The night gloamed in hues of blue as large flecks of white fluttered to the ground. Her eyes stared out into the still through the glass above her kitchen sink. The frost hid in the corner of the panes, its fingers crawling toward the center. Blankets of snow glistened beneath the street lights and stars. It seemed to anyone tucked in safe and sound a winter wonderland. Arms crossed, she rubbed them, thinking of the chill beyond the glass.
It was warm enough in here, but for how much longer? Ramen noodles clung to the side of the pot resting alone in the sink beneath the window. Her daughter slept with a full stomach. It wasn’t the Christmas eve dinner a mother wanted for her child. She smiled. At least she didn’t need to live with that guilt tonight. She took the wrapper, the last one, from her counter and threw it in the bin under the sink.
That feeling was back, the bottomless pit that she scraped at, trying to climb out. She looked around her tiny home. There was no television, no internet. She managed a table and two chairs she found on the curb. A Christmas tree she found the same way. She only grabbed the old artificial tree because Sam wanted a Christmas tree.
She sat at the table with her dinner, a cup of coffee strained through the same grounds from the morning. She sipped on the dirty brown water as she began to prioritize the bills stacked on the flaking Formica. Gas, electric, water, trash, car insurance, all past due. It was all too much.
This year was the worst year of her life. She managed to make ends meet before by waiting tables when things got tight. Not this year. No one was open. Her job shut down in May, and her unemployment ran out in November. There was no end in sight. Unskilled and uneducated didn’t look good on an application. She wanted to cry. She could hear her mother’s voice, Angie, chin up, smile, and trust that things will work out how they’re supposed to.
“Sure, mom.” Her voice frightened her. It sounded like her mother. Optimism was for folks who had something. She didn’t have anything except bills, responsibilities she couldn’t fulfill, and Sam. Having Sam was a blessing, but it also amplified the pressure on her.
How would she explain the lack of presents under their curbside Christmas tree? Tell Samantha that Santa skipped their home this year because she was naughty? Maybe it was the hunger or the stress, but her stomach gurgled at the thought. She put her face in her hands. Imagining the image of herself right now, she figured she looked like she was praying. She contemplated it for a second. She should. Instead, she pulled her head from her hands and finished the coffee tinged water.
It was lukewarm and unpleasant. Angie pushed the bills away. Tomorrow, maybe the next day, she would worry about that. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket. Her pay as you go plan was down to only a few minutes. Data was all used up filling out applications. She missed her family. Missed being able to call the old man for help. Her dad would be over in a second or always had a way of making her feel like it would be okay when she was hurting.
“Miss you, daddy.”
She got up and went to the fridge. The light was out. In its dark recesses, it had very little to offer. Some cheese-product, milk, margarine. She pulled the foil-wrapped cheese-product out. Not much left. Still, something was better than nothing. That sounded like something her dad would say.
She unwrapped the foil and cut off a thin slice of the yellow brick. She put it in her mouth and forced her throat to swallow. The piece was mostly soft, the corners had been a little brown and hard, but she still ate it. She looked at the sad tree sitting in the corner of the living room. No presents under there. She should have swallowed her pride and went to the Salvation Army or Toys for Tots. Stupid pride.
She heard Sam shift in the bed, probably restless hoping Santa comes. This house was still hers, at least. Her parents had left her enough to get this place. Thanks, mom. Thanks, dad. She smiled and remembered her last Christmas with them. How happy it had been, Sam’s first taste of eggnog. Her eyes big and round as she unwrapped Edward, her giant teddy bear, doubtless next to her in bed right now.
The memories, fuzzy and bright, warmed her for a moment. As they faded, they drained the remaining color and warmth from her present situation. She pulled her index finger across her cheek and removed the damp from under her eye. She returned to the table and grabbed the stack of letters. Under them was something she failed to notice. It was Sam’s Christmas wishlist.
Her hands covered her mouth as a sob came out. Too much. She quivered as she fought to pull it all back inside, stay strong. It didn’t work. She sobbed, head in hands, tears dripping on the crayon written list. Maybe, I should pray. That thought echoed in her mind. “Why? What’s the point?”
A knock came at her door. She stopped crying and looked up toward the front of the house. Did she hear that? Was it imagined? She wiped her face on her sleeve and waited. Another knock. Her phone read 11:30. No way someone was knocking on her door at this time on Christmas Eve.
Another knock, this time a little louder. She slunk across the kitchen to the entryway. A careful sneak behind the window blinds next to the door revealed an old woman with two large bags on either side. The woman looked a bit unsettled, underdressed for the chilly December night. The small older woman looked at the door, knocked again. Waiting for an answer, the woman rubbed her hands together, blowing in them.
What are you going to do, Angie? Let an old woman freeze to death on your front porch on Christmas Eve? Not one more second went by before she pulled open the door. Angie saw the woman’s back as she was about to leave the porch. “Hello, is something wrong?”
The woman stopped and faced Angie. Snow glistened on her thin white hair falling across her wrinkled bronze face as she offered a smile. Her bright copper eyes met Angie’s. Her clothes were wet with the snow. “Oh, thank the Lord above.”
“Can I help you?”
“I hate to impose, and I know it’s late and worse yet, I’m probably interrupting your holiday.” The woman put down the large bags she was carrying.
“You’re not interrupting anything.” Angie judged every movement of the stranger on her front porch. Her hands ready to slam the door shut at the first sign of a threat. Angie tried to look around the small old woman for anyone else with her. “You alone?”
