Surprise Santa

Surprise Santa

     I gripped the steering wheel and dragged in a heavy breath.

     Walmart. Christmas Eve. I could do this.

     My wallet sat in the passenger seat, mocking me with its meager contents.

     “You’re the reason I’m here now,” I grumbled at it. “Instead of sitting on my couch wrapping gifts I wanted to get weeks ago.”

     The boys were at home with their daddy, hoping Santa would be bringing their gifts that night. I sniffed as I recalled childhood Christmases watching the pile of presents grow day after day. My children’s Christmas memories were turning out quite different from my own.

     “Well, you can’t change it now, and you can’t change it sitting in the car. So get your pokey butt moving.”

     I grabbed the wallet and stuffed it into my purse. Then I hoisted myself out of the ancient station wagon and trudged across the slushy parking lot, stomping snow off my boots as I entered the store. Michael Bublé crooned “I’ll be Home for Christmas” from the speakers and my heart smiled a little, though not enough to reach my lips.

     My boots squeaked across the linoleum and people glanced my way as I passed. I felt their gazes burning into my back as I tucked my hands under my arms and kept my head up. The judgement I imagined in their eyes was likely projected by my own insecurity, but I speed walked toward the toy section anyway.

     It still took me a while to get through the store though, as I detoured around several sections, loathe to pass by luxuries I couldn’t afford. When I finally reached the toy aisle, a relieved sigh eased past my lips, followed by a grimace.

     The few toys left on the shelves were scattered amidst slightly squashed packaging. As if this trip wasn’t hard enough already. I tried to stay focused on the cheaper toys I could actually afford, but my eyes kept wandering up to the top shelves. Giant Lego sets, fancy Leap Frog gadgets, trikes featuring every billion dollar character every kid could want to be. The lowest price up there was still double the total amount I’d budgeted for all my Christmas shopping. My heart squeezed as I tore my gaze back to the stocking stuffers my kids would be getting as their regular presents.

     I avoided eye contact with the other shoppers as I tallied up various gift combinations, trying to figure out how to get the most for what little I had to spend. The results came down to either a large handful of Hotwheels cars and trains or two larger individual toys, one for each boy. As much as I loved the notion of giving them the illusion of lots of gifts with separately wrapped cars, I didn’t want to repeat my parents’ gifts from last year. And even if I couldn’t get them exactly what they wanted, I was still going to make darn sure they got something special.

     So I slid off the shelf one set of toy instruments for my one year old and a small Lego police set for my four year old. Not quite as special as I had wanted, but it was the best I could afford.

     As I squeaked back through the store again in search of the registers, I held my chin high. The shame and guilt might have been crushing my spirit, but I was determined not to show it.

     The lines were mercifully short and I did my best to smile and look normal. The older man in front of me gave me a smile and a nod. He wore wrinkle free jeans and a sleek grey jacket that made his light grey hair appear lighter than it probably was. Or the hair made the jacket look darker. I couldn’t figure out which.

     “Christmas shopping for your kids?”

     I blinked and refocused on his face.

     “Uh, yeah. Two boys.”

     “Really? How old?”

     “One is about nine months and the other is four.”

     His eyes lit up.

     “My daughter just had our first grandchild.”

     “Oh, congratulations.”

     “Thank you. We’re really excited.”

     I smiled, but couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to reply. He glanced at the toys as they inched closer to the checkstand and I tried not to let the sting show on my face. Then he looked back at me. I pasted on another smile.

     “Would you … Would you let me pay for your gifts?”

     The smile froze and I stared like a deer in headlights. As his words sank in, a spark ignited in my belly and spread to my despairing heart.

     “Oh, you don’t have to do that.”

     “Please. It would be my pleasure.”

     I so badly wanted to accept. But my pride poked out its ugly head, holding back my words. It was bad enough that my wallet was forcing me to choose subpar gifts, I didn’t want someone else thinking I needed help paying for them. Then, over the tug of war in my head, my heart reminded me of a sentiment I’d read recently.

     If we don’t receive, we are depriving the giver of the joy found in giving.

     I looked back at that incredibly generous grandfather and shoved my pride back into the depths from which it came.

     “All right. Thank you”

     “You’re very welcome.”

     My eyes started to burn as he finished the transaction with the checker and I tried not to embarrass myself with my gratitude. I eased around him to retrieve the paper bag containing my now free items. When I turned to give him one last heartfelt thank you, he reached out and took my empty hand.

     “Have a nice Christmas.”

     I looked down at our hands and spotted a hundred dollar bill tucked between them. I stared back at him, the withheld tears pooling in my eyes. My jaw fell open, but no words came. He just smiled and gave my hand a squeeze before letting go, leaving the bill in my trembling hand.

     I gave a final whispered thank you, then turned and walked away, clutching the gifts to my middle. All the conflicting emotions swirling inside were making me feel almost nauseated. Gratitude, shame, guilt, giddiness. My body couldn’t seem to process them all.

     Then as I approached the doors, I heard a familiar song over the speakers.

     “The only gift I’ll ever need is the joy of family. Oh why? Cause that’s Christmas to me.”

     My shoulders relaxed and I finally took a full breath as, for the first time in a long time, I found myself looking forward to Christmas.

