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FLASH FICTION

Arkeda's First Christmas

Warning for parents: contains Santa spoilers.

Arkeda sitting in front of a lit and decorated Christmas tree
Image made with photos by Jonas Smith and Biljana Martinić on Unsplash

November 27, 2039

Arkeda Mothran watched in confusion as Mr. Davis from next door and his sons brought another box up from Dominique’s basement. The other boxes had all been red and green, but this one was brown, made of cardboard. He didn’t understand that word. Cardboard. The paper was thick, kind of board-like, but why call it a card?

After being on Earth for three months, Arkeda was getting the hang of English, but so many words didn’t make sense. Like knife. Why was there a K in that word? His English teacher, Ms. Mouters, insisted that it was pronounced ‘naif’ even though it looked like ‘k-niffeh’ to Arkeda. Otran, the language of his planet, Otreau, made more sense. If a letter was in a word, it made a sound. Most of the time, the word meant what it sounded like. Mendoa lukos, Arkeda’s favorite animal, made sense. Mendoa meant mind. The animal mendoa lukos was a predator that hunted in packs, using its telepathy to catch its prey. The name made sense. No extra letters, no words that didn’t sound like they belonged.

Arkeda went to the top of the basement stairs. What were all those boxes for? He’d seen them when Dominique first showed him her house: red and green ones, black and orange ones, yellow and brown ones, purple and pink ones, red and pink ones. Dominique had been talking and pointing to the boxes, but Arkeda hadn’t known any English then. He was getting better, but it was still difficult, especially reading. Why did they write their words all horizontal with the letters unconnected?

Mr. Davis and his son Scott were coming up the stairs with a big white board that had mini train tracks on one side. Scott’s brother, Shawn, was behind them with another box. Were they bringing toys upstairs now? Arkeda already had mini train tracks from Dominique, that he could arrange himself. These new ones couldn’t be moved around.

“Whoops, ‘scuse me, kid,” Mr. Davis said as Arkeda got out of the basement doorway. Arkeda wasn’t sure what ‘scuse’ meant, but Mr. Davis, Scott, and Shawn just kept walking.

“Put it down over here,” Dominique called from the front window. Curious, Arkeda reached out telepathically to see what she was thinking about. His parents would have been—no. He pushed that away, blinking back tears. He didn’t want to cry in front of Mr. Davis and his sons. Instead, he looked inside Dominique’s mind. Her thoughts were full of English words he didn’t know, and imaginings of the house with weird decorations added. Was that a tree she was imagining by the window?

Arkeda still found the way these humans communicated strange. Were they really unable to use telepathy, or did they just not know how to use it? Telepathy was easy. What was difficult was making words out loud like humans did, and yet every human he’d met since coming to Earth didn’t have any trouble. Sometimes, when he was alone in his room, Arkeda would try to talk out loud. He could sometimes manage sounds, but he couldn’t figure out how to make any words. So when talking with Dominique and others, he used his telepathy to imitate vocal speech. He didn’t have to do anything to look human—his species looked just like humans—but talking like a human took a lot of work.

But what had that word meant? Scuse? He walked over to Dominique, who was now by the fireplace, arranging some kind of needle-covered vine plant on the fireplace shelf. Wait. Was that plant made of plastic? Why would she use a fake plant?

Arkeda took a deep breath, preparing to imitate vocal speech. It was hard, but he was getting used to it. Instead of projecting his words directly to another person’s mind like he normally did, he had to project them into the air right by his mouth. Then, if he moved his lips the right way, it looked and sounded like he was talking out loud. He was good at it, but if he did it too much during the day, he got a headache. Sending his words right to another person’s mind was easier, but he couldn’t do it with humans—they couldn’t find out about his telepathy.

“Dominique?” he said. Should he be moving his tongue? He knew people who talked out loud moved their tongue when talking, but he didn’t know how to move it.

Dominique jumped. Oops. Earth’s atmosphere was a little different than Otreau’s, and the gravity was different, so Arkeda levitated on Earth. He was good at staying low to the ground so people wouldn’t notice, but his footsteps were still always silent.

Dominique looked over her shoulder at him, then turned around and crouched so she was at his eye level. “What is it, honey?”

Why was food her favorite endearment? He’d have to ask later, but right now he had a different question. He put together the sentence in his head, hoping it was correct, then said it out loud. “What means ‘scuse?’”

Dominique’s eyebrows crinkled. Her thoughts felt confused. Uh oh. Had he said the sentence wrong?

Arkeda figured out another English sentence. Maybe this one would make more sense. “Mr. Davis said… ‘Whoops, ‘scuse me, kid.’ What means ‘scuse?’”

“Oh, okay,” Dominique said. She laughed a little. “It’s slang. ‘‘Scuse me’ means ‘excuse me.’”

