A Christmas Present, Past, and Future, by Tony Wayne Brown
Her house is unusually dark when he arrives. Bob’s surprised to see that her car is not in its usual spot. Maybe she’s gone to get a bottle of the Duplin Carolina Hatteras Red wine they’ve always enjoyed so much over the past seven years, though it’s unlikely she’d find any stores open on Christmas Eve that would stock it. Whatever the reason she’s gone, he’s sure Sue will be back soon, though their relationship has been odd, to say the least. They meet just once a year, but it means everything to him. Today’s her 25th birthday¾and the tenth anniversary of the horrific event had changed her life completely. He thinks back to her eighteenth birthday, when he’d called her as he always had on her birthday. Instead of the elation he’d expected, he heard sonic waves of sobbing.
“I can’t make it through one more hour,” she’d said. “It’s been three years and my face is just as awful as it was the day I got out of the hospital. You should have seen the way a woman stared at me this morning, like she thought I was a monster out of a Stephen King novel. Every time that happens, every time I see myself in a mirror, it seems it like it happened yesterday.”
“You shouldn’t be alone when you‘re feeling so low,” he’d said. “I’ll be there in a few minutes to help you get by this. Like Dean Martin sang, ‘everybody needs somebody sometime’.” It had taken a lot of convincing that he had no ulterior motive, but finally Sue had conceded that having his strong shoulder to lean on would ease her mind. He’d been true to his word, lying on top of her comforter while she was beneath it, the hours passing until sleep arrived for them both, and a tradition born. The short time spent with her each year since then is not enough, but it’s beyond his control. He loves her as much as any man loves a woman, but she’s never been able to believe he could love someone who looks the way she does.
Memories of his precious moments with her since then flooded his mind as he waited for her in his truck. The radio station playing oldies only reinforced his feelings of how everything could have been so different if only she’d accepted his love. “I Got You Babe”¾her favorite song¾made him smile, though, thinking how beautiful Sue was. After half an hour, he begins to worry. Opening the back door of her house with a key she keeps in a planter, he hears its familiar creak. “Bob” is written on an envelope that’s lying on a table. Eyebrows arched, he sees an envelope on the kitchen table with a big red heart drawn with a crayon is on it, with his initials on one side of an arrow and hers on the other. Opening it, he begins to read and learns he’ll never see her again:
My darling Bob, I’ve come to know you love me and have for many years. I can only tell you this because this is the last time you’ll hear from me. Mother is right. I am a sinner. I have made love to you many times in my mind and I know I would give myself to you if we met again. I cannot allow you to go through life with people talking behind your back about me. I’m going to finish the job my father started, the way he wanted it to be. Think of me the way it was, not the way it ended. When my car goes off that bridge the scars on my face will be erased forever.
She writes that she’s driving to the spot where her father had deliberately run the car they were in off a bridge on her fifteenth birthday. He’d only killed himself, though, the gas tank set afire by the bridge’s concrete abutment, leaving Sue melting in a ball of flames crashing down into the river. She knows now, she says, that if she meets Bob again she’ll give in and do the unchristian things her mother has accused her of. She’s often wanted to make love to him. In the intervals between their meetings it’s all she thinks of. She apologizes for lying to him, knowing all along that he loves her. She just can’t burden him. The way people would talk. She didn’t want him to go through life with whispers behind his back when people wondered why he was with “an ugly old crone.”
He doesn’t even know what that is, but it’s obviously not good. Why now, when she knows my love is real? Why now, when we could have been as one so long ago?
The time on her note means it’s too late to intercept her. He’ll not lay with her this year or ever again, her firm body close against his. His hope that she’ll eventually realize he loves her, has come true, but too late.
The light is blinking on her answering machine. He presses a button and hears Mrs. Aiken’s severe voice, talking about her daughter and him. She says she knows he spends the night with Sue on her birthday and what a terrible person he must be to do such a thing. Evil personified, she calls him.
“Cast not your spirit upon the waters of the damned, Sue, but be saved once more and go to the Promised Land where your sins will be forgiven if only you repent your misdeeds. God will punish you all the more for sinning on the day of the birth of our Lord and Savior,” she says, railing on. She says she knows she upset Sue when she phoned earlier and called her a worthless piece of humanity peddling herself like a common whore and the worst kind of sinner bound straight to Hell, but she just had to call again to make sure she wasn’t dancing to Satan’s siren song with that perverted man who was just taking advantage of her because her scars look so terrible.
And that’s just one sentence.
It’s so eerie in Sue’s house, hearing the woman’s lunatic ravings. He had no idea Sue told her anything. All these years he’s been sure it was a secret known only by the two of them. How ironic, he thinks, as he listens to the steely voice preaching hellfire and damnation to her daughter, who was still as chaste as the day she was born. The venom in Mrs. Aiken’s voice makes him feel like an Artic blizzard has swept over him.
