by Julian Keys
“In this family, the greeting is ‘Happy Holidays!’ And we mean it.”
It’s three days before Christmas, and out-of-work handyman Ethan Rowe has hit rock bottom. In the midst of robbing a thrift store, he responds to a loud and ringing cry for help.
Science teacher Sophie Cauldwell isn’t looking for love when she shouts for help, only a rescue from attempted robbery. When soulful, chivalrous Ethan answers that cry, however, she’s found her knight in shining armor. It doesn’t matter that she knows absolutely nothing about him, Sophie opens herself, her soul, and her family home to him.
Enchanted as Ethan is by brainy, beautiful Sophie, he is only hoping to get a free meal when he accepts her invitation to dinner. Warmly welcomed into a home that celebrates the season in every possible way, however, he begins to fall in love with her and her multi-cultural kin. But is it only the magic of the holidays keeping their romance alight? Ethan finds it hard to believe that their love could survive the truth, even in this time of miracles. Can Sophie and her family change his mind and restore his faith?
|How did you get here?|
Chapter 6: Holiday Lights
The world outside was frosty cold, the sky overhead shadowed with clouds once again. But the neighborhood lights still blinked bright and welcoming. As inviting as the first time Ethan had seen them. God, had it only been three days ago?
His footsteps echoed around him as he headed down the sidewalk, his pulse sounded in his ears. He tried to enjoy the solitude, but after living with Sophie’s active, chatty family, all he felt was lonely. Profoundly lonely. And back at square one. Providing he managed to stay out of jail, he’d have to find a way to pay his rent, buy food.
He heard the sound of a door opening and shutting. “Ethan!” The shout was followed by the sound of hurrying steps down the sidewalk. He winced. It was his own fault for thinking he could escape without a confrontation. Shit and shit again. Shoulders hunched he turned.
Sophie, her big coat flopping about her unbuttoned, came running. She stopped in front of him, shivering in the cold, breath puffing out in clouds before her.
And then she kicked him in the shin.
“You asshole!” she barked as he hopped about on one foot, hissing.
“Jesus Christ—no, no, don’t kick me again!” He stumbled back as she took aim.
“How dare you drop that bombshell and just leave!”
“I kinda… kinda thought you’d want me out of there. You know, ‘Never darken our door again!’’’
“You thought wrong! God damn it! And by the way, Isaac says that if the police have no evidence of who did the breaking and entering and nothing was stolen then there’s no point in giving yourself up. They can’t charge the other guy, and they’re not going to want to do the paperwork on you.”
“Well, that’s good to know. Thank him for the advice and I’ll think about it.”
“You’ll think about it?”
“Look, Sophie, whether I do what he says or not, it doesn’t change anything.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He sighed. Why was she making this difficult? “You were all outraged about someone trying to rob a kid’s charity, and now you’re not?”
“No, I’m pissed at you and so is my family. Angry and disappointed. So what? That doesn’t mean we want to lose you.” She grabbed his wrist. She wasn’t wearing gloves and her fingers were freezing. “Fucking up doesn’t make you worthless.”
God. Why did she have to have so much damn faith in him? He was going to have to confess it all. “Sophie, I’ve got nothing. Absolutely nothing. I can’t even buy you a cup of coffee. And I know that shouldn’t mean anything, but it does.”
She was staring at him with those penetrating blue eyes of hers. “Why is that Ethan? What happened? Where’s your family, your friends?”
Right to the heart of it. He moved his arm, forcing her to release him and turned away. “My father believed that it was important to have expensive things. A Lexus, a house in the right neighborhood, a son going to private school. All this was proof that a man was a success. When I was seventeen, however, he was arrested and we learned the truth. He’d gotten his wealth from defrauding investors, some of them our friends and neighbors. He was a crook, a con man. He left us not only broke, but disgraced. Stigmatized.”
He felt the old pain, that knot of betrayal. Sophie stood listening, hands in her pockets.
“All those righteous lessons he’d taught me about a man standing on his own feet, meeting his responsibilities was all bullshit.” Ethan swallowed. “And then, just as this all came to a head, the son-of-a-bitch had a heart attack and died, which saved him from going to jail, but left us to deal with the aftermath.”
