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Connie Willis: Miracle

illo for Jack FaustThe author admits that while Miracle on 34th Street is her favorite Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life does have its moments. The following tale is a delightful homage to both. Ms. Willis’s last December story, "Cibola," is now a finalist for the Hugo Award.
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 Personnel Morale Special Committee had cable piped in for Christmas," the receptionist explained, handing Lauren her messages. "I love It’s a Wonderful Life, don’t 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 Lauren’s desk.

"The Personnel Morale Special Committee did it," Cassie said, coming over with the catalogue she’d been reading. "They’re decorating the whole building, and they want us and Document Control to go caroling this afternoon. Don’t 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. "I’ve lost mine again. I’m 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 Lauren’s shopping bag. "Do you have Christmas presents in there? I hate people who have their shopping done four weeks before Christmas."

"It’s four days till Christmas," Lauren said, "and I don’t have it all done. I still don’t have anything for my sister. But I’ve 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. "I’m going to try it on during my lunch hour.?’

"If it’s 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. "It’s gorgeous. Black off-the-shoulder. Sequined."

"Still trying to get Scott Buckley to notice you, huh? I don’t do things like that any more. Nineties women don’t 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 Lauren’s desk and started leafing through the catalogue. "Here’s something your sister might like. The Vegetable of the Month. February’s okra."

"She lives in southern California," Lauren said, shoving her boots under the desk.

"Oh. How about the Sunscreen of the Month?"

"No," Lauren said. "She’s 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 -- "

"I’d like to get her something she’d 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 wasn’t 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 -- "

"You’re disgusting," Cassie said. "Oh, here, I almost forgot." She pulled a folded slip of paper out of her catalogue and handed it to Lauren. "It’s your name for the Secret Santa gift exchange. PMS says you’re supposed to bring your present for it by Friday so it won’t interfere with the presents Santa Claus hands out at the office party."

Lauren unfolded the paper, and Cassie leaned over to read it. "Who’d you get? Wait, don’t 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 Month?"

"This is supposed to be the season of love and charity, not the season when you make mean remarks about someone just because he’s overweight," Lauren said sternly. "I’m going to get him a videotape of Miracle on 34th Street."

Cassie looked uncomprehending.

"It’s Fred’s favorite movie. We had a wonderful talk about it at the office party last year."

"I never heard of it."

"It’s about Macy’s Santa Claus. He starts telling people they can get their kids’ toys cheaper at Gimbel’s, and then the store psychiatrist decides he’s crazy -- "

"Why don’t you get him It’s a Wonderful Life? That’s my favorite Christmas movie."

"Yours and everybody else’s. I think Fred and I are the only two people in the world who like Miracle on 34th Street better. See, Edmund Gwenn, he’s Santa Claus, gets committed to Bellevue because he thinks he’s Santa Claus, and since there isn’t any Santa Claus, he has to be crazy, but he is Santa Claus, and Fred Gailey, that’s John Payne, he’s a lawyer in the movie, he decides to have a court hearing to prove it, and -- "

"I watch It’s 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 couldn’t find a hanging bag for it.

"Just put it in a shopping bag," Lauren said, looking anxiously at her watch.

"It’ll 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 she’d have time to look for a present for her sister, but there wasn’t going to be time. She still had to run the dress home and mail the Christmas cards.

I can pick up Fred’s video, she thought, fighting her way onto the escalator. That wouldn’t take much time since she knew what she wanted, and maybe they’d 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 couldn’t find.

"Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have It’s a Wonderful Life?" she asked Lauren. "It’s 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 It’s a Wonderful Life off a huge display. "See, Jimmy Stewart’s in trouble and he wishes he’d never been born, and this angel grants him his wish -- "

"I know," Lauren said. "I don’t care. I want Miracle on 34th Street."

"Okay!" the clerk said, and wandered off to look for it, muttering, "Some people don’t have any Christmas spirit."

She finally found it, in the M’s 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 bedroom.

Someone knocked on the door.

"I don’t 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.

"I’m here to give you a Christmas present," he said.

