I squinted against the huge snowflakes falling around me as I replaced my gas cap. Even the auto parts store across the street was a mere shadow in the incessant snow. Ducking my head, I tromped through the slush to the door of the Last Stop Gas and Grub.
“Eighteen-fifty on pump six,” I announced, setting a $20 bill on the counter.
“Where you headed?” the cashier, a man in his mid-50s with thinning gray hair, asked.
I pocketed the change. “St. Mary’s Cross.”
“Over the mountain?” He shook his head and chuckled. “The snowplow left 10 minutes ago. He was going up to close the road.”
“Close the road?” I’ve got to get to St. Mary’s Cross tonight. It’s Christmas tomorrow.”
“You got family in St. Mary’s?”
I hesitated. “I don’t have any family,” I grumbled bitterly. “I’m seeing a friend.”
“You’re pretty young not to have family,” the man commented.
I shrugged. I had no desire to explain that I’d left home a year and a half ago, two weeks after graduating from high school. I recalled my words as I stormed out the door while Mom and Dad begged me to reconsider: “Stop treating me like a kid!”
It hadn’t been a new conflict, just a continuation of the old one over too many chores, staying out late, reminders about church and seminary, and other festering irritations I had magnified.
Stubborn pride squelched every shadow of regret and made my resolve strong. I had traveled to Phoenix with my best friend, Kevan Powers, and landed a construction job with his Uncle Ray. We had both been fiercely determined to make it on our own. But a year ago November, Kevan had gone soft and crawled home. Now he was in South Korea on a mission. He had even written to me, suggesting that I talk to the bishop and reconsider a mission.
As long as Kevan had been with me, I received letters from home because Mom got my address from Sister Powers. Mom assured me in each letter that every night and morning when everyone knelt for family prayer, I was mentioned. At first I was irritated by her comment, but then I derived a strange comfort from it. I wanted to forget them, but I did not want them to erase me.
When Kevan left, I moved and the letters stopped because Mom didn’t have my address. Oh, I’d started a few letters, but I always ended up tossing them, determined to prove my point. But there were times on Sunday afternoons or Monday evenings when I was alone and couldn’t force my thoughts away from those quiet memories of home.
“Who knows when the road will open,” the cashier said. “My name’s Burt. Both our motels are already full, but you can stay here as long as you want. I don’t have anyplace to go. It’s just me and the wife, and she’s visiting family in Denver.”
I looked around. Across the aisle from the register was a long snack bar. The back wall was a series of glass doors opening to the beverage coolers. There were a couple of aisles with chips, candies, and emergency items.
“I wish there was a better selection of sandwiches and eats,” Burt remarked, “but folks cleaned me out earlier.”
I peered out the window as a white car trailing a gray haze from the exhaust chugged up to one of the pumps. “That car needs a good doctor,” Burt commented. “Or maybe a mortician.”
A woman I guessed to be in her late 20s stepped from the car and started pumping gas. She was joined by a seven-year-old boy in short sleeves who sloshed casually through the snow toward the store. The woman hung up the hose, snatched a little girl from the back seat, and charged toward the store. The three burst inside at the same time.
“Five dollars,” she gasped, pushing a wrinkled bill across the counter as the boy and girl wandered toward the candy. “Mark, we don’t have money for treats. We have to get to St. Mary’s.”
“Nothing’s going over that mountain, ma’am,” Burt announced. “Road’s closed.”
“Closed?” she moaned. “It can’t be. Not tonight.”
“You can stay here,” Burt added sympathetically. “This young fellow is.” He nodded toward me, but I looked away. “I’m Burt. Make yourself comfortable.”
“Melanie Parkes,” the lady muttered. Although she looked a bit haggard, she was pretty. But there was also a shade of hardness about her eyes and mouth.
“I’ve got to make it to St. Mary’s Cross,” she said. “I have a job starting the day after Christmas. I have to move into my apartment before then.”
“Are you having car trouble?” Burt asked.
“It just has to get me to St. Mary’s. After that I don’t care.”
For the next 20 minutes Burt puttered about his store and Melanie, her two kids, and I browsed up and down the aisles and watched the snow bury the world outside.
Retreating to the couch in the waiting area, I slumped down and closed my eyes. I was haunted by the memory of my Christmas a year ago. I’d spent it alone, suffocating on solitude while everyone else was with family.
I’d been determined to avoid another Christmas alone, so when Jace Peters called me and invited me to spend Christmas in St. Mary’s, I jumped at the chance. I had just finished a job in Colorado and was going to start another one in Las Vegas the Monday after New Year’s, so I had some free time.
Someone sat on the couch next to me. “It’s Christmas tomorrow,” a boy’s voice spoke.
“Mark, shhhhhh. The man’s resting.”
My eyes opened a crack. Melanie sat in the nearest booth with her little girl, peeling the plastic wrap from a hoagie sandwich. Mark didn’t move. “He’s not bothering anything,” I murmured.
