A Candle in the Window
Some know it as “the Christmas Cease-Fire.” Others are more familiar with its technical title, “The Christmas Truce of 1914.” The important thing is that months after war was officially declared by multiple powerful nations, and against strict militant orders, on Christmas Day in 1914, soldiers on both sides laid down their weapons and left their trenches to come together in a mutual moment of peace and camaraderie
From the diary of Hendrix Michael James…
In July of 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, exactly one month after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his young wife, Sophie. This was the boiling-point for a pot that had already been steaming, and within less than a week, Germany declared war on Russia August 1, 1914. Two days later, Germany declared war on France. The next day, Britain declared war on Germany. Two days after that, Austria declared war on Russia. Seventeen days later, Japan joined the fight, declaring war on Germany. Two days after that, Austria declared war on Japan in retaliation.
War machines were burning hot, allied forces and central powers were meeting at the front lines, and the sky was dark with gun powder smoke.
It wouldn’t be until nearly three full years later that the United States finally joined the allies in declaring war on Germany, on April 6, 1917. And it wouldn’t be until a year after that, in 1918, that one-third of the population of the planet would become infected with a terrible disease that would ultimately claim more than fifty million people, more than twice the number taken by the Great War itself.
But already by December of 1914, just eight months into the first world war, the toll of its extreme and unprecedented violence was hideously clear on the battleground and in the echoing faces of its harried soldiers. It would only get worse. But none of the soldiers in the trenches or lying wounded in No Man’s Land could imagine such a thing. Already, it seemed too much to bear…
Detective Hendrix James stared blankly at the white cloth covering the table he kept reserved for this date and time every year. He blinked as his thoughts trailed off, then straightened in his chair and turned to gaze out the frosted window. Temperatures were dropping outside; the streets would be covered in black ice soon. It was an invisible killer.
He glanced at the heavy sky overhead. The air was thick, and moisture hung low with the possibility of a good snow. News channels had gone back and forth on whether it would come to pass, but the truth was no one could predict the weather. James knew of a few chronic pain suffering humans who could come damn close, much more so than meteorologists. He supposed he also knew a few people personally who could literally control the weather. But predicting it was a different animal, especially outside of aching joints and magical causality. Weather was and always would be pure, un-tamed chaos.
He for one was hoping the latest forecast dart-boarding three to six inches was on the money. Most might assume cops would prefer clear skies, but in actuality humans had a visceral reaction to snow, and this worked in their favor. A good, hard snowfall would actually help the situation rather than hinder it, keeping wary and less-experienced drivers off the roads entirely. That would especially be true tonight, given what day it was.
It was Christmas Eve, and James’ imposing form filled most of the bench on one side of a yearly reserved table at the Lumière de Fenêtre. It was a quaint and expensive French-styled restaurant with cozy and adorable décor, exceeding prices, and even more exceedingly good food. It had been run by the detective’s extended family for generations.
James was here every year at this time. The restaurant was empty, the sign on the door unlit and most of the staff on vacation or with family for the holidays. Yet this was the first time James had been here alone. Normally, his partner sat across from him and they would be half-way through a good bottle of red by now. This was their Christmas eve tradition, one they’d been keeping for nearly a decade.
But this year was admittedly different. A week ago, his partner had been mortally wounded by a terrible enemy. Fortune smiled upon them in a way he would never be able to repay when it just so happened that a new ally was capable of resurrecting Tess Noelle, bringing back to Detective James the woman with whom he’d fallen deeply in love.
However, just before she’d lost consciousness on that fateful night, Tess had witnessed something that changed everything perhaps even more thoroughly than her death and resurrection. She’d seen Hendrix change.
From a wolf to a man.
Hendrix James was a werewolf, and a fairly old one. That night, he and his supernatural kin and comrades had found themselves embroiled in an epic battle against an epic enemy – and Tess had shown up at exactly the wrong time, if for the right reasons. She’d been worried about him because he hadn’t made their weekly poker date with friends and couldn’t be reached. She’d tracked his location and run to his aid – right smack into the supernatural fray.
She’d been silent that night, in a kind of shock. So he hadn’t pressed the issue of speaking with her about what she’d witnessed. However, the following day she’d called into the precinct to claim a personal day, which she never did.
