By Daniel 'Chip' Ciammaichella
During the Christmas Season the usually stoic lobby of First State Bank of Raton was transformed into a Christmas wonderland, and this Christmas Eve was no different. Wreaths and garlands graced the walls, and centerpieces made from pinecones were at each teller station. The female tellers and bank officers all wore cute little elf outfits, though the men still wore their usual suits and ties. Only the younger ones were bold enough to don a bright Christmas tie.
At the far end of the lobby three eight-foot tables were crammed with cakes, cookies, snacks, eggnog, and punch in a huge crystal punch bowl. A ten-foot tall Christmas tree, decorated with multi-colored ornaments, garlands, twinkling lights, and tinsel dominated the center of the lobby. Under the tree were brightly wrapped packages of all shapes and sizes, merely empty boxes of course, but what Christmas tree wouldn't have presents stuffed beneath it?
Sitting next to the tree in a great stuffed armchair sat Santa Claus...AKA Charlie Wagner. Charlie was uncomfortable in the hot Santa suit and the itchy white beard, but he loved playing Santa Claus. He had never played Santa for the bank's annual Christmas open house before, but his friend Shannon, who was the Public Relations Manager of the bank, had asked him if he could...and Shannon Smith was a woman he could NEVER say no to.
Charlie simply adored Shannon. To him she was probably the most beautiful and sweet woman in the world, though he never dared to let her know he felt that way. Charlie didn't feel he was worthy of a woman like Shannon, let alone think she was attracted to him at all. She was a bright and beautiful woman, climbing the ladder to success, the best part of her life still ahead of her. On the other hand Charlie thought of himself as a washed-up old has-been who had fallen off that ladder years ago. He had once been an ambitious and successful community leader and businessman. Then his wife divorced him, he lost his home, his business fell on lean times, and he lost all confidence in himself...he burned out.
As Charlie sat in his place as Santa Claus, he watched Shannon move around the lobby performing her duties as hostess of the event. He never ceased to marvel at her grace, beauty, and especially her smile that seemed to not only brighten the room, but his heart as well. He remembered how she had offered to pay him to play Santa for the bank and the look of disappointment on her face when he declined. Broke as he was, he couldn't accept any money, even from a bank. He knew she was just trying to help him out, as a lot of his good friends had done after he fell on hard times, but taking money to play Santa on Christmas Eve just didn't seem right.
Charlie carefully adjusted the pillow he had duct-taped to his belly before the next child climbed into his lap. He was a bull of a man at over six feet tall, but hardly fat. People milled all around the bank lobby talking, laughing, and enjoying the snack feast at the refreshment table. A few children ran about playing, but the majority of them waited patiently for their turn to see Santa Claus and share their Christmas wishes. Charlie greeted each one with a hearty "Ho, Ho, Ho", which sometimes scared the more timid young ones into tears and wails. Charlie was good with kids though, and after a bit even the most frightened child would be sitting in his lap laughing and giggling.
Charlie's full attention was on all of the children gathered about him, so he jumped slightly, almost bouncing a young boy right off of his knee, when Shannon came up next to him, leaned down and whispered in his ear.
"Does Santa need a break for a little while, or maybe some punch?"
Charlie turned and met Shannon's beautiful eyes for what seemed like an eternity, before averting his own, hoping the great white beard hid his blush.
"No ma'am, I'm just fine for now," he croaked.
Shannon's smile made his heart melt and his legs go weak.
"Well I want to thank you for doing this for me...us, Charlie. I really appreciate it. I can't think of anyone who is a better Santa Claus than you."
Charlie blushed again, not sure what to say. He thought it funny that she was so easy to talk to sometimes, yet at other times his tongue felt like a pound of chopped liver and forgot how to form words.
"Anytime you need a Santa Claus, you can count on me Shannon," he finally replied.
Charlie almost fainted when she gave him a light kiss on his Santa cap and walked away, finally sending the boy on his lap tumbling to the floor with a surprised squeal. The boy jumped up, indignant, and scolded Charlie.
"Gee Santa, you need to get your mind off the babes and onto business...I thought you were married to some old lady at the North Pole anyway?"
