The Vegabond

Vegabond

Adventure. It was a yearning that Shawn and I shared, and we would often take last minutes drives out of town. This time in life, Shawn was married with two little girls, and I was still single at age 34. I always thought I would get married at 27, but I was wrong.

Sometimes in life we are wrong.

I was in the middle of my masters in fine arts (MFA) in visual arts degree at Azusa Pacific University, and art was on my mind. There was an art show opening in Chinatown, which was one of the Los Angeles art districts at the time. Some of my APU professors were going to be there, along with two gallery owners who became friendly acquaintances.

Seeking last minute adventure, I texted Shawn, and we cruised down the 5 to Los Angeles on a Saturday evening catching up on all of life’s little details.

It was September 5th, and the fall season was introducing itself with the slight change of weather and the coming county fair with the anticipation of Halloween following shortly.

We decided to take a detour and check out a Halloween super store in Los Angeles. Shawn and I roamed down the towering aisles packed with all genres of costumes, yard decorations, masks, toys, etc. It was a world of make-believe awaiting the cooling season. We examined it all. I remember the swords. We took up the plastic weapons and wielded them in the middle of the aisle.

It was a short flashback to childhood.

And then we moved on to the couple’s costumes.

Examining all the different themes—some funny, some stupid—I told Shawn, “Someday I would like a girlfriend who would want to dress up with me for Halloween. Someone who I would want to dress up with too.”

Once again, I was 34, and I was beginning to wonder if I was being too picky about who I should marry. Some people would tell me, “You’ll just know when you meet her.” Others would tell me, “You can’t be too picky; nobody’s perfect.” I knew no one was perfect, but I still had expectations. I still had a list. And I felt that God told me to hold onto that list.

But I was 34.

Single.

I told Shawn, “Maybe I need to ignore a few items on my list and just get married already.”

I could tell Shawn was in a difficult place to answer; he wasn’t for sure what to tell me.

Back on the highway through the downtown city lights, we arrived at the art show. We viewed colorful art, ate authentic Chinese food, but mainly talked to a bunch of different people. I made some helpful contacts in the LA art community, and we called it a night.

At one point of the night, Shawn took a break from the gregarious groups of art enthusiasts and wandered around the area to capture some creative photos. Shawn had a deep passion for photography. Later, he showed me one of his photos and tagged me on Instagram. He titled it, “The Vagabond.”

Honestly, I had to look up that word: “A person who wanders from place to place without a home.”

I appreciated the photo.

It was me taking a break from the crowds.

By myself.

Blurry.

The late drive back to our hometown was long and full of tiring thoughts: I need to just commit to a decent girl. I’m being too picky. I’m not going to meet a girl who fits every expectation on my list.

I wrestled with my newly found conclusion on my way to church the next morning.

I walked up the stairs to my Bible study life group.

I went in and greeted everyone with a smile, trying my best to be encouraging.

I opened up the Bible, and we started reading.

Verse by verse we studied and discussed the Word of God.

Then she walked in—the complete list.

I knew I was no longer a vagabond.

 

Support this Writer with a Dollar

If you appreciate the writings on this free blog, please consider supporting the writer. Every dollar helps turn his writings into published books.

$1.00

Baseball Cards and Suicides

Kneeling down to rip up a handful of grass.

Covering your face within your mitt to see how it would work as a mask.

Feeling the sun bake down upon your exposed forearms.

Watching anxious parents in the stands wonder why their children aren’t taking the game more seriously.

I was about six or seven, and this was tee-ball.

One year my team lost almost every game. The next, we came in second place.

I got to play second base, my favorite position, a little that year although another kid’s dad wanted him to play it, so it was a constant struggle to stay on second. But after every game, only two things really mattered.

My dad would let me buy a 50-cent pack of Topps baseball cards–you know, the ones with the hard piece of broken chewing gum. And I would also get to order a suicide.

In the 80s, there was a time when every little boy wanted a drink called a suicide. Even the name of the drink was rebellious. Parents didn’t order suicides. Grandparents didn’t. Only young boys and their fellow rambunctious teammate buddies ordered suicides–the 80’s sugar water of boisterous adolescence.

The man behind the food stand would mix each drink with zeal, adding Dr. Pepper as he slid the waxy paper cup to Pepsi and then to Root Beer and then adding dash of Sprite. My eager teammates kicked up dry dirt as they waited in line for the rewarding treat in the blistering heat.

I don’t really remember what it tasted like, but I know I liked it. After a few sips, I would get in the car with my dad and start looking through the new baseball cards hoping that I didn’t get too many doubles.

I wanted the full team of the Dodgers. Although I liked the White Sox and the Yankees too, the Dodgers were my team.

That bold blue.

That simple LA emblem.

I was thrilled when my parents surprised me with Orel Hershiser’s record breaker card one year on my birthday. I would place my cards out over the thick carpet of my bedroom floor to see the collected team together. The Dodgers winning the 1988 World Series highlighted that season of baseball card collecting.

Besides for a few years of tee-ball and then playing on my Bible study’s team at church almost 20 years later, that was all the ball I ever played. I had no hopes of earning a baseball scholarship, being a professional baseball player, or even coaching.

Although I try to make it out to a Dodgers game every other year or so and sit in the all-you-can-eat section, I don’t even watch very many games on TV.

I went out for baseball conditioning once in high school. I observed high school coaches cussing at the students for not being fast enough. I saw some students falling on their knees with vomit bursting out of their mouths after being pushed so hard. The fear in some of my fellow students’ eyes was alarming.

This wasn’t the baseball I remembered.

This wasn’t a game.

This wasn’t for me.

Then I remembered some of the tee-ball parents getting upset that their kid didn’t get enough time in their preferred position and them angrily yelling from the stands words that little kids shouldn’t hear.

But we, the ones who were actually playing the game, were happy just being out there and getting our baseball cards and soda afterwards.

I have to remind myself to strive for that childlike outlook on life again–to be so happy with such simple things.

Adults have forgotten how to play a game.

They care too much about winning and losing.

They think about suicide instead of drinking them.

They don’t chew broken bubblegum anymore.

There are definitely times in life where we need to be serious, but I feel being serious comes quite naturally to most of us.

We have to remind ourselves to have a playful outlook on life, with the faith of a child. We have to remember how to play a game.

This is Halloween

When you’re an only child for the first seven years of your life, you learn how to use your imagination. I could pretend to be anything, and Halloween was the one day a year where the world was okay with that.

Before I was old enough to choose what I wanted to go as, my parents dressed me up. I remember once being a vampire at a little carnival on the outskirts of town. It was there I learned about bobbing for apples as my parents explained to me how to do it.

Another Halloween I remember my mother putting a clothes hanger wire in my devil’s tail to keep it from dragging on the ground. She was probably afraid I would trip over it. It was that Halloween I can recall casting a little toy fishing pole over a water painted curtain at a carnival. When I pulled it back over, there was a little paper bag attached with a plastic finger toy and piece of candy inside it.

My elementary school was decorated with stretched spider webs and hanging tissue ghosts. One classroom activity was building haunted houses out of paper and cardboard. We also made paper Frankenstein puppets. (Yes, I know Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the monster.)

The smell of plastic masks and candy bags filled up the orange and black seasonal isle of the grocery store, and sometimes my dad would even buy me a rubber toy spider or bat.

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” played on television along with “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” 80’s sitcoms aired their Halloween specials, demonstrating how to properly decorate for the special, spooky night.

My childhood best friend, Matt and I would play all year like we were fantasy characters. I would be the medieval swordsman and he, the magical wizard. We were a dynamic duo in our fictitious worlds that we saved over and over again. Although in reality, we were only two little boys dressed in full 80’s attire running around the grassy yard in a small town. But one year, both of our mothers sewed us personalized Halloween costumes.

We were so proud as we walked our school’s halls and playground on Halloween day proudly dressed as the characters who we always imaginarily played as.

