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The Gift
The Charlatan

By Benjamin F. Kaye
“Police have new leads in the murder of Daniel Bennett and Jessica Channing thanks to the continuing dedication of the family and friends of the slain couple. They were killed in front of the old Charlatan Hotel one year ago tonight as they were on their way to a charity ball.” “Just turn it off – how depressing.” The waitress snapped. “Killed on Christmas Eve, what is this world coming to?” One of the patrons growled. “I don’t get it.” Jenny stared at the screen, dumfounded. “Nate, I thought you said that everything was gonna work out. Nate?” “C’mon Jenny. I’ll call you a cab; your foster parents must be worried sick about you.”

It was dark and cold. Stray snowflakes snuck through the busted windows. The peeling wallpaper was decorated with graffiti. Without warning, the chandelier crashed down between them. “This is perfect!” Jess beamed. “I think The Charlatan will be up to her old tricks tonight.” Dan put his arm around her. On a small tree outside, Christmas lights mysteriously winked to life. Even from 2 blocks away, they caught George’s attention. He put down the classifieds and just stared at them. “Ready to order George?” The waitress came by. “Hey, did you see that?” “What?” “Christmas lights outside the old Charlatan Hotel.”

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“Huh. Well I’ll be. So, you ready to order?” “Not yet. I’ll be back. Keep my coffee warm.” George stumbled out into the snow as if he were in a dream. It’s really quite surprising how much can go through your mind on a short walk through the city. Then again, for a man in his fifties like George, the city was full of memories. Most of them pointed to his failures and unfinished dreams, so he focused on those Christmas lights. If he could only get closer to them, maybe he could warm himself in their cheery glow. When he reached the tree, the snow was gently drifting through the branches. He smiled as he remembered decorating the trees outside his dorm in college. Now that was a good time: he had everything going for him. He shuddered as he realized how quickly it came to an end. If only Dad hadn’t lost his job in his junior year. ‘If only’ – he chuckled to himself cynically; that was probably going to be etched on his tombstone. All of a sudden, the lights inside The Charlatan came on. George turned around and stared in wonder, like a little boy. He rubbed his eyes, but those lights were still on. He stood there, not really sure of what to do next. The smell of pine boughs and the faint strains of Christmas carols wafted out from the old hotel. The front door swung open, all by itself. Well that was all the invitation he needed. George slowly walked into the lobby. Everything was new: the wallpaper, the floors, the wood, the brass, the ceiling, and the lights. A small Christmas tree sat in the corner and the halls were decked with lights and festive garlands. But what caught his eye was a newspaper article on a nearby chair. It listed the top 500 college scholarships and grants. Some of them seemed particularly well suited to a man in George’s situation. He held the paper tenderly and read closely. He walked out of that hotel determined to finish what he started all those years ago.

Harry wasn’t really sure why he was on this street. With 8 or 9 drinks in him – or was it 10 – he wasn’t sure of anything anymore. That’s exactly the way he liked it. Life was better bleary and fuzzy, with no absolutes. He stumbled down the sidewalk, till he got to the lights. Christmas – Hmmmm….that seemed familiar. Yeah, he had messed up a few of those – and some anniversaries too, not to mention the jobs and the birthdays. The memories were getting clearer now and were nipping at his heels. He needed a drink or two to stay one step ahead of them.

3
The lights of the old hotel came on. Harry was so surprised he fell over backwards. It was quite funny. It was so funny that he spent several minutes on the ground laughing hysterically. But then the tears came and they wouldn’t stop. He struggled to his feet and went in search of his next bottle. He took an uncertain step forward and slid on the ice. He fell through the doorway and landed flat on his face. Nothing. Really, there was nothing. No buzz, no grogginess, no tipsiness – it was all gone. Harry was as clean as a whistle. It was like he hadn’t had a drink in a year. There were other things missing too: guilt, anger, fear. He looked around the lobby of The Charlatan and wondered if he was in heaven. Something landed on his foot. It was a flyer announcing an AA meeting – ironically it was in the basement of The Charlatan and it was going on right now. With a clarity and sense of peace he hadn’t known since he was a kid, Harry realized it was time. He slowly walked down the stairs and into the meeting.

“Turn right.” The nice, polite, computerized voice instructed. Kaitlin did as she was told. She was always very good at following instructions. Here she was, dressed in her best, taking advantage of an incredible opportunity. “I hope he looks half as good as his profile.” She thought to herself. From the moment she laid eyes on him, she knew he was the one. He was everything she wanted – and she wanted a lot. No, she deserved a lot. Her expectations for this night were high, but she couldn’t help it. This was the first date since, well, you know – it. “Oh c’mon Katie!” She chided herself. “You’re a big girl – you can say it: divorce.” She pulled the car into the parking lot, but instead of seeing the Harbor Front (the best restaurant in town), she saw the dark brick walls of the Charlatan. She banged on her GPS and cursed. Dumb thing – she remembered how excited she was when Drew had given it to her. Like everything else he had given her, it just didn’t work. “That’s odd….I thought The Charlatan was abandoned.” She warily approached the door as the light streamed out into the cold night. “You look lost.” Jessica came out from behind the desk and shook her hand. “I was looking for the Harbor Front restaurant.” Kaitlin stammered, not sure if all this was real. “I’ve never been good with directions.” Jessica confessed. “Honey, do you know where the Harbor Front restaurant is?”

