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CHAPTER ONE  
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A Holiday of Peace

"Why are you dressed like that?" Karen asked. "It's Christmas not Halloween, you know."

I smiled at her petite reflection barely a step behind my own in the large oval dressing mirror. I finished buttoning the black robe that I had pulled over my normal jeans and flannel shirt. "Saint Nick's in the heart, not the clothes." I turned and drew her to me. "Do you know how much I love you?"

"Yes, but tell me again."

"A whole lot," I said as I gently brushed a lock of brown hair from her forehead and kissed her lipsólips just as sweet and soft as they had been that first time. It was hard to believe that a year and a half had already passed.

When we finally parted, I surveyed the bedroom. The deed to the house and the toyshop were both lying neatly on top of the dresser. Both Karen and I had properly signed and laid them out for David to find when he began moving in the next day. Heíd be surprised at the Christmas gift. Though he was expecting to move in, he didnít know we were giving him both the house and the shop.

Five suitcases were lined neatly alongside the recently-made bed. Other than the two, medium-sized boxes in the living room, four of those suitcases represented everything we were taking with us. Karen had already removed our pictures from the wall. I knew she would have taken special care to pack the photos of Tabitha and Derek safely. Both she and I had been vacuuming and cleaning all day and the place looked easily as good as the day we had taken it over.

I glanced outside. The sky was dark and the street lights of the little Vermont town were shining through our windows. This Christmas Eve other families were likely huddled around their holiday meals, while we, however, were on our way to begin a new life. We were going to miss this wonderful place.

The melody of Jingle Bells drifted in from the living room. For weeks now, Karen had been playing Christmas music and even in these, our last few hours in this house, she was appreciating the magic of the season.

"I should be going," I told her.

"I know," she said. "I'll finish things up around here."

"Shouldn't I put the luggage in the car?"

"What, and waste these bulging muscles?" She did an imitation of a body builder's pose. "I can handle it. Just do what you need to do. I'll pick you up the way we planned."

"You're the most incredible woman."

"And you are the luckiest man."

"Such modesty," I said, grinning.

"I love you, too. Now go. The sooner you get done, the sooner we can be together. I don't intend to spend my whole Christmas Eve alone."

I kissed her again, grabbed the smallest suitcase from the bed and let her lead me into the living room. I dared one more kiss then stepped out into the cold December night.

Tiny flakes of snow drifted lazily downward around me. Though I had shoveled our walk earlier, my feet crunch in the light coating that had fallen since. As I reached the sidewalk, I was overcome with the beauty of the place. Quaint little houses lined the three streets that made up the entire town. Simple candles and strings of colorful Christmas lights adorn nearly every home. The aroma of burning wood filled the air. The snowfall of the last couple of days was just in time to complete the traditional Christmas picture. The town was like a scene from a snow globe and could easily have been the model for the first.

I turned onto the sidewalk and strolled west toward River Road. I felt a sense of peace and completeness as I continued on to the end of town. My head was filled with happy thoughts and a deep thankfulness. It was hard to believe that just two years earlier my life had been about to end...

  


CHAPTER TWO

The Chapel

I woke with a sharp pain in my thigh. The cardboard I had earlier pulled over me for protection against the wind was gone and the frigid wind stabbed easily through my ragged clothes. The policeman kicked me again, in the stomach this time.

"Move on, buddy. You can't stay here." His voice was callous and cracked with age.

I didn't argue, didn't even look up, just staggered to my feet and made my way out of the small alcove of the brick apartment building, back into the dark street. I knew I had to go at least a dozen blocks to be out of his beat. With luck, the next policeman would be younger and not so street-hardened. I longed to settle down and sleep in one spot for more than a few hours. How long had it been since Iíd slept peacefully? A lifetimeónoótwo lifetimesÖthe lifetimes of my wife and little boy.

I gritted my teeth and trudged on, thankful there was no snow yet. Christmas lights glared at me from many of the apartment windows I passed. I didn't know for certain, but it seemed to me the dreaded holiday was only a week or so away. Just the thought of it gave me a sinking feeling inside.

I fought against it, but the memories of my last Christmas flooded my mind. I remembered the way Tabitha had laughed and joked until I broke the news. I remembered the way she had coddled Derek as I left the apartment that night. The accusation in her eyes had stayed with me every day since.

