“Another Christmas Story” – Chapter Four – Last Christmas – As Read By Rebecca Boll

Happy Thursday, Christmas fanatics! Welcome to the fourth official installment of Another Christmas Story!

This week, listener Rebecca Boll will read to all of you Chapter Four of our tale, entitled “Last Christmas”. Within this chapter, you’ll catch up with Mary Holiday in the present day and discover what she’s been up to since her Christmas Eve fight with Joey Nazario ten-years prior!

We hope you like it! If you do, 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 eyes as possible!

Make sure to check your podcast feeds for your regular weekly episode on Monday, in which the elves will be discussing the first three Christmas episodes of the television show Home Improvement, and next Thursday for the fifth official chapter of this story – “Chapter Five: All I Want For Christmas Is You”, which friend of the podcast, Gerry Davila of Totally Rad Christmas, will be reading to y’all and which will switch back to the point of view of Aaron Rankin!

Enjoy, y’all!

Chapter Four: Last Christmas

December 23rd – 7:30 p.m. EST

“Johnson, party of three? Your table’s ready!”

“It’s about damn time! I’m starving!”

Luke Johnson glanced sideways in exasperation at his girlfriend, Mary Holiday. They had been waiting for a table at The Modern for nearly an hour-and-a-half now, a wait that had felt all the longer because it was cold and dark outside, and the two had been travelling all day. A contemporary, open space with floor-to-ceiling windows connected to the Museum of Modern Art, the place was jam-packed not only with regulars, but also an influx of tourists that had flocked to Manhattan for the holidays, and the young couple had spent their entire wait time watching as servers weaved in-between the closely packed tables.

Normally, Luke wouldn’t mind the wait, as he’d pass the time sitting at the bar with a drink in hand. But as his girlfriend, who was busy gathering up her baby-blue winter coat and purse at the moment, was nearly nine-months pregnant, sitting at a bar wasn’t an option, as he had given up drinking (while in her presence, at any rate) in sympathetic solidarity with her until she gave birth. But as he was just forced to sit beside the woman, twiddling his thumbs, as she got irater with each passing minute, he had been anxious to get seated as soon as possible. Though in fairness, he understood why she was so annoyed; it had been a long day, she hadn’t slept, and she was literally hungry enough for two people.

Nevertheless, Luke felt bad for the hostess, who was bearing the brunt of his girlfriend’s annoyance. Standing up, he flashed the pretty blonde a dazzling smile and stage-whispered, “Sorry about her. It’s been a long day. She’s hungry all the time now, as you can probably tell.” He chuckled as he gestured at Mary’s stomach as she sidled up beside him.

“Luke!” Mary elbowed him hard, flushing red with embarrassment.

“I was only joking!” Luke replied defensively. “She knows I was only joking!” He turned quickly to the hostess. “You know I’m joking, right? Rebecca?” he added, squinting to peer at the nametag affixed to her shirt over her ample bosom.

“Of course!” Rebecca smiled, as she eyed Luke up and down hungrily, completely ignoring Mary. “I-uh-I also can’t help but notice that you’re British.” She twirled a strand of her long hair around her index finger, flirtatiously.

“Very astute observation.” Luke’s smile widened as he winked at the woman, making her titter like a young schoolgirl with a crush.

Mary eyed the two for a moment before forcing a sarcastic smile onto her face and placing a firm hand on Luke’s shoulder as she addressed the hostess. “Yes, that’s right. My boyfriend and I just got into New York from Newcastle a few hours ago.”

Rebecca turned to face Mary for the first time, as though just noticing her. “You’re British too!” She shook her head, as though to clear it. “And pregnant. I must say, it suits you. You’re absolutely glowing!”

“Aw, that’s very kind of you. Cheers!” Mary’s fake smile continued to widen, as her hands balled into fists. “But actually, I’m not British. I’m American. I’ve just lived over there for nearly a decade now, so I guess I just picked up the accent!”

“Oh, how lucky! You know, now that you mention it, your accent doesn’t sound as genuine as your boyfriend’s here! I can sort of detect the American in it!”

