Eddie C Dollgener Jr
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Eddie C Dollgener Jr
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Quitman McDonald Publishing
Printed in the United States of America
Neither the publisher, nor the author are responsible for websites (or their content) not owned by the publisher, or the author.
All rights reserved.
Shakespir Edition License Notes
This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
LITTLE JOE’S CHRISTMAS TREE
Little Joe crawled out of the old and decrepit Buick station wagon that no longer ran. Without thinking it mattered, he pushed the heavy door closed with a loud protest from the rusted hinges. The boy took a step back and looked at the rusting metal hulk. Part of it was pock-marked by a young boy’s air gun. Although he was responsible for the busted taillight on his ninth birthday, he had never aimed for any of the glass.
It angered him that most of the windows had been intentionally shattered by street punks. The car had been his home for most of the late spring and early summer, before the heat of July forced his family into one of Chicago’s homeless shelters. After his family’s life was devastated by the early spring tornado, the Buick kept him and his sister warm and dry when the storms raged for days afterward. The old ‘tank’, as Daddy referred to the Buick, brought them from the Kansas heartland to the Chicago lights, coughing and belching black smoke as his parents prayed along the way.
Now that grand old car sat in the junkyard in the shadow of some of the city’s tallest buildings, waiting for the few good parts to be scavenged before going to the crusher. It saddened the boy to see another part of his life being whisked away, never to return again.
The sound of heavy machinery churned within the confines of the wrecking yard, which, in turn, overwhelmed the busy street traffic outside the metal fence. The smell of rust, old tires and soured oil permeated the cold air.
Little Joe thumbed through the small pocket bible. He recalled the day he won it in a bible drill at the small country church back home. It was red and had his name inscribed, presented as a gift from Pastor Dan, the preacher who helped him find salvation. He carefully wiped the book, which was dusty from sitting in the back of the car through the end of summer in the junkyard. He smiled when he came to the Twenty Third Psalm.
“The Lord is my Shepherd,” Little Joe whispered through chattering teeth, “I have everything I need.”
The boy closed the bible and shoved it into his pants pocket. He looked back into the car to see if there was anything else that may have been left behind. In the back, where he and his sister had slept during the spring and early summer, were some old clothes that were mere rags now and not fit to be worn by anyone. He had been disappointed when he could not find his stash of baseball cards. It would have been nice to use them to trade for a Christmas gift for his Momma.
“Okay, kid.” The yard worker who smelled of oil and gas, and looked as if he showered in the same fluids every day, closed the other door to the Buick and looked down at the boy. “Time to go. The boss will be back from lunch soon, and he don’t like people running loose in the yard. You got what you came for?”
“Yes, sir,” Little Joe scooped up a ball of snow. “Can I?”
“Just one, and then you really do have to go.” The yard man cracked a smile. “And don’t call me sir. I work for a living.”
Little Joe wound up and threw the snow ball at a mangled Cadillac. The car reminded him of the same kind of car that the men drove who made Daddy angry and Momma cry. The day they came out to the wrecked farm house was the same day Daddy told the family that they were going to have to move to the city. Little Joe did not know why, but he did not like big fancy cars or men who smoked cigarettes around his little sister. He worried a lot for several days after those men left. Anna had a nasty cough that Momma blamed on the men blowing their – she said a bad word that Joe did not dare even try to remember – smoke all around the little girl.
The man escorted Little Joe to the gate and then closed it behind him. He tried to get one last glimpse of the Buick and then turned to head back to the shelter. The sky was a bright, clean blue. Chicago had been spared the brunt of a major winter storm the night before, and a light dusting had cleaned the air. As he walked he watched his breath make small, swirling clouds of steam before vanishing into the crisp air.
The city streets were busy with holiday traffic. Little Joe carefully made his way through crowded sidewalks in an effort to avoid bumping into anyone. He had made that mistake once in the fall. The old woman accused him of trying to steal her purse. The boy fell into tears, but the genuineness of his waterworks did little to assuage her or the officer.
Fortunate for Little Joe, a sidewalk food vendor named Frank witnessed the whole incident and spared the child a trip to the police station. The two became instant friends and after that day, every time the boy found some pennies that people mostly ignored, he would take them to the man for a cup of hot cocoa.
Frank was a mountain of a man to Little Joe. When compared to Daddy, the vendor easily overshadowed him. That did not cause concern for the boy, though. He could see kindness in the man’s eyes that spoke volumes of his character.
“Hello, Little Joe!” Frank called from his cart positioned near the corner of two busy streets. “Did you find your bible?”
Frank could tell that the youngster was out of character for most boys his age that lived in the city. He guessed Little Joe’s age to be around ten or eleven, since he was comparable in size and stature to his own grandson. There seemed to be an aura of innocence about the boy that the city had not stolen yet. Frank knew with great sadness that it was only a matter of time before that happened.
“The man let me go inside to get it.” Little Joe fished the bible out of his pocket. “Do you have one?”
“You bet I do,” Frank chortled, “but it is so big that I can’t carry it around anywhere except for church.”
“I’m glad I found it.” Little Joe presented his treasure to Frank. “Pastor Dan gave it to me for winning the bible drill.”
“I have a cup of hot cocoa right here for you.” Frank exchanged the cup for the bible.
Little Joe smiled sheepishly. “There was a rich man’s car in the junkyard. I found a bunch of coins in the ashtray. It was about to be crushed.” He started searching around in his pockets with his free hand. “I hate that they are going to crush Daddy’s ‘tank’.”
Frank smiled as he flipped through the bible. “You have taken very good care of this little book.”
“It is very important to me.” Little Joe pulled out a handful of change.
“As well it should be.” Frank frowned when he saw the boy opening up his hand with the coins. “Now Little Joe, we have already discussed this. I am interested in the pennies only, so I can give my other customers their proper change. You keep the silver coins for yourself. They are not as valuable to me.”
Little Joe knew enough about money to know that Frank was being more than nice to him. “There are only ten pennies here.”
