There were 104 rooms – the sign called them “smart apartments” – in Verdant Meadows, the largest assisted living facility in town. So Alli made 104 identical holiday decorations to pin to the small, eye-level bulletin boards on the residents’ doors.
She worked for hours with her colored pencils, until she had drawn a poinsettia she could bear to have people see. She scanned it, arranged four identical images on a page, and added two words beneath each image in a legible but noticeably festive typeface: “Happy Holidays!”
She’d planned for the message to be “Merry Christmas,” but the manager of Verdant Meadows mentioned that about one in four residents didn’t celebrate Christmas. So she changed it. She didn’t want to offend a single person, let alone 26 strangers, with her signature good deed at Christmas. That would ruin the feeling.
She used her mother’s photo printer with a glossy photo paper, inspected each page for printing glitches, then meticulously cut the pages into quarter-sheets with a paper cutter. That way the cuts would be neat and the size uniform, and the decorations would stack beautifully until she and the other girls passed them out. She printed and cut one extra sheet, so she’d have two spares, plus one to keep for herself and one to enclose in her thank-you letter to the manager for giving his permission.
She’d been smiling ever since she finished her drawing. As her preparations neared completion, her smile grew. So did the warm Christmas feeling inside her. She wasn’t just using her artistic gift at Christmas, which was already a happy thing. She was also using her gift for organization to give her artistic creation to a hundred people or more – and to help the other girls get a warm Christmas feeling too, by making it possible for them to help her.
It was also nice that she could probably use this in the Volunteer Service section of her scholarship and college applications, and maybe some other things. But it was the feeling that mattered.
Just the thought of spending time with old people made her squeamish, so she planned for the hour before dinner on the Saturday before Christmas. Most residents and staff would be in the ballroom, enjoying a Christmas concert by musicians from the local college. It was the big event of the season, the manager had said, except for Christmas dinner on actual Christmas. A lot of the residents’ families would attend with their loved ones.
It was perfect. She and the other girls could avoid actually meeting anyone as they made their rounds.
She’d invited, then reminded, seven girls from church, and most of them would come. People tended to show up when she invited them. There’d be at least six, including her. One or two girls could take each of the four wings, and they’d be in and out in less than half an hour.
She arrived early, ten minutes before the concert would start, if it was on time. Ten minutes after the concert began, she and the other girls would divide and conquer. Meanwhile she sat on a bench outside the main entrance and watched families arrive, plus a couple of musicians with instruments in black cases, who hurried as if they were late.
The decorations and push pins were in four Ziploc bags in case of weather, but the sky was clear with no breeze. There was snow on the ground but not the roads or sidewalks. The sun had just set, but her hands, feet, ears, and face were nearly as warm as her heart.
She heard music when the front doors opened to admit an especially cheerful batch of visitors. Her smart phone said 5:02 p.m. At 5:03 p.m. she saw a familiar figure approaching from the parking lot.
“Preet,” she whispered to herself, and had an embarrassing flashback. The first time she’d met Preet at church, a few years ago, she’d asked, “Is that a foreign name? Are you from someplace foreign?”
“It’s Hindu,” Preet had said.
“Are you from … where’s Hindu? Do you speak Hinduese or something?”
By now she knew, of course, that they speak Hindu in India. Preet was from Montana, and she didn’t look Indian, but Alli had never seen anyone from anywhere who looked like Preet.
She was too tall, too thin, and too pale, almost albino, though the mild winter chill had painted some faint color on her face. Her hair was strawberry blonde, cut to shoulder length, with curls at the bottom. Her gray winter coat was too grown up for any girl under 30, at least. It hung open now, revealing Preet’s typical ensemble: black jeans and a gray tee shirt, with gray sneakers to match. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was certainly exotic, which sounded nicer than strange, and her clothing was a perfect gray/black frame for her coloring.
Preet already wore the facemask the manager insisted they wear indoors. It was black too. It made her gray eyes seem big and expressive, sort of like Alli’s colorful holiday Disney mask made her own brown eyes sparkle when she looked in the mirror.
