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Little Joe's Christmas Tree

Eddie is a Christian author, and in the last 20 years, a mentor to countless young people through God's ministry.

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Little Joe's Christmas Tree

Little Joe crawled out of the old and decrepit Buick station wagon that no longer ran. Without thinking it mattered, he pushed the heavy door closed with a loud protest from the rusted hinges. The boy took a step back and looked at the rusting metal hulk. Part of it was pock-marked by a young boy’s air gun. Although he was responsible for the busted taillight on his ninth birthday, he had never aimed for any of the glass.

It angered him that most of the windows had been intentionally shattered by street punks. The car had been his home for most of the late spring and early summer before the heat of July forced his family into one of Chicago’s homeless shelters. After his family’s life was devastated by the early spring tornado, the Buick kept him and his sister warm and dry when the storms raged for days afterward. The old ‘tank,’ as Daddy referred to the Buick, brought them from the Kansas heartland to the Chicago lights, coughing and belching black smoke as his parents prayed along the way.

Now that grand old car sat in the junkyard in the shadow of some of the city’s tallest buildings, waiting for the few good parts to be scavenged before going to the crusher. It saddened the boy to see another part of his life being whisked away, never to return.

The sound of heavy machinery churned within the confines of the wrecking yard, which, in turn, overwhelmed the busy street traffic outside the metal fence. The smell of rust, old tires, and soured oil permeated the frigid air.

Little Joe thumbed through the small pocket bible. He recalled the day he won it in a bible drill at the small country church back home. It was red and had his name inscribed, presented as a gift from Pastor Dan, the preacher who helped him find salvation. He carefully wiped the book, dusty from sitting in the back of the car through the end of summer in the junkyard. He smiled when he came to the Twenty Third Psalm.

“The Lord is my Shepherd,” Little Joe whispered through chattering teeth, “I have everything I need.”

The boy closed the bible and shoved it into his pants pocket. He looked back into the car to see if anything else may have been left behind. In the back, where he and his sister had slept during the spring and early summer, were some old clothes that were mere rags now and not fit to be worn by anyone. He had been disappointed when he could not find his stash of baseball cards. It would have been nice to use them to trade for a Christmas gift for his Momma.

“Okay, kid.” The yard worker smelled of oil and gas, and looked as if he showered in the same fluids every day, closed the other door to the Buick and looked down at the boy. “Time to go. The boss will be back from lunch soon, and he don’t like people running loose in the yard. You got what you came for?”

“Yes, sir,” Little Joe scooped up a ball of snow. “Can I?”

“Just one, and then you really do have to go.” The yard man cracked a smile. “And don’t call me 'sir.' I work for a living.”

Little Joe wound up and threw the snowball at a mangled Cadillac. The car reminded him of the same car that the men drove who made Daddy angry and Momma cry. The day they came out to the wrecked farmhouse was the same day Daddy told the family that they would have to move to the city. Little Joe did not know why, but he did not like big fancy cars or men who smoked cigarettes around his little sister. He worried a lot for several days after those men left. Anna had a nasty cough that Momma blamed on the men blowing their...she said a bad word that Joe did not dare even try to remember...smoke all around the little girl.

The man escorted Little Joe to the gate and then closed it behind him. He tried to get one last glimpse of the Buick and then turned to head back to the shelter. The sky was a bright, clean blue. Chicago had been spared the brunt of a major winter storm the night before, and a light dusting had cleaned the air. As he walked, he watched his breath make small, swirling clouds of steam before vanishing into the crisp air.

******

The city streets were busy with holiday traffic. Little Joe carefully made his way through crowded sidewalks to avoid bumping into anyone. He had made that mistake once in the fall. The older woman accused him of trying to steal her purse. The boy fell into tears, but the genuineness of his waterworks did little to assuage her or the officer.

Fortunate for Little Joe, a sidewalk food vendor named Frank witnessed the whole incident and spared the child a trip to the police station. The two became instant friends, and after that day, every time the boy found some pennies that people mostly ignored, he would take them to the man for a cup of hot cocoa.

Frank was a mountain of a man to Little Joe. When compared to Daddy, the vendor easily overshadowed him. That did not cause concern for the boy, though. He could see kindness in the man’s eyes that spoke volumes of his character.

