Written and Illustrated by Christopher Harvill
My door opened into the ICU at Hospital Center de Bayeaux, France, 2020.
It is late on Christmas Eve, holiday music playing softly from the speakers overhead. This was always a busy night. So many people and places that I attempt to reach.
Gabriel was now 91, lying on a bed lined with machines. Tubes with liquids dripped soullessly.
Gabriel opened his eyes, sensing me. Still alert; vigil. He had been that and more that very long night so very long ago.
I crossed the few steps to the bed and smiled down at him. On the small table beside him, where a plastic water jug and cup rested, dozens of handmade Christmas cards stood up on their edge. Dozens more were taped to the walls. There were flower arrangements. A box of cigars.
I took one of the cards and looked at the inscription:
Thank you for my Dad. We wouldn’t be here without you. Morgan, Daughter of 101 Airborne Private…
I looked at two or three more—all the same.
Gabriel’s heart monitor showed a line bump its way across the screen. Weak. Who would have thought the heart of such a man could be so faint.
“I always hoped to see you again,” Gabriel said. His voice was weak, but true and steady. On a cold June night, mere miles from this hospital, it had been that and more.
“Joyeux Noel, Gabriel Berger,” I said.
He nodded, coughing a touch, raising a fist to his mouth.
He eyed me. “You haven’t aged a day.”
“Looks can be deceiving,” I replied.
Another nod. “Not many of us left from that day,” he said flatly. Then, a bit defensively, “I’m not a scared little boy anymore.”
My turn to nod. I glanced at the machines and the old man before me.
“Are you scared now?”
We said nothing for a moment, and I could see in his eyes he was returning to that day. Then he clenched his teeth, attempting to defy the same feelings he felt as a boy.
He took me in. At that moment, he understood my being here.
Saw me for what I am.
“You…” he said, “…you can take me there? I mean, to… back then?”
I looked to the door and asked.
I turned to Gabriel.
Held out my hand.
He reached towards it shakily, and The Doorway opened…
…and I now held my hand out to a terrified fifteen-year-old French boy cowering in the back of a hay stall on June 5th, 1944. It was the night before D-Day in World War Two. Explosions and gunfire could be heard outside as advance allied paratroopers set foot on French soil, meeting stubborn resistance from the German forces stationed there. Should they fail, the day could be lost. With it, the world.
Gabriel got to his feet, wiping the tears angrily from his face with the back of his shirt sleeve.
He looked about, no longer cringing at the sounds of war erupting outside. His eyes hardened with the knowledge of his years since he and I met.
“Sniveling, cowardly child,” he cursed at himself.
“Far more than that,” I replied softly.
“If you hadn’t…” he struggled, hearing the sound of the fighting intensify.
“I reached out a hand. Nothing more.”
He looked out the barn doors. Shooting. Yelling. Not far off. “The Nazis had been here so long. Were ready in the square with heavy armor. It would have been a massacre.”
“It all seemed so hopeless. And I was so scared. I wanted to help them—the Americans. Show them the way around the ambush. But I couldn’t…”
He stopped himself, then, studying me. “It’s why you came, isn’t it? Why you…come.”
I didn’t answer. I merely gestured towards the barn doors.
“So many cards and well wishes,” I said, “simply because a frightened boy got to his feet.”
Gabriel smiled at that. Both the boy and the man.
Knowing it was time.
“Can you show me them again, sir? The symbols? Of Hope. Like you did that night?”
I raised my hand, and they appeared, illuminating the stalls like lights on a tree. Dancing about my outstretched fingers, illuminating their strength and meaning against the darkness all around us.
Gabriel laughed. A boyish, healthy laugh.
“Joyeux Noel,” he whispered.
He faded away like a memory then, an EKG in a room some 75 years from now finally going flat.
I let the sigils glow subside as I stood there alone.
“One of the good ones?”
I turned, and Rowdy stood in The Doorway, dressed in what I would imagine was one of those ugly Christmas sweaters I had heard so much about. Utterly hideous.
“You okay?” Rowdy asked. “I know this can be a long night for you.”
I crossed to him, and we walked across The Doorway threshold.
“Are those actual lights on that sweater?” I asked.
“Yeah!” Rowdy beamed. “Merrrrrrrrrrry Christmas!”
“Yes,” I said. “Merry Christmas, indeed.”
Avery Black: Pleased to Meet You
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