Happy Thursday, Christmas fanatics! Welcome to the twenty-fourth official installment of “Another Christmas Story“!
This week, Matt Eurich of “TGI Podcast” will read to all of you Chapter Twenty-Three of our tale, entitled “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”. Within this chapter, we switch back between the points of view of multiple characters, including Hudson Jackson, Officers Dwyer and Lee, and Joey and Mary!
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! Make sure to check your main feeds on Monday as well to hear all three elves discuss “Merry Christmas, Johnny Rose” – the one Christmas episode the beloved Canadian sitcom, “Schitt’s Creek” made – with Kendall Farrae of “For Forks Sake” podcast, in addition to checking it next Thursday for the twenty-fourth official chapter of this story – “Chapter Twenty-Four: Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, which Glenn Warren of “Season’s Eatings Podcast” will be reading to you!
Enjoy, y’all! 🎅🏻🎄🎁 🦌🦉⛄️ 🤶🏻 🎀 ❄️
Chapter Twenty-Three: Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
December 24th – 2:00 p.m. EST
Even without the benefit of knowing the intersection where it happened, Hudson would have found the spot where the stray dog had caused a fender bender with relative ease. It was a straight shot down Fifth Avenue, and as he slowly drew closer to 48th Street, he could make out the flashing red and blue lights of a police car pulled off to the side of the road up ahead. As he inched his truck onward, Hudson leaned forward in his seat to stare between 50th and 51st Streets when he realized that traffic was still slightly backed up due to the accident the dog caused, and so he made the executive decision to pull his truck over on the northern corner of 50th and Fifth, parking it outside of a Banana Republic store. He didn’t think it was legal to park where he did, but as a city employee in a vehicle designated to him by City Hall, the normal rules didn’t apply to Hudson; it was one of the only perks of his job.
Flashing a self-important smile at irate passerby, who threw him grumpy looks from the confines of their own vehicles, Hudson hopped out of his truck and walked around to the back of it, where he threw open the doors to grab something from within. Beside the cages of different sizes lining both sides of the truck, the floor was littered with tools that not only made his job easier, but were also essential in performing the responsibilities required of him. After eyeing an intimidating looking y-pole with some trepidation for a few moments, Hudson chose instead to reach in and grab a black collar and a heavy-duty leather leash beside it. Unless an animal was truly aggressive, he hated using the big metal stick with the loop of wire on the end – it only made the animal, and himself, more stressed. There was no need for that; especially when the majority of animals he picked up were fearful enough as it was. So, with the collar and the leash clutched tightly in his left hand, Hudson slammed the doors of his truck shut and began walking south down the busy Manhattan street in the direction of the flashing lights of the cop car parked two blocks away.
Due to the increased foot traffic the area experienced during the holiday season, it took Hudson longer than it should have to reach his destination. The icy sidewalks and heavily falling snow only made it worse, and Hudson caught himself repeatedly glancing skyward to throw Elsa’s storm clouds looks of trepidation; he hadn’t expecting the snowstorm to get so bad, so quickly, and marveled at how many people were still flooding the streets given the conditions and the sheer fact that it was Christmas Eve. He chalked it up to the resilience of New Yorkers – a little bad weather and a holiday weren’t going to keep any of them from going about their daily business.
When Hudson drew near the patrol car, it was to find two officers standing beside it. He stood silently behind them for a moment, eyeing the two men in blue – both broad and muscular, one white and one Asian. Though they had yet to notice him standing feet behind them, he was impressed by their alert eyes, following each and every car that drove past them on the street. After a few more seconds in which Hudson went unnoticed, he cleared his throat loudly in an awkward attempt to draw the cops’ attention to him. It worked, as both men whipped around, startled. “Sorry,” Hudson said meekly, immediately raising his hands into the air to show that he was carrying nothing but a dog collar and a long leash. “I’m supposed to be meeting Officers Lee and Dwyer?” He forced a nervous smile onto his face, gulping audibly when he noticed that the white officer’s hand had automatically jumped to the butt of his gun when he spun to face him.
“Animal Control.” The white officer pointed an index finger at Hudson, a wide grin unfurling across his face. “You must be from Animal Control.” When Hudson nodded, the officer laughed and removed his hand from the gun, much to Hudson’s relief. “Officer Dwyer.” He stuck out his hand for Hudson to shake, which he did cautiously. “This is Officer Lee.” The Asian cop nodded his head in acknowledgement of Hudson as his partner continued speaking. “Sorry we’re a little jumpy. I’m sure you can imagine what it must be like to be a cop in the most famous city in the world, during the busiest time of the year, when the most famous and important woman on the planet is in town.”
“Slow,” Officer Lee supplied with a grin that made his partner laugh, though Hudson wasn’t quite sure whether or not the man was joking.
“Yet stressful,” Officer Dwyer continued. “We don’t want any damn terrorists to ruin the birthday of our Lord and Savior, now do we?”
“No, sir.” Hudson shook his head, which caused the talkative cop to narrow his eyes as he studied his appearance.
“Relax, man,” Officer Dwyer advised him, clapping a hand onto his shoulder. “It’s Christmas! Loosen up a bit!”
“He’s probably frozen stiff,” Officer Lee suggested, wiping snow from his eyes. “I know I am.”
“I think we all are,” Hudson replied with a smile, desperate to pivot the conversation to the matter of business at hand. “I’m glad I got a call that you picked up the stray dog. There’s a good chance he might have frozen to death if left wandering the streets today.” He looked past the cops at their squad car, the red and blue lights of which illuminated the snowy streets and sidewalks in the immediate vicinity. He could just make out a moving shadow within the car, but he couldn’t see specific features of the animal in question due to the car’s tinted windows.
“Yeah, it’s a good thing,” Officer Lee acknowledged before asking, “How about we introduce you to the thing, eh?” When Hudson nodded, both policemen turned their back on him to face the car. As Officer Lee struggled with the back-door handle, Officer Dwyer glanced over his shoulder at Hudson and noticed that the man was steeling himself – as though bracing himself to catch the dog if he made a run for it. “I wouldn’t worry about the animal running. He’s a sweetheart; seems to love attention. I’d be more worried that he bowls you over by jumping on you. He’s pretty strong, and can get pretty damn high into the air.”
