December Writing Challenge #13: Family 4


20121214-011659.jpgAuthor’s Note: This piece has been edited and now appears in “Angel Songs, 20 Christmas Short Stories and Poems, plus Recipes” by Dona Watson. Click here for more info.

In my job as a writer and editor with Teen Challenge, I have been interviewing recovered drug addicts and alcoholics and it breaks my heart to hear some of their stories. But the wonderful part is that once we get past the tragedy, I get to hear about one more life that God has redeemed. In every single instance, God put someone in the path of these people who turned their hearts toward him. Every life saved is a miracle. Each one has become part of God’s family.

The miracle of salvation began with Jesus Christ’s birth. I’m so grateful for Christmas — a time when we can stop and reflect on what God did for us when he sent Jesus to be born of a virgin here on Earth.

So this Christmas, please remember with me to pray for those who have yet to hear of Jesus Christ and what he’s done for us. Let’s pray that He puts someone — maybe even us — in the path of a dear one who needs to hear about Him.

Family
by D.L. Watson

“Get in your room and stay there!” Harrison’s mother stood in the living room of their broken-down apartment and pointed to the hallway. The five-year old cringed beneath the glare of her anger and turned to obey before she slapped him. Or threw something at him like last time. He slunk down the hallway to his room, which was barely large enough for the toddler-sized mattress on the floor. He huddled in the corner and clutched his tattered stuffed dog, Max, to his chest.

Before long, he heard his mother on the phone for just a minute or so, then footsteps to the bathroom and the door slammed shut. Harrison knew that soon she would come out and go lay down somewhere. There would be syringes and other stuff in the bathroom that maybe she’d clean up later.

His stomach growled but still he waited patiently for her to come out. Once she came out and went to sleep, he’d go to the kitchen and see if there was anything to eat on the table or counter. If he was lucky, he might find bread and peanut butter. His mouth watered at the thought. He stretched his legs out and hoped it wouldn’t be much longer. It was mid-afternoon and he hadn’t eaten all day.

Knock, knock, knock.

Harrison jumped when he heard someone rap on the front door.

Knock. Knock. Knock. It came more insistent this time, but he dare not move yet for fear his mother would come out.

“Hello?” came a voice from beyond the closed door. “Is anyone there? This is the police.”

After several moments of silence, Harrison heard the door crash open and he shrank farther back into the corner.

“Hello?” a man called out and Harrison heard footsteps moving through the front room. Soon an officer came in sight, gun drawn.

“Hey Matt! I got a kid in here!” he called out over his shoulder. He scanned the rest of the room, then leaned down and peered at the boy, his voice gentle. “Hey there, son. Someone here called 911. Is your mom or dad here?”

He nodded slowly.

“Your mom?”

He nodded again.

“Your dad?”

He moved his head from side to side, his gaze glued on the officer.

“Where is she?”

“Bathroom,” he nearly whispered, hoping she wouldn’t be angry for telling them.

“Chris!” the officer called out. “Check the bathroom. Says his mom’s in there. She must be the one who called.”

Harrison heard the doorknob rattle and the other officer call out, “Hello? This is the police. Can you open the door ma’am?”

When there was no reply, Harrison heard the bathroom door crash open.

“Matt!” The call came urgently down the hallway. “Call an ambulance. We have a medical emergency! Looks like an overdose.”

Officer Matt swore under his breath. “Stay here, kid.” He grabbed for his radio and rushed out into the hallway, sending in the call as he went.

Frightened, Harrison hugged Max to his chest and pulled his legs up, making himself as small as possible.

After a bit, sirens outside announced the arrival of the ambulance and soon the paramedics were rushing to help his mother. Officer Matt came back in and knelt down in front of Harrison.

“Hey, buddy. What’s your name?”

“Harrison,” he whispered and pulled Max up to his chin.

The police officer nodded. “Good name. I like it.” He ran a hand over his jaw. “How about if we go outside and get you something to eat. Would you like that?”

Harrison chewed on his lip. “I s’posed to stay here.”

Officer Matt’s gaze softened. “It’s okay, Harrison. Your mom won’t mind.” He held out his arms. “Come on. It’ll be alright.”

Reluctantly, the little boy pushed himself to his feet. With strong arms, the officer picked the boy up and carried him through the house. Outside, two police cruisers were parked next to the ambulance, lights flashing. When they reached one of the police cars, the man started to lower Harrison to the ground, but the boy whimpered and clung tight.

