tagRomanceThe Broken Holiday

The Broken Holiday


K-BAY 92.3 FM started sprinkling Christmas songs into their playlist in November, starting on Thanksgiving. For the first week or two thereafter, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, and Gene Autry made casually rare appearances, surfacing between Huey Lewis and The News, Madonna and Depeche Mode. By the time The Big Holiday was actually at hand, airwaves were so saturated with holiday cheer that even Top 40 pop songs were festooned with jingle bells.

On this Christmas Eve night, the fop duo Wham! synthesized their way through radios all over the city with their newest hit. George Michael crooned that he'd given her his heart "Last Christmas," only to find she'd given it away the very next day.

The tune bopped through Dale Brinkman's cramped office as he finished up the books for the day's sales. Smiling incredulously, he put a green slip of paper into a just-counted, perfectly balanced cash drawer. Usually, Sean's tills were bedlam. It wasn't that the kid was stealing; it's just that, when it came to anything but loading and stocking, he couldn't keep track of much. He'd ring up six-dollar sales as six hundred, put in a cash payment as a charge, or plant fives in the compartment for twenties. It could take up to an hour to sort out the chaos. But since Sean was a stock boy, called upon for cashiering duty only when the store was in fever pitch, Dale never held it against him.

But tonight, in spite of the craziest sales day of the year, even though no one who had to work wanted to be there, and despite Vic having spiked the eggnog in the break room, Sean had turned in his first perfect drawer.

Dale pulled out an Employee Rewards Gift Certificate from a folder that rested next to a picture of his wife and two daughters. Sipping on some sobering coffee, he had only a moment to think about what amount to fill the certificate out for. Hysterical shouting suddenly echoed through the store, coming from the loading area. Teri's voice, three octaves higher than normal, screeched in horror. "Oh my God!" she cried.

Instantly, he had a horrible vision of some mishap that must have happened while the kids were cleaning up the back- something falling on top of someone, maybe. He recalled the time Vic overloaded the forklift and it tipped, pitching him out the side onto the floor where he broke his wrist. This sounded much worse. Dale's heart leapt as he sprang from his chair, Sean's gift certificate fluttering to the floor.

He sprinted through the brightly decorated toy department outside his office, towards the swinging door of the storage and loading area, along aisles that only an hour before had been full of tots and their parents watching Santa make his grand departure.

Teri, the white poof on the end of her Santa cap bobbing crazily, burst through the door ahead of him, stopping when she saw Dale. The tears staining her face with streaks of mascara only reinforced his dread.

"What is it, Teri?"

"Come quick! You have to see. Oh, God, hurry!" she sobbed, doing an about-face and running for the back.

He followed the frantic cashier all the way outside to the back lot, where she stopped by his other two employees, who were gathered near the Dumpster. Vic, leaning against the side of the yellow trash bin, pulled his Santa beard down from his face to reveal a grim countenance. Sean, eyes brimming with tears, his posture deflated, stood nearby with bags of trash at his feet. The two men were so silent that the light snowfall seemed to be the only sound, blending in the white noise of power lines humming.

Nothing looked out of place; no one appeared to have been hurt. But his crew looked as though Satan himself had reached up from fiery depths, sheared every scrap of holiday cheer from them, and then carried it back down to Hell, leaving only the empty shells of human beings behind.

"Will someone please tell me what's going on?"

"I was taking out the trash-" Sean began, but Vic interrupted.

"Look in the Dumpster."

Dale approached the Dumpster slowly. Maybe a dead dog, he thought. He peeked inside, hoping for something that simple. It didn't take much to send Teri into a tizzy, and Sean was young, but it took an awful lot to shake up Vietnam Vet Vic, who wasn't crying, but looked demoralized nonetheless.

It took a moment for Dale's eyes to adjust. The parking lot was bright with trackless, unplowed snow and many-colored Christmas lights hanging from the eaves. But little of that illumination made it into the cavernous trash bin, where it reflected off of discarded bits of tinsel and paper, stained cardboard coffee cups, broken ornaments and Hefty bags, all dusted by a nearly transparent film of snow. Dale was just about to turn to his employees and announce that nothing was there, when he glimpsed something... wrong. Lying in a tangle of torn ribbons. Squiggly. Bloody. He squinted at it, making out the shape, terrible details becoming all too clear.

