A brown, fluffy teddy bear lay in the bottom of the shopping bag. John Smith peered down at it, knowing exactly when and where it had found its resting place. Visions from toys were always a mixed bag of often unpleasant imagery. He hesitated to touch the bear, reluctant to tempt fate but certain he would have no peace of mind until he did so. Taking a deep breath, he set the router aside and upended the bag to shake the toy out onto the table top. It bounced onto the floor and came to rest against a stool shoved beneath the edge of the kitchen counter. John sighed and absently folded the Lowe's shopping bag.
A router was a perfect gift for Walt. He had told John recently over coffee that he was eager to finish the new nursery before New Years. Sarah just could not find the right moldings but Walt had seen the perfect design online. Halfway through the project he had burned out his router and with the holiday bearing down upon them, he did not have the time to shop for one himself. The fact that John had learned this information through conversation and not a vision was a novelty. The latter felt like a cheat when it came to gift giving. He had eagerly explored the local hardware stores and Home Depot before finally finding the right size unit and a set of bits at Lowes. Standing in line and feeling quite pleased with himself, John had chatted amicably with other shoppers to pass the time. The child in the cart ahead of him was a charmer and most people smiled in spite of the harried atmosphere. The child prattled to her mother, who nodded absently and stroked her hair. After five minutes of kicking her booted feet against the cart she had turned her attention to the battered teddy bear stuffed into the seat next to her. More nonsensical chatter as she danced him across the handle of the cart. A loud crash and a yelp of surprise caused John and most of the line to spin around in search of the noise. When he looked back the girl was lost from sight behind her mother's coat as the two headed for the exit. John's last image was of the child looking rather forlornly around her mother's arm and waving one thickly mittened hand. John waved back and dug for his wallet. He did not look in the Lowes bag again until now and suddenly the little girl's expression made perfect sense.
He shook his head and walked around the edge of the table. One touch would tell him more than he wanted to know about the girl's situation. It could be good, festive even, or horribly depressing. Swallowing his misgivings, John bent down and grasped the teddy bear's arm.
"Charity, honey, we're going to be late."
"Bear!"the girl wailed.
"I'm sorry you lost Snickers in the store. I told you to leave him in the car. It's too late to look right now. We have…"
"We have to go to the airport Charity. Please stop screaming about the bear."Charity's round face darkened to crimson and big tears rolled down her cheeks. She cried silently as her mother scooped up a familiar pair of mittens and a hat and deftly dressed her
"Daddy give me," Charity protested as she was plopped heavily onto a cracked linoleum floor.
"Daddy will understand okay. He'll get you a new bear."
"No!" Charity stamped her foot. "Daddy give to keep away bad stuff."
"I know honey." The mother sighed and pushed a stray lock of brown back behind her ear. Her youthful features were etched with lines and her hands shook slightly as she reached for her own hat resting on the table. "Daddy is coming home to keep away the bad things."
"Daddy needs Snickers!" Charity insisted.
"We have to go. His plane is due in an hour, assuming they don't cancel the flight."
The world slipped back into focus as John brought the bear to his chest. He did not know the whole story but the toy's stiff fur and torn left ear suggested hard but loving use. Snickers was needed. Christmas Eve at the Bannerman's would have to wait.
John put the bear back in the Lowes bag and slipped the handle over his wrist. Snatching his coat from the back of the chair, he pulled out his cell phone on his way out the backdoor. Walt and Sarah appeared in the small green window when he pressed one and the phone began to ring as he started the Rover and pulled out into a thin haze of drifting snow.
"Walt, I'm going to be a little late I'm afraid."
"Sarah's got her pot roast in the oven and you know how she gets."
John laughed at the mock warning. "Yeah, I do. Not that she can say anything about punctuality."
It was Walt's turn to chuckle. "True. You okay?"
"Yeah, fine, just need to run a little Christmas errand for someone."
"Vision?" Walt's tone was suddenly all business.
"It's okay, nothing too serious." John assured, suppressing his lingering concern with a soft chuckle. "Tell Sarah not to burn the gravy and I've got a chocolate mint pie in the backseat."
"You slave all day making that?"
"I'm not the iron Chef." The reference to Bruce and his culinary masterpiece the year before gave John a wistful pang. His best friend was in Indiana celebrating Christmas with family and old friends. Walt snorted into the phone, drawing him back to the present.
"True enough. " The sounds of Sarah and JJ receded slightly as Walt walked into another room. "Drive safe John. The weather is starting to pick up out there."
"I will. See ya soon."
The line went dead and John tossed the phone onto the passenger seat. He turned off of his side street and onto the main road that ran through the center of Cleaves Mills. The airport was on the other side of town and one exit down the highway. In good conditions it was a twenty minute drive. John smiled wryly as he maneuvered around a parked car. He might make it back in time to serve dessert. The wind gusted propelling a thick swath of snowflakes across the road and up over trees and roofs caked with the remnants of the previous week's storm. John loved a white Christmas and like most New Englanders he accepted the hassles of winter with stoic resolve. You had to love it to live here, period.