“Hello, Little Joe!” Frank called from his cart positioned near the corner of two busy streets. “Did you find your bible?”

Frank could tell that the youngster was out of character for most boys his age that lived in the city. He guessed Little Joe’s age to be around ten or eleven since he was comparable in size and stature to his own grandson. There seemed to be an aura of innocence about the boy that the city had not stolen yet. Frank knew with great sadness that it was only a matter of time before that happened.

“The man let me go inside to get it.” Little Joe fished the bible out of his pocket. “Do you have one?”

“You bet I do,” Frank chortled, “but it is so big that I can’t carry it around anywhere except for church.”

“I’m glad I found it.” Little Joe presented his treasure to Frank. “Pastor Dan gave it to me for winning the bible drill.”

“I have a cup of hot cocoa right here for you.” Frank exchanged the cup for the bible.

Little Joe smiled sheepishly. “There was a rich man’s car in the junkyard. I found a bunch of coins in the ashtray. It was about to be crushed.” He started searching around in his pockets with his free hand. “I hate that they are going to crush Daddy’s ‘tank.’”

Frank smiled as he flipped through the bible. “You have taken outstanding care of this little book.”

“It is very important to me.” Little Joe pulled out a handful of change.

“As well it should be.” Frank frowned when he saw the boy opening his hand with the coins. “Now, Little Joe, we have already discussed this. I am interested in pennies only so that I can give my other customers their proper change. You keep the silver coins for yourself. They are not as valuable to me.”

Little Joe knew enough about money to know that Frank was more than nice to him. “There are only ten pennies here.”

“Ten!” the man exclaimed. “That is worth a hot dog, too.” Frank rolled his cart to a bus stop bench so that the boy could have a place to sit down.

Little Joe sat down and started drinking the cocoa. It was warm as it filled his grumbling belly. He sorted the pennies out and gave them to Frank. He took the hot dog with a polite ‘thank you’ and ate slowly. A businessman and his female partner, who had witnessed the vendor’s kind act, rewarded him by purchasing lunch for their whole office.

When Frank had finished serving them, he returned his attention to Little Joe. “Boy, how my world improves for me to see you each day, young man!”

“Why are you so nice to me?” Little Joe asked.

“I like you for one thing. You remind me of my grandson.” Frank put the bible into Little Joe’s coat pocket. “Also, it’s Christmas time, and I am in the mood for giving.”

“I remember our last Christmas at home.” Little Joe saddened noticeably as he looked across the street to a department store. In the prominent window, a large, brightly decorated tree stood. “We had a big Christmas tree like that one. It was beautiful. Katie and I made a popcorn garland to decorate it. It had so many lights.”

“Does the shelter have a tree?” Frank ventured as he thumbed through the pennies, singling one out.

“Max said some vandals broke in last year and stole their old one. They have put up a wreath in the dining room, but it isn’t a tree.” Little Joe finished off his hot dog and then looked up at Frank. “Do you have a tree in your house?”

“No…I buy a poinsettia every year and put it in my window. I live by myself and do not really need a tree.”

“Does Santa still visit you if you don’t have a tree or a house?” Little Joe asked with a little worry in his voice.

“I suppose so.” Frank put all the pennies in his cash box except for the one he singled out. He knelt so that he could look Little Joe in the eye. “Do you still have all the Wheat pennies that I told you to put away?”

Ever so serious, Little Joe replied, “Yes, sir.”

“Well, this is another one of those special pennies that I cannot use.” Frank held the coin up for Little Joe to take. “This one is even more special than the others. It is an 1896 Indian Head penny…extremely hard to find.”

“Wow!” Little Joe whispered in awe. He reached over and hugged the old vendor. “You are a good man.”

Frank smiled sheepishly. “Oh, now look, it’s getting late. You need to get back to the shelter before it gets dark.”

Little Joe carefully folded the penny into his bible as he stood up. “Thank you, Frank.”

“Don’t mention it.” Frank ruffled Little Joe’s hair. “By the way, what is your favorite verse in your bible?”

Little Joe paused for a moment as he quoted the same verse he had whispered earlier. “Psalm Twenty-Three: One; ‘The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need.’” He turned to walk away and did not see the troubled look that passed over his old friend’s face.