For seven years, starting three years to the day of the crazed actions of her drunken father, they’d done nothing more than sleep pressed together, Sue wearing a matronly red flannel nightgown that just about shouted “STOP!” and him in long-sleeved woolen pajamas. For hours they had talked of how much better a place the world would be to live in if everyone only treated others as they would like to be treated themselves, if kindness and consideration of others became the norm, rather than the exception.
Mostly they talked about love, and how much better off the planet would be if love could only take the place of hate; if hugs took the place of fists. How wars would then cease and armies turn to the plow rather than the sword. Usually the love they spoke of was that of historic and literary figures, however: Romeo and Juliet; Paul and Linda McCartney; John Kennedy and Jackie; Sonny and Cher. Especially Sonny and Cher. Sue had cried herself to sleep the night they’d been together after Sonny Bono skied into a tree and died. She’d kept talking and talking about how Cher had been devastated by his death. Surely, she’d said, Cher never loved another man as much as she still loved Sonny at that moment, even though she’d been married to Gregg Allman and had been linked to so many other men.
“That’s the kind of love I have for you,” Bob remembers telling Sue as he’d held her tightly and tried to make the tears go away. He’d wanted so badly to make love to her at that moment, but her sole transgression had been to let him cup her breast in one hand until they fell asleep. That one indiscretion had been the extent of her “sin.” If her mother had only known, maybe… It was too late to matter. His love was gone. Damn Mrs. Aiken! Driving such a caring person to do such a thing.
Made a spectacle–much more so in her mind than by her actual appearance–as a result of her disfigurement, Sue had become a teacher for the mentally and physically impaired because she recognized her own unattractiveness and thought she could disguise herself in the background of her students. She regrets “losing her children,” she’s written, but is determined to go through with her plan.
She had been beautiful, but that was before her father had been arrested by a Pitt County sheriff’s deputy for throwing scalding water on her mother. Her mother’s face was burned on the same side as Sue’s was the next day in the wreck, making it look like their scarring was hereditary. Every time Sue saw her mother, she saw herself.
Bob had been Sue’s only date in junior high and high school, taking her to the eighth grade Junior Cotillion dance, then the Rose High School Senior Prom. He’d given her a corsage of white carnations both times and she’d never forgotten how kind he was to her. He wanted more in the relationship, but she was so convinced she looked much worse than she actually did that she could never consider such a thing. Bob realized more was written on the other side:
“I see the way people stare at me, but, I feel no shame because my scars are beyond my control,” she’s written in her note, “but when you come into the picture I feel the depth of my ugliness when people stare at me. You’ve been my one beacon of light, kind when others were cruel, blind while others could do nothing but see. I cannot let this become what my mother thinks it is. If I saw you one more time I couldn’t resist saying yes when you ask me again to be your wife. Just remember I love you..”
Bob’s mind is numb, his eyes closed. The letter flutters to the floor.
The red light of a second message penetrates his eyelids. Mrs.Aiken again. Bob thinks how wonderful it will be when he strangles her until she turns purple and begs for mercy. How her eyes will bug out as he relentlessly tightens his grip. The next message only intensifies that desire.
Mrs. Aiken’s severe voice booms out in the darkness again. “Sue! Evil is as evil does. Ask His forgiveness and you shall be walking in the path of righteousness once more. It will be good news to the Lord to find you’ve seen the error of your ways, my child!”
The answering machine clicks off again. Bob’s jaw tautens; his eyes narrows in anger. He can’t bring himself to believe Sue has actually killed herself because of her mother’s crazy, vicious, false, words. He’ll make Mrs. Aiken pay for her real sins, and enjoy every minute of it, even if it means life behind bars.
The clock next to the answering machine reads 10:55. Something compels him to turn the TV on. A woman promo-ing the news says, “Coming up next at eleven… the tragic story of a Greenville woman involved in a serious crash for the second time in thirteen years. Stay tuned for the latest.”
The phone rings, making Bob jump. Sue! No, not Sue. It’s Mrs. Aiken, the murderess. It’s her damn voice coming through the speaker. He doesn’t answer. He knows cursing her for her stupidity will not bring Sue back. Mrs. Aiken’s voice is completely different now. Calm, urgent. Pleading.
But not for Sue.
“Bob, I know you’re there,” she states matter-of-factly. “Please, please pick up the phone. I have something important to tell you. It’s…about Sue.”
The tone of Mrs. Aiken’s voice lessens the firmness of his jaw. The venomous rasp of a rattler is now a mother’s softness. His eyes squint as he decides.
The phone is in his hand.
“This is Bob,” he replies in a monotone.
“Thank heaven you’re there! Turn on the Channel Nine news.”
“It’s already on, Mrs. Aiken. They’re about to say your daughter is dead…and it’s all your fault.”
