It all began the Christmas that Ben was nine. He put a little too much tape on his brother’s present.
“What did you do to this thing?” Miles complained. “Encase it in concrete? Here—you take it.”
With a flick of the wrist Miles winged the present straight at Ben, crashing it against the wall behind him.
“Boys, boys!” yelled mom. “It’s Christmas.”
But it was no use. Miles and Ben were already rolling around on the floor in a lethal embrace, and their Christmas present that year was getting sent to their rooms.
The next Christmas, Miles hadn’t forgotten about the over-wrapped present. He swaddled Ben’s gift in as much packing tape as he could get his hands on—making it look like a solid mass of congealed glue. Ben had to take it to the basement and saw it open.
After that, the Christmas present thing became a kind of game. Ben put Myles’ next present inside a wooden box and screwed it shut, then tied the whole thing with pretty ribbons of barbed wire.
The following Christmas, Miles led Ben to the kitchen, pointed at the freezer, and told him to open it.
“You’re giving me food?” said Ben.
Inside was a huge block of ice. In the middle of the block, far away and blurry, was what looked like a small scrap of red Christmas paper.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” said Ben
“It’s up to you,” said Miles. “Put it in a glass of pop maybe? Or toss it in the back yard and wait till spring.”
For the next few Christmases, it was all about the wrappings. Each year they became more ingenious, more impenetrable.
One year Ben really did encase Miles’s gift in concrete.
The year after that, Miles welded his inside a metal box and buried it in the back yard, where Ben had to locate it with a metal detector.
Another year, when the town re-paved the road in front of their house, Miles had to bribe a friend in the public works department to cut through the new pavement.
But the next year, Miles got the better of Ben, sinking his present in a lake; forcing him to cut a hole in the ice, and use his cousin’s diving gear to retrieve it. And so, on it went.
Miles was Ben’s adopted brother. As the years passed, the two communicat less and Miles began hanging out with a different crowd. His behavior got wilder, and wilder. At eighteen he was finally sent to prison for ten years after wounding a police officer. That was the end of strangely wrapped Christmas presents. From now on Miles himself was the hidden gift, wrapped behind steel bars. Ben visited him a few times but there was little to say and no getting to him.
At age twenty-one, Ben became a Christian and began to pray for Miles. Prayer, he figured, was better than a hack saw or any Global Positioning System. But though he prayed with great faith, nothing seemed to happen.
Several years later, while visiting Miles in prison, Ben mentioned that their parents were moving.
“What? Selling the house?” Miles looked startled. After a long pause, he said, “Well, I might as well tell you then. You know the big oak tree in the backyard? Take a metal detector and sniff around about six feet up. Inside the trunk you’ll find a surprise. But I don’t know how you’ll get it out without cutting the tree down.”
When Ben finally retrieved the present, he was awed. It was a beautiful Rolex watch, engraved with his initials entwined in a cross. Miles had never given him anything so personal. The more Ben thought about it, the more he wanted to give something as meaningful in return.
Around that time their dad, an aeronautical engineer, happened to land some work on the Canadarm for the International Space Station. Ben was able to pull some strings, and that Christmas he proudly announced to Miles that his present was in orbit around the earth. Miles was impressed. As a kid he’d been interested in space and dreamed of being an astronaut. Ben desperately wanted to reveal what the gift was, but of course that would have broken the rules of the game.
The following year Miles was released on probation, and one of the first things he did was to contact Robert Thirsk, a Canadian astronaut. One night around two a.m. the phone rang.
“I gotta hand it to you, Ben. You almost got the better of me this time. But that star sapphire ring you gave me—it’s real pretty.” After a pause, Miles added, “Thanks.”
And so another year passed, another Christmas rolled around, and Myles re-offended and was sent back to prison. Ben went to visit him for the prison Christmas party. As they chatted, Miles tapped Ben on the shoulder.
“By the way, maybe you’ve heard about the new mission to Mars next year? Well, your Christmas present will be going along.”
“Mars?” Ben said in astonishment.
“Yeah. After orbiting Mars it’s going on to some of the other planets, and eventually it will leave the solar system.”
With that Miles started laughing, laughing so deep and long that there was no more talking to him.
Ben never did find out what was on that spacecraft to Mars. But every time he looks at his Rolex watch, he wonders: That cross engraved on the back—was it just for him, or did it mean something to Miles too? Another insoluble mystery.
Some gifts, Ben figures, have to wait for eternity.
from 21 candles