By Jessica Ricks

The neighborhood was alive with Christmas lights as light flurries fell from the sky and Christmas music seemed to play everywhere I went, a constant reminder that this Christmas wasn’t as merry as it usually was.

Our house was decorated but under our usual tree, that was covered in lights, sparkling bulbs, and an assortment of other ornaments, was bare and we had nothing to out under it.

Normally I loved Christmas. I was always the first to turn on a Christmas song on December 1st, insisted that we go see the display of Christmas lights in the park multiple times, and made sure that James and Ashley got to see their favorite Christmas specials at least once. But instead of dancing around with my wife, Allison, to “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” I was stressed out and depressed.

It had been a tough year. I lost my job a few months ago. Ally’s job had made some pay cuts. I had spent the last few months ravenously trying to find a new job, at this rate I would have settled for anything, in time for the holidays with no avail. Ally was trying her best to keep our family afloat but our savings were draining quickly. It didn’t help that Ashley had been hospitalized for several weeks for an infection, one that she luckily recovered from but the hospitals bill’s were enough to almost make me have to stay for a few days as well.

Now it was two days before Christmas, we had no gifts to give our young children, and things seemed to be getting more bleak by the moment.

I found Ally sitting at the kitchen table with notes and her laptop in front of her. Her hair was a mess and there were bags under her eyes, sleep wasn’t high on our priorities these days. I sat next to her and put a gentle hand on her knee. “What’s the verdict?”

She looked at me and I could see that her eyes were red but she hadn’t been crying. Ally had lost the strength to cry days ago. “It’s no use Mark. We just don’t have the money. It’s either we don’t buy any gifts or we don’t eat for a week.”

I suppressed a sigh of disappointment not wanting to make her feel any worse than she already did. “I see.”

She turned back at her laptop but I could tell she wasn’t really looking at it. She just couldn’t make eye contact with me. “I’m so sorry. I should have put it more overtime when Ashley was sick but…”

“Stop,” I said firmly. I lifted her chin to meet her eyes. “You’re doing the best you can. We both are.”

Despite her pain, a smile touched her face. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“And I don’t know what I’d do without you,” I said sincerely. At least if we were going to go down, we would go down together. I couldn’t imagine being in this predicament on my own.

All of a sudden, we heard the sounds of James and Ashley running down the hallway. They entered the room and sat in chairs next to us.

“I’m so excited for Christmas!” Ashley exclaimed.

“Do you think if we stay up all night we can see Santa?” James said.

“Now James, you know Santa doesn’t come if you’re not asleep,” Ally said halfheartedly. How could we ever tell them that Santa wasn’t coming this year?

I knew that gifts weren’t everything, Christmas was supposed to be all about family time and togetherness after all, but I had always been well off around the holidays.

Growing up, we weren’t rich, but we got by just fine. In the years before we had our children, I was never without a gift or two for Ally. Our kids always had gifts under the tree. I didn’t want this to be the first year I failed as a father being unable to give them what they deserved.

“I sure hope Santa remembers to bring me my new doll house,” Ashley said.

“Don’t you know Santa doesn’t forget anyone’s gifts?” James said. “He checks his list twice after all. He’s definitely going to bring me my new Xbox.”

Ally and I exchanged a nervous look and I knew I had to say something.

“Now kids, you have to remember that sometimes Santa can’t bring you exactly what you want,” I said carefully.

Sure enough they looked confused. “Why not?” Ashley asked.

“Sometimes…sometimes things get a little hard for Santa and he might only be able to give you something small. It doesn’t mean you were bad or anything, but even Santa falls on hard times and he’s doing his best. I want you to be happy with whatever Santa may or may not bring.”

“It’s not all about the gifts anyway,” Ally added. “We’re going to have a great day no matter what is under the tree, okay?”

“Okay,” Ashley and James said slowly as they considered that. They were good kids, they weren’t spoiled. But they also didn’t understand the value of a dollar yet and I had hoped to maintain their innocence for just a little while longer.

As they went off to continue their games, I felt restless and troubled as I had become accustomed to feeling l and lately. I turned to Ally who was staring off into space just as distracted as I was.

“Do you mind if I go for a walk?” I asked.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, sure.”

I gave her a kiss then I grabbed my coat and left the house. I didn’t know where I was going, i just needed space. Maybe the cold air would clear my head and make me feel like this nightmare wasn’t happening.

All around me, people were celebrating. They were decorating their houses, doing last minute shopping, building snowmen and making snow angels. I couldn’t imagine ever having been that carefree even though it was a mere 365 days ago when I would never have imagined being in the situation I was in.

After walking for a little while longer, I sat on a bench and looked off into the distance hoping for a sign that things would change.

A bus pulled up and the man in a trench coat sitting next to me got on. The bus drove off leaving exhaust fumes behind.

I glanced next to me and saw that the man had left a briefcase behind. He was long gone on the bus now. I thought that maybe if he had left some kind of ID in it I might be able to return it so I unzipped it. When I saw what was in it I gasped.

Inside of the briefcase was stacks and stacks of cash! There were bundles hundred dollar bill’s strapped together. There had to have been hundreds of thousands of dollars in there!

I quickly closed the briefcase and looked around to make sure no one had seen it either. I peeked inside one more time to make sure I wasn’t going insane and this time I also saw a business card. It said “Dave McAlister & Co. 8500 Estonia Drive.”

Again, I closed the briefcase then pondered my situation. By chance I had come into a lot of money, it was the solution to all of my problems! Ally and I would be able to pay our rent for months, we wouldn’t have to worry about how we were going go get groceries, and we could buy the kids whatever they wanted for Christmas.

