On the first day of my Christmas gift to you…
Brett remembered with total clarity the moment the world came to an end. It was when that damn government man visited his house. Ironically, Brett was not even there at the time. Not so ironically, as it turned out, was the fact that Brett’s wife never called him with the news.
Actually, Brett did not learn of his world’s demise until about eight hours after the fact. He had just walked in the door of their center hall colonial in Northern Virginia after a typically long day at the office. The long hours had the twin merit of pushing Brett farther up the corporate ladder, and rush hour being long in the past. On that particular fateful day when Brett finally got home, his wife was nowhere to be seen.
Brett knew she had not gone out with “the girls”, an odd euphemism for well-past-their-prime suburbanite mothers. Her car was in the three-car garage. But she wasn’t in the family room, glued to that latest vapid reality show.
He made a quick reconnaissance of the kitchen. Nothing. Nothing at all. Brett dimly remembered the time when Rachel regularly whipped up culinary treasures. Even while mothering full time and working at her own computer consulting business, she had been quite the cook. Moreover, she always held dinner for when Brett arrived home from work, much earlier in those days. Yet if today’s rush hour was in the past, Rachel’s culinary days would have to be classified as part of the Mesozoic Era.
Leaving the kitchen was when Brett had the first indication that something was seriously amiss. His ear detected a strange sound coming from the upstairs—where their bedroom was. Brett inclined his ear the better to hear. He could make out the muffled sound of whimpering. Sobs.
“Oh, Christ!” he groaned. “Probably more ‘bad’ news from her stupid sister. Brett made mental quote marks when he uttered the word “bad.” Rachel’s sister was a walking soap opera. If it wasn’t some catastrophe involving her Down’s syndrome child, it was her husband, Brett’s brother-in-law’s recently diagnosed heart disorder. “Deal with it!” Brett muttered. He had no desire to get sucked into his in-laws’ feeble problems. Or was it more accurate to say his feeble in-laws’ problems. Brett grinned at his witticism. Of late he had steadfastly avoided wasting any psychic energy on the pathetic in-laws.
He would gladly have rummaged for something of filling, if not nutritional, value in the pantry and left Rachel to her woes. However he was dog tired and in sore need to shed his suit and tie. So he quietly trekked up the stairs to the master bedroom.
As he gently opened the door, sure enough Rachel was sprawled face down on the bed, weeping. She turned at his sound. Brett had seen her grieve for her dysfunctional sister. But even he was surprised to see how red-rimmed Rachel’s eyes were. How her features contorted with sorrow.
Rachel rose slowly, as if in a trance, and new tears flowing lamented, “Oh Brett! It’s just so horrible!” And she collapsed into his arms, practically a dead weight he had to support.
“It’s…it’s Brian,” she sobbed. “He’s gone!”
Brett’s knees suddenly buckled. It felt like his heart had stopped. He held Rachel at arm’s length, looking at her intently, and more than a little fearfully.
“Gone? What do you mean gone? Where is he?”
Wiping at her nose with a well-used tissue, Rachel explained, “A man, a lieutenant from the army came this afternoon. He said he was here on behalf of the Secretary of the Army. Said he had bad news. That Brian was killed in action in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. On behalf of the Secretary of the Army and the entire country, he was sorry for our loss…Oh, God. Brett, what are we going to do!”
Brett heard the words but his brain was having trouble processing the meaning. “Brian? Killed? Kandahar province?”
He stepped back involuntarily and sank into the chair. Rachel sat back down on the bed, facing him. Brian, his only child, the apple of his eye, the one person whose life meant more than his own…dead? No, it couldn’t be!
Brett mumbled something about how maybe it was all a mistake. The government bureaucrats got things wrong all the time. Maybe Brian was just missing in action or something.
Rachel shook her head. “No. I feel this. This emptiness inside. He’s gone, Brett!”
Brett did not want to believe it, but deep inside he was beginning to face the worst nightmare any parent could ever have.
The next few days were a fog, as if Brett and Rachel were having an out-of-body experience. They went through the motions, but only later did the enormity of what they had endured sink in. There was the greeting of the military transport at Andrews Air Force Base, bearing the casket with Cpl. Brian Carter’s remains. The numbing procession along the receiving line at the funeral home. So many “We’re so sorrys”; “If there is anything at all we can do’s”; “We’ll keep you in our prayers”; “You should be so proud of your son.” Brett and Rachel bore it stoically, tight lipped murmurs of acknowledgment at the well-wishers. Then the funeral at St. James Church, which Brett had last seen the prior Christmas. He used to be a regular churchgoer, but somehow life got in the way. And perhaps his belief system had become a bit unhinged.
Well after the interment husband and wife spent hours together in the empty house. Together that is, yet far apart. Brett prodded the military for details and after a fashion they did arrive. Turned out Brian had been fatally struck by a truck bearing supplies and munitions. A completely meaningless death.
Over the week, Brett’s stupor turned into something much more raw. Hatred. Not of anything or anyone in particular, but of all things. Sleep became impossible so Brett took to drink to force his brain to shut down. The drinking became more frequent and grew in volume.
After a few days of fitful, alcohol-induced sleep, Brett figured the only way to function through the haze of rage was to immerse himself in work. So he dutifully returned to the office. There he found it almost impossible to focus. A few nips from bottles stowed in his desk were needed to get through the day. Despite his fitful progress, he heaped on still more hours.
In the few waking hours he was at home, he rarely spoke to Rachel. There was an upcoming conference he was slated to attend the coming February, at the Disney World complex in Orlando. Rachel had always loved Disney, especially when they had young Brian along. Brett, in one of his infrequent thoughts of his wife, had his secretary schedule Rachel for the trip as well and to so notify her. He figured it would do her good to get away, and amuse herself while he was at the conference.
As autumn wore on in the Northern Virginia countryside, Brett watched the leaves fall, ever mindful that he was surrounded everywhere by death. What a prelude to the holidays.
Rachel had already let it be known she was in no mood to celebrate Christmas this year. Gaily decorating the house, trimming the tree, joyful music playing incessantly in the background, prettily wrapped presents…she did not feel like celebrating at all. That was more than fine with Brett. He raised his glass of gin to her in agreement that it was best to skip Christmas this year.
There was a side benefit. Rachel’s sister and her needy family habitually all trooped in for Christmas week. It was all Brett could do the last few years to shut them out. Fortunately he had been able to plead pressing business at the office, and sheltered himself in the gray corporate offices that had become home. This year however, he need conduct no such charade, since there would be no festivities in their home.
Brett drove himself still harder at the firm. And was drinking a bit more. He realized he was still having trouble focusing. Figured in time he would snap back. Also that the powers-that-be would be tolerant, given his personal tragedy. So he plowed on, in a stupid rage.
The firm had shut down for Thanksgiving, so Brett could not use the office as an excuse to hide out. Since he knew he was losing weight from the way his expertly tailored bespoke suits hung on his frame, he figured a little turkey and the fixin’s would surely help.
Problem was come Thanksgiving Day, the house being preternaturally quiet, Brett noticed that there was also no aroma emanating from the kitchen. In years past the holiday had been one of his favorites. Pleasing assaults on the senses and emotions as turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie spice wafted through the large house. Ah, but that was years ago. Truth be told, Brett had not really enjoyed Thanksgiving in years. Oh, when Brian was there, visiting from college or on leave from the service, then Brett was all aglow. But now there was no Brian. Never would be again. Brett did not think he would ever recover that glow. Still, he had counted on the holiday to fill his thin frame.
Which is why he was surprised and mightily disappointed to realize nothing was coming out of the kitchen this year.
In a little while Rachel quietly came in, took out a can of Chunky soup. A toneless voice announced, “This is more than enough nourishment for us.” She proceeded to heat the soup in a saucepan. Then doled out portions to each. The couple ate in silence.
Afterward, Rachel retired to her room to read. She had taken up poetry of late, finding some solace for her penetrating sorrow. Brett took to the sofa where he settled on the wall-to-wall football coverage. A fifth kept him company. So much so that the results of the games barely registered. He fell asleep on the couch; Rachel in their bedroom.
On the second day of my Christmas gift to you…
Next day the Christmas season was in full swing. Brett silently cursed the non-stop displays of cheer, whether it was the advertisements extolling “Have a Merry!” or the downtown DC seasonal tourists exuding good will toward men. “Goodwill my ass!” Brett grumbled as he sullenly made his way to the office.
Something strange happened a few days later. Brett got home exceedingly late, as usual. There was little sign of life in the house, also as usual. Some cold stew left on the stove for him. And there, sitting in the family room, was Rachel.
After Brett supped he joined her, out of curiosity.
“We need to talk,” she said.
“Now what?” Brett wondered.
Rachel fumbled with an imaginary piece of lint on her sweater. She cleared her throat. Still looking down she announced, “My sister has invited me over for Christmas. I’m going to go.”
Brett was surprised. His sister-in-law had never extended herself. Having said that, he did not want to spend the holidays, or any days of the year, with the in-laws. He started to shift in his seat.
Rachel saved him from any discomfort. “Relax. It will just be me going.” Now her eyes met his. They were moist.
“So…so we will be apart this Christmas,” he concluded.
“Oh, Brett, we’ve been apart for so long it seems. In many ways Brian was the glue that held us together. But now…”
“This is about more than Christmas.” He spoke softly.
Rachel nodded. “Think of it as a trial separation.”
“You realize,” he commented, “that trial separations generally wind up in Divorce Court.”
“Should we try counseling?” he offered.
Rachel released a deep breath. “I’ve thought long and hard about this, Brett. Counseling can’t do any good in this case.” She paused before adding, “I’m surprised you are even committed to trying to work things out.”
Her soon-to-be ex shrugged. “You know how I hate to admit defeat.”
Brett was startled by her fist slamming onto the coffee table. “This is not about winning and losing!”
“Then what is it about, Rachel? I think I at least deserve an explanation.”
“Oh, we have only been married in name for a while. The passion went out of this marriage a long time ago.”
“Passion? That’s for starry-eyed kids. You can’t realistically expect us to stay immature forever.”
Rachel was shaking her head in disagreement. “No. It is not only for starry eyed kids. It is for those who cleave to each other and whose hearts are pure.”
“Did you read that nonsense in one of your poems?”
“No. It is something I have always deeply felt…Look, I don’t want to argue. And I don’t want a lot by way of a divorce settlement. There’s no reason this should not be amicable.”
Brett threw up his arms. “Fine. If that is what you want. At least no one can say the blame lies with me.”
Rachel looked up sharply, surprise registered all over her face.
“What?” Brett caught her accusatory look and now was practically shouting. “You’re blaming me?”
His wife tried to compose herself. “You’re right. Maybe it’s me. It’s all inside me. There is just so much anger within me. I can’t keep living like this, Brett.”
“You know, I’m pretty angry too. At the government, the army, the enemy, the idiots who drove that truck. It’s a long list.”
“Yes, you can keep adding to it,” she agreed.
“Who else is on your list?” he wondered, since he thought he had enumerated pretty much all the targets of their ire.
Rachel tried to wave him off. “It is not important.”
“Not important! Our marriage is breaking up over this! In what conceivable galaxy could it possibly be considered unimportant? Tell me!”
“I really don’t think we should go into this.”
“Tell me!” Brett exploded.
As did Rachel, who blurted out, “I blame you!”
“Me! Are you crazy!”
Now Rachel stood, screaming as she towered over Brett in his chair. “Maybe I am crazy! But we both know how Brian idolized you! Wanted to be just like his dad! You, the big war hero, always telling him stories of your glory days in the military! So what happened when he came of age? Naturally he followed in your footsteps and enlisted! Except unlike you, he didn’t return! So yes Brett, I blame you and I hate you for that! I’m sorry but I can’t help how I feel! I loved Brian just as much as you did and…and in my heart, it’s your fault he died!”
Brett had grown ashen under Rachel’s withering assault. All he said, in a very tiny voice was, “We could have talked all night and you did not have to say that.”
Rachel left the room to start packing.
Brett remained motionless, his mind numb. Unfortunately, what Rachel said had already intermittently coursed through Brett’s mind. Now blame filled the synapses to an alarming degree. Sleep—or any mental peace—was impossible. In the days ahead, Brett drank and drove himself more.
He quite consciously absented himself from the house the day Rachel moved out. “Damn her!” he spat one night after a heavy bout of drinking. “After all I’ve done to give her a good home!” In more sober moments Brett believed that as with other families, the loss of a child created an emotional gulf too wide to bridge, and marital dissolution was inevitable. Inwardly he figured he would come to accept this. Now however, his emotion of choice was rage. So he drove out the more sober rationalizations and vented fury at his estranged wife. He also increasingly blamed himself, the seed Rachel had planted sadly germinating.
