Note: This short story is fictitious and was originally published in the Ridgway Record, December 17-18, 2016 Edition.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Peters, but we just can’t keep you on until Christmas. We’ve had to make some cutbacks, and as the newest employee, unfortunately, you’re the first one to get cut.” Rick Gordon frowned, looking sympathetic.
“But…it’s three weeks until Christmas, Mr. Gordon,” Jodi pleaded. “I’m still catching up on my bills from before. I don’t have anything for my children yet. I was counting on every paycheck. Please. Isn’t there something you can do?”
“No, I’m sorry. I wish there was.” Rick stood, indicating that their meeting was over. Jodi followed his lead and stood too. She looked out the office window at the falling snow, her mind racing. What would she do? How would she pay her bills, let alone provide Christmas for her children? As a single mom, it was hard enough to make ends meet on one paycheck, let alone dealing with being out of work.
The next half hour passed in a blur as Jodi left the building, pulled onto 120, and headed back into town. The drive through town itself was difficult – all she could think about was that there would be no Christmas for her children this year, but it seemed like everywhere she looked, there were reminders of the season. Outside of St. Leo’s, a nativity scene proclaimed the birth of the Savior; the Chamber of Commerce was decorated with lights; the usual wreaths lined Main Street; and outside the Salvation Army, a lone figure stood ringing a bell over the traditional kettle. Further on, as she approached the Clarion, she noticed that Ace Hardware was well-stocked with Christmas trees and a wide variety of lights and both indoor and outdoor decorations. As she drove, the snow fell, light and fluffy, as if she were driving through a snow globe that had just been shaken. It felt like Christmas cheer was in abundance everywhere but with Jodi and her children.
She slowed as she approached the fire station, and turned right up Ash Street. Passing the Faith Church, Jodi realized that she was just a few more turns from home. She hadn’t thought through how she was going to break the news to Danny and Allie. It seemed like there had been nothing but bad news for the three of them this past year. Jodi had been looking forward to Christmas – it had always been her favorite holiday, and she had shared that love with her kids. Christmas was about hope, Jodi thought, but this year, it felt like there was suddenly no hope. There would be no presents for the kids, and nothing for her but a stack of overdue bills with more to come. She had no family to turn to for help, and she knew that the odds of getting a job anytime soon were against her. The economy was still pretty shaky, and in another few weeks, most retailers would be laying off the extra help that they had hired for the Christmas season.
Jodi pulled her well-used ’97 Buick Century up to the curb and parked. She took a moment to collect herself, and then got out and trudged through the snow to the front door and let herself in.
* * *
The house was chilly, but the glow of the Christmas tree in the living room made that part of the house seem as if it were warmer. Jodi called to Danny and Allie, letting them know she was home, and asked them to come join her in the living room so she could talk to them.
Allie, nine years old and full of energy, came running in and bounced on the couch. “What is it, Momma? Am I in trouble?” Danny, who was fourteen, took his time. Jodi was about to call him again when he finally sauntered in and slumped into a large, threadbare easy chair.
“Danny, Allie, I’ve got some bad news. I don’t know how to tell you this other than to just say it. The plant has to cut back, and I lost my job today,” she explained.
“Awww! Momma, I’m sorry! But it’ll be okay, you’ll see – it always is,” Allie assured her. Danny didn’t have any comment – he just looked down at the floor, the way he always did when something was bothering him but he didn’t want to talk about it.
“Here’s the thing,” Jodi continued. “You both know Christmas is coming. But I haven’t had any extra money to start buying presents. I have…well, I have nothing. Not one single present bought and hidden away, nothing at all. We had too many bills that I had to catch up on, and now, well, I lost my job and…I don’t know if I’ll be able to find another one before Christmas. I sure hope I do, but I don’t know. So this kills me, but there aren’t going to be any Christmas presents this year. I’m sorry, kids. I love you. I hate this for you. I’m going to do everything I can, but I don’t think we’re going to have much of a Christmas at all. I’m really sorry.”
