“A Christmas Guinea Pig” (1995)
By Jim DeBrosse
“See, I told you so,” Luke said to his best buddy and official “blood brother,” Kenny Dinkins. Kenny and Luke were kneeling on the uneven hardwood floor just below one of the guinea pig cages at the Xenia Avenue Pet and Feed Store. The two young boys, third-graders at nearby St. Mary Grade School, were looking up into the toothy mouth of one guinea pig in particular.
“You’re right,” Kenny said. “He is smiling. What do you think he’s so happy about?”
“Because he knows I’m taking him home for Christmas,’ Luke said proudly, `just as soon as I pay Mr. Stickle the rest of the money I owe.’
Perhaps to underscore the point, the guinea pig started nibbling on the silver garland draping his cage.
Luke had put a down payment of $2.50 on the pig several weeks ago and Mr. Stickle, owner of the shop, had been kind enough to place the animal in Christmas layaway until Luke could raise the remainder of the $5.
Luke already had a name for his new pet – Bandit – because of the black patch over his left eye. The rest of him was a patchwork of brown and black and white, like the new carpeting in Aunt Gladys’ rec room.
For months, Luke had pestered his mother for a dog and then a cat, but she had told him no, especially not with a new baby in the house. “Your father’s working enough overtime as it is to make ends meet. We don’t need another mouth to feed.”
Luke pouted and pouted and, then one day, noticed the guinea pigs at Mr. Stickle’s store.
“What do they eat, Mr. Stickle?” All the kids in the neighborhood liked Mr. Stickle. He looked like Mr. Green Jeans on TV. He even wore a bright green apron most of the time. He always had a quiet smile on his face, too, like he’d just heard some joke he was keeping all to himself.
“Oh, I guess mostly grass, in the summer, and leaf lettuce and carrots. You can get a nice big bag of guinea pig feed for 25 cents. Last you about a month.”
When Luke asked if he could hold one of the guinea pigs, Bandit was the first to come running to the front of the cage. Luke held him against his shoulder and Bandit nuzzled his soft whiskered nose into the collar of Luke’s winter coat.
“It tickles,” Luke said, giggling.
“That’s their burrowing instinct,” Mr. Stickle said. “Makes ’em feel safe to hide.”
“He could hide in my bed at night.”
“Oh, I’m sure he could. The little devils poop a lot, though.”
“I could train him not to.”
Mr. Stickle smiled his secret smile again. “Well, maybe you could at that.”
To reassure Luke no one else would buy Bandit while the final cash transaction was pending, Mr. Stickle marked his hind leg with mercurichrome.
Luke visited Bandit nearly every day since. He showed off for Kenny by letting the guinea pig nibble lightly on his
“Won’t he bite?” Kenny asked.
“Nah. Not Bandit. It’s just his way of saying, Hi.”
Kenny was impressed. “How much more you owe on him?”
“Two dollars and fifty cents.”
“Two fifty? Where you gonna get that kind of money?”
Like Luke, Kenny had no allowance. Allowances were as rare as second family cars and two-bathroom houses in East Dayton in 1961. Luke had saved most of the first $2.50 by collecting pop bottles and cutting grass over the summer. And in the last two weeks, he had pocketed another dollar shoveling snow for neighbors. It had been one of the snowiest Decembers in Dayton anyone could recall.
“If it snows again, I’ll make another buck, easy,’ Luke said. `I’ll have Bandit home by Christmas.”
Luke had visions of playing with Bandit by the Christmas tree on Christmas morning. The guinea pig could hide in all the wrapping paper and opened boxes around the tree.
“Well, if I were you, I’d start prayin’ for more snow,” Kenny said.
“Is there like a patron saint of snowstorms?” Luke asked, quite seriously.
Kenny reflected on this a moment. “Got me. Why don’t you try St. Anthony?”
“‘Cause he’s the guy you pray to if you lose something. Maybe you’ll find somebody else’s money.”
Luke shot Kenny a pretend noogie to the arm. “Real funny.”
Before dinner that evening, Luke sat in the big wing chair by the Christmas tree, just staring at all the shimmering ornaments and colored lights and smelling the clean pine scent of the tree and the fainter smells of strung popcorn and cranberries, taking in the whole feeling of Christmas and wondering what made it such a special time.
He thought maybe he would understand if he stared long enough at one ornament in particular, a big red shiny ball with what looked like little jello molds dug in it on all four sides. The scoops in the molds were all different colors – gold and silver and blue and green – and in them Luke could see his face reflected so that inside this miraculous ball there were a dozen tiny Lukes all staring back at him, turning and smiling every time he turned or smiled.