Mary’s inauthentic smile evaporated at the comment. As the hostess gave her boyfriend an almost imperceptible, flirty wink – at which Luke was unable to conceal a gleeful smile – Mary opened her mouth angrily to tell the woman off. Her boyfriend was quicker than her, however, for he placed a calming hand on her lower back and muttered, “Howay man! Just relax! We’re just having fun!” Mary closed her mouth obediently as Luke politely addressed Rebecca. “I believe you said our table was ready?”

“Of course. If you’d just follow me.” The hostess made to turn and lead the couple into the heart of the bustling, upscale restaurant before pausing and doing double-take. “I’m sorry, but I think we have you down for a reservation for three.”

“Our friend is meeting us,” Mary confirmed. “She’s on her way, she just got held up a little late at work. You know how it is.” She shrugged in a ‘what can you do’ sort of way.

“Ah, yes.” Rebecca’s smile faltered somewhat, as she pursed her lips. “But I’m afraid we have a strict policy that we can’t seat a party until all members of it have arrived.”

Luke’s smile disappeared, as a wave of anger washed over Mary at the words, and a sudden desire flared up within her to physically knock what remained of the hostess’ smile off of her face. “That’s a stupid policy.”

“It’s not our most popular one, I admit,” the hostess conceded with a shrug. “But I’m afraid rules are rules!”

Sensing that Mary was itching for a fight, Luke quickly stepped forward and in-between the two women before his girlfriend could say another word. “Do you mind if I had a word with you?” he asked Rebecca, who appeared taken aback. “Over there?” He nodded in the direction of the crowded bar, at which its patrons were talking, laughing, and watching the NBA game on the flat screen T.V.s affixed to the wall behind the bar. Without waiting for an answer, he placed a large, strong hand on the obliging hostess’ lower back and began to guide her over in that direction, as behind him, with his free hand, he held out a finger to silently instruct his girlfriend to wait where she was.

Once they were out of Mary’s earshot, Luke smiled down at Rebecca, who was staring up at him, completely enamored by his boyish good looks. “This’ll only take a minute.” He took a deep breath and glanced backward at his girlfriend, who was peering in his direction suspiciously, her arms crossed haughtily across her chest. “I used to work in the food-service industry while I was studying in university, so I understand that you guys have a policy here – and trust me when I say, I get it – but how about you do me a favor and let us have our table anyway, huh? I mean, you’re not blind, look at her.” Both turned to glance at Mary again. “She could pop at any minute now. She’s moody, she’s tired, she’s sore, she’s starving – I mean, she’s eating for two! And I know she’ll cheer right up if she can just take a load off her feet and get some food in her, so how about it, huh? I swear to you, our friend is on her way. She should be here any moment!”

“Look, I am sorry,” Rebecca insisted. “But if other people waiting see me make an exception for you–”

“You clearly don’t know my girlfriend.” Luke laughed. “She’s not the type who’s just going to wait quietly. She’ll cause a scene, take to social media, and even contact the news if she has to. I mean, do you really want it to get out that you denied seating a pregnant woman due to some arbitrary rule set by the owner of this place, who I’d hazard a guess isn’t even here tonight?”

Rebecca, who had opened her mouth to protest, immediately shut it as she registered Luke’s not-so-subtle threat. Chancing a glance at the pregnant woman, who looked as though she were about to blow a gasket at any moment, she stuck her tongue out of the corner of her mouth thoughtfully before giving a curt nod. “Fine. I’ll seat the two of you.” Then, dropping her voice to a sultry whisper, she dragged her index finger down Luke’s chest, sending a tingling shiver down the man’s spine. “But only because you asked so nicely.” She winked seductively at him.

“I thought you might change your mind.” Luke’s smile widened before beckoning Mary over to join them. As they followed Rebecca, weaving between the crowded tables of the restaurant, Mary hissed in an undertone, “What did you say to her?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Luke replied out of the corner of his mouth.

