“You sure we’re gonna fit over that bridge?” Clay asked when a rickety-looking bridge appeared up ahead on the edge of the headlights’ range. The one-lane bridge didn’t look wide enough to fit the big vehicle.
“Oh, I can make it,” Nick assured him.
A soldier’s sixth sense kept him alive, and it was a trait very few lost. Though Clay trusted Nick knew what he was doing—he was probably a local—Clay held his breath as they squeezed over the old structure, the curved metal support less than a hand’s width away from Clay’s door.
“Told ya we would make it,” Nick said merrily as they bounced around a bit when the truck was back on the road.
“I can’t believe your boss has you delivering packages this late on Christmas Eve.”
“I work for a real stickler,” Nick said, chuckling. “Gotta make sure that everyone in Gilead gets their Christmas present.”
“You with the post office?” He’d been so anxious to get out of the weather that he hadn’t noticed any badging on the vehicle.
Nick chuckled again. “Something like that. I always spend Christmas Eve delivering packages. It’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Giving everyone their Christmas miracle?”
“I could use a Christmas miracle.”
“Not dying on the side of the road is pretty miraculous.”
After a begrudging nod, Clay let his vision get lost in the warp speed. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Today would be one of his better Christmases. At least Clay wasn’t dead and he would get to see Daniel again.
With his track record, Clay should hate the holidays, but he just couldn’t bring himself to. Christmas was a joyful time of year, one of hope and miracles. Of course, wanting a perfect holiday and having it always fall short used to throw Clay into a tailspin of depression, drugs, and drinking. It was still the hardest day of his sobriety. Last year he did all right, however. He saw three movies on Christmas Day, one was a good, one was lousy, and he fell asleep during the third. The only places usually open were movie theaters and bars, and Clay had no business in a bar. No sense tempting Fate.
The soft refrains of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” filled the cab.
A sudden, sickening sense of dread filled his chest.
Did he think Daniel would be thrilled to see him after the way Clay ended things? What if Daniel rejected him?
He had no car, no phone. He glanced at Nick, humming along to the radio. Maybe he would let Clay ride along on his deliveries… and suddenly Clay was that scared little boy in the church again. Not knowing where he would stay for the night, abandoned and alone. The memory hit him hard, stealing his breath.
The Christmas lights blinked from the greenery on the pew in front of me. Maybe Mama will get us a tree so Santa can find me this year. Laughter caught my ear, and I turned. The family behind us was leaving. I looked around.
Everyone was leaving.
My tummy began to hurt. Mama said she was going potty, but she’s been gone a long time.
Where is she?
“You all right?” Nick asked.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” Clay blinked hard and rubbed his chest, forcing the old memory back into the box where he locked away things he couldn’t face.
With a bitter sniff, he realized that box had been too damn full for too damn long.
Staring out into the snow steadied his racing heart. He wasn’t that frightened kid anymore, hadn’t been for a long time.
The song on the radio repeated the refrain about being home, taunting Clay with promises of mistletoe and presents under the tree. And where the lovelight gleams?
Whatever that meant.
“There’s the mayor’s place,” Nick announced. “You ready, Clay?”
He shot the man a look, startled by the serious note in his voice.
Didn’t have a choice at this point. “Yeah, sure,” Clay managed as Nick turned into a plowed driveway lined by snow-covered trees that faded into the blowing white.
I could wander off into the night and freeze to death.
“It’s going to be just fine,” Nick assured him.
Clay flinched once more.
Nick wore the expression of someone who knew more than they should or perhaps had seen more than they wished. Or maybe Clay was imagining this entire thing and he was actually dead on the side of the road. He’d learned long ago the mind could create some powerful illusions.
At the end of the driveway, a gleaming light filled the white expanse, a golden beacon of home to match the song still playing. Clay didn’t know what he expected Daniel’s house to look like, but he should’ve known it would be a log cabin A-frame with a big deck drenched in snow. Daniel always dreamed of building a log cabin.
Looks like he got his wish.
Clay’s heart skipped as the song continued to play, and for an instant, Clay felt like a soldier coming home for Christmas after a long and weary tour.
If only in your dreams, Fisher.
“This is where you get off, soldier,” Nick announced.
Clearing his throat when the truck stopped, he offered, “Listen, Nick, I don’t know how to repay—”
Nick raised a hand. “No need. Just go in and make up with your friend.”
Clay studied the cabin, hunkered in between tall pines on one side and a barn on the other, bundled up against the elements. Smoke spiraled from the stone chimney, quickly captured in the storm and whisked away. Golden light spilled from the large windows and onto the white snow. Even through the storm, Clay could make out the colorful twinkling of a Christmas tree inside.
I don’t know if I can do this.
He looked at Nick. “Are you sure you shouldn’t come in? I don’t think Daniel would mind. The roads are getting dangerous.” It was ballsy to invite a stranger into Daniel’s house, but basic human decency wouldn’t allow Nick to go back out into the storm, right?
“No, no,” Nick assured him. “I’ve done this a time or two. I got it all under control.”
Clay nodded but didn’t move.
“Go on,” Nick encouraged. “I have more gifts to deliver tonight than just you.”
Chest aching, Clay let out a weary sigh and zipped his jacket. Then he shook Nick’s hand, engulfing it in both of his own. “Thank you again. And please be safe out there.”
Nick gave a rumbling, deep-belly laugh. “Oh, ho-ho! I’ll be fine. Don’t you worry.”
Hesitating for another moment, Clay said farewell, then climbed from the truck and shut the door. He waved goodbye and hunched into the weather. Leaving fresh tracks, he hurried toward Daniel’s porch. The wind swallowed the sounds of the truck engine, and when he glanced over his shoulder, Nick had already disappeared into the storm.