Happy Thursday, Christmas fanatics! Welcome to the thirty-first official installment of “Another Christmas Story“!
In what was supposed to be last week’s episode, listener Rebecca Boll will read to all of you Chapter Thirty of our tale, entitled “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. 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! And make sure to check your feeds today for this week’s official installment of “Another Christmas Story” – Chapter Thirty-One, entitled “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, as read by Art Kilmer of “A Cozy Christmas Podcast“! (That’s right – there are perks to missing a week! This week, you get two chapters!)
Coming up on the show this upcoming Monday, Labor Day, September 6th – which just so happens to be Anthony’s wife Sarah’s Birthday, so happy birthday in advance to her! – we will be dropping our episode in which we discuss the ABC Family original Movie, “Snow“! And this upcoming Tuesday, September 7th, we will be recording our episode on the 1991, British Cartoon, “Father Christmas”, which will drop in your feeds on Monday, September 13th! Before that, however, on Thursday, September 9th, you’ll get to hear Chapter 32 of “Another Christmas Story” entitled “No Place Like Home For The Holidays”, which the author of the story himself will be reading to y’all! So, keep your eyes on your podcast feeds because there’s lots of great stuff coming up!
Chapter Thirty: O Come, All Ye Faithful
December 24th – 5:15 p.m. EST
It was five-fifteen by the time Mary and Joey found themselves approaching St. Patrick’s Cathedral, through the open front doors of which Christmas music drifted into the cold, Manhattan night. It looked beautiful on any average day of the year, but tonight – on Christmas Eve, covered in snow – it looked extra beautiful. Families were smiling as they made their way up the slippery stone steps to enter the church, throwing money in the bucket of a Salvation Army Santa Claus that stood ringing his bell on the corner as they passed. Neither Joey nor Mary did more than glance quickly at this particular Santa as they threw a few dollars into his bucket; neither of them would admit it aloud, but both were inwardly concerned that paranoia would overcome them and they’d see the man who played Santa at Macy’s or in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
As Joey helped Mary up the stone steps toward the front doors of the church, he noticed that she was staring up at the Neo-Gothic structure unblinking, a look of intimidation on her face. Smirking to himself, he jokingly asked, “You’re not going to burst into flames the moment you step over the threshold, are you?”
“Ha. Ha. Very funny.” Mary rolled her eyes, smiling nonetheless. “I’m just wondering whether or not I actually want to sit through mass. It has been a few years.”
“We don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” Joey insisted, as they stepped onto the landing above the topmost step.
Mary hesitated for a moment, considering the man’s offer, before shaking her head. “Ignore me,” she instructed. “I do want to go. I really do. I don’t know why, but…” She shrugged before letting out an embarrassed laugh. “I don’t know, I think I just want to find some sort of – you know – inner strength or something before I see my parents in a few hours. I’ve heard sitting through mass helps to put the mind at ease.”
“It does,” Joey confirmed. Then, after a beat, he conceded, “Well, if you believe, it does.” Noticing the dark look the woman shot him, he hastened to add, “But I’m sure you’ll feel better after mass.”
“Thanks.” Mary nodded and took a step toward the cathedral’s entrance, steeling herself. “Let’s just get inside. I’m freezing.”
As they walked through the double front doors of the building, the childhood friends found their breath catch in their throats as they stared around the enormous interior. The space was stunning, and completely decked out with garland, lights, Christmas wreaths and trees, candles, and – to the left of the entrance – an enormous, life-sized Nativity scene, around which people were gathered taking photos from behind a rope that had been erected around it in order to prevent them from getting too close. The place was also packed to the hilt with people lining the walls because all of the pews were already filled up. Scanning the place for an empty seat, Mary asked Joey, “Have you ever attended Christmas Eve mass here before?”
Joey shook his head. “Never. I’ve visited around Christmas, and I’ve been to mass here over the years outside of the holiday season, but never when it’s been this crowded.”
“Yeah, same,” Mary admitted absentmindedly, placing a hand on her stomach in time to feel her baby kick. “Let’s go find a seat. I’m sure somebody will give one up for a poor, pregnant woman.”
“You go ahead.” Joey glanced over in the direction of the nativity scene, beside which was a table with rows and rows of candles, most of them lit, their flames flickering in the wind that was blowing in through the church’s front doors. “I’ll catch up. I want to go light a candle first.”
“Suit yourself,” Mary replied with a shrug before starting down the center aisle in search of a seat. As she walked, she played up her pregnancy as much as she could, placing both hands on her stomach and exaggerating her waddle. Almost immediately, an older black woman, who sat beside a pillar on the right side of the church and looked as though she had been saving a seat next to her, called out, “Over here, honey!”
Mary turned as the woman waved her over, a wide smile on her face. “Thank you so much,” she said, as the woman scooted further into the pew, urging her relatives to scooch down as much as they could. “My – uh – husband will be thrilled I found somewhere to sit!”
“Aw, don’t mention it, sweetheart!” The black woman exclaimed brightly, as Mary sat down with a contented sigh. “I was saving the seat for my son, but it looks as though he’s not going to make it in time for mass.” Mary noticed the woman’s face darken. “Imagine? Skipping the birthday celebrations of our Lord and Savior, Lord Jesus Christ, to work! And disobeying his mama’s explicit instructions to boot!” She humphed indignantly before seeming to remember where she was. Forcing a smile onto her face again, she introduced herself. “Violet Jackson.”
“What a perfect name for the Christmas season!” Violet said, as she glanced down at Mary’s swollen stomach. “You look about ready to pop!”