“Hey, it’s okay, buddy. I won’t put you down if you don’t want to.”

Harrison pressed in close against the officer’s chest, clinging onto his neck with one arm, the other clutching the threadbare Max. The officer sat in the front passenger seat of the cruiser, the boy on his lap.

“So who’s this?” He nudged the dog’s chin.

“Max.”

“I see. Max seems like a good friend, huh?”

Harrison nodded.

Before long, another car pulled up and a young woman stepped out, straightened her skirt, and headed their way, her heels click, clicking on the pavement. When she reached them, she lowered herself to their level and tucked a strand of brown hair behind one ear.

“Who do we have here?” Her voice was gentle and her eyes kind as she looked into the boy’s face.

“This is Harrison.”

“Hello, Harrison. My name is Miss Kimberly.” She asked a few questions and Harrison answered them the best he could.

“Kim,” the officer addressed the social worker. “We were just talking about getting a snack. Did you happen to bring anything with you?”

She smiled and nodded. “I have some juice and crackers in the car. Would you like some, Harrison?”

The boy nodded but refused to let go of Officer Matt so the man carried him over to Miss Kimberly’s car. He opened the passenger door and crouched down next to it.

“Come on, buddy. Why don’t you have a seat here. I’ll stay with you. I’m not going anywhere.”

Reluctantly, Harrison released his grasp and the officer settled him on the seat. The social worker opened the trunk and brought the boy a box of apple juice and a bag of Goldfish crackers. She poked the straw in the box and held it out to the boy. After a little coaxing, he took the juice box and chanced a sip. The cold, sweet liquid filled his mouth and he swallowed, then took another sip. Miss Kimberly opened the bag of crackers and held it out to the boy, but with the juice box in one hand and Max in the other, he didn’t have any free hands. Soon, however, the juice was gone and Kimberly traded him the crackers for the empty box. He dug a half-dozen yellow Goldfish out of the bag and shoved them in his mouth.

“Poor little guy’s half-starved,” Officer Matt muttered. Just then, his radio squawked, the dispatcher asking for a status update. He responded briefly, then turned to the little boy. “Hey, buddy,” he said gently, “I want you to go with Miss Kimberly, okay? She’s gonna take good care of you.”

Harrison stared back at the officer, the crackers in his hand almost forgotten. The officer ruffled the boy’s hair a bit. “I have to go now, but everything’s gonna be okay.” And with that, Officer Matt was gone.

Miss Kimberly settled Harrison in the front seat of the car and drove him to a big office building. Hand in hand, they walked through the front doors and inside Harrison saw the largest, most beautiful Christmas tree he had ever seen. It was even taller than Miss Kimberly. They never had a tree in his house but he knew his neighbors had one once.

They took the elevator upstairs to Miss Kimberly’s office, where she asked him a few more questions, made a couple of phone calls and before long, they were out in her car again driving across town.

As the sun began to set, the city lights flicked on, one at a time. As they passed out of the city into residential neighborhoods, Harrison saw one house after another decorated with bright strands of lights and lighted lawn decorations declaring “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy Holidays.”

Eventually they pulled up in front of a two-story house. Miss Kimberly parked the car and came around to open his door. She took him by the hand and headed for the sidewalk leading to the front door.

Where the yard outside his apartment was dirt, this house had a thick green lawn. A bright strings of white lights decorated the roofline and lighted wire reindeer stood in the lawn next to a small tree decorated in tiny red and white lights.

The boy couldn’t pry his eyes away from the lights. They were the most beautiful things he had ever seen. At the front door, Miss Kimberly pushed the doorbell button with a manicured nail. Presently, a woman in jeans and a sweatshirt opened the door.

“Mrs. Adelstein?”

“Yes. You must be Kimberly Benton. Please come in.”

Kimberly led Harrison into the house by the hand and into the family room, as directed by Mrs. Adelstein. In the corner of the room stood a Christmas tree that was more than twice as tall as Harrison. Underneath the tree were scores of presents wrapped in bright paper, with bows and ribbons gaily decorating the top of each.

They sat on the couch and the older woman knelt on the floor in front of the little boy.

“You must be Harrison.”

The little boy just stared at the woman. The events from the day whirled in his head.

“I see you brought a friend with you.” Mrs. Adelstein gestured to the stuffed dog.