Luke stared harder and harder, trying to penetrate the essence of the ornament, as if he could somehow discover there the whole meaning of Christmas. But it never came to him the way he thought it might, like maybe a voice talking to him from heaven, although in a moment he heard his name called out from the hallway.
“Luke. Come here and look.”
It was his father, standing by the front door, holding a cup of coffee. He looked tired, the way he always did now that he was working so much overtime on the night shift at Frigidaire.
Luke ran to the door. “What is it, Dad?”
Luke pulled back the curtain and peered into what seemed like a wall of white. “It’s a blizzard, Dad!”
“Well, not quite. But it’s a good snowfall. We’re supposed to get another 5 or 6 inches tonight.”
“Hot dog! And lots of shoveling jobs in the morning.”
“That’s right.” His father cupped the back of Luke’s head with his rough hand.
Luke was so thankful he didn’t even mind it when his younger sister, Claire, who was 6, followed him outside and hung around while he made a new snow fort. Of course, she had to make a snow crib for her stupid doll, right in the middle of his fort. This ruined the whole effect because he was trying to fortify the place for a standoff against the Chinese Commies who would soon come storming over the walls in wave after wave, just the way it happened in “The Bridges at Toko Ri,” when Mickey Rooney got killed in the trenches at the end of the movie – only Luke was determined it wouldn’t happen again, not while he was in command of the fort.
“Stop it!” his sister wailed. “You’re stepping on Tabitha.”
Luke was trying to build up the front wall high enough to crouch behind and not get a bullet through the heart. “I’m only trying to protect her,” Luke said. “You want the Commies to get her?”
“Just don’t step on my Tabitha. She’s a tiny little baby.”
“She’s a teeny, tiny little ba-a-a-by,” Luke mimicked.
“Be quiet, Mr. Smart Mouth.”
“Oh shut up.'”
“I’m telling Mom you said shut up.”
“Go ahead. I don’t care. And get your stupid baby out of my fort.”
He picked up the doll and flung it over the front wall. Let the Commies have her.
Claire shrieked so loudly that their mother came outside to the back porch. She was holding Bethie in her arms. “If you two kids can’t play quietly, you’re both going to bed without dinner.”
Claire was sobbing now. “Mommy, he-he-he – sob – threw my-my Tabitha – sob – in the snow-snow-snow.”
“Luke, get in here!” his mother shouted. Bethie was crying now, too. `I’ve warned you about bullying your sister.’
“Aw, Mom. I was just playin’.”
“This very minute, young man!”
Luke didn’t mind going to bed a little early that night because he was up bright and early the next morning and knocking on doors up and down Xenia Avenue.
Old Lady Hall next door gave him a quarter for shoveling her walk, and Mr. Neeley, who had even less sidewalk to shovel, gave him 50 cents before he left for work. He got another 50 cents from the doctor’s office down the street, but Luke had to throw out salt, too, and shovel all the way around to the back door. Nobody else wanted their walks done that morning, but then Mr. Simon’s car got stuck in the snow and he offered Luke a quarter to help dig him out.
Luke felt blessed as he worked feverishly in the cold and snow, his breath coming out in great big clouds and his head sweating underneath his knit cap. Surely, God had answered his prayers. By the time school was out that day, Bandit would be his.
Luke squirmed all through class that morning as the final installment on Bandit – in small coins – weighed heavily in his front pocket. Sister Carmella Joseph called on him twice to read aloud from the latest issue of Treasure Chest magazine, which was pretty neat because it was all about JFK, the nation’s first Catholic president, and how he saved all his Navy buddies on PT 109 during the war. But both times Luke had lost his place.
“Luke Peltier, what is the matter with you this morning, young man? Have you got ants in your pants?”
“Then pay attention. If you lose your place one more time, you’re sitting in the corner, do you understand?”
Luke didn’t want Sister Carmella mad at him because he really liked her. She wasn’t old and mean like some of the other nuns. She never pulled the little hairs at the back of your neck or smacked you for doing something wrong, not even that time when Kenny Dinkins threw a superball against the blackboard while she was out in the hallway talking to Sister Hildegarde and it ricocheted all over the place and broke the glass in the bookcase at the back of the room.
When Kenny confessed to the deed, all that happened to him was he had to promise to pay for the window. His dad, of course, spanked him so hard he could hardly sit the next day, but Sister Carmella never laid a hand on him. She was kind like that, and pretty, too, although Luke knew you weren’t supposed to think about nuns that way.
Still, Luke couldn’t help daydreaming that morning about Bandit and how nice it would be to have him around for Christmas. His mother had said he would have to keep him downstairs in a banana box for the winter, but his dad said he didn’t see any reason why he couldn’t let it run around the living room floor every once in a while.
