On Christmas, Darlene finds herself in Miss Burton's driveway. She has been given the best Christmas present ever.
Darlene lived across from the big school with its large windows and sprawling parking lot, but she didn't attend it. In fact, no kids attended Arlington Middle School right now, because of the lockdown.
However, the lockdown wasn't the reason Darlene wasn't a student there. No, it was because she just started living there four days ago when Aunt Margo drove their Winnebago from Marysville where they'd gotten kicked out of the Walmart parking lot for staying there too long.
"At least there's no people around here," Aunt Margo said.
But Darlene felt lonely in the woods. When they lived in the parking lot, people and children wearing masks came and went from the store. Darlene knew that it was a rule right now, to wear masks if one went out in public.
In their new living spot, the only people she saw were in the cars that passed their hiding place. They went by too fast to see Aunt Margo's van between the tall trunks and overgrown salmonberries. All except the people who stopped at the school.
Today, she woke up early because it was so cold these days. In Walmart, or rather the parking lot, it had been warm because Aunt Margo found a hook-up at the base of one of the lights. So, she ran a space heater to it. But here, in the forest, there were no hook-ups or streetlights. Whereas the parking lot was full of constant light, here in the forest, it was so dark that the only thing Darlene could see was her breath inside the Winnebago. It glowed like a waving ghost, lit up by the lights coming from the school parking lot across the street. Suddenly the ghost was gone. The parking lots lights had blinked out. The sun was up.
Just as she had on the previous three mornings, Darlene watched as a white Toyota Corolla pulled into the school parking lot. It sat there for a while, just as it had for the last three mornings, while a white plume of steam and exhaust created a miniature cumulus cloud behind it. Darlene was certain the driver was as reluctant to get out of the car as she would have been.
Finally, someone emerged. It was the same woman as yesterday. Still wearing the purple quilted down jacket that Darlene admired. If I could buy my own jacket, I'd get one that color. Instead, she pulled the blanket Aunt Margo got from Goodwill tighter around her shivering body and tried to focus on the woman in the purple coat to make herself stop thinking about the cold.
Every morning for the past three days, and now on the fourth day, the lady in purple opened the trunk of her car and pulled out three folding tables. She set them up, side-by-side at the entrance to the school.
Then from the back seat of her car, she brought out five or six crates and arranged them on the tables. Each crate had a sign that Darlene was unable to read from far away.
What do those signs say?
After she set up the crates, the lady would leave. During the day, other cars would arrive and park in front of the school. Usually, the driver would hop out of the car, but sometimes a passenger would exit instead. All of the people who came out of the cars wore masks. They visited the crates and studied the signs on them. Then they'd pick a bag from inside to bring back to their car.
Darlene was certain the signs explained what was inside the bags. She had a burning desire to look in those crates. Every morning her curiosity increased. Maybe I will go see today?
At the end of every day, the lady in the purple jacket returned. By then, most of the crates were empty. So, she stacked them on top of each other to bring them back to her car. Then she would fold the tables one by one and put those in her trunk and drive away never knowing that she was being watched from the van across the street.
Yesterday, however, Darlene was playing outside the van when the lady arrived to pick up the crates. The lady saw her and waved. Darlene waved back.
Darlene decided that tomorrow, before Aunt Margo awoke, she would go see what was in those crates.
Harry did not want to get out of her car. It was 32 degrees outside -- literally freezing. She let the heater blast its searing air over her hands one last time, and then opened the door with resolve. It was a pain doing this day-after-day in the cold. But the thought of the thankful emails her students' parents sent for getting their books during the lockdown warmed her heart. Even though she hadn't been in the classroom since February, this morning ritual she created was her defiant way to still teach. Her life-long dream. No silly virus would stop her from doing so!
Today there was a small letter left in one of the crates.
To Miss Harriet
Thank you for the books. Here is a present for you.
Your student, Payton.
Attached to the letter was a gift card.
She smiled at the memory of Payton's last Zoom meeting a week ago. Payton's father had been on the other side, while Payton hadn't attended the meeting at all. Instead, she could hear him yelling and playing in the background.
As she folded the last table, a noise across the street drew her attention. She almost cried out with surprise when she saw a girl playing in the trees next to the camper van that appeared there four days ago.
Has she been living in there?
Harry waved at the apparition. The girl waved back. She was not a figment of Harry's active imagination.
