There was a Christmas tree in the lobby when Lauren got to work,
and the receptionist was sitting with her chin in her hand, watching
the security monitor. Lauren set her shopping bag down and looked
curiously at the screen. On it, Jimmy Stewart was dancing the
Charleston with Donna Reed.
|The author admits that while Miracle on 34th Street is her favorite Christmas movie, Its A Wonderful Life does have its moments. The following tale is a delightful homage
to both. Ms. Williss last December story, "Cibola," is now a
finalist for the Hugo Award.
"The Personnel Morale Special Committee had cable piped in for
Christmas," the receptionist explained, handing Lauren her messages.
"I love Its a Wonderful Life, dont you?"
Lauren stuck her messages in the top of her shopping bag and went
up to her department. Red and green crepe paper hung in streamers
from the ceiling, and there was a big red crepe paper bow tied
around Laurens desk.
"The Personnel Morale Special Committee did it," Cassie said,
coming over with the catalogue shed been reading. "Theyre decorating
the whole building, and they want us and Document Control to go
caroling this afternoon. Dont you think PMS is getting out of
hand with this Christmas spirit thing? I mean, who wants to spend
Christmas Eve at an office party?"
"I do," Lauren said. She set her shopping bag down on the desk,
sat down, and began taking off her boots.
"Can I borrow your stapler?" Cassie asked. "Ive lost mine again.
Im ordering my mother the Water of the Month, and I need to staple
my check to the order form."
"The water of the month?" Lauren said, opening her desk drawer
and taking out her stapler.
"You know, they send you bottles of a different one every month.
Perrier, Evian, Calistoga." She peered in Laurens shopping bag.
"Do you have Christmas presents in there? I hate people who have
their shopping done four weeks before Christmas."
"Its four days till Christmas," Lauren said, "and I dont have it all done. I
still dont have anything for my sister. But Ive got all my friends,
including you, done." She reached in the shopping bag and pulled
out her pumps. "And I found a dress for the office party."
"Did you buy it?"
"No." She put on one of her shoes. "Im going to try it on during
my lunch hour.?
"If its still there," Cassie said gloomily. "I had this echidna
toothpick holder all picked out for my brother, and when I went
back to buy it, they were all gone."
"I asked them to hold the dress for me," Lauren said. She put
on her other shoe. "Its gorgeous. Black off-the-shoulder. Sequined."
"Still trying to get Scott Buckley to notice you, huh? I dont
do things like that any more. Nineties women dont use sexist
tricks to attract men. Besides, I decided he was too cute to ever
notice somebody like me." She sat down on the edge of Laurens
desk and started leafing through the catalogue. "Heres something
your sister might like. The Vegetable of the Month. Februarys
"She lives in southern California," Lauren said, shoving her boots
under the desk.
"Oh. How about the Sunscreen of the Month?"
"No," Lauren said. "Shes into New Age stuff. Channeling and stuff.
Last year she sent me a crystal pyramid mate selector for Christmas."
"The Eastern philosophy of the month," Cassie said. "Zen, sufism,
tai chi -- "
"Id like to get her something shed really like," Lauren mused.
"I always have a terrible time figuring out what to get people
for (Christmas. So this year, I decided things were going to be
different. I wasnt going to be tearing around the mall the day
before Christmas, buying things no one would want and wondering
what on earth I was going to wear to the office party. I started
doing my shopping in September, I wrapped my presents as soon
as I bought them, I have all my Christmas cards done and ready
to mail -- "
"Youre disgusting," Cassie said. "Oh, here, I almost forgot."
She pulled a folded slip of paper out of her catalogue and handed
it to Lauren. "Its your name for the Secret Santa gift exchange.
PMS says youre supposed to bring your present for it by Friday
so it wont interfere with the presents Santa Claus hands out
at the office party."
Lauren unfolded the paper, and Cassie leaned over to read it.
"Whod you get? Wait, dont tell me. Scott Buckley."
"No. Fred Hatch. And I know just what to get him."
"Fred? The fat guy in Documentation? What is it, the Diet of the
"This is supposed to be the season of love and charity, not the
season when you make mean remarks about someone just because hes
overweight," Lauren said sternly. "Im going to get him a videotape
of Miracle on 34th Street."
Cassie looked uncomprehending.
"Its Freds favorite movie. We had a wonderful talk about it
at the office party last year."
"I never heard of it."
"Its about Macys Santa Claus. He starts telling people they
can get their kids toys cheaper at Gimbels, and then the store
psychiatrist decides hes crazy -- "
"Why dont you get him Its a Wonderful Life? Thats my favorite Christmas movie."
"Yours and everybody elses. I think Fred and I are the only two
people in the world who like Miracle on 34th Street better. See, Edmund Gwenn, hes Santa Claus, gets committed to
Bellevue because he thinks hes Santa Claus, and since there isnt
any Santa Claus, he has to be crazy, but he is Santa Claus, and Fred Gailey, thats John Payne, hes a lawyer
in the movie, he decides to have a court hearing to prove it,
and -- "
"I watch Its a Wonderful Life every Christmas. I love the part where Jimmy Stewart and Donna
Reed fall into the swimming pool," Cassie said. "What happened
to the stapler?"
They had the dress and it fit, but there was an enormous jam-up
at the cash register, and then they couldnt find a hanging bag
"Just put it in a shopping bag," Lauren said, looking anxiously
at her watch.
"Itll wrinkle," the clerk said ominously and continued to search
for a hanging bag. By the time Lauren convinced her a shopping
bag would work, it was already twelve-fifteen. She had hoped shed
have time to look for a present for her sister, but there wasnt
going to be time. She still had to run the dress home and mail
the Christmas cards.
I can pick up Freds video, she thought, fighting her way onto
the escalator. That wouldnt take much time since she knew what
she wanted, and maybe theyd have something with Shirley MacLaine
in it she could get her sister. Ten minutes to buy the video,
she thought, tops.
It took her nearly half an hour. There was only one copy, which
the clerk couldnt find.
"Are you sure you wouldnt rather have Its a Wonderful Life?" she asked Lauren. "Its my favorite movie."
"I want Miracle on 34th Street," Lauren said patiently. "With Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood."
The clerk picked up a copy of Its a Wonderful Life off a huge display. "See, Jimmy Stewarts in trouble and he wishes
hed never been born, and this angel grants him his wish -- "
"I know," Lauren said. "I dont care. I want Miracle on 34th Street."
"Okay!" the clerk said, and wandered off to look for it, muttering,
"Some people dont have any Christmas spirit."
She finally found it, in the Ms of all places, and then insisted
on giftwrapping it.
By the time Lauren made it back to her apartment, it was a quarter
to one. She would have to forget lunch and mailing the Christmas
cards, but she could at least take them with her, buy the stamps,
and put the stamps on at work.
She took the video out of the shopping bag and set it on the coffee
table next to her purse, picked up the bag and started for the
Someone knocked on the door.
"I dont have time for this," she muttered, and opened the door,
still holding the shopping bag.
It was a young man wearing a "Save the Whales" T-shirt and khaki
pants. He had shoulder-length blond hair and a vague expression
that made her thick of Southern California.
"Yes? What is it?" she asked.
"Im here to give you a Christmas present," he said.
"Thank you, Im not interested in whatever youre selling," she
said, and shut the door.
He knocked again immediately. "Im not selling anything," he said
through the door. "Really."
I dont have time for this, she thought, but she opened the door again.
"Im not a salesguy," he said. "Have you ever heard of the Maharishi
A religious nut.
"I dont have time to talk to you." She started to say, "Im late
for work," and then remembered you werent supposed to tell strangers
your apartment was going to be empty. "Im very busy," she said
and shut the door, more firmly this time.
The knocking commenced again, but she ignored it. She started
into the bedroom with the shopping bag, came back and pushed the
deadbolt across and put the chain on, and then went in to hang
up her dress. By the time shed extricated it from the tissue
paper and found a hanger the knocking had stopped. She hung up
the dress, which looked just as deadly now that she had it home,
and went back in the living room.
The young man was sitting on the couch, messing with her TV remote.
"So, what do you want for Christmas? A yacht? A pony?" He punched
buttons on the remote, frowning. "A new TV?"
"How did you get in here?" Lauren said squeakily. She looked at
the door. The deadbolt and chain were both still on.
"Im a spirit," he said, putting the remote down. The TV suddenly
blared on. "The Spirit of Christmas Present."
"Oh," Lauren said, edging toward the phone. "Like in A Christmas Carol."
"No," he said, flipping through the channels. She looked at the
remote. It was still on the coffee table. "Not Christmas Present.