Alli said hi, and Preet said hi, and Alli invited her to share the bench while they waited for the others. Preet sat, then just shrugged when Alli thanked her for coming. Preet was that way at church and school too. She showed up, but whatever the group was, and whatever they were doing, she kept to the fringes of it and didn’t say much.
At 5:10 p.m., Alli’s planned starting time, there was no group, just Alli and Preet. The warm Christmas feeling in Alli’s heart was slipping away. She sent a text message to the other six. “We’ll wait ten more minutes,” she wrote. She tried to suppress her disappointment and, if she admitted the truth, her anger at the other girls for being late and not telling her.
Four of the six didn’t reply. One said sorry, she was sick. The other said sorry, she still wasn’t back from her grandma’s house in another city.
By 5:20 the warm feeling was pretty much gone – but the good deed still had to be done. “I guess we can’t wait anymore,” Alli said. “It’s just you and me.”
In the lobby she handed Preet two of the four stacks. “I’ll take A and B wings, and you take C and D, okay?”
“Okay,” said Preet. It was her first word since saying hi.
“We don’t have time to knock or stop and talk, and most of them will be at the concert anyway. Just pin it to the little bulletin boards as fast as you can. Leave room for other stuff above it.”
Each side of each corridor had thirteen numbered doors, with even numbers on one side and odd on the other, but skipping #13, probably for the same reason they skipped the 13th floor in some of the tall buildings Alli had been in.
Alli did the odd side of A Wing from the near end to the far end, then did the even side on her way back. She did the same in B Wing. Preet’s longer legs must have made her faster, because she appeared when Alli still had four doors left.
“I’m done,” Preet said. “You were right. I didn’t see anyone at all.” Preet made it sound like a sad thing.
Alli couldn’t remember hearing so many words come out of Preet’s mouth at once. Maybe she was excited about Christmas. Her face still had a cheery glow that reached beyond her mask – but it didn’t reach Alli’s disappointed heart.
“Thanks for helping me, Preet. You’re the only one who came.”
“True,” said Alli.
“Here, I’ll help you finish.” Preet reached out her hand, and Alli gave her two of the remaining decorations.
As Preet reached to put the last decoration on the last door, it opened. She started and made a little noise.
“May I help you?” said a slow, deep, gruff male voice. Alli couldn’t see the voice’s owner.
“Oh, hi,” said Preet. “Merry Christmas. We’re putting this little decoration on everyone’s door. Is it okay if I put it on yours?”
“Let me see it.”
Alli imagined the man nodding.
“Go ahead. Thank you,” he said. “I’ll close my door now. Good evening.”
As the door latch clicked, Preet looked at Alli with raised eyebrows, then turned back to the door and pinned the decoration.
They stopped out front to take off their masks, put on their gloves, and button up their coats. The sun was long gone, and a breeze had come up.
“Thanks for coming when no one else did,” Alli said. “I guess I said that already.”
“I’m glad I could help,” Preet said. “This is a nice thing. And you did most of the work. Did you draw the flowers? They’re beautiful.”
Alli felt oddly self-conscious. “Yes.”
“I always like your art,” Preet said. “I wish I could draw.”
“Thanks. Do you want to go out for ice cream or something? If you have time?”
Preet surveyed the winter scene around them. “Now? Ice cream?”
“Hot chocolate?” Alli asked.
“That sounds nice,” Preet said, “but I have to go somewhere.”
Preet’s response disappointed Alli more than she thought it should, considering her offer was just a required gesture to thank the one girl who came to help. Something must have shown on her face, because then something showed on Preet’s.
“Do you want to come with me?” Preet asked. “I’m going to –“
“Yes,” Alli said, then blushed at her sudden eagerness.
Preet smiled faintly. “I’m going to visit an old lady on my street. She’s usually kind of cranky. You can come with me, if you want.”
“What are you doing there?”
“We talk, and I read to her. Could be half an hour. You don’t have to come.”
“You came to my thing. I want to come to yours.”
“Okay. You can park your car at my house, and we’ll drive to her place together.”
