Christmas Story

by Sue Kite

 

 

 

Author's Note: Takes place sometime during the time frame of the series.

 

Lee Crane heard music floating in and out and through his consciousness. There were also voices-- melodic, caring, but nothing he could understand. Somehow it seemed as though Tiny Tim, the Velveteen Rabbit and Santa Claus all wove through his dream-like existence. Soft hands caressed with concern and warmth. It reminded him of when he was a little boy and the way his mother would lovingly care for him when he was sick. Lee wondered where he was, but could never break through his barrier of somnolence enough to do more than briefly wonder.

Finally, he woke to drug-muted messages of pain that his body was sending him—and to bells and soft singing voices he had been dimly aware of before. It all confused him and he almost betrayed his wakefulness in his bewilderment. But his ONI training kicked in and he simply lay there, ignoring the pain as best he could while trying to remember what had precipitated his present circumstance and trying to deduce where he was. It was easier to figure where he was not. He certainly wasn’t on the Seaview. Some of the voices he heard, speaking and singing, were female, some sounded like children.

The smell of the place told him ‘hospital’ and he mentally cringed. But where? Then he dug into his most recent memories and things began to slowly slip back into place. He had been driving from a conservationists’ convention that had been held in Yellowstone National Park. The admiral had insisted that Lee attend with him and indeed, considering where it was, the captain had been only too happy to accommodate his boss. All was smooth sailing, the area was gorgeous in snow-covered beauty and the convention went well. Admiral Nelson had even received promises of several hefty donations toward some of his environmental projects. Lee opted to return in a rented vehicle, wanting to see the Rockies and the Nevada desert in the winter, and assured that the weather for the next week would be free of storms. The admiral with more projects on his mind than time on his hands, had flown back to Santa Barbara.

Crane made it to Reno after the long and desolate, albeit beautiful drive across Nevada and decided to stop and get one of those reproduction slot machines for the admiral as a gag gift for Christmas. It was the nineteenth and he had plenty of time for a stopover. The admiral was a very savvy gambler when he chose to indulge, but the slots were something that defied Nelson’s cognitive and deductive skills. Crane thought the admiral would get a kick out of having one of his own, so here he was hoping he could find a slot machine quickly. But what had happened next? There had been a traffic jam just as he got off the interstate. He sat, frustrated in a long row of cars on the exit ramp. Then there were the screams in front of him. Some kind of altercation? Or had there been a wreck? He never found out what had tied up the traffic. The memories began floating away and he forced himself to refocus.

More came back to him…. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Just ahead of him, two men in hooded jackets, with what appeared to be large caliber pistols, were blatantly robbing motorists of their cash and valuables. They snatched whatever they could, shoving their spoils into backpacks. Lee picked up the mobile phone next to him and dialed the operator. Emergency numbers were pretty standard in California, but he couldn’t be sure here. When a voice answered, he immediately told her the situation.

The bandits had chosen wisely. The exit ramp was not readily seen from the interstate or from the street below. You couldn’t get away and you couldn’t flag anyone for help. Apparently there was a bottleneck below that was going to keep him and his fellow victims here for at least five minutes, more than enough time for them to grab some of their own Christmas cheer.

The highwaymen were now two cars ahead of him. Lee finished his conversation with the emergency dispatcher, but what about right here and now? Another scream. Someone was fighting the robbers and Crane could only see one outcome for that action. His frustration turned to anger as one of the robbers pistol-whipped the driver. Carefully, he slid over to his passenger door, opened it and slipped out. Then he crouched and reconnoitered. While one robber was in a shouting match, the one on the passenger side was reaching in for something the occupant was unwilling to relinquish. Crane ran, still crouched, toward the man and tackled him before the robber realized someone was on him. Lee’s fists made short work of the robber and he rolled away quickly, grabbing the unconscious man’s gun as he did. He dashed to the dubious safety of the car ahead, knowing that the other man couldn’t have been idle. He was right. The sharp blast of a gun and the explosive impact of a bullet into the concrete next to him brought that fact home.