“We had to sell everything. Mom and I ended up living in a one-bedroom apartment. I quit school, got a job to support us, but then mom got sick, leukemia.”
Sophie winced. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. She never got over the loss of it all—of her elegant lifestyle, her rich friends, her beautiful home. She was depressed and angry till the end. Her passing was a mercy.” Ethan chewed on his lip.
“So you were left all alone, in the dark,” Sophie said softly.
“I was on my own,” he agreed, avoiding her gaze. “And I was no good at it. Over the years I’ve sunk lower and lower, becoming as much of an unreliable, irresponsible, immoral fuck up as my father. Do you see? I’m not someone you would have invited into your home or your bed! I led you and your family on in order to steal what I could from you.”
“Is that why you think you should go to jail? For taking advantage of us?”
He flinched. Damn, she was good.
“Come on,” she added with a jerk of her head. “We’re going to be late for the Christmas Eve ceremony.”
Her eyes met his, not dreamy this time, but rather like they were drawing him in, locked on him and pulling. “You just admitted that you wronged me, and owe me. If you mean it, then come on.”
He couldn’t argue with that. He followed her back down the peaceful street to the house. She did not, however, go up the front stairs. Instead, she took them through a gate into the backyard. The family was standing on the snow-crusted porch. They were bundled up, candles in hand, out under the stars.
Only Benji glanced at Ethan and Sophie as they joined the circle. The adults acted as if nothing had happened, but Ethan could sense the effort of that nonchalance. He wasn’t sure if he was grateful for it or not.
James stepped forward and the family formed a circle around him.
“The Christmas story,” he began, “is a very simple story. And yet I think that the most important part of it is often overlooked. We see the divine child, the kneeling wise men, the winged angels and the star, but the most important element of this tale, to me, is the manger.”
A pause. Distant church bells could be heard, ringing from town.
“It’s important to remember that the light of the world was born in the most unassuming of locations offered off-handedly, if considerately, by a busy innkeeper.”
Ethan glanced away. Was James implying that letting him sleep on the couch was like offering Mary and Joseph the manger?
“This should remind us,” James continued, “that in looking for our inner fire, we should examine not our greatest achievements, but our most modest. In looking for those shining stars in our world, we should consider not the highest and most powerful people, but those who are simple and unpretentious. Because it is in the most humble of places that the greatest light is born. Finally, we should remember that it doesn’t matter if we’re in a castle or a manger or under the stars.”
He opened his hands and gazed up at the night sky. “So long as we’re with the people we love, we are blessed.”
This time Ethan hung back as the family sung “Silent Night,” then hugged and wished each other a Merry Christmas. But then James came up and quite deliberately stood in front of him. Quiet descended and Ethan finally met the older man’s gaze.
“You want to hit me over the head with a hammer for good measure?” he asked James.
“I’ll leave that to Sophie,” the older man said, squeezing his shoulder. “But I will say this: The birth of His son on Earth was God’s gift to the world, a gift of love and absolution. On this night of all nights, why can’t you believe that we’d forgive you?”
Ethan shrugged. He knew the answer, but couldn’t say it aloud. It involved being able to forgive himself.
James sighed. “Kay and I are off to church services, and Isaac is taking Nikki and Benji to look at Christmas lights. So you and Sophie will have the house to yourselves. I hope we’ll see you in the morning, Ethan.”
The family drifted away, candles floating like fairy lights before them. Ethan was left with Sophie, there in the dark, stars twinkling overhead.
“Well?” she asked.
Late the next morning, Christmas morning, Sophie stood outside on the porch gazing up at Ethan’s lantern. Her mother had lit and hung it. The sky was gray and dark enough that the rainbow glow was easily seen, beams of colored light and symbols of the season, shining in every direction.
It had been quite a morning with the family seated around the tree opening presents. They’d sipped hot chocolate and nibbled on cranberry coffee cake while tearing at wrapping paper and prying the lids off boxes. Gifts were tried out or tried on, paper was balled up and thrown, and bows were placed in everyone’s hair.