Christmas Present. You know, Barbie dolls, ugly ties, cheese logs, the stuff people give you
"Oh, Christmas Present. I see," Lauren said, carefully picking up the phone.
"People always get me confused with him, which is really insulting. I mean, the
guy obviously has a really high cholesterol level. Anyway, Im
the Spirit of Christmas Present, and your sister sent me to --
Lauren had dialed nine one. She stopped, her finger poised over
the second one. "My sister?"
"Yeah," he said, staring at the TV. Jimmy Stewart was sitting
in the guards room wrapped in a blanket. "Oh, wow! Its A Wonderful Life."
My sister sent you, Lauren thought. It explained everything. He
was not a Moonie or a serial killer. He was this years version
of the crystal pyramid mate selector. "How do you know my sister?"
"She channeled me," he said, leaning back against the sofa. "The
Maharishi Ram Dras was instructing her in trance-meditation, and
she accidentally channeled my spirit out of the astral plane."
He pointed at the screen. "I love this part where the angel is
trying to convince Jimmy Stewart hes dead."
"Im not dead, am I?"
"No. Im not an angel. Im a spirit. The Spirit of Christmas Present.
You can call me Chris for short. Your sister sent me to give you
what you really want for Christmas. You know, your hearts desire.
So what i9 it?"
For my sister not to send me any more presents, she thought. "Look
Im really in a hurry right now. Why dont you come back tomorrow
and we can talk about it then?"
"I hope its not a fur coat," he said as if he hadnt heard her.
"Im opposed to the killing of endangered species." He picked
up Freds present. "Whats this?"
"Its a videotape of Miracle on 34th Street. I really have to go."
"Whos it for?"
"Fred Hatch. Im his Secret Santa."
"Fred Hatch." He turned the package over. "You had it gift-wrapped
at the store, didnt you?"
"Yes. If we could just talk about this later -- "
"This is a great part, too," he said, leaning forward to watch
the TV. The angel was explaining to Jimmy Stewart how he hadnt
gotten his wings yet.
"I have to go. Im on my lunch hour, and I need to mail my Christmas cards,
and I have to get back to work -- " She glanced at her watch,
" -- oh my God, fifteen minutes ago."
He put down the package and stood up. "Gift-wrapped presents,"
he said, making a "tsk"-ing noise, "Everybody rushing around spending
money, rushing to parties, never stopping to have some eggnog
or watch a movie. Christmas is an endangered species." He looked
longingly back at the screen, where the angel was trying to convince
Jimmy Stewart hed never been alive, and then wandered into the
kitchen. "You got any Evian water?"
"No," Lauren said desperately. She hurried after him. "Look, I
really have to get to work."
He had stopped at the kitchen table and was holding one of the
Christmas cards. "Computer-addressed," he said reprovingly. He
tore it open.
"Dont -- " Lauren said.
"Printed Christmas cards," he said. "No letter, no quick note,
not even a handwritten signature. Thats exactly what Im talking
about. An endangered species."
"I didnt have time," Lauren said defensively. "And I dont have
time to discuss this or anything else with you. I have to get
"No time to write a few words on a card, no time to think about
what you want for Christmas." He slid the card back into the envelope.
"Not even on recycled paper," he said sadly. "Do you know how
many trees are chopped down every year to send Christmas cards?"
"I am late for -- " Lauren said, and he wasnt there anymore.
He didnt vanish like in the movies, or fade out slowly. He simply
" -- work," Lauren said. She went and looked in the living room.
The TV was still on, but he wasnt there, or in the bedroom. She
went in the bathroom and pulled the shower curtain back, but he
wasnt there either. "It was an hallucination," she said out loud,
"brought on by stress." She looked at her watch, hoping it had
been part of the hallucination but it still read one-fifteen.
"I will figure this out later," she said. "I have to get back to work."
She went back in the living room. The TV was off. She went into
the kitchen. He wasnt there. Neither were her Christmas cards,
"You! Spirit!" she shouted. "You come back here, this minute!"
"Youre late," Cassie said, filling out a catalogue form. "You
will not believe who was just here. Scott Buckley. God, he is
so cute." She looked up. "What happened?" she said. "Didnt they
hold the dress?"
"Do you know anything about magic?" Lauren said.
"My sister sent me her Christmas present," Lauren said grimly.
"I need to talk to someone who knows something about magic."
"Fat... I mean Fred Hatch is a magician. What did your sister
Lauren started down the hall to Documentation at a half-run.
"I told Scott youd be back any minute," Cassie said. "He said
he wanted to talk to you."
Lauren opened the door to Documentation and started looking over
partitions into the maze of cubicles. They were all empty.
"Anybody here?" Lauren called. "Hello?"
A middle-aged woman emerged from the maze, carrying five rolls
of wrapping paper and a large pair of scissors. "You dont have
any Scotch tape, do you?" she asked Lauren.
"Do you know where Fred Hatch is?" Lauren asked.
The woman pointed toward the interior of the maze with a roll
of reindeer-covered paper. "Over there. Doesnt anyone have any tape? Im going to have to staple my Christmas presents."
Lauren worked her way toward where the woman had pointed, looking
over partitions as she went. Fred was in the center one, leaning
back in a chair, his hands folded over his ample stomach, staring
at a screen covered with yellow numbers.
"Excuse me," Lauren said, and Fred immediately sat forward and
"I need to talk to you," she said. "Is there somewhere we can
"Right here," Fred said. "My assistants on the 800 line in my
office placing a catalogue order, and everyone else is next door
in Graphic Design at a Tupperware party." He pushed a key, and
the computer screen went blank. "What did you want to talk to
"Cassie said youre a magician," she said.
He looked embarrassed. "Not really. The PMS Committee put me in
charge of the magic show for the office party last year, and I
came up with an act. This year, luckily, they assigned me to play
He smiled and patted his stomach. "Im the right shape for the
part, and I dont have to worry about the tricks not working."
"Oh, dear," Lauren said. "I hoped... do you know any magicians?"
"The guy at the novelty shop," he said, looking worried. "Whats
the matter? Did PMS assign you the magic show this year?"
"No." She sat down on the edge of his desk. "My sister is into
New Age stuff, and she sent me this spirit -- "
"Spirit," he said. "A ghost, you mean?"
"No. A person. I mean he looks like a person. He says hes the
Spirit of Christmas Present, as in Gift, not Here and Now."
"And youre sure hes not a person? I mean, tricks can sometimes
really look like magic."
"Theres a Christmas tree in my kitchen," she said.
"Christmas tree?" he said warily.
"Yes. The spirit was upset because my Christmas cards werent
on recycled paper, he asked me if I knew how many trees were chopped
down to send Christmas cards, then he disappeared, and when I
went back in the kitchen there was this Christmas tree in my kitchen."
"And theres no way he could have gotten into your apartment earlier
and put it there?"
"Its growing out of the floor. Besides, it wasnt there when we were in the
kitchen five minutes before. See, he was watching Its A Wonderful Life on TV, which, by the way, he turned on without using the remote,
and he asked me if I had any Evian water, and he went in the kitchen
and... this is ridiculous. You have to think Im crazy. I think
Im crazy just listening to myself tell this ridiculous story.
Evian water!" She folded her arms. "People have a lot of nervous
breakdowns around Christmas time. Do you think I could be having
The woman with the wrapping paper rolls peered over the cubicle
"Have you got a tape dispenser?"
Fred shook his head.
"How about a stapler?"
Fred handed her his stapler, and she left.
"Well," Lauren said when she was sure the woman was gone, "do
you think Im having a nervous breakdown?"
"That depends," he said.
"On whether theres really a tree growing out of your kitchen
floor. You said he got angry because your Christmas cards werent
on recycled paper. Do you think hes dangerous?"
"I dont know. He says hes here to give me whatever I want for
Christmas. Except a fur coat. Hes opposed to the killing of endangered
"A spirit whos an animal rights activist!" Fred said delightedly.
"Where did your sister get him from?"
"The astral plane," Lauren said. "She was trance-channeling or
something. I dont care where he came from. I just want to get
rid of him before he decides my Christmas presents arent recyclable,
"Okay," he said, hitting a key on the computer. The screen lit
up. "The first thing we need to do is find out what he is and
how he got here. I want you to call your sister. Maybe she knows
some New Age spell for getting rid of the spirit." He began to
type rapidly. "Ill get on the networks and see if I can find
someone who knows something about magic."
He swiveled around to face her. "Youre sure you want to get rid
"I have a tree growing out of my kitchen floor!"
"But what if hes telling the truth? What if he really can get
you what you want for Christmas?"
"What I wanted was to mail my Christmas cards, which are now shedding needles
on the kitchen tile. Who knows what hell do next?"
