Hand in Hand Part1: Christmas

Note: the following story is part 1 of a series. A different part is included under each holiday story list in the bard's challenge. The parts are: Part 1 Christmas, Part 2 Easter, Part 3 Thanksgiving, Part 4 Halloween, and Part 5 Valentine's Day. You don't necessarily have to read the parts in order, but it might help. Feel free to read one, all, some, or none.

December 22, 1957

"You're a big chicken, Louise Atkins. Bwock, bwock-bwock-bwock." Johnny Perkins tucked his hands under his armpits and flapped his elbows. The sleeves of his brown corduroy coat rubbed his sides, making a swishing sound. Louise scowled at him as he threw his head back and clucked at the sky. His chicken impression was certainly helped by his long, beak-like nose and black, beady eyes.

"Shut up, dumbhead," Louise said, her blue eyes narrowing in anger.

"Yeah, shud up."

Johnny turned to Louise's little shadow. Gin was scowling, in a miniature version of her older friend. But it was hard to take her seriously. She had long ago outgrown her tartan coat. The sleeves pinched around her shoulders and ended two inches above her wrists. On the other hand, her black trapper's hat, which her father had found in the road, was too big and fell down her forehead nearly to her eyes. She pushed it back, continuing to glare at the older boy.

"Shud up?" Johnny said, mimicking the little girl. "Shud up? Talk about dumbheads!" He turned back to Louise. "Let's dump this baby and check out the haunted house."

"I'm not a baby!" Green eyes blazed with indignation.

"You're six years old and you can't even talk right," Johnny said. Then he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted to the sky, "Ginny Steadman is a great big baby! Ginny Steadman is a great big baby!" Clouds of steam puffed between his hands as his cry echoed across the frozen field.

"Leave her alone," Louise said, stepping between the boy and her friend. She'd seen the tears form in Gin's eyes, and knew crying wouldn't help the little girl's argument. "Pick on someone your own size."

"OK." Johnny put his hands around his mouth once more. "Louise Atkins is a great big yellow belly! Louise Atkins is a great big yellow belly!" The boy grinned, showing off his chipped tooth, which he'd gotten from a line drive off Louise's bat the pervious summer.

Louise shook her head, her long black hair swinging in waves against the fake sheepskin of her coat collar.

"I'm a yellow belly because I refuse to break into someone's house?" she said to Johnny, "I said you were a dumbhead."

"It ain't someone's house if no one lives there."

Louise contemplated the logic of Johnny's statement. It seemed to make some sense. She stared across the field toward the woods. The roof of the old Johnson place was barely visible through the thick, leafless trees. The trees reminded her of an army of skeletons, guarding the abandoned house.

"There's ghosts there," Gin said, her eyes wide. She glanced around as if to make sure the ghosts weren't already sneaking up on her.

"No there's not." Johnny sneered when Gin looked confused. "There's not one ghost. There's vampires though. A whole family of 'em. They come out at night and fly into little girls' bedrooms. Then they bite you in the neck and suck out all your blood until all that's left is a skeleton."

Gin's eyes grew even wider and Louise gave Johnny a shove.

"Don't scare her. It ain't funny."

Johnny stumbled, but managed to keep himself from falling. He shrugged his narrow shoulders, barely lifting the material of his hand-me-down coat. "Suit yourself. I'm gonna go check it out. You chickens can stay here."

He began to trudge across Mrs. Beaumont's pumpkin field, kicking at the stalks and remnants of pumpkin that were still left from the Halloween harvest two months before. His shoes crunched as he walked through the dusting of snow.

Louise watched him go, and then turned back to Gin. "You go home. Your daddy's gonna be lookin' for ya."

"No!" Gin cried. A furrow lined her forehead. "I want to see the ghosts too, Weez."

Louise sighed, recognizing the furrow. It meant Gin's mind was made up, and no one was going to talk her into changing it.

"Wait up!" Louise yelled to Johnny, running to catch up to him. He barely slowed, but Louise's legs were longer than his. At ten years old, she was a head taller than even the tallest kid in school. Gin had a harder time catching up. Her breath came in gasping puffs, sending clouds of steam around her face.

Louise noticed Johnny opening his mouth to say something mean, and she cut him off. "You know what you're gettin' for Christmas?"

Johnny's eyes lit up and he forgot all about making fun of Gin. "Yeah, my daddy's getting' me a rifle. He's gonna teach me how to shoot. He says I'm old enough."

"Wow." Louise's mouth opened in amazement. Her brother Ralph had a rifle. But Ralph was sixteen. And it was really Granddad's rifle anyway.

"What about you?" Johnny asked. "What're you gettin'?"

