A Star Shining in the Night
I never liked the shed next to our house. Mom kept it locked with a silver padlock like there was something valuable inside, something worth protecting. But it reminded me of a slouching old man with a silver tooth, the peeling blue paint revealing gray slats underneath like gray stubble on his face.
“Run out to the shed and see if you can find some wrapping paper,” Mom said as she knelt on the carpet in the living room. “And don’t go rolling your eyes at me. You may be sixteen but…”
I walked out before she could finish telling me that I still needed to respect her even though I was a teenager. I’d heard the same sentence at least a thousand times since my thirteenth birthday; the birthday I celebrated at home without any of my friends because Mom said we didn’t have enough hamburgers to feed anyone other than my two brothers and me. I felt bad that she ate peanut butter again, and I offered to eat it too if I could at least invite Shay over. She still said no. I quit asking after that.
I stepped outside, the cold air taking my breath away like it did when I went swimming with Dad at the lake before the water warmed up. I wrapped my arms around myself, hoping to shield my body from the wind and the fat snowflakes, not wanting to go back inside for my coat; I was sure Mom’s lecture about respect was still dangling in the air like a cobweb I wouldn’t be able to escape.
Surprisingly the shed wasn’t locked; an open invitation to any thief walking by who might want to go through Mom’s secret stash. I pulled the door open and tripped my way through large coffee cans and cardboard boxes. Sitting on the table Dad used to keep in the garage at our old house were stacks of shoeboxes, each with their own assortment of costume jewelry, socks, or toy trucks and dinosaurs. Resting on the rusty metal chair Mom snagged from the dumpster at work was a brown paper bag holding a couple of curtain rods and a single roll of wrapping paper with red and pink hearts. I wished she could wrap Christmas presents in normal paper like everyone else. Last year she’d used wedding paper covered in doves with the word “love” written in silver. Aunt Rebecca had smiled at me when I handed it to her like it was completely normal to get a snowman mug wrapped in holy matrimony paper.
Everyone knew we were broke and that Mom visited every garage and rummage sale within a twenty-mile radius all year long to stretch her single paycheck. I liked it better when we could buy new things at the store before Dad died, before we had to move into our house with the slouchy old man shed and his fancy tooth.
“Hurry up!” Mom yelled.
I grabbed the wrapping paper, closed the door, and left it unlocked like I’d found it; maybe someone would steal the whole thing. As I hurried through the cold, I noticed the neighbor lady, Mrs. Switch or Fitch or something like that, staring at me from her window. She waved at me like she wanted me to come over, but I ignored her when Mom yelled again.
I rushed inside and stepped over my brothers who’d stretched out in front of the door to make paper airplanes from the coloring pages they ripped out of a snowman coloring book. I handed Mom the roll of wrapping paper.
“I thought you fell asleep out there.” She unrolled it and cut a section of the paper and started to wrap a gardening book she’d bought at the library book sale for a quarter and a pair of fuzzy socks for Aunt Rebecca. “I’ve got to get this done, so I can get ready for work.”
“I thought you were off today.”
“I know. But they offered us overtime.”
I sighed. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
She pulled a piece of tape from the dispenser. “I should be home in plenty of time to tuck you guys in.”
I crossed my arms. “I don’t need tucking in.”
“Somebody’s here!” Brady yelled, lifting off of his belly to sit on his feet while Brandon focused on perfecting his airplane.
I stepped over the coloring book pages and opened the door. It was the neighbor lady Mrs. Snitch or Twitch holding a plate of cookies covered in plastic wrap.
“Hello, dear. I tried to get your attention earlier. I’ll be leaving in the morning to go to my son’s, but I wanted to give you these cookies I made for you all.”
My brothers jumped up like someone lit a bottle rocket underneath them.
“How thoughtful! Thank you so much, Mrs. Fitch,” Mom said, abandoning her wrapping.
At least now I know her name.
“Just a little something I like to do,” she said, her cheeks pushing up her glasses when she smiled.
“I’ll take a few with me to work.”
Mrs. Fitch’s smile faded. “You’re not working today, are you dear?”
“Yes,” she said, shooing both boys away from the plate of cookies.
“But that snow is really coming down, and the man on the weather program said it’s going to get a lot worse. And these backroads of ours can be dangerous. They already canceled the Christmas Eve service at church.”
“I’ll be careful,” Mom said, taking the plate. “Thanks again for the cookies.”
“You’re welcome, dear. I’ll be praying for you.”
Mom stopped and for a second I thought she was going to say something, but instead she smiled one of her fake smiles, giving Mrs. Fitch a nod. I tried asking Mom about God one time after Dad died, but she locked herself in her bedroom and cried for half the night. I stopped asking her about God after that.
Mrs. Fitch left and before long Mom was wearing her work clothes and buttoning her heavy coat. “Now don’t forget there’s leftover spaghetti for dinner in the fridge, and put the load of whites in the dryer for me. And I want you to go to the shed and find something nice for Mrs. Fitch.” She pulled on her boots. “And I want you to wrap it and take it to her before the weather gets worse.”
