Happy Thursday, Christmas fanatics! Welcome to the thirty-fifth official installment of “Another Christmas Story”!
In this week’s episode, everybody’s favorite unofficial fourth elf – Mr. Gerry Davila of “Totally Rad Christmas” – will read to all of you Chapter Thirty-Four of our tale, entitled “The Little Drummer Boy”! 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 ears and eyes as possible!
Coming up on the show this upcoming Monday, September 27th, we will be dropping our episode in which we discuss the 2016, HBO/PBS joint-production, “Once Upon a Sesame Street Christmas” ! And this upcoming Tuesday, September 28th – due to overwhelming popular demand – we will be kicking off Spooky month, in which we will be taking a break from recording episodes covering Christmas movies to cover Halloween films, by recording our episode on the classic, Disney, made-for-TV movie, “Halloweentown” which will drop in your feeds on Monday, October 4th! Before that, however, on Thursday, September 30th, you’ll get to hear Chapter 35 of “Another Christmas Story” entitled “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, which Patreon Queen Kendall Farrae of “For Forks Sake” will be reading to you! So, keep your eyes on your podcast feeds because there’s lots of great stuff coming up!
Enjoy, y’all! 🎅🏻🎄🎁 🦌🦉⛄️🚂🔔 🤶🏻 🎀 ❄️
Chapter Thirty-Four: The Little Drummer Boy
December 24th – 9:15 p.m. EST
Aaron spent the majority of that evening’s Christmas Spectacular performance backstage with Marcello at the animal stable, rather than watching the show itself from the wings with most of his classmates. Kevin, Holly, and Margot were with them as well, and Aaron watched from outside the pen as Marcello supervised his three friends fawning over the animals within it. None of them were worried about missing their cues, for even as far removed from the stage as they were, they could still hear the show loud and clear thanks to the acoustics of the space in addition to the speakers placed high above their heads. (And they knew, if worse came to worst, one of the chaperones or the stagehands would come to retrieve them before they missed their entrance.)
Aaron still felt extremely bitter over the fact that Principal Rodriguez had interrupted he and Holly when they were about to kiss on the stage earlier, beneath the mistletoe hanging high above them in the rafters, and as he surveyed the pretty girl playing with the two donkeys – Nestor and Eeyore – he wondered if he’d get another chance like that again anytime soon. This bitterness, mingled with the depression that was setting in yet again over the fact that his mother would miss his performance and the stage fright that was rearing its ugly head, made the boy feel slightly nauseous. Billy the baby goat seemed to sense the inner turmoil that was torturing him at that moment, for he padded over to the edge of the stable and stood up on his hind legs to peer at Aaron with concern. In turn, Aaron couldn’t help but smile at the animal. “Hey, Billy.” He gently patted the goat’s soft head.
Thunderous applause echoed throughout the musical hall at that moment as a particularly upbeat musical number came to an end. “Not long now!” Marcello exclaimed from where he stood beside Kevin, Holly, and Margot at the far side of stable. Meeting Aaron’s eyes across the pen, he asked, “Are you ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” Aaron replied, flashing the young man a quick smile.
“Relax,” Marcello advised him. “You’ll be fine. You nailed the rehearsals, you’ll knock this out of the park. Trust me.”
Aaron nodded. “I do.”
“Good,” Marcello replied, noting that – even from where he stood – the boy still looked preoccupied. As he began to make his way over to him in order to comfort him, Principal Rodriguez rounded a corner and appeared at the far end of the stable, just behind Aaron’s three friends.
“There you are!” The principal let out a sigh of relief, as he scrunched up his nose at the smell of the nine animals. “I just came to give you your fifteen-minute warning! Holly, Margot, Kevin – start making your way over to stage left. You two,” he addressed Margot and Kevin. “Make sure to grab your instruments on the way.” The three kids nodded their compliance and began to climb out of the pen as the man turned to address Aaron. “Aaron, just listen to Marcello. Though I would start getting into position too if I were you two. Not that I – uh – not that I’d ever dream of telling you what to do, of course,” he added hastily, clearing his throat as Marcello raised an eyebrow. “You’re the expert.”
Marcello smiled in response as Aaron watched his friends hurry past him. “See you later!” Margot waved.
“You’ll do great, dude!” Kevin reassured him with a wink.
“Good luck, Aaron!” Holly flashed him a smile.
“You too,” Aaron replied nervously before the three of them disappeared from sight.
“Break a leg, Aaron,” Principal Rodriguez said. “We’ll see you after the show.”
Aaron gave a curt nod as his principal hurried away after his three friends. The confidence and well wishes that the four of them had just bestowed upon him had the opposite effect of helping him relax – they made the queasy feeling in his stomach worsen. Marcello, however, didn’t seem to notice, as he began to shepherd the barn animals into a straight line. “We really should start making our way to stage right,” he admitted, without glancing at the boy.
“I have to use the bathroom,” Aaron blurted out, louder than he intended to.
Marcello looked up in surprise at the words, noticing in the dim lighting from above just how pale Aaron suddenly appeared. “Are you alright?” he asked, concerned. “Are you sick?”
Aaron shook his head vehemently before lying, “I just need to pee.”
“Do you know where it is?” Marcello asked. “Do you want me to come—”
“I’ll be fine,” Aaron insisted.
“Okay,” Marcello replied uncertainly. “Well, be quick. I’ll meet you stage right, okay? I’ll grab your drum for you.”
“Thanks,” Aaron replied before hurrying away without another word.