Charlie blushed deep red as both adults and children began to laugh. He wasn't sure if they were laughing at him or at the unexpected comments from such a small boy. He regained his composure quickly though, a quick-witted response coming to mind almost immediately, but he held his tongue, thinking a Santa should not say such things.
Charlie didn't notice that Shannon had turned a short distance away, watching him with a twinkle in her eyes. She knew he had a crush on her. It wasn't something he hid very well. The thought made her both uncomfortable and flattered all at the same time. Though she had known Charlie for nearly ten years, she had never gotten to know him that well. They never had the same circle of friends and rarely met outside of business related functions. Shannon knew she could always count on him to help out when she had a problem requiring someone with his skills and experience, and she had always reciprocated by throwing some bank business his way. When he was doing work for the bank he never failed to drop by her office to chat for awhile, always bright and cheerful, which ran counter to the rumor mill wisdom that made him out to be a grouchy bully. He had always treated her with respect and gentleness, and somehow she knew that was the real Charlie.
Shannon had never really considered getting into a relationship with another man since her divorce and a few painful relationships afterward. Her children and her career were the most important things to her, and while she missed having a man to share her life with, she didn't miss the pain that caring for one always seemed to bring her. She felt comfortable around Charlie...safe even, but she was always careful not to give him any signals that might lead him on. He had made a few shy attempts to show her that he cared for her, sometimes sending her flowers or a card. She always thanked him, but never let him see how flattered and happy those gifts really made her.
As she watched him now, bringing such joy into the eyes of every child in the room, Shannon couldn't help but feel pride in him. Life had thrown him a lot of curve balls the past few years, and a lesser man would probably have sunk himself into a bottle of whiskey...but not Charlie. Despite his misfortunes he never quit fighting to rebuild his life, and more importantly, never quit giving of himself to help other people as he was now. She remembered the fierce pride that radiated from his eyes, overcoming the pain and hurt that usually resided in them, as he declined any payment for playing Santa Claus today. As much as she wanted to help him, she couldn't help but respect him and his wishes. She wished she could see that fire in his eyes more often.
Just then Charlie glanced over at her, noticed she was watching him, and turned away quickly, his blush obvious even behind the white Santa beard. Shannon couldn't help but giggle as she turned back to her duties, thinking, "He's so darn cute when he does that!"
As the afternoon began to grow late, the number of children gathered around Charlie began to slowly subside. After a while he was alone again. The few children remaining in the lobby had already seen him and were now enjoying cookies and punch at the refreshment table. Charlie stood and stretched, holding the beard carefully as he yawned. He turned to survey the remaining people in the bank, looking for Shannon in particular. He loved to watch her while she went about her work. She was always friendly and warm; giving everyone a smile and making them feel welcome. That smile was no painted on beauty queen smile either. It was genuine, and in Charlie's mind the all-time most beautiful smile he'd ever seen.
Charlie's mind got lost watching Shannon for only few moments before a slight tug on his sleeve brought him back to earth. He looked down to see a small girl with the biggest brown eyes he'd ever seen looking up at him shyly, but with no trace of fear.
"Are you really Santa Claus?" she whispered hopefully.
Charlie let out a hearty Santa laugh and dropped down to one knee.
"Well as a matter of fact I am...and I'll bet your name is...Mary?"
"Wrong again, Santa!"
Charlie rubbed his beard thoughtfully.
The little girl giggled and shook her head.
"OK darlin', Santa must be getting old...help me out?"
She giggled again before whispering "Wendy Garcia."
"WENDY! I knew it!"
Little Wendy giggled some more, then her big brown eyes turned serious.
"Can I sit on your lap?"
Charlie laughed again while sitting down into his chair and patting his knee. "Climb aboard Miss Wendy Garcia!"
Charlie helped her up onto his knee and waited while she settled in before asking, "What can Santa do for you this fine afternoon, Wendy?"
"Well I need to ask you for something."
"Ask away young lady. What can Santa get you for Christmas this year?"
"A Christmas tree," she said matter-of-factly.
"A Christmas tree?"
"Yes, a Christmas tree, but not a very big one."
Charlie paused a moment, rubbing his beard thoughtfully.
