To thank my blog readers for their loyalty all year long, I offer this piece of Christmas fiction, in hopes of adding a bit of sweetness to your holiday.
* * * * *
Pete tossed his battered duffel in the back seat of his aging Jeep, next to his two metal detectors and a backpack full of gear. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this excited for a coming event. Or, hell…for anything. When his best friend, Derek, had invited him along on a rare Hunt For The Holidays closed invitational group hunt the previous month, he couldn’t believe his luck.
He’d heard for years about these nearly secret, limited-attendance hunts, purposely announced at the last minute on an irregular basis and over Christmas to keep attendance low; but until Derek had invited him, he’d mostly believed they were just myths, not things that actually happened. He’d known Derek had gotten really serious about metal detecting in the past few years, and realized now that he must have gotten in with the right crowd, to score a coveted berth in one of these almost clandestine events.
Luckier still was the fact that he was actually available to leave town over Christmas, and on such incredibly short notice. He had even saved up a few bucks he could use to fund the flight and hotel. It turned out there actually were a few advantages to being single, even though he’d felt little but stung and empty since Katie had left. Was it already two years ago now?
Well, whatever…it didn’t really matter. He hadn’t felt this alive since they’d been together. He had gone numb when she’d left, and still wasn’t even completely sure why she had. She’d tried to explain it, saying something about their different interests and growing apart, and making some remark about his lack of serious life goals. But her announcement that she had nothing left to give to the relationship, and wanted out, had caught him completely by surprise.
He felt like such a fool, having been quite happy in his belief that everything was going well. One day, he was content and looking forward to a weekend they’d planned down the Maine coast; and the next, she was telling him she just couldn’t go, because her feelings had changed and she felt it would just be putting off the inevitable.
Blindsided, he’d watched her pack her things, load her car and drive off, without saying much to her at all. She, of course, thought it was proof of his emotional detachment. But the truth was, he simply couldn’t believe it was happening, and had felt paralyzed by the whole situation. As she’d driven away, he’d never felt so alone or confused. He’d believed they were happy, and she’d let him believe it, right up until she made that announcement before their ocean getaway that July.
So completely knocked off-balance by the blow, he’d done the only thing he knew how to do: He’d shown up at work the next Monday as usual, though he’d long before put in for vacation. Everyone looked at him oddly and wondered, but no one had asked him any really personal questions, thank God.
As long as he could just be left alone to go about his daily routine, monitoring the expansive stands of timber he managed for a major paper company in the upstate region, he could maintain some semblance of normalcy. He even managed to avoid thinking much about it, as long as he had work to keep him busy. It was when he went home at night, and the cabin he used to think of as cozy and homey when he’d shared it with Katie, now seemed cavernous and empty, that he thought sometimes he would lose his mind.
She might be done with him, but he wasn’t done with her, and now her absence plagued him in the echoes of his own footsteps when he crossed a room. Even the clicking of Thor’s toenails on the hardwood floor seemed to tap out a morse code message that sounded to Pete like, “Loser…loser…loser.” Still, he was thankful as hell for the big Malamute, simply for another heart beating in the same space on those long, northwoods nights.
But now, Thor was probably already snoozing away on the huge, L.L. Bean dog bed in front of a roaring fire at Ken and Judy’s beautiful log home on Moosewood Lake. They were great friends, and had come to his rescue on more than one occasion when he thought he might come completely unglued. They loved Thor, who played often with their two Huskies and sometimes even filled in for a missing dog on their sled team when needed.
Pete grinned, imagining them cavorting in what was certain to be several feet of snow from the storm headed their way from across the Midwest, Canada, and the Great Lakes. He willed it to hold off until he and Derek could reach Logan Airport, where they would fly out from Boston to the sunny land of Dixie to what promised to be some awesome treasure hunting. The site was a little-known but previously scouted property the hunt hosts had researched and secured, as their prime Civil War-era permission for the week bookended by Christmas and New Year’s.
He again felt a surge of joy and anticipation, imagining everything they might find and dig up down there. He’d never been able to get away for any of the well-known Digging in Virginia hunts that had recently become a mainstay for Derek, and was always envious of his friend’s ability to participate in those. But now here he was, on his way to one of the mysterious HFH events, owing nothing to nobody and free to spend his holidays any way he pleased.
Maybe, he dared hope, just maybe, he would meet some people who showed the famous Southern hospitality he’d heard so much about, and he’d be able to feel his heart thaw out. Maybe he’d once again be able to feel some kind of rapport with someone other than Ken and Judy. He didn’t need to be in love, he just needed to feel part of something, maybe a little bit important in someone else’s heart.
