The Zastawits kids are looking forward to their first vacation at Walt Disney World. Mom and Dad have planned a week's worth of fun. But then a mystical Imagineer decides that young Charlie and his brother Michael ought to experience some real magic—that might cost them their lives.
When Charlie dons the Ears of Virtue, a whole new world opens up to him, a twisted world populated by villainous Dark Thorns, piratical "captains", weird creatures like baboonigans, and animatronics that come alive, from the cobras in the Jungle Cruise to the all-powerful Yeti. In this world, the park guests are as perfect (and oblivious) as concept drawings, and the danger posed to Charlie and his brother is very real.
Like a Saturday morning cartoon on steroids, this debut novel by Charles Zitta rockets from one adventure to the next as it explores the Disney World we see and the Disney World we don't see, as well as the even more magical realm of Deep WONDER, where the Imagineers preserve their ideas—and where evil has taken root.
Perfect for young readers who still believe that a pinch of pixie dust can take you just about anywhere!
Raised along the sandy shores of ssouthwestern Michigan, Charles was always one sunset away from his dreams. A child of the 70s, his passion for Disney began in the summer of 1973 when he visited Disneyland for the first time with his mother, grandmother, and aunt.
Charles holds a B.A. in graphic design from Western Michigan University, and currently works as a brand Manager/art director for Round 2 Corporation in South Bend, Indiana.
In dreams Ben does not walk alone.
Somewhere, in the not-so-distant past…
It was a cool fall evening, the clicking sound of two pairs of shoes echoed through the dimly lit streets. One pair, chasing the other. In the lead was Ben. A curly, red headed young man with a portly build. He was dressed in old, weathered clothes, with a scraggly fall jacket and scuffed brown shoes. Running as fast as his legs could carry him, Ben made his way through the dark, moonlit streets of a sleepy little town he thought was safe just moments ago. Chasing Ben was someone, or better yet, something he thought would never find him. Something rotten; something villainous. An evil man, who desperately wanted the box Ben was carrying under his arm.
With each stride, Ben’s warm breath burst through the cool, fall air like a trail of white smoke from a steam locomotive. The chase continued through the center of town, past the bakery, clock shop, post office, and down to the end of the street, into the local park. It was a park with lots of trees, bushes, benches, and statues—a good place for Ben to find a hiding spot. He looked left, then right, then left again, scanning the park for the perfect place to hide. Beyond the small hill, and past the two maple trees, was a large cluster of bushes. Ben hurried over the hill, past the maples, and stumbled awkwardly forward—tripping over his own two feet and into the shrubs, with his hands extended outward in order to protect his face from getting scratched up by the gnarled branches. Click-click, crack, thump. Ben’s body came to an abrupt halt as it met the firm, cold ground. At last, if only for a moment, he had a chance to catch his breath, with small twigs and leaves from the shrubbery entwined throughout his curly, red hair.
Ben spotted his pursuer coming around the brick pillars near the park entrance, just as he was getting to his feet. He put his hands on his knees, still trying to catch his breath, wondering how did they find me? Did the red hair give me away? Who could have told them where I was hiding? Were there spies in the town? Why is this happening to me? These, and many more thoughts, continued to race through his mind, over and over again. He broke out of the bushes and pressed on through the park, staying merely seconds ahead of the vicious man who was closely following him through the night shadows—no more than a stone’s throw away. “Must keep going,” Ben mumbled to himself, his body tiring more and more with each stride. His legs, now at the end of their usefulness, could carry him no farther. Ben stopped in the middle of the dimly lit road, near the corner of the candy store and clock shop. He gazed back into the shadows, out of breath, with fear in his heart.
“I can hear you breathing, Ben,” said the evil man, with a low, gravelly voice, from just beyond the light of the moonlit street. “I’ll take the box now, please, if you would be so kind as to…hand it over.” The very sound of his slow, deliberate voice sent chills through Ben’s tired body.
“And why do you think I would ever do that?” asked Ben, his lips quivering, hands and body shaking from the cool night air.
“Well, Ben, because quite honestly, it’s the only choice you have. You have nowhere left to go.”
“There’s always more than one choice in a situation like this,” Ben replied.
“Well, maybe you’re right. Perhaps you do have choices, as in, you could choose to quietly hand over the box resting securely under your arm. Or, you could refuse to do so and suffer the consequences of your poor decision.” A pale, thin hand with dirt-filled fingernails slowly appeared from beyond the night shadows—open and ready to receive the box Ben held so dearly in his possession.
Ben acknowledged the greedy hand, slowly gazed downward at the box, returned back to the out-reached hand, then directed his eyes upward toward the darkness, beyond the ghastly hand. Yearning to see the face behind the voice.
“Well, sir, Ben said in a confident tone of voice, you have overlooked a third, and probably the most important, choice that stands before us.”
The air became quiet and still. Only the chirping of crickets and the hoot of an owl from the nearby woods could be heard. Then…dead silence.
“And what would that be, Ben?” The gravelly and impatient voice beyond the shadows asked, as an evil face slowly emerged from the darkness, beyond the moonlight. It was that of a middle-aged, poorly groomed man. His skin was pale, with a sickly blue cast, and carved in detail with deep, cavernous wrinkles that ran around his eyes, drooling mouth, and forehead—no doubt from years of frowning due to anger and frustration. Layered on top of the wrinkles were smudges and smears of dirt and filth. It was hard to tell one from the other. The whites of his eyes glowed brightly in contrast to his filthy face. As Ben looked closer, he noticed the man’s eyes were two different colors. The left was brown and the right blue. Both were filled with the look of a crazed soul that had nothing to lose, except possibly the old wrinkled newsboy hat that sat atop his head. From underneath the hat grew frizzled strands of dark, tangled hair that appeared to have not been washed for quite some time. And as he spit and spat out his words with a sinister smile, his stained, yellow teeth shown from behind a set of crusty, chapped lips.
