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    Christmas Child

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All contents © 2011
by Lorin Killoy
“Oh Christmas child, O-oh Christmas child,
How do you do little Christmas Child?
Old man needs your smile.”

    When Tyson Howard came home, he saw his wife Leia lying asleep on their big blue stuffed couch. Wads of tissues were on the floor around the sofa, and the video from their Independence Day party played in their corner entertainment center. On the screen, several of their nieces and nephews were marching parade-style around the backyard led by six-year-old Ruthie, who was brandishing a stick as if it was a baton and she was a majorette. Tyson stopped the video and looked back at this wife. He realized she had been thinking of children again, and she cried herself to sleep.
    Leia’s large body was covered with a quilt his grandmother made for them when they were first married ten years ago. Her long brown hair was matted with bed head. Even asleep, she was beautiful. He–as ever–was in awe that this woman loved him and had been married to him for so long. Tyson sometimes wondered how his wife could find him so attractive. Granted, being six-feet tall has its advantages, but his long torso and steadily expanding potbelly with matching love handles made him question her every time she said “You’re the sexiest man on the planet.”
    If only my hair would stop turning gray, he thought as he stroked his beard and mustache, I’m only 36 next month.
    Peanut, their brown tabby, was perched on the back of the couch watching over Leia. “You taking care of your mommy?” he asked the cat. She looked up and purred her response. Tyson didn’t wake Leia but went downstairs to his workshop in the basement. He wanted to work on an old computer he was refurbishing for a nephew who just started kindergarten. Thinking of their myriad of nieces and nephews, Tyson instead went over to Leia’s corner of the basement where she set up a sewing room. Spread out next to the machine on her sewing table, he saw all the Christmas presents she was making: playmats for use with Barbie dolls and Matchbox cars, a tooth fairy pillow for Leia’s godson Francis who would soon be losing his baby teeth, a stuffed dinosaur, and even a small kitty tent Leia was making for Peanut. Even TJ, the son of their friend Jack–at whose house Tyson had just been watching a football game–was going to receive a stuffed teddy bear handmade by Leia. The siblings and friends repeatedly told the couple that they didn’t need to give presents to the children, and Tyson and Leia always tried to explain how much fun they had buying and making presents because they had no children of their own upon whom to shower gifts, except Peanut.
    Tyson wiped the tears from his eyes as he said, “Someday, soon enough”–the phrase he and Leia repeated to themselves every time they felt melancholy about their childlessness. Some days, mainly holidays such as Christmas and Father’s Day, were especially difficult. Tonight Tyson had been playing King-of-the-Mountain with Jack’s son and having a great time, especially because Tyson’s belly made him the perfect mountain. Then he came home to a house devoid of the laughter of children.
    Tyson and Leia wanted to be parents. However she wanted to wait to have children until she finished the bachelor’s degree she abandoned years ago. She wanted her degree so she could get a better paying job. They both worked in civil service, and although the benefits were wonderful, the pay sucked. Tyson knew and understood her reasons: working full-time and going to school part-time while still dealing with the regular challenges of daily life was difficult enough for Leia. Being a mother certainly would add too much stress to her overburdened schedule. Besides, they couldn’t afford tuition and kids at the same time. Their financial advisor was working on a plan to help them, but still... Tyson agreed with Leia’s choice, but he felt a void in his life that only children could fill.
    “Meow?” Peanut had followed Tyson downstairs. She rubbed against his legs and purred. Tyson constantly was amazed at his cat’s ability to know when he needed comforting. He cradled her in his arms like a baby and rubbed her belly. Peanut purred her appreciation.  He set the cat down and sat at his work bench. A hard drive was next to his tool kit, and an old CD-ROM was next to that. The case stood empty on the floor. Wires sprawled like grape vines. My nephew’s gonna love this computer, he thought, as soon as I finish it. After Tyson installed the motherboard, Leia came downstairs. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
    “I didn’t want to wake my Princess.” Tyson affectionately called Leia ‘princess.’ Leia loved her name until Star Wars was released; then she wanted to curse George Lucas the way he cursed her.
    “How was the game?”
    “Good. Cleveland won.”
    “Really? Wow. How’s Jack et al?”
    “They’re fine. Kay’s pregnant and due in March.”
    “Lucky her.”
    “Someday soon enough.” Tyson stood to hug Leia. He knew she was sad, so he tried to change the subject. “How was your nap?”
    “I had a nice dream. We were picnicking in the park: you, me, and a baby girl, Ann.”
    “You still wish for a girl when I keep telling you we’ll only have boys,” he teased. “Only one girl per generation in my family, and my brother Nick already has a daughter.”
    “This was my dream, okay?” Leia smiled. “Ann had just learned to walk, so she was waddling around the park, and you were right behind her. You kept saying, ‘I’m gonna get you; I’m gonna get you.’ and Ann was laughing.” Leia started to cry, “She was so happy. Then I woke up.” She wiped her tears. “Peanut was on the back of the couch when I fell asleep, but she wasn’t there when I woke up, so I came looking for her.”
    “She’s on her blanket.” Tyson pointed to Leia’s corner where a piece of fleece she bought for sewing was folded on top of a large plastic storage box. Peanut had absconded the soft fabric for herself. Leia walked over to the box and affectionately petted the circle of fur that was their cat. Tyson and Leia worked on their respective projects in silence during the rest of the evening. Even Peanut slept quietly on her blanket.

