Winter in Wyoming was beautiful. Crisp white snow that sparkled in the daytime, the crystal snowflakes shimmering subtle rainbow colors. Then shone in the night, reflecting the moon and practically glowing in the dark. Alma and Jenny made the most of it, dragging Ennis out to build snowmen with them, taking Jack out for snowball fights, and making hundreds of angels in front of the apartment. Jack would always have cups of hot cocoa ready for them when they came in, their noses and cheeks red from the stinging cold.
Christmas was approaching, a family holiday. It was the girl’s first Christmas without their mama. Jack’s first Christmas with his new family. Jack was determined to make it a good one. He was nervous about Christmas dinner. He knew Alma had been a better cook than he was, and he shuddered to think of the Thanksgiving disaster they’d had a month ago. The smell of that burnt bird hung in the apartment for a week after. Not to even mention his pathetic gravy. But Christmas would be different, he told himself.
Holiday preparations were underway. They had to get a tree, get the food, and of course, get gifts for their girls.
“We’ll start with a tree.” Ennis said to Jack as he put the hatchet and ropes in the bed of the truck. “Girls like it.”
Jack was wrapped up in as many layers as he could be comfortable in. A thermal shirt, flannel, and jacket. Gloves and the thickest pair of socks he owned. He was sweating beneath his jacket, but still his legs and ears were cold. Ennis was wearing a jacket, gloves, and his usual cowboy hat. “I don’t know how you do it.” Jack said, a little jealous. “It’s too friggin’ cold out for this.”
“It’s Christmas, Jack.” Ennis smiled, a small turn of his lips. “Go get the girls.”
Jack gladly retreated to the warmth of the apartment. He pulled scarves around the girls necks and pulled winter hats onto their heads. “Alright. You guys ready to go pick a tree?”
“Yes!” They shouted.
They started to run outside, about to go leaping down the stairs like they always did. Jack shouted in alarm, running after them and grabbing them by the backs of their coats.
“Stop! The steps are slippery.” He said.
The girls looked down at the stairs, which had a layer of ice over the tops. “Oh.” Jenny said. “Thanks Jack Jack.”
Jack sighed in relief. Then he held their hands and guided them down the stairs safely.
The Christmas tree farm was two towns over. The dirt roads had been snowed over, and were hard to see. Ennis drove a lot slower than they usually did. The girls sang along to Christmas songs on the radio. Jack joined in after a few. Jack could hardly ever resist the urge to sing to any music he heard.
It began to snow as they pulled into town. Lander Wyoming was the only place in the area with a Christmas tree farm. A few store fronts had painted their windows with holiday themes. Christmas lights adorned houses and there was a nativity display in front of their local church. The Christmas tree farm was on the farther edge of town, surrounded by other farms that grew wheat in the summer. Ennis carefully parked the truck.
The strong smell of pine was especially crisp in the cold air. Jenny turned her face skyward and tried to catch snowflakes on her tongue. Fluffy, fat snow that drifted down slowly. Alma’s eyes glowed from reflected strings of Christmas lights. Other families walked among the trees, trying to pick a tree appropriate for their house.
“Come on. Let’s get one before they’re all snatched up.” Jack said. He took the girls hands and Ennis walked behind them with the ropes and hatchet.
There were trees of various sizes. The girls ran through the snow, lifting their legs high to get through it. Up to their knees in fluffy white snow. Jack easily trudged after them. They had their sights set on the biggest, grandest, greenest trees in the farm. Frosted with layers of snow that clung to their branches.
“Daddy! Daddy! This one!” Alma shouted, leaning against the trunk of a tree. It stood twelve feet above them.
Jack laughed, looking at Ennis with amusement. “Your girls sure know how to pick em.”
“Baby we can’t fit that through our door.” Ennis tried to reason with their daughter. “I don’t think we can stand it up inside either.”
“That’s okay! We can put it outside!” Jenny said.
“Darlin’ I don’t think we have enough ornaments to cover that. Listen, we can get a perfectly nice tree. One that's smaller.”
The girls looked disappointed, but they didn’t try to argue. They followed Ennis to the middle of the farm, where there were moderately sized trees available for purchase. The girls inspected them carefully. Picky little girls that they were. They wanted the best. Jack watched them. His breath turned into silver mist as it came from his mouth. It rose into the air, curling and disappearing. Ennis wiped his nose. Jack looked over at him.
