Homeless Christmas Eve
A/N: So this started as a little Christmas Eve drabble that grew and grew. It is my gift to you this holiday season. I hope you enjoy it. I'm so grateful to have found the community and support here I never dreamed existed. Thank you. I didn't want to interrupt anyone's time with their family, so it's not beta'd. Any and all mistakes are mine completely.
Now, without further ado...
I never thought I'd find myself in this position. So humiliating. It would have been bad enough if it were just me, but I wasn't alone in this, my baby girl was with me. She sat on the pavement to my left, leaning on my backpack while I stood holding a small cardboard sign.
She'd stopped whining and complaining about the cold yesterday. Today, she was still and stoic, refusing to look at anyone who pulled up to the stoplight, her hat pulled low over her eyes. I was so ashamed and worried about how this might affect her later in life. There was nothing for it, however, and I ran to the car window to take the bill from the outstretched hand before the light changed and traffic moved.
Begging on a street corner for change. How did it get this far?
I wondered where we'd sleep tonight. We'd only been without a roof for a couple of nights, and while it was scary and confusing, it hadn't been too bad – we'd been lucky enough to get a cot at the church. But they weren't open tonight and tomorrow because of the holiday. They wanted to give their volunteers and workers time to be with their families for Christmas, which meant we were completely on our own for the first time.
It was Sally who recommended setting up on the corner here at the exit to the mall. She said it would be packed with last minute shoppers and she'd been right. It was a tough time for everyone, though, and only small bills and handfuls of change made their way through the car windows – not enough to get a room for the night, much less two. I prayed hard for some sort of miracle knowing while I didn't deserve one, my daughter did.
It was odd being so invisible. I was surprised how many people wouldn't even look at us, acknowledge us as part of the human race, while others tsked and shook their heads in judgement of us. I'd never felt so outcast and alone in my life.
"Here. For the child," a stranger said, pushing a small bag of food into my hands. She huffed off quickly before I could thank her properly.
"Thank you!" I called to her, but she didn't slow down or turn around. Just raised a hand in acknowledgement. I opened the bag to find a child's fast food meal with a toy inside. The steam rising off the hot food smelled delicious and was warm on my face.
"Here, baby. Have something to eat."
"It's your favorite – chicken nuggets." I handed her the bag, making sure the mouthwatering smell passed under her button nose. Fast food was a luxury we hadn't had in quite some time, and she couldn't resist, quickly diving into the rapidly cooling food before it was cold. It did my heart good to see her eat something, anything at all.
"Hey, lady! You want this or what?" A loud voice broke my reverie and I ran to the outstretched hand with a smile. Only a coin was dropped into my hand followed by loud, raucous laughter as the car sped away. A penny. Something most people didn't even bother to pick up. I sighed.
At least it wasn't chewed gum like yesterday. That was gross.
"For shame! Using a child to beg for money!" The random voice shouted out the window as the driver sped down the street. It never ceased to amaze me how cruel people could be sometimes.
Hours passed as morning became afternoon and the sun disappeared behind steely grey clouds. The breeze picked up with the smell of rain in the air. I knew we needed to get inside before the temperature dropped much further.
"C'mon, sweetie. Let's go watch the people inside the mall for a bit. Won't that be fun?"
My daughter, Renee, silently got to her feet and waited while I pulled on my backpack. No smile, no laughter, eyes glued to the sidewalk. The spark in my little girl was gone, and I had to quickly brush away a tear before I took her hand in mine and headed for the mall entrance.
We found a bench just inside the doors, and I was so grateful to sit down for a moment. I pulled my backpack around into my lap so I could surreptitiously count the money people had given us today. $34.89 from this morning added to the $42 from yesterday wasn't enough for a hotel, but it would buy us a cup of hot cocoa complete with whipped cream and sprinkles.
"Brrr! I got cold outside. Bet you did, too. How about we get a cup of cocoa to share – would you like that?"
Renee shrugged one shoulder not looking up from her lap. I sighed again and took her small hand in mine as we headed for the coffee and tea shop partway down the mall.
