Five down, three to go.
Jackson hated Christmas. At best, it was little more than a business – an entire industry centered around guilting people into paying too much for something someone else doesn’t really want. Not that he had too much room to complain. As a lighting technician at the city’s convention center, the nostalgic feelings that drove people to the theater this time of year kept Jackson’s own place warm and pockets full. He had moved away from his family, to the “big city” to pursue his career – and art, as he liked to think of it – in a place that could actually pay him what his talents were worth.
Jackson didn’t want to go home this year. This whole “Christmas cheer” was simply too fake. Even the facade he wore for those he passed on the street was effort enough. But his mom? His oh-so-successful sister and her perfect family? Their picturesque tree, complete with two boys and the dog, all surrounded by lights and bows. The whole family, gathering around Jackson for the sole purpose of asking him why he didn’t have a girlfriend yet, echoed by his mom in the background declaring she wanted more grandchildren even as she bounced one on her knee. Everyone so determined to be so damned happy – it made Jackson sick.
He had already decided he would tell them the theater had a show, which was technically true, and he wouldn’t make it to Christmas Eve for presents or the dinner the following day. The gathering was supposed to start after the final matinee of the show this weekend, and the drive to his sister’s house would take five hours.
“Cheer up, my man, it’s Christmas!”
Jackson heard the voice and turned toward it, identifying Pete, the box office guy. It was all well for him – he didn’t have to watch the Nutcracker defeat the Rat King a dozen times every December.
Still, Jackson plastered on the expected smile. “Not for three more days,” he reminded Pete, wagging his finger playfully in his coworker’s direction. Just three more days of the world’s insane candy cane infatuation, and it would all be over. For eleven months, at least.
“You, sir, need a dose of Christmas spirit!”
The only Christmas spirit Jackson wanted would be illegal for anyone under twenty-one. “Sure! Peppermint schnapps? You buying?”
Pete laughed. “My wife would kill me!”
Jackson grinned broadly at the round man as he backpedaled, trying to escape the holiday air as politely as possible. Pete seemed to take the hint and went his own way. The moment he turned to his own path, Jackson let his smile drop. It was exhausting, really.
Pete’s words echoed through Jackson’s mind as he rode home. The man’s comment about his needing a “dose of Christmas” was innocent enough, but it rang ominous the more he dwelled on it. No, Jackson decided. He knew he was arguing with himself, as he was in the habit of doing long after the conversation had ended. Just because he wasn’t a fan of the holiday didn’t mean he wasn’t a good person. What was so wrong with just being fair to everyone year-round? Still, it felt like Pete was a doctor, prescribing the saccharine cough syrup so Jackson could get over some disease – the disease of not being wholly infected by the season. Well, if he was sick, Jackson decided that it was Christmas that had made him that way.
To his surprise, Jackson saw a woman sitting on the steps leading to his apartment. Was she lost? She must be. She was pretty – young and blonde with her hair pinned in a 1940s style curl on one side. Her outfit did her no favors, though. With the red and white striped top, knee-length pink skirt with tinsel-threaded cotton balls around the hem, it looked like she had entered a costume contest – and lost.
“Excuse me,” Jackson said as he edged past her, to his door.
“Jackson.” She said his name as a statement, not a question. Did she know him from the theater, perhaps? Her voice was that of a leading-lady soprano, so it was definitely possible. Though the sugar plum fairies in the current production couldn’t compete with the absurdity of this woman’s outfit.
“I’m sorry,” Jackson shrugged, letting the woman know that he didn’t know her name, but selfishly not asking. He didn’t exactly want to start a conversation with her. He wanted to go home and pretend like it was January, if just for a few hours.
“Noelle,” she supplied anyway.
Jackson sighed. Of course that was her name. “Have a nice day, Noelle.” It should have been clear he was dismissing her then as he pushed past her, to the top of the stairs, fishing for his keys.
“You haven’t put up any Christmas lights,” the odd woman commented. Couldn’t she take a hint?
“They’re up at work.” It wasn’t exactly untrue. The halls of the theater were decked to bursting with garland, and as the lighting technician there, he had contributed his fair, albeit twinkling, share.
“No one at home to admire them, then.” Was it a question or a statement?
“Excuse me. Can I help you with something?”
“You need a dose of the Christmas spirit.”
Jackson took a step back down, letting his irritation show through. “Did Pete put you up to this?” he accused. He stopped his imagination from sending her down the stairs.
Noelle gazed up, past him at where the Christmas lights should have been hung, at least in her imagination. In that moment, she looked oddly young and innocent. She belonged on the Hallmark Channel, not on his doorstep. “Maybe I’m here because you’re missing out, and someone who loves you wants you to experience the joys of the holiday.” It was verbatim a line from the stage version of “A Christmas Carol” the theater had put on the first two weekends after Thanksgiving.
“Are you here to warn me of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future?”
“It’s just me.”
She was missing his point. “Listen, Scrooge had his ducks in a row beforehand,” Jackson informed her. “Maybe that story is closer to Hamlet – where the audience can watch a good man’s descent into madness.” He started to make his way inside, but turned immediately back to her again. “You know what? If you’re supposed to be Marley’s ghost, come to threaten me with the true meaning of Christmas, forget it Noelle – I’m out.”
“Why? Is there something in your past you’re afraid I might bring up? Some painful detail that soiled your holiday memories?” She was referring to the fact that, in the Dickens tale, the first ghost was the ghost of Christmas past. Looking at her, Jackson could tell they both knew that. But he was certain that this moment, here on the stair, wasn’t some silly dream.