“Ten!” the man exclaimed. “That is worth a hot dog, too.” Frank rolled his cart to a bus stop bench so that the boy could have a place to sit down.
Little Joe sat down and started drinking the cocoa. It was warm as it filled his grumbling belly. He sorted the pennies out and gave them to Frank. He took the hot dog with a polite ‘thank you’ and ate slowly. A business man and his female partner, who had witnessed the vendor’s kind act, rewarded him by purchasing lunch for their whole office.
When Frank had finished serving them, he returned his attention to Little Joe. “Boy, how my world improves for me to see you each day, young man!”
“Why are you being so nice to me?” Little Joe asked.
“I like you for one thing. You remind me of my grandson.” Frank put the bible into Little Joe’s coat pocket. “Also, it’s Christmas time and I am in the mood for giving.”
“I remember our last Christmas at home.” Little Joe saddened noticeably as he looked across the street to a department store. In the prominent window, a large brightly decorated tree stood. “We had a big Christmas tree like that one. It was beautiful. Katie and I made a popcorn garland to decorate it. It had so many lights.”
“Does the shelter have a tree?” Frank ventured as he thumbed through the pennies, singling one out.
“Max said some vandals broke in last year and stole their old one. They have put up a wreath in the dining room, but it isn’t a tree.” Little Joe finished off his hot dog and then looked up at Frank. “Do you have a tree in your house?”
“No…I buy a poinsettia every year and put it in my window. I live by myself and do not really need a tree.”
“Does Santa still visit you if you don’t have a tree or a house?” Little Joe asked with a little worry in his voice.
“I suppose so.” Frank put all of the pennies in his cash box except for the one he singled out. He knelt down so that he could look Little Joe in the eye. “Do you still have all the Wheat pennies that I told you to put away?”
Ever so serious, Little Joe replied, “Yes, sir.”
“Well this is another one of those special pennies that I cannot use.” Frank held the coin up for Little Joe to take. “This one is even more special than the others. It is an 1896 Indian Head penny…very hard to find.”
“Wow!” Little Joe whispered in awe. He reached over and hugged the old vendor. “You are a good man.”
Frank smiled sheepishly. “Oh now look, it’s getting late. You need to get back to the shelter before it gets dark.”
Little Joe carefully folded the penny into his bible as he stood up. “Thank you, Frank.”
“Don’t mention it.” Frank ruffled Little Joe’s hair. “By the way, what is your favorite verse in your bible?”
Little Joe paused for a moment as he quoted the same verse he had whispered earlier. “Psalm Twenty-Three: One; ‘The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need.’” He turned to walk away and did not see the troubled look that passed over his old friend’s face.
Little Joe reached the homeless shelter around four-thirty in the afternoon. Several children were out in the courtyard engaged in a boisterous snowball fight, but he had no interest in playing with them. He wanted to get to the family section upstairs to show his mother and little sister the treasures he had found earlier in the day.
This time of year the center filled early with more people. The boy shied away from most of the people he did not know. Daddy’s words of warning proved sound around Thanksgiving when the police escorted a known offender away. He had been hiding among the scraggly old men. Little Joe was still unclear what a molester was, but the expression on his mother’s face when she heard the news explained the danger of such a type of person. Daddy made him promise to tell another adult if one of the strange men ever asked him to do something uncomfortable and most certainly to never go anywhere alone with one of them.
He looked for a few remaining sandwiches, but the line attendants were already wiping away the crumbs left behind. When the days grew colder, there were much more crowded conditions. If you did not get there soon enough at lunch, you risked getting scraps for your afternoon meal or a cold sandwich if everything else ran out.
Little Joe found his mother in their back corner of the building sitting on the bed and mending blankets. The job did not pay much, but she said it helped her feel like she was doing something to guide the family back to independent living. The shelter was not a place she wanted her children to grow up in. Katie was playing with her doll that had one arm missing. He kissed the little girl as he sat down on the edge of the bed.
Janet put down her mending and pulled Little Joe into a hug. “Where have you been? The other boys were looking for you earlier.”
Janet did not like the idea of Little Joe wandering the streets. The concrete jungle was a nightmare to her and a tragedy waiting to happen. She also knew that she would kill his free spirited soul by slow suffocation if she had imprisoned him within the shelter. Back in Kansas, by the time he had turned eight, all points of the compass of the section of farmland they owned. She wished that she could still see his little black shock of hair bobbing just above the young corn stalks in June and his little bare feet caked with Kansas mud as he ran among the rows.
Little Joe snuggled into her to warm away than just his shivering. “I went to the junkyard to get my bible.” He pulled it out of his coat to show her, and then opened it to show her the penny. “Frank said that it was a real special penny…even more special than the Wheat pennies.”
Janet swallowed the lump that had leaped into her throat at the mention of ‘junkyard’. “I say that is something special!” She helped him get out of his coat and then wrapped her own blanket over him. “You are so cold! I am scared you will get sick running around out in this weather. Let me see that penny.”
Little Joe placed the penny in her palm and smiled as she looked at it in wonder. Katie lost interest in her doll for the moment and crawled into his lap to look at the tiny treasure. He tried to control his shivering and her added warmth helped to slow it down. Momma replaced the penny into the fold of the bible and looked down at him.
“Little Joe, you be careful around strange men who want to be nice to you.” Janet let her worry for his safety become evident. “Not all of them have a good heart like Frank does.”
“Daddy already told me.” Little Joe did not wish to hear the speech again. He found it hard to accept that there were dangerous people who used kindness to hurt children. “I never go anywhere with another adult alone, especially here. I promise.” He stressed the promise with importance. “When is Daddy coming back?”
“Put your things in the trunk and lock it.” Janet lifted Katie away from him so that he could put away his coat and bible. “Be sure you lock it this time. If I had not caught that boy trying to take your coat last week, you would not be able to leave the shelter until late spring.”
“Yes ma’am.” Little Joe replied with respect.
“Your Daddy will not be back until late Christmas Eve. He is working as much as he can to save for an apartment.” She smiled. “A few more mended blankets done and I will have put back enough for the deposit on the utilities.”