Arkeda frowned. He should have guessed that. ‘Scuse’ and ‘excuse’ sounded alike.

“Want to help me decorate the Christmas tree?” Dominique asked.

Was that the tree she’d been imagining? Arkeda nodded. He kept hearing that word at school and on the radio. Christmas. He thought it was a holiday, but he wasn’t sure what kind. Maybe he should have asked, but it seemed like something everyone else already knew. It would be embarrassing if anyone found out he didn’t know what Christmas was.

Maybe he could ask Dominique. She’d taught him a lot of things about how American humans lived. She didn’t even ask anymore where he was from or what had happened to him.

By now, Mr. Davis and his sons had the tree set up. It had been in the big cardboard box. As Arkeda walked over, he realized it was also made of plastic. What was wrong with real plants?

“Please tell me the lights all work,” Dominique said.

Mr. Davis grabbed a power cord that was dangling from the bottom of the tree and plugged it into the wall. Tiny rainbow-colored lights turned on all over the tree branches. Whoa. Arkeda walked around the tree. It looked so cool! Did it even need more decorations?

Dominique opened the four smaller red-and-green boxes. She took a round metal container out of one and opened it up, then set it on one of the side tables. Arkeda looked inside. It was full of wire hooks, all tangled together. Were they going to hang things in the tree?

Dominique went back to one of the open boxes. She pulled out a small statue of an old man in red clothes and a hat, carrying a big, lumpy bag over his shoulder. A tiny metal loop connected a gold-colored string to the statue’s head.

“Need help with anything else, Dominique?” Mr. Davis asked.

“Not right now,” she answered. “I’ll let you know when I’m done unloading these boxes so you can take them back downstairs.”

“Okay. Merry Christmas.” Mr. Davis and his sons waved and left the house.

“Merry Christmas,” Dominique called after them.

What? Mary Christmas? Who was Mary? Maybe this was one of those words that sounded exactly like another word but meant something else. Arkeda didn’t like those. He had no trouble remembering the words, but they were still annoying.

Arkeda went over to the tree and watched as Dominique hung the little statue on a branch, using one of the hooks attached to the string. “Who is that?” he asked.

Dominique turned to him, mouth opening in a little ‘O.’ Arkeda didn’t even need to read her mind to tell she was surprised—her shocked thoughts were strong enough that he noticed them without trying.

She crouched in front of him and pointed to the little statue. “That’s Santa Claus. You don’t know who that is?”

Arkeda shook his head. Was this another thing everyone already knew?

Dominique stood and took another little statue out of the box. This one showed the same old man, Santa Claus, wearing red shorts and his red hat, lying in a hammock strung between two weird trees. He didn’t know what kind they were, but he’d never seen them around here. They had big leaves in bunches at the top, and big brown fruits.

“Santa brings kids gifts on Christmas,” Dominique said as she hung the Santa in a hammock statue on the tree. She glanced at him. “Why don’t you help me hang these ornaments?”

Ornaments? Was that what the little statues were called? Arkeda pulled another ornament out of the box. This one was Santa Claus dressed in the same blue outfit the mailman wore. Did all ornaments show Santa?

“Santa lives at the North Pole,” Dominique said. “Do you know where that is?”

Arkeda nodded. “At the top of the planet.”

“Yes. He has helpers called elves. Little people with pointy ears. All year, the elves make toys. Then, on Christmas Eve, the night before Christmas, they put all the presents in Santa’s sleigh. A sleigh is a big sled. Do you remember what a sled is?”

Arkeda nodded. Dominique had taken him sledding a few weeks ago. He hung an ornament of Santa holding an object that was a round mess of pipes. “What is that?” He pointed to the object.

“That’s a French horn. It’s a musical instrument.” She hung a sparkly white star ornament on the tree. The center of the star was Santa’s head. “Santa knows who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. Kids who’ve been nice get presents on Christmas Eve.”

“How does he know?” Arkeda asked. Even telepathy couldn’t reach the other side of the world. Maybe the other side of town, but that took practice. Did he call kids’ parents? Or watch on cameras?

“He has his ways,” Dominique said. “Once the elves fill the sleigh, Santa goes all over the world to deliver the presents. The sleigh is pulled by flying reindeer.”

“Reindeer?” He pulled a weird ornament out of the box. It was shaped like a long red pepper, but at the top of the pepper was Santa’s face.

“These are reindeer,” Dominique said, showing him another ornament of Santa in his sleigh. At the front were nine brown animals with antlers. The one in the very front had a red nose. “Normally, reindeer can’t fly, but Santa’s reindeer can.”

“How do Santa’s reindeers fly?” Arkeda asked. “No wings.”

“Magic.”