"Oh, Jesus," he whispered.

While he and his crew had been inside the store, taking sips of eggnog between wishing customers "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year," someone had thrown an infant away in their Dumpster.

It was obviously a newborn; the shriveled remains of a umbilical cord still protruded from the little body. It didn't look as though it had been born underweight or premature. Somebody had given birth to a healthy, but oh, so fragile new life. They didn't leave it at a hospital, or wrapped warmly on a doorstep with a note. It was not intended for this baby to be found, but to die. At least part of that goal had been achieved.

Lying on its side, silent and still, the baby had been there for some time, blood-soaked snow its only blanket, noticed by no one until Sean took out the garbage. It was miraculous that he'd seen it before throwing the bags in.

"Is it alive? Oh, please say it's alive," Teri gulped.

"I don't think so," Dale answered, a wellspring of rage simmering in his voice. "Damn it!"

He started to climb into the Dumpster, fingers trembling with fury as he gripped its gritty edge to hoist himself up.

"Vic, help me out here. Somebody call 911 now!"

As Teri ran inside to make the call, Dale regretted not being more specific. He should've sent Sean. It would take the 911 operator five minutes just to get Teri calmed down enough to make sense.

"Sean, go make sure she's okay, would you? And get a blanket," he added, and Sean nodded, heading inside.

Dale cursed as his arms begrudged him the strength to get over the edge of the Dumpster. His sixty-two year-old body wasn't quite as spry as it once was. Vic made a foothold with his hands, giving Dale the last heft he needed to get inside. On his first step, the smooth sole of Dale's not-quite-so-polished shoe slipped on a wet trash bag, and he reached down for Vic's steadying arm.

"Careful, boss. You want me to do this?"

"No, I've got it. Just get ready to take it."

Dale sank to his knees into the garbage, trying not to throw his weight around, his eyes never leaving the baby. He didn't want to lose sight of his small objective should any clumsy steps disturb its resting place. Once he found a balance, Dale removed his fogged glasses and handed them to Vic, then continued with the grim task at hand, moving towards the sad bundle that lay on the other side of the Dumpster.

Sean ran out of the store breathlessly and handed to his boss a plaid blanket that still bore a price tag.

"Teri's okay. They should be on their way soon."

Stepping gingerly through the remains of Christmas Eve in a department store, Dale made it to the infant without displacing it. Trying to steady his shaking hands, he made sure the limbs were free of the tangled ribbons before he dared to lift it. This little baby had known nothing but the shock of birth and a cold grave, and somehow that made it all the more important to Dale to treat it tenderly now. With the respect of a mortician preparing the body of a king for entombment, he brushed away red snow, revealing pale blue skin and an unusually thick crop of wet hair. Tiny fingers curled, frozen, in fists near the mouth, in front of a wrinkled, purple face. A little girl.

Dale caressed her forehead, brushing her hair away from closed eyes. Despite the deadened hue of her skin, there was faint warmth underneath. Before he had a chance to wonder, her little legs abruptly twitched at the contact of his hand. His heart skipped a beat. Maybe they weren't too late.

"I think it's alive," he said to Vic, whose grave demeanor gave way to a spark of hope as he uncrossed his arms and strained to see what Dale was seeing.

Just then, a siren wailed to life a few blocks away. With luck, the emergency vehicle was responding to Teri's call, and on the way to the back lot of Brinkman and Sons'. Dale unfurled the blanket and gingerly plucked the infant from her near-deathbed.

"Are you sure?" Sean asked.

"It's moving. It's breathing!"

"Is it a boy or a girl?"

"Girl," Dale replied, wrapping her up. She began to flop weakly in the blanket, sensing new surroundings.

Vic reached up and took the bundle from his boss' arms, and Dale scrambled out of the Dumpster, waving as he spotted a police car turning into the lot. Its siren ceased, but another took its place-- the spluttering, video-gamey blip of an ambulance, coming from the hospital.

Teri came out of the store, having stayed on the phone with the dispatcher until the police arrived. Seeing Vic cradling the baby, she approached tearfully, Sean close behind.

"It's alive," he told her. "And it's a girl."

The blonde rolled her blue, watery eyes to the sky and said, "Thank you, God."

And so it was, on Christmas Eve, 1984, a baby who would come to be named Noel squinted her eyes open for the first time. After a moment of taking in her first sight, she shut them again as if regretting the choice she'd made to look at the world around her. The inviting warmth of Vic's Santa coat took priority, and she turned her face into a thatch of fluffy white trim, breathing deeply. It wouldn't be until the paramedics pried her from his arms that she cried.

* * * * * * *

Natalie Oberman glanced at a sunflower clock on the wall behind her dinette table, which was draped with a tablecloth that she'd picked out because of its bright sunflower pattern. Everything in Natalie's kitchen was sunflowers-the wall art, salt and pepper shakers, potholders, flour, sugar and cookie jars, the toaster cozy, napkin holder, coasters- even the placemats.

Everything in the living room, however, was Chinese in theme, complete with an authentic Mongolian tea service and a green marble Buddha. The décor of the upstairs bathroom was done in the style of a Turkish bath. The basement was pure Americana, right down to a matchbox collection of Chevys, Fords, and Oldsmobiles, license plates from every state on the wall, PEZ dispensers, and a velvet portrait of Elvis her teenage daughter often teased her about. Her husband often joked, over a breakfast of her famous flapjacks, that their house was truly an "international" house of pancakes.

Right now, her husband, Richard, was showering upstairs, thawing out after shoveling snow that had finally stopped falling an hour before. Twelve year-old Jen was asleep, Natalie hoped, which seemed plausible due to the quiet. If her daughter had been up, her stereo would inevitably be thumping away.

The sunflower clock read 10:30 p.m., which meant that the Channel 4 News was about to end. Naturally, they always saved the best story for last, in the hope of viewers sitting through commercials for Zest soap and Mello Yello. When Natalie had seen their teaser about a "miracle baby" found on this Christmas Eve, she'd wanted to hear more about it.

She turned up the volume of the small TV on the kitchen counter and then lifted six-month old Kyle from his high chair. He'd been wakeful, energized rather than drained by the hubbub of Brinkman and Sons' Department Store, where she'd taken him earlier to get his first glimpse of Santa Claus.

The only time he'd gotten fussy during the excursion was when they left the store and headed back to the car. Kyle's face had screwed up in a cry, worried as he looked over his mother's shoulder at the shadows of Brinkman's back lot. His distressed squalling got worse the further away they got from it.

At the time, she'd chalked it up to his not wanting to go home, though it was odd that it was back lot that he was upset about getting further away from, and not the festively lit windows through which Santa could be spied.

But he seemed quite untroubled now, pointing not at any shadows but the TV, and Natalie didn't mind letting him stay up. Babies don't pay attention to clocks, nor do they have any reason to. Besides, he'd been good company as always, burbling inquisitively as Natalie went about the preliminary stages of fixing the next day's Christmas dinner.

She sat down at the dinette table and seated Kyle on her lap, picking up a chocolate chip-walnut cookie to nibble on. He reached up, grinning at his mother, trying to tug the treat down to his own mouth. Grinning back, she held it away from him, but broke a chocolate chip free of the cookie and pressed it between her thumb and forefinger.

Over the next few minutes, she watched Dan O'Connor, anchor of perfect teeth, relate the "heartwarming" tale of a newborn infant plucked alive from a Dumpster behind Brinkman's Department Store. Her heart didn't warm, but fluttered at the realization of having been so close. For an eerie moment, she recalled how upset Kyle had been, looking at the dark back lot of the store.

Natalie was one who recognized that life wasn't only made up of what you could see, hear, touch, taste, smell and prove "real." There are, she knew, infinite possibilities every day, in every life, for unexpected miracles and disasters, and that what seems random actually has a purpose. And she also knew that if you were truly open to it, and not so quick to dismiss, you could see that life, in its own chaotic way, offers us more understanding than we thought possible. Children, it is often said, are more receptive to sensing these extraordinary things.

Was it possible that Kyle had sensed the flailing little life in that Dumpster? She regarded her son, who couldn't decide which was more interesting- the TV, or the chocolate melting between Natalie's fingers.

One might say he'd simply had a fit because he was uncomfortable in his coat, or didn't want to leave the store, or felt cold. But someone who knows how things actually are would admit that it was possible Kyle had, in the shadows behind Brinkman's, seen with his heart what everyone else was missing with their eyes.

In the next part of the news segment, there were brief clips of interviews with the employees who'd discovered the girl, a trooper, and a doctor at the hospital who smiled with the news that, although weak, she was a healthy baby; a "real fighter."

