Reason To Think Aloud

Itís almost Christmas, what do I do? ... I donít want to be alone. For all Iíve said, what do I know? Now that thereís snow outside, thereís reason to think aloud. -- Dan Mangan (the singer)


He closed his eyes and walked. With each step, he heard the sound of his boots crunching into the packed snow. The sounds of chickadees and pine siskins calling to each other in the branches above him filled the air with music. The air felt cold upon his cheeks; it was moist. They would get more snow that day.

He sensed when the path was going to turn, having walked this way so many times before. The sound of a quail running into the bushes was followed by the surprised chatter of a raccoon scurrying to get back to its home. In the far distance, he heard the plaintive cry of a wild cat; too far away to worry about.

He continued on the path, turning with it, all with his eyes closed. He stepped on a rock that shouldn't have been there and opened his eyes again. The sky was much lighter than it had been a few minutes ago. The reddish band of clouds in the east had expanded. In the west, the sky was clear, and that deep dark blue of the early morning had morphed into a brilliant azure. He looked down at the path and could see only snow. He dropped to his knees and quickly cleared the snow out of the way with his gloved hands. This was no rock.

The thick canvas bag had no markings. It was larger than he expected. He continued to clear away the snow and dirt around it. It was about fourteen inches wide and over two feet long. He carefully lifted the parcel out of its icy enclosure and smiled. The package hadn't been buried long. The canvas wrapping had been folded around the contents a few times, helping to keep the moisture out. As he touched it, a soft crinkling noise could be heard.

His smile widened as he stood up. He looked around the forest, knowing he wouldn't see Brom, but searching all the same. He spotted the unmistakable tracks of snowshoes leading off to a path between the trees. "Thank you, Brom!" he called out, pulling off his cap and waving it in the direction of the tracks. No answer was heard.

With a grin, he put the bright orange cap back on his head. He tucked the large parcel under his arm as best he could. He turned around, heading back the direction he had come. He quickened his pace, walking as fast as his old legs would carry him, sometimes having to shift the weight of the package from one arm to the other. He stopped when he spotted the cabin where he had left the boy sleeping.

The cabin looked lifeless. No smoke rose from the chimney. No lights shone from the windows. As he stepped closer, turning to see the side of the cabin, his smile turned to a frown. A startled deer looked up from where it had been calmly foraging through the snow, finding bits of dark greenery poking through to chew on. "Get outta here before I grab my crossbow!" he shouted at the animal. The young buck needed no second warning and flitted off into the trees quickly.

"Well, good morning to you, too." Dan Mangan grinned at the old man. He had stepped out of a shadow, a bright blue mug in his hands, steam rising from it.

"Bah. It was good. What did you plant here in the fall that the deer are suddenly coming into our garden for? They're going to eat everything." Mr. Maypenny shook his head in disgust. "And you think it's fun."

"I like watching the deer. They're neat," Dan acknowledged. He took a sip of the warm liquid in his mug.

"You may not think it's so neat when we don't have any zucchini this summer. Is there more of that tea?" Mr. Maypenny asked suddenly. "Or did you only make enough for yourself?"

"Of course there's more." Dan walked the few steps to the front door and held it open for Mr. Maypenny. "What ch'you have there?" he asked, pointing his chin toward the package under the old man's arm.

"Hmph." Mr. Maypenny grimaced as he followed Dan into the kitchen. He placed the package down on the table. The heavy thunk reverberated in the room for a few seconds.

Dan pulled a bright green mug from the cabinet, one of the same set as the blue one he'd been holding, and poured some of the hot tea for Mr. Maypenny. Dan had been living with Mr. Maypenny for nearly a year now; Mr. Maypenny knew Dan would ignore his gruffness.

"So, what's with the package?" Dan asked again.

"I don't actually know yet," Mr. Maypenny answered. He smiled at Dan over the steaming liquid. "I suppose it's a Christmas present."

Dan quirked an eyebrow. "From who?"

Mr. Maypenny chortled. "My best guess is Brom. I stumbled over it on my morning walk. I guess we'll place it under the tree and find out tomorrow, now won't we?"

"Sure." Dan went over to the table and carefully removed the canvas wrapping only to reveal a makeshift wooden crate. Colorful holiday paper poked through the wide slats and crinkled at the touch. Dan looked at it thoughtfully for a second. "I guess I'll just leave it like this for now."

Mr. Maypenny nodded as Dan took the box and placed it under the tree in the other room. He wondered briefly if Brom had actually bought wrapping paper but then decided that the paper, at least, had probably come from Mrs. Vanderpoel's home.

"Will you be going to the Belden's open house tomorrow?" Dan asked, wandering back to the kitchen.

