Brick Flagg, Go City University's newly crowned football hero, relaxed while his SUV ate up the miles to Middleton. He was feeling a little guilty about driving the new, expensive vehicle, but his coach told him he really didn't have much of a choice. His new university had plenty of supporters who wanted to see their Alma Mater finally break into the big time of the college football ranks. Okay, so the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl wasn't exactly a prestigious game, but the trouncing Brick had led against the Pac-12 opponent, who had been highly favored, had more than made up for that. The alumni had been eager to shower gifts on the team, and one of them owned a very profitable dealership.
While it was probably illegal for Brick to accept the vehicle, even with all the maneuvering the lawyers had done to apply a thin crust of legitimacy to the transaction, it would have been more damaging if the freshman quarterback hadn't taken it. The donor not only regularly gave hefty donations to the university's athletic scholarship fund; he knew plenty of other people who did so. If Brick were to slight him by refusing the gift, other students, whose finances weren't up to paying for a college education, might find themselves with no scholarship money. So Brick found himself behind the wheel of a luxury SUV, in a building blizzard, covering the last few miles to his hometown.
While the vehicle was the most valuable gift he had received for leading his team to victory, it was far from the only one. Still, Brick had always preferred substance to style; so when the owner of a clothing store wanted to give the quarterback an expensive suit, Brick had managed to talk him into the sturdy boots he now wore. When another man wanted to give him designer luggage, Brick talked him into the duffle bag in the back seat. There had been many such gifts, but Brick had managed to talk most of the enthusiastic donors into the practical, rather than the ornate. Still, some gifts couldn't be refused.
Sitting on the passenger seat, next to the game ball the entire team had signed, rested a small box containing a sapphire bracelet. While Brick had been able to convince the jeweler that he really didn't want the designer watch, he had been forced to accept something. He told the man, truthfully, that he would like to see a girl's eyes when he gave her a gift. The man immediately gave him the bracelet, with a wink of his eye.
Of course, Brick valued the ball even more. His father had wanted to attend Go City U, but had neither the money to afford the costs nor the athletic talent to get a scholarship. He had positively beamed when his son received his acceptance letter and had crowed with pride when his son made the football team. Now, there was a spot over the family fireplace waiting for his first collegiate bowl game's game ball.
Foreword: I do not own the characters shown in this story. This story is only meant for entertainment, not to generate profit. This is my entry into Whitem's 3rd annual Snow Daze Holiday Contest. My thanks to Joe Stoppinghem, for beta services on very short notice.
Brick smiled when he recalled the game. An advantage of playing an early bowl meant that he would be home in time…barely… to make the Middleton Christmas Eve dance. Okay, he didn't have a girlfriend and wasn't necessarily looking for a hookup but if he met someone at the dance why not give her the bracelet and see her eyes light up? More importantly, his father was looking forward to showing off his victorious son to the friends and neighbors. Brick was looking forward to catching up with old friends and finding out what everyone had been up to. All in all, Brick was in a pretty good mood as he pulled off of the interstate and into Lowerton. That smile faded when the subcompact ahead of him slid off of the road and into the ditch.
Brick didn't hesitate; he carefully pulled to the side of the road, jumped out of his vehicle and rushed to see if anyone in the smaller car was injured. Fortunately, the three occupants were belted in and the car hadn't impacted anything solid.
"Is everyone okay in here?" He shouted, loud enough to be heard through the closed, driver's side window.
"I think so," the young woman, who was driving the car, replied. "Jimmy, Janet, are you okay?"
"Yes," twin voices replied from the back seat. Brick could now see that the driver was a young woman, perhaps in her late twenties and her passengers were a boy, perhaps ten years old and girl, perhaps fourteen. All bore a strong family resemblance but were pale and their voices sounded weak.
"Can I call you a tow truck?"
"That wouldn't be a good idea," the woman told him. "I wouldn't be able to afford the towing fee. We'll just have to walk home, come back later and try to dig the car out."
"Walk home, in this weather?" Brick demanded. "Look, I don't have a tow chain but you're not in very deep. I have a folding shovel in my emergency kit. Hang tight for a few minutes and I'll dig you out. We should be able to have you back on the road in a few minutes."
"Thank you," she replied, smiling and sighing with relief.
As promised, it only took the football hero minutes to pull the shovel from his emergency kit and return to the stuck vehicle. By the time he returned, the young boy had climbed out.
"I-I-I c-c-c-can help," he insisted.
