Beverly kneaded the satiny dough. With its pungent bits of candied citrus, this bread was destined to grace some elderly person's table for tomorrow's Christmas dinner.
Lucy, Beverly's 7-year-old, patted her own little mound of dough. "Why couldn't we go to a party like Daddy and Mark?"
"Daddy's office always has a party every Christmas Eve and Mark wanted to get together with his friends. They'll be home all day tomorrow." Beverly nestled each loaf tenderly inside the bread pans. "And I promised to make this bread."
A pout formed on Lucy's lips as she pummeled her dough. "I want to go someplace! This is boring!"
Beverly frowned as the phone rang. But Lucy scrambled off into the family room. She came back several minutes later smiling proudly.
"Mrs. Roper is sick. I told her it would be easy for us to carry a hundred loaves of bread with our minivan."
Beverly groaned. It would take 45 minutes to drive to the distribution center. One way. She glanced around. The tree, centered in the front window, twinkled merrily. All the presents had been wrapped and placed under the tree.
"Next time, ask me first." Beverly sighed.
Lucy's mood did not improve despite the heavenly aroma of 100 loaves of fresh baked bread in the car. She didn't even want to listen to her favorite tape of Christmas carols.
"Robert told everyone in the class yesterday that there is no Santa Claus."
A pang squeezed Beverly's heart as she drove. The nerve of that rotten Robert.
"Miss Jensen took Robert out of the room and talked to him. She was very angry."
"Did he apologize after that?"
"Oh sure. But then when we went outside on the playground he told us we were all a bunch of babies."
Beverly thought of the cookies and milk beside the fireplace. Did they have to lose the magic?
"What did you say to that?" Beverly's throat felt tight.
"I told him to stop." Lucy tilted up her chin. "I told him he should be ashamed of himself. He made Sara and Jessica cry. And anyway, he believes in Dracula."
But Beverly was afraid to ask Lucy if she still believed in Santa. So she didn't.
The car seemed to have a black cloud in it on the way home. Even the comforting smell of bread hadn't lingered on when all those loaves left. The country road had few streetlights, too. When the car's engine suddenly stopped, Beverly had a moment of panic before she saw a liquor store just ahead.
The minivan had just enough power to coast into the parking lot.
Beverly tried starting it again but it refused to kick over.
"Hey, lady. Sounds like you forgot to put gas in it." One of the liquor store's customers commented as Beverly got out of the car. Another fellow snickered in agreement.
"I have a half a tank of gas." Beverly informed them through her clenched teeth. She would let her husband know that male chauvinism was alive and well.
Beverly called home and left a message on the machine. She left a message on her husband's answering machine at work. She left another message on her neighbor's answering machine.
She decided to try starting up the car again. Maybe she had flooded it.
"I'm cold," Lucy whined.
"At least it isn't snowing--yet." Beverly glanced up at the black sky.
A battered Toyota pulled up beside them and a white-haired woman got out.
"Having trouble?" she inquired as she tapped on the glass.
Beverly rolled down her window. The woman had to be less than 5 feet tall.
"It just died in the middle of the road and it won't start up again. And I have plenty of gas in the tank."
"Try starting it up again." The woman ducked under the hood as Beverly ground on the starter again.
"Keep going!" The woman called out.
Maybe Beverly would ruin the starter or the battery or some other vital organ, but right now she wanted to get home. So she turned the key and held her breath.
The engine caught.
Beverly's thanks seemed so inadequate.
The white-haired woman wiped her hands on an old cloth hanky. "Carburetor. Better get it checked."
For a long time as Beverly and Lucy continued homeward, they both listened attentively to the sound of the engine.
Finally Lucy said, "That was Mrs. Santa Claus."
Beverly smiled. The magic was still there. "I think you're right."