The arctic wind attacked Leland’s nose leaving the tip numb and without feeling. He pulled his worn scarf tight to his mouth in order to shelter his face from the cold. His bones rattled beneath his skin, as he huddled up next to a rusted oil drum. The drum’s orange flames were the only source of warmth and comfort for Leland and his friends.
Candice threw garbage into the metal cylinder to try and keep the blaze going. They were out of matches and couldn’t afford to let the fire go out. Manny stood up from a dilapidated couch and the trio surrounded the drum like natives worshipping a sacred idol.
“The-the-they warned us to get to the shelter before it got this cold,” Leland’s teeth chattered.
“Too late. It’s too dangerous to try and make it there now,” Candice said as she wriggled her fingers near the flames.
Manny stared into the fire. The flames reflected off his square-shaped glasses as he watched the trash burn. He looked at his watch, a prize won in a fight with another vagabond.
“It’s 12:01 A.M…Christmas Eve.” Manny resumed his stare into the blaze. Time stood still for a moment until the silence was interrupted by a cold nose goosing Manny’s backside.
“Whoa! What the?” Manny turned around to see a scraggly hound dancing in the snow around him.
“Oscar!” Candice exclaimed. Her and Leland walked over to give the dog’s icy fur a nice petting. Leland looked off into the foggy white distance.
“If Oscar is here, then that must mean…”
Leland’s words were interrupted by the appearance of a figure emerging from the white carrying a long, soggy cardboard box in his arms.
“Ernie!” Candice shrieked. “We thought you took the train to Leadville.”
“I couldn’t leave my friends during the holidays. Besides, I need to sober up before I attempt to contact Lisa again.”
“Whatcha got there Ernie?” Leland inquired.
Ernie’s eyes lit up. “I found this in a dumpster behind the Northern Avenue Grocery Store!”
Ernie removed an artificial, miniature Christmas tree from the wet box.
“We can decorate it and have Christmas together…as a family.”
Manny rolled over a large wooden spool and laid it down flat in front of the group. Ernie placed the tree onto the surface and unfolded its fake branches. Candice’s toothless grin turned into a look of concern as she stared at the naked tree.
“We don’t have any decorations for this little tree!” Candice rummaged through the dumpster looking for suitable decorations.
“Candice, come sit down for a moment.” Ernie pointed to the open spot on the couch next to Manny and Leland.
“This upcoming new year will bring opportunities for change. I have to make a decision. I have a seven-year-old daughter in Leadville, and she needs a daddy, not a drunk.” Ernie chucked an amber-colored bottle at the dumpster. He pulled from his pocket a small paper heart with the picture of a smiling little girl pasted on it. He stuck the heart between the plastic branches.
“She made that for me three years ago, but it is no substitute for the real Lisa.”
Candice looked at her needle scarred arms. She draped a pearl necklace around the tree.
“Grandmother gave me that necklace for my 16th birthday. Oh how I long to get clean and visit her again.”
Manny hung a key-ring with a single key on the tree.
“That key went to my old apartment, the one I lived in before I was laid off and decided that I didn’t care anymore. I want a new key and another chance.”
Leland checked his pockets and couldn’t find anything to add to the tree. By that time the snow had begun to accumulate on the branches, leaving a sparkling coat that glistened in the dark. Leland smiled.
“Mary and the kids loved to play in the snow. I miss them so much. It’s unfair that the wreck had to steal them away from me, but I know they are happy. They would want me to move on and be happy too…”
Together the friends sat and looked at a tree that most would label as, “The Ugliest Christmas Tree They Ever Saw,” but for these four individuals, this tree represented the past, present, and most importantly the future. They realized that Christmas wasn’t about where you were or what you were doing during the holidays. It was about who you were with.
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