“Another Christmas Story” – Chapter Thirty-Two – No Place Like Home For The Holidays – As Read By Anthony Caruso

“Another Christmas Story” – Chapter Thirty-Two – No Place Like Home For The Holidays – As Read By Anthony Caruso

Happy Thursday, Christmas fanatics! Welcome to the thirty-second official installment of “Another Christmas Story“!

In this week’s official episode, our very own Anthony Caruso – the author of the story himself! –  will read to all of you Chapter Thirty-Two of our tale, entitled “No Place Like Home For The Holidays”! 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 September 13th we will be dropping our episode in which we discuss the 1991, British Cartoon, “Father Christmas”! And this upcoming Tuesday, September 14th, we will be recording our episode on the eighth episode of the first season of the 2015 musical-comedy-show, “Crazy Ex Girlfriend” entitled “My Mom, Greg’s Mom, and Josh’s Sweet Dance Moves!” which will drop in your feeds on Monday, September 20th! Before that, however, on Thursday, September 16th, you’ll get to hear Chapter 33 of “Another Christmas Story” entitled “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, which the elf with the best voice – everyone’s favorite, Julia – 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-Two: No Place Like Home for the Holidays

December 24th – 7:15 p.m. EST

The trip from the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan to Bayside, Queens took just over half-an-hour on a good day, but since the four high school friends started out for their childhood home during rush hour on Christmas Eve in the middle of Winter Storm Elsa when the President of the United States was entertaining foreign dignitaries in town, the GPS in Ryan’s car calculated that it was going to take them nearly an hour longer than usual. Despite this, they made good time while on the I-495 E. until they were forced to stop in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Cross Island Parkway. When Ryan brought his car to a screeching halt, belting along to Perry Como’s (There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays, Natalie let out a deep sigh of frustration. “Wonderful,” she muttered under her breath, loud enough for all of the occupants of the car to hear.

“This’ll clear up in no time,” Ryan tried to reassure her, glancing at the car’s clock radio. “We should be in town by eight, I’d imagine.”

“Not too bad,” Joey admitted, turning to stare at his best friend with a wry smile. “There should still be plenty of stuffed artichokes by the time we get to my parents.”

A look of pure joy washed over the red-headed man’s pale face at the words, as his stomach rumbled audibly. “I have never met anyone who cooks as well as your parents do.”

“I think it’s just embedded in the blood of Italians.” Joey shrugged. “I may not be great at much, but I can cook like nobody’s business.”

“Really?” Mary asked from the backseat, clearly surprised. “I didn’t know that.”

“You learn something new every day,” Joey replied, as Natalie rolled her eyes beside her pregnant friend.

“Well, as long as we’re stuck in traffic…” Mary began to rifle through the shopping bags crowded around her feet.

“What are you doing?” Natalie asked, causing both Joey and Ryan to turn and glance back at the two women.

“I need to wrap the gifts for my family before we get home,” Mary answered, holding out a roll of wrapping for her best friend to take. “Hold this, will you?”

Accepting the wrapping paper somewhat reluctantly, Natalie asked, “How come you didn’t just get everything gift wrapped at the stores?”

“Do you know how much extra that costs?” Mary asked, aghast, as she continued to dig around in her shopping bags.

Natalie rolled her eyes. “And how exactly do you plan on wrapping everything without scissors and tape?”

Joey laughed in the front seat. “Trust me, she thought of that too,” he replied, as Mary pulled a pair of scissors and a package of Scotch tape from within one of her bags. “Speaking of wrapping gifts though, make sure you frame that picture of us with Santa Claus and get it wrapped so I can give it to my mother tonight.”

“Will do,” Mary replied, feeling herself go red in the face as she determinedly ignored the withering gaze that Natalie was throwing her.

“You visited Santa together?” the woman asked, raising an eyebrow as Joey turned to stare out of the front windshield again, through which the car directly in front of them was barely visible in the heavily falling snow.

“At Macy’s,” Mary confirmed, pulling out the photos in question and passing them along to Natalie before diving back into her bags to find the picture frames that they had also purchased.

Natalie stared at the pictures, unable to stop herself from letting a small laugh escape her lips at the candid photos of Mary making out with the old man in red before her eyes settled on the nice, posed photograph of the two childhood neighbors sitting with the iconic Christmas figure. Feeling her icy demeanor melt slightly at the image, she flashed her friend a small smirk. “Very cute,” she admitted. “You two make a good-looking couple.”

“Natalie!” Mary exclaimed, horrified, as she elbowed her best friend in the stomach.

“What?” Natalie demanded. “I’m just saying!”

Joey, sensing Mary’s embarrassment, leapt into the conversation, as Ryan inched the car forward ever-so-slightly. “So, what do you do for a living, Natalie?”

“What, I didn’t come up in the entire day you two spent together?” Natalie asked, pretending to be hurt by this revelation.

“We had enough catching up to do amongst ourselves,” Mary began, as she framed the posed Santa pictures. “Without catching one another up on what you and Ryan have been doing with your lives.”

“That’s fine by me,” Ryan said. “My life has hardly been the model of excitement the past ten-years.”

Natalie stared hard at the back of Ryan’s headrest for a moment before turning slowly to glance at Joey, who was staring back at her with polite expectation. Forcing a smile onto her face, she explained, “I’m the managing editor at Systematic House Publishing.” Then, glancing at Mary, she instructed, “Pass me a gift. I’ll help you wrap all of this crap.”

“That would be amazing,” Mary said gratefully, as she handed Natalie the remote-control plane that she had bought for one of her nephews. “You’re a life saver.”

“Tell me something I don’t already know.”

“Feel free to help as well,” Mary instructed Joey pointedly before tossing the Barbie doll she had purchased for one of her nieces into the front seat, which the man barely managed to catch in surprise. Rolling her eyes, she laughed. “Geeze, no wonder you didn’t play sports in high school!” She tore a piece of wrapping paper from the large roll and passed it into the front seat for Joey to take.

“I’m going to need some tape too,” Joey mumbled.

“Here, give me your hands,” Mary said. When the man obliged, confused, Mary began sticking a piece of tape to each of his ten fingers. As their skin touched, Joey felt a tingling sensation deep within him, and felt his face flush and his heartrate increase exponentially. “Thanks,” he mumbled, when Mary finished.

“How about you, Joey?” Natalie asked, as Mary passed her the roll of tape. “Where are you working nowadays?”

“Uh…” Joey exchanged a glance with Ryan, who shrugged at him. “I’m actually in-between jobs right now.”

“So you’re unemployed?”

“That’s one way of phrasing it.”

“Is there another way?”

“Joey’s actually writing a book,” Mary explained, jumping to the man’s defense. “In fact, maybe he can send it to you when he finishes it!”

Natalie paused in the process of wrapping the remote-controlled plane at the words, silently cursing herself for the predicament she found herself in. Finally, she forced herself to give a curt nod. “I wouldn’t mind reading it through when he finishes.”

“Really?” Joey asked, turning so fast to stare at the girl he hadn’t talked to since high school that he heard his neck crack.

“I’m not going to promise I’ll publish it,” Natalie warned. “But I’ll definitely read it.”

“That would be awesome!” Joey exclaimed. “Thanks!”

Natalie nodded, glancing down at the gift in her lap again before asking, “What about you, Ryan?”

“Me?” Ryan asked, taken aback at being addressed.

“Is there another Ryan in the car?” Natalie asked sarcastically. “Where do you work?” She tried hard to sound as nonchalant as she could, but as the words escaped her mouth, she knew that she had failed.

“I’m a risk analyst for this small firm in midtown,” Ryan explained, puffing out his chest self-importantly. “I basically examine the investment portfolios of various firms and examine the risks associated with various decisions.”

“Sounds thrilling,” Mary noted, her voice dripping with sarcasm, which elicited a laugh from Joey.

“It pays the bills,” Ryan replied, feeling slightly embarrassed.

Natalie smiled to herself. “So let me ask you a question,” she began, as Mary passed her a Raggedy Anne doll to wrap. “How risky is it for a soon-to-be single mother, who just broke up with her boyfriend and baby daddy, to get involved romantically with her former childhood best friend and next-door neighbor whom she had a big falling out with a decade ago?”