"Thank you, I’m not interested in whatever you’re selling," she said, and shut the door.

He knocked again immediately. "I’m not selling anything," he said through the door. "Really."

I don’t have time for this, she thought, but she opened the door again.

"I’m not a salesguy," he said. "Have you ever heard of the Maharishi Ram Dras?"

A religious nut.

"I don’t have time to talk to you." She started to say, "I’m late for work," and then remembered you weren’t supposed to tell strangers your apartment was going to be empty. "I’m 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 she’d 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.

"I’m 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 for Christmas."

"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, I’m 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 guard’s room wrapped in a blanket. "Oh, wow! It’s A Wonderful Life."

My sister sent you, Lauren thought. It explained everything. He was not a Moonie or a serial killer. He was this year’s 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 he’s dead."

"I’m not dead, am I?"

"No. I’m not an angel. I’m 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 heart’s desire. So what i9 it?"

For my sister not to send me any more presents, she thought. "Look I’m really in a hurry right now. Why don’t you come back tomorrow and we can talk about it then?"

"I hope it’s not a fur coat," he said as if he hadn’t heard her. "I’m opposed to the killing of endangered species." He picked up Fred’s present. "What’s this?"

"It’s a videotape of Miracle on 34th Street. I really have to go."

"Who’s it for?"

"Fred Hatch. I’m his Secret Santa."

"Fred Hatch." He turned the package over. "You had it gift-wrapped at the store, didn’t 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 hadn’t gotten his wings yet.

"I have to go. I’m 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 he’d 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.

"Don’t -- " Lauren said.

"Printed Christmas cards," he said. "No letter, no quick note, not even a handwritten signature. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. An endangered species."

"I didn’t have time," Lauren said defensively. "And I don’t have time to discuss this or anything else with you. I have to get to work."

"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 wasn’t there anymore.

He didn’t vanish like in the movies, or fade out slowly. He simply wasn’t there.

" -- work," Lauren said. She went and looked in the living room. The TV was still on, but he wasn’t there, or in the bedroom. She went in the bathroom and pulled the shower curtain back, but he wasn’t 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 wasn’t there. Neither were her Christmas cards, exactly.

"You! Spirit!" she shouted. "You come back here, this minute!"

"You’re 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. "Didn’t they hold the dress?"

"Do you know anything about magic?" Lauren said.

"What happened?"

"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 send you?"

Lauren started down the hall to Documentation at a half-run.

"I told Scott you’d 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 don’t 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. Doesn’t anyone have any tape? I’m 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 stood up.

"I need to talk to you," she said. "Is there somewhere we can talk privately?"

"Right here," Fred said. "My assistant’s 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 me about?"

"Cassie said you’re 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 Santa Claus."

He smiled and patted his stomach. "I’m the right shape for the part, and I don’t 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. "What’s 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 he’s the Spirit of Christmas Present, as in Gift, not Here and Now."

"And you’re sure he’s not a person? I mean, tricks can sometimes really look like magic."

"There’s a Christmas tree in my kitchen," she said.

"Christmas tree?" he said warily.

"Yes. The spirit was upset because my Christmas cards weren’t 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 there’s no way he could have gotten into your apartment earlier and put it there?"

"It’s growing out of the floor. Besides, it wasn’t there when we were in the kitchen five minutes before. See, he was watching It’s 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 I’m crazy. I think I’m 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 one?"

The woman with the wrapping paper rolls peered over the cubicle wall.

"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 I’m having a nervous breakdown?"

"That depends," he said.

"On what?"

"On whether there’s really a tree growing out of your kitchen floor. You said he got angry because your Christmas cards weren’t on recycled paper. Do you think he’s dangerous?"

"I don’t know. He says he’s here to give me whatever I want for Christmas. Except a fur coat. He’s opposed to the killing of endangered species."

"A spirit who’s 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 don’t care where he came from. I just want to get rid of him before he decides my Christmas presents aren’t recyclable, too."

"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. "I’ll get on the networks and see if I can find someone who knows something about magic."

