"Well, if you really need someone, I suppose I could do that—if you really need me." Clara tried to make her reluctance quite clear, but Elizabeth was having none of that. She just cheerily plowed along, working on getting Clara on the road to fill in for no-shows among the volunteers at the soup kitchen where Elizabeth was working that evening.
Nothing had put her off—not Clara's remark that it was already dark, not her observation that it had begun to snow—not even her noting that it was Christmas Eve.
Everyone knew Clara didn't come out on Christmas Eve—that she hadn't done so for nearly a decade. Everyone but Elizabeth, apparently. But that wasn't Elizabeth's fault. She'd only moved here last summer, and no one talked about Clara and Christmas Eve any more. It made all the difference that Elizabeth was such a gem; otherwise there would have been no question of it at all. She'd been there for Clara on short notice so many times herself. Clara knew she owed Elizabeth big time, and Elizabeth wasn't being pushy so much as she was assuming that her good friend would do what Elizabeth would do for anyone else in a short-notice bind like this.
Clara couldn't say no—and in the end she didn't. She promised she'd be there. Elizabeth just didn't understand about Clara and Christmas Eve. Clara knew Elizabeth would be the first one to understand and to be sensitive if she knew.
It started as soon as Clara entered the garage. For some time after that she wondered why she hadn't just stopped trying at that point. As the door into the house shut and locked, Clara realized she didn't have her car keys—which were on the same chain as her house key, which she also didn't have now. She had an emergency house key hidden in the garage, of course, although it took her a couple of minutes to remember where she'd put it. But she did remember—and in the precious moments she lost in reentering the house and retrieving her car keys and getting the garage door lifted, the snow had begun to stick on the driveway.
"Remember that Elizabeth sounded almost desperate for the help and that she has put everything down to help me so often," Clara muttered to herself as she pulled out of the garage. It would have been hard enough on any snowy night. But it was Christmas Eve. Everyone knew Clara hid away on Christmas Eve. Everyone but Elizabeth. And Elizabeth needed her. She'd said that fewer volunteers had shown up at the soup kitchen than anticipated, but more of the homeless than planned had come in off the street to escape the cold and the snow—and to have some semblance of family on Christmas Eve.
Family on Christmas Eve, Clara thought. And, whether she wanted them to or not, the tears started to roll down her cheeks as she drove out into the dark night.
Clara rolled up to St. Mark's Presbyterian Church on Maple—almost on the other side of town—to find very few cars in the parking lot. This was a surprise, as Elizabeth had said the church was running Christmas programs all evening and that their meal and shelter service for the homeless was being hampered by everyone bringing in cookies for the breaks between the church services and competing for counter space in the kitchen.
Clara stepped out of the car—and into a slushy puddle, realizing only then that she hadn't put on her snow boots before she'd left home. And when she got to the door of the church, she found only a small group of people finishing putting up the decorations for the late evening church services.
Clara was almost choked up with the emotion of being in a church for the first time on Christmas Eve in eight years, and it took her several minutes—after having gone into the community building wing and finding the kitchen dark—to build up the capability to return to the sanctuary and try to clear up the mystery of not finding the activity going on in the church that she'd expected to find.
"Oh, you must mean St. Mark's Lutheran across town on Landon Street," a cheery, rosy-cheeked woman answered. "I think they are on for the homeless shelter duty over the holidays. We'd be pleased if you attended one of our services here, of course, if you can't make it there in time. It's only a little more than an hour before the first of those."
"Uh . . . no thanks," Clara stammered. "Thanks, but no thanks. I don't go to Christmas Eve services anymore. I . . . I can't . . ." By then Clara had backed up to the outer door in the narthex, though, and she turned and fled into the cold, snowy night.
