I’m so grateful for all those people who’ve supported my writing over the years. Since this is the time of the year for giving, I wanted to do something special for all of you. So this “Christmas Present” is for you. Those of you who have copies of MOMENTS IN TIME-22 STORIES will be familiar with it, but hopefully it will put you in the holiday spirit. I’ve put a link at the end of the story where you can download it in PDF form you can read anytime you choose, keep it, print it, and share it with friends. Wishing you all blessed holiday season, no matter what holiday you celebrate, and may your celebrations be filled with much love and laughter.
And now, without further ado…
Daniel was dreaming and he knew it.
He was ice skating in Rockefeller Center with his wife and their angel-faced daughter. The giant Christmas tree lit up behind them, sending its pine fragrance out into the city. A light snow fell as they skated around and around; the three of them holding hands and laughing behind their scarves, eyes twinkling with merriment.
Their laughter was suddenly drowned out by rough voices coming up fast behind them. Three boys whizzed past, recklessly cutting in front of them. His scarf tightened, snapping his head back, as strong hands tugged him from behind. Daniel glimpsed hard young faces speeding by as he fell backwards. He let go of his family’s hands, sensing their struggle for balance. Down he went, landing hard on his tailbone. He cried out, hit by another jolt of pain as the back of his head cracked on the ice.
For a dream, Daniel thought, this hurts like hell.
He heard a female voice yelling close by. “I see you Sam Gibbons — and you too, Jack! You get out of here before I call the police!” Awake now, Daniel opened his eyes to see a woman bundled in a hooded parka bending over him; her big green eyes studied him while snowflakes collected on the wisps of dark wavy hair that outlined her face.
“Are you all right, mister?”
Her face showed genuine concern for a fellow human being, something he hadn’t seen in a long time. Daniel looked around and remembered where he was. Earlier in the evening, he’d sat down in the covered porch behind the old diner, seeking shelter from the biting wind. He must have fallen asleep. The snow had encrusted itself onto his beard and over his woolen gloves. He shivered.
“I’m not sure. I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.”
“Not a truck, just those darn Gibbons boys. A pack of troublemakers if ever there was one. I came to put out the trash and saw they were kicking at something. Scared ‘em off when I realized it was a somebody. Let’s get you up and inside so you don’t freeze to death.”
Daniel suppressed a groan as the woman helped him into the brightly lit diner. He slumped into one of the cheery red vinyl booths and looked around, letting the warmth spread over him. Christmas had exploded inside the diner; every corner was decorated. Silver garland with colored lights draped across the ceiling. Pictures of Santa Claus, reindeer, and snowmen hung on the neatly painted walls. Miniature Christmas trees sat on each table, while a larger one dressed up the corner by the jukebox.
The woman hung her coat on a wall hook, then went behind the counter. She filled two cups with steaming coffee and slid into the booth across from Daniel.
“Drink this. It’ll warm you up. My name’s Christmas Snow and you’re enjoying the hospitality of the Snowy End Diner. Folks just call me Chris. What’s your name?”
“Daniel Drummond.” Daniel swallowed a mouthful of coffee, holding the cup with both hands, letting the warmth seep in. “Christmas Snow, huh? Now there’s a name all right.”
“Well, Snow is my married name. The maiden name was even worse.” Her eyes twinkled like lights on the tree when she smiled. “My mother named me Christmas because that’s when I was born. Our last name was Day. You get used to the teasing when you grow up with a name like that.”
Daniel studied her face to see if she was joking and decided she wasn’t. He sipped the coffee, then raised the cup to her in a toast. “To my hero! Christmas Day Snow.” He couldn’t help but chuckle as he said it. Something about this woman made him forget how miserable he really felt. “Doesn’t get any better when you put them all together, does it?”
Chris laughed with him. “Nope. But like I said, I’m used to it. You look about wasted away. How about something to eat with that coffee?”
Without waiting for his answer, she got up and went behind the counter again, making small talk as she prepared a plate of meatloaf piled high with mashed potatoes, gravy and bread. She set it down in front of him and waited for him to eat. When he hesitated she asked, “What’s the matter? Don’t you like meatloaf?”
“It’s not that. It’s just that I’m a little short of cash.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! It’s Christmas Eve. Do you see anybody pounding down the door to eat what’s left of my meatloaf? They’re all at home with their families and holiday turkeys. It’ll just go to waste — eat. Think of it as a Christmas present.”