How could I have known? How could anyone have known that Santa Claus would be a jacked-up teen with an addiction in the apartment below ours? And who could have guessed that the kid would attempt to light a cigarette with his gas stove and instead catch his hair on fire? Like a campfire to kindling, the flames had spread rapidly through the dried wood of the old building. In just moments, all four stories had erupted into flames.

I rounded a corner and made my way east, my mind still toiling through the memories. I should have been there. I had desperately needed to be there. But once again my work had taken priority. "Another few months," I remembered telling her, "and weíll have all the time in the world. Another few months and we can move out of this apartment and get someplace nice for Derek."

"But we need you now," she countered. "Itís Christmas Eve."

"I know, Tabby, but the partners are expecting me. We can still get a sitter if you want to go to the party with me."

"No!"

She hadnít been about to leave the baby alone on Christmas Eve. I might have been a heartless parent, but she wasnít. Ultimately, I had gone alone to the firmís Christmas party without her. I had left my family alone, instead choosing to be with a bunch of lawyers who neither thought about nor cared a single iota for me or for my family.

For those people and for my own warped sense of priorities, I had left my family alone to die.

In all, twelve tenants had been pulled from the building and laid with sheets over their bodies. Most, like my wife and son, had suffocated in the thick smoke. The police said Tabitha made it all the way to Derekís room, but there she collapsed. They found her beside the crib, her hand still grasping the lower rail. Neither she nor Derek had survived.

I was near the Holy Trinity Church when I finally shook the flashback. The biting wind didn't matter any more. I could never endure enough pain to wash my wife and sonís blood from my hands. Even if I had been able to get a job and put my life back together, it just wouldnít be right. How could I continue in comfort in this world when the two most important people in my life now lay dead in their coffins?

I had been toying with the idea for months, and once again, thoughts of suicide ran through my head. Why should I enjoy the breaths that they could no longer take?

I wondered what had ever happened to the crack-head. Yes, he had survived the fire. Other than some singed hair heíd been fine. At first, I had hated him. I had even searched for him in a couple of halfway houses in the two months that followed the funerals. He wasnít at either place. The police told me they didnít know where heíd gone, but I suspected they really just didnít want me to know. It was my guess that the strung-out teen had followed his drug habit into the back seat of some drifterís van. He was probably lighting cigarettes with a gas stove hundreds of miles away.

It no longer mattered to me where he was. I ultimately knew who was to blame for the death of my family. And only a mirror could show me his guilt-ridden face.

As I approached the church, I once again wondered how I could manage to shoot myself. I didn't have a gun or the means to buy one. Money didnít come easy to the homeless, even those who were self-made.

Of course, I could have always called my father in Virginia and asked to borrow the money. I could have said I needed to buy a suit for job interviews. The fact that the old buzzard hadnít known or cared where Iíd been in the last twenty years presented a bit of a problem. My last memory of him was his fist hitting the side of my forehead just before he threw me out his front door. No, asking him hadnít been an option, and even if it had, I would never have communicated with the monster. A wife-beater and a card shark were the kindest terms I could think of.

Though my mother had died when I was only six, I remembered her to be a wonderful and loving woman. But I also remembered her as a woman with bruises and lots of tears. After her death, my father had systematically beaten his next two wives who had both ultimately divorced him. Heíd been pounding on a live-in girlfriend when, at fourteen years old, I had finally had enough. I stepped between him and the mousy woman and took one swing.

Iíve often wondered if I could have done more with my youthful anger, but Iíd been so surprised by my solid jab to his eye that I hadnít thought in time to block his return punch. I had still been in shock as he launched me backward though the door, my hind-end slamming solidly onto the covered front porch of our house. I could still see the hatred on his face as the door slammed shut, and I remembered smiling at that last glimpse of his rapidly swelling eye. My single punch had been a good one.

I didnít have any other family, and I couldnít think of anyone else who would have helped with money. The twenty years since being thrown from my fatherís house had been filled with lots of hard work and schooling. Though I never borrowed a penny to pay for my six years of college, my round-the-clock work and school schedules hadnít left much time for socializing.