It took Aaron a minute longer than it normally would have to find the nearest men’s room, due to the dark lighting and maze of sets and props he had to navigate through, but when he did, he was thankful to find it blissfully empty apart from himself. Hurrying over to the sink, he turned on the cold water faucet and splashed some of the cool liquid onto his flushed face. He then gripped either side of the sink and stared at his reflection in the mirror, watching as the water dripped down from his face into the basin below. “Relax,” he instructed his reflection in an attempt to calm himself down. “Relax. You’ll be fine. You’ve got this.” As he talked to himself, he noted just how young he looked and sounded at that very moment.
So lost in his own reassurances, trying to psyche himself up and will away the knot in his stomach that was threatening to overwhelm him, that Aaron didn’t hear the bathroom door swing gently open behind him. Indeed, it wasn’t until he realized how close he was cutting it to showtime and turned his back on the bathroom mirror, his hands clutched tightly into fists in an attempt to steady himself, that he realized he was no longer alone. Daniel and Chris were both standing directly behind him, triumphant smiles plastered on both of their faces and blocking his path to the bathroom door. At the sight of them, Aaron’s heart sank and his stomachache intensified when he realized that he was alone, backed into a corner like a trapped rat. “What do you two want?” he warily asked.
Chris shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s a free country, Rankin. It’s a public bathroom, not a private one.”
“Are you okay?” Daniel asked with fake concern. “You look a little sick.” He motioned between Aaron and the mirror. “You look a little nervous.”
“I’m fine,” Aaron insisted through gritted teeth, flushing with embarrassment. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…” He made to push through the human barricade that Daniel and Chris had formed, but found himself unable to do so. Indeed, the boys shoved him backwards hard, causing him to stumble and flail in order to remain upright. “Can you two get out of my way, please?” he demanded.
“What’s your rush, Rankin?” Chris mocked.
“Yeah, buddy,” Daniel added. “We just want to make sure that you’re okay! If you’re too scared to go on stage, well…” He shrugged innocently, placing a hand to his chest. “I can help you out. After all, you don’t want to get sick in front of all of those people out there, do you?”
“I’m not going to, don’t worry,” Aaron replied, his temples throbbing. “Now—”
“You know…” Daniel shook his head, pretending to be disappointed. “You really are selfish, you know that, Rankin? I mean, here I am offering to do you a solid, but you’d rather be stubborn and risk embarrassing the entire school on stage tonight! That’s not very nice, now is it, Chris?”
Chris shook his head. “Not very nice at all.”
“I don’t think you should go on stage tonight,” Daniel continued in a tone of mock hurt. “We can’t have you ruining the evening for the rest of us!”
Aaron rolled his eyes. “Just cut it out, alright?” he snapped. “I know what you’re up to, and frankly, I could care less what you think. I don’t have time for this.” And once again, he tried to push past the two bullies to no avail. Indeed, they seemed to have been waiting for him to make such a move, for Daniel grabbed Aaron and pinned his arms to his sides, holding the entire boy in place. When Aaron met Daniel’s gaze, he saw that his tormentor was no longer smiling, even mockingly. In fact, he looked downright angry. “Let go of me!” Aaron demanded, struggling to break free from the boy’s surprisingly strong grip.
“I warned you, Rankin,” Daniel began in a dangerously soft voice. “I warned you that I was going to get you for how you treated me earlier.” And with a nod of his head in the direction of Chris, his friend punched Aaron hard in the stomach.
With a loud yelp of pain, Aaron fell to the ground as all air left his body, and clutched at his stomach as he instinctively curled up into the fetal position. He didn’t have time to catch his breath, however, before Daniel cruelly kicked him hard in the side with nothing less than relish. As he squirmed on the ground, both of his tormentors spat on the floor before Daniel remarked, “Enjoy the show.” And then, laughing, both bullies exited the bathroom, leaving Aaron alone.
Blinking back tears, Aaron struggled to his feet, wincing in pain. Truth be told, he just wanted to curl up in a dark corner and cry, but – as the saying went – the show had to go on, and he knew he needed to be on stage soon. When he pushed against the bathroom door, however, he found that it wouldn’t budge. After a few more seconds of fruitlessly trying to open it, it became apparent as to exactly what happened – Daniel and Chris had locked him in the bathroom.
Horrified, Aaron began to bang on the door with all of his might, desperate for somebody to hear him. If he didn’t get out soon, he’d miss his cue. “Help!” he cried desperately, ramming his shoulder against the door. “Help!”
* * *
“What do you mean you don’t know where our little drummer boy is?” Bernard demanded from where he stood backstage, stage right, beside Principal Rodriguez, a large group of Rockettes, and Marcello and his menagerie. “He’s due on stage in five minutes!”
“He said he was just running to the bathroom,” Marcello explained guiltily. “But he looked really sick. I think stage fright was threatening to overcome him,” he informed the boy’s principal, who was nervously biting his nails.
“Do you know what bathroom he went to?” Principal Rodriguez asked.
“We were near the animal pen, so I’d guess the one nearest to that, but…” Marcello shrugged, as he turned once again to address Bernard. “You know what it’s like back there with the lights dimmed; it’s a maze!”
“I’ll go look for him,” the principal said.
“There’s no time!” Bernard insisted regretfully. “Where’s the understudy?”