“Are you ready?” The Asian officer asked Hudson, as he tightly gripped the handle of the car’s back door. When Hudson nodded, the cop wrenched it open and both officers scooted to either side of it in order to allow the man from animal control to move forward between them, blocking any chance the animal might have of escaping.
The dog inside was one of the most beautiful dogs that Hudson had ever seen. He was enormous, with a brindle coat of fur and a muscular frame that indicated the animal had somehow managed to keep a healthy diet despite living his life on the streets. His square head, huge and wrinkled, sat atop a thick neck, and his floppy ears flapped as it tilted to the side in order to survey Hudson curiously with its wide, brown, interested eyes. “Well, hey there, buddy!” Hudson reached into the car to scratch the dog’s head with one hand and its stomach with his other, allowing himself a small smile as the creature enthusiastically leaned into his touch. “Aren’t you handsome?” The dog leaned forward to lick his face at the words, which made Hudson laugh out loud. Judging from its demeanor, and overall look, it was clearly quite young despite its size. “You’re a friendly thing!” Then, glancing over his shoulder at the officers, he asked, “Did you say it’s a male?”
Officers Dwyer and Lee exchanged a glance. “We just assumed,” the latter admitted.
“We didn’t actively go out of our way to search for a…” The former awkwardly cleared his throat as his eyes flickered down to his own crotch.
Hudson turned back toward the dog before rolling his eyes. After quickly checking to confirm that the dog was, in fact, a male, he asked, “What have you been calling him?”
“Booster Rocket,” Officer Dwyer said proudly. “We thought it was an appropriate name given how high he can jump and how strong he is.”
“How about we just call you Booster, huh?” Hudson smiled at the dog, which tilted its head curiously to the side again. “You like that, right? Yeah, you do. You look like a Booster.”
“What kind of dog is he?” Officer Lee asked curiously.
“Looks like a Pitbull-mix to me,” Hudson replied, studying the dog’s physique. “Maybe with some mastiff thrown in there.”
“A Pitbull?” Officer Dwyer repeated, his eyebrows contracting. “He seems a bit gentle for a Pitbull, no?”
Hudson turned to face the cops again, his demeanor stern now. “Pitbulls are one of the most misunderstood dog breeds,” he informed them. “In my experience, and the experience of many others if you do some research, they tend to think they’re babies. They’re gentle giants.” He turned back to Booster. “They get such a bad rap, but the truth is, there’s no such thing as a bad dog; only bad people.” The dog licked his hand in response to his words, causing the man to smile once again. “Do you mind if I put this collar on you? Nah, you don’t mind, do you?” He gently fastened the collar around the confused dog’s neck before attaching the leash in his hand to a ring fastened around the collar. “There you go!” He stepped back from the car, allowing the dog to hop out onto the sidewalk. Its paws didn’t remain on the ground for very long, however, before he jumped high into the air in order to place its front paws on Hudson’s shoulders so that it could lick his face.
Hudson wasn’t ready for the dog to lunge up at him, however, and had been staring down at him when he did so, which resulted in their two heads smacking together hard. As Hudson stumbled backward in surprise, seeing black spots swimming before him as he maintained a tight grip on the dog’s leash, both officers burst out laughing. “Down, Booster!” Hudson commanded gently yet firmly, as he pushed the disappointed dog back to the ground and rubbed his forehead.
“Are you alright?” Officer Lee asked, regaining his composure as his partner continued laughing beside him.
“I’m fine,” Hudson replied curtly. “I should get him back to the truck.” He jerked his head up the block in the direction his vehicle was parked. “I’m getting cold, and I’m sure he’s freezing too.” He glanced down at Booster, who was staring up at him with his tongue hanging out of his mouth and his tail wagging happily. “Thanks for taking care of him until I got here.”
“No problem,” Office Lee replied, as Officer Dwyer nodded. “Have a Merry Christmas.”
“You two as well,” Hudson replied before staring down at the dog again. “Come on, Booster, let’s go.” He tugged firmly on the leash as he took a few steps up the street on the slippery sidewalk. The dog, however, seemed to not want to budge. Indeed, as the leash tugged on his collar, Booster seemed to panic for the first time over the fact that he had something foreign around his neck and began to bite at it. “Booster, no!” Hudson tugged on the leash again, and this time, Booster pulled back, trying in vain to run in the opposite direction.
Hudson’s heart broke as he watched the genial dog work himself into a panic, seemingly realizing for the first time that his freedom was being taken away from him. He was used to animals reacting this way, however, and had dealt with ones in the past that had been just as strong as this one. “Come on, Booster. It’ll be okay.” And with another tug of the leash, Hudson began to half drag the homeless dog up the snowy sidewalk in the direction of 51st Street, doing his best to ignore the laughter of the cops behind him and the curious looks of passerby as he did so.
* * *
By the time the two of them had arrived at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, any misgivings and worries that Mary and Joey were feeling about their personal situations had been pushed completely to the backs of their minds. Both childhood friends were too busy basking in each other’s company and enjoying the crowds, lights, and music that took over the city during the holidays and was currently surrounding them on all sides.
Mary stared up through the swirling snow at the enormous tree, which had been cut down in Rockland County, New York this year, and admired the twinkling, colored lights and the brightly shining star stuck on top. “Do you remember that one year when we were kids how green the tree looked?”
Joey turned from the tree to Mary, confused. “What are you talking about?”
“The lights on the tree,” she elaborated. “I vividly remember one year when the majority of the lights wrapped around the tree were green and blue. I think it was to promote clean energy, or a greener planet, or something, but either way, it looked so bad.” She laughed.
“You know what?” Joey thought back. “Now that you mention it, I think I do have a vague recollection of that.” He glanced down at Mary. “Do you remember that year – we were probably about five-years-old – that your mom took us to visit the tree and lost us in the crowd?”
Mary nodded. “Yup. She nearly killed us when she realized we had wandered off for a closer look.”
“It took her long enough to realize we were gone.” Joey laughed as Mary smiled, and the two turned as one to stare up at the most iconic Christmas tree in the world once again. Joey felt mesmerized by the colored lights, twinkling brightly through the falling snow, and thought back to the conversation he had had with Ryan on the phone earlier, where he had admitted that he wasn’t sure whether he and Mary had much in common. Deciding to pry a bit more in order to find out some of things she was interested in, he asked the first question that popped into his mind. “What’s your favorite Christmas carol about a Christmas tree?”