Halloween is such an interesting holiday. Although some people celebrate it in an evil manner, to me it was always something mysteriously pure. My family didn’t watch horror movies about the demonic realm or teach us to play malevolent tricks on neighbors.

Halloween was a time of freedom and imagination–an ushering in of the fall season with our family and friends eating candy in costumes.

Now a big part of it is remembering how it felt to be young again. To see an orange leaf fall before your next step. To zip up a thin jacket for the first time that school year. To simply breathe in the fresh autumn air. To watch a harvest moon.

As believers, the easy stance to take is simply declaring all of Halloween bad. But some churches have been doing the opposite.

Harvest festivals have practically taken over trick-or-treating for a lot of families. Churches are inviting trick-o-treaters onto their campuses for candy, games, and entertainment. The parents enjoy this because it’s so much safer than walking up and down dark neighborhood streets and going up to houses of strangers. The kids like it too because they get so much more candy. Some larger churches have even turned their harvest festivals into full carnivals.

Ironically, Halloween is the only time some families will ever walk onto a church’s campus.

The enemy takes what God has made for good and uses it for evil. It’s about time we take what the enemy has made for bad and use it for God–this is Halloween.

The Lord’s Closet

I was in the 6th grade when my family was attending our little charismatic church. It was a good place to get loved on, but the theology was sometimes lacking. That’s always an interesting balance with churches.

Good theology but lackluster worship.

Good theology but apathetic people.

Good theology but dry pastor.

If you can find a church that’s mostly doctrinally Biblical and has powerful worship with people who are eager to build community and an enthusiastic pastor, then you have found the church version of a unicorn.

Some Sunday mornings, I wasn’t feeling the best and wouldn’t want to go church. I would tell my dad I felt sick, but his answer was always the same: “If you aren’t feeling well, the best place for you to be is at church.”

The church was big on placing people directly into ministry right after they accepted Christ.

Seriously, I had a youth leader who was still in rehab. On his first day teaching, the slouching, moustache-wearing man said through a mumble of a voice, “I don’t really know the Bible, but I believe in Jesus. I figured we can learn the Bible together.”

A few Sundays later, he didn’t show up to teach the group. I never saw him again.

I don’t recall anyone on the church’s staff having any formal theological training. The senior pastors consisted of a husband and wife duo. The ministers of the healing ministry were both on disability. The worship team took anyone who was able or who wasn’t able to play an instrument. But the entire church really loved on everyone who walked through the front doors, and they believed in those people too—enough to give them a chance at what they felt God was calling them to do.

My mom used to have yard sales to try to get rid of all our extra stuff we didn’t need, including older clothes. She noticed that clothes would only sell for mere cents at yard sales, and people would try to deal you down to a dime or even a nickel. To her, it wasn’t worth the hassle. If she gave the clothes away to charity organizations, they would mark up the price and sell it.

My mom wanted a way to give the clothing away for free to help those who were really in need. She talked to the pastors at the church and came up with a unique plan.

Instead of trying to sell used clothing to people or giving it away to organizations to sell, the entire church would put their used clothing together and create a place where people who were in need could go and take whatever fit them for free.

My mom did some research and called around town to find some old, circular clothing racks. They were the industrial size ones used in large retail stores—the kind little kids like to hide inside while their parents are shopping.

She cleared out our three-car garage and filled the entire space with racks full of donated clothing.

Since it was completely free and open to anyone to come in to get clothes, my mom came up with a fitting name for the ministry: The Lord’s Closet.

I remember all kinds of people coming to our house during that time. Single mothers with young children. Recovering addicts trying to find something nice for a job interview. Old widowed women who wanted to dress up again in something new. People would leave so thankful and excited, and it was completely free.

The world teaches us to find ways to make money off of people.

The Bible teaches us to find ways to help take care of people.

Of course, in careers and business, we need to charge people for a service or a product, but sometimes it is good and right to just give something for free. And when we give freely under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we become a little more like Christ.

I was one of the fortunate ones who grew up with a Christ-like example in my life who eagerly looked for ways to help care for people and who gave freely—my mom.

 

Driving Home

Foothills surrounded the dry two-lane road that led home.

Oil rigs heavily pumped as some just sat in awe of the red sky as it began to take down some of the warm air with it.

Telephone poles connected together by hanging cords that appeared to move up and down if you watched from lying down in the backseat.

Somewhere on that drive, there was a burned structure of a historic hotel still standing, which was the last evidence that the tiny town had once flourished with people.

But to me as a little boy, it still flourished. Maybe not with people, but with sunsets, nightly stars, pet animals, young friends, old family, trees to climb on, grass to roll on, and time to spare.

Driving home from Taft to my home in Derby Acers, I remember turning my head and looking up to see my dad. He was younger then—not that tired from a hard day’s work in the oilfields.

Paper bags of mixed groceries sat together in the back, and I held a Happy Meal box in my hands, eager to get to the toy Hot Wheel that hid under the warm fries I was so eager to throw into my mouth.

After looking at my dad, I turned back to watch the road like he was. He seemed to keep a safe eye on that road. Or maybe it was that red sky falling over those foothills beyond it he so intently observed.

It’s now that red sky I envision on that road when I think about my childhood.

The sunset and childhood are both so full of wonder and both so fleeing.

Back then, on that road, with my dad, there wasn’t poppy music to occupy the calm silence. There wasn’t handheld video game systems with new levels to conquer. There wasn’t cell phones, texting, or email to communicate with people who weren’t there.

It was just us.

And I called it home.

It’s where my mind meditated. It’s where my imagination grew. It’s where I learned how to be alive.

Often times it’s where I would like to go back. And in a way, maybe I can.

Maybe we can.

Maybe that’s what reconciliation is all about—riding in a car with our father, going where he takes us, and trusting he’s going to get us home.

 

Becoming a Drummer

I was in the 6th grade when I attended my first concert. The 90’s Christian rock band played at small charismatic church my family had just started attending. The archetypal band members took the stage with long hair, bangs, perms, sleeveless shirts, shredded stonewashed jeans, and, of course, eyeliner. Playing at a church with an ethnically diverse congregation where men mostly wore a mixture of K-Mart polos and boxy suits that never fit right, everyone could easily tell who was in the band.

I intently observed the drummer. He played the simple 4/4 rock beat on his wrap around drum set with a double bass drum and a trashcan lid hanging as one of his cymbals.

Awesome. Cool. Sick. Rad. Amazing.

I don’t remember what colloquial adjective came to the forefront of my 6th grade tongue, but you get the point.

His high, exaggerated hits rebounded his big hair uncontrollably, and the wild mess filled in the void of the surrounding half circle drum set.

I think I can do that, I thought.

During the next week, I talked my parents into getting Chinese food because I had an idea in mind.

I went with my dad to pick up the food from the small restaurant next to a grocery store about two miles from our house, and on the way out, I grabbed a handful of chopsticks, even though my family ate Chinese food with forks back then.

When we arrived home, I excitedly wrapped up five chopsticks with electrical tape. I repeated this process until I had a pair of homemade drumsticks in my hands.

But they didn’t work. It only took a short moment for me to see they were obviously far too short, about half the length of a regular drumstick.

Since my idea failed, I did the only other thing I knew to do in order to get a pair of drumsticks; I called my Nanny and Papa.

A few days later, my Papa picked me up in his little, red pick-up and took me to the local music store to buy my first real pair of drumsticks. They were only about eight bucks, but it seriously made my day, probably my week.

I air drummed in my bedroom for a few weeks to the audio tape of the Christian rock band I saw in concert and hit on the back seat of my parent’s minivan whenever I was required to run errands with my mom, but besides for that, the thought of becoming a real drummer was eventually forgotten.

About a year later, I sat in the vast audience in my junior high school’s gym watching the older 8th graders receive their final congratulations before their official ceremony that night.