"Didn't your Mommy and Daddy get a tree this year?"
Wendy looked Charlie straight in the eye.
"I don't have a Daddy, and Mommy is in Hollywood so she can be an actress, and can't come home for Christmas. I live with my Grandma and Grandpa." She pointed across the lobby.
Charlie followed her finger and picked out an old couple sitting at a desk opposite of one of the loan officers. The old man was dressed in a faded old flannel shirt, patched blue jeans, and a beat up straw hat. His face was creased and withered from many years of sun, wind, and rain. His wife was a plump friendly looking woman wearing a simple housedress and a worn knit shawl. The old man twiddled his thumbs nervously between his knees as the loan officer spoke on the phone.
Charlie turned his attention back to the little girl.
"Your grandparents look like they are very nice people, Wendy, and I'm sure that your Mommy misses you dearly. Just think, someday when she's a famous movie star you'll both live in a big mansion in Beverly Hills...right next door to Harrison Ford!"
Wendy's eyes lit up.
"Yes, won't it be cool?"
Then she looked at Charlie with a quizzical expression. "But I don't think I'd want to live next door to a car lot!"
She rolled her eyes at Charlie as they exchanged a look, then a hug.
"Never mind darlin'," he grinned. "OK now, what about this tree business? Won't your Grandma and Grandpa get you one this year?"
"We never get a tree, Grandpa says we ain't got room for one. That's why I want just a little tree, one I could fit in my bedroom."
She paused a moment, then whispered, "Can you keep a secret?"
Charlie looked serious and crossed his heart with his finger.
"Santa's no snitch darlin'. Your secret is safe with me."
Wendy looked at him for a moment, then a look of satisfaction came over her face as she continued to whisper.
"Well Grandma and Grandpa don't have much money. They don't know I was listening, but I heard them talking. They came down here to the bank to get money so they could buy me a Christmas present. I don't need anything, but I don't want to hurt their feelings either. Christmas isn't about presents anyway, it's about the baby Jesus...isn't it Santa?"
Charlie looked into Wendy's big brown eyes for a moment. He just wanted to take that wonderful little girl into his arms and hug her. After hearing so many children asking for expensive toys all day, it warmed his heart to hear this little angel speak of the true meaning of Christmas.
"Yes Wendy, you're one hundred percent right. You sure are smart for such a little girl. So you've never had a Christmas tree?"
Charlie rubbed his beard again, seriously deep in thought.
"Here I go again. I'm gonna get myself involved in things that ain't my business. What the heck, it's Christmas. What can they do, shave my head and send me to Bosnia?"
A tug on his fake beard brought Charlie's attention back to Wendy.
"I don't mean to be pushy, Santa, but Grandpa looks like he's ready to go. Do you think you could just throw a little tree on your sleigh for me tonight? I won't ask for anything else, but I've always dreamed of having a Christmas tree like everyone else."
Charlie smiled, but before he could speak he noticed the old couple getting up from the loan officer's desk and walking away, an obvious look of pain and disappointment on their faces. He took young Wendy in his arms and lifted her back onto the floor as he stood.
"Yes Wendy, you'll get your tree. I promise. In fact if you'll excuse me I'll get right to work on it!"
Wendy could only watch as Charlie walked quickly across the lobby to the loan officer's desk. Bob, the loan officer looked up, somewhat surprised to see Santa Claus leaning over the front of the desk, beard draped over his computer screen.
"What can I do for you Charlie...or should I say Santa Claus?"
Charlie ignored his arrogant tone.
"Bob, tell me something. Did those two old folks get their loan?"
Bob shook his head. "No. Their only income is Social Security, and they are way too deep into debt."
"Well how much did they want?"
Bob snickered. "One hundred dollars. We don't make loans that small."
Charlie felt his blood begin to boil. He leaned over the desk until he was eye to eye with the loan officer. Bob didn't like the look he saw in those eyes, and he liked Charlie's growling whisper even less.
"You mean to tell me you turned down a loan for a measly $100 on Christmas Eve?" He let Bob stew under his glare before continuing. "My gosh Bob, you've always been a putz, but I never figured you for a Scrooge. A big shot like you couldn't just loan them folks the money yourself? You blow that much cash going to Happy Hour!"
