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ALEX'S SECOND CHRISTMAS - Bonus Blog
12/28/2009 10:56:47 AM
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ALEX’S SECOND CHRISTMAS
by Alexandra E. Faucette (Mills)
as told to her father many years later
I don’t know exactly when it was that my dad first began collecting fortune cookie fortunes—those tiny shards of paper inside stale wafers served in Chinese restaurants after meals whose own future (and past) were usually suspect. But I think it was when I was about eighteen months old
I asked Henry if he knew what the fortune cookie papers said.
“I dunno. It’s like a, you know, horoscope—it predicts the future,” said Henry, who knew everything.
Henry Wadsworth Longears, you’ll recall, was my lifelong friend, my mentor, crib mate, and the most important stuffed animal in my infant-development. We had been together since my very first day—a day without Henry would be like a day without my ‘ba’ (bottle).
“Listen, kiddo,” he said one night, “some grown-ups get really hung up on tryin’ to figure out what’s gonna happen next, an’ there’re times I think your ol’ man is tied to the rock life throws through plate glass windows just to hear the noise it makes. That’s why he started saving those dumb fortune cookie slips: ‘Your courage will prevail in reaching your fondest dreams.’ Come on!”
I shot Henry one of my disapproving glances. We both knew my father was a dreamer of impossible dreams, but saying it aloud was pointless, even though we were speaking, as always, in STUFFINESE, the language babies and stuffed animals and dolls are born with—a language no one else can hear or understand. The other stuffed animals in my crib were listening intently.
In defense, I said, “He also buys lottery tickets every week.”
Henry snorted. “So do twenty-five billion other losers.”
Ernest Angel, my guardian angel bear, said, “Gambling is a sin. Your father who art not probably going to heaven anyway—”
“In my day—“ Eleanor Roosevelt started.
“In your day,” Henry cut in, “Chinese fortune cookies were made to poison Yankee sailors tryin’ to keep peace on the Yangtze River.”
“I never!” Eleanor Roosevelt protested.
“That’s your basic problem,” Paddy Brewster, my Paddington Bear, agreed.
Henry grew pensive, an ear flopped across one eye; his other eye was fixed on me in a somewhat glazed stare. I asked, “What’s the matter?”
He regarded me through the mist of a sigh. “Can we talk?”
“Don’t we always?”
“No.” He shook his head and his ears entwined, exposing both eyes. “No, I don’t mean the usual bedtime, bottle-time chit-chat . . . which reminds me, when you gonna get off that ‘ba’ stuff?”
“I don’t know,” I said, softly. “I know it’s driving Momma and Nana crazy. They think I’m going to grow up with buckteeth like yours, or no teeth, or teenage acne. I just feel so good when I get my own way and they stick it in my mouth!”
“Well, you better get off it soon,” Henry advised. “Off the bottle an’ on the potty, that’s my motto. Shoot, you’re almost two!”
“Not ‘til February,” I reminded him.
“Yeah. Well . . . ” he hesitated . . . “that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
I was alarmed. “You’re not going to plan another birthday party for me and try and keep Chloe the dog out, are you?”
“No, no, nuthin’ like that!” He took a deep breath, and I knew there was something serious on his mind.
“Kiddo,” he said, “I gotta be honest with you. Maybe it’s the holidays, maybe it’s because you’re almost two—and then you’ll be three, then four, five, an’ so on—“
“I hope so!”
He spread his paws in a gesture of resignation. “Yeah, well, there it is. I mean, I get this feelin’ that time is, well, runnin’ out.”
“Henry . . . !”
“Nope, lemme say my piece.” He stuck a leg through the crib slats and wrapped an ear around the top bar. “I notice things,” he said.
“Like, uh, changes around here. Like you gettin’ older an’ more, uh, grown-up.”
I was mystified. “Me? Grown-up? I’m not even two yet!”
Henry snapped his ear away from the top bar and flopped on his back. “Well, kiddo, face it. I’ve taught you a lot since they threw us together up here. I mean, you’ve caught on pretty fast, an’ sometimes I get the feelin’ I’m dealin’ here with a five or six year old. You’re movin’ up the smarts-ladder about nine rungs at a time, an’ frankly, I’m just waitin’ for the day I’m gonna be tossed into the closet with Paddy Brewster to wind up our years drinkin’ cheap wine an’ swappin’ lies about all our yesteryears.”
Paddy looked up at the mention of his name, and said, “Is there any other kinda wine but cheap?”
The whole idea was so preposterous I didn’t know what to say. And that might have been a mistake because my silence led Henry to think I agreed with him.
“So,” he continued, “in view of all that, an’ before the day comes when we finally split, there’s sumpthin’ I wanna do.”
I was crushed at the thought. “Henry, we’re not going to ever split!”