As the diabolical man’s outreached hand edged closer, Ben began to slowly move backwards, away from a fate he did not care to know. The man continued to move closer, his upper body now visible. Ben took another step back. Then, a second later, a pair of skinny legs in old pants appeared. Ben took yet another step back, carefully making sure not to trip on any unforeseen objects. He could now see the man’s entire body—highlighted by the pale light of the moon. His frame was tall and stick-like, with a pot belly, overgrown feet, and an old brown suit that matched the tattered hat. The stranger’s body was a perfect match to his hideous face. But who was he and why did he want the box so badly? And how does he know my name? Ben thought to himself.
“Hey there, Ben.”
The two men immediately turned their attention to the woods, both staring as hard as they possibly could, trying to make out exactly where and who the voice was coming from. It appeared to be coming from high up the trees.
It only took Ben and his enemy a brief moment to realize the voice coming from the woods could not possibly be human, as no person would be crazy enough to climb high up in a tree during the middle of the night.
Before the two could think any further, from out of the woods, atop the tallest tree, a brilliantly feathered white owl came swooping down, emerging from beyond the shadow. Highlighted by the moonlight, and effortlessly gliding through the air in miraculous fashion, the unexpected visitor came to rest atop a nearby lamp post, exposing his identity to the astonishment of Ben and his adversary. Both stood frozen like statues, wide-eyed and slack jawed. The talking white owl had indeed caught them off guard.
“Well, aren’t you going to say something to me, Ben?” The owl asked.
The two men continued to stare. Still motionless. Still speechless.
The owl spoke again. “You do remember who I am, don’t you?”
At that moment, the owl’s spoken words ignited Ben’s thoughts, as a tidal wave of memories roared through his mind. “That’s it!” he said with excitement in his voice. “Alexios, is…is that you? How…how is that possible? You’re…you’re an animated character. Well, an animated character that never made it past the concept phase. And you’re talking to me? Here? Now? I…I don’t understand?”
Alexios was an older owl who, in his prime, was quite a specimen to behold. With white and silvery gray feathers, worn talons, and tired yellow eyes, he no longer carried the air of intimidation that once surrounded his presence, especially now that he also wore a pair of black-rimmed glasses to aid his vision. And though the owl had grown older, he had become much wiser, more cunning, and was still very capable of carrying out his duties. After all, he was Alexios, defender of the Kingdom Crystals.
“Well, of course I’m talking to you, Ben. I’ve been a part of your life for quite some time. Why, let me think. If my memory serves me right, I believe we first crossed paths when my sketch lines were being created at Disney Studios. You were just a young lad, sweeping floors in the animation building on weekday evenings after school. On one particular evening, you were cleaning the floor in one of the animator’s offices, and there I was, sitting on the drawing board, sketched lines and all. Why, you practically drooled all over me, you did.”
Ben scratched his head as he frowned in confusion.
“C’mon lad, surely you remember that night?”
Ben continued to scratch his head, perplexed and still trying to figure out how an animated character could be speaking to him. Here. Now. In fact, he’d become so sidetracked with his thoughts that he had completely forgotten about the villainous man, whose shifty hands were getting closer and closer to snatch away the box that rested securely under Ben’s left arm.
“Uh…well. Oh, wait. Now I remember. I was cleaning Mr. Johnson’s office and I noticed the sketches of you, scattered all over his desk. I think he was working on facial expression and body movement studies of your character.”
“Exactly, my young squire.”
“There was one sketch in particular that caught my attention. You were winking. At what, I’m not exactly sure.”
“Yes, that’s right. I was winking at you, Ben.”
“Yes. Is there anything else you can remember from that sketch?”
“Uh…I don’t think…”
“Well, let me refresh your memory, young lad.”
Frustrated, Ben jumped in to cut off the lecturing owl. “Why do you keep referring to me as young?” Ben was getting a little annoyed with the owl’s patronizing references. “I’m a grown man, I am. A young man. But a man none the less.”
“Well, lad. Compared to me, you are young. Very young. Why, I’m more than twice your age, and twice as wise, too.” The angered owl’s eyes became extremely large, and his chest puffed out as he gave Ben a scolding look—similar to what a teacher would give a student for misbehaving.
Ben felt an overwhelming sense of embarrassment suddenly come over him. His face, flushed of any color. “Oh…yeah…right. I forgot. I’m quite…I’m quite sorry for interrupting. Please continue. Yes, please continue.”
Urrrrrr-urrrrr-urrrrr-m-ahemm. Alexios cleared his throat. “Well, then. Now. Where was I? Oh, yes. As I was saying, Ben, not only was I winking at you, I was also pointing to the old red box that was sitting on the shelf behind you.
The villainous man they’d forgotten about now stood right next to Ben, his shifty hands, rolling over and over one another, with nervous excitement, his patience becoming increasingly worn by the second.
Ben was ecstatic. “That’s right, Alexios. Mr. Johnson told me about…”
“ENOUGH of this nonsense.” The evil man had reached the limit of his patience. His body began to bounce up and down off the ground in shivering convulsions, as if he had been electrocuted. His face turned bright red, his eyes ready to explode out of his head. If he were a cartoon, there would have been steam blowing out of his ears.
The sudden outburst startled Ben, which caused his arm to jerk and allowed the box to break free of his control. As the box spun through the air, a mad scramble of flailing bodily limbs, hands in faces, fingers in ears, and squashed toes ensued. Both men were caught in an unrehearsed, awkwardly funny battle for possession of the mysterious red box.
“Give it to me, Ben.”
“Never. It doesn’t belong to you.”
“Yes, it does. Give it to me now.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
As the battle continued, the box gained altitude, spinning end-over-end between the two crazed men, like a jump ball in a basketball game. Simultaneously, Ben and his adversary leaped into the air to gain control of the box as it continued to spin in suspended animation.
All the while, Alexios was eagerly watching, eyes bulging, wings flapping, pacing back and forth on top of the lamp post, as he tried to figure out what to do. His patience could not take any more of this foolishness. But what was the solution? The great white owl leaped from the post, his wings flapping hard, as he dropped toward the ground, gaining speed as he began to soar high up into the air and disappearing into the silvery blue shadows of the night sky.
