A Gift for the Sheppards (4)

This is the final installment of a story I wrote long ago. It was first published in “The Christian Home and School,” a publication of Christian Schools International.


The Monday before Christmas, Christmas Eve

All day the Sheppard sisters had been battling traffic and crowds of last minute shoppers. Now as evening approached, the wash still needed to be done. “Why dontcha fix this?!” Nell snapped at Doris and flung a shabby sock in her direction. Nell had found a couple of large red and white Christmas stockings which the sisters had hung on the mantle every Christmas Eve. The stitching around the black Santa’s sleigh with the name “Doris” embroidered on it was coming undone as a result of its annual encounter with the Sheppards’ washing machine. It was Christmas Eve and Nell felt pressured to get the tattered stockings loaded and hung on the mantle over the dormant fireplace. The stockings were about the only bit of Christmas tradition the tired old sisters had left.

Nell had been getting grouchier as Christmas day inched closer. Today’s shopping excursion had just about put her over the edge. Doris remembered the days when Christmas shopping was accomplished by walking the block-and-a-half to Casey’s Corner Store. Of course, Casey’s had closed years ago when his son, Al, finally retired. He practically gave the building away to a group who used it for a church. But like everything else religious in Nell and Doris Sheppard’s lives, the congregation scattered and the building on the corner eventually deteriorated. It went from a place of worship… to a video store… to a derelict apartment building… to an empty lot.

Even though they were working on catching up on the laundry that they do so religiously on Monday’s, neither Nell nor Doris had forgotten about their curious neighbors. It had not gone unnoticed by them that every candle on the rag wreath, except the big white one in the center, were ‘lit’ with splotches of yellow.

“Why don’t they close their curtains, anyway?” By now, it was dark outside. Nell, bad mood and all, was back on the lookout while working on a basket of wool socks. “They’re just inviting anyone who wants, to take a peak,” she said. Then accepting their invitation, said, “Look over there, Doris.” Doris obediently looked up from re-stitching Santa’s sleigh. “There’s somethin’ glowing over there,” Nell whispered as if the Davidsons could hear her.

“Fire!” Doris put her hands over her mouth.

“Nonsense.” Nell stated flatly. “They’ve just got some candles or the fire place burning. I can see shadows…” She paused, and took a deep breath. “It looks kinda spooky over there.” Radiating through the window’s rag wreath, a curious aura of light reached across the snowy street toward the sisters. Doris suddenly envied everything about those people across the street – their friends, their fireplace and even the whatever-it-was in their window.

Nell broke in with, “Maybe they’re part of some kind of weird cult…?” Her voice trailed off.

“Stop it, Nell! You’re scaring me!” Nell was scaring herself, so she dropped the subject and went back to her socks.

That night, the Monday before Christmas, Christmas Eve, while the Sheppard sisters washed, fixed and folded their socks, they got their holiday gift. It came to them when the transformer on the electric pole in front of the next-door neighbor’s house blew up.

Like the CRACK!! of thunder in a June thunderstorm, the sound ricocheted along the canyon of houses on Hillside Avenue. When it crashed into the Sheppards’ living room they jumped simultaneously, like two kids in the backseat of a school bus zipping down a bumpy road. The socks in their hands went flying. The lights in the house flashed and went out.

Without saying a word, they sat in the blackness, hearts pounding. For the first time in an age, they didn’t know what was going on outside. For the first time in her lifetime, Nell was speechless. For the first time, Doris realized that she yearned for something to fill the lonely void inside her.

After some time, a loud pounding on the front door made them jump again.

“Ohhhh boooy!” Doris was the first to break the silence. “What’s that now?” she whispered. Slowly, Nell fumbled through the darkness toward the front door with Doris cowering behind her. Together they peeked through the curtain on the window next to the door. They spied someone bundled up standing on the front porch with a flashlight. Cautiously and against her better judgement, Nell opened the door a crack with Doris craning her neck to see around her sister.

The wide-eyed, worried looks that greeted the bundled up woman on the porch prompted her to reassure them, “Don’t be afraid. It’s me, Ruth, your neighbor, from across the street.” The sisters greeted her with silence. “Looks like the power’s going to be out for a while,” she continued with a warm disarming smile. “My husband just finished baking some bread right before the it went out and we were wondering if ….” Doris straightened up a stood next to Nell in the doorway. “… you’d like to come over and share the bread and cozy, warm fireplace with us. I’m on my way to get some of the other neighbors, too.” The sisters glanced at each other and nodded.

“Good!” Ruth said. “We’re right there across the street.” She pointed in the direction of her house – as if Doris and Nell didn’t already know. “Just look for the strips of cloth in the window.” She grinned and rolled her eyes. “It’s supposed to be an advent wreath.” We have a real one, too, with real candles. We put it on the porch – to light the way.” She turned to go, then turned back. “You can help us light the Christ candle when you get there.” Ruth winked. “It’s Christmas Eve, you know.”

“Uh-huh…,” said Nell, having no clue what the neighbor was talking about. The sisters wondered more than ever about their curious neighbors, what with rags and wreaths and bread and a Christ candle, and all. “Uh – well sure,” Nell fumbled for words. “After we take care of our socks and –“

”Forget about the socks!” Doris insisted. “We’re going now!” She grabbed their coats off the hooks by the door, jammed Nell’s into her hands and and said, “Let’s go!” And…. off they marched across the dark street looking for strips of cloth and a light to brighten up their dark world.

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