Tag Archives: Christmas Cheer

A Christmas Story 2020®

Tipsy the elf ran down the hall of Santa’s workshop carrying the present. I knew I shouldn’tve had those headphones on, he thought. I wonder how long ago the bell rung. I’ve gotta hurry!

The elf’s little legs were in overdrive as he whizzed past Santa’s workshop office. He stole a glance inside to make sure he didn’t happen to be a little lucky and Santa would be running late. He wasn’t lucky this time. It was something he could have guessed from the vacancy of the once-bustling workshop halls. His little heart raced as he ran with all of his might.

Tipsy rounded the last corner. The door to the center of the workshop where the presents were loaded and Santa launched his sleigh from was in sight when Tipsy’s feet went out from under him. WHAM! He hit the cold polished floor and elf and present slammed into the solid-wood wall. His shoes had flown into the air and landed with a slap on his big nose.

Tipsy laid there for a moment and wondered if being a Christmas Elf was the right job for him. How silly he looked laying there with his shoes on his face and a toe sticking through a hole in his socks. Finally, he rubbed his hip, sat up, and scooted on his bottom to slide on his oversized shoes. The bell on the toes jingled as he fidgeted with getting them on his little feet.

As the elf grabbed the present and stood to leave, a bright red glimmer on the ground caught his eye. He had knocked a small ornament off of a tree in the corner. 

Tipsy glanced at the doors then looked back to the ornament. I can’t leave that for someone else to pick up. It’ll only take a second. He sat the present down, gingerly grabbed the ornament, and oh so carefully slid the string over a limb. Stepping back slowly, he watched the ornament to make sure it would stay. He put his hands on his hips, puffed out his chest, and breathed out slowly in relief. As he grabbed the present and turned around, a crash behind him made him stop mid stride, close his eyes, and clench his teeth.

Oh, how Tipsy didn’t want to turn around. He opened one eye to see that the whole tree had fallen and thrown ornaments everywhere.

“What was tha…” Floormaster Jingle stepped out of his office. “Oh, Tipsy.”

“I’ll get it, Boss. Don’t worry.” Tipsy turned around and began to pick up the ornaments.

“Is that a present?” Jingle exclaimed.

Tipsy felt his face flush in embarrassment. 

“Santa’s ready to go! You need to get that to the Middle. I’ll get the tree. Go, go, go!”

Tipsy didn’t waste any time. He scooped up his present and held on to his hat as he sprinted to the workshop door.

He burst through the door and held his ear with his free hand as the sound of elves cheering washed over him. Looking up, he caught a glimpse of the back of Santa’s sleigh passing through the opening in the domed ceiling as the doors began sliding shut. One last “Ho ho ho” from the Big Man joined the noise of the cheers as the ceiling closed. 

Tipsy felt tears begin to well in his eyes as he thought of how big he messed up this time. Heat rose in his face as he felt a million little eyes turn on him.

“Oh, Tipsy.” Juniper said as they all noticed the present in his arms.

“Great. Now you’ve really done it, Tipsy,” Peppermint said. “Now a child is going to wake up on Christmas morning without a present to open from Santa.”

Tipsy was beginning to feel useless like he did every year, but when an idea popped in his head, he got a determined look on his face. He squeezed the present like a football and dashed toward the front door.

“Where are you going?” an elf asked.

“You’ll never catch Santa!” another shouted from behind him.

Tipsy thought of the disappointed look on a little child’s face and shook his head. “I have to try!”

He burst through the large doors that Santa led his reindeer into after long Christmas Eve nights when they were too tired to fly any longer. Without slowing his pace, he turned the corner and made straight for the stables. She has to still be there.

As Tipsy ran, he kept thinking of that child so he would push on. Heat pressed against his skin from the inside as the sting of the cold blasted against the outside and mist rose from his mouth as he panted. Elves didn’t run this much. Unless a polar bear happened by their fishing hole while they were trying to catch some arctic grayling of course.

He stopped by the stables and put his hand and forehead against the wall as he tried to catch his breath. The cold air sending an aching chill inside his lungs was no help. I don’t have time for this, he reminded himself. Taking a deep breath into his nose, he went into the stables. 

The room that was typically filled with the sounds of stable hands working, reindeer munching oats, and the smell of a barnyard was empty of all of these things. Well… it did still smell like wet animals. 

Tipsy listened closely as he began checking the stalls. C’mon, c’mon! His heart began to sink as it seemed his idea was going to be a bust until he checked the last stall. 

“Astrid!” he shouted as he stood over a reindeer laying on the ground, sides rising and falling with slumber and her tongue hanging out of her mouth. He rushed over and pushed on her side, rolling her slightly back and forth. “C’mon, Astrid! We have to go. We have to take this toy to a young girl or boy, or their Christmas will be ruined.”

There was no response from Astrid.

Tispy scratched his head and looked around the stable for an idea. His eyes shot wide, then he sat his gift down, ran into another stall, and returned with a carrot. He stopped and inspected the carrot, then ran back stuck another in his pocket and a few acorns for good measure.

“Astriiiid. I got a juicy carrot for you.” When she didn’t respond, Tipsy waved it in front of her nose. When that didn’t work, he shoved it into her nostril. Astrid stopped breathing for a moment, then her sides grew large as she took a deep breath, and when she blew out, the carrot shot past Tispy’s ear and stuck in the wall.

Tispy grimaced then wiped his brow before pulling the carrot back out and looking back over Astrid again. “No wonder Santa never uses you.” 

Tipsy rubbed the carrot on Astrid’s tongue, and her eyes began to bat awake. She slowly sat up and smacked her lips.

“Astrid!” Tipsy quickly explained his dire situation and there was silence when he finished. After a moment Astrid let out a quiet grunt. Tipsy snapped his fingers. “Almost forgot.”

He rushed over to the front of the stables and grabbed a bag full of dust. When he got back to Astrid’s stable, he sprinkled some of the dust onto her head. She promptly sneezed, and Tipsy frowned as he wiped off his face.

Astrid opened her mouth and instead of a grunt she said, “What do you want, Tipsy? It’s my year off.”

“Every year is your year off.”

“Okay, but that means this year is my year off too. Now give me that carrot so I can go back to sleep.”

“Can’t,” Tipsy said. “I need you for an errand.”

“What could you possibly need me for on Christmas Eve? Isn’t your job finished for this year?”

Tipsy blushed as he turned around, picked up the present, and showed it to Astrid. 

“Oh, Tipsy,” Astrid replied. “I would love to help that child get their present, but I can’t. Santa is ahead of us. How on earth would we catch him?”

Tipsy raised a finger and sat the present back down before pulling a scroll out of the pocket inside his coat. He showed it to Astrid. “I have Santa’s flight map. You see, this present goes to Springfield, Missouri. Santa starts here in North Maine Woods, Maine and works his way west. If we went straight for Springfield, we would get there before he does.”

“I can’t fly that far, Tipsy. I haven’t flown in years. I’d be lucky to get you to New York and still have the energy to get back to the North Pole.”

Tipsy rubbed his chin. This wasn’t turning out to be a good plan after all. He just needed a little time to come up with something else. He shook his head. I don’t have time for anything else. I will have to make this work.

“Take me as far as you can, Astrid. I’ll come up with what to do next on our way there,” he said as he rolled up the scroll and stuck it back in his inside coat pocket.

Astrid rolled her eyes as she stood up. “I’m only doing this for that kid. You know that, right?”

“Sure, sure. Just eat this.” He shoved the carrot into Astrid’s mouth and her eyes went wide in shock. She gave him a disapproving look as she munched the carrot.

Astrid’s muscles began to fill out, and her eyes got brighter as the carrot began imparting its magical properties on the reindeer. When her hooves began to sparkle, Tipsy knew the carrot had done its job. He quickly threw a saddle on her, and they took off into the night. 

When they had gotten out over the ocean, Astrid looked back and shook her head. “Tipsy, tell me you grabbed the present.”

Tipsy looked around and then looked at his hands. He pulled his head down into his coat to hide his blushing cheeks. “No.”

With a huff, Astrid turned around, and after they had grabbed the present, they made off into the night toward America.

As they rode through the sky, the wind whipping his hair and pointed hat behind him, a multitude of thoughts raced through Tipsy’s mind. Would they make it in time? How was he going to get from New York to Springfield? What is Christmas going to look like out in the rest of the world? (This thought excited him.) What would happen if he didn’t make it to Santa? He didn’t like how that thought felt, so he decided to begin working on a way to get to Springfield.

His first thought was a train. No, that will take days, he thought. Next, he thought of taking a bus. I don’t have any money though. Hitchhiking might get him there. He shook his head. Too dangerous to ride with strangers. 

Just then a whirring noise behind him caught his attention. He looked back in time to pull Astrid’s reins to the side and miss an oncoming plane. 

Astrid huffed. “Watch what you’re doing back there, elf!”

“What in the world was that?” Tipsy shouted.

“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of a plane before.”

Tipsy looked at her with raised eyebrows. “Like the toys?”

Astrid sighed. “I guess you don’t see many of the real ones. We don’t have any airports at the North Pole.”

“Do you think it could get me to Springfield in time?”

“How am I supposed to know?”

Tipsy looked down and saw another leaving a long stretch of road next to a building. “Take me down to that building.”

Astrid took a hard turn and came into a spiral descent. Tipsy held the present tightly and screamed in horror. The reindeer’s hooves made a clanking noise as she slid to a stop on the airport’s metal roof. As Tipsy climbed off of her back with his teeth chattering and his eyes glued wide, Astrid chuckled to herself. 

“Good luck, Tipsy.” She suddenly steeled her expression. “This is a strange world, so be careful.”

Tipsy nodded nervously and looked around at the wide world around him as Astrid took back off into the night. The snow seemed to have followed Tipsy to New York, but things were so different. The buildings weren’t made of wood, they were made out of steel like his hammers and wrenches. And the buildings weren’t warmed by cozy fireplaces or adorned with multicolored lights, they all had plain old yellow lights that just lit up the rooms. Where were the carollers? Why didn’t he smell cinnamon or hot chocolate? What was that smell? He decided it was best not to find that one out.

Tipsy noticed a metal door that appeared to lead into the building. He was scared, but he summoned all of his courage, breathed in deep to puff out his chest, and pull the door open. He took the ladder inside and came out on a walkway high above people walking about below. After a little searching, he found another door with a stairway that took him out onto the floor with the bustling people.

A man bumped into Tipsy and almost knocked him over.

“Outta the way,” he shouted. For the life of him, Tipsy couldn’t understand why everyone seemed so unhappy. It was Christmas time! The most wonderful time of the year. There wasn’t any merrymaking or people singing or anything.

When Tipsy heard the familiar melody of Jingle Bells playing, he felt some of his fear melt away. Finally, a little piece of home. It didn’t sound like home though. It sounded… electronic. Like one of the toys he put together. It wasn’t deep and rich like the Yule Tidal Waves – his favorite band back home. He would have to make it work for his courage.

As he stood looking for where to go next, a woman in a navy-blue uniform came up to him. Her lips were red, and her face was kind. Her nametag said Alissa. “Hi, little one. Where are your mommy and daddy?”

“Mommy and daddy?” Tipsy said. “Why do you want my parents?”

The lady gave him a puzzled look. “Are you lost?”

“A little. You see, I need to take a plane to Springfield, Missouri.”

“Is that the plane that your parents are on?”

Tipsy realized he must look like a child to such a big person. Instead of taking the time to explain that he was most certainly not a child, he decided to just go with it. “Yep. That’s where my parents are. Can you help me get there, please?”

The lady smiled and offered her hand. “Sure thing. Let’s go find them.”

Tipsy looked at her hand for a moment then decided she seemed nice enough and grabbed it. She led him through the airport from one terminal to the next for what felt like an eternity. Tipsy was beginning to wonder if this was truly going to be any faster than finding that train. Santa’s going to be so disappointed.

As they passed a stand in the airport, Tipsy saw a sign that said, “Free Maps,” and grabbed one. It was certainly going to help him later. Then the lady stopped and looked up at a screen on the wall. 

Her eyes searched the letters on the screen for a moment then she smiled and looked back at Tipsy. “Are they going through Atlanta?”

Tipsy didn’t know where Atlanta was, but he smiled and nodded. This was getting messier and messier.

She turned her attention back to the screen and scanned it again. “Then you need to get to Terminal A7. This way.” 

Alissa led him through the bustling crowd from one hallway to the next until they finally walked under a sign that said A7. She walked him right up to the front counter and spoke to a lady behind a computer.

“This young man has lost his parents, and we think they’re on this flight.”

The lady began typing on the computer. “Okay, what are their names?”

When both of the ladies looked at Tipsy, he felt himself begin to sweat. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to stretch the truth. He thought and thought about what he would say, but he was too embarrassed and flustered to think.

“I… it’s okay. I think I can find them on my own.” Tipsy began to step away and Alissa gently grabbed his hand.

“It’s okay. I’m happy to help you.”

When Alissa touched his hand though, Tipsy panicked. He jerked his hand free and ran toward the exit, leaving his glove in her hand.

Tipsy didn’t know how long it had been since he left the airport, but the ache in his legs told him it was a long time ago. He rubbed his glove-free hand with his other and blew his hot breath on it to try to keep it from freezing as the night grew old. He knew he’d never walk there in time, but he couldn’t just stand there while he thought. At least he was getting closer to his goal. Now if he could just figure out how to get to Springfield by morning.

Tipsy looked around. All he could see was a sea of people walking between the giant buildings of metal. To his right was a huge park, but it didn’t offer much more in the way of excitement or help in getting halfway across the country. A few lights and more angry people. He had tried to ask a few of the people if they knew of a way to get to Springfield, but the nicest ones ignored him or told him to go away. The meanest ones… well, he didn’t want to think of that now.

“How are these people not merrier? It’s Christmas time for Santa’s sake!” Just then a squirrel hopped into an alleyway just ahead of him. “Now there’s someone who would listen to me. If only I were at the North Pole with my…” Tipsy widened his eyes as he remembered. He dug an acorn he had stuck in his pocket out as he followed the squirrel into the alleyway and held it out for it.

The rodent hopped up, stood on its back legs, and sniffed the treat. Tipsy slowly slid his other hand in its pocket. “Go on, little guy. Take it.”

When the squirrel got close, Tipsy threw a handful of the magic dust from his pocket into the squirrel’s face. It sneezed and yelled, “Hey!” in a deep New Yorker voice. Its eyes went wide, raised a brow, and twitched its nose. “What on earth? I can talk.”

“Good ol’ Christmas Magic.”

“Whoa. This is cool. Say, you got any more o’ this stuff, buddy? I got some pigeons down on 5th Avenue I’d like to have some words with.”

Tipsy chuckled. “No, not right now. Right now, I need your help.”

“Look, fella. I can help you, but you gotta help me too.”

“But I did help you,” Tipsy replied. “You are talking, right?”

The squirrel pondered for a minute. “Okay, you got me there.”

“What’s your name?”

“Poot,” the squirrel replied.

Tipsy wrinkled his nose. “Poot? Who would give you such a terr…”

Poot frowned at the elf.

“…rrific name? That’s great.”

Poot continued to frown at Tipsy. “The girl who feeds me is real nice, ‘kay?”

Tipsy cleared his throat. “Anyway. Do you know any way for me to get to Springfield, Missouri tonight?” Tipsy pulled out a map and pointed to where he wanted to go.

Poot scratched his head. “Geez, kid. I dunno. That’s a long way to go in one night. Did you try the airport?”

Tipsy nodded with a frown on his face.

“No luck, huh?” Poot went on. “Well, I would take you there, but unless you can make me grow ten sizes larger and fly…” Poot shrugged.

Tipsy grinned then pulled an acorn and a bit of carrot from his pocket.

“Oo, goodies! Wait. A carrot? What do I look like to you, the Easter Bunny?”

“Just trust me, you have to eat it.”

Poot eyed Tipsy before chewing up the carrot with a look of disgust on his face. Then he immediately scarfed two acorns down before giving Tipsy a puzzled look. “Waitaminute. What’re these gonna do to me?”

Tipsy smiled and shrugged as he stood up and stepped back.

Poot burped and widened his eyes. “What are these gonna do to me?!” His eye grew ten times larger, then his tail, this his back legs. Soon he was as tall as a horse, looking down at Tipsy.

Poot looked down at his hands. “Whoooa. Now I really gotta go pay those pigeons a visit.”

“Later. First I need you to get me to Springfield.”

“Uh, I don’t know if you remember this, Chief, but there were two parts to what I said.” He counted on his first two fingers as he talked. “Big. Fly.”

Tipsy smiled knowingly and climbed onto his back. “Do you believe in Christmas magic, Poot?”