“Nat!” Mary exclaimed, mortified, as her face burned hot. “Howay man! Are you serious?”

“I’m just trying to point out–”

“It’s seriously not like that,” Joey rushed to explain, feeling his own face flush red again. “It’s actually–”

“I just don’t want you guys to–”

“Worry about your own love life!” Mary interrupted angrily. “Worry about your own clearly unresolved feelings for Ryan!”

What?” Joey demanded, surprised, as Natalie exclaimed, “Mary!” Ryan, however, simply asked, “Wait, you have unresolved feelings for me?”

“I do not!” Natalie’s cheeks went pink.

“Oh, please!” Mary rolled her eyes. “You didn’t even want to hitch a ride back with Joey when you found out that Ryan was his ride home!”

“That’s not – it’s not like that,” Natalie insisted.

“Then what’s it like?” Ryan asked, confused.

“Hold on a minute. Just – wait a second,” Joey said firmly, bringing calm to the car once again, as he turned in his seat to stare at Natalie. “When did you have resolved feelings for Ryan, let alone unresolved ones?”

“Oh, didn’t you know?” Mary asked sarcastically. “They hooked up after senior prom and ended up fooling around that entire summer! They didn’t want us to know because we had our fight that previous Christmas and thought that it would be insensitive to us.”

Joey gaped as he turned to face Ryan, who stared straight ahead, determinedly avoiding his friend’s eyes as he gripped the car’s steering wheel so tight that his knuckles had turned white. “Is this true?”

“I wanted to tell you,” Ryan finally cracked before jerking his head toward the backseat. “It was Natalie who wanted to keep it a secret!”

“How could you not tell me?” Joey rounded on Mary.

“Hey, don’t look at me!” She replied defensively. “I only just found out!”

Joey and Mary both turned to stare at Natalie, as Ryan glanced apologetically at her in the rearview mirror. “Well, it’s really not Christmas until there’s a bit of drama, is there?” the woman asked sarcastically, as she defiantly folded her arms across her chest.

“So you do have unresolved feelings for me?” Ryan asked hopefully.

“No!” Natalie replied emphatically. “God, please don’t tell me that you’re still hung up on me. We haven’t slept together in almost ten-years!”

“You slept together?” Joey’s mouth dropped open.

“What the hell did you think ‘fooling around’ meant?” Natalie asked in disbelief before leaning forward and placing a hand on Ryan’s shoulder. “Look, it was fun, okay? I’m sorry I never returned your calls. But we were just starting college, and I thought it would be better for us to have the whole experience unattached.” Then, glancing at Mary, she hissed angrily, “Are you happy now?”

“Are you?” Mary asked.

“I’ll be happy once you two acknowledge that starting to see each other when you’re about to give birth, after being dumped just last night, is a bad idea!”

“We’re not seeing one another!”

“You know,” Ryan began slowly, turning to glance at Joey. “Maybe she has a point. I mean, Lilianna only just called off your engagement, and–”

“You were engaged?” Natalie demanded, as Mary diverted her eyes and Joey mumbled “Thanks” under his breath to Ryan. With an incredulous laugh, she leaned back in her seat. “Jesus, this situation is so messed up. You know what? You two deserve one another. Have fun. Just promise me that you’ll think about the potential consequences before you two do start seeing one another, if that’s what you guys want to happen, okay? I know you think that I’m a pain in the ass, but I really do just want what’s best for you.” She placed a hand on Mary’s stomach. “For both of you. All three of you,” she quickly amended, meeting Joey’s eyes in the rearview mirror as he glanced back at her.

“Me too,” Ryan hastily added, causing Natalie to roll her eyes.

“Look, guys…” Joey laughed, unsure of what to say. “All we did was spend the day in the city together, alright? That’s all. It was completely innocent.”

Mary nodded her agreement. “I don’t know how that equates to wanting to enter into a relationship with one another.”

“I saw the two of you underneath that streetlamp,” Natalie reminded him. “I saw the way you were looking at one another.”

“That was my fault,” Joey insisted before Mary could reply. “I let myself get swept up in the magic of the season. I wasn’t thinking properly.”

Mary nodded her agreement, as she bit down hard on her lower lip. Natalie stared between the two for a moment before saying, “If that’s the story you’re sticking to, then fine. But my concern still stands. Just remember that, alright?”

“Alright.” Joey nodded.

“Fine,” Mary agreed, placing both of her hands on her stomach as the baby inside of her kicked.

The four high-school classmates lapsed into silence as traffic began to move at a quicker pace once again. As Ryan drove, glancing back in the mirror at Natalie sporadically every few minutes, the woman in question – along with Mary and Joseph, continued to wrap the rest of Mary’s gifts, passing the tape and scissors back and forth without saying a word. When Joey finished wrapping the last gift, his fingers grazed Mary’s as he passed it back to her.

“Thanks,” she said quietly, flashing him a small smile.

Joey nodded before staring out of the front windshield again, squinting to see into the dark night beyond the swirling snow. Natalie’s concerns echoed the ones Ryan had expressed to him in much fewer words earlier in the day. He had, of course, mulled over what a huge mistake it would be to try and begin anything romantic with Mary, especially considering the fact that she was pregnant. But it hadn’t crossed his mind, until Natalie had mentioned the possibility, that it could have been due to pregnancy hormones that Mary was having such a good time with him that day, or that she was viewing him in a more romantic light. If he decided to pursue something more than a friendship with her, and that did indeed turn out to be the case, then he would only be setting himself up for heartbreak. As his mind raced with this possibility, he forced himself to take a deep breath and remind himself not to get ahead of himself; he had no idea what Mary was thinking. She might not feel anything romantic for him at all! She had just been dumped; maybe everything he had taken as romantic signals earlier that day, such as the hand holding, were merely attempts by her to feel validated and close to another human being after the father of her unborn child rejected her so completely the night before.

In the backseat of the car, Mary was mulling over her own doubts. As she finished placing the wrapped gifts back into her shopping bags, she threw Natalie a covert look to see that her friend was eyeing her with concern. Looking away and out of the passenger window at the falling snow, she felt both intense anger and happiness for her best friend’s presence that evening. She wished Nathalie hadn’t tried to meddle between her and Joey, but she knew that it came from a place of love; it always did – she truly did have Mary’s best interests at heart. And, as she mulled over the day she had spent with her childhood neighbor, she began to realize just how fast they had moved. Were they getting along so well because they had had a ten-year break from seeing one another? If they were to spend days, weeks, months, or maybe even years together, would they get along half as well? Both of them were trying to work past their own demons, and maybe they gravitated toward one another that day because it felt nice to have somebody around going through something so similar to themselves.

But no, as Mary shook her head to clear it, she realized that wasn’t the case. She couldn’t speak for Joey, but she truly did believe that she felt something real for him, and she had an inkling that he felt something real for her as well. So what if they hadn’t seen each other in years? Maybe they had moved so fast and gotten so personal that day to make up for lost time! And though Mary didn’t believe in God or fate, she did marvel at what the odds were that the two of them – both going through such a difficult time – would meet up randomly in the busiest city on the planet on Christmas Eve of all days. Maybe the universe was trying to bring them together; maybe they were meant to be together! And as that thought crossed her mind, the homily that Cardinal Sweeney gave at St. Patrick’s Cathedral began to echo in her mind. Perhaps this was a door that God, or the Universe, or whatever was opening for them for a reason, and the two of them were supposed to trust their gut instincts and walk through it. And damn it, that was exactly what Mary planned on doing. The moment that she and Joey got another minute alone that evening, she vowed to talk to him about how she felt, and in the meantime, she would keep her fingers crossed that he felt the same way about her in return.

* * *

It was just past seven-o-clock, well past dinnertime with only five-hours left to go in their shifts, when officers Seamus Dwyer and Andrew Lee received a radio transmission from their commanding officer, Lindsey Pendleton, whose irate voice echoed throughout their parked squad car. “Dwyer! Lee! Do you copy?”