Luke had made a little house out of a shoebox for Bandit to hide in and, of course, if he had to, he could use it for a bathroom, too. When Luke asked his parents at dinner if he could take the guinea pig to bed at night, his mother almost screamed, but his dad just rolled his eyes and said, “We’ll see.”
Toward the end of math class that day, Sister had everyone put their books away and sit quietly. Then she sat up on her desk and leaned forward, the way she always did when she had a special announcement.
“Class, I have some very good news. Our paper drive last week raised another $4.30 for our Pagan Baby Fund.”
She clapped her hands and everyone in the class cheered, and not only because they wanted to save a Pagan Baby. If the fund reached $25 before Christmas vacation, Sister had promised the class a special Christmas party.
“All right then, who can tell me our new total in the fund?” Sister pointed to the previous tally on the blackboard, $18.57, written just above the class manger scene.
Luke scratched on a sheet of paper and shot his hand in the air. “Twenty-two dollars and eighty-seven cents, Sister.”
“Very good, Luke. And that means we’re short of our $25 goal by how much?”
Luke wasn’t as good at subtraction. Mary Jo Duttenhoffer, the class brain, beat him to it. “Two dollars and thirteen cents, Sister.”
“That’s right, Mary Jo. Now, class, I want you to go home today and think about what I told you about the Pagan Babies. Remember, for $25, we can feed the baby for a year, and even more important than that, we can have the baby baptized in the Catholic faith and save its immortal soul.”
Luke put his hand in his pocket and felt the $2.50 in sweaty change there. He was careful not to jingle it, lest anyone become aware of his greedy hoard. Now what was he to do? It gave him an awful sinking feeling in his stomach to know that his money could either buy Bandit or save a little baby for all eternity from Limbo, which wasn’t as bad as hell, since there weren’t any everlasting fires or devils sticking you with pitchforks, but it still wasn’t heaven and being next to Jesus, which is where everyone wanted to be.
Kenny Dinkins raised his hand. “We get to name the baby whatever we want, right Sister?”
“That’s right, Kenny.”
“Can we call it ‘Howdy Doody,’ Sister?”
The class laughed, but Sister scowled. Saving Pagan Babies was serious stuff.
“Sit down, Kenny, and no more outbursts like that, or I’ll talk to your father.”
Kenny sat down right away.
“Now where was I? Oh, yes, I wanted to tell you something more about the orphanage where our money will be sent. Remember, I told you it was in China, and in China, they often abandon their baby girls and leave them to starve by the roadside.”
Luke had a frightening vision of crying babies lined up one after another along a dirt road, each wrapped in a tiny kimono.
Mary Jo waved her hand in the air. “Why just the girls, Sister?”
“It has to do with an ancient Chinese custom called arranged marriages, Mary Jo. If a baby girl is born and there’s no one who will promise someday to marry her, she’s considered a burden to the family. She’s just one more mouth to feed. And in a country where so many people don’t have enough to eat, it’s the baby girls who suffer the most.”
“I wouldn’t let them do that to my baby sister,” Mary Jo said.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t, Mary Jo. And that’s why we all have to dig deep into our pockets and think about helping others this Christmas. Remember what Jesus said in the Bible, ‘Whosoever giveth to the least of my brethren, also giveth to me.”
Luke thought about his baby sister, Bethie, and what would happen if she were left by the side of the road. She cried so much most of the time that surely no one would want to pick her up. He tried to imagine what it would be like to starve to death, but it made him so hungry for the Twinkie in his lunch bag he had to stop.
“Tomorrow is our last day to raise money, children. Otherwise, our donation won’t arrive in time for Christmas. So go home tonight and check your piggy banks, and think about how you can give someone the greatest Christmas gift of all.”
Theresa Heinemann, the biggest goody-two-shoes in the class, raised her hand and stood up. “Sister, I have a dime I can give now.”
“Oh, Theresa, that’s so generous. I hope it’s not your milk money, dear.”
Theresa pressed her shiny dime into Sister’s palm. “Oh, no, Sister. I was going to use it to buy some candy after school.”
“Very good, Theresa. You’ve made an example the others should think about. Sacrificing for others is what Jesus tried to teach us. Remember, he made the greatest sacrifice of all by giving his life so that you and I could gain eternal life.”
Sister seemed to be looking straight at Luke when she said that, deep into his troubled soul, as if she knew his pocket was fat with $2.50 in change.
During recess, while the other boys flew around the schoolyard playing Red Baron and strafing each other, Luke kept mostly to himself. He worried that if he ran around, Sister would hear the money jangling in his pocket. Heck, he could have saved that Pagan Baby in one fell swoop, been a bigger hero than Theresa Heinemann and probably gained enough indulgences in heaven to take care of his cussing for the next two years. All he had to do was empty out his pockets for Sister. Still, as hard as he tried, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He kept seeing Bandit’s toothy smile.
