A story by Robert Dellinger
Laura had three problems. Their names were Kevin, Tommy, and Jacob. She loved each of them, but sitting alone in her apartment the weekend after Thanksgiving she made a decision. She circled December 25 on the calendar and determined that by Christmas she would give her heart fully to one of the men and let the other two go.
Don’t be too quick to judge Laura. She was an uncommonly attractive young woman and she attracted an uncommon number of young men to her doorstep. These three remaining suitors were but a drop in the bucket of all those she had rejected. Give her credit as well for her wisdom in deciding to narrow the field even further. No one prompted her to do it: not her girlfriends, her parents, or even the enviable final three. Her own conscience, as tender as her looks, forced the decision on her. Conscience and a healthy dose of Christmas spirit.
For Christmas was gently falling down around her like an early December snow. She felt it coming in the chill of the evening as she walked with Kevin. She saw it blooming red in the holly berries ripening in the park they passed. She heard it in the carols at the mall and in the excited cries of children at store windows as she shopped with Tommy. She smelled it in the balsam scent of a corner lot where Jacob stopped to pick out a Christmas tree. She could almost taste Christmas.
But before the taste sweetened into reality, Laura remembered her dilemma and felt the weight of it smothering her Christmas spirit. The choice she faced discouraged her. It’s true that her looks and character had gotten her into this predicament, but a similar fact kept her from making an easy exit. The men in her life were just as exceptional as Laura.
Should that surprise you? Isn’t it true that the fastest runners race together? That the most talented singers combine for the duet? That the most striking jewel requires the most elegant setting? So the three men racing for Laura’s love not only competed with each other, but also complemented Laura as a fine dessert completes a delicious meal. Each man brought unique strengths to the meal. Each was a rich mixture of qualities that blended together in a mélange that was heady and intoxicating. No, don’t judge Laura too quickly.
The foursome met in college. During school they had been best buddies, and their friendship had kept romance at arm’s length longer than anyone had predicted. Now, to no one’s surprise, they all worked in the same city. Their friendship survived, but the men avoided discussing Laura except on those occasions when their frustrations overflowed into a therapeutic outpouring of “Laura-isms.”
“You know what gets me the most,” said Kevin, “is when she asks me how I feel about something.”
“An open-ended question,” said Jacob.
“Oh yeah, that’s her psych training coming out,” added Tommy.
“Well, how it makes me feel,” Kevin continued, “is like strangling her. But then she looks at me with those big eyes, and I know it’s no gimmick with her. It’s the real thing. She really does care. So who could be mad at her?”
“I suppose you’ve been sidelined by her long talks with random people you meet?” Jacob asked.
“Sidelined? I’ve been put on lay away,” answered Tommy. “How does she know so many people?”
“And how do they find so much to talk about?” Kevin added.
“I used to think it was a woman thing,” said Jacob, “but now I know better. It’s just pure Laura.”
“Face it, guys,” said Tommy, “she’s an extremely popular lady. Which explains why the three of us are still chasing her. Okay, I’ve heard the latest fashion conversation, the ‘who’s getting married?’ conversation …”
“The relatives conversation,” Jacob continued, “the cooking conversation, the ‘last week’s sermon’ conversation …”
“The movie conversation,” added Kevin, “and the book conversation.”
“But don’t you just love to watch her when she gets excited about something?” asked Jacob.
“Or when she’s laughing,” said Tommy.
Kevin’s phone rang and he answered it. Tommy and Jacob could tell by his voice that Laura was on the other end.
“Right,” he said, “see you soon.” He hung up and said, “Look, guys, I’ve got to go.”
Kevin walked quickly from his car to Laura’s apartment. It was more than the cold night or his anticipation that spurred him on. His long stride spoke of an inner drive and purpose with every step. No one who saw him would be surprised to hear of his athletic background, or to learn that he’d advanced several positions since taking a job at the bank. He looked like a quarterback, though he’d never played football. “Too rough,” he’d say if you asked him. Basketball was his passion, and he played every week in one of the city leagues. He loved the challenge of the game and the spirit of the small group of guys on his team. Friends said that he was going to law school when he saved enough money.
Soon he was sitting on the sofa with Laura and listening to her as Andy Williams sang “Happy Holidays” in the background. He listened for half an hour as she told him all about her day and the problems she had faced. Finally the conversation wound down, and Kevin found an opening.
“You said you were going to let me know what you wanted for Christmas. Have you decided?”
“I have,” she answered.
“Well, what is it?”
“Nothing much. I really don’t need anything.”