The squirrel looked himself up and down. “Do I have much of a choice now?”

“Well believe really hard and jump into the air.”

“Listen, kid, I don’t know the first thing…”

Poot and Tipsy turned their attention back to the street as a lady stopped and looked down the alleyway. Her eyes went wide, and her mouth opened slowly before she let out a deafening scream.

Tipsy held his ears and Poot winced. “You don’t have time to fight with me about it, Poot. Just fly!”

The squirrel tilted his head and said, “Okay. Here goes!” 

Poot leapt into the air and almost collided with a tall building before correcting his course. “That’s it! I’m doing it.” 

Tipsy handed Poot the map. “Lead the way, Captain!” And they sailed off into the night.

Triangulating from where they came in New York with the map of the United States and Santa’s flight map, Tipsy and Poot quickly found the house of the present’s owner. And wouldn’t you know it, they landed right next to Santa’s sleigh on the roof when they arrived. 

Tipsy was filled with a mixture of excitement and fear. He had secretly hoped he could get the present there before Santa knew it was missing, but he was also excited to be concluding his journey and to see the Big Man again. How had it only been a few short hours since he left the workshop at the North Pole? That seemed like days ago.

After telling Poot goodbye and watching him soar off into the sky, Tipsy looked at the chimney and blew out a deep breath, mist rising from his lips. He just knew he was going to hear it from Santa. He had really messed up big this year. 

“Might as well get it over with.” Tipsy threw his leg over the lip of the chimney and climbed down. As he got closer to the bottom, he felt his bottom getting warmer from the fire. He knew, as Santa had said, that the fire would go out as he got there. The Christmas Magic on his and Santa’s clothes was made specially to put flames out. Of course the fire would light right back up when he was out. He still wondered how Santa had figured that formula out. 

When Tipsy stepped out of the fireplace, he was taken aback by how warm and cozy the house felt. The multicolored lights on the tree gave the room a warm, Christmasy glow, the garland and wreaths about the living room made Tipsy’s heart feel warm, and the cinnamon scented candle reminded him of his favorite holiday drink.

As he scanned the room, his eyes came to rest on someone familiar. Santa was standing next to the tree with his hands on his hips. Tipsy winced, but he noticed that Santa’s face wasn’t one of anger or even disappointment. Santa was smiling, and his cheeks were rosy.

“There you are, Tipsy. I wondered when you would get here,” Santa said in his deep, jolly voice.

“Y… you were expecting me?”

“Well of course. My bag felt about one present light, and when I found out it was the one you were working on, I knew it would find its way here on time.”

Tipsy furled his brow in confusion. “But if you knew it was missing, why didn’t you come back for it? Why did you make me come all the way here?”

Santa gave Tipsy a knowing smile, the one that always warmed his heart, and squatted down to put a hand on his shoulder. “Do you remember last year, Tipsy?”

Tipsy looked at the floor. “You mean when I tore that arm off of the Tickle Me Elmo, and you almost didn’t get out in time for Christmas?”

“That’s the one. Do you remember what you said when you handed it to me, all fixed up and ready for Sammie?”

“No.”

A tear formed in the corner of Santa’s eye. “You said it so quietly that you didn’t think I heard you, but you said that you always messed everything up. That you were the worst elf ever, and you didn’t know why you didn’t quit.”

Now Tipsy remembered, and a tear like Santa’s was forming in his eye. 

“It broke my heart to hear you say that, Tipsy. So, this year I told myself I was going to help you fix it. I let you go on this journey to let you prove something to yourself.” He put a finger on Tipsy’s chest. “You have the biggest heart of any elf I have ever known. I knew that it didn’t matter what stood in the way, that you were not going to let Christmas be ruined.” Santa held up a finger and almost whispered, “Not even for one little girl or boy. Tipsy, you don’t ruin everything, you bring joy and laughter to everything you do. You caring more about a little girl or boy you don’t know than yourself is what Christmas is all about. My boy, you don’t ruin Christmas, in fact this Christmas you saved it.”

Santa wrapped Tipsy in a big grizzly bear hug, and they twisted in place together for some time. Tipsy now understood. Santa wasn’t disappointed, he wanted Tipsy to know what he saw in him. The elf tingled with joy.

When Santa stood from their embrace, he motioned to the tree. Tipsy stood tall with his chest out, turned on his heel, and marched over to where the presents were. Gingerly, he stooped down, pushed the plush nativity scene out from under the tree a little to make room, and put the present with the rest. Somehow, though the present had been on quite the journey, the shiny wrapping still reflected the glow of the multicolored lights on the tree flawlessly.

Tipsy turned back to Santa with the biggest smile his face could hold, then he let his smile turn to a look of confusion. “Santa?”

“Yes?”

“Do a lot of squirrels name their children Poot?”

Santa chuckled and his belly jiggled. “You’ve seen a big, new world, my boy.” He put his hand on Tipsy’s shoulder and led him to the fireplace. “We’ll have plenty of time to talk about it all on the trip.”

As they bent down to go back into the fireplace, they heard a female voice behind them say, “Hello?”

Tipsy and Santa looked at each other then turned back around. There a woman stood in her night robe. She had a kind face and looked very familiar to Tipsy, but he couldn’t remember where he had seen her.

The woman smiled. “Santa, you’re being too loud. You’re going to wake my son.” Santa grinned and the lady looked at Tipsy with a knowing smile. “Now I know why we couldn’t find your parents.”

Just then it hit Tipsy: This kind lady was Alissa from the airport. Tipsy gave her a confused look and asked, “How did you get all the way here?”

“I am a stewardess. I was finishing my last flight before I came home for Christmas.”

Santa put a hand on Tipsy’s back. “Tipsy was at the airport, no doubt, because he was finding his way to your house. The present he had, that was your son’s. So, Tipsy saved your son’s Christmas.”

“Tipsy, how can I ever repay you?”

Tipsy dug his toe into the carpet with his arms behind his back. “It was nothing.”

Alissa held up a finger. “I know just what to give you.” She disappeared into another room for a moment, came back, and handed something white to Tipsy.

“My glove,” Tipsy said as he smiled.

“You left it with me at the airport, and something just told me to hold onto it. Now I’m glad I did.”

Tipsy slid his glove on and looked at his hands. “I’m sorry we don’t have a present to give to you.”

Alissa smiled and winked at Santa. “We parents have a deal with your boss here. Every year we just ask for a merry Christmas for our children. That’s why we don’t get any presents and all the children do.”

Tipsy’s mouth dropped open. “You don’t ask for anything?”

Alissa kissed Tipsy on the cheek and he felt his face blush. “Thank you for saving our Christmas,” she said.

“C’mon, Tipsy,” Santa said climbing back into the fireplace. “If we don’t get a move on, we’ll have a lot more Christmases to save.”

With a wave, the two climbed back out of the chimney and Alissa went to bed. That Christmas every present was delivered, and everyone had a merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas!

A Christmas Story 2019®

The sound of the garage opening next door drew Julia’s attention from making her world-famous wassail. Well, maybe not world-famous, but all of her family and everyone at church sure loved it.

Julia raised her upper lip in a snarl at the sound. It was that infernal Jamal Hudson heading out to do God-knows-what again. Here he was interrupting her wassail making too. Now I’ll probably cook it too long and make it sour, she thought as she scuffled across her small, one-bed, one-bathroom house. She was more than capable of walking, but her red slip-on houseshoes were getting old, so she was just keeping them from sliding off.

Julia glanced at her reflection in the glass of the small tv in the cabinet in her living room and fluffed her white hair. That tell-all would probably tell everyone in town if I didn’t have myself put together. 

Turning the tv on, Julia turned the knob to the station showing It’s a Wonderful Life. She wasn’t in the mood to watch it, but it would suffice for appropriate background noise while she worked on her favorite holiday drink.

She walked over to the front window, and standing on her tippy toes, reached the cord to open the blinds. Another hand around the house to help with things like this would sure be nice, but she wasn’t about to admit that she could use the help. Julia Winston was as independent and strong as she had ever been. With a zip, she drew the blinds up to watch outside. She squinted her eyes against the brightness of the sun reflecting off of the snow.

Sure enough. Jamal was scraping the ice off of the windshield of his old, blue Chevy truck while a white cloud poured out of his exhaust, freezing from the cold. 

Julia scowled at her troublesome neighbor. He has a garage. Why in the world doesn’t he keep that old truck in there. It’s probably full of old junk he won’t throw out. She watched in disapproval as he pulled his corduroy coat tighter and beat the frost off of his scraper onto his tire.

That was it. She had had enough. Julia stepped out of the front door and pulled her thick robe tight around her to shield her from the cold. “Looks like your driveway is nice and clean,” she said snidely.

“Yep,” Jamal said not looking up from reaching across his bed to scrape his back window. “Cleaned it off last night.”

“And I don’t suppose you could be bothered to help an old lady by clearing hers.”

Now Jamal looked up and raised a brow of mock disbelief at his neighbor. “After you having that boy cut the limbs off of my tree last week? I don’t think so, you petty woman.”

“They were hanging into my yard! Squirrels were jumping from them into my birdfeeders.”

Jamal rolled his eyes as he sat in his truck before slamming the door shut signalling the end of the conversation.

Rage boiled in Julia’s veins. She huffed and slammed her front door as she came in the house.

Their feud was an old one. They had been neighbors for the better part of three decades and they had hated each other every second of it. If Julia was honest, she would confess that she didn’t know what ignited their animosity for one another, but she could easily tell you that last week Jamal shoveled the snow from his driveway into her yard, which was a good ten feet away from his driveway.

Julia looked back out the window at her own driveway, still covered in snow. A real man would have offered to help a 76-year-old lady clear it. That certainly wasn’t Jamal. She would just have to wait until some teenagers came by on their way home from school and offer them $20 to do it.

When Jamal drove by, a scowl on his face and his rotted exhaust rumbling loudly, she dropped her blinds shut and stormed back into the kitchen. 

“One of these days that old jerk will move out of this neighborhood,” she said as she stirred her wassail. She put the wooden spoon to her lips and tasted it. Her face puckered and she threw the spoon down in the sink. “Sour.”

Julia struggled to carry her crockpot, with new wassail that Jamal hadn’t ruined, across the church parking lot. The little handles were trying desperately to slip out of her slick mittens. At least the warm liquid inside was helping to ward off the cold.

Today was the Christmas play, so there would be a lot of guests. There was no way she was going to serve soured wassail today of all days. Then everyone in town would think she didn’t know how to make wassail. Sally May’s eggnog was certainly not going to outdo her drink either. She cursed Jamal again under her breath.

“Here, let me get that for you, Miss Julia,” a voice from behind her called. 

Julia turned around and smiled. “Why thank you, Curtis Lee. We could use more men like you.”

The two struggled to make the exchange without spilling any wassail or burning their hands on the side of the old, tan crockpot.

“You’re welcome, Miss Julia. I wouldn’t want to spill any of your famous wassail. What a waste that would be.”

Julia slipped her arm under Curtis’ and the two walked slowly to avoid any slick spots still in the parking lot. Their merry chatter carried on the still, cold air.

Inside the usual greeting and hugging that accompanied a church service took place. Everyone asking each other how their week went or how their sick loved ones were doing. Shortly everyone made it into the sanctuary and quieted for service.

The play was perfect, as always. Mary, the music director, had such a talent for making stories come alive. Her voice was amazing too. She definitely needed to go on one of those singing shows. 

The actors all lined up at the front of the stage donning clothes from the 1800s and bowed as the crowd clapped. Pastor Jerry came out and called for another applause as the actors walked offstage. Then the pastor gave an exhorting and stirring sermon examining the lesson of the play. He talked about forgiveness and the biblical parable of the man who was forgiven for a lifetime’s debt then turned around and punished a man who owed him just a week’s wages.

“”You see, we owe much to God for His forgiveness, and when we don’t forgive the little transgressions of others, we look like this man who didn’t forgive the little debt owed to him,” Pastor Jerry explained.

Julia smiled contently. I sure hope some of these people are listening to this, she thought. I know several people who could learn something from this. 

After service was dismissed, it was Julia’s time to shine. The pastor asked everyone to come by the visitors’ booth for a quick beverage and an invitation to the Christmas dinner. 

Julia grabbed her purse and was the first one out the sanctuary door. She loved her after-service chat with Rose, but that would have to wait for another day. People needed their wassail poured… and of course if she admitted it, she liked being able to tell them it was her secret recipe when she poured it for them. 

Julia hustled across the foyer and slid her purse under the draped folding table before setting the styrofoam cups on top. She took the lid off of her crockpot and the sweet aroma of cinnamon rose with hot steam, washing her with nostalgia. Looking around the room, it seemed like the Christmas lights glowed a little brighter. Soon the Christmas music was playing, and the mood was perfectly set.

The sanctuary doors slid open, and a lady of similar age and stature joined her behind the table, wrapping her in a warm hug.

“Sally May. It’s good to see you, honey. How’s Bob? Did his surgery go well?”

As Sally pulled away, she gave Julia a warm smile. “Yes. Thank you for asking. He should be healed up in a month or so. He’s kind of being a baby about it though. That was his excuse to stay home today.”

The two shared a chuckle and Julia said, “He’ll do anything to sit in that recliner and watch football.”

“Yes, yes he will.” Sally May reached under the table and pulled out a jug of store-bought eggnog and some plastic cups. 

Julia held back a gasp and her face flushed. “You didn’t make your eggnog this year?”

Sally May looked away sheepishly. “Well, with Bob’s surgery, I was busy taking care of him. I didn’t have time to make my own. It takes a long time.”

“Well. I think I would have made time,” Julia said sitting her ladle in her wassail. I’m definitely not going to have any competition this year.

Sally May turned to respond but a tall, blonde woman with a fur-rimmed coat had made her way to the table with a young boy and a tall, dark-headed man in tow.

Julia was quick to be the first to greet them. “Well hello, Michelle. Want some wassail?”

“You know I do, Miss Julia. I wait all year for some of your famous wassail.”

Julia was beaming as she poured some of the drink into a cup, steam dancing blissfully from its rim. Michelle pulled it to her face and sniffed deeply. “Mmmm. Thank you.”

As Julia poured two cups for Michelle’s family, she smiled at Michelle’s son. “Benjamin, you did a great job in that play. You mark my words, you’ll be famous someday.”

“Thank you, Miss Julia.” The family accepted their drinks with gratitude, grabbed a Christmas dinner flyer, and stepped out of line. A line that was growing quite rapidly, Julia thought. Especially compared to Sally May’s. 

She should have left that hospital long enough to make her homemade eggnog. She’s going to make visitors think we don’t care about them with that stuff from the store. Though she could hardly contain her disapproval of the store-bought eggnog, she was loving being so popular.

As the people began to disperse, Julia made light chatter with some of the regular churchgoers. She was as happy as she had been in some time. Whether it was the holidays, the compliments on her drink, or a little of both, she was practically glowing with excitement. Then she caught something out of the corner of her eye that drained her mood.

It can’t be, she thought. Sure enough, Jamal was talking to her pastor. He was dressed in the nicest clothes she had seen him in. The look on his face made it apparent he felt awkward talking to Pastor Jerry though. When Pastor Jerry gestured toward the welcome table, Julia panicked. 

That hooligan is not getting any of my wassail. Julia looked around for an excuse before deciding to quickly slide her cups under the table.

“Hey, Julia,” Pastor Jerry said, startling the old lady. She quickly stood and smiled at Jerry before he continued, “This is Jamal. I was just telling him that he had to try some of your amazing wassail.” 

Jamal and Julia looked at each other, terror in Jamal’s eyes and disdain in Julia’s. Julia shrugged. “I would love to, but I’m out of cups.”

Jerry shrugged and began to reach for Sally May’s cups. “I’m sure Sally May wouldn’t mind if you borrowed some of…”

“Can’t,” Julia interjected, a bit too quickly. Jerry raised a brow at her. She tried to laugh it off. “I mean, wassail’s hot. It’ll melt those plastic cups and make it taste weird.”

Jerry began to reply, but Jamal interjected. “It’s okay. I’m… more of an eggnog guy anyway.” 

When Sally May began pouring for the visitor, Julia came from behind the counter and pulled on the pastor’s elbow. “Pastor, can I talk with you for a minute?”

Jerry’s look of confusion deepened. “Okay, Julia. Just a sec.” He grabbed a flyer and handed it to Jamal. “Anyway, we hope to see you at the Christmas dinner.”

Julia could feel her face flush as she tingled with anger. They walked to a quiet corner of the foyer next to one of the couches and Julia turned to Jerry with her arms crossed.

“What is it, Julia?”

