© Copyright 2007
by Rachel Brown






Terri Hoffman carefully eased the front door closed. The betraying click of the latch in the lock was louder than she’d thought possible. She grimaced. Perhaps no-one had heard her.

“Terri? That you?”

The teenager froze. There was nowhere in the empty hall to stash her awkward contraband, but to be caught with it would ruin everything. She stuffed the plaited leather belt into her pocket, but didn’t dare do the same with the crocheted jug cover in her other hand.

“Yeah, Oma. Won’t be a minute. Just taking my jacket off.” Terri looped her padded jacket over her arm, and used it as a shield as she ran past the lounge room to the refuge of her bedroom. Not daring to stop and close the door, Terri glanced around the room for a moment, then dropped onto her stomach beside her bed and carefully placed the doily deep into the shadows beneath it. Oma would never find it there.

“I was starting to worry about you,” her grandmother’s voice continued from the kitchen, her strong accent making the ‘w’s sound like ‘v’s. “Did you come straight here from Mrs Fenwick’s?”

“Yes, Oma. Everything just took longer today,” Terri called out, throwing her jacket over the back of her desk chair and running through to the kitchen.

Terri’s grandmother had arranged for her to spend Saturday afternoons doing chores for Mrs Fenwick down the street, in exchange for a small amount of money. What Oma didn’t know was that Terri and Mrs Fenwick had made their own arrangement on top of that.

When Mrs Fenwick had admitted she needed more help than she could reasonably pay for, Terri suggested that instead of extra payment the elderly lady could teach her to make some of the exquisite handcrafts that decorated her home. It suited both of them well. Mrs Fenwick was delighted to pass on her knowledge, and Terri could make gifts for her grandparents. They had little use for the things you could buy from shops, but treasured the old-fashion crafts that their arthritic hands no longer allowed them to create.

That afternoon they’d finally finished the Christmas presents they’d been working on, but the starch to finish the tiny teapot she’d painstakingly crocheted onto the top of the doily had stubbornly refused to set. Terri had brought it home anyway, hopeful it would stiffen in time.

“Is Mrs Fenwick well?”

Terri paused in the doorway of the kitchen, taking in the familiar sight of her grandmother, short and stout like a wooden Russian babushka doll, prodding at a saucepan on the stovetop. The pungent aroma of Oma’s red cabbage soup had met her halfway along the street, as familiar a motif of life in her grandparents home as the dark wooden furniture and tapestry hangings that had emigrated with them from Europe when Terri’s mother was a child.

“Yeah, I guess so. She can’t get around much now, though.” Terri noted that the bowls were already set out on the table. “Can I do something?”

“Just get your Opa. He went to the shed, looking for something.”

Terri ducked out into the tiny backyard, thinking wistfully of the jacket she’d left in her room. There were only five paces between the back door and the shed, but every inch of it, save the concrete path, was planted out with vegetables. Glass salvaged from old car windows perched like angled roofs over long mounds of dirt; miniature glasshouses that produced vegetables months longer than any other garden in the neighbourhood.

The shed door was open, and Terri smiled to see her Opa, a spindly scarecrow to his wife’s potato sack figure, rustling through the wooden packing cases at the back of the shed. Her grandparents had brought everything they owned with them on the boat to America, and it seemed they hadn’t parted with any of it. Even the glass beads Terri had used in the jug cover had been unearthed from her great-grandmother’s haberdashery box in the bottom of one of the trunks.

“Supper’s ready, Opa.”

He straightened up. “Eh? Hmp, you’re home now? Did Oma tell you the Lamberts were asking after you?”

“No.” Terri bent down and replaced a couple of turnips that had escaped from their pile. The Lamberts were a retired couple from her grandparent’s church who came by every now and then to chat and play board games with Oma and Opa.

“Oh.” He scratched his head and turned back to the trunk. “I was sure I had some snow boots in here. Probably no good to you anyway.”

Terri frowned. Snow boots? Here, where they rarely got so much as a frost? She stepped outside the shed as her Opa gave up the search. She hoped his mind wasn’t beginning to wander.

He was getting old, she admitted to herself, following him into the stifling warmth of the house. Other kids at school had grandmothers who weren’t that much older than her mother - and Oma and Opa weren’t young when their only daughter had been born.

Like two moths in amber, they seemed suspended in a generation that Terri doubted existed even back in their homeland. They had an old TV, but watched nothing but the news and the quiz shows; went out to the shops, but bought only the plain staples they’d eaten all their lives; were vaguely aware of what went on in the rest of the world but let it pass right by them, like a storm that passes over a cottage nestled in the lee of a hill.

Living with them suited Terri, though. Her grandparents kept her warm and fed, and gave her somewhere she felt she belonged, and she helped with all the things around the house and garden that were getting too much for them.

After her schoolwork and chores, there wasn’t much time or energy for anything else but Terri was happy enough. After growing up with a mother who never let her forget how much she constantly gave up to raise her, it was a relief to feel she was paying her own way.

