The Christmas Call


They wanted to share one last event before they parted for a long, long time.

The Christmas Call

As Brett Baker turned his blue 79 Mustang up the highway and headed for Island Park, the snow, which had been falling most of the day, came down in large, heavy flakes that stuck tenaciously to the windshield and frustrated the wipers’ attempts to keep the glass clean. With Christmas just a week away, it was obvious that dreams of a white Christmas would soon be a reality. This storm had already dumped several inches in the valleys, and much more had fallen in the mountains where he was headed. He wished that the Mustang’s rear tires had more tread.

The car’s headlights strained to pierce the cold, white night but managed only to reflect off the millions of flakes seeming to fire into the car like so many tiny missiles. The constant bombardment made Brett feel a little dizzy as the car pushed through the storm. He squinted over the steering wheel and leaned forward to improve his vision. Suddenly another set of headlights flashed dimly around a bend ahead. Brett realized he was too far to the left, almost straddling the middle of the road. He reacted suddenly, pulling the steering wheel to the right. The back of his car began to slide. He jerked the wheel again to correct the spin, and suddenly he was in the deep snow along the side of the road. The taillights of the other car disappeared into the night. Brett shifted down and attempted to pull back onto the road, but as soon as he released the clutch, he knew he was stuck.

“Who’s going to be out on a night like this,” he muttered to himself as he wet his lips and gunned the engine again, listening and feeling his rear wheels spin in the soft snow next to the road. He glanced at his watch—seven-fifteen.

Suddenly out of the blackness came the muffled grumble of a snowplow with its yellow lights flashing. The huge truck with the hungry blade in front stopped next to Brett’s Mustang. The driver rolled down his window and called out to Brett, “You need some help?”

Brett nodded and shouted up, “Yeah.”

“I’ve got a chain.”

Moments later Brett was stomping his feet next to his car, which was now on the road and pointed up the hill again. “Thanks, Mister. I’d have never made it without your help.”

“This is one mean night to be out on the snow. Why would anyone be out in this kind of weather if he didn’t have to be?” the driver of the snowplow growled at Brett as he picked up his chain and threw it into the cab of his truck. “You don’t live up here, do you?”

“I promised a friend I’d drop by tonight.”

The driver shook his head. “If it were me, I’d call on the phone.”

“It’s not the same thing.”

The man shook his head again.

“Thanks for getting me out,” Brett mumbled.

“You still going up the mountain?”

Brett nodded.

The older man smiled. “Pull in behind me then. You can follow me to the summit.”

The rest of the way Brett kept his eyes focused on the taillights of the snowplow ahead of him. It was slow going, but he felt more secure.

Just beyond the summit, a small cafe and service station were still open. The snowplow pulled in. Brett pulled up next to the truck, climbed out, and called to the man, “Thanks again. I wouldn’t have made it without you.”

“Probably not,” the man grinned. “You staying the night here?”

Brett shook his head. “I just came for a visit. I have to be in St. Anthony before midnight.”

“You’re a glutton for punishment. Going down is going to be worse than coming up.”

Brett shrugged.

The man laughed and nodded, “Yeah, I know, you have to visit a friend.” He squinted against the onslaught of snow. “Well, I’ve got some work to do up this way. I’m planning to be back here at the cafe around nine-thirty and get a bite to eat before the place closes. I’m going to pull out of here a few minutes before ten. If you want to follow me down the hill then, you be here. I won’t wait for you.”

“Thanks,” Brett called out, feeling relieved. “I’ll try to make it.”

It was another three miles to Jeff’s place. The going was slow and a bit hazardous, but Brett was determined. He drove slowly and steered his car over the snow-covered roads. His muscles were stiff and tense as he gripped the steering wheel and fought to keep the Mustang on the road. He knew if he slid off the road now, there would be no one to rescue him. The strain of the last two hours of slow driving had taken its toll. A dull, pulsing pain was beginning to hammer in the back of his head.