For once Kevin couldn’t tell if she was being coy or sincere.
“OK, I’ll agree you don’t need anything, but I’m still going to get you a present. So tell me what you’d like.”
He thought about it a minute. “For Christmas? That doesn’t sound like a Christmas gift.”
“That’s what I want.”
“But I’ve never heard you say you liked chocolate that much.”
“I love chocolate. And that’s what I want you to get me.”
“Well it won’t be much of a surprise, will it?”
“That’s up to you.”
Laura thought he looked a bit hurt as he left that night. There was a little less drive and a lot more consternation in his step as he headed back home. Part of her felt sorry for him, but then she remembered her plan and her resolve returned.
Tommy came next on her list. He brought along a recording of an old Chipmunk Christmas song, and he talked just as much as Laura did. Tommy was the joker in the group. If there was a sad bone in his body he never let it show. Laura loved that best about him. No matter what the circumstance, he laughed about it. And it wasn’t an act. An indestructible confidence backed up his bravado. It was contagious, so whenever she needed cheering up she ran to Tommy. She laughed inside when he started kidding her about some outrageous gifts he planned to get her.
“Actually, I know what I’d like for Christmas,” she told him.
“Really? What is it? A mini-barn for all your shoes?”
He took a good look at her and realized she wasn’t kidding.
“Okay, Babe. Let’s hear it. I aim to please.”
“I want chocolate.”
“Chocolate? You never cease to amaze me, Laura. That’s hilarious. Chocolate. Do you want a chocolate reindeer? Do they even make such a thing? I can see you now, nibbling on his nose and going ‘Oh, no, what’s Rudolph going to do now!’”
“Laugh all you want, but chocolate’s what I want.”
“Like the heart-shaped thing? Is that what you want? Because I don’t think Santa’s little elves will start working on those for a couple of months yet.”
Tommy kept laughing, but Laura just smiled at him, a sweet but secret smile that sent a chill to Tommy’s funny bone.
“All right, I’m getting the feeling that there’s more to this chocolate wish than just a chocoholic’s craving. Maybe it’s a test of my originality. Am I right?”
“You’re too suspicious. Just get me some chocolate,” she answered.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. I’m up to it either way. If it’s chocolate you want, chocolate is what you’ll get. But start dieting now, because Christmas day you will be swimming in chocolate.”
Tommy headed out that evening singing in his best Chipmunk voice. She laughed at him in spite of herself.
Finally Jacob got his call. Laura stood on her doorstep and watched him as he came up the street towards her apartment. She identified him blocks away by the swinging of his arms as he walked, and by the way his head turned one way and then another. His pace quickened when he saw her and he jumped up the steps two at a time until he stood in front of her.
“I’ve got something for you,” he said.
“No, not really, it’s that book of Frost poetry you said you wanted to borrow.”
“Thank you. I’ll get it back to you soon.”
“No rush. Enjoy it as long as you like. I rewrote one of his poems for you on my way over here. Would you like to hear it?”
He cleared his throat dramatically. “Stopping by Laura’s on a Snowy Evening.”
“Whose house this is, I think I know.
Her name is Laura Grace Barlow.
She will not mind me stopping here,
to watch her rosy cheeks aglow.”
“Pretty good,” said Laura.
“That’s not all,” said Jacob.
“Her neighbors all must think it queer
for such a one to stop right here.
He’s not the kind that she would take
this coldest evening of the year.”
“Oh, wouldn’t I?” she cooed.
“One more verse!” he insisted.
“Her face is lovely, dark, and deep,
and makes me smile before I sleep.
For her, my promises I’ll keep;
for her, my promises I’ll keep.”
“Thank you,” she said softly, and kissed him before opening the door to let him in.
“I’m afraid it’s not very original,” he said.
“I’ve never heard it before. Not that version.”
“Consider it an early Christmas present,” he replied, beaming.
“Jacob…” she started and then hesitated. Maybe the whole thing was a mistake. She felt very deceitful in light of his sweet poem.
“Is everything all right?” he asked.
“Everything’s fine.” She took a deep breath and smiled. “I was wondering if you would like a suggestion for my Christmas present.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather be surprised?”
“I’m sure. I know how much thought you’ll put into it, and I want to do something to make it easier for you.” She winced as she said it.
“Sure,” he answered. “Sounds great. What would you like?”
“That’s an interesting request. I never realized you were a connoisseur.”
“I’m not. I just feel like chocolate for Christmas. Something different.”
“That’s different all right. But different is good.”
“You’re okay with it then?”
