Birney's Best Christmas

The Fortin trailer was the last newspaper delivery on my route. The aging white and brown metal rectangular structure was on a dead end dirt road a quarter mile from my previous house, a pain in the ass delivery because the dirt road went up a hill. I usually left my bike by a tree at the edge of the road and huffed it on foot to make the delivery.

The trailer was beat up and rusted with plenty of junk in the yard around it. Three abandoned cars were on the lot and a falling down barn was behind the trailer. There was also a cellar hole behind the trailer where a farm house once stood. All that was left was a chimney that stuck out of the ground like a monument. The place gave me the creeps and I hated delivering the paper there.

My brother told me that there had been a fire that burned the house down several years earlier and that three people had died in the blaze. My parents insisted it was a terrible accident but the scuttlebutt among the local conspiracy theorists was that Mr. Fortin had torched the place and was an arsonist murderer. That made delivering the paper to the trailer all the scarier for me.

Sometimes I'd see the alleged murderer Mr. Fortin coming and going, usually dressed in work clothes. He drove a junky pick up truck and I liked it better when the truck wasn't in the driveway because that meant he wasn't there and that made me feel less creepy. Other times I saw a girl around my age although I didn't recognize her from school. I never heard her utter a word in all the times I delivered the paper. Occasionally she'd open the screen door to the trailer and I'd toss her the paper. If she didn't open the door, I'd leave the paper in the black box nailed into the railing of the trailer steps.

Although I always felt nervous and apprehensive about making the delivery to the Fortin trailer, sometimes I'd find wrapped cookies in the black box when I opened it to stick the paper inside. Other times there might be a brownie or a piece of cake. I assumed the gifts were left by the girl in the trailer but I was never sure.

As time went by I began to wonder more and more about the girl. Did she know her father was a murderer arsonist? Was she crazy too? One day I smiled at her when she stuck her head out the door to receive my newspaper throw but she didn't respond as she closed the door. Another time I shouted out 'Hey, what's your name!?' but she didn't say anything as she closed the door. I wished she'd at least say hello or smile.

So I started saying hello whenever I saw her but that didn't get her talking either. The non-verbal communication went on like that for a long time – snacks in the black box for me when I delivered the paper, a hello from me if I saw her in the doorway, but no response from her every time I saw her.

The other strange thing about the Fortin Trailer was that I never saw even the hint of Christmas at the trailer during the holiday season. No decorations. No Christmas Tree in the window. No reef on the door. It looked just like any other day and I never got a Christmas tip from them either.

I decided that I was aging out of the paper delivery service when I turned sixteen. I could make more money washing dishes at Johnny C's Diner or stocking shelves at Fontaine's Family Grocery Store so I gave notice to the circulation manager at the Greenville News and Dispatch that I was turning in my carrier bag. I recruited Jimmy Cavanaugh from the neighborhood as my replacement and I spent a week grooming him for the job just as my brother had trained me in the responsibilities and proper etiquette of the newspaper delivery service. I introduced Jim to my customers including the Fortin girl at the trailer who seemed surprised to see me with a sidekick.

"I'm retiring," I announced sheepishly, realizing I was going to miss the mysterious quiet girl. "Saturday will be last day. Jim starts on Monday."

The girl didn't say anything as she closed the door and I sighed with regret.

"This place gives me the willies," the young novice Jim remarked as we walked down the driveway to our bikes at the end of the road. "Is that girl retarded or something?"

"No," I replied. "She's just shy."

Twelve year old Jim shook his head with uncertainty. "She looks like she has a screw loose," he said. "And didn't somebody torch the house that used to be there?"

I didn't want to debate the kid although a part of me felt like I should defend the trailer girl's honor. She wasn't retarded or mental…..was she? I thought she was kind as evidenced by the goodies she left in the black box and truth be told she was the nicest customer on my route even if she didn't talk.

I didn't make Jimmy get up on his last free Saturday morning and I delivered the papers on my own for the last time. It was a bittersweet early morning – four years of my youth coming to an end, a right of passage as a new chapter began.

I left my bike at the end of the road (I was counting the days until I got my driver's license) and walked up the dirt road to the Fortin trailer feeling kind of sad. This was going to be last visit with the quiet girl. I noticed that old Man Fortin's truck wasn't in the driveway and I was relieved by that fact.

The door to the trailer opened and there stood the girl looking at me.

"Hello," I said as was my custom.

I waited a moment but – no big surprise – she didn't reply as she held the door open waiting for me to toss her the paper.

"My name is Ham," I said. It seemed kind of stupid to be telling her my name on my last day but I wanted her to know. "Ham Burges."

She waited for the paper.

"I just wanted to say thanks for all the treats you left me," I said. "They were delicious and I really appreciate your kindness."

Still no words from her. I started to toss her the paper but then I decided to walk up the steps to the door and hand her the paper instead. She was surprised by my decision and she stepped back, almost as if she was afraid of my approaching presence.

"It's okay," I assured her. "I'm just saying goodbye." I handed her the paper. "Okay," I said. "It's official. I am now a retired paper delivery guy. You are my last customer."

I hadn't realized how tall the girl was. She had a good inch or two on me. She had shoulder-length dark brown hair and a dark complexion. I wouldn't call her pretty but she was attractive in my eyes. She was wearing a red sweatshirt and baggy jeans with a greasy Red Sox ball cap on her head. She had a narrow nose with a dip to it and squinty eyes. She wasn't wearing any makeup. There wasn't any expression on her face and her mouth seemed liked it was stapled shut.

She hadn't taken the paper from me yet as I held it out to her as she stood in the doorway.

"What's your name?" I asked softly.

She didn't answer and I was starting to become frustrated. Maybe there was something wrong with her.

"Okay, then," I sighed with defeat. "Have a nice life, I guess."
"Birney."

She finally spoke and I was shocked to hear her voice. It was the first time I heard it and it was a nice one – sweet, light and easy and now I knew she could actually speak and that she wasn't retarded or mental after all.

"That's an interesting name," I said.

"So's Ham," she noted.

"It's short for Hamilton," I explained. "Do I look like a Hamilton to you?" I laughed. "It's such a stuck up, stuffy, high and mighty pompous name. Like a guy who goes to Harvard."

"Birney's from a book," she said. "My mother liked it."

"I do too," I smiled.

I lifted the paper up into her sight line. "Do you want the paper?"

She slowly took it from my grasp. "I guess your job is done," she said, sounding sad and suddenly I felt remorseful and guilty.

"Don't you think I'm too old to be a paper boy?" I asked defensively.

"Probably," she agreed.

"How old are you?" I dared.

"Sixteen," Birney answered.

"Me too," I grinned. "I go to Hillsboro High."

"I go here," she revealed.

"That's different," I said.

"I like it."

I glanced over my shoulder toward the driveway. "Your Dad coming back soon?" I worried nervously.

"He went to Laconia for the NASCAR race this weekend," Birney said.

"Oh, wow," I replied with surprise. "He left you all alone?"

"I'm old enough," she shrugged. "I can handle it."

I nodded, impressed. Now I was at a crossroad. Do I say goodbye and leave, mostly likely never to return or do I continue to engage her in a conversation. I was a pretty shy guy with not a whole lot of experience (or success) in the girl department and I realized that his was one of those defining moments in my life.

"Do you want me to keep you company for a while?" I asked, taking a huge risk by even asking the question. "You know, 'cause your Dad's gone?"

I thought she'd probably freak out and push me through the door in protest or scream in horror. Instead, she stared at me for a long moment.
"You can come in," she finally decided, stepping back.

I hesitated for a long moment. Did I really want to go in? What was I supposed to say or do once I was inside? I realized that I had suddenly put myself in unchartered territory and whatever happened from this point on would be a totally new experience for me. Sucking in a huge breath, I slowly stepped inside.

The trailer was cluttered and messy but not unhealthy or gross. The structure was definitely older and run down, tiny too with the kitchen area, a small dinette, a compact living room area and two bedrooms in the back, as well as a bathroom.
Birney gestured toward the kitchen counter where there were two stools. "Are you hungry? There's donuts. Orange Juice."

"Okay," I said, trying to act cool and suave although I could feel my knees shaking. "Sounds great."

I took a seat (I almost fell off) and I watched as she poured two glasses of OJ from the refrigerator and grabbed a box of donuts from the bread basket on the counter before taking a seat on the stool next to me, handing me a glass of juice and putting the donuts between us.
"I haven't seen you around," I said. "Besides here, I mean."

"I don't go out much," Birney replied.

"Your father strict?" I wondered.

"No," she said. "I just don't like being…out there," she gestured toward the door.
"Because of what happened?" I guessed.

"I was little."

"I'm sorry," I said. "Do you remember anything?"

She shook her head no. "Not really," she said. "I was only two. My father took me to see Santa at Donovan's Department Store. It was Christmas Eve."

My jaw dropped. "Your house burned down on Christmas Eve!?"

She nodded affirmatively. "My mom and grandparents didn't get out."

"I heard the story," I said.

"I bet you've heard plenty of stories," she said with sarcasm.

"Yeah," I admitted with embarrassment, feeling horrible that I had bought into all the gossip paranoia.

"I only have vague memories of my mom and my grandparents," Birney told me. "I've seen photos of the house. The insurance didn't cover everything so my Dad got this trailer for us to live in."

"Guess you've had it kind of tough," I said.

"Not as bad as my father," she replied with emotion in her voice.

"Yeah," I agreed.
Birney put her elbows on the counter and buried her cheeks in her fists. "Naturally, I hate Christmas," she said factually.

It was the saddest thing I ever heard anybody say.

"What do you usually do?" I wondered.

"Pretend I'm Jewish," she muttered.

I sighed but I didn't know what to say. Like most people, I loved Christmas and I couldn't image going through the season every year miserable.

"I'd get up in morning just to watch you traipse up the road," Birney said with a smile, glancing at me out of the corner of her eye. "I'm going to miss that."
"You can still watch Jimmy," I grinned.

"It won't be the same," she noted.

I smirked. "How come?"

"No reason," she said but a blush came across her face.
"I'll miss seeing you too," I said truthfully.

"Oh?" She asked with surprise. "You really think so?"
"Sure."
She bit her lower lip and looked down into her lap. "I don't have a lot of friends," she said quietly.

"I'm your friend," I told her even though I knew it sounded like a line as soon as it came out of my mouth.
"Um…" She looked at me not quite sure if she believed me. "Okay."
I smiled. "Okay," I said with enthusiasm, hoping to sound sincere instead of a moron.
"We don't get a lot of visitors here," she said. "It's not exactly the kind of place to bring guests."

"Don't worry about it," I said.
"People like to make up stories about how my father burned the house down on purpose and that sort of sick stuff," Birney remarked with sadness in her voice. "I know we have a reputation."

"People can be so stupid," I complained.
"I guess I'm kind of anti-social because of it," Birney admitted.
I nodded. "Understandable."
She studied my face for a moment. "What kind of image do you have of me?" She wanted to know.
"Of an angel standing in a doorway," I said.

Birney blushed again.

"This was my last stop on my route," I told her. "I liked the anticipation of finishing here, wondering each day if I would see you. I'd be disappointed if the door didn't open but finding a treat in the black box made up for it."

"Sometimes I'd watch you from behind the curtain in the window," Birney admitted. "When I wasn't feeling particularly sociable."
"Oh?" I grinned. "I hope I wasn't picking my nose."

She laughed with nervous embarrassment. "No, of course not."

"How come you never said anything to me?" I wanted to know.

"I'm shy," she answered truthfully.

"You don't seem so shy now," I pointed out.

