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Home for the Holidays

by Andrew L. McFarlane

Annie was home, wishing that she wasn't. Three years ago, when Molly was still in her belly, the idea that she would stay home with the child while Michael worked had seemed natural. One child had become two children, Molly and Mick, and though they were still the most important part of her life, she couldn't escape from the feeling that they weren't the entirety of that life. Five years ago, both of them had been working for the same company, bringing in enough money to afford this home, a rambling three story close enough to the heart of the city, yet far enough that the worst aspects of city life were, if not remote, at least not at the front door. As she looked around, as it seemed many times lately, it was as if she was a disconnected observer, watching not just three year old Molly, who had talked her into running Alladin again (something that wouldn't have happened a year ago, she felt sure), and year and a half Mick, who sat like a benevolent stone in his high chair (as happy with the idea that he could feed himself as the breakfast he was eating), but herself as well. She couldn't shake the feeling that the observer, that she herself, was passing some sort of judgement on the young mother -- "See, remember her? She used to be someone."

She made herself stop. She was still someone. Someone different, maybe, but still someone. She had to be. A knock at the door announced Olivet, her babysitter.

"All right Molly, TV off, it's time for you to go to school," she said as she opened the door and greeted Olivet.

"Prince Ahhleee!" sang the blue genie to Molly's entranced and unmoving figure. Annie cut the TV and Molly's protests off as she hustled her into coat, boots, and hat.

"Mama's got to go, now, or she'll be late for work."

Olivet held the door and recieved last instructions on Mick's morning which they both knew were unnecessary. Mother and daughter walked down the back stairs, Molly chattering about what the day likely had in store for her when Annie heard a sound. It appeared to be coming from the under the porch where the door to the basement was. Had Michael left the garbage under there? She strode around to look, prepared to shoo the cat or dog away, already running late.

When one is prepared to see something small and familiar, and instead sees something large and wholly unexpected, even the toughness brought on by living a lifetime in a large city can be insufficient. Annie stopped cold. There was a man. Her mind rendered that the man, though clutching a blanket rather like a small child who has been surprised and not well dressed, did not have those crazy eyes that everyone learned to look out for. Still, he was a man, and he was under her porch. Molly peeked around her, and Annie unfroze. Without a word, she scooped up Molly and hurriedly dashed back up the steps, pounding for Olivet to open the door. Almost as hurriedly, the man left the shelter under the porch, hopped the low fence in the backyard and, with a look back, was gone.

Once inside with the door bolted, Annie punched the button that dialed the office number. In between assuring the receptionist that yes, this was an emergency and waiting for Michael to be called out of a meeting, filled Olivet in.

Michael's voice calmed her, and though he offered to come home, she told him not to --at least she could handle this. Still, she wasn't willing to leave the house, and she called her agency, hoping that they could reschedule her callback for the commercial. As her agent told her yes, tomorrow, early morning would work, she scarcely heard him, thinking back to that man. Those eyes, not crazy. They'd seemed...embarassed.
• • •
Michael sat on the floor as his children played around and over him. Usually he was a better playmate than this, but right now his mind was replaying last night's and this evening's conversations with Annie before she left for a commercial shoot.

He understood, felt sure he did, at least as far as he was able, but he wasn't sure what he could do about it. The homeless man had just been a trigger, though he had checked the entryway to the basement several times last night, as much for his own peace of mind as Annie's. They could both probably see that. The underlying problem was far less simple, and less easy to deal with than a man sleeping under their front porch.

He had worked with Annie, that's where they met, and he knew how she was on the job. Determined, involved, informed --she didn't have to remind him. Consistently she had been the top sales executive for their company. Better than him, better than anyone.

Molly made a move for the videos, but Michael cut her off, her shrieks of protest turning smoothly to shrieks of laughter as he and Mick applied the Tickle Torture. She broke free, TV forgotten, chased by the slow but determined force that was Mick around the house.

They had both agreed, still did, that they didn't want their kids raised by a succession of sitters and daycares. Easy enough to say, easy enough for him to agree to. The buzzer on the washer called him to the basement, still deep in thought. He had a pretty good idea of what it must be like. A long weekend with Molly and Mick sixteen hours a day could leave him drained and longing for the respite of going to work. The weekend was great, giving him a chance to keep track of the giant strides that each of them made during the week and assurance that he wasn't losing touch with his kids.

It wasn't that he didn't like to be around them. Quite the opposite. Countless times during each day he would see their pictures on his desk or have a chance thought wander through his head and wish that he was home with them at that moment. Then the demands of his job would descend on him and he'd be lost for another two hours. There was something satisfying about wishing you were someplace else and knowing that you had a responsibility to be right where you were.

Walking down the basement stairs he could see the beginnings of the kid's playroom taking shape. He could build the walls, but could he stay within them?

As he folded the clothes he wondered if he could do what Annie did. Not bear the children or anything like that, but rather spend day after day at home and working only in bits and pieces around their schedules. He didn't know, didn't know why it should be her and not him, didn't know if he could, didn't know if they were going to make it together.

A sound jolted him back to awareness. A soft sound, recognizeable as the scuff of a shoe on concrete. Michael was a big guy, not easily frightened, but he picked up a hammer that was lying on the bench with the cautious air of a man defending home and family.

