This piece is untitled. I'm sorry that it turned out so much longer than I planned.
Jessi stared at a burned out bulb on the scraggly Christmas tree, ignoring the other kids and pretending not to listen to the adults talking in the kitchen.
A little boy in thin pajamas wandered out from a bedroom. He rubbed his eyes and smiled at her. She smiled back and gestured for him to come closer. He didn't. He just kept watching, eyes half-closed with sleep. He turned and ran in search of his mother.
She followed him into the kitchen.
The boy's mother was crying, but scooped to pick him up and hug him. "I just don't know how to thank you," she was saying.
When she saw Jessi, she extended an arm, balancing the toddler on her hip. Jessi moved toward her, and found herself caught up in a tight embrace.
"We need to be going," Pastor Charles said.
They filed out of the apartment and onto the sidewalk out front, pulling coats closed and tightening scarves against the bitter cold.
There were six of them on this mission. Pastor Charles had asked six of the youth to help him with the very special task of delivering collected meals to some of the families from the congregation. On Monday, when one of the boys asked how many deliveries there were, Pastor Charles only smiled sadly and said, "Too many."
It was Friday now. Christmas Eve. And the Johnson house had been their last stop. Twenty-four in all.
"I'm tired," Mark said. It wasn't a complaint, it was just a fact.
"I'm cold," Sydney said. Hers was a complaint.
"How about some hot cocoa back at my house. And I think Mrs. Barlow even left behind some cookies, too."
They all climbed into the church van for the three block ride back to the Pastor's house. Jessi stared out the window as the others chattered about all the families they had seen throughout the week, comparing most touching moments.
Within minutes the group was warming up in the Barlows' front room, a tiny fire already pushing away the chill.
Jessi followed Pastor Charles into the kitchen. "Can I help?" He smiled and shook his head. "No, you should go hang out with the others. I've got this."
She didn't want to hang out with the others. They were nice enough, but she always felt so awkward around them, like she had so little to offer to their collection of cheerleaders and youth camp leaders. She shrugged. "I want to help you. Where are the mugs?"
She reached for a cupboard near the sink. Pastor Charles shook his head and pointed to one beside the stove.
"So Mrs. Barlow is gone for Christmas?"
The pastor nodded. "Her father is very sick and she went to Michigan to be with him."
"Why didn't you go with her?"
He sighed. "There's just too much to do here. I'll be going up there on Monday."
She frowned. "But you'll be alone for Christmas."
"Hardly." He poured steaming chocolate into the mugs Jessi had assembled on the counter. "There are plenty of people that will be all alone tomorrow. I've got a lot of visits to make."
He put the pot back on the stove. The phone rang. "Here. Why don't you start taking these out while I answer this call."
She moved the mugs to a tray and carried it slowly into the other room.The others descended on it, gratefully accepting the warm beverages with a chorus of courteous thank yous. She muttered a few barely audible responses and retreated to return the empty tray to the kitchen.
Pastor Charles was off the phone and filling a cardboard box with cans from the pantry.
"What are you doing?" Jessi asked, eyes wide.
"That phone call was from Mrs. Jenkins. Turns out they've had a bit of an emergency and, well, it looks like there's one more stop tonight." He continued filling the box.
"We're going to the Jenkins?"
"Not 'we.' I should do this one myself. I'll just run out there after I drop all you kids off."
"I want to go with you."
He studied her for a long minute, trying to decide how, exactly, to go about telling her no. For such a shy, quiet girl, she could be incredibly demanding when it suited her.
Finally, he said, "I'm sorry, Jessi. It's getting late. Your parents are going to be wanting you home. It is Christmas Eve, after all."
She didn't argue or say anything more about the issue until twenty minutes later when the van was making the rounds to drop the teenagers at their homes. When Pastor Charles pulled the van into her driveway, she crossed her arms and said again, "I want to go with you."
Her father appeared at the front door and Pastor Charles gestured toward him.
"How are you, Pastor?"
"Doing fine, John, and yourself?"
"Could do without the cold." He saw Jessi's folded arms. "What's this?"
Pastor Charles cast a smirking glance toward the back seat. "I have to make a run out to the Jenkins place. She insists on coming along. Do you mind?"
Jessi's father shook his head. "Not at all. They doing okay?"
"I don't know. It sounds like Lou ran off again. Took the car and left Mae and the girls stranded. Just dropping off some things to get them through a few days."
There was little conversation as they drove out of town toward the small development where Lou and Mae Jenkins lived with their three young daughters. Lou had been out of work for over a year and passed most of his time drinking and spending his unemployment checks at the track.
Mae met the van in the driveway. Hers were not the happy tears that Jessi had seen from the other families all week long.
"Pastor, thank you for coming. I'm so sorry to do this to you, and on Christmas Eve."
"There's nothing to apologize for, Mae," the pastor said gently. "You'll come into my office on Sunday and we'll work out a plan. But I just wanted to bring this to you tonight. I'm afraid it's not much."
He retrieved the box from the back of the van. Jessi gasped when she saw a small turkey standing on end. Pastor Charles had given up his own holiday dinner to this family.
"This is more than I even dreamed of praying for," Mae said through her sobs. "I don't know how to thank you."
"You can thank me by bringing your girls to church on Sunday.That's all I ask." She nodded. "Is there anything else you need right now?"
Mae glanced at Jessi and bit her lip.
"What is it, Mae?"
Her head dropped, her shoulders sagging with the weight of another ruined holiday at the end of another ruined year. "I know where Lou is, Pastor. He's been arrested. And they won't let him out of jail til at least Wednesday or Thursday if I don't bring bail money. And I don't have it."
"How much do you need?"
Pastor Charles reached for his wallet and counted out several bills. "All I've got here is about $360. Do you think you can come up with the rest?"
She could no longer speak. She just cried as she accepted the cash and allowed the pastor to follow her into the house, carrying the box. Jessi stayed in the van. This felt too private and she knew why he hadn't wanted her to come.
He was back in the van a minute later.
"That turkey was supposed to be for your Christmas dinner, wasn't it?"
He shrugged and put the car in reverse, backed out of the driveway and headed back toward town. "Doesn't seem much point in cooking a big turkey for one person."
She hesitated, wanted desperately to ask her other question, but sure she shouldn't.
"And that money? That was supposed to be for your trip to be with your family, wasn't it?"
Pastor Charles looked at her. "The Lord will provide."
"You don't have anywhere to go tomorrow, do you?"
He shook his head and though he had sounded so strong all night, Jessi could now see the slightest crack in his confidence. "I have visits to make tomorrow. There are a lot of people that need to be taken care of."
"But, Pastor, who's taking care of you?"
He waved a hand. "I don't need--"
They were back in her driveway now. "You're coming over tomorrow. We eat at 1. My mom will be mad if you're late."
Without another word, and without waiting for an answer, Jessi jumped out of the van and ran for the house.
The pastor sat for a minute, watching her go. He smiled just a little, marveling at the unexpected generosity of a teenage girl.
The cell phone in his pocket rang. It was almost 10pm, but he answered immediately. "Charles Barlow," he answered. "Yes, doctor. I can be there in fifteen minutes."
Bud Frieberg wasn't expected to make it through the night. The pastor pulled out of the driveway and headed west toward the hospital. There would be no sleep tonight.