Disclaimer: I do not own Christy, nor It's a Wonderful Life. They do belong to others. I seek no profit from this, only entertainment for myself and others.
It's a Wonderful Life, Neil MacNeill
Neil MacNeill wearily untacked his trusty horse, Charlie, after a long evening. He brushed the snow from his horse and gave Charlie a well deserved scoop of molasses sweetened oats. He patted his beloved companion absently on the head and went out of the small stable into the light of a full moon. The silvery light seemed all the brighter because of the snow. Normally,he would have lingered and gazed at the frosty wonderment that surrounded him, but tonight he wasn't in the mood. A child had died tonight in Raven Gap.
The death of a patient always took a toll on the country doctor, but the death of a child made the pain go deeper. Little Jacob Bower wasn't even three years old and had died from some horrible wasting disease that was completely unknown to Neil. He had searched for months, nay years,, for an answer. Nothing could be found to ease the boy's pain and tonight the boy put up his last fight. Neil slipped silently from the tiny cabin to let the parents grieve. Jacob was their first born and Neil hoped not their last for he never saw a young couple that deserved a child more.
Neil flung open the cabin door roughly and strode solemnly over to the the fireplace to stir the embers back to life. He slammed the door shut again and shrugged off his coat, tossing it haphazardly into a nearby chair. He began to rummage through one of his medicine cabinets looking for something in particular, something to ease the pain. Finding the solution, he carried it over to the chair by the fire and sat down.
He hesitated after he uncorked the jug. A certain deep blue-eyed schoolteacher would object to what he was about to do. He shrugged the thought from his mind and took a long gulp. There was no way she could understand the pain. The burn of the white liquid down his throat let him know that he was still feeling. He took another swig in hopes of driving that heart-wrenching scene in the Bower cabin forever from his mind. Again and again, he raised the jug to his lips; again and again he kept hearing and seeing Ada Bower cry hysterically and cling to her son like there was still hope, denying what was true.
In frustration he flung the fortunately empty jug into the fire, smashing it into dozens of pieces. The flames lept up in answer to Neil's mood. He ran his hands through his hair, attempting to drive out the night's images from his scarred mind.
"Great God in Heaven," Neil snarled in bitterness, "why do You even give doctors the ability to save others if we cannot save them all? Why bring an innocent into this world, make them suffer and then take them away? What are You trying to prove?"
He got up from the chair and walked closer to the fire. His brief vent at God had cooled his anger and only pity for himself remained. He leaned on the mantle piece and looked around the room at the pictures of all the great doctors he knew.
"We doctors are just fools believing that we can do good for others. We can't. We are powerless to The Great Machine that runs this universe." He glared at the stoic pictures as if daring them to talk back. "I wish I hadn't ever become a doctor and that I left here long ago." He lowered his forehead to the mantle piece and closed his eyes.
"You honestly don't mean that at all."
Neil lifted his head in utter surprise. There was a young woman standing near the window, aglow in a pool of moonlight. She was dressed in a white dress that stopped somewhere at her knees. He thought that was odd, a woman her age should have stopped wearing dresses that length as a child. Her hair hung around her face in coppery waves, skimming her shoulders.
"Who are you?"
"Grace, but that's not important right now. I'm here to help you, Neil MacNeill."
He glared into her eyes. Something seemed familiar about them. "Help me with what?" He asked suspiciously.
"I'm here to help you see."
"See what?" Grace shook her head, making her copper curls dance. She smiled at him warmly and walked toward him, out of the moonlight. She seemed to glow all over, even when out of the moon glow. Neil scrubbed his eyes, not believing what he saw.
"You sure ask a lot of questions, don't you? I'm here to help you see what things would be like if your wish was granted. Help you to see that you matter in this world. You make a difference, just as God intended for you."
Neil frowned. He didn't know what she was talking about. He sat back down in the chair. That was the last time he ever accepted moonshine as payment from Dale MacGlashan. He never had hallucinations before. The young woman knelt down before him and placed her hands on his. He looked up into her gentle face. Something about her still seemed very familiar but he couldn't place it.
"Do I know you?"
