Mr. Wooten’s Christmas Eve
By Bonnie L. Phillips
Mr. Wooten moved the heavy draperies aside and looked out the window past his naked elm surrounded by accumulated snow. He hated when it got dark early. And he hated Christmas Eve.
He watched his neighbor adjust Christmas lights; they softened the glow of the nativity scene covered in snow. Santa and his reindeer were perched along the peak of the house hidden beneath a coat of clear, thick ice. In front of the man’s porch, a snow-shrouded elf, the size of a man, offered gifts to Dr. Suess-like children.
Mr. Wooten grunted, pulled the drapes closed and sat in his overstuffed chair. He stared at flickering shadows created by the flames in the hearth, blinked away unshed tears, scowled and curled his lip in a snarl. It was the 20th anniversary of his wife and son’s death. They were killed by a drunk driver.
Most everyone in town knew Mr. Wooten was a recluse, but not the Christmas carolers. The rarely used doorbell chimed again and again, demanded to be answered. Mr. Wooten yanked open the door, looked at each of the young people, and screamed, “Go away!” He saw surprise on their faces; their eyes were full of fear, with the exception of one unflappable, frail-looking boy who wore a rainbow-colored scarf. He stared at Mr. Wooten. The kid reminded him of thirteen-year-old George, his dead son.
“Get off my porch,” he slammed the door in their faces. Mr. Wooten heard them stampede down the steps. He opened the door a crack and listened.
“Geez,” a girl said, while she kicked chunks of icy snow down the walkway, “What a grumpy old fart.”
“Don’t let him get to you. He probably doesn’t care about anybody,” said the leader. “Okay guys, let’s split up. We’ll meet back here in forty-five minutes. Have fun.”
Mr. Wooten closed the door. He started down the hallway, stopped and stared at the family photo hanging above the wainscoting. Tears slid beneath his bifocals and down his cheeks. He remembered when he’d cared about people. When he’d decorated Christmas trees, sang songs with his family, and laughed. ‘But that was a long time ago,’ he thought. He let loose a string of curses under his breath. “That damn boy reminds me of George—it’s his fault.”
Mr. Wooten opened the closet door, slipped on his parka, scarf and wool mittens and went outside to the porch swing. He thought the snow seemed heavier than usual and was out of breath by the time he’d cleared it away. He sat down, inhaled warm air through his scarf and gazed at shadows that stood out against the bluish-white of night-time snow. He heard intermittent footfalls plunging through the icy-crust; someone was in his yard. The frail-looking boy stood in deep drifts beneath the elm tree’s branches. “Get out of my yard,” Mr. Wooten said.
“Why? It’s not like there’s grass growing here.” The boy walked up to the porch, climbed the stairs and sat down on the top step. He put his chin in his bare hand and stared at Mr. Wooten.
“Think you’re pretty smart, huh, young feller?”
“Nope. And my name’s not ‘young feller.’ It’s Nathan.”
Mr. Wooten thought, ‘Nathan. Nice name. But he’s trespassing.’ “What are you here for? Did someone bet you you’d be too afraid to come back?” He scanned the street through tangled bushes, but saw no one.
“Then why are you bothering me?”
“I’m not bothering you. Just looking at you, that’s all.”
‘Damned if that boy doesn’t act just like George,’ Mr. Wooten thought.
Nathan cocked his head. He said, “You remind me of someone.”
Mr. Wooten didn’t want to ask, but he did. “Who?”
“My grandfather. You don’t look like him, but you sure do act like he used to.”
“He used to be a lot of fun. Grandpa joked and laughed a lot, with everybody—until my Grandma died. Then he acted like he didn’t care about anyone—just like you. ”
Mr. Wooten didn’t want to hear anymore. He wanted to yell at Nathan about the absurdity of the conversation, but he couldn’t. Instead, he shifted his body and spoke from a soft place somewhere deep inside. “You said I act like he used to.What happened to him?”
“He was a heavy equipment contractor and worked in Iraq until he disappeared three weeks ago. My family doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead.”
“Oh, my God, I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to be sorry, you didn’t kidnap him.”
Before the boy looked away, Mr. Wooten thought he’d seen a glint of tears sliding down Nathan’s face.
“I’ve got to go now,” Nathan said. He stood, turned, and made his way down the slippery steps.
Mr. Wooten raised his arm. “Wait a minute.” The boy ignored him and slogged through the snow toward the ancient elm. Mr. Wooten saw groups of returning carolers talking animatedly when they converged at the van. He heard a sharp crack and a whoosh of snow and ice; it fell from the tree’s highest branches. In a movie-kind-of-slow-motion he saw heavy snow cascade from one branch to the next and to the next, until an avalanche of it knocked the boy down and covered him.
Mr. Wooten hurried down the steps. He waded into the snow. “Help me,” he called to the group of young people. “A boy is buried beneath the snow.”
The group plunged into the yard and dug through several mounds of icy debris. Mr. Wooten’s heart battered against his chest, but he kept digging. “Faster, faster,” he said. “It’s Nathan, the boy with the rainbow-colored scarf.”
The carolers stopped, almost at the same moment, and stared at the man. The leader said, “How did you know his name?”
“Because he told me—what the hell do you think? Keep digging, God damn it.”
“Sir,” the leader said. “Last year after we went caroling, Nathan’s mother picked him up in front of your house. On the way home a drunk driver struck their car. The mother survived, but Nathan was killed.”
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