Christmas Land – Chapters 1 & 2

Christmas Land the novel is coming to Amazon this Christmas season. You can be the first to read it here on Tripp Blog. Please be advised that this version is the rough draft, so suggested corrections or typos are appreciated and can be emailed to the following: terrytrippwriting@gmail.com

Christmas Cindy

Chapter 1

“I’m serious; it really talked to me,” Candy exclaimed. Her real name was Candace, but everyone called her candy.

“Yup, okay. I hung out with the monster under my bed last night. We drank some hot coco and played on our phones for a good hour or so,” Cindy replied to her friend.

“Cindy, I’m serious.” Candy let her know she wasn’t joking around.

A moment of silence went by.

And then another as Cindy steadily steered on the evening road. She finally responded, “Was this a real snowman? Like made of snow or someone in a costume?”

Candy pulled back her curly, blonde hair back to explain, “I was walking back home from checking my mailbox, and I went past Mr. Elwood’s old house—you know, Grace’s late grandfather—and there was a snowman in the front yard, probably made by the Gustafson’s kids. So I walk past it, and I hear in a voice that was more in my head but not my own say—.”

“What the heck!” Cindy yelled as she slammed on her breaks. The cute car slid wildly on the icy asphalt until it crunched into a short wall of fresh snow. “Stupid idiots on their phones!”

The two got out of the tiny, red car that Cindy got five years ago when she was in high school. After examining it for damage, she saw it was just a little powder snow that she had ran into. The car in front of them had driven off like nothing had happened. The two girls got back into their car and drove off, talking about how they just almost died.

Cindy dropped Candy off in her front yard. It was almost night now, and Candy’s foot slid a little on the icy sidewalk as she began to walk to her house.

“Shopping tomorrow after work?” Cindy asked.

“Of course, but let’s go down to West Gate again.” West Gate was a large mall about 45 minutes out of town down in the valley.

“Stay dandy, Candy!”

“See you, skinny Cindy.”

Cindy wasn’t the skinny, little girl from their childhood, but the nick name stuck. She had filled out into a still thin but womanly figure, her eyes large and blue with mid-length, wavy, light brunette hair. She had always secretly envied Candy’s golden curls since her own blonde hair darkened and straightened when became a teen. But she hated her nose. It wasn’t the cute button nose that other girls had; it was long and pointed—not ugly but just unique.

Cindy pulled off back into the street as snow began to lightly fall onto her windshield. As she passed the Gustafson’s house, she looked across the street to the abandoned house where her old friend’s grandfather once lived. Grace had grown up with Cindy and Candy but had gone off to college by the beach and never returned to their little, country town of Timberton Heights, as a lot of young people did. When the old man died, no one moved into the house, and it slowly died too.

The Gustafson family were a different group of people. The husband and wife had five children, and like their parents, every single child had fiery red hair and a face full of freckles. They always seemed to get into any mess they could find. A few years ago, they started kidnapping dogs and then waited for reward signs to go up in the town. As soon as the signs went up, one of the children happened to find the lost dog and happily collected the reward. After several dogs people began catching on, and the kids were eventually found out. The owners of the kidnapped dogs demanded their money back from Mr. And Mrs. Gustafson’s, but no one ever received anything.

As Cindy glanced in her rear-view mirror, she noticed a peculiar snowman—sticks for hands like he was waving, rocks for eyes, carrot for nose, and an old scarf wrapped around its neck. It even had an old top hat like the epic children’s tale. She thought if it just had a corn cob pipe, it might even come to life.

At 10:00 that night, a buzzing came from Cindy’s phone on her nightstand. It was a text from Candy’s mother asking if Candy was with her.

Cindy sat in bed that night disappointed that she had nothing helpful to offer Candy’s mother. Candy didn’t have a car. She didn’t appear to be texting anyone else that night. Cindy and Candy shared an honest friendship where she would have mentioned any plans of meeting up with anyone else. She texted Candy’s mother back an empty answer and stared at the shadows on her wall that came in through the window’s curtain from naked, swaying trees.

While the dryness of her eyes scratched against her closing lids, Cindy finally began to drift as her head weighed heavily into her pillow. Fading images flashed through her mind in the silence of her bedroom until one stuck. It was a childhood memory of her, Candy, and Grace at her elementary school’s Christmas performance when she was in the first grade. It was a special year because her class was telling the nativity story, and Cindy got to play the Christmas angel. All the other girls wanted to play Mary but not Cindy. She had no real memory of her father because he didn’t stay around after she was born. But this Christmas he was in town, and she was going to meet him for the real first time. She didn’t want to wear the rags that Mary wore. She wanted to wear the pretty white dress and the halo that the angel wore. She wanted her father to think she was beautiful and decide to stay in town to be with her.

The evening of the Christmas performance, her class was doing one final rehearsal. She, Candy, and Grace were playing near the stage, but Cindy made sure to be extra cautious not to get her white dress dirty. Their teacher moved them all backstage. Cindy peaked through the heavy side curtains and found her mother and grandmother in the audience. She looked at all the men sitting out them and wondered which one was her dad. She worried about what she would call him. Father? No, Daddy? Dad?