Seamus, who had been dozing in his seat due to the lack of action, snapped to attention at the sound of the woman’s voice, annoyed that he had been pulled away from his visions of scantily-clad sugarplum fairies. Andrew, meanwhile, who had silently been keeping watch, staring down 50th Street in the direction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which was alive with light and music, immediately picked up their two-way radio from where it rested on the console between him and his partner. “We copy loud and clear.”

“Is everything alright?” Seamus asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Does the president need rescuing??” He rolled his neck, trying to rid himself of a crick in it. “I’ve been waiting all day to channel my inner John McClane!” He flashed his partner a smile, who rolled his eyes in exasperation.

“The president is fine,” their commanding officer replied, sounding as though she were speaking through gritted teeth. “As I told you earlier, everything is under control. How are you two? Busy day?”

Seamus could infer from the tone of the woman’s voice that she didn’t really care how they were. Before he could point this simple fact out, Andrew replied, “We’re fine. It hasn’t been too bad–”

“He’s lying,” Seamus interrupted. “It’s been nearly dead! Twenty-years on the force, I can’t remember ever having this little to do. Elsa is deterring bad behavior by keeping people indoors.” He glanced out of the window of the car at the snow swirling through the darkness outside. Though it was still falling heavily, it appeared to have slowed down somewhat. Maybe, just maybe, he could find a way to get out of the city later that evening and make it to Boston in time for Christmas morning.

“You know,” Pendleton began, after a prolonged radio silence. “I assumed that you two must have been having a slow day based on the call that the commissioner received from the mayor’s office a few minutes it ago.”

Seamus and Andrew exchanged a confused look before the latter replied, uncertainly. “We’re not exactly sure what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t you?” Pendleton’s voice was barely more than a breathless hiss now. “So you have no recollection of an interview that the two of you gave to an N.Y.U. student – Elizabeth Meyer?”

The color drained from Andrew’s face at the words; how had she found out about the interview? It couldn’t have been picked up by any major news network, could it? Seamus, who looked just as shocked as he felt, recovered first. Trying to sound nonchalant, he replied, “Oh, yeah! We talked to her for a few minutes earlier today; she was doing a public interest story, or something. It wasn’t about anything important though. It–”

“Oh really? Because she called city hall for a response from the mayor about what you two idiots said while the cameras were rolling!” Pendleton roared, causing both officers to jump in their seats. “Then Mayor De Bellis called Commissioner Burke demanding answers as to what the hell you two were thinking! Perhaps you could enlighten me,” she demanded. “Speaking about the mayor like that, while on duty! Talking about the city that way! The president!”

“Did she…” Andrew cleared his throat before pulling on his collar, considerably warmer all of a sudden. “Did she hear what we said?”

“Thankfully President Williams has more important things going on at the moment than to listen to my boss berate me while I’m outside of the Plaza taking a smoke break for the first time all damn day! But if a cable news network gets wind of this footage and picks it up, she’ll undoubtedly hear about it!”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Seamus said quickly, trying to ease the woman’s mind. “I mean, what mainstream network is monitoring a college’s webcast on Christmas Eve? Seriously, just – just try to relax, Linds–”

“It’s Commanding Officer Pendleton to you,” the woman snapped loudly. “And don’t you tell me to relax, Dwyer! Do you realize the embarrassment you caused me?” Seamus and Andrew exchanged a guilty glance; it hadn’t crossed either of their minds that their boss might get in trouble for their candid comments. “After everything I let you two get away with, all of the leeway I give you, this is how you repay me?”

“We can explain,” Andrew began hurriedly. “You see–”

“The girl caught two N.Y.P.D. officers bitching about leadership in this city, and this country, on camera! There is no excuse for why you said what you said during your shift! And given the nature of your comments, I’d say it’s pretty damn likely that a major network will eventually pick up what you said!”

“Don’t they have bigger things to cover? Like, oh I don’t know, the president’s trip to Manhattan in the middle of a snowstorm?” Seamus sarcastically asked.

“Enough! Just – enough!” Pendleton took a deep breath. “What the hell am I supposed to do with you two? What the hell is Commissioner Burke supposed to do with me?”

“We’ll take full responsibility,” Andrew softly insisted, as Seamus nodded silently beside him. “It was our mistake, and you shouldn’t have to face any consequences for our actions.”

“We’ll schedule an appointment to speak with the commissioner early in the new year to make things right.”

“Early in the new year?” Pendleton repeated, speaking as though the words were foreign to her.

“Well…yeah,” Seamus replied uncertainly. “We both start vacation when our shift ends tonight, and–”

“—the commissioner wants all three of us in his office first thing tomorrow morning,” Pendleton swiftly cut across her underling.

Andrew’s mouth dropped open. “But it’s Christmas!”

“Yes, well, I suppose even Christ’s birthday celebration won’t get in the way of him suspending you two without pay until further notice.”

“Suspended without pay?” Seamus asked, aghast, as anger rose quickly within him. “Oh, come on, Lindsey! We gave a damn interview! We didn’t shoot an unarmed citizen with a cell phone in their hand! Don’t you think that’s a little harsh?”

“You should’ve thought about that before you went mouthing off!” Pendleton replied. “Besides, it’s not my decision. You’re lucky he’s not firing you! Though trust me, it’s not off the table; the suspension is only until he can figure out what he wants to do with the two of you.”

Seamus whipped around to stare at his partner, who looked defeated, slumped down in his seat beside him. “Would you say something?” he hissed.

Andrew shrugged half-heartedly. “What is there to say?” he asked, desolate. “She’s right.”

Seamus rolled his eyes before addressing their superior once again. “We have families who count on our salaries, you know! Families, by the way, who are expecting us to be with them on Christmas morning! I have to get to Boston!”

“You can leave after our morning meeting.”

“I’ll miss my girls opening their gifts from Santa!”

“That’s the life you chose!” Pendleton snapped. “Don’t expect me to feel bad for you because of the shit storm that you just caused.”

“But–”

“No ‘but’s! I have to go. Unlike you two, I actually have work to do. I expect both of you at Police Plaza at seven a.m. sharp with your guns and badges in hand, prepared to turn them in. In the meantime, you have just under five-hours left on your shift. Do me, and yourselves, a favor, and don’t screw it up any further than you already have.” And without another word, the radio went dead.

“Goddamn it!” Seamus smacked the steering wheel of their squad car before angrily rounding on his partner. “Why the hell were you so silent?”

“Because she’s right, Seamus,” Andrew replied seriously. “We screwed up.”

“Enough to lose our jobs?” Seamus demanded.

Andrew shrugged. “You said yourself that Pendleton would blow a gasket if she found out about the interview, remember? But I just kept mouthing off. Well, it turns out you were right.”

“I didn’t think we’d get fired! And damn it, we don’t deserve to be! We’ll just have to go in tomorrow and make the case why we shouldn’t be fired. Merry Christmas to us!” He laughed, but Andrew’s face only darkened at the words, as he reached for the handle of the passenger’s side door. “Where are you going?”

“I need to call Barry.” Andrew shrugged his partner’s hand from his shoulder. “And you should probably call Ashley.” He flashed Seamus a small, sad smile before pushing his way into the snowstorm outside and slamming the door shut behind him, leaving his shell-shocked partner completely alone.

Sighing deeply, Seamus leaned back in his seat and stared absentmindedly out of the front windshield. As much as he liked fooling around with Andrew, pushing Lindsey’s buttons, and whining about his career-choices when it was slow, he truly did love his job. But being suspended without pay, and possibly losing it for good, was ridiculously unfair in his mind; a gross injustice – especially because it was Christmastime, and he had only been exercising his first amendment right of free speech. Now, somehow, he was supposed to ride out of the rest of his shift like normal? It was too much!

Nevertheless, it was his reality, and he begrudgingly took out his cell phone to call his wife to let her know he would miss sitting around the Christmas tree with her and the kids the next morning. As he listened to the ringing on the other end of the line, he felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, and he wondered if Ashley would insist on divorcing him right there and then over the phone. When the woman in question finally answered the other end of the line, Seamus could hear the sounds of laughter, music, and playful children in the background before his wife spoke. “Hello?”

