Slight change of plans. I had planned to do a different post today, but something came up and I didn't have time to get it written in advance. So I'm gonna give y'all the conclusion of the story today instead, and that post tomorrow. ;)
December 24th, 1944
The train chugged down the tracks, eating up the miles as they crossed the great expanse of the American continent. Ruth rested her head against the cold glass window to her right, still trying to believe that she was really here. Almost home, on Christmas Eve, with Doug at her side. Mama and Papa would be thrilled by their surprise arrival, not to mention Doug’s fiancée’s sure-to-be-emotional response.
Somewhere between South Carolina and their home state of Texas, the train stopped to pick up a few passengers. A woman boarded, dragging two young children along by the hand. The little boy dawdled in the middle aisle, gawking at Doug until his mother pulled him on down the car.
Ruth swallowed and glanced at her brother out of the corner of her eye. So far, he'd been handling the stares better than she expected, but she knew it still hurt. How could it not – to be stared at like you were some sort of creature instead of a human being with hurts and fears and dreams?
She reached a hand toward him and squeeze his forearm. He looked up and smiled at her touch, turning halfway to see her since he no longer had an eye on that side, a black eyepatch now in its place. “I'm okay, Ruthie.”
“Really? Because you look as exhausted as I feel,” she teased. Scooting down in her seat, she leaned back into the window.
“Lean on me,” she offered, shifting and indicating for him to rest his head on her shoulder.
He shook his head, glancing warily around. “Switch seats with me.”
“Why?” Ruth asked, even as she stood and let Doug slide into her seat. He held onto her arm to steady her until she was safely in the seat to his left.
“Better.” He leaned his shoulder against the side of the car and held out his arm to her. “Here. Let me take care of you now, Ruthie.”
Finally catching on, Ruth smiled and snuggled into his side. “If you say so.”
The siblings fell asleep to the lull of the train, rocking away the remaining miles between them and home. It may mean walking the mile and a half from the station, but they were going to make it home by Christmas.
“Yes, thank you!” Ruthie joined her brother’s call of gratitude as they slid out of the back of the truck, belonging to the man who had given them a lift from the train station to the end of their driveway.
Having left their baggage at the station, the siblings hustled through the snowy night.
As they came into the edge of the yard, with inviting light spilling from the windows of their childhood home, Ruth’s heart filled with love and happiness. This was it. This was home.
“Wait.” Doug reached out and grabbed her arm. “They know…right? I mean, they're not going to be startled or–”
“No.” She cut him off, looping her arm through his and leaning her cheek into his shoulder. His self-consciousness sliced her heart. “They know all of it. And they're waiting to welcome you home with open arms. Okay?”
He let out a pent-up breath, covering her hand in his. “Okay. I'm all right.”
Ruth smiled and they continued toward the porch steps. He really wasn't all right, but he would be. When he was welcomed into this wonderful home and wrapped in the love that waited for him in the beautiful hearts just inside.
Treading softly up the porch steps, the siblings stopped at the front window and peeked inside. The lacy curtains prohibited a full view, but did allow them to make out three figures in the front room. Mama, in the rocker with her knitting in her lap, probably mittens or a scarf to send overseas. Papa, in the armchair, glasses on the end of his nose and the family Bible in his lap. And Mary, settled in the floor with curls in her hair and holly berries pinned to her Christmas dress.
“What is she doing here?” Doug hissed under his breath. He had thought he'd have tonight to face his parents and could put off seeing Mary until tomorrow.
“She's always here for holidays,” Ruthie said, as if that explained it. “You know that.” She looked at the door and then back at him. “Should we knock or barge right in?”
Doug shrugged, reaching up to straighten his eyepatch. He needed it on straight. His parents and sweet Mary didn't need to see his ugly, sunken eyehole first thing. “Up to you. I just want to–” Keep from breaking down in front of them…
“I know.” She smiled up at him in the glow of the porch light. Funny how Mama had left it on, when she wasn't even expecting them. “Just remember how much they love you.”
Swallowing hard in effort to tamp down his emotion, Doug followed his sister to the door.
She raised her hand to knock – and then quickly drew back, swirling around to face him. “I've got it! I'll go on in and send Mary out. Y'all may need a moment alone.”