"I….." She blushed, shrugged her shoulders and then laughed. "It's your last day," she said.
"I'm glad you opened the door."
She chewed on her lip again. "I don't really know why I'm so weird," she confessed. "Just lack of confidence, I guess."
"You're not weird," I insisted.

"Of course I am, Ham," she said, rolling her eyes. "Even I know that!"
"No, not really," I replied. "I mean, everybody has their own oddities, quirks, peculiar habits, idiosyncrasies and hang ups," I reasoned. "Some get to hide them better than others but everybody is weird in their own ways."
"Well, I suppose that's true," she said and then she examined me for a moment. "What are some of yours?"

I groaned. "You don't need to know."

"Come on," she protested. "You see how I live. You know I don't go to school. And now you know I peep through windows. And I hide in my trailer. You have to tell me something!"

I could feel her eyes on me as I glanced away and I knew I owed her some truth about myself. But what if she thought I was a total loon?

"I can't use a public bathroom if other people are in there," I confessed after a few moments of thought.
"Really?" She asked with surprise. "Some kind of phobia?"

"I think it's because in third grade some jerk fifth grader kicked open my stall door when I was on the throne and literally scared the crap out of me," I admitted.

It was the first time I heard Birney genuinely laugh but then she covered her mouth with her hand. "Oh! I'm sorry!" She said with embarrassment. "I shouldn't have laughed. I know it must have been traumatic for you."

"Maybe I'll get over it some day," I sighed.

"I'm sure you will," Birney said with encouragement.

"I hope so," I muttered. "Sometimes I'll hold it for hours until I know there's nobody around. It's pretty pathetic, really."

Birney shrugged. "It's understandable."

"Thanks," I said, feeling kind of awkward for revealing something so personal.

"Sometimes I feel so lonely," Birney revealed with a sigh. "You're the first boy I've really ever talked to."

"I guess I'm the lucky one then," I said with a smile.

Our juice glasses were empty and I had eaten three donuts to Birney's one. She took the glasses to the sink and washed them out before putting them in the drainer. She returned the donut box to the bread basket.

"Why don't we go into the living room?" She suggested.

"Okay," I agreed as I slid off the stool.

"Do you have to call anybody?" Birney asked.

"Not for a while," I said. "I've got a pretty lack leash. My parents don't keep that tight of a tab on me. Especially on a Saturday. My father will probably go golfing and my mother will be off shopping with her friends."

"Where do you live?" Birney asked as she led me into the living room which was squashed with furniture, newspapers, magazines, and junk like old radios and other electronic devices. "My Dad is always bringing junk home from the scrap yard," Birney explained. "He tries to fix stuff up and sell it. The barn is full of junk."

"Sounds like an interesting hobby," I said as I dropped onto the couch. "I live at the edge of the flats section just on the other side of County Road."

"That's not too far," Birney said as she turned on the television and took a seat next to me on the worn out by comfortable couch, although with a reasonable amount of space between us. Neither of us said anything for a few moments while watching some foolish cartoon on the screen.

"You don't golf?" Birney asked after a few minutes.

I laughed. "I tried caddying for the old man once," I said. "Total disaster. I let my brother do that stuff."

"What do you like to do?" Birney wondered.

"I'm not a jock or anything," I admitted. "I like reading. Movies. I'm a World War II novice. I'll read anything about the war. Oh, and I belong to the chess club." I glanced at her. "You?"

"I read too," she revealed. "I've read every romance novel ever written."

"God, my sister was always reading that stuff," I laughed. "I'd hear her in her room crying!"

Birney laughed. "Well, you know….." She blushed and didn't say anything more.
I looked at her and grinned. "Yeah, I know," I laughed.
She thought for a minute. "Geez. Why are we telling each other such things?"
I smiled. "I guess we've been wondering about each other for a long time now," I said. "Maybe since the first time I saw you in the doorway."
"And you in the driveway," she acknowledged.
"I don't mind," I let her know.

And I really didn't. I was actually flattered that she even noticed me. I wasn't exactly Mr. Popular at school.

"I'm kind of a geek," I told Birney. "Kids make fun of me."

"Because of your glasses?"

I took them off. "I'll be getting contacts soon, I hope," I said.

"I think your glasses make you look distinguished," Birney said.

I examined the dark frames in my hand before jokingly squinting at Birney. "You think so?"

She smiled. "Are you really that blind?"

"Things get blurry from about five feet out and beyond," I said. "I almost flunked out of school until they figured out I was blind instead of stupid." I put my glasses back on. "But its nice being able to see you," I said, peering at her.

Birney blushed. "You don't have to lie."

"I'm not!" I said with sincerity. "You're pretty." It was the first time I actually complimented a girl and I felt myself getting all tingly inside.

"You're just saying that because you're my guest and you're trying to be polite," Birney said dismissively.

"No," I insisted. "I'm just being honest."

"Anyway," Birney said. "You don't have to stay if you don't want to."

"I do want to," I said. "This is nice."

"I'm sure you have better things to do."

"Not really," I admitted.
"Really?" She asked. "Why, what do you usually do on a Saturday?"

"After finishing the route, I usually go back to bed for a few hours," I said. "By the time I get up the rest of the house is off doing their stuff. Sometimes I'll hang out with the guys. Go to movie or something. Not much, really. I guess I'm not all that social either."

"It's easier not to be," Birney remarked.

"So, can I stay for a while?" I asked hopefully.

"Sure," she smiled. "This is kind of okay in an awkward way."
"Yeah," I agreed. "I haven't talked this long at one time with a girl in my life!"

"I never know what to say," Birney said.

"You've already said a lot," I noted.

"I always think I'm going to make a fool of myself so I usually don't bother saying anything," she explained.

"Me too," I said. "Especially with girls. I get all nerved up and embarrassed."

"I'm glad I'm not the only one," she said.
"So, what do you do with your time?" I wondered.

"I know it doesn't show but I try to keep up with this place," Birney replied. "The laundry. Washing the sheets. Cooking. I like to cook and I'm pretty good at it."

"We eat out a lot," I said. "My parents are always too busy to cook. Plus I'm the only one left at home. My brother and sister are older and they already moved out."

"I'll fix us lunch in a while," Birney promised. "Unless you have to go," she added, throwing me a look.

"No, no, I'm good," I smiled.

We stared at the television some more but I really wasn't interested in what was on and apparently Birney wasn't either.

"I know how to play chess," she said. "Do you want to play?"

"Sure!" I said with excitement. "Chess is one of my few passions!"

She sprung off the couch and dug out a chess game box from under a clutter of crap in the corner of the room. It was a cheap plastic set with the typical cardboard. I had a really neat set at home I got for my fourteenth birthday that was made from crafted wood with a board that was made of stone.

She set up the board on the coffee table in front of the couch and put a white and black pawn in each of her hands behind her back. "Pick," she grinned.

I ended up with white and Birney plopped herself down on the floor on her side of the coffee table with black facing her.

"Who do you play chess with?" I asked.

"My father," she answered.

"If I hadn't joined the chess club I probably wouldn't have any social life," I said. "I guess one of the good things is that half the people in the club are introverted too so I don't feel quite so alone!"

"You get to play with a lot of different players," Birney said. "I'm sure that helps your game."
"Some are willing to analyze the match afterwards," I said. "But others can't be bothered."

"They probably don't want to share their secrets," Birney said.

"Some are only willing to play me if I've 'proven' myself worthy," I laughed. "It took me a while before I was 'accepted' by the team but I try to have fun and work on my game."

"There's no point of playing if you're not enjoying yourself," Birney agreed.

"Chess helps me concentrate and focus better," I said. "And of course getting to play in championships and tournaments is a big thrill too."

"I bet," Birney remarked as we played our first game together.

She ended up beating me which caught me by surprise.

"You're pretty good for someone who only has one partner," I grinned.

"Oh, I play the computer too," she smiled slyly.

I challenged her to a rematch which she was willing to play and this time I barred down, hardly said a word, and managed to beat her.

"Time for lunch," Birney smiled as she stood and went into the kitchen to start preparing the meal.

I took a moment to glance around the surroundings. There were plenty of books stacked on a book shelf in the corner and a couple of attractive paintings hanging on the walls. The place had a homey comfortable sense to it even with the clutter and the fact that it was an aging trailer. I stepped into the kitchen and watched as Birney cooked two hamburgers in a frying pan.
"Smells good," I said.
"I like cooking for my Dad but it's nice to cook for somebody else too," she said, throwing me a glance.
"Maybe you'll be a chef some day," I said.
"Oh, I don't know if I have the inspiration for that!" She laughed.
I took a seat at the counter (more confidently this time) and I watched Birney practice her talent. The burgers were thick and juicy and she toasted slices of bread to go with it, loading the two sandwiches with lettuce, tomatoes, ketchup, and mayo. She added pickles and put some chips on the plates. She put a plate in front of me, gave me a can of root beer, and slid onto the stool next to me with her plate.
"This is really delicious," I said when I took a bite of the Birney burger.

"Thanks," she said with a contented smile. "Glad you like it."

"Have you ever had a burger at Johnny C's?" I asked, referring to the popular local diner.

"Sure," she smiled. "I get out some," she added with a tone of self-ridicule to her voice.

"This is better," I grinned and she smiled happily. "Do you like Hillsboro?" I asked after a few more bites of the Birney burger.

"It's a nice small town," she replied. "It's really the only town I know. Oh, you know, besides Greenville and stuff. I really haven't been anywhere else."

"We vacation on Cape Cod," I said. "And I've been to New York City before."
"Small-town life is okay for me considering I'm not all that social," Birney said.

"Why do you think your Dad stayed?" I asked.

"Where else would he go?" Birney sighed.
"It must be so hard on him," I said. "Losing his wife and parents like that."

"My mother was pregnant too," Birney revealed quietly. "I know that really gnaws on him."

"I can't even image," I said, feeling empathy for the Fortin family for the first time. Before meeting Birney, the story about the fire was distant, removed and unreal. I had no emotional attachment to it and got caught up in all the gossip instead of thinking about what really happened.

"No matter how sorry I feel for myself I always remember what it's been like for my father," Birney told me. "But he gets up every day and he goes out and faces the world and he does what he has to do to put food on the table."

"I've had issues with my family before but nothing I've experienced could compare what the two of you have gone through," I said, knowingly.
"I think about it all the time," Birney admitted. "That stupid cellar hole makes it hard to forget."

"Why didn't he fill it in?"

'I think he likes being reminded of what once was," Birney said. "I know that sounds strange but if he filled the hole in that would be like saying the house never existed or something."
I nodded and we were silent as we finished eating our lunch. I couldn't imagine the scope of pain and loss both Birney and her father had been through. When we were finished eating, I helped Birney clean up and there was something comforting about standing at the sink as she washed the dishes and I dried. Like we were a team or something.

"Thanks for lunch," I said. "It was really good."

"Do you have to go now?" She asked with disappointment in her voice.

"No, I can stay, really," I said. "But I should probably go get my bike down by the road before somebody steals it."

"I'll walk with you," Birney offered.

We stepped out into the fresh air and walked down the dirt driveway to the road below. My bike was right where I left it, resting on the side of a tree. It was a blue ten speed I got for my twelve birthday and it served me well but I was ready to move on to bigger and better things.

"I should have my license in a few months," I bragged, trying to sound mature and worldly as we started walking back up the driveway.

"That will be nice," Birney replied.

"My parents agreed to get me a car as long as I keep my grades up and stay out of trouble," I said.

"Have you been in trouble before?" Birney asked with a raised eyebrow as the trailer came into view as we walked, me wheeling the bike between us.

"Nothing scandalous," I said. "I skipped school once because I didn't feel like going. That's about the extent of my rap sheet."

