Dave was pocketing his phone when I got to his locker, a worried frown on his face.
"Something wrong?" I asked. Dumb question; I could count on one hand the number of times I'd seen him frowning in the entire six months we'd been friends. He gave me a distracted look and sighed. We started walking towards the cafeteria, dodging some of the drooping Christmas decorations the elementary school kids had put up weeks ago.
"Dad was supposed to be driving us for the food bank collection this afternoon, but now he can't. And Mom says she's too busy. Crap. I'll have to let the coach know. Unless Andy's dad can do it. Or yours," he looked at me hopefully.
"Nope. I know Dad's got a meeting and then he's going straight to the airport." My sister was coming east to spend part of the holidays with us. So much for being merry. At least Mom wasn't coming too. Dave had spotted Andy at our table, so I staked out places in the food line while he went over to consult. From the head shaking and discouraged looks I could tell that it wasn't going well. The soccer team had chosen to support one of the local food banks this year, and team members had been collecting all this week, but now someone had to go around and pick up the donated cans and boxes from them and take it over to the food bank. Dave had "volunteered" his dad, but hadn't gotten around to actually mentioning it until a day or two ago.
We took our trays over to the table. I passed on today's dessert, which was a misguided effort at being festive with green and red icing squiggled over something off-white and shapeless. I noticed that Dave had taken a fruit cup instead, but Andy was willing to try it. But then, Andy would eat anything. We discussed the upcoming holidays, the lack of snow, games we wanted to get, girls worth pursuing. At least, Andy brought up the subject of girls, as he often did, now that he and Jennifer had broken up. Dave and I glanced at each other not knowing what to say, neither of us having any interest along those lines.
"I'd better go talk to Mr. Nelson and let him know Dad can't be there," Dave said, picking up his tray and getting ready to leave.
"Wait. We can do it ourselves!" I said. They both looked at me with puzzled expressions.
"But how? None of us has a driver's license," Andy pointed out.
"On our bikes! With our backpacks. We might have to make a few trips, but it's not that far, right?"
Dave looked very skeptical, but Andy jumped on the idea, all excited. "Hey yeah! We could! We can do it! I can use my dad's big hiking backpack, it'll hold a ton. Or, even better! We still have the bike trailer he used to haul me and Brit around in, that would carry a lot of stuff."
Dave started to smile a little. Only 20 watts or so, but the beginnings of a Dave smile. "Hunh. I guess that could work. We only have to pick up at eight or nine places, and they're all pretty much in the same area. And with the trailer…"
The bell rang so we gathered up our trays and things and agreed to meet at the bike racks after the last class. I still rode my bike to school even though it was December. There was no snow yet, and anyway, the weird weather we'd been having lately had been unusually warm. There was talk of a weather system on the way bringing snow, though. For sure, all the ski hills in the area and the stores in town were hoping for a white Christmas.
After school the three of us set off walking, me pushing my bike alongside. Andy's house was only two blocks from Dave's and he split off about half way, saying that he might need some help hitching up the trailer, so we should come over when we were ready. Rooting through the stuff in his garage, Dave came up with two full-size backpacks, which was excellent, as that meant I didn't have to dump all the stuff out of mine. And who knew what might be lurking down at the bottom? I don't think it had ever been completely empty since it was new. We were already down the driveway when Dave remembered that he had collected cans and boxes for the food drive, too. We split the items between us, putting some weight in our packs. I readjusted the straps a little, and we set off.
When we arrived at Andy's house, he already had the trailer cleaned out, hooked up and everything, and was pumping some air into the tires. It was built to carry two kids side by side, so it had lots of room and looked plenty strong enough for what we wanted to do. Dave got out the list of team members and their addresses. There were check marks next to the ones that had acted as drop off points for the team's food drive. Figuring out possible routes, we decided that there wasn't much advantage in splitting up, and it would be more fun to stick together anyway. It looked like it would take two trips to the food bank, unless there was a lot more to collect at each stop than we were expecting.
It was just as well that we had decided to stick together, as some of the moms who came to the door were skeptical about what we were up to until they recognized Dave. After visiting the first five houses the trailer was pretty full, and both backpacks were getting heavy, so we turned around and headed downtown to the food bank.