Little Joe made sure the lock clicked solidly after he closed the lid to the trunk. “It will be nice to be able to take a bath in our own tub.”
“Speaking of showers…” Janet started.
“Momma!” Little Joe protested even though he knew he would lose.
“You smell like the junkyard.” Katie wrinkled up her nose at him.
“Max has some new clothes for you that a church donated today.” Janet returned to her mending. “I will see you at the shower room in a few minutes. I am going to wash your hair, too. Another church group is serving dinner to the whole shelter tonight and I want you to look your best.”
Little Joe brightened. “Do you think they will sing Christmas songs?”
Janet nodded. “I am sure they will. I will see you in a few minutes.”
“Yes ma’am.” Little Joe skipped off with a slight joy in his step, happily humming ‘Silent Night’ to himself.
Little Joe found Max downstairs mopping the great dining room. He looked up at the boy and hastened his pace to finish mopping. To the boy, the man was as black as midnight, with wild tufts of hair here and there that were as white as snow. He owned the shelter, and ran nearly everything in it, except for the financial aspect. That he left to his more prudent wife, whom Little Joe seldom saw.
The supply room stood empty at the moment. Usually it was very noisy and crowded with the homeless seeking the donations from the public, but the center wanted to have the room extra clean for the evening activities. Max put up his mop when he saw the boy approaching him.
“Little Joe! You almost missed out.” Max led the boy into the kitchen and pulled a glass of milk out of the refrigerator. “I saved it from lunch for you. All the sandwiches are gone, but the Metropolitan Avenue Baptist Church will be here soon to set up a very good dinner.”
“That’s what Momma said. Frank let me have a hot dog.” Little Joe took the glass of milk gladly. “Do you think they will let me sing with them?”
“They always ask the people here to join them in worship.” Max pulled a bag out from behind the counter. “These are the clothes that the Catholic Charities group brought in earlier today. They might be a little big, but I am sure you will grow into them. There’s a bright red shirt for Christmas and even a pair of flannel pajamas for you.”
“Thank you.” Little Joe looked over at the open area in the dining room. “The Shelter needs a Christmas tree.”
“That’s what I said to the financial director,” Max said with dismay, “but she said there just isn’t enough money in the budget to pay for one.” He pointed up to the wreath. “That is the best we can do this year.”
Little Joe pondered the situation while he drank the rest of his milk. His eyes lit up as he came up with an idea. “If I can find a tree and bring it here, I think it would make everyone happy to see it.”
“That is if you can find one. Not many people will be throwing out their trees until after New Year’s. You might find a little one thrown out from an office Christmas party, but I doubt it.” Max ushered Little Joe onward. “Get on to the showers now. The family time is almost closed and I think your mother is already waiting for you.”
Later that night, after the lights had gone out in the family section, Little Joe found that he could not sleep. The new pajamas were stiff and itchy. He wanted to crawl back into his older, tattered sweats that were more comfortable. He sat up in the bed and drew the blanket over his shoulders. Janet sat up with him and pulled him close. Katie shifted in her sleep and made a soft noise as she pulled her doll in close.
“Not used to sleeping in new pajamas?” Janet knew that something was bothering Little Joe. “You can take them off if they are bothering you.”
“They do itch.” Little Joe scratched at another spot on his side. “But they are warm, too.”
“Maybe the itch will go away after we wash them.” She carefully pulled his hair away from his face. “Your daddy will be coming back soon, hopefully before it gets too cold.”
After a moment of silence, Little Joe began to talk about what really bothered him. “I miss our Christmas tree, Momma and I don’t think Santa will know where to find me and Katie.”
“This is the first Christmas that we have spent away from home. I’m quite sure that Santa will know where to find the two of you.” Janet slowly began to rock him, holding him very close. “I miss our tree, too. There were some homemade ornaments that you made in Sunday school one year that I loved to hang up just below the Angel’s feet.”
“Why does God let bad things happen to us?” Little Joe fought against a sadness that was starting to sink into him.
“God did not let this happen to us. The tornado was a part of nature. We had just taken out an enormous loan on the farm. It was just bad timing. Things like this happen to people all over the world all the time. It happens to bad people as well as good people.” She kissed him on top of his head and looked into his eyes. “It is called life. We all have to live through it. Do not ever blame God. He helps us get through the hard times. Remember what happened to Job?”
“God let the devil take away all that he had, but Job still loved God.” Little Joe turned to look into his mother’s eyes. “Will we get our home back?”
“Our lives will get better.” Janet whispered it with true hope. “It will not be the same as before, but it will get better than this.”
“Tomorrow I am going to look for a Christmas tree for the shelter.” Little Joe scratched at his leg.
Janet thought to tell him no, but she hated to dash his hopes. “If you can find one, I know the people here will be very grateful.”
“They really are itchy.” Little Joe said with remorse.
“Take them off.” Momma said with understanding. “You can sleep next to me like you usually do to keep warm. To tell the truth, they were itchy to me, too. I will wash them tomorrow to see if they get any softer.”
The next day after he had dressed in his new clothes and had a hot breakfast, Little Joe set out to find a Christmas tree. The day started out so warm that all of the snow from the previous day was gone. Momma warned him to be home early. A winter storm warning was set for early that afternoon. He almost left the shelter without his coat. She would not let him leave without his gloves or hat, either. By the time he reached Frank’s corner, the sign on the bank tower showed the temperature as fifty-seven degrees.
“Frank!” Little Joe called out excitedly. “Look at my new clothes the Catholic Church brought to the shelter.”
“You look very sharp! That bright red shirt looks real good on you. Where are you off to, today?” Frank started to pour up a cup of hot cocoa.
“I just ate breakfast.” Little Joe stopped the old vendor before he poured in the liquid. “I am too full. I just wanted to show you my clothes and tell you that I am going to find a tree for the people of the shelter. I want them to have a better Christmas.”
