War continued to rage across Europe, expanding from the Russian drive on Italy to several smaller conflicts between countries that had a grievance of one sort or another with a neighbor. The daily news reports were hard pressed to keep up with the casualty lists. North Korea threatened to invade South Korea. Hostilities continued to escalate in the Middle-East, where Israel faced the combined wrath of several Arab nations.
“This is one lousy way to spend Christmas,” said Jim, the soldier in the bed next to Robert.
“I find it hard to believe that you don’t like the smell of freshly sprayed antiseptic,” said Robert. “Or the festive use of red and green Jello as part of our holiday dining experience.”
“You forgot to mention the seasonal chill of these rooms.” Jim chuckled—then stopped as he doubled over in pain.
“Sorry,” said Robert. “I’ll do my best avoid making you laugh.”
“That’d be much appreciated.”
“What is it you miss most about Christmas?” Robert asked.
“Easy, Christmas dinner.” Jim’s eyes had a far-away look as he talked. “My brother and I used to both head over to our folk’s house. Mom cooks a ham and a turkey because her and Dad have never been able to agree on which one is the most traditional. Cranberry and walnut dressing, sweet potato casserole, and deviled eggs. That’s Christmas to me.”
“Deviled eggs?” Robert arched his eyebrows. “Isn’t that an Easter thing?”
“Hey,” Jim pointed a finger at Robert. “You eat what you like and I’ll eat what I like. As far as I’m concerned it isn’t a holiday—any holiday—without deviled eggs. You have something against them?”
“Nothing,” said Robert, “as long as you like demonic foods.”
“Are you serious?” Jim sat up straight in his bed and then grimaced in pain.
“I was just kidding,” said Robert.
A scream sounded from the section of the medical ward where the more seriously wounded had been located. Robert looked in that direction even though he had no chance of actually seeing the person. Each time a person screamed it reminded him of how lucky he had been.
“What about you?” asked Jim. “What is it that you miss the most?”
“Singing,” Robert answered absent-mindedly, his thoughts still on the sounds of distress elsewhere in the hospital. It was hard to think about anything else with the constant reminders of loss and misery that surrounded him.
“Seein’ as we don’t have anywhere to go you have plenty of time to develop that into a full sentence. I’ll even help you. I like singing at Christmas because . . .”
“Singing always makes me feel good inside. When I was younger, my parents used to take all of us caroling in the neighborhood. Mom would make plates full of cookies. We took turns handing the goodies to the neighbors. And then we sang.
“That combination of service and music celebrating the birth of Christ always gave me a warm, glowing sense that I associate with Christmas. Now, when I hear any of those same carols a bit of that feeling comes back.”
“If you were hoping that’d convince me to sing to you.” Jim blew a raspberry. “Not a chance. But it was a nice story.”
Memories of past holidays with his family crowded his mind until all other thoughts were pushed out. Each memory brought a brief flicker of happiness and then set him into an even deeper depression. He hadn’t ever felt this lonely before. Even on his mission in Italy he had been surrounded by the new friends he had made there and people celebrating the holiday with the traditions of their culture.
“How long do you plan to milk that wound for attention?” The familiar voice of Gilbert Feldstein came from the foot of Robert’s bed.
“Gil?” The shock at seeing his friend prevented Robert from saying more.
“I hope that’s not a sign of amnesia?”
“How did you get in here?”
Gil held up his left arm. Bandages covered it from wrist to elbow. “I kept telling them it was just a scratch, but they sent me here anyways. Good thing too. We can’t have the hero of Adige Valley forgetting his best friend.”
Jim’s gaze slowly passed from Gil to Robert. “You guys fought at Adige Valley?”
“Do you really not know who is sitting in the bed next to you?” asked Gil. “This is Robert Williams; the engineer who came up with the plan to stop the Russians. He did more than any other single person to win that battle.”
Jim stared at Robert, a look of disbelief firmly planted on the soldier’s face.
“It figures he didn’t tell anyone about the suicide mission he managed to involve me with. Or the recommendation for the Medal of Honor made by his commanding officer.”
Robert waved off the comments made by Gil. “He’s exaggerating. We fought just like everyone else in the unit. The only difference is that we were lucky and survived. Let’s talk about something else—like you being here.”
“Alright,” said Gil, “I do happen to have a reason for stopping by. A letter from your family arrived after they carted you off for medical treatment. I thought I’d give to you before they send me back for reassignment.”
Robert took the letter from Gil, handling it as if it were a fragile artifact. The address on the envelope had been written in green crayon. Even without looking at the name on the return address Robert knew this letter was from Cody.
Hands shaking, Robert tore open the envelope and pulled out the single piece of paper inside. A picture filled most of the page. In crayon, Cody had drawn an image of the family holding hands in a circle. Everyone wore Santa hats. In the center of the circle stood Robert. Below the picture Cody had written, “Since you are far we think of you all the time.”
Robert tried to push down a sob that threatened to burst out of his chest. His eyes watered and a tear rolled down his cheek. He’d been wrong. Even though his family was halfway across the world Robert wasn’t alone. No matter the circumstances no one who is loved is ever truly alone.
“You okay?” asked Gil.
Robert nodded, unable to speak.
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
This is plenty. What else could I need?
With a single act of service Gil had turned Robert’s mood around. It reminded him of the caroling his family had done at Christmas time. Then a thought crossed Robert’s mind. “Yeah, do you have a phone I can use?”