Helen Elgin stood by the Christmas tree, gazing at its splendour as it shone with bright colourful lights and twinkling tinsels. One dainty figurine hanging from the edge of a branch caught her eye and pricked at her heart. She slowly walked up to the beckoning object and delicately held it in her hands.
“Helen? Is everything all right?” queried her concerned husband from behind.
Without averting her eyes from the ornament, she quavered. “Steve bought this glass angel for me when he was 10. ” Tears filled her eyes the moment loving hands touched her shuddering shoulders. “He had saved up his money to buy me a Christmas present and when he saw me admiring this crystal angel…” he voice faltered as the memory came flooding back. She swallowed the emotional lump caught in her throat and continued, “Well that cost a pretty penny and he didn’t have nearly enough. I didn’t know at the time but he had found a job storing can goods on shelves in a convenient store. He told me he was staying after classes to help his teacher grade papers so I wouldn’t worry.”
She held the figurine in front of her and watched it twirl. “When I found out about it I wanted to punish him for lying to me. I mean what if something had happened. Thankfully the owner of the store was a friend of the family and he had given Steve his solemn promise not to speak of word of what he had been doing to earn extra money.” She clenched the ornament firmly in her fist and clutched it to her heart. “I miss him so much, Jim,” she sobbed, leaning back into her husband as she felt his arms wrap around her waist.
“I do too, Helen. There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think about him. I know he’s out there, somewhere and he’ll return.”
“I haven’t given up on that possibility, Jim. It’s just hard to nourish that hope sometimes, especially after 10 months.”
He turned her round to face him so he could place a tender kiss on her forehead. “They’ll find him or he’ll find us. Either way he’ll be back.”
She dabbed at her bedewed cheeks before returning the ornament to its original place.
As December 25th neared Helen found it hard to concentrate on the preparations for the special Christmas dinner that would number a dozen of her closest friends and relatives. With each glance at the silent phone another speck of hope would fritter away. Seeing what this upcoming gathering was doing to his wife, Jim proposed to call it off but Helen wouldn’t allow it. Two of her guests were in dire need of a little good cheer in this period of rejoicing and she was determined to pull out all the stops to achieve her goal.
“Want to talk about it, Oscar?” Rudy prodded, seeing how his friend was distractedly playing with his food.
“What’s to talk about? I think we’ve about covered every conceivable angle of this situation,” Oscar replied sardonically, pushing his full plate aside.
“I’m not referring to the investigation, Oscar, but rather what you have penned up inside. You’ll have to let it out sooner or later.”
“Don’t tell me what have to do,” Oscar snapped, prompting a few heads to turn their way. “I’m pondering whether I will go to Helen’s Christmas dinner.”
“Oscar you promised you’d be there. She’s counting on you. She needs you.”
“Does she?” he quipped snidely. “I’m the one who sent her son on this suicide mission. Do you honestly think she’ll be happy to see me?”
“First of all you didn’t send Steve on any suicide mission. I know you Oscar. You’d rather go yourself that to thrust Steve into the lion’s den, and Helen knows that.”
“If you’re trying to cheer me up you’re doing a lousy job.” He exhaled the last of his anger and rose from the table. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Without so much of an acknowledgement of gratitude at their waiter, Oscar marched out of the restaurant, leaving Rudy behind to foot the bill.
Outside as he waited by Rudy’s car, his mind roved back on the day he learned of Steve’s disappearance. Ten long months of investigation ensued with no indication as to whether his friend was dead of alive. The worse was the thought of Steve being dissected like a vulgar lab rat to delve into the complex mechanisms of bionic technology. He squished his eyes closed to wash that horrible scenario from his mind but no matter how hard he tried, the images would still haunt him night and day.
“God Steve, where are you? It’s Christmas. Please come back,” Oscar whispered in the wind.
Helen roused bright and early on Christmas morning to put the finishing touches on tonight’s dinner. As she glanced at the tree on her way to the kitchen, she noticed Steve’s figurine was missing. She stepped over to the tree and searched the floor for any sign of the glass angel.