When they reached their table, already set for three, Rebecca placed menus down at each place setting before instructing them to enjoy their meal and hurrying away, leaving the couple alone. “You know,” Luke began, as he opened up his menu and stared down at it, as Mary sat down with a contended sigh. “You didn’t have to be so nasty with her.”

“I wasn’t!” Mary exclaimed, outraged. “It’s a stupid rule! You didn’t have to be so flirty with her!” Luke snorted in response without looking up from his menu. “See! You don’t even deny it! I saw the way you were looking at her!”

“Don’t be so ridiculous. That’s the hormones talking.”

“The hormones,” Mary repeated with a scoff. “You blame everything on the hormones. I’m not an idiot, Luke. She seemed smitten with you! In fairness, who could blame her?” She eyed her attractive boyfriend across the table. His strong jawline, light-brown eyes, dirty-blonde hair, bulging biceps, and six-pack abs that were extremely evident through his tight, button-down dress shirt all exuded a rugged, boyishly macho charm that seemed to attract a lot of women. Hell, it was an enormous part of what attracted Mary herself to him in the first place.

“Where’s Natalie?” Luke finally looked up from his menu.

“She left work fifteen-minutes ago.” Mary double-checked the last text message she received on her phone. “So she could be here any minute, or she could be another half-an-hour. You can never tell with New York traffic. The only place worse in this country is L.A.” Finally opening her menu, she placed one hand on her stomach and asked, “I’m starving. What should I get?”

“You’re the native New Yorker! You chose this place, haven’t you eaten here before?”

“Have you eaten everywhere in Newcastle?” Mary raised an eyebrow as she stared up from her menu, annoyed. “What kind of stupid question is that? But to answer your question, no, I haven’t eaten here before. It’s new. And you know I haven’t been home for two years.”

“Just get something spicy,” Luke instructed, as she looked down at her menu once more. “It’s supposed to induce labor.”

“Spicy it is then,” Mary replied absentmindedly, skimming her options as the baby inside of her kicked in a particularly hard fashion. “I need this thing out of me. I’m going to miss the boobs though.”

“I think the whole world is going to miss the boobs,” Luke joked, eliciting a laugh from his girlfriend.

“Yeah, well…” She sighed deeply. “I really should try to hold off on inducing labor until the twenty-sixth. Christmas babies always get screwed by having their birthday fall on the biggest holiday of the year. Although, maybe giving birth sooner rather than later will neutralize the angry reaction my parents are sure to have about the fact that I never told them I was pregnant in the first place.”

Luke shook his head in disbelief, his smile disappearing. “I told you that was a mistake. They’re sure in for one hell of a surprise. ‘Hey, mom and dad! I know I haven’t seen you in three years, but guess what? I’m pregnant! Sorry I never picked up a phone to let you know!’”

“We’ve never been close,” Mary deadpanned. “Seriously though, my parents are old-fashioned! They’d have expected me to get married, and I wasn’t ready for that. I’m still not,” she admitted before hastening to add, “No offense.”

“Trust me, none taken,” Luke insisted. “But how’s it going to look when they meet me for the first time? They’re just going to see me as the guy who knocked you up and refused to marry you! Every other thing you’ve already told them about me will just disappear from their minds!”

“About that…” Mary shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

Luke’s shoulders dropped. “What?”

Mary bit down on her lower lip, guiltily. “I was trying to find the right time to tell you, but I guess now’s as good a time as any.” She inhaled deeply before allowing the next sentence to spill out of her mouth as quickly as possible. “My parents don’t even know you exist at the moment.”

“They what?”

“It’s very possible that I may not have even told them I’ve been seeing anyone, let alone you,” Mary admitted.

“Mary, we’ve been together since last Christmas! And we’ve been fooling around longer than that!”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry.”

“What, are you embarrassed of me or something?”

“No, it’s nothing like that!” Mary waved her hand through the air as her baby kicked again. “I’m embarrassed of them! And if they knew I had a boyfriend, or that I was pregnant, they’d have flown out to visit me in England! And probably have tried to force me to move back home!”

