Happy Valentine’s, Friends! Thanks for joining us for a Valentine Short Story titled, “My Valentine’s Day Gift.” For Valentine’s Day in America, chocolate has a rich history. But behind the chocolate is a person expressing his/her love. Chocolate is pretty special and appeals to our senses, but I like to think that Valentine’s Day would be special even without the chocolate, simply because the person we’re with is our real gift. Here’s a short story that reminds us to appreciate our loved ones, but chocolate certainly has its place, too! 😉 See you on the next page!—David Telbat
My Valentine’s Day Gift
by D.I. Telbat
Brad Menken drove home through a hard rain on a dark night in Southern California. Though the radio warned of flash flooding due to unprecedented rainfall, Brad’s excitement couldn’t be doused. Valentine’s Day was three days away, and he’d found his wife’s favorite chocolates before they’d sold out.
He turned onto his neighborhood street while anticipating the arms of his two daughters around his neck and his wife’s embrace. It was the girls’ bedtime, but he guessed Eve had let them stay up since he’d called a few minutes earlier to tell them he was nearly home.
When he parked in front of the house, he grinned as he noticed the little faces peering at him through the living room window. It wasn’t going to be easy to smuggle the chocolates past the wiggling, giggling girls who were about to tackle him inside the front door.
Carefully, he tucked the box of chocolates inside his work jacket and zipped it up. Already, he visualized the hiding place in his backyard tool shed where the chocolates would be safe for the next three days until Valentine’s Day.
Clutching his lunch box from work, Brad climbed out of his truck and glanced up at the sound of a rumble coming from the neighbor’s yard. Through the rain and darkness, with the help of lights from living room windows along the street, he could make out a black moving mass. The mass was a tangle of mud and branches, cars and boulders, all rolling toward him!
Brad’s mouth opened in frightened shock as the mud slide hit his truck. An instant later, his truck hit him and he fell onto his back some feet away, then his truck rolled over him. Realizing he was about to be crushed, he curled into a ball. The bed of the truck entombed him from above, then mud and water churned and rolled around him.
Briefly, Brad tried to swim in the thick, heavy mud, but he couldn’t determine which way was up as he was tumbled down the street. The mud flow was well over his head, he surmised as he recalled the mountain that had slammed into his truck, moving it like a toy. He prayed in those desperate seconds that his family had been spared as the flood moved down the street and through yards.
Metal poked into Brad’s ribs and he gasped in pain. Seconds later, the movement slowed. Exhausted, Brad submitted to the oozing drift of mud running over and past him. When he tried to move, he found what he imagined was an entire tree and its branches pinning him down from above. Mud dripped onto his face as he turned his head, trying to see light or feel air.
Clearing his throat, he called for help. With those few words, he discerned his voice was muffled inside the mud flow. Only by God’s grace did he have a little air pocket under the tree branches and whatever other debris had settled above him.
He closed his eyes and gathered his thoughts. Everything had happened too quickly to even think about death, but now he thought of it. Somehow, he was still alive. Landslides and mud flows weren’t foreign to Californians, but surviving in the midst of one was unlikely.
“I’m alive,” he gasped, and instantly knew God had preserved him for one reason: to be a more Christ-like husband and father.
In those few minutes of reflection, he realized he’d been living comfortably and self-confidently in his simple, happy family. But he’d not been digging for fresh insight into God’s Word for himself, nor had he been guiding his wife and daughters to truly know their Savior and live for Him. It had been easy to be on cruise control, taking life and his family for granted. But no more. This quickly, he could vanish from their lives. It was time to be a spiritual father as long as he was with them.
Rescue. It was possible that rescuers were already arriving on the scene, but Brad guessed a mud flow that huge probably stretched for several blocks across one or two streets. The darkness would hinder rescue crews, and the shifting mud would act like quicksand, endangering more lives.
Shivering against the cold wetness that clung to his clothes and sucked at his limbs, he sensed that whatever had struck him in the ribs hadn’t broken the skin. From his head to his feet, he felt a dozen other scrapes and bruises, but nothing could be tended to while he was buried alive.
He checked the limits of his mobility. Except for the tree branches pressing against his upper body, he was able to move his hands and stretch his arms an inch or two above his head. But his legs were weighed down by heavy mud and rocks.
The tree and its branches on top of him had saved his life, he decided. But if he didn’t take advantage of the little bit of air he had, the tree could also be the cause of his demise as it held him in place.
Forcing his legs to move, he found that one of his boots was gone. The foot with no boot could more easily be pulled from the weight of mud that seemed to be growing heavier by the minute. By straining, and pushing up and down, he worked his other foot out of its boot.
Feeling over his head with both hands, he groped for branches thick enough to use as a brace. There was nothing larger than his wrist in thickness, but he grabbed one with one hand, and gathered a handful of twigs and prickly bushes to use for his other handhold. When he strained against the mud that sucked at his legs, he moved only a millimeter at a time. But gradually, he freed his hips, then his thighs. It took what seemed like hours and fifty different micro-positions to finally tug one and then the other foot free from the sludge.
To clear his feet from the mud, he had needed to move farther under the tree and its branches, but now he felt he was ready to begin to climb out. In a way, he was thankful for the pitch blackness, since he guessed the slimy, dripping, gnarled scene above and around him would cripple him with fear if he could actually see it.
Though he’d moved almost horizontally to free his feet, branches and roots still pinned his upper body from making further progress. If he could sit up, he decided, then he could reach above and clear a route through the tree tangle. But to sit up, he’d need to break away dozens of little branches and roots.
The moist wood had become pliable, making his job harder and more time-consuming, but he twisted and bent it until he could strip away pieces or pull the ropey roots apart.
Finally, he moved his right arm down to his side for the first time. He wiped the mud from his cheeks and eyelids. Next, he was able to free his left arm enough to reach and press the light switch on his watch. It was four in the morning. It had taken him seven hours to free his legs from the mud and free his arms from the branches.
In the silence, he listened for any noise from outside. People had to be searching for him and calling his name, but he heard nothing. Apparently, there was still too much mud covering him and the tree for sounds to penetrate from above.
Though he desperately wanted to stay awake, he drifted to sleep through tears of hopelessness. It seemed an impossible feat to have survived what he’d already lived through. Now, he was buried under unstable mud and garbage—apparently too dangerous for first responders to dig through to find him before he suffocated or starved to death.
Starve? He woke with a flinch and grasped his chest. In the tight space, he worked his mud-caked jacket zipper far enough to feel inside his jacket. The box of chocolates was still there! It was smashed and ripped, but it was there.
With tearful joy, Brad carefully opened the box, fumbled for one chocolate, and plucked it free from its wrapper.
“She’ll understand,” he whispered in the dank darkness, and pushed the chocolate into his mouth.
It was around noon when he began to work at breaking more branches, twigs, and roots above him. The air around him was humid, but he guessed there was some tiny passage to the outside air since he hadn’t suffocated yet.
All that day and into the evening, he tore at pieces of root, then drew his body into a sitting position. Occasionally, globs of mud fell onto his head or face, reminding him that there was a ceiling of slimy earth somewhere above. And if it was still raining outside, whatever pocket he’d found in which to survive was liable to collapse at any time.
On the beginning of the second day, he managed to sit upright, and he celebrated with another chocolate. Thirst was a factor he tried to manage by sucking on wet branches, but often he had to spit out so much mud, he wasn’t sure if he was losing moisture instead of gaining it.
By sitting upright, Brad could now focus on climbing straight up. But by yelling and listening to his voice bounce around the space, he sensed a solid, impenetrable barrier above him. However, with no other plan coming to him, he continued to clear the way upward.
At the end of the second day, he managed to get his feet under him to stand. He’d eaten all but three of the chocolates. Guessing his time was short, he imagined that in a few days, rescuers would find his dead body covered in chocolate wrappers, and stuck in a standing position among roots and tree branches dripping with mud.
He slept off and on through the night, waking occasionally when mud fell on him. He used these wakeful times to pray. Though he wanted to be reached, his prayers took a repentant turn.
