Happy Thursday, Christmas fanatics! Welcome to the eleventh official installment of “Another Christmas Story“!
This week, our very own Anthony Caruso will read to all of you Chapter Ten of our tale, entitled “Carol of the Bells”. Within this chapter, we switch back to Aaron Rankin’s point of view as he and his classmates arrive in New York City for their Christmastime class trip!
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 cover the last batch of “Home Improvement” Christmas episodes, and next Thursday for the twelfth official chapter of this story – “Chapter Eleven: We Three Kings”, which listener, Claude Bélanger, will be reading to you!
Chapter Ten: Carol of the Bells
December 24th – 7:00 a.m. EST
“Stick together! This way to reclaim our luggage! Follow me, please!”
The third-grade students of Tampa Palms Elementary School dutifully followed their teacher, who was waving her hand through the air in order to remain visible as she led them through the crowded baggage area of Newark airport toward the luggage carousel in which they could retrieve their suitcases and instruments. It was barely seven-in-the-morning, and though the sky outside had lightened considerably, given the fact that it was wintertime, the sun had still not completely risen. Normally, the young children would be weary with exhaustion and complaining due to a lack of a sleep, but the bird’s-eye glimpses they had gotten of New York City as they descended toward the airport had filled them with such wonder, it had instantly awoken them.
Aaron in particular – who had barely slept on the plane due to nightmarish visions of a demonic goat with a forked-tongue, stalking him on its hind legs, had been particularly dazzled by the lights below them as their plane had come in for a landing. He had no tangible memories of having ever lived in Manhattan, since his mother had moved them down to Florida when he was still extremely young, and as he glanced down at the towering buildings stretching high into the sky, he couldn’t fathom ever having lived within the confines of such a sprawling cityscape. From above, the place looked exactly as it did in all of the movies, and for the first time in nearly twelve-hours, the homesickness he had felt at leaving his mother, his frayed nerves about performing on stage later that evening, his doubts about Santa Claus, and his newfound fear of Krampus were all pushed to the back of his mind as excitement consumed him. He couldn’t wait to see what the place looked like from the ground.
As his fellow classmates chattered excitedly around him, roughhousing with one another, and an alarm began to blare loudly above the luggage carousel as a variety of suitcases and duffel bags began to appear on the conveyor belt, Aaron stared around at his surroundings. Excited families were reuniting with squeals of joy and tight hugs, as lonely businessmen and women stared blankly ahead, waiting for their bags. There were many sad and lonely looking people around him as well, including a man who could be no older than thirty, dragging a carry-on suitcase behind him as he hurried past Chris and Daniel, holding a phone in the crook of his neck to allow himself to continue speaking to his mother. Aaron supposed that a lot more people than he ever thought just didn’t like the holidays as much as he did, which made him sad to think about, and this new wave of depression had the unfortunate side-effect of bringing back the sadness and fears that had been plaguing him before seeing the city that never slept from above.
“Aaron!” Principal Rodriguez’s voice brought the young boy back to his senses, as he turned to see his principal standing ten-feet away, staring in his direction and standing beside Ms. Warren and the trip’s other chaperones whose eyes were glued to the luggage passing by in front of them like hawks. “Grab your drum before it goes all the way around again!”
“Oh!” Aaron hurried forward and – struggling slightly – grabbed off of the conveyor belt the hard, circular case within which his drum was ensconced before dragging it back to where he had been standing with his carry-on.
After retrieving his own bags, Kevin sidled up beside Aaron and stretched in a ridiculously satisfying looking manner, as he gave a loud yawn. “I had a magnificent sleep on the plane,” he informed his friend.
“No need to rub it in.”
“What, you didn’t?” Kevin asked, surprised. “Dude, you’re going to be exhausted by the time we have to go on stage tonight!”
Before Aaron could reply to his friend’s concern, a teasing voice spoke up behind him. “He was probably too scared thinking about Krampus’ impending visit to get any sleep.” Turning, he saw Daniel flash him a satisfying smirk, as he and Chris sidled up beside them.