The moment the words had escaped his mouth, he regretted saying them, and he felt himself go red in the face when Mary let out a bark of laughter. “What kind of question is that?”
“I’m just trying to make conversation.” Joey shrugged innocently.
“Right,” Mary replied uncertainly before answering. “Well, it’s gotta be Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. I mean, is there another song about a Christmas tree that’s more fun?”
“See, I disagree,” Joey countered. “Sure, it’s probably the most fun one, but I prefer O Christmas Tree.”
“You’re out of your mind.”
“I’m serious! It’s more poignant! Besides, I like that it incorporates the true meaning of Christmas into its lyrics.”
“English majors and their deeper meanings.” Mary rolled her eyes, grinning. “They’re the only ones pretentious enough to prefer that song over a classic rock one.”
Joey laughed before jerking his head at the tree. “What do you say?” he asked. “Want to get a picture?”
Mary bit down on her lower lip, considering the question for a moment, before nodding excitedly. “But not here,” she insisted. “We’ll get a picture in my favorite spot.” She jerked her head at the Channel Gardens and gently took Joey’s arm, surprising him as she guided him toward the turned off fountains, away from the large crowd of tourists surrounding the base of the tree. “I’m cold.” She shivered, maintaining a tight grip on her companion’s arm, which Joey did nothing to remove himself from. “Can I ask you something now?”
Joey stared down at Mary, as they carefully made their way over the slippery ground running the length of the Gardens. “Of course.”
“What do you do for fun?” Mary asked. “You know, in your spare time.”
“That’s random,” Joey pointed out.
Mary shrugged. “I’m just trying to get reacquainted with you. I mean, we’ve been hanging out all morning and all we’ve done is reminisce about the past. I want to know what you’re like now.”
Joey was taken aback by the woman’s candor, and he wondered whether she was trying to figure out the same thing that he was – whether or not they had anything in common nowadays that could possibly make a friendship or relationship viable. “Well, I still love my comic books,” he admitted.
“You’d be the most popular kid around if we were back in school,” Mary replied. “I can’t believe how mainstream and popular superheroes are nowadays. Who would have thought? I mean, even I like a few of them.”
“Well, two of them,” Mary conceded. “Batman and Iron Man.”
“You like the Bat, which means you have good taste.”
Mary laughed. “What else?”
Joey shrugged. “Well, I’m big into politics nowadays. I actually did a lot of volunteer work for President Williams’ presidential campaign out in California last year when she was running. And I still enjoy reading, obviously. I’m also still a movie and television buff. And, well, you know, I’m still trying to get my novel published.”
“Speaking of which, you still never told me what it’s about,” Mary pointed out.
Joey smirked. “Just – don’t laugh, okay?” He glanced down at Mary, who was curiously staring up at him. “It’s about this man who kills himself and is forced to take over the duties of the Grim Reaper. Basically, the whole concept is that he’s so miserable with his life, he thinks dying is the easy way out, not realizing that in the afterlife, you have to deal with the repercussions for eternity – and as the Angel of Death, it never gets easier guiding people from the world of the living into the world of the dead. So on his journey to becoming the Grim Reaper, he’s forced to deal with all of the choices he made in life, while confronting people during the last legs of their own lives, and eventually he has to confront some of the people who were in his life who were left depressed and suicidal by his own death.”
“Wow.” Mary let out a long breath. “That sounds…depressing.”
“I know it’s high concept,” Joey began defensively. “But it has a good moral! Appreciate life and live it to the fullest while you can, and keep in mind the effect you have on others around you. At the same time though, it’s about people learning to cope with their own mortality and learning that death isn’t the end of anything, just the beginning of a new adventure.” When Mary did nothing but continue to silently stare at him, he hastened to add, “Maybe it needs work.”
“No!” Mary insisted. “No, not at all. That’s not it! I’m just really impressed that you have the capacity to think of something like that,” she admitted.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I guess I’ve just always been impressed by creators,” Mary explained. “Because my imagination could never come up with something half that good, even if I had all the time in the–”
“Careful!” Joey caught Mary as she slipped on a patch of ice and nearly fell to the ground.
“I’m fine,” the woman insisted breathlessly, as she clutched at her stomach to soothe the agitated baby kicking furiously inside of her. “Seriously. I just need to pay more attention to where I’m going.”
“You’d probably fare better on the actual ice rink,” Joey teased, maintaining his firm grip on Mary in order to keep her upright as they continued forward.
“Oh, hush.” She hit him playfully. “Look how nice the view is from here!”
They had reached the very end of the Channel Gardens, where a nativity scene was erected, centered perfectly with the enormous Christmas tree in the distance. On either side of the manger, a five-foot Christmas tree adorned with bright white lights was erected, and staring down the length of the Gardens were twelve, wire-sculpture angels – six on each side. Each was angled at either the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree or the manger in front of which Joey and Mary currently stood, and they all held six-foot-long brass trumpets and were surrounded by wire-sculpture snowflakes. Just visible at the end of Channel Gardens, directly beneath the enormous Christmas tree, was the bronze, gilded statue of the Titan Prometheus, bringing fire to mankind in the sunken Rockefeller Plaza, which had been turned into a busy, holiday ice skating rink.
“It’s gorgeous,” Joey admitted, smirking to himself at the fact that many tourists never seemed to realize the area where they currently stood offered the best view of the tree, and was always the least crowded area from which to admire it. “I never get sick of it.”
Mary removed her cell phone from her purse and snapped a picture, staring down the length of the Gardens, before her eyes landed on the manger scene directly in front of her. A statue of the Virgin Mary and Joseph were positioned within the manger, both kneeling with their hands crossed in front of them as they stared down at baby Jesus, swaddled in a white blanket in his tiny crib full of hay. To the right of the manger, sculptures of the three kings and their camels were positioned, facing the scene, and to the left stood two shepherds, staring down at the infant. Directly in front of the family of three, sculptures of an ox and a lamb laid down, their expressions benevolent. In the distance, directly behind and above the scene, the star atop the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree glowed brightly, perfectly positioned so that it looked like the star which the Bible claimed led the kings and the shepherds to the scene.
