tagNovels and NovellasChristmas Presents - Nice

Christmas Presents - Nice


Jill sat forlornly outside the modest two story farmhouse. She watched as the snow fell more rapidly. Her clear blue eyes followed a single flake on its random journey towards the ground. She felt like that snow flake. Her whole life had been at the mercy of life's random winds.

She knew that she was totally pathetic. It had been almost three years since her husband Peter was killed by a road side bomb near Baghdad. But here she was at her former in-laws for the holidays...again. The sad truth was that she had no where else to go. Christmas with them was as close to family as she had ever known.

She had never known the man, who fathered her. The stark reality was that her prostitute mother had no idea, which of the dozens of regulars it was either. She remembered little of the drug-addicted shell of a woman that had once been her mother. Her only memories, if you could call them that, were of a string of foster homes and institutions that had cared for her physical if not emotional needs.

It was not until she had finally landed in the state home for children that was barely three miles down this bumpy rural highway that her young life took on any thing resembling good at all. That was all thanks to Peter and his parents, Shelly and Rick. She would remember it until her dying breathes -- the first time she met him.

It was on the bus to school. Like most of the other children from the 'home,' her clothes were out-of-style hand-me-downs from some Christian family trying to assuage their guilt by passing on what the lord had given them. But those clothes were a clear sign announcing to the other children on the bus that morning that she was the unplanned, unwanted and abandoned child of a whore.

Children were always so cruel and these were no different despite their Christian, small-town upbringing. From the moment that she has stepped on the bus that first morning, she was the center of their vitriolic taunts. But after a life-time in foster care, Jill was almost numb to the abuse. She had sat silently alone on the brown high-backed seat as the bus seemed to hit each pot hole on that country road.

She supposed she was an average enough looking young woman of fifteen...almost sixteen. Her hair was long; mostly because the state provided only enough money for a hair cut once a year. She usually found it easiest to keep it pulled back from her face in a tight ponytail. At a time when most girls her age primped and preened for hours in front of a mirror, Jill was lucky to catch even two or three minutes in front of the one in the large dormitory bathroom that she shared with three dozen other girls. Even then she was likely to spend most of her time helping one of the young children prepare. She definitely was not fat; although she always got three meals a day, there was little junk food that most other teens survived upon. Of course, her portions too were strictly controlled...as was everything about her young life.

She smiled as she remembered the flutter in her stomach that morning when she had heard the deep smooth voice ask, 'Is this seat taken?' Ironically, she had been watching the snow fall then too. She had turned her head to see the most beautiful guy she had ever seen. She knew, of course, that boys were not supposed to be called beautiful, but sometimes that was the only word that fit. Guys like Brad Pitt and Matt Damon simply could not be called handsome; they were beautiful. So too was the young man that stood next to her awaiting her answer. She had not even been able to find her voice that morning; instead she simply shook her head and scooted over even closer to the window.

He had said his name was Peter. From that moment until he graduated that summer, he had taken the seat next to her. He was the running back on the high school football team. He was also the senior class president and an honor student. But above all else he became her best friend and protector. No one dared say cruel things to his friend. Funny thing was that the whole school knew that they were a couple before she did. Jill had just assumed that Peter's kindness was friendship and true Christian charity. Within a week, his mother had spoken to her social worker and gotten permission for her to study at their house some times. For the first time, she could remember Jill fell madly in love...with Shelly's home cooking.

But still, she remained completely clueless about the true feelings that Peter held for her. It was not until the day after Christmas, when Peter borrowed his dad's old pick-up to take her out for a drive, that she had any hint. He had driven her almost an hour away to the mountains. They had chatted about school and studies as he negotiated the sometimes tight curves. When they reached the top of the snow capped peak, he had pulled the truck over at the look-out.

Tears filled Jill's blue eyes as she remembered how nervous he had seemed as he fumbled in the glove box until he brought out a small black box topped with a gold bow. The silver heart necklace inside was the most spectacular present that Jill had ever gotten. It was her turn to be nervous as Peter bent to latch it about her neck. He had been so gentle as he lifted her ponytail out of the way and brushed his fingers across her cheek. It was then that Jill experienced her first real kiss. On her sixteenth birthday.

From that moment on they were a couple. When Peter graduated, Jill and his parents sat on the front row as he delivered the Valedictorian speech. Shelly had even received permission for Jill to spend that weekend with them. Of course, Peter could have gone anywhere to college, but Jill was never sure if it was her or the farm that kept him at the community college in the next town over.

That summer was the best of her life. She spent long summer days working alongside Peter and his parents on the farm. She had learned to milk a cow and can tomatoes. For the first time in her life, she felt secure. But as with all good things, it did not last. She would never forget the day that changed everything, most people would not...September 11th, 2001.

She had arrived at school that morning blissfully ignorant of the events that would change the world forever. But by homeroom word was spreading through the school about things that were unfolding thousands of miles from their small country town. During first period, the principal came on the loud speaker and announced that school was dismissed for the day.