So?” Luke demanded in frustration. “You should have let – what’s wrong with having a family that cares about you?”

“We don’t get along!” Mary clenched her jaw, her voice rising loud enough to draw curious stares from tables nearby and an annoyed look from Rebecca from where she stood at the front of the restaurant. “I screwed up, okay? Christmas is my favorite holiday and I’m dreading it this year because I don’t want to see them!”

“Oh, grow up!” Luke reprimanded. “You did screw up. Nobody gets along with their families, or wants to see them during the holidays – it’s practically a prerequisite of celebrating Christmas! But that’s what makes family, family, and Christmas, Christmas!”

At the words, tears of frustration began to fall from Mary’s eyes, which barely managed to elicit an exasperated sigh from her boyfriend. “Look, Mary. I really wish you would have told your parents about your pregnancy sooner, especially if there was a chance that they would have tried to force you to move back to New York. Because honestly, the fact of the matter is…” He let out a humorless laugh as he shook his head. “I don’t know how to say it, so I’m just going to come out with it – I think we should see other people.”

“You what?”

“Keep your voice down, people are staring!” Luke hissed, staring around at the tables nearest them apologetically.

“What do you mean you want to see other people? How come?”

“Well, for starters, how about because you never felt it necessary to tell your parents about me or the baby! I mean, Mary, don’t you realize how…immature that makes you sound? And you try to put the blame for that decision on your parents, just like you blamed me when you found out you were pregnant! You didn’t take any percentage of that blame at all, despite the fact it takes two people to make a baby! And frankly, I don’t need added drama like that in my life!”

“We’re about to have a child, Luke.”

“Well, maybe I’m just not ready to be a dad!” Luke slammed a fist down onto the table in frustration, causing the china to rattle and Mary to lean back in her seat, surprised. Closing his eyes tight in an attempt to calm himself down, Luke continued. “I’m sorry. It’s just, that’s the second part of all of this, okay? It’s been coming on for a while, and I’ve just been waiting to tell you – clearly, I should have said something before flying here from England with you. I just never found the right opening, and–”

“You’re not ready to be a dad?” Mary repeated, disgusted by the man sitting in front of her. “Well, tough! You’re about to become one any day now!”

“I’m not ready to be saddled down like that. I’m not ready for the responsibility.”

“Luke, every new parent feels that way at first, but–”

“No, Mary, you don’t get it!” Luke exclaimed, desperate to make her understand. “I just – I can’t be a part of your life anymore; and I don’t want to be a part of your child’s life either. I’m sorry.”

As their child kicked again, Mary placed both hands on her stomach and narrowed her eyes against the tears splashing down her face. “You can’t just leave us in the lurch. I’ll sue you for child support.”

“You know what? Go ahead.” Luke stood up and began to pull his winter coat back on over himself. “I’m sure you’ll win. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m not going to be a part of the kid’s life. Or yours, for that matter. Frankly, we should never have been together this long to begin with.”

“Where are you going?” Mary demanded, as Luke turned his back on her.

“Back to Newcastle. I’m going to swing by the Plaza, grab my bags, and get out of your hair.”

“You’ll never be able to get a flight back until after Christmas,” Mary spat.

“Well then, I’ll find somewhere else to stay for the next few nights.” His eyes immediately found the hostess across the crowded room, who kept throwing the couple curious glances from where she stood.

“You mean with that bimbo?” Mary asked, revolted.

“Her name’s Rebecca,” Luke replied with as much dignity as he could muster before staring down at the pregnant woman with pity. “Look, the room’s paid for through January second. Feel free to keep using it if you want to; it’s the least I can do.”

“Don’t you walk away from me, Luke!” Mary shouted, astonished to see that the man was doing just that. She watched in amazement as he weaved his way through the tables once more, stopped where Rebecca was standing at the front of the establishment, and gasped when he handed her his business card. Then, with one final backward glance at Mary, he disappeared into the cold, dark, winter’s night.

