Chapter 7: The Christmas Oracle of Room 316

STORY RECAP: The Dickens family’s Christmas joy is cut short by Dad’s sudden job loss and the hospitalization of the girls’ grandmother. The Flores family is drawn into the Dickens’ lives by an unbelievable encounter. New opportunities begin to develop. This is the seventh installment of a 10-chapter holiday serial, which concludes Christmas Eve.

By Galen Holley
Daily Journal
For his daughters’ sake, Paul Dickens forced himself to make a fuss over the generic toys and the off-brand clothing spread down the aisles of the Main Street discount store.
He raved about a commercial he said he’d seen on TV, and about a girl he said he’d seen wearing similar clothes.
“I like this doll,” said Claire, his 6-year-old, turning the box over in her hands and looking at her father as if there’d been a mistake. “She’s in a bathing suit – but her name isn’t Barbie.”
Paul glanced down the aisle, and rubbed his forehead.
In the farthest corner of the women’s section, Sophie was furiously thumbing buttons on her cell phone.
From a nearby construction site, the thumping sound of hammers and the humming, periodic drone of mobile generators insinuated itself throughout the store.
“On TV she has a dog and a purse,” said Claire. “And an umbrella to put over her on the beach.”
Paul smiled, and shrugged, and told his girls he was stepping outside for some air.
The December sky was low and colorless over Tupelo, draping everything – the cars, the rooftops, the old smokestack on Carnation Street – in an unsympathetic mist in which Paul swore he saw the reflection of his own misery.
He walked toward Gloster Street, sinking his left hand in his pocket and clutching his right hand anxiously around his cell phone.
Behind him, little Claire, sure that she’d seen all the toys the store had to offer, quietly walked out the double doors and moved toward the noise of the construction site.
She quickly found a break in the orange fence and within a few steps was standing beside the crane that was lifting pallets full of lumber and nails to workers on the second story.
From the doorstep of a trailer, perched on the southernmost edge of the work site, a dog ran barking as if confronting an intruder. When it reached Claire, the dog positioned itself between her and the machine and intensified its protest. Claire, scared from the commotion, began crying.
Jaime Flores burst through the trailer door and ran after Paz, who was trying her best to scare little Claire back from the dangerous swing of the crane.
Esteban ran a few steps behind, asking in Spanish what was going on.
Paul Dickens ran toward his daughter, and, leaping the fence, reached her at the same time as the two Hispanic men.
“¡Dios mio!” Jaime said, pulling on Paz’s collar. “¡Cálmate, perrita! ¡Cálmate!”
“I’m sorry,” said Paul Dickens, gathering his daughter and pressing his forehead against her.
He dabbed her tears with his sleeve.
“I’m so sorry. I just turned my back for a second and …”
“No te preocupes,” Estetban interrupted, out of breath, leaning over and resting his hand on his knees. “Don’t worry. It’s OK.”
A long silence passed as the men gathered their thoughts.
“This is good work,” Paul finally said, looking at the frame and concrete.
“Sí, gracias,” Esteban said. “You know construction work?”
“Well, I can swing a hammer,” Paul said, still hugging his daughter. “I’ve done a little bit of everything since I got out of the Army.”
A cool wind whipped the plastic fence around them, and Paul gathered Claire’s coat around her neck.
“You were a soldado, eh?” Jaime asked. “A fighter?”
“A long time ago,” Paul said. “In the deserts, a heck of a long way from here.”
Just then Sophie came running through the doors of the discount store. The ear buds from her iPod flapped over her shoulders and her cell phone was nowhere in sight.
She rushed to her sister and put her hand on her shoulder, squeezing her. Then, realizing everything was fine, she pulled back.
Sophie hesitated, then put her right hand on her father’s shoulder. She seemed not to notice the strange people around her.
“I saw some tops in there I liked,” she said to her father, deferentially, rubbing Claire’s back and shoulders to quiet her. “I need some picture frames and some bathroom stuff, too.”
As Jaime pulled his dog toward the trailer, he noticed a hitch in her step. She hacked, as if choking on a bone, and buckled as he urged her away from the commotion.
“Fuerte, chiquita,” he told her. “Be strong.” But the excitement had clearly cost her something, and she whimpered as he forced her to turn and walk away from the little girl.

***

In her hospital room, Helen St. Cloud smiled, and the nurses were confused.
“She seems to be hearing a joke that we can’t hear,” said Jill Yenner, the head nurse.
The patient didn’t move, only spoke: “They are there, together, where it is being built. They know one another, now.”

Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal