Mary's father lowered his gaze and said, “Anthony, I have a confession to make.”
Sparkling snowflakes drifted down from the steel-grey sky, layering the ground in a blanket of wet snow, softening the edges of nature. Steam rose from her teacup as Mary placed it on the porch rail, hugged herself and shivered. Her favorite Christmas Carol, O' Holy Night drifted through the open door. The rattle of snow chains drew her gaze to the road at the end of her winding driveway where a snowplow drove past, black smoke belching from its muffler. She turned and stared off into the snowy woods, her gaze unfocused.
"Looks like another white Christmas is on the way," she mumbled to herself. She had put up a Christmas tree, strung lights on the house, and even stacked brightly-wrapped gifts under the tree. She frowned with the thought that it had all been done for nothing. She turned and let her eyes linger on the road below her house again. Sighing, she gently chewed her lower lip.
She reached inside the doorway and flipped on the light switch, then high-stepped through the snow in the front yard. Standing in calf-deep snow she turned. Twinkling red, green and blue lights outlined the roof and porch of her house. The snow around the warm bulbs were melted into shallow cups, making the lights seem larger.
Movement in the woods behind her house caught Mary's attention. She blinked, trying to focus as her eyes followed a dark, hulking, form slowly moving along the edge of the woods. Her gloved finger touched her lips as she took a step back and mumbled, "That's an elk, and a big one!" Patchy, tan fur covered the large brawny animal, a rack of antlers rose over his head like the branches of a bare tree.
Elk sightings were not uncommon up here in the foothills below the Blue Ridge Mountains. Mature trees carpeted the surrounding hills giving the large animals plenty of hiding places and food sources. She watched the beast take a few steps and turned to look at her. Its nostrils flared as two columns of steam rose in front of its furry face. The elk jabbed his left hoof into the snow repeatedly, lifted its head to the overcast sky and bugled a high-pitched call into the cold air. His dark, glistening eyes stared at Mary for a moment and then with a limp, the animal slowly disappeared over the crest of a hill.
"He must be injured," Mary muttered. "Poor old fella."
Snow crunched under Mary's boots as she walked back to the house, her gaze locked on the bright lights twinkling on her house in the cold air. Her father had built the house for her—a gift he'd given her more out of guilt than an expression of love. The colorful lights blurred as the memory of what her father had done filled her thoughts. She inhaled, puffed her cheeks, and then noisily exhaled. Why hadn't he trusted me? Why had he refused to believe I had grown up...and had grown-up feelings? Why had I allowed him to ruin my happiness?
The sadness of the past two years flooded into her like a vessel filling with cold water as she trudged through the snow.
~~~The door suddenly swung open with a swish of air. Dressed in white, two silver bars glistening on her collar, Captain Maureen Flannery quickly stepped into the room, her hair, the color of cherry-wood, trailing behind her. Her friendly voice, in typical sing-song fashion, filled the room. "Good morning, gentlemen." Gazing around the room she announced, "Time for your morning meds..." Her eyes stopped on a sleepy patient across the room, "And you, Mr. Jones...you are off on an all-expense paid trip to physical therapy. I hope your bathing suit is packed."
Laughter erupted from four of the five patients in room. Anthony, his brown eyes downturned and unfocused, remained quiet.
With the patients gone to various appointments in the hospital, Nurse Flannery took a minute to stop in and talk to Anthony. She sat on the edge of her patient's bed, her lips pressed into a straight line. "I received another call today, Anthony. Won't you at least talk to her?"
"I told you Captain," Anthony's words hissed past clenched teeth, "I don't want to see anyone, especially not her."
"Captain?" Flannery said softly. She reached out and placed her hand on his shoulder. "In this room we're all friends, you can call me Maureen."
Anthony stiffened under her gentle touch, "Why can't everybody just leave me be?"
Maureen sighed, "Because we care about you, Anthony." She nodded toward the tray on the bedside table, his uneaten breakfast still on the plates. "Any you should eat, get yourself strong again...don't you want to get out of this place? Go home?"
Anthony tugged the sheet higher onto his shoulders and rolled over, his eyes staring at the blank wall.
The ringing telephone jarred Nurse Flannery's concentration. Without taking her eyes from the reports she held in her hand she reached for the phone, picked up the receiver and put it to her ear. "Burn ward, Captain Flannery speaking."
Maureen listened for a brief moment, then said, "Peter Hudson? Yes, I've spoken to your daughter a few times. Yes, Anthony Mancuso is a patient here, but he refuses to see any visitors." She listened quietly for another moment and answered, "I'll certainly try, Mr. Hudson, but I have to tell you, he has refused to see everyone—even members of his own family." After another short moment of silent listening she said, "Yes, I'll try," and placed the phone back onto its cradle. Her gaze slowly drifted to room twenty-five, the room where Anthony and other burn patients resided. Her eyebrows rose as she sighed.
Maureen's rubber-sole shoes squeaked as she walked into the quiet room and stood at the foot of Anthony's bed. His eyes fluttered under his closed lids and she smiled. "I know you're awake, Anthony. Mind if I sit with you for a minute?"
"You're a captain," he said without opening his eyes, "you can do whatever you want."
Maureen sighed and forced a smile onto her face. The chair legs scraped against the tile floor as Maureen dragged it to the side of Anthony's bed. As she lowered herself into the chair she watched Anthony turn onto his side, facing away from her. He pulled the sheet up to his neck. She sighed deeply and settled into the chair.
"I got a call yesterday, Anthony." She waited.
"I told you, I don't want to see her."
"No, it wasn't from Mary." She paused. "The call was from her father." She waited for a reaction. Getting none, she continued. "He wants to come see you. Maybe you should let him." Another pause.
"Why would I want to see him?" Anthony lifted his head and looked back over his shoulder at Maureen, his eyes narrowed. "He pulled me and Mary apart. If it wasn't for him we would have been married, I would not have lost her."
"Why do you blame him, Anthony?"
He sighed. "First, I come from a family of immigrants who barely speak English. Second, my father worked in the mills. And third, I wasn't bound for college. The truth is he didn't think I was good enough for his daughter. While I was away he probably pressured her into finding someone else, 'a man of means' as he would say."
"How do you know she found someone else?" Flannery leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. "You haven't spoken to her, you don't know what happened."
"Yes, I do!" he said quickly. "She stopped writing even though I wrote to her all the time. I even sent her small gifts. At the very least she should have written to say thank you—she didn't even do that."
"But she keeps calling, she wants to see you." Maureen sat back in her chair. "That doesn't sound like someone who's trying to avoid you."
"I don't need her fake concern, or her pity. It doesn't matter anyway. I wouldn't want her to see me like this. I don't want anyone to see me."
"I wish you would reconsider. It would do you good to have visitors. Catch up on things at home."
Anthony remained silent, his gaze moving around the room as if he was searching for the right words. His brow furrowed and his eyes brightened. He looked at his nurse. "Wait. Okay, tell Mr. Hudson to come on in and visit."
Maureen's eyes widened in surprise, her lips curled into a wide smile that reached deep into her blue eyes. "That's great, Anthony!" she said cheerfully. "I'll see when he can come and I'll let you know. I know he'll be happy to see you."
Anthony's eyes narrowed as he stared at Maureen, a thin smile stretched his lips. "And I'll be happy to see him, too." His smile dipped into a frown. "There's something I've wanted to say to him for two years now, and I'm looking forward to finally being able to say it." He turned over, facing away from Maureen again and pulled the sheets up over his head.
Maureen spoke to the back of his head, "I don't want his visit to be stressful for you. If you think it will be, then don't allow him to come."
"It won't be stressful," he said staring into the wall. "If anything, it will make me feel better."
"Are you serious, dad?" Mary's cheeks flushed as she spoke into the phone. "Is he really willing to let you come see him?"
"Yes," Mr. Hudson said quietly into the phone. "I spoke to that nurse, what it is, Flarity?"
"No, dad, Flannery...Maureen Flannery." She rolled her eyes.
"That's her. I spoke to her yesterday and she told me Anthony agreed to let me come see him."
Mary's feelings fluctuated between relief that Anthony had finally consented to having a visitor, and jealousy that Anthony still refused to allow her to visit.
Her voice wavered. "Why you instead of me, dad?" Tears beaded in the corner of her eyes as anger tightened her stomach. "Are you being honest with me, dad? You're not just saying this to make me feel better, are you?"
"No, sweetheart," her father replied softly. "I've hurt you enough, and I'll never do anything to hurt you again, ever." A long pause followed before he said, "I'm not proud of the things I did."
Her father's breathing rattled in the phone as Mary thought about her feelings for her father.
Two years ago, just days before Anthony's leave ended, she and Anthony had come to him, expressed their love for each other, told him of their desire to get married before Anthony went away to war. He refused to allow it. He had gone into a rage, telling Mary that if she disobeyed him she would have to leave his house, he would not support her. She had only two years of college left before she could get a good job, and with Anthony away she had to depend on her father for everything. The discussion had turned heated and her father asked Anthony to leave, telling him, "I will not allow you to make my daughter a widow."
Remembering his hurtful words brought fresh anger to her thoughts, anger she thought she had long ago released. He had hurt her and Anthony with those words. And even though she had promised herself she wouldn't let her father make her cry, she broke that promise when he had taken her by the shoulders and shook her, saying. "You have no idea what love is!" The words had stabbed into her.
Even though he didn't do a good job of hiding his own disappointment, Anthony had been thoughtful, encouraging, even suggesting that maybe her father was right. He told her that maybe they should wait until he returned home, perhaps it was not a good idea to get married with him going off to spend a year in a dangerous place. She knew Anthony loved her, and she also knew how difficult it was for him to say these things. She had pretended that she agreed with him so he would not worry about her while he was away. They had promised to write as often as possible.
But his letters stopped arriving two months after he left. She wrote to him for a while longer but with no response from him, she stopped writing.
"Look at how quickly he moved on," her father had said, adding, "I was right. He didn't love you."
"No, dad!" she had shouted. "It because he doesn't want to come between you and me."
She had cried for weeks over the loss of his love. To alleviate her sadness, her father said he would build a house for her, the one she now lived in, when she finished college. But she knew he was only trying to assuage the guilt he felt for breaking up her relationship with Anthony.
She had tried to put Anthony out of her thoughts, but she could not stop thinking about him. She asked herself a thousand times, "If he loves me why doesn't he write?"
About a year ago, Anthony's mother called to tell her that Anthony had been badly injured in an explosion and he was in the hospital in Texas being treated.
She called the hospital so many times that she and Nurse Flannery had become friends of sorts. Their conversations became longer and longer with each call. During their last conversation a few months ago, Mary had asked Maureen if she knew why Anthony refused to see her, or anyone.
"You have to understand, Mary." She hesitated, searching for the right words. "These are young men. Most of them have girlfriends or families that they love. They left their loved ones as strong, handsome, proud marines. They've returned from war horribly disfigured. Most of them don't want to see the shock in the eyes of their girlfriends or mothers. It would devastate them."
"But you're a woman and they don't mind you seeing them." A sob shook Mary's body.
"I'm a woman, sure. But I'm not the woman they love."
Maureen went on to say that with surgery many of the men could be returned to their former appearance, but the recuperation period would be painful. Because of their injuries, and because they had had to leave their friends behind in a hostile situation, they had also lost confidence in themselves.
Mary didn't completely understand, but she had no choice. Anthony refused all her requests for visits.
"Are you there, Mary?"
Her father's voice in the phone pulled her from her private reverie. "Yes, yes dad, I'm here." She sat back against her chair. "When are you going to see him?"
"On the twenty-third," he replied. "That's what, seven days from today?"
"Yes." Tears formed in her eyes as she spoke. "Give him my regards, dad. Tell him I'm thinking of him...and wish him a Merry Christmas for me, will you?"
"Sure, hon. I'll make sure he knows you're thinking of him."
Nurse Flannery stopped Mr. Hudson outside the door leading into room number twenty-five. She lowered her voice to a whisper, "It is very important that you not show any reaction to Anthony's appearance. No reaction at all...it's what these men fear the most." She pressed her lips together and looked up at him. "Do you understand, Mr. Hudson?"
"Yes, I understand."
"Are you ready?" Her fingers curled around the doorknob.
Mary's father inhaled deeply, "Yes, I'm ready."
"Let's go." Nurse Flannery pulled the door open wide and they stepped into the room together. The door closed behind them. Maureen motioned to Mary's father to remain just inside the room. She walked to Anthony's bed.
"Anthony?" she said softly. With no response she placed her hand on Anthony's shoulder and gently shook him. "Anthony, your visitor is here. Peter Hudson."
Anthony sighed and slowly rolled over. He looked past Maureen and saw Hudson. "Tell him to come around the other side of the bed." Anthony turned onto his left side and pressed his cheek into the pillow, hoping to hide the ugly, red, scars crisscrossing his face.
Christmas carols played softly through the overhead speakers and hid Mr. Hudson's footsteps as he walked around the bed. His smile waved as he looked down at Anthony. "Hi, Anthony. I'm glad you agreed to see me." He removed his hat, held it in his trembling hands.
"Yeah, well, Mr...ah..Peter. I thought it was time I spoke to you. I mean really spoke to you."
"I was hoping we could talk, clear the air, so to speak."
"Yeah, we'll clear the air, that's for sure."
"How are you doing, Anthony? It's really good to see you."
"How am I doing?" He chuckled mockingly. "I'm lying in a bed in a hospital burn ward, half my face is unrecognizable. And if that isn't enough, thanks to you, I no longer have Mary."
Mr. Hudson lowered himself into a chair with a long sigh and combed his fingers through his greying hair. His gaze fell to the floor. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I guess I deserve that." When Anthony didn't respond, Hudson continued. "Mary sends her regards, son. She thinks about you all the time."
"Yeah, I'll bet she does," Anthony hissed. "Does her husband know she thinks about me?"
"Of course not!" Peter said. "I mean, she doesn't have a husband. Mary isn't married." He leaned forward, placed his forearms on his thighs. "Why would you think that?"
"Oh, please. You're not going to tell me that after all this time she hasn't found another guy."
"Another guy?" His brow furrowed deeply. "Sure she's met a couple of men, even dated a couple. But nothing serious at all." He paused, and thought for a short minute. "I always thought she just couldn't stop thinking of you, Anthony. Seeing her so sad made me feel very guilty."
"Look, Peter," Anthony said, his voice rising, "She stopped writing shortly after I left. I kept writing to her for months after she stopped, but she ignored my letters. I told myself that it was because she was busy with her studies, working hard to earn her degree." He sighed and closed his eyes. "But I could lie to myself for only so long, and I finally had to accept the obvious—she had met someone else, probably at your urging."
"She didn't meet someone else, son, at least not the way you think." Peter Hudson's hand rubbed the back of his neck and he looked across the room to Nurse Flannery. "Nurse, could you give us a few minutes alone, please?"
Maureen hesitated, then nodded. "If you need anything, Anthony, just use the call button." Anthony raised a hand indicating he understood. Nurse Flannery opened the door and stepped out into the hallway.
"So what is so secret that Maureen had to leave?" Anthony's tone was filled with anger.
"It's time I told you the truth, Anthony." Hudson stiffened in his chair.
"I think I already know the truth."
"No, Anthony, you don't." Peter Hudson inhaled deeply, held it in, then exhaled slowly. "But it's time I told you the truth." He leaned forward and spoke in a voice barely above a whisper. "Anthony, I have a confession to make."
The smooth, white carpet of snow sparkled under the early morning sunshine as Mary peered through her kitchen window sipping from a cup of herbal tea. A two-day snowfall had covered the ground in twelve inches of snow. She sighed, turned, and walked into the living room. She leaned against the door frame and stared at the brightly lit Christmas tree she had placed in front of the large window. Behind her, the ice maker dumped frozen cubes in the freezer, followed by the buzz of water refilling the machine again. The sound startled her, and made her feel even lonelier. She closed her eyes for a few seconds. Opening them, she stared at the brightly-lit tree and sighed. "Oh well, another lonely Christmas day."
She stepped out onto the porch and inhaled deeply, letting the cold air fill her lungs. Her eyes scanned the white, glittering landscape. Snow outlined bare tree branches and sagged electric lines along the road. She watched a rabbit make furrows in the snow as he hopped into the woods. A large shadow caught her eye as it began moving. She blinked her eyes into focus and mumbled, "That's the same elk I saw the other day." Her words formed thin clouds in front of her face.
The elk stopped and turned to her, then stomped his right hoof into the snow, just like he had the other day. He looked up into the morning sky and bugled, the high-pitched sound echoing between the hills surrounding Mary's house. He lowered his head and turned away from Mary. Her stare followed his movements as he limped into the woods. "I hope he'll be okay," she said into the cold air.
The sound of snow crunching under car tires pulled her attention to the snow-covered driveway. She turned as a black Lincoln Town Car, its tinted windows dripping melted snow, made its way toward her, its tires skidding and spinning. She looked at her watch and thought, Dad's not supposed to be here this early. Dinner isn't until two this afternoon. Her eyes followed the car until it slid to a stop in front of her garage.
The car door opened and her father stepped out and looked at her over the roof of the car. He pulled his long coat tighter around him as he walked to the porch, a bag clutched in his gloved hand.
"Look over in the woods, dad," Mary pointed. The large animal had moved deeper into the woods, he looked at Mary as he clawed his hoof into the snow. "I think he's hurt."
Peter Hudson stopped and turned his eyes to the woods. "He seems to be favoring that right leg," he said. He looked up to his daughter standing on the porch, his face pinched with concern. "How are you, hon?"
"I'm fine. You're early, dinner isn't until this afternoon."
"I know, hon," he said. "I came up early so we could talk."
"Did you see Anthony? How is he?"
"Yes I did, and he's fine. He looked over his shoulder at his car, then back to Mary, cleared his throat. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about." He scraped his hand through his wet hair.
Mary put her teacup down on a table. "Anthony's alright, isn't he?"
"He's okay, really." Her father stepped onto the porch and handed the paper bag to Mary. "These are yours. But before you open the bag I want to explain."
"Explain what?" Her brow furrowed.
"That." His index finger pointed to the bag. "But I want to start from the beginning." He cleared his throat again. "Two years ago when Anthony left I was sure you'd find someone else, forget him." He looked down at his shoes. "It wasn't out of meanness, it wasn't, honest, hon. I really thought I was doing the right thing." His gaze turned to his car, then back to Mary. "But now I realize how strong the love is between you and Anthony. And I realize that instead of helping you, I made you very unhappy. It hurt to see you so sad."
"What are you trying to say, dad?"
"When you look in the bag you'll understand."
Mary's eyes widened in shock as she opened the bag and looked in. She looked at her father, her eyes pooling with tears as she lifted out a stack of letters, yellowed with age. "What are these, dad?" A tear rolled down her cheek. "What are these!" This time it was not a question.
"They're Anthony's letters, the ones he wrote to you."
Mary looked at her father, unable to speak, shock filled her eyes. Her chin shook. "What...how...?"
"You were away at college and the letters came to the house. I'm sorry, Mary, please believe me, I'm so sorry."
"How could you do something like this?"
"Please believe me, Mary. I thought I was doing right by you." He looked into his daughter's eyes, then turned away to hide his own tears. "But after what's happened, seeing your sadness, and then visiting Anthony in the hospital, I finally realized how wrong I had been. Please forgive me."
"Forgive you!" Mary slowly sank into a wooden chair, her eyes locked on the letters in her trembling hand. "Does Anthony know? Does he know about this?"
Her father knelt in front of her and put two fingers on her chin and raised her face so their eyes were level. "Please forgive me. I was wrong. I did it to protect you. I thought I was making your life better. I'm truly sorry."
Mary remained silent. Her hands dropped into her lap. Sadness sagged her shoulders.
"I'm going to make this up to you, I promise. I'm going to make this right. And I'm going to start right now." He turned back to his car and waved. "I hope this convinces you that I realize how wrong I was. I brought you something else."
Mary watched the car door open and a foot step into the snow. A figure slowly rose from behind the tinted glass. Mary turned to her father, then back to the car. The man standing there had not moved.
"Yes, Mary, it's Anthony. I hope it's okay that I brought him."
Mary's hand rose and covered her mouth. Her eyes brimmed with tears. She turned to her father, wiped tears from her cheek, and then she turned back to Anthony. "Anthony! She said breathlessly. She stood and ran off the porch.
Her father watched her run to Anthony, her footsteps leaving deep depressions on the snow. He mumbled, "Merry Christmas, sweetheart."
The blue and pink dawn sky on December twenty-sixth found Mary and Anthony sitting on the porch, huddled together under a blanket, cups of steaming tea on the table next to them. They had awakened early to watch the sun rise between the bare trees edging Mary's property. Mary's voice was quiet, contentment relaxed her face. "When do you have to go back to the hospital?" she asked him.
"Not for another week." He put his palm against the side of his face and looked away.
Mary reached out, grasped his hand and gently lowered it from the scars on his cheek. Anthony turned his injured cheek away from her gaze.
"You don't have to hide your injury, Anthony." She kissed him lightly on his curved lips. "I love you and your injury will not change that."
Anthony pulled Mary tighter against him, his fingers stroked her cheek, his thumb traced the lines of her full lips. They kissed.
A movement in the woods pulled Mary's gaze away from Anthony. She saw the elk again. It moved slowly through the snow, the animal's antlers dark against the backdrop of sparkling white snow. The elk turned to Mary; his dark watery eyes stared at her for a moment, and then he moved off.
A smile curved Mary's lips as she watched the elk walk into the woods, no longer limping. She turned to Anthony and said, "Everything is going to be alright now Anthony, I promise."
Anthony turned and looked at Mary, his gaze lingering on her denim-blue eyes before moving to her lips. "Can you forgive your father for what he did?" he asked her without taking his eyes away from her.
"Can you?" Her brows moved higher.
Anthony looked into her eyes as he covered her hands with his. "I already have," he said quietly.