He swiveled around to face her. "You’re sure you want to get rid of him?"

"I have a tree growing out of my kitchen floor!"

"But what if he’s 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 he’ll do next?"

"Yeah," he said. "Listen, whether he’s dangerous or not, I think I should go home with you after work, in case he shows up again, but I’ve got a PMS meeting for the office party -- "

"That’s okay. He’s an animal rights activist. He’s not dangerous."

"That doesn’t necessarily follow," Fred said. "I’ll come over as soon as my meeting’s over, and meanwhile I’ll check the networks. Okay?"

"Okay," she said. She started out of the cubicle and then stopped. "I really appreciate your believing me, or at least not saying you don’t believe me."

He smiled at her. "I don’t have any choice. You’re the only other person in the world who likes Miracle on 34th Street better than It’s a Wonderful Life. And Fred Gailey believed Macy’s Santa Claus was really Santa Claus, didn’t he?"

"Yeah," she said. "I don’t think this guy is Santa Claus. He was wearing Birkenstocks."

"I’ll 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. "I’ve been looking for you all over." He smiled meltingly. "I’m in charge of buying gifts for the office party, and I need your help."

"My help?"

"Yeah. Picking them out. I hoped maybe I could talk you into going shopping with me after work tonight."

"Tonight?" she said. "I can’t. I’ve got -- " A Christmas tree growing in my kitchen. "Could we do it tomorrow after work?"

He shook his head. "I’ve got a date. What about later on tonight? The stores are open till nine. It shouldn’t 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 six-thirty?"

And have the spirit lying on the couch, drinking Evian water and watching TV? "I can’t," she said regretfully.

Even his frown was cute. "Oh, well," he said, and shrugged. "Too bad. I guess I’ll 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. You’d 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 Christmas spirit."

"No, thanks, I’ve already got one," Lauren said.

The door to her apartment was locked, which didn’t mean much since the chain and the deadbolt had both been on when he got in before. But he wasn’t 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 away.

"Don’t 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."

"It’s 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 can’t do that. Not until I give you your heart’s desire."

"That is my heart’s 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 don’t know what they want."

"I know what I want," Lauren said. "I don’t want to have to write my Christmas cards all over again -- "

"You didn’t 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 don’t want to be lectured on environmental issues, I don’t want to have to fight my way through a forest to get to the refrigerator, and I don’t 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 she’d better not say that. The Spirit might decide Scott’s clothes weren’t made of natural fibers or something and turn him into a Yanomamo Indian.

"... and have a nice, quiet Christmas," she finished lamely.

"Take It’s A Wonderful Life," the Spirit said, squinting at the tree. "I watched it this afternoon while you were at work. Jimmy Stewart didn’t know what he wanted."

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.

"You’re right," Lauren said. "I don’t 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, isn’t it?"

"Yeah," Fred said. "Or else, ’He’s right there. Can’t 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 isn’t 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 Holidays.’ "

"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?" she asked.

"No. Didn’t your sister have any ideas?"

"She didn’t 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 heart’s desire first." She looked up at Fred, who was cautiously sniffing one of the organic ornaments. "Didn’t you find out anything on the networks?"

"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 heart’s desire was for him to leave, and he said I didn’t know what I really wanted."

"Which is what?"

"I don’t 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 he disappeared."

"Show me," he said.

She took him into the living room and pointed at where he’d been standing, and Fred squatted down again and peered at the carpet.

"How does he disappear?"

"I don’t know. He just... isn’t 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. I’m your Secret Santa. I’m not supposed to give it to you till Christmas Eve, but maybe you’d 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 don’t, 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 It’s A Wonderful Life is -- "

"You bought me Miracle on 34th Street?" he said, frowning.

"It’s the original black-and-white version. I hate those colorized things, don’t you? Everyone has gray teeth."

"Lauren." He held the box out to her so she could read the front. "I think your friend’s 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 It’s 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?"

"We’d 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 beside her.

"Your present looked the same." She grabbed a package wrapped in red-and-gold paper and began feeling it. "Cassie’s present is okay, I think."