The teacher motioned them to move out onto the stage to take their positions. The stage lights burned bright, and all the of the audience slipped into darkness. She stood up straight and smiled from cheek to cheek like her grandma had rehearsed with her. When her lines came, she said them from memory with absolute perfection. The audience applauded cheerfully as the holy nativity was performed with such brilliant innocence. After the other classes all performed their skits, the principal made his concluding seasonal speech, and the students were released to go back with their parents. The skinny, little angel searched through the tall towers of adults looking for her mother and grandmother eager for the moment that she would see her father. Any one of the grown men around her could be him. She stood straight and walked as she had seen proper little girls on television walk, not knowing if her father was already watching her.

“Absolutely wonderful, my dear!” her grandmother bend over to hug her.

“You were the perfect angel. So beautiful,” her mother sweetly said as she got down on one knee to be on her level.

“Where’s my dad?” she asked with eyes moving back and forth to all the movement around her.

Her mother’s smile turned into a straight line. “Honey, he didn’t make it.”

His name was Jack, and he didn’t make it. That’s all she ever knew of her father. That and supposedly they had the same nose.

Just like that childhood night many years ago, this night was going to be one of those nights as well, where Cindy knew she would sleep without sleeping.

Chapter 2

Cindy woke up to the 6:00 alarm that was set on her phone. She quickly noticed three new text messages form Candy’s mother. She scanned through them and texted her back quickly explaining how she really had no idea where Candy was. She figured their plans to go to West Gate would be canceled because Candy’s parents were going to be furious when Candy finally did come home. Although Candy was 22, living at home meant living under her parents’ rules, and staying out all night was inexcusable, if she was okay. Cindy worried a little, hoping that Candy would text soon.

Unlike Candy, Cindy lived on her own in a small apartment. The word her landlord called it was tidy. She grew up in a house with her mother and grandmother. As soon as Cindy graduated high school, her mother married a man named Zack and decided to move away to the coast, which was a few states away. They offered for her to live with them, but it all seemed too different, too weird, and she didn’t want to leave her grandma alone. She liked living at her grandma’s house. There was history to it, and it was on the outskirts of town. The backyard opened up to trees and mountains, and there was an old wedding alter back there that was once hung over her grandma and her grandpa some long history ago. Through years of rain, snow, wind, and sun, her grandma added support to it in the winter and grew vines and flowers on it during the spring. She always called it her magical doorway to the past. She would sometimes go out just to stand under it and smile as if she could see a world of past memories.

Last November, her grandmother suffered a sudden heart attack. She spent three weeks in the hospital trying to cover, but her body began to fail one part at a time until there was no hope.

That house now lay abandoned.

Cindy didn’t want to leave Timberton Heights; she didn’t want to leave her past. She moved into her apartment when her mother sold the family house to an investor from out of town, but no one ever moved into it. No one visited it. It now joined the collection of the other abandoned houses in Timberland that were left to ruin until the land was worth enough to tear down and build something else.

Mostly alone now, Cindy refused to leave her hometown. The original buildings that lined the downtown area contained both wooden logs and red brink, and they made up most of the downtown area with the mom and pop stores and restaurants. Hills and mountains surrounded the town with snowy caps for half the year. This year, Timberton Heights had already experienced early snow that came right after Thanksgiving, making the town already feel like Christmas.

Cindy’s grandmother, who she called Nana loved Christmas, and Timberton Heights was what people called a Christmas town. Cindy had a year to prepare on how she would celebrate Christmas this year without Nana. She finally decided on putting up a waist-high Christmas tree in her apartment, a wreath on the front door, and a few other Christmassy decorations around the small space, which wasn’t much at all compared to how Nana would decorate. But like Nana, she did put out cinnamon scented pinecones, which made her white-walled space feel a little more like home.

It was 6:15 now, and she finally pushed through her weighing blankets to get out of bed. She turned on her Christmas tree lights and went to her refrigerator for a class of cold milk, ignoring the cold chill that broke through the thin walls of her apartment. She stared at the colorful lights on the little tree, and thought about how Nana would be proud of her. After making her bed and waking up in a warm shower, and getting ready for the day, she stepped out into a few inches of fresh powder snow. The streets were already plowed, so she would be fine getting to work this Friday morning.

She worked for a small app development company that was working hard to take off. They were called Alter Dimensions, and they were the most technological company in the town of Timberton Heights. The town was known for its distribution of firewood throughout the country, so an app company was rare and unusual. There were only five employees who were a part of Alter Dimensions. Cindy was one of the two graphic designers, so she spent most of her time behind a computer screen on Adobe Illustrator meticulously creating vector images for every part of the company’s newest app.

Alter Dimensions’ work space was simple with one enclosed office for the owner Cliff and open wide desks for the rest of the employees. Cliff was about forty and known for his multitasking. He always appeared to be busy but not necessarily always productive. The other graphic designer in the office was Tyler Jamison. People called him TJ. It wasn’t really shorter than Tyler, but it’s what people did called him. He was really into video gaming and running his YouTube video game channel, and he always wore his red hoodie over his head. There were also two programmers who sat in the corner and didn’t really speak that much to anyone. They did the crutch of the work of the company, but you wouldn’t even know they were there most of the time.

