Will Newcomb stood in the front door of his family's Eas Baltimore rowhouse staring at the Christmas lights that blinked red-green-yellow around the Wesolowskis' front window across the street.
"Why can't we just stay here?" he asked, frowning.
Will didn't want to go to Grampa's for Christmas Eve. He was 8 years old and he wanted to do the things his family always did on Christmas Eve after church: See the lights downtown, get pizza at Harborplace and then some Sticky Bun ice cream pie (his mother's favorite) at Vaccaro's on the way home.
"Maybe Mom will be back soon," Will said hopefully.
Behind him, Will's grandfather pulled on a thick gray overcoat. "No telling how long she's going to be at the hospital, Will. Those babies may decide they can't wait."
Will swung around. "But the twins aren't supposed to be born until February -- Valentine's Day!"
"I know," Grampa said. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. "I hope they make it. But right now I've got to get back, Will. Got five heifers and Lucille waitin' to be fed."
His grandfather had a farm in Carroll County. He used to have a herd of black and white dairy cows, but not anymore. Just the heifers, who don't need to be milked, and a lame donkey named Lucille.
Will loved the farm. He built tree forts there and raced his bicycle full tilt down Grampa's lane, stirring up a huge cloud of dust. It's just that he had other plans for Christmas. He was counting on getting a new pair of Rollerblades. He and Robbie were going to skate tomorrow in Patterson Park. The day after Christmas, Mrs. Peterson was supposed to take Robbie and Travis and him to the Air and Space Museum.
"Come on," Grampa said, setting a heavy hand on Will's shoulder. "Get your things."
As they started up the interstate, toward the Beltway, Will looked out at all the machinery that loomed over the Port of Baltimore. His father was down there somewhere, operating a crane that unloaded containers from foreign ships. The containers looked like railroad cars without wheels. You couldn't tell from the outside what was in them, but Will's father told him the containers were filled with things like wine, Walkmans and ceiling fans.
His father got extra pay for working today. He said they needed the money because of the twins.
Those babies, Will thought bitterly. They were taking over already.
At the farm Will was further disappointed to see that his grandfather didn't even have a Christmas tree, nor any plans for dinner.
"I guess I was just going to open a can of tomato soup," Grampa said, scratching one temple. "But we'll run down to the store and get something. If you want. Just let me rest awhile, OK?"
While his grandfather stretched out on the couch, Will moved out the back steps, where he picked up a stick and broke it in half. What a dismal Christmas this was going to be, he thought.
Suddenly, he had an idea. He threw down the stick and walked across the dirt driveway to his grandfather's toolshed. His mother would have a fit if she could see him now, he was thinking as a wry smile crept onto his face. He took what he needed and set off up an old cow path into the pasture.
The day was cool, quiet and gray. Two crows bickered overhead and disappeared into the nearby forest. Up near the pond, where Canada geese stopped in the fall, Will spotted a 4-foot hemlock and attacked the narrow, prickly trunk with his saw. He'd watched his father and Grampa do this last year and was sure he could do it himself.
At the farmhouse, Grampa stood in the kitchen, stroking his long white mustache with two fingers as Will came in, dragging the tree behind him. When his grandfather finally grinned and shook his head, Will didn't know if he was more amused or amazed.
"I haven't had a Christmas tree since your grandmother passed away," he said. His eyes grew moist. "She did love a tree. I know she had lots of ornaments and things stashed away in the attic. I couldn't tell you where precisely. But if you want to take a look . . . "
Will climbed the narrow, dark staircase and hunted with a flashlight for nearly an hour. He found piles of neatly folded dress material, curtains and bedspreads -- even a trunk full of his father's high school trophies -- but no Christmas decorations.
One thing Will did have stashed away in one of the closets upstairs was a "rainy day" box full of games and art supplies. He dug out some colored construction paper, grabbed a pair of scissors and a stapler and set to work on the kitchen table making a long paper chain.