“Helen, what are you looking for?” Jim asked as he came down the stairs, puzzled at his wife hunched under the tree.
“I’m looking for Steve’s ornament. It’s not on the tree so it must have dropped to the floor.”
Jim joined in the search that proved fruitless.
“I don’t understand. It couldn’t have just disappeared,” Helen cried hysterically. “We have to find it.”
Jim grabbed a hold of his wife to calm her down. “Helen, calm down. We’ll find it. It has to be there.”
Ten minutes later, still no ornament.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” came the query from behind.
Both Helen and Jim glanced at each other, a quizzical look on their faces as they slowly turned toward the voice.
“I can’t believe this figurine is still in pristine shape after all these years.”
“Steve!” both Helen and Jim chorused.
“Merry Christmas.” He flew to his parents to clench them both into a hug. “I’ve missed you both so much,” he sobbed, pulling them near suffocation.
“Steve, what…what…” Helen stammered in shock, groping and prodding her son to convince herself he was real flesh and blood.
“It’s a long story, Mom. I’ll tell you all about it later.”
“Does anyone know?”
“No, you and dad are the first ones.”
“Oscar and Rudy are coming tonight for Christmas dinner. Son, Oscar is a wreck. You need to tell him, tonight.”
Steve pulled free from the group hug and went to stand by the window. “What is it, Steve?” Helen asked, concerned by her son’s sudden silence.
“He sent me there, against his better judgment. He knew the risks and he nevertheless ordered me to go. I was beaten, tortured and left for dead before I managed to make my escape and found a nice woman who nursed me back to health. Her name was Frances, Frances Oxworth. A stunning lady, English and stylish. I asked her to marry me, but…”
“She was killed trying to help me flee the men who were still after me.” He turned to the two stunned people and pleaded, “Don’t say anything about me to Oscar. I still want him to think that I’m still missing. I want to take back my life. I want to start over.”
“Steve, I want that more than anything, but you can’t do that to him. I don’t believe he would have deliberately sent you on a suicide mission. I know him. He loves you like a brother.”
“Funny way to show it,” Steve scoffed. A few beats later, he drew in a deep breath and stepped up to his mother. He clasped both her hands and with a heavy heart, said glumly “I came to say goodbye,”
“I can’t be hanging around here. Someone is bound to recognize me and I don’t want to risk word getting to Oscar’s ears.”
“Where will you go?”
“I don’t know yet. Somewhere where no one has heard of the famous American astronaut.” He fashioned a weak smile at Helen and leaned in to brush a gentle kiss on her forehead. “I’ll be going now.”
“It’s better this way. I’ll call you as often as I can. I’ll use the assumed name of F. Oxworth so not to arouse suspicion.”
“Okay.” She pulled him to her chest to hug him one last time. “Never forget. I’m here if you need me.”
“I won’t. Goodbye Mom.”
“Steve! Don’t go. No, come back. I need you,” Helen wailed in her sleep
“Helen, wake up,” Jim prodded, nudging her to wake up. “Helen!”
“What? What is it Jim?” she asked, groggy.
“You were talking in your sleep. Something about Steve.”
“I think I know where he might be.”
“Now Helen, it was just a dream.”
“A name. He mentioned a woman’s name. Francine or Frances something. He said she nursed him back to health. Said she was English. Oh God Jim, could it be?”
“What?” Jim asked, puzzled
“I have to call Oscar.” she rolled onto her side to pick up the phone on the night table.
“Helen, be serious. It’s two o’clock in the morning!”
“It’s eleven in Washington. I have to tell him,” she insisted as dialled she Oscar’s home phone number. “I know it’s a long shot but this is the only clue we have.”
“What, a dream?” Jim’s scoffing received a scorching glare from his wife. “I’m sorry Helen, it’s just that...”
“Hello Oscar, it’s Helen?”
“Helen?” Oscar sat on the edge of his bed and glanced at the clock. “Anything wrong?”
“I’d like to ask you a favour.”
“Don’t ask me why I know it but I believe I know where Steve might be.”