They kept hanging ornaments while Dominique told him more about Santa. Arkeda was sure he’d been nice this year. Would Santa bring him presents, or did he only give presents to human kids? Maybe he should write a letter to ask Santa for presents, just in case.

Over the next few hours, they emptied the four ornament boxes. They were all Santa ornaments. When he asked about that, Dominique laughed and said not all ornaments had Santa on them. She just collected Santa ornaments. She had almost four hundred of them.

Dominique took the last ornament out of the last box. This one didn’t have Santa on it anywhere. Instead, it was shaped like a cucumber. “Do you want to hide the pickle?”

What? He knew what pickles were—they were delicious—but why would he hide one? He was about to ask when Dominique explained.

“It’s a game. Someone hides this pickle ornament on the tree, and everyone else has to find it.”

Arkeda grinned. That sounded like fun. “I will hide it!” He took the pickle ornament. “No looking!”

“Okay,” Dominique laughed. She turned around.

Arkeda glanced at her. He kept an eye on her thoughts, just in case she could use telepathy and decided to cheat. He didn’t think she could, but it couldn’t hurt to be careful.

Where should he put the pickle? It was green like the tree, but not the same kind of green. It was shiny metal, with glitter on the wrinkle lines. So he shouldn’t put it too close to a light, or the shine might give it away.

Arkeda went to the back of the tree, where the branches at the bottom almost touched the wall. He crouched and peered between the branches. Where should he put it? He shifted, looking inside from another angle, and found a gap that he hadn’t noticed before. Arkeda went back to where he’d been before and looked for the gap. It was really hard to see. He stood up. Still hard to see. He lay on the ground and stuck his head under the tree, looking up through the branches. The gap wasn’t visible.

Perfect. Arkeda sat up and hung the pickle in the gap. Then he walked around to the opposite side of the tree so Dominique would think he’d been over there. After all, his footsteps were silent. How would she know where he’d been? “Okay, you can look!” he said, not bothering to move his mouth. Dominique wasn’t looking at him, and she was the only other person there, so why do it?

 

That night, Arkeda climbed under the blankets on his bed, trying to avoid looking at the photo of his parents on the nightstand. Mrs. Green, the school counselor, had told him his bad memories would fade, but they hadn’t. He still remembered that last day vividly, the same way he remembered everything.

Mrs. Green didn’t understand why Arkeda wouldn’t tell her what had happened to him. Her thoughts when they talked after school twice a week were sad, confused, and pitying. She knew something bad had happened, but Arkeda wouldn’t tell her anything. He couldn’t. He had to fit in. His parents hadn’t told him he had to blend in, but they had taught him how to. If people knew he was a telepath, would they still like him? If the kids at school knew he couldn’t actually talk out loud, would they think he was weird?

Dominique came in, carrying a book, and sat on the side of Arkeda’s bed. “All ready for bed?”

Arkeda nodded. His head didn’t hurt tonight, which meant he hadn’t imitated vocal speech too much, and he wanted to keep it that way. That meant talking as little as possible.

“Good.” Dominique brushed her hand along the side of Arkeda’s head, a mother’s caress. The familiarity of it hurt, and he pushed tears away. He didn’t want to cry himself to sleep again. “You know the story of Santa now, but there’s someone who’s even more important on Christmas.”

Arkeda cocked his head. Who could that be?

“Have you ever heard the story of how Jesus was born?”

Arkeda shook his head. That was the man on the cross at the big church Dominique took him to every Sunday. The man who was also God. Was Earth’s God the same as Otreau’s Unas Dethos? Catholicism and Dethosez seemed similar. Catholicism had more formality and more focus on kindness to people than kindness to nature, but the rest of the basics were similar: love, service, worship…

“Christmas is Jesus’ birthday,” Dominique said. “Want to hear that story?”

Arkeda nodded and ran for the rocking chair in Dominique’s room where they always read bedtime stories. Dominique chuckled and followed more slowly. She was getting old, she said. Too old to work, but not too old to have to keep busy. Arkeda didn’t understand why it was called “keeping” busy. Busy wasn’t something you could have, which meant it wasn’t something you could keep. Just another reason why Otran was better than English.

“How do you run without pounding footsteps?” Dominique muttered as she sat in the rocking chair. Arkeda climbed onto her lap. It had been weird at first to not hear his footsteps when he ran, because of the levitation thing, but he was getting used to it. He looked at the book Dominique was carrying. The cover showed a scene Arkeda recognized. Dominique had a model of it with the Christmas decorations: a wooden building she called a stable, with a star and angels above it and two people kneeling inside. More people and animals gathered outside the stable. In between the two kneeling people was a baby.

Dominique’s model didn’t have that baby. She had taken the little baby statue and put it in a cabinet. When Arkeda asked why she was hiding the statue—maybe it was a game like the pickle ornament?—Dominique said it was too early to put the baby in. He wouldn’t go in there until Christmas.

