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Christmas in July in May

              Indian Words State Park was a popular destination for some kinds of families, but not most. Multioak was the biggest town within 60 miles of it, but Grayson had never seen anyone at the park that he recognized from home. Excepting, of course, the people accompanying his family on their visits: family friends from church, one of Grayson’s friends from school, the guy his dad had befriended online while trying to figure out if Grayson’s mom was cheating on him with a different guy she’d met online, which she wasn’t. The different guy didn’t exist.

This time, Grayson’s aunt Justine and his cousin Britta had come along to participate in Grayson’s mom’s planned Christmas in July in May festivities. Justine had a bad attitude about the celebration, but she’d been persuaded by Grayson’s dad’s description of Indian Words State Park, and also by the fact that she and Britta were visiting from out of state and would have been stuck by themselves in Grayson’s family’s house with no transportation when the whole point of their visit was to see family and be shown around.

Ten minutes from the park, the troublesome conversation-topic came up again in the van.

“I never saw the point of Christmas in July,” said Justine from the farthest-back seat. She had it to herself. Grayson’s mom and Britta were in the middle seats. Grayson rode shotgun; his dad drove.

“Christmas in July has its problems,” said Grayson’s mom. “But everything does.”

“But my point is that Christmas in May seems even more pointless,” said Justine. Her dark sunglasses made everything she said seem meaner than she probably intended.

“We’re not celebrating Christmas in May,” said Grayson’s mom. Her sunglasses made it seem like she was trying to hide a black eye. “We’re celebrating Christmas in July in May.”

“But that distinction means nothing to me,” said Justine.

“You’re pretending not to understand,” said Grayson’s mom. “Britta gets it.” She reached to pat her niece on the knee.

Britta was looking out the window at the passing fields and forests and giant, hand-painted signs denouncing both false religions and shallow varieties of the true one. She was 16, one year older than Grayson. She did not acknowledge that she understood the distinction between Christmas in May and Christmas in July in May.

Grayson’s mom twisted in her seat to face her sister. “You won’t be here for Christmas in July, so we have to celebrate Christmas in July in May instead.”

“But why does it have to be about Christmas at all?” asked Justine. “Why can’t we just go on a normal May trip to the park?”

“It’s Christmas in July,” said Grayson’s mom. “In May.”

Grayson was with his aunt, and probably Britta and his dad, too: he did not understand the distinction upon which his mom insisted. The one thing he had gathered was that Christmas in July in May, like Christmas in July, did not involve gifts.

“Why is the park called Indian Words State Park?” asked Britta.

“Because Native Americans used to live around here,” said Grayson’s mom. “Lots of them.” Her streak of unsatisfying answers to legitimate questions lived on.


After Grayson’s dad showed their State Park pass at the entrance, he drove the van to a picnic shelter and the family ate a lunch of deli-meat sandwiches and chips. Grayson’s mom had brought napkins with bells and sprigs of holly printed on them. There were sugar cookies shaped like snowmen for dessert. Justine rolled her eyes at these touches, but they were unobtrusive and she let them pass without comment. But when lunch was over, Grayson’s mom said, “Now we’re going to walk around and sing carols to the other picnickers.”

A couple at a nearby table looked up in alarm, then averted their eyes.

“No,” said Justine. “Absolutely not.”

“Why are you so against this?” asked Grayson’s mom. “It’s fun. It’s supposed to be, anyway.”

“It’s embarrassing,” said Justine.

“How can you not like caroling?” asked Grayson’s mom. “It’s so joyous! Sure, it’s old-fashioned, but that’s why people like it.”

“People don’t like it in May,” said Justine. “I don’t like it in May.”

“So you only think Christmas in July should be celebrated once a year, huh?” asked Grayson’s mom.

“No,” said Justine. “I would be perfectly happy to dispense with Christmas in July entirely.”

“What?” said Grayson’s mom. “Christmas in December only?”

“That’s when Christmas is!” shouted Justine, rising from the picnic table. “Your family can do whatever you want. Britta and I are going to enjoy this beautiful May spring day by walking the trails.”

“At least wear the Santa hats I brought while you do,” said Grayson’s mom. She produced two red stocking caps lined with fake white fur from within her large bag and extended them toward Britta, but Justine slapped them away.