It was a magnificent sight, but Mary was too focused upon the Virgin Mary to really take in its entire beauty. She was a young mother herself – a woman who bore the child of somebody who wasn’t physically present throughout her son’s life, and all of this back during a time when single mothers were deemed whores and women had next to no rights. How had she managed to cope? Was she scared when she was pregnant? Did she worry about what people would think about her? Stress about what her son would think when he was old enough to understand the situation, or worry about what kind of man he would turn out to be? As she studied the expression on the statue’s face, Mary saw nothing but joy written on it, and then she looked around at the other statues surrounding her. The Virgin Mary didn’t have to raise a child alone; she had Joseph to help her – and the three wise men, a group of shepherds, and farm animals had been present to ensure that she wasn’t alone while giving birth. It was more than Mary herself had, currently, and that thought alone was enough to make her cry. Before the tears could fully form in her eyes, however, Joey’s voice brought her back to her senses.
“Does it feel surreal?” he asked. “Looking at another Mary who gave birth on Christmas day?”
“No,” Mary lied convincingly. “There are probably a million Mary’s throughout history who gave birth on, or around, Christmas. What is weird though is being named Mary and standing next to a man named Joseph while staring down at two of the most famous people in the Bible with the same names.”
“It’s pretty funny, isn’t it?” Joey laughed. “Are you religious?”
“Not particularly,” Mary admitted. “I don’t go to church or pray or anything, but sometimes I’ll talk to the universe when I’m frustrated or need guidance. But I don’t necessarily believe in God or – you know – any of this.” She gestured at the manger scene. “What about you?”
Joey smirked, as he removed a gold cross from within his shirt. “I pray every day,” he said, feeling slightly embarrassed by Mary’s look of surprise. “I believe in God. Jesus and the Devil too. As for all of the rest of it?” He shrugged, as he stared around at all of the tourists before glancing skyward for the briefest of moments. “I think the Bible was written as a book of morality tales for the time in which it was published. I don’t think that it should be taken literally anymore. Times have changed; the world’s changed.” His voice drifted off, as he stared down at the statue of the Virgin Mary. Sighing softly, he forced a smile onto his face and removed his phone from his pocket. “Let’s get a picture.”
Mary nodded her consent and watched as Joey approached an African American man dressed in an entirely white uniform, struggling to load an enormous dog into a van that read “Animal Control Center of New York” parked a few meters away from them down the street.
“Excuse me?” Joey asked, as the man slammed the back doors of his van shut. “Do you mind taking a picture of us?” He motioned between himself and Mary, as he leaned in close to read the man’s nametag. “Hudson,” he added with a smile.
The man glanced up and down the street, appearing as though he was looking for any excuse to say no, but ultimately, he ended up sighing deeply before nodding and forcing a smile onto his face. “Sure,” he replied, holding out his hand to take Joey’s phone. “No problem.”
Hudson followed Joey back to where Mary stood, and waited for the two childhood friends to throw their arms around one another before raising the phone to his eyes. “Ready?”
“Just make sure to get everything behind us,” Mary instructed, waving a hand behind her back in the direction of the tree, the ice skating rink, the angels, and the manger. “As much as you can, anyway.”
Hudson nodded his understanding. “Alright. Three. Two. One.”
There was a bright flash that forced Joey to blink rapidly in order to clear it from his eyes completely. When he stepped forward to take the phone from Hudson, the man who agreed to take their picture stared down at his handiwork. “This will make a beautiful Christmas card for you two to send out next year,” he noted. Then, after a beat, he added with a smile, “Though I suppose you’ll take a better picture of your whole family once your child is born.”
Joey opened his mouth to correct the dogcatcher before closing it again almost immediately, thinking better of it. “Thanks for the picture,” he said. “Have a Merry Christmas.”
Hudson snorted. “Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be a great one. There’s nothing more ‘merry’ than picking up stray animals on Christmas Eve and bringing them to a kill shelter.” As Joey felt his stomach drop unpleasantly, Hudson began to walk away. “But Merry Christmas to you too,” he called over his shoulder, waving at him and Mary before climbing into his van.
Shaking his head, Joey stared down at his phone and smiled at the picture of him and Mary that the man had taken for them. To his pleasant surprise, the two of them looked like a new couple, and were framed perfectly in the center of the image, with the tree looming over them in the background, the angels blaring their horns on either side of them, and the ice skating rink and the manger scene just visible behind them. “What do you think?” He walked back over to Mary to show her the picture.
Staring down at it, Mary felt butterflies fluttering in her stomach, and bit down on her lower lip in a vain attempt to conceal the smile that was desperately trying to break across her face. “It’s a great picture,” she finally admitted. “I mean, of me, anyway.” She winked, as Joey rolled his eyes with a laugh. Glancing down at her watch, she added, “You know what? We still have some time before the show. How about we go ice skating?”
Joey blinked, taken aback by the words. “Seriously?” he asked. “I thought you said your feet were too sore–”
“They’re swollen too,” Mary cut across him, nodding. “But honestly, with the amount of ice building up on the ground, it’d probably be easier for me to skate than walk. Plus, you know me.” She shrugged, as her eyes twinkled mischievously. “I like to be able to say I told you so. Besides,” she added with a wry smile. “I bet, despite all of that, I’ll still be better at it than you.”
Joey laughed. “I have no doubt.”
And sure enough, ten-minutes later, Mary was proven right on the crowded Rockefeller Center Ice Rink. Despite her sore legs and swollen feet, and despite the fact that her enlarged stomach should have been throwing her balance off, Mary twirled around the center of the sunken concourse with seeming ease, as skaters zipped by throwing admiring glances at her. Joey, meanwhile, tightly gripped the wall that ran around the rink, as he inched forward extremely slowly, afraid he was going to fall down at any moment. Staying upright was made all the harder by the fact that he couldn’t take his eyes of his childhood friend, as she zoomed around the ice like a pro, looking absolutely beautiful in the dull light shining down from above, and the heavily falling snow.