Mary laughed politely, feeling awkward. “It could be any time now.”
“Is this your first?” When Mary nodded, Violet smiled. “Well, take it from a seasoned mother – don’t stress too much. Raising a child is hard work, but it’s one of the most rewarding things you could ever do. You’ll slide right into the role the moment your child is born. It’s like a switch turns on within you just like that.” She snapped her fingers loudly. “You’ll be just fine. Just make sure to enjoy every second of it, because time goes by so fast. And try your best to maintain that glow that you have now.”
Mary was taken aback by the woman’s unsolicited advice, but before she could reply, Violet winked at her and turned in her seat to talk to her relatives, leaving her alone with her own inner thoughts. Shaking her head as though to clear it, Mary glanced back over her shoulder at the life-sized nativity scene, trying to find Joey in the large crowd.
When Mary had walked away from him, Joey had indeed joined the masses in front of the nativity scene. And after briefly eyeing the figures of Mary and Joseph, who stared down lovingly at baby Jesus, he made his way toward the table of candles and slipped five-dollars into the donation box before lighting one. Emulating the sign of the cross, he situated himself on the kneeler in front of the table and began to pray as the flames danced in front of his eyes.
Joey’s belief in God and the power of prayer had been so ingrained in him from a very young age that he couldn’t even begin to fathom the idea that God didn’t exist, even though he could admit that the scientific evidence available to the world made the existence of any such being highly improbable. Still, real or not, he prayed every day, for the act itself comforted him – even if he was only a “C.E.O.” (Christmas and Easter Only) when it came to actually going to church.
As he kneeled there that Christmas Eve, he prayed for guidance in terms of his life and career; he prayed that his parents not be disappointed in him due to his recent failures; and he prayed that Mary found the strength that he knew that she had within her to be confident in her abilities to raise her child. He knew that she’d be a great mother, and wished that she could see that for herself. In addition to praying for specific things, he always thanked God for many things too – in particular, his family and his health. That night, however, he also added something to the list of things to be grateful for – that Mary was back in his life. He didn’t realize until that very moment just how much he had missed having her around, and he silently asked God that they stay in touch in some capacity, one way or the other.
From her seat, Mary watched as Joey pushed himself to his feet and genuflected again before turning to scan the cathedral in search of her. Waving her arm through the air, she was glad that he spotted her almost immediately. As he made his way in her direction, Mary realized that she found Joey’s belief in God quite sweet, even if she was always baffled by how anybody in their generation could still believe in some cosmic being or partake in any sort of religion. Part of her wished that she could find a belief in some sort of higher power herself, if only so she could feel that, no matter what happened in life, there was always a plan in place and things would always get better.
When Joey finally slipped into the pew beside her, smiling wide, Mary asked, “What did you wish for?”
“What did I wish for?” Joey repeated. “I was praying, Mary. Not blowing out candles on a birthday cake.”
“It was a joke, you idiot.” Mary rolled her eyes. “Excuse me for trying to be funny.” Joey laughed. “What did you pray for?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“Why?” Mary asked, taken aback. “Afraid it may not come true?”
“Again, I was praying,” Joey informed her with a smile. “But no, it’s just…” He shrugged. “Some things are too personal to share aloud.” Before Mary could press the issue, he asked pointedly, “How did you manage to get just a good seat?”
Smiling, Mary linked arms with him before turning to the kind black woman sitting to her right, who had just turned to engage her in conversation again. “This is Violet Jackson. Violet, this is my husband, Joey.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Joey,” Violet leaned across Mary, who stifled a laugh at the look of bewilderment on her friend’s face, to shake the man’s hand.
“Uh – likewise,” Joey replied, dazed, as he took the woman’s hand.
Before any more words could be exchanged between the three of them, the chatter around the enormous cathedral began to die down as an older woman climbed up to the lectern on the alter and spoke into the microphone placed there. “Please rise. Our entrance hymn is hymn number 202 – O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
Mary and Joey rose with the rest of the congregation as the organist began to play the opening notes of the aforementioned song. Turning toward the entrance of the church, they watched as the procession of altar boys and girls, deacons, priests, and the cardinal himself – Luke Sweeney – filtered into the building and slowly began to walk down the center aisle. The well-liked and respected Cardinal of New York looked surprisingly young to be holding such a prestigious title, and had a chubby face, kind eyes, and a head of thinning brown hair. As he walked toward the front of the church, he nodded in acknowledgement of his parishioners standing on either side of him, his smile warm as he waved his hands in greeting. When he reached the alter, and the music came to a stop, he turned to face the crowd. “Good evening.”
“Good evening, Cardinal,” the churchgoers responded.
“And Merry Christmas,” the Cardinal added. “We are gathered here tonight…”
Mary felt her mind begin to wander almost immediately, remembering as she watched the hundreds of people go about the ritual and routine in mostly monotone voices and automatic movements why she had always dreaded going to church as a child. It just seemed so disingenuous to her; most of the people who went looked and behaved as though they didn’t really want to be in attendance. Beside her, however, Joey was paying rapt attention and participating in the proceedings with a vigor and knowledge that surprised her. As the mass wore on, however, Mary found herself becoming more and more distracted by the Christmas decorations surrounding them, channeling more of her energy into examining the lights and garland than listening to the service, and it wasn’t until Cardinal Sweeney himself stepped up to the lectern to read the gospel, and the entire congregation rose to their feet once again, that she began to pay attention again.
