The house was covered in snow. Corporal C.J. Dawson stepped out of the car at the end of the drive and thanked the neighbor, then stood alone as the taillights disappeared into the snowy mist. It had been two years since he set foot on his family’s property, two long years during which he had seen battle, the end of a war, and then the aftermath, the bombed-out building and the people — the people! Those who had dark, hollowed eyes that had seen too much, and those who had the light of hope burning from within.
But today, two days before Christmas, the only thing on his mind was the house in front of him.
A single light shone from the bedroom window upstairs. His bedroom, and the light that his mother swore she would keep burning for him until he came home. He swallowed hard and closed his eyes, listening to the unique sound of snow drifting down, a hush that settled over the world and stopped it for a while. Inside that house he would find the good smells of Christmas cookies, stockings over the fireplace, the old rocker that had been in the same place for so long it was starting to wear indentations in the hardwood floor. He could already hear the squeak of the old wooden door, feel the throw rug under his feet, her the voice of his mother calling him to supper from the kitchen table.
Breaking into a smile, C.J. ran toward the house.
It was a dreary winter, one where no snow had fallen but plenty of rain had. Karen Dawson sat in her car in front of the house, watching the rain fall in sheets from the wide eaves. The Christmas tree was glistening in the downstairs window, one of the few bright spots of color in the gray world. The light from the television flickered from another window, and suddenly Karen thought about the moon landing. She and her friends had gathered around the television and watched in utter awe-struck silence as the grainy images came back from so far away.
That seemed like so long ago now.
She pressed her hand to her belly and felt the small swell there. She would have a child by this time next year, and she had yet to tell anyone but her boyfriend — and he promptly vanished. Karen would have to tell her parents tonight, and she had no idea how they would react at first. But she knew how it would all end.
Her father would go up the rickety stairs to the attic and pull down the bassinet that had been his when he was a little boy. Her mother would begin pushing more helpings at her during dinner, telling her that she had to eat more. Gradually certain things would appear — a stack of receiving blankets, worn soft from use. Baby bottles, newly washed and glistening in the sun pouring through the kitchen window.
Another tiny stocking above the fireplace.
Karen smiled for the first time in a while. She stepped out of the car, into the pouring rain, and ran toward the house.
Christmas morning, 2009
The minivan pulled up to the curb just as dawn broke over the winter wonderland. The children were sound asleep in the back, and his wife was too, her adorable soft snoring coming from the passenger seat. Encased in the warmth of the vehicle, C. J. looked up through his frosty window at the old house.
The big windows looked back at him, each one reflecting a tiny white light. Those little lights were for those family members out in the world, those unable to come home for Christmas, as a way of keeping them close even when they were far away. His grandfather insisted on those every year. There was the tree, twinkling in the morning light. His grandmother would be shuffling in the kitchen already, spending hours creating a meal that the family would devour in minutes.
His stomach rumbled as he thought about her good cooking.
A small section of gutter had pulled away from the house. C.J. blinked at it, this unmistakable proof that his grandfather really was in failing health. In earlier years it would have been kept ship-shape at all times. Sometime this afternoon, when everyone was distracted by Christmas presents, he would slip out of the house and get the ladder, go up and fix the gutter before Grandpa noticed.
But before that, the sweetest moment would come: That old wooden door would swing open, and his grandparents would be there, and his parents, and later his sister and brother would show up with their kids, and the little house would barely hold them all.
He turned to his kids. “Wake up, boys. We’re here.”
Eyes opened wide, seat belts unbuckled, hands grabbed for coats, mittens went everywhere — and C.J. laughed as he watched his boys run toward the house.