My only friends had been those Iíd met at the law firm. And just how close we were became evident shortly after the double funeral. The first week brought me a large stack of cards and heaps of voiced sympathy, but by the second and third weeks I was struggling to stay ahead of the office innuendo that began to swirl all around me. I was making too many mistakes, missing large references in my legal briefs, not conversing well with clients and so on. Though some of the comments were partly true, most were just nonsense, voiced only to push me down and to make way for others to climb past me during my personal crisis. The way I saw it, the youngest lawyers, my Ďclosestí friends, all had begun to vie and scheme for my slightly larger office and my upcoming partnership position.

I didnít know if all the whispering and manipulation had any effect on my position at the firm or if it had been just a standard inquiry that brought me to the partnersí notice. Whichever it was, just five weeks after the fire, I found myself sitting before all six of the senior partners, four men and two women. Not one of them offered a single condolence or even pretended to care about the loss of my family. The only issues discussed that day were the drop in the hours Iíd billed out to clients in the last few weeks, and the problems I Ďseemedí to be having with my written arguments. I remembered stuttering some vague excuses and assuring them that I would pull things together. Iíd be back on track again soon.

I was on track, all right. Two days later, I quit. What was the use? I just couldnít bring myself to continue working with the hatefulness and deceit of the people around me. Besides, who really cared why one person was suing another? Did it really matter that someoneís basketball had left black marks on their neighborsí fence, or that one womanís shed was built six inches too close to her back setback line?

Iíd been relieved to get away from the entire pile of foolishness. But, there in front of the church, I knew those bridges had been burned. Whether by choice or happenstance, they just werenít there anymore. I had used up all my friends and close acquaintances with one simple tragedyóa tragedy that I had brought upon myself.

I tried to let the bitter memories go as I settled down into that sunken archway surrounding the church's main entrance. It seemed colder there than it had been at the apartment building, but by pushing back against the weathered bricks at the corner of the door I did manage to foil the worst of the wind. I had even imagined that a tiny bit of the heat from inside was seeping out through the edges of the door.

Thoughts of suicide had continued to churn through my head. I tried to remember every self-murder Iíd ever heard about or seen on TV. For the longest time I concentrated on the problem. Finally, I decided that that throwing myself from the top of a building or in front of a truck would be the only options for me. God knew Albany offered many opportunities for both. I had come to this same conclusion many times before. Was it possible that I was finally ready to act on the thoughts?

I fell asleep for a time and failed to dream. When I woke, it was to a gentle hand on my shoulder.

"Come inside, my son." The priestís soft voice was accompanied by a warm smile that seemed to prove the sincerity of the offer. "You are cold and itís warm inside. Please come in."

He was a tall and good-looking man with gray hair and glasses. Though likely in his sixties or early seventies, his grip was strong as he helped me inside the building. As we walked through the main chapel, I couldnít take my eyes off the huge crucifix that hung over the dais. A separate light illuminated it nicely, though the rest of the lights in the large chamber were dim. Christ hung there, a crown of thorns surrounding his head, painted-on blood trickling down from the pricks in his forehead and the nails that went through his hands and feet. As large as he was, probably a little over six feet, and with all the detail of the sculpture, he looked convincingly real.

I might soon be sacrificed just like Him.

I immediately felt the sacrilege of the thought. There were no parallels here. Christ had died for something, in defense of the people he loved. I would be dying for no noble reason. I would be dying for my crimes, for my failure to protect my family, for my failure to shoulder the guilt and move on.

Again, as always, visions of Tabitha and little Derek came to my mind. Why couldnít it have been a pleasant picture of them full of happiness and life that haunted me? No, it was always the same, always the same image of them lying cold in their coffins.

"This way," the Priest said, drawing me from my reverie. We were at the base of the dais, and I realized I had been craning my neck to see Christ hanging some twenty feet above us. The blood was so real I imagined it would drip on me at any moment.

"Heís still with us, you know."

I turned my attention to the kindly old priest. I nodded. "I suppose he is with you."

"With you, too," the priest said as he gently took my elbow and led me toward the small rooms that were his living quarters.

We entered into a medium-sized room, a combination kitchen-living area. There was a sink, a small refrigerator, a stove and some dark, wooden cabinets off to our right. A well-used couch and a wooden rocking chair backed up against the wall to our left. In the center of the room sat a chrome-edged table surrounded by three chrome and red chairs. There was no fourth chair, left out likely to allow more room to move around.

