A cut pine glowed in crimson bubble lights. Flames danced in the fireplace. A newly arrived card from Jonah and Nancy Lee stood among those gathered on the mantle. Frosty webs clung to windowpanes, and the wind groaned against the rooftop.
This was the first Christmas Day that Ray and Grampa Halfmoon hadn't celebrated with family in Oklahoma, but last week the pickup had quit for good. Just as well, Grampa had said, what with the roads so slick. While riding the rattling train home from church, Ray had
promised himself to act merry anyway, for Grampa's sake.
Snow swirled around Ray and Grampa Halfmoon as they waded through the drifts, beneath the ice-sculpted maples to the Murphy home. Glittering snowflakes smacked wet against Ray's cheeks and clouded the mourning midday sky.
In the Murphy family kitchenette, Ray said "Merry Christmas" to Prince, who yipped and tripped over his paws and slipped on the linoleum. Ray searched for the biscuit box while Grampa escorted Prince onto the back step to do his business.
When it was time to leave, Ray rubbed Prince's belly and said, "It's tough being alone on holidays."
Ray's and Grampa's breath puffed cloudy as they trudged next door to the Wang home. In the driveway, Mrs. Wang's VW Bug waited to be freed from the snow like a triceratops skeleton embedded in rock.
Inside Mrs. Wang's home office, Grampa said "Good tidings" to Tank, who snoozed in his shell, and to Eugenia the parrot, who replied, "Feliz Navidad." While Grampa spied on Tank, Ray refilled Eugenia's seed mix and offered her a farewell cookie.
"Poor Eugenia," Grampa said, tugging his forest green knit cap over his ears. "Tank's lousy company this time of year."
"'Bye, Eugenia," Ray said, pulling on his wool-lined mittens.
"Joyeux Noel!" Eugenia chirped.
Ray and Grampa tromped two doors down to the Onsi home. Sleet caught in Grampa's shoulder-length ponytail, and Ray's teeth clattered like old bones.
In the Onsis' living room, Ray wrinkled his nose and said "Happy Holidays" to Mama Ferret and her kittens, who slinked below the plush, L-shaped pit sofa.
"Kinda smelly, aren't they?" Ray asked, unwrapping his scarf.
"Yep," Grampa Halfmoon replied.
Ray cleaned the litter boxes and refilled the food and water bowls. Meanwhile Grampa flicked the feather toy until the ferret family emerged to tumble and play tag. But one kit wouldn't have any of that.
The runt raced back and forth with chow in his teeth, snatching it from a bowl and hiding it beneath the sofa.
"Poor Mama," Grampa Halfmoon said. "She sure has her paws full."
Ray and Grampa slid through the slush across the street to the Wilson home. Layers of cotton and flannel and denim and down weren't enough to still their shivers or keep the goose bumps from rising on their skin.
Inside Mr. Wilson's studio, Grampa said "Season's Greetings" to Legs, who blinked at him with eight eyes. Ray gave her crickets to munch while Grampa served up a juicy earthworm. Legs gnawed the squirmy worm first.
"I'm partial to Legs," Grampa Halfmoon said. "She has a beautiful soul."
The sky deepened to murky twilight as Ray and Grampa shuffled back to their brick bungalow. Ray's lungs ached from the frigid air, and the wind whooshed away the crunchy boot prints he and Grampa left behind them.
In front of their toasty fire, Ray sipped steaming cocoa while Grampa sank into his worn recliner and clicked on the evening news. Ray watched stories about Santa, soup kitchens, and ice skaters on State Street. From O'Hare Airport to Lake Shore Drive, the storm blanketed Ray's steel and stone city in glistening white. Entire blocks had lost power, and repairs lagged hours, even days, behind.
"Check on your neighbors," the reporter warned. "Cold can become deadly fast."
Though memories of Aunt Wilhelmina's pecan pie, Uncle Leonard's hearty chuckle, and the Elvis Christmas CD haunted Ray, at least he had the glow of the crimson bubble lights, the steam of the cocoa, turkey roasting in the kitchen, and Grampa for company.
Could be a lot worse, Ray thought.
Just as he swallowed his last sip of cocoa, the TV screen and ceiling-fan bulb flickered off. The bubble lights died, dulling the pine tree, and the gurgling heater fell silent.
Grampa climbed out of his recliner, strode
to the window, and peered outside. "Streetlight's out," he said. "I'm guessing the whole block at least."
"The pets!" Ray exclaimed, moving to his side. "What about the pets?"
Grampa Halfmoon slung an arm around Ray's shoulders. "We can't very well build a fire at every home on the block, but . . . Let's see how we're farin' first."
Ray trudged after Grampa into the shadowy, cramped kitchen and watched him take a pan of half-cooked turkey legs out of the oven. The plastic packages of frozen okra and rice pilaf were still ice blocks in the freezer. The brownies were still powder in a box.
No road trip, no Aunt Wilhelmina or Uncle Leonard, and now no holiday meal. It was the worst Christmas ever, but all Ray could think about was Prince, Tank, Eugenia, Mama Ferret, her kits, and Legs.
"Too bad their families left them all alone," Ray grumbled, setting his empty mug
next to the sink. "Too bad the pets can't just come over here.,,
Right then Grampa Halfmoon's eyescrinkled, and Ray grinned for the first time all day. "Why not?" they asked together.
It took Ray's wooden sled, Grampa's squeaky wheelbarrow, two oversized beachtowels, and a couple of the pets' own zip-up carriers. It took some ruffled fur and feathers and leg hair and nerves. It took more than an
hour of wading through the drifts, beneath branches draped by icicles, and listening to Eugenia chirp "Mele Kalikimaka!" which meant Merry Christmas in Hawaiian.
But finally . . . Tank the turtle, hibernating in his aquarium . . . Eugenia the parrot, chatting on her swing . . . Mama Ferret and her kittens, tumbling in their cage . . . and Legs the tarantula, sauntering in his giant plastic skull . . . had settled in the Halfmoon family room. Prince, the fox-faced Pomeranian, curled on the matted shag carpet in front of the fireplace.
To Ray and Grampa Halfmoon, the giant marshmallows, scavenged from the cabinet, roasted over the flames, tasted charred and chewy and sweet.
And even though the blizzard was blustering, the bubble lights had died, the turkey legs were ruined, the pickup had puttered out, the road trip was canceled, and the rest of their family had gathered miles away, Christmas suddenly seemed like Christmas.
Ray laughed at the frolicking ferrets. "Like rats but funny," he said.
"More like polecats," Grampa said, downing a marshmallow. "How 'bout you pick out a kit? I told the Onsis we'd take one of those smelly ferrets, if that suits you."
It did. Ray noticed the ferret runt eyeing his marshmallow. From now on, Ray planned to keep watch for swiped treasures beneath the couch. "I'm gonna call him Bandit," he announced. "Thanks, Grampa."