Nicky’s Christmas Wish

Nicky’s Christmas Wish
A story about a boy, an impossible wish, and a little cat

Ian attached the last twinkling light to the tree that was framed in the window of their house. “Jingle Bells” filled the air with jaunty cheer. “Would you like to put the angel on the top of the tree?” he asked Nicky, who sat on a footstool watching.

“I guess,” Nicky shrugged glumly. Ian hoisted Nicky into the air, and said, “You have to make a wish first.”

Nicky closed his eyes tightly and whispered, “I wish–”

“No – don’t tell me. This is your own secret wish and it won’t come true if you tell anyone.”

Nicky’s lips sealed tightly, and with his eyes still closed and a frown of concentration, he nodded, and said, “I’m finished.”

An hour later, with the few shards of broken ornaments swept up, the empty boxes stowed away in the closet, and the overhead lights dimmed, Ian sat in front of the tree with a glass of wine and stared at the angel. She had auburn red hair, much like Nicky’s, which he had inherited from his mother. Ian rolled his aching shoulders and thought of Nicole, as he had every night since she was gone. She had died when Nicky was a year old, and Nicky’s name, his russet hair, and the punctuation of freckles across the bridge of his nose, were the only live remainders of the glory that had been Nicole.

He sighed – something he did too much every year at this time. He had a good idea what Nicky had wished for: the one thing he couldn’t give him.

In the child’s bedroom, he lay awake, gazing at the stars that glistened faintly on the ceiling. His Dad had put them there for him, and had said, “See that big one? That’s your Mom, and she will always be with you, watching over you. She loves you very much.”

Nicky closed his eyes and thought about his Mom, the beautiful young woman whose photo was displayed on the lamp table next to his bed. He wondered if his Mom would help him get his wish this year. He wanted so much to be like the other boys. When he was younger, he had several friends, and had run and played with them.

Then his life changed when he had to start wearing the detested brace. When he struggled to learn to walk in it at the doctor’s office, and had seen his father avert his face, he had thought it was because of his disappointment at having a crippled son. He was too young to know that his dad was hiding his tears of pride at the courage of his son. Since last year, though, he had started keeping to himself, tired of all the jokes and taunts, until even his loyal friends had stopped coming around.

The glow of the moon filtered through the tree outside, and its rays illuminate the cumbersome metal brace and the heavily built-up shoe lying on the floor next to the bed, as Nicky slept.

In the living room, Ian watched the news on television with little interest, until their nightly “human interest” slot, which tonight featured the local animal shelter. They showed cage after cage of cats and dogs who were homeless this holiday season, and then brought out a few special animals and gave capsulized versions of their stories. Ian clicked the “off” button of the remote. He didn’t need any depressing news tonight.

Later, as he lay in the king-sized bed, both arms and one leg wrapped around the large pillow next to him, a nanospark of an idea bore into his subconscious thoughts just as he drifted off to sleep.

Day broke, crystal clear and brisk, but sun-kissed with the promise of warming. Since Christmas fell on a Wednesday this year, Ian had arranged between vacation days and trades, to take the whole week off to spend with Nicky. They ate their oatmeal and toast, and Ian poured a second cup of coffee, then thought better of it. The thought that had been teasing the back of his mind since waking had suddenly jelled, and needed some study. As he watched Nicky dawdling over the last of his hot chocolate, he pushed his chair back and stood up.

“Get dressed, Nickster. We need to do a little shopping.”

Half an hour later, they were driving down the road from their house, heading toward the outskirts of town. “Where are we going, Dad?” asked Nicky, for the third time.

“You’ll see,” answered Ian. “Just keep your eyes peeled for yellow cars. I’ll give you a quarter for each one you see.”

Nicky settled back in his seat, his braced leg planted firmly against the floorboard. He liked this driving game best of all.

They climbed a short hill, and Ian slowed as they approached a gravel driveway with a sign hanging over the entrance. As he turned up the driveway, they approached a group of shabby buildings with a ragged Christmas wreath adorning the door of what appeared to be the main ones. Ian almost had second thoughts, but his lips narrowed with resolve. As he parked the wagon, an uproar of barking rendered the air, from a group of large dogs behind a chainlength fence.

“What’re we doing here, Dad? Why are those dogs here?” Nicky scrunched down in his seat and peered out the window fearfully.”

“It’s okay, Nickster. They can’t get out, and they can’t hurt you.”

