Jim took a deep breath of cold Pennsylvania air through his nose and exhaled through his mouth, experiencing the amusement that never truly grows out of when seeing one’s breath visibly dissolve.
Jim had to admit, there was a lot he liked about the warmer winters in Austin. He didn’t have to shovel the driveway on top of everything else there was to do; he didn’t need to help CeCe and Phillip put on five layers of clothes before taking them outside; the kids could open roller skates and scooters on Christmas morning and immediately test them out on the sunny roads in their neighborhood.
But there were times when he missed Scranton winters, the cold and the possibility of getting snow. Jim knew that at least half of it was nostalgia on his part, but he couldn’t help appreciating visible footprints and lopsided snowmen, evidence of kids at play. He and Pam often laughed at their Austin neighbors’ plastic snowmen decorating their bare paved driveways and green lawns, and seeing warm lights against smooth snow was a breath of fresh air just as much as the cold.
Remembering the real reason he was outside, Jim tossed two empty wrapping paper tubes and two collapsed boxes in the outdoor recycling bin, and headed back inside his mother-in-law’s house. Pam’s mom had taken CeCe and Phillip on a Christmas Eve walk to look at lights, giving Jim and Pam the opportunity to do last minute gift-wrapping and present-hiding before the big day.
Jim closed the back door and walked into the kitchen, snagging another piece of gingerbread before looking for Pam to give him his next assignment. He scanned the pile of presents under the tree and tried to remember what he had wrapped. “Where’s that nerf gun we got Phil?”
A quiet pop answered Jim’s question, and a foam bullet whizzed past his shoulder and landed under the dining room table.
“Oh, come on!” Pam groaned from the hallway.
“What were you trying to hit?”
“Not the floor, that’s for sure.” Pam walked into the kitchen with the yellow plastic toy in one hand and a small pout on her face.
“Testing out the kids’ toys, are we?”
“Just making sure he’ll like it.”
“Well, remember, this is the kid who put ketchup in his water gun so he could shoot ketchup onto his burger.”
Pam laughed. “I forgot about that.”
Jim retrieved the bullet from under the table. “Is that our last present?”
“Yeah. Can you text my mom and let her know it’s safe for them to come back?”
Phillip and CeCe came rolling through the front door a few minutes later, each of them singing a different Christmas song at the top of their lungs. Helene came in behind them with Phillip’s hat in one hand and CeCe’s mittens in the other.
“Sorry, Mom,” Pam said, taking the kids’ clothes.
“They’re fine,” Helene replied. “I’d be worried if they didn’t have a lot of energy tonight.”
CeCe abruptly stopped singing. “Oh no! Does Santa know we’re not in Texas?”
“Of course,” Pam said quickly. “He knows you’re here, but he might leave a few things for us at home, since he knows we have to pack up and fly back.”
“Oh! That’s smart,” CeCe said.
“Yeah, Santa is pretty smart,” Jim said with a little too much emphasis.
Pam shot him a warning look, but CeCe and Phil didn’t think anything of it. Reassured that Santa would still visit them, the kids got to work setting out cookies and milk. Helene offered to help with bedtime, and the kids’ attention quickly turned to Christmas pajamas and stories and seeing how long they could stall going to bed.
At last, CeCe was settled in Pam’s old bedroom and Phillip in Penny’s old bedroom, each of them with a pile of old stuffed animals they had found around the house. Phil had discovered a large raccoon plush that Penny had when she was younger, and Pam could tell they were going to have to pry it out of his hands when they left for home.
After making sure the kids were asleep, Jim, Pam, and Helene got to work setting out gifts and filling stockings. To their amusement, they found that the kids had already deposited Play-Doh figurines in everyone’s stockings (including their own), complete with bows and stickers.
“I can’t tell if this is a hot dog or an animal,” Jim said, examining the purple and neon green clump.
Pam squinted at the clay sculpture. “That’s a car.”
“Yeah. Well…” Pam tilted her head. “No.”
“I guess we’ll find out soon enough.” Jim put the Play-Doh back into Pam’s stocking and added some candy and a pair of beet earrings that he found on eBay.
After double checking that no presents had been forgotten and an appropriate number of cookies had disappeared from Santa’s plate, Jim and Pam said goodnight to Helene and headed downstairs to the guest bedroom.
“How are you feeling?” Jim asked once they were out of earshot.
Pam nodded slowly, mulling over her answer. “I’m… I’m good,” she said sincerely.
This was the first Christmas since Pam’s dad had passed away. Pam hadn’t been thinking much about her dad since he had passed in April, but now that they were back in Scranton for the holidays, there was so much that reminded her of him.
