by J.B. Ezar
On Christmas Eve, up in the mountains, a single mum gives a curious hitchhiker a lift.
Berta switched between the long and short beam lights, but it made no difference. Big blotches of snow, heavy with water, almost turning into ice smudges of white blanketed the view ahead. All she could see was a wall of wavering black, grey, and white—a dancing noise of out-of-sync TV screen—and a few metres of wet grey asphalt with a vague line in the middle, disappearing under the front of her car.
Joel let out a muffled cough, and Berta forgot she was holding the wheel. In the mirror, she saw how the tip of his little nose lifted, nostrils expanded, lips got pressed together and then formed a tube and expelled a portion of air that circulated through his lungs.
If it happens here, on the road, up in the mountains, without his inhaler... Berta counted long seconds of silence. Joel's face relaxed. The coughing fit did not start.
Relieved, she brought her attention back to the road. The car still rolled down, cutting through the thick snowfall, and she still saw no further than a car length. A moment of clarity flickered when the mountain turned to her right, looming over the car and shielding it from the sideways winds. The pattern in the white noise changed, defining a blob of a moving figure. It was a man, Berta realized, as her lights bounced off a hunched back.
A man was walking along the side of the road, in complete darkness, fighting ice under his feet and snow all around him. The man heard her car approaching and turned to face her, extending his arm in an unmistakable gesture. He was alone on this mountain road, far away from any settlement, he was wet and cold, and he was asking for a lift...
...He was an unknown man on the road, alone in the mountains, walking on foot with this kind of weather, trying to catch a car instead of calling for help. He could be a homeless creep. A murderer or a rapist, she heard the voice of her mother in her head. She was a defenceless woman, and she had a child in the back of her car.
Berta was now close enough for her lights to illuminate the face. For an instant, she thought she saw a white mask in its place. No, it's just ice, forming a crust on man's unprotected cheeks and chin. He waved at her to stop. Even if he's harmless, he's soaking wet, he'll be dripping water all over the seat.
"It's Christmas," a different thought crossed her mind. This man could have been forced to abandon his broken car, his phone could have died, he could have been walking like this for hours, risking to catch a cold or being hit by a car. And the village was only ten minutes away if she drove him. And not all men are bad, mother!
She slammed on the breaks, and the tires locked for a moment, desperate for grip. Her car stopped a few meters short, and the man jogged to reach her.
"Good evening, madam," he said, opening the passenger's door, but did not leap in right away. "It was so kind of you to stop."
Now, Berta could see his face clearly in the light of interior lamps. He was a tall, strong man of thirty-something—it was difficult to guess his real age with a snowy beard and knitted hat covering most of his face. His clothes were presentable despite being dripping wet. He did not appear homeless, nor creepy.
"Where are you headed?" she asked.
"Down to the nearest car shop. If I'm lucky to find any open tonight."
"Are you in trouble?"
"Nothing a new battery couldn't fix," he smiled, and his smile was pleasant. "If I may ask you..."
She has already decided to give him a lift, she wouldn't stop otherwise, and now she saw no point in making him beg. "Sure, get in!"
He hurried to shake his shoulders clean of snow, slid his hat off, squeezed it dry and tucked it into his pocket. Before jumping in, he banged his feet off one another to leave as much sleet outside as possible. Such a considerate gentleman, she thought and suddenly felt guilty she didn't want to let him in only because his wet clothes could ruin the car seat.
"Sorry for all the mess," he said as if reading her mind. He pulled a glove off and offered her a handshake, "I'm Nick." His fingers were ice-cold.
"Berta. And the guy behind us is Joel."
Nick turned to look at the back seat.
"Aww, he's a fine lad," he said and lowered his voice. "I didn't wake him, did I?"
"Oh, he could sleep through a rock concert," Berta let out a laugh. A rapist murderer wouldn't hesitate to wake a child, would he?
"Thank you for picking me," Nick said with a sincere smile.
"It's no bother," Berta breathed out, feeling ashamed of her biased suspicions. "I'm going down to the village myself. Could use some company." She sent the car rolling down the slippery road again, the same snow pattern flickering across the windscreen. "What are you doing here in such weather?"
"I was on my way to work when the battery died."
"You work on holidays?"
"I'm a seasonal worker. A few days like these are worth the year's pay."
"What kind of job is that?" Berta glanced through the mirror at her sleeping son. "I would use something like that myself. What do you do, Nick?"
"I work for a charity organization," he said, bringing his frozen fingers to his mouth to breathe life into them.
