She lay there listening to her teen-aged sister’s slow breathing from the twin bed across the room and could tell her sister was asleep. No lights came from the hall. No voices from the television in the living room
She thought, I could sneak to the Christmas tree, look around quickly, and be back in bed before anyone notices. She propped Teddy, her stuffed bear, up in the corner of her own bed by the wall. Folded back the blankets, and slipped her feet onto the floor. She paused. She listened. Her sister’s little snore hadn’t changed, so she knew she was still asleep.
She rose to her feet and tip toed across the linoleum floor, pushed aside the tattered curtain that served as a door to the bedroom, and peered into the hall. No one was there. She stretched her neck, ear to the right, toward the other bedrooms, listening to see if one of her brothers or parents were awake. There wasn’t a sound.
She nodded in satisfaction, took a deep breath and walked down the hall to the left, toward the living room.
There were rules.
- No peeking.
- Her father was laid off so no more than $10 per present per child. Pick what you want but don’t ask for anything that cost more than that. She had asked for a Betsy Wetsy doll.
- Santa would still bring presents, but the main one was from Mom and Dad and costs less than $10.
- Everyone enters the living room Christmas morning at the same time.
- No peeking.
She didn’t believe number three anymore. At least, not the part about Santa. All four of her older brothers had lined up and explained to her, in the blunt way of older brothers, that only babies believed in Santa Claus. Her sister pooh-poohed and told her that her brothers were wrong, that Santa was very real and would bring her a present. Her older sister was always right. It was hard for her to not ignore all four of her brothers, though.
There were no streetlamps way out in the country where she lived, so no light came through the large, picture window. Her mother took everyone outside once after dark each evening so that they could see the multi-colored lights glistening on the Christmas tree in the center of that window. It was beautiful. Just looking at it tickled her ears, made her toes tingle, her stomach happy.
What was that noise? She paused mid-step and squinted her eyes to hear better. Who moved? Who’s awake? When she didn’t hear the noise again, she decided everything was okay. She didn’t stop again until she was in the living room. She could see coats and boots piled by the big oil heater on the far end of the room nearest the kitchen. She saw her father’s favorite chair pushed to one side for the Christmas tree. And, yes, there under the tree, were stacks of wrapped presents.
She almost laughed, but stuffed her hand in her mouth at the last second so that the sound wouldn’t wake anyone. It was working. She could look over her gifts, shake a few, and figure out if she were getting a doll.
She glanced over her shoulder, back down the hallway. No one was there and there was no sound, except her sister’s little snores. She liked her sister’s snores. Sometimes when she had a bad dream and couldn’t fall back asleep, she would lay awake and listen to them. It was comforting to know that her sister was so close.
She turned back and walked into the living room toward the tree. Ahead of her, where her gifts were always placed under the tree, was a big, dark spot. She couldn’t see beyond it. She couldn’t see into it. She wondered what it was and peered closer.
The big dark spot growled! It rose up higher and higher and growled louder and louder. Wet, yellow teeth flashed brightly in the middle of the dark spot…in the middle of….a bear! A grizzly bear! Here, in front of her beautiful Christmas tree, in her safe living room, was a vicious, mean, hungry grizzly bear. She froze.
The bear loped toward her snarling. A deep, long rumble rose from the bear’s chest.
She ran. She ran and ran, out of the living room, down the hall, into the bedroom, past her sleeping sister, and leapt back into bed. She could hear the bear in the hallway. She pulled the covers over her head, shivering in fright. She shook for the rest of the night. She couldn’t sleep. She was too afraid to pull the covers down and see if her sister had been eaten yet. She wondered which of her brothers would be first to become the grizzly bear’s midnight snack.
After a long time, she heard all of her family in the hallway laughing, eager to enter the living room to get their presents. Rule number 5. The bear must be waiting in the living room, she thought, ready to pounce on the unlucky person who walked in first.
Oh no. Oh no. What could she do? She was frightened. She was more than frightened. She was terrified.
“Get up, Lazybones,” her mother called from the hallway. She slunk more deeply into the blankets. Her mother strode into the room, jerked back the covers, and said, “Everyone is waiting for you. Enough is enough.”
She knew it was over. She had to get out of bed and march as bravely as she could into the living room and be eaten by the grizzly bear. There was nothing else to it. She could face the grizzly bear, or she could face her mother.
She planted her feet on the floor, straightened her back, and walked down the hall. Because she was the youngest, she always got to go first. She thought this time that was best. Maybe the grizzly bear wouldn’t eat anyone else after eating her.
As soon as she stepped into the living room, she stopped. Her brothers and sister darted around her and to the tree. She blinked her eyes. She blinked her eyes again. Wrapping paper and ribbons flew everywhere. Her oldest brother was prancing around showing everyone the new globe that Santa had brought him. Her sister was holding up a make-up case with real lipstick in it.
There was no grizzly bear. No growling. No wet, yellow teeth.
Her mother took her by the shoulders and gently pushed her toward a coat heaped in front of the Christmas tree. She recognized it as her father’s large army coat. Her mother pushed her a little more.
Maybe the grizzly bear is under the army coat, she thought. Slowly, cautiously, her hands trembling, she lifted the coat by the collar and one arm. Hidden underneath it was a child’s table and four chairs. The perfect size for tea parties, for Teddy and her dolls, the perfect size for her.
She laughed. She laughed so hard at herself she cried. It was never a grizzly bear. It was her father’s dark army coat. She made all the rest up. She had frightened herself. She laughed again.
Outside Santa peered through one corner of the large, picture window. He chuckled to himself. When she pulled out a chair and sat at the little table, he chuckled again and whispered softly, “Elves have magic, you know. Rule number 1. And rule number 5.”