By Scott Ramsey
Edited by Amelia R.
Nestled in the pines five miles northwest of Boulder, Colorado, the house looked like it had leapt off the front of a Christmas card. The majestic, snow-capped Rocky Mountains provided the perfect backdrop for the country style home. Surrounded by snow-glazed pines and festooned with colorful decorations, it emanated an almost palpable feeling of love and welcome as the green Jeep Liberty pulled up the long, winding drive. The SUV was four years old but in good shape; there were a few minor dings and scratches, but the engine was in excellent condition. Most importantly, it had been in the right price range.
The driver brought the vehicle to a stop on the looping driveway, just past the front door of the house. She sat in the SUV for several minutes, either indecisive or reluctant to leave the warm interior, before stepping out into the bitter cold and walking to the front door.
Debbie Noland had just finished arranging a centerpiece of poinsettias on the dining room table when the doorbell rang. She walked from the dining room, through the kitchen and into the family room, which was dominated by an eight foot tall Douglas fir, glittering with lights and brightly colored glass ornaments. A fire crackled in the fireplace across the room, radiating comforting warmth throughout the room.
Debbie opened the door and saw a pretty, blonde-haired young woman standing there shivering in the cold, despite the long, thick wool coat she wore. The girl gave her a nervous smile before speaking, her voice a lovely, melodious alto.
"Mrs. Noland? I'm Breegan Thomas ... we spoke on the phone yesterday about the apartment."
"Of course, dear," Debbie said, "please come in out of the cold."
She ushered the girl into the family room and took her coat. Debbie couldn't help but notice that she was very curvaceous, almost overly so. Even beneath her turtle-necked sweater, her large breasts were very prominent, made more so by an extremely slim waist and wide, full hips. She wore a knee-length plaid skirt and knee high black leather boots with a low heel. Her face was exquisitely beautiful, like a fine sculpture, and she moved with an easy, graceful sway.
Breegan looked around the family room, her expression hard to read. There was the barest hint of a smile on her face, but her eyes had a pained look to them.
"You have a lovely home," she said softly. "The decorations are beautiful."
"It's what I do," Debbie smiled. "I'm an interior designer. I've always especially loved decorating for the holidays though. I have a pot of water on the stove; would you like a hot cup of tea to get the chill out of your bones, Breegan?"
"That would be great, and please, my friends all call me Bree."
"Just make yourself at home, Bree, and I'll be right back."
While Debbie disappeared into the kitchen, Bree looked around the family room in more detail. She stood before the Christmas tree in the corner for a moment and breathed deeply, the scent of pine filling her nostrils. Then she knelt down and looked at the two gifts beneath the tree, reading the tags on each.
To my real life angel and inspiration, Debbie. All my love, Paul.
To my strong foundation - my rock and my comfort, Paul. Your loving wife, Debbie.
A tear trickled down her cheek, and she wiped it away as she rose. She was still feeling a bit chilled, so she walked across the room to the fireplace to get warmed up. The mantle was decorated with red and green garlands, and atop it were two photographs. One was of Paul and Debbie and a boy in his late teens. They were standing in front of another Christmas tree, this one surrounded by brightly wrapped gifts. The boy favored his mother, though he was a bit taller. They were both dwarfed by the massive bulk of Paul, who stood behind them with his arm around each, a big smile on his face.
The second picture was just of the boy, a graduation portrait. In front of it was a single white candle, with a small plague on the candle holder.
Our Beloved Son, Brian Thomas Noland
May God Keep You Safe and Lead You Home
"That's our son, Brian," Debbie said as she returned.
"You all look so happy," Bree said.
"That was our last Christmas together," Debbie said. "Brian left home the next summer."
"He went away to school?"
Debbie sighed and shook her head. Without really knowing why, she began to tell this young woman she had just met something she rarely talked about to her friends.
"Brian was always very quiet, shy even," Debbie said as they walked over to the sofa and sat down. "Towards the end of high school, he became more and more restless. It was as though he couldn't wait to get away from here. He had a sizeable inheritance from his grandmother, and after graduation he told us he wanted to do some traveling before he started college.
"The last time we heard from him was about six months after he left. He was staying in Los Angeles and would call every week, and then the calls just stopped. We contacted the authorities immediately. His apartment was in order, all of his things were there, but no one had seen him for over a week. He just vanished ... that was seven years ago."
"I'm so sorry," Bree said as Debbie started to cry. She sat there uncomfortably as the older woman collected herself.
"I'm sorry, Bree; it's just that this time of year is so hard," Debbie said. "We've never given up looking for him; I know he's out there, somewhere, trying to come home."
"I'm sure he is."
"Well, enough about that," Debbie said. "Our tea is getting cold. You told me on the phone that you'll be starting classes at the university in the fall; do you know what your major will be?"