Right before lunch the door burst open, and Mr. Woolworth came pushing through with his arms holding warm drinks. “Merry Christmas!” he hollered. “I have hot chocolates for all of you.”

Mr. Woolworth was Alter Dimensions’ main and only investor. He was in his sixties and retired. His wife ran off after her retired, and he never bothered to go after her. He was now obsessed with the youthful app company and wanted to live vicariously through its success, so he normally came in on Friday’s for a few minutes to hang out and steal some of the youth of the office.

Cindy said, “Thanks, Mr. Woolworth, but it’s only December 1st today.”

“Exactly, and the Christmas season started after Thanksgiving dinner. I’m sorry I’m late.”

TJ went for his hot chocolate, “Hey, I’m not complaining. Let’s have Merry Christmas all year long.” He lightly toasted his drink to Mr. Woolworth.

After the usual greetings, Mr. Woolworth always shared his newest idea of an app, although he barely used his own smartphone; he was still fascinated with the idea of technology and its association with youth.

“So I’ve been thinking …” is how he always started. “How about an app for walking your dog? We can call it Dog’s Best Friend. It can include GPS maps of all the streets and trails that are dog friendly.”

And after these weekly ideas that almost never got carried out, the entire team would nod and agree excitedly as if they were eager to drop everything they were doing to take on a whole new project.

What was really special about Mr. Woolworth was that he came in each year and decorated the workspace with for the Christmas season. This reminded Cindy of Nana.

During her lunch Cindy texted Candy multiple times to try to find out where she was last night. She never received a text back. She really started to worry now, but maybe Candy’s mom took away her cell phone, or maybe the battery died. She tried to reason with herself all the possibilities of why her friend wasn’t texting her back. She finished out her long day with all of this on her mind and went home.

It was one of those Friday nights that you look forward to until it actually arrives because you remember that there’s nothing to do. There wasn’t really much to do at all for a single girl in her twenties in Timberton Heights. Cindy decided that she would walk around the corner to the local bookstore. At least she wouldn’t be alone.

She crunched her way through the flattened snow as it reflected street lights mixed with the Christmas colors on houses nearby. This street, like many streets in Timberton Heights during the Christmas season, exhibited stringed Christmas decorations hung across it, garland with bells and angels; the decorations varied from street to street.

The bookstore was an old bank building converted into a welcoming bookstore. Different rooms were set up for different genres of literature. This was an amusing setup that the locals in town enjoyed, especially since the horror and suspense novels were kept in an old safe with the thick door unhinged but still leaning against the wall for nostalgic purposes. As Cindy walked through the bookstore, the old wooden floor creaked with every step and even sank in a little. A section of the bookstore featured used books that smelled like ancient libraries, but most of the books in the store were new.

She walked around as her hand lighted grazed the illustrated covers on the bookshelves. She thought about all the stories. Each with a character. Each someone a little bit like her. She wondered if she would ever have a story, or would she just design apps for people to entertain themselves to escape life a little more.

A Christmas display caught her eye, and near the top of the display was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, along with other popular classics like The Gift of the Magi and Twas the Night Before Christmas. Elaborate Christmas cards sat at the bottom on the display featuring scenes of painted snow and lights—not too different than Timberton Heights. It was littles things like this that made Cindy like her town, and if Nana were there with her, she would marvel at the display with her and probably comment about the first time she read A Christmas Carol and talk about an old Christmas painting that her father once painted that was similar to the cards.

Cindy couldn’t image a Christmas without snow, especially one at the beach. Yes, she enjoyed the beach in the summer and definitely went out to visit her mother and stepdad, but it was Christmastime, and at Christmastime she wanted to be in a Christmas Land. Nana understood this; her mother, not so much. This brought Cindy an odd sense of abandonment—not because her mother moved away but because she actually didn’t care too much for Christmas.

Cindy would agree with her mother that the snow was sometimes hard to live in, and it was definitely cold, but that’s what brought people together—the cold.

Christmas was an odd sort of paradoxical holiday for Cindy. What should have been a dark, cold, and bleak time of year was actually warm, as people would come out and be with each other around a fire. It was colorful, as people put up bright lights that reflected off the snowy grown to create even more light. It was hopeful and full, and streets, homes, yards, malls were all decorated with icons of seasonal stories that pointed to hope for all.

Yes, this was Christmas.

Where people say, “God bless us, every one!”

Where people sing that war is over.”

Where people dream of the pure snow washing over the town.

Where people go rockin’ around the Christmas tree.

It truly was the most wonderful time of year.

But Cindy looked around the bookstore and didn’t see anyone. The music that was on when she first walked into the store was turned off. She thought that maybe they were closing.

It was silent now.

She decided to go back home.

Cindy was careful not to slip on the outside sidewalk that was bordered with snow. As she walked only a few cars drove by, and it felt much darker than it had before. Her footsteps echoed on the cold concrete. Her hands sunk deeply into her coat pocket, wrapping her coat tightly around her.

She felt something nearby.

Behind her.

But when she looked, it was nothing.

Her speed increased, and she glanced more quickly this time to find a figure behind. She looked around for nearby cars or other people walking on the street, but there was nothing.