“Give it a rest, would you?” Aaron rolled his eyes before asserting uncertainly, “You’re making all of this up. There’s no such thing as Krampus!”
“Wow, you don’t believe in Santa or Krampus?” Daniel’s eyes widened in disbelief, as Chris shook his head in mock-pity beside him. “You’re going to have a rough night tonight, buddy.” He placed a hand on Aaron’s shoulder in mock-support, which the boy quickly shrugged away.
“Krampus is going to come punish you,” Chris warned. “Don’t worry though; by the time he’s through with you, I have no doubt that you’ll be a believer.”
“Oh, would you two leave him alone?” The four boys spun around to find Holly standing behind them, leaning casually against her heavy-looking suitcase with an eyebrow raised so high, it had practically disappeared beneath the pink winter hat that she had pulled tightly over her head.
Aaron felt his face flush at the sight of the girl. “I’m fine,” he insisted, mortified to hear his voice crack, which caused Daniel and Chris to burst out into fits of laughter. Before any of the kids could say anything more, however, Ms. Warren had descended upon them, peering suspiciously into their faces. “Is everything alright here?” she asked, smiling kindly as her eyes flickered between Aaron and his tormentors.
“Everything’s fine,” Aaron insisted quickly, as Daniel and Chris shot him obvious looks of warning.
“Good.” Ms. Warren let out a relieved breath she had evidently been holding, deflating slightly before their very eyes. Though she accepted the answer without question, it was clear to Aaron that the woman still sensed something was wrong. “Chris. Daniel. Why don’t you come with me? You can help some of your other classmates with their luggage.”
The two boys exchanged a glance before begrudgingly following their teacher away from Kevin, Holly, and Aaron, whom they shoulder-checked on their way past. Aaron didn’t care, however. He had just realized, with his heart skipping a beat, that he was nearly alone with the girl that he had had a crush on since kindergarten. Kevin seemed to realize this too, as he stared between his best friend and his classmate with a wry smile on his face. Clearing his throat pointedly, he said, “I think I’m just going to go have a browse through the magazines.” And after jerking his head in the direction of a newsstand some twenty-feet away from them, he hurried away from Aaron and Holly before either could even open their mouths to address him, dragging his large violin case behind him as he walked.
“He’s so weird,” Holly remarked with a nervous laugh.
“You’re telling me,” Aaron replied.
The two kids awkwardly gazed at one another, both slightly unsure of what to say. Aaron was trying not to stare too hard at Holly, whose gloved hands were crossed in front of her as she rolled up and down on the balls of her feet nervously. Finally, to break the lengthening silence, he nodded at her and said, “I like your hat.”
“Oh! Thanks!” Holly reached up to pat it fondly. “My grandma knitted it for me last Christmas. I’m just glad I’m finally getting a chance to wear it!” She motioned toward the glass-front of the airport, through which heavy, gray clouds blanketed the sky; it looked as though the heavens were going to open up and dump snow down upon them at any moment. “I haven’t really gotten the opportunity to do it yet back in Tampa. This is the first time I’m actually going to get to see snow in person, you know?” She sighed wistfully. “I hope it’s as beautiful in person as it is on T.V.”
“Snow is definitely beautiful,” Aaron replied quietly, staring directly into the girl’s bright, hazel eyes.
The two maintained eye contact for a few seconds before Holly looked down at her feet, shuffling them nervously as her cheeks flushed pink. “This isn’t going to be your first white Christmas, is it?” She looked up again, pushing a strand of stray hair out of her eyes and tucking it gently behind her ear. “You used to live here, right?”
“When I was really young,” Aaron explained, turning to stare out of the windows again as his mind began to drift away toward long suppressed memories. “I don’t really remember any white Christmases in vivid detail though.”
“Well, if the forecast is right, it’ll be the perfect weather for reindeer to fly in,” Holly noted, eliciting a reflexive snort of laughter from Aaron. When she looked at him, scandalized, he murmured a quiet apology. “Still having doubts about Santa?”