Grace's smile seemed to glow like polished bronze, warm with a deep luster. "Not yet, but you will. In time, you shall know me quite well. But that's not important just yet. Like I said, I 'm here to show you what life here in Cutter Gap would be like if your wish was granted. The wish you made a few moments ago, leaning against the mantle piece."
He nodded. He hadn't realized he had spoken out loud. A thought flashed through his mind. "I get it now. I had forgotten that tonight is Christmas Eve. You're one of those Spirits of Christmas Present or some such nonsense like out of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol."
Grace rose from her knees. She was nearly as tall as himself. "No, not like that at all."
"An angel then?"
"No, not really. It's complicated. I am a spirit of someone yet to be, but I am under God's care and serve him as well. I guess it makes me a bit of both, spirit and angel."
"God? Why does He trouble with me? I am useless."
Grace frowned. "Because He loves you, that's why. You're getting a special gift from Him tonight. Not only are you going to see what life would be like had you made a different choice, I stopped you from taking your life. A life is a precious thing. Had I not shown up, you would have found another jug." A stoneware jug appeared in her hands like magic. "It was not your intention to end it all, just to drive memory from your mind. You really know better, Neil MacNeill."
"I know life's a precious thing. If it's so precious then why does your God take away children?"
"For others to grow, learn and morn. It takes a lifetime to understand. It's..."
"Complicated. I get that already."
"I best get on with my duty then. Maybe then you'll see reason." Grace placed her hands on her hips in a familiar way. Neil could have sworn he saw this gesture made by someone he knew well and it nearly drove him crazy that he couldn't remember.
Sighing, Grace reached for his hand. Both were engulfed with a brilliant flash of white light. As the light faded away, Neil realized they were not in his cabin anymore. They were standing on the porch of a small cabin and Neil recognized it immediately.
"Why did you bring me to the McHones' cabin?"
"Look through the window and you'll see."
Neil peered through the single, grimy window into the dim room lit by flickering fire light. Gathered around the table were the three McHone boys and Uncle Bogg. Before them, on the table, sat a hunk of charred venison and a plate of scorched corn pone. While not an unusual scene, Neil felt an uneasy spasm quiver through his insides.
"Where's Tom and Opal and baby Iris?"
"Shh. Just listen." Grace hissed harshly. Neil held his breath so he could hear the dialogue inside the ill lit cabin better.
"Go on one of ya's and say a prayer. Don't have all evenin', so one of ye's gotta spit out a grace sos we kin et." The boys looked at him meekly, before Isaak spoke up. He folded his hands together and bowed his head.
"Dear God, we thank ye for the food afore us. It's been nigh on a week since we had any meat, so for this we are 'specially grateful. Thank you for Uncle Bogg too. He takes real good care of us since Ma and Pa are gone." The boy's voice waivered and a tear coursed down Bogg's lined cheek. "I know You are looking after them both up thar in Heaven but we'uns shore miss 'em down here. Amen."
With that the solemn group set to work devouring the meager feast before them, except for Uncle Bogg, who waited until the boys had there fill before he ate what was left. Neil's heart constricted with agony for the family in the ramshackle cabin. He turned to ask Grace a question but she gestured fiercely toward the window.
Uncle Bogg had left the table, still covered in dirty dishes, and sat down in a rickety rocking chair. The man before Neil was more frail and somber than the Uncle Bogg he knew.
"Uncle Bogg can ye tell us a story tonight?" Vincent queried from the chair's side.
"No, boy. I ain't in the storytellin mood. Now go on and get yerself on up ta bed afore I tan yer hide." With that, Vincent scurried off up to the loft along with his brothers. Neil watched in a stunned silence as Uncle Bogg continued to stare gloomily into the fire. What had happened here?
As if reading his very thoughts, Grace pulled him toward her and clued him into the McHones' story. "Opal died in giving birth to a stillborn daughter two summers ago because there was no doctor to help her. Tom took up moonshining with Bird's Eye to keep his family from starving. He was shot in the back in the fall, shortly after Opal died. Everyone knew it had to be Bird's Eye who had killed him. Tom was trying to get out of moonshining and Bird's Eye had killed him to keep him from talking to the federal agents. Or at least that is what everyone thought, including Uncle Bogg. He hung Bird's Eye for murder, only minutes after Bird's Eye breathed his last did Lundy confess that he was the one who shot and killed Tom. The death of his family members and his hanging of an innocent man left him a sorely changed man. He looks after the boys best he can but he won't let them go to school. He thinks all this trouble is because of the new mission and its preacher."
