When the black sedan stopped at the traffic light, Patrick rose quietly to his knees in the back seat and peaked out the side window. He flattened his palms against the glass, cold as ice, but he didn’t pull back. His eyes were drawn to a large picture window on a house at a nearby corner. Set deep within the night shadows, the window gave the appearance of a painting suspended in mid-air. Patrick would give anything to be a part of what he saw inside.
A plump Christmas tree glowed through the curtains. Two stockings dangled from a fireplace mantle. Flames shimmered against the glass ornaments on the tree. A real family, a whole family—mom and dad, two kids and a dog–sat in a semi-circle around a radio. Probably listening to Christmas music, Patrick thought. Maybe even Silent Night, his favorite. The mom put her arm around one of the children, a boy about his own age, and tenderly patted him on the shoulder. Tears welled up in Patrick’s eyes, escaping down his cheeks. He wiped them away and looked toward the front seat at the rear view mirror, to see if the government lady had been watching.
He had cried more in the last few days than in all his seven short years combined.
He placed his hand on one of the two suitcases beside him. One contained his clothes and a framed picture of his parents hugging, taken before he was born. The other held all the toys he had ever owned and a few picture books. The government lady said he might not be coming back to the apartment for a while. It had something to do with how long it took to find his dad in a place she called Europe and whether the Army would let his father come home now that his mom had….
He couldn’t even let the words form in his head.
Instead he thought about his father. He had been gone for a long time, but Patrick still remembered what he looked like. He had studied the picture every night before bed, trying to remember the sound of his voice. It was deep and strong, like the voice of The Shadow. And he was tall with dark wavy hair. He was a pilot on a B-17, dropping bombs on Hitler and all the bad people in Germany so the world could be free. That’s what his mother had said. But right now, Patrick didn’t care if the world was free. Or if his dad flew bombers or drove a milk truck.
He just wanted him home.
The car started moving again. At the next corner they drove past a Santa Claus ringing a bell beneath a street light. Next to him, a red kettle. A couple bundled in over-coats walked by. The man dropped a few coins in the kettle and kept going. The Santa yelled “Merry Christmas” in a happy but high-pitched voice. Not a proper Santa voice at all, Patrick thought. “We’re almost there now, Patrick,” the government lady said. “Isn’t it pretty outside with all the lights and decorations?”
“Uh…yes,” Patrick answered. He knew he should feel that way. He wished he did.
“Do you like Christmastime? It’s my favorite time of year.”
He could tell she was trying to cheer him up, but it was hard to be in a Christmas mood when your mom suddenly dies in a car crash, leaving you all alone. Patrick noticed her eyes in the rear view mirror. She was looking back. He thought he saw a tear forming, but she quickly turned away. Almost there now, she had said.
He didn’t recognize any of these streets or buildings. His grandfather couldn’t be a very nice man, he thought. He didn’t live very far away. Why did they never visit him? And the way his parents talked about his grandfather also worried him, always lowering their voices or changing the subject when Patrick walked into the room.
As the car drove on, Patrick looked at the Christmas lights outlining some of the homes and streetlights. Still, it didn’t feel like Christmas inside. Not even the presence of snow lifted his spirits, and Patrick loved the snow.
Almost there she said.
Patrick felt so lost. They had always lived in that same apartment on Clark Street. This place didn’t even resemble his old neighborhood. Everyone here had little yards and driveways with garages. Patrick wasn’t even sure they were in Philadelphia any-more. He tried thinking about something happy, starting with the toys he wanted for Christmas. Then he wondered, with everything that happened, would he still get any?
Suddenly a wave of guilt swept over him. He sank low in his seat. Here he was worrying about getting his share of toys, and here his mother was…gone. He would never get to spend another Christmas with her. They would never decorate another tree. Sing another Christmas carol. He’d gladly give every toy he ever owned or would ever own again to have her back instead. Even for a day. The tears started coming again.
This time he couldn’t make them stop.