"I only have one shovel," Brick told the youngster. "And I'm a lot bigger than you."
Seeing the youngster's expression of bruised pride, despite his shivering, Brick had to throw him a bit of a bone.
"Tell you what," he offered. "If I get tired, I'll let you take over. Deal?"
"Deal!" The boy agreed.
"Is that your mother and sister in the car?" Brick asked, as he started to throw snow.
"Yeah," the boy answered, stomping his feet to stay warm.
"Doesn't your dad live with you?"
"He usually does, but his unit got called up and sent to Afghanistan."
"How long ago?"
"He left in the spring."
"Life's been rough without him around, hasn't it?"
"It's different," the boy admitted. "We get his pay, but it's less than what he made when he was here. Not to mention, we have to pay for repairs he used to do himself."
"How long have the three of you been sick?" Brick asked, guessing why they were so pale.
"About a week," the boy answered. "We're just getting over it."
"Well, standing in the cold isn't doing you any good. Why don't the three of you wait in my car while I shovel out your car?"
"You sure?" The boy asked.
"Of course! Your being cold won't make the shoveling go any faster."
"You'll let me know if you get tired, right?" The boy asked.
"As soon as I get winded," Brick assured him, smiling at the boy's youthful pride.
The youngster slogged through the deepening snow while Brick started to shovel in earnest. Soon, the young family made its way past him and towards his car, shivering as they went. "Feel free to crank up the heat or turn on the radio!" Brick yelled, to be rewarded by the mother's thankful smile as she ushered her children into the warm space, before climbing in herself.
Brick took a look at the snow bank separating the car from the road before checking his watch (a much more sedate, sensible timepiece than the one the jeweler had wanted to give him).
"Okay, I might have to cut things short with dad before I go to the dance," he murmured to himself, as he made the snow fly. "But we'll have the rest of the semester break to catch up."
It took only about half of an hour, but it was fully dark before Brick had the snow cleared between the car and the road. The mother had turned on the SUV's hazard lights but this section of road on Lowerton's outskirts was fully deserted, so nobody had stopped to help. Still, Brick was confident that they would be able to get the car out as he returned to his vehicle and asked the young mother to drive her car while he pushed it.
"No, stay in here," he told the two kids. "There's no sense in you getting cold while we get the car out."
It took a few more minutes, but Brick benefited from his coach insisting his starting quarterback practice his blocking. Soon the car was back on the road and the young mother was climbing out.
"Your heater isn't working very well, is it?" He asked her, feeling the barely warmed air flowing out of the small car.
"No," she admitted. "But it usually keeps the windshield clear. Thank you for helping us."
"No problem," Brick assured her. "But, why don't we keep your kids warm? Drive my car to your home and I'll follow in yours."
"You'd do that for us?"
"Of course," Brick assured her. "I don't have anywhere I really need to be and I can tell that the three of you have been sick, lately. A chill can't help things."
"Thank you, oh so much," the woman almost sobbed, before shuffling back to the SUV.
"I might have to go straight to the dance," Brick mused, as he followed his vehicle through a working-class, Lowerton neighborhood. "But it's fine. Dad will understand."
The big quarterback had to smile at his own remark; his father had worked his way up from a carpenter to owning his own contracting firm and believed in helping with actions, more than items. This was exactly what his father would have done.
The small car slid on the slick roads once or twice, but Brick's quick reflexes, along with a lifetime of driving on winter roads, kept the vehicle on the road. It wasn't long before the SUV pulled to a stop in front of an apartment complex. Brick stopped behind his car as the family piled out of it.
"Thanks again," the woman murmured, returning Brick's keys and receiving her own. "It's nice to know that gentlemen can still be found."
"No problem, " Brick assured her, as the family started to pull grocery bags out of the small car. "I take it you had some last minute shopping to do."
"There was a problem with my husband's latest check," the woman told him. "We didn't have the money until today and our cupboards had become pretty bare. We didn't get the money in time for presents, but at least we'll have a good meal tomorrow."
"How are the kids taking not having gifts?" Brick asked her, as the children each lugged a bag towards the building.
"They aren't happy," she told him, struggling with one of the heavy bags. "But you just have to put up with such things, when you're a military family."
"Well, the least I can do is help carry this in," Brick told her, scooping up the remaining bags. "You three haven't got your strength back yet. What did you catch?"
"The flu," she grimaced at the memory. "But thanks again, for helping."
