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The Stranger

"Mama, please stop fooling me. Now I'm big enough to understand that there's no one called Santa Claus and he's never gonna bring gifts for us! This Christmas is also going to be the same; dull and sad, like last year."
Nine years old Henry lamented in a mournful shriek.

Hazel was fighting back tears and didn't know how to pacify her disturbed son. She glanced across the room and grimaced in annoyance. Her husband Robert was sprawled on the floor, sleeping, as if he was half dead. His cheap whiskey bottle had rolled under the couch.

Hazel tried to breathe normally in between ragged sighs. Nothing about their house said that it was Christmas Eve. Bare grey walls were as forlorn as their dreary condition. She couldn't afford a Christmas tree either. There were only a few cookies in the jar which was given to her by a friend.

Ever since Robert had met with an accident at the factory, he'd not only lost his hand, but his sense of responsibility towards his family had also disappeared along with it. Moreover, in the wake of that two years old tragedy, he was still wallowing in its sorrow, becoming an alcoholic.

Being a nurse, Hazel was slogging day and night, but it wasn't sufficient, at least not enough to give her son a good Christmas. She hugged Henry and shed bitter tears. The storm in her heart was as bad as the snow storm outside. Just when the mother and son were grieving in their mutual misery, a soft knock on the door alarmed them.
"Mama! Who could it be? So late at night, that too, in this snow storm?"
"Shh..... wait here. Don't move."

Hazel went in the kitchen and came back with a knife in her hand. She fastened the security chain in place and made sure the door was just ajar. Standing in front of her was a big man in military uniform. He was covered in snow and shivering from head to toe. His hands were full of heavy bags. When he spoke, his voice was a dash above a quivery whisper.
"Ma'am, I couldn't make it home in this storm, can you please give me shelter for the night?"

Hazel recollected the verse from the Bible,
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong."
Without second guessing, she opened the door and welcomed him inside.
"Oh My God! Please step in before you freeze yourself to death."

Dropping his bags down, the stranger removed his gloves and rubbed his cold hands, whilst he took in the place in one glance. Henry kept his inquisitive gaze affixed on him.
"Would you like some warm water?"
Hazel offered the military man.
"So kind of you. Yes please."

While she scurried to the kitchen, the stranger crouched in front of Henry and stretched out his hand.
"Hello young man! What's your name?"
Henry didn't budge and questioned back.
"What's your name?"
He grinned and replied gently,
"I am Nicholas Kris, an army officer. Now, what's your good name?"
"Henry Colton."
Nicholas smiled and kept his hand outstretched.
"Well! You're a handsome boy Henry! Merry Christmas."
Henry finally shook his hand, just as Hazel brought the warm water for the unexpected visitor. He sat on the floor by the fireplace and sipped the soothing liquid, while the mother and son duo eyed him skeptically.

After a while, Nicholas cleared his throat and said,
"My military base is not far from here. A holiday was declared at the last minute, and I rushed into town to buy some presents for my family. But then I got stuck in this terrible snow storm, and could barely make it till here."

Henry's eyes flickered from Nicholas to the bags by the door. He kept looking at them expectantly in silence. Hazel was saying,
"It's alright. We just finished dinner. There's some potato stew and bread left. Would you care for a bite?"
"Actually yes. I'm totally famished."

Hazel and Henry sat beside Nicholas, while he ate and told them funny stories. Hazel was happy to see her son smiling. She was relieved that he had forgotten his distress, even if it was temporary. She glanced at Robert. His deep slumber made him look like a patient in coma.

Later, Hazel put a mattress by the hearth for Nicholas to pass the night. He thanked her profusely for her kindness and her generosity.

Early the next morning, when Hazel got up before sunrise, Nicholas was nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, the bags which he had brought were still there by the main door. She trod outside and glanced around. There was no sign of him, as if he'd never come to their house at all. Hazel closed the door and peeped in the bags. They had clothes, chocolates, story books, games and an envelope, containing $ 5,000/-. A small slip of paper fell out from the cover. Hazel was wonder struck with overwhelming emotions as she read the message. It said,
"Merry Christmas Colton Family! Season's greetings from Nicholas Kris; Santa Claus!"

Shamim Merchant, Mumbai.

Shades Of Simplicity

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