“This is MCI with a collect call from” said the automated voice.

“Michelle,” said a young woman’s voice.

“To accept charges, press one,” continued the automated voice. “To deny charges, press two. For operator assistance, press zero.”

Ruth thought it was a wrong number and pressed two. “Thank you, ““ said the automated voice and the call was disconnected.

“Who was that, honey?” asked Ruth’s husband Al as she walked into the dining room.

“Oh, just a wrong number,” replied Ruth as she sat at the table and put her napkin on her lap. “Someone named Michelle calling us collect. I denied the charges of course.”

As she said this, Ruth thought she detected a startled look in Al’s eyes but it disappeared and he smiled and said, “It’s probably some college kid calling to tell her folks to meet her at the bus station when she comes home for Christmas.”

The phone rang. “Oh for Pete’s sake!” exclaimed Al, throwing his napkin on the table in disgust. “I’ll get it this time. You stay put.”

In the other room, Ruth heard Al lift the receiver and say, “Hello.” After a short pause, he said, “Operator, I don’t know anyone named Michelle.” After another pause, he said, “Well, I’m Al Johnson all right but I don’t know this young lady. She has the wrong number.” After another pause, he said, “Thank you.” Ruth heard him replace the receiver in its cradle.

“Damn phone company anyway,” muttered Al as he strode into the dining room.“Can you believe that operator put me on hold twice while she told this Michelle she had the wrong number?”

Ruth couldn’t help wondering who Michelle was. Was there a look of recognition on Al’s face when Ruth said her name or did she imagine it? But over the next week, she forgot about Michelle due to the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season. Scott and Kate returned home from college and there was last minute shopping to be done and the tree to be decorated. Scott and Kate’s friends often visited and the house rang with their laughter. But Al felt it necessary to make himself scarce since there was an important court case scheduled after the first of the year. Despite pleas from Ruth and the kids that he join in their festivities, he spent many nights working late at the office. Although this was a regular occurrence when Al was working on a case, it still bothered Ruth that it should happen during the holidays.

Christmas Eve was no different. That morning when Ruth told Al she planned a quiet family dinner with no guests in attendance and begged him to come home early, he said, “I’m sorry honey but as I told you, this case is very important to me and I can’t afford to take time off right now.”

“What about tomorrow?” asked Ruth.

After a brief pause, Al sighed, “Okay, tomorrow, I’m all yours. That’s a solemn promise.”

Ruth and the kids resigned themselves to spending another evening without Al. After dinner, they settled themselves in the basement family room to watch television. About an hour later, Norah, the family’s Irish setter who was snoozing on the rug, jumped to her feet and ran upstairs barking. “Someone must be at the door,” said Ruth in surprise as she rose from her chair and followed the dog.

“Hush, Norah. Stay back,” Ruth admonished the dog as she opened the door. The girl who stood there did not look familiar. Certainly not one of Scott or Kate’s friends, Ruth thought. She was short, with long blonde hair and blue eyes. Although it was snowing and the temperature was falling fast, she wore only a light jacket with no hood and tennis shoes. The girl was shivering and moisture from her soaked feet dripped onto the doormat.

“Come in out of the cold,” Ruth urged her. As she closed the door behind her, she exclaimed, “Good heavens! Where are your boots and your winter coat? Here, let me take your jacket.”

As Ruth draped the girl’s wet coat over the second floor staircase banister, the girl turned her attention to Norah who stood next to her, her tail wagging. “Oh, what a sweet dog!” she cooed as she threw her arms around Norah and the dog licked the girl’s face.

“Who is it, Mom?” asked Kate as she came into the front hall.

The girl straightened and as Norah sniffed her, she extended a hand and smiled at Ruth and Kate. “Hi, I’m Michelle and I really need to talk to Al Johnson. I called collect last week but he wouldn’t accept charges.”

“Michelle,” said Ruth in astonishment. She’d almost forgotten about the mysterious girl who called the week before. She noticed that despite her weak smile, the girl’s eyes looked troubled. “Well, Al’s not here right now,” she said. “But take off those wet shoes and socks and let me find something warm for your feet. Surely, they’re soaked.”

“Thanks,” said Michelle and as she sat in a nearby chair and bent to untie the shoes, Norah licked her face.

“Norah, come here,” said Ruth.

As the dog came to stand beside Ruth, Kate said, “She can wear a pair of my old slippers. I’ll go upstairs and get them.”

“That’s a wonderful idea,” said Ruth. “And while you’re up there, please call your father at the office and tell him Michelle is here and he needs to come home right away.” Turning to Michelle, she asked, “How about some hot chocolate?”

“Thanks,” said Michelle. She removed her shoes and socks and Norah sniffed them. She bent and stroked the dog’s shaggy head. Ruth picked up the wet shoes and socks and laid them on the rug next to the front door and hurried to the kitchen to make the cocoa. When she returned to the living room a few minutes later, Michelle was settled in an arm chair with Norah lying at her bare feet.

