“Trust me, Mother, Peter isn’t shy.” She knew this from the way he attacked their enemies on WoW.

“Then why wait?”

Beth nibbled on her lower lip. “I don’t want to rush into anything.”

“But it’s already December twentieth. Christmas is right around the corner.”

This wasn’t making sense. “Why is it so important that Peter join us for Christmas?” Beth asked, beginning to have some suspicions.

“It isn’t important…Well, in a manner of speaking it is. Your father and I have this wager.”

“Mother!” Her parents constantly made small bets with each other. Most of the time Beth found this habit of theirs amusing. Not now, though. Not when their wager was about her. “You’d better tell me everything.”

“Okay…” Her mother inhaled deeply. “Last Christmas, your father said that at the rate you were going you’d never remarry.”

“And you disagreed with him.”

“Of course I did! Marybeth, you have no idea what an attractive young woman you are. You should be happy.”

“I am happy,” she insisted.

“I disagree. You just think you are.”

Beth rolled her eyes, knowing it wouldn’t do any good to argue.

“You should be dating,” her mother continued.

“And getting married and becoming a mother.” The litany was a familiar one.

“Yes,” Joyce Fischer said. “I hate the idea that you’ve got nothing more pressing to go home to than that darned computer game.”

“You don’t understand, Mom. Peter and I are at level forty and—” She stopped. There was no point in explaining further.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Never mind.”

“Does this have anything to do with bringing Peter to dinner on Christmas Day?” her mother wanted to know.

“Nothing whatsoever.”

“But that’s the important thing here. Otherwise your father…”

“Yes?” Beth murmured.

“Otherwise I’ll be hauling the garbage out to the curb every Wednesday for the next six months.”

“A fate worse than death,” Beth muttered sarcastically.

“It isn’t that I mind dealing with the garbage,” her mother went on, “but I do mind losing another bet to your father, especially when you’re so close to actually having a date for Christmas.”

Beth didn’t consider herself close at all. In her desperation to win this bet, Joyce was being completely unreasonable.

“Promise me you’ll ask Peter,” her mother pleaded.

This had gone on long enough. “I’ll do no such thing.”

“If not for my sake, then your own, Marybeth.”

“No!” That was final, too.

The silence that followed weakened her resolve. “Don’t you realize how ridiculous you’re being?” Beth said. “Peter’s practically a stranger.”

“Just meet him,” Joyce wheedled. “That’s all I ask. Whether he comes to Christmas dinner or not is entirely up to you. All I ask is that the two of you connect. Promise me that much.”

While she’d never openly admit it, Beth was curious about her online partner. She couldn’t help it. She wondered if he was being pressured by his family about meeting her, too. It was worth asking.

She ended the conversation with her mother by booking a lunch date for later in the week.

That evening, as soon as Beth got home from work, she logged on to the game. Peter came on ten minutes after that. The first thing he did was ask about the amount of gold they’d accumulated toward their purchase of a mount. The fact that he avoided the kind of personal comment they’d exchanged the night before was telling. She suspected he was uncomfortable with the way their conversation had turned toward the personal. It had unsettled her, too, and at the same time excited her.

Beth took his cue and simply answered his question.

They played for an hour, but neither one seemed focused on the game.

I need to leave early, she typed in.

Do you have a hot date?

It wasn’t a date at all. Beth was meeting Heidi to go over the details of their weekend in Leavenworth. An appointment, she told him.

Business or pleasure?

He was getting mighty inquisitive. Pleasure, she answered.

There was a slight pause. Have fun.

You, too.

No problem meeting tomorrow night?

He’d never asked before. None.

Good. Talk to you then.

Beth put Borincana safely away and exited the game. The happy feeling that had greeted her that morning had completely evaporated. She didn’t understand what had happened with Peter or why. Was he backing off, losing interest? He’d been eager to confirm that she’d be playing tomorrow, though, so he might just prefer his romance virtual. He might be afraid of taking their relationship into the realms of reality.

What a sorry lot they were, both of them more comfortable in the guise of a fantasy character than dealing with real life. They were two sad, lonely people reaching out at Christmas, wanting to connect and too afraid to try.


Carter waited at the bus stop with his sister and stamped his feet to ward off the cold. With only two school days—including today—left before winter break, everyone was talking about Christmas and what they expected to find under the tree. Carter knew that his parents couldn’t afford gifts. Still, there were several wrapped ones from his grandparents that his mother had already set out. Their Christmas tree was pitiful, but he didn’t care as long as there were presents. He just hoped all of his weren’t socks or underwear.

As the big yellow bus belched to a stop, Carter grabbed his sister’s hand. His mother had instructed him to look out for Bailey, and Carter took his duties seriously.