Well, I'll be darned. There is someone living there after all. Harry didn't think anyone could live outside in this weather. In fact, Harry knew someone could not live outside in this weather. When the manager of the Safeway called her to let her know that Eric was living behind the store, she drove there as soon as she hung up the phone. She even convinced him to come back home with her and to stay for a week.
However, when she tried to help him get an appointment with a drug counselor, her brother refused to stay with her.
"You are not my parole officer, Harry. You do not get to tell me what to do!" And he stormed out of her apartment for the last time on Christmas Eve exactly fourteen years ago. She never got to tell him that she loved him. Her last words to him had been, "Can you take out the trash since you're leaving?"
Why couldn't she have said what she really felt? Would that have convinced him to stay?
"I love you," she whispered, but only her steering wheel could hear her.
Margo could tell it was morning, because from where she lay in her berth, a faint blue tinge appeared in the windows of the Winnebago. Out of habit, she reached for the carton in her jacket, and felt a pit in her stomach when she opened it and saw the last remaining cigarette. So she closed the pack again. She had done this four mornings in a row.
Maybe this time I'll actually quit.
She had sucked down the penultimate cigarette right before they left Walmart. Ground the butt into the cement with the worn-out heel of her boots, as if it could burn the lady who'd told them to leave. What would she do now without the hook up for the space heater?
It was fine for Margo. She'd braved the cold before, but her niece Darlene didn't have any fat on her bones to keep the poor girl warm. Margo's heart hurt whenever she saw her niece shivering. So, when she found a blanket in one of the trash bins, she pulled it out and washed it off in the Walmart restroom. Let it air dry under the blowers until the cleaning staff came and made her leave.
"Did you get it at Goodwill?" Darlene's smile tore at Margo's heart as she wrapped the blanket around herself and snuggled into the bed Margo had made for her at the dining table.
"Yes, baby. I know how much you like purple."
Darlene reminded her of Margo's sister in so many ways, even down to the colors she liked. But Margo prayed every night that she could keep her niece from following in her mother's footsteps. Darlene will be better off than all of our sorry family combined. Margo would make sure of it.
Maybe I just need a smoke.
She felt her resolve waning and pulled the carton from her jacket pocket once more. "Darlene, honey, could you hand me my lighter?" When there was no answer, Margo looked at the dining table and realized her niece wasn't there.
"Darlene?" No answer.
Heedless of the cold, Margo ran outside of the van and searched for any sign of her niece.
Then she spied the purple blanket. Across the street. At the front entrance of the school.
What in the--?
Margo had seen the crates on the tables in front of the school. People came and took stuff from them, but she was certain they were for students. Is Darlene stealing something?
She didn't know how she managed to reach Darlene's side so fast. She grabbed Darlene's arm and pulled her away from the crates.
"What have I told you about stealing?" Margo smacked Darlene on the backside, and then was hit with regret when she saw Darlene's face.
"I wasn't, Aunt Margo. I wasn't!" Tears spilled from her niece’s eyes. "The lady in the purple coat..."
"Don't lie to me, Darlene! I saw you take this." Margo grabbed the green book from Darlene's hands.
"I didn't steal it!" Darlene pulled away from her grasp and ran back to the trailer. As she ran, something flew from her hands. Margo bent down to pick it up.
A purple envelope. Inside was a gift card and a letter.
To the girl who lives in the van across the street from the school,
Santa told me to give this book to you today -- The Four Million. Let your mom read it to you. The gift card is for her.
The screech of brakes made Margo look up.
"It's Christmas morning. Wake up, sleepy head."
Darlene wiped the sleep from her eyes. "Mom?" She sat up and waited. Many times, she'd thought she heard her mother in the morning, but it turned out to only be Aunt Margo.
"Yes, it's me. Aren't you gonna give me a hug?"
"Mom!" Darlene leaped out of bed and hugged her mother so hard that she yelped a little in pain. "It's really you? You're home?"
"Well, if you can call Miss Burton's driveway our home, I guess so."
"It's only temporary. But at least we have power now." Aunt Margo walked in with a basket full of laundry. "And we have a place to do laundry."
Darlene peeked out of the window and saw they were no longer in the trees, but in the driveway of a cute house with a front door painted purple.
"This is her house? It's...beautiful." Darlene felt this was the best Christmas ever.