"Wouldn't miss it for anything." Mr. Maypenny nodded. "I've heard it's a grand affair."

Dan's eyes widened. "Haven't you ever been before?"

"Nope."

Mr. Maypenny provided no other explanation, but Dan wouldn't accept just the simple answer. "Why not? Haven't they ever invited you?"

Mr. Maypenny sighed. "Invited, yes, I suppose I have been. I just am not much of a social creature, especially around the holidays." In an attempt to change the subject, he added, "I suppose you're going to stay late and help clean up afterwards?"

"Yep." Dan nodded. "Then the rest of the Bob-Whites will probably pack their bags for the trip tomorrow."

"You could've joined them, you know," Mr. Maypenny stated. "Judge Harding would've understood."

"I know," Dan acknowledged. "But those boys from the juvenile home wouldn't have. I promised them I'd be there this week."

Mr. Maypenny's grey-blue eyes glimmered with pride. Dan had certainly changed in the last year. He was no longer the sullen punk he had pretended to be when he first arrived.

"Meanwhile, I need to get downtown. The boys are planning on caroling after the service at church, no matter how cold it gets. I have to stop at the Salvation Army store where they're holding on to some donations for us. Hats, gloves, scarves, and maybe even a few coats. Plus I have a few things from the Bob-Whites. It will be darn cold out there, but it should be fun. Nothing like singing Christmas carols to improve one's mood."

Maypenny smiled approvingly. "I had no idea you were planning on singing tonight. I can join you if you like."

Dan nodded appreciatively. "That would be nice."

When Dan left, Mr. Maypenny wandered around the small kitchen. After he'd washed and dried the two tea mugs and the tea pot, he wiped at old stains on the well-worn countertops; stains he knew would never really come off.

This was the first Christmas that Mr. Maypenny would be spending with someone. In all his years living alone on his little piece of property, he'd never spent the holidays with anyone. Sure, he could have gone to any of his neighbors; they would all have welcomed him, even crotchety old Lytell. But he'd never wanted to impose on them. He usually spent Christmas Eve sitting in front of his fire and sipping tea and not really thinking of it differently than any other day. But with Dan here, he couldn't do that. He didn't think it would be fair to the boy.

He thought about Brom and the gift briefly. Brom often spent the evenings at Mrs. Vanderpoel's house, sharing all the holiday meals with her. Mrs. Vanderpoel always invited Mr. Maypenny to join them, but he would protest that he didn't mind spending time alone. He would tell her he didn't want company, not even for Christmas. It was no wonder that some of the younger Beldens hadn't ever met him; hadn't even known he lived in the preserve. Brom was often called a hermit, but Mr. Maypenny realized he, himself, had been much more hermit-like before Mr. Wheeler arrived. That's when life in the quiet wooded land around him had really started to change.

It wasn't long after that Regan had asked him to take in the young boy off the streets. At the time, Regan hadn't wanted to have Dan live on the Wheeler estate because he was worried what a bad influence Dan might be on Honey and Jim. Mr. Maypenny had just smiled, knowing that it was the influence of those kids and the Beldens that would help Dan. He had agreed to help out the young groom and had no regrets. Dan could easily move in to the apartment with his uncle now, but Dan admitted he felt at home with Mr. Maypenny. Mr. Maypenny suspected that Dan also worried about him and continued to stay with him to keep an eye on him. "Bah!" Mr. Maypenny mused aloud. "Like I need someone to keep an eye on me."

Mr. Maypenny glanced around the spotless kitchen with a satisfied expression and carefully placed the dishrag back over the faucet handle in the kitchen sink.

He grabbed his pipe and tobacco from the small stand by the kitchen door and went to the living room. Placing the smoking supplies on the end table by his favorite, his only, armchair, he went over to the woodpile and started a small fire.

He lit his pipe and inhaled deeply; the soft rings of smoke rose gently, adding to the wisps of smoke escaping from the fireplace. He looked over at the Christmas tree. He found it hard to believe he even had a tree. He snorted out loud at his own thoughts from a Christmas long past.

"I don't need a tree. What would I do with a tree indoors? There's plenty of trees right outside my door." Mr. Maypenny was helping his friend, Anneke Vanderpoel, set up some Christmas decorations at her house.

Anneke shook her head as she glanced out her window. "I suppose you're right. It's not like we don't enjoy the scent of fresh pine all the same. But there's something about bringing that tree in and decorating it with all these pretty colorful ornaments that really warms my soul." She stood up from where she had been crouched over a box of said ornaments, lifting out a delicately carved wooden angel and placing it on a wire hook. "You should try it someday. You might find you like it."