Her body shivered with the cold. She looked behind her again to check on the figure. It appeared to be a man in deep, dark clothing, hood hanging far over his face.

She sharply turned the corner of her street and walked even faster.

The figure did the same.

Her shoes tapping the ground echoed off the quiet building walls, and the sound soon doubled with his. Looking over her shoulder one last time, he was there.

Underarm Deodorant

Old Woman

Not everyone is lucky enough to know their great-grandmother, but I was. Grandma Patterson is what we called her. From Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, she and my great-grandfather brought their many children over to California for a better life. She spent her time working in the laborious fields and raising her 10 children.

When I knew her, she was already old. She wore her hair pulled back tightly into a brown bun that rested on the back of her head. She mostly wore long straight dresses that hung like giant t-shirts. She was overweight some, and she hunched over when she walked.

And her eye vision was failing.

Back then, people didn’t always wear sunglasses when working outside in the fields, and a lifetime of abuse from the unforgiving sun did a number on my Grandma Patterson.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was chubby with an acne covered face and a mouth full of metal. My undiagnosed OCD caused me to slick my hair straight down with a perfect part so not a single hair would ever dare go out of place. I was extremely shy, awkward, and my best friends went by the names of Nintendo and Sega. Needless to say, I didn’t have girls chasing after me, and I didn’t blame them.

For Christmas that year, I remember unwrapping a Christmas present from Grandma Patterson. I think it was the last one I ever remember receiving from her. It was a green bottle of spray deodorant.

Yes, underarm deodorant.

I opened it up not knowing how to react. I was still at the young age when body odor didn’t exist, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I forced out a “Thank you!” with a decent smile.

My great-grandma stood up and walked over to me hunched over. She leaned in close to me and said, “You spray a little of that here and there, and you’ll have to fight those little girlies off of you.” She motioned like she was spraying it on both sides of my neck.

It then made sense to me and my observing parents that my Grandma Patterson thought she bought me spray cologne. Like I said earlier, her eyesight was failing.

Not too long later, I visited her with my family, and she said to me, “Terry, I bet all those little girlies are after you now, aren’t they?”

I answered awkwardly, “I don’t know.”

She continued, “Well, this is what you do. You need to get yourself a baseball bat in one hand and a croquet stick in the other, so when the girlies come after you on the right, you can knock them off with the left, and when they come after you on the left, you can knock them off with the right.”

I thought she really must not be able to see the dorky looking kid standing right in front of her; the girls at my school didn’t want anything to do with me.

On our way home that night, I silently chuckled in the backseat of our family minivan. And after thinking about it some more, it was nice to have someone see something in me I didn’t see in myself, even if that person was going blind. It was encouraging that she saw something in me that she thought others would find attractive.

A few years later, my acne cleared up, my braces were taken off, and my hair hung more loosely and naturally as it grew out in a blond, suffer style. I lost weight and spent time outside swimming in my family’s new pool as my skin darkened into a healthy shade. With my newly gained confidence, I traded in my timid shyness for a gregarious, extroverted personality.

And the girlies started to chase after me.

My Grandma Patterson didn’t get to see me graduate high school or college. She didn’t live that long. But she didn’t need to see those events because even with her blind eyes, she saw me—the real me.

I pray to be a little more like her and see others not with my eyes but with something more. I hope to see their future possibilities. I desire to be a builder of people and error on the side of encouragement.

There’s already enough honest evaluation. There’s enough tough love. Even after the silly self-esteem movement in the 1980s and this crazy post-modern society we live in now, we still need people to see in us what isn’t there yet.

We all need a Grandma Patterson who will give us our own underarm deodorant.

The Librarian

I was around eight years old, and it was about once a month that our teacher took us to the school’s library to check out a book. For me, this was an exciting time. Out of all the books in the entire library, I got to choose one to take home for an entire month.

But I couldn’t really read that well.

With my speech disorder, sounding out words didn’t really work (if it ever works). But I knew there was something valuable about them—stories.

I think Mr. Bo, the librarian, knew that too. He was an elderly man who shared a resemblance with Mr. Rogers, the children’s show host.

I distinctly remember him having our class all sit together on the carpet as he gently brought out a worn book that he treated like an old friend. He carefully held the green book and lightly turned each page as he read to us The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. He ended the story in a dry voice as he read about how all the boy wanted was to be with the tree and how the tree was happy. He slowly closed the book, sat it down on the table next to him, and patted it with his weathered fingers.

“Do you know what that book reminds me of?” he asked the class of children on the floor.

No one answered.

“My parents,” the old man said.

Being only a kid, I somehow knew that was a good book, and I also knew Mr. Bo was a good man.

For a number of months, I would always check out the same book. It was a large illustrated book of fairytales. To me, it was so much better than the other books because it contained multiple stories instead of just one.

While the students were allowed to look through all the books, I looked with them even though I knew I was going to renew the book of fairytales once again. Finally, I stood in line to have the book renewed.

When I placed the old book on the counter, Mr. Bo said, “This book is getting old, isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“An old book like this needs to retire to a special home where someone can take care of it? Would you want to take it home and take care of it?”

I smiled and shyly said, “Yes.”