“You have such a big heart for such a small boy.” Frank laughed, but his laugh quickly turned to worry as a warm gust of wind swept up the street. “Do not stay out there too long. There is a terrible winter storm coming in this afternoon.”
Little Joe frowned. “But it is so warm right now.”
“That is the worst of them!” Frank scolded. “I can feel the humidity already. It will start with a stormy rain, followed by the sleet and ice. You get home before it hits!”
“I’m sorry.” Little Joe stood motionless, frightened by Frank’s change in attitude toward him.
Frank regretted frightening the boy and immediately softened his tone of voice. “I didn’t mean to scare you, Little Joe. I’m sorry, too. Go find your tree. It should not take you that long.”
Little Joe walked by with slumped shoulders and a pronounced shuffle that tore at Frank’s heart. After the boy had disappeared into the crowded sidewalk, the old man looked back up at the sky with deepening worry. The clouds were already racing in from the south.
Little Joe had no idea where to begin to look for a tree. To his dismay, unlike his hometown in Kansas, where trees were for sale in parking lots all over town, there were more parking garages than anything else. The shelter he lived in was in a business district with very few residences. He walked for several blocks looking for a tree lot.
Once, he felt a little hope as he saw a station wagon turn from a cross street with a tree tied to its roof. When he ran up to the cross street and looked in the direction that the car had come from, his heart sank. There was nothing but an endless street of tall buildings.
The boy looked up at the sky and saw the solid mass of gray clouds. The day suddenly seemed to be much cooler. He looked in the direction from which he had come and saw that he had come much farther than he should have. Nothing looked familiar. It was going to be a long way back. He started walking back with his head hung low. He came to grips just knowing that he was not going to be able to find a tree to take back. That was when a short strand of silvery garland blew across his path.
Little Joe stopped dead in his tracks and looked into the alley that the garland had escaped. There, probably discarded after an office party into a large metal dumpster, was The Christmas Tree! He nearly shouted for joy as he ran up to it. He climbed up on the rails and raised the lid. From what he could see, although they had taken their decorations off, the tree itself was still well-hydrated and fairly intact. It was wedged under some other garbage. He tried to lift it up, but it refused to budge.
“That’s mine!” an old man with a squeaky cart bellowed.
The old man’s gruff voice startled Little Joe so much that he lost his footing and fell over into the dumpster. He skinned his left cheek and bruises would later appear on his knees. The only serious damage was to his pride. He fought hard to keep from crying, allowing the tears to burn furiously inside. Cautiously he peered up over the side of the dumpster at the wild-eyed old man with pale wrinkled skin and reddened nose.
“That’s mine!” the old man repeated.
“I…I’m sorry.” Little Joe sat paralyzed, afraid to come out of the dumpster. “I thought that it was in the trash.”
“This is my dumpster! That is my tree!” The old man now spoke in a singsong voice.
“Please, mister.” Little Joe wiped away one tear and then another. He wanted so badly not to cry, but he could not help it. “I didn’t know.”
The look in the old man’s eyes changed from anger to something else. The look made Little Joe think of a hungry dog looking at a morsel of food dropped on the ground. Suddenly he felt very alone. There was no one else around to help him.
“Maybe I will let you have the tree,” the old man said with greed, “if you trade something for it.”
Little Joe struggled to crawl out of the dumpster. “I don’t have anything to trade for it.”
“Yes you do.” The old man touched the boy’s coat fondly. “I sleep on the streets every night and it gets a might bit cold. I could use your coat to help keep my head warm at night.”
Little Joe’s heart sank as he pulled away from the man. “This is my only coat. Momma said never let it go.”
The old man turned as if to go. “Suit yourself…That sure is a nice tree.”
“Wait!” Little Joe hesitated as he considered what he was giving up. It would not be so bad to spend his days inside the shelter until spring. It might be worth it to see the happiness on some of the homeless people’s faces when they got to enjoy the tree. “I’ll trade.” He started taking off his coat.
“Hurry up!” The old man stopped and turned back toward the boy. “I am a busy man.”
“Can you pull it out for me?” Little Joe shuffled his feet backward with unease.
The old man cackled with greed. “That will cost you your hat and mittens, too.”
Little Joe did not like the way things were turning out, but in his mind, he really had no other choice. He finished taking off his coat as the old man pulled the tree out of the dumpster. He flinched when the old man snatched his belongings away from him like a starved dog snatching meat from a stranger. The old man forced his head and hands into the child sized apparel and piled the coat on top of his cart before slinking away deeper into the alley and eventually out of sight.
Little Joe knew that relinquishing the items would condemn him to remain inside the shelter until late spring. He felt bad at first until he looked down at the tree. Although most of the decorations had been removed, there were a couple of candy canes hanging from the branches. He grasped one of them and discovered to his delight that they were real. He pocketed the first one and opened the second one to place in his mouth.
The tree itself was nearly twice his height and solid. Little Joe flinched as some of the pine needle stuck him as he grasped the trunk. He started trudging away from the alley. He told himself that he had made two good choices; first for the tree, and second for an old man who would not have his head freeze by the morning.
By the time he reached the street, there was a spring in Little Joe’s step again. It was still a little warm, but he could tell that it was already late evening. There was only about a couple of hours of daylight left. Surely that was enough time to make it back to the shelter with the tree. He knew that his mother was already worried about him and he knew he was going to miss the evening meal, but the tree was going to be worth the additional loss.
“Max!” Janet ran up to him as he was dishing out soup to the homeless. “Have you seen Little Joe? He’s usually here by now.”
“I haven’t seen him come through the front door and he never takes the back door. That is a terrible storm coming in!” Max gestured to one of the other servers to take his place. “I’ll go find him. He can’t be that far. You stay here in case he shows up and have them call my cellphone if he does. I will check with Frank McAllister to see if he knows where your boy is. Don’t worry.”
Max grabbed his keys and his coat and several blankets as he headed out into a pelting rain. Thankfully his truck was parked in front of the shelter and he was able to get in without getting too wet. He drove quickly toward the corner, hoping that he would see both Frank and Little Joe standing under the awning of the drug store at the corner.