Ben and his rival were so wrapped up with their obsession for the box that neither noticed Alexios had flown off into the night air.
And then, clunk. The two men met head-to-head. Their arms and legs became limp as each fell back toward the ground in opposite directions. The box began its rapid descent from above the two fallen bodies, which were both moving slowly in an effort to recover from the collision.
Swooooooosh! Alexios swept in from the sky above like a blurred streak of silver and white, grabbing the box by its twine ribbon. His talons held on tightly as he climbed higher and higher, carrying the box to a nearby tree at the edge of the forest, and far out of reach of the aggravated man with yellow teeth who had come so close to obtaining the mysterious object.
“Hurry Ben, we have little time to waste!” Alexios called out.
The sound of Alexios’ voice helped Ben regain his orientation. He took a quick glance at his disoriented nemesis, who was still on the ground shaking and rubbing his head from the collision. “I’m coming!” Ben shouted back, as he quickly jumped to his feet and took off running rapidly toward the woods. The young man never looked back, fearing that he might see his enemy chasing closely behind. This fear fueled Ben’s energy,as he ran faster and faster, until he was no more than a faint wisp of shadow, melting into the dark silhouette of the woods.
“I’ll get you for this, Ben!” Shouted the angered man whose head continued to spin as he sat in disgust, realizing there was no chance to catch the little red-headed fellow now. And more importantly, no chance to get his hands on the red box he had come for. The Dark Thorns would not be happy to hear the news.
Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep. THWAT. The snooze button on the clock was swatted by a very tired, young hand.
“Charlie. Time to get up. C’mon. Up and at ’em. You gotta get going, or you’ll be late.”
Charlie, about as fast as a frozen snail, rolled over, scratched his head, and yawned. Then he sat up with a look of confusion in his eyes. He wasn’t exactly sure if the screaming he had just heard was from the angry man in his dream, or from the shrieking sound of his mother’s voice, resonating through the dimly lit hallway beyond the crack of his bedroom door. Either way, his brain was still only partially awake, thanks to a restless night of sleep—obviously due to the three large holiday chocolates he had eaten the night before. As his mother once told him, loading up on sugar before bedtime can bring on crazy dreams and prevent someone from sleeping well. Regardless, she continued to shout from the bottom of the stairway, trying to get her boys moving for another wonderful and glorious day of school.
Continued in "Ears of Virtue"!
What's Charlie's dad up to, behind the closed door of his office. Seems ominous...
It was just another routine day of school for Charlie, but there were two things that made this day particularly easier than most. First, it was Friday. Fridays were always the easiest day of the week for Charlie to get up for, because once the school day was over and the final bell rang, that meant the weekend had begun. It was quite obvious that Charlie, like any other ordinary kid, truly did enjoy Fridays.
Second, it was also the last day of school before the holiday break, a two-week vacation. And unlike most ordinary weeks of school, this week had been filled with the likes of gift exchanges, holiday shows, letters to Santa, caroling classes wandering the halls, Christmas cookies, candy, punch, and so many more fun, out-of-the-ordinary, holiday activities. As Mr. and Mrs. Zastawits always told Charlie during this time of the school year, it was like they were already on vacation.
Needless to say, the entire Zastawits household was in jolly spirits on this very special Friday morning. Even Mrs. Zastawits, who just moments ago had been on her usual morning rant to get the boys moving, was now in the kitchen humming Christmas carols as she prepared the boys’ lunches for school. Meanwhile, Mr. Zastawits, humming along as well, was busy making breakfast. And today’s breakfast featured one of the boys’ favorite weekday morning meals: booger toast, better known as cinnamon toast, with an extra sugar kick, plus two large glasses of milk. The cinnamon toast with extra sugar kept the boys happy, while the two large glasses of milk, loaded with vitamins, kept Mom in good spirits. Mr. Zastawits always knew how to keep everyone happy.
“There’s my Charlie warlie, good morning, sweetie,” said Mrs. Zastawits, in a high-pitched voice. Charlie was always the first of the two boys down for breakfast. Mr. Zastawits thought it was because of the breakfasts he prepared each weekday morning, but in reality, Charlie wanted to make sure he took the first shower, assuring himself plenty of hot water.
He acknowledged his mother’s cheery, morning greeting with a soft “Good morning” and a yawn.
Mr. Zastawits chimed in next. “Hey Charlie, look what I made for breakfast, buddy, one of your favorites. And a big glass of milk to wash it down with.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Charlie replied.
“So, what do you get to do in school for your last day before the big vacation?” asked Mrs. Zastawits, as she was finishing up making the boys’ lunches—which she saw as an opportunity to make sure they were getting the daily nutrition their growing bodies needed. As she knew, some day her boys would be making their own decisions on what to eat for lunch at school. She dreaded that day.
“I think we get to finish making Christmas presents for you guys, have a party in our room, and watch holiday movies after lunch,” replied Charlie.
Mrs. Zastawits pretended she didn’t know exactly what Charlie meant for a second, and asked, “So, what do you mean by you guys?” She was playing a game with Charlie, which many parents liked to do: get their child to explain things with more detail without being so obvious about it. Charlie was in the 5th grade, and it wouldn’t be long before he was in middle school, where the teachers expected a little more from their students. And Charlie’s mom new this.
“The parents,” said Charlie, as he rolled his eyes.
“Oh, I see. So, what kind of present are you making for your father and I?”
“I can’t tell you, Mom. It’s a secret.”
Mrs. Zastawits played along. “Aw, that makes me so sad,” she said with pouty lips.
“Yeah, I guess we’ll just have to wait, honey,” added Mr. Zastawits, in his best sad voice, followed by a deep sigh.
Charlie just continued to eat his toast as if he heard nothing. Playing it cool.