Jackson didn’t have to take this. “You know what? I’m done.” He ascended the steps for the second time that conversation.
“You should get a friend.” He had offended her. Good. “Someone who will love you no matter what. A dog, perhaps.”
“Go away, Noelle.”
As he shoved the door behind himself, shutting out the woman and the holiday, Jackson couldn’t help the feeling that this was not the last he would see of the nagging woman. No, not nagging. She hadn’t been rude at all, minus her appearance on his doorstep in the first place. She was sweet – too sweet, like a candy meant for a child. A marshmallow, he decided, meant to be paired with hot cocoa, not his black coffee.
Jackson finally worked up the courage to call his mom the next day.
“What do you mean?” There was a trace of sadness in her voice.
“Not coming means not coming, Mom.”
“But it’s Christmas!”
“I have to work!” Jackson felt himself getting frustrated with his mom, and tried to stifle the feeling for her sake. “We have a matinee, so it’d be midnight by the time I get there.” Though he’d still technically be able to make Christmas Day and Christmas dinner, he’d miss the presents either way. Santa only filled stockings at his sister’s house, apparently. “Look, I’ll be tired, and there’s a snow storm coming. It wouldn’t be safe, really.”
“Maybe you can make it for dinner? The boys miss you, Jackson.” The disappointment was obvious now. She was saying she missed him. His nephews couldn’t care less.
They had just seen each other on Thanksgiving! Still, she got the message, and for her sake, he wouldn’t push the issue. “I’ll try,” he told her, though they both knew he had no intention of doing so.
“I love you, Jackson. Merry Christmas.”
“I love you too, Mom.” Besides, his sister would have fewer dishes to clean this way.
After the ballet, Jackson was reluctant to leave the building just yet. The merriment of the patrons, plus his conversation with his mom and Noelle, were all simply too much. So he lingered, using the only bill he had – a five – to buy a one-dollar soda in the back. The machine took forever spitting out quarter after quarter, but he was in no hurry. Finally, after the world had quieted a little, Jackson left the upstairs lobby through the side door, intending to descend down the outdoor steps to the parking lot. He stuck his fist in his pocket to quiet the coins as he met the anticipated stairs.
What he did not anticipate, however, was her. The marshmallow was back, and dressed to suit his nickname for her. Noelle had the same hairstyle, same vague but smiling expression, but boasting a thick white coat with a fur collar and lapels. It was all combated by her skirt, which was a similar pencil skirt as yesterday, minus the pompoms, thankfully.
Jackson filled with rage at the sight of the woman haunting him. “You! What are you doing here?” Bothering him at home was one thing, but annoying him at his place of work was too much.
“I wanted to show you something. A Christmas miracle.”
“Is this a joke? Did someone put you up to this? Or did someone pay you? Is that why you’re here? You want money?” Did she have any idea how infuriating she was? Without thinking, Jackson took his fist out of his pocket and lobbed the coins down the flight of steps at her. His anger was met with shock. Annoyed, he pressed forward. “You people are worse than prostitutes, you know that?” He spat the words as he descended the cold metal stair. “At least people want them around. You’re just a nuisance to society, and at this moment, to me.”
He watched her kneel and pick up the coins as he bared down on her, thinking her actions proved his point.
“Tell me who –” he started as he reached the lowest steps.
The tearful look in her eye as her gaze met his again caught his accusations in his throat, simultaneously rooting his steps to the hollow stair. Empathy flooded him with regret at his harsh words. She was just trying to be nice – he knew that – however misguided her intentions about spreading holiday joy might be.
“I-I’m sorry,” he spoke after a moment, highly aware of the awkward intimacy of their locked stares. “But you really –”
“Did you want to see the Christmas miracle or not?” Her voice was strong – pure – despite the tears that threatened her expression.
“Uh, sure.” So long as she didn’t ask him to perform it, he could at least spare a few minutes to make up for his rudeness.
“Come along then.” Noelle spun and pushed the security gate open, stepping into the parking lot. Jackson didn’t have much time to wonder how she had gotten past it in the first place.
“Where are we going?” he asked, following her.
“The mall.” She could deny it all she wished, this was about money after all. Still, he didn’t have the heart to walk away after how he had treated her. It was only three blocks away; he could endure that much.
“So… do you do this sort of thing for a living?” he asked, trying to make conversation as they traveled.
Noelle shook her head, to his relief smiling once more. “People forget so easily nowadays. I’m just here to help them remember.”
“What Christmas is all about.”
They turned a corner, putting the elaborately-decorated mall in their line of sight. “That, my naive friend, is what Christmas is all about,” Jackson responded. People were elbowing their way through the crowds, seemingly hoping to just get home without stuff being stolen from their trunks along the way.
“Yup!” she agreed cheerily. Good. That was something, at least.
“Spending money –”
“Spending time –”
Interrupting each other, both stopped their sentences short. Jackson let her speak first.
“Is everything about money to you?” she asked.
“Everything Christmas-related is.”
“See? That’s why you need the reminder,” she smiled knowingly as she glanced his way, intentionally teasing him by bumping his shoulder with her own.
“I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong.” The tinkle of a cheap bell reached his ears, and on further inspection, some charitable bleeding heart was standing in front of the mall with a red kettle. “See?” Jackson asked, pointing to the man ringing the bell. They hadn’t even stepped inside yet and people were already taking advantage of the time of year in order to make a buck.
It was evident enough without a verbal response that Noelle had seen the bell ringer too. She rushed forward, suddenly eager to meet him, and nearly colliding with a woman and her son as the three put their money in. Noelle let them go first, putting the coins she had collected from Jackson’s earlier assault into the kettle as the bell ringer handed a tiny candy cane to the boy.
