December 17th, 2045
The horn sounded in the old warehouse, and the whirring of the machines ground to silence almost instantly. A handful of workers gathered quickly at the computer that they would use to clock out from their work for the day. They chatted gleefully as they waited for the last minutes to tick away so they could enjoy the freedom of the weekend.
One of the ladies turned from her conversation back toward the empty workspace. “C’mon, Sam,” she said. “We just got one more minute!”
“I’m coming, Stacy,” a deep voice answered. “Just getting the last lights.”
A gentle-looking, middle-aged man with a short, graying beard and short brown hair reached up and tugged on a string, clicking one of the last overhead lights off. He made his way toward the group, turning off the remaining lights as he went. Not going to be doing this too many more times, he thought. Just got a week or two left. The finality of it all was both intimidating and satisfying at the same time. As the last of the group clocked out, he smiled. This was the day. It was payday, and he finally had enough to get the gift he had been saving up for.
“Have a good weekend, Sam,” one of the workers called from the doorway.
“You too, Jim.”
Sam strolled up to the computer, drug the mouse across the screen, and leaned back, straining his eyes to bring the pointer into focus. Getting old sucks, he thought as he finished clocking out. Guess it’s about time to look into those glasses Jim has been on me about. Zipping his coat, he headed out of the plant and checked to make sure the door latched behind him. They didn’t want those raccoons getting in again and going through the trash cans before the cleaning crew got there to empty them.
Sam made his way across the parking lot, the fresh snow crunching beneath his steel-toed boots. He climbed in his truck, shut the door, started it, and pulled his phone out. While his truck warmed up, he eagerly clicked the bank app just to be sure the check had made it into his account. It had never failed to show up on time in his 30 years at the plant, but that didn’t stop him from checking every Friday.
Yep. It’s there. He couldn’t help but grin. The wait was over. Glancing back at the shop, he put the truck in drive. The glow of the Christmas lights from the old building reflected off of the window between them. He was excited, but man, he was going to miss that place. That time hadn’t come yet though.
Sam sighed, turned up the merry tunes on his radio, and headed toward town.
Bells jingled above the door as Sam walked into the store. He walked past the home décor products displayed about the room and took in a deep breath. Cinnamon aroma filled his nostrils. His favorite Christmas melody was playing on a piano through the speakers too. Suddenly he was reminded of Christmases past, and he smiled softly. They were warm memories, but they still reminded him of his losses, so the nostalgia held a bitter tinge.
Sam walked up to the end of the counter and looked down to the register on the other end. The store owner was in that same blue button-down shirt that was faded from years of consistent use. He was holding a figure from a porcelain nativity set over a lady’s plastic bags. Never missing an opportunity to tag on a sale, he was obviously trying to convince her of her need for this wise man. Judging by the reluctant smile on the woman’s face, the pitch wasn’t going well.
Sam grinned and shook his head. He knelt down in front of the glass case and eyed what he was after, the light from behind the glass creating a twinkle in his eyes. It took me a year, but I’m here for you tonight. He’s going to love ya. Tears welled in his eyes, and he felt his whole body warm from the inside as he imagined that little face looking into the gift box as it opened.
“Good evening, Sam.” The voice from behind the counter drew him from his thoughts. He stood to greet the store owner.
“Hey, Mitchell. You having a good night?” Sam asked.
“Yes, I am. What can I help you with?”
Sam spread his index and middle fingers, pointing them onto the glass countertop. “I’ll take those two.”
Mitchell looked down at the items then back up at Sam, eyeing him curiously. “Those? Both of them?”
Mitchell stood for a moment and stared at his customer with his lips pursed and a frown on his brow, obviously trying to find words. Sam fought a smile. He didn’t expect Mitchell to understand. Preparing himself to answer patiently and kindly, he looked back at the store owner and waited.
“Sam… you know… I’m a little worried about you. I don’t doubt you’re still hurting. But I’m sure these are going to take a lot of paychecks to cover.”
“Almost a year’s worth,” Sam responded while retaining his cheerful demeanor.
“Don’t you think you’re just spending out of grief? Trust me, I would love to sell these to you, but I would feel so guilty knowing you made the purchase while your mind wasn’t right.”
Mitchell was always a little… blunt… but this conversation was starting to perturb Sam more than he expected. I told myself I’d be patient. He wanted to grit his teeth. He continued to smile instead.
