From the bridge, the city almost looked peaceful. This was ever more so when the snow fell. A Christmas city festooned by decorative delight. Storefronts transformed into mesmeric displays halting onlookers both young and old, streetlamps donned tinsel and garland. The high-rises boasted brilliant sparkle as if to be bejeweled concrete giants calling for cheer and joy. The people smiled more, even nodding heads as they passed on by. On the surface, this would appear as nothing short of a yuletide slice of heaven. But when you’ve seen the city like I have, all the sparkle, all that splendor and all the veneer of glee vanishes like a whisper.
This is a wretched place. A Godless sprawl with nooks and crannies that are filled to the brim with depression, disease and death…
I hadn’t always felt like this. I used to be young and idyllic once. Well, younger, anyway. I’m not exactly old, objectively speaking. Though my knees, back and early onset arthritis may beg to differ. Regardless; I used to view the city with the same wonderment as everyone else that still seems to. It changed for me a few years back… Can’t say exactly when, only that it did.
I guess some would say that it was when Chris died. But I think it was before then, too. His death, if anything, merely validated the bitterness that I had already been feeling.
13 years; that’s how long I’ve been working in this godforsaken place. I’m a paramedic. A man of many bandaids. I work out of station 26 in the city’s downtown. Chris was my partner. Right up until the day he was late for work, then subsequently found at home, sitting in his favorite chair, empty bottle of bourbon and a loaded .45 with one round missing resting next to him.
This job has the ability to get to the very best…
Murder, rape, death and dying; all the ingredients needed for the macabre cocktail of depression. A beverage many of us in blue consume. One sip at a time. I knew I was getting bad when even my wife began to sigh with regret upon my entering a room. We don’t talk much these days. Not a lot to say, I guess. Even the kids look at me different now.
But I’m not here to beguile you with my depressive anecdotes. I’m here to tell you a Christmas story. And although this may hardly seem like the start of one, I assure you, it is. Just hang on a little longer… I did.
To get us where we need to go, I have to start with the bridge. An architectural hallmark of the city. It connects the two boroughs, north and south. In the north, its mostly residential. Modest to decadent. To the south, that’s where downtown is. That’s where I work. Station 26; nestled unassumingly within a row of mid-rises. One of the busiest houses in the city. That’s what we call it, a house. I guess its because we end up back there after each run. Except for lately. Lately it felt as though we’d been racing from call to call. Not atypical for this time of year — Christmas time — the most wonderful, the most stupendous, and the most reprehensible time of the year. Depending on whose eyes you’re looking through, I suppose.
I’m 39 years old. In my younger years, my arguably more idealistic years, I used to love Christmas. Our ambulance service had this thing called, the Christmas Bus. It was an old city bus that had been gifted to our service and make-shifted into a mobile unit replete with stretchers and other trimmings of emergency patient care. It was used to pick up children from the sick kids’ hospital around Christmas time. A group of volunteer medics, nurses and doctors would settle the kids into respective stretchers and seats, and drive them around the city’s north side to visually feast upon the palatial light displays adorned to peoples’ homes.
I stopped doing it after a while. Too many sick kids began to weigh heavy on my eyes. Quite the thing to see; a terminal child with an innocent essence — it’s enough to kill you on the spot.
And I think that’s how I ended up on the bridge; not because of one kid in particular, but an amalgamated knot of memory that housed each of those now lost. The losses started piling up. It started to feel like I couldn’t do anything. Where once my hands were expeditious and skillful, they had now become sluggish and painful. The heft of many lost souls’ rests on the palms of my lowly hands. I’d had enough. The thought of taking one more breath stabbed me punitively with an incalculable perforation. I began to inch closer to the edge. I muttered to myself, softly at first, but, increasing with desperate crescendo.
“Why? Why the hell am I here? What the hell’s this all been for? I’m no damn good, but you take, Chris and not me?! Why? Huh??” I was now shouting into the sky. A career of mounting loss and failed resuscitations motivated my darkened thoughts that night on the bridge. I was going to jump. End it all. Put everyone and myself at ease. Cease my miserable existence.
“I hate this life! I hate you!!! I hate… me. I wish… I wish…” I paused before finishing, “I WISH I’D NEVER BEEN BORN!!!!”