“Ha! Easy for you to say at twenty-two months, kiddo, but believe me, it’s gonna happen. It’s as certain as the time will eventually come when you’ll get off the ‘ba’ and on the pot. One of these days you’re gonna go upstairs to bed an’ forget me an’ leave me down there with that idiot Santa Bear an’ his dumb ol’ ski caps he won’t even let me try on, an’ I’ll be left down there with all those other solar room creeps.”
I started to protest, but he ignored me.
“So before that happens an’ I get tossed under the guest room bed with Eleanor Roosevelt and her beloved dust balls, there’s sumpthin’ I wanna do. An’ I want us to do it together.”
I was becoming very upset. “Anything, Henry, you know that. If it proves to you that we’re never going to be apart, I’ll do anything.” My voice was starting to sound funny because all this talk was making me choke back tears I really didn’t understand.
“Don’t get all blubbery, kiddo; it’s no big deal. All I want,” he told me, “is for us—just you an’ me an’ whoever’s in the crib—to go someplace special for Christmas.”
Henry took a deep breath. “I wanna take you back where I came from. To my real home. I want you should meet my folks.”
“Not for very long. Just for one night.”
Henry glanced over at Pagliacchio the Pachyderm. “Where is easy. How may take some work.”
“You mean . . . ?”
“Yeah. Right. Transitory Planet Migration. . . .Yu game?”
I shrugged. “What have I got to lose?"
Henry looked at me with that infuriating, unblinking, there’s-more-to-this-than-meets-the-eye stare. “Nothing, I guess. Nothing important.”
I puckered my lips into a perfect “Ooooooooooooooo! Then let’s do it!”
He nodded solemnly. “Sure. Just like that. Women!”
* * *
Transitory Planet Migration-—or TPM-—was one of the most wondrous things Henry ever taught me—if you discount how to stay up late, throw tantrums that really work, ignore all parental beseeching to do this or that, and generally wrap Momma, Dad, Nana, Chloe-the-dog, and anyone else silly enough not to give me my own way, so tightly around my little finger even a Vice-Grip wouldn’t pry them loose.
T.P.M. was a powerful force that Henry said only a few select mortals possessed. Like my father. He, according to Henry (and how Henry knew was anyone’s guess) practically invented T.M.P.
“Your ol’ man,” the wise rabbit once told me, “was practicing this ancient art ‘til he was almost six years old! He once used it to go all the way downtown—nearly a half block!—at 10 p.m. to find out why his uncle wouldn’t take him into the Pastime Pool Room after dark!”
TMP reduced to simplest terms was the ability some children have to will themselves where they are not, to someplace where they actually want to go—and do go! It works marvelously, as I learned last Christmas when Henry introduced me to Santa Claus. I—we—had not used it since.
“The time is now!” Henry was saying. “The technology is here! We can go Christmas Eve an’ visit my mother an’ father, and my brothers Henry an’ Henry!”
I giggled. “Your brothers are named Henry, too?”
Henry kicked the empty ‘ba’ the length of the crib. “Of course! Everyone in my family’s named Henry!”
“Even your momma?”
“No, ‘course not, you ninny. My momma is Henrietta; we only call her Henry for short!”
I nodded. “I see.”
“Sure . . . Okay—you wanna take Paddy an’ Ernest an’ Mopsy an’ Eleanor with us?”
I shrugged. “If they’re in the crib, what should I do—toss ‘em overboard?”
Henry thought about it. “Naw. Let ‘em come along for the ride, Sally.”
I was silent for a moment. Then I asked, “Where are we going, exactly?”
He looked me right in the eye and whispered, “California!”
* * *
Henry, over my protests, picked Christmas Eve as the perfect night to transport us by T.P.M. to California, to a place called Toys for Tots, in a city called Anaheim. I told him I thought Christmas Eve was a bad time.
“Why not Christmas Day night?”
His head popped up like I’d stuck him with a pin. “Christmas Day night? Who goes to see their folks Christmas Day night? That’s like sending out birth announcements when the kid starts kinnergarden! You visit somebody at Christmas—especially blood relatives!—you gotta be there Christmas Eve! Whaddaya gonna do thirty years from now, you gonna pop into the Old Folk’s Home an’ give your ol’ man a big heart-tugger Christmas Day night? C’mon! Can you see him Christmas Eve listenin’ to the Vienna Boys Choir on his crummy plastic radio from his rock-a-bed, blubberin’ spittle down his grizzled jowls, wheezin’ sighs in B-flat through missin’ teeth, wonderin’ why his little Baby Dumpling Buttercup doesn’t come to see him—”
“Will you stop!” I threw Mopsy at Henry’s head, but he ducked just in time, and she clunked against the foot of the crib.
“Gee,” she pouted, “what’d I do?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I apologized to Mopsy, “but sometimes I’d like to brain him!”
“But why with me?”
I looked at Henry. “Okay, okay. We’ll go Christmas Eve. But it’s not going to be easy. Nana’s coming over, and Dad will want to make a big deal about Santa coming, and the tree, and all, and Mommy will be wrapping presents . . . ”
“Yeah.” Henry sucked his teeth; this usually meant he was about to say something sarcastic about my father.
