Another armload of toys thudded onto the last remaining spot on the floor of the guest room, obscuring the patch of blue carpet beneath. With three weeks until Christmas, Kingsley Mathews had no idea how he’d be able to fit more toys into the small space. He could barely open the door, not to mention there was absolutely nowhere to walk except over the gifts. How he’d managed to get tangled up into all of this was beyond his imagination.
“If you could just grab the last bunch in my truck, that’s all of them for now!” Elizabeth’s shrill hollering reminded him how he’d gotten roped into it.
That darling little sister of his had a heart of gold, and a face that was nearly impossible to say no to. So instead of having an empty guest room gathering dust, as most bachelors did, his had become the warehouse for Hope’s Toy Chest. He believed in the cause. He’d picked up toys, and even spent the days before Christmas wrapping presents with Elizabeth, but the idea of storing everything at his place had become almost too much for him. There were toys everywhere, and almost constant phone calls, emails, and unannounced visitors dropping things off. His patience was wearing thin.
Being a pediatric oncologist at one of the best children’s hospitals in the country, he worked long, hard hours. He saw so much suffering, children sick and death with little he could do for them. It was a hard field, but one he chose at a young age. He strove to make a difference, and he knew finding a cure would do that. His love of children had brought him into this toy drive, and he couldn’t back out now.
This year Christmas seemed to mean even less to him. There was a young girl under his care that might not make it that long. The family was hanging on, praying for a miracle that he honestly didn’t believe would come. It was heartbreaking to watch them sit at her bedside every day hoping for any news that might save their daughter.
Looking around the room only stressed him more, sending his thoughts back to one of the nurses.
It will be a blessing when her time comes, no more pain and suffering.
Those words rang in his ears. There had never been a time when he thought one of his patients were better off if their time came, taking them from this world, from their loved ones. That’s where he and the nurse differed. He wanted to save them all. Losing even one of them was devastating, because they had so much life left. A life they didn’t get to begin living. Being surrounded by machines, needles, hospital staff, sick from the medication that was supposed to make them better. None of it was fair. They were children; they deserved a chance to live.
“Earth to Le.” Elizabeth ran her hand in front of his face, shattering his thoughts sharply as though she were breaking a thin pane of glass.
“Sorry.” He blinked a few times, trying to clear his mind, but his thoughts wouldn’t let go of that little girl.
“Don’t worry, I brought in the last of the toys.” She sat them on top of another pile before looking back at him. “Hey, you okay?”
“Fine.” The minute the word left his mouth, he knew he had been snippy. He and Elizabeth had always been close; their past experiences had made that bond stronger.
“Sorry, I just have a lot on my mind.”
“Stress at work?”
“When isn’t there stress at work?” He tried to make light of it, as if it didn’t bother him.
“I’m sure you haven’t eaten yet, let me make you something.”
She was out the door and down the hall before his brain could wrap itself around what she said. “Shit.” He mumbled to himself before following after her. “Honestly, I’m fine. I already ate at the hospital. I’ve got to get some work done.” Okay, not actual work. Instead, he wanted to read over every note of that girl’s file and see if there was something he missed, something that would save her life. Damn it, he didn’t want to lose her, not this close to Christmas.
“Le, you work too hard, you need to take a break sometime. Are you even taking time off for the holidays?” Elizabeth stood in the foyer where he caught her with her arms crossed over her chest.
“I’m taking off Christmas so I can help you deliver the toys as you asked.”
“Shall I read between the lines? What you really mean to say is you’re on call on Christmas, right?” The annoyance was clear in her voice.
“What do you want me to do, Elizabeth? Leave my patients to die so I can have off a crummy holiday that has become so commercialized that people have lost the true meaning of the season?”
“It’s not just about Christmas, you never take time off. It’s always work with you.” Elizabeth grabbed her jacket off the back of the sofa.
“I have people depending on me. That’s more important than time off to sit around and do nothing anyway.” He was angry that Elizabeth of all people didn’t understand. All those years ago when he decided what he was going to do with his life, years of school, and dedication, she stood by him. Now that he was finally making a name for himself, taking over the lead pediatric oncologist at only thirty-one, he couldn’t let anything slide.
“Hospitals consumed our lives for years, and now they still do for you. Why can’t you see that’s unhealthy? You need a life outside of the hospital. When you’re not there, you’re here sleeping. You have no social life and a romantic life is nonexistent as well.” She pulled her keys from her pocket. “I’m leaving. Don’t forget Chelsea Waters is coming by tonight to start separating the toys so we know what else we need to purchase with the monetary donations. Please be nice to her.”
“Shouldn’t you stay to deal with her? After all, this is your idea. I’m just the warehouse.” He had no desire to play host to someone, even if it was the founder of Hope’s Toy Chest. There were files that required his attention.
“I can’t. I told you, Jason and I are leaving early in the morning to drive to his parents’ house. I have a ton of things to do. You’ll have to deal with it. Give her access if she needs to come back tomorrow.” She held up her hand before he could argue. “It’s not our fault the warehouse she’s been using was sold. She’s working on finding somewhere else but it doesn’t seem like it will be until after the holidays. So please be nice, this means a lot to me and even more to her. It’s only for a bit longer and the holidays will be over and you can have your guest room back so it can gather dust.”
He watched his sister stroll out of the house before he let out a deep sigh. Elizabeth always enjoyed Christmas; it had been a season of second chances for her years ago. He never forgot it, but this year even the thought of knowing his sister was with them because of that Christmas miracle couldn’t get him out of the funk. He wasn’t sure anything could.
The file he had planned to read lay discarded on the kitchen bar. As his discomfort reached an all time high, he decided to step outside. Fresh air would clear his mind of Elizabeth and get him focused on his work again. He grabbed his coat from the hall closet, slipped it on, and buttoned the double-breasted front to keep the chill out.
The snow had begun to fall again, making the twinkling Christmas lights shine brighter. Out of the whole cul-de-sac, his was the only place not decorated. Mentally he made a note to hire someone to revise the issue. This year it might not matter to him, but it mattered to the neighborhood. Their development was known for having the best lit houses at this time of year. People always drove around to look at them. He wouldn’t disappoint his neighbors, or the children whose parents drove them through to see the decorations.
Mr. Always Dependable, I guess that describes me to a T.
Letting people down had never been something he was comfortable with. He’d go out of his way to make sure others were happy. Maybe that was why he made such a good doctor. He cared more about his patients than getting home to watch the game, catch a few hours of sleep, or whatever had his fellow colleagues rushing out of the hospital every evening.
Needing to stretch his legs, he wandered around the back of the house leaving footprints in the fresh snow. The back yard was his favorite place. It wasn’t because of the pool, it was the view of downtown, the lights twinkling in the distance. Most importantly, the hospital stood tall amongst the others like a beacon guiding him back to where he belonged, back to where people depended on him. The view was the reason he’d bought the house. For some, having a view of their work place would only be a constant reminder of their duties but for him it was a symbol of his accomplishments. All those years of working his ass off had finally paid off. He was doing what he wanted and he made a difference it some people’s lives.
The night had chilled too much to stand out there and enjoy it. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat with the intent of heading inside, turned around, and walked straight into a woman.