    In early September, Leia and Tyson met with Walter, their financial advisor. Like any member of the financial profession, Walter was impeccably dressed: his silver gray suit was tailored so the shoulder seams were directly on the shoulders. His sandy brown hair was cut short and he wore simple glasses with wire frames. Walter presented Leia and Tyson with a financial outlook binder to help the couple achieve their three goals for the future: car, house, and children. The book wasn’t huge, just a standard two-inch thick three-ring binder-if you consider padding and a leather-like finish standard. The name of Walter’s firm was embossed in gold letters on the cover and spine. Tyson started to leaf through it as Walter described the various sections: retirement, life insurance, disability insurance, spending habits, debt reduction, future goals and suggestions.
    “Of course, as your financial situation changes, the information here will need to be updated and recalculated. This report presents a few concerns: 1. Life insurance: you don’t have enough. 2. Disability insurance, the same. 3. Savings, you have a good start, but you need to add more to have at least three months worth of living expenses just in case. And finally, 4. debt reduction. I know you want children, but you have $13,000 in credit card debt. You really should eliminate this debt before you have a family. I know from experience how expensive kids can be.” Walter pointed to a photo on his desk of his pre-teenaged son with the same sandy-colored hair. “Granted, I’m just presenting the cold, hard facts. The emotional considerations are someone else’s field.”
    Tyson asked. “Is there any good news?”
    “You have an excellent start on your retirement account. Since you started it in 1994, it has grown to almost $24,000. Last year when the interest rates dropped, you refinanced your house, which was a wise move because you will save thousands in the long run, as well as smaller payments now. You may want to add more to your retirement account and especially to your savings account from this refinance, and of course, after you pay off your debts.”
    When they were driving back to work after the meeting, Tyson asked Leia, “What are you thinking about?”
    “My brother once told me, ‘If you wait to have kids until you can afford them, you’ll never have kids.’”
    “Maybe, but bringing a child into the world of our finances wouldn’t be fair, would it?”
    “No. Life isn’t fair.” She let out a small chuckle, “anyone who says so is trying to sell you something.”
    Tyson looked at her with a raised eyebrow.
    “William Goldman. It’s from The Princess Bride. I guess Walter’s not trying to sell us anything. He just did the job we asked him to do.”
    Leia sounded resolved, but Tyson knew what was going through her mind. He thought about it all the way back to his office. He booted up his computer and checked his e-mail. A message with the subject line “You’ve Won Third Prize!” caught his eye, and he opened it.
    “Congratulations!” the message read, “Your friend Jack has entered your name along with his in our contest. While you didn’t win the $1,000,000 grand prize, you did win the $25,000 third prize! Please go to the following website to tell us where to mail the check. Please include the prize verification number 9035768.”
    Tyson knew what to look for in a bogus e-mail, but this one looked legitimate. It didn’t ask him for any money, and the company’s name and contact information was displayed at the bottom of the letter, so he clicked on the link. If he really won $25,000, they could pay off their debts and not have to worry about postponing children.
    The web page asked for the verification number, his name, address, home phone, all the usual bits of info; as well as asking some questions about how he felt about Jack for entering him in the sweepstakes. The company name and address were there in an obvious frame for the page. Tyson thought, why not? and filled in the blanks. About Jack, Tyson typed, “If this is real, I owe him a drink. If it’s a joke, I owe him revenge.” Then Tyson clicked the ‘submit’ button.
    It moved. Every time he tried to click it, the button moved out of reach. Finally, he read a line at the bottom of the page, “If you’re having problems click here.”
    That link took Tyson to a page that said, “GOTCHA!” Yes, it was a prank. Tyson plotted his revenge on Jack...

    On a crisp day in October, Tyson and Leia went to North Town Mall’s food court for dinner. Leia ordered from Taco Bell, and Tyson decided to say something he’d been meaning to say for some time. “Leia, remember why I asked you to quit smoking?”
    She was about to eat a chalupa, but halted it halfway to her mouth. “You thought I was killing myself with the cigarettes, so I quit smoking.”
    “Can I ask you to do something else for me? I’m concerned that you may kill yourself with obesity.”
    “I’m trying to lose weight. You know that.”
    “Are you really? Look at what you’re eating.”
    Leia looked at the taco and the chalupas. Tyson was right. These were fat-laden foods.
    “When was the last time you exercised?” Tyson asked.
    “I’ve been busy with school. You know I’m taking my last two classes right now, so I can graduate in December.”
    “Right, but not too busy to play computer games. I’ve seen how much solitaire you play.” Tyson said. “You know I’m only saying this because I love you, and I know you have a lot of weight to lose.”
    “Over a hundred pounds.” Tears fell down her cheeks, and she hoped no one at the surrounding tables could see them.
    “But I know you can do it. Tell you what: I’ll race you: whoever loses twenty pounds first has to do something nice for the other. Okay?”
    He hugged and kissed her, and wiped the tears from her eyes. Leia went to another food counter and bought a healthy salad with vinaigrette dressing.

    Tyson and Leia slept in late on Thanksgiving Day. They were spooning together in bed when a sound like something falling to the floor downstairs woke them. When they went to investigate, they discovered Peanut in the kitchen sink trying to chew the wrapping off the thawed turkey. The dishtub they put over the bird to impede their cat now lay on the floor.
    Tyson pried Peanut away from the sink. “Let me cook it first. Then you can have some.” He gave Peanut to Leia and unwrapped the turkey.
    Both left their pajamas on all day. As Tyson cooked the turkey and the pumpkin pie; Leia made stuffing, potatoes, and rolls. At 11:30, they sat on their huge blue couch to watch football. Peanut purred on Tyson’s lap as the Packers and the Lions duked it out.
    “You know what I’m thankful for?” He said as he petted the cat.
    “Yep. She was the best Christmas present anyone ever gave me.” he said. “Thank you.”
    “Your Christmas gift to me that same year was also fantastic.”
    “What did I give you?”
    “An engagement ring.” They smiled at each other.
    The timer on the oven beeped. Tyson carved the turkey and put some on three plates. Peanut meowed as if to say, “I want some!” Leia dished the trimmings on to two of the plates, then took them into the living room so they could watch the second half of the game.
    Tyson brought Peanut and her plate of turkey into the living room. “You don’t want this, do you?” he teased Peanut. She kept trying to get at the plate until he set her down next to it. They enjoyed a happy and relaxing Thanksgiving as a family.

