The most fantastic thing in the universe! Circulation: 183,437,693 Issue: 474 | 17th day of Celebrating, Y12
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Christmas of the Heart: Part One


by puppy_girl252

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Christmas is just around the corner, and Neopia is preparing for its blissful awakening. The feeling of Christmas is everywhere. It’s in the air, the murmur of speak, and in one’s heart.

     Perhaps all except one...

     Karen Mosely stared disoriented into the roaring flames, her eyebrows curved in thought, her heart aching in loss, and her mind swirling and struggling to remember...

     “Mommy, is it true that no two snowflakes are the same?” Little Willow June pondered on the thought, her brows creased, staring down at the picture book in her small paws.

     Karen laughed, a cheerful laugh, as she rocked back in forth in her rocking chair, her little Xweetok daughter cuddled in her arms. “Of course, my sweet. Of course it is.” Karen’s voice was soft and gentle, and little Willow June looked up at her.

     “Really, Mommy? But how can one be sure?” Her red eyes were shining in curiosity. She opened her winter-themed picture book, snowflakes painted on each page. “See, Mommy, all these snowflakes are different, but Miss Annie says that there are millions and millions of snowflakes in the world.” She pointed at the paper snowflakes. “So how’s that possible, Mommy?”

     Karen smiled warmly. Her little Willow June was so curious; so full of wild and imaginative thoughts. Karen had to ponder on that thought herself. “Nobody knows for sure, Willow June.”

     “Hm.” Willow June continued to stare at the snowflakes. “Are Neopets like snowflakes, Mommy? Every Neopet is different, Miss Annie says. In color, personality, and ability.” Her face curved up in a smile. “And talents.” She adored repeating lessons and interesting prospects her teacher Miss Annie had shared with the class that day. Willow June snapped the book shut, staring out of the window at the falling flurries of snow. Her brows were furrowed again. What Karen had noticed about her Neopet was that she was very serious, even for a four-year-old. When she was trying to figure out something, or wanted to learn more about something, she listened diligently, brows furrowed, eyes wide with a joyous pleasure.

     “Yes, my little snowflake,” Karen caressed quietly into Willow June’s ear. “Neopets and their owners alike are like snowflakes. We are all different. It’s what makes us special, and unique.”

     Willow June’s focus was fastened on the falling snow outside their little Neohome in Terror Mountain. “Mommy, am I special and... unique?” Willow June spoke the last word “unique” slowly and carefully, letting it roll on her tongue.

     Karen’s smile became bigger and she hugged her precious Willow June closer to her heart. “You’re the most special and unique Willow June I know.”

     They took the silence to watch snow swirling around outside.

     “Mommy, can we catch snowflakes? I’d think they’d be pretty to touch and put in my scrapbook.” Willow June had a special scrapbook Karen had made for her. She put photos and drawings in it. Things she had done so craftily in Neoschool.

     Karen stifled a laugh. “Silly, dear, you cannot put snowflakes in your scrapbook.”

     “No?” Willow June looked thoughtful. “Then maybe I could catch the snowflakes and put them in the freezer. Miss Annie said we could do that. Snowflakes need the cold. That way, the snow wouldn’t melt.”

     “I think that’s a lovely idea.”

     To this day, Karen’s heart ached so viciously as she remembered those times she spent with her little Willow June, rocking in her red rocking chair and reading stories by the merry fire.

     But now Karen rocks and reads alone. The fire burns sadly until it becomes nothing but a lonesome pile of ashes. She never even got the chance to catch snowflakes with Willow June.

     A few days later Willow June was kidnapped.

     ***

     The rain was pouring hard, the sky dark and angry, making Karen feel even more joyless. She sat by the crackling fire, a cup of freshly brewed borovan in hand as she rocked slowly back and forth in her old red rocking chair. Alone again.

     The frozen rain drummed on the roof like hail and she absently sipped her borovan, which was super spicy flavor. She had always enjoyed that taste; it was her favorite since she was a child. Her younger sister had always said it matched her personality.

     Karen glanced at the photograph on the fireplace mantel of her younger sister Grace and her Neopet family. It always made her insides jumble up. Karen no longer knew what it was like to own a Neopet. She had nearly forgotten those days she once spent cuddling and hugging a little Neopet, taking pleasure as the days wore on until Christmas and the little Neopet grew restless with excitement and merriment.

