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Comes but Once a Year

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December 24, 1978

A fir draped in popcorn chains crowded the Dawsons’ living room. Close enough to snag a candy cane from its branches, Joe instead pulled down a gingerbread man from the plate on top of the piano and cocked an ear at the stairs. His parents, sister and brother-in-law were out at midnight mass, but the blonde kindergartener for whom he was staying in had staged a break from the Land of Nod. It didn't take his marine training or Watcher experience to tell; even with a Charles Brown holiday record spinning, the creaking old house gave her away. He heard her perch on the landing just where he had at her age, able to hear all and see nothing. Joe took a bite. Lynn did not burst around the corner in her plaid nightgown, protesting that the cookies were for Santa Claus, not for the uncle who had helped her decorate them that afternoon.

Still listening, Joe washed the cookie down with milk and returned the glass to its coaster by the lamp, left on so Santa wouldn't miss the treats in the dark. You had to give the kid credit for waking herself up, even with all this incentive; just a couple of hours ago, she had been dead to the world.

When Joe’s mom had discovered her granddaughter asleep on the davenport, she had pinned Cathy in the dining room. “This is why we always went in the morning on Christmas Day when you and your brother were little, you know. If she just had siblings and cou—” Joe’s mom had swerved into a pet topic, thankfully avoided so far this visit. “That is, if there were just more children around, you’d see how much more natural—”

Cathy had frozen, suddenly as brittle as overnight ice. Joe had winced, folding his hand into a fist instead of laying it over his heart.

“I’ll just carry her upstairs, shall I, Catherine?” James had stood, setting down his glass of the wine he and Cathy had brought. “It’s my fault for tiring her with that long walk around the neighborhood lighting displays.”

Joe looked up at the fireplace across the room, confirming that the Pop Rocks, Pixi Sticks, paper dolls, Princess Leia action figure, Slinky, Silly Putty and bike license plate with her name were all effectively hidden inside Lynn’s bulging stocking. The adjacent adults’ stockings were sleeker, but also sported interesting lumps. Cathy had fretted about appropriate gifts; as Santa's duly designated assistant this year, Joe saw it as his solemn duty to ignore her on that.

This was his first Christmas with this much of his family since before ’Nam, and there was no telling when he and James would ever again both get leave over the holidays, never mind both in reach of the old Cook County homestead. For ten years, Joe had gotten fairly sedate, settled assignments, and it wasn’t like he didn’t know why. But that was about to change, he told himself. The younger MacLeod position would fall vacant in the new year, and Joe had won it. He was sure that being able to stand on two feet in front of the stuffed shirts on the assignments committee had made the difference this time, more pivotal than all his knowledge, experience and expertise. Joe snagged his cane from where he’d leaned it against the piano, and rose with the careful, single motion he’d been practicing since he got this pair of prosthetics almost a year ago. Nearly as pricey as a new car and a hundred times harder to learn to drive, but he’d made it happen. We have the technology, as they said on that TV show.

“We’ve still got the side door rigged up,” Joe’s dad had said when Joe had headed straight from the car to the front steps. “Just like before, for the chair.”

Joe had smiled over gritted teeth and reached for the railing.

His dad’s gloved hand had settled over his own. “It strikes me that I need to spread some more salt here. A man never can be too careful with his front walk this time of year, you know.”

Joe headed for the hall, where the stairs opened just behind the corner. He had a lifetime store of scripts for a child's questions about Christmas mysteries, but if Lynn wasn’t going to barge into the room the way he and her mom had at her age, he wasn’t going to get to put any of them to the test with the next generation from his seat on the piano bench. “Hey, kiddo. Shouldn’t you be asleep?”

Lynn met his eyes, then dropped her gaze to his mouth. Her brow creased. “You have a milk mustache.”

Joe licked his bare upper lip. “All gone?”

“Yes. Was that Santa’s milk? Do we need to pour him another glass?”

“The stockings are already filled, so I figure the rest of the snacks count as leftovers.”

“Oh!” Lynn scrambled to her feet and started down the stairs. “Did he like my cookies? I want to see!”

“Now, wait a minute.” Joe glanced at the hall clock. “It may be officially Christmas, but this is looking time only, no touching, got it?”

Lynn put her hands behind her back and skipped ahead of him. The sight of her engorged stocking stopped her just long enough for Joe to catch up, before she shot across the room and climbed onto the piano bench to stare at the plate. Her brow furrowed. “He only ate one.”

“He must have thought it tasted pretty good, to eat a whole cookie here after all the cookies in Europe and Africa and Asia.”

“You think?”

“Yeah, I think.” Joe leaned against the arm of the davenport, and then settled himself carefully into the corner.

Lynn presented him with one of the leftover cookies before climbing up next to him, snuggling into the cushions. “Your stocking isn’t as full as mine.”


She yawned. “You should grow a mustache, like the milk one.”

“You think?” Joe ran a hand over his face. At the rate his hair was turning prematurely gray, he could probably do the full Santa in a few years. “How about a beard?”

He looked down and saw that Lynn had fallen asleep. Well, he certainly wasn’t carrying her upstairs. He’d leave that to James ... and if anyone could tell that he envied James that task, Joe trusted that they’d put it down to the obvious cause. He nibbled Lynn’s gingerbread man as the record reached its end, and the singer’s plea to come home, if not for Christmas Day, at least New Year’s night, remained unanswered. Only the house’s creaking and his niece’s breathing kept Joe company.

He pulled a square, sealed envelope from his shirt pocket, under his sweater. It was a little awkward there, but less likely to fall out or be seen than in a pants pocket, and if the arrangement kept it over his heart, hey, no one would ever know. He turned the envelope over and over, reading the distant return address, the foreign postmark, the alien stamps.

Joe had saved his own present to open now.

“I can’t manage anymore.” Laura had said when he confronted her in an empty hallway in the administration building in Geneva almost eight years before. “Every time I see you, it makes me see myself, and I hate it. I hate ... it.”

Joe had understood. Their mistake haunted him, too, but not like it did her. “Just don’t cut me off completely, Laura, please. Once in a while. Anything. I need to know how she is — if she ever needs me.”

“She won’t need you. She’ll have us!”

Familiar handwriting inside a small, stiff card told Joe that the Thomas family was doing well, that they wished him the greetings of the season, and that their daughter Amy had won a school prize for drawing. Her photo was enclosed.

It was, as it had been for seven Christmases so far, the best gift Joe felt he had any right to hope for. He went on hoping for more, anyway. Hope was like that. Christmas was like that, too. He compared the features of the girl in the picture to those of her cousin beside him, and found that some lyrics on which he had been stuck since summer were flowing again. There would be a new song for the new year.