William and Helene had been divorced for a few years, so it wasn’t like Pam and Penny and their kids were having normal Christmases with their grandparents. Pam could tell that her parents wanted to make holidays harmonious for everyone else, and while these intentions were good, the unresolved issues and attempts at compromises often just made things more uncomfortable. She couldn’t have imagined it before, but Pam found herself missing those awkward situations now that she didn’t have anything else with her dad.
“I’m just grateful right now,” she continued. “I have a lot of happy memories to choose from.”
Jim smiled softly. “Yeah.”
He could tell that Christmas Eve had been a little tough on her, especially since Pam couldn’t really talk to Helene about how she was feeling. But he didn’t want to push her, so he just squeezed her shoulder and kissed her temple before heading into the bathroom.
Pam crawled under the covers and sighed contentedly. “Maybe this is the year the kids learn how to sleep in on Christmas morning.”
“Phil might actually do that. CeCe? Highly doubt it.”
“Oh, just let me get my hopes up,” Pam said playfully. “They slept until eight this morning. Maybe they’ll do it again.”
Jim turned off the bathroom light and joined Pam under the covers, pulling her against him. “One last thing,” he said as Pam rested her head on his chest. “Are we really going to Dwight and Angela’s tomorrow? I don’t want to leave your mom alone on Christmas.”
Pam smiled and rolled her eyes. “I couldn’t say no to them. And my mom will be just fine. We’re here for the rest of the week, and I think she’ll love a break from us for a few hours, to be honest.”
Before they left Austin, Pam had posted on Facebook that they were visiting her mom for the holidays, and Angela quickly invited the family over for Christmas dinner. Jim tried to get out of it, but there was nothing he could do.
“Is CeCe really going to have fun hanging out with three little boys?” Jim asked.
Dwight and Angela’s second son, named Jonah, had been born last year. Angela in particular seemed delighted with her pair of well-behaved boys. Neither of them looked very small though, which made sense since they had Dwight as a father.
“Are you concerned about CeCe or yourself?”
Pam grinned. “It’s going to be fine. Besides, I can tell how much you miss Dwight.”
“Please don’t talk about him when we’re in bed together.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Pam replied, leaning in to place a kiss on his cheek.
Pam awoke to CeCe breathing heavily two inches from her face.
“Good, you’re awake!” the little girl chirped.
“Cause you woke me up!” Pam said, tickling CeCe’s waist before pulling her into her arms.
“Phillip is still sleeping,” CeCe said.
“She’s making coffee cake.” CeCe propped herself up on Pam’s shoulder. “Is Daddy awake?”
Pam glanced to her right. “He’s pretending not to be.”
Jim smiled, his eyes still closed. “He must not be doing a very good job.”
“Can I go wake up Phillip?” CeCe asked.
“Go for it,” Jim said. “Thank you for asking. Then see if Grandma needs any help, okay?”
Once CeCe had bounded back up the stairs, Pam rolled over and snuggled against Jim’s chest. “Well, you called it.”
“She at least made it until sunrise,” Jim chuckled. He slung his arm around Pam’s waist and pressed his nose and lips into her hair. “We should get up before she finds a bullhorn or something.”
They went upstairs to find CeCe and a very bed-headed Phillip setting the table for breakfast, which mainly meant CeCe putting out plates and napkins, and Phillip putting leftover stickers and bows anywhere there was room on the tablecloth.
Phillip lit up and ran over to Jim and Pam. “Merry Christmas! Here, Mom, do you want a sticker?”
“Of course,” Pam said, allowing Phillip to put a Santa sticker on her shirt.
“Where’s mine?” Jim asked, feigning hurt.
“Oh, sorry, Dad. You can have the polar bear.”
After a breakfast that was slower than the kids wanted and faster than the adults wanted, the five of them settled in the living room to open presents. Phillip and CeCe kicked things off by presenting everyone with drawings they had made together; then they dove into their wrapped piles of new toys and books and clothes.
Between squeals and airborne wads of wrapping paper, Jim and the kids gave Pam a tablet and stylus, a watch, and a set of oven mitts, and Jim got a pair of running shoes, a portable charger, and a few books. The Halperts also gave Helene a hummingbird feeder, a case for her new smartphone, some stationery, and a pair of earrings.
“I think that’s everything,” Phillip announced, trying not to sound too hopeful.
Jim and Pam looked at each other and pretended to think.
“Actually,” Jim said, pulling his phone out of his pocket, “I got a text from Santa last night.”
“You did?!” Phillip said, and CeCe perked up beside him.