"Good, because my father would be upset if I let a convicted felon into the trailer," Birney deadpanned.
I laughed. "I really like you, Birney," I said spontaneously and then I felt totally embarrassed for actually saying it.
"We're a lot alike, I guess," Birney said.

"Yeah," I agreed.

Shy. Insecure. No confidence. Socially inept. Lonely. But I wasn't about to say that to her.

"Being with you is really nice," I said.
"Okay then," she said when we reached the trailer. I rested the bike against the side of the structure. "You sure you can stay?"

"I can call home if that makes you feel better," I said.

"Okay," she agreed.

We stepped into the phone and I picked up the telephone receiver on the wall in the kitchen. I dialed our number but – as usual – the answering machine picked up. "Hi Mom," I said into the machine. "Hey, I'm hanging out with a friend so don't worry about me. Thanks. Bye."

"That was easy," Birney observed.

"When you're the third kid and your parents are in their fifties they pretty much give you free reign as long as you don't screw up," I explained.

"My Dad isn't even forty yet," Birney said.

"It must have been tough on him being a single dad so young," I said as we returned to the coffee table in the living room to resume our chess games.

"I don't think our lives turned out the way he expected," Birney acknowledged. "How do you ever recover from a dead wife, child and parents all dying at the same time?"
"I don't know," I admitted.

"It's like I had to share my life with four dead people," Birney sighed as she set up the chess board.
"I guess it was hard on you too," I said.

"That's why I'm the trailer girl," she remarked with sarcasm.

"You're much more than that," I assured her.

She didn't respond and the conversation kind of petered out.

When you play someone in chess over and over again, hunched over a table studying the board, their moves, their strategy, and even the way they look, you get to know them in a hurry. I would stare at the board for my next move while anticipating Birney's moves but I would also glance up and look at Birney's face as she studied the board. Occasionally, she'd glance up and our eyes would meet and she would smile before refocusing on the board and before long I had memorized the way she looked.

Her eyes darted back and forth across the board and when she figured out what her next move was going to be, the corner of her mouth would rise up ever so slightly in a knowing smirk.

Birney was an aggressive, assertive and confident chess player. I thought I was pretty good but she beat me three out of four times (and four out of six including the two games before lunch).

"I'm impressed," I smirked when I resigned the last game we were playing. "You're a very good player."

"Thanks," she said.

"Maybe I should recruit you to play for the Hillsboro High School Chess Club!"

"Oh, I could never do that," Birney said sheepishly as she got up off the floor and sat on the couch next to me, only this time closer than before. "Are you going to stay for supper?" she asked.

"Would you like me to?" I asked nervously.

"Yes," she answered.

"Sure, okay then," I agreed.

She kicked off her shoes and drew her legs up under her. "What would you like?" She asked. "There's chicken, pork chops and some stew meat."

"Chicken sounds good," I said.
"I have a chicken casserole I like to make," she informed me. "Would that be okay?"
"Of course."
Birney stood and went into the kitchen where she started frying the chicken meat for the casserole. I made a quick trip to the bathroom (with just a little anxiety) and then went to the kitchen, taking a seat at the counter and watching her work. She was very diligent, expedient and organized as she multitasked with the chicken and stuffing which she put into a casserole dish along with some mushroom soup. She slid the dish into the oven and I helped her clean up before we returned to the living room once again, this time turning the television on to some movie.
Birney sat even closer next to me on the couch, almost as if she was cuddling against me. Her body was pressed against mine, our thighs rubbing against each others and one of her breasts squeezed against my chest as she sat at an angle watching the television. I was too frightened to move but I instinctively slid my arm around her shoulder and gave her a gentle squeeze. She dropped her head onto my shoulder and we didn't say anything as we watched the movie. I had waited all my life for such a moment.
After a while, Birney shifted slightly, rubbing against me and it almost felt like I was become aroused which would be beyond embarrassing. I closed my eyes and tried to ignore it. Birney eventually shifted her weight to press even more against me and I thought about excusing myself and going into the bathroom to alleviate my nervousness and my excitement but I was too afraid to move.

"I should check the casserole," Birney announced almost breathlessly before clearing her throat and standing from the couch and going into the kitchen.

"Yeah," I agreed, swallowing hard as I followed her into the other room.

I saw from the clock on the wall that it was five o'clock. I picked up the wall phone receiver and punched in our number. "Eating supper with a friend," I quickly said into the answering machine before hanging up.

I asked Birney if I could help her and she had me set the counter. She poured two glasses of milk and then scooped some of the casserole onto two plates I had placed on the counter before she took a seat on the stool next to mine.

'This is most excellent," I raved when I took a bite of her creation. "Very good indeed."

"Thanks," she said. "I thought about going to Blue County Technical School for culinary arts but there were just too many kids there for me to function."

"Maybe in college," I suggested.
"Maybe," she agreed.

"Did you ever think about getting a job doing this?" I asked. "Starting out as a short order cook or something?"

"Maybe when I get my license," she shrugged.

"I see a lot of teenagers working at Hillsboro Pizza," I said. "Maybe making sandwiches and spaghetti sauce and that sort of stuff would be a good place to start."

"I guess," she said. "But I don't know if I'll ever leave this trailer to tell you the truth."

"What do you mean?" I asked with surprise.

Birney sighed. "Sometimes I think I'll just spend the rest of my life right here," she admitted. "I feel safe and secure here. No pressures. No social phobias. No people to worry about."

"You have to live your life, Birney," I said.

"Maybe this is my life," she said.

"I don't think your Dad would want you to live that way."

"We've both gotten used to living this way," she argued. "We've become contently miserably stuck together."

"You deserve better," I said.

"Maybe I like it like this," She countered. "I really do get nervous out there in the real world. I've been diagnosed with social anxiety. I was home schooled and tutored and finally I just got my GED because it was easier that way."

"Because a fire changed everything?" I guessed.

"Something like that," She agreed. "I mean, I really don't remember anything," she said. "But I guess there is a subconscious fear about everything changing if I don't keep everything the same. If I don't leave the trailer, the trailer will always be here."

"Don't you want your Dad to find somebody new?" I asked. "To have a chance to be happy once you're old enough to be on your own?"

"I guess," Birney sighed. "I just don't know if either of us will ever be happy again."

I was dumbstruck by that statement and I didn't know how to reply so we basically finished the meal in silence.

I helped Birney clean up and when that task was done we returned to the living room. A new movie was playing on the television

"I'll be right back," Birney said as she disappeared down the hall.

She didn't close the bathroom door all their way and because the television wasn't on that loud, the trailer was so small and tinny, I could hear her urinating. She flushed the toilet and I heard the sink water running. A few minutes later, she returned to the living room and took her seat close to me on the couch. Apparently she didn't have any bathroom phobias like me if she didn't mind me hearing her pee.

"Can you stay longer?" Birney wondered.

"Sure," I said.
"Good," She said. "It's nice having you here."
"I like being here," I grinned.

"Oh. Um… great," She said awkwardly.
"I guess we sort of just kind of skipped the whole first date situation," I remarked.
"Oh?"

"But I'd like to take you out sometime."

"I'd rather not," she said.

"Huh?"

"I don't like going out," she said.

"I'm sorry."
"It's okay," she said. "I really like it better this way anyway. I feel safe and comfortable."
"Well, as long as you're okay with it," I responded.

"You think I'm nuts, don't you?" She sighed.

"No," I insisted.

"Everybody else does," she mumbled.

"I'm not everybody else."

"Oh. Um, well thank you for respecting my weirdness."
I smiled and we were both quiet for a while again while watching the television but then Birney looked at me.

"Ham?"
I turned to her. "Hm?"
"Have you ever had a girlfriend before?"
"No," I sighed with embarrassment.
"Oh." She was silent for a moment. "Um… would you…" She stuttered, but her voice trailed off.

"What?"
"Would you mind cuddling with me again?"
"Oh…..er…uh…..um…..of course." I could feel my face turning red.
She moved close to me and we put our arms around each other.
"Thanks," she said quietly.
"You're welcome," I whispered. "And thank you too."
She lifted her head and gave me a kiss on the cheek and then she lay her head on my shoulder. I closed my eyes and I heard her sigh deeply, causing her breast to press against my sternum. She snuggled even closer and if she moved any closer she would have been laying on top of me. She sighed again as I softly brushed my hand through her hair, knocking her Boston Red Sox ball cap off her head. I had never felt a girl's hair before.
I couldn't help but notice the feel of Birney's body. I could still feel her breast pressed against me and I did my best to ignore it but it was hard. Our thighs were also rubbing against each other as we sat on the couch staring mindlessly at the television screen.

"Birney?" I asked, clearing my throat.
She looked at me. "What?"
"Have you ever had a boyfriend?"

"Yeah, right," she grumbled. "Everybody wants to date the trailer girl."
"You're okay about this, aren't you?"
I could hear her swallow. "Yes."
"I've never felt like this before," I told her. "I didn't think any girl would ever be attracted to me."
"I've been watching you for a long time," she admitted, unable to look at me this time.

I noticed that she was staring down at her hands which she had folded in her lap but I didn't say anything.
"It's hard to get over things you've known your whole life," Birney told me. "I've gotten used to this way of life. But every morning when I saw you coming up the drive it was like I was watching my guardian angel walking into my life."

"Did you ever want to walk back down the road with me?" I asked.

"Every day," she whispered, wiping a tear from her eye. "But I could never bring myself to say anything to you. As much as I wanted to chase after you down the driveway I couldn't move. I couldn't break out of my fears and anxieties."
"What about now?"

"When you told me the other day that you were quitting I went into my room and cried."

"I'm sorry," I said, feeling bad.

"Hey, you have a right to live your life," she replied, shrugging her shoulders and wiping a few more tears away. "But I'm scared."

"About what?"

"About never seeing you again."
I reached out and took her hand. "I'll be back," I assured her.
"I hope so," she said as she stood from the couch, catching me off guard.

"Where you going?" I asked with surprise.
"To take a shower," she announced.

"Now!?"

"Look at me," she said with a groan. "All teary eyed. Plus I smell like chicken."

"Should I leave?" I asked nervously.

"Not if you don't want to," she said.

"Okay, I'll wait here," I replied.
"Well…" She stammered.
"What?" I was totally confused.
"I was thinking, that since… well…that maybe….you'd like… so, you know, we, um…" She trailed off. "Never mind," she sighed.
I stood from the couch and stared at her. "What were you going to say?"
"Well…" She lowered her head with embarrassment. "I was going to…. suggest we….that you…might like…if….we showered…. together."
I was stunned that she would suggest something so unbelievable. She really didn't seem to be the type to be so forward or daring but then I remembered how lonely we both were. We both stood staring at each other.

"Well, we can if you want to," I dared to offer.
Birney's face was red. "Really?"
"If you want to." I chickened out by keeping the pressure on her instead of me.
She looked up and our eyes met. "Okay."

What had I gotten myself into!?
Birney turned and headed for the bathroom and I nervously followed her feeling frightened and excited at the same time. She closed the door to the bathroom behind me and she again stared into my eyes.

"I don't know what to do," she mumbled.

"Me either," I admitted.

"Maybe we should both just get undressed," she suggested.

"Okay," I agreed.

Birney pulled off her baggy jeans and stepped out of them, leaving her in her sweatshirt and panties. I pulled off my jeans and shirt (careful not to knock my glasses off), leaving me in my underwear.
"Oh," Birney said.
"Yeah," I agreed nervously.
Birney blushed. "Is this check or checkmate?" She wondered.

"Checkmate, I guess," I decided, pulling down my underwear before I had time to think about it and back out.