Mr. Bo opened up the front cover and took out the library card covered with dated stamps. He then very carefully pulled out the cardholder that had been glued on the back of the front cover. He handed me the book and smiled.

At the end of the school year, my school held its end of the year awards assembly. My mom was in the back videotaping it with her large, rectangular, over the shoulder camcorder. I was just a regular kid, so I never got the best reader award or the best athlete award. I was always the good, quiet kid in class.

Towards the end of the awards assembly, the principal announced there was one more award that was very special. It was the library award, and only one student in the entire school would receive it.

Mr. Bo steadily made his way up the stairs.

My name was called.

I feel like Mr. Bo believed in me. He didn’t really know me. We never held a real conversation. But he saw something in me. And I saw something in him.

After I moved from that small town, I remember hearing that he passed away, and the school named the library after him.

I still have that old book of fairytales somewhere up in my attic safely stored away in a box. That collection of stories prepared me for the real stories I would encounter in life.

The stories I would experience, create, and tell.

Mr. Bo saw something in me and was a small part of my story although he never knew it. As leaders in this sometimes-confusing world, I hope we can see things in others. I pray that we can believe in people even after years of disappointment.

Let us be stories.

Childhood Home

There’s something special about one’s childhood home. I was born in Bakersfield, California. When I was two, my parents moved out to Derby Acers. Just to give you an idea of this area, some people called it “Dirty Acers.” But to me it was home, and a wonderful home at that.

My parents were in their very early twenties when they bought a brand new, double-wide mobile home and placed it on a quarter acer of land. They put up a nice fence and divided the backyard for a horse corral. I remember having a swing set, a tree to climb in, a little area designated for our doughboy pool, an orchid for my mom, a long, extended drive to skateboard down, and still plenty of room for a young boy’s invisible adventures. It was in that backyard that my best friend Matt and I fought off alien soldiers who hovered over us in a giant flying saucer. Other days we were fighting off medieval warriors who were invading our castle as I was a knight and Matt was a wizard.

A dog named Boy barked in excitement at the imaginary scenes as my mom baked a cake inside waiting for my dad to get home from work.

I lived in that house until my family moved to Bakersfield at age 10, so the majority of my innocent childhood was spent there.

It really was a perfect place to grow up as a kid. I left my bike in the front yard, and there was never a thought about someone stealing it. Doors were often left open for a sweet breeze, and most of the time they were unlocked. We had horses, cats, bunnies, dogs, chickens, a pig, and three-wheelers.

The foothills and mountains that surrounded the valley were close and always clear, and there was something special about the sunset that fell down over them. There was time then too. Time to watch cartoons. Time to play outside. Time to stare at my mother as she made dinner or organized her records and folded laundry. Time to wait on the front porch to see if I could spot my dad’s work truck driving home on the main road a few blocks away. Time to think.

My younger sister, Amber, was about seven years younger than me. Since we moved to Bakersfield when I was nine, and she was around three, she didn’t get to experience the same childhood I did.

A few years ago, when I was in my early thirties, and she in her twenties, we made plans to grab lunch as we tried to do every few weeks. Christmas was approaching, and we were looking for some place special to eat. I thought up the idea of driving out to Taft for lunch and another 15 minutes to Derby Acers to show her where she first lived. I was surprised that she wanted to join me on this adventure. She had recently gotten engaged, and we would get to use the long drive to catch up.

The road went from straight, long lanes to hilly roads and then to a small two-lane road surrounded by oilrigs and foothills. Turning into our, I guess you could call it a neighborhood, the road faded to dirt. My sister jerked around in my truck as we went over the uneven dirt.

We drove past my old best friend’s house, Matt, and then turned left. There in the middle of the dirt road, I stopped in reverence to show my sister her first home.

After a few seconds of silence and an odd look on my sister’s face, she said, “Why did Mom and Dad live here?”

I looked to examine my childhood home. The fence had fallen. The grass has turned to dirt. The orchid was gone to just an empty dry space with scattered weeds. The pool has vanished. No dog barked eagerly to see me. It was a pathetic sight.

I tried to explain to Amber what it was once like—the fine details of every bit of energy that Mom and Dad put into it to make it a fine home for their two children. But then I realized something.

It was more accurate in my memory than it was in real life. What now stood wasn’t my childhood home, for it was gone forever.

Or maybe, it was forever saved in my memories, where it will always be real.

That’s the moment I understood that the past can’t be revisited in real life but only in the heart.

I looked at my sister. Graduated from college. Engaged. Grown. Accomplished. Faithful. Kind. Wise. She is what I still have from that past. Not some house.

We drove to Taft and ate at a Mexican food restaurant. It was mostly empty inside. There was a huge Christmas tree with colorful lights across from our table. My sister and I laughed and smiled as we told stories and revisited jokes while eating our food. And I enjoyed the present before me—my grown little sister who would only hold the same last name as me for a few more months.

Let’s be thankful for the past and hold it dearly in our hearts, but let’s be thankful for all God’s given us in the present and never neglect for a moment what we have now because in time, it too will be gone.