One last check around the cabin to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything told him his gradual preparation over the past week had been worthwhile. He’d gladly used every night after work to gather, clean and check his gear; stock up on snacks; to make sure he’d packed extra sunglasses; and to buy loads of extra batteries, Chapstick, and some calf-high tube socks—which he hadn’t worn since high school—since he’d been told he needed to be religious about covering his skin to protect from chiggers where they’d be hunting.
He grabbed an apple and a bottle of water off the counter, which he’d eat as soon as he got out of town. He hadn’t had lunch, since he’d been hurrying to finish his final reports at work before leaving at noon for this highly unusual two-week vacation. The snack would hold him over till dinner at that fun little diner he and Derek liked to eat at in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, before jumping on I-95 toward Boston.
Ten minutes later, he pulled into Derek’s driveway, to find his friend already heading for the Jeep, both hands full of his detectors and gear. Pete jumped out to help him stow it along with his own.
“Wow, nice hard-shell! When did you get that?” he asked, as Derek swung a sleek-profiled, protective case up behind the seat.
“Josie got it for me for my birthday,” Derek replied, smiling. “That girl knows the way to her man’s heart. That, and her cooking.”
They both chuckled as they finished packing the Jeep. Pete slid into the driver’s seat and waved at Josie as she came out to kiss Derek goodbye near the garage door.
“Bring him home to me in one piece!” she called, waving back.
He gave her the thumbs-up, and tried not to feel a twinge of jealousy as his friend enjoyed a long kiss goodbye with her. Pete had known them forever, it seemed, and liked being around their easygoing ways, both with him and with each other. He just couldn’t figure out how to make that happen in his own life, and after Katie, he didn’t trust himself to even know when a good potential date—let alone life partner—might be standing right in front of him.
He wondered, on a bad day, if maybe he was just meant to be alone. He enjoyed his own company, but he got enough of that out in the woods. When he got home in the evening, he was ready to share his life with someone else who also enjoyed her work, wanted to talk about her day, and had maybe a few hours left over for him to share his day, dinner, and an hour or two watching TV, reading, or playing with Thor.
Hell, at this point, he’d just be glad for some company—any company at all, as long as it wasn’t annoying—even if it were the “just friends” kind. But it sure didn’t look like that was going to happen, and he realized what he really needed was some feeling of human connection other than the occasional chit-chat with a colleague at work.
He was glad when Derek opened the door and slid into the cab, bringing his morose thoughts to a halt. He was more than ready to allow them to be pushed away and replaced by what he knew would be their shared anticipation of the coming adventure.
“Sure seems like she’s gonna miss you. I still can’t believe you got the okay to take off at Christmas time!” he said.
“Oh, I just lucked out with the timing this year,” Derek replied. “The kids are staying with her parents for the holidays at their ski chalet over in Vermont, and she’d been hinting that she’d like to join them. She knows I just can’t handle more than a few hours with that houseful, because her sister and brother-in-law always show up with their huge brood, and it just gets crazy.
“That’s a big place, but put three families together in it, and it just gets too loud and frenzied. Just not my idea of a fun way to spend my winter time off, ya know? So, when I got this invitation, she realized we could both do what we want and still have fun, even if we weren’t together. I wouldn’t wanna do it every Christmas, but since I got invited to the hunt this year, I’ll be out of the running now for the next few years anyway. So, it just worked out.”
He paused a moment, then added, “How about you? I almost expected you to turn down my invite. I’ve never known you to take off any time in the winter, except for bow season. Isn’t that your busy inventory time?”
“Yeah, but I had already gotten ahead, since it’s been so dry with no snow or rain. Muddy going is what usually slows me down this time of year, but there was none of that. So, I got all the pre-harvest reports finished and turned them in today before I left. Kind of a lucky thing for me, too, timing-wise…though it probably won’t be a good thing for business. This drought is really starting to hurt the crop. We may not see the full effect for years yet, until the trees’ expected maturity dates. But if I had to guess, I’d say we’re probably looking at a low yield three, four years from now.”
The two men continued their companionable conversation for the next few miles, when they topped a rise on the highway. Spread out before them was a wide expanse of heavily treed hills, now mostly stripped of their leaves. Their trunks blended into a mottled gray that was now nearly indiscernable from the horizon, as the sun went down. But behind those hills rose a very dark bank of Prussian blue snow clouds, silhouetted against the last golden light of the day. It was a stunning view, but the wind was rapidly pushing those threatening storm clouds toward the traveling pair.
They shared a quick glance.
“Good thing the diner’s not that far away,” Derek said. “Looks like it’s closing in pretty quick.”