Silence for a moment. Then Danny stood up, shook his head, mumbled “it figures,” and headed back up to his bedroom to finish his homework.
Allie snuggled in beside Jodi. “It will be okay, Momma. It’s Christmas. You’ll see. Don’t worry.”
Jodi closed her eyes against the tears. “I know, honey. I’m sure it will be okay.”
* * *
But it wasn’t going to be okay. Over the next week and a half, Jodi put in as many applications as possible. Jodi filled her gas tank a couple of times with gas she couldn’t afford just so she could drive to Johnsonburg, St. Mary’s, Kersey, even Brockway, putting in applications everywhere she could think of. She went to the library – how she loved Center Street and some of the stately old homes in Ridgway – and spent several hours putting in applications online. She went to CareerLink and applied for as many positions through that office as she could.
She also went to every agency and church that she could think of and tried to get help. But everywhere she went, she heard the same basic things – “It’s the end of the year and we don’t have any funds left. Come back after the first of the year.”
“We’d love to help with presents for your kids, but we’ve already done everything that we can. You’re way past the deadline and we can’t help.”
“We’re sorry, but…”
Jodi’s friends and neighbors didn’t seem to be much help, either. Money was tight for everyone right now, and most people either had nothing to share or lend, had already spent it, or made excuses.
Her landlord, Fred, had lived in Ridgway all his life. She asked him for ideas. He didn’t have any new ones, but promised to let her know if he heard of anything.
Christmas was approaching, and Jodi was out of options.
* * *
Two nights before Christmas Eve. The kids had both gone to bed. Jodi had come back downstairs to sit in the living room. She loved to just look at the Christmas tree lights – she could sit there for hours and stare at them. It brought back memories of better times, better Christmases. But tonight? All she had was a stack of bills, and shut-off notices from a couple of the utility companies.
Almost three weeks of trying to hold it together for the children’s sake had taken its toll. As she sat there in darkness, watching the lights twinkle, the tears finally came. Jodi cried herself to sleep.
* * *
“Jodi. Wake up.”
She came around slowly. Who was it? Who was in her house?
She sat up and looked around, but there was no one there.
“Jodi. It’s going to be all right.”
She looked around again. Nobody.
But the voice sounded like it came from the tree.
She looked at the tree, wondering what was going on.
As she watched, the tree looked as though it were growing brighter. From the top down. Looking up, she gasped. It actually appeared as though the angel on the top of the tree was – growing? It couldn’t be!
But it was! The angel grew until it filled the room, taller than the tree. “Jodi. It’s going to be all right. Just have faith. Remember – Christmas is a time of good news, that will cause great joy for all people. Just believe.”
This couldn’t be real. “Who are you? Is this a dream?” she asked. She closed her eyes, shook her head, and then opened her eyes and looked again.
And fell off of the couch. It had all been a dream. But it had felt so real.
“Just believe.” Could she really do that?
She had tried everything else, and nothing else had worked. So. Just believe.
* * *
Christmas Eve. Jodi had done everything she could, tried everything she could, gone every place she had been told to go – and nothing.
She decided that she and the kids would walk down the street and go to the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. It would be all the celebration that they would have this year. Maybe the service would lift her spirits a little. Before they left the house, Allie pointed out that it was snowing for Christmas. Danny asked if they could have hot chocolate (with marshmallows!) when they got home. Jodi thought it was a great idea – at least it was something for them to look forward to.
* * *
Jodi and the children were just walking into the church when she heard someone calling her name. “Ms. Peters! Ms. Peters! Could I speak to you for a moment?”
She turned, surprised. It was Rick Gordon, her former boss. “Hello, Mr. Gordon. What is it?”
“Merry Christmas, Ms. Peters,” he said, handing her an envelope, and turning to walk away.
She looked down at the envelope in her hands. It was a pay envelope from the plant. “What is this? What is this about?” she asked.