* * *
Hudson climbed back into his truck after snapping a picture for the happy, expecting couple at the end of the Channel Gardens. Truth-be-told, the love radiating between the two of them had made jealousy well up within himself, and he was happy to escape back into the cab of his truck. Unfortunately, the vehicle had been parked with its engine off in the middle of a snowstorm for nearly half-an-hour at that point, so it was just as cold inside of it as it was on the outside. Shivering, Hudson struggled to start the truck’s engine and, once it roared to life on the tenth try, cranked the heat up as high as it would go.
“There we go!” Hudson exclaimed ecstatically, as he leaned back in his seat. “Much better!” He turned around in his seat to peer through the open space through which the back of his truck was visible. “How are you doing back there, Booster?”
The dog replied by whining desperately, anxiously scratching at the door of the cage he was locked within. Hudson’s face fell at the sight of the terrified dog, whose happy, loving demeanor seemed to have dissipated completely upon being locked in the truck. Sadly, this was something Hudson was used to witnessing after three years on the job. After finally getting animals to trust him enough to approach them and leash them, they’d become terrified upon being locked in a cage. By the time they got to the pound, depression would set in, followed by heartbreaking resignation when they took their final walk to the back room where they’d be put down. (It was as if they instinctively knew what would happen to them at the end of those walks.)
Despite being used to the sad sight in the back of his truck, it didn’t make it any easier for Hudson to look at. “It’s alright, boy,” he tried to assure the dog despite the fact that his voice betrayed the fact that he didn’t truly believe in. “Everything’s going to be alright.” Then, wrenching his eyes away from the trembling dog, he turned to stare out of the front windshield once more. Unfortunately for him, just because he could no longer see Booster didn’t mean he couldn’t still hear him. Indeed, now that Hudson could no longer see the dog, its desperate howls seemed to become louder.
The gut-wrenching sounds were too much for Hudson to bear, and he quickly turned on the radio and cranked up the volume as loud as it would go. And with Christmas music now blasting throughout his truck nearly drowning out (though not completely) the sounds of the distressed dog in the back, Hudson guided his car away from the curb and down First Avenue.
* * *
After watching the beleaguered looking man haul the friendly Pitbull away, Seamus and Andrew decided to lock up their squad car and do a bit of patrol work on foot. Indeed, they decided to stroll off in the direction the man had taken the dog, still laughing at how much he had struggled with it, and aimed for the far end of the Channel Gardens. Upon reaching them, they stared past the life-sized nativity scene, down the rows of wired-angels, and surveyed the enormous Christmas tree shining brightly through the falling snow at the far end, looming over the world-famous ice rink just below it. At the tree’s base, a massive crowd was gathered, made up of individuals doing their best to jostle for the best position from which to take pictures.
Seamus and Andrew exchanged a weary glance before they silently started down the length of the Gardens, heading for the crowd at the base of the tree. It had always amazed Seamus how many people flocked to the heart of New York City every December just to lay their eyes upon a giant Christmas tree. He was even more amazed at how many people were out that particular day to see it. Not only because of Winter Storm Elsa, as bad as it was, but because it was Christmas Eve. His own personal Christmas Eves were normally very low-key. He’d stay home with Ashley and the kids, watching holiday movies with the latter as the former bustled around the house preparing food for the arrival of family later that evening. (Assuming that they weren’t travelling to see family.) Then, when Ashley took the kids to the early evening mass at their local church, Seamus would play some of the classic Crosby carols as he finished food preparation and wrapping gifts for the kids. After a quiet, extended family dinner, the girls then went to bed, “Santa” visited, and he and Ashley would do their best to get some sleep before they were woken up at an ungodly hour the next morning by their overly-excited children. There was no venturing out to tourist traps, or getting stuck amongst crowds on one of the busiest travel days of the year. As such, in his mind, all of the people currently milling around Rockefeller Plaza were insane.
To Andrew, however, all of the people milling beneath the tree were worthy of jealousy. He wished that he was as carefree and happy as the majority of those people looked. Indeed, his eyes immediately singled out a young lesbian couple, embracing beneath its lowest branches, as what looked like one set of their elderly parents snapped a photo for them. It was an adorable, picturesque scene, and Andrew felt a pang of envy – he hoped that his parents would still be willing to talk to him at all after he came out to them, let alone agree to accompany him and Barry on a foray into Manhattan and snapping photos for them.
With a small sigh, Andrew turned to his left and caught Seamus staring at him with some concern. It was clear that his partner had caught him watching the two women kissing, for he was eyeing him closely with an expression of mixed compassion and pity, and was opening and closing his mouth as though wanting to offer him words of comfort, but was unsure of which platitudes exactly would do the trick. Not quite wanting to talk about it at that moment, Andrew forced a smile onto his face and jerked his head at a low stone wall behind them, which was lined by a row of international flags and overlooked the crowded Rockefeller Center ice skating rink below.
Strolling over to the wall, the two officers squeezed between two couples to peer down at the packed ice, under the pretense that they were looking for something suspicious – which, technically, they always were. Upon looking down, however, Andrew’s eyes widened immediately at a spectacle that made Seamus exclaim, “Holy crap!”
A heavily pregnant woman was not only just ice skating, but doing twirls and jumps that most able-bodied individuals couldn’t do when not pregnant. The two cops weren’t the only ones who took notice of the pretty young woman either. People on the ice were giving her a wide berth, their mouths agape, and the couples standing on either side of Seamus and Andrew were pointing down at her in amazement.
“Jesus Christ,” Seamus muttered in disbelief. “When Ashley was pregnant, both times, she could barely walk from the couch to the bed without exhausting the hell out of herself! Hell, her feet and ankles were so swollen that she could barely fit into slippers, let alone a pair of ice skates!”
“She must lead an active lifestyle.” Andrew shrugged before noticing Seamus glancing at him with an eyebrow raised. “The girl below, I mean,” he added with a smirk, as he jerked his head at the pregnant woman twirling all over the ice. “Apart from the stomach, look how fit she is! It explains her good balance; it’s all muscle memory.”
“That or God above blessed her with some supernatural gifts,” Seamus remarked, eliciting a laugh from his partner. “Makes you wonder what a gymnast she must be in bed.” Then, realizing he was talking to his gay partner, he amended, “Well…it makes me wonder, anyway.”
Andrew laughed again. “Is that how you talk in front of Ashley? Because if so, I can’t imagine why you’re having marriage troubles.”