“Yep. I checked the radar before we left, and it looked like it would hit home about…” Pete glanced at the dash clock, “…right about now. It’s mostly to our west, so the fact that we’re seeing it ahead of us heading south tells me that’s one helluva big storm front.”
They were both silent for a beat, then Pete added, “I’m not too concerned, though. Old Blue here,” he patted the dashboard, “has always gotten us through. Remember that hunting trip to Canada a few years ago?”
They both raised their eyebrows, recalling the massive snowstorm they’d hit on the way home from getting a deer with another metal detecting friend up in Ontario.
“Yeah, we did okay then,” Derek agreed.
“This won’t be nothin’ compared to that,” Pete reassured. “I’m only worried about the airports closing or delaying flights. Maybe we should just skip the diner…”
“Nah. We’ll be fine. Even if it starts before we get there, not much is gonna fall in an hour or so. Besides, I purposely scheduled us quite a bit early. Figuring for traffic and such—you know how bad it is anytime around Boston, much less Christmas Eve—I wanted to leave us plenty of time to get delayed so we could still make our flight.”
“Good call. I haven’t looked forward to something this much in…I can’t remember when. I can’t even think about missing it for something as stupid as a missed plane.” He looked over at Derek. “Truth is, buddy…I need this trip, bad.”
Derek gave a lopsided grin. “Yeah, I know, partner. I know. That’s one reason why I knew, when I got the call that I’d drawn a spot on the hunt, you were the one I was gonna ask along. It’s all working out good for everyone.”
“Yeah, thanks, man. I seriously appreciate you thinking of me. And I can’t imagine anything that will take me out of this funk better than Hunt for the Holidays!”
They both smiled, and traveled the next couple hundred miles in a mix of small talk and companionable silence.
A few miles before they hit the Kittery exit for the diner, the wind whipped up significantly, pushing against the squarish profile of the Jeep and making Pete tighten his grip on the steering wheel.
“Here it comes, “ he said, as they both watched the first snowflakes start to fall. At first, they were small and light, but by the time the guys ware exiting I-95 at Kittery, a thick screen of huge, fat flakes was dancing in front of the headlights.
They pulled into the parking lot and made a beeline for the door of the diner, dismayed to find a line of people waiting to be seated.
“Wanna go somewhere else?” Pete asked.
Derek looked around. “Nah. The layout of this place always makes it seem worse than it is. There weren’t that many cars in the lot. We’re just here at prime time. I say let’s wait a few minutes. Better yet, I’ll ask the wait time.”
He headed for the hostess station, if you could call it that. A waitress stood next to a tiny podium with just enough room for a few menus and her seating chart on top.
“How long is the wait?” he inquired.
“Oh, not long. Maybe five, ten minutes. Main dinner crowd is just finishing up.”
He walked back over to Pete, who was standing in the hallway. “Just a few minutes, she said.”
There was only one party ahead of them, a woman and a young boy they guessed to be her son. They were deep in conversation, and without anything else to do, Pete and Derek couldn’t help overhearing.
“Honey, I know,” she was telling the cute little boy, who looked about six or seven years old. “I miss Daddy, too. But he just can’t make it back for Christmas this year. So we’ll stay with John and Cheri again, until we can figure out what to do, okay?”
The boy whined a little, and made a disappointed face. The woman leaned down and hugged him. “It’ll be fun this time, I promise. We’ll go to the hayride place. There’s supposed to be snow, so we can go on a real sleigh ride, just like in Jingle Bells. Won’t that be great? We’ve never done that!”
The boy’s face brightened just a bit, and he stopped leaning into his mother’s leg.
“You know what?” the woman asked. “We were in the car a while. Why don’t you go to the bathroom while we’re right here in front of it? I’ll wait right here. That way, when we’re called, we won’t have to come back and do that before we eat. Okay?”
He nodded, and walked over to the men’s room door, pushing it open.
“And don’t forget to wash your hands good!” she called after him.
Turned around to watch the door, she caught Pete’s eye, and smiled awkwardly, almost apologetically.
“His father left us just before Halloween,” she explained. “No note, no phone call, nothing. Just left. I have no idea where he’s gone, and I’m running out of excuses for Mattie. I’ve got no family—my parents died when I was young—and neither does my husband, so I’m trying to keep us fed and clothed on a minimum-wage job. Mattie knows something’s wrong, but I’m trying to shield him from it all as much as I can. Thank God for Christmas. At least I have an excuse to take him somewhere familiar, where I know he’ll be able to get a few gifts.” She averted her gaze on the last sentence, clearly ashamed not to be able to provide at a level she felt adequate.
Pete nodded silently, surprised at the deeply personal nature of this story coming from a stranger, and not knowing what to say.