"Criminology and psychology," Bree said after taking a sip of her tea. "I already have a year's worth of credits, and I'm hoping to finish in two years. I got kind of a late start, so I'm taking a heavy course load to finish quickly."
"If I may ask, why did you wait so late to start college?"
Bree set her cup down on the saucer, her hand shaking and causing it to clink.
"I had some emotional problems that I had to deal with," she said after a moment. "I was ... I was abused, and it left a lot of scars. For the last eighteen months, I've been living in a group home. They provided tutors for us so we could continue our education while we were working on recovering."
"Oh, you poor thing," Debbie said, her voice filled with genuine compassion. She couldn't help but think of her son and all the horrors she had imagined since he had disappeared.
"I thought you should know that before you made a decision about renting the apartment to me," Bree said. "I'd understand completely if you didn't want me as a tenant."
"Now that's just silly," Debbie said. "Bree, it's not your fault that someone hurt you. As far as I'm concerned, the apartment is yours if you want it. Why don't we take a look at it?"
"Sure, that would be great."
Debbie led the way from the family room through the kitchen and out into an enclosed walkway that connected to the garage. They entered the second of two doors at the back of the three car garage, which opened into a one car bay. A partially complete wall separated it from the rest of the garage, and Debbie explained that the wall would be finished by the time the apartment was ready, and there would be a washer and dryer in the garage.
"We wanted to provide as much privacy as possible for our tenant," Debbie explained.
The upstairs apartment was very spacious, taking up the same square footage as the garage below. Though only partially finished, it was still easy to see how the finished space would look. There was a nice sized living room, a compact kitchen with a breakfast bar and a small dining area. The bathroom would have a full-sized tub and shower combo, and the bedroom was very spacious with a large, walk-in closet.
"It looks really great," Bree said. "I can't wait until it's finished."
"Well, as I told you on the phone, the apartment won't actually be ready until the end of January," Debbie said. "I have one of our guest rooms all made up, and you're welcome to stay there until then. And just to be clear, until the apartment is ready you'd be our guest, not our tenant."
"That's very kind, but I wouldn't want to impose," Bree said.
"Nonsense! Bree, Paul and I would love to have someone else to share the holiday with, and I am pretty sure that you could use some company too."
"I guess that's true," Bree said.
"So that means you'll be our tenant? Just be aware that even though you'll be paying rent, we'll consider you part of the family."
"It sounds wonderful," Bree said, returning the smile. "It almost feels like home already."
Her smile faded, and Debbie thought she saw tears forming in her eyes. Bree turned away quickly and dug in her purse, pulling out a cell phone.
"I need to make a phone call if you don't mind," she said.
"Of course, dear," Debbie said. "Just come on down to the house when you're ready, and we can get your things into the guest room."
That night at dinner, it was as though a cloud had been lifted from the Noland home. Paul had not seen his wife so happy in years, and he found himself quickly warming to the lovely young woman who would be sharing their home.
"Debbie tells me you're majoring in criminology," Paul said over dinner. "Are you gonna go into law enforcement?"
Bree nodded, "In some capacity. I'm not sure exactly what yet. The idea of actually catching criminals is very appealing, but I'm also interested in working with the victims. That's why I'm taking a second major in psychology."
"You have a very caring attitude," Debbie said. "I'm sure you would be a great help to someone who has suffered."
"Well, I know a lot about suffering," Bree said.
For dessert, Debbie had made pecan pie, served with a generous scoop of whipped cream. As she set a piece of pie in front of Bree, the young woman just stared at it for several seconds before picking up her fork and taking a bite. She closed her eyes as she tasted the dessert, a smile spreading across her face.
"I love pecan pie," she said. "This is delicious, Mrs. Noland."
"I'm glad you like it, sweetheart," Debbie said.
"Deb's pie is famous," Paul said. "It's been a long time since she made it."
"It was Brian's favorite," Debbie said, her voice tinged with sadness. "I just felt the urge to make it this morning, and I was hoping we'd be having company for dinner."
"I left home when I was just out of high school too," Bree said, surprising them. "There were things I had to work out, and I was too scared to tell my parents what was going on. I ended up, well, falling in with a bad crowd, I guess you could say. A big part of what I have had to deal with is that I brought a lot of it on myself."
"Bree, what's past is past," Paul said. "Lord knows I've made my share of mistakes."
"We all have, Bree," Debbie said. "It's what makes us human. If you don't mind my asking, do you talk to your parents now?"
Bree shook her head, "I haven't spoken to them in years. I'm afraid they could never forgive me for what I've done ... for all the pain I've caused them."
Bree began to cry, and Debbie got up from her chair and walked over to the girl and hugged her.
"Nobody's perfect, Bree, not even a parent. You owe it to yourself to give them the chance, though."
Bree nodded, drying her eyes with a napkin as she said, "Maybe one day. I just ... I just can't right now."
