CHRISTMAS HOMECOMING


Christmas Homecoming - A Short Story by Kenneth T. Zemsky

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.”

Rachel nodded.

“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?”

“Yeah.”

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!”

“What people?”

“Men!”

“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.”

“Name it.”

“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.