Mr. Tarter’s Tree ~ A Christmas Story

I’m excited to share a Christmas story I wrote. These are beloved characters from my Genesis-finalist, young adult/middle grades novel, Round Remembering: Escape to Stone Mountain. I’m currently working on book two, tentatively titled Round Remembering: Into the Citylands.

I love these characters and can’t wait to see where God leads with the books. Until then, please enjoy the story. At the end I include the back cover blurb for Round Remembering: Escape to Stone Mountain.

***

Mr. Tarter’s Tree

 

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Southern Tennessee

December, 2074

 

The whole world lay hidden beneath a thick coating of flour.

Bradley’s smile tightened into a shiver. No. This was definitely snow.

Quiet enveloped him as he stepped outside. The winter storm had piled snow against the four-story brick building. Behind him, the Falstaff kitchens belched meaty smells and broiler steam, reminders of tonight’s dinner and the breakfast Mr. Tarter was preparing on the other side of the door.

Biscuits and sausage.

Bradley’s mouth watered despite his mostly-full belly.

For Sunday breakfast, the Falstaff kitchen served biscuits slathered with strawberry jelly and plump, spicy sausage. Two each, and sometimes Mr. Tarter snuck him a third.

Air sharp and cold as an icicle pricked his eyes as he trudged toward the greenhouse, his arms wrapped around a bucket of rotting leftovers.

His feet, shoved into an overlarge pair of men’s work boots, sunk into fresh snow. Tiny snowflakes fluttered here and there, chased by the wind’s whimsy, as much leftovers of the snow storm as the foul food in the bucket.

The setting sun pierced the thick forest surrounding Falstaff, sparkling through the sentinel tree line and setting everything off in gold-tipped, icy wonder. A bird called out, high in a tree, the sound edged with loneliness. But the only answering sound was his clumping footsteps and the swish of his thick uniform pants.

His throat tightened, and the strangely familiar longing tingled in his chest again. Or was it just the cold air he sucked in with each step?

As he walked, he pictured the fence Luther droned on and on about. The head-master warned them the fence would kill on contact, hidden just inside the woods lining Falstaff grounds. Every boy knew of the fence’s wire-tipped edges and unpredictable zaps, had heard about the poor boys who’d tried to run, only to be stopped dead in their tracks.

Dead?

Bradley gulped a mouthful of icy air. He skirted the dilapidated gardener’s shed and adjusted his hold on the heavy bucket.

How could mushy carrots and potatoes, wilted broccoli, and rotten apples weigh so much? And the smell. Bradley grimaced. Like the dirty laundry piled high in Falstaff’s basement, the odor wafting from the bucket burned his nose.

One booted foot slid into the other, and he stumbled, pitching forward to both knees.

“Ooof.” Cold dampness soaked through to his skin.

Smashed pinto beans and shiny green grapes spilled out of the bucket, covering the white surface like colorful treasure. Bradley struggled to his feet.

“This tree better be worth it,” he mumbled to the hulking form of a lawn mower sitting still and fierce. Its sharp metal edges were softened by inches of snow.

“Bring these food scraps to greenhouse four, Bradley-boy.” Mr. Tarter had directed minutes earlier. “Use ’em to fertilize the soil for next spring.”

“Tonight?” Bradley had peered through a cracked window pane, at the darkening sky.

“Yes, tonight. There’s a little tree inside, behind the door. Fresh cut, it is. The base’ll fit in this here bucket, once it’s empty.” Mr. Tarter had glanced around the cavernous Falstaff kitchen, making certain they were alone. Of course they were. The head-masters only came into its vast quarters if there was a problem with dinner, and tonight’s ham and beans had been delicious. “Bring it back.”

“The bucket?”

“The tree, child. I need that little tree.”

Bradley trudged on, shivering. Why did Mr. Tarter need a tree on this bitter cold winter night? Last night Luther had gone on and on about the weather during evening assembly.

“Snow’s coming, boys. I feel it in my bones.”

Bradley wasn’t sure the head-master even had any bones in his pudgy arms and legs.

Just in his hands.

His fists surely had something hard in them when they flew at Bradley’s—

A cache of hidden ice sent him to his rump. The half-zipped windbreaker Mr. Tarter had thrown over his shoulders rode up his back, and icy moisture soaked into his rear faster than he could struggle to his feet.

“No wonder Mr. Tarter didn’t wanna’ fetch his own tree.”

Bradley adjusted the bucket of slop then drew one hand back, rubbing the small circle on the back of his neck. He clenched his teeth. The solid metal circle was especially cold today, like it had soaked in the freezing air that chaffed Bradley’s cheeks.

All the boys here had neck circles, but none of the adults. Bradley stepped down so hard his foot slammed into frozen earth. How could that be? Did neck circles fall off when people reached a certain age?

If so, he couldn’t get older fast enough.

As he neared greenhouse four, shadows from the forest stretched out, touching his boots and creeping up his legs. His heart, already pumping hard, slammed against his ribs.

The door creaked open, the silence inside even quieter than outside. Bradley dropped the slop bucket with a thud. A rotting gray potato wiggled on the surface, and his dinner clenched in his stomach.

He glanced up, searching for the floodlight Mr. Tarter said was there. Since the boys worked in the greenhouses during the day, lights weren’t needed.

Sure enough, a string hung over a small green tree lying lopsided against a work shelf piled with gardening tools.

“Ah ha.”

The tree was sparse and small, with uneven branches and a crooked trunk. Why did Mr. Tarter need a tree? Bradley’s stomach revolted again at the idea of slurping pine needles in one of the concoctions Mr. Tarter tried to call soup.

He yanked the string. The light bulb crackled to life. Seconds later a sharp pop dropped him back into semi-darkness.

“Great. Now I have to spread this stuff in the dark?”

He jammed his hands into a pair of floppy gloves hanging over the work shelves, grunting in disgust as layers of old potato and limp broccoli clumped into the soil. Or was that cauliflower?

Light faded quickly, leaving Bradley glancing over his shoulder every few seconds. The gleaming full moon held the darkness at bay while he chucked out the slop.

Bradley dumped the rest of into a plant bed and picked up the homely tree. He plunged its trunk into the slimy bucket, and hurried out of the greenhouse, racing the moon light and biting night air to the kitchen door.

A tall shadow crossed the threshold, bent slightly, arms outstretched. Waiting for him.

Bradley grinned. “Here’s your tree, sir.”

“None o’ that, now. I ain’t no sir.” Mr. Tarter glanced around the yard furtively then yanked Bradley and the tree-in-the-bucket through the door.

The stuffy warmth of the kitchen was stifling. Bradley shrugged off the windbreaker and hung it beside the door.

“Quick, follow me. They be calling for you soon.”

Bradley pressed one finger on the metal circle on his neck, flicking and pressing as they hurried through the kitchens, into Mr. Tarter’s private room.

Shaped like a rectangle and not very large, Mr. Tarter’s bedroom had a twin bed no bigger than Bradley’s cot on fourth level Halo Block. Two small wood shelves leaned on opposite walls. Bradley glanced longingly at the shelves. They were filled with worn books and falling-apart picture pages.

Magazines, Mr. Tarter called them.

“You’re keeping the tree in here?”

“Sho’ am. They won’t let me put it nowhere out there.”

“Because it’s unsanitary, like the robin?”

Bradley had found a baby robin under a planter in the greenhouse at summer’s end. Mr. Tarter had hidden the little bird, nursed it until its bent wing wasn’t bent anymore, but kept it in his room because he thought its germs would get in the food. Unsanitary, he told Bradley, though Bradley knew he’d cared for the dainty bird, too.

“Not cuz it unsanitary. The tree here cuz they don’t want me having it at all. It ain’t allowed no more.”

Bradley leaned over, running a finger across the little pine’s soft and prickly branches. The tree was at least a foot shorter than him. Where had Mr. Tarter gotten it? Why did he want a tree in his room? Shoes heaped in one corner, and folded laundry–lots of white aprons and brown uniform pants–filled up the other. Boxes with canned food were stored in corners, meals to come.

It seemed crowded enough.

“This here’s my Christmas tree. Watch, now. Watch this.” Mr. Tarter disappeared into the kitchen, returning in half a minute with sloshing liquid in a mason jar. “This good for now.” He poured the water into the bucket, adjusted the tree–the Christmas tree–as straight as it would go then leaned back with a smile.

“Time for ornee-ments.”

“Orna-what?”

“Ornaments.” Mr. Tarter’s brown lips shaped around each sound carefully. He grabbed a small container high on one of the bookshelves. His paper clip collection? The tiny silver holders filled his broad hand.

His mismatched eyes–one dark, one blinded to a silvery blue–gleamed. “Come now, help me decorate. Like this.” He opened the paper clip and slid it over a branch.

Then another, and another. Needles dropped to the floor, but still they spent careful, quiet moments lining each branch with paper clips.

Bradley cocked his head. “Why do you hang—

“Wait now. Patience, Bradley-boy. I got one more thing.”

Mr. Tarter’s knees cracked when he squatted, fumbling with the flat, clear container that held all his personal items under his bed. He stood with a long grunt then turned.

His large, gentle hands—adult hands that had stroked Bradley’s back with care instead of cruelty—held something shiny yellow and pointed in their grasp.

Bradley took a step back, his breath hitching in his chest. The shiny object was the same color as the mysterious yellow orb hidden in his square on Halo Block, four stories above.

“Look here. My mamma’s star. Thing’s older than Methuselah.”

“Who’s Methus—

“Here, hold this.” Mr. Tarter placed the object in Bradley’s shaky hand then scooted around the tree. He flicked his fingers open, asking for it back. “It’s a star…you ever see a star up close? Pretend star, mind you.” He chuckled, but then his face tightened into a frustrated frown. “Guess you won’t remember if you did, after all them bad men done to you. No matter. Ain’t no one but the Creator can touch them stars up there.” He pointed to the ceiling, but Bradley knew he meant the sky.

Creator? “The star goes on the top? I don’t think that little branch can hold it.”

Mr. Tarter pinched his lips, grumbling under his breath as he balanced the sparkly star atop the tree. The top branch leaned from one side to the other, slowly righting itself until it balanced perfectly above the tree.

Bradley’s eyes widened.

“Now watch this, Bradley-boy.”

Mr. Tarter licked his lips, flicking off the single lamp that sat on the bookshelf. His motion cast the room in near darkness.

Suddenly a single light—held by Mr. Tarter’s hand—shone near the tree. His flashlight? The ugly little tree, covered in dull gray paper clips and topped with the shiny, cracked star, glowed. Dozens of sparkling silver points dotted it from trunk to star-tipped top.

Golden light showered every crevice and branch, creating a lump in Bradley’s throat he couldn’t swallow.

“This tree’s about Jehovah. God gave us Jehovah and He put him on a tree. For us. You know that?”

Bradley’s shoulders sagged. He swiped at his neck circle, pressing hard. Mr. Tarter talked about Jehovah a lot, and because he didn’t want to hurt the cook’s feelings, he’d nod and listen. Sometimes even ask questions.

But Jehovah on a tree? That’s why Mr. Tarter wanted the little tree in his bedroom?

“This tree is ’bout Jehovah’s bein’ on earth. He came as a Babe, left as a man, but was always Jehovah. You know that?”

That was Bradley’s cue to nod. He did, twice, then dropped to the edge of Mr. Tarter’s creaky bed. “This little tree reminds you of Jehovah?”

“Oh Bradley-boy, this tree remind me of the greatest gift we ever got. Jehovah Shammah. The Lord is present. He came, He came, Bradley-boy! This is Christmas.”

Mr. Tarter bobbed his head and turned his spindly legs, dancing in a circle. His long body created funny shadows against the wall. Bradley jumped up, skipping around Mr. Tarter until he was dizzy.

A smiled pulled his cheeks up as they hopped around, Mr. Tarter whistling a lively tune that made Bradley’s feet jiggle and his heart expand.

Mr. Tarter stopped abruptly, grabbing Bradley’s hands in his larger ones. His chest rose and fell rapidly under his work shirt.

“They try, they try to take Christmas away. But they can’t.” The old cook shook his head roughly. “They can’t take what’s in the heart. Jehovah’s here, and He was here, and we keepin’ Christmas right here.”

One long, dark finger pointed at his chest first then reached toward Bradley’s.

“We keep him here best. You remember that.”

A Christmas tree for Jehovah. Bradley inhaled until he felt like he sucked up all the air in the room.

“You best get back to your square ‘for they notice you still gone.”

He nodded, his body wilting at the thought of his dark, lonely square.

“Jehovah bless you ’til we meet again.”

“Tomorrow?” Bradley never bothered to hide his eagerness about seeing Mr. Tarter.

“Tomorrow it is, Bradley-boy.”

The night bell rang, its sharp clang magnified by the kitchen’s appliances. Bradley clutched his arms to his chest, his neck circle pulsing with the strange warmth that always came with the bell’s call.

“Thank you for sharing your Christmas tree.”

“You welcome, but it ain’t mine. It’s Jehovah’s.” Mr. Tarter’s gap-toothed smile warmed Bradley as much as the humming ovens baking biscuits for tomorrow’s breakfast. “Jus’ don’t forget that. Jehovah came for us. That what Christmas is, my boy.”

Bradley stepped backward, out of Mr. Tarter’s bedroom, his feet dragging and gaze lingering on the sparkling tree. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget this Christmas tree.”

***

Round Remembering: Escape to Stone Mountain

Bradley Harrison can’t remember who he is or where he came from. All he can remember are two years of locked bars and grueling work at Camp Falstaff, where he and hundreds of other boys live. They’re each marked with a small metal neck circle and no memory of the past.

But eleven-year-old Bradley possesses two secret mementos: a faded photograph of a smiling man and woman, and a small golden orb that strengthens his hazy memories when he holds it close.

And unlike the other boys at Falstaff, Bradley still remembers his last name.

The morning he learns he’s a Rememberer—one of the rare few whose short-term memory won’t reset—he also realizes his life is in grave danger.

During the chaos of a fire alarm, Bradley escapes into the wilderness. He’s determined to find the people in the photograph and outrun the guards on his trail. Too bad Delphious—the head overseer at Falstaff—won’t let him go that easily.

Unexpected friends—a scared girl taken from her family, and a free-spirited teenager— join his dangerous journey to discover what’s inside the orb and why Bradley’s memories are worth more than his life.

 

 

 

 

 

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