A young girl searches for a place to call home. CN&R’s annual holiday fiction
Layla and me left California in the middle of the night, days before Christmas. Mice had taken over the trailer like flies on stink, running up the bedcovers, shoveling in our cereal box, nesting in Layla’s 7-Eleven work-shirt pockets. That trailer was singing with mice. “Why pay rent when it should be condemned?” Layla said. So we’d packed the Fiesta and headed north, singing to Christmas songs on the radio. We’ll drive until our gas runs low, was Layla’s idea. The Fiesta was full.
Layla was teaching me to carry a tune until “Blue Christmas” came on. It was my favorite Christmas song, but Layla had vowed to never sing it again since it reminded us of my dad, and she snapped the radio off. “Too sentimental.” She gave me a look.
“Santa Says told me we’d find a one-room house at the end of our journey,” I said. I figured it was good to get her talking about other things. But she glared at me.
“And Layla says, ‘No more Internet! Don’t you dare message him again, Sage. Anybody calling himself Santa Says so he can chat with kids has got himself a problem. The guy’s probably off his nut. And nuts get lonely at Christmastime.’”
Layla didn’t trust people as a rule. Me, I trusted them until they proved me wrong, which Layla said was only because I was ten and didn’t know better yet. But weren’t the two of us lonely at Christmastime ourselves?
She promised me a motel room in the little town we stopped in, but she hadn’t counted on the price being so high even in the off season. The woman behind the desk was built like a top, wide shoulders spinning down to skinny legs. What about my girl here, Layla wheedled. Don’t you know Christmas is coming?
“Better settle somewhere then,” was all the woman said.
Layla needed a beer. We found a café called Cliffside with a bar attached so I could sit at a table and look at the ocean far below. I kept my eye on the door, my slice of Layla sitting in the bar. Long dark wood and clonking pool balls and Layla in her one good glittery blouse blowing smoke. She liked to say nobody could get drunk on beer.
“More soup, Honey?” The waitress had tiny Christmas tree lights for earrings, running clear up the inside of both ears. My table was next to a rattling window and outside the window a snaking shoreline rammed by waves. The window glass whomped and shuddered and made me sure it was about to break.
“Ain’t nothin’, Honey,” the waitress said. “Wait until our next storm and it really blows.”
“Can I use your computer?”
“Geez.” She frowned. “You geeks are getting younger every day.”
“It’s just we can’t afford a cellphone. And I got someone I need to keep in touch with.”
“You’re not from around here.” She had way curly chocolate-colored hair. She set her coffee pot down and I read her name tag. Rachel.
“California,” I said. “It’s urgent. I’m writing to Santa Says.”
“Never heard of it. Besides, aren’t you a little old for Santa?”
Which is what adults always say. Once they convince you the old man comes down the chimney and leaves you presents, they admit it was all lies and they can’t afford the stuff you’re asking for this year.
Rachel laughed when I told her my theory and let me in the office. “This place belongs to my brother and me. Rick is the cranky one, so don’t let him catch you in here,” she warned. “You sure you got your own account?”
I typed it in to show her and she left to pour more coffee.
I was at the table when Layla came back, slanty lipped and cheeks like peach blush. Her eyes were cheery with beer and news.
“Barman says try a yurt.”
“What’s a yurt?”
“A tent with heat, smarty. And it’s on the beach. Cheap.”
Can you believe I was ten years old and had never been on a real beach before? This one was flat and forever. Wind like a boxer’s punch. Sand dunes whipped into a frenzied dance and away they went, blasting off. I tried flying the kite Layla bought me at the Dollar Store. The blow shredded it to bits and carried off the bits.
The sea lion caves and the aquarium were closed. We drove up a winding road so steep the Fiesta coughed and threatened to die, so we crabbed on foot along a leaf-molded slippery trail for the view.
Up there we could see everything. Ocean pouring over the curve of the earth and far below us rocks like resting elephant rumps.
Right that minute I fell in love.
“Can we stay here? Please?” I begged. Which was the wrong thing to say to Layla.
“Sun’s leaving,” Layla said. “Better find our yurt.”
The yurt was tucked in some trees, and made of canvas over a frame. A tall ranger in a wide-brimmed hat walked us up the wooden porch steps and gave us a key. When he left, Layla sighed. “I do like a man who wears a hat.” She looked wistful and sat down on a bunk. There were two bunks with beds top and bottom. A plastic window in the door. The heater ticked and groaned and blasted lukewarm against the roaring gale stirred up outside. “So this is a yurt.” She didn’t seem wistful now.
“It’s just like Santa Says.” I threw Layla a hug. “A one-room house at the end of our journey!”
“Sure could use another beer,” was all she said.
Layla didn’t believe there was good in the world, like maybe Santa Says had a true heart and was just trying to help out with advice and predictions. I did. Look how she’d kept me after Dad left. She didn’t have to. She was only his girlfriend. She could have put me in foster care. Not that she didn’t threaten sometimes, but I knew she wouldn’t really do it. She didn’t want to be lonesome any more than I did.
