I hate driving in snow, Margret thinks as she dumps a bag of ornaments onto the passenger seat of her car.
She doesn’t even know why she does this. David’s been gone six years now, and their spoiled brat children would rather spend Christmas with their new families than their own mother. It’ll just be her and that damn tree again. Of course, that won’t stop them from eagerly visiting her lawyer when her time comes, professing their loss as they fight over her assets.
She turns the ignition.
She checks her phone. No signal.
That figures, she thinks. David simply had to retire to the boondocks, only for his cancer to leave me alone in his dream ranch, where all I have for miles are a few stores and some dirty trailer parks, far away from civilized society.
Stepping out into the biting wind, she resigns herself to go back into the store and use their phone. She has roadside assistance, they just better not make her wait long in this blistering cold.
“Excuse me,” a man says.
Margret turns, tightening her coat. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money.”
The man stops, confused. He’s likely in his forties, about her son’s age, but clean-shaven and giving a gentle smile. “No, I saw you were having some trouble and wanted to help. I’m a mechanic, I work down the street.”
He shrugs. “’Tis the season, isn’t it?”
“Oh,” she sniffs. “Well, yes, that’s fine. The car won’t start. All it does is tick at me.”
The man nods and roots in the snow for a minute. Pulling a rock out, he says, “I’ve seen this a lot. Probably a stuck starter. May I?”
Margret looks at the store and figures, it’s better than waiting. She nods.
It doesn’t take long: The man slides under the car, and after a couple of knocking sounds, the engine starts right up.
Coming back out, he extends his hand. “Sam.”
“Margret,” she says, taking it with a few loose fingers.
“Hey,” he says, blowing warmth into his hands. “I’m sorry to bother you with this, but would you mind giving me a ride?”
She bites her lip.
“I’m only a few miles up the road. It’d mean a lot, it’s really cold out here.”
Sighing, she looks away. “Sure. I guess.”
“Thanks!” Rushing around to the passenger seat, he pushes the ornaments aside and fastens in.
“So,” Margret says a few minutes later, turning onto the road, “why no car?”
“I… uh, I had to sell it.”
“Well, you need a car. Get a new one.”
Sam scratches his hand. “Yeah, I’m working on that.”
“What about your wife?” Margret continues, frustrated with her limited speed. They never salt these damn roads. A few miles may as well be a road trip. She doesn’t see Sam’s face when he answers.
“She passed away, a year ago.”
“Oh?” She glances at him. “My condolences.”
“Thanks.” He smiles. It doesn’t look easy. “Honestly, the hardest part has been the kids. They haven’t taken it well.”
“I can imagine,” she says, thinking about the callous disregard her own had for David.
“Money’s tough too. Laura made our living. With her gone, we’ve had to adapt.”
Sam shrugs. “She was always the smarter one. I put her through college and it paid off.”
Margret purses her lips. She doesn’t know whether to hurt for the man or pity him. She feels both.
“Turn here,” he says.
They enter a trailer park and her eyes narrow. She looks at him again. Shortly after they pull up to one, a young girl wearing far too much of a coat runs out the door.
“I hate you,” she cries.
“Crap,” Sam mutters, getting out. “Sorry about this.”
“No, it’s okay,” Margret says, turning off the car and following suit.
“Daddy!” the girl shouts, running up to him. “Brian says our tree’s terrible!”
Sam sighs. “C’mon, Kate. I’ll take care of this.”
Margret feels exposed, a bit on the spot. This isn’t her mess, she should leave. But she doesn’t. Instead, she follows them into the stiff warmth of the trailer and stands by the door. The place is a mess. Then she sees the tree: A colored drawing on a strip of cardboard, taped to the wall. Beneath it, only a few small, poorly wrapped presents resting on a set of plastic drawers.
“Did you tell your sister that the tree is terrible?” Sam is saying to a teenage boy standing by the hall entrance.
“Well, it is.” The kid seethes.
“It’s shitty and you know it!”
“You better watch your mouth, Brian.” Sam raises his voice.
“No! It’s your fault that we’re like this! I hate you! I wish it were you that died in that car!”
With that, he storms down the hall, slamming a door behind him.
Sam presses a tremulous hand over his eyes.
For a moment, there’s only tense silence. Then, Kate walks over and hugs her father’s leg. “It’s okay, Daddy. I love you.”
He sighs and hugs her.
Margret clears her throat. “Well, I can’t speak for people with poor taste,” she says. “But I think it’s a wonderful tree.”
“You do?” Kate asks.
“Absolutely. And I know just what it needs.” She goes out to the car for a moment and comes back with the plastic bag. Reaching in, she pulls out the ornaments, then gently pokes their metal hooks into the cardboard, taking care to secure each one.
“I’m sorry,” Sam says.
“You shouldn’t be. Look, do the best you can. There’s nothing more any of us can do.” She turns to leave, but stops at the door. “Oh, Kate is it?”
The little girl nods at her.
“Keep coloring in that tree. Something tells me Santa’s going to love it.” Then, meeting Sam’s eyes: “And who knows, maybe he’ll leave you extra presents this year. ’Tis the season, after all.”
Born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, J. Chris Lawrence spent much of his youth traveling and exploring the various cultural facets of American life. He currently lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife, two sons, and two cats. You can find more of Chris’s work online at jchrislawrence.com, or follow him on Twitter @JChrisLawrence and Facebook/JCLFiction.