Exchanging Gifts

Saved for Christmas

Greta had lost her daughter in an accident many years ago, but the pain of her loss was still fresh in her mind. Surreptitious people-watching was what Greta did to pass the time and distract her from the pain. One day, drinking coffee in a café, she is shaken by the plight of a young girl, who reminds her of Courtney, her daughter. Will these hurt souls connect? 

"I'll be fine, Daddy. Really!"

She tried to keep the conversation short. Explaining would only lead to arguments, and Alissa couldn't bear hearing him say, "I told you so."


Four months at the college of her dreams had sucked her so dry that she couldn't afford the almost four-hundred-dollar bus ticket back to Leland, Mississippi. One of her biggest expenses had been rent, but that had been non-negotiable. She had to stay on campus because she couldn't afford a car or parking.


Some of her classmates had turned to living in buses on the Jersey side to save money. However, Alissa wasn't keen on some of the stories of getting stopped by cops and having one's vehicle impounded. When things like that happen, it's more complicated when one is black, and that was another thing she just didn't feel like explaining to her classmates.


She could at least save money here at the cafe, because for two dollars and thirty-two cents, she could get a house coffee and free Wi-Fi to make phone calls.


"You take care then okay, Baby-Girl?"

"You too, Daddy."



Cornelius Dunbar hung up the phone. It was the first Christmas that his daughter would not be spending at home. He glanced up at the portrait on the mantel.


"Would she have come home if you were still here, Darling?"


His relationship with Alissa had always been a stormy one. Given to outbursts of emotion, always quick to act, she'd received the same advice Cornelius' father gave to him.


"You need to learn to control your temper."


Had that advice done any good? Alissa, like her father, had always done what she wanted to do. That was the family legacy - obstinacy. Although they fought like cats and dogs, Cornelius loved his only daughter and was furiously proud that she'd chosen, against his wishes, to go to college at a prestigious university. His heart, beat with pride whenever they asked about her at the shop.


"She's at the University now," he replied nonchalantly, as if the turbulent arguments that ensued when she told him where she was going never existed.

But he didn't figure on how lonely it would be without her.



It wasn't that Greta could no longer cook. The apartment had a kitchenette, and she could toast some Eggo waffles or bagels in the toaster oven. However, she liked people-watching at the cafe. It was one of the few hobbies she could still indulge in. Skydiving was out. Her new hips were expensive enough that she didn't want to ruin them with rough landings. She could no longer sail. The last time she tried to step onto her sailboat, she almost fell into the drink. She couldn't hike anymore, as wheeling an oxygen tank around the woods wasn't her idea of fun.


That's why surreptitious people-watching had become her thing. Today though, it was slim pickings. During the holidays, people left the city and went to see distant relatives. Or distant relatives came to see them, and they spent their mornings toasting Eggo waffles in their own kitchenettes.

             

So, this morning, Greta was left with only one person to watch.


The young girl had her cellphone with her, as most young people do these days. She was having a conversation with someone but seemed anxious to get off the phone. That was new. Most young people seemed to spend all their time on the phone these days - oblivious to the world around them. Why yesterday, Greta saw a young man step out in front of a taxi. That cellphone never left his ear, even as the taxi screeched to a halt that left smoke billowing up behind it. Evolution was on vacation that day.


Why couldn't Death have been on vacation forty-three years and fifty-three days ago? Courtney hadn't even been talking on her cellphone. She'd crossed at a crosswalk, followed the light-signals, and played by the rules. Why did someone like that young man get away with negligence with his life, when Greta's only daughter who had always been so careful with hers was punished?


At the table next to Greta, the young girl finished her conversation, and to Greta's dismay, she started crying. Not loud sobs, but the scarily quiet kind. The kind that one hopes no one else sees.


When the girl looked up and glanced around, Greta turned away hastily, but too late. Greta had seen the tears in her eyes. The young girl stood up and approached her. Greta got ready to apologize for staring.


"Are you going to be here for a while?"

"Pardon me?"

"I have to run to the bathroom. Could you watch my bags?"

"Yes, of course."

The young girl dashed off to the bathroom.

             

Greta looked at the table next to her. The girl had left her phone face up. Curious, Greta looked at what was on it. Round-trip Greyhound bus ticket to somewhere in Mississippi.


Three-hundred-and-eighty-nine dollars. The screen blinked off to a screensaver - a picture of the young girl with an elderly man who looked much like her.



Alissa took the scenic route back to her apartment. Since classes were no longer in session, she could actually enjoy a stroll this time of the year. There were a lot of tourists in the city right now, but early in the mornings, they were not up yet. So, she had the Park to herself.


She found a bench in a clearing across from an ice rink, and the sun was peeping between the trees and giving a little warmth to the air. Maybe she could read a few chapters before lunch. From her backpack, she pulled out the book her professor had recommended -- The Four Million. In it were some really lovely stories, one of which made her start crying again. She reached into her coat pocket for some tissues and was surprised to feel a piece of paper.


It turned out to not be a piece of paper, but an envelope. Inside was a note:

"Go see him. Don't wait. He will be lonely without you."

And four-hundred dollars in cash.

 
5.jpg

Aiona Byuwek has lived all over the country from the backwoods of West Virginia, to the snake-filled Mississippi bayou. She now lives and sails where the Skagit and Swinomish tribes are settled.