Sensing the man’s sarcasm, Seamus rolled his eyes. “I would never admire another woman in front of my wife! What kind of man do you think I am?” Before his partner could answer, however, he continued. “But we do have the same rule most healthy couples do – there’s no harm in looking, as long as there’s no acting on anything. I mean, we’re not blind. No one is. Anyone who can’t admit noticing another attractive human being, whether or not they’re already in a relationship, is being disingenuous.”
Andrew nodded his head with a smile. “That’s true.” Glancing down at the ice again, he watched as the woman skated over to a man desperately gripping the wall of the rink just below the golden statue of Prometheus. Judging from the way she made his face light up, and he in turn made her laugh, he guessed the man was the dad of her unborn child. You didn’t need to be an expert on love to see it when it’s right in front of you, and though he didn’t know them, Andrew could see the feelings they had for one another written all over their faces.
* * *
“Show off,” Joey teased, as Mary skidded to a halt in front of him, spraying chunks of ice through the air.
“Oh, please.” She laughed. “That was nothing. You should see how good I am when I’m not pregnant!”
“I remember,” Joey admitted, as he slipped on the ice beneath their feet and desperately tightened his grip on the wall to his right with both hands in order to stay upright, causing Mary to laugh again.
“Oh, stop exaggerating. You can’t be that bad.”
“I’m not,” Joey replied with fake confidence. “It’s the snow! If it wasn’t falling so hard, I’d be able to see better and I wouldn’t be slipping around so much!”
“I’m sure.” Mary held out her hand expectantly. “Come on.”
“Take my hand.”
Mary rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to let you fall or leave you in the middle of the rink! But I don’t want to skate near the wall the entire time either. Come on, don’t you trust me?”
“Does that whole innocent act really work on people?” Joey raised an eyebrow.
“Most men, usually,” Mary confirmed.
Joey smiled, but took the woman’s hand nevertheless and allowed her to guide him away from perimeter of the ice rink. Though Mary kept his one arm steady as they slowly circled the ice, he kept his other arm flailing in order to maintain his balance and keep himself from falling down, eliciting giggles from passerby that made his face go pink.
* * *
As he watched the woman grab the man’s hand and start to guide him slowly toward the rink’s exit, Andrew let out a wistful sigh. Then, before he could stop himself, he voiced a quiet question aloud. “Do you think Barry and I will ever be that happy?”
Seamus blinked, taken aback by the unusually candid question. “Aren’t you that happy already?”
Andrew scoffed, rolling his eyes at the fact that his partner couldn’t discern exactly what he meant from his vague question. “You know what I mean.” He shrugged. “Being so comfortable in public showing affection – or being at a point in our lives where we’re expecting a child.”
“Well it is 2020, so I don’t see why not.”
Andrew’s face darkened slightly, as he stared down at the rink without truly seeing it. “Who knows if we’ll ever even be able to adopt a kid?”
“Like I said – it’s 2020, and America just elected its most progressive president yet,” Seamus pointed out. “Do you really think that Williams is going to outlaw gay adoptions?”
“No, no, no. Nothing like that.” Andrew waved his hand dismissively through the air. “I meant – do you think any adoption agency is going to let us adopt if my own parents are against our relationship?”
Seamus rolled his eyes. “If your parents are so against your relationship that they’d make an attempt to prevent you from adopting a child, cut them the hell out of your life and get Barry’s parents to write you a character reference instead.”
“And if they refuse,” Seamus continued, as though he had not been interrupted. “Then I’ll write one myself for you two as your non-biological brother, alright?” He clapped a reassuring hand on his partner’s shoulder.
Andrew smiled weakly, touched by the genuine support Seamus constantly showed him. Then, after shaking his head in a vain attempt to clear his mind, he nodded. Shivering noticeably, he glanced up at the falling snow, which showed no sign of letting up. “Let’s get back to the car.”
“Good plan,” Seamus admitted, as the two began to quickly walk away from the low stone wall and push their way through the crowds at the base of the tree again. “Besides, I’m starving. What do you say we go be stereotypical cops and pick up some coffee and donuts?”
“Best idea I’ve heard all day.” Andrew smiled as he nodded his consent.
* * *
“Would you relax? Going ice skating was your idea!”
“I am relaxed!” Joey replied, trying to play off his embarrassment, as he allowed Mary to half-guide him, half-drag him across the ice, concentrating all of his efforts on not falling down. “Totally relaxed!” As his thighs burned painfully, he added, “I forgot what a workout this was!”
“From the looks of it, you forgot what working out was, period,” Mary teased, as she reached over to pat his pouched stomach playfully. “You need someone to whip you back into shape!”
“Are you offering?”
Mary smirked, as she raised an eyebrow. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Joey shrugged, refusing to confirm or deny the claim. Giggling at the action, Mary asked, “So what else? What else are you into? We got sidetracked talking about the premise of your novel earlier.”
“I mean, that’s pretty much it, really. I’m boring,” Joey joked.
“What do you think about the job President Williams is doing?” Mary asked. “You said you did some volunteer work for her presidential campaign, didn’t you?”
“Oh, you don’t want to get me started on politics.” Joey laughed before answering. “I think she’s doing a great job. I mean, look at all she’s managed to do in a year! She has to have set a new record! And she’s sticking to her progressive values instead of moving more toward the center, which I love. I’m hoping Democrats can keep full control of Congress next year so she can continue getting this much done, but we’ll see.” He shrugged. “Things are getting pretty bad with Russia, so if she doesn’t manage to ease tensions in the next eleven-months, that may count as a huge strike against her when voters go to the ballot box. But let’s face it, since the Russian puppet got voted out of the Oval Office, Washington’s relationship with the Kremlin was always going to go south.” He glanced sideways at Mary. “What do you think of her?”
“I love her,” Mary replied quickly. “I think that she’s great! Although, I do question her decision regarding flying into New York City to clog up Manhattan with traffic on Christmas Eve of all days.”
Joey laughed. “Fair point.” Then, after a beat of silence, he continued, “I feel like we’ve been talking about me all afternoon. What about you? What do you like to do in your spare time?”