He threw open the door and the man jumped back, dropping a blanket and something that made a tinny clang on the sidewalk. Both Michael and the stranger watched as the enameled cup spun around before coming to rest by the basement door. The man's eyes moved to the hammer and quickly to Michael's face, seeking.

Michael attempted to make his voice gruff and in his present state of mind, was able to do a fair job of it. "What are you doing here?"

The man's gaze left his face and fell to the ground. His voice was softer than Michael had expected. "I'm sorry, sir. I won't be back."

Michael "I didn't ask you that. I asked you what you thought you were doing under my porch?"

The man's shoulder's dropped. "It's a nice porch," he said thoughtfully.

Michael flashed a warning glare that the other did not see.

"A very nice porch indeed, attached to a fine house as well." The stranger fell silent.

Despite the man's disheveled appearance, Michael thought that he could hear something other than what he had expected: evasion, empty promise, and a plea. Mark prompted him. "I wasn't really asking you about my house, I was asking why you were sleeping here."

"I used to have a fine house such too, in a nice neighborhood." The man's eyes looked away, into a past that caused his eyes to squint, as if in pain. "That was a while ago, though."

"Well, if you don't have a home, why don't you go to one of the shelters?" The man's gaze returned, sharp and short. "I hope you will not take this the wrong way, but have you seen the people who go there?"

Michael had.

"I just can't sleep there."

"Why sleep here?"

"It reminds me a little of home, I guess. What I had, what I lost." The man glanced again at the hammer, which Michael had forgotten and now hung forgotten in his hand. "Don't get me wrong, but I've seen you and your wife and kids at the park. You laugh with each other. You're good people. I guess you could say that I feel safe here."

Something in his words, or maybe in his tone of voice made Michael realize he had always felt safe here, until recently. A feeling that had nothing to do with a man sleeping under his porch
• • •
Annie returned home late. To her surpise, Michael was still up, sitting at the table talking with a friend. A second glance stopped her. The man was wearing a pair of Michael's old pants and a shirt she had given him for his birthday one year that he had never really liked. He was the man from under the porch. Michael introduced him as Paul. He caught her stare and excused himself to the bathroom.

In hushed and hurried voice she grilled Michael. "What is that man doing in the house?"

Michael explained what he had learned of Paul, that he had invited him to live with them for a few days while he got things together.
• • •
Annie was amazed at how comfortable she had become with Paul in such a short time and knew that her family and friends would be shocked to know that she felt no discomfort at leaving a man who had until recently been sleeping under their porch alone with her children while she went to the store or to a reading. She would have been as well.

She and Paul were talking together after Michael and the kids had gone to sleep. Annie had been able to learn little of Paul's past and what had brought him to his present circumstances beyond the name of a company that had recently failed rather spectacularly and a woman's name, Meg, which caused him to cease talking whenever he mentioned it inadvertently.

In one of those silences, Annie told him, "Paul, I want you to know that it's really good to have you around." She waved away whatever he was about to say. "I mean it. It's like I have room to breathe now. I almost hate the thought that you'll soon find a job and then be moving out."

Paul nodded. "I have to, though. You all have been wonderful to me. Sitting here," he gestured about him, "Reminds me of some of the good things I used to have. Too often while I was out on the street, I couldn't remember any of them."
• • •
They visited Paul on Christmas afternoon in his new place. Annie had pressed Paul to hold out for something better and not take the job at the cafe. Paul had responded that he didn't think himself up to much more than this right now. There was too much pain tied up in his past career. Annie's fond gaze took in his sparsely furnished apartment, recognizing several items that he and Michael had moved from their attic storeroom. Paul had handed her protesting husband fifty dollars with assurances of more to come as Mick and Elly tugged at him and Annie drifted to take a seat in the armchair from her first apartment. An idea was growing in her head. The chair wobbled slightly when she sat down, just as it had years ago. The idea flexed, taking on shape. Attics, filled with furniture nobody needed but couldn't bring themselves to sell or throw away.

Shelters. She thought about the word. It implied a place to hide from the rain and cold, to duck into and duck back out of. Maybe what homeless people needed was not shelters, but homes. Suddenly she saw what was needed, why she knew all sorts of people in the city's business and government, and where her time and energy could go.

"Paul," she said softly, "I have an idea."
• • •
One year later they were again at Paul's apartment. The apartment had fleshed out a little, but the chair still wobbled when she sat in it. The year had seen changes in both their lives. The "halfway homes" as the press dubbed them had taken off. The year had not been without hard work and tough problems; the contracts that clients had to sign, protests from neighborhood associations, insurance difficulties and the like.

Still, both of them had a sense of accomplishment and pride. Seven homes with three more under renovation. Seventeen individuals or families in their own homes. Groups from three other cities had come to learn with them. They went over their presentation a final time, each wanting to make sure they had it down. Tomorrow's talk was an important one which could lead to doubling their funding.

"We're set, Annie," Paul told her. "You should get home or you'll miss dinner."

Annie nodded in agreement. Still, there was something satisfying about wishing you were home with your family but knowing that you had a responsibility to be right where you were.
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