One Gift

She’d turned it over in her mind for months. She was allowed to give one gift. Cost was no object, but it was the only gift she would be allowed to give ever again. Just one gift.

She’d gotten the message in her mailbox on a sweltering August day. The envelope was sealed with gold leaf and the writing was in excellent calligraphy. Choose a gift for the letter writer’s choice of recipient. She might never know who, might never meet the person, but would know he received the gift. At first, she’d dismissed it as someone’s effort to amuse himself. Maybe it was some sort of game show, and she was the only one not in on the joke. Why her? Why had she been singled out? She wasn’t anyone special. But as the days cooled and no other message arrived, she began to consider the project. If this was a real offer – responsibility, really – she shouldn’t pass on it. One gift. Any amount of money could be spent and would be made available as required.

Money no object? She could dismiss the usual gifts of clothing or nearly anything else found in the mall. Technology? Now there was an idea. A person could do things with the newest gadget. But technology was always changing. Who would want something that would be obsolete within a year or two? Ditto for vehicles of all kinds.

She didn’t dismiss books as readily as someone else might. A book – the right book – could elevate thinking. Why, it could change a life if a person took the author’s premise to heart. Maybe she could give a first edition. Hmm.

Real estate was a great alternative. You can’t go wrong with real estate despite market trends, because that was just it. If the price fell, it could as easily rise after enough time. A house? Maybe an estate. What was she thinking?! She could buy an entire island. Who wouldn’t want their own private island? No one she could think of.

She could arrange for tuition and room and board at a university. Of course, not knowing the recipient, she couldn’t be certain such a thing would be appreciated nor even useful.

Or a vacation somewhere! Really. Didn’t everyone need, or, at least, want a vacation? France, Greece, Paris in the spring . . .

She supposed she could buy stock. Didn’t rich people do that type of thing? Stock could make someone a millionaire. Or not.

Days and weeks passed. She researched. She wandered around the neighborhood wondering about the letter-writer and then thinking about the gift recipient. Leaves changed color and fell. Icy weather settled in. She sipped cocoa and looked out the window, thinking. Wondering. Turning it over in her mind. One gift. Only one and then, never again.

And it was Christmas Eve, the date given to reveal her choice. Despite the crunchy snow underfoot, she walked to the mailbox and deposited her choice within. It was a small manila envelope with two 2-inch symbols and a letter inside. It read:

Dear Gift Recipient:

I’ve spent a lot of time – make that an enormous amount of time – wondering what to give you. I finally concluded that, of all the things available the world over, my choice is the best one. It’s small and great at the same time.

I hope you like it. I hope you will accept it.

Cost: Me – nothing. Him – everything. You – pending.


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The Midnight Promise

Snow fell outside as winter’s cold touch frosted the pane of glass next to her. She wrapped her hands more tightly around her coffee cup as she sipped and peered into the velvety dark of an empty street. Other than the cook and a waitress, she was alone in the all-night diner. She wished she wasn’t, but she was. Her mind drifted back to another night just like this one. Just like this one it had been close to midnight on Christmas Eve.


She’d been on top of the world then. After three years of hard work and loneliness, she’d been offered a promotion in an exciting city away from this bland town and she’d accepted it. Her things had been moved and she had just finished up final details on a day when everyone else was home or at church celebrating. She’d passed the little diner and decided to stop for a hot cup of coffee to warm her fingers, for though future’s promise held some light, the night was bitterly cold.

Her fingers had just begun to thaw when he walked in and cheerfulness suddenly filled the room, touching everyone including her. He hailed the cook and the cook waved back with his spatula. He got the waitress talking, and marveled at her two children’s accomplishments. He told a joke and the two workmen at the counter joked back, laughing.

As he was served his bacon and eggs, their eyes met; and he’d motioned her to join him. And in two hours that felt both like a lifetime and no time at all, she learned he was leaving – as she was – in the morning. Yet it wasn’t for an exciting city, but a dusty country where he would fight for someone else’s freedom and, perhaps, for a freedom she daily took for granted. And they had agreed that night, that, barring other relationships or death, they would meet here again in five years to the minute.

Those five years had been good. She’d met with success. She’d made some friends, friendly acquaintances really. But a life filled with trivial things holds little satisfaction, and she’d learned that, like everyone else, she was not without a yearning to go below surface amusements.

