"The Gift"

This is a short story I wrote, and I haven’t had anything else to do with for a while. I like it. It’s a different venture for me in a lot of ways. I pretty much wrote it in one sitting, then went back to clean up some errors and flesh out a few ideas–but probably not enough of them! 🙂

I hope you all like it… Feel free to comment on it, and point out any errors you may spot. (Though I’d prefer the latter via e-mail, if you don’t mind!) 🙂

I have another one that I’ll probably post within the week, but expect a post or two between now and then.

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“The Gift”
by Derek Brink.
(c) 2006, work in progress.

It wasn’t much. Someone who thought himself to have a larger paycheck would have at least laughed, or perhaps had a soul that felt enough pity to offer the apparently “poor” man a loan for a “proper” gift. Money, had nothing to do with it, though. What was important was the gift–the small totem that represented his heart–and this was perfect.

Nathan was a small boy of six-years-old when he first met Laura. Her name had sounded like music to him when his teacher said it in the roll-call. At that moment, it was as though he had seen the First-girl and heard the First-name. No other arrangement of letters he had previously encountered seemed to matter as much–nor, indeed, any since. Laura.

It was not to be. Not then. Not for twenty-eight years…but then, and for the rest of his life…Laura. They’d gone through grammar school together. Nathan awkward and quiet, Laura not-quite-popular, but not a social outcast either. Until high school, Nathan was never absent from class for one day, hoping she wouldn’t be either. In the office-places of later life, this would have been, at the very least, disarming, if not threatening. In grammar school, this was love. High school offered different rules (and class schedules) and permitted a feverish, pock-marked young man more opportunity to sleep in on some mornings.

Laura, for her part, made herself ever-available to Nathan’s sweet, innocent, clueless advances. She liked Nathan–though perhaps not in the way he would’ve hoped. She thought he was funny, though he was never trying to be. Laura longed to laugh at the things he would say. His foot-in-mouth-syndrome was much more to his benefit than he would have imagined. In Laura’s mind, she was laughing WITH him. In Nathan’s…well…

By the time the two had reached their Sophomore-year in High School, they were good friends. They had attended one another’s birthday parties, joined the same church-groups (unintentionally, as it happened), and even geography and parental vocations had moved them into houses less than three-doors apart. It was no surprise to either of them when one would choose to sit by the other at lunch or in a new class. It was, in fact, expected. Laura thought of him as a brother. Nathan, having lost some hope of romance, accepted her thoughts, and learned to think of her as not-quite-a-sister…but perhaps a favorable third-cousin by marriage. There was always some hope, right?

One day in the one class they shared that year, their English teacher set a photocopied copy of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” in front of the class. They read the story aloud. The story of two lovers trapped in an ironic twist was not lost on either of them. The exchange of gifts at the end was not funny to Nathan. The shaved-head of the wife, and the sold-pocket-watch not sad to Laura. Both saw past the supposed irony and humor into the depth of the hearts of the characters…or perhaps “hearts” should be singular? When the teacher asked questions about the text aloud in class, Nathan had an answer for each one. The answers were surprisingly poetic for his age, and shockingly bold for his disposition. Laura watched him–as she would say later in life–“preach” that day, and years thereafter would refer to that as “the day I knew I loved him.”

After the class, the two ate their typical school-lunch. They discussed the story, and the ineptitude of their classmates. They laughed and their hearts–or perhaps that should be singular?–fluttered. Both were smitten. Both knew. Neither admitted it.

Laura’s birthday the next week saw Nathan scrape together enough money to buy her a leather-bound volume of the story, and two combs made of an unfortunate plastic, when compared to the description of the tortoise-shelled, jewel-encrusted ones of Henry’s text…but high school allowances only afford so much–and combs weren’t even in fashion.

The next two years passed the same as the previous sixteen–except for Laura’s heart having developed an extra-skip whenever Nathan drew near. Then the two parted ways to attend college. They kept in touch through the typical methods. Neither made contact as often as the other hoped, but both spent more time thinking about the next letter they would write than they did about their assignments. After five years, Laura graduated with a business degree, finding work in a bank. After six, Nathan graduated with an undergraduate degree in English…and applied to grad-school. Another two years, and he was able to become a teacher in a grammar school, having applied himself to his grad-work much more responsibly than he had his undergrad.

In the interim, Laura had met a man at college who had swept her off her feet at a school-organized “meet and greet.” Keith’s charm and athleticism was impressive enough to make Laura able to forget the rhetoric that Nathan had won her heart with, and the result produced a child. Of course, upon news of his impending daughter, Laura discovered the true meaning of the expression “one night stand,” as Keith disappeared into the military, offering some occasional money-orders, when he was feeling generous, all of which she burned.