Frank stood on the corner with a trenchcoat and an umbrella, looking north along the street he had watched Little Joe walk up earlier. He had watched for the boy to return for most of the afternoon, taking only enough time out of his vigil to lock away his vendor cart early in the afternoon when most sensible people had disappeared from the streets. He briefly considered going to the shelter to see if Little Joe had passed by during the time he had been off the corner. He was about to walk that way when Max pulled up to the corner.
“Have you see Little Joe?” The rain was starting to fall so hard that Max had to shout above the din of splattering drops on the truck’s metal hood and roof. “He has not returned to the shelter.”
“Oh, dear God!” Frank looked up the street. “He went up this way very early in the day! I should have gone after him earlier than this” He ran around to the passenger side. “We have to hurry! His coat is dark and we will not be able to see him when the night sets in.”
All of a sudden the wind began to howl out of the north, the temperature started a rapid descent and Little Joe regretted giving up his coat. The wet cold cut through the shirt already soaked from a heavy downpour and chilled him to the bone. He looked up at the sky as an ominous dark line of clouds rolled from west to east, stretching from north to south. The rain began to fall in a stinging spray as the northwest wind howled furiously through the corridor of buildings. Icy pellets slapped him in the face and his clothes began to get soaked.
Little Joe began to panic. He had heard many stories from some of the homeless about people who got caught out in the winter storms and knew that he was in trouble. He tried to quicken his pace, but the tree was getting heavier as it became wetter. He looked around for any adult that might help him, but the streets were deserted of even police cars. He had a momentary burst of energy and was able to pull the tree about forty more feet, but then his feet just slipped from under him and he landed hard on his bottom.
He became aware that he was not going to get back to the shelter. The boy sat there for a moment with tears streaming from his eyes and painful loud sobs erupting from his throat. He was getting too cold as violent shivers wracked his body. A flash of lightning jolted him to his senses as the stormy blackness of night closed in on him. He stood up and saw a recessed doorway to an old building. He thought that if he could make it there, it might offer a little shelter until a police car drove by.
Even that short distance was too far as Little Joe pulled and tugged the tree behind him. He started to lose the feeling in his hands and feet. His heart pounded in terror each time lightning raced across the sky and thunder rolled through the streets. By the time he reached the doorway, the streets were already being coated with a treacherous layer of ice. The tree offered a small amount of shelter from the wind. He blew on his hands to try and warm them, but it did not help. He couldn’t find a way to stop his chattering teeth. Frost was beginning to form on his clothes as icicles slowly formed over the arched entry. A lone police car drove by, but he did not have the strength to call out for help. Sleep was creeping up on him the way a cat stalks a bird with a broken wing.
With his mind drifting away, Little Joe reached out a feeble arm to a piece of tinsel stuck in the branch. A really slow bolt of lightning made the sleeve of his shirt glow like – he wanted to laugh – Rudolf’s red nose. He thought of his mother and longed for her to hold him once more, to shelter him once again and take away the painful cold that penetrated to very core of his soul. He hoped that she would not be too mad when he did not come home later.
Right now all he needed to do was rest. A little bit of rest and then he could go on the rest of the way back to the shelter. He laid his head against the door, and even though he was a terrified little boy, he drifted off to a peaceful sleep where the cold could not reach him.
Frank cried out for Max to stop the truck when the headlights caught the bright red sleeve of Little Joe’s shirt as he had reached out to touch the tinsel caught in the branch. Frank was out of the truck with a blanket before it came to a complete stop, running awkwardly and nearly slipping. He quickly scooped the boy up with his tears splashing on wet pale blue lips.
“Little Joe!” Frank screamed. “He is so cold and he is not moving!”
“Get in the truck.” Max shouted. “Get him out of those wet clothes and hold him against you. I have two other blankets to put around the two of you. That might save his life. Do it quickly, now!”
Frank carried Little Joe over to the truck and climbed in. As he undressed the boy, he watched as Max grabbed the tree and put it into the back of the truck. When Max reached the cab, he was chattering from the cold, but Little Joe was not moving at all. He doubled two blankets and waited for Frank to finish. Frank opened his coat and pulled the cold little body against him. Max fashioned the blankets over both of them and secured it with the seat belt.
“We have to take him to the hospital.” Max got in and started driving away.
“Thank you for getting the tree.” Frank hugged the boy even closer, hoping that his body heat would be enough to save the child. “It meant a lot to Little Joe.”
“He will get to see it.” Max said this more to assure himself than Frank. “I am going to call the shelter to have someone bring his mother and sister up to the hospital.”
Almost a week passed before Little Joe was released from the hospital. Janet spent nearly all of her time at his bedside. The exposure caused a terrible fever that wracked his frail body with convulsions the second and third night. The fourth night, his fever broke and little Katie was the first to welcome her big brother back.
The emergency room doctor complimented Frank and Max on their quick thinking to keep the boy from dying from hypothermia. Their actions had saved his life and made them temporary celebrities for the local media.
On the evening he was released, Little Joe was still a little weak. Daddy returned to his family early for Christmas and was there to carry his son out. The shelter van picked his family up from the hospital.
As the family walked into the shelter, Little Joe could not figure out why the lights were out. Then slowly, a myriad of colorful lights began to blink in random order from the Christmas tree set up in the center of the shelter. His eyes lit up with joy as he gazed upon an array of ornaments with such splendor as he had never seen before. At the top of the tree sat a star that seemed even more glorious than any star of the universe. Then above the tree, on a white banner with red letters, he read a statement that made his heart leap for joy.
Thank you, Little Joe!
An Excerpt of Kevin’s Homecoming
KEVIN’S HOMECOMING – EPISODE 1
Kevin Fletcher sat on the edge of the bunk and waited, his eyebrows furrowed in deep thought. A nervous twisted knot roiled within his gut. The thin mattress, already stripped bare, reeked of old blood, vomit, and urine. He looked up at the bars to his cell, now closed for his protection, instead of imprisoning him within. He was unaware of the approaching footsteps, and instead, dwelled on the feeling of dread that encroached from beyond the prison walls. The jangle of keys stirred him from his thoughts and he looked up as Jordon Brown approached his cell door with two other guards at his side.