Kenny found him standing by the schoolhouse door.
“You goin’ to see Mr. Stickle after school?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Didn’t you shovel snow?”
“Yeah, but …”
Luke looked at his feet. “I guess I ought to give something to save that Pagan Baby.”
“Oh, ma-a-a-a-n. Are you kiddin’? You sound like Goody-Two-Shoes Heinemann.
“I can always save up some more money.”
“But it might be weeks before we get snow again.”
“You know what my Dad says about guinea pigs?” Kenny said. His blue eyes got wide with fear and secret wonder. “Listen, I wasn’t gonna tell you this, but now I guess I gotta. My dad says they use guinea pigs in all kinds of science ‘speriments. They cut their bellies open and take out all their guts – sometimes when they’re still alive!”
Luke paled, but Kenny had teased him before about such things. “Naaaa. You’re makin’ that up.”
“I’m not kiddin’, man. They do it right over at Wright-Patterson.”
“But Mr. Stickle wouldn’t let that happen to Bandit.”
“How do you know? If nobody buys Bandit, Stickle’s got to do somethin’ with him, right?”
That afternoon in school, Luke wrestled with the mighty moral question: Should he save Bandit or the Pagan Baby? He was old enough to know that people were more important than animals, but on the other hand, he’d never met a real live Pagan Baby, and Bandit was practically a friend now. He couldn’t just let Bandit go off and get cut up in some experiment. He could almost hear him, his frantic freeping as they cut open his belly and …
Oooh, it was too awful for Luke even to imagine.
When Father Lang came in to teach religion class, Luke waited for the question-and-answer period and timidly put up his hand.
“Yes, Luke.” Father Lang smiled and folded his hands. He was a short, soft-spoken man with a gray beard and a bald head. Kenny Dinkins said it looked like his head was put on upside down.
“Father, I want to know if you had, like, this pet and if, you know, you really, really liked this pet and it liked you. Well…”
“Go on, Luke. It sounds like a good question.”
“Well, I mean, if the pet died and all, would it, like, go up to heaven?”
The class sniggered. Father Lang put his hand up for quiet. “That’s a perfectly good question, Luke, and one that I’ve been asked many times before. Let me tell you first of all, there’s no easy answer. We know that all people – each and every one of us – has an immortal soul and that we have free will to do both good and bad. But we know less about animals. The Bible says very little on the subject, but I would like to think that, if you really loved this pet, Luke, and if you were very good, God would find a way for you to meet in heaven someday.'”
“Even if it’s a guinea pig, Father?”
The class burst out laughing. This time Father Lang laughed, too, before putting up his hand.
“Yes, even a guinea pig, Luke.”
Luke raised his hand again. He had an even more important question to ask, but Father Lang folded his hands and said, “All right, class. We have just enough time to review chapter 8 in our Baltimore catechism today. Who would like to answer the first question on page 126?”
Luke sat down, but he didn’t feel much better. What if he weren’t good enough, and he didn’t make it to heaven? Did that mean Bandit wouldn’t make it to heaven, either?
Surely, if he bought Bandit and didn’t help save the Pagan Baby, that was being bad, and maybe then God wouldn’t let Bandit be with him in heaven when he died anyway.
But if somebody else bought Bandit, and loved him more than Luke did, then maybe that other boy or girl would get to be with Bandit in heaven and not Luke.
There were just too many questions, Luke thought, and never enough time in religion class.
After hours of theological struggle, Luke decided he would have to ask Mr. Stickle for an extension on his layaway plan. But how much longer? A week? Two weeks? A month? He doubted Mr. Stickle could wait that long. Besides, Bandit was growing bigger every day. He might grow too big for his cage, and then Mr. Stickle would have to send him off to some laboratory to be cut up because nobody else would want a full-grown, humongous guinea pig when there were so many cute little ones to choose from.
After school, Luke raced down Xenia Avenue to the pet store, but when he got there, he saw that Mr. Stickle had his “Closed” sign in the window. He’d forgotten that Mr. Stickle always closed early on Wednesdays.
Luke kicked the front doorstep.
On the way home, Luke scoured every alley in the neighborhood for pop bottles, but there wasn’t one anywhere, not even behind the Jacksons’ house, where the kids ran around chugging 16-ounce Pepsis all the time. He thought about asking his mother for money, but he knew what she would say: “If you can’t afford your own pet, then you’re not old enough to have one. A pet is a big responsibility, young man.”
He might be able to borrow the money from his dad on the sly, only his father was working a double shift that night and wouldn’t be home until Luke was in school the next morning.