Preet’s tiny car seemed like it should be too small for its tall driver, but it wasn’t. They drove at least a mile past Preet’s house, Alli guessed, to a neighborhood where the houses were a lot bigger and nicer than Preet’s, even though it was the same street. They parked in the driveway of a house that was all steep angles and beautiful stonework. It was dark, except for the porch light.
“Who is this woman?” Alli asked.
“She’s the midwife who delivered me.”
“She and my mom became friends. She delivered my little brother too. She used to come to our house for dinner sometimes, and some holidays, but she doesn’t get out much anymore.”
Alli was having second thoughts. “How old is she?”
“You should ask her that,” Preet said.
“I don’t think so. What would she say?”
“Probably something like ‘still well south of a century.’ I think she’s almost eighty. She’s blind now, and she lost most of the feeling in her hands, so she can’t read Braille, and she doesn’t walk very well. I think she has depression too. I don’t really see how she could help it. But we won’t say anything about that to her.”
Alli resisted the temptation to stare at Preet. Why was she never this talkative before?
Preet knocked loudly at the door. There was no response. She bent to pick up three small gifts from the step, the sorts of things neighbors gave their neighbors at Christmas.
“Here, hold these,” Preet said.
There were two small plates of cookies, one covered in festive cellophane and one in everyday plastic wrap. The third item was roughly the size, shape, and weight of a brick. It was a loaf of the much-loved pumpkin bread from a local bakery, frozen solid. The ink on the tag had run. That must have been before it froze.
“Are we taking them? Isn’t that stealing?”
“We’re not taking them.” Preet knocked again, then startled Alli by calling loudly through the door. “Mrs. Gunther, it’s Preet. I brought a friend with me, but she’s nice.”
Preet turned to Alli. “I think the speaker’s broken again.”
A bolt clicked. “It’s electronic,” Preet explained, and opened the door. “She uses voice commands. Come on in.” Preet switched on a light in the entryway.
A sour, citrusy odor assaulted their nostrils. They looked at each other and cringed.
“Preet?” called a gruff voice from somewhere further in.
“Hi, Mrs. Gunther. I brought my friend Alli. We just did a Christmas thing together.”
“I don’t celebrate Christmas.”
Preet turned to Alli and spoke gruffly, under her breath. “She doesn’t celebrate Christmas.”
Alli suppressed a giggle, and Preet’s face broke into a smile Alli had never seen there before.
“I heard that,” said the woman. “Hang your coats by the door, take off your shoes if they’re wet or snowy, and turn on a couple of lights so you don’t trip over something. I’m in my chair.”
Her chair was a large, leather recliner which dominated – Alli didn’t know what to call it. Did people with big houses have sitting rooms? Mrs. Gunther herself was a medium-large mass of wrinkles and splotches, huddled under a red-and-blue plaid blanket.
Preet introduced Alli as a girl from church, and Mrs. Gunther extended a hand that seemed nothing but skin and bones.
“Ask me why I don’t celebrate Christmas.”
Alli looked at Preet, who shrugged.
“Why don’t you celebrate Christmas, Mrs. Gunther?” Alli asked. “Are you Jewish?”
“I’m no more Jewish than you are.”
“Then why not?”
“It’s too commercial. The Christmas holiday should be a holy day, but now it’s turned into a whole season for spending more than you can afford on gifts for people who mostly don’t need or appreciate them anyway. That’s why I don’t celebrate Christmas. It’s too commercial.
“And Preet,” she continued, “the reason I didn’t answer you the first time was that I thought you were just one of the neighbors, or one of the people from some church. They keep bringing me stuff, and if I don’t let them in, they leave it at the door.”
“I’m glad you let us in,” Preet said.
“I suppose there was more stuff at the door, and I suppose you brought it in.”
“Two small plates of cookies and a loaf of bakery pumpkin bread. The pumpkin bread is frozen solid.”
“I can’t eat the cookies,” Mrs. Gunther said. “Too much refined sugar. Some of the neighbors should know that. You take them. One plate for each of you. If you don’t want them, just throw them away.”
“Thank you,” said Preet.
“Thank you,” echoed Alli.
“I suppose you noticed the lovely stench,” said Mrs. Gunther.
“What is it?” asked Preet.