It had been her own fault. She had just latched onto the St. Mark's name when Elizabeth had mentioned where help was needed. Elizabeth probably even had specified it was St. Mark's Lutheran and Clara had been so focused on forming her excuses for not coming that she hadn't paid attention. No wonder Elizabeth thought it wouldn't be much of an imposition, Clara thought. St. Mark's Lutheran was near where Clara had started out from home. Elizabeth had every reason to assume that the snow wouldn't be that much of a problem for Clara.
Clara looked up at the sky. The snowflakes were getting larger and there was increasingly less space between them as they fell. She decided it would be best to take the country road around the perimeter of the town rather than drive through town with all of the rest of the sliding cars.
Half way around town, on a pitch-black stretch of road going through a thickly forested section, a deer bounded across the road just beyond Clara's headlights and she pulled hard to the right to avoid it. She missed the deer, but she glanced off a boulder at the side of the road with her wheel, and she didn't get more than a couple of hundred yards farther down the road before her tire blew and the car lurched into a side ditch.
"I knew it," Clara moaned. "I knew I shouldn't have tried to come out on Christmas Eve." All of the hurt and frustration and despair of this one night of the year boiled up inside her and Clara was crying again. Big, gasping, gobs of crying—almost wailing. But almost as soon as it had started, it stopped. Clara had controlled herself for eight years; she wasn't going to fall to pieces on Christmas Eve now. She'd call AAA and just get them to take her home. She had borne up under the burden for eight years. She would continue to tough it out.
She was dialing the cell phone under the weak light of the ceiling dome when she heard the tapping on her window.
"Can I help?" he asked through the pane of glass.
He looked familiar. Yes, she'd seen him in the group of folks she'd gone to the theater with as Elizabeth's guest the week after Thanksgiving. He'd been sweet. A great smile and funny stories. It had been a group from Elizabeth's church, Clara remembered. She rolled down the window.
"Say, aren't you Mrs. Benton?" he asked.
"Yes, yes," Clara answered. "And you're Ben . . . Ben from Elizabeth Sturges's church group, aren't you?"
"Yes. It looks like you are in a good bit of trouble and that you won't be going anywhere in this car tonight."
"I was just calling AAA," Clara answered.
"Maybe you should do that," Ben answered. "I'd change your tire for you, but it looks like you have some front end damage too."
"I hit a rock—avoiding a deer," Clara said.
"Ah. Well, you can get AAA out here, and then I'll drive you anywhere you want to go."
"I don't live that far away," Clara answered. "But where were you headed? I don't want you to be late . . . on Christmas Eve."
"I'm going to church; to St. Mark's on Landon. Helping with some of the church services there this evening."
"Ah," Clara said. She dreaded the thought, but she couldn't forget the help she'd promised to Elizabeth, and her White Knight was headed there already. It seemed to be fate. Clara gave in to it.
"That's where I was originally headed too, actually," Clara admitted. "Elizabeth enlisted me to help with the meal service for the homeless tonight. So, if you want, we could just go there and you could take me home afterward."
"That would be great," Ben said. "You'd even have time to go to a service after the kitchen closed down . . . if you liked."
Clara began to tremble and she barely was able to control her voice when she answered. "I don't really go to Christmas Eve services anymore. If there was someplace I could just wait until you were ready to leave—"
"Sure, sure, no problem," Ben quickly said. And his smile was genuine, so Clara didn't feel she had to make any further excuses.
When they arrived at the church, Elizabeth expressed delight at seeing Clara and clucked sympathetically at the story of how difficult it had been for Clara to get there, but she didn't really seem to be all that much in need of help.
"Some volunteers came in who weren't scheduled," she said. "Just wanted to help out on Christmas Eve. But if you could, Clara, I'd appreciate it if you'd take a meal over to that young man sitting at the table by himself. He didn't come through the food line; just got some coffee, and we'll be closing the line down soon. He looks pretty dejected; I'm sure he needs the meal and a friendly face."
Clara took a tray of food and approached the young man in dread. There was a familiarity about him—even in the way his head was hanging, and his shoulders looked just about ready to collapse into his chest.