“When the angels went away from them to Heaven,” the Cardinal began, reading from the enormous bible propped up in front of him. “The shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So, they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.” At the mention of their names, Mary and Joey exchanged a coy, yet amused, glance. “When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told to them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.” Closing the bible, Cardinal Sweeney looked up to meet the eyes of those sitting before him. “The Gospel of the Lord.”
“Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ,” the crowd said as one before sitting down again.
As Mary tried to make herself comfortable in the hard, wooden pew, she watched as the cardinal walked to the center of the alter and looked out upon the crowd, smiling wide. “I’ll try to keep my homily as brief as possible,” he began. “After all, I know all of the kids here probably want to get home and wait for Santa Claus to visit.” There was scattered laughter at the words. “I want to share with you all a paraphrased version of a homily that I read, which stuck with me, that was published on The Huffington Post in 2013 by a Christian minister and social commentator named Reverend Emily Heath. The title of the homily, in case you want to look the full thing up later, is called, No One Remembers the Name of the Inn.” He paused here for a moment before continuing. “Do you ever find that when we tell, and retell, stories in our lives that we always leave out certain details or exaggerate others? The story of Mary and Joseph – of the birth of Jesus Christ – is really no different. The Gospel tells us the story of a baby being born to an ordinary, unmarried couple under the most extraordinary of circumstances. We know this story by heart at this point; we hear it every year. We know of Mary and Joseph, of the three wise kings, and of the shepherds, who all converge upon Bethlehem and end up at the most ordinary of mangers in time to witness the birth of the baby boy who turned out to be the Son of God. Do you know what we don’t remember though? We don’t remember the name of the inn that turned away Mary and Joseph; the name of the establishment that claimed they had no room for the young, pregnant woman on the verge birth to rest in.”
Cardinal Sweeney looked down at his feet at the words, pausing for dramatic effect, before he looked up again. “I often find myself wondering if they truly didn’t have a room to offer, or whether they saw this young, unmarried couple that had – in their eyes – sinned by having relations outside of marriage and didn’t want to offer them whatever room they did have. But then I remember that even though they didn’t give her a room to stay in, they did offer the manager and a pile of hay, and that’s what was important in the end – they gave Mary something, and Christ still came into the world. Christmas still happened, and still continues to happen every single year.”
“God knocks on our doors in our personal lives each and every single day, and asks if there is room in our own personal inns. And sometimes, we look out and we don’t really like what we see, and so we close the door and say, ‘There is no place for you here.’ But sometimes, even when we don’t want to, we open the door anyway to the opportunities that God throws in our path. That matters, because the Christmas story teaches us about more than just an event that happened centuries ago. It teaches us about opening ourselves up to what God is trying to do to us, and for us, in this world. It’s about telling God that there’s room for Him in our lives, and that we trust him enough to walk through the doors that he opens for us; that we take chances on the people and opportunities that he places directly in front of us in our lives, sometimes at the most inopportune times.”
Mary felt her breath catch in her throat at the words, as the baby inside of her kicked enthusiastically. Sneaking a sideways glance at Joey, she noticed that he looked as stunned as she felt. He must have felt her eyes boring into him, for he turned to look at her a moment later, an uncertain look on his face, and Mary knew that he was wondering the exact same thing that she was – had fate brought them back into one another’s lives that day for a specific reason? Were they supposed to seize onto the opportunity that dangled in front of them, like a carrot in front of a horse, and take a chance on one another to prevent themselves from drifting apart again? Were they actually supposed to be more than just friends?
“There is an undeniable magic that permeates the Christmas season,” Cardinal Sweeney continued, glancing in the direction of where Joey and Mary sat side-by-side. “It’s the same magic that enables us to believe in miracles and brings cheer to all of us; the same magic that brings out the best in most human beings during this time of the year, and makes us strive harder for peace on earth and good will toward men. There’s a very good chance that if you are here tonight, some part of you wants to be a part of that; to be part of love made real, of God being active in our world and in our lives, and of a world that can change for the better. Some part of you all wants to be part of the Christmas story. Maybe not the one that the gospel talks about, with the manger and everything that comes along with it, but part of your own, modern Christmas story nonetheless. And you know what? It’s extraordinarily easy to be part of the story as long as you remember to open your doors for the opportunities and the people that God places in your path. That’s who I want us all to be on this Christmas Eve, tomorrow on Christmas day, and every other day throughout the rest of the year. I want us all to be the ones who don’t close the doors or our hearts when God comes to us with something new, but the ones who embrace these new opportunities with open arms. We can all be that; we should all be that.”
“You know…” Cardinal Sweeney laughed. “It’s easy to forget that the baby born in that manager all those years ago grew up to become an adult. When he did, he instilled upon us the following lesson: love and trust the Lord our God with an open heart and an open mind, and love and trust your neighbor and yourself. That is the ultimate Christmas message. And, after Santa Claus visits tonight – when you put your trees away, Christmas dinner has been eaten, and the nativity sets go back into their boxes – that message remains. The ultimate test of how well we have celebrated Christmas this year will not be how many gifts are left under our trees tonight, but in how well we have opened our hearts and let that Christmas message in; in how well we live by that message each and every day of our lives. Thank you.”
As Cardinal Sweeney walked back to his seat, Mary found tears streaming down her face. She had come to mass with Joey in search of guidance, and as a last resort in order to find some sort of comfort, and – miraculously – the cardinal had succeeded in instilling both within her. She had to be strong; to believe in herself and her skills as a mother, and had to take chances when life presented her with new opportunities – or re-presented older ones from her past. Joey was one such chance. And, perhaps, he regarded her emergence in his own life the same way, for at that moment, the woman suddenly found his hand reaching for hers. As their fingers interlocked, she turned to face him and found him smiling down at her as he used his free hand to wipe away her tears.