“See?” she asked, somewhat breathless as he caught up. Still, she was inescapably made of holiday cheer.
“I see a man taking advantage of simple people because of a simple time of year,” Jackson explained.
“Really? That’s it?”
“What else should I see?”
He honestly didn’t know what she wanted from him, nor did he expect her to actually answer his question. “I see a man giving up his own time, enduring the cold outdoors so that someone else can have the chance to be warm. Because of that man, someone he doesn’t even know – and will likely never even meet – will be able to have a holiday meal.” She pointed at the subject of their conversation. “That’s Christmas.”
Well, she certainly had an optimistic way of looking at it. Admittedly mildly charmed by her perspective, Jackson followed her inside.
The place was packed. Jackson hadn’t done any shopping this year, yet he still felt superior to these folks, who were stuck waiting until the last minute like this. Still, they had an odd kind of flow to them, like traffic, broken by the occasional child who didn’t understand the unspoken societal rules to follow.
Noelle was just as happy as the children, eyes ascending as she looked at the twenty foot Christmas tree in the center of the food court. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered, apparently awestruck. The colors on the tree adjusted from blue to gold, matched by the skylight above. As one carol ended over the loud speakers and another began, beams transformed the glass from icy to almost topaz.
“Probably a DMX system,” he commented, noticing more lights shifting with the music.
“Ooh, look at that!” Noelle nearly clotheslined him as she pointed.
Jackson obeyed. The group of teenage girls passed a decidedly smaller tree, this one ornamented with little paper slips held on by yarn. Three of the girls didn’t seem to notice it, but the fourth stopped, reading the tags for a moment. Just as her friends noticed she had fallen behind, the high-schooler plucked one off and rushed toward them, calling out something inaudible from this distance.
“Is that it?” Jackson asked. “Your Christmas miracle?” Teenagers not being wholly selfish was something, he supposed.
“Not the one I brought you to see,” Noelle responded, still admiring the scene. Then, prodded by some force entirely invisible to Jackson, she grabbed his hand and darted off toward the center of the mall. He managed to keep up with her, though he had no idea why they were suddenly in such a hurry.
The mall Santa was in the very center of the building, line still as full as it was likely to have been on Black Friday. Noelle led Jackson instead to a “Kraft Korner” which boasted a stack of papers, complete with a mess of crayons and several kids drawing. One boy was so focused on his task, he had his tongue so far out of his mouth one might think his face a lollipop.
“Go on,” Noelle coaxed. More to appease her than out of any curiosity, Jackson stepped up, grabbing a sheet of paper. Hopefully no coworkers would spot him among the snot-nosed kids like this. The paper held a coloring book-style Christmas tree on one side, while the other read “Merry Christmas!” in scrawling, loopy font, complete with an underline where the name was meant to go. They were clearly meant to be folded, colored, and given as cards.
“I – I don’t need to do this.” Jackson felt humiliated, standing twice as tall as the kids in the same position. There wasn’t even an adult-sized chair in the area, minus the elaborate wood and velvet throne.
“Isn’t there anyone who wants to hear a ‘Merry Christmas’ from you?” Noelle asked.
Jackson’s immediate thought went to his phone call that morning. So, he wrote “Mom” in the blank space provided. Coloring the tree proved to be less of a burden than he would ever admit, and he soon found himself waiting on just the right crayon to shade the boughs of the tree accurately.
“Jackson!” Noelle’s voice interrupted his coloring.
Alarmed, his head popped up, swiveling until it found her direction. Was something wrong?
No, she was fine. Just back to her bright-eyed excitement, beckoning him to join her in whatever she was seeing. It didn’t take long to notice her eyes were locked on the hero of the mall: Santa.
The card was stupid anyway. Jackson folded it and shoved it back in his pocket, intending to throw it away later.
From the vantage point Noelle had chosen, Jackson could see not only the faces of nearly everyone in line, but also the shoulder and mane of Santa before he was hidden by his chair. Behind the lush red chair and crouched a man whose Army fatigues did nothing to camouflage him in the mall’s flocked forest.
Noelle patted Jackson’s arm excitedly. “This is the best part!” Her miracle, he assumed.
“… and Hot Wheels,” the boy on Santa’s lap finished.
“Anything else?” Santa asked. “It’s Christmas – the very best time for Christmas wishes, you know.”
“Well, Mommy said he can’t come home ’til March.”
“Oh, that is a big wish.”
Jackson glanced back to the front of the line, where a woman, presumably the boy’s mother, watched with her hand by her mouth and wet eyes. She knew exactly what was about to happen.
“Well, what do you say we give it a try anyway?” Santa asked the boy.
“Really?” It was hard to believe the child’s eyes could get that big.
“Have you had a candy cane yet?” The questioned triggered Jackson’s memory – they were the same mother and child that had beaten Noelle to the red kettle.
“Uh huh,” the boy answered in the affirmative.
“Good. Candy canes are important in making Christmas magic. Now, hold my hand, close your eyes – don’t open them! – and say Jingle Bells.”
“I think Mommy needs to say it too.”
“Jingle Bells!” mother and son chorused together. “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells!”
One of the “elves” waved one finger, then two in the air, obviously counting and cuing as the boy kept his eyes clenched tightly shut. On the third, they all gasped as if surprised, and the Army man hiding behind the chair popped out.
The boy’s squeal of delight was so loud that many of the shoppers unaware of the scene stopped and turned. Thank you, the mother mouthed to “Santa” as their child rushed to meet his father.
