Billie added the last decoration from the package to the pine tree in her front yard with trepidation.
"Damn, I should have bought more," she mumbled after glancing at the finished project.
An empty spot near the top needed some ornaments. Grabbing a shiny red ball and a silver bell from where they hung at the back of the tree, she repositioned them to fill in the space. Then she stepped back once more. The parched lawn mocked the vibrant colors hanging from the tree. Billie turned away from the depressing yard to give the tree a final perusal.
"Looks great, Billie!"
Eleanor Grady lived across the street from Billie. After vacationing in Colorado one Christmas, she vowed never to go back, preferring the weather in the south where she had lived all her life. She struggled to understand how anyone could enjoy freezing cold temperatures, blowing snow, and icy roads.
"Hey, thanks, but I sure don't like this weather. It sort of wrecks the entire feeling, you know?"
"We're used to it. When you live in the south you can't expect snow for the holiday, Billie."
"This is my first Christmas here. We already had snow in November sometimes in Michigan. It was cold even if we didn't have snow. Not like here where it's just about warm enough for shorts," Billie said.
"Wait a few years and you won't even think about the differences. The weather is what draws people to the southern states. Besides, Christmas is what you make it, not the commercialized versions you see in all the stores."
Billie went over what the woman said as she packed up the empty ornament boxes. She turned back to the older woman when she finished.
"You're right. I know it's not the snow or the grass or the temperature. None of that matters."
"The tree really does look good. You even made that open space on the side disappear. I wish I had your knack. All I end up with is an ugly mess that looks worse than a disaster."
Billie laughed at her friend. She knew the woman exaggerated her lack of skills but enjoyed listening to her.
"So can I con you into helping with mine?"
"Well, I did have a wild evening of sex planned. If you can make me a better offer, I might consider it," Billie said, laughing at her silliness.
"Oh, well, I don't think I can outdo wild sex. All I can offer is homemade lasagna, just out of the oven rolls, pecan pie, cream puffs, your choice of beverages, and—"
"Ten minutes work?" Homemade anything sounded good to the younger of the two since she rarely did more than heat a microwavable meal for her dinner.
Eleanor laughed and nodded. "See you in a few."
She thought back to the day Billie moved into the condominium as she set the table. The young woman directed a small army of men as they unloaded the moving van parked in the driveway.
Remembering how tiring moving day was, and how hungry it made everyone, she ordered several pizzas. She filled a box with an assortment of beverages and napkins. Then she walked across the street and introduced herself. Despite their age difference, the two women became instant friends.
"Ten minutes is up!" Billie yelled from the back door.
"What clock did you use? Mine says nine and a half."
"Oh, well, twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven—"
"Get in here and help me eat this mountain of food. I don't know who I thought would need all this, but dig in."
"Holy crap, Eleanor, you could feed half the city with this. When did you start cooking?" Billie asked, trying to fathom the amount of time the woman spent fixing the assorted dishes filling the table.
"I couldn't sleep, so I cooked. Then I just kept going."
"You'll never be able to eat all the leftovers."
"I know, but you'll take some, right?"
"Yeah, but still. Not only is there the lasagna, but you have some kind of chicken casserole, a beef stew, cheesy potatoes, loaded baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, BBQ chicken wings, meatballs, and sliced turkey, plus all the desserts, and are those appetizers?"
"Okay, so I went overboard. We'll figure something out after we eat."
Billie tried to get a small amount of each item onto her plate. She didn't succeed. They ate until they couldn't swallow anymore. Then they sat back on the sofa with their coffee and relaxed.
"Do you still have all those to-go containers you've been saving?" Billie asked several minutes later.
"Of course, I save everything."
"Get them. I know what we're doing with the leftovers."
Eleanor moaned as she sat up. "I ate too much. Can't I sit here a little longer?"
"Fine, but tell me where they are then."
"They're in the white cabinet in the laundry room. You—"
Billy didn't hear the rest of what her friend said. She jumped off the sofa and went downstairs. Eleanor heard her slam the cabinet shut moments before she ran up the stairs again.
"What's going on in your head this time?" she asked after joining Billie in the kitchen.
"Take whatever you want and put it into the refrigerator so I know how much is left."
"Are you going to tell me what we're doing first? Or am I going to keep asking until I get it right?"
"Trust me, okay? You'll approve . . . and love it. Fill a container with what you consider a meal."
Eleanor did as directed. Soon they had all the containers full. Billie looked at the stacks of individual meals and smiled.
"Now will you tell me what we're doing?" Eleanor asked.
"I'll be right back. Then I'll tell you, I promise."
