This is my annual Christmas story. For an earlier short in this universe, see No Fixed Address.
Fixed No Fixed Address
Entre le bœuf et l’âne gris
Dort, dort, dort le petit fils
Mille anges divins, mille séraphins
Volent à l’entour de ce grand dieu d’amour.
The little girl’s soft voice carried across the camp through the open windows as she lulled her baby sister to sleep with a beautiful, haunting Christmas carol that her mother had taught her. Between verses, she offered commentary.
“I know you’re a girl, but the song is about Jesus. He was a boy,” she explained to the baby, who hopefully was content with the music and did not care.
Their family still had a few hours before they would join their neighbours for a Christmas Eve service followed by dancing. The year before, the tiny bedroom that they were lying in had been full of sleeping children. With a new RV in their camp, their original one was much roomier. Only Juno and Rilla were in the bedroom: Juno lying on the bed with Rilla in a bassinet beside her. Their older sister, Laura, usually shared with them, but she was busy trying to get their brothers to sleep in the living room. They were exhausted, but much too excited for Christmas.
“Shh, quiet down! You don’t have to sleep, but let Dad rest, okay? He’s been up a long time. We don’t want him to get sick! Listen to your sister sing.”
The boys groaned about their sister’s singing, but seemed to comply. They did not want to disappoint their father.
In the new RV – which was only new to them, being over thirty years old – the other half of the family had settled down for a nap as well. It was comparatively quiet, even with four children between the ages of two and nine, two adults, and a six-month-old baby, aside from an occasional giggle or snuffle.
The two remaining members of their little extended family were snuggled together in a tiny car, parked a few metres from the window that Juno sang beside.
“Do you remember when it was always too cold at Christmas to have the windows open?” the woman in the car asked her companion. “Now, even in a little parked car with no heat on, we have the windows down a crack.”
The man laughed.
“You know, I don’t really remember the weather much. Just playing outside – hockey, mostly. It was cold and there was usually snow. But I was trying to avoid windows!”
Jillian’s heart sank as she saw tears on his face.
“It was fun, wasn’t it?”
“Oh yes,” Phil hurriedly wiped his face. “Just thinking about how much fun it was.”
She nodded and tried to change the subject.
“The smell of the food cooking is making me hungry. I look forward to tonight!”
“Me too. I’ve never tried your bread before!”
“Really? Not even from, like, a bake sale or anything?”
He shook his head.
“Oh! Well, I hope it’s half as good as my grandmother’s. I mean, it’s mostly just bread, nothing really special. But we always had it at Christmas…” Now it was her turn to cry.
“I’m sure it will be wonderful! And I don’t think the kids will get at it. Laura’s guarding the kitchen until they fall asleep.” He gestured toward the kitchen window of the RV, where the eleven-year-old was visible leaning against the fridge.
“I’m sorry, I must seem so self-absorbed! It’s just that even with the war, we moved to our uncle’s farm and everything was pretty safe, even without my dad. We always had a big Christmas dinner with a roasted ham – I mean, it was a pig farm – and I just miss everyone! I didn’t think the invaders would destroy them after six years! Even the poor little pigs! Whatever did they do?”
“We managed to save some of the piglets, though, remember? We have them here. They’re just not big enough for a Christmas ham yet.”
“I know, I know, you lost your whole family too…”
“It’s okay, we’ll be okay,” he whispered, kissing her head as she sobbed.
Phil wished that he had more certainty in his life, but eight years of war, internment, and resistance had practically banished the concept from his mind. All he knew for sure now was that he had a new family to protect – one that cared for him even as he was the strange outsider.
“Do you think Ana had any more tissues in here?” Jillian asked, pulling the last one from the box on her lap. “She always had tonnes of supplies.”
“I hope so. I don’t want to go back inside and wake up the kids.”
“Now, if I were Ana, where would I put my extra tissues? In the trunk?”
Jillian pulled herself up to look over the backseat and into the hatchback’s trunk space, while Phil opened the centre compartment between the front seats.
“Found some!” they both cried out at once and then burst into laughter.
“Thank you, Ana,” Jillian sighed with relief, collapsing back down into the seat. “And thank you, Phil. We can use that small pack for now. Maybe you can reach over and get a box from the trunk later?”
“Okay, sure. Whoa, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing, nothing, just sat down too quickly so I’m a bit dizzy.”
“Here, take another tissue.” He handed her one of the travel packs that he had found in the compartment and tossed the empty box into the passenger seat.
“How many empty boxes are in the passenger seat now?”
“Can’t see – maybe four?”
“Okay, I’d better make a note of that.”
“You don’t need to be Anastasia 2.0, you know. We all like you already!”