“Don’t say it,” I warned.
“What? What? I wasn’t going to say anything!”
“Just don’t—I know how my dad acts at Christmas time. . . .Getting out of here, even if it works—“
“It’ll work,” Henry said.
“Even so, we’ve only got from about nine-thirty to maybe seven-thirty in the morning.
Henry flipped his ears straight back. “Gee, we ain’t goin’ to Calcutta, you know!”
Paddy Brewster piped up. “How long’s it take to Caly-forn-eye-ay?”
Henry spread his paws. “I dunno. No time. Maybe ten minutes.”
“How do you know this?” I asked.
"Well, I made some, uh, inertial, diametric calculations, uh, based on time-warps an’ other wind-chill factors . . .”
“In other words,” I pointed out, “you’re guessing.”
Henry danced nervously on one foot. “Well, no, not exactly. Sort of. Last year, I think it took about six seconds to get from here to the solar room.”
“So,” Ernest Angel concluded, “California should take about ten minutes. Makes sense.”
“Right!” Henry clapped his hands, a gesture which made no sound at all. “How’d you figure that out?”
I said, “Wow, he’s smart, for a bear.”
Paddy Brewster, not to be outdone, remarked, “I had it pegged at eight minutes.”
Henry looked at both of them. “You guys just keep your lips zipped about this. I don’t want Garcia the Messenger an’ A.G. an’ Momma Bear gettin’ wind of this an’ taggin’ along. They prob’ly still got fam’ly out there, an’ we can’t go traipsin’ all over Stuff Creation deliverin’ Christmas baskets an’ huggin’ an’ kissin’ an’ all that mush—“
“But it’s okay for you,” Paddy said, softly.
“Whadda you sayin’, P.B.? You wanna go back to Ireland an’ visit everyone in Stuffaholics Synonymous?”
Paddy shrugged. “I don’t think I’m from Ireland.”
“I’m supposed to be from Maine—I think.”
Henry threw his hands up in despair. “Yeah, well, that says it—we all gotta be from someplace. . . .Ok,” he said, “this is my party, my idea, an’ I’m goin’ back to California to see my folks for Christmas, an’ you guys’re invited to tag along—but remember, it’s my trip, an’ I’m callin’ the shots, so no more bellyachin’.”
Ernest wanted to know: “Pray tell, who’s bellyaching?”
I had to interrupt. “All right, all of you, stop bickering!”
They each fell silent and looked sullen. Henry flopped one ear over one eye and shuffled his feet. I knew how important this was to him, but I felt he was being over-sensitive—not that Paddy or Ernest had even suggested any deviation from his plan—but he seemed determined to disallow any interference. That was all right with me; I didn’t believe any amount of T.P.M. would enable a trip like this to happen, anyway. . . .Later that night, Henry told me why it was so important.
“I’m not certain,” he confided, “my ol’ man’s gonna be around much longer.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well,” he said, speaking very softly and sucking his lower lip against his buckteeth, “he’s gettin’ on, I mean, he’s really old. He was made in 1978, an’ in Stuffed Animal Life that makes him two hunert an’ seventy years old!”
I hit Henry gently with my ‘ba’. “How do you figure that?”
“Not easy. Let’s see, this is eighty-six—seventy-eight from eighty-six is, uh, eight normal years. A stuffed animal ages ‘bout fifteen hunert days per year—or a li’l more than four days per human day . . . .You get the pitcher.”
I said, “You’re nuts, Henry.”
“That makes you over eight year old.”
“Right! That’s why I’m a genius!”
* * *
As I expected, Christmas Eve was—-as I expected.
Nana came over and Momma fussed over melting cheese for fondue, and Nana peeled shrimp, and Dad played with me, pointing to our new artificial Christmas tree every five minutes—“See! Lights! See the pretty birdie on top!”—telling me it was there until I wished it was real and could fly away. They opened a bottle of Champagne, and my dad would stare into the tree lights while Nana told stories about the last thirty or forty Christmases.
What really interested me were the boxes and presents piled under the tree. I knew some (or most) were toys for me, and at twenty-two months I wasn’t sure of the ritual for getting my hands on them.
“We’ll open presents tonight,” Momma said, because she couldn’t stand waiting until Christmas morning. I knew Henry’s heart sank when he heard that.
“I think we should wait until morning,” was Nana’s pronouncement.
“Whatever,” said Dad, content with his third glass of champagne.
Henry, lying face down on the rug, burped. I knew what he wanted: for someone to suggest I go to bed so we could get ready for the trip to California.
Finally, about nine-thirty, Nana proclaimed. “You’re keeping this baby up much too late.” Dad mumbled the single phrase he was to repeat on Christmas Eve for the next thirty-five years: “The sooner we get to sleep, the sooner Santa will come!” Henry said something to me in Stuffinese but I ignored him.