“You did it!” The military man braced himself as the boy slammed into him, hugging him fiercely. In a brief moment the child was swept up in his father’s arms, spinning around the fake woodland scene. “You did it! You brought me back!”
“Well she’d better get over here too!”
The reunited family drew applause from any onlookers and a jolly “Merry Christmas!” from Santa. When Jackson looked, he could see Noelle applauding too, though she was quite teary-eyed with happy emotion from the scene.
“This isn’t actually a Christmas miracle,” he reminded her. It was obvious the only one not in on it was the kid.
“Yes it is.”
“This is easily explained.” Did he really have to spell it out for her? “They all –”
“Just because it can be explained doesn’t mean it’s not a miracle.” Her voice held no reprimand, just a simple statement of fact. Jackson let it slide. She could imagine what she liked; miracles were inexplicable by definition. Weren’t they?
Jackson wasn’t really surprised to see Noelle the next day. What did surprise him, however, was that – unlike her other visits – she came before the show. With a dark emerald top and bright red skirt, she looked like a Christmas tree, complete with ribbons in her hair and bows on her sandals, like presents underneath. This time, she found him in the parking lot outside of the grocery store. He hated to even need to shop so close to when everyone was hunting for their Christmas feasts, but it couldn’t be helped.
“Come to show me another Christmas miracle?” he asked, though not unplayfully this time. He had to admit, he enjoyed their time together yesterday.
Her eyes sparkled like the Christmas snows of legend. “I could watch a miracle like that every day until the end of time.” He believed her. Then she snapped out of her reverie, as if suddenly remembering her purpose. “But that’s not why I’m here. Not today, anyway.”
“I do have a life, you know.” It wasn’t exactly what his sister would deem a social life, but he had tasks he still had to complete, even if alone.
Noelle nodded knowingly. “But don’t let that get in the way of living.”
“What does that even mean?”
“You don’t have to be at work for four hours, Jackson.”
What was she saying? Was she accusing him of being some workaholic in need of her sugar-coated brand of rehab? “I have friends,” he insisted.
The truth of what she said stung deeper than he wanted to admit. He didn’t have anyone who chose to care about him – just family and people paid to interact with him. “Okay, I get it. I’m unlovable.”
The tragedy echoed in her expression was as if he had accused her of the title, not himself. She started to move toward him.
“Don’t –” he stepped back, putting a hand up between them. “Don’t hug me.”
“You still don’t get it, do you?”
There was nothing to get! “What does it matter if I have a hundred friends or none at all? At least this life I lead doesn’t impose my boring self on other people!” He felt his voice begin to raise and checked it, not wanting to draw any additional attention to himself and his exuberant companion. “This is my life. Aren’t I allowed to choose to be alone?”
“Stop it,” Noelle snapped, voice suddenly cold.
What? Noelle – angry? He honestly didn’t think she had it in her.
“Stop this,” she continued. “Your loneliness is not humility, it’s self-pity.”
“Either way, it’s the best for everyone.”
“You’re only limiting yourself!” Her hands joined the conversation, spiraling emphatically like snowflakes through the air. “You’re lowering that ceiling on your own happiness, then blaming others.” Her anger morphed into pity, annoying him even more.
But she didn’t understand. No one was around to look out for him; no one else would be there to put him first. He had to be the one to shield himself, or be left raw and unprotected. “Do you hear yourself, Noelle? Do you recognize your own insanity?”
“I’m not the insane one, Jackson.”
“So you’re telling me that by not protecting myself, I’d be happier? By opening myself up to this emotional chaos you bring with you, I won’t be sad ever again? I can’t be both vulnerable and safe. It doesn’t work like that.” He took a step toward her, eager she understood things as he did.
She didn’t back down. “You’ve been hurt before –”
“Not the point,” he interrupted.
“It’s exactly my point.”
Jackson wanted to hit something, as if that would get his point across. “This world you live in isn’t real, Noelle! Not everything is sprinkles and egg nog. People hurt people, who in turn point their anger at others. That’s the real world, not this fantasy of goodness you carry around. You open yourself up, people will hurt you!’
“People like you?” she asked softly.
Her words, though said without force, slammed into him like a herd of reindeer. Jackson’s voice caught in his throat. Once again, he had broken her heart with his words. But, he hated to say it, that was his point! “Is it not better to feel nothing at all?” he asked.
Clearly still emotional, she shook her head firmly in answer. “I would rather feel this pain a thousand times than miss out on the joy we witnessed yesterday. To be unconditionally devoted to another – to care fearlessly – to give with the sole intention of making someone else’s life better – that is what it means to truly love! By closing yourself off, you’re also starving yourself and those around you of all the good you can do! Jackson –” Noelle took a deep, steadying breath.
He understood her, more by the words in her eyes than the tears in her voice. More than anything anyone had said to him before, he understood. Something about her unlocked the secret parts of his heart, however desperately he tried to hide them again. She cared so much! She was so passionate about everything, and everyone! She wanted to share the joy she had learned with him, and he secretly, desperately hungered for it. The last thing he wished to was to hurt her again for her efforts. Seeing her like this – caring about him so much – Jackson wanted to rewind the whole conversation.
“Do you want me to leave you alone, Jackson?” Her voice could not have been smaller if she tried.
Honestly? No. He had spent the last several years of his life insisting on being alone, and he could not remember any moment during that time when he was as truly happy as she seemed to be. He wished he was, but had no clue what the difference was. “I don’t know how to be you,” he confessed.
“Not the point. Let your heart be light. Be you.”