“I know, but…well, I miss her too! I was just getting to be friends with her. I mean, I know it’s not like Matt being widowed again or the kids losing their mom, or you guys losing a close friend you’d had for years, but still…”
“It doesn’t matter – we lost a wonderful person.” A part of him would always be in love with Anastasia Donald, even as he had never had with her what he had with Jillian. “And four kids lost their mother. Part of me just wants to pack the twins up with us in the car and drive away!”
“What?” Jillian stared at him. “That would devastate them!”
“I know! I guess I’m just selfish like that sometimes. It’s stupid – Matt is a better father than me a hundred times! But Vimy looks just like me and I always wish I could be more than just his uncle. And Juno is an orphan now!”
“Shh! She’s still awake! She’s still singing, in fact.”
Phil lowered his voice, but didn’t sound any less grief-stricken.
“I feel like I’ve failed them.”
“How? Failed who? You gave up everything to come be here for the twins. Everyone knows that. The twins even know who you are. You could have left whenever you wanted.”
“I didn’t have anything to go back to.”
“We’re a family here now! You’re the one who told me that, remember? And you just told me a few minutes ago that we’d be okay.”
Jillian suddenly burst into hysterical giggles.
“We’re hilarious, you know? We’re having a Christmas pity party instead of celebrating like I’m sure everyone thinks we are out here.” She kissed him. “I love you, Phil.”
“I love you too. I’m sorry I’m being so selfish and sad. Shall we try to sleep, like the others? Perhaps we will feel better.”
“Um, maybe. But I have another idea! How about I give you my Christmas gift? I brought it with me, just in case. I wanted to give it to you in private.”
Phil’s eyes widened.
“I – I have yours too, but…I’m not sure now is a good time…”
“Why not? At the farm, we always exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve. The morning was for Santa.”
“Um, well…yeah, I have no real reason, I guess. Can I give you yours first?”
“Sure.” She looked around, trying to see if he had smuggled in a gift that she would not recognise. That would have been difficult, seeing as she was always inventorying everything.
The gift, however, had been hiding in his coat pocket for several weeks.
“I can’t offer you certainty, but I can offer you everything I have. Jillian Marie Brooke, will you marry me?”
He held a ring out to her.
“Of course! Oh my God, of course!” She was crying again. “This is wonderful. Let me try it on.”
“Thank you!” It was his turn to kiss her. “Here – if it doesn’t fit, I have a chain you can wear it on until we can get it fixed.”
Jillian was not surprised that it was too small for her fingers, although she was mildly disappointed. The light from the RV glinted off the ring and the chain as Phil fastened it around her neck.
“It’s beautiful on you,” he whispered. “Your favourite colour!”
Nodding, she pulled out the gift bag that she had carefully concealed behind an extra blanket.
“Now it’s your turn! It’s not as sparkly, but you’ll love it.”
“Wow, you even got tissue paper and everything!”
“Ana helped me pick it out. The wrapping, I mean.”
“The red tissue paper was her idea?”
“Well, the bag is green, and we could only afford one pack of tissue paper…”
Phil pulled out what seemed like a lightweight lump of red paper.
“Yes, that’s it!” Jillian was trembling excitedly. “It’s a two-part gift, but that’s all that’s in the bag. The second part is going to take more time.”
To tease her, he opened the paper as slowly as he could. Finally, he uncovered a red metal mug with a silhouette of two hockey players and a maple leaf. One of the players was much smaller than the first.
“A hockey mug! With a maple leaf!” That was a rare find now.
“Turn it over, turn it over! Like I said, it’s a two-part gift.”
The other side had #1 Coach #1 Dad emblazoned on it. Phil read it aloud and slowly looked up at Jillian.
“Thanks! This is awesome! I love it! I’ve never been called a dad before.”
“I thought of you right away when I saw it. I thought it would be the perfect way to tell you.”
“Wait, tell me?”
“The second part of your gift! It’ll be ready in June.”
It still took him a few seconds to understand what she meant.
“Wonderful! Oh, my beautiful Jillian, you’re right, I do love my gift! I promise to be there for you as long as I can.”
“No wonder you said you were hungry! Are you sure you don’t need anything?”
“I’m fine. I can wait. But I would like to rest now, maybe? I don’t think I can actually sleep.”
“Sounds good to me.”
As they lay there together, they realised that they could still hear singing.
“Is Juno still awake? Poor little girl. She’s going to be exhausted by the time we get to the feasting and dancing.”
“I don’t think that’s her. It sounds much more like an older woman. Probably a neighbour.”
Phil nodded, but he was not convinced.
“Or maybe her mother is back to sing for us for Christmas.”