"Man, I can't wait until I get out of here, and I can live with a real family," John said for the millionth time to his best friend in the orphanage, Tom.
"Yeah, but I'll sure miss you when you're gone," Tom answered while wolfing down some cornbread at dinner.
John and Tom had lived in Saint Vincent's Orphanage for as long as he could remember. John was tired of the sameness of all the bedrooms and the cheery posters that tried to cover the cement-gray walls. Most of all he was tired of being told how lucky he was to have a roof over his head and food in his belly. It wasn't like his life was right out of a Dickens novel or anything like that, but the empty feeling was always with him. Now things were sure to change—he had been told that a family had chosen to adopt him.
"I'll miss you too," he said softly to Tom. "But I bet they'll be real rich, and I'll be able to visit you any time I want," John added, trying to cheer Tom up.
Tomorrow, John thought to himself as he lay in bed staring at a crack in the ceiling. They'll get me lots of presents, especially since tomorrow's Christmas Eve. He pictured a tree that towered over a high-ceilinged family room with a golden star at the top that threw light all around the room. John still had some mixed feelings about leaving Tom, but he shook off the thought. He saw himself in the middle of his family on some exotic vacation, tanned, and arms around each other—the perfect Kodak moment. Excitement kept him awake for a long time.
The next morning, John woke up and bounded out of bed. "Today's the day," he whispered. It was already eight fortyfive in the morning, and his family would arrive to pick him up in fifteen minutes! John slipped on his best clothes—a white-collared shirt and a pair of jeans. He brushed his teeth, combed his hair, and grabbed a piece of toast from the cafeteria. He had little to pack up, so that didn't take him very long. It was nine o'clock and time for John to meet his new family. John raced down into the lobby of the orphanage with his suitcase gripped tightly in his hand.
There stood a man, dressed in a faded polyester suit, holding the hand of a woman who wrapped her bulky frame in a too-bright yellow K-mart sweater.
"Here he is," the director of the orphanage chirped in a sing-songy voice. John's stomach pretzeled up.
There must be a mistake, he wanted to shout. This isn't my family. But he said nothing.
"John," the director said as she took him by the hand and pulled him over to the strangers, "come and say hi to your new family." Her Jekyll-and-Hyde personality was nauseating, but he almost begged her to let him stay, and to tell the two that stared at him to go away.
"Hi, John, I'm Mr. Adams, and this is Mrs. Adams, but of course you can just call us Mom and Dad," the man said with a chuckle. John echoed a fake laugh.
"We're so happy to have you as our son," the woman gushed. She almost sounded like she meant it, John thought.
When they pulled up to the Adamses' house, the disappointment sat like a lump in John's stomach. Yellow paint peeled like tired banana skin from the house. Inside, a muddy-brown sofa filled one side of the room. A Charlie Brown Christmas tree draped in tinsel and strung popcorn slumped by the window.
That night, John thought about having to live the rest of his life with these people and somehow he felt even emptier than he had felt at the orphanage. But tomorrow was Christmas and some small part of him still held onto the hope that Christmas would bring its magic into his life.
The next morning John walked downstairs to find his new parents standing next to the three-foot tree. They handed him a present wrapped in newspaper.
"Merry Christmas, son!" Mr. Adams's voice was warm. John unwrapped the gift and found a football.
"Gee, I'm really sorry," John mumbled.
"Why?" Mrs. Adams asked, looking confused.
"Well," John explained, "I don't have anything to give either of you."
A smile slowly spread across Mr. Adams's face. "Oh, but you do," he said. "You're here, aren't you? We've always wanted a son." Somehow it sounded like the truth to John. He felt just a small part of the hole inside of him fill up.
That night at dinner the three sat around a table and shared food and stories. There was a lot of catching up to do. John found himself talking, sharing bits and pieces of his life, the funny moments and some of the painful ones, too. Once he started, he couldn't stop the waterfall of words. And for the first time in his life he felt like someone was really listening. And as the sun set in pinks and blues on Christmas day, and laughter filled up the tiny kitchen where they sat, John felt, for the first time in his life, like he was just where he wanted to be—just where he belonged.