The principal deflated at the word, annoyed that such a little snot like Daniel Adams would play such a prominent role in that evening’s performance – a once in a lifetime opportunity for the children. He knew, however, that the show needed to go on, with or without Aaron Rankin. It wouldn’t, after all, be fair to all of his other students. “I’ll go and get him.” And without another word, he turned on his heel, made his way past Marcello, his animals, and the group of concerned Rockettes that were dressed as shepherds and kings, and disappeared in the maze of sets and props backstage.
Emerging in the wings of stage left, amongst all of the children in his car, the principal immediately singled out Kevin, who was standing beside Margot, both of whom were clutching their instruments – a violin and a flute respectively – tightly to their chests. “Have either of you seen Aaron?”
“Not since before you came to get us earlier,” Kevin answered, furrowing his brow in confusion. “Why? Is everything okay?”
“We can’t find him,” Principal Rodriguez admitted, as more students turned to look at him. Ms. Warren and Ms. Barnes, who were keeping watch over them all, hurried over to the principal when they too noticed the worried expression on his face.
“What’s wrong?” Ms. Warren asked, concerned. “Felipe, what is it?”
“We can’t find Aaron,” the principal admitted.
“What?” Ms. Warren’s mouth fell open, aghast.
“Sh!” Ms. Barnes reprimanded, annoyed, as she placed a finger to her lips. “Keep it down or the mics will pick you up!”
“What do you mean you can’t find Aaron?” Ms. Warren demanded in barely more than a whisper.
“Which one’s Aaron?” Ms. Barnes hissed.
“The little drummer boy,” Principal Rodriguez informed her in an undertone.
The eyes of the director of programming widened in panic. “What? Who’s the understudy?”
“Daniel,” Ms. Warren answered wearily, exchanging a look with her colleague who could tell instantly that she felt the same way that he did about the prospect of putting such a petty bully onstage in a featured role.
“Did somebody say my name?” Daniel forcefully pushed his way through the crowd of gathered students until he came to a stop in front of the three adults, shouldering himself to stand between Kevin and Margot.
The principal and the teacher exchanged an uneasy glance before the latter asked, “Have you seen Aaron?”
Daniel’s eyes flashed with annoyance beneath his head of sandy hair. “No. Why?” The answer came a little too quickly, and sounded a little too innocent, for anybody’s liking.
“He’s missing,” Ms. Barnes explained, staring imperiously through her glasses and down her long nose at the young boy. “So we’ll need you to step in and play the part of the little drummer boy. Do you think you can handle that?”
“Wow!” Daniel breathed. “I mean – wow! That would be – but Aaron – I mean, of course I will! I’ll do my best, anyway,” he promised, as Ms. Barnes pursed her lips disapprovingly.
“Oh, but Ms. Warren! He can’t—”
“That’s enough, Kevin,” Ms. Warren interrupted her student, as Ms. Barnes shushed him angrily. Then, addressing Daniel, she instructed, “Follow Principal Rodriguez to the other side of the stage and get ready. Do everything that Marcello instructs you to, do you understand?”
“Yes, Ms. Warren,” Daniel replied with a smug grin before hurrying after his principal and out of sight, but not without one last knowing glance over his shoulder in Kevin’s direction.
The moment that the boy disappeared from view, Kevin turned toward his teacher. “But Ms. Warren, you can’t send Daniel out on stage! Aaron—”
“—is nowhere to be found,” Ms. Warren interrupted sadly. “Trust me, Kevin, I don’t like it any more than you do, but it is what it is. Now just…get ready to go on stage.” And without another word, she followed Ms. Barnes over to where Holly, Chris, and Erin were sitting on a couch, out of earshot, waiting to be rolled out onto the stage.
“Ms. Warren’s not the only one who’s not going to like this,” Margot informed Kevin sadly. “Holly’s going to be pretty disappointed when she notices that Daniel’s playing the drum instead of Aaron. I think she was looking to him for a bit of confidence, you know?”
Kevin nodded, as he turned desperately on the spot, craning his neck to try and peer over the heads of his classmates. “Where the hell can he be?”
* * *
Aaron’s voice was hoarse now from yelling at the top of his lungs repeatedly, and his hands were trembling and bruised from banging on the bathroom door so hard; they were also bloody. Both his fingers, and his knuckles, were bleeding profusely, and if one were to inspect the bathroom door closely, they would see long scratch marks embedded into the wood. But Aaron wasn’t staring at the door that closely. In fact, Aaron wasn’t even standing any more. He had leaned his head against the door, his eyes closed, and slid down to the ground helplessly to where he now sat on the cool linoleum floor, beneath the harsh, sterile lighting above. It was no use; nobody was coming to rescue him from the bathroom in time to make his cue on stage. The music reverberating backstage was too loud – it was drowning out his desperate cries for help.
When the sound of thunderous applause drifted back into the bathroom, signaling the end of the musical number that preceded his class taking the stage, Aaron knew that it was too late. He was officially going to miss the show.
* * *
“I’ll act as a barrier between you and the animals, alright?” Marcello asked Daniel, as a set change was occurring on stage. “You just worry about playing the drum.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Daniel waved away the man’s instructions, as he stared down at the growling goat that the Italian was doing his best to restrain. “You just keep that – that thing away from me.”
“Daniel!” Principal Rodriguez snapped. “Behave yourself!” He shot Marcello an apologetic glance over the boy’s head, noticing how depressed the young mad seemed over the fact that he wouldn’t be walking onstage alongside Aaron.
“Where’s my drum?” Daniel demanded.
