Tyler sat on his grandfather’s golf cart, sucking on a peppermint candy cane. He looked out the open carport at miles of desert rimmed by jagged, treeless mountains. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, big deal. He could hardly wait for it to be over so he could go back home. His snowbird grandparents lived in Idaho six months of the year and flew south as soon as the weather cooled in October. “It’ll be fun!” Tyler’s mom told him, when his parents decided to spend Christmas in Arizona with Grandma and Grandpa. “You can bring your skateboard.” Bad idea. Every time he rode his skateboard the old fogies in his grandparents’ trailer park complained. There was nothing for a twelve-year-old boy to do here. He had no friends, no video games, and since his Ipod had lost its charge, no tunes either. Tyler was bored.
“Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” The merry jingle came through the open kitchen window. Grandma and his older sister were baking Christmas cookies, singing along. Tyler frowned. He wished it would snow. It wasn’t Christmas without snow. He needed only a sweatshirt to keep warm in Arizona. If he were home in Utah, he’d be snowboarding right now. Dang. Winter wasn’t even winter in Arizona.
Tyler grabbed the handlebars and pretended he was on his four-wheeler at home. That’s when he noticed the key. Without a second thought, Tyler started the engine and drove out of the carport. Grandpa wouldn’t mind; he was watching the afternoon news. Mom and Dad wouldn’t be back for hours. They’d gone to Phoenix to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. The golf cart was quiet. No one heard him drive down the street, not even the old fogies next door.
In minutes he was in the desert. Spindly creosote bushes and clumps of prickly pear cactus grew on both sides of the dirt trail. Black lava bombs lay where they’d fallen thousands of years ago when the volcanic mountains erupted. Grandpa had said there was an old mine up in the hills. Tyler wondered how far.
The road suddenly dipped into a wash and he slowed the engine. A scraggly mesquite tree grew on the bank and hidden in its low branches, an old car lay half-buried in the sand. Tyler stopped the golf cart and went to explore. The sedan had been black once, maybe sixty years ago. Now the metal was rusted and corroded. All the windows were broken out. Tyler looked inside at the smashed dashboard, trying to figure out if it was a Chevy or Ford. Someone had taken the steering wheel. There were no seats either–nothing but rocks and dirt and dried weeds. Maybe there were more old cars junked in the desert. Sweet, he thought. Arizona wasn’t so boring after all.
He climbed back in the golf cart and drove up the sandy wash. Each time it forked, he chose the less rocky path. He met a family of saguaros standing on the hillside holding up the sky. The old-timers had six or seven arms. The babies had none. Their shadows stretched out behind them like giant sun dials. Tyler looked over his shoulder and saw the sun, smoldering red-orange above the horizon. How did it get so late? He turned the golf cart and started back. The motor bogged down in the sand, and he pressed the gas pedal to the floor. Then without warning, the golf cart stopped.
“Come on, come on!” Turning the key again and again, Tyler tried to coax the engine awake. No luck. He’d run out of gas.
It was going to be a long walk back to Grandpa’s house. Tyler felt a nervous knot in his stomach. He had no cell phone, no flashlight, not even a bottle of water.
Stay calm, he thought. Keep your head. Tyler remembered what he’d learned in scouts: Hug a tree till somebody hugs you. He almost laughed, thinking of the saguaros. He had to get back to the road and follow it to Grandpa’s trailer park.
Tyler took off in a race with the setting sun. The sand slowed his pace and he breathed through his mouth, gasping for air. Twenty minutes later the cart tracks were no longer visible in the dark. Pain jabbed his side and Tyler stopped to catch his breath. Had he gone the right way? A coyote barked in the hills, and a moment later, another answered. It sounded close, too close. Their eerie howls left him feeling more alone, and he shivered in his sweatshirt. By now Grandpa must have discovered that the golf cart was missing and Tyler along with it. Would he be angry? Tyler was sure Grandma would be worried and the thought saddened him. He didn’t want to upset his grandparents.
Gazing up at the night sky, he searched for the Big Dipper. It wasn’t easy to find among the millions of tiny points of light that spilled across the heavens. Tyler stood in awe, wondering if the stars shone as brightly on the night Christ was born. He wished he was back at the trailer park singing Christmas carols with Grandma.
Running blindly in the dark, he crashed into something solid and shouted in pain. It was a barrel cactus, prickly all over with fish-hook spines that had stabbed him right through his jeans. Limping now, he covered ground at a slower pace.
Out of the darkness two lights appeared and Tyler heard the rumble of an old truck. “Grandpa! Grandpa!” he yelled, running toward the lights. He tripped and fell, got back on his feet and scrambled through the brush. Just as quickly as they appeared, the lights vanished. “Grandpa! Come back!” His hands stung where he’d scraped them, and he tasted blood on his lips. “Grandpa, I’m over here!”
Tears filled Tyler’s eyes as he dropped to his knees in the sand. “Dear Father in Heaven,” he prayed aloud, “I’m sorry I took Grandpa’s golf cart. I’m sorry I left and didn’t tell them where I was going. I promise I won’t do it again. Please help me get back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.” He ended his prayer in Jesus’ name and kept his eyes closed, listening for an answer.
For a while there was no sound except the wind whistling though the bare branches of a mesquite tree. Then the coyotes yipped and an owl hooted mournfully in the distance. Tyler didn’t hear a still, small voice. He didn’t hear the sound of his grandfather’s truck either. Heavenly Father hadn’t answered his prayer.
Disappointed, he opened his eyes and watched the moon rise above the mountains. It was almost full, bright enough to reveal the outline of a low rise not too far away. He hoped he could find the road from up there.
Tyler was half-way up the hill when he heard the truck motor again. He turned and saw the headlights. The road was visible too, a dark line winding through the foothills. He hobbled toward it, shouting for his grandfather to stop.
By the time Tyler reached the road his voice was hoarse. The truck slowly advanced toward him, horn blaring, and Tyler waved his arms for his grandfather to stop. Moments later he fell into his grandfather’s arms. “I’m sorry, Grandpa. I shouldn’t have gone off like that.”
“Thank God, you’re safe.” Grandpa put his arm around Tyler’s shoulders as they walked back to the truck.
Tyler explained that he’d run out of gas. “We’ll go get it tomorrow,” Grandpa said.
“Could you hear me way out there?” Tyler asked. “I saw you drive up into the mountains. How did you know I was here?”
“I didn’t hear you, but I had a strong feeling that I should turn around.” Grandpa’s voice cracked with emotion. “It had to be the Holy Spirit, because I thought you’d gone up to the old mine. That’s where I was going to look first. I’m thankful I obeyed the prompting.”
Tyler was thinking about what his grandfather said as he climbed up into the truck. “Heavenly Father did answer my prayer,” he said.
“He answered my prayers too. Let’s get back to the house. Grandma has some Christmas cookies for us.”