
        Then, the strangest thing happened.  She started telling me all about Jesus, the same Jesus I’d learned about in Sunday School as a kid.  Only she began explaining things I’d never thought about, showing me new perspectives I’d never considered.  Without even realizing it, I had tucked my phone away and was soon not simply listening, but asking all kinds of questions.  Questions about Jesus, about faith, about life.  Where only moments before I had thought I had everything I could possibly want, I now felt empty.  Moments ago I had contemplated spending a night with my wife like she was a risky asset, and now being two hours away from her felt like an eternity.
        My boss had told me the breaking news was halfway across the country.  But he was wrong.  The breaking news was 30,000 feet in the air, tucked inside the heart of a sweet and caring grandmother.

Mothers

This is another story inspired by the Jesus bracelet. See this earlier post for the picture and explanation.

     I surged to my feet as the ball hit the bat with a crack and went soaring over the players heads.  My son chucked the bat behind him and took off around the bases while I shouted and urged him on.  It wasn’t a home run, but he could make it to third if he pushed himself.  My face scrunched in a grimace when he stopped at second.
     It was the third inning and he’d been holding back the whole time.  If he didn’t win this game he was going to have some serious explaining to do on the way home.  This kind of slacking was simply unacceptable.  He was better than this and he knew it.
     I bent to take my seat again and nearly toppled over when someone bumped me from behind.  I spun around, ready to lay into whoever it was, but rolled my eyes instead.
     It was her.
     Even the worst tongue lashing wouldn’t make a difference with her.  She’d just smile through the whole thing.  Heck, she’d probably pray for me at the end of it for good measure.
     She was late, as usual.  Who knows why?  I had yet to see her witness the first inning of any of our sons’ games.  How did she expect her son to take the game seriously if she didn’t set the example?
     I grumbled to myself as she plopped down next to me.
     “Sorry I’m late. What did I miss?”
     I declined to answer as my son’s teammate sent the ball into right field, a sacrifice play allowing my son to make it to third.  I ground my teeth.  If he’d pushed himself on his last at bat, that would have been a run for home.
     “Oh, well done!” cheered the mom next to me.
     I glanced sideways at her.  Her son wasn’t even at bat yet.  Then again, all the other moms were cheering him, too.  Whatever.
     Late mom next to me turned to the mom behind her to ask how we were doing.  I massaged my temple at the reminder that no one had scored yet.  We usually had at least one run by now.  Everyone moaned as the current batter struck out.  That ended the third inning.
     I sighed as I watched the opposing players hustle off the field, replaced by our fielders.  Late mom bumped me again when she flung her arm around, waving to her son as he took the field.  How embarrassing.  How old did she think her son was?  Four?
     Then I rolled my eyes as her bracelet got caught on her sleeve.  She gave me a sheepish grin.
     “Rats.  This thing is always getting caught on stuff.  Isn’t that just the way of it?”
     If she didn’t stop nudging me, I was going to explode.
     “If it keeps getting caught, then why do you wear it?”
     She practically beamed at me and I instantly regretted the question.
     “Because it’s not just a bracelet.  It tells the story of Jesus.”
     “Oh, please.  I don’t need any of that religion crap, so don’t start.”
     Her smile turned pitying.  Oh, I wanted to smack her.
     “We all need Jesus.  Even your son understands that.”
     I groaned.  Trust her to bring up the biggest bone of contention between me and my son.  She must be one of the leaders at that ridiculous youth group he insisted on going to every week.  I’d only allowed it because most of his teammates went, so I figured it was another opportunity to strengthen their bond as a team.
     “Listen, I don’t know what sort of mumbo jumbo you feed him at that absurd group of yours, but we don’t put up with any of it in our house.”
     She just kept smiling.
     “But wouldn’t you like to know?  I mean, how can you combat it if you don’t know what it is?”
     I opened my mouth to refuse, but closed it again as I processed her words.  She had a point.  Then the first opposing batter stepped up to the plate.
     “Listen, why don’t we trade numbers and we can get together over coffee to discuss it?”
     Intrigued, but distracted, I rattled off my cell number.  A minute later she’d pressed a slip of paper in my hand, no doubt with her number on it.  I started to panic.
     “Hold on, don’t get it into your head that you’re going to convert me or anything.  I just want to know what my son is being exposed to so I can keep him from getting distracted from what’s important.”
     “Oh, of course.  After all, the best defense is a good offense.”
     I narrowed my eyes at her.  She just smiled at me again and I got the unnerving feeling that I was getting more than I’d just bargained for.
     Then I shrugged and turned back to the game.  I was strong.  I had too much backbone to give in to someone like her.  Besides, what did she have that I could ever possibly want?

 

Sisters

This is the first story inspired by the Jesus bracelet. See this earlier post for the picture and explanation.