“Hey, babe.”

“Oh, Seamus! Hold on a second!” And Seamus listened as Ashley instructed her mother, “Mom – keep an eye on the kids for a minute, would you? I have to take this.” He sat silently as he listened to his wife scurry away from the raucous sounds of the ongoing Christmas Eve party at her parents’ house before finally, when he could barely hear the din in the background at all anymore, she spoke again. “Sorry about that. I would never have been able to hear you in the den.”

“How are the kids?”

“Excited for Santa to visit.” Ashley laughed before hesitantly asking, “How are you?”

“I’m…alright.”

“Busy day protecting the president?”

Seamus let out a humorless laugh. “Not exactly. That’s – well, that’s neither here nor there.” He shook his head, swallowing hard, before admitting in a rush, “Listen, I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it to Boston for Christmas morning.”

“Why not?” Ashley’s voice was more steely than disappointed. “The storm is supposed to let up by the time your shift ends, and there are a few flights leaving just after midnight–”

“It’s not about the weather, Ash,” Seamus interrupted, rubbing his temples in a vain attempt to soothe them. “I have to report to Police Plaza tomorrow to meet with Pendleton and the Commissioner–”

“You’re working again?” Ashley interrupted, irate now. “You’re supposed to be on vacation! It’s bad enough they forced you to come in today–”

“I know.”

“—but they’re forcing you to come in Christmas day now too?” Ashely let out a humorless laugh. “I know it’s all part of the job, but you’ve put in twenty-years on the force! They can’t honor vacation days that you’ve had blocked off for months?”

“Ash–”

“You promised me, remember?” Ashley demanded, and Seamus’ stomach plummeted at the heartbreak that was clearly evident in his wife’s voice. “You promised me that you’d make more of an effort to spend time with me and the kids! But it’s the same old shit, over, and over, and over again with you!”

“Honey, I–”

“And you know what? It’s one thing if you don’t want to spend time with me anymore, okay? It hurts, but I’ll get over it. But the kids?” Her voice cracked. “What the hell am I supposed to tell them? They can’t wait to see you tomorrow morning! They want you to be here when they open their gifts from Santa!”

A long pause followed this statement, during which Seamus wiped away a tear from his eye. When he finally spoke, his voice sounded hoarse. “Ash, listen to me. Please. I – look, this sucks, okay? I know that. I do. It’s bullshit. And trust me, I want nothing more than to spend Christmas morning with you and the kids.” Ashley scoffed derisively at the words. “It’s true. But listen to me – I can probably get out to Boston in time for dinner tomorrow.”

“You said–”

“—that I had to go into the Plaza for a meeting in the morning. Truth be told, I may not have a job anymore afterward.” And before Ashley could interrupt him again, he quickly relayed to her the story about what had happened earlier, and why his job was now on the line.”

After a brief, stunned silence at the end of the story, Ashley breathlessly asked, “Well how long are you going to be suspended without pay for before you find out whether or not you still have a job?”

“I don’t know,” Seamus admitted. “I’m still hoping that Andrew and I can make a persuasive enough argument to prevent that from happening, but if not…” He shrugged. “I guess as long as it takes internal affairs to look into the matter.”

“Seamus, what are we going to do?” Ashley quietly asked. “I’m only working part-time, and if you’re fired—”

“We have enough savings to get through this,” Seamus tried to reassure her. “And if I’m fired, I’ll just get another job in the meantime while I challenge the decision.” He smiled wryly to himself. “But bright side, I’ll have plenty of time to spend with you and the kids now.”

“Yeah, well, it may be too little, too late,” Ashley muttered darkly.

“You don’t really mean that,” Seamus replied, feeling as though he had been slapped in the face.

“Do you think this is all a joke?” Ashley asked, sounding like she was on the verge of tears now. “Our marriage issues? Your job being on the line?”

“Of course not!”

“Then stop acting like it! Take something seriously for once in your life!”

“Look, I’m sorry, okay? You know me – humor’s my coping mechanism!”

“Well, maybe you should grow up and adopt a new one!”

Sensing that the conversation was quickly about to spiral out of control and get into things that he didn’t want to discuss over the phone, Seamus suggested quietly, “Maybe I should go.”

“Maybe you should,” Ashley conceded quietly.

“I’ll do my best to make it for Christmas dinner,” Seamus promised, trying to inject as much cheer into his voice as he could.

“What’s the point anymore?” Ashley asked.

Closing his eyes in response to the rhetorical question, Seamus said, “Tell the kids I’m sorry I won’t be there in time to open gifts tomorrow morning.”

“Well, you said you’d be here in time for dinner, didn’t you?” Ashley asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “You can apologize to them yourself when you get here.” And without another word, she hung up on her husband.

Cursing to himself, Seamus angrily shoved his phone back into his pocket before repeatedly slamming both of his hands hard against either side of the steering wheel in frustration. The conversation had gone even worse than he had expected. Little did he know, however, that at that exact moment, his longtime partner’s conversation with his own significant other was also about to take a bad turn. Standing on the icy sidewalk beside the parked squad car, shivering in the snowy night, Andrew had just finished telling his other-half the reasons that he’d have to report to Police Plaza early the next morning.

“That’s bullshit!” Barry exclaimed. “What assholes! Who the hell do they think they are, threatening to sack you for expressing your opinion! After all of the loyalty you’ve shown them since joining the force? Twenty-years of being a good soldier, and this is how they repay you?”

Though Andrew agreed with his boyfriend’s assessment, he decided to take a more contrite approach. “I should have kept my mouth shut. I just – I don’t know. Seeing that homeless guy? It broke my heart, Barry. It just set something off inside of me! It lit a fire! You know, if I hadn’t given him money for a hotel tonight, he would have frozen to death! Who knows how many other homeless people are going to die tonight because of Elsa? How can city officials let that happen?”

“You took an oath to protect and defend, and that’s exactly what you did by giving that man money,” Barry assured him. “And that’s also what you were trying to do by giving that interview and admitting how much harder this city makes it for you to do your job of protecting and saving people!”

Andrew smiled at the words. Barry was a lawyer and an enthusiastic human rights advocate; his passion was part of what he loved about him, so hearing him so fervently defend him uplifted his spirits somewhat. “Ah man. I love you.”

“I love you too. And don’t worry, okay? We’re going to fight this.”

“Hopefully it doesn’t come to that,” Andrew pointed out. “I’m hoping that Seamus and I can talk ourselves out of this whole mess at the meeting tomorrow morning.”

“You’ve talked yourselves out of worse before,” Barry correctly noted. “But regardless of how the meeting goes, don’t sweat it. We’ll deal with the reality of the situation on the twenty-sixth. It’s Christmas! Allow yourself to enjoy it!”

Andrew’s stomach dropped as he snorted derisively. “Yeah, Christmas is shaping up to be real enjoyable this year. ‘Merry Christmas, mom and dad! Guess what? I’m on the verge of losing my job! Oh, and by the way, I’m gay! Surprise! This is my boyfriend that I’ve been living with for about a year, who I’ve kept secret from you for the past two years!’ That’s going to go over really well.” He rolled his eyes.

A silence that was perceptibly icy followed this statement. It was broken only when Barry, his voice as cold as the quiet that preceded him talking, asked, “You’re comparing introducing me to your parents to telling them you’re about to lose your job?”

“No!” Andrew paced up and down the snowy sidewalk in an attempt to stay warm against the elements. “You know what I mean!”

“Actually, I don’t.”

Andrew came to a stop, closed his eyes, and threw his head back to let out a guttural sigh of frustration. “Can we not do this right now, please?”

“Well, when should we do it, then?”

Andrew rolled his eyes again before saying, “You know I’m nervous about coming out to my family, okay? To have to tell them that my job may be in danger on top of it makes it even more stressful! I mean, you know what my parents are like!”

“Again, actually, I don’t,” Barry smugly pointed out. “Considering, you know, I’ve never been allowed to meet them.”

“Could you back off? Jesus Christ! You of all people should know how difficult coming out can be! It’s a formative moment, so stop pressuring me! I’ll do it when I’m good and ready!”