Luke looked up into the sky and saw that it was a cold, clear blue without a hint of a cloud.
“Please, dear God,” he said. “Please.”
He sat by the Christmas tree and prayed for snow that night. He was even nice to his sister Claire, letting her play with his box of marbles and army soldiers for a while, thinking that if he were really good, God would make it snow.
But when he woke the next morning, he peeked out his bedroom window and saw a clear, starry sky. God hadn’t heard his prayers at all. God didn’t care, not about some old guinea pig, anyway.
Luke was nasty to his sister again that morning, yelling at her as she came down the stairs for leaving one of his army soldiers out of the box and on the living room floor.
“You could have lost it, you big stupid bonehead. You’re never playing with my stuff again.”
“Good, because I don’t care about your nasty little soldiers. So there!”
He squeezed her forearm until she screamed out, “Mom! Mom! Luke’s hurting me!”
Their mother called out from the kitchen. “Would you two stop it! You’re going to drive me nuts with your fighting!”
But then Bethie started crying from her crib up in their parents’ bedroom, and their mother raced past them and up the stairs. “You two go eat your breakfast. You’re going to be late for school.”
Claire pulled her arm away and stuck out her tongue.
Luke called her a stupid bonehead again.
Claire went out to the kitchen, but Luke wasn’t hungry. He went to the big wing chair and sat by the Christmas tree again. It was too bad money didn’t grow on trees, like his father always said, or maybe he could just reach out and pull off a quarter here, a dime there and give it to Sister Carmella for the Pagan Baby Fund and still be able to buy Bandit on the way home from school.
But then his eyes drifted to the other side of the living room, to the big porcelain slipper above the piano. The slipper, he knew, was always full of pennies and nickels and even dimes their mother had found around the house or their father had dumped when he emptied the loose change from his pockets. The money grew and grew in the slipper until there was enough to buy a Christmas tree each year, sometimes as much as 10 bucks.
Luke wondered how much money was in there now. He was curious, that’s all. He wasn’t planning to take the money.
Oh, no, not that at all.
He slipped off the chair and went across the room to the piano. He listened first. His mother was still upstairs, trying to calm Bethie. He could hear stupid Claire in the kitchen, too, clanking her spoon around her cereal bowl as she ate, the way she did every morning at breakfast.
He stepped up onto the piano bench and, careful to keep his balance, picked up the slipper. It wasn’t heavy at all, maybe even empty, but when he turned it over into his hand a bunch of coins slipped out, including a big nickel that fell smack on the wooden floor. He quickly put the slipper back, but by this time Claire was in the room staring at him.
“What are you doing?” she demanded in the same tone her mother used. She was clutching Tabitha in her arms.
“None of your beeswax.”
“What’s in your hand?”
He stuffed the change into his right pocket.
Claire’s mouth dropped with the sheer horror of it all. “I’m telling,” she said, and quickly turned and headed for the stairs. Luke gave chase and tackled her in the hallway. He was on her back when he clamped his hand over her mouth.
“Shut up,” he whispered in her ear. “Just shut up. I’m going to return it. I promise. I’m going to return it.”
“You stole it!” she shouted through his hand.
“No, I didn’t. I’m borrowing it, I tell you – until it snows. That’s all. And you better not tell Mom or I’ll … I’ll …” He grabbed Tabitha from her outstretched arms. “I’ll throw Tabitha down a sewer and tell Mom you lost it.”
Claire got away from him and tried to grab back her doll. He dangled it above her head, then started for the kitchen door.
“No, no, no!” she cried. “Not my Tabitha!”
He came back to her and squeezed her arm. He was still holding the doll above her head. “You better not say a word to Mom. You hear me? Not a word.”
“I won’t. I won’t. Just give me Tabitha.”
The jar for the Pagan Baby Fund, wrapped in red-and-green Christmas paper, went around the classroom from child to child as Sister Carmella looked on and beamed.
Each of the 20 children dropped a coin or two into the slot and passed the jar to the person behind. Kuplink! went the pennies. Or if someone were more generous, Kuplink! Kuplink! Kuplink! The nickels made a more reverberant sound, Kuplunk! And the dimes dropped as soft as a whispered promise, Tink!
The whole class seemed to be holding its collective breath, hoping that the final amount would save the Pagan Baby and earn Sister’s reward of a special Christmas party.
Luke’s turn came near the end. He had no idea how much change was in his right pocket. He just knew he wanted to get rid of his guilty cash as quickly as possible, and so he pulled out a hand full of change and, not even counting it, started slipping in coin after coin: Kuplink, Kuplink, Kuplunk, Kuplink, Tink, Kuplink, Kuplink, Tink, Kuplunk … on and on until he had dropped in all the money taken from the slipper.