"Oh, dear god, not on Christmas Eve," Clara murmured as she approached. On top of everything else she just didn't think she could manage this on Christmas Eve. But she supposed she'd have to.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi to you too," the young man said. When he looked up, there was a familiar sadness in his eyes, and Clara immediately knew that she wouldn't leave him alone. Not on Christmas Eve. She somehow knew this was another chance being given her.
"I brought you some food," she said. And when she set it down on the table at his elbow, she sat down across from him herself. "The kitchen is about to close, and they say you haven't eaten yet."
"Don't need it, thanks. But thanks for bringing it. I'll take the coffee; mine is about all gone."
"Well, maybe you'll feel like eating in a bit," Clara said. "Do you mind if I sit? I've had quite an evening, and it would be good to get off my feet."
"No, it's fine. I don't mind."
Little by little Clara drew the young man out in conversation, and it was no surprise to find that she was right—that the familiar look about him probably meant just what she thought it meant.
When they'd become comfortable with each other and Clara hadn't pressed too much on his evasions—getting only a sketchy "feeling inferior and abandoned by the world" version of why he was here on Christmas Eve rather than anywhere else—she reached down into her pocketbook and took a shiny silver coin out and held it up for the young man to see.
"Would you accept a small Christmas present from me?" she asked softly. "It's not worth much, I'm sure, but I've had it for several years, and I think you might appreciate it. It was my son's."
"Your son's?" the young man asked. He took the coin from her and held it up to the light. "Where's this from?" he asked. "I can't read any of the inscription. It looks fancy, though. What country is it from? And doesn't your son want it anymore?"
"That's the point of it, I think," Clara answered in a low voice that she was using every power she had to keep under control. "Erick's grandfather gave it to him, telling him that it was his job to figure out where it came from—that as long as he had such a quest facing him, he would have a purpose in life."
"Sounds deep," the young man answered. "And why do you have it?"
And then, in faltering but purposeful tones, Clara told the young man, who seemed so similar in his demeanor to her own son, of the Christmas Eve eight years previously when she and her husband had bustled off to church services—not even bothering to listen to why her son, who had been despondent for so long, wasn't going to go with them. And then, how they had come home after midnight to find that he had hanged himself in his room—that he had died, despondent, and all alone on Christmas Eve—while they were at a church service.
"I should have known," Clara said as she at last struggled through the telling of that story. "I was just too busy with getting everything just right for Christmas. But I should have known. I found this coin in the trash can in my bedroom three days before Christmas. I should have known that Erick was trying to reach out to me, was trying to tell me that he had reached the end of whatever hell he was living in—that he'd given up on trying to find a purpose in life. I can only imagine what that was—what it was that would go through the mind of a young man who had everything available to him in life if he just reached out for it. But I'm sure he discarded that coin where he was sure that I'd see it, where I would know that he no longer was seeking. But I was blind. And just too busy getting ready for the season. I . . . I failed him. And if I were to be granted one wish in life, I would like the opportunity to tell my son what a heartbreak it is to have a child leave you in such a manner on Christmas Eve—or any time, really—that no problems in life or stumbling about in search of loving relationships and purpose in life can overshadow that."
Clara looked up at the young man then, into his face. While she'd been telling her story, she hadn't been able to look at him. But now she wanted to know whether he had understood any of this—whether he knew why she had told him a story she'd kept locked inside her for eight years.
And the look he gave her told her that he knew why and that it had to do with him as much as her lost son—but that he was wavering on the fence.
"And your husband?" he whispered.
"He couldn't endure it. We had been living together—but apart—for some time already. He left within a year. And every Christmas since then has been what we call a Blue Christmas for me—the lowest day of the year. And I've never again decorated for Christmas or left my darkened house on Christmas Eve. At least until tonight."
The silence between them was deafening.
But Clara built up the strength to go on. Somehow she knew she had struggled in this evening for a purpose, a purpose that was beyond her control, and that she couldn't leave it this way. She was desperate to move him off that fence. It was as if this was the last chance for her—more so than for the young man.
