It was a busy time for Elena, but she didn’t mind. She loved all the hustle and bustle around the holidays. People coming and going. Meals to plan and prepare. Beds to make. Windows to clean. While it was hard work, every single part of it was fun.
This year’s festivities began with a Thanksgiving potluck at work. Elena’s specialty was deviled eggs. She followed her family’s recipe, filling the eggs with chopped nuts with a sprinkle of nutmeg on top. The others brought store-bought cookies and cakes, packaged salads and bottled dressings and sliced luncheon meats from a deli. Elena didn’t care that she was the only one who took the time to create something because her eggs disappeared before anything else was touched.
She didn’t always have company for Thanksgiving. Some years she celebrated alone, which was sad, but not disheartening. Elena spent the afternoons volunteering at a local homeless shelter, preparing and serving food to hungry singles and families. The kids were the saddest part. Imagine having no home to call your own. No Christmas tree in your own front room. No gifts under the tree. So she smiled encouragingly at the kids. If she had time, she went from table to table and listened to their stories.
One child, Jessica, was only seven years old but had already attended five different schools. She would have been a pretty child if her face had been clean and her clothes not faded and torn. Her eyes were a deep green that sparkled when she smiled. Jessica spoke of nights sleeping in the back seat of the car, parked in the lots of Walmarts or Sears, so cold that her feet felt numb and so hungry that her stomach ached. The best places to sleep were at rest stops, as there were bathrooms and fresh water, but the highway patrol came by and shooed them away.
Jessica’s wants were simple. She loved school, but often missed days when there was no place to stay. She hated falling behind or starting over in new schools where she had no friends, and even though she understood too much about how poor her family was, she wished it were different. For once she would like to stay in a school for a whole year.
Moving so much made it hard for her to keep up in her classes. In one school she might be in the middle reading group, but in the next, in the lowest one. She would start a book in one school but never get to finish it because off they would go on another quest for shelter. In the next school they’d be working on writing an essay, and Jessica would struggle with the beginning while everyone else was almost finished.
Jessica told Elena that, for once, she would like to be able to wear different clean clothes every day, for a week. Clothes that came with tags from a store. Not hand-me-downs from the lost and found bins. She wished for shoes that fit. Hers were either too big or too small, worn by someone else before she got them, and often stained or torn.
Elena wanted to help Jessica’s family, and so she invited them to move into her house. There was plenty of room. She had two unused bedrooms and a family room that missed the sounds of childish laughter. Since there were two bathrooms, one could be just for the family, one for Elena.
When the family finished eating, the father approached Elena, head bowed. His feet scuffed the floor as he spoke.
“We appreciate your offer, ma’am,” he said. “But we can’t stay with you. It would be too much.”
“No, really,” Elena said. “I want you to come. It would be a joy to have you stay until you can save up for a place of your own.”
“We both work,” he said, “ but we don’t make enough to pay rent on an apartment.”
“That’s okay. I can help you get connected to agencies that work with the homeless. I’m sure there’s something they can do once you have a stable place to stay.”
The man nodded. “Okay. We’ll give it a try. Just for a few days. To see how things work out. By the way, we’re the Morrisons.”
“Nice to meet you,” Elena said as she shook his hand. She gave him her address and phone number. They agreed that the family would move in the next day.
Elena felt proud of herself as she finished up at the shelter. When she got home, she made sure the bedrooms and bathroom were ready for company. Clean towels. Fresh sheets. Warm blankets. Room in the closets and dresser drawers.
She had the next day off, so she went out early in the morning to buy groceries that she hoped the family would like.
When she heard an old rattle-trap car coming down the street, Elena went out on her front porch. The car had seen better days. It was a bluish minivan with a huge dent in the side. Smoke poured from the exhaust pipe and it had not been washed in many days, if not years. When it pulled to a stop in front of her house, it shuddered, screeched, and then finally came to a rest. Elena wondered if she could enroll them in one of those giveaways where needy families were given remade cars as a helping hand. She made a mental note to check it out.
Jessica spilled from the open door of the car and ran straight into Elena’s arms. “Thank you for helping us,” she said. “How long can we stay?”
“Until your mom and dad want to leave.”
“Really? That long?”
Elena simply nodded. She grabbed Jessica’s hand, waited for her parents to step on the porch, and led them inside the house. “This is the front room,” Elena said. “You can use the desk to do your homework.”
She took them all through the house, stopping along the way to point out where to find things, where to put things, how to work the television remote. “I leave pretty early in the morning, so you’ll be on your own for breakfast. There are eggs and bacon, sausage, tortillas, hot and cold cereal, coffee, tea and juice. Please help yourselves.”
“Thanks,” Mrs. Morrison said. She smiled shyly. Her eyes were green and her hair light brown. It was easy to see which parent Jessica most loosely resembled. “We’ll clean up, too, and put everything away.’
“I love to cook,” Elena said, “so I’ll fix dinner every night, if that’s okay with you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the mother said.
“I’m Elena, not ma’am.”
“I’m Mary and this is George. You’ve already met Jessica.”
“Would you like anything now? I went to the store so there are snacks and sodas.”
“No, thanks. We’d like to unpack the car, if that’s okay with you.”