Layla didn’t understand the Internet. She couldn’t even type. I learned to type in fourth grade at Dovetail Elementary, where I went for an entire half year before Layla moved us again. That was the longest I’d been in any school. I hated always moving but it helped having the Internet. You could connect to kids all over the world online. “Like you used to have pen pals when you were little,” I told Layla.
“I never had no pen pal,” Layla said.
“Well, you’re a singer. Supposing you wanted to talk to other singers, maybe share about music and stuff?”
“Other singers are just competition. Why would I want to share with them?” Layla claimed she’d be famous if it weren’t for all the backbiting musicians in her life who walked across her to get where they are now. “Freddy Love, for example,” she said. “He’s all the time on the radio. Freddy says let’s cut a deal and he pays me squat for my songs, then goes out and makes himself a mint off them. Nothing I could do. It’s in the contract; I signed it. Like a dummy.”
“Santa Says wouldn’t betray me,” I told Layla. “He—he’s magical.”
“Magical? Girl, just because somebody calls themselves Santa doesn’t mean they are.”
There was no use trying to convince Layla. But that didn’t mean I was going to give up Santa Says. Tradition, Santa Says believed, is what turned your house into a home at Christmastime. And he had suggestions, like making homemade gifts instead of buying things, and having friends over for a party. Thinking about his advice gave me an idea. If we had a party, the yurt would feel homier, and that might make Layla want to stay here. I begged her to take me back to the Dollar Store so we could pick something for each other for Christmas.
“That’s what you want?” She lifted the string of lights from the cart.
“I’m going to hang them around the yurt.”
“Why don’t you get something to do. Like crosswords.”
“This is something to do. I’m going to have a party.”
“You got a guest list?” She squinted at me like we’d just met. “You need guests to have a party.”
“I know people.”
“Like who? We’ve been here all of fifteen minutes.”
“Like that park ranger.” I figured Layla would like that. “And Rachel, at the café.”
Layla just shook her head. “Don’t get your hopes up, Sage,” she said.
But I couldn’t help it. I was in love with this beach. I woke early the next morning, left a note for the park ranger about the party, and went to see what it looked like when the tide was out. Gulls scooted the wind, their wings flapping crazily above the crashing waves. Where the waves shrank back sun gleamed in wet sand.
I walked until the sand ran into rocks and climbed over the rocks. That’s when I found the balancing rocks. A whole bunch of them rising up around a tide pool, like statues. You wouldn’t think anything could balance like that, much less a stack of big fat stones, pointy stones, flat stones and odd-shaped stones piled one on top of the other. Precarious but solid, too, not even the wind made them teeter. I walked all around them, staring.
Then I saw an old man setting a large, pointy stone on top of a round one on one of the stacks. He kept his hands light around the stone. He didn’t seem to mind the heaviness of the rock or the wind slashing or that I was standing there. He just kept holding the stone so its very tip rested against the rock below it. I didn’t see how he was going to get that rock to stay there. Or keep the rest of them from falling down. After the longest time, he lifted his hands away. I held my breath. The rock was balanced.
“Say, would you like to come to my party?” I asked when he turned to me and smiled.
Layla took me back to the Cliffside for breakfast. When she went to the ladies, I asked Rachel if she’d like to come to the party, too. “It’s in our yurt. On the beach,” I added, when she looked doubtful. “Tomorrow night.”
“That’s Christmas Eve. It’s our one busy night. I have to work.”
“You could come before work.”
“You don’t give up, do you?” she laughed.
“And bring a friend,” I added. “As many as you want.”
“Okay, Honey. If I come, I’ll bring a friend.”
Things were looking up! “One more thing,” I said. Rachel’s pencil paused over her order pad. “Do you need a singer in the bar?”
“I heard that.” Layla was back. Plunking into our booth looking sour. “What are you now, my manager?” She frowned at me.
Rachel stuffed her pad with our order back in her pocket. “It’s okay,” she said. “My brother handles that end of things. If you want to give him a try, come back tomorrow. I’ll introduce you.”
I grinned at Layla, trying not to look too eager. “Okay,” Layla said slowly. “What time?”
On Christmas Eve, Layla put on her one good glittery blouse and went to apply for the singing job. “I guess it would be better than 7-Eleven,” she admitted. “Just don’t get your hopes up, though,” she warned.
“Don’t forget the pie,” was all I said, since Rachel had promised me a day-old pie for the party. I crossed my fingers and wished to Santa Says that Layla would sing “Blue Christmas” for Rachel’s brother. I knew she’d get the job if she sang that. Dad always said she belted it out with tears in her voice, and made grown men cry.
