On a dark and snowy night, Dalton once again found himself with a coat full of loot, searching for a place to lay low and sort it out. It wasn’t very often he found a lot of cars on the street in the winter time, but the forecast didn’t show any precipitation, so a handful of brave souls decided to line the street. He passed from car to car, using his slim jim to open the doors, then rifling through them as quickly as he could. It was quite lucrative, considering the holiday season was in full swing.

He found it strange how many people left so many valuable things in their vehicles. Cash in the center console. Jewelry in the cubby hole under the radio. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you looked at it, people managed to use the same spots, so after a few weeks of practicing he could hit a medium-sized sedan in under three minutes. The problem afterward, though, was finding a place to go where he could separate his findings and figure out what he had.

Most people in that situation would use their home, but Dalton was currently homeless. Having lost his job due to labor cuts and being unable to produce rent money, his landlord gave him an extra month, probably because he felt bad throwing him out into the extreme cold, but after that, he had no choice. When the eviction notice came, Dalton lit the edge of it with his cigarette and watched it burn in the ashtray. A few days later he found himself sitting with his back against the inside of an overpass, unable to sleep from shivering.

The streetlights in the area he currently occupied were brighter than he liked, so he made his way south on Danville to head closer to the on-ramp of I-95. It was a small town, not much more than a quick-on quick-off of the highway, a few neighborhoods and a main strip of fast food for travelers. The pass-thru for the highway meant a lot of traffic, though, and a lot of people staying at the motels to catch a couple hours sleep before getting back on the road again. His next destination would be the Heartstone Lodge since it sat back a ways from the main road and wouldn’t be as crowded.

He didn’t have much in the way of friends or family; previous incidents of drunkenness had driven most of them away. Some people say whiskey makes you mean, and Dalton wasn’t a stranger to that. Half a bottle of Maker’s Mark into game two of the Stanley Cup series he managed to throw his glass at the bartender, which then shattered against the wall and showered down into some of the other patrons’ drinks. After that, he decided to get his problem under control.

Though he wasn’t drinking anymore, the mess that he had made of his life before turning it around wasn’t easy to clean up. His rap sheet was more extensive than was comfortable, meaning a few extended jail sentences and some outstanding fines, so getting a loan was out of the question. He had been fired from several jobs for either showing up drunk or not showing up at all, which left him with a blotchy employment history. Finding a job after that would be more work than the job itself, most likely. Managers always wanted references, both personal and professional, but those bridges were long burned.

Four blocks later Dalton saw the glow of the Heartstone’s neon sign over top of some of the houses that still lay between him and his target. The sleepy neighborhood he was walking through was happily lit with Christmas lights, but due to the late hour, the lights inside the houses were out. He couldn’t hear anything except a slight wind and the crunching of snow under his boots. There was no traffic to speak of, something he was thankful for in that minute, but the biting cold was paining his joints. By the time he reached the lodge’s lobby, tears caused by the wind had almost frozen to his face.

Half of the lights in the parking lot were burnt out, adding to the sketchy allure of the motel. It was the type of place where you’d expect hourly rates, which was the perfect place for him to go and lie low. He had stayed there a handful of times since he got out of jail, making it his unofficial place of residence. He headed into the office to secure the same room he’d used previously.

“Room 3?” the manager asked, only looking up from his crossword long enough to see who was standing in front of him.

“Yeah,” said Dalton, “for the night.”

He tossed two twenties on the counter and the manager grabbed a key off the board that hung on the wall next to him, then set it down next to the money.

Dalton scooped up the key and headed to his room, immediately locking the door behind him. He made sure the curtains were closed all the way and turned the heat on. The room smelled faintly of must and stale cigarette smoke, so he lit one of his own to freshen it up. He grabbed the ashtray off the table next to the bed and moved it to the small two-person dining table by the door, where he unloaded his pockets and sat down to sort everything out.