Hendrix had known why, of course. And after surreptitiously checking up on her to ensure she was physically well, he’d left her alone and given her the space and time she clearly needed to process the mass of new information that had fallen on her shoulders. Especially the personal stuff. Like the fact that her long-time partner and best friend was a werewolf. And he had never told her.
Hendrix took a deep breath and sighed heavily before sitting back on the bench seat and absently smoothing down his tie and the lapels of his expensive suit. Dressing up wasn’t really his thing, but he always pulled out the big guns for this night. So did Tess. Every time she walked through the front doors of Lumière, she looked so damned amazing, Hendrix could hear the rapidly increasing heart beats of every one of the few restaurant staff who stayed on to privately serve them, and he could even smell the occasional hard desire. He couldn’t blame anyone for their natural reaction. Tess “cleaned up nice,” as she so often put it. As far as he was concerned, there was never any cleaning up to do. She was simply beautiful.
Hendrix glanced for the thousandth time at both doors of the restaurant and wasn’t at all surprised to find neither one budging. But he was disappointed. If she had decided to come, she was ten minutes late.
Felt like ten years.
Time was an enigmatic entity in all respects but one. There was no mystery as to whether or not it was cruel. Nature could be blamed for aging and memory loss and disease and the escaping of dreams through tightly-grasped fingers. In these painful situations, time was innocent, merely the means by which we marked the passing of said moments. Nature was the real culprit.
But Time was responsible for one thing that marked it once and for all for the brutal entity it truly was. In ecstasy, it sped up, leaving you with fewer seconds with which to enjoy your hard-earned happiness. And in agony, it slowed down. Allowing you thorough exploration of each and every aspect of the assault of your pain.
… By December 1914, The Great War yet lacked the investment it would tally in its later years, and soldiers found themselves as they so often did, carrying out the mortal battle directives of politicians for political reasons. In the earlier days of the month, there began chatter concerning a day of truce. There was talk in the trenches about a desire by soldiers to cease their aggressions against their enemies at least for a single day so they could celebrate a familiar holiday in a familiar way.
To this end, on December 7th Pope Benedict XV publicly suggested a uniform and unanimous hiatus on acts of war for December 25th in honor of Christmas. True to their armchair-soldier form, political leaders of warring factions of course refused.
However, as the killing continued so did the un-silenced whispers of a ceasefire. And as the day approached, the whispers turned into a secret, one joined by small knickknacks, ornaments, and even toys fashioned from scrap metal, belt leather, and spent munitions.
It was just before midnight on December 25th that a soldier by the name of Master Sergeant Michael Hendrix James left the front line with a small group of his fellow soldiers to begin a four-day rest period before he would return to the trenches. The Belgian “rear area” behind the trenches was a strange and solemn strip of land that lie between the thick of the fight and the rest of Europe. Therein lay the decks of cards, books, footballs, non-trench ration food and drink, and the women that would help the soldiers forget about the war for a short while.
The sounds of artillery were incessant along the front; Michael’s mind had all but learned to drown it out. A few days had passed since the last time they’d been given the order to “go over the top” and leave the long, narrow trench where Michael and his fellow soldiers spent the majority of their time to make their way across No Man’s Land to the enemy’s trenches on the other side. It would probably happen during his short leave… and he was torn about his fellow soldiers making the trip without him. The attack was never successful. There was little point to it. He didn’t want to die. But he didn’t want his brothers-in-arms to die either.
At seconds to midnight, Michael separated from the others as they set off in search of different goals. He headed toward the rear area’s make-shift library, which was two blocks from the trenches and little more than a closet with broken shelves and gathered loose-leaf pages that had once nestled inside books but had since been blown far from their covers by enemy fire.
Half-way there, he stopped in the muddy street and tried to look up at the stars. But smoke clouded the night skies, turning them into a fog of dark gray that burned the lungs and reminded Michael of the rumors of poison gas that would soon be making its way to armies along the trenches. Already, technological advances were making this war a war to end all wars. Brutal and bloody beyond imaginings.
‘I would make a wish,’ he thought as he pictured his young wife’s eyes and the brightness of her sad smile. ‘If I could see a single star.’ She’d always lamented the way the smoke from chimneys utterly blotted out the sky in London. They’d made the decision to move to the United States and open a restaurant in New York when Michael was called to serve. He and his wife had always wanted a big family. But there was no time. She was there alone now, in a small flat above a factory in Manhattan, and he knew in his soul that he wouldn’t be returning to give her the children she deserved.