As Charlie rose and turned in disgust, Bob regained his courage and hissed, "Maybe that's why I've got money and you don't, loser!"
Charlie turned back to Bob, his eyes cold and hard. He fought the urge to reach out and grab him by the neck and throttle him, knowing Santa beating up on someone, even if he was a jerk, would not look good. Charlie changed tactics, his eyes softening.
"OK Bob, you have a job to do, I understand that. The old man upstairs would probably kick your butt for making a loan like that. Tell you what, we can skin this cat another way. How about you just give them the hundred bucks you owe me for playing Santa? I know I've got another hour, but what the heck, how about paying me now?"
Charlie gave Bob his best used-car salesman look. Bob started to agree...then caught himself and laughed at Charlie.
"Nice try pal, but you agreed to play Santa for free. I wasn't born yesterday. A deal is a deal, we don't owe you a cent."
Charlie muffled a growl, then grinned innocently at Bob.
"Well you can't fault a guy for trying Bob. I guess you're just too smart for me. OK, how about you just loan me $100?"
Bob just laughed. "Sorry Charlie, you're probably a worse risk than those old folks are. I bet you don't have more than a dollar in your pocket, do you?"
Charlie gave Bob a confident look.
"Wrong answer Bob. I may not have a hundred bucks, but I've got lots more than a dollar." He had one dollar and twelve cents to be exact. Charlie saw the old couple walking towards the door, motioning Wendy to follow. His mind raced furiously, then an alternate plan hatched in his mind. He turned and gave Bob his most intimidating glare.
"I'll deal with you later, count on it," he hissed before turning and running across the lobby. Shannon's eyes were not the only ones in the room that were surprised by Santa's sudden urge to emulate an OJ Simpson commercial as Charlie leapt over a couch on a dead run towards her.
"Charlie what are you doing?" she whispered as he pulled up in front of her, his breathing coming just a bit heavy.
"Shannon, I can't explain now. There's no time. I need a favor?"
Shannon looked at Charlie, sizing him up for a moment before shaking her head.
"Of course, Charlie, if I can."
"Do you see those old folks and that cute little girl heading towards the door? I need you to stop them, stall them, keep them here until I get back?"
"Get back? Where are you going?"
"I just need to run home and grab something. I promise I'll explain later. I want you to think over a second favor while I'm gone too...lend me a hundred bucks?"
Before Shannon could say anything he turned and ran to the door before the old couple could open it.
"Wait folks. You can't leave yet. Do you see that pretty girl standing over there? She needs to talk to you. I think you won the door prize or something."
Before they could reply, he winked at Wendy and ran out the door, leaving the old couple staring after him in confusion as Shannon walked over to greet them, just as confused as they were.
From the vantage point of his fully windowed office above the lobby, bank president Frank Talbot had been watching as his Santa Claus went berserk, then ran out of the building.
"That darn Charlie," he thought out loud. "I knew we shouldn't have let that loose cannon play Santa Claus. That lout has been nothing but a pain in my neck as long as I've known him. I imagine I'd better go down and find out what's going on before I call the police. It would be best to keep this as quiet as possible. I spend money on these dog-and-pony shows for good publicity, not bad. I hope the moron doesn't come back with an Uzi and really ruin my Christmas."
Talbot thought about that as he walked down his carpeted private staircase.
"Maybe I'd better call the cops anyway?"
Charlie was out of breath after running the three blocks to his small bungalow, all uphill. His beard was hanging halfway off his face, and the Santa costume was soaked with sweat. He burst through the door and stopped, seeing what he came for immediately. He quickly walked over to the buffet and picked up his small, one foot tall, artificial Christmas tree, careful not to disturb any of the dozen small red ornaments he had hanging from it. He didn't even shut the door as he walked quickly back into the dusky late afternoon, carefully balancing the tree as he made his way down the hill back to the bank.
Shannon knew her boss had probably been watching everything from his office perch. He was always watching, like a hawk looking for prey.
"Come to think of it, he even looks like a hawk."
She tried to act casual as he walked across the lobby toward her with a stern look on his face. She hoped Charlie would get back soon, with a darn good story to boot.