We may need more than a minute. But Ruthie grabbed the doorknob and barged into the house before Doug could object.
He stood in the shadows, unable to do anything more than smile at the joyous voices spilling out into the night as Ruthie was welcomed into their midst.
“Mary,” he heard his sister say. “Why don't you step outside? I left your Christmas present on the porch, and he's probably getting cold.”
Mary squealed so loudly Doug nearly jumped out of his skin. Her footsteps came through the room, slowing as she reached the doorway.
Heart tripping over itself due to the high speed at which it was functioning, Doug stepped into the light of the doorway with the left side of his face toward his fiancée.
“Oh, Doug…” She whispered, voice breaking until he could make out the tears in her words.
Why was he doing this to her? Why let her see his brokenness and cry even harder, hurt even more over his pain?
“No…” He muttered under his breath and placed his hand over the door casing, where the storm door met the house siding.
It vibrated under his palm as she tried to push through anyway. “Mary, stop.”
He could hear her quiet sobs cutting through the chilly air, another, a moment more, and then quiet.
Doug swallowed and held firm. He didn't know why he didn't just let her see him; she would soon enough. She would cry, harder than she was now, she would pity him. And she would hurt all over again, and somehow he would feel responsible for her pain. Why wouldn't she let him protect her heart in this way, even if it was just for a little while?
Around the side of the house, a door slammed. A doubled thump hit the steps at the other end of the porch and Doug glanced up – and quickly looked back down. Mary was standing at the other end of the porch, without even her coat. She must have snuck out the kitchen door to get to him.
“Mary, please don't…”
But she ignored him. She always did when she wanted to do something that he didn't want her to do. He heard her quick footsteps come across the porch, and then her catching breath as she stood a few feet ahead of him.
“Doug…please let me see you.”
“No, Mary. You don't want to have to look at me.”
Still not heeding his words, she stepped closer until she stood so near that their heads nearly touched. Her hand appeared at the end of his coat sleeve, fingers linking with his. “Please, Doug…” She whispered again. “You're making my heart hurt.”
No… Sweetheart, I'll only make your heart hurt worse. Contrary to his thoughts, Doug slowly lifted his head to look at the young woman before him, reaching for his eyepatch with his free hand. She would see all of him sooner or later; he couldn't save her that pain forever.
When she saw his face and eye, she didn't jerk away in shock, or run in fear, or cry out and flee. Instead, her grip on his hand tightened, and the light coming through the open door and frosted windowpanes glinted off the tears on her cheeks. She fought to still her jaw as she reached out and pressed her palm to the disfigured side of his face.
“Doug, I love–”
He shook his head and drew back from her touch. “Mary, no, you don't want to–”
“No, you're going to listen this time,” she insisted, stepping close to him again. “I love you, Doug…so much. And I'm going to be your wife.”
Fighting back tears of his own, Doug stopped fighting her, stopped pulling away from her love. Seeing the tears spill from her sparkling eyes, he was compelled to open up to her. To share his true heart.
“I love you, but… Mary, I don't want you to be ashamed of me.”
“Ashamed of you?” Her face crumbled, lip puckering. “From what I hear, I have a war hero on my hands.”
He shook his head, incapable of drawing his eyes from her face. “Don't believe everything you hear.”
“I have reliable sources,” she whispered, but neither of them were paying any attention to all that now. “Doug, the One who loves me most is scarred. You know that? And He took those scars because of His love for me.”
Doug swallowed and tried to drag his mind away from the feel of her hand on his wrinkled cheek.
“He sacrificed for me, just as you did. Willingly and freely gave, for those He loved.”
Mary’s face blurred as tears crowded his eye. “That was not a fair or accurate comparison.”
She laughed, soft and sweet. “Maybe not.” She wrapped her arms around his middle and snuggled her face into the front of his coat. “But it made you smile at me. I like it when you smile.”
He was smiling? One arm around her shoulders, Doug reached up and felt the taut, scarred side of his face. “Doesn't even feel like a smile; I don't know how you recognized that as one.” He dropped his hand and hugged her close. “To you I probably look like a–”
“Doug, stop.” She lifted her face from his chest and placed her cold hands to either side of his face. “Don't talk like that. I don't want to hear it. You're home…here with me, that's what matters.” She stood on tiptoe to press a kiss to his cheek.
