'Bah, Humbug!' Old Ebeneezer Scrooge hit it square on. The evening before Christmas Eve and the weather suddenly decides to try to convince us that at Christmas it should not only be cold, but really cold! It's sleeting and miserable, making me regret the most often enjoyable walk I take to and from my office. The morning weather was quite pleasant, so my jacket is lighter than I wear in real cold. By mid-afternoon dark brooding clouds announced an unexpected cold front that ripped apart the pleasant morning weather. I shiver and pull my jacket tighter around me. My head is bent to keep the sharp pellets of sleet from hitting my face as much as possible as I pick up my pace.
"Wanna buy a lighter, Mister? It's real good, almost new, and has lots of gas left in it. Only a dollar."
I look up to see an urchin who looks to be about eight or nine standing before me holding out a Scripto or similar type of clear plastic gas cigarette lighter, the kind I can buy in any convenience store for twenty-nine cents. I shake my head. "Don't smoke, so I don't need one, do I?"
"But ... ." His forced smile melts into tears. "I'm hungry and cold." It's then that an awareness that he's wearing little more than rags comes to me.
At twenty-six, I live alone in perfect contentment, indulging myself with the few things I enjoy, such as reading, music, and numismatics, my weakness being special issues, as the state quarters, presidential dollars, and commemoratives of various types, gold when I can afford it - all American coinage, of course. A child just isn't in the picture, though my mother, were she still living, would be overjoyed.
Yet looking at the abject misery before me, I experience a feeling I thought long suppressed. "Haven't you a home, Son?"
He shakes his head.
"Where do you stay, then?"
He finally looks up at me. "Tony lets me stay in some old house he found. Don't nobody live there, so it ain't much, but it's better than being out here. He won't let me stay if I don't get five dollars to give him. If I can get more, he'll even give me somethin' to eat sometime."
'Dear Lord,' I think to myself, 'how can anyone be so mean to a kid like this?'.
"How old is Tony?
"He's big and kinda old, like eighteen."
Standing here talking, I'm getting colder by the minute and the boy's fingers and lips are blue. I make a snap decision. "You can't stay out in weather like this. Come with me."
"To my flat. You can get a warm bath, have something hot and nourishing to eat, and sleep in a good bed."
"All my stuff is in the house. I gotta have it, honest, Mister."
"Where's this house?"
"Over there." He points vaguely in the direction of a part of town that's become a slum.
"How far?" If it's very far, I'll go get my car.
"Just to the edge of the park."
That's only two blocks. "Very well, let's go get your things, then."
He shuffles his feet. I see trainers that are more holes than substance. "Tony ain't gonna like it. He might hurt you."
"I'm not afraid of Tony, He won't hurt you, either. Let's go." I grab his hand and walk at his pace. I'm reassured of my bravado by the personal stun baton in my pocket. An unexpected change of mind by a major client kept me in my office until just a few minutes ago. Aware that with minority gangs roaming the streets after dark, it is no longer safe to walk unprotected, so the stun baton is my companion. Contact with one hundred thousand volts will change anyone's mind.
I notice the child limping heavily as he leads me down a length of rubble that was once a driveway, through a trash filled backyard, up broken steps to a sagging door, and pushes it open.
After a moment for my eyes to adjust to the feeble light filtering in from a streetlight in front of the house, he leads me down a set of dark stairs into a small room in the cellar. A small window, miraculously unbroken, lets in light, so little that it appears to fear breaking the darkness, but enough to keep me from falling over the accumulation of junk. For some reason, the room doesn't seem too chilly.
The child fumbles in a pile of trash and picks up an old fabric tote bag. "This is all I got," he says, turning to leave.
"Who's with you, kid?" I look up to see a stocky guy in his late teens standing at the foot of the stairs.
"I'm goin' home with him and get a bath and somethin' to eat."
"Yeah?" The older boy says menacingly. "You got any money?"
The child shakes his head. "It's so cold I can't get nobody to stop."
"You ain't got no money, you ain't stayin' here; you ain't taking your crap with you, neither." He takes a step toward the child, his hand raised to strike him.
"Don't touch that child! He is going with me and he's taking his possessions, too."
The older boy faces me. "Who says?"
"I do, now back off and you won't get hurt."
He looks at me once more and laughs derisively. "You and who else?" He strikes a pose. "Come on big man, put up or shut up; I don't care which. You lose and I'll take your money, since he ain't got any. Hell, I'll just take it anyhow."