"Ms. Smith, just what in the name of Michael is going on down here?"
Shannon hated the patronizing, scolding-father voice he always addressed her in. She knew he thought of her as just a dumb blonde, and had only hired her because of her looks. She didn't care. She was good at her job, and everyone else knew it. She didn't need his approval, but she did need the paycheck he signed, so she just did her job and let him think whatever he wanted.
"Well Mr. Talbot, it seems that Charlie had a sudden emergency, but I'm sure he'll be right back."
Before she could continue, Bob the loan officer leaned over Talbot's shoulder and whispered in his ear. Talbot's eyes grew wide as he listened.
"Call 911 now," he instructed before turning back to Shannon.
"Ms. Smith, Bob says that Charlie tried to extort money from this bank, and flew into a rage when Bob called his bluff."
"Mr. Talbot, I don't think Char..."
"There's no time to discuss this, Shannon. I think Charlie is going to come back with a gun and rob us. You know as well as I that men who fall on hard times, like Charlie, often get depressed, suicidal and violent this time of year. I want you to help escort all of the customers out of the bank. Bob is calling the police now. With any luck they'll catch Charlie outside before he comes back."
Shannon opened her mouth to protest, but Talbot turned and began to walk away before noticing Wendy and her grandparents sitting on the couch.
"I'm sorry folks, it's closing time now. It is Christmas Eve after all, and we'd like to get our employees home to enjoy Christmas with their families. Thank you so much for coming, and Merry Christmas."
Shannon felt helpless as Talbot ushered the Garcias to the door. Then the door opened and her heart lifted, only to be disappointed when instead of Charlie, Police Chief Stan Sandoval and two SWAT team members burst through the open door. Despite her worry, she couldn't help but giggle at the serious looks on their faces.
The giggle turned into a laugh a few moments later as Charlie walked nonchalantly through to door, unnoticed by anyone but her, balancing a tiny Christmas tree in his right hand. He walked right over to the Police Chief, still unnoticed by anyone as they exchanged frantic words. He tapped the Chief on the shoulder.
"What happened Stan, somebody rob the place?"
"Not yet Charlie...CHARLIE!"
Every eye in the room turned to Charlie. Talbot turned white, and almost fainted when one of the SWAT officers leveled his M16 at Charlie and hollered, "FREEZE AND DROP IT SCUMBAG!"
Charlie gave the young cop a momentary look, then turned to Chief Sandoval.
"You think you could call off your hound dawg there, Stan? Does he think I've got a gun hidden in this itty-bitty Christmas tree...or does he just have some kind of sick Santa/Rambo thing goin' on?"
Chief Sandoval had an amused, but pained look on his face as he turned to his young officer.
"Carl, put the darn gun down. You ain't even bright enough to realize I never gave you any bullets for that thing."
He turned to Charlie and rolled his eyes. "Kids."
Charlie just grinned.
"So what's going on here, Stan? Why all the hardware?"
Sandoval looked at Charlie seriously.
"Mr. Talbot says you got into a mad rage and stormed out, threatening to come back with a gun and kill everyone."
Charlie laughed a belly laugh that would make the real Santa proud, then looked over at the still ill-looking Talbot.
"Hi, Frank! Funny I don't remember you even being down here with the rest of us peons all day, let alone talking to you. Where did you get such a fool idea? I just ran home to get this little Christmas tree. I promise it won't hurt you, unless you're allergic to little fake trees? Perhaps someone spiked your eggnog...you don't look so good."
Talbot glared at Charlie.
"I didn't think any such thing. I just got bad information from a moron who used to work for me...Bob?"
Bob deflated like a balloon as every eye turned to him. Talbot felt more in control now.
"You're fired, Bob."
Bob collapsed into a chair, dumbfounded at his sudden misfortune. Charlie looked over at him and winked.
"Merry Christmas, Bob. Good thing you didn't loan me that money, seems you might be needing it."
Bob ignored the comment and sulked. Chief Sandoval looked around the room and motioned to his officers.