"Yeah," he said. "Listen, whether hes dangerous or not, I think
I should go home with you after work, in case he shows up again,
but Ive got a PMS meeting for the office party -- "
"Thats okay. Hes an animal rights activist. Hes not dangerous."
"That doesnt necessarily follow," Fred said. "Ill come over
as soon as my meetings over, and meanwhile Ill check the networks.
"Okay," she said. She started out of the cubicle and then stopped.
"I really appreciate your believing me, or at least not saying
you dont believe me."
He smiled at her. "I dont have any choice. Youre the only other
person in the world who likes Miracle on 34th Street better than Its a Wonderful Life. And Fred Gailey believed Macys Santa Claus was really Santa Claus,
"Yeah," she said. "I dont think this guy is Santa Claus. He was
"Ill meet you at your front door," he said. He sat down at the
computer and began typing.
Lauren went through the maze of cubicles and into the hall.
"There you are!" Scott said. "Ive been looking for you all over." He smiled
meltingly. "Im in charge of buying gifts for the office party,
and I need your help."
"Yeah. Picking them out. I hoped maybe I could talk you into going
shopping with me after work tonight."
"Tonight?" she said. "I cant. Ive got -- " A Christmas tree
growing in my kitchen. "Could we do it tomorrow after work?"
He shook his head. "Ive got a date. What about later on tonight?
The stores are open till nine. It shouldnt take more than a couple
of hours to do the shopping, and then we could go have a late
supper somewhere. What say I pick you up at your apartment at
And have the spirit lying on the couch, drinking Evian water and
watching TV? "I cant," she said regretfully.
Even his frown was cute. "Oh, well," he said, and shrugged. "Too
bad. I guess Ill have to get somebody else." He gave her another
adorable smile and went off down the hall to ask somebody else.
I hate you, Spirit of Christmas Present, Lauren thought, standing there watching his handsome
back recede. Youd better not be there when I get home.
A woman came down the hall, carrying a basket of candy canes.
"Compliments of the Personnel Morale Special Committee," she said,
offering one to Lauren. "You look like you could use a little
"No, thanks, Ive already got one," Lauren said.
The door to her apartment was locked, which didnt mean much since
the chain and the deadbolt had both been on when he got in before.
But he wasnt in the living room, and the TV was off.
He had been there, though. There was an empty Evian water bottle
on the coffee table. She picked it up and took it into the kitchen.
The tree was still there, too. She pushed one of the branches
aside so she could get to the wastebasket and throw the bottle
"Dont you know plastic bottles are nonbiodegradable?" the Spirit
said. He was standing on the other side of the tree, hanging things
on the branches. He was dressed in khaki shorts and a "Save the
Rain Forest" T-shirt, and had a red bandanna tied around his head.
"You should recycle your bottles."
"Its your bottle," Lauren said. "What are you doing here, Spirit?"
"Chris," he corrected her. "These are organic ornaments," he said.
He held one of the brown things out to her. "Handmade by the Yanomamo
Indians. Each one is made of natural by-products found in the
Brazilian rain forest." He hung the brown thing on the tree. "Have
you decided what you want for Christmas?"
"Yes," she said. "I want you to go away."
He looked surprised. "I cant do that. Not until I give you your
"That is my hearts desire. I want you to go away and take this
tree and your Yanomamo ornaments with you."
"You know the biggest problem I have as the Spirit of Christmas
Present?" he said. He reached in the back pocket of his shorts
and pulled out a brown garland of what looked like coffee beans.
"My biggest problem is that people dont know what they want."
"I know what I want," Lauren said. "I dont want to have to write
my Christmas cards all over again -- "
"You didnt write them," he said, draping the garland over the
branches. "They were printed. Do you know that the inks used on
those cards contain harmful chemicals?"
"I dont want to be lectured on environmental issues, I dont
want to have to fight my way through a forest to get to the refrigerator,
and I dont want to have to turn down dates because I have a spirit
in my apartment. I want a nice, quiet Christmas with no hassles
I want to exchange a few presents with my friends and go to the
office Christmas party and... " And dazzle Scott Buckley in my
off-the-shoulder black dress, she thought, but she decided shed
better not say that. The Spirit might decide Scotts clothes werent
made of natural fibers or something and turn him into a Yanomamo
"... and have a nice, quiet Christmas," she finished lamely.
"Take Its A Wonderful Life," the Spirit said, squinting at the tree. "I watched it this
afternoon while you were at work. Jimmy Stewart didnt know what
He reached in his pocket again and pulled out a crooked star made
of Brazil nuts and twine. "He thought he wanted to go to college-and
travel and get rich, but what he really wanted was right there in front of him the whole time."
He did something, and the top of the tree lopped over in front
of him. He tied the star on with the twine, and did something
else. The tree straightened up. "You only think you want me to
leave," he said.
Someone knocked on the door.
"Youre right," Lauren said. "I dont want you to leave. I want
you to stay right there." She ran into the living room.
The spirit followed her into the living room. "Luckily, being
a spirit, I know what you really want," he said, and disappeared.
She opened the door to Fred. "He was just here," she said. "He
disappeared when I opened the door, which is what all the crazies
say, isnt it?"
"Yeah," Fred said. "Or else, Hes right there. Cant you see
him? " He looked curiously around the room. "Where was he?"
"In the kitchen," she said, shutting the door. "Decorating a tree
which probably isnt there either." She led him into the kitchen.
The tree was still there, and there were large brownish cards
stuck all over it.
"You really do have a tree growing in your kitchen," Fred said,
squatting down to look at the roots. "I wonder if the people downstairs
have roots sticking out of their ceiling." He stood up. "What
are these." he said, pointing at the brownish cards.
"Christmas cards." She pulled one off. "I told him I wanted mine
back." She read the card aloud. " In the time it takes you to
read this Christmas card, eighty-two harp seals will have been
clubbed to death for their fur. " She opened it up. " Happy
"Cheery," Fred said. He took the card from her and turned it over.
" This card is printed on recycled paper with vegetable inks
and can be safely used as compost. "
"Did anyone in the networks know how to club a spirit to death?"
"No. Didnt your sister have any ideas?"
"She didnt know how she got him in the first place. She and her
Maharishi were channeling an Egyptian nobleman and he suddenly
appeared, wearing a Save the Dolphins T-shirt. I got the idea the Maharishi was as surprised as she
was." She sat down at the kitchen table. "I tried to get him to
go away this afternoon, but he said he has to give me my hearts
desire first." She looked up at Fred, who was cautiously sniffing
one of the organic ornaments. "Didnt you find out anything on
"I found out there are a lot of loonies with computers. What are these?"
"By-products of the Brazilian rain forest." She stood up. "I told
him my hearts desire was for him to leave, and he said I didnt
know what I really wanted."
"Which is what?"
"I dont know," she said. "I went into the living room to answer
the door, and he said that luckily he knew what I wanted because
he was a spirit, and I told him to stay right where he was, and
"Show me," he said.
She took him into the living room and pointed at where hed been
standing, and Fred squatted down again and peered at the carpet.
"How does he disappear?"
"I dont know. He just... isnt there."
Fred stood up. "Has he changed anything else? Besides the tree?"
"Not that I know of. He turned the TV on without the remote,"
she said, looking around the room. The shopping bags were still
on the coffee table. She looked through them and pulled out the
video. "Here. Im your Secret Santa. Im not supposed to give
it to you till Christmas Eve, but maybe youd better take it before
he turns it into a snowy owl or something."
She handed it to him. "Go ahead. Open it."
He unwrapped it. "Oh," he said without enthusiasm. "Thanks."
"I remember last year at the party-we talked about it, and I was
afraid you might already have a copy. You dont, do you?"
"No," he said, still in that flat voice.
"Oh, good. I had a hard time finding it. You were right when you
said we were the only two people in the world who liked Miracle on 34th Street. Everybody else I know thinks Its A Wonderful Life is -- "
"You bought me Miracle on 34th Street?" he said, frowning.
"Its the original black-and-white version. I hate those colorized
things, dont you? Everyone has gray teeth."
"Lauren." He held the box out to her so she could read the front.
"I think your friends been fixing things again."
She took the box from him. On the cover was a picture of Jimmy
Stewart and Donna Reed dancing the Charleston.
"Oh, no! That little rat!" she said. "He must have changed it
when he was looking at it. He told, me Its A Wonderful Life was his favorite movie."
"Et tu, Brute?" Fred said, shaking his head.
"Do you suppose he changed all-my other Christmas presents?"
"Wed better check."
"If he has..." she said. She dropped to her knees and started
rummaging through them.