    In the even years, Tyson and Leia stayed in Wisconsin to celebrate Christmas with her extended family. In the odd years, they traveled to Tennessee to spend Christmas with his parents. Before they left Madison, Tyson and Leia dropped off gifts for her side of the family at the home of her parents. The Hughes House was white with black shutters in a row of white houses starting from the corner of the block. Leia’s mother Maria planted a garden in and around a tree stump in the front yard, though the only thing one could see coming out of the snow-covered stump was a sign that read, “Grandma’s House, free babysitting and cookies.”
    Tyson lifted the big box overflowing with gifts out of the trunk of their two-door hatchback Hyundai that they bought the year they were married. Leia shut the hatch, then dashed up the front walk to open the door for Tyson before he got there. As she passed him, she slipped on a patch of ice and fell in a snowdrift.
    “Don’t say it.” She said, brushing snow off her pants. “Don’t even think it.”
    “What?” he asked, feigning innocence.
    “You know!”
    “Klutz?” He laughed.
    “You know I love you.” Tyson smiled his most irresistible smile.
    “And a good thing, too.” Leia said as she knocked on the door.
    Frank opened the door. “Happy holidays, Poppy!” Leia said as she hugged her father.
    “Merry Christmas, Lollypop!” After the hug, Frank stood back to let in his daughter and son-in-law.
    “Happy holidays, Frank.” Tyson noted that Leia’s father still called her by her childhood nickname, but then she still called her father ‘Poppy’ as she’s done since she was daddy’s little girl. It shouldn’t matter; Tyson recalled that he had a special nickname for his princess. “Where can I set these down?”
    “Under the tree,” came Maria’s voice from the kitchen. The smell emanating around the house meant that Maria was baking her famous cinnamon rolls.
    “If you can find room under the tree.” Frank said. Already stacks of wrapped packages crowded around the blanketed tree base and overflowed to one end of the nearby beige couch. “Every year she says she’s going to cut down, and every year we seem to have more and more presents for the grandkids.”
    “And here’s more for them.” Tyson said as he unloaded the box.
    “When are you two going to have kids?” Frank asked.
    “Frank!” Maria shouted as she came in to the living room. “What did I tell you about asking that?”
    “Poppy, you already have ten grandkids.” Leia said.
    “Yeah, but I want more.” Frank said.
    “He keeps forgetting what a hard time I had getting pregnant.” Maria said. Leia looked down at the floor.
    “Someday, soon enough.” Tyson said.
    Maria hugged her daughter. “You’ve lost weight, haven’t you?”
    “A few pounds,” Leia said, “I think. I hope.”
    Maria said to her husband. “Their gifts are on the arm of the couch.”
    Frank held up a package. “No, try the bottom of the stack.” He picked up two others. “Yes, that’s right.” Frank handed the boxes to Tyson.
    “Thanks.” Tyson said, “Sweetheart, we have a long drive ahead of us.”
    Leia kissed her parents goodbye. “I’ll call on Christmas Day.” Then Tyson and Leia left for his parents’ home.

    The rural Tennessee house was big for the two people who lived there, but Tyson’s parents frequently entertained houseguests including their three sons and their families. After he retired, Ned Howard built the house with the help of his sons, using professionals only when absolutely necessary for the electricity and plumbing. Eve Howard enjoyed decorating the house with floral wallpapers and borders and pastel or white wainscoting in many rooms. Even the bathrooms were a sea of flowers and color.
    This year, Tyson’s grandmother from California joined them for the holiday, and Nick and his family also made the trip, so Tyson and Leia were assigned the family room. Although the room had a gas fireplace and a television set, it did not include a bed–not even one hidden in the couch. Eve and Ned set up an air mattress, but it leaked. About 3:00 in the morning, Tyson felt Leia getting out of bed. With her weight no longer balancing what little air was left in the mattress, Tyson’s bottom touched the floor.
    “Where are you going?” he asked.
    “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
    “You didn’t. I’d be surprised if I’ve slept an hour tonight on this thing.”
    “That would be more than I’ve slept. After all my late night marathon studying and sewing sessions, I was hoping to get some quality sleep on this trip.” Leia said. “Do you mind if I take the couch?”
    “No, go ahead. I’ll try the recliner.” Different sleeping places, unfortunately, meant no spooning once morning came. The rest of the family usually were awake by seven am anyway. The sounds of children eating breakfast in the kitchen next door absolutely forbade sleeping late.

    On Christmas Day, after the children opened their gifts, Eve held up a candy dish, “Chocolate anyone? I made them myself.”
    Leia and Tyson shrugged no, thank you. Byron, their ten-year-old nephew happily took the whole dish from his grandmother.
    “Leia, now that you’re done with school,” Eve said, “when are you going to have kids?”
    Tyson answered so Leia didn’t have to. “Well, Mom, there are other considerations besides Leia’s bachelor’s degree.”
    Leia just sat and watched Byron play on the floor with his new stuffed dinosaur. He flew it through the air. He made it pounce and growl, providing his own sound effects. The walkie-talkie they gave him last year was strapped to his belt and came alive with his brother Jason’s voice, “Hey, Byron, you gotta come outside. Dad wants to teach us how to play horseshoes!”
    Byron dropped the dinosaur and ran outside. Leia also left the room.
    “Mom, can I talk to you alone?” Tyson asked.
    “Of course.” The two went into the kitchen. Like all rooms in the house, it was highly decorated. Swans and sunflowers were everywhere in the large room. The kitchen was Eve’s domain, and in it she ruled supreme. Tyson leaned against the breakfast bar, while his mother washed a few glasses that had accumulated in the sink.
    “Mom, before we have kids, we need a bigger car and a bigger house. We’re trying to save up for those things now. Plus, Leia needs to lose more weight. She’s read articles on the Internet that children born to obese women have a higher risk for birth defects.”
    “Can you really trust what you read on the Internet?”
    “Have you ever logged on to the Internet?”
    “You know I hate that computer your father has. When he’s using it, I can’t use the phone. I worry about your grandmother reaching us. You haven’t answered my question.”
    “Just like any medium, you have to check the sources. However, most information can be trusted. Leia has her routine physical in February. She’ll ask her doctor then. In the meantime, lay off on the kid issue. We’re having a hard enough time as it is without you and her father asking us all the time.”
    “I don’t mean to hurt you.”
    “I know you don’t, Ma. But the truth is, every time you mention it–every time we think about kids–we feel like crying. Leia’s probably doing that right now.”
    “I should go to her...”
    “No, just leave her alone. We prefer to work through this in our own ways. Believe me; I know from plenty of experience.”