Julia took a deep breath to calm herself. Her pastor didn’t know this man or he wouldn’t have been so chummy with him. He definitely wouldn’t have invited to the Christmas dinner.

“Pastor, now that Jamal is my neighbor. He’s nothing but trouble. He has no consideration for me. Just last week he dumped his garbage into my trash bin. I’ve had to call the law on him 5 times already.”

Jerry looked across the foyer at Jamal who was talking politely with Sally May and back to Julia. “He seems awful nice to me.”

“He’s just hiding who he really is to you…” She thought really hard for a reason that Jamal might be putting up a false pretense. “Probably because you’re a pastor.”

Jerry smiled knowingly. “You did have some cups behind the table, didn’t you?” 

Julia sighed and shook her head in frustration. She knew what he was trying to do. Jerry was good at lightening a situation with humor, but this was not the time for that. There was definitely no room for Jamal in this church, and he needed to see that.

Seeing his trick wasn’t working, Jerry gave her a resigned smile. “Look. I understand why you’re frustrated and what you want me to do, but we don’t turn people away from this church. Maybe you guys will get to chatting at the Christmas dinner and put your differences aside.”

Julia couldn’t believe her pastor wasn’t seeing her side. She narrowed her eyes at him and kept eye contact as she stomped past him. 

“Julia…” Jerry tried to stop her, but it was too late. 

Julia threw on her thick, maroon coat, grabbed her empty crockpot and purse, and went straight for the door. When she got halfway across the room, a pain started shooting straight from her heart into her arm. Her eyes widened in pain and her mouth dropped open.

“Julia?” Curtis came running from the nursery door and sat her crockpot to the side. “Pastor!”

Jerry came running over and put his arm behind Julia, a look of panic in his eyes. “Julia, are you okay?”

The pain intensified in her chest, and her breathing became labored. She looked at Jerry with tear-filled eyes, pleading for help. Her vision blurred and narrowed and the last thing she heard before losing consciousness was Pastor Jerry’s shout.

“Call 911!”

Julia blinked her eyes open. When she saw that she was in a hospital room, she began to panic. Her heart started beating wildly against her ribs, and she broke out in a cold sweat. She couldn’t remember where she had been or what happened to get her here.

When Julia sat up quickly and began to look around at the IV in her arm, the oxygen hose in her nose, and everything else attached to her, a familiar voice began to soothe her.

“It’s okay, Julia. It’s okay. I’m here with you.” Pastor Jerry stood and put a hand on her shoulder.

Julia looked at him and tears began to well in her eyes. Bit by bit she began to put it all back together. “Di… did I have a heart attack?”

Pastor Jerry gave her a strained smile. “The tests haven’t come back for sure, but that’s what Dr. Palinski thinks it was.”

Julia sat back with shock in her eyes. It couldn’t be. Julia had never had a heart attack. She had never had any trouble with her heart. What did this mean for her living on her own? Her daughter, Patricia, lived so far away, there was no way she could help. Oh how Julia wished Patricia was here now.

A knock on the door drew their attention that way. “Hello, Ms. Winston,” Dr. Palinski, a tall, gray-haired man with handsome features stepped into the room. “How are you feeling?”

All Julia could answer in reply was a defeated shrug.

The doctor gave Jerry an understanding and sad half-smile then looked back to Julia. “Listen, you did have a heart attack, but it looks like your heart is still in good shape. It may have just been a combination of that and stress that caused you to pass out. Are you currently under any stress at home?”

Julia eyed Jerry then turned her head away sharply. She looked out of the window and paused for a moment. “I’m fine.”

Dr. Palinski looked at her for a moment before patting her leg. “Well, just try to take it easy. Okay? You may just need to stay at home for a few days. I’m going to write you a prescription and we should be able to get you out of here today.”

Julia heard him walk out of the room before shutting the door behind him. She and Pastor Jerry sat in silence for a few moments, neither knowing what to say. What luck. The Christmas dinner was just around the corner, the one she looked forward to all year, and now she was going to have everyone fussing over her there. If they even let her go.

Then something caught her attention from the corner of her eye. Someone had bought her flowers. She was curious to see who, but she wasn’t ready to be done sulking yet so she turned her eyes back out the window. But really. Who brought her the flowers? They were so pretty too.

Julia raised a brow and strained to read the name hanging on the card. She could hardly contain her shock when she read it. Jamal! What was that nosy neighbor doing here?

Almost as if reading her mind, Jerry said, “You’ll never guess who stopped by.” It was obviously an attempt to cheer her up, which she did not appreciate.

Julia took a deep breath through the tube in her nose. “I already know. Your best friend Jamal. Why did you let that nosy man in here?”

“I didn’t think it would be right to kick the man who saved your life out.”

Julia turned so quickly her neck tensed. She looked at Jerry in utter disbelief. 

“Yep. Jamal was the one who gave you CPR until the ambulance got there. It’s a good thing. None of the rest of us knew how to do it.” Jerry shrugged with a smile.

Julia didn’t know what to think. What was his gain here? There had to be some angle that Jamal was trying to work. He wouldn’t have just saved her.

Would he?

Her pastor must have read the struggle in her eyes, because he spoke as if she had said it out loud. Laying a hand on her hand, Jerry said, “I think Jamal is ready to move on. I talked to him. He said the play and the service really moved him. I was thinking… maybe it’s time for you to do the same.”

Pastor Jerry’s deep smile was so disarming, Julia believed every word he said. She wanted to stay mad, to hold onto that well-cultivated hatred for that man that had caused her so much trouble for so many years, but… she just couldn’t. It felt like one hundred layers of ice and stone just melted off of her heart.

And she forgave him.

Julia began to cry, and Pastor Jerry just hugged her. They sat in an embrace that both felt like it went on forever and that it was over in a moment. When they finally pulled apart, Julia looked him in the eyes, put a hand on his cheek, and said, “Thank you.”

Jerry patted her shoulder and said, “You’re welcome.” 

The pastor stood and slid on his black peacoat. “I’d love to stay and chat with you, Julia, but the church staff needs my help setting up for the Christmas dinner.” He paused and looked at her with sincerity. “I’ll pray that you can make it.”

As her sweet pastor walked out of the door, Julia became more determined than she had ever been in her life. I’ll be there.

The night of the Christmas dinner party had finally arrived. The places were set, and the mood was right. Volunteers milled about the events room that doubled as the youth room on Wednesdays. Red tablecloths were set on long tables arranged in a U-shape around the room with chairs sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with each other to make as much room as possible for all of the dinner guests. The pillar in the middle of the room was hugged by a square setting of tables with crockpots, tinfoil-covered plates, cups, and bottles of soda covering every square inch. All food that everyone had chipped in to bring.

Lights and garland with large red bows and poinsettias set in them dotted the room, and the giant Christmas tree stood as the center of attention against the back wall with a little manger scene set before it. The wonderful scent of cinnamon filled the air sharing space with the joyful sound of Angels We Have Heard on High playing softly.

Julia took a deep breath as she stood in the doorway. She was preparing herself for the onslaught of questions she knew was coming. They all meant well, she knew, but that wasn’t the attention she wanted today. It didn’t really matter though. She was just glad to be released to come to the dinner in the first place. As if the doctor was going to keep her away anyway.

Julia smiled and strode in. The first to greet her was Curtis. He asked the question she dreaded, but the look of genuine concern in his eyes disarmed her. She politely let him know that she was fine and that she was glad to make it to the dinner.

With the first one inquiry out of the way, the rest felt less and less intrusive and soon she was no longer being asked. She was truly grateful for a church family that cared so much.

Julia went over to check her crockpot with wassail and stirred it once for good measure. She wafted the scent toward her and smiled. This dinner was going to be the best yet. Her hospital scare and time to reflect at home was giving her a new appreciation for reasons to be joyous in life.

Out of the corner of her eye, Julia spotted Sally May struggling to carry a couple of store-bought jugs of eggnog into the room. Julia hustled over and took one from her. “Here let me help you, Sally May.”

“Julia. I’m sorry. I tried to find time to make homemade eggnog, but I just couldn’t…”

“Don’t you worry about that, Sally May,” Julia interrupted. “I’ve always liked Hiland’s eggnog anyway. Everyone’s going to love it.”

Sally May looked at Julia for a moment, obviously unsure what to think, but then a smile grew on her face she recognized Julia’s authenticity. They carried the eggnog over together and sat out their cups before helping to prepare where they could with everyone else.

Soon people began filtering in and the sounds of clanking and preparation were replaced by the sounds of light and joyous conversation and laughter. Friends and family were hugging one another, and then the finger food began to run low.

Julia smiled and greeted people as they came in, shaking their hands and hugging them, but she kept watching the door for one person. I really hope I didn’t scare him away…

Before long, she saw Jamal step into the doorway and was washed with relief. His face wore the same awkward look of uncomfort that it had when he talked with Pastor Jerry all those days ago. He pulled his hat from his head and began ringing it in his hands, apparently nervous about meeting all the new people.

When he began walking in, he and Julia made eye contact. He looked away quickly as if he hadn’t seen her and started trying to pick his way through the crowd in another direction. 

Julia’s heart hurt. Not in a physical way, but she knew she had done this. She was ashamed of herself for the first time in as long as she could remember. After pouring a cup of wassail, she headed straight for Jamal.

The bustling crowd of people seemed to part before her, opening a way straight to her neighbor while Jamal still struggled to find a way through them elsewhere. It was almost as if this meeting was supposed to happen.

When Julia approached him, Jamal looked at her nervously. “Oh. H.. hi, Julia. I was just…”

“Would you like some wassail?” Julia asked offering the cup up to the tall man.

Jamal paused and looked down at the wassail for a moment then back to Julia. When he saw her smile, he returned the favor and it seemed as if all of his apprehension about the dinner began to melt away.

“Some of Miss Julia’s famous wassail? You’d better believe it.” He took the cup and put it straight to his lips. His eyes went wide and he pulled it away from his mouth quickly with a pained look on his face. “Sssss.”

Julia chuckled. “Sorry, I forgot to say, ‘careful it’s hot.’” The two shared in a short laugh.

Julia began to feel conflicted. There was so much to say. So much to apologize for. Jamal seemed to be accepting her now, but would he accept an apology that was decades late? And was right now, in the middle of this Christmas dinner, the right time to do it?

Before she could stop herself she was blurting out to him.”Jamal… I’m so sorry.”

Jamal raised a hand to her. “Julia we both have so much to be sorry for. Let’s just enjoy each other’s company this Christmas and leave the past in the past. Besides, I don’t need that bowl of Jack’s anymore. That dog’s been gone for more than 10 years.”

Suddenly Julia remembered what started this whole feud. She must have worn a look of shock on her face because Jamal gave her a knowing smile. 

“I… I think I know exactly where that bowl is,” Julia replied. “It’s on the top shelf in my linen closet. I had completely forgotten. I was so sick of the cats coming on my porch because you kept leaving that bowl out…”

“That you just took the bowl to solve the problem,” Jamal finished with a laugh. “It’s okay. If I hadn’t put the cat bowl on your porch when you did that, things probably wouldn’t have got so hot between us anyway.”

They both laughed at the pettiness of it all. Their conversations got much lighter as they reminisced about all of the inconsequential things that kept that fire stoked between the two houses at the end of Lyon Street. 

When the pastor announced it was time to begin eating, everyone gathered into a circle and held hands as he said Grace. When it was time to sit down to eat, Jamal and Julia sat side by side sharing in merry conversation the whole night. 

Julia looked at Jamal as he was taking a bite of mashed potatoes and just smiled as she was flooded with warmth. Who would have ever guessed this Christmas would bring so much joy that she didn’t know she needed.

May you have a Merry Christmas filled with as much joy as Julia and Jamal share.

Shawn Bain

A Christmas Story 2018 ®

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?”

“Yup.”

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.

“It’s time.”

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.

“My Lord.”

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.

Merry Christmas!

shawn_bain_logo

A Christmas Story 2017 ®

Paul sat with his knees against his chest in the empty, snow-dusted alleyway counting the money he had just acquired. The merry, multi-colored Christmas lights that shown on his face from the overhang above and the joyous music playing from the nearby shop stood in contrast to his gloom countenance and the dirtiness of his worn-out clothing. His conscience weighed heavier on him with each dollar bill he counted, though the sound of his rumbling stomach helped to quell the guilt.

Stealing on the day before Christmas. What have I become? The homeless man thought. He stared blankly at the paper for a moment wanting to break down into tears. Knowing it wouldn’t help matters, he wiped his cold nose and sniffled as he stood and pocketed the meager $26.

Paul pulled his corduroy coat tight around him and walked along the store fronts keeping outside of the bustling crowds of holiday shoppers that had come downtown to make their last-minute purchases. The townspeople’s mixture of conversations was light and joyful, centered on holiday traditions, their favorite flavors, and what perfect gift they were picking up for their loved ones. Paul was making his usual trip to the Kum & Go on 7th and Mt. Vernon Street.

Hopefully this would be the last time he would have to endure the judging glare from the attendant as he picked up his ham sandwich and that fifth of his favorite liquor to drown out the nagging voice in his mind that was telling him to give the money back. This is the last time, he thought, though he was having a harder and harder time convincing himself of that fact every time he was forced to think it. Besides, what options did he have? None of the local restaurants would hire him, and he gave up on his dreams of being a concert pianist long ago.

When the convenience store came into view, Paul stopped to gather his courage, as he had done so many times before. Just as he took his next step, he noticed a husband and wife getting out of their car and stopped out of their sight.

“Bodee’s going to love it,” the woman exclaimed.

“Yeah, and it’s 4k, so all of his games are going to look sweet on it,” the husband replied.

“Uh huh,” she said as she rolled her eyes.

Paul watched silently in the distance, thinking of what it would have been like to receive a gift like that when he was a kid. One car door latch resounded loudly on the still night. Just one though? His eyes went wide when he noticed that the woman’s car door didn’t close as they walked into the store. The brand-new Samsung TV sitting in the back of the SUV seemed to taunt him.

Man, selling that would give me enough money to get me through the winter. Paul shook his head. I couldn’t take a little boy’s TV. I don’t need it that bad. He started toward the station, but couldn’t help but turn his attention back to the gift. How easy it would be to reach in and pull it out. Another growl of his stomach was all of the motivation he needed. Besides, they had nice clothes, and the SUV looked expensive. Maybe they could just buy another one.

Paul snuck up beside the vehicle and put his back against it. He glanced into the store and saw the man standing outside the restroom checking his watch. Plenty of time. Quickly and quietly he pulled the door open and pushed the unlock button on the door. He stepped back, pulled open the back door and in a moment he had his hand on the television box.

He paused at a sight in the back seat. The little brown teddy bear sat in the car seat, and though it had a smile on its face, it seemed to be asking him, “Why?” Paul stopped and bit his lip. How could he do such a thing? The door to the store jingled, and Paul made his decision hastily.

In a moment, he was around the side of the building, his heart racing, breathing heavily, and… clutching the TV to his chest.

“Honey, did you leave the back door open?” Paul heard the wife ask. He closed his eyes to bear the sting of guilt.

“On your side?” The man asked with a laugh.

The woman rolled her eyes again and shut the door. Paul’s heart sank as he heard the vehicle start up and drive away. He wanted desperately to run out and scream, “Wait,” but it was too late. He looked down at the television box and saw the bear in the car seat staring back at him.

Paul breathed on his freezing hands, the frosty mist from the cold air drifting from his scraggly goatee and through his paled fingers. He hugged his shoulders and kept his gaze on the window as he shivered. Inside a familiar husband held his wife close to his side with her head on his shoulder as they stood behind a young boy excitedly opening his presents in his pajamas. The room was lit with an array of colors from Christmas lights hung about the wooden walls and shelving, and garland dotted the vicinity. Against his better judgment, the homeless man had followed the family home.

It was Christmas morning. The last thing Paul wanted to do was make himself feel more guilty, but there he stood. Why am I doing this? He glanced down at the stolen television in the snow behind the bushes with him. Paul had already convinced himself that he needed this television more than the child it was intended for. Quickly surveying the area, he could see he had still gone unnoticed by the neighbors. His gaze returned to the scene inside.

As the boy crawled under the tree to search for any presents that he may have missed, his mother looked at her husband and they shared a sorrow-filled smile. Paul’s heart broke, and a tear streaked down his cheek glistening against the white backdrop. How could he let himself be convinced that he deserved that gift? Now a child’s Christmas would be ruined. And for what? Whiskey?

The regretful man rubbed the inner part of his sleeve against his eye, wiping his tear away. Then his remorseful look was replaced with a smile as a thought set in. It wouldn’t be ruined, he decided. He could return it when they weren’t looking. All of those skills he had acquired in entering someone’s home to take something could be used to return something as well. Paul’s heart warmed and his spirits lifted. He could do one thing right this Christmas.