The woman continued. “You must think I’m nuts, talking to a complete stranger like this. But when you don’t have family and you move around a lot—we did, for David’s job—you don’t have a lot of friends or people to talk to. I apologize.”
“No, it’s…it’s okay,” Pete said. “I understand, really. That…must be hard.”
Mercifully, Mattie came back from the men’s room, wiping his hands on his pants.
“Those hand dryers don’t work, Mom,” he complained, by way of explanation.
“I know, honey. They’re no fun.”
“Party of two for Vanetti!” called the hostess.
“That’s us,” the woman said, turning from her son to Pete and Derek. “Thanks for listening.” She gave a tight little smile and took Mattie’s hand, leading him to their table.
“Man,” Derek said, when they were out of earshot. “You just never know how good you have it until you hear someone else’s story, do ya?”
Pete raised his eyebrows and just nodded.
A few minutes later, another table opened up right next to the woman and her son, and Pete and Derek were seated there. The table was out of the direct line of the wind that swirled in every time the outside door was opened. The guys were thankful, since it brought cold, damp gusts to chill anyone in the way.
The crowd was thinning rapidly, and the woman and her son were served fairly quickly. Soon, the guys were served, as well.
“Good thing,” Derek said, when they saw their food coming. “Look at that.”
Pete turned and craned his head to look out a window to the parking lot. The snow was now billowing down, fast and thick. He turned back to Derek, nodding as he buttered his flapjacks.
“Yeah, it’s really coming down. Gonna make the roads slick. Good thing we have four-wheel drive. It’s never let me down yet.”
“That’s not what worries me,” Derek replied. “It’s the other idiots, especially tourists from down south, who don’t know how to drive in this stuff.”
Pete snorted and nodded agreement as he chewed a mouthful. Swallowing, he said, “Guess we just won’t dawdle over a second cup, huh? We’ll still be okay.”
Derek nodded in reply, and the two men continued to eat. About five minutes before they finished, the woman and boy got up and left. She nodded at them as she passed, saying, “Hope you boys have a safe trip.”
“You, too, ma’am,” said Pete. “And Merry Christmas to you.”
She nodded again, with that same pinched smile Pete saw earlier.
“Merry Christmas!” Mattie piped up, just a little boy looking forward to Santa’s visit.
The two men grinned, and watched the little boy walk out with his mom. They watched her help him into a car seat in an older, Chevy Impala sedan, its dark blue paint rusting along the bottom.
“Sad story, especially this time of year,” Pete said.
Derek nodded and scooped up a forkful of mashed potatoes. They finished eating in silence, and the waitress brought their check.
They left payment and a nice Christmas tip, then headed to the car, flipping up their jacket collars against the wind. Pete was glad for the visor on his ball cap, which kept the snow from blowing straight into his eyes.
They swung up into the Jeep, buckled their seatbelts and got back on the road. Pete was immediately sorry they’d stopped to eat, hungry as he’d been. The snow was blowing nearly sideways, directly into his headlights, in that mesmerizing way that makes it very difficult to drive without going into a weird, trance-like state. He hated driving in these conditions.
Other drivers seemed to be leaving a safe distance between vehicles, for which he was thankful. Nevertheless, he wanted to have as much control as possible, so he reached down and shifted into four-wheel drive. He immediately felt the change in responsiveness through the steering wheel, and his confidence improved, since the snow was beginning to build up and pack down into the first—and most dangerous—layer, beneath the wheels of traffic.
Here, immediately along the coastline where there was plenty of moisture, it would pack down rapidly and freeze into ice as soon as the sun went down. That time wasn’t far away, and Pete settled in to get serious about covering ground.
The last of the twilight was fading when they started seeing rows of brake lights up ahead.
“Oh, great,” Pete said. “Just what we need.”
“Yeah, what’d I say about tourists? Probably someone hurrying to the airport.”
Pete just grunted.
Traffic slowed to a stop, and they sat for fifteen minutes without moving. Pete looked at his watch. They still had hours to go, no need to panic yet. Derek saw him look, and relaxed when Pete gave an assuring nod.
Finally, traffic began moving again, though it was at a crawl. Sure enough, there were several sets of blue-and-red flashing lights reflecting off of several vehicles that had obviously been involved in a spin-out up ahead. As they moved closer in the far left lane, they could see three vehicles piled in the median strip. Usually grassy, the area was now a mess of curvy tire tracks, busted auto parts and emergency vehicles.