    That evening, two of Nick’s kids played on an ottoman in the family room. Byron lay across it as his five-year-old sister Tiffany piled decorator pillows on top of him.
    “Don’t move!” she said. He couldn’t stop laughing under all the little pillows, and they finally toppled off, burgundies and golds cascading everywhere. Tiffany squealed, “I told you not to move!”
    Tyson and Leia sat on the couch behind the kids. They missed their cat, and watching the children play made them even more gloomy. “What are you thinking about?” Leia asked.
    “Some day soon enough,” Leia soothed Tyson as they cuddled together on the couch.
    “Hey you guys,” Ned poked his head in the room, a broad smile across his face as he told his grandchildren, “quit making so much noise.”
    “We’re not making any noise!” said Byron.
    “Sure you’re not.” He winked at his son and daughter-in-law. “Tyson, I need some help with my computer. Come downstairs with me, okay?”
    “Okay, Dad.”
    Next to a myriad of lamp-making supplies and equipment, and a tool bench that would make any handyman jealous, Ned set up a very basic computer system. The only item that didn’t come in the original package was a scanner that Tyson and Leia gave him for Father’s Day earlier in the year.
    “So what’s wrong with the ’puter?” Tyson asked.
    “Nothing, I just want to talk to you. Your mother told me what you said in the kitchen.”
    “And I want to help you. Are you planning on moving to a bigger house?”
    “When we get our current house fixed up.” Tyson said.
    “What do you need to do?”
    “Well, the whole bathroom needs upgrading, the kitchen could use new appliances, the living room carpet is stained in several spots, the front and back steps are cracked and falling apart, the house has no rain gutters–.”
    “Stop! If you try to do all that, you’ll never get around to selling your house.”
    “But, Dad, if we don’t do any of that, we’ll never sell the house. Who’d want it?”
    “You can’t do everything. You gotta leave something for the next owners to do.”
    “But how do we know which repairs will sell the house? We don’t have any time or money to waste.”
    “Call a realtor. They know better than anyone what sells and what doesn’t.”
    Tyson thought a moment, “You know, that’s a good idea.”
    “Yes, I do know that. Want another?”
    “Actually, it’s more of an offer: I’ll loan you the money to buy a new car, no interest, just make regular payments.”
    Tyson didn’t expect this. “Dad, you don’t have to–.”
    “I know, but I want to help you kids.”
    “You already bought two cars for me: one in high school and one in college.”
    “So what? I’ve made this same offer to your brothers, and they each took me up on it. Now it’s your turn. Besides, your mother’s worried about you driving back to Wisconsin in that beat up old thing you’ve got. What d’ya say?”
    “I say yes, but I have to talk it over with Leia.”
    “Oh, I’m sure she’ll say yes, too.” Ned said sitting at his computer desk, “Now let’s turn on this infernal machine and start looking for cars.”

    On the drive back to Wisconsin, Leia kept a silent vigil looking out her window, seeing nothing of the countryside.
    “Hey, Princess,” Tyson said, “Smile. Soon we’ll be home, and we can see the baby.” Tyson referred to Peanut.
    Leia smiled. Tyson always knew how to cheer her up. “So what did Mom say after I left the room on Christmas day?”
    “Nothing important.” Leia could hear in his voice that there was much more to the conversation, but Tyson’s unwillingness to talk about it told her not to press further. Tyson, in fact, wanted to change the subject entirely. “Dad is worried about us driving home in this thing. He thinks we should buy a bigger car.”
    “Bigger car; how’re we going to afford that?”
    “We need a new car. This one barely made this trip. As for affording it, my dad offered to loan us the money to buy a new car. No interest, we just have to pay back the principle.”
    “What? Wow! He doesn’t have to do that.”
    “That’s what I said, but apparently both my brothers have received the same deal from him, so that’s why he made the offer. Dad said he knows that we need a new car, and he wants to help. I think he wants more grandkids, and he hopes this will speed things up.”
    “Great.” said Leia, “But what about the house?”
    “He suggested calling a realtor to look the place over and help us prioritize repairs. He said, and I quote, we ‘gotta leave something for the next owners to do.’ unquote. Look at all we’ve replaced already: the furnace, the windows, the water heater.”
    “We really can’t do everything. I’ll call a realtor in January, okay?”
    “Okay.” said Leia, who was smiling much broader now. Tyson definitely knew how to cheer her up.

