"He bit me, Miss Hagan! Marcus bit me! And he socked me in the gut!" Gretchen Johnson fell onto the snow in her pink snowsuit and boots, kicking and bawling as if in the throes of a theatrical death.
Ordinarily, Crystal Hagan would count to ten before charging into the middle of a first-graders' fray, but not when the thermometer placed the wind chill factor at twenty-below zero earlier that morning in Moonstone, Wisconsin. With the weather so bad, she only brought her thirteen students out for ten minutes right after lunch, just enough to help them settle down for the afternoon. Otherwise, they acted like Mexican jumping beans, though Marcus, ever challenging her, had reminded her once that those were actually moths trying to break out of their cocoons.
Crystal called out, "Marcus, come here this instant or you're not going with us to see Rudolph this afternoon."
Marcus stood atop the snow mountain the plow had created after two feet of snow hit recently in Moonstone, a town of three hundred huddled on the shore of Lake Superior. Other boys and a couple of girls allowed in Marcus's kingdom popped their heads over the snow mountain. They made Crystal smile. They looked like a row of baby dragons, but instead of fire breathing out of them, their mouths and noses spewed frost onto the icy air.
Looking up at the mountain of snow taller than she, Crystal said, "All of you play nice or Santa won't be coming either." She hated using that trump card, but teachers could get desperate. She still had her fingers crossed that Randy Mellen didn't back out on this date, too. His dentistry practice in Superior kept him too busy as of late, but when he'd called last night to postpone their date, he'd promised to make up for it by showing up in a Santa Claus suit today and tomorrow for the kids.
Crystal flagged Marcus down off the mountain, grabbed the little boy's arm and marched him over to Gretchen. "Show me where he bit you, Gretch."
Through blubbering and tears, and sucking at the air, the six-year-old girl finally said, "I don't remember."
Marcus broke into laughter. "See? She's lying. Maybe she can't go see Rudolph because she lied. No Christmas presents, Gretchy Vetchy."
"Stop that. Santa brings presents to everybody who's nice. It's time to go inside. Line up, everybody."
Somehow, she knew Marcus would create another disaster. He had a way of stirring up the other children. She thought about canceling their walk across the town Square from the school to see Rudolph. The morning hadn't started well, and for the first time in years, trouble brewed over the live animal crèche created every holiday season for the village by Crystal.
Only a few hours earlier, before school started, she'd pulled the livestock trailer with her four-wheel drive Grand Cherokee into place on the snow-covered lawn area of the mansion long known as the North Pole. When she dropped off her reindeer and the donkey she'd met with protesters--the couple volunteering to play Mary and Joseph, and Mayor Bob Winters.
Pulling down the thick, woolen stocking cap over her long blonde hair, she got out of the truck to face Jeri and Kirk Kaminski who rushed up to her before even one of her tall boots sunk into the snow. She could barely see their faces, what with the fur hoods pulled tight against the nippy weather. Jeri's breath had created a ring of white frost on the blue woolen scarf she wore wrapped around her face.
"Enough is enough. I'm not standing out here on this property any more freezing my toes off. I want to be paid."
Not a very saintly thing for "Mary" to say, Crystal thought. "We all volunteer. I don't get paid to do this, Jeri. But the kids love it. Everybody loves it."
Kirk shook his head. More flumes of steam hit the air. "I'm out of a job."
"I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"Because of the old fart who owns the land under this snow right here." His thumb pointed at the mansion behind where they stood. "If he thinks he can lay me off, then watch me freeze my toes off from behind his warm windows, he's got a screw loose."
With that, they got into their pickup truck and drove away. Just like that she'd lost Mary and Joseph. Confused about what was going on, she didn't have long to wait for clarification.
Mayor Bob Winters, his portly girth covered in a camouflage snowmobile suit and blaze orange stocking cap, had trundled up to her next. He'd turned sixty recently without grace. The scarlet capillaries on his face from too many brandy old-fashions had turned to a shade of purple this morning. "No more live animals, Crystal. Take them home. Now."
At five-foot, ten inches, she stood eye-to-eye with the mayor. "Come on, Bob, we've done this Nativity for years. What's going on?"
"These are what's going on." He took several loose papers out of a pocket and waved them at her. "Letters of complaint. Mostly about me, for condoning such a thing."
She ripped the letters out of his hand and perused them. "They're all in the same handwriting. Bob, I'm sure it's just a prankster. Nobody's ever complained about the Nativity scene. Besides, we're on private land."
"That could be who's behind this. Old Henri LeBarron. The old coot is probably certifiable. Gotta be some reason he hasn't come out of that mansion in five years."