The school’s marching band performed for the graduates, and the principal gave a motivational speech that fostered excitement for the future high school experience while praising their current accomplishment. Being a 7th grader, I listened but was distracted by a group of teen boys who sat behind the band and were clearly not paying attention.
They were laughing at their own inside jokes and hitting each other on the shoulders, the polar opposite of the rest of the band sitting with perfect back posture and instruments in lap.

They were drummers.

When the band began to play again, some students picked up their French horns and clarinets to blow away with puffy cheeks and red faces, but the drummers… there was something seriously cool about them.

They hit things. They were loud. Just the way they stood commanded a kind of unique authority that comes with teenage rebellion. They were in the band but somehow not at the same time.

I didn’t want to be a bored number in the audience; I wanted to be one of them. I told myself that I would be the next year.

My parents paid for me to have a few private drum lessons over the summer, and my mother had the school’s counselor sign me up for band.

I was a drummer, at least on paper.

Not a good one, but I was figuring it all out. It was a challenge to learn how to read music over one summer and play with students who had been reading music for years, but I figured it out enough to get by, and I loved it. I got to march in the local Christmas parade, at the beach, and even at Disneyland. It was the first time I was able to go out of town without my family. I got to get out of class for special seasonal concerts, and I had a good handful of guy friends who were like the musical version of the kids from the movie The Sandlot.

But I was pretty far behind the other guys in my musical abilities.

I heard something about spring performances approaching. I then overheard the other band members sharing about how they performed last year in front of the judges.

From hearing bits and pieces of various conversations, I eventually put together that the spring performances were when students had the opportunity to play a solo musical piece in front of a panel of judges. Each student would get a score and then get an award based on their division and ranking.

I was quick at memorizing music, but reading from a spotted page of notes was pretty much impossible. I would learn music during class by listening to other students play it once or twice and then emulate them exactly. I would stare at the sheet of music to appear as if I was actually reading it, but I wasn’t.

The only good thing about the spring performances was that it was optional although most of the students were participating.

At the end of class one day, my band instructor, Mr. Wolf, took me aside and said, “Terry, I know you struggle a little with reading music, but I found a solo for you that I believe you can handle. It will be a push, but I can work with you after school to help you learn it. It’s up to you, but if you want to participate in the spring performances, just let me know. Here’s the music in case you want to take it home and think about it.”

With the solo in hand, I went about my day a little changed. Mr. Wolf believed I could do it. He cared enough to offer his time to work with me after school to teach it to me. He cared enough to notice that I wasn’t really reading music but just memorizing it.

I went over the music a little at home and really considered my instructor’s offer.

For a long while.

But in the end, I didn’t take him up on it.

I never participated in the spring performances.

But knowing that someone outside my family cared enough to offer to sacrifice his time for me stayed with me and made the difficulties of adolescence a little more tolerable.

At the end of that year, I played with the drummers during that end of year assembly. I laughed with them as the principal congratulated us 8th graders. I went on to play drums in high school while playing almost every Sunday at church.

Now I mostly play on my steering wheel during twilight drives to the outskirts of town as I ponder life in prayer.

Sometimes people won’t take you up on your offers of kindness. Sometimes people won’t let you know how thankful they are for you. Sometimes people won’t share with you how you made their life a little better.

On the bad days, know that you most likely made a difference in those times when you were guided by the Spirit to offer to help others.

To Mr. Wolf, I probably seemed like typical kid who didn’t care, but I was so incredibly thankful for him. And although you don’t know it, people out there are so incredibly thankful for you.

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.

A Visit from Saint Nicholas

writers

“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.

A Look in the Fountain

writer

“Daddy, why doesn’t this water fountain freeze like the ponds?” a little girl pulled on his black pea coat seeking his attention.

He put his phone back into his warm side pocket and stared at the lingering frozen snow reflecting the sun into his eyes.

“Daddy?”

“Oh, there must have been some sort of warming system installed into it that keeps it from freezing.” There was apathy in his voice.

A little boy, about his daughter’s age, was sitting on the stone edge of the fountain. He had been listening intently, but the father was oblivious of his presence. From behind the scarf wrapped around the little boy’s mouth, he said, “There’s nothing in that pond.”

The father turned to the boy and asked, “Really, then why doesn’t it freeze?”

“That’s easy,” he replied, “It’s a magic fountain.”

“Oh, my mistake, I forgot about all the magic fountains in this city.” He rolled his eyes to his daughter, “Let’s go, Carolina.”

“It is magic. My great-grandma told me so. She was here before all these buildings, and she said this fountain was here before them and that there’s an angel that makes it magic.”

A ringing from Preston’s pocket turned the boy’s words into distant rambling as he took his daughter’s hand. They walked toward the street and signaled for a taxi.

The inside of the taxi was cluttered with seasonal decorations: garland bordered the dividing glass as little Santa Clauses dangled from the top, held on by layered clear tape. Bells dangled from the rearview mirror, annoying the father as he conversed on his phone. But to Carolina, they were something beautiful. They reminded her of her mother, who she could only remember vaguely since she had died when Carolina was only three. It was breast cancer that had prematurely stolen away her young life. But Carolina could remember her mother’s face clearly in one particular memory of her standing by a Christmas tree. She remembered her mother’s bright eyes and open smile as the Christmas lights glowed behind her. That picture was engraved upon her heart, although time was slowly washing it away into a feeling rather than a visual image. But there was something about Christmas that brought back memories.

Preston went from one call to the next, a stoic voice unchanging in tone: “Emma, I have to go in for a surgery tonight. I know I said you had the night off, but I need you to watch Carolina. Call me back when you get this, or just come over.”

Carolina watched intently as the big city displayed its seasonal decorations of triumphant red and green, and people in Santa costumes stood on street corners collecting money for various charities. The drive soon turned from the busy city streets into an elegant suburban world, behind large gates and surrounding walls.

“I thought you didn’t have to work tonight, Daddy?”

“Emma should be there.”

Carolina just stared out the window in silence.

“You still like Emma, don’t you?” he asked.

She replied, “Yeah, I like her. Why do you have to go?”

“Remember, your Daddy’s a doctor. I have to fix people, or they will die.”

“We were supposed to get our Christmas tree tonight. Why can’t other doctors fix them?”

“Emma can take you to get a tree.” This didn’t please her. “Have you thought about what you want for Christmas this year?”

“No,” she said softly.

When the two walked from the cab to their home, Emma met them at the door. Preston grabbed his medical bag and proceeded to the hospital.

***

“Dr. Patterson, Dr. Crawford would like to speak to you,” a nurse informed Preston as he was cleaning up from a successful appendectomy.

Dr. Crawford, the hospital director, was a balding man with a long nose. He seldom smiled—the ideal professional. He had traded his lab coat in for a prestigious position, which he had sacrificially dedicated his entire life to earn.

When Preston entered Dr. Crawford’s office, the director sat behind a large desk of dark mahogany wood, without a smile. He cleared his throat two or three times before he spoke: “Preston, you’re one of the best surgeons in the state. During your ten years here, you’ve never lost a patient, nor have any of your patients ever had any complications that you couldn’t quickly rectify. You have completed more surgeries than any doctor with your same experience.”

Preston interrupted quickly, “Thank you.”

“I say all this with adulation, but I’m very concerned about you.”

“Concerned? What is it that—”

Dr. Crawford interrupted him, “Please, Preston. Can I speak to you honestly?”

“Yes, of course.”

“After Katherine…” He looked down. “You took a few months off. When you came back, you just jumped back into your work. You volunteer for every case that comes up, while still holding strongly to your old patients.”

“Yes, I’m very dedicated to my practice.”

“Maybe too dedicated, though.”

“I didn’t know that was possible in our field.”

“Preston, I’m not speaking for the hospital right now. I’m speaking for you. Katherine passed away five years ago, and you haven’t taken a break since. You’re living too fast. You’re going to miss your life.”

Preston began to understand his point and gathered his thoughts for a moment: “I don’t really have much to miss anymore. It’s just me and Carolina now.”

“Who’s there for Carolina? You can’t possibly be raising her on your own with your hectic schedule.”

