The paramedic team from Station 51’s A-shift stood before their lockers changing clothes, preparing to head home. This year their shift had fallen on the day after Thanksgiving. A shift most dreaded because it signaled the beginning of holiday madness. True to form, it had proven to be a long and very busy shift for both the paramedic team and the engine crew.
Roy looked over at his partner of six months and cleared his throat. Johnny glanced in his direction.
“Hey, uh, Johnny? Since we have off this year I, well, Joanne and I, we thought you might like to come over to our place on Christmas.”
Gage looked slightly stunned for a second before he responded.
“Christmas? Um, I . . . I usually pull a shift for someone . . .”
“Well, you don’t have to come over. I just thought I’d ask,” Roy was disappointed in his partner’s less than enthusiastic response, “Never mind.”
“No! I mean, I’m sorry. I was just surprised, that’s all. Nobody ever . . . Um, I’d like to come over. It’ll be . . . . fun.”
Roy nodded his head. “Okay then. When Joanne firms up our plans, I’ll let you know the details and stuff. See you in a couple of days.”
“Yeah, see ya next shift, Roy.”
DeSoto left the Station then, not realizing he had just struck fear into his partner’s heart.
Johnny stood outside DeSoto’s front door, his hand poised to knock. An attack of nerves kept his fingers from touching the glass. His partner’s initial invitation for Johnny to join the family for Christmas Day had grown to include him coming over for Christmas Eve and attending a service at their church. He’d even let Joanne talk him into spending the night so he could watch the kids open presents in the morning.
Johnny took a deep breath and tugged again at the tie encircling his neck before finally rapping on the door.
His knock was answered a minute later by a very harried-looking Roy.
“C’mon in, Johnny. We’ll be ready to go in a couple of minutes.”
Unsure of what to do, and wondering for the millionth time why he had agreed to this, Johnny stepped inside and stopped. In the months since they’d become partners, the dark-haired man had visited the DeSoto home a few times for dinner, but he wasn’t comfortable enough yet to just make himself at home. Therefore, he remained standing just inside the door. A few minutes later a beautiful angel popped into the room closely followed by a shepherd. Gage couldn’t stop a small smile from forming as he gazed at the costumed children, aged four and eight.
“Hi, Mr. Gage,” Christopher and Jennifer both spoke simultaneously.
“Uh, hi, Chris. Hi, Jennifer. You guys look nice.”
“I get to be an angel in the play. See, I’ve got wings and a halo.”
“I see that,” Johnny made a point of admiring the iridescent wings and golden halo and felt himself relax a bit.
“Yeah, and I get to be a shepherd.”
“Uh, huh. You make a great one, too, Chris.”
Just then, Joanne and Roy rushed into the room.
Joanne smiled brightly at their guest. “Johnny, I’m so glad you’re coming to the pageant and then spending the night. Dinner will be ready when we get back from church. I hope you will be hungry.”
“Hi, Joanne. Yeah, yeah, I’ll be hungry. Um, you look nice.”
Roy slid his arms into his soft gray sport coat as he spoke, “Okay, kids, it’s time to go. We don’t want to be late.”
“Wait, Daddy! I need to ask you something.”
Jennifer glanced at Johnny and then back at her Dad.
“I wanna whisper.”
Roy let out a patient sigh and bent down to his daughter. His eyes widened a bit when he heard her question.
“I don’t know, Jen, why don’t you or your brother ask him?”
Roy smiled and looked over at his partner.
“Uh, Johnny. Chris and Jennifer want to know if they can call you ‘Uncle Johnny’ instead of ‘Mr. Gage’. That’s how they want to introduce you tonight.”
The young man was so stunned for a moment that he had trouble finding his voice.
“Oh. Um, sure. Yeah, you guys can call me Uncle Johnny. If you’re sure you really want to.” I’m not really worthy . . .
Jennifer answered by throwing her arms around Johnny’s legs and squealing in delight. Chris just grinned.
“All right everyone. We really need to go now.”
Roy and Joanne ushered the kids into the car and, with Johnny following in his Rover; they all headed off to the church.