The walkways and stores were crowded with last minute shoppers, a loud buzz of harried voices filled the air. I held tight to Renee's hand not wanting to lose her in the crowd.
Several teenaged boys pushed through the crowd laughing. One pushed another who crashed into me, almost knocking me off my feet.
"Sorry lady," one hollered before they ran off laughing and running into other people.
"Miss? I think you dropped this," a man's voice spoke to me, catching my attention.
"What? Oh, thank you," I replied, taking the envelope from his hand without paying any attention to what I was doing. I was too busy trying to catch my balance and making sure Renee was okay to realize what he handed me wasn't mine.
"Sir? Sir! Wait!" I cried, looking up only to see him rapidly walking away from me. "Sir? There's been a mistake!" I tried to catch him up, but his long legs carried him away faster than Renee and I could follow, and he quickly disappeared in the crowd. All I'd seen of him was the back of a dark wool overcoat, dark trouser legs, the only really distinguishing feature was a navy beret perched jauntily on his head.
Tucking the large brown envelope under my arm, Renee and I entered the coffee shop for our cocoa. After waiting for several minutes in line, I placed our order. When I put my hand in my pocket, I found it empty of all the bills, only the change remained. I was horrified to discover that what little we'd had had just been stolen from us by those rowdy teens. Tears threatened, but I couldn't allow them to fall.
"That'll be $3.60, please."
"Oh. Oh, yes, I'm sorry." I pulled a handful of change from my coat pocket praying I had that much still when my fingers caught on the edge and my hand became stuck. Embarrassed, I jerked my arm causing the seam to rip and the change to go flying out in all directions before cascading noisily to the floor.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry..." I began, stooping to collect the coins from the floor. The woman behind us huffed noisily at the delay. Renee stood rooted in place as I frantically scrambled to pick up the scattered money.
"How much is it again?" The woman behind us asked.
"Just add it to my tab. I don't have time for this crap today."
I stood to thank her with tears in my eyes, but she cut me off.
"Don't thank me honey. It would cost me more than that to stand here waiting for you. It's worth it to me to pay for you to get out of my way."
I stood there silently stunned until the barista called out my name.
"Here, Momma." Renee handed me the rest of the change from the floor. I'd been completely unaware of her picking it up.
"Thank you, sweetheart." I put the money in my other coat pocket and touched her head gently as I looked for an empty table.
"Here, you can have mine. I was just leaving."
"Are you sure, sir?"
"Yes, I see my wife outside the window looking for me."
"All right, then. Thank you."
He looked down with a sweet smile and caught Renee's eye. "Are you ready for Santa to come tonight?" She nodded in reply, but said nothing. It broke my heart knowing I had nothing for her and no place to stay.
How do you tell a child Christmas isn't coming?
"Merry Christmas to you both," he said with a twinkle in his eyes.
"Merry Christmas to you, too, sir."
As he exited the store, Renee and I sat down to enjoy our cocoa.
"Miss? You dropped this in all the commotion." A gnarled, smiling face was holding out the large brown envelope."
"Oh! That's not mine."
"Oh? But I saw you drop it when you went to pick up your money. If it's not yours, whose is it?"
"I don't know, honestly. Some man in the mall handed it to me thinking I'd dropped it when some boys almost knocked me down in the crowd. I tried to catch him, but he slipped away before I could."
"Well, I wouldn't worry about it. Take it to mall security. If anyone is looking for it, they'll know. I'd do it myself, but my kids are waiting for me at home." I took it from him wordlessly as he wished me a Merry Christmas and shuffled off.
Since there was nothing written on the outside of the envelope, mall security insisted on opening it while I was standing there watching. I could tell they didn't believe my story about the pickpocketing teenage boys. They'd seen me outside on the corner begging for money and warned me not to prey on the shoppers inside the mall. The officer tore the envelope open and drew out several pieces of paper clipped together.
"You're sure these aren't your papers?"
"Yes. I told you..."
"I know what you said. But if these aren't yours, why is your picture right on top?" He turned the packet around so I could see. Sure enough, clipped to the top was a picture of us on the corner from this morning.