“Somewhere in England.”
“How do you know?”
“Like I said don’t ask me why,” she dismissed offhandedly. “I also have a name for you. You have a pen and paper?”
“Yeah.” Oscar reached for the pad and scribbled down the name Frances Oxworth. “I’ll have my assistant look into it. Helen, who gave you that information?”
“You wouldn’t believe if I told you.”
“You can try me.”
“I’d rather not. Not now anyway just in case this turns out to be a wild goose chase. But I say we should give it a try.”
“We still expect you and Rudy tomorrow night?”
“Absolutely. The good doctor and I will be on the ten fifteen flight.”
“Jim will pick you up at the airport. Thank you Oscar.” She hung up before Oscar had a chance to squeeze in one last question on the mysterious lead.
All invited parties refrained from broaching the subject of Steve’s disappearance during the celebrations. The guests bore and grinned it out of respect for the gracious hosts who pulled out all of the stops to make this Christmas dinner a memorable occasion.
Sleep eluded Oscar that night as the thought of Steve alive churned in his mind. Instead of staring at the ceiling waiting for a Sandman that never came he decided to do a little investigating himself. As he went to reach for the phone, it rang, startling him into yanking the receiver off the hook to avoid rousing the household.
“May I speak to Oscar, please?”
“Boss, I think I have something.”
“It was a cinch. I have the phone number of a Frances Oxworth in Manchester, England. She’s a doctor; works in a local clinic. That’s all I could dig up on her so far.”
Oscar jogged down the phone number on the cover of a magazine sitting on his nightstand. “That’s good work, Russ. I’m sorry it had to be on your day off.”
“No sweat, boss. I’d do anything to find Steve. Do you want me to contact her or…?”
“I’ll do it. Thanks.”
“Has Helen told you how she came to be in possession of this information?”
“Yeah. She said Steve came to her in a dream and told her the woman had nursed him back to health,” Oscar explained on a light sarcasm that nevertheless carried an edge of caution not to sneer. “I’m aware this is a little unusual but… humour me.”
“I’m not dismissing any leads, however flimsy or preposterous they might be.”
“Good man. I’ll see you after the holidays. My regards to your family.” Oscar lowered the receiver in its cradle and picked up the magazine to memorize the number. He sat, pondering the options of whether to inform Helen of his findings or take the unilateral decision to contact the woman beforehand in order to validate the premonition and thus spare Steve’s mother any additional grief.
Instead he voted to adopt the indirect approach, which is to send one of his agents abroad to follow this Frances Oxworth to see if she would lead them to Steve. He fibbed to Helen about not having received any news on the woman’s existence but assured her that he would be in touch as soon as the information started pouring in. Helen had her suspicions about Oscar’s honesty but knew that if she forced the issue she might throw a wrench in the investigation.
Days later she and Jim bid farewell to Oscar and Rudy who returned to Washington. No sooner had their plane landed at Dulles that Oscar contacted his agent in Manchester to get the latest development
“I’ve been watching her for the past 48 hours. It’s routine as usual,” explained Agent Karnes. “Gets to work around seven thirty and returns home in the early evening. I didn’t see anyone with her so far but I didn’t check her house.”
“Could be that he’s in the there but he’s not able to fend for himself.”
“That’s a possibility. Want me to keep on her?”
“Yes absolutely,” Oscar insisted. “Try if you can see if anyone’s inside.”
“I could peek through a window or two while she’s out at work.”
“Be discreet about it. We wouldn’t want to arouse suspicion.”
“Will do Oscar. I’ll call you as soon as I finish the inspection.”
“So?” Rudy jumped in eagerly the second Oscar hung up the phone.
“Nothing yet,” Oscar sighed dejectedly. “Karnes will try peering inside to see what he can get.” He stood from his chair and rounded the desk to make his way to the bar to pour himself a small pick-me-up that he quaffed in one gulp. “It’s funny but at first I scoffed this ridiculous notion of a premonitory dream but now…”
“Now your instincts tell you otherwise,” Rudy finished.
“Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.”