I put my hand in my pocket and wrap it around the stun baton, my finger on the switch. When he starts to swing at me, I whip out the baton and touch it to his arm, pressing the button. He screams, falls to the floor in a fetal position, arms and legs twitching in an uncoordinated manner.
I reach down and take the child's hand. "Let's go home, Son. He'll be okay in about fifteen minutes."
"What'cha do to him, Mister?"
"Hit him with a stun baton, Son. Never touch it, for it delivers quite a shock as you saw. It's painful, too. I carry it in case someone tries to attack me at night."
Once we're back on the street I walk on nice days, it's only four blocks more until we're at the apartment building where I rent a flat. Even with so short a distance, I find that because he's limping so heavily that I'm all but dragging the child along. I look down to see tears I suspect are from pain streaming down his cheeks. I pick him up. He's so thin he weighs practically nothing.
As the lift rises, I'm glad no one else is in the car with us, for his rank unwashed odour is particularly foul. He's slightly more aware as I open the door to my flat and carry him in. I don't stop until I'm in my bedroom and put him down, telling him to undress. Immediately he's curled up on the bedside rug asleep, so I cautiously remove his rags and trainers, then carry him to the bathroom. I prop him up on a low stool while I fill the tub with warm water, adding some bath salts my mother had left after one of her last visits.
He wakes and looks around as I lower him in the water. He finally smiles at me. "This feels so good, Mister."
"I'm glad. Now stand up and let me give you a good scrubbing." He makes no complaint though I rub hard enough to remove the layers of grime. When I lift his right leg to scrub his filthy foot I notice a bird egg size swelling in the arch. He cries out softly as I rub it with the wash cloth. "I'm sorry, Son, but I do need to get your feet good and clean." I wash him more gently. It takes three vigorous washings to get his hair clean.
At last he's standing on the mat while I dry him down with a thick towel. He's obviously enjoying it as he's making a contented humming sound. It dawns on me that I've nothing for him to put on. "Have you any clean clothes in your bag?"
"Nooo," he whispers, on the verge of tears.
I smile. "Well, then, I guess you'll have to wear this towel sort of like an Indonesian sarong." I wrap the towel around his waist snugly and pin it. Taking his hand, I say, "Let's go find something for you to eat, then it will be time for bed."
I keep a stock of tinned soups on hand for those times I don't want to cook or want something fast. "What kind of soup do you like, Son?"
"Do you have the kind with the letters in it?"
I know he's asking for Campbell's Vegetarian Vegetable. I take a tin from the shelf and pull the tab opener, dumping the contents into a small sauce pan with a half tin of water. "Would you like a ham sandwich with lettuce and tomato, also?"
I stir the soup. "My name is Colin. What is yours?"
I pour the soup in a bowl and set it before him. "Okay, Mikey. Dig in while I make your sandwich." I fill a glass with milk and set it before him, then start to make the sandwich. It looks so good, I make one for myself, also, and pour another glass of milk.
Mikey smiles as I sit down across my small kitchen table from him and start to eat. "That was good, Mister," he says, pushing his empty plate away.
"Would you like another?"
"No, thanks." He rubs his stomach. "I feel lots better now."
"Good. You'll sleep better."
Tucked in bed, he's asleep almost before his head hits the pillow.
I dump his things in the washer, adding plenty of detergent to the hot water. As I move them to the drier, I notice they are better quality than I would have expected and quite serviceable now that they are clean. As soon as they are dry, I fold them to prevent wrinkles then go to bed.
When I slide under the sheet and blanket, I feel a small body roll over and snuggle against me, with a sigh of contentment. I also sleep better than I have in ages. The child is still asleep when I get up and complete my morning toilet then head for the kitchen. Being certain that the child still harbors residual hunger, I make up a batch of pancake batter and heat the electric griddle.
The first ones are cooking when a small form hugs me from behind. "Can I have some, Mister?" He's draped in one of my old sweat shirts that hangs almost to his knees, looking like a night shirt.
"You certainly may. Run to the bathroom and wash up, then come back in here. You don't need to dress until after we eat."
Over breakfast I quietly ask, "You ran away from home, didn't you, Mike?"
"Want to tell me why?"
He lowers the cup of hot chocolate I fixed for him and looks at me with tears starting to his eyes. "Mom and dad want to hurt me."
"I don't think they want to hurt you, Son. You must have misunderstood them." I can't believe parents would wish to hurt this adorable little boy.
