|Melozzo Da Forli: Music-making angel (fresco, c. 1489)|
He hid in the blizzard.
A shape. Like smoke. There, then not.
Snow raged around him, blurring the line between storm and flesh. His breath was invisible in the wind. He left no footprints.
He watched the family inside the warm house.
It was Christmas Eve and the woman was making Cheese Dreams: white bread with a slice of processed cheese, topped with three or four strips of crispy bacon, slid under the broiler until the cheese bubbled. Angie always made Cheese Dreams on Christmas Eve. Her mother had done the same thing when she was a little girl. The kids liked eating it with their fingers and Angie liked the quick simpleness of the meal, following hard as it did on a long day of housecleaning and cooking.
Christine and Marie were sitting on the floor in front of the television, watching Christmas specials. Angie glanced at the TV as she brought plates of Cheese Dreams and glasses of milk over to her kids. The Peanuts gang was singing Hark the Herald Angels Sing, with Snoopy howling in the front row. Nostalgia, anticipation and bacon perfumed the rarified air. Angie smiled, even though she was worried sick.
“We get to eat in front of the TV?” Christine asked.
“For tonight,” Angie said. “Don’t get used to it.”
“Pffft,” said Marie. “As if.”
Angie sat down on the floor beside the girls, resting her tired feet. She looked at the clock. Frowned. Gordon should have been home by now. She stole a glance out the window, not wanting to worry the girls, but Christine noticed. “When’s Daddy coming home?” she asked, through a mouthful of cheese.
“Soon,” her mother said.
“It’s almost bedtime,” said Christine.
“Bedtime!” squealed Marie. “Daddy had better be here before bedtime or Santa won’t come!”
“Santa will come,” Angie said. “And so will your father. He’s just held up in the storm. Probably bad traffic. He’ll be here. Has he ever missed Christmas? Ever?”
She raised her eyebrow.
The girls shook their heads.
“Look, the Grinch is on,” Angie said. “Finish your Cheese Dreams and Marie, drink your milk.”
“Blech,” said Marie.
The woman cleaned up the kitchen and, when she was done, herded the girls into the bathroom for tooth brushing and face washing. She dressed them in new flannelette pajamas, then tucked them both in and read The Night Before Christmas. Marie sniffled a little because her father wasn’t home but Angie reassured her. She kissed them soundly, turned off the light and promised them dreams of dancing sugarplums.
With the kids looked after, Angie curled up on the couch in the living room and stared out the window. The storm didn’t seem to be getting any better. Worry clouded her thoughts.
His heart broke a little bit, seeing her hollow eyes staring out into the darkness.
Gordon would never walk through that door again. She didn’t know it yet. But when the police cruiser pulled into the driveway several hours later, he would be there for her instead, an invisible shoulder to lean on, a comfort, a crutch.
It was the only thing he could give her this Christmas.