She’d never known her father, who had apparently continued his life unaware and unencumbered by her existence while her mother had been left literally ‘holding the baby’. The unexpected responsibility had soured her mother. She’d resented being stuck in dead-end jobs, never able to get ahead or make use of her degree. Just over a year ago, though, she’d landed a summer internship in another state and arranged for Terri to stay with her grandparents for the holidays. The internship turned into a full-time job, and since Terri and her grandparents were happy neither she nor they pointed out that her mother had forgotten to reclaim her child.

Terri hadn’t made any friends at her new school, but she preferred to spend her lunchtimes and free periods studying alone in the school library, anyway. With hard work she was making very good grades, and felt quietly confident of earning a college scholarship. A lifetime of feeling in debt for everything she received had made her determined to never again be in a position where she had to be dependant on anybody.

Oma had already ladled the soup into the bowls when Terri and Opa took their seats at the table, and Terri bowed her head automatically as Opa said the grace. She didn’t mind their prayers or the Bible readings after each meal, or sitting beside them in church Sunday mornings - it was just another part of their antiquated but comfortable life.

“So,” Oma started as soon as Terri had lifted the spoon to her lips. “The Lamberts want to take you skiing with them.”

Terri spluttered on her soup. She could feel her eyes grow big as she stared at her grandmother.

“They hoped to see you, but you were very late tonight and they had to go.” There was a slight censure in her voice. “They are taking the grandchildren for a ski trip before Christmas, and thought you might like to go with them.”

The thick soup slid down Terri’s throat in a lump. Skiing. It seemed most of the kids at school that year had either already been skiing or had arranged to go, but Terri had never even seen the snow. The thought of her doing anything like that with Oma and Opa was ridiculous, but with the Lamberts? They were white-haired and couldn’t really be that much younger than her grandparents, but they were still active and travelled all over the place. If only....

She sighed. No, it was impossible.

“It would cost a lot of money to go to the snow,” she said, mentally dismissing the meagre amount of chore money she had saved.

“It seems they have some kind of package deal. They take two boys and one girl grandchild - they need three rooms. So, there is a spare bed and meals for six already paid for. And they are driving that big car of theirs, so it won’t cost any extra to take another person.” It appeared they had already given Oma the answers. “It would be a nice trip for you.”

Terri shook her head slowly, unwilling to let her imagination grasp the concept. “I haven’t got any skis. Or snow gear. Or anything. I know you can hire stuff, but it’s still a lot of money.”

Oma exchanged a glance with her husband and Opa beamed at Terri across the table. “That will be our Christmas present. We have a bit put aside for special things,” he told her.

For a moment, it seemed almost possible. The hire for the ski gear would be a big cost for her grandparents, but Terri had heard the kids at school saying it was cheaper to hire here before you left, so maybe that would be okay. The thought of her own Christmas gifts she’d hidden in her room, and the many hours she’d spent making them made her feel much better about the exchange. But still.…

“Why would Mr and Mrs Lambert want to take *me*? I mean, why not just have an empty bed?” Terri had seen the Lamberts at least once a week since she’d moved in with her grandparents, but it wasn’t like they were *her* friends or anything. And she had never met their grandchildren, who lived a couple of hours away.

Oma and Opa exchanged another look, but it was Oma who spoke again, as usual. “Their girl grandchild, she is about your age. With two brothers, I think maybe you would be company for her.”

That made sense to Terri. If they took her to be company for their granddaughter there was a reason for her going, and she could feel okay about it.

Actually, she felt better than okay. Terri allowed herself to smile. She was going skiing.


***


Terri stood awkwardly by the railing of the ski-lodge balcony, like a faded brown and navy sparrow amongst the birds-of-paradise that were the Lambert family. She squinted into the glare of the white mountainside as though lost in the picture-postcard scene, yet remained very aware of her companions.

She was glad the long drive of the previous day was over. It wasn’t that the Lambert’s weren’t friendly - they were, to a fault - but the company of such bright, outgoing people made her feel all the duller.

Sasha’s laughter tinkled through the cold air and Terri glanced over her shoulder at her. Tall and slender, her blonde curls spilled from a bright pink ski cap, her trendy outfit making her look like a model for a ski clothing advertisement. She was a year older than Terri, attractive and bubbly. She’d been full of conversation during the hours of driving, but Terri was a girl of few words, and her own lack of sophistication made her unwilling to give more than cursory answers to Sasha’s questions.

Girls like Sasha didn’t even look in Terri’s direction at school, and she felt sorry for Sasha having been lumbered with her by her grandparents. Oma couldn’t have been more wrong about the Lamberts inviting her along to keep their granddaughter from being lonely - Sasha was the kind of person who made friends with everyone. Already she was the centre of a group of older teenagers, comparing notes about their day’s plans. She’d tried to include Terri, but not wanting to detract from Sasha’s chance of meeting new people, Terri had managed to slip away from the group.

Sasha’s brother, Sam, was standing with his sister. He was only a year older than Sasha, and more than a match for her radiant energy. He made Terri think of a TV talk show host; clever lines and quick wit all rolled together with a magnetic charm. Right now he had the whole group of young people laughing at something he’d said, and Terri saw the interested glances that a couple of Sasha’s new friends were directing at him through their eyelashes.

