As soon as the computer screen lit up, Henri asked Dr. Cooper, “I have been processing what you said yesterday and have a question for you.”
“You indicated that the kind of giving that is done on Christmas is imperative to every day and not just at Christmas time.”
“What if people don’t give?” asked Henri.
Dr. Cooper sat in silence for a moment.
“I’ll answer your question by telling you another story,”
Arriving at the church, Jay considered asking for food. He snuck closer to the front door but found a sign that said, “No begging allowed.” Sitting between the bushes and the brick wall of the church, he sought shelter from the biting wind. His pack by his feet lay near enough to grab if he needed to run. The sun rose warm in his face as he woke with a start, surprised he had fallen asleep. Sneaking through the neighborhood, he entered a backyard to collect water in used plastic bottles he carried in his pack. He jumped into a couple of dumpsters behind restaurants and a grocery store before finding a bag with two pieces of moldy bread inside. Picking away the mold, he ate it. Finding a half-full bottle of soda was a prize as he enjoyed drinking it slowly.
Returning to the church, he settled in to hide away, from the cold and those who prowled the night looking for mischief. His curly brown hair poked out from under the worn baseball cap his father had given him and his coat was far too thin for the plummeting temperatures. He sat with his arms wrapped around his legs, pressing them against his chest, and rested his chin on top of his knees. His stomach growled in his ears. He’d had very little to eat within the last week. Lights from vehicles arriving in the church parking lot blinded him and he ducked lower beneath the brush. He had forgotten it was Christmas Eve.
A year before, to the day, his parents died in a car accident. Since then, he had been caught twice by social services and was in and out of foster families who didn’t want him. They hurt him in brutal ways to prove it. He carefully peered around the corner and watched as people dressed in their best sauntered the walkway, regally crossing below columns, gliding into the church through the front door. Peeking through a side window, he was greeted by tiny white lights twinkling as stars sitting on a large decorated tree and wreaths with red bows hanging at the ends of each pew.
The music was sweet and he closed his eyes, leaning his head against the brick. He wondered at the words, “Truly he taught us to love one another, his law is love and his gospel is peace.”
Maybe they would be kind?
It was after-all Christmas and his stomach hurt he was so hungry. Maybe someone would give him something to eat or a little change to buy some bread. The singing stopped and the people sauntered back through the front door, gathered in their warm coats and gloves. The parking lot was dark with gentle light from several lampposts. He snuck carefully among the people in the lot. If someone tried to grab him, he could dash away. He approached a woman with her two children as they neared their car doors.
“Mam, I’m hungry,” he whispered.
Pulling her children close, her eyes widened and her husband came around the car from the back end. She pushed the children towards the open door.
“Get into the car, quickly kids!” she said as her husband flicked his wrist and hand toward Jay. “You, shoo … go away!”
Jay turned and ran back toward the front of the church. Another couple walked hand in hand through the columns toward the lot. They hummed the beautiful songs he’d heard moments before.
With his fingertips gently touching his lips, he tried again.
“Please, I’m so hungry.”
They drew back and the woman clutched her soft coat around the front of her neck. “Eee…oo,” she squealed, drawing herself up in disgust.
He half limped and half ran, hiding among the bushes, leaning against the brick to catch his breath. Cold and wet tears covered his face. He needed to move on from this place. The police would be called.
But, I’m so hungry. I’m so tired. I’ll rest here only a minute more.
With his eyes closed, he drifted.
“Young man, are you hungry?” asked an elderly woman who stood leaning over him as he slowly opened his eyes. “I’m Mabel.” She waved for him to follow. “Come with me.”
She turned away, not giving him an opportunity to decline, and walked toward a house across the street from the church. Jay followed. He wasn’t sure why, but he trusted her. She crossed the porch and entered through the front door of the one-story house. Jay smelled delicious aromas. He was greeted by a table covered with the kind of meal his mother used to make each Christmas; turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, and more. Mabel motioned toward the table.
“Dig in. There’s pie when you’re finished.” She said, “I’m sorry you were scared away. My husband and I started that church. The building was small and the people were kind and generous.” She sighed deeply. “Growth and wealth produced callousness disguised as piety.”
She stood gazing sadly toward the ground. “Don’t mind me, I’m just an old lady and have seen too much. You go ahead and eat now. Don’t be afraid for tomorrow, besides it’s Christmas.”
She disappeared around a corner. After eating, Jay went looking for her. Wandering through the living room, he picked up nick knacks to examine and photos of what he guessed to be her family. In a prominent frame sitting on the mantle, a news article with a photo of the elderly lady read “Rest in Peace, Mabel – December 24, 2014.” He stood staring until a familiar voice grabbed his attention.
“Jay,” his mother said and his father stood beside her. They smiled sadly at him.
The retired pastor limped down the wooden stairs with a dog in tow. He passed close by Jay without noticing him. The dog stood at the doorway, whimpering, not entering the room but looking at Jay.
Jay turned away from the dog. He said, “Mom? Dad? How are you here?”
His mother said, “I’m sorry you were hungry, baby. But, you won’t be hungry ever again.”
“The couple said he headed over there.” The new pastor appeared nervous. “He scared my parishioners and we can’t have that!”
As the pastor rounded the corner, he stopped abruptly and Steve, the police officer, nearly ran into him.
“Oh dear,” the pastor whispered but kept his distance.
Steve stepped around the pastor and knelt beside the lifeless body of the little boy leaning against the bricks.
Dr. Cooper waited before speaking.
He finally said, “We’ll talk more about this one tomorrow, Henri. My wife is expecting me home early for Christmas Eve. We are volunteering at the homeless shelter and later we have family and friends coming over to decorate our tree. I’ll see you then.”
“Good evening, Dr. Cooper.”