"Do you think they look the same?" Fred asked, squatting down
"Your present looked the same." She grabbed a package wrapped
in red-and-gold paper and began feeling it. "Cassies present
is okay, I think."
"What is it?"
"A stapler. Shes always losing hers. I put her name on it in
Magic Marker." She handed it to him to feel.
"It feels like a stapler, all right," he said.
"I think wed better open it and make sure."
Fred tore off the paper. "Its still a stapler," he said, looking
at it. "What a great idea for a Christmas present! Everybody in
Documentations always losing their staplers. I think PMS steals
them to use on their Christmas decorations." He handed it back
to her. "Now youll have to wrap it again."
"Thats okay," Lauren said. "At least it wasnt a Yanomamo ornament."
"But it might be any minute," Fred said, straightening up. "Theres
no telling what he might take a notion to transform next. I think
youd better call your sister again, and ask her to ask the Maharishi
if he knows how to send spirits back to the astral plane, and Ill go
see what I can find out from the networks."
"Okay," Lauren said, following him to the door. "Dont take the
videotape with you. Maybe I can get him to change it back."
"Maybe," Fred said frowning. "Youre sure he said he was here
to give you your hearts desire?"
"Then why would he change my videotape?" he said thoughtfully.
"Its too bad your sister couldnt have conjured up a nice, straightforward
"Like Santa Claus," Lauren said.
Her sister wasnt home. Lauren tried her off and on all evening,
and when she finally got her, she couldnt talk. "The Maharishi
and I are going to Barbados. Theyre having a harmonic divergence
there on Christmas Eve, so dont worry about getting my present
here by Christmas because I wont be back till the day after New
Years," she said and hung up.
"I dont even have her Christmas present bought yet," Lauren said
to the couch, "and its all your fault."
She went in the kitchen and glared at the tree. "I dont even
dare go shopping because you might turn the couch into a humpbacked
whale while Im gone," she said and then clapped her hand over
She peered cautiously into the living room and then made a careful
circuit of the whole apartment, looking for endangered species.
There were no signs of any, and no sign of the spirit. She went
back into the living room and turned on the TV. Jimmy Stewart
was dancing the Charleston with Donna Reed. She picked up the
remote and hit the channel button. Now he was singing, "Buffalo
Gals, Wont You Come Out Tonight?"
She hit the automatic channel changer. Jimmy Stewart was on every
channel except one. The Ghost of Christmas Present was on that
one, telling Scrooge to change his ways. She watched the rest
of A Christmas Carol. When it reached the part where the Cratchits were sitting down
to their Christmas dinner, she remembered she hadnt had any supper
and went in the kitchen.
The tree was completely blocking the cupboards, but by mightily
pushing several branches aside she was able to get to the refrigerator.
The eggnog was gone. So were the Stouffers frozen entrees. The
only thing in the refrigerator was a half-empty bottle of Evian
She shoved her way out of the kitchen and sat back down on the
couch. Fred had told her to call if anything happened, but it was after
eleven oclock, and she had a feeling the eggnog had been gone
for some time.
A Christmas Carol was over, and the opening credits were starting. "Frank Capras
Its a Wonderful Life. Starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed."
She must have fallen asleep. When she woke up, Miracle on 34th Street was on, and the store manager was giving Edmund Gwenn as Macys
Santa Claus a list of toys he was supposed to push if Macys didnt
have what the children asked Santa for.
"Finally," Lauren said, watching Edmund Gwenn tear the list into
pieces, "something good to watch," and promptly fell asleep. When
she woke up again, John Payne and Maureen OHara were kissing
and someone was knocking on the door.
I dont remember anyone knocking on the door, she thought groggily.
John Payne told Maureen OHara how hed convinced the State of
New York Edmund Gwenn was Santa Claus, and then they both stared
disbelievingly at a cane standing in the corner. "The End" came
on the screen.
The knocking continued.
"Oh," Lauren said, and answered the door.
It was Fred, carrying a McDonalds sack.
"What time is it?" Lauren said, blinking at him.
"Seven oclock. I brought you an Egg McMuffin and some orange
"Oh, you wonderful person!" she said. She grabbed the sack and
took it over to the coffee table. "You dont know what he did."
She reached into the sack and pulled out the sandwich. "He transformed
the food in my refrigerator into Evian water."
He was looking curiously at her "Didnt you go to bed last night?
He didnt come back, did he?"
"No, I waited for him, and I guess I fell asleep." She took a
huge bite of the sandwich.
Fred sat down beside her. "Whats that?" He pointed to a pile
of dollar bills on the coffee table.
"I dont know," Lauren said.
Fred picked up the bills. Under them was a handful of change and
a pink piece of paper. " Returned three boxes Christmas cards
for refund, " Lauren said, reading it. " $22.18. "
"Thats whats here," Fred said, counting the money. "He didnt
turn your Christmas cards into a Douglas fir after all. He took
them back and got a refund."
"Then that means the tree isnt in the kitchen!" she said, jumping
up and running to look. "No, it doesnt." She came back and sat
down on the couch.
"But at least you got your money back," Fred said. "And it fits
in with what I learned from the networks last night. They think
hes a friendly spirit, probably some sort of manifestation of
the seasonal spirit. Apparently these are fairly common, variations
of Santa Claus being the most familiar, but there are other ones,
too. All benign. They think hes probably telling the truth about
wanting to give you your hearts desire."
"Do they know how to get rid of him?" she asked, and took a bite.
"No. Apparently no ones ever wanted to exorcise one." He pulled
a piece of paper out of his pocket. "I got a list of exorcism
books to try, though, and this one guy, Clarence, said the most
important thing in an exorcism is to know exactly what kind of
spirit it is."
"How do we do that?" Lauren asked with her mouth full.
"By their actions, Clarence said. He said appearance doesnt mean
anything because seasonal spirits are frequently in disguise.
He said we need to write down everything the spirits said and
done, so I want you to tell me exactly what he did." He took a
pen and a notebook out of his jacket pocket. "Everything from
the first time you saw him."
"Just a minute." She finished the last bite of sandwich and took
a drink of the orange juice. "Okay. He knocked on the door, and
when I answered it, he told me he was here to give me a Christmas
present, and I told him I wasnt interested, and I shut the door
and started into the bedroom to hang up my dress and -- my dress!"
she gasped and went tearing into the bedroom.
"Whats the matter?" Fred said, following her.
She flung the closet door open and began pushing clothes madly
along the bar. "If hes transformed this -- " She stopped pushing
hangers. "Ill kill him," she said and lifted out a brownish collection
of feathers and dried leaves. "Benign!?" she said. "Do you call
Fred gingerly touched a brown feather. "What was it?"
"A dress," she said. "My beautiful black, off-the-shoulder, drop-dead
"Really?" he said doubtfully. He lifted up some of the brownish
leaves. "I think it still is a dress," he said. "Sort of."
She crumpled the leaves and feathers against her and sank down
on the bed. "All I wanted was to go to the office party!"
"Dont you have anything else you can wear to the office party?
What about that pretty red thing you wore last year?"
She shook her head emphatically. "Scott didnt even notice it!"
"And thats your hearts desire?" Fred said after a moment. "To
have Scott Buckley notice you at the office party?"
"Yes, and he would have, too! It had sequins on it, and it fit
perfectly!" She held out what might have been a sleeve. Greenish-brown
pods dangled from brownish strips of bamboo. "And now hes ruined
She flung the dress on the floor and stood up. "I dont care what
this Clarence person says. He is not benign! And he is not trying
to get me what I want for Christmas. He is trying to ruin my life!"
She saw the expression on Freds face and stopped. "Im sorry,"
she said. "None of this is your fault. Youve been trying to help
"And Ive been doing about as well as your spirit," he said. "Look,
there has to be some way to get rid of him. Or at least get the
dress back. Clarence said he knew some transformation spells.
Ill go on to work and see what I can find out."
He went out into the living room and over to the door. "Maybe
you can go back to the store and see if they have another dress
like it." He opened the door.
"Okay." Lauren nodded. "Im sorry I yelled at you. And you have
been a lot of help."
"Right," he said glumly, and went out.
"Whered you get that dress?" Jimmy Stewart said to Donna Reed.
Lauren whirled around. The TV was on. Donna Reed was showing Jimmy
Stewart her new dress.
"Where are you?" Lauren demanded, looking at the couch. "I want
you to change that dress back right now!"
"Dont you like it?" the spirit said from the bedroom. "Its completely
She stomped into the bedroom. He was putting the dress on the
hanger and making little "tsk"-ing noises. "You have to be careful
with natural fibers," he said reprovingly.
"Change it back the way it was. This instant."