Downtown, small as it was, was decorated in high style. Strings of white and blue lights draped the pine tree in front of town hall. Lighted cut outs of snowflakes, bells and wreaths bedecked every other light pole and garland was slung over the road, connecting the businesses with thick greenery accented with more blue and white lights. Most of the shops were closed up tight this late on Christmas Eve but their doors and windows were a mass of cheery decals, fake snow and winking lights. Even the gas stations had decorated their awnings. John smiled to himself and pressed the stud on his radio. "Silent Night" poured out of the speakers and he began to sing. His voice resonated through the cab, swelling and dipping to the melody. It was a rare, magical moment and John swallowed an unexpected lump of emotion as the last notes died away.
The buildings thinned out and the highway junction sign slid into view. John reached for his signal lever and eased the truck around the gradual curve which led to the onramp. His headlights skimmed over the far side of the road and a flash of red caught his eye. "What the…?" His tires slid on the black ice beneath the fresh snow and John was suddenly busy preventing the same fate as the unfortunate motorist he glimpsed. After a few tense moments of careful maneuvering he was able to ease the Rover onto the wide, shoulder of the road. "That was too close." Blowing out a sigh of relief, John picked up his cell phone and gloves and stepped carefully out of the truck.
The vehicle was nose first in the soft snow lining the ditch. John hurried carefully across the road, one arm raised against a blast of snow from a passing car. Closer inspection revealed a battered pick-up truck with Maine tags and a missing taillight. "Hello?" John called when he reached the tailgate. There were no tracks in the snow and he could hear a radio softly playing beneath the wind. "Hello? Are you okay?" There was no reply. John pulled off one glove and reached out trembling fingers to the truck's metal box.
"I don't know where he is, mom. He should be here."
The speaker was a young, red-headed woman dressed in a long dark red wool skirt and a cream sweater. She cradled her left hand and fingered something John could not see. He stepped closer and caught the glint of a diamond as her restless hands fell to her sides. Curious, he looked away and took in the surroundings with a glance. They were standing in a small chapel. Three stained glasses windows looked down on a floor of mottled rose granite and a simple pine altar adorned with cream carnations and a green garland trimmed with burgundy bows. A small crowd of people were milling in the back of the sanctuary, including a priest dressed in holiday vestments. Several of them glanced in the direction of the woman and her mother, frowning in various degrees of impatience and sympathy.
"He'll be here Rachel. Relax."
"Are fine," mom insisted, laying a calming hand on her shoulder.
"You don't think he changed his mind?" Her fine mouth twisted into an anxious grimace. "I know he's nervous. So am I but…"
"Rachel, he'll be here."
The vision faded into the snowy darkness. John put his glove back on and stepped down into the deeper drifts beside the truck. "Hello in there?"
"Is…is someone…out there?"
The voice was weak and tinged with fear. John brushed the snow from the driver's side window and looked in. The driver was pinned upright in the seat by his seatbelt and his head was thrown back against the rest. Twin trails of dark blood seeped down from a gash in his forehead and his skin was a sickly yellow in the pale glow of the dashboard lights. John winced sympathetically and wrenched open the door. "Hey, talk to me man."
"I'm going to call for help." John pulled out a handkerchief and his phone. "What did you cut your head on?"
John dialed 911 and began dabbing lightly at the cut in an effort to see the injury more clearly.
"911, what is your emergency."
"Hi. I'm at the scene of an accident at the bottom of exit 12, northbound on interstate 15."
"We have your location Sir. How can we help?"
"Yes, right." John shook his head, feeling slightly foolish. His gaze skimmed over the cab and came to rest on a bloodied crack in the windshield right above the steering wheel. "This guy put his pick-up nose first into the ditch here. He's cut his head on his windshield."
"He's bleeding now?"
"Can you describe the injury?"
John looked closer at the man who blinked blearily back at him. "The cuts look fairly superficial but he's got quite a bump forming and he seems pretty out of it."
"An emergency vehicle has been dispatched and should be there shortly. Can you stay with him?"
John nodded absently. "Yes."
"Thank you , Sir. Please stay on the line until help arrives."
"Okay." He lowered the phone from his lips and gently shook the man's arm. "Hey, what's your name?"
The response was slow but distinct. "Brian."
"Nice to meet you, Brian, I'm John." He looked around the cab a second time. A garment bag and a box wrapped in Christmas paper and sporting a ribbon bow lay on the floor in the passenger side. John squeezed Brian's arm. "Is that Rachel's present?"
"Getting…married…" Brian mumbled thickly.
"Yeah buddy, I know." John felt a queer sense of relief at not having to explain how.
John raised the phone to his ear at the tin-like voice of the dispatcher. "Yes?"
"Can you see the ambulance yet?"
"No…Oh, wait, here they come."
"That's fine. I'm getting confirmation from the driver. Thanks for calling this in and remaining on the scene. I hope you have a Merry Christmas."