Mr. Maypenny smiled at his friend. Her hair was starting to turn grey, and with the dim light from the window, it looked like a halo, similar to the filigree halo on the angel she was holding. "I suppose I might. But who would be there to enjoy it? Shouldn't a tree have young children around? What's the point of doing it for myself?"

"You could be there to enjoy it." With a twinkle in her eye she added, "Or you could think to invite your friends and neighbors over to enjoy it, you know. I don't suppose you'll come to Christmas dinner here, will you?"

Mr. Maypenny shook his head. "You know I don't want to intrude on your family celebrations."

"And you know it wouldn't be any intrusion at all. I'd really like you to join us."

"Maybe someday," Mr. Maypenny answered without any conviction.

Back in the present, Mr. Maypenny stared at the few small packages under the tree. He was curious what sort of gift Brom would have left in the snow, chancing that he would walk that way. Then again, maybe it wasn't much of a chance. Brom knew his habits. He knew Mr. Maypenny often walked that same path every morning. The bright blue paper inside the crate was also driving at his curiosity. The paper had to have come from Mrs. Vanderpoel's, so maybe this was a joint gift from his good friends. Try as he might, Mr. Maypenny couldn't think of what might be hidden inside the colorful wrapping.

 

The loud squeak of the front door opening woke up Mr. Maypenny. He had had a busy day checking on all the feeding stations around the preserve and clearing the main paths. After he'd completed his duties, he had returned to the cabin and started cooking a large batch of stew to bring to the church later. While the stew simmered, Mr. Maypenny had settled back into his armchair. A book lay open on his lap but he couldn't remember reading past the first few pages. As he stood up, he scooped the book up and, closing it, placed it on the nearby coffee table.

"You don't need to get up," Dan said, entering the warm cabin. "I was just going to make some dinner for us. Maybe I don't need to, though. Something smells delicious!"

Mr. Maypenny joined Dan in the kitchen. "I whipped up some stew. Thought the boys could use it tonight if they're singing out in the cold. Figured it would still be warm if we got Jim or Brian to drive us down to the church. Do you think they could?"

"Jim already volunteered to drive the two of us downtown. I don't usually mind the walk but he thought it would be better to drive." Dan lifted the cover of the stew and sniffed deeply, taking in all the flavors.

While Dan didn't say it, Mr. Maypenny wondered if the car was for him. Dan should know he didn't mind walking either. He was always out walking in the cold. "We can have a bit of that for our supper, or there's still a couple of steaks left in the fridge."

"As divine as this smells, let's leave the stew for the boys tonight. It will be a real treat for them. I'll start peeling some potatoes to go with those steaks. Fried or boiled?" Dan stooped down and opened the small cupboard that served as Mr. Maypenny's pantry. He pulled out a large plastic bowl of potatoes and quickly selected three large ones for their dinner.

"Fried," Mr. Maypenny answered. "Boiled potatoes aren't any good unless they're boiled in broth."

Dan set to work peeling the potatoes, humming Santa Clause is Coming to Town as he worked.

Jim picked Dan and Mr. Maypenny up promptly at the edge of the preserve and drove them to St. Augustine's in downtown Sleepyside. There, they met up with the boys from the Thomson Juvenile Home, an orphanage connected with the Thomson Juvenile Facility. While the facility was there to house boys who were in trouble with the law, the directors of the facility realized that many of those boys were also without family. Most were there for shoplifting, and even more often for vagrancy. The home next to the facility had been set up to provide support for those boys who had done their time but had nowhere to go after leaving jail. Dan had promised to spend time with both the boys outside of jail, and also to work on some programs for the boys who were still locked up. Mr. Maypenny knew that Dan hoped to inspire them with his own stories of life on the streets and how he'd been able to get away from the gangs and the violence.

The boys from the orphanage stayed in the back pews of the church so they could exit quickly at the end of the service and gather at a pre-designated spot where they planned to sing a few songs to the exiting crowd. Before joining the others, Mr. Maypenny set up the pot of stew on a borrowed hot plate plugged in to the church's kitchen just off the lobby.

Just before the service ended, the boys left their pews and huddled around the pot in the kitchen. Mr. Maypenny received his usual compliments on a great tasting stew, and with full and warm stomachs, the boys then donned their winter apparel and stood just to the right of the steps. As the crowd of church-goers left, Dan and Jim led the boys in singing Oh Holy Night. They followed that with a rousing rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas. The crowd applauded and murmured compliments as they left donations in the box held by the youngest boy who had also been singing. Mr. Maypenny stifled his guffaws when the boy had sung, quite loudly, Old McDonald instead of the carols he was supposed to be singing.