Brett spotted the mailbox first and then saw the dim lights from the house up the driveway through the trees. One look told Brett that he would never get the Mustang up that driveway. He parked the car along the road, pulled his coat around him, and then pushed out into the night’s storm. He trudged through the snow the 200 yards to the Bakers’s front door.

By the time Brett reached the front steps, huge flakes of snow clung to his clothes and hair. He stepped up onto the small porch, stomped his feet, and knocked firmly on the front door.

Within moments the door flung inward and Jeff’s mother was standing in the doorway. “Brett!” she gasped. “Come in out of that weather. You look like the abominable snowman.”

Brett grinned sheepishly, stomped his feet again, and stepped inside. Sister Baker closed the door behind him. “Let me take that coat and then you get in there in front of the stove. You must be half frozen. How in the world did you get here? I thought they might close the road.”

Brett handed Sister Baker his coat and moved into the family room in front of the wood-burning stove that was glowing warmly. Brother Baker was there watching TV, and Jeff’s two sisters came in from the living room and said hello.

“I can’t believe you came in this storm,” Sister Baker exclaimed when she had hung up his coat. “Nobody thought you’d come tonight. Not with the snow and all.”

“Nobody but Jeff,” Brother Baker corrected. “He said you’d come.”

Brett smiled wanly and ducked his head. He swallowed at a lump in his throat and felt a mist form in his eyes. The Bakers were like family to Brett. When they had lived in St. Anthony, Brett had spent almost as much time at their place as at his own. Those visits had become more infrequent since Brother Baker had returned to his old job with the forest service at Island Park, but distance had not diminished Brett’s feelings for these people.

“How’s Jeff?” Brett asked gently, afraid of the answer.

There was a moment of silence, and then Sister Baker spoke softly. “Oh, he gets real tired. He has his good days and bad, but somehow he manages to keep his spirits up.”

“What does the doctor say?”

Sister Baker avoided Brett’s eyes. She straightened some magazines on the coffee table. “He isn’t too encouraging,” she said, just above a whisper. “But we keep hoping.”

“Things will work out,” Brett insisted.

“That’s what we keep telling ourselves.” Sister Baker heaved a sigh. “You will stay the night, won’t you?”

“Can’t. I promised Mom and Dad I’d be in St. Anthony before midnight.”

“You can’t drive in this kind of weather.”

“I drove here. Besides, once I get down the mountain I’ll be all right. The guy driving the snowplow said he’d wait for me at the cafe if I’d be there before ten. I can follow him down. I shouldn’t have any trouble.”

“You’re more than welcome to stay. We’d love to have you.”

Brett nodded. “Is Jeff so I could see him?”

“He’s in his room. I’m sure he’s waiting for you.”

Slowly Brett made his way down the dimly lit hall to the last door on the right. It had been almost four months since he had seen his friend. They had both written every week, but Brett’s first semester at Ricks had kept him busy. He had started on the football team and that hadn’t left him many weekends to take off and visit.

Ever since Jeff had moved to St. Anthony the beginning of their freshman year in high school, Jeff and Brett had been friends, almost brothers. There had been a bit of animosity in the beginning when they had both ended up on the football team vying for the same position. Both had had dreams of being great quarterbacks, but there could only be one starter and both of them were too good as athletes for a team like St. Anthony to allow one of them to sit on the bench. The conflict was solved when Brett finally decided to be a tight end. Suddenly this daring duo became the hope of the small town of St. Anthony. From the time Jeff and Brett Baker were juniors until they graduated, St. Anthony never lost a football game.

Their friendship wasn’t restricted to the football field. They were in the same ward. Those who didn’t know them well, just assumed that they were brothers, since they both had the same last name. But blood couldn’t have made their friendship more solid. They had dreamed together. They were both going to go to a semester at Ricks, where they had both received scholarships to play football, and then they were going to leave on missions. That was just the beginning. After that their whole lives lay before them.