An ambulance had just arrived, and Pete and Derek watched the EMTs jump out of the cab and run to the back, yanking out their tool bags and running over to the vehicles. There were some people standing outside of them. A youngish man, maybe in his twenties, was standing next to a Ford pickup with his arms folded, looking none too pleased but otherwise okay. An older couple stood next to each other and a white Buick, looking stunned. And next to a dark blue sedan stood a small boy, looking bewildered.
“Oh, Jesus!” Pete exclaimed.
“That little boy. Look at that car. That’s Mattie!”
“What?” asked Derek. “Who?”
“The little boy from the restaurant. He and his mom got into a dark blue Impala. I’m pretty sure that’s it.” He leaned closer to get a better look out the windshield. Still not satisfied, he rolled down his window and leaned out, squinting against the snow. “Shit. Yeah, that’s him!”
He braked to an even slower crawl.
“What…what are you doing?” Derek asked, some trepidation in his voice.
“What? Derek, you heard the woman back there. She has no family. That means he doesn’t, either. Do you see her standing there? Cuz I sure don’t.”
Derek craned his neck and also squinted, trying to get a better look. “I can’t see much of anything.”
Pete rolled the window back up, took a deep breath, and blew it out.
“Listen, if she’s really hurt, they’re gonna put her in an ambulance. He’ll get put in a squad car, and if she’s unable to speak for him or make any decisions, you know what’ll happen? He’ll get put into foster care until she’s better. IF she gets better.”
“So, what can we do about it?”
“We could go find out, and see if we can help.”
“Pete, come on, buddy. At the very least, we could end up making ourselves very late. At worst, we’ll miss our plane and the whole hunt!”
Pete looked away from Derek, back to the accident scene. He pulled over onto the median.
“Man, I know. But I just can’t leave without knowing that little guy will be okay. Out in the woods, I’ve worked with enough popple cops to hear their stories about what happens to kids who go into the system. Even in the best cases, they don’t come out the same. I…damn, Derek! You know how bad I wanna go to this hunt! But I wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself, knowing that might happen just because we didn’t do anything. Could you?”
Derek’s brow furrowed.
“Listen, man. I understand how you feel, I really do. I admire your instinct to be a decent guy. But really: They may just tell us to turn around and go home, anyway. We’re not family or anything. And to be honest, I haven’t had a real vacation longer than a weekend in three years. I’ve been looking forward to this hunt so much I haven’t been able to sleep. And we won’t get another chance like this. Besides, I won’t get another chance, for sure; not for this time alone over Christmas, and not to have the money I saved up. And I’m just not willing to throw that away, I’m sorry. I really need this trip.”
Pete looked at his friend. “I understand, buddy. I do. I need it, too. But I mean it: There would be no joy for me until I knew that little boy was safe somewhere, with people he knows and loves.”
Derek didn’t reply, just looked down, then out the windshield.
“Look, I’m gonna make this easy for you,” Pete said. “I’m gonna go back and grab my gear, but I’m leaving the keys in the ignition. You come around and drive yourself to the airport. I know you need to go, but I need to stay. You’ll have a good time and can tell me all about it when you get back.”
“Pete, no! I can’t let you do this! You’ll regret it, buddy. We’ve both been talking all this way down, what a chance of a lifetime this is! I can’t just let you walk away from it. Besides, she might be okay, after all! Then what?”
“Then I’ll find a ride to the airport and meet you down there. Derek, I appreciate you looking out for me. But I know what I’m doing. You go ahead, and I’ll catch up with you when you get home.” He grabbed the key ring and removed his house key. “I know what I’m doing. You kill it for both of us. I know you will!” He opened his door and got out, ducking back in and motioning Derek to take his place.
Derek just looked at him for a moment in disbelief, then got out and came around the back. Pete had already popped open the tailgate and was pulling his duffle and gear bag out. He set them on the ground as Derek got into the driver’s seat.
Pete held the driver’s side door. Derek got settled and buckled in, then turned to look at him.
“You’re sure about this.”
“I am. It’s okay. Have fun and dig lots of great stuff, buddy.” Pete clapped him on the sleeve, closed the door and gave it two taps. He stood and watched Derek maneuver back into the crawl, then rapidly gain speed as he passed the scene. His Jeep’s taillights quickly disappeared into the thickly falling snow. Pete turned around, grabbed his stuff, and walked toward the accident.
He strode to the blue sedan, and got as close as he dared, trying to see the EMTs working on the driver. He was immediately blocked by a state trooper.
“Sir, this is a possible crime scene. I’m going to have to ask you to step back. Where did you come from, anyway, in this mess?”
“Uh, I got out of a car when I saw the accident and wanted to see if I could help.”
The officer looked at him with incredulity. “Are you serious? Sir, that was a damned dangerous thing to do! Do you SEE the conditions out here? That’s why this accident happened in the first place!”