"It's never too late to go home, Bree," Paul said.
Bree started to speak, but the words didn't come. She dropped her head and drew in a heavy breath.
"Thank you for the meal; it was wonderful," she said, rising from the table. "I think I'll go to bed now."
Paul woke from sleep to find that Debbie was not in bed. He looked at the clock and saw that it was just after four in the morning. He got out of bed and slipped on his robe, then walked upstairs and down the hall. He wasn't surprised to find Debbie in Brian's old room, sitting on the bed clutching a large purple teddy bear. It had been Brian's very first Christmas gift, and even when he had grown older he had always treasured the bear.
"I thought I'd find you here," he said as he sat down next to his wife.
"I had a dream about Brian," she said as she laid her head on his shoulder. "It was from the Christmas when he was eight. You remember, he wanted a bicycle so badly, and when he came down Christmas morning there wasn't one under the tree."
"I remember," Paul said. "I told him that a bicycle woulda been hard for Santa to get down the chimney, so he ought to look outside."
Debbie laughed, "He was so excited when he saw it on the front porch. He said ‘Mommy ... Daddy, Santa brought me a bicycle!'"
"I never saw a child more excited," Paul said.
"Do you remember what he said at dinner that evening?"
Paul smiled and nodded, "He said, ‘I would have loved you even if you hadn't gotten me a bike.'"
"Oh Paul, it's been seven years, but I know he's still alive; I just know it!"
"I do too," Paul said as he held his wife close. "I pray to God every day and ask him to bring our child home."
Down the hall in the guest room, Bree sat up in bed, stifling a scream. Her body was drenched in sweat, and she began to sob as the images from her frighteningly realistic nightmare haunted her. It had been three years, and though the nightmares were not as frequent, they were always just as terrifying.
"I'm not there; I'm free," she sobbed, her entire body shaking. "They can't touch me anymore."
She tried to fight back against the fear, and when she couldn't, she found her cell phone and pressed one of the speed dial buttons. She talked for a long time, and when she was at last back in control, she said goodbye and slipped into a fitful sleep.
Over the next two weeks, Paul and Debbie felt a renewed zest for life. Building the coach house addition had been Paul's idea, something he had actually suggested before Brian had left home. Then, they had thought it would be a way to allow their son a little space while he went to college.
After last Christmas, Paul had again brought it up, and they had decided to go ahead with the idea and advertise it on the campus. They had been surprised when they had gotten a call the day after they had posted flyers about the apartment.
Already, it was hard to imagine life without Bree in their house. She was still quiet and very guarded about her past, but it was this very sense of vulnerability and pain that endeared her to them. They both had a void in their lives, and the pretty young woman filled that void. They still pined for their son and continued to pray, believing that one day he would come home. Debbie even commented several times to Paul that she thought Brian would like Bree very much.
They had both noticed that Bree spent a lot of time on her cell phone and would often slip away to make or answer a call. They had told her she was welcome to use their phone, but she had declined, explaining that her calling plan gave her unlimited free calls to other people in her plan. It was obvious that she wasn't just calling to catch up with friends, and she would often take a long walk after making a call, despite the subfreezing temperatures outside.
The disappearance of their son had tested their faith in God. It was hard, impossible even, not to question why this had happened. Though they had both been regular churchgoers their entire lives, they had drifted away, partly because of their anger and confusion with God, and partly because of the attitude of some of their fellow parishioners. There had been several who had suggested openly that it was their failing as parents that had led to Brian's disappearance, which only echoed the guilt they both naturally felt.
But though their faith had been shaken, it had never been broken. A year ago they had found a new church and began attending regularly again. They had invited Bree to join them, but she had politely declined, saying she wasn't sure she belonged in a church.
Christmas eve fell on a Sunday, but the regular morning services had been cancelled so they were able to sleep in. That meant that Debbie was up at eight rather than six, preparing breakfast while Paul read the paper. The smell of fresh country sausage cooking was soon drifting through the house.
"Something smells really good," Bree said as she entered the kitchen.
"The sausage is ready, and I'll have some pancakes done in just a minute," Debbie said.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Bree asked.
"Yes, there is. There's a pitcher of orange juice in the refrigerator. If you could get that and the milk and set the table, it would be great."
"Good morning, Bree," Paul said as she entered the dining room with the juice and milk. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, thank you," Bree lied. She had had another nightmare and spent much of the night on her cell phone.
"Bree, we're having a special candlelight musical service at church tonight," Debbie said as they ate. "We're not trying to pressure you, but we would love to introduce you to some of our friends."
Bree thought for a moment before answering, "Okay, I'll go with you."
"You don't have to if you don't want to, hun," Paul said.
"No, I'd really like to go," Bree said. "Thank you for asking."
After breakfast, Bree bundled up and went for a long walk in the snow. The mountains in the distance made a beautiful backdrop, and for the first time in years she felt a sense of peace.