The secular holiday season merged with Advent, now well underway, though all of it meant nothing to Brett. Days and nights became a blur. He ate still less and less and had not restocked the pantry. An occasional Burger King or McDonald’s sufficed to meet his nutritional needs. Once blessed with an abundance of energy, he grew easily fatigued. He also began to have frequent headaches. Bills piled up and were left unpaid. His formerly vigilant eye failed to detect the latest drop in the stock market and in a matter of weeks he lost a hundred thousand of savings.
“God,” he mused late one night, “I’ve lost my only son, my marriage, my health, my fortune…am I becoming a latter day Job? What next?” That shoe would soon drop.
Just two days before Christmas, the chairman of Brett’s firm summoned him to his office.
“Sit down,” the grim-faced and portly executive ordered Brett. Shaking his head he told Brett, “We’ve been extremely patient with you, after your loss. However the time comes when you have to get past these setbacks. Unfortunately you seem to have been unable to do so.”
Brett started to speak, but a wave of the chairman’s hand silenced him. The chairman continued.
“Yesterday, your second largest account notified us that you had missed a deadline they had established well in advance, costing them millions in forfeit revenue. I had to go hat in hand to beg them not to leave our firm. Do you realize how that compromises my position? Fortunately, they agreed not to terminate our relationship. However we had to grant them a steep pricing discount that will impact our earnings most adversely. They also had one unalterable condition: that you be replaced on the account. We reassigned Jim Stevens to take your place.
“The news grows much worse however. That was your second largest client. Your first, which also happens to be the most lucrative one in the entire firm, said you had provided erroneous advice, also costing them untold monies. Sadly, they could not be assuaged and have departed. You…” he levelled his finger at Brett…“have placed our Company in quite a hole.
“I’m sympathetic up to a point, Brett, but you have to understand our position. Major shareholders are screaming at me to take action. So you have given me no alternative. We are terminating you, effective immediately. HR will be in touch to review your severance package.”
Brett looked up, eyes wide. “F…fired. But…”
“This action is not appealable. Now you should go home. Treat this as a learning experience.”
When Brett left the office, he was in a daze. Co-workers avoided his eye. Security had already packed his desk, and two guards stood by to escort him off the premises. As they left him outside the building Brett, seeing that the calendar in the reception atrium was marked “December 23”, muttered a sarcastic “Merry Christmas” to the guards, who wordlessly left him on the sidewalk.
For a person who defined his worth by reference to his job, this was an especially bitter, and unexpected, blow.
Brett made his way home, though he could not recall driving there. He was in quite a state as he slumped onto the family room sofa, clutching the bottle in his right hand. He knew he would never, ever be able to sleep, no matter how much beverage he consumed. He felt like his life was over.
Brett never felt lower than the hours he spent motionless in the empty family room. At last he stirred. He just could not take the house any longer. Thought he’d go crazy if he stayed another minute. So he donned a jacket and decided on a short walk. This may not have been the best of ideas, for most of the homes were decked out, alight with Christmas lights, wreaths, Nativity scenes on front lawns. You could even see the Christmas trees inside through the picture windows. Little effort was required to imagine all the festive families, waiting in joyful exultation for Christmas morn. “No herald angels hearkening in my house,” Brett groused. As he walked he came to the realization he had nothing left to live for.
His house was just off West Street, and his short melancholy walk turned into a long melancholy walk. Brett stumbled occasionally. After about two miles and nearly an hour in the cold, he happened on St. James, his parish church infrequently attended as of late. It seemed late since it was dark outside. But in fact because Brett had been sent away so early, it was still late afternoon. Dark because it was winter now and the days were shorter. Deciding to get out of the cold for a while and figuring he had nothing to lose by visiting God’s house, Brett shuffled inside. He walked shakily down the main aisle. Then sat in the second pew, close to the altar. After a long while, Brett did something he had not done in years. He began to pray. “Lord, they say Jewish guilt is bad, but it’s nothing compared to Christian guilt. If the nuns had not drummed it into my head that suicide would lead to eternal damnation, I’d end it all now. It hurts too much to go on like this! I just can’t bear it anymore! Please, Lord, PLEASE, take me home. I’m ready to go.” Here Brett broke down and wept fiercely. “Please! Just take me home!”
He struggled to get to his knees. But the fatigue, weakness, drink, sleeplessness and anguish all took their toll and Brett passed out. As he did, his head hit hard on the wooden backrest of the pew just before him. He slumped over onto the floor, sprawled lengthwise across the kneeler.
Many hours passed.
On the third day of my Christmas gift to you…
Sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows woke Brett up. He had a few kinks in his back. Sleeping on a narrow kneeler is not recommended for relieving back stress. Despite that, he felt remarkably good. It was the best rest he had had in over a month. Because he had been hidden under the pew, the sexton tasked with locking and then opening the Church did not notice the sleeping body.
Brett got up and walked to the back of the Church. He stopped abruptly. Something seemed off. As he looked around, Brett blinked and rubbed his eyes vigorously. He was not in St. James. However he knew exactly where he was.
Stunned, he sat in the last pew and pondered his surroundings.
Brett was now in St. Anthony’s in the tiny hamlet of Nanuet, in the heart of New York’s Hudson Valley, Rockland County specifically, where he had grown up. He looked and looked at the once familiar surroundings. There was no doubt. But how could this be? Was he dreaming? Hallucinating? Had he somehow traveled 270 miles in a drunken stupor?
Brett’s musings were stopped by the sound of the door opening. While he watched, about twenty parishioners entered the Church. All walked up to the front pews and took their seats. Some knelt and prayed. Some worked their rosary beads. Some thumbed through their missals. Brett did not recall seeing missals in quite some time. Well, it was an elderly crowd, and he knew old folks were set in their ways. He checked his watch. It was about 6:40. Obviously in the am. He remembered there used to be a 6:45 Mass. No doubt that was why the congregants had gathered. He knew this from the dim recesses of his memory, because as a youth he had been an altar boy. Living only a mile from St. Anthony’s, he frequently volunteered for the early daily Mass and happily rode his bike to the services.
Two things suddenly jumped out at Brett. For one, all those parishioners were dressed in their Sunday best. Suits and ties for the men (most also had dress hats they stuck on clips built into the front of the pews); dresses on the women. And all the women wore head coverings, either hats or lace doilies bobby pinned in place. Brett hadn’t been to Church often of late, but he didn’t think there was such a thing as a Sunday best anymore. Any old garb would do. True it was Christmas Eve morning, but that hardly seemed occasion to dress to the nines.
The other thing that struck Brett was the faces of the people. They looked so familiar! Just like worshippers from decades ago. “Wow!” he thought. “I understand DNA and heredity, but it’s amazing how the people I remember from altar serving back then have had sons and daughters who look so much like they did!”
He smiled at the congruence but then decided he ought to figure out what had happened—and get back to the DC area. So he quietly left the Church, just before the priest arrived to start the Mass.
Outside, Brett received the next of his surprises. The day before had been balmy during the daytime hours, for December that is. Global warming made the difference. When Brett was a child, before the Global Warming days, he remembered how much snowfall the Hudson Valley, and Rockland County in particular, received. It almost always seemed to be a white Christmas. Of course the Washington area was further south, so it never had much snow. Though Brett assumed the warm December weather pattern covered the entire Northeast, not just the DC metro area.
Yet as he stepped outside St. Anthony’s, what did his wondering eyes see but snow. The sidewalk and roads had been cleared, but the lawn was full of fresh fallen snow. “Wow!” he exhaled, enjoying the sight of his breath in the air, “just like when I was a kid! It’s so…peaceful and beautiful.”
Once he got past his reverie, Brett decided he had to assemble the missing pieces from the night before. Last thing he remembered was being in St. James in Virginia. How did he get here?
“I’ve got it!” He snapped his fingers. “There must be a record of my recent charges. So he pulled out his cell phone. He punched in some numbers. Frowned. Repeated. Shook the phone. Gazed at the screen. “Hmm. Nothing. But it’s 97% charged. This has to be a cell zone. I’m in New York, not Guam.” There was no disputing however. The phone was dead.
Brett hit on another avenue to pursue. “A lot of people carry their laptops with them and their IPad. I’ll ask one of the congregants inside the Church.”
When he reentered the Church was when he received his next surprise. The altar was set back and the priest was speaking with his back to the people! Moreover, he was speaking in Latin, and the worshippers were following along in their missals, responding in Latin! Brett sunk into the last pew. The responses came back to him. “Et cum spiritu tuo,” he whispered along with the congregation. Then, “Pater noster, qui es in coelis…”
Soon after, when communion had been distributed, he leaned over to a late arriving elderly woman who sat reverently. “Ma’am,” he whispered, “Sorry to bother you, but it is important. Do you have a laptop I can borrow for a second?”
The woman frowned, in a puzzled, not an angry way. Then she smiled as a light bulb went on. She handed him an afghan she had made that lay spread across her lap for additional warmth.
“No,” Brett smiled, “how about an IPad?”
“I—pad?” the woman whispered uncertainly.
Brett nodded. He was pleased when she reached into her purse.
Less pleased when she removed a small pad of paper and pencil and offered it to him.
“Never mind,” he said.
When Mass ended, Brett walked out in the midst of the congregation. “Excuse me,” he asked a kindly looking old man. “What day is today?”
The man expressed surprise. “Why, it’s Christmas Eve. Didn’t you know?”
“I…I guess I had a senior moment,” he said. Quickly realizing his companion’s age, so he added, “Oh, I guess that was not PC.”
“PC?” the man repeated.
“You know. Politically correct.”
“You mean you voted for Eisenhower?”
Brett didn’t get the humor and he said, “This must be the Tridentine rite, no? I’ve heard certain parishes stage these services from time to time to let people know what it was like in the old days. For a while I was beginning to think I had fallen into a time warp. Like when Ronald Reagan was president.”
“You mean Ronald Reagan, the actor?”
Then he was off.
Another parishioner asked the old gent who Brett was.
“I don’t know. Queer boy. Say, has Ronald Reagan made a new movie where he plays the president?”
Outside again, Brett approached two other parishioners, with the same futile result. “Well,” he said to himself, “Seeing as how I’m here, I ought to at least visit my parents’ grave.” Brett’s parents’ had died long ago and were interred in the cemetery directly behind the church.
He left the blacktop and crossed over several foot stones, to the area where the family plot was. However when Brett got there, all he saw was empty space. No headstones with his parents’ names and dates of birth and death. The snow was only a few inches, not enough to cover up the headstones, but you never knew. He cleared away the white stuff with his shoe. When the ground was cleared…nothing.
“I must have the wrong spot,” Brett thought and he began walking in ever expanding circles to find his parents. He soon gave up. “I must have knocked my head more seriously than I imagined. The rectory has records and should be able to point me in the right direction.”
He left the cemetery, heading to the priests’ residence/parish office. This simple building was adjacent to the parochial school. When Brett had arrived at the walk outside the rectory, he heard voices from the school yard. The kids had to be off this close to Christmas. But he did see a strange sight. A group of what he assumed was teachers. They were all nuns. He didn’t think there were many religious these days in the parochial school system. Brett did not pursue the thought. He knew they were nuns because they wore habits, complete with white wimples covering their heads and hair. “Geez, is it throw-back Catholic day, or something?”
Brett jogged over to one of the nuns. She looked vaguely familiar, but Brett couldn’t quite place her. In their garb he rationalized they all looked alike. Anyway, he asked, “Sister, would it be possible for me to use the school computer? Just for a second. It is kind of an emergency.”
The good sister looked doubtful. “Kom-pooh-ter? I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
Before Brett could reply to her strange reaction, she nudged another nun and relayed the request. This second sister approached Brett. “I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have a school computer.”
Brett nodded sympathetically. “I guess you don’t have the funds the public school system has.”
“Perhaps that is true, though with our enrollment at record highs, finance is generally not a pressing issue. Space is. I’ve read about computers. Why, we’d have to fill up the entire gym just to accommodate the mainframe.” She smiled and Brett laughed at what he perceived to be her wit.
Suddenly inspiration struck. “Sister,” Brett asked hopefully, “surely the public library will have a computer. I need to check the Internet.”
I was in the library yesterday, but I did not see any netting there.”
Again Brett laughed at her odd sense of humor. He asked, “The Nanuet Public Library is still in that large building next to the high school, isn’t it?”
