I twirled the tiny purple, pink, and yellow beads with my thumb as I held the bracelet in my hands. It wasn't what I'd wanted to get her but it was all I could get with the money I'd saved up. This year I had to get my parents and Austin a present, but a paper route didn't pay enough for me to get what I really wanted to get them.
It isn't like Austin needs any presents. She has a record player in her room and everything. I wanted one but I knew I wouldn't get one this year.
At least we were going to go to New York tomorrow! I've always wanted to go places and see things. When I was a little kid I wanted to go to the moon. Now I'd settle for a ride in an airplane. I've never been in an airplane except for a short ride but Austin's flown to Texas and New York three times each!
I stuffed the bracelet in a small gold box and ran downstairs. Mom was kneeling beside the Christmas tree in the green skirt she'd worn to church, picking up ornaments and hanging them back on the tree. The cat, JFK, who was licking his paw innocently beside her had probably helped knock most of them down. I pet the cat's soft gray fur. Then I picked up a candy cane and hung it on a poky branch. "Mom, can I go to Austin's after lunch? I have to give her my present before we go to New York."
Mom stood up, smoothing her blonde, pinned-up hair. She looked at me with a sort of worried look and said, "Well, Clark, I'm not sure if we're—"
The door opened and Dad came in with a blast of cold air. He hung up his coat on the wooden coat hanger. "A little colder than usual, that's for sure."
"Did you stop at the office?
"Yes, I did, Pearl."
"And Jack's going to call in half an hour."
"About what?" I asked.
He looked at me with his brown eyes. "We might have to stay here tomorrow."
My heart did a hard flop. "Why?"
"There are complications with my case, son. I might have to sort out some of this legal tangle we've gotten ourselves into…"
I helped set the table and we sat down to eat our tuna casserole. Even though it smelled good, I wasn't very hungry. I was too worried my hopes would be dashed.
When we were eating cherry pie, and Mom and Dad were talking about the war in Vietnam that's been going on ever since I can remember, the phone rang. Dad picked it up in the living room and I watched as he talked even though I couldn't hear his voice. His face didn't change much either.
He walked back slowly. "Well, the trip's off."
Mom sighed and pursed her lips. I drew criss-crosses in the cherry juice on my plate. Then I had an idea.
"Hey, just me and Mom could go."
"I don't know…" said Mom.
Dad rubbed his chin. "Maybe you could. I still have our tickets, and it'd be a shame to let them go to waste." He smiled.
I helped Mom dry the dishes. Then the phone rang again.
"Hello?" Soapy water dripped off Mom's hands as she held the phone. "Oh. Okay. Thank you very much." She hung up. "Clark, I have some bad news. Our flight's been cancelled."
"We can get another flight."
"It's too late this time of year, especially D.C. to New York. We probably couldn't get any seats anyway. We'll have to wait 'til some other time."
I pedaled hard toward Austin's house, the cold win ripping through my half-open coat. What a stupid thing to happen, I thought. What a stupid Christmas! Bare trees and brown snowless lawns sped past. I barely noticed the view of the Washington Monument in the distance as I struggled up the hill. I rang the doorbell, hot and sweaty under my coat, my hands numb.
The maid opened the door. I stepped into the hallway beneath the marble staircase and fingered the little box in my pocket. In a minute Austin came from the other room. Her eyes were red and her face tearstained. "What happened?" I said.
"It's Bobby—he—he's missing." She sobbed and tucked her red hair behind her ear.
"Missing in action. In Vietnam."
"Oh, Austin. I'm…sorry." I awkwardly touched her arm.
I realized, then, that even though I didn't get to do what I wanted, that our family still had the most important thing this Christmas. We had each other.