“I’ll be home for Christmas!”
They weren’t Hollis’s last words, but they were close. He’d laughed and slapped Ryan on the back. “The first Christmas you’re home, we’ll –” He never finished that sentence. The vehicle hit a roadside IED and death erupted inside the RJ-31.
Ryan opened his eyes to Hollis’s face, bent close to his. “Stay here!” his friend screamed through the ringing in his ears. “I’ll be right back!”
He managed to turn his head, watched Hollis pulling Joel Rivera from the RG-31, and then they all exploded. Ryan could only close his eyes as burning shrapnel rained down.
He closed his eyes again, pushing that memory away. The door before him was maroon, just like Hollis described. A Christmas wreath hung from a hook even with his eyes. From the backyard, a dog barked.
He didn’t belong here. This was Hollis’s world; his home, his Christmas, probably his dog in the back.
The front door opened unexpectedly. Ryan stood staring down at a woman who was obviously Hollis’s mother. The petite, feminine version of his friend peered up. She smiled. “Yes?”
He hesitated. “I’m Ryan Newberry. I’m –“
She hugged in thin, amazingly strong arms and buried her face in his coat. “I’m so glad to meet you.”
They insisted he stay for dinner; Hollis’s mother and two younger brothers. They exchanged Hollis stories, laughing at antics that seemed too outlandish for any human to pull off. The Andersons cried, wiping tears without apology. During those moments, Ryan felt more uncomfortable than he thought possible in the coz y home.
“I’ll be going now,” he said, hours after he’d intended to leave. “I’ve taken up your whole Christmas Eve. I shouldn’t have come tonight. I just … felt like I should. I hope it wasn’t too much.”
“We’ll always miss Hollis.” Mrs. Anderson motioned the boys from the room. She waited until they told Ryan good-bye and were gone. “It’s been a hard year,” she admitted when they were alone. “That first Christmas after we lost him …” Her eyes grew distant. “That was a difficult time. But we managed. We’ve spent the last year healing, remembering, thanking God we ever had a character like Hollis to begin with. He was special.”
“Yes, ma’am, he was.”
“I don’t know what you’ve done in this last year …”
He’d played Humpty Dumpty for a good part of it, he thought, enduring the surgeries it took to put him back together again. Rehab, discharge, trying to find his place –
“I don’t think you’ve healed; not in your heart.”
Ryan reminded himself that he would not cry.
Mrs. Anderson touched his hand. “I have something for you. I won’t keep you long; your family must be anxious to see you, it being your first Christmas home. “
Ryan shook his head. “No, ma’am. My folks divorced with I was little, and he disappeared. Mom died right after graduation, and I joined up.” He paused. “Hollis was my family – Hollis and the others.” A tear coursed down his cheek. Mrs. Anderson wiped it away. Her hand was cool and soft, and she smelled of lavender and soap. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, willing unsuccessfully the tears to stop.
She took his hand, leading him down the hall into a bedroom. Ryan realized it had been Hollis’ room.
He watched as she reached into a drawer, retrieving a Bible, stroking the cover. She opened it and produced an envelope. She pulled a letter from inside. It had been read and folded many times. She opened it again, flipped to the second page without speaking, and began.
“Remember how Jesus gave charge of his mom to John? Nothing against the boys, but they’re kids. I want to give charge of you to my friend, Ryan. I trust him to right by you. And Mom, he needs you, too. I hope I cam introduce him to you as my brother, but if something happens, know you’re in good hands.”
Ryan blinked, trying to understand.
“It’s Christmas day,” she said.
Ryan looked at Hollis’ alarm clock. It read 12:36.
“The bed’s yours, if you want it, and the room.”
“It’s Christmas, Ryan. Stay for today. Tomorrow we’ll figure it out. It’s what Hollis wanted.”
He moved toward the bed, his mind numb. As he sat, Mrs. Anderson kissed him lightly on the forehead. “Goodnight, Ryan. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, ma’am.” The tears came then, and Ryan knew he was finally home.
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