Happy Thursday, Christmas fanatics! Welcome to the twenty-ninth official installment of “Another Christmas Story“!
In this week’s official episode, Robert Nickerson of “Behind the Bells” will read to all of you Chapter Twenty-Eight of our tale, entitled “The First Noel”. Within this chapter, we switch points-of-view between Aaron Rankin and his classmates rehearsing for their big show at Radio City Music Hall, and Megan, Jake, and Amy, who are hopeful that the stranger named Gabe can get them through Elsa’s storm and to the Music Hall in time for Aaron’s performance. We hope you like it! If you do, make sure to share this episode and our website, upon which the text of this installment is posted, to get it in front of as many ears and eyes as possible!
Coming up on the show this upcoming Monday, August 16th, we will be dropping our episode in which we discuss the 2006 film, “Last Holiday”! And on Tuesday, August 17th, the elves will be joined by not one, not two, but three special guests to discuss the (2) Christmas episodes of “Batman: The Animated Series“, the (1) Christmas episode of “The New Adventures of Batman“, and the (1) Christmas episode of “Justice League“! Joining them to geek out over the Caped Crusader are Gerry Davila of “Totally Rad Christmas”, Mike Westfall of “Advent Calendar House Podcast“, and Matt Spaulding of GreenMountainSanta.com and cohost of two podcasts, “Two Broke Geeks” and “The F.B.I.’s Most Wanted“! If you want to follow along and watch at home, the episodes they will be talking about are:
Needless to say, it’s sure to be an extremely fun, if crowded, episode full of holiday cheer and gushing over the Dark Knight. Before that drops in your feeds on Monday, August 23rd, however, on Thursday, August 19th, you’ll get to hear Chapter 29 of “Another Christmas Story” entitled “Run Rudolph Run”, which Manny Torres of “Feliz Christmas Merry Navidad” will be reading to you!
Enjoy, y’all! 🎅🏻🎄🎁 🦌🦉⛄️🔔 🤶🏻 🎀 ❄️
Chapter Twenty-Eight: The First Noel
December 24th – 4:50 p.m. EST
“Welcome students of Tampa Palms Elementary School! As you can imagine, this is where the magic happens.”
Aaron was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of his classmates backstage at Radio City Music Hall, watching as an older, gray-haired man wearing horned-rimmed glasses and an impeccably pressed suit gestured wildly around the cavernous space, nearly hitting Karolin Barnes – who was standing beside him – in the face as he did so. Enormous sets depicting the north pole, Santa’s workshop, midtown Manhattan, Central Park, and the little town of Bethlehem – amongst others – were crammed together, accessible via mazes of Christmas trees and other holiday décor and props. Somewhere amongst the towering structures that looked as though they had been ripped from a Thomas Kinkade or Jim Shore painting, Aaron was sure he could hear the mewing of sheep. His attention was drawn back to the older man once more, however, as he began to speak again. “I’m Bernard Ainsley, manager of this prestigious hall, and we are so delighted to have you here with us tonight!”
As Karolin Barnes pursed her lips in defiance, stubbornly remaining silent, Principal Rodriguez stepped forward. “And we’re honored to be here, isn’t that right, class?”
“Even if the president decided to attend this afternoon’s performance rather than rearrange her busy schedule to attend tonight’s instead so she could watch the future of this nation in action on stage,” Ms. Warren muttered sarcastically under her breath, eliciting giggles from her students and causing Principal Rodriguez to throw her a withering look.
“Yes, well…” Bernard tugged at his collar, as he cleared his throat awkwardly. “Before this afternoon’s performance, the president did ask me to convey the best of luck from her to you all. And if the show goes as well tonight as we’re all anticipating,” Bernard continued brightly, as though he had never been forced to detour from his preplanned speech. “You’ll be the maiden contest winners for what could be a new, long-running, annual tradition for the music hall.”
“The key words being, ‘If the show goes as well tonight as we’re all anticipating’,” Ms. Barnes interrupted pointedly, her scowl deepening. “In other words: don’t screw this up.”
