To say that the play was a smashing success was to put it mildly. The audience laughed and the audience cried, which is pretty much what they were supposed to do. But because of Jamie’s presence, it really became something special—and I think everyone in the cast was as shocked as I was at how well the whole thing had come off. They all had that same look I did when I first saw her, and it made the play that much more powerful when they were performing their parts. We finished the first performance without a hitch, and the next evening even more people showed up, if you can believe it. Even Eric came up to me afterward and congratulated me, which after what he’d said to me before was somewhat of a surprise.
“The two of you did good,” he said simply. “I’m proud of you, buddy.”
While he said it, Miss Garber was crying out, “Marvelous!” to anyone who would listen to her or who just happened to be walking past, repeating it over and over so much that I kept on hearing it long after I went to bed that night. I looked for Jamie after we’d pulled the curtains closed for the final time, and spotted her off to the side, with her father. He had tears in his eyes—it was the first time I’d ever seen him cry—and Jamie went into his arms, and they held each other for a long time. He was stroking her hair and whispering, “My angel,” to her while her eyes were closed, and even I felt myself choking up.
The “right thing,” I realized, wasn’t so bad after all.
After they finally let go of each other, Hegbert proudly motioned for her to visit with the rest of the cast, and she got a boatload of congratulations from everyone backstage. She knew she’d done well, though she kept on telling people she didn’t know what all the fuss was about. She was her normal cheerful self, but with her looking so pretty, it came across in a totally different way. I stood in the background, letting her have her moment, and I’ll admit there was a part of me that felt like old Hegbert. I couldn’t help but be happy for her, and a little proud as well. When she finally saw me standing off to one side, she excused herself from the others and walked over, finally stopping when she was close.
Looking up at me, she smiled. “Thank you, Landon, for what you did. You made my father very happy.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, meaning it.
The strange thing was, when she said it, I realized that Hegbert would be driving her home, and for once I wished that I would have had the opportunity to walk her there.
The following Monday was our last week of school before Christmas break, and finals were scheduled in every class. In addition, I had to finish my application for UNC, which I’d sort of been putting off because of all the rehearsals. I planned on hitting the books pretty hard that week, then doing the application at night before I went to bed. Even so, I couldn’t help but think about Jamie.
Jamie’s transformation during the play had been startling, to say the least, and I assumed it had signaled a change in her. I don’t know why I thought that way, but I did, and so I was amazed when she showed up our first morning back dressed like her usual self: brown sweater, hair in a bun, plaid skirt, and all.
One look was all it took, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. She’d been regarded as normal—even special—over the weekend, or so it had seemed, but she’d somehow let it slip away. Oh, people were a little nicer to her, and the ones who hadn’t talked to her yet told her what a good job she’d done, too, but I could tell right off that it wasn’t going to last. Attitudes forged since childhood are hard to break, and part of me wondered if it might even get worse for her after this. Now that people actually knew she could look normal, they might even become more heartless.
I wanted to talk to her about my impressions, I really did, but I was planning to do so after the week was over. Not only did I have a lot to do, but I wanted a little time to think of the best way to tell her. To be honest, I was still feeling a little guilty about the things I’d said to her on our last walk home, and it wasn’t just because the play had turned out great. It had more to do with the fact that in all our time together, Jamie had never once been anything but kind, and I knew that I’d been wrong.
I didn’t think she wanted to talk to me, either, to tell you the truth. I knew she could see me hanging out with my friends at lunch while she sat off in the corner, reading her Bible, but she never made a move toward us. But as I was leaving school that day, I heard her voice behind me, asking me if I wouldn’t mind walking her home. Even though I wasn’t ready to tell her yet about my thoughts, I agreed. For old times’ sake, you see.
A minute later Jamie got down to business.
“Do you remember those things you said on our last walk home?” she asked.
I nodded, wishing she hadn’t brought it up.
“You promised to make it up to me,” she said.
For a moment I was confused. I thought I’d done that already with my performance in the play. Jamie went on.
“Well, I’ve been thinking about what you could do,” she continued without letting me get a word in edgewise, “and this is what I’ve come up with.”
