Copyright © 2012 By Parker Sheaffer
Shelly was getting antsy again as the drugs wore off. Her hands kept sliding in and out of her pockets, she crossed and uncrossed her arms every few moments and kept nervously shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Her tongue darted out repeatedly to lick her upper lip, a nervous habit she had been afflicted with since childhood, one which became more frequent whenever her body ached for a fix.
She loved her crystal maybe more than anything in the world even though it had taken a toll on her, robbing her of her once shapely body, then most of her teeth and, most importantly, her self-respect. Still, the only time she felt good was when she was rushing on speed. It made her feel like she was flying, like she was moving really fast even though she was standing still. Meth provided a euphoria that was the closest thing to happiness she had known for several years, but she had used up her supply of the drug that morning and she had to have more. She had done the last hit and now she scrambled desperately around trying to find some money so she could score another bag.
Shelly no longer bought the medications that the psychiatrist had told her she needed, the anti-psychotics that kept her stable. She thought that money was better spent on meth.
The rent money had already gone to her dealer instead of her landlord, but she would worry about that later. There was no food in the house, but she wasn't hungry anyway. Not for food, at least. She still had fifty dollars stashed away for the electric company though. It was the last money she would have for a while and if she spent it the power would surely be shut off again and while the lights didn't matter so much it was getting really cold now. Could she do without heat? Shelly almost wavered, but her need for speed was too strong. She shoved the crumpled bills in the pocket of her dirty jeans and hurried down the street, trying to ignore the dark creatures that seemed to lurk at the edges of her vision. They were scary creatures that she could never see when she looked directly at them, but whose presence could be sensed from the corner of her eye.
Cory sat at his computer looking at ads for All Terrain Vehicles and texting his pal Justin.
"It's the hottest four-wheeler J. I can't wait til Christmas. I know my dad is getting it even tho he says he can't afford it," he typed.
Cory had started hinting about the vehicle back in September, but in November he had abandoned subtlety and started directly asking his father to get it for him.
"Dad, I swear I'll never ask for anything else ever again. Please, Dad, can I have it? Can I?"
His father, Stan, knew that Cory would forget that promise as soon as something else came along that he "really, really had to have". Plus, Stan had strong trepidations about his son riding on something like this. It looked pretty dangerous and Corey wasn't the most cautious of kids. He was smaller than most twelve-year-olds so it was possible that he lacked the bulk and strength to handle such a powerful machine.
Stan kept trying to put the boy off, hoping he would forget about it and become distracted by something safer, but Cory had always been pretty focused when he wanted something. Like the time he was nine and got interested in music. He wouldn't leave Stan alone until he got him an electronic keyboard. Even though he promised to practice every day he soon began to skip his lessons and now the keyboard sat in a closet alongside his expensive and forgotten tennis racket.
Stan's family sometimes accused him of spoiling his handsome little son, and maybe they were right, a little, but since Anita had died it was just the two of them and he couldn't bear to see his little boy unhappy.
Mac looked like he was from the Middle East, maybe Iraq. He was no more an Arab than Sara Palin, but sometimes it was fun and useful to cultivate the look with a thick, fake moustache and a slight accent. He could quickly remove the moustache and comb his hair differently and instantly look like someone else entirely.
The Arab was sort of his secret identity and it had saved his ass more than once. As his other identity, Abdul, he had done illegal things like shoplifting, robberies and scams and then later changed back into 'Mac' and 'Abdul' disappeared. Everyone was left confused, searching for an Arab who didn't exist. Mac could drive right past them and they wouldn't know him.
Today he was going to get a Christmas tree and he would work the same scam that he had used for the past few years to get a free fir, but first he needed something to put on it.
On the way to the tree lot 'Abdul' stopped at the most crowded pharmacy he could find and mingled in with the other shoppers in the narrow aisles. His special, overly large coat allowed him to slip things inside it so he slyly picked up two boxes of ornaments and while pretending to examine one box he slid the other under his coat. Once he had four boxes of decorations and two of lights he headed for the door. To his surprise a sharp-eyed young manager had been watching him and tried to cut him off before he could get outside. Abdul shoved some old ladies roughly aside as he fled the store. Once around the corner he quickly pulled a folded up paper shopping bag from his pocket and as he ran he shoved his stolen loot inside it. Then he paused long enough to remove his coat and turn it inside out. The coat was black, but green on the inside and easily reversible. Off came the moustache, on went a baseball cap and Abdul was gone. The manager and a security officer ran past him looking for the thieving Arab while Mac chuckled. He didn't need to steal, but it was just so much fun outsmarting those idiots that he couldn't resist it. Sometimes he marveled to himself at just how clever he was compared to the rest of the world.