"You guys go in and dump your stuff. I'll stay here with the bikes," Andy offered. "See if they have something we can use to transfer all the stuff in the trailer," he called after us, as we went up the steps to the door. Dave led the way inside the building where a big sign pointed to an open door on the left. Inside the big room were tables piled with cartons and bags, and several elderly people and some kids were unpacking, sorting and stacking all kinds of food products on the rows of shelving behind. Several large freezers and refrigerators were humming over against one wall. Several people glanced up at our arrival, but nobody seemed to be in charge. Then one of the kids, a boy who looked to be about eleven or twelve, came over and looked alternately at Dave then me.
"Hi," he said with a tentative smile, "we're not actually open, if you need food. But there's another…"
Dave interrupted him, "No, we're bringing the stuff from the soccer team food drive. At the high school?" We unbuckled and laid our filled backpacks down on the table. I guess we did look like a couple of hitchhikers or runaways or something! Dave explained the situation as we took everything out of the packs.
The boy reached under the table and brought out a form and a pen. "We have to keep track of the donors, so can you just fill this in, please? And put the stuff on that table over there?" While Dave was writing, I moved the backpacks over to where the kid had indicated. I was starting to unload the first one when Dave and the boy came over, Dave being his usual outgoing, talkative self.
"…and this is Chris. And Andy's waiting outside with more stuff in a trailer. So we need a dolly or cart or something to bring it inside, if you have one."
"Uh, yeah, it's still got stuff on it, though. I'll go get it."
"That's Ethan. His mom left him in charge!" We had emptied our packs by the time he returned, pushing a large industrial cart, and the three of us headed back outside, Ethan detouring down the wheelchair access ramp. When we got to where Andy was waiting, he did a double-take.
"Whoa. You guys collected all that stuff on your bikes? That's awesome!" After a short pause he added, "I wish I still had my bike."
"What happened to it?" I asked, as we loaded up the cart.
"It got washed away in the flood along with everything else," he replied, frowning.
"In Tropical Storm Irene?"
"Yep. Our whole house and everything. Even the back yard. Everything."
That storm had caused major flooding all around our area, especially along the river, but the amount of damage varied widely from one place to the next. One house or business could be completely destroyed while the building next to it was untouched. Whole covered bridges were just lifted off their bases and carried away. And in some cases, the raging water had gouged out a whole new river bed, and whatever had been there before was simply gone.
"So, where are you living now?" Andy asked him, as Dave and I pushed the loaded cart up the ramp.
"Here," Ethan said, pointing ahead as we went inside.
"Here? In the food bank?"
"Not on that side. Over there," indicating the open door opposite where the food bank was. We looked inside, and could see sort of indoor camping spaces among heavy curtains hanging from the ceiling. Near the door was a table with two Coleman stoves and a refrigerator beside it. "We were supposed to get temporary housing or a trailer, but Mom says there are more delays. There are two other families, too. They let us stay here while Mom runs the food bank."
Dave shook his head. "Wait. You've been living here since last summer?" The storm was at the end of August!"
Ethan just shrugged. "I dunno. We've been in three places before here. Mom can't afford to rent anywhere. She used to make stuff and sell it on the internet, but all her tools and materials and things are gone too, and Mom said Dad cancelled the insurance without telling her, back before he left us …"
Dave and I just looked at each other as we moved the cart over to the food bank side. Most of the devastated roads and bridges had been repaired, and a lot of temporary housing had been provided, but apparently there were still many families in heartbreaking situations.
"Hey, Ethan," Dave said, "we still have some more food to collect before it gets too dark out. Can you guys unload the cart? We'll be back in an hour or so. Cool?" We went back outside, got on the bikes and headed to the next pickup on the list. Nobody said much as we rode along, thinking about Ethan and the others. This part of town had big, welcoming-looking houses, all decorated for Christmas. Daylight was fading now, and the lit-up trees and outlined porches looked festive and bright. At the last stop on our list, a blast of fresh-baked cookie smell hit us when the door was opened, and we were supplied with some of them, still warm from the oven, to sustain us on our way. The contrast between these homes and what Ethan's family were enduring was stark.
"Aw man," Dave exclaimed as we pointed our bikes back toward the food bank. "They don't even have a Christmas tree or anything there." We knew where he meant; Andy and I had been thinking along the same lines.
