When the car died, it didn’t just give out, but, with a violent grinding noise, the wheels locked up. On ice. After a slow 180, it slammed into the snow drift on the side of the road. Fred popped open his cell phone – “No signal.” He slammed the heel of his hand on the steering wheel and cursed his luck. What else can happen, he thought? Out here in the middle of Nebraska, on a back road, middle of the night and it feels like it is 20 below zero outside. “Great. Just great. Well, can’t stay here or I’ll freeze to death,” he thought. He pulled on his heavy jacket, slammed and locked the car door, jammed his hands down deep in the pockets and started walking down the road. It was dark, he was freezing and he was alone.
As he walked along, looking for any sign of life, he couldn’t help thinking back on the events that led him to this exact spot. He had thought that his life was going pretty well. He had a nicer house than most of his friends could afford, his kids were doing well in school and in their sports. His job was stressful, but hey, that’s what it takes to make the big bucks. Too bad his wife hadn’t appreciated it. If she could have waited for just two more years, put up with the stress just a little longer, they would have been sitting pretty; they’d have been set for life. But somewhere, she got the idea that she needed to find herself, ran into someone who offered to help her do just that, and before Fred knew what happened she was gone. Took the kids, the house, a big chunk of money and pulled the plug. Divorce – that word sounded like an ax coming down hard to split a log.
But Fred was a survivor. He had resigned from his job, taken what was left in savings, and hit the road – heading west without really knowing where he was going. His only plan was to find someplace new with no bad memories and constant, painful questions. He would start over and do even better. Because, this time, he told himself, he wouldn’t make the mistake of letting anyone get close enough to hurt him. Never again. He’d have friends, might even fool around with romance but never again would he leave himself vulnerable. He wouldn’t need anyone. He would work and provide for himself. He would show his ex what she had walked away from. So off he went, heading west. But after the first day, the monotony of interstate highways made him crazy. He decided to take the back roads. What a mistake that was…
He had been walking for 20 minutes and hadn’t seen a single car or truck. “Probably because it was Christmas Eve,” he thought, “but I’ll be ok; just put one foot ahead of the other and eventually I’ll find some help.” After about another 20 minutes of walking, off to his right, on a distant hill, Fred glimpsed faint Christmas lights on a farm house. He came to a road that seemed to lead that direction and turned up it, walking ever more quickly as he approached the house. “Sure hope they are still awake,” he thought.
He was stomping the snow off his boots on the front step and looking for a doorbell, when the door swung wide open with warm, yellow light spilling out, sparkling on the snow. An elderly man held the door open and said, “Come on in, Fred. Welcome, I saw you coming and I’ve been waiting up for you.”
Fred pulled his parka hood off his head, so he could hear better; it had sounded like the man knew his name but he knew that couldn’t be right. Knocking the last snow off his boots, he limped stiffly into the warm farmhouse, rubbing his hands together to get the circulation going.
“My car broke down and I wondered if I could call a tow truck,” Fred explained.
“You won’t get anyone to come out this late on Christmas Eve,” the man replied, “but come in, take off your coat and come over by the fire – I’ve just mixed up some hot cider. I’ll bet that will be just the ticket.”
“Thanks. My name is Fred – Fred Hoskins, I’m just passing through.”
“Most folks call me Papa,” the farmer said. “I’ve got a spare bed. You can stay the night and we’ll try to get a tow for you in the morning, How’s that?”
“I wouldn’t want to impose…”
But Papa cut him off, saying, “I saw you coming from a long way off – and I’ve been waiting for you; I’ve got your bed all ready and it isn’t imposing. Now, come: grab your cider and let’s go sit by the fire.”
The next hour was spent, watching the flames dance in the fireplace, and quietly enjoying the soft glow of Papa’s Christmas tree. They talked a bit in a comfortable way, like old friends sometimes do, with lots of unhurried silence in-between the words. But soon, the lateness of the hour began to take its toll.
Fred said, “Perhaps it’s time I tried out that bed; I don’t want to keep you up too late.”
“Ok,” Papa said, “but before you head up, how about opening your present?” He pointed to a package, sitting under the tree.
“You can’t be serious, a present for me?”
“Take a look…” And sure enough, when Fred bent down and looked at the tag, there was his name, Fred Hoskins, written on the tag.
(To be continued…)