“Some of them brought me fruit the other day. I think it must have been two weeks ago last Friday. They caught me off guard and I let them in, and they left it on my counter. I ate an apple or two, but some oranges fell and rolled away, I think. They must be rotting somewhere, and I’m too helpless to find them.”
Preet looked at Alli. “You stay here and read to Mrs. Gunther,” she said. “I’ll take care of the fruit.”
“You shouldn’t have to do stinky chores for an old woman,” said Mrs. Gunther.
“I don’t mind,” said Preet. “What are you reading today?”
“Still working on Dante’s Inferno. Do you think your friend reads well enough to handle that?”
“I’m a pretty good reader,” Alli said. “I’ll do my best.”
“Thanks,” said Preet, and disappeared.
Mrs. Gunther handed Alli a thick, hardback book. “The place is marked.”
Alli opened to the marked page and was dismayed to see that it was poetry. She read silently through the first few lines, to see if she could read it at all, then began.
Upon the margin of a lofty bank Which great rocks broken in a circle made, We came upon a still more cruel throng; And there, by reason of the horrible Excess of stench the deep abyss throws out, We drew ourselves aside behind the cover Of a great tomb …
As she read, Alli heard chairs, then something heavier, scrape across a floor in another room. She thought of asking Preet if she needed help, but she wanted to keep reading, so Mrs. Gunther wouldn’t complain when she stopped.
She did stop reading when Preet appeared in the doorway. “I found the problem,” Preet said. “Two oranges rolled under that little table by the window in the dining room. They were sitting on the heat vent.”
“No wonder they’re rotten,” said Mrs. Gunther. “They stunk up the whole house.”
“They were kind of gross,” Preet said lightly. “Don’t you have someone who comes in to help you every day?”
“Her mother’s visiting from Boston. I gave her two days off.”
“That’s nice of you,” said Preet.
“She’ll be back in the morning,” Mrs. Gunther said. “The stench has only been the last couple of days.”
“I can’t just leave rotten oranges in the kitchen garbage,” Preet said. “I’ll take it all out and replace the bag.”
“Thank you, dear. I’m sorry you have to do this.”
“I don’t mind. I’m just glad I found them. Oh, I found some air freshener too.”
Mrs. Gunther nodded. “Alli, please continue.”
Alli resumed reading, trying not to visualize any of it in her head.
A death by violence, and painful wounds, Are to our neighbour given; and in his substance Ruin, and arson, and injurious levies; Whence homicides, and he who smites unjustly, Marauders, and freebooters, the first round Tormenteth all in companies diverse.
It was challenging enough that Alli didn’t notice the minutes passing until Mrs. Gunther interrupted.
“Young lady, if you don’t mind, would you please set down the book for a minute and go see what’s taking Preet so long?”
Alli obeyed. The next room had a piano in it. The one after that was a dining room, and beyond it a large, well-lit kitchen. There was no sign of Preet.
“Down here!” Her voice was muffled.
Alli stepped all the way into the kitchen, then stopped short. Preet’s head and shoulders were in the cupboard under the large sink. There was a small white garbage bag, obviously full, on the floor at either hip. The smell was a lot worse in here, and it wasn’t just rotting oranges.
“What are you doing?”
Preet emerged from the cupboard and slipped something that looked foul into one of the garbage bags. “Cinch that closed, would you please?” She stood and began to wash her grimy hands at the sink.
Alli made a face, when Preet couldn’t see it, but she took two reluctant steps forward, reached down, and cinched the bag closed. It was clean enough on the outside, but the stench of the contents made her queasy.
“How’s Dante going?” Preet asked.
“Difficult. Grim. I think it’s about hell. She sent me in here to see what’s taking so long.”
“Tell her I spilled some garbage, and it took a minute to clean it up.”
“More like she spilled some garbage, and it took you ten minutes to clean it up.”
“I spilled a little too, but tell her what you want. I’ll take these outside and come spell you with Dante. I don’t like it either. Check her water, please, and bring it for a refill if it’s mostly empty. She never wants it more than half full, or it’s too heavy.”