He shakes his head. "After I went to bed, I heard daddy say he was gonna take me to the hospital so the doctor could cut my leg off, and then momma said, 'The sooner the better.' I don't want my leg cut off, so I ran away where they couldn't find me." He gives me a heart rending look. "Help me, Mister."
I hug him to provide him with reassurance more than any promise of help. Then it hits me that this is Christmas Eve and I need to get a few little things for his Santa Claus. "Son, what kind of things do you like to do?"
He has an engaging smile. "I like to read. I've read all the Harry Potter books and started the Hardy Boys books. I've only read the first two of those. I hope I get some more for Christmas," he says, then his smile disappears. "I guess I won't get anything since I ran away from home. I kind of wanted a digital camera, too, and a new soccer ball, but it hurts too much to run now. Anyway, I can't play soccer with just one leg."
"Go get dressed and let's go to the mall, Mike. If it hurts too much to walk, we can make use of one of their wheelchairs."
I stop at the mall entrance and rent a child-size wheelchair as Mike has already begun to limp heavily, the pain evident in his face. With him comfortably situated, I push him past a toy store and on to a large well-stocked independent book shop. While he's looking at mystery books for boys, I dash back to the toy store and pick up a remote controlled, battery operated race car I think he'll enjoy.
He's still engrossed in a book when I return to the book store. I find the Hardy Boy books and, ignoring numbers one and two, pick up the next five in order and carry them to the desk, asking the clerk to wrap them for Christmas and hold them until I'm ready to check out. As busy as he is, he's very courteous and helpful.
"Find something you like?" I ask Mike.
He looks up from the book and smiles. "This is real good. Maybe I can buy it someday."
"But haven't you read it by now?"
He nods. "But I like to keep books I really like, 'cause I read them again." He closes the book gently and leans forward to place it back on the display.
I take it from him. "Are you sure you want this one?"
"Well, it is Christmas Eve and I haven't gotten you a present, so would you like for me to give you this?"
"Oh, please. I really want it."
I smile at him. "Then I think you have another book to add to your collection. I am sorry that it won't be a surprise for you on Christmas, however."
He stands up and hugs me. "That's okay. It's special 'cause you gave it to me."
I return his hug and we head for check-out. "What would you like for lunch?" I ask, since we're almost at the food court.
"Do they have Arbys?"
"I think so, or would you rather go to Sam's Seafood? It's on our way home."
"Sam's, I love shrimp."
"Good, so do I." I'm thankful he wants to go someplace where the meal will be reasonably balanced. I've already planned for spaghetti tonight and have a turkey breast I'll put in the crock pot to cook overnight. The veggies and other fixings are on hand. I had planned a special Christmas meal for myself, now I'll not cut any corners with a charming young guest to enjoy dinner with me.
Having no close family, nor friends likely to stop by for a drink during the holiday, I started not to bother with decorating. Now I'm happy that I had at least placed an advent wreath on my dining table and put up my artificial tree as usual. It's a six foot slim-line tree on which I have miniature white lights that appear to be candles and cherished ornaments remaining from my childhood. They are augmented with a few modern reproductions of old style ornaments in keeping with the truly old ones. I place Mike's new book under the tree, placing the rest of his 'Santa' in the entryway closet. I'll put them under the tree after we have dinner and he's distracted by Christmas cartoons on the TV.
Like any kid, Mike loves to put one end of a spaghetti in his mouth and suck it in. Of course the very end whips up leaving a streak of red sauce on his face. I'm going to have to wash his face, if not his hair, for he's enthusiastic about this little game. What can I say? I did the same as a kid and probably drove my poor mother to distraction just as he's doing to me.
After he's eaten, I ask him to take a nap, for we will be going to church for the annual Lutheran Midnight High Mass. I try never to miss this, primarily because of the glorious music. Once he's asleep on the sofa, I cover him with an afghan my mother made many years ago, then quietly get his Christmas from the closet and arrange the gifts under the tree. With his book in front of the other gifts, it is highly unlikely that he will notice them until tomorrow.
I shower and put on a suit with a tie, my usual attire for church, then wake Mike.
A quick swipe of the cloth across his face, dressing him in cargo pants, solid colour shirt, heavy sweater, and new trainers I had bought for him at the mall, and we set forth. It is only two and a half blocks to the church from my apartment building, but, to his delight, I carry him on my shoulders until we are at the church. 'Shades of Dickens Christmas Carol,' I think to myself. I set him down and we walk down the center aisle, his hand holding mine, until we reach the third pew. I like to sit here because I know from experience that the organ sounds better in this spot than any other. On festival occasions it never fails to thrill.