I made my usual ineffectual protest about going to bed, but within five minutes I was changed, sleepered, Henry tucked under my arm, and heading upstairs with my bottle floating in my dad’s hand in front of me as we sang our Stairway Marching Song to the tune of Waltzing Matilda: “Follow the bottle! Follow the bottle! Follow the bottle, up the stairs we go!”
To anyone, to strangers looking in from outside, all this probably would appear rather foolish. But being foolish was not what fools were good at. Years later it occurred to me that had it not been for sheer foolishness, how long did we imagine it would really take us to get from Fonthill Park in Rochester to Toys for Tots in Anaheim?
Ernest Angel thought it would be a good idea to start a pool; make a wager. “If we each put in a Cheerio, we can start up a betting pool. I say thirty-five minutes!”
Henry snorted. “Get out! No more than ten minutes.”
I said, to Ernest, “I thought you were against gambling.”
“Oopps!” He hung his head in shame. “I backslid.”
It was after ten. We were, finally, all in bed, in my crib, and my dad had delivered his Santa won’t come ‘til you’re fast asleep! line for the eleventh time.
“All right,” Henry whispered, “as soon as your Nana goes home an’ they all hit the hay, an’ the hall light goes off—we’re outta here!”
I fell asleep almost immediately, visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, and it was just after midnight when Henry jostled my shoulder; and I was wide awake.
“Okay, kiddo, this is it, time for the ol’ T.P.M. Express to blast off!”
Paddy, Ernest, Eleanor, and Mopsy Toetwinkle were jumping up and down. “Yeah! Yeah! Let’s go! Hit the road! California—or bust!”
I wanted to know where Eleanor and Mopsy had come from.
“I dunno,” sighed Henry. “Big Mouth here—“ he poked Ernest in the ribs, and the big bear rolled over on his wings, laughing—“told everybody up here and downstairs, an’ we’ll be lucky if we get outta here with just the crew we have on board. So . . . let’s do it! Close your eyes, grab hold of the head of the crib—I’ll take the stern an’ steer this ol’ ship outta here! Hold on! Concentrate! Hard! Think California! Sunshine! Beaches! Hollywood! Movie stars!”
Nothing happened. At first.
Thirty seconds went by, and then—all of a sudden—a sharp jolt! The crib was moving—slightly in the beginning—and then I was aware we were a foot off the floor and . . . floating sideways across the nursery (the room was only seven by nine feet or so, but when you’re twenty-two months, it seemed like a basketball court!).
“We’re moving!” cried Mopsy.
“Of course!” wheezed Henry. “Whaddya think—this stuff don’t work?”
Mopsy closed her eyes and joined Eleanor under the quilt. Paddy and Ernest held fast to the side of the crib, and, in panic, I glanced at Henry over my shoulder.
“The door!” I screamed.
“Not to worry!” Henry waved his arms. “Open Sesame Street!”
And wonders of wonders, it all began: the nursery door knob clicked and turned, and the door opened wide, silently (something it could never do in real life) and Henry steered the crib gently into the hallway and down the angled staircase, into the main hall just as the French doors to the vestibule swung apart, all the way (another impossibility)—and the huge front door didn’t open—it just laid down flat, like a drawbridge! And we were out the door, outside, then up—up over the big tree with the squirrel’s nest, and heading like a shot for Cobb’s Hill.
“Henry!” I gasped, over the rush of the wind, “we’ll freeze to death! It’s the middle of winter!”
“No! We won’t!” he shouted from the foot of the crib. “Once we get up speed, the headboard will create friction, like a heat shield, an’ the backwash will spill over the crib and keep us toasty warm!”
“How do you know?” Paddy hollered.
“I read it in last month’s Inside NASA! Trust me! Now—lean to your left! Westward Ho!”
The crib swung away from Lake Ontario and, as if flung from a humongous catapult, we were instantly over what might have been Chicago, long since having passed the speed of sound. And Henry was right: the slipstream roaring over the crib’s headboard kept us at a very comfortable 72.4 degrees!
We had passed the speed of light by the time Paddy pointed out St. Louis, and it was only a matter of split seconds before Ernest shouted, “Praise be! The Grand Canyon! The Grand Canyon!”—and then there was the Pacific Ocean dead ahead—and Disneyland—and there it was: Anaheim!
Mopsy poked her head out from under the quilt. “I counted only nine seconds!”
“But we did it! We’re here!”
Henry was jumping up and down. “How d’ya stop this thing?”
I said, “Stick your ears up and catch the wind! They’ll act like big parachutes!”
He gave me one of his Are-You-Kidding? looks, but he went ahead and braced his ears up as high as he could. The wind filled them, and we spun about as the speed decreased; we fluttered to the ground like a leaf falling from a tree at the end of summer.
We twirled and spiraled and came to a thumping, rattling stop in a short alley in downtown Anaheim, just off La Quinta Boulevard, in front of a door marked ‘Delivery Only—Toys for Tots Customers use Front Entrance.’
“This is it! This is it!” Henry was bouncing and somersaulting all over the crib. “Come on! Let’s get outta here!”
