This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. A big thank-you to my editor, Michael, who finds the errors I miss, ensures clarity, and keeps me from straying too far from reality. Any remaining errors are my responsibility.
"We've got neighbors again. I saw lights this morning."
The announcement by Benji's dad during breakfast might have sounded a little off to the average listener, but Benji and his mom knew what he meant. The abandoned cabin across the highway, the only dwelling within a mile in any direction, was occupied. Electricity had even been restored. The last occupants, who'd moved out months before, had made do with lanterns. His mom added an item to her list of things to do.
"I'll take a plate of cookies down later."
"Better take Benji along. You never know what you might find down there."
Benji's dad wasn't being biased or prejudiced. Among those who were simply good people having bad times, the cabin had a long history of miscreant occupants. Benji stood up.
"I'll bring in some firewood first."
Putting on a jacket, stocking cap and work gloves, Benji stepped outside. The winter air was crisp and clean. In the faint light of early dawn, the forest on the hillside was a study in black and white - very dark fir trees and very fresh snow. He looked across the road and saw the lights that his dad had mentioned. He smiled as he heard the sound of wood being split. He wasn't the only one with that responsibility.
At thirteen, Benji was the daily supplier of firewood, a task his dad had surrendered to him a couple of years earlier. Walking to the nearby woodshed, he picked up his axe, put a chunk of Douglas fir on the chopping block and went to work.
Late in the morning, Benji and his mom walked across the highway and down the rutted dirt road to the small log cabin. Out front stood a Chevy sedan that was much older than Benji. With his mom standing by holding a covered plate of cookies and a pan of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, Benji knocked on the door. It was opened by a boy a little younger than Benji. The kid was dressed in tattered jeans and a clean but well-worn t-shirt. He turned back into the cabin.
"Mom, we've got company."
His mom came to the door wearing slacks and a green t-shirt with the yellow and white logo of a well-known sandwich shop, the only chain restaurant in the nearby small town. Benji's mom gave her a friendly smile.
"Hi, I'm Doris and this is my son Benji. We live across the road and want to welcome you to the neighborhood."
The young woman smiled.
"Please come in, and excuse the mess. I'm Betty and this is my son, Darren."
Benji and his mom stepped inside. The cabin was about six hundred square feet overall. An open beam ceiling rose above them. To their right, the living section featured a fireplace at the center of the right end wall. A small kitchen area extended from the fireplace around the right front corner and along the front wall. The small bathroom to the left of the fireplace was a more recent addition.
To their left stood two full-size beds, side by side, their heads against the left end wall. A hanging sheet between the beds provided limited privacy. Along the back wall, as well as the front, stood a dresser and a makeshift clothes rack made from pipe. The only other furniture was a second-hand table with four chairs, standing in the center of the cabin.
Darren's mom offered hot drinks, and soon the four of them were sitting around the table consuming coffee, hot chocolate, and cinnamon rolls.
Benji and his mom learned that Betty was recently divorced and starting over. Darren was in the seventh grade and would be attending middle school with Benji as soon as the holidays were over. Betty looked at her watch.
"You'll have to excuse me. I need to be at work soon. Thanks so much for coming over. Darren and I really appreciate it."
Benji had an idea.
"Could Darren go sledding with me this afternoon?"
Betty gave him a warm smile.
"That would be great, Benji. Darren, you need to bring in more firewood first."
Darren got up to do his task. Benji jumped up too.
"I'll help Darren. Come on, buddy, let's go do it."
The women stood and gave each other a welcoming hug. Benji's mom made a suggestion.
"I'll fix some soup and sandwiches for the boys before they go sledding. Could Darren stay for dinner too?"
Betty looked relieved.
"I would appreciate that so much. We haven't had time to get much food purchased yet. I plan to do that this evening after work."
Betty grabbed her coat and the two women stepped out the door. The sound of the axe in action and the friendly chatter from the woodshed made them both smile. Betty wiped tears from her eyes.
"I'm so glad Darren found a friend so quickly."
Benji's mom put an arm around her new friend.
"That works for all of us. It can get lonely out here."
After hauling in more firewood, the boys headed for Benji's place. His mom had the soup and a plate of sandwiches ready. Benji watched as Darren quickly consumed three sandwiches and two bowls of soup.
Darren had put on a light jacket over his t-shirt, and still wore his tattered jeans. Benji found an old winter coat and snow pants for Darren to use. Darren's worn but well-maintained hiking boots would do for the activity
Bundled up for the weather, they pulled Benji's toboggan through the woods to a recent clearcut a quarter mile up the hillside, where they spent the afternoon excitedly exhausting themselves. Arriving home at dusk soaking wet, they hung their clothing on a rack near the fireplace. Benji handed Darren a dry t-shirt from his dresser, and his mom found an older pair of Benji's jeans. The shirt fit loosely on Darren's thin body, and a short length of rope kept his borrowed pants from falling down.
During dinner, Benji and his parents learned more about Darren. He and his parents had lived in a small town in another state before the divorce. Darren and his mom had moved to be closer to her parents.
After dinner, Darren went home. He wanted to get the fire going so the cabin would be warm when his mom got there.
As Benji's mom put Darren's still-wet clothing into a plastic bag to carry home, Benji noticed his new friend staring wistfully at the lighted Christmas tree and the many gifts under it, and realized there was no sign of the holidays at the cabin. A plan began to form in his young mind.
The next morning, Benji looked out the window to see snow drifting down. It had snowed all night with a two-foot accumulation. He joined his parents for breakfast. His dad looked out the kitchen window.
"I'm glad I don't have to go to work today. It doesn't look like we'll be going anywhere until they plow the highway. We're going to have a white Christmas for sure."
Benji had one concern about the weather.
"I'd hoped we could get to town and get something for Darren for Christmas."
His mom looked at him thoughtfully.
"That's right. There was no sign of Christmas at the cabin. I don't think it's a religious issue either - they just haven't had the time to think about anything but the basics."
His dad had a comment.
"They probably don't have much money either. I wonder what we could do."
Benji was way ahead of them.
"I have some ideas. Mom, you always keep everything. Do you have some good clothes that I've outgrown that we could wrap up for him?"
His mom smiled at him.
"An excellent idea. I'm sure we could find something."
"Dad, you didn't put up the outdoor lights this year. There's a ten-foot Douglas-fir growing in the open area near the cabin. With luck, we could decorate it."
His dad looked thoughtful.
"We could do that. Is electricity available?"
"Yes. There's an outdoor outlet not too far from the front door. And one other thing. Their axe is rusty and the handle is ready to break. It's probably been sitting out in the weather for months or even years. I think you have a new one in the garage. Could we give that to them?"
"Yes, we have a spare. That's an excellent idea."
Benji had a final thought to share.
"And one more thing. There are a lot of presents for me under the tree. Could we pick out a few that would be right for Darren?"
His mom and dad looked at each other. His mom wiped a tear from her eye. His dad looked at Benji like he was seeing him for the first time.
"Are you sure you want to do that?"
His mom looked at him.
"Would the one you wrapped for me work for Darren's mom?"
Mid-morning, the snow stopped and the sun came out. Benji and his dad used their snow blower to clear the driveway to the road. Then Benji continued across the highway, clearing the driveway to the cabin. Darren was using an aging snow shovel to clear the front steps and a path to the car. When the boys were finished, Betty invited Benji to stay for cocoa and some of the cookies his mom had delivered the day before.
As he waved goodbye and left, Benji casually walked past the outdoor outlet and pulled a nightlight out of his pocket. He smiled. Electricity was indeed available.
After dinner, Operation Backwoods Christmas went into action. Benji and his mom selected suitable used clothing and gift-wrapped it. His mom and dad selected four presents from under the tree for Darren, and Benji changed the labels. Benji smiled to himself. He'd find out eventually what was in the packages, and he'd have more fun watching Darren use them than if they were his own.
Benji and his dad were up and having breakfast by four o'clock Christmas morning. Then, using the toboggan, they hauled everything they needed down to the cabin. By the light of a full moon, they quietly decorated the tree, thirty feet from the front door, and placed the gifts underneath it. The axe was placed next to the woodpile. They ran an extension cord to the outlet and did a quick check. The lights worked.
There was one more step. Benji spent the next hour, bundled against the cold, walking up and down the driveway to stay warm. The excitement of what he and his parents were doing made the time go more quickly than he expected.
At six o'clock, the inside lights came on. Benji positioned himself at the corner of the house. Ten minutes later the porch light was turned on, and Darren went to the woodshed, chopped an armload of firewood, and hurried back inside.
"Mom, did you get me a new axe?"
"There's a new one by the woodpile. I'll bring it in so you can see it."
Now Benji plugged in the lights and slipped into the woods to watch. Darren walked out the front door and stopped in his tracks.
"Mom! Come look!"
His mom came to the door, and then grabbed a coat. They walked in silence to the tree.
Darren dropped to his knees, staring at the gifts. His voice revealed the tears in his eyes.
"Benji did this for us."
His mom knelt beside him and put her arm around his shoulders.
"How do you know that?"
"Because nobody else knew how bad the old axe is, and I could tell yesterday what a nice guy he is."
"I bet his parents helped him too. We can go thank them later today."
As Darren and his mom gathered the presents to take inside, Benji quietly slipped away into the woods. Before going back to his house, he walked up the hill to the rock outcropping near the northwest corner of his parents' property. He looked down at their warm, lighted home, appreciating in a new way what his parents did for him every day.
The full moon was setting. A meteor streaked through the sky and burned up over the snow-covered hills to the south. A coyote howled nearby as the first light of dawn showed in the southeastern sky. Benji smiled. There was nothing quite like a Backwoods Christmas, and this was the best one ever.
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