******

Little Joe reached the homeless shelter around four-thirty in the afternoon. Several children were out in the courtyard engaged in a boisterous snowball fight, but he had no interest in playing with them. He wanted to get to the family section upstairs to show his mother and little sister the treasures he had found earlier in the day.

This time of year, the center filled early with more people. The boy shied away from most of the people he did not know. Daddy’s words of warning proved sound around Thanksgiving when the police escorted a known offender away. He had been hiding among the scraggly older men. Little Joe was still unclear what a molester was, but the expression on his mother’s face when she heard the news explained the danger of such a type of person. Daddy made him promise to tell another adult if one of the strange men ever asked him to do something uncomfortable and most certainly to never go anywhere alone with one of them.

He looked for a few remaining sandwiches, but the line attendants were already wiping away the crumbs left behind. When the days grew colder, there were much more crowded conditions. If you did not get there soon enough at lunch, you risked getting scraps for your afternoon meal or a cold sandwich if everything else ran out.

Little Joe found his mother in their back corner of the building sitting on the bed and mending blankets. The job did not pay much, but she said it helped her feel like she was doing something to guide the family back to independent living. The shelter was not a place she wanted her children to grow up in. Katie was playing with her doll that had one arm missing. He kissed the little girl as he sat down on the edge of the bed.

Janet put down her mending and pulled Little Joe into a hug. “Where have you been? The other boys were looking for you earlier.”

Janet did not like the idea of Little Joe wandering the streets. The concrete jungle was a nightmare to her and a tragedy waiting to happen. She also knew that she would kill his free-spirited soul by slow suffocation if she had imprisoned him within the shelter. By the time he had turned eight, all points of the compass of the farmland section they had owned were back in Kansas. She wished that she could still see his little black shock of hair bobbing just above the young corn stalks in June and his little bare feet caked with Kansas mud as he ran among the rows.

Little Joe snuggled into her to warm embrace to chase away his shivering. “I went to the junkyard to get my bible.” He pulled it out of his coat to show her and then opened it to show her the penny. “Frank said that it was a real special penny…even more special than the Wheat pennies.”

Janet swallowed the lump that had leaped into her throat at the mention of ‘junkyard.’ “That is something special!” She helped him get out of his coat and then wrapped her own blanket over him. “You are so cold! I am scared you will get sick running around out in this weather. Let me see that penny.”

Little Joe placed the penny in her palm and smiled as she looked at it in wonder. Katie lost interest in her doll for the moment and crawled into his lap to look at the tiny treasure. He tried to control his shivering, and her added warmth helped to slow it down. Momma replaced the penny into the fold of the bible and looked down at him.

“Little Joe, you be careful around strange men who want to be nice to you.” Janet let her worry for his safety become evident. “Not all of them have a good heart like Frank does.”

“Daddy already told me.” Little Joe did not wish to hear the speech again. He found it hard to accept that there were dangerous people who used kindness to hurt children. “I never go anywhere with another adult alone, especially here. I promise.” He stressed the promise with importance. “When is Daddy coming back?”

“Put your things in the trunk and lock it.” Janet lifted Katie away from him so that he could put away his coat and bible. “Be sure you lock it this time. If I had not caught that boy trying to take your coat last week, you would not be able to leave the shelter until late spring.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Little Joe replied with respect.

“Your Daddy will not be back until late Christmas Eve. He is working as much as he can to save for an apartment.” She smiled. “A few more mended blankets completed, and I will have put back enough for the deposit on the utilities.”

Little Joe made sure the lock clicked solidly after he closed the lid to the trunk. “It will be nice to be able to take a bath in our own tub.”

“Speaking of showers…” Janet started.

“Momma!” Little Joe protested even though he knew he would lose.

“You smell like the junkyard.” Katie wrinkled her nose at him.

“Max has some new clothes for you that a church donated today.” Janet returned to her mending. “I will see you in the shower room in a few minutes. I am going to wash your hair, too. Another church group is serving dinner to the whole shelter tonight, and I want you to look your best.”

Little Joe brightened. “Do you think they will sing Christmas songs?”

Janet nodded. “I am sure they will. I will see you in a few minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Little Joe skipped off with a slight joy in his step, happily humming ‘Silent Night’ to himself.

