John O’Reilly looked dejectedly out the airport window.
Cold wind blew across the empty ramp and taxiway, pushing wisps of snow over the barren concrete. Even within the warm confines of the gate area, John felt the chill.
Or maybe it was his soul.
A plane had just pushed off the jetway and taxied off of the ramp area. Its lights were still visible, but quickly blended in with the blue runway markers. The whole scene blurred in the wind driven snow. For a moment, John envision of a strange gothic Christmas tree.
Strains of “Joy to the World” drifted from the airport PA, but there was little joy in John’s world this Christmas Eve. It wasn’t that he had to work. In fact, he was glad for the respite. Working at least saved him from sitting at home and staring into his own loneliness. In fact, Christmas did not symbolize joy and hope to John. To the contrary, Christmas carried on its wings reminders of a million past failures.
Something in the back of his mind told him to get up, close the gate area and get started on his paperwork, but he could not seem to tear himself away from the window. Somehow, he felt as if he were looking into a mirror. The cold, deserted ramp seemed a perfect reflection of his pathetic life.
An image passed through his mind – a pistol – stashed in his glove box. A chilling peace washed through John’s gut.
Tonight, he would die.
John thought of his two kids. He pictured them as he last saw them, a 1-year-old baby boy, with chubby little cheeks, a 3-year-old, precocious girl with dancing blue eyes. Of course, his image of them had little in common with current realities. The last time he saw Aaron and Andrea was nearly six years ago.
John tried to imagine what Aaron might look like as a 7-year-old boy. Was he tall? Was his hair still the deep chocolate brown? Did Andrea still have her golden curls? Was she a dancer – a musician? He wondered about the all of the missed years – time washed away with bottles of Scotch.
John couldn’t even muster up the energy to blame Sara anymore. They spent seven years as husband and wife. Initially, she figured his drinking was something he would grow out of. At first it was even fun and she was inclined to join right in. That is, until she got pregnant. Then she began thinking about their future. She said she wanted more for their child. She realized that life was more than just a party. She grew up – he didn’t. She stuck with him for a few years, nagging him to stop drinking.
The more she nagged, the more he drank.
The final unraveling began on a December night when John wrapped his car around a light pole. The police found him passed out in the front seat, but otherwise unhurt. He blew almost two times the legal limit when they finally revived him enough to administer a Breathalyzer. He had a friend, a county judge, who managed to get him out of his legal problems, but nothing could save his marriage. When John got home from jail, he found the locks changed and his belongings on the porch with a simple note attached.
“I can’t live with you anymore.”
That was the last he ever heard from his wife.
One might think such an event would wake a man up. But the crash simply plunged John deeper into the bottle. He blamed everyone but himself for his problems – especially Sara. They spoke only through lawyers, and he made things as difficult for her as he could. For all if his trouble, he ended up with a pile of legal bills, a toaster and a wrecked car.
John lived life foot-loose and fancy free for a couple of years after his divorce. He drank, shifted from dead-end job to dead-end job, and drank some more. He scarcely gave a thought to his kids. He never said good-bye. Never telephoned. Never even sent them a card. It was simply too much trouble. And wrapped up tightly in an alcohol-induced haze, he didn’t even care.
Then, a couple of years ago, John broke down. He spent the night drinking and woke up the next morning on a park bench. As he sat up, trying to figure out where he was and how he ended up there, a man walking by, dug into his pocket and tossed a quarter at him. John would never forget the look on the man’s face – a mixture of disgust and pity.
The quarter clattered to the ground and John simply stared at it, as if picking it up would transport him into some horrible realm from which he would never escape. Instead, he ran. He ran aimlessly until his lungs burned. He ran with no thought about where he was going. He ran into people. He ran into oncoming traffic. He ran through bushes and flowers. When he couldn’t run any more, he simply sat down in the middle of the sidewalk and sobbed uncontrollably.
Over the next several months, John regained his sobriety, if not his sanity. He went through alcohol treatment and counseling. He learned how to control his craving for booze and he replaced drinking with a rigorous regimen of running. With the help of a friend, he landed a job with an airline – a job that paid well, and more importantly, a job he enjoyed. On the surface, he had made an amazing turn around.
He had his life together.