I twisted the key in the ignition, killing the hatchback’s engine, and took a deep breath.  It was just a grocery store. I could do this.
I yanked on the door handle and levered myself out of the car.  My eyes stayed glued to the pavement all the way to the automatic doors.  If I kept my head down, maybe I’d get through this unnoticed.
It was the middle of the day, so chances were slim that anyone here would recognize me.  Still, I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone, so I erred on the side of paranoid and made a beeline for the TV dinners.  No one ever stuck around in that aisle.
I sighed in relief when I got there without making eye contact with anyone.  Safe from pitying smiles and painful condolences, I stared at the colorful array of single serving boxes.  She’d always teased me about eating so many of these things, claiming I’d wake up one day made of cardboard.  My eyelids fell shut and I dragged a calloused hand down my face.  My sister would be handling this so much better.
Yeah, I probably would be, and you know why.
I whipped around so fast my foot slipped.  Elbows went flying, along with half the chip bags on the snack shelf behind me.  I leaned back against the chilly, glass doors of the refrigerator.  A groan slipped out of my mouth while a tear dripped down my cheek.  Of course it wasn’t her.  She was gone.
She was … d-
Well, she wasn’t ever coming back.
“I can’t do church, sis,” I whispered.  “That was always your thing.”  I pulled in a deep breath and started picking up bags.
“Oh, let me help.”
I spun toward the unfamiliar voice, latching onto the distraction.  She was pretty, in a nondescript way.  Not exactly worth a double take, but something in her smile made my gaze linger anyway.  Somehow it reminded me of my sister, though they shared none of the same features.  Then she began grabbing bags and I blinked myself back into the moment.
“Thanks,” I said.
We replaced bags in silence while I tried to get my head back on straight.  Our hands bumped when we both reached for the last bag at the same time.
“Oh, sorry.”  We spoke over each other.  There was that smile again.
I watched as she lifted the bag to the shelf.  A colorful bracelet made of an eclectic assortment of beads dangled from her wrist.  The crafty looking jewelry brought back long buried memories, and for the first time in several weeks, a smile crept onto my face.
“I like your bracelet.”  Wait, did I say that out loud?
She turned back toward me.  What was it about that smile?
“Thanks. I made it.”
“I wondered.”  I bit my lip.  Oh, what the heck.  “I used to make things like that a lot.”
“Really?  That’s awesome.  But you know, this isn’t just a pretty piece of jewelry.  It tells the life story of Jesus.”
My chest tightened and I began to get a hint of why her smile seemed so familiar.
“Would you like to hear the story?”
I barely held back a cringe.  How many times had my sister tried to tell me about her faith?  I could feel the automatic refusal click into place.  The same words I’d repeated to her over and over.
Then her face drifted up in my memory.  The way her brows wrinkled with hurt every time I’d declined to hear her.  The way her shoulders slumped, as if I wasn’t just rejecting her words, but rejecting her.  The refusal lodged in my throat before it could leave my mouth.
If I’d only known how little time I would have with her.  If I could just go back and listen for once.
My surroundings snapped back into place and I was again staring at the woman in the store.  She was still waiting for my answer, that smile brushing her lips again.  I took a deep breath.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’d like to hear the story.”

Jesus Bracelet

I recently attended a Christian Women’s Retreat where we made bracelets and key chains that represent the life story of Jesus. A picture and explanation are below. The next three posts are short stories I wrote that were inspired by these bracelets and key chains.

 
The shepherds (3 brown flowers) left their flocks, and a star (star charm) led the three wise men (3 green beads) to witness the birth of Jesus (clear bead). Jesus grew up to become a carpenter (wooden bead), but left the profession to become a fisher of men (fish bead). He then traveled the land to share the gospel (blue bead) with the help of His twelve disciples (12 rings). Then he was crucified, spilling His blood (red bead) to purify us (open diamond) and after three dark days (3 black beads) He rose from the grave (open circle). He then ascended into heaven (blue/white bead), leaving behind the Holy Spirit (dove) because of His great love for us (red/white heart). So now if we accept His gift of salvation (clear diamond) we can be born again (butterfly).

The Apple Tree

(If you’d like to listen to this story, you can find the audio narration at the podcast 600 Second Saga, narrated by Mariah Avix)

    Flowers and leaves swayed in the breeze as Ann strolled through the gardens. It had been a lovely morning, until something hard landed on her head.

    “Ow.” She bent to pick up the bright green apple, then peered up into the branches above her. She sucked in a gasp.

    “Nic, what are you doing up there?”

    The prince perched in a most undignified manner on one of the thicker branches of the large apple tree. He grinned sheepishly.

    “Um, picking apples?”

    Her eyes narrowed. “Picking apples.”

    “Uh, yes.”

    She stared at him for a moment.

    “Any particular reason you are picking them instead of one of the gardeners?”

    “Um … uh …”

    She crossed her arms, waiting for his poppycock excuse.

    “Okay, so I’m not just picking apples.” After darting glances around them, he launched into his explanation, which was, indeed, poppycock. Then he had the gumption to invite her to help.

    “No!” she replied, her forehead wrinkling in consternation.

    “But it’ll be hilarious.”

    “Nic, your pranks are always hilarious to you and annoying to everyone else.”

