My annual Christmas story/gift to my readers is a bit unusual this year, for me, in that it is more mainstream fiction than my normal speculative fair. But that’s just what wanted to be written, even though I had intended to add in some fantasy elements. It is what it is, but I think you’ll enjoy it just as much. Merry Christmas!
The bitter, cold wind blasting my cheeks matched the mood of my heart. I pulled up the collar of my coat as I crossed the busy downtown street. The traffic noise and honking horns bouncing off the surrounding skyscrapers added to the somber notes inside my head.
Mixed among all that cacophony rang the mixed music of Christmas playing from stores, cars, and people next to me. The cheerful notes only heightened my misery. Everyone seemed happy, joyful, and desperate to foist that happiness onto me, as if I could be happy by flipping a switch.
As I stepped onto the curb, someone tugged at my pants. I jerked my head down to spot a boy, about 8 or 10 years old. Big eyes pleaded with me while a dirty face and worn clothing advertised his need.
He raised up his dirty hand. “Please, sir. Can you give me some money so I can eat?”
I sighed. “Do you have a home, boy?”
He shook his head.
“You have a family?”
He shook his head again. “No, sir. They died last year. My sister and I don’t have a home.”
This sounded fishy. Certainly Social Services would have put two homeless kids into a foster family or something. But the pathetic boy standing beside me said I had to do something on the chance his story was true.
I glanced around; my eyes landed on a sub shop down the street. “I won’t give you money, but I’ll buy you and your sister a meal at that restaurant.” I pointed at the sub shop.
A smile spread across his face. “That would be fantastic. Thank you, sir!”
I led him through the crowded sidewalk and into the shop. Being hungry myself, I ordered three subs. I started to pull a chair out at a table.
The boy placed his hand on the back of the chair. “Can I sit here?”
I nodded. “Sure, but why?”
“I want to see the door.”
I released the chair. Did he watch for someone to come in? An accomplice, perhaps? Maybe his sister? I had better keep my guard up. I had no idea what his motives were.
We sat down at a table and the boy dug into his sub, almost eating the wrapper in the process. Obviously he hadn’t eaten for a while, which made me feel better about feeding him. Still, I wanted to find out his real story. He appeared too happy for a kid living on the street because of dead parents. It didn’t make sense.
I swallowed a bite. “What’s your name, son?”
He chewed for a few seconds before swallowing. “Josh.” He launched into another bite.
“My name’s Daniel.” I waited until he finished he current mouthful. “How did your parents die?”
He paused and stared blankly past me. “A man came into our house and killed them. After he took a lot of stuff, he said if we called the police or told anyone, he’d be back to kill us too.” His smile returned and he bit into the sub.
Ah, he’s explaining why they’re not in the social system. “But you’re telling me now? I’m anyone.”
“I doubt he’d find out I’d told a stranger. You won’t do anything about it.”
“So what did you do?”
“We ran away. If he doesn’t know where we are, he can’t hurt us.”
Either he told the truth or some adult had given them a good story to tell to rake in the dough, like in Oliver Twist. I suspected the later since he spoke of their deaths so unemotionally. Time to press for more information.
“So,” I said, “if all this bad stuff has happened to you, why are you so happy?”
Josh lifted the half-eaten sub above the table.
“I know you’re happy to eat, but I’m talking deeper than that.”
He stopped eating. “Why are you so sad when you have a place to live and food to eat?”
So he wanted to play the “whose got it worse” game. He didn’t know I had lost my job. He didn’t know my wife had divorced me this year and taken away my children. He didn’t know I had filed for bankruptcy after losing my house. Nor did he know about my doctor’s diagnosis of colon cancer that threatened to take my life. That said, I did have an apartment to live in and food to eat thanks to the generosity of friends, family, and a part-time job I had taken in desperation.
“Let’s just say, Josh, that some pretty bad things have happened to me over the past year. Different from yours, but still just as bad.” More like my world had fallen apart. I had become a failure at most everything. Who knew, I might end up joining Josh on the streets by the time it was all said and done.
Josh’s chewed slowly before the food dropped into his stomach. “I still have my sister and it is Christmas. And right now, I have you.”
“Have me? Like I’m your mark?”
“Someone you are tricking to get money from by telling a bunch of lies to garner their sympathy.”
Josh’s eyes widened. “No! I mean I’m with you now. You care about me even though you don’t know me. That makes me happy.”
I sat back in the chair as Josh continued eating. His perspective came into focus. Events didn’t make him happy or sad. People did. Their genuine, selfless love did.
Josh glanced over my shoulder and froze as I heard the door chime ring behind me. He cowered into his chair and pulled his ratty, thin coat over his head. “He’s here.”
“Who’s here?” I peaked over my shoulder. A bearded man, around six-feet tall, stepped into the shop. His long, unkempt hair and long, black trench coat did give him a menacing appearance. The man made his way to the ordering counter.
Josh’s voice quivered. “The man who killed mom and dad.”
I rubbed my forehead. Josh displayed true fear. He was telling the truth. This injustice needed to be rectified. Men like this one shouldn’t be on the street. I took a deep breathe. Maybe I could get enough information on the man to tell the authorities. It might go south, but if I played my cards right, the man wouldn’t suspect my motives.
By this point, the man stood at the register paying for his meal. I would ask the clerk for something and see if I couldn’t start a conversation with the guy. I patted Josh’s covered head. “I’ll be right back. Stay here. I won’t let him hurt you.” Though I had no idea how I would stop the bulky man if it came to it.
I scooted my chair back and approached him from the back. As my eyesight breached the man’s shoulder, I saw him holding a gun discreetly toward the cashier as money was being stuffed into a bag. My plan wasn’t a good idea. But here I was, standing right behind the man in the middle of committing a felony. If he didn’t kill me, the cancer probably would. What did I have to lose at this point?
I laced my fingers together to form a hard ball, then swung it with all my might at the back of his head. The man lurched forward and his knees almost gave out. One of his hands grabbed the back of his head while he turned my way with his gun. Having the advantage of surprise, I knew it was now or never. I reared my right fist back, and stepped into an uppercut to the man’s jaw. Reeling back, he hit the wall, shaking his head.
Before he could gain his bearings, I pulled the gun from his hand, then landed another blow to the side of his head with the firearm’s butt. The burly man fell unconscious to the floor.
The stunned patron’s clapping started slowly, then grew into a chorus as they realized what had transpired. The relieved cashier grabbed the phone. I helped him tie the man up in case he came to before the police arrived.
I returned to the table to discover Josh smiling like he’d just opened the best Christmas presence he’d ever received. In a manner of speaking, he had.
And so had I. “Josh, why don’t we get your sister and for now, you two can stay at my apartment.”
He grinned. “That would be awesome!”
A bubbly lightness and contentment flooded over me. “Yes, it is awesome.” I thanked God for giving birth to new hope, once again. Like He did over 2000 years ago at His nativity. For the first time in a long while, I desired to celebrate Christmas—because of who was with me.