"It was handmade by the Yanomamo Indians," he said, smoothing
down what might be the skirt. "Do you realize that their natural
habitat is being destroyed at the rate of seven hundred and fifty
acres a day?"
"I dont care. I want my dress back."
He carried the dress on its hanger over to the chest. "Its so
interesting. Donna Reed knew right away she was in love with Jimmy
Stewart, but he was so busy thinking about college and his new
suitcase, he didnt even know she existed." He hung up the dress.
"He practically had to be hit over the head."
"Ill hit you over the head if you dont change that dress back
this instant, Spirit," she said, looking around for something
"Call me Chris," he said. "Did you know sequins are made from
nonrenewable resources?" and disappeared as she swung the lamp.
"And good riddance," she shouted to the air.
They had the dress in a size three. Lauren put herself through
the indignity of trying to get into it and then went to work.
The receptionist was watching Jimmy Stewart standing on the bridge
in the snow, and weeping into a Kleenex. She handed Lauren her
There were two memos from the PMS Committee -- they were having
a sleigh ride after work, and she was supposed to bring cheese
puffs to the office party. There wasnt a message from Fred.
"Oh!" the receptionist wailed. "This is so sad!"
"I hate Its a Wonderful Life," Lauren said, and went up to her desk. "I hate Christmas," she
said to Cassie.
"Its normal to hate Christmas," Cassie said, looking up from
the book she was reading. "This book, its called Lets Forget Christmas, says its because everyone has these unrealistic expectations.
When they get presents, they -- "
"Oh, that reminds me," Lauren said. She rummaged in her bag and
brought out Cassies present, fingering it quickly to make sure
it was still a stapler. It seemed to be. She held it out to Cassie.
"I dont have yours wrapped yet," Cassie said. "I dont even have
my wrapping paper bought yet. The book says Im suffering from
an avoidance complex." She picked up the package. "Do I have to
open it now? I know it will be something I love, and you wont
like what I got you half as well, and Ill feel incredibly guilty
"You dont have to open it now," Lauren said. "I just thought
Id better give it to you before -- " She picked her messages
up off her desk and started looking through them. "Before I forgot.
There havent been any messages from Fred, have there?"
"Yeah. He was here about fifteen minutes ago looking for you.
He said to tell you the networks hadnt been any help, and he
was going to try the library." She looked sadly at the present.
"Its even wrapped great," she said gloomily. "I went shopping
for a dress for the office party last night, and do you think
I could find anything off-the-shoulder or with sequins? I couldnt
even find anything Id be caught dead in. Did you know the rate
of stress-related illness at Christmas is seven times higher than
the rest of the year?"
"I can relate to that," Lauren said.
"No, you cant. You didnt end up buying some awful gray thing
with gold chains hanging all over it. At least Scott will notice
me. Hell say, Hi, Cassie, are you dressed as Marleys ghost?
And there youll be, looking fabulous in black sequins -- "
"No, I wont," Lauren said.
"Why? Didnt they hold it for you?"
"It was... defective. Did Fred want to talk to me?"
"I dont know. He was on his way out. He had to pick up his Santa
Claus suit. Oh, my God," her voice dropped to a whisper. "Its
"Hi," Scott said to Lauren. "I was wondering if you could go shopping
with me tonight." Lauren stared at him, so taken aback she couldnt
"When you couldnt go last night, I decided to cancel my date."
"Uh... I..." she said.
"I thought we could buy the presents and then have some dinner."
"Great," Scott said. "Ill come over to your apartment around
"No!" Lauren said. "I mean, why dont we go straight from work?"
"Good idea. Ill come up here and get you." He smiled meltingly
"I think Ill kill myself," Cassie said. "Did you know the rate
of suicides at Christmas is four times higher than the rest of
the year? He is so cute," she said, looking longingly down the
hall after him. "Theres Fred."
Lauren looked up. Fred was coming toward her desk with a Santa
Claus costume and a stack of books. Lauren hurried across to him.
"This is everything the library had on exorcisms and the occult,"
Fred said, transferring half of the books to her arms. "I thought
we could both go through them today, and then get together tonight
and compare notes."
"Oh, I cant," Lauren said. "I promised Scott Id help him pick
out the presents for the office party tonight. Im sorry. I could
tell him I cant."
"Your hearts desire? Are you kidding?" He started awkwardly piling
the books back on his load. "You go shopping. Ill go through
the books and let you know if I come up with anything."
"Are you sure?" she said guiltily. "I mean, you shouldnt have
to do all the work."
"Its my pleasure," he said. He started to walk away and then
stopped. "You didnt tell the spirit Scott was your hearts desire,
"Of course not. Why?"
"I was just wondering... nothing. Never mind." He walked off down
the hall. Lauren went back to her desk.
"Did you know the rate of depression at Christmas is sixteen times
higher than the rest of the year?" Cassie said. She handed Lauren
"Its from your Secret Santa."
Lauren opened it. It was a large book entitled, Its a Wonderful Life The Photo Album. On the cover, Jimmy Stewart was looking depressed.
"I figure itll take a half hour or so to pick out the presents,"
Scott said, leading her past two inflatable palm trees into The
Upscale oasis. "And then we can have some supper and get acquainted."
He lay down on a massage couch. "What do you think about this?"
"How many presents do we have to buy?" Lauren asked, looking around
the store. There were a lot of inflatable palm trees, and a jukebox,
and several life-size cardboard cutouts of Malcolm Forbes and
Leona Helmsley. Against the far wall were two high-rise aquariums
and a bank of televisions with neon-outlined screens.
"Seventy-two." He got up off the massage couch, handed her the
list of employees and went over to a display of brown boxes tied
with twine. "What about these? Theyre handmade Yanomamo Christmas
"No," Lauren said. "How much money do we have to spend.?"
"The PMS Committee budgeted six thousand, and there was five hundred
left in the Sunshine fund. We can spend..." He picked up a pocket
calculator in the shape of Donald Trump and punched several buttons.
"Ninety dollars per person, including tax. How about pet costume
jewelry?" He held up a pair of rhinestone earrings for German
"We got those last year," Lauren said. She picked up a digital
umbrella and put it back down.
"How about a car fax?" Scott said. "No, wait. This, this is it!"
Lauren turned around. Scott was holding up what looked like a
gold cordless phone. "Its an investment pager," he said, punching
keys. "See, it gives you the Dow Jones, treasury bonds, interest
rates. Isnt it perfect?"
"Well," Lauren said.
"See, this is the hostile takeover alarm, and every time the Federal
Reserve adjusts the interest rate it beeps."
Lauren read the tag. " Portable Plutocrat. $74.99. "
"Great," Scott said. "Well have money left over."
"To invest," Lauren said.
He went off to see if they had seventy-two of them, and Lauren
wandered over to the bank of televisions.
There was a videotape of Miracle on 34th Street lying on top of the VCR/shower massage. Lauren looked around to
see if anyone was watching and then popped the Wonderful Life tape out and stuck in Miracle.
A dozen Edmund Gwenns dressed as Macys Santa Claus appeared on
the screens, listening to twelve store managers tell them which
overstocked toys to push.
Scott came over, lugging four shopping bags. "They come gift wrapped,"
he said happily, showing her a Portable Plutocrat wrapped in green
paper with gold dollar signs. "Which gives us a free evening."
"Thats what Ive been fighting against for years," a dozen Edmund
Gwenns said, tearing a dozen lists to bits, "the way they commercialize
"What I thought," Scott said when they got in the car, "was that
instead of going out for supper, wed take these over to your
apartment and order in."
"Order in?" Lauren said, clutching the bag of Portable Plutocrats
on her lap to her.
"I know a great Italian place that delivers. Angel hair pasta,
wine, everything. Or, if youd rather, we could run by the grocery
store and pick up some stuff to cook."
"Actually, my kitchens kind of a mess," she said. There is a
Christmas tree in it, she thought, with organic byproducts hanging
He pulled up outside her apartment building. "Then Italian it
is." He got out of the car and began unloading shopping bags.
"You like prosciutto? They have a great melon and prosciutto."
"Actually, the whole apartments kind of a disaster," Lauren said,
following him up the stairs. "You know, wrapping presents and
everything. There are ribbons and tags and paper all over the
floor -- "
"Great," he said, stopping in front of her door. "We have to put
tags on the presents, anyway."
"They dont need tags, do they?" Lauren said desperately. "I mean,
theyre all exactly alike."
"It personalizes them," he said, "it shows the gift was chosen
especially for them." He looked expectantly at the key in her
hand and then at the door.
She couldnt hear the TV, which was a good sign. And every time
Fred had come over, the spirit had disappeared. So all I have
to do is keep him out of the kitchen, she thought.