She wouldn't have guessed it. A strong man like him could be a construction worker or a fitness instructor.
"Yes. We make people wishes come true. It's called The Christmas Miracle," he said it as if announcing the next stage performer and laughed, "I know, I know, cheesy."
"It's quite clever," Berta approved. "If it's annual, it conveys the spirit. I never heard of it, though. Who is it meant for?"
"It's for everyone."
"Everyone?" she glanced at him. The ice on his facial hair melted and now beads of water shone in the random speck of light coming from her dashboard. "Not just orphans, sick children and veterans?"
"Absolutely everyone," he assured her. "Anyone can get their miracle, but only once in their lifetime."
"That's interesting," she said, and her curiosity nudged her to find out more. "How do you apply?"
Nick brushed his palm across his lips, disturbing the droplets, as if thinking of the best way to explain something complicated, "You wish for something, and if it is what you truly want, then it is granted to you."
More questions sprung to Berta's mind, and she struggled to pick the best one to begin. "What kind of wishes people make?"
"Different things, really," he shrugged. "Once, for example, a teenage girl wanted a cocker spaniel."
"You gave her a puppy?"
"We found her a retired service dog, deaf on both ears, gone through several hands after his first owner, a police officer, moved to a different country and left him behind. That dog and the girl had seven great years together."
"Oh," she was both surprised and humbled. "It's a beautiful story..."
"It was, yes," he agreed. "We prefer unmaterialistic wishes."
"You must comb through a lot of applications to find those, I bet," she tried a joke, but he did not share her scepticism. She hurried to put the uncomfortable pause behind them, "Okay, so where is this form I need to fill out to place my wish for consideration?"
"There's no form," he said.
"No. You just wish for something."
She glanced at him in disbelief, "How do you know what people wish for? Do you read their minds?"
Nick laughed. He had a nice, soft laugh. "Of course not. But when they want something for real, they make it known. They read about it, talk about it, write about it, search for it."
"And?" she urged him to continue before she deemed him crazy.
"Nowadays we—I mean everyone as an individual—leave behind a trace of information. Not only social media but also browsing history, loyalty cards, bank statements and phone records—it already contains information about what people want. It's all the question of interpreting it."
"Do you spy on people?"
"No, no," he laughed again, and she felt another stab of guilt for suspecting the man. "We're not sitting all year long secretly staring at strangers through their webcam. There's no need for that. The algorithms do the job."
"ELFS, we call it. Essential Longing Forecasting System. It uses different publicly available sources, and then the deep learning algorithms find patterns that lead to the final pairing: one person to one desire. The stronger the wish, the more obvious is the link. Then it's all a matter of selection."
"So a machine does the guessing. What if it's wrong?"
"I haven't seen it fail. But there's always a further examination of the applicant, and we make sure it's the thing the person desires the most before going into the implementation stage," he explained. "Selection and approval are done by real people, people like me. We go through the list, double-check everything and even meet with the top candidates for a live interview. But it's not bullet-proof even then," his voice became dreamy. "Sometimes people get what they wanted and realize it's not what they needed. Sometimes they are offered the thing and don't accept it."
"I wouldn't refuse if someone wanted to grant me my wish!"
"What would you wish for?" he suddenly became very attentive.
"I'm afraid my wish is not easily obtained," she gave him a forbearing smile. "I mean, it's not a puppy. You can't get it in a store."
"We don't do things that can be bought in a store," Nick said. "Consider this story: one year there was this guy, who wanted to meet a perfect girl. He went on blind dates and lived on dating sites, but no woman came near to what he craved for. ELFS gave us a clear picture of what he considered a perfect girl. She must be his age, intelligent, beautiful—but not too beautiful to be cocky—artistic and slightly melancholic so he could save her from herself. And ELFS found a single girl like that, a perfect match. We made it look like they met accidentally through a common hobby, on the second day of Christmas."
A single red eye of a traffic light plunged out of the darkness. Berta knew they reached a narrow bridge where the traffic was regulated automatically, and now they had to wait for at least two minutes for it to turn green. The car came to a halt.
"You sure put a lot of effort into this one," she said, facing the man.
"We always do," he said, looking into her eyes. His eyes were grey, Berta decided, or perhaps pale blue. Those were honest eyes. He turned away. "But this particular story has no happy ending."
"He didn't like her?"