“Yes, officer, I know. But I think I know the driver they’re working on over there.”
“Are you a relative?”
“No, but if it’s who I think it is, she doesn’t have any living relatives. Is it a woman in about her mid-thirties, average height, reddish-brown hair pulled back and wearing a dark-colored hat?”
“Sir, I’m not at liberty to disclose…”
“Officer, listen. I’m not a freak, and I’m not trying to cause trouble. But if that’s who’s in that car, I happen to know something about her and her son that could make a huge difference in how the rest of their lives go.”
The cop looked him up and down, sizing him up. Just then, the little boy walked over and appeared from behind the trooper. He looked up at them both, and the men looked down at him. The little boy’s face was tear-stained and his eyes revealed fear. He looked right up at Pete, and Pete saw the recognition dawn on him.
“Hey, mister. You’re that guy from the diner.”
“Hi, Mattie. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, just scared. My mom won’t talk to me.”
Pete gave the officer a quick glance, then kneeled down to Mattie’s level. “Buddy, she might have gotten pretty banged up in the accident. Maybe hit her head. If that happened, it might have knocked her out. Do you know what that means?”
“Like she’s sleeping, right?”
“Yeah, like that. So maybe she just can’t talk to you right now. But look, all the medics are here and they’re taking good care of her. And this nice policeman will make sure you’re okay. Won’t you, officer?”
The trooper could see that Mattie knew Pete and wasn’t afraid of him, and decided to believe Pete’s story. “You bet,” he said, looking down at Mattie. “What I want to know is if you’d be willing to talk with my partner, buddy? He needs to ask you a few questions about what happened, and then you can sit in his warm car until we get things sorted out here. Will you do that for me? It would sure help us a lot. It would help your mom, too.”
Mattie looked up at Pete, who nodded and smiled reassuringly.
“Yeah, I guess so…” the little boy said.
“Great,” the trooper replied, offering his hand to Mattie. As they turned to walk to the patrol car, he spoke to Pete. “Hang around a couple minutes, and you can fill me in, okay?”
Pete nodded, and put his bags on the snowy ground. He watched as the med techs worked over the woman, then transferred her to the pop-up gurney they’d brought from the ambulance. As they rolled her toward it, the trooper walked along, conferring with them. Then he walked back over to Pete.
“Okay, um…what’s your name?”
“Pete. Peter Watson. I’m from up near Greenville Junction. I work for the paper company there, managing a woodlot. I met Mattie and his mom tonight when my friend and I were seated next to them in a diner, and she told us a bit about their current situation.” He recounted what the woman had shared, and the trooper listened intently. “Truth is, I know the little boy’s name, but I never even got hers. Their last name is Vanetti.”
The officer nodded, indicating this squared with the information they’d gotten from her driver’s license. “So, what is your intention here?”
“To be honest, I’m not really sure. But I know this much: I know that if his mom is incapacitated, and if she has to remain in the hospital or, God forbid, doesn’t leave there alive, that Mattie will wind up going into foster care. Right?”
The trooper nodded.
“Yeah, well, I know all about foster care. I was in it myself for more years than I care to remember, and I know once a kid goes into that system, even if they make it back out, they’re never the same. I’m not about to let that sweet little boy go there if there’s anything on Earth I can do to stop it.”
“Well, I’m not sure there’s much at all you can do, but I can tell you this. I believe what you’re telling me. I believe you’re a decent guy with that kid’s best interests at heart, and now I know why. I still can’t tell you anything about his mom, not even her name, I’m sorry. But here’s what I can do: I can give you a lift to the hospital they’re taking her to, and you can try to work some Christmas magic of your own from there. Okay?”
Pete swallowed. “I’m grateful, officer. I truly am.”
“Then let’s get your gear in the squad, and you can explain to me what it’s for on our trip to the hospital.”
Pete grabbed his bags and hoisted them onto the back seat of the squad, whose door the officer had opened for him. He climbed into the passenger seat, and told the trooper of his hobby and the trip he and Derek had been on, when they’d come upon the accident.
He expected the cop to just let him off at the emergency entrance when they got to the hospital, but instead, he accompanied him inside and talked quietly with the admitting nurse behind the counter for a bit. Finally, he came over to say goodbye, shaking Pete’s hand and telling him, “I’m trusting you, pal, to do the right thing, whatever that may end up being. I put in a good word for you, so don’t make me look bad. And take care of Mattie.”
“You bet. I’ll do everything in my power,” he replied, giving the cop a weary smile. It had been a long, exciting and draining day so far, and he had no idea what lay ahead.
