A Simple Christmas Wish
by Melody Carlson
Rachel Milligan had given up on Christmas years ago. Back
when family dysfunction and personal disappointments had
permanently jaded her attitude toward the holidays for good.
However, for the sake of her only niece—a starry-eyed six year-
old who still believed in Santa—Rachel feigned enthusiasm
for the upcoming season.
“Don’t you just love Christmastime?” Holly said happily as
the two of them lugged and tugged the man-sized evergreen
into the elevator with them.
“Oh yeah,” Rachel muttered as she stood the tree upright,
jamming it into the corner. Then, balancing the hefty greens
with one elbow, she brushed pine needles off her new Michael
Kors coat, hoping pine pitch wasn’t too difficult to remove
from ivory cashmere.
“And both of us have our birthdays at Christmastime,”
Holly reminded her as she peeled off her red mitten and
reached up to press the button for the forty-ninth floor. “Yours
comes first, doesn’t it, Aunt Rachel?”
“Uh-huh.” Rachel didn’t care to be reminded that she
would turn thirty-five soon. Somehow this wasn’t where
she’d expected to be at this stage of life—just recently some
archaic labels like spinster aunt and old maid had begun to
flash through her head without warning. She pushed a wayward
strand of sleek chestnut hair away from Holly’s eyes.
“And you will turn seven on Christmas Eve,” Rachel said
cheerfully. “Lucky girl.”
Holly ran a hand over a tree branch. “Mommy and Daddy
will be so surprised when they see we already got the Christmas
tree.” Her brown eyes twinkled with mischief, as if she
thought the two of them were pulling o" a high-level heist.
“Can we decorate the tree too, Aunt Rachel? And put on all
the lights? Can we do it all by ourselves before Mommy and
Daddy get home?”
Rachel shrugged. “I don’t see why not.” Although in truth
she was a tad uneasy about Holly’s impulsive suggestion they
bring home a tree today. What if Michael and Miri felt as
if Rachel had stolen some holiday tradition by doing this?
However, it did seem a fair trade. After all, Michael and Miri
were down in the Caribbean soaking up sunshine right now.
Meanwhile Rachel had sacrificed her vacation time to remain
here in Chicago with Holly, where the temps, combined with
the wind-chill factor, had dipped into the low teens this week.
Besides that, how was Rachel supposed to say “no” to
Holly’s hopeful brown eyes and charming persuasion? It
didn’t help that the Christmas tree man and his big yellow
dog had cheerfully greeted them every single time they’d
walked past his tree stand this past week. Christmas, after all,
was only three weeks away, and according to Holly, everyone
in her first-grade class already had their Christmas trees up.
The friendly tree man had also helpfully pointed out that
the selection would only diminish from here on out. Really,
Rachel decided as they tugged the tree out of the elevator and
down the hallway, she was doing her brother and sister-in-law
a favor. Never mind that the shape of this tree, fat and full,
was not what Miri would’ve picked out. Their usual Christmas
tree was tall and thin and “elegant,” reaching nearly to
the ten-foot ceiling.
As Rachel fumbled to retrieve the apartment key from her
pocketbook, she noticed the trail of needles from the apartment
door to the elevator. Maybe she should come back out
and sweep it up . . . or perhaps the maintenance man would
take care of that too. It never ceased to amaze her what chores
he was willing to do for the tenants in this high-rise. In the
house she shared with three other roommates, you cleaned
up your messes.
“Let’s put the tree by the windows,” Holly suggested eagerly.
“That way people can see it from outside.”
Rachel wasn’t sure how many people would look up to
the forty-ninth floor to see anything, but as she recalled, it
was where Michael and Miri usually positioned their tree
anyway. She carefully balanced it against a column in the
spacious apartment. “So, Holly, do you know where your
parents keep the Christmas decorations and the tree stand
and all that kind of stuff?”
Holly’s mouth twisted to one side as she thought. “Maybe
in the closet, down there in the hallway,” she suggested as she
peeled off her coat. But, naturally, there was no such luck.
Together they hunted in vain throughout the spartanly furnished
apartment. Every closet and storage place was neat
as a pin, with crates labeled, but no Christmas decorations
or tree stand were to be found.
“I’ll bet those things are being stored somewhere else in the
building,” Rachel told Holly. She’d heard there was storage
in the basement, although she had no intention of burrowing
“But the tree man said we need to give the tree some
water right away,” Holly reminded her. “So it doesn’t dry
Rachel nodded, recalling how he’d cut the bottom of the
tree for them, saying it would help it to soak up water.