“Honestly, for the past nine-months, all of my free time has been dedicated to the person growing inside of me.” She patted her stomach with one hand while still holding tight to Joey with the other. “Reading baby books, going to Lamaze classes, sleeping and eating more…I’ve kind of neglected having a social life. Maybe that’s part of the reason my relationship with Luke failed, come to think of it,” she admitted with a small sigh. “But before I got pregnant, I was still the social butterfly that I was in high school. I’d be out with friends every night, finding parties to crash on the weekend…I loved every minute of it. Now look at me.” She laughed bitterly.
“I am,” Joey said. “I see a responsible woman who accidentally got pregnant and made the decision to keep the baby, despite knowing how hard the road ahead would be. I think that’s beautiful.”
“You think too highly of me.”
“I just call them like I see them.” Joey smiled. “Before you got pregnant though–”
“I would read a lot,” Mary said. “A lot of poetry. A lot of Shakespeare; Jane Austen. I never had a huge appreciation for any of it back in high school, but I can’t get enough of it all now. And, you know, I like all of Shonda Rhimes’ shows. What woman doesn’t, right?”
“What person doesn’t?” Joey corrected. “Her shows are addicting!”
Mary laughed. “And believe it or not, I used to help out at a soup kitchen one night a week too.”
“Ah, so you became a true adult before getting pregnant, and not the other way around,” Joey noted. “I’m impressed. Who’s your favorite poet?”
“Kind of cliché, no?” Joey asked. “And depressing!”
“Who’s yours then?” Mary demanded.
“I don’t have one,” Joey admitted. “I appreciate poetry, but it’s not for me.”
“Favorite Shakespeare play?”
“It used to be Romeo & Juliet,” Mary began. “But I realized how much of a farce that story is. Besides, nowadays, I’m finding that I can relate more to Julius Caesar. I think you probably can too, right? I mean, we were both betrayed by people close to us!” Joey laughed. “What’s yours?”
“Macbeth,” Joey answered without hesitation. “No question. Witches, battles, betrayal – and talk about a power couple!”
“You always did love a woman in charge.”
“Did?” Joey raised an eyebrow. “I think it’s more accurate to say that I was always self-aware enough to realize that behind every great and powerful man, there was an equally strong woman pulling the strings behind him.”
Mary laughed. “I think that’s an accurate assessment.”
The two fell silent, as they continued to circle the ice rink. With each passing lap, Mary noticed that Joey gained more confidence, and the more that they talked, the better he seemed to do. Smiling to herself, she squeezed his hand gently and felt butterflies flutter within her once again as he squeezed back. The two glanced sideways at one another, both uncertain about what was happening, before Mary broke eye contact when she felt herself go red in the face. Glancing upward, she shivered. “Man, it’s really coming down!”
“I’m glad,” Joey admitted. “There’s nothing better than a white Christmas.”
Mary nodded her agreement before asking, “Favorite Christmas movie? Is it still Elf?”
“How’d you know?”
“Because you used to be the living incarnate of Buddy the elf!”
“I still am.” Joey winked. “Though I must admit, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a much bigger appreciation for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
“Your family could totally compete with the Griswolds.” Mary laughed before adding, “As if I’m one to talk. My family’s holiday dinners are even more awkward than the one in the movie.”
“Trust me, I know,” Joey reminded her, before continuing. “I bet your favorite is still The Santa Clause.” Mary flashed him a small smile at the words. “I knew it!”
“What can I say?” Mary asked rhetorically. “There’s something about the lesson of that movie that resonates with me. ‘Seeing isn’t believing–’”
“‘–Believing is seeing,’” Joey finished. “It’s one of my favorite movie quotes.”
“Mine too,” Mary confirmed. “In fact,” she began, embarrassed. “I love it so much that I may have gotten a tattoo of it.”
“Get out! Where?”
“Oh, I’ll never tell.” Mary winked. “Only a lucky few get to see it.”
Joey’s eyes widened. “You mean…?” His eyes flickered downward toward her crotch.
“No!” Mary rolled her eyes. “Get your mind out of the gutter! I meant anyone who gets to see me in a bathing suit during the summer, God! It’s right here. It’s placed along my lower ribs.” She traced a finger across the area in question.
“Oh, that makes sense.” Joey flushed with embarrassment. “I just thought – well, it would have had a double meaning if you got it down there.”
“That would also be tacky as hell. I’d rather get a tramp stamp.”
“Well, if I remember correctly, you briefly considered getting one of those back in the day.”
“I was drunk,” Mary replied defensively. “And thankfully, underage, so I was turned away at the tattoo parlor.”
Joey laughed before glancing down at his watch. “It’s almost two,” he noted. “We better start heading over to the theater. We don’t want to be late for the show.”
Five-minutes later, the two friends sat side-by-side on a wooden bench in the ice rink’s locker room, removing their skates. With a loud sigh of relief, Mary kicked hers off and wiggled her toes thankfully. “I’m going to kill you,” she shot at Joey, who smirked in response.
“Hey, I didn’t force you onto the ice!”
“Yeah, well, you suggested it.”
“Nobody held a gun to your head!” Joey stared down at the woman’s swollen appendages. “Man, I thought your feet used to be big. But now…”
“You’re such an ass.” Mary hit him playfully before he went to retrieve their sneakers from a nearby locker. A few minutes later, as they walked side-by-side toward Radio City Music Hall, Mary finally worked up the courage to ask Joey something that she had been curious about all day. “How are you going to tell your parents about Lilianna?”
Taken aback by the question, Joey shrugged. “I guess it’ll come up almost immediately,” he surmised. “When they realize she’s not with me. I’m more worried about telling them I’ve lied to them for half-a-year about being employed.”
“Yeah,” Mary began. “Something tells me that Vanessa isn’t going to take that very well.”
“I doubt my father will either,” Joey admitted before asking, “How about you? How do you plan on breaking the news to your parents?”
“I think my stomach will do it for me.” Mary placed a hand on her swollen belly. “Something tells me my parents are going to take my news as well as your parents are going to take yours.”
“I bet they’ll be happy to have another grandchild on the way though,” Joey said, trying his best to stay positive for Mary’s sake. “Plus, it’s Christmas Eve! People are generally in a better mood this time of the year!”
“Most people,” Mary corrected. “There’s still a large number that gets moodier than the Grinch and Scrooge combined though.”