She and the other children had gathered in the living room to watch their lone television as pictures of the unthinkable filled the screen. Jill had in the end drawn one young girl away and out onto the porch swing. The child's small body had shaken with huge sobs as her fears and pain flowed from her young soul. It seemed in that moment that a cruel world became even crueller.

Jill had not seen Peter until that weekend, but that was not that unusual since he was busy with college and helping his dad on the farm. But when he picked her up from the home that Saturday morning, Jill knew something big was happening. She could see it in his eyes. He drove her back to their mountain. It was there that he told her. While she and the farm might have been enough to hold him there before, things had changed. He had a duty. He had joined the marines.

But even then, her Peter had taken care with her. Pulling another small black box from the glove box, he had slipped a small diamond ring on her finger. 'Will you do me the honor of being my wife?' he had almost whispered. As with that first morning on the bus, Jill had only been able to nod.

Things moved fast after that. Within a month, Peter had arranged for Jill to be emancipated and to live with his parents until she completed high school. He was sent to far off California for training. Jill was never sure who cried more at the air port her or Shelly. For Christmas and her birthday, they had all travelled to California to watch Peter once again graduate from basic training this time.

On her eighteenth birthday, Jill and Peter had stood before a justice of the peace. With only his parents present, they had made solemn promises. 'For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Forsaking all others until death do we part.' After a brief honeymoon at Disney Land, Jill and his parents had caught another plane back home.

Peter had stayed there for further training, but within three months his first assignment came...Afghanistan. It was, of course, the duty that he felt bound to serve from that fateful morning, but still it filled Jill with fear. By the time that she walked across the stage to receive her diploma, the most important person in her world was thousands of miles away in danger and under fire.

The next five years were pretty much more of the same. Jill had taken up Peter's former mantle; enrolling in the local community college and staying on the farm to help out his parents as much as she could. There had been little doubt what she would study. If Peter felt a duty to serve his country, then Jill felt equally bound to serve its children as the very social worker that she had once despised.

As marriages went, theirs was pretty unusual...except for the military that is. They spent more time writing, emailing and speaking on the phone than they spent together. Three tours of duty, two in Afghanistan and then one in Iraq. But they tried to cram a life time of loving into those rare times when they were together. Unfortunately, it made the very thing that they both wanted most, children of their own, hard to accomplish.

Jill shivered, whether from the cold or the memory of that last Christmas. They had fought. Peter had decided to re-up as it was called. He tried in vain over the weeks to convince Jill that his duty was not over, that there was much more work to be accomplished. But all that she could think of was her personal pain of more time apart. When she had seen him off at the air port, she had not even responded with the same warmth to his kisses.

She would never forgive herself for that. Even though over the coming weeks, they had sorted out their differences and forgiven one another, Jill would always regret no making the most of those final brief brushes of his lips upon hers. When his flag draped coffin had arrived home three months later, she had begged and pleaded for one more taste of the only lips she had ever known. But the mortuary and finally his parents had convinced her that it was best not to see the scarred remains left by that roadside bomb. So she had only those last childish moments to remember forever.

Tears were streaming unchecked down her cheeks by then. Fate did it again to her as she saw the curtains pulled back and Shelly's austere face peek out at her. She barely had time to brush her face with the back of her hand before they were running through the snow to scope her from the confines of her battered old car. She collapsed into the arms of the closest things she had ever known to parents. And despite all of her resolve to be strong for them...and Peter, she was sobbing and shaking almost immediately.

She had no idea how long the three of them stood there in the cold, hugging and crying. It seemed like a lifetime, but was probably only moments. It was not until Jill drew back and wiped her eyes and snotty nose on the back of her coat sleeve that she noticed there was someone else standing on the porch. He must have been about the same age and she and Peter. But his distinctly African-American features would stand out in an area with few minorities.

Shelly saw the directions of her eyes and explained, 'That is Damran Williams. You remember Peter talking about him, don't you? His best friend from the Marines. He contacted us a few months back after his last tour of duty. He said he just wanted to meet the fine people that had raised Peter.'

Jill could once more only nod at those words. It felt like a knife was ripping through her chest, making breathing difficult. It was another reminder of how unfair life really was. Why was this man standing on the porch when what was left of her husband was buried at the top of their mountain, which she could barely glimpse in the distance? Why did her life hurt so much?

Shelly must have glimpsed Jill's pain as she wrapped her arm protectively about her shoulders. 'Sweetie, remember he's an orphan like you were. I always thought that was why Peter and he were so close. Peter saw the same pain in him that he had in you. We just had to invite him for the holidays...for Peter's sake. You understand, don't you?'

Jill could almost hear Peter saying the exact same thing. As odd as it might seem she probably knew more about this man than any one else in the world. She and Peter had spoken often about him. She knew too that Damran was the last person to speak to her husband. She knew that he had rushed forward despite orders from their sergeant when the bomb went off. She knew that he had cradled her husband's head as he drew his last breathe.

She felt small, petty and selfish, but she did not want to face the pain of meeting this man. Not now. Not after the dozens of times Peter had asserted that he could not wait for Jill to meet Damran. Worse yet, she did not want to share her family as she had come to think of Shelly and Rick with a stranger, even one with whom she shared such a close bond. But she drew a deep breath and forced herself to smile as Shelly pushed her forward.