Jackson wasn’t convinced that would be any easier. “Any suggestions on how?” He did his best to keep his sarcasm out of his voice.
“Forgetting about you. That’s a good place to start.”
“How is being me not about me?” he asked without thinking.
“It’s not enough to witness a Christmas miracle, Jackson. Goodness – and happiness – comes in being someone else’s Christmas miracle.” She smiled at him then, almost as if she was a proud teacher after her student had passed a hard test.
But he still didn’t comprehend what she wanted from him. “Okay, not thinking about me.” Now what? “But, as you so aptly pointed out, I don’t know anyone else.”
“You’re making excuses.”
He didn’t know how not to. She wasn’t helping him at all! Did she want him to go work at some homeless shelter? Or sit and watch some old fogies die at the nursing home? What?
“Just –” Noelle was clearly starting to get as frustrated with him as he was with himself. She pursed her lips and unclenched a hand between them. “Go shopping, Jackson.” At that, she turned, walking away from him between the rows of cars.
That was it? She was giving up on him? “Noelle!” He wanted to feel again – truly feel. That joy, even that pain, he confessed he wanted it all. Yesterday she had given him a taste of living beyond the day to day, and now his only guide was giving up on him, walking away in that absurdly colorful outfit in the grocery store parking lot.
Fine. He didn’t need her. He could figure it out. Couldn’t he? He had taught himself more skills than anyone else had – he could learn this too. Jackson mulled it over as he shopped. Be someone else’s Christmas miracle. He could barely comprehend the task. Whose Christmas miracle? What did it mean? He saw the Christmas candies and the stocking stuffers as he wandered the aisles. Should he bring something for the crew at the show tonight? No – Noelle had said this was not about work. Separate from it. She had been quite clear on that. What then?
After meandering around the store and picking up what he had originally came for, Jackson finally settled on picking up a small tin of butter cookies for the cast. That was Christmasy, right? Plus, the smallest tin was only a dollar. Every line was long, so he picked one at random and hoped for the best.
As it turned out, he had chosen poorly. The overweight woman in front of him apparently had none of the energy her son did, and he seemed to be compensating on that front. The boy was dashing about, forward to where the conveyer belt met the plastic bags and back, behind Jackson into the shopping area once more. Suddenly the child would find a sweet and shove forward again, asking his mom if he could have it. When she ordered him to put it back, he would obey – only to return to fidget by her side for another ten seconds only to begin the cycle again. The boy very nearly bowled into Jackson’s handbasket more than once, and the last thing he needed was for some irresponsible mother to sue him over her son’s idiocy. Where was the boy’s father anyway? He should be taking care of him.
Just when Jackson was seriously considering switching lanes, the woman in front of him finally made it to the too-slow cashier. Jackson was next. Eventually. At least now he was able to put his handbasket on the conveyer belt as they all inched forward together.
“That’ll be seventy-four fifty-one, ma’am.”
“I said no!” the woman reprimanded her son for what seemed to be the hundredth time. “Sorry,” she responded to the cashier, who simply shrugged as the mother swiped her card. Jackson was nearly out of this overcrowded mess of a store.
“Uh, does it have a chip?” the cashier asked vaguely.
Were they blind? The man’s screen clearly read “Insufficient Funds” right there, plain as Rudolph’s nose.
She proved to be smarter than the cashier, as between them she noticed the notification first. “What? He –” Her angry words were muttered before entirely stifled by a bitter but calming sigh. “Okay, can we take the lights off? And the pie? Sorry,” she winced the last word in Jackson’s direction before picking off more items.
Jackson wanted to scream! He was so close to just getting out the door and on with his life, and now she was going to redo her whole shopping trip as the rest of them were forced to wait in line behind her? All the while, her son insisted on annoying everyone in sight. How selfish could one person be?
“How much is that?” she asked the cashier finally, glancing apologetically at Jackson once more.
“Uh,” the cashier punched a few buttons, “Thirty sixteen.”
“Can we try it now?” she swiped her card again, and the red light at the top of the register changed to green. Finally! The woman turned again to Jackson. “So sorry!”
“It’s –” a cheery, colorful sight over the heavy-set woman’s shoulder interrupted Jackson’s response – “fine.”
Noelle? She was back? It wasn’t hard to identify the young blonde in her absurd red and green. She had her fists clenched and tucked optimistically under her chin and an obvious expression of hope painted on her face. Noticing him notice her, she was of a complete opposite temperament than last time they had spoken.
“Go-back on twelve,” the cashier mumbled into the mic dangling off his lapel.
Realization dawned on Jackson. Noelle hadn’t given up on him, she just wanted him to figure it out on his own. Noelle wanted his good deed to be helping this woman out. To be her – and her son’s – Christmas miracle. Looking over the items to be re-shelved, it was plain to Jackson that she had skipped the holiday delights and kept only the essentials. What was forty bucks, really? This broken family’s Christmas, it would seem.
“Actually,” Jackson spoke up before he could convince himself that it was a stupid idea, “could you just add those to my tab?”
Surprised, the cashier looked between Jackson and the woman bagging her groceries a moment before answering. “Uh, sure.” The young man picked at the mic on his lapel. “Gary, cancel go-back.”
It took a moment before the conveyer belt pushed the rest of the woman’s Christmas shopping toward her, and by then, the cashier had already started on Jackson’s things. “I thought I said –” she started, picking up the two-dollar strand of lights. “I didn’t pay for these.”
“He did,” the cashier shrugged again, swiping the last item – the cookie tin – over the scanner. It seemed like a paltry offering compared to making this woman’s Christmas possible.
