Thanx to my beta reader, Marnie, who not only found many boo-boos, but offered suggestions that made this a better story.
DECEMBER 15th, PRESENT DAY
Albuquerque New Mexico
Jason Powell handed over his debit card to pay for the stack of Subway gift cards he'd just purchased. He planned to give them to the group of homeless men who hung around near the train station where he hopped on the Roadrunner every morning to get to his job in Santa Fe. It wasn't much, he knew, but Subway's food was at least tasty and fresh, and it would be a nice break from the soup kitchen. It had become a tradition with him, ever since nine years ago when a he'd been standing on a street corner with a "homeless" sign around his neck and a black man had handed him a scratch-off lottery ticket. It had won enough money to secure a cheap apartment, and to live on while he looked for a job, which was much easier once he had a bona fide address, and wasn't worrying about where he'd sleep each night. He'd never seen the man before and never saw him again, so this was his way of paying back a kindness that had truly changed his life.
Prouts Neck-Scarborough Maine
Ellen Payson was ready to tuck her box of Christmas card supplies away for another year, but before she did, as she had for every one of the past 21 Christmases, she took an inexpensive card from its yellowing envelope and removed the wallet-sized photo inside. It was of a beautiful baby, four months old when the photo had been taken. He had hazel eyes and pin-straight jet black hair, and looked nothing like her blond, blue-eyed, curly-haired John had as a baby. Except for the smile. She could see John there, even if her late husband had not been able to. It had been his decision to never write the card's sender back. It was bad enough that their beloved Johnny was dead, he said. He would not tarnish his memory by acknowledging that this dark-haired bastard child of a common bar girl was any part of their family. The card was the third and final time Rachel had written to them. The return address no longer existed, and Ellen didn't know how to find her. The "baby" - her grandson - would have turned 20 this year. Where was he? What did he look like? Was he smart like John? What kind of young man had he grown up to be? Tears fell from both eyes as she returned the picture to its envelope and put it away for another year.
Jamie Lahrs had a bike!! It didn't matter to the 8-year-old that it was used, that its metallic paint wasn't as shiny as it once had been, or that the initials V-I-N had been scraped into the handle bar, probably a long time ago. The city's Bikes 4 Kidz program had enlisted dozens of volunteers to clean and refurbish donated used bicycles, their goal being that every child have a bike that belonged just to them, and they'd fixed this one up so it was almost as good as new. It was a real mountain bike, too, just like he wanted. It had a little miniature Texas license plate on the back, and the volunteer who rolled it towards his eager, waiting hands said she could take it off if he didn't like it, but he thought it was kind of cool. Jamie's mom wondered if the bike had really come all the way from Texas, and how it had managed to end up in Minnesota. Jamie didn't care about any of that stuff. He had a bike, one that was all his, and as he hopped on and took it for its first "test drive," he thought it was the best Christmas present ever!
CHRISTMAS EVE, 15 YEARS AGO
Vin Tanner sat patiently on the curb next to the Texaco station waiting for Miss Joanie to show up. As usual, he was there at 3:15 a.m. sharp.
Vin always liked to get up early and watch the sunrise. Lots of times, he went back to bed afterwards, but since Grampa didn't allow him to have the TV on after 7 at night, so he didn't watch crap, he usually went to bed early, and sometimes he stayed awake after the sun came up, watching cartoons before school, or sometimes going fishing with Grampa. When they caught fish, they'd come home and have fish and hash browns for breakfast. Grampa could cook real good.
One morning, he had decided to take a walk, and had noticed activity in the parking lot at the Texaco station, near the air pump. A lady was passing out bundles of newspapers to people who were putting them in their cars. Grampa said the newspaper kept your brain from rotting when you were old, and he read his every morning, sometimes telling Vin about things he read. Vin had never actually thought about how the paper ended up in the front yard by 5:00 am every morning, though.
He watched the newspaper people a few times after that, and a couple of times, the lady looked at him and smiled. After she passed out the papers, she'd head up the road from the Texaco station and drop papers off at the houses there. It was a long, narrow, street and people parked on both sides, so it was hard for her to get her big van all the way down it and back. So, she kept a little cart chained up near the air pump and she'd put the papers in that and walk all the way up the street and back. She was really old - like forty - and Vin thought maybe he should offer to help her, and one day, he decided to ask her if he could.
He never liked to talk to people he didn't know. Sometimes, he didn't like to talk to people he did know, but Miss Joanie seemed nice, so he asked.
She had looked him up and down and then said, "Why, aren't you the sweetest little thing!" But Vin didn't know if that meant she wanted help or not, so he'd just stood there until she'd finally asked him to bring her a bundle of papers.
The bundle was heavier than it looked, but he tried not to let on as he heaved it into the little wagon. When it was all loaded up, she started to pull it up the street and said, "Well, come along then!" and he'd followed eagerly. The wagon was meant to be attached to a bike, but Miss Joanie said she had never learned to ride a bike. Vin thought that was sad. He'd never had a bike, but he knew how to ride one. Mandy Jane Castillo, who was 12 and lived next to Grampa, had let him learn on her bike. Miss Joanie had made a handle for the wagon out of duct tape, and that was how she pulled it.
Vin had done the long street with her every morning for a week, and when they got done on Friday, she surprised him by giving him fifteen whole dollars! He couldn't believe it! Then, she'd asked him if he thought he could do the long street by himself. He could, he knew he could! There were 48 houses and where it ended at a busy street, there was a Circle K, a little place that had eight doctor's offices around a square parking lot, and a barber shop and a donut place.
The long street need seventy-five papers in all. He knew that was 5 bundles with five taken out of one. Those five went to the Texaco station, so it all worked out. The wagon was heavy with that many papers, but the long street didn't have any hills so once it got rolling it wasn't too hard to pull, and it got lighter and lighter as he removed the papers.
So it happened that Vin had his first job. Miss Joanie had put little blinking lights on both the front and back of the wagon, and had given him a bright yellow reflective vest to wear so cars could see him, even though there were hardly any cars on the long street that early. He made sure he was there every morning at exactly 3:15, and all of his papers were where they were supposed to be by 4:30 am. The donut place always smelled really good because people were there making donuts even if they weren't open yet, and sometimes, they'd leave a little bag with two fresh donuts for him at the paper rack. Sometimes, he'd eat them both, but sometimes he took one home for Grampa to dunk in his coffee. It was hard work, so now, he usually took a nap before he had to get up at 7:00 for school. There was no school, now, though, because it was Christmas Eve. Vin was eager to get his papers delivered and get home because the Santa from the youth center would be bringing him a present some time during the day. He couldn't wait to see what it was.
He'd filled out his angel for the angel tree and had asked for a bike, but he knew he wasn't going to get that. The Santa wasn't a real Santa - Vin was nine years old and he was too big to believe in Santa anymore - so he couldn't just ask for what he wanted and expect to get it. Santa really only brought you whatever you wanted if you were a rich kid and your parents could pay him for it. That's what he figured, anyway. But he'd get a present, Mr. Collier had said he would.
Miss Joanie showed up at 3:15 on the dot, but Vin had to wait while she gave out the papers to the people with cars. She gave them all envelopes, too, and said it was a little bonus. Vin didn't know what that meant, but it made the other people happy when they opened them. Finally, she was ready to fill the wagon. "Okay, now remember, just the houses and the Circle K... everyone else will be closed today."
He nodded that he understood. He was in a hurry to get going, but Miss Joanie called him back. "Vin?"
He turned around. She handed him a brand new pair of mittens and they were green - his favorite color. "There's a little something in the left one," she said.
It took Vin a second to figure out which one was the left one, because he wasn't any good at telling right from left. But when he reached inside, he found a piece of paper that turned out to be a $10 bill! His eyes widened, and he was so surprised, he forgot to say 'thank-you.'
"I know you give your grandpa the money you earn," she said, "but I want you to spend that on yourself, okay? You're a good boy, Vin." She tousled his hair and then kissed his cheek. He felt himself turn red, but, it was still nice. "Merry Christmas, Vin."
"Merry Christmas, Miss Joanie!" He waved good-bye and head up the street.
Joanie Adler watched the little boy head up the street, until all she could see were the blinking lights on the wagon he pulled with his skinny little arms. He didn't know it, but she'd watch him until he finished - she might as well, since she would have been there doing that block of papers herself if he wasn't there. He was such a sweet little thing... it broke her heart to see him with his worn-out shoes and hand-me-down clothes, still happy and eager to please. She had no idea what his home situation was, or why he was allowed to wander the streets in the wee hours of the morning. She'd thought about notifying social services, but Vin did seem like a happy child, and he was always reasonably clean and never had bruises or any signs he was being abused. She'd brought him breakfast a few times, and while he'd been delighted to have it, he did not gulp it down as if he were ravenously hungry. She realized that reporting his grandfather could get him taken away and placed in foster care, and how would that really be better for him? A couple of the other workers had bitched at the measly amount a week that she paid Vin to do that one street, but she had told them if they didn't like it, they could go work for someone else. She would have paid him more if she could have afforded it herself.
Vin hurried along with a spring in his step, thinking about his ten dollars. He'd stop at the Circle K and buy a whole bag of Oreos - not the little packages that only had six cookies, but a whole bag. And some chocolate milk. And bubble gum, if he had enough. Then he'd go home and wait for his present. Yeah, this was going to be a really good day!
Rachel Dunne pulled the zipper up on her son's hooded sweatshirt and drew the strings of the hood around his cherubic little face. He looked so much like her brother Daniel had looked at that age, or at least, as she remembered him. She and Daniel had entered "the system" when she was eleven and he was eight. She saw him a couple of times after that, but then he'd been adopted and his new parents either decided to cut all ties with his past, or didn't know where to find her. He was 10 the last time she'd seen him, and eleven years had passed since then. He was a young man by now.
She pulled on JD's jacket, which, like almost everything else he owned, had come from the thrift store. He'd started kindergarten that fall, and it had been all she could do to afford three used school uniforms and his school supplies. What she earned today would be extra cash, though, and there would be sales galore in the days after Christmas. She'd be able to get him something that was new. She hadn't been able to get him much for Christmas, just a small box of Tinker Toys and a Rand McNally Road Atlas - JD was fascinated by maps and the Interstate Highway system.
Even though he looked like her brother, he took after his father in the brains department. John had been gifted student, already working on his PhD at MIT at the age of 20. She had just aged out of the system and was struggling to keep her head above water working two jobs, one of them on the campus. College was out of the question for her, but John never talked down to her, never treated her like she was stupid or inferior the way some of the other students had. Just days after finding out she was pregnant, a drunk driver had barreled through a red light and in an instant, John's life ended. She'd written letters to his family after JD was born, but had never received a reply. Maybe they thought she wanted money, and while she had to admit that financial support would have been nice, she didn't even know if they had money. She only thought it might be a comfort to them to know they had a grandson, and had never understood why that apparently didn't matter to them. JD was a beautiful little boy with a sunny disposition and an IQ in the top 1 percentile, so screw them, it was their loss.
There were times like now, though, when she wished he wasn't her only family. She hadn't planned on working today, and Mrs. Vamiglieri, who watched JD while she worked the 12-8 pm shift at Logan, had gone to spend the holiday with her daughter. When her boss had called and told her to come in, she'd tried to explain the situation, but he was an asshole and wouldn't listen. So now, she was going to have to hope that no one noticed she had JD with her as she did her cleaning chores around the terminal.