Rubbing his forehead, Preston responded, “I have a nanny who helps out at times—a really good nanny.”

“But it’s you who is her father. You have saved so many people, but don’t lose your own daughter in the process.” He sat back as his large leather chair making a stretching sound, and all the words settled for a moment.

“I don’t know anymore… I’ve saved so many people. Why couldn’t I have saved Katherine?” His eyes were wide and empty.

“Doctors and fathers have many responsibilities and jobs, but it’s not our job to ask why.”

Preston didn’t move except for the contorting muscles in his jaw.

Dr. Crawford added, “My door’s always open for you, Dr. Patterson. Now, go home and get some rest. Oh, and congratulations on another successful surgery.”

“Thank you, Dr. Crawford.”

***

When Preston arrived home, he found a beautifully lit Christmas tree, giving off a euphoric tint to the surrounding room. Under the tree, Carolina was curled up in a throw blanket on a pillow. He could still smell the remnants of a cozy fire, and Emma lay asleep on the couch with an open novel on the floor.

“Let’s go to bed, Carolina. Daddy’s home.” He picked her up to tuck her in bed. She coughed a few times before she rolled over and faded into a dream. When he came back into the living room, Emma was walking out the front door with heavy eyes.

“Emma,” he caught her attention. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she said in a softly worn voice that came from her slender body.

Preston stood in the living room examining the elaborate tree and wondered if Carolina had put up the ornament hidden in the bottom of a worn cardboard box of saved decorations. He searched the tree, seeing a plethora of school made ornaments: small bells, cut-out snowflakes, and even one with Carolina’s Kindergarten picture, the year sketched underneath it.

And then he found it—the decoration Katherine gave him when she was sick. It was half-hidden behind a verdant branch, a silver heart that had an engraving that read: Together or apart, you’ll always have my heart.

He remembered his last Christmas with Katherine. How she was so weak, so feeble, but she still found strength to do all the little Christmas traditions for him and Carolina. Christmas was something very special to her, and to him too, back then.

He put his fist over his mouth and continued to stare at those unique words reflecting the twinkling lights. His body began to shake, and tears rolled down his aged cheeks. And they continued for a moment longer, until he was so worn out that he made his way to his room and fell onto the bed.

***

Another busy seasonal week flew by like frosty wind. Toy stores were filled with anxious eyed children as impatient parents waited in congested lines. Business men wore ties with Santa Clauses and reindeer on them as others wore red and green, fuzzy Christmas sweaters. Parents gathered for school choir concerts, and families, for church plays. Volunteers went out into the cold to help homeless shelters. And some simply just drove around looking at neighborhood light displays, while listening to radio stations play all the holiday favorites.

But there were no lights up on the Patterson home. Just that Christmas tree that Emma and Carolina put up. The two would have probably put up more decorations, but all the others were in boxes that were too high up in the attic to reach.

After Preston’s talk with Dr. Crawford, he thought little about cutting back in his work schedule. The holidays brought in a lot of patients, and instead of referring anyone to another doctor, Preston was determined to handle this busy challenge with his perfect medical record. He spent hours prepping for surgery for his patients. His newest challenge was a little girl, only a year older than Carolina, who had a severe stomach infection. In the little girl’s state, the permeation of the infection was life threatening, and there was no way Preston was going to let parents lose their daughter two days before Christmas.

With his precise eye-hand coordination, abundance of knowledge, and consistent experience, the surgery was another success. After he informed the worried parents, they cried with joy and thanked him earnestly.

“Excuse me, Dr. Patterson, you have an urgent message,” a nurse said.

“I’ll be there in a moment. I’m going to walk Mr. and Mrs. Eastin to see their daughter,” he responded while walking away.

The nurse continued, “Dr. Patterson, it’s concerning your daughter.”

“Please see to it that the Eastin’s are taken to their daughter,” he said as he hurried back to the offices.

Coming up to a tall counter, he asked, “Nurse Walker, there’s a message for me?”

“I have three messages here from a… Emma Bennett. Let’s see, ‘Carolina is ill, please call me back ASAP.’”

Preston rushed to his office and bypassed the missed calls on his cell phone, calling Emma immediately: “Emma, what’s wrong with Carolina?”

“Oh, Preston, she was running a fever last night, but this evening, it went up to 104. She couldn’t even move,” her voice was broken with worry.

“I’m coming home right now. Let her know that I’m on my way.”

“No, she’s already at the hospital, in the pediatric building. They wanted to put her on an IV. They’re trying to lower the fever.”

“I’ll be right over.” He ended the call and held the phone in his hand, staring at it in grief. He whispered, “Oh God, I save others but not my own. What’s wrong with me?”

***

As Preston entered the hospital room, Emma arose. He knelt beside his daughter and said gently, “Carolina, Daddy’s here now.”

“I don’t feel good.” Her voice was faint.

“I know you don’t. But the doctors will fix everything to make you well again.”

“You’re a doctor, Daddy. Why can’t you make me well?”

A blanket of guilt fell over him, suffocating him with those innocent words. He looked to Emma, “What pediatrician does she have?”

Emma hesitated, “I think his name is Dr. Ryder.”

“Ryder’s a good man,” he nodded his head. “I’ll be right back.”

Minutes passed by as Emma sat next to Carolina, softly rubbing her hand with her thumb until Preston came back with answers: “Emma.” She stood up. “We’re pretty sure she’s going to be fine. She has a severe flu, along with a minor infection that the antibiotics will take care of. The rest will just require a lot of rest.”

Preston sent Emma home to sleep, while he stayed overnight by the side of his daughter. With medication, Carolina slept most of the night, and Preston sat wondering how in the world did he ever expect to do all this without his wife as he occasionally dozed in and out of consciousness. The next morning, Carolina’s temperature had lowered, so she was able to return home.

It was now Christmas Eve, and the warm drive home felt more comfortable than the chilly hospital.

“Do you want the heater on more?” he played with the knobs near the radio.

“It’s fine, Daddy.”

Colorful lights and bright decorations flickered on as they drove by homes and businesses.

“It would be nice to turn on some Christmas music,” she suggested.

He pressed through different stations until he came to one with soft, classic Christmas melodies. Just then, white powder began to lightly fall.

“It’s snowing! Look, it’s snowing again!” she lit up in excitement.

“That’s peculiar; the weather forecast said there wouldn’t be snow again until next week. That’s one good thing about being a weatherman, you can be completely wrong, and people will still listen to you. A doctor makes one mistake, and his career is over for life.”

“Then you could stay home more.”

“Yeah, but we wouldn’t have our nice house or even this car.”

“Daddy, those things aren’t really important to me.”

He drove on through the snow with music and lights.

“Emma is going to meet us at home, so I can get your Christmas present. Did you decide on what you want yet?”

She nodded her head.

“Okay then, what is it? Remember, like I said, anything you want?”

She pulled a folded paper, worn and torn from a store catalogue, from her coat pocket. He unfolded the paper with the fingers of his right hand as his left steered the car. “What a beautiful, little jewelry box.”

Carolina added, “It plays music when you open it too. I want to keep Mom’s jewelry in it.”

Katherine passed down all her jewelry to her daughter, and although Carolina had some of it now, Katherine had planned out for her father to disperse it during special moments and stages of her life: like her first prom, her 16th and 18th birthdays, and her wedding. She even had a special piece of jewelry for him to give to her if there was ever a time or a moment of hardship.

Carolina had searched for the perfect box to hold all the beautiful pieces her mother left her. This box in the photo had an angel’s face engraved on it that she adored, making it perfect for the jewelry.

As they pulled into their driveway, Preston asked, “Now how old is this catalog that you found this jewelry box in?”

“I don’t know, but it’s the one I really want.”

He looked at her pale face and helped her to the house as soft snowflakes fell down upon them. Emma was already there and had prepared Carolina’s bed for her along with some warm soup. As soon as she was in bed, he gave Emma the doctor’s orders and took off in search of the jewelry box.