Grayson’s mom’s shoulders slumped, then she stooped to retrieve the hats from the cement floor of the picnic shelter. “Look, Justine,” she said. “I know things have been difficult for you since Arthur left, and the holidays can be an especially tough time for–”

“This isn’t the holidays,” said Justine. She turned and stalked away. Britta followed.

Grayson watched them go, envious of their escape. “Do they know how to find the trailhead?” he asked. “They’ve never been here before.”

“I don’t know,” said Grayson’s mom. “Probably not. How would they?”

Grayson’s dad sighed and stood. “Do you want me to catch up to them and give them directions?”

“I can do it,” said Grayson. “I’ll run. Actually, I’ll take them to the trailhead. It isn’t too far. Then we’ll be sure they got there.”

Grayson’s mom looked skeptical, suspicious. “We have a lot of Christmas in July in May activities to get through.”

“Wasn’t Aunt Justine and Britta being here the only reason we were doing Christmas in July in May?” asked Grayson.

“At first, yes,” said Grayson’s mom. “But now I have it all planned, and I got my heart set on it…”

“I’ll wear a Santa hat while I show them where to go,” said Grayson.

“OK,” said Grayson’s mom, pleased by Grayson’s indulgence. “But hurry back.”

As soon as Grayson was out of sight of the picnic shelter, he took the Santa hat off and tucked it into his back pocket. From just looking at him, one would never have known it was Christmas in July in May.


The main trailhead in Indian Words State Park was actually the head of four different trails, but they all crissed and crossed and merged and split at various points in the deep woods, so it was difficult to nail down exactly how many trails those four trailheads represented. Looked at from a certain perspective, maybe it was only one trail.

A painted depiction of the trail system was displayed under clear plastic within a rustic wooden frame near the trailhead parking lot. Britta looked it over. “Maybe we should get a map,” she said.

“I think they have them at the visitor’s center,” said Grayson.

“Where’s that?” asked Justine.

“We drove past it on the way in,” said Grayson. “It’s kind of far from here. I could walk you over there.” He heard the eagerness in his offer, and knew Justine and Britta had heard it too.

Justine laughed. “We don’t need a map. We won’t go that far. It looks like every trail eventually leads back here. But you don’t have to go back to your parents if you don’t want to, Grayson. You can come with us.”

“They’re expecting me,” said Grayson. “I told them I was just leading you to the trailhead.”

“But if you don’t go back, it won’t take Pablo Pal to figure out where you went,” said Justine.

               “Who’s Pablo Pal?” asked Grayson.

               “He’s a detective on a TV show my mom loves,” said Britta. “It’s old. It’s mostly people asking for cigarettes, offering cigarettes, asking for a light, offering a light, offering a drink, asking for a drink, preparing drinks…”

               “I’ve never seen it,” said Grayson.

               “My point is that your parents aren’t going to panic,” said Justine. “They’ll just figure you stayed with us. I’ll tell them we asked you to guide us on the trails. Since we don’t have a map.”

               Grayson hesitated. Justine’s argument wasn’t very parental, but she would probably take most of the blame if his parents were upset. And he didn’t usually get to spend much time with his cousin or his aunt. And wasn’t that the real purpose of this trip? And he didn’t want to carol other picnickers with his parents, didn’t want to Celebrate Christmas in July in May at all. “All right,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”

               “Good,” said Justine. “We won’t go very far. Lead the way.”

               “I don’t actually know the trails very well,” said Grayson. He looked back over the parking lot. It was only a quarter full. If a perfect spring weekend day couldn’t draw people to Indian Words State Park, what could? He wondered if it had anything to do with the park’s uniformly poor cell phone reception. Grayson hoped that thought didn’t foreshadow anything.

               “That’s OK,” said Justine. “You’re just a figurehead so we can tell my sister you were leading us if she gets mad at you.”

               Grayson grinned. “Let’s go,” he said. He picked the trail farthest to his right and followed it into the green quiet. There was, from his amateur perspective, not one sign of a severe storm on its way.


               Grayson was just beginning to feel truly lost when Britta said, “It’s getting darker.”