I sighed, knowing not to argue. After she kissed the boys goodbye and made her way to the car, I threw on my coat and crunched through the snow that was quickly piling up. I knew I was losing daylight and needed to hurry or I might blindly grab a book about windsurfing or a pair of socks with chickens on them. I made sure the shed door was wide open to let in as much light as possible before digging into a shoebox. The first one I opened was full of ornaments. Jackpot. I fished through a few bulbs without any hangers, tiny book ornaments, a cloth candy cane that was torn, and a star. I lifted the star to inspect it. It looked like a cookie cutter filled with pinecones and tiny red berries, and on the top, a piece of twine to hang it. If she didn’t like it, she could always tear it apart and use it to make her cookies.
While the boys were busy building forts out of a deck of cards, I wrapped the star and started outside again. The snow would have been pretty if it wasn’t so scary. I could barely see Mrs. Fitch’s house, and I wondered how Mom was able to drive. I got a sick feeling in my stomach when I realized I didn’t hug her before she left. I didn’t even tell her goodbye. I knew she was working overtime for us. I wished I would have hugged her and thanked her.
As I kept my head low to keep the snow out of my eyes, I did something I hadn’t done since I was little. I prayed.
“Please, God, help Mom to be okay.”
I stepped onto Mrs. Fitch’s porch, knocked, and waited.
“Oh you sweet child,” she said, barely opening the door while pulling a shawl tighter around herself. “What are you doing out in this weather?”
“Mom wanted me to bring you this.” I handed her the package covered in hearts.
“What lovely paper.” With her frail hand, she took it and started to unwrap it. She gasped, and I worried one of the pinecones had fallen out.
“It’s a star,” she said. “Oh, it’s just perfect.”
I wondered if she needed new glasses.
“It makes me think of the star that led the way to Jesus. You know about Jesus, don’t you?”
I nodded but something lodged in my throat. It had been a long time since I’d heard someone say His name like that. In such a kind way.
“I’ll hang this on my tree right now. Thank you so much.”
I cleared my throat. “You’re welcome. I better get back to my brothers now.”
“Of course. Of course,” she repeated. “Be careful, dear.”
I trekked home through the blinding snow just in time to see my brothers demolish their forts with the paper airplanes they’d rigged to drop pennies.
While heating up a large bowl of spaghetti in the microwave, I stared out the kitchen window but couldn’t see anything in our backyard. With heavy snow falling and no moonlight, there was only a thick darkness. I wondered how Mom would find her way home.
As I set our plates on the table, I heard something. At first, I thought it was a snowplow clearing the road, but when the lights pulled into our driveway and lit up the living room wall, my stomach twisted and my legs felt weak. I’d seen plenty of movies to know when someone unexpected shows up in your driveway in the dark that something was probably wrong. Did something happen to Mom?
“Somebody’s here!” Brady yelled.
Before I could tell them not to open the door, it was already opening. It was Mom.
“It’s Mom!” Brady yelled as if we needed him to tell us.
She closed the door and stomped her feet, snow landing on the floor. “It’s terrible out there. I couldn’t even make it to work. And then I didn’t know if I could make it back home. I couldn’t see a thing. I went off the road twice.”
The boys busied themselves at her feet, picking up the snow and forming miniature snowballs to throw at each other. But I stepped around them and hugged her.
“What’s that for?” she asked.
I felt something in my throat again, making it hard to talk. But I managed to say, “I’m glad you’re home.”
She smiled. “So am I. And I’m glad Mrs. Fitch has the star on the top of her house lit up tonight or I might not have made it. I couldn’t even see the road. That star led me home.”
I followed Mom into the kitchen. “I was really scared. I thought something might happen to you.” I paused. “I prayed for you. That you would be okay.”
Mom’s hand went to her mouth and the tears started to form. I didn’t know what to do. I prayed again, silently, that God would keep her from locking herself in her bedroom.
“You prayed for me?”
She sank down on the kitchen chair. “I’ve been so mad at God since your Dad…” she stopped. “But when I went off the road I realized I was in trouble. I needed Him. I wanted to get home to you and your brothers. I didn’t want something to happen to me too. So…I prayed. I told God how sorry I was. I told Him how much I miss Him.” She started to sob, and her voice cracked. “I begged Him to please get me home to my children. And He heard me. I know He did. I felt such a peace in that awful snowstorm.”
The sound of the phone made me jump. Mom reached for a tissue to blow her nose, so I answered it.
“Hello, dear,” Mrs. Fitch said. “I just wanted to make sure you all are okay. I saw a car pull into your driveway.”
“Yeah, we’re okay. Mom came back home because the roads were really bad. She said the star on the top of your house led the way home.”
“My star? Goodness. I told my son to just leave it up there. But it hasn’t worked in years.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Oh my,” Mrs. Fitch whispered. “It sounds like God led your Mom home through the storm tonight.”
But when I realized Mom was smiling a real smile, even with her eyelids swollen and pink, I wanted to tell Mrs. Fitch it was more than that. God led Mom out of a much darker storm than any of us understood. And He brought her back home to Him.
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this year’s story. If you’d like to check out last year’s Christmas story, you can find it here.
Merry Christmas and God bless you!
(A big shout-out to pexels.com for another wonderful photo! Thank you!!)