She wrinkled her forehead. “Uh, no. No. The library is above a storefront on Main Street. It is about a half mile that way.” She indicated the direction.
“Above a storefront?” Brett questioned. “No. It used to be there but they needed more space and built the new building by the high school. Had to be years ago.”
“No. You must be mistaken. As I said, I was in the library yesterday. The space above the storefront is more than sufficient for their needs.”
“That is so sad,” Brett commented. “Have people really stopped reading to the extent the library actually had to downsize? I suppose everyone is too consumed with their smart phones.”
“Is that a phone where you do not have a party line?” the sister asked.
One of the other sisters called and the nun talking to Brett said she had to be off. She actually seemed relieved to have an excuse to end the conversation.
As he walked away, Brett muttered, “Party line? What a kidder. I never knew nuns to have such a sense of humor.”
He was about to walk to where the nun had indicated the library was, but paused. “Wait. If the library has shrunk as much as she indicated it has, they may not have the resources to help me.” Brett figured it would be a royal waste of time to traipse a half mile needlessly. Thinking about how to handle matters he again checked his phone. Still no service. “Hey! I can use the land line in the parish office to call the library and make the appropriate inquiry. I also wanted to verify my parents’ burial site, so this way I can kill two birds with one stone.”
So Brett headed back to the parish office. Before he got there he caught a glimpse of someone just beyond the rectory office at the perimeter of the cemetery. No one had been there a second before, so Brett was naturally curious. He headed the few yards in that direction.
There, at the edge of the cemetery, was an attractive blonde woman, mid-twenties in appearance, smiling widely at Brett. He did a double take, as if unable to believe what his eyes were taking in.
“Cathy Atkins!?” he called out.
On the fourth day of my Christmas gift to you…
“Cathy Atkins,” he repeated.
The blonde woman nodded enthusiastically. “Brett Carter?” she returned.
Brett’s mouth dropped. “I…I don’t believe this. I haven’t seen you since…since we graduated high school. I don’t think you came to our ten-year reunion, and I haven’t gone to subsequent ones.”
Cathy shook her head yes. “I wasn’t able to make it.”
Brett had always had a warm spot for her, back in the day, and he was very pleased to have run into her. However he was absolutely astounded by her appearance. He said as much.
“Cathy, you look…terrific! I mean, we’re the same age, but you look about like you did in high school. You’ve hardly aged!”
She patted her cheeks lightly with the tips of her fingers. “I exfoliate.”
“Whatever you’re doing, you ought to bottle it! I mean, you really look fantastic! This is incredible!”
She giggled, and looked down, as if embarrassed at the extravagance of his compliments. Looking back up she said, “You look good too, Brett.”
“I try to stay in shape, but if I only looked half as good for a guy as you do right now…I mean, we’re the same age, but you could be decades younger!” What he did not say was that not only had she retained her youthful looks, but that she was exceptionally attractive.
In any event, she waved him off. “Oh, you’re just being kind. We’re not that different. And anyway, are looks really important?”
Brett wanted to shout out, “Heck, yeah!” but he figured that would make him appear too vapid. In addition, he was feeling definite pangs of attraction to this…girl…and since he was now single, or soon-to-be single, he did not want to make a poor impression. So he shifted gears from talk of her physical attributes and said, “What are you doing here? Do you still live in Rockland?”
Her smile seemed to Brett to light up his world. “No,” she said happily. “I am just visiting. Moved very, very far away a while ago. But it is nice to be back, isn’t it?”
Brett gave a sheepish smile. “I guess, but it’s a little strange. You see, I don’t exactly know how I got here. This is St. Anthony’s…in Nanuet, New York…right?”
The sound of her giggle warmed Brett’s heart. “Yes. Yes, we are here.”
“Thank God, I’m not losing my mind.”
Cathy frowned. “You’re troubled.”
“I’m used to being in control. To be unable to account for eight hours of my life…well, it’s more than a little unsettling.”
She placed her hand on his arm. Brett felt his insides tingle. With a look of concern Cathy asked, “It’s more than just missing time that is bothering you, isn’t it?”
“Wow. Does it really show?”
“Well, let’s just say I’m good at reading people.”
Brett pawed at the ground. “Right now my life is sort of a mess.”
Cathy pressed her hand more warmly onto Brett’s arm, again sending a thrilling sensation pulsing through him. “Maybe I can help,” she said.
Brett didn’t see how a woman he had not seen in decades and who he only knew as a classmate could be of help. But he was attracted to her, and knew one of the rules of single men was never, N-E-V-E-R, turn down an offer to spend time with an attractive woman. So he readily acquiesced.
Cathy looked at him searchingly. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Real food? Uh, let’s see…”
She held up her hand, palm extended. “Enough. If it takes that long to answer, the answer can’t be good. What say we get a bite to eat?”
That certainly sounded good to Brett, who realized he was indeed famished. More to the point her kindness, not to mention her good looks, rekindled adolescent feelings he had once harbored for her.
“Uh, I don’t have a car here. At least I don’t think I do,” Brett said.
“Neither do I. I biked. And a friend left a bike which they will not need for a while.”
“I used to love bike riding.”
Cathy led him to the far end of the Church complex where sure enough, two bicycles were laying side by side. A blue one and a red one.
Brett gazed at the red one. He ran his fingers over it, almost reverentially. “Ohmygosh! This is exactly like my bike when I was a kid. Mom and Dad got it for me the Christmas when I was eight years old. I loved that bike. Rode everywhere. Down Middletown, Germonds and Strawtown Roads, past the Clarksville Inn… Hey, and it’s a Schwinn. I didn’t think they even made these anymore!”
“Come on,” she smiled.
Brett asked where they were riding to.
“Just up the street. Off Route 59.”
“Isn’t that kind of congested? I mean, is it safe for bicycles with so much vehicular traffic?”
Cathy made a show of looking at her wristwatch. “At this time, there is very little traffic.” And she got on her bike and pedaled away, Brett trailing right behind. As he pedaled, Brett was surprised how little traffic there was. He also saw sights that brought back fond memories. As soon as they turned off the street where the Church was, he saw a strip mall with the Korvette’s sign. “And I thought they were out of business,” he said to himself. “How I remember strolling through their records department! LP’s were only $2.98!”
Just past “Four Corners,” places were popping up with such regularity, Brett was beside himself. To his right were Grandway and W.T Grant’s. Brett also thought these department stores were long defunct. To his immediate left, Buy-Rite! What a toy store! And just next to it, the small shack and sign proclaiming: “Jolly Boy. Hamburgers—19 cents.” “How can they stay in business at those prices?” he wondered.
Then it hit him, “I could have sworn they tore these two down to build the Mall. But…but there’s no Nanuet Mall! You mean, they tore down the Mall and left these two dinosaurs in place? What an ironic twist!” Somehow Brett didn’t mind the notion of the big chains running aground and the Mom-and-Pop stores thriving. “If only we could accomplish that in Northern Virginia.”
A little farther on and Cathy led him past the Route 59 Theater. “That’s where I first made out…well, tried to. Had no luck with the girls back then. Oh, I even remember the movie…”How the West Was Won.” Now the marquis announced they were showing “Butterfield Eight.” “Gee,” Brett reflected, “showing vintage flicks.”
Just a tad farther, Cathy pulled into a parking lot, as did Brett. Climbing off his red Schwinn his jaw actually dropped as he gazed upon the familiar orange roof and turquoise façade. “Howard Johnson’s!” he exclaimed to Cathy. “I could have sworn they were also out of business. They used to be everywhere. I loved them. Mom and Dad often took us there for dinner or ice cream.”
“Ice cream,” Cathy repeated. “What a great idea. HoJo’s does make terrific ice cream. Though I remember McDermott’s being my favorite. I also used to love going to Hoyer’s up on 9W.”
“Is that still here?” he practically shouted.
Cathy nodded. “But it’s a bit of a ride from here.”
“Besides,” Brett added, “it’s kind of early for ice cream.”
When they were seated and the perky middle-aged waitress came to take their order, Brett opted for an American cheese omelet. OJ and coffee. Yes, he realized how famished he was. To his surprise, Cathy ordered a strawberry sundae.
“It’s breakfast time,” he commented.
“I’m not really hungry but I haven’t had an ice cream sundae in years.” Brett shrugged. To each her own.
On the fifth day of my Christmas gift to you…
Cathy quickly shifted to an all-business look. “So. Tell me how your life has gone south.”
Brett started by recapping the events surrounding Brian’s death. He did not fail to mention the part about how he may have unwittingly played a role in it. Cathy let him wax eloquent about his son. She could sense his grief, it was that palpable.
“You really miss him,” she remarked. “What would you give to have him back?”
“I’d give my right arm.” Brett paused, and then added, “More. I’d give my life for his. I’m much older, but he…he had his whole life before him. You know, an old person has their memories. So when an old person dies, their past is taken away. When a young person dies, their future is taken away.”
He noticed Cathy was staring up, at the ceiling, or at something beyond.
“Did I lose you?” Brett inquired.
Cathy slowly shifted her gaze back. “To give up your life is so extreme…no, your right arm should suffice.” Brett had no clue, until much later, what she was babbling about. For now, he was so immersed in reliving his grief that he did not press her for an explanation.
Next he talked about how his marriage had gone into a downward spiral after Brian’s passing and as to how he and Rachel were headed for a divorce.
Looking deeply into Cathy’s eyes he said, “You know, I’ve never told anyone this, but back in high school, I really wanted to ask you out.”
“Why didn’t you? I really would have liked to have dated you.”
“I…I was too shy. Figured you were way out of my league.”
“When it comes to life, and love, there are no leagues. Your shyness was part of what I found so endearing. That, and I always believed you had a good heart.”
Brett was surprised—and pleased----at the revelation. “You know,” he said as he shifted in his seat, “maybe there is a future for us. Now. We’re both available. You are single, I hope. So why don’t we…” Cathy cut him off.
“Whoa! Let’s not move too fast. And let’s stick to the subject at hand. The dissolution, or supposed dissolution, of your marriage.”
“After all I’ve done for Rachel, I can’t believe how she’s treated me,” he complained.
“She just endured the worst that can happen to a parent. You have to be patient. You’re not the only one who hurts. You know, when Rachel goes to Church this time of year and the story of the Holy Innocents is read, how do you think she reacts when scripture speaks of ‘Rachel weeping for her children, because they are no more?’”
Brett had no answer but he said, “Don’t think I am unfeeling. I have extended myself to her.”
Cathy raised an eyebrow. “How so?”
He explained about his once upcoming trip to Orlando and how he had arranged for Rachel to entertain herself at Disney World.”
“WHAT! Your wife lost the person she gave life to and your sense of compassion was to offer her a ride on a roller coaster to make up for it!”
“Well, when you put it like that…”
“What other way is there to put it!” She huffed before adding, “Four billion years of evolution and it’s remarkable to think that you people can actually stand upright!”
“That seems kind of harsh.”
“On the contrary, it’s not even close to being harsh enough! What else have you done for Rachel?”
He had to think for several moments. “Just two years ago I got her a tennis bracelet. Set me back a pretty penny.”
Cathy gave him a look like he was one of the four dumbest people on the planet. “You gave your wife a bunch of rocks.”
“Diamonds. You’re telling me women don’t want diamonds?”
“I’m telling you what women want are words from a poet’s pen. Words like love, and truth, and goodness. Words like ‘til death us do part.”
“What about diamonds are a girl’s best friend?” Brett thought he had her.
“Gifts are fine, but only if backed up by the emotion suggested in the words I just mentioned.” She glanced at her spoon and put it down. “You’ve just described a gift from several years ago. So your marital problems did not commence with Brian’s passing.”
Brett frowned. “You make a good point. I guess the passion started going out of our marriage before that.”
“And whose fault is that?”
“Not me! I provided for her. Great house, vacations, cars, you name it.”
“Things,” she monotoned. “I notice in your list you did not mention love.”
Brett started to say something, then stopped. After a moment he said, “I used to love her. With all my heart…Things change.”
“They don’t have to.”
Brett shrugged. “They do. That’s life.”
“You are so wrong.” Cathy was adamant. “Maybe you’re the one that changed.”
Brett scoffed. “That’s silly. I’m the same person I’ve always been.”
“No. No, I’ve only spent moments with you and I can tell you are a fundamentally different person. That happens to some people, sadly. They lose their way. The good news is you can get it back.”
“But I am not different, I tell you.”
Cathy sighed. “That will make things harder. Still not impossible however. First we have to get you to admit the problem.”