Not more than three years prior to that day, he not only wouldn’t recognize his present self, but he would have looked down on someone in his current situation. His wife, Lydia, routinely chastised him for his indifference, telling him he needed to be more understanding and sensitive towards people of plight. He didn’t care; his family, including their four-month-old daughter Cecily, had everything they needed and more, which was the only thing that mattered to him.

When he initially lost his job, however, the situation changed rapidly. He started buying two bottles of whiskey in a month instead of one, which turned into two in two weeks, which turned into two in as many days. The job search dwindled into a standstill. Lydia told him that if he was going to be home that he needed to take care of Cecily instead of paying for daycare since their funds were low, but once his drinking ramped up he was in no shape to take care of anyone. When Lydia came home from work to find Dalton passed out on the couch and Cecily with a huge, bloody bump on her head, she hit her breaking point and told him he needed to find somewhere else to stay.

At the Heartstone Lodge, Dalton cataloged his warez; a gold wedding band, a watch, thirty-seven dollars in cash and a mound of change. It wasn’t much, especially considering he had to venture out to find a new pawn shop, lest the owner realize what he was doing by coming in too frequently. He was barely making enough to pay to stay in the room, much less accomplish his goal of returning home to his wife and daughter.

Whatever he didn’t spend on food and lodging went into an envelope he kept in his back pocket. He took it out and added the fresh cash to it, then counted it all before returning it to the envelope. One hundred and sixty-six dollars. It was enough to get each of them a little something for Christmas and take it to them, which was a start. He secured his cash, placed the physical items in the top left drawer of the dresser, and headed to sleep to rest up for the big day.

The next morning showcased two fresh inches of snow on the ground, contrary to the weatherman’s prediction. He woke up around nine, and although checkout wasn’t until eleven, he wanted to get a jumpstart on the day. He set the coffee pot going while he hopped in the shower and got dressed, then hurriedly slugged a cup and a half of the discount sludge before his throat burned too much to take any more. With one last look of the room, he grabbed the items from the previous night out of the drawer, patted his pockets to double check for the money, then left for the day.

Drinking had landed him a couple overnighters in the beginning, due to DUIs and bar fights, but it wasn’t until he got caught systematically skimming money from his job at a car wash that he did more than a year. People would come in and ask for whatever wash they wanted, but no matter what they asked for he would put it through as a regular and pocket the difference. Once his employers caught on, they waited until they had him on camera a few times before pressing charges of Embezzlement. He did one year and one day.

It was a slippery slope after that. While he was inside, Lydia contacted what little family he had left to see about storing his things. Dalton’s brother, Jacob, agreed to house the things in his garage, as long as Dalton came and got them as soon as he was released. When he eventually did get out, his attempts to reach out to Lydia were stonewalled until he would agree to a formal custody meeting. So on that note, he spent the next bouncing to different minimum wage jobs in an attempt to save money and get a place, but his love for the bottle, though hindered for a year, captured him once again.

He began his walk to the downtown area, wrapping the thrift store scarf around his face to protect from the wind. There was only a week until Christmas, which meant the days were only getting colder while leading into the frost of January. It was rounding nine thirty so traffic began to dwindle, with most people making their work destinations for the day. The snow packed with a pleasing crunch under his shoes. He didn’t have boots, and the shoes he was wearing were starting to get holes, but his priority was his family, not himself.

A short while later he came to the only strip mall in the area. It housed five businesses including a drug store, a clothing depot, a grocery supercenter, a nail salon and a fast food joint. He chose the grocery supercenter since they had toys. It was unnerving, walking into the store to try and find a toy for his daughter he didn’t even really know. To find something for his estranged wife that would convince her to give him another shot. Deep down he knew there weren’t any magical items there that would repair the damage he had caused, but he had to try anyway. He took a deep breath, swallowed back the bile, and headed inside.

An hour later with bag in hand, Dalton headed for his previous address. He had sprayed himself with a nice cologne that was on display in the store, and even managed to put on a new pair of boots, under the guise of trying them on, then left without paying for them. Whenever he did something like that he justified it by telling himself it was going toward regaining his old life, and that he would pay for his mistakes when he was able. He would donate to charity, volunteer at the hospital or at the soup kitchen. Either way, the only thing that mattered was that his wife wasn’t the wiser on the minor details.