For a long time Mark sat next to me without speaking. I pretended to sleep to discourage conversation. Finally I sat up and glared toward the window.
“This year I don’t think I’m getting anything for Christmas,” Mark whispered so his mom and Tracie couldn’t hear. “Ever since Dad left us last summer, it’s been pretty tough. Mom says things will get better, but she doesn’t want me to plan on anything. She says Santa won’t know where we are since we’re moving around a lot.” He thought a moment and added, “But I don’t believe in Santa. My friend Brandon explained all that Santa stuff to me last summer.”
Mark had big brown eyes that peeked out from under his thick, ruffled mop of long hair. I looked away because he reminded me too much of my youngest brother, Tanner. I wondered what Tanner was doing tonight. I wasn’t in the habit of feeling sorry for anybody, but I felt a twinge of pain for this little guy, who was bracing himself for Christmas morning instead of being wild with anticipation.
“A guy can be wrong about something like Santa,” I remarked.
“You don’t have to try to make me feel good,” he said, sounding older than his years. “Mom talked to me. But I’m okay. Where’s your family?”
“I don’t have a family.” The words were out before I even had a chance to think about them. I’d grown accustomed to telling people that lie, but I felt bad about repeating it to Mark. “Let’s just say I don’t have a family anymore,” I muttered.
A worm of guilt twisted inside me as a picture of the family flashed in my mind. They would be kneeling around the kitchen table about now. It wouldn’t matter who prayed. Whoever did would make the plea: “And, Heavenly Father, please bless C. J. wherever he is and help him to know we care.”
“You’re not getting anything for Christmas either?” Mark asked. The question took me off guard. I thought of my self-purchased Christmas out in the truck. I’d bought a top-of-the-line radio, CD, and tape player. I had picked out a new jacket, a pair of binoculars, a new watch, and several other smaller items as though things could purchase peace and ward off loneliness. Suddenly I was irritated for wasting my money.
I stood up and began thinking of home, only 180 miles away. But I couldn’t go back there, not without turning soft like Kevan. Besides, what would I say to them if I walked through the door? I shook my head, knowing I wouldn’t have to say anything. Mom, Dad, Tanner, and all the others would say everything. There would be no criticism—just open arms and welcome. But I couldn’t do that.
It was the waiting that was driving me crazy. I glanced outside again and my gaze went to Melanie’s car. I turned back to her where she sat in the booth with Tracie dozing in her arms. “You want me to take a look at your car?” I offered. “I’m a pretty good mechanic.”
Melanie smiled. “Thanks, but I don’t think anybody can do much with it. It’s been choking and jerking for days now. And I don’t have any money to fix it.”
“Maybe it doesn’t need much,” I grinned. “And I work cheap. Give me your keys and I’ll have a look.”
Mark followed me outside. Five minutes was enough to confirm Melanie’s suspicions. “It needs a new air filter. The fuel filter and pump need changing. The carburetor could use some work. I’ve got a tool chest in my truck but no parts. I could do something if that store across the street were open and …”
“The guy that owns that parts store is my neighbor,” Burt spoke up. “He owes me a favor or two.” He reached for the phone.
“No,” Melanie called out, “I don’t have any money.”
I smiled and shrugged. “It’ll only cost a few bucks. I’ll cover you. It’ll be my Christmas present to you.”
Melanie protested, but Burt ignored her and called his friend. I ended up buying the filters and pump, four quarts of oil, solution to clean the carburetor, and new spark plugs. I worked for the next two hours. When I was finished, I was surprised by the way the car sounded, even though my hands were numb and I was wet clear through. But there was a strange warmth too, reminding me of another time and place.
“Christmas is the Savior’s season,” Dad used to say. “It’s not so much about bright lights and tinsel as it is about helping folks out. That’s what the Savior would do. It’s the service that softens men’s hearts and opens their eyes to Christ.”
“It doesn’t sound like the same car,” Burt commented, grinning at Melanie. “You might make it to St. Mary’s after all.”
Melanie had tears in her eyes. “How can I ever thank you?” she choked. “I’ll pay you every penny as soon as I get a few things squared away.”
I laughed and shook my head. “Shoot, I’d have gone crazy sitting around in here with nothing to do. Forget it.”
“I guess you’re our Santa,” she said.
It was midnight and the road was still closed. Mark and his sister were sacked out on the sofa, and Melanie had rigged a makeshift bed in the booth.
I couldn’t rid my mind of Melanie’s forlorn remark that I was the only Santa they’d have this Christmas. I puzzled over their predicament.
Soon the coat, the CD player, the binoculars, and the watch were arranged neatly on the table with all the other items and a scrawled note: “To Melanie, Mark, and Tracie.”
As I stared at the small collection of gifts, I thought of home. “There ought to be a tree,” I commented softly to Burt.