“You’re right.” She went to the kitchen and took out the
largest mixing bowl and filled it with water, then stood the
tree in it, hoping it would do for the time being. After dealing
with a large puddle, which Holly sopped up from the maplewood
floor with a thick white bath towel, Rachel decided
she and Holly needed to make a quick trip to the corner
An hour later, they returned with a brand-new tree stand
and three strings of multicolored twinkle lights. By the time
it was getting dusky outside, they had the tree securely in
the stand with the three strands of colorful lights garlanded
around and around. Rachel knew the colorful lights would
be a problem for Michael and Miri, since they normally had
only white lights, but for now it was fun.
“There,” Rachel proclaimed as she plugged in the lights.
Holly clapped her hands and danced merrily in front of
the tree. “It’s beautiful—beautiful—beautiful! ”
Rachel stepped back to look, smiling at their accomplish-
ment. “It is pretty, isn’t it? Even with just the lights. I think
we should leave it like this, don’t you?”
“No, we need more decorations,” her niece insisted.
“You’ll have to wait for your mom and dad to get home for
that.” Rachel headed to the kitchen sink, where she hoped
to wash the sticky tree pitch from her hands.
“Or else, we can make the decorations ourselves,” Holly
called out hopefully. “Like we did at school.”
So it was that they spent the rest of Saturday evening with
all of Holly’s arts-and-crafts materials spread across the big
glass table in the dining room. With the help of colored construction
paper and pipe cleaners and glitter and stickers and
all sorts of odds and ends, they managed to create some rather
strange but colorful tree decorations, which they placed here
and there on the bushy tree.
Although it wasn’t a school night, it was getting rather
late, and Rachel wanted to be a somewhat responsible aunt
by enforcing Holly’s bedtime. But Holly insisted they make
cocoa first. “And we have to drink it sitting down on the floor
by the Christmas tree,” she explained.
“Is that your tradition?” Rachel asked as she nuked their
cups of cocoa in the microwave.
“Tradition?” Holly frowned.
“You know, the things you do every year with your parents.”
Rachel removed a cup, cooling it down with a bit of
milk. “Do you have cocoa together after you decorate the
Holly glumly shook her head as she reached for the cup.
“Mommy and Daddy decorate the tree while I’m asleep.”
Rachel nodded as they returned to the great room. That
explained why Michael and Miri’s Christmas trees always
looked so perfect, like something out of a decorating magazine.
Rachel studied the chubby tree with its funky decorations
and grinned. Well, they would just have to deal with
this one when they got home.
“Let’s turn off all the lights,” Holly said eagerly. “Except
for the tree.”
They extinguished all the other lights and, with their cocoa
in hand, sat on the floor in front of the glowing Christmas tree.
The image of the colorful lights reflected in the floor-to-ceiling
windows was really stunning. Rachel couldn’t help but feel
some pride in their accomplishment. As they sipped their cocoa,
Holly begged Rachel to sing some Christmas songs with her.
“It’s our tradition.” Holly tried out the new word. “After
decorating the tree.”
“Really?” Rachel said skeptically. “You and your parents
have a tradition of singing under the tree?”
“No . . . not really.” Holly made a sheepish smile. “I mean
you and me, Aunt Rachel. It’s our tradition. Okay?”
Well, who could reject that? Rachel agreed to this new
tradition, and Holly led them in some songs she’d learned at
school, traditional tunes that Rachel could barely remember
from her own childhood, but she did her best to sing along.
Eventually their cocoa was gone and they’d sung “Rudolph
the Red-nosed Reindeer” twice and Rachel had managed to
convince her enthusiastic niece that if Santa was watching,
he’d be disappointed to see that Holly was up past her bedtime.
To Rachel’s relief, her slightly diabolical tactic worked.
After teeth brushing and one bedtime story, Holly was tucked
into bed and kissed good night.
Feeling contented and tired, Rachel returned to the great
room, where she made herself comfortable on her brother’s
black leather Eames lounge chair. As she put her feet on the
matching ottoman, she admired the product of today’s creative
ingenuity. Okay, the tree did look a bit messy and chaotic
and it was slightly crooked in the tree stand, and Michael and
Miri would probably redo most of it when they got home
next week, but in the meantime she knew Holly would enjoy
it. And she would too.
In Rachel’s opinion, the chubby, funky tree provided a
nice contrast to the crisp, clean lines of the modern apartment.