"Thank you, goodnight."
John clicked off the phone. "Listen to me Brian. I need to call your fiancé."
"Brian, stay with me man, I need Rachel's number."
"She's my… girlfriend."
John smiled indulgently at the faint note of jealousy in the other man's voice. "Yeah, she's a looker too and all yours my friend. " The ambulance was pulling up behind his Rover, the rotating lights casting a dizzying pall of red and white on the dirty snow. John leaned in and tried to catch Brian's wandering eyes. "Rachel is worried about you. I need to call her and tell her where you've been taken. What's her number Brian?"
John held his breath for an endless moment, releasing it only when Brian finally focused on his face. His voice was surprisingly clear when he spoke. "555-3161. Call her or she's gonna think I'm not comin'."
"She won't," John assured as he stepped back to let the paramedics get to the door. "I'll call her."
He told the EMTs everything he knew about the accident and got the number of the hospital where Brian would be taken. Rachel Calloway was mystified but extremely grateful to receive his call ten minutes later. As John followed the ambulance up the onramp he felt a warmth deep in his chest. If not for the visions he would not have known that Brian was on his way to his wedding rehearsal. Rachel and her family would have been put through needless worry until Brian was coherent enough to contact them. Sometimes it was good to be psychic.
He reached the airport without further mishap and parked in the garage. The snow was falling in thick white sheets now and his shoulders and hair were blanketed in the brief moments it took to cross the asphalt to the awning in front of the main terminal. Shaking the loose flakes and wet from his clothes and the Lowes bag containing Snickers, John stepped into the warmth and started scanning the milling crowd for the mother and little girl. He saw them boarding the escalators at the far end of the lobby. The mass of people and luggage between them was almost impassable and he despaired of catching up before they reached the gates on the upper floor.
A series of visions flashed through John's mind as he navigated the crowd. Most were pleasant harbingers of the coming year but a few made him shiver with fear and cloying sadness. He tried not to meet the eyes of those he knew would suffer soon and deeply. When he reached the escalators he was breathless and exhausted and Charity and her mother were long gone. Sucking in a steadying breath John boarded the moving steps and made his way up through the press of people as politely and quickly as possible. Crowds were never easy to deal with but it helped to have something to focus on to the exclusion of the visions. He reached the top and looked left and then right as an irritated squeal rose above the murmur of people.
Charity was wriggling in her mother's arms and reaching eagerly towards the windowed wall separating the lounge from the arrival area. "Yes daddy will come in right through there." Her mother soothed as John slowly approached.
"Excuse me," John said softly.
The woman spun around her eyes wide in surprise. "Are you talking to me?" she asked while cradling Charity close to her chest.
"Yes." John removed the teddy bear from the bag and held it out. "I think your little girl dropped this into my bag by accident."
"Snickers!" Charity shrieked. She took the bear and cuddled it to her cheek. "Snickers, daddy's coming!"
"How did you….You followed me here from Lowes?"
John smiled and nodded at Charity happily nuzzling the top of the bear's head. "It's Christmas."
"Daddy!" The toddler was down and running for the heavy glass doors before either adult could move a muscle.
"Deidre?" called a gruff voice.
John turned and watched the mother walk towards the sound. Her hands were trembling as they slid down her cheeks and then reached out to take those of a man in a wheelchair. He wore a heavy green jacket and army fatigues and a green duffle bag hung from the handles of the chair. An airline attendant stood to one side, one hand supporting Charity's back as she perched precariously in her father's lap.
"I've got Snickers for you daddy. He's going to help keep away the bad stuff." Charity's singsong voice floated above her mother's quiet tears.
"I'm home Deidre, it's okay now."
John stood speechless. All around them voices quieted and hands were stilled. Deidre's whispered. "I love you," floated up and outward and someone clapped. Another and another until the waiting area echoed with cheers and congratulations. The family seemed not to notice, lost in one another as the sounds rolled over them and out into the hall. John sighed shakily and turned to leave.
"He brought Snickers!" Charity shouted out.
"Sir, please wait."
Deidre's quiet plea brought John up short. He turned back slowly, reluctant to intrude. "Yes?"
She was pushing the wheelchair towards him. Her husband was tickling Charity but keeping one wary eye on John as they approached. Deidre smiled awkwardly. "I wanted to thank you for returning the bear. It meant a lot to Charity."
The soldier looked up, meeting John's eyes. His voice was firm and not at all embarrassed when he spoke. "I gave it to her to keep away the monsters until I could get back here and do it myself."
"It worked too!" Charity added soberly which made them all chuckle.
"I'm glad angel girl."
"Brad he followed me all the way from Lowes to bring back that bear."
"It was nothing." John shrugged.
"It was something. I just landed in that pea soup." Brad countered with a gesture towards the windows. "You made my little girl's night and I appreciated it."
"No, you did that," John replied. He held out his hand. "I thank you for your sacrifice, Sir. Welcome home and Merry Christmas."