“Thank you, Mitchell, but I’ve had a whole year to think about it. This is what I want to buy.”
Mitchell leaned his upper body back with his hands on the counter, tapped his foot, and twisted the corner of his mouth as he studied Sam. Shaking his head and glancing at the other customers in the store, he pulled a pen and paper out from behind the counter and scribbled something down onto it. He grabbed the items and gestured toward the register with his head.
Sam grinned and followed as Mitchell led him. Mitchell rang the items up and grabbed a bag to put them in.
“Ohp. Sorry, Mitchell.” Sam pointed toward a shelf behind the store owner’s head. “I want one of those boxes to put them in.”
Mitchell looked at the boxes behind him then back to Sam confusedly. He shook his head and pulled one down before punching some numbers into the register.
Sam picked the box up and ran a finger over its lid. It was painted with a beautiful blue and made of solid oak. Ornate silver designs wove around the box like ribbons and silver sparkles like stars adorned all sides.
Mitchell looked at the register display with widened eyes and pursed lips as if he was trying to tell the screen, ‘I told you so’. He turned it toward Sam and pointed at the total, almost looking like he half expected his customer to pass out.
Sam smiled, pulled out his phone, and handed it to Mitchell. Mitchell held it over the register, handed it back to Sam, pulled out the receipt, and marked something out on it. Sliding the receipt and the paper he had written on across the counter, he leaned in and whispered, “I’m only doing this because I’m afraid you’ll regret buying this later.”
Sam looked down and saw that ‘All Sales Final’ was marked out on the receipt. “I’ve signed this paper. You have a year to return this. Do me a favor, and just wait until next Christmas to give this to… well, whoever you’re planning to give it to. Give you some time to think.” He turned and then added as if he had almost forgotten, “and don’t tell anyone about this.”
Sam smiled again. What do you know? Mitchell is a nice guy after all. There was no way he was going to take him up on his offer, but the kindness of the act warmed his heart.
Mitchell had put the items into the box and tied a silver ribbon around it. Sam grabbed the gift and nodded to the store owner. “Merry Christmas, Mitchell.”
“Merry Christmas,” Mitchell said almost rushedly. As Sam headed out of the store, he could hear Mitchell already giving a sales pitch to another patron of his store. Sam just really didn’t know what to think about that man.
“Pass the gravy, Sam.” Levi’s request drew Sam from his thoughts for the moment. He smiled and handed the bowl to Kay for it to be passed down the length of his old table. As he watched the gravy go from one friend’s hand to another, a bittersweet feeling came over him. Sam loved these Christmas dinners with his closest friends. He knew that his friends pulled the first one together out of pity, so Sam wouldn’t be alone for the whole Christmas season, but he was glad he put his pride aside to let them set up this tradition. So many fond memories were made right there at that table in his little two-bedroom house. It was a shame that this would be the last one.
The conversation had been light, and the food was tasty. Sam looked around at his friends and sighed. The quiet, cheerful Christmas music sat in contrast to the emotional climate of the room. All of the friendly faces wore a smile, but he could feel the tension between them all. How could they understand what he had decided to do? They couldn’t. But that was okay.
“Stuck with the same ol’ red sweater, huh, Coffey?” Michelle asked.
Sam chuckled. “You know it. Sort of a lucky sweater. It’d be a shame to miss a Christmas party with it.”
Michelle smiled and rolled her eyes as she chewed the food in her mouth.
Valerie turned her electric blue eyes on him. “So, Sam. Still thinking of being a test subject with that time machine down at the Howitt Labs?”
The hushed conversations went silent and the clanking of silverware on plates was quietened as everyone waited to hear the answer to the question they all had been wanting to ask. You could always depend on Valerie to say those things everyone else was too afraid to say.
Sam smiled knowingly, sat his fork on his plate, wiped his mouth, and looked at his dear friend. “Yep. I think I am.”
“You know they haven’t really found a way to bring people back from where they send them, right?”
Sam nodded. “I do.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“I was a little nervous at first, but I’m okay with it now.”
Levi shoveled a spoonful of mashed potatoes and gravy into his mouth before asking, “What if you can’t come back? Aren’t you going to miss this place?”
