Monday before Thanksgiving, Hank sat at his desk addressing the few Christmas cards he would post on Friday. This had evolved into a running game between him and his one close friend as to who would get their card in the post first, but a card arriving before December 1st was forfeit. Jim had caught on, and now they usually received their cards from each other on the same day.
But this day was touched with a tinge of sadness as he crossed off two more names on his short list. Approaching seventy, he had outlived many of his friends and acquaintances.
He raised his head and looked out the window, seeing a moving van pull to a stop in front of the small house next door. With a scowl, he returned to his work, hoping it would be someone without noisy children. The neighborhood was attracting younger families which he regretted, missing the quiet neighborliness of the people nearer his own age who once lived there. In the house on the other side of him lived a young couple, both lawyers, and their two year-old daughter. They were pleasant, and spoke whenever they saw him, but they never intruded.
He put a rubber band around the finished cards and pushed them to one side, then got up to fix himself some lunch. He would not have said he actually enjoyed his solitary life, but certainly he remained content. His retirement income was sufficient for his few wants and new books that filled his time when the weather prevented him from working his garden. As he poured another cup of coffee, he glanced out the kitchen window to wonder how quickly the leaves he had raked up two days before seemed to have reappeared, but that was the curse of trees, dogwoods in particular, and he had several large ones in his yard. He checked the thermometer, sixty-nine. Same as me, he thought whimsically.
He pulled on old jeans and a sweatshirt, took the fan rake from the tool room, and set to work, enjoying the exercise. He was pushing leaves into trash bag when a ball landed in the carefully raked pile.
"Can I have my ball back, please?" A treble voice called quietly.
Hank straightened with a look of annoyance when he saw the small boy standing at the fence separating the two yards, but he bit off his intended rebuke, for the little boy was supported by crutches. He picked up the ball and walked to the fence looking at the tow head and sweet features, noting from the turned up jeans leg the child's right leg ended mid-calf.
As he handed the ball to the boy, a young woman came out of the back door. "Timmy, you mustn't bother the neighbors."
"But my ball went in his yard."
Hank smiled in spite of himself. "No bother."
"I'm sorry he interrupted your work. I'm Karen Martin and this is my son Timmy."
"I'm Hank Thorson. It's not an interruption, I was going to stop for a cup of coffee anyway."
"It's nice to meet a neighbor so soon. We've just moved here in connection with my new job, but once Timmy starts school and I begin work we won't see you often."
"You'll find this a quiet neighborhood. I'm afraid there aren't any other children near Timmy's age for him to play with."
"Oh, I had hoped there would be, but he can't keep up too well, so he's used to playing alone. It's nice to meet you, Mr. Thorson. We won't delay you any longer."
She turned back toward her house, Timmy swinging easily along on his crutches behind her.
Poor kid, Hank thought as he climbed the back steps, then turned his thoughts to the things he needed to do while the weather remained nice. After his coffee had warmed him, he went back out to finish raking the leaves, then piled them on the curb for the city truck to pick up.
The next day was even warmer, so Hank was in his yard again, pruning a few branches of longer growth from azaleas that had begun to sport. As he worked on one near the fence, a voice asked, "What you doing?"
He looked up to see Tim watching him. "Trimming my azaleas."
"In late summer they sometimes put out long branches like this." He lifted one. "If I don't keep them cut back, they won't stay nicely shaped or bloom as well. There are few dead branches that need to come out, too."
"How old are you, Tim?"
"I'm six. I wish I had somebody to play with."
"I'm sure you will when you start school."
"I don't go 'til Monday."
"That's not so far away. On Thursday you and your mom and dad will have a big Thanksgiving dinner, and then it'll be Monday before you know it."
"I don't have a daddy. He died."
"I'm sorry. You and your mom aren't going anywhere for Thanksgiving?"
"No. Are you?"
"No. I shall be quite alone. I don't have any family."
"I'm sorry. You're nice. The man where we came from was mean."
"My ball went in his yard an' he wouldn't give it back, even when mommy asked."
Hank looked into the plaintive face, wondering how anyone could be so mean to a little crippled boy. "That wasn't nice at all. It's so warm, I'm going to have a glass of Pepsi, would you like to have one with me?"