She opened the door and Scott pushed past her and dumped the shopping
bags on the coffee table. "Sorry," he said. "Those were really
heavy." He straightened up and looked around the living room.
There was no sign of the Spirit, but there were three Evian water
bottles on the coffee table. "This doesnt look too messy. You
should see my apartment. Ill bet your kitchens neater than mine,
Lauren walked swiftly over to the kitchen and pulled the door
shut. "I wouldnt bet on it. Arent there still some more presents
to bring up?"
"Yeah. Ill go get them. Shall I call the Italian place first?"
"No," Lauren said, standing with her back against the kitchen
door. "Why dont you bring the bags up first?"
"Okay," he said, smiling meltingly, and went out.
Lauren leaped to the door, put the deadbolt and the chain on,
and then ran back to the kitchen and opened the door. The tree
was still there. She pulled the door hastily to and walked rapidly
into the bedroom. He wasnt there, or in the bathroom. "Thank
you," she breathed, looking heavenward, and went back in the living
The TV was on. Edmund Gwenn was shouting at the store psychologist.
"You know, you were right," the spirit said. He was stretched
out on the couch, wearing a "Save the Black-Footed Ferret" T-shirt
and jeans. "Its not a bad movie. Of course, its not as good
as Its a Wonderful Life, but I like the way everything works out at the end."
"What are you doing here?" she demanded, glancing anxiously at
"Watching Miracle on 34th Street," he said, pointing at the screen. Edmund Gwenn was brandishing
his cane at the store psychiatrist. "I like the part where Edmund
Gwenn asks Natalie Wood what she wants for Christmas, and she
shows him the picture of the house."
Lauren picked up Freds video and brandished it at him. "Fine.
Then you can change Freds video back."
"Okay," he said and did something. She looked at Freds video.
It showed Edmund Gwenn hugging Natalie Wood in front of a yellow
moon with Santa Clauss sleigh and reindeer flying across it.
Lauren put the video hastily down on the coffee table.
"Thank you," she said. "And my dress."
"Natalie Wood doesnt really want a house, of course. What she
really wants is for Maureen OHara to marry John Payne. The house
is just a symbol for what she really wants."
On the TV Edmund Gwenn rapped the store psychologist smartly on
the forehead with his cane.
There was a knock on the door. "Its me," Scott said.
"I also like the part where Edmund Gwenn yells at the store manager
for pushing merchandise nobody wants. Christmas presents should
be something the person wants. Arent you going to answer the
"Arent you going to disappear?" she whispered.
"Disappear?" he said incredulously. "The movie isnt over. And
besides, I still havent gotten you what you want for Christmas."
He did something, and a bowl of trail mix appeared on his stomach.
Scott knocked again.
Lauren went over to the door and opened it two inches.
"Its me," Scott said. "Why do you have the chain on?"
"I..." She looked hopefully at Chris. He was eating trail mix
and watching Maureen OHara bending over the store psychologist,
trying to wake him up.
"Scott, Im sorry, but I think Id better take a rain check on
He looked bewildered. And cute. "But I thought..." he said.
So did I, she thought. But I have a spirit on my couch whos perfectly
capable of turning you into a Yanomamo by-product.
"The Italian take-out sounds great," she said, "but its kind
of late, and weve both got to go to work tomorrow."
"Uh... I meant go to work on wrapping presents. Tomorrows Christmas
Eve, and I havent even started my wrapping. And I have to make
cheese puffs for the office party and wash my hair and..."
"Okay, okay, I get the message," he said. "Ill just bring in
the presents and then leave."
She thought of telling him to leave them in the hall, and then
closed the door a little and took the chain off the door.
Go away! she thought at the spirit, who was eating trail mix.
She opened the door far enough so she could slide out, and pulled
it to behind her. "Thanks for a great evening," she said, taking
the shopping bags from Scott. "Good night."
"Good night," he said, still looking bewildered. He started down
the hall. At the stairs he turned and smiled meltingly.
Im going to kill him, Lauren thought, waving back, and took the
shopping bags inside.
The spirit wasnt there. The trail mix was still on the couch,
and the TV was still on.
"Come back here!" she shouted. "You little rat! You have ruined
my dress and my date, and youre not going to ruin anything else!
Youre going to change back my dress and my Christmas cards, and
you are going to get that tree out of my kitchen right now!"
Her voice hung in the air. She sat down on the couch, still holding
the shopping bags. On the TV, Edmund Gwenn was sitting in Bellevue,
staring at the wall.
"At least Scott finally noticed me," she said, and set the shopping
bags down on the coffee table. They rattled.
"Oh, no!" she said. "Not the plutocrats!"
"The problem is," Fred said, closing the last of the books on
the occult, "that we cant exorcise him if we dont know which
seasonal spirit he is, and he doesnt fit the profiles of any
of these. He must be in disguise."
"I dont want to exorcise him," Lauren said. "I want to kill him."
"Even if we did manage to exorcise him, thered be no guarantee
that the things hes changed would go back to their original state."
"And Id be stuck with explaining what happened to six thousand
dollars worth of Christmas presents."
"Those portable plutocrats cost six thousand dollars?"
Fred gave a low whistle. "Did your spirit say why he didnt like
them? Other than the obvious, I mean. That they were nonbiodegradable
"No. He didnt even notice them. He was watching Miracle on 34th Street, and he was talking about how he liked the way things worked out
at the end and the part about the house."
"Nothing about Christmas presents?"
"I dont remember." She sank down on the couch. "Yes, I do. He
said he liked the part where Edmund Gwenn yelled at the store
manager for talking people into buying things they didnt want.
He said Christmas presents should be something the person wanted."
"Well, that explains why he transformed the plutocrats then,"
Fred said. "It probably also means theres no way you can talk
him into changing them back. And Ive got to have something to
pass out at the office party, or youll be in trouble. So well
just have to come up with replacement presents."
"Replacement presents?" Lauren said. "How? Its ten oclock, the
office partys tomorrow night, and how do we know he wont transform
the replacement presents once weve got them?"
"Well buy people what they want. Was six thousand all the money
you and Scott had?"
"No," Lauren said, rummaging through one of the shopping bags.
"PMS budgeted sixty-five hundred."
"How much have you got left?"
She pulled out a sheaf of papers. "He didnt transform the purchase
orders or the receipt," she said, looking at them. "The investment
pagers cost $5895.36. We have $604.64 left." She handed him the
papers. "Thats eight dollars and thirty-nine cents apiece."
He looked at the receipt speculatively and then into the shopping
bag. "I dont suppose we could take these back and get a refund
from the Upscale Oasis?"
"Theyre not going to give us $5895.36 for seventy-two Save the
Ozone Layer buttons," Lauren said. "And theres nothing we can
buy for eight dollars that will convince PMS it cost sixty-five
hundred. And where am I going to get the money to pay back the
"I dont think youll have to. Remember when the spirit changed
your Christmas cards into the tree? He didnt really. He returned
them somehow to the store and got a refund. Maybe hes done the
same thing with the Plutocrats and the money will turn up on your
coffee table tomorrow morning."
"And if it doesnt?"
"Well worry about that tomorrow. Right now weve got to come
up with presents to pass out at the party."
"Like the one you got Cassie. Everybody in my departments always
losing their staplers, too. And their tape dispensers. Its an
office party. Well buy everybody something they want for the
"But how will we know what that is? There are seventy-two people
on this list."
"Well call the department heads and ask them, and then well
go shopping." He stood up. "Wheres your phone book?"
"Next to the tree." She followed him into the kitchen. "How are
we going to go shopping? Its ten oclock at night."
"Bizmarts open till eleven," he said, opening the phone book,
"and the grocery stores open all night. Well get as many of
the presents as we can tonight and the rest tomorrow morning,
and that still gives us all afternoon to get them wrapped. How
much wrapping paper do you have?"
"Lots. I bought it half-price last year when I decided this Christmas
was going to be different. A stapler doesnt seem like much of
"It does if its what you wanted." He reached for the phone.
It rang. Fred picked up the receiver and handed it to Lauren.
"Oh, Lauren," Cassies voice said. "I just opened your present,
and I love it! Its exactly what I wanted!"
"Really?" Lauren said.
"Its perfect! I was so depressed about Christmas and the office
party and still not having my shopping done. I wasnt even going
to open it, but in Lets Forget Christmas it said you should open your presents early so they wouldnt ruin
Christmas morning, and I did, and its wonderful! I dont even
care whether Scott notices me or not! Thank you!"
"Youre welcome," Lauren said, but Cassie had already hung up.
She looked at Fred. "That was Cassie. You were right about people
liking staplers." She handed him the phone. "You call the department
heads. Ill get my coat."