     Outside, carolers merrily skipped down Happy Valley, which painted nothing happy at all to Karen, singing joyful and jubilant tunes and ringing hand bells. The cheerful voices echoed down Happy Valley. Karen sighed; a tired, worn sigh. A sigh that crept from the forlorn burrows of her sad, sad heart.

     In other most gleeful houses on her street, tinsel-strung Christmas trees were standing soulful in the living room, stacks and stacks of glistening presents piled under them. Holly were wreathed everywhere, bells tinkled, friendly voices laughed mirthfully and cups of warm cocoa were passed around.

     But not Karen Mosely’s house. Even with nearly three weeks until Christmas, Karen had done no ‘decking the halls’. She had no heart to. The joyous wild spirit of Christmas had left her being when Willow June left eight years ago.

     Suddenly there was a knock at the door. Karen didn’t bother looking up. Probably some carolers, coming to try to fill her heart with their happy sappy carols. Karen wished they would just go away. The knock sounded again, this time, someone speaking.

     “Karen? Karen, it’s me, Grace. Are you home?”

     Karen stifled a resentful sigh. Didn’t Grace understand? Didn’t she get Karen didn’t like the holidays, that she hadn’t in a long time? She wouldn’t ever again for that matter. But she heaved herself up out of her comfortable rocking chair, placing her borovan on the small table beside her and walked over to the door.

     Karen opened the door to find her sister Grace standing there, her little David bundled up in her arms and her other three Neopets standing alongside her, wearing masses of scarves and coats and winter hats and mittens.

     “Merry Christmas, Aunty Karen!” they sang, ringing hand bells, their faces cherry-red from the cold but their smiles pleasant all the same.

     Karen forced a small smile on her face to belie her pain. She expected the children wanted her say “Merry Christmas” back to them, but Karen wasn’t sure she knew how. She hadn’t spoken those words in eight years. One could forget how to do such things in a period of time as long as that.

     Grace broke the challenging silence. She smiled at Karen a sisterly smile, as if she knew the confused ocean Karen had roaring inside of her, a blind ocean no one else could see but herself. And no one could calm either. Karen returned the smile with a small, crooked one and invited them inside.

     Little Matthew the camouflage Lupe immediately stopped abruptly as they stepped in the doorway. At seven years old, even he knew something was very wrong about Aunt Karen’s house...

     “Aunty Karen... why isn’t your house decorated? It’s almost Christmas, you know.”

     “Yes!” little Mary piped up. “In three weeks.” She began counting on her fingers. “That’s... twenty days, Aunty Karen.”

     Matthew’s head bobbed up and down in agreement. “Yeah, Aunty Karen... where’s all your decorations? All the tinsel and holly and lights?”

     “And your tree!” Mary squealed. “It’s not Christmas without a bright, lighted-up Christmas tree, Aunty Karen.”

     Karen frowned. Something inside of her flip-flopped. Grace came to the rescue. “Aunty Karen just hasn’t done it yet, kids. But she will soon, don’t you worry.” Grace tossed a look at Karen, hoping with all her heart that Karen would decorate this year. Every year, Grace had tried with all her being to get her older sister to return back into the holiday spirit. But Karen wouldn’t budge. A tall, tall brick wall of sorrow had formed around her heart.

     David, a baby Eyrie and Grace’s youngest Neopet, gurgled and reached out a paw to give Karen his sticky, half-eaten candy cane. Karen politely refused, giving the baby her warmest smile she could muster.

     “Aunt Karen, where do you want me to put the gingerbread?”

     Karen looked down at Anna’s sparkling liquid eyes stared up at her. Anna was Grace’s oldest at eight. The white Kacheek reminded Karen so much of her little Willow June, it nearly hurt her to gaze into her endless happy eyes.

     “I’ll take it,” Karen replied in her most mirthful tone. She was handed the gingerbread, still warm, and hurried it to the kitchen. Grace always made a homemade loaf of her famous gingerbread on each of her visits. And she was always careful to add extra spice, for she knew it was Karen’s favorite part of the gingerbread.

     When Karen returned to her cheerless, dark living room, little Mary the baby Usul was sitting her big giant rocking chair, rocking back and forth, squealing with laughter. Aunt Karen’s rocking chair was her absolute favorite.