I reached out a shaking hand and he handed me the stack along with the envelope. Attached to the picture of Renee and I was a typed letter.
I noticed you and the child this morning upon exiting the mall. I was once homeless myself many years ago. Enclosed you will find a key card to a nearby hotel room. No favors – sexual or otherwise – are expected in return. Please accept this gift in the spirit of the season in which it was given.
No signature, no name, nothing. The other papers included were a marked map to the hotel, and a note to the staff on my behalf in case something like that was needed. That was all.
My head shot up and I looked all around me to see if someone was watching, or if I saw a friendly face. Again, nothing. I thanked the security officer and beat a hasty retreat before he decided I was guilty of something and called the police. I was sure there was some sort of mistake, while the picture of us unnerved me greatly.
But, I had no place to go. No one to ask or call. I didn't know what to do, and slowly walking across the mall holding Renee's hand while I processed my thoughts and made my decision. I watched my little girl watching all the other families and children we passed. I saw her looking in store window after store window with longing and sometimes hunger in her eyes.
She hadn't asked about anything and I was secretly glad because I didn't know what to say. Her face would turn to mine every once in a while with a smile, trust still shining in her eyes. It was her trust in me that finalized my decision. I wouldn't take anything for myself, but I would take anything for her. To protect her. Keep her safe and warm and dry.
I was a complete failure as everything, including being a mother in many ways, but I couldn't let my daughter down when there was a hand reaching out to lift her up. I turned us towards the mall exit closest to the hotel and headed once more out into the cold.
A steady light rain was falling by the time we reached the hotel entrance. It was a very upscale, trendy place, something I wasn't expecting. I nervously crossed the threshold and headed to the elevator tightly gripping Renee's hand expecting to be halted by someone at any moment. No one seemed to acknowledge us at all, and I breathed a sigh of relief when the elevator doors slid closed.
"Push the seven button, baby."
Renee reached out and pressed the button with a seven on it and stepped back. We silently watched the numbers light up as we passed each floor. With a ding, the doors slid open on the seventh floor and we entered a plushly carpeted hallway. Renee looked to be questioningly, her eyes as big as saucers. I wasn't sure, but I think my expression matched hers. It was so hushed in the hallway, I was afraid to speak. I checked the room number written on the paper holding they plastic card and pulled Renee down the corridor, stopping at the door marked 753.
It was the last door on the right, at the end of the hallway. I let go of Renee's hand to work the key/door handle combination. I gasped when the door opened to reveal a huge, opulent room. We stood stunned side-by-side in the doorway for several moments.
"Momma! Momma! Look!" Renee broke the silence with a cry, running to the far corner of the room where a beautifully decorated tree stood. I was so awed by the sheer size and luxury before me, I hadn't even seen the tree.
I entered the room and allowed the door to close in a slow moving stupor. I realized my mouth was hanging open, and I snapped it closed.
"Don't touch anything, Renee."
"I didn't Momma. Isn't it beautiful though?" her eyes were shining when they turned to mine. She was bouncing up and down on her toes she was so excited.
"Yes. It's... it's lovely."
I was still standing in the middle of the room, just looking, when she took off and started running around the room looking at everything. She was the curious child once again. My heart swelled at the sight and I focused on her, not the overwhelming nature of the room and the unreal quality of what was happening.
Please don't wake me up if this is a dream. Please. Please.
Renee disappeared through an open doorway.
"Baby, wait..." But, she was already back, grabbing on to my hand and dragging me through the doorway.
I turned my head back to the room we'd left. I'd thought the couch was a pull out.
A... this... this is a suite?
My mental voice pitched up several octaves at the end of that thought. I'd heard of suites, of course, but never seen one, much less ever thought I'd have the key to one.
Renee was already checking out the bathroom and I followed her stupidly, completely overwhelmed by everything.
"Look, Momma. There are robes and towels and everything! Aren't these cute? They're just my size." She held up the tiny bottles of soap and lotion.
"Yes, baby... they are." I reached out a shaky hand to touch the cool marble of the vanity, trying to convince myself this was indeed real.