******

Little Joe found Max downstairs mopping the great dining room. He looked up at the boy and hastened his pace to finish mopping. To the boy, the man was as black as midnight, with wild tufts of hair here and there that were as white as snow. He owned the shelter and ran nearly everything in it, except for the financial aspect that he left to his more prudent wife, whom Little Joe seldom saw.

The supply room stood empty now. Usually, it was noisy and crowded with the homeless seeking donations from the public, but the center wanted to have the room extra clean for the evening activities. Max put up his mop when he saw the boy approaching him.

“Little Joe! You almost missed out.” Max led the boy into the kitchen and pulled a glass of milk out of the refrigerator. “I saved it from lunch for you. All the sandwiches are gone, but the Metropolitan Avenue Baptist Church will be here soon to set up an incredibly good dinner.”

“That’s what Momma said. Frank let me have a hot dog.” Little Joe took the glass of milk gladly. “Do you think they will let me sing with them?”

“They always ask the people here to join them in worship.” Max pulled a bag out from behind the counter. “These are the clothes that the Catholic Charities group brought in earlier today. They might be a little bit big, but I am sure you will grow into them. There’s a bright red shirt for Christmas and even a pair of flannel pajamas for you.”

“Thank you.” Little Joe looked over at the open area in the dining room. “The Shelter needs a Christmas tree.”

“That’s what I said to the financial director,” Max said with dismay, “but she said there just isn’t enough money in the budget to pay for one.” He pointed up to the wreath. “That is the best we can do this year.”

Little Joe pondered the situation while he drank the rest of his milk. His eyes lit up as he produced an idea. “If I can find a tree and bring it here, I think it would make everyone happy to see it.”

“That is if you can find one. Not many people will be throwing out their trees until after New Year’s. You might find a little one thrown out from an office Christmas party, but I doubt it.” Max ushered Little Joe onward. “Get on to the showers now. The family time is almost closed, and I think your mother is already waiting for you.”

******

Later that night, after the lights had gone out in the family section, Little Joe found that he could not sleep. The new pajamas were stiff and itchy. He wanted to crawl back into his older, tattered sweats that were more comfortable. He sat up in the bed and drew the blanket over his shoulders. Janet sat up with him and pulled him close. Katie shifted in her sleep and made a soft noise as she pulled her doll in close.

“Not used to sleeping in new pajamas?” Janet knew that something was bothering Little Joe. “You can take them off if they are bothering you.”

“They do itch.” Little Joe scratched at another spot on his side. “But they are warm, too.”

“Maybe the itch will go away after we wash them.” She carefully pulled his hair away from his face. “Your daddy will be coming back soon, hopefully before it gets too cold.”

After a moment of silence, Little Joe began to talk about what really bothered him. “I miss our Christmas tree; Momma and I don’t think Santa will know where to find Katie and me.”

“This is the first Christmas that we have spent away from home. I’m quite sure that Santa will know where to find the two of you.” Janet slowly began to rock him, holding him close. “I miss our tree, too. There were some homemade ornaments that you made in Sunday school one year that I loved to hang up just below the angel’s feet.”

“Why does God let terrible things happen to us?” Little Joe fought against a sadness that was starting to sink into him.

“God did not let this happen to us. The tornado was a part of nature. We had just taken out an enormous loan on the farm. It was just bad timing. Things like this happen to people all over the world all the time. It happens to bad people as well as good people.” She kissed him on top of his head and looked into his eyes. “It is called life. We all must live through it. Do not ever blame God. He helps us get through the tough times. Remember what happened to Job?”

“God let the devil take away all that he had, but Job still loved God.” Little Joe turned to look into his mother’s eyes. “Will we get our home back?”

“Our lives will get better,” Janet whispered it with earnest hope. “It will not be the same as before, but it will get better than this.”

“Tomorrow, I am going to look for a Christmas tree for the shelter.” Little Joe scratched at his leg.

Janet thought to tell him 'no,' but she hated to dash his hopes. “If you can find one, I know the people here will be very grateful.”

“Momma?”

“Yes, son?”

“They really are itchy.” Little Joe said with remorse.

“Take them off,” Momma said with understanding. “You can sleep next to me like you usually do to keep warm. To tell the truth, they were itchy to me, too. I will wash them tomorrow to see if they get any softer.”