As she walked, she thought about what Paul and Debbie had said that first night at dinner. Could she do it? Could she really, truly go home? She wanted to believe that her parents would accept her, but the fear that they wouldn't was impossible to quell.
That evening they left for the candlelight service, and it was impossible for Paul and Debbie not to notice how nervous Bree appeared.
"Bree, no one there will judge you," she said. "These are all good people, and they'll only want you to feel at ease."
"I guess it is pretty obvious," Bree said. "I'm just worried that a bolt of lightning is going to strike me down at the door or something."
"Well, if it makes you feel better, we'll stand way back while you go in," Paul joked.
Debbie shot Paul a withering look, and he grinned sheepishly.
"Pay him no mind, Bree," Debbie said. "If anyone gets struck down, it's going to be right here in this car, and it won't be by a bolt of lightning!"
Bree started giggling and felt her nervousness abate somewhat.
Like many modern churches, Calvary Christian Church was comprised of prefabricated metal buildings. The largest held the sanctuary and church offices, while two smaller structures consisted of classrooms and a fellowship hall. The parking lot was already filled almost to capacity as they pulled in. Paul and Debbie were warmly greeted by many people as they walked from the car to the sanctuary, and each time they introduced Bree. There were so many that she quickly lost track of who was who.
The sanctuary was large, and unlike the foyer, did not have a drop ceiling. Instead, the ceiling panels followed the contour of the building, arcing high overhead. The music from the five piece band on the platform issued from the speakers, reverberating through the cavernous space as they found seats near the front of the sanctuary. Bree was impressed by the size of the crowd; Paul had told her the sanctuary could seat five hundred, and it was almost filled to capacity.
They had barely gotten settled when the band began to play "Oh Come All Ye Faithful." The choir began filing into the sanctuary from either side, holding candles as they sang the familiar song. More candles were lit around the sanctuary, and soon the entire room was bathed in warm, flickering light.
After the song, Pastor Peter Clark stepped up to the pulpit and welcomed everyone, and then more familiar Christmas songs were sung. Though the songs were all traditional and familiar, the band played them in a contemporary style, and Bree soon found herself relaxing and enjoying the music.
After the music, the pastor returned to the pulpit, and the lights on the platform came up slightly. He looked around at the packed church and smiled warmly as he opened his Bible.
"I know it's traditional to read the Christmas story at this time of year, but since we've been breaking with tradition for the past year, I figure why stop now," Pastor Clark said, eliciting a round of laughter from the crowd. "If you would please turn your bibles to Luke chapter fifteen, verse twenty."
The lights in the sanctuary came up as people began opening their bibles. Debbie opened her well worn bible and held it so that Bree could read along with her as Pastor Clark continued.
"In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus tells of a young man who leaves home and loses his way. Why he and left and what he did is really not important; it's what happened when he made the decision to go home.
"Reading from the New Living Translation ... ‘So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.'
"But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.'"
Bree felt as though the entire sanctuary was spinning about her as the words cut into her soul. How could this be? How could the pastor have chosen this particular parable for this night? Her hands began trembling, and Debbie gently put her arm around her shoulder.
"Christmas is, of course, the time we celebrate the birth of Jesus," Pastor Clark continued. "But it's also a time of homecoming, when families that have been scattered by life come together to celebrate and renew those bonds that are so important to us all.
"You all know that when I became your pastor a year ago, this church was struggling to find a new path. When I suggested that we ‘look outside the box' of orthodoxy, there were those who were unsure. When I suggested that we reach out to those that mainstream churches have turned their backs on, some were downright offended. But Jesus tells us here that there is nothing we have done that will cast us out of the family of God. Only we can do that; only we can refuse to come home."
Bree heard a chorus of ‘Amens!' from the congregation, perhaps the loudest coming two seats over from Paul. She felt the sting of tears in her eyes, and yet there was still the fear as well. If they knew, if they really knew who she was, what she had done, could they possibly accept her?
"God is love, and God is acceptance. Jesus gave us two commandments: to love God, and to love our neighbor. He didn't say love only those who fit a specific image. When we made it known that this church would welcome those in the LGBT community with open arms, we lost some people. They couldn't accept the possibility that a person might be born different from what their definition of normal is. They couldn't understand that love is love, no matter the gender of the person you love.
"It's not their fault; what we did challenged a lifetime of teaching and flew in the face of everything the world at large accepts as the status quo. They're not evil; they're just misguided. God loves misguided people too."
Bree couldn't hold the tears in any longer, and she buried her head against Debbie's shoulder as she cried. She didn't even care that there were people looking at her; it just felt too good, too cleansing to let it out.