He watched the trooper walk to the door, where he turned around and said to Pete and the nurse, “Have a merry Christmas, both of you.”
Pete and the nurse said, “Same to you,” at the same time, and everyone smiled.
Pete went over to the counter and said hello. He saw “P. Gordon, R.N.” on her I.D. badge. “Well, Ms. P. Gordon, looks like you’re stuck with me for a while. Merry Christmas.”
She looked up at him and smiled. “You’re more cheerful than most folks I get in here on Christmas Eve.”
“I’m not the one who got hurt, so I don’t have much reason not to be cheerful.”
“Who got hurt that you know, that brings you here?”
“To be honest, I’m not exactly sure. It’s kind of a long story.” He made it as brief as possible, and she listened patiently. “So you see, I’m kind of at your mercy,” he finished up.
She looked at him for a long moment. “You know I can’t tell you her name. I can’t tell you anything.”
“Can you at least tell me what they’ve done with her son, Mattie? Little brown-haired, brown-eyed boy, about six or seven?”
“No, I certainly can’t tell you that. Nothing, unless you prove family relationship. I’m sorry. Really, I am. You seem nice. But it’s my job to protect that little boy until we can put him with someone who can legally take responsibility for him.”
“I understand all that. But here’s what I know: There’s a tired, scared little boy out there in the dark, probably riding in here right now in a squad car. All he knows is his father is gone somewhere and his mom is hurt too bad to talk to him. And probably all he’s thinking about is getting home so he can see what Santa is going to bring him when he wakes up tomorrow morning.
“Now, you can’t do anything about that, because you have important work to do here. And I can’t do anything about it, because some rules say you’re not allowed to let me. But that little boy won’t understand any of that. All he’ll know is that he’s still scared and feeling very alone.”
Nurse Gordon set her lips in a thin, hard line. “When he gets here, we’ll be calling Child Services to come take care of him. They’re good people. He’ll be okay.”
Pete was quiet a moment, but looked piercingly into the nurse’s eyes. “What’s the ‘P’ stand for…Paula? Penelope? Prudence?”
She smiled. “Patricia. Patty…is fine.”
“Well, look, Patty: You and I both know that if he goes into Child Services, he will not be fine. He will be taken to a strange office on Christmas Eve, and asked a bunch of questions by at least one scary stranger. And if he’s very lucky, he’ll be temporarily located at a short-term foster home, from which he’ll be moved again if his mother doesn’t recover quickly. Or, more likely, he’ll be dumped in a group home with a bunch of kids he doesn’t know, until other arrangements can be made. Some of those kids will be wise beyond their years, and teach him things no kid should ever know. And depending on what happens with his mom, he may or may not ever make it out of that system again before he ages out. Right?”
She stared up at him, then looked down at her desk, shuffling a few papers. “Sounds like maybe you’ve been there.”
“Maybe. Look, I have a proposal: It’s Christmas Eve, and there is a bad snowstorm going on outside. You don’t really want to ask a social worker to come out in this tonight, any more than they’ll want to respond. However, I’m already here, I know this little boy, and he knows me. I don’t have any place else I need to be for several days. I understand that you can’t release him to me, but what would be the harm in allowing him to sit here with me for at least tonight, right here, where you can keep an eye on us? Could you find it in your heart to bend the rules a little bit? Maybe?”
Again, she looked at him, saying nothing. Then, she got up and walked through the door behind her.
Great, he thought. I blew it. She’s freaked out and is going to get a security guard to escort me out right now. He went to sit down in the chairs along the side wall, where he’d stowed his bags. Better not to be found hovering over the nurses’ station in a way that could be misinterpreted as threatening.
A few minutes later, the door opened and Patty Gordon came back through. She walked toward her station and motioned Pete over.
“Mattie is on his way. He’ll be here in a few minutes. You can hang out with him here in the lobby, but you must promise me that if any cases come in that might scare him with lots of blood or loud wailing or something, you’ll distract him and take him down the hall to where I can still see you, but he can’t see the scary stuff. I can cover you for the rest of my shift, and I can talk to Marla, who comes in after midnight. But after that, you’re on your own. I don’t know what they’ll say in the morning. That’s the best I can do.”
Pete smiled. “That’s enough for now. I’ve learned that sometimes all you can do is deal with the next few hours, and tomorrow will take care of itself.”
“Now you sound like an ER nurse!”
They both smiled. Then Pete said, “I need to ask you one more favor.” He pulled four fifty-dollar bills from his wallet and handed them to her. “Could you ask Marla to stop on her way in at the all-night grocery and find some little things for Mattie to play with while he’s here? Half of this she can spend, the other half she can keep. Okay?” It was just too much to ask if she could wrap them, too.