A knock at the door broke my stupor, and I quickly returned to the living room.
"Yes? Who is it?" I called through the door.
"It's the concierge, ma'am. Just want to check that everything is in order."
I looked through the peephole and saw a nattily dressed man in suit and tie with a name tag. I opened the door.
"Yes, um, yes, it's quite lovely." I didn't know what else to say. I kept thinking he was going to tell me there had been some kind of mistake, but he didn't.
"Excellent. Please don't hesitate to call down to the front desk if we can be of service in any way. Marcus?" A man dressed in an understated uniform I hadn't noticed stepped forward. He was nearly hidden by boxes and bags.
"Where would you like these, Ma'am?"
"Uh... Those are for me? Surely there's been some kind of mistake."
"You are Bella Swan, yes?"
"That's my name, yes."
"These are for you," he said confidently.
"Oh. Well then, the sofa will be fine. Thank you."
He set the boxes and bags down, nodded and left.
"Yes?" I turned back to the door where the concierge was still waiting. He held out a cream colored square envelope. I took it from him slowly, as if it would bite me.
"Merry Christmas, Ms. Swan." He, too, nodded his head and left before I could find my voice to wish him the same. The click of the latch snapped my mind back to the moment.
I drifted towards the couch and sank into a cushy adjoining chair. Renee came to stand beside my knee.
"What does it say, Momma?"
"I... I don't know."
"Well, don't just sit there! Open it and see!"
I turned the heavy envelope over in my hand and slipped my finger under the flap. Inside was a sturdy matching card with neat handwriting on it.
Please join me downstairs at 7 for a holiday meal and bring the child. Rest assured we will be in plain view of others and nothing untoward will happen to either of you. I've provided appropriate attire. Please notify the staff if the sizes are unsatisfactory.
No name, no signature. I was grateful, of course, but annoyed by this person's high handedness. This smacked of a command appearance.
"What is it?"
"It's an invitation for dinner tonight."
"Is it fancy dinner?"
"I think so."
Her lip began to tremble and several big, fat tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Oh, baby. What is it?" I asked, drawing her into my lap and hugging her close.
"I don't have a dress or shoes to wear. I can't go." She sniffed loudly.
"See those boxes and bags over there?"
She nodded sniffing.
"Why don't you go see what's inside and then show me."
She looked up at me for reassurance. She had always been an obedient child despite her boundless curiosity, and she knew not to touch anything that wasn't ours. I nodded, smoothing her hair and kissing the top of her head. Renee slipped from my lap, and sucking unconsciously on a finger she warily approached the pile.
She peeked into the closest bag and let out a shriek of joy, "A dolly! A dolly! And she looks like me!" The doll rapidly emerged from the bag, and it did indeed look very much like my daughter. Her shyness broken, she dove into the pile and ripped boxes and bags open, spilling their contents all over the sofa and coffee table.
There were dresses for us as well as shoes and necklaces and hair ribbons and bows. Everything we needed for a dressy dinner and more. Once everything was revealed, Renee grabbed one of the two dresses her size and asked with excited eyes, "Oh, Momma! Can I wear this one? It's so pretty!"
I couldn't deny my baby anything I could give when she asked like that. "Yes, if that's the one you want."
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" She literally jumped up and down with joy.
"Okay. Help me clean all this up and then we have to go get ready for dinner."
"Yes, Momma." She carefully carried the dress into the bedroom and laid it out on the bed. I gathered up all the other clothes and quickly followed her. Renee couldn't tear herself away from the beautiful dress. She kept stroking and touching it as if it would disappear. I completely understood how she felt, and gently coaxed her to join me in the bathroom for a bubble bath.
It was such a luxurious treat to share the large tub with my daughter. We played in the bubbles and sang silly songs while we washed each other's back and hair. I couldn't remember the last time we'd had anything other than a quick shower and lukewarm at that. The string of grungy bathrooms that never felt clean no matter how much I scrubbed were a distant memory in this sparkling place.