Tim's face lighted. "I have to ask mommy. I'm not suppose to go out of the yard."
"You do that, Tim, while I get it."
When he came out with the glasses of soda, Tim's mother stood with him at the fence. "Would you like to join us?"
She wiped perspiration from her brow. "That's kind of you, but I still have a lot to do in the house. Are you certain Tim's no bother?"
"Of course not, we were talking. You don't mind do you?"
"Not at all. Thank you for being so kind. I'll send him around."
"No trouble." He reached over the low fence and lifted Tim across easily. "Here you go, big fellow."
When Hank set his empty glass to one side, Tim followed him back into the yard.
"Can I help?" He asked when Hank picked up the pruning shears.
How? Hank asked himself, then said, "Do you think you could put the pieces I've cut in the cart for me?"
"I can. I'm a big boy." Tim began to pick up the trimmings, hopping along one crutch as he pulled the small garden cart along.
A shame such a sweet child has a handicap that keeps him from playing games with other children, he thought, but Mrs. Martin's lucky to have a fine son like Tim.
An hour later, Tim's mother came to the fence and called him. "I'm so sorry he's stayed so long, Mr. Thorson, I was busy and forgot the time."
"Tim's been a big help. He picked up all the trimmings for me. Bending to do it bothers my back." He lifted Tim back over the fence. "And, please, call me Hank."
Wednesday evening turned chilly, the light drizzle adding enough dampness to the air to make a fire desirable. Hank added another small log and settled back in his favorite chair with book he had picked up from the bookshop that morning. He was startled when the bell rang. He glanced at his watch wondering who could be calling a little after nine. He switched on the hall lights and opened the front door to see Mrs. Martin.
"I'm sorry to disturb you so late, Mr. Thorson."
He stepped aside. "Please come in, and do call me Hank."
"Thank you. I can't stay but a moment. Timmy's in bed and I don't like to leave him alone. He told me you would be alone tomorrow."
"Yes, I will be. Why?"
"Timmy's so taken with you he asked if you could have Thanksgiving dinner with us. I'm afraid it will be just a baked chicken, but with trying to get settled and all "
"That's very kind of you, but are you sure? You can hardly have gotten everything in place."
She smiled. "Well, things are still in a bit of a mess, but if you can excuse that "
"I can certainly understand, and thank you. Is there anything I can bring?"
"Not a thing, thank you, and please don't dress up. About noon, then?"
He closed the door behind her and went back to his study, bemused. Why on earth would a six-year old child like me? He wondered.
Hank knocked at their door at a quarter to noon. Timmy answered with a big smile. "I'm glad you came. I like you."
"It was very kind of you to ask me." He followed Tim into the small living room, seeing the sparse furnishings.
"You're just in time, Hank, please have a seat while I get dinner on the table."
"Thank you. I thought you might like these." He held out a bunch of camellias the warm weather had brought into bloom.
"Oh, how beautiful. Thank you. Let me get them in water."
Hank settled into an upholstered chair and looked at Tim sitting on the floor holding a book. "Do you like to read, Tim?"
"Unh, huh. This is a good book. I don't know all the words, but mommy helps me read it when she has time." He held the book out to Hank. "Will you read it to me?"
Hank looked at the cover Polar Express, then interested, read the jacket blurb. "Perhaps after dinner. Do you like trains?"
"A whole lot. I hope Santa brings me one."
"Would you care to wash your hands, Mr. Thorson? Timmy will show you. And wash your hands, too, Timmy. It's time to eat."
"You don't have to read to Timmy. He reads well for a child his age, and I'm so thankful, because it keeps him from missing playing with other children so much." She said when Hank returned to the living room.
"You're wise in teaching him to enjoy reading so early. Most children are not interested in anything but TV."
"We had one, but it stopped working and the repairs were more than it was worth, so I just left it when we moved. I have so little time with Timmy, I don't want him glued to a TV every moment."
When Timmy's mother refused Hank's offer to help wash up after dinner, Hank resumed his seat in the living room. Timmy picked up the book, and hopped over to Hank. "Read."
