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BROKEN ANGEL: A CHRISTMAS STORY
A Christmas Story
The parking lot at the Wal-Mart was icy and treacherous when Peggy McDougall pulled her 2006 Ford Windstar off Route 29 and into the vast expanse of asphalt. Coated over in a mixture of slush and two day old snow, it was grayed by crushing from the tires of light duty pickups and minivans, also coated over with their own palette of blacks, grays, and dishwater whites, thrown from one set of tires to the side panels of the next vehicle over, each trading drabness and dirt with its counterpart. Peggy surveyed the expanse and spotted a parking space close to the front door, close enough that she thought she might make it inside without being frostbitten. A bitter northeastern wind was slicing across the lot at twenty miles per hour, causing the bundled souls plodding toward the doors to hold their headgear in place.
Peggy was halfway to the space before she considered the needs of the elderly population of Christmas shoppers searching vainly for a spot close enough to make their journey to the shopper's paradise within tolerable limits to their aged limbs.She reconsidered her needs and those of five year old Amanda, her half day kindergartener in the booster seat behind her, and found they paled in the presence of the hypothetical grandmothers she might deprive. So with an unperceivable sigh she refocused her gaze off the prize spot and set to searching for something more distant and yet tolerable to their capabilities.
Inside Peggy burned with resentment that she had to take Amanda out on such a bitterly cold night, exposing her to the elements, both the weather outside the store and the less than savory folk that tended to populate the Wal-Mart at this hour. But what could she do? She was a single mother, widowed for two years by the bizarre accident that took her husband on the very road she had to drive to get to the store. For reasons unexplained, Mark had apparently veered off the right side of the two lane road and then swung back on, overcorrecting and driving head-on into the path of an oncoming semi-tractor trailer.
He was headed to Wal-Mart to buy a gallon of Milk and some breakfast cereal. Amanda was barely three at the time. The semi driver was the only witness. He had no explanation. Mark just suddenly veered off the road and overcorrected coming back on. He applied his brakes, Mark did too, but it was too little, too late.
Peggy was left alone. Her folks lived a thousand miles away. Her mother came and stayed for two weeks but had to go back to work. Her sister was three hours away in St. Louis but she was a head case. She could barely take care of herself, so Peggy hadn't asked for her help, and none had been offered.
Her mother wanted her to move back home, but Peggy had a good job working in records at the State prison. So she stayed and toughed it out.
"Mom," Amanda blurted as Peggy recovered from the latest jolt of the minivan scaling and then dropping off one of the mini-mountains of ice and snow left by the recent blizzard, "when are you gonna git my hair done for Christmas like you promised you would with the blond highlights like that girl we saw at the Thanksgiving parade on TV, …its almost Christmas mom!"
The temperature had risen and a frozen drizzle was falling, giving the lot an eerier than usual feel. Peggy swerved around another mini mountain on her way toward a spot as she contemplated her answer, wishing she had never made the promise.
"We're here to get your medicine, 'member?" she told Amanda, " . .the beauty salon people went home a long time ago so we couldn't do that now anyway."
Amanda sighed audibly. "Yeah…but when will it happen?, com'on mom you promised 'member?" she said, raising her voice to that sing-songy tone that Peggy knew meant she was batting her eyes. Mark had always loved it when she did that.
"If I recall you promised you'd be picking up your room better before we got the highlights, right? How's that goin'?" Peggy queried, turning slightly toward her suddenly frowning daughter. Amanda just sighed again and looked down, realizing it was likely that her dream of two-toned hair for Christmas was in jeopardy and that she would need to think of another way to impress the rest of the female population at half day kindergarten.
Peggy successfully navigated the remaining mini-mountains and parked, wondering if she was in far enough to avoid obstructing traffic, but not wanting to get stuck on the wrong side of the mini-mountain in the parking space, thus pushing Amanda further past bedtime and nearly guaranteeing she'd be grouchy tomorrow. Resolving the dilemma in favor of staying put, she turned the van off and turned to the task of reviewing Amanda's readiness to depart the warm van , thinking how nice it would be to have Mark here to help.
"Mom, let's run, its way too cold out here!" Amanda shouted as she jumped out of the van and headed in the direction of the doors. Peggy felt her heartbeat double as she considered the possibility of unwary drivers flattening her five year old like so much two day old snow. "Amanda McDougall," she barked, "get back here, you can't just run off like that." Peggy surveyed the lot for onlookers and lowered her voice having considered the possibility that other shoppers might have judged her too harsh in her tone. "You have to look out for cars honey, they might not see a little girl like you," she whispered as she bent down near Amanda's ear.