“You didn’t have to…”
Jackson swiped his card, realizing how much helping another person was beginning to heal his own broken heart. “Too late now,” he beamed proudly.
Silly holiday or not, it was clearly important to her. “Thank you! I –” her voice choked up with emotion, then dropped in volume. “Thank you.”
“Merry Christmas.” Jackson didn’t think he’d ever hear himself say those words in sincerity, but here he was.
“I work at the salon on West 48th Street. Next time you need a haircut, it’s on me. The next hundred times!”
Jackson couldn’t help but think that was why she was so destitute in the first place. But instead of voicing the thought, he smiled at her, wishing her a good day and making his way around her to his own shopping. Furtively he searched for Noelle, hoping she had witnessed his good deed, but she had disappeared once more.
The moment of helping another stayed with him for the rest of the day.
The cast seemed grateful for their cookies, but otherwise December 23rd faded into Christmas Eve without much fanfare. The entire next day Jackson kept an eye out for Noelle, hoping to see her again, but she was nowhere to be found. Someone like her, he reasoned, was probably extra busy helping old people cross the increasingly slippery street or whatever it was good people did on such a holiday. It had started to rain, but no one’s spirits seemed dampened by it. Pete even made some comment about getting a white Christmas in the mountains.
The final showing of the Nutcracker was filled mostly by grandparents and grandkids, as was often the case with matinees. Early shows catered to early bedtimes. The actors gave away candy canes and took pictures with the excited attendees, and for once Jackson found himself smiling at the sight. Or at least slightly less annoyed than usual.
It took him an extra moment to recognize Noelle this time. She was weaving in and out of the costumed actors after the show, all of whom had equally festive garments as hers. Instead of her standard pencil skirt and fluffy shirt, Noelle had replaced the set with an elegant evening gown as gold as her hair. From this distance, overlooking the crowd from the lighting booth in the theater, Jackson decided she looked like she belonged on top of a Christmas tree, juxtaposed by yesterday’s outfit, which would have put her under it.
Jackson descended from his booth, wishing a Merry Christmas to the other two people that had joined him for the run before they separated for the holiday week. Once on the same level as Noelle, he made eye contact with her before putting his jacket on and nodding to the exit. It was far quieter outside, and the rain had become a muted drizzle. Now that she was near, Jackson found himself looking forward to her view on Christmas Eve more than he did the holiday itself. As expected, Noelle lit the murky day with her bright smiles.
“Merry Christmas Eve!” Her joy was unquenchable. On closer inspection, Jackson noticed dark blue threads woven in the pleats of her dress, accented by sapphires hanging from her ears. Christmas Eve must be an extra special occasion in her household.
“And to you,” he responded, smiling in a way he hadn’t in a long time. Together they started walking without any particular destination in mind.
She must have noticed his good mood. “Feels nice to be someone else’s Christmas miracle, doesn’t it?”
Jackson nodded. “Good deeds help both sides, I guess.”
“This is more than just a good deed.” Her face and voice echoed utter seriousness. “This is Christmas!”
“But what makes it Christmas, Noelle?” he asked the question that had bounced around his head for most of the day. “I mean, I can be nice any time right? Is it just that she wanted Christmas lights?”
Noelle laughed, more musical than girly now. “Good deeds have no expiration date, Jackson. But it’s Christmas when we remember gifts given to us, too.”
Given to him? Jackson had gotten all he had asked for during Christmas growing up, though he couldn’t remember even one gift off the top of his head. Everything was always so much more important back when his age was in the single digits. “I was never given anything really interesting for Christmas.”
“Really?” she seemed shocked. “You never wrote a letter to Santa or begged from your knees in prayer for anything at all? No wishing for a white Christmas or for a grandparent to make it that year?”
Now that she asked about it, Jackson did get a puppy once, when he was young. Toby had been a faithful dog, and though his parents had said it would be his responsibility, looking back now he recognized that they had done most of the work. Toby had died several years back, staying with the parents after Jackson had moved away. Remembering the pup now brought a lump to Jackson’s throat. Toby had been a good dog, and Jackson had abandoned him.
“See?” Noelle almost sounded like she was teasing him. “I knew there was something. And you aren’t even thinking of your best gift.”
“You don’t even know what my best gift was, nor what I was thinking about.” It would be impossible to top his childhood best friend, Toby.
“I do know what your best gift is,” she corrected, gentle yet wise, “because I got the same one.”
“Oh?” he challenged her playfully. “What is it then?”
“Your mom could explain it better than I can.”
“Because she was the one to gift it to me?”
Noelle wasn’t making any sense now. “You can’t just tell me?”
“Ask your mom.”
Ah. Jackson felt silly for not recognizing it sooner. This whole conversation was just a ploy to get him to go home for Christmas. “She’s five hours away.”
“There’s no place like home for the holidays.”
He had just finished with work! “I already told her I wasn’t coming.”
“Ah, okay. She probably doesn’t mind at all, then.” Noelle’s offhanded words dissolved into the winter air as she eagerly took his hand. “It’s Christmas Eve, Jackson!”
“My sister’s going to be there,” Jackson explained, “and her whole clan. My mom won’t be alone.”
“But her Christmas wish is to have the family together. She’s convinced it would take a miracle.” A Christmas miracle, Noelle meant. He could do it. He could make the trip. If he left now, he might make it by midnight. Noelle released him then, and a part of him didn’t want her touch to abandon him just yet. “Plus, there’s always hot cocoa at these sorts of gatherings,” she put in, as if that simple fact was enough to convince Jackson the trip was worth making. But he realized he didn’t want to make it alone. No hot cocoa without the marshmallow that had begun to convince him that Christmas was real.
