A Child's Christmas Wish(3)

By: Erica Vetsch

“Tough time of year for this to happen,” George Frankel said, stuffing his hands in his pockets and rocking on his boots. George had a farm a quarter mile to the south and a houseful of children, twelve at the last count. He was an easygoing—some said lazy—fellow who always had big plans but never seemed to accomplish any of them. He liked to chew the fat, and Oscar avoided him whenever possible.

“Any time of year is a tough time for this to happen.” Oscar stroked his dog’s broad black-and-white head. “It’s good they weren’t home.” The flames were no longer roaring. Instead, they crackled and popped like a campfire. The wind carried most of the smoke to the north, away from where the handful of people milled and shuffled, but occasionally a gust would drift toward them, stinging eyes and clogging throats.

“Course, if they were home, it probably wouldn’t have happened. They could’ve put it out before it spread.” George shrugged, sneezed and dug in his pocket for a huge, wrinkled handkerchief.

Or they might have been in bed and trapped by the fire or overcome with smoke. George had a way of speaking his thoughts that assumed there was no other way of looking at things than his, and he loved to argue. Oscar wondered how soon he could get away. If he had known there was no danger to the family and that so many people would come, he would’ve stayed home.

Neighbors drifted by the Amakers, shaking Martin’s hand, hugging the old woman and the younger one…what was her name? Kathy? No, that wasn’t it. But something like that.

She was small—shorter than his wife had been—with dark brown hair. What had surprised him as he’d lifted her down from the wagon was that her eyes were blue. The clear blue of a summer sky. He wasn’t used to looking into blue eyes. Gaelle’s eyes had been brown, brown like Liesl’s, brown like his.

Mrs. Hale, the shopkeeper’s wife, bustled around, talking nineteen to the dozen. Another person Oscar avoided if he could. She was a do-gooder, but she never seemed to act out of true kindness. More like she wanted everyone to know she was doing good, as if someone was keeping a scorecard and she wanted to make sure she got full credit for her charity. Whatever she was saying to the younger Mrs. Amaker wasn’t going down too well.

Good for young Mrs. Amaker. Someone should stand up to the old biddy’s interfering ways.

“The question is, what are they going to do now?” George blew his nose, honking like a southbound goose. “I’d have them to my place, but we’re cheek-by-jowl now.”

And you have never gotten around to adding onto your house, though you’ve talked about it for ages…half a dozen kids ago.

Per Schmidt edged over, his whitish-blond hair bright in the glow of the fire. “I vish I could take zem in, but zere is no room at my house. My brother und his family haf come from de Old Country to live vid me und Gretel.” His accent was so thick Oscar wished he’d just go ahead and speak German, which was as commonly heard in Berne, Minnesota, as English. But Per was proud of his English, proud to be an American now.

Martin Amaker, a tall, spare man, looked stooped and sort of caved in upon himself. He drew off his hat and ran his gnarled hand through his thin, white hair, staring at the destruction where his home used to be.

Oscar felt for the old man. With winter coming, two women dependent upon him and his house gone up in a shower of sparks, he had to be feeling bludgeoned. Oscar patted his hip pocket, feeling the small lump of his wallet. Hopefully the community would take up a collection so Oscar could contribute. He didn’t want to just walk up and offer Martin money. That would be unbearable for both of them. No, a collection would be best. Oscar didn’t mind giving money toward a good cause, mostly because it was anonymous and simple.

Another buggy rolled into the yard, the snazzy chestnut pulling it stomping and blowing, tossing her head. Ah, here was just the man to start passing the hat. The preacher levered his bulk out of the buggy, setting the conveyance to rocking. His tiny wife took his hand, looking like a child next to her giant of a husband. They both went right to the Amakers, heads bent in empathy.

They spoke, and Mr. Amaker shook his head, shrugging. Pastor Tipford scanned the crowd of neighbors who were already filtering toward their wagons, and his eyes came to rest on Oscar. An uncomfortable feeling skittered across Oscar’s chest. Pastor Tipford visited Oscar regularly, trying to get him to come back to church, trying to get him involved in the community again. But Oscar wasn’t ready for that. He still felt too raw inside to endure the company of well-meaning church folk.

Also By Erica Vetsch

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