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“I know how to get there. I took my brother there when he graduated from college. Great place, the shrimp is incredible!” Dan walked over from the bar. “Thanks…Is this?” “The Charlatan? Yup. Flash renovation – latest thing.” Jess smiled. “Got the old gal runnin’ just like new!” Dan put his arm around Jess. “Wow…this….this is incredible!” Kaitlin turned around and took in the magical atmosphere. “Excuse me….I’m lost. Do you know how to get to the Grant Theater?” Kaitlin’s ex-husband, Drew, stepped through the front door. He was dressed in a tux. “Drew!” Kaitlin was so startled she nearly jumped out of her shoes. “Kaitlin?” “So where were we?” Dan piped up. Ah yes…directions to the Harbor Front restaurant. It’s quite simple really. Get right back onto Maple Ave and turn right at the first light.” “Actually honey, you turn left at the carpet store.” Jessica corrected him. “The carpet store where we got the green monster?” “Yeah.” “I do believe you’re right. Boy that carpet was ugly – didn’t match the drapes at all.” “Remember the time we had getting it in there?” Jessica laughed. “That was an ordeal. Well, back to the matter at hand: Turn left at the carpet store then when you get to the stop sign you turn right.” “Isn’t that where the old high school was?” Jess wondered. “That’s where the old middle school was. The old high school was 2 miles west of that, I think.” “Which one? The school that burned down or the one that was demolished?” As Jess and Dan went on and on, Kaitlin and Drew settled down for a long talk. It had been so long since they last talked. Near the end, all they did was scream, shout, and accuse. For no apparent reason, “Music Box Blues” by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra floated through the grand old room. “I love this song!” Kaitlin smiled. “Would you?” Drew held out his hand. “I’d love to.”

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“Can you remember the last time you had this much fun?” Dan said. He and Jess watched the divorced couple slowly eddying in the center of the lobby.

Why was he here? He just couldn’t figure it out. He should’ve been back at the house, watching the game with his buddies. But here he was, at the end of the semester and walking down a dark, dingy, frosted street. He stopped by the tree and looked at the dark, bare branches. “Kinda looks like the one we had in the backyard.” He thought to himself. Ah, the old tree: the swing was his favorite place to go when things went wrong. And, just like any childhood, things did go wrong. But he had something nobody else had: his mom. She was the best – she always knew what to say and even when not to say anything. Her lectures were as good as her hugs and she was always there for him. She would push him on that swing for hours it seemed. But then the cancer came. Mom fought and fought and fought – the cancer won anyways. He remembered the last day, when he came home from school. She never made it home from the hospital – he never got the chance to say goodbye. The lights on the tree came to life. He took a step back and looked around. Someone must have turned them on. His eyes followed the cord down the tree as it snaked its way to the ground. It wasn’t plugged into anything. He thought he heard sleigh bells from behind him. He turned around and the once dark hotel was brimming with light and hot chocolate. “Is this place open?” He wondered as he walked to the front desk. There was no one there. Maybe if he waited, just a little longer, someone would show up. The antique phone on the desk rang. It jarred his nerves. He didn’t like surprises and this night was turning into the biggest one of his life. That phone kept on ringing. Surely someone would come to answer it. No one did though. Finally, he picked it up. “Andy?” The voice on the other side was soft and warm. “M-mom?” “I love you.” “I….I love you too mom.” He had waited so long to say it. He broke down. A gentle, unseen hand guided him to a room upstairs.

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“You’re gonna be OK.” Jess softly whispered. She looked over her shoulder at Dan and smiled.

“Thanks. This was the best gift we ever got.” Dan smiled. “Glad you liked it.” Nate replied. The angel was sitting on the piano in the lounge, munching on a cookie. “But, there is one more thing.” Dan was hesitant; he didn’t want to push his luck. “You want to know how to do this.” Nate pulled a cookie from behind Dan’s ear. “Yeah, can you show me how?” “Why don’t you just give it a shot and see what happens?” Nate winked. “OK. Here goes-“ “Whoa! Not me! Try her.” He pointed to Jess. “OK.” Dan reached behind Jessica’s ear and opened his hand. It wasn’t a cookie, it was an engagement ring. “You did pretty good squirt. You know what to do with that?” Nate smiled. As Jess and Dan exchanged vows, Nate headed into the cold, dark winter night. He was walking along when an older gentleman came up beside him. “Thanks. That was incredible.” Nate offered him a cookie. “No problem. Even angels deserve Christmas gifts.” Gabriel replied. “Just to sit back and watch it unfold.” “It’s a hoot isn’t it? Like the Father always says: redemption – the greatest show on earth.”

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