Aaron’s stomach constricted uncomfortably, as an awkward silence fell over everyone assembled backstage. Indeed, Ms. Warren looked as though she wanted to make a disparaging remark to the Director of Programming, but was doing her best to restrain herself because of the look of warning that Principal Rodriguez shot her. Mr. Ainsley, meanwhile, cleared his throat uncomfortably once again. “Yes, well…I have the utmost confidence that you’ll all adhere to the strict standards we have had in place for our world famous Rockettes for decades now. Speaking of which…” He raised his voice loudly. “Girls, come on out here and introduce yourselves!”
As thirty or so Rockettes emerged from the wings, smiling in awe of the schoolchildren and whispering amongst themselves about how cute the kids were, Ms. Warren’s third grade students – in addition to their adult chaperones – began to applaud loudly. Holly, Margot, and all of the other girls seemed star struck by the confident, empowered, famous dancers standing before them, while many of the boys flushed various shades of red, completely enamored by the attractive women in their short skirts and form-fitting tops. Indeed, Principal Rodriguez and the male chaperones became just as bashful as their third-grade wards, which elicited eye rolls and exasperated sighs from their female counterparts. Upon noticing that the applause wasn’t going to die down anytime soon, Mr. Ainsley called loudly over it, “Ladies, how about we get a group photo with the young stars you’ll be sharing the stage with tonight? Don’t be shy, kids! Gather ‘round!”
With words of encouragement, the Rockettes began to wave over the students, who moved forward – many of them with trepidation – to stand in front of the them. Principal Rodriguez and the dads of the group, meanwhile, hurried forward with much more gusto, earning themselves reproachful looks from Ms. Warren and the moms. As bodies shuffled around her, Ms. Barnes asked pointedly, “Do we really have time for this, Bernard? The show is in less than four hours–”
“—and this will take thirty-seconds,” Mr. Ainsley interrupted with a smile, as she sidled up beside him. “Relax.” The word seemed to have the opposite effect on Ms. Barnes, however, who only seemed to further tense up as she pursed her lips once again. The music hall’s manager didn’t seem to notice, however, as he pulled his phone from his pocket and began to fiddle with the camera settings.
Aaron, meanwhile, was awkwardly trying to find a Rockette to stand in front of for the group photo, unsure of where to go, when a friendly looking black woman flashed him an inviting smile. “Don’t be shy, kiddo!” she called, indicating with a come-hither motion of her finger that he should join her. “I won’t bite.”
Smiling to himself, Aaron made a beeline toward the Rockette when Daniel hurried past, body-checking him hard in the process. “Ow!” Aaron exclaimed, grabbing his own shoulder as Daniel flashed him a taunting smirk. “Watch where you’re going, Rankin,” he instructed, as he took his place in front of the pretty, African American woman, whose mouth was agape in horror at what she had just witnessed.
“Are you alright?” she called over to Aaron, noticing the sadness in his eyes as he once again appeared to be at a loss for where to go. Then, glancing down at Daniel with an annoyed expression on her face, she said pointedly, “This spot was being reserved for your friend over there.” She nodded in Aaron’s direction. “I think there’s space at the end of the line though.” She waved an arm in a noncommittal fashion down the long lineup of Rockettes, who were chatting amicably with the kids in front of them as they waited for everyone to finish taking their place. Aghast, Daniel’s mouth fell open at the words, as his face flushed pink with embarrassment. Then, throwing a surprised Aaron a dirty look, he shuffled away with his head bowed low in shame, as Aaron moved forward to join the Rockette who had just stood up for him. “Are you alright?” she asked when he reached her.
“I’m fine, yeah,” Aaron mumbled, embarrassed. “You didn’t – thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.” She winked at him before intimating with a whisper,” I hate bullies.”
A wide smile unfurled across Aaron’s face as Mr. Ainsley called loudly, “Alright, everyone! Settle down so I can snap this picture!” Silence began to descend over the gathered crowd, as Aaron was spun around to face the camera by his Rockette, and she placed two firm, reassuring hands on his shoulders. “On the count of three, say ‘Merry Christmas’! One. Two. Three!”