The decorations are gorgeous, the huge Chrismon tree a blaze of light. When he asks, I take Mike closer and explain the meaning of each Chrismon. He asks what a Chrismon is, so I explain that they are the Christian symbols taken from the Bible and other sacred literature.
"Are they always just white and gold?" He asks.
"Yes," I reply. The white for purity and the gold for majesty."
When the organ begins, we return to our seats. Pastor is dramatic, so Mike pays rapt attention to the homily rather than falling asleep as I expected. At midnight the Eucharist begins. Mike holds my hand as we approach the altar rail, the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ for me, a Pastoral blessing for him.
Our custom is to approach the altar by the center aisle and, after receiving the elements, exiting into an ambulatory, thence down the side aisle in the nave to our pew. Mike and I have just turned in the side aisle to enter our pew when a piercing scream of "Michael," rends the air. There is absolute shocked silence throughout the church and I see a well dressed woman in her thirties, I would estimate, pushing wildly through the two lines of people waiting to approach the altar, coming toward us.
"Mommy!" Mike yells, pushing past me to be first in the pew. He's grabbed up, hugged, kissed, and, finally, looked over carefully.
"Who is this man, Michael?" She asks, indicating me.
"Colin, Mommy. He's real nice. He found me and took me home, gave me a bath, and good things to eat. He bought me a book and these clothes, and everything."
By now, a nice looking man, obviously Mike's father, has joined us. Somehow we all manage to squeeze in the pew together. Two people kindly moved to where Mike's parents had been sitting to give us room. With the ushers quietly moving people back into line, the hubbub quickly quiets, and the service continues. After the recessional, we join those leaving. At the door, the pastor says to Mike's parents, "Was something happening that I should be aware of?"
Mike's father says, "Michael has been missing nearly six months. The police have given up and we thought we'd never see him again."
"Oh, yes. It's a miracle that brought us to this church tonight. I prayed for just a sight of him, just to know my darling boy was alright." She hugged Mike again. "Now I have to believe in miracles, Pastor, for this is certainly one."
"Do you know this young man that Michael is with?" Mike's father asks the Pastor.
Pastor John smiles. "I do, indeed. Colin has been a member here for some years now and is a regular communicant. Be glad that Michael was with him; for with Colin, he was absolutely safe." He looked around at the empty sanctuary. "I see you have some questions, would you like to go to my study to discuss this?"
"No, we won't hold you up, Pastor, you've had a busy day. If Michael's parents wish, they can come to my flat where we'll have coffee and talk." I ruffle Mike's hair. "Besides, I think Santa has left some things there for Mike. You'd like to get your Christmas gifts, wouldn't you?"
"Oh, yes! Please, Mommy, Daddy. It's not that far and Colin's real nice."
I look at his parents. "If you're worried about Mike, he slept from dinner time until we got ready for church, so he won't lose much sleep."
"In that case ... ." His mother says.
Mike holds up his arms. "Carry me, Colin."
I sweep him up and onto my shoulders; he clasps his hands under my chin. "Hang on, Buddy."
His father looks surprised, then smiles, but says nothing.
Mike is busy playing with the remote control car (yes, I remembered to get batteries) while I tell his parents how he came to be with me. When I tell them what Mike had told me about why he ran away, his parents both have tears on their faces and are quick to reassure me.
It appears that Mike overheard them correctly as they discussed the doctor's evaluation of the lump under the arch of his foot. He felt that it was a fast growing tumor that needed immediate removal. Mike had run away that evening after his parents were in bed. By doing this, he missed the phone call the next morning from a specialist who determined by biopsy that it was nothing more than a pus filled cyst resulting from a deep infection of some type, which could easily be removed by minor surgery and the infection treated. After a few weeks for his foot to heal, Mike could return to full activity.
Watching the happy family walk towards their car, his father giving Mike a piggy-back ride, his mother carrying his 'Santa Claus,' I feel tears arising once more. More than one miracle has transpired on this Holy Night: a miracle that kept me late at my office, a miracle that I decided to help Mike when he accosted me, a miracle that had me take him to church for Christmas Eve midnight Mass, a miracle that his parents happened to attend that particular church for Mass as they are members of another faith, a miracle that Mike's condition is so minor, and a miracle that we were all brought together - answer to a mother's prayers. Yes, it's now early Christmas Day and I'm humbled by the greatest gift I've ever received - a Christmas Miracle.