The crib side slid down, and we all crawled over the top bar. The door to the toy store swung open, as if we were expected; we slipped quietly inside.
It was dark in the store, but there was enough light from outside and from the night lights to see our way around.
“Mom! Dad! Henry! Henry!” Henry called out.
“Is that you, son?” came a surprised reply.
“Pop! Pop! Where are you? On the same shelf?”
There was a brief silence, then: “No. Over here, Henry, on the ‘Discontinued/Discounted For Final Liquidation’ table.”
Henry took my hand and led us all down the long aisle to the front of the store. And—there was his dad (there was no mistaking him: they looked exactly alike, except Mr. Longears was a bit more frazzled and grayer).
Henry let go of my hand and, with a soft grunt, hopped up on the short table. It was a tender scene when he and his father entwined their ears in a bunny hug.
They danced around the table top for a few minutes, and then Henry, suddenly remembering me and the rest of us, spun his ears free and said, “Pop, this is Alex, the one they sent me to take care of—and this here’s Ernest an’ Paddy an’ Mopsy an’ Eleanor an’ . . . wait a minute. Where’re Mom an’ my brother Henry an’ my other brother Henry?”
He looked away from us and ran up and down the table, pushing other stuffed animals and dolls out of the way, stepping on and over others, knocking several to the floor—“Where is everybody?”
Mr. Longears sighed a terrible sigh and hung his head.
“Well, son, I think maybe you came all this way for nuthin’. I mean, comin’ to see me is all right, Christmas Eve and everything, an’ tell you the truth, I never figured any of us would ever see each other again. It’s really grand you comin’ all the way out here to see a old rabbit on maybe his last Christmas an’ all . . . ”
Henry took his father’s shoulders and shook him gently. “Pop, whaddya talkin’, Pop? What is it? Tell me—whaddya mean, your last Christmas? Where is Mom an’ everybody? What’s goin’ on? Tell me, Pop, tell me!”
The old bunny sat down on the edge of the table and dangled his legs. “Well, Henry, your mother and the boys were sold last spring to a couple who’d come out for Disneyland, an’ they wanted to take sumpthin’ nice home for their kids, so they came in here with a lot of people—an’ they bought Mother an’ Henry an’ Henry.”
“They didn’t buy you, too?” Henry shook his head. “I can’t believe this!”
“No. They jus’ took three of us, an’ I didn’t want to separate your mother from the boys—it was bad enough when we lost you—so I hid under a stuffed hippo. They wrapped up the others, an’ out they went. I ain’t seen or heard from them since. Course, I never will. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.”
Henry was walking in circles, beside himself. “Gone? Gone? Whaddya mean they’re gone? They can’t be gone! We came all the way from New York! Did you get a hold of Bugs? Wasn’t there sumpthin’ he could do?”
“Well . . . no . . . you know Bugs. He lives in Malibu; he’s got the movie an’ TV contracts; he don’t even come down to visit no more. I didn’t wanna bother him—and besides, what could he really do anyhow?”
Henry reversed his field and walked in opposite circles. “Who bought ‘em? Where are they? Where’d they take ‘em?”
“I don’t really know,” said Mr. Longears. “They were English people, just visitin’ here, an’ they was on their way back to England. But I don’t know who they were or where they live. I don’t even know where England is.”
Henry was staring off into space; he had stopped circling.
“Well, I do,” he said, after a few seconds silence. “I saw it on a globe of the world Alex’s ol’ man has in his office. Lemme think. . . .When did they buy Mom an’ the boys?”
Mr. Longears bent his long ears and used the tips to scratch his head. “I don’t know exactly. It was jus’ before summer. Maybe ‘round Memorial Day.”
Henry jumped off the table and hopped across the room to a door marked OFFICE. He was gone for five minutes, and I tried to make small talk with Mr. Longears.
“You remind me of my own father,” I said, for no reason at all.
“You’re a real purty li’l girl, “ said Mr. Longears.
“Is my son Henry good to you?”
I told him Henry was my best friend forever in the whole world. “Well . . . f” said Mr. Longears, in a knowing way.
“I got! I got!” cried Henry, half hopping, half running back to the table, waving a slip of paper in his paw.
“What! What is it?”
“The bill of sale!” He jumped up on the table and showed it to us. “Look! Right here! May 31, 1986! Three stuffed rabbits—cash an’ carry—gift wrapped—ninety-six dollars and twenty-five cents including tax, paid in dollars on a Bank of England International Draft!”
“But who – who—“ we all cried out. “Who bought them?”
“Lemme see . . . Gee, I dunno—what a name!”
“Don’t crowd me! . . . .Get this for a moniker: Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor-Mountbatten!”
“Is that a guy,” asked Paddy, “or a hockey team?”
“I don’t know. But he gave his address as Highgrove House, Tetbury, Gloucestershire County, England.”
“Good Lord,” said Ernest.
We all stood looking at each other, waiting for an idea, and it seemed none was coming—when suddenly Henry’s ears spun into a knot.
