As you know, I usually share holiday stories this time of the year by talented writers who've given them to me to use. What makes them interesting, at least to me, is they're written in various genres by men and women. I'll be running more next week in between guests.
I have two stories I tend to use every year. They're favorites of mine. One is called Christmas Joy, by Beth Hill, and the other is The Gift, by Rand Phares. Why are they favorites? Both highlight faith and hope and they touch the heart.
So today, I'm sharing one of my favorites with you by the talented Beth Hill. I love her writing. For those of you who don't know Beth, she is a fiction editor and you can find her at A Novel Edit or The Editor's Blog (she has an article up on her blog on weeding out author intrusion).
Sarah inhaled the fragrances of cinnamon and sugar and the chocolate chips melting into gooey deliciousness in the oven. Homey smells. Christmas smells.
She wanted to sit, relax, to inhale more than smells. She wanted the peace of the season to wash over her, still her racing mind and ease her fractured soul. But if she stopped moving, sorrow would overwhelm. She knew it. Had given in last Christmas. And again on his birthday. She’d been unable to resist the lure of peace on those two days.
But peace had eluded her. And instead grief had stolen into her home, into her mind and heart. And she’d cried out her anger and sorrow and loss, collapsing on her kitchen floor in a tangle of oven mitts and tears and memories. And standing again, facing life again, had been nearly impossible.
She reached for the oven door just before the timer buzzed, and pulled out the tray of perfect cookies. His favorite. She baked them every year. He couldn’t get enough. And she’d watch as he devoured one after another, following every third bite or so with a gulp of cold milk. And he’d grin, crumbs clinging to his lips, knowing she got a kick out of his passion for home-baked cookies made just for him.
She scoured the kitchen; focusing on making perfect and whole those things she had control over. And pushed far from her mind the events she couldn’t influence or change. But she left the cookies mounded on wax paper since Mac liked them that way. Liked reaching across the counter and plucking one or two or five whenever he wanted them.
The reflection from the tree beckoned her to the living room and the large glass windows that framed it. She’d stop for only a moment, her heart promised her head. Just a brief passage of time to watch the snowfall, to admire the twinkling lights as they pushed against the darkness both inside and out. Just a moment . . .
When the clocked chimed nine, Sarah jumped. Then smiled. Silly to feel guilty over losing herself in memories of her husband. She wouldn’t break down this Christmas. She’d learned that lesson. Plus, the news had been better this year. The better news being they’d actually heard news. The first reliable report since her captain had gone missing sixteen months earlier.
Chaplain Anderson had called in October. One of the Resolute Seven—prisoners held for over four months in a no-name cave in Afghanistan—had mentioned Mac—someone who sounded like Mac, please God—in his briefing. So this year she’d added hope to her arsenal of determination and faith and prayers. This year she wouldn’t give in to despair.
She pressed her fingers against the cold glass. Closed her eyes and lowered her head.
“Keep him warm tonight. Please. Hold him in Your arms since he doesn’t have mine. Fill his heart with Your love, with my devotion. And give Him your peace.”
Sarah leaned against her hand and stared into the night. So quiet. So pure.
“And please hold me. Because I’m afraid I can’t hold on any longer.”
She returned to the kitchen. In the near dark she pulled milk from the fridge and poured a tall glass. She piled cookies on a plate and arranged plate and milk on the reindeer placemat at the head of the table. She fussed with a linen napkin, flattening it again and again until she realized what she was doing and yanked her hands away. Enough of that. She still had presents to wrap, gifts for her brother’s family. She turned. And blinked.
The front door was opening, three men stepping through.
Chaplain Anderson, removing his hat. Colonel Ryan, Mac’s CO, holding the arm of another man. That other man dangling a key from his fingers.
The third man lifted his head at her gasp. Then grinned. And then he was rushing to her and squeezing her and kissing her face.
“Sarah. My God, Sarah.”
And then Sarah was on her knees, holding Mac, holding a dream, and kissing him back. Touching him everywhere. Crying and laughing and shaking so much she thought she’d finally snapped and lost her mind.
But when Mac pulled back and grasped her face between his hands, when she could see his eyes and into his soul, she knew he was not imagined but real and in their home.
In her arms.
She stared in wonder for a timeless instant, then sobs burst from her chest and she burrowed into Mac, clutching him, trying to breathe, trying to think. Trying not to feel because the emotions were stretching her beyond her limits and shattering her mind.
“I smell cookies.” That was the colonel.
Mac laughed. He laughed. Sarah gripped him even tighter.
“Sir, those are my cookies. All mine. I’ve been dreaming of them for days. And I’m sorry to say, you won’t get a single taste.”
Sarah wiped her face against Mac’s coat. Trust her man to get to the heart of any matter.
“Sarah? You ready to stand now? I wanna get this coat off and hold you properly.”
“Major, I believe this is where Chaplain Anderson and I bid you goodnight. And Merry Christmas.”
Sarah scrambled to her feet, pulling at Mac, searching his face. Thin. Lined. Hers. “How? When?” She squeezed her eyes shut and drew in an uneven breath. He was still there when she opened her eyes. “Major?” She twisted to look at Colonel Ryan, but turned immediately back to Mac. “I was just asking God to hold you, since I couldn’t. And now you’re here. You’re here.”
Mac saluted the other men as they eased out the door, but didn’t turn from Sarah. “He held me, baby. Every day I felt His protection and your love entwined, binding me in strength and hope.” He stepped close to her and again wrapped her face in his palms. His hands were shaking. “Tonight we hold each other.”
She lifted her hands to his where they framed her cheeks. His gaze was locked on her face. “Why didn’t you call? Have you seen a doctor? What happened? Mac . . . What happened?”
He leaned his forehead against hers, still unwilling to relax his hold. “I needed to be with you before the news broke, baby. I need you at my side to get through the rest of this. To he—” His voice broke and he hauled her against his chest.
“I’m here always. Forever.”
“I know,” he whispered against her neck. “And that’s what saw me through.” His entire body shook, vibrating against hers. “I didn’t break, Sarah. Not once. Not until a couple of Special Forces guys hauled me out. And then I cried like a baby.”
“Mac . . . ”
“My Sarah.” His lips feathered over hers. “Merry Christmas, wife.”
She slid her arms inside his coat and dug her fingers into his back. “Merry Christmas, major. I love you.” She closed her eyes. Thank You. For holding him. For bringing him home. For returning my heart.
My pleasure, Sarah. My very great pleasure. Merry Christmas to you and peace to this home.