Gingerly Brett tapped on the bedroom door. There was a weak call to come in, and Brett pushed the door open. The only light in the room came from a small reading lamp perched on a small nightstand next to the double bed. On the other side of the bed was a bookshelf, crammed with books and magazines. The walls of the room were covered with posters and pictures.

“You made it!” Jeff’s weak voice called out as Brett stepped into the room. “I knew you’d make it.”

Brett froze momentarily, shocked by the sight. He smiled, but he felt sick as he saw his friend’s pale yellow, emaciated frame lying under the blankets. Most of his hair was gone, his eyes were large and sunken, his cheeks thin and wasted. He had never been able to picture Jeff as anything but vibrantly alive, and yet here he was a mere shell of his former self.

“How’s it going, Jeff?” Brett finally managed to stammer. It was obvious that he was shocked and taken back.

“Oh, I’m all right,” Jeff shrugged. “I don’t worry much about haircuts anymore.” He motioned for Brett to pull up the only chair in the room and to sit down next to him. “I’m sorry about the way I look. That’s what happens when you don’t play football.” He smiled faintly to ease his friend’s discomfort.

Brett fought to recover. “We’ll have to get you a ball and some pads and get you out on the field then.”

“I’d love it,” Jeff laughed.

For the first time, Brett realized how serious Jeff’s illness was. Oh, he’d been told. The deadly chances had been explained to him, but he had refused to accept anything so pessimistic. Jeff would pull through; he just knew it. When Jeff had been forced to forfeit his scholarship to Ricks, Brett had assured him that he’d still play. He just needed time to rest up. He could beat this illness.

“I missed you this fall,” Brett spoke, groping for something to say. “We had a good quarterback, but nothing like you. I couldn’t read his mind.”

Jeff reached for a scrapbook next to his bed and handed it to Brett. “You did all right for yourself,” he grinned. “Everything that was ever written about the Rick’s football team this fall is in this scrapbook. And your name shows up in nearly every article. I loved it.”

Brett thumbed through the pages, glancing at pictures and articles he’d never even seen before. “Where’d you get all this?” Brett asked amazed. He recognized some of the articles as those he had sent to Jeff himself, but many others were new to him.

“That was the only way I could be there with you,” Jeff answered simply. “It was a fair substitute. But now I want to hear everything from you. I want the good stuff, how you felt, what it was like to play college ball, all the stuff they don’t write about.”

“I could go on all night.”

“I want you to go on all night. I’m not going any place.”

For the next hour the two laughed, talked, reminisced, joked, and teased. As the minutes ticked away the two young men forgot the ominous, uninvited guest who haunted the room, who clung to Jeff Baker, slowly choking the life from his deteriorating frame.

“I brought something for you,” Brett finally said. “For Christmas.”

“You didn’t have to bring me anything for Christmas.”

“I tried to think of a Christmas present, something you could really use, but nothing seemed just right.”

“You didn’t have to bring me anything,” Jeff muttered, looking embarrassed. “Your being here tonight is all the gift I wanted.”

Brett shook his head. “I brought something else.” He pulled an envelope from inside the sweater he was wearing and handed it to Jeff. Jeff took one look at the return address, and his face exploded into a smile. “It came!” he burst out. “Your mission call came.”

Brett smiled broadly. “I’ve had it for almost a week now.” Brett’s cheeks colored. “I was going to wait until you filled out yours, you know, like we’d planned.” He shook his head. “Then I got to figuring that maybe I’d better get on out there and show you how things should be done.”

“Well, where you going? Why didn’t you tell me as soon as you came in?”

Brett grinned and shrugged.

Jeff glanced down at the envelope once more. He studied it a moment and then looked up at his friend. “You haven’t even opened it?” he suddenly rasped.

Brett nodded his head. “I couldn’t. Not without you. I figured that was something we had to do together.” Brett looked down at his hands. “At Thanksgiving when I was made an elder, I thought of you. I was wishing that you were there. I made up my mind then that when the call came, I wanted you to open it up. I wanted it to be your call too.”