The bell rang and in only a few seconds the doors flew open as droves of excited children fled the school that had imprisoned them all day long. It was as if they were running from some horrible beast instead of just a few kindly teachers who tried each day to pass along a little knowledge of math and science to them.
The kids were excited about the coming Yuletide holiday and had little thought to spare for learning. They needed to have fun and be with their friends to talk about their plans and hopes for Christmas. After all, it was only a few days away.
The noise of their passing was almost deafening as they raced past one little boy who moved much slower than the rest. David was in no hurry to get out in the cold air. His ratty sneakers had holes in them and the snow always soaked his socks and froze his feet. His thin jacket offered little protection from the biting winds and he had no gloves to protect his hands. Instead of heading to the parking lot where the busses and cars were loading up his schoolmates, eleven year old David trudged down the sidewalk to his after school job at Haley's Christmas tree lot. Most people had already selected their trees and had them decorated, but it was always surprising to him how many others procrastinated until the holiday was almost upon them.
Old man Haley didn't pay him much, just a dollar an hour, but no other places would hire an eleven year old boy and David really needed the few dollars he could pull together. Otherwise there would be no present for his mother or for his baby sister, there would be no special Christmas meal for them. Maybe Mr. Haley would even let him have a little tree on Christmas Eve if there were some that went unsold.
When his dad was alive they always had a beautiful tree at Christmas. Even though he was only six when his dad died David could still remember how glorious their tree looked with colored lights and ornaments so thick on it that he could barely see any branches. And oh, the presents under the tree. How he missed those times. Everything was gone now and it would never be the same again. He tried to push the memories aside because he didn't want any tears freezing on his cheeks. He was cold enough already.
His job at the lot was to tie up people's trees and help load them on their cars. He was good at tying knots, even if his fingers were stiff with cold, but he was too short to get the tree up on a car roof so the people usually had to help him. He tried hard though and it was disappointing how few people bothered to tip him, even a little. At the end of a four-hour shift he sometimes went home with eight dollars in his pocket and a dollar of that went for bus fare.
At home, David kept his earnings in a safe place, in old sock hanging on a nail behind his chest of drawers. There was just enough room for him to get his hand between the wall and the heavy piece of furniture. No one had moved the chest in years so he felt certain that it wouldn't be discovered by anyone, even his mother. Right now he had almost thirty dollars, enough to buy Christmas dinner for them all and a small gift as well.
The thought of dinner made his stomach growl, but he was used to being hungry and could wait until he got home to eat, if there was anything left in the refrigerator. More than food and warmth he wanted to get home and hold his baby sister, Aggie. He loved his sister and didn't even mind changing her diapers. She was one of the few bright spots in his dull life and it made his heart glad to see her smile and laugh whenever he held her and played with her. Aggie would be a year old in a few days. She was a Christmas baby, born on Christmas day and that always seemed somehow magical to David.
Shelly drove up to the small, shabby apartment building and parked behind it, out of sight of the street. It was such a rundown place, dirty and strewn with trash, that not many people would live here. Only two of the four apartments were being let, one was to her dealer. She didn't know who was in the other one but they didn't seem to be home.
She knocked but no one answered. "Where is he?" she wondered, feeling more desperate with each unanswered knock. Her frustration grew until she was pounding loudly on the door and screaming. She had to have some meth and she had to have it now so she picked up a rock and smashed the small rear window. She unlatched it and climbed through into a dirty kitchen. She had to crawl across the sink which was piled high with dirty pots and pans and dishes. It stank and she cut her hand on some of the broken window glass so she left smears of blood on the counter as she fell into the room. Grabbing a dish towel she wrapped up her bleeding hand and ran to the other rooms looking for his stash. She frantically threw open drawers, emptied boxes and trashed the place in her desperate search for drugs but there were none to be found.
Shelly forced herself to calm down. Getting into a panic wouldn't help. She had to think. She looked around at the apartment and was surprised at the electronics that were everywhere. The living room and the bedroom both had large new televisions, there was a fancy computer in the bedroom and a big stereo system in the living room. This stuff was worth a lot of money so she decided to steal it all.
There was no telling how much time she had, he could return at any moment, so she hurriedly crammed the trunk of her old car with the computer, the stereo and speakers. The two televisions barely fit in the back seat. Two more speakers, both three feet tall, she was able to wedge into the passenger seat. Shelly knew of someone on the other side of town that would be able to help her. They would gladly swap a lot of meth for this haul of fancy electronics so she headed that way, relieved that she had not been caught, either by him or by the weird, spooky, dark things that kept trying to sneak up on her from behind.
Cory was glad that school was out. It was less than a week until Christmas and his dad had promised to go with him to cut a tree that evening when he got home from work. Their tradition had always been to cut a fresh tree from the woods behind their house because his dad said that he preferred to have a natural looking tree instead of a farm raised one. The farm trees were pruned into a cone shape while the natural trees had long, slender branches that drooped nicely when an ornament was placed near the tip. The branches looked great when they were loaded with those tinsel icicles, all hanging like water cascading over a waterfall. Cory had to admit that they did look really nice but he was most interested about getting out into the woods with his dad. They didn't do it often enough anymore. There never seemed to be any time for camping and hiking now, not like they used to do in the old days and Cory missed it. Also he wanted to show his dad an old logging trail that he had found. It was a perfect place to ride a four-wheeler and would give him a chance to mention his Christmas gift one more time, just in case his dad had forgotten.
He was delighted to find that his dad's car was in the driveway when he got off the bus. There was another car, too. It looked like his uncle's car so Cory slipped into the house, thinking that he would surprise them. The two men were talking in the den and Cory heard the word 'four-wheeler' so he stopped to listen.
"I'm telling you, Stan, you have that boy spoiled. It really isn't good to give him these expensive gifts, especially dangerous ones like this."
"But it makes him happy, at least for a while. I know he can be a bit foolish and irresponsible, but..."
"Selfish and insensitive is more like it. Did he even remember your birthday or Father's day this year? No, he didn't. He never thinks of anyone but himself. Mom and Dad are getting a little tired of not getting any Thank You cards or phone calls from him after they go through so much trouble to find nice things for him. He never thanked me either for the books I gave him last year."
"It's just that he gets excited and doesn't think. Do you really feel that this machine is too much for him? Am I spoiling him? Will he hurt himself on it?"
"Yes, yes and yes. Look, you should have a talk with him and try to get his feet back on the ground. He used to be a nice kid but now he's getting to be sort of obnoxious. Don't get me wrong, I love him and always will. It's just that he's not so likable sometimes."
"He'll be home from school soon so we'll have a chat. Thanks for stopping by."
Cory tip-toed off to his room, feeling confused and angry. How could his uncle say those things about him? Why would he try to talk his dad out of giving him a four-wheeler? He used to like his uncle. He threw himself on the bed and brooded as only a teenager can.
A few minutes later Cory felt like he needed to get out of the house and work off some of his anger. He left a note for his dad saying that he had gone to cut a Christmas tree and would be back later. His dad didn't hear him go out the back door and take the saw from the garage. Cory headed into the woods as the snow began to come down heavily.
"This tree will be just fine," the dark skinned man told David. "Be sure and tie it up good."
"Yes sir," David said as he lugged the heavy Fraser fir to the wrapping area. He had been there for a half hour and already they had sold six trees. He made sure the branches were folded in properly before pulling the lengths of twine under and around it and knotting them expertly. Mr. Haley had already trimmed off the bottom and was helping another couple nearby so David was alone with the man.
David was a quiet boy and had said nothing so he was shocked when the man suddenly shouted, "What did you call me? How dare you? Where's the manager. I demand to speak to the manager!"
Mr. Haley came running over asking what was wrong. The Arab man was pointing to the small boy with the wide-eyed expression on his face.
"I'll tell you what's wrong. I didn't come here to be insulted. I can certainly take my business somewhere else. What kind of people are you hiring anyway?"
"I don't understand," said Mr. Haley. "What has the boy done?"
"He called me a... rag head! A rag head! I'll have you know that I am an American citizen, not a terrorist or other scum. If this is the sort of people that you are then I will never come here again and I will tell the Chamber of Commerce that you are racists."
"Please, sir. I do apologize for the boy. It won't happen again, I swear. How about if I give you half off on the price of your tree?"
"Half off? You should give it to me for free after such an insult. When I tell my friends what happened they will not come here either."
"Okay, okay, take the tree. Again I am sorry. Please don't let this boy's lack of manners reflect on the rest of us."
David was trying to talk but they men talked right over him, not letting him get a word in. He said, "But, but I didn't..."
The Arab threw the tree on top of his car and quickly lashed it down while Mr. Haley dragged the protesting boy to his office trailer. His meaty hand squeezed the boy's shoulder in a painful grip, aggravating the big bruise that his mother had given him the day before.
"Get off my lot and never come back, you little trouble maker."