Marcello hesitated for a moment before picking Aaron’s marching snare drum up off of the ground and gently placing it around the arrogant boy’s neck. As Daniel gingerly accepted Aaron’s worn and battered old drumsticks in his hands, he couldn’t help but smile triumphantly to himself at how well his plan to usurp the role of the little drummer boy had worked out. Without a word of thanks, he turned his back on his principal and Marcello and looked out onto the stage where a manger – on which the Rockettes playing Mary and Joseph, and a plastic doll playing baby Jesus, were already situated – was already positioned toward the back in the shadows. Meanwhile, at the forefront of the stage, a couch had been rolled out, on which Holly sat between Chris and Erin, a storybook open on her lap. In-between the couch and the manger, on the left side of the stage, rows of seats had been set up, in which the rest of Daniel’s classmates were settling into with their instruments to a loud round of applause from the audience.
* * *
“That short, chubby kid with the glasses is Aaron’s best friend, Kevin,” Megan explained to her mother in an undertone, as the applause around them died away and the student orchestra began to play the opening chords of Away in a Manger.
“The oriental?” her father asked, as her mother rolled her eyes.
“Walt! They prefer ‘Asian’!”
“God, help me,” Megan mumbled to herself under her breath, as the cute little blonde girl sitting on a couch positioned in the corner of the stage began to read aloud from the storybook on her lap.
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world,” she read to her two classmates seated on either side of her, under the guise that they were her younger siblings to whom she was reading a bedtime story. “And everyone went to their own town to register.”
“That one reading is Holly Turner,” Megan informed her parents. “And the ones on either side of her are called Chris and Erin, I think.”
Jake leaned over his baby sister, whom had managed to stay awake the entire time without making a peep, entranced as she was by the magical show, to address his mother and grandparents. “Aaron has a huge crush on Holly.”
“Really?” Megan asked, surprised, as Walt murmured his approval. “She’s cute!”
“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.”
* * *
“He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.”
Aaron, who had been sobbing into his knees on the bathroom floor, paused at the sound of Holly’s voice, wiping the snot from his nose on the back of his hand.
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.”
Aaron was pleased to hear how confident Holly sounded. In fact, he thought that she sounded even better than she had in rehearsals, during which she had sounded amazing enough. She was injecting emotion into the story of Christ’s birth, lending weight to every word. He wished more than anything – despite the nerves that had threatened to overcome him earlier – he had been allowed the chance to march on stage and inject as much emotion and weight into his performance.
“She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available to them.”
More than anything though, Aaron wished he had gotten a chance to perform so as not to have disappointed his mother. Their family had so little, and most definitely did not have money to spare, and yet somehow his mom had managed to scrape together the cash to send him to New York to partake in this once in a lifetime opportunity. And here he was, locked in a bathroom, unable to participate. He had squandered his one chance; he had given away his one shot, and his mom was surely going to be disappointed when he didn’t come home with a recording of his stage debut for her to watch.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over the flocks at night.”
Aaron felt as though he had been doused with a bucket of ice water when he heard this specific line. That line was his cue to begin walking on stage, leading the animals, shepherds, and the kings as he played his drum. Yet he wasn’t doing the leading – Daniel was, and the thought was enough to cause him to break down in tears yet again.
* * *
“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”
For all of Daniel’s mocking of Aaron’s nerves throughout the day, he had to inwardly admit to himself that leading the animals and the Rockettes onto stage in front of an audience of thousands wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be. Sweat was sprouting across his forehead beneath the heat of the lights shining down from above, and his throat felt dry. It also didn’t help his nerves that the baby goat, which Rankin had bonded so well and so easily with, was growling behind him, barely being restraining by Marcello.
What did help, however, was the fact that – due to the lights – Daniel couldn’t make out specific members of the audience watching him; it was merely a faceless crowd of people. And as the orchestra made up of his classmates transitioned to playing the dulcet tones of The Little Drummer Boy, Daniel straightened his back confidently and began drumming his heart out on the instrument hanging around his neck.
* * *
“But the angels said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.’”
Megan squinted, leaning forward on the edge of her seat as she eyed the little drummer boy up and down, her heart racing. Beside her, her mother voice aloud the thought that was permeating every fiber of her being at that very moment. “That’s not Aaron, is it?”
Megan ignored her mother, whipping around to address her eldest son. “Jake! Is that Daniel Adams?”
“I think so…” Jake squinted hard at the stage. “I don’t see Aaron anywhere.”
As Megan’s eyes scanned the stage frantically, her mind raced with questions. Where was Aaron? Was he sick? Hurt? Why the hell was his bully playing the role that her son had earned fair and square? Her panic must have registered on her face, for her father reached across her mother at that moment to grip her knee reassuringly. “I’m sure Aaron’s fine, sweetheart.”
Linda nodded her agreement. “The school would have been in touch with you if something had happened to him.”
“Exactly,” Walt added confidently. “Relax. Once the show’s over, we’ll go backstage, see where Aaron is, and find out why he didn’t get to perform tonight. Just breathe, in the meantime.”
Though she knew that her parents were just trying to soothe her nerves, Megan was annoyed by how nonchalant the two of them seemed. Nevertheless, she nodded, unable to articulate her thanks aloud as she feared tears would start leaking down her face. Instead, she leaned back in her seat as her mind repeatedly shouted the same question at her: Where the hell was her son?
* * *
“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Brittany, decked out from head-to-toe in her Virgin Mary garb, did a double-take when she noticed that it wasn’t Aaron playing the drum on stage, but the kid she had witnessed bully him earlier that day. Thankfully, her shock went unnoticed by the audience, as she and her fellow Rockette – made up to look like Joseph, complete with a fake beard – were still in the shadows; the manger still wouldn’t be brightly illuminated for a few second yet. “Psst! Where’s Aaron?” Brittany hissed to her partner, turning to stare up at her. (As Mary, she was kneeling at the baby Jesus’ side while Joseph stood tall, keeping watch over the two of them.)
“The little drummer boy!”
Her partner shrugged, indifferent, before advising, “Get your game face on! We’re about to be bombarded with the flashing of cameras!”
Brittany gave a curt nod before shaking her head in a vain attempt to clear it and rearranging her expression into one of love as she stared down at the doll standing in for her son, trying with all of her might – and failing – to push her worry for Aaron toward the back of her mind for the time being.
* * *
“This will be a-a sign to you! You will find a b-baby wrapped in cloths and lying in…lying in a manger.’”
Holly tripped over her words awkwardly, but it wasn’t her fault. She had decided to chance a glance over her shoulder at Aaron and was surprised to see Daniel walking across the stage in his place. Turning fully around in her seat to meet Margot’s eyes questioningly, she received a wide-eyed look in return. She knew her friend well enough to know what that look meant: “Head in the game! I’ll explain it later!”
She turned to face the audience again, ignoring the scandalized glances of Chris and Erin on either side of her as she did so. Closing her eyes for a fraction of a second in order to recompose herself, unable to push Aaron from her mind completely, she took a deep breath – she had to stick her landing. When she next spoke, her voice was clear, steady, and confident again.
“‘Suddenly, a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’”
* * *
The stage lit up brightly as the manger was illuminated and the star above glowed in a dazzling fashion, setting itself apart from all of the others. As the students began to play Hark the Herald Angels Sing loudly, an unseen chorus belted the lyrics with passion and beauty, and the shepherds, kings, and Daniel all kneeled before the manger, as the animals stood stock still facing it. (Minus Billy, whom Marcello was struggling to keep a hold on, as he still seemed really intent on getting to Daniel.)
At the reveal of the beautiful display, the audience burst into applause and began snapping pictures, with no regard at all as to how the flashes of their cameras might disorient those on stage. Backstage, meanwhile, Ms. Warren smiled smugly at the sound of applause, interpreting it as a repudiation of Karolin Barnes’ anger over the fact that Holly had stumbled over a few of her lines toward the end of her reading. Indeed, the old woman was still shaking her head in derision, as she rubbed her temples soothingly, completely ignoring the sounds of praise coming from the audience.
“That went well!” Principal Rodriguez happily exclaimed.
Ms. Warren nodded, as she smiled sadly. “I just wish Aaron was on stage playing the little drummer boy, and Daniel was in the orchestra where he belongs.” A beat, and then, “Felipe – where do you think he is?”
“He’s around here somewhere,” her boss replied with a confidence that didn’t quite meet his eyes. “He’s a smart kid, he wouldn’t have left the building. We’ll find him after the curtain call.”
Ms. Warren nodded again, as she turned her attention back to her students on the stage and joined in with the audience applause – overall, she couldn’t have felt prouder of them if she had tried.
* * *
During the curtain call, after Santa and the Rockettes had taken their bows, they brought Ms. Warren’s third-grade class – including Principal Rodriguez and Ms. Warren herself – out for a bow of their own. Upon their reemergence on stage, the audience rose to their feet in standing ovation. As the kids waved and bowed repeatedly, beaming the entire time, Megan’s eyes roamed over all of their faces carefully, determined to catch sight of Aaron. When it was clear that he wasn’t there, however, her breathing became shallow and her heartrate increased. What if something had happened to him?
The moment that the heavy red curtain lowered over the stage and the lights above turned on again, there was a mad rush from those seated in the audience toward the side theater doors that would dump them out onto the snowy streets of New York. People were clearly in a hurry to get home and spend the remainder of their Christmas Eve with their families, but Megan had bigger concerns than exiting the music hall in a timely fashion. Picking Amy up from her seat, who eagerly held out her arms to accept her mother’s embrace, Megan stepped over Jake’s legs and began moving sideways along their row of seats. “Come on! Let’s go! We need to get backstage and find out what happened to Aaron!”
The words were barely out of her mouth, however, when an announcement was made over an unseen loudspeaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please?” Megan recognized the voice as belonging to the establishment’s manager, Bernard Ainsley, who had gratefully gotten them into the building with their luggage. “Those of you who are family and friends of the Tampa Palms Elementary students, and are waiting around to see them, please remain in your seats; a member of the staff will come to escort you backstage momentarily.”
Megan let out a guttural groan of frustration. “What the—” Her final, inappropriate word was drowned out by Amy, who giggled at her agitated mother.
“Calm down,” Linda advised, as she sank lower into her seat and covertly glanced around the room, embarrassed by her daughter’s language.
“Oh, don’t tell me to calm down, mother!” Megan snapped, annoyed. “My son is missing!”
“Then at least watch your language,” Jake teased, earning himself a reproachful look from the woman.
Ignoring his grandson, Walt stood up – with considerable difficulty, given how hard it was to extricate his large frame from the tiny theater seat – and placed a reassuring hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “Aaron’s not missing,” he assured her. “You would have been notified! I’m sure he just got sick or something.”