“I will miss this place. I’ll miss you all, I’ll miss my job at the old plant, I’ll miss it all.”
Valerie looked down at Levi then to the others before asking her next intrusive question: “Is it because you lost your family in the wreck? Are you going back to see them?”
Michelle nudged Valerie in the ribs, and Valerie shrugged at her and mouthed what. Sam felt his face flush. He knew they wouldn’t understand, and while Valerie had a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, that question was too far. A slew of things he wanted to say came to mind, but he was working on being lovingly patient, so he held his tongue. He didn’t know how long his restraint would hold out, so he needed to get away.
Sam slid out from the table calmly while intentionally turning his attention from Valerie, and said, “I… gotta use the bathroom.”
As Sam walked left the kitchen, he heard someone say, “Nice one, Valerie.”
Sam tried to keep his gait steady as he strode across the living room. He didn’t want to let on how upset he was, though he guessed most of them likely knew. Closing his swelling eyes, he stepped into the restroom and locked the door behind him. He sat on the covered toilet, crossed his hands with his elbows on his knees, and stared at the wall in front of him. Shortly, the tingling feeling of anger left him as he slowly blew out a deep breath. It was a simple question, but it sent his mind down that track that he tried to avoid as much as possible.
A hot tear formed at the corner of his eye as his thoughts were flooded with memories, then the memories gave way to wishes. Wishes that he had taken a different road that night, wishes that he had just slowed down, and wishes that he had taken more time to spend with them while they were here.
Wishes that they were here with him now.
The tears were coming freely now. Sam tried desperately to sob quietly. He heard people mingling now, which meant that they had finished eating and had begun setting up games and chatting, scattered about the house. There would certainly be people outside of the restroom in his hallway soon, so he needed to dry it up.
Why is this still so hard? It’s been years. Sam sniffed as he started to think on the joyful times and reminded himself of where they are now, wiping the tears from his cheeks. This was a practice that he had gotten good at over the years when these thoughts surprised him in moments like this. I don’t have to miss them much longer.
Sam stood and checked himself in the mirror. His eyes weren’t that red. Maybe people wouldn’t be able to tell. He stopped and listened carefully when he heard some voices outside the door.
“I feel so bad for him. This time of year has got to be tough.” It was Michelle’s voice.
“I know. Not having his wife and kids is bad enough, but he lost his mom last year too.” That voice was definitely Levi.
“Yeah. Hopefully Valerie has enough sense not to ask him about that too,” Michelle said.
“You…” Levi’s voice quietened. “You don’t think he’s going back to see his mom then, do you? I mean, he didn’t say he was going back to see Sarah and the kids.”
“I don’t know, Levi. I think we need to stop worrying about it. Sam isn’t telling us for a reason. We need to drop it.”
Sam smiled. Michelle had always been such a good friend for him. Here she was sticking up for him when he wasn’t around. She was the one he would miss the most. Now he thought he would help her out in changing the awkward subject. He opened the door quickly.
“Ohp, sorry, Levi. Didn’t know you were out here,” Sam said as Levi stepped out of the way of the swinging door.
“Oh, Sam. No problem. I should have watched where I was standing.”
Sam smiled at Michelle, and she returned the favor. Then Sam headed back to the living room. His friends almost had the table cleaned off and ready for games. He noticed that Valerie was reaching up to the top of the mantle above the fireplace with her back to him. She had pushed part of his nativity set to the side to grab the gift he had gotten from Mitchell’s store. No doubt to be nosey and see what he bought, betting perhaps that it held a clue to her question.
“Want me to change the song, Valerie?” Sam’s question made his friend turn around quickly with her hands behind her back, a guilty expression on her face. “I have to change it from my phone, you know. The speaker doesn’t have any controls,” Sam said pointing to his phone screen.
“Oh, yeah. I just don’t like Mariah Carey,” Valerie said. Sam smiled at her. Of course, he knew it was a lie, but she had taken the ‘out’ he had given her. He pushed the button on the side, lighting his face up as the screen turned on, and hit the skip.
“Sorry. It’s just a favorite classic my parents used to listen to,” Sam said, sliding his phone back into his pocket.
“It’s okay, I should have asked anyway.”
A voice from the kitchen broke the awkwardness. “Guys, the table’s ready. Who’s ready for some Monopoly?”