Birney blushed when she looked at what was revealed and I have to admit I felt kind of stupid standing there with my thing hanging out for the first time in front of any girl. She hooked her fingers inside her panties and pulled them down her thighs revealing her secret as she stepped out of the panties and then she pulled her sweatshirt off over her head. She quickly unclasped her bra and let it fall to the tiled floor and she was totally naked before me. I could see her naked rear exposed in the mirror behind her.
"Checkmate," she said softly.

"Yeah," I sighed with appreciation and wonderment as I stared at her pale beauty and amazing features.

Birney giggled. "I've never seen anyone naked before." She said.

"Me either," I confessed, my voice squeaking.
Birney turned her back to me and I almost cried at the sight of her lovely backside as she turned the shower on. She pulled curtain all the way back and stepped over the tub before looking back at me, waiting for me to join her.

I stepped into the tub with her, standing behind her as she picked up the soap from the dish on the wall.

"Can I wash you?" She asked looking at me over her shoulder.
I was unable to answer.
Birney turned to face me and she began washing my shoulders and chest. She slowly moved her hands down to my stomach and up under my arms and then she ran her hands down my spine until she actually reached my naked butt. I couldn't help but jump and she laughed at my reaction.

"It's okay," she said quietly above the sound of the running water. "Now it's your turn." She said as she handed me the soap and turned around so her back was to me.

I washed her back and I slowly let my hands slip between her arms and her sides and I dared to rub the edges of her breasts before gently moving down her back all the way to her naked backside, only she didn't jump like I did when I fondly fondled her buns with my hands and the bar of soap. It was a feeling I never experienced before and Birney allowed me to explore her for a few minutes before stepping away.

"We should rinse off," she said. "The hot water usually doesn't last very long."

"Okay," I said with some disappointment as I put the bar of soap back in the dish.

But how could I really be disappointed? This was the best moment of my life.

Birney rinsed off and then she stepped around me so I could stand under the spray for a minute. She reached her arms around my waist and I could feel her breasts against my back as she turned the water off.

"Thanks," she said with another cute giggle.
I still couldn't speak. It was as if I was in a dream.

Birney stepped out of the tub and grabbed two towels off the rack, handing me one. We dried ourselves off and then she took the towels and put them back on the racks to dry, leaving us totally naked in front of each other.

"I thought you were shy," I whispered.

"I am," she insisted. "But maybe not so much with you anymore," she admitted.
"I'm not shy with you anymore either," I proclaimed.

"We should probably get dressed though," she told me.
"I guess," I sighed as I took in her beauty one last time.
Birney laughed and she stepped up to me, kissing me full on the mouth. Her lips were warm and soft. She parted her lips and she pushed her tongue into my mouth. I returned the gesture while feeling myself poking her in the stomach. Her soft breasts were pressed against my chest and I could feel her nipples stiffen as we kissed.
"I just wanted to see what it was like," she whispered as she stepped back from me.
"Birney, you're sweet and beautiful, and I really like you," I told her honestly. "I'll never forget any of this."

It was the weirdest moment of my life to be standing naked in the middle of a trailer having a conversation with a nude girl. But there was something incredibly soothing about it too, like it was the most natural thing to be doing. We picked up our discarded clothes and quietly dressed.

When we were finished, Birney silently led me back into living room. It was getting dark outside and she turned the blinds down but neither one of us said anything. I wasn't sure how I was supposed to act or what I was supposed to feel. Was this some sort of perverted disgusting horrible act or a moment of honesty, revelation, and comfort between two people?

"I…" Birney finally said with a blush, avoiding my eyes. "I feel really embarrassed…now that we're done….I hope you don't think any less of me. I don't know why I did what we did. It was a fantasy but I never thought I'd actually do it."
"I'm glad we did," I said. "I really feel special being with you, Birney."
"Oh. Well…" she stumbled.

"I think we're truly friends now."
She was silent for a moment and then she looked directly into my eyes. "I hope so."
"I know so," I said with confidence.

She smiled bravely and then led me toward the door. "I guess you should go," she said.

"I guess," I said, not sure how we were supposed to end this unbelievably weird yet fantastic day.

She nodded as she opened the door for me. Should I kiss her goodnight? Say something profound? Ask her out? Promise her I'd be back? Sadly, I did none of those things. I smiled, said good night and I left the trailer feeling intoxicated by everything that had happened.

### ### ###

The biggest regret of my life is that I never went back to see Birney. As wonderful as it was to get to know her and as amazingly profound as it was to take a shower with her by the time I rode my bike home that night I was in the middle of a panic attack. I felt like a slime ball for getting naked in front of a girl and for staring at a naked girl. I felt like I had done something wrong showering with her and I was afraid to go back because I feared she would be full of regret and maybe even resentment.

I didn't know what to say to her and I was afraid I would want to get naked with her again but I didn't know how to handle that. I guess I just wasn't ready for such intensity and I wasn't sure how to handle Birney's social phobias and insecurities. Maybe I was even worried about what people would think if they found out I was seeing the trailer park girl with the murderer arsonist father, the retarded weird girl who lived at a murder scene.

I hated myself for a long time. I beat myself up whenever I thought about Birney and there were times when I thought about going back to the Fortin trailer but as time went on I sort of forgot about her. Maybe I was trying to block the guilt out of my mind and deny the remorse and sadness I was feeling inside.

I eventually became a bit more socially successful as I continued through high school. Taking a shower with a girl helped my self esteem and ego and I became more confident and assertive with my female classmates. I eventually got contact lenses, my skin cleared up, and I got better at not getting my bowels in a knot whenever I went to a public bathroom. But Birney was always in the back of my mind, haunting me for my abandonment of her. I would always be a bastard for that failure.

### ### ###

I was thirty-two years old. I was back in Hillsboro after an eight year Army stint as well as pursuing my college education. I had a job as a job coach working for the State Division of Transitional Assistance (Unemployment) and I rented an apartment in my hometown of Hillsboro. I dated a woman who worked in the same building as me for a while but we had recently broken up.

It was the Christmas season and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that for the past fourteen years I thought about Birney every time the Holidays rolled around. The image of her house burning down on Christmas Eve while she was visiting Santa Claus at Donovan's Department Store stayed with me. How sad it must have been for her all those years not celebrating Christmas because of a tragedy that happened when she was two years old. I'd feel guilty every time I celebrated Christmas thinking about Birney and how Christmas was nothing but pain and sorrow for her.

I often wondered what Birney was doing these days. Was she still living in the trailer? I had passed by the dirt road a few times over the years but I could never bring myself to turn onto it to see if the trailer was still there.

It was two days before Christmas and I was sitting at the kitchen table reading the Greenville News and Dispatch when the following story caught my eye:

Thirty Years since Tragic Christmas Eve Fire Claimed Three Lives

By Cori Fisher

Dispatch Intern

Hillsboro - It was Christmas Eve and little Birney Fortin hadn't seen Santa Claus yet. So her father Warren Fortin, 24, took his two year old daughter to Donovan's Department Store in downtown Greenville to see the jolly fat man in the red suit.

While little Birney was sitting on Santa's lap telling the Man From the North Pole what she'd like for Christmas, a fire broke out at the Fortin Farm House on the end of Gully Road in Hillsboro, killing little Birney's pregnant mother and her grandparents.

Dying in the inferno that remains one of Hillsboro's most profound tragedies was Barbara (Lewis) Fortin, 23, who had only weeks earlier learned that she was pregnant with her second child, and her in-laws, William Fortin, 49, and his wife Janet (Robbins) Fortin, 48.

"There are no words," Hillsboro Fire Chief Bruce Mortensen said of that tragic afternoon that took place thirty years ago this Christmas Eve. "I don't understand why something so terrible could happen on a day like today," he was quoted as saying that fateful afternoon. "I feel awful for Mr. Fortin and his little girl and the immense pain they must be experiencing, pain that I can't even begin to comprehend. Anything can happen in the blink of an eye and this fire was as fast moving as any fire I've ever seen."

The Fortin farmhouse was already fully engulfed by the time fire fighters arrived on the scene. The house stood alone far from neighboring homes and the fire was not seen right away. Neighbors reported the fire by telephone after noticing smoke billowing over the tree tops from the Fortin property.

Assistance from the Greenville, Riverside, and South County Fire Departments was also requested by Chief Mortensen. It took nearly two hours to completely extinguish the flames that burned the house to the ground.

"It looked like a bonfire, something you think would never happen in Hillsboro," Firefighter Sam Lucas recalled. "It was the first fire of my young career and I was stunned to see how quickly that house burned."

Warren Fortin returned with his daughter from seeing Santa to find the street to his house closed off. Only when Hillsboro Police Officer Chris LaHanson who was directing traffic told Fortin of the fire did he learn what was taking place.

"I didn't realize he was a member of the family," the retired LaHanson sighed nearly thirty years later. "I'll never forget the look on his face when I told him what was happening."

Fire investigators eventually determined that the family Christmas tree somehow became engulfed in flames, most likely caused by a faulty light or plug socket. The Fortin farmhouse was originally built in 1876 and the electrical system had not been upgraded in several years.

"The structure was a ball of flames when we arrived," Chief Mortensen told The Greenville News and Dispatch. "The house was already engulfed and we couldn't enter because some of the walls were already crumbling. The flames were intense and all we could do was pour water on the structure."

The three bodies were found in the debris but it was impossible to determine what floors the individuals had been on when they perished.

Authorities whisked away the young girl while fire fighters had to stop the distraught Warren Fortin from charging toward the burning house.

"I remember it was a clear and sunny afternoon and not all that particularly cold for a Christmas Eve Day in New England," Neighbor Betty Randell said. "It had snowed a couple of inches a few nights earlier and the heat of the fire melted all the snow in a large radius from the house."

Witnesses reported that Warren Fortin was seen sobbing when the bodies of his wife and parents were pulled from the smoldering rubble, placed in body bags, and removed from the scene on stretchers.

"He looked like he was in a trance when they put him in the back of one of the police cars," Betty Randell, now 76, recalls. "I felt so sorry for him and that cute little girl of his."

The Hillsboro Fire Department made counselors available to the firefighters, most of who had never dealt with a multiple casualty incident before. It took several hours to extinguish the simmering aftermath.

"You can only imagine how devastated Mr. Fortin is," Fire Chief Mortensen said a few days after the fire. "Any husband and son would be. And he has a young daughter to care for."

The Fortin property was no longer a working farm when the family bought the property in the mid 1970s but William Fortin, who worked for the Hillsboro Street Department, was known in the community for his involvement with his church and his wife Janet was a member of the Blue County Fair Planning Committee.

The younger Mrs. Fortin was relatively new to the area.

"Warren went off to the Navy and came back with her," family friend Homer Johnson recalled. "The little girl had already been born and I don't think the wife lived here a year before the fire happened. I only met her a few times. She was a quiet and petite little thing."

A single funeral service was held for the three victims at St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Hillsboro. Young Birney Fortin was not in attendance but her father sat in the front pew for the services.

"It was standing room only," Choir member Gretchen Andrews who sang at the Mass recalled. "Most who came to mourn didn't personally know the Fortin family but everybody had been so affected by a fire on Christmas Eve that they felt the need to publically mourn the tragedy. It was only days after Christmas and people were still in the giving and emotional holiday mood so they came to pay their respects and pray for healing."

The entire Hillsboro Fire Department attended the funeral Mass and a police and fire escort led the funeral procession to Hillsboro Cemetery for burial.

Hillsboro firefighters and other volunteers accepted donations at the station.

