If you’d like to read more on the story behind my Christmas stories, please click here. Merry Christmas and God bless!
The last thing I wanted to do after work was stand in a long line at the store to buy a gingerbread-house kit hours before the contest, but Tommy was worth it. I shifted the box in my arm, tugged at my scarf, and tried to hold my breath when I neared the case of cinnamon-scented pine cones.
“Rebecca? Rebecca Trenton is that you?”
I hadn’t heard anyone call me that name in years. I thought about ignoring it but decided eventually my home town would know I’d come back to live in my deceased parents’ house, so I gave in and turned to face my past.
“I thought that was you!” she squealed. “It’s me, Mallory Westfield. Spryer now.” She held up her ring. “We went to school together. Remember?”
I remembered. I remembered how she ruthlessly picked on me all through high school.
“You look so…different,” she said eyeing me up and down.
Of course I didn’t have a bit of makeup on and was wearing one of Greg’s old ball caps. Wonderful. I should have just written “total wreck” on my forehead to clear things up. Mallory, on the other hand, hadn’t changed a bit: tan in the middle of winter, dark red lips, and enough flashy jewelry to blind you when she stood in the sun.
“I heard you got a…”she leaned in to whisper, “divorce. Is that true?”
“Next, please,” the cashier said.
I shrugged at Mallory and placed my box on the conveyor belt. I quickly paid, smiled when Mallory mentioned getting together, and bolted to my car feeling both exhaustion and relief.
Tommy was waiting at the door when I got home. “Did you get it?”
I handed him the bag and smiled. He was such a good kid, always positive. No easy task considering the divorce and how he had to leave all of his friends behind.
I paid the sitter, took off my coat, and stuck a frozen pizza in the oven. Guilt washed over me. Tommy deserved better than eating cheap pizza with his mom, sticking candy to gingerbread, and hurrying off to some small-town contest. I knew Greg would have planned more. He would have taken his son sled riding or to see some extravagant Christmas lights. Something grand. Something more memorable.
“Can I start now?” he asked, his hazel eyes pleading. The freckles on his cheeks made him look younger than his ten years while the braces on his teeth made him look like a teen.
“You better,” I said, noticing the time. “But you’ll need to eat dinner when it’s ready.”
He tore open the box and dug out the bags of assorted candies and gumdrops. And when I returned from tossing a load of laundry in the washer, kicking it and begging it to run just one more time, he’d already covered a cookie sheet with tinfoil and was reading the directions.
I opened a bag of chips and cut the pizza when it was ready. We ate off of paper plates and drank warm root beer from the cans.
“Did you read all of the directions?” I asked in between bites.
He shrugged and swallowed. “Did you ever enter the contest when you were little?”
“Once,” I said, stopping there. My pitiful gingerbread house with the tiny candy cane fence must have looked like a run-down garden shed next to the mansions some of the other kids built. One girl even had a gingerbread town and airport using her brother’s toy plane. Of course she won. After that, I never wanted to do it again. But I couldn’t tell Tommy that. He’d been so excited to build one, especially when he realized the grand prize was three-hundred dollars. I shook my head. I should have bought another kit and made one myself.
The washer was off balance and rumbled. I hurried to the basement, lifted the washer lid, and repositioned the load. “Okay,” I said. “Now one more time.”
Tommy had already wolfed down his dinner and was kneading the bag of frosting when I returned.
“Do you want some help?”
“No. You told me I could do this by myself.”
I held up my hands. “Sorry. I was just checking.”
I finished my slice of pizza, stuck the rest in the refrigerator, and went upstairs to take a hot shower to wash off the grease from working as a fry cook all day.
Tommy was shouting for me to hurry when I finished blow drying my hair. I spritzed a little perfume on, hoping I wouldn’t have another Mallory episode, and rushed downstairs and into the kitchen.
My heart sank and I tried to hide the look of horror on my face. His gingerbread house was anything but a house. It was a total wreck. The walls were leaning inward, one caved in all the way as if hit by an earthquake. The frosting looked as if it had exploded on the tilted roof and gumdrops were stuck together in a pile as if he didn’t have time to use them. The colored candies were scattered like confetti in the wind all over the structure. More guilt came as I realized the ridicule that was to come. I should have skipped showering and helped him build the thing.
“Come on, Mom. I don’t want to be late,” he said zipping up his coat.
“Do you…” I cleared my throat. “Do you have a name for it?” The rule had always been that you had to name your gingerbread creation. Some fancy lodge or ski resort name usually ended up winning. Winter Crystal Chalet or something like that.
“I got it, Mom. Can we please just go?”
I took a deep breath and silently prayed that the contest would be cancelled.
The community hall was packed and I felt the stares, heard the whispers, and even caught a few laughing as we walked by. My face burned. Not out of embarrassment but out of something else entirely. I wanted to protect Tommy. But once he registered his gingerbread house, it was too late.
He settled his dilapidated house beside a three story gingerbread restaurant, complete with sugar-glass windows. And to make matters worse, the owner of the restaurant was Mallory’s daughter.
“My, is that…unusual,” Mallory said, holding her hand over her mouth as she stared at Tommy’s creation. Her daughter stood quietly at her side, not cracking a smile but looking to the floor.
I ignored Mallory and sat on a plastic chair beside other parents as we watched the judging begin. We were informed that each contestant needed to state his name, age, title of creation, and inspiration. I wondered if Tommy were regretting his decision to be a part of this.
Mallory’s daughter began. “I’m Sylvia Spryer. I’m nine and my title is, ‘The Shimmering Chalet.’”
“And your inspiration?” the judge asked.
Sylvia shrugged. “My mom.”
The judges took their time inspecting it and then moved on to Tommy. I held my breath as he took the microphone from the judge. A few parents around me snickered.
“My name is Tommy Sullivan. I’m ten years old. My title is, ‘The Master Carpenter’s Project” and my inspiration is Jesus.”
The judge asked, “Can you elaborate on that?”
“Sure.” Tommy held the microphone boldly, like this was second nature to him. His voice didn’t quiver but held solid as he said, “Our lives are like projects or houses in Jesus’ hands. He is the Master Carpenter and He fixes what is broken and rebuilds us. No matter what damage has been done and how bad things look,” he said looking at me, “Jesus can fix us.”
The whispering and the giggling stopped. No one said a word. The microphone squealed when Tommy handed it back to the judge. I did my best to stifle my tears but obviously failed when another mom seated beside me handed me a tissue, keeping one to dab her own tears.
As we walked to the car after the contest, Tommy said, “I’m sorry I didn’t win the money. I really wanted to buy you a new washing machine.”
“Oh, Tommy,” I said, the snow falling gently around us. “You gave me so much more than a washing machine.”
“What? A free large pizza for coming in second?” he said grinning.
I smiled back. “You made me realize everything is going to be okay. We’re just under renovation. And we’ve got the Master Carpenter on the job.”