Mary sat in disbelief at what had just happened, as the patrons at the tables nearest her resumed their chatter while throwing sympathetic looks in her direction. She couldn’t understand it; her boyfriend of one year had just left her stranded in New York City while just-about nine-months pregnant. Stunned by this turn of events, she picked up one of the cloth napkins from the table and began to dab the tears away from her face, wishing there was a way to block out the cheery Christmas music playing throughout the space.

She loved Luke, and she had thought that he loved her too. She had no idea that he harbored such deep disdain toward her, or their unborn child. How long had he only stayed with her because he didn’t know how to break up with a pregnant woman? Before she could spiral too far down that particular rabbit hole, there was a loud squeal of glee and a cheery voice shook her from her reverie. “Oh my God! Look how big you are!”

Her best friend since high school, Natalie Hernandez, was heading quickly toward her, stripping off her heavy winter jacket and scarf as she walked. She was just as pretty as she had always been, and multiple men turned to stare as she walked past their tables. Her jet-black hair was done up in an elegant twist atop her head, and she was wearing a form-fitting red dress that matched the shade of lipstick she was wearing, which also happened to accentuate her voluptuous body. And pinned to her bosom, giving people the perfect excuse to stare at it, was a gold pin shaped like a Christmas wreath. “Hey Nat.” Mary plastered a fake smile onto her face as she made to stand up.

“Don’t get up, don’t get up!” Natalie bent down to hug Mary tightly where she sat. “Look at you! Your boobs are almost as big as mine now! You look like you’re ready to pop!”

As the woman rubbed her belly affectionately, Mary pointed out, “I’m all stomach. I barely gained anything in the arms or legs, and if you look at me from behind, you’d barely be able to tell I’m pregnant. Should make it easier to lose the weight after I push this kid out of me.”

“I could listen to you talk all day with that accent,” Natalie remarked, as she took a seat at the table across from her. “I’m so sorry I’m late! We were on deadline, so I had to make sure a book got sent to the printer, and by the time I managed to get out of there, well, forget it! You know what it’s like here – a little ice and the city grinds to a halt. I can’t imagine how bad it’s going to be tomorrow if we get as much snow as they’re predicting.” She sighed happily as she reached across the table and patted one of Mary’s hands affectionately. “It doesn’t matter though. How are you? How’s work going?”

“Today was my first official day of maternity leave,” Mary replied, looking anywhere but directly into her friend’s eyes, so as not to give away how sad she felt. “God knows how my boss is going to manage without his executive assistant for the next year.”

“I was about to say, I never understood why you stayed in England after graduation, but with maternity leave like that…” Natalie laughed. “Seriously though, you used to be so determined to make it on Broadway. You dreamed about seeing your name written in the stars!”

“Or at least plastered all over billboards in Times Square,” Mary admitted wryly.

“Remember all the musicals we did together in high school?”

“Yeah, well…” Mary shrugged. “That was a long time ago. Sometimes reality comes crashing down and dreams change.”

Sensing that her friend wanted to change the subject, Natalie asked, “How was the flight in?” Then, noticing for the first time that they were the only two people at the table, she asked, “Where’s Luke?”

“Yeah, about that…” Mary let out a humorless laugh before finally meeting Natalie’s eyes.

“Mary, what’s wrong?” Natalie asked, surprised to see how bloodshot they were. “Have you been crying?”

Mary took a deep breath and, determined to exude an air of strength and prevent tears from flowing in front of her best friend, recounted the story about what had just transpired moments before. By the time she had finished telling it, Natalie was staring at her in open-mouthed shock. “That cold-hearted bastard! I can’t believe he did that!”

Mary gave a small shrug. “It’s my own fault, I guess–”

“Mary, listen to me,” Natalie interrupted, her voice deadly serious. “No matter what you did wrong during your relationship, there is no excuse to justify Luke leaving you in the middle of New York City, two days before Christmas, while nine-months pregnant. Do you understand me?” Mary nodded half-heartedly, as Natalie leaned back in her chair, shaking her head in disgust. “I knew there was something off about that guy when I met him earlier this year. Remember? I told you that he rubbed me the wrong way.”

