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Why Isaac thought working at a Christmas tree farm was a good idea, he doesn’t know.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Initially, he really wanted the job because it was outdoors, paid good money, and Eleanor worked in the hot chocolate hut, which meant spending time with his best friend and getting free drinks in the process.

What he didn’t consider was how much seeing people pick out trees for their homes would make him miss his.

He’s never really been one to get homesick­—if you don’t count the first few weeks of college (and he doesn’t because it was “an adjustment period”). Between classes, side jobs, and clubs, he keeps too busy to think about how much he misses his family. The few times it creeps in are in the middle of the night when his mind can finally shut off, but his dorm is throwing a rager.

Unable to fall asleep, he thinks of the time his mom walked over to the neighbor’s house during a party and yelled for them to quiet down. He’d smiles to himself and wish she was there.

But that didn’t happen too much. He wouldn’t let it. Normally.

At the farm, he can’t seem to push it away. The scent of firs and evergreens hangs in the air, smelling just like the fragrance bulbs plugged into the walls at home. Strings of lights twinkle over the tops of trees like they did from their porch in the form of icicles. Christmas songs play over the loudspeaker without the uneven pitch of his sister’s voice joining in. Families walk through the forest and pick their trees just like his does, only now when he saws them down, his brother isn’t pulling the other end of the blade.

Every detail designed to put people in the holiday spirit is just a reminder of a place he won’t get to see for another six months. He doesn’t have the money to get all the way across the country, and even if he did, he’s taking winter classes, giving him just a sliver of time before he’d need to head back.

Nine days out from the holiday, as he finishes tethering a tree down to a car’s roof for the 20th time that night, the family—made of two parents, two boys, and a girl just like his—wishes him “Merry Christmas.”

“Thanks. You, too,” he says, although he doesn’t know how merry it will be in a near-empty apartment.

He trudges through the half-foot of snow standing on the ground over to the hot chocolate hut. It’s modeled after a gingerbread house with brown walls, candy-cane striped shutters, and a gum drop chimney. Inside it, in all her elf-earred glory, Eleanor tops up container of tiny marshmallows.

“You look like you need some of the hard stuff,” she says, looking between him and the spoonful she’s dumping into the canister.

He nods as leans against the counter, and pulls his hat off by its pom-pom. He can feel his hair sticking up at every angle. “The hardest you have.”

“Coming right up.” She grabs a paper cup decorated with reindeer and sticks it under the dispenser. With the push of a lever, a chocolatey stream flows down. Once it’s close to the top, she brings the cup over, spoons in two heaps of marshmallows, and for him, sprays on an extra tall mountain of whipped cream, before sliding it a couple inches into his open hand. “There. That should take the edge off.”

He laughs and lifts it to his mouth. “Thanks.” It’s sweet and delicious and is almost as good as his dad’s—almost.

“You’re welcome,” she says. “By the way.” She reaches beneath the counter and pulls out a green-foiled wrapped box with a red bow. “Santa left a gift for you here.”

“What is it?” He asks, giving it a shake. Her response is a shrug. He rips the paper off and pops open the lid. Inside is a piece of paper, with the words “one free family Christmas” in metallic cursive.

As he holds the ticket in his hand, she says, “Santa wanted to send you home, but couldn’t swing it this year, so he’s hoping you’ll come home with me instead.”

He looks up at her. His eyes burn at the corners, and when he clears his throat, it feels as though it’s thick with molasses. “Santa doesn’t have to do this.”

“He wants to. He doesn’t like the idea of you just sitting by yourself, watching Home Alone and screaming into the mirror over and over like Kevin to entertain yourself.”

He chuckles. A couple weeks back, when she asked about his Christmas plans, this is exactly what he told her—along with setting up booby traps for the roommate.

“I was being dramatic.”

“No, you weren’t,” she says. He wasn’t. “My parents would really like if you came. I would too. We could hang out all week, go to that pub you like. What do you say?”

It’s hard not to be speechless. He hasn’t verbalized a lot—well, most—of his longing, or how much this place has affected him, but she’s noticed all the same. It won’t be the same as his family, he knows, and won’t completely erase the homesickness, but if there’s a second best place to be, it’s with Eleanor and her family, who, because they only live an hour away, visit frequently and every time treat him like he is one of their own.

It’s not just the most thoughtful gift he’s ever gotten. It’s the best one, period.

He leans across the counter and hugs her tightly. The tip of her ear jabs his neck, but he couldn’t care less.

Into his jacket she murmurs, “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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