Intimidating for Ethan, who’d huddled in an armchair, uncertain of his welcome. It hadn’t been easy convincing him to stay the night. Dragging him upstairs and fucking his brains out had helped. He’d still spent this morning looking ready to bolt.
“One last gift,” mother had said and handed James a small box. James had passed it to Nikki, who’d passed it to Isaac who’d given it to Benji, who’d paused in playing his new game tablet to present it to Ethan.
“Um…thank you,” Ethan had murmured, sounding both surprised and apprehensive. Slipping off the ribbon he’d popped open the box and lifted out two keys. “What’s this?”
“Keys to the basement,” Mother had said and when Ethan gawked at her. “You can take the stuff that’s down there and sell it, or you can use it to help out these people.” She handed over two sheets filled with names and addresses. “Old homes in desperate need of a good handyman.”
Ethan’s mouth had fallen open, nothing coming out.
“You can also sleep in the basement if you like,” James added, “We’ll work out payment for room and board later.”
“I can’t—I can’t—” he’d tried.
“Yes, you can,” Sophie had jumped in, feeling the same determination to make things right as she had last night. “That workshop is going to waste. It should belong to someone who can use it to fix and save things.”
“Sophie, I’m not–”
“You are. You came to my rescue, didn’t you? And I was a total stranger. You’ll do good things with this gift, Ethan, we all believe that. That’s why we feel you should have it.”
Ethan had gone quiet after that and Sophie could only hope she’d convinced him. One thing she was sure of, however, was that whatever else happened between them, he would no longer be stealing from charities.
She heard the door open and shut behind her, and Ethan joined her at the porch rail. She leaned in close, unable to resist his pull. She remembered how he’d smelled last night—all spice and musk. How he’d touched her, his calloused hands hot as they stroked her curves, her breasts, like he was using a lathe to carve every inch of her into his heart.
Just thinking about it warmed her right through.
Standing beside Sophie, Ethan flashed on last night’s passion. “I’m not giving up on us before we even try to make it work,” she’d informed him. And then she’d rubbed her burning body over him, and tickled his skin with her hair till he couldn’t stand it any longer.
For you, he’d wanted to tell her then, I will convert and believe in it all: In forgiveness. In being able to leave behind what I was and become who I really am. I will believe that my inner self can be set aflame, and that I, in turn can set yours alight. I will believe in us.
He hadn’t been able to say it, however. Only show her with his hands and his mouth and his passion. When he’d finally plunged into her, holding her tight, he’d felt how she was making him come and how he was making her come and it had been like flames meeting and merging. He’d envisioned the two of them creating one brilliant light.
He looked at her now and still couldn’t quite come to grips with what had happened. He’d been so sure that Sophie and her family were karmic payback—all he wanted and, because of past and present sins, couldn’t have. He’d been wrong; they’d been a blessing of the season, a chance to restore and renew himself. All that had been required was that he accept them and have faith.
“What religion are you?” he ventured now. “I mean, I know the faith of everyone else in your family, but no one ever told me yours.”
Sophie looked surprised. “I’m a scientist, you know that.”
“What? Are you… are you saying you don’t believe in anything?”
She laughed, “I’m saying I don’t believe in everything. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in anything. I believe in the laws of gravity and in quantum physics. Not all people do, you know. I believe in the power of life, which can flourish in the most amazing places. Most of all, I believe in our species. I believe we can grow and do better. I believe we can perform miracles.”
She was glowing again, or seeming to, like a candle in the dark. “What do you believe?”
Ethan thought about it, about all that had run through his mind last night in bed with her. And finally he said, “I believe that the sun is coming back, and that everything is going to be all right.”
“I believe that, too,” Sophie smiled.
He put an arm about her then and drew her close. “Your mother paid me for my repairs. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”
“I’d like that.”
They headed down the block, hand in hand. Holding the café door open for Sophie, Ethan paused to glance back, his eyes seeking out the verdant Victorian house standing like an evergreen in the snow.
The multihued lantern could be seen even from so far, colorful, and bright as a star. Whenever they decided to return, it would guide them home.
|How did you get here?|