The next day Mr. Maypenny decided not to go on his daily walk. He wanted to be at home when Dan woke up, finding himself surprised to be as eager as any child on Christmas morning. He was still curious about what could be in Brom's mysterious package, and a couple times throughout the night he'd been tempted to go to the tree and pry open the small crate. He and Brom were alike in many ways. They both clung to the land where they had spent their boyhoods, and both clung to living off that land. They both lived mainly off hunting, both for the food and for the pelts, well, at least up until Mr. Maypenny had been hired by Mr. Wheeler as the gamekeeper for the preserve. And both had preferred to spend their time alone. Until Dan.

Mr. Maypenny didn't have to wait long before Dan poked his head out of the downstairs bedroom that he occupied. Still wearing his plaid flannel pajamas, Dan rushed straight to the tree and cried out mockingly "Santa's come!" as if he were still a young boy.

Mr. Maypenny laughed. "Yes, son, he has. I've made a pot of tea. Don't suppose you want a cup first before tearing in to the presents?"

"Sure, Mr. Maypenny." Dan left the tree and returned from the kitchen with his blue mug. "Are we ready now?"

"Ready as I'll ever be." Mr. Maypenny eyed Brom's gift, but Dan thrust another package in his hands instead.

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Maypenny. And thank you." Dan reached over and kissed Mr. Maypenny on the cheek, surprising him.

"Well, now, Merry Christmas to you, too! So how does this go? It's been a long, long time since I've had presents on Christmas morning." Mr. Maypenny fought back the tears forming in his grey-blue eyes.

"It's simple," Dan said, grinning, "just tear off the paper and say you like what's inside, whether you do or not, and then say 'Thank you' to the person who gave it to you. That's all."

Mr. Maypenny snorted. "Okay, I guess I knew that much." He looked at the red paper decorated with tiny Santa Claus figures. Finding the seam on the underside of the wrapping he ripped the paper off quickly.

The forest green sweater inside suited Mr. Maypenny fine, but as he lifted it out, a card fell to the ground. Dan's simple hand-written message of thanks meant more than any sweater could. "Thank you, Dan." Mr. Maypenny's voice came out as a choke over the lump in his throat. He coughed slightly and then laughed. "Now, let's get to Brom's gift. I have a feeling Mrs. Vanderpoel had something to do with that one as well."

Dan chuckled. He went over to the crate and carefully pried the slats off one end. Mr. Maypenny was surprised when Dan pulled out not one, but three packages. "This first one is for me," Dan grinned. He tore at the blue paper and pulled out a hand-knitted scarf. Wrapped in the scarf was a hand-carved wooden figure of a boy and a horse that was obviously meant to be Dan and Spartan.

Dan laid the gifts aside and handed the other two packages to Mr. Maypenny. "These other two are both for you," he said simply.

Mr. Maypenny reached for the large heavy rectangular one first. "A book," he proclaimed, even before opening it.

"But what book?" Dan asked, watching Mr. Maypenny remove the blue paper.

The dark cover had gold letters engraved across the top. "Tales of the Preserve" it read. In smaller letters was the name Brom Vanderheidenbeck. Mr. Maypenny opened the leather-bound journal carefully. Mr. Maypenny was awe-struck. "He put this together himself."

"Are these Brom's stories?" Dan asked. "Wow."

Mr. Maypenny turned a few pages. "Personal stories. From his boyhood." He turned closer to the end of the book. "This is an amazing gift. I can't believe he gave this to me."

Dan didn't say anything but placed the other package in Mr. Maypenny's hands.

Mr. Maypenny opened the package carefully. "This is from Mrs. Vanderpoel," he stated as he revealed a delicately carved wooden angel ornament. "I remember this ornament of hers. Another amazing gift."

"What's the story behind the angel?" Dan asked, curiously.

Mr. Maypenny smiled. "It's her way of sharing Christmas with me."


 

Word Count: 3,643

This story was written for the lovely Pat K as part of the 2009 Santa Gift-Fic Exchange.

Pat loves Christmas and all the things that means. She mentioned that she loves the food, parties, carols, decorations, etc. In her Christmas memories she shared two that had to do with caroling, so I knew I wanted to include that as much as possible.

I originally thought I was going to do the usual big party Christmas story with all the Sleepyside characters and all the business and then this beginning just sort of popped in my head and I knew I had to do the exact opposite -- the story about someone who doesn't normally celebrate Christmas at all and why this Christmas was so very special. Pat, I hope you like it! (((hugs)))

The story takes place during "Mead's Mountain" as you've probably realized. Since Dan joined the series somewhere post-Christmas, and with the timeline as tainted as it is, I figure this is Dan's first Sleepyside Christmas.

Thomson -- as in Snipe and Bull -- I figure some relative felt guilty enough about the bad seeds in the family that the name seemed fitting for the Juvenile Facility and Home.