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Forty days until Christmas…
THE doorbell ringing sounded like a cannon going off, the balls landing and exploding inside his own head.
Michael Brewster groaned, rolled over, pried one eye open and looked past an empty beer bottle, lying on its side, to his bedside alarm clock.
Six o'clock. Morning or evening? Morning. Who the hell would call on him at six in the morning? He pulled a pillow over his head, but the door chimed again, and then again. Groggily, grumpily, like a bear coming out of hibernation, he groped over the side of his bed, found a pair of jeans and pulled them on.
Bare-footed and chested, he stumbled down the hallway and threw open his front door. The bracing November air cleared his head, and he reluctantly bit back his temper.
His neighbor, Mr. Theodore, stood there, wizened as a little elf, looking impossibly cheerful given the early hour and the fact that the sky was a dark, leaden gray behind him, promising a grim day.
"Top of the morning to you, Michael." With his head thudding and his mouth feeling as if he'd cleaned toilets with his tongue the night before, Michael wanted to snap at the old man and slam the door. But how could he?
Michael had recently moved back to the home he'd grown up in, and Mr. Theodore was part of the treasured memories that had drawn him back here, to the house that still smelled of his father's pipe. Michael and his brother, Brian, had raided Mr. Theodore's garden and picked his carefully tended flowers for their mom. They had broken the branches of his crab apple tree while climbing it, and played Halloween pranks on him.
Despite that history, or maybe because of it, Michael had feltinitial wariness when Mr. Theodore had approached him about working around his house. A carpenter by trade, Michael was financially in a position where he never had to work again.
Besides, by saying yes, would he leave himself open to being preached at? Mr. Theodore had always had an eclectic spiritual bent. He sang in his church choir, he was at ease discussing the Dalai Lama over the back fence. He usually had a book in hand of philosophy or poetry: Leopold, Thoreau, Frost.
But in his more honest moments, Michael wondered if maybe he'd actually said yes hoping his aging, well-read neighbor had an answer to the bankruptcy of his own spirit.
Everybody else seemed to have answers, theories about life and death and meaning, that they were, in Michael's opinion, much too eager to share.
Mr. Theodore, however, had given no advice. While Michael rebuilt front steps and installed new windows, Mr. Theodore offered only small talk—how to look after geraniums, which of the neighbors made the best chocolate chip cookies— and endless work. When one job ended at his aging house another magically appeared.
But six in the morning? Mr. Theodore was pressing his luck.
"I was just wondering—" Michael sighed inwardly, tried to guess. What hadn't he seen? What repair had he overlooked in Mr. Theodore's project-ridden house? Leaking roof? Dripping bathroom sink? Despite the hour, and a monstrous hangover, Michael was aware of feeling relieved. Something to do today, after all.
There was always something else to do, thank God. With nothing to do, Michael would surely be more lost than he already was, as lost as he had been before Mr. Theodore had come and knocked on his door for the first time and pulled him away from the perfect digital images of the huge plasma television set, the only purchase he had made with all that money.
Michael Brewster had not expected to end up unspeakably, unbelievably rich, at twenty-seven years of age. Had he ever dreamed it, he surely would not have seen it as a curse. But it was.And he would give all that money back in an instant if only—
"Christmas lights," Mr. Theodore announced happily.
He must have registered Michael's confused look. "Christmas," Mr. Theodore said. "It's almost Christmas. Today is—" he consulted his watch for confirmation "—November 15. I always put up my decorations on November 15."
But Michael hadn't gotten much past the Christmas part. Peripherally, on the edges of the haze he lived in, he must have realized stores were decorating for Christmas, that fall color was gone and winter-gray had set in.
And yet, it felt as if he'd had no warning.
And the question that burned in him, that made him toss and turn at night, that made him pace the floor, that made him drink too much beer and stare for hours at a TV screen in an effort to shut it out, was suddenly right there on his tongue. He tried to bite it back but it felt as though the question was going to strangle him if he did not ask someone, say the words, finally, out loud.
"How will I survive?" Michael Brewster said. His voice seemed normal enough, but an icy wind picked that moment to howl, and to turn his voice into a desperate whisper.
