I'll Be Home for Christmas--
by Sue Kite
Later that night, when Neera was asleep in her grandfatherís bed, Andjen, AKA Captain Lee Crane, submarine commander and erstwhile agent for the Office of Naval Intelligence had time to really think and to lament the situation he was in. That he would miss his rendezvous on the coast was a given. If it had been a matter of only a day, that would have been okay as well, since his contact was going to remain for an extra day, but now? He had promised the old man, and besides, he couldnít just leave the little girl and her grandfather here in the middle of nowhere in their present situation. He sighed and sipped on the lukewarm tea. Little girl? Did he actually refer to her as a little girl? Lee smiled. Neera was a six or seven year old going on twenty-seven. Of course, that was preferable to a bawling, whining, simpering six or seven-year-old.
Just before Neera had gone to bed, Grandper had awakened enough to drink some broth, take some tea with a couple more of the Republicís version of Tylenol, and was back asleep. It was hard to tell by the light of the fire if the old manís color was better, but he didnít feel quite as feverish as he had earlier in the day. The bandage would have to be changed sometime tonight, he figured. The next time the old gentleman awoke. Until he had actually unwrapped the old manís wound earlier, Crane had hoped that, somehow, when Grandper was conscious, he could take over. With a sigh, Lee slowly got to his feet. He was dead tired even without all this extra stress. When he had first spotted the cabin with no smoke coming from the chimney, Lee had thoughtóhopedóthat he would be able to get a few hours of semi-warmth and sleep, and then take off for the coast again.
And the weather! Who would have known that an Eastern hemisphere version of an Alberta clipper would nail almost the entirety of the Peopleís Republic? Well, if he could keep a lookout, see when someone was making it up here after Neera and her grandfather, then he could slip away and stow away on someoneís fishing boat. Hell, heíd even try to commandeer one. But he couldnít leave these two until he knew they would be safe.
Crane opened up the stove and checked to see if it needed another stick of wood. He shoved one in just to be on the safe side and then poured himself a little more hot tea to temper the chill of what he had left in his cup. Neeraís eyes had shown her trust in him and she had gone to bed without argument after they had cut out snowflakes and made tin foil balls and other simple things to put on the little tree sitting in its bucket in the far corner of the living room. The firelight twinkled on the foil and made the snowflakes turn to gold. Neera had laughed softly, trying not to wake her grandfather. The scene so much reminded him of Thanksgiving dinner with the Tirean orphans* less than a couple of weeks ago. Is that all? He looked at his watch. That was no help. He didnít have on the special engraved one the admiral had given him. This was a non-descript one that didnít have more than the time of day. He had thought this mission would be simple. Get the pictures, get the hell out and be home for Christmas. What a joke!
"Who are you?" asked the barely audible voice of Grandper. "Really? Who are you?"
Crane pivoted around. "Someone whoís here to help you," he answered, walking over to the bed and sitting down next to the older man.
"You arenít from here. I can tell," Grandper said, struggling to sit up. "Are you here to kidnap my grand-daughter?"
"No, of course not, sir," Lee replied vehemently, appalled at the suggestion. "I . . . I just happened on your cabin, thinking it was empty and needing a place to rest for a while. The storm kind of came out of nowhere."
Grandper sighed. "I heard some of what you did with Neera tonight. The tree. The dinner. The stories. I know you didnít intend her harm." With Leeís help, he finally made it into a sitting position, propped with several pillows. "You are an American."
It was a statement. Crane sighed softly. "Sir, you know I canít say anything about that. Nor would it be wise to tell you who I am."
The old man studied him for a moment before he said anything. "In case you are caught," the old man said with a nod. He lay back more heavily against the pillows.
Lee didnít say anything for several minutes. It was true. He didnít want this grandfather and his granddaughter to be in trouble with the regime because of him. "I need to change your bandages, sir and clean out the wound again. It was infected when I cleaned it earlier."
"Thank you for helping me," Grandper mumbled sleepily.
"You are welcome." Lee gathered up the bandages he and Neera had cut and rolled before she went to bed, the peroxide, clean washcloths and carried them back over to the bed where the old man lay half asleep. Grandper came a little more awake as Crane unrolled the old bandage. He said nothing as Lee attended to him. "I know this is going to hurt, sir, but I will try to be as gentle as I can. When I am finished, youíll need to have some more broth." He continued to unwrap the bandage. When he finished, he saw much less evidence of infection than he had before. He smiled in satisfaction as he began to clean the wound. Grandper stiffened, but didnít cry out. "It looks much better this time, Grandper," Lee told him.