The whole class cheered.
Sister Carmella was so overwhelmed she dabbed a tear from her eye with her snow-white hankie. “My, my, Luke. Aren’t you demonstrating the spirit of the Christmas season. May God bless you this Christmas a hundred-fold.”
Luke flushed and felt ashamed. He could see Claire’s contorted face as he dangled her precious doll above her head.
When the jar reached Sister’s desk, she unscrewed the lid and started counting the change, stacking the pennies and nickels and dimes in neat little piles of fives and ens.
“Children, I think we did it!” she announced as she came to the end of the change. “We have two dollars and 3 cents – enough now to save our Pagan Baby.”
The whole class cheered again and then Kenny Dinkins flung his hand in the air.
“Yes, Kenny,” Sister said. She was so happy she was smiling instead of grimacing, the way she usually did when she called on Kenny.
“Sister, I think that since Luke gave so much money for the Pagan Baby, he ought to have first dibs on naming it.”
The rest of the class assented with a cheer.
Sister beamed at Luke and said, “I most definitely agree. Luke, what would you like to name the baby?”
Luke felt so hot with guilt and shame he could feel the sweat breaking out from his scalp. He stood beside his desk and ran his hand over his damp forehead and said, “I don’t know, Sister. I haven’t really thought on it.”
“Think of someone precious in your life,” she said.
And with hardly thinking, Luke blurted out, “Claire.”
“Claire? Oh, my, that’s a very pretty name, and after a worthy saint as well. That’s your little sister’s name, am I right?”
“That’s very sweet. I’m sure your parents would be very proud to know that you made such a loving tribute to your sister. And now, class, what do you think? Shall we name our little baby Claire?”
The whole class cheered once more and the matter was settled. Luke sank down in his desk as low as he could go and didn’t look at anyone.
After school, he went straight across the schoolyard and through the side door of St. Mary’s Church. He knelt at the marble communion rail in front of the church’s huge nativity scene. It was an awe-inspiring sight, a fake mountainside with real pine trees on it that covered one whole side altar of the church, all the way up to the vaulted ceiling. The shepherds and kings and angels seemed to come from heaven as they worked their way down the mountain to the brightly lighted cave where a life-sized baby Jesus lay in a wooden crib stuffed with straw. Mary and Joseph knelt over the baby with their hands folded, praying, while a full-sized donkey and cow looked on, their big painted plaster eyes looking kind of sad.
Luke focused all his attention on the baby Jesus. He seemed to be smiling, which was funny, Luke thought, because his baby sister Bethie never, ever smiled. But of course, this was not just any baby, but Baby Jesus, savior of the whole world. His plump arms were spread out, eager to embrace anyone who came near. Even a sinner like Luke.
“Please, dear Jesus,” Luke whispered under his breath. “Make it snow tonight. I promise I’ll return the money I took. I promise. It’s not like I really stole the money. Honest. I just wanted to save Bandit and save the Pagan Baby, too.”
But deep down where it really counted, Luke knew he was lying. More than anything, he had wanted the guinea pig – in time for Christmas. The real issue, he knew, was whether he had committed a venial sin, in which case if he died right then and there he would spend a very long time in Limbo waiting to get into heaven, or whether he had committed an actual, full-blown mortal sin, which would send him straight to the agonies of hell for all eternity, and that was so long it made his mind reel just to think about it.
He closed his eyes and tried to envision his own soul. Was it flecked with tiny venial sins, like cavities, or was it completely and horribly black with mortal sin?
“But if you make it snow, it won’t matter,” Luke pleaded. “I’ll return the money tonight. You’ll see.”
Luke stared at the baby’s face and he seemed to be smiling back, straight into Luke’s eyes. Surely, that was a sign that everything was all right, that Luke was forgiven.
“Oh, thank you, dear Jesus,” he said. But no sooner had he said the words, a baby’s piercing cry echoed through the church. Luke’s heart nearly leaped from his chest. What had he done?
It took him a panicked moment before he realized the crying was coming from the back of the church. He stood and
turned and saw no one, but still, the baby cried.
The hair tingled on the back of his neck. Was it a ghost baby? Or some kind of devil baby that had come to haunt him for stealing and lying and being a big fat phony?
He worked up his courage and started up the side aisle to the back of the church, where the crying seemed to be
coming from. It grew louder and louder as he raced by the pews, almost running now, but never seeing a baby. Then, beside the baptismal font, he spotted a white straw basket, and inside it, a living, breathing, crying baby, its mouth wide open like a baby bird’s.