“Wait a minute! I got it!” he shouted, and we all leaned so far forward Mopsy fell off the table, and I had to pick her up and place her next to Eleanor, who took her hand and held it tightly.
“We got the crib outside,” Henry went on, “an’ it’s all revved up an’ ready to go—so instead of just headin’ for home, let’s pack up an’ shoot for merry ol’ England!”
“Son, you gotta be loco,” lamented Mr. Longears. And then he thought about it for a few moments. “So . . . jus’ where is England?”
“Simple,” Henry affirmed. “We just head north, over the Pole, then sorta southwest. I think.” He looked at me. “Besides, all we have to do is tell Alex here where we wanna go, she concentrates with the ol’ T.P.M.—an’ off we go! Who knew how to get to Anaheim? I sure didn’t!”
My eyes opened wide and I glared at Henry. “You didn’t?”
“Course not. So, let’s make it to England—what’s that address?” He handed me the slip of paper from the office.
“I know you can’t read, so jus’ concentrate on the letters, like from the alphabet books.” To his father: “Whaddya say, Pop? We can go an’ see Mom and the boys an’ be back here in less than a half hour. You game?”
* * *
By the time we reached what Paddy assured me was the Canadian border, we were traveling well beyond the speed of light. Me in front; Henry steering (or thinking he was) from the stern; Mr. Longears hanging on to Paddy; Paddy hanging on to Ernest; and Eleanor and Mopsy clinging to each other under the quilt.
Suddenly, Henry cried, “Look at that!” He pointed to another flying object heading past us in the opposite direction. I was moving even faster than we were, and it was casting off in its wake a great, magnificent shower of luminous stardust—and that more or less obscured what it was.
It was quite long, like a huge container of some sort, and it was packed to overflowing with brightly colored objects too far away to make out. And it was, I think, being towed across the sky by eight or nine somethings like – well—like furry hatracks. It was driven by someone I thought for a split second I’d seen before.
Henry shook his paw at it. “Talk about near-misses! The FAA’s gonna hear about this! They gotta do something about air traffic control!”
Whatever it was, it was gone in a flash—and so were we. We swung easily over the North Pole, and off in the distance I could see the Land of the Midnight Sun. It’s golden haze grew closer, then disappeared behind us as we headed for a group of islands off the coast of another larger land mass.
The crib swooped down along a dark and winding river that led us to a mammoth city of crowded rooftops and smokeless chimneys—and there was a beautiful cluster of building with a huge tower and a clock that read six o’clock. It suddenly chimed out a quaint little tune in ear-splitting bongs!
“We gotta hurry!” Henry shouted. “I forgot about the time difference—it’s gonna be light here in another half hour!”
Instantly, his ears shot up, again like parachutes, and we began our final descent over a great estate with a fine manor house and many outbuildings: stables, guesthouses, and cattle barns.
The French doors to the manor house library swung open as we approached, and we suddenly found ourselves in a darkened room with only the light from a dying fireplace’s glow to show us a tall Christmas tree amidst the rows and rows of books.
Henry vaulted out of the crib and looked for a stuffed animal to speak to.
“Not many presents under the tree,” he mumbled—and a voice replied from behind a small sofa: “They ain’t ‘ere, thot’s wot they ain’t no presents aboot!”
I crawled over the side of the crib and joined Henry as we were confronted by a somewhat disheveled Raggedy Andy.
“Who’re you?” I asked.
“Andy Ragg’s me name, an’ I might be askin’ you the same. Who’s the bloke wit’ the floppy ears—as well as yourself, missy, an’ the rest o’ the lot in the cradle over there?”
Henry started to say something, but I cut him off. “I’m Alexandra, and this is Henry Wadsworth Longears—and Henry’s father is over there with Paddy Brewster and—”
"Paddy Brewster, yuh say? Humpft! A bloody Mick! Some people pay no mind a’tall tuh the company they keep!”
“Listen, buster—” Henry stepped forward, his paws clenched.
“No!” said Andy Ragg, “you listen. Who d’ya people think ye are, droppin’ outta the sky on Christmas Eve an’ botherin’ decent folk tryin’ tuh get some rest while the whole family’s away on holiday . . .?”
I held up my hand. “The family’s away? You mean, they’re not here, any of them? The children, the parents—?”
Andy nodded. “An’ all their presents, too. Aye, thass why the tree looks so skimpy there. Those yuh see’re jus’ a few odds an’ ends for the servants left behind.”
“But,” I wanted to know, “where is everybody?”
“Ah, now, missy, if yuh mean Charlie Nex’ Rex an’ Lady Dee Dee Di Di, an’ the boys Willie an’ Harry, they’re up north they are, at Balmoral with Mumsy Ma’m an’ Gran’mumsy Ma’m, an’ Phil an’ Andy (me namesake), Fergy an’ Meg—the whole lot of ‘em! They’ll be up there ‘til past New Year’s, thank heaven—peace an’ quiet here fur a spell!”