But he didn’t.
John failed to anticipate one thing. With sobriety came a conscience. Alcohol made him numb. Now that he was sober, he lived with the crushing weight of guilt.
Guilt was his soul mate. She woke up with him in the morning, and lied in bed staring at the ceiling with him at night. She worked with him and she played with him. He got used her nagging presence, but he could never shake her. How could any kind of man simply walk away from his children and never even bother to contact them? This question chased itself endlessly through his mind, like a mongrel dog chasing its own tail.
On a number of occasions over the past year, John thought about contacting his old family. He searched the Internet and found Sara lived up in Bangor, Maine, near her parents. Apparently, she had not remarried. He had an address and even a phone number. If he had a nickel for every time he’d dialed the number, only to hang up the phone, he could enjoy retirement in some tropical local. He’d written countless letters he never mailed and rehearsed countless speeches he never delivered. He simply could not bring himself to face the wreckage of his past. It was as if his life had ended the night he crashed his car into that light pole. His soul was as twisted and shattered as the Toyota Camry.
But there was one difference. He was expected to keep going.
But he couldn’t keep going. He tried. He tried to make a new start. He tried to take hold of the new life sobriety had given him. But still, he woke up each morning dreaming of freedom.
Freedom from the guilt.
Freedom from the sorrow.
Freedom from the chains of regret.
But failure, fear, and the shackles of guilt bound him like a rat in a trap. He didn’t feel like he deserved a second chance, and he doubted he would be given one. He knew there was only one way to escape the past – eliminate the future.
Tonight it would end.
He would sleep for eternity, and he would never again have to endure waking up in an empty apartment on Christmas morning.
John finally tore himself away from the window. He went about straightening up the gate area by rote, trying to keep his mind in neutral, trying not to contemplate his ever-diminishing future. When he was finished locking everything up, he sat back down in one of the plastic chairs with a heavy sigh. He stared into the Christmas lights and garland one of his co-workers had strung around the gate podium. It was strange how something that once brought such joy could now produce such pain.
Christmas was his favorite time of year growing up. He could almost smell the potpourri his mom used to boil on the stove – a wonderful mix of cinnamon, ginger and mystery spices. The fragrance intermingled with the smell of fresh baked cookies and candies. The family Christmas tree was 15 feet tall…OK, only 6 feet tall, but to a 7-year-old boy, it was monstrous, full of magical lights and glittering ornaments. The house was loaded with decorations: Santa figurines, nativity scenes and snowmen. When the Christmas specials came on TV, his mom would build a fire in the fireplace and fix him a big cup of hot chocolate. He remembered the interminable length of Christmas Eve, lying in his bed, straining his ears for the sound of Santa’s sleigh. More than anything he could still recall the warm glow of the house. It was something that was felt more than seen. His Dad had called it, “Our Christmas Spirit”.
Tears filled John’s eyes as the memories danced through his mind, blurring the colored lights into a hazy rainbow. He wondered what his kids were doing this Christmas Eve. He could picture Sara holding little Andrea in her lap, as she tried vainly to pull the paper off of her first Christmas present. He remembered the way the lights danced in her eyes. He put his face in his hands, as his shoulders shook with sobs.
John’s sobbing eventually subsided, but he couldn’t bring himself to look up. He tried to forget the memories that had just blazed though his mind, like a fire though old wood. He tried to simply focus on the darkness. He realized that he was looking into eternity, dark and empty. He craved the darkness. He yearned to slip into nothingness.
“Soon,” he whispered to himself.
He felt the presence in front of him before he actually saw the man. He seemingly appeared from nowhere. The terminal was deserted except for a few cleaning people hurrying through their assigned tasks so they could get home. Passengers should have long ago cleared the secure area.
When John finally looked up, he saw a large figure standing in front of him. He had a long white beard and rosy cheeks. He was wearing blue jeans that barely contained his ample belly. His shirt, equally stretched by his girth, was flannel, checkered in red and black. John immediately thought of a lumberjack. The man sported large black boots – well worn. Oblivious to the prohibitions against smoking in the airport, the man clenched a lit corncob pipe between his teeth and calmly puffed smoke from the corner of his mouth. The smell immediately reminded John of his father. Somehow, the man managed to give the impression that he was smiling, despite the pipe in his mouth. John sensed the smile was a constant aspect of his countenance.