He couldn’t help but wonder if she were at least looking up at the stars. Especially on this night of all nights, Christmas Eve.
Of course, it was six hours earlier in Manhattan. But in December, it would still be dark. “Make a wish for us angel,” he muttered, his voice lost in the cacophony of ceaseless destruction from the front a few blocks away.
And then, just seconds after midnight on December 24th, 1914… the sounds of battle trailed abruptly away – and stopped altogether.
Michael slowly turned in the street and stared back through the buildings toward the direction of the front line. He waited, but the firing never resumed. Instead, an entirely different sound began to emanate from the trenches and echo distantly through the alleys of the rear area.
It was the sound of singing. A dozen at first, then a few dozen, and finally a hundred soft voices, no longer weak nor weary, rose from the mud-filled furrows bordering no man’s land, their harmonies joined in chorus over the words of Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr’s Silent Night.
Michael stood in dawning shock and comprehension as the lyrics grew in volume and surrounded him in that mud-filled alley. This was the truce. The one they’d been whispering about. This was the cease-fire that had been talked of for weeks, the one forbidden by officials, the one that nobody truly thought could happen. It was taking place right here, right now.
Michael took several steps back toward the direction of the revelry behind him; if there was to be a moment of peace in this muddy, bloody hell, he wasn’t going to miss it. However, a sudden and piercing sound of another kind broke is stride. A woman screamed, her stretched voice cracking in either pain or exhaustion at its pinnacle. Michael whirled toward the new noise, and when it came again, he found himself running toward the harrowed cries.
A door lay partially off its hinges in the frame of a run-down hovel three crooked blocks from the voices now singing a second Christmas carol. Michael pushed past the creaking entryway and followed another scream to the only separate room in the house, a bedroom furnished with a single uneven bed, and a chipped wooden chest in one corner. The roof had partially caved in, its architecture the unfortunate victim of the heavy weight of snow and most likely enemy artillery. On top of the bed was a very pregnant woman.
She became aware of him standing in the doorway of her bedroom, but her eyes registered no surprise and no fear; they were clouded only with pain. Michael’s gaze slipped to the crown of the woman’s baby, barely visible in the early stages of childbirth.
It took a few short seconds for Michael to determine what was transpiring. His own mother had given birth to nine children, but only seven of the nine survived into childhood. Two died during childbirth. One had been stillborn. The other had appeared exactly as this baby did, its skin a terrible chalky purple. He couldn’t see anything but the child’s crown, but he was willing to bet its neck was tightly entangled in its own umbilical cord just as his sister’s had been all those years ago.
Another wave of what must have been the worst contractions overtook the woman, and her voice was lost to her symphony of pain. For some reason, she was not pushing. The baby remained lodged where it was, only partially emerged to the world.
Without having to think about it, Michael’s military and life training kicked in, moving him further into the room. He saw a task that needed to be done and knew well that time was short.
“The umbilical cord is wrapped around your baby’s neck,” he told the mother softly but firmly, his voice managing to cut through her cries despite the noise. “You need to push it out enough that I can reach the cord and unwrap it.”
She stilled and returned her gaze to his eyes for a split second before another wracking pain claimed her and her teeth clenched so hard, he imagined he could hear her molars cracking.
“I can’t! You have to help me!” she cried out harshly, speaking in French. “Save my baby!”
Michael knew from experience, from watching quietly and open-mouthed as he’d peeked around the corner into his parents’ bedroom when he was six, what a midwife or doctor would have done in this situation. As the tail end of her request gave way to the sounds of her agony, stretching into one long, low, and wretched wail of misery, he got to work.
He dropped his weapons and gear, moved to the side of the bed, and placed his hands palm-down on the woman’s lower belly. He waited until she was in the grips of another mind-boggling wave of pain before he pressed down with all his might. Michael put his entire weight on his hands, watching carefully to see when the baby’s head would finally pop fully into view.
When it did, Michael stopped pressing on the woman’s stomach and rushed to the end of the bed. He’d been right about the cord. His deft fingers worked the thick, slippery line from around the infant’s tiny throat, unwinding it no fewer than three times before finally freeing the child. He would only realize later that he could have used the knife he had discarded. But luckily his hands were enough.
