I snuck the Christmas present from underneath the tree. I just had to see what was inside. Of course, I knew that it was a small box of books. My parents had sent me this as one of my gifts. The Customs Form on the box listed: cookies, candy, clothes, and books. I could tell by its shape and weight this was a box of books, probably three paperbacks. I desperately needed to open this present undiscovered.
By the age of 16, I was a master of Christmas sneakery. I could touch, feel, shake, and when necessary, open a present, in order to guess the gift. I hadn’t been totally surprised on Christmas morning for more than a few years. I even discovered my mother’s “Master List” which showed each and every single present purchased. I tried not to look at that list. Using that list was unsophisticated and almost like cheating. My techniques required finesse.
If I couldn’t guess the present from feeling it and shaking it, then I resorted to opening it. That was always risky, but using a sharp knife with the proper technique, I could slit the tape and slide the present from within its wrapping paper confines. The tricky part was getting it back in without tearing the paper. My mom tended to wrap presents tightly, and the slightest misstep would cause a rip that would expose my spying activities. Future Christmas sneaking was dependent upon my successful repackaging and taping up the presents.
This Christmas was different. I was sixteen and away from home. I was living in Germany as an exchange student. I hadn’t read a book in English for months. I was starving. I was used to reading more than a few books a week, and I couldn’t read that well in German. I was still reading children’s stories and comics as I learned the language. But at that moment I held something more powerful than the Holy Grail in my hands. I held genuine, printed in English, fresh off the press, BOOKS!
I wanted to exercise as much caution opening the present here as I did back in my own home. Would my German host family understand my deep desire to have my present early? What would they think of me being such a sneak? Did Germans even try to guess their Christmas presents early? Those questions were quickly tossed aside as I slit the tape and carefully pulled the boxed set out.
Dragons! This was going to be fun. The Dragons of Autumn Twilight. I couldn’t imagine what words were inside, but I didn’t need to wait long to find out. I quickly found another paperback that was a similar shape and size. I replaced the stolen book with this facsimile, rewrapped and re-taped the present, and put it carefully back under the tree.
I took the book to school and read in each of my classes. I propped up my textbooks in each class to hide the fact I was reading something else. Most of my instructors didn’t call on me often. I was, after all, the American kid who didn’t speak German all that well.
I read, and read. Sometimes I didn’t notice class had ended until there was a shuffling of students. I would quickly pack my paperback away until the next class.
I fell in love with the characters in this trilogy very quickly. Both dragons and magic leapt from the pages of the book. Each character had a richness in personality that I hadn’t experienced. I was quickly drawn in to their world. I could smell the spiced potatoes they ordered at the inn and felt the fear of the heroes as their world seemed to crumble around them.
I finished the first book all too soon. I repeated the trickery with the second and third books, and in three short days I had read all of the books. A tear had been shed, not because I was finished, but because a beloved friend had died in this story. I had finished using up my Christmas present. Some would say I ruined the surprise, but I was just as surprised as I would have been on Christmas morning. I just enjoyed my gift a little earlier than my family imagined.
As luck would have it, I fell ill. It started with a small pain in my stomach. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I knew I didn’t feel well. The pain grew worse as the days passed. Eventually, I couldn’t walk without pain and was limping as I was buying some presents for my host family. I finally told my host mom, Elke, that I was sick. She fetched my host dad, Dieter, who poked and prodded my stomach for a bit. I winced in pain and was whisked away to a local doctor.
The doctor performed a few tests and seemed to rapidly give instructions to Elke. I only understood two words: sofort and Krankenhaus – immediately and hospital.
I paged through my German-English dictionary and found the word: Blinddarmentzündung – appendicitis. I was prepped for surgery and experienced the fun of hospitalization in Germany. My appendix was removed the next morning without much fanfare.
As I was recovering, I was told to expect to be in the hospital for at least a few days. I would spend Christmas hospitalized. My host parents brought in a small Christmas tree to decorate my area. They also brought my presents. One by one I opened them. A t-shirt, Oreos, maple candy, peanut butter, and ... the books. My host family excitedly exclaimed, “At least you have the books to help pass the time here.”
And that I did. I read them again, twice. I never let on that I was a sneak and had already read them.