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January 30, 2023

Amazing Grace

By Ronald Paxton

It's the smallest Christmas turkey I've ever seen, like something out of a Dickens novel, except I think that was actually a goose. I don't mind, but I feel bad for my family, especially my dad. It's been a rough year for all of us.

By the way, I'm Grace Woodson, reading nerd, writer of poetry and speculative short fiction, and valedictorian of my high school class. My dad is Charles Woodson... no, not the Charles Woodson who won the Heisman trophy and went on to a career in the NFL. My father is an accountant, or rather he was an accountant for the local office of a major national accounting firm. He lost his job through no real fault of his own, but let me back up ...

The car accident happened the first week in January. Dad took the day off to drive me back to college. I've always loved school and I was looking forward to the new semester. We talked about my classes and the future. I was set on majoring in English, but Dad was pushing me to consider Communications. I think he wanted to see me on the evening news, whereas I was focused on pursuing a career in publishing. That all changed for both of us when some testosterone-fueled kid tried to take a thirty-five mile per hour curve at sixty. He failed.

The impact sent us flying across the road into a tree. My father emerged from the hospital three weeks later in a wheel chair. I barely recognized him -- his loud smile, big voice, irreverent sense of humor, gone. The new Charles Woodson was small and fearful. And ashamed. I think he knew something inside him was broken and his days of being able to provide for his family were numbered.

When he returned to work things were different. Anxiety, depression, loss of concentration ... the psychiatrist diagnosed PTSD and wrote a prescription that he said would help. It didn't. Dad's work product declined. Things got worse. He was passed over for promotion and denied his annual raise. I was actually relieved when he came home one afternoon and told my mother he had decided to resign rather than wait to be fired.

My mother hit the roof. I love her dearly, but Nancy Woodson is way too interested in appearances and keeping up with the Joneses. She works as a sales associate at a high end women's' fashion boutique. I'm sure she would be appalled if her friends knew she earned nine dollars per hour plus a small sales commission. She and my father both knew that her twenty-two thousand dollars a year would just about cover food and utilities, with nothing left over for the mortgage, taxes, health insurance, car insurance, gasoline, repairs, clothes, visits to the doctor or dentist, and a thousand other things.

I should mention that my younger brother Ned has remained unfazed by the events of the past year. He's fourteen years old, going on ten. Typical teenage boy -- a selfish, self-absorbed smart ass. Unless the subject is girls, video games, or food, he's not interested.

So, here we are. The presents, such as they were, have been opened. No big ticket items this year. Ned can't stop complaining about the socks, gloves, and new pants he received. All he wanted was another stupid electronic game with zombies or warriors. He either didn't notice or didn't care that Mom and Dad didn't exchange gifts this year.

Hang on, Dad's getting ready to carve the turkey. I've got a bad feeling things are about to get worse.

"For God's sake, Charles, you're shaking like a leaf. Go take a pill before you cut off a finger. I'll carve."

I watch Dad hand the knife to my mother and walk down the hall to the bathroom. I'm worried about him. Last week he drew funds out of his retirement account to purchase a six hundred thousand dollar life insurance policy with my mom as beneficiary. I know he's thinking about suicide. If he can't look after his family in life he'll do it in death.

Christmas dinner was consumed in silence, save for the unnaturally loud sound of chewing and swallowing coming from my brother.

"We have pie for dessert," my mother said. She went into the kitchen and returned a moment later with a pecan pie.

Ned's jaw dropped at the sight.

"I hate pecan pie. We always have pumpkin. What's going on, Mom?"

"It's Grace's favorite, and I like it, too."

My brother threw a look my way. I said nothing. I've found it easier to remain disengaged when it comes to Ned. In any event, my voice at the table has been silent for some time.

"That's perfect, Mom. You think Spacey Gracie cares what kind of pie we have? Really?"

I watched my mother go still. She stared at Ned for a moment before picking up the pie and returning to the kitchen. A moment later we heard the garbage disposal consume our dessert.

"There you go, Ned. Problem solved. Merry Christmas."

My brother went from shocked to sullen in the blink of an eye.

"I'm going over to Adam's house. I'm sure he got some good stuff for Christmas."

We watched him stalk out of the room and slam the front door behind him.

Mom looked over at my dad.