"How much more tragic could a fire be then to have it happen on Christmas Eve?" Chief Mortensen asked. "The timing of it was terrible. You've got a father and a daughter who survived. They lost everything. Not only their loved ones but their Christmas presents too. It was very disheartening. And for the firefighters and other rescue personnel to have to deal with a deadly fire on Christmas Eve and then go home to their families, well it was difficult for everybody."

"Nothing was salvaged from the fire," Homer Johnson said. "Everything Warren owned was lost. Appliances. Furniture. Clothes. Photographs. Family collectables. Even little Birney's toys were destroyed. Warren had nothing left and he needed everything to get back on his feet."

Several fundraisers took place in the following months to help the surviving Fortin family.

"I don't think Warren ever recovered from the tragedy," says Eddie Hawkins who was a co-worker of Warren Fortin at Blue County Scrap Yard and Recyclables for nearly thirty years. "It was a nightmare he couldn't believe happened to him and he never got over it."

Fortin never rebuilt the family homestead. A trailer was placed on the property and he raised his daughter there while avoiding the public.

"He didn't want his daughter growing up as a victim or being harassed," Eddie Hawkins explained. "In later years, people who didn't know the true story of the fire created lore and gossip and rumor that were not very flattering or sensitive to the Fortin family and he wanted to shield Birney from that type of scuttlebutt."

"He never talked about the fire," Homer Johnson reveals today. "He never celebrated Christmas either and he refused to let the town remember his family or the event in any way. It was sad really and I always felt sorry for his daughter who never got to experience Christmas like other kids."

Warren Fortin passed away three years ago following a short battle with cancer. He was 51 years old. His daughter continues to live on the family property but she declined to be interviewed for this story.

"Birney is a private person who doesn't like talking about the family tragedy," Hawkins said. "She wants to be left alone so her family can rest in peace. I suggest we all honor her wishes."

"The child was only two years old when the fire happened but she was probably traumatized more than anybody," says family friend Homer Johnson. "She always struck me as a sad and introverted person whenever I saw her over the years. She's a bit of a recluse who doesn't like being out in public."

Thirty years later and a community remembers a tragedy that affected so many people although no public gathering is planned.

"It's a Christmas Eve I'd rather not remember," Officer LaHanson says. "It brings back nothing but sad memories for all those who were a part of that horrible day."

I must have read the article five times. It was the first time I saw anything in writing about the fire that was now thirty years old. The story ran with four photos from that tragic day – a shot of the farm house fully engulfed, a second photo of fire officials walking among the charred remains of the structure, a third photo of the funeral procession leaving St. Patrick's Church a few days later, and composite shots of Birney's mom and grandparents that looked back at me front the page hauntingly. I never knew the grandfather worked for the town – just like my father.

Reading about the fire made it much more real for me and I felt all the more pathetic that I had abandoned Birney all those years ago, especially when I learned that her father had died. Was she alone now, two days before Christmas?

I went to work feeling like shit and I couldn't shake the thought of Birney from my mind. I didn't go straight home when I left work. Instead, I went to Donovan's Department Store and picked out an expensive hand crafted chess set with a heavy wood board. I had the gift wrapped and I went home wondering if I would actually have the guts to do what I fantasized doing.

It was Saturday. Christmas Eve. I got up before dawn and drove to the end of Gully Road. I parked my car by the dirt drive to the Fortin trailer and waited until I saw the headlights appear. It was the newspaper delivery car approaching (the Dispatch had done away with youth delivery personnel a few years earlier following a change to the state tax systems involving contracted and non-contracted services).

"I'll deliver the paper to this house," I told the confused guy who saw me standing by the side of the road.

"Okay," he agreed, handing me the morning edition of the News and Dispatch.

I also had my Christmas present and I slugged up the dirt road to the Fortin trailer for the first time in sixteen years. It had snowed a few days earlier and the road was a little slippery as I walked up it. I slipped once and fell another time.

When I got to the yard area of the trailer I stopped and waited, wondering if Birney still waited and watched for the paper to be delivered. The old barn was still standing in the distance with a silo that tilted. The cellar hole was still there was well with the chimney rising from the snowy ground. A fifteen year old Honda Civic was the only vehicle on the property, parked under a tree by the barn covered in snow and obviously not driven in a few days.

I'm not sure how long I stood at the foot of the walk leading to the railing of the wooden porch in front of the door to the trailer. It may have been two hours. I figured Birney would look out the window sooner or later for her paper. I thought I saw the shade to the window move a few times but I wasn't sure.

Finally, just as I was about to give up, the door to the trailer opened and I saw Birney stick her head out. She didn't look all that much different, really. Her hair was lighter and shorter and she was wearing sweats and a wool winter cap on her head.

"Are you crazy?" She asked.

"Yes," I answered.

"What in the hell are you doing here?"

"I brought you a present," I said, lifting the gift up in my hand. "Oh, and the paper too," I added.

She stared at me for a long moment. "How long were you going to stand out here?" She wanted to know.

"As long as it took," I replied.

My feet were frozen and I couldn't feel my nose but I had been smart enough to wear gloves and a red Santa hat to keep my head warm.

"What happened to your glasses?" She asked.

"Contacts," I replied.

I could hear her sigh from twenty feet away. "Well," she said, finally. "You'd better come in before you turn into an icicle."

"Okay," I said, relieved she didn't call the cops or slam the door, leaving me outside to freeze and die of shame.

I slowly drugged to the steps leading into the trailer. Birney stepped back and let me step inside. I wiped my feet on the mat before entering and then rubbed my nose to see if it was still there.

"When I first glanced out the window I thought I was seeing a ghost," Birney said sadly.

"I was hoping you'd see your guardian angel," I remarked hopefully.

"He stopped coming a long time ago," she sighed.

"He was wrong to do that," I told her as I put the present and the paper down on the counter.

"I guess he lost his way," Birney said.

"Yes, that's exactly what happened," I admitted.

I peeled my gloves off and rubbed my hands together and then slowly took my coat off, waiting to see if she was going to stop me and tell me to get out. She crossed her arms across her chest and stared at me unhappily. The trailer didn't look all that much different.

"Do you have any orange juice and donuts?" I asked.

She considered the suggestion for a long moment and for a second I thought she was going to change her mind and tell me to leave.

"How 'bout coffee and Danish?" she finally replied.

"Okay," I said with relief, taking a seat on my old stool.

I watched as Birney took some Danish out of the bread box and poured two mugs of coffee. She put one on the counter in front of me but she stayed near the sink instead of sitting on the stool next to me and continued to stare at me.

"Why are you here?" She demanded with annoyance.

"I saw the article in yesterday's paper," I said.

"Didn't you actually read it?" She accused. "It said I wanted to be left alone."

"I'm sorry about your Dad," I sighed. "I didn't know."

"He was dead a month after he found out he was sick," Birney said, her eyes getting wet. "God, I miss him."

"Do you hate me?" I asked.

"I did for a while," she admitted, looking at me with disapproval. "I kept waiting for you to come back."

"But I never did," I confessed.

"You never did," she confirmed bitterly, hurt in her voice. "That's why I hated you."

"I'm sorry," I said with as much sincerity as I could muster. "I just…..couldn't deal with it."

"So, you really did think I was the crazy girl in the trailer," she sighed.

"No, it wasn't that," I insisted. "I just got overwhelmed about…..everything."

She brushed a tear from her eye and I looked away with guilt and shame.

"How are you?" I asked when she stopped fidgeting with her tears.

"I hate Christmas more than ever," she revealed coldly.

"So, you're really are Jewish then," I quipped, remembering her line from long ago.

"No, just lonely and alone," she replied with rancor. "Sometimes it felt like I had to hate Christmas because my father hated it so much but now that he's gone I've been wondering if I'm really supposed to hate it as much as I do."

"I don't think you're supposed to," I said.

"But then again what do I have to celebrate?" She asked, giving me a darting accusatory look.

"I don't suppose you became a chef, huh?" I sighed.

"No," she laughed, rolling her eyes. "Come here, I'll show you what I do."

I hopped off the stool and followed her through the trailer to the back bedroom, her father's old room. It was now set up as an office with three computers on the long counter desk that took up the entire wall. Several filing cabinets, printers, and faxes were also in the office. There was a flat screen television, three phone lines, and a stereo system also in the room.

"I never have to leave home," She said proudly. "Which for me is a good thing," she added.

"What do you do?" I asked, glancing around the office.

"I have my own on-line business," she said. "I named it Gully Productions. I type up short text ads for companies and post them online. I also type up research papers and manuscripts for people. I do on line research. I design and type surveys. I edit blogs and I run an online support group for people with social phobias. Plus other odds and ends that have to do with the internet."

"Well, congratulations," I said, impressed by her ingenuity.

"I started six or seven years ago," she said, taking a seat in her swivel computer chair.

I took a seat in an arm chair in the corner.

"Then when Daddy died and I set up home base in here," she added. "It's a living."

"Do you get out much?" I asked.

"As little as possible," she replied honestly. "Fontaine's delivers for me. Same with the pizza house. I'll do a little shopping at odd hours. I get over to Red's Tastee Freeze once in a while in the summer. I'll go for a ride when I'm feeling particularly adventurous. Maybe a swim at the lake or in the river. I went to the outdoor a couple of times. That's about it."

"That's pretty good," I said.

"I saw your picture in the paper when you enlisted," Birney announced.

"God, I hated every minute I was in the Army," I confessed. "I spent four years in Texas which was torture to the max."

"You're back here now?" She asked.

"Yeah, I work for the state," I informed her. "The Department of Transitional Assistance in Greenville."

"Where do you live?"

"An apartment downtown, not far from the river," I replied.

She nodded her head in understanding. "Are you with anybody?"

I shook my head no. "You?" I was almost afraid to ask.

"Yeah, right," she groaned, rolling her eyes. "Because dating a hopelessly antisocial haphephobic anthropophobic is great for any guy's social life," she said sarcastically.

"There must have been some guys," I said gently.

She blushed and looked away. "You mean besides you?"

"Yeah," I said quietly.

"My father brought his friend's son over when I was about twenty," Birney revealed. "I guess he was trying to cure me or something. It took him days to convince me but the guy finally took me to a movie and I freaked out because there were like fifty people in the theatre. I could feel the knot forming in my chest as soon as we walked into the lobby, working its way into my lungs and squashing my heart. My body was stiff and my skin crinkled bringing shivers up and down my spine. The anxiety built and built, trapping me like a prisoner in my own body. My breathing became erratic, the theatre started spinning, blurs of light and sounds blinded my eyes and rang in my ears and I felt like I was going to throw up. I stumbled out of the theatre like I was fighting for my life and that was the end of that date."

"I'm sorry," I sighed.

"Another time another guy brought me to Johnny C's for coffee and some pie. It was like three o'clock in the afternoon so I figured the place would be empty."

"Johnny C's is never empty," I laughed.

"Tell me about it," she sighed. "I felt a knot in my chest that only worsened as people continued to fill into the place, giving me a feeling of being trapped in a small box. After that, the guy brought the coffee here and we'd have sex in my room while my father was at work."

My job dropped and I felt jealous and envious at the same time.

"You joined the Army, Ham," she frowned when she saw the look on my face. "What was I supposed to do? You never came back."

"I wish I had." I stared at her with remorse. "What happened to the guy?"

"He got tired of my room," Birney replied. "He said high school was over and we were too old to be having high school sex."

I was overcome by a sense of sadness, regret and loss as I stared at Birney, my first (and probably only) girl. We had only spent one day together but it was a day I had never forgotten and I thought about it often, even though I had abandoned her just when she needed me most.

"Would you like to celebrate Christmas with me?" I asked her point blank.

Birney was taken aback by my invitation. "You know I don't do Christmas," she said, almost angrily.