"What is it?"

"A stapler. She’s 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 we’d better open it and make sure."

Fred tore off the paper. "It’s still a stapler," he said, looking at it. "What a great idea for a Christmas present! Everybody in Documentation’s always losing their staplers. I think PMS steals them to use on their Christmas decorations." He handed it back to her. "Now you’ll have to wrap it again."

"That’s okay," Lauren said. "At least it wasn’t a Yanomamo ornament."

"But it might be any minute," Fred said, straightening up. "There’s no telling what he might take a notion to transform next. I think you’d 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 I’ll go see what I can find out from the networks."

"Okay," Lauren said, following him to the door. "Don’t take the videotape with you. Maybe I can get him to change it back."

"Maybe," Fred said frowning. "You’re sure he said he was here to give you your heart’s desire?"

"I’m sure."

"Then why would he change my videotape?" he said thoughtfully. "It’s too bad your sister couldn’t have conjured up a nice, straightforward spirit."

"Like Santa Claus," Lauren said.

Her sister wasn’t home. Lauren tried her off and on all evening, and when she finally got her, she couldn’t talk. "The Maharishi and I are going to Barbados. They’re having a harmonic divergence there on Christmas Eve, so don’t worry about getting my present here by Christmas because I won’t be back till the day after New Year’s," she said and hung up.

"I don’t even have her Christmas present bought yet," Lauren said to the couch, "and it’s all your fault."

She went in the kitchen and glared at the tree. "I don’t even dare go shopping because you might turn the couch into a humpbacked whale while I’m gone," she said and then clapped her hand over her mouth.

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, Won’t 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 hadn’t 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 Stouffer’s frozen entrees. The only thing in the refrigerator was a half-empty bottle of Evian water.

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 o’clock, 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 Capra’s It’s 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 Macy’s Santa Claus a list of toys he was supposed to push if Macy’s didn’t 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 O’Hara were kissing and someone was knocking on the door.

I don’t remember anyone knocking on the door, she thought groggily. John Payne told Maureen O’Hara how he’d 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 McDonald’s sack.

"What time is it?" Lauren said, blinking at him.

"Seven o’clock. I brought you an Egg McMuffin and some orange juice."

"Oh, you wonderful person!" she said. She grabbed the sack and took it over to the coffee table. "You don’t 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 "Didn’t you go to bed last night? He didn’t 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. "What’s that?" He pointed to a pile of dollar bills on the coffee table.

"I don’t 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.’ "

"That’s what’s here," Fred said, counting the money. "He didn’t turn your Christmas cards into a Douglas fir after all. He took them back and got a refund."

"Then that means the tree isn’t in the kitchen!" she said, jumping up and running to look. "No, it doesn’t." 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 he’s 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 he’s probably telling the truth about wanting to give you your heart’s desire."

"Do they know how to get rid of him?" she asked, and took a bite.

"No. Apparently no one’s 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 doesn’t mean anything because seasonal spirits are frequently in disguise. He said we need to write down everything the spirit’s 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 wasn’t 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.

"What’s the matter?" Fred said, following her.

She flung the closet door open and began pushing clothes madly along the bar. "If he’s transformed this -- " She stopped pushing hangers. "I’ll kill him," she said and lifted out a brownish collection of feathers and dried leaves. "Benign!?" she said. "Do you call that benign?!"

Fred gingerly touched a brown feather. "What was it?"

"A dress," she said. "My beautiful black, off-the-shoulder, drop-dead dress."

"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!"

"Don’t 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 didn’t even notice it!"

"And that’s your heart’s 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 he’s ruined it!"

She flung the dress on the floor and stood up. "I don’t 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 Fred’s face and stopped. "I’m sorry," she said. "None of this is your fault. You’ve been trying to help me."

"And I’ve 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. I’ll 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. "I’m sorry I yelled at you. And you have been a lot of help."

"Right," he said glumly, and went out.

"Where’d 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!"

"Don’t you like it?" the spirit said from the bedroom. "It’s completely biodegradable."