“Abandoned,” Luke thought, with a sense of both pity and awe. Like Moses in the bulrushes. Real Biblical stuff. Only this baby must be a girl, because it was dressed all in pink.
Surely it was a sign. Jesus had sent the baby to teach him a lesson, to show him what happened to the poor little Pagan Baby girls abandoned by the roadside in China.
Luke scooped up the baby from the basket and nestled it carefully against his shoulder, the way his mother had shown him how to hold Bethie, and miraculously, it stopped crying. Luke saw this as yet another sign. He was the baby’s protector, its guardian angel.
He hurried with the baby to the front of the church and, stopping briefly to genuflect before the sacred contents of the tabernacle, raced into the sacristy. He found Father Lang there praying at his kneeler.
“Father, look! An abandoned baby! I just found it.”
Father Lang quickly crossed himself and went to the boy. His usually calm face looked pale, agitated.
“Abandoned?” he asked. “Where?”
“In the back of the church. Just sitting in a basket.” Luke needed a breath. “I heard it crying and-“
“OK, OK. It’s all right now.” Father Lang gently took the baby from Luke and held it in the crook of his arm. He looked into the baby’s squinchy little face and broke into a smile.
“I know this baby,” Father said, rocking her a little now.
“Yes, I just baptized her last week. Her name is Grace. She’s the organist’s new little baby.”
“Mrs. Geiger. The lady who plays the organ.”
“Oh,” said Luke.
“We’d better hurry,” Father Lang said, and he started with the baby for the sacristy door. A second later, a woman’s scream reverberated around the church like a banshee.
“My ba-a-a-a-a-a-a-by! Someone took my ba-a-a-a-by!”
Mrs. Geiger got her baby back and Luke, for his part in this mini-drama, got a pat on the back from Father Lang. And although Mrs. Geiger was still having trouble catching her breath as she bustled away with Grace, Father Lang wasn’t mad at Luke at all.
“You did the righteous thing, young man,” he said. “It’s our duty as Catholics to protect the smallest ones among us, and you fulfilled that duty perhaps a bit more zealously than most, but you shouldn’t be faulted for that.”
Father Lang used a lot of big words that Luke didn’t understand, but Luke got the message and left the church feeling proud of himself for what he’d done.
He was determined now, as Father Lang said, to do the “righteous” thing.
“Are you sure?” Mr. Stickle said. The store owner’s hand was poised above his open cash register. “I can always give you another week for the final payment.”
“No,” Luke said, feeling himself swell with his new resolve. “I need the money for some other things right now.”
Mr. Stickle handed Luke two dollar bills and two quarters, his downpayment on Bandit.
“And you promise you won’t send Bandit to a laboratory?”
“I told you, we don’t sell any of our pets for lab use. Somebody’s going to buy Bandit and take good care of him. Don’t you worry now, OK?”
Luke went to Bandit’s cage and the guinea pig ran over to greet him as he always did. Luke let him nibble a little on his finger, for old times’ sake.
“You be good now,” Luke said. “Don’t you bite anybody. You’ll make somebody a fine Christmas guinea pig. And maybe, if we’re both good, we’ll see each other again someday. OK?”
Bandit lifted his head to sniff around and Luke saw his toothy smile one last time.
Luke went across the street to Rusty’s drugstore, where he bought his sister Claire a dime bag of red hot moneys, her favorite candy. Then he went two blocks down the street to the gift shop and bought his mother the very best pair of oven mitts he could find and had Mrs. Ogilvie wrap them up for Christmas.
Luke felt better already, as though an immense weight had been lifted and he were walking in the clouds. But there was one more important thing he had to do to redeem himself and it wouldn’t be easy.
When he got home, his mother and Claire were in the kitchen baking cookies, the date swirl kind his mother made specially for Christmas. Claire took one look at Luke and clutched Tabitha in her arms.
“I brought you some candy,” Luke said, placing the bag on the table in front of her. Claire stared at the bag as though it might contain a potent poison.
Luke took a deep breath, gathering all his courage. “Mom,” he said, “I took some money from the Christmas Tree fund this morning. I know I shouldn’t have, but Im returning the money now.”
He braced himself, eyes to the floor, waiting for his mother to scream at him or even spank him.
But all she did was tell him in a stern, quiet voice: “Go ahead then. And don’t do it again.”
Luke put a whole dollar in the slipper, more than he’d probably taken, just to be on the safe side, and then sat in the big wing chair beside the Christmas Tree and drew in its Christmas-y smell. When he closed his eyes, he was filled with a joy he had never known before, a joy so deep and calm it had to come from Jesus, and in that feeling, he knew he had discovered the true meaning of Christmas.
When Claire woke Luke on Christmas morning, his room was dark and quiet and everything in it pale and fuzzy, like in a dream. Claire’s face floated above his covers.