"Maybe it's time to start," I offered neutrally.

She looked at me for a long moment. "What do you mean?" She finally asked. "What would we do?"

"Have you ever had a tree?" I asked.

Birney shook her head, almost in horror. "My father hated them," she said. "That's what burned our house down."

"We could get a fake tree," I said. "Totally safe and fire proof."

Birney looked at me with surprise. "Really?" She said.

"My sister has a whole bunch of Christmas junk in her cellar," I said. "Her mother in law died a few years ago and she inherited all the Christmas stuff. She was trying to pawn it off on me last year but I wasn't in the mood to celebrate Christmas."

"Why not?" Birney asked with a frown.

"Because every Christmas I think of you," I confessed truthfully. "It got harder to enjoy the season with each passing year because I missed you more and more."

Now it was Birney's turn to drop her jaw. "I thought you forgot all about me," she accused.

"Never," I said. "The worse mistake I ever made was not coming back here."

"I'm sorry I scared you away," she said softly.

"I guess I wasn't ready to get naked yet," I confessed.

Birney blushed just the way she used to when she was sixteen. "I shouldn't have made you," Birney admitted. "I was pretty messed up in the head. OD'ed on all those stupid romance novels I was reading. Incredibly lonely and desperate. I just wanted to feel like I was normal for once in my miserable life."

"It's okay," I said. "I never forgot what we shared."

Birney smiled and blushed at the same time.

"So, do you want to go get the Christmas tree?" I asked hopefully.

"How many people are at your sister's house?"

"She has a husband, three kids, and two dogs," I grinned. "But you can wait in the car if it's too overwhelming. I think Joanie is the only one home right now."

"How big is the house?"

"Pretty big," I acknowledged.

Birney thought about it for a moment. "I'll give it a try," she said. "My father is probably rolling over in his grave though."

"Na, your mother and grandparents set him straight," I said as I stood from the chair. "Christmas is supposed to be special for those on Earth."

Birney stood too. "Give me a minute to get dressed," she said as she went into the other room.

I waited for her in the office, glancing at some of the art work on the wall, including some of the ads she had designed. They were cute, intelligent and funny, sassy even.

Birney returned a few minutes later wearing jeans and a colorful heavy wool sweater, the winter cap still on her head and thick black boots that reached her knees.

"All set?" I asked, thrilled at how great she looked.

"No guarantees," she said honestly. "But I'll give it my best shot."

"Just give me the signal if you need to bail out," I said.

"What's the signal?" She asked with confusion.

"A kiss," I teased and Birney rolled her eyes in reply.

She led me back to the kitchen and I put my coat, gloves and Santa cap back on before we headed outside.

"My car is at the bottom of the driveway," I said.

We walked down the hilly road without saying anything to each other and climbed into my car, a white Jeep Cherokee I had bought brand new early in my Army career.

"Nice wheels," she said as we headed for my sister's house in Greenville.

Birney didn't have a lot to say as we made the ride. She was more interested in taking in the passing scenery since she didn't get out much. I pulled the jeep into Joanie's driveway.

"Wow, nice place," Birney remarked, looking at the stately Victorian home.

The large three story house was at the bottom of Green Hill, one of the nicer Greenville neighborhoods. My sister married Davis Beckman, a successful insurance broker. They had three kids – Mickey, Yvonne, and Andy, all in their teens.

"Do you want to come in?"

"I'll try," Birney replied, sounding a little nervous, understandable given her social phobia.

We got out of the car and walked to the front door. I rang the doorbell and the sounds of barking dogs erupted from the other side. I glanced at Birney and smiled.

"They're harmless," I promised.

The door opened and my sister Joanie's eyes went wide when she saw me. "Hammy!" She exclaimed, giving me a hug. "This is an unexpected surprise." (I rarely dropped by unannounced).

Joanie was eight years older than me and although she was in her late thirties with three children she still looked amazingly spunky, her hair still bright yellow and shiny. The barking dogs rumbled into the hall to sniff us but they quickly lost interest and disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.

"Do you still have that extra Christmas stuff?" I asked when I broke the embrace.

"Er...sure, come in," she said, not expecting to hear that question.

"This is Birney," I said, introducing the two women. "Birney, this is my sister, Joanie."

"Birney?" Joanie said with surprise. "From the newspap..."

"Don't worry about it," I interrupted. "We just need some Christmas decorations."

"Okay," Joanie said with fascinated amusement. "Not a problem."

We followed Joanie into the living room. My sister was one of those people who absolutely loved Christmas and went all out to celebrate it. Christmas decorations were everywhere, including a huge real tree in living room engulfed with presents. Christmas music filled the house and the odor of baking pies hung in the air.

"This is lovely," Birney said as she took in the Christmas decor.

"Thanks," Joanie beamed. "I love Christmas."

Birney tossed me a look and smiled. It was probably the first time she heard those words spoken in her presence!

"Come down into the cellar," Joanie said warmly. "The decorations are down there."

The cellar was remodeled with a large expanded family room that included a pool table and several couches, as well as a bar and a large entertainment center. On the other side of the room were the laundry room and a large workshop and storage area. Joanie pointed to some cardboard boxes sitting on a shelf.

"There's Shelia's Christmas stuff," she said, referring to her late mother in law. "Most of it is duplicates of what we already have so you're welcomed to use it."

"Thanks," I said with appreciation. "This is very kind of you."

"It's Christmas!" Joanie laughed. "Is this for your place, Hammy?"

"Actually, it's for me," Birney spoke up shyly, standing in the shadows behind us. "I've never decorated before."

Joanie was momentarily taken aback. "Seriously?"

I didn't want Birney to have to explain her whole sad story. "I'm sure Shelia's stuff will make it special," I said as I grabbed the boxes off the shelves.

"I'm glad it's being put to good use," Joanie replied happily.

"Me too," Birney said with surprising enthusiasm as she took a box from me.

We lugged the boxes back up the stairs with Joanie going on about Christmas.

"You're more than welcomed to join us, Birney," Joanie said at one point.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Birney replied nervously. "But thanks for the offer."

"Well, you think about it," Joanie said cheerfully. "We'd love to have you."

I nodded my appreciation to my sister as Birney and I headed out the front door with the decorations.

"See you tomorrow, Hammy!" Joanie called after us. "And Merry Christmas!"

"Are there going to be a lot of people there tomorrow?" Birney asked once we were in the car.

"My family's kind of big," I said. "So, yeah."

"I don't think I could handle that," Birney sighed.

"It's a big house," I smiled.

"Yeah, but not big enough."

"See that side porch?" I asked, pointing to one of the two side structures on each end of the house. "It's an all weather porch with heat and plenty of windows. Maybe it wouldn't so bad for you out there."

"I don't know," Birney mumbled.

"Well, you think about it," I said gently.

We drove back to Birney's trailer with Christmas music on the car radio. Birney didn't say much as she stared out the window. I drove the jeep up the dirt drive and parked in front of the trailer. We dragged the boxes inside and set up the fake tree with ornaments and lights, as well as a small wood manger, a North Pole globe, and a musical box with Mother Mary on top of it holding the Baby Jesus playing the tune to "Oh Come All Ye Faithful".

"The living room looks kind of festive," I said with a smile when we were done setting up.

Birney looked sort of dumbstruck as she stared at the decorations. "I never thought I'd see this here," she said.

"Merry Christmas, Birney," I grinned, turning her radio to the same station we had on the car so Christmas music could be heard.

"My father didn't believe in Christmas," she said.

"I know," I said sadly. "But that doesn't mean you can't."

She stared at me for a long moment. "Are you supposed to be my Christmas present?" She wanted to know.

"I don't know," I admitted. "I don't know if I deserve the chance after what I did to you all those years ago."

I took the present I had brought and put it under the tree. We stood in front of the tree staring at it while glancing at each other several times, neither of us quite certain what to do next.

"Are you hungry?" Birney finally asked. "Would you like some lunch?"

"Do you have any chicken?" I asked.

"Chicken?" She didn't remember.

"You made me that delicious chicken casserole of yours that day," I said.

"Oh, yeah," she said. "Actually, I think I do!"

"Great!" I smiled.

I followed her into the kitchen and took my spot on the stool at the counter, watching as Birney began her meal preparations with the Christmas music playing in the background. I wasn't sure how comfortable she was with me there or with the music and decorations but it was too late to turn back now.

Birney wasn't talking much so I told a couple of Army stories (mostly my most miserable Christmases away) to keep the awkwardness from overwhelming us too much. Did I really expect us to pick up where we left off after me going missing for sixteen long years? I didn't blame her for resenting me for my unforgivable behavior but I was genuinely glad to see her again now, especially on Christmas Eve.

I told her how I planned on making the Army a career but after two tours in Afghanistan I had become jaded and bitter. I was just an administrative geek pushing paperwork but I still saw (and heard about) enough death, mayhem and destruction to be forever changed so I got out and went to school on the GI Bill while living with a girl in Iowa of all places for a few years. When that relationship ended I decided to make a big change and I returned to Hillsboro after being gone for more than fourteen years.

"I'm glad you didn't get hurt over there," Birney said when I was done with my life story update.

The casserole was in the oven by then and she sat on the stool next to mine peering at me.

"I should still hate you," she decided

"I know," I replied. "You should."

"But its Christmas," she sighed, glancing around. "Peace on Earth and all that stuff."

"Yeah," I agreed. "All that stuff."

She examined me for a long moment. "Do you really believe in the magic of Christmas?" She wanted to know.

"Yeah," I confessed. "I appreciated it when I was over there and still saw the hope in people's attitudes even in the most miserable of places. I missed my family and all those Christmas memories. I thought about what was important to me and why Christmas was so special."

"Why is it?" She asked.

"Because it's all about love and happiness, joy and fulfillment, peace and hope," I explained. "Joanie really exemplifies the true spirit of the season and when I read that article the other day I was struck by the depth of your loss, pain and sadness and I didn't want you to have to go through that anymore."

"People always seem so happy this time of year," Birney sighed. "And all those Holiday movies? I've been transfixed by them for the past few years. Never could watch them when Daddy was alive but now that's gone I watch them non-stop."

I smiled. "You're getting the hang of it."

"I could never bring myself to turn the Christmas music on though," she admitted.

"Do you want me to turn it off?"

She shook her head no. "It's kind of nice," she smiled.

"It is," I agreed. I glanced at her. "Was it hard not having Christmas all those years?"

She shrugged. "I got used to it. I knew my father had no interest in celebrating and I wanted to respect that. I understood why it made him so sad and why he didn't want anything to do with it but sometimes I felt like I got gyped and deprived out of something and that didn't seem fair."

"It wasn't," I said. "It's such a big part of any child's life."

"Well, I'm not a kid anymore," she shrugged.

"We're always kids at heart," I rebutted.

Birney got off the stool and went to check on the casserole in the oven. "I'm torn," she said openly. "Part of me wants to say 'Bah, Humbug!' and be miserable but another part of me wants to drink Eggnog and eat candy canes and sing Christmas Carols."

"You can be merry," I told her.

"I'm not sure if I know how," Birney sighed.

The casserole was ready and she filled two plates with the food and brought them to the counter along with a couple of glasses of water. We ate and I thought about the first time I had it on the memorable day so long ago – a half a life time ago now.

"Still as good as ever," I told her.

"I don't cook much now that Dad's gone," Birney said sadly.

We ate in silence with the Christmas music soothing us in the background. I felt like crying as I thought about lonely little Birney who never got to sing Christmas Carols. I wanted to tell her that her father was wrong and that he shouldn't have denied her happiness just because he was bitter at the world for what happened to his family but I knew that wouldn't be the right thing to say. She loved her father and she didn't need to hear me questioning his legacy.