“I think I’ve been very patient, all things considered,” Barry replied without missing a beat. “I have been very understanding about your reasoning for keeping our relationship a secret. But it’s been two years. We’re living together. It’s not like you don’t have a relationship with your family! How do you think I feel? You treat me like your dirty little secret!”

“I do not!” Andrew snapped back, red in the face now. “I told people at work about you!”

“But not your family. Maybe it’s because you think you’re going to disappoint them, or maybe you think they won’t think I’m good enough for you – I don’t know! Hell, for all I know, it might be a bit of both! But whatever it is, you need to get over it for your own benefit! Be your own man! Embrace who you are! What’s the point of life, otherwise?”

His grip so tight on his phone now that he actually worried he might break it, Andrew replied through gritted teeth. “I’m introducing you to my family tomorrow, what else do you want from me?”

“I want you to actually be excited about doing it!” Barry insisted before letting out a humorless laugh. “You know what? What’s the point, right? Maybe you shouldn’t bring me to your parents’ house tomorrow. Maybe we should just take a break while you figure out what you want in life.”

“Maybe we should,” Andrew replied quickly and nonchalantly, trying his best to not sound as shocked or as hurt as he actually felt.

There was the briefest moments of silence before Barry replied, “Fine then. Have a good night.”

Andrew sighed deeply. “Barry, you know I didn’t–”

But it was too late. With a loud click, the line went dead. Groaning loudly, Andrew threw his head back and shouted toward the tops of the surrounding skyscrapers. “God damn it!” Tourists passing on the sidewalk threw him a panicked look before scurrying away up the street. The beleaguered officer didn’t care, however, as the stresses of his life, stemming from that fateful Christmas Eve in particular, began to crash over him like waves, threatening to overwhelm him all at once. Turning to face the squad car in a rage, he began kicking it repeatedly as a litany of swear words that would make any sailor proud came rushing out of his mouth.

“What the hell are you doing?” Seamus emerged from the driver’s side of the vehicle and into the winter storm. When his partner refused to answer and merely continued to attack the car, he said, “Andrew – whoa, calm down!” With one final kick and a strangled yell, Andrew turned his back on his partner, who rushed around the car, presumably to subdue him, and stormed off down the street, his mind racing.

“Andrew!” Seamus called after him, acutely aware that passerby were turning to stare at the officers with expressions of mingled curiosity and worry on their faces. “Where the hell are you going? Hey!”

The sound of his partner’s voice only grated on Andrew’s ears, as he quickened his pace with no idea of where he was going, his hands clenching themselves into fists at his sides. The sound of Seamus’ voice made him think back over all of the times they had been reprimanded over the years, normally thanks to his partner, and he couldn’t help but feel that his job was now on the line because of it. Unfortunately, his own stupid mistake was the one that finally made Pendleton and Burke snap.

Andrew! What the hell? Would you slow down and talk to me! Stop!” Seamus’ hand fell on Andrew’s shoulder, gripping him hard from behind. As his fingers tightened on him, Andrew finally snapped. With a roar of frustration, he elbowed Seamus hard in the stomach, taking him by surprise, before whipping around and throwing a hard punch at his partner’s face. Seamus was ready for him, however. Before the punch could land, he ducked down so that Andrew overbalanced slightly, allowing Seamus to place both hands on his chest and push him hard, so that he stumbled backward against the building directly behind them. Before Andrew could charge at his bewildered partner, Seamus pressed him tight against the building, holding him in place. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he shouted in his face, not caring about the looks that people passing by were throwing in their direction anymore.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Andrew demanded. “You might have cost us our jobs!”

Excuse me?” Seamus was so shocked by the accusation that he stepped backward, releasing Andrew from his grip.

You are the reason we may be jobless come Christmas morning.” Andrew pressed a finger hard into Seamus’ chest. “This is your fault.”

My fault?” Seamus repeated in disbelief. “You were the one who started mouthing off to that college girl! I tried to stop you!”

“And then you joined right in,” Andrew pointed out. “And because you’ve been causing Pendleton headaches for years now, she snapped and overreacted! This is on you!”

Seamus appeared hurt by the accusation, which caused Andrew to lapse into a silence that was broken only by his heavy breathing. Finally, his partner replied. “You’re right. All of these years goofing off, you’ve suffered the consequences of my actions too. I admit it, and I’m sorry. Truly. But that’s not why our jobs are on the line now. They’re on the line because Lindsey is over-stressed with the president being in town, so she overreacted when she heard what happened and didn’t push back against Burke when he got wind of what you started earlier.” A small, ironic smile broke out across his face. “But I promise you that we’ll save our jobs tomorrow because, in the end, Lindsey will take our side and help us smooth the whole thing over. Okay?”

Andrew considered his partner for a moment before letting out a long, drawn out sigh of guilty. “I’m sorry.” He ran a hand over his weary face. “I am. It’s just – my call with Barry didn’t go well–”

“Neither did mine with Ashley,” Seamus admitted with a sad laugh.

“Really?” Andrew asked, concerned. “What happened?”

“I’ll tell you what,” Seamus began, suddenly struck by a wonderful idea. “How about we talk about it over drinks?”

“Our shift doesn’t end until twelve.”

“So?” Seamus shrugged. “Our jobs are already on the line! I say screw it! We’ve been dead all day, we’re not all of a sudden going to get busy! And if something comes up, we have our talkies and we’ll respond. Simple.”

“I don’t know…” Andrew really didn’t want to have to point out that this scheme was the perfect example of what he had been talking about when referring to the trouble that his partner always caused them.

“We’ll stay local, and we’ll only have one drink in case we’re called somewhere. I promise.” Seamus held up his hand as though he were taking an oath of office, a huge, playful smile spreading wide across his face. “Scout’s honor.”

Andrew shrewdly considered him for a moment, as his stomach rumbled loudly. Then, allowing himself a small smile, he conceded. “Throw in dinner – on you – and you’ve got yourself a deal.”

“Since when do you know me to turn down food?” Seamus laughed. “Come on; let’s find somewhere to hunker down and get the hell out of this storm!”

* * *

Ms. Warren’s third-grade class spent nearly three-and-a-half-hours rehearsing for that evening’s show with the Rockettes, the animals, and the full orchestra. Besides Aaron, who wore a prehistoric looking tunic over his sweater and jeans, the only other students who were in costume – Christmas-themed pajamas – were Holly, Chris, and Erin, who would be narrating the Nativity scene under the guise that they were siblings reading the Christmas story to one another on Christmas Eve before going to bed. (Normally, these characters would be played by the same child actors playing the same characters from earlier in the show, in which they featured in a subplot with Santa Claus, but due to the complex wirework, choreography, and effects involved with that portion of the show, the professional child actors would still perform during that part.) All of the other students would be costumeless, and merely wear their clothes on their backs as they played the music required for the scene. The professional orchestra, which would be playing the rest of the show, would be seated in the pit below the stage – per usual – but during the Nativity scene, when the kids would be performing the music, the students would be seated in chairs that would be placed in rows that would take up about half of the stage so that the audience could see them. This was good news for Aaron, whose nerves were once against threatening to overcome him, for it meant that he would only need to guide the farm animals halfway across the stage while playing his drum, rather than the whole stage.

Leading the animals was a lot simpler than Aaron had expected it to be. When he moved, they moved; when he stopped, they stopped. It was all thanks to the small amount of food that Marcello had not only lined his pockets with, but also rubbed his costume down with. Though slightly pungent to those in Aaron’s immediate vicinity, the animals seemed to love it, and followed closely behind the small boy. Billy, in particular, seemed to like the smell, and kept so close to Aaron that he kept bumping into him. Even before Marcello had rubbed the boy down with the food, Billy stuck close to Aaron – happily following him around like a puppy dog – which caused the Italian to remark in disbelief that he had never seen the goat so content, which in turn made Aaron beam.