When the young child turned back to his parents, their demeanor shifted back to joy and he jumped into a hug between them. The boy grabbed a toy plane from his haul and flew it through the air. He playfully ran from his parents, apparently playing keep away, and they gave quick pursuit. As they ran up the stairs, Paul knew this might be his only chance.

The homeless man made haste to the door looking about for anyone who may be watching, his feet crunching softly on the new snow. He closed his eyes, clenched his teeth, and hoped against all odds that they had left the door unlocked. He twisted the knob; no such luck. He couldn’t help but wonder if they would have felt safe enough to leave the door unlocked just a few days prior, had he not taken from them.

Paul looked in the window and made sure the room was still vacant, then fished a lock pick from his coat pocket. His tongue worked as he ran the hooked object through the lock until he heard a click. He smiled and ran back to the television kicking his knees high in joy. Grabbing the gift, he ran back and slowly slid the door open.

The room was warm. Oh, how much he missed warmth. Paul breathed in deep. Inside the house smelled of cinnamon and fresh-brewed coffee. A thud upstairs made him jump.

“Get back here, Mommy,” the father cried out. “We’re gonna get you!”

The woman laughed and the boy made whistling sounds like a plane chasing a target.

Paul smiled with a tear in his eye. He stopped himself from getting too attached though. If this family caught him in their home, no matter what his intentions were, he would be spending the rest of the holiday in jail.

Paul quickly surveyed his surroundings. He was in a big living room with hardwood floors, a high, cathedral-styled ceiling, and wooden stairs against the wall to the right. A double-wide doorway to the left revealed a dining room with large windows facing the front of the house. To the right was a room with similar windows and lush carpet, apparently a wreck room of sorts. Straight ahead was a hallway and at the end standing prominently on the wall was a cross hanging on the wall.

Satisfied he was alone, Paul crept quietly to the tree, and laid the snow-dusted television between it and the crackling fireplace. The box was a little worse for wear, so he lightly blew on it and brushed off some of the snow hoping to restore some semblance of newness to it before sneaking back to the door. He caused a floorboard to creak in the floor and his blood to froze.

“Hello?” a voice called from upstairs.

Paul rushed through the door and slammed it shut with little time to focus on being silent. He rushed away and dove behind the bushes before quickly turning back, pushing the shrubbery aside, and looking back in the window.

The father came down first. He stopped on the stairs when he noticed the television by the tree. Scratching his head with a look of confusion, he appeared to call back up the stairs. The wife came down clutching a tennis racket, ready to strike with her son close behind, clinging to her robe. It didn’t take long for the son to notice the new gift, and he was downstairs checking out the box.

Paul smiled for a moment, but his face dropped when he noticed his tracks in the snow leading straight to his hiding spot. When the front door began to open, he beat a hasty retreat. He huffed as his legs pumped harder than they had in years, his hard breathing leaving a trail of frosty mist behind him. After what felt like hours, he ducked under a nearby bridge and clutched his chest as he tried to calm his breathing. Paul closed his mouth and tried to breathe through his nose; the cold air was burning his teeth.

When he felt he could finally relax, he sat down and his stomach growled. “I could really use the money from that TV right about now,” he said with his gruff, time-worn voice as he put his hand on his belly. No, you did the right thing. He sat for a moment then nodded in contentment. “Yeah, I did the right thing.”

Paul rested his head back against the cold concrete arch behind him with his eyes closed and smiled. Thoughts of Christmas seasons past played like a movie in his mind. That holiday at the foster home, the one he really liked, before his father got back out of jail and got custody back. The George’s gave him the warmest hugs, and Mrs. George made the best pecan pie. Paul licked his lips, and he could practically taste the caramel.

Paul remembered that Christmas at his parents’ home, before his dad lost his job and before his mom… He only had two presents under the tree, but that was all 6-year-old Paul needed. Lifting his new Mr. Potato Head up with a toothless smile in his G.I. Joe pajamas, little Paul had no idea how many hours of joy that hunk of plastic would provide.

Paul sighed and frost drifted from his lips as he thought about how he wasn’t going to prevent that warm feeling he was getting in his heart for another child. Then he sat up thoughtfully as he tried to imagine how the boy was using his present. How happy he must be. I have to go see. He shook his head. What’s wrong with me? I can’t go back there. But then again, they’ve probably gone back to their Christmas. He rocked with his knees pulled to his chest for warmth as he mulled the thought over. It was probably a bad idea, he knew, but he couldn’t help himself. Paul stood quickly and made his way back to the house.

Paul ducked back behind the bush he had hid behind and looked around the neighborhood again to ensure no one noticed. He was clear. Peaking his eyes over the top of the shrubbery, he grinned once more. Sitting at the table in the dining room was the dad swiping his finger up the screen on his phone sipping a cup a coffee, the mom spreading butter on a piece of toast, and the son who was much more interested in flying his new toy plane than eating the bowl of cereal sitting in front of him.

A brisk wind pulled Paul from his thoughts as he pulled his coat tighter about him. The breeze caught a piece of paper that was stuck in the bush in front of him and carried it into his face. He pulled the paper away and stopped when he noticed writing on it.

“To whoever returned                                                                                                       my son’s TV.                                                                                                                   Thank you.                                                                                                                    Please join us                                                                                                                      for Christmas.                                                                                                                  Just knock.”

 Paul’s mouth dropped open. Why would a family ask a stranger to join them for Christmas? Did they not know that he was also the one who stole the TV? Of course they did. That was probably the point. They were going to have him come in and call the cops. Paul pulled his beanie down further on his forehead and stood up to walk away with a look of unassured resolution. His job was done here, and he could see that the family’s Christmas was indeed restored. The man stopped before he took two steps, though, and looked back down at the paper. He really wanted to join them though. The smell and warmth of the house rushed back to his mind, and he closed his eyes. No.

“’Scuse me, Mister,” a small voice said, startling him from his thoughts. “Did you bring me my TV back?”

Paul looked down at the little brown-headed boy then back to the house. The door stood wide open and the mom and dad were no longer in the window. He looked back down at the boy who was staring at him with an innocently expecting look. Paul wanted to run. The boy’s parents would surely be coming after him soon. But there was something about the boy that reminded him of something. Perhaps he reminded him of himself at another time in his life. He knelt down and looked into the boy’s big brown eyes.

“Yes. Yes I did. But I also…”

“I thought so. I saw you from my house. My Daddy said he hoped you would come back. He said he wanted you to come inside with us. Are you going to come inside our house?”

“I – I’m afraid I can’t.”

“Why?” the boy said, tilting his head with a look of confusion.

Before Paul could answer, a shout from the door made his blood run cold.

“Bodee! What are you doing?” The father made a hasty walk toward them.

This was it. No need in running now. Judging by his athletic physique, the younger man would surely catch him and any pure intentions Paul had would go out the window. He could only hope the man’s message on the paper was sincere.

“Daddy, this is the man who brought me my TV.”

“Oh, hi. I’m Jack Bauman,” he said with his hand extended.

Paul looked at the hand for a moment before taking it and shaking.

“It’s okay. We’re just thankful you brought it back. Little Bodee here sure liked his new TV.” His son nodded emphatically and Paul just stared silently not sure what to think or feel.

Jack looked at him for a moment before grabbing his own shoulders and mimicking shivering to break the silence. “Bvvv. It’s a cold one this year. Won’t you join us inside?”

“Oh, I don’t think I could…”

“C’mon. We thought we were going to be missing a big portion of our Christmas, and you returned it. You really saved the day.”

“Yeah, but I also…”

Jack interrupted him with a waved hand. “It doesn’t matter. You saved our Christmas.” The father and husband smiled as he motioned with his head back to the house. “C’mon. My wife is cooking up some pecan pie.”

Paul felt his mouth water and his stomach tense. What did he have to lose after all? He nodded reluctantly. Jack patted his shoulder and Paul flinched.

“That’s the spirit.” Jack winked and ushered Bodee back toward the house. “C’mon, son.”

“Are you proud of me, Dad?” Bodee asked.

“You and I are going to have a talk about going outside by yourself.”

The young boy’s chest deflated and his shoulder’s slumped. Paul looked down at his dirty coat and hands before quickly pulling his hat from his head and wiping his hand across his hair, vainly attempting to conform it to his balding scalp.

As Paul walked back into the house, he was washed over by the amazing smells and warm air from inside once more. He must have inhaled loudly because Jack looked back at him with a knowing smile.

“You can smell that caramel, huh?”

Paul nodded, holding his hat in front of him with an embarrassed expression. “Um, I’m sorry if I smell. I haven’t had a chance to wash in awhile.”

Jack waved a hand dismissingly. “Nonsense. My wife’s burning so many candles I think my sniffer’s burnt out anyway?”

Jack’s wife came around the corner as he was speaking giving him a dangerous ‘oh-really?’ look. She smiled at Paul as she wiped her hands on a dish towel. “Oh, is this him?”

“It is. Joyce, meet… I’m sorry, I don’t believe I caught your name.”

Unsure of how to really respond, Paul bowed as if addressing royalty. “Paul. I’m Paul. Nice to meet you.”

Joyce suppressed a kind-hearted laugh and curtsied obviously attempting to draw some embarrassment from her guest. “Well nice to meet you too, Paul. Please, make yourself at home. The pie’s got about 5 minutes left.”

Joyce turned and walked back out of the room. “Do you like ham? I can warm some of the ham from my parents’ yesterday if you’d like,” she called from the kitchen.

“Yes, Ma’am. Thank you.”

“Dining room’s in there,” Jack said pointing over his shoulder. “I’m going to run Bodee upstairs to get him outta these pajamas.” He put a hand on his son’s back. “C’mon, Sport. Let’s get changed.”

The two rushed up the stairs, Jack playfully poking Bodee’s ribs causing him to laugh and run faster.

Paul took a deep breath and looked around the house. He couldn’t believe how this Christmas was turning out. In fact, he was still having a hard time convincing himself that this was all real. He saw a piano in the hallway and walked up to it. As he ran his hand over the finger guard, memories of playing at his recital came flooding back to him.

“Came with the house.” Joyce’s words pulled Paul from his thoughts. She leaned against the kitchen doorway and looked down at the instrument. “We couldn’t find anyone to give it to, so it’s sat as a decoration in our hallway. You play?”

“Oh. I did a long time ago,” Paul said with his gaze still on the wooden object. “I don’t know if these old fingers could remember now.”

Joyce smiled back at him. “I bet you’d be surprised.”

Paul smiled at her then looked back at the piano. Why not? Not like anything could make this Christmas any weirder. He slid the stool out from beneath the keyboard and picked up a little brown bear sitting on top of it. His smile deepened as the toy that once had a judgmental glare from a car seat now seemed to embrace him warmly. Paul sat the toy to the side and seated himself at the keyboard. When he pulled the guard back and sat his fingers on the keys, his hands looked like his 9-year-old hands in his eyes. Suddenly he was sitting at a black grand piano in his mind on a stage with a giant Christmas tree. He looked out in the crowd and saw his dad sitting there with a smile, a rarity in those times, and an empty seat to his left.

The young Paul looked back to the piano and plunked out a few notes. Then he played a few notes with his other hand. As if on instinct, he played a melody from memory.

“Just hear those sleigh bells ringaling ring, tinga tingaling too.” Joyce’s sang, correctly identifying the song and bringing Paul right back into reality. He looked at her stunned for a moment then smiled and continued playing.

“C’mon it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you,” Joyce continued, her beautiful voice resonating with the notes from the piano.

Jack’s deep voice resonated from the stair well as he leaned over and joined in. “Outside the snow is falling and friends are calling yoo hoo.”

All three joined in, “C’mon it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.”

Paul played better than he could have hoped, and laughed, and sang, and nearly cried. For the first Christmas in years he wasn’t alone, cold, and starving. If for only one day, he had a family. And all because of the forgiveness and love of a few strangers.

A Christmas Story 2016 – The Homeless House ®

There once sat a house just two lots down from the corner of Walnut Street and Jefferson Avenue. For two decades it sat pleasantly painted and loved, its rooms and hallways filled with the joy and laughter of the family that cared for it. It sat happily as it protected its family from the rain of the spring, the heat of the summer, the falling leaves in the autumn, and the harsh cold of the winter.

Its favorite time, though, was definitely December, when its family would adorn its trimmings with lights and garland and its interior smelled of delicious food and cinnamon. They would host parties with their most cherished loved ones in their home and love and excitement would warm the house’s rooms and fill its spirit. It was a time when beauty was at its peak, as the opinions of houses go.

Year after year the house was blessed to shelter a family that loved it so. And year after year the house longed for December when it would be dressed in its finest alongside its neighbors to be shown to the loved ones of the family that called it home. With each passing year as the house’s decorations grew and grew, so too did its splendor and pride.

On the house’s 21st birthday, though, things began to change. The children of its owner didn’t home that December, and in the coming years the decorations that adorned it lessened and lessened until they were no more. Its owners had grown old and typically went out on Christmas. They didn’t spend the time to decorate their own home and were now sharing their special memories in another one; their children’s home. The once-cheery time of year with lights and cinnamon fragrances was now replaced by cold hallways and stale scents.

All the while the house watched its neighbors get dressed up the same as they had every other year. They got new owners frequently, and new owners brought new paint, and more importantly new lights and families for Christmas.

One day a great commotion disturbed the house greatly. A vehicle with flashing lights screeched to a halt in the road before the house’s driveway. Three men in blue suits rushed into its front door then quickly back out with the man that lived inside of it lying on a flat bed that the men carried. The lady that lived in it joined them in the vehicle and in a moment they were gone.

A few days passed before the lady returned alone, sobbing, and dressed in black. The house didn’t know what had happened or where the man was, but its heart was broken with its owner. The children came around more often then, but Decembers were still as colorless and sorrowful as they had been for the few years prior. Before the next December came, the house was empty; no longer a home. A For Sale sign went up in its front yard.

Years passed, and the lonely house’s neighbors lit up every December, while it sat quietly. With each person that came through with the man in a suit that showed the house to them, the house hoped that this one would be the one to make it a home once more. Every time one left, its hope grew dimmer. Its shudders started to sag, its paint started to flake, and its boards began to moan as the opportunity to become a home again began to fade away. And December, the most glorious month for a house, was beginning to be its least favorite time of the year.

When all seemed lost, and the house began to think it would never again be a home, its halls would never again be filled with the laughter of children, and it would never see another December with lights and wreaths and loved ones at parties, the man in a suit pulled the For Sale sign from the yard. This is it, the house thought. The man has given up. I will never have another family.

But the next day, a van pulled up with a moving truck in tow. A young man and woman stepped out, a baby in their arms. Could this be it? Will I finally be a home? When they took their pictures on its porch, the house knew it to be so.

The spring and the summer that year were filled with moving and settling. Pains filled the fall as the couple fixed and updated and painted. The house didn’t mind; it was necessary, it knew, for the family to get adjusted.

It’s not proper for a house to cry, but if it could, a tear would have been shed the day the man strung the first set of lights on its gutters. One string was hung, then another, then another until finally he stood back and smiled at his home. The decorations were more modest than the latter years of its previous owners’ lives, but the house didn’t mind. It was not spending another December stale, colorless, and alone.

When Christmas came near, the familiar sounds of merriment and smells of cinnamon filled its rooms. Parties were hosted, and loved ones exchanged gifts once more. The spirits of the house returned once more.

The house was once again, a home.

Merry Christmas, and may the joy of Christ fill your holidays.

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A Christmas Story 2015®

The snow is falling on a cool mid-December afternoon. Street lights have begun to shine as the sun has nearly completed its descent to the horizon. The downtown streets are bustling with several shoppers making their way from store to store. Nary a face carries a frown or disheartened expression. Everyone is happy to share a smile and a hearty ‘hello’ with each person they pass. It is nearly Christmas!

One brown-haired and freckled boy walks with his parents, who are delightedly chatting with one another. The boy, Sam Coffey, watches the crowds of people closely, showing his advanced maturity for his six short years of life. He passes many people who all greet him with friendly faces and remarks. A warm joyous feeling wells in his little heart as he takes in the kindness being spread amongst the stirring crowd.

Sam and his parents, Sadie and Phred, make their way into the city square. It’s a concrete lot surrounded by a sheet of fresh snow and a large fountain in the center. Just a few short months ago the surrounding area was green and lush and the fountain sprayed a dazzling display of water. That lustrous view, though changed with the season, lives on as the new snow has given a white sheen and the fountain is well-lit with multi-colored lights that dance to the merry Christmas music playing from speakers at its base. It is a postcard holiday scene.