Johnny sat next to Roy and Joanne in the third pew. The kids had hustled off to a Sunday school room to await the beginning of the pageant. Despite his ever-present nervousness, Johnny surprisingly found himself enjoying the service so far. The program had started with the congregation singing several popular Christmas carols. Though Johnny was too embarrassed to actually sing, he was amazed to discover that Roy had a beautifully deep singing voice.
When the caroling finished, the minister offered a quick holiday prayer and then announced the beginning of the children’s play.
Gage found himself chuckling right along with the rest of the congregation at the children’s halting recitations and antics on stage and even snapped a few pictures of all the kids. When their play ended, the children headed into the audience to find their families. Jennifer and Chris rushed to their parents who enveloped them in huge hugs. Without warning, the two younger DeSotos turned to Johnny and hugged him as well.
Things turned quiet once again as the minister offered up one more prayer, and the Christmas Eve service ended with the singing of several more carols, the last being “Silent Night” sung by candlelight.
Johnny stood aside as the DeSoto family said their good-byes, and then they all strolled to the parking lot. After a considerable amount of pleading on the children’s part, Gage agreed they could ride home with him as long as their parents agreed.
“Okay, partner, we’ll see you back at your house. Hop in, guys.”
By the time Johnny pulled into the DeSoto’s driveway, his stomach was growling madly. He couldn’t wait to see what Joanne had in store for their dinner. Both kids flew from the car and raced into the house. The lanky, dark-haired man followed at a slower pace although he kind of wanted to run himself. Inside a luscious aroma emanating from the kitchen greeted him. Still uncomfortable in his role of guest, Johnny hesitated briefly before heading toward the kitchen.
“Chris, Jennifer, go upstairs and change into your pajamas. Then wash up so we can eat. Hi, Johnny. Go ahead and have a seat at the table. We’ll eat in just a few minutes.”
Gage did as instructed and soon the others all gathered around the table. Much to Johnny’s delight, Joanne served big bowls of Chicken Corn Chowder and hot rolls followed by mint chocolate chip ice cream for dessert. Afterward, the children dashed off to the family room to watch a Christmas special on television while the adults had coffee.
The credits began to roll just as the three adults entered the room. Joanne quietly informed the kids it was time for bed and followed them upstairs, quelling any protests with liberal reminders that Santa Claus was well into his journey. Along the way, she assured them that she would not forget to leave cookies and milk for Santa.
Roy turned his attention to the lanky young man seated next to him. The young man was lost in thought as he gazed at the Christmas tree.
“I hope you weren’t too uncomfortable tonight. I tried to tell Joanne you might be bored . . .”
“It’s okay, Roy. I wasn’t bored. And, I think I got some great pictures,” Johnny smiled in remembrance.
“Yeah, all the kids were cute, weren’t they?”
“Hey, Roy? Are you sure you don’t mind Chris and Jennifer calling me Uncle Johnny? I mean, I don’t want you to be mad ‘cause I don’t really deserve . . .”
Roy couldn’t help but notice the uneasiness on Johnny’s face.
“I think it’s great, Johnny. I’m pleased they like you so much.”
“Yeah, well, I like them, too. Hey, while I have a chance I wanted to thank you for something.”
Johnny reached inside his jacket pocket, pulled out a folded piece of paper, and handed it to Roy.
“This was cute. It made me laugh when I opened it. Good thing Chet wasn’t around though. But, thanks for having it sent to me. Did you send them to the kids, too?”
Puzzled, Roy unfolded the paper and perused its contents. It was a letter from Santa addressed to John Gage.
“Uh, Johnny, we didn’t send this to you.”
“What? Didn’t you send it as a joke? Maybe Joanne did?”
“Well, you can ask her, but I’m pretty sure we didn’t do this.”
“Didn’t do what?” Joanne stepped into the room at that moment.
“I was telling Johnny that we weren’t behind this letter,” Roy handed his wife the piece of paper in question.
“Well, I can tell you I didn’t do it. But, it’s a great idea. I’ll have to remember it next year for Chris and Jen.”
“Uh, Roy, you don’t think Chet or one of the other guys . . . nah . . . they wouldn’t.”