"Hey," Andy rode up beside us, "we should get them one! A Christmas tree, I mean. There's a guy selling them over in parking lot at the mall."
"But they probably don't have any lights or decorations or anything. All their stuff is gone, Ethan said."
"So we can get some at the mall, too. It doesn't have to be big. But jeez, we've got to do something," Andy insisted. No argument from me or Dave there. We changed course for the mall and rode around to the location where the trees were being sold. There was the wonderful smell of balsam fir, spruce and pine boughs along with the requisite tinny sound of Christmas carols on a loop. We chose a nicely-shaped small tree that could be tied down on the bike trailer and Dave went to pay for it, along with a cheap, flimsy stand that looked like it wouldn't last until next year.
"They only take cash," he reported. "You guys have any?" Andy and I both shook our heads. "I can go to the ATM, then."
"I'll go in and get some lights and a few decorations, then," I said. "That will save some time. Andy can stay here with the bikes and packs and stuff, and see if they have any string or something to tie down the tree with."
We split up on our various missions. I headed straight for the Dollar Store and got a string of lights, some ornaments and they even had a small star to put on top. Fortunately, I'd moved some money for presents into the account for my debit card. By the time I got back to Dave and Andy, they were getting ready to tie the tree onto the trailer.
"Hey, we should put the lights on here, so it's all ready to plug in once we get there, y'know?" Andy said. "It'd be better if we could just set it up and plug it in."
Dave and I held the tree up, rotating it as Andy clipped the lights to the branches. The string of LEDs wasn't quite long enough, so some rearranging had to be done. It looked like there might be some gaps; the only way to tell would be to plug it in and try it, but there were no outlets at the tree-selling lot.
"I bet there's an outlet over there," Dave said, pointing to some lit-up trees the mall had set up near the entrance sign. Balancing the tree on the trailer, we hoisted our backpacks and walked our bikes over there. Looking around to make sure no mall security happened to be close by, we followed the wires from the mall's trees and found that they led to a hidden power distribution box with some unused outlets. We had to put our tree in between two of theirs so that the cord would reach, and plugged it in just long enough to admire our handiwork, though Andy wanted to move a couple of the lights to make it more even. Unplugging it again, we had secured the tree to the bike trailer, strapped on the backpacks and were starting to ride out of the parking lot when an ancient blue Volvo squealed to a stop beside us.
"I saw what you did! You kids just stole that tree!" A very stressed-out lady was screaming at us! "You boys with your expensive bikes and fancy gear, you probably get everything you want while some kids have nothing! Stealing a Christmas tree! You don't… I'll remember you! I'm letting security know right now!" And she took off before we could get in a single word to explain!
"Oh man! Now what?" Andy looked shocked. "What if they call the cops? Three guys on bikes? They'll pick us up for sure!"
"Hey, it's our tree," Dave pointed out. "We have the receipt and everything! We didn't do ANYTHING!"
We all looked in the direction the Volvo had gone, but it had been swallowed up in parking lot traffic. Nobody else seemed interested in us. Knowing we hadn't done anything wrong, but still feeling uneasy, we rode out of the parking lot and turned in the direction of the food bank, which was only a couple of blocks away. Once there, Dave and I went inside, as before, while Andy stayed with the bikes and untied the tree. There was no sign of Ethan at the food bank, and it was one of the senior volunteers who came over to us.
"You're from the soccer team, right?" he asked as we started to unload.
"Right," Dave confirmed. "Where's Ethan? Is he around?"
"I think he's on the other side, doing his homework."
"Oh. Um, can we borrow that cart again? We have one more load to bring in."
"Sure. Be right back."
We brought in the last of the food. All together it was a pretty good size contribution to the food bank, and a couple of the other volunteers came over to voice their appreciation. Apparently they had more families in need this year than ever before, a combination of the flood and bad economic times. They mentioned that a letter of thanks would be sent to the school. We went back outside feeling pretty good, especially after the little episode at the mall. Now it was time for one more good deed!
Andy had the tree leaning up against the wall, and was hiding our bikes behind the wheelchair ramp so that he could come inside too. We stuffed our empty packs into the trailer and the three of us lifted it and the bike together into the dark space beside the other two. Andy and Dave carried the tree and I brought up the rear with the shopping bag of ornaments. We stopped at the door to the "camping" area and looked in. There were a couple of kids, could have been twins, who looked to be about eight years old in the kitchen area, watching cartoons on the television set that sat in the corner.