“No, no!” Mrs. Aiken says. “I’ve just talked to Trooper Brown of the highway patrol and he told me Sue survived! He said she seems to have not even been badly hurt. It’s a miracle from God! Praise the Lord!”
Bob’s vibrating with joy. His heart feels like it’s going to explode. He sinks to his knees, his mind numb. But as the blood flows back to his brain, he remembers who put Sue in that position to start with.
“I heard the awful things you told her, Mrs. Aiken. None of it’s true. You’re the one responsible for her doing this. She never did a single thing you accused her of.”
“You don’t understand, Bob. I’ve called to plead for your forgiveness for what I’ve done. Sue left me a message telling me how you’ve kept her sane all these years…how you were always there to comfort her at her greatest time of need. I am so…so…ashamed of myself. She’s being operated on now, but, I beg you, go to the hospital and be there to comfort her when she gets out of surgery. She’s not going to want to see me, and I don’t blame her one bit. Please, please tell her I know now how wrong I was and that I can only hope one day she’ll forgive me. I am the sinner, for I have cast the first stone; ‘judge not, lest ye be judged,’ so sayeth the Lord.”
The Channel Nine news opens with a view of a man standing by a river, holding a microphone.
“A near-tragedy struck here a short time ago as a Pitt County Special Education teacher was injured when the vehicle she was driving smashed through the concrete railing of this bridge spanning the Tar River next to the Falkland Wildlife Access Area, as you can see above us here,” the reporter says. “The victim of this grinding crash has been identified as Sue Aiken, a beloved teacher of physically-challenged youth in Pitt County. The apparently relatively minor extent of her injuries from such a violent event can only be described as ‘a Christmas present,’ one rescue workers said. The gas tank ruptured and burst into flames before the car crashed through the tops of several large oak trees, then landed on the riverbank. Mark Johnson, chief of the Falkland Volunteer Fire Department, is standing here with me. Chief Johnson, tell our viewers what happened here, if you will.”
The camera pans to a man wearing a fireman’s suit and helmet, blackened by smoke.
“At this point we haven’t determined what caused the accident. There doesn’t seem to be alcohol or drugs or another vehicle involved and there’s no skid marks, either. It looks like she just went straight into the railing. Maybe a deer was in the road…at this point we just don’t know.” A voice off-screen calls for the chief and the camera swings back to the reporter, who gestures in the chief’s direction.
“Chief Johnson told me moments ago that this is one of the rare times that not wearing a seatbelt probably saved a life. He said that if she’d not been thrown clear of her vehicle and hadn’t fallen into the river, there would have been little hope for her survival. From what he said, the water’s usually very shallow at the spot where she landed, but it’s still well above normal due to Hurricane Floyd. That extra depth kept her from hitting the bottom.”
“That’s truly remarkable, Fabian,” the anchorwoman responds. “Do we know how she got out of the Tar River?”
“Standing with me is Pete Pipkin of Ayden. Pete, can you tell everyone what you told me moments ago.”
A man wearing a Bass Pro Shop cap nods. “Well, I was celebratin’ the birth of Christ here with my family like we done for the last fifteen year or so when I heard a car run through the railin’. I saw somebody hit the water, so I swam over there and carried her gentle as I could to shore. When I saw her face, I couldn’t believe it…it… ” The man’s voice chokes. He covers his eyes, shakes his head, and turns away.
The camera focuses on the reporter. “Pete has a good reason to be overcome, Connie. The most amazing thing about this is that he and his family celebrate Christmas Eve with a late-night cookout at the Falkland Wildlife Access Area every year, and not only was it Sue Aiken who was in an accident here more than a decade ago, it was Pete himself who pulled her out of that burning car thirteen years ago, almost to the day. Pete Pipkin is the hero of the hour once again., Connie…simply remarkable!”
“Incredible luck,” the anchorwoman says. “What an experience, to find himself in this position again, and the victim, as well. Do we know anything more about her condition, Fabian?”
“From what emergency personnel are saying, she will survive this accident with apparently not much more than two broken arms from covering her face as she was ejected from her vehicle, which you can see is a mangled heap of charred metal.”
“That‘s very good news. My prayers will certainly be with her tonight.”
“Good news indeed, Connie, and I’m sure all our viewers echo your sentiment. This is Fabian Fortunata, reporting from the Falkland Wildlife Access Area near Greenville.”
“Now to our feature on the meaning of Christmas, we send you…”
Bob’s long gone, heading for Pitt County Memorial Hospita–with the “I love you” part of her note clutched in his hand. She can no longer deny it. Hand and foot he’ll wait on her as long as she’ll have him, treating her like the beautiful woman she is. The engagement ring in his pocket that she’d refused to accept last year, and his devotion for life, will be his Christmas present to her. He’s already received his.
This time next year, scars or no scars, they’ll be husband-and-wife.
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Tags: Christmas, relationships, romance