Sam nodded toward the kitchen. “After you.” He was being cordial, but he was definitely not going to be stupid. As soon as he turned his back, he knew Valerie would be right back on the mantle.
Valerie smiled and headed into the kitchen. Sam stepped back and watched everyone else walk past as they went to the table.
Michelle smiled and winked at Sam as she walked past. “Ready to give me all those railroads, Coffey?”
“In your dreams, Pearcey.”
Sam followed Michelle in and joined the rest. The night went on without another hitch. There was laughter, games, joy, and virgin eggnog for everyone. Lots and lots of eggnog.
Sam stood petrified in front of the tall glass doors staring up at the sign with his bow-tied box in hand. The sign read “Howitt Labs.” Well, it would have read that way if the i and b hadn’t burnt out. All this time he hadn’t second-guessed himself, and now, standing at the doors to the labs on Christmas Eve, he wondered if he was being a little crazy.
Sam blew out a breath, the hot air turning to vapor as it passed through his cracked lips and into the snow-dusted air. He looked down at the gift in his hands as thoughts raced through his mind. The silver ribbon was laden with blue snowflakes. Would it even be snowing there, he wondered? Almost giving into the urge to turn around and never return, he quickly jerked the bow from the package and peeked back inside.
With a smile, Sam closed his eyes and nodded, reassured of his decision. He looked back up at the doors and marched inside with confidence.
The room was plain white, rectangular, and sparsely decorated. Clicking from an analog clock overhead echoed about the room. A few chairs lined the far wall and a window sat in a cutout on the right. When Sam walked up to the window, half of it slid to the side and a receptionist greeted him.
“Can I help you?”
“Yeah, I’m Sam. I’m here for the experiment. I’m a little early,” he said chuckling with a hint of nervous shaking on his voice. No matter how sure he was, experimental time travel was still a little unnerving.
The receptionist typed on her computer for a moment then looked back at him with a smile. “Mr. Coffey. Go ahead right through the doors just to the left here, take a right where the hallway tees, and have a seat in the waiting area. Dr. Gonzalez will be right with you.”
Sam smiled. “Thank you.” He tucked the gift under his arm, pushed the door open, and followed the instructions. The waiting area looked much like the front room except it had a vending machine that must have been from the 2020s. A credit card slot? Sam quirked a brow and chuckled.
Before he could sit down, a Hispanic man in a lab coat stepped around the corner with a smile on his face. “Mr. Coffey?”
Sam nodded and shook his hand. “Call me Sam.”
“Sam. Nice to meet you. The team is eager to get the experiment underway. If you’re ready, we can go on back now.”
Sam’s heart sank a bit. He didn’t have any hesitations, but things were moving much quicker than he was prepared for. “Um. Yeah. I’m ready if you are.”
“Excellent. Follow me.”
They turned a corner and the walls went from white plaster to concrete, building on Sam’s anxiety. This is what a lab is supposed to look like. It’ll all be okay.
Dr. Gonzalez opened a door at the end of the hallway and held the door back, gesturing for Sam to go in. When Sam stepped inside, a group of scientists turned from their conversation with beaming smiles on their faces. Sam smiled back awkwardly.
“Don’t worry,” Dr. Gonzalez said, patting Sam on the back as he walked by. “They’re just excited to give the new adjustments a try. Now, you did sign the waver, correct? You know this may be a one-way trip?”
Sam nodded. “Yeah, Doc. We’re all squared away.”
“Great. Your clothes are right over there. Go ahead and get changed in that room. We’ll wait right here.”
Sam picked up a pile of clothes from the chair beside the door, sat his gift down, stepped into the room, and changed quickly. He stepped out and looked at his new outfit to make sure all was in order. The plain brown robes and white turban from that Christmas play 10 years ago still fit, even if they were a little snug.
“Perfect,” Dr. Gonzalez remarked. “You can step right in.”
The scientists stepped aside, revealing a cylindrical tube with a door handle on the front. It was a pale steel color with a narrow window on the front. Practically nothing about it gave any indication that it was a time machine besides the small dial with the analog number display and the word “years” in white stickers beside it.
The walk across the small room felt like an eternity. Clopping from his boots echoed, and Sam looked between the excited faces about him as he stepped into the machine. He pulled his gift to his chest and took a deep breath as he closed his eyes.