As he rounded the corner to his old house, he started to feel more nervous. His heart rate increased and his cheeks flushed. He unwrapped the scarf a little and fanned out his jacket. The house, which stood two stories, white with blue shutters and a front porch that sat up off the ground, gradually became closer until he was standing in front of it. He looked up at the windows that would be the master bedroom, then back down at the bags he carried, and made his way to the front door.

He knocked, but there was no answer.

He knocked again, waited about thirty seconds, and knocked a third time. After the third series with no answer, he turned to leave, getting a few steps down before the door opened behind him?

“Hello,” said Lydia, pulling her arms through a sweater.

He froze and his breath caught in his throat. “Um, hey.”

When she realized who it was Lydia sighed slowly and was silent.

Dalton turned around and held the bags up. “I just came to drop these off. Hopefully that’s OK.”

“I told you that you’re not to come around here anymore.” Lydia stepped out onto the porch and shut the door behind her. She wrapped her arms around her midsection and stood without looking him in the eye.

“I know, but Christmas is soon and I wanted to make sure you and Cecily had something from me to open.”

“I’m not going to give her anything from you Dalton,” said Lydia. “It’ll confuse her. She already doesn’t know who you are, that’s bad enough. If I do give her what you bought, and that’s a big if, it’ll be from Santa.”

Dalton shook his head and swallowed. “OK, I get it. A girl should know who her daddy is, though, don’t you think?”

Lydia’s face turned from indifference to anger. “Don’t even start. It’s your fault in the first place that she doesn’t, so don’t try to leverage me with that.”

“I’m serious,” said Dalton. “I haven’t had a drink in over two months. I’m doing better, I swear.”

“You said that the last time I saw you before you did, what was it, six months for pushing a pregnant woman and then knocking her husband out cold while being drunk in public?”

“I know,” said Dalton, “but I swear I’m doing it right this time. I’ve been going to groups and to the gym. I’ve been eating healthier and trying to keep myself steady.”

Lydia folded her arms and moved her head side-to-side in order to crack her neck. She watched a car as it passed them, following it from one side of her vision to the other, then locked her eyes on Dalton. “Are you working?”

“Not yet,” said Dalton, closing his eyes at her disparaging look, “but I’m looking. I mean, we both know I’ve screwed up a lot over the past few years, and that doesn’t look great to an employer. But I’ve been trying, and I’ve even met some guys that have gone through the same thing that said they can set me up with a court-sponsored hiring program.”

While he was trying to explain his situation, the door opened and a beautiful little girl with jet-black hair and green eyes looked out. She wore a white dress and white headband that had a pink flower on it. As soon as Dalton saw her his eyes filled with tears.

“Honey, go back inside, it’s too cold to be out here without a jacket on.” Lydia kissed Cecily on top of the head and shut the door again when she ran back inside. “I can’t have her running around in there by herself.”

“Sure,” said Dalton, frozen in place after seeing the smiling angel he had so badly wronged. “Just take these. One is for you, one is for her. If you decide to give it to her I’ll be grateful, but if you don’t I understand. Make it from Santa or from you or even from your parents, it doesn’t matter as long as she’s happy.”

Lydia coughed into her fist and ran her tongue across her bottom lip, then reached forward to take the bags. “I tried to serve you divorce papers, you know. I looked for you for months before Nathan told me you were in jail in another county.”

The words divorce papers made Dalton’s throat burn worse than the sludgy coffee.

“I’m sorry, I should have reached out to you and let you know. You said you didn’t want to hear from me and I hadn’t really turned over my new leaf yet, and I wanted to make sure I was doing okay before I did this. I’m trying, Lydia. I promise.”

“We’ll see Dalton. I have to go.”

He made his way to the bottom of the steps before he turned around again. “Give Cecily a kiss for me?”

“Maybe.”

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