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 don’t care. I want my dress back."

He carried the dress on its hanger over to the chest. "It’s 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 didn’t even know she existed." He hung up the dress. "He practically had to be hit over the head."

"I’ll hit you over the head if you don’t change that dress back this instant, Spirit," she said, looking around for something hard.

"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 messages.

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 wasn’t a message from Fred.

"Oh!" the receptionist wailed. "This is so sad!"

"I hate It’s a Wonderful Life," Lauren said, and went up to her desk. "I hate Christmas," she said to Cassie.

"It’s normal to hate Christmas," Cassie said, looking up from the book she was reading. "This book, it’s called Let’s Forget Christmas, says it’s 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 Cassie’s present, fingering it quickly to make sure it was still a stapler. It seemed to be. She held it out to Cassie. "Merry Christmas."

"I don’t have yours wrapped yet," Cassie said. "I don’t even have my wrapping paper bought yet. The book says I’m 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 won’t like what I got you half as well, and I’ll feel incredibly guilty and inadequate."

"You don’t have to open it now," Lauren said. "I just thought I’d better give it to you before -- " She picked her messages up off her desk and started looking through them. "Before I forgot. There haven’t 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 hadn’t been any help, and he was going to try the library." She looked sadly at the present. "It’s 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 couldn’t even find anything I’d 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 can’t. You didn’t end up buying some awful gray thing with gold chains hanging all over it. At least Scott will notice me. He’ll say, ’Hi, Cassie, are you dressed as Marley’s ghost?’ And there you’ll be, looking fabulous in black sequins -- "

"No, I won’t," Lauren said.

"Why? Didn’t they hold it for you?"

"It was... defective. Did Fred want to talk to me?"

"I don’t 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. "It’s Scott Buckley."

"Hi," Scott said to Lauren. "I was wondering if you could go shopping with me tonight." Lauren stared at him, so taken aback she couldn’t speak.

"When you couldn’t 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."

She nodded.

"Great," Scott said. "I’ll come over to your apartment around six-thirty."

"No!" Lauren said. "I mean, why don’t we go straight from work?"

"Good idea. I’ll come up here and get you." He smiled meltingly and left.

"I think I’ll 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. "There’s 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 can’t," Lauren said. "I promised Scott I’d help him pick out the presents for the office party tonight. I’m sorry. I could tell him I can’t."

"Your heart’s desire? Are you kidding?" He started awkwardly piling the books back on his load. "You go shopping. I’ll go through the books and let you know if I come up with anything."

"Are you sure?" she said guiltily. "I mean, you shouldn’t have to do all the work."

"It’s my pleasure," he said. He started to walk away and then stopped. "You didn’t tell the spirit Scott was your heart’s desire, did you?"

"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 a package.

"What’s this?"

"It’s from your Secret Santa."

Lauren opened it. It was a large book entitled, It’s a Wonderful Life The Photo Album. On the cover, Jimmy Stewart was looking depressed.

"I figure it’ll 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? They’re handmade Yanomamo Christmas ornaments."

"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 shepherds.

"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. "It’s an investment pager," he said, punching keys. "See, it gives you the Dow Jones, treasury bonds, interest rates. Isn’t 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. "We’ll 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 Macy’s 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."

"That’s what I’ve been fighting against for years," a dozen Edmund Gwenns said, tearing a dozen lists to bits, "the way they commercialize Christmas."

"What I thought," Scott said when they got in the car, "was that instead of going out for supper, we’d 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 you’d rather, we could run by the grocery store and pick up some stuff to cook."

"Actually, my kitchen’s kind of a mess," she said. There is a Christmas tree in it, she thought, with organic byproducts hanging on it.

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 apartment’s 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 don’t need tags, do they?" Lauren said desperately. "I mean, they’re 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 couldn’t 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 doesn’t look too messy. You should see my apartment. I’ll bet your kitchen’s neater than mine, too."

Lauren walked swiftly over to the kitchen and pulled the door shut. "I wouldn’t bet on it. Aren’t there still some more presents to bring up?"