Oh, she’d made an effort to find him. She’d tracked his name down every possible avenue, but had come up empty. Maybe she’d been had. His easy manner invited trust, but perhaps it was a ruse. She’d chided herself, but she couldn’t forget that night five years ago nor their easy conversation nor the depth of his gray-green eyes nor the way his left eye squinted when he smiled. Nor their promise.

And here she was. Little had changed in this old town, but somehow it pulled her back. She’d even come a few days early and curiously perused real estate listings.

The dark night whispered doubt and tragedy. Minus the occasional clatter of dishes, it was too quiet. She had been foolish to think about it at all. She should have left it, as he most certainly had, in the booth as she walked out the door. She should have left the memory. She should have forgotten the promise.

She squinted again into the darkness, then down into her steaming coffee. She closed her eyes and held the cup to her cheek. Please. Life had to hold more than what she’d eye-195684_960_720-pixabayexperienced. Please, on this night when all the world somehow knew hope was real and love wasn’t just for the fortunate, let him remember. Let him care. Let him come.

The bell on the door jingled. She opened her eyes and they met his: gray and green and deep as the sea.


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It had been howling for, oh, two hours straight. The wind that had begun as a hesitant breeze had grown swiftly to unrelenting gusts. Hard pellets of icy snow filled the air, swirling and crashing on streets and cars and homes. No one in their right mind would be out in this weather. And no one in their right mind was.

“Jiffy!” His words were snatched by the wind and tossed into a sea of soundless air. Still, he persisted.

“Jiffy! Jiff, please! I’m here. Follow my voice!”

How had it even come to this? He’d been a slug for days on end after. That’s how he’d begun to think of it. After. After he’d lost his job due to cuts because of one more regulation the small company just couldn’t afford. After he’d discovered his girlfriend had been seeing another man on the side. Well, that was that. As they say, once trust is gone, what else is there? After he’d had to move from his apartment to a much smaller, less expensive place in another part of town.

The ‘after’ part of his life hadn’t been long – just the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas – but it had been brutal. The road ahead was dark and hopeless, the girl he’d once considered his best friend – wasn’t, and despite knowing it would just make things worse, he’d begun to allow himself to sink into the despair that knocked incessantly at his door.

The one thing that had kept him from crawling under the covers and checking out completely was his dog, Jiffy. He’d rescued Jiffy from the pound at a bargain price the day before he was scheduled to be put down. They were as close as it was possible for man and dog to be. When he went anywhere, Jiffy was right beside him. They ran together every morning and every evening. Before. Yet even when he’d begun his long slide, Jiffy hadn’t deserted him. He’d nudged him out of bed, snuggled next to him with camaraderie’s warmth, and made him keep going somehow.

And now, on a lonely Christmas Eve night, his one loyal friend was lost during a walk around a block of the new part of town; an impulse that, like everything else in his life of late, had gone horribly wrong.

Wasn’t Christmas, if not a time of joy and gladness or lights and presents, at least a time of hope?

He sank to his knees and the snow seeped through his jeans with its numbing cold.

“Jiiiiffyyy! Ji . . .”

He covered his face with his hands. There was no light for him. No joy. No warmth.

Something made him look up: A sound; small, but real, and getting louder. It was a sound he knew by heart. By heart.

pexels-photo-168082-by-lisa-fotios-no-attribution-requiredAnd his dog jumped up on him and licked him over and over, and he wrapped his arms around his wriggling, wet, cold, snowy, wonderful friend and kissed him back.

After. After they’d gotten back to his apartment, after he’d rubbed Jiffy down with a thirsty towel, after he’d changed into warm, dry clothes, after he’d grilled a steak to split between the two of them, and after he’d turned on some Christmas music, he and Jiffy sat close together and watched the busy snow against a dark sky. He didn’t have a tree this year. There were no lights. Yet something he’d missed began rising up inside him.

And he and Jiffy celebrated like there was no tomorrow. But there was.

Image: pexels-photo-168082-by-Lisa-Fotios-no-attribution-required.jpeg

God Watched

Don’t read this Christmas miracle story. You won’t like it, and you won’t like me for writing it. Save yourself the stress, skip this story, and come back next week for something to give you the sense of warmth and Christmas joy we all love; unless, of course, you don’t mind the fact that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.