Louise brushed her dark bangs from her forehead, hiding her hesitation. Her parents had told her and her brothers that the harvest had been bad, and they shouldn't get their hopes up too high for Christmas presents.

"I'm getting a bat," Louise announced. "A Louisville Slugger from the JC Penny's catalogue." She caught a quizzical look from Gin, and kept her eyes straight ahead and steady.

"Baseball bats are for babies," Johnny sneered. "I can kill squirrels with a rifle."

"You can kill squirr-os with a baseball bat, too," Gin said, jogging to keep up.

"Don't be stupid." Johnny's sneer had become a permanent feature.

"Well, I did enough damage on your face last summer," Louise said with a chuckle. "If you were a squirrel, you'd be dead for sure."

Johnny shrugged and turned his attention to the little girl. "What's Santa Claus bringing you for Christmas, runt? No, don't tell me; let me guess." He drummed his index finger on his chin. "Could it be a big fat pile of nothin'?"

"Santa gives all my presents to the poor kids," Gin explained solemnly. Before her mother had gone away, she'd told Gin that Santa only did that for very special children.

Johnny's laugh burst from his throat. The cold air caused him to cough, and he bent over, holding his knees, laughing and coughing.

"It's not that funny," Louise said, rolling her eyes. She wished Gin had gone home when she told her to. She was becoming an embarrassment.

"Listen, runt," Johnny said, straightening up. "First of all, you are the poor kid. You're the poorest kid in the county. Probably the whole state. Second of all, there ain't no Santa. Your folks bring you the presents. If they love you, that is."

"Leave her alone," Louise said, her voice brittle with anger, like the snow under their feet.

"You're a liuh, Johnny Perkins!" Gin shouted. She balled her hands into fists, her mittens swinging from strings tied to her coat sleeves.

"You could have a toy if you wanted," Johnny continued, "but your dad's too drunk to make his way to the Salvation Army toy giveaway."

"That's enough!" Louise cried. She swung to face Gin, who turned tear-filled eyes toward her. "Go home now. Your dad's gonna tan your hide if you come with us."

"But Weez," Gin said in a soft, hurt voice.

"Stop whinin' and go!"

Johnny laughed as betrayal tore across the little girl's face. She turned from Louise, her shoulders shuddering in a single sob. Louise moved quickly toward the woods without a backward glance.

"Did you see her face?" Johnny chuckled.

"Just shut up and let's check out the house," Louise growled.

Louise stomped through the field, her feet making deep indentations in the crusty snow and mud. Anger warmed her belly and made her palms prickle. She was mad at Johnny, mad at Gin, and mad at herself.

"I don't know why you hang out with her. Gee whiz, she's only six years old. You're ten!"

Louise just kept walking. They were entering the woods and they pushed through a hole in an old hedge to find a narrow path. As she dodged around a clump of poison oak, her hair got caught in a bush's sharp branch. She felt the pull and yanked the lock of hair, leaving behind several long black strands.

Why do I hang out with her? Louise mused.

Because she's your friend, a little voice inside her head answered. She needs you and you need her. It's as simple as that.

"My daddy told me that Gin's mom ran away to Madison and she's turning tricks," Johnny stated as he climbed over a fallen tree.

Louise had heard the same thing whispered in the schoolyard. No one seemed to know what it meant. It sounded like something nice, but Louise knew it wasn't.

"That ain't Gin's fault," Louise replied.

"I guess not." Johnny shrugged and finally looked like he was losing interest in the subject.

They walked on in silence until they reached an overgrown rose bush that had once stood proudly at the edge of the Johnson's front yard. They carefully pushed past the rose bush, avoiding the thorns, and stopped to peer at the old farmhouse.

Most of the shingles had been blown off, and huge holes dotted the roof. The windows had been boarded up with cheap plywood; only a few pieces of glass still remained in the frames. It was impossible to tell what color the house had been originally. It was now a sickly gray.

"They say the Johnson family moved away because they were plagued by ghosts," Johnny explained. "It's haunted 'cause it was built on an Indian graveyard."

Louise knew that Johnny's story was meant to scare her. But the house didn't look frightening. It just looked sad. It had been used and then abandoned, left to rot for no good reason. The memory of Gin's betrayed expression flashed into her mind, and she pushed it away.

"There's a loose board on the other side," Johnny said, leading her to the west side of the house.

After poking at a few windows, they finally found the right one. A faded Coke ad still adorned the board, which hung by a single rusty nail across the parlor window. A high-pitched creak echoed through the house as they pushed the board aside. They froze until the echo faded.

Johnny's lips rose in an embarrassed grin. "I guess no one's gonna hear us, huh?"