'Damran, I'm sure I don't need to tell you who this is,' Shelly bubbled over.

Jill extended her small hand as again words failed her. But if she hoped for a formal introduction, Damran had other ideas. His much larger and darker hand enveloped hers as he pulled her into an embrace much the same as she had shared moments before with her in-laws.

Jill's world tilted on its axis then. She was not sure if she could describe the feeling, but she knew it well. It was the safety and security that she had only ever felt with Peter. As much as she loved and adored Rick and Shelly not even they could offer that feeling. It was as if a part of Peter was with her now, as ridiculous as that sounded.

The rest of that day was a blur as Shelly pushed her into the large, homey kitchen for final preparations. They caught up on her job and life in the city...if you could call her existence that. Since she had lost the baby that had been her husband's final gift to her just two weeks after his funeral, Jill had thrown herself into saving as many children as she could. Obviously cruel fate had decided that she would never have any of her own, so it was the best she could do with her life.

She was exhausted as she slipped beneath the crisp cotton sheets in the room that had once been Peter's and finally theirs. But try as she might, she simply could not quiet her restless mind. It was always the same; the questions, the regrets, the what-if's of life. But most of all, it was the chest tightening sense of a life-time of loss. Her mother...her childhood...Peter...their baby. It seemed sometimes too much to bear.

In the end, she had given up and tip-toed down the stairs to the kitchen for a cup of the hot cocoa that she knew Shelly still kept in the cabinet above the stove. But she stopped cold as she entered the kitchen. He was there already. Sitting in Peter's chair with his large, dark hands wrapped about a mug steaming with what she could smell was her cocoa. She half turned to run back up the steps when his deep Southern voice filled the dark night. 'You couldn't sleep either?' he asked.

Jill stopped and faced the unknown; this man with whom she shared so much but who was a virtual stranger. Crossing the cold kitchen tile, she wished she had remembered her slippers. Peter was always reminding her of them. But since his death, she rarely thought of them at all.

Looking down at her bare feet, he laughed, 'Peter always said you didn't have the good sense to come in out of the rain...or wear your slippers on winter nights.'

Jill found herself smiling despite her resolve to not like this man. 'Well, he said you had more courage than brains,' she replied.

'Guilty as charged,' he replied as he pulled out the chair that had been hers across from him. It was as if he knew...everything. Although she supposed, he well might have. What did men talk about late at night when danger and death hung in every shadow? Would something as mundane as dinner around the kitchen table have been worthy of such a solemn conversation?

She took the seat that he held out for her and watched as he rummaged through the cabinet above the stove for Shelly's special homemade cocoa mix. He opened the fridge that was probably too big for just an older couple and took out the fresh milk. She watched as he heated it a pan on the stove, stirring the powder in slowly.

The silence might have seemed uncomfortable to some, but it was the same type of mundane routine that she had enjoyed so much during her brief marriage to Peter. It spoke volumes of safety and comfort that was hard to find in this fucked up world. Companionable silence, when words simple were not necessary.

Damran broke the spell as he placed the mug in front of her. His back was turned as he made his way round the table, but the catch in his voice said it all. 'You may think I'm crazy. But sometimes Peter comes to me...in my dreams,' he whispered as if bearing his soul and waiting for another rejection.

It reminded Jill of the dozens of adoption fairs they both must have been forced to attend. Dressed up in your best second-hand clothes, trying hard to be just perfect as you watched the younger and cuter children being scoped up by couple after smiling couple. Although you always promised yourself you would not be disappointed by the rejection this time, you still ended up crying yourself to sleep in the dark.

But not this time. 'I don't think you are crazy at all,' she offered. 'Sometimes I can swear I feel him with me and hear just what he would say.' She clutched the mug until her knuckles were white as she fought back tears. But when she finally had drew the courage to look up into the man's face, she saw her fight was for nothing as she watched huge patches of wetness trail unchecked down his dark skin. If he could be brave enough to share his pain, she supposed she could risk a little in return as she felt the first drops begin their journey down her cheeks.

His voice was barely audible as he whispered, 'I need to tell you about the one tonight.'

Jill tightened her grasp on the mug until she feared it would break, but she nodded her head; knowing that by doing so she was opening them both up to almost unspeakable pain.

He looked into his own mug as if seeking some vision in a crystal ball. But his voice spoke of his convictions of which he knew. 'He was playing catch on a football field with this little boy. They were laughing and having the best old time. Then he saw me and he picked the boy up and put him on his shoulders. The two of them came over to me.'

He stopped and looked up slowly to meet her clear blue eyes. Those eyes had stared out at him so many times over the past five years. He knew that the picture of her high school graduation was tucked inside the worn leather of his wallet on the bedside table upstairs. He had always wondered how it would be when they finally met. What was it like to finally meet the person that you had known for so long? Had loved for almost as long.

But he knew that this dream tonight was just for her. It was so different from the others that had over the months and years both haunted and comforted him. So he ventured even more into the unknown, 'I don't know how much Peter told you about me, but I'm assuming if it was half as much as he told me about you then you know about my brother.'

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