“Well, your parents aren’t like that,” Joey insisted. I know that for a fact.”
Mary snorted. “Ethan and Irene always like pointing out when I do something wrong.”
“But, as I remember, they were always quick to forgive you as well,” Joey pointed out. “Try not to worry.”
“How can I not worry?” Mary asked in disbelief. “I’m about to be a single mother! I have no idea what the hell I’m doing!”
“Well, it’s natural to be nervous about that,” Joey admitted. “But you’ll get through this, alright? I promise. Plus, you won’t be alone. No matter how upset your parents get, they’ll come around and end up being there for you. And you have Natalie; and now me,” he added, almost as an afterthought, in such a quiet, meek manner that it melted Mary’s heart. “So try your best not to worry, okay?” He took her hand reassuringly.
Grasping it tightly, as though it were a lifeline, Mary nodded. “I’ll try. Thank you.”
And, still holding hands, the two of them continued on their way toward Radio City Music Hall in silence, both preoccupied by their own thoughts about confronting their parents later that evening, and their uncertainly about what was currently happening between the two of them.
* * *
Hudson slowly drove his truck aimlessly up and down the icy streets of New York, perched on the edge of his seat and squinting to peer out of the front windshield of the vehicle in a vain attempt to see through the falling snow, which was quickly edging closer to becoming a complete whiteout. The entire time, he did his best to focus on the Christmas carols blaring from his radio while singing under his breath, all in an effort to drown out the sad crying of the dog locked up behind him. This effort was nearly as fruitless as the effort of all of the people, including himself, who had ventured out onto the city roads in the snowstorm raging around them, and it was a stark reminder of his mother’s constant insistencies that he get a job that he actually liked because his current one was such an emotional drain.
As Hudson turned his truck down 60th Street, he realized that he had never called back into the office to inform anyone that he had successfully picked up Booster. Picking up his phone, happy for any excuse to get Abby back on the line, he lowered the volume of his radio so that he could hear her voice. “It’s okay, Booster,” Hudson assured the dog, whose pathetic whining was more easily heard now. “It’s alright.”
On the third ring, Abby picked up the phone. “Animal Care Center of New York. This is Abby speaking, how can I help you today?”
“Hey, Abby, it’s me,” Hudson replied, the corners of his lips curling upward into a smile. “Hudson,” he added rather lamely.
“Hudson, darling!” Abby exclaimed happily, the enthusiasm in her voice evident. “You called! I’m in shock! I thought I’d be lying on my death bed before you reached out to me first!”
Hudson laughed at the woman’s teasing demeanor. “Well, given the conditions of the roads, I may end up on my death bed before the day’s out, and I felt I’d be remiss if I didn’t make good on my promise to call you!”
“Is it really that bad out there?” Abby asked, concerned.
“Eh, it’s not that bad if you’re driving slow,” Hudson replied. “I’d hate to be one of these tourists walking around outside though. It’s freezing out there!”
“I can imagine,” Abby said. “Did you manage to collect the dog alright?”
“He’s in the back of my truck right now,” Hudson answered, glancing over his shoulder at Booster and immediately feeling his stomach drop at the sight of the animal’s depressed eyes. “Can’t you hear him?”
“Loud and clear.” Abby laughed. “Poor thing. But at least he doesn’t have to spend the night outside in these conditions!”
“That’s true…” Hudson’s voice trailed away, as he thought about the cold, dark row of cages back at headquarters that offered barely more warmth than the elements outside.
“Are you going to swing on by to drop him off now?” Abby asked, trying – and failing – to sound casual. “If so, I figure we can maybe grab a coffee or something before you hit the road again. I haven’t taken my break yet…”
Hudson’s smile widened at the words; he would love nothing more than to be able to grab a coffee with the woman. But before he could reply in the affirmative, he glanced at Booster once again in the rearview mirror. The terrified dog’s shaking frame was enough to make him feel sick, and all of a sudden – despite the whining – he felt in no rush to get the animal to the shelter. “You know what? I think I’m going to keep Booster with me until the end of my double tonight.”
“That’s – it’s my nickname for him,” Hudson replied quickly, embarrassed. “I’ll just let him out every few hours to relieve himself, and then bring him back to the shelter tonight with whatever other animals I pick up on the road over the course of my day.”
“O-okay,” Abby replied, taken aback. “No worries!”
“I’m sorry!” Hudson insisted. “It’s just – he seems so scared, and…I don’t know.” He shrugged as he glanced at the dog’s sad face again. “Nobody, including any animal, should be alone on Christmas Eve, you know?”
“You know something, Hudson Jackson?” Abby asked. “You’re a good man.”
Hudson felt his spirits rise at the words of praise, and his heart palpably skipped a beat. “You mean that?”
“I do,” Abby insisted.
“Well…thanks.” Hudson flushed with pride. “I’m not trying to be or anything, you know,” he hastened to add. “I mean…I am in the sense that everybody tries to be the best version of themselves they could possibly be, but, when it comes to this, it’s what I truly believe. I’m not just saying it to get a compliment or anything.”
“I know.” Abby laughed. “Trust me, I know. And you’re all the better a person for it.”
There was a moment of silence as Hudson drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, at a loss for what to say. Then, finally, he choked out, “So…raincheck on that coffee then?”
“Absolutely,” Abby replied. “I’ll talk to you later, sugar.” And without another word, the line went dead, and Hudson leaned back in his seat, ecstatic, as he brought his truck to a stop at a red light.
“That went well, right, boy?” Hudson asked gleefully, turning in his seat to face Booster yet again. When the dog did nothing but whine in response, Hudson reached an arm into the back of the truck and stuck two of his fingers into the animal’s cage, which the dog immediately began to lick. “Don’t worry, Booster. Everything’s going to be okay, alright? I promise. We’re going to have a good day today.” Hudson meant it. He didn’t know if the dog had much of a future left, given the fate of so many of the animals picked up by the city, but if he wasn’t long for the world, Hudson was determined to give him a comfortable Christmas Eve; it was the very least he could do, after all, for an animal deemed “man’s best friend.”
As the light in front of them turned green once more, Hudson turned to face front again, and guided his vehicle slowly along the street, turning up the volume on the radio in order to hum along with the Christmas carols playing over the airwaves.