The door of Loeb’s department store opened, and Lt. Pete Turner held the door for two ladies burdened with packages. When they thanked him, he said, “You’re welcome” but couldn’t smile. How could he with that infernal song billowing through the open door? “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” made false promises, as if home could make you whole again. Baloney.
He let the door swing shut. Ahead of him, a little girl in a red coat pressed her face to the window. Pete stopped behind her to see the display.
A Christmas tree. A fake Santa Claus, and fake elves playing in fake snow. A wooden airplane that almost looked like a B-17 Flying Fortress, but not quite—too fat. A baby doll. A teddy bear. Lots of Built-Rite paper dollhouses and paper towns and picture puzzles, made right here in Lafayette.
Years ago, Pete and his brother, Alfie, filled with wonder, had pressed their noses to this same window. Golden-haired golden boy Alfie. Black-haired black sheep Pete. Was the display this cheesy back then? Granted, they had toys made with metal and rubber back when he was a boy.
Back when he was a boy? When had he turned into an old man?
The little girl in front of him hadn’t moved. She belonged on the cover of a Christmas toy catalog with her red coat, her red mittens flat on the glass, and two little brown braids sticking out from under her red hat. Twenty-five years earlier, Pete would have tugged one of those braids just to hear her squeal.
“Please,” she said, her voice no more than a whisper. “Please, Lord. Please.”
For the first time in months, Pete felt something. A twinge in his chest. He remembered that longing for the perfect gift, the hope of seeing it under the tree, the joy of ripping off paper to discover his dreams fulfilled.
Her breath fogged the window. “Please, God. I promise I’ll be good. I promise.”
His lips twitched with the same emotion. How many times had he made that promise in vain?
“Do you see something you’d like for Christmas?” he asked.
The girl pushed back from the glass and met Pete’s gaze in the window reflection. For her sake he had to smile, so he located dead muscles and coaxed them to do their job.
Slowly she faced him. She had wide greenish-blue eyes and a button nose. A cute little thing. She reminded him of his old friend Scooter at that age, except Scooter never wore braids or a red bonnet with a bow under his chin
A grin revealed two missing teeth—one of her front teeth and one farther back. The asymmetry made her even cuter.
Pete’s smile felt more natural now. “Well, do you? Do you see something you’d like for Christmas?”
She studied him with a satisfied smile as if he were one of the toys on display. “Yes. Yes, I do.”