Josh missed his parents.
His dad was deployed overseas and his mom had gone to visit him. This wasn’t the first time both of his parents had been overseas without Josh, but it was the first time it had happened at Christmas time.
He thought it would be no big deal. He was twelve, after all. Besides, he got to stay with his best friend, Flipper, and his family. He had fun at first, but now that Christmas Eve had arrived, Josh was miserable.
Allison and her parents joined them for dinner. Also visiting was Flipper’s grandma who had Alzheimer’s and kept asking the same questions over and over again.
He didn’t mind that so much. She was nice and kept giving him pieces of candy — more than he could possibly eat. But he worried he would hurt her feelings or excite her too much. His parents had lectured him about being on his best behavior, which meant no practical jokes. That was like torture for Josh! So far his parents would be proud of him, but he felt like he wasn’t able to be himself.
Since Allison was Flipper’s cousin her parents agreed to let her spend the night with Flipper and Josh. They settled in Flipper’s room — Flipper and Josh in his queen-sized bed and Allison on the floor.
With the house quiet and dark Josh felt lonely. He tried not to think about how much he missed his parents by talking to Flipper and Allison well into the night. In fact, they chatted so long that Josh’ dinner wore off.
“Now I am too,” Flipper said.
“There’s some summer sausage in the fridge,” Allison suggested.
The three fifth-graders tip-toed downstairs as quietly as they could. As they went through the living room they saw that the meager selection of presents under the Christmas tree had grown substantially — Santa had visited!
After a substantial snack they snuck into the living room to snoop.
Josh saw his name on a small present about the size of the video game he hoped to get. He felt another pang of loneliness. He knew his parents had left gifts for him to open, but it wouldn’t be the same without them.
His need to be ornery and his need to get his mind off of his parents collided.
“What do you say we have a little fun?”
“What do you have in mind?” Allison asked.
“Let’s move everything around.” Josh didn’t think they would go for such a large task at — he looked up at the large, decorative clock — one forty-one in the morning, but they agreed.
Allison took a picture of the tree and presents with her phone. They moved the couch away from the wall and placed the presents on it. Flipper crawled underneath the seven-foot artificial tree. Josh pulled on the high branches, Allison the low branches, and Flipper pushed against the tree stand. Slowly, they inched their way across the carpet.
When they made it to the other corner Flipper said, “We only knocked off five ornaments. Not bad.”
They pushed the recliner to where the tree had been, the love seat to where the recliner had been, then the couch to where the loveseat had been. Allison pulled up the picture of the tree and presents on her phone and they intentionally placed the presents back under the tree.
“Quiet!” Allison whispered with sudden urgency.
The two boys froze. They listened and remained completely still for an agonizingly long five minutes. A toilet flushed; a door opened; footsteps down the hallway, then a bedroom door closed.
Flipper let out a deep breath. “That was my grandma.”
“That was close,” Josh added.
They got back to work. After a long and painfully tedious process of matching the presents to the picture — which Flipper and Josh didn’t think was near as important as Allison did — the three beamed with pride. Flipper and Allison collapsed onto the couch while Josh ran to the restroom. What he saw in there gave him another idea.
“We need to wish everyone a Merry Christmas,” Josh said returning from the bathroom.
“How?” Flipper asked.
Josh smiled and held up a roll of toilet paper.
“How does toilet paper say ‘Merry Christmas’?” Allison asked.
“We’ll need some tape.”
“I hate to ask,” Allison said hesitantly while Flipper retrieved a roll of tape.
Josh brought a chair from the dining room to stand on and hung toilet paper from the ceiling so it drooped down in front of the tree, spelling out ‘MERRY X-MAS’.
Finally, around three, the kids settled back into bed and fell asleep.
A few short hours later they awoke with a start at the sound of a scream.
They rushed downstairs with Flipper’s parents behind them.
Flipper’s mom gasped.
“What happened?” Flipper’s dad asked.
The sun shined brightly into the room, illuminating the tree. Even with toilet paper hanging from the ceiling and the room’s furnishings rotated ninety degrees, everyone’s attention was elsewhere.
At the bottom of the stairs, Flipper’s grandma stood, laughing hysterically.