A shadow from an overhanging tree pulls over the family like a sheet as they pass by a darkened corner of the square. Suddenly Sam trips over a pair of outstretch legs, barely catching himself with his hands. While he stopped the blow, his knees do begin to sting immediately. He looks up and sees his parents are still chatting as they stroll, oblivious to his falling.

As he groans quietly and begins to stand, a soft voice calls from the shadow, “I’m so sorry.”

The proud little six-year-old stands quickly and dusts the snow from his brand-new jeans. “It’s okay,” he replies. He fights the urge to cry, more from embarrassment than pain. He’s been through tougher bouts than this, he tells himself. He’s not going to let a little thing like tripping make him cry. Especially not in front of all these people.

He looks over to see a woman sitting with her young boy, both in dirty, worn clothing. Most people probably haven’t noticed the pair either. She has intentionally chosen the dark corner to sit in. They have been run off from most of the stores over the years by their owners. Most of them don’t want the downtrodden appearance of her and her son to hinder their sales during their most lucrative season.

Sam, being wise for his age but not completely understanding social standards, smiles at the pair. “I’m Sam. What’s your name?” A smile comes to their faces at the uncommon warmness. The boy sits up from huddling next to his mother, both to keep warm and out of shyness borne from circumstance, to greet the boy.

“I’m Bobby, and this is my mom.”

“What are you doing over here?” Sam asks.

The mother, Amanda, smiles gently. Without having any money to buy much for her son for Christmas, she brings him out every year from the homeless shelter where they live. On these days they get to enjoy the merriment of the season vicariously through others. It is a small gift, but it is thoroughly enjoyed by her son.

“We’re just looking at the lights and listening to the music,” she answers.

“Oh. Where are you from?”

“We live in a church!” Bobby exclaims. “Cornerstone Church. They have games and beds and everything!”

“Cool! My parents are over there,” Sam says with a gesture. “Wanna come shopping with us?”

Bobby’s mother offers another smile. The youthfully-unknowing offer warms her heart, but she can’t accept. As she opens her mouth to respond, she is cut off by Sam’s mother:

“Sam, we have told you not to talk to strangers.”  She has returned with his father after noticing their missing child. Though they were lost in their conversation, it didn’t take long for them to notice Sam wasn’t with them. She grabs her son’s hand and they begin walking off.

“But they were nice. I was just…”

“No, Sam. You don’t know that lady. She could have been dangerous.” Sadie says with a gentle firmness.

The confused boy looks over his shoulder to see Bobby returning to his timid position next to his mother. She is still offering an understanding smile to Sam, but he is struggling to understand.

At that moment another family walks by and steers their course away from Bobby and Amanda without a smile or a ‘Merry Christmas’. That same family had just been so kind to Sam only a few moments ago. Why aren’t they being as nice to them as they were to me?  he thinks as he wipes away a snowflake that has fallen onto his eyelash. With a look of confusion, he finally turns away.

The rest of the young boy’s night is spent pondering things that six-year-olds shouldn’t have to ponder. He thinks about that family and how they came out just like everyone else, but sat alone under that tree. He wonders why everyone was so kind to one another, but not to them. He wonders what makes him so special to receive those kind greetings.

Sadie and Phred go on through the night, blissfully unaware of the profound impact the situation had with their young and impressionable son. To them, they had just passed another homeless person, but to him it was something much more.

A bell jingles as they walk back out of a store and his parents call back a “merry Christmas” to the clerk. As they walk outside, Sam looks around and notices that everyone else’s merriment hasn’t swayed either. Just his. The cheerful music and smiling workers has seemed to carry through the shoppers and into the very air itself. Much like it had so recently done with Sam. As much as the season typically fostered a merry spirit in him the past few years, he just can’t shake the sympathetic feeling for Bobby and his mother.

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The moon has taken its place in the cloudless sky and the bedtime ritual in the Coffey Household is done; dinner is eaten, teeth are brushed, jammies are on, and Sam has slipped under his comfy sheets. After saying his bedtime prayers, his mother leans in to kiss him good night and he asks her, “Mom, why did you think that lady was dangerous today?”

“Sam, dear, I don’t know that she was dangerous, but we just have to be careful. We didn’t know her.”

“Was it because she was dirty?”

The dimness of the blue glow from his superhero nightlight amplifies her concerned look. “Well… no. It was just…”

“Because I saw everyone else treating her different too,” the curious boy goes on. “I know she smelled different and her clothes had holes, but she was a really nice lady. And her son’s name was Bobby. They live in a church.”

“Do they?” she asks, more than happy to keep the conversation detoured from his original inquiry.

“Yeah. I liked them. They really weren’t dangerous, Mom. Can…” he pauses to gather his courage to ask the question he knows will undoubtedly get shot down. “Can we have them over for Christmas?”

“Sam…”

“I know they would have fun, Mom. They live at Cornerstone Church. That’s close, isn’t it?”

“Well yes, but…”

“See we could go get them. Please, Mom. Please!”

“Sam, now listen,” she responds evenly, growing tired of the subject. “We have a long day tomorrow, and you need to get rested up so you can go to your last day of school before Christmas Break. Then it will just be one more week and Santa will be coming, and you’ll get to open presents and see all of your cousins.”

“But what if Bobby doesn’t have any presents?”

“Sam, that’s very nice of you to think about Bobby’s Christmas too, but we can’t buy presents for every little boy that doesn’t have any.”

“We don’t have to, Mom. We can just buy one for Bobby.”

Sam’s big green eyes burn a whole through his mother. A message so profound should not come from such a young child: She doesn’t have to change the world, but she can easily change that family’s world. The little boy’s hope peaks when she hesitates. Just maybe she is starting to see his side.

“Okay, that’s enough. I love you. It’s time to go to sleep.” She kisses his forehead before walking to the door. “Good night,” she says as she slips out of the room and pulls the door tight.

The defeated boy slinks down into his bed, his little mind straining to understand it all. Bobby and his mom were so nice. Why won’t his mom just have them out for Christmas? She wasn’t dangerous, she even said she was sorry when she tripped him. The lingering thoughts keep the young boy from his slumber for another couple of hours before he finally drifts off.

Just on the other side of his door, his mother leans against the wall fighting an internal battle. She couldn’t even refute her six-year-old son’s logic on this. But there would be so much involved. She would have to entertain another family, and she doesn’t know them. They could be dangerous. But they had been with her son all that time and didn’t do anything to harm him or take him away.

A stern look of finality makes its way onto her face. No. I’m not having strangers into my home on Christmas. Maybe after the New Year I’ll take them a casserole or something. She knows the likelihood of the thought is miniscule, but it sates her conscience. With a deep breath and a nod, she makes her way off to bed as well.

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The week has passed and the day has finally arrived; Christmas is here! Still quietness fills the house and the only luminance shed is that of Sam’s night light and the blinking rainbow of colors coming from the lights on the Christmas tree in the living room. All are asleep, peacefully dreaming of what the day may bring. The excited young boy is sleeping the lightest. He could barely force himself to doze off the night before. The Holiday Spirit is dancing merrily in him.

As the sun peaks over the neighbor’s houses and reflects off of the freshly-fallen snow, it lends its light to Sam’s room. Like a veil being pulled away from his window, the light creeps across his floor and onto his bed. The moment it passes over his eyes they shoot open and in a short moment he leaps from his bed. Even before he has time to think of anything else the recognition of what day this is stands at the forefront of his mind.

The excited six-year-old dashes down the stairs, skipping as many as he can in his stride. He darts into his parent’s room and tugs on their covers as he shouts, “Mom, Dad, wake up! It’s Christmas! Let’s go open my presents!”

Phred sits up and attempts to rub the weariness from his eyes as Sam runs back out of their room. He yawns loudly and looks over with a tired-but-sincere smile as his wife rolls over and looks at him.

“Well, here we go.” He says as he stands up and scratches his back. Heavy blinks help invigorate him as he walks around the bed, his feet dragging. “Want me to put on a pot of coffee?”

“Yes, please,” Sadie responds before issuing a yawn herself.

They walk out of their room to see Sam eagerly inspecting his gifts. He takes in the weight and sound as he shakes them hoping to discover some clue as to what they are. Sadie heads into the living room and takes a seat next to the arm of the couch as Phred goes into the kitchen.

Sadie smiles as she looks at her ecstatic youngster and takes in his joy. With the passing of time that long conversation with her son has moved to the back of her mind behind the noisy Jingle Bells and that recipe for her mother’s famous fudge. She’s had a lot to prepare for this Christmas; her family is expecting her best effort for all of the holiday goodies this year. Or so she thinks.

“Now hold on, Sam,” Phred says over the counter as he pours steaming coffee into two cups. “Do you want to start with those presents or see what Santa got you first?”

The young boy’s eyes light up as he looks at his mother. She gives him a wide-eyed smile to affirm his excitement.

“From Santa! I wanna open the one from Santa first!”

“Okay. Wait right here, and I’ll bring it in.” Phred hands Sadie her coffee and sets his on the end table next to the couch before making his way into the garage.

Sam nearly shakes with anticipation as he waits by the tree. “Why didn’t Santa put it under the tree, Mom?”

“Well, since we don’t have a chimney, we leave the garage door open for him. He must have just left your present there. Or…” she lets her statement linger for a moment to heighten his eagerness. “Maybe it was too big to go under the tree.”

“Is it?!”

“You’ll have to wait and see.”

The little boy can hardly contain himself. It’s taking all of his effort to not jet out the door after his father. Before long Phred steps back in the house holding a large blanket with something squirming beneath it. Sadie watches happily as Sam’s expression shifts to curious excitement.

The door squeaks as Phred pulls it to before setting the bundle on the floor. A quick smile is shared between the parents before Sadie pulls out her phone to video it all. As Sam pulls back the edge of the blanket, he is met with a wet tongue on his cheek.

“It’s a puppy!” he shouts. It begins to pant and wag its tail as the boy wraps his arms around its neck. His little hands sink beneath the dog’s shaggy, blonde hair as he pulls it in tight. As Phred makes his way to the couch, Sadie moves some mail to open a spot next to her for him to sit. A postcard in the midst of the parcel catches her eye as she is moving it. She glances at it for a moment as she bounces lightly when her husband plops next to her.

“What’s that?” Phred asks.

“Oh, just a postcard from the church up the road. It’s from when they had their Christmas play last week.”

“Oh.”

They scoot into each other as they watch their son play with the new addition to their family, giving him a few moments to enjoy the puppy before moving on with opening presents. The boy and the dog seem to immediately share an intimate bond. They roll around in the floor, the puppy frantically licking its new best friend and Sam laughing hysterically.

When Sam finally sits up from playing with the pooch, Sadie asks, “so what are you going to name him?”

Sam looks at his new dog for a moment before stating, with finality, “Bowser.”

His parents share a confused look before Phred says, “Bowser it is then.” He gets up from the couch, squats down, and rubs the dog’s head before looking over to his son. “You ready to open the rest of those presents?”

Sam nods emphatically. “Yeah! Yeah!”

“Alright then. Sit tight for a minute and I’ll pull ‘em out,” his dad says with a wink. He quickly digs all of the gifts from under the tree while Bowser waits next to his giddy friend. Sadie watches happily as she finishes off her coffee.

The rest of Sam’s Christmas morning plays out perfectly. His excitement grows as each present he opens is more perfect than the last. Though Bowser came first and kind of stole the show. He gets a shirt with his favorite superhero, a remote-controlled car, and finally that game he has wanted all year! Or at least since he saw the commercial for it six weeks ago.

When he comes to his final two presents, he stops. A couple of people come to his little mind as he looks at the red and green wrapping paper. He turns and looks back at his parents who have become lost in a conversation planning the rest of their day; who they’ll visit, who’s going to grab the presents, when they’re going to leave. He looks back to the gifts for a moment. Multi-colored lights twinkle in his eye as a smile grows across his face. He quickly shoves the presents behind the loveseat in a darkened spot where they are sure to go unnoticed.

“That’s it, Mom. I’ve opened them all.”

“Okay. Let me and your daddy get everything picked up so we can get ready to go to your Grandma’s. You can take your new toys to your room and play with them for a little bit.”

Sam’s little heart flutters as he gathers all of his toys. He’s almost more excited for his formulating plan than he is to play with Bowser. Almost. Bowser, he thinks. When he turns and looks back at the puppy sitting in the floor it catches Phred’s eye.

“Go ahead. I need to take Bowser out to go potty before we go.”

With a hesitant nod and smile, Sam heads on up to his room. He doesn’t want to leave Bowser downstairs, but he understands that his dad will need to take him out before they leave. Plus he needs his parents to believe he is in his room.

Shortly after stepping inside his door, Sam hears his mother’s phone ring and his dad fighting Bowser to get a leash on him. The boy rushes back down the stairs as quietly as he can, the rustle of the garland on the handrail the only sound he makes. He grabs the two presents he had hid and ducks down beside the couch out of sight. A quick glance into the kitchen tells him that his mother has gone into her room to carry out her phone conversation and that his father has stepped out of the front door. To Sam’s fortune, his father has left it slightly ajar. A habit Sadie desperately wishes he would break.

The young boy darts over to the door and silently slips out. He watches as Phred turns around the corner following the energetic pup as he finds the perfect spot to relieve himself. Perfect timing again. Sam quickly makes his way down the street, a wide smile on his lips.

The walk is a long one, and, being a six-year-old boy, Sam is only partly sure he is going the right way. He’s never had to guide himself on a noble quest before. And he is sure that his quest is noble. Thoughts of how happy everyone will be when he finally arrives at the end of his journey dance around in his mind. He is blissfully unaware in his youthful ignorance of the negative significance of his actions. A young boy like Sam has little need for anything but the positive effects anyway.

When he comes to beginning of another row of houses, he sighs under the weight of the boxes as his arms begin to strain. He doesn’t remember them being this heavy before. As the excitement of beginning his grand quest has begun to wear off, the bitter cold has also started to become more noticeable to him. A biting wind picks up and pulls at his flannel pajamas that offer little protection to begin with from the cold out in the elements.

With a tinge of fear showing in his narrowed eyes he looks through tears formed from the blustering of the cold wind back to where he came from. Should he give up now? The fact that he isn’t completely sure where he is going has become a more notable thought to his little mind. No, he decides. I have to get these presents there. A look of determination sets on his gaze as he hoists the presents up with renewed vigor and trudges on past another block.

To his relief, the lucky boy comes to the building he has been looking for when he rounds the next corner. A twinkle dances in his eye as the sun peaks out from behind the clouds for the first time since he has left home. He smiles with his mouth agape and nearly laughs aloud as he looks around expecting to see someone congratulating him for completing his journey. No one answering that hope doesn’t hurt his happiness as he runs up the stairs and into the large, wooden doors, an obvious spring to his step.

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“Sam. Come on, Honey,” Sadie calls absently up the stairs as she finishes putting in her earrings; the finish touch to her beautiful Christmas outfit. “We’re going to be late to Mama’s house.” The light in the room gleams off of her silky, brown hair as she pulls it back to inspect the trinket. She calls to her husband when she notices she doesn’t hear Sam coming. “Phred, can you go get your son, please? I’ll go grab our coats.”

“Let me put the dog up,” he calls back before setting the new puppy in the utility room and pulling the door to. “Sam, come on, buddy.” The old stair in the middle of the case creaks as he makes his way up them.

When he opens the sticker-covered door to Sam’s room, his call becomes more inquisitive: “Sam?” He checks in all of the usual spots, under the bed, inside the closet, in his large toy chest, but Sam is nowhere to be found.

“Honey, Sam’s not in his room. Is he down there?” he asks, trying to mask the fear in his voice.

“What? Sam!” his mother’s call is becoming more frantic. The next minutes fly by as the two panicking parents check every nook and cranny of their house calling desperately for their missing son. When the whole house has been checked, they put in calls to their neighbors asking if they have seen him. Their hysteria deepens when they come up with no leads.

“Where would he go?” Sadie asks in tears.

“I don’t know, but he isn’t in the house, and we aren’t going to find him waiting around here. Where’re the keys?”

“They’re over here on the end table.” The keys jingle wildly as she yanks them from their perch.  Shortly after turning around, she stops when she realizes she noticed something. She wipes the tears from her eyes to clear her vision as she looks back at the table. Her eyes widen as a memory plays back before her.

“Phred! I know where he is!”

The husband holds the door open for his wife and follows her out of the house, without another word spoken from either of them. The brief crank of the car’s starter rings out in the silent house and in moments they have sped away.

The object that reminded Sadie of a conversation a few weeks back sits on the end table. Next to the arm of the couch. Staring at a partially-ajar door.