My voice bounced along the water below, and echoed faintly into the unknown. I could see the vapor of my exhaled panic-stricken breaths. I closed my eyes and was about to take one more step toward the edge, but something halted me. Something unexpected and startling — a voice — a rusted baritone that queried, “Rough night?” It belonged to an old homeless man. He was timeworn and slouched. His face, weathered and well textured. Handsome, perhaps once. But now, tarnished by old dirt and wrinkles.
“What? Oh, sorry. I thought I was… I thought—”
“You reckoned you were alone? Yes. I gathered that much. Been listening to you for a while now…”
Slightly confused, I inquired, “to me? You…? I haven’t been standing here long.”
“No. But this isn’t your first night at the bridge, is it, Matthew?”
He knew my name. He spoke my name.
“How… how do you?” Before finishing, I squinted ever so slightly and ingested each and every detail of this old man’s face. I wondered how he knew my name and then speculated that perhaps he had once been a patient of mine. We do tend to deal with the city’s homeless with great regularity. But his face was both unique and unremarkable. No memory came forth. “How do you know my name?”
“I know a lot about you, Matthew.” He assured, stepping a little closer now. He peered over the edge of the bridge before stapling his kind eyes to me. “Yes… I know your name, your age, height, weight, day you were born and even the reason you’re standing here now.”
A hesitant crinkle fractured my brow. “Oh, good. I have a hobo stalker, that’s great. I’m saved. All the reason in the world to keep going now. Look, I don’t have any money. I’m not going to pay you for your parlor trick. Get lost and leave me alone. Go call an ambulance some place else.” I turned my back to him.
He laughed a little before speaking to me again. “I know that you were hopeful once. I know that childhood was a little rough, but somehow, someway you found a desire to smile. You strived to be better than your surroundings. You vowed to make life a better place, for you and those around you. To make the world a gentler place. That’s why you became a medic, isn’t it? To fix a little piece of this wounded world.”
My shoulders fell lower than they’d already been, and through exaggerated sigh I orated, “Goodness, you are relentless! GO AWAY! Leave me be.”
“Oh, I can’t do that. Not just yet, anyway. At the end, if you’d still like me to; perhaps then, I can leave you be…”
“At the end? At the end of what?” I snapped.
“You’re going to find this difficult. There may even be a chance that you don’t believe… but by the end of the night, if what I’ve shown you doesn’t dissuade you from your piteous line of thought, I’ll leave you alone. It’s not my place to inflict my will — only to change yours.”
“Change my what? Will?! With parlor tricks and nonsense? Get outta here, please. Just leave me be.” I asked with sincerity while inhaling chilled breaths of defeat.
“Your life matters. You’ve brought a lot of good to this world, Matthew. Though, you likely still don’t believe me, do you?” I didn’t even need to respond. He knew.
“C’mon, Henny… we got one more in us…” The old man’s words caused stillness to overtake me. A deep confusion began to swell inside. His words… that coax… only, Chris said those things to me. Henny, was in reference to my last name, shortened into a nickname that only he had bestowed to me. I turned my head and peered purposefully at the old man. “Ah… there you are. I’m not who you judge me to be, Matthew. You don’t know it just now, but you called me here tonight. You asked for me.”
“Asked for you? What are you…? How did you know about—”
“Chris? Henny? Well, truth be told, I’m not from around here. I’m an angel, Matthew. AS2, actually. Angel second class. Yes, we exist. And you asked, why? Why are you still here…? You even wished to have never been born. I’m here to show you what the world would be like if you hadn’t.”
“The world…?” I began to smirk, even through incredulity. “You think I impact the world? Change anything within it?” I laughed. “That’s funny!”
“Come — let me show you…?” The old man beckoned for me to follow. To this day, I’m not sure why I did. I felt compelled, I suppose. Curiosity can do that. I turned away from the ledge and stepped nearer to the old man, but not before peering over the side one last time. We began to walk through the snow that was now falling heavier than before. Thick, craggy flakes landed against my skin like a cold wet kiss. I didn’t say a word to the old man as we walked. No clear idea of where we were going, or what the hell I was even doing, marching beside a mad old man, but on we went.