The man was generally striking in appearance, but his eyes really grabbed John’s attention. They were the deepest blue he’d ever seen. They seemed to dance. Those eyes were filled with what John could only describe as life. He was drawn into the man’s eyes, and it was like looking into deep pools of living water. He started to tell the man that he needed to extinguish the pipe, but he was so taken aback by the persona in front of him, the words stuck in his throat.
The man spoke first, his voice a soothing baritone.
“Merry Christmas, John.”
“How…how do you know my name?”
He looked down at his ID and the answer became immediately clear.
“I know a great deal about you, John O’Reiley.”
Having gotten over the shock of being startled, John suddenly found himself annoyed. It was as if the stranger’s dancing eyes were mocking his pain. He resented this man intruding on his solitude, breaking the spell of darkness.
“Well, if you knew so much about me, you‘d know that it damn well isn’t a merry time for me.”
John looked out the window in a gesture meant to dismiss the man from his presence. But this strange person was either too insensitive to get the meaning of John’s body language, or he simply didn’t care. The man just stood there. The silence seemed to last an eternity as the man looked down at John with his penetrating eyes.
John finally looked back up at the man. He was puffing on his pipe, the hint of a smile still evident. John tried to return the man’s stare, but couldn’t hold his gaze. It was too intense. It was like looking into the sun.
“Who the hell are you?” John asked, doing his best to sound forceful. But his voice quivered.
“You can call me Kris,” the man responded, his countenance unchanged.
John rolled his eyes and looked around the gate area, expecting to see some of his co-workers hiding in the shadows, laughing at their joke. But there was nobody else around.
Boy, this is rich,” John said sarcastically.
“No son, it’s Kris…with a K.” At that, the man pulled his pipe out of his mouth and laughed – a laugh that emanated deep from within his ample belly and echoed through the deserted terminal.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Clearly, Kris was amused by his own humor.
“Look…” John stood and faced Kris, clearly annoyed. “I don’t know who in the hell you are, and I’m sure you are just trying to spread some Christmas cheer with your little Santa shtick, but I’m not in the mood. I’ve got to get out of here. I have something important to do. So, do me a favor and take your little Christmas act someplace else.”
Kris looked neither angry nor offended. He simply put his pipe back into his mouth, took a few puffs, and contemplated John with piercing blue eyes. His face was nearly expressionless, but John felt as though the man was staring straight into his soul. The smoke curled up around Kris’ head like a halo. John started to turn and walk away when Kris pulled the pipe out of his mouth and said simply, “Sit!”
The voice was not loud and the word was not spoken harshly, but it carried such authority that John found himself sitting in the chair looking up at Kris before he even realized he had moved.
Kris looked down at John, his mouth still turned into a slight smile and said, “I imagine your little date with the grim reaper can wait a few minutes.”
John’s mouth fell open in disbelief. It was as if the man was crawling around inside his head. He felt like all of his clothes had been mysteriously ripped off his body. John suddenly sensed that in Kris’ world, wherever that was, there were no secrets. John felt exposed, vulnerable and scared. He tried to speak, but he couldn’t form words. Finally he managed to mutter, “Who are you? What do you want with me?”
“I am who I am.”
Kris reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small wrapped package. It was no bigger than a ring box, wrapped neatly in a deep purple paper. The package was tied with a small silver ribbon. It caught and reflected the colored lights around the gate podium.
“I wanted to give you this.”
John tentatively reached up and took the box with a shaking hand. It was light as a feather. He gazed at the box and then looked up at Kris, carefully avoiding his piercing gaze.
“What is this?”
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” The hearty laugh boomed throughout the empty gate area. “Why, it’s your Christmas present. Go ahead – open it.”
Kris placed the pipe back into his mouth and puffed away as John stared blankly at the little box. His mind swam. He felt as if his entire foundation had just washed away, leaving him floating. How could this man know what was going on inside his head? How could he have known about…? John suddenly had a weird sensation – like he’d always known this man. But he was certain he’d never met him.