Moments later, as Charlie was finishing up with his breakfast, Michael, the younger of the two boys, came zipping down the stairs and into the kitchen. Jumping up onto the stool next to Charlie, Michael eagerly awaited his booger toast from Dad. He had overheard his father telling Charlie what was for breakfast just a moment ago, and unlike his older brother, Michael was an early riser. He practically jumped out of bed and ran through the shower every morning before school, eagerly anticipating what daily challenges lay ahead.
Almost simultaneously, Mrs. Zastawits came back into the kitchen from getting her jacket. “Good morning, pumpkin. How about a kiss for Mommy?” Michael was the baby of the family, especially when Mrs. Zastawits was around.
Mr. Zastawits shook his head, feeling embarrassed for his younger son, as he continued to prepare Michael’s toast and pour him a glass of milk. He knew what was coming next. He’d witnessed it many times before. In fact, it had practically become a Zastawits weekday morning tradition. Here it comes, Mr. Zastawits thought to himself, as he laid the plate of booger toast down in front of his already embarrassed son.
Mrs. Zastawits moved in to smooch her younger son on the cheek and give him a big, morning hug.
“Mom. Mommy, please stop. Ma!” Michael pleaded as he tried to avoid the dreaded morning smooch.
But it was too late. His mother had achieved her goal, once again. “Aha. Mommy wins.” Without hesitation, she turned and gave Charlie a quick peck on the cheek, then made her way around the counter to give her husband a goodbye smooch as well. “Have a good day, everybody,” she said, as she made her way out the door to her car. Mrs. Zastawits was a home health-care professional who worked primarily with the elderly, and they were always up early. So it was customary for her to be the first one out the door every morning. She truly enjoyed helping other people—and it showed each and every work day, as she headed out the door with enthusiastic flare.
“You too, honey,” replied Mr. Zastawits.
“Bye, boys,” she said. This was a cue for the boys to reply to their mother.
“Bye,” they said in synchronized, sarcastic tones.
On that note, Charlie chugged down the rest of his milk and headed upstairs to brush his teeth, with his brother following closely behind. Mr. Zastawits cleaned up after the boys, then finished his breakfast before heading upstairs to brush his teeth as well.
The drop-off line at school was very long, packed with cars of happy children dressed in warm, fluffy jackets, stocking caps, and winter boots, their parents singing along to the Christmas music on their car stereos as they watched the wipers brush away the gentle, falling snow flakes that came to rest on their front windshields. It was clear to see everyone was eager for the holidays to begin. The drop-off line moved like a well-oiled machine; in sets of three, the vehicles pulled up to the unload area, doors opened, children kissed their parents goodbye and jumped out, then Principal White and her office staff would safely escort the children from the parents’ cars to the front doors of the school. From there, the children were greeted by smiling teachers in the hallways, assuring that all the boys and girls found their way to their lockers to shed jackets, hats and boots, put on their indoor shoes, and head into the classrooms.
After just a short wait, it was the Zastawits turn to pull up and unload. Mr. Zastawits pulled to the curb and hit the side door opener.
“Well, here we are, boys; I’ll see you guys later, OK?”
The boys acknowledged their father as they worked to undo their seat belts, grab their backpacks, and exit the minivan.
“Good morning, Zastawits boys,” said a very happy Miss Farren, as she helped the boys navigate the first few steps from vehicle to curb, assuring no one tripped and fell. “Hi, Mr. Zastawits. How are you doing this morning?”
“I’m doing well, and you?”
“Just fine, thank you,” she replied.
“OK, boys, see you later. Have a good day.”
This was the speech Mr. Zastawits delivered to the boys, often more than once, every day as he let them out of the van. It was standard school day drop-off procedure.
“Good morning, boys,” said Mrs. White, smiling as always. She was a terrific principal, a favorite of the Zastawits family.
The boys quickly acknowledged Mrs. White as they continued on into the school. Mr. Zastawits waved goodbye to the school staff as he hit the auto-close button for the door and slowly pulled away, humming one of his favorite Christmas tunes.
The school hallway was swarming with children. Boots were clunking, back packs thunking, and lockers clicking and clanking. Charlie had systematically made his way into the classroom and placed a little gift next to the others that had already been piled up on the teacher’s desk. Then he organized his own desk so he would be ready when class began. He always liked to be prepared. A few other students had done the same, and were patiently waiting at their desks as well.
As the clock neared the school’s starting time of eight fifteen, all the other kids in the hallway began to filter inside. Most of them were the extremely social type who always wanted to be in the middle of every conversation, with every person in the room. Not that Charlie minded. It was just not the type of person he was. Charlie was more low-key, more soft-spoken. And even though he got along with most everybody, he preferred to hang around just a few close friends.
One of those friends, Johnny Bibbs, came trotting into the classroom, chatting away with a couple other boys from their fifth grade class. Johnny was a large-proportioned boy with sloppy hair, blushed cheeks, floppy clothes, and untied shoes. But nobody ever noticed what he looked like, as his personality more than made up for it. He spotted Charlie right away, immediately broke off the conversation with the other two boys, then headed straight to his buddy’s desk.
“Hey, Charlie Z. Looks like you’re ready for class; as usual.”
Around school and his friends, Charlie was not just “Charlie,” but “Charlie Z.” All the kids and teachers liked the way it sounded, as well as Charlie himself. Best of all, it was his good friend Johnny that had given him his nickname near the beginning of the school year. It was Charlie’s first year at Washington Elementary School, and he was one of the new kids when the school year began. So, it was only a matter of time before someone came along and gave him a nickname. A common practice for kids at their school.
Shaking his head, Charlie looked up at his friend and replied in a sarcastic tone. “Well, of course I’m ready, Johnny, class is almost about to start. Have you even looked at the clock?” Even though Charlie may have been on the quiet side, he did not lack confidence. In fact, he was very comfortable with who he was and how he handled things. So, if someone gave him a jab, he was always ready to return the favor.
Johnny just laughed at Charlie’s response, then quickly moved on to his next topic. “So, uh, what did ya get me for Christmas? Anything good? You did bring a present to exchange with me, right?”
Charlie and Johnny had drawn each other for the holiday gift exchange. They couldn’t have been more thrilled. Imagine, drawing your best friend for a gift exchange. The two boys were filled with anticipation, wondering what each had gotten for the other.
“Yeah, I think I brought something for you, but I’m not sure. I may have left it on the kitchen counter at home, or in my dad’s van. I don’t know. Wait a minute. Yep, that’s it. I think it’s in my dad’s van.”
“Really, Charlie? How could you leave it in Mr. Z’s van?” Johnny was referring to Charlie’s father. The nickname Johnny had given Charlie had become so well accepted that the entire Zastawits family was now tagged with the “Z” brand. It all started last summer when the Zastawits family moved into a new house, not too far from their old house, just before school started. And because the houses were not far from one another, Charlie and his parents assumed the boys would continue to go to the same school. Little did they realize, this small move would have a huge impact on all their lives, in a very good way. Charlie met his new best friend, as did Michael. Both boys started the school year with teachers they enjoyed, thoroughly. And their new principal, Mrs. White, was the best principal in the entire district. She ran the school with a firm, but gentle hand, and a warm, kind smile on her face. She was always the first one in, and the last to leave, each and every school day. She really did care about the children and their futures, and it showed. As a result, Mr. and Mrs. Zastawits were happy with the school change. In fact, they were so happy, they volunteered their time, if possible, in quite a vast array of school activities, making them very popular amongst the children, other parents, and school staff. Because of this, Charlie’s nickname, “Charlie Z,” had grown to also include the entire Zastawits family. So Michael had come to be known as Mikey Z, and their parents were often referred to as Mr. and Mrs. Z. It was just easier for everyone to remember, and catchy, too.
“I don’t know, Johnny, it could have fallen out of my backpack when I was getting out of the van. I think it was in the top pouch and the gift was too big, so I couldn’t zip up the pocket. But… I’m still not sure.” Charlie was really having fun at Johnny’s expense.
“Oh, sure, Charlie. Then what’s that under your desk? All wrapped up in candy cane-striped paper with a green bow?”
“Right there, behind that big foot of yours.” Charlie had been trying to block Johnny’s vision with his feet.
“Oh, that. I guess that’s your gift? Thanks for pointing it out for me,” Charlie said, with a big smile.
“Whatever,” Johnny replied as he scanned the room, pretending not to be interested in what Charlie had to say. Jokingly, of course. He was just trying to get back at his buddy.
“How about you? What’d you get me for a present? And where is it?”
“Um, it’s in my desk. Been there for a few days. But, I have to tell ya, it’s not anything Disney related.” Johnny new that Charlie was a huge Disney fan. Disney movies, Disney parks, Disney books, almost any type of Disney collectible; it didn’t really matter, Charlie would be grateful for anything he received that was associated with Disney.
“Yeah, right, Johnny. What else could it possibly be? You know what I like. “
“No, really, it’s not.” It was Johnny’s turn to have a little fun.
“Really? Well, I guess any gift from you would be special,” Charlie said with a content smile.
Johnny smiled back, thinking to himself, boy, is he going to be surprised. Charlie’s friend turned and walked up to his desk, slowly sat down, leaned back in his chair, and placed his hands behind his head, all the while sporting an uncontrollable grin. He had won. Oh, yes, he had won this round.
As the bell rang, all the kids still standing or wandering around the classroom darted to their desks and sat down. It was time for school to begin.
The school day was flying by for Charlie and Johnny. The morning had been filled with holiday activities, games, and treats. And lunch time had just ended, as the kids eagerly headed back to their rooms, giddy as could be. The time had come. It was time for the gift exchange. All the kids in Mrs. McFrey’s fifth grade class, including Charlie and Johnny, quickly filtered back into their classroom, dodging, weaving, and diving, until all were back in their seats facing straight ahead, eyes wide open, fingers twitching, with the biggest smiles Mrs. McFrey had seen all year.
Mrs. McFrey addressed the class. “If everyone would please open your science books to page sixty seven, we will begin our next chapter, “The Anatomy of Elves.”
Charlie immediately caught on to Mrs. McFrey’s joke. Smiling, he looked over at Johnny, who turned around to acknowledge with a wink that he knew as well.
Mrs. McFrey’s facial expression slowly changed from serious into a big smile as the class burst into laughter.
“Okay, class, now that you all know that I was kidding, please go ahead and exchange gifts with the person whose name you drew, then return to your seats, please. We will start with Tommy, then work our way to the back of his row. Then the same for rows two, three, and so forth. So Charlie, you will be the last one to open a gift.”
For a 5th grader, Charlie was extremely patient. So, being the last one to open a gift did not bother him in the least bit. In fact, it gave him more time to wonder what his friend had gotten for him. He relished every minute, every gift that was opened, until his turn finally arrived. The gift Johnny had gotten for him was rather small and oddly shaped. One could easily tell it had been wrapped by someone with little or no experience. There was no way for Charlie to tell what could possibly be hidden underneath the blue and silver snow flake-patterned paper. This made it that much more exciting for Charlie. He couldn’t take it any longer. His fingers tore through the wrapping paper with reckless abandonment one, two, three times, until Charlie had exposed enough of what laid within the crudely wrapped paper to pull it out. It…it was…it was a small envelope, with a balled-up piece of paper taped to one side and two empty macaroni-and-cheese boxes, in the shape of a “T,” taped to the other side. Johnny had made extra-double sure there was no possible way his friend would ever be able to guess what he had gotten him for a gift. Charlie flashed his friend a look of bafflement as he removed the taped-on paper ball and macaroni boxes from the envelope. Johnny, wearing a smirk, giggled under his breath as he watched in amusement. Finally, after all this, Charlie’s fingers made their way to the envelope, opened it up, and pulled out a gift card. It was a Disney gift card. Charlie’s face instantly lit up like a candle. He immediately looked up at Johnny, with a spark in his eyes, to thank his best friend in the whole world.
