Hello, hello, and welcome to the first ever Short Story Saturday installment! I do hope you'll join me as I share one of my Christmas short stories! Of course, these stories are short--only a few thousand words long--so if you're looking for even more holiday cheer, then I suggest you enter my (almost) month-long giveaway for my latest release, The Gift of Her Heart. Enter here!
I actually wrote this short story sometime in July of 2018, I believe it was. It was published in my local newspaper later during Christmastime, and I went and published it as an eBook after I released Held Captive and Prisoner at Heart.
Before sharing it with y'all, I knew I had to do some editing and rewriting, so if you've read this before, you will find it changed. I recently updated the cover, also, so let me know what you think of the new version!
Now, without further ado, I present Home for Christmas! (Part 2 will be coming on Dec. 12th!)
It was Christmas Eve. Myriads of snow flurries created a thick blanket of white crystals outside the apartment window, burnishing the sill with frost. Colored lights sparkled from the neighboring buildings across the street, each lively sparkle dancing to its own merry tune. The tree-trimming was finally complete, and little Bonnie was setting a Christmas record into the phonograph at that very moment.
And yet, for all the laughter, all the warmth, and all the jolly “ho ho ho!” ringing from the department stores downtown, the only adornment on Kate Merritt’s face was a frown.
The war had ended months ago during the summer, and yet there still had been no word of Kenneth. No letters, no calls, no hospital records, not even a report of his death. The simple not knowing was eating her alive, each possible fate worse than the last. The more she mulled it over, questioning and reasoning and hoping and praying, the more her heart grew sore.
Was he alive, on his way home to her that very moment? Of course, that was only too ideal, to assume a Christmas homecoming when there had been no word since his final letter in March. She was a fool to wish for something so grand. It was most likely that he was a prisoner of war, rotting away in some Japanese prison.
Perhaps it was that he already had passed, falling in the line of fire or dying in a hospital. His dog tags could have been lost and himself too hurt to relay personal information. He would have died alone, with neither family nor friends, and without identification, no proper burial.
If such were the case, she would never have heard. No one would have known to look for a widow and child.
She would have felt it, though, had he died, a thousand times more acutely than she had felt his absence the last four years. The mere sensing, the inward knowledge, the faith, that he was still out there somewhere should have been enough. It had been consolation since August, and Kate knew well that it should have remained so.
But it was Christmas. And no longer a Christmas during a war, but a Christmas during peacetime.
Kenneth should have been here.
Her husband should have been home, celebrating the most wonderful time of the year with his beloved family. Laughing as they watched their daughter open up her gifts, singing as they hung ornaments on the tree. Using the mistletoe they always hung as an excuse to steal a kiss. Snuggling up by the fireplace with mugs of hot cocoa once Bonnie was in the bed.
He should have been here to resume a normal life, returning to the garage, letting Kate quit the diner to spend time with Bonnie...filling their empty apartment with many more children.
But he wasn’t. More than half the men who had been deployed weren’t. Half the country wasn’t alive for Christmas this year.
Bing Crosby began to croon, the crackle of a spinning record and the notes of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” snagging Kate’s attention, whilst fat teardrops tugged at her lashes. She swiped at the tears with the heels of her hands, preventing them from spilling onto her cheeks and alarming Bonnie.
What a sap she was, moping when she had many other blessing for which to be thankful, when she served a God of miracles who would stop at nothing to bring her husband home.
Speaking of blessings...
Bonnie skipped over to her side, as though drawn by her tears, although it was quite apparent by the bright smile gracing her little rosebud mouth that she was completely oblivious. Tugging on the hem of her mother’s apron, the six-year-old peered up through long raven lashes and lisped out the question Kate was most afraid of: “Is Daddy gonna be home for Chis-mas?”
There was a twinkle in those sapphire eyes, not unlike the twinkle that had once been so clear in her father’s eyes. Kate sighed, biting down on her trembling lip to hold in the tears and remind her of what stood right before her—which was not her Kenny. She set a hand on her daughter’s shoulder, drawing strength from her wispy frame. “I’m not sure, baby. You just keep praying. All right?”
A halo of dark curls bounced up and down along with the flounces on Bonnie’s dress as she hopped and nodded at the same time. “Okay, Mommy,” she replied, then scurried from the den, likely heading to her room to kneel at her bedside as she’d done every morning and every night since the war had begun.
Kate straightened, letting out a deep breath as she urged her tears to return into her eyes. Oh, to have a faith like Bonnie’s. She glanced up at the ceiling, imagining that she could see through the five floors above her to the sky, where huge grey snow clouds gathered to hide the heavens. Where God gazed down at His creation, watching her that very second. Did He listen to her now, as she begged for her husband? Did He listen to Bonnie as she prayed for her daddy?
She knew He did, and she knew that He would answer. When and what, she didn’t know. All that she could do was wait.