               “That’s just the canopy blocking the light,” said Justine. “The trees are thicker back here.” She panted as she spoke. The recent stretch of trail had been a lot of up and down. The park had installed a few wooden staircases with handrails on the steepest of the hills, and Grayson, noticing his aunt’s windedness, had called for a pause at the top of one of these flights of stairs.

               “No, look,” said Britta. “Through that gap in the trees right there. Look how dark the sky is. And the temperature has dropped too.”

               “Has it?” asked Justine. “I’m still sweating.” She looked at Grayson. “Is it gonna rain?”

               “I don’t know,” said Grayson. “I hope not.” He was annoyed. He’d told his aunt that he didn’t know the trails well, and he’d never claimed to know anything about the weather, and now it was going to be his responsibility to get them back to the van before the rain started.

               “What’s the fastest way back?” asked Justine. “This is a loop, right? We don’t have to go back the way we came, right? That would be too-” The end of her sentence was swallowed by a clap of thunder.

               “That sounded close,” said Britta, and it was as if she had spoken magic words. The wind sprang up and the clouds fell open. Rain pounded down on the forest and everything in it like artillery fire.

Even with the tree cover, Grayson was drenched in seconds. He tried to shout. “We have to get-” Thunder boomed.

“What?” shouted Justine.

Grayson tried again. “We have to-” Thunder interrupted him again, like a giant sibling irritating him for its own amusement. Grayson waved for Justine and Britta to follow him and scurried off of the trail, stumbling through the sodden underbrush toward a grouping of three pine trees. He looked over his shoulder and saw his aunt and cousin close behind him, Britta holding onto her mother’s arm.

Beneath the pines, Grayson crouched on the layer of brown needles. The spot was by no means dry, but the pine boughs interfered with the downpour enough to provide a semblance of shelter. Grayson was protected from the ferocity of the storm, if not the resulting wetness. Justine and Britta arrived a few seconds behind Grayson, dropping to their knees and unclinging strands of hair from their faces. Everyone checked their phones and found them predictably receptionless.

Grayson remembered the Santa hat in the back pocket of his jeans. “Does one of you want to wear this?” he asked, holding it out by the white puff ball at its peak. “It might help a little.”

“No, thanks,” said Britta.

“I’m not doing the Christmas thing,” said Justine. “I told your mom, and now I’m telling you.” She seemed to be channeling her frustration at the weather into her reaction to Grayson offering the hat. Or maybe it was more complex than that. Maybe she was channeling her frustration with Grayson’s mom into her frustration with the weather into her reaction to Grayson offering the hat. Like Christmas in July in May.

“What are we going to do?” asked Britta. She stood and looked out at the storm from beneath the pine tree, the top of her head a few feet short of the lowest branches. The raindrops that navigated their way through those branches splashed off of her nose, shoulders, the tops of her shoes.

“We should stay here until it lets up,” said Grayson. He was not thrilled to be soaked and shivering, but he was grateful for the opportunity to delay making a decision on how to get back to the trailhead.

“I wish we had umbrellas,” said Britta. “One for each of us. But the kind of umbrellas designed for hiking that don’t get hung up on stuff.”

Grayson wasn’t sure such an umbrella-type existed. He sat down and leaned back against the trunk of the tree. After a while, the raindrops landing in his hair and trickling down his scalp began to pick at his fragile morale. He pulled the Santa hat onto his head and, damp though it was, it solved the problem.

Justine looked at him and said, “That figures. You were waiting for an excuse. Any excuse.”

“I’d use any other hat if I had one,” said Grayson. “But this is all I’ve got.”

“How convenient,” said Justine.

“It’s inconvenient,” said Grayson.

“I see why you’re here now,” said Justine. “My sister couldn’t force us to participate in Christmas in July in May if we were separated from her, so she sent you with that hat so you could spring a piece of Christmas in July in May on us when we didn’t expect it. We tried to get away from it, so she sent it after us.”

“That’s not true,” said Grayson. “I was just supposed to show you the trailhead and then go back. You’re the one who invited me to stay.”

“After you strongly hinted that you wanted me to,” said Justine. “You played us. Led us way out here where we don’t know how to get back, way out here where we’re fully dependent on your knowledge of the trails, and then out comes the Santa hat. And don’t think I haven’t noticed what kind of trees we’re sheltering under. Wouldn’t they look pretty with some lights, maybe some tinsel?”