“Merry Christmas!” Aaron blinked as the bright flash of the phone’s camera went off. Mr. Ainsley glanced down at the picture he just captured before giving a thumb’s up to the people still posing and saying, “Perfect.”
More chatter immediately broke out as the group began to break apart and Ms. Warren hurried forward to talk to the theater’s manager about getting a copy of the picture sent to her. Aaron, however, didn’t move. He craned his neck backward to glance up at the Rockette, whose hands were still on his shoulders and was smiling down at him. “When I get sent a copy, I’ll make sure to frame it for myself,” she said. “It’s not often handsome strangers pose for photos with me!”
Aaron blushed at the words, as he tried and failed to conceal a goofy smile that he could feel spreading across his face. He knew that the woman was merely trying to boost his confidence after the display of bullying that she had witnessed moments earlier, but he didn’t care; it was still sweet of her to do. In fact, he found himself slightly disappointed when she released him from her grasp a second later after giving his shoulder one last, reassuring squeeze, and walked away to talk to one of her fellow dancers. His disappointment was short-lived, however, when he noticed Kevin standing with Holly and Margot feet away from him. Margot looked shocked by the interaction, but Kevin and Holly both had expressions of mixed jealousy and amazement written all over their faces. And as Aaron walked over to join the three of them, he couldn’t help but wonder whether Holly actually may have felt the same way about him as he did her.
“Dude…” Kevin breathed, searching for the words adequate enough to convey his envy. “How did you…”
“It was all thanks to Daniel,” Aaron admitted, raising his voice slightly to ensure that the bully in question, who was sulking a few feet away with Chris, could hear him. Both of their scowls intensified at the words, but neither dared to do or say anything in response, for Ms. Warren was standing close by. Besides, there was no time for talking anyway, for at that moment, Ms. Barnes clapped her hands loudly and authoritatively. “Right. We need to get moving. Before we know it, it’ll be showtime. And as has already been made clear, we expect nothing less than perfection from all of our performers during each and every show, so we must rehearse.”
Whatever small bout of confidence the African American Rockette had given him moments before instantly evaporated at the words. Indeed, Aaron felt as though he were going to get sick at any moment. Beside him, Holly looked only slightly less nervous. It was clear that Ms. Barnes wasn’t in the business of providing reassurances to her performers, however, for she plowed on with her instructions. “Now, those of you performing music, which I realize is the majority of you, please form a group to my left. Those of you playing the children who will be reading the nativity story, form a group to my right. Quickly, now! Chop, chop!” She authoritatively clapped her hands together again.
“Break a leg!” Kevin winked at Aaron, as he moved toward the director’s left with the majority of their fellow classmates.
“Literally, please,” Daniel hissed in an undertone on his way past Aaron.
“You’ll do fine,” Margot insisted, rolling her eyes as she passed him, pretending to gag at the fact that she was following in Daniel’s footsteps.
“You really won’t be,” Chris cruelly reassured him, as he made his way toward the right side of Ms. Barnes, along with a fellow classmate named Erin.
“Don’t listen to them,” Holly insisted quietly, left alone with Aaron for the briefest of moments. “You’ll do amazing. You always are.”
“Thanks.” Aaron swallowed hard. “You will – you are – too.”
Holly’s cheeks went pink at the words, as a wide smile unfurled across her face. The two stared at one another for a moment that seemed to last forever, unaware that they were being watched closely by everybody around them. Indeed, the Rockettes seemed tickled by the budding romance between the two youngsters. As Aaron stared at his classmate, he had never before wished so hard that mistletoe would appear from thin air above them, but alas, it didn’t, and before he knew it, Holly moved away from him to join Chris and Erin to the right of Ms. Barnes, leaving him standing all on his own before the director of programming.
“That must make you our little drummer boy,” the stern woman noted, as she sized Aaron up with her eyes. “You certainly have the right stature for the part.”