***

Preston carefully swerved through slow snowy traffic with the catalog picture folded up in his shirt pocket. When he arrived at the store, he showed the picture to the first attendant he saw. She earnestly helped him by looking all throughout the store and then on the computer. She learned that the catalog was over three years old, so chances were slim that the jewelry box would still be available, but her computer showed that the downtown store still had one left in stock. He would have to hurry because the downtown store was closing in 20 minutes. He thanked her and charged out the door.

He arrived to the store finding an open parking place near the front window on the street. This is truly a miracle, he thought to himself as he began to step through the fresh powder snow. Bright window lights welcomed him with displaying Christmas trees, snowy village scenes, and a miniature North Pole locomotive circling the holiday display.

Just as he reached out for the door, something in his peripheral vision caught his attention. He glimpsed a figure crossing the street. It stood in the center divider before attempting to cross to the other side, falling into the snowy asphalt.

He better get up. There’s no way a car can see him in these conditions, he worried. There was no movement. Preston looked back to the store again and remembered the time. Then in the distance, he saw a truck coming.

“Get up,” he said under his breath. He looked at the truck getting closer and then back to the inviting entry doors.

The next thing he knew, his feet were stomping through the white powder. The truck slowed down as its window opened, and a man stared angrily at Preston, “Get out of the way, you stupid idiot!”

He quickly picked up the wet figure and helped the person to the side of the street.

Preston unwrapped his scarf from his neck, catching his breath and said, “Are you okay?”

The figure was in a dark coat with a hood on, now clearly in the shape of a woman.

She took her time standing up.

“Hello, are you okay?” he said a little louder, starting to get frustrated with the unusual situation.

She removed her hood and turned to him, and he saw her clearly for the first time with help from the store’s Christmas lights. She had wavy, almond, shoulder-length hair, and her eyes were a bold brown. Her face was well shaped although she was covered with filth from the street, but her teeth were perfectly white, causing him to wonder about her story.

She answered with an unrecognizable accent, “I’m fine, sir. Thank you for asking though.”

“What were you doing in the middle of the street?”

She smiled at him, “It’s a special and most beautiful night, isn’t it?”

Preston said under his breath, “I don’t have time for this.” But the next second, the store lights clicked off into sudden darkness. He ran over to the door and started knocking against it with a closed fist, “No, come on! Come on, now!” but as far as he could see, it was already empty inside.

He muttered to himself, “Great! That’s just great! Now what am I supposed to do?”

The woman’s voice answered the question, “It’s Christmas Eve. There are countless things to do.”

He looked at her, annoyed with her strange answer. “No, you don’t understand. I need to buy my daughter something from that store. Now I won’t be able to get her what she wants for Christmas.”

She responded, “I think it will all work out in the end,” as he walked right past her and got in his car.

After a few struggling engine sounds, he shuffled around in the seat of his black, luxury vehicle and then got out, slamming the door. “I don’t suppose you have a cell phone on you, do you? I didn’t charge mine last night.”

“I’m sorry. People like me don’t have a need for phones.”

Preston looked at her worn dress hanging down from under her coat and figured that he understood. He leaned against his car as a little snow slid off it, and he folded his cold hands deep within his pockets.

“I have a warm place I can take you if would like,” she suggested.

He looked around and saw nothing but Christmas lights and closed stores—not a taxi in sight. “You don’t suppose there’s a phone there?”

“I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for,” she began to walk down the sidewalk.

He caught up with her with a quick jog, “Now, I don’t think I caught your name?”

“My name? I don’t think you’ll be able to pronounce it even if I told you.”

“So you’re not from around here? And I’m Preston, by the way.”

“Hello, Preston, and I’m not from around here.”

“So what were you doing in the middle of the street? Did you faint? You almost got ran over by that truck.”

“No I didn’t.”

As they walked, he could see his breath in front of him. “Yes, you did! I saw it coming straight for you.”

“No I didn’t, because you saved me,” she smiled.

Preston gave up on the argument, focusing on the cold. Arguing with a deranged homeless woman downtown on Christmas Eve while his sick daughter was waiting for him at home was not what he wanted to be doing at the present moment.

“Preston, I bet you’re the type of person who likes to save people, aren’t you?” she looked at him confidently.

She had caught his attention, despite the situation, so she continued, “You’re probably even the type of person who blames himself if there’s ever a person you can’t save. A true perfectionist. A type A personality.”

“So where are we going?” He tried to hide the impatience in his voice.

“It’s a very special place, and don’t worry, they’ll have a phone there.”

Preston had some difficulty understanding her through her accent, and he was still trying to figure out what kind of accent it was. It almost seemed like a mix of many different languages.

“It’s just another block away now,” she informed him.

As the two walked through the falling snow, Preston noticed wreaths, bells, and bows on store doors and manger displays in dark windows. He looked up to the sky and could see the bright snowflakes fall with the lamppost light behind them. It reminded him of when he and Katherine used to go ice-skating in the city’s ponds when they first started dating so many years ago. He painfully reminisced about the time they spent together, just simply observing the world around them—perfectly content.

Finally the woman stopped in front of a building filled with happy noise. Bright light beamed through the window.

“What’s this?” Preston asked.

“It’s the Simonson Children Center, a place for children without parents or children who have been taken away from their parents due to abuse or—”

He sharply interrupted, “I know what the Simonson Children Center is. I mean, why did you bring me here?”

“Because they’re always open, and there’s a phone here. Is there a problem?”

“My wife used to volunteer here before we had our daughter, some nine years ago.”

She added, “Then you know it’s one of the best places in the world to be, and I’ve been everywhere.”

Large sleigh bells jingled as he opened the door. The woman entered behind him.

Preston said, “This place hasn’t changed a bit.”

There were two large living room areas and a commercial kitchen on the left side. It was more of a miniature cafeteria than a kitchen. There were about 30 to 40 children in the center. Some were playing board games near the fireplace. Some were eating out of little stocking bags of candy. Some of the younger ones rolled toy cars on the carpeted floor or played with their new dolls in the corner. A small group of adults stood by the kitchen, and the woman went over to them.

Just then, a man approached Preston, “Can I help you, sir?” He was a tall, lean, black man with a deep voice wearing a collar neck shirt with the name of the center screen-printed on it, faded jeans, and a Santa hat.

“My car broke down, and my battery died on my cell phone, so I came in with hopes that I might use your phone for a moment. That woman over there guided me here.” He gestured to where the woman stood now with the others as she smiled joyfully entertained by their conversations.

“Which woman?” the man asked, looking at the group.

Just then, he heard, “Preston? Oh my gosh, Preston Patterson!” A blond woman hurried over, as the man left to console a child who had just dropped her candy on the ground. “Preston, it’s me, Susan Carter, Kathy’s old friend from college!”

Memories like pictures flashed through his mind as he remembered meeting Susan before when Katherine used to help out at the center. She had even been over to the house a few times. If he recalled correctly, she used to be an engineer but gave up her career to be a volunteer at the center.

Preston nodded a humble greeting.

“So what brings you in on Christmas Eve?”

He cleared his throat, “Well, besides meeting strange people on the street,” he motioned to the woman who was now sitting and laughing with a small child, “my car broke down a few blocks from here, while I was shopping for Carolina, and my phone died.”

Susan lightly laughed and directed him to where the phone was located.

“So how are things going in the good old Simonson Center?” he changed the topic from himself.

“Besides funding cuts, a lot of the kids have been sick lately. We have one little boy in the back room by himself who has had the flu this entire week.”

She could tell what he was thinking as he rubbed this chin.

“Would you like to take a look at him, Dr. Patterson?”

“Let’s take a look at the little guy.”

She took him to a small room in the back where a small child lay pale and motionless. Preston put his hand over his forehead. “He needs to go to the hospital.”

“We just had him there a few hours ago. He was sent back.”

Preston sighed, “That’s the inner city for you.”