    “I know. That’s what makes them so funny. Oh, come on, Ann. Don’t be such a stick in the mud.”

    Her hackles rose at the insult. She shot him one more glare, then hiked up her skirts and climbed up after him. He let out a quiet whoop in triumph.

    “I will have you know,” she spat when she reached the branch he was perched on. “I’ve seen plenty of ‘sticks’ flower quite beautifully when simply ‘stuck in the mud.’”

    Nic just rolled his eyes and continued picking. She wrinkled her nose at him and started pulling fruit from the branches as well. He could be a pest sometimes, but he was her best friend. Her only friend. When it seemed like all the world was out to get her, he could always make her laugh. And even she had to admit, his little prank would be funny if they could pull it off. Soon, they’d created a sizable pile of apples at the base of the tree.

    Then a quiet cough came from below and they both froze.

    “Something tells me you’re not picking those apples for the pies Miss Bridget is making for the feast tonight.”

    Ann gulped. It was her father. She knew helping Nic with his prank was a bad idea.

    She dared a peek down toward him. Would she have to scrub the dishes? Go to bed with no dessert? Surely he wouldn’t make her attend the ball tonight. That would be horrid. Her brows pinched in confusion upon finding him staring at their pile of apples. His hands rested on his hips and she couldn’t see his face.

    “Uh,” she heard Nic say above her. Her head whipped up in panic. “Sure. Sure it is. That’s exactly what we’re doing.”

    “Uh-huh,” her father replied skeptically.

    Finally he looked up at them. His lopsided smile baffled her, but not nearly as much as the wink he gave her before turning around and disappearing out of sight. She sat frozen. Should she stay and take the punishment, or try to escape and risk making it worse? She didn’t have enough time to answer the question, though, as her father returned within moments, carrying two huge boxes. As he set them down she was able to peek inside. What she saw only confused her more.

    Nic gasped and when she looked up, his expression was all delight and excitement. She looked back down at her father, who gave her another wink. She looked back at the boxes. Then, as her father began to help with their mischief, she suddenly understood and nearly let out a chirp of laughter. Sometimes being naughty could be fun.

    It took them most of the morning to finish picking all the apples, then a good bit of the afternoon to get through the contents of the boxes. They were all exhausted and sweaty by the time they were done, but they looked up at the tree in pride. Her father held the boxes, now containing the apples they’d picked, Ann carried more apples in her flower baskets and Nic propped his hands on his hips.

    “This is going to be epic,” Nic whispered.

    A creaking in the distance spurred them into action and they all raced back to the rose covered trellis they’d decided to hide behind. The apples were tucked underneath a particularly large rhododendron and they all crouched by the opening in the trellis, Ann and Nic on the left and her father on the right. Just then, Miss Bridget came bustling into view carrying a box much like the ones Ann’s father had brought, only this one was empty. Ann glanced up at Nic and smothered a snicker as his face turned red from suppressed laughter. She turned to her father on the other side of the path and he gave her another wink before turning back to watch Miss Bridget.

    They all held their breath as the cook reach the base of the tree and set her basket on the ground. She straightened, peered up into the branches … and gasped.

    “Pears? Pears?! When did my apple tree start growing pears?!”

    At that point they were clutching stomachs and biting fists to keep silent. The shock and befuddlement on Miss Bridget’s face made all the effort entirely worth it. The ties her father had found blended so well with the branches, no one would know with a cursory glance that the pears weren’t indeed growing on the apple tree.

    Miss Bridget stumbled back a step and made the Saint’s sign of protection against evil and Nic let a snort escape, apparently unable to hold it in any longer. Miss Bridget’s gaze snapped in their direction. Ann gulped and glanced at her father with a worried frown. Would he abandon them? He looked back at her and his eyebrows rose as if to say ‘oops, I guess she caught us.’ Relieved, she returned it with a grin and a shrug.

    Miss Bridget marched right up to them, slamming her fists onto her hips. Nic guffawed in renewed laughter and fell onto his behind, wrapping his arms around his middle, tears streaming down his face.

    “Think it’s funny, do you?” She glared at Nic and Ann, then turned and gasped in surprise to find Ann’s father. He gave a guilty shrug, trying and failing to appear contrite.

    “Not you too, milord! What’s gotten into you?”

    “My humblest apologies, madam,” he replied, rising and giving her a polite nod. “I believe the apples you seek are beneath the rhododendron there.”

    She harrumphed and retrieved the apples, turning to march back to the kitchen. The three miscreants peered at each other, not sure what they were expected to do. Then they all jumped as Miss Bridget shouted back at them without breaking stride.

    “Quit lollygaggin’ and get all those pears back where they belong and report to the kitchen.”

    Ann and Nic peered up at Ann’s father.

    “We’d best do as she says. You know how fond the king is of that woman’s cooking.”

    So, the three of them spent the rest of the day ‘picking’ pears and baking in the kitchen. And when one of those hard won apples somehow ended up thumping Nic on the head, Ann decided it was the best day ever.