I shoved my way out of the warzone that is a mall on Christmas Eve. Bags of junk food, worthless trinkets, and stupid holiday novelties dangled from my arms like overripe fruit on a tree. I could barely peek over the four boxes in my arms—which were quickly going numb—to see the crowded parking lot. Jack Frost nipped at my few patches of bare skin. Angry soccer moms yelled at me or shoved me out of the way while I crawled to my car. The sun was setting behind the thick gray clouds, bringing the dark sooner.
Joey, why did you marry a procrastinator? I thought. This isn’t how I wanted to spend our first Christmas together! I hate shopping only a little less than I do cooking!
The thought of Mary “slaving away” in a warm kitchen made me hate this frigid weather even more.
Snow and ice still caked the parking lot! Were the snowplow drivers home for Christmas? I walked where angels feared to tread now. One wrong move, and I’d have a shallow grave under snow and packages. I stepped lightly, tensing every time I slid even an inch. My forehead was cold and moist. I think it took me ten minutes to cross one parking lot.
Reaching the car, I laid everything on the hatchback. My arms tingled as blood rushed into them. I clicked my key fob, unlocking the doors. I opened the driver door and tossed everything inside. With that, I harrumphed and slid into the car myself.
It seemed colder inside. I jammed the key into the ignition and turned it, but the car only whined. Cursing, I tried two more times before it finally started. I flipped on the headlights, but instantly found myself boxed in. A line of cars crept down the lot behind me. I had to wait five obnoxious minutes before a man—a fellow husband, I wager—stopped to let me pull out. Even then, my wheels spun out the first time I hit the gas. That husband’s understanding started to melt. But I floored it again and managed to get out.
It took me ten minutes just to move a quarter-mile and get onto Main Street. I narrowly avoided rear-ending the car in front of me. I knew I should’ve had the brakes repaired, I thought. But I was too busy with Christmas! The sun was now gone. Storefronts were going dark. The street wasn’t much clearer, but at least I wasn’t sliding. For now.
Mary and I live in the countryside just outside of the city. Which meant our roads would be the last to get plowed, if ever. Anger surged through me, warming my body. All this for last-second gifts for her least favorite nieces and nephews and supplies for a party she was throwing tomorrow! I gripped the steering wheel so tightly, the cover was indenting my palms.
A few turns and traffic lights later, I reached the city limits. Now I was where snowplows fear to tread. Or where they didn’t care to plow. Regardless, the roads were ice rinks now. I felt the car’s tires slide underneath me and manically gripped the steering wheel. Snowflakes the size of cotton balls fell from the clouds, obscuring my vision. My intense concentration could barely see far enough ahead to avoid immediate hazards.
Even then, I didn’t see the first stop light that came into view. Not until it was too late. I slammed on the brakes, but the car slid, threatening to jackknife. I held my breath. My heart stopped. I wrestled with the steering wheel to keep it straight. Five harrowing seconds later, I realized I was in the middle of the intersection.
Now I just need another car to skid into me to make this perfect! I thought. But Mary still probably wouldn’t forgive me for being late!
I pressed gently on the accelerator, but the tires spun, unable to grip the road. I let up and tried again. The same. Cursing, I hit the steering wheel. Despite planning for extra time to get home, I was beyond punctuality now. I’d get nothing but nagging if and when I reached home. So much for holiday cheer!
The third time was the charm; the tires gripped the road and inched forward. I was out of the intersection in a few seconds.
What followed is a blur. I was focused like a laser on the road as I crawled along. I plowed through just-formed snowdrifts. The brakes reminded me of their need of repairs every time I skidded to a stop at an intersection. A pothole nearly broke my concentration and sent me into a snow-filled ditch. But I refused to break. Each little victory bolstered my confidence. A smile slowly crept up my face. Do your worst, Old Man Winter!
Suddenly, out of the darkness to the left sprang a buck. I swear it even had a red nose, but that might have been a cell phone tower in the distance. Anyway, he leaped in front of me, just a few feet from my bumper. I gasped and reflexively swerved to the other lane. I narrowly dodged the buck, which vanished in one leap, but the car wouldn’t straighten. Slamming the brakes did nothing. Tires screeched. Adrenaline was oil on my fires of panic. Against my will, the car veered off the road.
I suddenly found myself staring at the white ground at an awkward angle. A ditch. I was in a ditch. A snow-laden ditch. Hopelessly, I shifted the car in reverse and hit the gas pedal. The wheels spun, but the car didn’t budge. In fact, I felt it dig an inch deeper into the snow. I was stuck.
I smacked the steering wheel, cursing a blue streak. Slipping on gloves and a sock cap, I ventured out of the car, the cold air biting my bare cheeks. The car was so deep in the ditch and snow, there was no way I’d be able to push it out. I glanced up and down the road, but there were no headlights to be seen. Just darkness and a white haze bathed in pale moonlight.
