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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Midnight Clear

Harold Loomis pulled his collar tighter around his neck and hunched deeper into his coat. He crammed his hands all the way to the bottoms of his pockets, wishing for the hundredth time that he'd remembered his gloves. How far had he walked since he left the truck? How long had it been since he passed that "Livingston - 2 miles" sign?

"Just my luck, gettin' called out on Christmas Eve," he grumbled. "Now this. Prob'ly won't get home before the kids get up." He hoped Christi and Jeremy would think to keep Ian from waking their mom. As many bad days as Maymie'd had lately, she needed as much sleep as she could get.

A few hard snow pellets began to fall, and the wind flung them into his face, stinging his eyes. He squinted his lids closed as much as he could without impairing his vision.

"Idiot!" he said, remembering the weather forecast he'd heard this morning from that clown on Channel 12. "Clear skies for Christmas Eve, my foot!"

Harold wondered again why he subjected himself to that torture every day— "Ryan Meeks with the morning weather." The UN may have banned water-boarding, but Harold was convinced that when it came to military interrogation, "Ryan Meeks with the morning weather," would make an effective substitute. That goofy face and grindingly cheery voice set his every nerve on edge. Prob'ly never had a worry in his life. At least the fool made a convenient target for Harold's anger.

The stinging pellets of snow turned to big fluffy flakes—Christmas snow, the kids always called it. The flakes fell thick and fast, veiling Harold's view of the trash and blown tire retreads that lay along the side of the road. He heard the hush that always came with a heavy snowfall. The snow was sticking on the pavement, muffling even the sound of his own footsteps. He could feel the flakes collecting in what remained of his hair, and wished for a moment that he'd learned to wear a stocking cap, like Jeremy did, or a cowboy hat, like his pa had.

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay....

"Figures," Harold grunted to himself. It seemed that any time there was too much quiet and time to think, some song'd get stuck in his head, playing itself over and over, keeping pace with his life. This one was acting like a marching cadence, keeping time with the soft, snow-muffled thud of his trudging feet.

O, tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy.
O, tidings of comfort and joy....

Comfort and joy.... Well, the comfort part shouldn't be too tough to accomplish, once he got out of this snow, and got the truck back on the road. Joy? That looked like a little tougher proposition....


Ryan Meeks slingshotted his Mustang around the corner and onto the highway.  The roads were already getting slick. With the Christmas forecast to do tomorrow morning, he really should have stayed in Farrell tonight—slept at the station, if necessary. He was already in enough trouble with Mr. Peterson for this most recent string of botched forecasts.

It wasn't his fault. He'd tried to tell them he was there for the opening in the accounting department. He'd made the mistake, though, of wandering onto the newsroom set. Peterson had started raving about how "the camera loved him," and the next thing he knew, he was being offered an obscene amount of money to be "Ryan Meeks with the morning weather." With Steph and Junie Mae, and buying the house, and another baby on the way, how could he say "no thanks," to a sure thing, and go down the hall to compete for the entry-level assistant accountant spot? It had quickly become clear, however, that he was no weather man. Yeah, he really shouldn't have risked getting snowed in at Livingston.
But Stephanie had called to tell him Junie Mae was sick and the doctor had called in a prescription, and what else could a dad do? He'd asked Steph if the medicine could wait  'til tomorrow. She'd pointed out (with that "mama bear" edge in her voice) that the pharmacy wasn't open on Christmas Day. Fortunately, she'd told him the rest of the news before he had a chance to ask if it could wait until the 26th.
"Dr. Johnson says this thing is really bad, Ry. If we don't get her started on the medicine right away, she could end up in the hospital. He said before they came up with this medicine, babies used to die from the disease."
Ryan's thoughts filled with images of Junie Mae, sneezing strained peas everywhere, toddling her first steps, splashing in the tub, giggling and saying, "Teekohs, Daddy," when he washed her hands. The thought of her lying cold and still sent a shudder down his spine.
He shook his head to clear the horrific image from his mind. The snow was really coming down, now. The wipers were clogged and unable to keep up, opting instead to spread watery smears across his line of vision. He turned the heater fan to the windshield setting, hoping to heat the glass enough to melt the snow from the inside. He leaned forward, peering through the glass.
He probably shouldn't have taken the curve as fast as he did, but in his defense, the guy shouldn't have been walking so close to the road. Ryan felt the car start to skid and he had a choice—take out the guy, or put the Mustang in the ditch and risk his own neck. He'd seen enough death in Iraq to last him a lifetime, so the choice was a no-brainer—he jerked the wheel hard, away from the trudging man. The car figure-skated away from the dimly outlined figure and off the shoulder, landing with a tooth-rattling thud on its side in the ditch, before rolling over onto its roof.