Last Dance

lady-in-red

In normal high school experiences, the only thing that is worse than being dumped by a wonderful person is having to break up with a wonderful person. That was me during my junior year. She was a great girl—pretty, smart, clean, classy, but we just had different missions in life. I felt that I had a different calling than she did, so during my junior year, I had to decide to do one of the most difficult things ever; I had to leave someone who loved me crying on her front yard after I took her home after school, as I drove off alone.

Don’t worry. She’s fine now. She has a beautiful family and a good career.

But back to the past, it was towards the end of my junior year in high school, and the prom was approaching. This would be the first high school dance I would go to without my ex-girlfriend. She already had her date, a decent guy.

It hurt in a way. I understood everything. It all made sense. But it still hurt.

I knew what I had to do. It’s what any teenage guy would do in high school. I would ask the hottest girl I knew to be my date. Someone who would be the type of girl to wear a blazing red, short dress. Someone who would latch onto my arm long enough, so I could walk through those huge, double doors of the prom’s entrance to have my ex see me for just a moment and miss me.

Now I thought, where would I find such a girl?

My youth group, of course.

I asked her with a folded note during a Wednesday night service, back before text messaging. She happily accepted. I’m still not sure if it was because of me or because she went to another school and wanted to be allowed to attend my school’s prom, which was on the opposite side of town.

Bringing this girl to prom wasn’t purely selfish. I was hoping I would find something amazing about her and that she would win me over, like one of those 80’s movies or something like that.

Prom night finally came, and with the financial help of my generous grandparents, we arrived in a limo. She wore a short, red dress and had taken on the essence of stereotypical, high school beauty. We walked in those double doors, and she was latched on my arm. The music vibrated through the souls of our shoes as our eyes looked up to be caught by the flashing strobes. My school’s ASB has once again transformed a regular building hall into something quite magical.

My date and I quickly found my group of friends as the guys lit up in surprise as they set their eyes upon my mysterious date. Then something happened that I’ll probably always be unsure about. My ex-girlfriend walked up to my date and said something before walking away angrily. My date’s mouth dropped in awe.

“What?” I asked.

“She just called me a skank!” my date said in her most high, feminine voice.

“She did?”

“Yes, she did!”

Now that was very out of character for my ex-girlfriend, but I honestly, I laughed a little in my mind, and maybe a small smirk broke through onto my face. The night was going just as planned, which is odd in life.

Just then a popular song came on, and my friends eagerly rushed closer to the center of the dance floor.

“I told one of my friends that I would dance with him for one dance since I’m at his school. Can I go find him to dance with him, so I can get that over with, and then we can dance for the rest of the night together?” my date so innocently asked.

“Sure, that’s fine with me,” I sent her off into the dark, teenager abyss of moving bodies.

I wasn’t really bothered by her request because I honestly just wanted to dance with my own friends. Most of them only brought friends as dates, so they could dance with others.

Half an hour went by. Then a full hour. Two. Three. Still no sign of my prom date. Someone asked if I knew where she was. I didn’t. Maybe she was nearby camouflaged with the other countless short, red dresses that moved around, near, and on sweaty guys. Someone else asked if I thought she was okay? “I’m sure she’s fine,” I answered.

I continued to dance with my friends and tried to pretend that I was having just as good of a time as I did at every other school dance. But I wasn’t.

I wasn’t second guessing my decision of breaking up with my ex, but I was sad. Maybe mourning in a way. And I was alone. The familiarity of the environment made me remember first dancing with her my freshmen year, and how I felt like the king of the world back then, when everything was still brand new. I gave her up. Now she was dancing with someone else, looking happy and pretty as ever.

Eventually, all my friends were coupled up with the help of the mood of a magical environment. I awkwardly stood there by myself. I watched time fade by like the last two years of my high school life. I felt like the fool. People started noticing that I was alone, and it was weird, so I had to go.

But I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t just leave my date, although she left me. I looked for a hideout, some place unnoticed safe—the restroom.

Surrounded by the cold, tall, echoing walls of the boy’s restroom, I could still hear the songs vibrating through the floors in muffled words of bass. My feet were now sore from my dress shoes—maybe tired. I looked into the scratched mirror and examined myself. Sharp dressed in a pressed shirt. A red tie to match a missing date. Hair still perfectly styled. But alone.

What this going to be my future now? Were the best days of high school already behind me? I was once the school’s vice-president for two years in a row. But not anymore.

I now second guessed my decision of breaking up with her. I felt wholeheartedly that it was the right thing to do at the time. I prayed through it. I felt confirmation.

I looked back into the mirror.

“What’s up with this, God? This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I don’t even know.”

I heard the bass under the souls of my shoes start a new song—Lady in Red, the 90’s slow song that became the signature last dance at all my school’s dances. I gave a wry smile and thought how pathetic was I to hide out during my high school prom. I remembered who I was.

A child of God.

Someone bought with a great price.

Someone loved unconditionally.

I straightened up my posture and walked out of that restroom with a confident smile to see my world turning together in slow motion to the magical mood of the music.

I stood there hoping for a miracle. Waiting. Even enjoying the happiness of others.

Then, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I turned around to see Britney, a friend of mine. Not anyone I ever flirted with. Not anyone I ever considered dating, but just a friend. She said, “I thought you might be feeling along there, stranger. Want to dance.”