Daniel and Chris laughed loudly at the remark, earning themselves a reproachful, “Boys!” from Principal Rodriguez, which was all the warning they needed to silence themselves, though they did still exchange an amused glance behind the back of Ms. Barnes. Ms. Warren, meanwhile, stepped forward to defend her student against the old woman. “Aaron, here, is an excellent drummer. He’s extraordinarily talented, and–”
“—I would expect no less since he’s performing at my theater.” Ms. Barnes cut across the teacher with a cold smile before turning her attention to Aaron again. “Since you, along with our shepherds,” she motioned in a directionless manner at the group of Rockettes behind her. “Will be leading our animals across the stage this evening, perhaps you should go acquaint yourself with them before rehearsal officially starts, while I start prepping your classmates.” Aaron nodded his agreement, which for some reason only made the woman’s eyes narrow into tiny slits. Then, without warning, she turned on her Rockettes. “Which of you would be kind enough to show this boy here to the stable?”
“I’ll do it.”
“Ah, Brittany. Very good.” Ms. Barnes nodded, as the pretty African American woman who had been so kind to Aaron moments ago, moved toward the boy with a wide smile on her face. Aaron threw a quick glance at Kevin, who gave him a thumb’s up, before turning to glance at Holly, who looked slightly jealous once more.
“Ready?” Brittany asked. When Aaron nodded, she began to lead him away from his classmates and around the corner of one of the enormous Christmas sets surrounding them.
“If you’re too scared, just let me know, Rankin!” Daniel called after them before his voice became muffled by the large sets the moment they were out of sight. Once they were out of earshot completely, Brittany rolled her eyes and let her composure drop slightly. “Don’t listen to him,” she instructed Aaron. “Seriously, take my word for it – people like that are completely insecure. It’s why they feel the need to bully others; they’re jealous of them. And trust me, that kid is definitely jealous of you.” She glanced down at Aaron as they proceeded around the corner of another large set, this one shaped like a living room on Christmas morning. “I promise you that things get better after school. That may seem like a long time away right now, but it’ll go by fast. I used to be bullied myself, you know.”
“Really?” Aaron asked, surprised, as he eyed the pretty woman up and down.
Brittany nodded. “I know it’s hard to believe, given where I am now, but it’s true. And trust me, kiddo, you’ll be just as successful when you reach my age.” She winked at him as they turned another corner in the maze of sets and props, rounding a fountain in the middle of Central Park.
“I just hope I’m successful during tonight’s performance!” Aaron admitted.
“You’ll be fine,” Brittany assured him. “Don’t let Barnes scare you. She’s a miserable old witch. She’s overly tough on everybody. My first day as a Rockette, she made me cry.” Aaron laughed, as the woman calmed his nerves with her easy-going demeanor. “I’ll make sure to let your little girlfriend know that later too.” When Aaron glanced sideways at her, confused, she gave a small shrug as she explained, “She looked a little nervous after Barnes’ speech as well.”
“Uh…what?” Aaron asked, legitimately confused as thy rounded the corner of the Times Square set, and the sounds of various animals seemed to draw closer.
“The cute little blonde girl you were talking to before Ms. Barnes split you up.” Brittany raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t she your–”
“Holly? No.” Aaron answered so quickly that he stumbled over his words.
“Really?” Brittany asked, surprised. “What – you guys aren’t still in that ‘cooties phase’ are you?”
“No! No, nothing like that,” Aaron insisted uncomfortably. “It’s just that – you know, we’re friends.”
“Maybe,” Brittany said thoughtfully before adding, “But it sure looked like both of you wanted it to be something a little bit more.”
As Aaron mulled this over silently, the two rounded yet another corner – this time belonging to that of the manger that would feature in the living nativity scene – and came to an abrupt stop at the far end of a spacious stable, inside of which nine animals were gathered around the opposite corner. They were vying for the attention of a short, olive-skinned man, who looked as though he were in his early twenties and was feeding them from a large bucket, patting them and speaking to them lovingly as he did so. “Marcello, darling!” Brittany called loudly across the animal pen, raising her voice slightly to ensure that she would be heard over the various noises the gathered creatures were making. “I’ve brought you a visitor!”