Ask she looked over the dark and foreboding walk to the front door, thoughts of Mark's absence broke into her thought pattern again. She didn't like this parking lot even on days when the weather was good. It was far removed from the rest of town. Wal-Mart had bought up the property for what seemed like miles around it and had landscaped hills around the edges of the property into a bowl-like half circle, cutting off what scant connection one might have otherwise felt with the surrounding subdivisions. It was a lonely place late at night for a single woman with a little one in tow. Peggy could not help but be angry over the fact that Mark was not here with her. And of course with that anger came a healthy dose of guilt. How could she be angry with the dead? She felt like she had the right to at mad at somebody, at least part of her did. And if not Mark, then whom?
As they bowed their heads against the wind and started tramping through the dirty snow, Peggy caught a glimpse of a county squad car parked ahead. One more reminder of what she was trying to forget. The County had investigated the accident.
A Deputy came to her door that terrible evening to report it, and without much grace or apparent forethought began asking questions no one should ever ask a person who had been widowed for less than an hour- "Was your husband taking any medications?; "Was he upset about anything tonight?"
Peggy found herself still asking those questions. The truth was that she and Mark had not been getting along. Money was tight, caring for a toddler and trying to work was running her ragged, and Mark was working away from home a lot. She thought he drank too much and some nights he got home late without explanation. They were not a happy couple. Had he decided that it was just too much to handle? Had she said something that evening that he took the wrong way?
Toxicology said he had not been drinking. No drug was found in his system. The weather was clear. There was nothing to suggest road conditions were bad. But there were tire tracks showing one set of tires briefly left the road and then came back on. Why? Peggy knew she would never know, but the question would not go away.
So she kept juggling cursing Mark for leaving her alone with so many unanswered questions with missing him and guilt over what she did or did not do to cause his demise. Her sister said Pastoral Counseling had helped her, so even though it was out of character, she followed her sister's advice and had gone to see one.
The counselor told her not to blame herself or Mark, it wasn't fair to assume he did it intentionally . If he did that was beyond her control. Sometimes bad things just happen to good people. Sometimes God doesn't tell us why. She should try to focus on what good might come of it, how God might use it.
So far it seemed like God wasn't saying. She didn't see any good in a woman left alone a thousand miles from help raising a three year old by herself. If God wanted to use that then he seemed like unlike the God she believed in. She stopped seeing the counselor after a couple of months.
"Mom, let's run," Amanda suddenly blurted out, " these icicles keep hitting me in the face and it hurts!"
"Its not icicles, baby, its rain drops that are frozen, but we can run if you grab my hand."
She reached down and grabbed her fingers, breaking into a slow trot.. Amanda liked running with her mom and started to giggle. The giggling took Peggy's mind off Mark.
As they got closer to the front door Peggy began hearing a bell ringing. It seemed to come from the front entrance. When they closed in within a few feet of the entrance she saw a Salvation Army kettle near the front door. As they turned to enter she spotted a young woman in a red Salvation Army pull over smock ringing the bell. Her long, stringy black hair was soaked from the drizzle. Peggy smiled at her.
The girl smiled back but stopped smiling and ringing the bell as she continued to look at Peggy. She seemed to recognize Peggy but Peggy did not recognize her.
"Mom, kin' I have a quarter to drop in that bucket?" Amanda pleaded while pulling on Peggy's coat pocket. Peggy dug in her pocket and found nothing to give. "I don't have any change honey, but maybe we can get some in the store and do that on our way out." Peggy glanced over at the girl again. The girl was still looking intently at her.
Wal-Mart was nearly empty that night. The bad weather had apparently scared off most of the Christmas shoppers.
"Mom!" Amanda chirped as they passed the shopping carts; give me a ride in the train cart! That is so much fun! Com'on Mon push me. All aboard, passengers all aboard!", Amanda announced to the empty entry way.
Peggy remembered Mark would always push Amanda around in the train shaped shopping cart. She usually didn't because the thing weighed a ton and hurt her back.
"No, baby, that hurt's your mommy's back, sorry.
"Ah, your no fun…" Amanda gripped as she ran forward to inspect what toys where displayed in the isle closest to the door.
Peggy turned and headed toward the pharmacy. In the background she could hear the Salvation Army bell ringing again.
She had called ahead so it didn't take long to get the prescription. It was long enough for Amanda to spy a dancing robotic Santa in the isle next to the pharmacy and for her to chant a litany of reasons why they should buy it. Peggy just wanted to get home. She was exhausted and still had the rainy walk to the car and the long drive home ahead.
As they headed back Amanda launched into her daily recitation of her Christmas list and which of the items were available at the store. "You could buy them right now if you want mom, I wouldn't look!" she offered with much sincerity.
Her pleading was interrupted by the pealing of the Salvation Army bell, ringing from the hand of the now soaking black haired girl at the front entrance. "Mom, give me a quarter quick!" Amanda shouted. Peggy dug into her front pants pocket and found one; handing it to Amanda, she watched her bolt for the bright red kettle.