David pleaded, "Please Mr. Haley, I didn't do anything. I never said nothing to that man. I don't know why he said I did."
"Well why the hell would he lie about something like that? You might have lost me a lot of business. Now go home and don't ever come back."
"What about my money?"
"I'm keeping it to pay for that tree I gave away."
David had counted on having some bus fare but now he would have to walk home. It would be a cold half-hour hike and the snow was coming down again, but at least Aggie would be happy to see him.
He trudged along the frozen sidewalks feeling really low. He just couldn't understand why the man had lied about him and why Mr. Haley wouldn't listen. It just wasn't fair. Life wasn't fair. Why did he have to be cold and hungry all the time? Why didn't his mom care anymore? The snow was landing on his face and melting so the people he passed didn't know that those were tears running down his cheeks.
Mac laughed all the way home. It had worked again, just like last year. He had a free Christmas tree. "God, I am such a great actor," he thought. "I should be in the fucking movies."
He carefully took his prize down from the roof of the car and retrieved the shoplifted ornaments from the trunk. He stood the tree by the door as he unlocked it and pushed it open. Then it was his turn to be shocked. Someone had trashed his place, even worse, someone had robbed him. The furniture was turned over, the drawers emptied onto the floor, his televisions and stereo were gone and so was his new computer. He was filled with rage and wanted to scream out loud. One thing chilled him through his hot anger, his speakers were missing. Someone had taken his speakers, the speakers where he hid his drug stash. The big, new speakers were for listening to music but the older, smaller speakers had removable backs that made them a perfect place to hide things. They looked worthless so he never thought that anyone would bother stealing them.
Mac felt like throwing up. "Dear God, no!" he screamed. What was he going to do now? He owed a lot of money for those drugs and some really bad people were expecting payment soon. He thought, "I am so fucked."
Shelly was really happy because she had managed to swap all of the stolen items for enough meth to last her through the weekend. She probably could have gotten more for it but she wasn't thinking clearly any more. Despite shooting up a bigger dose than usual she couldn't seem to push away the creatures that haunted her. They were getting closer all the time and they scared her. Sometimes they messed with her head and she would forget where she was and what she was doing.
On the way home a shadowy creature appeared in the passenger seat and slashed at her with a clawed hand. Shelly screamed and took her hands from the steering wheel to cover her eyes. The car swerved and she smashed into another car that was parked by the sidewalk. She hit it pretty hard and her engine died and wouldn't start again so she got out and stumbled along the sidewalk the rest of the way.
Dazed and confused, but somehow uninjured, she managed to find where she lived and fumbled the key in the lock until the door opened. There was a weird sound coming from the bedroom so she went to see what it was. There was a baby there. Where did the baby come from? Oh yeah, it was her baby. Why didn't it shut up? Shut up, baby. Shut up, damn you. Can't you stop that damn crying?
As she was about to reach for the baby she heard someone say, "Mom, why is Aggie crying? Is it her diaper? Did you feed her today?"
Shelly turned and looked at the boy coming in the door, some boy, who was he? David? Yeah, David. "I don't feel good, David. See to the baby. Make her stop crying. I'm going to bed."
David scooped his sister up into his arms. He was glad he had come home early because she was cold and needed a diaper change. That would come first, then he would see if there was any food for her. If not, he would have to use some of his money to go get milk. The cloth diapers he had washed out in the sink for her that morning were still a little damp but they would have to do. He lovingly washed her, powdered her and pinned her up, then held her tenderly in his arms as he searched the kitchen for food. There was no more powdered formula in the can, no condensed milk or regular milk. There was no baby food in the cupboard. Mom had forgotten to buy food again. She was getting so forgetful lately and acting really strangely.
Aggie was starving so David was going to have to go to the store down the road, but he couldn't take Aggie with him. She didn't have any warm clothes and it was snowing pretty hard out there. He hoped she would be alright if he put her in his bedroom, fastened in her car seat, until he got back. He closed his bedroom door so if she cried it wouldn't wake up their mom. He took five dollars from his hidden sock and went outside. He wondered where their car was. Surely mom hadn't lost it again.
A short time earlier, Mac decided that it was time to leave town. He really didn't have anything tying him to that place and with the knowledge that a couple of thugs would soon be looking for him he thought that a warmer climate would be more suitable to his immediate health. He threw some items of clothing into a suitcase, gathered up the few things of value to him and got into his car. The Christmas tree and ornaments still lay by the front door where he left them.
