The kids on the bus asked, "You coming to the basketball game tonight?"
"I can't. My grandmother's coming to visit tonight." Joel was patient in his repeated denials.
There was no visit from grandmother, of course, just another of Joel's well devised covers for the truth. Joel never went anywhere but straight to the house.
Blake House had been Joel's and his mother's home for the first four months of the school year. The place wasn't bad. There simply wasn't any privacy. Sharing a room with his mother was easier since she started going to night school. Many nights by the time she returned, Joel was already in pajamas and ready for sleep.
For Joel's mom, the Blake House, in spite of the difficulties, was nothing short of a miracle. She knew it was hard on a boy of Joel's age but it was a comfort to know that he realized it was necessary for them. One more day with her husband may have been the end of her or her son, and Joel knew it too. In a way, it was his growing intervention in the assaults that convinced her they had to leave.
For Joel, things had a calm predictability and the days went by quickly. His mom, though, was tormented by uncertainty. With the help of the Blake House staff she had found a part-time job and a grant for vocational training. In spite of their support, it was hard to imagine a time when she might stand on her own. She married young and never learned a way to support herself; this was a tough way to learn.
As Christmas approached, she started preparing Joel for the reality of the upcoming holiday. She'd say they would have a nice dinner with the staff and the other families at Blake House and then they would walk a few blocks north to take in the view downtown from the overpass. She would explain that, with luck, they could be in their own home by March and they would have a private Christmas and presents.
"I don't need Christmas and I don't need presents," Joel grumbled each time. "Scrooge!" she quipped back.
She was proud of his effort to deal with his envy of other children's holiday excitement at school. He was so serious, though. She wished there was something she could do to give him a lighter heart and a happier Christmas.
On the Saturday before Christmas the families and staff were enjoying their holiday supper when Joan, the House counselor, called Joel's mom into her office.
"Do you have any plans tonight?" Joan asked.
"Joel and I are going to walk downtown to the overpass to look at the lights and decorations a little later."
Joan pointed out the front window of her office, "Maybe you'd prefer to ride instead of walk." Curbside sat a polished, black Lincoln Town Car with the front window rolled down. The driver saluted a friendly acknowledgement.
"I don't understand," was all Joel's mom could get out before Joan continued.
"An anonymous friend of Blake House has made arrangements for you and Joel to have use of this car for the next five hours … which will come in very handy since the performance is across town. If you leave now, you'll have time to get in some shopping before the show. What d'ya say? I thought so!" Joan smiled and led her out of the office to get Joel.
"Ma'am," said the driver opening the door as the two approached the car.
"What's up with this, mom?" blurted Joel as the second door shut.
"We're going to the show," she said bewildered, holding up her hands.
As the driver settled back into the Lincoln, he turned and smiled, saying, "I'll be taking you to the mall before the show. And I was asked to give this to you first." The driver produced an envelope and gave it to the lady before he turned to set off.
"Please forgive this intrusion into your privacy," the note began. "I hope you accept this invitation to a Christmas celebration. Enclosed you will find two tickets to tonight's performance of 'A Christmas Carol' and a small token of appreciation for your loving care of Joel."
The tickets and a $100 gift certificate slipped into her hand.
The note continued, "Christmas is a time of hope and of gratitude. In hopes of a prosperous New Year for you, and in gratitude to loving mothers like you, I wish you a Merry Christmas. Remember, you are never alone in this world because where love lives, friends always follow, seen or unseen. Sincerely, The Spirit of St. Nicholas. P.S. You do not need to tip the driver."
"What's wrong, mom?"
"Nothing, honey," she whispered through tears, hugging her son. "We're gonna go Christmas shopping, my little Scrooge!"
The mother and son felt special that magical night and for many days and nights that followed. The excitement of the performance and the touching story of the play stayed with Joel and his mother for a long time.
It took a little longer than planned for them to get their own home, but by the following summer they began what was to be many years of stable and prosperous living. For that time and forevermore, Christmas became their favorite time of year.