Note: “Wanderers” can also be found in my book “My Best Christmas and other stories of the season” at Amazon.com.
Harry slowly opened his eyes. In the dimly lit stable he glimpsed his fellow guests standing motionless, gazing at something in the middle of the small, cold room. As he gathered his flagging courage, he gathered his feet up under him and stood. He kept his eyes on the others, watching for any signs of trouble, any signs that they might be aware of his presence.
His eyes focused ahead, he stopped, frozen in his tracks. Something big was next to him. His addled mind envisioned what couldn’t be. Or could it? Out of the corner of his eye he saw a four-legged creature with a curved neck, it’s back grotesquely mounded into a tall hump. Harry inched away from the silent beast, hoping not to disturb it. He continued forward.
As quietly as he could he made his way to the circle of strangers. He didn’t want to disturb them and put himself in danger. Yet curiosity won out. Who were these people? Why so silent? What were they looking at?
Nervously, he stood on tiptoes outside the circle trying to see what was so interesting. Harry leaned in to look. “Oh! Excuse me,” he said to a short, round guy dressed in a robe, holding a long hooked stick. He readjusted the bill of his hat which had poked the solid, silent stranger. He leaned to look around him. He saw it, saw him.
The box was filled with straw and something else. Now ignoring the silent crowd, Harry slinked forward and saw the baby lying motionless in the manger. His whisper broke through the silence in the stable. “Jesus? Baby Jesus?”
Then the light broke through. A different kind of light than what was seeping into the nativity structure outside of the First Presbyterian Church of Ripley. Gradually, he realized where he was. But, why was he there? What led him to this place? He knew that he locked up the diner. He knew he needed to get home, to a warm place. He knew he was cold. And then he heard what sounded like a distant siren piercing the sound of the wind outside. He turned to look. And that’s when he saw it, saw her.
The tattered box was filled with clothes, a hodge-podge of strips of this and that and something else. It wasn’t a distant siren, but the keening of a baby, a different baby that froze his heart. Harry inched forward and saw her crying in a cardboard box, a thin halo of red hair showing from the bonnet covering her tiny head. Her feet had kicked away the clothes stuffed around her sock-covered feet. Once again his whisper broke through the silence in the stable. “Oh, my. What am I going to do with you?”
Harry bent over, peered down at the child and scratched his head. “What am I going to do with you?” he said again. The cold wind, blunted by the thin walls of the stable crept in. Harry shivered. Deliberately, he removed his hat and placed it over the baby’s uncovered feet. Then he reached around the box hooking his icy fingers under it and lifted. Brought face to face with the little one, he carefully made his way past the shepherds, past the magi, past Mary and Joseph and the baby who was lying in the manger, to the back corner of the stable. He set the box down. He took off his coat, sacrificing his only means of warmth and wrapped her up. Sitting down, arms around the box and rocking the child, he closed his eyes, perhaps for the last time.