“Another Christmas Story” – Chapter Forty-Six – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – As Read By Nicole Little

“Another Christmas Story” – Chapter Forty-Six – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – As Read By Nicole Little

Happy Friday, Christmas fanatics! Sorry we’re a day late with this forty-seventh official installment of “Another Christmas Story“, but hey – we are one week from Christmas, so time has a habit of running away from us!

This week’s second chapter, Chapter Forty-Six, entitled “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, will be read to you by published author, and listener of the show, Nicole Little! We hope you like it! If you do enjoy it, make sure to share this episode and our website, upon which the text of this installment is posted, to get it in front of as many ears and eyes as possible! In addition, make sure to share this installment for a chance to win a brand new, 2021 Hallmark “Stocking Stuffers Special Edition Keepsake Ornament”!

Coming up on the show this upcoming Monday, December 20th, we will be covering the 1974, animated Rankin/Bass special, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”! And, that same night, we will be recording our episode on the brand new HBO Max Original Christmas Movie,  “8-Bit Christmas”, on which we will be joined by Gerry D. of “Totally Rad Christmas” and April Ryley, who is making her long overdue return to the podcast! That episode will drop in your feeds on Monday, December 27th! Before that, however, on Thursday, December 23rd – Christmas Adam; Christmas Eve, Eve; Festivus; Tibb’s Eve; the Day Before the Night Before Christmas; pick your poison – you’ll get to hear the Epilogue of “Another Christmas Story”, which will be brought to y’all by our very own Julia Colburn! So, keep your eyes on your podcast feeds because there’s lots of great stuff coming up!

Enjoy, y’all! 🎅🏻🎄🎁 🦌🦉⛄️🚂🔔 🤶🏻 🎀 ❄️

 

 

Chapter Forty-Six: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

December 25th – 6:00 a.m. EST

“Mommy, wake up! Wake up! We want to open presents!”

Ashley Dwyer rolled over in the double bed that she had been restlessly sleeping on in the tiny guest room of her parents’ Boston home, as her children – seven-year-old Hannah and eight-year-old Alex – excitedly jumped up and down on it. It was early Christmas morning, so early, in fact, that it was still dark outside, and Ashley had been tossing and turning all night as she replayed the latest argument that she and her husband, Seamus, had had over the phone the previous evening. She truly didn’t know why she bothered half of the time. In fact, she often wondered whether or not she would still be married to the man if she were childless. Nevertheless, her kids loved their father, and as such, Ashley did her best to make the strained marriage work. That didn’t mean she wasn’t upset with Seamus for not making it to Boston for Christmas morning, however.

Mom!”

“I’m up, I’m up!” Ashley groaned with a laugh, as she pushed herself up into a sitting position. Even from the second-floor bedroom, she could smell coffee being made downstairs and was grateful to her parents for putting on a pot so early – the fumes were enough to give her a slight burst of energy. “Come on, then! Let’s go see what Santa brought you!”

After climbing out of bed and shrugging a bathrobe on over her tiny frame, Ashley took the hands of Hannah and Alex and allowed her children to half-lead, half-drag her down the hall and down the stairs as they babbled excitedly.

“Do you think Santa brought me the Barbie dream house that I asked for?”

“Maybe, baby. We’ll see!”

“I can’t wait to see daddy!” Alex exclaimed.

Ashley’s heart broke at the words. She hadn’t been able to tell her children the night before that their dad wouldn’t arrive in time for Christmas morning. “Honey, you know that daddy is so busy, right?” she asked quietly, as they stepped onto the first-floor landing. “I don’t know if—”

“Did somebody say my name?”

Daddy!”

As Ashley and the kids rounded the corner and found themselves in the entranceway of her parents’ living room, the woman blinked in surprise at the sight that awaited them. Standing in front of the charming, albeit lopsided, Christmas tree, beneath which presents were piled high, was Seamus, an enormous smile plastered on his exhausted looking face and still wearing his N.Y.P.D. uniform. “Careful with the coffee!” Seamus urged, as he lifted the two mugs he was holding high above his head, as his children rushed to hug his midsection. “Oh, I missed you!” Glancing at Ashley over the top of their heads, he suggested, “Why don’t you open your presents? It looks like Santa brought you a lot!”

As the kids began to happily oblige their father, Seamus stepped around them and slowly walked over to his wife, who was trying to formulate words through her shock. Smiling at the expression on her face, he held out a mug of coffee for her to take, as he sung softly, “The best part of waking up, is Folgers in your cup’.”

Letting a nervous laugh escape her lips, Ashley gratefully accepted the coffee before managing to choke out, “How—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Seamus gently interrupted. “What matters is that I’m here, and there is literally nowhere else in the world that I’d rather be.”

“But your job—”

“—is safe,” Seamus assured her. When she raised a skeptical eyebrow, he added, “It’s a long story, but trust me. It’s secure. Although truthfully, if it came down to saving it or being here with you and the kids, I’d have quit without giving it a second though.”

Ashley scoffed in disbelief, as she took a sip of coffee. “Yeah, right. You love that job.”

“But I love you and the kids more,” Seamus insisted. “And I would do anything for you three.”

Ashley bit down hard on her lower lip in order to try and prevent the tears of emotion that were currently welling up in her eyes from rolling down her cheeks. “You’re serious?”

Seamus nodded, as he took his wife’s free hand with his own. “I love you, Ashley. More than anything. I’m sorry I haven’t been present, lately, but I swear, if you give just one more chance, that’ll change going forward. No more fights, no more absentee fathering – I’m committed to making this work.”

Ashley nodded her head vigorously, and allowed a laugh to escape her lips as the tears began to flow. “I would like that.”

Seamus smiled. “I got you a gift,” he explained, as he began to fumble with the pockets of his jacket. “If I could just find it…”

Ashley gently placed a hand on his wrist, pushing the man’s arm down to his side. “You can give it to me later. You being here is gift enough right now.”

Staring into the woman’s eyes, Seamus breathed, “God, I love you.”

“I love you too.”

The words had barely escaped Ashley’s mouth before the couple was kissing passionately, feeling more affection toward one another than they had in a long time. “Well, well, look who made it! Merry Christmas!”

Seamus and Ashley broke apart the moment the former had a firm hand clapped on his shoulder courtesy of his father-in-law, who traipsed into the living room followed by his wife and his other children and grandchildren. “I thought I smelled coffee!”

“There’s a fresh pot in the kitchen,” Seamus confirmed.

“Grandpa! Look what I got!”

“Wow!”

Seamus and Ashley exchanged an amused glance as they watched their extended family begin to gather around the tree to join their children in opening gifts. As the latter placed her head on the former’s shoulder, and the former wrapped an arm around the latter’s waist, both of them had the exact same thought – for all of their differences and problems, this was right; they belonged together. And while they knew that later on there would be plenty of time to kiss, make up, and catch up, in that very moment, they were just determined to enjoy the holiday with their family.

* * *

Despite what a long day Christmas Eve had turned out to be for the entire Rankin family, Megan was woken up at seven o’clock on Christmas day by her children who were excited to open their presents. As she sat on the couch of her parents’ enormous Brownstown living room, settled in-between the two of them and cradling a cup of coffee, she watched as Aaron and Jake sat at the base of the elegant Christmas tree and alternated between tearing open their gifts and helping Amy, who sat in a rocker beside them, open hers. Though she often butted heads with them, Megan was extraordinarily grateful for her mother and father, who went above and beyond that year to ensure that “Santa” gave her children a memorable holiday. She appreciated it even more when she took into account the fact that it was probably the last year that Aaron would believe in Old St. Nick.

Soon enough, paper was scattered all over the room and the three children were barely visible amongst the mountains of toys, clothing, books, and electronics they had received. “Looks like Santa came through in a big way this year!” Megan remarked brightly before hissing in an undertone to her mother, “No kids are that good.”

“Except for my grandchildren,” Linda hissed back out of the corner of her mouth, before speaking at a volume that the whole room could hear. “Clearly he knew that the children deserved it!” With a sigh, the older woman pushed herself to her feet and clapped her hands together. “Now, who wants breakfast?”

“I do!” Aaron exclaimed excitedly.

Linda smiled. “How about pancakes?” When her grandkids nodded enthusiastically, she shuffled from the room in the direction of the kitchen.

“Hey,” Jake began, narrowing his eyes as he peered around the back of the Christmas tree. “There’s one more gift back here!”

“Really?” Megan asked, surprised, sure that she had mentally accounted for all of the gifts that she had brought up from Florida and that she knew her parents had bought for the kids.

“It’s a big one!” Jake dragged the gift out from around the tree. Then, reading the nametag, said, “It’s for Aaron.”

“For me?” Aaron asked. When Jake nodded, he moved toward the box and, hands trembling, began to tear open the paper. Upon seeing what was inside of it, the young boy’s eyes widened and he let out an audible gasp.

Dad!” Megan reprimanded, rounding on the old man.

“Don’t look at me,” Walt replied, defensively. “Your mother and I didn’t buy that!”