“I don’t know the trails,” said Grayson. “I’m lost!”

“So you were so intent on imposing Christmas in July in May on us that you put us all in danger by misrepresenting your knowledge of the trails?” asked Justine. “You think that revelation makes you look better?” She lunged for the Santa hat, snatched it off of Grayson’s head, and flung it into the underbrush.

Grayson choked back the urge to say something mean to his aunt based on inside information about her emotional weak points gathered from overheard phone conversations between his mom and his grandma. Instead, he stood, walked out from beneath the semi-shelter of the pine tree, and retrieved the hat, which was now drenched. He put it back on his head for the sake of defiance. Then he ducked under another of the nearby pine trees and settled there, separated from his aunt and cousin by a good thirty feet.

“What are we going to do?” Britta asked again.

“Whatever we do,” said Justine, “we’re not doing it in a Christmas-in-July-in-May way.”

Grayson ignored her. “We’ll wait for the rain to let up,” he said. “Then we’ll try to find our way back.”


The rain did not stop. After a couple of hours, though, it lessened from a torrent to a steady shower. Grayson, Justine, and Britta had spent most of the intervening time in gloomy silence. But the marginally improved conditions and worries of getting caught in the woods in the dark prompted Grayson to his feet. “We should move now.”

“It’s still raining,” said Justine, glaring at the limp Santa hat perched on Grayson’s head.

“And it might rain all night,” said Grayson. “We should move now while it isn’t so bad. We’re already wet.”

“Move where?” asked Justine, but she stood and stretched despite her pessimism. Britta followed suit.

“Back the way we came,” said Grayson. “It might not be the shortest route, but at least it will look familiar. As long as we can keep track of the turns we made, then we know it’ll get us back to the trailhead eventually.”

Justine looked at Britta, who shrugged. “Sounds right to me,” said Britta. She nodded at Grayson.

Grayson turned and led the way back to the trail, which was now sloppy mud, miniature rivers connecting puddles that pocked its surface in both directions. He turned to his right, and without breaking stride, walked straight through a puddle. His feet were already wet, so what was the point of slowing progress with futile water avoidance?

“Grayson, wait!” called Britta. “That isn’t the way we came from!”

Grayson stopped halfway through the puddle, muddy water lapping at his ankles, and turned. “Yes, it is.”

Britta didn’t agree. Justine wasn’t sure. Grayson began to second-guess himself. The ultimate result was that they ended up heading the other direction, which seemed somehow both right and wrong to Grayson. But questions of route directness took a back seat when, minutes later, Britta lost her footing on a slick downward slope and tumbled to the bottom. Her mother had time to scream her name three times before Britta came to a rest against the trunk of a tree on the banks of a swiftly-flowing stream sweeping storm-fallen leaves and twigs to some deep-woods destination. She lay there whimpering with her eyes closed, reaching in the direction of her right ankle as Grayson and Justine tried to hurry down to her without replicating her accident. But even from a distance, it was clear that Britta’s ankle was injured. Her foot was now oriented at an unsightly angle to her lower leg.

Grayson got to Britta first, but he didn’t know what to do beyond standing over her and asking her if she was OK.

“No,” said Britta from behind gritted teeth. “I’m not going to be able to walk.”

And you’re all dirty,” said Justine, scuttling up behind Grayson. “Dirty all over. Not to mention your ankle – ooh, Britta, that looks bad. And it’s dirty too.

“It hurts so bad,” said Britta. “I’m not even going to be able to stand up.”

“We aren’t going to leave you here,” said Justine.

“I didn’t think you were,” said Britta.

“This part of the trail is really hilly,” said Grayson.

“What’s your point?” asked Justine.

“If we try to carry her – either piggyback or together – we’ll probably just fall again,” said Grayson. “More of us will get hurt, Britta might get hurt worse.”

“So what do we do?” asked Justine.

“I don’t know,” said Grayson. He was the youngest person there. He resented being promoted to the position of ideas-man.