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A thud echoes in the empty foyer to a church as Sam lets the door close behind him. He shivers as toasty warmness finally begins to melt the frost from his bones when the final gust of cold air from the closing of the door dissipates. Soft, ambient Christmas instrumentals play from an overhead speaker as he looks around for any sign as to where to go. The sign over the welcome desk looks down over him as he begins walking into the building. It reads, ‘Cornerstone Church’.

“Why hello there,” a voice calls from the hall and startles him. “Are you looking for someone?” A heavy-set black lady with kind eyes and a gentle smile bends down next to him.

“I’m looking for Bobby and his mom.”

“Are you now? And where are your parents?”

“I came all by myself,” Sam says, his chest puffed out with pride as he states his accomplishment.

The lady purses her lips to hide her sheer concern as she knows it is important to keep the boy from becoming scared or intimidated. A scared boy won’t give her the information necessary to find his parents so she can notify them. “Well! Aren’t you just a brave soul. My name is Mary. What’s yours?”

“I’m Sam!”

“Sam. I like that name. What’s your last name, Sam?”

“Coffey.”

“Well, Sam Coffey, what are your parents’ names?”

“Mom and Dad.”

Mary holds her hand over her mouth as she chuckles. “Oh dear. Do you know their real names? What do your Grandma and Grandpa call them?”

“Well I call my Grandma and Grandpa Mama and Pepa. They call my mom Sadie and my dad Phred.”

“Sadie and Phred Coffey,” Mary says to cement her mental note. “Well, Sam Coffey. I happen to know just where Bobby and his mother are. Do you want to go see them?”

“Yeah!”

“Okay then. Follow me. And are these for them?” she asks as she puts her hands on the presents Sam is still vigilantly holding.

“Uh huh.”

“Well why don’t you let me help you carry ‘em down here and I’ll let you give ‘em to your friends when we get there.”

“They aren’t my friends. Well, just Bobby, not his mom.”

Mary laughs again at Sam’s youthful honesty as they walk around the corner into a hallway. The squeak of Sam’s shoes, wet from snow, carries through the building as they make their way across the linoleum floor. He looks around at all of the paintings and holiday decorations while they travel through a few corridors before coming into a hallway with a several doorways lining both sides. Mary walks him to the last door on the right and stops just outside of it.

“Okay, this is their room. Here are your presents. You go in there and say hi while I call your parents to let them know you are here.” The kind lady smiles genuinely as she hands the boxes back to Sam before returning to the direction they came from.

Sam looks into the small, barely-furnished room to see Bobby in the floor, rolling a blue toy car with a good portion of the paint worn from its sides. His mother is sitting behind him on a cot reading an old hardback book with the title worn off. When Bobby looks up to see Sam standing in the doorway, he jumps to his feet and shouts, “Sam! Did you know it’s Christmas?”

“I know. That’s why I brought you presents!”

“Whoa!” Bobby looks at his mom with a huge grin. “Two toys? Mom I got two toys this year!”

His mother, not quite knowing what to make of it all, nods with a wide-eyed smile. “Well… that’s…” She turns to Sam. “Where are your parents, Sam?”

“They’re at home.”

“Do they know you are here?”

“No. I came all by myself!” This time some of the wind is let out of his sails when he gets a different response.

“We need to let them know where you are right away.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” Mary calls from down the hall. “I’m on the phone with his mother right now. She’s on her way.”

Sam looks back to Amanda with a with a hesitant and confused look. He had expected a much warmer welcome. Was his mother right? When the woman sees a scared tear forming in Sam’s eye, her features soften and she smiles.

“Thank you for bringing Bobby two presents. That was very kind of you.”

A smile slowly returns to Sam’s face. “They aren’t both for Bobby. I brought you one too.”

“Oh, well, thank you.”

The six-year-old offers out the presents and her smile deepens. He is knocked a little off balance as Bobby quickly snatches the top present from him.

“Is this one mine?”

“Yeah,” Sam answers. It wasn’t. That was the one he was going to give Amanda, but he doesn’t want to embarrass his friend.

The ecstatic youngster rips into the gift before another moment passes. “A Leonardo!” he shouts. “He’s my favorite! Thank you, Sam!” After a quick hug, and ripping open the packaging, Bobby is running down the hall making fighting sounds with his new Ninja Turtle.

Sam smiles as he extends his arms to Bobby’s mother with his present between them. After giving a nod she accepts the gift and says, “thank you.” She meticulously separates the tape from the present, as she has learned to do to preserve the wrapping paper. Sam watches with excitement as the paper is folded away piece by piece to reveal what is underneath.

When the gift is uncovered, she sits back and puts her hand over her curled lips as she fights back tears. It’s a useless gift for a 37-year-old woman – a superhero action figure. But she realizes that there is much more worth in this gift than anything else a little boy could have given her. It wasn’t something thoughtful that he had gone to the store and purchased with her in mind, but it was something so much more:

It was Sam’s own unopened gift that he brought to her.

She looks back to the young boy with tear-filled eyes and lightly shakes her head as she marvels at the thoughtfulness. It’s something so many others many times his age don’t even exhibit. “Thank you.” The words come out as a whisper. “Thank you so much, Sam.”

“Do you like it?” he asks with a hopeful look in his eyes.

“I love it.”

The magical moment is interrupted by Mary’s voice as she comes down the hall: “Yes. Sam’s just down here, Mrs. and Mr. Coffey.”

They hear the clopping of frantic footsteps before Sadie and Phred come rushing into the room. With utter relief on their faces, the two parents bend down and embrace their son.

“Sam! Oh my gosh,” his mother exclaims after pulling back and looking into her son’s eyes. “I thought we lost you. Why did you run off?” As she looks over his shoulders and her eyes meet the woman sitting alone in the small, unadorned room, she understands. She doesn’t need to hear Sam’s response to know the answer; the toy on her lap tells her all she needs to know.

“I was just bringing her…” his answers stops short when his teary-eyed mother embraces him again.  Not much else could have kindled her pride so fully in her son at this moment when she knows she should be angry.

Phred sits back with a look of confusion for a few moments when he notices the look on his wife’s face. He thought they were here to find, hug, then scold their son. But when the superhero action figure catches his attention as well, he starts piecing it all together.

After Sam and his mother separate, Amanda offers the toy back to his parents. “Here. I’m sorry, I didn’t know he would come. I was just…”

Phred looks at his wife with a smile then puts out his hand to refuse the offer. “Sam wanted you to have it.”

She smiles and brings it back onto her lap. Sadie wipes a tear from her eye with a smile on her face. “She doesn’t want a toy, Phred. Here, we’ll get you something you can use.”

After looking at the toy again and back into Sam’s innocent eyes, Amanda smiles as she turns her gaze to Sadie. “This one is perfect.”

Sam and his parents share a smile. They understand what makes this gift perfect for her.

Christmas spirit invades the room, and they all feel their souls warm. Five strangers, having not known each other for more than a month, are sharing what they can mutually call the best Christmas of their lives. Not being able to find words, nor feeling the need to, they sit for a moment in peaceful quiet.

The beep of Phred’s watch breaks the momentary silence. “Mom’s house,” Sadie exclaims with wide eyes. “They’re sure to be waiting on us and worried sick about Sam.”

“You’re right. We need to go.” Phred stretches his hand out to Amanda. “It was nice to meet you. Have a merry Christmas.”

“Wait,” Sadie says as she puts her hand over her husband’s and Bobby’s mother’s where they meet. With sincerity in her eyes, she looks at her and says, “come with us.”

“I… I couldn’t do that.”

“Sure you can. We’ll have plenty of food, and Sam loves Bobby. Come with us.”

Sam is beside himself. Nearly shaking with elation, he looks at Amanda expectantly as he waits to here her answer. She’s wants to be persistent in resisting; with a son herself to worry about, she has to think of their safety. The gift tells her that Sam’s intentions are pure, but she doesn’t know his parents. A glance at Same and that gleaming look in the little boy’s eyes melts her walls. She looks back at Sadie with an accepting smile.

As Bobby runs in the room, his loud playing slows to a halt when he notices that everyone is silent. He looks at his mother and asks, “what’s wrong, Mom?”

She wipes a tear from her eye. “Nothing, Honey. How would you like to go with Sam to his grandparent’s house for Christmas?”

Her son’s eyes go wide as he shouts, “yes!” Nearly tackling Sam in a hug, he yells, “we’re going with you!”

“I know! It’s awesome, huh, Bobby? We’re going to have fun, and you’ll love my Mama and Pepa, and there’ll be toys and ham and…”

The excited six-year-old boy goes on discussing all the fun he is going to have with his new friend as the group heads back to the Coffey’s car. This Christmas has already been filled with joy and fear, laughter and tears. And much of the day still remains.

Leaping with joy, the boys lead the way from the door to the car where two families join as one. Contrasting clothes tells of their separation in the status of the world, but the warmth in their souls tells of the nearness of hearts.

Sadie looks in the rear view mirror at the merry boys chatting about their favorite things. Superheroes, toys, video games, and many other important subjects are being discussed. She shares a smile with Amanda then looks back to her son. Who would have guessed that one of the deepest lessons in empathy she would ever learn would come from such a young boy.

She didn’t change the world, but she changed one family’s world.

God bless you all. Thank you for reading, and may your holidays be filled with joy and peace!

Merry Christmas,

Shawn Bain

A Christmas Story 2014 ®

This is sequel to A Christmas Story 2012 ®

You can read it by clicking the picture below and add to the experience of this story

StuyTown_Xmas_tree

Snow is falling on a Christmas Eve night as a man makes his way across a factory parking lot to his small truck with an armload of boxes. The hood to his thick, brown denim jacket protects his shiny, bald head from the chilly night. He lifts a tarp that is covering the contents of his truck bed, and snow slides off as he lays what he is carrying inside. A radiating smile lights up his face as he takes a moment to glance at the contents under the covering before laying it back down. The creak of his old truck door sounds out on the silent air as he opens it. “Thanks for helping me get these boxed up, Frank.” He shouts as he waves to a man in the doorway to the factory building and plops down in the seat.

“No problem, Nick. Merry Christmas.” Frank yells back before stepping back into the shop. As Nick turns the key over in the ignition, the truck cranks and sputters to a start. He pulls off one of his gloves to send one more text before he leaves. It reads, ‘Got them loaded up. On my way’, to an unnamed contact. The blinking red battery indicator in the corner of his screen catches his attention. 

Looks like my phone’s going to die, he thinks. At least I got that last text out. He backs out of the lot and starts making his way down the road. This is a trip he makes every year during this season. He knows the quicker route through the countryside will likely not be plowed, so he opts for the longer route through the city to be safe. The quiet of the drive doesn’t seem to match his mood, so he turns on the radio to some joyful Christmas music to sing along to and make his drive more pleasant. Memories of Christmas past flood his thoughts as he sings along to the happy tune.

When Nick gets about halfway through town, he comes to a roadblock. Construction? In winter? He thinks. The only option he is left with is to take the detour back out of town and take his chances with the outer roads. All he can do is hope that the trip won’t be as treacherous as he thinks it will be.

The merry Christmas tune plays on his radio helping to calm his nerves as he drives slowly down the freshly snow-covered asphalt. The falling flurry limits the length of his vision which adds to the stress of driving the unfamiliar route.  He strains his eyes as he sees a red flicker ahead of him. Soon the silhouette of a car appears through the white sheet and he realizes that flicker was a set of taillights. In a panic, he slams on his brakes and veers off of the pavement, causing his truck to slide to a stop in a ditch off to the side of the road. As he jumps out of his truck to get the attention of the car ahead of him in hopes of getting help, it seems to disappear. Was the car an apparition; merely a figment of his imagination? Or was the driver just unaware that he had ran off of the road? Either way, he was now alone.

The panicked man pulls his phone from his pocket and hopes against logic that his battery has held out. Dead, he thinks as he tries to open the screen. To his fortune, the snow has finally let up as he turns to assess his surroundings. Middle of nowhere. A fine place to get stuck. Without a house in sight, he jumps back in his truck and tries to get back on the road by backing up and darting forward. Reverse, drive, reverse, drive. No luck. He knows he is only making the problem worse by digging ruts with his tires, so he stops trying to drive out.

Feeling disheartened, Nick looks over his shoulder at his cargo again. As he turns back and lays his head on his arms atop the steering wheel, he turns down the volume of the cheery music at the realization that it is now adding to his stress. His whispering voice is almost drowned out by the hum of his running motor as he says, “Lord, please help me get there. You know how important this is to them.”

The moment he finishes the prayer and raises his head, he sees a car with a pizza delivery sign on top of it coming to a stop. The driver’s happiness as he gets out of the car and approaches the truck seems a little strange to Nick considering the cold night and inclement weather. The slick roads had to have made his job incredibly more difficult that night. The desperate man cautiously rolls down his window as the delivery driver says, “Hey, man. Ya need some help?”

Beginning to feel hopeful, Nick lets a smile roll his up his cheeks. “Yes, please.”

“Alright. Just put it in drive and give ‘er all you got and I’ll give you a push.” The delivery driver pats the truck’s window sill and makes his way to the tailgate. A small seed of fear takes root in Nick’s gut as he thinks about the ruts his tires dug with his first attempt to get out of the ditch.

Please help us out. He thinks as he slides the shifter into drive. A glance in the rearview mirror and a nod from his accomplice gives him the signal he needs to give it the gas. Almost without effort, the truck slides right up onto the road and stops in the right lane. Nick feels so elated, though a little bewildered, that he almost doesn’t believe what happened. He steps out of the truck to thank the man who helped him.

“Man, I can’t tell you how much of a help this was.” Nick says as he pulls his hand from his glove to shake the driver’s hand.

“No problem, buddy. I owed someone anyway, and your predicament was perfect for it.” The driver says as he vigorously shakes his hand.

Nick is almost as confused by the man’s enthusiasm as he is his statement. “What do you mean?”

“Well,  you see, when I was at the grocery store earlier, I came across a card that someone had left behind with a hundred bucks in it. I wasn’t going to have enough to get a gift for my boys or a Christmas dinner, but the money the guy left behind more than helped me with that.” The giddy man pauses and holds a finger up as if he remembers something. “Oh, wait a second.”  He goes back over to his car and pilfers for a moment before coming back over to Nick and handing him a card. “See, this is what he left with the money.”

The front of the card has a decorated tree and a baby in a manger underneath. The card says; ‘The greatest Christmas Gift.’ He turns the card over to read; ‘I’m passing on the happiness given to me. Take this $100 and have a joyous Christmas season.’ Nick nods and smiles as he now understands the source of the man’s happiness.

“And here’s yours. I’m sorry I don’t have any money to give you.” The driver says as he hands a card to him. He feels the stark contrast of his warm heart against the cold weather on his skin as he looks at an image of two figures leaning over a manger with a baby in it and a bright star above them.  It reads, ‘Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:11’

Nick looks up with glistening moisture in his eyes as he pulls the man in for a hug and says, “you’ve given me more than money can buy, my friend.” He walks back over to his truck and lifts the tarp covering his truck bed. A smiling head-gesture signals the pizza delivery driver to look underneath.

The revelation brings a bright smile to his face. “So you’re going…” His sentence trails off as Nick nods in affirmation. “God bless you, sir. And a merry Christmas.” He says as he shakes Nick’s hand again. “But you’ve got an important place to be. I don’t want to make you late, and my family is waiting up on me.” He rushes back over to his car and yells back before sitting back in, “what was your name again?”

“Nick.”

“Nick, I’m Larry. Merry Christmas!” He shouts one more time as he gets in and starts heading back down the road.

Nick whispers back, “merry Christmas,” before getting back in his truck and leaving as well. Sheer glee fills his heart as he thinks about the turn of events. What a coincidence that someone who had no other means to give someone else the joy that he himself had been given to happen across him when he was stuck. Even more so since the detour had given him a route that put him in the man’s path. And the ease at which they were able to get him out of that ditch, that he had tried so hard to get out of on his own, was starting to boggle his mind. As he thinks of it all, the only thing he can do is let out a smile from ear to ear.

When Nick gets about a mile down the road, he realizes his thoughts have kept him from turning his radio back on. Christmas tunes during the holiday season is one of Nick’s greatest pleasures, and he only has one more day to enjoy it, so he plans to make the most of every minute. The delight of listening to his favorite music adds to the splendor of the moment that could have ended so badly.

The crunching snow mixes with the chug of the engine as he pulls to a stop in a driveway. He pulls down his hood and throws on a red Santa hat as he throws open the door and steps to the back of the truck. With a shake and a toss, the tarp is off on the ground beside the truck. He grabs an armload of boxes and makes his way to the door. A quiet thudding sounds out on the quiet night as he uses the concrete step to knock the snow from his boots. Before he can knock, the door opens to reveal excitement and laughter. A woman stands to greet him with several children running and playing in the room behind her. Nick peers around the boxes to ensure his footing before looking at her. “Sorry I took so long getting here, Linda.” He says with a wide grin on his face as he sets the boxes in the floor next to the Christmas tree. “Had to take a detour and wound up in the ditch.” He knows she isn’t upset that he is late, but he wants to let her know why he is regardless.