We maneuvered through 7 or 8 city blocks away from the bridge and came to a halt outside of a capacious brick and stone building on 9th Avenue. St. Mary of Catherine’s School for Girls. A prestigious place for kids aged 5 to 18.
“You know this place, Matthew?” My eyes answered the question. “You’ve been here. Responded to calls here, haven’t you?”
“Yeah. Sure, 1, maybe 2… why?”
“Take a look at that plaque over there…” The old man motioned with his head, pointing to a prominent display piece rested in the stone along the side wall of the school. Once again, feeling compelled, I wandered over toward the snow-stricken plaque. With my right hand, I brushed the mounting flakes aside. Revealed to me was a name immortalized by raised lettering. Two dates sat beneath the name. Whoever it was had only lived to the age of 9.
Abby Morris, now among the angels of God.
“A memorial plaque…? That’s what you want me to see? That’s the powerful dissuasion?” I reproved at the old man.
“You don’t recognize the name, do you?”
“Why would I?”
“A fair question, I suppose.” The old man responded before stepping beside me. “You may not know the name because in your world, the one with you in it, Abby Morris is alive and well. She’s 13 now, actually. She’s on the math team. She’s really quite something.”
“My world?” I asked as my voice lowered.
“Yes, the one where you’d been born… Back on the bridge you said that you wish you’d never been born. Well, if you hadn’t, on that crisp fall morning when Abby failed to rise from the pool, she would not have had you responding to the school’s call for help. You would not have been the medic who showed up and cleared her tiny lungs of water. And as a result, all that would remain is this humble plaque that you and I stand before…”
“What? There are no other medics in this world of yours?” I asked mockingly.
“Oh, indeed there are medics. Sure. But on that day, without you, the closest unit would have been more than 20 blocks away, stuck behind a garbage truck that had an ailing hydraulic line. They wouldn’t have made it in time. But you did. And as such, Abby is alive and well.” The old man stared at me with a warm gaze and hopeful disposition.
“Yeah, well… sometimes you get lucky.” I dismissed his positivity.
“And sometimes, you’re right where you need to be… even if it’s for someone else.”
His words struck hard. There was a poignancy to his utterance. One not as easily dismissed.
“Come, I’d like to show you something else.” The old man placed a hand on my shoulder and ushered me to turn around. When we did, the expected snow-laden sidewalk was nowhere in sight. Instead, we were stood outside of my favorite place in the whole city, McCracken’s Irish Ale House. Giving in to the oddity of a night that this was already, I didn’t bother questioning the old man about how we had suddenly gone from standing on 9th avenue to uptown Falkland St. I simply allowed a smile to melt my stoicism and remarked, “Now this is more like it; lets go in and get a beer… a whole lot of beer. C’mon, I’ll buy you a whiskey, you crazy old buffoon!”
Barely waiting for the old man, I peeled back the doors and stepped inside. A welcomed sight came rushing forward. The aging woodwork, accented by Christmas decorations was familiar to me, especially in recent months; I spent almost all my off hours from work perched up at the bar, asking Benny, the bartender to pour me another. Which is exactly what I planned to do at that very moment.
I walked up to the bar, forced smile still planted, “Benny, you menacing mick, get me a whiskey would ya? And one for my superannuated companion here, too.” I slapped the bar-top and peered toward, Benny.
“First off, it’s Benjamin. Only my mates call me, Benny. Second, don’t slap my bar. Third, this is an Irish establishment; we got a lot of whiskey in here, pal. What kind will it be?” Benny spoke as if he didn’t recognize me. Even scowling at me some. I knew I looked a little out of sorts as of late, but that shouldn’t matter to, Benny.
“Benny, it’s me, Matthew! Matty.”
“Fantastic. Nice to meet ya, fella. Now what’ll it be? I’m busy here.” A surplus of confusion overtook me. I struggled for a second and remained without reply. The old man stepped in.
“We’ll take two hot coco’s.” He tapped me on the arm, “you want marshmallows with yours? I’ll take extra in mine.” The old man said with gleeful enthusiasm. Benny now shared the same heft of confusion that had crippled myself moments earlier.