"Oh, he did. He fell in love the moment he saw her. But she didn't. They dated for a while only because he was persistent, but soon it fell apart. We now try to be cautious with wishes that involve other people as Christmas miracles. But I remember a child being adopted into a loving family, so nothing is impossible," he finished his sentence with the eyes back at her.
"Okay, try this," Berta said decisively. "I want my son to be cured. No more asthma."
He flashed a sad smile, "You cannot make a wish on someone else's behalf. It's one in a lifetime! You cannot take away their one shot of getting something they truly want. You need to wish for something for yourself."
"Why couldn't I wish for a healthy son?"
He looked her up. "If you found out you are pregnant, and your new baby boy was born healthy, would you consider your wish granted?"
"No, I mean Joel!" All the forgotten suspicions about the man crept back at Berta, making her feel uneasy.
"Joel has to make a wish about his health to make it come true," there was something apologetic in how he said it. The sense of disquiet dissipated.
"Anyway, it's still impossible," Berta exhaled. "We saw dozens of doctors and tried everything. I moved into these mountains to live in a sterile environment, and he still gets at least three episodes a week."
"I heard contact with farm animals can do the trick. Something to do with evolutionary familiar bacteria."
She knew he meant good. She was used to hearing advice from people who never experienced it themselves and still claimed expertise.
"I doubt it," she said. "He's allergic to everything. Even entering a room where a cat once lived could provoke an episode. Imagine what a sheep could do?"
"I don't know, I'm not a doctor," he backed off, "but I'd give it a try if I were you."
The traffic light changed to green, and Berta pushed her car into moving.
"Don't you want anything just for you?" Nick asked. "Anything at all?"
"I'd like to get a job," she said after a short consideration. "If I could wish for anything, I'd wish for a job. Something I could do while staying close to Joel. Something simple, but also fulfilling. I'm not interested in career opportunities, what's important is for the employer to treat his workers as human beings. My last boss was a scumbag... Is this something your organization could do?"
"Only if it's your true wish," he smiled.
Through the curtain on snow, Berta saw lights on her left. Down in the valley, on the opposite side of the river that ran with them down that mountain, a selection of colourful spots marked their destination. They were almost there.
"Do you like your job?" she asked, steering from the main road to the village. "Seeing people getting what they wanted the most?"
"I'm not there to witness the moment," he said. "But I admit, sometimes I run ELFS just to check on someone after they get their wish, to see if their life got better..." There was a trace of sadness in his voice. "People are complicated. But yes, I find satisfaction in my job."
Big panels of light that turned out to be windows floated on both sides of the car. Berta could distinguish the snow piles on the roofs of the cars, parked against dark stone walls of old houses. They passed a bright blue sign of a guesthouse and turned into a smaller street.
"This is it," she announced, carefully placing her car into a parking spot in front of a luminous window. "That's the pharmacy before us, and you can find a car shop on the corner."
"Thank you, Berta," Nick turned to her, extending his hand. "And Merry Christmas!"
"It was a pleasure to meet you, Nick," she squeezed his palm. It was still cold. "Merry Christmas!"
He pulled his hat back on his head, sealed the collar and jumped outside without looking back. A gust of cold wind broke into the car to take his place. As the door closed, Berta turned to look at her son; he slept peacefully. She would easily run in and out, and he wouldn't even wake. She pulled out a scarf and wrapped it around her neck.
Her car was only two metres away, but when she reached the door, she was already covered in a layer of snowflakes. She shook them off, stepping inside, and looked out the window back at the world behind the glass. She could still see her car slowly turning from red to white. Berta wondered if the car shop was still open, and if Nick could get his battery, and if he needed a lift back up to his car. Her eyes stumbled upon a homemade advertisement on the door.
"Help wanted," it said in big letters, and then a smaller font continued, "A retired couple of farmers are looking for a kind-hearted person to help tend to the animals. We offer comfortable living on site, organic food and a modest compensation. Parents with children are welcome, we are a family here." There was a drawn map of how to get there and a number.
Without her commandment, Berta's fingers reached for the ad and picked it from the window. A sense of urgency came upon her.
"Merry Christmas," sounded behind her back, as the pharmacist tried to shake her into attention.
Berta pulled on the handle and rushed out of the pharmacy, and to the corner where the car shop was. All its windows were dark. The shop was closed. A white undisturbed blanket of snow covered the pavement in front of it.
A swarm of slowly swirling white ice flies danced around her, landing on her face and melting into tears. She felt her fingers clutch a piece of paper in her pocket.
"Merry Christmas," Berta whispered into the dark. "Merry Christmas."