A sound on the slope behind him – the one down which Britta had fallen – made Grayson turn around. Making its way toward the bottom on sure hooves was a fat little donkey bearing an empty saddle, reins dangling. It had green ribbons threaded into its mane.

“What is it doing out here?” asked Justine.

“The park offers trail-riding,” said Grayson. “Adults use horses, but they usually put kids on donkeys like this. It must have gotten separated from its group in the storm. Maybe the thunder scared it and it bolted.”

When the donkey reached the bottom of the hill, it ambled up to Grayson and Justine and stopped, blinking rain off of its long eyelashes.

“No,” said Justine.

“Why not?” asked Grayson. “It could carry her much easier than we could. It’s used to having people on its back. And it won’t slip. You saw how easy it came down. We probably won’t even have to lead it by the reins. It’ll probably just follow us.”

“It’s a good idea,” said Britta from the ground. She had propped herself up on her elbows, and she looked at the donkey with a pained smile. “I like her. She seems nice.”

“This is a Christmas thing,” said Justine. “A Christmas in July in May thing. My daughter being carried on a donkey like Mary on her way to Bethlehem? No.”

“People ride on donkeys year round,” said Grayson. “This has nothing to do with Christmas in July in May. Aunt Justine, we need to get Britta out of here. This donkey is our best shot. How could my mom possibly arrange this? Even if I cared about Christmas in July in May, which I don’t, how could I arrange this?”

Justine scowled, then snatched the Santa hat off of Grayson’s head again. This time she tossed it into the rushing stream. Within seconds, it was out of sight. “There,” she said. “Add a Christmas element, lose a Christmas element.”


Grayson and Justine got Britta onto the donkey without too much difficulty. Positioning her so that the donkey’s movement wouldn’t jostle her ankle too painfully was tougher, but Britta handled it well. “I’ve broken bones before,” she said. “This one doesn’t hurt as bad as my water slide injury. That one made me throw up, and they had to close the pool.”

Grayson was right that the donkey didn’t need to be led. It was happy to go wherever Grayson and Justine were going, and happy to bring Britta along. Grayson had hoped that the donkey might actually take the lead, that it might know the way back to its stall, but whenever Grayson and Justine stopped moving, so did the donkey, looking at its immediate surroundings with mild interest and shaking its mane so that bits of ribbon fluttered into the puddles and stayed floating there when the group moved on.

Although the problem of moving Britta had been solved, the problem of finding the way back to the trailhead had not, and every time the trail branched, Grayson felt presented by two wrong options, both of which would lead only to a state of continued lostness. Sometimes he and Justine and Britta debated which path to take, sometimes Grayson just chose one on a whim and no one spoke up to challenge him, but it did not seem to matter. Everything looked very familiar in general, and completely unfamiliar in the specifics. And as time passed, the gray light faded, night descending earlier than usual because of the thick layer of clouds, and Grayson had to come to terms with the fact that at least a portion of this hike back to the trailhead was going to take place in the dark.

“How will we ever find our way now?” asked Britta.

All Grayson could think to say was that they weren’t finding their way in the light either so it didn’t make much difference, so he chose not to answer at all.

“Why couldn’t it have been a pony?” asked Justine. “Ponies aren’t Christmasy.”

Grayson had scarcely accepted that the dark was coming when it overcame them. And while it was true that it made little difference in terms of their directional choices, it certainly slowed their progress. The continued rain meant no moonlight, no starlight. Grayson kept waiting for his eyes to adjust, but they did not, or they did and it didn’t matter. At the front of the line, he had to make his way mostly by touch, waving his hands in front of him at knee-level to feel for any brush that would indicate a departure from the path.

“Do we have a flashlight?” asked Justine.

No one answered. Grayson felt as if deigning to say “no” would be even more embarrassing than posing the question.

“Britta, are you back there?” asked Justine. “All I hear is the donkey breathing.”

“I’m here,” said Britta.

“Does your ankle hurt?”


In the blackness, the rain got heavier. It felt to Grayson like it was trying to drive him into the earth. He blundered on, losing touch with time. He didn’t bother to check the hour on his phone. He knew now that only dawn would bring any kind of relief, and it was far off.

“This is pointless,” said Britta from somewhere behind Grayson. “We should stop.”