The car was old and now he regretted not getting it to the garage. He prayed it would at least get him out of town and at least part of the way to where he wanted to go, but as he drove down the street the oil light came on. The engine always leaked so he carried a few spare cans in his trunk. Pulling over to the sidewalk and he got out and popped the hood. He removed the oil cap and added some 20 weight to the engine.
After replacing the cap he could see a lot of oil dripping out from under the car so he lay on his back and slid up underneath to take a look. As he tightened the drain plug from the oil pan he turned it the wrong way and got a face full of hot motor oil. Cursing and wiping his eyes he wondered what else could go wrong that day.
Just then, Shelly, returning from her drug buying spree and battling invisible demons, rammed her car into the back of his and caused his car to lurch forward. His emergency brake was not set and his right front tire ran over his shoulder and upper arm, crushing the bones. He wasn't able to breathe or scream as he blacked out.
Shelly couldn't sleep. A nap would have been good but she was too geeked to lie still. She drifted around the apartment in a confused stupor. There was that noise again. It was a baby crying. She had to get rid of the baby. She couldn't raise a baby so it had to go away. But where? To her mother, that was it. Her mother would know what to do. She always knew what to do. She would take the baby to her mother. If her mind had been clear she would have remembered that her mother died when she was ten.
Shelly followed the sound to David's room and took Aggie from her car seat and wrapped a thin blanket around her. Then, without a coat or decent shoes she set off down the road in the opposite direction that David had gone, carrying her fragile burden. She quickly became aware that she was being followed by something dark and evil, something dangerous, so she went quickly, eager to reach the safety of her mother's house.
David knew something was wrong when he saw the apartment door standing open. His heart was racing as he ran inside long enough to see that they were gone and to leave the milk on the counter. He didn't bother to pick up the phone and call the police because the phone had been cut off two months earlier. Instead he ran back outside and saw footprints in the freshly fallen snow so he began to track them. He tried to hurry because he knew that Aggie would be cold. His mom didn't seem to feel the cold these days but David and Aggie certainly did.
He followed them over a couple of hills. No cars had been on the road lately so their tracks were easy to see. His heart sank when he saw their trail go off to the side as Shelly turned and left the road and headed into the woods.
"Oh, God," prayed David, "Please let them be alright. Please don't let her hurt little Aggie."
He followed them through trees and brush, over rocks and hills. Fueled by the chemicals in her bloodstream, Shelly seemed to be going rapidly and in a straight line, no matter what was in her way. Finally David, exhausted by fear and hunger, caught sight of them as he topped a hill. He called out to Shelly, "Mom, wait, Mom, come back. Please stop, Momma."
He ran ahead trying to catch them. To his horror he could hear running water ahead and saw the wide creek that ran along the bottom of the hill. He was certain that she could hear him shouting now but instead of stopping she walked even faster, as if she was afraid of him or something.
Shelly was so focused on trying to get away from the demons that she continued in a straight line and didn't slow her pace at all as she waded right into the icy stream. The water swirled around her knees and her numb feet slipped on the submerged rocks.
If Aggie was crying David couldn't hear her over the roar of the water. He screamed at his mother and plunged in after her shouting, "Momma, momma, please stop."
Shelly stumbled and fell, still clutching the baby, and sank into a deep pool.
David had reached them now and grabbed for Aggie. His feet couldn't touch the bottom of the pool and he wasn't a strong swimmer but he managed to wrest the baby from its mother's arms and keep her head above the water. He struggled back through the deep water until he was able to stand once again and made his way back up the bank. Sobbing, he wiped the tears from his eyes and looked back at the creek where he could make out his mother's body lying on the bottom of the deep, clear water. He was numb with horror, yet there was nothing he could do for her now, even if he had wanted to try. He had to get the baby somewhere safe. Aggie was not crying but she was alive and moving feebly. David took off his wet jacket and wrapped the baby in it, hoping that it would provide at least a little warmth. He began to retrace their steps back to the road.
Stan knocked on his son's bedroom door. "Cory, did you want to go get a tree?"
There was no answer so he peeked in and saw the note on the bed.
"That little devil," he thought. "I'd better go find him."
Stan and Cory lived on the edge of a wide swath of forest. Most of it was owned by a timber company but the portion that abutted their property belonged to one of Stan's friends, Clark Wilson. Clark lived in town and had long ago given Stan and Cory free use of his many acres, including permission to cut Christmas trees.
It was a traditional joke with Stan and Cory that each year Stan would stop to take a leak out in the woods and recite the poem, "Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though. He will not see me stopping here... to write my name in yellow snow." Then they would both laugh.