“That’s ok. At least you aren’t hurt.” Linda says with a smile as she leans in to give him a hug. She turns back to the room of noisy children and shouts, “Kids! Look who’s here to see you!” The room falls quiet for a brief instant before erupting in joyful cheering. A group of kids run up and hug his legs as the rest run over and begin inspecting the boxes.

Nick picks up a cute, little brown-headed girl and gives her a big hug. “How are you, Miss Emily?”

“Good! Thank you so much for bringing us Christmas presents!”

“You are so welcome.” He says before setting her back down. “There’s a special present in there with your name on it.” The giddy girl runs over and starts picking through the boxes to find her gift. Linda walks up next to him and they watch the kids together for a moment in all of their excitement.

“This orphanage wouldn’t be the same without you, Nick. These kids never had presents like this before you came along.”

“I couldn’t live with myself if I hadn’t started doing this for you guys. When I heard about all of these parentless kids that had nothing to open on Christmas…” He pauses for a moment to bite his quivering lip then wipes a tear from his eye. “Every kid deserves a merry Christmas.” Linda lays her head gently on his shoulder and puts an arm around him for comfort. The flashing Christmas lights create a dance of colors on his tear-streaked face.

After giving himself another moment to take it all in, he starts back toward the door. “I’ve got another armload. I’ll be right back.” Linda looks back and smiles at him before turning back and stepping into the kid’s chaos to attempt at bring some order to it.

As Nick steps outside and closes the door behind him, the cold air gingerly bites the areas of his exposed skin. He feels like he has stepped into another world as the wild screams of the kids get muffled by the closed door. The snow-covered town makes the scene before him peacefully silent. Swirling emotions make him feel as if he is light enough to walk on top of the soft, white blanket covering the yard as he crosses it. He looks at the remainder of presents in the bed of his truck and takes a moment to lower his head. His soft chuckle is amplified by the silent night as he shakes his head and thinks about the last few hours. “Paying it forward.” Almost without conscious thought, he looks up at the sky. The beauty of the softly-falling flakes and thoughts of the happiness of the children in the house behind him overwhelm him for a moment as he simply whispers, “thank you.”

The awestruck man scoops up the few presents left and dusts the snow off of them before making his way back to the house. As he approaches the door, a youngster pops his head out and says, “Nick, you didn’t bring me a present!” As the statement brings Nick out of his blissful trance, he lets out a hearty chuckle.

“I’m comin’, I’m comin’. You didn’t really think I would forget you, did you?” The door closes a final time and once again the joyous laughter of the children inside is quietened to the noiseless town. The scene of playful children in the window is lost to the night as Linda pulls the drapes closed.

Another Christmas is made merry for the children of the orphanage by the acts of one man and the many events that fell into place to get him to his destination. A seemingly insignificant act by a kind pizza-delivery man assisted in bringing the kids their holiday joy. Who knows how many acts before that took place to lead to this moment? Or how many acts will take place from this night going forward? One small act of kindness can have an innumerable effect.

May you enjoy this holiday season, spend time with the ones you love, and spread holiday cheer.

Merry Christmas,

Shawn Bain

A Christmas Story 2013 ®

This story is a sequel for one of the characters in the story I released last year.
Feel free to read that story by clicking here.

William Howard sits in his lush office working on his computer the night before Christmas Eve. He’s finishing his end-of-year paperwork before calling it a night. As he types up a report, his cell phone buzzes at the end of his desk. He picks it up to read a message from his son, who is away in the military, ‘Couldn’t get the time off to come home for Christmas. Sorry love you.’ He sits back in his chair as his heart sinks. This makes the second holiday season in a row that he will be without his family. He has seen his son, Little William, only a couple of times this year since he has deployed to hostile locations.

He looks over to a picture on his desk of his family and focuses on his wife. She had gotten tired of never getting to see her husband due to his extensive work schedule, and that he only had a negative attitude when she did get to see him. So she has stayed with her parents while the two have been separated for the past few months. What had he done to deserve this? How had he become so miserable? The thoughts make him unable to finish his work, so he powers down his computer and throws on his coat. Looks like I’ll be working on Christmas Eve again this year. He thinks. He pats his coat pockets as he begins to look around his office for his keys. I thought I put them in my coat when I got here. The recent realization of another lonely Christmas prolongs the search by making it hard for him to focus. Finally he opens a drawer on his desk to find his keys sitting inside. He picks them up to reveal a Christmas card underneath that causes him to pause. It is the one he received last year from the girl who bought his dinner in the drive-through. As he takes a second to pick it up, all of those feelings that made his lonely Christmas last year so joyous come rushing back.

The card has a night scene, a bright star, and a manger and it reads, For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. When he was younger, he went to church every Sunday with his parents and learned about what Christians believed, but that knowledge had become unimportant during his college years, so he eventually stopped going. Before he can think about what he is doing, he closes his eyes and lowers his head. God, if you are real and you really love me, don’t let me be lonely this Christmas. I just need one more chance to make things right. I just want to be a family again. He quickly opens his eyes and feels childish for praying. With a shake of his head, he throws the card in the drawer before shutting it, locking the office up, and getting in his black luxury car to head home.

On the drive home, though he feels dumb, he can’t help but feel more open and refreshed somehow. Whatever, he thinks as he turns up his radio to help cover the thoughts. When he does though, the same joyful Christmas song that was playing on his drive home last year is playing again. As all of the same thoughts and feelings from last year come rushing back again, he can’t help but wonder why he isn’t filled with joy. He remembers getting the card and how happy it made him. He remembers the delight he felt when he passed that generosity along. All he can seem to think about is how alone he felt Christmas day and that he would be alone again this Christmas. Infuriated he thinks, I’m going to need a drink.

His tires screech as he jerks the car into a supermarket parking lot. Patrons of the store watch as he barrels through the lot into a spot near the door. He slams the car door before pushing the lock button on his key fob as he walks through the automatic doors to the store.

“Happy holidays.” The store greeter exclaims. William glares at him and grunts as he walks hastily by toward the liquor section. The store seems to stretch out in front of him as he makes his way to the back.

Has it always taken this long to get back here? I just want to get home and have a drink, sheesh. When he gets into the aisle, he walks directly to the scotch section and grabs the first bottle he sees with three digits behind the dollar sign before heading back toward the registers. As he rounds the corner to the front of the store, he sees three people in the only-open checkout line. One register? Are you kidding me? Just as he finishes his thought though, another clerk comes out from the back and opens another line. He hustles into the line before anyone notices that it is open and slings his bottle up on the counter. The clerk scans the bottle, looks up at William, and lights up when he recognizes him.

“Hi, sir! How are you doing this evening?” The clerk asks. William churns inside at the thought of conversing with someone, but when their eyes meet, he remembers the clerk. The businessman looks around and realizes for the first time that he is in the same supermarket he was in a year ago when he taped that card with $100 to the end of the checkout. He suppresses any feelings before they have the chance to arise though and looks back at his wallet.

“Fine.” He responds as he shuffles through his cash to find a couple of the $100 bills he remembered putting in there this morning.

“Someone got your gift last year.” William is shocked when he realizes the boy remembers him but he hides the emotion with his unchanged expression.

“Did they? That’s good.”

“Do you want to know what happened?” The clerk asks, unable to hide his excitement.

“That’s not necessary. My total please.” The worker is taken back that William didn’t want to know how much it meant to the man that received his gift. He follows the customer’s instructions though and scans the scotch.

“$124.53” He says disheartened. William hands him two $100 bills without changing expression. He begins to wonder what happened with his gift though. It had to be a good story if the clerk was so excited to tell it. As the clerk finishes counting his change, William’s curiosity gets the best of him.

“Were they, ahem, happy with the gift?” The customer’s question causes the clerk’s excitement to instantly return.

“Happy? He about passed out! He walked up here with almost nothing to eat and when he opened your card, he ran back into the store and spent it all on Christmas presents and dinner for his family!” William’s change crinkles in the cashier’s hand as he points at his customer. “You made that man’s, no, his family’s Christmas like a thousand times better!” Suddenly memories from last Christmas come flooding back to him again. This time though he doesn’t remember the solitude, but happiness instead. He begins to remember what made last Christmas so joyous to him when he could have felt so sad and alone. William’s face begins to visibly show the happiness saturating him on the inside as it begins to light up with a smile. He clutches the clerk’s hand with both of his hands.

“Thank you.” He says as he accepts his change before heading back into the store. His shoes make a short sliding sound as he comes to a stop in the card aisle. He rifles through the Christmas section looking for the perfect one. He pulls one out, Too sad. He thinks as he puts it back in place before pulling out another. Not specific enough. He spends another few minutes looking before he finally stops on one. This is it, he thinks, this is the one. The card has a beautiful scene with people around a baby in a manger. It reads ‘For unto us a child is born , unto us a son is given : and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor ,The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.’ He starts to make his way back to the checkout, but something makes him stop to think. Why stop at one? I can make more than one person happy. He looks in his wallet to find five $100 bills. Before another thought can cross his mind, he grabs up four more cards with envelopes and hurries back up to the checkout.

The supermarket employee is eagerly waiting when William gets back up to his counter with the gifts. They are too excited for words as the cards get rung up and paid for. William puts one with a $100 bill in the envelope, pulls a $20 bill from his wallet, and hands them to the clerk. “Give this to someone who has little to make their Christmas merry and you keep the twenty.” The store employee smiles uncontrollably back at the generous man across the counter.

“Bless you sir, and merry Christmas!” He says as the businessman makes his way back to the exit.

“Merry Christmas!” William shouts back. The clerk looks down to notice the liquor bottle that is still on his counter.

“Sir, your scotch!”

“Put it back on the shelf, I won’t be needing it anymore!” The yell carries from the front of the store. He gets out of the door before stopping suddenly. With a quick turn he is back in the door and approaching the greeter. He shakes the man’s hand and says, “Merry Christmas, sir.” The greeter looks stunned as he mutters back,

“M, merry Christmas.” William smiles wider and heads back into the parking lot. He jumps into his car and heads to the next store. The radio blares as he sings a merry tune along with it and delivers the next four cards to stores in the same fashion as he did the first. Each clerk is handed an extra $20 for their trouble.

At the end of the night he pulls into his driveway and sits in his car for a moment after turning it off. He finally comes to the realization that though he won’t be spending Christmas with his family this year, he will be able to be happy nonetheless. The snow crunches as he steps out of his car and makes his way into the house to call it a night.

The next workday drags by while he finishes his end-of-year paperwork as the only person in the building. The happy Christmas tunes on his laptop, fortunately, help to fill the empty feeling of the office while he works though. He smiles as he locks up the office to head home after finishing his last report. The whirling thoughts in his head of yesterday’s events make the drive home feel unusually short. Exhausted from the long day at work and roller coaster of emotions over the last 42 hours, he unlocks his door, steps inside, and closes the door behind him. The click of the light echoes in his quiet, large house as the foyer chandelier comes to life with luminescence.

“Surprise!” The shout startles the near-delirious businessman causing him to stumble back against the door. “Working on Christmas Eve eh, pops? I’m not surprised.” William looks on in disbelief as he sees his son standing in his foyer wearing his military uniform and smiling back. He musters the thought to speak as he looks at Little William,

“Y, you said,”

“Yeah, I know. By some miracle one of the other men in my squad that got the time off gave that time up. I was the next soldier on the list, so here I am!” The father’s body tingles as he hugs his soldier and fights back tears.

 

Miracle. He thinks as he recalls his little prayer in his office. Indeed. William stands back and puts his hands on Little William’s shoulders. He looks his son in the eyes for a moment before saying, “Welcome home, my boy.”

“Thanks, dad.” The happy dad puts his arm around Little William as they start to head into the living room.

“Have you made arrangements with your mother to see her while you are in? I know she will want you to stop by so she can see you.”

“Well, I did and I am going to see her. But she had a different idea in mind.” The two round the corner as Little William finishes his sentence to see another surprise standing in the living room. William can’t believe his eyes.

“Patricia?” His wife stands in the middle of the room wearing the red turtleneck sweater that William had told her he loved so much. She tucks her hair behind her ear and looks up at him. The warm light of the room makes her glow like an angel in William’s eyes.

“William.” A few moments of deafening silence pass as they both try to find words. A tear leaves a streak as it runs down the man’s cheek. His voice quivers as one word escapes his lips,

“Why?”

“Well, we have had our hard times. We have both said things we didn’t mean.” She pauses and holds her finger above her lip as she tries to keep from crying. “I signed the papers, I put them in an envelope.” She wipes her eyes to stop the watering. “But then I saw you. I was buying Christmas cards when I saw you put money in the card envelope and hand it to the cashier. When I heard you tell him to give it to someone in need, I thought my God. He has changed. Then I thought if I could have my old William back for Christmas, I would be the happiest woman on earth.”

The statement is all that William needs to hear to make him rush over and embrace the love of his life so he can whisper in her ear. “You’ve got him.” As the two weep together, their son comes and wraps his arms around them. With joy and love in his heart, William thinks, thank you, Lord. Thank you.

May you enjoy this holiday season, spend time with the ones you love, and spread holiday cheer

Merry Christmas,

Shawn Bain

A Christmas Story 2012 ®

1:00 PM – December 23rd

An alarm clock goes off in a one bedroom house. A sleepy man sits up to the side of his bed and rubs his eyes as he begins trying to wake up. He reaches up to stretch, grabs his back, and doubles over as he tenses up from the strain of being overworked the night before. His black hair is tussled and he wears a pair of long pajama pants with no shirt.

“Jim, I have breakfast ready for you if you have time to eat it.” His wife hollers down the hall. He forces himself to get out of bed and makes his way to the kitchen.

“Daddy daddy!” His sweet four-year-old daughter yells as he hobbles down the hall toward her.

“Good morning, Elizabeth.”

The little blonde-headed girl with big blue eyes runs toward him wearing her fuzzy, purple pajamas with little ducks on them.

“Don’t jump on daddy, Sweetie, his back hurts.” Her mom yells down the hallway to her.

“It’s okay.” Jim says as he scoops her up. “Daddy’s back never hurts too bad for his little girl.”

“Daddy, are you coming to my play tonight?” Elizabeth asks with big doe eyes. “You didn’t come to my last one, and I really want you to come to this one.” He looks back at her with a forced smile and a heavy heart. Since he got laid off from his last job, and he hasn’t been at his new place of employment long enough, he won’t have any time off available to go to the play. It feels like a another hole has been formed in his heart every time he has to miss one of her plays, but he knows his fiscal responsibilities, and he has to feed his family.

“Daddy has to work tonight, Honey. But mommy is going to record you, and I’ll watch it with you this weekend. Okay?”

“Okay.’ She says as she leans in and hugs his neck, “Love you, Daddy.”

“Love you too, Sweetie.” He sits her back down on the ground and heads into the kitchen to grab a quick meal before he has to rush to work.

“It’s eggs and bacon today,” his wife, Heather, says as he sits down to eat. She shares Elizabeth’s hair and eye color, and she is wearing blue flannel pajamas. She sits her husband’s plate on the table, and  smiles as she hands him a fork.

“I know, I could smell it down the hall. Thanks, Babe.” The two share a kiss, and he begins to eat his breakfast. Jim’s work schedule doesn’t allow him to get up until lunch time, but breakfast is his favorite meal so Heather makes it for him every afternoon before he goes to work.

As he finishes his meal, he throws his dishes in the sink and hustles back into his room to get changed for work. He throws on his greasy blue jumpsuit and as he is lacing up his boots Elizabeth comes running in the room.

“Bye, Daddy!” she says as she kisses him.

“Bye, Baby. I love you.” She runs out of the room while her father finishes tying his boots.

“Love you too!” She yells back down the hall to him. He finishes getting ready for work and grabs the lunchbox sitting on an end table in the living room Heather has prepared for him. She’s waiting at the door to tell him goodbye with a cheerful gleam in her eye.

“Have a good day.” She says as she hugs and kisses him.

“You too.” He rushes to work where he puts in a long 10 hours. The day drags on as he works from one back-breaking task to the next, but his joyous spirit remains intact. Exhausted, but smiling, he gets in his truck to leave for the night. As he drives down the road, the glow of his low-gas light catches his attention. He  finds the nearest convenience store and pulls in, all the while whistling a joyful Christmas tune.