“Well, he told me that he left something back home for the two of you, and then he sent me a photo.” Jim pulled up a photo of the bikes he had assembled in the garage before they left for Scranton. Keeping the kids out of the garage for two days had been no easy task, but seeing their faces light up in this moment was absolutely worth it.
“New bikes! Thank you, Santa!” CeCe crowed.
Phillip nodded vigorously. “Yeah, thank you, Santa!”
Pam nudged Jim as the kids began organizing their gifts. “Santa did good this year.”
Jim smiled and slung his arm around her shoulder. “Only because he had Mrs. Claus do all the wrapping.”
“I keep telling you it’s not that hard.”
“That’s what she said,” they said at the same time.
After taking photos and cleaning up the living room, it was time to get dressed and get ready for spending the rest of the day at Schrute Farms.
“The kids are all set,” Jim said to Pam as he jogged down the stairs. “They’re playing in the living room, but I don’t think they’ll do that for very long.”
“I’m almost ready. We’ll be out of here in five minutes, I promise.”
Jim sat down on the bed and shook his head. “We could have saved money on gifts. Phillip is so happy playing with that old raccoon.”
“I’ll see if Penny wants to give it to him,” Pam said.
Jim watched Pam put on a pair of hoop earrings and fluff her bangs until they looked about the same as they had before. Their reflected eyes met, and he couldn’t help but smile. “You look nice.”
He said some variation of this to her at least once a day, and had since they started dating, but she melted a little anyway. “Thank you.”
Jim crossed the room in two steps and took her waist into his arms, turning her around. “This feels like old times,” he said as he pushed hair away from her neck.
“Oh, you know. Getting ready together and gearing up for a day of Dwight.” He hooked his finger under her chin and kissed her softly on the lips.
“MOM! Phillip licked his hand and then touched me!” CeCe yelled down the stairs.
“No, I didn’t!”
“Yes, you did!”
Pam sighed and let her head fall against Jim’s shoulder. “I’m thinking Dwight doesn’t sound so bad at this point.”
“Let’s see how his kids are before we make any more conclusions,” Jim said, taking Pam’s hand as they walked up the stairs.
At last, the kids were in their booster seats for the forty-minute drive to Schrute Farms. As they drove out of the neighborhood, CeCe began drawing in the condensation on the car window. “Am I supposed to be excited to see these people?”
“Jim!” Pam chuckled and turned around to face the kids in the backseat. “You don’t have to remember them. We knew them when you guys were little.”
“Are we going to have fun there?” Phillip asked.
“Well they have two kids and lots of space to play outside, so I think you’ll have plenty to do.”
“Are we having dinner there?” CeCe asked.
“Are they going to have dessert?” Phillip asked.
“How about some fun music?” Jim said, turning on the radio in Helene’s old car.
The kids were still skeptical of the destination, but they sang along to Christmas music anyway, and the rest of the drive passed by fairly quickly. Soon they were driving through snowy fields, passing the iconic scarecrow on their familiar path.
Pam smiled, memories dawning. “The first time Daddy and I took a trip together, we came here.”
“What did you guys do?” CeCe asked.
“Oh, we just… hung out,” Jim said. “With Dwight.”
They pulled up to the house, and the kids immediately forgot their skepticism in favor of the huge trampoline in the yard. Both of them were doing tricks on it—well, Phillip was trying to—before Jim and Pam could even get out of the car.
“Come on, let’s go inside and say hi first,” Jim called in an attempt to pry his kids from living their dreams.
“They’re fine for another few minutes,” Pam said. “I’ll stay with them; you go get Dwight and Angela.”
“But that’s just what Dwight is hoping will happen.”
Pam cocked her head and looked at Jim long enough for him to get the hint that he was being ridiculous. Well, fine, then. Jim took a deep breath, trotted up the snowy porch steps, knocked on the farmhouse door, and braced himself.
The assault came in a different form than he was expecting. His best friend-nemesis threw open the door as if he had been waiting behind it and grasped Jim in a hug that almost knocked him over.
“Uh, hey Dwight,” said Jim as loudly as he could with his throat against Dwight’s shoulder. “Good to see you.”
Dwight pulled back and patted Jim on both shoulders. “Where’s everyone else?”
“The kids found the trampoline,” Jim said, jerking his thumb behind him. “Is that okay?”
“Oh, of course!” Dwight said with a smile that was both genuine and Joker-like. “Let me find Phillip. Angela is putting Jonah down for a nap, and then she’ll be down, too.”
A little boy with curly blond hair and a puffy blue coat suddenly appeared at Dwight’s side.
“There he is!” Jim said. He held out his hand, figuring Phillip wouldn’t remember him. “Hey, I’m Jim.”
The little boy gaped at Jim and then looked up at his dad.