    Tyson had a good, steady job working as a computer network administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If the network was running smoothly, he didn’t have much to do, so he was allowed to peruse the Internet. In early January, he decided he would look for a new car. Well, not really a new car. The immediate depreciation of value made buying a new car impractical, so Tyson searched for a used car. He punched in the amount they could spend, the maximum number of miles on the vehicle, and gave how far they were willing to drive to the dealership, and hit enter.
    One hit was all he got.
    The 2001 Dodge Caravan had only 12,900 miles on it, which also happened to be the price. Although Leia worked in the same building, it would be easier to e-mail her the URL for the website. A few minutes later, his phone rang.
    “Are you trying to tell me something?” Leia’s voice said, “A Valentine’s gift perhaps?”
    “We could afford it. I figure that if we paid my dad back $250 each month, we could have it paid off in a little more than four years. What d’ya think?”
    “I think we have to go look at it.” Leia read the website. “Hartford? That’s only halfway to Milwaukee. Do you want me to call and see if it’s still available?”
    “Yeah, sure.”
    Twenty minutes later, Tyson’s phone rang again. “Okay, the Caravan is still available.” Leia said. “We have an appointment to go see it tonight.”

    The scenery was gorgeous as they drove along the southern Wisconsin highway: some trees and houses were still decorated from the recent holiday season, and the snow beautifully reflected the moonlit night. When they arrived at the dealership, Tyson was grateful for the bright lights illuminating the car-filled lot. A salesman named Chuck greeted them with a handshake in one hand and hot cocoa in the other. “Here’s the Caravan.” He pointed to a dark-colored vehicle. Leia read the window sticker as Tyson asked a few questions.
    “Did the owner have any complaints with the van? I mean, why’d he decide to sell it?”
    “He’s one of those types who buys a new car every year.” Chuck said. “Can’t stand having a car that’s not current to the year.”
    “Any major repairs done to the car?”
    “Nope, but it comes with a limited warranty. Would you like to take it for a spin?”
    Climbing into a minivan after being used to a two-door hatchback was a little challenging, but they managed. The greatest difference was the vantage point while driving. Tyson and Leia felt like they were flying because they were so high up compared to their little Hyundai. Tyson parked it under a street lamp, and they checked out the interior and exterior for any signs of damage.
    “Looks good.” Leia said.
    Tyson agreed, “but we shouldn’t buy it without looking at other cars first.”
    “Of course.”

    The next night, they looked at car lots in Madison. Tyson said, “I don’t understand why a small-town dealership would be open until 9:00 pm, but dealerships in our city of over 200,000 residents are closed in the evenings.”
    “It’s a puzzle to me, too.” said Leia.
    They drove to the used car section of a large lot. Each car had a large sign in the window, either in the shape of a large price tag or pointed like a star, that posted the vehicle’s price and–sometimes–its mileage. Tyson and Leia didn’t look at any car with only two doors, but read most of the stickers in the side-windows of sedans and other three- or four-door cars. The SUVs were tempting, but pricey. “SUVs are way too expensive now that they’re trendy.” Tyson said.
    The minivans weren’t much better. Both mileage and price were higher than the Caravan in Hartford. “Shall we try another lot?” Tyson asked.
    Leia nodded. The next dealership was just down a frontage road, but no vehicle had fewer miles or a lower price than the first car they looked at.
    After the third lot with the same results Tyson said, “You know, I could get used to driving a minivan. What do you think?”
    “I want a car in which we can bring home a baby.” Leia said, “A minivan will serve.”
    “I’ll call my dad. He’ll pay the $12,900. I say we pay the taxes and fees out of our savings. Sound like a good plan?”
    “Sounds like a good plan.”

    “Hello?” Leia shouted as she entered the house.
    Tyson was seated on the big blue couch watching TV. “Hello, Princess, happy Valentine’s Day. How was your doctor appointment?”
    “Better than I thought it would be. I’m down eight pounds since the beginning of the year.”
    “Excellent!” he stood up and kissed and hugged her. “That means you passed the twenty-pound mark first and get the something special. I’ll cook dinner tonight. Did you ask your doctor about having a baby?”
    “Yes, sit down. I need to talk with you about that.”
    Tyson started to worry as he sat back on the couch. Is something wrong?
    “I asked Dr. Carpenter about pregnancy and the weight issue. I even told her about the articles I’ve read. She asked me about the sources for the articles, and when I told her they were women’s magazines, she laughed.”
    “Laughed? That’s rude.”
    “No, not really. Dr. Carpenter told me to go check out medical journals instead. Apparently they have to cite studies for their sources, unlike women’s magazines. Journals are reviewed by other M.D.s, so the information is much more reliable. She even gave me the web address of a very reliable journal.”
    “So back at your office, you did a search on weight and birth defects. Then what?”
    “No hits. I looked for weight and pregnancy, and again, nothing on birth defects. Dr. Carpenter told me that any weight I lose, including the twenty pounds I just lost, will improve my overall health and make for an easier pregnancy. However, I don’t have to be thin to be pregnant. Lots of large women have babies, and I have beautiful blood pressure. Dr. Carpenter thinks I’m okay to have a baby.”
    Tyson smiled excitedly, “That’s great!” He gave his wife a bear hug.
    “If I stop the birth control now, then in about six months, we can start trying to have a baby.”
    “What about our debt?”
    “I want to do something to make me feel like we’ll have a baby before this millennium is done. Let me do some more searching. While I was on the Internet, I found a site that might be helpful. I want to look at it some more, but at the very least, I want to stop the birth control.”
    “Okay, Sweetheart. Okay.” Tyson said.

    Jack and Kay’s daughter was born the week before St. Patrick’s Day. Tyson and Leia babysat TJ while Kay was in the hospital. When they brought him to meet his new sister, they also brought a blanket that Leia made for the newborn. TJ proudly showed his father the new drum that Tyson and Leia bought for him.
    “A drum?” Jack said. “Do you know how much noise that thing’s going to make?”
    “Yes.” Tyson said. “I might’ve bought something different if I had $25,000. Gotcha!”

    When they went home after visiting Kay, Tyson checked the mail and handed Leia a big envelope. “Look who it’s from.”
    Leia read the return address: Office of the Registrar. She opened the envelope carefully. Yes! Her diploma arrived!