* * *
After stopping for a meatball sub at one of the only sandwich shops open in the snowstorm that Christmas Eve night, Hudson parked his truck on the curb alongside St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Madison Avenue, pointing north. It was ten-past-six, and since he couldn’t make mass (he doubted, even walking into the church that late, he’d be able to find standing room), Hudson had made the executive decision to park close enough to the building in order to hear the loud music that drifted out of it as he ate his dinner. In his mind, it was better than nothing, and he hoped his mother would view it the same way when he ended up explaining to her why he didn’t join her for the service inside.
By the time the man had thrown his vehicle into park, the dog and the cat locked securely in the cages in the back had quieted down, which allowed him to turn off his blasting radio and eat in peace. He closed his eyes as he listened to the relaxing sounds of the church’s choir and organ, and took solace in the brief respite from the job that he hated so much. He contemplated what kind of future he had in his current career. Sure, it would allow him to be semi-secure financially in addition to allowing him work with a woman he was crushing on hard, but were those things worth it in exchange for chipping away at his own soul a little bit more with each passing day? How many more animals could he possibly pick up and sentence to death?
It was a thankless job, but somebody had to do it! Wasn’t it better that somebody like himself – somebody who loved animals – did it, rather than somebody who showed zero compassion for the strays that were picked up off the streets? He glanced at Booster and Dexter in his rearview mirror to see that both the overweight Pitbull and the heavy tabby cat looked depressed and resigned to their fates, which made Hudson’s heart break even more. A severe sense of loneliness and despair weren’t the last feelings that he wanted the two animals to experience before going to the kill shelter – they deserved some loving contact. After all, it was Christmas Eve.
So, before he could talk himself out of it, Hudson hopped out of the cab of his truck, clutching his half-eaten meatball sub closely to his chest. Shivering in the snow, he hurried around the side of the vehicle, yanked open the back doors, and climbed into the blissfully warm space before slamming the doors shut tight behind him. “Want some dinner?” he asked the two stray animals in his car, who were eyeing him closely through the bars of their cages, as he held up what remained of his sandwich. “Yeah, you do. Come on, let me get you out of there.”
Hudson stooped down to undo the flimsy latches that kept the two cages shut tight. Seconds later, the Pitbull and the tabby were roaming free around the back of the truck. Smiling to himself, the man sat down with his back placed firmly against the barrier that separated the cab from the cargo hold and watched closely as the dog and the cat circled one another uneasily. After a few moments of sniffing one another cautiously, both animals seemed to deem one another safe to be around and visibly relaxed, much to Hudson’s relief. Clearing his throat, he waved what remained of his sub through the air again. “Who’s hungry?”
Booster let out an excited bark and bounded over toward where he sat, ripping the entire thing from Hudson’s hands enthusiastically. “Hey!” he exclaimed. “That’s to share with Dexter!”
The dog, however, either didn’t understand or didn’t care, and lied down beside Hudson – so close to him that he was nearly on top of him – as he began to go to town on his messy sandwich. Surprisingly, Dexter didn’t seem to care either. Indeed, the cat sat down on its hind haunches, holding his head high in a dignified manner, and observed the dog’s sloppy eating habits with something close to disdain. “You should get in on the action before it’s all gone, buddy,” Hudson advised the cat, as a voice in the back of his head pointedly added, ‘Who knows when you’ll get a good meal again after I drop you off at the shelter tonight?’
The cat let out a stubborn meow in response before stretching in what looked like an extremely satisfying manner and walking over to Hudson. Before the man could object, Dexter climbed onto his lap and settled down, purring contentedly. Hudson stared down at him in amazement, astounded by its boldness, as the cat stared up into his eyes expectantly. Laughing, he began to scratch the animal between its ears with one hand while stroking the top of Booster’s head with his other.
Though he was happy and warm sitting with the two loving animals in a silence broken only by the music drifting out of the cathedral on the corner, Hudson couldn’t help but feel like he had made a huge mistake by attempting to give the two strays a sense of comfort. It was only going to make it harder for him to drop them at the shelter, and harder for them to accept their fates. ‘Don’t be so morbid! Look how sweet they are! Surely they’ll get adopted!’
Hudson snorted in derision in response to his own thoughts. It was technically true – Animal Control Services was not an inherently bad place. Nobody who worked there ever wanted to put any animals down. However, due to budget constraints and spacing issues, it was an unfortunate reality in order to keep onboarding new strays. And while a fair amount of animals got adopted before getting killed, just as many didn’t. Due to the high intake rate, many of the strays weren’t even allowed the full ten-day grace period of being featured for adoption before being killed, which was the organization’s official policy. And animals that were unfortunate enough to be brought in around the holidays? Forget about it! They were flooded with pets surrendered by owners because their kids didn’t want an animal as much as they made it seem while talking to Santa Claus. Booster and Dexter wouldn’t stand a chance – especially the former, due to the horrendous and unjustified reputation that Pitbulls had amongst the public.
Sighing sadly, Hudson was shaken from his morbid thoughts when Dexter nipped gently at his hands. Apparently, becoming wrapped up with his preoccupied thoughts caused Hudson to become subpar at scratching the heads of the two animals. Indeed, he didn’t even notice that Booster had completely inhaled the sandwich in full, leaving only crumbs on the floor, and was now resting his enormous head on his lap beside Dexter’s body. Forcing a smile onto his face, Hudson enthusiastically began to pet the animals again, wishing that he could find them homes. Part of them wished he could take them home himself, but he knew that it wasn’t possible – for many reasons, least of which was the fact that he knew it would be opening his internal floodgates that kept his desire to potentially rescue every animal he picked up at bay.
