A short story for the Fiction in Five Contest – October, 2011
The Last Gift
By Camas Baugh
The snow is falling and I can’t see two feet in front of me. My headlights illuminate large snowflakes against an obsidian wall, and crunching snow under my tires is the only sound I hear. I squint and try to see into the night. Leaning forward and gripping the steering wheel, I strain to find my way. My back muscles ache from the tension.
I’m only a mile away and I begin to wonder if I should turn back. I feel a tightness in my chest, and I let my car roll to a stop. I haven’t seen another car in an hour. I must be crazy to be out here. Leaning back, I breathe in deeply.
“You can do this,” I tell myself. “It’s going to be fine.”
Taking another deep breath, I flex and unflex my hands, trying to relax. I put my hands back on the steering wheel and slowly accelerate. Soon, I see the lights ahead beckoning me home. I imagine how things have changed. Mom’s hair will be shorter, maybe grey. Dad will have deeper lines around his eyes, and the spring in his step may be gone. I wonder if our dog, Timmy, is still alive. Will he still greet me with his full-body wiggle?
As I pull into the driveway, I feel like I’ve stepped back seven years. The same Christmas lights from my childhood adorn the windows, and the same paper candy canes hang from the garage door. Sitting behind the wheel, engine off, snowflakes gently land and melt on the hood of my car. I see the old tire-swing hanging motionless from the oak tree, snow untouched on its rim. The yard, warmed by a soft glow from a curtained window, is free from footprints. I feel like I am looking at a painting, perfectly still, as though someone tried to capture what a holiday should feel like from the outside looking in.
Again, I breathe deeply. This is harder than I anticipated. Ignoring the knot in my stomach, I open the car door. Cold air stings my cheeks and nostrils. Gently, I pick up the gift from the back seat and walk carefully through the snow to the front door. The wreath I made in seventh-grade with faux branches and mistletoe leaves and jingle bells covered in green and red glitter hides the door knocker. It’s unsightly, but my mom swore she loved it.
I smile, remembering how hopeful I was that Joey, the boy from across the street, would kiss me under that wreath. I remember how disappointed I was when I found out he had kissed Samantha instead. I didn’t understand what my parents meant when they told me I could never be with a boy like that. I can’t believe she still hangs that wreath.
I am feeling more comfortable now, but I am still unsure of how Mom and Dad will react. Just as I raise my hand, I hear someone fumbling with the lock. My hand is hanging mid-air, ready to knock, as the door opens.
“May I help you?” came the kind voice of a stranger.
My brow furrows in confusion and my voice fails me as I try to answer. I notice her slight southern drawl as she says, “You must be Missy. I’m right glad to meet you.” She opens the door wide now, sweeping her arm toward the living room. “Please, come in. Your parents will be so glad you’re here.”
“Thank you,” I say, stepping inside.
She smooths the front of her red blouse. The bright color against her chocolate skin is festive. “I’m Betsy, the caretaker. May I take your coat?”
The heat from the fireplace warms me. Nothing has changed. The Christmas tree stands in the space between the living room and kitchen. Eggnog-colored walls display pictures of family vacations. I shift the bundle from one arm to the other as she takes my coat. I look around, wondering where my parents are.
“Just let me run upstairs and let your mama know you’re here. Would you like some fruitcake while you wait? I made some real nice cranberry sauce to make it a little less dry,” she says with a wink, already on the inside of an old family joke.
“No, thanks,” I say, feeling uneasy. “I think I’ll just go on up.”
Concern crosses her face. “Well, there’s something you should know.”
I cut her off. “I’m fine, Betsy. Thank you.”
Holding the bundle close to my chest, I ascend the stairs to my parents room. They both look stunned to see me standing there.
My mom’s voice cracks. “Missy.”
She sits in a chair next to the bed. She looks small, almost wilted. My eyes move from her to my father. He is propped up by pillows, an oxygen tube across his face.
My eyes well with tears. “Mom, I didn’t know…”
“It’s okay, honey. I’m glad you’ve come. We said some awful things back then, your father and I. We didn’t know… We didn’t know it would end up like this. He is so sorry. We both are.”
I walk forward and a tear slips down my cheek. “I have something to show you, Dad.”
His eyes smile at me, but his breathing is labored. He pats the bed next to him. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, I gingerly set my bundle in his frail arms.
“I thought you should meet your granddaughter, dad. Merry Christmas.”
His eyes well with tears and he hiccups a sob. His finger looks old and his skin looks pale and translucent as he touches her soft, mocha colored cheek. I feel my mom’s hand clasp mine, and I know that my father has accepted his last gift.