Billie went out the door and ran across the street. She grabbed several empty boxes from next to her garbage can. Once back inside her friend's kitchen, she put the containers of food into the boxes.
"You have too much food and there are people who have none. We're going to fix that. Well, for tonight, at least. We're bringing this to the homeless."
Eleanor had already suspected what Billie wanted to do. The girl's compassion for those less fortunate was a well-known fact amongst her friends.
"I like how you think, Billie Sanders. My car or yours?"
"Well, I was thinking we could go to the park. According to the news reports, that's where the largest number of the cities' homeless congregate in the evening. If we take your car, we could open the hatch and distribute the food that way. With my car, we would have to stack it in the trunk or the backseat, neither of which would be as convenient."
"Good thinking. What about silverware or napkins?"
"Crud, I forgot those. We can stop somewhere and get plastic forks. I have paper towels we could use," Billie said.
"Check in that blue plastic storage container in the laundry room. I think I had plastic utensils left after the last neighborhood potluck. There might be enough so we don't have to buy any."
Billie grinned and went in search of the container. She guessed she would find plenty forks since her friend had a habit of purchasing more of everything than she needed. The blue tote held paper plates, cups, and decorative tablecloths. Billie closed it and opened the clear one. Inside she found what she needed. Grabbing all five bags, she closed the container and returned to the kitchen.
"I put a couple cases of water in the car. They'll need something to drink," Eleanor said.
"Good idea." Billie stopped and smiled. "You know how much I appreciate what you're doing, right?"
"Don't get all sappy on me, girl. You'll make my mascara run."
"Since I know for a fact you don't use mascara, I'll get sappy if I want to."
"We'll make this holiday enjoyable, even if I have to cook and bake until I run out of supplies."
"That will never happen. You're the closest thing to a food hoarder I know, but in a good way, and you're clean."
"I love it!"
"I know. I'm good at weird stuff like that."
Eleanor laughed and grabbed one of the boxes. "Yes, my dear friend, you are good."
They loaded the car and drove across town to the park. Christmas lights sparkled from windows and trees. Eleanor slid a CD in and began singing along with the Chipmunks.
"You listen to the Chipmunks?" Billie asked, shocked at her friend's choice of music.
"You don't like Alvin?"
"Well, I guess maybe when I was a kid."
"Ah, so I should listen to music more fitting for my age?" Eleanor asked as she pulled into an empty parking space. "Maybe something more like elevator music?"
"I didn't mean, no, not that, but . . ."
"Relax, kid, I was teasing. The CD was part of a gag gift from a Christmas party years ago. I tossed it into the car with the others yesterday. We can be silly once in a while, right?"
Billie nodded and opened the door. Eleanor released the latch and joined her friend at the back of the car.
"How do you want to handle this, Billie? I don't think we should venture far from the car."
"I see a few people near that group of benches. I'm going to walk halfway there and tell them I'm sharing some food. Then I'll come back to the car. You okay with that?"
Eleanor nodded and watched Billie walk away. When she returned, they sat on the bumper, waiting for people to approach.
"You got food? You ain't cops?"
Billie smiled at the woman but she didn't stand. She didn't want to scare her by moving too fast.
"We're not cops. Would you like something to eat? My name is Billie. This is my friend Eleanor. She likes to cook."
The old woman took another step closer but didn't say anything more. A small group of people moved up behind her. Billie assumed they were waiting for her permission before they accepted the food.
"We're just offering to share a few meals. Nothing more, I promise," Billie said, holding a stack of the containers toward her. "Take them."
The woman stared before nodding. The others in the group each took a container before turning away.
"Wait," Eleanor said. "I have forks, and some bottled water, if you would like some."
"Why?" The woman directed her question at Eleanor.
"I believe we're all given a talent. I happen to excel at cooking. Coming here was Billie's idea after she saw how much I fixed for dinner."
"If I had talent, you think I would be living out here?"
The women heard the defeat in the stranger's tone of voice. Billie took a deep breath before replying.
"No one will help us. No one cares," another of the women in the group said.
"That's not true, but sometimes people have to ask for the help, and they have to be willing to do a lot of paperwork. It can be frustrating."
Billie looked at the people in front of her and wondered what they had endured. She wanted to take them home with her, give them a place to sleep, food, and clean clothing. She understood the best she could do was find them the help they needed from an organization for the homeless.
"I would be happy to help you. My friend would too. After all, we're here tonight, right? We'll make calls and get information for you. Then we'll come back tomorrow. You can decide then what you want to do," Eleanor said.
The woman nodded and the others in the group whispered amongst themselves.
"Before then, we have a whole box of food to hand out. Any ideas of who we can share with?" Billie asked.
"We have friends . . ." the woman replied, pointing toward a stand of trees at the edge of the park. "I can get them."
