“Mom, the roads are horrible. It’s just not a good idea,” I said into the phone. “I have to work the day after anyways. I can’t risk not making it back.”
“Samantha, I understand that, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
“I know, Mom.” I was smarter than to tell her that I was kind of excited by the idea. I’d get to attend Christmas at my own church, eat my own food…and not get the crap scared out of me by taking on two mountain passes in the middle of the worst winter we’d seen in years. “I’ll miss you too.”
“Maybe New Year’s?” Mom sounded hopeful.
“I can’t promise anything today, but I’ll try, Mom,” I said.
“I love you.”
“I love you too, Mom. I’ll call you tomorrow sometime.”
I took a deep breath when I ended the call and walked to the window. I knew what I’d see before I got there – a wall of snow was falling that already had my car covered in a fluffy white blanket. I’d have been lucky to get out of the neighborhood, to say nothing of getting over Cheyenne Pass.
A shudder traversed my spine as I realized where I could have been if I’d gotten on the road.
My phone rang again. I glanced at the screen and shook my head. It was always like this. “Hi Dad.”
“Hey Sam. I just heard from your mom.”
“I’m sure you did.”
“It wasn’t like that, Sam. Well, it was, but you know what I mean. We both want you here, but we don’t want you on these roads. I’m proud of you for making the right decision instead of the easy one.”
Unbidden tears rolled down my cheeks. “I feel like I’m disappointing her.”
“Never, Sam. Do you understand me? You’ve never disappointed either one of us.”
“I love you kiddo. Take care of yourself, and we’ll talk later, okay?”
“I love you too.”
I ended the call and fell into inconsolable crying in a fluid motion. I suddenly realized how very alone I was, and it shook me to the bone.
The doorbell rang before I’d run out of tears. I couldn’t imagine who it was, but I pulled myself together as best as I could as I made my way to the security peephole. I looked and saw it was Mrs. Jackson from next door. She’d been out in the snow just long enough to get a dusting of it in her hair and on the plastic-wrapped plate of Christmas cookies she held.
I wiped my nose on the back of my sleeve once more and tried to come up with a smile while I unlocked the door. “Hello there!”
Her face sunk as soon as she saw me. “What’ve you been crying for, Samantha?”
“Nothing serious. My plans just changed.”
“Come and eat dinner with us.”
I shook my head. “I can’t.”
“Of course you can.” She shoved the plate into my hands, now an afterthought. “I’ll just set another plate.”
She turned back with a scowl when I didn’t follow her immediately.
I laughed. “Shoes, Mrs. Jackson. Let me grab my shoes.”
“Let yourself in when you come, Dear. I’ll be in the kitchen, and Mr. Jackson probably forgot how to work the door handle. We don’t get a lot of visitors.”
“I’ll be right there,” I said with a smile as I closed the door. I took a deep breath and tried to catch up to what I’d gotten myself into. Two minutes ago, I’d been all by myself and was kind of happy about it. Once I was in my never-in-public slides, I made my way next door.
I opened the door as I’d been instructed and left my shoes on the linoleum just inside.
“Hello there, Sam.” Mr. Jackson’s look was hopeful when I stepped into sight.
There was no resisting him – he was a sweet old guy. I sat on the edge of the couch next to him. “How have you been, Mr. Jackson?”
“Better than I deserve. And yourself?”
I didn’t answer in time to stop him from seeing right through me.
“A little lonely, I hear.”
“I was,” I nodded. “It’s better, now. You could probably tell me stories about lonely that would curl my hair.”
“I’d imagine so. You’re not here for that, though. We only have decent food, bad television, and too much heat.”
“I like it warm. It feels happy.”
“You know, I do remember one Christmas while I was in. My boys and I were deployed to this crappy little base called Bernstein in Iraq. It was a left turn from nowhere’s armpit. They were such a good group of guys – soldiers all. They brought it hard when they had to fight, but they worked harder whenever they had the chance to help somewhere. I saw my boys do things…”
“Were you an officer?”
“Oh no. Just a grunt, but that didn’t mean I didn’t take care of my boys.”
“Of course you did. Like you take care of me!”
He smiled. “You’re easier than a bunch of boys.”
“You were in the field over the holidays,” I prompted, blushing a little at the attention.
“Often. Things were slow, but not slow enough that we could just pack up and head home for Christmas. That’s not how it works, you know?”