At the sound of heavy footsteps, Terri turned to see Scott, the eldest grandson, join Mrs Lambert on the balcony. He was tall, but more solidly built than his younger siblings and seemed intimidatingly adult to Terri. She hadn’t had much to do with him on the trip as he’d shared the driving with Mr Lambert, but he seemed much more mature than Sasha or Sam, and exuded a quiet self-assurance. As she turned back to the view, Terri listened to him telling his grandmother that his grandfather was just finalising a few arrangements at the front counter and would be along in a moment. Mrs Lambert didn’t ski anymore, claiming she came along for the socialising, but had left the cosy guest lounge and her new acquaintances for the send-off.

Terri looked down at the children playing in the snow below the balcony. More than anything she longed to be down there with the little ones, feeling the snow in her hands, making snowballs and snow angels and doing all the things she’d read about as a child. She knew no-one would mind if she went down the steps to join the children in their play - but everyone else was taking the snow so matter-of-factly that she didn’t want to seem like a fool.

“Are you all set?”

Terri jumped as Scott spoke right beside her. She nodded and said a simple “Yes.”

She wished she could think of something interesting to say about the scenery, or even communicate how excited she was about skiing for the first time. Instead she stood beside him like a block of wood.

Scott leaned his arms on the railing, apparently content to stay by her side without any further conversation. He was probably just taking in the view like she was, but it was nice having him there, and she didn’t feel nearly so conspicuous as standing alone.

“Are we all ready, kids?” Mr Lambert boomed from behind them, and Terri turned to see him snapping on his hat and gloves. He was larger than life, impeccably dressed in the latest fashion, and wore a perpetually broad smile on his tanned face. “Let’s hit the slopes!”

During the scramble for skis and stocks, Terri felt a dainty hand on her arm and looked up into Mrs Lambert’s eyes. Considerably shorter than her husband, she had an air of regal dignity, accentuated by her discreet jewellery and the way her upswept hair sat like a silver crown on her head.

“Now, darling, are you sure you don’t want to have a few lessons first? We’re very happy to arrange it for you.”

Terri shook her head adamantly. The Lamberts had offered earlier, but Terri had caught sight of the exorbitant charges on a poster behind the check-in desk. She already felt intensely uncomfortable about having the holiday at the Lambert’s expense, especially after discovering Sasha needed no looking after. Terri couldn’t bear the thought of adding even more cost.

“No, I’ll be fine, thank you,” she insisted. “I’ll just take it carefully until I get the hang of it.”

After all, she thought, how hard can it be?

* * *


“There you go, Terri. How’s that?” Scott lowered her onto one of the plush sofas in the lodge’s lounge room, while his grandmother carefully piled soft pillows under her bandaged ankle.

“It’s good. Thanks,” Terri told them through gritted teeth, the agony of her mortification far harder to bear than the shooting pains that came every time she moved her ankle. She’d been off the ski-lift and on her skis for less than two minutes before they shot from beneath her and she was flung through time and space in a mindless tumble that ended in ignominy and pain.

It wasn’t knowing she’d forfeited her one chance of enjoying the snow that distressed her so much, but that she had ruined everyone else’s morning. Immediately the Lambert’s previous plans had been forgotten; Mr Lambert, Sasha and Scott fussing over her while Sam disappeared in search of help.

Once the medic had declared there were no bones broken and she’d been delivered into Mrs Lambert’s care at the lodge, Mr Lambert had gone back to the slopes with the younger two, but Scott stayed resolutely by her side.

“What can I get you, darling?” Mrs Lambert’s eyes were full of concern as she leaned down over her.

Terri blinked hard, determined not to give into tears of embarrassment. “I’m fine. Really.” Then, when she realised that Mrs Lambert wouldn’t be satisfied so easily, “Um, actually, if I could please have a glass of water?”

“Certainly, darling.” With the satisfaction of a woman with a mission, Mrs Lambert set off in pursuit of a member of the lodge staff. Terri turned to Scott, who had pulled up a chair beside the couch.

“You’re going back out to ski, aren’t you?” she asked, her chest tightening with the thought he might feel duty bound to stay with her.

“I thought I’d keep you company.”

Terri shook her head, trying to smile. “Please, don’t stay - I’m fine. I’ll have plenty of company with your grandmother here with me.”

Mrs Lambert returned just then, directing a young man with a glass and a jug of iced water to place it on the adjacent coffee table. She poured the glass for Terri, retrieved her knitting bag from the table, and then settled herself in the big armchair opposite.

“It’s very kind of you to sit with me, Mrs Lambert--”

“Nonsense,” the older woman contradicted her warmly, “I’m looking forward to your company. There’s hardly any young folk around here in the daytime.”

Terri persevered, “I was just saying to Scott he should get back out there and make the most of the afternoon. I’m perfectly comfortable now, and there’s nothing more I need.”

Mrs Lambert peered over her gold-rimmed reading glasses at her grandson. “Yes. Off you go, Scott. You should be able to meet up with the others easily enough. And thanks so much for your help. It’s very handy to have a strapping grandson at a time like this.” The latter she said more to Terri, and the girl felt her cheeks blazing, dreading to imagine how embarrassed he must have felt to have her clinging tensely to him as her carried her in his arms all the way to the lounge.