He took the phone and began to punch in numbers, and then put
it down. "What exactly did the spirit say about the ending of
Miracle on 34th Street?"
"He said he liked the way everything worked out at the end. Why?"
He looked thoughtful. "Maybe were going about this all wrong."
"What do you mean?"
"What if the spirit really does want to give you your hearts
desire, and all this transforming stuff is some roundabout way
of doing it? Like the angel in Its a Wonderful Life. Hes supposed to save Jimmy Stewart from committing suicide, and
instead of doing something logical, like talking him out of it
or grabbing him, he jumps in the river so Jimmy Stewart has to
"Youre saying he turned seventy-two Portable Plutocrats into
Save the Ozone Layer buttons to help me?"
"I dont know. All Im saying is that maybe you should tell him
you want to go to the office party in a black sequined dress with
Scott Buckley and see what happens."
"See what happens? After what he did to my dress? If he knew I
wanted Scott, hed probably turn him into a Brazilian rainforest
by-product." She put on her coat. "Well, are we going to call
the department heads or not?"
The Graphic Design department wanted staplers, and so did Accounts
Payable. Accounts Receivable, which was having an outbreak of
stress-related Christmas colds, wanted Puffs Plus and cough drops.
Document Control wanted scissors.
Fred looked at the list, checking off Systems and the other departments
theyd called. "All weve got left is the PMS Committee," he said.
"I know what to get them," Lauren said. "Copies of Lets Forget Christmas."
They got some of the things before Bizmart closed, and Fred was
back at nine Saturday morning to do the rest of it. At the bookstore
they ran into the woman who had been stapling presents together
the day Lauren enlisted Freds help.
"I completely forgot my husbands first wife," she said, looking
desperate, "and I dont have any idea of what to get her."
Fred handed her the videotape of Its a Wonderful Life they were giving the receptionist. "How about one of these?" he
"Do you think shell like it?"
"Everybody likes it," Fred said.
"Especially the part where the bad guy steals the money, and Jimmy
Stewart races around town trying to replace it," Lauren said.
It took them most of the morning to get the rest of the presents
and forever to wrap them. By four they werent even half done.
"Whats next?" Fred asked, tying the bow on the last of the staplers.
He stood up and stretched."
"Cough drops," Lauren said, cutting a length of red paper with
Santa Clauses on it.
He sat back down. "Ah, yes. Accounts Receivables hearts desire."
"Whats your hearts desire?" Lauren asked, folding the paper
over the top of the cough drops and taping it. "What would you
ask for if the spirit inflicted himself on you?"
Fred unreeled a length of ribbon. "Well, not to go to an office
party, thats for sure. The only year I even had a remotely good
time was last year, talking to you."
"Im serious," Lauren said. She taped the sides and handed the
package to Fred. "What do you really want for Christmas?"
"When I was eight, I asked for a computer for Christmas. Home
computers were new then and they were pretty expensive, and I
wasnt sure Id get it. I was a lot like Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street. I didnt believe in Santa Claus, and I didnt believe in miracles,
but I really wanted it."
He cut off the length of ribbon, wrapped it around the package,
and tied it in a knot.
"Did you get the computer?"
"No," he said, cutting off shorter lengths of ribbon. "Christmas
morning I came downstairs, and there was a note telling me to
look in the garage." He opened the scissors and pulled the ribbon
across the blade, making it curl. "It was a puppy. The thing was,
a computer was too expensive, but there was an outside chance
Id get it, or I wouldnt have asked for it. Kids dont ask for
stuff they know is impossible."
"And you hadnt asked for a puppy because you knew you couldnt
"No, you dont understand. There are things you dont ask for
because you know you cant have them, and then there are things
so far outside the realm of possibility, it would never even occur
to you to want them." He made the curled ribbon into a bow and
fastened it to the package.
"So what youre saying is your hearts desire is something so
far outside the realm of possibility you dont even know what
"I didnt say that," he said. He stood up again. "Do you want
"Yes, thanks. If its still there."
He went in the kitchen. She could hear forest-thrashing noises
and the refrigerator opening. "Its still here," he said.
"Its funny Chris hasnt been back," she called to Fred. "I keep
worrying he must be up to something."
"Chris?" Fred said. He came back into the living room with two
glasses of eggnog.
"The spirit. He told me to call him that," she said. "Its short
for Spirit of Christmas Present." Fred was frowning. "Whats wrong?"
"I wonder... nothing. Never mind." He went over to the TV. "I
dont suppose Miracle on 34th Streets on TV this afternoon?"
"No, but I made him change your video back." She pointed. "Its
there, on top of the TV."
He turned on the TV, inserted the video, and hit play. He came
and sat down beside Lauren. She handed him the wrapped box of
cough drops, but he didnt take it. He was watching the TV. Lauren
looked up. On the screen, Jimmy Stewart was walking past Donna
Reeds house, racketing a stick along the picket fence.
"That isnt Miracle," Lauren said. "He told me he changed it back." She snatched up
the box. It still showed Edmund Gwenn hugging Natalie Wood. "That
little sneak! He only changed the box!"
She glared at the TV. On the screen Jimmy Stewart was glaring
at Donna Reed.
"Its all right," Fred said, taking the package and reaching for
the ribbon. "Its not a bad movie. The endings too sentimental,
and it doesnt really make sense. I mean, one minute everythings
hopeless, and Jimmy Stewarts ready to kill himself, and then
the angel convinces him he had a wonderful life, and suddenly
everythings okay." He looked around the table, patting the spread-out
wrapping paper. "But it has its moments. Have you seen the scissors?"
Lauren handed him one of the pairs theyd bought. "Well wrap
On the TV Jimmy was sitting in Donna Reeds living room, looking
awkward. "What I have trouble with is Jimmy Stewarts being so
self-sacrificing," she said, cutting a length of red paper with
Santa Clauses on it. "I mean, he gives up college so his brother
can go, and then when his brother has a chance at a good job,
he gives up college again. He even gives up committing suicide to save Clarence. Theres
such a thing as being too self-sacrificing, you know."
"Maybe he gives up things because he thinks he doesnt deserve
"Why wouldnt he?"
"Hes never gone to college, hes poor, hes deaf in one ear.
Sometimes when people are handicapped or overweight they just
assume they cant have the things other people have."
The telephone rang. Lauren reached for it and then realized it
was on TV.
"Oh, hello, Sam," Donna Reed said, looking at Jimmy Stewart.
"Can you help me with this ribbon?" Fred said.
"Sure," Lauren said. She scooted closer to him and put her finger
on the crossed ribbon to hold it taut.
Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed were standing very close together,
listening to the telephone. The voice on the phone was saying
something about soybeans.
Fred still hadnt tied the knot. Lauren glanced at him. He was
looking at the TV, too.
Jimmy Stewart was looking at Donna Reed, his face nearly touching
her hair. Donna Reed looked at him and then away. The voice from
the phone was saying something about the chance of a lifetime,
but it was obvious neither of them were hearing a word. Donna
Reed looked up at him. His lips almost touched her forehead. They
didnt seem to be breathing.
Lauren realized she wasnt either. She looked at Fred. He was
holding the two ends of ribbon, one in each hand, and looking
down at her.
"The knot," she said. "You havent tied it."
"Oh," he said. "Sorry."
Jimmy Stewart dropped the phone with a clatter and grabbed Donna
Reed by both arms. He began shaking her, yelling at her, and then
suddenly she was wrapped in his arms, and he was smothering her
"The knot," Fred said. "You have to pull your finger out."
She looked blankly at him and then down at the package. He had
tied the knot over her finger, which was still pressing against
the wrapping paper.
"Oh. Sorry," she said, and pulled her finger free. "You were right.
It does have its moments."
He yanked the knot tight. "Yeah," he said. He reached for the
spool of ribbon and began chopping off lengths for the bow. On
the screen Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart were being pelted with
"No. You were right," he said. "He is too self-sacrificing." He
waved the scissors at the screen. "In a minute hes going to give
up his honeymoon to save the building and loan. Its a wonder
he ever asked Donna Reed to marry him. Its a wonder he didnt
try to fix her up with that guy on the phone."
The phone rang. Lauren looked at the screen, thinking it must
be in the movie, but Jimmy Stewart was kissing Donna Reed in a
"Its the phone," Fred said.
Lauren scrambled up and reached for it.
"Hi," Scott said.
"Oh, hello, Scott," Lauren said, looking at Fred.
"I was wondering about the office party tonight," Scott said.
"Would you like to go with me? I could come get you and we could
take the presents over together."
"Uh... I..." Lauren said. She put her hand over the receiver.
"Its Scott. What am I going to tell him about the presents?"