“I can imagine.”
“We’d been alone. Alone is good in war, but it makes it even more noticeable when you’re not anymore. On Christmas Eve, we started hearing Warthogs. You know what a hog is, don’t you?”
“Feral pig? Claws, tusks…ugly little things?” I grinned, baiting him.
“All right there, Miss Smartypants.” His look was wistful – suddenly, he was a Sergeant looking to the skies at an Army Grunt’s favorite aircraft working its way overhead. “After a spell, there was a tanker, and then a single helicopter came just after sundown. They sat down in the middle of the compound, rolled off a single pallet, and took off before we hardly knew it.”
“Christmas dinner?” I asked.
“After a fashion,” he said. “The MREs were all turkey. For a long time.”
“There was something else, wasn’t there?”
“Sure was. Mail. Cards, letters from home, pictures from little kids in church groups, little trinkets from around the world…if you had made a movie showing every reason why we were there, doing what we were doing, it would have looked just like that. It’s possible that was the best Christmas ever.”
It was very late when I got back to my apartment.
Therefore, it was very late when I found my cell laying on the kitchen counter with the message indicator blinking. I had to listen to the message. I didn’t get a lot of phone calls, so my curiosity had to be quenched.
It turned out to be the operations director of the symphony here in town. She asked me to call as soon as I got the message, regardless of the time. There were definitely a lot of things I didn’t understand, but I certainly understood an inability to sleep when something was nagging at you.
The call was short.
The call was surprising.
Their piano soloist had gotten sick, and they needed someone to fill in for tomorrow’s big Christmas Eve performance. The proceeds were going to charity, and the question was…would I help them out?
Having a car service waiting out in front was awesome. The driver, Abigail, insisted on carrying my dress bag. She was twenty-seven, elusive about her government service, and had a Bassett hound and a husband. More important, she drove a large SUV that was completely undeterred by the snowfall covering the ground.
The Civic Center was just downtown. Ordinarily, it would have been about a twenty minute ride, but it took close to an hour due to the traffic that was mired in the blanket of snow, ice, and plow trucks that filled the streets. It was obvious the city was trying to get back on its feet after the blizzard had wreaked its notable havoc.
With Abigail at my side, I stepped into the overwhelming main auditorium. Musicians were starting to gather on the stage, and a smart-looking woman in a black pantsuit hurried toward us as soon as we were seen.
“You must be Samantha. I’m Karen Hawkins – we spoke on the phone last night.” She turned and smiled genuinely at Abigail as she traded a paper ticket for my dress. “Capital work as always, Abby. I assume you’ll take her home after the show?”
“Of course, Ms. Hawkins.” Abby turned and smiled at me. “Good luck tonight.”
“Thanks for the ride,” I nodded with vanishing confidence.
“We need to get you settled. Rehearsal starts soon,” Karen said as she led me backstage. Everything went by in a flurry of turns and closed doors. We left my bags in a small room I doubted if I’d be able to find before we took off again. I was completely turned around when the last door opened up onto the stage left area, hidden only by substantial looking red velvet curtains. She pointed toward a grand piano near the front corner of the stage. “There you go. They told me the sheet music would be waiting for you. Good luck!”
Tonight, I’d be watched first and then judged during and after the performance. It was very much the other way around as I made my way to the piano. I knew the other musicians would be sizing me up almost before they’d figured out who I was. It wasn’t insulting – it was life. This might be a hobby for most of these people, but it was a very serious one.
The weight of it was a giant sitting on my shoulders, and yeah, it got to me. Just trying to feel out the piano with a basic scale, I sounded like a toddler pounding on one of those toy pianos with five brightly colored but out of tune keys.
Even though they didn’t have the amp on, the piano was plenty loud on its own. The people that didn’t hear me were getting poked in the ribs by their friends who did. Of course, everything went better when I jumped right back on the keys.
In my head…
In reality, I heard a cat out in the alley scrawling like a car drove over its tail.
I was both shaking and shaken by the time I thought about my dad telling me to close my eyes when I needed the world to go away. No one was paying any attention to me when I started to play a third time – I’d already been disregarded.
I held up my end without much of a problem once rehearsal started, even if it wouldn’t ever be considered an International Chopin Piano Competition performance extraordinaire. The truth was the conductor, who I still hadn’t even met, was probably taking it easy on me for lack of any better options.