While Layla was gone I strung the Christmas lights, popped popcorn on the yurt’s porch barbecue, and heated up apple cider from the Dollar Store. Then, I waited. Layla took forever. Dusk fell and the sky clouded up. I stood outside admiring the lights, strung up and glowing. The campground was deserted. It was so quiet I heard a chipmunk rustling in the dead leaves. I realized the wind had stopped, and even the waves seemed to pause, like the whole world held its breath.
Finally, the Fiesta limped back into camp and Layla got out.
“Did you sing for him? Do you have the job?” I met her in front of the yurt.
She shook her head. “He isn’t hiring.”
“But—what about ‘Blue Christmas?’” I couldn’t stop myself. “Did you sing that?”
“It wouldn’t matter if I did.”
I was sorely disappointed but only for a minute, because the ranger’s truck drove up just then.
“He came!” I said, relieved. “He came to the party.” Things were looking up again. Even Layla looked surprised.
When the ranger unfolded from his truck I ran to meet him. “Thank you for coming,” I said politely.
“Actually,” he smiled at Layla and settled his hat brim, “I have bad news. I’m closing the campground. We’re in for some high wind and the yurt isn’t safe.”
I thought he was joking. “It’s been windy the whole time,” I argued. “We’re fine.” But just then the wind kicked up hard, careening into the yurt. It billowed the canvas like a sail and danced the lights.
That made Layla jump into action. “That’s it. Sage, throw your stuff in the car. We’re hitting the road.”
“What about our party—” I shot the ranger a pleading look.
“Sage,” Layla warned.
“Stop by the Cliffside before you travel,” the ranger said kindly. “There’s been some road closures and you’ll need to get the best route to take.”
But that meant another town. Another night without a place to sleep. “I don’t want the best route!” I cried. Layla was giving me looks but I couldn’t stand it. I’d rather be blown away with the yurt. I backed away from her and took off running down the dark beach.
“Sage!” she called. But the wind snatched her words and sent them flying.
I ran until my legs burned and my breath caught sharp. My heart felt black as the waves, the low clouds like soot inside me. I sniffled and shivered, feeling as stupid for believing in Santa Says as I did for being a baby when things didn’t work out. When I dried my eyes, there was Layla, a shadow coming after me.
At the Cliffside café, cars were parked every which way. The wind was screaming and we were nearly shredded like my kite getting out of the Fiesta. Inside was so full of people you could hardly talk. Christmas carols played on a speaker and a tree rotated in the corner. But Rachel said the crowd wasn’t just for Christmas Eve. A cypress was down across the road up north and people had been turned back on their way home.
“Guess we’re the only game in town,” she added. “Sorry about your party, Honey.” She smiled at me. “You want to help me light some candles on the tables? I’m afraid this wind will take the power out.” I helped her light the candles while Layla went off to see if we could still drive south. I spotted the old man who stacked the stones at one of the tables and went over and asked him what would happen to his statues now.
“They’ll probably fall down,” he said.
“But they’ll be ruined!”
“Yes. Then I’ll set them up again.” He shrugged.
That was lousy. As lousy as us having to leave again. I was telling him this when we heard a big boom and crackle and the lights blinked out. The music died. Everyone’s faces grew long with candlelight.
A big groan went up and two guys started arguing at another table. One guy shouted and the other guy jumped up, sending his chair backward. “Fight!” somebody yelled.
“Jesus, here we go.” Rachel appeared next to me just as Layla got back with a road map.
“You still want that singing job?” Rachel touched Layla’s arm.
Layla looked down at the map and back at me. “Your brother said—”
“I don’t care what he said. You keep this crowd from going crazy tonight, you’re hired. The stage is over there.”
Layla hesitated. “What does my manager say?” She looked at me.
I just shrugged, like I was the man who stacked the stones. Layla sighed, shoved the map at me and climbed the stage. She tapped a spoon to a glass to get people’s attention and the guys who wanted to fight stopped and stared. She sang the songs Freddy Love had stolen from her. I thought she looked pretty up there, her one good glittery blouse twinkling small stars. But not everybody was paying attention, and it was hard to hear even her loud voice over the crowd.
I slumped against a wall and waited for what would happen next. Layla had stopped singing.
“Sage?” she called. “Where are you? Everybody, that’s my girl there,” she pointed when I raised my hand. “She wanted to have a party tonight and ended up in this place instead. With you all.” Some people laughed. One guy called for quiet. “She knows there’s a song I’ll never sing since it makes me too sentimental. But she loves this song so I’m going to sing it for her. Which doesn’t mean I’m going to get sentimental.” She shot me a look. “It’s called ‘Blue Christmas.’” Then she belted it out in that way she has that makes grown men cry.
The whole room was listening now. The only other sound the outside door yanking open. A brimmed hat filled the doorway before wind slammed it shut. Maybe this was a good sign and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the ranger would fall in love with Layla the way Dad did, and we’d end up staying here for good. I couldn’t ask Santa Says for advice with the Internet down, so I figured it out for myself. People will always fight and sing and stack up stones that might be toppled. It was just up to some of us to remain hopeful.