“Yeah, I like it. Gives a certain focus to my search. But I’m going to have to bone up on this. My tastes don’t go far beyond what you find on the grocery store shelf.”
“Well, now that we’ve settled that, let’s listen to that CD of the Robert Shaw chorale you told me about.”
Jacob’s exit that night was a reverse of his arrival, with a bit of poetry, arm swinging, and then head bobbing as he wandered back down the street. Laura sighed with relief as he disappeared. Now it was done. Three very different men had each been given an equal assignment, a common task with a very uncommon goal: to help her distinguish them in her heart. She knew that each of them would approach the job passionately, despite all her pretended protests. She had no doubt they were already thinking about what to get her. She only wondered whether she would be able to choose between their gifts.
In Laura’s dreams the three men never learned of her scheme. Christmas arrived, they presented their gifts, and she made her choice privately. They moved on without ever knowing how she made her decision. Dreams, of course, bear little resemblance to reality. Less than a week went by before Laura’s three friends stumbled on the similarity in their shopping lists.
“Why would she tell each of us to get her chocolate?” Tommy asked.
“She just wanted to make it easier on us,” Jacob answered.
“Nobody likes chocolate that much,” said Kevin. “No, she’s up to something, and I don’t think it’s for our benefit.”
“You’re too cynical,” said Jacob.
“You’re too naive,” said Kevin.
“It reminds me of something,” Tommy said. “You know, those medieval quests where the king puts a challenge before all the men competing for the princess’ hand in marriage. Whoever can kill the dragon, or answer the riddle, will be given the princess and half the kingdom. Something like that.”
“Except times have changed and Laura is both princess and king,” Kevin mused.
“And in this case Laura answers the riddle by choosing between us,” Jacob added.
“And whoever finds the chocolate dragon wins!” Tommy shouted.
Kevin shook his head. “Don’t you realize what this means?”
“Of course I do,” said Tommy. “It means the endgame. At Christmas only one of us will be left standing.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
“I’m excited about it! Soon the waiting will be over. This long, slow torture will end, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll be the one with the answer to Laura’s riddle.”
“And if you’re not the one?” asked Jacob.
“If I’m not the one, or if you’re not the one, then we’re free to go out and find our happiness somewhere else.”
“I wish I had your confidence,” said Jacob.
“He’s just deluding himself,” said Kevin. “Celebrate as much as you like, Tommy. I’m glad you’re satisfied with second place, because I’m not. There’s work to do. And since I may not see either of you for a while, let me go ahead and wish you both a Merry Christmas.”
With that he winked and was gone.
“Do we let her know that we know?” Jacob asked.
“Are you kidding?” Tommy yelled as he followed Kevin out the door.
Tommy’s first stop was Laura’s apartment.
“Hello, Mr. Chipmunk, what brings you to my corner of the woods?” Laura asked as she let him in.
“I’m on a quest.”
“For acorns?” she teased.
“No, something much more important than that.”
“You’re not kidding, are you? What’s so important?”
“You’re hurting my pride,” Tommy said. “I’m serious about a lot of things. Like you, for instance.”
“It’s nice to hear you say that. Is that why you came over here?”
“Not just that. Talk to me about chocolate.”
Laura paused to think. “If you’re fishing for Christmas gift ideas, you’re heading up the wrong creek.”
“But if I don’t use the right bait, how can I hope to land the gift you want?”
“If I give you the fish, how can you call that sport?”
“Then maybe I should give you a chocolate fish,” he protested.
“Not if I have to clean it,” she answered.
“Do I have to scale a mountain to find your gift?”
“I don’t think the trail to my gift goes so high.”
“High in price, you mean?” he quizzed her.
“You’re fishing again,” she told him.
“And you’re putting up a good fight.”
“I may have taken your bait,” she said, “but you’re not landing this fish.”
“Not today, you mean.”
That got her attention. “What do you mean, “Not today”?”
“Ah, now who’s fishing? Sorry to cut bait, Laura, but I’ve got to run. Like you said, no point fishing up the wrong creek. Talk to you later!”
Before she could reel him back he was gone, leaving her thoughts in tangles. What was he up to?
Jacob decided that he needed more facts before he could unravel his Christmas conundrum, so he made a few phone calls and then headed to “The Chocolate Collection.” Raoul Muret ran the downtown store, which sold imported chocolates as well as its own confections. The title after Muret’s name said chocolatier, and Jacob thought that sounded expert enough to start him on his search for the perfect present.
“You say you need to become a connoisseur of chocolate quickly,” Muret said, summing up Jacob’s story.
