The bitter cold caused the glass fronting the rear vestibule of the town's major department store to become opaque with frost. This west facing entry was seldom used as the main doors opened into the mall. Had one occasioned to open the inner door, they would have probably overlooked the bundle of worn clothing covering the small boy huddled in one corner where the sun yielded a modicum of warmth along with that escaping from the heat of the crowded store.
Nick swore under his breath as he rushed toward that same entry, having found a parking place being vacated by an exhausted shopper. A medically retired SEAL, Nick, always instinctively aware of his surroundings, frowned at the bundle of clothing, seeing the small figure vainly trying to appear even smaller.
'No way,' Nick thought as he pushed open the inner door and found himself surrounded by harried shoppers. 'I wish I had bought one of those money holding Christmas cards and let Nicky choose something for himself. But then eight year-olds want everything for just so long as the novelty lasts. At least his practical sister had suggested a new pair of soccer shoes, giving him the necessary size.'
Nick fought his way through the crowd praying the mall itself might be less crowded so he could get to the sports shop, hoping they would have the right size of shoes so that he that could make the purchase and return to the peaceful quiet of his home. He had designed the house to serve his personal needs, a cypress shingled Williamsburg style cottage, the interior far more spacious than its deceptively small outward appearance would lead one to believe, set in five wooded acres four miles from the town's nearest development. He'd lucked out on the property having seen the foreclosure notice in the paper. The land was undeveloped, the previous owner apparently having lost interest in the purpose he'd had in mind when he originally purchased it.
The sports shop held a few people, mostly looking. Nick was able to attract the attention of a young clerk and stated his needs. "Thank God somebody knows what they want," he heard the clerk mutter as he turned to look for the correct size shoes. Moments later he set an opened box before Nick. "I believe these will be quite satisfactory, sir. They're our better line, but not the most expensive which I suggest might be wasted on a growing child."
"Done," replied Nick with a sigh of relief. "I appreciate your honesty and courtesy. Thank you," Nick said, signing the credit card receipt and picking up the bag the clerk had placed the shoe box in.
He mentally girded himself for the press of people he had to endure to reach the entry he had used. When he pushed the inner door to the vestibule, he saw the small figure cringe back into the corner, the sun no longer warming the spot. Remembering an unspoken but universal credo among the SEALS to protect the weak and defenseless while getting the job done, he paused before asking, "Do you need help? If so, please tell me and I'll see what I can do."
When no answer was forthcoming, Nick stepped closer. "Look at me, son, I'm not going to hurt you, but you obviously are afraid of someone or something. Won't you trust me enough to let me help? Maybe take you home. It's very cold out and your coat isn't heavy enough to be much protection."
Reluctantly, the child raised his shaggy head. Nick now saw it was a boy probably a few years older than his nephew. "Don't hurt me, mister. I'm just trying to get warm because the guards ran me out of the mall." Tears began to trickle down his thin cheeks. "I just wanted to see the pretty Christmas trees and all. We don't have one at home."
"Why not?" Nick asked, curiosity aroused.
"My folks don't believe in any holidays. They teach they're unchristian pagan rites, but I think the decorations for Christmas are pretty. They'd beat me and lock me in my room with nothing to eat if they knew I was here."
'How miserable for this poor boy,' Nick thought to himself. "Surely not," Nick said.
The boy nodded. "Daddy beat me 'cause I wouldn't go with him and mom to try to get other people to join our church." He looked around and seeing no one other than Nick, slipped out of his thin jacket and pulled at his t-shirt only to wince and tug it back into place.
Nick then saw the bloody streaks on the shirt. "My God, son, did your father do that?"
The boy nodded.
'That's why he doesn't want to go home,' Nick thought. 'There's something about him that makes me want to take him home with me and show him the love and things his religious bastards of parents deny him. But what can I do for him without getting us both in trouble. Even with children's welfare he wouldn't be so mistreated.'
"Son, do you want something to eat before I take you home?"
The boy looked up with hope. "For real? You mean to your house?"
"Yes, for something to eat, but we would both be in trouble if I took you home with me. I'll take you to your home and talk with your parents. How's that?"
"They'll be nice to you and try to get you interested in their church, but they'll beat me again when you leave." He struggled to contain his tears.
Nick smiled. "I don't even know your name or how old you are. Mine's Nick."
A tiny smile flickered across the boy's face. "I'm ten. My name's Luke. Daddy says I'm named for one of the writers of the Bible, so I have to be good."
"A nice name. Let's go get you something to eat." Nick led Luke to the food court where the boy asked for a burger and a milkshake.
After the boy had wolfed down his food, Nick, following Luke's directions, drove his Range Rover to a run-down area of town stopping in front of a neglected house. Holding Luke's hand in his, Nick walked reluctantly to the door, stopping as Luke knocked on it. 'My God,' Nick thought, 'he's afraid to enter his own home without knocking."
The door jerked open to reveal a thin sour looking man. "Where've you been, you little spawn of the devil ..." the man began before noticing Nick and smiled. The door shut behind them, Nick became aware of the heavy odor of boiled cabbage, the smell of greasy fried ham. He shuddered. No wonder the child was hungry if this was any indication of meals.
The man patted Luke on his head. "I'm proud of you, son, for bringing this man home with you to learn about the true path to eternity." He looked at Nick a with an ingratiating smile and gestured toward a sagging ragged sofa. "Have a seat, sir, and let me explain our true religion. I'm sure ..."
Nick remained standing. "No thank you. I'm not a particularly religious individual, nor am I interested in your pseudo-religious clap-trap. My interest at the moment is your son."