"Not unless some other kids are already in there," Louise replied, interlocking her fingers and cupping her hands to give Johnny a leg-up. "But the ghosts definitely know we're comin' now."

Johnny put his foot in Louise's hands and she hoisted him up. He pulled himself over the windowsill and reached down to give Louise a hand. She ignored the offered hand and used her own strength to pull herself over the windowsill.

Once inside, they dusted off their pants and looked around the room. There was no furniture and most of the wallpaper had fallen off, lying in tattered strips on the floor. Rodents had used the paper to make nests, and Louise could hear their faint squeaking and scurrying. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling corners, thick and covered in dust. The spiders had long since abandoned them, finding better hunting outside.

"Come on, I heard it's really neat upstairs." Johnny's older brother Chip had told him everything about the house, including one very special room upstairs.

Louise followed, wondering what could be so neat about an abandoned house. She was already feeling bored. And wondering whether Gin had made it home OK.

"Holy crap!" Johnny exclaimed. Louise's attention snapped back to the boy, whose foot had just broken through a step in the rickety staircase.

"Be careful!" Louise said.

"Now she tells me," Johnny groused. He continued up the stairs, placing his foot carefully on each step, making sure it would take his weight before moving upward.

"What's so neat about upstairs?" Louise asked. "We're havin' fried chicken for dinner, so I don't want to be late."

"Just hold your horses. You'll see." Johnny reached the top of the stairs and followed Chip's directions to the first bedroom on the right. He pushed the door open and smiled when he spotted the mattress on the floor. "Take a look at this."

Louise eyed the mattress. One edge had been chewed away and mice had nested inside the stuffing. It was covered in dirt and other stains she couldn't even identify. She crinkled her nose in disgust as Johnny took a seat, raising a cloud of dust into the cold air of the room.

"Have a seat," Johnny said, patting the mattress beside him and raising another cloud of dirt.

"Are you crazy? It's dirty."

"Don't be such a girl," Johnny sneered.

Louise could usually ignore Johnny's taunts, but this one hit her pride button. She rolled her eyes and sniffed loudly, communicating her utter disdain, but took a seat beside the boy.

Once Louise was seated next to him, Johnny didn't seem to know what to do or say. He peered at the ceiling and looked through a ragged hole. A bird flew past, a black scar in the misty gray sky.

"Wow, Johnny, you were right," Louise said sarcastically. "This is really neat."

Johnny turned back to the girl and opened his mouth. Louise waited for him to say something stupid, but instead he leaned forward, his mouth pressed suddenly against hers. His chipped tooth cut into her upper lip and she pulled away. She tried to get up, but he clung to her coat sleeve.

"Why'd you do that?" she cried, wiping the back of her hand against her mouth. It stung and she looked down to see blood smeared on her mitten.

"It's what boys and girls do up here, Louise," Johnny explained. He seemed focused on her bleeding lip and a shadow of panic crossed his features. Then he gathered himself and tried to look unconcerned. "You knew what you were doing when you followed me."

Did I? Louise questioned herself. I knew other kids did stuff up here. But I just wanted to see some ghosts.

You don't believe in ghosts, her other voice responded.

"Don't be such a freak, Louise Atkins," Johnny continued. "It's already bad enough that you hang out with that baby. Now you're afraid when a boy kisses you?"

"I'm not afraid of nothin'," Louise replied. "You just coulda warned me, is all."

"OK." Johnny grinned. "I'm warnin' ya." He leaned forward, more slowly this time. Louise stiffened. She remembered pricking her finger with a needle, when she and Gin became blood sisters. She felt the same way now, wondering how bad it was going to hurt.

"Weez?" The cry echoed from downstairs.

Johnny froze and then groaned loudly. "I don't believe this."

Louise pulled her sleeve out of Johnny's grasp and stood up. "I better go."

"Why?" Johnny's eyes flashed with irritation.

"She might get hurt down there," Louise replied. She turned toward the door.

"Tell her to go home and let's stay up here."

"No." Louise continued to move.

"You're a baby-loving freak, Louise." Johnny's face was now twisted in derision. "I'm gonna tell everyone at school that you were too scared to kiss me. I'm gonna tell 'em you wanted to kiss Gin instead."

Louise moved quickly, her face set in fierce determination. She pushed Johnny against the wall, splintering the rotten wood.

"And I'm gonna tell 'em you didn't even make it to the house. You peed your pants on the way here." Johnny flinched from the sparks that seemed to fly from her eyes. "Who do you think they'll believe?"

"Weez!" the cry floated up to them again.

Louise let the boy go and turned away without another word.

"I'm coming!" she cried out. "Stay right where you are."