“Thanks.”

We slow danced together at a friendly distance for the rest of that song, and I wasn’t alone.

Although we are friends on social media, Britney and I don’t talk much. We don’t comment on each other’s posts really or even “like” each other’s photos, but there will always be an element of gratitude connected to any thought of her. And although there have been many forgotten dances with many different girls, that one dance would never be forgotten.

After the lights came on and people rushed to find their purses and jackets, I finally found my date. She told me some dramatic story about searching all over for me. I didn’t believe her, but I wasn’t upset. I knew she wasn’t the girl for me.

I really didn’t give her much thought after that night, but I did think about Britney. I recalled how she was involved at her church. I remember visiting her youth group from time to time, and she was always there and involved with something. I can never remember hearing her say anything bad about anyone, not even once. She was never the center of attention. She mostly just blended in, but she always seemed faithful in all that she did.

I believe wholeheartedly that she walked in the Spirit. I believe the Holy Spirit gave her discernment to see what I was feeling. I can imagine her notice my out of character prom date. I can picture her watching me glance through the crowd at my ex-girlfriend every now and then. I can see her searching for me during the last dance of the night and feeling a bit of relief when she found me.

We know the Spirit leads us when we’re seeking after others instead of ourselves. When we dance with people in this crazy thing called life. When we embrace those who are hurting and alone.

 

Lost in a Grocery Store

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I often hear parents talk about how rambunctious their grown children were when they were young—how they would have their hands into everything that wasn’t theirs. How they would talk a stranger’s ear off. How they would break down and throw a fit in public when they didn’t get their way.

Honestly, my parents didn’t have these problems with me, not to say I didn’t come with my own share of unique problems.

I was shy. I had some unclear speech disorder that wasn’t properly diagnosed. I was an only child for seven years, until my sister came along. Yeah, I was that kid who played the first Nintendo Entertainment System and only had a few select friends who played with me. And the rest was all imagination.

I remember being about four years old and walking around the small town grocery store with my dad. Our home was about 15-20 minutes from the well-lit store, and it was a happy occasion to get to go with Dad for a dinner run. This was a time when stores were a more decorated for every holiday—individual and custom decorations for each season. Every once in a while, I would even get to pick out a toy from the isle across from the cereal. I don’t think my parents will ever realize how a five dollar piece of plastic would make my day.

So there I was walking through the store with wide eye wonder holding my dad’s hand. Then all of a sudden, I looked up and the hand I was holding was not my dad’s. This was terrifying for a four-year-old. He was a complete stranger, and I didn’t know where my dad was. My young brain couldn’t comprehend how this had happened. One minute, I was with my dad, and the next, a perfect stranger.

The older man looked down at me and said, “You’re a cute, little guy, but you’re not mine.” I turned all over to finally find my dad standing nearby and quickly reached out for his hand—embarrassed, frightened, confused; I wanted to cry, but I wasn’t one of those kids.

As an adult now, occasionally I’ll see small children who lose their mom or dad at a grocery store. A painful terror comes over them, and after a few seconds of desperately looking all around and realizing the scary truth of their situation, their eyes begin to water, their lips quiver, and then they cry. A loud cry from someplace in pain. Sometimes a scream, as all the other children continue walking quietly holding their parent’s hand, wondering what’s wrong with that kid.

Sometimes I get discouraged being a believer in this modern world. I’m bombarded with so many anti-Christ statements, philosophies, and ideologies yelled from rooftops. I see them printed online, in magazines, in newspapers, on television, and cluttered all over social media. I start to think that the whole world holds these same views, while a few others and myself are the only ones who still attempt to have some sort of desire to follow Christ.

But I’ve learned this is not true. The church is well. The church is strong. The church is winning. This is because the church is God’s bride, and God’s faithful to his bride. And in the end, God wins.

This world is full of believers who seriously love the Lord. Famous rock stars, actors, writers, artists, athletes, politicians. They are all out there and living for the Lord.

But why can’t we hear them? Why don’t we hear true Christians proclaiming their beliefs all over the media?

Because they aren’t lost.

They are holding their father’s hand.

Children aren’t terrified when they have their father’s hand. Believers have a peace that the lost children don’t understand.

Lost children in this world cry. They shout out. They don’t understand. They are angry. They hurt others. They take, steal, lie. They are hurting. They do anything they can to help themselves because they are lost—without a father.

It’s sad really. So very sad.

When we see the lost world, let’s remind ourselves that we are not losing simply because we are quiet. Let’s remind ourselves that we aren’t alone just because other believers aren’t yelling out. We are just at peace holding our father’s hand—the very best place to be.

A Visit from Saint Nicholas

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“There’s something out there. I don’t know what it is, but it’s out there. I know it,” whispered Emma. She began to move again, back and forth in her ancient rocking chair. Her cracked hands squeezed nervously the quilt that was covering her legs from the winter’s cold.

Nicholas, a slightly overweight man with light hair, looked around the hoarded home and then to the door. “There’s nothing out there. Just a lot of snow. And beyond that, trees covered by even more snow.”

He was still a young man in his early thirties. He attended college to study psychology to become a therapist, but ended up working for a church instead. He wasn’t a pastor per say, but something in between. The church called him a “leader.” One of his jobs was to visit the sick and the elderly.