Why was I feeling so sad? It was Christmas – the most happiest time of the year – but the guilt I felt for abandoning Birney stuck with me as if it happened yesterday. I wish I could be Ebenezer Scrooge and go back in time and do it over again. I would have been back at the trailer the next day. We could have finished the left over casserole for lunch and then played chess. I would have gone back every day after that and played her in chess and kept her company and been her friend. And when I got my license I would have taken her out for rides and on Christmas I would have brought her presents and sang her Christmas Carols.

"I'm sorry I hurt you," I sighed heavily, stealing her a glance.

"Well, you should be," Birney said openly. "But you're here now," she added indifferently.

We finished eating and I helped Birney clean up, do the dishes, and put things away just like that day sixteen years earlier. But we were young, innocent and naïve back then and now we were older and jaded by the wars of life and the disappointment of the real world.

"Do you still play Chess?" I asked Birney when we adjourned to the living room once we were done in the kitchen.

"Not since my father died," she sighed sadly. "Although I'll still go on the computer occasionally." She took a seat on the couch. "You?"

"Not so much anymore," I revealed. "Used to in the Army some."

She glanced around the room. "I'm not even sure if I still have that old set," she said.

"Why, do you want to play?" I asked with interest.

"Maybe," she shrugged.

"Open your present then," I said, going to the tree and retrieving the present I had gotten her.

Birney looked at me with surprise as I handed her the gift. I could see her swallow hard as she nervously, slowly, and carefully opened the present, her eyes watering up with tears since this was probably the first Christmas present she received in the past thirty years. Her eyes went wide when the gift wrapping was pulled away and she saw the lovely chest set underneath.

"Oh, Ham," Birney said, her eyes wide when she glanced up at me. "This is lovely."

"Do you want to play?"

She smiled and nodded yes as she opened the box and set the new board on the coffee table. I sat on the floor opposite her and she took a black pawn and a white pawn in her hand.

"Choose," she said, holding her two closed fists out toward me.

I picked white and she finished setting up the board. We were both rusty so the first two games went slowly and sloppily – one finishing in a draw, the other in my resignation when it became obvious that I didn't have the forces left to beat her. But it was just like that wonderful first day with us sitting across the board from each other, giving me a chance to study her face while she was studying the game. It was all I could do not to lean across the table and kiss her, especially with the Christmas music playing.

"Set it up again?" Birney asked when the second game was over.

"Sure," I said.

But we heard the sounds of cars and tires outside and we both went to the window to see who could possibly be out there since Birney never had visitors. We were surprised to see a couple of Hillsboro Police cruisers, the Fire Chief's car, and several other vehicles pulling to a stop near the cellar hole. A police officer made his way toward the door and Birney shyly dropped behind me.

"Find out what he wants," she said nervously.

I opened the kitchen door and stuck my head out. "Sir?"

"I'm terribly sorry to intrude but several people felt compelled to honor the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the fire," the Officer told me. "The article in the paper generated a lot of reaction and people felt the need to do something."

"What people?" I inquired.

"Some of the people who were here that day," the officer replied. "Some retired firemen. A couple of the police officers. Some old friends from the neighborhood. I hope you don't mind. There's a memorial reef and some flowers."

I glanced back over my shoulder at Birney who looked paled. "Go ahead," she whispered.

I nodded my okay to the officer and Birney and I stepped out onto the deck to watch.

"Thank you, Miss Fortin," the Officer said before he left to join the others. There were maybe a dozen people standing by the cellar hole. A few words were spoken, someone said a prayer, and then the reef and flowers were tossed into the cellar hole.

The people slowly drifted back to their cars, a few tipping their hats or giving us a silent wave but nobody said a word and the cars slowly drove away. That's when I noticed a young woman coming toward us. She had a camera and a notebook in her hand.

"I'm Cori Fisher from the Dispatch," she said. "Would you be interested in saying a few words or having your picture taken for the paper?"

"No picture," I said. "But Ms. Fortin would like to thank those who remembered her family with their kind gesture today. She appreciates the sentiments and the good work of all the heroes that day who tried to save her mother and grandparents. She hopes everybody can have peace and closure on this 30th anniversary. Merry Christmas everybody."

The reporter scratched my statement into her notebook as I closed the door and turned to see a dumbstruck Birney standing in the middle of the kitchen. "I didn't expect that," she said, her voice quivering. "Why would people want to do that?"

"For a sense of resolution and conclusion," I theorized. "I'm sure the newspaper story brought up a lot of old emotions for people who were involved that day. It was just about thirty years ago at this very moment when the tragedy took place," I said, glancing at the clock.

I could see Birney physically shutter and I stepped into her and gave her a hug. I felt her quietly weep against my chest. I'm not sure how long we stood in the kitchen like that with me holding her tight and her silently sobbing. When she was able to pull herself together, Birney stepped away from me and wiped the tears from her face.

"I guess I'm crying for the thirty lost years," she said, sucking in her breath. "I got used to growing up without a Mom or grandparents although obviously it had a tremendous negative affect on me seeing how I never go out but it wasn't as if I was missing them. It was more like I was missing the idea of them. My father never talked about them so I never talked about them either."

"Do you have any memories at all?" I asked.

"I remember my mother singing me lullabies when I went to sleep at night," Birney said quietly as she stepped back into the living room and fell into the couch in a sitting position. "I remember my grandfather's whiskers against my face. I remember my grandmother's laugh. But I really don't remember their faces. I just remember the essence of who they were and what they meant to me."

"I wonder what your life would have been like had the fire not happened," I remarked as I stood looking at her.

Birney considered it for a moment, got up and went into her office, returning a moment later with a photo. "This is the house," she said, handing me the photo. "I found it in Daddy's things after he died."

It was a big white farm house with lots of windows and black shutters. Two couples – I'm guessing Birney's parents and grandparents – were standing in front of the house with huge smiles on their face. The younger woman was holding a young child which I assumed was Birney.

"It would have been a nice house to grow up in," Birney said warmly as she stared at the photo I held in my hand. "I would have had the love of my grandparents to help guide me through my days. My father would have smiled like he did in this photo. He never smiled after that day. And my mother…well, I'm sure she would have told me how to behave around boys and how to feel good about myself. She would have taken me places and I would have seen the world instead of being trapped in this prison."

"I could show you the world," I said quietly.

"Too late," she remarked as she returned to the couch and collapsed onto it.

I sighed and sat next to her, the Christmas music continuing to fill the room as we sat without talking. Birney was obviously to upset to play another game of chess.

"I have to go to my parents' house tonight," I informed Birney after some time had passed. "My siblings do their in law family thing on Christmas Eve and I've been going over to my parents' house since I got back. My mother makes corn chowder which is an old family tradition and it's a low key event. Just the three of us." I glanced at Birney. "Would you be interested in coming?"

"I don't know," Birney sighed.

"We all have choices as to which prison we stay trapped in, Birney," I told her.

She threw me a look. "Okay, I guess I can give it a try, but I can't guarantee how long I'll last," she said with annoyance.

"That's okay," I assured her with a smile. "Trying is the important thing."

For some reason, I felt forgiven and rejuvenated by Birney's willingness to go with me to my parents' house. It would be terrific if she could actually see what a Christmas Eve could be like.

"I'll pick you up at six," I said, standing from the couch.

"You going to come back this time?" She asked with just a tad of resentment in her voice.

"Just like Santa Claus," I replied, trying to hide the hurt and pain I was feeling from my voice. "I'll see you at six."

She nodded but she didn't seem interested in moving so I left her on the couch and departed from the trailer. I glanced at the reef and flowers in the cellar hole before climbing into the jeep but instead of driving home I drove to Donovan's Department Store in downtown Greenville.

I sighed heavily when I saw the Santa sitting on his throne in the middle of the kid's section of the store, the image of a two year old Birney flashing through my mind. I bought a socking for Birney with a bunch of socking stuffers to fill it with. I also grabbed a couple of other presents (perfume, a nice sweater, some earrings, a new computer chess program) which I had wrapped.

I went home and took a quick shower and I changed into casual but nice clothes. I was knocking on Birney's door at 5:59 ½ p.m. She opened the door wearing a black wool skirt and a white turtleneck sweater with black leather boots that reached her knees.

"You look great!" I smiled happily.

"Let me get my coat," Birney replied and I could tell she was nervous about leaving her prison-trailer.

My parent's house wasn't all that far away but we didn't talk as I drove. Birney was intrigued by the Christmas lights and other decorations we passed. Joanie had gotten her Christmas decorating bug from my mother. The house could be seen from a block away, decked out in lights and various decorations – those inflatable plastic monstrosities that became huge eyesores. My mother had a Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus on the front lawn along with five reindeer with white lights. On the roof was an old red Santa sleigh that we had for as long as I could remember with a Santa dummy waving from the carriage. The entire front of the house was outlined with multi-colored lights and several reefs.

The house itself was a fancy ranch with a huge bay window in the front (bordered by Christmas lights) and a stone façade in the front. Birney was staring at the house as we walked up the front walk and she stopped short, staring up at the Santa sleigh on the roof a Santa stared down at her.

"Something wrong?" I asked as I watched Birney gawking at the Santa

"This all seems familiar for some reason," Birney said with a confused look on her face. "Like I've seen this before. Like I've been here before."

"I don't think that's likely," I replied.

I rang the front doorbell and a moment later my excited mother opened it to greet me and my guest. I had called her from my apartment to let her know I was bringing someone which of course thrilled her but I didn't say who it was.

"Well, hello!" Mom said enthusiastically. "Merry Christmas! Come in!"

I escorted Birney into the house and she stared at our unique swivel staircase that was specially designed by the builder. It looped down from the second floor and Birney once again stopped short when we came into the living room and she saw the love seat bench that was carved into the wall underneath the large bay window. The house was even more decorated than Joanie's with holly and mistletoe and sparkles and a huge live Christmas tree. There was an impressive wooden manger in the window.

"Have I been here before?" Birney asked.

"Well, who are you, dear?" My mother asked. "Hamilton didn't give me your name. Did you two date in high school or something?"

"No, Mom, Birney's never been here before," I said.

"Birney!?" My mother exclaimed. She took Birney by the shoulders and stared into her face. "You're Birney Fortin!?"

"Yes," Birney said, staring at my mother and then giving a small oomph when my mother practically knocked her over giving her a bear hug.

"My God, Hamilton, why didn't you tell me you got back together with this dear angel?" My thrilled mother demanded.

"What are you talking about?" I asked with confusion, knowing my mother knew nothing about our one day secret romance when we were sixteen.

"Birney used to come here when she was a little girl," my father spoke up. I hadn't noticed that he had come into the room during all the commotion.

"No she didn't," I said with annoyance. "The only reason I know her is because I was her paper boy."

"Oh, Hamilton, you really don't remember?" My mother groaned when she finally broke her embrace with Birney.

"Remember what?" I asked blankly.

"We used to have Birney over when the two of you were two years old," My mother said.

"That wasn't Birney," I said dismissively. "That was Barbie."

"No, it was Birney," My mother laughed. "You couldn't pronounce it so you called her Barbie."

"What?" I couldn't believe my ears.

"Oh, Birney, dear, do you remember?" My mother asked almost desperately.

"I have vague memories," Birney admitted as she glanced around the house. "Sort of a déjà vu. I know I've seen the front of the house before. And that Santa sleigh. And the stairway. And that window seat."

"Yes, dear, you came here for almost a year when your Dad needed help with child care," My mother said. "Please, sit down. Ralph, get these two our special eggnog."

"Ma, what are you talking about?" I asked, feeling totally confused and mixed up.