     “Aunty Karen.” Matthew tugged at her sweater sleeve. Karen peered down into his joyful blue eyes. “Aunty Karen, what did you get me for Christmas?” His voice was so innocent, so child-like.

     Karen’s thoughts came to a jolt. Nothing yet, she wanted to say, because it was true. But she couldn’t say that. Not to little Matthew and his hopeful smile.

     “You’ll just have to wait and see,” was all she said.

     Anna threw her disappointed little brother a smile. “Yes, Matthew. It wouldn’t be a true present if you knew what it was now, would it?”

     “I guess not,” Matthew agreed.

     “So, who wants gingerbread?” Grace’s cheery voice rang through the living room.

     “I do! I do!” her Neopets shouted. Even little David clapped his paws, gurgling something that sounded nearly like ‘gingerbread’.

     Grace laughed, leaving the living to go into the kitchen to start slicing the gingerbread and making the cocoa.

     Karen lifted Mary from her rocking chair, sitting down and then placing the pretty little Usul on the floor.

     Mary looked up at her Aunt Karen with those big sad eyes. It made Karen’s heart throb, so she patted her lap and the little Usul cheerfully climbed on, her pretty purple eyes sparking in pleasure. Mary snuggled against her, making Karen squirm. Mary giggled.

     “Aunty Karen, you move too much!” the baby Usul admonished, a smile bloomed on her face. She took a quick glance at the photo on Karen’s fireplace and exploded, “Hey, that’s me!” She pointed to the picture of Grace and her Neopets. “And that’s Mommy, and Matthew, and Anna and David!” She clapped her paws, her laughter filling the air with a jubilant ring that Karen hadn’t felt there in a long time.

     “That’s right,” Karen said, somewhat painfully, the thrill in Mary’s voice bringing back more memories of Willow June. And little Mary was a younger than Willow June when she was...

     “Come and get it! Warm gingerbread and cocoa, fresh from winter wonderland.” Grace walked in carrying a silver tray of gingerbread, and after she handed them out, she went back and returned with a platter of hot cocoa. Her face was radiant and shone with pleasure.

     “I want extra marshmallows, Mommy,” Matthew said.

     “Me too!” cried Mary, raising her paws. “Me too!”

     Anna’s face shone bright as she ate her gingerbread and sipped her cocoa like a pleasant young lady would.

     Grace giggled as baby David squished the gingery cake in between his fingers, wiping his crumby face often with a napkin. “David, sweetheart, we don’t play with our food. We eat it.”

     Mary’s little pink nose wrinkled as she took a forkful of gingerbread and plunged it into her mouth. “Mommy, my gingerbread is too spicy!” she declared after it had tumbled over and over in her little mouth. “It makes my tongue hurt.” She made a weird face.

     Anna flashed her a look. “Mary, we don’t complain. Mommy makes very good gingerbread. She only put extra ginger in it because that’s how Aunt Karen likes it.”

     Karen felt all eyes switch to her. She was taking small, absent bites of her gingerbread, liking the spicy flavor but not really not taking pleasure in it.

     Mary pursed her lips. “But how could Aunty Karen like something like this? Christmas cakes are supposed to be sweet.”

     “Yeah!” Matthew rendered. “Christmas is sweet, so gingerbread should be sweet too, not really spicy. Spicy isn’t a Christmas flavor.”

     Karen felt the color drain from her face. Her chest tightened. She couldn’t swallow the gingerbread that filled her mouth with a bitter taste.

     Grace’s eyes gave Matthew and Mary a stern blaze. “Now, Matthew, Mary, that’s not very nice. If your Aunt Karen likes her gingerbread like that, then that’s the way she likes it. Now if you want no gingerbread for Christmas time, then so be it.” She piled another forkful in her mouth to show her naughty children that it was good and that they should eat it without complaints.

     A part of Karen wished Grace wouldn’t punish her children. They were only being truthful. Karen felt a sense of discomfort. She felt she took the Christmas spirit out of everything...

     ~*~*~

     And here the story takes us to Noel Star, a white Xweetok who lives with her family in Happy Valley, Terror Mountain. Noel, with her ice-crystal blue eyes, snowy white fur and Christmas charisma, sent everyone in Happy Valley smiling jolly-like smiles and singing their full heart of carols and tunes. Noel sent every lonesome soul away with a smile on their face, and everybody turned to stare as she marched down Happy Valley through the snow with her sweet soprano that tinkled like bells. Noel was truly the face of Christmas.