By the end of their tenth complete run-through, which had gone off without a hitch, the third-grade Tampa Palms kids were feeling pretty good about themselves. Indeed, the confidence that the children were now feeling about themselves was clearly well placed, for the moment they finished, Karolin Barnes – who was seated in the front row of the theater beside Bernard Ainsley, Principal Rodriguez, Ms. Warren, and the other chaperones – sprung to her feet in standing ovation, applauding loudly. “Bravo!” she exclaimed. “Well done! That was perfect!”

Aaron met Kevin’s bemused eyes across the stage, surprised by the woman’s change in demeanor. They weren’t the only ones either; Marcello and the Rockettes were clearly taken aback by the rare words of praise coming from the director of programming, and even the music hall’s manager was glancing sideways at her, as though wondering if she had fallen ill. Unable to help himself, however, Bernard nudged Ms. Barnes in the side. “So I guess that my contest idea was a good one in the end after all, huh?”

The woman’s face fell instantly at the words, reverting back to a scowl. “Just because these children nailed the rehearsal doesn’t mean they’ll knock it out of the park tonight. If they screw that up, well…” She let out a humorless laugh, as she motioned her arm at the stage. “None of this will have mattered at all, now will it have?”

Bernard stuttered haplessly in response, unable to and unsure of how to respond. Meanwhile, Marcello – who was standing directly behind Aaron on stage – muttered under his breath just loud enough for the little drummer boy to hear. “There’s the Old Lady Barnes that I know.”  Aaron gave an almost imperceptible smirk in response to the comment, as the Italian glanced up at where Brittany – dressed in the Virgin Mary’s garb – was kneeling in the slightly elevated manger behind them. She met the young Italian’s eyes before rolling her own, sharing her exasperated incredulity.

Principal Rodriguez and Ms. Warren, meanwhile, exchanged a look before the former cleared his throat loudly and said pointedly, “I assure you, our kids will do just as well during the actual show.”

Karolin Barnes turned to face them slowly, appearing slightly amused by the man’s firm comment. “Let’s hope so,” she remarked. “Otherwise, I will be thoroughly displeased.”

Principal Rodriguez blinked in surprise, while Ms. Warren bristled with indignation. She stepped forward to say something, but before a word could escape her mouth, Ms. Barnes checked her watch. “Half-an-hour until showtime. We need to get the stage ready and start letting the audience in,” she said to Bernard, who nodded his agreement as the woman turned to address the third-grade students. “Good luck tonight, children. Don’t forget, after the show, Santa and the Rockettes will motion for you to come out on stage for your curtain call. And remember: as you’ll be watching the show from the wings, we’ll need you to remain absolutely silent, lest any of the mics pick up your voices and carry them out to the audience. Chaperones,” she rounded on the parents behind her. “We’ll obviously expect you to keep them in check.”

As the adult Floridians nodded their understanding, Karolin Barnes made shooing motions with her hands. “Now, hurry along backstage. And ladies!” She clapped her hands together authoritatively as she addressed the Rockettes. “Go get ready! Makeup, hair, costumes.” As they began to hurry from the stage, chattering excitedly, Karolin turned to Bernard. “Make sure the crew sets the stage for the opening number, and close the curtains. I’m going to go let the ushers know that they can start letting the ticket holders into the lobby.” And without another word, she began to walk up one of the aisles toward the back of the auditorium at a brisk pace.

Bernard let out an audible sigh of relief the moment that the old woman was out of earshot, visibly appearing to deflate – as though the weight of the world had been lifted off of his shoulders. “Kids, you can leave your instruments, the stage hands will take care of them. Watch out for them backstage, by the way. They’ll be moving a lot of heavy equipment.”

As his classmates scrambled into the wings, Aaron turned to face Marcello, absentmindedly stroking Billy’s head, as the young goat leaned into his touch. “I’m going to get the animals back to their pen so they can eat before their cue,” Marcello informed him. “You can stay and watch the show with your friends; I’ll come get you when it’s time to get ready.”

Before Aaron could reply, Daniel and Chris came up behind him. “Last chance to change your mind, Rankin. Do you want me to play the part of the little drummer boy tonight, or are you going to risk wetting yourself on stage?”

“Hey!” Marcello stared down at the two bullies warily, his concern for Aaron both genuine and evident. Chris and Daniel, meanwhile, gaped at the Italian man in surprise, as though noticing him standing there for the first time.

“It’s fine,” Aaron insisted to Marcello. “I’ve got this.” He turned back to his persistent tormentors, sizing them up. They didn’t seem as intimidating to him at that moment; perhaps it was due to Aaron knowing that Marcello (an adult) was observing the scene, or maybe it was the uptick in confidence that he had gained from the ten successful run-throughs he had just had, or – maybe – it was due to some kind of Christmas Eve magic. Whatever the reason, Aaron forced a smile onto his face as he stared Daniel in the eye. “Thanks for the offer, Daniel, but I’ll be fine.” And deep inside, he believed it. There was a light burning bright inside of him that hadn’t been there for the majority of the day – one that had flickered into life upon meeting Santa at Macy’s, and which had its flames fanned by the standing ovation that Karolin Barnes had led for them a few minutes ago. Somehow, he knew that that the show would go fine for him that evening. Sticking a hand out in front of him, he said, “Good lucky tonight. Have a good show.”

Out of all of the exchanges they had had throughout the day, nothing seemed to shock Daniel more than this offer of peace from the meek boy that served as his favorite target. He exchanged a look of uncertainty with Chris, who looked just as bemused as he did, while behind Aaron, Marcello nodded his head in tacit approval of Aaron’s maturity. The silence that stretched between them wasn’t awkward, but deafening. Before either of them could speak another word, Kevin came bounding over to where they stood and engulfed his best friend in a bear hug. “Dude! You were awesome!”

Aaron laughed. “You did great too! Nobody plays the violin better than you!”

Kevin relinquished the drummer, straightening his glasses as he did so, before seemingly noticing Daniel and Chris standing there for the first time. His face falling, he asked, “Uh…is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine,” Aaron replied curtly. “We were just wishing one another good luck before showtime.”

This seemed to snap Daniel out of his stupor. With a sneer on his face, he spat, “Even with all of the luck in the world, it wouldn’t be enough to stop you from screwing up tonight. You’re going to end up embarrassing all of us!”

“Hey!” Marcello angrily exclaimed, as Billy baaed in annoyance at Aaron’s side.

“What?” Daniel demanded. “It’s true!” Chris nodded his agreement like the yes-man that he was, glaring up pointedly at Marcello as though daring him to disagree. Apparently, they weren’t as intimidated by adults that weren’t part of their Tampa group.

Before the Italian could reprimand them, however, Aaron rolled his eyes and demanded, “What is your problem? What the hell did I ever do to you? Are you jealous of me or something? Jealous that I was chosen to be the little drummer boy over you?”

“No!” Daniel flushed a deep shade of red.

“Then what? Huh? You tried to scare me with Krampus, but it didn’t work, so now you’re trying to scare me from performing tonight? Get it through your head: It. Won’t. Work.” He stressed every word, maintaining eye contact with Daniel the entire time, who in turn was staring daggers at him. “And you wonder why I told you that you should be the one worried about Krampus visiting later? Not me?”

“What did you say to me?” Daniel demanded. “Huh?” He pushed Aaron hard, causing him to stumble backward and nearly overbalance – which he would have done had it not been for Marcello and Kevin reaching out to catch him. “Say that to me again.”

“Dan, calm down,” Chris said quietly, placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder to hold him back, as Billy stepped between Aaron and Daniel, growling at the latter.

“Don’t tell me to calm down,” Daniel snapped angrily.

Before Marcello could move to step in-between the quarrelling kids, a voice spoke clearly from directly behind the two bullies. “Is there a problem here, boys?”

They all turned as one to find Ms. Warren glaring at them, her eyes flickering from face-to-face before finally fixing them warily on the growling goat. “Everything’s fine, Ms. Warren,” Chris mumbled without meeting the young teacher’s eyes.

“Daniel?”

“Mhm,” he responded, refusing to redirect his own fiery eyes from Aaron, who met them unflinchingly. “Just fine.”

Ms. Warren pursed her lips before glancing down at Aaron and allowing her expression to soften. “Aaron?” she gently prompted. “Are you okay?”