Megan stared desperately into her father’s warm eyes before looking around the theater in desperation. The majority of people were queuing up in large bunches to exit the building through the side doors, but she recognized a few Tampa Palm families still sitting in their seats, joyfully discussing how wonderful their kids had done in the show. She was jealous of the lack of concern on their faces; they only made her resent them more than she already did. (Due to her age, none of the other parents truly embraced Megan as one of their own. The fact that she held three jobs to make rent, and was thus unable to attend any of the PTA meetings, didn’t do anything to endear her to them either.)
“Megan?” Walt’s concerned voice forced his daughter to look at him again. “Are you alright?”
Megan forced the fakest of smiles onto her face before giving a curt nod of her head. “Yes,” she lied, her voice hollow. “I’m fine. You’re right. We’ll wait.”
“Good,” Linda replied before instructing, “Now, sit down and compose yourself before they come to get us.” Then, turning in her seat to face her grandson, she asked, “So, Jakey – tell me everything that’s new with you.”
As Jake began to inform his grandmother of the latest teenage drama going on in his life, Megan sat down in an empty seat absentmindedly, not truly hearing the conversation between her mother and her son. She merely tapped her foot impatiently on the ground, nervously awaiting the arrival of somebody who could take her backstage so that she could find her youngest boy.
* * *
The moment that she and her students bounded off stage after the curtain call, Ms. Warren rounded on Daniel Adams – who was sharing a hearty laugh with his insufferable friend, Chris, Aaron’s drum still hanging around his neck. Immediately, she grabbed his arm in a pincer-like grip, which caused the boy’s smile to disappear instantly. As he stared up into his teacher’s eyes, the fear evident in his own, he began, “What are you—”
“Daniel,” Ms. Warren interrupted him, raising her voice so as to be heard over her chattering students and the exit music playing in the theater. “Do you know where Aaron is?”
“No,” Daniel muttered unconvincingly, as Chris stared guiltily down at his feet.
“Daniel,” Ms. Warren repeated sternly, as behind her, Marcello – with the help of Brittany – tried to lead his animals back through the maze of sets and back into their pen. They were having difficulty, however, due to the fact that the young goat was growling angrily, struggling against the Italian’s grip as he kept his eyes on Daniel. “They say animals are a good judge of character. And that one looks pretty damn angry with you…”
“I don’t – it’s just a stupid animal,” Daniel spat furiously, secretly relived when Marcello and Brittany disappeared from sight – dragging the insufferable goat along with them. “Would you let go of me?” he demanded, forcing his teacher to acquiesce. “Maybe the baby just got scared! Did you ever think of that?”
By this time, Principal Rodriguez, Kevin, Holly, and Margot had made their way over to witness the back-and-forth between the teacher and her student. When Daniel met the eyes of his fellow classmates, he saw that they were staring at him accusingly. Their glares made his face turn a deep shade of red, and caused him to demand defensively, “What?”
“Aaron wasn’t too scared to perform,” Holly pointed out. “He was excited!”
“Give me a break.” Daniel rolled his eyes. “Your boyfriend—”
“You did something to him, didn’t you?” Kevin pointed a finger at the bully. “And you helped!” He switched his gaze to Chris, who looked up from the ground in surprise.
“Leave me out of this!” Chris threw his hands into the air innocently. “I didn’t do anything!”
“Neither did I,” Daniel growled pointedly at his friend through gritted teeth, smacking the back of his head.
Margot rolled her eyes. “Give me a break. You can’t even go to the bathroom without one another!”
“Children, enough!” Principal Rodriguez snapped impatiently. “You’re not helping. Besides, those are very serious accusations.” After exchanging a glance with his employee, he stared down at Daniel. “Listen very closely; if you know where Aaron is, you better tell us right now.”
Before Daniel could do anything more than sputter incomprehensibly, Ms. Barnes joined the group and clapped her hands authoritatively in order to get the attention of everyone gathered in the immediate vicinity. “Well done, children! I’m impressed! I think that went exceptionally well, despite a few hiccoughs.” She threw Holly a pointed look. “Nevertheless…”
Ms. Barnes’ voice trailed away as the loud exit music echoing around the theater came to an end, and a new sound could suddenly be heard in the distance, coming from somewhere within the bowels of the backstage maze. A dull thumping, over which a tiny voice could be heard calling, “Help!”
Ms. Warren and Principal Rodriguez locked eyes at the sound, horrified, as Margot pointed out the obvious. “That sounds like—”
“—Aaron,” both school officials finished in unison, their voices half groans. Without thinking, Ms. Warren took off into the maze of sets and props, yelling over her shoulder at the chaperones and Rockettes, “Stay with the kids!”
“You two, come with me!” Principal Rodriguez ordered Chris and Daniel angrily before taking off after the teacher. Though they exchanged a quick look of panic, the boys didn’t dare disobey, and obediently followed after their principal. Despite not being invited, Kevin, Holly, and Margot followed after their classmates, and were trailed by Ms. Barnes, who called ahead to the school officials. “The music must have blocked out his voice!”
The group of eight finally emerged from the maze of sets and props in front of a bathroom door that was barricaded shut by a twelve-foot wooden candy cane at the same time as Marcello and Brittany, who had also heard the cries of help and made their way to the scene from the direction of the animal stable. “Can anyone hear me? Help!”
“Give me a hand,” Marcello instructed the school principal, jerking his head at the candy cane, which was preventing the bathroom door from swinging open. Together, the two men each grabbed one end of the enormous prop and, with great difficulty, shifted it just enough to allow the restroom door to swing outward.