Clifford Calhoun tried again to make himself settle back on the cushioned rear seat of his Rolls Royce Phantom. Most of the time, he preferred being chauffeured, found it much more relaxing than being behind the wheel. Only exception was in the snow. Then all his old trucking instincts kicked in. Made him antsy to have someone else driving.
"How's the road, James?" The question made him feel that he had at least a little control.
"Not too bad, sir," was the chauffeur's reply, his accent barely perceptible. "A little slick in spots, but no drifting yet."
Yet. That word didn't bode well for the rest of the evening. Meant his driver expected the road to get worse before it got better. He'd better start thinking about a Plan B, just in case.
"We need to consider that we might not make it all the way to Durbanville tonight. I think we're not too far from Livingston. Better look for lodgings there, James."
"Yes, sir," James responded, never taking his eyes off the road. He was doing quite well for having been hired only the week before.
Clifford tried to recall which James this new one was.  Seventh or eighth, he thought—first Hispanic one. He smiled to himself at the quirky tradition, and brushed away a thin mist of tears. It had started when he and June were newlyweds, and he was driving truck. She rode the route with him whenever she could, and after the last delivery of the day, she'd say, "Home, James," and they'd both laugh. Then, she'd always say, "You'll see. After you make your first million, I'm going to hire a chauffeur named James, just so I can tell him that."
Sure enough, the little business they had started took off suddenly. The day after they cleared their first million, June had hired a driver for the ten-year-old Mercedes that Clifford had given her for Christmas that year. Chauffeur's name, of course, was James. From that day on, they'd had a chauffeur. Not the same one for 34 years, obviously, but always the same name. June had never grown tired of saying it—"Home, James!" And now that she was gone, Clifford didn't have the heart to hire someone with any other name.
"Car lights up ahead, sir," James interrupted. "Judging by their angle, it's someone off the road."
"Stay alert, James, and be prepared to stop if we're needed...."
"Staying alert, sir." James stared unwaveringly out through the windshield. They were almost even with the overturned car, when Clifford saw a shadowy figure step down off the shoulder of the highway, and disappear into the ditch.
"There, James! Did you see that? Do you think it was—?"
"I'll go check, sir," James' voice was calm, as he pulled the Rolls smoothly onto the shoulder and turned on the emergency flashers. Stretching to open the glove compartment, he pulled out a small, shiny metal flashlight, a miniature of the ones Clifford had his security guards carry. "I'll be back in a few moments, sir." James slipped out of the car, and shut the door with a firm click.

