The second week of the game brought more amazing events. The garbage was taken out without anyone being asked. Someone even did two of Kelly’s hard math problems one night when she left her homework out on the table.
The little pile of straw grew higher and softer. Every day brought new and different surprises as the secret elves stepped up their activity. The McDonald home was finally filled with Christmas spirit. Only Eric had been unusually quiet since the third week of name picking.
The final night of name picking was also the night before Christmas Eve. As the family sat around the table waiting for the last set of names to be put in the hat, Mother said, “You’ve all done a wonderful job. There must be hundreds of straws in our crib—maybe a thousand. You should be so pleased with the bed you’ve made. But remember, there’s still one whole day left. We all have time to do a little more to make the bed even softer before tomorrow night. Let’s try.”
For the last time, the hat was passed around the table. Little Mike pulled out a name, and Daddy whispered it to him, just as he had done every week. Randi unfolded hers carefully under the table, peeked at it and 1)hunched up her shoulders, smiling. Kelly reached into the hat and giggled happily when she saw the name. Mother and Daddy each took their turns, too, and then handed the hat with the last name to Eric. But as he unfolded the small scrap of paper and read it, his face 2)pinched up and he suddenly seemed about to cry. Without a word, he ran from the room.
Everyone immediately jumped up from the table, but Mother stopped them. “No, stay where you are,” she said. “Let me talk to him alone first.”
Just as she reached the top of the stairs, Eric’s door banged open. He was trying to pull his coat on with one hand while he carried a small suitcase with the other hand.
“I have to leave,” he said quietly, through his tears. “If I don’t, I’ll spoil Christmas for everyone!”
“But why? And where are you going?” asked Mother.
“I can sleep in my snow fort for a couple of days. I’ll come home right after Christmas. I promise.”
Mother started to say something about freezing and snow and no 3)mittens or boots, but Daddy, who was now standing just behind her, put his hand on her arm and shook his head. The front door closed, and together they watched from the window as the little figure with the sadly 4)slumped shoulders and no hat trudged across the street and sat down on a snowbank near the corner. It was very dark outside, and cold, and a few snow 5)flurries drifted down on the small boy and his suitcase.
“But he’ll freeze!” said Mother.
“Give him a few minutes alone,” said Dad quietly. “Then you can talk to him.”
The huddled figure was already dusted with white when Mother walked across the street 10 minutes later and sat down beside him on the snowbank.
“What is it, Eric? You’ve been so good these last few weeks, but I know something’s been bothering you since we first started the crib. Can you tell me, honey?”
“Aw, Mom, don’t you see?” he sniffed. “I tried so hard, but I can’t do it anymore, and now I’m going to wreck Christmas for everyone.” With that he burst into sobs and threw himself into his mother’s arms.
“But I don’t understand,” Mother said, brushing the tears from his face. “What can’t you do? And how could you possibly spoil Christmas for us?”
“Mom,” the little boy said through his tears, “you just don’t understand. I got Kelly’s name all four weeks! And I hate Kelly! I can’t do one more nice thing for her or I’ll die! I tried, Mom. I really did. I sneaked in her room every night and fixed her bed. I even laid out her 6)crummy nightgown. I emptied her wastebasket, and I did some homework for her one night when she was going to the bathroom. Mom, I even let her use my race car one day, but she smashed it right into the wall like always! I tried to be nice to her, Mom. Even when she called me a stupid 7)dummy, I didn’t hit her. And every week, when we picked new names, I thought it would be over. But tonight, when I got her name again, I knew I couldn’t do one more nice thing for her, Mom. I just can’t! And tomorrow’s Christmas Eve. I’ll spoil Christmas for everybody just when we’re ready to put Baby Jesus in the crib. Don’t you see why I had to leave?”
They sat together quietly for a few minutes, Mother’s arm around the small boy’s shoulders. Only an occasional 8)sniffle and9)hiccup broke the silence on the snowbank.
Finally Mother began to speak softly, “Eric, I am so proud of you. Every good thing you did should count as double because it was especially hard for you to be nice to Kelly for so long. But you did all those nice things anyway, one straw at a time. You gave your love when it wasn’t easy to give. Maybe that’s what the spirit of Christmas is really all about. If it’s too easy to give, maybe we’re not really giving much of ourselves after all. The straws you added were probably the most important ones, and you should be proud of yourself.”
“Now, how would you like a chance to earn a few easy straws like the rest of us? I still have the name I picked tonight in my pocket, and I haven’t looked at it yet. Why don’t we switch, just for the last day? It will be our secret.”
“That’s not cheating?”
“It’s not cheating,” Mother smiled.
Together they dried the tears, brushed off the snow and walked back to the house.
The next day the whole family was busy cooking and 10)straightening up the house for Christmas Day, wrapping last-minute presents and trying hard not to burst with excitement. But even with all the activity and eagerness, a flurry of new straws piled up in the crib, and by nightfall it was overflowing. At different times while passing by, each member of the family, big and small, would pause and look at the wonderful pile for a moment, then smile before going on. It was almost time for the tiny crib to be used. But was it soft enough? One straw might still make a difference.
For that very reason, just before bedtime, Mother tip-toed quietly to Kelly’s room to lay out the little blue nightgown and turn down the bed. But she stopped in the doorway, surprised. Someone had already been there. The nightgown was laid neatly across the bed and a small red race car rested next to it on the pillow.
The last straw was Eric’s after all.