“This is nice, isn’t it, Terri,” the older woman began as Scott departed. “We’ve never had a chance for a good chat, have we? Tell me about your school.…”

Terri managed a brief answer, then as Mrs Lambert momentarily turned her attention to her knitting, she screwed her eyes shut in despair. The poor lady obviously felt she had to entertain her - and Terri hated the thought of monopolising her time and attention like that. What possible enjoyment could a lady like her find in the company of an uninteresting schoolgirl?

“I’m so sorry, darling! You look exhausted - probably the effect of the pain medication that young doctor gave you,” Mrs Lambert apologised a moment later. “Here I am gabbing on at you when what you obviously need is to rest. Why don’t I call one of those nice waiters and ask him to help me get you upstairs to bed? I shouldn’t have let you send Scott away.”

Terri’s eyes were instantly wide. “No, I’m very comfortable here,” she said urgently, seeing Mrs Lambert was already scanning the room for an unsuspecting male. “I hadn’t realised how weary I was, but if you don’t mind me just resting here?”

“Of course not. Lie back and relax, I’ll be right here if you need anything.”

Terri forced her eyes shut again, wishing there was some way she could leave and let the Lamberts get on with their holiday without her. With her ankle in the condition it was, though, she couldn’t possibly catch a train or bus home - even if the Lamberts would have allowed it, which she very much doubted.

A few minutes later she heard Mrs Lambert greet another woman, and the two of them were soon deep in conversation comparing knitting patterns and wool. It was a relief to know Mrs Lambert wasn’t missing out entirely, and Terri spent the rest of that long, miserable afternoon staring out at the mountainside through the lodge window.

She hated being helpless like this, having people wait on her rather than getting up and doing things for them. She wasn’t sure how, but tomorrow she’d make sure she wouldn’t be a burden on any of them.

* * *


“You’re doing very well on the crutches, Terri.” Mr Lambert congratulated her heartily as he got up from their breakfast table in the dining room the next morning. “There’ll be no stopping you soon.”

Terri smiled at his extravagant compliment as she continued to inch her way along the room toward the main lounge. Having her foot down made it throb, but perhaps if Mrs Lambert realised she didn’t need any assistance she’d feel free to go on with her own plans. Terri had heard a group of Mrs Lambert’s friends discussing a shopping and coffee foray down to the village, and although Mrs Lambert had made her apologies, Terri was hopeful of her changing her mind. A couple of women had already gathered in the foyer, waiting to begin.

Sasha had offered several times to sit with her too, but Terri had convinced her she’d be more than happy leafing through magazines in front of the big fireplace. It was only when the rest of the family came in to say goodbye on their way to the slopes that Terri noticed Scott hadn’t changed into his outdoor clothes.

“Aren’t you skiing, Scott?” Mrs Lambert asked sharply.

Scott put one hand to his back a little gingerly. “No. I seemed to have pulled something in my back yesterday. I thought I’d have a lay day today and rest up. If you ladies don’t mind my company?”

“Of course not!” his grandmother assured him, quickly commandeering another tub chair for him.

He didn’t take the offered seat but said to Terri, “I hear you’re a pretty mean checker player. I’ve never met anyone I can’t beat - and I’d love a challenge.”

Terri stared back at him. How had he heard that about her? She often gave her grandfather a game of checkers - but she made sure she lost as often as she won. She knew there was no joy in being continually outclassed.

The thought of being able to genuinely pit herself against someone appealed, and she readily agreed, leaning forward eagerly as Scott produced a board and playing pieces from the shelf beneath the table.

“Why don’t you join the ladies, Grandma?” he said casually as he lined up the pieces on the board. “It looks like they’re just about ready to go down to the village.”

Mrs Lambert looked over her knitting to where half a dozen women stood by the doorway.

“I’ll be here with Terri, anyway,” he added, as his grandmother hesitated, her hands paused on the needles.

“If that’s all right with you both, I guess I could go.”

“Oh, yes. I can get around perfectly well now,” Terri assured her, smiling brightly at her, “and I’m sure Scott will get me anything I need.”

Her face glowing with anticipation, Mrs Lambert quickly stowed her knitting and called out to the ladies at the door before rushing to find her coat. A few minutes later the women had left in a throng of happy chatter and Terri looked across the board to Scott.

“You can go now.”

He frowned, his finger hovering over a playing piece. “What?”

“You don’t have to stay with me now; your Grandmother’s gone with her friends.”

Scott looked at her quizzically for a moment, and then grinned. “I must have you worried, if you’re trying to trick me out of playing you. Sorry, you’re not getting out of a thrashing that easily.”

His hand moved quickly, and with a few clicks of his wooden counter, Terri saw two of her pieces plucked from the board.

She gasped. “How did you do that?”

All other thoughts forgotten, she leaned over the table and began to plot her revenge.

* * *


The score was tied at four games all when Scott sat back in his chair and stretched leisurely before placing the checkers back in formation for the decider.