Kate emerged with a pair of slippers and a disgusted look on her face. “I called Dad at the office,” she explained. “He said he doesn’t know anyone named Michelle and you should send her away.”

Michelle burst into tears. Ruth set the cup of hot chocolate on the table next to her and took the weeping girl into her arms.

“I could drive her to Dad’s office,” Kate offered. “Then Dad would have no choice but to see her.”

“I’m afraid that’s out of the question at the moment,” said Ruth as she turned from the sobbing girl. “It’s snowing pretty hard and she apparently has no proper winter clothing. Why don’t you go downstairs and watch TV with Scott? I’ll stay here with Michelle until your father comes home.”

“Okay,” said Kate and she placed the slippers on the floor near Michelle’s feet and left the room. Ruth handed Michelle a Kleenex and after the girl blew her nose, she gave her the steaming cup of hot chocolate. “Drink this,” she said. “It will make you feel better. I’m going to get myself a cup of coffee and then I’ll join you.”

A few minutes later, Ruth returned with her cup of coffee and sat in a nearby arm chair. Norah was still stretched at Michelle’s feet. Despite the calm scene, the girl still appeared to be upset. As an advocate at the local women’s center, Ruth dealt with many like her. “Would you like to talk about it?” she asked.

Michelle only hesitated for a moment. She looked straight at Ruth, took a deep breath, and said, “I know this sounds weird but Al Johnson is my father. My mother died a couple of weeks ago in a car accident and I have no one now.”

Stunned by Michelle’s words, Ruth almost dropped her coffee cup. It couldn’t be possible, she thought. “Why don’t you start at the beginning and tell me the whole story,” she suggested.

“Well,” said Michelle, her voice almost breaking.“About twenty-four years ago, Al Johnson and my mother Jane Barker were seniors in high school in Casper. They fell in love and as a result, I came along.”

“I see,” said Ruth.

“Mom told Al she was pregnant, hoping he would marry her and they would live happily ever after,” continued Michelle. “But Al didn’t want to have anything to do with her or me. He had big dreams of being a lawyer and he wouldn’t let anything or anyone stand in his way.”

“How do you know all this?” asked Ruth.

“Mom told me about Al when I was in high school,” answered Michelle. “She didn’t want me to make the same mistake she did. But she said that if I did, she would still love me and she would never do to me what her parents did to her.”

“And what did her parents do to her?” asked Ruth.

“They cut her off completely,” replied Michelle. “When she told them she was pregnant and that she was going to keep me, even though Al wouldn’t marry her, her dad said it would be over his dead body. Luckily, she had a drama scholarship at the university of Wyoming. She was a pretty good actor in high school, you see. So she just packed all her belongings in the car her parents gave her as a graduation gift and moved to Laramie. And instead of starting in the fall as she planned, she was able to get into the summer session.”

“And how soon after that did you come along?” asked Ruth.

“I wasn’t due until January,” said Michelle. “So Mom was able to complete the summer and fall semesters. But by the time I was born, the scholarship money had run out and since Mom’s folks had cut her off completely and the financial aid department at the university was of little help, she had no choice but to quit. So she found work in a nursing home doing activities with the residents.”

“Oh how interesting,” said Ruth.

“Yeah,” replied Michelle. “It was only part time but it gave her more time to spend with me. And what was so neat about it was the day care center right there in the building. So even when Mom was working, I often saw her. She even got us kids involved in activities with the residents.””

“That’s wonderful,” said Ruth. “I’ve read that being exposed to children can work wonders with nursing home residents.”

“And being around the residents was good for me,” said Michelle. “Some of those old people were like grandparents to me. Of course, it’s a fact of life in that kind of place that old people die after you get attached to them.”

“I know,” said Ruth. “So how long did your mother work there?”

“Until a couple of weeks ago, when she was killed in a car accident,” answered Michelle. “I was working there too.”

“Oh really,” said Ruth. “What were you doing?”

“Well, I wasn’t lucky enough to get a college scholarship,” Michelle explained. But by the time I graduated from high school, Mom had become the activities director. Although she couldn’t afford to put me through college, she was able to pay for my training to be a certified nursing assistant.”

“I see,” said Ruth. “So you worked as a nurse’s aide from the time you got out of high school until your mother died a couple of weeks ago?”

“Yeah,” replied Michelle. “It was hard work but it was so cool when residents first came and they couldn’t walk. And then after a few weeks of physical therapy, I watched them walk right out the door, with a cane or walker maybe, but walking all the same. Also, a lot of the residents who couldn’t do anything for themselves anymore smiled or said nice things to me when I helped them get dressed or eat or something like that.”

“I can imagine that any kind of work with nursing home residents can be very rewarding,” said Ruth. “You said that back in high school, your mother first told you about Al.”

“Yeah,” answered Michelle. “In fact, when it was time for their twentieth high school reunion, she tried to track him down. She called his parents in Casper, pretending to be on the committee that organized the reunion and they gave her his address and phone number here in Sheridan. I found that in her address book after she died. Anyway, we even thought of taking time off from work and going to the reunion. Now wouldn’t that have been a surprise for the rest of her classmates?”

“I’m sure it would have,” Ruth chuckled. “Al never said anything to me about anyone calling him. I always wanted to go to his high school reunions but he didn’t seem at all interested. I realize now that he was afraid I would find out about his relationship with your mother. I guess that was a source of embarrassment to him.”

“You’re probably right,” said Michelle. “But the way Mom saw it, if he wanted to punish her for not giving me up, that was fine. But I didn’t choose to be born so it didn’t make sense for him to push me away too.”

“I agree,” said Ruth.

“Anyway,” Michelle continued. “He didn’t see it that way. He told Mom that he still didn’t want to have anything to do with her or me and if she continued calling him, he would seek a restraining order against her.”

“That sounds just like Al,” Ruth laughed. “Any excuse to be in a courtroom.”

Michelle smiled and sighed, “Anyway, when Mom died a couple of weeks ago, my life sort of fell apart. I ended up selling most of our stuff including my winter coat and boots, to pay her funeral expenses. We had a nice service for her in the chapel at the nursing home. Some of the staff and residents’ families chipped in but it still wasn’t enough to cover everything.”

”That’s too bad,” said Ruth. “I suppose your mother’s parents didn’t even come to the funeral.”

“Nope,” sighed Michelle. “I called them when she died but her dad said that as far as they were concerned, they didn’t even have a daughter named Jane.”

“That’s terrible!” exclaimed Ruth.

“After the funeral, I tried to get time off work so I could think things through,” said Michelle. But they wouldn’t let me do that. So I just quit. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in Laramie anyway. There are too many memories there.”

“I understand,” said Ruth.

“So I decided to try calling Al,” Michelle continued. “As Mom said, I didn’t choose to be born so he has no right to push me away. I don’t want to ruin your Christmas but one way or another, I’m going to make him acknowledge me.”

“You’re not ruining anything,” Ruth assured her. “And let me be the first to welcome you to our family.” Ruth and Michelle stood and embraced.

A car turned into the driveway. “That would be your father,” said Ruth. “He’s home early for once. Sit down and I’ll go talk to him. I’ll make him see sense. You just wait and see.”

Ruth hurried to the kitchen and stood by the back door. Al was determined to ignore Michelle. When Al made a decision, it was almost impossible to change his mind. But Ruth needed to try, for Michelle’s sake.

The kitchen door burst open and Al hurried into the room, closing it behind him. He wore a broad grin despite the fact that in the short walk from the garage to the house, he was already covered from head to foot with snow. As he stamped the snow from his boots, he declared, “I do believe we’re going to have a white Christmas this year.”

“Al!” exclaimed Ruth. “How can you smile at a time like this?”

“You didn’t send her away, did you?” Al chuckled.

“Of course not,” said Ruth in surprise.

“I didn’t think you would,” said Al. As Ruth stared at him in astonishment, he continued, “Honey, It’s time I faced up to what happened twenty-four years ago. It was as much my fault as it was Jane’s. I’m assuming she told you about Jane.”

“Yes,” answered Ruth. “Her mother died in a car accident a couple of weeks ago. That’s why she came here. There’s nothing for her in Laramie now.”

“Oh God,” said Al, his smile fading. “You know, besides that damn case, she’s all I’ve been able to think about this past week. In fact, that’s why I’ve been staying at the office so late. I wanted to bury myself in my work so I wouldn’t have to think about her. When Kate called tonight however, that was the breaking point. I had a good cry and then I figured that Michelle would probably never go away, no matter what I did. So I’d better face the music and dance. I stopped off along the way and bought her a little present.”

“Oh Al, I love you!” cried Ruth as she embraced his snowy body and he pulled her to him.

After a moment, Al said, “Let’s go talk to my daughter. Where is she?”

“She’s in the living room,” replied Ruth, stepping aside for him to lead the way.

As they entered, Michelle stood and Norah leapt to her feet. The dog danced in joyous circles around Al, leaping high in the air, barking, and wagging her tail. “Hush Norah,” Ruth said and the dog fell silent.

“Dad, is that you?” asked Michelle, gazing in bewilderment at Al’s smiling face.

“Yes it is,” said Al, extending his arms. As father and daughter embraced, Scott and Kate hurried into the room. “Dad,” they shouted in unison. They stopped short and stared in astonishment at Al and Michelle as they embraced.

With his arms still around Michelle, Al turned to his children. “Scott, Kate, I have a very special Christmas present for you this year. I would like you to meet your sister, Michelle.”