"Yeah. I’ll go get them. Shall I call the Italian place first?"

"No," Lauren said, standing with her back against the kitchen door. "Why don’t 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 wasn’t there, or in the bathroom. "Thank you," she breathed, looking heavenward, and went back in the living room.

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. "It’s not a bad movie. Of course, it’s not as good as It’s a Wonderful Life, but I like the way everything works out at the end."

"What are you doing here?" she demanded, glancing anxiously at the door.

"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 Fred’s video and brandished it at him. "Fine. Then you can change Fred’s video back."

"Okay," he said and did something. She looked at Fred’s video. It showed Edmund Gwenn hugging Natalie Wood in front of a yellow moon with Santa Claus’s 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 doesn’t really want a house, of course. What she really wants is for Maureen O’Hara 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. "It’s 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. Aren’t you going to answer the door?"

"Aren’t you going to disappear?" she whispered.

"Disappear?" he said incredulously. "The movie isn’t over. And besides, I still haven’t 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.

"It’s me," Scott said. "Why do you have the chain on?"

"I..." She looked hopefully at Chris. He was eating trail mix and watching Maureen O’Hara bending over the store psychologist, trying to wake him up.

"Scott, I’m sorry, but I think I’d better take a rain check on supper."

He looked bewildered. And cute. "But I thought..." he said.

So did I, she thought. But I have a spirit on my couch who’s perfectly capable of turning you into a Yanomamo by-product.

"The Italian take-out sounds great," she said, "but it’s kind of late, and we’ve both got to go to work tomorrow."

"Tomorrow’s Saturday."

"Uh... I meant go to work on wrapping presents. Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve, and I haven’t 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. "I’ll 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.

I’m going to kill him, Lauren thought, waving back, and took the shopping bags inside.

The spirit wasn’t 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 you’re not going to ruin anything else! You’re 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 can’t exorcise him if we don’t know which seasonal spirit he is, and he doesn’t fit the profiles of any of these. He must be in disguise."

"I don’t want to exorcise him," Lauren said. "I want to kill him."

"Even if we did manage to exorcise him, there’d be no guarantee that the things he’s changed would go back to their original state."

"And I’d 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 didn’t like them? Other than the obvious, I mean. That they were nonbiodegradable or something?"

"No. He didn’t 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 don’t 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 didn’t 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 there’s no way you can talk him into changing them back. And I’ve got to have something to pass out at the office party, or you’ll be in trouble. So we’ll just have to come up with replacement presents."

"Replacement presents?" Lauren said. "How? It’s ten o’clock, the office party’s tomorrow night, and how do we know he won’t transform the replacement presents once we’ve got them?"

"We’ll 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 didn’t 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. "That’s eight dollars and thirty-nine cents apiece."

He looked at the receipt speculatively and then into the shopping bag. "I don’t suppose we could take these back and get a refund from the Upscale Oasis?"

"They’re not going to give us $5895.36 for seventy-two ’Save the Ozone Layer’ buttons," Lauren said. "And there’s 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 difference?"

"I don’t think you’ll have to. Remember when the spirit changed your Christmas cards into the tree? He didn’t really. He returned them somehow to the store and got a refund. Maybe he’s done the same thing with the Plutocrats and the money will turn up on your coffee table tomorrow morning."

"And if it doesn’t?"

"We’ll worry about that tomorrow. Right now we’ve got to come up with presents to pass out at the party."

"Like what?"



"Like the one you got Cassie. Everybody in my department’s always losing their staplers, too. And their tape dispensers. It’s an office party. We’ll buy everybody something they want for the office."

"But how will we know what that is? There are seventy-two people on this list."

"We’ll call the department heads and ask them, and then we’ll go shopping." He stood up. "Where’s your phone book?"

"Next to the tree." She followed him into the kitchen. "How are we going to go shopping? It’s ten o’clock at night."

"Bizmart’s open till eleven," he said, opening the phone book, "and the grocery store’s open all night. We’ll 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 doesn’t seem like much of a present."

"It does if it’s what you wanted." He reached for the phone.