Terri looked across at his intent face, and felt an unexpected surge of warmth. She hadn’t even noticed the time passing, and had discovered in Scott a very formidable opponent and surprisingly comfortable companion. She’d never known herself to laugh so much over a game of checkers before.

As she leaned forward to make the opening move, a woman walked behind her carrying a plate of cinnamon toast that laid siege to Terri’s senses. Her mouth watered at the aroma, and she felt her stomach groan. After a patchy night and feeling nauseated by her throbbing ankle, Terri hadn’t managed much breakfast, but she was ravenous now.

“Smells good, doesn’t it?” Scott said, rubbing his middle. “I’m all for a break in play to replenish our resources. What would you like?”

“Nothing. I’m fine, thanks,” she answered quickly. The main meals were all covered in the cost of the stay, but drinks and snacks cost extra. A lot extra. As tempted as Terri was, the little pocket money she’d had left had been all but spent when she’d insisted on buying her own meals on the trip up. She’d just have to hold out until lunch.

“Well, I’m famished,” Scott admitted and got to his feet. “Are you sure you I can’t get you anything?”

She realised then he was offering to pay, and that made her only more determined to decline. He and his family had already done way more than enough.

Terri leaned back against the couch, staring out onto the now familiar snow-scape as he headed for the counter. She just hoped he didn’t choose anything for himself that smelled *too* good.

Her hope was unfounded though, and she breathed in the throat-achingly delicious aroma of his selection before he even arrived. She turned toward him to see him place a tray on the table, bearing a plate piled high with cinnamon toast and two steaming mugs.

“Are you a coffee or a hot-chocolate girl?” he asked.

“Oh.” Terri’s heart tightened as she realised what he’d done. “Oh. Whichever you don’t want.”

“I’d be happy with either. That’s why it was a good gamble. Now, the catch is if you choose the coffee you get a chocolate coated coffee bean, and with the hot choc it’s the marshmallow.”

It was the marshmallow that did her in and Terri accepted the mug gratefully. They never got back to the deciding game of checkers; and had just polished off the plate of toast between them when the rest of the family returned to the lodge, the skiers having met up with Mrs Lambert on her way back from the village.

Mrs Lambert shook her head when she saw the remains of their feast. “You’re not spoiling your lunch, are you?” she chided playfully, her cheeks pink from the cold.

“Nope, just getting it warmed up,” Scott replied, making everyone laugh. “I don’t know about you guys, but we’ve been working up an appetite here.”

* * *


Lunch passed amid vibrant chatter and much laughter. They all had plenty of stories to exchange about their various activities and for the first time since the start of the trip Terri found herself relaxed and fully enjoying the Lambert’s company. The anticipation of returning to battle with Scott over the checkerboard excited her too; he’d already hinted that the winner would probably have to get two games ahead at least to truly be crowned the victor.

As they parted ways after the meal, the skiers to get changed and the “lounge-lizards” (as Sam had christened them) to return to their indolence, Mrs Lambert’s angora wrap slid from her shoulders. Scott ducked immediately to catch it, scooping it up smoothly before it even hit the floor.

He draped it around his grandmother’s shoulders, and she smiled up at him as she passed through the doorway in front of him. He turned back to Terri, who was last out of the room, but stiffened when he saw her expression.

Terri leaned on her crutches and looked him in the eye. “That was a great move catching the scarf like that, Scott. Your back mustn’t be too bad at all.”

A hint of red touched his cheeks, but he smiled ingenuously. “See, I knew resting would do it good.”

She raised her eyebrows in disbelief, and his smile faded. “Hey, don’t give me that look, Terri! It honestly was a bit sore when I got up this morning - and I still think I’m far better off taking it easy today. Especially when it gives me the chance to prove my supremacy in checkers.”

“Thank you for your company this morning, Scott,” Terri said primly. She wasn’t sure why her stomach lurched the way it did, knowing he’d stayed back that morning just for her sake, but it wasn’t a comfortable feeling. “It was very kind of you. Your grandmother’s back now, and there’s no reason for you not to join the others skiing for the rest of the day.”

“I’m really enjoying our tournament. I think you just don’t want to lose.”

“No - I couldn’t enjoy it now I know you could be skiing.” Terri dropped her gaze to the carpet and hobbled past him without looking back. As she sank into her usual couch in the lounge room, a feeling of depression settled on her. It had cost her a lot to pass up the end of the tournament with Scott, but she was already far enough in debt to him as it was.

She flicked disconsolately through the magazines, thinking how stupid it was to be in a luxury ski resort and yet feel so miserable. At home she could be doing something … contributing somehow. Even with her injured ankle she could be sitting at the kitchen table and shelling peas with Oma - or playing a game to keep Opa company.

Laughter from the chairs opposite made her glance up to where her Mrs Lambert sat with a couple of other ladies, their heads bent over brag-books as they compared photos of their grandchildren. Although Mrs Lambert was more than happy to include Terri in her circle, Terri knew it wasn’t because the older lady needed her company - but just wanted to nice.