The Nativity scene was her very own idea to help make the town festive and attract more shoppers every year on the Saturday two weeks before Christmas. Knowing she couldn't construct the small, three-sided, roofed manger on public land, she'd sent a letter to Henri LeBarron, now in his eighties, asking his permission to use the generous front lawn of his mansion where she and Bob stood that morning. The estate overlooked Lake Superior in the back, though nobody she knew remembered being invited to enjoy the sight. Ironically, the reclusive Henri had once played Santa for celebrations in Moonstone, but that was a couple of decades ago, when Crystal was in college and away. Now forty-three, and anchored in the harbor community, she bristled with the feeling of betrayal as she looked at the three-story home, a grand affair long ago dubbed the North Pole by children because of Henri's stint as Santa. Indeed, the place looked like Santa's house. Her first graders said the detailed arches painted in red looked like eyebrows over windows and doors. They said the drifts whipped by the storm and hanging precariously over the eaves of the green roof reminded them of frosting on a giant cupcake.
She handed the letters back to Bob then went about unloading her pet reindeer and donkey. "I can't believe Henri would do this. He gave me permission years ago. I have it in writing, Bob."
"Yeah, and Kirk had an employment contract in the coal yards in the Superior harbor. Which Henri LeBarron put up for sale just yesterday then started in on downsizing the work force to make the deal look good."
"He's doing that at Christmastime?" With her hands on the halters of the animals on either side of her, she paused coming down the short ramp to stare in disbelief at Bob.
"I've been on the phone all morning. Twenty-eight families from around Moonstone are affected by the old bastard's actions. Talk about putting coal in the stockings of children literally."
"It doesn't make sense, unless Henri needs the money. But I always assumed he had all the money in the world." She looked at the mansion, the windows dark in the dim light of the winter's morning. Everybody knew Henri had sold his ownership of a Lake Superior cargo shipping business years ago. Had he run through his millions? An ugly thought struck her heart.
"You don't suppose he's going to sell the mansion, too? This has been the North Pole forever, and the last piece of private land on the entire Square. What will happen to the holiday crèche?"
The crèche had quickly become a tradition she loved doing just to see the smiles on kids and their parents' faces at the holiday. There was something about petting animals that brought out the best in people. She led Rudolph and Gracie the donkey into place inside the protective shelter of the plywood Nativity stable. With golden straw so deep it touched their bellies they would stay cozy. Both were used to the cold Wisconsin winters. Today was Friday, the trial run to acclimate them to the lean-to for tomorrow's big day when they hoped to draw shoppers to town. So far, the animals loved the adventure, while Bob did not.
He waved the anonymous letters at her again. "If I end up getting sued over this holiday display, you're going to have to pay the lawyer's fees. This dang Nativity thing on the old coot's land was your idea."
He'd stomped away, kicking at the snowbanks along the sidewalk.
Now, herding her class toward the school, she glanced over at the LeBarron home, pines flanking it in the front yard. What kind of existence did Henri have these days? Everybody saw his helper, a mysterious man called Leonard Moline, skulk in and out of the grocery store now and then, but the man was so creepy nobody engaged in talk with him, not even about the weather. Maybe Moline was behind Henri's sale of the coal yards. Certainly he had no allegiance to Moonstone or any of the other small towns dependent on ship yards and train yards coming together in Duluth-Superior. Maybe he was lobbying for Henri to move south now, where it didn't reach thirty-below at night or even have a real winter.
Despite being bundled up and wearing her thermal t-shirt and leggings under her clothes, Crystal shivered with dread. There certainly was some kind of dirty dealings going on under the innocence of the white snow. With a heavy loss of jobs, land and home values in Moonstone would plummet. Residents losing their jobs would need to move away, and they'd get next to nothing for their homes. Who would want to move here? Some Christmas season this would be.
Suddenly, Gretchen broke ranks and tackled Marcus in the snow.
"Gretchen Johnson, stop that."
But the little imp was hot for revenge. She and Marcus rolled about, snow flying as their arms and stubby legs flailed. The other students took sides as if this were a Packers-Bears game with everything on the line. "Go, Marcus! You got 'im, Gretchen! Hit him harder!"
Crystal hauled both wiggling snow figures upright. "When I ask you nicely to come in, I expect you to respect me and come along."
Marcus, in even greater theatrics than Crystal, fell backwards, playing dead in the snow. Crystal sighed. He stiffened his limbs and squeezed his face tight, an act that many first graders seemed to do as they bridged from the age of temper tantrums on store floors to discovering new curse words from older children. Crystal wasn't looking forward to that stage either. She picked up the stiff Marcus and carried him into the school. There was an advantage to being tall and tough from farm work. She could pick up a child as if he were a naughty puppy gnawing on something he shouldn't.
"Ouch!" she yelped when Marcus pulled a strand of her hair escaping from under her wool cap. "That's it."
Instead of taking a right to her classroom, she turned left and marched with him down the yellow hallway to the principal's office. This would be the third time in as many weeks that she'd end up in a meeting with Lisa and Lowell Dane, Marcus's parents. She was on the verge of calling in Gretchen's parents as well. What more could go wrong today?