She asked if I wouldn’t mind gathering the pickle jars and coffee cans she’d set out in businesses all over town early in the year. They sat on the counters, usually near the cash registers, so that people could drop their loose change in. The money was to go to the orphans. Jamie never wanted to ask people straight out for the money, she wanted them to give voluntarily. That, in her mind, was the Christian thing to do.
I remembered seeing the containers in places like Cecil’s Diner and the Crown Theater. My friends and I used to toss paper clips and slugs in there when the cashiers weren’t looking, since they sounded sort of like a coin being dropped inside, then we’d chuckle to ourselves about how we were putting something over on Jamie. We used to joke about how she’d open one of her cans, expecting something good because of the weight, and she’d dump it out and find nothing but slugs and paper clips. Sometimes, when you remember the things you used to do, it makes you wince, and that’s exactly what I did.
Jamie saw the look on my face.
“You don’t have to do it,” she said, obviously disappointed. “I was just thinking that since Christmas is coming up so quickly and I don’t have a car, it’ll simply take me too long to collect them all. . . .”
“No,” I said cutting her off, “I’ll do it. I don’t have much to do anyway.”
So that’s what I did starting Wednesday, even though I had tests to study for, even with that application needing to be finished. Jamie had given me a list of every place she’d placed a can, and I borrowed my mom’s car and started at the far end of town the following day. She’d put out about sixty cans in all, and I figured that it would take only a day to collect them all. Compared to putting them out, it would be a piece of cake. It had taken Jamie almost six weeks to do because she’d first had to find sixty empty jars and cans and then she could put out only two or three a day since she didn’t have a car and could carry only so many at a time. When I started out, I felt sort of funny about being the one who picked up the cans and jars, being that it was Jamie’s project, but I kept telling myself that Jamie had asked me to help.
I went from business to business, collecting the cans and jars, and by end of the first day I realized it was going to take a little longer than I’d thought. I’d picked up only about twenty containers or so, because I’d forgotten one simple fact of life in Beaufort. In a small town like this, it was impossible to simply run inside and grab the can without chatting with the proprietor or saying hello to someone else you might recognize. It just wasn’t done. So I’d sit there while some guy would be talking about the marlin he’d hooked last fall, or they’d ask me how school was going and mention that they needed a hand unloading a few boxes in the back, or maybe they wanted my opinion on whether they should move the magazine rack over to the other side of the store. Jamie, I knew, would have been good at this, and I tried to act like I thought she would want me to. It was her project after all.
To keep things moving, I didn’t stop to check the take in between the businesses. I just dumped one jar or can into the next, combining them as I went along. By the end of the first day all the change was packed in two large jars, and I carried them up to my room. I saw a few bills through the glass—not too many—but I wasn’t actually nervous until I emptied the contents onto my floor and saw that the change consisted primarily of pennies. Though there weren’t nearly as many slugs or paper clips as I’d thought there might be, I was still disheartened when I counted up the money. There was $20.32. Even in 1958 that wasn’t a lot of money, especially when divided among thirty kids.
I didn’t get discouraged, though. Thinking that it was a mistake, I went out the next day, hauled a few dozen boxes, and chatted with another twenty proprietors while I collected cans and jars. The take: $23.89.
The third day was even worse. After counting up the money, even I couldn’t believe it. There was only $11.52. Those were from the businesses down by the waterfront, where the tourists and teenagers like me hung out. We were really something, I couldn’t help but think.
Seeing how little had been collected in all—$55.73—made me feel awful, especially considering that the jars had been out for almost a whole year and that I myself had seen them countless times. That night I was supposed to call Jamie to tell her the amount I’d collected, but I just couldn’t do it. She’d told me how she’d wanted something extra special this year, and this wasn’t going to do it—even I knew that. Instead I lied to her and told her that I wasn’t going to count the total until the two of us could do it together, because it was her project, not mine. It was just too depressing. I promised to bring over the money the following afternoon, after school let out. The next day was December 21, the shortest day of the year. Christmas was only four days away.
“Landon,” she said to me after counting it up, “this is a miracle!”
“How much is there?” I asked. I knew exactly how much it was.
“There’s almost two hundred and forty-seven dollars here!” She was absolutely joyous as she looked up at me. Since Hegbert was home, I was allowed to sit in the living room, and that’s where Jamie had counted the money. It was stacked in neat little piles all over the floor, almost all quarters and dimes. Hegbert was in the kitchen at the table, writing his sermon, and even he turned his head when he heard the sound of her voice.