The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
upon the recommendation of the Faculty of the
University of Wisconsin-Madison
confer upon
Leia Maria Howard
the degree of Bachelor of Arts

    “It’s beautiful.” Leia said as she showed Tyson.
    “Congratulations, Princess.” He said as he hugged his wife.

    The April showers wreaked havoc on Tyson and Leia’s house. The lack of gutters left puddles all along the sides of their house, flooding out what few flowers were mingled with the bushes. Finally they called Benjamin, the realtor who helped them purchase the house. Mercifully, when he came over he was very positive.
    “No, you don’t need to replace the roof; it’s still in good condition.” Ben said, “Nor do you need to redo the bathroom. Your father was right, you can’t do it all. Besides, some people like having a room to fix up.”
    “What about the carpet?” Leia asked. “Should we replace it?”
    “I wouldn’t.” Ben said, “Your tastes won’t be the same as a potential buyer. You should offer a carpet allowance: tell the buyer you’ll give money to put toward carpeting of their choice. You have a lot of good qualities here: the new windows and furnace especially are deal-makers.”
    “What would be a deal breaker?” Tyson asked.
    “The tiles in the kitchen.” Ben said, “They scream 1970s. Also, you should have the ceiling here in the dining room replaced.” He pointed to the cracks spreading like spider-webs across the ceiling. “You take care of these things, and I could get $80,000 for this house.”
    “When we bought this house six years ago, “Tyson said, “we bought it for $61,000.”
    “Madison real estate has appreciated quite a bit in recent years.” Ben said. “We keep being voted one of the best places to live.”
    “What about finding a larger house?” Leia asked.
    “That’s not a problem. Right now it’s small houses like these that are selling like hotcakes. They’re less expensive to buy and maintain. Bigger houses sit on the market a while; then they go down in price. If you’re looking for a bigger place, I can show you some.”
    “Not yet,” Tyson said. “We’re not ready to move yet.”
    “But you can be, soon.” Ben said. “Go to your bank and ask a mortgage officer about prequalifying for a home loan. You can find out how much of a house you can afford. Then give me a call, and I can show you houses in your price range.”
    They thanked Ben for his time. Over the next several days, they asked friends and colleagues for recommendations for carpenters to take care of the ceiling and kitchen tiles. In May, they hired the father of one of Tyson’s co-workers. He got the job not only because of his price and references, but also because he said hello to and petted Peanut, who rubbed against his hand and purred her approval. Tyson and Leia were paid biweekly, and May was one of the two months in the year that included a third paycheck. The extra money paid for the repairs, but they only made feeble headway on their credit card debt.

    “I think I’ve found a solution to our debt problems.” Leia told Tyson just before Memorial Day. “I found this great website called The Cheapskate Monthly, a newsletter to help people like us who have too much debt. On the site, I found what they call a Rapid Debt Repayment Calculator, which calculates various ways of paying off debt. I entered our debts, our interest rates, and a reasonable monthly payment plan, and here’s what I figured out: 3½ years.”
    “For us to get out of debt?”
    “Yep. If we follow this schedule.” Leia handed Tyson a packet of papers. Each column was a credit card to pay off, and each row was their monthly payment. As the lowest debt is paid off, and the Rapid Debt Repayment Program required more than the minimum, the money from the first debt goes to pay the second. When that is paid off, the money from the two payments goes toward the third, and so forth. The last month was November 2004. They could do it.
    “Okay. Let’s try it.” Tyson said. “By the way, I have some good news.”
    “What’s that, honey?”
    “I’ve just been hired by Kay’s law firm to do their tech support.”
    “You’re quitting the university?”
    “No. They just need me part-time to maintain their system. I’m only charging fifty bucks an hour because this is my first freelance job.”
    “Hey, fifty-bucks is fifty bucks. When do you start?”
    “They need me tomorrow evening.”

    Saying you’re going to pay more than the minimum, and then actually doing it are two very different things. Living on less and not accumulating more credit card debt was really hard, especially when things go wrong. And something always goes wrong. One day in early June, the monitor on Tyson’s home computer displayed the wrong colors, and everything on the screen looked fuzzy. After running the diagnostics in his operating system without any success, he took the computer apart and discovered that the power supply fried his video card.
    “I need a new one.” he told Leia.
    “How much?”
    “A basic one will cost at least a hundred dollars, but it won’t be good enough for the games I’m playing.”
    “How much will a good one cost?”
    “About three-hundred dollars.”
    Leia stood silent. She knew that Tyson liked to run some sophisticated programs. He liked to draw maps for his games, and a good video card was essential, but how could they afford it? The easy answer was to put it on a credit card, which meant more debt and interest to pay. Then Leia had an idea. “Sweetheart, when do you work at the law firm again?”
    Tyson’s face lit up at this suggestion. “They asked me to upgrade their backup procedures when I have some extra time. I guess I just found some extra time.”

    That weekend, Leia drove Tyson to the law firm. “I was wondering if you called the bank for an appointment.” she said.
    “We don’t need an appointment.” Tyson said.
    “I thought you were going to call about prequalifying for a mortgage.”
    “I did. Remember last year when we refinanced after the interest rates dropped?” Leia nodded, “Well, the loan officer said she could use the same information to determine how much mortgage we could afford.”
    Leia was hanging on his every word, “And...”
    “We could buy a house up to $146,000.”
    “$146,000. Wow, that’s a lot!” Leia said. “How come you didn’t tell me?”
    “Well, I wanted to surprise you. You see, I’ve been looking for a house for us already. Work has been real slow now that it’s summer. I’m waiting for a call back from Ben.”
    “You big, sweet, lug!” Leia hugged her husband. “I need to go home, now.”
    “What’s the rush?”
    “If we move, we need to sell our house. To sell our house, we need to clean it.”
    “Uh, okay.” Tyson said as Leia nearly pushed him out of the minivan. “Do I still get to buy a new video card?”
    “Yes, as long as you clean your computer room.”
    Tyson laughed.