“Ah, Brittany, my bella!” Marcello spoke in a thick Italian accent. At the sound of the Rockette’s voice, he had looked up to find the woman’s eyes across the room with a toothy, dazzling smile plastered on his face. Placing the bucket of slop down on the ground, he straightened the ascot cap on his head as his eyes tracked Brittany and Aaron making their way around the perimeter of the animal pen toward him. “Who’s this little fella?”
“This is Aaron.” Brittany placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder as she guided him toward the stable boy. “He’s going to play the part of the little drummer boy during tonight’s performance!”
“Ah, magnifico!” Marcello exclaimed.
“Marcello, here, is our animal handler, obviously,” Brittany explained to Aaron. “It used to be that – besides Santa Claus and the children – the Rockettes portrayed every other part in the show. The animals though…” She laughed. “They started getting a little hard to handle on the stage twice a day, so now Marcello plays the role of the little drummer boy so that somebody the animals love and trust can lead them and make them feel comfortable in front of a live audience.”
Aaron nodded absentmindedly, only half listening to what the Rockette was saying. He was too busy eyeing the animals that had scattered and were milling idly about their pen. Like most people, especially children, Aaron couldn’t resist the lure of a cute, furry, friendly beast. When the two of them came to a stop in front of Marcello, the Italian man squatted down to meet Aaron’s eyes at his level. “It’s nice to meet you.” He stuck out his hand for Aaron to take.
“You too,” Aaron replied meekly, shaking the man’s hand as Brittany leaned against the stable’s wooden wall with her arms folded across her chest, smiling to herself as she watched the scene.
“Did Old Lady Barnes try to scare the dickens out of you?” Marcello asked in an attempt to make Aaron feel comfortable. When the boy nodded, he smirked sympathetically. “I figured she would; she wasn’t keen on crazy Bernie’s contest idea to begin with, but he won out in the end like he always does. Don’t worry though. You’re in good company. She still tries to intimidate us daily, as if performing at Radio City weren’t intimidating enough in and of itself. In fact,” he laughed. “I can’t even begin to tell you how nervous I felt before my first performance after I was asked to play the little drummer boy. But you know what? I got through it. You will too,” he stressed. “And I’ll be on stage right behind you in a shepherd’s costume tonight, every step of the way, helping you lead the animals across the stage. Along with the Rockettes, of course.”
“And I’ll be above you on the mountain, dressed as Mary,” Brittany chimed in.
Marcello nodded. “Between the two of us, all of the other Rockettes, and your classmates, you won’t be alone.” He smiled. “You’ll be just fine tonight. We’ll be just fine. We’re all in this together, and we all support one another and make sure that each and every one of us gets through every performance in one piece. So, I know it’s easier said than done, but try not to be nervous, okay?”
Aaron nodded, feeling as though a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. The combination of Marcello’s and Brittany’s words actually worked to put his mind at ease and calm his stomachache, much to his surprise. Then, unable to help himself, his eyes were drawn back to the animals in the pen once again. Marcello noticed with a laugh. “Everybody loves the animals,” he confided. “As temperamental as they can be at times. But I’ve been rambling enough. Do you want to meet them?”
“Yes!” Aaron exclaimed enthusiastically.
“Alright!” Marcello ruffled his hair before standing up straight and winking at Brittany, whose smile widened as her heart skipped a beat. Noticing the glance that the two exchanged, Aaron smirked to himself; he clearly wasn’t the only one in love.
The man surprised Aaron by picking him up without warning and placing him in a seated position atop the stable wall so that his legs dangled in the animal pen. Both Brittany and Marcello kept a hand on the child’s lower back to ensure the boy kept his balance as the three of them stared at the animals scattered around the enclosed space. “Those two right there?” Marcello pointed to two snow white sheep – one much larger than the other, which appeared to be only an infant. “They’re called Dolly and Franklin. They’re mother and son.” As Aaron observed them, he noticed how closely Franklin seemed to be sticking to his mom, which caused a pang of longing for his own mother’s presence to flare up inside of him. “This is Franklin’s first season in the show.”