Things went well the rest of the day. Jessica followed Elena everywhere and Mary helped with dinner while George watched television. After dinner they all watched a movie, and then it was time for bed.
It was funny, but Elena was not a bit nervous having strangers in her home. She slept soundly, waking only once to use the bathroom. In the morning she got up to the smells of cooking. Bacon and eggs. Toast. Coffee.
In the kitchen she found George hard at work. “Good morning,” he said. “I hope you are hungry.”
“Everything smells lovely. You didn’t have to do all this,” Elena said as she poured herself a cup of coffee.
“It’s no problem. I work in a café downtown. I love to cook.” He dished up a plate of food and placed it before Elena.
“Thanks. I didn’t expect this.” Her first bite of eggs put a smile on her face. “These are the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever had!
“It’s the cream cheese,” George said.
After she had eaten, Elena turned on her computer and researched all the possible agencies that might be able to help the Morrisons. She found one that clothed women in nearly-new business outfits, taught interview skills, gave tutorials in computer use, and even styled hair. She wrote down the contact information, thinking it might give Mary a boost of confidence.
There were others as well. Food stamps and welfare. Medicare. After-school programs that helped with schoolwork and provided safe places to stay until the parents could get there. Shops that gave shoes and clothing to people of all ages and sizes. Free haircuts and shampoos. A place to get free reading material for children. Grocery stores that gave away clearance items such as prepackaged salads, vegetables, fruits, lunchmeats and bread. She even found a small chef school that trained students for free, then found them jobs.
Since there was no school, Jessica kept busy doing schoolwork, watching television and searching through the books in Elena’s library until she settled on one she thought she might read.
When George and Mary returned from work, Elena sat them down in the front room and went over all she had found. The chef school paid its trainees more than George currently made, so he was excited and ready to enroll. Mary wasn’t as sure about looking for another job as she liked the office where she worked. She enjoyed filing the records of transactions and felt she was treated fairly at work. She did agree to at least go one time to look for more professional clothing and get her hair done up.
The next few days sped by. Elena got out her Christmas tree and set it up in the front room. Jessica helped with the lights, garland and ornaments. George cooked all the meals and Mary cleaned the house from top to bottom.
For Elena, there was a feeling of great satisfaction. It was as if she had her very own family living under her roof. She loved listening to their conversations. And Jessica was such a joy! Elena dreamt of the good times they would have. Things they would do, like go to the park, see movies, maybe even take trips together.
On Monday morning Elena left for work before anyone was up. She locked the door behind her and drove off, thinking of how lucky she was to have found such good people to share the holidays with.
When she got home, Elena was surprised to find the front door unlocked, but no one there. She hung her keys on the rack by the door. That’s when she noticed that her computer was missing. No monitor, no keyboard, no mouse. Her tablet was also gone. Numbly, she stepped outside and called the police. She didn’t want to be in the house in case the intruders were still there.
The police came within a matter of minutes. They went inside, guns drawn. Elena stood far away, out on the sidewalk, not wanting to witness any possible shooting or the arrest of a criminal. But the police came out with no one in tow.
“Did you get a chance to look around and see what else was missing?” the tall one said.
“No. I only stepped into the front room. That’s when I left and called you.”
“Come inside, ma’am,” the other cop said. “We’ll take a look together.”
The television was missing. And the DVD player. So were most of her movies. Lamps and clocks were gone. Towels, sheets, blankets. The comforters off all the beds. Toiletries from both bathrooms. Food from the pantry and refrigerator. Everything and anything that could be taken quickly was gone.
“Ma’am,” the tall cop said, “Do you have any idea who might have done this? There is no sign of forced entry. It’s as if they had a key.”
Elena put her head in her hands. “Oh, no, it couldn’t be.”
“The Morrisons. I invited them into my home on Thanksgiving.”
“Who are the Morrisons?”
“A family I met at the shelter. They were such nice people. And their little girl was so sweet. I was going to help them get better jobs. A new car. Clothes. Everything. And I gave them a key to the house.”
The tall cop sat on the sofa and pulled a small white pad from his shirt pocket. “Can you describe the Morrisons?”
Elena told the cop everything she knew. Size. Age. Eye color. Hair. Car. Jobs. And even what she knew of little Jessica.
“Ma’am,” the other cop said, “I hate to tell you this, but you got off lucky. We’ve seen schemes like this go horribly wrong. They might have convinced you to take out a loan on your house, or given them money. They might have harmed you, even killed you, to get what they wanted. Fortunately this happened while you were at work.”
“I feel like such a fool!”
“Ma’am,” the tall cop said, “Do you know a locksmith?”
“We do. We’ll call him for you. I’m sure he’ll come out right away. Have all your locks changed and even have him put locks on your windows. These people probably won’t return since they took everything that wasn’t pinned down. But you need to be more secure.”
“Also you should file a police report. Do you have any receipts for the things that were stolen? Like the computer or television?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure.”
“We’re going to leave now. Can I gave you a piece of advice?”
“Never invite strangers into your home. Even ones with children. You just don’t know what they might do.”
Elena sat dumbfounded as they left. She chastised herself for being so trusting, for being so hopeful that she could help the Morrisons out. What a fool she had been.