“Do you think that’s enough?” I asked innocently.
Little tears were coming down her cheeks as she looked around the room, still not believing what she was seeing right in front of her. Even after the play, she hadn’t been nearly this happy. She looked right at me.
“It’s . . . wonderful,” she said, smiling. There was more emotion than I’d ever heard in her voice before. “Last year, I only collected seventy dollars.”
“I’m glad it worked out better this year,” I said through the lump that had formed in my throat. “If you hadn’t placed those jars out so early in the year, you might not have collected nearly as much.”
I know I was lying, but I didn’t care. For once, it was the right thing to do.
I didn’t help Jamie pick out the toys—I figured she’d know better what the kids would want anyway—but she’d insisted that I go with her to the orphanage on Christmas Eve so that I could be there when the children opened their gifts. “Please, Landon,” she’d said, and with her being so excited and all, I just didn’t have the heart to turn her down.
So three days later, while my father and mother were at a party at the mayor’s house, I dressed in a houndstooth jacket and my best tie and walked to my mom’s car with Jamie’s present beneath my arm. I’d spent my last few dollars on a nice sweater because that was all I could think to get her. She wasn’t exactly the easiest person to shop for.
I was supposed to be at the orphanage at seven, but the bridge was up near the Morehead City port, and I had to wait until an outbound freighter slowly made its way down the channel. As a result, I arrived a few minutes late. The front door was already locked by that time, and I had to pound on it until Mr. Jenkins finally heard me. He fiddled through his set of keys until he found the right one, and a moment later he opened the door. I stepped inside, patting my arms to ward off the chill.
“Ah . . . you’re here,” he said happily. “We’ve been waiting for you. C’mon, I’ll take you to where everyone is.”
He led me down the hall to the rec room, the same place I’d been before. I paused for just a moment to exhale deeply before finally heading in.
It was even better than I’d imagined.
In the center of the room I saw a giant tree, decorated with tinsel and colored lights and a hundred different handmade ornaments. Beneath the tree, spread in all directions, were wrapped gifts of every size and shape. They were piled high, and the children were on the floor, sitting close together in a large semicircle. They were dressed in their best clothes, I assumed—the boys wore navy blue slacks and white collared shirts, while the girls had on navy skirts and long-sleeved blouses. They all looked as if they’d cleaned up before the big event, and most of the boys had had their hair cut.
On the table beside the door, there was a bowl of punch and platters of cookies, shaped like Christmas trees and sprinkled with green sugar. I could see some adults sitting with the children; a few of the smaller kids were sitting on the adults’ laps, their faces rapt with attention as they listened to “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
I didn’t see Jamie, though, at least not right off the bat. It was her voice that I recognized first. She was the one reading the story, and I finally located her. She was sitting on the floor in front of the tree with her legs bent beneath her.
To my surprise, I saw that tonight her hair hung loosely, just as it had the night of the play. Instead of the old brown cardigan I’d seen so many times, she was wearing a red V-neck sweater that somehow accentuated the color of her light blue eyes. Even without sparkles in her hair or a long white flowing dress, the sight of her was arresting. Without even noticing it, I’d been holding my breath, and I could see Mr. Jenkins smiling at me out of the corner of my eye. I exhaled and smiled, trying to regain control.
Jamie paused only once to look up from the story. She noticed me standing in the doorway, then went back to reading to the children. It took her another minute or so to finish, and when she did, she stood up and smoothed her skirt, then walked around the children to make her way toward me. Not knowing where she wanted me to go, I stayed where I was.
By then Mr. Jenkins had slipped away.
“I’m sorry we started without you,” she said when she finally reached me, “but the kids were just so excited.”
“It’s okay,” I said, smiling, thinking how nice she looked.
“I’m so glad you could come.”
“So am I.”
Jamie smiled and reached for my hand to lead the way. “C’mon with me,” she said. “Help me hand out the gifts.”
We spent the next hour doing just that, and we watched as the children opened them one by one. Jamie had shopped all over town, picking up a few things for each child in the room, individual gifts that they’d never received before. The gifts that Jamie bought weren’t the only ones the children received, however—both the orphanage and the people who worked there had bought some things as well. As paper was tossed around the room in excited frenzy, there were squeals of delight everywhere. To me, at least, it seemed that all of the children had received far more than they’d expected, and they kept thanking Jamie over and over.