But this money belonged to someone. This man had accidentally left it behind and he might even have needed it more than me.

I didn’t know what to do but the more I pondered the situation I thought whose situation was more dire than mine right now?

So I stuck the briefcase into my jacket and quickly walked back home.

~~

I didn’t tell Ally about the money when I got home and I felt terrible about it. There were no secrets between us, that was how it had been from the beginning of our relationship and I didn’t want to start now, but something told me she wouldn’t approve of me taking the money. I tucked it away in my car before I went into our apartment but it ate away at me for the rest of the night because I just couldn’t decide what to do with it.

That night, I lay under the covers staring at the ceiling contemplating the briefcase that seemed to be mocking me from the parking lot down below.

Any other person would have immediately deposited the money, especially if they were as desperate as we were. What was the harm in it really? The man had left it behind so it couldn’t have been that important. And how did I know he had acquired the money through positive means anyway? For all I knew, he could have stolen it and it would have been the right thing to do for me to take it anyway. And yet there was still a little voice in the back of my head telling me that this was wrong and it would be the right thing to do to give the money back no matter what.

I knew this was going to keep me up all night so I did the one thing I always did when I needed advice on something.

“Ally?”

“Hmm?” she said. She was tucked under the covers half asleep and I knew she wasn’t happy to be woken up but I needed advice.

“Say someone found a large sum of money lying around. They knew that a person left it behind and they knew where to return it to but they really needed the money themselves. What do you think they should do? Hypothetically of course.”

She stared at me for a moment and I wondered if she knew. “Mark, is there something you want to tell me?”

“No, of course not! I was just wondering if someone were in that hypothetical situation what would you think would be the right thing to do?”

Again she narrowed her eyes at me waiting for me to spill the secret. “Hypothetically of course?”

“Yes,” I said with a nod.

“Whatever it is Mark, I think you should give it back. It’s not yours and that person could be struggling just as much as we are.”

“But what if it wasn’t acquired legally anyway?”

“Do you know for sure that it wasn’t acquired legally?”

“Well…no.”

“Then there is an equally likely chance that they worked very hard for that money and they’re wondering where it is right now. Times are hard for us, but I wouldn’t recommend taking away someone else’s prosperity just to make our situation easier…hypothetically of course.” She reached over and kissed me. “Good night.”

She closed her eyes and that was the end if it. I let out a sigh. I didn’t like her answer, but I knew what I had to do.

~~

The next morning everyone was in the kitchen having the breakfast that Ally made but I wasn’t going to sit down with them today. I knew that if I didn’t do this soon, I would lose my nerve and nothing would happen.

“Do you want breakfast?” Ally asked after seeing me dart through the kitchen putting on my coat.

“No thanks,” I said. I placed a kiss on her cheek as I passed through the kitchen. “I’ll be back later.”

I got in the car and glanced at the briefcase full of money in the seat next to me. Did I really want to do this? Was it really the right thing to do? I didn’t know but it was Christmas Eve so i had to act fast.

Twenty minutes later I found myself parked in front of McAlister & Co. For a moment I sat in the car staring at the brick building in front of me. I thought about all of the money in the passenger seat that could solve every problem that my family was having right now. All I had to do was drive away.

I got out of the car. I waited an agonizing few minutes after I knocked on the door. I started to wonder if I should turn around. It was Christmas Eve after all, it was very likely that no one was there.

Before I could make any decisions, the door opened. In front of me was a man who could have been my father’s age with salt and pepper hair, wearing a shirt and tie and had on a pair of black glasses.

“Can I help you?”

“Sorry to bother you on Christmas Eve sir. My name is Mark Averston. I don’t know if you remember me, I was sitting next to you at the bus stop yesterday afternoon.” I held up the briefcase. “You left this there.”

His eyes got wide in surprise for a moment then a smile broke across his face. “Mr. Averston, I can’t thank you enough for bringing this here. Will you please come in?”

I followed him inside where there was an empty front desk and waiting room, McAlister seemed to be the only one working today. He gestured for me to sit on one of the couches and he sat across from me.

He opened the briefcase as if checking to see if everything was still there. “Thank you so much for bringing this to me,” he said after closing it. I was supposed to deposit this into my new business account yesterday and I didn’t realize I had forgotten it until I was halfway to the bank. Most people would have taken it for themselves.”

“It didn’t belong to me,” I said echoing what Ally had said last night. “It wouldn’t have been right to keep it.”

“You’re a good man Mr. Averston. I must give you some reward for returning this.”

“No need,” I said. “I didn’t do it for the reward.”

“Of course not, but good people must be rewarded for good deeds.” He reached into the briefcase and pulled out two stacks of hundreds then handed it to me. “I think this will be sufficient.”

I looked at him in utter shock. “Sir, I can’t possibly…!”

“Please, taken it as a token of my sincerest appreciation.”

I hesitantly took the money and pocketed it. “Thank you!” I said shaking McAlister’s hand. “Thank you so much!”

He walked me to the door and when I got back into my car I wanted to cry. It was $20,000, enough to get by for a while longer and enough to buy my family Christmas gifts.

With that I put the car into reverse and drove as fast as I could to the nearest toy store. There was still time to buy James and Ashley their dollhouse and Xbox and of course get a little something for Ally before the stores closed.

I also dialed her number as I drove. I wanted her to hear the good news too.

“Hey Mark…”

“Ally, you’re not going to believe this.”

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