The lean, black man stuck his head in the doorway, “Susan, there’s a phone call for you.”

“Thank you, Wallace. I’ll be right there.” She turned to Preston, “Please excuse me.”

As she was walking out, the peculiar woman walked in the room with Preston and the ill boy. She asked, “What’s wrong, Preston?”

“This child is dehydrated first of all, not to mention that he has a dangerously high fever. Someone’s going to have to get him to my hospital at once.”

“So you’re a doctor,” she said calmly.

“Yes.”

“So it’s good that I brought you here.”

He paused and looked at her sternly, “Why did you bring me here, anyway?”

“Because it’s what you need.”

“Oh yeah, the phone.”

“No, that’s not what you need, Preston.”

“Really, then why don’t you tell me what I need?”

“Hold on, it’s starting to get warm in here; let me take off this coat.” She unbuttoned the long coat, and under it, he could clearly see her modest dress, one that would appear old in style, but it made her look more trustworthy. She then pulled out a handkerchief and wiped her face. He was almost embarrassed to admit it to himself, but she was oddly beautiful. “Let’s begin that question with knowing what you don’t need.”

“Okay, then, what don’t I need?”

“Preston, you don’t need to save everyone on your own. There are others who can save too.”

He sat down in a plastic chair. “If I don’t save everyone, who will?”

“There are others like you, but have you completely forgotten that God can save too?”

“If God could save, he would have saved my wife.” He gritted his teeth, “But he couldn’t, and even worse, I couldn’t save her either.”

“There’s so much hurt in you still. God didn’t save your wife because everyone has an appointed time to die. It was her time. No matter what you did to try to save her, it was her time to go home. Everyone on this earth is only here on loan. And you loved her more than anyone, which is why God gave her to you.”

His eyes filled with moisture, and his voice broke when he spoke, “What do you know about me and my wife? I don’t even know you! You don’t know the first thing about saving anyone. If you can even remember, it was I who saved you less than an hour ago.”

The woman slowly walked over to the ill child in bed, put her hand over his warm forehead, and said, “May God be glorified. Be healed, child.”

Preston shook his head with an angry chuckle, “Are you serious?”

The woman walked out of the room, and Susan came back a moment later, “Sorry, the phone is always ringing around here.”

Preston stood up, “So where did you find her anyways?”

“Find who?”

“The woman I came in with, the one who was walking around with the kids.”

“You came in with a woman?” she seemed confused.

“Yeah, I even pointed her out to you. She was sitting with a kid in the play area.”

“I’m sorry, Preston, but we all watched you come in, and it was only you.” Susan saw something move out of the corner of her eye. It was the ill, little boy. “Steven? Are you okay, honey?”

“Yeah, did I miss Christmas?” he asked, his face glowing with health.

“How are you feeling?”

“Fine, I didn’t miss Christmas, did I? Is my gift still under the tree?” he asked with excitement.

“Of course, still wrapped and all.”

The child started to throw off his blankets, but Susan stopped him, “Hold on there, turbo! Let me feel your forehead.” She put her hand over it. “Fever’s gone.”

Preston put his hand on the boy’s forehead, “It is gone.”

“What did you do, Preston? Did you give him medicine or something?” she asked in awe.

“I didn’t do anything, Susan.”

The child asked impatiently, “Can I get my gift now?”

“Go ahead, Steven. Take it easy now,” but before her words were out of her mouth, the child was already in the other room. Susan turned, “Preston, that was a miracle—an answer to my prayer.”

“I have to go now. Thanks for letting me visit for a while.” His mind was trying to make sense of everything. He had to catch up with the woman.

***

He flung the door of the center wide open and looked right to see nothing. He turned to his left and saw a dark, blurry image in the snowfall. He ran through the piling snow, almost losing his balance a few times. The distant image turned a corner, and he caught up. As he turned, he realized where he was. It was an open cemented park area for sitting and resting, surrounded by large buildings of offices. It looked different with the freshly fallen snow and the sporadic twinkling of Christmas lights in office windows, but what really set it apart was the silence. He could hear the soft snow fall. And then he saw the woman, sitting on the same city fountain that his daughter had sat on only days before.

Preston enjoyed the unusual silence, and the woman looked impossibly beautiful as she sat so contently with no jacket in the falling snow. Her skin wasn’t red from the cold nor was she even shivering.

He broke the silence: “Hello.”

“Hello, Preston.” She had a calm half-smile.

“How did you do that back there? The boy is completely well.”

“Oh, Preston, you baffle me sometimes. You clearly saw what happened. And you know that it wasn’t me who did anything?”

He silently reasoned within himself.

“So, don’t you love the center? It’s one of my favorite places in all the world. I used to spend a lot more time there, but I’ve been busy other places.”

He grew curious: “Were you there when my wife was?”

“Oh, Katherine, of course. She was one of my favorites. So sweet. She had so much compassion for those little ones. And then she quit coming around so much, with Carolina being born. Oh my, she was so happy that day. Remember what she said?”

“What did she say?” he grew nervously still.

“Don’t be silly, Preston. You know as well as I do what she said. She looked at you and said, ‘Darling, look at her. Our love can make miracles.’”

“There’s no way you can know any of this.”

“You see, Katherine prayed for you all the time. Even when she was fading out of this life, she still prayed for God to remind you of the love that you shared together and of the miracle that it produced.”

Belief was slowly pushing within his heart. “I want to believe you so much. I really do. Can you just show me a sign, or let me see a miracle. Anything?”

“I’ll show you anything you want. What is it that you would like to see more than anything, Preston?”

He face contorted as his lower lip quivered, “I want to see my wife. I want to hold her in my arms once again and tell her that I love her with all my heart.” Tears fell with the light snow, and his body shook while standing.

“Then just look into the fountain here, and you’ll have what you have asked for?” She stood up and moved out of the way.

Preston walked over to the fountain and bent over it looking down. His eyes blurred, so he wiped them with his cold thumbs. The reflection in the water wasn’t his own. His jaw shook, and he finally understood as he stared looking at his daughter in the water. The image soon faded in ripples from the falling snow. Preston turned around to the woman, but she was gone.

Two little lights came blurring in the distance. As they came nearer, he could make out that it was a taxi. He hurried to the street to flag it down.

The taxi’s window lowered, and Preston recognized the driver by the cluttered Christmas decorations in the cab. The driver said, “Merry Christmas, sir! Where am I taking you?”

***

When Preston walked into his home, he saw Carolina sitting by the Christmas tree, and as the warm fire lit the room, her face looked like his wife for a moment. She jumped up and ran over to him.

She yelled, “Daddy, Daddy! We were waiting for you! Emma and I made Christmas cookies and we’re watching Christmas movies.”

“He knelt down and hugged her within his arms, and whispered, “I love you with all my heart.”

Emma, Carolina, and Preston spent the rest of that Christmas Eve watching seasonal films with milk and cookies as Carolina was free from any illness.

The next morning, Carolina woke her father with the excitement of Christmas morning. Preston dreaded having to tell her that he had failed at getting her a gift but knew she would understand with his car breaking down—the part of the story that he told her.

“Thank you so much, Daddy!” she yelled out as she saw a square shaped box under the tree.

Preston was puzzled, not sure where it had come from. Carolina opened it gently, and there was the jewelry box.

“It’s even more beautiful than the picture!”

He picked up the gift and stared at it with a smile, for the angel that was engraved upon it was the woman who had changed his life the night before—a Christmas angel.

 

The Cold Christmas Present

book

His fitted jeans and striped hoodie were not nearly enough against the crisp bite of wintry air that came against him the moment he stepped out of the rustic bookstore and began to crunch his way through the fresh powder on the sidewalk. Cold. Converse made horrible snow boots, and he was a city boy, not too familiar with the snow in his adult years, but he liked it nonetheless. He liked how the Christmas lights hung loosely on Main Street and reflected against the piled up snow. They were mostly the large colored bulb lights that in some way had survived from the early 80s, creating some mysterious form of nostalgia. On the corner of the street, a short snowman stood appearing ready to direct traffic with his branch arms sticking out.