The warden ordered the shorter guard holding the keys to open the door. Kevin sucked in his breath and held it for a moment. Brown, a harsh man with nerves of steel and an unflinching eye, stepped into the cell as soon as the door slid open. He did not ask the other two men to enter with him. It was not necessary. Their job was to escort only. He looked upon Kevin for what seemed an eternity.
Brown remembered the first day Kevin entered the prison. The boy seemed barely old enough to take care of himself. He recognized some of the features of a growing athlete in the build of the boy, but that was not going to save him in the prison. In fact, it would prove to make him a bigger target. The warden never questioned judgements passed on the guilty. His job existed to reconcile them with the society they had violated. Yet, Brown felt something different about the brown-haired boy with the dark, frightened eyes. He did not belong in an adult prison.
The child in Kevin Fletcher disappeared, long buried in the violence of the prison gangs inflicted upon him. His eyes were still dark, but no longer frightened. The soft tone of his arms gave way to muscles taut with the condition not only to survive, but to conquer, as well. His brown hair was starting to grow back, shaved off for years to keep hands from using it against him. The round, smooth face of youth was now square-jawed and shadowed, with a three-inch scar to mark him.
Jordon Brown allowed a smile to escape one corner of his mouth. “The board voted in your favor, Fletcher. You’re a free man.” The smile, subdued because of the harshness of his profession, somehow reached his eyes.
Kevin was expressionless. “Then it’s done?”
Jordon Brown’s voice softened just a little. “You’ve come a long way. You will get a bus ticket home and a list of some people to contact who can help you readjust to life outside the prison. The world has changed tremendously in the last ten years. Come on young man. We’ve got some paperwork to fill out.”
With a slight nod of his head, Kevin stood up to follow Jordon Brown out of the cell. He paused for a moment to look over his cell before exiting. He was not reminiscing. Too many nights he spent wishing for solitude to escape the violence. The cell trapped his soul in a way few men could understand. The last two and a half years turned into a nightmare.
Jordon Brown walked with an air of triumph. The prison corridor was stifling. They turned the heaters on the night before for a cold March blast. Even in southeast Texas, nature could play a trick every now and then. Kevin walked alongside the warden at a brisk pace. With a heightened sense of awareness, he fixed his eyes on a distant point. He tried his best to ignore the catcalls and whistles from the other prisoners behind their cell doors as the two of them walked by.
“What are you going to do?” Jordon Brown allowed a hint at compassion to inflect his conversation with the young man.
“I don’t know. I didn’t really expect to make the cut this time.” Kevin said with muted respect.
Jordon Brown eyed Kevin briefly as he nodded to a guard posted at the electronic door. “It might have happened sooner if you had not got caught up in that Perez mess.” He searched for some sign of guilt from the young man and was dismayed.
The door slid open for them to pass through to the outside. When they started walking through the prison recreation area, Pablo Sanchez whistled for Kevin’s attention. The young man’s countenance faltered into pure hatred as he turned to look at the short punk who had made his life miserable for the last ten years. He fought the urge to launch into the creep with fists flying when Pablo blew him a kiss and winked with a malicious grin. Kevin’s eyes filled with treacherous hate as he forced himself to look away.
Jordon Brown noticed the interaction between the two men. The sudden change wrought upon Kevin disturbed him. As they both turned away from Pablo, a crowd of prison gangsters gathered around the young man. A hand cupped over his mouth to silence him. There was a look of terror in his eyes as the crowd swallowed him whole. Kevin forced himself back into his emotionless state, but found no satisfaction in knowing that prison justice avenged years of suffering.
After they entered another one of the prison buildings, this time into the property room, Jordon Brown looked at Kevin with genuine concern. “Was Sanchez one of them?”
Kevin was cold and emotionless when he lied. “No.”
Jordon Brown studied Kevin for a moment as he signaled to a guard to unlock a personal property locker. Kevin waited patiently, still as a stone statue.
“Do yourself a favor.” Jordon Brown’s tone of voice softened. “Get rid of those demons that are hurting you before they put you back in the system.”
Kevin offered no reply as the guard gave him his civilian clothing. He paused for a moment to look at his shirt. Jordon Brown recognized the conflict, but remained silent and watchful. Kevin lifted his old shirt to feel the fabric between his fingers.
There was a brief hint of pain in Kevin’s eyes long enough for Jordon Brown to take notice. “You won’t be able to keep those demons at bay forever,” he said in a commanding tone. “If you don’t find a way to deal with them, they will take over your life.”
Kevin set his clothes on a table and started to undress from his prison uniform. The guard left the room to give him privacy. Jordon Brown stepped toward the door, but stopped when Kevin began to speak.
Kevin tried to be casual, but the nervousness betrayed him. “I can beat them.
Jordon Brown offered a slight nod of his head. “You don’t need to do it alone.” He stepped out.
Kevin finished removing his prison uniform shirt and then approached a dressing mirror. He put on his civilian shirt with slow determination. He buttoned it with care and made sure it fit neatly upon him. He studied a scar on his chin and traced it with a finger. He stared at the reflection in the mirror with an extreme intensity and watched, as the prison-hardened man became a boy of sixteen who was in the process of shaving.
Kevin was always careful when shaving in front of a mirror. He paid very close attention to detail. Normally his hands were steady as he pulled the blade across the peach fuzz beard he had only recently sprouted. Today they shook with a slight tremor, as he appeared to be frightened.
Momma’s face entered into his reflection above the sink. Carla Fletcher watched her son shave. He looked into her soft, brown eyes and hoped to find some kind of reassurance from her. She was always so beautiful, but that morning, her beauty seemed flawless. That reflection would always be the one to haunt his future dreams, when he needed to hang on to his dignity. She seemed equally as frightened as he was.
