Kale peeked past the cracked door and grinned at the rise and fall of his mother’s breathing. His little feet bounced while he waited, his hand gripped tight on the door handle. He glanced at the hall clock once again, waiting for the second hand to complete its circle.
Three. Two. One.
“Mom! It’s eight o’clock. Christmas morning. Time for presents.” Kale rushed onto the frail bed, being none too gentle as he climbed on top of the sleeping woman. “Mom. Mom. Come on. Mommy.”
She groaned and squeezed her eyes tighter, but allowed him to assault her. “Kale, please. I only got in from the diner an hour ago. Mommy had another really long shift.”
“But it’s Christmas, Mom.”
“Kale, just another half hour. Please.”
“Come on, Mom —”
“Kale! I said thirty minutes,” she shouted, curling deeper into her pillow.
The boy dropped onto the worn mattress from bouncing and frowned, troubled that he had disrupted her so. Though he was young, he was aware of their situation. His mother worked most of the day in a diner so that she could keep the lights on, and it usually left her exhausted and irritable. But they had fun when they could. Like on Christmas. She had never had to work on a holiday before, so as disappointed as he was, he understood. “Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry. But only a half hour.” He kissed her forehead and left the room.
The subtle tick of the wall clock was like an itch he couldn’t scratch. Kale did his best to not be a burden on his mother, but like most seven-year-olds, he had a problem waiting patiently for anything. Sitting in the uncomfortable chair by her closed door, kicking his feet, wasn’t doing anything to help with his excitement.
A thought struck him and he smiled, his tongue poking out where he was missing a tooth. Moving slowly and deliberately, he tiptoed down the hall towards their small living room. Just because she was asleep didn’t mean he couldn’t get started without her. By the time she woke up, he’d have torn through yards of wrapping paper.
“We wish you a Merry Christmas. We wish you a Merry Christmas. We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New…” Kale’s singing died when he turned the corner and saw their small tree with nothing but space underneath it. The ornaments twinkled as the colored lights blinked and the tree angels smiled at him in celebration, but there was only the stained carpet beneath the branches.
His first instinct was to get angry. Hot tears pricked his eyes and his bottom lip quivered. He shot a dirty look over his shoulder, sure that she would feel the burn of his scorn. But when her apron shifted pitifully from the fan’s draft, he let out a resigned sigh.
She would’ve if she could’ve. Kale sniffed his disappointment back inside and went into the kitchen. He knew how to cook a few things, having had to make a few of his own dinners in the past. It didn’t take him very long to scrape some scrambled eggs into a bowl and pull the bagel from the toaster.
He hesitated at her door with the food, wary of disrupting her much needed sleep. “Mom? You awake yet?”
He heard her sigh and shift in her sheets. “Yeah. Come on in, baby. Merry Christmas.”
Kale put on his most handsome smile before entering and presenting her with breakfast in bed. A warm bubble grew in his stomach as she showered his face with grateful kisses. Her praise and adoration filled a bit of the void the absence of gifts had left and he felt a bit lighter. Seeing her happy was just as nice as ripping bows and getting paper cuts. “I’m sorry I woke you. Was work bad?”
She paused in her chewing and gazed at him skeptically. “Did you go look at the tree?”
He nodded and averted his eyes, not wanting her to see them glisten from the threat of tears. “It’s okay, Mommy.”
There was an awkward silence where she finished the last of her meal and he watched dust collect on the floor. When she reached out to stroke his cheek, he pressed into it, grateful for the comfort. She loved him and he loved her and that’s what he had learned the holidays were about: Love and caring.
“Wait here, my man.” She climbed out of the bed, wincing a bit at her sore joints, and left the room. He licked his lips upon her return, curious as to what she was digging in her knapsack for. “I know I dropped the ball this year, and I’m sorry. I didn’t get the chance to go shopping and the bills were — Never mind. I was able to get this though. I hope it’s enough.”
Kale gasped when she pulled a flimsy booklet from the bag. The bright colors and artwork leapt off the cover at him. His squeal brought a grin to her face and she laughed as he snatched the comic from her hand.
“The new issue of Young Avengers,” he shouted.
“That’s the one you like, right?” she asked, worry in her voice.
Kale jumped onto the woman and locked his arms around her neck, pressing his face into the crook of her shoulder. “Thank you, Mommy. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“Merry Christmas, baby. It’s not as much as last year, but—”
“I love you.”
He felt his shirt become a bit damp and knew she was crying as she squeezed him tighter to her. “I love you too.”