"You're still a freak."

Louise heard the whispered remark, but didn't acknowledge it. She carefully descended the staircase and found her friend in the parlor. The little girl's eyes lit up when Louise entered the room.

"I twacked you like an Indian bwave," Gin said proudly. "I found your footpwints and some hair on a bush. Hey, you're bleedin'."

"Why'd you follow me?" Louise took her mitten off and wiped at her lip.

"I tought you might need help fightin' the vampires."

"You 'thought'," Louise corrected. "And there aren't any vampires." She heard Johnny coming down the stairs and she pushed Gin toward the window. "Come on. Let's scram."


Louise climbed over the windowsill and jumped to the ground. Her feet sank into the muddy grass when she landed. She'd have to remember to wipe her boots before she left them in the mudroom. It might be called a mudroom, but she'd get a beating for sure if she tracked mud inside.

"Catch me," Gin said as she launched herself out the window. Louise managed to do just that, a burst of air whooshing out of her lungs when the small body landed in her arms.

"Jeez, you weigh a ton," Louise grumbled. Gin just smiled at her friend's frown.

"We better hurry home," Gin said.

Louise peered at the sky. It had been threatening snow all day, and it now looked even more ominous. Not to mention the fact that the sun was rapidly nearing the horizon.

"OK," Louise said, releasing the girl but holding her steady while she got her footing. "Pull your earflaps down and get your mittens on. It's gettin' cold."

Gin rolled the flaps over her ears and tied the hat's string under her chin. She reached for her mittens and then looked in dismay at Louise. She held up the end of the frayed string, still hanging from her coat sleeve, no mitten attached.

"Where's your mitten?"

"Musta fell owf." Gin stated the obvious.

Louise sighed. "Your daddy's gonna tan your hide for losin' another mitten. I don't know why you can't manage to keep hold of 'em."

She stopped her complaints as she saw fear cloud the girl's green eyes.

"Here," Louise said quickly, taking off her own mittens. "You can have mine. They're the same color; your dad won't notice."

They may have been the same color, but Louise's mittens dwarfed Gin's small hands. Louise pulled them up around the narrow wrists, and then tried to pull the little girl's coat sleeves down as far as they would go.

"It'll be OK," Louise said, taking the girl's hand. She could barely find it inside the volumes of wool. "Let's just hurry up."

"Shouldn't we wait up for Johnny?"

"No." Louise pulled on Gin's hand, feeling resistance as her friend tried to keep up on the journey across the yard.

Louise didn't say much as they headed home. Her mind was wrapped around what had happened with Johnny. Halfway across the fields, the snow began to fall. The flakes were feathery, meandering down to the ground. Louise held onto Gin's hand, as the ground grew slightly slippery.

That's the only reason I'm holding her hand, she told herself.

Right, her other voice drawled.

"We had a Christmas party at school," Gin said, trying to break through her friend's silent wall. "We had a pinya...a pinya-"

"A piñata," Louise supplied.

"Yeah." Gin grinned at the memory. "It was shaped like Santa. We hit it with a big stick and loads of treats flew out all over the room."

"Didja get any?" Louise had barely been paying attention to the story, but Gin's excitement was infectious, and she smiled, picturing her friend scrambling for candy.

"I got a chocolate weindeer," Gin replied proudly.

"Reindeer," Louise corrected. "Was it good?"

"I didn't eat it," Gin replied with horror. She scratched her head through her cap, causing it to slip back, exposing messy red bangs. "I put it in my pocket to save it for Chwistmas. But it melted."

Louise tucked her friend's bangs under the hat, pulling it back down over her ears. "Sorry about that, squirt."

Gin grinned. "Doesn't mattuh, I liked the foil best anyway. I'm keeping it fo'evuh."

Louise grinned back, but her face fell when she realized they'd reached Gin's house. She saw a curtain twitch in the front window of the little shack, and could just make out the shadow of Gin's dad peering out at them. She prayed he'd be too drunk to notice the mittens or tell the time.

"OK, pal, I'll see ya later," Louise said, letting go of Gin's hand. She shivered at the sudden loss of warmth and shoved both hands into her coat pockets.

"'K. See ya." The little girl walked away, turning back once to wave before entering her rundown home.


December 24, 1957

"Well, I thought you kids were the best three wise men I've ever seen," Louise's mother announced.

It was Christmas Eve, and Louise had lived through yet another nightmare that the locals fondly referred to as the Nativity Play. Every year, since Louise was old enough to point at the big glittery star, the three Atkins kids were picked to be the three wise men. Her older brother Ralph was set to join the army in the spring, leaving only two siblings. Louise was praying to the Baby Jesus (and not the doll) that this would be her last torture session.