“I’m trying not to,” Aaron admitted, embarrassed. “If Daniel and Chris are telling the truth about Krampus—”
“Daniel and Chris are bullies, Aaron.” Holly rolled her eyes. “Just ignore them.”
“So you’re saying Krampus isn’t real?”
Holly shrugged before admitting hesitantly, “I don’t know; he could be. I haven’t heard of him before though. I mean, why would I have?” She straightened up proudly. “I’ve never been naughty.” Noticing the look of worry on her friend’s face, she hastened to add, “I’m sure you have nothing to worry about though. It’s not like you’re a bad kid. I mean, even Daniel and Chris aren’t bad enough that Krampus has had to visit them.”
“They believe in Santa though,” Aaron pointed out. “They’re not having doubts like me.”
“Well, if you’re having doubts, why not ask Santa himself to clarify them for you?” Holly asked. When Aaron stared blankly at her in response, she rolled her eyes. “At Macy’s. Didn’t you read the itinerary Ms. Warren handed out on the plane?”
“Even if Santa exists, do you really think he’d be sitting in a department store on Christmas Eve?” Aaron asked. “Don’t you think he’s got better things to do?”
“Haven’t you ever seen Miracle on 34th Street?” Holly asked. “If the real Santa is going to be sitting in any department store, it’s going to be at Macy’s in New York. Even if it’s not the big guy himself, all of the Santas that kids visit are his helpers who report back to him at the north pole.”
Aaron couldn’t help but smirking. “That’s what my mom always told me too.”
“You should listen to us,” Holly pointed out with a wink. “Clearly we know what we’re talking about.”
Before Aaron could reply, a voice shouted, “Holly!”
As one, Aaron and Holly turned to face the luggage carousel, where Margot was struggling to pull her suitcase from the conveyor belt. “A little help, please?”
Holly shrugged at Aaron in a ‘what can you do’ sort of way before winking at him. “See you later,” she said, as she turned on her heel and hurried away to help her best friend. Aaron was still staring after her, his mind racing, when Kevin sidled up beside him. “Well? How’d it go?”
“What do you want me to say?” Aaron asked with a laugh. “She’s always been nice to me.”
“I want you to tell me that you told her that she’s all you want for Christmas this year!” Kevin replied, causing Aaron to roll his eyes. “You should have taken her right up to the doors to stare outside.”
“At the parking garage?” Aaron asked, glancing out of the glass-front of the airport. “Why?”
Kevin pointed at a particularly famous Christmas decoration that was often associated with romance hanging above the sliding glass doors. “Mistletoe. It would have been the perfect excuse to lean in and kiss her.”
* * *
“Excuse me? What’s going on? Is there a reason that we haven’t taken off yet?”
Megan Rankin had stopped the young, round stewardess as she was making her way down the narrow, center aisle that ran the length of the plane. It was a quarter-past-eight in the morning, and she was squeezed beside Jake, with a restless Amy strapped into her lap on the left side of the crowded aircraft that would be flying them to Newark airport. She was exhausted; all she wanted to do was sleep, but she knew that she would never be able to until they were up in the air and the flight crew dimmed the lights. Unfortunately, the plane was almost half-an-hour late in taking off. In fact, they hadn’t even pulled away from the gate yet, and there had been nary an announcement from the flight deck as to why they were delayed. It turned out that Megan wasn’t the only passenger curious about the delay either; there were loud murmurs of annoyance up and down the plane from people who wanted to get to Newark as soon as possible in order to get to the homes of various friends and family members in time for the holidays.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the stewardess replied, distracted. “But the snow just started in New York about fifteen-minutes ago, and reports are saying it’s going to get worse very quickly. We’re being held here until we can get clearance to takeoff, which won’t happen until we can be sure that we’ll be able to land safely once we reach the tristate area.”
Megan’s stomach sank. “Do you know when that will be?” she asked. “It’s just – we have tickets for a show tonight, and—”
“Everyone on this plane has places to be, ma’am,” the stewardess cut across her firmly, her face flickering with annoyance. “Unfortunately, I don’t know how long we’ll be grounded. Why don’t you ask mother nature?” Megan’s mouth dropped open in shock at the snarky response, but before she could come up with a satisfying retort, the stewardess swept away down the aisle.