“You shake it. It’s a common practice to shake people’s hands,” Dwight explained. “An odd practice, if not one that helps keep our immune systems on their toes.”
Phillip tentatively took Jim’s fingers in his hand and wiggled them back and forth. It was about what Jim expected from one of Dwight’s kids.
“Well, my kids are playing on the trampoline,” Jim said. “Do you want to go meet them?”
The three of them walked outside, and CeCe and Phil hopped off the trampoline upon seeing a possible playmate.
“Hi! I’m CeCe.”
“I’m Phillip,” the blond-haired boy said.
Phillip Halpert lit up. “Phillip is my name too!”
The boys laughed as if no one had ever told them two people could have the same name.
“I’m named after my mom’s grandpa,” Phillip Halpert said proudly.
“I’m named after my mom’s cat that died,” replied Phillip Schrute.
“My mom’s grandpa died, too.”
“I got a sled for Christmas. Wanna see it?”
The three adults smiled as the boys ran towards the barn together.
“Phillip knows he needs to stay on this side of the house,” Dwight said. “Shall the rest of us go inside?”
By the time they made it to the house, Angela had successfully put Jonah down for his nap, and she exchanged hugs and hellos with Jim and Pam and CeCe.
“CeCe, oh my goodness!” Angela said. “I know adults say this all the time, but you were so little the last time I saw you!”
“I’m the second-tallest girl in my class,” CeCe said.
“I believe it! You’re in first grade, right?”
“That’s great!” Angela looked around as if she were about to tell a secret. “Listen, I was going to go make brownies. Do you want to help me with that?”
CeCe nodded and happily followed Angela into the kitchen.
Dwight turned to Jim and Pam. “I had some gifts for your kids, but those can wait until later today or after dinner.”
“That’s nice of you, Dwight.” Jim turned to whisper in Pam’s ear. “We didn’t bring anything for them, did we?”
“I brought the Matchbox cars I was planning to put in Phil’s stocking,” Pam said.
“You are the best,” Jim said, giving her shoulder a quick squeeze. “Where’s Mose?” he asked more loudly. “I didn’t see him on the drive in.”
“Mose is actually visiting my sister and her family,” Dwight said. “This is the longest he’s been away from the farm, but he’s in good hands.”
“I’m sure that’s been a big change for you,” Pam said.
“Why? I’m not the one away from home.”
Pam just sighed and smiled at Jim. Dwight hadn’t changed.
“I’m going to go check on the boys. I’m sure they’re fine, but that sled is pretty heavy, and they might get tired of dragging it up the hills.”
Jim and Pam exchanged glances again as the door closed. Maybe Dwight had changed.
“That was odd,” Jim said. “Even for Dwight.”
“I guess it’s still weird to think of him as a dad,” Pam said.
Jim thought for a minute. The boys were with Dwight, the occasional yells from outside only reassuring. CeCe was with Angela, and Jim heard the unusual sound of Angela laughing between the whirrs of the electric mixer.
“Ten bucks says that the irrigation room has been replaced with a cat shrine.”
Pam burst out laughing. “I’ll take that bet.”
They crept up the stairs since they knew Jonah was sleeping, and sure enough, they discovered that the Nighttime Room had been converted into a nursery with a crib and a changing table and fewer glow-in-the-dark stars. On the right was the America Room, which looked like it had become Phillip’s bedroom. The sheet metal American flag and map of the United States were still on the walls, and there was a twin bed in one corner and a wooden dresser in another.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the indoor bathroom that connected the two bedrooms.
“Jeez, this would have been nice when we were here,” Pam said, flicking on the light. “Why couldn’t we have an indoor toilet?”
“I think one of us would have had to marry Dwight for that to happen.”
The last door in the hallway was the Irrigation Room. “Moment of truth,” Pam said as she pushed the door open.
Almost everything looked the same as it had eight years ago, with familiar obtrusive pipes and low ceilings and the small rocking chair in the corner. There were a few changes that were clearly Angela’s doing, like throw pillows on the beds and rocking chair, a porcelain doll on the dresser—little touches that made the room cozier if not still undeniably vintage. Pam laughed at the fact that the low twin beds were still firmly separated, a reflection of both Dwight and Angela.
“Does this count as a shrine?” Jim asked. He held up an alarm clock with cats on the face.
“Darn.” Jim set the alarm to go off at 3:30 a.m. and motioned to the master bedroom. “May I?”
“Oh, stop it. They have kids now.”
“You’re right,” Jim said. He turned the clock off and set it back on the dresser. “We need to be pranking their kids.”
“That is not what I meant,” Pam replied with laughter in her voice nonetheless.
