Joy flies home with a precious gift

Editor’s note: This is the 11th of a 12-chapter holiday tale running daily until Christmas. Parents are encouraged to read aloud to their children.

Joy stared at the shiny red sleigh, adorned with twinkling lights and sparkling silver snowflakes and tinsel. It was tiny! There was no way it was going to fit all the presents she’d seen in the Loading Dock.

“Um, Lucy?” she asked the curly haired elf in charge of examining the sleigh a final time. “I don’t see how this is going to work.”

Lucy looked up from her clipboard and grinned. “Don’t worry, kid. I think that every year, and it always works out.”

Joy wasn’t so sure, but she nodded and glanced at Maxy, who was nervously munching on a frosting-covered sugar cookie while Suzette fiddled with his harness.

The rest of the reindeer were already in place. At the front, Rudolph stood tall, looking with pride at his son.

Teams of elves emerged from the Loading Dock, carrying sack after sack of toys. They placed each sack inside the sleigh, and it should have created a towering stack high into the sky, but somehow each and every sack fit neatly into the sleigh.

“This is the last of it,” Santa said, tossing one last stuffed-to-the-brim sack on the sleigh. He looked toward Suzette and Lucy. “Is everything ready?”

Lucy held up her clipboard, each category marked with a neatly-drawn poinsettia. “Yes, sir. Everything looks good.”

“These guys are all ready, too,” Suzette said, patting Maxy’s head.

Joy knelt down next to Maxy and gave him a big hug. “You’re going to do great tonight,” she whispered. He nuzzled her cheek, and she softly kissed his nose before standing back up.

“After you,” Santa said, gesturing to the steps that suddenly descended from the side of the sleigh. Joy climbed in and settled into the cushy, velvety seat. Santa sat next to her and fiddled with an array of buttons and levers that covered the dashboard.

“Strap in and hold on tight,” he instructed, and when Joy had fastened her seatbelt tightly across her lap, he pressed a final button and gave the reins a gentle tug.

In a flash, they were shooting through the sky, faster than Joy could have ever thought possible. City lights and stars shot by, indistinguishable from each other, and Joy barely had time to be amazed that she didn’t even feel the freezing air whizzing past before the sleigh slowed.

“I’m … home?” she asked, peeking over the edge of the sleigh. They were on the roof Sunnybrook Children’s Home, and a wave of disappointment crashed over her as she realized her adventure was over.

“Delivering millions of gifts in a single night is a tough job,” Santa said gently. “It’s not one meant for a little girl.”

Joy nodded. “I understand.”

Santa smiled at her, his eyes twinkling in the moonlight. “This was just one of the great adventures of your life, Joy Noelle. I have no doubt your future holds many more.”

He held out his arms, and Joy gave him a tight hug.

“Thank you for everything,” she whispered, and he chuckled.

“You’re very welcome,” he said. “Although I’m really the one who needs to thank you. You were invaluable at the North Pole.”

“I’m glad I could help,” she said, a warm feeling of pride spreading through her.

Santa pressed a button, and the stairs emerged again from the side of the sleigh, twisting into a spiral staircase that led right to her bedroom window.

“Be careful going down, but do be quick,” Santa warned. “Since the moment you’ve left, no time has passed here. But it will start up again the second you leave the sleigh.”

“I’ll get in fast,” Joy promised. She gave Santa one last hug, and called out a good-bye to each reindeer before carefully making her way down the steps.

Her window was open, just like she’d left it, and as she slid inside she heard the sound of hooves taking off from the roof. Her heart ached a little at the thought of it all being over, then she patted the lump in her pocket.

She hurriedly changed out of her snow clothes, tucking them away in her closet and making a mental note to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why she had them.

Everyone was downstairs right where she’d left them, and Mrs. Duncan smiled warmly at her.

“Change of heart?” she asked. “We could use the help.”

Joy smiled back. “Yeah, I guess you could say that. Could I talk to you for a second though?”

Once they were alone in Mrs. Duncan’s office, Joy handed her the small wrapped package.

“I made this for you,” she said, taking in every detail of Mrs. Duncan’s face as she carefully unwrapped the gift.

“Oh, Joy,” Mrs. Duncan gasped, holding up the porcelain ornament painted with the silhouette of a woman holding a baby, standing next to a window with a wintery nighttime scene outside. “This is beautiful! Where on earth did you get this?”

“I made it,” Joy said simply, and before Mrs. Duncan could ask her questions she couldn’t possibly answer, Joy gave her a big hug.

Mrs. Duncan stroked her hair, and Joy breathed in the familiar, comforting scent of her vanilla perfume. She didn’t know what the future held, but for the first time that made her feel something other than fear and sadness.

She felt hope.

Read the last installment in Monday’s Tribune Chronicle.