I usually strove to be a little more than…adequate.
I opted out of the catered lunch the symphony provided for a coffee shop I’d noticed across the street. Water and a fresh scone was all I had. I certainly didn’t need any caffeine, and my stomach was more than a little wiggly. I had to eat something, though – it was going to be a long night with two shows.
The conductor shook the cold off as he stepped through the front door. He didn’t seem to notice me, but my heart still sunk. I’d hoped to have a few minutes to myself, and just seeing someone from the symphony stole that away from me. I steeled myself for what I knew was coming and took a last look out the window while I still had time to get lost in my own thoughts.
I started at his voice. “Is it better if I ask to sit with you, or sit across the way and have you wonder if I’m watching you?”
I managed half a smile and gestured to the chair on the opposite side of my table.
“I’ve been doing this for longer than you’ve been alive, and I still don’t know how to treat an artist without making them uncomfortable.”
My smile widened. “I’m just a stand-in pianist.”
“Please don’t do that.” He was quiet for a minute, as if trying to decipher how to deal with my discomfort. “There’s an old saying, and I’m sure you’ve heard it-those who can, do. The extension is obvious. I’ve studied music for my entire life, but I am no artist. You have such a gift, please don’t denigrate it.”
Until I glanced at my watch, there wasn’t another word said. We simply sat and looked out the window, ate our scones, and drank water together. “Time?”
I nodded. “I think so. It’s two-thirty.”
“Let’s go do this,” he said with a hint of a smile.
I nodded and followed him out the door.
Two dresses, two performances, and fourteen hours later, I was back where I’d started this ride. The trip back through town toward home with Abby felt decidedly different. This time, there was nothing other than the fight to keep my eyes open. I should have been scanning the skies out the windows for Santa’s sleigh.
It was, technically, Christmas.
It was all I could do not to scan the insides of my eyelids - I just didn’t have anything left. All of my energy was left on the piano keys back in the performance hall.
Abby seemed hesitant about leaving me in my dark apartment, but when it got right down to it, she had her own holiday to go and enjoy. It was only after I’d finally extricated myself from her good intentions that I noticed my cell on the kitchen counter with the message indicator blinking furiously.
The last call had been at eleven o’clock, and the message from Mom said she’d be up until she heard from me. Even though I only wanted a pillow and blanket, there wasn’t any choice but to call her.
“Where have you been, Samantha? We’ve been worried about you.”
I hesitated. I didn’t take lying to my mother lightly, but I couldn’t even begin to tell her about my day
“Sorry Mom. Everything’s been down except the power today. I don’t know if it’s related to the storm or what, but…I just couldn’t get anything to work.”
“I understand. We just wanted to hear from you – it’s’ the first time you’ve been away for Christmas, and it just didn’t feel right not to talk to you.” She took a breath that sounded like she was holding back tears. “So, what have you done with your Christmas Eve?”
Like with so many other parts of this conversation – there wasn’t any choice. I couldn’t stop the thrill of being chauffeured, the embarrassment of my practice with the symphony, the thrill of the spontaneous standing ovation after my piano feature, and the warmth that acceptance to the symphony as a permanent performer had brought me from tumbling through my mind.
It just wasn’t possible.
But it was my Christmas. I wanted to hold it in my hands as I saw fit. It belonged to me.
“I’ve just been catching up on my sleep, Mom.“
“Well, enjoy tomorrow. Eat something good, okay? None of those frozen meals.”
I smiled and yawned at the same time. “Of course.”
“Good Night, Samantha. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas Mom. Send my love to Dad, too, okay.”
“Of course. Sweet dreams.”
🙂 Hi! My name is Eric McMurtrey. I’m the author of this story, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I wanted to let you know that it’s actually part of a collection that I’ve been working on for a long time. The rest of the series is available both printed and as an Amazon e-book. I appreciate you taking the time to stop by, and I’d be completely thrilled if you chose to support me by picking up a copy of my book. Merry Christmas!
To shop for my book, there’s a link in the drop-down menu at the top of the page, or it’s also https://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Spirit-Eric-S-McMurtrey-ebook/dp/B07WMFH3LR/ref=sr_1_1_nodl?Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.x=0&Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.y=0&dchild=1&qid=1594658695&refinements=p_27%3AEric+S+McMurtrey%2Cp_28%3AA+Christmas+Spirit&s=books&sr=1-1&unfiltered=1