“Come on, lazy bones. Get up,” she said. “It’s Christmas. We’ve got presents to open.”
“Sleepin’. Come on! Let’s go.” She tugged on his arm. Claire didn’t like going downstairs in the dark alone.
“What about Dad?”
“He’s not home yet.”
Luke rolled over. “Too early. Go back to bed.”
Claire shook him by the shoulder. “Is not. Come on, Luke. Santas been here.”
Luke groaned softly. “How many times do I gotta tell you, there is no Santa Claus.”
“I don’t care what you say. Mommy says theres a Santa and I want to see hat he brung me.”
“OK, OK. Geezul Pete.”
Downstairs the Christmas tree was the only thing that was lit, throwing a kaleidoscope of colors around the room. Luke wanted to stand there and look for a minute, a quiet and holy sight, but Claire snapped on the light and everything burst into dazzling yellow.
Luke blinked and saw the presents under the tree. Claire was there in a flash, digging, identifying, sorting. Each time she found a present for Luke, she slid it back to him and returned to her digging.
Luke felt wiser, older as he watched Claire tear open her gifts. He was far less excitable these days, although he was already looking forward now to Easter, when he would probably have the money saved to buy a guinea pig. Maybe even one as nice as Bandit.
Claire got some hand-made dresses for Tabitha from her mother, some Sleeping Beauty coloring books and crayons from her godparents and a bunch of new underwear and socks ugh! from Dad. She shrieked with delight, though, when she found the hula hoop standing in the corner behind the tree, a big red ribbon tied to it and a little card that said, “To Claire, from Santa.”
Luke got a hula hoop, too, and a wiffle ball and a wiffle bat from his mother. His godparents gave him something really neat a metal fire truck with a real ladder you could crank. From his dad, he got a brand-new dictionary, with lots of pictures, for doing his homework.
All in all, it wasn’t a bad Christmas.
Luke played with his fire truck, making little siren noises and putting out the imaginary fire that had started in the pile of wrapping paper in the middle of the room, while his sister tried to hula for the zillionth time, only to have the hoop clatter on the floor around her feet.
“Look!” Claire said, pointing above the fireplace. “Santa left us a message.”
Someone had taped a note to the mantel. Luke could see from where he was sitting on the floor that it had his name on it in big lettters.
“See, I told you there was a Santa,” Claire said as Luke pulled it down.
He flipped open the folded paper. “It’s not from Santa,” he said. “It’s from Dad.”
“What’s it say, huh?”
“None of your beeswax.”
“Puh-leeeeeeze.” Claire clutched his forearm.
“All right, all right. Let go and I’ll read it.” He brought the paper closer to his face to read his father’s tightly-written scrawl. “It says, Luke. Make sure you water the Christmas tree this morning. The watering can is in the basement, by the stairs. Remember, you’re the Man of the House now when Im not there. Merry Christmas. Dad.”
Luke felt very proud of himself as he folded the message again.
“Phooey,” Claire said. “Then I want to be the Woman of the House.”
“Youre too little,” Luke said.
Luke decided not to argue. He had too many responsibilities to take care of now.
He headed out to the kitchen, opened the basement door and snapped on the light in the stairway. He was halfway down the long set of loose wooden steps when he saw the banana box at the bottom of the stairs.
A few more steps and he could hardly believe his eyes.
“Bandit! Is that you?”
The guinea pig returned his greeting by skittering around the box in circles and freeping frantically. There was a little red ribbon tied around his head and a big red shiny bow between his floppy ears.
“Bandit, it really is you!”
Luke scooped him up and raced up the stairs, where his sister was waiting by the basement door.
“What’s that THING?”
“It’s a guinea pig. Haven’t you ever seen a guinea pig?”
“Can I hold it? Can I? Can I?”
Luke almost said no, but remembered what Christmas was all about.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go in the living room and Ill let you hold him there.”
“Oh, boy! We gotta grinny pig.”
“No, a guinea pig.”
Their mother was in the living room when they returned, standing in her house robe and slippers over the hot air register, trying to get warm.
“Merry Christmas, kids!” she said.
They shouted Merry Christmas and Claire hugged her mothers knees.
Luke held up his guinea pig. “Oh, Mom, thanks! I can’t believe you got Bandit for me!”
“Don’t thank me. Thank your father. And Mr. Stickle. The two of them ganged up on me.”
Claire reached for Bandit and Luke handed him over, careful to show his sister the proper way to hold a guinea pig.
“Oh, Mom, this is the best Christmas ever,” Luke said. “I’ll never, never forget it.”
“Nor will I,” his mother said.
Copyright, 1995, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.