God...please. She couldn’t think of anything else. Her prayer was and had been the same since the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor four years ago. But grace was sufficient, was it not? For it was by that grace that Kate knew she was understood, despite her lack of words.
She trudged into the kitchen, soon finding herself humming along with “Mele Kalikimaka” playing on the record. Christmas cookies had been baked and plated. Gifts had been bought and delivered to the post office to send home to Missouri. The house was decorated with tinsel and lights. There was virtually nothing left to do but wait for Santa to arrive at midnight. And to pray for Kenny.
So she moaned, plopped down at the dinner table, nestled her chin in her hands, and watched each tick of the second hand on the wall clock, counting down until Christmas Day. Aside from Bing Crosby and the Andrews sisters, the house was quiet, lulled into a complacent silence by the pop of the record and the whir of the air conditioning unit in the window.
A minute exactly passed before the doorbell rang, jolting Kate from her chair. No one was expected, and certainly no one had any reason to be stopping by her apartment at six pm on Christmas eve.
Which left, really, only one possible explanation.
Her feet suddenly flew to the door, and she beat Bonnie there by a half a second.
The little girl seized the doorknob, ready to jerk it open with the excuse that “It might be Daddy! It might be Daddy!
It just might be, Kate. You never know. She tamped down any doubts and let a seedling of hope bloom within her heart. It just might be… Without looking inside the peek hole in the door, she unlocked it and swung it wide open to reveal a familiar young woman wearing a giant smile and a huge trench coat, multiple parcels in her arms.
“Miss Lilly!” Bonnie ran up to Lilly Callahan, Kate’s high school friend and fellow waitress at Betsy’s Diner, almost knocking the poor lady down when she threw herself like a torpedo at the Lilly’s swollen stomach.
“It’s nice to see you too, Miss Bonnie.” Lilly ruffled Bonnie’s curls with a hearty chuckle, then held her hand out to Kate, quickly pulling her into a half-hug.
Kate embraced her friend for a moment before she tugged back with a scolding frown. “Goodness, Lilly, what are you doing all the way over here, on Christmas Eve, in the snow, when you need to be home resting with your family?”
Her dear friend, whose own husband Jim had returned months ago from the battlefield, was in the family way for the second time since her marriage before the war, and at times Kate found herself jealous over her friend’s happiness. Still, Lilly definitely didn’t need to be there, especially so late.
Lilly shook her head, smirking all the while. “Poppycock, Katie. I’ve come bearing gifts for my favorite Bonnie lass, and I don’t want to hear you yapping on like Jim does about me goin’ out-and-about,” she explained, stepping across the threshold and shutting the door with the thud of finality.
There was no argument about it then, was there? Kate sighed, rolling her eyes at her friend’s no-nonsense attitude, and led her into the den.
As soon as Lilly sat herself down on the couch, Bonnie jumped into the seat beside her, eager as a beaver to open up her gifts.
Lilly peered down at Bonnie, then up at Kate with a raised eyebrow. “Well, now, I guess we ought to ask Mommy if we can open these here up now or if we should wait until tomorrow. What do you say, Mommy?”
Kate hitched a shoulder, returning the smile both Lilly and Bonnie sent her. “I don’t see why not. Bonnie, what do you say to Miss Lilly?”
“Thank you, Miss Lilly!” she exclaimed, taking from Lilly’s hands a newspaper-wrapped box.
Before long, wrapping paper covered the floor, Bonnie laid snuggled in a blanket under the Christmas tree, and Kate sat restless on the couch with a cup of coffee in her hands. What she was waiting for—other than midnight—that stole her sleep, she didn’t know. All she knew was that she wanted Kenny there, no matter what it took.
Merry Christmas, my love. Wherever you are.
A sob wrestled with the mouth she clamped shut, tears springing to her eyes. She could still remember their first night in their new home, when Kenny had picked her up at the top of the stairs and carried her in his arms through the hallway to their apartment. If only she could feel his arms around her once more. Even if just to say goodbye.
* * *
Kenneth Merritt took in a deep, bracing breath, letting a gentle grin form on his lips. He was home. Finally home, after four long, grueling years of war, in the warmth and familiarity of one of Seattle’s many apartment buildings. So maybe it wasn’t exactly the sort of home most men dreamed of, the ones his buddies had told him stories of—large ranch houses in the plains of the west, cozy log cabins in the Great Smoky Mountains, stylish beach cottages on the shores of the Pacific—but it was home and it was his.
Man, it’d it be great to sleep in his bed tonight and eat real food for breakfast in the morning. And then he would spend Christmas with someone other than his fellow soldiers. Someone with a smile like warm cider and a voice like golden honey.
Most important of all, beyond Christmas celebrations and food and a comfortable bed and life itself, was Kate. For the first time since his first—and last—week-long furlough this time three years ago, Ken would hold her in his arms, breathe in her scent, wake up to her beautiful face.