Jeff smiled and handed the envelope to his friend. “Well, go ahead and open it then. I can’t wait to know where you’re going.”

Brett didn’t take the envelope. He shook his head. “No, I want you to open it.”

Jeff hesitated, studying his friend for a moment. “But you should open it. I mean, this is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to you.”

Brett nodded. “That’s why I wanted you to open it. I wanted you to have the very best.”

“Are you sure?” Jeff asked, his voice faltering just a little.

Brett nodded. “Positive.”

Jeff held the unopened envelope in his hand for a moment and then, carefully, he tore open one end of it and with shaking hands pulled the letter out. He looked up once at Brett before he studied the contents. Brett nodded encouragement to him. For several moments Jeff read; then he looked up and wet his lips.

“Where?” Brett asked with excitement.

“Would you believe you’re going to Bolivia?”

“Bolivia?” Brett asked, startled. Jeff nodded. “I’m not even sure I know exactly where that is. It’s in South America. That’s about all I know.”

“There’s an atlas on the desk. Grab it and let’s take a look.”

The two thumbed through the atlas until they had found the right map. They studied it with excitement, asking each other questions that neither could answer.

“I’d never thought of Bolivia,” Brett grinned. “I wonder what it’s like?”

“Probably the best mission in the world.”

“Bolivia!” Brett called out, laughing and jumping to his feet. “Hey, bud, I’m going to Bolivia. When do I leave?”

“March 3rd,” Jeff smiled, glancing down again at the letter.

“Hey, kid,” Brett laughed, “you’re going to have to get well soon. I may play football without you, but I won’t go on my mission alone. If you’re not out there within six months, I’m coming back for you.”

Jeff smiled up at his friend. “Thanks for letting me be part of it,” he said softly. “If I don’t get another thing, this will be my best Christmas. I couldn’t have asked for a better gift.”

“You’re going to get better, Jeff, you hear me?”

Jeff smiled up at his friend. For a moment the two didn’t speak, and then Jeff swallowed and said, “I used to pray all the time that some kind of miracle would happen. That’s about the best cure for leukemia, a good miracle.” He wet his lips and shook his head. “I used to be scared. I didn’t want to think about the future. And then I thought of both of us. I thought of all the crazy, fun things we’ve done together. We had some good times, and the best thing of all is that I’m not ashamed of any of that. We could have never done anything really bad. We were always sort of square with the Lord. Right now that means a lot to me. I’m not scared anymore, Brett.”

“Don’t talk like that, Jeff.”

“You have a lot of time to think when you’re laid up like I am. I used to worry about all the things I wasn’t going to get to do.”

“Jeff, I don’t want to hear it.”

“I want you to hear it. I want to say it. Because if I can say it, it isn’t going to be so hard to do.” He swallowed. “I’m square with the Lord, Brett. Thanks for letting me be part of your mission to Bolivia. But I know that Bolivia isn’t the only mission. And I figure that maybe we’re going to go on this mission together after all.”

For a long time the two friends were silent. Their eyes filled with tears, but there was a quiet, comforting calm in the room.

It was almost ten when Brett pulled into the small cafe at the summit. The snow was still coming down. The huge snowplow was parked out front, its engine running. Brett pushed open the glass door to the cafe and stepped in. The highway worker was at the counter finishing a piece of pie. He looked up as Brett stepped in. “You made it back. I was wondering if you would. It’s a beast of a night out there. You sure you want to brave that road?”

Brett nodded.

“It will be at least two hours to St. Anthony from here with the roads the way they are. I’ll bet you’re wishing you had chosen a different night to stop by your friend’s place.”

Brett shook his head. “No, I was just thinking that even if I had had to walk I would have come and not regretted it.”

The driver pushed his plate away from him and shook his head, perplexed. “That must be some friend of yours.”

Brett nodded slowly and turned for the door, and as he stepped into the snowy night, he thought of Jeff and he had no regrets.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Douglas Fryer