It rang. Fred picked up the receiver and handed it to Lauren.

"Oh, Lauren," Cassie’s voice said. "I just opened your present, and I love it! It’s exactly what I wanted!"

"Really?" Lauren said.

"It’s perfect! I was so depressed about Christmas and the office party and still not having my shopping done. I wasn’t even going to open it, but in Let’s Forget Christmas it said you should open your presents early so they wouldn’t ruin Christmas morning, and I did, and it’s wonderful! I don’t even care whether Scott notices me or not! Thank you!"

"You’re 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. I’ll 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 we’re going about this all wrong."

"What do you mean?"

"What if the spirit really does want to give you your heart’s desire, and all this transforming stuff is some roundabout way of doing it? Like the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s 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 save him."

"You’re saying he turned seventy-two Portable Plutocrats into ’Save the Ozone Layer’ buttons to help me?"

"I don’t know. All I’m 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, he’d 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 they’d called. "All we’ve got left is the PMS Committee," he said.

"I know what to get them," Lauren said. "Copies of Let’s 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 Fred’s help.

"I completely forgot my husband’s first wife," she said, looking desperate, "and I don’t have any idea of what to get her."

Fred handed her the videotape of It’s a Wonderful Life they were giving the receptionist. "How about one of these?" he said.

"Do you think she’ll 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 weren’t even half done.

"What’s 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 Receivable’s heart’s desire."

"What’s your heart’s 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, that’s for sure. The only year I even had a remotely good time was last year, talking to you."

"I’m 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 wasn’t sure I’d get it. I was a lot like Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street. I didn’t believe in Santa Claus, and I didn’t 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 I’d get it, or I wouldn’t have asked for it. Kids don’t ask for stuff they know is impossible."

"And you hadn’t asked for a puppy because you knew you couldn’t have one?"

"No, you don’t understand. There are things you don’t ask for because you know you can’t 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 you’re saying is your heart’s desire is something so far outside the realm of possibility you don’t even know what it is?"

"I didn’t say that," he said. He stood up again. "Do you want some eggnog?"

"Yes, thanks. If it’s still there."

He went in the kitchen. She could hear forest-thrashing noises and the refrigerator opening. "It’s still here," he said.

"It’s funny Chris hasn’t 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. "It’s short for Spirit of Christmas Present." Fred was frowning. "What’s wrong?" Lauren asked.

"I wonder... nothing. Never mind." He went over to the TV. "I don’t suppose Miracle on 34th Street’s on TV this afternoon?"

"No, but I made him change your video back." She pointed. "It’s 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 didn’t take it. He was watching the TV. Lauren looked up. On the screen, Jimmy Stewart was walking past Donna Reed’s house, racketing a stick along the picket fence.

"That isn’t 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.

"It’s all right," Fred said, taking the package and reaching for the ribbon. "It’s not a bad movie. The ending’s too sentimental, and it doesn’t really make sense. I mean, one minute everything’s hopeless, and Jimmy Stewart’s ready to kill himself, and then the angel convinces him he had a wonderful life, and suddenly everything’s 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 they’d bought. "We’ll wrap them last."

On the TV Jimmy was sitting in Donna Reed’s living room, looking awkward. "What I have trouble with is Jimmy Stewart’s 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. There’s such a thing as being too self-sacrificing, you know."

"Maybe he gives up things because he thinks he doesn’t deserve them."

"Why wouldn’t he?"

"He’s never gone to college, he’s poor, he’s deaf in one ear. Sometimes when people are handicapped or overweight they just assume they can’t 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 hadn’t 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 didn’t seem to be breathing.

Lauren realized she wasn’t 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 haven’t 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 with kisses.

"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 rice.

"No. You were right," he said. "He is too self-sacrificing." He waved the scissors at the screen. "In a minute he’s going to give up his honeymoon to save the building and loan. It’s a wonder he ever asked Donna Reed to marry him. It’s a wonder he didn’t 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 taxicab.

"It’s 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. "It’s Scott. What am I going to tell him about the presents?"