Noelle’s easy celebration of simple joys reminded Jackson of his own mom’s fervor for the holidays. That would be a sight to see – the two of them in the same room together. Suddenly the idea slammed into him and started sinking in, like a fresh log piercing into the heart of a fire, slowly becoming one with it. Why shouldn’t Noelle join them for Christmas?
Nah. Someone like Noelle inevitably had somewhere better to be than the northern boondocks of the state, miserable with strangers in the unyielding snow. Still, it was a persistent, if fanciful image.
“You want to ask me something,” Noelle observed.
“It’s almost seven. Don’t get me wrong, but don’t you have anywhere else to be?”
“Like where? Over the river and through the woods?” Her laugh was easy, enchanting, allowing Jackson to simply wonder at her. Was she really that lonely, with no other plans? Impossible. She, of all people, had to have something in store for the exact moment Christmas Eve became Christmas – and have it planned months ago. Why was she spending it here, with boring old him? Before he could ask, Noelle continued. “I do have a project I’m working on tonight, but this is more important.”
“Joining Santa on his sleigh?” Jackson asked, trying his hand at being holiday spirited. If anyone could convince him of such a deed, it’d be this personification of Christmas cheer walking beside him.
“Not this year,” she teased back. Seeing his mom’s persistent optimism in Noelle, that idea – a hope that she might join him on the journey – reemerged. “You should go to her.”
Jackson didn’t know how to ask her to go with him. It was a silly idea, stupid, really – but Noelle was one for Christmas wishes. Gathering his courage, Jackson voiced the words. “Would you be interested in joining me? If I went now, to meet my family, for Christmas?”
She looked at him skeptically. Horrified, he knew shouldn’t have asked.
“Never mind,” he continued hurriedly, immediately regretting voicing his desires. “Sorry.”
“Well, does your sister serve marshmallows in her hot cocoa?” Noelle’s question was as innocent as it was surprising. Really?
Jackson’s heart soared at the possibility. All that he had hoped for Christmas not three days ago seemed like charcoal in his mouth now. That desolate image of an empty apartment had been replaced by his hopes of experiencing real Christmas cheer again.
Remembering suddenly, as her big eyes followed him, that he had not actually answered her question, Jackson smiled. “If I call ahead, she may be able to wrangle up some sprinkles, too. Red and green ones.”
As they traveled, Jackson could not remember a time when he laughed and smiled so much. Noelle brought out parts of his emotions he thought he had lost for good. That Christmas joy had been so distant for so long, he felt his heart thawing with every mile and every inch of snow on the ground. If this was Christmas, it truly was the most wonderful time of the year.
“Ooh, turn here!” Noelle insisted suddenly.
Jackson eased off the gas, risking a glance off the dark and empty freeway to see her gesture at a side street. “My sister’s house is another ten minutes away,” he informed her.
“That’s okay.” She was leaning forward, illuminated by his bright headlights reflecting back at the car.
Curious, Jackson felt no hesitation in obeying, wondering what other Christmas miracle she wanted him to experience now, just minutes before midnight. To his surprise, a parking lot revealed itself behind the blanketed trees. Beyond the surprisingly large number of cars was a church – just a single room nestled in the folds of the wintry country forest.
“Are we going in?” Jackson asked, letting the car idle in the parking lot until a decision had been made.
“You are,” she answered simply, looking straight ahead at the warm lights illuminating the snow.
Wait – what? “You’re not coming with me?” She had spontaneously decided to ride five hours in the car with him only to change her mind now?
“It’s almost midnight.”
“This – inside there – that’s where you’ll find it.”
Noelle took her eyes off the church to smirk at him as if it was obvious. “The best Christmas gift you’ve ever been given.”
In a church? “I don’t understand.”
“Merry Christmas, Jackson.”
He glanced at the clock on his dashboard, watching it turn to midnight as she spoke. Smiling, he turned as he echoed her sentiments. “Merry Christ-”
She was gone. The door hadn’t opened, and no snowy air had made its way in. She hadn’t ducked down out of sight, nor somehow slipped into the backseat. His passenger seat was simply empty, save for a scrap of folded paper. Quite confused, Jackson spun his head around trying to wrap his head around her disappearance, but he was quite alone, idling in that parking lot tucked away from the freeway and the rest of the world. It was like she had never existed at all.
Had Noelle led him here for some reason? She must have. What? She had given him that answer, too: so that, inside, he could find his greatest Christmas gift ever. He couldn’t imagine enjoying whatever it was without her, though.
The paper. Examining it closer in the dim moonlight, Jackson recognized it: the card he had colored at the mall during Noelle’s first miracle. It was wrinkled slightly, but still plainly addressed to his mom in blue crayon.
Okay, he could take a hint. Inside, then. Taking a deep breath and spinning the steering wheel, Jackson found a place to park. The lot wasn’t nearly large enough for any particular spot to be called “far”, but this one was beyond most. Opening his car door reminded him of the crisp air in the higher elevations, highlighted by the crunchy snow underfoot as he approached the only door to the small church. Even from outside he could hear a chorus – not exactly in tune, but heartfelt – blanketing him in the same way the snow embraced the building.
Jackson paused at the door. Did he really want to interrupt? They had clearly been there for some time; it couldn’t be long now before they’d finish. What was the harm in waiting? He’d be a little cold, sure, but he could always go back in his car.
No. He wasn’t going back. He confessed he didn’t like the man he was before Noelle had visited him. Going back meant giving up on what she had worked to change in him. He couldn’t stop now, so close to finishing his final Christmas miracle. Without even the faintest idea what would happen next, Jackson tugged on the heavy wooden door.