Immediately upon freeing the babe, Michael returned to pressing on the mother’s belly, using the sounds of her pain as an indicator that she was under another contraction. It took only one more push before the child slid from his mother’s womb onto the messed bed.
Michael grasped the baby, which he could now see was a boy, and hung him upside down from one little foot before tapping firmly on the bottom of his other foot. There was no response from the baby, so Michael tried again, this time alternating the thumping from his foot to his bottom and his back.
In the terrifying silence that engulfed the three of them, Michael realized that the child was not the only one who wasn’t making a sound. He lowered the baby a few inches and glanced up at the infant’s mother where she lay on the bed, her eyes closed, her face at last at peace.
Blood soaked the mattress beneath her. In the light of the few candles gas lamp propped on the chest in the corner, Michael hadn’t noticed at first that the blood was too red to be birthing blood. This was a deeper and also higher up on the bed, indicating that the would-be mother had been injured.
‘She couldn’t push,’ he thought to himself. He glanced up at the collapsed roof right above the bed and recognized what had happened. She’d sustained a severe injury to her back when the roof caved in, severing her spine.
Michael jumped a little when the newborn infant still dangling in his slippery grasp suddenly gasped softly. He looked back down at the baby in time for the newborn to wail right in his face as if the moon were his rattle and the sky had stolen it from him. Despite himself, Michael’s eyes widened in wonder. He hadn’t expected the lad to survive.
At once, he turned the child awkwardly in his arms and struggled to undo the buttons of his uniform jacket. When it was undone, he cradled the infant against his chest and wrapped the edges of his military uniform around the baby’s tiny form as much as possible. He began to rock from side to side, bouncing slightly on instinct, his mind spinning.
A baby. A new life. Here and now, in all this mess….
A few seconds later, he pulled himself from his shocked stupor, set the baby down on the bed long enough to retrieve his knife and cut its cord, then pulled the crying babe close again, once more covering him with his coat as he left the tragic confines of the broken shack. He began running back toward the front lines, his arms hugging the infant tight. There was a medical tent behind the trench. There were women there. They would know what to do. Certainly, they would at least know more than he did.
As he ran, he caught the distant strains of singing once more.
‘… this blessed babe was born… and laid within a manger…’
It was one of the world’s oldest Christmas carols, dating to the sixteenth century. But right now, Michael felt as if he were perhaps hearing it for the first time. Never before had the notes been harmonized so clearly or perfectly. Each word, each line was a soldier’s plea for life and peace, pled from a battlefield thick with so much death.
“…tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy. Oh, tidings of comfort and joy….”
Detective James Hendrix shifted in his seat before pulling his gaze from the window to glance at his watch. Tess was now fifteen minutes late.
A pang of pain hit him somewhere behind his ribcage, and he felt his fingers brush over his chest lightly. Werewolves so seldomly felt pain. They healed too quickly.
But it did happen from time to time. As it had happened for the woman who’d given birth in a small Belgium town along the front lines during the early morning hours of Christmas day in 1914. The woman who’d given birth to him.
Detective Hendrix Michael James.
His mother had already been subject to a severed spine when she began to labor to bring Hendrix into the world. She had been incapable of doing what needed to be done to give birth to him on her own; she’d been paralyzed from the waist down. Yet she’d screamed in agony because while she’d been in labor, she’d been slowly healing just enough. Werewolves healed rapidly if they had adequate blood and energy. His mother had possessed little of either, only enough to bring her pain.
Then again, if she had not cried out in pain, a passing soldier would not have heard her, and Hendrix would have died on the bed soon after his mother.
“Sir, may I bring you something more to drink or perhaps an appetizer?” came a softly spoken query from the waiter at the table’s edge.
Hendrix looked up at the old man and smiled, hoping the despair he felt did not reach his eyes as much as he knew it was. “No, thank you Les. I’m fine for now.”
Les nodded hesitantly and slowly turned to leave when Hendrix reconsidered and stopped him. Lester had to be here on Christmas Eve, after all. “Actually, on second thought Les, may I trouble you for a cup of coffee?”
“Of course,” Les smiled. “Cream and sugar, the way you like it. I’ll have it for you in a heartbeat.”
Heartbeat. The word dislodged more memories for Hendrix as Lester left and he sat there waiting for the woman who held his own heart in her hands. When he was alone again, he sat back and pulled something small from the inside pocket of his sportscoat. It was a neatly wrapped box, clearly the size afforded almost exclusively to jewelry, and topped with several tiny bows that he knew were his partner’s favorite colors.