Arkeda sounded out the words on the book’s cover. He could read English now, but it was hard. It looked so different from Otran. The First… how did you pronounce that last word? His best guess was KRIST-mass.

Wait. That sounded almost like Christmas. Was that what the word was? But why was there a T? This was why reading English was hard.

Dominique started reading. “The First Christmas.” She opened the cover. “In a town called Nazareth, there was a young woman named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, who was descended from David. One day, the angel Gabriel came to Mary. ‘Hail, full of grace!’ he said to her. ‘God is with you!’

“Mary was surprised by what the angel said. She didn’t know what he meant. Then the angel said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. You will have a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of God.’

“Mary said to the angel, ‘How is this possible? I’m not married yet.’ The angel said, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of God will cover you. That is why your child will be called holy, the Son of God. And your cousin Elizabeth will also have a son despite her old age, because nothing is impossible for God.’ Mary said, ‘I am the servant of God. Let it be done as you said.’ Then the angel left.

“Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. When she got there, and Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s baby leaped in her womb. Elizabeth said, ‘You are most blessed among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. How is it possible that the mother of my Lord comes to me? As soon as I heard your greeting, my baby leaped for joy. You are blessed for believing what God said to you.’ Then Mary praised God. She stayed with Elizabeth for three months, then went home.

“The Emperor commanded that everyone should be registered. So everyone went to their hometown to be registered. Joseph went with Mary to the town of Bethlehem, where his family was from. There were so many people there that the inn was full, and so Mary and Joseph had to stay in a stable. Jesus was born that night in the stable. Mary wrapped him in cloths and laid him in the animals’ manger.

“There were shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem, watching their sheep. An angel appeared to them, and they were scared. But the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today, in the city of David, a Savior is born who is the Messiah. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’

“Then there were many angels, singing to God, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill among men.’

“When the angels left, the shepherds ran to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby in the manger. A bright star shone above the stable. The shepherds told Mary and Joseph what the angel had told them. Mary kept these things to herself and thought about them often. The shepherds left, praising God for what they had seen and heard.

“Some time later, three wise men from the east came to Jerusalem. They had seen the star and had come to worship Jesus. They asked King Herod, ‘Where is the newborn King of the Jews? We saw his star and have come to worship him.’

“Herod was troubled by that. He didn’t want another king. So he asked the priests and scribes where the Messiah would be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem.’

“Herod asked the wise men in private how long it had been since the star appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem and told them, ‘Once you’ve found the child, tell me so I can also go worship him.’ The wise men left and followed the star to Bethlehem. They entered the house and when they saw the child with Mary, they knelt and worshiped him. They gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When they left, they were warned in a dream to not go back to Herod, so they went home another way.”

Dominique closed the book and looked down at Arkeda, who was asleep against her shoulder. He looked so peaceful, all the pain and grief from whatever had happened to him gone. Sometimes, when she checked on him before she went to bed, she found him curled on his side, strong emotions on his sleeping face: fear, confusion, grief, shock. He never talked in his sleep, but sometimes he’d stretch out his arms like he was reaching for something. Or someone. Sometimes he’d be crying in his sleep. She felt at those times that she knew exactly how he was feeling, like he was telling her somehow in his sleep.

Dominique sighed and stood, ignoring the ache in her joints as she picked up Arkeda and carried him back to his room. She knew Arkeda couldn’t stay with her forever. She wasn’t a foster parent. It had been enough of a fight to convince child services to let him stay with her for a year. They had relented, provided she covered the cost of raising him herself. Dominique had agreed, even though it would make her already-tight budget tighter. She wouldn’t make Arkeda learn English and American life with a family of strangers. The private grade school her own kids had gone to had gotten her as much financial aid as possible, and her family was helping as much as they could.

She tucked the blankets in around Arkeda. He was too young to be going through so much. Only eight years old. She looked at the photo on his nightstand: Arkeda with two men and a woman. The woman and one of the men looked a lot like Arkeda. They were probably his parents. She didn’t know who the other man was, and Arkeda wouldn’t tell her. Asking him about home and his family just made him cry.

On her way out of Arkeda’s room, Dominique stopped and looked back at him. He was smiling in his sleep for once, clutching an old teddy bear that had belonged to her oldest son, Darrell, when he was Arkeda’s age. All three of her boys were grown now, scattered around the country: one in Atlanta, one in Boston, one in Kansas City. They and their children would all be here just before Christmas. She’d have to remind them tomorrow to make sure they had Christmas presents for Arkeda. Especially now that she knew he’d never celebrated Christmas before.

With one last look at Arkeda, Dominique stepped out of the bedroom, pulling the door closed behind her.