Carla Fletcher tried to force a nervous smile. “Take this shirt, honey.” She presented the shirt that she wanted him to wear. “You’ll need to make a good impression on the jury. They are good people, son.” She said it as much to ease her own fears as well as his.
Kevin, with barely enough facial hair to shave, trembled on the verge of crying. “I don’t want to go to prison, Momma.”
Carla was already crying as she stroked his hair in a loving manner. “Oh, my precious baby boy, I don’t want them to take you away from me, either.”
Paul Fletcher entered the doorway of the bathroom. A prominent figure in the community, he was the type of man who commanded respect and authority by the manner in which he carried himself. Everyone in town respected him for his leadership and his stand on family values. His love for his family was evident. He stood straight and tall as he looked upon the other two in a disapproving manner.
“You cannot run from this, son.” He hid his pain well as he seemed almost bitter to his son. “None of us can. You are almost a grown man. It’s time to step up and take responsibility for your actions.”
Carla pulled Kevin into a protective embrace. “Let him be, Paul. Can you not see that he is already suffering enough?”
Paul gave his wife a severe, almost scolding look. “This is something that I can’t help him out of, this time. Kevin made a serious mistake and took a life. The whole town will turn against us.”
Kevin, though torn apart by his emotions, struggled to hold off the storm brewing between his parents. “Dad…Please don’t do this.” He turned to Carla with a tremulous voice. “Momma, he’s right. I do not want this anymore than you do…but Robby is dead because of me. I have to pay for what I did to him.”
Paul placed his hand upon the boy’s shoulder, the most affection that he could muster in the face of the circumstances. “Be strong, Kevin. Hold your head up and take it like a man. I am sure the judge will take your age into account with the sentencing. You might get two years in a minimum security facility and probation.”
Kevin watched with trepidation as his parents exited the restroom. He felt frightened as he turned back to the mirror to wash the remainder of the shaving cream from his face. He then reached for the shirt and put it on. As he was putting it on, he watched his reflection in the mirror. He finished by straightening out his sleeves and making sure they were fastened right.
Back in the present in the prison, Kevin adjusted his shirtsleeves and looked around the bleak room one last time. “I’m ready now.”
Jordon Brown entered the room. “Privacy will be something you can get used to again.”
It was cold, gray, and misty March day. Kevin and Jordon Brown walked through the gardens and landscaped areas. That greenery tried to dispense with the dark aura of what went on behind the gray walls. Both men seemed withdrawn and huddled themselves within their coats against the chill in the air.
Jordon Brown could now be a caring individual. He began to speak as if admonishing possible future actions. “I don’t want to see you here again, Fletcher.”
“I’m not coming back.” Kevin offered with cold finality.
They walked to a prison transport van. Jordon Brown stopped the young man just before he entered into the van and offered a handshake. Kevin, reluctant to shake it at first, reached out with caution.
Jordon Brown added an air of warmth to his demeanor. “Few young men have passed through these gates and made something of their lives. You are young enough to rebuild your life. The odds are going to be stacked against you for a long time. I sincerely hope that you do okay. If you need someone to talk to…”
Kevin looked the van over as he was getting in. “Is this the same van?”
Jordon Brown smiled. “You can blame a tightening budget and increased pay for the guards.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Hey, it was only two years old when you first arrived.”
Kevin nodded to the warden. “You know you cannot help all of us.”
Jordon Brown paused as he was closing the door. “If I helped just one man onto the right path…then maybe I did something right.”
Jordon Brown closed the door and stood at the drive as the van started to pull away. He watched until the van pulled out of sight and then turned to go back inside the prison.
The Greyhound bus was loud inside and the ride was rough. There was a bratty kid on one row yelling at her father for not giving in and buying her candy at the previous stop. It did not matter how many times he told her that there was no more money, she still harangued him for the missed purchase.
Kevin sat next to a window with an elderly woman in the seat beside him. She smelled of old cigarette smoke and a hint of wine that was quite displeasing. He was staring at the passing scenery when she took up an interest in him.
“Is something bothering you, young man?” The elderly woman looked at Kevin with curious concern.
Kevin politely tried to discourage any conversation. “No ma’am.”
The elderly woman reached out to touch his arm. “I can tell…”
Kevin reacted quick, pulling away from her touch. “Don’t touch me!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” The elderly woman said with dismay.
Kevin felt a little remorse as he turned back to the window. “I don’t let anyone touch me anymore.”
The elderly woman thought she could see a hidden apology. “That’s a shame. Why is that?”
Kevin scratched at the glass in irritation. “I’m an ex-con. I just got out of prison.”
With a brief pause, the elderly woman realized she had misjudged Kevin. She became troubled and after a moment, prepared to talk again with a more cautious approach. “You remind me of my grandson. He went to Afghanistan two years ago to fight in that awful war. We lost him a month before he was to come home to one of those fools who blow themselves up in their cars.”
Kevin turned back to her with a brief display of empathy. “Was he a good kid?”
The elderly woman beamed with pride. “Clay was a nurse. He helped other soldiers who were wounded. I really miss him.”
Kevin tried to suppress his inner pain. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
The elderly woman looked upon Kevin with compassion. “Why did you…uh…?”
“I killed someone.” Kevin turned back to the window as his bravado softened. “It was a car wreck. I was driving under the influence of alcohol.”
The elderly woman felt uneasy. “I had no idea.”
Kevin felt some guilt as he turned back to her. “I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s a survival need when you’re in prison.”
The elderly woman put her fears aside. “You’re so young.”
Kevin spoke with regret and contempt. “I spent my seventeenth birthday behind bars.”
The elderly woman’s heart was touched. “How old are you now, dear?”
The cold returned to Kevin’s voice as he turned to look out the window once more. “I will be twenty-seven in three months.”
The elderly woman seemed about to cry. “That was too long for such a young boy.”
Kevin turned further away from the old woman and studied the passing scenery. He was desperate to force all emotion from his mind, but it slowly took over him.
Kevin sat handcuffed to a rail inside the transport van. Pablo Sanchez, a thin, dark-skinned Latino, sat next to him. The road they travelled on was quite rough, and it did not escape Pablo’s shifty eyes that the younger teenage boy was frightened out of his wits.