Hendrix held the box up and turned it slowly, making the gold piping along the wrapping paper glint like polished metal in the candle light.
When Master Sergeant Michael James reached the medical tent, it was to find that soldiers from both sides of the war had actually begun to leave their trenches. But this time, it wasn’t to go “over the top” and belly crawl through mud and corpses toward certain death at the end of an M1907 bayonet. This time they bravely left their trenches in order to meet in the destroyed and barren strip of land between them.
He stared at the small groups of soldiers gathering there in that space that had previously only known death. They were talking. They were laughing. They were even embracing one another in a kind of kinship Michael never would have been able to imagine if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes.
While some soldiers busied themselves with pulling fallen comrades from the dirt and debris, others began to use the freshly cleared spaces to begin a football game. Michael looked on just long enough to recognize a German battalion on one team and Michael’s fellow soldiers on the other. But all the players were grinning. All around him, men were coming together, their weapons put aside in favor of cross-culture communication, jovial ribbing and good-natured banter. He heard a bark of riotous laughter and glanced one last time at the make-shift football field to watch one of the young soldiers working a football like a professional.
Then he stepped into the tent and scanned the interior. Inside, the mood was much more somber. Men had lost limbs in here, to say nothing of the lives that had passed. Michael let the flap close behind him. There were two women on duty, and one of them was elbows-deep in the internal organs of a man at heaven’s threshold. Michael strode purposefully toward the other, a red-haired beauty who looked up to meet his gaze as he approached.
“Miss, I need help.”
Her gaze narrowed on him, and then on the baby in his arms as he unfolded them to reveal the newborn infant.
“Oh my,” she whispered, holding out her arms at once.
“His mother is dead, died just after he was born. No father in sight. I didn’t know what else to do.”
The woman curled the baby close to her chest, and at once, the infant ceased crying. His enormous newborn eyes were vivid blue, and they settled on the woman holding him with silent curiosity.
“Amazing,” Michael whispered.
“You did the right thing,” the nurse told Michael as she gathered supplies from around the tent and proceeded to swaddle the child. “My name is Katrielle,” she said. “You’re…” she glanced down at his name plate. His uniform was more sullied than ever, but she seemed to either not notice or no care. “Master Sergeant James?”
“Michael Hendrix James, miss,” he said with a respectful nod, utterly at a loss as to the magical powers of women. His own young wife would make an amazing mother. Either with him… or someone else, maybe someone better, once she’d moved on.
“Sergeant James, this young man is going to need a family.”
Michael looked back up at the nurse, meeting her gaze. He swallowed hard. “Miss, I’m not going to make it home. I know as much.” He’d already lost every soldier he’d joined the ranks with, and he knew it was only a matter of time before his identification tags joined theirs in the deceased pile.
The nurse, Katrielle, did not bother disagreeing with him. Instead, she looked over his shoulder at the tent’s flap and the sounds beyond it. “By the sounds of it, you’d never known there was a war to end all wars taking place outside of this tent.”
He had to agree. There was laughter in place of explosions and gunfire, singing in place of screams and shouted orders.
“If only it could stay this way, eh?” he said with a small smile.
Katrielle did not smile in return. She looked very sad. But she nodded. “If only,” she agreed. “Sergeant, you’re married I see.” She nodded at the ring on his finger. “Do you have children?”
He shook his head. “No…” There hadn’t been time. He and Madeleine had been married in a hasty ceremony the night he’d received his call to duty.
“Are you quite certain?”
Michael blinked up at the nurse. “There wasn’t time.”
But her expression was secret, enigmatic, and her beautiful eyes were glittering in the gas lamps from the corners of the tent.
“Would you like to be a father?”
Michael frowned. He’d already told her that he was sure he wasn’t going to make it back home to see his wife. What did she mean?
“Would your wife like to be a mother?”
He blinked again, but then nodded emphatically. “Oh yes, miss. It was what she wanted more than anything.”
Now the nurse did smile. She nodded. “Well then, give me her information. I’ll tend to the babe, and as soon as it’s possible, I’ll see that the young lad make his way safely to Madeleine in New York.”
Michael watched the nurse in stunned silence as the red haired woman turned away from him to set about further tasks. He was sure he hadn’t told the nurse his wife’s name, much less that she lived in New York. Had he? It had been an eventful night, and he’d been long overdue for a break. Maybe he was losing track of things.
Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered but what the nurse had just told him. Madeleine was going to be a mother. This baby here would make its way from him to her as if he were sending a precious parcel by stork.
It turned out there was one more thing Michael could give his wife after all. And it was more important than anything else in the world.
“Thank you, Miss,” Michael said softly, his voice reflecting the emotions swirling within him.
Katrielle glanced at him over her shoulder and offered a smile. “It’s no trouble, soldier. Now go and enjoy yourself. Times like these are few and far between, especially for us. Especially here.” She straightened, and he could see that she’d swaddled the baby in a small basket and placed him in a cleaner corner of the tent beside small contained fire tin for warmth.
Michael nodded just once and turned to leave, but the nurse called out to him one more time.
“Sergeant, just one last thing,” she said, bringing him back around to face her. “What is to be your son’s name?”
Michael felt his head swim, and his heart hammer. ‘My son…’ He glanced down at the baby, who was now staring at him with his blue, blue eyes. The words came from his lips as if of their own accord. “Hendrix, miss,” he said. “Hendrix Michael James.”
The nurse nodded with an approving smile, folding her hands before her as Michael took one last, long look at his son and lifted the flap of the tent.
“Congratulations, Sergeant,” she said as he stepped through to re-enter the newly miraculous and truly peaceful night. “And Merry Christmas.”
Michael walked numbly back toward his station in the trenches, not really knowing where else to go and too mentally stunned to attempt to come up with an alternate plan. But when he reached it, he found his fellow soldiers grinning and drinking, sharing cigarettes and alcohol with German soldiers who he was sure would never have imagined they’d be standing in the enemy’s trench doing anything other than fighting for their lives.
They turned to him as he dropped down to join them, their expressions uncertain but friendly. “Mate, aren’t you supposed to be in the rear right now?”
Michael ignored his friend’s question, answering it with the words, “Crane… I-I’m a father.” Saying the words out loud unlocked something inside him, and it was with a mystified mind and shaking fingers that he touched his cheek to find it wet. “It turns out, I’m a bloody dad, mate.”
Corporal Matthew Crane belted out a whooping sound of victory and pulled Michael into a fierce, tight hug. “Man, congratulations, you randy son of a bitch! Only you would manage to become a father in the middle of a war!”
When he released Michael, he turned to the others in the trench, who were watching him with pleasant smiles, but uncomprehending eyes. He translated for them, speaking German to tell them that his friend had just informed him he was a father.
The enemy soldiers’ faces broke into broad, very real grins, and every one of them stepped forward to take his hand or pull him to embraces of their own in congratulations. When they’d finished, one of them grabbed his hand and pressed something into his palm. Crane translated again. “It’s a gift, mate! For the new mother! For your wife, Mikey! Otto made it out of shell casings with his own two hands! Talented bastard, he is!”
Michael looked down at the object in his hands. It was a small pendant, clearly bent, hammered, and pressed into the shape of a hollow heart and then polished until the brass shone brightly. A small brass bail had been equally fashioned with care and attached to the top of the heart. Michael thought it was the most beautiful piece of jewelry he’d ever seen. It was something that represented the essence of life, fashioned out of something designed to take that life away.
“He was going to save it for his girl, but wants you to have it instead!” Crane continued with a wide grin. Then the man named Otto gave Michael another hug, said something quickly, and turned to his fellow soldiers.
“What did he say?” Michael asked.
“He says, he hopes you raise your boy to do good and not fight.” He laughed at something someone said behind him and added, “And now they’re going to go decorate those fir trees along their trench with some lights. Come with us?”
Michael nodded absently, his gaze lost on the small object in his hand.
A few minutes later, he left the trench alone again and made his way back to the medical tent, where he left the fashioned heart pendant with the nurse Katrielle and instructions that Madeleine was to receive it when young Hendrix was delivered to her. Katrielle swore that it would be done.
The following week, Sergeant Michael Hendrix James would be mortally wounded and die on the very same portion of no man’s land that had seen revelry and a 2-1 football, or “soccer,” game between opposing armies the week before. As he closed his eyes a final time, the last thing he would look upon was the eternally resting face of a man named Otto, the now deceased young German soldier who had given him a priceless gift in a moment of rare humanity on Christmas Day, 1914.