Ms. Barnes let out an audible gasp as Ms. Warren exclaimed in horror, “Aaron!” The boy stumbled out of the bathroom, his clothes disheveled and his hair completely messed up. His face was red and puffy, his cheeks tearstained, and his eyes swollen and watery still. But what the teacher’s eyes were drawn to were Aaron’s hands, which were shaking uncontrollably, his fingers and knuckles bloody and scratched.
At the sight of him, Brittany rushed forward and took his hands in her own, studying them closely. “Are you okay?” She began to wipe the blood away from Aaron’s hands with the hem of her dress, an action that caused Ms. Barnes to widen her eyes in horror at how willingly the Rockette seemed to ruin her costume. “Aaron!” Brittany shook the boy’s hands. “Are you okay?”
“What the hell did you two do?” Principal Rodriguez rounded on Daniel and Chris, who appeared stunned by how awful Aaron looked.
“Not that,” Daniel insisted defensively. “Honestly!”
Aaron watched Daniel and Chris defend themselves with gusto to their teacher and principal, the two of whom were bearing down angrily on them like vultures on their prey. He couldn’t really hear a word any of them were saying though; all he heard was a rising buzzing noise in his ears, which seemed to block out all other sound.
Marcello and Brittany both squatted down in front of Aaron, concerned, and tried to get the traumatized boy to speak with them. Standing close by, peering over their shoulders, were Kevin, Holly, and Margot, who were also trying to get their friend to speak, looking shell-shocked by the state he appeared to be in. “Dude, talk to us,” Kevin implored him.
“Aaron, please say something.” Holly was near tears, and Aaron felt embarrassment well up inside of him at the look of pity on the face of the girl he had had a crush on since kindergarten. In his anger, sadness, and embarrassment, his vision started to blur when he glanced over at his tormentors, who were being berated by their teachers. “Look at him!” Ms. Warren was shouting, as she waved her arm in Aaron’s direction. “What the hell were you two thinking?”
“Look at him!””
Aaron narrowed his eyes as Daniel came into focus, and managed to choke out in a hoarse voice, “You did this!” He pointed a shaking finger at the boy.
Every eye turned to find Aaron as he addressed Daniel, who looked at him with what appeared to be genuine guilt on his face. “I didn’t mean to—”
“—to what?” Aaron demanded, his voice rising furiously. “Follow me into the bathroom? Shove me to the ground? Kick me while I was down? Lock me in there so you could steal my part in the show?”
Chris, who appeared even more conciliatory than Daniel, muttered in a soft, small voice, “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry isn’t good enough!” Aaron snapped loudly, his voice echoing around the enormous space. “You made my life hell today, and you took an opportunity from me that I’ll never get back!”
Daniel appeared to shrink as Aaron directed his ire at him. Principal Rodriguez, seeking to regain control of the situation, stepped forward tentatively. “Aaron, you are absolutely right. And rest assured that Daniel and Chris will be punished accordingly.”
But Aaron ignored his principal, as he noticed for the first time the instrument that dangled around Daniel’s neck. “That’s my drum,” he quietly pointed out, his voice barely more than a whisper.”
Staring down at the drum hanging around his neck and the drumsticks still clutched in his hands, Daniel muttered, “I’m sorry. I had to use them to—”
“That’s my drum!” Aaron yelled furiously, startling the bully so much that he took a few hurried steps backward.
“Here, you can have it back!” Daniel insisted quickly, as he struggled to remove the instrument from around his neck. The boy was too slow for Aaron, however, who pushed past the startled Marcello and Brittany, hurried past Kevin, Holly, and Margot, and stormed across the space between him and his tormentor before anybody could stop him.
Daniel realized what was going to happen before it did. He held up his hands in front of him in self-defense, trying to sputter out another hurried apology, but it was too little, too late for Aaron, who drew his fist backward and, with all of the force he could muster, thrust it forward and punched the boy square in the nose. The punch was so powerful, in fact, that it lifted the boy off of his feet and sent him flying backward, where he landed hard a few feet away in a pile of empty, wrapped boxes that served as set decoration in multiple scenes during the Christmas Spectacular. “Ow!” he exclaimed, as the drumsticks he had been clutching tightly in his hands rolled away from him, clattering loudly on the floor.
“Aaron!” Ms. Warren and Principal Rodriguez both made to grab him at the same moment, but Aaron shrugged both adults away as he launched himself atop of Daniel. The bully could do little more than try fruitlessly to block Aaron’s punches, as the boy kept him pinned down to the ground with his knees.
The flood dams within Aaron had burst open, as he rained blow-after-blow upon Daniel, shouting at him incomprehensibly as he turned all of the pain and frustration the bully had instilled within him and preyed upon all day back on him – his doubts about Santa Claus…his fear of Krampus…his feelings for Holly…his homesickness for his mother…his own nagging self-doubt…
“Somebody make him stop!”
“Aaron, that’s enough!”
As Principal Rodriguez grabbed him around the waist, Aaron in turned grabbed his drum that still dangled around Daniel’s neck and pulled it away from the bully as his principal forcefully removed him from atop of the boy. When he set Aaron down a few feet away, Aaron stumbled slightly as he regained his footing, the blood still pounding furiously in his head.
A long silence followed his outburst, broken only by the sobs of Daniel on the ground, who was bleeding from the nose and mouth and was being comforted by Chris, who hurried over to kneel down beside him. Everybody else, meanwhile – his principal, his teacher, his friends, Marcello, Brittany, and Ms. Barnes – stared at him in utter shock, fear in their eyes. Finally, Ms. Warren began, “Aaron—”
“Don’t,” Aaron cut across her, taking the woman by surprise as he hung his drum around his neck. “Just don’t. I’m done.” Near tears again, he stomped over to where his drumsticks lay on the floor, and bent down to pick them up. “I just want to go home.” He threw his friends, who were staring at him as though never truly seeing him before, an apologetic look before turning on his heel and hurrying away, disappearing amongst the maze of Christmas sets and props.