Megan leaned back in her seat with a frustrated sigh, bouncing Amy up and down on her knees as she did so. “Unbelievable.” She checked her watch. “Hopefully we’re not delayed too long. Or cancelled, for that matter. I don’t want to miss Aaron’s performance.” She glanced sideways at Jake, who was texting furiously on his phone, headphones placed firmly over his ears, ignoring everything that she was saying. Rolling her eyes, Megan pulled the headphones from his head.
“Hey! What gives?” Jake demanded, annoyed.
“Are you listening to me?” Megan demanded, as Jake snatched the headphones from her hands.
“Yes,” Jake spat. “If we do miss the performance though, it’s your own fault. We could have been on the earlier plane with Aaron.”
Pushing aside her surprise that her oldest child actually had actually been paying attention to what she was saying to him, Megan replied, her heart sinking, “I wanted to surprise him. I’m sure we’ll make it in time,” she added, in a half-hearted attempt to reassure herself. Suddenly remembering, she continued, “I should call your grandmother and let her know we’re going to be late so that she’s not waiting at the airport for hours. Here, take Amy,” she instructed. “I can’t concentrate with her squirming in my lap.”
Jake gently lifted a giggling Amy from his mother’s lap, as he suggested nonchalantly, “You could always call dad to pick us up.”
Megan, who had just managed to extricate her cell phone from her pocket, paused to glare at her son. “Don’t start, Jake.”
“Oh, come on!” Jake rolled his eyes. “I don’t believe for a second that you don’t know how to get in touch with him!” Then noticing his mother’s stern, icy glare, he added defensively, “It was just a suggestion!”
“Yeah, well, it was a stupid one,” Megan informed him, as she dialed her mother’s number. Placing the phone to her ear, she mumbled to herself, “Please go to voicemail,” but almost immediately, the call was picked up. “Hello?”
Megan sighed. “Hi mom.”
“Megan!” Her mother, Linda, sounded thrilled to hear her voice. “Is everything alright? Shouldn’t you be in the air by now?”
“Everything’s fine, mom. Listen.” Megan took a deep breath. “We’re delayed in Tampa right now because of the weather in New York—”
“It started snowing a little while ago,” Linda interrupted. “It already looks like it’s coming down heavier.”
Megan’s stomach constricted tightly at the words. “Yeah, well, let’s hope that it doesn’t,” she replied darkly. “Not until we’re able to take off and land safely in Newark, at least. But anyway,” she rushed on, sensing her mother’s desire to interrupt her. “I’m just calling to let you know that I have no clue what time we’re going to be getting in, so wait for my call before heading over to the airport, alright?”
Linda sighed deeply, causing Megan to grip her phone so tightly her knuckles turned white. “Well, hopefully by the time you get in it’s not too late and the roads aren’t too bad. Getting over to Newark from Brooklyn on a good day takes long enough.”
“I know, I know,” Megan replied wearily, closing her eyes as though praying for patience.
“Do you though?” Linda asked condescendingly. “Because it sounds like you’re worried you may not be able to make it in in time to catch Aaron’s performance. And if that’s the case, I don’t want to have to miss it too because I have to pick you up from the airport.”
Megan rolled her eyes. “I’ll call you when I have an update,” she said quickly. “We’ll see you later.” And before Linda could say another word, Megan ended the call and leaned back in her seat with a loud sigh.
Jake, meanwhile, was staring at her with a mischievous smirk on his face. “It’s not always easy dealing with your mother, is it?” he taunted snidely.
“Jake, I’m not in the mood right now, alright?” Megan insisted, reaching out to take Amy into her arms. As her baby daughter smiled up at her, Megan kissed her forehead before assuring her in a baby voice, “I promise never to treat you like my mommy treats me, okay?” Amy cooed in response.
As she glanced up and down the aisle for a flight attendant in order to try and get an update about the status of their flight, Megan wondered if it was too early to request a nice, cold, stiff drink to soothe her nerves.