As she drew back, Doug leaned forward and kissed her lips. They'd only kissed once before, and that was the day he shipped out. But the way she was talking, treating him like he was something special, loving him in spite of everything…she deserved to know how cherished she was.
The kiss was over as soon as it had began and Mary stood before him with a beautiful look of love on her face.
“You know, this makes kissing a little awkward, with only half of my face wanting to move.” He leaned in again and kissed her forehead to demonstrate. “But I guess we’ll just have to practice a lot.”
She laughed, tears still rolling down her face. “Now that sounds more like the Doug I fell in love with in eighth grade.”
He couldn't help grinning then, and he gathered her back into his embrace. Yes, they would be all right. Not the same, not ever the same, but all right. They had a living hope.
He rested his cheek on her head, and they swayed side to side, snowflakes clinging to their hair and clothes. “Hmm?”
“Can we go inside now? I'm freezing.”
Doug quickly drew back and glanced down at her attire, feeling like he was seeing her for the first time. She wore no coat or sweater and her feet were bare. “Mary! Where are your shoes?”
“Inside.” She shrugged and turned toward the door, pulling him along. “I was in a hurry.”
Now he felt like an idiot for letting her stand out in the cold so long. But at least this way he didn't have time to think about what to say to his parents – or how they would react to seeing him – before he stood before them, Mary at his side.
Papa stood with Mama on one side and Ruthie on the other, his arms around his girls. The awkward silence lasted only a moment, before Mama broke away and rushed into Doug’s arms. Sobs shook her slight frame as she clung to him, her hand finding his scarred face and staying there.
Doug tightened his arms around his sweet Mama, afraid she was going to collapse onto him. He glanced up in time to see Papa kiss Ruthie’s cheek and move to join them, wrapping his strong arms around his wife and son.
Held tightly in his parents arms, surrounded by their love, Doug felt his barriers begin to breakdown, bringing what Mary’s words had begun to consummation. He was home. He didn't have to be strong, put up a brave front, tuck his true feelings down deep inside and keep pushing forward. He could be open, real, genuine, and raw. The people in this room loved him and knew him. They wouldn't judge his pain, misinterpret it for weakness.
Tears fell from his eyes – or eye, as it was – and a cry rose from somewhere deep within him, somewhere that hadn't been touched since he'd crawled away from a burning tank in the dark of night.
Amidst his outpouring of hurt, Doug felt small hands on his back and then someone leaned their head against him. Mary. Seconds later, another figure appeared at his side, opposite Papa, and Ruthie wrapped her arms around him and Mama.
Doug knew that with his parents loving guidance, his girl’s confidence in him, and the support of the sister who had seen him lower than, he prayed, the other’s ever would, he truly would be all right.
After months of being apart, being separated on opposite sides of the globe by a war greater than any before, but not greater than their God, the family was finally united again.
As the minute hand rose to a vertical position, the clock on the mantle began to chime. Twelve full strokes, which ended with the family sitting in silence except for the crackle of the fire. Christmas Day.
Doug smiled as his mother approached him with the coffee pot. “More, son?”
“Thanks, Mama.” He held out his mug for her to fill, his other hand occupied by Mary’s.
Every coffee cup in the room had been refilled or topped off before Mama returned to her seat. She sank into the empty rocker by the fire, across from Papa. Doug and Mary sat on the sofa facing them, Ruthie on the ottoman between.
“Papa…” Mama laid her hand on her husband's knee, their eyes meeting in the firelight. “Why don't you lead us in a prayer to thank God for our children’s safe return?”
As they bowed their heads, Doug tightened his arm around Mary’s shoulders, nudging her closer to him. He couldn't help smiling when she pressed a kiss to his scarred cheek and nestled her head into his embrace.
Yes, they loved him for who he was deep inside. He wasn't the same person that left, but he had survived the war. And he’d made it home to the one he loved, home just in time for Christmas.
Reveries // Christmas Story
Marrok MacIntyre // Christmas Randomness
A Writer's Song // Favorite Christmas Songs
RebekahAshleigh // Movie Review
Twin Thoughts // A Country Christmas
Creative Scribbles of a History Detective // Christmas Story, part one
Chosen Vessels // Book Review
What did y'all think of the story? :D Today is the last day of giveaway! Click here to enter.