Once dried, we donned our fluffy soft robes, and I gently combed and dried Renee's hair before tackling my own. Despite her happy outward demeanor, I new Renee was nervous and insecure as she refused to leave my side for longer than it took to get her new doll from the living room. She played with grooming her mini me as I prepared us both.
Freshly washed, thoroughly scrubbed and dried, we dressed in our new finery. Everything fit just fine, and I was glad to see it was modest as well. They weren't things I would have selected, but they were all very nice and I was more than grateful to have something clean and lovely to wear.
I had no makeup to wear, and hoped that my cleanliness would be enough to please. Renee was absolutely adorable in her frilly dress and shiny Mary Jane's. My heart caught for a moment looking at her – seeing her as the little girl she was now and envisioning the beautiful woman she had the potential to become.
I shoved that unhelpful thought out of my mind as I turned to switch off the dresser lamp. My eye fell on my backpack on the floor nearby.
With all this generosity, I can't go down empty handed, but I don't have anything. I don't even know if we're meeting a man or a woman or both. Either way, I have to come up with something.
I grabbed my bag and set it on the bed. I rooted down into the secret compartment and opened the zipper to pull out a smallish velveteen drawstring bag. I unfastened the drawstring and dumped the contents onto the comforter, separating the individual items for consideration. There were really only two items that would do – my most precious family pieces, given to me by my grandmother just before she passed.
I sighed heavily, but knew I had to let them go. They had no monetary value, only sentimental value for me, but they were all I really had to give and they didn't even come close to the gift Renee and I had been given.
Putting the other things back into their hiding place, I scrounged around the rooms looking for a scrap of paper or bag or anything to wrap my meager gifts in. Finding nothing but some paper napkins and some colored string in the bottom of my bag, I did my best to enfold my family treasures into festive packages. I was careful to tie them differently so I knew what was inside each bundle – one for a man and one for a woman.
When I finished, it was time to wash our hands and go downstairs to meet our mysterious benefactor.
The dining room was sumptuous and hushed. Only the quiet clank of silverware on china and murmured voices floated in the air accompanied by a cacophony of mouthwatering aromas. The maitre'd escorted us to a table in the middle of the room, and I relaxed somewhat knowing that there were many eyes that would see if there was some sort of inappropriate behavior or action. As much as I didn't like being in the center of anything, in this case, it did make me feel better.
Renee's eyes were huge in her face. She'd never see anything like this before and was cowed by the fine china, crystal, and silver flatware on the table. Our host wasn't here yet, so I took a moment to quietly explain everything to her. She nodded silently and clutched her new doll tightly.
I was taking a sip of water when a very elegant man appeared at my elbow.
"Ms. Swan, I presume?"
I looked up into his extraordinarily handsome face and nearly choked.
"Edward Cullen." He held out a large, long fingered almost delicate looking hand. I instinctively put mine in his to shake in greeting.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Cullen. This is my daughter, Renee."
"Hi Renee. What a pretty doll you have. She looks like you."
Renee shyly smiled before burying her face in the doll's hair.
"Renee? Your manners. Please say hello."
"Yes, Momma. I'm sorry," she barely breathed before turning to him and saying hi in a soft voice.
Without further ado, he sat gracefully in the remaining chair and a long, awkward silence ensued.
The usual rounds of wait staff and even a sommelier attended our table at regular intervals. We were all mostly silent as we enjoyed the lavish holiday feast. I didn't know what to say and Renee apparently picked up on my nervousness and remained shy as well. I kept thinking he'd start up a conversation, but he seemed to be waiting for me and my pitiful attempts died out quickly.
We were lingering over coffee and dessert when he cleared his throat and finally spoke at last.
"Renee? How old are you child?"
She looked to me to see if it was okay for her to speak. I nodded my reassurance. "I'm five, sir."
"I see. And what is your favorite thing to do?"
"I like to read and play with my dolls."
"Do you have lots of books and dolls?"
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"No. Just my Momma."
"Only the two of you?"
He turned to me then. "I'm not going to ask how you found yourself panhandling on a street corner. That's none of my business. However, having a child – your child as it were – with you is disturbing and distasteful to me. Should she not be in school?"