******

The next day after he had dressed in his new clothes and had a hot breakfast, Little Joe set out to find a Christmas tree. The day started so warmly that all the snow from the previous day was gone. Momma warned him to be home early. A winter storm warning was set for early that afternoon. He almost left the shelter without his coat. She would not let him leave without his gloves or hat, either. By the time he reached Frank’s corner, the sign on the bank tower had shown the temperature as fifty-seven degrees.

“Frank!” Little Joe called out excitedly. “Look at my new clothes the Catholic Church brought to the shelter.”

“You look very sharp! That bright red shirt looks good on you. Where are you off to today?” Frank started to pour up a cup of hot cocoa.

“I just ate breakfast.” Little Joe stopped the old vendor before he poured in the liquid. “I am too full. I just wanted to show you my clothes and tell you that I am going to find a tree for the people of the shelter. I want them to have a better Christmas.”

“You have such a big heart for such a small boy.” Frank laughed, but his laugh quickly turned to worry as a warm gust of wind swept up the street. “Do not stay out there too long. There is a terrible winter storm coming in this afternoon.”

Little Joe frowned. “But it is so warm right now.”

“That is the worst of them!” Frank scolded. “I can feel the humidity already. It will start with a stormy rain, followed by sleet and ice. You get home before it hits!”

“I’m sorry.” Little Joe stood motionless, frightened by Frank’s change in attitude toward him.

Frank regretted frightening the boy and immediately softened his tone of voice. “I didn’t mean to scare you, Little Joe. I’m sorry, too. Go find your tree. It should not take you that long.”

Little Joe walked by with slumped shoulders and a pronounced shuffle that tore at Frank’s heart. After the boy had disappeared into the crowded sidewalk, the older man looked back up at the sky with deepening worry. The clouds were already racing in from the south.

******

Little Joe had no idea where to begin to look for a tree. To his dismay, unlike his hometown in Kansas, where trees were for sale in parking lots all over town, there were more parking garages than anything else. The shelter he lived in was in a business district with very few residences. He walked for several blocks looking for a tree lot.

Once, he felt a little hope as he saw a station wagon turn from a cross-street with a tree tied to its roof. When he ran up to the cross street and looked in the direction that the car had come from, his heart sank. There was nothing but an endless street of tall buildings.

The boy looked up at the sky and saw the solid mass of gray clouds. The day suddenly seemed to be much cooler. He looked in the direction from which he had come. He saw that he had come much farther than he should have. Nothing looked familiar. It was going to be a long way back. He started walking back with his head hung low. He came to grips just knowing that he would not be able to find a tree to take back. That was when a short strand of silvery garland blew across his path.

Little Joe stopped dead in his tracks and investigated the alley that the garland had escaped. There, probably discarded after an office party into a large metal dumpster, was The Christmas Tree! He nearly shouted for joy as he ran up to it. He climbed up on the rails and raised the lid. From what he could see, although they had taken their decorations off, the tree itself was still well-hydrated and intact. It was wedged under some other garbage. He tried to lift it, but it refused to budge.

“That’s mine!” an old man with a squeaky cart bellowed.

The older man’s gruff voice startled Little Joe so much that he lost his footing and fell over into the dumpster. He skinned his left cheek, and bruises would later appear on his knees. The only severe damage was to his pride. He fought hard to keep from crying, allowing the tears to burn furiously inside. Cautiously he peered up over the side of the dumpster at the wild-eyed older man with pale, wrinkled skin and reddened nose.

“That’s mine!” the old man repeated.

“I…I’m sorry.” Little Joe sat paralyzed, afraid to come out of the dumpster. “I thought that it was in the trash.”

“This is my dumpster! That is my tree!” The older man now spoke in a singsong voice.

“Please, mister.” Little Joe wiped away one tear and then another. He wanted so badly not to cry, but he could not help it. “I didn’t know.”

The look in the older man’s eyes changed from anger to something else. The look made Little Joe think of a hungry dog looking at a morsel of food dropped on the ground. Suddenly he felt very alone. There was no one else around to help him.

“Maybe I will let you have the tree,” the old man said with greed, “if you trade something for it.”

Little Joe struggled to crawl out of the dumpster. “I don’t have anything to trade for it.”