"So David is spreading his unyielding brand of religion?"
"Yes and without Alice Henderson's moderating hand."
"Remember I'm showing you the Cove without you. You never came back here after you left for school. You never met Margaret, so there was no reason for Alice to follow her daughter here. The mission was set up entirely by Dr. Ferrand and he has little say as to what goes on here. Each mission is left to the devise of its head preacher."
"Take my hand and I'll show you." As his hand joined Grace's, the white flash engulfed them again.
They were standing in the parlor of the mission house. It was decked with evergreen boughs and candles. A right festive look, Neil thought. This had to have been Christy's doing. The sound of a woman's heartbreaking sobs drifted down the stairs and was immediately followed by the shuffle of feet heading toward the stairs. A pregnant Ruby Mae descended and proceeded to walk through Grace.
"You forget, Dr. MacNeill that we are not really here. We are just observers looking in on a theoretic world. Ruby Mae is now an Allen. She needed someone to look after her since the mission is closing and her Pa died. It appears that the Allens' needed someone to look after the brood that Mary left behind. Rob and her got married last spring." Grace chuckled at his horrified look. "Upstairs we go."
In a blink of an eye they were standing in a small room that Neil was somewhat familiar with. Christy's room. There on the bed, two women huddled together in a pool of light from a nearby table. The older woman had the younger one's head cradled to her chest, comforting her.
"Hush, now child. Everything's going to be alright." The soothing whisper stopped the sobbing momentarily. The head lifted then, tears still flowing freely. It was Christy.
"It's not! How can you say that? David said we would stay here and now he took a congregation in Boston. He lied to me. I have to stay here. I need to stay here. We can help these people. I don't think I can marry him tonight. He knows how I feel about leaving here. He doesn't care and I wonder if he really does love me."
"Christy, you have to marry David. I have no more funds left to support us both. Your father didn't leave us much money when he died. David will provide well for you both if you take that congregation in Boston. If you both stay here, you'll be no better off than the people who live here. You'll grow to love him, eventually, like I did your father."
"But there's so much that I can do here, to help people. It doesn't matter if we're poor or not. I don't want to give up teaching either."
"You have to Christy. A woman of your social standing simply does not work outside the home. David's mother doesn't have a very high opinion of you as it is and continuing to teach won't do anything to improve it."
Christy turned away from Julia Huddleston and flung herself into a pillow, her body shaking with fresh tears. Each sob tore Neil's own heart into shreds. He longed to comfort her. He couldn't just stand there and watch her cry.
He spun around to face Grace angrily. "All this is happening because I never came back as a doctor? I don't buy it. What does Christy marrying David have to do with me?"
"It has everything to do with you Neil. You weren't here to save Tom, Mary, or Opal because there was no doctor to tend to them. You never met Margaret so Alice never came her to keep things in Cutter Gap in prospective for David and Christy. You weren't here to help rehabilitate William after his stroke, so Julia sent him home to die, leaving her and Christy destitute. More importantly, you weren't here to be a friend to Christy, to show her there is more to life. To show her how to fight for what she wanted. She got a brief taste of her life's purpose only to have it torn away from her by circumstances."
"What will happen to her?"
"I can't say."
"I have to know what happens to her."
"Remember this is only a theoretical world. You are still a doctor, are you not?"
"Aye and a poor one at that."
Grace threw her hands into the air, shaking her head. "Haven't you been seeing anything tonight? This version of Cutter Gap shows how much you are needed, not just the doctor version of you but you as yourself. You are important. You are needed. You are cared for and loved. Stubborn man, can't you see?" Her hands dropped listlessly at her sides for a moment before she reached out and clenched his hand in hers.
Neil closed his eyes, anticipating the blinding flash. The flash wasn't as bright this time. He opened his eyes and surveyed the surroundings. Hides hung from every available space on the log wall before him. A familiar, pungent smell made him flinch momentarily. There was no mistake he was at the O'Teale cabin.