Semi-surrounded as it was by three oceans, the dear little country seemed to be encircled with the shelter of angel’s wings. It’s founders had, in fact, asked for wisdom from heaven, itself, in its structure, and for many years it seemed to be blessed because of it. Sure, it had its ups and downs. Every country swings between the forces of good and evil with the pendulum of history. It praised its heroes. It mourned its defeats. It witnessed its share of error as well as of greatness in the comings and goings of all that happens through the course of time’s river.

But of late the country had been badly beaten and bruised. Its recent rulers had done what damage they could by pitting its citizens against each other (skin, sex, culture, religion, language, you name it), by reducing its protections – both of individuals and as a whole, by abusing its sense of morality and common sense, by denigrating the church and even the country, itself, and by putting a stranglehold on those who attempted to use their nerve and smarts to make a go of it. The rulers held out the apple of benevolence injected with the poison of increased governmental control, and the people ate it.

How did it happen? It wasn’t as though its citizens were desiring their own country’s demise. They were, for the most part, very good people: People who loved what was right, or thought they did; who cared about their fellow-man; who honestly wanted good to prevail. But schools of thought differed about how to best help people and preserve a nation. Passions inflamed. Those who would use those passions to create destruction rather than discourse were loud and persistent. The gem of youth was accessed. Slowly and surely young children grew to believe things they were taught about history, economy, and morality regardless of the lessons’ veracity. They were young. They didn’t know differently, their teachers were both sincere and skillful, and their parents were oblivious of the intensity of indoctrination. The very definition of words was changed to influence thinking about right and wrong, good and evil. It became difficult to tell what was true and what was false, and voices from many sources created a cacophony of confusion.

For belief, as we all know, is a stubborn thing. It is strong and rarely yields. Why should it? The question, of course, is which belief is right? Which belief is true?

And now the country’s demise was nearly complete. In only a short time, its transformation from freedom to communism would take place. The powers and their followers were nearly ecstatic with the thought. And the people? Half of them were alarmed at the thought and half of them were at peace with it.

In just one election, it would be entirely possible to wrest what control a free citizenry maintained and implement their own philosophy: Marxism leading to socialism leading to communism. It was, according to everyone who knew anything, a sure thing.

praying-hands-1379173656p80-publicdomainpictures-netBut prayer can’t be outlawed, even when thought seemingly is controlled and speech surely is – if not by law, then by name-calling. Small utterances in quiet homes and loud pleas in large gatherings were offered to the God who had watched, as He watches all countries, with care and concern, and suddenly the little country found reason to hope.

That hope came, as hope often does, in an unexpected way. A blustery man of no political background challenged the plans so carefully laid. His language wasn’t skilled nor did it hold the smooth enticement of a politician, but he was brave and he was tenacious, whatever else people thought of him. Some said he thought one thing, some said he thought another. And said. And did. And his character was this. Or that. His election caused some to fear. They worried about the opinions others claimed he held and were concerned for the future. Some people rejoiced at the thought of the country being snatched from the precipice of Marxist policy and of the possibility of it returning to its origins; not the origins taught by the sincere and skillful teachers, but its true Constitutional origins that people needed to learn about; some, for the first time. And some people felt uncertain about who they should believe, sighing while they continued in their daily tasks.

And the country watched and waited to see what the blustery man of no political background would do. And as they waited, God watched them.

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The Gift

She couldn’t recall the last time she’d had a present. It may have been the necklace she’d received from her grandmother when she was twelve, or maybe it was some other little thing she’d received from one of the foster families in the years after that and before she’d run away. But it was all so very long ago now.

She’d never blamed anyone. She’d never known her parents, them both being the kind that disappeared when troubles arose – troubles such as a baby. Her grandmother had cared for her until she, herself, needed care. It had just seemed best to start out on her own. She’d done pretty well, too, if she did say so, herself. Never married. No, not that. Too much – trouble.

But she’d made a decent living and a few friends here and there, and had retired before they’d let her go, though no one would have said anything about age.