She sighed, and let her head drop back onto the soft cushions. Only one more afternoon to get through. Tomorrow would be their last day. The Lamberts had planned for one more morning on the slopes before beginning the long drive home after lunch.

* * *


It was late when the rest of the family returned to the lodge that afternoon. While Mr Lambert had joined the ladies in the lounge not long after returning, it was more than twenty minutes later before Scott, Sam and Sasha came downstairs and they all went into the dining room.

All the other tables were filled with guests well into their meals when the Lamberts entered, and when they finally finished dessert they were the only ones remaining in the dining room.

There was an air of expectancy amongst the three young Lamberts that Terri couldn’t understand. She’d have thought they’d be rather flat on the last night of their trip, rather than thrumming with some kind of suppressed anticipation.

Her curiosity was piqued when they went upstairs to their suite and Sasha barred the door, insisting Terri and her grandparents wait outside. Mrs Lambert gave her husband a questioning glance, but he merely shrugged, folding his arms complacently as he leaned back against the corridor wall.

A few minutes later the door opened a crack and then Sasha poked her head through. “Are you ready?”

“Ready for what?” Mrs Lambert’s voice betrayed her interest.

“You’ll see!” Sasha sung back, and swung open the door.

Terri followed the older couple inside, her eyes adjusting to the candlelit room. Candles of all shapes and sizes twinkled from every available surface, reflecting off copious quantities of tinsel and giving a glittering fairy-like atmosphere to the room. A CD of orchestral carols played softly through the player and on top of the central coffee table sat a miniature Christmas tree, surrounded by more than a dozen brightly wrapped gifts.

Mrs Lambert clasped her hands together and pressed them to her mouth. “It’s so beautiful! What a lovely surprise.”

Her three grandchildren’s eyes danced with pleasure. “Well, since we won’t see you and Grandpa on Christmas Day, we thought we could have Christmas now - on our last night here together.”

“And look at all of this,” Mrs Lambert looked all around the room. “So this is why you were so late to dinner. How sweet of you all.”

Scott cleared his throat. “It’s the very least we could do, especially after you taking us all on this trip. Sasha can take all the credit for the decorations, though, Sam and I tried, but we couldn’t restrain her proclivity to go over the top with the tinsel.”

Sasha giggled, bouncing up and down on her toes. “We found this excellent discount store down in the village. They had cartons and cartons of the stuff and I couldn’t resist.”

“So that’s what you were doing when you stuck me at that table inside the café and ordered me a huge cappacino - obviously telling the waitress to take her time in bringing it over to me so I wouldn’t come looking for you before you finished.” Mr Lambert said.

“Oh no, the waitress taking her time was pure providence,” Sam laughed. “But it worked out well. Sasha took so long in the discount store we couldn’t believe you were still finishing up your mug when we finally--”

“So, can we start?” Sasha cut him off, frizzling with excitement as she edged toward the pile of presents.

Mr and Mrs Lambert exchanged a glance. “I might just have to get Grandpa to get my case down from the closet. We were planning to give you our Christmas gifts when we dropped you home, but I think now would be the perfect time, don’t you?”

“Absolutely,” her husband agreed, “then the kids can lug them back down to the car tomorrow, instead of us.”

While everyone laughed, the couple disappeared into their bedroom and Terri made her way toward one of the armchairs. Although she felt a little awkward intruding on such a special family occasion, she was more than happy to bask in the warmth of it all. It had made her smile to witness the grandchildren’s excitement in their successful surprise, and their grandparent’s obvious appreciation.

As she began to lower herself carefully onto the seat, Terri caught sight of her own name written on the tag tied onto one of the gifts under the tree. Her face froze as she noticed two more gifts bearing her name. What had they done, buying something for her too?

Feeling suddenly cold and miserable, she pulled herself back up. She’d had no inkling of anything like this … if they’d given her any warning, she could have bought something to give them in return! No, she admitted miserably, thinking of her small means, she couldn’t have even done that. While she was sure her own Oma and Opa would appreciate the hand crocheted gift and plaited belt, they were hardly the kind of thing one gave to people like the Lamberts.

She awkwardly got her balance, and tried to squeeze past Sam, accidentally bumping one of her crutches against his foot.

“You okay, Terri?” he asked, in surprise.

“Just going to get a … to get a warmer sweater,” she murmured, and was almost at her bedroom door just as Mr and Mrs Lambert came out of theirs, their arms full of parcels and their faces glowing.

“Where’s Terri?” Mrs Lambert asked as she noticed her absence.

“Getting a pullover or something,” Sam told her, and Mrs Lambert turned just as Terri had all but reached the refuge of her bedroom.

Mrs Lambert fixed her beaming smile on her. “Don’t be long, darling, there’s a parcel here for you too.” She raised a large rectangular gift box tied up with glossy ribbon to show her before placing it on the coffee table with the others.

Terri pushed the door to the shared bedroom almost shut, and in the darkness sunk down onto her bed, curling up with her head in her hands. She knew she couldn’t hide in there forever - but she couldn’t bear to go back out, and sit through the present giving ceremony either.

Hadn’t the whole trip been hard enough without this? Couldn’t they understand how cruel it was to put someone in a position where they were forced to receive without having any ability to repay it?

