Best Present Ever

By Eleanor Ward

A single lamp burned dimly in the darkened bedroom of the cheap hotel. Faded drapes were pulled across the windows, to help to keep out the winter chill.

Kid Curry sat, dozing, in a rocking chair, his chin on his chest, a thick woollen blanket wrapped around his shoulders.

Suddenly he opened his eyes, roused not by a noise but more the lack of it.

Panicked, he leaned forward to closer observe his friend, lying in the bed, relieved to still see the faint rise and fall of his chest.  For the last few hours his breathing had been laboured, as he fought the infection raging within him, creating a rasping sound. But now he was silent, and Curry knew what that meant; the crisis point was near, and only God knew which way it would go.

“Heyes?” he whispered, grasping his hand, “Heyes, can you hear me?”

On receiving no response, Curry let go of his hand and slumped back in the chair raking his hands anxiously through his hair.

After they’d been caught in a snowstorm a week or so ago, before arriving in this town, they had both developed what they at first thought were just colds, from getting soaked by the snow.  But after several days, by which time Curry’s symptoms had subsided, Heyes’ condition had worsened. Despite his protestations Curry had called in the doctor who had diagnosed bronchitis, which had then turned into pneumonia.

Knowing that a quarter of all pneumonia sufferers didn’t survive, a desperately worried Curry had pressed the doctor for a treatment.  With no official remedies available, the doctor had first used quinine. When this didn’t appear to have much effect, he had then tried a serum that was derived from horses - which studies had shown to be beneficial in some cases - in the hope of increasing his patient’s chances of recovery, but had admitted that there was no conclusive evidence that it would help.

Curry looked at Heyes now, feeling helpless.  They’d been on their way to Porterville, to spend Christmas with Lom Trevors, but after being caught out by the unexpected blizzard had been forced to curtail their journey in this town.  It suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t wired Lom to say they wouldn’t be able to get there, and he felt guilty that he would be preparing a Christmas meal for guests who would not arrive.  But, when he heard what had transpired, hopefully he would understand. 

He stood, now, to stretch the stiffness out of his body after hours sat in the hard rocking chair, and crossed to the window, parting the drapes slightly and peering out into the darkness.

Several inches of snow lay on the ground and there were few people around. It was Christmas Eve and most people had retired to their homes to prepare gifts for their children and food for the festivities.

With a sigh, he closed the drapes and returned to the chair, studying Heyes’ pale face anxiously.  Over the last few days, he had tended to him night and day, bathing him with cool water when his body burned up with fever, cocooning him in blankets when he shivered with ague and using extract of peppermint, left by the doctor, to try to aid his laboured breathing.  He was exhausted, but worry did not allow him to rest.  A few snatched naps here and there were all he’d managed as he fretted over his friend’s condition.

The doctor would not give a prognosis, saying only that it was “in the hands of God” as to whether or not he would survive, although his face indicated that he thought it was likely to be the latter.

Neither Curry nor Heyes had faith in God any more.  Whatever faith that had been instilled in them had been destroyed after the brutal murder of their families, while still children, neither of them able to accept that a benevolent God would willingly allow such atrocities to take place, and neither had set foot inside a church in years.  Curry thought that probably meant that if it was down to God whether his friend should survive, their abandonment of Him would make it unlikely. Nonetheless, he had prayed constantly for his friend’s recovery, offering up his own soul in return for Heyes’ survival. But, so far, his prayers remained unanswered.

Leaning forward, he grasped his friend’s hand tightly between his two.  A sheen of perspiration stood out on Heyes’ face, from the fever, but where previously he had tossed and turned, in a delirium, now he was as still as a corpse.

Outside in the street, the clock on the local church began to chime eleven.

In another hour it would be Christmas Day.   

Christmas! Memories of childhood Christmases with their families sprang into Curry’s mind; Of sitting around a large table with a huge turkey on it, and the excited chatter of family members as they passed around the food. Of him and Heyes playing with toys gifted to them by their relatives. Of snowball fights in the yard, and of building snowmen with pebbles for eyes and carrots for noses.  Memories of happiness, fun, and laughter.  Such things had been rare in their lives since that fateful day when they had been orphaned, their previously happy lives plunged into despair overnight. But the one thing that had prevailed was his and Heyes’ friendship.  They’d had their ups and downs in the years since but they were as close as it was possible to be without being blood kin and Curry couldn’t begin to envisage his life without him at his side.  

“Come on, Heyes. You can beat this.” he told him, urgently. “You have to beat this.”

He sat, holding his hand, watching, worriedly, as Heyes’ breathing grew shallower.

With his elbows resting on the bed and Heyes’ hand clasped tightly between his two, he bowed his head and lifted his hands to press them to his forehead, unable to bear the thought of watching Heyes take his last breath.  Screwing his eyes shut, he sent forth yet another prayer for his friend’s survival.

“Please don’t let him die.” he whispered under his breath.

He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there, in that same position, lost in memories of happier times that juxtaposed with fears of what the next few hours might bring, when, suddenly, he heard a faint sigh and felt Heyes’ hand flex slightly against his own.