Truly puzzled, the dark-haired man took the letter from Joanne and carefully tucked it back into his pocket.
“Oh, well, maybe I’ll find out someday.”
Joanne sat down next to her husband and draped her arm across his shoulders.
“Roy, honey, we should get the presents out and get them under the tree.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Tomorrow’s gonna start really early.”
“You guys need any help?”
“Sure, Johnny, it’ll go faster if we have an extra pair of hands.”
A short while later, Johnny sat back down on the couch, all the while marveling at the pile of gifts under the tree. His attention was diverted for a moment when Joanne re-entered the room carrying a glass of milk and a plate containing two peanut butter cookies. He watched as she placed them on a small table near the tree along with a note proclaiming, “For Santa”.
“What’s that?” Curiosity was evident on his face.
Joanne laughed softly before replying, “Why, it’s milk and cookies for Santa, of course. Didn’t you do that as a kid?”
“Uh, no. No, we didn’t,” the young man turned his gaze back to the tree.
“Well, partner, Joanne and I are going to head off to bed. Chris’s room is all yours when you’re ready.”
“Sounds good. I just need to grab my stuff out of the truck.”
Johnny watched as Roy unplugged the lights on the tree and then climbed the stairs with his wife before walking outside to his Rover. He grabbed the presents he had for the DeSoto’s as well as his small overnight bag and quickly returned to the house. Finding a spot under the tree to stash his gifts was a somewhat complicated task, but with some strategic re-placement of packages, Johnny accomplished his goal. That finished, the young man padded off to bed.
An hour later, the weary paramedic heaved a defeated sigh. It was no use; he just could not fall asleep. Rising from Chris’s bed, Gage pulled a T-shirt on over his pale green pajama bottoms and quietly crept downstairs to the family room. Johnny illuminated the tree once again before sitting down. As he gazed at the twinkling, multi-colored lights, Johnny let his troubled mind drift back to the unwelcome memories from childhood that were disturbing his peace.
Christmas had always been a lonely time for him as a boy. Given up at the age of three by a mother who could not, or would not, care for him, Johnny had eventually ended up in a series of foster homes. He was not a high priority in any of the homes as most of the foster parents had their own biological children. In the early years, he’d tried hard to be a good kid, often in the hope that there would be just one brand new present under the tree just for him. It never came to pass. Mostly, he’d receive a wrapped hand-me-down from one of the “real” kids. In later years, he’d quit hoping. Christmas had lost it’s magic.
Johnny groaned and rubbed his hands across his face. C’mon, Gage, grow up already. That’s ancient history. Why are you letting it get you down again?
Restless, Gage stood. He paced around the room for a few moments, eventually stopping by the chair where his jacket was draped. On impulse, Johnny reached in the pocket and pulled out the mysterious letter from Santa. Flopping back on the couch, he re-read the letter, allowing a full blown grin to light his face. It didn’t matter who had sent the letter. The kid in him treasured it. Johnny finally drifted off to sleep still clutching the letter in his hand.
A short while later, Roy descended the stairs and walked into the family room. He was startled to see his partner asleep in front of the lighted Christmas tree. Not inclined to wake him, Roy grabbed the crocheted afghan off the back of the couch and covered his partner. Funny how quickly I came to view you, not just as a friend, but as a brother. It’s been good to welcome you into the family. Somehow, somehow I think you needed that.
The fair-haired man quickly slipped Joanne’s surprise gift under the tree. He then ate one of Santa’s cookies and drank half of the glass of milk before quietly heading back to bed.
Johnny came awake with a start when he felt a small body impact with his chest. Gasping slightly for air, he struggled to sit up and orient himself to his surroundings.
“Uncle Johnny! Uncle Johnny! Santa came. Look! Look!” One very excited four-year-old little girl was bouncing on his chest. Christopher was standing by the tree with a look of utter glee on his face.
Grimacing, Johnny managed to squeeze out, “Uh, Jen, how about you sit right here?” As he spoke, he gently maneuvered her to the side so that she was sitting next to him.
“Didja see? Santa came. He even ate the cookies and milk!”