It was only a few minutes before the inevitable knock on the door came, but to Terri’s surprise it wasn’t Sasha or Mrs Lambert who entered. Her throat constricted as Scott quietly crossed the room, and sat opposite her on the edge of Sasha’s bed. Her hopes of the darkness hiding her tears were lost when he reached over and turned on the bedside lamp.

“I didn’t think you’d just gone off in search of a jumper,” he said simply.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to make a fuss.” Terri’s voice was regrettably croaky. “I’ve … I’ve got a headache. Can you just tell them to all go ahead without me?”

Scott shook his head. “No. We’ll wait until you’re ready. It won’t be the same without you in there with us.”

He rested his elbows on his knees, looking like he had all the time in the world. “This afternoon you had the nerve to infer my back strain wasn’t really so bad, and I reckon your headache isn’t either. Can we talk about what’s really bothering you?”

His persistence felt like the walls of a compactor, closing in on all sides with no possible way out. She’d learned over a morning of checkers how shrewd Scott could be. Had he known even then why she hadn’t wanted him to stay back with her, or why she hadn’t wanted him to buy her afternoon tea?

“You couldn’t understand.”

“What? That you’re upset because we’ve all got presents for each other and you’ve been left out?”

“No! Of course not! I’m not selfish like that!” she snapped back, propping herself up on one elbow to face him. “I’d be perfectly happy if only there were no gifts for me. But I had no idea that this was planned. I’ve got nothing for any of you.”

Scott raised his eyebrows at her unplanned confession, and Terri flopped back onto her pillow and stared at the ceiling. She should have seen that coming.

“Do you think we care about that?” he asked quietly.

“Well, I care. I hate being put into this position. It’s all right for you all to be so kind and generous, but how do you think it makes me feel?” There, it was out. Two days of resentment and frustration, bound up with a relentless aching in her ankle that had drained every last shred of tolerance. “I should never have come.”

“I thought you said you weren’t selfish.”

“What?”

Scott’s unsympathetic response halted her tears, and she turned back to her audacious challenger, her mouth hanging open as he continued.

“You’re not prepared to appreciate a gift for its own sake, or the kindness it represents from the giver - it’s all tied up in what it says about you. It seems like you’re only prepared to enjoy what you think you deserve or have earned by a fair exchange.”

“You can hardly call me selfish for not wanting to be in anyone’s debt,” Terri grumbled, prickled by the memories of a childhood of being made to feel irretrievably beholden.

Scott shrugged. “There’s a kind of pride in being determined not to be in anyone’s debt.”

“Look, Scott, I know you’re trying to help but you can’t possibly understand.”

“Perhaps I do,” he said softly. “I’ve had to learn the hard way to swallow my pride, and admit how desperately I needed something that I had no right to, and no ability to get for myself. But I don’t regret it.”

Terri leaned forward. Scott seemed so together, so self-assured that she could hardly imagine him needing anything from anyone.

“I grew up thinking I had everything a kid could want - and the perfect right to it, too. I was a pretty good kid, and my parents couldn’t have been nicer to me; I worked hard at school and I made good grades; I was nice to other people, so I had lots of friends. And I thought I had a good bargain with God too.

When I was young I dutifully repeated a prayer to ask Jesus into my heart, and took for granted that made me into a Christian. I kept up my end of the deal by doing all the right things - well, doing better than most boys my age, anyway - and I believed God would return the favour by looking out for my best interests now and guaranteeing me a spot in heaven, though hopefully in the very distant future.”

Scott shook his head at the memory. “By the time I was in my teens, I reckoned God definitely had the better end of the bargain. Even though there were better things on I still went along to Church almost every week, even went up the front to do the Bible reading whenever I was asked.

I was a bright student, good at sports, and never ashamed for anyone to know I believed in God and that I kept to the rules. It was a pretty big sacrifice on my part - I didn’t go drinking with my friends, didn’t fool around with girls. You know, I was making God look good! What better PR could he want than someone like me?”

Terri laughed at his disgusted expression. She could so easily imagine him at Sam’s age, with the same adolescent bravado and untried confidence.

“Don’t laugh, Terri, it’s really true. And it wasn’t until one afternoon, when I was seventeen and was stuck waiting in the car for my dad, that I got so bored I started reading through a copy of the Gospel of John that he had in his glove box. Dad ended up being nearly two hours, and the more I read the more I saw that what I’d thought was impressive to God was absolutely worthless. It was so clear in the Gospel that the only way to heaven was believing in the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin.

I’d never really seen myself as sinful, but I’d been comparing myself to the people around me, not to God’s perfect holiness. Relying on my ‘good works’ - the decision I had made as a child, memorising my Bible verses for Sunday School, or even that I’d been prepared to say I believed in Jesus - was nothing more than arrogance and self-delusion. The only thing I had earned by relying on myself was eternal punishment.”