The bus doors slid open and Carter pushed Bailey ahead of him. As he climbed the steps and felt the warm air on his face, he pulled off his woolen mittens, stuffing them in his pockets. Bailey raced down the aisle toward her friend, Maddy. Ignoring her now, Carter took a seat next to his best friend, Timmy Anderson.

“Want to trade lunches?” Timmy asked. Carter tried to remember what his mother had packed in his Pirates of the Caribbean lunch pail. She’d baked cookies the night before and there was the usual peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, plus an apple. He had an apple every day, no matter what. Timmy did, too.

“What you got?” Carter asked.

Timmy opened his Spider-Man lunch box. “Potato chips, a Twinkie, a pudding cup and an apple.”

“No sandwich?”

Timmy shook his head.

Timmy’s lunch was filled with all the treats Carter only got if he traded. He loved Twinkies, but his mother baked really good chocolate chip cookies.

“Well?” Timmy pressed. “Wanna trade or not?”


The two boys switched lunch pails. Timmy seemed to like Carter’s lunches better than his own. He wanted to trade almost every day.

The bus made another stop and three more students got on. Cameron and Isaiah Benedict came aboard, scrambling into the seat in front of Timmy and Carter.

Cameron twisted around and excitedly announced, “I’m getting an Xbox 360 for Christmas!”

“No way,” Timmy said, eyes wide with envy and awe. “I put one on my list, but my parents said it was too expensive.”

“Do you know for sure?” Carter asked. He’d thought he was getting a dog like his parents had promised, and that wasn’t going to happen. He’d bet Cameron only thought he was getting the Xbox.

“Yeah, because Mom said if that’s what I wanted, I wouldn’t get anything else.”

“And Cameron’s just got one gift under the tree,” his younger brother, Isaiah, explained.

“It could be underwear.”

Cameron glared at Carter. “That’s not funny.”

“I’m getting a PSP,” Timmy said.

Carter knew that was a PlayStation Portable, a handheld game everyone wanted. “That’s great.”

The other boys looked at Carter. “What are you getting for Christmas?”

He shrugged, reluctant to tell his friends that his parents had told him he couldn’t have the one and only gift he’d ever truly wanted.

“Well, what did you ask for?” Isaiah leaned over the back of his seat.

Carter would’ve liked a computer and an Xbox, too, but his family couldn’t afford those things. He hung his head and whispered, “I asked for a dog.” Instantly a lump filled his throat.

“What kind of dog?”

Carter wasn’t picky. “A red dog,” he said. If he was going to name him Rusty, then he figured the dog should have reddish fur. “Medium size so he can run and fetch and do stuff like that.”

His Grandma Parker had a small, yappy dog, a miniature poodle. Suzette was a good pet for his grandmother, but that wasn’t the kind of dog Carter had in mind. His dog would play outside with him during the day, after school and on weekends. At night he could sleep in Carter’s room on the rug next to his bed. That was what dogs did. They slept by their masters. Rusty would sleep in the very same spot where Carter had gotten down on his knees and prayed.

If he closed his eyes, Carter could picture his dog with big, floppy ears and a tongue that hung out the side of his mouth when he’d been running. Oh, and Carter wanted a boy dog. A girl dog would be all right, too, but he preferred a boy.

“Are you going to get one?” Cameron asked.

Carter hesitated. “I won’t know until Christmas,” he muttered.

“Your parents are gonna make you wait?”

He nodded rather than admit the truth.

“I wish I’d asked for a dog,” Timmy said, sitting dejectedly back in his seat.

“I’ll share Rusty with you,” Carter offered, and then remembered there wasn’t going to be a Rusty.

“You will?”

“Sure,” Carter assured his friend.

Timmy gave Carter a gap-toothed grin, and when the bus arrived at school, the two boys hurried off together.

Their teacher stood in the hallway outside their classroom. As they approached, Timmy burst out, “Ms. Jensen, Ms. Jensen! Guess what? Carter’s getting a dog for Christmas.”

Their teacher’s eyes lit up at the news. “Why, Carter, that’s wonderful. Do you have a name for him yet?”


She nodded approvingly. “That’s a great name for a dog.”

Carter tried to smile but a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach started to bother him. He didn’t know what he was going to do once his friends discovered he didn’t get Rusty, after all. He should never have said anything to Timmy.

“Carter said he’d let me play with his dog.”

Ms. Jensen beamed at him. “It’s good to share. I’m proud of you, Carter.” With that, she turned into the classroom and left the two of them waiting in the hallway.

All during their arithmetic lesson, Carter’s thoughts wandered to what his friends would say after Christmas when he didn’t have his dog. He never should’ve lied. His stomach hurt the way it always did when he hadn’t told the truth.