“Yes, dear. My car broke down, and I don’t have a phone. Would it be okay if I use yours?”
“I guess so.” Angie looked back over her shoulder to the kitchen table to her phone. She then leaned her head out into the frigid, snowy night to see if she could spot the woman’s car. All she saw was the footprints on the snow-covered sidewalk coming up to her porch, already disappearing in the falling snow. “You must be freezing. Come inside?”
“I don’t know, are you sure?”
“You don’t have to, but it’s freezing out.”
“God bless you.”
The woman picked up her bags and came inside as Angie stood behind the front door to make space for her to enter. Closing the door behind them, Angie shut out the wintry night. “My phone’s in the kitchen. What happened to your car?”
“I don’t know. It’s old like me, I guess and gave up. I stupidly thought I could walk home, but after about half a mile, I was freezing. Your house is the third one I tried. Thank you.”
“What are you doing out so late?”
“I was celebrating Christmas with my sister’s family.” The woman kept blowing on her fingers and rubbing her hands together. “Old bones don’t hold the heat like they used to.”
“I have tea. I could make you some if you want.”
“That would be lovely. I’d like that.” The woman smiled, placed the two cumbersome bags down, and took a seat at the table. Angie pulled a teacup from the cabinets. “Cute home you have here. And that tree is darling.”
Angie felt a twinge of embarrassment. She looked at the woman sitting at her kitchen table to gauge if she was mocking her or being sincere. The woman looked up at Angie, accentuating the wrinkles that seemed to smile with the visitor. “Thanks.”
Tea steeped in the cup in front of the stranger. Steam rose from the cup as the stain of the orange pekoe seeped from the bag. “Are you going to have a cup too?”
Angie looked at the cup in front of her guest. A warm drink sounded good. “I think I will. You can use my phone. The unlock code is 56413. Just be careful. I’ve only got a few minutes left. Should be enough to call a tow truck.”
“Thank you, Angie.”
“You’re welcome,” Angie said. She went about fixing her cup of tea. Angie paused for a second, trying to remember if she introduced herself or not. Decided she must have. Angie sat down next to the old woman with her teacup. “I didn’t get your name.”
“I’m sorry, that was rude of me. Cassiel.” The woman put her hand on top of Angie’s. “So, tell me, how are you doing this Christmas Eve?”
Angie felt all the anxiety, guilt, and sadness spinning inside. It swirled, rolled around, and bubbled up from deep within. She tucked her chin into her shoulder away from the kind face looking at her. Closing her eyes, Angie took several quick sharp breaths attempting to pull the emotion back down.
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry. I upset you.”
Angie exhaled slow, lifted her head, wiped the tears from her eyes, and offered Cassiel a smile. “No, you’re fine. It’s just this year has been awful, but I’ve made it through this far. I wish my little girl…”
“Such a blessing, children.”
“I wish I could have given her something this Christmas. I feel like such a failure.”
“Oh, honey. You’ve given that little darling all your love and energy. She knows that’s what truly matters.” Cassiel smiled and cupped Angie’s hand in her delicate wrinkled hands. “You know what, would you mind if I prayed with you?”
Angie pursed her lips. This was the third time this evening she entertained prayer. She wasn’t even sure if she knew how. “I guess not.”
Cassiel cocked her head and gave Angie a look that said she wanted a more confident answer. “Honey, I’m here, and what’s a little prayer gonna hurt? I’ll handle the prayer. You just close your eyes and focus on connecting with God. Okay?”
Angie nodded. She closed her eyes and bowed her head as Cassiel prayed. Angie echoed each word in her head as they came from the stranger’s mouth. She felt the turmoil inside begin to evaporate. The guilt about not providing well enough, the anxiety about what the future held, and the despair of a world lacking hope were gone. She felt a warmth rush through that vacated space. Fullness radiated through her. It told her she was loved, that there was hope.
Angie opened her eyes when the word amen crossed her lips and couldn’t stifle a big grin. Cassiel squeezed her hand and nodded. “Well, honey, I guess it’s time I head out. Better get back.”
Cassiel stood and walked to the door. She opened the door, smiled, “Chin up, smile, and trust that things will work out how they’re supposed to. Merry Christmas, Angelica.”
Cassiel closed the door behind her. Going to lock up, Angie noticed the two large bags sitting by the kitchen table. She grabbed them and ran out the door after Cassiel. The snow had covered Cassiel’s tracks from earlier, but Angie could see her footprints coming down the stairs and stopping at the sidewalk.
Looking up and down the white blanketed street, Angie couldn’t see any sign of the old woman or a sign of any tracks except Cassiel’s ending at the sidewalk. No tracks on the street from cars, just pure fresh snow. She ran down the stairs and out into the street. The snow absorbed into her socks as she stood looking for the friendly visitor. There was no sign of anyone beneath the street lamps in either direction. No cars, only the colors of the houses lit up for the holiday.
Angie stood in the street with the bags handles in her hands. She began to run in the direction she thought her car might have broken down. Bags flew from her hands as she slipped on a patch of ice, sending several gift-wrapped packages gliding out onto the slippery road. Angie stood up and dusted the snow from her pajamas.
She walked over and picked up the first gift she found. The tag read, To Samantha. She grabbed a bag and put the gift inside. The next tag read the same as the first, To Samantha. One by one, she gathered the presents. They were all tagged To Samantha except for the last gift. It was the smallest package with an envelope attached to it. That one was addressed To Angelica.