He looked across at Terri, his eyes very dark and serious. “I’d thought I was rich, but I was in absolutely poverty. For the first time I understood that I had absolutely nothing to contribute to my salvation. The only thing I could do to be saved was to believe in what God had done - and if I could believe, that in itself was only because God had given me the gift of faith. And I’m so thankful that by God’s grace I wasn’t too self-sufficient to beg for his forgiveness, or too proud to accept the undeserved gift he offered me.”

Terri stared at him, stunned by what he’d just exposed about himself. He straightened up, smiling a little self-consciously.

“You’re probably wondering where I was going with all this, Terri,” he said. “But the point is that I’ve come to see that everything I have in this life, and everything I hope for in eternity, is a gift that I have done nothing at all to deserve. So I don’t feel uncomfortable getting something I can’t repay - it is a speck compared to the massive debt to God I can’t repay. And I rejoice when I am able to serve someone who can’t repay me, for that same reason.

You mightn’t be at a place where you realise yet how indebted you are to God, but you don’t ever need to feel indebted to our family. It’s our pleasure to share out of what we’ve been given in Christ Jesus, just as it’s our pleasure to receive whatever God gives us through his people. That’s the way God works, where one person has a need, sometimes he gives another the means to meet it. The one who shares is blessed by being used to show God’s love, and the one who receives is blessed, by accepting God’s kind provision--”

“Are you two coming back out?”

Terri jumped as Mrs Lambert popped her head inside the door. “Sam has started trying to roast nuts over the candles, and if we don’t distract him soon we’re likely to set off all the fire alarms. Are you okay, Terri, honey?”

“Yes, thank you,” Terri answered, carefully getting to her feet as Scott held out her crutches to her. “I think I am.”

“Hang on,” Scott put his hand on Terri’s shoulder before she could follow Mrs Lambert out of the room. “You’d better put on that warmer sweater or everyone will wonder why you really came in here. Is this it?”

His ridiculous comment surprised a chuckle from Terri, and she nodded, and let him pull the green knit over her head, threading her arms through its sleeves as she balanced on one crutch at a time. If Scott was willing to pretend that the change of sweater would explain her long absence, maybe she could too?

Sam was blowing on his fingers, a charred walnut shell on the table beside him as Terri took her seat with the rest of the family. Apart from an encouraging smile from Sasha when she caught Terri’s eyes across the gift-laden table, no-one acted as though she’d been gone from the room for more than a couple of minutes.

“I’m the baby of the family, I get to go first!” Sasha announced, hopping up and handing a tinsel-encrusted gift to each person. As Terri accepted the one that Sasha handed her, she took a deep breath and looked up to thank her. The pleasure she saw in the other girl’s eyes made her blush and she glanced across the table to Scott. He was watching her with a big grin, and sent her the thumbs up signal.

“Oh, hurry up and open it,Terri!” Sasha begged, “I can’t wait to see what you think.”

Terri’s hands were shaking slightly as she tugged at the wrapping, but finally she pulled out something soft and very, very brightly coloured.

“It’s a ski cap!” Sasha said, bouncing from one foot to another. “When I saw it I just thought of how pretty it would look on you. Please, try it on.”

Mrs Lambert pulled her compact from her handbag and passed it across as soon as Terri had slipped the cap on her head. She stared at the face in the mirror, her green eyes unnaturally bright and sparkling beneath the vibrant colours. It was so unlike anything Terri would ever choose for herself, but when she turned back to thank Sasha, her gratitude came from her heart, and she felt very, very glad to have it.

It was just as exciting to see the others opening their gifts. Sasha’s over-the-top presents were more a reflection of her own personality than that of the receiver, but delighted everyone. The humorous gifts Sam had selected had them all in stitches, and Scott’s considerate choices were passed from hand to hand for careful examination.

Soon the floor was strewn with wrappings and slivers of tinsel. On the table beside the cap Sasha had given her, Terri placed an intricate set of travel checkers from Scott and a glass snow-dome from Sam. The scene inside the ornament depicted a skier with a broken leg, which Sam declared was a perfect memento of her ‘trip’.

When Mr and Mrs Lambert handed out their parcels, Terri held hers on her lap, growing more reluctant to unwrap it as she watched the others open theirs. It was solid and heavy, and she dreaded it being anything near as expensive as the gifts the other young people were exclaiming over. The things Scott had told her about humbly receiving grace had planted a seed in her mind, but they would not take root without a struggle.

Finally, Terri could postpone her turn no longer, and carefully undid the foil paper around her gift. Inside was a box, and inside that, a leather covered book. Her heart in her throat, Terri ran her fingers over the embossed cover. A Bible.

She opened the cover, reverently turning the pages. Not just any Bible, like the old pew Bible her grandparents had put in the bookshelf in her room, but a Bible of her very own - and, after what Scott had told her - a Bible she wanted to read.

When Terri took it to bed with her that night, she thought over her talk with Scott. Could it be true that God had known her need, and sent the Lambert’s along on his behalf?

Terri closed her eyes, thinking of Oma and Opa, and the gifts she’d proudly made that waited for Christmas under their old, wiry tree. Up to this point, her goals had focussed solely on paying her own way through life. Now she wondered if it might be far more important to learn how to receive an even greater gift.


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rachelbrown@tulipfiction.com






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