Fred motioned her to give him the phone. "Scott," he said. "Hi.
Its Fred Hatch. Yeah, Santa Claus. Listen, we ran into a problem
with the presents."
Lauren closed her eyes.
"We got a call from the Upscale Oasis that investment pagers were
being recalled by the Federal Safety Commission."
Lauren opened her eyes. Fred smiled at her. "Yeah. For excessive
"But theres nothing to worry about," Fred said. "We replaced
them. Were wrapping them right now. No, it was no trouble. I
was happy to help. Yeah, Ill tell her." He hung up. "Scott will
be here to take you to the office party at seven-thirty," he said.
"It looks like youre going to get your hearts desire after all."
"Yeah," Lauren said, looking at the TV. On the screen, the building
and loan was going under.
They finished wrapping the pair of scissors at six-thirty, and
Fred went back to his apartment to change clothes and get his
Santa Claus costume. Lauren packed the presents in three of the
Upscale Oasis shopping bags, said sternly, "Dont you dare touch
these," to the empty couch, and went to get ready.
She showered and did her hair, and then went into the bedroom
to see if the spirit had biodegraded her red dress, or, by some
miracle, brought the black off-the-shoulder one back. He hadnt.
She put on the red dress and went back in the living room. It
was only a little after seven. She turned on the TV and put Freds
video in the VCR. She hit play. Edmund Gwenn was giving the doctor
the X-ray machine hed always wanted.
Lauren picked up one of the shopping bags and felt the top pair
of scissors to make sure they werent Yanomamo ornaments. There
was an envelope stuck between two of the packages. Inside was
a check for $5895.36. It was made out to the Childrens Hospital
She shook her head, smiling, and put the check back in the envelope.
On TV Maureen OHara and John Payne were watching Natalie Wood
run through an empty house and out the back door to look for her
swing. They looked seriously at each other. Lauren held her breath.
John Payne moved forward and kissed Maureen OHara.
Someone knocked on the door. "Thats Scott," Lauren said to John
Payne, and waited till Maureen OHara had finished telling him
she loved him before she went to open the door.
It was Fred, carrying a foil-covered plate. He was wearing the
same sweater and pants hed worn to wrap the presents. "Cheese
puffs," he said. "I figured you couldnt get to your stove." He
looked seriously at her. "I wouldnt worry about not having your
black dress to dazzle Scott with."
He went over and set the cheese puffs on the coffee table. "You
need to take the foil off and heat them in a microwave for two
minutes on high. Tell PMS to put the presents in Santas bag,
and Ill be there at eleven-thirty."
"Arent you going to the party?"
"Office parties are your idea of fun, not mine," he said. "Besides,
Miracle on 34th Streets on at eight. It may be the only chance I have to watch it."
"But I wanted you."
There was a knock on the door. "Thats Scott," Lauren said.
"Well," Fred said, "if the spirit doesnt do something in the
next fifteen seconds, youll have your hearts desire in spite
of him." He opened the door. "Come on in," he said. "Lauren and
the presents are all ready." He handed two of the shopping bags
"I really appreciate your helping Lauren and me with all this,"
Fred handed the other shopping bag to Lauren. "It was my pleasure."
"I wish you were coming with us," she said.
"And give up a chance of seeing the real Santa Claus?" He held
the door open. "You two had better get going before something
"What do you mean?" Scott said, alarmed. "Do you think these presents
might be recalled, too?"
Lauren looked hopefully at the couch and then the TV. On the screen
Jimmy Stewart was standing on the bridge in the snow, getting
ready to kill himself.
"Afraid not," Fred said.
It was snowing by the time they pulled into the parking lot at
work. "It was really selfless of Fred to help you wrap all those
presents," Scott said, holding the lobby door open for Lauren.
"Hes a nice guy."
"Yes," Lauren said. "He is."
"Hey, look at that!" Scott said. He pointed at the security monitor.
"Its a Wonderful Life. My favorite movie!"
On the monitor Jimmy Stewart was running through the snow, shouting,
"Scott," Lauren said, "I cant go to the party with you."
"Just a minute, okay?" Scott said, staring at the screen. "This
is my favorite part." He set the shopping bags down on the receptionists
desk and leaned his elbows on it. "This is the part where Jimmy
Stewart finds out what a wonderful life hes had."
"You have to take me home," Lauren said.
There was a gust of cold air and snow. Lauren turned around.
"You forgot your cheese puffs," Fred said, holding out the foil-covered
plate to Lauren.
"Theres such a thing as being too self-sacrificing, you know,"
He held the plate out to her. "Thats what the spirit said."
"He came back?" She shot a glance at the shopping bags.
"Yeah. Right after you left. Dont worry about the presents. He
said he thought the staplers were a great idea. He also said not
to worry about getting a Christmas present for your sister."
"My sister!" Lauren said, clapping her hand to her mouth. "I completely
forgot about her."
"He said since you didnt like it, he sent her the Yanomamo dress."
"Shell love it," Lauren said.
"He also said it was a wonder Jimmy Stewart ever got Donna Reed,
he was so busy giving everybody else what they wanted," he said,
looking seriously at her.
"Hes right," Lauren said. "Did he also tell you Jimmy Stewart
was incredibly stupid for wanting to go off to college when Donna
Reed was right there in front of him?"
"He mentioned it."
"What a great movie!" Scott said, turning to Lauren. "Ready to
"No," Lauren said. "Im going with Fred to see a movie." She took
the cheese puffs from Fred and handed them to Scott.
"What am I supposed to do with these?"
"Take the foil off," Fred said, "and put them in a microwave for
"But youre my date," Scott said. "Who am I supposed to go with?"
There was a gust of cold air and snow. Everyone turned around.
"How do I look?" Cassie said, taking off her coat.
"Wow!" Scott said. "You look terrific!"
Cassie spun around, her shoulders bare, the sequins glittering
on her black dress. "Lauren gave it to me for Christmas," she
said happily. "I love Christmas, dont you?"
"I love that dress," Scott said.
"He also told me," Fred said, "that his favorite thing in Miracle on 34th Street was Santa Clauss being in disguise."
"He wasnt in disguise," Lauren said. "Edmund Gwenn told everybody
he was Santa Claus."
Fred held up a correcting finger. "He told everyone his name was
"Chris," Lauren said.
"Oh, I love this part," Cassie said.
Lauren looked at her. She was standing next to Scott, watching
Jimmy Stewart standing next to Donna Reed and singing "Auld Lang
"He makes all sorts of trouble for everyone," Fred said. "He turns
Christmas upside down -- "
"Completely disrupts Maureen OHaras life," Lauren said.
"But by the end, everythings worked out, the doctor has his X-ray
machine, Natalie Wood has her house -- "
"Maureen OHara has Fred -- "
"And no ones quite sure how he did it, or if he did anything."
"Or if he had the whole thing planned from the beginning." She
looked seriously at Fred. "He told me I only thought I knew what
I wanted for Christmas."
Fred moved toward her. "He told me just because something seems
impossible doesnt mean a miracle cant happen."
"What a great ending!" Cassie said, sniffling. "Its a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie."
"Mine, too," Scott said. "Do you know how to heat up cheese puffs?"
He turned to Lauren and Fred. "Cut that out, you two, well be
late for the party."
"Were not going," Fred said, taking Laurens arm. They started
for the door. "Miracles on at eight."
"But you cant leave," Scott said. "What about all these presents?
Whos going to pass them out?"
There was a gust of cold air and snow. "Ho ho ho," Santa Claus
"Isnt that your costume, Fred?" Lauren said.
"Yes. It has to be back at the rental place by Monday morning,"
he said to Santa Claus. "And no changing it into rainforest by-products."
"Merry Christmas!" Santa Claus said.
"I like the way things worked out at the end," Lauren said.
"All we need is a cane standing in the corner," Fred said.
"I have no idea what youre talking about," Santa Claus said.
"Where are all these presents Im supposed to pass out?"
"Right here," Scott said. He handed one of the shopping bags to
"Plastic shopping bags," Santa Claus said, making a "tsk"-ing
sound. "You should be using recycled paper."
"Sorry," Scott said. He handed the cheese puffs to Cassie and
picked up the other two shopping bags. "Ready, Cassie?"
"We cant go yet," Cassie said, gazing at the security monitor.
"Look, Its a Wonderful Life is just starting." On the screen Jimmy Stewarts brother was falling
through the ice. "This is my favorite part," she said.
"Mine, too," Scott said, and went over to stand next to her.
Santa Claus squinted curiously at the monitor for a moment and
then shook his head. "Miracle on 34th Streets a much better movie, you know," he said reprovingly. "More realistic."