“That’s right. Tell me what I need to know to pick the best chocolate gift on earth.”
“And how many years did you say you have to learn all this?” Before Jacob could answer, Muret held up his hand and said, “Just kidding. This is for Christmas, yes? So our time is short indeed. Let me begin with the raw ingredients, and proceed from there to the finished product. The finest chocolates require the finest ingredients. That means no substitutes, nothing artificial. We begin with the cocoa beans.”
“Which are the best?” Jacob asked.
“The Venezuelan. Cocoa beans only grow in the tropics, and like the tropics the best beans are full of passionate flavor. The beans are fermented…”
“Yes. Many of the most flavorful foods require fermentation – such as cheese, wine, and chocolate. Even love, at its best, is not fresh, but full of experiences, some sweet and some sour.”
Muret paused to look at Jacob, but saw only a blank expression.
“Well, then. The beans are fermented, sun-dried, roasted, and ground. Then they are melted and stirred, and this is the crucial part where many so-called chocolatiers fail their craft. The stirring, or conching, must be continued for days; otherwise the chocolate will be gritty instead of smooth.”
“Is that all?” Jacob asked.
“No, that is certainly not all. The best chocolate does not come quickly. You must wait on it patiently. Even the cooling of the cooked chocolate must happen properly so that it keeps its smooth surface.”
“All right, Mr. Muret. Let’s say I’m offered a chocolate. How can I pick a great one?”
“Start with its appearance. The chocolate should shine. Smell the chocolate. The aroma should be powerful. Then, when you bite into it, there should be a sharp snap to the surface. The texture of the melting chocolate against the roof of the mouth should be smooth, and the taste should linger long in the mouth like a…like…”
“Like a kiss.”
“Exactly!” Muret shouted. “My boy, now you are learning something about chocolate.”
“Jacob, before you go, tell me why this chocolate gift is so important.”
“Because I want to show the woman I love how much I care for her.”
“Listen to me,” Muret insisted. “Chocolate, for all its romance and allure, is no substitute for love. You cannot create great chocolate with artificial ingredients, and you will not prove your love unless the gift comes from the heart. Now, take what you have learned here today and use it to give your gift that extra something, that something special. But the gift itself, that must come from you.”
While Jacob gleaned the wisdom of Mr. Muret, Kevin sought the expert advice of his basketball teammates. He pumped them for ideas as they downed burgers and fries after a Saturday afternoon game.
“I don’t get it. Why are you coming to us for help?” asked Donnie.
“Yeah, Kevin, you should be talking to some of Laura’s friends instead,” said Stuart, the team’s center.
“Look, I know what I’m doing,” Kevin assured them. “First of all, I trust you guys. I trust your opinions, and I trust you to keep everything we talk about strictly between us. I’m not sure I could say the same for Laura’s friends.”
“Smart thinking,” said Lamar, the point guard.
“You guys have got some experience I lack,” Kevin continued. “Stu, you’ve been married a couple of years now, and Andrew, how long has it been for you, five years?”
“That’s right,” said Andrew, the other forward besides Kevin. “Five wonderful years.”
“See, you two are not only married, you’re happily married. Help me out here. What’s the secret to winning the woman of your dreams?”
The two men looked at each other and shrugged.
“I don’t know, man,” said Andrew. “Once you make the commitment it just flows, like when you decide to go for that lay-up and flat-out beat the other guy to the board.”
“Or like when you shoot that three pointer and you know it’s going to fall as soon as it leaves your hand. Real love is like that,” Stuart added.
“So you’re saying I need to choose Laura’s gift like I play basketball. Go with the flow, be quick, beat the other guy to the board? I don’t think that’s going to work, guys.”
“Hey, they’re just telling you to do what comes natural,” Lamar suggested.
“Not specific enough,” Kevin countered. “Let’s brainstorm a minute. Do you think I should go for size and overwhelm her with a huge volume? Or should I go for the highest quality and just buy what I can afford?”
Kevin looked around and saw blank stares.
“Come on, guys, don’t crash on me now. Do I need to pump some more caffeine into you? Talk to me.”
“Okay, it’s not about amount, and it’s not about price,” said Lamar.
“All right. Tell me more,” said Kevin.
“It’s about connecting to her emotion, hitting her in the gut if you know what I mean, and creating a memory that sticks with her long after the gift is gone.”
“That’s good. Can I use that, too?” Donnie asked, as the whole team gave Lamar high-fives.
“How about this,” Andrew said. “Connect to her emotion and make her picture how wonderful a future the two of you will have together.”