“Are we talking about my personality or alcoholism?” he quipped.
Now it was Cathy’s turn to shrug. “It’s all the same problem—and solution. You have to want to get better.”
“Look, I appreciate your wanting to help me, but I don’t need help. I’m fine staying just as I am.”
“Just as you are?” Cathy said. She paused. “And how’s that working out for you? We haven’t even talked about your job, or…”
Brett held up his hand, signalling enough. “Okay! Maybe I could do with a little help. But, and please don’t take this the wrong way, what can you do?”
Cathy looked deeply into his eyes. Then she released a deep breath. “All right, Brett, I’m in. I have…certain powers. You’ve heard of empaths?”
“Someone who takes another’s pain away? Yeah, I’ve heard of them. Seen it in sci fi shows. But I’ve never known one. Are you telling me you’re an empath?”
“Sort of. It’s the best way I can describe what I do. You see, I can show you things. Things that will seem very real, even though we won’t ever leave Rockland County. But if you are willing…”
Brett cut her off. Part of him was motivated by lust. If he played along, maybe he’d get to… Gosh, she was so pretty. He couldn’t figure out how she stayed looking that young. Part of him also realized he could use help. He was skeptical but, what the heck. “Yes, I agree to let you try to help me.”
Cathy smiled. “There is just one condition.”
“You cannot ask me how I do what I do. Where I get my power. I’m not allowed to tell, and I cannot let you put me in a difficult position. Deal?” She held out her hand.
It hardly seemed like a condition at all, so Brett had no compunctions. He clasped her hand and they shook on it.
“Okay, so now what?” he asked.
“Now…we get the check and pay the bill. You weren’t going to stiff Howard Johnson’s, were you?” She smiled again.
Brett laughed. He called the waitress over. “It’s on me,” he told Cathy.
"Good. Because I don’t have any money on me.”
It was then Brett realized she was not carrying a purse. Perhaps the first time in his adult life he had seen a woman without one.
When the check came, Brett shook his head rapidly.
Cathy asked what was wrong.
“It’s only a buck seventy-five. That can’t be right.”
Cathy picked up the menu. “It seems in line with the listed prices.”
“Hey, I’m not complaining. Could this all be part of the throwback day I was wondering about earlier?” He took out his credit card. The waitress waited expectantly. “Here,” Brett said with emphasis.
“It’s a dollar seventy-five cents,” she announced.
“You don’t take credit cards?”
“What are you talking about? Say, you’re not telling me you don’t have any money?”
Brett reached into his wallet and fished out two singles. “I get it,” he said. “All part of that throwback celebration.” Looking at Cathy he said, “I’ll say this. You’re a cheap date.”
“Actually, I’m not,” Cathy replied.
“Oh really?” he said with a grin. “What do you want of me?”
“Much,” was her enigmatic reply.
On the sixth day of my Christmas gift to you…
“Let’s go,” Cathy announced as she picked up her bike. Brett realized they had not padlocked the bikes for safety. Fortunately no one had walked off with their wheels. He did not have a chance to ask where they were heading because Cathy was swiftly off. Brett flung his leg over the bar and rode off after her.
They shot down the road, and turned off on the Old Nyack Turnpike, just before Silver City. Then got to the one-way tunnel before Smith Road. In short order, they were at the Ramapo Valley Airport.
“Wow!” Brett enthused. “This is still here too? I used to love to come here. Spent hours watching the planes, and day dreaming, and thinking.”
Just then a Cessna prop plane took off. It sounded like Cathy had said, “I know,” but he couldn’t make it out over the engine noise.
Brett’s eyes were wide as he gazed out over the airfield. It was a small, private strip. A few hangars, and several planes tethered in outside stalls. “These old props were beautiful!” he exclaimed. “I’m glad they still run these. The jets I fly on today are just so sterile.” He was lost in thought as he looked at the brightly colored aircraft. “First time I came here I hiked with my Dad. How I wish he and Mom were still around for me to talk to.”
“You can talk to them,” Cathy said. “It’s called prayer.”
Brett made a dismissive gesture. Then he looked at Cathy. “Forgive me. Going on about my own memories. Tell me yours. You said you moved far away. Are your parents still alive?”
She nodded. “They moved away a long time ago. Actually, they live near you. In Falls Church.”
“Virginia!” Brett marveled. “Imagine that, and I’ve never run into them. Of course, I wouldn’t know them if I did. I am pretty sure I never met your folks back when we were in school.”
“No,” Cathy replied, “but you’d recognize them. My mother especially. People always said she and I looked a lot alike, except for the age difference. If you saw her, she’d be just like an older version of me.”
Brett nodded in understanding. “Will you be with them for Christmas?”
“No…I have…a previous commitment. Do me a favor? When you get back to Virginia, if you ever bump into them, tell them how much I think of them every day.”
“But why can’t you face-time them if you can’t be there?”
Cathy’s smile was sad. “I prefer the personal touch. Promise you will relay my message?”
“Of course. I can tell you have a deep relationship with your family. Tell me. What was your favorite Christmas? As a child?”
Cathy pressed her lips together. “The year I turned four. That was the first time I comprehended what Santa Clause was.” She giggled, in a way Brett found most endearing. “Santa left me a stuffed animal. A large duck. I called him Schnazzy Duck. Carried him everywhere.”
Brett joined her in smiling at the remembrance. He found himself reveling, really embracing, the joy she so deeply felt.
Cathy broke off her reverie. “Hey, this is not supposed to be about me. How about we begin your first lesson? Would you like to sit in one of the planes?”
“Would I? You know, I never got the chance. Always craved it as a kid. And I’d still love to. But I’m sure these are all locked up tight.”
“I don’t think so. People here keep things open.”
Brett got a faraway look. “When I was small, we never used to lock the house when we went away. Or the car when we parked and went shopping or something.” He released a cleansing breath. “Life was so much more innocent then.”
Cathy nodded. She walked up to a turquoise craft. Sure enough the door opened to her touch. “Come on,” she beckoned. She let Brett take the pilot’s seat; she was next to him.
Brett was beyond thrilled. He blinked and when he opened his eyes, he was no longer in the Cessna. He looked all around. Then at himself. He was in a three piece suit. Seated at a large desk, in a modestly furnished office. “This…this is my old office, from years ago. When I had just made mid-level manager.” He gasped.
Cathy was still at his side, in a small wing chair. “How…how did you do that?” he questioned.
Cathy put a finger to her lips. “We had an agreement. Remember the condition. Unless you don’t want to go through with this.”
“No. No. I do want to. This is amazing!”
Cathy asked him about his lost position.
Brett’s head jerked around. “I haven’t told you that I got fired.”
Cathy said he had said everything in his life had turned sour, so she had made the natural assumption.
“Well it’s true,” he said forlornly. “I did a lot for the company. Look, I know my performance was not up to snuff lately, but I just lost my son. You think they’d have a little compassion.”
“Compassion is hard to come by in Corporate America,” Cathy agreed.
“You can say that again.”
“Compassion is hard to come by…”
Brett held up his hand. “I did not mean it literally,”
Cathy asked didn’t he have staff to fill in his gaps.
“Of course I had employees under me. But you’d never rely on them. There’s a reason they are below and people like me are in elevated positions. You have to keep the worker bees in their place. Give them too much initiative and they’ll take advantage of you. Or worse, plot to take your place. The companies love to replace higher earning experienced execs with newbies who are making much less. Why do you think the Big Four public accounting firms have a mandatory retirement age of 60?”
Cathy frowned. “So your management style…”
“Is fear,” he completed the sentence. “You have to run them with an iron hand.”
Cathy was still frowning. “No. No, you don’t. You can treat them with…compassion.”
Brett smirked. “Not to be rude, but what makes you the authority? What company were you chairman of?”
“Just seems sort of logical to me,” she responded. “And I think it used to to you as well.”
“What are you talking about? Like I said before, I haven’t hanged. Not in any meaningful way, certainly not in business. My management style is the same as it’s always been.”
Just then there was a timid knock at the office door. Brett was taken aback but he had the presence of mind to say, “Come in.”
A much younger man entered, looking especially downcast. “That’s Mike Broyhill,” Brett whispered. “He was one of my superstar staffers. But that was years ago!”
Young Broyhill shuffled up to the desk and sat in the guest chair. “Brett, I have to offer my resignation. You see, I screwed up real bad. I was supposed to send the Acme contract out yesterday. Somehow, I don’t know how this happened, it got by me.” He held up a packet. “This is it. It’s all ready to go. But I know when the client gets their copy, they are going to have a fit because I missed the deadline. So to avoid your having to fire me, I’m offering my resignation.”
Brett looked him up and down, just as he had all those years ago. The man was actually trembling. Brett knew he had a family. Three young daughters, barely school age. Brett steepled his fingers as he looked skyward in contemplation.
“Listen, Mike,” Brett came around the desk, placing his arm around his subordinate’s shoulders, exactly as he had years ago. “This was just an artificial deadline. Take the contract and write yesterday’s date on it. Then we will walk to the Post Office together.”
“It’s after hours,” Mike said sadly.
“They have pick up boxes, right? Anyone asks, which I doubt will happen, you just say you mailed it yesterday. The Post Office is notorious for slow delivery. And if need be, I can attest that I saw you put it in the box yesterday.”
Mike looked up in surprise. “You’d do that for me, Brett?”
“You’re a valued employee. Always busting your butt for me. You have a terrific future in front of you. This little white lie far outweighs ruining your career.”
“Brett, I don’t know what to say.” His eyes misted up. “I’ll never forget you for this!” He left to alter the date.
When he was gone, Brett had not noticed Cathy, and she now said, “It would have ruined his career, wouldn’t it?”
Brett shook his head yes. “In this environment, management is always looking for reasons to thin the herd. Yes, he would have been fired and with that on his resume, he would never have found comparable work. To say nothing of what would have become of his wife and children.”
“You made senior vp at a young age,” Cathy commented. “Do you know why they promoted you so quickly? Did you ever see your personnel file?”
“Yes. There were a lot of reasons. My smarts, my work ethic, my creativity, organizational skills, bedside manner with clients. But at the top of the list was my development of staff. The file said, ‘His subordinates would take a bullet for him.’”
Cathy was nodding up and down. “So you got promoted at a record pace, because you showed compassion.”
Brett was lost in thought. “Yes,” he came back to her quietly. “Yes.”
“So,” she concluded, “your management style did change.”
“It’s only natural as you move up the corporate food chain,” he rationalized.
“And when your move was not up but sideways when you were faced with tragedy, there was no longer anyone willing to take a bullet for you. No one to step up and cover for you.”
“No,” Brett admitted glumly. “No, I guess not.”
Cathy said, “You ever heard the saying, ‘It is in giving that we receive?’”
“Sure. Wasn’t that Thomas Aquinas?”
“Close. St. Francis. But I won’t tell him.”
Brett looked over, assuming Cathy was jesting, but she was all seriousness.
“In the old days, you routinely did good works for your staff employees. And in turn they labored ever harder for you, enabling you to rise. In giving, you received.”
Brett was thinking hard. “Okay maybe I got too caught up in the office. I lost a little perspective.”
“A little?” Now she was smiling. “Oh, don’t be too hard on yourself. It happens to almost everyone in Corporate America. Greed becomes an end in itself. As do the problems. When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember your mission was to drain the swamp.”
Slowly the office dissolved and they were back sitting in the Cessna. Brett quietly got out of the cockpit. He walked along the runway, looking at nothing in particular.
Cathy’s voice broke the silence. “Penny for your thoughts?”
“Just thinking. I guess maybe at the office I did change. But I think that’s about it. In all other respects I am still the same person you knew in high school.”
Cathy looked at him fondly. Brett noticed it, leaned in and kissed her. She was taken aback. “I didn’t see that coming,” she laughed, but there was nervousness to her voice.
“Did I overstep my bounds?” Brett inquired. “I mean…”
“No,” she spoke quickly, cutting him off. “It was a nice kiss. It’s just…I’m here to help you. Not to get romantically involved.”
“Obviously we have to wait until I’m divorced, but after that, I’d like to do what I should have years ago. Ask you out for a date.”
Cathy nodded but she partially turned away so he could not see the troubled look in her eyes.
“Hey, you all right?” he asked.
“Yes. Sure. I just think, like I said before, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I mean, are you absolutely sure you and Rachel are splitsville?”
“She seemed fairly sure,” Brett responded.
“I asked if you were sure. I think we need to talk about your relationship with Rachel before we can go forward.”
