The Last Story Hour before Christmas
It was the Saturday before Christmas and the last Ft. Story Library story hour of the year. All of the children, including Pippa, wore their favorite pajamas. Since Pippa’s mother, Brenda, was the Children’s Librarian, Pippa had appointed herself the caretaker for the library pets—Melville and Dewey, brown gerbil brothers and Houdini, a blonde Teddy Bear hamster. Pippa was reading the closing story, The Animals’ Christmas Eve by Gale Weirsum.
“In the barn on Christmas Eve
After all the people leave,
The animals in voices low,
Remember Christmas long ago.”
Pippa read all twelve verses about the story of Jesus’s birth. It included the three kings, sheep, donkeys, goats, doves, cows, horses, cats, dogs and other animals.
“Where’s the verse about gerbils and hamsters?” four-year-old Tommy asked as he looked at the three library pets following the story from their nearby cages.
“There isn’t one,” Pippa answered.
“Why not?” Tommy persisted. His brown eyes widened under his red Santa hat and he stretched out the legs of his footy pajamas. They were tired from being crossed during story hour.
“Because the cats scared the barn mice away. They probably did not have gerbil and hamsters in Bethlehem.”
“Why not?” That was Tommy’s favorite question.
“Why not indeed?” Melville asked his brother.
“Just wait. Pippa will have an answer,” Dewey replied.
“Pippa always has an answer,” Houdini said snarkily. “It may not be correct, but she has one.”
Pippa replied. “Gerbils are from Mongolia, not Israel. Hamsters are from Syria, so there may have been hamsters. None of the Bible stories ever mention hamsters.”
“That’s discrimination.” Houdini started running in his wheel to work off some frustration.
“How could the Wise Men be wise if they did not slip a gerbil or two into their robe pocket?” Melville wondered, as his brother rooted through the chips for a sunflower seed.
“Maybe their robes don’t have pockets,” Dewey said spitting out bits of sunflower seed shell.
“Oh.” Tommy shook his head at Pippa’s explanation. Before he could ask another question, the door blew open sending cold air streaming over the children seated on the children’s room floor. The animals rushed to the shelter of their chip lined soup cans.
“Ho, ho, ho!” Santa stumped into the library carrying a big sack over his red shoulder. “Merry Christmas, Boys and Girls. Are you ready to tell old Santa what you want him to bring you for Christmas?”
Pippa looked at Santa suspiciously, he looked like her father with a pillow stuffed into the front of his red pants. Before she could say anything, her mother came over to her and placed a warning finger up to Pippa’s lips–the universal signal to be quiet, or else. Pippa knew better than to say a word.
“Are you a real Santa?” Tommy scrambled up from the floor and stared out the window. “I don’t see any reindeer. Where is your sled?”
“If I weren’t a real Santa, why would I be here? This is an Army base so I got here by Humvee.” Tommy could see a Humvee parked outside the library. It had a big red bow on the steering wheel, Humvees did not usually have red bows. “Now, Tommy, tell me what you want for Christmas.”
Santa sat down in the rocking chair, where Pippa had been reading her story. Timmy crawled up in his lap while the rest of the children formed a line next to the chair. Pippa was the last in line.
“Santa, I want a bicycle with training wheels, a Gameboy, and a Teddy Bear hamster just like Houdini, but I don’t want my hamster to run away or bite.”
Houdini took exception to Tommy’s comment. “Tommy, if you want something that doesn’t bite or run away then you want a gerbil, not a Teddy Bear Hamster.” Melville and Dewey turned their backs to him so they could better hear what Santa said to Tommy.
“Well Tommy, I’ll have to check with my elves to see what we have waiting for you, back at the North Pole. We’ll see what we can do for you. Have you been a good boy?”
Tommy nodded his head yes while Pippa shook her head no. Tommy asked too many “Why not?” questions.
Santa took a candy cane and a small wrapped box out of his sack. He handed them to Tommy. “You can eat the candy cane now, but you shouldn’t open the box until Christmas morning,” he said as Tommy started to tear the bow off the box.
“Why not?” Tommy asked as he continued to pull the bow off the box. Before he could get it completely open, his mother marched up and took the box from him.
“Not until Christmas morning, young man,” she said sternly. “Or I will tell Santa not to bring you anything but a lump of coal.”
Tommy’s brown eyes opened wide. He wasn’t sure whether to believe his mother or not. But it was too close to Christmas to risk finding out.
Tommy tore the plastic paper off the candy cane, popped it into his mouth, and gave Santa a sticky fingered high five before scrambling off his lap.
The rest of the line moved smoothly. Finally, it was Pippa’s turn. “What do you want for Christmas, Pippa?” Santa asked.
“I’d like to come to the library on Christmas Eve at Midnight to see if the animals really do tell the story of Jesus’s birth.”
“Well, Pippa, the library is closed. You need to be home in bed asleep, if you want Santa Clause to leave you anything.”
“Aren’t you going to ask her, if she’s been good?” Tommy interrupted.
“Pippa have you been good? Have you fed Melville, Dewey, and Houdini without your mother having to tell you?”
“Yes,” Pippa only fudged a little bit. She took her responsibilities for the library animals seriously most of the time.