 

November 28, 2039

Arkeda made one more cut in the paper, then unfolded it. His third grade class was making Christmas scenes with Mrs. Rueller, the art teacher. Arkeda had already made a lot of other tiny paper snowflakes. He grabbed a glue stick and started gluing the snowflakes onto the scene he’d drawn: himself, his parents, and Dominique in the snow. Somehow, he’d drawn that without letting any tears fall. He’d drawn the sun in red, like one of the Otran suns. Otreau’s second sun was smaller and white. Arkeda had drawn that one, too, then added lots of white dots and circles to disguise it. Everyone would assume all the circles were snowflakes, but he knew the truth.

“Wow, great job, Arkeda!” Mrs. Rueller said. “Looks like a blizzard hit your paper!”

Arkeda glanced up at her and smiled, then went back to gluing snowflakes. He’d probably made too many. Finally, he glued the last one, then grabbed a marker to label the people. He wrote the Otran first, since that was easier, under each person’s feet. Then he wrote the English above each person’s head: Mum, Dad, Arkeda, Dominique. Ms. Mouters had told him ‘Mum’ was a British English word, but Arkeda preferred it over the American word, ‘Mom.’ That had made Ms. Mouters think that maybe he was from Europe, or somewhere else that used British English. How would she react if she knew the truth?

“Okay, everyone, finish up!” Mrs. Rueller called from her table at the front of the room. “When you’re done, come put your Christmas scene on this table.”

“What are all those weird pictures under the people?” Katie asked, leaning over to see his Christmas scene as they waited in line to reach the table.

“It’s my language,” Arkeda said. “Not pictures.”

“Oh. Well, it looks cool.” His classmates had learned after just a few weeks to not ask him where he was from, but he could tell from their thoughts that they all wanted to know.

Arkeda dropped his picture on the pile with the others, then went back to his seat. He only had to wait a few minutes before the bell rang. Mrs. Gallo, his third grade teacher, called for them to line up.

The entire class stood up and started lining up by the door, talking among themselves as they figured out where they were supposed to go. Each of them had a number, and they lined up in number order. Arkeda was number twelve, which put him in the middle of the line between Katie and Derek.

Once they were all lined up, Mrs. Gallo reminded them to be quiet. Arkeda hadn’t been talking, but it took a few seconds for the rest of the class to stop talking. After they stopped, they walked together back to their classroom. Ms. Kaluza, the third grade teaching assistant, was putting papers on everyone’s desks as they walked in.

“Everyone find your seat and get a pencil out,” Mrs. Gallo said. “Don’t flip over the quiz yet.”

Derek raised his hand.

“Yes, Derek?” Mrs. Gallo asked.

“We have a quiz today?” Derek asked.

“Yes, a math quiz.”

“She told us about it last week,” Sammy whispered to Derek.

“Oh. Right,” Derek said. He didn’t look very happy. Arkeda didn’t like math, but he didn’t hate it like some of his classmates seemed to.

“Everyone ready?” Mrs. Gallo asked.

Most people said yes, but one person said, “No!” Madison was still digging in her pencil case. She pulled out a pink pencil and zipped up the case. “Okay.”

“You have until the end of the school day,” Mrs. Gallo said. “That gives you about thirty minutes. Make sure you show your work. Flip your quizzes over, and begin.”

Arkeda flipped the paper over and wrote his name at the top in English. It was still weird writing his last name with seven letters. In Otran, the TH in Mothran was only one letter.

He looked at the first question. Find the area of the rectangle. Next to the sentence was a long, skinny rectangle, with light-colored lines through it to divide it into squares. There were two answer spaces: What two numbers could you skip-count with? and What is the area of the rectangle?

Arkeda counted the squares in the first row of the rectangle. Ten squares. He counted the first column. Three squares. He wrote 10 and 3 in the first answer space.

Counting by ten was easier than counting by three. He counted the rows by tens. Thirty squares. He wrote 30 in the second answer space.

Arkeda was one of the last people to finish all ten questions. He thought he’d gotten them all right. He was good at reading English numbers and good at math, but all the English words had slowed him down. Once he was done, Arkeda stood up and went to Mrs. Gallo’s desk to turn in his quiz.

“Thank you, Arkeda,” Mrs. Gallo said.

Arkeda answered, “You’re welcome,” like he’d learned in his English class, even though it felt a little weird to say it in this situation. Then he went back to his seat. No English class after school today, which meant he could go back to Dominique’s house and work on a letter to Santa. Although Dominique would probably insist he do his homework first.

He tried not to think of why he still considered it Dominique’s house—that even though it had been three months and he was getting used to it, he didn’t want it to be home. He liked Dominique, but she wasn’t—

No. Don’t go there. Arkeda blinked back tears and opened his assignment notebook as the end-of-day announcements started. What did he need to bring for homework? That was safe to think about.