Patty looked at the money, then picked up the phone. Pete walked away to give her some privacy. When he heard her hang up, he wandered back over. “Well?”
“Marla will be here at eleven. She’ll bring some toys. You’ll have to entertain him till then.”
“Bless you, Nurse Gordon.”
She blushed. “Go sit down now, till he gets here,” she said, with false brusqueness.
Pete smiled at her, drummed a quick riff with his palms on her counter, and walked back to his chair. Instead of sitting down, he pulled one of his detectors out of its case and opened it up from travel position.
When Mattie arrived with his state patrol escort, the officer delivered him to Nurse Gordon, who thanked the policeman and asked Mattie if he wanted a blanket or something to eat. The boy looked sleepy and like he might cry, but he was polite in declining anything.
After the trooper left, Patty said to Mattie, “Well, look! I have someone waiting for you here. Do you know this man?”
Mattie looked over at Pete and smiled for the first time since the accident. He nodded his head and said, “That’s the nice guy from the diner! He talked to my mom and me.” He looked at Pete quizzically. “Where’s your friend?”
“Derek had to catch an airplane in Boston, so he went on ahead. I thought I’d stay here with you until we find out…until your mom wakes up. Okay?”
“Okay,” Mattie replied, again looking tired.
Patty smiled at Pete and left Mattie with him, returning to her station across the waiting room.
Pete got Mattie’s coat and mittens and hat off, and put them on a nearby chair. “”Mattie, do you know where Derek and I were going?”
The little boy shook his head, so Pete told him about his hobby and the exciting Christmas hunt, and started showing him his detector. He powered it up and hovered its search coil over the chairs, studs in the floor, even let Mattie hold it and try to swing it near the vending machines.
Mattie was very interested, and Pete told him stories of finding relics and coins. Then he told him pirate tales of buried treasure, and about the 1715 Treasure Fleet off the coast of Florida. Mattie listened, enthralled, until his eyelids began to droop.
“Are you tired, buddy?” asked Pete.
Mattie nodded his head.
“Okay. Let’s make you a little place here to take a nap…” He arranged his own coat with Mattie’s, and piled up hats and mittens to make a pillow on the magazine table that stretched in front of several chairs.
The little boy lay down on top of them, and Patty, having noticed what they were doing, brought a small blanket over to cover him with.
“Thank you, nurse,” Pete said, and winked at her. “Don’t worry, Mattie. Go to sleep. I’ll be right here by you the whole time.”
“But what about Santa?” Mattie yelped, sitting up. “He won’t be able to find me here!”
“I have it on good authority that in fact, Santa visits girls and boys in the hospital before he visits anyone else!” Pete said.
“He’s right,” Patty said from her station. “I see it every year. He’ll find you, but it’s just like at home: Only if you’re fast asleep!”
The little boy lay back down on his makeshift bed, and pulled a threadbare stuffed hippo close, that he’d brought with him from his mom’s car. In just minutes, he was in Dreamland.
In about an hour, the door behind the nurse’s station opened and another nurse, whom Pete judged to be Marla, entered the waiting room. She and Patty exchanged a few words, then she headed over to Pete.
She looked down at the sleeping boy, and smiled. Then she handed two small packages, wrapped up in brightly colored, festive paper and each topped with a shiny bow, to Pete. She pulled a pre-lit, pre-decorated tabletop tree out and set it on the floor next to the sleeping child. Then she handed Pete two of the fifty-dollar bills.
“Just to cover the gifts, tree and wrapping paper. Nothing needed for me,” she said with a warm smile. “Merry Christmas, Mr.…”
“Pete. Just call me Pete. Merry Christmas to you, Marla. I’m so grateful for your kindness, going out of your way to help this little guy have some kind of Christmas.”
She brushed off his thanks. “I’m a nurse. I help people. It’s what I do.”
“More than you know, I’m guessing.”
They smiled at each other, and Marla went back to her station.
Patty stopped to wish Pete a good night and a Merry Christmas, before leaving for home.
Through the window, Pete watched her get into her car and drive off. He then turned his gaze to the snow, falling thickly in the shafts of light from the parking lot poles.
He imagined Derek was already in the air on his way to the sunny South, anticipating the Civil War awesomeness he might unearth. Pete looked at his detector leaning against the chair next to him, then at the tiny form in front of him, whose chest was rising and falling slowly and gently in a relaxed pattern of sleep.
Pete got up, packed up his detector, sat back down and put his feet up on the table below Mattie’s feet. He settled back into his chair and listened to the strains of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” wafting softly through the waiting room speakers.
“Merry Christmas, Mattie,” he whispered.