"Just three shopping days left until Christmas." The words of the announcer flung themselves at him as he sat gazing into the fire with an agonized expression. What's the use? He thought. There's no one to celebrate it with, and being so far out in the country will make decoration merely a gesture. Nobody's going to stop in anyway.
Yet Christmas had always been a time of joy, the farmhouse liberally decked with evergreens and a huge tree glowing with light. Though there were few presents, the spirit and love made even the smallest remembrance something to be cherished. None of this had been present last Christmas - no garland of greens draped the mantel, no tree graced the room with its glow. One gift, a bottle of expensive after-shave from his godson, had been unwrapped and set in the bathroom cabinet the moment he'd brought it in from the mailbox. Christmas cards from acquaintances had been opened immediately, looked at, then dropped in the fire. He'd sent none, unable to summons the slightest shred of holiday spirit after the deaths of his parents in the early fall. Christmas had been just another day in which he didn't have work to divert his attention. But on Christmas day he had cursed himself furiously, feeling cheated of that which had always meant so much. Too late! Christmas had come and gone without him.
Don't be an ass, one side of his nature argued, you can at least make the gesture. Remember how you felt last year?
Bloody ridiculous, the other side retorted. It's too much bother. You're alone, why intensify the loneliness? Sleep the day away and be fresh for work the day after.
He flipped the cigarette butt into the fire. Yes, it was foolish for someone alone, far too much bother. Best leave it to those who have reason to celebrate. I'll go to church at mid-night, he decided, and let that be it. Maybe even fix something special for dinner, but forget the tree and all that. He leaned back and let the music from the stereo flood over him. At thirty-six, he had become a bachelor cynic.
He awoke suddenly, disorganized. The heavy thud of the knocker reverberated through the house again. He got out of his chair shaking his head. It would be some stranger, for the one or two friends who occasionally dropped by always used the door opening into the large family room. He switched on the lights and moved quickly through the hall to open the heavy door. A gangly teen-age boy stood shivering in the biting wind. He looked up with an unfathomable expression. "Mark?"
Mark frowned. There was a familiarity about the thinly clad figure, but when a gust of wind flapped the partially empty left sleeve of the boy's jacket, recognition was instant. "Tommy! Come in out of the cold. What are you doing here?" He asked after closing the door and welcoming his godson with a hug.
Though the boy's parents had been his best friends, he saw them seldom, for they lived the nomadic life of the military. He maintained contact with gifts at Christmas and on the boy's birthday, but it had been five years since the awful night he'd stood by the hospital bed trying to comfort a boy crying over the loss of his arm.
Tommy shed his backpack and jacket, then went to the fireplace to warm before the blazing logs. Mark poured a cup of coffee for him, then refilled his own.
"I'm delighted to see you, Tommy. Aren't your folks with you?"
The boy looked at him sadly. "Unh unh. After they sent me to boarding school, they split up. Mom's moved to an efficiency apartment, and dad's living on base. No way there's gonna be any Christmas at home." He shrugged. "Guess I don't have a home any more, 'cept here."
Mark hugged his godson. "You always have a home here, Tommy. I'm glad you came. Do your folks know where you are?"
"Nah, they're too worried about themselves to care about me." He looked around. "Aren't you goin' to have a Christmas tree? I remember one time you had a tree nearly filled this room up."
"I am now."
"You got anything to eat? I'm hungry."
"I'm sorry, I should have asked. There's a pot of soup on the stove. Won't take but a minute to heat it up."
After the boy had been fed and put to bed, Mark sat by the glowing embers of the fire, brooding over the foundered marriage. Bill and he had been inseparable as youngsters and, after their marriage, Susan had made him feel at home whenever he managed to make a brief visit. Until five years ago. His memory wandered back.
He had proudly held his godson in his arms at his baptism and enjoyed the long weekend visit, but noticed Bill had begun to acquire the 'military mentality' in his move up through the ranks. When Tommy was ten, he had visited them again, the visit cut short by Bill's anger at some trivial thing Tommy had done. He had argued with Bill over his insistence that a ten-year-old should act grown up. "He's not one of your soldiers, for God's sake! Let the kid enjoy being a kid. He'll face reality soon enough," he snarled at the implacable man before walking out.
Two years later he went to visit Tommy on his birthday, hoping to get the boy alone and give him a little of the pleasure a twelve-year-old should know. They were on their way back home after the dinner he insisted on treating them to, Bill driving, Sue beside him. He and Tommy were in the backseat. Tommy thrust his left arm out the open window, delighting in catching the wind in his cupped hand, letting the pressure move it back. A moment's distraction as Bill turned to yell at Tommy let the car ease closer to the centerline. The oncoming transfer truck all but sideswiped the car. For a moment they felt relief, then he looked at Tommy's pale face, noting the blood spraying from the tattered remains of his arm. He grabbed his handkerchief and fashioned a tourniquet, his last conscious memory, until he was waiting with Bill and Sue for the surgery to end.
Susan collapsed in hysterics when she finally realized Tommy's arm had been removed just above the elbow. He and Bill had taken her home, but he remained just long enough to change out of his blood soaked suit, before returning to the hospital. He napped a little on the waiting room couch, bleary eyed when the nurse told him Tommy was awake. He was holding the sobbing boy in his arms when Bill and Sue came in. Without a preliminary word of concern, Bill barked an order at Tommy to stop crying and take it like a man.
His temper flared, he jumped up. "You sorry son of a bitch!" he yelled and flattened his friend with an uppercut to the chin, then walked out. Finding a room in a motel not far from the hospital, he spent every possible moment that Bill was not present with his godson. When Tommy was discharged, he had returned home without seeing Bill or Susan again. But now Tommy was here. He picked up the phone.
Susan's relief at news of Tommy's presence made the call worthwhile. She quickly agreed to let him stay, telling him that the break-up of their marriage had come from Bill's refusal to accept Tommy's handicap and being harder on him because of it. He replaced the phone with a sense of purpose. Knowing the boy's love of the holiday, he had no choice. Christmas would be celebrated as never before.
After breakfast, they tramped the snowy fields to the woods, searching until Tommy found a tree that pleased him. Together they hauled it back to the house. As soon as Mark had wrestled the large tree into place with Tommy's help, they climbed to the attic for the boxes of decorations. Tommy's azure eyes sparkled as they decked the tree, hung garlands of evergreens, and fastened a large wreath to the front door. He stepped back into the middle of the room, brushed back the thick mop of blond hair from his forehead, and looked at his godfather with a winsome smile. "It looks like I remembered, now. Thanks, Mark." His arm and stump went around Mark in a hug.
Mark savored the contentment that filled him. It did look right. And to think he'd almost let the season pass him by once more. He shuddered at the thought.