Kris seemed to be in no hurry whatsoever – content to stand in silence and watch John. He calmly puffed his pipe, his cheeks getting slightly rosier as John contemplated the box. Finally, John placed the tiny box on his lap and deliberately untied the ribbon. He managed to steady his fingers as he pulled away the paper. Under the wrapping was an ordinary black cardboard box with a lid. John lifted the lid and stared into an empty container. He poked his finger inside, not quite trusting his eyes. His probing confirmed the box was utterly empty.
John looked up at Kris. For the first time since their initial meeting, John met his gaze. He quickly looked away and stared down into the empty box.
“What the hell kind of present is this?”
John looked up, anger building.
“What are you trying to do to me? What kind of sick joke is this?”
John shook the empty box, his face turning blood-red. Kris’ countenance changed slightly, taking on a serious expression.
“I assure you, this is no joke. And the gift…it’s more real than anything you’ve ever imagined. But like most gifts, you’ve got to be willing to accept it.”
John’s anger burned out like a flame deprived of oxygen. He held the box limply in his hands. He wanted to get up and leave. He wanted to flee from this man and his dancing eyes. He wanted to retreat back into his dark abyss. But he couldn’t move. As much as he wanted to run, he felt a compulsion to stay. A compulsion unlike anything he had ever experienced. It was as if Kris was trying to pull him upward, out of the dizzying depths where he’d lived most of his life. He wanted desperately to rise. And still, the pit pulled at him like an angry whirlpool.
Kris turned and sat down beside John. He held the pipe loosely in one hand as he stroked his beard with the other. The two men sat in silence for what seemed to John like an eternity. Kris seemed unconcerned with time. John felt paralyzed.
Finally, Kris broke the silence. “The gift I offer…” he gestured towards the box which still hung limply in John’s fingers, “… is hope.”
John stared down into the empty box and laughed vacantly.
“That figures,” he said weakly, “It’s freakin’ empty.”
Kris nodded knowingly.
“Like I said, as with any gift, the choice is up to you as to whether you receive it.”
“What the…receive what? Receive emptiness? I have plenty of that already thank you very much!”
He pitched the box towards the window, but it was so light, it simply fluttered to the floor.
“Fuck you!” John screamed.
Kris smiled slightly.
“Let me tell you about my Dad.”
John was thrown off by the sudden turn in the conversation, and he simply nodded dumbly.
Kris’ expression took on a far-away appearance, as if he were looking deep into the past. Then he began to speak in slow, mellow tones.
“My Dad’s name was Joe. He was engaged to my mother when she became pregnant…with me. The only problem was he and mom and not had…shall we say…relations. As you can imagine, he was devastated when he found out. He was going to just leave her. But you see, he loved her so much that he just couldn’t do that. He couldn’t bear to leave her and humiliate her. But he couldn’t live with her either. He felt betrayed and violated. When he looked at her, the pain cut like a filet knife. So, one night, he decided he was just going to end it. He went out into the desert with the intention of slitting his own throat. As he tells it, he could feel the cold steel against his neck when something stopped him.”
Kris paused in his story and looked over at John. John’s eyes were wide, as he hung on every word.
“My Dad was a man of great faith. He lived life filled with hope. But in the midst of all the hurt, he’d lost it. He’d given into despair. So, here he was, out in the middle of no-where, a steel blade against his throat, about to put an end to it all, when he sees what he says was an angel. This angel tells him to go home and marry my mother and that I was going to be a great man.”
John exhaled loudly. “I don’t believe that crap!”
Kris smiled broadly.
“I’m not sure Dad did either. Being a religious person is one thing; actually believing deep in your heart is something else altogether. It’s a lot to ask a man – to believe in angels and voices from heaven. But Dad realized he had a choice. In that moment, he could either give in to the darkness, or he could walk forward in hope – a hope that something better was down the road.”
Kris stopped for a moment, seemingly staring off into space and then continued.
“No, I don’t know that Dad ever really believed what he saw was actually an angel, at least not with any certainty. There were other times in his life that he acted on visions, voices – things that he thought came from God. But I know at times he doubted the whole thing. I know he struggled, and hurt, and lacked faith, just like every man who’s ever walked on earth. I know he often felt like he was just following voices in his head.”