It was as he thought, as he dreaded: there was no answer to that question.
Still, Mr. Theodore touched his arm, and he found himself looking into eyes that were blue and ageless and full of strength and compassion.
"Find someone in more pain than you," the old man said firmly, "and help them."
Michael expelled his breath. An impossible solution. No one was in more pain than him. No one.
He said gruffly, "Where do you keep your Christmas lights?"
As it turned out, Mr. Theodore kept his Christmas lights in his garage.As it turned out, he kept enough outdoor Christmas decorations to rival Santa Claus. There were strings and strings and strings of house lights, acorn wreaths for the windows and doors, an electric waving Santa and a complete set of reindeer for the roof. There were life-size models of Mary and Joseph, a lean-to stable to house them and a donkey, for the front yard.
Michael was wrestling with that two-hundred-pound donkey when Mr. Theodore appeared and handed him a neatly folded piece of paper.
"What we talked about earlier," he said. He gave the plywood donkey a happy pat, as if the damned creature lived, which Michael had been beginning to suspect. Then Mr. Theodore shivered, looked at Michael's bare arms, shook his head and disappeared back inside his house.
What had they talked about earlier?
With the first snow of the year falling, imperious to the Michigan wind most people would have found impossibly bitter, Michael glared at the paper. He needed a lifeline, not a quote from the Bible, or the Dalai Lama or Thoreau or whoever Mr. Theodore was currently fascinated with. Still, he curbed the desire to crumple the paper and throw it away unread. Mr. Theodore, after all, had not given him poetry, or Bible verses or Thoreau so far. Maybe there was something on this paper he could hold on to. He opened it with the rough impatience of a man afraid to hope.
What was written there was a scrawled address at the east end of Washington Avenue. Michael recognized it as being in the rough part of Treemont, down by the old abandoned flour mill. Underneath the address was written a name.
Michael remembered their conversation from earlier. Find someone in more pain than you and help them.
As if, he thought cynically.
Still, the words printed untidily on the paper intrigued him. Pulled at him. The words said The Secret Santa Society.
Thirty-nine days until Christmas…
"I need an elf," Kirsten Morrison said into the phone, "and not the one you sent me last year. I shouldn't be fussy about a free elf? He got drunk and fell off the sleigh."
A shiver went up and down her spine, she told herself only because the front door had opened, letting that chill breath of November in.
"A shortage of elves? Oh, a shortage of volunteer elves. So, what would I have to pay for an elf who wouldn't get drunk and fall off the sleigh?" She said it as if she had money to spare for an elf, which she didn't.
"Five hundred dollars? Are you kidding me? That's robbery! What kind of person would rob Santa?"
She peered out her office door to see who had come in. There was no clear line of vision anymore. Once a small market, the front part of her space was now crammed with toys. Sixteen tricycle boxes had arrived this afternoon and were practically blocking the front door.
Trikes that had to be assembled at some point, she made a quick mental note. That was still far down the priority list. She caught sight of her visitor and involuntarily drew in her breath, suddenly not sure it was the air that had chilled her.
He was a big man, maybe a hair under six feet, but with astounding breadth across the shoulders that he brushed snow from. He wore no gloves though winter had decided to arrive last night with a vengeance, and even peering past obstacles she noticed his hands.
Strong hands, capable hands. Hands that could make a woman aware that she was alone, and that there were things, no matter how fiercely independent she became, that she was just never going to be able to do.
He was that kind of man, all right. The kind of man who made a woman suddenly and acutely aware of yearnings she could manage to keep secret—even from herself—most of the time.
He was the beginning of a story that ended happily ever after. Gorgeous in a dark way: unruly hair the color of rich chocolate fell past his collar; whiskers roughened chiseled cheekbones, highlighted a chin carved by the gods, and framed a mouth with lips that were full and sensuous but unsmiling.
And his eyes! Lord have mercy!
They were a shade of green she had never seen before, somewhere between jade and emerald, and they were fringed with a sinfully sooty abundance of lashes.
"Be there in a sec," she called. She turned from him, trying to focus on the business at hand. "Five hundred dollars for an elf! Where is your Christmas spirit? Oh! Same to you!"