 

“Do I have all three of you now?” Dominique asked into the phone. Arkeda was at school, so she had the house to herself.

A chorus of yeahs came through the phone as her sons—Darrell, Tyrone, and Jamal—all answered at once.

“Okay, I think I heard three people in that mess,” Dominique laughed.

“Yeah, Mom, you’ve got all of us,” Darrell said.

“How’s the kid doing?” Tyrone asked.

“He’s doing alright,” Dominique said. “Still won’t tell me what happened or where he came from, but he seems to be doing better. You boys are bringing Christmas presents for him, right?”

One of them said, “Uhhhhh…” then Jamal said, “I think so. I’ll check with Denise.”

“Aliya says yes,” Darrell said.

“Still waiting for an answer from Keisha—yeah, we do,” Tyrone said. He must have gotten a text from her while he was talking.

“Denise says we have something,” Jamal said. “Hey, you got Santa presents for him?”

“I’ve only been able to get two things, and one of them will be from me. Money is tight. But this is his first Christmas, so I’ll be getting him more.”

“What do you mean, his first Christmas?” Tyrone asked.

“He acted like he’d never seen the Christmas tree when Brant Davis put it up for me this weekend, and he didn’t know who Santa is. I had to explain it to him.”

“No way. What kid doesn’t know who Santa is?” Tyrone said.

“Does DHS still do that Christmas drive?” Darrell asked. “I remember doing that when I was in high school—buying presents for kids whose parents couldn’t afford it. Maybe that could help.”

“I’ll have to find out,” Dominique said. “Either way, I’m going to have Arkeda make a list after he finishes his homework.”

“So how’s it feel being a mom again?” Jamal said. She could hear the grin in his voice.

“I’m still your mom, Jamal,” Dominique said with a smile, “but it’s good having a child in the house again. You boys don’t visit enough.”

“Well, we’ll be there in about a month,” Darrell said. “I have to get to a meeting, but let me know if there’s anything Aliya and I can do to help with Arkeda.”

“I will,” Dominique said. They said their goodbyes and hung up.

 

December 24, 2039

Arkeda licked the pudding off his spoon. Normal chocolate was already good, but this was amazing.

“Hey, hey, hey!” Dominique said as she noticed what he was doing. “Have you finished mixing that yet?”

Arkeda nodded and licked the spoon again.

“Well, let’s get it in the pie crust,” Dominique said. Arkeda put the spoon on the counter and watched as Dominique tipped the bowl over, pouring the liquid pudding into a pie crust. “Grab that spatula and scrape the rest of this in there,” Dominique said.

Arkeda picked up a spatula from the counter and started pushing the pudding into the crust. Once he’d scraped the bowl clean, Dominique set it down. Arkeda licked the pudding off the spatula, then started on the last bits in the bowl.

“Whoa, save some for me,” Dominique laughed, turning away from the fridge where she’d just put the pie. She scooped up a fingerful of pudding from the bowl. “That’s the last one. Now we clean the dishes.”

Arkeda frowned. Washing dishes wasn’t very fun. Dominique didn’t have a dishwasher, so they always had to wash all the dishes by hand.

Dominique washed and Arkeda dried and put the dishes away. Once that was done, he helped her clean the house. She gave him a spray bottle and a roll of paper towel, and told him to clean all the mirrors.

Dominique had a lot of mirrors. One in the bathroom, one in his bedroom, one in her bedroom, two in the hallway, three in the living room, one in the entryway, and one in the basement. Once he finished the last mirror, Arkeda went to the living room and studied the pile of presents under the Christmas tree. Were any of them for him?

He walked in a crouch around the tree, reading labels. Those were for Dominique’s sons, those were for her grandchildren… there! That box at the back had his name on it! Arkeda was just about to reach for it when Dominique said, “Hey, no peeking yet.”

“Let’s put the food out,” Dominique said. “The boys will be here soon.”

Arkeda followed her to the kitchen. He hadn’t met Dominique’s family yet. They hadn’t been able to come for Thanksgiving. There would be a lot of new people here, lots of people who would want to know more about him. He found himself feeling nervous as he took sugar cookies out of a container and put them on a big Christmas plate. Would Dominique’s family like him? Would they ask him where he was from? What if they didn’t like him being there with their family?

Arkeda and Dominique finished with the food. Dominique started lighting the candles many of her Christmas decorations had. Arkeda ran to his room to get the presents he’d made. He’d folded inflatable paper ornaments and glued paper snowflakes to them. The ornaments were easy to make—his parents had taught him years ago.

Wait. None of them were wrapped. But if he wrapped them in wrapping paper, the ornaments might get torn when people unwrapped them. He ran out to the living room. “Dominique?”

“Yes?” she asked, turning away from the light-up garland she’d just turned on.

“I need to wrap my presents.”

“Presents? You can use the wrapping paper.”

Arkeda shook his head. “I made the presents with paper. They will break.”

“Ah, ok.” She fell silent for a few moments. Arkeda peeked at her mind and found ideas swirling around. “How about you make tissue paper pouches? You can tie them shut with a ribbon.”

“Okay!” He’d seen that idea in her thoughts, and was pretty sure he could do it.

Dominique went to a closet in the hallway and pulled out a present bag full of tissue paper. She handed him the bag and two rolls of ribbon: one red, one green. “There you go. You’ll need scissors for the ribbon. Be careful.”

Arkeda nodded. He got a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer and went back to his room. Once in his room, Arkeda closed the door and sat against it so Dominique couldn’t come in and see her present. He pulled a stack of white, sparkly tissue paper from the bag and unfolded it. There were a lot of sheets. Arkeda picked one and laid one of the paper ornaments on it.

The paper was way too big. Should he fold it first? No, he’d cut it. Arkeda cut a square out of the tissue paper. Actually, it was more of a wobbly rectangle, but it would work. He set the paper ornament on the tissue paper and gathered the corners up.

Wait, he needed a ribbon. He dropped the corners and cut off a piece of red ribbon, then grabbed the tissue paper corners again. He tied the ribbon around the paper so the corners stuck out the top. It looked just like a pouch, and he couldn’t see inside. Perfect. He wrapped the rest of the paper ornaments the same way.

While he was working, the doorbell rang. He heard the door open, then Dominique and a bunch of people started talking. He heard someone ask where he was, but kept working on his presents.

Once he was done, he put the scissors away, then gave the tissue paper bag and the ribbon rolls to Dominique. Then he ran to his room, gathered up the pouches, and ran to the Christmas tree. Dominique’s sons, their wives, and a lot of kids were gathered in the living room. Arkeda slipped past them, knelt by the tree, and added the pouches to the pile of presents.

He stood up and turned to face everyone. All the adults were looking at him. His nervousness came back as Dominique introduced him, and he barely heard her as she told him everyone’s names. He mumbled a greeting—with no idea if it was in English or Otran—and ran for the dining room. Maybe there would be fewer strangers in there.

 

During dinner, Arkeda sat at the kids’ table, trying to eat while the others kept asking him questions.

“Where are you from?”

“What language do you normally speak?”

“How’d you get here?”

“Why are you living with Grandma?”

“Do you like it here?”

“What’s your home like?”

“Where’s your family?”

That last one hurt. Arkeda slid down in his seat a little, poking at his mashed potatoes with a fish stick.

“Guys, that’s enough,” Dani said. She was the oldest of Dominique’s grandkids, thirteen years old, and the only one who hadn’t been asking questions. Arkeda could tell from her thoughts that she wanted to, but she hadn’t asked any of them.

The other kids grumbled but started talking about what presents they hoped they’d get. Arkeda had written Santa a letter a few weeks ago. Dominique had helped him and had put it in the mail. She’d had him pick out two little stickers she called stamps to put on the envelope. Apparently, they told the mailman that you had paid to send your letter.

“Are you okay?” Dani asked.

Arkeda nodded.

“It must be hard, especially at Christmas. Sorry everyone was pestering you.”

“It’s okay,” Arkeda said. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“That’s okay. You don’t have to. What do you think you’ll get tomorrow?”

Arkeda smiled, and they started talking about presents. The rest of dinner was much better.

 

Arkeda wasn’t tired at all when it was time to go to bed. He was too excited. Santa was coming! He sat on his bed, writing in his journal—in Otran, of course—while Trevor and Gavin talked about… something. Arkeda wasn’t sure what it was. Some kind of game? Trevor and Gavin, two of Dominique’s grandsons, would be sleeping on air mattresses in Arkeda’s room tonight. Dominique’s entire family was staying in this small house, using every piece of furniture and lots of floor space as beds. There were people on the couch, in the basement, and even one daughter-in-law sharing Dominique’s bed.

Darrell, Trevor and Gavin’s dad, knocked on the doorframe. “Time to go to bed, boys. It’s past midnight.”

“Okay, Dad,” Trevor and Gavin said. They lay down and pulled up their blankets.

“Almost done, Arkeda?” Darrell asked. He and Dominique’s other two sons had told him to just use their first names. Otherwise, there would be three Mr. Martons.

Arkeda nodded. He’d stopped talking hours ago once his head started hurting. The headache was gone now, and he wanted to keep it gone.

Dominique came in as Arkeda was finishing his journaling. He did it every night, writing to his parents about what he’d done that day, what it was like on Earth, things he’d learned about humans… It was a book of letters he’d never get to send.