"Can we go in a plane?" he asked.
"No, darling, the planes are for people going on trips."
"I wanna go on a trip. I wanna go to Disney World and the Smiff-son-yan," he grinned.
"Baby doll, those aren't even in the same place," she laughed.
"I know, Disney World is in Orlando, Florida an' the Smiff-son-yan is in Washington DC!" he said proudly. "You can drive on I-95," he suggested. JD knew geography better than most adults.
"You need a car, punkin," she said as she pulled on his gloves.
"I wanna be an aster-naut so I can go in space," he said. That might have seemed like an abrupt change of subject, but she laughed to herself knowing that somewhere in his little brain, he had connected Disney World and the Smithsonian and the interstate highway system with the space program.
She slipped on his backpack which contained a book, a pencil, a writing tablet, a peanut butter sandwich and a container of banana yogurt. She picked him up and kissed his cheek. "First we have to go catch a bus."
"No, mama, first the subway, then the bus," JD said patiently, and of course, he was right.
She expected the MBTA lines to be jammed with people doing last-minute shopping, but it wasn't too bad. On the way, she went over "the rules" with JD. He would have to stay where she could see him at all times, even if it meant he had to stand in one place with nothing to do. She made him understand that 8 hours was a long, long time, and that he wasn't to bother her about going home, or whining that he was tired or bored, because they were going to have to stay at the airport until her shift was over, no matter what.
"Then Santa Claus comes tonight!" he said excitedly.
"Yes, he does," she assured him. Two years before, she'd found a 3-foot artificial tree, two strings of lights and a box of ornaments at the Goodwill. The lights were from Halloween, so one string was orange and the other purple, and the ornaments were green, so the tree was truly hideous, but JD loved it.
She'd splurged on a pot roast for Christmas dinner, although not without some guilt. She normally lived on bologna sandwiches and ramen noodles so that JD could have chicken and fruit, and the pot roast was mostly her gift to herself. JD would love it, though. He wasn't a picky eater, and she was thankful for that. A kid who would eat anything was a blessing on a tight budget.
It would have been nice to have had Christmas Eve to spend at home with JD like she'd planned, though.
Arriving at the airport, she went to her work station and looked around to see if her supervisor was in the area. Luckily, he wasn't. She wouldn't be surprised if he was at home with his family. There was only a security guard nearby, and she knew him. Bill Bobbs was his name. Or was it Bob Bills? Everyone just called him "BB," so she supposed it didn't matter. He walked up to her when he saw JD.
"This your kid?" he said, his voice and face expressionless.
There was no point in lying. "I didn't plan on working today. I don't have anyone to watch him."
Surprisingly, he just nodded and walked away.
"Are you in trouble, mama?" JD asked.
"No, Pooh-bear. But you really, really really have to be good today, okay?"
He nodded his head vigorously, his black bangs flopping in his eyes. He sat down with his back pack and pulled out the copy of Charlotte's Web that they'd borrowed from the library. Most kindergarteners were still learning their alphabet, but her JD could read as well as a fifth-grader. Someday, he'd go to MIT like his father. She'd do everything she could to see to that.
Buck Wilmington drove slowly through the streets of the Texas city where he had spent several happy years of his childhood. He'd been invited to spend Christmas Day with an Army buddy and his family, but he'd stopped here on his way to maybe visit a few old haunts, then go to the rib shack where his mom had waitressed - which he hoped was still there - and pick up some take out dinner to enjoy in his hotel room before hitting the sack. It was a good 4-hour drive to his friend's place so he'd have to get an early start. He'd promised to be there by noon.
The old neighborhood was the same in a lot of ways. The elementary and middle schools that he had attended from fourth through eighth grade were still where they had been since being built for the Baby Boomer generation back in the late 50s, but what he'd remembered as open prairie was now dotted with apartments and office buildings. The vacant lot where he'd enjoyed many a game of sandlot baseball now had three houses on it.
The youth center was still there, although it had been painted with a colorful mural to hide the graffiti that had once covered its walls. Buck had always felt safe there. It had been his refuge when his mom had to work until 11:00 at night. Had it not been there, he would have gone home to an empty house, and probably gotten into more trouble than he managed to find on his own. The center had offered tutoring, counseling, referrals for jobs like lawn mowing and babysitting, sports, art classes, and three days a week, a hearty evening meal. Mostly, though, it offered the chance to be somewhere other than the streets.
Buck felt for his wallet - the center had always been in need of funds when he was a kid, and maybe he could help out with a few bucks. He opened the door, but was immediately greeted by a security guard. He guessed that was a sad testimony to the fact that some perverts were drawn to places like this for all the very wrong reasons.
He raised his hands as if in surrender when told he could go no further. "Not a problem," he grinned. "But I was wondering if your director was here? I'd like to talk with him.... or her, as the case may be."
The guard picked up a phone, and after a brief conversation with whoever answered, he asked to see an ID, then said, "State your business."
Buck waved his wallet. "I thought I might donate to the cause."
The guard relayed that bit information, then pointed to a hallway. "Second door on your left."
The door was open, and a robust man in a Santa suit was matching gifts with the paper angels on the Angel Tree. Buck remembered the Angel Tree well. Kids whose families had very little were invited to write their name and a gift wish on a piece of paper that was then folded into an origami angel. Buck had never asked for a gift for himself - his mother always found some way to get him two or three nice gifts for Christmas. But he remembered the year he was 11, when he'd asked for a set of dishes. At home, he and his mom used an assortment of odd plates, mugs, and silverware gathered from thrift stores, but his mom had always said that one day, she'd have matching dishes and set a fine table. He didn't really hold out much hope for that angel, but on Christmas Eve, a "Santa" delivered a box of Corel Living Ware and a 20-piece set of Oneida silverware, which he hadn't even asked for. He'd put them in a paper grocery bag that he decorated with his crayons and set them under the tree at home with his mom's name on them. She'd cried when she opened it. Buck never knew who had picked his name from the tree and decided to fulfill his wish, but he hoped whoever it was, that his mom was smiling down on them this Christmas.
"Would you be the director?" Buck asked.
"Me? No... that's Jim Collier. He's already out delivering his share of the load." He held out his hand "Name's Sanchez," he introduced himself. "What can I do for you this joyous Christmas Eve?" he asked with a broad grin.
Buck was about to take out his wallet when he noticed one little angel was still on the tree and all of the gifts had been tagged. "I think you forgot one. . ." Buck pointed to it. He removed the little angel and read the back of the wings - once they were folded, that's where the gift information ended up. There was no name, just a code number to identify the child. Buck read it... "9014, boy, age 9, wants a... green bicycle?"
A sad shrug from Sanchez confirmed what Buck was thinking. A bicycle carried a hefty price tag compared to some gifts, and green was an unusual color. Those were probably the reasons why no one had picked it. Buck was about to put it back, when that fine set of dishes without stains or chips or cracks, and that shiny silverware that no one else had ever used, flashed into his mind. He'd planned to give the center the money, anyway. "I tell you what, let me take care of this one."
Sanchez looked hopeful - or at least, his eyes did. It was hard to tell expressions through the Santa beard. But he said, "I have to have the gifts by 3:00. . . Have to catch a flight to Denver this evening." He looked at his watch. "It's already almost noon. . ."
"A lot can happen in three hours," Buck grinned.
"Well, okay, go for it..." Sanchez clapped him on the shoulder. "But don't worry, just in case, I do have a little gift for this kid in my car. I didn't want him not to get anything, you know?"
Buck shook his hand, "I'll see you later!" And he meant it. He was a man on a mission.
Air France Flight 9506, North Atlantic airspace
Ezra Standish pounded his head against the back of his first class seat as the pilot repeated in English the announcement he had just made in French. Ezra didn't have to listen a second time - he understood French perfectly well.
The plane was bound for Boston via New York City. Ezra was supposed to deplane in New York City and get a connecting flight to Denver where he was meeting Mother so they could spend Christmas Day and God only knew how much longer skiing in Aspen. At least, Ezra would be skiing. Mother would be entertaining friends and ignoring him like she always did. Why she'd even bothered to send him a plane ticket home from the exclusive French boarding school where she'd stowed him away was beyond him. He could just as well ski in France. Hell, they had the Alps in France.
But now, because of a "severe weather front" the plane was skipping New York City and going straight on to Boston where "other arrangements" would be made. Ezra knew that meant sitting in stupid Logan Airport, which no doubt would be infested with anxious, crabby people trying to get out of Boston, for God knew how long while the Air France morons extracted their heads from their anuses and found him a flight to Denver. Good luck with that on Christmas Eve. He should have stayed in Paris.
Boston Massachusetts, Logan International Airport
The plane landed in Boston way ahead of schedule, since there was no stop in New York City. The passengers for whom Boston was the final destination were asked to stay on the plane until the New York City passengers, who were screwed, had deplaned so they could begin the circus act that would get them on another flight. Ezra was the first one off the plane, and when he approached the booking agent as instructed, the woman looked down her nose at him over the counter and then looked around behind him. "Are you with a parent?" she asked him. She had a British accent, which was kind of weird since she worked for Air France.
Ezra sighed. He realized he looked younger than he was. "I'm traveling alone," he replied and handed her his ticket. "And my ultimate destination is Denver, so feel free to skip New York City entirely."
She stared at him.
"Shall I repeat myself?" he asked.
"We're a little full of ourselves today, aren't we?" she said haughtily.
"I don't know, are we?"
She grunted in response while her fingers flew across her keyboard. "Right now, the best I can do is put you on stand-by for a flight to Atlanta, and you can get a connecting flight to Denver from there."
"Stand-by?!" Ezra was frankly mortified. "I have a first class ticket!"
She was unmoved. "Well, right now you aren't going anywhere. This weather front is delaying every thing from New York to Miami... I can put you on the waitlist for a Delta flight leaving at 4:45."
Ezra looked at his watch. That was more than 2 hours from now. "What about Denver?"
"You can make arrangements for Denver when you get to Atlanta."
In other words, she was going to get him out of Logan so he'd be someone else's problem. He picked up his ticket. "I'll be in the VIP Lounge. Have me paged."
He called Mother to let her know what was going on, and was subjected to her tale of woe regarding how the private plane she had chartered to take her to Aspen was just as screwed as every other plane. She was still at her family home in Augusta. He was almost happy about that, knowing that her holiday was screwed, too.
As he neared the VIP lounge, he noticed a small boy sitting on the floor reading a book. There didn't seem to be anyone around with him, and he wasn't wearing a tag to indicate he was traveling alone. The little boy did not seem distressed in anyway, but Ezra wondered what kind of parents he had. Even Mother would not have left him sitting alone in a busy airport like that when he was that young. A security guard was standing nearby, but he did not seem unduly concerned, either.
The little boy looked up at him as he approached, waved a chubby hand and said, "Hi."
Ezra squatted down to his level. "Where are your parents?" he asked.
He pointed to the lounge. "My mama's in there, but I can't go in."
"Is that so? We'll see about that." Ezra was going to give the woman a piece of his mind, especially when he noticed the little boy's clothes were shabby and worn - spending money on herself was obviously her first priority. "Come with me." He held his hand out to the child.