Harrison nodded slowly.

“Would you and your doggie like to stay with me for a few days?”

Harrison didn’t answer. He looked from Mrs. Adelstein to Miss Kimberly and back again.

“Harrison,” Miss Kimberly placed a hand on Harrison’s leg. Mrs. Adelstein will take really good care of you, and I’ll be back to check in on you in a couple of days, okay?”

Harrison nodded once and sat on the couch as Miss Kimberly and Mrs. Adelstein walked back toward the door, where they exchanged a few words in voices too quiet for Harrison to hear the words. Once Miss Kimberly had left, Mrs. Adelstein came back in, took Harrison by the hand and led him into the kitchen, where she fixed him a bologna and cheese sandwich. He climbed up into a chair and had two bites already eaten by the time she placed a glass of milk on the table next to his plate. She sat across the table from him, her chin in one hand and watched him, smiling.

Within just a few more bites, the sandwich was gone and the milk glass drained. Mrs. Adelstein picked up his plate and headed for the sink. Harrison placed Max on the table and laid his sleepy head on the soft fabric, arms wrapped tight around the stuffed animal.

Mrs. Adelstein came back, scooped him up into her arms and carried him upstairs. She helped him change into a new pair of pajamas, her eyes lingering on the bruises and scrapes covering his arms and legs.

“These pj’s belonged to my son when he was your age. Looks like they’re a little big but they’ll do for now.”

After visiting the restroom, Harrison crawled up onto a twin-sized bed. He ran his little hands over the quilt top, fingertips playing with the little yarn ties holding the quilt together. Mrs. Adelstein pulled back the covers and tucked him in between two soft white sheets that smelled of flowers. She sat on the side of the bed and adjusted the covers.

“Did you know that Christmas is tomorrow?”

Wide-eyed, Harrison looked down at Max, the only Christmas present he could ever remember getting. The last thing his mother had given him.

“Where’s my mommy?”

“Oh, honey. Your mom was very ill.”

Harrison chewed his lower lip. “Is she going to come back?”

Mrs. Adelstein pressed her lips into a thin line. “No, Harrison. She’s gone. She won’t be able to come back.”

“Did she die?” Harrison had seen one of his mom’s friends shoot up with a needle and something went wrong. She died too.

Mrs. Adelstein nodded her head without a word. Harrison clutched Max a little tighter and buried his face in the pillowy material. But he had no strength left to cry. Mrs. Adelstein wrapped him up in her arms and just held him, crooning a little song until he fell asleep.

• • •

Harrison opened his eyes to find an early sun shining through the window. It took him a minute to remember where he was and then it all came rushing back. The police, the ambulance, Miss Kimberly, Mrs. Adelstein. His thoughts whirled with confusion.

But there was the most wonderful smell in the air that made his stomach grumble so he climbed down out of bed and headed for the kitchen. But when he got halfway down the stairs, he froze. Wrapped up in a robe, Mrs. Adelstein sat on the couch talking with a man in his pajamas. When she saw him, she hopped up. “Good morning, Harrison!” She took him by the hand and brought him to the couch and pulled him up onto her lap. “Harrison, this is Mr. Adelstein.”

The man smiled warmly. “It’s very good to meet you, Harrison. And you got here just in time for Christmas!”

Harrison just clutched Max tight, unsure of what to say. In his house, Christmas had always been just another day.

“I’m sure the kids will be up soon. Meanwhile, I think Mrs. Adelstein has cooked up something yummy to snack on. Come on,” he urged, “let’s go see what she made.” He held out a hand and Harrison slid one small hand into his and they followed Mrs. Adelstein into the kitchen where she dished gooey, warm cinnamon rolls onto plates. He was just finishing the last couple of bites when a teenage boy walked into the kitchen.

“Do I smell cinnamon rolls?”

“Yes you do! And Scott, I’d like you to meet Harrison.”

Scott waved a hand. “Hi.” He slid into a kitchen chair with a plate of the fragrant rolls. “I think Amanda’s coming down too.”

Mrs. Adelstein chuckled. “What makes me think you woke her up?”

Scott grinned. “Someone had to.”

“Yeah, right,” his dad said, heading for the coffee pot. “I think you woke her up because you’re just excited about it being Christmas morning.”