    The house officially went on the market on Monday, July first. They frantically cleaned throughout June, but the place wasn’t ready. During the first week of July, they were still working on the basement.
    “Tyson!” She called upstairs. “I need your help carrying these boxes!”
    “Can it wait?” he shouted back.
    “No. I want to take them to the storage place before sunset.”
    He came downstairs. “Do you need me to go with you?”
    “Yes, I could use your help.”
    “I need to go to the law firm tonight.”
    “I didn’t know that.”
    “Yes, you did. I told you on the way to work this morning.”
    “Now I remember. Sorry, sweetheart. My mind’s been racing. Between cleaning for the open house and preparing for our Independence party, I’ve been scatterbrained. I’ll take these to the storage place after I drop you off, okay?”
    “Sure,” Tyson said. “Are you okay?”
    “Are you sure you’re not taking on too much?”
    “I’ll be fine once we’re moved. In the meantime, I’ve been storing anything we don’t need in the next few months; even the Christmas decorations are in storage.”
    “But not your Christmas sewing,” he said as he looked toward her sewing table.
    “I have five months to complete that. I’ll have to pause it when we move. If we move.”
    “Don’t worry; we’ll move.” he hugged her, then he carried the boxes to the van.

    Although Ben suggested they go someplace else, Tyson and Leia decided to stay home during the first open house. Tyson watched from the big picture window as cars slowed down in front of the house, then drove away without stopping. He watched the people who did come inside. They looked at the stained carpet, and they frowned. The frowns remained as they walked through the house. No one seemed interested. Tyson felt they should have heeded Ben’s advice and disappeared for the day. After the last guests left, Tyson said to Ben, “We didn’t get any offers. Now what?”
    “Don’t worry.” Ben said. “This was only the first open house. Let me do some more marketing. I’ll sell this place for you.”
    Tyson trusted Ben, but decided to do some searching on his own. Back in the office the following Monday, he booted up his computer and logged on to the Internet. He found few pieces of information searching for real estate help. Mainly he found horror stories from people trying to sell their homes by themselves. Then one hit caught his eye: someone recommended a book: Dress Your House for Success by Webb and Parsons Zackheim. He printed the page and showed it to Leia on their way home from work.
    “I think it might help,” he said, “but I don’t want to buy it unless I know it will help.”
    “Okay,” Leia said, “Let’s go to the library.”
    A search of the library’s computerized card catalog showed Dress Your House... was available, so they checked it out. It proved more than helpful. Tyson and Leia rearranged the furniture in their home to create small “sets” with the space. One set included the recliner, a small end table, and a lamp. Leia threw an afghan over the chair, and it looked like the perfect place to sit and read a book. Tyson cleared out the cabinets in the kitchen of all items but the barest of essentials. Then he “faced” the remaining items on the shelves. He turned all the cans and boxes so the front of the labels were facing outward. This handy little tip that the authors borrowed from supermarkets made the kitchen cupboards look neat and organized. Tyson stood at the curb in front of the house and realized why some people drove away without stopping: some trees and weeds were sprouting around the bushes, and the handrail on the front steps needed a paint job. He went to the garage, took out his garden shears, and took care of the first problem. The second was taken care of after a trip to the hardware store for some sandpaper and paint. He also made a sign to put on one of the end tables: “House includes a carpet allowance so you can buy the carpet of your dreams.”

    The second open house took place the following weekend. This time Tyson and Leia followed Ben’s advice and went for a drive.
    “I have something I want to show you.” Tyson said. He drove them to another part of Madison where the houses were older and larger. A three-story house with blue siding and a large front porch had a “for sale” sign in the yard. Another sign, with balloons attached, declared “open house today.”
    The living room had a great place for their corner entertainment center. The kitchen was huge and had a dining set built in to a corner: along the wall was a bench, and two chairs were on the side of the table facing the rest of the room. A piece of paper on the table declared the set was “included with the sale of the house, as are all of the major appliances.” When Tyson and Leia met the owners, they realized why.
    Sam and Maxine were an older couple whose four children were grown up with families of their own. As Maxine poured some tea for Leia, she said, “We love having the kids and grandkids visit, but it’s so rare that they can all come at the same time. It would be easier on us to have a smaller place.”
    Sam told Tyson, “We’re moving to Florida. I don’t want to shovel anymore snow.”
    Maxine asked Leia, “Do you have any children?”
    “Not yet,” Leia said. “We’re hoping to start a family as soon as we have a bigger house.”
    “Let me show you the bedrooms.” Maxine stood up and led Leia upstairs. Sam took Tyson out to the garage, pointing out the large backyard along the way.

    Ben was smiling when Tyson and Leia returned to their house. “Guess what? I have four people who want to make offers.” Tyson watched as poor Ben was engulfed in a huge hug from Leia. “Before you get too excited,” Ben said, “they need to make formal offers in writing. Then we can celebrate.”