Rachel loved Miri, but she sometimes wondered about
her sister-in-law’s addiction to such extremely stark design.
Whether it was the matching pair of white vinyl chairs or
the sleek aqua blue couch or the glass-topped table with its
pale blue crescent-shaped bowl filled with three white marble
balls, everything was always in its place, and sometimes this
apartment felt a bit staged. Really, what was wrong with a
little well-placed clutter? She knew, however, that this was
one of the things Michael appreciated about Miri.
Rachel remembered when she and Miri had been roommates
more than ten years ago, back before Rachel introduced
Miri to her brother and lost a favorite roommate but gained
a sister-in-law. After having escaped her previous roommate,
whom Rachel had secretly nicknamed Miss Piggy, she’d
greatly appreciated Miri’s neat-freak habits. But studying
this space now, she wondered how Michael and Miri could
feel at home with these lean-lined furnishings. Did they really
relax amid the shiny surfaces, bare floors, and oversized pieces
of modern art? Or was this simply meant to be a showplace
for Michael’s clients and business associates? Rachel knew
they entertained frequently.
Of course, she’d never question them on this. This was
their place and they could do as they liked with it. If this were
her apartment, though—and sometimes she wished she had
an elegant downtown space like this—she would add some
touches of warmth and color and texture and interest. Holly
would probably like that better too.
Rachel didn’t like to tell anyone how to live their lives,
particularly her older brother, Michael. He always seemed
to have all the right answers. She’d always thought of him
as the solution guy. She knew she would never have survived
her childhood, and even parts of her adulthood, without Michael’s
intervention. However, if she were to give her brother
one piece of loving sisterly advice, she would suggest that he
slow down his fast-paced lifestyle. Between working long
hours, keeping multiple social commitments, and traveling
for pleasure, he seemed to be overly busy.
When Michael studied law in college, he had planned to
become a public defense attorney, but outstanding grades
and some good connections had lured him into a prestigious
corporate law firm following graduation. It was supposed to
have been a temporary stopping place, just long enough for
him to pay o" his student loans and build a comfortable nest
egg for him and Miri. A few years later, Holly had come along
and then they’d gotten a good deal on this swanky apartment.
Rachel knew that the idea of leaving his lucrative position,
with all its perks, had grown less and less appealing.
Even so, Rachel worried that Holly’s childhood was passing
her parents by, and that someday the two of them would wake
up and realize their little girl was fully grown and setting off
to live a life of her own without them. Of course, it wasn’t
really any of Rachel’s business, except that she was Holly’s
only aunt as well as her godmother and Michael’s only living
relative—at least that they were aware of. So perhaps when
Michael and Miri got home on Wednesday night, she would
gently broach this subject with them. For Holly’s sake.
While she was on the subject, maybe she’d ask them if it
was time to rethink their whole nanny situation. Nanny Vida
had seemed a bit elderly when she was hired shortly after
Holly was born, back when Miri decided to return to work,
but according to some of the stories Holly had shared, Nanny
Vida was in more need of supervision than her six-year-old
charge. Besides that, since Miri had given up her career and
Holly was in school, it seemed frivolous to keep the nanny.
Except that Miri had grown to enjoy her freedoms. Thankfully,
for Holly’s sake, Nanny Vida had taken her vacation
simultaneously with Michael and Miri’s, which was precisely
why Rachel was here now.
Still, it wasn’t Rachel’s place to butt into these things.
What did she know about child rearing or families in the first
place? Their father had abandoned them when Rachel was
much younger than Holly. After that, their mom had been
so busy trying to provide that they’d barely even seen her.
When Rachel was about twelve, their mom had gotten sick.
She’d passed away right before Rachel started high school,
but Michael had gotten a tiny apartment and a part-time
job, and had somehow managed to get her through school
and complete his education at the same time.
To be fair, she rationalized as she tidied up the craft
materials, scrubbing Elmer’s glue from the glass-topped dining
table, Michael was probably just making up for what he’d
missed out on earlier in his life. Maybe he deserved to have
some fun, as well as the chance to see some new places. After
all, Rachel had been able to travel the whole world—thanks
to her job as an international flight attendant. Even that was
partly due to Michael’s sacrifices. So what right did she have
to judge him?
Although she didn’t know much about Miri’s childhood
and upbringing, she knew enough to understand it had been
difficult, and based on a few random comments, she assumed
it had been impoverished as well. Was it really Rachel’s place
to express an opinion on how they lived their lives now? At
least they provided well for Holly. She attended an exclusive
private school, had a nanny (albeit a slightly senile one) and
all the toys and material things a child could want. What
more could Rachel expect of them? If Michael was happy
practicing corporate law, why should she care?
