“I’m going out mom!” I called, pulling on my hat.
“But, Derrek, it’s Christmas,” my mom complained from the kitchen.
“I’ll be back in a little while. I’m just going to shoot hoops.”
I heard my mom sigh. “Just be back before noon. We’re having dinner early.”
I grinned, pushed my arms into my brand new coat, grabbed my brand new ball, and left. It takes five minutes to walk down to the court from my house. On the way, I dribbled my basketball, passing it between my legs every few steps, trying to keep warm. Even with my new coat, which I’d got for Christmas that morning, I could feel the cold seeping through. When I made it to the court, I stood at the edge of the blacktop and threw the ball at the farthest hoop. I missed, but it was the closest I’d been to making it in a while.
Soon, I was warmed up. I shot from right under the hoop, the three point line, and from the sideline. I made every one and then ran to catch my own rebound. After about 15 minutes, I had worked up enough of a sweat to start feeling uncomfortably warm. I peeled off my heavy winter coat and turned to put it on the bleachers. It was then that I noticed that I was being watched.
A girl who looked to be about my age sat in the middle of the bleachers. I wondered how long she’d been there. When she realized that I’d noticed her, she stood up and started to leave. “Hey, wait,” I called, taking a couple of steps forward. “It’s alright.” I held my arms up to show her that I meant no harm.
She turned around to face me, and I noticed how skinny she was. I figured that she either had an eating disorder, or maybe she didn’t get to eat much. From the state of her clothes, I was betting on the latter. She had on loose-fitting sweat pants with the logo of some college and dirty Nikes. Unlike me, she didn’t have a winter coat, but only a shabby grey hoodie with one of the pockets hanging down, almost torn off by something. I realized that I was staring. “What’s your name?” I blurted. She looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
She looked behind her and then back at me, as if she was trying to decide whether or not to run away. “Carrie,” she said softly.
Carrie. The name rang a bell, but I still couldn’t place it. “Derrek,” I said, holding out my hand. She stared at it until I let it drop back to my waist. I stood there in awkward silence for a couple of moments. “Do you like basketball?” I finally asked.
She nodded her head. I tossed my coat down on the bottom bleacher and then held out my ball. A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth and she took it. I followed her as she walked up to the three point line. With perfect form, she shot the ball straight into the hoop. I caught the rebound and turned to her with my eyebrows raised. “Nice shot.”
She smiled a little more and made a slight bow. “Wanna play a game of one-on-one?”
“Sure.” I tossed the ball to her. For half an hour, we played non-stop. Carrie was surprisingly good. I had some difficulty keeping up with her and I’m the lead scorer on my team. We took turns scoring, one outmaneuvering the other and then the other doing the same. I had more fun than I’d had playing in a while. Whenever she scored, she would do this little laugh. It was really a beautiful sound, like wind chimes.
Finally, she was starting to tire, so I called a break with the score tied. At least, I think it was tied. I was having too much fun to pay too much attention to the score. She pulled up the sleeves of her hoodie to reveal her pale skin. Like me she’d gotten too warm. I pulled a water bottle from one of the deep pockets of my coat. I tipped my head back and squeezed the water into my cold-parched throat. Then, I held the bottle out to Carrie. “Water?” I asked.
She accepted it gratefully and waterfalled it the way I had. When she finished, she handed it back. “Where did you learn how to play basketball?” I asked curiously.
She hesitated for a moment and then spoke. “My mom taught me. She was the coach at my school when I was little. We used to spend hours outside tossing the ball into our homemade hoop.” She leaned back against the bleacher behind us. The look in her eyes told me that she was somewhere far away.
“Do you still play?”
The look melted. “Just by myself.” She looked at me again. “Or with someone here, but there’s not usually anyone around.”
I laughed and she frowned quizzically. “I come here all the time. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday.”
Then she laughed too, making the wind chime noise. “I usually only come on Tuesdays and Fridays. I’d come more, but it’s cold out this time of year.”
“Well, if you ever need anyone to shoot with, you know where to find me.”
She grinned at me. For a moment, we just sat there, enjoying each other’s company. Then she stole the ball from my hands and ran toward the closest hoop. “Oh no, you don’t,” I yelled and ran after her.
We played for a few minutes longer, until I checked my watch. “Uh oh,” I muttered.
“I’m gonna be late for Christmas dinner.”
“At noon?” She tossed me my ball, and I walked to the bleachers to pick up my coat.
“Yeah. We eat a really big meal early and then everyone has to eat leftovers later on,” I explained. “What about your family?”
A shadow seemed to pass over her face. “We don’t really celebrate holidays that much. My dad usually just drinks a lot and I try to find something fun to do.”
“What about Christmas dinner?” I asked.
She made a motion that was half-way between a shrug and a shiver. My winter coat suddenly felt very heavy in my arms. “Are you cold?” I asked.
“I’m fine. She pulled down the sleeves of her hoodie self-consciously, but not before I saw the fingers-shaped bruise on her arm. My mouth felt dry.