“God, I’m cold just looking at ya.” Jack said. He tugged at his scarf, pulling it further up around his ears.
“It ain’t so bad.” Ennis shrugged. “I’m glad. The girls seem to be happy again.”
Jack looked back at the children. Smiles peeking out over their scarves. He smiled, reflecting their happy faces. “Yeah. Guess so.”
“I was worried about em.” Ennis confessed. “I want this to be a good Christmas. It’s their first without their mama.”
“I know.” Jack sighed. “I think about it all the time.”
“I’m glad you’re here.” Ennis’s gloved hand wrapped around his own. “It would be just a little more lonesome without you.”
Jack was glad to be with them, too. Christmases weren’t historically happy for him. His father wasn’t exactly the warm “Christmassy” type. Either he was with his bastard father for the holidays or on the road. Alone in some shitty motel room watching Christmas specials on the television. Drinking cheap coffee in an unfamiliar bed. This Christmas would be different. He had a real family to spend it with.
“I feel the same way.” He whispered.
“Daddy! This one!” The girls shouted. They had picked a much more reasonable tree. One with big green branches Ennis would have trouble fitting through the door. But he’d be able to stand it up inside. Ennis decided he approved of his girl’s choice.
“Stand back, darlin’.”
Jack pulled the kids back, keeping them in place while Ennis swung the hatchet. The tree shuddered with every blow, and came down in just a few swings.
“Alright. Come help me tie it.” He said to Jack.
With the tree bound up, they dragged it back to the main building and paid for it. The shop owner, a man with a white beard, round belly, and gold frame glasses who looked humorously like Santa gave them a decent price on the tree. The girls looked up at him with wide eyes, whispering to each other.
Ennis grinned at his children’s antics. “You wanna say merry Christmas to Santa?”
The shopkeeper laughed. The girls said merry Christmas, talked a bit with the shop owner. He let them touch his beard and smiled at them.
“Cute kids.” He said.
“Yeah, they sure think so.” Jack joked. “That must happen all the time.”
“Oh yeah. It’s a good business model, too.” He gave them their receipt. “Have a good Christmas. Come back next year.”
“For sure.” Ennis said. Then they hauled the tree out and Jack helped him secure it to the truck.
The girls were still riding high from their encounter with “Santa.” The town was beautiful, just like a Christmas card. Ennis was driving slowly, because of the roads, which gave the girls time to get distracted by things. Especially a bright bakery with a big Christmas cake in the window.
“Oh daddy! Please daddy can we stop there pleeease!” They begged.
“I don’t know.” Ennis said. “We gotta have dinner later.”
“Oh, come on Ennis. It’s Christmas.” Jack said with an indulgent smile. “Get the girls a cookie.”
Ennis seemed to agree. He was a generous father. “Alright.” He pulled in front of the bakery store front and parked the truck. The girls screamed in the back, hopping out and running to the store in their excitement. Ennis clambered out after them. Running to them then open the door.
The inside of the bakery smelled like heaven. Like cinnamon and vanilla and caramel. Jack would be satisfied to stand there all day just breathing in the smell of the place. It was a sight to behold, too. Pristine glass displays showed off creme filled pastries, decorated cookies, and chocolates. Christmas music played softly in the background while Alma and Jenny smudged the glass, pressing their fingers and faces into its surface.
“Girls, don’t do that.” Ennis scolded, pulling them a few inches away.
The shopkeeper chuckled. “Don’t worry. Happens all the time.” He said kindly. “What can I get for you?”
“We’re just here to buy the girls a cookie.” Jack said, looking at the sparkling confections. “As a little Christmas treat.”
“That’s nice. We have lots of cookies. Take your time picking.”
“Ooooh.” The girls looked eagerly at the desserts. There was classic gingerbread, very old fashioned, with peppermint buttons and licorice smiles. Along with more modern sugar cookies with colored frosting. Snowman sugar cookies were covered in thick white frosting with sparkling crystal sugar. There were chocolate cookies, thin and snappy, that looked like reindeer. The girls seemed to have trouble choosing out of such a beautiful selection.
“Just one, Jack Jack?” Jenny asked, looking up with big, pleading puppy dog eyes.
Jack laughed. “Nice try, baby. Just one. But I’ll let you have ice cream after dinner if you’re a good girl.”