"Well, it looks like there's nothing for us to do here. Carl, Kevin, you boys had best git home and put them guns up before you hurt yourselves. I promise you'll get to play commando again soon. In the meantime, those cookies over there look like some kind of contraband...I'd better taste them to be certain though"
"I think I'll join you Chief." Talbot took the Chief by the arm and led him to the refreshment table, talking to him like a long lost son each step of the way.
"...have I told you what a great job your department is doing..."
Shannon walked over to Charlie, her eyes still moist from laughing at the ludicrous events. He avoided her eyes as she stood in front of him, looking him over with a smile on her face. She took his chin gently into her hand and raised his head, looking him in the eye with amusement.
"So cowboy, you still haven't told me what this is all about. Why did you go home to get that cheap, but cute, little Kmart tree?"
Charlie grinned sheepishly, but before he could answer a young voice piped out from below them.
"It's for me!"
Charlie and Shannon looked down to see little Wendy, staring at the tree in Charlie's hand, her eyes wide with excitement. Shannon looked at Charlie, her eyes soft and moist.
"Is that what this is all about?"
Charlie looked into Shannon's eyes, and she could see that his were a bit moist as well, not to mention the cat-that-ate-the-canary grin on his face.
"She's never had a tree, and she wanted a small one. I figured this little thing of mine was perfect for her. Her grandparents had no money to buy her any presents, and your bank wouldn't loan them a measly hundred bucks. I sure don't have a hundred bucks, but I had this tree. I couldn't let that cute, young gal go home empty handed."
"That's what you wanted the hundred dollars for...to give to them?"
"Yep," Charlie was embarrassed, "I'll pay you back, you know I will."
Shannon was silent for a moment, then looked at Charlie sternly.
"No, I won't lend you the money." Her stern look melted into a big smile, "But I will give it to them, as my Christmas gift."
Charlie was speechless, and before he could utter a word Shannon reached over and kissed him lightly on the cheek, before walking over to where the elder Garcias were still sitting. Mr. and Mrs. Garcia exchanged a look as she approached, both wondering if this bank was loco all the time. Charlie sighed, then knelt down next to Wendy.
"Is this tree OK, darlin?"
"Oh yes Santa, it's just the best tree I've ever seen, it's perfect!" Charlie smiled.
"Sweetie, I gotta tell ya, I'm not really Santa Claus."
Wendy just grinned as she hugged Charlie tight, giving him a kiss on the well-disheveled beard before whispering, "Oh yes you are." Charlie's heart melted. He returned her hug and wished her a very Merry Christmas.
"Santa had better be going now. You don't want me to be late tonight do you?"
Wendy looked at him sadly, but smiled.
"Well you don't have to come to my house, Santa, you've already given me the best Christmas present I've ever had. I love you."
Charlie smiled, trying to control the tears welling up in his eyes as he turned and walked towards the door. Shannon was busy trying to convince the Garcias to accept the crisp new 100-dollar bill in her hand, and didn't notice as he walked out the door and into the crisp Raton night.
As Charlie shuffled up the walk to his house, he noticed that he had left the door standing wide open.
"With my luck I probably got robbed by now."
He dismissed the thought quickly. They didn't have many burglaries in a town like Raton, and many people never bothered locking their doors. He also noticed that his dog Jake was quiet out in the back yard. He'd have been barking up a storm had someone been in the house.
Charlie walked in the door and fumbled for the light switch. When the light came on he started for the back door to let Jake inside, but stopped almost immediately. He took a step backward and turned the light switch back off, rubbing his eyes in the darkness for a moment before turning it back on. He thought he might have been seeing things the first time, but he was wrong.
In the corner of the living room stood a six-foot tall Christmas tree, decorated to the hilt, a small angel dressed in silk perched at the top. Charlie walked closer to the tree, dumbfounded. He spotted a note wedged between a few branches. He took the note and unfolded it.
People always ask me how I can be everywhere at once on Christmas Eve. I usually just give them a grin and a wink, but the truth is that people like you are the reason. You are the "real" Santa Claus, Charlie. Merry Christmas! Kris Kringle
Charlie read the note a dozen times before shaking his head with a chuckle, walking to the back door to let the dog in.
"Thanks, Santa." He whispered.