     Noel Star skipped down the stairs of her bright Neohome, which was strewn with holly wreaths, silvery tinsel, popcorn laces made by her little brothers, sleigh bells, and of course their brightly illuminated Christmas tree that stood proudly and glimmeringly in their living room.

     Noel was immediately greeted with the soft, dreamy smell of sugar cookies. She let the delicious scent fill her senses and seemed to melt in it. Her owner Eve always baked the greatest sugar cookies.

     “Hey, you sneaky little thieves! Give me back my hairbrush!”

     Noel quickly dashed out of the way as she heard quiet snickers behind her, followed by the pounding of angry pawsteps of her older sister, Sarah. Noel’s two little twin brothers came bounding past, the baby Gelerts giggling and waving Sarah’s pink hairbrush in the air.

     “Danny, Joel! You’d better get back here this instant, or I’ll...” Sarah stopped beside Noel, panting. The Christmas Zafara rolled her eyes. “They’re pumped up on Mom’s sugar cookies, that’s what it is.”

     Noel giggled.

     Sarah flashed her a look, something flickering in her eyes. “What’re you laughing at? It’s not funny, Noel!”

     Noel burst into even greater laughter. “I know.” It was just amusing to see Sarah flustered, with that annoyed look on her face.

     Sarah rolled her eyes again, giving her sis a playful shove. “Whatever.”

     “Do you girls want to help me put up the last of the decorations?” Their owner, Eve, stood before them, her blue eyes sparkling with the thrill of Christmas cheer. She handed them a cardboard box. “I think I must’ve forgotten this in the attic.” She turned to get back to her baking. Eve Star always had a knack for baking. Every year she baked a basket of sugar cookies for every neighbor on Happy Valley. She knew everyone simply adored them.

     Noel set the box down, opening it. All sorts of Christmas treasures were hid inside. She pulled out a long stretch of wreath with little holly blossoms in it. “This is pretty.” She hung it over the front door, seeing it gave it a nice touch.

     Then the sisters hung up some extra sparkly ornaments on the tree, giving it an extra boost for the merriest tree in Christmas tree history. They then took out a wooden plaque, the happy words, “Merry Christmas,” painted on it, and hung it on the back of their front door.

     Noel dug further into the tinsel-filled box and retrieved an advent calendar. “Hey, look!” She brushed her fingers of the wooden advent calendar. It looked well-loved and cherish, for it was rather old-looking.

     Sarah peered over her shoulder. “Hey, that was the first advent calendar we ever owned. I remember Danny and Joel fought over who would open the doors every day.” She giggled. “Mom hid a secret present behind each one.”

     Noel flashed a look at it again. It was chipped and worn, and somehow she didn’t recognize it. “That’s funny... I don’t remember that.”

     “Hm.” Sarah mouth moved sideways slightly to portray she was thinking. “I don’t think you had been adopted yet.”

     Noel felt her insides churn. Adopted? What did Sarah...

     Suddenly Sarah squealed and gave Noel a nudge. “Ooooh, mistletoe!” She pursed her lips and then burst into a fit of laughter. Sarah hung the mistletoe above the door, sighing dreamily. “This is could come in handy, if you know what I mean.” The Christmas Zafara winked.

     Noel uttered a fake chuckle. Her thoughts were swirling up a storm in her mind.

     ~*~*~

     When Grace and her kids had left, so did the blissful atmosphere in Karen’s home. It was no longer jolly and happy and ringing in life. It was still and sad and lonesome. Karen, sitting in her old rocking chair, gazed around the dark, woeful room. It was drab and dull and carried no color, no light. Karen frowned, feeling something swirl inside of her.

     She then got up and walked down the hall, stopping at a closed door. Karen took a deep breath, retrieving a small golden key from her pocket, and opened the door. It opened with a creak as Karen stared blankly into it. It was Willow June’s old room.

     Karen found herself wandering inside. She did often, just to get a feel of what life with Willow June had been like. The room was petal-pink and as Karen stared at the little four-year-old bed, she could almost see a little red Xweetok nestled up in the quilts.