Harold didn't see it coming. With the swirling snow, and the swirling thoughts of medical bills and truck repairs, combined with the "merry gentlemen" resting in his head, his thoughts were a million miles away from Highway 32 on a cold, snowy Christmas Eve. Suddenly, headlights bore down on him, startling him back to reality, and sending  the merry gentlemen scattering. Before he had time to react, the headlights jerked away from him, and a red Mustang slid past, with the revving engine and the high pitched tire-whine of a car skidding out of control on ice.
A shot of fear froze Harold in place, as the Mustang slow-motion-waltzed past him and across both lanes, and the orchestra in his head played the Blue Danube, timing the final, emphatic measure (bump-pa-da-bump) to synchronize with the car's crash landing on the passenger side, and its roll onto its top. Then the night was silent again—so still, he would have sworn he could hear the whisper of falling flakes.
Almost immediately, Harold's fear was replaced by adrenaline, and he hurried across the slick pavement, thankful to see no traffic in either direction. He stumbled down the embankment, almost falling on the snow-slicked, uneven earth. He rounded the nose of the car. The windshield was busted out. Harold heard a faint cry, "Help me!"
He bent over and peered through the dimness inside the car, looking for the owner of the voice. "Where are you?" he asked. His eyes began to adjust to the lack of light. There he was! Harold saw a younger guy, about thirty, dangling from the seatbelt in the driver's spot. Harold didn't see any major blood, and the kid's eyes looked pretty clear, so prob'ly no booze or head injury.
"Careful," Harold warned him. "Swing yourself down. Don't just unbuckle, or you'll land on your head. Did that once. Not something you forget."
Harold sat back on his heels and was watching the guy drop cautiously down, when his eyes told him this was Ryan Meeks, and his sense of smell announced that there was gasoline leaking somewhere.

Ryan paused, stunned, trying to orient himself to the surroundings. He remembered the car sliding away from the man on the side of the road. He remembered  it flipping onto its side. After that, nothing. He wasn't on his side now. He didn't feel it had been a long time—didn't feel like he'd been knocked out—but he knew that didn't mean anything. He inventoried his body. No parts were reporting pain, except for a strange band of discomfort across his hips. Well, that, and his head felt...funny. He had the strange sensation that he was floating. As Ryan looked out through the broken windshield onto the dark and snow, he was startled by a man"s pair of feet walking across the sky in front of him.  
"Help me!" His voice sounded faint, even to himself.
Out of the darkness, a man's face seemed to levitate at an angle from below the dashboard, leaving Ryan even more confused. The face was saying something, but Ryan was struggling to make sense of the words. He shook his head, trying to clear it. For some reason, it felt like an over-inflated balloon. The face spoke again. "Don't just unbuckle, you'll fall on your head."
That was the problem! He'd rolled the Mustang. He was hanging upside down by his lap belt. Ryan sighed with relief, grabbed the steering wheel, and cautiously unbuckled. As he swung down to the roof of the car, he noticed two things. First off, he saw the shock of recognition on the guy's face—the moment that said, "You're Ryan Meeks!" That usually didn't bother him anymore. He was getting used to having fans. The other realization, however, shook him to the core. In the moments since the return to clarity, he'd been doing a visual scan of the car's interior, and it was nowhere to be found. Junie Mae's prescription had vanished!

What was that idiot doing? The Meeks guy squatted on the interior roof of the car, scrabbling around in the mess of salt slush, paper scraps, and broken glass that covered what had been the car's ceiling.
"What're you doing? Don't you smell the gas? You gottta get outa there!"
Ryan shook his head without looking up. "It's the medicine. I have to find the medicine!"   Harold responded with a soothing voice, as if he were addressing a child who was talking in his sleep. "Of course you do.... Now which medicine was it?"
"It was medicine for the baby—for Junie Mae. She's my daughter. She's really sick. If I don't find the medicine, she could die! I have to find it!" Ryan returned to pawing through the debris around the dome light.
Harold debated what to do. His gut said "Run!" But his higher nature told him the only two options were helping the kid find his baby's medicine or overruling him and dragging him out of the car to safety. Dragging him would probably result in a fight, and Harold wasn't ready for that, so he started looking around outside the car for...   something. He wasn't sure exactly what he was looking for: something medicinal looking. He hoped he'd know it when he saw it. Harold backed up a few steps, thinking the different angle might help make the thing more visible. Instead, he tripped over a tuft of tall grass, and sat down abruptly.
The impact was just hard enough to knock the wind out of him, and he was still regaining his breath when a bright light caught him off guard, blinding him. He shaded his eyes with his forearm, and tried to find the light source. Stepping out of the swirling snow, Harold saw a slight-built Hispanic man, wearing a gray suit, and carrying a flashlight. Odd, this wasn't one of his typical "too quiet, too much time" moments, but he was hearing music in his head, anyway. It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold.

Harold decided to just sit a while and listen. He settled back on the grassy hillock.