“Swoosh!” Donnie shouted.
“Three points!” Stuart echoed.
“Make her picture it. Thanks, guys. Now that I can take to the bank.”
The weeks leading up to Christmas were quieter than usual for Laura. The men who usually occupied so much of her time were busy, so she took advantage of their absence to spend some time with her mother, Ann. They talked about a million things, but Laura’s mother noticed the absence of any mention of the three boyfriends.
“You seem very excited today,” she told her daughter.
“Because I’m talking so much? I’m just making up for lost time.”
“No, it’s more than that. You seem nervous. You’re not worried about anything, are you?”
“No, Mom. Everything’s fine.”
“You haven’t broken up with one of the boys, have you? You haven’t said a word about them all day.”
“They’ve been busy.”
“Too busy for you? Now you’ve really got my curiosity up.”
“What do you mean?” Laura asked.
“Well, can you think of a time when those three weren’t practically knocking down your door? I don’t know if one of them has even been out-of-town without you since you moved back here. And when have you failed to tell me, first thing, something about Kevin’s work, or Jacob’s writing, or Tommy’s jokes?”
Laura sat speechless, and Ann let the silence linger.
“You’re very observant. You know that, don’t you,” said Laura.
“And you’re stalling,” said her mother. “Come on, Laura, what’s up?”
Laura’s chin sank to her chest. “I’ve decided to choose one of them and tell the other two goodbye.”
“Oh, dear,” Ann said as she came over to comfort her daughter. “And when are you going to make this decision?”
“By Christmas,” Laura answered, tears beginning to roll down her cheeks.
“And you’re scared, aren’t you?” her mother said.
“Scared you’ll make the wrong choice,” her mother continued. “I’d say you couldn’t go wrong with any of them, but I know that’s not the kind of advice you want. Do they know about this?”
Laura shook her head. “I haven’t told them.”
Ann sat back down and thought about her daughter’s predicament. “I wish I had an answer for you, but if it was easy you’d have already made your choice. I can tell you about a hard decision of mine, if that would help.”
“Yes,” said Laura, “tell me.”
“Well, it was another Christmas, while I was still in college. I was planning to work during the holidays to make some extra money. I had to make a choice between two jobs. I wanted both of them, but of course I had to pick just one.”
“Why were you so excited about a part-time job?” Laura asked.
“Well, these were not your usual part-time jobs. One was stage managing the community theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol. The other was an office job for a local delivery company. And I know what you’re thinking. Doesn’t sound like a hard choice. But the delivery company paid twice as much as the theatre, and a boy I liked an awful lot happened to be working there as well.”
“So what did you decide?”
“I picked the stage manager job.”
“The delivery job was all about me – more money, time with my boyfriend – but the other job meant a chance to give to others, and I knew that would be more rewarding in the long run.”
“Sounds like you made the right choice, Mom.”
“Yes, I’ve never doubted that.”
“But how does that help me?” Laura asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know anyone else who’s ever faced a choice like yours. But I do know one thing,” her mother continued. “You’re going to make the right choice. I have no doubt about that, either.”
Everyone talked about the Christmas spirit that December. “It’s the early snow,” some said, while others credited the brisk economy. Most people didn’t try to explain it. They saw the smiles on faces and accepted it as fact. They heard how much farther the sound of the Salvation Army bell seemed to carry. Their own feet carried them more quickly on their errands. Their appetites quickened with every Christmas cookie they ate. But it wasn’t snow, smiles, or cookies that powered the Christmas spirit. It was the energy of three young men scurrying through the town’s shops and streets.
Soon Christmas week arrived. Laura carefully scheduled her time so that none of her meetings overlapped. Kevin came first on the schedule. He took her to a re-creation of an Old English Christmas feast, with real figgy pudding, roast pig, and servers singing Christmas carols in traditional costumes. Then they took a horse and carriage ride through the park before returning to Laura’s apartment. She felt like an eight year old on Christmas morning as she waited to open Kevin’s present, but the box he brought out surprised her. It was flat and square, about two feet on each side, and it looked like an ordinary chocolate candy box. She hesitated when Kevin set it in front of her.
“Well, aren’t you going to open it?” he asked.
“I’m just savoring the moment,” she told him.
“That’s fine. Take your time, but you know I’m just as excited as you are.”
“All right, here goes,” she said, and she carefully pulled away the wrapping paper. A bright white box lay inside. She slowly lifted the lid and smelled the strong scent of chocolate rising up to meet her face. She peered inside and saw…
“It’s you and me!” she shouted.