Still, the thought that Booster and Dexter could fade into obscurity and not be remembered by anyone were they not adopted was almost too much for Hudson to bare. He was determined that he, at least, would keep them alive in his memory for as long as he lived. So, after removing his phone from his pocket, he opened the camera app and held it at arm’s length in order to snap a selfie of himself with the two stays.
The photo was a surprisingly good one. Not only did Hudson look good, but both animals were also staring at the camera and appeared content. In fact, the three of them looked like a legitimate family. It was a definite keeper; he had to remember to upload it to social media later, but in the meantime, he sent it in a text to Abby’s personal number. He didn’t know why, but he had a feeling that she’d get a kick out of it.
Sure enough, barely a minute after he sent it to her, Abby called him. Smiling to himself, Hudson placed his phone on speaker. “Hello!”
“You’re alive!” Abby exclaimed without preamble. “You’d think you’d have let a girl know!”
“What are you–”
“You didn’t call me to let me know you successfully picked up the cat!”
“Sorry,” Hudson mumbled guiltily. “I forgot.”
“You forgot,” Abby repeated. “Damn it, Hudson! You had me scared to death!”
“I’ll make it up to you,” Hudson insisted, keeping his tone of voice playful in an effort to assuage her anger. “I promise.”
“Oh yeah?” Abby replied. “And how do you plan on doing that?”
“However you want.”
Abby laughed, much to the man’s relief. “I’m holding you to that. So? You had no trouble picking up the cat, I take it?”
Hudson flushed with embarrassment as he thought back to the chase that Dexter had led him on around Washington Square Park. Deciding to let Abby discover it for herself on YouTube one of these days, he answered, “None at all.”
“How’d the interview go?”
“Ugh! Please don’t make me do something like that ever again,” Hudson begged.
Abby laughed again. “Well, I’m looking forward to watching it, whenever they end up putting it online.”
“Something tells me you’re going to love it,” Hudson muttered darkly before forcing a change of subject. “I take it that Beverly never came in for her shift?”
“Actually, she’s on her way in now, so I’m out of here soon!”
“Lucky you,” Hudson replied, disappointed that he’d have to deal with another coworker for the rest of the evening.
“I know, right? Lucky me! Going home to an empty apartment on Christmas Eve!” Before Hudson could reply, she continued. “But hey – at least your shift will be over in a few hours!”
“Thank God,” Hudson said, as he stared down guiltily at the happy animals still lying in his lap.
“You know,” Abby began tentatively. “You could probably go home a little early. I guarantee you that no one else is going to call in another stray sighting tonight! Everyone’s probably already where they need to be for the holiday, or on their way to where they need to be. It’s probably going to take you forever to get home in this mess. If I were you, I’d head down to the shelter now, drop off the animals, and head home.”
Hudson smiled sadly to himself as he stared between the dog and the cat he was petting, both of whom were leaning into his touch. “While I appreciate the advice,” he began. “I can’t do that. Bev will report me; you know what she’s like. And not only do I need the extra money from this double, I need to keep this job in general. Besides…” He sighed deeply. “I don’t want to take Booster and Dexter to the shelter any earlier than I need to.”
“You named them?” Abby asked, incredulous. “Boy, they’re yours now!”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’ve bonded with them!” Abby explained. “You’re not going to be able to leave them alone at the shelter now!”
Hudson bit down nervously on his lower lip. “What other choice do I have?”
“Uh…adopt them?” Abby answered, as though it were the most obvious solution in the world, and in Hudson’s mind, he could clearly picture the woman rolling her eyes in exasperation.
“It’s – it’s complicated,” Hudson explained. “I’m barely making enough to make ends meet now without two extra mouths to feed. Besides – where does it stop? I can’t help every animal that I pick up – what’s so special about these two?” His voice was rising angrily now, which caused both animals to stare up at him, concerned. “Plus, my father never allowed pets in the house!”
“Your dad’s been dead for three years, Hudson!”
“So what?” Hudson spat. “It would dishonor his memory to bring pets into his home!”
“No offense, Hudson, but that’s bullshit.” Abby’s words took Hudson by surprise; she sounded deadly serious now. “All of those excuses are bullshit. Look, it’s one thing if you don’t want a pet, alright? But stop pitying yourself and your situation. It’s unbecoming. Get over it, and yourself, and grow up. You’re an adult. Act like one. If you want something in life – whether it’s a new job you don’t hate, or to be able to rescue animals – you have to go for it. Don’t let anything stop you, and for the love of God, stop with the self-pity!”
Hudson’s mouth dropped open at the woman’s stern reprimand. How dare she! Bristling with anger, he replied through clenched teeth. “Get over it? That’s a little ironic coming from you, the woman who’s been prolonging her divorce for nearly a year now! It sounds like I’m not the only one who has trouble pulling the life support on certain things!”
A deafening silence followed Hudson’s words, which he regretted speaking the moment they escaped his mouth. Shutting his eyes tightly, he shook his head. “Abby,” he croaked, his voice hoarse now. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–”
“I’ve got to go,” Abby said tersely, clearly hurt. “Beverly just walked in. Have a Merry Christmas.” And before Hudson could protest, the line went dead.