Mr. Longears, who’d been looking under the tree at a few presents, said, “Do yuh know if they had some stuffed rabbits like me an’ him for presents when they left?”
“Aye, old man, I think they did just that. Three of ‘em—an’ they all looked alike—jus’ like the two of you, they did. I seen Charlie Nex’ Rex and Lady Dee Dee Di Di wrappin’ ‘em up in pale blue tissue jus’ t’other night!”
Henry was jumping up and down. “That’s them! That’s them! Quick, tell us where this—wha’cha call it? -Marlboro place is!”
“Balmoral, yuh dimwit!” snapped Andy Ragg. “Balmoral Castle, jus’ up past the town of Aviemore, in Scotland, in the Cairngorm Mountains. Ye can’t miss it!”
Henry turned to me. “You got it? Scotland! Mountains! Less go! Concentrate! Concentrate!”
* * *
It was five minutes past six in the morning when we landed in the Great Hall of Balmoral Castle. It was the biggest room I’d ever seen, even bigger than our basement at home (which I’d never seen). At each end of the hall was a Christmas tree whose top stars were so far up they were lost in the shadows of dawn slanting in pale shafts through stained-glass battlement and turret slits. Banners hung from each wall, coats-of-arms unfurled as far as the eye could see; and beneath them were rows of armor standing sentinel over the longest dining room table in the world. Henry said sixty-two thousand were probably expected for Christmas dinner.
Two giant fireplaces, even at this early hour, crackled with great log fires, warming the hall and casting golden dancers of pulsating light over the entire room.
It took Henry and Mr. Longears exactly twenty-one seconds to find Henrietta and the boys.
And a lovely sight, it was! Henry ripping the tissue away from each of them; and as they opened their eyes in recognition, the little cries of happiness and joy as the family was reunited: hugging and kissing and the entwining of ears, laughing and punching each other and crying, all of them at once.
Looking on, Eleanor and Mopsy hugged each other, and even Paddy and Ernest sighed an occasional “Aw, gee!”
Henry introduced me to his mother. “Mom, this here’s Alex, the one I was sent to take care of. Ain’t she a bundle?”
I shook Mrs. Longear’s paw, and then I leaned over and kissed her cheek. She reached up and hugged me around the neck, saying, “Henry’s lucky to have a friend like you. I know he will always be good to you.”
“He has been, Mrs. Longears,” I said. “He’s the best friend I will ever have.”
I met the boys Henry and Henry, and when the three of them were side by side, I really couldn’t tell which was which—until Henry (my Henry) opened his mouth and said something silly.
A great-grandfather’s clock chimed somewhere, and Ernest said, “Lord save us all, it’s six-thirty! I can hear movement in the house!”
Henry said, “You’re right! We gotta get outta here!”
“No, Henry!” Mrs. Longears pleaded. “Not yet! Don’t go yet!”
Paddy Brewster said, “Why go at all?”
“I said,” Paddy said again, “why go at all? I mean, all five of you are here now, together at last, an’ the people who live here, who bought three of you seven months ago, those people will never remember (or care) whether they brought home three stuffed rabbits, or five—heck, they know how you rabbits are!”
“Wait a minute,” Henry pondered. “You suggestin’ that Pop and me stay here—in England? . . . .Wait a sec, as far as Pop is concerned, sure, why not? But me? Me an’ the kid—split up? You nuts?”
I stepped in between Henry and Paddy and took Henry’s paw. “Listen,” I said, not really sure what I was saying, “maybe Paddy’s got a good idea. I mean, you said the other day that you and me, well, you and I would have to break apart someday anyway—”
Henry waved his arms and spun in a circle. “Yeah, yeah, but I didn’t mean right now! Not right away! C’mon, kiddo, you don’t really want me to stay here, do you? We’d never see each other again!”
I thought about it; what it’d be like without Henry. I glanced at Mrs. Longears and saw that look in her eyes, that look of unbelievable hope, “No”, I said, softly, “I don’t really want you to stay. But . . . Henry, as long as I can do TPM, don’t you see, I could come and visit whenever I wanted to.”
He was silent for a long time. His mother finally said, her voice but a whisper, “It would be nice, all of us being together again.”
Henry took me aside. “Listen, kiddo, we ain’t got time for a debatin’ society. I want my ol’ man to stay with Mom and the boys—and in a way, I wanna stay, too. But I can’t do it unless you tell me it’s what you really want, too.”
I took Henry in my arms and squeezed him as tightly as I could, holding him against my cheek so he couldn’t see my face, couldn’t see the tears welling up in my eyes.
“Yes, Henry, I want you to stay here with your family, and I want everyone to be very, very happy. I love you. I always will.”
“And I love you, kiddo. You’ll never know how much.”
And we were both shaking in each other’s arms, sobbing louder than the shattering of our broken hearts. We knew we were giving people we cared about the greatest Christmas gifts we had to give.