She walked across the dried grass to a spot where a dozen people emerged from the darkness of the trees and followed her back. They eagerly accepted the food and water before disappearing into the shadows again. Only the initial group remained behind. The woman turned toward the others. Without saying more, they shuffled off, leaving nothing behind.
Eleanor sat on the bumper and looked at Billie. "I can't believe she thinks no one will help. I'm not associated with any agency and even I know there's all sorts of organizations around."
Neither spoke for a few minutes as they put the empty boxes into the back of the car and closed the hatch.
"You seem quite adamant about the help that's available. How do you know so much about the subject?"
Billie buckled her seat belt before answering. She looked straight ahead when she spoke.
"My parents divorced when I was eight. I lived with my father for three years. But he remarried and his new wife didn't want any reminders of his past. I went to my mom's then, but she was involved with a man who thought I was in the way. For the next two years, until I was just about sixteen, I stayed with my grandmother."
Eleanor drove through the quiet streets as Billie talked. Her heart broke for the young girl her friend had been back then. Yet she didn't say anything. She sensed there was more to the story.
"My grandmother took really good care of me. She made sure I went to school, and that I had the latest style clothes, and even taught me to play the piano. I didn't know she was sick though. She never told me. Then one day, she was gone, just gone. I was a few months shy of eighteen and neither of my parents wanted me. I never heard what happened, but my mother changed her mind. She kicked her boyfriend out and took me in."
Billie stared at her reflection in the side glass but saw her family as they had been years ago. She rarely told anyone about her past even though she knew nothing that happened had been her fault.
"There's that saying about how everything happens in threes. First, it was my grandmother. A month later, my father died in a car accident. Three months later, my mother fell asleep with a lit cigarette in her hand. She lost everything and officially joined the millions of others in America living on the streets. I lucked out. I had a friend in school whose parents helped me find a job, put me up in their garage apartment, and mentored me until I was able to make it on my own."
"You were fortunate, Billie," Eleanor said. "What happened to your mother?"
"I've never found her."
The older woman heard the pain and emotion in the four words. "But you keep looking."
"No, I don't really look anymore."
Eleanor stopped the car in her driveway and turned to her friend. "I don't know if I could come through those challenges as strong as you did."
"You do whatever you have to without really thinking about it, you know?"
"Get some sleep. Tomorrow is a fresh day. We'll start over then."
"Good night, Eleanor. Thank you for helping tonight."
They parted—each deep in thought, neither paying attention to the Christmas lights sparkling along the street. Billie went inside and began making calls. It took all night to accomplish her goal. She fell asleep as the sun rose.
Eleanor hadn't heard from Billie by noon and worried something was wrong. She rang the doorbell several times before pounding on the door.
"Billie, open up!"
"What, who is it?"
"You look like hell. What's wrong?" Eleanor asked, pushing her way inside.
"I was up all night."
"Why didn't you sleep?"
"I couldn't until—"
"You could have waited until today," Eleanor said, flipping a switch to start the coffee machine.
"I did it, Eleanor. I found a place."
"You did not. You did. How? Where? Tell me."
"It's in the city. We can bring them in as soon as we make contact with them."
"You did great, honey. Go to sleep and I'll come back at six. I'll drive again since they might recognize my car."
Eleanor let herself out and went to the store. She didn't have time to cook, so she bought meats and cheeses for sandwiches and added an assortment of cookies from the bakery. She had bags of sandwiches in her car when Billie knocked at six.
They parked in the same spot as the night before. Eleanor opened the hatch. Then they waited. An hour passed but they didn't see the woman or her friends from the night before.
"Something's wrong. I know it," Billie said.
"Honey, maybe she doesn't want help. Some people can't accept anything from others."
"I know that. I just have this feeling it will work out."
Another hour passed. They gave out all the sandwiches except enough for the small group. Billie refused to hand them out to anyone else.
"It's time to go, Billie. We can't sit out here all night."
"A few more minutes, okay?"
Eleanor nodded even though she didn't believe the homeless strangers would show up. She stared at the Christmas lights and hoped for a miracle. After another hour went by, even Billie had to admit defeat. She tossed the sandwiches into the trash receptacle in the park and slammed the hatch.
"Why did she say she wanted help if she wasn't going to be here? Why are people so stubborn?"
"You did the best you could, Billie. You kept your word. We don't know why she's living out here or what happened to her in the past. Think about your own mother's life and all that she dealt with. This woman could have—"
"I know all that! Don't you see? She might be someone's mom. I had to try," she said.
"You're a good person, Billie. Let's go home."
"Merry Christmas, Mom, wherever you are," she whispered as they left the park.