“Shit!” Hudson angrily slammed his hand against the cool, metal barrier behind him, which caused Booster to raise his head off of his lap, concerned, and Dexter to throw him an offended glance through squinted eyes. “What the hell is wrong with me? Why did I say that?” When Booster licked his face in response, Hudson shook his head and forcefully pushed the dog away. “No!” He stood up as straight as the stooped ceiling of his truck would allow, hastily dislodging Dexter from his lap with a mortified meow. “No! This was a bad – a stupid idea! Come on, back in your cages; I don’t know what the hell I was thinking!”
And with great difficultly, Hudson managed to lock the two animals back into their respective cages once more. The moment he did, their relaxed, easy-going demeanors were replaced with sadness and panic once again. As they began to bark and meow in distress, Hudson hopped out of the back of his truck and secured the doors behind him. He took a deep, steadying breath of the cold night air, but his attempt to destress was hampered almost immediately when he noticed people flooding out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Apparently, five-thirty mass had ended.
Panicking, for he didn’t want to run into his mother or any other members of his family that she had dragged along to mass with her, Hudson hurried around the driver’s side of his truck and climbed into the cab. The moment he did, his ears were assaulted by the loud sounds of the animals in the back, which forced him to once again to turn up the volume on his radio to an inappropriate decibel in order to drown them out. Guiding the vehicle away from the curb and into the traffic heading north on Madison Avenue, Hudson drove as fast as he could away from the church.
Despite the blasting radio and howling animals, the cacophony of sounds wasn’t enough to stop Hudson’s mind from racing furiously, nor enough to drown out the mingled anger, sadness, and self-pity that Hudson felt. Not only had he given Booster and Dexter false hope, but he had also managed to hurt Abby – the woman who treated him better than anyone else at work – and in the process, had ruined any chance he might have had of romantically courting her in the future once her divorce was finalized. And, on top of it all, not only would he have to contend with his mother’s disappointment and anger at missing mass when he returned home, but when he woke up on the twenty-sixth, he’d still be forced to return to a job that he hated with a passion.
“Some Christmas,” he mumbled bitterly, as he stared out at the beautiful snow still falling heavily from the night sky. Hudson was over it though. The happiness most people got out of such things only made him bitter that evening in his current state, and he found himself wishing the holidays away quickly. Smirking wryly to himself at the thought, he sighed loudly and exclaimed, “Bah! Humbug!”
* * *
Mary and Joey sat holding hands for the remaining duration of mass that Christmas Eve, only letting go when they stood to receive communion. When it was Mary’s turn to receive the Eucharist, Cardinal Sweeney flashed her a warm smile before blessing her pregnant stomach with the sign of the cross after she took the holy cracker in her mouth. When the two childhood friends returned to their seats, their hands instantly found one another again, and they were still interlocked when they walked out of the cathedral at the end of the service ten-minutes later.
Coming to a stop in front of the church, Mary and Joey looked at one another expectantly. “So…” the former began. “That was nice.”
“It was,” Joey agreed. “Are you glad we went?”
“I am.” Mary nodded. “I found the homily in particular pretty interesting.” She eyed Joey closely, as she squeezed his fingers tightly. “He was a good speaker.”
“Yeah,” Joey began, squeezing the woman’s fingers in return. “The church needs more people in charge like him and Pope Francis if they want to stay relevant; progressives willing to guide the institution into modern times that reflect modern values.”
Mary smiled at Joey’s intelligent, nerdy response, realizing how enamored she was by that aspect of his personality. She watched as the man checked his watch, and immediately noticed his face fall. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Joey lied. “It’s just – it’s almost six-thirty.”
Mary felt her own face fall in response to the words. “Natalie should be pulling up in front of the hotel soon.”
“I’ll walk you back.”
Continuing to hold hands, the two friends walked back to the Plaza in silence, taking turns to squeeze the other’s fingers in a reassuring manner. Both were preoccupied by their own thoughts, internally debating with themselves about whether or not they should voice aloud what they were feeling at that exact moment, and trying to come up with the words to adequately explain said feelings in case they decided to. None of them spoke, however, until they came to a stop in front of the city’s most famous hotel, across from which, Central Park looked like a magical wonderland with its streetlights twinkling through the heavy snow.
“I had a great time today,” Joey finally said, trying to keep his voice light and cheerful.
“I did too,” Mary agreed, mentally berating herself for how eager and quick her reply was. “Thank you,” she added.
“For me keeping me distracted today. For trying to cheer me up.”
Joey raised an eyebrow. “Trying?”
Mary laughed. “Succeeding at cheering me up. Seriously, if I hadn’t run into you, I probably would have spent the day crying alone in my hotel room, or wandering the city aimlessly, wallowing in self-pity.”
Joey shook his head. “You don’t need to thank me. You helped me too, you know,” he admitted. “I was going through my own crap, and you helped to cheer me up and pull me out of it.”
“What can I say?” Mary shrugged, feigning modesty. “It’s what I do!”
Joey laughed, as he stared down at the woman’s face, who stared back up at him, biting down gently on her lower lip. The way the street lamp above shown down upon her head made her look absolutely angelic, and the falling snow made the image even more picturesque; Joey made every effort to commit it to memory before they broke apart. “I’m glad that we got to hang out and work through some shit.”
“Me too,” Mary replied breathlessly before swallowing hard. “I’ll – uh – I’ll obviously be busy the next few months.” She glanced down at her swollen stomach with a laugh. “But once things start to settle down a bit, I’d love to get together.”
“I’d like that.” Joey smiled wide. “And in the meantime, we have each other’s numbers so–”
“—we can talk,” Mary interrupted. “We can keep in touch.”