By the time the dust had finally settled and all the children’s gifts were opened, the atmosphere began to calm down. The room was tidied up by Mr. Jenkins and a woman I’d never met, and some of the smaller children were beginning to fall asleep beneath the tree. Some of the older ones had already gone back to their rooms with their gifts, and they’d dimmed the overhead lights on the way out the door. The tree lights cast an ethereal glow as “Silent Night” played softly on a phonograph that had been set up in the corner. I was still sitting on the floor next to Jamie, who was holding a young girl who’d fallen asleep in her lap. Because of all the commotion, we hadn’t really had a chance to talk, not that either of us had minded. We were both gazing up at the lights on the tree, and I wondered what Jamie was thinking. If truth be told, I didn’t know, but she had a tender look about her. I thought—no, I knew—she was pleased with how the evening had gone, and deep down, so was I. To this point it was the best Christmas Eve I’d ever spent.
I glanced at her. With the lights glowing on her face, she looked as pretty as anyone I’d ever seen.
“I bought you something,” I finally said to her. “A gift, I mean.” I spoke softly so I wouldn’t wake the little girl, and I hoped it would hide the nervousness in my voice.
She turned from the tree to face me, smiling softly. “You didn’t have to do that.” She kept her voice low, too, and it sounded almost musical.
“I know,” I said. “But I wanted to.” I’d kept the gift off to one side, and I reached for it, handing the gift-wrapped package to her.
“Could you open it for me? My hands are kind of full right now.” She looked down at the little girl, then back to me.
“You don’t have to open it now, if you’d rather not,” I said, shrugging, “it’s really not that big of a deal.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “I would only open it in front of you.”
To clear my mind, I looked at the gift and started opening it, picking at the tape so that it wouldn’t make much noise, then unwrapping the paper until I reached the box. After setting the paper off to the side, I lifted the cover and pulled out the sweater, holding it up to show her. It was brown, like the ones she usually wore. But I figured she could use a new one.
Compared with the joy I’d seen earlier, I didn’t expect much of a reaction.
“See, that’s all. I told you it wasn’t much,” I said. I hoped she wasn’t disappointed in it.
“It’s beautiful, Landon,” she said earnestly. “I’ll wear it the next time I see you. Thank you.”
We sat quietly for a moment, and once again I began to look at the lights.
“I brought you something, too,” Jamie finally whispered. She looked toward the tree, and my eyes followed her gaze. Her gift was still beneath the tree, partially hidden by the stand, and I reached for it. It was rectangular, flexible, and a little heavy. I brought it to my lap and held it there without even trying to open it.
“Open it,” she said, looking right at me.
“You can’t give this to me,” I said breathlessly. I already knew what was inside, and I couldn’t believe what she had done. My hands began to tremble.
“Please,” she said to me with the kindest voice I’d ever heard, “open it. I want you to have it.”
Reluctantly I slowly unwrapped the package. When it was finally free of the paper, I held it gently, afraid to damage it. I stared at it, mesmerized, and slowly ran my hand over the top, brushing my fingers over the well-worn leather as tears filled my eyes. Jamie reached out and rested her hand on mine. It was warm and soft.
I glanced at her, not knowing what to say.
Jamie had given me her Bible.
“Thank you for doing what you did,” she whispered to me. “It was the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”
I turned away without responding and reached off to the side where I’d set my glass of punch. The chorus of “Silent Night” was still playing, and the music filled the room. I took a sip of the punch, trying to soothe the sudden dryness in my throat. As I drank, all the times I’d spent with Jamie came flooding into my mind. I thought about the homecoming dance and what she’d done for me that night. I thought about the play and how angelic she’d looked. I thought about the times I’d walked her home and how I’d helped collect jars and cans filled with pennies for the orphans.
As these images were going through my head, my breathing suddenly went still. I looked at Jamie, then up to the ceiling and around the room, doing my best to keep my composure, then back to Jamie again. She smiled at me and I smiled at her and all I could do was wonder how I’d ever fallen in love with a girl like Jamie Sullivan.