Lifting his head, he looked at Heyes to see two languid brown eyes looking bewilderedly up at him.  The fever had broken.

“K-kid…?” Heyes’ voice was barely audible.

A grin spread slowly across Curry’s face, scarcely able to believe it.  His prayers had been answered. Heyes would live.

“Welcome back.” he croaked, so overcome by relief he could hardly speak.

Heyes looked around the room in confusion.  “Wh-what…? Where…? he muttered, trying to get his fuddled thoughts into some kind of order, just as the church clock began to strike midnight.

“Don’t worry, it’s okay.” Curry gently pressed him back against the pillows as he feebly attempted to try and sit up. “You’ve been sick, but you’re gonna be fine.” he told him. “I’ll explain everything to you later, when you’re feeling stronger, but for now you need to rest and get your strength back.” 

Heyes gave a vague nod. He was incredibly tired, although the reason why escaped him for the moment. Closing his eyes, the last thing that filtered through to him before sleep once again claimed him was Curry’s voice saying, “Merry Christmas, Heyes.”

*    *    *

The doctor called round just after breakfast, appearing surprised by his patient’s survival, having given him a very slim chance of lasting through the night.

“He must be made of stern stuff.” he said, as he took off his stethoscope and replaced it in his bag. “I confess I did not expect him to survive.”

“Neither did I.” said Curry, only now able to voice the thought that had haunted him for days but which he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge.

“God must have other things planned for him.” said the doctor, regarding his sleeping patient with a brief smile before picking up his bag and heading towards the door.

Curry nodded. “Good things, I hope, doc.” he said, his thoughts turning to the amnesty they hoped to receive.  With his brains and ingenuity Heyes had the capability to achieve great things in life, if given the opportunity.  Perhaps his life had been spared in order for him to fulfil some specific purpose. A smile came to his lips as a picture came briefly to his mind, of Heyes as president of the country, before the doctor’s voice brought him back to reality.

“Let’s hope so.” The doctor nodded. “He’s going to need bed rest for several days and plenty of nutritious food to build up his strength.”

“I’ll see to it.” said Curry.

“If you have any concerns send for me, but with rest he should make a full recovery.”

“I‘ll be sure to.”

“Then I’ll bid you good day and wish you a Merry Christmas.” said the doctor, opening the door.

“Merry Christmas to you too, and thanks for all your help.” smiled Curry, as the doctor took his leave.

He moved to stand by the window, pulling back the drapes and looking outside, feeling as though a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders. The sky was heavy and grey, casting an other-worldly aura over everything, and fresh snow was beginning to fall, but to Curry it appeared as beautiful as a summer’s day. Today he might have been contemplating the first day of a life without his closest friend by his side but, miraculously, he had been spared that fate and his relief knew no bounds.

As he surveyed the deserted street, his gaze fell on the church, its windows giving out a warm glow of light as staff readied it for the Christmas morning service. He found his eyes drawn upwards to the metal cross mounted on top of the steeple, shining like silver against the dense, grey clouds, and then on up to the sky above it.

“Thank you.” he said, softly, feeling slightly foolish at talking to nothing but overcome by a sudden urge to offer gratitude to whatever higher power that had been responsible for Heyes’ survival.

With a slightly self-conscious smile, he let go of the drapes and returned to the rocking chair.  After a brief check on his friend’s somnolent form, he wrapped the blanket around himself and, for the first time in days, slept soundly.

*    *    *

Some hours later, as Curry recounted the events of the last several days to his now awake but somewhat drowsy partner, Heyes suddenly said, “Was I dreaming, or did I hear you wish me Merry Christmas?”

Curry nodded.  “Yes, you did. Today is Christmas Day.”

Heyes’ eyes widened in surprise.  The last he remembered it had still been almost two weeks until Christmas. He could scarcely believe nearly two weeks had passed and he had no memory of them.

After a few moments he said, “I’m sorry I didn’t get to get you a Christmas present, Kid.”

Curry grinned.  “Ah, but you did, Heyes. The best present ever.”

Heyes looked puzzled.  “I did?”

Curry nodded. “You survived, against all the odds. That’s the best Christmas gift you could ever give me.”

For once Heyes blushed.

“Well,” he said, some moments later, “in that case, what can I say, except Merry Christmas, Kid.”

Their eyes met and held, a wealth of emotions exchanged in the shared look; happiness and relief from Curry, for his friend’s deliverance from the jaws of death, affection and gratitude from Heyes, for his friend’s dedication to his care, both knowing how close they had come to being separated forever.

Curry broke the look first, not wanting Heyes to see the tears that suddenly pricked at the back of his eyes at the thought of what might have happened, and of relief that it hadn’t.

He turned away to pour a shot of whisky, pushing down his emotions before turning back towards him with a smile.  It would be some time before Heyes would have the strength to even get out of bed, but he had survived and as far as Curry was concerned that was all that mattered.

“Merry Christmas to you too, Heyes,” Curry held up the glass of whisky he’d just poured, the doctor having forbidden Heyes from having any just yet, “And here’s to many more of them!”