Both of them nodded, unsure of what else to say. Mary waited, expectantly, as Joey tried to mentally talk himself into leaning down to kiss her. Before he could make a move, however, there were loud footsteps in the snow piled high on the ground behind them, followed by the sound of somebody clearing their throat pointedly. “It’s so nice to see you two talking again!”
Joey and Mary immediately relinquished their grips on one another, and the latter took a few hasty steps backward from the disappointed man. As Joey turned to face the person who spoke, Mary met her best friend’s concerned eyes, noticing that they suspiciously darted back and forth between Joey and herself. “Natalie.”
“How was your day?” Natalie asked pointedly, a mischievous smirk playing on her face as she stuffed her gloved hands into the deep pockets of her coat.
“It was nice,” Mary replied, as she widened her eyes in a silent warning to her friend.
“Nice to see you, Natalie.” Joey awkwardly raised a hand in acknowledgement.
“You too, Joey,” Natalie confirmed. When he proceeded to move toward her, she blinked in surprise. “Oh, we’re on hugging terms now? Okay, that’s cool.” And removing her hands from her pockets, she clumsily threw her arms around Joey and uncomfortably patted him on the back before the two broke apart.
Joey turned to peer at Mary, who quickly did her best to avoid his eyes by asking Natalie, “Where’s the car?”
“Ugh! Don’t ask,” Natalie grumbled. Rolling her eyes, she explained, “I got a flat on my way over here and had to have it towed. I didn’t have a donut for them to put on it.”
“Don’t ever let my dad hear you say that, unless you want an hour-long lecture about road preparedness,” Mary deadpanned before asking, “You couldn’t just buy one at the garage?”
“The garage closed early for the holiday!” Natalie furiously exclaimed. “I can’t get a replacement until the twenty-sixth, so…” She took a deep breath before sighing loudly. “We’re going to have to find another way back to Bayside.”
“You can hitch a ride with me and Ryan!” Joey interjected, his voice so eager that it caused both Mary and Natalie to do a double-take.
“Oh, you know…” Natalie peered up and down the street, doing her best to do avoid the eyes of her former high school classmates. “I really don’t think we should impose–”
“Why not?” A wide smile spread across Mary’s face. “I think it’s a great idea!”
“Seriously,” Joey assured Natalie, who appeared wary for some reason. “Ryan won’t mind. In fact, he should be getting off work any minute now. Let me give him a call.”
“You really don’t have to,” Natalie insisted, but it was too late; Joey had already taken out his cell phone and dialed Ryan’s number. Sighing deeply, she rounded on Mary. “I really wasn’t expecting my Christmas Eve to turn into a pseudo-high school reunion!”
“What’s wrong with you?” Mary hissed in an undertone, as Joey absentmindedly paced a few feet away from them.
“What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you?” Natalie demanded, visibly agitated. “Honey, I’m sorry. I am. I know you’re going through something here.” She patted Mary’s stomach lovingly. “But I can’t ride back to Bayside in a car with Ryan O’Connor.”
“Why not?” Mary demanded. “I mean, he was always a nice guy back in the day! And if Joey is still friends with him–”
“I’m sure he’s still lovely,” Natalie interrupted. “But I can’t see him because we hooked up once after senior prom–”
“—and a few more times after that before leaving for college that September,” Natalie continued, as though she hadn’t been interrupted. “We haven’t spoken since, though. He tried to call a few times freshmen year, but eventually gave up when I never answered, and it’s going to be so awkward driving back to Bayside with him. What if we hit traffic?”
Mary ignored the question, still too flabbergasted by the gossip that her friend had been hiding from her the past decade of their lives. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“I’m sorry! It’s just…well…” Natalie stared down at the ground guiltily. “Ryan and I agreed not to tell you or Joey because of the falling out you had that Christmas. We just thought that it might make you two feel awkward if you knew that your best friends were hooking up. I’m sorry!”
From where he stood a little way down the street, redialing Ryan for the fourth time in the hope of getting through to him, Joey eyed the two women who were conversing in low, hissed tones and waving their hands wildly through the air. Just when he began to wonder whether or not Natalie was getting on Mary’s case about anything she might have done with him throughout the day, Ryan answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Where are you?” Joey asked without preamble.
“I was just about to call you,” Ryan replied. “I’m just walking out of work now. What’s up?”
Joey took a deep breath. “Do you mind giving Mary and Natalie a ride back to Bayside tonight as well?”
“Nat’s car got a flat, and I don’t want them to have to take mass transit back,” Joey explained, before adding guiltily, “Besides, I– uh – I already kind of promised them that you wouldn’t mind.”
“Of course I don’t mind,” Ryan replied with a laugh. “How’d it go with Mary today?”
“Uh…” Joey eyed Mary and Natalie from where he stood and flashed a smile in their direction when they noticed him staring. “Yeah, I can’t really talk about that right now. We’ll talk later.”
“Okay, okay,” Ryan replied. “But wait, before I let you go – did Natalie say anything about me?”
“What?” Joey furrowed his eyebrows, confused. “Why would she?”
“No reason,” Ryan replied, a little too quickly. “I was just wondering.”
“Where should I pick you guys up?”
“Outside the Plaza. The Grand Army Plaza entrance.”
“I can be there in fifteen-to-twenty-minutes,” Ryan confirmed.
“Great!” Joey exclaimed, relieved. “I’ll see you then. And Ryan?”
Ryan laughed. “No thanks required as long as you can admit that I’m the best wingman on the planet!”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. I’ll see you in a bit.” And without waiting for a reply, he hung up the phone and hurried back over to join Mary and Natalie where they stood. “We’re all set. Ryan said he’s fine giving you guys a lift too. It’s no problem at all.”