     Karen swallowed hard, feeling small tears filling her blue eyes. She blinked them away and walked hesitantly over to the bed, a heavy feeling weighing down her heart. As she sat down on the edge, she sighed and took a moment to glance around the room. Lots and lots of artwork were tacked to the walls, giving it that child-like prospect. Willow June had loved to draw and paint. She did it all the time, often tugging on Karen’s shirt sleeve and handing her a picture.

     Karen took Willow June’s favorite plushie that was lying on her bed and hugged it to her heart, just as little Willow June herself had done when she heard the roaring thunder during a storm. Karen gazed mournfully at the photo on Willow June’s side table. It was a photo of a little red Xweetok with a bright red bow in her hair, a jingle bell around her neck. Small Willow June sat under the Christmas tree, her eyes sparkling, and she had a big sparkly-wrapped present in her paw. Willow June’s face was bright and shining, her soft red eyes so clear and innocent, her smile genuine and merry.

     Karen felt her chest aching with her loss.

     Willow June truly had the face of Christmas.

     ~*~*~

     “You’re welcome, Miss Bensit!” Noel cheerily waved to the old Chomby as she set on her way, just as Miss Bensit smiled and waved back, a warm basket of sugar cookies in her hands.

     Noel sighed and breathed in the sweet smell of winter as they strolled on, little snowflakes dancing on her eyelashes. “Ah, I love Christmas.”

     “Me too,” Sarah answered beside her, a blissful smile on her face. “Except the cold.” She snuggled deeper into her scarf. “It’s freezing out here!”

     After the two sisters had gone window-shopping, pressing their faces eagerly onto the frosted windows of fancy shops along Happy Valley, their mother had asked them if they’d like to help her pass out baskets of cookies for their neighbors. They had just gone to Miss Bensit, the old Chomby, and next on the list was a name they didn’t quite recognize. As they approached the designated Neohome, Noel and Sarah stopped in their tracks. This house was the only Neohome that wasn’t decorated, at all. No lights, no cheer, no anything...

     Sarah wrinkled her nose. “Who put the damper on Christmas spirit in this house?”

     Noel shrugged, something budding inside of her. Surely with only two weeks until Christmas, they’d already have their house decorated. And it looked pretty obscure that it was the only house on Happy Valley that wasn’t decked up.

     Sarah frowned, urging to move on. “Move we should skip it. Maybe they don’t like Christmas or something.”

     Noel shook her head, not wanting to believe that. “No, that’s not it.” Who wouldn’t like Christmas? Her curiosity kept her eyes glued to the lonely-looking home. “Come on, let’s go check it out.”

     The sisters walked up the drive, snow crunching beneath their feet. They rang the door bell, but no one answered.

     “Hm... maybe they aren’t home,” Sarah rendered.

     “Maybe.”

     “What did you say the name was again?”

     Noel glanced at the list. “Someone named... Karen Mosely.”

     “Doesn’t sound familiar,” Sarah said, gasping under her breath just as the door opened and a sad-looking figure stood there.

     “Hello?” She was a rather young-looking woman, maybe in her thirties, with light brown hair and blue eyes that held a doleful, faraway look. She gazed at Noel and Sarah, a moment her eyes resting on Noel’s. She stood staring a moment, before Noel found her voice.

     “Um... hi,” she said kindly, a little hesitant. “I’m Noel, and this is my sister, Sarah.”

     Sarah gave a half-wave.

     “We’re Eve’s daughters,” Noel continued. She held up a basket. “And she wanted us to walk around and pass out sugar cookies to our neighbors.” She smiled radiantly, a smile that kept Karen’s eyes staring vaguely at it. Her face seemed so familiar... as if something from a dream from her past...

     Karen nodded and then mumbled, “Thank you.”

     Noel nodded back. Somehow, someway, she couldn’t take her eyes off poor Karen. Those eyes... blue and somehow familiar. Perhaps Noel had seen her walking around Happy Valley. Noel knew nearly ever face on Happy Valley.

     As they walked down the drive, Noel called over her shoulder, “Merry Christmas!”

     There was no answer. Not even a smile.

     As Sarah and Noel trudged on home, Sarah rattled on about Karen Mosely.

     “What’s the matter with the woman? Why did she seem soooo... un-Christmassy?” She huddled into her coat against the brisk wind and falling cold snow. “She’s honestly a dark lady. Did you see the inside of her house? No life at all!”