The snow was getting a little deep and even though Cory knew his way around the forest Stan was still a little worried about him. He knew the way to the place where they usually chose their tree, a stand of Fraser firs in a clearing over the hill so that was where he went. Fifteen minutes later he saw Cory's footprints so he began to call out his name. Faintly, from some distance away, he heard his son answer. Stan made his way forward and found Cory dragging a beautiful tree toward him.
"I see you found one. Why didn't you wait for me?"
"I thought you were busy. I just wanted to come ahead and get one in case you didn't have time," Cory said, reluctant to admit that he had been angry.
"Son, let's sit down and talk a little. Here's a nice log. Let's sit here."
Cory sat beside his dad and leaned into him while Stan wrapped his arm around his son and hugged him.
"I think I know what you want to talk about, dad. I heard Uncle Kyle talking to you in the den. Am I really an obnoxious brat?"
"No, Cory. No, not at all. You know how your uncle exaggerates. It's my fault for not teaching you better manners, that's all."
"No Dad, it's my fault. I really should have been more grateful to everyone. I promise I'll do better. This year I'll send out Thank You cards right after Christmas. And I'll be more polite to everyone too. I'll even find something nice to say about Aunt Pauline's cooking on Christmas day."
"Well now, don't get carried away. Remember, I know Aunt Pauline's cooking and I don't want you to become a liar."
They both laughed.
"Seriously Dad, I'm sorry if I let you down."
"You have never let me down, Cory. I just hope I haven't let you down by not raising you correctly. I know that you're a wonderful boy and I want the rest of the world to know how wonderful you are, too."
They sat quietly after that, sharing a long moment of peace that they had been too busy to indulge in for some time.
The snow was really getting deep now. It was almost up to David's knees as he staggered along in misery and fear, clutching Aggie to him tightly, defying death to take her from him. He couldn't feel his feet or hands any longer. He was so cold that his jeans were turning to ice even as he walked. To make things worse he realized that he must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.
"This is the end," he said aloud to himself, sobbing and choking on his tears. "I tried, I really did. Oh Aggie, I'm so sorry. My sweet little sister, it's not fair. You should have had a chance to grow up. It just isn't fair. Why, God, why? If you have to take someone, take me and let my little sister live. I'm tired of living anyway if there's nothing more to life than always being cold and hungry and poor. Let me die but save my little Aggie, God. Save Aggie."
He didn't look at the bundle in his arms any more. He was afraid to check and see if she was still breathing because he didn't want to find out that she wasn't. Finally his legs gave out. David fell to his knees in the snow and curled his frail little body around the baby, offering her the last of his warmth as he prepared to die.
Twilight was settling on the land and it seemed fitting to David that the world should go dark at the same time that his life was fading to black. He closed his eyes and prepared to sleep but then something happened. Through his closed eyelids he became aware of a bright light and when he opened his eyes he gasped. There was a large, glowing ball of light floating in the air before him and in the light he could almost see the form of a woman. The light seemed as bright as the sun, but instead of hurting his eyes or burning his skin it filled him with warmth and a sense of longing. He stared in wonder at the miracle and knew that it was an angel come to save Aggie. His prayers had been answered. Somehow he found the strength to get back on his feet and he took a step toward the glorious being, but she retreated a step. He took another step, holding out the baby, but the angel backed away again.
"Please take her. Please take my sister and save her," he begged but the angel was silent. She smiled at him gently and beckoned him to follow. Then she continued to lead him on, step by step, through the woods.
Cory was gathering up his tree and the saw. This time of year it got dark pretty fast out here in the woods so it was time to get home while they could still see the way. Then he saw something through the trees.
"Dad, what's that?"
"Over there. See, it's a light of some kind. What do you think it is?"
"Oh, I don't know. It's moving so it's not a campfire. It sure is bright. I guess we had better go see in case it's a fire."
The two of them walked as quickly as they could toward the light and a few minutes later, just as they were getting near to it, the light vanished. They barely had time to see the form inside the ball of fire before it was gone. The darkness seemed even deeper without it until their eyes adjusted.
"Dad, was that a...?"
"What in the world...?"
Then they heard the crackle of twigs being broken under someone's feet and peered through the dark to see someone walking.
"Who's there?" said Stan.
"Just us, mister," said a weak voice.
A small boy, holding a bundle in his arms stepped toward them and held out the bundle saying faintly, "Where did the Angel go? Please, save the baby," before falling into the snow.
"Oh, dear God!" Stan yelled as he uncovered the little bundle and saw it was indeed a baby.
"Cory, take off your coat and wrap it around the baby. You're going to have to carry her. I'll get the boy."