I was alone.
I pounded the car’s roof, undoubtedly leaving a new dent. My cell phone was in my coat pocket, so I ungloved my hand and grabbed it. I glimpsed a text message from Mary that said something like, “Where the hell are you, you dolt?!” Then it went black. Dead. Typical, I thought. I pounded the roof again.
What was I to do now? Sit there and hope that someone, somehow, would drive by? On Christmas Eve? When everyone was at home with family and friends? Lucky them. That’s where I should be. Or not. Mary is probably ticked that I’m late. Never mind that I narrowly avoided killing Bambi and ended up in a ditch. Maybe I’m better off out here.
A few more minutes of near-zero temperatures changed my mind. Especially when I realized I only had a quarter of a tank of gas left.
“Dammit! What am I gonna do now?”
Just then, a bell rang in the distance.
Quick as a flash, I remembered there was a little country church not far from here. I drove by it every day on my way to work, but it was just scenery in my mind. They must be having a Christmas Eve service or something. Maybe they’ll help me. I just have to make sure they don’t realize I’m a “heathen.”
The bell seemed a bit loud, so I squinted at the icy veil, managing to catch a faint glimpse of the church. It was maybe a half-mile away. My face wouldn’t be too numb by the time I arrived.
I pulled the keys from the ignition, locked the car doors, and started walking.
After what seemed like an eternity of cold wind, relentless snow, and hatred of Christmas, I reached the church. A warm, candlelight-like aura seemed to emanate from it, though some of its lights were on. Few cars were in the parking lot. I guess the weather had scared away even the faithful. Or the service was over. Just my luck if I missed everyone. But the light gave me…hope. I walked up to the front door and discovered it was unlocked. Trusting people, churchgoers are. What if I wanted to rob the place? I smiled despite my numb face. Robbing a church on Christmas Eve? I bet that’d get you sent to Hell twice.
I must’ve looked like a living snowman when I stepped inside. I brushed myself off and peeled off my cap. I hadn’t been in a church since I was a kid, but I remembered it was a requirement to remove one’s hat. Before me was the entrance to the sanctuary. Low organ music playing “Silent Night” hummed in my ears. It was dark except for candles sitting on the sills of the windows lining each side of the room, which led to an illuminated cross hanging above the pulpit. I stepped closer and saw a few silhouettes sitting in the pews. Muttered prayers mingled with the organ music.
I was suddenly hesitant to cross the threshold into the sanctuary, like I was unworthy to disturb this holy ground. But I pressed on.
No one seemed to notice me. They just went on praying. I was annoyed. But just as I was about to shout, someone saw me.
“You can sit here,” he whispered.
I glanced to my left. A young blonde man scooted over and offered me a spot at the end of the pew.
Though I suddenly felt uncomfortable, I said, “Thanks,” and sat down.
“What’s your name?”
“Mine’s Gabe. Nice to meet you.”
No much for not looking like a heathen.
He paused only briefly at my terseness. “I’ve never seen you here before. Welcome.”
“Honestly, I’m only here because I need help.”
“We all need help from the Lord.”
I snickered. “Think he’ll dig my car out of the ditch?”
Gabe flinched, surprised. “Oh. Well, we do have some shovels in the janitor’s closet. We can dig you out after the service.”
“Is it gonna be much longer? The wife is probably contemplating divorce as we speak.”
It was none of his business, but for whatever reason, I started talking. “Yeah. She insisted on throwing a last-minute Christmas party and gave me a mile-long list of things to buy. I hate shopping and this weather, but I hate dealing with her. I’ll be lucky if she just makes me sleep on the couch tonight.”
“She sounds a little demanding.”
“A little?” I blurted, almost raising my voice. “She’s really demanding! And obnoxious! Always has to have her way. All because she wants to keep up appearances at the holidays. I don’t know what I hate more—her or Christmas.”
“I’m sorry. Christmas should be a time of—”
“Spare me the Christmas Carol crap! I just want to dig out my car and go home!”
I think that earned me a few annoyed glances.
Gabe somehow kept his cool, and said, “I think you need more than that, Joey.”
I huffed. “Like what?”
As if on cue, the well-dressed preacher standing behind the pulpit started reading: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
He stepped down and sat on a pew. The organ music continued to play. The bell rang again outside.
I’d heard those words every year on the Charlie Brown Christmas show, yet now…they touched me. Touched me somewhere deep inside. My heart of ice thawed a little.
“I’m sorry for disrupting things,” I whispered to Gabe.
“You’re forgiven. The service will conclude in a few minutes. We’ll dig you out then. Merry Christmas.”
“Thanks.” The next words I said surprised even me. “Could my wife and I come here this Sunday?”
Gabe laughed quietly. “There’s no need to ask. Just come.”
That night, I was searching for traction on the road, not realizing I was searching for traction in my life.
Now, I’d found it.
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