I looked down at my watch. “I-I gotta go,” I stammered, “but maybe I’ll see you here again.”
She gave me a small grin. “Yeah, sure. I’ll drop by on Saturday, maybe.”
“Cool.” I turned to go. “See ya.” I made it half-way down the street before I looked back. She was still standing there. She turned around and walked away when she saw me. I headed toward home quickly, not wanting to make my mom angry. As I passed a large cathedral, I finally remembered where I knew Carrie from. She had been in my youth group at church a few years ago. She’d only come for a couple of weeks.
I heard the bells from the cathedral as I ran up my driveway. As soon as I walked through the doors of my house, my mom was throwing my basketball into a bin near the door and rushing me to the table. My family said grace and then they all dug in. I ate distractedly, staring at my coat hanging on the rack and thinking about Carrie. When dinner was over, I went to my room. I lay in bed a while, throwing my ball up and then catching it when it fell. My mind was still on the girl from the court when my mom came in.
“Are you alright, honey?” she asked, concerned.
I set my ball down. “I’m fine, Mom.”
“I was worried about you because you didn’t eat much. You usually eat the whole pan of stuffing.” She came over and sat next to me on my bed. “Are sure you’re okay?” She rubbed my knee.
I nodded and she got up to leave. Before she closed the door I called out. “Hey mom?”
She turned back around. “Yes.”
“Do you remember a girl from our old church’s youth group? Her name was Carrie.”
Her face adopted a thoughtful frown and then brightened. “Oh yes, Carrie. I remember her. She was the girl who always brought cookies to church on youth group nights. She came with her mother. They left shortly before we moved here.”
“Do you know why?”
“Why they left?” she asked. I nodded. “Her mother got really sick. Colon cancer, I think. She couldn’t drive Carrie to church anymore, and her father never would. I don’t think he was a very nice man. Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” I muttered. My mom left, and I started feeling nauseous. I thought about how Carrie looked when she talked about her mom, how she didn’t mention her when she told of her family’s Christmas plans. I thought about the finger marks on her arm. I stood up, knowing that I had to see her again.
I quickly left the house again, stopping by the kitchen before I left, shouting to my mom that I was going out, and not waiting for an answer. I pulled my coat close around me. I felt like the temperature had dropped ten degrees already, and the sun hadn’t even gone down yet. I held one hand inside my coat the whole way there. I made it to the courts in record time, hoping that Carrie would still be there. I saw she was and ran up to her.
“Hey,” she said, surprised to see me.
“Hi,” I said, awkwardly. Now that I was here, I didn’t know what to say. I pulled my hand out of my coat and pulled out a lumpy, saucer-shaped, tin foil-wrapped package. I held it out to her.
“What is it?” she asked, as she took it from my hand. “It’s warm.”
“Leftovers,” I panted, trying to catch my breath. “No one should go through Christmas without a Christmas dinner.”
Carrie looked at me a second, confused, and then she carefully, but quickly unwrapped the tin foil. She stared at the ham and gravy and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce on the plate. She blinked rapidly and set the food down on the bleacher. She looked up at me, and I could see tears forming in her eyes. Then, she shocked me when she threw her arms around neck. I was surprised at first, but then I hugged her back. She felt cold to me. I swallowed, trying to ward off the lump in my throat.
When she let go of me, I took off my coat and held it out to her. Again, she looked confused, but I took her hand laid my coat across her arm. She took it and held it up in front of herself. “I can’t take this.”
I took step back. “Yes you can. I can buy a new one and I want you to have that one. It’s really warm, so maybe you can come to the court more often.” She started to protest, but I crossed my arms. “No. If you don’t take it, I’m leaving it here.”
She stared at me a second, and then she laughed. I smiled at the wind chimes. She quickly accepted that I wasn’t taking it back, and she slipped it over her hoodie. As soon as she zipped it up, a contented sigh escaped her lips. She picked up the foil-wrapped plate. “Thank you so much. I don’t know what to say. I don’t even really know you.”
I grinned. “You used to go to my church. You were in my youth group.”
A smile of recognition crossed her face. “Oh, right.” She shook her head. “I can never repay you for this. You’ve made this the best Christmas ever.” She self-consciously wiped a tear from her cheek.
“Well, go on home and eat that before it gets cold,” I said.
She held out her hand, and I shook it. Then, she left the court, headed for her house. She looked back one more time. “See you Saturday!”
“See ya!” I called. “And Merry Christmas!” She left, and I found myself staring at the basketball hoop. I was finally feeling the cold, so I decided to go home. I knew my mom would probably kill me for giving away my brand new coat, but I didn’t care. The look on Carrie’s face made up for whatever my mom could say. Beside, I’d get a new one with my Christmas money. Something told me that it would be a while before Carrie would have another warm coat. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make.
As I passed by the old cathedral, the bells rang out as they did every hour. I stopped and looked up to the wreath hanging from the cross above the door, thinking that I had finally discovered the true meaning of Christmas.
I wrote this post for the Christmas-themed blog party hosted by The Little Engine that Couldn’t. I hope you all like it.