It was Christmas day, in the early morning hours. I lay snuggled under my fuzzy electric throw, lost to the world in a kaleidoscope of sugar plum dreams. Stockings were thumbtacked to my fake fireplace and I roused to sniff the sweet scent of the $5 cinnamon broom I'd bought instead of a Christmas tree. Sleep soon drew me back to nothingness.

A booming voice shook me senseless. I wish I could say that I threw up my sash and found Santa, but those things don't happen in my hood. I live in a mobile home park, and as I lay there, I heard the guy shout: "Escondido Swat. Come out with your hands up!"

I hoped to God he wasn't talking to me. I'd divorced my bad boy years earlier, but I worried that a computer glitch had placed him under my throw. I gulped down my fear as my coverlet full of wires served as my only defense.

Anna, my fifteen-year-old daughter, raced from the bedroom to the couch where I slept. "The SWAT team is is front of Marie's house!" she announced, wide eyed.

"Marie's?" Whew! I felt the color return to my face. Better her than me.

Marie and her daughter, Natalie, lived in a single-wide next door. The girls had been friends since the first grade. Months earlier, Natalie had told Anna a weird story. She and her mother had been making soup when a man appeared in their living room. Carl explained that he had just gotten out of prison and was looking for his brother who lived across the street.

"He moved," Natalie said. Both women were in shock, Natalie a little more so than her mother. Marie let Carl stay with them.

I saw Carl in the parking lot down at Albertson's. He was decked out in a wife-beater shirt and a handle bar-mustache. He was lighting a cig and leaning against a glitter purple Lincoln Continental, Anna aptly called "Skittles Threw Up."

I suspected that he had something to do with the Christmas cops outside.

Under the guise that it takes two to retrieve a newspaper, Anna and I tiptoed down the driveway in our nightgowns. Both of us stared at the armored van, the fleet of officers in ski masks toting machine guns and the two Belgian Malanois ready to strike at anything.

Poor Natalie must have been shaking in her slippers. At our sleepover, she couldn't even handle having dog hair on her sleeping bag. I remembered how she pranced and sang into my hair brush when "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch" came on. Her dark, curly hair fanned out around her as she twirled. In her short skirt and tank top, I had her pegged as a future sun-worshipping goddess--not a felon.

The clock ticked on and still no Marie and Natalie. I thought about running inside to call, urging them to give up. Then I remembered that they didn't have a phone.

The back door opened and a withered Natalie stepped outside in cargo pants and a T-shirt.

"Hands on your head!" an officer roared. No sooner had Natalie raised her hands, than an officer swooped in and cuffed her. Marie was next. Then a voice-by-megaphone called for "Carl Ray Cisneros" to stop outside. I held my breath, but no one appeared.

After some time, officers stormed the dwelling. Furniture, toys and clothes were tossed outside. The aluminum siding was yanked off the coach. By the time the officers left, the place looked like the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina.

I was no one to judge Marie. For years, we both struggled to put rotting roofs over our kids' heads and Top Ramen on the tables. LIke me, she had probably dragged through each day in a low-income coma, until one day, a man had appeared. Carl was no Prince Charming, but his compliments made her feel like Cinderella. Unfortunately, her fairy-tale ending had hit a serious snag.

My heart bled for Natalie. I wanted to get her a Christmas present, something to make it all better. But socks and CDs just weren't going to cut it in this case. I went to my bookshelf and took down a Bible missionaries gave me when my hubby went upstate for grand theft. Inside, I wrote, "This will get you through anything. We love you."

I found her in the carport, trying to stuff a piece of dented aluminum siding back in place. With her black hair pulled back in a floppy bun, she looked like Anna.

"How are you?" I asked softly.

"I'm okay," she replied, looking away. A single tear rolled down her cheek.

I struggled with my own tears. "Here," I said, handing over the Bible. "Merry Christmas."

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