“He’s cute,” Aaron remarked.
“If you think he’s cute now, you should have seen him when he was first born,” Brittany interjected. “The girls couldn’t get enough of him!”
“It’s Clarabelle’s first season too.” Marcello indicated a small, spotted brown cow that was fast asleep on the ground beside a much larger, watchful, black and white bovine. “Her mother, Bessie, is a veteran though; just like Dolly. And those two are brothers.” He pointed at two, mid-sized donkeys that were horsing around in the corner. “Nestor–”
“Look how long his ears are,” Brittany pointed out. “Aren’t they adorable?”
Aaron nodded, smirking to himself at the sight of the floppy ears that nearly dragged along the ground. “The one with the upright ears is called Eeyore,” Marcello continued, as though he hadn’t been interrupted, answering Aaron’s unasked question.
“They’re Marcello’s favorite,” Brittany teased.
“No, signora.” Marcello shook his head. “I have no favorites. They’re all like my children.”
“It is hard to pick favorites,” Brittany conceded to Aaron. “They’re all so sweet! Except those two.” She pointed a finger at two very large camels, nuzzling their necks against one another. “They’re ass…ets.” Brittany, realizing that she was in the presence of a young child, caught herself midsentence, eliciting laughter from both Marcello and the boy. “They’re assets, but they’re also huge – uh – jerks.”
“They do like to spit and nip at you,” Marcello begrudgingly admitted. “So you do have to be careful around them, but honestly, they mean well enough.”
“What’re their names?” Aaron asked.
“Ahmed and Fathima.”
“They’re totally in love.”
Aaron nodded his understanding, as his eyes settled on one last, tiny animal standing all alone away from the rest, looking depressed. The small goat was clearly still a baby, with a scraggly beard, nubs for horns atop its head, and a lone black spot on his back. “What’s his name?” Aaron asked, unable to look away from the creature.
Marcello’s face fell instantly. “That’s Billy.”
“Why does he look so sad?”
“His mother died giving birth to him,” Brittany explained softly. “And his father shortly afterward.”
“Of heartbreak.” Aaron turned to meet Marcello’s fiery eyes as the man elaborated. “Don’t let anybody ever tell you that animals can’t comprehend feelings, love, or heartbreak. Their souls are pure, and they understand them better than most humans are able to.”
“It’s Billy’s first season too. Obviously,” Brittany pointed out. “He hasn’t really assimilated with the other animals yet. They haven’t really accepted him as one of their own hitherto, so he’s very lonely.”
“He’s shy,” Marcello added. “So I try to give him a little extra love and attention to make him feel more comfortable.” Noticing that Aaron was unable to rip his gaze from the young goat, Marcello picked the young boy up from where he sat, and placed him on his feet within the pen before hopping into it himself. “Let’s go meet him.”
Brittany watched the handsome young man slowly lead the charming young boy over to the tiny, shy goat. Billy nervously shrunk away at first, but after some coaxing, and soft words of reassurance from Marcello, he allowed Aaron to approach him. The goat remained tense for a few moments as the boy gently patted him on the head, but before long, it warmed up to Aaron, not only leaning into his touch, but also making soft sounds of contentment as well. “I think he likes you!” Brittany called out from where she stood.
Amazed, Marcello nodded his agreement. “I’ve never seen Billy take to somebody new so quickly!”
Aaron barely heard either of their remarks, for he was too entranced by the young goat in front of him – a kid, just like himself. He didn’t know why, but he felt a strong sense of kinship with the orphaned animal. He knew what it was like not to have a parent (for all intents and purposes, his father was dead to him), and he too knew what it was like to be shy and an outsider amongst his peers. Perhaps Billy instinctively sensed their similarities as well, which was why he had taken to him so quickly.
“Ms. Barnes will surely want to do a full run through with everybody soon,” Marcello continued, shaking the boy from his thoughts. “So before we have to go join the others, let me introduce you to the rest of the animals and explain how to get them to follow you across the stage.” Aaron opened his mouth, panicked again, but Marcello pressed on, holding up a hand. “Like I said, I’ll be with you on stage during the performance, but we still need to go over a few techniques.”