The bookstore was peaceful, mostly full of the common classics. He could tell that the owner was not up-to-date with the newest trend of pop novels. No teen wizards or sparkling vampires for people to romance about, and after trying to warm up inside, there was nothing more to really interest him in there for the moment.

The entire town seemed out of vogue by a good 20 or maybe 30 years. There were no signs of smart phones or tablets. No Starbucks or energy efficient hatchbacks. Just locally owned mom and pop store fronts—some even still had wooden hand painted signs hanging outside near the snowy streets. These streets were lined with a few worn down, parked trucks that made his own stand out as something new. And oddly, he liked it all. All except the cold.

A vibration buzzed in his left pocket. He pulled out his phone, quickly swiping open the screen to a new text: Did you find what you’re looking for yet?

He hesitated to text her back for a moment and then responded: Not yet, but I think I’m glad I came.

Then I’m glad too, I wish I didn’t have to work tonight.

And he wished the same although there had been a distraction in their relationship. Things had been off and on again for a while now. She was a sweet and patient girl, but before he could move on to make the relationship something serious, he had to take care of something first. He didn’t drive alone for over three hours from home just to see the snow. He had a purpose in mind, even though he wasn’t exactly sure what it was yet.

He walked down Main Street until the cold became overbearing again. He looked into a window that was half fogged over, and envying the warmth, he opened the heavy door as sleigh bells jingled from the handle. Unlike the franchised coffee shops that he was used to in the city, this coffee shop appeared full of warm and hospitable life. It was obvious that people weren’t there to quietly read a novel or to do web searches on their laptops; they were there for each other, laughing loudly and sharing stories.

Classic Christmas music could still be heard over the gregarious groups of people. He noticed there were even more people in the back of the coffee shop. It almost appeared to be a Christmas party as people hugged and patted each other on the back. They greeted him too—an unknown stranger—with a joyful “Merry Christmas!” although Christmas was still a few days away.

He ordered a cup of hot apple cider and sat down listening to the loquacious townspeople interact with each other. Then he noticed a man stand up from a table in the corner. He was an older, heavier man, about in his 60s, wearing a Santa Claus costume with a fake white beard hanging loosely below his double chin.

“Hello there, welcome to Bells Town. I reckon you’re not from these parts,” the man said as his fake white beard bounced with every word.

“I actually used to come up here every Christmas. My grandma lived just down the street—Maple to be exact.”

“Ah, Maple Street. Yes, just two blocks down and take a right and then your second left.”

“That sounds just about right. Honestly, I haven’t been in the area since I was 10.”

“That seems like a long time to stay away. Most people visit Bells Town a lot more than that.”

“Yeah, well, it doesn’t really look that way,” he thought of the open streets outside. “Honestly, my grandma died when I was 10, and then my parents separated. I guess she was the glue that held everyone together. We didn’t live here with her, but we came up a lot to visit. And every year, we spent our Christmas here, and it always snowed.”

“There’s something about the Christmas season that brings back the past, isn’t there?”

“Yeah, it kind of makes things difficult.”

“The past does?” the man asked.

“No, the present does.”

The man rubbed his heavy face a little, “Haven’t you ever heard that the present is a present?”

“Of course.”

The man pulled his beard up over his lower face, fitting him well, and asked, “So what do you want for Christmas this year? Maybe I have a present for you?”

He smiled a little and responded, “You know what, you’re alright. I’m Scott, what’s your name?”

“Santa Claus.”

“Of course, how didn’t I know that?”

“Don’t tell me that you don’t believe?”

“Maybe I could believe in God or angels, but definitely not Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. Oh, and definitely not the tooth fairy either,” Scott rolled his eyes.

“What if Santa Claus is really just an angel sent here to help people?”

“Then he’s an angel that has a problem with the sin of gluttony.” Scott looked down to Santa’s large stomach hanging over his wide, black belt. “No offense, Santa.”

“None taken at all, and if you ever had the cookies in Ms. Mary Smith’s bakery, you would have a problem with gluttony too,” he smiled joyfully through his fake beard. “So what do you want for Christmas this year?”

Scott thought about it for a moment, wanting to answer honestly. “I really just want to go back and see my grandma’s old house and see a little bit of life the way it used to be.”

“Well then, let me take you there; trips into the past can be difficult to go on alone.”

“Thanks, Santa. I could probably use some company tonight,” Scott said sincerely. He took a deep sip of hot apple cider, which already seemed to have gone cold.

The two walked out of the vibrant coffee shop, and as the door closed, a serene silence came over the street, only broken by the crunching snow and sporadic gusts of wind.

Scott couldn’t help his obvious curiosity of the town and finally said, “I just can’t get over it. The same decorations are still being hung in the same places. Like that house right there, the same decorations were hanging up when I was a kid. And that pizza shop is exactly how I remember it; my grandma took me there a few times with just me and her. But it’s just so damn cold here.”

Santa said, “I feel fine.”

“Oh, yeah. You’re Santa Claus—North Pole and all.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

As they continued walking, bright yellow lights and muffled sounds came from a building up ahead. It was actually a small country-style church with a tall steeple.

“Looks like a Christmas party,” Santa said with delight.

“I remember this church. It’s the only time my family ever went to church. Everyone was really nice here.”

Santa opened the large door to a bright sound of happy laughter. “It sounds like they still are. After you, Scott.”

People were mostly sitting at different tables stacking together gingerbread houses with large piles of assorted candies.

Santa said, “Oh, one of my favorites, the annual gingerbread house competition!”

“Yeah, I remember my grandma won one year. She was so excited that she talked about it for weeks.”

Santa said, “Maybe you can reclaim her title. There’s an open table right there with all the materials ready to go.”

“Come on, Santa, let’s build a gingerbread house. I mean, how could I not win with Santa Claus on my team?”

In the midst of a combination of a boisterous crowd and classic Christmas music being played on an old wooden record player in the corner, the two worked diligently as Santa stealthily bit off a piece of gingerbread every now and then for himself. But the two were disrupted suddenly when a chair was pulled out from the table and a young woman, appearing about Scott’s age, asked, “Okay, so my team is being totally lame, can I join you two?”

She looked oddly familiar to Scott, and there was something about her inviting eyes that locked onto his when she spoke. She was charming to say the least, and her voice was one that mesmerized his soul with every word. It was like she had never experienced the things of this world that make one calloused—so innocent and trusting.

“Sure, if you don’t mind being on the winning team,” Scott smiled. “I’m Scott, and this is, ah, Santa.”

Santa said with glee, “Merry Christmas!”

“Wow, Santa Claus? Well, I don’t think we’ve seen each other since I was six.” She turned to Scott, “And you aren’t Scott Simons, are you?”

“Yes, I am. Don’t tell me you’re Melanie Harper?”

“I am!”

“No way! Santa, Mel and I used to play together as kids when I would come up.”

Melanie added, “I remember looking forward to Christmas break every year because I knew I would always have a friend to go sledding with. And then, when my parents told me that our neighbor, your grandmother, passed away, I was sure that I would never see you again. I felt like a part of my childhood ended then, but now here you are right in front of me.”

“It feels like nothing has changed here. Even you look just like I would have imagined you to look all grown up.”

“So I look like a little girl still? Is that what you’re saying?” she teased.

“No, you actually look beautiful.”

She smiled and then noticed him rubbing his hands together. “Are you cold?”

“I’m fine. I don’t know why, but I can’t seem to get warm here, which is odd because I’m hardly ever cold.”

“Well, it’s supposed to snow again tonight.”

Santa looked at Scott’s cold hands and his red nose but didn’t say anything at all.

The group continued to work on their gingerbread house as Scott and Melanie reminisced about their childhood adventures of sledding, snowball fights, building snowmen, and venturing through the town together for hot coco and last minute Christmas gifts. But neither of them bought up the time when they kissed softly on the lips the night of Christmas Eve outside his grandmother’s house in the fresh snow—their first kiss. That story was left out of conversation although it was on both of their minds.