Memorial Day

She stumbled through her bedroom door and slammed it shut behind her. Her arms clutched a folded flag against her middle, squeezing it like she’d been wrapped in a straight jacket. She fell back against the door and, with a choking sob, slowly dripped to the floor. Her shoulders jerked and shivers traveled over her body as she wept. Her lips nearly disappeared when she pressed them shut, trying to remain quiet in her grief.

There was no reaction as he materialized across the room from her. His weapons were no longer strapped to him, his fatigues replaced by a different and much more relaxed uniform; the t-shirt and faded jeans he always wore whenever he was home on leave. But this time they were even more faded than usual. In fact, his entire body was faded. He could see the pattern and texture of the carpet through his sneakers.

His eyes pinched in sorrow as he watched the girl weep. She was breaking right before him. And he couldn’t put her together this time.

An unnerving tugging sensation pulled at his stomach and he remembered how little time he’d been granted. His feet left no indentations in the carpet as he strode to her and knelt before her bent knees.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered hoarsely. “I didn’t want to leave you like this. I never wanted to leave you at all.” His voice hitched.

“Why?” she croaked, though she was unaware of his presence. “Why, why, why?”

“I don’t know, honey,” he sobbed in response. “I don’t know.”

He spread his knees and scooted closer, desperately wanting to pull her into his arms, to crush her to his chest as he’d done so many times before. His hand instinctively reached to caress her cheek, but it fell right through her body. His throat clenched, holding back more sobs.

“I don’t know why any of this has to happen and I would come back to you in a heartbeat if I could. But I do know you will make it without me. You’re strong, so strong. You will get through this. I know you will.”

Her head fell to her knees and he ached, once again, to hold her. Then the tugging came back and the ache turned to panic.

“I will always love you, honey. Always. Nothing can stop that.”

The tugging grew stronger and stronger and he saw his hand, hovering above her head, begin to fade.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” he chanted as he slowly disappeared until even his voice faded away.

She gave a few more hiccuping sobs, then slumped down to the floor, exhausted. Worn out from the grief, she eventually fell asleep, her head pillowed by the flag, the representation of the country he had died to protect.


He slid into the driver’s seat and set the six pack of beer on the seat beside him. Man, that brand brought back memories. Memories he wasn’t sure he was ready to face yet. He swallowed and dragged in a steadying breath, then turned the car on and pulled out of the parking lot. It wasn’t a short drive to the cemetery, so rather than letting old memories crack his composure, he focused on one more recent.

The funeral had been small, but respectful. Perhaps a bit more formal than his friend would have preferred. His lips twitched as he pictured her expression if she’d been able to see it. Then the solemnity returned. She wouldn’t be seeing anything again. She would never give him that bemused smile again. Oh, how he missed her smile.

He’d been a member of the honor guard. He’d fired his salute shots. His throat clenched as he recalled kneeling at her Soldier’s Cross after the memorial. They’d both seen a lot of awful stuff out there. Stuff that would have had him chugging painkillers just to escape it, if not for her. They’d kept each other sane through it all. She was still keeping him sane, even now that he was home for good. Even now, after she was gone. She wouldn’t have wanted him to quit trying, quit living just because she wasn’t around anymore.

The entrance to the cemetery came into view and he slowed to pull onto the narrow drive. She would have liked the place. Again, a little more formal than she would have liked, but it was really green and open. Besides, she deserved the recognition and respect the memorial cemetery afforded every resident.

He parked in one of the little lots strewn along the drive; the one nearest to her grave site. Then he slipped two bottles out of the cardboard carrier and stepped out of the car. There were other people there, but it was still pretty quiet. It was nice. She’d needed more quiet in her life. Better late than never, he guessed.

He strolled over to the headstone he would always remember and stared down at it for a long moment.

“Hey, Smallfry. Sorry, it’s been a while.” He cleared his throat. “I suppose I thought being away might make it easier, I don’t know. It doesn’t. Still hurts like hell.”

He took a quick, ragged breath, then set one of the bottles on the edge of the flat headstone, careful not to cover any of the words. Then he eased down onto the grass beside it. For a long time he just sat and watched the sun inch closer to the horizon, taking an occasional sip from his beer.

“I looked up some of our old poker buddies. Thought I’d get out a bit more. That should make you happy.”

And just like that, all those old happy memories slammed into him. The late poker nights. The movies. The bowling games she’d dragged him to. It was a whole other life. Like living someone else’s memories. He couldn’t make the man he was now fit into those moments.

He frowned then. Because she did. Remembering her carefree, bright-side-of-anything personality didn’t hurt as much as he’d been expecting. And as he glanced down at her unopened bottle, he realized it was because she’d never lost that spunk. Despite everything they’d gone through, or maybe because of it, she’d always stayed his Smallfry. She was just as tough as the rest of them, but while he’d grown hard and gruff, she’d never lost her spirit.

“Wish you could tell me how you managed that.” He huffed a sigh. “Maybe I’ll figure it out on my own someday.”

As the sun set, his hunched shoulders gradually rolled back. His quiet, introspective words turned lighter and even a few small chuckles escaped as he recalled aloud the brightest moments of their friendship. And by the time his bottle was empty, he thought he might actually be able to figure it all out. There was no way to go back to that happy, carefree time, no. But he might, someday, find a way to go on living without her.

The light was fading fast then. He tapped her bottle gently with his, then hauled himself to his feet.

“Well, Smallfry. Same time next year?” His lips pulled up in a weary smile. “I’ll bring the beer.”