“That seems reasonable,” he said. Then he saw a spot just beyond the runway. “This is where we used to hide to watch the planes take off!” Brett walked over to the dip in the weeded area. Cathy stayed on the runway. Lifting her head to the heavens while she was briefly alone, she said in a barely audible voice, “This is going to be harder than I thought. We have to get him to confront other facets of his life.” She turned back to where Brett was. Sighing she said, “All in a day’s work.” Then she added, “’Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for today; tomorrow will be anxious for itself.’”
Joining Brett she said, “The day is moving on. We need to get going.” And she hopped back on her bike.
On the seventh day of my Christmas gift to you…
It was a relatively short ride to their next destination. Brett saw the old familiar sights and enjoyed reliving his childhood. Still he was surprised when Cathy stopped in front of the 1950’s-style split-level house.
“How did you know this is where I grew up?” he asked suspiciously.
“Silly,” she playfully punched him on the shoulder. “Our high school yearbook had your street address.”
“But we just bumped into each other by happenstance,” he pointed out. “So you could not have looked me up. Nor could you possibly have remembered it from that long ago.”
Another dazzling smile. “I have a pretty good memory.”
“I’ll say! You ought to try your luck at card games in the casinos!”
Turning to the house she said, “You enjoyed growing up here?”
“Oh yes! It was so warm and comfortable. Rockland County was a great place to grow up. At least it was back in the day. My parents had a lot to do with that. I can almost see Mom in the kitchen. She was quite the cook. Dad used to take me places. Like the airport, where we just were. On Sundays after church we’d drive to Pakula’s Bakery. They had the best cakes. Their strawberry shortcake was to die for.”
“A lot of things are worth dying for, but pastry isn’t one of them.”
Brett saw she was serious. “It was just a figure of speech.”
“Oh,” she replied. “Sometimes I forget.” The comment seemed off but Brett did not pursue it. Cathy was asking him something else.
“What else did you do?”
“Oh, lots of things. Saturdays, our family tradition was to have dinner out. Perruna’s in Spring Valley had the best Italian. Bavarian Gardens up in the North Country. German cuisine of course. If Mom and Dad felt especially fancy, the Silver Pheasant. As a kid I was always impressed when they put out a crystal platter of celery, carrot sticks, black and green olives. To this day, that still defines luxury dining in my mind. Of course we’d go see movies at the Drive –In in Monsey, or ice skate at Low Tor or Bear Mountain. You know, the best times were just hanging around the neighborhood. Dad put up a basket in the back yard and we shot hoops for hours on end. During the week after school in the warmer days, all the kids walked through the woods to Geshmann’s Field, he was a farmer, and we played baseball there.” Brett chucked. “There were no X-Box, computer or video games then. It was a better way to grow up, I believe.”
Cathy readily assented. Their attention was diverted by a little child running across the back yard. As he did, his hat flew off. They only caught a glimpse before he disappeared behind the house.
“Talk about serendipity,” Brett remarked. "My brother had red hair. Funny how whoever lives here now has a little boy with the same hair.” Before Cathy could ask he added, “My brother died of cancer. Only 39. Way too young to go.”
“Tell me about it,” she said in a low voice.
Any melancholy was quickly dispelled as Brett noticed the snow piled at the end of the driveway. “Look at this!” he said. “We used to do the same thing. When the snow plow deposited all the snow, we’d pack it down and shovel out a hole on the side, carving deeper and deeper into the interior of the mound. Until we had our very own igloo. The kids who live in my old house have done the exact same thing.”
“It’s probably a universal amusement,” Cathy said.
“Unless you live in Florida.”
She shook her head. “There is that.”
Brett patted the igloo. It’s pretty large. They did a good job. I wonder where the kids are? Why aren’t they all playing out here?”
“Maybe they are doing good works.”
Brett gave her a look. “Funny you should say that. After school, in both elementary and high school, I used to go to the nursing home. Elmwood Manor is just down the street.” He pointed in the direction. “I used to visit with the old people. One in particular I remember. He was blind. A Russian immigrant, he had come here just before the First World War, sensing the coming tragedy. He used to tell me about Woodrow Wilson, who was president when he arrived. Then a litany of the following presidents and how they fared. Helped fire my love of history, he made it so real.”
Cathy commented, “That was so generous in spirit of you, to offer of yourself and your time in that way. I’m sure it meant a lot to the old folk.”
Brett said he supposed so. They always seemed happy to see him. He mentioned a few other charitable activities he used to be involved in. Clothing drives, fundraisers, tutoring underprivileged students.
Cathy frowned. “I note you say used to do these things. Why not now?”
“Oh, I see what you’re doing,” he grinned. “No you don’t. Trying to make the case how I’ve changed. Look, it’s not like I joined the Peace Corps or something. Just a coupla’ hours here and there.”
“Every small act sends a ripple,” she responded.
“Some ripples are so small as to be hardly worth the effort. And when you grow up and have adult responsibilities, you can’t fritter away an hour here or an hour there on trivial pursuits.”
Cathy nodded thoughtfully. She was getting a little preachy and Brett was starting to think despite how attractive and nice she was, she probably wasn’t worth going out with. Besides, the one kiss they shared was not a barn burner. More like kissing your sister. That is, what Brett imagined it would be like, his never having had a sister.
He was still absently stroking the igloo when Cathy piped up. “Why don’t we go inside?”
“Isn’t that like trespassing?”
She gave him a “You’ve got to be kidding me” look. She said, “It’s just a pile of snow by the side of the road. It’s not like we’re raiding their ice box or something.”
Despite being made of snow and ice, the igloo was giving Brett a warm familiar feeling. So he went in. Cathy followed. It was tight, but large enough to accommodate both of them.
Once seated inside, Brett’s head brushed the roof of the ice cave. A little snow flitted into his eyes. He wiped the flakes away. When he did so, he was no longer in the igloo. He looked around, rapidly. Up and down the bench. He knew immediately where he was.
He turned to Cathy and asked, “How…?”
She made a zipping motion across her lips. “We have a deal, remember?” Oddly, though of course the whole thing was becoming odder and odder, was that no else could see Cathy. Only Brett.
He looked out to the field. It was the championship game. Little League. Brett’s youngsters, he was the coach, clung to a slender 1-0 lead in the last inning. The other team had two outs. Then disaster struck.
The other team’s next batter socked the ball so hard, it bounced off the outfield fence. While the outfielder, who had been dozing, ran with his little feet churning, retrieved the ball and fired it in, the runner stood on third base. He was grinning and pounding his chest, a twelve-year old human version of King Kong.
The pitcher was unnerved and promptly threw eight balls, none of which came remotely close to the plate. Both subsequent batters thus walked. So, bases loaded. The other team was chanting. The other team’s parents were chanting. One presumptuous parent had brought a bottle of champagne. He popped the cork. The noise was unmistakable and as he uncorked, the other parents roared. Meanwhile the parents on Brett’s side, and his young players, went into cricket mode. You just knew from the momentum shift how this was going to turn out.
Brett called out to the ump. “Blue! Time!” Then he slowly started to the mound. When he got there his pitcher, a well-behaved young boy named Jonathan, was in tears.
“I can’t do it, Coach! I’m sorry!” He caught his breath amidst sniffles, and continued, “Put someone else in. Anyone. They’d do better than me.”
Brett put his hand on the poor lad’s shoulders and squeezed consolingly while handing him a Kleenex. “Jonathan, I’m not going to ask you to do anything you don't want to. But I want you to know there is no one, NO ONE, I’d rather have out here right now. I believe in you. And anyway, it’s just a game. What’s the worst that could happen? So it’s up to you. What do you want to do?”
Jonathan gave one last sniffle and said, “I’ll do it.”
Brett smiled and said, “Okay. Take a minute to compose yourself. I’ll stay here with you.” After about a minute, the little boy said he was ready.
“All right,” Brett said handing him the ball. He started to walk off the mound, then turned back and added, “One more thing. Do me a favor?” Brett said nodding at the batter waiting at home plate. “Strike the little bastard out!” It was eerie as Brett walked to the dugout. Jonathan was laughing, but there was no other sound at all. The place was silent, the way Little League fields never are, at least not on this planet.
Jonathan got a serious look, wound up and hurled.
The batter watched as the ball sailed by. “Strike!” the ump cried out.
Again a second time.
On the third pitch, the batter swung feebly as the ump signaled “Strike Three! Yer Out!”
The silence gave way to a deafening roar, this time from parents and players on Brett’s side of the field. Jonathan’s teammates mobbed him, a flood of childhood joy falling in a collective frolicking heap on the mound, laughing and cheering.
Brett’s assistant coaches hugged him. All three had tears in their eyes. Brett wiped at the tears in his own eyes. As soon as she did, he was back in the igloo.
“It was a pretty emotional moment,” Cathy spoke quietly.
“But how could you know?” he asked. “You weren’t there.”
“I just saw it now.”
Brett started to ask something else but Cathy stopped him with a single word. “Deal.”
“Now that is what I call an act of charity,” Cathy said. “More meaningful than any donation you could ever make to a foundation, church or school.” When Brett looked up she explained, “You gave of yourself.”
“I guess. At least I did a good act for Jonathan. But it only benefitted him. Sort of defies your saying that in giving we receive.”
“Au contraire,” she scolded. “Let me ask you. How did you feel afterwards? What were those tears in your eyes from?”
Brett got a faraway look. “I felt great! They were such a nice group of kids, I was so happy for their sake. And…I felt I had somehow reached deep into myself. That felt great too.”
“So in giving, who received?”
Brett looked down and smiled. “Point made.”
“Not entirely. You received so much more than that good feeling you just referenced.”
“Those two men who hugged you. Who were they?”
Brett explained about his assistants. “They were good friends," he said.
“They became good friends of yours after that,” she corrected him. “They were so touched by what they saw in you. What’s become of them?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Life moves on. You get busy and fall out of touch with people.”
“So we just saw you extend your innermost self to a child in need, but now you’ve refused to extend yourself in the slightest to friends. And now, now that your life has taken a sour turn, where are the friends you should be able to rely on?”
Brett’s arms fell. “I don’t know,” he said dejectedly.
“To receive you have to keep giving,” Cathy concluded.
On the eighth day of my Christmas gift to you…
They crawled out of the igloo. The sun was moving across the sky, as the day waned and Christmas Day approached.
“You know,” Cathy said, “There was something more spectacular you received that day. Something you were never aware of.”
“What’s that?” Brett was curious.
“Why did you coach in the first place, Brett?”
“To be close to my son. I knew with my hours, I’d never get home in time to spend quality hours with him. By signing on for coaching, I was responsible for so many children, it forced me to leave work early several days a week. I guess you could say I did it for Brian.”
“Uh-huh,” she said. “Not only were your friends and the parents, including ones on the other team super-impressed with how you handled the situation, when Brian saw it, that’s when he decided he wanted to be just like you. You became his hero!”
“That’s what got him killed,” Brett said.
“No. You can’t think that way. You didn’t kill your son. A bunch of people who hate for no reason, they are what led to his death. You…you gave meaning to his life. Even as you changed, Brian always saw you as the man on the pedestal he so admired.”
Brett had tears in his eyes. Then he looked up, startled by a sudden realization. “Brian was there! He was the catcher. I remember seeing him out of the corner of my eye. Cathy! Please let me go back! If only to see him one more time! Please!” Brett had fallen to his knees and was sobbing.
Cathy gently knelt by his side and cradled his shoulders. “This is very hard to explain. I have certain powers, but they are not unlimited. I cannot dial up the scene you just lived through again.”
“You can’t or you won’t?”
“I can’t. I will try to bring your son to you, but no guarantees.”
“Oh thank you! Thank you so much for trying! I just want to see my boy!” he cried. Cathy still rubbed Brett’s back, consoling him.
When he was calmed Cathy said, “You know, it’s not recommended re-visiting those departed loved ones who were so close to you.”
“Why not? What better use of your powers? What could possibly be more empathetic?”
“I know it’s hard to accept, but the empathetic thing to do is to erect a barrier between the bereaved and a loved one.”
“What utter nonsense!”
“No. Think about it. How hard was it for you to lose Brian?”
“I DIED inside. He was my whole life!”
Cathy nodded. “So if you could go back and spend time with him, sure it would be great for a while, but what would happen when you had to lose him again? Could you go through that ordeal a second time?”
“I couldn’t bear that!”
Brett had a thought. “What if I didn’t have to lose him? What if I could go back and…”
Cathy interrupted. “And what? Give him life?” When Brett shook his head she said, “There is only one author of life. Man gives warnings but only God gives life.”