IMG_3916When December came, she had carefully lifted out cardboard boxes holding the treasures of her favorite time of year and had pulled each piece out to put in its proper place. She wasn’t certain why she felt compelled every year to do such a thing. There wasn’t anyone to make IMG_3920happy by little Christmassy touches, and she didn’t actually believe in the baby in the manger. Jesus was a word that slipped out when she was frustrated, though why she should use the name of the one she didn’t actually believe in mystified her if she thought about it, so she mostly didn’t.

Christmas Eve descended into a clear, dark sky sprinkled with stars. As she sipped some cocoa, she sat back and took in the sight of her house decorated for a day celebrating the birth of someone who she deemed unworthy of celebrating and wished this year would be different. She wasn’t one of those who believed something you bought for yourself could be called a gift, but she wished, this once, she might receive a gift.

The doorbell rang, and she jumped up. No one ever came to visit. Who would come now? She opened the door to nothing but cold air on a dark night. She leaned out and peered down the street. No one. Yet there, on the top step was a box with her name on it. She pulled it into the warmth of her home and slit the tape.


And there,




nestled in strawIMG_3926was the best gift of all.IMG_3903

The Star

The house was a wonderland of tiny snowflakes and bells, of gingerbread men and spritz cookies and fudge, and of wreaths of every size in every room. Scents of cinnamon and orange peel lightly infused the air. Candy canes bunched together in a freechristmaswallpapers.netcut-glass jar. On the dining room table stood a gingerbread house, carefully baked and designed with loving hands. And on a bookcase shelf near the mantel, not too obvious, but fitting in just so, the crèche.

Her eyes roamed over each scene as she walked casually from room to room. She’d always loved Christmas and her habit of decorating for The Day was one of the few things that had outlasted her troubles. The only thing that was missing was the star. She had one at one time and not too long ago, either. A few Christmases ago, it had fallen from the top of the tree and broken beyond repair. That was the year she had retired. It was the year she had been diagnosed with something that sucked the life from her until modern medicine and sheer determination had killed it. And it was the year she had sat alone in silence just as the last minutes of the day had ticked away, and city dwellers were welcoming in the new year with little horns and midnight kisses.

Oh, she didn’t mind the silence. Before – before she’d battled death – she’d loved joining in life with those around her. But she’d changed. Since her illness, she’d become a bit of a loner and quietness soothed her more often than not. Still, at this time of year when families were traveling long distances just to spend the day together and friends gathered for dinners and teas and parties, her quiet life tweaked her. She thought maybe she should read again the Christmas cards sent to her and send her own in return. Perhaps she should join the coffee party announced for the next day by old friends, the annual event she had ignored during her silent years. Maybe she should go to church. An inaudible, dismissive laugh escaped her lips. No, of the many things she could think of only the loveliness around her merited her attention.

She looked at the beautiful tree placed in front of her window. She’d done at least that; a gesture to those passing by that someone in her house believed in the light of life. But it still bothered her that the topmost branch of the Christmas tree from where the little star had pronounced its benediction for over forty years was now bare. It troubled her that the tree’s top missed the star which most assuredly belonged there.

She turned off each light, sat for a time in the dark, then stretched out on the couch 1247049723_c54dbb2677_m of better days and happier times. She must have drifted off, for it was two in the morning when she woke. She rubbed her eyes, then rubbed them again. There above the crèche was a little light. It wasn’t the shape of anything, but it made her happier than she recalled ever being. And she watched it as, in the stillness of the night, it glowed with a warmth she had forgotten. As she watched it in its tiny place above the Christ child, peace flooded her spirit. It was as though goodness, itself, was in the room with her, filling her up with hope and love.

She glanced at the clock. Who cared for sleep? If she hurried, she could address those unsent Christmas cards and still make it in time for the coffee party.

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Curtain Call

The weather forecasters all agreed. It was going to be a doozy. The balmy warmth that had washed November with its counterfeit promises was about to be blasted to smithereens by a winter storm of snow and ice and the kind of cold that froze not only toes, but bones. Newscasters, mayors, hospitals, and the police force throughout the Midwest pleaded with anyone who watched or heard: Stay indoors.

Thea had pleaded, herself. Stay put. Don’t come. But it was the first Christmas since her husband had died, the first Christmas their only child had been without her strong, dependable papa who always made everything better. He had owned a small theater company that barely scraped by. His grand plans to expand and change lives had never materialized. But it didn’t matter to Clara. To Clara, he surpassed all the directors in New York and London combined. His words echoed in her memory: “Follow your spark, sweetheart. Follow your light.”