“You don’t have to rub it in,” Mary spat bitterly, placing a hand on her stomach to calm her baby, which had begun to kick again.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–”

“I know.” Mary smiled sadly. “I’m just on edge – what with my hormones running rampant and everything. But hey!” She tried to inject a level of cheer into her voice. “At least he’s giving me the hotel room he booked for us this week!”

“How nice of him,” Natalie remarked sarcastically. “Cancel it though. You can come stay with me.”

“No,” Mary replied quickly. “I couldn’t–”

“I insist.”

“So do I!” Mary stressed emphatically, taking her friend by surprise. “Nat, I love you – I really do – and I’m grateful. But I think that some alone time will do me good. Besides, I think I’m only going to stay tonight and try to get a flight back to Newcastle tomorrow morning.”

“Before Christmas?” Natalie asked, shocked. “But what about your family–”

“I can’t face my parents like this alone.” Mary gestured at her stomach.

“Mary,” Natalie began, uncertainly. “With Luke out of the picture, I think you’re going to need all of the help that you can get. I’m not saying that you can’t do it – you’re a strong, independent woman and all – but…raising a baby solo is hard.”

Mary bit down on her lower lip, blinking back tears. “I know. You’re right. I know you’re right.”

“I’m always right,” Natalie teased, eliciting a laugh from her friend. “But seriously though, if you don’t want to stay with me tonight, that’s fine. Just get a good night’s sleep, spend the day relaxing tomorrow, and I’ll swing by your hotel after I get off work so that we can head home to Bayside together, okay? And if you don’t want to face your parents alone tomorrow night, I can be there with you.”

“You don’t have to–”

“I know I don’t have to,” Natalie interjected gently. “But I want to. Just sleep on it and let me know tomorrow, alright?”

“Okay.” Mary let out a grateful laugh. “Thanks.”

“Where are you staying anyway?”

“The Plaza.”

“The Plaza?” Natalie’s eyes widened. “Well no wonder you don’t want to stay with me! Take advantage of it, girl! Get room service, a massage – the whole works! And make sure to charge everything to the room!”

Both women burst out into fits of laughter at the statement, but before either could speak another word, a waiter sidled up to their table with a warm smile on his face. “So sorry to have kept you waiting! My name is Marcus, and I’ll be your server tonight. Can I start you ladies off with anything to drink? An appetizer, perhaps?”

“I actually haven’t had a chance to look at the menu yet,” Natalie admitted with an apologetic smile.

“I’ll give you a few more moments–”

“Actually,” Mary interrupted the man before he could walk away. “I’m not really that hungry. I think we’re just going to go.”

“Are you sure?” Natalie asked, peering at her friend, concerned.

“Absolutely.” Mary pushed herself to her feet. “Sorry to waste your time,” she said to the gobsmacked waiter before hurrying for the front doors of the restaurant as fast as her pregnant belly would allow her. She could sense Natalie hurrying after her, but refused to slow down until she passed Rebecca the hostess at the front of the establishment.

“You’re leaving?” the woman asked, aghast. “But I–”

“I’d rather eat anywhere else than this hole of a restaurant,” Mary interrupted, earning a look from the hostess that suggested she had just slapped the woman in the face. “And by the way: if you ever do end up calling that guy who was here with me earlier – Luke Johnson – good luck. You’re going to need it.” And before the flabbergasted hostess could respond, Mary pushed her way out of the building with Natalie following close behind.

Mary allowed her best friend to accompany her on the five-block walk uptown to the Plaza Hotel on 58th St. If she was being honest with herself, she was glad for the company on the stroll along the frigid streets of Manhattan, which were completely dark apart from the neon storefronts blinking on either side of them, and the Christmas lights twinkling warmly above. There was a certain magic about winter, particularly the Christmas season, that Mary had always liked; it made the city of New York seem quieter and emptier than it ever actually was.