"I am Nicoli, young man. You donít have to be so formal."
"Nicoli, do you have something other than this to clean wounds?" Crane asked holding up the bottle of hydrogen peroxide in the scant light of the fire.
Nicoli studied the bottle. "Yes, there is a first aide kit in the bathroom that has antibiotic ointment."
"Lay still while I get it."
"Do you think I will be going anywhere?" the old man said gruffly.
"No, I was not trying to beÖ."
"I was only trying to make a joke," Nicoli interrupted, stifling a yawn.
"Oh." Crane took the flashlight and headed down the hallway. He quickly found the kit and returned to the old manís side. He held the light on the contents while Nicoli watched.
"That one," Nicoli said, pointing. "You know our language well, but have not learned to read it, eh?"
Lee just smiled as he washed the wound gently with warm water. He patted around it and let the air dry it while he went to get Nicoli something to drink. When he handed the older man the mug of warm broth, he ventured a question. "Your granddaughter told me why you two were up here, but why on earth did you bring her up here alone?"
"You questioning my ability to take care of her?" he asked tersely, holding the mug in a tight fist. Then he sighed.
"No, sir, but this isolated a place I would think it would have been wiseÖ." He stopped, feeling that he was getting in deeper and deeper. "Sorry, Nicoli, there was no disrespect intended."
Nicoli harrumphed and then sighed again. "I did have someone else. My nephew, Wu-jin came up with us. He tried to get down the mountain for supplies at the beginning of the storm."
Crane was incredulous, thinking of the older man trying to fend for himself and a little girl when all the utilities went down. "Wu-jin was stupid, then," he snapped. Then he realized the shaky ground he was on. "Sorry, sir, I know he was just trying to do the best he could, but it really would have been wiser for him to stay here and wait until the storm was over. Then you all could have tried to get out together, or," and he pointed toward the blinking transmitter, "waited for help to come to you." There was something different about the transmitter, Lee thought. Then it came to himóthe little light was dimmer. Could the battery be going out? He decided to ignore it. There was nothing he could do about it anyway. "By the way, is there anymore fuel for the lantern?"
"No, that was one of the reasons Wu-jin tried to get down the mountain before the storm got too bad. I thought I had enough fuel for an emergency, but I was wrong. So it wasnít entirely my nephewís fault."
Lee kept his thoughts to himself in regards to his assessment of the missing nephew. "It was just one of those things. This kind of storm is very unusual, is it not? I suspect it took a lot of people by surprise." The old man was yawning furiously again, and Crane knew it wouldnít be long before he was asleep again.
"Yes, it is a very unusual storm."
By the time Lee was finished re-wrapping the leg, Nicoli had finished his mug of broth and was fast asleep. He gazed at the dimming transmitter for a few minutes as he sat by the fire, trying to stay awake. He felt his head nodding toward his chest. This wouldnít do, Lee thought. He needed to stay awake, but how long could he do that? With a mental shrug, Crane added another log to the fire, banked the fire in the stove so the coals would remain hot for morning and then arranged himself on the couch so he could keep an eye on the older man should Nicoli have difficulties. Only then did he succumb to his bodyís need for rest.
Neera crept out from under the thick comforter the next morning and shivered at the freezing cold that greeted her. It was so cold she could see her breath. Shivering, she threw on her robe and then took care of her needs in the small bathroom that was even colder than the bedroom. That done, she quickly found her slippers and then tiptoed into the living room. Andjen was asleep on the couch, Grandper on the bed. The room was colder than it was when she went to bed, but not as cold as the rest of the cabin.
As quietly as she could, she slipped to the fireplace and sat on the hearth. Several split logs were sitting next to her and she carefully moved the grate to put one in on top of the hot coals. The log sat on top of the mound and then settled with a shower of sparks and what sounded to her ears like a roaring avalanche of half burned wood and ash.
"Good morning, Neera," Andjen said sleepily, his voice low.
"Iím sorry, I didnít mean to wake you," she said, disappointed, her voice also just above a whisper.
"I needed to get up. It looks as though the sun has risen already." He rubbed his eyes and yawned. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, I did, thank you. Sure was cold when I got out of bed, though." Neera looked toward Grandper and saw that he still slept.
Andjen must have seen her look. "He is doing much better. He only needs to build up his strength lost when he bled so much. That and a . . . crutch to keep from walking on the injured leg later." He made a motion of what he was talking about and she understood.
"How will you do that?"
"Not sure yet, but Iím going to look around the cabin and see what I can find."
"Grandper has a cane that Grandmere used before she . . . died," Neera offered.
Andjen shook his head. "No, he needs something that will help him better than a cane." He paused. "But I will look after breakfast." He turned toward the cabinets. "Hmm, what should we have for breakfast?"
Neera just shrugged. "Grandper only had oatmeal stuff for breakfast," she said with a slight grimace.
Andjen raised an eyebrow. "Thatís all?"
He smiled and shook his head. "Got to be something we can do about that," he said. Andjen began looking through cabinets, pulling out several things. "You are right, there isnít much." He rummaged some more. "But I think we can at least do something to the oatmeal to improve it."
By the time he was done, she was eating oatmeal the likes of which she had never tasted before. It had raisins, a little bit of sugar, and the juice from a can of cherries, which Andjen said they would have with their mid-day meal. Even Grandper, when he awoke, had a little bit. She didnít think he liked it quite as well as she had, but he ate what was in his bowl quickly enough.
After talking with her grandfather, Andjen did something to Grandper with a piece of string. Neera didnít have a clue as to what he was doing stretching the string from the bottom of Grandperís foot to his armpit. Then Neera knew. Andjen was measuring Grandper. Soon Andjen bundled up in his coat and gloves and then braved the cold to go out to the little shed at the back of the cabin. He was there for over an hour, but Neera wasnít concerned. The cabin was warm from the crackling fire and the cook stove, almost too warm, in fact. Neera noticed that the clouds were not quite as low today, something that made her cheerful and a bit sad at the same time. She wondered about that. By the time Andjen had returned with a long, straight stick and a shorter one, she had pulled out a few things she thought would be interesting to have for lunch. There was less to choose from today and Neera wondered how many more days they could stay here before their food ran out. She looked at the Christmas tree, saw the dancing little ornaments and smiled. They would have enough and be warm enough and Grandper would get well so they could all return home to Papa. She knew it.
Again she wondered about Andjenóhow he had been up here, why he wouldnít tell her his name, where he was from? She studied him as he worked the two pieces of wood with a knife, digging at a hole in the smaller piece, shaping the end of the larger, occasionally trying to fit the two together. Grandper was asleep on the bed again. "Tell me a Christmas story, Andjen. Can you do that while you work?"
He stopped and looked thoughtful, then nodded.
"Tell me one about when you were little," she coaxed. "What did you do at Christmas?"
He looked even more thoughtful, studied her dark brown eyes a moment before speaking. The knife didnít dig quite as hard, but that was okay. She sat by the fire to listen to him. "One of the things we always did when I was young was someone read the Christmas story from the Bible my father kept in the living room."
"I donít have one of those," Neera said.
"Right now, I donít either, so Iíll have to tell you the best I can remember it." So he did, his rich, soothing voice describing the place and events so that she could see them in her mind. When he was done, the crutch was still only half finished and she noticed that Grandper was awake and watching.
"That is what we did when I was little," the old man said. "You did that very well, Andjen."
Andjenís cheeks colored a bit. She didnít know why, but he finally said to grandfather, "Itís been a long time, Nic . . . er Grandper."
Grandper looked at Neera and told her, "In my bedroom, in a box on the floor of the wardrobe. Bring the box to me."
She did as she was told, wondering at the heaviness of the box. Neera was tempted to open it up and look before she took it to him, but she didnít. After she had laid it down next to him, he gently pulled the top off the box. It was a huge book, and it looked very old. "What?" she began.
"Itís the old Bible that has been handed down from fatherís to children for four generations." Neera looked puzzled. "Itís over a hundred years old, my child," Grandper said. "You can sit here quietly and look at the pictures."
Gladly she did so. Andjen continued to whittle, the fire crackled merrily and outside, the wind rattled the windowpanes. She gazed in rapt attention at the pictures in the book.
*the orphans that Lee and Chip rescued in the story, The Little Army. Some of them decided to emigrate to the states where they became the wards of various crewmembers' families.