Stan stripped David's wet shirt off him and replaced it with his coat, then carried the small boy in his arms as they raced back to the house. He tried to decide whether to call for an ambulance or to rush them to a hospital. The ambulance might waste precious moments so they jumped into the car and sped five miles to the Medical Center.
Stan was grateful that they didn't ask a ton of questions before beginning to help the children. The nurse had taken one look at them and rushed them to the back where doctors and nurses began a frantic effort to save them.
David awoke, disoriented, but comfortable. As the cobwebs began to clear a bit from his mind he wondered where he was. Was he in a hospital? This was in a hospital bed, wasn't it? Oh my God, the baby! Aggie! He tried to speak but his throat was dry. He managed to croak out, "Aggie, Aggie, Aggie. Where's Aggie? Where's Aggie?"
A nurse came running in to see about him. She brushed her hand across his forehead and gave him a drink of ice water.
"There, there," she said. "You just lay back now and get some rest. You've been through a terrible ordeal and it's going to take some time to recover your strength."
"But what about the baby? Where's my little sister?"
"I, I don't know. I'll have someone come talk to you in a bit. Just lay still now and try to rest."
"How can I rest," thought David, "when I don't know if Aggie is alright?" Exhaustion overcame him and he fell asleep again quite quickly.
Doctor Rice came in to see David that afternoon. David's first question was, "Where's Aggie?"
The doctor looked like he wanted to cry. He choked a little as he said, "Son, I'm so sorry. We couldn't save her. We tried but we were just too late. She was so small and cold. It looked as if she had not been receiving proper care for some time. She was undernourished and weak to start with. The ordeal was just too much for her little body to handle. I'm so sorry."
David began to cry loudly and the Doctor was moved to put his arm around the boy and offer what little comfort he could. The boy's body was racked with spasms of deeply felt grief as he sobbed into the man's shoulder.
"I tried, Doctor, I did. I tried to take care of her. She was so little. Mama kept spending our money on drugs instead of food. She couldn't take care of Aggie but I did. I tried. I wasn't good enough and now she's... dead. The angel took her. Oh Doctor, why? Why her and not me?"
Doctor Rice had seen many tragedies in his career as an emergency room doctor but he never grew insensitive to the suffering of others. The two of them cried together for a few minutes and then the doctor asked him a few questions before giving him a sedative so that he could rest and begin to heal.
The police and the social workers were anxious to talk to David and find out who he was and what had happened to him, but it was the next day before they could question him. Doctor Rice had already told them all that he knew about the boy's situation and they had been to the empty apartment, but there was no sign of the mother. When David awoke and told them about following her to the creek they were able to find and recover her body from the frozen waters.
"Nurse," said Doctor Rice. "Is it true about the patient in 204?"
"The accident victim? I'm afraid so. We haven't told the press but the police are investigating it now. He regained consciousness briefly and got hysterical when he found out where he was. He kept saying that someone was coming to kill him. Then he passed out again. Naturally we thought he was crazy, but there he was this morning with his throat cut."
The doctor shook his head and said, "Incredible, right in the middle of a busy hospital. Poor sap."
"I'll be up to see him shortly. His shoulder is crushed beyond repair.
Cory and Stan asked to be called when David awoke and could tolerate a visit. They introduced themselves and explained about finding him in the woods. They were terribly upset about Aggie's death and offered their words of consolation but David's depression was deep and he found little to say so they cut their visit short. Later that day Cory returned with some comic books, an old i-pod of his and a bag of assorted candy bars.
"I didn't know what kind of candy you liked so I got a variety. There's a lot of different kinds of music on the pod too in case you don't like some of it. You can have it. I got a new one for my birthday. I put the charger in the bag."
Cory rattled on nervously and finally asked, "Do you feel like some company?"
David shrugged so Cory took that as a yes and pulled up the chair from the corner of the room. He tried several different times to engage David in a bit of conversation but it was no use. David was just hurting too much to respond to outside stimulation. Inside he felt numb, as if he had been shocked.
Cory returned the next day and tried again. He picked up the remote and turned on the television. "What shows do you like to watch?" he asked David.
"I don't know. I don't get to watch much TV."
David said, "Mom sold the TV and a lot of times we don't got electricity no way. I usually wind up taking care of... Aggie..." and he began to sob again.
Cory felt a big lump in his throat and he couldn't help leaning over and hugging the other boy. To his surprise David responded physically by hugging him back. His crying was softer than it had been the day before but, like the doctor had, Cory cried along with him. Cory climbed up on the bed so he could hold the smaller boy in his arms.