She had finally turned off her phone to ignore her mother’s messages. She didn’t want to hear them because they told her something that didn’t accommodate her desires. She didn’t want to listen because she was nineteen.

She wasn’t a child anymore. She could take care of herself. If the roads became impassable, she’d simply take the nearest exit and find a café to wait it out.

Miles multiplied, and as millions of tiny snowflakes pelted her window, obscuring dark from light, Clara began peering down every passing exit, each town’s darkened signs a testimony to businesses closed to the impending storm.

Thea jumped at the teapot’s whistle, then scuffed to the kitchen. With a shaking hand, she poured the steaming water into the cup of peppermint tea, then held the cup close to her face the better to feel the warmth of it. She glanced at the clock. Clara would have been on the road ten hours now if she had left as planned. Then, in a sudden act of faith, Thea poured a second cup. public domain

She placed it on the fireplace mantel, then stood in the spot she had haunted for hours this day as she had watched the sky turn from winter white to darker gray until light receded into wind-whipped, snow-covered darkness.

What was that? She squinted, then blinked. Her breath fogged the window and she felt its cold pane on her cheek. The infinitesimal light grew larger. A light, but not headlights. A spotlight shone down on the car as it inched its way down the street following a string of footlights that lit its path.

“And then,” Clara concluded her story of sliding on the icy road and desperate prayers for help, “the lights came on. It felt like I was back at Dad’s theater.”

They held hands as through the window they watched the curious lights dim, then go out in the whiteout of the night’s blizzard.

Image: public domain


One Forgotten Thing

“Tonight, folks, you see the miracle of Christmas all around you. It is in the help given to a neighbor, the music resounding through stores and churches, in resplendent parades and pageants. It is in the tinsel and color and sparkle shining through each window. It is in the light of the eyes of a child. It is in our hearts.”

Dan shrugged into his jacket and plucked the key from his pocket to lock the door. He had hit all the right notes tonight. The audience had chuckled and nodded at just the right places. It had become second nature by now. Just as his grandmother had hoped, he had become a very good speaker. Very good. He knew how to move a crowd, how to fill them with questions or anger or, like tonight, fill their hearts with the blessed joy of the holiday.

He stepped quickly down the cement steps, breathing in the cold night air. He stopped and looked around him at muted lights of a city gone dark and quiet on a night when most turned to home for nurture and entertainment. Christmas Eve.

As he turned the lock of his home, a striking building on an upscale city block, his foot nudged something on the top step. Picking it up, he turned it over in his hands. A small piece from a crèche. Whose it was or how it had landed on his step he had no idea, but someone would be missing this tonight. Surely they would want it to complete the Christmas scene.

He bent down and dropped the infant Jesus back in its place as he stepped over it and Caribou Coffeeshut his door. He would turn on one of those wonderful Christmas movies tonight and appreciate the stories with happy endings. He would drink cocoa and eat some fudge someone had given him. He would play games on the new computer he had indulged in as a Christmas present to himself.

And the baby Jesus lay in the quiet night outside in the cold.

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Backdraft (conclusion)

Standing here looking at the lights, she felt a presence and turned her head to see the old chaplain standing next to her.

“Have you forgiven her yet?”

He said it as though their conversation begun with his comment in her hospital room had continued through the years. Here beside the Christmas lights the question seemed as natural as the evergreens in front of them.

“Does it matter? It’s been so many years.”

She could hardly believe it, but his standing next to her didn’t bother her as it had that very first time. It didn’t frighten her as it had in her dream, nor surprise her as it had at the grocery store. It seemed, in fact, somehow good – like he was a very old friend.

“Forgiveness always matters.”

She stood, breathing white puffs into the night while the tree lights sparkled, the darkness exposing their beauty and color.

She thought about the neighbor, the woman whose jealousy of her happy life had inflamed the hostile act. That day’s destruction was not limited to dwelling, but extended to thought and emotion, trust and memory. She breathed another vapor of white into the air. She was tired of it all. She knew now that she really did want to let it go; let all of it go. She wanted to release the debt. She nodded her head. Yes. She forgave the neighbor. She knew she could, and she really did.

commons.wikimedia.orgGazing anew at the Christmas lights, she breathed in their beauty and goodness. It seemed suddenly that their friendly, sparkling light shot into her soul baptizing it with warmth and brightness. She looked into the old chaplain’s compassionate eyes and saw in them her reflection.