"Hey, um, is Ethan here?" Dave asked. "We saw him at the food bank before."
One of the kids got up and ducked behind a curtain. The other had a more efficient method and simply yelled, "ETHAN!!" at the top of his lungs.
After a few seconds one of the curtains moved aside and Ethan appeared, looking puzzled, but his face broke into a smile of recognition. "Hey," he said.
"Hey," Dave responded, "We brought something for you," he added, nodding to Andy and me to follow him in. Looking around, he spotted the outlet next to the television and, as the twins and Ethan watched dumbfounded, he and Andy set the tree up there and plugged it in.
I poked Ethan with the box of ornaments. "Here, dude. Time to decorate the tree!"
An even younger girl appeared and, looking shyly at the three of us, went up to Ethan and asked him what was going on. "They brought us a Christmas tree! Here, you can help put on the ornaments!" In a minute the four of them were happily hanging ornaments and arguing about which one should go where.
Just then, we heard the front door open and voices coming from the food bank side. After a couple of minutes it sounded as though two of the voices were coming closer. Ethan looked up and yelled, "Mom!! Come and see!"
"Coming!" came the reply. We naturally turned around as Ethan's mother came into the room. She stopped and stared. We stared too. She looked at the tree, then at us. We looked at her, then at each other. It was the Volvo lady!
Ethan ran up and gave her a hug while beaming a brilliant smile our way. "Look, Mom! Dave and Chris and Andy brought it! Now we have a Christmas tree after all!"
After a couple of false starts, she said, "I guess I owe you boys an apology."
"Aw, that's all right, I can see how it must've looked like we were stealing the tree," Dave said.
"We were just testing the lights. That's the only place there was an outlet," Andy explained.
"We did pay for it and everything," I added.
"I know you did. I went to security. He told me he'd been watching you on their video thing, and he couldn't figure out WHAT you boys were up to! But while I was there he called the guy selling the trees and it was okay. We all thought you were playing some kind of prank, but we couldn't imagine what. But here you are! And next door they say you made a big donation to the food bank, too."
Ethan was looking at his mom, then at us, back and forth with a puzzled expression.
"Heh, we kinda met your mom over at the mall," Dave said to him, "only we didn't know it was her." He looked back at her and said, "Ethan explained a bit about your house and everything. We just felt it was so unfair that your whole lives could get swept away like that! And we thought the least we could do is bring you a Christmas tree. It's not much, but…"
She let go of Ethan and came over, giving each of us a hug in turn. "Oh, you've given us more than just a tree, you know. Sometimes I get so discouraged and frustrated… sometimes I forget that there are people, even kids your age, who aren't just thinking about themselves all the time, y'know? It's important to be reminded of that, every once in a while. And," she added, looking around, "it's not that often we see everyone around here smiling! So thank you, and I'm sorry I lost it over at the mall."
"When will you get some place to live?" I asked.
"Oh, well. Soon, I hope. Things are moving, but slowly. There are just so many people needing help around the state, right now. Someone always has to be the last one on the list. Seems to be our turn, this time."
Andy said, "Hey, we'd better get going. It's getting late."
"Yeah, and you guys don't have lights on your bikes, either," I pointed out.
We said goodbye to Ethan, waved to the three younger ones, told his mother that we hoped things worked out for them soon and went back outside to retrieve our bikes. It was dark now, and colder, too. We zipped up our jackets, and Dave and I got his backpacks out of the trailer. We got on the bikes, but I hung back a bit as Andy took off first. Dave was about to go too, then he looked over to see why I wasn't moving.
"Our good deed for today!" I said, moving up next to him, with a big smile.
He nodded, and checking to see that Andy wasn't looking, gave me a real hug. I looked around quickly and responded with a kiss on his cheek.
"Hehe! Not here!" he yelled, pulling away on his bike.
"Why? There's nobody watching!" I looked around again. But there was Ethan at the window with a big grin. He waved. I waved back. I stood on the pedals, changing gears quickly to catch up to Dave, a warm glow filling me inside. I couldn't help myself, and I'm sure Ethan couldn't hear me, but looking back over my shoulder I shouted aloud, "Merry Christmas!"