Tim climbed into his lap and snuggled against him. Hank opened the book and began to read of the little boy who rode a train to the North Pole. He enjoyed the artwork and the story far more than he had thought possible. When he reached the portion where Santa asks the little boy what he would like for Christmas, he put his finger in place and closed the book.
"If you could have anything you wanted from Santa, what would you choose, Tim?"
The innocent blue eyes looked up at him. "I'd ask him to make my leg well so I can run."
"Oh, Tim, I wish Santa could give you that," Hank said softly, "but I'm afraid it's not possible. What else would you ask him for?"
The smile was tentative. "A train. I like trains. I want one makes smoke like that one." His finger tapped the cover of the book.
"Do you think Santa will bring you one this year?"
Tim shook his head. "Mommy said he might next year if I'm real good."
Hank looked around the room. Likely can't afford it, he thought, but she's done her best, covering the worn furnishings with colourful slipcovers and throw pillows. He opened the book to finish reading the story to Tim.
As he finished the story, Karen came in from the kitchen with cups of coffee for herself and Hank. She set Hank's on the small table beside the chair. "Thank Mr. Thorson for reading to you, Timmy, and get down so he can have his coffee."
"I want to stay here mommy."
"Please, it's been a long time since I've held a nice young man like Tim."
"If you're certain."
As they chatted, Timmy fell asleep. In a lull, Hank asked, "Might I ask what happened to Tim's leg?"
"His foot was terribly deformed when he was born. The doctors said it was better to remove it so he could be fitted for a leg. Tim and I had hoped to get him one when he started trying to walk, but they cost far more than we could afford. Tim was a carpenter, and I was taking classes to become a para-legal. I had just graduated when Tim was killed in an accident. Neither of us had any family, so when I was offered a better position here, we came. I work for the same firm as the people on the other side of you. They helped me find this house. I hope I can find a childcare for Tim to go to after school until I get off work."
"I wish I could recommend one, but I'm afraid I've never had that to consider."
"I am thankful for what we have, of course, but there are so many things I'd love for Timmy to have. I know that sounds terrible after the lovely grace you said at dinner."
"Not at all. You are a kind and caring mother, and you have given an old man a lovely dinner and the pleasure of your company. I hope you don't mind if Tim comes to see me occasionally."
"I'm surprised at how quickly he's taken to you, because he's always been a little shy with men. But certainly you have more important things to do than to play with a six year old."
"Very few things are that important to me any more. To be honest, I have never cared much for small children, but Tim is a very appealing child. I would enjoy seeing him."
"He would like that, too. But you must tell him when you don't want to be bothered."
"I shall, but I'm seldom busy these days. I miss being around young people after so many years of teaching." He arose slowly and laid the still sleeping Timmy gently on the sofa, covering him with the afghan.
He grasped Karen's hand. "Thank you so much for a lovely dinner with you and Tim. I've enjoyed it more than you can know." An unaccustomed warmth filled Hank as he walked back home.
On Tuesday, Hank answered the door to find an older woman holding Tim by the hand, tears in the boy's eyes. Looking past them, he saw the school bus.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"This one got on the wrong bus. He says he lives over there." She pointed to the house next door.
"That's right. His mother's at work, though."
"What am I supposed to do with him, then? I got other kids to think about."
"He can stay here until his mother gets home. I'll call her at work so she doesn't worry."
"We ain't supposed to do that, but I ain't got no other choice. You want to stay here?" She asked Tim.
He smiled through his tears and held out his hand to Hank. "Unh huh, Hank's nice."
"I guess it's okay, then."
"Let's go make some hot chocolate, Tim, it's chilly."
With Timmy settled at the kitchen table with a cup of chocolate, Hank called Mrs. Martin and explained. When she protested the inconvenience to Hank, he reassured her, and asked to take Tim to the store with him.
After Hank had purchased the few small items he needed at the drug store, Tim asked to see the decorations in the mall. They walked along together, Tim staying close by Hank, until they passed a toy store. Suddenly missing him, Hank turned to see Tim standing in the doorway looking at the train running just inside.
