CLEARWATER — Cindy Mayberry walked along the curb of S Saturn Avenue on Tuesday, her eyes pinned to the lilac home at 205.
It looked empty — no car in the driveway, no movement inside, no shining Christmas lights. Still, she had to knock.
In her red coat she waited, clutching a bag with both hands. No response. She had been hoping all day he would be home, wondering what she would say, even though all she knew was his first name: Paul.
She knocked again. She didn't have much money, but she still wanted to repay him, so during her lunch break the sales assistant at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney had signed a Christmas card and a thank-you card and stuffed them both into a green gift bag. Next to them she added a plastic case of homemade sugar cookies with snowflake sprinkles.
"In this economy & day & age," she neatly signed, "it's nice to know there are still honest people out there that do the right thing. You are one of them."
But Paul wasn't home. Mayberry, 47, walked back to her bubblegum-pink home, still holding the bag, promising to try again tomorrow. When she got to her lawn, she waited outside, just in case.
Five minutes later, a car passed and parked at 205. She knew it was Paul before he stepped to the driveway. She wiped a few tears away and began to walk.
• • •
On Monday morning, the box at Paul Xander's doorstep took him by surprise. As a 30-year-old full-time cosmetology student at Clearwater's Sunstate Academy, with no close family and no spare cash, he had already apologized to his live-in girlfriend that there would be no gifts at Christmas.
The package was addressed to 205, his house. But the recipient was a woman he had never met, and the return address was too scribbled to read. At a loss of what to do, he opened the box and found it packed to the cardboard with trail mix, Ding Dongs and $500 in gift cards, but with no more information on who it belonged to.
He agonized. And he prayed. And then it struck him. 205? Maybe that scribbled 5 was an S — for 20 South, right down the road?
He grabbed the box and walked along S Saturn Avenue, just a few lawns down and across the street, to the bubblegum-pink home he knew nothing about.
Cindy Mayberry came to the door. He introduced himself and held out the box. He apologized for opening it.
"I think you want this," he said. "I think this is your Christmas."
• • •
Mayberry called her mother in Houston to tell her she had received the cards for her daughter, son-in-law and herself. She thanked her. And she told her about Paul.
"He could have easily just walked away with it," she said. "I would have never known."
She cried a bit just thinking about it.
Now here was her chance to repay him. When she got to 205 the second time, the Christmas lights were on, and Paul was at the doorstep.
She introduced herself and gave him the gift bag, wiping away a few more tears.
Xander, surprised again, gave her a hug and joked that her mom should write more legibly next time. He told her she was more than welcome. They hugged again.
"Oh, don't cry," he said. "We're not doing Christmas this year, anyway."
She smiled under the lights over his doorstep.
"You can always come to my house," she said.