The news came as a dagger to Nathan. It would be human nature for his heart to break knowing that the woman he’d loved for years was capable of being not only unchaste, but also of being quickly fooled by muscle–of which Nathan had little, and Keith had much. This was not what stabbed at him though. His heart broke, not for himself, but for Jillian, his friend’s child who would grow up, he thought, fatherless. After nearly twenty-years, no temporary loss of discretion could put out Nathan’s flame.

Nathan’s job kept him near Chicago. Laura’s life, career, child, and family kept her in a small town in Missouri called Troy, where she (and Nathan) had grown up. So, the surprise in Nathan’s voice was understandable when he one day heard himself saying, “Jillian Raines” after the new child had presented him with her essential information from his school’s main-office. She had reached the age of a first-grader, and her mother regarded it her last opportunity to escape the small town and be close to the man she’d viewed as her best friend for twenty-or-so-years. “Is you mom’s name ‘Laura,’ Jillian?” “Yes…and I’m Jill.” “Got it.”

The obvious phone-calls took place. The obvious arranged meeting followed. The obvious hiring-of-a-sitter occurred many evenings, but the obvious dinner-at-home-with-the-kid occurred even more. Soon, the obvious ring came out of the obvious pocket, and the obvious wedding took place.

The two raised Jill to be an attractive, smart young lady who followed in her adopted father’s footsteps as a teacher. They also raised Heather and Greg. Heather would grow to be a novelist. Greg, to his sister’s dismay, a newspaper pop-culture critic. Both of them, it should be noted, were just as attractive and smart as their half-sister.

When the couple had entered their forties, Laura fought her first battle with cancer–ovarian cancer, in that case. As far as cancer goes, it was a relatively simple fight, and was easily won. Nathan went through his first heart-attack, also a mild scare in the long-run. Both began exercising more regularly, eating correctly, and avoiding stress as much as possible. Nathan moved up to teaching high school English, Laura scaled back to part-time bank management, and the children whined about mathematics and biology.

Flash-forward to the pair’s sixties. Laura’s second battle with cancer–this time a rather lengthy bout with breast cancer–was much more serious. Nathan retired one year earlier than he had hoped in order to be by her side every day. Every time a new nurse looked at her chart, he or she would say, “Freehan? Are you Heather Freehan’s parents?” “Yes. She’ll be by later.” Some would even go as far as to bring in a book for the daughter to autograph. Sweetly, she always obliged. Greg had moved up to writing for a semi-trendy music magazine by then, and was largely unavailable to be near his mother. Jill visited every day, usually keeping her father posted on some new “ridiculous” teaching-regulations that were planned for the coming year, griping away as often as possible.

In her battle, Laura presented one particularly frightening week for the family. She had been responding poorly to treatment, and none of the vital numbers that are meaningless to the healthy were registering where they should have been–making them intensely important to the patient and family. All of the family took time away from work and sat by Laura’s bed in as large of groups as the hospital staff would allow–and sometimes larger. The doctors began discussing “last wishes” and “next of kin” matters. Nathan all-but stopped talking. Jill all but stopped griping. Greg all but stopped listening. Heather entirely stopped writing, but did begin praying–a first in her life.

It would not end then. Laura began responding more favorably and was eventually declared to be “in the clear.” A form of spiritual revival came to the family, assured that Heather’s prayers had made all the difference. Nathan started awkwardly-joking again, Greg went back to work, and Jill griped even more to make up for lost time. Nathan discovered the favorable side of retirement. He read books he had bought but never opened, bought new ones, and re-read ones he had forgotten. Laura read each one he closed as soon as he was finished, even if she’d read and memorized them years earlier.

The couple is now in their eighties. Their mutual retirement plans more than provide for their needs, and Heather always gives them a percentage of her profits from her book sales, crediting them as the ones who “taught me to love words.” They want for nothing…

…except good health.

Laura is not expected to survive her present bout of leukemia. Her age makes her a low-priority for most of the major medical advances. Nathan knew this day would come, but he had hoped he would have been gone by then, or at the very least deranged enough not to know what was happening. No such luck. The children are responding in the typical, adult fashion expected…no crying allowed in the hospital room, but plenty at the bar afterward. Laura is of surprisingly chipper spirit, repeating the phrase, “Don’t worry. I’ll see you when you get to come home to me.”

Somewhere over the last near-century, there is a more romantic, touching, moving story. Somewhere, there live two people who history will mention in the same breath as Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Ward and June, and Ricky and Lucy. However, in the heart of the old, weakened, wearied English teacher, there is no story greater than that of “Nathan and Laura: The REAL Greatest Story Ever Told.”

With that weighing on his mind, Nathan pulls the few dollars from his old, beaten-up wallet, he thinks of his leukemia-stricken, chemotherapy-laden wife, and asks for the plastic combs he buys to be wrapped in the hospital gift shop’s finest paper, and tied with their finest bows.

“My Laura turns eighty-six today.”

(c) 2006, Derek Brink.