“Then why did He take my son!”
“Oh, Brett. He didn’t. I told you, some misguided zealots in the Middle East fueled by hatred started the chain of causality leading to Brian’s death. The Lord can help however. Have you asked Him?”
“No. I blame Him.”
“You think it’s wise to make an enemy of the Creator of All Things?” She held up her hand. “Don’t answer. If you were being truthful, it isn’t just about Brian because you stopped praying and church-going a long time ago? Maybe you ought to seek the Lord’s help. For solace, if nothing else.”
“I don’t want solace; I want a miracle.”
“Who’s to say what God will provide? Anything would be better than the hell your life has become.” She looked at Brett with such compassion. Holding out her hands, Cathy said, “Join me. Let’s pray together.”
Brett though about what she had said and it made sense. He clasped her hands. They both closed their eyes while Cathy spoke, “Lord, please bring comfort to this good man. Help him to again see his inner good.” When they opened their eyes and broke contact Cathy asked, “Better?”
Brett’s cheeks were still wet but he gave a small grin. “I don’t know how, or why, but yes I do feel better.”
“Prayer has a way of doing that for you.”
“Maybe I should try it more often.”
“Maybe you should.”
When they turned back to the bicycles, Brett said, “I feel so tired.”
“Like you need a nap?”
“No. More like I’m drained.”
“You always say that mental work is more taxing than physical labor.”
Brett asked how Cathy knew he said that, then he caught himself and said, “Deal.”
Cathy smiled. She said, “And emotional strain is that much more compelling than mental exertion. Of course you’re tired. You’ve been through a lot. Don’t worry. You’ll catch your second wind soon. Unless, that is, you care to stop our journey.”
“Are you kidding? This has been unbelievable. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.” With that they were back on their bikes and pedaling away. Brett paused at the top of the hill and turned back to cast a last lingering look at his boyhood home.
Cathy next pulled into a small parking lot off of Middletown Road. “This is the nursing home you told me about? Elmwood Manor.” It was. “You were a good worker.”
“Always have been,” Brett said. “That and my natural smarts are what allowed me a fair degree of success. It’s a good example of where in giving I received.”
Cathy smiled. “I think the point of St. Francis’s aphorism is in giving to others the donor is enriched.”
“Not how it works in the world of finance. You give of your own effort and you are recompensed accordingly.”
“Surely you did not accomplish things all by yourself.”
Brett scoffed. “Who else did for me? It was all me. All my contributions and skills.”
It was Cathy’s turn to scoff. “A self-made man in love with his creator.”
“Say what you will, but if the shoe fits. I rose through the ranks all on my own, from a rather humble background here in Rockland County.”
“We’ll see,” Cathy replied enigmatically before resuming the bike ride. Down Route 304, then a right. A short while later they were beside an imposing structure.
“Our old high school,” Brett remarked.
Now Cathy grinned broadly. “A lot of good times,” she said.
Brett looked up at the school. “Seems a lot newer than it should be after all these years.”
“Well the students are on break now, so I suppose the janitorial staff has had an opportunity to clean the place spic and span.”
“It would be fun to poke around inside,” Brett said.
“What’s stopping us? Let’s go.”
“No way,” Brett said. “It must be locked up tight. Especially in this day of school gun violence. Even when school’s out, I’m sure they have security protocols.”
“I don’t think so. Let’s find out.” She walked up to the main entrance and it opened seemingly of its own accord. Brett was more than a little taken aback. However he walked in behind Cathy.
As they passed the physics lab, Brett noted that had been their freshmen homeroom. They sauntered down the long corridor, past row after row of lockers. Then past the gymnasium, and into the cafeteria.
“I used to sit over there,” Brett motioned.
Cathy tossed her head. “And my girlfriends and I were over there. I used to be able to see you from that vantage point.”
Brett laughed. “I wish I had known that back then. Would have saved me a lot of adolescent angst.” Cathy grinned and gave his hand a quick squeeze. She led him to his old table and sat down. Brett sat opposite her.
“Sure does bring back memories,” as he rubbed his eyes. When he stopped rubbing, he and Cathy were no longer in the cafeteria. They were in a hospital room. “Good Samaritan Hospital?” Brett whispered.
On the ninth day of my Christmas gift to you…
A teenager, no more than fourteen or fifteen years old, lay propped up on his pillows. There were scads of tubes snaking out of his arm. A monitor beeped ominously on the small table top beside the sick bed.
“Brett!” the teen brightened instantly. “You came!”
Brett shuffled forward, hesitantly. Feeling that he had to control his emotions he said, “Hey, Ed! Up for some girl chasing?”
Eddie laughed. “Pretty soon. Pretty soon. Soon’s I’m out of here.”
“I brought a girl to say hello. Cathy Atkins.” Brett motioned to Cathy, who stood by the door.
Eddie looked sightlessly in the direction Brett had indicated. “You kidder,” he said. “You sure are sweet on that Cathy. Why don’t you ask her out?”
“I don’t know. Maybe someday.” Brett looked over to Cathy who mouthed, “He can’t see me.” Brett nodded his understanding.
“What did we cover in class today?” Eddie asked.
“Uh, nothing. Christmas break has started.”
Eddie gave an embarrassed grin. “These drugs make me forget sometimes. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, pal. Nothing to be sorry for.”
“The last thing I remember was algebra. We had just started equations. Yesterday, right?”
“Can we go over them? I don’t want to be behind our class.”
“Sure, of course. There was a pad and cartridge pen on the small table. Brett picked them up and wrote rapidly. Then he turned the paper so Eddie could see. “We have to solve for x.”
“Why x?” Eddie asked. “Why not a more common letter like a or e or b?”
Brett used his right hand to brush back his hair. “I think it doesn’t really matter. They could use any letter. Probably some freak mathematician from way back when decided x was a little unusual letter, so by using that it made him seem smarter.”
Eddie smiled. As he did, he winced. Brett felt for him. Averted his gaze so he could wipe at an eye.
Eddie said, “You know what I would like to be when I grow up? Anything but a mathematician.”
They both shared a laugh.
“You know the difference between a mathematician and an accountant?” Brett asked. To Eddie’s expectant silence Brett answered, “A mathematician is a person who is good with numbers but lacks the personality to be an accountant.”
Eddie laughed, but it turned into a wracking cough.
Brett looked concerned. “Can I get you anything?”
Eddie composed himself. “Yeah. Does Cathy Atkins have a sister?” He grinned.
The sick boy held out his hand. Brett clasped it. “Having you here is all I need. My family visits a lot, and a few relatives. Father Dunn also. And the doctors and nurses are nice. But it’s different to have real friends here.”
To keep from bawling, Brett said they had better go over more equations. He rapidly wrote on the papers. Then he tutored Eddie the proper way to solve for x. This went on for about a half hour. Brett himself had forgotten that Cathy was there, even if only to his eyes.
This was when Eddie dropped the papers. His hand fell and his head nodded. “I’m very tired now, Brett. Can we finish later?”
“Of course, p…pal. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Eddie’s eyes fluttered closed. Brett leaned over and kissed his forehead. He turned wordlessly. And made for the door, where Cathy was waiting. He turned back at a slight sound. “Thank you,” Eddie had exhaled.
“Anytime. Anytime,” Brett said through a choked voice.
Out in the hospital corridor, Brett broke down and wept bitterly. Cathy led him to a chair, again rubbing his back. When he regained his voice, Brett asked, “Why do you show me this? It is so painful.”
“This is the real Brett Carter. The boy I was enamored with. What’s painful is what you have lost. You did visit Eddie the next day. Christmas Day.”
“Yes.” He was leaned over, holding his head in his hands.
Cathy continued, “And the day after that, and the day after that, and…”
Brett waved her off. “Until late spring. That’s when the leukemia grew too strong and Eddie died. So sad!” Brett exclaimed. “So sad!”
“In one way, yes,” Cathy said. “In another way, a profound way, you provided a powerful symbol of what Christian living is all about. You bore living testimony. By helping Eddie with his school work. By giving him hope. By being there for him.”
“All right, I get it. In giving, I felt good about myself, despite my sadness over losing a dear friend.”
“You think that’s what this lesson was all about?”
“If not that, what else?”
“Well Mr. Self-Made Man…how did people react to you after?”
Brett shook his head. He was stymied. “I don’t know. I don’t recall anything out of the ordinary.”
“Sometimes teenagers are the worst at seeing how other people view us,” Cathy said. “We thought you were awesome! You never advertised what you did, but we all knew. Why do you think I got interested in you? And I wasn’t the only one. A lot of our classmates also gained a healthy respect for you. But most of all, it was the adults who were really taken with your selflessness.”
“That’s nice,” he mumbled.
“More than nice. It opened doors for you. Your grades were good?”
“Yes. I was always smarter than the average bear, and like I said, I had a solid work ethic, so I worked hard to get the top grades.”
“And the SATs?”
“Not so much so. I was never good at standardized tests.”
“Right. Your scores were middling. Yet you got into Georgetown. Ever wonder why?”
Brett shrugged. “I always figured it was on the strength of my academic rank in high school. Maybe my essay. Maybe it was Georgetown looking at some kind of diversity, a student from the Hudson Valley or something.”
Cathy’s eyes twinkled. “Wrong, wrong and wrong. Did you know the faculty and administration at the high school supported you?”
“I know they had to have written recommendations.”
“Hmph! They did a lot more than that. The head doctor at Good Samaritan who saw you all those days organized a caravan. He, another doctor, two nurses, our principal and seven teachers descended on northwest Washington. Camped out at the university president’s office demanding an audience. When they received it, they extolled your virtues, practically insisting you be admitted into ‘Swift Potomac’s Lovely Daughter.’” Cathy made quote marks.
Brett was thunderstruck. “I had no idea.”
“Georgetown led to law school, which led to your first job, and so on,” Cathy reasoned. “So while you deserve a lot of credit for your success, it did take a village.”
After a pause when Brett did not react, Cathy asked, “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Of course. I’m not stupid.”
“You are incredibly stupid! You’ve let your true self get lost amidst the whirl of materialism!”
“Okay,” he conceded. “You’ve given me a lot to think about. I admit I need to make a few course corrections.”
“By the way,” Cathy asked, “just out of curiosity, back in there,” she motioned to the hospital room, “you made a strange gesture. You touched your cheek to Eddie’s forehead, before kissing it.”
Brett smiled. “That is something my mother always did when I was sick. It always made me feel better, at least inside. You don’t know how many times lately I’ve wished Mom was here to console me like that.” He wiped at his eyes, and then they were back in the school cafeteria.
“Let’s go,” Brett said, a little glum.
“You’re sad,” Cathy noted.
“It hurts to take the blinders off. Here I thought I was practically perfect, whereas the truth is I do need to change.”
“The good news is it’s not much of a change. Just go back to being the Brett Carter you really are,” Cathy encouraged.
On the tenth day of my Christmas gift to you...
Before they got back on the bicycles, Brett told Cathy he assumed she had to be leaving soon. ”Don’t you have to be somewhere for Christmas?”
“It won’t take me long to get there. We can spend a little more time together before I have to leave.”
They rode back on Route 304. Brett stopped when he saw a sign attached to the telephone pole advertising something that was very familiar. “’The Marshmallow’”, he read it aloud. “That was a favorite watering hole when we were in school. Back then, they didn’t check ID’s very much. I remember it was owned by an ex-Yankee and an ex-Met. I’m surprised it’s still around. These places usually come and go.” Cathy ignored this, pedaling on, so Brett followed. Soon they turned onto the side road leading to West Nyack Road. Past Rockland Bakery, where the aroma of freshly baked bread was unmistakable. “Can you still walk to the back where the workers are and pick out your own rolls, hot out of the ovens?” Brett asked.
Cathy assured him that had not changed. “It is a popular place.” Indeed, the line snaked out of the building, as holiday revelers waited for rolls and pastries for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner.
They rode on, coming to a stop at St. Anthony’s Church.
“Back where we started,” Brett said.
“Not really,” Cathy replied. “When you think about it, we’ve come a long way.”
Brett agreed. “It has been an…interesting...journey. By the way, thank you. You have no idea how much you’ve helped me. I never could have believed an empath could make such vivid images come to life right before my very eyes.”
“I said I was like an empath.”
Brett let the comment go.
Cathy looked at him. “You see me differently now than you did this morning.”
“How do you mean?” Brett shifted a little uncomfortably.
“I perceived when we first met, you were driven by a little lust.”
