Healing the heart at Christmas (December contest prompt)
“Why do they always ask?”
Michael pulled his collar up higher as though it would somehow hide his face from the eyes of the bell-ringer out front of the grocery store.
Had he been called a Scrooge? Yes. Many times. But he didn’t actually draw a comparison between himself and Dickens’ miser. In fact, he gave plenty throughout the year. Didn’t he? He gave the girl scouts their money every time they tried to sell their baked goods, gave donations to the SPCA whenever the ads came on TV, and ultimately felt like he was a pretty giving person.
But Christmas just wasn’t his time of year. Why did he have to suddenly be such a giving person on one day of the year? And on the day he lost both his parents. Christmas was a day of joy growing up, then in one icy patch of road, two pumps of the brake, and three heartbeats later, the front of the car had caved in, leaving ten-year-old Michael to be raised by his aunt across the country in New York.
“How about a cup of coffee? All I need is five cents!” Michael didn’t even flinch anymore, when the same homeless vagabond who gave him the same speech every day leapt up and held out his hand. Most people knew him and gave him money and even on occasion he did too. But now was not the time of year he felt generous.
“How about you find a job, buddy? I know you’ve found a nickel from someone else by now. You’d think you’d adjust for inflation in this day and age and at least ask for a quarter. Heck graduate to paper and ask for a dollar!” He expected the hobo to flip him off at that comment and he half-wanted him to just so he could bite back with another insult, but instead he turned around and pulled the scarf a bit higher over his face. The wind blew more heavily. Snow cracked underneath his feet like broken glass.
A car skidded in the road next to him and he jumped. His heart tripled its beat, and he looked expecting to see a sedan fishtailing in slow-motion to the right, a child in the backseat trying to cover his eyes and two dark-haired parents in the front seat trying to shield their faces from the wall careening towards them. But there was only a car slowly rocking from a hard application of the brakes, plenty of traction, undented, and completely unharmed.
There was someone wrapped in so many layers of clothing at the next corner that they looked like a turquoise and purple Eskimo.
“Excuse me sir,“ said a female voice, probably late-teens or early twenties. “But do you have a moment to learn about how you could save our rainforests?”
“It’s snowing! How about you get inside out of the cold instead of worrying about tree fogs that are in a different hemisphere? Don’t you have anything better to do? It’s Christmas Eve! Go home! Be with your family!”
She stopped and didn’t say another word. He walked on and found himself feeling like he’d somehow punched himself in the gut. The gravity of his last sentence had hit him. If only he could follow his own advice.
He stopped and wondered where he would be right now. His parents had been wanting to have another child. He might have had a sister, or a brother. In turn, in adulthood, he might have become an uncle. All of the moments in his life that his parents would have been there for; instead they were absent. Perhaps with their support he might have started a family of his own by now. He shook his head, refusing to acknowledge the possibility of a tear in his eye and moved along.
He walked uninterrupted another seven blocks. Then he heard a clatter in an alley to his left. Probably a stray dog or maybe even more likely, the garbage man. Instead he saw a trash can not yet rolled to a stop, and a child in rags peering at him suspiciously, frozen as though he was a raccoon at night caught by a flashlight beam.
Michael half expected the child to run, but the child just stared back. At first, he thought his eyes were deceiving him. But it couldn’t be true. It would just be too much of a coincidence. The outfit the child was wearing made him look out of place and Michael knew exactly why. He was in a period outfit, made up to look exactly like Tiny Tim. He even had a little wooden crutch. How did Michael know this? Because at nine years old, the year before that ill-fated Christmas, he had played Tiny Tim himself in the Christmas pageant play. He had kept the hat and even wore it afterwards.
Michael’s eyes narrowed and his mouth was half-open, despite the biting cold. Words were half-formed on his lips, his old lines from the play, not that he had many, but everyone knew them, of course. Rather than speak them, he yelled “You ok?”
With an English accent befitting his attire, the child said, “Yes, I seem to have misplaced my supper.”
“Haha, nice one kid. Seriously though what’s a matter.”
“Sir, I must apologize, but I was telling the truth.”
“C’mon, drop the act, I played Tiny Tim too once, just tell me what you need.”
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir, but I am not Tiny! How did you know my name though?”
Michael stopped, started to laugh, then halted even in mid-laugh. This was a joke. A prank by some kid who might even have a future in acting someday.
Then the boy spoke up again. “There is nothing you could have done you know. You were only a few years older than me. You can’t control the weather. And you certainly didn’t know how to drive. And you certainly don’t need to take it out on a day that has so much more meaning than a tragedy. Do you think they wanted you to remember the holiday like this? You’re not the only one suffering this Christmas. You already walked by two orphans before you found me.”
Michael had begun to cry the moment he finished his first sentence. He did not want to believe it; he did not want to admit it. But he had known the minute the boy had opened his mouth, the truth. He closed his eyes; he opened them. There was no boy there, and no overturned garbage can.
He turned around and dashed down seven blocks, he found the purple Eskimo right where he’d left her. “I will happily donate to your cause, but more importantly do you have any brochures related to recruitment?”
The girl looked bewildered, but stuttered as he handed her twenty dollars and said “Yes, here,” handing him a brochure.
He then abruptly hugged her and said, “I’m sorry for earlier. I’m an orphan too.”
“How did you - ?” she started to say, but he had already headed off farther back down the street.
He saw the hobo in his usual spot in the alcove between two adjoining shops. His weathered eyes turned up to him and his brow furrowed. Michael stopped him before he could say a word, “I’m sorry. I have something for you.“
He handed him a twenty and the brochure. “They’re looking to hire some people and you know all the people on this street pretty darn well since you see them every day. I want you to use this money to buy yourself a nice outfit to interview in ok? I want to see you on your feet instead of sitting in the cold.
Tears filled the homeless man’s eyes. “No one has ever done anything like this for me. You have no idea how much this means! How could I repay you?”
“Meet me on the corner in a week once you have the job. Oh and from one orphan to another…Merry Christmas. And God bless.”
“Same to you. Why you’re just a veritable Tiny Tim aren’t you?”
Michael turned and laughed all the way down the street.