They cut back to the Dan O'Connor and his shining pearly whites, who straightened out his smile long enough to say that rarely are the parents of discarded infants tracked down, but that if anyone had information, to call the police.

"…Tragically, most discarded infants are dead by the time they're found. But this little girl, who's been christened 'Noel, by the staff of Riverside Emergency Medical Center, is being hailed as a true Christmas miracle. From all of us here at Channel 4, Happy Holidays."

With that, credits rolled over the scene of the news studio as the newscasters turned to each other in small talk and tapped papers on the desk.

Natalie had the sudden urge to hold Kyle close and indulged it, coddling him. The chocolate between her fingers had melted, and she offered her finger to his mouth so he could taste it. He obliged happily, his face concentrating into an expression of delirium.

How could anyone just kill a baby, let alone their own baby?

She shook her head sadly, looking at her little boy.

"What do you think of mommies who put their babies in garbage cans, little man?" she asked him.

Kyle dislodged her finger from his mouth, smiled, smacked his lips and, with a blast of the butt trumpet, soiled his diaper.

* * * * * * *

Nearly nineteen years later, on December 20th, 2003, a much older Kyle drove his Chevy pick-up onto a campus lane guarded by massive pines, each sprinkled from tip to base with white lights. His radio was tuned into K-BAY, which played "White Christmas" in open dedication to U.S. troops in Iraq.

The well-plowed, sanded driveway led to a small brick building with two things on the door-- a crucifix, and a sign that read, ST. ISIDORE RECEPTION OFFICE.

This was the place. He parked, got out and put on his gloves, turning around as he took in the scenery. Shoveled, de-iced walking paths branched away from the office building, each marked with picket signs of engraved oak. One pointed to dormitories about a hundred yards away, which looked like bungalows. Another pointed to a small stone church, and another to school buildings. Each door had a wreath. Several snowmen had been built around a playground with swings, slides and monkey bars. It was a tidy, warm, cozy place. It didn't look anything like Kyle expected an orphanage to look like.

Taking an envelope out of his coat pocket, he jogged up to the office door and tried to open it. It was locked tight, though, and he looked for a sign indicating office hours. Finding none, he peeked through a latticed window. Dark. Four-thirty in the afternoon, and the place was oddly deserted.

He really didn't understand why he had to come here in the first place. Ever since he was old enough to walk, his mother had given Kyle the task of mailing a Christmas card always bound for this place. Natalie used to walk him to the mailbox the next block over from their house to mail it, and later, after it been removed, drove him to the post office until he was old enough to get his driver's license. But this year she'd insisted that he take it directly to the orphanage. It was, after all, in the same city. But then again, he didn't see why it couldn't just be mailed like every other year. The intended recipient didn't even live there anymore.

He left the steps, glancing at the surrounding buildings, his blond eyebrows furrowed under his ski hat, wondering if he should come back later or wander around to find someone. The place couldn't be completely deserted. He saw the path that made way, according to the sign, to the recreation area, and headed off on it.

The recereation area turned out to be another bungalow-style cottage, looking to consist of several rooms, and nearing it he heard the unmistakable pounding of speakers near full blast. A few steps away from the door, Kyle recognized the song; Linkin Park howled out to find "Somewhere I Belong." It was one of his favorite groups.

He chuckled softly as he knocked on the door. NuMetal Orphans. Could make a cool band name all on it's own.

When no one answered, he pounded louder, but since the bass inside was rattling the windows more than his knocking was, Kyle decided his efforts were in vain. Whoever was in there couldn't possibly hear him unless he sounded a bullhorn.

He opened the door slowly, craning his neck through the doorway to make sure he wasn't about to be devoured by morose, spiky-haired children with pierced eyebrows and tattoos of roses dripping with blood.

Unbesieged, Kyle removed his hat and stepped inside to see the lone occupant of St. Isidore's Recreation Room dancing with abandon, neither hearing nor seeing him. She faced the speakers, swaying, singing almost as loudly as the angry voices of Linkin Park. The components of the stereo from which they bellowed were stacked into a fully equipped entertainment center in the corner, which was surrounded by cushy but well-used sofas and chairs. While dancing, she sometimes leaned over the edge of a foosball table, using it almost as a podium from which to scream her troubles, voiced by the song.

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