Aaron barely heard his mother and grandfather, however, as he lifted the brand new, pristine looking, marching snare drum from the confines of its box so that the glow of the lights wrapped around the tree twinkled off of its expensive paint job. After gently placing it on the floor beside him, he reached into the box once more and withdrew two brand new, perfectly shaped drumsticks. Though he had asked for a new drum for Christmas, he had never actually expected to receive one – especially one as nice as this.

“Looks like there’s a note in here,” Jake pointed out, glancing down into the box.

Pulling it out, Aaron unfolded the tiny piece of parchment-esque stationary, which had one word written upon it in bold, black script – “Believe.” Holding the piece of paper up to wave in his mother’s face, Aaron excitedly shouted, “It’s from Santa!”

Taking the note from her son, Megan stared down at it before glancing accusingly at her father. “Your promised me that you and mom wouldn’t go overboard!”

“Honestly, sweetheart,” Walt began. “We didn’t buy that.”

“Jakey?”

Jake snorted. “Right. Like I have that type of money to spend. And if I did, do you think I’d waste it on a drum for my brother?”

“Then who—”

“Mom, it was Santa,” Aaron insisted, as Amy cooed happily in her rocker; there wasn’t a doubt in his mind. Before his mom could respond to him, however, the doorbell rang. “I’ll get it!” He sprang to his feet, buzzing with excitement.

“Who on earth could that be?” Walt mused, as his youngest grandson darted from the room, down the hall, and toward the front of the house.

Wrenching the door open, Aaron’s mouth dropped open in shock upon finding Kevin, Margot, and Holly standing on the icy stoop, bundled up against the bitter winter cold. Behind them, standing on the snowy sidewalk – close enough to keep an eye on the kids, but far enough away to allow them privacy – Ms. Warren stood with her hands shoved deep into the pockets of her winter coat. “W-what are you guys doing here?” Aaron managed to choke out when his voice returned to him.

“Merry Christmas!” Kevin threw his arms around his best friend. “We were worried sick about you last night!”

“Until we got back to the hotel and saw you all over the news,” Margot pointed out with a wry smile before she too gave Aaron a swift hug. “Well done!”

“I knew you could do it!” Holly insisted, hugging Aaron tight, which caused the boy to burn hot due to being in such close contact with the girl he had a crush on.

“Yeah,” Aaron mumbled into her ear. “Yeah, you did.”

When Holly finally released him from her grip, Aaron saw that the girl was near tears. “What’s wrong?” he asked, concerned, as his stomach contracted uncomfortably.

“It’s just – I feel so bad that none of us were with you when Daniel and Chris—”

“Stop it,” Aaron interrupted firmly with an emphatic shake of his head; he was sick of people feeling sorry for him. “Stop it. All of you,” he added, upon noticing how guilty that both Kevin and Margot looked as well. “What happened last night was nobody’s fault – except for maybe Daniel and Chris,” he conceded with a laugh. “And look how it all turned out! I got to play my drum for a real baby in a real manger with the President of the United States watching me! I ended up on the news! I should be thanking Daniel and Chris!”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Kevin said, as a smile unfolded across his face. “I don’t think Daniel and Chris would either, you know. They’re both really sorry about what happened – but it may only be because they’re in serious trouble. But, point taken.”

Margot nodded, as she rounded on Holly. “See? I told you that he wouldn’t be mad.”

Holly’s cheeks went pink at the words, as she continued to stare at Aaron, who nervously met her gaze straight on. “I’m sorry for missing the show,” he admitted in barely more than a whisper. “How did it go?”

“My girl here was amazing,” Margot insisted with a wide grin, playfully bumping hips with Holly and getting her to smirk.

“Excuse me, but we were all amazing,” Kevin corrected pointedly.

“Except for Daniel,” Holly interjected. “He couldn’t compete with you at all.”

Aaron grinned wide at the compliment. “I knew that you’d do great,” he informed Holly, whose own smile widened.

As the two of them stared at one another, completely smitten, Margot and Kevin exchanged an exasperated glance of amusement. “Anyway,” Kevin loudly began, shaking the two young lovebirds from their trance. “Ms. Warren only agreed to bring us out briefly so that we could see for ourselves that you were okay and wish you a Merry Christmas.”

“Well, I appreciate it,” Aaron replied, as he waved at his teacher standing on the street.

“We’ll see you in the New Year,” Kevin said with another swift hug. “Enjoy spending time with your grandma and grandpa.”

“Thanks, dude,” Aaron replied. “Enjoy your tour of New York!”

Margot was next, and as she wrapped her arms around his thin frame again, she said, “I hope Santa was good to you.”

“Believe me, he was.” Aaron laughed. “I hope that he was good to you too.”

When it was Holly’s turn to say goodbye, Kevin and Margot gave her and Aaron some privacy by descending the steps of the stoop and rejoining their teacher on the street. As they stared awkwardly at one another, Holly remarked, “So I guess Krampus didn’t come visit you after all?”

Aaron laughed. “Nope. Guess you were right.”

“No surprise there.” Holly winked playfully before moving in to hug Aaron tightly. “Merry Christmas, Aaron.”

“Merry Christmas, Holly.”

Without breaking apart, Holly whispered in his ear. “I have a Christmas present for you, and I want to make sure to give it to you before I chicken out.”

Aaron furrowed his eyebrows, confused, when Holly puckered her lips and gave him a swift kiss on the cheek. Goosebumps spread out all across Aaron’s body at the touch of the girl’s lips, and his hair stood on end as his face burned red. When the girl pulled away from him, Aaron noticed that Holly’s cheeks were red too, but she seemed satisfied with herself as she watched him absentmindedly touch a hand to his cheek in surprise. “I’ll see you back in Florida,” she said, before turning on her heel and hurrying down the steps to rejoin Kevin and Margot, who were smiling in an almost gloating type of way, and Ms. Warren, who seemed flabbergasted.

Aaron kept his hand pressed upon the cheek the girl had just kissed, as he watched his friends and teacher walk away up the snowy street, and it was still there when – his mind racing – he closed the front door of his grandparents’ house and turned to face the hall, only to find his mother standing there, holding Amy with one arm. He blushed at the sight of the woman, and quickly lowered his hand to his side. He had no idea how long she had been standing there, nor how much she had seen. If she saw anything at all, his mother didn’t say. Flashing him a knowing smile, she asked, “Everything okay?”

Aaron nodded furiously. “Everything’s fine.”

“Okay, then,” Megan replied, her smile widening. “Come on. I think Grandma’s pancakes should be about done.” And throwing an arm around her youngest son, she guided him into her mother’s kitchen, as Amy clapped excitedly.

* * *

Violet Jackson moved around her tiny, grimy kitchen on autopilot that Christmas morning, gliding from the cabinets to the stove to the sink to the table and back again. She had slept restlessly the night before, fretting and worrying about her adult son who had worked the entirety of Christmas Eve in the middle of Winter Storm Elsa, and whom she hadn’t heard from once the entire evening. When she woke, she was relieved to see his truck parked outside, despite the fact that it was banged up; if it was in front of their house, that meant Hudson was okay enough to drive it home, and it was for that reason – and that reason only – that she didn’t barge into his bedroom and inquire about his well-being. And it wasn’t until just past-seven-in-the-morning, when the bacon had just begun sizzling in its pan, when her grown son blearily entered the kitchen, still in his pajamas.

“Morning, mama.” He yawned. “Merry Christmas.”

Violet turned to stare at her son, her face inscrutable, before crossing the room in three long strides in order to engulf him in a tight, warm hug. “Merry Christmas, Hudson, baby.” Then, pulling away from him, she hauled her arm back through the air and angrily slapped him across the face. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“What was that for?” Hudson demanded, aghast, as he raised a shocked hand to his stinging cheek.

“You had me worried sick! You didn’t call to check in once last night, and you missed church!”

“I’m sorry, ma,” Hudson insisted as he poured himself a cup of freshly-made coffee. “Let’s just say it was a…long day.”

“And a dangerous one judging by the looks of your truck, I assume?” Violet asked, slapping her son’s hand sharply as he reached to grab a piece of bacon from the pan on the stove.

Sighing deeply, Hudson stared down at his mother and smiled. “I wouldn’t say that, exactly. I’d say it was more of an interesting and enlightening one.”

Violet stared up into her son’s face with narrowed eyes. Despite appearing exhausted, the man looked brighter than he had in years and there was a light in his eyes that she had been sure had been extinguished for good long ago. He appeared unburdened, and was even standing taller than normal. “Something’s different about you,” she remarked. “What’s going on?”

Hudson laughed. “Now that you mention it, I do have something to show you.” He placed his coffee down on the kitchen counter. “I’ll be right back.” And with a wink, he hastily left the kitchen, leaving his bewildered mother standing alone in the center of it.

A few minutes later, Violet heard the sound of her son’s footsteps approaching the room once again, but this time, he wasn’t alone – smaller, padded footsteps accompanied him, and a moment later, he re-entered the kitchen with a large, brindle-colored dog at his side and carrying a fat tabby cat in his arms. As her eyes widened in surprise, Hudson said, “Mom, I want you to meet Dexter and Booster.” He nodded at the cat and the dog in turn. “I – uh – I adopted them,” he explained uncertainly.

“Y-you did?”

Hudson nodded. “I picked both of them up on the street last night, and – well, I couldn’t take them back to the pound. Not on Christmas. Besides, they’re really sweet,” he added, as Dexter nuzzled his face. “And friendly.” He reached down to scratch Booster’s head, as the dog leaned into his touch. “And, frankly, I grew attached to them driving around with them in my truck all day.” When his mother still didn’t say anything, and continued staring at the animals with wordless trepidation, he felt his stomach nervously constrict. “Don’t be mad, mama. I know it’s crowded in this house as it is, but—”

“Mad?” Violet repeated, cutting across her son. “I’m not mad.” She laughed. “You’ve always loved animals! I’m surprised it took you this long to bring any home! I’m just – I’m surprised by your sudden change of heart! It’s like a mini-Christmas miracle!”

A huge wave of relief crashed over Hudson at the words, and a sound escaped his mouth that was part sigh and part laugh. “Well, you’re going to love what I have to tell you next.” He took a deep breath. “I quit my job.” When his mother gasped, he nodded. “Last night, on my way home. I left a message for James.”

“But why—”

“I just couldn’t do it anymore. You were right. It was soul sucking. And I was making excuses to stay there because I was comfortable. I mean, blaming my race…” His voice caught in his throat as he shook his head vigorously from side-to-side as his mother watched him closely. “Anyway, I’ll find something else. I know money will be tight in the meantime, but we’ll make it work. I promise.”

“Oh, Hudson!” Violet quickly moved for her son, who dropped Dexter to the floor beside Booster in order to embrace his mother. “I’m so proud of you,” she spoke into his shoulder. Then, pulling away, she patted him firmly on the chest. “Any other big news you need to tell me? Are you and Cindy getting remarried?”

Hudson laughed. “No, but now that you mention it, there is one more thing I have to tell you – I’m bringing a date to Christmas dinner tonight. Abby, from work.”

Violet gasped. “How come you didn’t tell me earlier? I don’t have anything for her under the tree!”

“It happened late last night, mom,” Hudson replied, before pausing and correcting, “Well, I guess it was technically early this morning. But that’s irrelevant. You don’t have to get her anything!”

“Of course I do! I—”

“Mom, the bacon!” Hudson exclaimed, as Booster barked loudly. And as the fire alarm began to echo loudly throughout the house, Violet Jackson hurried over to the stove in order to turn off the burner.

After a delicious breakfast of extremely burnt bacon, mother and son spent the morning opening Christmas gifts and getting Booster and Dexter acclimated to their new home before company arrived. When their guests did begin to filter in in the early afternoon, the dog and cat immediately became the center of attention and turned out to be a hit with all of them – especially the kids of Hudson’s cousins. It relieved Hudson, who had been unsure of how his new pets would be around large groups of people, and made him happy that they seemed like lifelong fixtures of the family.

Around two in the afternoon, when the doorbell rang, Hudson’s heart skipped a beat. As their entire family was already there, he knew who had to be at the door. “I’ll get it!” He jumped up from the couch, bounded toward the entrance of the home, and threw it open to come face-to-face with Abigail Collins. The woman, who stood on his icy front steps, looked positively angelic basking in the glow of the Christmas lights adorning the front of the Jackson household. She was bundled up in a bright pink coat with matching earmuffs covering her ears, and a woolen purple scarf wrapped around her neck, while in her arms, she carried a tray of food covered in tinfoil, which smelled delicious. Her beautiful eyes, meanwhile, only had eyes for Hudson, whom she flashed a dazzling white smile. “Hi!”

“Hey!”

“Merry Christmas.” Abby stood up on her toes to kiss Hudson on the cheek, which caused the man’s skin to tingle. “I made my world-famous collared greens.” She held the tray out for the man to take. “I didn’t know what your mom was making, so hopefully it goes.”

Hudson smiled. “It’ll go perfectly with the rest of the menu.”

Abby’s smile widened. “Thanks again, sweetie. For inviting me today, I mean. It means a lot. There’s nothing more depressing than spending the holidays alone.”

“Don’t mention it,” Hudson insisted. “I’ve wanted to spend time with you outside of work for a while now.”

“Nothing like a first date with the whole family, right?” Abby winked.

“About that…” Hudson began, blushing. “You should know that my family can be a bit…much.”

Abby laughed. “What family isn’t? Don’t worry about it. I was only joking. And I promise, whatever they’re like today, I’ll let you take me on a second date, just the two of us.” She winked playfully once more, which made Hudson’s heart skip a beat.

The two of them stood there in silence for a few moments before Abby cocked an eyebrow. “So…? Are we going to stand here all day, or are you going to invite me inside? I want to meet the animals that melted your heart and knocked some common sense into that thick skull of yours.”

“Oh! Right!” Hudson exclaimed, feeling like an idiot as the woman’s smile widened. “Come on in!” And with that, he stood aside to allow Abby to enter his home and his life.

* * *

Against all odds, Elizabeth Meyer and Noah Clarke managed to make it home to the former’s parents’ house in Nyack, New York in time for Christmas morning, much to the surprise and pleasure of her entire family. And for once, the focus wasn’t on Annie’s progressing musical or surgical majors, or Ilena’s law firm, or Chris’ military service – not entirely, anyway. Nope, it was on Elizabeth’s blossoming journalism career, which appeared to have taken off overnight due to the two brief moments she captured of the President of the United States on film, and the livestream of the manger scene at Rockefeller Center. Apparently, Elizabeth’s interview and the footage that she and Noah managed to capture had been all over the major news networks and a still from the spontaneous living nativity scene they had captured was sharing the front page of The New York Times with the news of the president’s tentative de-escalation agreement with Russia.

It was the perfect gift Elizabeth could ever conceive of receiving for Christmas – validation from her tough-to-impress parents and wildly successful siblings in addition to national recognition for what was merely intended to be part of a holiday puff piece for a student website. Even her professor took time to email her and Noah in order to congratulate them and assure them that they would be receiving top marks in his class that semester, as well as the maximum amount of extra credit that he could bestow upon them. And though she was getting most of the attention for their successes, Elizabeth knew that she couldn’t have done it without Noah, who silently accepted the fact that his girlfriend was getting most of the validation.

That was the other perfect gift she received that particular Christmas – her family’s acceptance of her longtime boyfriend. Sure, her father and brother gave him the third-degree, but she could tell that they approved of him, while her mother and sisters all remarked multiple times that he was a sweetheart and extremely cute – a combination that all of the women agreed was extraordinarily rare. Even the twin babies, Kimberly and David, took to Noah, who had them laughing and smiling excitedly as he played with them throughout the day. Elizabeth had no idea what Noah thought of her family, however, until the two of them agreed to clean up after Christmas dinner and were left alone in the kitchen to do the dishes. As she washed and he dried, she asked, “So? What do you think?”

“I think they’re great,” Noah immediately answered. “It’s nice seeing how close you all are. The way you had been talking about them all day yesterday, I honestly wasn’t expecting that.” He shot his girlfriend an almost apologetic glance, as she shuffled uncomfortably where she stood.

“In my defense,” Elizabeth began airily. “Who doesn’t exaggerate about their family sometimes?” When Noah laughed, she pressed on. “Trust me, if our fluff piece hadn’t been picked up by the national media, they’d be a lot more critical of my choices.”

“Family is supposed to be critical,” Noah pointed out. “They’re supposed to push you hard. Critical or not, they clearly support and love you. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to tell they’re proud of you.”

Elizabeth guiltily bit down on her lower lip. “About that…” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry that people seem to be giving me all of the credit for our story. It’s not fair. I couldn’t have done it without you, and—”

“Stop it.” Noah threw his dishrag down on the granite countertop and took Elizabeth’s wet, sudsy, pruned hands in his own, forcing the girl to look up at him. “Don’t feel bad about it at all. This is your passion, and your drive led you to getting all of those stories yesterday while I begged to go home. I didn’t even want to take the assignment!” He smiled. “You deserve the credit, Liz. I am so proud of you.”

Elizabeth smiled up at her boyfriend, her love for him coursing through every fiber of her being. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” Noah insisted. “And in that same vein, there’s a gift I’ve been wanting to give you all day, but I was waiting until we had a moment alone together to do it.”

As the man released her hands and reached into the pocket of his pants, Elizabeth’s heartrate sped up. “Noah, if you’re about to propose to me in my parents’ kitchen, I swear to God—”

Noah’s laugh drowned out the rest of his girlfriend’s statement. “Don’t worry, I’m not doing that. Though I did talk to your parents earlier to make sure that they were okay with what I’m about to do.” And with a flourish, he removed a small, velvet ring box from his pocket and before his girlfriend’s mind could wildly speculate about what could be inside of it, popped the lid open to reveal one lone key. “Will you move in with me?”

Smiling wide, Elizabeth nodded enthusiastically and grabbed the key. “What took you so long to ask?” Standing on her tiptoes, she kissed her boyfriend lovingly before instructing, “Give me ten-minutes and meet me upstairs in my bedroom. I have one more Christmas gift to give you.”

Curious, Noah watched as the woman hurried from the kitchen and waited the appropriate amount of time before making his way upstairs to her bedroom. Knocking uncertainly on the closed wooden door, Noah waited with bated breath to enter until Elizabeth called, “Come in!”

The turquoise room looked as though it had been decorated by a young teenage girl, and was clearly a frozen snapshot from Elizabeth’s childhood. But that wasn’t what Noah’s eyes were immediately drawn to. Instead, they immediately found the heavy camera he had lugged around the entire day before, its red light on, propped up on a desk in the corner and pointed at the bed where Elizabeth lay in her ridiculously revealing lingerie. “Merry Christmas,” she purred seductively, as she pushed a stray piece of blonde hair behind her ear.

“Seriously?” Noah asked, cocking an eyebrow, as he kicked off his shoes and pulled his shirt over his head.

“I figured making one of your fantasy’s come true is the least I could do for you after yesterday,” Elizabeth replied with a shrug, as she licked her lips at the sight of her boyfriend’s chiseled abs.

Smiling, Noah jumped into bed and, climbing atop the woman, began to passionately kiss her. Elizabeth ran her hands over the man’s rock-hard chest as their tongues intertwined before she gently pushed him away. “What are you doing?” Noah asked, breathlessly.

“You complained all day yesterday, remember?” Elizabeth pointed out with a mischievous smile. “A bet’s a bet. And once we move in together, you’ll have plenty of time to pay up again, and again, and again.”

Licking his lips, which curled upward into a smile as he realized what the woman was implying, Noah began to kiss his way slowly down the length of her body. Impatient, Elizabeth tangled her fingers into his hair and forcefully pushed him the rest of the way down to her nether-regions. Smiling, she shifted her body and settled back comfortably into her pillows as she closed her eyes; she was going to enjoy this. Merry Christmas to her!

* * *

The moment he had left Rockefeller Center, Officer Andrew Lee went straight home to the tiny apartment he shared with his boyfriend, Barry, to make up with the man who felt neglected by him. Luckily, despite their angry rhetoric with one another when they spoke on the phone earlier in the evening, he found his partner hadn’t angrily left, but had fallen fast asleep in the bed that they shared. Wanting to make things right with him as soon as possible, Andrew stirred him from his sleep and the two men talked for hours, until the sun began to rise over Manhattan, about what was bothering them – the pressure Andrew felt from Barry about coming out to his family, and the shame Barry felt from Andrew about being hidden from his family. In the end, they kissed and made up, and Andrew agreed to come out to his family at Christmas dinner later that day – not only for the love of his life, but also because he was tired of hiding who he truly was from them; especially when he was already out to the rest of the world.

So, it was around three o’clock on Christmas afternoon, that Andrew found himself standing beside Barry on the front steps of his parents’ beautiful Staten Island home. Judging from the amount of cars lining the wrap-around driveway, his siblings and the rest of his extended family had already arrived earlier in the day. Andrew stared at the front door, breathing heavily, trying to steel himself for what was to come. He knew that his parents were old-fashioned – what happened if they reacted badly?

The man was shaken from his thoughts when Barry placed a reassuring hand on his lower back and rubbed it soothingly. “You ready, babe?”

Andrew nodded. “As I’ll ever be.”

“Just think of it like ripping off a band aid.”

Andrew smiled and, before his nerves could get the better of him, quickly rang the doorbell. He waited with bated breath as he heard footsteps approach the front door from within the home, and moments later, it was thrown outward. “Andrew! You made it!”

The off-duty officer stared down at his tiny Korean parents, who always answered the door together like they were a black-and-white couple from a classic fifties sitcom. Both his father, his face lined and stern, and his mother, plump with kind eyes, were beaming up at him, happy that he had made it home for the holiday; it has been a long time since Andrew had visited them at home.

“Hi, mom.” He gave the woman a quick hug and a peck on the cheek. “Hi, dad.” He shook his father’s hand firmly. “Merry Christmas.”

“It’s so good to see you!” His mother smiled wide. “In person, anyway! We saw you on the news last night!”

“You did?” Andrew asked, as his heart skipped a beat; he was unsure of whether or not his parents were referring to the disastrous interview he did with that N.Y.U. student that had nearly cost him his job.

His father nodded. “You brought great honor to our family, delivering that woman’s baby in the snow last night.”

Andrew let out a relieved breath of air before mumbling, “Thanks.”

It was at that moment that his mother noticed Barry for the first time. “Who’s your friend?” she asked curiously, as she flashed the man a polite smile.

“The name’s Barry. It’s nice to meet you.” He held out the bottle of wine he had been carrying at his side for the woman to take. As his wife politely took the bottle, Andrew’s father addressed his son. “I thought you said you were going to bring your girlfriend home.”

Andrew flushed red. “Actually, I said I was going to bring my partner home for Christmas dinner, and I did.” Then, gulping, he allowed the words to spill from his mouth before he could second-guess himself. “This is him.” He motioned at Barry, who smiled and waved awkwardly. “Barry’s my boyfriend. I’m gay.”

His parents said nothing in response, but merely stared – blank-faced – from Andrew to Barry and back again. As a wave of nausea overcame him, Andrew plowed on to fill the uncomfortable silence. “Please don’t be mad. We’ve lived together for over a year now, and I am deeply, madly in love with him.” And, to prove this point, he wrapped an arm around Barry’s waist, drew him near, and gave him a tender kiss on the cheek. Smiling, Barry wrapped a reassuring hand around his partner’s waist as well. “Please say something,” Andrew quietly begged of his parents.

There were a few more seconds of silence, which felt like hours, before his father finally extended a hand for Barry to take. “Welcome to our home.”

Surprised, Barry took it gratefully. “Thank you for having me.”

As Andrew’s mouth fell open in utter shock, his father threw him a look as he continued. “I just wish our son would have brought you home sooner so we could have gotten to know you before now.”

“You and me both,” Barry remarked.

When Andrew stared incredulously at his mother, she asked, exasperatedly, “Did you really think we didn’t have an inkling that you were gay? Honey, the whole family has known for years – ever since you started wearing those jean-shorts in middle school.”

Barry laughed loudly at this comment, as Andrew’s father asked, “Why didn’t you come out to us sooner?”

“I – I don’t know,” Andrew admitted. In retrospect, it seemed so stupid now. “I guess I was just scared; afraid that I was going to disappoint you.”

“Being yourself could never disappoint us,” his mother insisted. “We’ll always love you, no matter what.”

Her husband gave a curt nod. “Absolutely. Now, let’s get inside before we freeze to death.”

And as his parents led Barry into their warm home, which buzzed with the sounds and the excitement of the holiday, Andrew shook his head in happy disbelief over the fact that his parents had been so accepting of him and who he truly was. It was the best Christmas gift he could have ever asked for.

* * *

The moment that the ambulance that had been carrying them from the Fifth Avenue manger at Rockefeller Center came to a stop at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, Mary and her newborn daughter were whisked away to get properly checked out and treated for hypothermia by a real doctor – a cute, young, short blonde named Beryl Bernstein. This left Joey alone to fill out her admittance paperwork in the maternity ward to the best of his ability with the help of a nurse named Karen. In order to make the woman’s stay at the hospital, however long it would end up being, more palatable, Joey charged a private room to his credit card so that she and the baby would be allowed some semblance of privacy after giving birth on the street in front of a crowd of people. He then charged some cheap Christmas decorations, some pink balloons, and a tiny teddy bear in the hospital gift shop and decorated the bleak room to the best of his ability, the entire time trying not to think about how he’d regret the purchases later when he checked his credit card bill. Unfortunately, as it was outside of visiting hours, Joey wasn’t allowed to wait in the room for Mary and her baby to come down from wherever they were being treated, so he reluctantly settled down in the waiting room down the hall near the elevators and waited for the clock to strike eight a.m.

He used the time to make a few phone calls. In reality, he was returning the hundreds of phone calls he had received and ignored over the course of the night from his parents, Mary’s parents, all of their siblings, Ryan, and Natalie. The phone calls were all pretty similar – after apologizing for worrying them, Joey assured them that that Mary, the baby, and himself were all doing okay, and informed them that they had been taken to Columbia if they wanted to visit. Afterward, he watched non-stop coverage on the television in the corner of President Williams’ preliminary peace plan with Russia, and of the woman who gave birth in a manger in the middle of New York City early that Christmas morning. As he watched, Joey couldn’t help but smile to himself – Mary was going to be mortified that images of her in the immediate aftermath of giving birth were being broadcast across the national airwaves. In his mind, however, she looked beautiful. In fact, the entire wide shot of the scene that kept being aired – with the Christmas tree looming large in the background and those gathered around the manger distributed equally across the frame – was so stunning that Joey had to find it on the internet and save it to his phone. It belonged in a picture frame, and he instinctively knew that Mary would want it hanging on her wall someday.

When eight a.m. did finally roll around, Joey was ecstatic to be allowed to enter Mary’s room to see how she and the baby were doing, but the moment he pushed open the door, he felt his face burn hot. “Oh, God. I’m sorry. I’ll just—”

“Don’t worry about it.” Mary waved him in without glancing up from her baby, who had its mouth wrapped around the nipple of one of her exposed breasts as Karen stood at her head and supervised. “We’re just finishing up. Besides, I can’t pretend to be modest around you anymore, can I?” She flashed him a mischievous smile.

Though Joey laughed at the woman’s comment, he avoided staring directly at her for the next few minutes until feeding time was over and she had her breasts concealed once again. “I’ll come back to check on you in a bit,” Karen assured the new mother before leaving the room to give Mary, Joey, and the baby girl some privacy.

“How are you doing?” Joey asked softly. As he moved toward the chair beside Mary’s bed, he eyed the pale woman’s face – she looked exhausted, and though her eyes appeared watery, she had a look of pure joy on her face as she stared down at her clean, swaddled daughter.

“We’re doing great,” Mary replied. “Gabby is completely healthy, thank God.”

Joey smiled. “So you decided on Gabriella?”

“Gabriella Sarah Holiday.” Mary shrugged. “What can I say? When you have a good idea, you have a good idea.”

Joey laughed, wondering to himself what Gabe the angel thought of the tribute to him – or whether he even knew. (Or whether he even existed, or had been some sort of fever dream.) “Well, I’m glad you’re both doing well.”

“We’re doing a lot better than we would have been doing if it hadn’t been for you.” Mary glanced up from her baby for the first time to stare Joey directly in the eye. “I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

“I didn’t do anything, Mary,” Joey insisted. “Those cops helped you deliver her, not me.”

“But you were willing to,” Mary pointed out. “Before you found those cops to help. And before that, you helped me to stay sane the entire day.”

Joey smiled. “Let’s just say that we helped one another and call it even, okay?”

Though Mary wanted to push back, she was too tired to argue, so she merely gave a curt nod of her head. “Thanks for the room, by the way. And the decorations.” She stared around at the tiny Christmas tree in the corner, the wreath hanging on the door, and the lights strung up around her. “They really brighten up the place.”

“I just figured that hospitals are so gloomy on a normal day, let alone on Christmas…” Joey shook his head. “But that doesn’t matter. Stop thanking me. Anybody would have done the same thing.”

“Trust me, not anybody,” Mary pushed back.

“Anybody who cares about you as much as I do would,” Joey shot back, going red in the face once again upon realizing what he just said. He stared down at Gabriella, as an awkward silence fell between him and Mary. Finally, to ease the tension somewhat, Joey remarked, “She’s beautiful, Mar’.”

“Do you want to hold her?”

Joey blinked in surprise and glanced up at Mary to find her watching him closely. “Could I?”

Mary nodded and held out the swaddled child for Joey to take. Holding the baby girl close, the man was surprised by how warm the bundle was and felt pure joy when the tiny face twitched happily. Mary, meanwhile, smiled at the image. “It’s a good look on you, Joey.”

“You think?” Joey looked up from the baby.

Mary nodded. “You look like a natural. Which doesn’t surprise me, by the way. You’ve always wanted to be a dad. You were more of a little girl about that in school than anyone; always talking about having the wife, the house with the white-picket-fence, the three-point-five kids, and the dog one day.”

Joey laughed, as he remembered. “I still want all of that,” he pointed out. “Yet here I am, just about thirty-years-old, with none of it and no job or place to live. Life is funny sometimes, isn’t it?”

“You’re young,” Mary reassured him. “You still have time to get all of that.”

Joey gave a derisive snort as he rocked the baby back and forth. “We’ll see.”

Before Mary could say anything, there was a knock on the door and Karen poked her head in. “Sorry to interrupt,” she began. “But you have a group of visitors here to see you.”

“Visitors?” Mary furrowed her eyebrows, confused. “Who—”

“Ah.” Joey stood up guiltily, as he gently handed Gabriella back over to her mother. “That’s probably your parents.”

“My parents?”

Joey nodded. “I called them to let them know you were okay. We were all over the news, Mar’.” When the woman’s mouth dropped open, mortified, Joey pressed on. “I know. Trust me, I know. But they saw us on T.V. and were worried. I had to tell them where we were.”

“Ugh! Joey!” Mary whined, as she gently rocked her daughter. “The last thing I want to deal with right now is their negativity, or to be lectured by them! I just want to enjoy this moment!”

“So…should I send them away?” Karen asked timidly.

Mary shrugged, open-mouthed, searching for an answer. Before she could formulate words, however, Joey insisted, “Let me go talk to them, okay? I’ll go talk to them.” And with that, he left the room with the nurse, who led him to the waiting room where Ethan and Irene Holiday were sitting alongside his own parents, Sal and Vanessa. Across from them, Ryan and Natalie sat side-by-side, awkwardly avoiding their elders’ eyes.

Joseph!” His mother jumped to her feet and bounded across the room to embrace her son in a bone-crushing hug upon catching sight of him, as behind her, his father, Mary’s parents, and their two friends warily stood up. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, mom.”

“Joey, we are so sorry about earlier,” Vanessa insisted, refusing to release him from her grasp. “We didn’t mean to upset you. We were just in shock, and—”

“I get it,” Joey interrupted firmly, as he gently pushed his mother away. “Okay? I’ve been lying to you, so I don’t really think I deserve an apology. There is somebody you should be apologizing to though. All four of you,” he added, as he stared between his parents and Mary’s.

“Where is she?” Ethan asked, stony-faced.

“In her room with your granddaughter,” Joey answered. When Ethan and Irene tried to start down the hall behind him, however, Joey sidestepped them. “But she doesn’t want to see you.”

Irene’s mouth dropped open, aghast. “What do you mean she doesn’t want to see us?”

Joey shrugged. “Frankly, she’s scared to see you based on how you acted last night. She’s afraid that you’re going to ruin the happiest day of her life, and honestly, I can’t blame her.”

“We would never,” Ethan began, but Joey held up a hand to stop him.

“Whether or not you would is a moot point because your daughter thinks you would,” Joey explained. “So if you want my advice, I’d go in apologetic and tread very carefully if you want a relationship with her and your granddaughter going forward.”

Though Ethan looked absolutely irate at being lectured by the man he had watched grow up next door, Irene – who was near tears now – nodded her understanding. “Come on, Ethan.” And taking her husband’s hand, they hurried past Joey and down the hospital hallway.

“Let’s go, Sal,” Vanessa insisted. “We owe Mary an apology too.” And before Joey could protest and insist that his parents give Mary some alone time with her own parents, his mother hurried down the hall after her neighbors. Sal, however, didn’t move. Meeting his son’s eyes, he began, “About earlier—”

“It’s fine,” Joey insisted. “I’m sorry too. We’ll talk about it later.”

His father flashed him a smile and clapped a firm hand on his shoulder before following after his wife, leaving Joey alone in the waiting room with Ryan and Natalie. Letting out a small sigh of relief, he let his shoulders drop and asked the two of them, “So? How was the rest of your night?”

Ryan laughed, as Natalie rushed forward to hug him, taking Joey by surprise. “Thanks for looking after Mary.”

“You don’t have to thank me, Nat,” Joey replied, as he patted the woman awkwardly on the back. “I didn’t really do anything.”

“We saw you guys on the news,” Ryan pointed out, as Natalie pulled away from Joey. “Helping deliver the baby during a snowstorm on Christmas morning in a manger?” The corners of his mouth turned upward into a playful smile. “Talk about fate.”

Joey laughed. “Yeah, well…hopefully, Mary sees the humor in the situation one day.” Then, peering more closely at his childhood friends, he noticed the enormous bags under their eyes and the wrinkled clothes that they were wearing. “Did you two get any sleep last night?”

Natalie’s face flushed hot as Ryan’s grin widened across his bearded face. Throwing an arm around the woman’s waist and pulling her close, he replied, “None, actually. We were up all night.”

“Catching up,” Natalie finished quickly and pointedly, throwing the man a warning glance as Joey’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “We had a lot of catching up to do,” she insisted, unable to hold back a smile of her own, as Ryan added, “A lot. In fact, we caught up over, and over, and over again.”

Natalie rolled her eyes. “What about you guys? What happened after you guys left the house before you ended up in that manger?”

Joey laughed. “It’s kind of a long story,” he began before launching into the cliff note’s version for his friends, completely omitting the part in which he was visited by an angel in his sleep. When he was finished telling it, Ryan immediately asked, “So what does that mean for you and Mary?”

“I don’t know,” Joey admitted with a small shrug, trying to ignore the look of disapproval that Natalie, who had pursed her lips, was throwing him. “I have no clue where we stand.”

“You two were about to sleep together!” Ryan hissed, lowering his voice so that a pair of nurses walking by wouldn’t overhear him. “That’s got to mean something!”

“Or it could mean nothing,” Joey insisted. “She was hours away from giving birth, she was clearly hormonal. We were both overemotional because of what we’ve been going through the past few days.”

“Well are you going to talk to her about it?”

Natalie rolled her eyes, scoffing. “Seriously?”

What?” Ryan asked, defensively.

“I can’t talk to her anytime soon, you idiot!” Joey explained with a laugh. “She just gave birth! She has more important things to worry about!”

Natalie blinked, taken aback by the man’s self-aware maturity. Smiling sadly, she said, “Well, I hope that whenever you two do get a chance to talk, it works out the way you want it to. I truly do.” She shrugged before begrudgingly admitting, “You two are pretty cute together.”

Touched by the woman’s heartfelt statement, Joey replied, “Thanks, Nat. That means a lot.” Before he could say anything more, however, his phone began to ring. “Who the hell can that be?” he asked aloud, as he fumbled to pull the device from his pocket. “Anyone who ever calls me is already here in the hospital!” Ryan and Natalie laughed at the statement, as he finally managed to pull out his phone and stare down at the caller I.D. Upon catching sight of the name, his heart skipped a beat and his face blanched. “Um…give me a minute.” Joey held up a finger in the direction of his friends. “Sorry.” Then, placing the phone to his ear, he began to slowly walk down the hallway as he answered. “Hey, Lil.”

“Joey!” His ex-fiancée’s bright voice echoed in his ears. “Merry Christmas!”

“Yeah, you too,” Joey replied, shell-shocked. “What – uh – what do you want?” He knew he sounded short, but in his mind, he was still being politer to the woman than was warranted considering the fact that she broke off their engagement two days before Christmas.

“How are you doing?” Lilianna asked, her voice softening.

“How am I doing?” Joey repeated in disbelief. “How do you think?”

“Well, honestly, I think you seem to be doing better than I was afraid you would be,” she replied before elaborating. “I saw you on the news.”

“You did?”

“You must have been cheating on me for quite a while for your side-piece to give birth on Christmas morning.”

Joey’s mouth dropped open. “I didn’t – I never – how could you think that?” He sputtered, his voice rising. “She’s not my side-piece!”

Lilianna laughed. “Would you relax? God, you’re so uptight! I know you’d never cheat!” And though he couldn’t see her, Joey could practically visualize the woman rolling her eyes on the other side of the country. “I recognized the woman from all of your childhood photos. She was the neighbor, right? Mary? The one who got away?”

“That’s the one,” Joey mumbled.

“Looks like somebody was lucky enough to nab her in the end, I guess.”

“And stupid enough to let her go afterward,” Joey shot smugly. “Why do you think it was me on the news in that manger with her and not the baby’s dad?” Before his ex could reply, he demanded once more, “Lil, seriously – why are you calling me?”

“You want to skip the small talk? Fine then. Honestly, I just wanted to call you to offer some advice.” Taking a deep breath, she continued. “If you’re going to insist on pursuing this writing career of yours, you stumbled upon your bestseller last night.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Mary giving birth in the middle of that snowstorm, outside in a manger – people are eating it up! Why do you think the news has been playing the footage ad nauseum since it happened?”

“Because the corporate media sucks?” Joey snorted with derision. “They’re focusing on that more than the modern-day Christmas Eve Truce that President Williams struck with the Russians!”

“Because people in this country are sick of the constant negativity!” Lilianna stressed. “They want true, feel-good stories that they can latch onto to give them hope! And you found yourself directly in the middle of one last night!”

“What’s your point?”

“Write about it! Strike while the iron’s hot! Hell, you find a publisher that’ll sign you, give me a call – we’ll buy the movie rights!”

Joey hesitated. He’d be lying to himself if he said the prospect wasn’t enticing. Nevertheless, his voice soft, he replied, “I can’t. It’s Mary’s story to tell. I’m not going to exploit her that way.”

“Well, if you consider yourself a friend of hers, you’ll convince her to do write it herself then,” Lilianna said. “Or make some kind of arrangement where you write it and give her half of the profits. Otherwise, you’re both sitting on an untapped gold mine!” When Joey remained silent, she pressed, “Just think about it, okay? Promise me?”

Rolling his eyes, Joey sighed. “I promise.”

“Good. I’ll let you go. Have a Merry Christmas, Joey.”

“You too, Lil.” And with that, the call ended and Joey pocketed his phone once again. Mulling over the conversation in his head, he made his way back to the waiting room of the maternity ward once again to find that it wasn’t just Ryan and Natalie waiting for him, but also his parents and Mary’s as well. “Everything okay?” Ryan asked.

Joey nodded, forcing a smile onto his face. “Everything’s fine,” he insisted truthfully. “What about here?” His eyes flickered toward the four parents.

“Just fine,” Ethan insisted. “We talked things out with Mary and she insisted we go home to spend the day with our sons and grandkids.”

“Though we will be back later,” Irene assured Joey.

“Well, good. Have fun.”

“Need a ride home?” Sal asked his son.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Joey replied. “I think I’m going to hang out here for a bit. Keep Mary company. Nobody should be alone on Christmas.”

“We appreciate that,” Irene said with a watery smile. “Truthfully, thank you.”

“Are you sure?” Vanessa asked, concerned.

Joey nodded. “Positive. You guys go spend the day with Isabella, Elliott, and Carmine. Wish them all a Merry Christmas from me. I’ll be home later.”

“O-okay.”

Then, turning to Ryan, Joey withdrew the man’s car keys from his pocket and threw them at him. “We parked at the Plaza.”

“Thanks, dude. You ready?” he asked Natalie, who scoffed.

“Not until I see my girl and meet the baby!”

“Oh! Right!” Ryan exclaimed, which caused Natalie to roll her eyes.

“All beauty, no brains.” The woman winked at Joey before grabbing Ryan’s hand and dragging him off down the hallway in the direction of Mary’s room.

“We’ll see you later, Joey.” After his mother hugged him, he watched as his parents and Mary’s boarded the elevator and disappear from sight. Sighing deeply, he fell into one of the waiting room chairs and closed his eyes tight. He was exhausted. And as he allowed his mind to slowly empty in an attempt to truly relax for the first time in days, he found himself drifting off to sleep until a question asked in a charming British accent shook him from his thoughts.

“Excuse me, could you tell me what room Mary Holiday is in?”

Joey’s eyes snapped open at the words to find a tall, thin, good-looking man with dirty-blonde hair talking to Karen, who was sitting behind the maternity ward’s reception desk. “Who’s asking?” he demanded from where he sat, taking both the nurse and the man by surprise.

“Pardon me?” the man asked, sizing Joey up and down as he wearily climbed to his feet.

“I just meant – why do you want to see Mary?”

The British man laughed uncomfortably. “Not that it’s any of your concern, but she’s my girlfriend. She just gave birth to my baby, and—”

“So you’re Luke,” Joey interrupted, as rage coursed through him.

“Who the hell are you, mate?”

“Joey,” he answered, shaking the man’s hand without breaking eye contact. “Mary’s friend.”

“The childhood neighbor, right?” A small, taunting grin slowly began to unfurl across Luke’s face. “I’ve heard of you before; saw you on the telly last night too.”

Joey raised an eyebrow. “Is that why you’re here?” he asked. “You saw Mary on television last night and came back to take advantage of her fifteen-minutes-of-fame before throwing her to the curb again?”

Luke sneered. “Not that it’s any of your concern, but I’m here because I want to see my baby.” Turning to Karen once again, he asked, “Mary Holiday’s room?”

“Room 625,” the nurse replied uncertainly.

“Cheers!” Luke flashed her a dazzling smile before striding away down the hall. Staring at the middle-aged woman in disbelief, Joey demanded, “Seriously, Karen?” The woman could do no more than shrug in response before he darted away down the hallway after Luke, shoved his way past him, and barged into Mary’s room.

“Joey!” Mary exclaimed, aghast. “What are you doing?”

Registering Gabriella in her mother’s arms, and Natalie sitting beside the bed leaning over the baby adoringly with Ryan standing at her shoulder, Joey panted. “I tried to stop him, but—”

“Mary, darling!”

Mary’s mouth dropped open in surprise the moment that Luke appeared in the doorway of her room. Instinctively, she clutched her daughter closer to her chest. Joey thought that baby must have sensed her mother’s panic, for she immediately began to get fussy. “Luke! What are you doing here?”

This is Luke?” Natalie demanded, her eyes narrowing as she drank in the man’s appearance. “Well done, sweetie.” She winked at Mary before standing up. “Hold my earrings,” she instructed Ryan, as she began to remove the jewelry in question and stared daggers at the British man.

“Howay!” Luke held up his hands in mock surrender as he looked from Ryan to Natalie to Joey and finally to Mary. “Who are these people, your bodyguards?”

“Damn straight we are!” Natalie spat.

Reaching over to place a calming hand upon her friend’s arm, Mary asked again, “What are you doing here, Luke? I thought you were flying back to Newcastle.”

Luke shrugged, as he took a few steps farther into the room. “I decided to stay a few more nights in New York.”

“Not at the Plaza, you’re not,” Mary pointed out accusingly. “I know because I’ve been staying in the room, like you said I could. Oh God, don’t’ tell me that Rebecca girl was stupid enough to fall for your bullshit and let you stay with her?”

Luke smirked as he continued to move toward the bed. Ignoring the accusation completely, he said, “I just want to see my baby.”

“You mean the one whose life you said you wanted no part of?” Mary snapped, willing herself not to cry and refusing to relinquish her grip on Gabriella, even when Luke held out her arms to take her.

“Maybe I was being too hasty when I said what I said to you the other night,” Luke conceded. “I was exhausted from the flight, and overwhelmed at being in such an enormous city. I overreacted. Of course I want to be part of the baby’s life. And yours.”

“All of a sudden?” Mary asked skeptically, as she rocked her baby in a desperate attempt to soothe her before she started bawling. “It has nothing to do with our unexpected T.V. appearance, does it?”

Joey smirked, proud of Mary for pushing back against the man’s ludicrous claims. Luke, however, didn’t seem to appreciate it. He froze in place, his eyes becoming steely and his grin turning into a grimace. He stared down at Mary for a moment before noting, “You know, I forgot how grating your natural accent was before the Geordie one seeped into your mind. You should really try to keep that one.”

“At least she doesn’t sound like a pretentious creep when she talks in either accent,” Natalie snapped, holding out her hand for Ryan to high-five without turning to look at him, which he did without turning to look at her.

“I think it’s time for you to leave,” Joey instructed Luke, who turned to glare at him.

“Stay out of this,” Luke snapped before rounding on Mary again. “I’m entitled to see my daughter.”

“Who’s to say it’s yours?” Mary demanded, taking the entire room by surprise. “You know how many men flirt with me. Who’s to say I didn’t give into temptation one night?”

“You would have told me—”

“You don’t know that,” Mary interrupted with a shrug.

“I was your night of temptation! It’s the only reason we got together!”

“Dude, calm down!” Ryan urged in a hushed voice. “This is a hospital!”

As her ex threw the ginger a dirty look, Mary continued. “And even if you did father the baby, it doesn’t make you her dad.”

“It does in the eye of the courts!”

“You’d have to prove it first!”

At that moment, Karen came hurrying into the room. “Is everything okay? I heard the baby—”

“Can you please have this man removed from the room, please?” Natalie asked, as Mary tried to calm her baby.

Before Karen could respond, Luke rounded on the nurse and snapped, “I’m the father!”

Karen, at a loss for how to handle the situation, glanced at Mary for guidance. “I want a paternity test,” the new mother informed her, causing Joey, Ryan, and Natalie to all gape at the extent to which she was going to prolong the inevitable. Before any of them could say anything about it, however, Karen replied, “Are you sure? Even if we rush it, it’s going to take a few hours, and—”

“I don’t care,” Mary interrupted firmly. “I just want him removed from my room in the meantime.” She met Luke’s eyes unflinchingly.

“O-okay,” Karen stammered. “I’ll go get Dr. Bernstein.”

 

Joey didn’t get another moment with Mary alone until after the doctor came in and swabbed both baby Gabriella, who had finally settled down again, and Luke, who was then banished to the waiting room to wait for the test results alone. Ryan and Natalie, meanwhile, though clearly itching to get home to their own families’ Christmas celebrations, didn’t want to leave Mary during such an emotionally charged situation, so they decided to stay in the city until the results came in. Nevertheless, both were starving, and left the hospital to go and get a bite to eat somewhere in Manhattan with Natalie promising her friend they’d be back soon. The moment they left, leaving Joey alone with his childhood best friend and her newborn baby, he exhaled loudly and, in an attempt to ease the tension in the room, asked, “Do you think they’re really going for food? Or are they going somewhere for a little afternoon delight?”

Mary laughed. “Either way, I’d rather be in their position at the moment. As long as it’s not cowgirl, I mean – I’m too tired to be doing all of the work.” She winked playfully.

Chuckling, Joey slowly sat in the chair nearest Mary’s bed. “How are you holding up?” he asked the woman gently, eyeing her closely.

Without glancing up from her sleeping daughter, Mary asked, “How do you think?”

“Can I ask you something? Is there a chance that Gabby isn’t Luke’s?”

Mary shook her head. “I wish, but no. I just wanted to get him out of the room and leave me alone for a little while. I have no idea what I’m going to do when the test confirms that he is the father.” Then, with a humorless laugh, she glanced up at Joey. “I honestly didn’t expect today to turn into an episode of Maury.”

Joey smirked before gently suggesting, “You know, seeing as how he just treated you – and the things he said a few nights ago – you could probably make an argument in court that you don’t want him to be part of Gabby’s life with a temperament like that.”

“I just wish that I could somehow prove that he’s only back because he saw me and the baby on live T.V. The moment the story fades, he’ll be gone again. Disgusting creep.”

“People are opportunists,” Joey agreed. “Speaking of which, you’ll never guess who called me earlier. Lilianna.”

Really?” Mary asked, as a twang of jealousy caused her heart to skip a beat.

“Yeah,” Joey confirmed before quickly relaying the conversation to Mary.

Mary sat there silently for a few moments at its conclusion before pointing out, “She’s not wrong, you know.”

“No, she’s not,” Joey agreed. “I only mention it though to point out how quickly people will insert themselves back into your life if they have a shot at getting a little bit of money or fame.”

“I don’t know.” Mary shrugged. “Sounds to me like she was actually looking out for you.”

Joey blinked in surprise. “Maybe. But don’t worry, I was serious when I told her I would never do that to you.”

“You should.” Mary smiled wryly. “After everything you did for me today? If anyone’s going to make money telling my story, I’d want it to be—”

“—you,” Joey insisted firmly. “It’s your story to tell, not mine.”

Smiling warmly at the man, Mary asked gently, “How are you holding up? I mean, was it okay talking to her?”

“You know,” Joey began. “It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Even when I saw her name pop up on the caller I.D., and I thought for a split second that she was reaching out to apologize and ask me to take her back, I didn’t feel excited, you know? I think as hard as it’s been, breaking up was probably the best thing for both of us.”

The words made Mary’s heart soar, but she did her best to suppress the wide smile that wanted to spread across her face as she nodded. “I get it,” she confirmed. “Honestly, seeing Luke again today made me think the same thing.”

“I bet,” Joey replied, before asking hopefully, “So does that mean that you’re going to move back home?”

Mary laughed. “My parents want me to.”

“How’d it go with them?”

“Better than I thought, honestly,” Mary admitted. “Though your parents being present might have helped with that, so I was glad they were there.” Her eyes twinkled playfully. “But they apologized for how they reacted earlier. Seemed happy to meet their granddaughter.” She leaned down to kiss her baby’s forehead.

“That’s great!”

“Yeah. How about you and your parents?”

Joey shrugged. “Things seemed okay between us. We said we’d talk later, so we’ll see how it goes.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Mary assured him, grabbing his hand to squeeze it in a comforting manner and refusing to let go. As Joey ran his fingers over hers, the woman bit down on her lip thoughtfully. “Speaking of talking later…” The two childhood friends locked eyes at the words, as Joey’s heart skipped a beat. “I think we should probably talk.”

His mouth dry, Joey asked, “Are you sure now’s the appropriate time?” He glanced down at the slumbering baby.

“If we don’t talk now, I don’t know when we’ll next get the chance to,” Mary admitted. “I wanted to apologize for last night. The things I said to you in the hotel—”

“—were said in anger,” Joey finished. “Just like the things I said to you in response. There’s no need to apologize or thank me for that matter,” he added, as the woman opened her mouth again. “I’m glad I was around to help you through a difficult time yesterday, but you did the same for me. So again, let’s just please call it even, okay?”

Mary smiled and nodded, as she squeezed Joey’s hand again. Then, in barely more than a whisper, she asked, “Are you moving home?”

“I don’t see what other choice I have at the moment,” Joey admitted. “I can’t afford L.A. on my own, especially jobless. Besides…there might be another reason to move home.” He met Mary’s eyes pointedly, which caused the woman to blush.

“I was actually thinking the same thing. I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too.”

“And I didn’t realize just how much until we spent time together again,” Mary elaborated. “You’re such a great guy, Joey. And…well, I know the next few months especially I’m going to be pretty busy…” She laughed, as she glanced down at Gabby. “But if we both do move home, maybe we could get together sometime. Like on an official date, I mean.”

Joey felt fireworks go off in his head and stomach at the words. “I’d love that,” he admitted with a wide smile. But then, as Mary gave his hand an excited squeeze, a vision of Natalie’s disapproving face appeared in his mind’s eye. “But…” he continued, taking the woman by surprise. “Ask me again when things settle down. You have a lot on your plate right now. And you’re in an emotional place. I just – I want to make sure that if we do give dating a try, it’s because you want to. Not because your hormones want you to right now.”

“I know I want to though,” Mary insisted, pissed off with herself over the fact that tears began to well in her eyes. “Joey, yesterday made me realize that I’ve always love—”

“Sh.” Joey placed a finger on the woman’s lips, taking her by surprise. “Look, I promise you, you’re not alone in feeling that way. But prove it to me in a few months once things quiet down by asking me again, alright?”

Staring deep into the man’s bright blue eyes, Mary finally acquiesced by nodding somberly, at which point Joey removed his finger from her mouth. “Good.”

“You know,” Mary began, still refusing to let go of his hand. “Most guys would have just—”

“—taken advantage of your current emotional state,” Joey finished. “I know. But I’m not most guys,” he pointed out. “I assumed that was one of things that you like about me.”

Mary rolled her eyes, exasperated. “It is, but it’s incredibly frustrating sometimes.”

Joey laughed, the sounds of which quickly died away when he saw how somber and upset that Mary actually looked. “Cheer up, buttercup!” he exclaimed brightly. Then, having an idea, he asked, “Have you seen this yet?” And from his pocket, he withdrew his phone and pulled up the picture of the manger scene at Rockefeller Center that had occurred in the wee hours earlier that morning. “It’s the highest quality photo I’ve been able to find so far,” Joey explained as he passed the phone over to Mary. “I was going to have it printed and framed for you, but…” He shrugged. “I couldn’t find any place open on Christmas to do it.”

Staring at the picture, Mary flushed red. “Look how many people were there!” She used her finger to navigate the picture, moving from the foreign leaders to the two cops to the small drummer boy and the cat, dog, and goat that laid in the manger beside her. They weren’t the only ones present either! She also recognized the First Gentleman, the man from animal control, and a Radio City Rockette amongst others. And then, of course, there were the people not present in the photograph – those who captured the moment on camera.

“They weren’t there the entire time!” Joey insisted. “They weren’t around when you gave birth! At least I don’t think they were,” he amended. “But even if they were, look how beautiful you look!”

Mary zoomed in on herself, and, to her surprise, the man was right. She was absolutely glowing in the photo, as she stared down adoringly at the just-born Gabriella. And standing at her shoulder, Joey looked quite handsome as he stared down proudly at her. Smiling to herself, she zoomed out a bit to take in the picture as a whole. It was absolutely perfect, and in her mind, deserved some sort of prize. The snow-covered manger was framed directly in the center, bordered on either side by the wire-sculpted angels of the Channel Gardens, blowing their horns at it, while looming over it all, basking the entire scene in a beautiful, glowing light, was the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, the star atop of it shining brightly. Staring at it, Mary narrowed her eyes. “What is that? In the star?”

“Huh? Let me see.”

Mary leaned close to Joey and pointed at the star, inside of which appeared to be the blurry outline of a humanoid figure with wings sprouting from its back, spread wide – an angel. Joey went pale at the sight, thinking of the conversation – the dream – he had with Gabe the night before. “It’s probably just a trick of the light,” Joey answered, doing his best to sound nonchalant despite his quivering voice. “Or the photo was overexposed or something.”

Mary pursed her lips, disbelieving, but didn’t press the point, as she zoomed out a bit more to further examine the picture. Immediately, her eyes caught sight of something streaking across the sky in the background behind the tree. “And that?”

Joey leaned close again, and his eyes widened upon seeing an extremely blurry outline of what looked like a sleigh and nine reindeer – one of which appeared to have a glowing red nose – flying across the night sky. His mouth dropping open, he slowly met Mary’s shocked eyes, but before either of them could say anything, there was a knock on the hospital room door and Karen entered the room, followed by Doctor Beryl Bernstein, who clutched a blue folder tight to her chest, as Luke trailed in behind them. “How are we doing?” the tiny, attractive, blonde doctor asked cheerfully.

“I was doing better before he came into the room.” Mary nodded at Luke, who sneered in response. Upon laying her tiny, beady eyes on the man who insisted he were her father, Gabriella immediately began to cry, which made her mother smile, as she whispered in an undertone to Joey, “She already has good judgement when it comes to men.”

Joey smirked, as Beryl explained, “I brought him in because the paternity results are in.”

And?” Luke asked impatiently, as Joey squeezed Mary’s hand reassuringly, knowing that the woman was silently trying to brace herself for the British man’s sure-to-be smug reaction.

“I’m sorry,” Beryl began, as she turned to face Luke. “But you’re not the father.”

What?” Luke demanded, as Joey’s mouth dropped open in surprise and Mary blinked rapidly, shell-shocked. “That’s impossible!”

Beryl shook her head. “I ran the test myself. Three times, in fact. You’re not the father of this baby.”

Luke rounded on Mary, irate, as he furiously made his way toward her. “You whore! How could you do this to me? You—

“—need to leave,” Joey insisted coolly, as he swiftly stood up to plant himself between Luke and Mary.

“Make me.”

“Karen?” Beryl turned to the nurse. “Could you please escort this gentleman out?” Luke whipped around to face the doctor, stammering angrily. “If you don’t want to follow her calmly, I’d be more than happy to call hospital security, of course.”

Luke silently considered his options for a moment before growling, “Bye, bitch,” as Karen escorted him from the room.

“Bye, Felicia!” Mary called after him, as Beryl shut the door to the room to allow the three of them some privacy.

“I wanted to talk to you about something,” the doctor began calmly before noticing that Gabriella had calmed herself down and stopped crying. “Boy, she really doesn’t like that man, does she?”

“Apparently not.” Mary laughed before saying, “Thank you, doctor.”

“Hm? For what?”

“For lying to my ex,” Mary replied, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Telling him that he’s not the father. I couldn’t deal—”

Beryl’s laugh drowned out the rest of Mary’s statement and caused the new mother and Joey to exchange a confused glance. “I didn’t lie to your ex! That would be a betrayal of my Hippocratic oath! Not to mention, if I lied, and he found out, I could be sued and lose my license to practice!”

“But you said—”

“—he’s not the father. And he’s not. I was telling the truth.”

Mary threw Joey an uncertain glance. “That’s not possible. It can only be him.”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Beryl said. “Did either of you ever watch that medical drama House? The one starring Hugh Laurie?”

Mary shook her head, as Joey replied, “I did.”

“So then you must have a vague idea of what parthenogenesis is,” Beryl pointed out.

“Uh – no.” Joey flushed red.

“Parthenogenesis?” Mary repeated. “What’s that?”

“It’s when reproduction occurs without fertilization,” Beryl explained. “There’s no Y-chromosome required for the process to occur. It’s a fairly common process in the wild when it comes to some plants and invertebrates, but there’s never been a documented case of it occurring naturally in a mammal – though it was induced in a rabbit once before in the thirties. And, scientifically speaking, were the Virgin Mary telling the truth about her purity, and we take God out of the equation, the conception of Jesus Christ could be considered parthenogenesis as well.”

“You know what?” Joey began with a laugh. “I think I remember that episode of House, now that you mention it. Didn’t House cover for a supposed virgin when she cheated on her boyfriend and got pregnant? Lied and said that the paternity test showed parthenogenesis, thereby making it a virgin birth?”

Beryl nodded. “Exactly.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m confused,” Mary interjected with a shake of her head. “What the hell are you saying, exactly, doctor?”

“I’m saying that although you might have been having sex around the time you conceived, your beautiful baby girl has no father. Her conception is the very first documented and proven case of natural parthenogenesis occurring in a mammal.”

Joey stared down at Mary in amazement, who in turn stared down at Gabriella. “That’s crazy,” she choked with a nervous laugh.

“I thought so too,” Beryl agreed. “But I ran the test myself three times.” She pulled the results out from within the folder she was holding close to her chest and passed them to Mary. “Your child has no biological father.” As Mary and Joey poured over the results, Beryl pointed out, “It kind of makes the fact that you gave birth to her on Christmas morning in a manger all the more miraculous, no?”

Trembling, Mary passed the results to Joey, as she addressed her doctor. “But it can’t be true. It’s—”

“Hey, if you don’t believe me, go get a second opinion,” Beryl suggested with a shrug. “But I’d be careful who you see; most doctors will try to pressure you to go public and make you into a case study.”

You’re not going to do that, are you?” Mary asked wearily.

Beryl laughed, as she shook her head. “No. And if I do publish a paper about this one day, I’ll honor your privacy and keep your identities anonymous.”

A huge wave of relief washed over Mary in response to the doctor’s reassurance. “Thank you,” she muttered.

“It’s my pleasure.” Beryl flashed the woman a smile. “I’ll give you two some privacy. Just call if you need anything. Merry Christmas.”

“Happy Hanukkah,” Joey said at the same time that Mary said, “Happy Holidays.”

Once Beryl left the room with a final wave, Joey stared at Mary. “Are we positive that Gabby’s not the second-coming of Christ?”

“God, don’t even joke about that out loud!” Mary warned. “That’s the last thing I need people to start gossiping about!”

“Well, just don’t tell people what the doctor just told you.” Joey shrugged. “It’s as simple as that. It sounds like she’s going to keep your secret herself. I guess there really are still some good people left in the world.”

“Are we sure she’s telling the truth?” Mary asked. “Are we sure she’s not just lying to me as a Christmas gift?”

“Why would she do that?” Joey asked. “I think we can trust her.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “She has a trustworthy face.”

Mary rolled her eyes. “Translation – she’s pretty. You always trusted the pretty girls.”

Joey laughed, as Mary yawned. “You look tired.”

“I’m exhausted.”

“I am too,” Joey confirmed. Then, noticing that Gabriella was asleep, he pointed out. “You should try to get some shut-eye. They say you should try to do that every time the baby does.”

Smiling wearily, Mary nodded her agreement as she yawned again and settled back into her pillows. “You’re not leaving, are you?” she asked Joey.

Noticing the fleeting glance of fear in the woman’s eyes at the prospect of being left alone, Joey flashed her a reassuring smile. “Nope. I’m not going anywhere,” he insisted, as he fell into the chair beside her bed. “I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

Her grin widening, Mary muttered, “Thanks,” and reached over to grab his hand.

Their fingers intertwined, the childhood friends closed their eyes and drifted off into a deep sleep, both of them mulling over their pasts, presents, and futures and thinking about the strangest and, in many ways, best Christmas of their lives. Whatever the future had in store for them, they were both individually content that they at least had this particular Christmas story to tell for years to come.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *