Mrs. Bowman shook the box and placed it on her desk. “All right, boys and girls,” she said smiling. “We’ll start with Natalie. Remember, pull only one name out of the box, and be sure not to let anyone know whose name you have!” She laughed and nodded toward Natalie Johnson.
Roger sat with his chin in his hand, watching. As his classmates unfolded their slips of paper and read the names they had drawn, they giggled, covered their mouths with their hands, and took their seats once again. It was fun for them, but Roger felt his stomach churning and turned his head to look out at the gray afternoon.
Snow hung on the pine trees like huge wedges of whipped cream, and the afternoon sky was filled with white dots hurtling toward the ground. Roger wished he could give snow as a gift this year since there was so much of it. And it didn’t cost a cent.
“Roger? … Roger!” Mrs. Bowman was saying. “Time to pick a name.”
Roger turned his head and, unfortunately, in doing so his hand bumped his loose-leaf notebook and sent it clattering to the floor. As he bent to pick it up, he heard quiet snickering throughout the classroom. He knew his face was going red again, so he stood quickly and shrugged, trying to force a smile.
The front of the room looked a mile away and he felt sure everyone was staring at him. How he wished he could disappear.
There was only one slip of paper left. He unfolded it and saw that Marsha Gray’s name was written on it. Roger glanced at her, which was a mistake.
Ned looked quickly to where Roger glanced, then pointed a finger and shouted, “Roger got Marsha’s name!”
Roger hurried back to his seat.
“That’s enough!” Mrs. Bowman called. “Now clear your desks. The dismissal bell will be ringing very shortly. Have a nice weekend, and remember, there’s a limit of one dollar on your gifts.”
“Oh, boy!” Clancey Jones muttered. “What can you get for a dollar?”
Roger put Marsha’s name in his pocket and wished he had a dollar. The dismissal bell rang and everyone began getting ready to go outdoors in the snow. Roger pulled on his brother’s old boots, stuffed the tattered bottoms of his jeans into the tops, and slipped into his frayed jacket. He zipped it up, then pulled on his gloves.
Once outside, he felt free and comfortable again. The snow fell clean and fresh on his face and hair, and he stood for a minute, breathing deeply. Then someone clapped him on the back and he turned. “See you in Primary, Roger!” Carl waved as he raced toward a parked car.
“OK,” Roger called and waved. Then he cut across the school yard and into the woods. He felt at home with the familiar path that led down a slope, across the stream, and up through the meadow. A squirrel clung to the side of a tree and watched silently as Roger passed. At the stream, Roger knelt and watched the rushing water slip by snow-covered rocks, bubbling and gurgling its way toward the river. The snap of a twig made him look upstream to where a deer tiptoed toward the sparkling water. He watched quietly as the deer lowered its head and drank, then Roger smiled as it turned and sprinted into the woods, leaving only tracks in the snow. Roger glanced back at his footprints and smiled to see the man-size tracks his oversize boots left behind.
“Mom?” he called as he stepped into the warm, yeasty-smelling kitchen. “I’m home!”
“Shh …” she cautioned. “Your father’s asleep.” She rumpled Roger’s hair and smiled at him warmly. “How was school?” she asked.
He shrugged. “We picked names for the Christmas gift exchange, and I got Marsha Gray’s.”
His mother ran her hand over her long brown hair. “Oh, Roger, we don’t have money for gifts this year. Your brother’s been working hard, but we’re barely able to make ends meet, what with all the medical expenses for your dad.” She took Roger’s face between her hands and looked deeply into his eyes before she said, “Maybe we can think of something to do.”
Roger looked at the floor and nodded, “I understand, Mom. I thought I’d make her something on my own. I wasn’t going to ask for money.”
“I wish I had it to give you, Roger,” she said, shaking her head. “Oh, did you find a home for Mandy’s kitten? Or should I get your brother to do it?”
Roger sat down and pulled off his boots. “Not yet, Mom, but I’ll take care of it. I promise.” Mandy only had one fluffy kitten, and it seemed rather special to Roger. He hated to give it away.
The weekend was full of chores—chopping wood, feeding the goats, shoveling paths in the snow, and playing in the barn with the kitten.
Sunday morning Roger went to church with his mother and brother. Then later that afternoon he talked with his dad about making a gift. But nothing seemed right. As he was heading for his room upstairs to think, his mother called after him.
“The kitty, Roger. Did you talk to anyone at Primary?”
Suddenly Roger had an idea! He wondered why he hadn’t thought of it before! “Yes, Mom,” he smiled down through the railing. “I have—I mean, tomorrow I will.”
“That’s a good boy. I know it won’t be easy for you, but—”
“It’s OK, Mom, honest,” he replied with a grin.
The following morning he ran in easy strides along the path toward school. Today he had a smile on his face. In the classroom, gaily-wrapped presents were stacked beneath the tiny tree.
The morning passed quickly and as the noon bell rang, Roger hurried to Mrs. Bowman’s desk. “I have to go home for a minute,” he said.
“But you’ll barely have time,” she replied quietly.
“I have to get my gift,” he explained.
She glanced around the room, then, with a smile, nodded. “All right,” she said, “but hurry. We’re having the gift exchange right after lunch.”
Roger raced along the path and burst into the barn. In a corner he knelt beside Mandy and put her kitten into a box. “Sorry, Mandy,” he whispered patting the mother cat. Then he hurried back to school. As he placed the unwrapped box under the tree, Ned looked at Marsha’s name printed across the top and pointed to the holes poked in the sides.
“That’s your gift!” Ned called to Marsha. “Red-faced Roger didn’t even wrap it.”
Marsha’s mouth turned down and she lowered her head in embarrassment.
Roger felt his face turn red and his stomach churn. He looked away. Maybe my gift isn’t such a good idea after all, he worried. Suddenly from out of the box there came meowing noises. Mrs. Bowman looked toward it then looked back at Roger.
“Is that what I think it is?” she asked with a smile.
Roger slumped further into his chair and his face had an even redder glow. “Yes, ma’am,” he whispered.
Mrs. Bowman closed her book. “Well, we’d better have the gift exchange now,” she said. “I think you should be first, Marsha.”
As Marsha lifted the lid of the box, Roger looked out the window, wishing the day were over. Then he heard a loud “Oh!” He turned to see Marsha smiling as she lifted the kitten from the box. The whole class crowded around her desk to get a closer look.
“Do you have more kittens?” Ned asked.
“No, Mandy only had one,” Roger replied.
Roger glanced at Marsha. Her face and eyes sparkled with surprise and pleasure as she cuddled the soft kitten in her arms. Then she turned to Roger and said quietly but warmly, “Thank you.”
Roger grinned with relief. He knew his face was red again, but for once, he really didn’t mind.