“Stop where?” asked Justine. “Can you see anything?”

“No,” said Britta.

“Then how do you suggest we find somewhere to stop?”

“We could just stop here,” said Britta. “Right here on the trail.”

“There’s no shelter,” said Justine.

“So?” said Britta. “We’re getting rained on whether we’re hiking or sitting still, right? At least if we’re sitting still, we’re not getting farther from the entrance, or getting hurt.”

“If I’m going to be soaked either way, I’d rather walk and keep my blood moving,” said Justine.

“Shh,” said Grayson. “I hear something.”

His aunt and cousin stopped arguing. The silence that followed was far from silent, but beneath the din of raindrops battering leaves they all heard a voice call, “Who’s there?” A faint light appeared just ahead of Grayson on the left side of the trail. Then there was a zipping sound and the light was brighter. Grayson walked toward it, and as he drew near, he saw a man’s face illuminated by a lantern within the half-open flap of a large tent.

“Hello,” said Grayson. “We’re lost and my cousin hurt her ankle.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the man. Inside the tent, Grayson saw dark shapes writhing like giant caterpillars around the man; people in sleeping bags, he surmised.

“I hate to impose on you,” said Grayson. “But is there any way we could stay inside the tent until morning? Or at least until the rain stops? We’ll take up as little room as possible. We won’t make any noise.”

“I’m sorry, no,” said the man. “There’s no room.”

“We won’t lie down or stretch out,” said Grayson.

“There’s no room,” said the man. “My whole family’s in here.”

“We’ve been walking for hours,” said Grayson. “We’re soaked, tired, and my cousin is in a lot of pain.”

“Well,” said the man. “We do have another tent set up about twenty yards back into the woods from here. But we keep our dogs in there. They’re friendly, but it isn’t exactly a clean environment.”

“That’s fine,” said Grayson. “That’s totally fine. We like dogs. We aren’t picky, at this point.”

“No,” said Justine. “We will not stay there. You think I don’t see the parallels, Grayson? Turned away at the inn, so we have to sleep in the stable? Let me guess, there’s a manger in there too?”

The man looked confused. “A manger? No, our dogs don’t eat hay.” He stuck the lantern outside of the tent and held it up so he could get a better look at Justine over Grayson’s shoulder. As he did, rain pinging off of the lantern’s metal ventilation cap, a piece of soggy cardboard came into view affixed to the tent just above the open flap. On it, someone had written the word “IN” in black marker – “I-N.”

“What is that?” shouted Justine. “In? IN? There’s no room in the inn?”

“The tent has two door flaps,” said the man. “Since there’s so many of us going in and out, we mark one ‘in’ and one ‘out’ to avoid congestion.”

“We’re moving on!” shouted Justine. She turned and stomped off into the darkness.

“Aunt Justine, please!” Grayson called after her. “Where else are we going to find a place to stay? It’s not the same ‘inn.’ The Christmas one has two Ns, this one only has one!”

“We should go after her,” said Britta, moving her mount into the small sphere of lantern light.

“Is that a donkey?” asked the man. “Is that why you were hoping for a manger?”

“We were not hoping for a manger,” said Grayson, and he and Britta went after Justine in the direction opposite of their one shot at reduced discomfort.


It didn’t take long to catch up with Justine. She was caught in a thorn bush and making wounded noises. Grayson had to help her out by feel, which resulted in plenty of tiny stabs to his hands and arms. When she was finally free, Grayson heard Justine plop to her knees on the trail. “It’s so pathetic,” she said. “A copy of a copy.”

“What is?” asked Grayson.

“Christmas in July in May,” said Justine. “It’s diluted! I’m not the biggest Christmas person, I know that, but I get why people are interested in it in December. And Christmas in July, OK, it’s a little oasis on the long way back around to regular Christmas. It’s stupid, especially considering how fast it feels like a year goes now, but OK. I can grudgingly accept Christmas in July. But Christmas in July in May is a bridge too far. I will not understand it. I will not try to understand it. Everything within me rebels against it. Just do something big for Memorial Day! I can’t be the only one who feels this way, yet everywhere I turn, these pale imitations are forced on me. How am I Scrooge when I’m the only one who would like to see Christmas treated with some dignity?”