Inside, Ian rang the bell on the desk, and they both looked around as they waited. There were colorful posters on the walls, a few Christmas decorations, a Menorah Candle, and flyers with photos of cats and dogs displayed on every vertical surface. More subdued barking came from a corridor to their right, and Nicky scrunched closer to Ian. A few minutes later, a large woman wearing a green smock, a graying ponytail, and a large smile, came to the desk. When Ian described what they were looking for, she pointed to the corridor at the left. “Go down there, and turn right.” There is a room with cages and a couple of open rooms with more cats. Be sure to clean your hands with the gel before and after handling each cat, or before entering the community rooms.”

They followed her directions, and soon saw a small room with several cats inside, in various positions of repose. They lay on padded shelves against the walls, in the “limbs” of cat trees, and a few huddled inside fabric “igloos” on the floor, or dozed curled up in soft fabric beds. The walls were covered with cats too; cleverly painted cats peeked out from behind trompe ‘loeil bushes, and others dozed on painted shelves. Nicky’s eyes widened when he saw them. His Dad had always considered cats “too independent,” and Nicky had despaired of ever being allowed to have one. They rubbed the antiseptic gel into their hands, and Ian slipped the latch to the room.

Once inside, Nicky lowered himself to his “good” knee, and with some difficulty, turned and flopped so that he was sitting on the floor with both legs spread wide. A little orange and white cat came from nowhere and jumped on his leg. He scritched it behind the ears, and then picked it up and rubbed his face against its fuzzy whiskers, giggling when they tickled his nose. The cat, really just an adolescent, raised one paw and patted Nicky gently on the cheek. He looked down at it and only then saw that the kitten was deformed. He had only one hind leg. Before Nicky could say anything, the kitten lunged out of his arms and ran across the floor, his three legs flying, then tackled a gray tabby about the same size. They rolled around for a few minutes in mock-fighting, then zipped across the floor, the three-legged kitten in the lead, and the tabby in hot pursuit.

Ian silently watched Nicky watching the kittens, then finally cleared his throat. “That gray kitten looks pretty playful, doesn’t he? What would you name him if you took him?”

Nicky watched the kittens cavort for a few more minutes, then as they dashed across his knees, he grabbed the orange and white boy, and said, “I want this one, Dad. I’ll call him Sparky.”

They both watched the kittens play for a few minutes, then Ian pulled Sparky’s flyer off the wall. “It says here that the orange one has to be adopted along with his brother. Looks like you’re going to have two kittens.” Ians innate distrust of cats melted when he saw the beatific smile light up his son’s eyes, as Nicky said, “Then I’ll name the other one Bubba.”

Christmas morning broke clear and glorious, with just a hint of frost in the air. Ian and Nicky polished off the last of the Christmas stollen, while Nicky unwrapped his presents. He had received a bounty of gifts, including a new video game with two different games. Nicky was more interested in watching the kittens pounce and play among the wrapping paper, and he and Ian both laughed as Sparky and Bubba played hide-and-seek, then raced around the room, bouncing off the furniture and pogo-ing off the walls. Ian was amazed that the disabled cat didn’t seem to even know or care that he was lacking a leg, but gave his brother tit for tat as they played.

They had taken a detour to their local pet food store on their way home the day before, and the kittens had every amenity they needed: colorful ceramic dishes, a scratching post, litter boxes, and a soft cushioned bed, big enough for both of them. Not surprising, however, they had both slept curled up with Nicky, and the three of them had awakened Ian this morning at the inhumane hour of six.

After awhile of watching the kittens at play, Nicky pushed himself up off the floor and went to the phone on the wall of the kitchen. Ian watched him dial, and when he heard Nicky ask, “Can Floyd come over?” he blinked away the mist that had suddenly covered his eyes. Ten minutes later, a tall, dark-haired boy came flying into the house.

“Wow! a Game Box,” Floyd exclaimed. Then his eyes lighted on Sparky and Bubba. “And kittens! Wow, you sure were lucky this year!” The boys played with the kittens for awhile, then Floyd asked Nicky if he wanted to go outside and throw a ball around.

Ian watched the two boys through the window, tossing a football back and forth. He cringed when he saw Nicky clumsily running to catch a long pass, then crash to the ground, then watched as Floyd helped him up and brushed the dirt off his jacket. Finally satisfied that things were going okay outside, he sat in his recliner and gazed at the tree, both kittens curled up in his lap. As his gaze drifted to the top of the tree, he remembered Nicky making his wish two nights before. As he wondered again what the wish had been, he thought, just for an instant, that he saw the angel wink.

A Christmas Story for Cat Lovers of All Ages

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