"As we celebrate the birth of our Savior, I encourage you to seize this time to come home. There is a loving church, a loving family here ready to accept you as you are. And there is a loving Father waiting for you to turn down that dusty road, waiting to run to you and take you in his arms. It's time to come home."
They keyboardist stepped forward and began to play as the pastor stepped down from the pulpit. People began rising from their seats, one or two at first, but soon there were several dozen standing before the platform. Pastor Clark went to each one and spoke to them for a moment and then placed his hands on them and began to pray.
"If you'd like to go up, Bree, I'll go with you," Debbie whispered in her ear.
Bree looked at her and shook her head, "No, but thank you for offering."
"It's all right, dear," Debbie said, pulling her close. "Just know that you're loved. We want to help you, if you'll let us."
"I appreciate it, more than you know," Bree said. "I just need to think about some things."
It took Bree a long time to get to sleep that night. The service had gotten to her. She tried to rationalize it as a coincidence; she wasn't even sure she believed in God. But something had happened at the service; something had lifted a great weight from her. She was still afraid, but she knew now that she couldn't let that fear control her.
When she finally slipped off and began to dream, it wasn't a nightmare. It was Christmas, and she was eight years old. As the happy images flowed through her subconscious, a smile of contentment spread across her face.
When she woke on Christmas morning, she knew what she had to do; she just wasn't sure how to do it. She could hear sounds drifting up from downstairs and knew that Paul and Debbie were up. She rose and slipped on her robe and hurried downstairs.
"Merry Christmas, Bree," Debbie said as she entered the family room. "Did you sleep well?"
"Better than I have in a long time," Bree replied.
"I think if you look under the tree, you'll see that Santa brought you a present," Paul told her with a smile.
Bree went to the tree and found a small package there with her name on the tag. She tore the wrapping away to reveal a jewelry box. Inside was a beautiful silver cameo pendant on a silver chain. A blue agate was set in the pendant, engraved with the image of a guardian angel.
"It's beautiful," Bree said as she stared at the pendant.
"We thought you should have something," Paul said softly.
"Don't let him fool you, Bree; it was his idea entirely, but I certainly approve," Debbie told her.
Bree walked over to the sofa and sat down next to Paul, extending the necklace to him.
"It's lovely. Would you put it on me?"
Paul nodded and took the pendant, slipping his hands around Bree's neck and fastening it. She held the crystal up and stared at it for a moment, and then looked at Paul and Debbie, tears brimming in her eyes.
"I would have loved you even if you hadn't gotten me a bike."
Paul and Debbie's eyes both widened in shock. There was a long silence, and then Debbie at last spoke.
Bree nodded, tears streaming down her face, "It's me ... I've come home."
Both her parents continued to look at her, disbelief warring with hope on their faces. Finally, Paul stood up and took her by the shoulders, lifting her from the couch. He wrapped his burly arms around her and lifted her from the floor, his own tears flowing onto her shoulder.
"I missed you too, Daddy," Bree whispered. "I missed you both so much."
"I suppose I have some explaining to do," Bree said some time later. They were still seated on the sofa, Paul and Debbie on either side of their daughter, their arms around her as though they were afraid she might disappear suddenly. Bree didn't mind the clinging one bit.
"We do have a lot of questions," Debbie said.
"Nothing will change how we feel, sweetheart," Paul added. "We love you, and that's what matters."
"I know that now," Bree told them, "but I owe you an explanation ... and I need to tell you."
"Why don't we go into the kitchen, and I'll fix us some hot chocolate," Debbie suggested. "Then you can tell us whatever you feel is necessary."
Bree nodded, and they went into the kitchen. Paul kept his arm around her shoulder the whole time, and she drew strength from the contact. Debbie already had the cocoa warming on the stove top, and quickly prepared three big mugs and joined them in the breakfast nook.
"Aren't you going to grill me?" Bree asked after taking a sip.
Both her parents shook their heads, and Debbie said, "We never doubted you were alive, and what you said ... only Brian could have known that."
"We never gave up," Paul told her. "We had a private detective searching for you for a long time, but he finally told us there was nothing more he could do. I guess we know now why he couldn't find you."
Bree blushed and said, "The way I look is only part of it. I was so lost for a long time, and I'm still finding my way back. The truth is I'll never be who I once was; in a very real sense, Brian is dead."
"Not the part that matters," Paul said. "The shell may be different, but the spirit we love, the heart of our child, is still inside you."
"We would like to know, Bree, but whatever happened, whatever the reason ... we love you no matter what. Nothing could be worse than what we have imagined over the years."
Bree looked down into her mug of cocoa and shook her head.
"You're wrong, Momma," she whispered. "You couldn't even begin to imagine ... you're both so wonderful, you couldn't possibly conceive of what happened ...."
"Bree, honey, you don't have to tell us ..." Paul began.
Bree shook her head, "No, I do; I really do." She took another sip of her hot chocolate before continuing.