Unable to hold back a grin, Gage answered, “Yes, Jenny, I see.”
He looked up to see the children’s parents shuffle into the room. Both children made a beeline for them, the volume of their squeals growing with each step.
“Mommy, Daddy! Can we open them? Can we?”
Joanne yawned and then spoke, “Yes, Jennifer and Christopher, we will open them AFTER we have some coffee and you two have some juice. Good morning, Johnny.”
“Mornin’, Joanne. Mornin’, Roy. You guys weren’t kidding around about the early start,” he gestured to the clock on the wall which read 5:55 a.m.
“Well, before we start, I’ll make coffee. C’mon, kids, I’ll get your orange juice.”
Fifteen minutes later, Joanne returned carrying a tray laden with mugs of aromatic coffee and a plate of homemade pastries. Sighs of pleasure echoed briefly in the room as each adult downed some much needed caffeine and sugar.
Now that he was more pleasantly awake, Roy decided it was time to hand out gifts. He started by handing a couple to each of the children. Paper and ribbon flew as Chris and Jennifer tore into their packages with gleeful abandon. While they were occupied, Roy handed his wife a small box. As she opened it, Roy handed a box to his partner.
“Here you go, Johnny.”
Gage was shocked when Roy placed a package in his hands. He hesitated.
“Are you sure this is for me?”
“Yep. It says so on that big tag right there,” Roy smiled at Johnny’s inquiry, “Aren’t you going to open it?”
“Uh, yeah, of course,” Johnny slowly opened the gift and was amazed to discover a watch inside. Wordlessly, he removed his old watch with the wide, brown leather band and replaced it with the sleeker black watch.
Several more gifts for John followed, and he marveled at his partner’s generosity. When it was his turn to distribute the presents he’d brought, Johnny nervously handed them to the DeSoto’s quite certain they would be hated. But, Joanne seemed more than pleased with her bracelet and Roy really liked the personalized Swiss Army knife. Christopher was thrilled with his complete set of Matchbox rescue vehicles, and Jennifer yelled in delight when she saw the velveteen Raggedy Andy doll nestled within her box. She hugged the doll fiercely, marched over to Johnny, and proudly announced, “I’m going to call him ‘Mr. Gage’.”
A lump formed in Johnny’s throat.
Suddenly, Joanne called out, “Oh, kids, don’t forget the stockings!”
The children raced to the hanging stockings and brought them back over. Chris handed one to an unsuspecting Johnny. It was a red stocking with “Johnny” written on the white fur cuff.
His reaction startled Roy and Joanne. His face drained of color and his eyes filled with moisture. He bit his bottom lip as he maintained a white-knuckled grip on the stocking.
“Um . . . I’ll . . . I’ll be right back,” Johnny fled the room.
The embarrassed young paramedic returned a few minutes later and sat down. He couldn’t look at the two people in front of him.
“I . . . I’m sorry,” Johnny swallowed audibly and continued, “I’ve . . . I’ve never had a stocking before. No one ever cared enough to give me one. And the presents, too.”
Joanne’s heart broke as she listened to Johnny. She, like Roy, knew next to nothing about his background, but it certainly didn’t sound like he’d had a very good childhood.
“So . . . thank you. You just don’t know . . .”
Unable to stand it a minute longer, Joanne enveloped him in a big hug.
“Oh, Johnny, you are so welcome. I am so glad you came today. You made the day complete,” not wishing to embarrass the man further, Joanne continued, “Well, now I’m going to go whip up a Christmas brunch you’ll still be talking about next year.”
As Joanne headed off to the kitchen, the children demanded Roy and Johnny’s full attention to look at and marvel over their toys.
After several minutes of “oohing” and “aahing”, Jennifer climbed into Johnny’s lap with her new doll.
“Uncle Johnny? Later, you gotta watch this movie on TV with me, okay? Okay?”
“What movie is that, Jennifer?”
“It’s called ‘Itsa Wunderful Life. It has an angel named Clarence! You’ll like it!”
Thinking back over the events of the last two days, Johnny smiled and said, “You know what, Jennifer? I think I will. I really think I will.”
*** The End ***