The doorway beside the refrigerator likely led into a bathroom and the other arch, behind the kindly priestís rocking chair, was no doubt a bedroom entrance. There were a few prints of Jesus on the cream-colored walls, and one small, brass crucifix hung above the bedroom door, but otherwise the place was unadorned to the point of austere. I imagined that many priests probably lived with reasonable luxury. However, if those rooms were any indication, this one manís values were exactly where I suspected God wanted them to be; strictly and solely in the Lord.

Everything was immaculately cleaned, and I couldnít say exactly why, but I guessed the priest took care of that on his own. I suspected he would have been as comfortable scrubbing floors as giving sermons.

He patted my shoulder, and I didnít shy away as I would have with most people. "Family around here?"

"Not anymore," I answered. "My wife and son died."

"Iím sorry. The Lord sometimes can be a difficult master." He looked into my eyes and there was a genuine sympathy in his own.

"I donít blame him, God, I mean. Iím pretty sure he didnít have much to do with the dope-head who started the fire."

The priest nodded as he offered me one of the padded chrome chairs. He moved across the room and rummaged in a cabinet, pulling out a couple of mismatched cups. "Coffee?"

"Sure."

"You been on your own long?"

"If you mean homeless, not too long I guess. Only a few months, maybe six."

"You like it?"

"Itís all I deserve. More than I deserve, really."

He scooped a teaspoon of instant coffee into both cups and poured water from an already warm pot into each. "You think it was your faultÖthem dying?"

"Why me, Father?"

"Itís hard to know why God tests one and not the other."

"No, I mean why take me in like this? There must be dozens of homeless people all over the block."

He smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners, the right side of his lips turning up slightly more than the left, a kindly expression, somehow filled with wisdom and sympathy and understanding all at once. "You were the only one at the door tonight."

I couldnít help but laugh. I nodded. "You take people in every night?"

"No, most have learned to ignore my door. They donít come this way often."

"You torture the homeless?"

Again the slightly lopsided smile. He slid the black coffee across to me. "In a manner of speaking. Sometimes the right questions can be torture. Do you miss them?"

"No." I shook my head. Tears had somehow already formed in the corners of my eyes. Droplets began to course downward. "No, Ďmiss themí doesnít begin to describe it. Crave them. Need them so much my soul can barely stand the memory. Thatís more like it."

"And the guilt?"

"Nearly every minute of every day." I wiped my cheeks. "If Iíd been there, I could have done something. I could have saved them."

"How do you know?"

"I donít. But by not being there I didnít even give them the chance."

"So itís all your fault?"

I shrugged. "From where I sit there just isnít anyone else to blame. I left my family alone on Christmas Eve, and now I donít have a family."

"Sugar? Cream?"

"No. Black is fine." I took a sip. It was bitter and warm.

"What next?"

"There is no next. Iím living better than I deserve, and I canít allow even that to go on much longer."

"You leaving us?"

"You know what I mean. I donít deserve anything."

The priest nodded, sipped at his own coffee, eyes half-closed, probably thanking God for the nourishment. He was the picture of contentment. I envied him. He looked at me then, really looked. His dark eyes, magnified by his glasses, were pools of both understanding and forgiveness. His was a gaze that children would long for and adults would seek. "What you donít deserve is the guilt. It wasnít your fault. There are invisible battle lines drawn all across our world. How could you have known your family was standing on one of them?"

"But it was my job to recognize there was a war, that there was danger. You canít just leave your family when thereís danger."

The priest nodded. "Iím sorry, my son. It saddens me that you have been drawn into the horrible clutches of this guilt. I will pray for you."

"Thank you, Father--Iím sorry, I didnít catch your name?"

"Father Johnston, or Brian if you prefer."

"Thank you, Father Johnston. It was good to have been seen tonight." Not many people understood what it was like to be homeless. It was as close to invisibility as you could get. I really did enjoy being noticed. "I can let myself out." I took another sip and stood.

He immediately got to his feet and was somehow taller this time. "You will sit and finish your coffee," he said firmly. There was no menace in his voice, but the tone was demanding, akin to the firmness of a parent to a teen-aged child. "We can have toast and eggs tonight, or in the morning when we wake. Either way, you will be sleeping in the warmth of the chapel this night."

I nodded.

"Now that you have been Ďseení, there is no escaping my notice."

I could tell that this man understood the plight of the homeless. He was one of the very few who did. I slumped back into my seat and took another sip of the warm bitter beverage.