Aaron nodded his understanding before following Marcello over to the two donkeys, all while being watched from afar by Brittany, who became more charmed by her coworker and the young boy with each passing second. Truth be told, she was also savoring the last few minutes that she had left where she didn’t have to deal with Old Lady Barnes.
* * *
Though Megan Rankin had initially been reluctant to climb into a car driven by a complete stranger that offered to drive them into Manhattan in the middle of a snowstorm, especially with two of her children, she began to relax substantially shortly into their journey. Gabe the airport employee turned out to be an excellent driver, who navigated the snowy highways with relative ease. And though he was going pretty fast, swerving in and out of cars at an accelerated clip whenever he was able to, not once did he slip or skid on ice or even come close to causing an accident, and never once did Megan feel unsafe in the passenger seat. Indeed, their was something extraordinarily comforting about Gabe’s presence that made the single mother trust him. In fact, before she knew it, she was rambling on and on about her travel plights, completely unburdening herself to the complete stranger.
“I wouldn’t be too hard on your mother, Megan,” Gabe said softly when the woman finally lapsed into silence for the first time.
“Please don’t take my mother’s side,” Megan implored in a self-pitying voice.
Gabe laughed as he guided his car onto the Cross County Parkway. “I’m not taking sides,” he assured her. “I’m just saying to look at things from her perspective. And look at this weather!” He nodded out of the front windshield at the snow still falling so heavily that they could barely see a few feet in front of them. “Who knows if your parents would have been able to make it out to Westchester safely in this weather to come and get you, and then make it back into the city safely in time to make your son’s performance. They were thinking of – you said his name was Aaron, right?” Megan nodded. “They were thinking of Aaron too. He doesn’t know you flew in to surprise him! Imagine if he looked out into the audience tonight and saw that not even his local grandparents showed up to watch the show!”
Megan’s stomach sunk at the thought, and she immediately felt guilty for losing her temper with her mother on the phone earlier. “You make a good point,” she begrudgingly conceded.
“Yes, god forbid Aaron was disappointed for once in his life,” Jake muttered sarcastically from the backseat of the car.
Megan sighed exasperatedly before turning in her seat to glance at her son. Amy, who was fast asleep once again, was buckled up tightly on his lap, her head lolling back and her open mouth leaking drool over her shirt. Jake, meanwhile, was staring out of his window trying to get a substantial glimpse of Manhattan through the snow beyond, his expression dark. “Could you at least try to cheer up, please?” she asked wearily. “Try to have a good time? We’re in New York City! You’ve wanted to come back and visit since we moved away! And look! It’s snowing! You always used to love white Christmases when you were younger!”
“And you used to love dad when I was younger, Megan,” Jake snapped, his words dripping with vitriol as he whipped his head around to stare his mother down. He was surprised to see that his words had far from the desired effect on the woman; indeed, she didn’t look outraged by them, but extremely sad.
“I really did,” Megan softly admitted, trying to keep her voice steady despite the fact that she felt like crying due to how much her son’s words stung. “Part of me still does, if I’m being honest. But Jake…” She took a deep breath. “You have to understand that he and I are done. We are never getting back together.”
“Why not?” Jake asked softly, his face pained.
“Because I love you more,” Megan stressed. “You, Aaron, Amy…” At the sound of her name, the baby in question stirred awake, blinking groggily, which made her young mother smile. “You kids saved me,” she continued, acutely aware of Gabe studying her out of the corner of his eyes. “If it wasn’t for you three…” She shrugged. “I’d still probably be in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship. But I refuse to raise you guys in such a toxic environment.” She sighed deeply. “I know how much you wish your father was around, Jake. I really do. I know how much you wish you got to know him better, and I can sympathize with that. It’s why I called him for a ride into Manhattan from Westchester.” Her face darkened at the words. “But that was a moment of weakness on my part. Do you understand? The fact of the matter is we’re all better off without him in our lives, and as long as you’re a minor in my care, he will have nothing to do with you. You can hate me all you want, but it’s for your own good. Okay?”