"Look, Hank! It makes smoke! I hope Santa brings me one just like that."
"It's a nice train, Tim. I hope he brings it to you, too. Look, there's Santa over there. Why don't you go ask him?"
Tim's face lighted. "Can I?"
Tim dropped his crutches to climb on Santa's lap. He smiled and whispered in Santa's ear, but Hank did not miss the obvious relief that crossed Santa's face when Tim slid off his lap and picked up his crutches. They should find a man to play Santa that isn't uncomfortable with handicapped children, he thought, as Tim came back to him.
"He said he'd think about bringing me a train," Tim said happily, sucking the candy cane Santa had given him.
"I'm sure he will. Santa keeps promises to good boys like you."
"Mommy! Hank an' me seen Santa Claus! He said he'd bring me a train!" Tim cried when his mother stopped at Hank's for him.
"That's nice, Timmy, but he may not be able to bring you one this year. Did I hear you call Mr. Thorson Hank? You should say Mr. Thorson, because he's a lot older than you."
"But I like Hank."
"Never the less "
"Would you like to call me grandpa instead, Tim?" Hank interrupted.
Tim hugged him. "I want you to be my gran'pa. I don't have one."
"Then you have one now, if your mother doesn't mind."
"How could I? Thank you for taking care of Timmy this afternoon, Hank. I couldn't leave work because I was in a training group."
"I enjoyed every minute of it," Hank said, amazed to find it true.
A few days later he sat at his desk writing cheques to pay a few bills. He put his regular chequebook to one side and picked up another, looking at the final figure. He had slowly built this account with tax refunds and other small monies for the trip that had long been a dream, which, he realized now, would remain forever that. He closed the chequebook, seeing as he did so, Tim's wistful face.
Late the next afternoon, he sat talking with the owner of a prosthetics firm. Staggered at the ongoing costs associated with a leg for a child, he asked about alternatives. A simple pylon made as a footless peg would be affordable.
Monday before Christmas, Tim took his first tentative steps, his face one huge smile as he haltingly walked across the room and hugged Hank. "I got two legs, gran'pa!"
When Tim, holding tightly to Hank's hand, walked into their home, his mother looked at him and burst into tears. Tim ran to her. "Why you crying, mommy?"
She grabbed him in a tight hug and kissed him. "Because I'm so happy. Oh, Timmy!"
Hank smiled into her tear stained face. "I'm sorry it's just a simple peg."
Karen released Timmy and kissed Hank on the cheek. "It doesn't matter. I know he'll outgrow it before too long, but for now you've given Timmy and me the best Christmas ever." She looked at Timmy prancing around the room. "This is a dream come true."
"The look on Tim's face when he took his first steps is one I shall always remember. When I was reading the story to him Thanksgiving, he said he wanted Santa to make his leg well. I'm just sorry I couldn't make that wish come true."
"Please, don't. This is far too much for you to have done for Timmy, but I must accept it for his sake. Do come have Christmas with us."
"I would like that very much. I'd best go now. Goodbye, Tim."
Tim hugged him. "I love you, gran'pa."
"I love you, too, Tim. I'll see you Christmas morning." He hugged the boy and walked to the door, then paused to whisper to Karen. "Give me a call as soon as Tim's asleep Christmas Eve. He saw a train he wanted. I'll bring it over and set it up under the tree so he'll think it's from Santa."
"Oh, Hank, not after what you've already done!"
Tim shrieked with delight at the electric train he found running under the tree Christmas morning. His mother watched him playing with it for a while, then started dinner. When Hank did not appear, she called, but his phone went unanswered. Concerned, she put on her coat and walked next door, but there was no answer to her ring. She peered thru the windows, seeing no sign of life within, but Hank's car was in the garage.
Timmy asked why gran'pa hadn't come several times as they ate dinner, his mother at a loss for an answer. Later in the afternoon, he asked again. Disturbed, now, she went back to Hank's house. When there was no response or signs of life, she called the police. The officer, a former student of Hank's, listened patiently, then went to Hank's with her and forced the door. In the waning light, they found Hank lying in the entry hall, a look of surprise on his face, and two wrapped presents where he had dropped them as he fell.