"Don't run in the store," she halfheartedly scolded, knowing she wasn't paying attention. Peggy watched as Amanda proudly approached the kettle and dropped in the quarter. "Merry Christmas," the black hair girl offered in the direction of Amanda.
Peggy caught up to Amanda in time to offer her own "Merry Christmas" back, smiling at the girl as she bend down to take her daughter's hand. Once again the girl stopped smiling and ringing, looking at the plastic I.D. badge from the prison Peggy forgot she was still wearing around her neck.
It was obvious she was reading the badge through her raindrop covered glasses. "Your Mark McDougall's widow, aren't you?' the girl stated flatly, looking directly at Peggy.
"Yes, I am…did you know Mark?" Peggy asked, trying to be polite.
"No," she quickly blurted, turning her head away, "I just heard about it, I drive by there on my way to work, sorry for your loss."
"Thank you," Peggy stated, waiting for the girl to say more, but nothing was offered. She just started ringing the bell again despite the fact that no other customer was approaching. For as far as the eye could see, the parking lot had emptied of pedestrians. There was an awkward pause as Peggy tried to think of something to say, but it was obvious the girl was finished with the conversation. She was avoiding eye contact with them and trying her best to make it look like there was something inside the store that had her attention.
Peggy took Amanda's hand and turned toward the rain soaked path back to the van. The frozen drizzle had turned into rain and a fog was starting to form. Amanda whispered to her mother, "Mom, who was that lady?"
Peggy started to answer when she suddenly heard a shout from the direction of the front entrance. She turned to find the black haired girl turned and facing her. "I was there that night! I was there when that accident happened!" She shouted loudly, her voice obviously distressed.
Peggy's heart raced wildly, what was this girl saying? She started walking towards her as fast as she could without yanking Amanda's arm out of its socket. The girl stood there, face in her hands, crying and watched her approach.
Peggy didn't know what to say, but she knew she had to hear what the girl would say. She marched up within a few feet and stopped, standing in silence and watching the girl trying to compose herself. Finally she pulled her hands away from her face and brushed her hair back with them and looked at Peggy. "I seen it happen, I was driving to work, he was going the opposite direction from me… he never had a chance, that dude just hit 'em head-on, it was terrible. I started to stop….," and she caught herself tearing up again. "I wanted to stop and help but I had a warrant out for me, some traffic fine I hadn't paid. I couldn't go to jail; I got a kid to feed."
While she wanted to say something Peggy found herself speechless, she continued to stand silently while the girl found more words: "Your husband was drivin' just fine, just minding' his business, not speeding', swerving or nothing'… that trucker was driving o.k. too, he was like a quarter mile behind me…"
Her voice tailed off and she stood there with her head down, Peggy knew she had more to say, so she tried to be quiet but eventually she had to talk. "Why did it happen?" she asked gently, "What caused it?"
She pushed her glasses up her wet nose and looked up over Peggy's shoulder, like the answer might be written on the sky behind her. "His car was comin' up toward mine, I was smokin' back then…," she bowed her head as her voice started to crack, " I was wearin' shorts and I dropped my cigarette in my lap, it burned like hell, made me jerk, I had to get it off my leg! I only jerked for a second!" She looked up at Peggy and started to back away from her.
"You crossed the center line?, " Peggy whispered, trying not to look angry.
"I took my eyes off the road! I had'ta get that thing off my lap, just for a second.." and then without warning she dropped the bell and started to run away. She ran toward the far end of the parking lot.
"Wait," Peggy yelled, and then she instinctively grabbed Amanda and started after her. She shouted at her several more times to no avail. It appeared she was headed over the landscaped hills at the end of the lot and whatever lay on the other side of them.
Peggy keeps running. As she did she suddenly found herself smiling. She had the sense that she had been freed from something that had bound her for years. Finally now she knew. It wasn't Mark's fault. It wasn't her fault. He did nothing wrong, neither did she. It was energizing, she picked up speed and Amanda had trouble keeping up.
As she watched, the girl left the end of the parking lot and started to scale the landscaping hill. She nearly reached the top when she slipped and fell flat on her face. Aided by her slick plastic smock, she slid on her stomach back down to the bottom of the hill.
She lay there for several seconds, making Peggy wonder if she was hurt, but then she sat up, put her head in her hands and sat there crying, apparently resigned to wait there for her punishment.
Peggy and Amanda walked up to her slowly, not sure what was next. "Please don't call the cops!" she pleaded, head still in her hands. "I got a three year old at home and I can't go to jail."
" I'm not calling anybody," Peggy assured her.
"You ain't gonna call? Really? Oh, God bless you lady," the girl shouted as she rose to her feet and stumbled toward Peggy.
Amanda broke free of her mom and backed off, but Peggy stood still and let the girl hug her.
The girl squeezed Peggy tight, "You must hate me!" she bellowed through her tears, "but it was an accident, I didn't mean it, please don't hate me," she sobbed.
Peggy had not really thought about how to feel about this girl. She was so happy to have a reason not to blame Mark or herself she didn't know what to feel about the girl. But she found it surprising that she wasn't feeling any anger at her at all. She wasn't hugging the girl back, she just sort of stood there accepting hers. It felt like the right thing to do.
"I don't hate you," she stated loudly over the girl's tears. "I'm just so happy to finally know what happened; you don't know what it's been like to live without knowing…." Peggy found herself tearing up, and slowly wrapped her arms around the girl's soggy back.
"Mom, are you o.k.…?" Amanda whispered as she looked up at her mother's stressed face from behind the girl's back. Peggy reached down and grabbed her fingertips. "I'm fine baby," she whispered back through her tears. And in fact she felt better than fine, she felt released from a huge burden, as she watched the fog rise off the snow around her, it seemed one was lifting inside her.
As she held her hand, Peggy noticed a tear coursing down Amanda's face. She broke free from the girl and squatted down to hug her daughter. As they embraced Peggy closed her eyes, feeling a peace that had escaped her for a long time. She continued hugging her daughter, not wanting the moment to end.
Suddenly Amanda gasped, causing Peggy to open her eyes. Amanda was staring wide eyed and gap mouthed at the sky behind Peggy.
"Mom!," Amanda shouted, "that lady just disappeared."
Peggy turned quickly to where the girl had been standing, She was indeed no longer standing there. Peggy stood up, startled and began panning the parking lot for her. She grabbed Amanda's hand and began pacing quickly back to the entrance where the girl had been attending the Salvation Army kettle.
There was no sign of her in the lot as they paced toward the entrance, the fog made visibility poor and the rain was beginning to pick up.
Peggy began to panic, she had so many more questions she wanted to ask. "Do you see her anywhere?," she asked Amanda.
"No, mom, it was weird, she just was there 'n then she was gone."
"Honey, people just don't disappear, she's got to be around here somewhere." Peggy continued to pace towards the entrance "I wish I'd asked her name," she announced to no one in particular.
They arrived at the entrance only to find it empty. No black haired girl, no Salvation Army kettle. Peggy felt extremely confused. Was she at the wrong entrance? She marched down to the other entrance, pulling Amanda along with her. It was empty too, as was the parking lot. An eerie silence draped over them, they were alone in the windy, rain drenched lot, not another soul in sight.
Peggy decided to continue the search inside. She tried to stay calm but was frantic, near panic. The peace she had felt just a few minutes before had given way to utter confusion. How could the girl have disappeared like that? Why would she, after going out of her way to contact Peggy, have run from her without a chance for them to really connect?
Inside the store after the cart filled entry was a row of check out aisles,. Peggy kept walking and came upon the customer service desk. A middle aged woman in a blue smock with spiky grey hair was there waiting on an older man holding a paper mache Christmas tree topper, a raven haired angel in a long gold lame' dress. The older man scowled and spoke in harsh tones to the spiky haired clerk as Peggy approached.
"…So I'll go home and see if I can find the receipt, but I shouldn't have to pay for this thing, it don't work!, " he shouted, slamming the angel down on the counter in disgust. "It's supposed to play 'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,' But it don't play nothin', and its halo is supposed to light up during the chorus, but it don't do nothin' either, what good is it? What good's an angel that don't light up and don't play. It's broke, I bought it and I didn't get my money's worth, I shouldn't have to pay, receipt or no, you can have it…" He turned in a huff, nearly running into Peggy as he stomped away.
The woman behind the counter, her face beet red, excused herself and quickly walked into the room behind the desk, leaving Peggy standing at the desk.
Peggy waited for her return, her gaze eventually turning to the angel sitting on the counter. Its left wing was sagging several inches below the tip of the right wing, perhaps from the older man's rough treatment at the counter. Its straw-like hair was pushed up so that it nearly totally covered her eyes. The lips were brightly painted red but the paint was uneven and extended below the lips. The slam left her leaning to the right like she had scoliosis of the spine. A broken angel ,Peggy thought. Then she noticed a banner that was draped across the front of the angel's flowing gown. "Good News!" it announced. One end of the banner was torn, almost completely.
Peggy reached out and adjusted the angel's hair into place. She tried to straighten the wire frame that made up its spine. She managed to make it more presentable. She looked for some tape to patch the banner. A smile returned to her face.
The spiky haired clerk returned from the back room wiping tears from her eyes. "Can I help you," she inquired of Peggy.
"No," Peggy said, smiling broadly at her, "actually, I think I'm good."
"Mom!" Amanda suddenly blurted, " I don't see that lady anywhere…where'd she go Mom?"
Peggy reached down and gave her daughter a hug, "It's o.k. honey," she said through some tears, looking at the angel, "I think I know where she went."
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