Their playful laughter and long private stares took precedence over the competition as Santa gladly partook in other interactions with people he knew. Hours went by, and people slowly began leaving the church. Eventually, Santa came back to Scott and said, “Miss Harper, would you mind being this young man’s guide around town tonight? It’s getting a little late for this old man.”

“I wouldn’t mind one bit. Tis the season.”

Santa replied, “Tis the season indeed, and Merry Christmas!”

As Scott and Melanie stepped out onto the snowy street, Melanie stated, “I know we’re older now and all but that doesn’t mean we can’t still hold hands, does it?”

Scott, living completely in Bells Town now, reached for her tiny hand, and the two walked down Main Street together as icicles hung off of buildings, and the icy road reflected the large bulb lights back into their eyes as they gazed at each other. Her hand fit so perfectly within his—so soft. And for a moment, Scott started to think that he had finally found what he was a looking for. He had found home, his good memories come back to life.

“Look, it’s snowing!” she pointed eagerly.

“I love it. It’s like a real life snow globe.”

“Yes, and we’re the tiny, little couple holding hands in it,” she leaned her head on his shoulder as they turned down towards Maple Street. The snow started to fall a little heavier now in large flakes.

Melanie whispered, “I wish you hadn’t stayed away for so long.”

“I don’t know if I did.”

She faced him, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’ve always been here in my heart. This place and even with you. In this season and this snow. I don’t think I ever really left.”

The two slowed to a stop, and she put her arms around his neck and finally asked, “Remember that one time we were together in the snow?”

“Like I said, I never really left.”

Her eyes sparkled as she stared deep into him, and she was now more than a dream as two cold lips once again touched in the falling of the white sky that freshly painted another layer on the winter wonderland, visible even in the dark of night. For the following lost moments, they held each other close, and when he opened his eyes again, he saw lights on in his grandmother’s old house down the street.

“There’re people still living in it—my grandmother’s house!”

“Of course.”

He started moving quickly to his destination and said without looking back to her, “I always heard that it was left vacant.”

“No, not at all,” she hurried up to him.

“As he arrived in front yard of the house, he saw the same classic Christmas lights faithfully hanging from the rafters. The windows lit up in bright yellow as black silhouettes moved back and forth inside. The front door burst open, and a little boy came running down the steps with a scarf flowing behind him as he struggled to put on his second mitten with the hood of his bulky coat falling over his face.”

“A little boy lives there, like me. I’m so glad.”

Melanie responded, “Yeah, he finally came back.”

“Who? The little boy?”

She replied stoically, “Yeah. You.”

The front door opened again, and a familiar voice yelled out, “Scotty, only a few minutes now. I don’t want you catching a cold before Christmas,” and as Scott’s eyes focused in through the night, it was her—Grandma.

Then a younger version of his father ran out after the boy yelling with a wide smile on his face, “Watch out, Scotty! I’m going to get you back,” and the boy threw a snowball at him. It was all clear now.

Scott couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t smile. He could only watch this historic scene of his family play out in front of him. Soon his mother came out too and swung a snowball at his father, and he playfully wrestled her onto the snow with tickles. He then hollered out to his son, “Scottie, come make a snow angel with us.”

His grandmother peaked through the window and then hurried to the front door, “Did I raise a bunch of crazies? I don’t want my entire family sick on Christmas. You all get in here right now. The pies are about ready now. Come now, hurry on!”

The wind blew violently, making a deafening sound. Instantly, all the figures froze as the scene of his past now stood still in front of him like life-size sculptures. The wind brushed painfully against his ears, and the frozen figures began to disintegrate into nothing more than snow, being taken away with the unforgiving wind. Soon all that remained was a dark, lonely, weathered house standing half open and damaged by years of neglect—only barely visible now in the dark.

“Mel, what’s going on? Tell me you know. What’s really going on here?” He reached for her hand, taking it in his.

A sad and gloomy look came over her face, “Scott, you’re so cold.”

Her hand in his began to feel like sharp pieces of ice, and then the perfect flesh on her face flew off in ash-like snowflakes with the wind. Layer after layer blew away as her eyes sank deeply into empty voids, exposing her skull and bones throughout her body until they too drifted away into the cold snow. Standing completely alone now, the lights down the street switched off into darkness.

He didn’t know what to do, but he knew he was cold and had been for a while. It was a dangerous kind of cold that was beginning to steal the life out of his body.

So he ran. Sliding on roads of frozen ice and falling every which way into fresh snow, he continued to get up over and over again running.

Turning back onto Main Street, a ghost town now silently awaited him, lit only by the pale moonlight that managed to break through clouds and shine off the white ground. Doors hung halfway off abandoned buildings. Signs were worn off and faded, weathered by the seasons. Windows were cracked and broken. Roofs were sunken in. No vehicles were visible on the street. No merry sounds came from the church. No bright light shown from the coffee shop’s window. Nothing.

Just cold.

A cold that ate through his Converse and fitted jeans. A cold that devoured his striped hoodie. A cold that had moved through his skin and was now starting to wear inside his heart, slowing his blood. He didn’t know how long he had been in this cold, but he knew he didn’t have too much time left to find some sort of warmth as his body was slowing down altogether. Spotting his truck far down the street half covered in snow, he moved lethargically towards it.

As he treaded down the street, he felt bewildered and mouthed out with a breath of fog, “How is any of this happening?”

He felt the presence of another. Maybe it was so cold that any nearby body heat could be felt. Or maybe it was because there was some sort of sound other than the snowy wind. But whatever it was, Scott’s senses told him to turn around, and he saw him standing only a few steps behind.

“Merry Christmas, Scotty.” He stood in that same red and white suit unaffected by the cold. Although serious, his face was still jolly somehow.

“What’s going on? Please just tell me who you really are, and what’s going on?”

“You seem upset, Scotty. I’m sorry that you don’t like your present.”

“I don’t understand. You let me go back, but why didn’t you let me stay?”

“Because you would freeze to death.”

“Why?”

“Because there’s nothing in the past except for the cold. The warmth is always in the present. Look around you. There’s nothing here except cold.”

“How about Mel?”

“Melanie moved away with her parents when the town began to go under many years ago. She’s divorced now with two kids and is nothing like how you imagined her. It’s always interesting how the imagination plays up the past. And sorry to tell you this, but she doesn’t remember you at all. Not even that first childhood kiss you two shared.”

Scott looked away for a moment, flexing his jaw. “It was so wonderful here for a few hours. So perfect.”

“This was all created by your own wistful memories, and although pleasant to visit from time to time, if you live in your memories, you’ll have nothing but the cold.” Santa walked closer to Scott. “You’ll only find death in the cold, but in the present, you see, in the present, you’ll find warm life. It won’t be perfect, but it will be warm.”

Scott looked back to the snowy desolation of darkness of what used to be such a wonderful wonderland. He then looked to Santa, desperate for some sort of help. Anything. Santa took Scott in his large red suited arms and embraced him wholeheartedly until Scott’s entire body was healed by a deep, inner Christmas warmth.

‘Thank you, Santa.” He felt truly content.

“Now go home and enjoy your present. It’s still warm there, although someday it too will be cold, so enjoy it while you can, taking in all the joyful warmth that it has to offer.”

Scott got in his truck and waited a moment for it to defrost as his wipers pushed the fresh powder off his windshield from left to right. He took out his phone and texted her back: I found exactly what I was looking for. I had it the entire time.

As he drove off, the snow continued to fall heavily behind him, and Santa stood waving goodbye in his large, white gloves. Then, within a blink, Santa was gone, and the town behind him seemed even a little darker.

Whether he was the real Santa Claus bringing a young man a very special gift or a Christmas angel in disguise, Scott was now ready to truly embrace the warmth of life that would be his greatest Christmas present ever.