Within a few minutes, Amanda, who was a couple of years younger than her brother, came down to the kitchen, yawning. After introductions had been made, she grabbed a roll for herself and ate it leaning back against the counter. Once everyone was finished, Mr. Adelstein clapped his hands and rubbed them together.

“Who’s ready for Christmas presents?”

The kids cheered and raced for the family room and with a big smile, Mrs. Adelstein took Harrison’s hand and followed them. Everyone found a seat except for Amanda. As the youngest, she got to hand out the presents first. Knowing this wasn’t his family and feeling terribly out of place, Harrison hugged Max close and pulled his knees up, sinking back into the couch as far as he could go. Amanda passed out a couple and then picked up a large, flat box.

“This one’s for Harrison,” she said with a wide smile and laid it on the couch next to him. Soon there was another next to the first. Then stockings were passed out and Harrison got one of those as well, a plaid stocking with a white fuzzy band around the top and “Harrison” spelled out in green glitter paint.

“Stockings first!” Mrs. Adelstein announced and everyone upended theirs, the contents spilling out onto their laps. Harrison just sat and watched the commotion. Mrs. Adelstein held the plaid stocking out to the little boy. “This one’s for you,” she said gently. “Don’t you want to see what’s inside?”

Tentatively, he reached forward with one hand and pulled the stocking over, then held the opening wide and looked inside. He reached in and pulled out a full-sized Snickers bar, his eyes wide. He’d never had one all to himself before.

“Go on,” Amanda urged. “There’s more.”

Next Harrison pulled out a bag of gold nugget gum, a few candy canes, a chocolate Santa and a giant plastic tube shaped like a candy cane but filled with M&Ms. The little boy didn’t know what to say. He’d never seen so much candy in one place before except at the store.

Then it was time to open presents. After a bit of coaxing, Harrison slowly opened the first box and found a brand new, fluffy coat inside. He’d never had a coat before. He tucked that into his arms along with Max and held both tight. The second box contained a Hot Wheels track with two cars.

Scott plopped down on the floor next to Harrison. “Let’s see what’cha got there, kid.”

Harrison tilted the box so the teenager could see the front.

“Woah, that’s pretty cool. Want me to help you put it together?”

Harrison nodded solemnly and before long the track was all assembled. It ran in a great oval with a loop and jump right in the middle. Scott popped the two required batteries into place and turned it on.

With a crooked grin, Scott held up one Hot Wheels car. “Watch this,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows up and down. He placed the car on the track and as it rolled forward, the rattling gears grabbed the car and flung it down the track, where it caught speed and spun up and around the loop. One corner of Harrison’s mouth twitched up in a smile and before long, he and Scott were taking turns putting the cars through their paces. After a couple of hours, Mrs. Adelstein called everyone to the kitchen for brunch and the family piled around the table. Harrison watched them all talking and laughing together as they helped themselves to bacon, eggs, juice, and fresh fruit. He even caught himself smiling a couple of times at their antics.

After everyone was finished eating and the dishes had been cleared away, the family went back to the front room and settled into comfy chairs or the couch and Mr. Adelstein flicked on his computer tablet and began to read a story about a lady who had a baby in a stable where the animals were, and there were angels singing to shepherds. When he had finished reading, Mr. Adelstein took one look at Harrison and asked kindly, “Have you ever heard that story before?”

“No.” Harrison shook his head.

“It’s a good one, isn’t it?””

Harrison nodded.

“Did you know that that little baby named Jesus grew up. He taught all kinds of people about God. He taught us how to be a family.”

Harrison looked down at Max and played with one of his floppy ears.

“And you know what, Harrison?” Mrs. Adelstein wrapped her arms around the little boy. “That means you too. We want you to know that we’re glad you’re here…and we would you love to be part of our family. As long as you want to stay here, you can.”

Harrison looked up at Mrs. Adelstein and for the first time, a little tear formed in the corner of one eye. He looked down at Max and thought of his mother. He knew he’d never see her again. He looked up at Mr. and Mrs. Adelstein, then at Scott and Amanda.

And he nodded.

The End

This story is part of a Writing Challenge I have undertaken to write something every day in the month of December on a pre-selected list of topics. Photographer Jacqueline Ashford is keeping pace with me on the same list of topics, her with a camera and me with a keyboard. You can see Jacqueline’s gorgeous photos here. We’re having way too much fun with this mutual challenge. (You can see the list of topics here.)

Tomorrow’s Topic: Christmas Tree

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