"I've given you a present now. . . . You'll accept it, won't you? It would mean so much to me."
The young man nodded his head ever so slightly, almost indecisively, but he didn't return the coin.
"So, could I ask for a present from you?" Clara rushed on.
"I don't really have—"
"I have a cell phone here," Clara interrupted. "All I'd like for a present is that you take it and call your parents and tell them you are OK on Christmas Eve. Could you do that for me? You said they didn't live very far from here. Please? I'll move away and give you some privacy."
The young man didn't say no, and Clara put her cell phone on the table in front of him and got up and moved over to Elizabeth before he could turn her request down.
"You certainly seemed to be in serious conversation with that young man," Elizabeth said. From her tone, Clara could tell that Elizabeth was pleased—and maybe relieved. She wouldn't have been surprised to hear that Elizabeth had sought the extra help this evening precisely because of the young man and how sad and desperate he looked. And it struck Clara at that moment that perhaps Elizabeth knew more of her personal grief than she had ever let on—and that asking Clara to come this evening was a gift from Elizabeth to not one, but two people.
Clara turned to see that the young man was speaking into the telephone. When she turned back, Elizabeth had retreated into the church's kitchen, where they were beginning to clean up the cooking utensils and making room for an increasing stream of plates of cookies for the festivities between church services upstairs.
Clara followed her into the kitchen, and after several minutes of helping Elizabeth, Clara went back out into the fellowship hall. The young man had finished his call and was standing up.
He handed Clara's cell phone back to her, and she sighed when she saw that the familiar look she'd seen in his face earlier had drained away from him.
"Thanks," he said. "Thank you so much. Could you tell them over at the intake table that I won't be here for the night?"
"You're not going back out into the snow, I hope," Clara said in a concerned voice.
"No. No. My parents are coming by to pick me up in a few minutes. I'll try going home again, I guess."
Tears sprang to Clara's eyes, and she couldn't help beaming up into his face.
"Oh, and . . . um, it's awkward. But could you take this for me? I'm sorry, I don't know what else to do with it. But I don't want it anymore. Don't need it anymore, I think."
As he was saying this, he took a newspaper-wrapped parcel out of his jacket pocket. It made a clunking noise as he put it down on the table.
"And . . . and thanks for the coin. Do you want me to let you know where it came from when I've figured it out?"
"No. No, thanks," Clara answered. "I do believe I'd like to keep it in the seeking mode."
Clara and Elizabeth were slipping through the narthex of the church after leaving the young man's parcel in the pastor's office with a note attached, nervous and not knowing what else to do with the gun the young man had left behind, when Ben came through the door to the sanctuary, which was already nearly filled with people attending the next-to-last evening service. Strains of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" were filtering through the church as an introit into the service.
"Oh, there you are, Clara," Ben said. "Come, I'll show you where you can wait and rest until the service is over. I'll be able to take you home after this service."
"Thank you," Clara said, "But if you don't mind, I think maybe I'll come into the service with you. I haven't been out of the house on Christmas Eve, let alone to a Christmas service, in eight years."
As soon as she uttered those words, Clara was sorry that she's said them in Elizabeth's hearing. Now, if this hadn't all been part of a plan that she had been privy to, Elizabeth might learn why Clara had been hibernating and feel bad that she'd forced Clara out on Christmas Eve.
But Elizabeth was at Clara's elbow and was giving a little tentative half smile. "I know you didn't, Clara. I'd heard about that. But I thought it was time that you did come out on this, of all, nights. I hope I—"
Elizabeth didn't have to finish her sentence, though, because Clara smiled and wrapped her arm under Elizabeth's and guided her into the sanctuary behind Ben, looking for three empty spaces in the overflowing pews. She turned to Ben and smiled to him as well, and his returned smile and the look of interest in his eyes spoke volumes of the hope of new beginnings for Clara.