Johnny, smiling back with raised brows, responded with, “Gotcha!” The two boys broke into laughter, as did the rest of the class, including Mrs. McFrey.
After cleaning up from the gift exchange, Mrs. McFrey’s class spent the rest of the afternoon watching holiday movies and snacking on goodies. And before they knew it, the day had come to an end. Students filled the halls—once again—clunking, thunking, clicking and clacking, as they bundled up and made their way down the hallways to be greeted by parents who picked up their children, or to the big yellow buses that took them home. Either way, all the children were happy and in good spirits. Christmas vacation had begun.
Charlie and his brother, Michael, spent the next few days thinking, and the nights dreaming, about Christmas. In the mornings, they did house chores and played outside in the powdery Michigan snow with the other kids. In the afternoons, it was lunch and fun activities with dad. Mr. Z was a freelance graphic designer who worked out of the house; which meant he could work when he wanted, for as long as he wanted, as long as he kept his clients happy. So, while the boys were on vacation, he pulled double duty. Half the day working, the other half keeping the boys fed and entertained. Basically, Mr. Z spent most of the holiday break acting like a big kid, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Most of his clients had all their projects wrapped up for the year, so as a father, he did everything he could to give his boys a memorable Christmas vacation. Snow forts, snow men, sled races, ice skating, matinee movies, lunches at the local shake and burger joints, and gift shopping for Mrs. Z and the grandparents. It was an endless line-up of fun winter activities.
While Dad and the boys had been quite busy with their holiday activities the past four days, Mr. Z always made sure they were home by late afternoon so he could prepare a nice dinner for the family, especially for his lovely wife, who had been working hard all day to help others get better. The dinner conversations within the Zastawits household were usually straightforward question-and-answer sessions between parents and children. However, this was a special time of year. It was the holiday season. A time to wonder, and a time to share. So, for the past week, the dinner conversations had been charged with wishful requests, cheery replies, and holiday dreams. The entire Zastawits family was overflowing with holiday spirit, and expectations had become almost unbearable.
And now, the time had come…this was it. The final dinner before Christmas Eve day. The last chance for Charlie and Michael to get in any final gift requests before the big night, which was now only twenty-four hours away. Mr. Z called the boys downstairs to set the table for dinner, while he finished preparing one of his specialties; oven-baked parmesan chicken with garlic mashed potatoes, and a side vegetable. The early evening winter sky glowed of soft oranges and purple-like reds. It would be dark shortly. Both children hurried through their chores of setting the table, and moved on to the family room so they could inspect the gifts that were under the tree. “There’s one with my name,” blurted Michael—hardly able to contain himself.
“Over there in the corner is another one with your name on it,” Charlie told his brother.
“Oh, here’s one for you, Charlie.”
“Yeah, I see it,” Charlie told his brother with little emotion. It wasn’t because he lacked enthusiasm for Christmas, but because Charlie was two years older, so he was more experienced at controlling his emotions for such occasions.
As the boys continued to hunt for presents around the base of the Christmas tree, Cocoa and Skats, the family pets, came prowling into the room as only cats could. Cocoa was a short hair with black fur, short legs, olive green eyes, and a healthy appetite. He also enjoyed drinking the tree water during the holidays, much to the chagrin of Mr. and Mrs. Z. Skats was also a short hair, with a grey coat, a spot of white on his chest, and yellow eyes. He had a lean build and a floppy belly that swung from side to side whenever he walked quickly or ran. Through the years, the cats had paired up with the boys: Cocoa belonged to Michael, while Skats was Charlie’s favorite. Cocoa, seeing Michael by the tree, used it as the perfect excuse to make his way toward the tree water. Sneaky, he was. Skats walked over and rubbed on Charlie’s leg. That was cat talk for, “Please lay on the floor with me and pet my furry belly.” Charlie accepted the invitation, lying down on his side as Skats curled up next to him, belly up and purring, ready for his friend to start petting him.
All along, Mr. Z had been working diligently in the kitchen, making sure all the items he was preparing for dinner would be finished cooking simultaneously, to ensure nothing would turn cold. Just as he was pulling the chicken from the oven, a flash of bright headlights moved across the living room where the boys were hanging out with the cats. This could only mean one thing.
“Okay, boys, Mom’s home. It’s time to get up and wash your hands for dinner. Then get your drinks ready.”
“Coming!” they answered in unison.
As Charlie and Michael jumped to their feet, the cats scurried about, trying to avoid colliding with the boys’ feet, who quickly headed for the kitchen sink to clean up. At the sink, the two battled for position, one nudging the other. Back and forth the battle continued, until Charlie, being two years older and much larger, won out. In frustration, Michael backed off until Charlie had finished. This had become the norm, though hard for the younger brother to accept. Michael saw himself as being the same age as Charlie, though when the two stood side by side, it was very evident that Charlie was the big brother. Compared to his friends, Charlie was pretty average in height and weight; not the tallest, but by no means the shortest either. He had dark brown, wavy hair with hazel eyes and puffy cheeks. Your typical looking fifth grader. However, his younger brother, Michael, was only in third grade, and had not gone through a growth spurt in quite some time. His hair and facial features were similar to his older brother’s, but that was all they shared from a genetic standpoint. Michael was much shorter and had a leaner build than Charlie. However, he was rather quick, more agile, a little feistier, and definitely craftier than his big brother, which came in handy for someone of his stature. And although the two had their differences at times, more often than not, they got along very well. Charlie was the ideal big brother and protector, who always kept an eye on Michael, making sure no harm ever came to him.
Just as the boys were getting their drinks for dinner, their mother entered through the mud room door. “Hello, everyone!” She said in her best jolly voice. “How are my three favorite boys doing tonight?”
“Oh, we’re just happy to see you, sweetie. How was your day?” asked Mr. Z.
“It was a very good day, I must say. But it’s even better, now that I’m home to share the holiday with my family,” she said with a big wide smile.
Mr. Z gathered up the food and brought it to the table to complete the festive ensemble. The plates were set in an alternating pattern of red and white around the table; with a white prancing reindeer centered on the red plates and a red reindeer on the white plates. The same held true for the bowls. The silverware was detailed with holiday swirls, napkins were checkered in red and green, and the red placemats were patterned with subtle reindeer. The table cloth was also checkered with red and green, with fine gold overlapping lines. The Zastawits family truly enjoyed this time of year.
As everyone at the table worked their way through the delicious meal Mr. Z had prepared, conversations floated from parent to child, child to parent, and parent to parent. Mrs. Z asked Mr. Z if all the presents had been wrapped to take over to the grandparents for Christmas Eve. Mr. Z passed the same question on to the boys, who were responsible for wrapping their gifts to the Zastawits grandparents. Mrs. Z also asked Mr. Z whether or not they were to bring food over to the grandparents for dinner, upon which he replied, “The only thing they asked us to bring were our grandchildren,” as he looked at the boys with a grin. This really got Charlie and Michael excited. They were practically incapable of sitting still in their chairs, being so wound up for the holidays to begin.
“Now you’ve done it,” stated Mrs. Z, as she rolled her eyes at her husband in an exaggerated manner. “They’ll never get to sleep now.”
Mr. Z played along. “Gosh, honey, I was only trying to make the boys happy.”
“Yeah, Mom,” responded Michael.
“Well, I’m afraid we may just have to skip dessert tonight. The boys already have entirely too much energy as it is. If they have desert, all that sugar will surely keep them up all night. And if they’re up all night tonight, they’ll be too exhausted to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house tomorrow night.”
Like soldiers coming to attention when a superior officer walks into the room, the boys immediately straightened up and sat perfectly still. Only their eyes moved, to look at one another and confirm each had responded appropriately.
Mr. Z acknowledged the boy’s reactions. “Would you look at that, dear? I’d say the two of them must really want dessert. Or maybe they’re just bored stiff?”
“No Dad, we really do want dessert,” Charlie replied, with a face of desperation. Michael followed suit, with the same desperate look.
“Well, Dad, I guess you could give the boys each a very small piece of Dutch apple pie.”
“We’d be OK with full pieces, Mom, really, it wouldn’t keep us up. We promise. Please?” Charlie begged, giving his mother a dose of sad eyes.
“What do you think, Mother? They did make a promise,” Mr. Z replied.
Both boys focused their pleading eyes on their mother.
“I guess it wouldn’t hurt,” she said as her eyes wandered upward.
“Yay—wahoo!” shouted the boys, as they sprang from the table to…
Mrs. Z cleared her throat. “Wait just a second there, young men. Before you both can have dessert, the table needs to be cleared.”
“Aw, Mom,” they responded.
“Your father worked very hard to prepare this meal. The least you can do to show your appreciation is to help clean up.” There was a slight pause. “Otherwise, there won’t be any desert.”
The boys snapped to it—cleaning off the table in record time.
After everyone had enjoyed their dessert, Charlie and Michael spent the evening in front of the television watching Christmas movies, while their mother was busy in the kitchen making Christmas cookies. But Mr. Z had snuck off to the reading room, spending a great deal of time on the computer.
Why was Dad on the computer for so long? Charlie wondered. He didn’t have any work to do. Why wasn’t he in the family room with us, watching Christmas movies, like he usually does? Charlie got up and walked over to the reading room, which was mostly dark, except for the small desk lamp highlighting his father’s thick black hair and middle-aged face.
“What are you doing, Dad?” Charlie asked as he leaned on the corner of the wall that divided the stairway in the foyer from the reading room, unable to see what was on the monitor from where he stood.
His father’s attention was so wrapped by the computer, he did not even hear Charlie’s question.
“Dad, what are you doing?”
Mr. Z jumped. Startled by Charlie’s voice, he quickly turned his head. His reading glasses teetered on the edge of his nose as he regained his composure and looked at his son. “Oh, I’m, I’m just checking the weather for tomorrow and trying to find a recipe for something I want to cook up on Christmas Day. Nothing special.”
“What are you gonna make?”
Mr. Z didn’t expect Charlie to ask any further questions. “That’s why I’m looking; I still haven’t figured that out yet. “
“Oh…OK,” Charlie replied suspiciously with a little chuckle. What was Dad up to? he asked himself. His insides filled with bubbly excitement as he walked back to the family room to rejoin his brother in front of the TV, his mind wondering.
Christmas Eve at the grandparents’ house had come and gone. The soft glow of the morning sun slowly rose over the snow-covered landscape, which sparkled like diamonds in a mine. The air was crisp, cool, and very still. Not a car, truck, plane, or train could be heard. The only sound was that of a chirping cardinal, sitting on a branch of the small apple blossom tree just outside the reading room windows. In front of the windows sat a couch. And on top of the couch, all curled up in a ball, was Cocoa, sleeping in his favorite winter spot.
Daylight gradually made its way to the back of the house, piercing the window blinds in Michael’s room. His eyes suddenly opened, his mind realizing what day it was. Christmas morning had come. With his face filled with excitement, Michael kicked the covers away, quickly jumped out of bed, and headed to wake Charlie. “Charlie…Charlie, wake up! It’s Christmas morning!”
Charlie rolled over, groggy and confused. His hair pointed in every direction, like it had been spun with a mixer. He sat up and gazed at his brother with a blank stare, still trying to figure out what was going on.
“Charlie, c’mon, get up! Its Christmas! It’s Christmas morning, Charlie! It’s Christmas!” Michael kept repeating himself as he tugged on his brother’s pajamas.
On about the third tug, it finally dawned on Charlie what was happening. The gears in his brain started to move. “Christmas? Morning? Oh, yeah. Yes! Christmas! It’s Christmas morning!”
“Yeah Charlie, get up! Let’s go! C’mon!”