As for being stuck in an unfulfilling career, who was she
to talk? She’d been working for the same airline for close to
fifteen years now. It was a job she’d planned to stick with for
only as long as it took to see a bit of the world. After that,
she had planned to find Mr. Right, settle down, and start a
family of her own, instead of babysitting for her niece. Not
that she didn’t love her adorable niece.
As she rinsed out the cocoa cups, she felt inexplicably tired
and wondered why she hadn’t gone to bed by now. What
was the point in staying up and fretting over her brother’s
problems—problems that she was simply imagining and
She was reaching to turn out the kitchen lights when the
wall phone rang, making her jump. She fumbled to grab
the receiver before it rang again, worried it might wake up
Holly—and wondering who would call this late.
“I am calling in regard to Michael and Miriam Milligan,”
a slightly foreign-sounding voice informed her.
At first she assumed it was a solicitor’s call, perhaps someone
from India, and she was about to get rid of them, but
something stopped her. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Are you a relative of Michael and Miriam Milligan?” the
“I’m Michael Milligan’s sister. Rachel Milligan.” In that
same moment, she felt a disturbing uneasiness wash over her.
She braced herself.
First he named a place she had never heard of and a word
she couldn’t pronounce, explaining he was the chief of police,
and then he informed her that there had been a plane
accident early in the evening. “I am sorry to inform you that
your relatives did not survive.”
“Wh-what?” Rachel felt her knees weaken. “That’s impossible.
Their flight to Chicago wasn’t scheduled until Wednesday
“This was an inter-island flight,” he told her. “A small plane.”
Her knees seemed to melt, giving way as she sank down
to the hard floor. “What did you say? Tell me again. Who are
you? Where are you calling from?”
He went through the unfamiliar names once more, but now
it felt as if her head was spinning, as if her whole world was
spinning. This had to be a bad dream. A very bad dream.
“But my brother and sister-in-law aren’t staying in the
place you mentioned,” she said eagerly. “You must have the
wrong people. Michael and Miri are staying at a resort in
Turks and Caicos,” she proclaimed. “I have the phone number
right here and—”
“Yes, I’m sorry to be unclear. Mr. and Mrs. Milligan were
not staying here on our island. They were passengers on a
flight that goes past here. The plane was en route. The destination
was Turks and Caicos. I called the hotel there and
they gave me this phone number so that I could inform you
of this tragedy. I am so sorry.”
“But how?” she demanded. “How could this happen?” She
remembered the line she’d used hundreds of times to soothe
nervous passengers: “Airline travel is safer than driving our
“They believe the airplane experienced a mechanical problem.
A cruise ship witnessed the explosion right before it went down
a few miles north of Saint Eustatius. There was a search . . .
and I am sorry to inform you there were no survivors.”
“But that—that’s impossible.” She rubbed her head, trying
to absorb this, knowing it couldn’t be true. Michael and
Miri . . . they couldn’t be dead. Someone had made a mistake.
A horrible, cruel mistake.
Once again, the police chief conveyed his sympathies, but
then he told her to take down some phone numbers. With
trembling legs, she stood up and walked to the dining room
table, where she picked up a red crayon and a scrap of yellow
construction paper, writing down the long numbers he was
giving her. Then, after she questioned him again, he assured
her that all he was saying was true.
“I am very sorry to be the bearer of such tragic news,” he
said finally. “If you have any more questions, please call the
numbers I gave you. Again, I am so very sorry for your loss.”
“Yes . . . yes . . . thank you.” Her voice choked and tears
began to stream down her cheeks as she eased herself into a
straight-backed dining room chair. Feeling shaky and sickened,
she hung up the phone and just sat there staring at it.
Did that really just happen? Was it real? Or was she asleep
and simply having a horrible nightmare?
She looked at the phone still in her hand and pushed the
caller ID button, seeing that the strange phone number did
match the one she’d written down on the yellow paper. Of
course it was true. She knew she was awake. She leaned her
head forward until it thumped onto the hard, cold glass of
the table and allowed the tears to flow freely. She sobbed and
moaned and cried, asking herself again and again—how
could this happen? Why, why, why? It was bad enough that
she should lose her only living relative—besides Holly—but
for Holly to lose both of her parents all at once, well, that
was just wrong—wrong—wrong!