She blinked and peered more closely. Slowly she brought her hand up to her face, the skin between her thumb and forefinger no longer webbed. As she ran her fingers over her now smooth skin, she closed her eyes against the tears pooling there. Was it true? Had the stranger’s comment long ago in the agony of her hospital room really taken place? Surely not. But she had forgiven – she knew that much – and when she had determined to let the transgression go, she really had felt a very strange pulse run through her body.

“What happened?” she asked as she opened her eyes.

But the old chaplain wasn’t there, and the Christmas lights glowed brighter into the cold, dark night.

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She exhaled a puff of white that momentarily hung in the air before vanishing into the darkness. Hugging herself with her arms, she shivered; but she would stay just awhile longer to enjoy what she had come to see. They were pretty: twinkling beauty against the cold, night air. The lights had been strung the weekend before on evergreens encircling the skating rink. The tiny white bulbs that had graced the pines all the years before had been moved to the bushes and deciduous trees outside city hall. Resting in the now bare-boned branches, the lights gave a certain panache to the surroundings of the otherwise unremarkable building by which they stood.392px-Beeston_MMB_67_Christmas_lights_switch-on wikimedia commons

But the red and green, blue and purple lights now lending their sparkle to the rink’s evergreen edge were amazing. She thought, as she gazed at them, she hadn’t seen anything so stunning in a long time. A very long time.

It had been ten years now since the fire, but in her mind it was yesterday. A neighbor – one she barely knew – who had resented her happy life even as she smiled and waved each time they met had channeled her jealousy into a lighted match thrown onto her morning paper resting on the jute rug in her small, enclosed front porch. Her morning ritual to switch off the outdoor light and get the newspaper had resulted in a backdraft which sent her to the hospital for treatment she wished she could forget and a future she wished she could escape.

A morning jogger had provided testimony of the event, and the neighbor had gotten five years and the satisfaction of destroying the irritating happy life.

Knowing what had happened and why and punishing the perpetrator couldn’t change the image she saw every time she looked in the mirror. Her scarred face and neck, once pretty – some said beautiful – were oppressive to see. The scars seemed to thicken with every year and a quiet, gnawing sadness grew with them.

She had avoided anything to do with fire, even light, at first. After its inhabitant had returned from the hospital, the neighbors saw a dark house, its interior as devoid of light as its owner’s soul. Light was unavoidable, of course, and gradually she had allowed it in its many forms to filter back into her life. She had left all light switches untouched for a long time; but one day she had turned on a lamp, and the next week she turned on the kitchen light. She was able to flick those switches now, but only one room at a time. There was no point in wasting electricity.

It had been easy to remove reflective surfaces – vases, silverplate, mirrors. The bathroom mirror had stayed. It was like living with an old friend she no longer appreciated. She didn’t need a mirror to remind her of the fire’s wrath. She saw it in the pitying faces of friends and the curious, repulsed, stolen glances of strangers. She felt it in the webbing between her thumb and forefinger.

A visitor to her hospital room had told her that maybe one day her skin would be as good as new, but forgiveness was more important than skin. It had to do with the inner pain, the pain that would never go away without it. He, she supposed, was an old chaplain looking for something to do or say; but his words were harsh. Forgiveness of the neighbor? Forgiveness of someone who had caused her such grief and pain seemed ridiculous. She hoped that neighbor would live hand to mouth, that she would have trouble finding work because of her criminal record, that she was disgusted with herself. The nurse attending her just then had completely ignored him. People could give care without caring, she had thought at the time. She had ignored him, too.

She had ignored everyone at first. It was two years after the explosion when she saw the old chaplain in a dream. He just stood, looking at her, waiting. The next time was at the grocery store. Well, actually, she couldn’t be sure about that. She had thought she’d caught a glance, but when she looked more closely, he was gone. She thought about the jealous neighbor, and wondered where she was now.

to be continued…

Image: Beeston_MMB_67_Christmas_lights_switch-on-wikimedia-commons.jpg; creative commons lic.