“The store down the street has one. Maybe they’d let you borrow theirs,” Burt said.
I didn’t even wait to think about it. I just headed that way. When I entered the convenience store, there were a half-dozen truckers standing around complaining about the weather. I spotted a small, four-foot artificial tree in the corner. Next to it was a giant three-foot-tall white Christmas bear. I thought of Tracie.
“Um, what’s the chance of borrowing the Christmas tree for an hour?” I hesitated as I spoke to the cashier.
“The tree’s not for sale,” the man responded.
I wet my lips and glanced about self-consciously as several of the truckers stopped talking and listened. “I just want to take it down the street.” The cashier shook his head. In desperation I pressed, “It’s not for me. It’s for a lady and her little boy and girl. They’re stuck here until the road opens.” The man still shook his head. “I just want to give them a little Christmas,” I burst out. “I thought the tree …”
“It’s not for sale,” the man growled.
“He just wants to borrow it,” a big trucker snarled. “It’s Christmas, man.”
“It’s not for sale.”
“Maybe I’ll just take it,” the trucker threatened. “What would you do then?”
“Yeah, just take it,” another trucker called out, laughing.
“Take the bear too,” a third trucker said, chuckling. “The little girl will like it. I’ll even help pay for it.”
“I’ll sell the bear,” the cashier volunteered, attempting cooperation in the face of this sudden support for me.
“I’ll throw a few bucks in to buy a little girl the bear,” a trucker said.
I stood there in shock as these rough, grumpy men bought the bear and a couple of bags filled with soft drinks and treats. They then took up a collection of money. Soon they were laughing and goading each other into contributing more until I had a plastic bag with about a hundred dollars. Caught up in the Christmas euphoria, I put in another 50 of my own. Even the cashier pulled out a five and tossed it into the bag.
Two of the truckers helped me carry the bear, the tree, and the bags of treats back to Burt’s place. Melanie and her kids were still asleep when we crept in. Burt helped us set up the tree and arrange the gifts. “Everybody’s got to have a Christmas,” he whispered, winking.
I was almost too excited to sleep, anxiously anticipating Melanie and her kids’ surprise, but I eventually dozed off. The next thing I knew there were squeals of surprise and wonder. I jerked awake, and there was Mark staring at me through the binoculars.
“I don’t understand,” Melanie said. Tracie, clutching the bear, picked up the sack of money and flung it into Melanie’s lap. “But where? And how?”
I felt a lump in my throat. “And you said there wasn’t a Santa Claus,” I grumbled at Mark, unable to keep the smile from my lips. “Even in a blizzard he found you.”
“I guess a guy can be wrong,” he answered sincerely.
I stood and ruffled his hair and couldn’t prevent the mental picture of what was going to happen in a few hours with my own brothers and sisters. Suddenly more than anything I wanted to be there. I wanted to feel all of that again. “How are you going to get all this loot into that car? Your mom will have to leave you and your little sister behind.”
For the next 15 minutes the kids went crazy. Mark insisted that Melanie try on the jacket, Tracie hugged the giant bear, and everybody ate candy and drank soda. That’s when the snowplow pulled up. The driver stomped in for a drink and announced, “The road over the mountain is open. You have to take it slow, though. If anybody’s going, I’m heading that way.”
There was a mad scramble to get everything crammed into Melanie’s car. Burt assured me that he’d return the tree to the store. Melanie walked over to me as I started brushing the snow from my windshield. “It was you, wasn’t it?” she accused, her eyes brimmed with tears. “It was Christmas enough when you fixed the car. But then all this?”
I coughed. “You’re as bad as Mark,” I said. “You should believe in Santa. Sometimes good things just happen.”
“This wasn’t Santa Claus. This was better than Santa Claus. This is what Christmas is all about.” She reached up and put her arms around my neck and then kissed me once on the cheek. “That’s for your mom. She’d do it if she were here. You’re the greatest guy, and I don’t even know your name or where you’re from. All I know is that you’re God’s gift to me and my family on this very special Christmas.”
“Are you going to follow us?” Mark asked me. “We’ll see each other in St. Mary’s, won’t we?”
I studied Mark and then glanced at his mom. I looked toward the road leading to St. Mary’s Cross and then glanced back the other way. With the roads bad, it would be at least four hours, maybe more. It would mean saying I was sorry and turning soft, just like Kevan, but that didn’t matter any more. I had softened, and it felt good.
“I don’t think I’ll make it to St. Mary’s,” I answered. “I guess I’m going the other way.”
“The other way?” Mark questioned, surprised. “Why?”
“I’m going home. A guy ought to go home for Christmas.”
“But you said you didn’t have a home.”
I smiled. “And you said that sometimes a guy can be wrong.” I gave him a thumbs-up sign and added, “Take care of your mom and Tracie, Mark. And you have a merry Christmas.” And then I climbed into my truck and headed home.