"It's time for you to step up, Charles. This isn't working. Have you even looked at the numbers?"

I saw something flash in my Dad's eyes.

Good.

"Do you think I'm stupid, Nancy? I'm a CPA. Of course I've looked at the numbers."

My mother is hot-tempered, but I could see her struggling to remain calm.

"Well, Charles, from where I sit it looks like we'll lose the house by this spring, summer at the latest. We've missed two mortgage payments, and there's no way I can make the next one. I used the money from my parents for gifts and this miserable Christmas dinner. And all because you decided to retire twenty years early."

My father said nothing, waiting for my mother to stop talking to him like he was a moron or a four-year-old.

"I'm forty five years old, Charles. For God's sake, what are we going to do? Aren't you scared? I am. At this rate next Christmas we'll be living at Motel 6 or under a bridge and eating spam sandwiches."

Dad said nothing. My mother drew a shaky breath and softened her tone.

"You're a smart, educated man, Charles. We've always supported each other, and I'm trying my best to understand what you're going through, I really am. But it's been nearly a year. Do you want next year to be even worse for our family than this one, because that's the way it's shaping up."

My mother paused. My father said nothing.

"I'm just asking you to dip your toe back in the water. Tax season is coming up. You could hang out your accounting shingle and prepare tax returns for a few months. Or you could work for one of the tax preparation services. They'd jump at the chance to hire someone with your credentials."

Silence.

"Think about it, Charles. I'm not going through another year like this one. If you're not willing to help this family, I'll have to cut you loose. We're drowning, and my income doesn't go far. I might be able to stay afloat with one less mouth to feed."

My father remained silent. I watched my mother fight back tears as she left the room.

I sat quietly, waiting for my dad to do something... anything. After a moment he raised his eyes and looked my way.

"Gracie."

I said nothing. As I said earlier, I have no voice. In case you haven't figured it out by now, I died in that car wreck last January, so I can no longer speak. It's not so bad. I don't feel dead; I feel alive, but not in the same way. Maybe I'm a ghost, except I don't rattle chains or disappear through walls. I think about a place and then I'm just there. I've been thinking about my family, especially my dad, since the accident, so of course I'm here at home.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm an angel. If so, I'm not very good at it. Like now, I can hear my father running numbers in his head. He's thinking about suicide again. The mortgage balance is ninety-seven thousand dollars. If my mom collects on the life insurance policy she can pay off the house and have just over five hundred thousand dollars left. That's not a lot nowadays, but it should be enough to keep her reasonably comfortable if she continues to work and is sensible about her spending and withdrawals.

"Gracie."

I know he can't see me. Maybe he can feel that I'm here. We've always been close.

I'm fine, Dad. This place isn't so bad. Life is a journey, right? Well, now I've got a new life and a new journey. The accident wasn't your fault. There was nothing you could do about it, but there's something you can do now. Don't throw everything away. You and Mom have worked hard to build a life together, and now she's scared of the future. It's time for you to go back to work and back to life. Can you hear me, Dad?

He's staring straight at me. Something in his eyes, his expression. I watch as he opens his mouth.

"Gracie?"

I've been traveling this new road for nearly a year and it's been pretty uneventful. No gods, demons, or angels, at least not the kind with wings. Doesn't mean they aren't out there. I've been on this path for less than a year. Maybe I haven't reached that part of my journey yet. Anyway, I haven't acquired any real magical powers, but I've heard that some of my fellow travelers can do things with light. Maybe they're angels, although I'm more inclined to believe they're just the cool kids from high school.

Dad is still looking my way, waiting. Something with light. I've never been one of the cool kids, and I doubt I'm an angel, but I have to try if I want my family to survive. The Christmas candles are on the table. Mom didn't bother to light them this year.

I stare at the candles and focus my thoughts. Nothing. I feel stupid.

Concentrate!

I close my eyes and slow my breathing. That's right, I can breathe in my new world. I relax my mind and let go. I feel joy, warmth. I'm crying. I open my eyes. The candles are burning.

My dad is smiling for the first time since the accident. His face is alive with fire and anger and love and tears.

"Gracie."

Merry Christmas, Dad. I love you






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Article © Ronald Paxton. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-12-17
Image(s) are public domain.
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