Hendrix startled and looked up, caught off-guard for the first time in years. He’d been thinking on the past and the stories Katrielle had told him of his father, and thinking about people in general. He’d been so immersed in the pull of the past that he’d lost track of time – and Tess Noelle had entered the restaurant and approached the table while he was unawares.
“Tess!” he breathed as his heart raced and he jumped out of his seat to greet her. She stepped back, and he could hear her heart racing just as rapidly. He could also smell the adrenaline lacing her blood, the slight note of fear outlying the clean scent of her shampoo and perfume.
Hendrix got himself under control, smoothed his tie, and said, “Tess… I didn’t think… I wasn’t sure you would come.”
She smiled a small smile, looked down a moment, and then raised her head to meet his eyes again. “I almost didn’t. But… this is our tradition, right?” Her smile broadened, even if it didn’t quite fill her eyes. “Who am I to break tradition?”
“Tess, please sit down. Please let me….” He swallowed hard. What was he going to say again? Her presence was making all those well-practiced lines flee his brain like scattering birds after a gunshot. “I have so much I want to tell you,” he finally admitted honestly.
Tess hesitated. Then she nodded and followed his gesture to take the seat across from him. He joined her, smoothing his tie nervously again before he gave up and ran a hand through his hair. And then he simply pulled the small wrapped gift from where he’d re-tucked it into his pocket and placed it gently in front of her.
Tess straightened in her seat, her eyes moving from him to the gift and back. She could clearly tell that it was jewelry of some sort. He could sense that she was pleased but also distinctly nervous and obviously torn.
“Tess, I know what you’re thinking. But I swear to you I would never harm you. It’s quite literally the last thing I would ever do.”
Tess didn’t respond right away. Instead, she placed her fingers gently on the gift and said, “It isn’t what you are that hurts me, Henry. It’s that we’ve been partners for ten years… And in all that time, you never told me.”
Hendrix closed his eyes and lowered his head. This was the one thing he had no good excuse for. The only thing he had was the truth. So that was what he told her.
“I wanted to tell you a thousand times. And I always chickened out because I couldn’t bear the thought of you fearing me.”
She looked up and he caught her gaze, holding it.
“I’ve been in the business of saving human lives and tracking down bad guys for decades,” he told her. “And I’m still a coward. It’s as simple as that. You’re the one thing I can’t stomach the thought of losing.”
For a moment, Tess said and did nothing, and for the life of him, Hendrix couldn’t tell what she was thinking. But then she lowered her head and he caught the very, very slight hint of an understanding smile tilt the edges of her mouth. She busied herself unwrapping the gift he’d given her, pulling the ribbon loose first before neatly untucking the taped bits of the wrapping paper and unfolding them to reveal a jewelry box.
She hesitated on a moment more before lifting the lid of the box. On a white velvet pillow inside sat a freshly polished brass heart pendant, hammered and pressed together from the remnants of shell casings.
Her expression was clearly confused, but open. She blinked and looked up at him. “What… what is it?” she questioned softly, lifting the pendant from its box to hold it up in the light shed from the candle in the window beside the table.
This was the restaurant Hendrix’s mother Madeleine had opened a century ago, Lumière de Fenêtre, named for the candles in the windows that she’d always kept burning for her young husband as he fought in far off land in a war that was supposed to end all wars. The candle light shed a glow particularly bright this night as the sky outside finally decided to snow and the small, precious pendant in Tess’s hand glimmered beautifully.
“It was a gift from a German soldier on Christmas Eve,” Hendrix told her softly. Then he smiled and leaned in, taking a deep breath. “Tess, I am never going to keep anything from you again. From here on out, you will know everything I have to share. And I’m going to start by sharing with you who and what I really am.”
Tess watched him with wide eyes before she slowly placed the pendant back into the box but left the lid open. She placed her arms on the table, and he took her hands in his.
Michael rubbed his thumbs gently over hers and began. “The heart was fashioned out of shell casings in the trenches bordering no man’s land during World War One,” he said. Outside, the snow grew thicker, rapidly piling up enough to keep less practiced drivers off the streets and answer unspoken prayers of parents and loved ones across New England.
“I was born in the midst of that Great War, on the early morning hours of Christmas Day, 1914….”
Check out Heather’s other stories and books here: https://www.amazon.com/Heather-Killough-Walden/e/B005725SO4