He paused and looked back at her for a moment. “It’s a severance check for three months pay,” he said. “I’ve never seen the company do that for anyone who wasn’t in management. I don’t know who or why, but someone in the corporate office decided that it was the right thing to do for you. No need to worry about the check bouncing – we called and checked into the whole thing. It’s legitimate. I brought it down myself this evening because I figured you could use it as soon as possible. Anyways, Merry Christmas, and again, I’m sorry about the job. Hopefully this will help out some.” He nodded his head, turned, and walked off into the night.
Jodi stood there for a moment, shocked. She couldn’t believe what had just happened! It didn’t solve everything, but it was a huge help and would definitely enable her to hold things together until she was able to find a new job.
Filled with gratitude, Jodi found Danny and Allie, who were already seated in the sanctuary. She slid in beside them, lost in her thoughts, and waited for the service to begin.
“Jodi! I’m glad you’re here!” The loud whisper startled her. She turned and looked over her shoulder. Ella Griffiths, one of her neighbors, smiled at her.
“Thanks, Ella, I’m glad I’m here too. You know how much I love Christmas,” she responded.
“Yes, I do,” Ella said. “I love it myself. Especially when I get to bless someone. This year, it’s you! Here you go!” And Ella handed her an envelope.
“Ella, thank you, but you didn’t have to do anything for us. I feel bad that I don’t have anything for you,” Jodi replied.
Ella smiled again. “Don’t worry about it. I was just praying this morning about who I should bless this year, and in my mind’s eye, right away, I saw your face. So you can thank God for this gift – He’s the one who told me to give it to you.”
Jodi thanked Ella again. She tucked the card away to open later when they got home. Just then, everyone around them stood up as the service began.
For the next hour, Jodi took comfort in the familiar carols and cadence of the candlelight service. The ancient words brought her hope – “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” And as the candles were lit, Jodi thought that perhaps, with the unexpected check from work and Ella’s gift, some light was beginning to shine into her personal dark time.
After the service, the kids couldn’t wait to get home – the hot chocolate was calling! So the three of them hurried home, leaving footprints in the freshly-fallen snow.
When they arrived at the house, Jodi was surprised to see several sets of footprints on their walkway. It looked as though someone had been in and out of the house! Panicked, she rushed to unlock the door – someone must have broken in.
But when she walked in, she received another shock.
The area under the Christmas tree was filled with presents!
How? What had happened?
Danny walked in behind her. “Hey Mom, someone left this envelope stuck to the door,” he said. It looked like the landlord’s handwriting on the front.
She opened it, wondering what was going on. A note fell out, scrawled on legal paper, along with a couple of ten dollar bills.
Hey Jodi – sorry about letting someone in without your permission. But I was walking by and two different people were standing at your door knocking. I asked them what was going on and they said that they had presents to deliver for your family from their charities. You weren’t home, so I let them in and made sure they really were delivering stuff, not taking stuff! Anyways, hope you have a Merry Christmas. I know times have been tough for you recently – here’s a little gift from me too. Treat yourself and the kids to something. – Fred
Jodi was overwhelmed. She didn’t understand any of this. Where had the presents come from? All of the charities that she had spoken to had told her it was too late; so she hadn’t submitted her kids’ names anywhere. And what was up with check from work? And the gift from Ella?
She decided just to enjoy it.
For the next couple of hours, she and kids sipped hot chocolate and opened presents. And there plenty of presents – for all three of them.
What a Christmas Eve it turned out to be! And Jodi couldn’t grasp why, or how. She was grateful, but bewildered.
* * *
Later that night, after the kids had gone to bed, Jodi sat in the living room, drinking in the lights and surveying the unwrapped presents. She closed her eyes and said a simple prayer of thanks. When she opened them, she thought she saw a flash of light at the top of the Christmas tree. She looked up to see the angel looking down at her. And she could have sworn she heard a voice say, “I told you it would be all right. Just believe.”
Copyright © 2016 by Donald W. Hunter
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a review.
Printed in the United States of America. First Printing, 2016, The Ridgway Record.