Crane realized that he had to take this guy down quickly before he hurt anyone. He peered from around the car and saw the driver motioning behind him. Puzzled, Lee heard another gunshot and then felt a hot burning in his upper left arm. It went numb immediately. Do I have a bulls-eye painted on that arm? Another shot plowed into the body of the car and he realized that there had been three men. Crane spun, aimed and shot before the third man, much younger looking than the other two, could fire at him again. With a scream, the third hood, the lookout most likely, fell to the ground.

“That’s enough, cowboy,” a harsh voice sounded. The driver-side robber was standing in plain sight, but a pregnant woman he had dragged from a car shielded him. One arm was around her neck and the muzzle of the gun to her head. “Drop the gun!” the bandit ordered. Lee saw abject terror in the woman’s gray eyes, saw her lips moving; a prayer most likely—and he dropped the gun to the pavement.

Someone grabbed him from behind—the man he had tackled most likely. Lee felt his jacket jerked partway down, pinioning his arms to his side. Then came a kick to his side that sent waves of pain up and down his spine and drove him to the pavement. As he tried to extricate himself from his own jacket, he heard harsh laughter, voices weaving in and out louder one second and softer the next. He heard engines revving, but they seemed distant. Then the world exploded in harsh sound, terrible pain and then blackness.

“I know you’re awake, Duke. So let me see those attractive hazel eyes the nurses in intensive care have been telling me about,” came a pleasant but forceful female voice.

Yes, he was awake, but it was so hard to do what she was ordering. Finally, he moaned and opened his eyes a crack. The light was muted and he opened them more. A tall, dark-haired, olive-skinned nurse was bending over him.

“There you are. You can’t imagine how we’ve been holding our collective breath, worrying about you,” she said, her voice deep and calming.

“Where . . . where am I?” he asked, his voice rough as though he hadn’t used it for some time. Or perhaps because he had had a tube down it, he thought sourly.

“Reno. St. Mary’s Hospital.”

That fit with what he remembered. Then he remembered something else she had said. “Why did . . . you call me Duke?”

“I thought it was more personal than John Doe.” She paused. Then in a softer voice, she added, “Um, after John Wayne.” He frowned in concentration. She waited patiently as he struggled to take in what she had said. “John Doe? But . . . I, uh, had ID.”

“The crooks stole your wallet,” she replied.

Now he was even more confused. It was so hard to concentrate; even harder to keep his eyes open. “My . . . rental.”

“Believe it or not, even with all the traffic congestion, two of them managed to get away by stealing a Blazer. I heard they made a mess of it, though. The police assumed it was yours. They also assumed the men had fled the state in it. At least the Blazer never showed up around here.” She stopped abruptly. “Before you fall asleep again, what is your name?”

“Lee,” was all he could get out before he succumbed to the drugs and his weakened state.

When he awoke again, it was to music similar to what he had been hearing before. This time he noticed a small, brightly lit Christmas tree on the nightstand and garlands around a door. He made out a wreath on the other side of the room and a stocking on the windowsill. Had the admiral and his mother found out where he was, he thought groggily? But there was no one else in the room with him. What day was it? Where was he? Then he remembered the conversation with the nurse.

The same woman breezed into his room; her bright smile as cheery as the tree near his bed. “You look a bit more alert, Lee. How do you feel?”

“Feel fine.” He said quickly, then he hesitated before asking, “What day is it?”

She smiled softly at his first declaration, but only responded to his question. “Christmas Eve. You had surgery three days ago and only came down from intensive care early this morning.”

“Surgery? Intensive care?” Confusion reigned again. He tried to remember what had happened. The bandits had kicked him. Shot him in the arm. There was something else, but he could not remember what it was. “Why?”

“You don’t remember?” she asked. He shook his head. “They shot you, Lee.”

“Yeah, my arm.” Lee winced at a spasm of pain that forced its way through his drug-induced fog.

“They shot you again before they stole your Blazer. Abdomen. You bled quite a bit before help arrived. It was touch and go there for a while.” She checked his vitals while she talked. Lee found that he enjoyed listening to her. It was rather soothing and eased his confusion and anxiety and helped take his mind away from his discomfort. “A lot of people consider you a hero for what you tried to do,” she continued. “I won’t say what the police detective called you, but anyway, most of us here, especially the intensive care nurses, have sort of adopted you. They didn’t feel anyone should be alone at Christmas.”