"If youíd like to take a shower, youíre welcome to the bed." He pointed toward the doorway behind the rocker. "Or, if you prefer, the couch is fine just as you are."

Thoughts of Tabitha and Derek in their caskets came, as they often did, to my mind just then. "I donít feel like being clean right now, Father, if thatís alright with you. The couch is fine."

He smiled again, warmth radiating from him as surely as from a flame-filled hearth. It was just unfortunate that I didnít deserve a reprieve from the cold.

I sipped again. The coffee was good.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

The Vagrant

The aroma of fresh-cooked eggs and toast greeted me as I woke. I lifted my head from the pillow and noted that a soft blue blanket had been placed over me sometime during the night. I almost hated getting up. The softness of the couch was a luxury I hadnít enjoyed in months. Father Johnston stood beside the table, that same kindly, skewed smile on his face. He was a doting man, and I couldnít imagine anyone not liking him. Had I intended to spend more time in this world, I would certainly have joined his Sunday flock. There was a cup in his hand.

"Iíll leave this juice on the table. Your food is ready, but youíll want to get to it before itís cold."

I stretched and sat up.

"Iíve duties to attend, but make yourself at home. Instant coffeeís in the cupboard and the kettle should be warm for a while yet."

"Arenít you afraid Iíll steal something and run?"

He humored me with one of those crooked smiles. "Everything here belongs to God, and you are a child of God. He happily shares with his children. Take anything you feel you need."

He placed the cup on the table and went out into the main chapel. As the door closed, I thought, God has chosen his servant well in that man.

I felt more rested than I had in days. It was the spiritual warmth of the place, I knew, that felt so comforting. How was it this environment had helped me make a decision that seemed the antithesis of warmth? The night before, I had finally made my mind up. I wouldnít go on living without my family. Not only did I miss them too much to breathe most of the time, I also knew I deserved no less than death. Today I would make final plans.

The eggs were scrambled just right and the toast was crisp with light butter,in short, perfect. Maybe it was because my own guilt had lifted somewhat, but the morning seemed brighter, cheerful almost. Finally I was going to take responsibility for my own actions. I was going to pay the price for what I had done. It felt right to know that my family would finally be avenged.

Even if the priest had been right in that my presence would not have saved Tabitha or Derek that Christmas Eve, I would at least be returning the score to zero. If I hadnít been able to save them, I too would have died in that fire. How could it be wrong to simply follow the plan God had originally laid out for me? I should have died that night, and only my greed and desire to get ahead in this world had saved me from that fate.

Maybe this visit had been just what I needed. Though it would likely have horrified him to know, I believe meeting Father Johnston had actually sealed my decision. I needed to kill myself. It just felt like the right thing to do. For the first time in nearly a year, I would be taking control and doing something right. I would not live through another Christmas without my family.

I finished up the meal and carefully brought my plate and cup over to the small sink. There was no sign of the priestís dirty dishes and I felt as though I should wash mine and put them away. I would have required a shower just to be clean enough to wash dishes. With a twinge of guilt I left them in the sink.

I made my way out into the chapel proper. Father Johnston was beside the tall, wooden dais. He was talking with another indigent-looking fellow. The bedraggled man was nearly as tall as the priest, in his forties, I would have guessed by his face, though his dirty gray hair suggested he might be older. His hair hung in long curls well below his shoulders. I couldnít say why exactly, but his long tangles looked unnatural. I imagined that he might have tried to braid his own hair and had the whole project go sour. His tan trench coat was rumpled and covered with dark and light spots that had long-since rendered the original color a moot point. What little bit of his plaid pants I could see spoke of 1960s polyester, a thrift shop special not unlike my own, though my style sense had kept me in solid blue.

The hobo brushed a snarl of hair from his forehead and smiled over at me. I smiled back, consciously trying to remember if I had ever seen him in the shelters or kitchens. I felt certain that I hadnít.

"Thanks, for the meal and everything," I said to Father Johnston. "I really appreciate it."

"Is there anything else I can do for you, my son?"

"No, youíve been wonderful and have helped more than youíll ever know."

"Come back anytime you like. You are always welcome under Godís roof."

"Will do, Father."

I left then as the priest returned his attention to the other man. Strangely, the hobo watched me for a few seconds too long before turning back to the elderly patriarch. I wondered at his interest but couldnít quite place why it struck me as odd.


             
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