"Can we just get out of these costumes?" Louise said, pulling at the itchy material. Her mother had made the original costumes five years before out of used flour sacks. Louise often wondered why, if the men were so wise, they dressed up in clothes that looked like nightgowns.

"Let Dad take a picture first," Mrs. Atkins said, pushing the kids into a group in front of the fireplace. The three wise men groaned in unison, their identical blue eyes rolling in frustration.

Mr. Atkins got out his prized possession and carefully took the picture, after ensuring the kids were standing just right and had appropriate smiles on their faces. After the picture was taken, and pajamas were donned, the Atkins parents exchanged significant looks.

"Will you look at this," Mr. Atkins announced in a fake surprised voice, looking behind the big leather armchair that sat next to the fireplace. "It looks like Santa came while we were at the church."

He reached down and pulled out three colorful stockings. Louise's eyes went wide when she saw how full they were, and she carefully took hers from her dad. She tried not to let her face fall when she pulled out two apples and an orange.

"Those oranges came all the way from Florida," Mrs. Atkins explained proudly. "Mr. Murphy at the grocery store said they were packed in dry ice to keep them fresh on that long journey."

Louise smiled and tried not to think of the sweet crack of a baseball against polished pine.

"You kids save those for tomorrow," Mr. Atkins advised. "Go along to bed now."

Louise managed to keep smiling as she kissed her parents good night and trudged off to bed. She could hear her brother's complaints from the other side of the bedroom wall. She heard Ralph's deep rumbling voice and wondered if he would say a bad word, like he did sometimes. She was listening so closely she almost didn't hear the soft ping of a pebble hitting her bedroom window. But it came again, louder this time, and she threw back the blankets, pushing her feet into her slippers and scurrying across the floor, avoiding the creaky floorboard.

She drew the curtains aside and peered down to see a huddled shape in the snow of the front yard. She could just make out Gin's face in the moonlight, tilted up toward her. She motioned for her to go around the back, and moved quietly down the stairs.

She skipped the fifth stair from the bottom because it squeaked. At the bottom of the steps, she paused. Her parents were in the kitchen. She heard the clatter of a pan, the rush of water, their voices rising and falling gently. She decided it was safe, and moved silently down the hall and into the mudroom, staying away from the open door that led into the kitchen. If her parents looked her way, they would see her. Luckily, they were too wrapped up in their conversation to notice. She quickly and quietly took off her slippers and put on her boots, then put her coat over her pajamas.

Louise opened the door quietly. She was glad that the screen was off, because there was no way she could ever keep that from squeaking. In the summer, it was much easier to crawl across the porch roof and shimmy down the drainpipe.

"What are you doing out here?" Louise whispered, meeting Gin on the dark side of the elm tree.

"Are you mad at me, Weez?" The little girl wiped at her runny nose and Louise was pleased to see she still had on both of the over-sized mittens.

"Naw, I'm not mad at you. Why d'ya say that?"

"You haven't come by since Sunday. I tought you was mad."

"Naw," Louise repeated.

But she had been mad, hadn't she? Mad at Johnny, mad at Gin, mad at herself. It was all so confusing.

"Good." Gin smiled and then knelt down, digging in the snow. She stood up, a three-foot long stick in her hand. "Mewy Chwistmas."

Louise took the stick and looked quizzically at Gin.

"It's a bat," Gin explained.

Louise looked down and saw "Loovil Slugr" carved in crooked letters in the wood.

"It's weally a bwoomstick," Gin explained with a shrug and a little grin. "Mr. Murphy said it was bwoke and I could have it."

Louise felt tears prick her eyes. She stepped back from her friend and swung the broomstick, listening to it whistle sweetly as it swept through the air.

"It's great, Gin," she said with a wide smile. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "It's exactly what I wanted." She was struck by a thought and frowned in dismay. "I didn't get you a present yet."

"Yes you did." Gin held out her hands. "Your mittens. You were right, Daddy didn't notice."

"Speaking of your dad," Louise said, "you better run home before he notices you're missing."

"'K. I'm glad you're not mad at me."

Louise smiled and gave her friend a hug. Pleasant tingles chased up her spine as she squeezed tight.

"I could never be mad at you, Gin. Merry Christmas."

She stood back and waved to her friend, watching as the little girl scurried up the road and disappeared around the corner. She shivered in the cold and wrapped her coat tighter around herself.

"And I'll never leave you again," she whispered.

She sighed deeply and looked up at the stars twinkling in the night sky. Some things were still confusing. And some things just...weren't.

To be continued in Hand in Hand 2: Easter

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