"Go on and look inside." Grace directed tersely.
Neil moved forward to gaze through the patched window before him. Inside, a roaring fire cast shadows wildly about the grungy room. Swannie was knitting in the rocking chair by the fire, gathered at her feet were Mountie and Becky. Orter Ball and Smith sat on the edge of a rough looking bed. All were listening intently as Mountie read from a ratty book.
" 'Twas the night b-before C-Christmas and all through the house, not a c-creature was s-stirring not even a mouse. Whatcha drawin, Becky?"
The older girl pushed her wayward glasses back up her nose before answering. "It's a picture of the sea king from that story Dr. MacNeill told me that night he decided to make my eyes better."
"Ain't hit purty Mama? I wish I could draw like Becky." Mountie beamed up at her mother, blue eyes shining.
"Shore is. Go on and finish yer story. Ye's doin a fine job of readin." Swannie picked up her knitting and sighed to herself, "God bless that man."
Grace's soft voice curled its way to his ear. "Take my hand, there's more to see." Neil obeyed instinctively.
Again they were on the porch of a cabin, looking through a dusty little window. This time it was the Allen cabin. Through the windowpane, the sound of merriment met Neil's ears. Bob swung Mary around in an impromptu dance as Rob read a story to the younger members of the Allen clan. Creed was popping corn over the fire, deftly rocking the pan back and forth to keep the kernels from scorching. Occasionally, a zealous kernel popped and flew across the room or into the fire with a sizzle to the delight of Little Burl and his young sister. They bubbled over with laughter. Rob stopped patiently for the gales of laughter to ebb before continuing his story.
"Family is the most important thing in anyone's life. Without family we are are cut a drift on some lonely sea without an anchor. The end."
Mary clenched her hands to her chest. "Rob, that's the best story you've read and so true ain't hit, Bob?"
Startled, Neil pulled back from the window. He remember Grace saying that Mary had died and Rob had married Ruby Mae. He must be in a new theoretical world. Glancing in the window again, he was stunned to realize that he had saved the entire Allen clan from death at one time or another. He saved Bob, Mary, Rob, the youngest child, Creed and Little Burl. Smiling to himself, he acknowledged that he did have help with those last two.
Turning to Grace, he asked softly, "This isn't the same theoretical world that we were in moments ago?'
"No, we are in the world as it is. I really wasn't suppose to show you this, but you had to be stubborn. There was no other way to get the point across. We have more to see." She reached out for his hand.
Once again, they were in Christy's room at the mission house. Christy sat in the middle of the floor surrounded by dozens of small packages wrapped in brown paper and trussed up in colorful ribbons.
"Miz Christy are you done yit?"
"Just one more Ruby Mae and then you can help me carry them down."
She plucked a rough-hewn picture frame off the floor beside her. Swiftly, she laid it face down on the brown paper before her and enrobed the item. From a ball of assorted ribbons, she selected a lovely blue and green tartan one and tied it neatly around the package. With a pencil pressed to her lips, she thought of what to write on it
With hushed breath, she spoke as she wrote. "To Neil MacNeill, someone who means a lot to me." Smiling to herself, she called Ruby Mae to help her carry the gifts downstairs.
"Come, there's one last place to show you." Grace beckoned him and he reluctantly tore his eyes from the scene before him.
Again, Neil found himself standing on a tiny cabin's porch in front of an equally tiny window. Only this time a sickening dread knotted itself around his insides.
"I don't want to be here. Take me back to my cabin, woman!"
"I'll do no such thing! You need to see this. Don't blame me. Most people would have learned to appreciate their lives after seeing a world without them. But not you. You had to be stubborn and insistent. Look in the window, Neil."
He did as instructed. Grace had a temper and he feared if he crossed her much more, he'd find himself a misplaced man, lost in a theoretical world or something of the sort. He wiped a small place clear of condensation so he could see into the cabin that he had left hours before.
Inside, a man held a woman to him tightly. James and Ada Bower were grieving their lost child. How was this going to make him feel that being a doctor was a good thing? Just as he was about to question Grace about the relevance of being here, James spoke softly to his wife.