At one point the nurse looked in and saw them but didn't interrupt. She wiped the moisture from her own eye and left them alone.
When David had cried himself out the two boys talked quietly. David explained his situation and described how he had been living. "I was hoping I would die anyway. If it hadn't been for the baby I would have jumped off the bridge or something, but I couldn't leave her alone with Mom. Life's just so hard sometimes, you know? I lost my job and then Momma went crazy and ran away and I couldn't keep up and then the angel was there and I thought Aggie was gonna be alright and the angel would save her, but I guess she was just taking Aggie away."
He looked up at Cory and said, "I saw an angel. I really did."
"I know. Me and dad saw it too. It was just for a couple of seconds but we saw it."
Cory didn't know anything about the sort of hard life that David had endured. He thought of all the good things he had, the toys, the clothes, all of the things that he thought were so important yet had never been grateful for or appreciated. Now he realized suddenly that it was all junk. For the first time he could really appreciate having a warm house, plenty of food and a dad who loved him. He tried to imagine being in David's ratty old shoes and it scared him. No kid should have to live that way.
After a bit they did find some other things to talk about, things they had in common, like the same baseball team and walking in the woods and reading books. The two boys talked intimately and quietly until there came a moment of silence and they looked each other in the eyes. Their faces drew nearer and their lips brushed gently against the other's. Then they kissed, ever so sweetly and fell asleep in each other's arms.
Cory's dad looked in on them a few minutes later and smiled to see them in such loving repose. Stan was happy to see Cory reaching out to help someone else for a change. It proved that he wasn't as selfish and thoughtless as his brother had claimed.
"Doctor Rice," Stan said, "When will David be well enough to be released?"
"He's actually well enough now, but I'm afraid he has nowhere to go. Children's services haven't been able to locate any relatives so I'm afraid that tomorrow he's going to go to a shelter. It seems like such a shame at Christmas."
"What if I wanted him to come to my house for Christmas? How would I go about that?"
"You're genuinely concerned for him, aren't you?"
"Yes, yes we are. I just wish we could have found him sooner in the woods. I feel a little responsible for the baby not surviving."
"You shouldn't. I didn't tell David but she would have been dead shortly after being plunged into that water. She was partially frozen by the time I examined her. He's just lucky that you found him out there in the dark."
"Well, it was the light that led us to him."
"Um, well... I know this is going to sound crazy, but... do you believe in angels?"
"Real angels? Big wings, halo, all that?"
"Sort of. There was a really bright light and inside of it I could swear that I saw, just for a minute, a woman. Just for a moment, and then the light went out. Poof. Corey saw the same thing I did."
"I've seen a lot of weird stuff as a doctor. I don't discount much these days, especially when it comes to miracles.
Look, here is a card for Caroline Patterson at Children's Services. She's the one who will be in charge of David when he's released. You can talk to her about keeping him for the holidays, but you know what he really needs is a home."
Stan called Caroline Patterson as the doctor suggested and she said that she had a free hour that afternoon and could come to inspect his home and have him sign some papers. "I've met poor David and he nearly broke my heart. I would love to see him enjoying Christmas in a warm loving home for once so I'll do what I can."
"Cory," Stan said. "I need to talk to you for a minute."
"Good. I want to tell you something too."
"Oh, what would that be?"
"Dad, I changed my mind about the four-wheeler. I don't want it anymore. I want something else instead."
"Uh-oh, what is it this time?"
"Dad, I want a brother. I want David. Can he come and live with us? Please? I think the Angel was bringing him to us for a reason."
"Son, sometimes you absolutely blow me away. I was going to talk to you about adopting David. I wanted to make sure you would be alright with it before I mentioned it to him. I think you're right about the Angel bringing him to us."
"Aw, wow Dad. That would be the best Christmas present you could ever give me. Can we go and talk to him now?"
"Get your coat on, sport. Let's go see if we can make a little boy happy."
The process of becoming David's guardian was a little more complicated than they expected but in the end he became a part of their family and that Christmas they all learned the true meaning of the holiday, the sharing of love. That Christmas the three of them felt equally blessed.
Afterword: A policeman told a reporter about a human interest story that he should cover since it was Christmas time. It was about a small boy and his infant sister and the injustice and abuse that was inflicted on them. The reporter interviewed David, Corey, Stan and the doctor and he wrote a column that made the town cry. When it became known that poor David had been fired from his job at the tree lot, old mister Haley became an object of scorn and began to receive some really abusive calls. The next year he sold very few trees and eventually went out of business.