Back in the sitting room, Alli explained, “Preet spilled some garbage and had to clean it up. She’s taking it all out. She’ll be right back.”
Preet appeared in the doorway again, an orange in each hand. “Mrs. Gunther, two of these oranges are good. Shall I slice them for you? Are you hungry?”
“You don’t need to bother.”
“Are you sure? They’re beautiful. It would be sad to waste them.”
“Do what you will,” said Mrs. Gunther.
The old lady said, “You watch. She’ll slice them neatly and serve them on a plate, arranged just so. Your friend is kind but not very obedient.”
‘Oh, she’s not –” Alli stopped. “She pretty much does things her own way.”
Mrs. Gunther grunted.
“She said you delivered her. Do you know why they named her Preet?”
“I did, but that was many years ago.”
“Seventeen, I think,” said Alli.
Mrs. Gunther’s blind eyes gave Alli a look, which was creepy. “Yes. It’s a Hindu name, but she’s not Hindu. I seem to recall that her parents were honoring a friend or neighbor or some such person.”
“What does it mean?”
“You should ask her.”
There was a beeping sound from the kitchen. Mrs. Gunther grunted. “What’s that silly girl doing? You don’t slice oranges with a microwave.”
“Want me to go find out?” Alli asked.
“No. Read me some more Dante, please. She’ll be back soon enough.”
Alli cringed but resumed reading.
After a few more minutes, Preet appeared with a platter of sliced oranges and pumpkin bread, along with napkins and three small plates. She filled one of the small plates.
“Mrs. Gunther, there are four orange slices to the right. I removed the peels and the little weird bit in the center. To the left is a thick slice of pumpkin bread, cut in half. It was frozen, but it thawed okay. Now it’s warm. Here’s a napkin too, and there’s more of everything.”
“You go to too much trouble, Preet.”
“You need to eat, Mrs. Gunther.”
Preet and the blind old woman somehow shared a look which Alli couldn’t decipher. She reminded herself that Mrs. Gunther hadn’t always been blind.
“Thank you,” said Mrs. Gunther. “Let’s have your friend keep reading, please. She does tolerably well.”
The compliment pleased Alli, even if the poetry didn’t. As she read, she managed a few glances at Mrs. Gunther, who ate neatly and carefully – but hungrily. Preet ate too, then took over the reading so Alli could eat.
When Preet stopped reading to separate two pages that were stuck together, Mrs. Gunther sounded almost shy. “Alli, could you please serve me another slice of pumpkin bread? And a few more orange slices, if there are any left?”
When only a single bite of pumpkin bread remained on her plate, she reached out and found Preet’s arm. “Preet, dear, that’s enough Dante. I can’t concentrate anymore.”
Alli did her best to hide her relief from Preet. Poetry about hell had given her the opposite of a warm Christmas feeling.
“Would you like me to take your plate?” Preet asked Mrs. Gunther.
“Here, let me get a couple of crumbs too.” Preet deftly picked a few large crumbs from the front of Mrs. Gunther’s sweatshirt, then took everyone’s plates and napkins to the kitchen.
Mrs. Gunther didn’t say a word to Alli while Preet was gone. Alli tried to think of something to say, but couldn’t. She hadn’t felt this helpless in a conversation for a long time, and she didn’t like it. At least the dark, heavy effect of reading Dante was starting to fade.
When they heard Preet’s footsteps, the old woman finally spoke. “Alli?”
“You read reasonably well for a high school student.”
“Thanks,” said Alli.
Mrs. Gunther nodded slowly, and Preet was back.
“Mrs. Gunther, we finished the oranges, and I sliced the rest of the pumpkin bread and put it in the fridge. It’s at the front of the second shelf from the top, to the right. I’ll come back tomorrow, and if it’s still there, I’ll help you eat the rest of it. I lit a candle earlier in the kitchen to help with the odor, but I just put it out, so you don’t have to worry about that.”
“I don’t have any candles,” said Mrs. Gunther.
“It was with some of the Christmas stuff on your counter. A Christmas candle.”
Alli thought Mrs. Gunther nodded, but it turned out she was nodding off. The girls shared a glance, and Preet looked at the old woman, smiling gently.