Considering the life of surrender he should’ve been living, now that he was about to meet the Lord, he wanted to be calm and confident about the family he was leaving behind. They were in God’s hands, where they had always been. Given the same opportunity again, he confessed to God he would do things differently. He would’ve taken more time to listen to his wife, cared better for the spiritual needs of his co-workers on the job site, and shared the gospel with his community, maybe through a neighborhood Bible study.
On day three, Brad reached far overhead and his right hand touched grated metal plating. He rapped on it with his knuckles, and it clanged loudly with almost a hollow sound.
Bending down, he located a stone he’d dislodge while digging earlier. Now, he used that stone to strike the metal plating. He struck three times, waited, then three more times, in the SOS fashion. His time for digging or climbing was over. The metal above blocked his way, and the branches and mud around him offered no other passage.
After thirty minutes of beating on the metal, he rested his arms. Had the whole world been washed away? Was there no one left to listen for a sound from a survivor? Suddenly, there was a loud clanging on the metal above his head! The noise hurt his ears, but it also lightened his heart.
He struck the metal again, and someone outside knocked back.
For the next few hours, Brad guessed people were digging for him, but the only sign of anyone out there was when they pounded on the metal above, sometimes startling him from sleep. He responded back to let them know he was still alive.
Finally, above and to Brad’s left, there was rustling and a sucking sound as mud was removed. Late afternoon daylight shone into the hole where Brad stood encased by branches and mud. A flashlight and a pair of eyes filled the small hole that had been cleared away.
“Are you there?” a man called. “Can you hear me? If you can’t speak, hit the truck again.”
“I . . . hear you.” Brad’s voice was weak. “Yeah, I’m here. I’m here!”
“What’s your name?”
“Brad. Brad Menken.”
“Hey! It’s Brad Menken!” the man yelled at someone else. “Get the lady with the two little girls! Brad, can you hear me?”
“Are you injured?”
“Uh, nothing serious. Just cold and tired.”
“That’s to be expected. You’ve been down there for three days! There’s a truck on top of you.”
Into the night, responders worked at widening the hole that kept oozing closed with mud. Eventually, he was told they’d need to use a crane to remove the truck. He waited another hour, growing more anxious to see and hear his family rather than strangers asking him how he was doing.
When the truck was lifted off, Brad was covered by fresh mud falling off the vehicle. But a rescue worker leaped down onto the tree and wiped Brad’s face clean. A chainsaw was brought to cut away tree branches, and in a matter of minutes, four men lifted him by the arms straight up and out of the mud. It was another eight feet higher they had to hoist him until he reached the top of the mud flow.
Floodlights blinded him and he was disoriented for a moment as he was supported and half-carried across the mud where boards had been laid to walk across.
“Brad!” he heard Eve call from somewhere near. “Brad!”
He vaguely identified a crowd of people and more lights where he envisioned the street must have been. A helicopter flew over, its spotlight illuminating an ambulance parked on a clear stretch of road where a bulldozer sat.
A moment later, he was carried into the ambulance where he was laid on a stretcher. Finally, he was able to relax. God had preserved him to live out what he had purposed in his heart.
Eve clamored into the back of the ambulance, with May and Allie at her side. All three piled on top of him with hugs, then withdrew, their faces grimacing.
“You stink, Daddy!” Allie said, covering her nose.
“Maybe these will help.” Brad retrieved the crushed box of chocolates from inside his jacket. “It’s Valentine’s Day, isn’t it?”
The two girls’ eyes lit up at the sight of chocolate, but they seemed torn between sampling the sweets and touching more mud. Eve picked through the box, pushing aside a dozen empty wrappers.
“This chocolate isn’t our Valentine’s Day gift,” Eve said, and offered the remaining chocolates to the girls.
“It isn’t?” Brad smiled and felt dried mud on his cheeks. “I meant it to be. But, I had to eat something down there. The Lord and those chocolates kept me alive.”
“I don’t care about the chocolates, Brad.” Eve squeezed his hand, ignoring the mud. “Having you back is all I want. You’re my Valentine’s Day gift!”
Prayer Prompt: January 7-14 is designated as National Marriage Week. Let’s pray for our own marriages as well as the institution of marriage, which is under attack in America.
COMING UP: Join us next time for a D.I. Telbat Author Reflection, “Live it to Teach it.”