My mother helped Birney get comfortable on the couch. I dropped into one of the lazy boy chairs and gawked at my mother.

"We were good friends with your grandparents," Mom told Birney.

"You were?" I asked, totally blown away by the revelation.

"Your father worked with Birney's grandfather," My mother explained. "On the street department."

"Bill Fortin," my father announced as he re-entered the room with two large glasses of spiked eggnog for Birney and me. "We called him The Fort!"

"You knew my family?" A stunned Birney asked.

"Yes, dear," my mother confirmed. "Your grandparents were such a lovely couple. Wonderful people."

"Your granddad was one of the best men I ever worked with or knew," my father said as he took a seat on the couch next to my mother.

Birney looked at me and I gave her a shrug. "I never knew any of this," I said.

"You were two, dear," my mother reminded me. "You just don't remember."

"Are you Moo-Moo?" Birney asked.

"Her name's Maureen," I groaned.

"Yes, dear, you used to call me Moo-Moo," My mother revealed, her eyes getting watery.

Birney covered her mouth with her hand and stifled a sob. "Oh my God!" She exclaimed. "I remember!"

"Remember what?" I asked.

"Coming here!" Birney said. She looked at me. "You're Han!"

"Ham," I corrected.

"She called you Han," my mother confirmed.

"I thought it was Hand," my father laughed.

"What is everybody talking about?" I protested. "There was a little girl named Barbie from down the street that came over once or twice."

"No, there was a little girl named Birney from across the gully who came here...oh, what, thirty times, Mo?" My father said.

"At least," my mother agreed.

"After the fire," Birney realized.

"Actually, the day of the fire too, dear," My mother said, tears falling from her eyes.

"Worst day of our lives," my father sighed and I saw him looking ashen.

My parents were in their early seventies now but they were still in great shape and spirits. The old man still golfed and my mother volunteered.

"Your Dad had the authorities bring you here that terrible day, Birney," my mother explained.

"The day of the funeral too," my father added.

"Yes, you were too young for that so I took care of you that day. You and Hamilton shared a bath if I recall correctly."

"That was Barbie," I said, remembering that bath time visit because I was sharing a tub with a naked little girl who didn't have a thing like my brother and me.

"That was Birney," My mother said.

"I remember the bath," Birney said, looking at me. "I can't believe that was you!"

I fell back in my chair, speechless. What were the chances?

"Why did I stop coming here?" Birney wanted to know.

"We had a falling out with your Dad, dear," my mother said sadly, her voice full of regret. "I'm sorry."

"A falling out?" Birney frowned.

"Yes, your father went through a hard time after the tragedy," my mother said. "Very depressed. Very angry. Very resentful and bitter. It was a terrible thing to watch."

"What happened?" Birney asked.

"Christmas," My mother sighed heavily. "The next Christmas happened."

"You mean didn't happen," Birney realized.

"That's right," my father said. "Warren no longer believed in Christmas and he refused to have anything to do with it."

"I completely understood, Birney," My mother told her. "Who could blame him? His entire family killed on Christmas Eve. An unspeakable tragedy. But I wanted you to have Christmas with us. You were three years old and you deserved to enjoy the holiday with merriment, happiness and presents."

"My father said no?" Birney asked.

"Flat out refused," my father said.

"He stopped bringing you over after that," my mother said sadly.

"He wrote us off, actually," my father sighed. "Blacklisted."

Birney looked dazed. She sat on the couch with her glass of eggnog in her hand starting off into space trying to take in everything she had seen and heard. I was searching my mind for any memory of Birney (who I was certain was Barbie) but there were only a few fragments here and there...the bath of course...fig newtons on the back porch...a party somewhere - we shared a swing...a movie (could have been the original Toy Story)...riding big wheels down the front sidewalk...but not much else.

"That was Birney?" I said as I tried to remember.

"That was Birney," my mother smiled.

I chugged down the rest of my eggnog in one gulp.

"We were so sorry to see your Dad's obituary, Birney," My mother said. "We would have gone to the funeral had there been one."

"Yeah, he made it clear there was to be none of that," Birney replied. "Probably to help me since I would have freaked out having to deal with people and all that."

"Birney has a little bit of social phobia," I explained.

"Just a little," Birney remarked sarcastically.

"See that manger?" My mother asked, gesturing to the pieces in the window. "Your grandfather made that, Birney. All hand crafted."

Birney got off the couch and went to the window, picking up the camel and one of the wise men for closer examination. She rubbed the wise man lovingly against her cheek and then she smelled the wood.

"Some of those wood carved ornaments on the tree too," My father said. "Bill was a very artistic wood carver."

Birney went to the tree and examined some of her grandfather's pieces. "Can I have one?" She asked.

"Of course, dear," my mother smiled. "Take as many as you wish. I'm just going to go check on dinner. You drink your eggnog."

My parents left the room and Birney turned to face me. "Can you believe any of this?"

"No," I said, still dazed.

"We knew each other long before you were my guardian angel paperboy," Birney said with amazement.

"I stayed away scared because I saw you naked but that wasn't even the first time," I said with disbelief.

"But don't you see?" Birney asked as she stepped closer to me. "It just wasn't some random act of perversion. We were drawn together for a reason. You were my guardian angel newspaper boy for a special reason! We've been destined!"

I stood from my chair and stared into Birney's eyes. "You really think so?"

"Yes," she answered confidently. Then she stared into my eyes. "Am I supposed to believe in Christmas?" Birney whispered.

"Yes," I answered, realizing what was really going on. "Merry Christmas, Barbie."

Her eyes went wide and she gave me a quick kiss. "Merry Christmas, Han."

We both laughed at the unbelievable turn of events.

### ### ###

My parents called us into the dining room and we took seats at the table – my parents in their usual chairs at either end and me and Birney opposite one another. The corn chowder was delicious as always and I kept downing the eggnog as I tried to come to terms with the reality of the small world situation.

My parents told Birney all sorts of stories about her grandparents and a few about her mom although they admitted that they didn't know her as well.

"She was only here for a year or so before the fire," My mother explained. "We met her a few times and she was a lovely woman but she was quiet and shy and not from around here so I think she was overwhelmed by all the changes. Being married and a new mom and living with her in-laws and everything."

My parents remembered Birney's Dad when he was a teenager and they shared a few of those memories which Birney enjoyed hearing.

"He seemed a bit worn down when he came back from the Navy," my father recalled. "Like it hadn't been a good tour for him."

"But he was crazy for your mom," my mom said happily. "They were definitely in love."

The stories went on all evening and Birney loved every second of it.

"So, you two met because Hamilton delivered your paper?" My mother asked later when we were back in the living room socializing.

"I used to watch him walk up the driveway every morning," Birney smiled affectionately.

"I was her guardian angel," I bragged, starting to sound a little bit loopy from the eggnog.

"That was a long time ago," My mother said. "How'd you end up here tonight?"

"I saw the newspaper article the other day," I explained, suddenly teary eyed from the eggnog. "I didn't want Birney to spend Christmas alone, especially this year."

"That's very noble of you, dear," my mother replied. "I wish that reporter had talked to us," she complained. "We could have told her all about Bill and Janet Fortin." I was pretty well punch drunk from all the eggnog by the time Birney and I were heading for the door at the end of the evening. The last thing I expected to hear on Christmas Eve from my parents was that our family and Birney's family had been connected for a long time and that Birney and I first met when we were two. It was a wild revelation to learn that the Barbie from my young childhood was actually Birney and that we had been connected well before I became her paperboy.

Birney had been so enthralled listening to my parents' stories to drink much so she drove us back to the trailer while I drunkenly sang Christmas Carols to her from the passenger's seat.

"My father turned into the Grinch, didn't he?" Birney sighed when we reached the trailer. "He stole Christmas from me."

"He was a victim of that fire just as much as your grandparents and mom," I said as I stumbled out of the jeep, feeling lightheaded and dopey. 'Don't hold it against him."

"How can I not?" Birney grumbled. "Look what happened to me."

"Christmas is all about forgiveness and rebirth, Birney," I said as we walked to the trailer. "Let the magic of Christmas take away your pain and hurt," I advised. "That's the true miracle of the season."

We entered the trailer and Birney went to the tree where she hung two of her grandfather's hand made wooden ornaments that she had taken from my parents' tree.

"My grandfather loved Christmas enough to carve ornaments and mangers," she sighed. "How could my father deny himself and me all of that wonderment and joy?"

"He lost sight of the meaning of Christmas," I said with a shrug. "Now it looks like you've found it again."

She stared at me and then shook her head with bemusement. "I can't believe you got drunk on Christmas Eve."

"I didn't mean to," I said with embarrassment. "But it sure was a bizarre night."

"Not bizarre," Birney insisted. "Revealing. I feel like I'm Ebenezer Scrooge after the ghosts of Christmas visited."

"Well, Merry Christmas," I said as I made my way to the couch, half falling and half passing out onto it.

"Is that where you're sleeping?" I heard Birney ask but I was already slipping away.

I felt a blanket being tossed on top of me and the feel of lips against my cheek in my drunken haze and that's about the last thing I remembered.

I had the presence of mind to wake up before dawn. It was Christmas Morning! My head felt like a rock but I still managed to get off the couch, sobered by the remarkable promises of Christmas. I quietly snuck out to the Jeep and brought in the presents from Donovan's Department Store which I put under the tree, along with Birney's stuffed socking.

I poured a half glass of milk and took a sip (ugh after all that Eggnog). I also found a couple of chocolate chip cookies, took a bite out of one, and left the rest on a small plate. Then I scratched out a quick note –

Dear Santa,

Please be extra special to Birney this year. It's her first Christmas in a long time and I want it to be her best! - Ham

I went back to sleep on the couch and didn't wake up until I heard stirring. I opened my eyes and saw Birney standing at the counter looking at Santa's half drunken milk and half eaten cookie while reading the note. She was wearing a white bath robe over her pajamas.

"Looks like Santa finally found his way here," I said as I sat up on the couch.

Birney turned and looked at me. I motioned with my chin toward the tree and she saw the socking and other presents underneath it.

"Santa came?" She sounded like a little girl.

"Merry Christmas, Birney," I grinned.

A wide eyed and opened mouth Birney slowly drifted into the living room staring with disbelief at the presents underneath the tree. She wiped a tear from her eye as she dropped to her knees. I slipped off the couch and took a seat on the floor next to her.

"Go ahead and open them," I said. "It's Christmas!"

She really did look like a little kid on Christmas morning as she sat there on the floor slowly going through her socking with a happy smile glued on her face. She was excited and thrilled with each gift and when she finally finished opening all of them, she turned to me with misty eyes.

"Santa was very thoughtful this year," she said. "Thanks for telling him."

"Sure," I smiled.

"I'd kiss you but you reek of stale eggnog," she frowned. "Why don't you go take a shower?"

"Do you think you'll be able to make it to Joanie's later?" I asked hopefully. "It would be a wonderful Christmas if you were there too."

"Can we claim the porch as my safety zone?" She asked.

I nodded affirmatively. "We'll keep it un-crowded," I promised. "We can even eat out there. One or two visitors at a time."

"Okay," she said. "I'll do my best."

"We can leave whenever you want," I assured her.

"I'd like to stay as long as possible," she said. "It's Christmas!"

"It's Christmas," I agreed happily as I stood. "I'll go shower."

"Good."

I went into the bathroom and started stripping out of my clothes. I was naked when the door opened and a nude Birney (except for my red Santa socking hat on her head!) stepped into the room.

"I'm your Christmas present, Ham," she said. "Merry Christmas."

"We've got to stop meeting like this," I grinned happily.