by Mickey Hunt
When the doorbell rang, Mr. Reynolds went to answer. The young man on the front steps popped open a beer can he had pulled from his ragged, oversized coat. “Are you on the wagon?” he asked, and offered Mr. Reynolds the first slug.
“Lee,” Mrs. Reynolds called from behind her husband. “It’s freezing outside. The chowder? The children are hungry.”
“We’re sitting down for supper,” Mr. Reynolds said to the boy. “What, what’s your name?”
“Jeffrey. I’ve got some peanuts. Give them to your kids.” He set the beer down and fumbled at his coat. “That’s a nice manger scene in your yard. It’s like real.”
Mr. Reynolds gently closed the door, which made a soft click. He looked at his wife and said, “That was awkward.”
“Maybe we should invite him in.”
“You didn’t smell him.”
“I guess there’s always the homeless shelter.”
The Reynolds family resumed their happy Christmas Eve meal, and afterwards, Mrs. Reynolds passed around a tray of fancy dried pears.
Then the doorbell rang again.
“It’s probably our malodorous friend.” This time Mr. Reynolds peeked through the curtains first. “Oh!” he said, stepping backwards. “The police.” He jerked the door open.
The officer was watching the darkening sky. “Sorry to disturb you, but we’ve had a call from one of your neighbors about a guy bothering people.”
“He left here twenty minutes ago.”
“You won’t arrest him, will you?” Mrs. Reynolds asked.
“We’ll just drop him at the shelter. It’ll be a bitter cold one tonight. By the way, this was on your stoop.”
Mr. Reynolds took the unopened bag of unshelled peanuts.
“What’s malodorous mean?” the oldest child, Lacy, asked.
The next morning while it was still dark, the Reynolds children jumped out of bed to empty their stockings. They found candy canes, flashlight batteries, walnuts, and new pocketknives. Mrs. Reynolds had prepared cinnamon rolls, eggs and sausage, and a fresh fruit salad for breakfast.
Mr. Reynolds built a fire in the fireplace. “Before we eat, let’s read about the wise men bringing presents, because they’re why we give gifts at Christmas. And let’s bundle up and read at our nativity display.”
“You realize it’s ten degrees,” Mrs. Reynolds said.
“We won’t be long.”
The children donned warm coats, hats, and gloves. The frigid air outside stung their noses, and heavy, lowering clouds oppressed them. Lacy ran to the stable, stopped, and screamed. “A dead person! A body!” She screamed again, stumbled backward, and fell.
Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds sped from the house.
“Where?” Mr. Reynolds said somberly. He moved closer and with forced calm said, “Take the children indoors, dear.” He dialed 911, and knelt by the body. It was Jeffrey curled up in the straw right next to the manger with baby Jesus inside. Jeffrey had borrowed a shepherd’s cloak for a pillow. He lay rigid and unmoving…
When the glittering ambulance rolled in, neighbors gathered at the edge of the yard. A cloud of steam ascended from their midst, their combined breath. A few snowflakes drifted down.
Wearing a Santa hat and carrying a red duffle bag, a paramedic approached the victim. As a second paramedic arrived, his stretcher jingling with bells, the first paramedic rubbed Jeffrey hard on the chest. No response. He felt for a pulse and said, “We’ll need a body bag.” He bent down to check for respiration. While he listened, his stern expression melted into puzzlement; he straightened up and said, “What the…?”
Jeffrey opened his eyes, sat up, and looked around, amazed.
“How? How are you feeling?” the paramedic asked.
Jeffrey only shivered.
“Get a blanket,” the paramedic said to his partner. “Sir, I’ll need to ask you some questions to ascertain your alertness. What day is it?”
Jeffrey thought for a moment, then slurred, “Christmas.”
“Where are you?”
“Who is the presi— Never mind. We need to transport you to the hospital. You’ve spent a night outdoors and you’re probably hypothermic.”
“Don’t want the hospital. I’m just cold.”
“He can come in our house,” Mr. Reynolds said eagerly. “Bring him inside.”
“You should go to the hospital, but we can’t force you.”
“The house, if it’s okay.”
The paramedic turned to Mr. Reynolds. “Are you sure?”
Mr. Reynolds glanced around at his nativity scene. He drew one deep breath and another. A tremble seized him and he covered his eyes with the back of his forearm, as if he could hide.
Jeffrey struggled to stand, but couldn’t and quit. “I know, I’m a nuisance and probably dangerous. The hospital, then.”
“No, no. Jeffrey, I’m sorry I shut the door on you last night. It was wrong. Please, please come inside.”
Jeffrey smiled a slow, stiff smile.
The paramedics helped him to his feet, and the neighbors cheered and hurried toward their comfortable homes. The Reynolds children dashed out, tucked themselves under Jeffrey’s arms, and boosted him along.
The second paramedic smirked and whispered to the first, “A body bag? You’re losing your edge.”
“I’d swear the patient was dead,” the first said quietly. “He was a refrigerated corpse.”
“You didn’t notice the glowing plastic angel? All right, let’s go. Busy morning.”
“Thanks!” Mr. Reynolds called to them.
“Nothing else we’d rather be doing,” one called back.
Mrs. Reynolds ushered Jeffrey and the children into the den, with its colorful decorated tree, the bright blazing fire, and treasures spread across the floor. They seated Jeffrey in the largest, coziest chair and pulled off his stinky boots. Mrs. Reynolds brought a mug of hot chocolate.
A quiet minute passed. Jeffrey hummed a sound of contentment and slurped at his steaming chocolate. The fire crackled cheerfully in the fireplace.
“Umm… Will, umm,” Mr. Reynolds stammered. “Will you join us for breakfast? And afterwards when we open presents? We ah… have something for you. A present, or two.”
“That’d be nice,” Jeffrey said in a sigh. “How about a hot bath first? Any peanuts? Boiled peanuts?”
Mr. Reynolds scowled. Now this was awkward.