     Noel frowned. “Oh, Sarah, don’t say that. Maybe she’s just... sad. She did look rather lonely.”

     Sarah snorted. “Yeah, sure. But really, people like that have no business living in Happy Valley. Seriously!”

     Noel sighed, pulling her winter Blechy hat more over head. She snuggled into her scarf, just as Sarah prattled on and on about how Karen Mosely seemed to wash away the joyous wonder of Christmas in Happy Valley.

     Noel wanted to close her ears. She turned half away from Sarah.

     Sarah thought it was just because Noel was shielding herself from the wind.

     But really Noel was trying to hide the troubled look on her face.

     ***

     “Oh, you’re back.” Eve smiled at her girls as she mixed batter for more cookies. “So how did it go?”

     “Everyone was happy, Mom,” Sarah said, leaning against the counter and eying Danny and Joel to make sure they didn’t lick the frosting spoon and put it back in the bowl. “They’re always happy to receive your cookies.”

     Eve smiled, now pouring batter on the counter to roll it out. Noel glanced at the cookie cutters in a pile on the table. An idea suddenly flickered in her head. She would buy new cookies cutters for her mother! She noticed the rough edges. They’d had those cookies cutters for years.

     “Joel! Don’t you dare!” Sarah warned, just as a teasing Joel had lifted the frosting-covered spoon to his stuck-out tongue. Next Danny did it, amusement sparking up his brown eyes. Joel snickered at his twin.

     “Danny, Joel.” She hissed their names through clenched teeth. Sarah’s eyes bore coldly into theirs.

     And just then Danny sent his spoon soaring into his mouth, his face lighting up with pleasure as the sweet mess soaked into his taste buds.

     Sarah went crazy. “Ah, Mom! Did you see that?” she shrieked. She yanked the spoon from Danny’s paw and gave him a clean one. Danny and Joel giggled.

     “Daniel.” Eve’s voice was a gentle warning, and she flashed her boys a look, her look that meant she wasn’t playing around.

     “Sorry, Mom.” Danny glanced at Joel and they both laughed again. Even they thought it was comical when Sarah became upset.

     Sarah groaned and rolled her eyes.

     “Noel, are you okay?” Eve’s voice was layered in concern as she gazed at Noel, who had been silent and staring at the cookie cutters the whole time. “You’re quiet.” It was very unusual for Noel to be silent. Especially near Christmas time.

     Noel looked up, blinking. “Um, yeah, I’m fine.”

     Sarah sighed. “She’s probably thinking about that crazy joyless lady down the street.”

     Noel cast her sister a blazing look. “That’s not nice, Sarah! She’s just lonely... that’s all.” Her voice trailed away. Noel bit her lip.

     Eve’s eyes searched her daughter’s. “Noel... what’s all this about?”

     “There’s this crazy lady down the street,” Sarah spoke up. “Her house is bare, Mom. No lights, no candles, no cheer... and no Christmas spirit!”

     Eve’s turned her eyes back to her cookies. She uttered a soft sigh. “Maybe there’s a reason for such things, Sarah Lyn Star. We shouldn’t be too quick to judge.”

     Sarah looked like she wanted to say something more, but clipped her mouth shut.

     Noel thought her mother was right, though. Maybe something dreadfully sad had happened to Karen Mosely...

     ~*~*~

     Karen took a small bite out of her sugar cookie. It was delicious, but somehow she couldn't quite taste it. She was thinking about the girl. Noel, was it? The look of pure joy on her face, the passage to her heart glimmering in her eyes. Noel spoke something about herself... something that maybe Karen thought seemed be honestly familiar. But surely Karen was losing it. Something tightened in Karen’s heart.

     The look in Noel’s eyes had reminded her so much of... of Willow June. The way she spoke also, and the way she seemed so thoughtful and sweet. Karen sighed, biting her lip.

     The thought made her toss and turn all night, to the point where she got up and walked down the hall to Willow June’s old room. Poor Karen walked over to the child’s bed and grasped Willow June’s favorite plushie, the one she had called “Stuffy”. Karen saw her now.