“Yes,” Kevin answered, have you ever seen a sweeter picture?”
A chocolate relief of Kevin and Laura covered the surface of the giant confection. Swirls of milk and dark chocolate intermixed and spiraled in and out through the couple, who were cheek to cheek and looking out at their real counterparts with wide smiles and arms clasped around each other.
“It’s the picture from my birthday party!”
“That’s right,” said Kevin.
“But how in the world did you get it on the chocolate?” Laura asked.
“I didn’t do it. I had someone enlarge the picture and make a bas-relief carving of it. Then they made a plastic mold of the carving, and the chocolate was poured into the mold to create the final masterpiece.”
“And it’s made to be eaten.”
“I couldn’t eat it. I want to keep it forever.”
“Look underneath,” Kevin prompted her.
She carefully lifted the corner of the chocolate square, which sat on a cardboard backing, and saw another identical chocolate portrait in the bottom of the box.
“One to eat, and one to keep,” said Kevin. “Now why don’t you try a piece.”
She broke off a corner and tasted it. The strong flavor filled her mouth.
“It’s so smooth and sweet,” she said.
“Like anyone you know?” Kevin asked her.
“And there’s a hint of coffee, too. You know how I love coffee,” she told him.
“Laura, do you see how close we are in the picture? That’s how close I want us to be. You see the two types of chocolate swirling through the picture? That represents you and me, and I want the two of us to be mingled together like that. And when you take a piece of this chocolate, and eat it, and it becomes part of you…I want to be part of you like that.”
He took her hand and she thought, “I’m glad I’m not made of chocolate, or I’d be melting.”
Tommy took her ice skating and then to his parent’s home. His brothers were there with their wives and children, and the family continued their tradition of decorating the house together. They hung evergreens, put up stockings over the fireplace, sprayed flock pictures of stars and snowflakes on the windows, and set out nativity scenes on every available shelf or table. Tommy’s father played Santa Claus in full costume. As Laura watched him delight the children she saw where Tommy had gotten his jolly nature, and it made her wonder what their own children might be like.
“Who wants to go see the Christmas lights?” Tommy’s mother asked. It was another tradition of theirs to drive around town to see the brightest displays.
“Mom, you all go ahead,” Tommy said. “Laura and I are going to stay here. I’ve got something to give her.”
“All right, we’ll be back in a little while.”
After they left Tommy made Laura cover her eyes while he brought out her present.
“You can open them now,” he told her.
She looked up to see a huge box covered in striped paper that reminded her of candy canes. Dark brown ribbons covered the box. They looked like…
“Chocolate?” she asked.
“Yep. Have some. You’ve got to get through them to open the box.”
She broke off a piece and tasted it. “Peppermint,” she exclaimed.
“Keep going,” Tommy said.
She pulled away the ribbon and paper and opened the box. Once again a familiar aroma surrounded her. Several inches of cocoa powder filled the bottom of the box, and another box made of pure chocolate lay nestled in the center of the cocoa.
“Don’t throw away that powder,” Tommy told her. “That’s some of the best European cocoa.”
The inner box was an enormous chocolate cube. Each side of the box was as big as one of Kevin’s chocolate squares.
“Don’t stop now,” Tommy urged.
Laura touched the box gingerly. The top moved, and she took it off and looked inside. More powder, and more chocolate boxes. Some were small and some were larger. There must have been twenty or more, and each one was unique.
“One box for every Christmas of your life,” Tommy said.
Laura jumped up and hugged him. “I feel like a little girl in the candy store,” she said.
“A very fancy candy store,” he added.
She picked up one of the tiny boxes. This time the top did not come off.
“Go ahead, try it,” said Tommy.
She felt the sharp crack of the box’s chocolate shell as she bit into it, but inside another flavor spilled into her mouth.
“Lemon! Is every one different?” she asked, her mouth still half-full of chocolate.
“They are, but you don’t have to eat every one today.”
“Thank you,” she said with relief.
“I told you to start dieting. Now, are you going to finish opening your present?”
“I thought I had finished.”
“You haven’t opened all the boxes.” He picked up another small chocolate box, larger than the last, and handed it to her. She took off its tiny chocolate lid and found another surprise inside.
“A chocolate cat,” she giggled. “It’s Whiskers!”
She quickly opened several other boxes and found that each one held a chocolate reminder of something that she and Tommy had shared.
“Laura, I’m a lot like this present, you know.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“You think you know me, but open me up and inside there’s another box, and inside that another box, and every one holds a card that says ‘Tommy loves Laura.’ ”
“I love you, too. But now you’re making me cry.”