“Good night, Mrs. Gunther,” Preet whispered. Then her look turned mischievous. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Gunther.”
The old woman’s blanket had slid down to her lap. Alli gently pulled it up to cover her arms and shoulders.
“Good night,” Alli whispered. “Merry Christmas.”
They showed themselves out.
“I can’t believe you did all that yucky cleanup,” Alli said as they walked down Mrs. Gunther’s sidewalk. “Her maid or nurse or whatever will be back in the morning. And why did you slice the oranges when she told you not to? She said you would.”
They stopped at Preet’s car. Preet looked almost sad. “Most days, all she eats is her Meals-on-Wheels that comes at noon.”
“Those are probably enough, I think, but today’s and yesterday’s were still in the fridge. They come with a little card that lists the date and everything in the container. I couldn’t see that she’d touched any of it.”
“She didn’t eat for two days?”
“At least,” Preet said. “Eating is hard for her. If no one’s there to help her, she usually just doesn’t. She gets up to refill her water, when she’s thirsty enough.”
Alli didn’t know what to say. No, she knew one thing. “What does your name mean?”
Even by the streetlight she saw the tall girl’s cheeks color. “Is that important?”
“She said I should ask.”
Preet nodded but didn’t reply.
Suddenly Alli had plenty of words. “It should mean Christmas. What you just did is a hundred times better than my Christmas project.”
“You made 104 people’s Christmas a little nicer, plus their visitors,” Preet said, “and what you drew for them is beautiful. It was a good project.”
Alli felt a flicker of Christmas warmth, but it didn’t last. “Thanks. Do you know why it was 104?”
“Because that’s how many rooms there are at Verdant Meadows?”
“Because I picked the care facility with the most rooms in it.”
“So you helped more people.”
“I picked it because I thought a three-digit number would look better on my application for that big service scholarship. Maybe in my college application essays too. I wanted the thing I did to look bigger. And the more people I got to help me, the better it would look, but then it was only us two.”
“It was still a good thing.”
“Yeah,” Alli said drily. “So good that I did my best to avoid actually seeing anyone while we padded my resume by looking like we were helping old people.”
“It was good, Alli. You shared your talent.”
Alli sighed. “Thanks.”
They drove back to Preet’s home in silence. Alli spent the time comparing herself to Preet. She couldn’t imagine what Preet was thinking.
When they arrived, before Alli got into her own car, she turned to Preet. “Thanks again for coming to my little project.” She huffed softly. “When no one else did.”
“You’re welcome. It was fun. Thanks for helping me with Mrs. Gunther. That’s less fun, I guess. Dante in particular.”
Alli smiled in spite of herself. “Spilled garbage and rotten fruit in particular. If you want some company sometime, when you visit her again, I wouldn’t mind going with you.”
Preet nodded. “Okay. Merry Christmas, Alli. You deserve it.”
“Merry Christmas, Preet.”
Preet waited until Alli was in her car with the engine started, then gave a little wave and turned up the sidewalk toward the door.
Alli rolled down her window. “Preet?”
“You never told me what your name means.”
Alli thought she saw Preet’s cheeks color again in the porch light.
“Look it up.” Preet waved and slipped into her house.
“Well, I asked,” Alli murmured to herself as she pressed the brake pedal and slipped her car into reverse. She thought of Preet wishing the old man at Verdant Meadows a merry Christmas, Preet emerging from under Mrs. Gunther’s kitchen sink, Preet picking a few crumbs off the old woman’s sweatshirt – and Preet thanking Alli for helping her.
“I helped some,” she told herself, and felt a little better inside. “Not as much as Preet.”
Her foot was still on the brake. Now she shifted back into Park and reached for her phone. “Meaning name Preet,” she typed into the browser’s search box.
She tapped on the first two results. “Happy or joyful,” said one. “Beloved. Peace, harmony, love,” said the other.
She set her phone on the passenger seat and reached for the gear shift lever again. “Like I said,” she mused aloud, “Preet means Christmas.”
Image credits: photo by Jessica Johnston on Unsplash; drawing generated by AI at DALL·E.
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