“Aaron!” Ms. Warren made to take off after her student, but before she could take more than a few steps, Marcello blocked her path. “Don’t,” he advised her, shaking his head wisely. “Give him a few minutes to calm down.”
Ms. Barnes cleared her throat pointedly at that moment before addressing the two school officials from Florida. “Just a reminder, you two are responsible for the safety of your students – not the music hall.”
Ms. Warren rolled her eyes in annoyance, as Principal Rodriguez stared down at Chris and the still sobbing Daniel. “You two,” he began in a threatening tone of voice that was barely more than a low growl. “Are in so much trouble.”
Before either of the two kids could respond, there were hurried footsteps and the music hall’s manager appeared before them, staring around in confusion. “What’s going on here?”
“There was a tiny incident,” Ms. Barnes informed him dryly, indicating Daniel’s bloody face. “Is there something that you wanted?”
“I was just – should I let the families backstage?” Bernard asked meekly.
“Aaron’s grandparents!” Ms. Warren exclaimed, slapping a hand to her face as she suddenly remembered. “They were in the audience tonight,” she reminded Principal Rodriguez, who visibly deflated before her eyes.
“Not just his grandparents,” Bernard corrected brightly. “His mother and siblings are here too.”
Bernard nodded. “I met them earlier. They flew in to surprise him.”
“Why didn’t you say anything earlier?” Principal Rodriguez demanded. “When Aaron first went missing!”
“I was a little preoccupied trying to keep the show together,” Bernard replied defensively. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s a long story,” Ms. Barnes informed him, as the principal and teacher exchanged a wary glance. “But never you mind. You can start bringing the families back.”
As Bernard hurried away, Ms. Warren informed her boss, “I’ll go and find Aaron.”
“Actually…” Marcello stepped forward tentatively. “Do you mind if Brittany and I go find him? I think I have a good idea where he might have gone.”
Brittany nodded before adding, “Besides, it’ll give you a chance to talk to the family alone.”
Ms. Warren, who was dreading doing exactly that, nodded her head in response, recognizing the merits of the plan, and watched with a pang of jealousy as the two hurried out of sight, inwardly preparing herself to deal with a sure-to-be furious mother.
* * *
Aaron had no conscious sense of which direction he was walking backstage, all he knew was he wanted to get as far away from his teachers and classmates as fast as he could. He just wanted to be alone. His mid, however, clearly had a different idea, and before long, he found himself coming to a stop beside the animal pen containing all of the adorable barnyard creatures that he never got a chance to lead in front of an audience. The majority of them were so distracted by their food that they didn’t even register his presence, except, of course, for the tiny, hyper, baby goat that couldn’t be happier to see the small boy. At the sight of the kid standing on its hind legs in an attempt to peer over the rail at him, Aaron couldn’t help but smile despite how miserable he was. “Hey, Billy.” He reached into the pen to pat him on his soft head. “It’s good to see you too.”
Billy was leaning into his touch desperately, baaing contentedly as he licked Aaron’s fingers. “That tickles!” He laughed. “Alright, alright. Hold on.” He walked around the perimeter of the stable, amused by the fact that Billy followed his steps within, until he reached the latched gate that led inside of it. Undoing the latch, Aaron let himself in and was nearly bowled over by the goat, who was jumping on him and licking him like an overgrown puppy dog, his tail wagging happily. “Okay, okay!” Aaron laughed, sitting down on a bale of hay in the corner of the pen. Billy immediately rested his head on the boy’s knee, staring up at him with his soulful eyes, as the boy scratched him between his ears absentmindedly, surprised by how comforting the animal’s presence was.
Aaron watched all of the other animals, grazing and drinking on the opposite side of the enclosure, and immediately felt his depression overwhelm him once again. Though he could have sat there with Billy all night, he realized that he needed to get out of there. He couldn’t face his teachers or classmates again that evening; he couldn’t face his grandparents, who were no doubt on their way backstage to demand answers as to why their grandson hadn’t performed in the show; and he sure as hell couldn’t face the prospect of calling his mother and telling her what had happened. All he wanted to do was run away.
And that was when he spotted an exit door, barely visible in the shadows a few feet away from the animal pen. The moment he spotted it, Aaron decided that running away was exactly what he was going to do. He had to be quick though, because he knew that it was only a matter of time before someone came looking for him. Glancing down at the goat, Aaron leaned down and kissed the animal on the forehead. “I’ve got to go, Billy,” he said sadly. “Be good, alright?”
The goat baaed loudly in protest as Aaron pushed himself to his feet and hurried out of the animal enclosure, closing the gate gently behind him. Then, with his drum hanging securely around his neck and his drumsticks safe in his pocket, Aaron strode over to the exit door, took a deep breath, and pushed his way out of Radio City Music Hall into the snowy, New York, Christmas Eve night beyond.
What Aaron didn’t realize, however, was that though he had closed the gate of the animal pen behind him, he forgot to make sure that it was securely latched. And when Marcello and Brittany arrived on the scene minutes later, it was to find not only Aaron missing – when they were both so sure that he would be there – but the gate of the animal pen only halfway closed, and the pen itself short one, adorable, baby creature.