Brett looked down. He was a little ashamed. “Maybe a little. You are very pretty. I still can’t get over how young you appear. That would be enticing to any guy. But you’re right. I do see you differently now. More as a …friend…” he looked uncertainly at Cathy who encouraged him by nodding. “Yes, a friend who has helped me see things so much more clearly.”
“And that,” Cathy emphasized, “is the Brett I used to know and am fond of. You know, the only thing left is to uncork some of that inherent goodness you’ve kept bottled up too long for your wife.”
Brett was surprised. “Rachel? No, no way. She’s made it clear she wants no part of me.”
“The part of you you had become, or the part she felt in love with?”
“That was so long ago. When you’re young you have outsized notions of romance. Maybe we never had a deep enough connection to stay married. Sure, Brian’s death accelerated things, but maybe we were destined for divorce.”
“But surely you loved her?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember that depth of emotion. Maybe I loved the idea of loving her. But like I said, maybe we never had that connection. Anyway, I doubt Rachel could reach back into her memory banks and call up the feeling we may once have had. I know it’s way too dim for me to do so. As you can see, I’m doubting if I ever truly was in love with her.”
“I see,” Cathy said, biting her lip. She took his hand and they walked into the Church. There was a group of boys, twelve in all, on the altar.
Brett commented the boys must be gathering for the vigil Mass. He knew most parishes offered a late afternoon or early evening Mass on Christmas Eve that satisfied the Christmas Day obligation. That way, people could spend the holy day at home, unwrapping gifts, feasting, enjoying family.
Cathy told him there was no vigil Mass. Brett expressed surprise. She explained the altar boys were rehearsing for Midnight Mass. That too was a tradition, one Brett well remembered from his own altar boy days. This was back in the pre-Vatican II era, when vigil Masses were unheard of. Looking nonchalantly at the altar servers, it struck Brett there were no girls. Just boys.
Cathy suggested for privacy they sit in the confessional box at the rear of the church. Brett remarked he thought in the new liturgy, confessionals had been abolished. Cathy held her own counsel. They squeezed into the section reserved for penitents, and Cathy closed the curtain separating the outside world.
Brett looked all around. He was no longer in a confessional. He was in an airplane!
Glancing about he saw there were only eight passengers on the jumbo jet. Then the setting grew instantly familiar. “I remember thinking to myself, the airlines’ll never make money taking so few passengers across country,” he told Cathy, who simply smiled.
A stewardess came over the PA. “Ladies and gentlemen, this flight from Chicago to New York is being held temporarily. There is a connecting flight from Phoenix with some passengers expected to join us. We anticipate being ready to pull away from the gate in ten minutes. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
A book materialized in Brett’s hands. “I read this!” he exclaimed to Cathy. “Tried to read it, on this flight. It was the third volume of Dumas Malone’s magisterial biography of Thomas Jefferson, ‘Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty.’ Brett riffled through the pages. “When this happened, I had been working three years, as long as I had been married to Rachel at that time.” Again Cathy listened quietly.
Brett’s attention turned back to the book, where once again, Jefferson’s exploits gripped Brett’s fancy. In a few moments, he looked up at the door to the jet way, where some noise indicated the new passengers, all four of them, were entering the plane. The second one was an absolutely stunning blonde. Brett thought, “She has to be a model! There are so many empty seats throughout the plane, but what I’d give to have that sit next to me.”
He resumed his place in the Jefferson tome when he heard a rustling. The goddess was taking the seat next to him! Strangely, Cathy had disappeared. The blonde smiled, her smile was even more dazzling than Cathy’s, and she said hello.
Brett felt a stirring within as he stammered, “Heh…hello.” Her beauty was that intimidating. He quickly buried his face back in the book; it seemed the safest course of action. The jet roared down the runway and took off.
Not ten minutes into the flight, Brett turned to the sound of someone sniffling. The model was in tears!
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she moaned. “I’ve been through a very difficult time. I promise to try to be better behaved the rest of the way.” She dabbed at her tears that were still flowing.
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Brett said. “We’re all in this together. Listen, I don’t mean to insinuate myself where I don’t belong, but if you need to talk, I’m a good listener.”
Now the woman’s tears became a torrent. “You are so kind! You see, I was…I was… I had a boyfriend. I thought he was the one and that he loved me. But it turned out all he wanted was…Oh God, I feel so cheap!”
Brett had a spare napkin that he used to dab her tears. “Despite what Hollywood says, falling in love is incredibly difficult,” he said. “I used to think there was no one out there for me. Then I met my wife, Rachel. It was love at first sight, something I also never believed possible, but it happened, right out of the blue.” Brett proceeded to tell how his and Rachel’s relationship happened, and how happy he was with her. How their courtship had flourished from unexpected beginnings, and how committed they were to each other. He paused thinking, “This woman is just gorgeous, and is emotionally fragile on the rebound. Connecting with her would be a snap. Oh God, why didn’t these things happen to me when I was single?”
The woman, whose name was Marie, turned out to be a nurse at St. Vincent’s in Manhattan. She had stopped crying, and watched Brett mesmerized as he spoke of his and Rachel’s love affair. She actually brightened as he talked, and then began peppering him with questions.
The most important point Brett stated was, “It sounds trite, but there really is someone out there for you.” At this, Marie actually smiled.
Brett usually enjoyed reading on plane trips. With work and all, he did not have a lot of time for leisure reading. So business trips provided a welcome opportunity. That is why he abhorred chatty neighbors on planes and did all he could to discourage conversation. Not this time however. The girl was clearly in need. And so beautiful.
The conversation continued in animated fashion until each was surprised at the sensation of the wheels touching down. Marie said, “This is the first time I wished the flight was not over!” She had baggage to claim; Brett, ever the light packer, did not. She thanked him profusely.
Brett told her “Look, if you ever need to talk…well, here.” He handed her his business card, on the back of which he had written his home number as well. Then he was gone into the night.
The darkness was replaced, by the image of Cathy sitting next to him, back in the confessional! “Did you see that?” Brett asked.
“Of course. I was only in the row behind you. You know Brett, that girl was seriously contemplating suicide. You…the old YOU…saved her. You never saw Marie again, but you did hear from her, right?”
Brett was nodding. “Yes. Two years later I got a letter at the office. I could never forget it. It was from Marie and it said, ‘Dear Brett, you may not remember me, but you changed my life.’ She went on to say how she had abandoned all hope until my story of my life with Rachel changed all that. She eventually met and married a doctor and they were off to be married and spend two years in Ethiopia, donating their time and talent to help the needy of that poor land.”
Brett looked up at Cathy. “I guess I haven’t been all bad.”
“Not at all. But it was a long time ago,” Cathy said. “So long ago, you’ve forgotten the most important part of the story as it effects you.”
Brett had no idea what Cathy was getting at. She filled in the blanks.
“When you got home that night, you shared the story with Rachel.”
“Yes. I felt I should tell her. It was so out of the ordinary.”
“Did you know how it effected Rachel?”
“She seemed interested. Who wouldn’t be? It was an unusual flight for a business trip.”
“Oh, Brett. Brett. Rachel was much more than interested. She could see how smitten you were by Marie’s sensuality, and the opportunity to make a pass at her. Remember those poet’s words I mentioned earlier. What women want? Love, truth, and goodness? ‘Til death us do part?” Brett shook his head yes.
Cathy smiled. “You gave Rachel the greatest gift imaginable. Proof of your undying love and devotion to her. Your fidelity. You cherished her so much you willingly avoided making a pass at an available, vulnerable, attractive woman.”
Brett had tears in his eyes. “I did love Rachel so much. I would never have done anything to…” his voice dropped…“hurt her…Oh, God!” Brett put his face in his hands.
“Not to pry, but what happened after you shared that airplane story with Rachel?”
Brett stopped weeping. He smiled. “We had one of the most wonderful nights of intimacy we ever had.”
“Yes. But did you know that was the night you conceived Brian?”
“Oh…My…God!” Brett exhaled. He looked up at Cathy. “Rachel is hurting, isn’t she?”
“And I have not been there, not in a long while, for her. I did love her so. Actually, yes, I see I still do. If only I could recapture at least a small part of that feeling”…the rest drifted off as Brett was lost in thought.
Suddenly he jumped up. “Cathy! I don't know if it can be done, but I’ve got to try! I have to make things better for Rachel. I can’t leave her this…broken! I have to go now!”
Cathy grabbed his sleeve as he started to exit the Church. The altar boys had just left and were walking down the sidewalk to the parking lot, where most had parents waiting to pick them up. “Brett!” Cathy exclaimed, “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to rent a car, or something. Rachel is at her sister’s. They live in Gettysburg. I can get to Pennsylvania in a few hours. I have to make this a good Christmas, or try to do the best I can, for Rachel! Goodbye Cathy! I’m sorry to be so abrupt!”
“No! Brett! You can't leave yet! It’s not that easy!”
He pulled his arm free and flew down the stairs. Just as abruptly, Brett halted. Something, something he had just caught a glimpse of, was seriously amiss. It couldn’t be!
He walked back into the vestibule where, on the side wall, hung a photograph of the Pope. But it wasn’t this pope. It was John XXIII!
“No!” Brett wailed. “This can’t be!” He opened the door of the Church and looked at the traffic. Cars with huge tail fins and V-8 engines. Brett’s eyes were wild. He turned back to Cathy. Before he could say anything, he noticed a newspaper someone had abandoned on the ledge. He picked it up. It was the New York Daily News, turned to an inside page. Brett could not believe his eyes as he scanned the headline. “JFK Picks Harvard Prof to be Top Econ Advisor.”
Cathy walked down the steps to him.
Brett asked her, “Am I dead?”
“No, of course not.”
“In a coma and imagining this?”
“No. You’re also not asleep dreaming or hallucinating. Brett, this is real. We are here. Christmas Eve, 1960.”
“It is the answer to your prayer back at the church in Virginia. You wanted to be taken home.”
“Cathy! I don’t understand all this! I have to go back! Please! Help me!”
“Brett,” her voice was very soothing, as was the touch of her hand on his arm. “Everything will be revealed momentarily. We just have one last short ride to make.” She walked off while Brett’s eyes focused again on the newspaper article. When Brett looked up, Cathy had taken off, but more critically, he saw one of the altar boys. This one apparently had not been picked up by his parents. The child, who looked to be seven or eight years old, took Brett’s red Schwinn, hopped on and began pedaling away.
“Cathy!” Brett cried out. “That little kid is stealing my bike! Let’s stop him!”
Without thinking, Brett tore off after the child. He called out, “Hey, kid! Give me that bike!”
The boy turned at the voice and, frightened at the sight of an adult chasing him, pedaled even harder.
Fortunately, Brett kept in shape by jogging and working out at the gym. Despite his recent lethargy, he was still in fine shape and had incredible stamina, for a man his age. So he was able to keep up with the young cyclist. He also knew he could maintain the pace before the child tired. When that happened, Brett would have him. As he ran, Brett lost sight of Cathy.
The kid crossed Route 59, and then turned left onto Middletown Road, heading into the business district of the small hamlet.
Brett was closing the gap, but slowly.
About a half mile in, where the sturdy concrete block housing the Nanuet National Bank stood, an alarm was ringing. Two men, scarves covering the lower half of their faces and holding guns and sacks, ran out of the bank building. One of them collided with the child cyclist who had happened at just that moment to turn back for a glance at his pursuer.
As they collided, the boy flung out his hand for protection. In doing so, he snagged one of the robber’s face coverings, which promptly flew off. The boy fell off the bicycle. He lay on the ground, panting as he stared at the man’s face.
The man’s partner said, “He’s seen you! We can’t leave him to identify you!” So he raised his pistol at the quivering child, aiming directly at the boy’s heart.
“No!” Brett screamed, sensing what was about to transpire. He hurled himself at the child, hoping to push him out of harm’s way.
Unfortunately, Brett was a split second too late.
On the eleventh day of my Christmas gift to you…
One man’s time is another man’s treasure. Brett was a split second too late. Though in another way of looking at things, he was right on time. As Brett tackled the child, the criminal fired.
Brett’s action kept the bullet from hitting any vital organs. It did however strike the boy in the right shoulder. As it struck and the child and Brett fell to the ground, Brett landed on his right shoulder. He felt a pain as searing as any he had ever experienced. Both he and the child let out cries of pain and shock that were positively unearthly.
Seeing that he had failed to silence the witness to the crime, the shooter cocked his gun a second time. He would not miss this time.
