A Christmas Story

Bridging the Gap at Christmas


Gina shivered as she stared into the gaping black hole. The attic of their Victorian era home resembled a dungeon. Her husband, Bruce had ripped out half the floorboards because they had been chewed up by carpenter ants. After the roof was replaced and the exterminator had done his job it was not necessary to remove the boards, but Bruce must have felt satisfaction yanking them up and pitching them out the window. He had a bon fire and Lacey toasted marshmallows. But Bruce never replaced the boards. They couldn’t afford the lumber. The space over the stairwell was bad enough, with the twelve-foot drop, but this dark shaft ran all the way to the basement, nearly forty feet below, with bedrock to break the fall. Perhaps the shaft had been meant for a lift, yet when the home was renovated the shaft was left empty, and after Bruce pulled up the boards it was left exposed. 

Now the gaping hole in the floor stood between her and the one thing Lacey wished for Christmas. At eight, Lacey was obsessed with miniature figurines. Somehow, she remembered the collection of Boyds Bears that had cluttered the livingroom shelf up until a few years ago and she suddenly began asking her mother for them daily. In the dusty light of the attic, Gina studied the plastic shopping bags which she had furiously pitched across the hole several years ago. She could see that several had tumbled from the bags and were surprisingly unbroken. 

The day she threw them up here Bruce had been in the back yard building a gazebo at the far edge of their property. He was developing frostbite in the twenty-five degree temps but insisted the gazebo had to be finished before Christmas. He had started the gazebo in the summer, but when Lacey and Ralphie came outside to play nearby he moved on to another project. The gazebo was neglected until the weather was so awful he was guaranteed to be alone with his tools. 

While Bruce froze his nose off, Ralphie amused himself by flapping his arms and screeching more often than usual. Lacey complained about his behavior and asked a million questions about autism. Gina’s patience was waning. When Lacey asked point blank, “Why didn’t Daddy do the gazebo this summer when I wanted to help him?” Gina felt something inside her break loose. 

Smiling sweetly at her daughter, she offered a bribe. “There is peppermint bark in my nightstand. Take Ralphie. Put on cartoons and sit with him on my bed eating chocolate. Don’t come out until you have watched ten shows.” 

Lacey didn’t question her good fortune. She coaxed her autistic little brother to the bedroom by singing Blues Clues for him. 

When they were out of sight Gina sat on the floor to cry, but tears wouldn’t come. She was angry. She thought about going outside to yell at Bruce, but he never reacted. He would gaze into the distance and nod. She even hit him once. He just wandered away. She couldn’t reach her husband any more than she could reach her little boy. Her eyes fixed on the framed family portrait taken at Disney Land. Ralphie had been two and Lacey five. This was the last time they were a happy family. The last time Ralphie called her “Mommy” or said, “I love you.” When they came home Ralphie got a high fever. When he got better he was different. He hardly spoke. He stopped smiling at them. Eventually he was diagnosed with autism. The doctors swore the fever was unrelated. 

Bruce was heartbroken over the diagnosis. He blamed himself. If they hadn’t taken a plane to Florida, he wouldn’t have gotten sick. Bills mounted up and with every developmental milestones missed, Bruce withdrew more and more. He worked obsessively on projects around the house, as far from the rest of the family as the border of their property would allow. 

Gina grabbed that happy picture in the custom wood frame. Ralphie’s chubby cheeks were framed by the mane of his lion costume. Lacey wore a sparkly pink wig. Bruce and Gina had on matching Disney Halloween Party tee shirts. 

She slammed the picture into the coffee table.  The glass shattered. A second jab and she punched a hole through the center of the picture. The personalized wood frame they had bought at a specialty shop came apart at the corners. She dropped the frame and looked up at the shelf, eight feet tall and made of hard wood. It was screwed into the wall at the top corners. She had an idea for a project that would force Bruce to work in the house. 

She tried to pull the shelf down, but it wouldn’t budge. She fetched a crowbar from the garage and gleefully began prying the shelf from the wall. With a satisfying screech and pop, the screws gave way and the shelf jiggled as some of the figurines and framed pictures tipped forward. She hooked the crowbar into the carving across the top of the shelf and pulled until it came forward landing on the coffee table as it dumped its contents. 

Calmly she put the crowbar back and went out to Bruce. “I need you to help me with something inside.”

He sighed, “I’m almost done here.” 

She took the hammer from his hands. “This can’t wait. The bookshelf fell over.”

“What bookshelf?”

