Standing outside the last tree lot in the city, Evan Thompson shivered, shoved his gloved hands into his coat pockets, and flexed his toes inside his boots. It was bitterly cold, and windy too, and for a minute he debated just going home and admitting defeat. The place closed in half an hour anyway, as it was four o’clock on Christmas Eve, and no one liked a last minute shopper.
But his sister would kill him if she showed up with her kids on Boxing Day and found that he didn’t have a tree to display their presents under, so he steeled himself against the frostbite and went in.
Hunching his shoulders and nodding at the frostbitten guy hidden behind a magazine and a space heater at the cash register, Evan moved quickly down the nearly empty row, hoping for a tree that didn’t look like a Charlie Brown reject. He couldn’t take a tree that was too large, either; he didn’t know if he’d be able to carry and right it by himself, never mind get it strapped to the top of his car properly.
“Not much left,” said a voice from behind him.
Evan jumped about a mile in the air. When he had recovered enough to speak without the fear that his heart would escape through his mouth, he said, “Yeah, I noticed that.”
The guy shrugged apologetically. He’d left his magazine at the cash register, but Evan still couldn’t tell what he looked like. He was wearing battered jeans and boots, and an even more beat up coat, but his head, neck, face and hands were covered by a new hat, scarf, and gloves. Only pale green eyes poked out from the cocoon. They seemed somehow familiar. “Sorry. These are all sort of....”
“Bare?” Evan suggested drily, not that it mattered. This was the last place open. Beggars couldn’t be choosers.
“I was going to say pathetic,” the man said with a grin Evan could hear through the scarf muffling his words. “But that works.”
“My sister’s going to kill me,” Evan sighed to himself, thinking of how disappointed the kids would be when Uncle Ev didn’t come through with the beautifully decorated house he’d always had in the past. He didn’t know if he could manage the energy this year. He’d always had help before.
“She’s bringing the kids, I guess?”
Evan wondered again who this man was. He seemed to know Evan, by his responses, but Evan couldn’t place him. “Yeah. They’re sweet, but I know they’ll be disappointed I didn’t come through with the tree. Last year we had a ten-footer.” Of course, last year he’d had someone to help carry it around, set it up, and hold it steady while he tightened the base.
“Well,” the mysterious salesman said, “what about that one?” He pointed back down the row of rejected trees to one that hung from a hook on the fence pole. It was only about six and a half feet tall, but it was full and green with few bare spots.
Evan knew he couldn’t possibly have missed it. Who was this guy, the Christmas tree fairy? “That’s a nice tree,” he said casually, noting the remnants of a red ‘sold’ ribbon still clinging to one of the branches, “but isn’t it already taken?”
The man shrugged. “Customer changed his mind.”
If he wanted Evan to have the tree that badly, Evan wasn’t going to turn him down. He was desperate. “I’ll take it,” he said. “How much do I owe you?”
Tree Fairy waved him off. “It’s already paid for. I’ll bag it up for you.”
Either Evan had accumulated some seriously good karma over the past years, or this guy really did know him and was doing him a huge favor – both by giving up the tree he’d obviously had set aside for himself and then handing it over free of charge. Evan was leaning toward the latter, but he couldn’t exactly ask the guy to take his scarf off just so he could see who to thank. If the guy wanted him to know who he was, he’d have said. Wouldn’t he?
“It’s all set for you,” he told him, holding out the tree, now wrapped up in a nylon string bag to keep the branches from catching on anything.
Evan took it and somehow managed to set it on his shoulder for the short walk to the car. “Thanks. I really appreciate this. Are you sure I don’t owe you anything?”
“The guy who reserved it never picked it up, but we already charged his Visa and we don’t give refunds.” Tree Fairy shrugged. “Besides, who’s going to need a tree after tomorrow? These babies are probably compost.”
Evan would have felt bad about that, except that a real tree was still better for the environment than a plastic one. “All right, if you say so. Thanks again.” He set off towards his car, hoping the rope he’d brought would be enough to secure the tree to the roof for the short drive home. It was pretty cold, and the idea of driving with the trunk open and the rear seat folded down didn’t hold much appeal.
Evan set the tree down against the side of his car and contemplated the logistics of getting it up onto the roof. He was in reasonably good shape, but a car accident a little less than a year ago had robbed him of some range of motion in his arms, among other things. He was doing physio to try to remedy the problem, but it was slow going.
Well, if he didn’t want to freeze on the way home, there was only one thing for it. Bending his knees, Evan grasped the tree by the nylon bag and swung it up so that the trunk end was pointed toward the front of his car and slowly began to lever it up onto the roof. He was just about at the point where the tree would balance out when the muscles in his back spasmed and he froze, arms over his head, gritting his teeth against the stabbing pain. Gasping, he took a couple of deep breaths through his nose and tightened his grip, trying to keep the tree from rolling off.
“Mr. T!” Footsteps pounded on the icy pavement behind him as the kid from the tree lot skidded up behind him. “Let me give you a hand with that.”
Evan grunted in relief as some of the weight was shifted off of his shoulders. The Tree Fairy – a former student, by the way he’d just addressed Evan – shoved the tree hard enough to balance it out on the roof of the car, his body brushing against Evan’s. One of the branches escaped from the nylon mesh and caught on his scarf, causing it to unwind a little.
Evan untangled it before the fabric could get a pull. “Thanks.” He looked up at his rescuer and started at the familiar face. “Eric? Eric Morrison?”
Though the cold had already pinkened his cheeks, Eric’s blush was visible. “Hi, Mr. T.”