“There’s more to me than laughs. Does that surprise you?”
“Maybe. You’re full of surprises tonight, aren’t you?”
“Just like you’re going to be full of chocolate.”
“Hi, this is Jacob. Be sure to be home at six tonight. See you soon.”
That was the entire message on Laura’s answering machine. Jacob said nothing about where they were going, so when the doorbell rang that evening, she ran to the door expectantly. When she opened it, Jacob wasn’t there. All she saw outside her door was a package wrapped in plain brown paper, and a card with her name on it.
She brought the package inside and began to open it, putting the card aside for the moment. Inside the paper she found a plain box with “Jacob” written on top. She opened the box and found … nothing.
“What does it mean?” she wondered. Was the box from Jacob, or for him? And why was it empty? Had something been forgotten? She remembered the card and tore it open looking for answers. All she found a brief note which said:
Do not be afraid to follow the trail of chocolate. Love, Jacob.
Before she could ponder the message, the doorbell rang. This time someone greeted her, a kind-looking older man in suit and tie, but a stranger nonetheless, holding a small present.
“Laura Barlow?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
“This is for you. Please open it.”
She did so as she stood in her doorway. Lifting the lid on the box, she pulled out a small chocolate angel.
“That figure of an angel is a gift for you, a real angel. Now, will you come with me?” the well-dressed gentleman asked.
“Did Jacob send you?”
“Did you read his note?” the man asked.
“Then you know Jacob sent me. Aren’t you coming? We don’t want to keep him waiting.”
She grabbed her coat and followed, excited and a little fearful at the same time. Outside they climbed into a panel truck and headed off through the ornamented streets of the city. She learned that her chauffeur, William Brown, operated a delivery service in town.
“So you see, I’m an angel myself,” he told Laura.
“What do you mean?”
“An angel is a messenger, delivering words from God to men. And I’m not only a delivery man, but a preacher as well, so I’m an angel two times over.” With that William laughed out loud, a belly shaking laugh that shook the truck.
“And you’re delivering me to Jacob,” Laura added.
“That’s the ticket, young lady. An angel delivering an angel.” He laughed some more.
“And Jacob put you up to this?”
“Of course he did. He told me to tell you how much he looks forward to seeing you, how heavenly you are, and that you should go ahead and eat the chocolate because it might be a while before you get a real meal.”
Laura was hungry, so she took his advice. The chocolate angel delivered a warm, rich message as it slowly melted in her mouth.
“Here we are,” William announced. He pulled over, hopped out of the truck, and ran to open Laura’s door. As she got out she looked around and saw nothing but an empty sidewalk and a bus stop sign.
“There’s no one here,” she protested.
“There will be. Now you have a Merry Christmas.” With that William hopped back in his truck, waved, and drove quickly out of sight. Before Laura could turn back around, someone tapped her on the shoulder.
She whirled around to face a tall bearded man in a gray overcoat that nearly reached to the sidewalk. He held a package identical to the one Mr. Brown had given her, and as she stood there dumbly he offered it to her.
“Please open the package, Miss Barlow.”
She quickly obeyed, and this time found a small chocolate figure of a wise man.
“Who are you?” Laura asked.
“I’m Dr. Phillip Pryor, one of the professors at the college. According to Jacob, you make him feel like the wisest man in the world whenever he’s with you. Now, will you come with me?”
“Yes, but how are we going?” she asked, seeing no cars on the street.
“We’re going by bus, of course.” And no sooner had he said it than the bus pulled up.
“Right on schedule. Shall we go, Laura?”
Dr. Pryor paid her fare and they settled into their seats, side by side behind the driver.
“Do you mind if I eat?” Laura asked. “I’m kind of nervous and that tends to make me hungry.”
“Go right ahead.”
“Would you like some?”
“That would be wonderful.”
They agreed they had never eaten a better chocolate wise man.
“Tell me, Laura, what do you think it takes to make a really good decision?”
“Well, I’d say you need the right facts to make the best decision.”
“Fair enough, but assuming one has the right facts, then what?”
“A way to combine those facts and come to the right conclusion.”
“Exactly,” the professor exclaimed. “You’re talking about wisdom, which is simply skill in handling facts. Just as a craftsman uses skill in handling tools, a wise person understands how to handle knowledge. Some people are given an extra measure of wisdom at birth, but most of us must learn it by study and experience. How about you, Laura? Have you studied your subjects extensively?”