Jenny seemed to agree to those terms. Ennis crouched beside Alma, and discussed with her her choices. Alma wanted the sparkling snowman, but she was also tempted by the chocolate reindeer. Ennis nodded sagely, which just made Jack want to laugh. He helped Jenny in turn, who also wanted the snowman, but was also having trouble committing to any one decision.
Alma decided on the chocolate reindeer. Jenny ended up choosing the snowman sugar cookie. They made their purchase and left with two happy little girls. They had a Christmas tree, some cookies, and they were ready to head home. Jack felt as though it was a successful day out on the town.
The girls traded cookies in the truck, trying each other’s choices. But ultimately they were happy with what they got. They munched quietly on the way home.
Home, however. Is where they ran into the problem. Jack looked up and noticed that they had an issue. They were going to have trouble getting their tree up to their second floor apartment.
Getting the tree? No problem. Securing it to the truck and driving it home, even on the snowy dirt roads? No issues at all. But now they were home, and Jack was looking at the narrow stairs leading up to their second floor apartment. The sharp turn near the bottom. The icy metal steps. And he saw that this was going to be a problem.
“Uh… Ennis? How are we supposed to get this fucking thing up those stairs?”
Ennis turned around, and the look on his face confirmed everything Jack needed to know. “Same way I did last Christmas.” He said.
“Shit.” Jack sighed.
That was how they ended up hauling the tree up the stairs. The girls watched from the window upstairs, stashed safely in the apartment where they were warm. They were cheering their daddy on. Not that it did them any good. Jack took the top of the tree, and he was walking backwards up the stairs ahead of Ennis, who had the trunk firmly in his arms. Almost immediately Jack slipped on the icy steps. He grabbed the railing, flailing his other arm in an attempt to get balance, and dropped the tree on the stairs.
“Jesus, Jack!” Ennis yelled as pine needles showered all over the place. “Watch your damn step!”
“I’m trying!” Jack hissed.
The next problem was the sharp turn, exactly as Jack predicted. It took entirely too long to maneuver. Jack was wedged between the wall and the tree as Ennis shoved it through. Jack groaned as the branches pressed into his ribs. It involved at lot of yelling and forcing the damn thing through. Jack cursed the railing, which limited how far they could turn. Both men were panting by the time they finally got the tree straight.
The rest of the way was straightforward, but labor intensive. Jack had to be careful with every step. He vowed to salt these steps as soon as he had a free moment. His arms aches with their effort. By the time they’d finally pushed the tree into the apartment Jack was ready to collapse from exhaustion.
“Well. The tree looks a little worse for wear.” Ennis admitted. The branches were looking a little raggedy from being shoved against the wall so hard. “But close enough.”
“Alright.” Jack panted, throwing himself onto the couch without so much as taking his boots off. “Give me five minutes and I’ll be ready to decorate.”
Ennis shook his head. “Gotta set it up first.”
“Okay.” Jack said, pushing himself up to help. His arms shook under his own weight.
“Nah, you stay down, rodeo. I can handle it from here.” Ennis said. He leaned down and pulled Jack’s boots off. He looked at Jack fondly. “Thanks for the help.”
Jack felt his face heat, and his heart fluttered in his chest. “No problem.”
Ennis was true to his word. He did it all by himself while Jack rested. Jack drank the coffee Ennis brought him on the couch, lounging while he set up the tree in its stand and pulled the skirt around it. Jack eventually shed his jacket. The warmth of the coffee in his hands was wonderful after being in the cold for hours. Ennis tugged the skirt for a while, trying to arrange in perfectly. When he was finally done he turned around to look at Jack. “You warm now?”
“Well, I’m not. Scoot.”
Jack made room for Ennis. He shoved in beside Jack and they curled up together on the couch. He pulled the blanket up over their laps and slung an arm over his man. Ennis sighed. He sounded satisfied. “Well. I'm ready for a nap.” He said.
Jack looked over his shoulder at the tree Ennis had set up. It looked good, but it was lacking the ornaments to finish it off. “We should decorate the tree soon.” Jack reminded him.
Ennis hummed, tucking his head under Jack’s chin. “In a few minutes.”
Jack smiled. Snow drifted past the window outside, swirling in light breezes. The apartment was warm. Ennis was with him. The living room smelled like pine and coffee. It felt like Christmas.
“In a few more minutes.” Jack agreed.