He thought about his mother as he was cutting, hooking and stapling, one colored strip after another. And he remembered something she said to him that summer at Ocean City, when Will first learned he would have a brother or sister in February (before they knew it was twins). "It take nine months to make a baby," his mother had explained. "If they're born earlier, their little lungs might not work right."
At the Stop and Go Market, Will and his grandfather searched for a small chicken. But at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve there weren't any left, just a tired-looking package of 10 chicken legs. They took it, along with a can of yams, some cranberry sauce, a bag of Doritos and a frozen chocolate cake.
Darkness had come and the telephone was ringing when they got back to the house. Grampa stood with his coat still on, holding the receiver. "You don't say," he repeated twice.
Will pushed the hair out of his eyes and felt a sudden heaviness settling inside.
"Well," Grampa said, hanging up the phone. "Looks like you're the big brother now. Your sisters were born. They're early, but the doctors think they'll be OK. Molly and Megan."
Will was stunned.
"Your Dad got there just in time. He says he won't be up to get you tonight. Maybe in a couple days."
Grampa hugged him. "Come on," he said. "Let's feed the stock before we eat."
Out in the barn, the heifers crowded together filling the cold air with their steamy breath. Lucille brayed mightily from her stall next door. Will broke up a bale of hay while his grandfather dished out grain.
Molly and Megan. Will rolled the names over, let them jump up and down in his head as he shook out the squares of dried timothy and tossed them in the manger. They weren't just babies anymore. They were girls. He had two sisters!
Grampa finished filling the last water bucket and was reaching up to turn off the lights when Will heard something. It was a small sound, weak and creaky -- like the wind, maybe, knocking at a metal pulley high up in the hayloft. Grampa heard it too and stopped.
They listened together.
"Darned if I don't think that's kittens," Grampa said.
Will brightened. "Must be a good night to be born!" he exclaimed.
Grampa chuckled. "Why not! The good Lord thought so!"
It was Will who found them, still damp and mewling, in an old wooden barrel in the grain room.
"We'd better take 'em inside," Grampa said. "They'll freeze to death out here."
Will looked around for something to carry them in. Where was the mother cat? he wondered. She ought to be here keeping them warm. The kittens were shaking, searching blindly. Will couldn't help thinking of his sisters and their little lungs, struggling to breathe.
Quickly, he took off his jacket and spread it out on the floor. He reached into the barrel and gently lifted each of the four kittens onto the garment. He folded the sleeves over them and then carefully gathered up the bundle and held it close. On the way in, Grampa found the mother cat and scooped her up. She was excited to see her babies, and settled right down with them on the bed Will made -- a pile of rags in a cardboard box.
They placed the box in front of a fire in the living room. Will sat cross-legged beside it, keeping watch while his grandfather put the chicken legs in the oven and set the cake out to thaw.
"You know, Will," Grampa said, as they finished their dinner on TV trays before the fire, "that's a mighty fine tree you made there." He lit his pipe. "This has been the best Christmas I've had since your grandmother. . . . And that's been nearly five years."
Will was back on the floor petting the mother cat. He looked up at his little tree draped with the paper chain and then at Grampa, who sat beneath a halo of his own pipe smoke, staring, sleepy-eyed, at the fire. Imagine, Will thought, his grandfather might have been sipping tomato soup tonight, alone, in a house with no tree and no kittens.
A warm, light feeling flowed through Will. For a second, there was even the sensation of time, suspended, as the smoke curled and the fire crackled and the mother cat purred beneath his hand.
Somehow Will knew, sitting there on his grandmother's braided rug that Christmas Eve, with the kittens safe now and his grandfather dozing off and his sisters -- his sisters -- waiting for him at a hospital in Baltimore, that he would never forget this moment. Not ever, in all his life.
"It is," he said softly, "really special."
Grampa stirred. "What's that?"
Will smiled. "I just was wondering, Grampa, if you think that cake's thawed out yet?"
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Priscilla Cummings, a former newspaper reporter and magazine writer in Baltimore, is the author of six children's books. Her latest is "Chadwick Forever." Ms. Cummings and her husband, John Frece, live in Annapolis with their two children, William and Hannah.