     Karen had first created Willow June Christmas day twelve years ago. She was smiling so sweetly, her eyes like glowing Christmas lights, wide and excited as she was led into Karen Mosely's Neohome. It was decorated nicely, holly and tinsel strung everywhere, a glorious Christmas tree placed in the living room, all big and jubilant and shining up the home. It was the greatest thing Willow June had ever seen.

     Karen walked over and got a red-packaged present from under the tree, smiling and handing it to Willow June. She had anticipated creating a little girl, and though Willow June hadn’t come into her life yet, Karen knew just what a little girl would like- a plushie; something to cuddle and squish and love.

     With wide eyes, baby Willow June watched as Karen opened the shiny package and retrieved a plushie. Karen handed the plushie to Willow June, the little red Xweetok, mesmerized, taking it, and blinking down at it. She held it, squeezing it softly. Then her face lit up and she looked up at Karen. “Stuffy.”

     As Karen remembered that day, the first day she created Willow June, a river of tears coursed down her face. She collapsed on the side of Willow June’s bed, sobbing her heart away and gripping little Stuffy in her hands, holding the plushie up to her face and crying feverishly into its soft plush, just as Willow June had done with she was crying, too.

     For what seemed like hours, Karen kneeled there, crying softly until she felt she had run out of tears, yet her heart still ached with a dull, melancholy ache. She must have fallen asleep, for when she awoke, it was morning. Sunlight spewed in like ribbons from the little window. Karen looked up, blinking at its bright light. She felt groggy and tired and unbelievably sad.

     Later that morning, she was sitting in her rocking chair, sipping absently at her borovan, her tired eyes adjusting to the life and sadness she carried.

     And the little happy face of Willow June kept flashing into her mind.

     ~*~*~

     Noel and Sarah sat in the kitchen, warming their frozen paws with mugs of hot cocoa. They had just returned from ice skating at the frozen lake in Winter Starlight Celebration with some friends, and now they nibbled on sugar cookies and chatted about their time.

     “I can’t believe Ashleen’s getting a Snowy Holiday Umbrella from the NC Mall!” Sarah half-yelled, envy coating her voice. “Those are so cute.”

     Noel nodded in agreement. “Yeah, but Sarah, you’ve got plenty of cute items from the NC Mall. Mom bought you those Shining Princess Shoes just last week.”

     “Yeah, but I don’t have a Snowy Holiday Umbrella!” Sarah pouted.

     “Hey, girls, have fun?” Eve asked her girls as she walked into the kitchen, a huge box marked, ‘Christmas Decorations,’ in her arms.

     “Yes, Mom,” Noel and Sarah answered at the same time.

     Eve smiled. “Good.” She set the box down on the counter, sighing in relief. “Whew, this box gets heavier every year!”

     Noel gazed at curiously. “What’s that, Mom?”

     “Just some leftover Christmas decorations I found in the attic,” Eve said, peering proudly at the box.

     Sarah’s nose wrinkled. “Another one? But Mom, isn’t our house decorated enough?”

     Eve laughed softly. “This isn’t for us, Sarah.” Her eyes shimmered. “It’s for someone else.” Suddenly her eyes lost its shine and her face dropped.

     “What’s wrong, Mom?” Noel asked.

     Eve sighed, looking up at her daughters. “I got a neomail from my good friend Grace earlier... you remember her, right?”

     Noel and Sarah nodded.

     “Well... she said her sister’s having a hard time. She lives right here on Happy Valley too. She was wondering if I could send my children over there and help her decorate. Something happened to her... She hasn’t done any decorating or Christmas celebrating in eight years, Grace said.” Eve’s mouth became a thin line.

     “Hold up,” Sarah said. “Was that the house that we went to the other day, the one with no decorations or anything?”

     Eve nodded gravely.

     Sarah clamped her mouth shut, a faint candle of shame flickering in her eyes.

     “Mom, what... what happened to her?” Noel asked, her heart suddenly aching.

     Eve uttered a sigh. “She lost her daughter eight years ago, a few days before Christmas. She was kidnapped.”

     Noel’s eyes went wide with shock, horror gripping at her heart. “Oh, Mom... that’s horrible.” Even Sarah gasped softly.

     Eve nodded. “Yes.” Her eyes shifted to Sarah. “That is why we don’t judge too quickly, Sarah Lyn Star.”

     Noel bit her lip. Such a terrible thing had happened to poor Karen Mosely?

To be continued...

 
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