Dominique stopped between the two air mattresses. “Get up here, you two. I can only bend so far.”

Trevor and Gavin sat up to say good night to her. She gave them each a hug and a kiss, then worked her way around the air mattresses to Arkeda’s bed.

“Good night, Arkeda,” she said as Arkeda put his journal away and lay down.

Arkeda just smiled at her. He wasn’t talking anymore today.

“Nothin’?” Dominique said with a smile.

Arkeda shook his head.

“Okay.” She bent over and kissed him, just like she did every night. Just like his mother used to.

“Night, boys,” Darrell said, then he and Dominique left, closing the door behind them.

 

That night, like he did almost every night, Arkeda dreamed of home. His last day.

Master Jabari’s martial arts studio. His father, Damari, came in. Come on, Arkeda. We need to leave. Your mother is waiting. Arkeda got up from where he’d been sitting and watching the Level Four class—he was only in Level Two—and started gathering his things.

Hurry! Damari said. There’s not much time.

Arkeda grabbed his bag and followed his father out the door. What’s wrong? Arkeda asked. He had never seen his father so worried.

Your mother is waiting, Damari said. I’ll explain everything when we arrive.

Explain what? Arkeda asked. What’s going on?

Damari didn’t answer.

Then the dream skipped forward. Arkeda was at the airfield where his father worked, watching as his mother, Kai, set the autopilot on a small one-person pod ship. When she straightened up and looked at him, Arkeda saw the same worry he’d noticed on Damari’s face, along with something else. Grief.

What’s going on? What’s wrong? Arkeda asked.

The suns were not always like they are now, Kai said. For years, Soleiy has been stealing matter from Solaris. Soleiy has now grown so large that it’s unstable. It will not survive much longer, and when it dies, so will Otreau.

Arkeda’s legs felt weak. Otreau was going to die?

Your father and I have been monitoring Soleiy, and we are expecting a supernova any day now, Kai said.

Which is why we are sending you away, Damari added.

Sending him away? Sending him away where? No! Why? Arkeda cried, feeling tears fall. He ran forward, hugging his mother as tight as he could. I don’t want to leave you!

Damari put his hand on Arkeda’s shoulder. You are still so young, he said. You have your whole life ahead of you, and if you are still on Otreau when Soleiy explodes, you will lose that. That’s not what we want for you.

I know it’s hard, but it’s the only way to ensure your survival, Kai said, bending over to hug Arkeda back. She sounded like she was going to cry. Arkeda had never seen his parents cry before.

He pulled back a little so he could look up at his parents. Where are you sending me? he asked.

To a planet very similar to Otreau called Earth, Damari said, and the dream skipped forward again.

Now he was in the pod ship, twisted around in his seat to look out the back window as the ground and everything he’d ever known got farther away. Within seconds, his parents had shrunk to specks. He sobbed and shut his eyes as the pod ship entered the portal in orbit around Otreau, on its way to Earth.

 

December 25, 2039

When Arkeda opened his eyes, it was still dark, and his pillow was wet. He looked at the clock. Just past three in the morning. The door was cracked open, and Trevor’s bed was empty.

Where had his teddy bear gone? Arkeda started searching under the covers, then spotted it on the floor. He leaned over the side of the bed, grabbing it just as Trevor came in.

“Hey, sorry,” Trevor whispered. “I tried not to wake you. Bathroom.”

Arkeda just shook his head and lay back down. The dream had woken him up, not Trevor’s bathroom break.

Trevor didn’t say another word, just climbed back into bed. It sounded like he fell asleep quickly, but Arkeda was wide awake again. It took him a long time to get back to sleep.

 

Arkeda was only half-awake when Tyra, the youngest of Dominique’s grandchildren and Trevor and Gavin’s little sister, ran into his room. “Get up, get up, get up!” she shouted, jumping onto Gavin’s bed.

Gavin groaned and pulled the covers over his head. “Go away, Tyra.”

“Get up!” She jumped onto Trevor’s bed. “Santa came!”

Arkeda bolted upright, suddenly feeling awake. Santa? Had Santa given him any presents? He climbed out of bed and ran for the living room, still holding his teddy bear.

Sure enough, there were new presents under the tree, all sorted into big present bags like the one Dominique kept tissue paper in. Arkeda started checking the bags. Was one of them his?

That one was Dani’s… Trevor’s… Tyra’s… There. That one had his name on it! He sat down and hugged the present bag. The corners of the boxes inside dug into his stomach, but he didn’t care. He had presents!

As the others started gathering in the living room, Arkeda looked around at them and knew something: his parents would have loved Christmas. While the other kids ran for their present bags, Arkeda thought about his parents.

For once, it didn’t hurt.

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