“Fella, this is a bar — not Santa’s workshop — there’s no hot, what’d you call it, coco, here.” And with that, he turned and walked away.
“Ha! Joke’s on him, eh, Matthew? He still thinks Santa Clause is real…?”
“Says the guy who claims to be an angel,” I rebuked.
“Touché. But I don’t think you’re as disbelieving as you once were…”
“We’re here, aint we? You followed me off that bridge. To the school and now here to this lovely place.”
“Yeah… speaking of that, how’d you get, Benny to pretend not to know me?” My voice queried.
“I didn’t have to — he doesn’t know you — no one does. Matthew, you don’t exist. Never been born…” The old man admonished with lecturing tone.
“Never been born…?”
“That’s right. As you asked for.”
“Okay, pal. Whatever the hell your name is—”
“I was wondering when you’d ask… it’s, Terrence. Terrence Goodfellow. Pleasure.” He outstretched his hand as though he wanted to shake mine. My unease had given way to renewed displeasure. I brushed his hand aside and made my way toward the door. But before I could make it to the outside, the door swung open and in walked, Drew. Drew McDavid. My very best friend in the world. We grew up together. He owns a luxury travel business in town. But he too appeared to have no idea who I was as he walked by.
“Drew!” I called out. He turned his head and looked at me.
“Hey… can I help you? How’d you know my name?”
“Drew… it’s me… Matthew?!”
“Hey, I’m sorry, friend. I can’t say as I know of any Matthew’s. Sorry.” And with that, he turned and made his way further inside. Terrence looked at me, and I at him. He smiled, I didn’t. I once again turned sharply and walked out the door back into the snow. Terrence followed close behind.
“What is all this, why are you showing me all this weird stuff…? Huh?”
“I’m showing you exactly what you asked for — a world without you in it…” At the end of his remark, an epiphanous idea took hold. I smiled sternly at him and began walking with haste along the snowy sidewalk.
“Where are we going?” Terrence inquired.
“I’ll show you. I’m going to put a stop to this charade of yours.” I said with inflated hubris. I really felt like I had him. I was about to make him feel like a fool.
“Okay… lead the way.” He returned cheerfully.
And that’s exactly what I did. I walked with purpose and vigor, despite the oncoming chill of the winter night. We walked for nearing 45 minutes. But that didn’t bother me at all. I knew where I was going and when I got there, I was going to laugh in this old man’s face, wish him goodnight, then take myself upstairs and into bed — I was taking, Terrence to my place. My wife would surely know who I was. Even if she did hate me at current time.
We made it to Lynes Street and when I turned the corner to make the final few steps to my house, I was once again frozen by disbelief. My eyes widened and scanned frantically.
“My house… it’s right… it’s supposed to be right here! Where is my house?!” Anger carried my words through the chilled air. There was nothing in front of me but a vacant lot. A place where discarded trash and shopping carts cohabitated. “My home…”
“You don’t have a home, Matthew.”
“What are you talking about? It’s right here… it’s supposed to be right here! What is going on?!”
“Matthew, you were never born. You’ve never been to, St. Mary’s, nor saved a life, nor sipped tainted tonic from the bar, you’ve never met, Drew, nor… your dearest Sheena. And you certainly never bought a home. People who don’t exist don’t do those things… do they?”
This was no parlor trick. The bar…? Drew…? Maybe. Doubtful, but maybe. This… my home… Sheena… this was something else entirely. And my face now began to soften and melt in acceptance of that reality. Terrence took notice.
“When Chris died—”
My head snapped up from its lowered state, and my eyes met with Terrence’s warm gaze. He continued.
“When Chris died, you felt betrayed. Angry. Because in part, he was you. A man who did his best to place fractured shards of this world back together again, but in the process, he began to lose pieces of himself — just as you have — and Chris dying, made the world seem unfair. Unfair amidst an already weighted position you hold within it; confronting and fighting death with odds forever out of your favor.” He paused for a moment. “You don’t truly wish for death or non-existence — you simply wish for the pain to go away — that’s why you sit at the bar, instead of next to your lovely wife — drinking seems easier. She misses you, by the way. She’s not angry with you. She doesn’t sigh with perturb. She lets go in sadness. She aches for you. Because she knows she’s losing you. You’re losing you.”