The worn man pulls up to the gas pump, lifts the shifter into park, opens the door, and hops out all at once. The still air of the cold winter night deadens the whistle of his jolly tune as he enters the station and waves to the clerk.

“Jim.” The clerk says as he nods from behind the counter to his weekly customer.

“Hey, Mike. Busy night?”

“ Usually is around this time. I’m glad I’m getting off in twenty minutes.”

Jim has made his way to the counter after grabbing his favorite candy bar and a twenty ounce bottle of soda. “Put forty on pump two and give me a gift card for twenty and that Christmas card.” He says pointing to a card behind the counter.

“That’ll be seventy eight fifty.”

Jim pays, writes a quick note on the card, puts it in the envelope with the gift card, and waves to Mike with a grin as he leaves the station. “Merry Christmas, Mike.”

“Merry Christmas, Jim.”

After pumping his gas, Jim takes some black electrical tape from the inside of his truck door and tapes the envelope to the pump. He steps back and takes a second to smile then he get back into his truck and heads home.

He finally gets home around two in the morning to a quietly sleeping family. The only noise made is the click of the lock as he sneaks into his house, gets into his pajamas, and sneaks back into bed.

4:21 AM – December 24th

A silver sedan flies down the highway. The young brown-haired woman behind the wheel is driving well over the speed limit on her way to work. She thinks, I am going to be so late! If I hurry, I can at least put out the new stock before we open and my regional manager won’t find out.

She glances down at her dash to check her speed and realizes she is about out of fuel. Ugh! I still have to get gas! She whips into a gas station and jumps out to fill it up. She runs around the car, unscrews the cap to the gas tank, and sets it on the trunk. As she pulls her debit card out of her pocket and begins to slide it into the pump to pay, she notices that there is an envelope covering the display. Written on the front of the envelope is, ‘To the next person to get gas. Merry Christmas.’ She opens the envelope to find that inside is a Christmas card with a manger scene and a $20 gift card.

Her eyes start to swell up with tears as she thinks of the kindness of the person who left the card. It seems such an insignificant act to get teary-eyed about, giving $20 for gas, but the thought that someone would do that for a person they have never met dulls her anxiety for being late. She swipes the gift card and puts some gas in her vehicle before heading to work, now with a smile gracing her pretty, young face.

Her terrible morning seems to no longer be in her memory as she continues to think of the stranger’s kindness in leaving the gift card at the pump. As a retail worker, the holidays usually put her in a bad mood. So when she comes into the store with a beaming expression, her co-workers notice her unusually good mood.

“Michelle, are you okay?” a female team member asks. “You’re… happier than you usually are.”

“I’m great.” Michelle responds with a wide smile. “The weirdest thing happened this morning, Natalie. When I got gas, there was a gift card that said Merry Christmas on the pump.”

“Really? Aaand that’s why you’re so happy? A gift card.” Natalie says as she continues stocking the shelves with her manager. “I wish I could be so happy from finding a gift card.”

“I know, right?” The sarcasm in her co-worker’s tone goes unnoticed by the excited girl. Then she gets to thinking : Maybe if she did a random act of kindness, it would brighten someone else’s day as much as hers has been brightened. She thinks long and hard as she finishes out her work day. What will she do? What would she like someone to do for her?

Either way she would need a card.

So she buys a Christmas card from her store after she’s clocked off and heads home. She continues to think as she pulls through a drive-through at a fast food restaurant.

“Thank you for stopping. Would you like to try our holiday shake?” The voice of the drive-through worker breaks her dreamy thinking.

“Oh. Yes, I’ll take a number two with no pickles and a medium orange soda please.”

“Okay that’ll be $5.27 at your second window.” She drives around the corner of the building, her mind still wheeling on ideas on how she can brighten someone’s day.  As she pulls up to the window, the worker called out to her, “Okay that’ll be $15.36.”

“I thought it was…” she begins to answer as her words are cut short by the worker.

“Sorry, that’s for the next order. Yours is $5.27.” She begins to hand the worker her debit card when it hits her. Her eyes go wide and her mouth stretches into a ‘aha’ smile as the mist from her breath dances from her lips.

“Both!” Michelle says excitedly, “I’ll pay for both!” The worker smiles back at her with a half-look of confusion as he takes her card, swipes it, and gives it back to her. She sits in her car and smiles as she thinks of how happy paying for the large order will make the person behind her. The urge to squeal in excitement is almost too much, but she holds it in.

“Here you go, have a nice day.” The employee says, handing her the food she had ordered, his smile now deepening as he recognizes the kind act for what it is.

“Thanks. You too.” She sits the food in her passenger seat and notices the card she had bought. “Oh! I almost forgot. Give this to them please.” She hands the card to the worker and waves as she leaves.

The young woman’s body tingles with excitement the whole way home as she thinks about her day. Her day was going terribly, then she got the free gas, then she was able to pass the favor along to brighten someone else’s day. It’s almost too much elation for her to stand.

She gets home and eats her fast food before sitting down to watch some television. She stares at the screen, but she isn’t watching. Lost in thought, she thinks of how many people her kindness might affect. Will the person behind her continue to pass on the kindness? How far will it go?  After sitting in front of the television for a few hours, it is time to go to bed. She does her nightly routine her thoughts continuing to wander the entire time.

She plops into bed, pulls the comforter up to her neck, and stares at the ceiling for a few more moments. The minutes tick by as she lays awake in bed and thinks of how her day could have been terrible, but turned out to be one of the greatest days of her life. And all over a gift card. She closes her eyes to doze off and smiles.

2:13 PM – December 24th

A man works on a computer as he sits in a bank office behind a large mahogany desk. A gold name plate that reads William Howard sits at the front corner facing his door. He has black hair that is peppered with grey and wears a suit with a red tie. His expression is solemn, as always it is, while he works without pause.

People walk by his office but won’t enter out of fear of him for his position. He had always been known in his younger years as a fun-loving, cheerful man. In his climb to the big seat though, he stepped on a few toes and hurt his image. The years of loneliness in the workplace has led to some resentment in the back of his mind toward those that shy away from him. That resentment that people see in his eyes in turn cause them to shy away from him, causing a vicious cycle. For a little while after he got into his authoritative position, he tried to start conversations and make friends, but had little success. Now he only works and speaks on business matters to his employees.

The branch manager leaves his office to go to the restroom down the hall and as he returns to his office, he is greeted by one of his employees.

“G,good afternoon, sir. Have a good lunch?”

William eyes the young employee curiously for a moment before answering, “yup.” He walks into his office, forcefully shuts the door behind him, and quickly closes his blinds on the tall window next to his door. He grunts and starts to think to himself as he sits back to his desk and straightens his tie, I don’t know why that guy always tries to talk to me. He’s the only one in the building that tries. You would think he would have gotten the hint by now. Probably just trying to get in good with the boss so he can have my job when I retire. He taps his fingers on his desk as he stares at his computer screen. The interaction, albeit short and of little importance, has oddly suffocated his desire to continue working. Whatever. He finishes his thoughts and forces himself to type up one more report before leaving for the day.

The grumpy man throws on his black overcoat, gloves, and scarf before getting in his black luxury car to leave. As he drives down the road the radio plays a merry Christmas tune. He thinks of Christmas and what it has meant to him over the years. Then his thoughts drift to what his night will entail. His wife is on a trip promoting her book and his son has recently left for the military. The thought of being lonely in his home after his long solitary day at work only agitates him further. And now the cheerful music on the radio is making his mood worse, so he slaps the volume knob and shuts it off. I’m not going to cook for one person, he thinks. I’ll just grab something on the way home.

He pulls into the slowest fast food restaurant in sight and goes through the drive-through. The squelch of the intercom only annoys him more as the worker asks to take his order.

“Thank you for stopping. Would you like to try our holiday shake?”

“No I wouldn’t,” he snaps. “Give me a number twelve with a large drink. And… give me a holiday shake.”

“That will be $15.36 at the second window please.” William pulls around to see that there was another car already waiting at the second window and he huffs. “I didn’t think there was anyone in this drive-through or I wouldn’t have stopped. Hurry up, you silver jalopy. Get a real job so you can afford a real car.”

The impatient man watches the driver’s every move critically as he grows more and more impatient. After waiting for a few short moments, he sees the driver hand the drive-through worker a card through the window. “Oh c’mon. If you are going to visit your friend, go inside.”

Shortly after handing the worker the card, the driver in front of him leaves. “Finally.” He says as he pulls up to the window.

As he rolls his window down, the worker hands him the bag of food he ordered with a big smile on his face. “Here’s your food, sir.”

William is too stunned by the quickness of it all to say anything. Why hadn’t he had to pay for his food first? He lays the bag in his passenger seat and turns back to talk to the worker. Before he can say anything though, the worker hands him a card in an envelope and closes the window. He opens the envelope hesitantly. The image on the front is a night scene with a bright star in the middle and a bible verse on the front. It says, ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.’

William feels his hardened heart warm. It’s only a fast food meal, but who would be so kind to a stranger? Why would they be so nice? Suddenly he begins to feel ashamed about what he had thought of the slowness of the person in front of him who was really being charitable to him. He turns the card over to read the message on the back. ‘I’m passing on the kindness that was given to me. Merry Christmas!’

The person in the car behind the dumbfounded William honks as he is looking at the card, also occupying the window.  He shakes his head as he remembers where he is and quickly pulls out of the way. His large luxury car motor barely makes a sound as he pulls back onto the road.

The wipers on his windshield squeak as they dust off the light snowfall of the night. William’s mind reels as he drives down the road and stares blankly through them. He is astonished that there is still such generosity in the world. In the world of corporate banking, to which he belongs, no one is so kind. The world he lives in is filled with business men who would throw you under the bus in a moment’s notice to make themselves look better. As the thoughts swirl through his head, he is given a feeling he hasn’t had in a long time: Joy. True joy. He reaches down, turns his radio back on, and lets the cheerful music play, the unease from his hateful thoughts having melted away. As his cheer begins to overwhelm him, all of the classic Christmas cartoons he watched as a child slip into his thoughts, filling his merriment further. He looks over to see a supermarket as he drives through the less-fortunate side of town and makes the hasty decision to buy some of those videos. This lonely night doesn’t have to be without Christmas spirit!

He quickly pulls into the parking lot and doesn’t even notice that he nearly side-swipes another car in the road.

While walking into the store he hums a happy Christmas tune oblivious to the conditions of the store or his location. “Merry Christmas, sir.” He says to the greeter at the door. He usually ignores those workers.

“Merry Christmas.” The greeter responds hesitantly.

The world has a whole new look as William walks through the supermarket, his shoes squeaking from walking on the wet parking lot. As he passes by the Christmas card section on the way to the video department he abruptly stops. The words of the card run through his head. “I’m passing on the kindness,” he says enthusiastically. His step is hastened as the thought of being able to provide the same happiness he was given bubbles inside him. A card on the shelf sticks out to him so he grabs it, uses a pen from his coat to write a quick note on it, and stuffs it in an envelope with some money. He makes a quick trip to the back to grab a Christmas video and makes his way to the front to checkout. There usually aren’t many people in this store because the bigger name store is across the street so he has no line to wait in.

The cashier greets him as he approaches the counter, “How are you today, sir?”

“I’m great! How are you?”

“Good.” The register beeps as the items are rung up. “That’ll be $8.43.” William pulls a $50 bill from his pocket and hands it to the cashier.

“Here, and keep the change.” The cashier takes the money with doubt in his eyes. As he looks at William, he notices the cheer in his expression and begins to understand the sincerity of the offer.

“Thank you, sir! Thank you very much!”

“You’re welcome. Merry Christmas!” The cheery gentleman walks back to the end of the conveyor belt at the counter and puts the envelope with the card and the money at the end. He turns and smiles at the cashier and walks back out of the store.

The drive home seems to be a short one as thoughts race through his mind the whole way. When he gets home, he pops some popcorn, puts the Christmas movie in the player, and plops down on the couch to watch. His day turned out to be a good day after all, and this lonely Christmas won’t be as gray as he was beginning to think it would be.

6:30 PM – December 24th

A man stands in the food aisle in a supermarket. His blonde hair is greasy from wearing the hat to his pizza deliver uniform all day and his goatee is unkempt. With a disheartened expression, he looks at the different loaves of bread on the shelf with his hands in his pockets. His money rustles as he pulls his tips from the night out. Seven bucks, he thinks. What can I get with seven bucks?

He wears a weary frown as he grabs a loaf and makes his way to the lunch meat section. He searches the sale section of the meat and cheese. About four bucks left. A combo pack of meat and cheese for a little over $3 stands out to him so he scoops it up. Past Christmas memories run through his head as he walks to the front of the store.  How different this one will be from his younger years. It will be much like the others that preceded it most recently: Prosaic. College was a stupid idea. If I didn’t have these student loans, we wouldn’t be scraping by right now. He keeps hoping for a job opening in his career field, but his hunt has left him little to be hopeful for.

As he gets to the front of the store, he notices that there is only one register open. Fortunately the big store across the street leaves this store empty most days. He notices the cashier is smiling as he approaches the checkout counter. “Good evening… Larry,” The clerk finishes enthusiastically. The pizza delivery man looks at the clerk puzzled, then looks down to his shirt where the cashier had peaked at briefly.

“Oh, my name badge. Hi.” Through his sunken demeanor, Larry finally notices that the clerk is acting strange and keeps glancing at the end of his counter. He follows the clerks gaze and sees an envelope. As he looks back, he notices the cashier is now overly excited and his smile is now even bigger than before.

Larry walks to the end of the counter and picks up the envelope. It reads, ‘To the customer after me at this checkout. Merry Christmas.’ He looks back to the clerk who gives an affirming nod and reluctantly opens the envelope. There is a Christmas card inside with a decorated tree and a baby in a manger underneath. The card says; The greatest Christmas Gift. He turns the card over to read; ‘I’m passing on the happiness given to me. Take this $100 and have a joyous Christmas season.

“Hundred bucks!” He exclaims.

“A hundred bucks?” The cashier asks with shock. Larry looks into the envelope and sees the crisp new one hundred dollar bill. He grabs his head and falls back against the display behind him sending various candies tumbling from their shelves. As he slides down the metal rack he begins to weep. He pulls his knees up and rests his head against his arms on top of them. The cashier comes out from behind the counter and places his hand on Larry’s shoulder. The bewildered pizza man looks at the cashier with tear filled eyes for a moment, then his eyes widen before he jumps up and rushes back into the store.

Meanwhile, at Larry’s home, his wife is cleaning as two children watch Christmas cartoons on television.

“Mom, when is Dad gonna get home?” The oldest son asks.

“I don’t know, John, he should have been home twenty minutes ago.” Larry’s wife, Nora, walks over and checks out the window to look for signs of her husband’s arrival. The youngest son runs over to the window to look with his mother. His second-hand footy pajamas were well-worn by his older brother before he ever received them. The years in the attic hadn’t done much to brighten their color either.

“There he is!” He shouts.

“Okay, John, take Mitchell to the table with you and get ready to eat.” Nora looks back out to see that her husband is carrying a bag containing two large boxes and something round that has been double-bagged. She rushes out of the door and grabs one of the bags to help him. “Larry! What is this stuff?” He looks at her with tear-filled eyes.

“An answer to our prayers, Nora! I just wanted to provide John and Mitchell one Christmas that wasn’t ruined by our money situation, and my prayer was answered.”

“How did you buy all of this stuff, Larry? We can’t afford this!”

“The person before me left a hundred bucks and a card to the next person in the lane. It was me, Nora. The next person in the lane; it was me!” His wife falls to her knees as joyful tears streak down her face and Larry falls right behind her to caress her. The commotion causes the children to rush out of the small duplex.

“Mommy, Daddy, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, Mitch!” his father exclaims. “Your mommy and me are just really happy, that’s all.”

“Tomorrow, you and John will be opening two more presents and we will be eating a whole Christmas Ham!” their mother exclaims. “This Christmas will be the best one yet!” The family joins in a hug and the parents cry together. The boys jump up and down with glee inside their parents’ arms. Nora finally wipes her tears, looks at John, and says, “Okay, Honey, now go get Mitchell seated and we will eat.”

“C’mon, Mitch.” The older brother grabs his sibling by the hand and leads him to the kitchen table.

“How are we going to pass this kindness along, Larry? We don’t have any money to give to anyone.”

“I already did, Babe. I helped a guy get his truck unstuck out of the snow on the way home. I bought a card at the store before I left and I gave it to him.” Larry hugs his wife one final time and they get up to walk in the door. Before going in, he stops and looks at Nora with a wide smile. He turns around to lean out of the door and shouts, “merry Christmas!” to all that can hear.

May you enjoy this holiday season, spend time with the ones you love, and spread holiday cheer

Merry Christmas,

Shawn Bain