Under the shadow of dark, laden clouds, the idling rental truck still faced the pond. Snow flurries, dry and crystalline, shone in the fast-fading light. Snow hadn’t been promised, or even hinted at. A cold, clear night was on tap, and he’d come for the meteor shower.
“Are we stranded?” Katie asked.
“Not forever. No.”
“For how long, then?”
Her dad shrugged. Two flat tires on Christmas Eve, deep on a rutted New Hampshire road in the hills. “Someone will come.”
Like Katie often did when she was unsettled in any way, she fingered her silver bracelet and its three dangling hearts, one for each member of what had been a whole family only a year before. “Do you miss Mommy?”
He turned the heater up one notch. “Of course.”
“Do you think she misses us?”
He surveyed the breadth of the sky before them, with its muted painterly colors and softened angles, and then met her look. “Maybe not tonight, Honey.”
This shocked her. She had asked this question knowing the answer, and this wasn’t it. But her dad persisted through her worry. “I think she’s looking down on us right now. She’s with us instead of missing us.”
Consideration silenced her. She slid tight to her Dad’s hip and rested her head against him. “Will we see Santa?”
He pointed to a cloudless patch of sky above the opposite shore, the fringes of surrounding cumulus tinted pink. “If we do, he’ll go streaking right over there. When the sky gets dark.”
White Christmas came faint and crackly over the radio, as if it were just now reaching them through the decades since it first came from Bing Crosby’s lips. Steam from the idling truck created a slowly-expanding fog bank behind them. He was travel-weary, the moment hypnotic, and soon he was dozing in the Christmas-themed quiet.
Time passed before he snapped awake to see Katie watching his face.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi.” He flipped the wipers, and with a chittering swipe they cast dry snow aside to reveal a clear but fully darkened sky. Stars shone in the blackness, flickering to the late-night whisper of I'll Be Home For Christmas over F.M.
Katie gazed at the distant, timid diamonds, studying for constellations. Before she could place anything, starry motion grabbed her attention.
They spotted it at the same instant, a glowing spec, more yellow than the distant stars, arcing its way from right-to-left in a slow-motion traversal of the sky. Katie let out a little involuntary squeak. “Santa,” she whispered in a tone so reverential she might have been witnessing the ascension. “I think Mommy’s riding with him.”
A ball of pain and pride constricted her dad's throat. In the distance, through the trunks of a million denuded trees, faint headlights appeared. Their ‘rescuers.’
Through an instant’s regret—this wasn’t a moment he’d choose to be saved from, after all—he pulled Katie close and kissed her on the forehead. “Me too.”
* * *