Brett had one thought: he had to save this child! He quickly scrambled, as fast as he ever had, completely covering the boy’s body with his own, a veritable human shield. Then Brett heard the most beautiful words he believed existed in the English language. The sound of other guns being cocked as a terse voice called out: “Clarkstown PD! Drop your weapons!”
Brett heard the sounds of the criminals’ guns clatter to the pavement. The two cops rushed over and subdued the criminals.
Brett turned the boy, who made no sound or movement, to ascertain the extent of his injuries. When he did, and he saw the face, Brett immediately recoiled. Then a wave of pain hit him and he slumped over.
Just then Cathy came running up to Brett. She knelt by his side. “An ambulance is on its way for the child,” she spoke calmly. “Congratulations,” she whispered in Brett’s ear. “You proved yourself worthy.”
Through a fog of pain, Brett asked how this was so.
“You showed that you have a capacity to love. ‘Greater love hath no man…’” Cathy whispered to him.
The bank alarm ceased and in its place the holiday music that had been piped through the bank lobby beforehand resumed. The sweet strains of “Silent Night” played in the background. Brett struggled to keep his eyes open. “But that boy…that…that was me!” he gasped.
Cathy told him, “But you didn’t know that when you tried to save him.”
“I...I thought he was just a little boy who did not deserve to die.”
“Precisely.” Cathy looked up at the sky. Snowflakes were starting to fall. “Listen, I don’t have much time. I just want to thank you…for letting me make a difference.”
“Cathy!” he pleaded, “please don’t let me die! I have to get back to Rachel, to make things better for her! But I’m afraid!”
She gently shushed him. “You will be all right, and everything will be revealed. Oh! I have a message for you from your mother.” Cathy leaned over, placing her cheek against Brett’s forehead, and then she gently kissed his forehead.
Brett suddenly felt better, but his eyes were so heavy. They fluttered open. He saw the snow. Heard the hymn, where all was calm, all was bright. Then all was black.
Brett felt someone tugging at his leg.
“Mister! Mister, are you all right?”
Brett’s side felt sore as he opened his eyes. He looked into the concerned gaze of the sexton, who had found Brett slumped across the kneeler in the pew. The sexton helped Brett sit up.
“Ow!” Brett muttered. “Does that hurt! Probably when I fell on my shoulder.” With his left hand he smoothed his hair.
“Are you all right?” the sexton again asked.
Except for his aching side, Brett felt okay. He glanced around. He was in St. James Church, in Falls Church, Virginia! “How did I get back here?” he asked, then said, “Never mind.” Brett sat in the pew. He asked the sexton what day it was.
“It is December 24th. Christmas Eve. I was just setting up for the vigil Mass. It starts in about an hour, at eight o’clock.” Brett assured the man he was fine and urged him to go about his business. The sexton left and went into the sacristy. Brett had not asked what year it was. Since he was back in Northern Virginia, he believed he was all the way back. “God, it was a wonderful dream, or fantasy, or whatever.” He sat in the pew briefly, thinking things through. Suddenly he spoke in the quiet. “I have to go to Rachel. I have to get to Pennsylvania.”
As he walked toward the exit at the rear of the Church, an old couple was just coming in. They had to be well into their eighties. As he passed them, Brett caught a good look at their faces. He stopped, abruptly, transfixed by the woman’s appearance.
“Cathy!” he uttered. “Cathy Atkins?”
The old woman took an involuntary step back, as if she had been struck. She said, “Oh, dear!” She looked just like Cathy, but as old now as in Brett’s memory she had looked young. There was no doubt it was Cathy, just a much older Cathy.
The old man grew indignant. “Is this some kind of sick joke?” he snarled.
“No!” Brett held his hands up. “You look just like a girl I used to go to school with. Cathy Atkins. But you’re an older version of Cathy. I don’t get it.”
The man’s features relaxed, as did the woman’s. The man spoke. “I’m Bill Atkins. This is my wife, Dorothy. Cathy was our daughter.”
“People always said she and I looked a lot alike,” Dorothy said, “except for the age difference.”
“Yes,” Brett smiled. ”She just told me that.”
“She just told you that?” Cathy’s father said. “You mean you remembered that from so many years ago?”
“No,” Brett replied. “I just spent the day with her. She told me you had moved here.”
“What else did she tell you?” Bill asked as Dorothy clung to his arm.
”That she misses you both and thinks of you every single day. Oh, and she talked about her happiest Christmas with you. When she was four and you got her a stuffed duck. Schnazzy the Duck, she called him.”
“Oh, Bill!” Dorothy said, startled.
“I know, I know,” Bill patted her arm. “No one else knows that.” Then he asked Brett, “Anything else?”
Brett told them she was kind and attractive. Much as he remembered her back in high school. But he had gotten to know her so much better in the last day than he had during four years of school. “She was the helpful one, but she actually thanked me for, her exact words were, ‘Letting me make a difference.’”
The two older people gasped. Dorothy’s eyes filled with tears. Bill explained. “When Cathy went off to med school at Johns Hopkins, we were still living in New York then, that’s what she told us she wanted to do with her life. To make a difference.”
“She was driving home that Christmas Eve when she was hit by that drunk driver.” Cathy’s mother began to cry harder.
Bill said in a sad voice, “She was only 26 when we lost her.”
Now Brett staggered back a step, totally stunned. “But I saw her! She was real! And she looked just like she was 26!”
Cathy’s dad looked at the altar. “The Lord moves in mysterious ways. You know, after Cathy died, we sort of lost our faith. We come here every Christmas Eve on the anniversary of her death, more out of habit than anything else.”
Dorothy approached Brett and hugged him fiercely. “Thank you! You’ve restored our faith.”
Bill added in a choked voice, “And you restored our daughter’s future. God bless you!” He turned to his wife and said, “I think it’s time we started celebrating Christmas again, the way it’s supposed to be.”
Through teary eyes, Dorothy agreed.
“Let’s go back to the house,” Bill said. “Then we’ll come back here, for midnight Mass. We’ll just say a prayer first.” The two shuffled to the nearest pew. Just before kneeling, Bill extended his hand, which Brett clasped with his left hand.
Before he left, Brett said, “If you like, I would be happy to visit you, and share everything I experienced about Cathy.”
Dorothy was still weeping. “That would be wonderful. The dearest Christmas wish a mother could ever hope for. Thank you!”
Brett left them and headed outside. As amazing as everything Brett had witnessed, or thought he had, when he walked down the outside steps, he was greeted by a sight more incredible than anything he had experienced thus far.
On the twelfth day of my Christmas gift to you…
“Rachel!” Brett cried out as he came out of the Church and saw her hurrying, worried-looking, along the sidewalk.
Brett practically flew into her arms. “Oh, Rachel! I’m so sorry! I’ll try to make things up to you!” As hard as he embraced her, Rachel just as strongly clung to him. Both had tears in their eyes.
He held her at arm’s length and looked at the face that after all these years he still found so pretty. “You came back!” he croaked.
“Of course I did! We’ve been looking everywhere for you! I’ve been worried sick! You better make it up to me, Brett Carter! If I wasn’t so relieved, I’d smack you upside the head!” She laughed through her tears, again clinging to him.
“What do you mean you’ve been looking for me?” he mumbled into her hair which he was nuzzling with his lips.
“You’ve been missing since yesterday! I was scared out of my mind! I’ve even got the police looking for you!”
“What were you doing here?” he asked.
“I was so desperate, I was going to ask the pastor to say a prayer for you. And there you were! Oh, Brett, what were you doing?”
“It’s…it’s a long story. For now, let’s just be thankful that we at least have the two of us. We can get through anything.”
“Oh!” Rachel said suddenly. “I’d better call my sister. They’re all out looking for you too.”
“Your sister? But I thought you were going to her place for the holidays.”
“What are you talking about? You know my sister and her family always come here for Christmas.”
Brett frowned, but didn’t comment. He was touching Rachel’s hair with his left hand, as if he couldn’t believe she was here. While Rachel pulled out her cell phone and called her sister, Brett looked back to the Church and up to the heavens. “Thank you!” he whispered.
“Let’s go have Christmas Eve dinner,” she said when she had finished her call. “It’s funny. We’ll be back here soon, for midnight Mass.” Rachel hopped in the car to drive, while Brett in the passenger seat could not keep from touching her arm and hair with his left hand.
When they got to the house, his in-laws promptly flew out of the house. “You gave us quite a fright!” his sister-in-law said. The family embraced Brett, who for the first time in a long while was genuinely happy to be with them. When they went inside, Rachel’s sister helped Rachel get the fish dishes ready. They had been so preoccupied with the search for the missing Brett, they had not begun dinner preparations.
Brett did what little he could, as sous chef, to help. He noticed Rachel looking repeatedly at her watch. “At least we didn't tell him, so he wouldn’t worry,” she told her sister, a remark that made no sense at the time to Brett. “He should be here any minute," Rachel said again to her sister as she shut the oven door with her hip while sautéing a vegetable dish.
After a few minutes, Brett heard the front door open. But Rachel and her sister were here with him in the kitchen. His brother-in-law had taken his children into the back yard where they were tossing a football. So Brett got a worried look. “I’d better check it out,” he thought.
He walked from the kitchen to the living room…where his heart stopped. “Brian!” he shouted.
“Dad!” the boy was all smiles.
Brett flew into his boy’s arms, hugging him for all he was worth. Tears were streaming down Brett’s cheeks. "I’ve missed you so much!” he managed to get out.
Brian hugged his father harder. “I’ve missed you too, Dad.”
“Cathy said she’d try to let me see you one last time,” Brett said through his tears. He was so grateful.
“Cathy?” Brian said. “But you haven’t met her yet.”
Brett stepped back and for the first time noticed an attractive young woman in the doorway. She had remained respectfully aloof while father and son enjoyed their reunion.
“Dad, this is my fiancé. Cathy.”
The lovely woman held out her hand. “Brian talks about you constantly, I feel like I already know you.”
Just then Rachel entered the room. “Brian!” she cried out. “You’re right on time! And this must be Cathy!” Rachel gave her prospective daughter-in-law a warm hug. “Welcome to the family!” Rachel said, and you could tell the young woman was deeply appreciative to be made part of this warm family.
Rachel was about to comment how lovely Brian’s fiancé was, when she saw a stricken look cross Brett’s features. She went up to him. “What’s wrong, dear?”
Brett sighed. “It’s going to be so hard to lose him a second time.”
Brian heard and said, “I wanted to surprise you both,” looking at his Mom and Dad, “but I might as well tell you now. I’m being transferred. To the DC office. We’ll be moving here after the first of the year.”
Brett released another long sigh. “It will be so hard,” he repeated. "It’s funny,” he said to Rachel, “this is one vision that is not from my past. I don’t get it.”
“Dad, what are you talking about?” Brian asked.
“Brett, are you all right?” Rachel said. Turning to Brian she said, “He’s been acting a little strangely. We’d better keep an eye on him.”
“Oh Rachel,” Brett said, “You know this can’t last.”
“Well, you know. Because our Brian died. In the service. In Afghanistan.”
“Died! What! Brett, dear, he’s right here!”
“Dad,” Brian said a little confused and concerned. “Maybe you better sit down. I’ve never been in the military.”
“Sure you were,” Brett spoke. “You wanted to follow in my footsteps.”
Rachel felt Brett’s forehead. “You were never in the military. Your injury kept you out. That’s why you went into the Peace Corps. And Brian did follow in your footsteps. He finished serving in the Peace Corps last year.”
“My injury?” Brett said.
“Why yes,” Rachel replied. “I still can’t believe that anyone, even a bank robber, would shoot a defenseless little child.”
Brett had a curious look on his face. He unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt, using his left hand. He realized his right one did not seem to be working. Then he exposed his right shoulder, where he saw an ugly scar.
Rachel placed a gentle hand on the wound. “Is it bothering you, dear?”
Brett was staring dumbly at the wound. In a daze he muttered, “I would give my right arm…” He suddenly looked up at Brian. “You’re…you’re really here? You’re staying here?”
Brian nodded as Brett again embraced him.
“Brett, Brett are you sure you’re all right? Is your arm bothering you?” Rachel asked.
"I’m wonderful,” Brett said through his tears and his smile.
Throughout the evening, Brett was very touchy feely with Rachel, Brian and Cathy.
At dinner, Brian said, “I hope you like what we got you for Christmas, Dad.”
Brett took in his entire family as he beamed. “I will, no matter what it is. You see, I have already been given the greatest gift I ever hoped for. He looked at his in-laws, his wife, his daughter-in-law to-be and his son. And he teared up. “I am home.”