“In the living room. Come see.” Gina grabbed his toolbox before he could object and led him into the house.

“What the hell?” If Bruce suspected she did it on purpose he didn’t say anything. 

“I’ll help you clean up.”

Though Bruce told her not to, she picked up everything and threw it all into plastic shopping bags. As he repaired the holes in the wall, he didn’t speak, which infuriated her. Why couldn’t he at least ask if she saw the shelf fall, or if the kids were nearby when it happened. She almost wished she had left the crowbar so he would know for sure she had done it. Gina thrust the torn picture into his face. “Look at this.” 

Bruce did look. “I see. I don’t know how to fix that frame.” Then he went on a tangent about tools, mostly talking to himself.

Gina was so angry, by the time she brought everything to the attic, she pitched the bags into the far corner with no thought about where they landed. She was disgusted that the happy family from that picture was gone forever. 

That was years ago. Now Lacey wanted the figurines. Gina would do anything for her daughter. She felt they had to stick together since Bruce and Ralphie were so distant all the time. 

She stared at those little resin bears and tried to figure out how to get to them. A load-bearing wall and the stairwell meant the only way to get to the figurines would be to walk across the beam between the gaping hole and the stairwell. If she fell to one side, she would drop twelve feet to the landing below. If she fell the other way she would fall into the deep dark hole. The beam was six inches wide, certainly wide enough to walk across without difficulty. Two steps and she would be on the other side. A reasonable precaution would be to go buy some planks and lay them over the holes. But she was angry and depressed. Bruce ripped up these boards and never replaced them. It would serve him right if she fell. She debated. She needed to have some faith in herself. She could walk across a six inch wide beam without stumbling. Downstairs she could hear Ralphie screeching and Lacey trying to soothe him. Holding her breath she stepped on the beam and tried not to look at anything other than her feet when she crossed to the other side. 

When her feet reached their destination, she laughed. It had been so easy to just walk across. If only all gaps were so easy to bridge. She bent to pick up one of the bags and found a wrapped package underneath. The paper was navy blue with sparkly white snowflakes. Tucked under a while ribbon, a note in elegant script read, “To Gina and Bruce, Open together on Christmas.” She wondered about Lacey, had she put this package up here? She would have had to cross that beam in order to put the package under the plastic bags. She was afraid of so many things: the dark, heights, and spiders. She wouldn’t even come near the attic when Gina had gotten out the Christmas ornaments. Besides, where would she have gotten this pretty wrapping paper?

It was freezing in the attic, but she sat there, staring at the box for so long. Until Lacey’s voice from down below broke her trance.

Gina made several trips with the bags, deciding it would be safer to cross more than once than to try to cross the beam with overloaded arms. 

On Christmas morning Gina put the package under the tree and asked Bruce and Lacey if either of them knew where it came from. They were just as surprised as her to see it, especially when they learned where it had come from.

Gina insisted Bruce help her tear open the package. He gasped when he saw what was inside. The picture that Gina had smashed and torn was intact. The custom-made frame was whole; the glass unbroken.

“Bruce, you must have done this.”

“The frame was splintered. It couldn’t be repaired. And the company that made the frames is gone. I know because I looked them up.”

Lacey said, “There’s a note on the back.” 

Gina pulled off a heavyweight square of paper and unfolded it. In the same elegant script she read the message, “It’s time to heal. Love, Santa.”

“I did not frame that picture or hide that in the attic. Look. Open this one.” Bruce handed his wife a package.

Gina gently removed the shiny paper. Last year he had given her a generic gift card in a plain envelope. This package was nicely wrapped with a tag written in his own sloppy handwriting. In the box was the same picture from Disney Land, but a smaller size. The frame was also wood, but more simple. “I made the frame myself. I got lucky. Disney still had the print. They usually only keep them for 18 months.” 

“This was four years ago.”

“Read the message on the back.”

Bruce had scrawled in permanent marker on the back of the frame. “I would like our family to spend more time together. Please forgive me.”

Lacey read over her shoulder, then cheered. “Yeah!” Ralphie imitated her for fun and they made a game of it.

“You really didn’t put this package in the attic? ‘It’s time to heal’ is not your message?”

“It is time to heal, but I don’t know where that package came from. Why would I get two identical pictures, frame them, and then hide one? But I guess, Santa is right. It is time to heal. Will you forgive me?”

“Yes. I love you Bruce.”

“I love you too.” When he kissed her, for the first time in years Gina burst into tears and Bruce held her close.