The front door banged shut, and less than a minute later, CeCe was upstairs. “There you guys are! Dwight wants us all in the living room. We’re opening presents.”
“I’ll go get the cars for the boys,” Pam said to Jim as they went downstairs. “Don’t prank any kids while I’m gone.”
Jim nodded. “Okay, I’ll wait for you.”
Pam dismissed his comment with a wave and dashed outside to the car before joining everyone else in the living room. Jonah had woken up from his nap by this point, and the Halperts spent some time meeting him before Dwight stepped to the front of the room.
“At the risk of being emotional, I just want to take a moment to thank the Halperts for spending Christmas Day with us. I know this wasn’t what you were planning to do when you decided to make the trip to Scranton, but we really appreciate this time we’re getting with you today. And now that that’s over, youngest first,” he said, handing Phillip a small tan box with a red bow.
“Oh, a knife!” Phillip yelled. He pulled a large maroon pocketknife out of its Velcro sheath and immediately opened one of the blades.
“Now, this is not a toy,” Dwight said. “Every boy must learn how to wield a blade for hunting and self-defense.”
Phillip nodded and then spent some more time waving the blade around and demonstrating how little he understood what Dwight had just said.
“Why don’t I hold onto that for you, bud,” Jim said, holding out his hand. “I think it’s CeCe’s turn.”
The girl smiled and carefully untied the ribbon from her box before pulling out an identical black sheath. “Oh, a knife,” CeCe said politely.
“Now, this is not a toy,” Dwight said. “Every girl must learn how to wield a blade for hunting and self-defense.”
CeCe stared at Dwight and then glanced at Jim and Pam to see if he was serious. “Um, thank you!”
CeCe quickly handed her knife to Jim, who stuck both of them in his pocket. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to bring these home on the plane,” he whispered to Pam.
“We’ll figure it out later,” she whispered back. “Here, Phillip, this is for you and your brother.” She handed Phillip a snowman printed gift bag.
“Ooh, cars!” the little boy said as he tossed the tissue paper behind him. He dumped the bag on the floor and began sorting through the four plastic packages. “Jonah, you can have this one.”
The four kids played together for a little while, with the cars but not with the knives. Dwight put on some Christmas music that was a mix of classic German songs and intense instrumental solos, but the kids didn’t seem to mind.
Angela made dinner a little while later, and thankfully it was a much tamer culinary experience than any of the Halperts were expecting. Just soup and grilled sandwiches and not a beet in sight. Jim and Pam had to wonder if fatherhood had made Dwight develop more reasonable expectations for what children would eat.
As Dwight and Angela cleared the table, Jim picked up his spoon and twirled it in his fingers. “You know, this is the kind of silverware that you can bend,” he said, as though the thought had just occurred to him.
CeCe grinned, having seen her dad play this prank on her friends many times. The two Phillips remained none the wiser, and leaned in close to watch.
Jim pulled a nickel out of his pocket and carefully put it between his thumbs and index fingers, while also holding his spoon behind his clasped hands with the scoop visible in front. Then he let the spoon fall almost to the table, pretending to strain as he bent the metal.
“My mom isn’t going to like it if you bend her silverware!” Phillip Schrute said, sounding as though he were on the verge of tears.
Jim rubbed the spoon handle and pretended to smooth it back to its original state before letting it fall back onto the table.
Phillip’s jaw dropped. “How did you do that?!”
Jim shrugged. “I bent it back.” He caught CeCe’s eye and winked at her.
Pam smiled at the exchange. She never got tired of seeing Jim bond with their kids in this way. This thoughtful yet carefree side was the root of her earliest memories with him, and she loved that her kids got to experience it, too.
It was a surprise to all four adults how difficult it was to say goodbye. Time and distance and the shared experience of raising kids made the day together sweeter, and even Dwight seemed a little emotional as the Halperts prepared to leave Schrute Farms.
As he navigated the car down the snowy unpaved road, Jim realized that his kids would be growing up with different Christmases than he did. His kids would have a very different reaction to snow, seeing it as more of a novelty. It looked like they would be living hundreds of miles away from family for at least a few years, meaning there might be a lot of winter traveling in their future.
Pam reached for Jim’s hand on the steering wheel and kissed it before bringing their arms to rest on the console. “I feel like Christmas comes sooner every year,” she said as she rubbed his gloved knuckles with her thumb. “Do you ever feel like it’s all going faster?”
Jim nodded. “Yeah. But I also feel like the best is yet to come.”
He looked at the kids in the rearview mirror. Both of them were dead asleep, the parts of their faces not buried in hoods and scarves rosy from warmth.
Not a bad Christmas Day.