“We’ll soon find out.”
Three days later, Oscar and Rudy were on an express flight to Manchester to give positive identification to Frances Oxworth’s houseguest.
“I found him wondering the street one night and brought him to my house to tend to his wounds. I nearly blacked out when I saw all those wires and such. I didn’t know what to do. I was privy to experiments in bionics and instantly assumed that his case was classified so I didn’t say anything about him. I cared for him at home the best I could while I tried to gather information on his identity.”
“He didn’t tell you?”
“Mister Goldman, your friend is suffering from total amnesia.”
Oscar turned to Rudy with a perplexed expression written across his face. “What I can’t figure out is how he got from Ukraine to England?” Rudy shrugged as he continued to examine the slumbering man.
“How did you find me?” the young woman queried.
“It’s…it’s rather hard to explain,” Oscar stammered with embarrassment. “His mother…well…she said that her son told her your name in a dream.”
“I believe it since you’re here. No doubt he must share a special bond with his mother.”
“That he does,” Oscar breathed out with a slight quaver in his voice. “Rudy, how is he?”
“The flesh and bone part is healing nicely, thanks to Dr. Oxworth’s care. The other I can easily fix once we’re back in Washington.” He turned to Frances. “Has he moved his legs or right arm at all?”
“No. In fact the paralysis is the reason why he’s sunk into a depression. I’ve tried my best to stop him from slipping further but there’s just no reasoning with him.”
“Don’t we know it,” Oscar remarked.
“I sutured up the synthetic skin as best as I could so he wouldn’t panic. With him being amnesiac it’s most likely he doesn’t know what he is.”
“You did good, Dr. Oxworth,” Rudy praised. “Oscar we really need to get him back. I’ll keep him sedated so he’ll remain unconscious throughout the journey. We wouldn’t want to cause a stir.”
Weeks wore into months with Steve’s condition improving satisfactorily much to Rudy’s delight. He gradually regained his memory but details of his failed mission still eluded him. Oscar didn’t press the issue for now seeing how Steve was still mentally unstable. Rudy prescribed an extended vacation at his parents’ farm until he deemed it safe for the operative to return to active duty.
Helen was standing before the glittering Christmas tree that still stood in the corner of the living room. She had refused to trim it down, waiting for the day her son would return home to celebrate a belated holiday season with his family. All decorations had remained untouched and Jim willingly complied with his wife’s wish to leave all decorations for Steve’s homecoming; a miracle made possible by a God given gift of mother-and-son’s deep psychic bond.
With a delicate hand she held the crystal angel; her gaze dwelling upon its beauty and frailty. No sooner had she hung it back on its branch that a car pulled up the driveway. She hurried out the door to welcome her son. She and Steve stared at each other for a moment, neither one knowing how to approach this rather awkward situation. Helen decided to take the first step and held up her arms.
“Welcome home, son,” she cried, trying hard to suppress the gush of emotions brewing within. Hesitant, Steve took a few baby steps toward her; still wary of the woman he still had little recollection of. Without uttering a single word he accepted the hug that instantly filled him with a sense of security. He tightened the clench to drink in all the love emanating from this tiny frame.
He pulled back to reveal a few tears pearling down his cheeks. Helen delicately dried them with her thumbs as she gazed lovingly into her son’s eyes. He turned to Frances who had chosen to fade in the backdrop during this touching reunion. “This is Dr. Oxworth.”
“I’m pleased to finally meet you Dr. Oxworth.”
“Like wise, I’m sure,” she assured as she shook hands with Helen. “And please none of that doctor stuff. Call me Frances or Fran for short.”
“All the more reason to call her by her first name since she and I are getting married,” Steve announced catching Helen unawares who turned to her husband with a stunned expression. He smiled and nodded, having been privy to the news ever since he had picked the couple up at the airport.
“Welcome to the family, Frances.” Helen held Frances’s face in her hands and placed a kiss on her cheeks. Although she was genuinely happy for Steve something inside her rejected the notion of a marriage, believing her son was acting on an infatuation rather than on true love. Only time would tell.