The garage door grumbled and shimmied open in the glow of the headlights. The windshield wipers made a loud squeak as they smeared cold drops of rain across the contoured glass.
What a depressing sound, he thought.
He pulled the car into the garage, turned off the headlights and silenced the engine. He stepped out into the damp cold.
Some Christmas eve, he thought. Couldn’t feel any less like it.
The garage door rumbled closed behind him as he opened the door to the kitchen and walked in. He flipped on the lights. The burst of brightness hardly changed his mood.
The house felt so empty.
He walked through the kitchen and into the family room. Two cats — a long-hair tabby and a calico — were curled up together in an overstuffed chair.
“Hey Edgar,” he said to the tabby. “Hey Kate.” He walked over and gently stroked the tops of their heads with his fingertips.
“You’re my company tonight,” he said to the two little balls of purr.
He removed his damp overcoat and hung it in the closet with an involuntary shiver. He turned toward the mantle, grabbed a box of matches and lit two round, red candles. Soon, the scent of cinnamon started to fill the room.
His wife loved scented candles. He didn’t at first, but the smells became linked in his mind with winter and Christmas.
The warm, familiar smell couldn’t take the chill off his soul. He started missing her again.
”Damn,” he said.
He was a counselor, so he understood what was going on. That didn’t make it any easier. He knew that the holidays made losses hurt even more. His wife had died several months earlier, and he had started to get over it and move on with life. Christmas brought back the pain with a sharp edge.
His three children were grown. He’d talked to each of them on the phone this Christmas eve. They were coming over for dinner on Christmas afternoon — he would cook, of course. Each of them had invited him to spend the night at their places, but he wanted to experience this Christmas eve alone. It seemed like the best thing to do.
Now, he wasn’t so sure.
He had started driving to the midnight church service — they always went as a family and, later, as a couple with grown children. Halfway there, the pouring rain made him reconsider, and he felt he should turn around and go home.
Was he just feeling overwhelmed by missing his wife? Or, was there a purpose to that feeling? He didn’t know. All he knew was that he needed some warm tea.
He still used a tea kettle. His wife used to tease him about doing things the old-fashioned way instead of using the microwave. Something about the tea kettle’s whistle comforted him.
He rinsed it, filled it up, then put it on the stove and turned on the fire. He went to see what Edgar and Kate were up to — still sleeping in their chair. He started stroking their heads and taking deep, comforting breaths of the fragrant air. The candles were starting to work their magic.
He closed his eyes for a moment, thinking back to old times. Times that felt ….
Was that the doorbell?
He thought he’d heard it ring. Couldn’t be, though. Who would be out at this time — what time was it? The clock said 12:17 a.m.
It rang again.
He got up and went to the door. A shiver of fear went through him. He knew the dangers involved in living alone. He opened the inside door with trepidation, looked out and saw the last thing he expected.
A young woman stood on his porch. Her brown, wavy hair was soaked. So was her denim jacket. Mascara streaked her cheeks. She looked afraid. Alone. Vulnerable.
Should he open the door? He paused and listened to his instincts.
“Can I help you?” he said, opening the door.
“Sorry to bother you,” the young woman said, speaking in that fast-clipped way that people often do when they’re stressed. “But my car has broken down and I’ve forgotten my cell phone and I need to call someone to come and get me and your house was the only one with a light on …”
He made the next decision with his heart.
“Of course,” he said. “Come in. You can use the phone.”
She looked unsure as she walked into the hallway. Almost as unsure as he felt when he first looked out the door.
“You’re soaked,” he said. “Would you like some warm tea? I’m making some right now.”
He could see hesitance in her eyes.
“Thanks, but I just really need to call my boyfriend and he’ll come and get me and it will be OK.”
“Sure,” he said. “The phone’s in the next room. Help yourself.”
The tea kettle started to whistle. He went into the kitchen to make himself a cup and give her some privacy. While he was dipping his tea bag into the cup of steamy water, he overheard angry words. The phone got hung up abruptly.
She walked into the kitchen. Her mascara was getting smudged again, but this time it wasn’t because of the rain.
“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate you letting me use the phone.”
He looked at her for a moment and tried to figure out what was going on.
“So, do you have a ride?” he said.
She paused for a few seconds. He thought he saw anger flash in her eyes.
“No,” she said, finally. “My boyfriend — my former boyfriend — won’t come and get me. I guess I’m going to have to call a tow truck.”
He wasn’t sure how to react.
“It’ll be a long wait for a tow truck,” he said. “Christmas eve and all.”
He looked at her blue eyes and saw a lot of things swirling around. Where to start?
“Why don’t you join me in some tea and tell me about your night?” he said.
Hesitantly, she nodded. She followed him to the table, sat down and watched him pour another cup of boiling water. She looked so lost.
“Don’t you have another friend or relative who can help?” he said.
Slowly, she started telling her story. How she’d recently moved to town to be with her boyfriend, even though she had no other friends there. How their relationship quickly became a burden. How she’d broken it off that week. How she was still upset that night and had forgotten to take her cell phone with her to work. How the car broke down on her way back to her apartment, and now the only person she knew in town wouldn’t come to help her.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Emma,” she said. “Yours?”
“Harold,” he said, “but everyone has always called me Hank. Everyone except my wife.”
He told her how his wife had died recently. Hearing his story helped snap her out of her own problems. She asked what had happened.
That’s where the conversation began.
It went on for more than an hour as they sipped tea and commiserated about life’s difficulties. And its wonders. There were stories and smiles and a few blinked-back tears.
Finally, she glanced at the clock and told him she was sorry for keeping him up so late.
“No, no need to be sorry,” he said. “In fact, I’m glad you came to my door. Thank you.”
“For what?” she said.
“For helping me get through a rough night. It’s almost like someone sent you here.”
“I have that same feeling,” she said.
The two of them sat silent for a few moments, thinking about how they were brought together. Finally, he stood up and reached for a set of keys on a nearby countertop.
“Well, you’ve still got your transportation problem, and I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you take my car?”
Those blue eyes widened.
“That’s crazy,” she said. “I’m a total stranger.”
“Really?” he said. “Do you feel like a stranger?”
She smiled back.
“No,” she said “I guess not. But why would you give me your car?”
“I won’t need it tonight,” he said. “And besides, you can bring it back tomorrow and meet my family and join us for dinner. I have a daughter about your age. I think you two might enjoy each other’s company. Who knows, you might even become friends. Would you like that?”
She smiled broadly for the first time all night.
“Deal!” she said.
With that, she got up, took the keys from his hand and headed for the garage. He opened the door and turned on the light, then hit the button that made the garage door rumble to life again.
She started toward the car, then turned back, leaned forward and gave him a lingering hug.
“Thank you for everything,” she said. “I’m so glad you were home with your light on.”
“And thank you,“ he said. “I’m so glad you showed up at my door.“
With that, she opened the car door, slid in, adjusted the seat, started the engine, flipped on the headlights and slowly backed out of the garage. Once outside, the cold rain started pelting the windshield.
He could see her silhouette in the night, waving at him. The windshield wipers went into action, smearing cold drops of rain across the glass with a loud squeak.
What a joyful noise, he thought, as the car pulled away.