“No one’s forcing anything on you,” said Grayson. “You’re reading into things too much. You’re upset at my mom, and it’s made you paranoid. You aren’t seeing weak copies of Christmas stuff. You’re seeing stuff that has nothing to do with any holiday and you’re forming weak connections between it and Christmas. You’re doing this to yourself.”

Somewhere down and in front of Grayson, Justine sighed. And though there had been neither lightning nor thunder for hours, a sudden flash illuminated everything, and Grayson saw Justine mid-rise, halfway between kneeling and standing, bedraggled and weary. The darkness snapped back into place faster even than lightning, and a peal of thunder vibrated the woods from the ground up. When the thunder was gone, Britta said, “I hear barking.”

“I hear it too,” said Justine.

“The guy in the tent told us they had dogs,” said Grayson. “It must be them.”

“They’re coming closer,” said Britta. The donkey shuffled its hooves and brayed.

“Hello!” shouted someone. “Justine! Grayson! Britta!” The barking came closer. Lights appeared, beams waving in the air, scanning the trail and the brush on both sides.

“Over here!” shouted Grayson.

And then the three nearly identical park rangers and their search dogs were upon them, distributing ponchos, administering first aid to Britta’s ankle, insisting that everyone drink the bottled water they’d brought no matter how thirsty or not.

“How did you find us?” asked Justine. “How did you know we were lost?”

“Someone came into our office a couple of hours ago and told us,” said one of the rangers. “We didn’t get her name. She just walked in, told us your names, told us you were lost out here on the trails with Jewels, and left.”

“Who’s Jewels?” asked Britta.

“You’re riding her,” said another of the rangers, patting the donkey between her ears. He fed her a carrot he’d brought with him.

“It must have been my mom,” said Grayson. “But how did she know about the donkey?”

“I don’t think it was your mom,” said one of the rangers with a laugh. “Unless she’s about 70 years old and smells terrible.”

“No,” said Grayson. “That doesn’t sound like her.”

“Must have been an angel,” said a ranger.

The other two chuckled. “That’s a pretty shabby angel,” said one. “I’ll bring in more air freshener from home tomorrow morning.”

“The dogs found our trail?” asked Britta. “They could smell it in the rain?”

“Off and on,” said a ranger. “But once we found Jewels’s tracks, it was easy. She’s got distinctive prints. Her front left hoof has a star-shaped chunk taken out of it. Makes it pretty simple to tell her tracks from the rest.”

Justine stopped. “An angel told you to come,” she said. “You followed a star.” She looked around in horror. “The dogs. German Shepherds. Shepherds.”

“What are you getting at?” asked one of the rangers. “Come on, ma’am, we need to keep moving.”

“Your angel stinks,” said Justine. “Your star is in the mud. Your shepherds are animals! The ‘IN’ isn’t even spelled right!” She pointed to the sky. “Watered down by literal water! What is the point of celebrating something you claim to love if this is the result?”

The rangers looked at each other, then to Grayson and Britta. “Come on,” said one of them. “We’re pretty smart guys, but you’re gonna have to explain this to us.”

“‘Pretty smart’ is not the same as ‘wise!’” shouted Justine. She turned on her heel and stalked away, back down the miserable trail in a bold statement of preference.

The rangers trained their flashlights on her retreating back. “Ma’am?” called one of them. “Where are you going? You’re going to get lost again!”

“Jeez,” said another ranger. “Aren’t people supposed to be merry this time of year?”

Grayson aimed a level gaze at the ranger. “What time of year?”

“You know,” said the ranger, an expression wavering between smirk and smile appearing on his face as he extracted a candy cane from within his poncho and began to unwrap it. “Spring time.”

Discussion Questions

  • Can an angel stink?

  • Dwell on a time when your paranoia proved to be justified.

  • Do you think “Indian Words State Park” is an acceptable park-name compromise? Why or why not?

  • Relate several times that someone tried to sneak seasonally inappropriate elements into your life.

  • Rank the months in order of the best month in which to celebrate Christmas in July to the worst month in which to celebrate Christmas in July.

  • Rank the months in order of the best month in which to celebrate Christmas to the worst month in which to celebrate Christmas.