Fred motioned her to give him the phone. "Scott," he said. "Hi. It’s 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 cupidity."

Lauren grinned.

"But there’s nothing to worry about," Fred said. "We replaced them. We’re wrapping them right now. No, it was no trouble. I was happy to help. Yeah, I’ll tell her." He hung up. "Scott will be here to take you to the office party at seven-thirty," he said. "It looks like you’re going to get your heart’s 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, "Don’t 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 hadn’t.

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 Fred’s video in the VCR. She hit play. Edmund Gwenn was giving the doctor the X-ray machine he’d always wanted.

Lauren picked up one of the shopping bags and felt the top pair of scissors to make sure they weren’t 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 Children’s Hospital fund.

She shook her head, smiling, and put the check back in the envelope.

On TV Maureen O’Hara 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 O’Hara.

Someone knocked on the door. "That’s Scott," Lauren said to John Payne, and waited till Maureen O’Hara 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 he’d worn to wrap the presents. "Cheese puffs," he said. "I figured you couldn’t get to your stove." He looked seriously at her. "I wouldn’t 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 Santa’s bag, and I’ll be there at eleven-thirty."

"Aren’t you going to the party?"

"Office parties are your idea of fun, not mine," he said. "Besides, Miracle on 34th Street’s 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. "That’s Scott," Lauren said.

"Well," Fred said, "if the spirit doesn’t do something in the next fifteen seconds, you’ll have your heart’s 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 to Scott.

"I really appreciate your helping Lauren and me with all this," Scott said.

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 happens."

"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. "He’s a nice guy."

"Yes," Lauren said. "He is."

"Hey, look at that!" Scott said. He pointed at the security monitor. "It’s a Wonderful Life. My favorite movie!"

On the monitor Jimmy Stewart was running through the snow, shouting, "Merry Christmas!"

"Scott," Lauren said, "I can’t 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 receptionist’s desk and leaned his elbows on it. "This is the part where Jimmy Stewart finds out what a wonderful life he’s 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.

"There’s such a thing as being too self-sacrificing, you know," Lauren said.

He held the plate out to her. "That’s what the spirit said."

"He came back?" She shot a glance at the shopping bags.

"Yeah. Right after you left. Don’t 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 didn’t like it, he sent her the Yanomamo dress."

"She’ll 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.

"He’s 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 go up?"

"No," Lauren said. "I’m 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 two minutes."

"But you’re 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, don’t you?"

"I love that dress," Scott said.

"He also told me," Fred said, "that his favorite thing in Miracle on 34th Street was Santa Claus’s being in disguise."

"He wasn’t in disguise," Lauren said. "Edmund Gwenn told everybody he was Santa Claus."

Fred held up a correcting finger. "He told everyone his name was Kris Kringle."

"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 Syne."

"He makes all sorts of trouble for everyone," Fred said. "He turns Christmas upside down -- "

"Completely disrupts Maureen O’Hara’s life," Lauren said.

"But by the end, everything’s worked out, the doctor has his X-ray machine, Natalie Wood has her house -- "

"Maureen O’Hara has Fred -- "

"And no one’s 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 doesn’t mean a miracle can’t happen."

"What a great ending!" Cassie said, sniffling. "It’s 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, we’ll be late for the party."

"We’re not going," Fred said, taking Lauren’s arm. They started for the door. "Miracle’s on at eight."

"But you can’t leave," Scott said. "What about all these presents? Who’s going to pass them out?"

There was a gust of cold air and snow. "Ho ho ho," Santa Claus said.

"Isn’t 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 you’re talking about," Santa Claus said. "Where are all these presents I’m supposed to pass out?"

"Right here," Scott said. He handed one of the shopping bags to Santa Claus.

"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 can’t go yet," Cassie said, gazing at the security monitor. "Look, It’s a Wonderful Life is just starting." On the screen Jimmy Stewart’s 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 Street’s a much better movie, you know," he said reprovingly. "More realistic."


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"Miracle" by Connie WIllis, copyright © 1991 by Connie Willis, used by permission of the author

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