Daniel hesitated, but his stomach growled just then, so he gave in and took a small bite. His eyebrows raised in surprise. “This is delicious,” he said, while he chewed. Once the feasting had begun, he couldn’t stop. His stomach, on tasting its first home-cooked meal in he couldn’t remember how long, was not about to let him quit. He shoveled one forkful after another into his mouth until the plate was empty, then soaked up the last of the gravy with the bread and popped it into his mouth, licking the juice from his fingertips.
When Daniel realized what he done, an embarrassed flush rose to his cheeks. “Pardon my manners, Mrs. Snow. It’s just been a while since I’ve eaten anything this good.”
“Oh Pooh! Don’t worry about that. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anyone really enjoy my meatloaf. And please, call me Chris. Mrs. Snow was my mother-in-law, God rest her soul.”
“Chris, it is then. And call me Daniel.” He looked around at the empty diner and wondered where her husband was — probably picking up a last minute present. He glanced at the clock on the wall. Ten o’clock on Christmas Eve. Awfully late to be shopping, especially in this deserted neck of the woods. “You’re a very brave woman to take in a stranger while you’re all alone. Won’t your husband be angry with you? I know I would be if I were him.”
“Well, Daniel, I guess if he were here, maybe he would be, but a few years back he decided I didn’t need him anymore. I’ve been taking care of myself ever since.” She got up to get them some more coffee.
Having finally warmed up, Daniel took off his jacket while he watched Chris bring an entire apple pie back to the table, along with the coffee pot. She sliced it into six large pieces and served them each one. Feeling awkward, he felt he should say something since he’d brought up the subject.
“I didn’t mean to be nosy. Divorce can be hard on folks.”
“I’m not divorced. I’m a widow.” She said it matter-of-factly, but the way she gulped her coffee reminded him of someone needing “liquid courage.”
“Robby and I were together since we were kids. High school sweethearts. We got married right after graduation. After 9/11, he enlisted in the Marines. He was in Iraq. A month before he was due to come home, he was wounded. Ended up in a wheelchair unable to feel anything from the chest down. He couldn’t deal with it. He kept telling me to leave him, to find myself a real man. I told him he was all the man I needed, but I guess he didn’t believe me.” Chris paused, staring into the coffee cup. “Three years ago, he left me a note saying he was giving me my freedom for Christmas. Then he overdosed himself with a bottle of sleeping pills.”
Daniel pushed back the lump that had formed in his throat. “I’m so sorry, Chris. I can only imagine how terrible that must have been for you.”
“Yeah, it was. Still is sometimes. I don’t know why I even brought it up.” She sighed deeply. “There’s something about you that seems to make me run off at the mouth. So tell me about yourself. Why were you sleeping in the alley? You don’t look like an ordinary bum to me.”
Daniel looked down at his thread-bare flannel shirt, ragged jeans, the work boots, worn from miles of walking and hitchhiking. He hadn’t had a real bath in weeks, cleaning himself as best he could in gas station restrooms. An ordinary bum was exactly what he looked like.
“Now what makes you say that? Your little town doesn’t look like it would tolerate too many bums, ordinary or otherwise.” He grinned, surprised again at how easily the smile came over him.
“Well, Daniel, I’ll tell you. Since Robby left, I spend a lot of time alone, but running this diner, I spend a lot of time dealing with people. I’m a good judge of character and I can usually spot a loser right off. When I do, I go call the sheriff. You are not a loser — just someone who’s down on his luck. It’s something in your eyes.”
Chris took another sip of coffee.
“That accent of yours tells me you’re far from home. New York, maybe?”
“Not only a good judge of character, but psychic too. Yeah, I’m a New Yorker. Left there about a year ago. I’m not on the run from the law or anything — in case you were worried.” He smiled, pausing for effect. “There just wasn’t anything left for me there. I needed a change of scenery.”
Daniel took a bite of apple pie. That’s one way of ending a discussion, he thought, just keep your mouth full.
“Guess you don’t have any family then?” She eyed him closely, as if trying to make up her mind about something.
Daniel shook his head and stuffed another fork-full of pie in his mouth.