Although he fought it with all his might, apprehensiveness still appeared on his face when Pastor Brad asked him to visit Emma Huffington, the 92-year-old widow who quit coming a number of years ago. Her only son had moved away for a girl, leaving her utterly alone. Now Christmas was approaching, and Pastor Brad believed and taught that no one should be alone on Christmas.

The little tube television in the corner of the house was silently playing The Christmas Carol, the original 1938 version, but Emma didn’t seem to care. She stared at the window even though it was closed with a curtain.

“There’s something moving out there. I can hear it,” she continued.

Nicholas replied courteously, “What’s out there?”

“I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m nervous.” Emma’s fingers dug into the quilt a little more.

“When I walked up, there wasn’t anything but snow, Emma.”

“It’s dark now, and that’s when it comes out. In the end. When everything goes dark.” She coughed a deep cough that came from too many years of smoking although she had quit years back.

A gust of wind blew against the small, weathered house, and Emma’s eyes turned to Nicholas. They were wide and alarmed.

“Just wind,” Nicholas said to calm her.

She replied, “It’s just two words.”

“What?”

“They scare me, those two words.”

“What two words?” He was really confused now.

“The scariest two words ever spoken.” She learned towards him and whispered, “What if,” and she froze in that position for a moment.

Nicholas mentally recalled his academic training of psychology and his few years of experience counseling people at church. “Emma, do you have regrets that are bothering you? If so, everyone has regrets. It’s okay.”

The largest smile broke through Emma’s wrinkles on her face, “Papa said Santa is coming! And I’ve been good all year, I think. I hope I have. Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice. And… I’ve been nice. Jolly old Saint Nicholas, lean your ear this way. Don’t you tell a single soul what I’m going to say.” Her smile vanished and her eyes dimmed a little. “There’s something out there. Soon.”

Another gust of wind hit the house, and Nicholas quickly stood. “Emma, can I get you anything? Water, coffee? Do you have any?”

“I have coco. Would you mind getting me a cup of hot coco. It’s on the counter near the microwave. I always drink hot coco around Christmas time.”

“I would love to.” He moved into the crowded kitchen, careful not to knock anything over. As he waited on the microwave, he noticed some photos in the hall. He studied them carefully. Emma was once beautiful and her husband, strikingly handsome. Nicholas saw a framed black and white family portrait. Her Papa and mother he presumed.

The microwave dinged, and Nicholas brought Emma her hot coco.

“Here you go. I hope it’s not too hot for you.” He carefully handed her the cup and saucer.

“What’s your name?” she asked completely lost.

“I’m Nicholas.”

“Oh, Saint Nicholas! Papa said you would come. Momma said so too. If I was good. Did you get my letter?” She was giddy in excitement.

“I’m from the church.”

“Yes, yes! Okay, Santa Claus, I need to change my letter. I don’t want a doll and stroller anymore; I want something else.”

Curious, Nicholas asked, “What do you want, Emma?”

She thought for a while and was fighting who she was. She went back and forth from child to elder until settling somewhere in between. “I want Robert back.” Her head sunk into her shoulders in that stagnant rocking chair. I told him to go fight. He could have stayed. He asked me what the right thing to do was, and then I sent him off in his uniform. I know he did what was right, but what if I would have told him to stay with me? With me and Jimmy. What if? He had already served his time. What if I would have told him to spend Christmas with me and go another year, or never go? My boy would have been raised right with a father. I would have been held in the cold of night. But I told him to go. And he did. And he fought. Brave. And he never came home.”

Emma pulled out the golden heart that hung around her neck by a purple ribbon. Just then another gust of wind pushed against the house.

The tired woman forced a broken smile and said to Nicholas, “You’re from my church, right?”

“Yes, Grace Community Congregation.”

“Will Jesus give me grace?”

“Do you believe in Jesus?”

“There’s no other name to believe in.” She motioned up to the cross hanging over her doorway.

“He will give you grace, Emma. God loves you so much.”

“Enough to cover my what if’s?

“He will wipe away every what if.”

Her eyes blinked longer now as she appeared even more sunken down into her chair.

She whispered, “Every what if?”

“Emma, they are all gone. Completely wiped away. You have been forgiven of every mistake.”

Her words grew softer and weaker: “Jolly old Saint Nicholas, something’s outside.”

“It’s windy outside.”

“Santa, I want my Robert back.”

Her eyes stayed closed longer before they opened again.

Another gust of wind.

“Open the door. Robert’s here.”

“It’s just the wind, Emma. Get some rest, okay?”

“Just open the door for me.”

“It’s cold out; you’ll freeze.”

She whispered slowly, “Please, open the door.”

Nicholas apprehensively stood up and moved to the door. Emma’s weary eyes fought to stay open. As Nicholas turned the rusty doorknob, the door flung open, pushing him out of the way, and to his disbelief the snowy wind that flew in was in the faint shape of a man.

Years later Nicholas would recall that the faint shape of that snowy wind resembled a smiling man in a uniform, but he was for certain that Emma Huffington passed away that windy night with a hint of a jolly smile on her face, peacefully in a rocking chair.