Mary smiled wide. “Great!”
“Yeah, great,” Natalie echoed, a lot less enthusiastically.
Joey nodded. “He should be here in about fifteen-minutes.”
“I better go upstairs and get my stuff,” Mary said. “All the gifts we bought earlier.”
“You wait here, I can do that,” Joey insisted, stepping toward the revolving front door of the hotel.
“Uh, no.” Mary grabbed his arm to stop him in his tracks. “I can do it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Mary insisted.
“I don’t mind–”
“I know. It’s just…” Mary hesitated, her cheeks turning pink, before continuing pointedly out of the corner of her mouth. “If we’re going to be driving all the way to Bayside, and possibly get stuck in traffic, I feel like I should try going to the bathroom before we leave.”
“Ah.” Joey felt himself go red in the face. “Got it.”
“I’ll be right back,” Mary promised.
“Hurry, please!” Natalie called after her best friend, as she disappeared into the building, leaving her alone with Joey. The two stood in silence, looking anywhere but at one another, when Natalie finally blurted out, “Can I talk to you about something?”
Surprised, Joey turned to look at her. “Of course,” he replied. “Sure. Is everything okay?”
“You tell me.” Natalie stared at him sternly, as she folded her arms across her chest expectantly.
“I’m not exactly sure what you’re talking about.”
Natalie glanced at the front entrance of the Plaza before stepping closer to Joey and staring up into his face seriously. “Look, I’m glad that you and Mary found one another today,” she began. “I really am. You two used to be so close, and she really needed the company, so I’m glad she didn’t have to spend Christmas Eve alone. But…” She hesitated. “I have to admit, I was somewhat surprised to find the two of you looking like you were about to make out under the streetlamp here.”
“Oh, that.” Joey felt himself go red in the face as he let out a nervous laugh. “It wasn’t–”
“It doesn’t matter.” Natalie held up a hand to stop him from speaking. “It’s not my place to judge. You’re both adults, I can’t tell you what to do. I remember what a nice guy you used to be though, so I really hope you’re not looking to take advantage of Mary right now.”
Joey sputtered, offended. “Of course, I wouldn’t take advantage of her! Don’t you remember? That’s why we had a falling out in the first place!”
Natalie grinned, but she looked far from relieved by the man’s words. “Just…just be careful, alright? Mary’s going through a lot right now–”
“So am I, you know.”
“All the more reason to think carefully about what you’re doing,” Natalie pointed out. “I’m not just worried about her mental state of well-being here, I’m worried about yours too. She’s nine-months pregnant, Joey. Her hormones are running rampant. I don’t want you falling for one another only for her to realize once she pushes out the baby that it was the hormones talking, not her. Think of what that could do to you! To both of you.” As Joey let the words sink in, Natalie shrugged. “Just be careful, alright? Just – just think about it.”
Joey gave a small nod, a non-verbal agreement that he would, just as Mary came hobbling out of the hotel once again, her arms laden with so many shopping bags that her face was obscured. At the sight of her, Joey and Natalie rushed forward immediately. “Thanks!” Mary let out a sigh of relief as her two friends grabbed all of the bags from her.
“Jesus, girl! What the hell did you buy?” Natalie asked, as the shopping weighed down her arms.
Mary shrugged. “Honestly, I barely spent anything. Joey, here, was very generous.” She smiled wide at the man in question, who returned it with a weak smile of his own as Natalie stared between the two uncertainly. “Where’s Ryan?”
Joey stared around the dark street, the pavement of which was covered in a thick layer of snow and ice. “I don’t know,” he replied. “He should be here any minute.”
The words had barely escaped his mouth when a dark blue Honda Accord came speeding around the corner before coming to a screeching halt in front of the hotel. The driver’s door was thrown open almost immediately and, as though he knew his name had just been mentioned, Ryan hopped out into the snowy night. “Sorry I’m late!” He apologized, walking around the vehicle to join Joey, Mary, and Natalie on the sidewalk. He stopped in his tracks, taking a moment to drink in the sight of three of them standing side-by-side – his eyes lingering on Natalie for a fraction of a second longer than Joey or Mary – before he let out a small whistle, as a smile spread across his face. “Oh my God,” he began sarcastically. “I think I travelled back in time and ended up ten-years ago!”
Natalie rolled her eyes, as Mary moved forward with a laugh. “It’s good to see you, Ryan.”
“You too, Mary! Love the accent – you’ve gained some weight, I see,” he joked, as he hugged the pregnant woman swiftly before turning to her best friend, who was eyeing him warily with her arms folded protectively across her chest. “Natalie.” He nodded in acknowledgement. “Good to see you.”
“Ryan,” she replied curtly, with a nod of her own, before clapping her hands together and rubbing them pointedly, as she glanced up at the dark sky. “What do you say we get going before traffic gets worse? Besides, I’m freezing.”
“Good idea,” Joey replied. As the girls climbed into the backseat of the car with the shopping, he asked Ryan, “What’s with the tension between you and Nat?”
“Tension?” Ryan shrugged nonchalantly. “I didn’t notice any tension.”
“Right,” Joey replied uncertainly. “If you say so.”
When Joey climbed into the front passenger’s seat, and Ryan had slid into the driver’s seat and slammed his door shut, the latter glanced into the rearview mirror at the women sitting in the back. “Everybody all buckled in? Let’s get this show on the road, shall we? To Bayside we go!”
And as Ryan guided the car away from the curb, Mary and Natalie exchanged a glance as the four former classmates began their journey home to Queens.