I began to cry. My head fell into my hands and I wept. Terrence placed a comforting hand on my back and held me in place for a while. When my head raised and I had mustered the moxie to look upon him, he appeared to have donned a glow of sorts.
“Matthew, we all stumble sometimes. And life has indeed let you down more often than some. But from childhood to now, you’ve always found a way to smile and keep moving on. And Chris would want that for you, too. To continue moving. Grief never really gets easier; we just get used to how hard it really is. But we don’t have to do that alone. You don’t have to do that alone.” His words layered themselves through me. I began to understand that what I was doing was pushing it all away. Never trying to accept and navigate the difficulties of this life. Rather distract and dismiss. Which leads to this… a life of non-existence.
“Do one more thing for me, please?”
“Sure, Terrence. Sure. What is it?”
“Look…” Terrence motioned with subtle gesticulation. I followed his gaze. My house. My house had returned. It stood in perfection among the snow and sparkle of Christmas. Lights danced with shimmering brilliance, tracing the gutters and beams. The Christmas tree, prominent and triumphant in the window. I turned to thank Terrence. But when I looked back, nothing was there except a small envelope sealed with a wax stamp that read, “AS2 Terrence to, Matthew.” As my hands began to open the seal, my eyes wandered the vicinity in search of the old man. Of, Terrence. Of, the angel, or whatever he was.
When the envelope was opened, I peered down and began to read. An easy task as the content was brief.
If tonight your ears are met with a wail, a siren in the distance if you will, it will be familiar yet unique. And if you hear it, know this; I, Terrence Goodfellow, have got my wings and am now a fully fledged guardian angel.
I can’t say why, but at the end of his letter, it felt as though there were two choices within me; one, to continue on my path of spiral. Go back to the bridge and finish the night as it had begun, or take a step in a different direction, and go… home.
I dried my eyes, folded the letter and placed it in my jacket pocket. I stood up and walked toward my front door. I wanted to see my wife. The kids and our beautiful home. The closer I got, the quicker my feet moved.
I got to the door, turned the knob and opened it to the inside. But before being able to take one step inward, a clatter of voices cried out, “Welcome home!” Standing in my living room were all my closest friends and family, including, Drew. My punishingly beautiful wife came rushing to my front. She peered up at me, a look of concern smeared the features of her face.
“Don’t be mad, okay? I know you’ve been going through some things… I just thought that maybe we could have a party with all the people who love you—” before she could finish, I kissed her lips. Something that I hadn’t done a lot of in recent times.
When I stopped, I looked her deep in the eyes and said, “baby, I love you. I love you so much. I am so sorry that I’ve been… well… I’m sorry. I love you.” By the time I had finished speaking to her, the two kids had come running up beside us. They embraced both Sheena and I in a familial contort.
I was a different man in that moment. Perhaps the man she had fallen in love with all those years ago. Maybe better? Either way, I was content and blissful in that frozen flicker of time. Surrounded by all those I love and am loved by. There was no other place I’d rather be. No bridge nor bar.
“Hey, Matthew.” Claire, the ten-year-old spoke my name. We saved this for you. She handed me the tree topper. The tree was glowing and spilling embers of glimmer throughout our home. A mesmeric sight to behold. The three-step ladder was waiting by the tree. I ascended the steps and placed the Nakatomi Plaza facsimile atop the tree. Hans Gruber positioned as if to be falling from it. Die Hard, a Christmas tradition.
The moment the ornament sat atop the tree; a distant siren was heard from outside. It raced through the city streets with an echo that did not at all sound emergent. It sounded… beautiful. It halted all of us. Olivia, the youngest jeered aloud, “My teacher says that each time a siren rings, an angel gets their wings…”
A smile of unrehearsed sincerity and glee befell my face. “That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. Atta boy, Terrence. Atta boy!”
“Who’s Terrence?” Sheena asked.
“Oh… he’s just a dear friend. Someone who helped me to see that this truly is… a life worth living.”
And with that, until late into the night, we danced, sang and laughed in each others company. Sharing gifts, stories and hugs. A tradition that will persist from now until always. Because at the end of it all, it really is, a wonderful life!