Marcello opened his mouth to tell the third-grade teacher what had happened, but Aaron cut across him. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?” Ms. Warren asked. When Aaron nodded, she added, “You can tell me, you know.”

“Seriously, we were just talking.” Aaron forced a smile onto his face to reassure the woman.

The teacher nodded in response. “Very well then. All of you should move along before you get hurt.” She motioned vaguely at the stage around them, which was being set up for the show’s opening number. Stage hands were hurrying back and forth, arranging heavy sets and props, and amongst them, Principal Rodriguez was visible ushering straggling students off stage and out of harm’s way. Even the enormous, heavy red curtain had lowered to shield the stage from the audience’s view. All of this had occurred without Aaron noticing, too focused as he was on the conversation at hand. “Have a good show, boys.” And with that, Ms. Warren walked past their group and off stage right. The moment she disappeared from sight, Daniel opened his mouth to say something to Aaron once more when her voice drifted back to them. “Daniel! Christopher! Come along!”

“I’m going to get you, Rankin,” Daniel muttered. “I swear to God. You’re–”

But whatever it was that he thought Aaron was, exactly, the boy in question never found out, for Billy lunged forward at the bully and rammed his head into his stomach, knocking the wind from Daniel and cutting him off midsentence. Marcello raced forward to regain control of the baby goat, as Aaron and Kevin both did their best to stifle their laughter. “You’re dead!” Daniel exclaimed.

“Boys!”

“Come on,” Chris urged Daniel, half dragging his friend off stage before he could retaliate. “Let’s go before we get in trouble.”

“You’re dead, Rankin!” Daniel shouted as he allowed himself to be dragged away. “I’ll get you!”

“You put up with those two every day?” Marcello asked in disbelief the moment the two boys had disappeared from sight.

Every. Day.” Aaron laughed. “They’re a pain, but…” He shrugged, thinking back on the conversation he had had with Brittany earlier. “They’ll grow up eventually. So will I. And I hear that things just fall into place and get better when you’re done with school.” When he noticed the look of surprise on Marcello’s face, he smiled before explaining, “A very wise Rockette told me that.”

Marcello laughed as Kevin remarked, “Well, a very wise, young goat just made my day!” He stared down at Billy, who was finally beginning to calm down now that he was no longer in the presence of Daniel and Chris.

“Speaking of which, I need to get them all back to their pen.” Marcello jerked his head behind him at all of the other barn animals restlessly milling around behind them. Staring down at Aaron, he said, “Watch the show with your friends. Enjoy it.”

“But–”

“Aaron!”

Aaron turned to find Holly hurrying in his direction across the bustling stage, followed closely by Margot. Noticing the boy’s eyes widen and cheeks turn pink at the sight of the girl, Marcello smiled to himself and began to quietly guide the animals away backstage before the boy noticed what he was doing. “Hey Holly.”

The cute blonde girl, still in the Christmas pajamas that served as her costume, stopped directly in front of Aaron, just short of hugging him, though it appeared as though she wanted to. “Hey.” She smiled, nervously shuffling her feet.

Behind her, Margot shot Kevin an exasperated glance. Like him, she was beginning to get tired of the romantic pining of her friend, and just wished that she and Aaron would be honest with one another about their feelings. Feeling as though it were best to leave the two love birds alone, Kevin cleared his throat pointedly. “Come on, Margot.” He jerked his head stage right.

“Where are we going?” the young girl asked, following him nonetheless.

“I’m going to take you to meet a really cool kid,” Kevin informed her. Then, addressing Aaron and Holly with a wave, he added, “See you guys in a bit.” And before either of them could say a word in response, their two best friends disappeared backstage after ducking under Santa’s sleigh, which was being carried across the stage by a group of crew members.

“They’re so weird,” Holly remarked with a laugh.

“Yeah,” Aaron agreed with a smile. “Well, Kevin definitely is at least.” Holly laughed at the comment. “You did a great job during rehearsals, by the way.”

Holly’s smile widened. “You were amazing. Seriously – so good.”

Aaron laughed. “Hopefully the live show goes as well for us.”

“It will,” Holly said confidently. She eyed the boy carefully before lowering her voice and saying softly, “Your mom would be so proud of you, you know. She is so proud of you. I know you wish she could be here to see you perform, and I’m sorry she can’t be.”

Aaron’s heart swelled at the words, finding it so beautiful that his friend would say something so heartwarming in an attempt to make him feel better. “At least my grandparents will be here,” he replied, trying his best to hide the fact that he was still depressed about the fact that his mother would be missing the show. “They’ll videotape it for her to watch.”

Holly bit down on her lower lip, stepping closer to him ever-so-slightly in an attempt to dodge two stage hands carrying a Christmas tree behind them. As Aaron stared into her eyes, his heartrate increasing tenfold, he noticed her eyes travel up his face to peer at something dangling from the rafters that made her face flush pink. “What’s wrong?” Aaron asked before craning his neck to look upward and noticing the mistletoe hanging above them.

Both of their hearts skipping a beat, both kids met one another’s eyes again, unblinking and unsure of themselves. After a few silent moments in which they considered one another, Aaron, whose palms were sweaty, moved in toward the girl, as she moved in toward him, her lips pursed. Before their mouths could meet, however, a voice sounded loudly from behind them. “Aaron! Holly!”

The spell was broken immediately, and both kids quickly took a few steps back from one another as Principal Rodriguez hurried toward them from stage left. “What are you two doing?” he demanded nervously, wringing his hands together. “There are ten-minutes left until curtain! Get backstage!”

Aaron and Holly exchanged a glance and mumbled an apology to their principal as he ushered them offstage past a group of Rockettes walking onto the stage dressed as reindeer. Amongst them was Brittany, who beamed at Aaron as she passed. “Break a leg!” Santa was following behind them, and as he passed, he winked at Aaron and flashed the boy a warm smile. As their eyes met for the briefest of seconds, Aaron had to do a double-take – he looked exactly like the same Santa Claus – the Santa Claus – he had talked to at Macy’s earlier that day.

He didn’t have time to focus on this fact, however, before joining the rest of his classmates backstage. Their low chatter mingled with the indistinct mumbling of the unseen audience filtering into the auditorium, echoing aloud the dull and confused buzzing that Aaron felt inside of his head at the moment. He tried to meet Holly’s eyes again, but she was determinedly avoiding his at the moment, causing him to silently curse his principal for not interrupting them a minute later than he had.

* * *

It turned out that Gabe wasn’t entirely true to his word, but he was pretty damn close. While the man was able to get Megan, Jake, and Amy Rankin to Radio City Music Hall, he did it with only ten-minutes to spare, not twenty. The discrepancy didn’t matter at all to Megan, however, who was merely feeling a rush of euphoria at having made it into the heart of midtown Manhattan in the middle of a snowstorm in time to see the start of her youngest son’s show. Beaming, Megan turned toward Gabe with watery eyes. “I can’t believe it,” she muttered, her hands trembling. “I thought for sure that we’d…” She shook her head. “I don’t know how I could ever thank you.”

Smiling warmly, Gabe jerked his head at the passenger’s side door of the car. “You can thank me by getting inside the theater in time so as not to miss the beginning of the show.”

“At least let me give you some money.” Megan unzipped the purse that was resting in her lap and began to rifle through it.

“Absolutely not.” Gabe gently wrapped his fingers around the woman’s wrist, which caused Megan to turn and face him again. “Consider this a gift, alright? Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” Megan repeated, touched by the stranger’s kindness and generosity.

“Now get going.” Gabe reached across the single mother to push open the door. The second it opened, the interior of the car dropped at least thirty-degrees, as a strong wind began to blow snow inside of it.

“You don’t need to tell me twice,” Jake muttered from the backseat. And before his mother could say anything in response, the teenager pushed one of the back doors open and stepped out into the traffic of Sixth Avenue, holding tight to Amy in his arms.

“Jake, be careful!” Megan called, struggling with her seatbelt.

“I’ll help you with your suitcases,” Gabe said, more to himself than anyone else, for Megan had already extracted herself from his car at that point.