Kris turned and looked directly into John’s face. Their eyes locked. This time, John could not look away. He could see his own reflection in the deep blue of Kris’ eyes. It felt like Kris was moving around in the darkest corners of his soul.
“But the point is, my Dad acted on hope – on faith. He didn’t always feel it, but he chose to act on it. He chose to live in such a way that hope had a chance to blossom and grow.”
Kris’ bore into John with his eyes.
“What will you choose?”
John was finally able to break the stare. He slumped down into his chair and took a deep breath. “I’m so tired,” he said.
After a moment of silence, Kris asked, “Do you know what the word Immanuel means?”
“It’s a church word…I don’t know.”
“It means God is with us. You know…that’s what Christmas is all about. Christmas celebrates the moment when God choose to intervene in human history by sending his own son. God sacrificed and gave himself as a gift in order to bring hope, love and light into the world. It’s up to the world as to what it does with that gift. In the same way God intervened in the world at a specific time in history, so it is for individuals. Tonight’s your night John O’Reiley.”
Kris looked deeply into John’s eyes.
“It’s up to you.”
Abruptly, Kris stood up. He clenched his pipe between his teeth, turned and walked away. He took several steps and turned back toward John, his laugh echoing through the deserted terminal.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!”
With a wink, he was gone, leaving John alone in the empty airport.
John’s parked his car on a deserted country road and sat in the dark. The only sound was his ragged breath and the beating of his own heart pounding in his ears. The motor was off and the cold air was beginning to make the interior uncomfortable. The night was utterly black, with only a few pinprick stars visible. The mist streaming from his mouth with each breath was the only tangible sign of life in the car.
John’s mind spun. The encounter with the strange man replayed over and over again in his head, like a stuck record. He couldn’t make sense out of it. When John closed his eyes, he could see living pools of blue – Kris’ eyes – almost as if the man was in the car with him.
John wondered if he was going crazy.
The only solid reality John could grasp was the comforting weight of the pistol in his lap. He picked it up and flicked off the safety. It felt good in his hands.
It felt right.
Slowly, he lifted the gun and placed the barrel in his mouth. The metal was cold. It across scraped across his teeth as he shoved the muzzle deeper into the maw. He held the grip tightly in both hands, his thumb on the trigger. He closed his lips around the cold, dark steel .He felt the abyss closing over him. A simple word echoed over and over in his mind.
Abruptly, John threw open the car door and tossed the pistol into the woods. Then he leaned against the steering wheel and cried. For several minutes the tears flowed. Tears of regret. Tears of sorrow. Tears of anger. Tears of pain. A floodgate opened and every horrible emotion John had pushed inside over the last 10 years came pouring out. He cried until he thought he might drown in his own tears.
Finally the torrent eased. As he began to regain his composure, John looked around him. He was cold. The car door was still wide open. It was as if he were aware of his body for the first time. He could feel the cold.
He felt alive.
John closed the car door and started the engine. He turned the heat on full blast. He pushed his hands into his coat pockets, trying to speed the warming process and he felt a small box. He pulled it out and looked at it. He didn’t remember picking it up off the floor at the airport. If it wasn’t sitting in his hand, he likely would have doubted its very existence all together. Slowly he lifted the lid and suddenly the car was filled with a dazzlingly bright, blue light. He stared into the box and it was like he was once again looking into Kris’ eyes – living water.
But this time, he didn’t have to look away. He stared into the blinding blue and he felt alive. He was drowning in the blue pool. It stole his breath, but gave him life. A word floated through his mind.
The flight attendant’s voice aroused John from his slumber.
“Welcome to Bangor!”
He looked around, for a moment forgetting where he was and what he was doing. Then the butterflies began their dance in his stomach. It was Christmas morning, and the plane was nearly empty. John reached into his pocket, making sure the address was still safely tucked away. It was, right behind a little black box.
The plane taxied to the gate and jerked to a stop. John stood and pulled his carry-on out from under the seat. His stomach jumped like it did back when he was a teenager about to ask a pretty girl on a date. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say, or how he would be received, but he knew he was doing the right thing. Besides, Kris had said, “It’s never too late for a new beginning.”
As he walked of the plane, he heard the music playing softly on the PA. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” He wished the flight attendant a Merry Christmas and walked up the jetway, into his future.