Jake, a large black Labrador, lay curled at Charlie's feet, sleeping contentedly now that the only master he had ever known was home, where he belonged. Charlie sat on the couch, staring at the photos of his kids on the wall, tears in his eyes. The biggest regret in his life was the fact that he couldn't be there to watch his children grow into fine young adults, to help them through the pains of growing up. He especially missed them at Christmas. He remembered how their eyes would light up when they awoke on Christmas morning to find that Santa had visited once again.
Charlie sighed and turned his stare to the blank TV screen. He'd usually be watching a Christmas classic like "It's a Wonderful Life", or "Miracle on 34th Street", but he couldn't afford to keep the cable hook up. He had a VCR, but didn't even have enough money to rent a movie. He'd been contemplating selling the TV and VCR too, but knew he'd be lucky to get 20 dollars for either of them.
Charlie was starting to doze off when a knock on the door and Jake's sharp bark alerted him. He stood and yawned, momentarily not sure of his surroundings. He walked to the door trying to shake the cobwebs out of his head. When Charlie opened the door he did a double take, and rubbed his eyes. A large fir tree took up the entire doorway, then moved slightly to the side revealing the bright smiling face of Shannon Smith.
"Are you going to make the kids and I stand here holding this tree, Charlie, or are you going to help us get it inside?"
Now fully awake, Charlie took charge of the tree, dragging it into the house, followed by Shannon's young son and daughter, each carrying an armload of packages while their mother went back to the car to grab some more. They gave Charlie a funny look when they spied the decorated Christmas tree, but Charlie motioned for them to keep silent. He propped the tree into a corner and ran out after Shannon in his bare feet.
"What are you doing here Shannon?" he asked, thinking he sounded awfully rude. Shannon stood and looked at him for a moment with a smile, her eyes bright, then she began stacking packages into his arms.
"Well Charlie, since you went and gave away your Christmas tree, I figured you might need another one. Of course I couldn't trust you to decorate it properly, so I had to get some ornaments and tinsel for it too. You have had a long day though, and I didn't want you to wear yourself out decorating the tree by yourself, so the kids and I decided we should help you. Since it might take awhile, and you probably didn't eat tonight, I brought some food and snacks, and even some nice old Christmas movies."
Shannon paused and reached back into the car. The mountain of bags and boxes she had stacked into his arms hid Charlie's face.
"Of course it's been a long day for me too, so I brought this to help take the edge off!"
Shannon was still smiling as she raised a bottle of wine so Charlie could see it through the mountain of packages.
"Shannon, I gotta tell you something..."
"Shh Charlie, not while you're holding all of that stuff. Take it into the house and then come back to help me with just one more thing."
Charlie dutifully carried the load into the house, deposited the packages, and walked back out the door. Shannon stood in the middle of the walk, her hands behind her back.
"C'mere cowboy, I've got something for you."
Charlie walked to her, still confused and a bit in shock. His confused look soon grew into a big grin as Shannon removed her hand from behind her back, holding a small piece of mistletoe. She held it over her head and grinned mischievously at Charlie.
"Now you have to kiss me Charlie...it's the law. You don't want me to have to call the SWAT team do you?"
Charlie took Shannon gently into his arms, confusion still all over his face. When they kissed, all confusion disappeared.
They stood and looked into each other's eyes for a moment, then were interrupted by a timid question from Shannon's son, standing in the doorway.
"Mom? Why did we bring a Christmas tree when he already has one?"
Now it was Shannon's turn to be confused as she looked back up at Charlie.
"I thought you didn't have a tree, Charlie."
Charlie grinned sheepishly "I didn't."
"Did someone else bring you a tree before I did?"
Charlie began laughing, and Shannon could not help but notice that his eyes were laughing as well.
"Yes darlin, somebody got here before you did."
"Well? Who was it?"
"The note said Kris."
"Chris? Chrissy Morgan from the bank? I always knew she was after you."
Charlie was beginning to enjoy this game.
"No, not Chrissy Morgan."
"Well tell me who then?"
Charlie continued to be teasingly evasive and she kept grilling him with questions as they walked into the house, hand in hand, their eyes never leaving each other. The distant tingle of sleigh bells drifted on the cold night wind as Charlie closed the door.
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