"We'll have other children. I know we cain't replace Jacob but we cain't give up hope."
"I ain't. I'm miss him awful bad already, but he ain't sufferin no more. Much as I want to have him here in my arms, I'd ruther he be in God's arms without pain an sufferin'. I hope Doc don't feel like he did this, cause he did the best he could. I bet somewheres somebody'll find what took my baby and fix hit.. Maybe even Doc hisself'll figger it out ventually. He's a good doc."
"Reckon I orta give him a load of firewood, after, after we's buried our boy."
Ada didn't acknowledge her husband's words. She had moved way from his embrace and stood over the tiny bed close to the roaring fire. Tears coursed freely down her cheeks.
"He's never looked so peaceful like in his whole life like he do now. The Lord's takin good care of my boy."
Silently, Grace touched Neil's hand and they were back before the fire in his own cabin. Neil rubbed a hand over his stubbly cheeks and found they were wet with tears. Staring into his wet hand, he recalled the last scene. After all they had been through, the Bowers did not blame him or God for Jacob's death.
A warm, gentle hand rested on his shoulder. "Do you see now that you are loved? You're loved by the community and God still loves you too. He meant for you to be a doctor. You are a small part of His picture, one thread in the woven cloth, but you aren't insignificant. You matter. Life is hard and complicated, but it's wonderful nonetheless, Neil."
Looking up into Grace's sapphire blue eyes, he saw the love she was talking about. Warm and all-encompassing, it filled him with comfort.
"Aye, it is a wonderful life."
A smile curled Grace's lips. "You don't have to sound so stubborn when you're agreeing with me."
"That is what make me me, is it not?"
Grace bent and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "It is Dad, it is." She vanished before he could question her.
Looking around him in disbelief, he saw that nothing had changed. Pieces of the broken jug still lay on the hearth and the pool of moonlight still shone through the window, though it had shifted further across the floor. Had any of this really happened? Shaking his head, Neil went up to the loft and went to bed. He'd figure out what happened in the morning.
By the next morning, he was sure it had all happened. His throbbing head and bloodshot eyes told him it was real. Going downstairs, something on the mantlepiece caught his eye. It was a honeysuckle blossom. Fresh and unwilted, like it had just bloomed. Impossible! It was December and it had snowed recently. Lifting it to his nose, the scent reminded him of Grace. In his mind he could hear her voice telling him that he wasn't dreaming. He found a straight pin and pinned the tiny flower near his shirt collar and set himself to making a pot of coffee. He wanted to appear that he had a decent night's rest before he went to the mission.
He arrived to a veritable blizzard of activity, at which Christy was at the center. She was arranging plates of cookies and pies on a table while barking orders to a frazzled Ruby Mae. Shifting his weight, he finally caught her attention.
"Neil! I didn't expect to see you here so early. You look tired."
"I am. It was a difficult night. Little Jacob Bower died last night."
Christy's deep blue eyes sprang open, wide with sympathy, as she made her way to him. "I'm so sorry. I'll have to go visit them soon. Are you alright?" She rested her hands lightly on his shoulders. Her eyes and gestures struck him with familiarity. She had Grace's eyes and mannerisms. No, that was wrong. Grace had Christy's eyes and mannerisms.
"Lordamercy, Miz Christy, ye done caught Doc under the mistletoe." Ruby Mae exclaimed as she enter with another plate of cookies.
"So she did, Ruby Mae." Neil lifted Christy's face to his and brushed his lips against hers in a tender kiss.
Releasing her, Christy stared at him in a dazed silence until her eyes caught sight of the honeysuckle.
"Where did you get a honeysuckle blossom this time of year?"
"From your daughter, Grace." He stepped away from her and toward a plate of cookies, leaving her staring after him with a bemusing puzzled look on her face.
"Don't look so confused, Miss Huddleston. It's a wonderful life after all."
A/N: Hope you enjoyed this holiday story. I will be continuing my other stories, just trying to work around a hectic holiday schedule. To everyone out there: Have a Joyous Christmas and Happy New Year! Looks like it might be a white one on much of the East Coast.