by Ron Van Sweringen
Michael Parks knew the sound of his heartbeat, he should; he’d been listening to it for 52 years. However, lately he had noticed a change. It was slight at first; but, as time went on, the difference became more pronounced.
A tinny sound now accompanied his heartbeat, and Michael was sure at times that he even heard an echo. How is that possible? he thought. The answer he came up with was unnerving. Could it be hollow? Could I be alive with a hollow heart?
That night, when Michael turned off the light and crawled into bed, Punkin, his little Terrier settled next to him and quickly fell asleep. Michael was not as lucky. He lay quiet for the longest time listening to his heart sounds. This time he was sure of it: there was a distinct echo. Finally, he fell asleep, watching snowflakes drift by his bedroom window.
The next morning dawned grey and blustery. The snow had continued through the night, and the city was dealing with a blanket of white on Christmas Eve.
Michael saw Mrs. Flagler attempting to shovel her walk. Actually, the scraping of her snow shovel on concrete woke him up. Mrs. Flagler lived alone in a small house next to Michael’s apartment building. She was an odd old bird, and the sight of her short little body all bundled up trying to shovel the snow did something to Michael. It caused what he could have described only as a slight “quivering” in his heart. It was a strange sensation that lasted only for a few seconds.
Michael dressed quickly, and in less than five minutes was standing beside Mrs. Flagler. “Let me do that for you,” he said, reaching for the snow shovel.
The old woman looked up with surprise. “I thought all the gentlemen in the world had died off.” She handed him the shovel. “Come in for some hot chocolate when you’re done.”
Michael had never been in the little house before. He was amazed at what greeted him. An artificial Christmas tree covered with ornaments stood in the corner of the tiny living room. Everything about the tree looked slightly shabby and yet beautiful.
The tips of the branches were worn, and in places you could see the wire frames peeking through. There was no doubt in Michael’s mind that the tree had seen many Christmases. It seemed to glow, and all he could think of was how much it must have been loved in its lifetime.
Mrs. Flagler appeared with two cups of hot chocolate, and they settled down on a sofa across from the tree. Michael studied her face as they sipped their cups. The wrinkles in her face and the wisps of grey hair were obliterated by the sparkling blue eyes that watched him. It suddenly occurred to Michael that she was not old. It was the world around her that had grown old.
“Would you do me one more favor?” Mrs. Flagler asked, reaching out to touch Michael’s hand. “My church is having our annual Christmas pageant this evening. Could I prevail upon you to escort me. The streets are snow-covered and icy. I could use a strong arm to lean on.”
Michael was about to accept, when it happened again, that strange echo in his heart. This time it was accompanied by a new sensation, a warm glow that seemed to radiate throughout his body.
The church was made of brick and stone and was tucked back from the street behind snow-covered trees. The evening was oddly quiet and peaceful when Michael opened the large oaken door. Most of the pews were full, and a red velvet curtain had been hung before the altar.
“You sit here, where I can see you,” Mrs. Flagler whispered to Michael, guiding him to an empty seat. “I have something to do, but I’ll be back later.” The smell of incense reminded him of going to church as a child with his mother, and he was lost in memories when a voice startled him.
“Oh, thank heaven! You’re exactly right.” A heavy set man with a shiny bald head stood staring at Michael. “Please come with me, sir. There’s hardly any time.” The urgency in his voice overpowered Michael’s hesitation, and seconds later they were behind the red velvet curtain.
“Please put this on, sir,” the man implored, handing Michael a long robe. Before he could say anything, a woman placed a full grey wig on his head and rouged his cheeks. “There! You make a good Joseph.”
“But I....” Michael started to object, when the man pleaded, “Please, sir, our Joseph is sick tonight, you don’t have to say anything; just kneel next to Mary and the baby Jesus.”
A moment later the velvet curtain opened on a manger scene and a choir began singing Silent Night. Michael stared out at the crowded church with its burning candles and holly wreaths decorating the walls. Stained glass windows reflected the outside street lights and suddenly it happened to Michael again; the echo in his heart.
When the choir finished singing, the lights were dimmed and a spotlight came on over Michael’s head. He followed the pinkish light with his eyes until an angel appeared above the stable. The angel’s beautiful voice filled the church, and it seemed to Michael as though a hush had fallen over the world.
It took him a few seconds to recognize the sparkling eyes of the angel looking down at him. He suddenly realized at that moment that the echo in his heartbeat was gone.
Copyright © 2014 by Ron Van Sweringen