Natalie was actually a big help in safely guiding Mary along the icy sidewalks, which were sprinkled with nowhere near as much sand as they should have been, and did an excellent job distracting her from becoming consumed by troubled thoughts by rambling on about the trivialities of her own life, while being careful not to let slip anything about any romantic endeavors that she may or may not have had going on for herself. When they came to a stop in front of the Plaza, she engulfed Mary in a tight hug just as the baby kicked against its mother’s stomach again. “I felt the baby move!” she exclaimed, amazed.

Mary laughed. “It tends to do that. It’s been pretty active for a while now. Getting more so now that we’re nearing the end of the pregnancy.”

Natalie nodded, as she stared up at the late 19th and 20th century revival building, with lighted garland strung up besides the row of flags affixed to its front, flapping wildly in the wind, before turning to stare at the equestrian statue of William Tecumseh Sherman at the center of Grand Army Plaza, bounded on the north by Scholar’s Gate, on the south by Bergdorf Goodman department store, and the Plaza itself on the west. Turning to stare down East 58th St., she could just make out the façade of the world-famous toy store – FAO Schwarz. The area was a beautiful place to stay. But turning to glance at Mary, her heart sank when she realized her friend was in no place to appreciate its beauty. “Are you sure you’re going to be alright tonight? I really don’t mind if you want to stay with–”

“I’ll be fine,” Mary interrupted, before glancing up at the peaks of the hotel. “If I need anything, I’ll call. I promise.”

Natalie eyed her uncertainly for a moment before nodding and flashing a small, reassuring smile. “Well, try to get some sleep, alright?” She engulfed Mary in yet another hug. “And try not to dwell on Luke or…well, anything negative.” Upon releasing her, she held her at arm’s length and added, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Mary nodded. “See you tomorrow.” And with a tiny wave, she hurried beneath the hotel’s awning, nodding in acknowledgement at the two doormen flanking the doors, and entered the stunning, marble lobby with glass ceilings and a mosaic-tiled floor. She barely had time to sweep the grand space with her eyes, however, before a wave of emotion hit her; Luke had left her, and she would have to face her parents the following evening alone – truly alone for the first time in her life apart from the unborn baby inside of her, and her own, dark thoughts. The thought was enough to make her sick. Or perhaps that was pregnancy sickness? Maybe she felt nauseous because she hadn’t eaten? Or maybe, perhaps, it was a combination of all three?

Whatever the case, Mary rushed past the lobby’s towering Christmas tree, with mounds of wrapped gifts beneath its branches and its clear lights sparkling, and hurried for the elevators, her vision becoming blurry from the tears now building up in her eyes and threatening to spill down her face. So concerned with preventing that from happening until she reached the privacy of her room, she didn’t notice the man directly in her path until she bumped right into him. “I’m sorry,” she choked, as she stumbled backward, grateful that the man reached out a hand to help her keep her balance.

“It’s my fault! I shouldn’t just be standing around the middle of the lobby doing nothing.” The man smiled wide, and as Mary blinked away her tears and he came into focus, she noticed that she had run into one of the hotel porters. Tall and lanky, with delicate – almost feminine – features, the man was so attractive with his fiery-red hair and twinkling green eyes that his dorky red and black uniform didn’t detract from his appearance whatsoever. Indeed, the lights of the Christmas tree looming over them illuminated him in such a way that it appeared as though a halo of light was shining down from the heavens above directly onto him.

So transfixed by the porter was Mary, that she stared at him so long the man had to finally ask, “Is everything alright, ma’am?”

“I – yes. I’m sorry.” Mary quickly looked away. “I didn’t mean to–”

“You look as though you’ve been crying,” the man pointed out, studying her face closely.

Mary felt herself flush a deep shade of red at the words, and mentally kicked herself for being such an idiot; he hadn’t noticed her staring, but had noticed her puffy eyes. “I’m fine,” she assured him. “I was just – I’m just tired. I need to get to sleep.” She motioned at the elevator bank behind the man.

“Well, luckily for you, I work the elevators.” The man smiled and extended a hand. “I’m Gabe.”

“Mary.” She shook the man’s soft hand.

“Mary.” Gabe repeated with a smile. “An appropriate name for a pregnant woman who looks as though she’s due to give birth on Christmas.”

“Oh, please.” Mary snorted in derision before letting out a laugh, as Gabe called one of the elevators. “As if things weren’t going my way already, the last thing I need is to give birth on Christmas day.”

The elevator doors opened and Gabe allowed Mary to step past him into the box before following suit. “What floor?”

“Twelve.”

Once the elevator doors closed and they began to ascend, Gabe turned to Mary and asked, “Are you sure you’re alright, ma’am?”

“It’s just – it’s been a long day.” She let out a bitter laugh. “I’m just ready for the holiday season to be over. Which is something I never thought I’d say,” she admitted quietly, almost as an afterthought.

Gabe nodded his understanding. “A lot of people feel that way this time of year. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed around the holidays, and to fixate on evaluating your life. It’s not healthy to keep all of your emotions bottled up though. And you know what else? I truly do believe there’s something magical about Christmas.” Mary raised an eyebrow, skeptically. “I believe Christmas day truly holds some power to make even the most cynical, and those of us who hurt the most, feel a little bit happier. It’s the power of so-called Christmas cheer. So if you’re feeling upset and hopeless right now, just try and keep that in mind. Open yourself up to be touched by it.”

“Opening myself up to be touched hasn’t yielded the best results in the past,” Mary joked, patting her stomach.

“I’m serious.” Gabe smiled warmly. “There’s a reason that the holiday season begins earlier and extends later with each passing year. People are desperate to hold onto the feelings that Christmas leaves them with. If you don’t mind me asking, are you religious?”

“Wanna buy me a drink first before diving straight into the personal questions?” Mary laughed before answering. “I was raised Catholic, but I haven’t prayed or been to church in years.”

“Well, all I know is that if I were feeling particularly distressed and needed some guidance, I’d find a church to sit in and think on it for a while. Who knows what answers you could find there? Besides, if you’re going to go to mass, is there ever a better one to go to than a Christmas service? Even if you’re not religious, at least you’ll know all of the carols to sing along to.”

The elevator came to a stop at that moment and the doors opened, for which Mary was extremely grateful. “Well, thanks for the illuminating conversation, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave it here.” She stepped out of the box. “Thanks for the ride.”

As she began to dig through her purse for some cash to tip him with, Gabe held up a polite hand to rebuff her. “Don’t worry about it,” he insisted. “If you need anything else, just make sure to call for Gabe.” And with a final wink, the elevator doors closed again and obscured him from view, leaving Mary alone in the hallway with her hand in her open purse.

“What a weird guy,” Mary mused as she made her way down the hallway. When she found her room, she stared at the number hanging on the door and sighed softly. “Room 1225. It’s like the universe is making a mockery of my current situation.”

Opening the door, she walking into the dark room and turned on one of the bedside lamp before allowing herself to fall onto the king-sized bed, her arms splayed out as far as they could stretch. She stared up at the ceiling for a moment before turning onto her side and staring out of the window at the Christmas lights illuminating the streets below. The lights were always one of her favorite things about the holidays; they normally always managed to cheer her up. Tonight, however, they weren’t helping. They were only making her think about how depressed she felt – how much she dreaded seeing her family; how much she feared being a single mom raising a child alone; and how this was surely going to go down as one of the worst Christmases in her life. In fact, she was pretty confident that she hadn’t felt this way around the holiday season for almost a decade.

Pushing herself into a sitting position, refusing to think back that far and become even more depressed, Mary spotted the mini-bar across the room and hurried over to it. She was craving a drink, and although she knew she couldn’t have one, she started removing every piece of liquor from the little fridge in order to rack up Luke’s credit card bill. As she carried the armful of tiny bottles to the bathroom sink and began to pour them all down the drain, one by one, she couldn’t help but start to laugh. The laughing, however, quickly turned to sobbing, but because she was alone, she allowed the tears to flow freely. After all, as the kindly porter in the elevator had advised her, it wasn’t healthy to try and hold in such strong emotions.

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