"There's a lot I still don't remember. They tell me I should eventually get most of it back; it'll just take time. What I do remember is that ever since I was a kid, I felt different. When I was very young, I didn't know why, but as I got older I realized I wanted to be a girl."
Debbie's hand flew to her mouth, and her eyes widened in shock.
"Oh my ... when you were seven you got into my closet and makeup. You came downstairs wearing a dress that was way too big and a pair of heels that nearly made you fall when you walked. Your face looked like a clown, you'd put so much makeup on. You said ‘Look, Mommy, I'm a girl now!' I ... I thought it was cute and took your picture!"
"Do you still have that picture?" Bree asked, and Debbie nodded.
"I have all the pictures of you as a child," Debbie said. "I'd be glad to show you the albums ... if it won't be too painful."
Bree shook her head vigorously, "No, I'd really like to see them. I've lost so much of who I was ... partly because I wanted to lose it."
She saw the pained look her words caused on her parents' faces and reached out to clutch both their hands tightly.
"It wasn't you; it was never, ever you!" she cried. "I know now that I was born this way; that something inside my brain kept telling me I was a girl even though my body was male. I knew you loved me, but I just didn't know how to tell you what I felt, so I did the worst thing I could do; I ran and tried to deal with it on my own.
"In LA I met a man who said he could help me become the girl I really was inside," she continued. "And he did, at first. He introduced me to a doctor who started me on hormones to feminize my body. It was expensive of course, but I had my inheritance so money wasn't a problem.
"The first time I took the hormones, I felt such a wonderful sense of peace. I mean, I knew, at least I should have known, that they would take time to have any real effect. But every time I took them I felt that wonderful feeling again. What I didn't realize was they were more than hormones; they had a narcotic mixed in them, and each time I went to the doctor for a refill, the dosage of the drug was increased. I was addicted long before I knew I had been taking a drug."
Bree paused, a shudder running through her body. She took a long drink of her cocoa and sighed.
"About six months into the process, I went to see the doctor, and he said he needed to give me a shot, a stronger dose of hormones. By then the drugs I was taking had my mind pretty messed up, and I didn't think anything about it; I mean, he was my doctor. The next thing I remember was waking up in a small room, a cell really, and I hurt all over and my face and body was heavily bandaged. They had done plastic surgery on me while I was out."
"I don't understand," Debbie said. "What could be the profit in doing this to you?"
"Changing my body was only the beginning," Bree explained. "They started training me once I was healed from all the surgery. If I didn't do what they wanted me to, they wouldn't give me my fix, and I was so addicted I couldn't stand to be without it. Besides, at first, the training wasn't so bad, I was learning to be more and more feminine.
"I lost all sense of time. They played around with the lighting and frequently drugged me so I had no idea what time of day it was at any given time. My only contact was a voice over a speaker for a long time. When someone finally did come into my cell, I was ready to do anything they asked, and I did. They started teaching me ... teaching me how to please others sexually. If I didn't do it with the proper amount of enthusiasm, they punished me by denying me the drugs I craved, or leaving me in the dark for what seemed like days. In no time at all, I didn't have to fake enjoying it, because I was broken ... I started looking forward to each new lesson, and I did whatever I was told, no matter how depraved."
"Oh, Bree ..." Debbie whispered, reaching out to squeeze her hand.
Paul pushed his chair away from the table and stood up suddenly. He walked out into the family room and was gone for several minutes. When he returned, his eyes were red and puffy. He had never been afraid to show his emotions, save one, and Bree knew he had walked away to hide the anger.
"I'm sorry I wasn't stronger, Daddy," Bree whimpered.
Paul didn't say anything; he just stepped over to her, knelt down and wrapped her in his arms as he sobbed.
"You didn't do anything wrong," he whispered. "I'm so ashamed I wasn't there to protect you."
Bree could only hold him and share his tears.
"I love you, Daddy."
They continued the embrace for a long time before Paul returned to his chair. Debbie's face was pale, her own tears flowing, and Bree reached over and squeezed her hand before continuing.
"I found out later that about eighteen months had passed since I disappeared and the training ended. It seemed like much longer. I wasn't Brian anymore, and I wasn't Breegan either. I was Candi, and Candi was nothing more than a walking, giggling sex toy. The worst part was that I actually enjoyed it. I was happy, or at least I thought I was, because I was a girl. I should say I was almost a girl; they had left my male genitals intact, even if they were pretty much useless."
"They kept you all this time?" Debbie asked. "How did you get away?"
Bree shook her head, "They were just the manufacturers. Once I was ready, I was sold. The man who bought me paid over two million dollars, and for the next three years I was his plaything. He never physically abused me; I wasn't beaten or anything, but he did a lot of things that were meant to humiliate me. He never realized there was nothing there to humiliate.