"She was in kindergarten, but without a permanent address or phone number, they wouldn't let her come anymore. We've, um, moved around a lot recently."
"What are your plans?"
"I said, what are your plans?"
"Plans? Beyond a safe place to sleep, food, and trying to find some work, I don't have any plans. Not anymore."
He tsked and my temper flared.
"I'm sorry. I fail to see how this is any of your business. We are certainly grateful for your very generous assistance, but why me? Why us? There are hundreds of homeless people in this city."
"I'm quite well aware of that."
"I'm not at liberty to say." He drew a long envelope from the inside pocket of his suit coat and handed it to me. "Here. Take this."
"Thank you, no. You've already been more than generous with us. There are others in need. Please give this to someone else." I placed it on the table and pushed it to him.
He looked at me with an inscrutable expression and paused before tucking the enveloped back into his pocket. He looked at his watch. "I must be going."
I was speechless and confused by both his words and his actions. He made to rise from the table and I realized he was serious about leaving.
"Wait! Please..." I grabbed my clutch and dug in it, pulling out the man's gift. I was even more ashamed of my meager offering and shabby wrappings. My hand shook slightly as I held out the tiny package.
"What's this?" He asked with a puzzled frown. Clearly I'd surprised him.
"It's a gift for you. A small token of my gratitude. Please accept it."
He slowly reached out and took the gift from my outstretched hand. As he examined it carefully, I blushed at its makeshift appearance in such lavish surroundings. His hand began to move towards his jacket pocket when a small voice halted its movement.
"Aren't you gonna open it?"
"Renee!" I hissed.
"No, it's quite all right. Would you like to see me open it, child?"
"Yes! I love presents! It's fun to watch everyone open them up!" She was bouncing slightly in her seat now.
"Well then, just for you." He put the package on the table in front of himself with a flourish. Pulling the string gently, he moved the wrapping aside and a pair of cufflinks were revealed. He blanched and his mouth opened slightly. The sight was clearly unexpected and I watched him swallow several times.
"What is it?" Renee asked, her neck craning to see across the table.
He seemed unable to speak, so I answered her softly, "Cufflinks, baby. They were your great grandfather's. I've shown them to you. Remember?"
"Yes, Momma. I remember." She turned her eyes back to him. "They're nice, huh?"
"Um... Yes. They're very nice. Too nice." His eyes met mine for the first time. "I can't possibly accept these – a family heirloom should stay with you." He held them out to me in the palm of his hand.
"No. Please. It would mean a lot to me for you to accept them. They aren't anything fancy, but you've been so incredibly kind and generous to us and this is the only way I can pay you back, show you my gratitude. Without your kindhearted gift, I don't know where we'd be sleeping tonight or what we'd have had for dinner. Please. You answered my prayer today. Please."
I reached over and closed his fingers over them and pushed his hand away from me. His lips trembled slightly, and he swallowed hard as he looked away. He opened his hand to look at them one more time before exhaling and putting them in his pocket.
"I will wear them with honor."
I nodded my gratitude at his acceptance. "Well, we should let you get on with your evening. Thank you again for the wonderful dinner." I lay my napkin on the table and started to rise. His hand on my forearm stopped me.
I settled back down in my chair.
"I... I owe you an apology. I-I misjudged you terribly. Please, hear me out."
I pulled Renee into my lap protectively and nodded for him to continue.
"As I said, I'm well aware of the homeless situation in the city. My charities of choice are all connected with supporting those without homes in one way or another. I was homeless once myself, many years ago. I think I mentioned that in my letter.
"Over time, I've become jaded. So many don't want a helping hand up out of homelessness, they just want a handout. They aren't willing or able to make the changes needed to change their living situation. It's very discouraging and I've started to resent the very people I'm trying to help.
"A good friend and fellow board member decided to challenge me in the form of a friendly wager."
"Yes, a bet. He bet me that if I helped the next homeless person I saw, I would discover that not everyone was out for a dime, for whatever they could get from me and anyone else. He was certain it would reconnect me to the heart of the work that was once so meaningful to me."
