I seem to be favoring short fiction nowadays, so will continue the trend. Hope you get some pleasure out of my Christmas gift to you.
A CHRISTMAS GIFT
The sound of a laboring engine drew Mitch Hills to the front porch of his log cabin. You could hear a motor a mile off in this high New Mexico mountain valley. Unusual to catch one on a Christmas morning at the tail end of the fiercest snowstorm they’d had in the last ten winters. Wasn’t anybody up in this country this time of year. Most of the six cabins spread out over twenty square miles were owned by summer folk. Lived down in Albuquerque or Santa Fe or Las Cruces most of the year. He and Hank Gillis were the only ones to winter over. Mitch’d get the snowmobile from the outbuilding before the new year rolled around and go have a drink with the old son of a bitch. They always visited at least a couple of times before the weather broke and the pantywaists came drifting back in.
Truth be known, he liked it that way. Didn’t miss having folks to talk to. Except for today. He missed company at Christmas time. Didn’t know why this day was different, but it was. All his people were gone now. His wife Chrissy lost to cancer nearly eight years back. His boy, William, went over to the Gulf War and came back in a box. Rested over in Santa Fe at the National Cemetery now. Brother gone. Sisters both dead. A couple of nephews and nieces he’d never met and didn’t care to. Neighbors were all there was, and now they’d headed for lower ground.
The vehicle was close now, working its way through an unplowed, snow-clogged road on the high side of a copse of pine and spruce sheltering the rear of his cabin. The front opened out onto a meadow broken by a year-round creek that would rise until it almost reached his front porch when the spring runoff came. The driver of that car wouldn’t even see his rooftop as he passed. Of course, unless he was snow-blind, he’d catch sight of the fireplace smoke.
The engine quit pulling so hard as the car slowed on the approach to Mitch’s turnoff. Sure enough, he heard the squish of tires as they turned right and angled down the hill on virgin snow. Hands in his parka’s pockets, Mitch drew in the crisp, clear mountain air as he watched a Jeep Wagoneer make its slow way down the road and turn into his place. It came to a stop near the foot of his steps and disgorged a young man. After the car door banged shut, the world was totally silent for a moment as Mitch regarded the stranger. Oh well, it was somebody to talk to, wasn’t it?
“Come on in and have a cup of coffee,” he called.
“That would be welcome,” the man answered in lightly accented tones as he approached with hand outstretched.
Mitch noted the firm grip and a touch of foreign features on a handsome countenance. Dark hair, burnt chocolate eyes, a brownish cast to the skin that didn’t come from a sun tan. Good, strong teeth in a broad smile. Probably somewhere around twenty-three… -four.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” the stranger said. “Something warm would be appreciated.”
“Coffee’s as hot as you can stand it. Go on inside.” Mitch held the screen door open. “My name’s Mitch Hills.”
“I am Will Salah. At least, my mum and most of my friends call me Will.”
Mitch poured two mugs and indicated cream and sugar on the table. The stranger waved them away. Good. This Will fellow took his coffee like a man. Mitch led the way to two easy chairs in the sitting area of the open space that served as kitchen, dining, and front room. Because of the overcast, the light from the big window was muted, but it was comfortable without the need for a lamp. Flames dancing in the fireplace turned the room rosy.
Mitch was hit by the thought it was almost like having William… his William sitting opposite him. A shudder of sadness wracked him momentarily. He shook it off with a sip of the hot, bitter coffee. “What you doing up in the mountains in the middle of a snowstorm?”
“It seems to have quit now,” came the answer.
“It was still going when you set out, I’ll bet.
“Shortcutting between Cuba and Los Alamos.” It almost sounded like a question, not an answer.
“Not in this weather, you won’t. Few miles down the road you drop into Wild Onion Canyon, and the road down that grade’s hair-raising when it’s dry and dusty. You try it in this weather, and you’ll take the short way down.”
“I think that’s what Mr. Gillis was trying to tell me when I stopped at his place. He told me you could give me a better reading of the situation.”
“Well, that’s my reading. Turn around and go back to Cuba.”
“Thank you. That sounds like good advice.”
His heart skittering at the thought he might chase off the opportunity for some decent conversation, Mitch added. “Can probably scare up a meal to reinforce that coffee before you take off.”
“Kind of you, sir. I haven’t eaten since this morning, so a meal would be welcome.”
“Have some good venison stew on the stove. Let me heat it up. Warmed over cornbread and a hunk of sweet onion will probably make it passable.”
Once that was underway, a rich, inviting aroma flooded the room. Mitch sat back down. “There’s some Salahs that own a ranch up north. You from that bunch?”
“No, sir,” the young man said, his head held at a familiar tilt.
The eye doctor used to say a little bit of astigmatism caused his son to hold his head that way. Mich swallowed hard to drive away gathering ghosts. That could be William sitting over there in the gloom. Same six-foot frame. Weight about the same. One sixty… one seventy.
“Where you from?”
“Originally from Kuwait. I have been at university in Chicago for the past two years.”
Flutters hit Mitch’s stomach. “K-Kuwait? That’s where my son died. He was named William, too. He….” Mitch paused to take in a breath. “He was over in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Killed in a scud attack on February 25, 1991.”
“Yes, in the attack on the 14th Quartermaster Detachment’s barracks at Dhahran in Saudi Arabia.”
Mitch gasped. “How did you know?”
“My mother Mariam was living there at the time. My family had been exiled from Kuwait by the Iraqi invasion.”
“M-Miriam? My son wrote me about a woman by that name. A young woman from Kuwait City.”
“I am not here by accident, Mr. Hills.” The young man set his coffee mug on a table beside him in such a familiar gesture that Mitch’s heart stuttered. “I am that same Miriam’s son.”
Mitch closed his eyes and managed to speak despite the hope clogging his throat. “And your father?”
“My father was your son. Your William. I am your grandson.”
Mitch lifted his lids and drank in the evidence his eyes provided. His son sat there. Except it was the seed of his son. Almost afraid to speak lest he somehow fracture this precious Christmas gift, he simply whispered.
“Welcome home, son.”
It’s hard to imagine that happening, but I suspect it occurs more often than we realize. I can just see Will arriving in Albuquerque with nothing but a name and address and finding that his grandfather no longer lives at that address. A neighbor who knew the old man starts him on a journey to unfamiliar mountains in the middle of a snowstorm. The only other man who remains in his cabin over the winter steers the young man in the right direction, and Will at long last faces his blood kin.
In a personal note, let me say my younger son served in Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and Desert Farewell. He came back a changed man. He helped dig out the 40 or so fellow soldiers killed and 100 injured in that scud attack on the barracks in Dhahran.
Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com. As usual, thanks for being readers.
New Posts published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.