And see Bonnie. Three years had been too long. His little baby was all grown; would’ve had her sixth birthday last month. To think of all he had missed, experiencing such milestones only through the few letters that had come through only for the first two years he’d been gone.
But that was over now. God had brought him home.
Ken wobbled up the steps to the door of the apartment building, ignoring the ache in his tired leg and the sting beneath his arms. Good sense would’ve kept him in a Portland hotel tonight rather than taking the nine o’clock bus to Seattle. He could’ve easily gotten a good night’s sleep and been home to greet his family about lunchtime Christmas Day, assuming the bus could even make it that soon during the Christmas rush.
But then he would have missed Bonnie opening up her presents and perhaps even the whole holiday—which would’ve defeated the whole purpose of being home for Christmas.
He swung open the door, crossing the threshold and walking up to the front desk. It by grace—and the full moon streaming through the windows—that he could see his way through the lobby. Out of instinct, his hand dove into his pocket and fished for the room key...that he didn’t have,
Drat. Well, he couldn’t just knock on the door and jolt the girls from their sleep. Way to give someone a heart attack. Surely Margie wouldn’t mind if he borrowed her spare.
Ken glanced over his shoulder as though he were a thief in the night, then shuffled around the desk and carefully slipped Room 32’s key into his trouser pocket. He could return it in the morning, and Margie would never know the difference.
Now just to make it up those stairs.
One step at a time, Ken swung himself up the staircase to the second floor (thank God they didn’t live on the top floor), then hobbled over to the fifth door on the left. The door hadn’t changed in the least, of course, but rather what awaited him behind the door was different. He dragged in a deep breath, an odd uncertainty settling over him like a dark cloud.
What if Kate didn’t even live here anymore? What if she thought him dead and had remarried? Or...what if she still lived here, married to him, but wouldn’t care to be when she saw him, only half a man with one leg? Would she still love him as fervently as she had before he’d left, or had the time and distance separated them? God, he prayed not.
Lord expel these doubts and give me courage. And help Kate to accept me and love me like she used to.
Ken slid the key into the lock, a tremor coursing from his leg to his hand that caused the key to shake. Deep breath. He put his wait on one crutch and used his other hand to steady the key, turning it in one jerky motion. It clicked, and after sticking the key into his pocket, he set his hand on the knob and turned. Slowly, steadily, he creaked the door open just a little before peering into a room that was covered in wrapping paper.
Placed in the center of the den was a tall Christmas tree that had been decorated with adorable ornaments obviously made by little hands. Wrapped up in a blanket like a present under the tree was a bundle of black curls. Only one person had hair so thick and dark.
Bonnie. Well, at least he was in the right place.
He eased the door open a wee bit more, glancing around the corner to where the couch sat up against the wall. Apparently Kate hadn’t done any rearranging—that was a good sign. In front of the couch was a small coffee table where a mug had been left, a ring of brown liquid surrounding it. The woman still didn’t use coasters. However, what really caught his attention was the figure laying awkwardly on the couch.
She hadn’t bothered to change into her pajamas; her long-sleeved green dress was rumpled and splattered with chocolate. White embellishments that matched the mistletoe hanging over the doorframe dotted the collar and sleeves, reminding him of the gown she’d worn on their wedding. Memories flood his mind, all good ones, yes, but still so bittersweet.
He looked away and took in the waterfall of wavy caramel hair that caressed her back and shoulders. From where he stood he could make out her features—the pert nose that would wrinkle in confusion; high cheekbones upon which were splayed long lashes; thin brows that arched over eyes he knew were the truest green he’d ever seen. Full, wine red lips. Lips that he’d give anything to kiss.
“Oh, Katie,” he groaned, his heart stuttering at the sight of her, his pulse tripping as the realization struck him. She was home.
Then she stirred, shifting slightly as she released a yawn. Had she heard him? Shoot, he hadn’t intended to wake her up. Granted, sneaking into the house and scaring her slap silly by appearing in their bed on Christmas morning probably wasn’t any better of an idea.
Her eyes fluttered open, and for a moment he was sure she was awake, but then she snuggled into the couch and buried her head in it with a soft moan.
Now what? Ken just stood there, the pain in his leg no longer noticeable as he watched the gentle rise and fall of his wife’s sleeping form. He had just eased forward to gaze down at Bonnie when the clock in the kitchen struck twelve, the sound jarring him out of his reverie and jolting Kate from the couch.
Sitting up and rubbing her eyes, Katie mumbled something about Santa Claus, then rose from the couch to leave the room. Except she didn’t leave. She turned her head, glancing right at him. Then, with a hand to her chest, she stumbled backward, eyes wide and wild.
Oh, God...let everything be all right.
Copyright © 2020 Grace Ann Johnson