"And if he won?"
"I'd rededicate myself to finding new approaches for the next five years."
"And if you won?"
"I'd walk away and never look back having given all I had to the cause."
"Wow. That's some bet."
"Yes. My friend knows me well. I like a good challenge, and I was completely determined to prove him wrong."
"No, you don't see. Not really. We were having coffee at the mall, and you were the very first homeless person I saw as I was leaving the mall this morning. I was outraged to see you with a child. I wasn't even sure the child was yours. I thought perhaps you'd borrowed her from someone to get more money from people. I didn't realize I'd become that cynical until that thought crossed my mind.
"But the die was cast. I'd agreed to the terms, and the terms specified the first homeless person I saw, so I made all the arrangements and returned expecting to find you still on the corner. Imagine my dismay when I found you gone. As I circled the parking lot looking for a place to park thinking maybe you'd gone inside to warm up, I saw you walking through the mall entrance and rapidly made my way to follow you.
"I had completely prejudged you. I had a whole story made up in my mind about how you weren't really homeless but were just wanting to make a quick dollar without effort. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I did that. And believe me, I'm not a man who apologizes frequently. However, I own up to my mistakes and I am man enough to admit when I'm wrong, to apologize for my actions, and to do my best to make amends.
"Can you forgive me and my judgments? You are nothing like I imagined. You've only been grateful and not asked for anything more. Your gift, it makes me think of the widow's mite. Those cufflinks may not have much monetary value, but to me, they are more valuable than anything money can buy."
I bowed my head and pressed my lips to Renee's head. I'd been stroking her hair unconsciously, soothing both of us. Her reassuring warmth, smell, and weight on my lap grounded me and kept me here listening to him. I wanted to be angry or at least offended, but I found I couldn't. I knew exactly what he was talking about. Even though I had been homeless a relatively short time, I had encountered mostly people he'd described. Only a few were really wanting to improve their lot in life.
I looked up into his eyes and the emotion I saw there caused my breath to catch in my throat.
"Yes, yes, I forgive you. I understand you judgments completely. I know what you're talking about, and honestly, I've had the very same thoughts. Especially before I found myself homeless, something I never dreamed would ever happen to me or my daughter. We are really so very grateful for your kindness, no matter the motivation behind it. Thank you."
He looked at his watch again. "I really do need to get going. I want to make the late church service. I miss singing carols. Would you... would you do me the honor of joining me?"
I couldn't hide my shock at his invitation.
"I'm not sure. It's kind of late..."
"Oh, Momma! Pleeease? Can't we go? I wanna sing carols, too!"
"You aren't too tired, baby? It's been a long day."
"No Momma. I'm not tired at all! Please can't we go?"
"All right. Yes, we'd be delighted to go with you."
The smile that split his face was positively breathtaking. As he took care of the bill, we hurried upstairs to use the washroom and grab our coats. We tucked Renee's new doll into bed before we left the room.
The church was old and spectacular with a large pipe organ. I was surprised at the number of people attending the late service, and looked around at the decorations with a look that matched Renee's.
The service began shortly after we arrived. There was no real sermon, just several readings from scripture and lots of singing both by the choir and by all assembled. At precisely midnight, the church lights dimmed and we filed out silently with the haunting strains of Silent Night floating above our heads. Renee had fallen asleep between us, and he lifted her gently to his shoulder to carry her out.
When we reached the exterior doors, the church bells began to ring. All was dark and hushed outside, no one speaking. I realized snow had begun falling while we were inside. Big, fat flakes lazily making their way to the ground where a layer of white was gathering. My breath showed in the air before me.
I looked up at the man beside me. He smiled softly and gently down at me. I didn't know what the future held, but I knew without a doubt in my heart that things would be all right. I smiled shyly in return before slipping my mittened hand into his as we walked under the moonlight in the falling snow.
Christmas had come and brought with it miracles beyond my dreams.
A/N: Merry Christmas, Happy Festivus, and whatever it is you might celebrated at this dark time of year!