A Christmas Angel Saved Our Cursed Town


Winter night

The phone rang four times before I could get to it. It was Elvira Matthews, the town busybody. “Did you hear about Cherry Lane?” she wanted to know.

“No. I haven’t heard anything.” Cherry Lane was a senior at the Hartford Falls high school and the captain of the cheerleading squad. “She was in church on Sunday, but I didn’t get a chance to talk to her. What’s up?”

I wasn’t prepared for what Elvira had to say. “Oh, Marlene, it’s so terrible. Cherry’s been murdered.” She burst into tears over the line.

I knew how Elvira felt. Cherry was the prettiest, brightest, sweetest girl in Hartford Falls. A tall girl with dark eyes and long black hair, she had recently been awarded a scholarship to the state university. She wanted to become a physical therapist.

By the time Elvira finished her story, I was also crying. Cherry had been dating Collin Waters, the quarterback of the football team. According to Elvira, Collin had wanted Cherry to elope with him. He couldn’t stand the fact that she’d be leaving him for college. When she refused his offer, he shot her before turning the gun on himself.

For a few minutes, Elvira and I took turns sharing stories about Cherry and agreeing that her death was a horrible tragedy. Then she told me she had to let me go—that meant she had several other people she wanted to call and break the news to. I said good-bye and wiped away my tears. If it wasn’t one thing, it was something else.

My husband and I had moved to Hartford Falls about nine months before Cherry was killed. It was a picture-book town in the mountains, with one main street and a small church on a hill overlooking the town. My husband had taken over as the church’s pastor after the previous minister retired.

This was Gordon’s first church, and we had been very excited at the prospect of moving to the mountain town. The Hartford Falls congregation had welcomed us and helped us settle into the little pastoral cottage down the road from the church. Things went very well for six months.

Then, one night while we were sleeping, the church building burned down. The fire department told us that faulty wiring had caused it. The congregation, which included most of the townspeople, had worked very hard at putting up a new building. Most of the structure was replaced in about ten weeks. That was around the time Jake Willis had died.

Mr. Willis had been one of the deacons of the church and the first person to officially welcome my husband and me to Hartford Falls. His family had built the town in the late eighteen hundreds. The man’s death hadn’t been entirely unexpected, since he was eighty-four years old, but he had been a very lovable person. Everyone in town missed him.

Two weeks to the day after Jake’s funeral, Cherry Lane was killed.

I put together a pasta casserole and carried it to the Lane house. As I expected, the girl’s family was in a state of shock. I offered to stay with the three remaining Lane children while Cherry’s parents left to make the arrangements for her funeral.

Most of the residents of Hartford Falls came by that afternoon, bringing food, condolences, and offers of help. Gordon arrived among the throng.

“I thought I might find you here,” he told me.

“I’ve been taking care of the kids all afternoon, but the Lanes will be back in a few minutes. They just called. Where have you been? I thought you’d be here earlier.”

“I’ve been with the Waters,” he said sadly. “Collin is in the hospital over in Rock Creek.”

I was surprised. “The hospital? He’s still alive? Elvira said he shot himself.”

Gordon grimaced. “He did, but somehow he managed to miss any vital organs. The doctors say he’ll recover.”

“How are his parents holding up?”

“They’re shocked and devastated, as you can imagine. They’re torn between being glad that their son is alive and being horrified by what he’s done.”

When the Lanes returned, Gordon counseled them for awhile. Then he told them that if they needed anything they should call him immediately. We rode home together.

“I just don’t understand,” I told my husband over dinner. “When we first came here, I thought this was the most perfect town. Then the church burned down, Jake died, and now Collin has murdered Cherry. How could so many bad things happen in such a small place?”

“Now, Marlene, you know that bad things happen everywhere. Hartford Falls is no different than anywhere else.”

Of course he was right. But anything bad that happens in a small town seems worse than if it happens in a city. In a large city a murder is nothing more than an item on the news. In Hartford Falls, everyone knew everyone else, and a lot of the people in the town were related to each other. A murder affects everyone in the community.

Cherry’s death hit the town hard. All the residents of Hartford Falls and most of the residents of neighboring Rock Creek came to the funeral. Between the tears and the expressions of sorrow, I heard something else—anger. Many of the townspeople were angry at Collin Waters for taking Cherry’s life. I could understand their outrage and frustration. What I couldn’t understand was that some people were angry at Collin’s parents for what he’d done. They blamed the Waters family for their son’s actions.

Collin was an only child, the cherished son of doting parents. Constantly lavished with love and attention, he’d been spoiled, or so I was told. Elvira described him throwing tantrums whenever he didn’t get his way. A couple of other people speculated to me that killing Cherry was nothing more than an extreme tantrum on Collin’s part. A few people even insisted that his parents’ indulgence had turned him into a murderer.

Gordon heard those theories, too, and he addressed them in his Sunday sermon.

“Our lives are our tests, designed to make us stronger and more compassionate, as well as more loving and spiritual. That’s why bad things happen to good people. It’s not our place to assign blame. What hurts one of us hurts all of us. It’s our forgiveness and our kindness that matters in these situations.”

After the service, Elvira sought me out in the vestry. “Marlene, the reverend’s sermons always make me feel so much better. It gives me peace to know that some spiritual good might come from poor Cherry’s death.”

I agreed with her. “Yes, Gordon always had the ability to make people feel better.”

I should know.

My husband and I had met in college. We’d been dating for a couple of months when Gordon enthusiastically shared with me his dream of becoming a clergyman.

“I start at the seminary next semester, Marlene,” he announced one night over dinner at a fast-food restaurant.

I was completely astounded, not just by his plan but also by the excitement in his voice when he made his declaration.

“Seminary? You’re studying theology?” My words came out in a dry croak. Somehow I couldn’t imagine this big, sweet man as the parson of some church. He got straight As in physics and math, and he seemed more like the kind of guy who would study science or engineering. “Why?” I wondered.

The glow in his eyes was bright enough to read by. “Remember when I told you that I was raised in a children’s home?”

Gordon had been abandoned on the steps of a hospital and turned over to the home as an infant.

“My closest friend there was Reverend Bristol. Reverend Billy—as I used to call him—taught me to play baseball and basketball. He helped me with my homework, and he consoled me when people came to adopt the other children but they never chose me.

“One day I realized that the reason I wasn’t adopted was because I was supposed to grow up there. That same day I decided that when I grew up, I was going to go into the service of my fellow men and women, just like Reverend Billy had.”

I wanted to ask him why he didn’t just join the Peace Corps, but all I could manage to ask was, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

“I didn’t know until recently how important you would become to me, Marlene. As we’ve gotten to know each other, I’ve realized that you’re very important to me.” The glow in his eyes got even brighter when he said that.

I had seen the seminary buildings on campus, those gothic structures complete with old brick and ivy. Gordon was the only person I knew who was enrolled there. He had become important to me, too, so much so that I had begun to imagine myself as his wife. His revelation crushed my fantasy. If I couldn’t envision him as a preacher, I really couldn’t see myself as a preacher’s wife.

Now don’t get me wrong. When I was growing up, I went to church with my mother every Sunday. I watched the pastor and his wife. The pastor’s wife seemed to work even harder than her husband. She was always available to anyone who needed help. She taught Sunday school, ran the church nursery, presided over the Christian Aid Society, and organized the activities. She even found time to tutor children who were having trouble in school. I was sure I could never handle the responsibilities of a minister’s wife.

Life teaches us what we can handle, however. A few weeks after Gordon made his announcement, my father had a stroke. He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk, and I was certain he would never recover. I thought the best he could ever be was a shell of his former self, and I wandered through each day sad and sorry about the way life was treating my family.

Gordon told me to get over myself. He said that my giving up wouldn’t help my father at all. He assured me that my dad would get better, and my family would survive. He not only encouraged me, he helped my family in every way he could. Gordon was there to run every errand. He drove Dad to the doctor, helped me buy groceries, prepare meals, and clean the house so that Mom could spend more time with Dad. He read to Dad for hours on end. Gordon was my knight in shining armor, my Prince Charming, and my best friend, all rolled up into one.

Dad recovered in a few months. By the time his recovery was complete, I was absolutely sure that I belonged with Gordon. Wherever he was, whatever he wanted to do, I would be there with him. His life would be my life. I would follow him across broken glass on my knees.

Since moving to Hartford Falls, Gordon and I had been trying to have a baby. So far we’d been unsuccessful, and every month I was disappointed to discover that we would have to wait a little longer. Baby-sitting for the mothers in the congregation always lifted my spirits while I was waiting for my own child, and little Kristin Riggs was my favorite charge. She was seven months old and as close to an angel as a little girl could be.

Kristin’s mother, Iris, was a young, single woman with no family. Several of the women in the congregation, myself included, tried to watch over Iris and Kristin. We took turns caring for Kristin while Iris was at work.

I always looked forward to my time with the little girl and felt blessed to share her life. I loved to hold her and tell her stories. I imagined that Gordon and I would have a daughter like her one day.

It was Gordon who broke the news to me about Kristin. He came home on a weekday morning looking tired and depressed. “I’ve just come from the hospital.”

I braced myself. “What happened, Gordon?”

“Iris called me at the church this morning. The paramedics took Kristin to the hospital last night. She wasn’t breathing. They tried to revive her, but there was nothing they could do. She’s gone, and they’re still not sure what was wrong with her.”

I sank down on the sofa and covered my face with my hands. “Kristin’s gone? But I just had her here yesterday.” Tears rolled down my cheeks.

Gordon sat down beside me and drew me into his arms. “I’m sorry, Marlene. I know how much you loved her.”

Everyone loved her.” I sobbed. “And Iris . . . ”

“ . . . is going to need our support,” he finished.

If it isn’t one thing, it’s something else.

Kristin’s death was the main topic in Hartford Falls for the next few days. The people who’d known the little girl were shocked that she was gone, and the people who hadn’t known her were saddened that a child so young could be taken so unexpectedly.

Rumors started to fly. There were whispers that Iris had done something wrong, that Kristin’s death was a punishment. Some people pointed out that Kristin’s death was just the latest incident in a string of strange episodes that included the church burning down, Jake’s death, and Cherry Lane’s murder. A few even suggested that there was something unnatural at work in our town.

I didn’t have much time to listen to rumors. Iris was totally devastated, and she came to stay with Gordon and me while the police investigated her daughter’s death. The police chief assured me that the investigation was standard procedure in cases of unexplained death.

Iris blamed herself. “I thought she was sleeping. But if I had checked her earlier, there might have been something I could have done,” she wailed. “When I saw that she wasn’t breathing, I gave her CPR.”

“Please don’t beat yourself up like this,” I pleaded with her. “You’re a good mother, and Kristin’s death wasn’t your fault. It was some kind of horrible accident.”

Her guilt feelings weren’t lessened by Detective Cook, who stopped by my house to question Iris. I offered to leave the two of them alone, but the detective assured me it wasn’t necessary.

“These are just routine questions, Mrs. McKenzie,” he said.

Then he shocked me by asking Iris if she smothered her daughter because she was tired of being a single mother. When Iris burst into tears, the detective suggested that Iris had been high on drugs and she had neglected Kristin, causing her daughter’s death.

I couldn’t stand by and let him continue.

“That’s enough, Detective. You know that Kristin didn’t die of abuse or neglect, and Iris did nothing wrong. I can vouch for Iris and so can the entire congregation of our church—which, as you know, includes most of the people in this town. There’s no reason for these outrageous accusations.”

He had the decency to look sheepish. “I’m sorry, Mrs. McKenzie. I’m just doing my job.”

I turned to Iris. “Dear, why don’t you go and lie down? Detective Cook is finished doing his job.” I gave him a look that dared him to disagree. When Iris was out of the room, I turned on him. “She lost her baby, and she feels bad enough already. You don’t need to make it worse.”

He declined my offer of coffee and left.

The next day the coroner ruled that Kristin had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. At Kristin’s funeral, Elvira told me that Collin Waters had been released from the hospital and transferred to jail. Since he had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, he and his family would be spared the agony of a trial. Collin would be taken to the state penitentiary, where he would spend the next twelve years of his life.

“Some people in town are saying that Hartford Falls is cursed,” Elvira confided.

I knew she was serious, but I felt like laughing. “Cursed? I hadn’t heard that word.”

“Well, maybe not cursed exactly,” she amended, “but Benton Peters did say that he thinks the people of our town are being punished. And Linda Sanchez insisted that the tragedies that have been happening are positively evil.”

Evil. Punishment. I had never believed in curses. Elvira’s sister, Mildred, declared that the town’s problems must be because our congregation had sinned in some way.

Gordon heard those suggestions, and he brought them to a halt. As he stood at the pulpit in the front of the church on Sunday, light spilled through the new stained glass window behind him and showered him with a golden radiance.

“The people we miss are not lost to us,” he reminded the congregation. “They’ve merely gone home to wait for us in Heaven. We will all be together there one day. Talking of curses and evil is a foolish waste of time. There are no curses and no one is being punished. Although evil does exist, we can’t think of it as evil when our loved ones go home to Heaven.”

I glanced across the sanctuary at Elvira. She was sitting with Mildred, and they were both nodding their heads as though they had thought up the idea of Heaven themselves.

A couple of weeks later, when I found out I was pregnant, I thought I was in Heaven. I had gone to the drugstore for a pregnancy test and hurried home to take it. When I saw that it was positive, I laughed and cried at the same time.

I couldn’t wait to tell Gordon. I prepared a special dinner while I practiced the words I would use. But before I could give him the wonderful news, another tragedy struck.

That morning, forty students from the high school, along with a driver and several chaperones, had taken a school bus over the mountain to Rock Creek to spend the day skiing. Although there had been a heavy snowfall a few days earlier, the roads were clear and the day had been a fine one. No one suspected that there was any kind of problem . . . until after nightfall, when the bus never returned.

Gordon called me from the church and asked me to walk over. When I arrived, I discovered that most of the townspeople were already there. I looked around at everyone I had come to love and at the church that had been rebuilt, and I thought about how unfair it was that something else should happen. Hartford Falls had suffered enough.

But it became worse: The state police called to inform us that there had been an avalanche on the road between Hartford Falls and Rock Creek. A large section of the road had been buried. That road was two lanes wide and ran beside Yellow Mountain. Along one edge of the pavement, the rock slope rose almost vertically to the mountaintop. Along the other edge was a wide shoulder that ended in a long, steep drop to the river below. If the avalanche had pushed the bus off the road, there was no way the passengers would survive the fall, and if the snow had buried the bus on the road, the passengers would freeze to death before the rescue crews could reach them.

There was a snow shed on that road, a huge awning made of steel beams. It was meant to shelter anything that passed under it from the most dangerous snow slide. But to use the snow shed, the bus would have to be somewhere near it, and the driver would have to suspect that there was an avalanche danger.

Unfortunately, the state policeman who called said that by the time the bus had left the ski area on its return journey, it would have been too far away from the snow shed to take shelter there when the avalanche hit. The officer suggested that the people of Hartford Falls should prepare themselves for the worst.

Several men from the town worked for the state highway department, and it was their job to drive the heavy equipment used to clear the road of mud and snow slides. These men were already out on the mountain, working on the road and searching for the bus. At the other end of the drive in Rock Creek, men were also working with heavy equipment to clear the snow.

The state police had avalanche dogs standing by, waiting to search the snow slide and sniff out the survivors. The only thing the rest of us could do was pray.

While we waited, extra bulldozers, snowplows, and Sno-cats were brought in from nearby towns to both Hartford Falls and Rock Creek. Crews and equipment worked around the clock to move the snow.

In addition to the school bus, other traffic would have been on the mountain road. We remained in the church, hoping for news of any vehicles, survivors, or bodies that had been pulled from the snow.

I looked around the sanctuary at the women clutching tissues, some of them crying, some with eyes closed in silent prayer. The men sat beside them, tight-lipped and pale, clenching their fists in their laps. The sprigs of holly decorating the pulpit and the bright, cheery poinsettias set before the altar in preparation for the Christmas holiday seemed out of place with those heavy hearts.

In spite of that, Gordon seemed to be everywhere—smiling, hugging, encouraging people not to give up. I thought about what he had said about our loved ones going to Heaven, and I wondered if the Lord had called forty of the town’s young people to be by His side.

Benton Peters once again brought up the subject of punishment. “Hartford Falls is being punished for its sins!” I heard him insist to Elvira.

She disagreed. “I don’t believe that what’s happening to our town is a punishment, Benton. I agree with Linda. I think this is evil and that Hartford Falls is cursed. There are evil spirits here, and Reverend McKenzie will have to drive them away.”

“Elvira, Benton, that’s enough of that talk,” I chastised them. “Everyone here is upset and scared. They don’t need to hear about evil spirits.”

“Well, Marlene,” Elvira looked over her glasses at me, “then how do you explain all the tragedies we’ve had in this town?”

“I can’t explain them,” I admitted, “and neither can you. But I’m not ready to believe that evil spirits are responsible.” I looked around the church and spotted Annie Palmer sitting alone in a pew.

“Elvira, Annie is over there sitting by herself. She lost her husband a couple of years ago, and her only child is on that bus. If you went over and sat with her, I’m sure it would make her feel better. But please don’t mention curses.”

Elvira nodded and went over to join Annie. I turned to Benton, but he had moved to the other side of the sanctuary.

In the time it took to clear away the avalanche, the people of Hartford Falls aged by decades. The state police had promised to call the church as soon as they found or recovered anyone. Hour after hour passed, and still the phone didn’t ring. When it finally did, I nearly burst into tears.

Gordon took the call, and after he hung up he made the announcement: “Friends and neighbors—the state police just told me that the snowplows made it to the snow shed. Inside they found the school bus, two cars, and a pickup truck. Everyone is safe!”

A loud sigh of relief escaped from the congregation, followed by a cheer. There were shouts of, “Praise the Lord!” and “It’s a miracle!” Gordon led us in a prayer of thanks and Elvira stepped up to the organ and began to play hymns.

“It really was a miracle, Reverend,” the bus driver told Gordon a few hours later. “The last thing I remember was leaving Rock Creek—and the next thing I knew, the bus had stopped in the snow shed, and the snow hit all around us. The Man Upstairs was watching over us this day.”

Vilnius Old Town Square at Christmas time “I’m sure He was,” Gordon agreed, “like He does every day.”

As the families were reunited and the townspeople trickled away to their homes, I heard the word miracle mentioned many times. No one used the word curse. My husband and I agreed that the Lord had sent our town a guardian angel to bless that Christmas.

Gordon and I walked home together.

“There’s another miracle that I haven’t told you about,” I confessed. “We’ll have to wait for awhile for this miracle, though.”

“How long do we have to wait?” my husband asked.

“I’m expecting another little angel to arrive . . . in about eight months,” I told him. “I’m hoping it’s a girl.”

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