"Doesn't the apartment complex have a handyman?" Brick asked, as they trudged through the snow on top of, he assumed, a sidewalk.
"Yes," she answered. "But he took off to visit family over the holidays. He hasn't been around to shovel the snow and we've been too weak to do it ourselves. The snow isn't as bad as the window." She gestured towards a plastic tarp, which was nailed over a window. "A snow plow kicked a rock through the glass yesterday, so the apartment has been awfully cold."
"And nobody is here to fix the window?" Brick demanded, as they approached the apartment's door.
"The owners dropped off the window pane, putty, and other stuff," she answered, leading him into the tidy apartment. "But none of us know how to actually replace the glass."
"I used to help my father build houses," Brick told her. "I won't do a professional job, but it'll be a lot better than plastic."
"We can take care of that another day! Certainly you have somewhere to go!" She insisted. "We'll get by!"
"I don't have anywhere to be that's so important that I'm gonna let you guys spend a cold night," Brick countered. "Just point me towards the glass and other stuff and I'll take care of it while you put your groceries away."
The daughter showed the quarterback to the repair equipment while the mother and son busied themselves putting away the food. Soon, Brick was pulling the last of the broken glass out of the window frame, preparing to set the new pane.
"I'm afraid it won't let Santa Claus come in," Brick told the girl, as a way of making conversation. "But it'll keep you warm."
"C'mon," the girl protested, in a weak voice. "I'm fifteen. I know there's no Santa."
"Can't blame me for trying," Brick answered. "Does your brother still believe?"
"He wants to, but he's pretty sure the guy doesn't exist."
"I remember when I learned the truth," Brick chuckled. "I walked into our spare room and caught my uncle putting on a suit. Dad was pretty cool about it; he told me that the real Santa was out there, somewhere, keeping an eye on his assistants. If someone acted the part and did a good job, the real guy would show up and let him know he did a good job."
"Did you believe it?"
"Not really," the big quarterback smiled at the memory. "But it sort of kept the magic for another year or so."
"I wish my dad were here to say something like that to Jimmy," the girl couldn't completely stifle the sob in her voice.
"I'm sure you do," Brick told her. "You make sure to tell him thanks, for me, when he gets back."
"He'll want to thank you for helping us," she told him.
"My pleasure," Brick assured her. "I just wish I could do more."
"I really can't think of anything," the girl smiled at him. "A warm Christmas is more than we were hoping for."
"Speaking of staying warm," Brick told her. "I have to set some putty from the outside. There's no need for you go outside and get cold. I'll come in and let you know when I'm done."
"Okay, but can I ask you something?" When Brick nodded, she continued. "Are you Brick Flagg?"
"That's me," Brick nodded. "I take it you watched the bowl game?"
"My brother did," she smiled. "He loves Go City U and hopes to play football there, someday."
"I'll make sure to tell him that if he works out, he can be better than me."
"He'd love that," she smiled even wider. "But, I just thought of something more you can do!"
"Could you leave him your autograph? It'll be just as good as any Christmas present we could have bought him."
"I'll do it as soon as I clean the putty off of my hands," Brick assured her. "But isn't it a little unfair? After all, Santa will visit him, but not you and your mom."
"We don't believe anymore," she reminded him, with a sad smile. "As far as I'm concerned, you're Santa's assistant and he owes you a thank you."
With that, the young girl joined her mother and brother, who had finished putting away the groceries and were resting on the small couch. Brick offered them a small wave and stepped outside.
Before applying putty to the outside of the glass, Brick checked his watch. The dance had already started so he considered doing a quick and shoddy job, in order to enjoy as much of the festivities as he could. Then, he thought of the young family, shivering, and changed his mind.
"I can still catch the last hour or so," he reasoned. "And I'll feel better about myself."
Brick took his time, doing a solid, if not a concise and professional job. Once finished, he walked back inside, only to stop in his tracks once he closed the door. The young family, still weak from being sick and exhausted from a busy day, had fallen asleep, snuggled together on the small couch. For a minute or so, Brick simply smiled at the peaceful, touching scene. Then he remembered the promise he made the girl.
Feeling a little guilty for poking through someone else's possessions, Brick tiptoed to the kitchen area and looked for a pen and some paper to leave his autograph when he suddenly realized he didn't need them.
He had already signed his autograph.
Tiptoeing again, the big man slipped outside and trudged through the snow to his SUV. Opening the passenger door, he found his prized game ball, still sitting on the seat.
"Dad will understand," he murmured. "Besides, I can always get the guys to sign another ball."
When he picked up the football, the bracelet reflected the light from a nearby streetlight, making him pause and think some more.
"The dance will be winding down by the time I get there," he reasoned. "So there's no sense trying to charm some girl."
Scooping up both the ball and the bracelet, Brick trudged back inside the small apartment. Carefully, so he wouldn't wake them, he slipped the game ball under the boy's arm and placed the bracelet in the girl's hand. For a few moments, he smiled at the family, feeling enormously pleased with himself. Yet suddenly, his smile faded as he realized he really should do something for the young mother. His eyes widened when he realized what he could give.
Brick went back outside to his vehicle and stuffed the last of his possessions he had been carrying, into his duffle bag. He set the bag next to the SUV before returning, one last time, to the apartment. Once inside, he placed the SUV's keys in the mother's hand before tiptoeing back outside the door, locking it behind him. Smiling at the thought of the young family traveling icy roads in a four wheel drive, the quarterback swung his bag over his shoulder and strode off into the night.
"I should be home in a couple of hours," he judged. "And my new boots and coat will keep me warm."
Brick had only slogged about half of a mile through the quiet streets when headlights approached him from behind. Thinking that the season for miracles made it worth the effort; he put out his thumb and was pleasantly surprised when the approaching pickup pulled over. Brick broke into a trot, reaching the passenger door as the window rolled down.
"I'm heading to Middleton." The driver, a heavyset man with a snowy beard declared. "Can I give you a ride?"
"I'd appreciate it," Brick replied, tossing his bag into the truck's bed. "Thanks for the ride."
"My pleasure," the older man answered, as Brick climbed in the cab and belted himself in. "What's a young man like you doing out on a night like this?"
"On my way home from college," Brick told him.
"It's kind of complicated."
"I don't mean to pry," the driver told the young man. "I….woah!"
The truck slid on a corner, prompting the driver's exclamation. However, he recovered quickly, turning into the slide and regaining control of the truck.
"Uh, if you pull up this lever, you'll put it in four wheel drive," Brick told him, pointing at the drive control.
"Thank you, young man," the older man replied, chuckling heartily and following Brick's suggestion. "This isn't my usual vehicle. Now, if you don't mind me saying this, it's not usual to see a young man dressed as well as you, walking in weather as bad as this, and smiling as wide as you are."
Brick couldn't help chuckling, himself. "I did a few little things that made me feel really good about myself," he told the man.
"Well, good deeds are always welcome, especially at this time of year."
The two men didn't talk for the rest of the trip, yet it was a comfortable, friendly silence. Brick simply watched the outskirts of first Lowerton, then Middleton, slip by. Despite the earlier slide, the driver clearly knew how to handle a vehicle on ice and snow. It wasn't long before the pickup pulled to a stop outside Brick's house.
"Thanks for the ride," Brick told the man, climbing out of the cab and retrieving his bag from the back.
"No, Brick, thank you," the driver told him.
Brick didn't have a reply for that; he simply waved, turned around and trudged through the snow towards his welcoming porch light. Halfway there, he stopped cold.
"Hey!" He yelled, turning around. "How did you know my name? How did you know where I live? Why did you thank me?..."
A sudden gust of wind, carrying a squall of blinding snow, silenced his questions. The snow was so thick that he couldn't see the truck, but he slogged forward, determined to get some answers.
"Merry Christmas, Brick," a hearty voice called from the road. A long joyous laugh, accompanied by jingling bells, faded off down the road as the gust died down. Moments later, Brick was back on the road but the pickup had vanished.
Looking down, Brick noticed tire tracks leading down the street, from the direction he had just ridden but going the other direction, the way the truck was heading…
Runner marks and hoof prints?
Hardly believing what he was doing, Brick sprinted down the road, following the hoof prints in the snow. After half a block, they simply vanished.
Brick wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer and he knew it. He wasn't a tracker and couldn't say how old the hoof prints were, or what kind deer had made them. The runner marks could have been made by neighborhood kids.
But where had the truck gone? How had the driver known his name and address? What was making the bell noises, and where had it gone?
And why was he feeling so incredibly happy, even as he was standing outside on a cold, snowy night?
Deciding some answers just shouldn't be answered, Brick Flagg hoisted his bag onto his shoulder and walked to his house with a jaunty step, looking forward to seeing his parents.