The Holiday Surprise

It’s that time of year again, when I write my annual holiday short story. Last year’s offering was pretty long, and I think that kept a lot of diggers from reading it. So this year, I’m sharing one that developed out of an extemporaneous writing exercise we did in my local writing group a few meetings back. It’s far shorter, in part because I realize it may end up being part of a larger story, maybe even novel length. I’d be interested to learn your opinion on whether or not I should enlarge the story or just leave it as is. Meanwhile, enjoy my holiday gift to you!

Holiday surprise graphic

It was drawn on the back of an envelope. To most people, it probably looked like the mindless scribblings of a bored person on a long phone call. But something about it made me look more closely.

I picked it up from its perch on the corner of the old desk in Levi’s study, where it had been carelessly tossed by someone in their haste to corral and pack more obviously important things.

Well, I had more important things to do, too, as a last service to my old friend. I’d promised to come get a few boxes he’d labeled with my name, and there they were, sitting over in the corner amid some cleaning supplies and old rags.

I still couldn’t believe he was gone, this man I had known my entire life, and had grown to love deeply. Levi had always been old, it seemed, even from the first time I’d met him when I was a small child. Yet, as the rest of us aged, he seemed to remain suspended in some invisible cryogenic tank, for as much as he was always old, Levi—to me—remained the same age, no matter how long I knew him.

old handsEven when I’d stopped to see him in the hospital, his body had looked frail, but when I thought about it objectively, it was all the tubes and machines hooked up to him that made him appear that way. His wiry frame was the same as it had always been, and his eyes still glowed with the curiosity and wonder of life yet to be lived. As I thought of him now, his positive attitude right to the end was a miracle to me. That man, in the face of a certain death sentence, had continued to ask for his metal detecting magazines and history books, learning right up until his last breath.

I thought of all I had learned from him, the never-ending stream of wisdom that had flowed from his lips as we would be bottle digging or taking a lunch break from swinging our detectors, and what a true gift his friendship had been to me. Suddenly, the pain of his loss pierced me almost physically, causing a sharp intake of breath, as though I’d been stabbed.

For a moment, I couldn’t breathe, and stumbled to the door. I yanked it open and burst out onto his porch, gasping. As I grabbed the log rail outlining the deck, I leaned on its solidness for support. The deep cold hit me as a gust of wind whipped under the porch roof, restoring my ability to breathe with another sharp gasp.

It felt good to be out here in the cold, instead of the overheated, empty room I’d left, too full of memories to be comforting yet. At some point they would be, but right now, they just hurt. Levi’s family had turned the thermostat up while they worked, and left it that way…wasteful city folks.

I stood for a few minutes, looking up at the black sky and watching the snowflakes alternately drifting down between wind gusts and swirling about when they came. I remembered all the nights Levi and I had sat out here, drinking beer and telling stories of our great detecting finds, looking up at the myriad stars that usually filled the black sky out here where urban light pollution hadn’t yet ruined that particular joy.

Black Labrador retrieverHe was a smart guy, and he loved nature. When his wife had died and he no longer needed to consider her more social nature, he’d sold their house in town and bought this little patch of land. He’d pulled up his travel trailer and boondocked in it until he could have a well dug, electrical service brought in, and a septic system installed. Then he’d built this cabin, small but just right for him and Whitey, who was actually jet black. Levi had named after his favorite detector brand.

Now Whitey was mine, and I was grateful for the living connection to Levi, who’d made me promise to take Whitey when he was gone.

“I don’t trust none of ’em with him,” he’d said of his siblings. “They’re good people, but they ain’t got no sense at all, and they ain’t dog people.”

Since I had also inherited the cabin, I no longer had to worry that the landlord wouldn’t let me have dogs in my apartment. Levi had provided well for us both. Starting to feel chilled, I went back inside.

Whitey came out of the back bedroom, where I’m certain he’d been looking for Levi. He rolled his beautiful brown eyes up at me, seeming to ask where his beloved master was. My heart tightened, knowing I couldn’t explain. I had been with Levi when his last breath had left him in that damned, sterile hospital, and all I could think of at the time was how Whitey should be allowed in to say goodbye, too. Dogs can understand death if they can see and smell the one who has died. But all Whitey knew now was that his human had been whisked away on a rolling table to a big van with flashing lights amid lots of noise and chaos, and he hadn’t seen him since.

I squatted down and put my arms around his neck, burying my face in his ruff, and hugged him hard. Levi had stored my number as ICE — in case of emergency — in his cell phone contacts, so they’d called me first and I’d come to get Whitey, as we’d agreed earlier after his final diagnosis. I’d bought the flip phone for him, and he’d accepted it grudgingly, on a limited plan for emergency use only.

“I’m only doing it for Whitey, and I don’t want one of them smartphones!” he’d protested. I assured him he only needed to use it for emergencies and I wouldn’t be calling him on it all the time, nor did he need to share that he had it with anyone else. He was an intensely private man, and valued his solitude. I had no desire to impose on that, but with his family living so far away and me not available to be with him all the time, it was a good compromise. That phone had only ever made one call, and it was from an EMT, not Levi. I made a mental note to call and cancel the plan.

I looked around the room at the last vestiges of his crusty presence: a few stuffed deer heads left on the walls by his family, who had the same appreciation for them I did (they would be donated to the Moose Lodge downtown); a ratty pair of leather slippers I imagined I’d first seen as that small child; and the last of his beloved metal detectors. Those he had also left to me, a precious reminder of the many hours we’d spent happily roaming the fields and woods nearby and far away.

He’d gone down so fast, he hadn’t had time to put up his Christmas decorations. Those were spilling out of a cardboard box in the corner of his guest room, where he’d kept them in a closet. For such a gruff old guy, he was curiously sentimental about Christmas, and took great joy in decorating his little cabin every year. I think it reminded him of his happy years with Helen. The weekend after Thanksgiving, he’d head back into the woods with Whitey, a bow saw, a plastic sled, and in the past several years, me.

We’d find a choice specimen of white pine or Douglas fir — he preferred the shorter needles — cut it down, and bring it back to the cabin. There, we’d make a day of setting it up and trimming it, listening to holiday music on his record player (yes, he never saw any good reason to move to CDs) and drinking spiked coffee, ending the evening with a big meal we’d prepared together. Of all my Christmas memories in my lifetime, those are my favorites.

Now I looked at the forlorn box of ornaments and lights that had been rifled through and left a mess, and tried not to feel anger toward his inconsiderate relatives. I would clean up the place this weekend and start moving in, so Whitey wouldn’t have to leave for long, and next week, we’d go get a tree and set it up. That tradition would be kept, my way of honoring the season and the man who, in his rough way, had kept it all his life.

Tears welled in my eyes at the thought of doing it all without Levi, and I again buried my face in Whitey’s ruff to dry them off. He leaned into me, whining quietly, and I knew he understood my grief. I’d always loved this dog, and now we were bonded together by shared grief. I sat next to him on the hardwood floor, most of its antique braided rugs having been claimed by Levi’s family, and just petted his head and back until he laid his head in my lap.

treasure map

After some time, again I looked over at the envelope. I slipped gently out from under Whitey’s head and got up to pick it off the desk. Something about the bouncy look of the writing and the scrawled lines appeared more intentional than random. I turned it around in my hands to get another perspective, and now the lines started to look like some kind of diagram.

Suddenly, I recalled several times when, after a long day in the field and too many beers, Levi’s eyes would dance as he hinted to me of a great gift he would one day bestow upon me. I’d thought I finally understood when his attorney contacted me to let me know he’d left me the cabin and property, but as I looked more carefully at the piece of paper in my now-shaking hands, I finally understood.

This was no phone scribble. This…was a treasure map!

About Mary Shafer 12 Articles
Award-winning author Mary A. Shafer is a full-time freelance writer in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She has four published books and contributed to two anthologies. She’s a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Nonfiction Authors Association, Pennwriters, Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and is the founder of the Twin Rivers Writers Group in upper Bucks County, PA.


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