“Yes, you do.” The older man touched the boy’s coat fondly. “I sleep on the streets every night, and it gets a might bit cold. I could use your coat to help keep my head warm at night.”

Little Joe’s heart sank as he pulled away from the man. “This is my only coat. Momma said, never let it go.”

The older man turned as if to go. “Suit yourself…That sure is a nice tree.”

“Wait!” Little Joe hesitated as he considered what he was giving up. It would not be so bad to spend his days inside the shelter until spring. It might be worth it to see the happiness on some of the homeless people’s faces when they got to enjoy the tree. “I’ll trade.” He started taking off his coat.

“Hurry up!” The older man stopped and turned back toward the boy. “I am a busy man.”

“Can you pull it out for me?” Little Joe shuffled his feet backward with unease.

The older man cackled with greed. “That will cost you your hat and mittens, too.”

Little Joe did not like the way things were turning out, but he really had no other choice in his mind. He finished taking off his coat as the older man pulled the tree out of the dumpster. He flinched when the older man snatched his belongings away from him like a starved dog snatching meat from a stranger. The older man forced his head and hands into the child-sized apparel and piled the coat on top of his cart before slinking away deeper into the alley and eventually out of sight.

Little Joe knew that relinquishing the items would condemn him to remain inside the shelter until late spring. He felt bad at first until he looked down at the tree. Although most of the decorations had been removed, a couple of candy canes were hanging from the branches. He grasped one of them and discovered to his delight that they were real. He pocketed the first one and opened the second one to place in his mouth.

The tree itself was near twice his height and solid. Little Joe flinched as some of the pine needles stuck him as he grasped the trunk. He started trudging away from the alley. He told himself that he had made two good choices; first for the tree and second for an older man who would not have his head freeze by the morning.

By the time he reached the street, there was a spring in Little Joe’s step again. It was still a little warm, but he could tell that it was already late evening. There was only about a couple of hours of daylight left. Surely that was enough time to make it back to the shelter with the tree. He knew that his mother was already worried about him, and he knew he was going to miss the evening meal, but the tree was going to be worth the additional loss.

******

“Max!” Janet ran up to him as he was dishing out soup to the homeless. “Have you seen Little Joe? He’s usually here by now.”

“I haven’t seen him come through the front door, and he never takes the back door. That is a terrible storm coming in!” Max gestured to one of the other servers to take his place. “I’ll go find him. He can’t be that far. You stay here in case he shows up and have them call my cellphone if he does. I will check with Frank McAllister to see if he knows where your boy is. Don’t worry.”

Max grabbed his keys and his coat, and several blankets as he headed out into a pelting rain. Thankfully, his truck was parked in front of the shelter, and he was able to get in without getting too wet. He drove quickly toward the corner, hoping that he would see both Frank and Little Joe standing under the awning of the drug store at the corner.

******

Frank stood on the corner with a trenchcoat and an umbrella, looking north along the street he had watched Little Joe walk up earlier. He had watched for the boy to return for most of the afternoon, taking only enough time out of his vigil to lock away his vendor cart early in the afternoon when most sensible people had disappeared from the streets. He briefly considered going to the shelter to see if Little Joe had passed by when he had been off the corner. He was about to walk that way when Max pulled up to the corner.

“Have you seen Little Joe?” The rain was starting to fall so hard that Max had to shout above the din of splattering drops on the truck’s metal hood and roof. “He has not returned to the shelter.”

“Oh, dear God!” Frank looked up the street. “He went up this way early in the day! I should have gone after him earlier than this” He ran around to the passenger side. “We have to hurry! His coat is dark, and we will not be able to see him when the night sets in.”

******

Suddenly, the wind began to howl out of the north, the temperature started a rapid descent, and Little Joe regretted giving up his coat. The wet cold cut through the shirt already soaked from a heavy downpour and chilled him to the bone. He looked up at the sky as an ominous dark line of clouds rolled from west to east, stretching from north to south. The rain began to fall in a stinging spray as the northwest wind howled furiously through the corridor of buildings. Icy pellets slapped him in the face, and his clothes began to get soaked.