Kevin watched the countryside through his window, his eyes still red from crying. He listened to the smirks of the other prisoners, taking it personally because he was still just a boy. The criminal justice system had not yet hardened him.
A shifty predator by character, Pablo saw Kevin as an easy victim and decided to act on it. “Hey kid…it’s not such a good idea to let them see you crying.” He gestured over his shoulder with his head. “They will think you’re soft.”
Kevin could not hide his terror. “Do you know where we are going?”
Pablo feigned camaraderie to lure his victim in. “Huntsville is not such a bad place if you know the system.”
Kevin risked a short look back at some of the other prisoners. He quickly looked away when a short, wiry man sneered back at him. “Have you been there before?”
“This is my second time around.” Pablo answered with a mixture of pride.
Kevin, naïve and trusting, was falling for Pablo’s trap. “Momma told me it was a terrible place to go.”
Pablo realized he had a gullible victim that he could not wait to get his claws into. “Stick with me, man. You got to learn to be tough to survive, but I’ll help get you through.”
Kevin thought he had found a friend and someone to trust in Pablo. He felt somewhat relieved and looked down at his handcuffs, turning them worriedly.
Kevin rubbed his hands as if the handcuffs were still there. He noticed that the bus was slowing down and looked up to see in what town they were. The bus had pulled into a gas station to pick up new passengers. The doors opened and passengers began to disembark. He remained sitting as the elderly woman stood up and gathered her belongings. She paused before leaving and looked upon Kevin with compassion.
“This is my stop…I don’t know anything about you, but I really don’t think that you’re such a bad person…I hope you find that young man you could have been,” the elderly woman said in a kind and forgiving way.
With nothing else to say, the elderly woman left with a look of regret. Kevin watched as she exited the bus, contemplating all that she said. She looked at him one last time as family members outside met her. She smiled at him as the bus door closed. When the bus slowly pulled forward, Kevin turned his thoughts inward, leaned back, and closed his eyes.
To read more of this episodic series, click here:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I was born and raised in Texas, so almost all of my settings take place in Texas. I began life in the Dallas area, but have recently moved to the “Arklatex” region of Northeast Texas. I am a Christian and a father to one daughter. Occasionally, I taught a Sunday school class and a weekly program to children about missionaries through a program called Royal Ambassadors. I used to teach regularly at a church in Mesquite, TX, but due to the move, a 2-hour drive became difficult to maintain and it was necessary to cut back. I now teach every Sunday and Wednesday at my new church home in East Texas.
Although my ultimate goal in life was to write full-time and be able to go on medical mission trips or disaster relief teams, the reality is that most writers have to work extra jobs to support their dreams. I am not ashamed to say that I work as a nurse aide (some people used to call us orderlies) at a major hospital system in East Texas. I am grateful that God has allowed me to find this sort of work enjoyable because I get to serve and minister to those who need both physical and spiritual healing.
In July, 2014, I suffered a stroke that threatened to circumvent my desires for a meaningful life. Thanks to a wonderful rehab team out of Tyler, I was able to recover most of my functions for daily living, though I still get exhausted on some days. I only have recently been able to take up the habit of writing again, so expect to see some more works in the near future.
My interest in becoming a writer actually started around my twelfth birthday. My mother gave me a book, “Little Men,” by Louisa May Alcott, that became my first inclination that I would want to live adventures through written words. My first efforts at creative writing were poems created between classes in high school. I actually had a decent collection of about fifty, but sadly, they were lost over time from various moves in my younger years. My first publication was a poem entitled “Throw Away Child,” that was published in a national anthology.
About 1987 was when I first began to write full-length novels. At the time, I was a big Stephen King fan and thought that writing horror novels was the way to get into mainstream publishing. I started a novel that eventually split into two novels. “Circle of the Rose” began life as “A Rose for Tommy,” and now is titled “Unholy Cult of the Blood Rose.” The story was about a boy who suffered from abuse and travelled to a dream world in his sleep to escape his tormentors. After writing it out, which is what I try to do with anything I create, it just sounded too cheesy to work for me. I extracted the “real” life work from the “imaginary” one and found that I actually had two viable novels from one.
“Unholy Cult of the Blood Rose” is a horror novel that I wrote to address the issue of child abuse. In a way, it was a therapeutic work of art helping me to deal with the demons in my past childhood. I do not wish to delve any further at the moment, but if you take the time to read the introduction to that novel, you may have a better understanding of what message I was trying, and may still be trying, to convey.
The second novel that split from the original became “Unbinder.” That work of literature is still in progress. It will actually become three separate books as a series and is a fantasy series set in another world with young lovers, old dragons, battling sorcerers, and an evil overlord. The excerpt I have provided here on the cd is the middle book. “Unbinder” became too big to write as one complete novel and a time gap in the events on Traum exists that I could receive no inspiration to fill. The first book will actually be a prequel that builds up to the second book.
My latest foray into modern literature is a drama written out as serialized fiction. “The Long Road Home: Homecoming” represents the latest genre that I am working in and has become the most rewarding for me, both in its creation, and in the publishing aspect. Feel free to visit one of my websites and leave a comment if you like. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
May God bless you richly in the coming days,
Eddie C Dollgener Jr
I really appreciate you reading my book! Here are some ways to keep up with my latest creations:
Facebook is my social media outlet with several dedicated book pages:
Follow me on Twitter where I can let the world know of my latest releases:
Favorite my Shakespir author page:
Word Press is where I usually post my latest excerpts:
Connect with me on LinkedIn:
Little Joe is a ten-year old boy who lives in a homeless shelter with his family. They are spending their first Christmas away from their Kansas farm. Little Joe learns that the shelter has no Christmas tree to celebrate the holiday season with, and strives to search for one to provide a little holiday cheer. However the shelter is located in one of the business centers of the city and there are no tree lots. What's worse is that a fierce winter storm is on the way, threatening to put a stop to his desperate search.