Santa looked at her knowingly over the top of his square-shaped spectacles. “Hmmm,” was all he said. Then he smiled, gave her a candy cane and a small wrapped box. “Don’t open the box until Christmas morning.”
He stood up, swept the empty sack back over his shoulder, flung the door open, tramped down the stairs and climbed into the Humvee. He waved his white-gloved hand and the Humvee lurched off with a deep-throated growl. Brenda closed the door behind him, as one last cold Atlantic gust blew in through the closing door.
“Does anyone want some hot chocolate and Christmas cookies to warm up?” she asked pointing to a table in the main part of the library. While the children had been listening to Story Hour, the mothers had made hot chocolate and set out plates of frosted cookies, gingerbread men, and peanut butter cookies with Hershey kisses stuck in the middle of each one.
Pippa brought out the sunflower seeds and chew sticks that she had been saving for the small rodents’ Christmas gifts.
“Me first,” squealed Melville as he pushed Dewey out of the way when Pippa’s hand descended through the door in the cage top. Dewey sighed, knowing that he would get his seed as soon as his brother got one in his greedy little paw. They scampered to opposite ends of the cage. The chew sticks were left in their food dish to be gnawed after the sunflower seeds were gone.
“About time, Pippa,” Houdini said when she finally got to his cage. He had learned to like sunflower seeds and no longer tried to bite Pippa’s hand when she was delivering food to his cage.
The children were just as greedy for the treats as the gerbils and hamster were for the sunflower seeds. They scampered down the four stairs to the main floor of the library and crowded around the hot chocolate and cookies. Hot chocolate splashed out of plastic cups as cookies were dunked, cookie crumbs formed a wreath around the table as each child tried to place the most cookies onto his/her plate, crumbled napkins decorated the wreath like haphazard ornaments. A half-hour later there was nothing left but an overflowing trash can as mothers shepherded the sugar-hyped kids into their winter coats, hats, and gloves and out the library’s front doors.
As the last car pulled out of the parking lot, Pippa’s father came in carrying a large vacuum from Delta Company (the Army company where he was the First Sergeant). “You two have been working all afternoon. I’ll vacuum up this mess and take the trash out. I want to get this done before the cold front hits this evening. The weatherman says we may break some records this weekend.”
“How cold is it going to get tonight, Dad?” Pippa was concerned about the animals being left in the library overnight. The building did not have good insulation.
“I heard it might get down to about 12 degrees. If it gets below 20, we need to come back to the library, check on the animals and make sure to leave the water dripping in the bathrooms so the pipes don’t freeze.”
“If it gets too cold, we need to bring Melville and Dewey and Houdini back to our house. They will be easy to carry in their cages.”
“I think they will be fine here,” said her father. He didn’t want to get into the animal transport business at Christmas.
“I’d like a Christmas outing,” said Melville. “I’ve never been to Brenda and Pippa’s house. Wonder if they have a warm fireplace to set our cage near.”
“Melville, you are such a dreamer,” scoffed his brother. “They live in a townhouse, not an officer’s mansion. Plus if we have to go out to the car, we’ll freeze our whiskers off.”
“I’d like to explore Pippa’s house,” said Houdini who was always looking for new places to escape. Whenever he was able to escape from his cage (which was becoming more difficult as Pippa became familiar with his various escape plans), she was always able to find him in his crash pad under the bookcase in the library office. She habitually left a few of the pea-sized small rodent kibbles so he had something to eat until she could find him again and return him to his cage.
A few minutes later, the library was clean and the trash taken to the dumpster outside. Pippa made one last round of the cages to make sure the gerbils and hamster had water and food. She also made sure that Houdini’s cage was secure, with the mesh lid on tight and the door in the mesh firmly lashed. They would not be back in the library until Tuesday, the day after Christmas.
“Merry Christmas Houdini, Melville and Dewey,” she called as she turned off the lights.
“Merry Christmas,” squeaked the pets, at least that was what Pippa thought she heard.
Houdini rolled his soup can over to the door in his cage top, climbed up on the can, and tried to butt the door open with his head. Usually, after a Story Hour party, he was able to escape, but this time Pippa had been careful enough to make sure escape was not an option. She did not want to have a jailbreak over Christmas.
“Do you think we’ll see Pippa before Christmas?” Melville asked Dewey.
“I don’t know,” his brother replied as he began gnawing on the red chew stick.
“Why not?” Melville liked the phrase that he had heard Tommy use.
“Because.” Dewey did not want to quit gnawing the chew stick. One of his incisors was getting long and he wanted to whittle it down to a more comfortable length.
“Would you two quit chattering?” Houdini vented his frustration because he had really wanted to escape.
“The powder puff is in a bad mood,” Melville liked to tease Houdini about his long blonde fur.
“At least I don’t ask stupid questions like whether or not we will see Pippa before Christmas. You heard her father say, they would only come back if the temperature dropped.” Houdini liked to point out others’ mistakes, but not to be reminded of his own.
Dewey shoved the green chew stick at Melville before the gerbil and the hamster could continue the argument. Melville instinctively started gnawing on the proffered piece of wood.
Houdini decided he had won the argument and dragged his chew stick into the relative privacy of his can. The back of the can faced towards the gerbils so they could not see him. He had new escape plans to ponder if they did go to Pippa’s house because the temperature dropped too low.