Laura felt that he was referring to Jacob and the other two men.
“Yes, extensively,” she replied.
“And you have lengthy experience with them?”
“Well then, you have the necessary wisdom to make this decision, don’t you?”
“I do,” she answered, as much to herself as to the professor.
“Then my work is done. Merry Christmas, Laura. It’s been a pleasure to meet you. This is your stop, I believe.”
The bus pulled up to the curb, and Laura said goodbye before climbing out. As she stepped onto the curb she found a man with a dog waiting for her. The dog was a border collie without a leash. The man wore a wool sweater, and as she expected he held a familiar package.
“Hello, Miss Barlow,” he greeted her.
“Hello, Mr. …”
“Bethel, David Bethel. And this is Shalom. Say hello, Shalom.”
The dog barked, but remained firmly in place.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Bethel, and Shalom. Is the package for me?”
“It sure is. Go ahead and open it, but let’s walk as you do.”
“Yes, it’s a lovely evening for a stroll, and you haven’t got far to go now.”
Laura unwrapped the box as they walked and retrieved another chocolate figurine, this time a shepherd.
“Mr. Bethel, I don’t suppose you’re a shepherd, are you?”
“That’s right, and Shalom is my sheep dog. I see you’ve figured out Jacob’s system.”
“Where did Jacob find you?”
“Oh, he’s good with a telephone, and very persuasive. Besides, who could turn down an adventure like this? It’ll be a story to tell, won’t it? Let’s turn here.”
They were making their way to the very heart of town as they wound through a maze of streets. Laura recognized the buildings they passed, but she could not figure their final destination.
“How’s the chocolate?” Mr. Bethel asked.
“Wonderful. Reminds me of something I’d eat hiking in the mountains.”
“Now you’re making me homesick for the high pastures in summer,” he said.
“Do you have something you’re supposed to tell me?” Laura asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Jacob wanted you to know that he will always be there to guide you through whatever life throws your way, and that you’ll never be lost for long, as long as you’re with him. Let’s turn this way.”
They rounded a corner and Laura saw the city park across the street. A life-size nativity stood on a hill in the park, and one figure in modern clothes stood beside the manger.
“Jacob!” she shouted, and the figure waved back. “Goodbye, Mr. Bethel. Thank you.”
“Goodbye, miss. Merry Christmas.”
Laura was already running across the street. She didn’t stop until she reached Jacob.
“Right on time,” he told her as she ran up. He hugged her and said, “I see my helpers did their job.”
“Yes, they did a great job. But what’s this all about? Do I get my present now?”
“You already did,” he answered.
“You mean the chocolate figures?”
“No, the very first box.”
“But it was empty,” she protested.
“That’s right,” he agreed. “Come over here, Laura.”
She followed him to the manger.
“I brought you to this nativity for a reason,” he began. “When Jesus decided to come to earth, he gave up everything. He completely emptied himself. That’s how he ended up as a baby in a manger. That’s why I gave you an empty box. Laura, I’m pledging to empty myself for you.”
“You’re giving yourself,” she whispered, trying to hold back tears.
“Yes, I am. It’s not exactly what you asked for. What do you think? Did I make a wise decision?”
“A very wise decision,” she answered. “And I’ve made a decision, too.”
Jacob took a deep breath. “All right, what is it?”
“Jacob, I choose you.”
“Yes!” he shouted.
“Jacob, do you know what this means?”
“Yes, I do!” Suddenly he dropped to his knees and pulled out a final present. “Open it,” he told her.
She quickly ripped off the paper and opened the box to reveal one more gift, a chocolate ring.
“Will you marry me, Laura?”
“Yes, Jacob, yes.”
He stood up and embraced her, and they kissed while wise men and shepherds and angels bore witness, their love as timeless as the baby in the manger and as fresh as the newest snow.
“You knew, didn’t you?” Laura asked.
“About you asking each of us for chocolate? Yes, we all knew.”
“And you knew why?”
“We had a pretty good idea.”
“I bet you think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?” she scolded.
“No, just pretty fortunate, and very happy. And Laura?”
“Don’t try to eat that ring. There’s a real diamond inside.”
What color would you choose for Christmas? Would it be silver and gold, the green of mistletoe and holly, or the red of Santa’s coat? Maybe you’d choose the white of snow and angels. But ask Laura and Jacob what color they choose, and the answer will always be chocolate brown. Yes, theirs will always be a chocolate Christmas.
A Chocolate Christmas, by Robert Dellinger
© 2004 by Robert Dellinger
Image by Qi You on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0
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