Charlie, now very awake, rolled out of bed as if his pajamas were on fire, and the two boys quickly made their way downstairs to the family room, where they came to a sudden halt. Their mouths opened wide, and their eyes filled with wonder. There was something very special about Christmas morning. The tree emitted a soft golden glow, highlighting all the ornaments and tinsel on the tree, as well as the presents surrounding its base. On top of the tree sat a majestic Santa figure, who overlooked this lighted spectacle of holiday magic. The stockings, which had been empty the night before, were now lumpy and full, with small little gifts rising out of their tops. And the air was filled with cinnamon and pine. Only a few crumbs remained on the plate of cookies, and the milk glass was empty—which could only mean one thing. Santa had come.
As the boys navigated around the gifts under the tree, looking to see what belonged to whom and how many there were for each of them, their voices began to escalate to a level that eventually woke their parents. Mr. And Mrs. Z slowly rolled and looked at each other. Both smiled and quietly wished each other a Merry Christmas.
“I guess it’s time to get up?” Mr. Z whispered, as he stumbled out of bed and into his comfy slippers.
His wife followed suit, and the two of them made their way downstairs to wish the boys a Merry Christmas. Mr. Z turned on the Christmas music, Mrs. Z made herself a cup of coffee and got the cinnamon rolls started in the kitchen. Then everyone gathered in the family room for a spectacle of gift giving, receiving, and opening. The sound of shredded paper, “thank you” and “you’re welcome” filled the air repeatedly, as everyone made their way through the presents they were given. The discarded paper, ribbons, and boxes covered the entire living room floor, which the cats thoroughly enjoyed, until finally, the last gift was opened, a special gift to Mrs. Z from Mr. Z. This was a Zastawits tradition, carried out every year, when presents were opened on Christmas morning.
Charlie and Michael had each received wonderful gifts, and were busy playing with them on the floor of the living room, as the cats frolicked around the tree and gift wrappings scattered throughout the room. Their father began to clean up a little, while their mother went back into the kitchen to put the finishes touches on the cinnamon rolls—another Zastawits Christmas morning tradition.
“Okay, boys, you too Daddy, the rolls are ready.”
It only took a second for the boys and their father to respond, making their way to the kitchen counter for fresh cinnamon rolls and ice cold milk. Charlie and his family made quick work of the hot, delicious rolls. Within 10 minutes, all evidence of rolls had been removed from the pan, except for a slight hint of icing. When it came to cinnamon roll consumption, the Zastawits family didn’t mess around.
“Everyone make sure you wash your hands before leaving the kitchen,” said Charlie’s mother.
“Don’t worry, we will, honey. You hear that boys?”
“Yes, Dad,” Charlie answered.
Their father washed his hands and quickly disappeared, while the boys finished washing up. A few minutes later, after the kitchen had been cleaned, Charlie, Michael, and their mother gathered back in the living room to play a new card game Charlie had received in his stocking. It was a game he was very excited to play with his family. Eventually, Mr. Z returned from his mysterious disappearance and joined in as well.
“What were you doing, dear?” asked Mrs. Z of her husband.
“Oh, I was just checking on the weather. Making sure no bad storms were coming today.”
“But we always stay home on Christmas Day, so why would it matter what the weather is like?” Mrs. Z asked, as the boys looked at their father with questioning eyes.
“Well uh, I uh…want to make sure…just in case. You never know. The power could get knocked out, or something like that.”
“Since when have you ever been worried about the power getting knocked out on Christmas Day?” she replied. Again, the boys looked at their father.
“Uh, well. Uh. Cause I wanted to make sure the printer still worked?”
The boys and their mother all flashed Mr. Z looks of confusion. Something fishy was going on, and Mrs. Z could sense it.
“What in the world are you talking about, dear? You didn’t have any work to do today, right? I mean, it’s Christmas. Nobody is working. I don’t understand.” Mrs. Z was utterly baffled at the moment, as were Charlie and Michael. “And what’s that you’re holding behind your back?”
“Well, it’s a bunch of information I just printed out.”
Mrs. Z’s head was spinning. “Information for what?”
Mr. Z replied with a straight face, “All the details for our trip to Walt Disney World.”
“Details? Disney World?”
Just like that, the look of confusion on their faces morphed into great, big, happy smiles, as Mrs. Z and the boys broke into celebration. Jumping, rolling, screaming, cheering. “We’re going to Disney World! We’re going to Disney World!” Mrs. Z ran over to Mr. Z and gave him a big hug. Charlie was hugging him as well, around his left leg, and Michael had his arms wrapped around his father’s right leg. What a wonderful surprise for the whole family. Mr. Z had pulled off a true Christmas miracle.
“So when are we going dear?” asked his wife.
“We leave the day after school gets out for summer break,” he answered, his voice filled with excitement and joy. “We will be there for seven days and six nights, and are staying at the Beach Club Resort.”
To Charlie, it did not matter where they were staying, or really even for how long. All that mattered to him was that they would be going to his favorite place in the whole world. The only hard part would be waiting for the school year to end. To a fifth grader, six months could seem like six years. But at least I’m not a third grader like Michael, Charlie thought to himself. That would be way worse.
Another thought crossed Charlie’s mind at that moment as well. In fact it was a brilliant idea. “Dad, remember the Disney gift card I told you Johnny gave me for our gift exchange at school?”
“I sure do,” his dad replied.
“I was just thinking. I could save it for the trip.”
“That’s a fantastic idea, Charlie. I was hoping you would say that.”
“You were?” Charlie appeared puzzled.
“Yes. Because I’m the one who told Johnny to get you the Disney gift card. And I told him about the trip I was planning for Walt Disney World. Since you love Disney so much, I thought it would be the perfect gift for Johnny to get you.”
And instantly, Charlie knew exactly why Johnny had been so excited to watch him open his Christmas gift at school. They had pulled one over on him. Charlie’s best friend, and even his own father, had planned this all along. Who could ask for a better friend, or a nicer dad, Charlie thought to himself. Then, he looked at his father and said, with great appreciation. “Thank you, Dad.”
“You are very welcome, son.”
Mrs. Z shed a tear of happiness.
Continued in "Ears of Virtue"!