Silence fell over the car as Megan finished her surprisingly emotional speech. Gabe snuck a peek at the single mother’s children in the rearview mirror and watched as the baby girl playfully grabbed at her brother’s stunned face. He looked white as a ghost, and his wide eyes were brimming with tears. His mouth was agape, but it didn’t look like he was attempting to speak – whether because he didn’t know what to say, or because he couldn’t find the words. After a few moments that consisted of Megan staring at him expectantly, biting down on her trembling, lower lip, Jake shut his mouth, cleared his throat, and turned back to stare out of his window at the snowy city beyond. Sadly, Megan turned to face forward in her seat once again as Jake removed his earbuds from his pocket and placed them firmly in his ears.
As the loud, angry sounds of rap music began to emanate from the back seat, mingling oddly with the soft Christmas music playing on the radio, Gabe asked his travelling companion, “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Megan replied solemnly. “I’m used to these fights.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Megan glanced sideways at the attractive red-head to find him staring at her with concern. “I just – you know, I just don’t know how to get through to him.”
“He’s a teenage boy, Megan. It’s impossible to get through to them. Trust me, I know. I used to be one.” Megan laughed as the man pressed on. “But I’ll tell you something, and I want you to listen to me, okay? If anything was ever going to pierce the thick skull of a stubborn teenager, that emotional monologue you just gave was it.”
Megan rolled her eyes. “I won’t hold my breath.” And, as if to stress her point, she let out a long sigh. “I just feel bad for him, you know? A boy needs his father.”
“Your son has an amazing mother who is just as good at being mom and dad than most men are at just being a father,” Gabe pointed out, taking the woman by surprise. “And trust me when I say that one day he’ll notice that and be thankful for it. He just needs to grow up a little more first.”
A calming warmth radiated throughout Megan’s body, as she silently cursed the tears of appreciation brimming in her eyes. “That’s the nicest thing that anybody’s ever said to me.”
“Every word of it is true.”
“How do you know?” Megan asked, aware of how childish the question sounded. “You don’t even know us.”
“I know enough. Besides, I have good intuition about things like this.” Gabe winked at her. “Trust me, I wouldn’t lead you astray.” He removed one hand from the steering wheel and patted Megan’s knee reassuringly before placing it back where it belonged.
Wanting to steer the conversation to a lighter topic, Megan put on a southern drawl and teased, “Why Gabe – are you flirting with me?”
Laughing, the man insisted, “Just being nice. Flirting’s not really my thing. Besides…” He cleared his throat. “You’re really not my – uh – type.”
“Ah.” Megan went red in the face before playfully pouting, as she stomped her foot and snapped her fingers. “Well, darn it! Ah well.” She shrugged. “It was worth a shot.” As Gabe laughed again, she leaned forward slightly to peer out of the front windshield and try to get her bearings through the snow and the lack of light in the night sky. “We’re making good time!”
Gabe nodded. “I reckon we’ll be pulling up in front of Radio City with about twenty-minutes to spare.”
Megan smiled wide at the words, her heart soaring. “I seriously don’t know how to thank you enough. You’re like – I don’t know…” She searched for the right descriptors before settling on, “You’re like my guardian angel or something.”
Gabe flashed a toothy grin. “I get that a lot,” he admitted, doing his best to try and sound modest. “I guess I just like helping people.”
“You’re not just helping me,” Megan pointed out. “You’re saving me.”
Gabe beamed with pride at the comment, but said nothing in response. Megan took this to mean that the man wanted to drive in silence for a while, and settled back comfortably in her seat, recognizing the excitement building within her. She was home for Christmas for the first time in a few years, and in a few hours, she would be watching her beloved child performing in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. A wide smile unfurled across her face at both thoughts, and she allowed herself to close her eyes, realizing for the first time all day just how tired she actually was and deciding to try and catch a few moments of sleep before arriving at her destination and dealing with all of the excitement that was to come along with it.