Clifford sat in the quiet car and watched the snow swirling past the windows. Angel snow, June had always called it. She claimed the big fluffy flakes were angels in disguise. You'd have made a good mama, Junebug, Clifford whispered. Shoot, you were a good mama— what little time you had.
After waiting for nearly ten years, they'd had Mary. She'd been theirs for almost a year, before that terrible disease had taken her. They had buried her on her first birthday, in the little pink taffeta dress that June had made for her to wear to her party. As if to confirm Mary's one-of-a-kind status, there had been no others. True, they'd had children in their lives—nieces and nephews, neighborhood kids, children of employees—but Clifford's one regret was the business. There was no heir. He had been richly blessed, but unless he sold it out of his control, his life's work would die when he did.
Clifford gazed out the window at the car in the ditch, and wondered who would drive such a beauty off the road. Probably some  young daredevil with a need for speed. He shook his
head, and leaned back in his seat. As he relaxed, he realized he was hearing music.

...Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From heaven's all-gracious King.
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

The carol was being sung by a choir—a very good choir. James must have left the radio on. Clifford leaned forward, trying to see the radio dial. Unexpectedly, two scenarios appeared in his line of vision. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a pair of shadowy figures climbing up the embankment, onto the shoulder of the road. And as he looked out the windshield through the swirling snow, his eyes were met by the sight of...could it really be...?
The man in the gray suit nodded politely in Harold's direction, then flicked a glance in Ryan's direction. "Pardon, sirs. I am called Miguel. Do you require assistance?" His English was somewhat formal, and a little stilted.
Ryan was still shuffling through the debris, so Harold spoke up. "He has rolled his car—obviously—(he nodded in the direction of Ryan and the Mustang) and in the process, his daughter's medicine has gone missing. Oh, and by the way, there's a gas leak somewhere." "Gracias, Señor Loomis. Now, Señor Meeks, you are badly chilled. Come with me, please." Miguel gently urged Ryan, who was clearly reluctant to leave without finding the medicine. He quietly touched Ryan on the shoulder and used the flashlight beam to point the way up the bank. "Señor Loomis will help me look, and I have some friends who are arriving just now to assist." He turned to lead Ryan up to the shoulder
That was when Harold heard it again. Now it was a complete, professional-sounding choir.

Oh ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who tread along the climbing road,
With painful step, and slow....

Harold turned in the direction of the music's source. There, on the shoulder facing each other, were a Rolls Royce Phantom, and...a sleigh? Actually, it was more like a large, farmer's box-wagon on sleigh runners. Pulled by a pair of white horses, it glowed with light and was filled with people of all ages and races, all seeming about to burst with joy and all singing.

Look up, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.

The sleigh glided to a stop, and the group clambered out, still singing. They spread out in the area around the Mustang, and began a sweep, searching for the missing prescription. One of the older women grabbed Harold's hand and tugged him toward the car to help with the search. Someone crawled back in through the windshield opening, and reported no sign of the medicine in the car. Still, the group sang.
To Harold's surprise, one of the group suggested they look under the car. The idea was met with enthusiasm, and en mass they took up positions along one side of the car and began rocking it. Caught up in the moment, Harold joined the endeavor, and within minutes, the Mustang was upright, although a little worse for the wear.
Sure enough, there was the medicine bottle, imbedded in the snow and dirt! One of the men ran it up to the Rolls, while the rest of the group stood or sat, resting, and still singing.

O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing.

By the time the medicine bottle had been found and was on its way to the Rolls, Clifford had reached the conclusion that he liked this young fellow! The way Ryan talked about his "Steph" reminded Clifford of how he had thought about June—and Mary and Junie Mae sounded like two of a kind. Clifford harbored a small, secret happiness at  the similarity of the name, Junie Mae, to that of his own June. The fact, too, that little Junie Mae was fighting the same disease that had taken Mary seemed, in Clifford's heart, to somehow redeem his daughter's loss.
For his part, Ryan had found it refreshing to spend time with a man who rarely watched television, and didn't recognize the iconic "Ryan Meeks with the morning weather." With Clifford, he just felt like Ryan, trained accountant, husband, family man, and all around nice guy.
There was a tap on the car window, and Clifford rolled down the glass to speak with a tall, smiling African-American man holding a medicine bottle, and singing in a
deep, rich voice.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,

"Oh, thank you!" Ryan accepted the prescription from the choir member, and his eyes welled with tears.
"You're welcome, Mr. Meeks," the man replied, his smile seeming to grow even brighter, until his face almost glowed. "And don't worry about a thing. I'm sure your little boy will be just fine."
"Oh, but I have a daughter. It's my daughter who's sick," Ryan corrected him.
The man smiled once more. "Oh, yes, your daughter! I'm sure she'll be fine, too," he commented over his shoulder, as he walked away.
"But, sir," Ryan called after him, "you don't understand! I don't have a...." Ryan's voice trailed off into silence, and his eyes got a thoughtful, faraway look. Through the open car window, Clifford could hear the choir still singing.

...And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world.


The choir had done pretty much all that a choir could do, and by ones and twos, they began to drift back toward the sleigh, still singing as they went. On her way to the sleigh, the older woman who had taken Harold to help with the search came past him where he sat on a rock. She slowed as she went by, and patted him on the shoulder.
"I'm so glad Maymie is getting well," she said, then hurried on her way, pausing only long enough to call, "Goodbye, Harold!" Then she waved at him, climbed in the sleigh, and joined again in the singing.
"Thanks...but...wait," Harold called after her, puzzled and almost frantic. "We won't know anything until next week. My wife's doctor appointment isn't until next week!" The woman just smiled and waved, as if his words held no meaning for her.

Above its sad and lonely plains
They bend on hovering wing....

For a moment, the chauffeur stood by Harold, watching the choir load onto the sleigh before he spoke. "Pardon, Señor Loomis...may I speak with you?

The driver's door of the Rolls Royce swung open, and Harold leaned into the car. "Mr. Calhoun," he said, "my name is Harold Loomis. We haven't met, but your chauffeur asked me to speak with you. He said to tell you he had to leave with the choir, but he was sending you some information. First, he said to tell you that he contacted the state police. They said since they're getting so many calls, and this one was only property damage, to go ahead and leave the vehicle where it is, and they'll get to it later. Second, he said he apologizes, but his name is Miguel Angeles, not James Rodriguez. Third, he said to tell you, about that job offer you're thinking of making; he has it on Good Authority...that would be an excellent move, and you might find another potential employee soon. He said that both connections could prove richer than expected. And fourth, he said I'm to tell you that I have a commercial driver's license, and my middle name is James."
In the time that Harold had been speaking, the snow—which had been heavy enough to block visibility—had stopped, and the clouds were clearing. Clifford glanced out the windshield of the Rolls.
"Why, where's the sleigh? It seems to have vanished," he said.
"That's odd," blurted Ryan, who had been staring out the window at the sky. "I've never seen a shooting star shoot up before!"
Clifford's take-charge personality quickly reappeared, and he began to issue directions. "Mr. Loomis, since you are the one legally qualified to do so, would you do me the favor of taking the wheel? I assume you can drive a Phantom?"
"A car's a car," Harold replied.
"Good," Clifford answered, "We need to get this concerned father home to his little family, then back to Farrell for the morning weather. And after that young man," he said to Ryan, "I have an idea I'd like to discuss."
"Home, James," joked Ryan, not knowing how meaningful his words were.
As Harold started the car and eased onto the highway, the radio came on, just in time for the three men to hear a choir singing.

...And the whole world give back the sound
Which now the angels sing.

The DJ's voice slid in smoothly over the last chords of the song. "It's midnight under clear skies here at WNGL. Merry Christmas from our staff and advertisers, and here’s hoping that each of you witness a Christmas miracle.'"
The broadcast segued into an instrumental rendition of Joy to the World. As the car moved down the road, the three men sang along, And somewhere, high in the sky, heard only by the stars, the voices of a beautiful choir joined in.

...And heav'n, and heav'n, and nature sing!