* * * *
Her thirteen students hung onto the jingle bell rope as Crystal led them through the snowy sidewalks across the open Square toward the holiday crèche. Each child owned one of the harness bells she'd secured with a ribbon to the rope. The bells, which she special ordered through Johnson's Hardware Store, replicated the bell the children saw in the Christmas book she had read to them earlier that week called The Polar Express. As was her tradition each year with her class, she told the children that if they behaved at the holiday animal display, each could take home their very own bell. Even if they didn't behave, she'd find a way to make sure each child received their special bell before the vacation break a week away, but that was her secret.
They crossed LeBarron Street, then climbed over the snowbanks to get to the sidewalk in front of the North Pole. Marcus Dane broke ranks and tore into the Nativity scene screeching, "Rudolph's gone! Somebody stole Rudolph!"
Tiny Gretchen's face turned into rivulets of tears. "We won't get any presents!"
Marcus said, "Shit, no Rudolph, no Christmas!"
"Marcus Dane, I swear I'll..." Crystal said, putting her mitten-covered hand over his mouth, not knowing what to say. She was in shock, too.
The Garcia twins, Fernando and Octavio, bawled almost in unison, their faces swarthy piles of wrinkled up misery, mouths open and showing their missing front teeth.
"Now, now, Freddy, don't cry. Octavio, we'll find Rudolph."
But Crystal panicked. She looked about the street, the Square, back to the yard of the mansion. Rudolph was nowhere in sight. Her gaze landed on a trail of boot tracks leading from the mock stable to the mansion. Before she could say anything, the quietest child in her class, Michael Lone Eagle, tugged at her coat sleeve.
"Rudolph was kidnapped, wasn't he?" Michael bit his lower lip, which was chapped and bleeding at one corner from the cold weather. "My little brother was kidnapped."
Swallowing hard and trying to think of something to say, Crystal knelt down in the snow with a tissue to wipe at Michael's face and lip, then dug out her Chapstick and rubbed it around his lips. "Try not to lick your lips, Michael. And we're going to find Rudolph."
"My brother never came home." His dark eyes grew wider, beseeching her.
"Honey, I'm very, very sorry about your brother. Let's you and me talk about that later, okay?"
Most of her charges were sobbing, one cry having triggered another. Crystal had the sense she was staring at a nest of baby birds of all colors, their mouths open in desperation for her to drop sustenance and answers into them. But she had no answers. Except for the trail to the LeBarron mansion. The urge to repeat Marcus's choice word welled up in her. How could Henri do this to the children? What had made that old coot turn on her? Or was it creepy Leonard Moline?
Forcing on a smile, she gathered up the children by shaking the rope to make the bells jingle. "Class, now listen. I'm betting Rudolph went into the woods to round up the other reindeer for Santa's sleigh. That's all. Remember tomorrow? The sleigh rides you can take around the Square?"
"But that's with a horse," Gretchen peeped between a sniffle.
Crystal counted to five. "Who do you think gives the horse directions on how to pull the sleigh? Rudolph. That must be where he is now, teaching the horse."
That mollified them. They hurried back to the school. But when she stood next to the buses at three p.m. counting noses, she was missing Michael Lone Eagle. She'd left him putting on his boots at his locker.
She found Michael inside his locker, legs and feet drawn up so that he was almost hidden under his coat that still hung above him on its hook. Crystal held out her hand.
"Hey there, young man, it's time to go home. The bus is waiting."
"I don't want to go home."
Worry ebbed through Crystal. She knelt down, pushing her hair back over her shoulders. She thought about the mysterious kidnapped brother. "Why not?"
He didn't move from the safe cocoon of the locker. He was the cutest little boy she'd ever encountered, and smart, too, the kind of kid who reminded her she had always wanted children of her own.
Michael's shoulders heaved a big sigh. "Mommy cries a lot because my brother is gone."
Crystal waited, knowing that was sometimes the best response.
He continued in a whispery voice, "His daddy is different than my daddy. His daddy took him and he never came back. Sometimes my daddy goes away for a long time, too, and I don't think he's going to come back either. If I tell Mommy about Rudolph, it'll make her cry because maybe my brother won't get presents. I don't care if I get presents, but I want Rudolph and Santa to find my brother."
Relief washed over Crystal. The half-brother was likely okay and with his own father. But Michael was missing his father. He worked construction which often took him long distances away from home because jobs were scarce on the nearby Indian reservation as well as around Moonstone.
She patted Michael's knee and gave him a wide smile. "That's so nice of you, Michael, to care that much about your brother and mother. And you know what? Your father would be very proud of you for caring so much."
He looked her long and hard in the eyes, then a winsome smile curved his slim lips. He tumbled out and locked his arms around her neck in a tight hug. She couldn't breathe.
"Thank you, Miss Hagan. Please find Rudolph," he mumbled against her neck, his words tickling. "I want a boat, you know, for Christmas."
"No, I didn't know."
"A really really big one. Only Rudolph is strong enough to bring it, I'm sure."
She had to smile. She hugged him back, enjoying his little boy smell.
Already she hatched a plan to get Rudolph back from that old curmudgeon living at the North Pole. She had something she knew Henri LeBarron couldn't resist.