Little Joe began to panic. He had heard many stories from some of the homeless about people who got caught out in the winter storms and knew that he was in trouble. He tried to quicken his pace, but the tree was getting heavier as it became wetter. He looked around for any adult that might help him, but the streets were deserted of even police cars. He had a momentary burst of energy and was able to pull the tree about forty more feet, but then his feet just slipped from under him, and he landed hard on his bottom.

He became aware that he was not going to get back to the shelter. The boy sat there for a moment with tears streaming from his eyes and painful loud sobs erupting from his throat. He was getting too cold as violent shivers wracked his body. A flash of lightning jolted him to his senses as the stormy blackness of night closed in on him. He stood up and saw a recessed doorway to an old building. He thought that if he could make it there, it might offer a little shelter until a police car drove by.

Even that short distance was too far as Little Joe pulled and tugged the tree behind him. He started to lose the feeling in his hands and feet. His heart pounded in terror each time lightning raced across the sky, and thunder rolled through the streets. By the time he reached the doorway, the streets were already being coated with a treacherous layer of ice. The tree offered a small amount of shelter from the wind. He blew on his hands to try and warm them, but it did not help. He could not find a way to stop his chattering teeth. Frost was beginning to form on his clothes as icicles slowly formed over the arched entry. A lone police car drove by, but he did not have the strength to call out for help. Sleep was creeping upon him the way a cat stalks a bird with a broken wing.

With his mind drifting away, Little Joe reached out a feeble arm to a piece of tinsel stuck in the branch. A slow bolt of lightning made the sleeve of his shirt glow like – he wanted to laugh – Rudolf’s red nose. He thought of his mother and longed for her to hold him once more, to shelter him once again and take away the painful cold that penetrated to the very core of his soul. He hoped that she would not be too mad when he did not come home later.

Right now, all he needed to do was rest. A little bit of rest, and then he could go on the rest of the way back to the shelter. He laid his head against the door, and even though he was a terrified little boy, he drifted off to a peaceful sleep where the cold could not reach him.

******

Frank cried out for Max to stop the truck when the headlights caught the bright red sleeve of Little Joe’s shirt as he had reached out to touch the tinsel caught in the branch. Frank was out of the truck with a blanket before it came to a complete stop, running awkwardly and nearly slipping. He quickly scooped the boy up with his tears splashing on wet pale blue lips.

“Little Joe!” Frank screamed. “He is so cold, and he is not moving!”

“Get in the truck,” Max shouted. “Get him out of those wet clothes and hold him against you. I have two other blankets to put around the two of you. That might save his life. Do it quickly now!”

Frank carried Little Joe over to the truck and climbed in. As he removed the soaked, near-frozen clothes from the boy, he watched as Max grabbed the tree and put it into the back of the truck. When Max reached the cab, he was chattering from the cold, but Little Joe was not moving at all. He doubled two blankets and waited for Frank to finish. Frank took off his coat and bundled the cold little body within. Max fashioned the blankets over both and secured it with the seat belt.

“We have to take him to the hospital.” Max got in and started driving away.

“Thank you for getting the tree.” Frank hugged the boy even closer, hoping that his body heat would be enough to save the child. “It meant a lot to Little Joe.”

“He will get to see it,” Max said this more to assure himself than Frank. “I am going to call the shelter to have someone bring his mother and sister up to the hospital.”

******

Almost a week passed before Little Joe was released from the hospital. Janet spent nearly all her time at his bedside. The exposure caused a terrible fever that wracked his frail body with convulsions the second and third night. The fourth night, his fever broke, and little Katie was the first to welcome her big brother back.

The emergency room doctor complimented Frank and Max on their quick thinking to keep the boy from dying from hypothermia. Their actions had saved his life and made them temporary celebrities for the local media.

On the evening he was released, Little Joe was still a little weak. Daddy returned to his family early for Christmas and was there to carry his son out. The shelter van picked his family up from the hospital.

As the family walked into the shelter, Little Joe could not figure out why the lights were out. Then slowly, a myriad of colorful lights began to blink in random order from the Christmas tree set up in the shelter center. His eyes lit up with joy as he gazed upon an array of ornaments with such splendor as he had never seen before. At the top of the tree sat a star that seemed even more glorious than any star of the universe. Above the tree, on a white banner with red letters, he read a statement that made his heart leap for joy: "Thank you, Little Joe!"