Moments later the crib spun off the ground in front of Balmoral Castle, and I concentrated so hard on getting back to Fonthill Park that I fell asleep even before we were out of sight of Scotland’s rugged shoreline.
I remember Paddy standing in the stern, in Henry’s place, and Ernest kneeling beside me, holding my hand and patting my head, saying his Christmas prayers. And Mopsy and Eleanor snuggling against me under the quilt.
But the last thing I can remember was Henry standing in the gloomy courtyard outside the Great Hall at Balmoral, waving good-bye as we took off. He was waving with one paw and wiping his eyes with the other, surrounded by his father and mother and his two brothers.
* * *
I did not wake up early Christmas morning. Nana had already arrived when Momma came into my room shortly after nine o’clock with her cheery “Merry Christmas, little one!” I sat upright, quickly looking for Henry before I realized he was no longer with me.
My mother picked me up with one arm as she groped under the quilt with the other. “Where’s Henry?” she asked, realizing we seldom got as far as the door without him.
“Enny,” was all I could muster; I was determined I was not going to start crying again.
“Well, I don’t know where he is,” Momma said. “Maybe we left him downstairs. Let’s get Dad up and see if he knows where Henry is.”
Sure, I thought, he’ll know! Ha! If I knew enough words to tell them where Henry really was, they’d think someone had dropped me on my head!
In a few minutes we were all downstairs in the solar room—Nana, Momma, Dad (his videotape camera glued to his eye), and they had the time of their lives watching me open presents. But my heart wasn’t in it.
“She’s still too young,” Nana would say when I paid little attention to the new dolls and toys and sundry items presented to extract Ooooooooos and Aahhhhhs. I diverted their attention by clinging to two red suckers that reminded me of the balloons Henry and I used to bounce back and forth when no one was looking.
“All those nice things from Aunt Sue-Sue, Uncle Dirk, and all the cousins,” Momma sighed, “and we could have had the whole Christmas for two twenty-five cent suckers!”
“She’s just too young yet,” Nana confirmed. “You can’t rush it-—she’ll come around when she’s older.”
As far as I was concerned, I would have been just as happy to have gotten my hands on a ‘ba’ and gone back to bed. Then . . .
“What’s this?” Momma asked. She was under the tree handing out the last of the presents to Dad and Nana. “Anybody know who this is for?” She brought out a long package of pale blue tissue paper. “There’s no name on it. It’s . . . soft.”
Dad said, “Must be for Alex. Wouldn’t be for me—bag of coal isn’t soft! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
Instinctively, recognizing the pale blue tissue paper, I waddled over to Momma and grabbed the package from her, tearing apart the paper as I moved away—letting Henry topple out on the floor where I scooped him up and squeezed him tightly against me.
Dad looked perplexed. “Who wrapped Henry up?”
“I wonder!” accused Momma
“Wasn’t me,” Daddy shrugged. “I didn’t do it!”
Nana said, “What a nice present for Alex on Christmas morning! It sure takes your daddy to think up these things!”
Oh, Nana, I thought, if only you knew!
Henry whispered in my ear, in Stuffinese, “I couldn’t go through with it. It was a bummer. They didn’t need me over there, and when I explained my real home was here with you, they all agreed. I promised them we’d come over couple times a year, so long as you could pull off the TPM routine—-an’ besides, they’re gonna be all tied up with royal brats for the next hundred years, an’ you know how I’d be with that scene!”
I had to know: “But how did you get back here without me?”
“Well-—you won’t believe it—-but you remember that UFO we nearly ran into going over the North Pole? Well, the old guy that runs that scam came into the Great Hall just after you left. He said he was on his last stop before headin’ for the good ol’ U.S. of A., so I snuck on board and hitched a ride over. Boy, you oughta see his crib! It’s bigger than the QE2, an’ it was loaded with a hundred trillion toys an’ games an’ stuffed animals an’ dolls an’—“
“You’re not telling me this old man was who I think he was, are you?”
Henry wiggled his shoulders. “Kiddo, I don’t want to get into that-—it’s another whole story.”
“But what made it go so fast? Has he got Super TPM?”
“You wouldn’t believe it! It was dragged by nine scrawny reindeer, an’ it went ten times as fast as your crib! Talk about Super TMP!”
“Oh, Henry!” I snickered.
“Seriously, kiddo . . . you glad to see me?”
I squeezed him even tighter, and he was gasping for breath. “We must never be apart again!” Out loud I said, “Ah uhv oooh!”
Momma, Dad, and Nana said, “And we love you, too!”
Dad reached into his new robe pocket and pulled out one of those Chinese fortune cookie slips he saved. “See? Says right here: ‘The joy of childhood is the greatest joy!’”
Momma and Nana nodded their heads, and Momma said, laughing, “Even if you did just make it up.”
“What it really says,” Henry whispered in my ear, “is ‘Inspected by No. 12’!”
Copyright©1992 by Robert A. Mills
“AURA LEE” the serialized Civil War story will be continued in its usual posting on Wednesday, December 30
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