The boy shook his head vigorously. "NUH-UH! I don't know you."
"My name is... Elliot." Ezra never gave anyone his real name.
"Like from E.T.?!" JD said excitedly.
"No, as in Eliot Ness."
The boy looked perplexed, as well he should.
At that point, the security guard intervened. "What's the problem?" he asked Ezra.
"This child appears to be alone and unsupervised, as you should have noticed."
"He's fine," the guard said. "Leave him be."
It was then that a young woman poked her head out of the VIP lounge. "There's my mama!" JD pointed at her and waved. Ezra noticed that she wore a custodian's uniform, so she wasn't a guest, and from the panicked look on her face, Ezra immediately put two and two together. The woman had brought the kid to work with her.
He should have been appalled, but how many times had Maude been forced to bring him somewhere he shouldn't have been, and left him sitting alone in some hotel room? He didn't know for sure what was going on, but he told the boy, "Come on, we're going inside."
The security guard looked uncertain and the boy's mother had come running over. "Is there anything wrong?" she asked nervously.
"Not that I know of," Ezra said. "Come with me," he told both the boy and his mother.
The lounge attendant let the woman through, but stopped Ezra at the door. "Members only," he said.
Ezra pulled out his gold membership ID and a $20 bill. "He's my guest," he nodded at JD.
The guard snatched the bill. "No trouble," he warned. "And you won't be served alcohol."
"Obviously, since we are children," Ezra scoffed and brushed past him.
"My name is JD," the little boy said.
His mother only looked confused. "I'm sorry... I had to bring him to work. I had no one to leave him with. Really, he won't be any trouble."
Ezra looked down at the little boy. "I'm sure he won't be, will you, my good man?"
JD shook his head.
There were numerous TVs in the lounge so Ezra picked one with a circular couch in front of it. "We'll be over there," he told the boy's mother.
She looked like she didn't know what to say. Ezra just walked away. He didn't want her thanks. The truth was, watching TV with a little kid would be a lot less embarrassing than sitting there all by himself. He didn't plan to baby sit, however. If the little urchin misbehaved, out he'd go.
He settled JD on the couch then went to the bar. "Two ginger ales," he said. "But I want one in a martini glass and put an olive in it."
The bar tender raised an eyebrow, but brought the drinks. Ezra gave the one in a regular glass to JD and then stretched out, unbuttoned his blazer, and loosened his tie to sip on his drink.
The little boy took a swallow of the ginger ale. "Good beer," he said.
So plebian. Ezra thought. "It's not beer, it's ginger ale."
"Yours gots an olick in it." He pointed to Ezra's glass.
"O-live," Ezra corrected. "You want an olive?"
The little boy looked around. Other people had drinks with garnishments and he seemed to study those. "I'd rather get a cherry... an' a' orange slice!"
Ezra took JD's drink back and had the bartender add the fruit. Delighted, JD began to gulp the ginger ale.
Ezra stopped him. "My good man, have some decorum," he cautioned.
"One never swills one's libation."
JD frowned and looked at his drink. "I thought you said it was ginger ale."
"Like this." Ezra demonstrated, sipping his drink casually and then setting it down. "One must allow to bouquet to waft over one's palate."
"Okay," JD said uncertainly. He copied Ezra's posture and imitated him as he sipped his drink.
Ezra picked up the remote to the TV and looked for Nickelodeon, for JD of course. He then pulled his laptop out of his travel bag. The battery was almost depleted after the long flight, but there was a wall outlet nearby. It didn't need a converter, since Mother had purchased it here in the States.
JD's attention was diverted from the cartoons. "Is that a lap-pop?" he asked.
"Lap-top," Ezra corrected. "And yes, it is."
"Can I see what you're doing?" the child asked eagerly.
"I suppose," Ezra said.
"Will you show me how it works?"
"Sure," Ezra said. What else was there to do for two hours?
Buck Wilmington sat forlornly in his hotel room checking the phone book for any kind of store that he thought might sell bikes. He'd already been to the big stores, all of which were crammed with people, with nowhere to park and long lines at the cash register. Although they had plenty of bikes, not a one of them was green, and most of them were unassembled. He hadn't even considered that the bike might have to be put together. He could probably get the job done, with the proper tools, but it was now almost 2:00 pm - he'd really be pushing it to get a bike he hadn't even found yet put together by the 3:00 pm deadline. Maybe the youth center Santa would let him deliver it to '9014' himself, although that seemed unlikely. They didn't really know him, and would probably be hesitant to allow him direct contact with a child.
There were a few bicycle shops in town, but he'd decided to call first and save the travel time. Most of them had either not answered the phone, or had left messages on their answering machines wishing the caller a "Merry Christmas" and saying they were closed and would reopen on the 26th. Damn it. He'd finally found one where a live person answered. No, they didn't have any green bikes. Yes, they could sell him a bike already assembled - and by now, Buck was no longer particular about the color. When he asked the price, though, his heart skipped a beat. Apparently, the store specialized in high-end sport bikes and even the cheapest one was four or five times more than he expected to pay. So, it was back to Wal-Mart, where he hoped he wouldn't have to wait in line for 45 minutes.
He climbed into his rental car with a heavy heart, hoping that '9014' would not be too disappointed that the bike wasn't green. The less compassionate side of him was saying that the kid should be happy to get any bike, regardless of the color. But he remembered Christmas when he was nine years old, when he'd wanted a specific set of Lego blocks. His mom had gotten him blocks, but they weren't Legos and they weren't what he wanted. Even at that young age, he'd realized that she'd bought him what she could afford, and had done her best to fulfill his wish, but he was a child, and he still felt a twinge of disappointment when he remembered opening that gift - so sure it was what he wanted - and finding out it wasn't.
Sanchez had said he had a gift for the kid, so he briefly toyed with the idea of not going back to the center at all, but in his heart, he knew that was not an option. He'd made a promise - he'd do his best to keep it.
As he stopped at a red light, he noticed a little strip mall across the intersection. It didn't look especially busy, since it really didn't have the kind of stores that people flocked to on Christmas Eve - a men's clothing store, a card shop, a drug store... But then he noticed a tiny sign near the bottom of the shop listing for a sporting goods store. Would they have bikes? Probably not, but at this point, he didn't have much to lose by just walking in and out quickly to make sure. When the light changed, he headed for the parking lot. He had to drive around twice before he spotted the store. It's store front was only about 10 feet wide and the sign was small and simple. Either it was a store that someone owned and operated mostly for the fun of it, or, it was an exclusive shop that didn't want just anyone walking in. The latter possibility didn't seem likely. Amarillo just wasn't that kind of city - or at least, it hadn't been when Buck lived there. Things could have changed, he supposed.
He expected the store to be claustrophobically tiny, but discovered that the entrance was really the top of a stair case that lead down to a lower level. The store was neatly organized, with the various sections labeled by sport; Aerobics, Running, Hiking, Climbing.... and there it was, way at the back, 'Cycling.' Buck's step quickened when he saw that they did, indeed, have a small selection of bicycles. By now, it was 2:15. He made the decision right then that if they would sell him one already assembled, he'd buy it, no mater what the price, so he could get it to the center on time.
As he neared the display, his heart started to race when he spotted a flash of green in the last row of bicycles on display. Was it possible?!
An instant later, he was standing and staring in joyous disbelief. There before him was a 24-inch men's mountain bike, its color indicated on the tag as a miraculous 'metallic pine green.' It wasn't a street bike, but its sturdy construction would easily endure the wear and tear a small boy could inflict, and it was a great-looking bike.
A salesman approached - although upon reading the nametag, he discovered it was actually the owner. He was an older man, but tanned and in remarkably good shape physically. Buck imagined that outdoor sports probably took up a good deal of his time. "Can I help you?" he asked.
Buck pointed to the bike. He didn't mince words. "I need that bike."
The man frowned slightly. "Well, that's a display model... but if you can come back in maybe an hour and a half, two hours tops, I can have one assembled..."
Buck put up a hand to stop him. "No, I need that bike and I need it now, really!" he said, and then went on to explain the situation with the youth center and '9014' and how he'd been looking for a green bike everywhere and how he only had... he checked his watch... 39 minutes to get it there.
He expected an argument, but the man nodded and began to extricate the bike from the display. "Just give me a couple of minutes to check the tires and make sure they're inflated." he said.
He rolled the bike into a back room, and it seemed to Buck like he was taking forever, but it was only 7 or 8 minutes before he emerged with the bike, now protected by heavy plastic wrapping. "She's ready to ride!" he said.
Buck handed over his credit card, realizing with a bit of trepidation that he hadn't even asked the price of the bike. The owner was, he realized, the only employee in the store. Everyone else had probably gone home. He'd been lucky, and the bike was a beauty. He wished he could be there when '9014' saw it.
He was handed back his card and a receipt which he tucked quickly into his shirt pocket.
"Do you need some help getting that into your vehicle?" the owner asked.
Buck hadn't even considered that it might not fit in his rental car, so he accepted the offer. Between the two of them, they managed to squeeze it in by folding down the front passenger seat. The kickstand was dangerously close to poking though the upholstery, but Buck was in too good a mood to care one bit about that. He thanked the store owner and drove away with his prize. When he reached the light - which was red again - he pulled the receipt out to assess the damage.
He blinked in disbelief. The price of the bike was on the receipt, all right, but right under it was the line "Special Discount" - which was the exact same number. The "Total Cost" was $0.00.
Surely there was some mistake. He swung the car around and returned to the parking lot. The shop owner was locking the front door, apparently done for the day. Buck pulled up alongside him as he headed for his car, and rolled down the window.
"I think there's been a mistake." He waved the receipt. "You didn't charge me for the bike!"
The man grinned broadly. "What bike? I don't remember any bike..."
"Have a happy holiday!" he called as he got into his vehicle.
Buck sat there momentarily speechless and watched him drive away.
Somewhat dazed, he put the car in gear and headed for the youth center. He arrived at 2:55 as Sanchez was loading the last of the gifts into the center's van.
"Got room for one more?" he called out as he pulled his car alongside the big vehicle.
Sanchez was still wearing the Santa suit and beard, but Buck saw the gleam in his eye when he opened the car door to reveal the green bike. Buck reached under the plastic and carefully tied '9014's' tag to frame. Then, with considerable effort, the two of them got it out and squeezed it into the back of the van.
Sanchez shook his hand and then touched the tag. "This little guy gets up at 3:00 a.m. to deliver papers. You will not only make him the happiest kid on earth tonight, you've made his life a whole lot easier."
Buck felt a lump rise in his throat. It had never occurred to him that a kid would have reason for wanting a bike - owning a bike should be a natural part of childhood. "Must be kind of hard working with these kids," he said, realizing that it hadn't been that long since he was one of 'these kids.'
Sanchez shrugged. "This isn't my regular job. I'm just volunteering for the day, so the kids don't recognize 'Santa' as someone from the center," he explained. "I did read the histories for some of them, though,' he said somewhat sadly.
"Why green, I wonder?" Buck asked.
"That I can't tell you," Sanchez laughed. "but I'm sure he would have been happy with any color. The fact that it's green, though... Well, I can't wait to see the look on his face!" He held out his hand and Buck shook it. "Thank you. Thank you very much. God bless you, and Merry Christmas!"