As Megan emerged onto the slippery sidewalk, she was glad to see that Jacob had quickly moved to the sidewalk as well, out of the direct line of vehicular traffic. She paused to watch the boy spin around on the spot, craning his neck backward to stare up at the enormous buildings looming high above them, little more than shadows in the swirling snow. Megan’s heart swelled with joy as she eyed her teenage son’s expression of amazement, which looked much better on him than the normal expression of misery that he normally wore. She couldn’t imagine what he must be feeling, returning to a city that he hadn’t seen in person for a few years, when he was much younger.

Amy, her precious baby girl, meanwhile, twisted and turned in her older brother’s arms, trying to take in the new, foreign, colorful sights as she attempted to catch snowflakes in her tiny hands and mouth. She looked overwhelmed; almost as overwhelmed as Megan felt returning to the city that she had called home for the majority of her life. She forgot how much she missed – and found comforting – the smells of street vendors selling roasting chestnuts and scalding hotdogs; the constant sirens and honking of horns; the extravagantly designed buildings shining brightly twenty-four-hours-a-day; and the people hurrying up and down the sidewalk with such purpose, pushing roughly by slow-moving tourists. She had to admit – it was good to be back.

“Where do you want me to put these?”

Gabe’s voice pulled Megan away from her private thoughts, and she turned to see him standing with their two suitcases behind the open trunk of his car. “Oh! Right, sorry!” Megan shook her head to clear it. Stepping forward, she gently took Amy from Jake and asked her son, “Can you grab our luggage, please?”

To her surprise, Jake complied without a smart-ass remark – it was a Christmas miracle. “Are you sure that I can’t give you anything for your trouble?” she asked Gabe again.

“One-hundred-percent. Just enjoy the show.”

“Well, thank you,” Megan said. “Seriously, I – I hope you have a happy holiday.”

“And you as well.” Gabe nodded his head. “It was lovely meeting all of you.” And before the woman from Florida could concur, the airport employee climbed back into his car and eased it back into the moving traffic of Sixth Avenue, disappearing from their lives as suddenly as he appeared. Glancing at Jake, who was firmly gripping both suitcases, she said, “Let’s go,” and led him, clutching Amy close to her bosom, to the entrance of Radio City Music Hall (sparing a glance up at the enormous neon sign attached to the side of the building as she walked).

The moment they reached the entrance to the theater, however, they hit a snag when they were stopped by building security at the door. “You can’t bring those in here,” the heavyset, African American security guard informed the Rankin family, pointing at the luggage that Jake was dragging behind him.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Megan replied with a smile. “We have tickets.” She began to dig around inside of her purse, trying to locate them with one hand while clutching Amy tightly to her body with the other.

“That may be true, ma’am,” the security guard began calmly. “But – thank you,” he said curtly, as Megan shoved three, home-printed tickets into his hands. “Nevertheless, due to security concerns, I can’t allow you to bring two overstuffed suitcases into the theater.”

“You can search them,” Megan suggested, her voice pleading.

The security guard stared down at the bulky bags, warily. “It’s not just a matter of – it’s also a matter of space. You can’t leave them in the aisles, it’s a fire hazard! And we have no other place to hold them–”

“Sir, please,” Megan interrupted desperately. “The show is about to start, and my son is one of the Tampa Palms Elementary School students performing in it! He’s the little drummer boy!”

The security guard’s face softened slightly as he eyed the frazzled young mother. “I understand that, ma’am. I do. But I’m just doing my job.”

“I get that,” Megan insisted. “I really, really do. It’s just – please.” She looked around desperately, as though hoping a solution to her problem would manifest itself out of thin air. “Can I – can you get me a manager, please?”

The security guard hesitated for a moment before giving her a small nod. “I’ll be right back.” And he disappeared inside of the building without another word.

Megan shivered where she stood and flashed her son a smile after noticing that his face had fallen considerably. “They’ll let us in,” she said, trying her best to project an air of confidence that she didn’t truly feel.

“I hope so,” Jake muttered darkly. “Not that I care – because I really don’t – but the show’s about to start.”

“Really, Jake?” Megan snapped, maintaining the strained smile on her face, which made Amy giggle. “Really? You think I don’t know that?”

“I’m just saying.”

The security guard emerged from within the theater a second later, followed by a thin, balding man wearing a perfectly pressed suit, who looked annoyed at being forced to step outside into the snow. “Bernard Ainsley,” the man introduced himself, shaking Megan’s hand. “How can I help you?”

As quickly, and as politely, as she could, Megan relayed her plight to the music hall’s manager, trying her best to convey her genuine desperation to him. Luckily for her, the moment that she mentioned Aaron’s name, the man’s eyes lit up. “You’re the mother of the little drummer boy!” he exclaimed excitedly. “I was watching him and his classmates rehearse all afternoon! Sweet kids; I was actually just about to head backstage–”

“Please don’t mention to Aaron that we’re here,” Megan implored him. “He doesn’t know that we’re – we flew in to surprise him.”

“I’m sure that he’ll be thrilled.” Bernard smiled. “And, of course, you can bring your suitcases in! In fact, Darnell…” He addressed the security guard. “Put them somewhere safe backstage. You can pick them up back there after the show when you go to see your son,” he informed Megan.

“Thank you so much.”

“It’s not a problem,” Bernard insisted. “Now, you three should hurry up and get to your seats. The curtain’s about to go up.”

Megan didn’t need telling twice. “Let’s go, Jake.” She pushed past the kindly manager into the blissful warmth of the world-famous theater, carrying Amy in one arm while dragging her teenage son forcefully behind her with the other. They hurried across the lobby, barely registering the beautiful Christmas décor that adorned the space, and practically ran up to an usher who was in the process of closing the auditorium doors. “Wait! Wait! We’re here!” Megan shoved their three tickets into the bewildered hands of the woman.

The usher peered at them for a moment before remarking, “You just made it!” and opening the door wide again. “Seventh row back from the stage.”

“Thank you!” Megan exclaimed, rushing past with her children and into the packed theater, relieved to see that the lights were still lit above them and patrons were still milling around, talking to one another in excited voices.

“Megan! You made it!” Megan’s mother, Linda – of whom her daughter was a spitting image – gaped in surprise as she watched her daughter and two grandchildren step over and squeeze past the legs of other audience members in their row to get to the three empty seats beside her. On her left, Walt – her husband – leaned past her to get a glimpse of his grown-up daughter through his bifocals. “Megan, honey! You look horrible!”

“It’s good to see you too, dad,” Megan mumbled in response, exercising every ounce of self-control that she possessed to prevent herself from rolling her eyes at the genial-looking, overweight man. “Jake, you sit here.” She indicated the empty seat farthest from his grandmother and placed Amy gently in the empty seat to his left before begrudgingly taking the last empty seat to her left – immediately to the right of her mother.

“Your hair’s a mess!” Linda noted, narrowing her eyes as she peered closely at her daughter. “And your face is all sweaty – couldn’t you have touched up your makeup?”

“It’s been a long day, mom,” Megan replied tersely. “It was a nightmare to get here, so just cut me some slack, alright?”

“At least you made it, honey,” Walt pointed out with a smile. “That’s all that matters.”

“It really is,” Linda agreed. “It’s so good to see you, darling!” And to Megan’s surprise, not only did her mother sound genuine, but she also leaned over to kiss her on the cheek.

“How have you been, Jakey?” Walt asked kindly.

“Fine,” Jake mumbled, his face darkening; he hated being called ‘Jakey’.

“You’ve gotten so big!” Linda noted. “And look how much Amy’s grown since we last saw her!”

Amy cooed happily in response as, overhead, the lights began to dim. “We’ll catch up after the show,” Megan promised her parents. “It’s about to start.”

And sure enough, as everyone began to turn to face forward, the orchestra began playing the show’s overture as the enormous red curtain shielding the stage began to rise. As Megan settled back into her seat, finally able to relax properly for the first time in twenty-four-hours, a smile broke out across her face, which reflected her soaring heart. She couldn’t believe they had made it; she did it.

 

Leave a Reply

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