"Two years ago, his home was raided by federal agents. It was really an accident that I was found at all; there was another girl in the house ... a girl like me. The feds had found out about her from another raid; the people who took me weren't the only ones out there doing this. Fortunately, the sick bastards that sold her had kept records of all the kids they had taken and sold off."
"I don't think it was an accident at all," Debbie said. "We never stopped praying that God would watch over you and bring you home to us."
Bree nodded, though it was obvious that she didn't feel particularly well looked after.
"So there I was, suddenly free," she continued. "I didn't want to be free though. I fought them when they tried to take me away. I screamed and I begged for them to let me stay with my ... my master. Fortunately, they had a place set up for people who had been abused like me, and after a lot of counseling, they were able to break through the programming and start me on the road to recovery."
"I didn't know there were places like that," Debbie said. "I mean, are there really that many ... well ...."
Bree nodded, "More than you can imagine. The center I was at is operated by a foundation that was set up by a young woman who went through what I did. They also help other young people that are dealing with gender issues, but they specialize in cases like mine. In a way, I'm lucky; most of the girls there were abducted and changed against their will. At least I wanted to be a girl."
"Why didn't they tell us?" Paul demanded. "Why didn't they let us know you were alive?"
"Because I begged them not to," Bree said. "Until last year, I was still Candi ... I couldn't remember who I had been. They were trying to match me to records of missing persons, but I don't look anything like I used to, and the people that changed me didn't keep any record of who I was. Even though they found me in LA, I was taken across the country for training.
"They finally made the connection after checking my DNA against samples provided by the parents of hundreds of missing teens. Once they knew it was me, they started showing me pictures you had given the LA police. One was a picture of the three of us standing in front of my car the day I left home. That broke through, but the most vivid memories I had were of the things I had done over the past five years. I couldn't believe you would want anything to do with me."
"We could never stop loving you, sweetheart," Debbie said.
"I know that now," Bree said. She hesitated for a moment, and when she spoke again her voice had a bitter edge. "But how many times did I sit in church and listen to a sermon that attacked gays? How many times did I hear so called Christians make hate-filled comments about them? I knew that in their eyes I would be something vile ... disgusting. I couldn't bear the thought that you might treat me that way too."
Bree had been struggling to hold back the tears and now the memory of the fear and frustration unleashed them. Paul and Debbie couldn't deny what she said, so they didn't even try. They simply comforted her until she was able to continue.
"Bree, it doesn't matter to us if you are gay," Paul said.
"I know," Bree said, smiling. "Honestly, I don't know if I am or not. I was never attracted to boys, but now I see how men look at me, and I like it, but I still find women attractive too. It'll be a long time before I can even think about sex with anyone, however."
"Well, should you find someone one day, they'll be welcome here," Debbie said, "no matter what gender they are."
Paul nodded in agreement, and Bree smiled at them both. She took a long sip of her cocoa before continuing her story.
"The foundation did more than just help out of the hell I was in. They took care of the process of getting my legal identity changed. I used my middle name as my last name because, well, I was afraid of what might happen when I finally contacted you.
"They helped me get what was left of my inheritance too; it was still sitting in the bank in California. I spent most of it on the hormones and treatments I was given initially, but there was still some left; enough to buy the car I'm driving and still have some left. They also provided tutors and helped me get some college credits while I was in counseling, and there are funds available to help pay for my tuition."
"You said they ... they left your male genitals intact," Debbie said. "Do you plan ...."
"I had SRS surgery six months ago," Bree said. "The foundation paid for that too."
"I'm glad you're whole now, baby," Paul said. Bree beamed at his calling her baby.
"You should know too that the detective you hired did find me," Bree told them. "He was apparently watching my bank account for any activity, and when the legal proceedings were started to get the money transferred to my new name, he found out. The feds contacted him, and I spoke to him in person and asked him to not say anything."
"That must have been when he contacted us and said he couldn't take anymore money from us," Paul said. "He told us he would keep us updated if he heard anything, but he didn't feel like it was right to keep billing us."
"When I came back here, I never intended to make contact, at least not this soon," Bree said. "I just wanted to be close ... I even drove by the house a few times. Then I saw your flyer when I was at the university one afternoon, and before I knew what I was doing, I was calling you to ask about the apartment."
"We only put those flyers up the day before you called," Paul said. "I think the Lord was tryin' to show you the way home."
"You are home, baby," Debbie said, reaching across the table to take her daughter's hands. "And you'll always have a home here."
"It's not going to be easy," Bree said. "I still have a lot of baggage that I'm carrying around. And I ... I'm not sure I even believe in God anymore, and if I do, I'm not sure I like Him very much."
"Your Momma and I have both thought the same things over the last few years," Paul said. "We learned one thing, Bree; God isn't out there somewhere, he's inside each of us. And He doesn't try to make us fit into some little box; He wants to make us see that He fits into our life. All He wants is for us to love Him, and to know that He loves us."