    When Leia’s grandmother put her two-bedroom bungalow up for sale in 1995, Tyson and Leia jumped at the chance to buy their first house. Ben made the sale as painless as possible, explaining every single piece of the paperwork to all parties involved and setting a very small fee because no marketing was needed. Now Tyson and Leia were trying to sell that same bungalow and buy another house. In August, they had to deal with the three written offers that were actually submitted for their bungalow, as well as submit their offer for Sam and Maxine’s house.
    The first shoe dropped with a call from their bank early on a Saturday morning. “They turned us down for the mortgage.” Tyson told Leia.
    “How could they? They prequalified us for up to $146,000, and Sam and Maxine only want $135,000.”
    “They say we have too much unsecured debt.”
    “But we’re working on that! We’ve already paid so much on our credit cards, and we’re paying more all the time.”
    “I know that, and you know that, but the bank doesn’t know that. All they know is that we have thousands of dollars of credit card debt.”
    “Then let’s tell them what we’re doing.” Leia said. “Let’s show them our debt repayment schedule.”
    “Leia, that’s not going to convince them to loan us money.”
    “We don’t know that until we try.”
    “I’m not going to show them that schedule.”
    “Well I am.” Leia went to the bills box and pulled out a folder of papers. Then she left the house. The phone rang.
    “Hello?” Tyson said.
    “Tyson, it’s Ben. Bad news. The people with the highest offer were turned down for their mortgage.”
    “A lot of that seems to be going on. We were turned down, too.”
    “What? I thought you were prequalified?”
    “So did I, but we have too much credit card debt.”
    “That can’t be right; the bank knew about your debt when they prequalified you. Something is wrong here.” Ben said. “Maybe I should give them a call...”
    “Leia’s already on her way to the bank. She’s trying to convince them that we have a working plan for paying off our debt and still be able to afford a higher mortgage.”
    “Well, there you have it.” Ben reassured Tyson. “Listen, don’t worry about the setback with the buyer. Remember that two more parties still are interested in your house, okay?”
    “Okay.” Tyson hung up the phone. He wasn’t totally convinced that any of this would work, and just then he didn’t feel like dealing with it all. So he went to his computer room to play some games.
    Leia came back an hour later. “Guess what, Honey? We got the mortgage!”
    “I showed the loan officer the Rapid Debt Repayment Plan, and how we calculated for the new mortgage with our income, and she said that should work. The bank just wanted to know that we could afford it all.”
    “That’s great! Oh, you don’t know how much I needed that good news.”
    Tyson hugged Leia. “Unfortunately, I have more bad news. The buyers were also denied their mortgage.”
    “Well, we still have two more people interested in the house, right?”
    “That’s what Ben said. Did you talk to him, too?”
    “How could I? We don’t have a cell phone. Don’t worry, Honey. Remember that you promised me we would move. With our mortgage approved, we’re one step closer.”

    In September, Tyson and Leia signed a lot of papers in two separate meetings. First, they signed over the sale of their bungalow to a couple that just got married and were using their wedding gift money as the down payment. On Tyson’s birthday, he and Leia signed the papers to buy Sam and Maxine’s house. When they met the older couple at the title company, Maxine and Leia hugged.
    “You’ve lost weight.” Maxine said. “I was hoping you would be gaining some now that you’ll have a bigger house.”
    “Not yet.” Leia said, “But we are working on it.”
    “We’re moving in to our new place on October 1.” Sam told Tyson. “So you can start bringing in your stuff then.”
    “That’ll work great.” Tyson said. “The people buying our place have a lease until Halloween. If we’re completely gone by the fifteenth, then they can start moving before their lease is up.”

    Before they were married, Tyson and Leia knew they were both packrats. Between the two of them, they had more stuff than Leia’s grandmother had when she was living in the bungalow with a husband and five kids. Leia’s grandparents, however, were married during the Great Depression, so “stuff” was never a problem in their lives. Although Tyson and Leia already packed a lot of their videotapes, computer software, books, games, decorations, infrequently used kitchen gadgets, etc. and moved them to a storage locker, they still had a lot of “stuff” in their house.
    Tyson dismantled and packed his computer as Leia packed her sewing machine and projects. In the first week in October, they took loads of stuff to the new house.
    On Saturday, Tyson found Leia crying in the bathroom.
    “What’s wrong?” he asked.
    “My period started this morning.”
    “Oh, Sweetheart,” he hugged his wife. “Don’t worry. Any day now you won’t have that nasty period anymore. If you let it bother you, that’ll make it harder to conceive.” He grabbed a tissue from a box on the vanity and wiped the tears from her eyes. “Right now we have to move our things to our new house. Nick and his family and Jack have come over to help us. Your parents are also here.”
    “I don’t want to see anyone.”
    “I understand. Tell you what: the van is already loaded. Why don’t you find Peanut and take her to the new house? You know it won’t be home until the kitty is moved in.”
    Leia gave a small smile. “Okay.”

    As was their custom, Tyson and Leia slept late on Thanksgiving day.
    When they woke up, they didn’t get out of bed right away. They laid together, spooning. Tyson stroked Leia’s hair, then her arms. He kissed her. Then he took off her pajamas...

    Christmas day was celebrated at Frank and Maria’s house. Tyson and Leia sat on the couch as their nieces and nephews opened their gifts. Francis opened the racetrack playmat his godmother made for him. He brightly smiled as he wrapped himself in the playmat as if it were a blanket. He rushed to Leia and Tyson.
    “Thank you, Auntie Leia and Uncka Tyson,” he said as he hugged them each, “I can play my new cars on this!”
    “You’re very welcome.” Leia said. Tyson winked to Toni, Francis’s mom and Leia’s sister-in-law who told them that Francis was receiving toy race cars from Santa Claus. Francis rushed off to share his toy with his brothers and sisters, who sat amongst piles of ripped wrapping paper and empty boxes as they played with their new toys.
    Toni sat next to Leia. “All these wonderful gifts, how are you going to top yourselves next year?”
    “Well, Sis, we’re not.” Leia said.
    “Sorry, Sis. I hope the little ones understand, but this is probably the last year Tyson and I give gifts to all the nieces and nephews, except Francis, of course. He is my godson.”
    Tyson said, “You remember the reason why we buy gifts for our nieces and nephews?”
    “Because you have no kids of your own, except Peanut.” Toni said.
    “And we said we’d stop the gifts after a specific event.” Tyson said.
    “Ohmigod! Are you...?”
    Tyson stood up. “Could I have everyone’s attention?” The kids continued playing, but Toni and the other parents hushed them. After a few minutes, Tyson said. “We have an announcement: We’re going to have a baby. Leia’s pregnant and due in August.”