Warmth buffeted his face, the congregation’s song washing over him as much as the candlelight. Silent night. He had heard the song a thousand times before, but this time he really listened, letting it entrance him. So many people singing passionately – sincerely – with none of the pomp and circumstance he was used to seeing on stage. Most of the heads in front of him – only visible from the back – boasted shades of silver and white to rival the snow outside. Within each grasp was a simple candle, but combined, they illuminated the room.
One head stood out to Jackson above the others. Mom? Careless of the noise the door made as it fell back into place, Jackson rushed to her. Everything in him collided with emotion, stopping his run the moment he could distinguish her voice above the rest. She was truly a beautiful woman, and one he had not given enough credit to. How could he have ever thought it was a good idea to skip Christmas? To skip seeing the rest of the family, and to skip seeing her?
Jackson’s voice found him before his practical mind did. He knew the words. It was easy to step up beside his mother, now taller than her, and start singing. It didn’t matter that he belonged far from center stage. Noelle had been right – this wasn’t about him. It only mattered that he was here, with Mom.
Then, just as he started to sing, Mom stopped. She had noticed him. Turning and staring, it was her turn to be speechless. Her jaw made a valiant attempt at communicating, but that perfect voice had abandoned her.
“Merry Christmas, Mom,” Jackson whispered under the congregation.
“Jackson!” Her arms flew out, snaking around his neck and embracing him in a way that he felt any release would come far too soon.
He relished her touch, taking far too long to get his mind straight enough to return the hug. By the time he opened his eyes again, the song had ended and people were beginning to mill about and socialize.
“Jackson, oh!” Mom cupped his cheeks in her palms, then matched the gesture on her own face. “Oh! My boy’s come home. It’s a Christmas miracle!”
Christmas cheer filled Jackson. His sister’s home matched, complete with the tree, fire in the wood stove, and children running in and out of the front door, dragging mud and snow into the hall. The mess was not helped at all by the dog, whose long fur invited every bit of dirt in for the holiday. Jackson was simply charmed by it all.
“Mama!” his younger nephew called again.
“What is it?” his sister asked, hands full in the kitchen.
“Look what I found!” the older cooed.
“I found him first!”
Keeping one eye on Gigi, the family lab, as she inched closer and closer to the stocking candy, Jackson turned to the scene.
The older boy was clutching a white, fluffy puppy in both hands, holding it aloft as if it were Simba being presented to the lion’s kingdom in Africa. This offering, however, seemed less than amused, with its ears back and tail between its legs pitifully, white fur highlighted around the paws by the dark mud outside.
“Isn’t he cute?” the younger asked, reaching for his turn with the fragile animal. His brother was having none of it, holding the fluff out of reach.
“It’s a she,” Jackson’s brother-in-law, and the boys’ father, commented from his armchair.
“A she?” The brother holding the small animal lowered the creature, who in turn kept her tail between her legs.
Now spying his prize within reach, the younger of the boys snatched at the puppy. “Can we keep her?”
“Careful!” Jackson’s mom reprimanded from her place beside him on the couch.
“No, we can’t keep her. We already have Gigi.” The dog looked up at hearing her own name. Now turning her eyes over to the newcomer, Jackson’s sister hid her smile. “She probably has a home, and is just lost.”
Jackson stood from the couch and approached. “Well you can’t put her back outside,” he reasoned, siding with the boys.
“Just for today?” The younger’s lower lip was protruding convincingly.
Jackson reached his nephews. “May I see her?”
The boy contemplated his choices a moment.
“Let your uncle hold her.”
The boy conceded.
The instant the bedraggled animal reached Jackson’s hands, she became a real puppy again. Ears went from back to up and tail started whipping the backs of his hands. She was cute! Her fur was driest around the collar-less neck, giving her a mane much like the lapels on one of Noelle’s jackets. The dog’s bright black eyes were solely on Jackson, and with the returned energy came a deep-seated desire to smother Jackson’s face in affection, and he made no attempt to stifle it. Aware he would not have even held her a week ago, Jackson leaned into the adorable animal now, letting her lick his face.
“She likes you,” his mom commented from her place on the couch, tea still in hand.
“What happens if you can’t find her home?” Jackson asked. The puppy writhed, trying to get closer to him. He obliged, tucking her into his chest and stroking her tiny face above the nose and between the eyes with one finger.
“The shelter opens on Monday, I think,” his sister supplied.
That seemed like a tragic destination for such an endearing creature. “Nah.” Jackson barely realized he had voiced the word. “I mean, if you can’t figure out where she came from,” he corrected quickly. As if in response, the pup nosed her way into his armpit fondly.
With a glance, Jackson saw his mom grinning broadly. This was it – a true Christmas. Once upon a time, he didn’t think it was possible. Now, he wouldn’t have it any other way. His mom’s smile warmed him in a way nothing else could.
“Well,” his brother-in-law spoke up, “if she’s sticking around for a while, she’s going to need a name.”
Resigned, Jackson’s sister wasn’t as annoyed by the puppy as she pretended to be. Her eyes smiled first, followed by her words. “It’s Christmas, after all. What about Holly?”
“Rex!” the older nephew proposed.
Not to be outdone, the youngest recommended his thoughts. “Duke!”
“Joy?” Jackson’s brother-in-law offered.
“Noel?” Mom suggested.
Noelle! Jackson’s stomach joined the stars at the memory. It was a perfect name for this enthusiastic sweetie in his arms now. “Noelle.”