"And that's all we want too," Debbie said.
The rest of Christmas day was spent in the simple pleasure of being together. Debbie was delighted when Bree offered to help with Christmas dinner; she confessed that cooking was something she had been trained in during her ordeal, but rather than dredge up the pain it helped her cope with it.
"Bree, I want to say something," Debbie said as they set the table for dinner. "Your father and I have always been very proud of you, and we are even more so now. I can't imagine what you have been through. You're so strong to have endured."
"I don't feel strong," Bree said. "I've had a lot of help, especially the last two weeks."
"All those phone calls," Debbie nodded. "Were you talking to your therapist?"
"Sometimes. I wouldn't have made it without her. A lot of them were to my friends ... the girls I met at the center. We sort of have a support group, and we know we can call each other at any time if we need to talk."
"Pastor Clark has helped your father and I too," Debbie said. "We ... we've dealt with a lot of guilt."
"I know," Bree said, wrapping her arms around her mother. "That was another reason I couldn't bring myself to come home. I put you both through hell because I didn't believe in your love enough to tell you what was happening, what I was going through.
"You need to know that nothing that happened to me was your fault. I know you don't believe that, but it's true. I was the one who let my fear keep the real me locked inside, and it wasn't so much the fear of how you and Dad would take it, it was how the rest of the world would see me and both of you, because of who I am. When I ran off, I convinced myself I was protecting you. And I was the one who let those sick perverts get such a hold over me; I knew what they were offering was too good to be true, but I let myself be fooled into thinking they really cared about me. I was so stupid."
"I'd really appreciate it if you wouldn't talk about yourself that way," Paul said as he joined them in the dining room. "Bree, those people used you. They took advantage of your situation, and they manipulated you. And I honestly can't say how we woulda reacted if you had told us this back then. What you were going through is something that most people can't understand."
"I owed you the chance to find out," Bree said. "I hope you'll be able to forgive me for all the pain I caused you."
Paul placed a hand on Bree's shoulder, and with the other he lifted her chin until she was looking into his eyes.
"Bree, when I said I never gave up ... that wasn't true," he told her, his voice breaking with emotion. "I had given up. I believed my child was dead. This morning I got the best Christmas present ever ... I found out my child, my precious baby girl is alive. If you can forgive me for giving up, I can forgive you. I already have."
"I do, Daddy, I do forgive you."
"I feel the same way, Bree," Debbie said. A smile crossed her face and she excused herself and went upstairs. She returned a few minutes later carrying the big purple teddy bear from Brian's room.
"Bearnard!" Bree exclaimed as she took the bear. She hugged it tightly; tears of joy trickling down her face. "You can't imagine how much he meant to me over the years. He was always there to listen and comfort me whenever I was sad. I missed him so much."
"He's done the same for me these last few years," Debbie said. "To be totally honest ... well, I'm kind of excited about having a daughter, not that I didn't love Brian with all my heart. I can't wait to take you shopping!"
Bree giggled and gave her mom a big hug.
"That sounds wonderful."
"We're not pretending this will be easy," Debbie added. "But we'll get through it, and we'll do it together."
"Together," Bree smiled. "That sounds so wonderful."
After the food had been set on the table, they sat down and joined hands. Paul just looked at his wife and daughter for a moment, and then they bowed their heads and gave thanks for this miraculous Christmas day.
A week later they were back in church for Sunday morning service. Bree had left it up to her parents as to how they would broach the subject of her return to the church. Paul, never one for beating around the bush, had spoken to Pastor Clark and come up with a plan.
After the opening worship, Pastor Clark stepped up to the pulpit and waited for the congregation to settle into their seats.
"Before I begin this morning's message, Deacon Paul Noland would like to address the congregation."
Paul, Debbie and Bree stepped up onto the platform, and before he walked to the pulpit, Paul gave Bree a big hug.
"No matter what, we love you, and God loves you," he whispered.
The congregation waited patiently as Paul approached the pulpit and adjusted the microphone to accommodate his six foot four inch frame. A squeal of feedback caused a chuckle throughout the crowd, and Paul cast an accusatory glance at the sound booth.
"You all know that seven years ago our son Brian disappeared in California," Paul said, fighting back tears. "I stand here this morning to tell you that this Christmas, in this season of joy, God has answered our prayers. Our child has been returned to us, and it is my great joy to introduce to you our daughter, Breegan."
There was a moment of silence as Bree stepped forward and joined her father at the pulpit. Then someone in the back of the sanctuary stood up and began clapping. In seconds, the sanctuary echoed with the sounds of applause and shouts of ‘Amen' and ‘Praise the Lord!'"
Debbie stepped forward to join her family, and she and Paul wrapped their arms around Bree in love and pride.
"You were right, Daddy," Bree whispered. "It's never too late to come home."