“I’ve got an idea.” Chris’s eyes sparkled. “It’s Christmas Eve, it’s snowing like crazy, and you’re not going to get a ride anywhere tonight. Why don’t you stay here? You can take a hot bath and I think some of Robby’s old clothes might even fit you. You can wear them at least until I wash the ones you’ve got on. I’ve got a sofa-bed in the living room that doesn’t get much use so the mattress is still good.”
Daniel stared at her in disbelief, his jaw dropping in surprise. This woman was willing to take a stranger she’d met only an hour ago into her home. My God, he could be a murderer or a rapist, for all she knew. He wasn’t, of course, but how could she know that? He hadn’t known such trusting people still existed. He’d seen too many of the other kind in the past year; it shocked him into speechlessness.
“Well, what’s the matter? You’re looking at me like I belong in the loony bin. You don’t really have a choice anyway. If you think I’m gonna let you tramp out in the snow and freeze to death, you’re the one that belongs in the loony bin. And if you do go out there, I’ll call the sheriff and see you spend the night in jail. At least I’ll know you’re warm and dry.”
She really wasn’t going to give him a choice. Daniel felt a strange comfort in knowing she cared enough to force him to stay. There was no guile to this woman. She may have been alone, but she was not desperate, hunting for a man to share her bed. Those green eyes, wide with innocence, waited for his reply.
“I guess I know when I’m licked. You win, Chris. But first thing tomorrow I’ll be on my way. I don’t want your Christmas and birthday plans spoiled because of me.”
“Good, it’s settled then. And don’t worry about spoiling my plans — I don’t have any. I was just going to curl up with a good book and listen to carols on the radio. I’d much rather have some company. Come on. Let’s get you settled.”
They got up from the booth, taking the dirty dishes with them to the sink. Chris locked up the diner and motioned Daniel to follow her.
A door in the back led to her apartment. It was a tidy little place, just right for a person alone or a couple on their own. The furniture was old but comfortable looking. Photos hung neatly on the walls. Through the doorway to the left, he could see a small kitchen. The bedroom was on the right; through the open door was a neatly made bed with hand-stitched pillows thrown on a blue chenille bedspread. A leather-bound Bible lay on the nightstand, still opened to the page she’d been reading.
“Well, this is home! The bathroom’s right through there on the other side of the kitchen. The stove helps keep the tiles warm.” Her smile made the whole place seem warm to Daniel. “You go on and get settled. There are fresh towels in there already. I’ll look for those clothes while you’re soaking. The water’s nice and hot, so it should help ease those achy muscles. Those darn Gibbons boys! A bad lot if ever there was one. You know, you should press charges against them. A few nights in juvenile hall might do them some good.” She shook her head and went off as if her most trusted friend was spending the night.
Daniel had almost forgotten the earlier beating but a hot bath sounded like a wonderful indulgence. He went into the bathroom and started running hot water into the tub. The little room filled quickly with steam. Within minutes, he shed his dirty clothes and eased into the tub, sighing with delight at the luxury. He didn’t know how long he had sat there, soaking away the aches and fatigue of the road, when he heard Chris tapping on the door.
“Daniel? Are you decent? Better cover up ‘cause I’m coming in for a minute.” Daniel pulled the shower curtain closed as she opened the door. “I found some pajamas and a robe for you. There’s also some jeans and a couple of shirts you can have — they’re like new.”
She picked his dirty clothes up off the floor and checked the size. “I was right, you are the same size Robby was. These should fit you just fine.” She turned to leave but just as she was about to close the door behind her she turned back again. “And Daniel?”
“If you want to shave, there’s shaving cream and razors in the medicine cabinet.”
He heard the door close behind her. “I wonder if that’s a hint?” He grinned to himself and continued with his bath.
When Daniel finally emerged from the bathroom, his blond hair was washed and neatly combed. He was wearing fresh night clothes, and his face was clean shaven. He felt good all over and wonderfully relaxed. When he reached the living room, he saw that Chris had opened the fold-away bed and turned down the covers. He hadn’t been treated this well in a long time.
Seeing her door was closed, he took the time to survey the area. He noticed that where the diner had been covered with Christmas, there wasn’t a single decoration in the little apartment. Not so strange he thought, considering her husband had killed himself around this time of year. He supposed she felt obligated to decorate the diner for the customers.