“Adopted me?” he stammered. “But no one has contacted you?”

“You mean asked about you?” she asked. He nodded. “No. After the first day, the police assumed that you were from out of town, but without ID and a car to run a check on…. Well….All they could do was put out a bulletin on the bandits and the car they stole. They could only figure that the men had hidden somewhere.”

Lee paled. His mother was, or had flown out to Santa Barbara to spend Christmas with him and the Admiral. She would be worried sick. He felt lethargy setting in again, but pushed it away in the growing despair he felt. To be alone in a hospital far from home. What a hell of a way to spend Christmas! He had to let Mom know—let the admiral know. “Please contact….” The pain was now warring with the lassitude he felt. “Need….” He had to focus. He gulped in a deep breath of air to clear his head and felt the pain intensify.

She could see his distress and laid her hand on his arm for a moment, then she put something in his IV tube with a syringe. “Just tell me your full name and we can get the police to do the rest, Lee.”

“Lee Crane,” he said simply. The room began to waver.

“Good, I’ll pass that information along. You just relax.”

“Nelson Institute of Marine Research.” It was almost more than he could force out. The last thing he heard was her gasp of surprise and he was asleep again.

“Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King…” someone was singing nearby.

This time Lee recognized the voice. It was the nurse who had spoken to him before. He opened his eyes and saw even more decorations that had either been recently put up or that he just hadn’t noticed before. There were cards everywhere, like bright square ornaments—around the mirror, on the walls, the windowsill. He wondered at that. She had said that no one had known he was here, so where had all of this come from?

“Merry Christmas, Captain! Are you feeling better?” she said cheerfully, her smile bright. She was again taking his vitals, but didn’t pause a beat as she spoke. Another hospital worker was watching from the door and wished him a Merry Christmas.

He smiled an acknowledgment, his head clearing even as he continued to study his surroundings. “Yes,” he said simply to the nurse, while gazing at the decorations. “What . . . what is all of this?” Then he took in the greetings. “Christmas?” He felt his previous gloom returning.

“Yes, it’s Christmas morning. And all of this? It’s from the nurses and other staff members, including your doctors. There are cards from some of the people on the exit ramp, too.”

“But why?” he asked, perplexed.

“Partly because some of us are alone at Christmas with no families of our own,” she said, her voice softer and more serious. “And we wanted you to awaken on Christmas to something bright and cheerful. We wanted you to know that you weren’t alone, whoever you turned out to be.”

He was awake enough now to understand what she was saying and to be touched by it. “I . . . I don’t know what to say,” he stammered. “Except thank you.”

She smiled softly and laid her hand on his. “Captain Crane, part of it was also because you did something that no one else had the courage or ability to do that day. You cared and everyone wanted to show the same caring back.”

Again he didn’t know what to say. Everything that everyone had done seemed overwhelming. “I remember someone reading to me. And singers, too.”

She laughed. It was a musical sound. “Yes, there were several off-duty nurses who read to you during the past few days, and lots of cassettes with Christmas music. Everyone hoped you would respond.”

“I guess I disappointed them.”

“Oh, no. You responded; partially woke up at times. You just don’t remember.” Her hand lingered on his. It was warm in the coolness that always pervaded hospital rooms. “By the way, Captain, the police called a short while ago and told me that your vehicle was finally found abandoned in Oregon.” She had called him captain. That meant she had contacted the institute. As though reading his mind, she added, “And from what you told me, I was able to get a hold of your friends. I was shocked when the person on the other end of the line turned out to be Admiral Nelson himself. He and several others are on their way here, including your mother. So you are going to have family after all, Captain.”

He gazed around the room again, his previous dark mood completely gone. “Call me Lee, please.” He paused, finding it hard to express his thoughts at what had been done for him. He glanced at the wreath on the door before looking back up at her. Finally, softly he said, “I think I had family here already . . . Nurse…?”

“Just Stephanie.” Her eyes appeared misty.

“I don’t think my friends and family could have done more than this. Again, thank you.”

“Merry Christmas, Lee.”

“Merry Christmas, Stephanie.”

Fin



Author's Note: I really want to thank my beta readers LaJuan and Michele for the invaluable help.


 

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