Sanchez hopped into the van drove off, and that was that.
Buck would go get some take-out ribs and fixings from his mom's old workplace, and return to his hotel room and maybe rent a movie. He'd be spending Christmas Eve all alone - but somehow, he just couldn't be happier.
Boston Massachusetts, Logan International Airport
In two hours, little JD had learned everything Ezra could teach him about the laptop. The little kid was some kind of computer genius. He looked up forlornly when Ezra told him he might be leaving in a few minutes, if they got him a seat on a flight.
Ezra used the courtesy phone to call the gate, to see what the situation looked like. The woman half-heartedly apologized and told him the flight was booked. They expected some no-shows due to the weather, but also, because of the weather, there were 14 people ahead of him on the standby list. He reminded her that he had a First Class ticket, but all she did was offer him a meal voucher. He slammed the phone down in disgust. He'd go and talk to someone in person.
"Where are you going?" JD asked him.
"I need to go talk to some coprocephalic cretins."
JD didn't know what those words meant, but they sounded interesting. "Can I come, too?"
Ezra wanted to say no, but the kid was okay, for a little guy. "We have to ask your mom, first," he said.
Rachel had gone to other cleaning assignments, but she had been poking her head in regularly - like every 15 minutes - to make sure JD was okay. With Mother, it would have been more like every 15 hours, he thought ruefully. Each time, she told him what gate she'd be at. Ezra took JD by the hand and they quickly found his mom.
JD ran to her. "Can I go talk to cretins with Eliot?" he asked.
His mom looked puzzled by the request. "I just need to go talk to the gate agent about my flight," he explained. "I'll be right back."
She looked doubtful.
Ezra held out his arms. "I don't have any of my stuff with me... really, I'll be back."
"Okay," she said hesitantly. "But you better put your stuff in a locker. Chances are no one will steal it from the lounge, but you never know."
Ezra had to agree with that. He'd had an expensive jacket stolen right out of his seat on a train once.
So, he took JD back and found a locker near the lounge with a key in it. They put his stuff and JD's inside and Ezra let JD turn the key. He showed him how the number on the key matched the number of the locker. "In case you forget which one you put it in," he explained.
"Oh, I won't forget. I never forget numbers."
Ezra tucked the key into the pocket of his blazer and they set off down the concourse. The airport was still packed with people, which did not bode well for his chances of getting on a flight.
This time, the airline agent's counter was so high Ezra could barely see over it. He wasn't about to be daunted, however. He pulled out his ticket, reached up, and placed it in front of the man, who had yet to acknowledge him. Instead, when he looked up, he addressed the woman standing behind Ezra.
"No," Ezra said emphatically. "I am next in line."
The woman, to her credit, acknowledged this.
He expected some cutting remark, but instead the agent apologized. "I'm sorry. . . I thought you were together."
"I'm flying alone and I have a first class ticket and I've been put on stand-by behind 14 other people," Ezra explained. "That's really not acceptable."
The agent picked up his ticket and examined it, then frowned. "No, you're right, it's not."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. He hadn't expected the man to actually agree with him.
The agent went to work tapping his keyboard.
"I'm sorry, the flight where you were listed as standby on is already pre-boarding... " He frowned, then tapped some more keys. "But there's a flight leaving for Atlanta at 6:05, and I can have you confirmed on that one."
"6:05?! That's two more hours from now!"
More key clicking, and the agent looked up at him. "Your original destination was Denver?"
"Well, it looks like a couple of delayed flights will be leaving after all.... I can get you on a Denver flight... but it leaves about the same time, 6:00 pm."
Ezra was still not thrilled about the long wait, but at least he wouldn't be making the detour to Atlanta. He'd call Mother before he got on the plane, and she'd make some kind of arrangement for him in Denver, if she was not already on her way there. "That would be excellent," he said.
After some more key clicking, the agent handed him his boarding pass and another slip of paper. "I'm very sorry about the mix-up. Please accept this meal voucher. It's good at any restaurant here in the airport."
Ezra held back a retort. He had a first class ticket - did this man seriously think he needed a meal voucher? Also, he knew that meant any fast food restaurant, not a real one. But the guy was being nice so no point in being rude. "Thank you for your help," he told the agent, and almost really meant it.
Then he looked at JD. "Want to get something to eat?"
"I gots a peanut butter samwich an' yogurt," JD remembered.
"Will you share?" Ezra joked.
But JD didn't miss a beat. "Ya-huh," he nodded his head vigorously.
Ezra smiled to himself. "Well, maybe you can save it for later. Let's go find the food court."
Ezra didn't have to use the voucher, of course. His school did not permit candy, chips, or soft drinks, claiming them an offense to a refined palate, so his maintenance tunnel contraband candy and soda store beneath the school football field was almost as lucrative as selling drugs, and much safer. Maude had wired him a good chunk of cash which was tucked securely away in an inside pocket of his blazer, and he had almost that same amount in a pocket in his custom made half-boots. He also had an American Express and a Visa card, although Mother preferred that he not leave a paper trail unless he absolutely had to.
He and JD got pizza, tacos, French fries and Cokes.
"My mama never lets me eat this good stuff," JD said around a mouthful of taco.
Actually, Mother never let him eat it, either. "I know the feeling, my good man."
They were enjoying their little transgression when JD's mother walked up to their table. "I'm sorry... I was worried when you didn't come back," she explained.
"We're having tacos and peet-za," JD said. He offered her a bite of his half-eaten taco.
"No, baby, you enjoy it." She looked at Ezra, who had been expecting a lecture. "He's always wanting to go to McDonald's." She smiled and then took a small coin purse from her fanny pack. "Let me pay for his..."
"Absolutely not!" Ezra said, and then remembered his manners. "Please, won't you join us?"
She looked at her watch. "Oh, no, thank you.... I don't get off for lunch for another hour..."
"You can eat my lunch, mama, 'cause you don't got one," JD blurted.
JD's mom flushed with embarrassment, but changed the subject. "You will be coming back down the concourse soon?" she asked apprehensively.
"You have my word as gentleman," Ezra said.
"Are you sure I can't reimburse you for his food?"
"I'm quite positive," Ezra assured her, and she seemed relieved. Ezra wondered how much money she had in that little purse. It looked pretty flat. The cost of JD's food might have been all the money she had.
They returned to the lounge as promised, after a stop to buy a John Grisham novel and some breath mints, as he was sure the scent of tacos would linger on his breath for at least two days. Ezra took the laptop out of the locker but left the rest of the stuff in there. He and JD settled back in the lounge for the long wait until his flight began boarding. As he read his book, JD played eagerly on his own with the laptop, occasionally asking him what a word on a menu meant. There was an animation program on it, apparently, and in a very short time, JD had made his own cartoon. He continued to tweak and play with it until he'd created a 30-second clip of a little bee flying from flower to flower. The artwork itself was crude, and critically speaking, it wasn't all that great, but the kid was only five, and to be honest, Ezra had no idea how he'd done it. He didn't have a clue how the program worked - he hadn't even realized it was on there - so JD had figured it out all by himself, in just a couple of hours, which was downright scary.
He got an idea, and went to one of the quaint writing desks in the lounge. He took a pen and some paper and started to write a note.
Nathan Jackson was in anything but a holiday mood. He'd done a favor for a friend and it had come around to kick him soundly in the ass. Marty Serzo had wanted to spend Christmas Eve - the whole day - with his girlfriend, and had talked Nathan into taking his assignments for the day. Nathan was lucky to have found the job with Peachtree Transportation Services, but he'd discovered that living in a large city was expensive and he was earning just enough to get by while he studied on his own for an EMT certification. He had wanted to be a doctor, but medical schools only cared if you made straight-As, not whether you were actually interested in medicine and caring for the sick, and though he'd made decent grades his freshman and sophomore year, he'd also worked 30-40 hours a week while carrying more than a full course load. His grades were okay, but they'd never get him into medical school. He'd finally decided to quit school and try working and to save enough that he could go back without worrying about money. That plan had sounded good at the time, but now he was struggling to make ends meet in the "real world" and so far, he had not only not saved anything, he was behind payments on the loan he'd taken out to pay for the first two years. He sometimes felt like he was in a cage that was rapidly sinking in tar. His dream of a college education, never mind medical school, was growing dimmer and more distant with each passing day.
P.T.S. was basically a high-end taxi service. Their clients were the wealthy, the powerful and the celebrated - people who could shell out per hour more than Nathan made in a day just to have someone drive them around Atlanta. They'd drive their customers anywhere they wanted to go, and it turned out that, with the planes grounded due to weather, Big Daddy Daze, producer for one of the biggest rap labels in the country, had decided to hire a car to get to the 10-bedroom house he'd bought for his mama in Augusta, and Nathan had drawn the job. Big Daddy spent most of the trip on the phone, talking to famous people, while Nathan concentrated on watching for icy pavement. It hadn't snowed - it rarely did in that part of the country - but the rain was incessant and the temperature hovered in the low 30s.
Still, they'd left Atlanta at 1:30, and Augusta was a straight shot on I-20, so he figured to be back in Atlanta around 7:00, 8:00 at the latest. He planned to leave for Montgomery as soon as he got off work to spend Christmas with his dad. Of course, he'd expected to get off work by 5:00, but there was no way that was going to happen now. Still, he hoped to be in Montgomery by midnight.
Then the dispatcher had called on the car phone to cheerfully let him know he would not be coming back "light" - that someone had requested his services in Augusta. He tried to argue, but it was no use. The woman was apparently a long-time steady customer, and her wish was his command.
By the time he dropped Big Daddy into the loving arms of his overjoyed mama and found the address the dispatcher had given him, it was almost 5:30 pm. He exited the vehicle, straightened his chauffeur's uniform and made sure he was presentable, and then, as he'd been directed, walked to the side entrance of the stately home and picked up the intercom phone. He expected a maid or butler, but the woman who answered was apparently the lady of the house herself.
"Thank heavens you're finally here," she said, sounding slightly perturbed, even though Nathan had arrived right on time. Rich people.
There was a small leather valise near the phone, along with a leather-bound notepad. She directed him to pick it up the notepad and write down her directions. "I need you to pick up my son at the airport in Atlanta, and see that he gets the valise. His flight was rescheduled so he has no luggage with him, and I'm not sure how much cash he's carrying. The valise contains some clothing and an envelope with $500. He'll be on a flight from Boston, but I don't know what airline or the flight number or when it will arrive, exactly. Everything is so muddled due to the weather, don't you know. You will need to take him to this address. . ." She rattled off the name of a luxury hotel in downtown Atlanta. "He'll be staying in a suite owned by a friend of mine. I've already notified the hotel that he'll be arriving late, but please make certain he gets to his room before you leave. He'll be wearing grey slacks and a maroon blazer, white shirt and a grey and maroon striped tie. He has brown hair, green eyes. . ."
Nathan quickly jotted down the description, but stopped short when she told him her son's approximate height and weight. Either this was a very small adult, or.... "How old is your son?" he asked.
"Fifteen, although, I fear that, much to his chagrin, he does appear younger."
Nathan had already had a bad day. He should have been on the road by now to his dad's house. His dad, who would have decorated a tree just because he was coming, and who would put on a pot of coffee and have sweet potato pie waiting for him when he got there, no matter how late it was. In the fridge his dad would have all the fixings for Christmas dinner that they'd eat off the coffee table while watching old movies. His dad thought he was too young to be traveling long distances alone. But instead of being on his way home, he was listening to this sorry excuse for a mother giving him directions he had no intention of following without giving her a piece of his mind.
"Woman, what is wrong with you?" he asked.
A few seconds of silence passed before she replied, "Excuse me?"
"You want me to pick up your kid... and dump him at a hotel on Christmas Eve? I ask again, what is wrong with you?"
Another pause. "How dare you speak to me that way."
"Well, it looks like somebody has to."
She faltered slightly when she spoke again. "You don't understand... We will both be flying to Denver tomorrow. He and I will spending the holidays in Aspen. . ."
"Why is he in Boston when you're here?" Nathan knew that was none of his business, but he asked anyway.
"He is coming home from school."
"He goes to school in Boston?"
"No, he goes to school in Paris."
"Of course, France."
Nathan shook his head.
"What?" the woman demanded, as if she could see him.
"You know what I think?" Nathan said brashly.
"I don't care what you think, young man, and be assured, I will be speaking to your supervisor regarding your behavior. It's deplorable."
Nathan figured he was probably already as good as fired, so he spoke his mind, "So is dumping your kid on Christmas Eve."
"Well, what do you expect me to do?!" she said. "He can't sleep at the airport!"
Nathan thought that over quickly. "Are you packed?"
"Yes..." she answered cautiously
"Then I'll drive you to Atlanta. You can spend tonight with your son. Like you're supposed to."
It took so long for her to reply that Nathan feared she had simply decided to ignore him. When she did speak, she surprised him by saying, "You're absolutely right, even though I am appalled by your audacity and ill manners. My bags are right inside the door. I'll be down shortly."
"Yes, Ma'am," Nathan replied crisply. He'd been way out of line, he knew, but he wasn't sorry.
Unfortunately, she kept him waiting a good 30 minutes before she floated out the door wrapped in a billowy hooded cashmere coat. He barely saw her face, but he could tell she was not at all the withered hag he'd pictured. She actually appeared to be quite beautiful.
She settled into the back seat, turned on the reading light and opened book - clear signs that there would be no trivial conversation, which was just fine with him. He'd probably already said way too much.
He wondered how hard it was going to be to find another job.
Josiah Sanchez drove up to the tiny mobile home set back on a weed-choked lot. There was a tiny patch of grass in front of it, which was brown and dormant this time of year, but Josiah could see it was well-kept during the summer. An old rusting push-mower leaned against a side wall - Josiah figured three passes of its blades probably mowed the entire patch. There were some plants growing in what used to be plastic coffee containers and bleach bottles. The siding desperately needed paint, but it was clean and any chips of flaking paint had been sanded away. There was a tiny 4-foot Christmas tree in the window with a single string of colored lights and some hand-made paper ornaments. The place wasn't much, but someone had clearly tried to make it a home. Josiah made a mental note to suggest the place as a Habitat for Humanity project. A team could paint it and clean up the yard in an afternoon.
Josiah knocked on the door and the man who answered was probably not much past 50, but he'd obviously seen a hard life. He walked slowly with a cane, hunched over as if straightening up would cause him pain. According to the file, he'd been a truck driver until he'd broken his neck, back and both legs in a pile-up on Interstate 40 caused by smoke from a wild fire. He'd been on disability and food stamps ever since. The little boy Josiah knew only as "9014" was the son of the man's late step-daughter, and he'd taken the boy in when his mom had died because he had no other kin. Josiah wondered what kind of home life the kid had, living with a disabled man to whom he was not even biologically related.
The man smiled broadly when he saw the Santa suit. "You must be from the youth center. Please, come in," he invited.
Josiah hesitated. He was anxious to be on his way. He had to be at the airport to catch a plane in less than two hours, and there were still 4 more deliveries. He entered the home to find it sparsely furnished, but noticed with amusement that in front of a small 21-inch TV were two recliners, one large, one child-size, and on a shelf under it was a small collection of Disney videos with Goodwill stickers still attached. A folding card table with two chairs furnished the dining area.
The man rummaged through a cigar box on the kitchen counter. "I know that angel tag is in here somewhere... 9-0-1-4 is his number..."
"He's not here?" Josiah said, disappointed and trying not to sound leery.
"Had to send him to the Circle K for some Fritos and bean dip. We'll have our own little party tonight," he laughed. "Plus, I wanted him out of the house while I wrapped his present." He held up a shoe-sized box wrapped in Sunday comics. "He's got these damn green sneakers that are falling off his feet. I can't get out much, but I had some friends at the Union see if they could find me a new pair for him." He hefted the box and looked at it sadly. "It ain't much, I know. He's a good kid. Wish I could get him more... Ah, here it is!" He produced the angel tag and gave it to Josiah, who could barely hold back a grin.
He asked the man to follow him outside, which he did. He'd backed the van up so it was close to the house, and the trip was not too much of an effort for him.
Josiah was thinking it was too bad he wouldn't get to see the look on 9014's face when he saw his bike, but the look on his grandpa's face when he opened the back of the van was almost as good.
Grandpa stood dumfounded as Josiah lifted the bike out and placed it on the ground.
"Oh, man..." Grandpa said finally, running his fingers over the plastic covering the bike, momentarily at a loss for words.
"She's a beauty, isn't she?" Josiah said.
"But where... how... who...," Grandpa stammered.
"Someone with a great big heart, apparently," Josiah laughed.
Grandpa shook his head. "I don't know what to say... this is just amazing..."
Josiah wheeled the bike into the house for him.
"Can we put it in his room, so he doesn't see it right away?" Grandpa asked.
"Lead the way," Josiah grinned.
The boy's room was a tiny 8x8 cubicle, and the bike took up all of the empty floor space. The room only contained a bed and small bureau. The latter was painted green, as were the walls. There was a green blanket on the bed that had "US ARMY" conspicuously stamped on it.
Grandpa reached out to shake Josiah's hand. "I can't thank you enough... This is just great!"
Josiah had to agree, but he really did have to be on his way.
"God bless you," Grandpa called after him.
Josiah waved and thought, God bless the guy who looked for the bike. He was the real hero.
Interstate 20, Central Georgia
Maude Standish would have pitched a fit if she'd thought it would do any good. She'd let this cab driver - whom she realized once she got a look at him was hardly more than a teenager - talk her into making this Godforsaken trip to Atlanta to meet Ezra and now Ezra was on his way to Denver! He'd called her just as he was about to board his flight. There was no point in trying to get him to change his mind. It was way too late for him to get a seat on the Atlanta flight, and the boy hadn't really intended to throw a cog in the wheels of her travel machinations. She also realized, with no small amount of embarrassment, that he had never expected her to be meeting him in Atlanta.
But, oh, the absolute bother of it all!
She'd been on the phone with the airline - roaming charges be damned - to discover that planes were getting off the ground again, and yes, she might possibly be able to get a flight to Denver that night IF she could get to the airport check-in by 9:00. At least the rain had stopped, so her driver no longer had to fear hydroplaning off the road. He was driving as fast as was safe - after insisting he would not risk getting them both killed just so she didn't have to spend the night in Atlanta. Cheeky little bastard. The letter she was going to write to Peachtree Transport Services would require an entire ream of stationery.
Vin scraped his finger around the inside of the bean dip can and then licked it clean. He loved bean dip and Fritos.
Grandpa had made them hamburgers and French fries for supper. Grampa's French fries were the best, better than McDonalds, even. Vin had offered to share his chocolate milk, but Grampa said it would make him fart, so Vin got to drink two glasses. They had shared the Oreos and the Fritos and bean dip while they watched a movie called "It's a Wonderful Life" which was even older than Grampa, but it was still a really good movie. Vin really felt bad for George Bailey when he lost all the bank money, but then Clarence helped him and got his angel wings.
Vin felt kind of sad when he thought about angels. He was sure he was going to get a present from the youth center angel tree, but it was already 8:15. It should have been there by now. Oh well, he did get a present from Grampa. He looked down at his feet and tapped the toes of his brand new Converse Chucks together. They were green, just like his old ones, but they didn't have any holes and they didn't pinch his toes because they were bigger. They were awesome!
"You best get ready for bed now, son," Grampa told him.
Vin wanted to argue that they had to wait for Santa, but deep down, he realized Santa would have been there by now if he was coming. It was still a good Christmas, even without Santa. He had new shoes, and tomorrow they would go visit Auntie Ruthie, who was Grampa's cousin, so she wasn't really his aunt, but she told him to call her that. She was making a turkey, and she said she had a present for him, too! He got up from his chair and put away the Fritos and the Oreos and threw the bean dip can in the recycling.
"Go put on your p.j.s and brush your teeth," Grampa said, getting up slowly from his own chair.
Vin's step was lively in his new shoes as he headed down the short hallway to the bathroom. His caseworker, Mr. Martinez, had taken him to the dentist two weeks before, and he had a new green toothbrush and some really cool toothpaste that came out with stripes on it. Grampa usually made him brush his teeth with baking soda, because toothpaste was a waste of money. But baking soda tasted yucky, although he did suppose it got his teeth clean, since the dentist said he didn't have one single cavity - all of his teeth were perfect. He'd use the toothpaste until it was gone, though.
After he finished, he bounded across the hall to his bedroom. Grampa was standing by the bedroom door, which Vin thought was kind of odd, since he usually said goodnight to him in the living room, then turned on the TV to watch crap after Vin went to bed.
Vin flicked on the light and froze in his tracks.
He had to blink a few times to make sure his eyes were really open, and he was really awake and not already in his bed asleep and dreaming.
The most beautiful, wonderful, awesomest green bike ever was standing on the floor next to his bed.
Vin tried to say something, but the words wouldn't come out. He couldn't even get his feet to move.
"Well, what do you know?" Grampa said. "Looks like Santa came after all."
"But... but... how? When?" Vin realized it must have been when he went to the Circle K, but what if it was really Santa, and he had . . . No, that was just dumb. . .
Still, there it was. The bike he had known he wasn't going to get.
"Is it mine?" he stammered.
Grampa thumped his bad leg with his cane. "Well, I sure as hell can't ride it!"
Vin walked up to his prize cautiously, as if it would disappear at any moment. He wanted to climb onto the seat, but there wasn't enough room between the bike and the bed. "Can I take it outside?"
"Now!?" Grampa asked.
Grampa laughed. "No, I don't think so... "
"But I can see in the dark!"
"I know you can, but I'm worried someone won't see you. Best hit the sack and get up first thing in the morning."
Vin didn't argue. He was perfectly happy to just look at the bike.
Grampa started to wheel it out of his room, but Vin said, "Can it stay here? Please?"
Grampa smiled and left the bike. Vin took off his new shoes and his jeans and sweatshirt and crawled into bed. "Night, Grampa," he said.
"Good-night, Vin. Merry Christmas."
Vin fell asleep staring at the amazing green bike that was all his, wondering if there could ever be another Christmas as good as this one.
Atlanta Georgia, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport
Navy Lieutenant Chris Larabee felt like kicking something. His connecting flight to Chicago had been delayed indefinitely due to the crappy weather, which meant he was going to miss his other connecting flight to Indianapolis. The Indy flight was his last hope to get home on Christmas Eve. He only had 9 days of leave, and he'd already wasted almost 2 of them sitting around airports on three different continents. If he could at least get to Chicago, maybe he could rent a car. It would be a 4-hour drive to his home near Richmond, Indiana, but he'd still make it in time for Christmas Day. The problem was that with the flights backed up like they were, there was no guarantee when he'd ever get on a plane.
He had one hope in the Military Airlift Command. If he managed to make contact with someone on Christmas Eve, they might know of military flights that could take passengers and where they would be going. But he'd already made a dozen phone calls with no luck. He hated to call in a favor, but he didn't see whereas he had much choice. A certain Lieutenant Philip Eulig was assigned to the Office of Internal Communications at the Pentagon. They theoretically knew where to find anyone who worked there, and there were MAC people assigned to the Pentagon, probably hundreds of them.
When they were Ensigns, Eulig had gotten his pockets picked at a bar in the Philippines and would have lost his wallet, his military ID, his passport and two weeks pay had Chris not seen the whole thing go down from less than 10 feet away. He had chased the thief for 17 blocks - well past the point where the chunky Eulig lost him - kicked his sorry ass into the next week, and returned Eulig's property. Eulig vowed never to forget that he owed Larabee one.
We'll see about that, Chris thought.
He finally reached Eulig at his home in Alexandria. The guy had seven different phone numbers, for Pete's sake. Chris wasn't even sure the other officer would remember him, so it was a nice surprise when Eulig gushed like they were long lost buddies and then added, "I'm sure you didn't call to wish me a Merry Christmas," he laughed. "I'm betting you're collecting on that favor I owe you."
"Well, uh... yeah," Chris admitted.
"Anything, Chris. If I can do it, I will. What do you need?"
Five minutes later, Chris was on the phone with the command duty officer for the MAC detachment at the Pentagon. Unfortunately, he was not at all sympathetic to his plight. "Looks like you're just going to have to tough it out," he said. "Not much flying on Christmas Eve... The only thing we got going anywhere near Chicago is a flight leaving from Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery at 12:00 a.m., and it's bound for Wright-Patterson."
Chris's heartbeat quickened. Wright-Patterson was a long way from Chicago, but it was only an hour's drive from Richmond. "Can you get me a seat?"
"Oh yeah, plenty of seats... but Maxwell is in Montgomery... you'll have to get there from Atlanta on your own."
Chris knew that could be a problem. The commuters were all grounded as well as the big jets. All of them had canceled the rest of their flights until tomorrow. Still, Montgomery was only a couple of hours from Atlanta. If he could get a rental car, he still had plenty of time to make it. "Just get me on it," he said. "I'll find a way to get there."
45 minutes later found him squeezed into a sardine-can sized phone cubicle, determined to call every place in Atlanta that rented cars. He'd already tried the 'big three' - but thanks to the weather, there had been a mad rush to rent cars rather than wait for the commuter flights to places like Montgomery and Panama City and Dothan to start flying again, which would not be until tomorrow morning. The only way he'd be getting a vehicle from any of them would be the unlikely event that someone turned one in, and there were people ahead of him waiting for that to happen. Still, Atlanta was a big city, and there were other, smaller car rental agencies. He'd call every damn one. It was already almost 9:00. He would be cutting it close to make it to Montgomery and find his way around Maxwell to get the MAC flight to Wright-Patterson. They might hold the plane for him, but he was Navy, not Air Force, so, he couldn't count on that. He picked up the phone and began dialing.
Rachel Dunne sat in her tiny subsidized apartment, watching her 5-year-old son nod off to sleep on the other end of the couch. In her hand, she clutched the white linen envelope embossed with the logo of the VIP lounge at the airport where she had spent most of Christmas Eve. Elliot would have been a godsend for no other reason than he basically baby-sat JD for free for most of the day, which made it a whole lot easier for her to conceal the fact that she'd had to bring him to work with her. She'd learned to dislike people with money over so many years of not having any. Maybe it was jealousy, or because they made her feel inferior, wondering why they had what she did not. It hadn't occurred to her that some of them were actually decent people.
Elliot had said good-bye to JD and left him in the lounge, apparently convincing someone to let him stay there. When she'd gone to check on him an hour before her shift ended, Eliot was nowhere to be seen. She thought he'd be back, because JD was still playing happily with his very expensive state-of-the-art laptop.
But 8:00 came and he still had not returned. JD had the key to the locker where the boys had stashed their stuff earlier, so she'd gone to get JD's belongings and inside had discovered the envelop she now held in her hand. It had been tucked into JD's backpack, so she assumed it was for her, even though there was no name on it, or any salutation on the note inside. To her shock, besides the note, it contained an airport meal voucher and a $100 bill. The handwriting on the note was neat and precise - but the fact that the periods all resembled tiny aces-of-spades belied that it was written by a teen-ager. It read simply:
Your son is some kind of super-wizard with a computer, so he can keep the laptop. I can get another one, and he needs it more than I do. The $100 is for you. Have a nice holiday. - Eliot
She'd searched the airport looking for him, because the gifts were just way too extravagant to accept. But she'd never learned his last name, and didn't know where he was going or where he'd come from. She should have asked him those things. Why hadn't she?
She didn't doubt that one day, Eliot would be a man of power and means. She dared to hope that he would always have a kind and generous heart, and that she could raise her own boy to be that kind of man.
She looked at JD again. His chubby little hand still reached across the gap between the couch and the coffee table, his tiny fingers resting on the laptop's keyboard. It was late when they got home, so she'd fixed him a bowl of chicken noodle soup and then told him he could play with the computer if he was quiet. He'd faded quickly but even now his little fingers tried to tap the keyboard.
She picked him up and tucked him into his bed, and then put his presents under the tree where he'd find them when he woke up in the morning. He'd love the Tinker Toys and the atlas, but she knew it was that tangle of circuits encased in a plastic box sitting on her coffee table, a gift from a young stranger she'd never see again, that would open a whole new world for her gifted son..
Atlanta Georgia, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport
Nathan Jackson had delivered his passenger to the Southwest Airlines gate with ten minutes to spare. He'd left the car standing at the curb, hoping there were not enough cops on duty Christmas Eve to notice it right away, and that when they did, they wouldn't give him a ticket - or worse, have him towed. Not that he supposed it mattered. Mrs. Standish would probably get him fired, anyway.
Still, he felt vaguely responsible for his passenger's frenzy, because instead of meeting her son like he'd brought her here to do, she'd had to high-tail it to the ticket counter in order to get on the last flight going to Denver, where her son had actually ended up.
He'd grabbed 4 of her bags - all he could carry - and she'd lugged a fifth bag and the valise she'd brought for her son. She wasn't wearing shoes made for running, but she had staggered along as fast as she could and managed to keep pace with Nathan, loaded down as he was with what felt like 200 pounds of luggage.
Finally, they made it to the ticket desk, which was ominously free of customers.
Mrs. Standish ran up out of breath and slapped her ID and a wad of cash down on the counter and said, "I need a first class ticket on that Denver flight!" She pointed at he status board behind her, which revealed that the flight was already boarding.
The agent began to hammer keys. "I'm sorry, we don't have first class. Southwest is first-come, first-served." He checked her ID and typed her name in. "I can't guarantee your bags will make it on the flight," she said apologetically.
"Oh, for Pete's sake, just give me a boarding pass!" Mrs. Standish said impatiently. "And call the gate and tell them to wait for me!"
"I'm sorry, I can't...."
In the next instant, the agent had a $100 bill being waved in her face. "Now can you?" Mrs. Standish asked.
The agent picked up the phone as Maude's boarding pass printed. She grabbed it from the agent and headed for the gate.
"If you won't be needing my services any longer, I need to get back to the car," Nathan told her.
"Please do!" Mrs. Standish huffed.
Nathan turned to walk away, but then heard, "Young man!"
He turned around, expecting a tirade, but none was forthcoming. The woman pressed a $50 bill in his hand, and said, "Thank you." It was cold and insincere, but there it was.
"You're welcome, Ma'am. . . You have our number. If you don't make it on the plane, give us a call and I'll come back for you."
Her face softened somewhat. "Thank you, I do appreciate that."
And with that she headed off in a run to try to make it to her plane.
Nathan headed back to his vehicle, which, if he was lucky, was still there.
On his way, he passed the phones for the rental cars, which were all vacant except for one. He hoped the Navy officer sitting there didn't notice he had a driver's uniform on. He had no intention of picking up another fare tonight. He had to get out of Atlanta and be on his way home.
But as he passed, he overheard the officer speaking politely, but tersely. "I have less than 3 hours to get there from here. I will rent anything you have."
There was a pause while the person on the other end of the line spoke.
"So where are you in relation to the airport?"
"Is that Roswell street?"
Nathan's heart sank for the guy - whoever he was talking to was in Roswell, Georgia, a distant suburb of Atlanta. It would be at least an hour before he got a car.
"No, I can't bring it back... It's one way." >pause< "Oh, okay, thank you, anyway." The officer hung up the phone and raked a finger through his hair. He looked exhausted and frustrated. Nathan thought it couldn't hurt to ask him where he wanted to go.
He looked at Nathan without so much as a glimmer of hope in his eyes. "Maxwell Air Force Base. I need to be there by 12:00 am. Looks like I'm screwed."
Nathan grinned. "No you're not. Come with me!"
"I don't understand..."
"I'm on my way to Montgomery right now," Nathan said. "I just have to turn my taxi in and pick up my own car."
The officer looked at his watch and shook his head. "It's too late. I have to be there before midnight, about two and a half hours from now. We'll never make it."
"Three and a half," Nathan said. "Montgomery is on Central time. It's an hour earlier there right now."
Chris hadn't even though about the time zone change. He grinned. "Lead the way!"
A few minutes later, they were at the Peachtree Transport Depot piling into Nathan's somewhat less than luxurious Dodge Caravan. The Navy officer said he didn't care what the car was. so long as it had wheels and an engine, which was a good thing because that really was about all the car had.
Once they were inside the vehicle, the officer sighed heavily and leaned his head against the back of the seat. It was just after 9:00 in Montgomery, and with just a little luck, they'd make it to the base in with plenty of time to spare.
"Why don't you get some sleep, man? You look beat," Nathan observed.
Chris leaned back in the seat, but when he glanced over, he saw the tank was less than half full. "Maybe we should gas up before we leave Atlanta," he suggested.
His young host agreed and pulled into the first open gas station they saw. While the young man pumped the gas, Chris went in and paid for it, as well as for two cups of coffee. It took almost all of the cash he had left on him. There wouldn't be anything to leave the young man a tip - and he wasn't even sure if that would be appropriate. After thinking it over, he pointed to the lottery display and told the clerk, "Give me five scratch-off tickets."
Once they were on the road, despite the coffee, the warmth of the car and the soft jazz music playing on the car stereo soon lulled Chris to sleep.
Denver Colorado, Denver International Airport
Josiah garnered a fair share of odd looks as he walked down the concourse to pick up his rental car. He'd finished delivering presents for the youth center much later than expected, and had ended up having to get on the plane in the Santa suit.
Some passengers had looked at him askance, but most were delighted, thinking he'd done it on purpose. He'd played the part by wishing everyone a happy holiday as he passed them on his way to his seat. The suit wasn't uncomfortable, and the flight was less than an hour, so he was happy to assume the role of Santa for the duration.
He'd spend Christmas Day at the long-term care facility where his autistic sister, Hannah, had lived since she was a teen-ager. Maybe he'd wear the suit again. Hannah, who was usually afraid of anything new and strange, loved Santa Claus. She'd realize it was him immediately, of course, but it would still make her smile.
He was still feeling the afterglow of seeing the youth center kids react to their gifts. That had really put him in the spirit of the holiday. Tucked under one arm was the gift he'd bought for the little guy who wanted the green bicycle. He still couldn't believe how that had turned out. People never ceased to amaze him. It was a small box of Lego blocks, and he figured Hannah or one of the other residents at the facility might enjoy them.
The ground transportation area was almost vacant. Almost everyone who would be arriving in Denver for Christmas Eve was already there.
It was because there was no one else around that a child sitting alone, his head resting on the hard arm of a plastic chair, drew his attention. The clerk at the car rental desk had noticed him, too, and shrugged slightly. "He's been sitting there for over an hour," the clerk said. "I'm not sure what's going on."
The boy looked maybe 12 or 13, so after he'd obtained the keys to his vehicle, Josiah tucked on his Santa beard and approached him.
The boy looked up, and was immediately taken aback. Josiah grinned and said, "Happy holiday! Are you waiting for someone?"
The boy looked reluctant to engage in a conversation with a guy in a Santa suit, and judging from his demeanor, Josiah realized he might have underestimated his age. He was still very young, though. "You could say that," he replied finally.
Josiah decided to put his counselor's training to good use. "So, what's going on?" he asked casually, taking a seat, but leaving a vacant chair between them so as not to invade the lad's personal space..
He could see that the child was tired, and though he hadn't been crying, his eyelashes were damp like he'd perhaps been trying not to.
"I don't really know where my mother is," the boy confessed.
"How did that happen?"
The boy proceeded to tell him a long story about how he and his mother were supposed to spend the holiday in Aspen, but he'd arrived in Denver first. "She usually makes arrangements," he said.
"You know... a car to pick me... a hotel. But no one's here and she's not answering her phone."
Josiah frowned at that. "Maybe you should come with me," he suggested.
"No way!" the boy backed away.
Josiah smiled reassuringly. "I meant to the airport security office. You can't sit out here all night."
The boy shook his head. "No. I'll be fine. I have money, I can take care of myself."
Josiah believed him, but also knew that no one was going to rent a hotel room to a child all alone, even if he could find a way to get there. He thought about calling social services, but as sad as the boy's plight was, spending Christmas Eve alone in an airport, he was probably perfectly safe where he was.
And just as he thought that, a security guard walked up. "Is there a problem?" He looked at the boy, with a suspicious side glance at Josiah in his Santa suit.
"No, sir," the boy answered.
"I noticed you've been sitting here for quite awhile."
The boy got the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights look, but his voice was calm. "I'm waiting for my mother. We were on different flights."
The security officer didn't believe him. "Well, if you're alone out here too much longer, I'm going to have to take you to security, okay?"
"But I didn't do anything wrong!"
The guard put up his hand. "Don't get excited. I didn't say you did. We're just concerned, that's all." The guard seem to realize that the boy found him threatening so he moved away. "If you need anything, come to the security office, okay?"
After he left, the boy looked visibly relieved, but Josiah still felt sad for him. There was really nothing he could do, though, so he decided to be on his way. As he got up to leave, the Legos rattled in the box under his arm.
On an impulse, he handed it to the boy. "Merry Christmas," he told him.
The boy looked up. "Huh? But, I..."
Josiah was already walking away. "Hey, what good is a Santa without presents?" he waved back. "Ho! Ho! Ho!"
Nathan Jackson stopped short of the security gate at Maxwell Air Force Base. Entry was restricted, said signs posted everywhere, and proper ID was required. His passenger had dozed most of the way, but woke up once the car stopped.
"We're here," Nathan said. "And you have time to spare. Not sure where you go to catch the plane, though." Nathan saw no runway or aircraft in sight.
"Me either," Chris answered. "Would you mind waiting a second while I go ask the guard how to get there?"
"No problem," Nathan said. The officer left his bag behind and approached the guard shack - which was actually a small office - with his ID in hand.
+ + + + + + +
"Are you Lieutenant Commander Larabee?" the Staff Seargeant in the guard shack asked Chris.
"I am. I'm catching a MAC flight to Wright-Patterson, but I'm not sure where to go, and the guy who drove me here is a civilian. Can he get on base?"
The sergeant pulled a sticky note off his computer monitor. "You're all set. Someone called from Washington and said to have transportation for you when you got here."
"They did?" Chris smiled, figuring Philip Eulig had more than paid back his favor.
"I called the duty driver as soon as I saw you pull up... he'll be here any minute."
"Great! I need to go get my bag... be right back."
+ + + + + + +
Nathan figured all had gone well judging from the lively spring to the Navy officer's step. He'd forgotten the man's name... Larry, something? Oh well, he didn't suppose it mattered.
The officer grabbed his bag and then leaned into the car. "Hey, man, I really appreciate you doing this for me." He held out his hand, and Nathan shook it.
"I'm clean out of cash..."
Nathan held up his hand. "Don't even think about it... I was coming here, anyway, remember?"
"Well, take these." Nathan had 5 scratch-off lottery tickets pressed into his hand.
"No, really.... " he tried to give them back, but Larry closed the door.
A government car pulled up to the guard shack and Larry turned around and waved before getting in. "Merry Christmas!" he shouted.
Nathan waved back, and as the government car pulled away, he put his Dodge Caravan in gear and headed back to the Interstate and home. A couple of blocks from the house, though, he had to stop for a train. Who the hell ran trains on Christmas Eve anywhere but under a Christmas tree? He looked down the track and saw no end to the train in sight, so he put the car in park, turned on the dome light, and fished out the lottery tickets. He patted his pockets and found a dime, and began to haphazardly scratch the coating off to discover if he was a winner. The tickets each had 6 possible winning combinations, increasing in value from $1,000 to $100,000, although the best odds favored simply winning another ticket.
Nathan expected the five tickets to keep him entertained at least until the train passed, but to his surprise, the very first row he scratched off was a row of 7's.
It was hard to read in the dim light, so he pulled a flash light out of the glove compartment, and shined it on the ticket to read the winning possibilities. Three cherries were $1,000, Three horseshoes were $5,000... His heart skipped a beat when he got down to Three 7s... No way he was seeing it right.
Three 7s in a row was the Grand Prize.
Absolutely NO way.
There was no way he'd just won $100,000 with a lottery ticket he hadn't even paid for.
But there it was, staring him in the face. Three 7s . . . $100,000!
By the time the train passed, Nathan's hands were shaking.
He looked at the ticket one more time, and read it over to make sure he saw it right. The crossing gates had already folded up, and the car behind him - which he hadn't even noticed - tooted impatiently.
He shifted into drive and got moving. He'd be at his dad's house in a few minutes and would have him look at the ticket to make sure.
But he knew he'd won, and that the money would fix a lot of things. He'd be able to go back to college, and finish his degree, and then work on his EMT certification without having to worry about making money while he did. Whatever was left over, he'd give to his dad.
For the first time in his young life, Nathan could believe that the future he wanted for himself was within his grasp. And by damn, he was going to make the most of it!
CHRISTMAS EVE, PRESENT DAY
Chris Larabee hadn't gone home early like everyone else. He had the office to himself, and was somewhat surprised to realize that he wasn't enjoying the peace and quiet. His team had been a rowdy bunch from the get-go, but the addition during the past year of Vin Tanner and JD Dunne, both very competent but very young, had been the catalyst that transformed them into a true brotherhood. He'd be rejoining them again later than evening for a Christmas Eve gathering at Ezra's condo. Ezra had not been a random choice - unlike Vin's, his apartment was large and could accommodate them easily. Unlike the condo Buck and JD shared, it was possible to see the furniture and the floor. Plus it was conveniently located in the heart of downtown, and, Ezra knew how to put on a good spread.
Chris stood up and looked at the snow gently falling against the Denver skyline. He was actually looking forward to Christmas this year, for the first time since losing Sarah and Adam. He gazed at their picture resting on a shelf beneath the window. Next to it was one of his mom and dad, and his thoughts went back to that Christmas years ago, where he'd gone through hell and high water to make it home from the Middle East for the holidays. His dad had suffered a mild heart attack in October of that year, and some cosmic force had tugged at him relentlessly, telling him that he had to be home for Christmas. It had been a good time, starting with his dad making the hour drive to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the wee hours of Christmas morning to meet his MAC flight. They'd stopped for breakfast at a Denny's on the way home, and had really talked the way they had before he'd hit his teen years when, like most teenagers, he'd decided he knew more than his father did.
During his brief time at home, he'd gone hunting with his dad, and had helped him put new cabinets in the kitchen, all amidst the hubbub of holiday activities. It was good to be home.
That Christmas had been the last time he'd see his father alive. The following June, he'd suffered another heart attack, this one major, and had not survived. It still gave him a lump in his throat to think how close he'd come to not making it home that year. Had it not been for the kindness of a complete stranger, those precious memories would have never happened.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah Sanchez carefully unfolded the Santa Suit, which was getting a little threadbare. He'd decided that next year he'd invest in a new one, and give this one to Hannah. She'd be delighted with it, he knew.
Just two hours before, he had completed another tour of duty as Santa for a group of underprivileged kids, and had put the suit into its storage box for its annual trip to the dry cleaners, but he'd had to drag it out again thanks to Vin and JD and, he suspected, Ezra.
The day had been good, with gifts passed out to almost 200 kids who would not have had anything were it not for the generosity of a few people who cared, which included the members of his team. All of them had come through helping him purchase and wrap the gifts. Vin and JD had even come along and played elves.
The kids had entertained with songs and skits, and 12-year-old Letisha Griegos had blown everyone there away with her performance on the center's ancient piano. The instrument had been donated to the center 20 years before, and had never been in tune even before years of random kids pounding out "Chopsticks" and "Heart and Soul" on its unstable keyboard. But Letisha, who had taught herself to play, by ear, had made the old wreck sound almost worthy of a concert hall. She had a true gift, and had she been born into different circumstance, Josiah had no doubt she'd be hailed as prodigy, with her talent being painstakingly nurtured. Instead, she lived in a tiny apartment with an older brother who was her legal guardian even though he was barely more than a kid himself. They got by well enough - she had adequate food and clothing and went to school regularly - but no one was really interested in encouraging her gift for music. She spent much of her free time at the center, practicing on that old piece of junk, because it was all she had.
Ezra, Vin and JD had been blown away by her performance, especially after Josiah told them her story.
So here he was, putting on the Santa suit again after Vin had shown up on his doorstep with a full-size Kurzweil keyboard with a built in synthesizer and memory card.
Letisha was about to get a piano of her very own.
+ + + + + + +
Buck Wilmington had volunteered to go on a search for Christmas lights after Ezra had discovered that a critter of some sort - he suspected an obnoxious Yorkie who belonged to the building super who was allowed free run of the building, including the storage area - had gnawed through the wiring on his ridiculously expensive pre-lit artificial imported-from-Belgium Christmas tree.
They couldn't be just any lights, either. They had to be amber or yellow or worse-case-scenario, non-bright white lights, to offset the trees meticulously imbedded gold tinsel and ornaments.
Before he set out, Buck seriously had no idea how hard it was to find Christmas tree lights on Christmas Eve. Every store he went to was either sold out completely, or had a plethora of blue and red lights, but no other colors. He did find some Martha Stewart purple lights at Home Depot that he bought for JD, who for some unfathomable reason insisted the tree he was putting up at their condo needed purple lights.
But gold, or amber, or yellow or whatever the hell you wanted to call the color - those were nowhere to be found. Home Depot did have some orange ones left over from Halloween, but they had black wires. Ezra would strangle him with them if he brought those home.
He wouldn't give up, though. He was a man on a mission, just like all those years ago when he'd looked high and low for a damn green bicycle.
This time, like then, he'd spotted a small store in a strip mall called "Light Up My Life" that sold, judging from the window display, nothing but lights. And there, tucked away in a far corner where they were waiting to be returned to the stockroom until next year, was a small stack of Christmas tree lights. These weren't the cheap strings that lasted two years if you were lucky. They were high quality lights guaranteed to last for 20 seasons. They not only had "gold" ones, they had twinkling gold, clear gold, and frosted gold ones. Ezra's tree was a 9-footer, so it needed lots of lights. Buck scooped up every yellow set he could find.
Unfortunately, he didn't bother to noticed the cost per string. The bill came to a staggering $331.08.
Aw, what the hell? It was Christmas.
+ + + + + + +
As he had done every Christmas Eve for the past 15 years, Nathan Jackson had stopped at a Mobile station and bought $20 worth of scratch-off lottery tickets.
He then set out on his short Christmas Eve errand, passing the tickets out to total strangers who looked like they could use some luck. One went to a young woman at a bus stop with two small children in tow. Another to a guy in faded jeans changing a tire on his ancient pickup truck. He gave one to the girl who served him coffee at Starbuck's and another to a homeless man who asked for handouts at the same street corner every night, rain or shine.
He'd had one ticket left when he stopped at a grocery story to buy a pint of eggnog. Only a pint - Rain had asked him to pick it up, but she'd be the only one drinking it. Aside from the fact that you could almost feel an artery clog with each swallow, he hated the taste of the stuff.
He'd gone to the express line, only to be held up by a couple in their very early twenties who were digging through their pockets trying to come up with enough cash to pay for their meager purchases, which included two sweet potatoes, a small ham steak, a bag of frozen black-eyed peas, and a bottle of grape juice. Christmas dinner, he thought. When they came up 53 cents short, he dug into his wallet and handed the cashier an extra dollar. The two youngsters thanked him far more than he deserved, which he found humbling. He quickly paid for the eggnog and passed them on his way out of the store. As he did so, he handed the boy the last lottery ticket. He didn't wait around for arguments or even thank-yous, he just kept on walking. He was a mile and a half from his apartment, and he had to get Rain's eggnog home so they could get ready to go to Ezra's.
He suddenly heard a shout behind him. "Mister! Hey, Mister! Wait!"
It was the girl half of the couple from the store. She waved the ticket. "Hey, Mister, it's a winner!"
"Congratulations!" he called back.
She had almost caught up with him by this time. "Mister, you don't understand... It's a lot of money. A whole lot!" She held out the ticket like she was trying to give it back to him.
Nathan waved her off and patted the little bottle in the plastic bag hooked around his arm. "Can't stay... gotta get my eggnog home! Merry Christmas!"
+ + + + + + +
Ezra inspected the 1100 twinkling, clear and frosted amber lights on his magnificent gold tree. They were the finest quality - Buck had done well. It had taken him the better part of two hours to methodically place them amidst the trees 2,485 points, with no wires showing, but now he was done, and there was but one finishing touch to add.
He removed a small grey box from the bottom drawer of his bedroom bureau and took it to the kitchen where he carefully poured the contents onto the kitchen counter. He performed this ritual every year, lest his treasure somehow not be intact.
He counted the colorful pieces of plastic and was pleased to discover they were all still there.
Of his many treasures, this one had been come by in the oddest way of all. It had, literally, come from Santa. A man in a Santa suit in an airport in... where was it? Boston? Denver? Atlanta? He didn't even remember now. He'd been sitting alone in the terminal on Christmas Eve, not knowing that Mother was on her way. He knew he could take care of himself, but he had to admit that, being all alone in a strange city, he'd felt abandoned and a bit frightened, truth be told. Then, 'Santa' had appeared, and so had some kind of cop. Just knowing that someone knew he was there had made all the difference, and would have been enough, but Santa had handed him a gift, too, wrapped in garish green paper with red-and-white candy canes, topped with a big, red, slightly crushed bow.
Mother came sashaying down the concourse 45 minutes later, but by then, he'd pulled the wrapping off the gift to discover a box of Legos.
Mother had never wanted him to have building blocks as a child, claiming that they were useless clutter, and that he'd never have to work with his hands building things. She'd encouraged him to refine his skills at gambling, creative bookkeeping, and occasional flim-flamming, instead.
Funny thing was, that had ended up being a nice holiday. He and Mother had spent seven days in Aspen, just the two of them, skiing, shopping, dining, or just sitting in front of the hotel lobby's big fireplace together, reading. He never knew why she'd decided to skip the social scene she was so fond of that year.
He'd never shown her the Lego set. She would have been especially upset because at 15, she would have considered him too old for toys. And maybe he was, but he'd loved those Legos. He'd bought a set for the break room at work as a joke when Vin and JD, who looked like teenagers, had joined the team within four months of each other. He'd discovered he still enjoyed snapping them together and pulling them apart, and, as it turned out, so did everyone else.
He set the box underneath the tree, tastefully arranging it to look like part of the decor, and said a thank-you to the airport Santa, wondering if he ever knew how much their few minutes together had meant to him.
+ + + + + +
This was going to be a good Christmas, Vin Tanner knew. This year, he had good friends who had welcomed him into their fold. He'd bought gifts for the first time in his life, and for the first time in a long, long time, he was actually looking forward to maybe getting one or two.
He hadn't had a lot of good Christmas memories in his life, being bounced around between foster homes and finally running away to live on the street where Christmas didn't mean anything except another cold day.
He took a small, black box out from under his bed. It was an old shoebox for a pair of Converse Chucks, size 3, that he'd kept with him for years. Even when he'd been homeless, he'd carried it in his backpack. It contained the memories of his childhood that were happy and precious to him. A fading photo of his mom, his dad's Army ID, a birthday card from the lady he used to deliver papers for - there had been a $20 bill in that one - track ribbons he'd won in middle school. There was a single photo of him with Grampa, taken by Auntie Ruthie the Christmas he was 9 years old. Grampa wasn't really his grandpa and Auntie Ruthie wasn't really his aunt, but that Christmas, he'd felt like he belonged to them. The shoebox itself was part of that memory - that Christmas, Grampa had given him a pair of green Chucks. He'd had an obsession with green as a kid... he didn't even remember now why. In the picture, he was wearing those Chucks and a Notre Dame hoodie that Auntie Ruthie had found at a Salvation Army store. It was a little bit too big for him, but, it was green, so he'd loved it.
His best memory of that Christmas, though, was that wonderful green bicycle. His heart still skipped a beat when he thought about seeing it for the first time and realizing it was his.
He'd lived with Grampa until he was 12, when some shithead with nothing better to do than ruin people's lives had decided that a little run-down mobile home, and an old man in ill health made for an unfit environment for a child. It didn't matter that he'd felt loved and wanted there, even if he never had much. His caseworker, Mr. Martinez, had fought tooth and nail to keep him there, but in the end, a judge who never even talked to Vin decreed he be placed in a new foster home. He'd been picked up the next day, with no chance even for a proper good-bye. He'd had to leave the bike behind.
Two years after that, Mr. Martinez came to tell him that Grampa had died of a stroke, so Vin would have ended up in another placement, anyway, but he would have liked to have had those two years - and that bike. He wondered what had happened to it? It didn't matter now, he supposed. It would be too small for him to ride, anyway, so maybe it had found a new home with some kid who loved it as much as he had. He liked to think that, anyway.
It was because of that Christmas that he'd suggested to JD and Ezra that they buy an expensive keyboard for the gifted Letisha Griegos, a child they barely knew. Whoever had bought him that bike hadn't known him at all, and had given him one of the happiest moments of his life. It was time he paid it forward.
That Christmas he was 9, he didn't believe there could ever be another Christmas that good again. And there hadn't been, until this year. This year, he felt like he had a family once more.
+ + + + + + +
JD Dunne was excited to spend Christmas Eve with his new "family." When he'd come to Denver to take the job with the ATF, he'd been afraid that being young and alone in a new city would suck, especially with the holidays approaching. He'd only been with the team for 2 months, but he already felt like he belonged. Buck Wilmington had taken him under his wing, and he'd found a good friend in Vin Tanner who was almost as young as he was. He'd felt kind of self-conscious knowing Vin had a lot more experience than he did coming into the ATF. This was JD's first real job, but Vin had four years in the Army and two years as a state police officer under his belt, even though he was only 24.
It had turned out that Vin, though, didn't know anything about computers, except how to send e-mail and Google stuff, and of course, how to use the NCIC database. So, he was kind of in awe of JD, which was pretty cool.
JD hadn't even unpacked all of the few boxes of belongings he'd brought with him from Boston, but now he searched through the small pile in his bedroom looking for one in particular. "Christmas stuff" it said on it. He cut the packing tape with a box cutter and pulled out a tiny Christmas tree. His mama had found it in a thrift store when he was little and each year had promised to buy a newer bigger one, but as time went on, they'd grown attached to the little tree, so the new, bigger one never materialized. This one had always had orange and purple lights. JD wasn't sure why. Last Christmas, the purple string had gone out just before New Year's. Mama had said once again it was time for a new tree, but she had already battled ovarian cancer for three years, and that had turned out to be her last Christmas.
JD had briefly considered tossing the tree before he moved, but it didn't take up much space, and Buck had found new purple lights for it, so maybe he was meant to keep it.
At the bottom of the box that held the tree, was an old beat-up lap top - although, it probably couldn't be called that anymore because the screen had separated from the keyboard at some point so once it was opened it became two separate pieces joined by a tangle of wires. His mom had told him that someone had just given it to him - a boy named Eliot who he vaguely remembered eating tacos with. He'd loved that computer, and it had served him well. He'd won an animation creation contest with it when he was only 6 - five years younger than any of the competition. He'd started writing his own programs at 8 and by 9 was upgrading the hardware with bits and pieces he scrounged from computers other people had thrown out. He'd finally retired it when he was 12, after he won a new computer in a math competition. By then, it was a relic as far as computers went, but the little laptop had turned into a passion that landed him a scholarship to MIT at 16. By now, it was a downright antique, but like the tree, he'd never had the heart to part with it.
Just for kicks, he plugged in the power cord and turned it on. It took forever to boot up, and when it did, an ancient version of Windows came up on the screen. He scrolled through the files - all of his programs and artwork and games and basically his whole childhood were still on it. He'd have to get a flash drive and transfer everything before it gave up the ghost entirely.
He unplugged it and turned it off, and pressed the two sections together, gently patting it after he did so. "Thanks, Eliot. Wherever you are, Merry Christmas."
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