"Worthless brat, always wantin' somethin'. Can't get it in his head we don't believe in material things. Can't afford them neither. Costs us to keep our work for God agoin." A slatternly woman leaning against the kitchen door said. She shook her head at Nick. "Iffen it'd advance our work, we'd let you have him to raise for a little donation to our church."
Nick's face blanched in anger, but his training kept his face blank, as he patted Luke on the head. "You stay here, son, and I'll be back in an hour." He looked back at Luke's mother. "I need to make a call and a short trip. Let Luke get all of his things together while he's waiting for me."
Vaguely aware of the legalities of what he was about to do, Nick called his lawyer. The attorney was about to close his office for the day, but a fellow SEAL needing help could not be denied. He switched the lights back on and rummaged in his files for some documents.
Papers in hand in less than ten minutes, Nick stopped at the nearby mall and shopped Pennys for some needed clothing for Luke. From an electronics shop a few doors down from Pennys, he bought an I-pad and a thirty-inch flat screen TV that was on special sale. He hid the purchases in the back of the Rover, planning to wrap them to put under the tree for Luke. Nick was back at Luke's parents home within the promised sixty minutes. The door opened to reveal Luke's smiling face. "You did come back," he cried.
"I always keep my promises, son." He pulled out his billfold, removed several bills and looked at Luke's father. "I assume a hundred dollars will help advance your work?"
The man eagerly reached forward. "Oh, yes. It's costly to keep a small mission like ours going."
"I believe Luke is worth a bit more than that. Say another fifty dollars if you and your wife will sign these papers giving me full custody of Luke and that neither of you will ever attempt to see him again."
"Yes, yes," the man's wife cried. "Take it, honey. That's a lot of money for a worthless brat."
Even by the time all of the legalities had been completed, it was a bit early for supper, but having heard Luke's stomach growl Nick drove them to a small restaurant buffet. He often ate there, the food very good and the prices quite reasonable. Luke looked around unbelievingly. Nick reached for his hand and led him to a table set for two, gently pushing the boy into the chair opposite the one he would take.
"Hi, Martha," Nick greeted the waitress. "I'll have my usual decaf and my boy here will have a tall glass of cold milk."
"Comin' right up," she replied and bustled off.
"Come along, son, and get your plate. You can have anything you want and seconds."
Nick was pleased at the amount of vegetables Luke piled on his plate beside the barbequed breast of chicken. Luke's plate was empty before Nick had eaten half his dinner. "You may go back for more, if you wish, but be sure you eat everything you take."
Luke's sunny smile reassured Nick that he was doing good for someone in this overly commercialized season. Even with knowing the profits from holiday sales kept a number of small businesses going for the rest of the year, it was this commercialized emphasis that had turned Nick against the holiday. Luke finished eating at the same time as Nick pushed his plate away and pointed to his cup for a refill. "Dessert?" Martha asked. Nick shook his head, but Luke's look was longing. "I bet you would like a chocolate sundae," Martha said.
Nick nodded, and moments later Martha set a generous bowl of ice cream dripping with chocolate syrup and maraschino cherries before Luke. Nick groaned at the sight. Luke tasted the concoction gingerly, grinned widely, then dug in, not stopping until the bowl was all but licked clean. "Oh, that was so good. I never had ice cream but one time before. Thank you so much."
"I'm glad you enjoyed your dinner," Nick said, rising. "Now let's go home."
Having just experienced the luxury of Nick's Range Rover, he was surprised when Nick stopped in the drive next to the cottage. His expression was noticed by Nick, for he smiled. "I know it's small, but it's quite large enough for my needs, easy to keep, and cheap to heat and cool. Come in and be at home."
When he unlocked the door, Nick's Husky bounced with his usual exuberance, startling Luke who stepped behind Nick for protection. "That's okay, Luke, Stinky likes anyone when they're with me. Otherwise, he's a great watchdog."
"Why do you call him Stinky?"
"The first thing he did when I brought him home as a puppy was to go outside and roll in something smelly. It's a good thing he likes water and is easy to wash when he needs it." After showing Luke his room and bath in the renovated attic, he glanced at his watch. "It's only six-thirty; let's go find a nice Christmas tree and bring it home to decorate. Does that suit you?"
"Really! A tree like those I saw in the mall?"
"I hope it'll be even better."
It took Luke some thirty minutes to make up his mind between three trees he held in awe. Finally Nick's patience wore thin. He picked the most shapely of the three. "This will look even nicer when we get it decorated, son. Let's take it home."
Once the tree was in the stand and the stand filled with water, Nick turned on the gas logs in the stone fireplace and went to the kitchen to make hot chocolate. He was still a bit chilled from the tree selection and knew Luke was as well. Remembering now his childhood, he dropped some miniature marshmallows on top of the chocolate for Luke.
Luke was so overwhelmed with awe and joy in this new setting he was barely conscious of gingerly handing Nick each of the beautiful fragile ornaments so afraid of breaking one he hung only two though Nick urged him to do more. "It's your tree, you know."
Luke was yawning by the time the last ornament was hung and an old angel from Nick's childhood graced the top of the tree, but tears of joy ran down his cheeks as he gazed in wonder at the glowing lights, the glittering decorations. He hugged Nick tightly before following him up to his room. Ready for bed, Luke slipped under the warmth of the electric blanket, closing his eyes when Nick kissed him on the forehead.
In less than an hour Nick had the gifts wrapped and under the tree, a Christmas stocking filled with candy and an inexpensive watch. But Luke's head was not the only one filled with the joy of Christmas, for Nick, too, lay half asleep filled with the joy of having someone with whom to share Christmas after three years of solitude, the delight of a deprived child experiencing Santa for the first time, the son he thought he'd never have. 'It is a Merry Christmas', he thought as he drifted into dreamless sleep in the first hours of Christmas morning.