As his back touched the cold, hard steel, Sam thought about his mom, then he thought about his wife, his son, and his daughter, then he thought on his destination. That thought was helping to calm his soul.
A muffled conversation outside the door caught Sam’s attention, and he looked through the glass window. Dr. Gonzalez appeared to be giving some sort of instructions. Sam put his hand to his ear, and Dr. Gonzalez crossed his arms with an expectant look on his face. Sam acted in kind. The scientist gave his subject a thumbs up and stepped out of view of the window.
As Dr. Gonzalez stepped away, Sam caught a reassuring sight. A small Christmas tree sat on a table in the corner with twinkling lights and an angel with its arms spread wide on top. He smiled, leaned his head back, and closed his eyes again.
The whirring of the machine didn’t faze the once-anxious man. He waited patiently with a smile and hummed an ancient Christmas melody, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” as he slowly drifted into sleep.
The sudden rush of sand spreading around his back brought Sam out of his slumber. He sat up and looked around dazed for a moment. Did it work? He wasn’t in the lab anymore, but was he there?
Sam stood and wiped sand from his lap. It definitely looks like it worked. He shook his head to fight the wave of nausea that came over him. Welp, they told me I’d get sick. Standing tall with his hands on top of his head as he’d been instructed, he took a deep breath. In a moment, the feeling passed. Okay, I’m good.
A brilliant light caught Sam’s attention, and he turned with his hand over his brow to get a better look at it. With a smile, he confirmed his guess: “A star.”
Sam’s eyes went wide as he had a thought and started patting himself erratically. “The gift. Where is it?” He fell to his knees and swiped his hands through the sand sending grains showering in all directions. A glimmer a few feet away caught his attention and he rushed over on his knees, pulling the object from the silt. He sat back, put his hand on his chest and gave a sigh of relief. Quickly checking to make sure it was still in the box, he smiled, clasped it closed, and looked back toward the star.
Sam stood and began marching toward his destination. The walk through the sand and over the dunes was more tedious than he had anticipated. Trekking in the night gave him some time to think and build his excitement. For about a mile he plodded, each step closer invigorating his spirit. He couldn’t wait to see him.
The tired, excited man stepped over another dune and stopped when his destination was in sight, the star casting a bright light on his gleeful face. He was nervous, thrilled, exhausted, and unsure what else he felt. Unable to wait anymore, he trudged the last few yards and peaked around the wall.
Inside, a man and woman in robes like he was wearing sat with animals and hay all about them. Starlight shone through the separated boards of the ceiling giving the stable a pure-white glow. The man looked at Sam inquisitively while the woman looked wistfully at the child with a dreamy smile on her face. Contemplation and gratefulness were in her eyes. When the woman turned her gaze on Sam, she gave an inviting smile and nod.
Sam stepped around the corner and smiled at her. He wasn’t sure what to say. What could he say? Then he had a warm feeling of peace come over him as the Hebrew phrase he knew came to mind. Turning to the woman, he said, “Hallelujah.”
The woman’s smile deepened, and she looked back to the child. Sam looked at her baby as well, and he became awestruck.
A babe laid swaddled in a feeding trough with animals laid all about him. Sam stepped forward with tears in his eyes as he looked upon him.
The child was making goos and coos looking about at the world as any other child would. Sam was quite shocked honestly. He didn’t know what he expected the Christ child to look like, but somehow what he saw was both more glorious and more humble at the same time. He appeared as a normal baby. No rays of light surrounding him, angels singing choruses, or kings bowing down to him. He supposed all of that was taking place in Heaven at the moment.
When the baby’s eyes met Sam’s, he felt everything within him tremble. Though the babe appeared as any other, there was a quiet wisdom, passionate love, and a fierce fire in his eyes. A tear streaked down Sam’s cheek as he knelt next to Jesus. His hands trembled as he opened his gift, showing it to his Redeemer.
“It isn’t much, my King.” Sam pulled two small items from the box. He sat a gold lamb and a gold lion next to the baby in the manger amongst the hay. Jesus gave Sam a toothless smile. For a man that had lost so much, he could not complain. Every thought, worry, fear, and sorrowful memory melted away. He had now seen everything. He had seen the best Christmas of all: The first Christmas.
May your Christmas season be bright, merry, and filled with the love of those you hold dear.