He went over to the shelf where pictures sat in neatly dusted frames. There was one that looked like Chris as a little girl with her parents, and another of a ten or twelve year old Chris with a carrot-haired boy he assumed was Robby. In the center of the shelf was a large wedding photo. Robby and Chris looked as happy as most brides and grooms on their wedding day, filled with the promise of tomorrow. Looking closer, he thought he saw a slight resemblance between himself and Robby around the eyes. Maybe that’s what she saw that made her treat him so kindly.
Chris opened her door, startling him out of his reverie. “Just wanted to say goodnight.” She wore a high-necked nightgown, covered with a plaid flannel bathrobe. Her hair was brushed out and spread over her shoulders. She looked like an angel.
“I see you did decide to shave! You look very handsome, Mr. Drummond,” she said a little shyly.
“Thanks. I feel much better now. But how did I get to be ‘Mr. Drummond’ again? I thought we were becoming friends.”
She gave a little laugh and said, “You’re right — Daniel. Now get some sleep. And Merry Christmas.”
Daniel glanced at the clock on the wall and saw it was past midnight. “Merry Christmas, Chris! And happy birthday too!”
She smiled, then closed the door behind her as she went back into her room. Daniel eased himself into the tightly-made bed, closed his eyes, and let the weariness that had been his companion for the past year overtake him. He fell into a deep sleep.
He was driving down the interstate with his wife and daughter. The three of them were singing to pass the time on their trip home from the mountains. “…If one of those bottles should happen to fall, twenty-nine bottles of beer on the wall.” Checking the rear view mirror, Daniel saw a pair of bright lights speeding up behind him, closing in fast. He white-knuckled the wheel in panic as a scream burst from his lips. “MARY!”
Daniel bolted upright in the bed as Chris raced into the room. His face was a mask of terror, sweat dripped from his forehead. His body trembled, still gripped by the nightmare. She went to his side and put her arms around him.
“Shush, Daniel, shush. It’s all right. It was just a bad dream.” She rocked him like a frightened child, repeating the soothing words over and over.
“Mary? Is that you?”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Daniel realized it was not Mary at his side. “I’m so sorry, Chris. I didn’t mean to wake you. Just a dream. Really. I’m okay. Go back to sleep.”
“Do you want to talk about it? It helps sometimes.” Chris sat back and turned on the light. The look on her face said “ you can tell me.” She waited for him to begin.
Daniel wrapped himself in the robe and got out of the bed. He paced the floor, running his hands back and forth through his hair. For the first time since the accident, he spoke of his wife and daughter.
“A little over a year ago, my wife, my eight year old daughter, Kelly, and I, were on our way home from a ski trip in the mountains. Some idiot out joy-riding decided to play games on the icy roads. He came speeding up next to me, hit some ice and knocked us off the road. When I came to, Mary was dead in the seat next to me. Kelly had somehow released her seat belt and crawled out of the car. They found her by following the trail of blood in the snow. Mary and Kelly were all I had in the world and they were taken from me in an instant.”
Chris walked over to Daniel and looked up into his eyes. Tears spilled down his cheeks and she gently brushed them aside. Daniel reached out and she held him close. They just stood there, holding each other, offering comfort from an unjust world. When Chris finally stepped back, her own face was wet with tears left too long unshed.
“Come on, Daniel. It’s Christmas. A time of rebirth and new beginnings.” She wiped her face with the sleeve of her robe. She pulled herself together and smiled at him. “Let’s give ourselves a Christmas present. Why don’t you and I decide to let go of the sadness of the past and get on with our lives, the way our loved ones would have wanted?”
He looked at this woman who had opened her home and her heart to a stranger. He had run away from the past and she had locked herself up in a small town diner. She had suffered as much as he had, yet the face that looked up at him beamed with hope. Maybe it was time to stop blaming himself for being alive. Time to go on living.
“I think you’re right, Chris. But we have to do this properly. Have you got anything that’s suitable for a toast?”
She went into the kitchen and brought back a couple of bottles of beer.
“Will these do?”
“They’ll do just fine,” Daniel said, as he took one of the bottles from her. “A toast to finding hope and friendship. And to making new memories instead of living through old ones!”
“And to Christmas presents from the heart!”
They drank to their promise and wished each other a Merry Christmas with their eyes.
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