Lost in the Twilight Zone Marathon | Ep 12 | Nicklaus

“They always assign the crazies to the newbies, huh?” the guard says.

“Crazies?” I ask as I sign into the visitor log. The case seemed to be your standard open and shut B&E. Nothing was taken, though, according to the police report. No one was hurt, apart from a scared shitless thirteen-year-old who had fallen asleep on the couch while watching TBS’s A Christmas Story marathon.

“Guy thinks he’s Santa Claus.”

“Well, it is that time of year.”

The buzzer rings, and the door to my right clicks open.

“You can go back.”

I walk down the end of the hall to the meeting room, where my client waits alone at a gray round table handcuffed to a hook in the center.

I’m immediately taken aback by how he looks. I’m not sure what I expected to see. Surely not a jolly old man with all white hair in a big red suit. But I don’t think I expected to see this guy either. He’s young and, well, hot. His skin is a deep tan, as if he spends his summers in Southern Italy when he’s not in the frigid North Pole. He has sandy brown hair and eyes the same color. His eyelashes are long and curl up as if he’s wearing mascara. His beard is trimmed short, and his lips are full and pink. He licks them right before he speaks.

“Hi there. You’re my lawyer?” His voice is deep and intimidating. I wonder how his “Ho, ho, ho” sounds. Thunderous, I imagine, it could shake this whole room.

I nod and sit across from him. “I’m Jenny.” I reach over and shake his hand. His grip is strong. “So, you’re supposed to be Santa?”

“Not quite what you expected, hmm?” He leans back and crosses he left leg over his right knee. “I’ve always been curious about how these myths start. For example, how does a morbidly obese old man who probably has a breathing problem squeeze down a smoky chimney?”

“Good question.” I click my pen and open my notepad to an empty page. “So why don’t you tell me how you got into the Wilkinson’s house.”

“Right to business, huh? Okay.” He clears his throat, uncrosses his leg, and sits straight. “I was invited in.”

“Invited.”

“That’s how I get into every house. As long as there is someone there who believes.”

“Is that your defense? The girl who called the cops on Santa Claus believes in Santa Claus?”

“Please, call me Nicklaus. Don’t know how ‘Saint’ became ‘Santa.’ It sounds like baby talk, doesn’t it?”

“I—”

“In any case, I’m no saint. Another common misconception. There was a Saint Nicholas. And he was a very charitable man, no doubt. But I was around long before him.”

I’m at a loss for words, but in an effort to turn the conversation back to the case before he tries to tell me he’s Jesus or something, I ask again, “Who invited you in?”

“She has a younger brother.”

I shuffle through my stack of papers. “The boy was sound asleep the whole time. You mean to tell me he got out of bed, opened the door to let you in, and then returned to bed, all without being noticed?”

He chuckles, “Of course not,” then taps the side of his head with his index finger. “In his dreams.”

“His dreams?”

“Yep, a Miles Morales Spiderman suit he was dreaming about, if I’m not mistaken. I was able to deliver it under the tree before they came and arrested me.”

“You’re serious?” The guard was right about the “crazies.” Even his good looks can’t save him. I straighten my papers and return them to the manilla folder and then into my briefcase as I get ready to leave, my visiting time almost over. I’ve stayed longer than I was supposed to anyway. The purpose of this meeting was simply to introduce myself and inform him we were pleading guilty. Like the guard said, the newbies get the crazies, and the crazies are always the easy cases. No need to waste taxpayer money on a lawyer who only passed the bar a month ago after six tries, were my boss’s words. Plead guilty, take the 90-day jail sentence and community service, move on to the next crazy.

“You stopped believing in me at a young age.”

I stop, mid stride to the door, and spin around to face him again. “What?”

“Single mom working double shifts as a waitress. Five other siblings in a two-bedroom apartment. You were forced to grow up quickly.”

“How did you—” I start, and then, almost defiantly, I slam my briefcase back down and lean over the table, beyond the center point and dangerously close enough for him to reach up and wrap the chain of his handcuffs around my neck and squeeze, if he were a violent criminal. The jury’s still out on that. Crazies tend to get physical when you don’t accept their absurd logic.

“It’s kind of hard to believe when Christmas has only every been what my mom’s wages could afford. And after bills, that wasn’t much.”

“Is that why you spend so many sleepless nights in the public defender’s office? The best years of your life wasted on this fruitless job?”

“It puts bacon on the table.”

“But does it keep your bed warm at night?”

“Listen old man,” I say, despite the fact that the only signs of age on him are a few strands of gray sprinkled in his beard. But you have to be close to him to see it, and I’m not really that close, although, I can feel his warm breath on my bottom lip. “If you’re trying to offer me your ‘services,’ my fee is covered already.”

“The service I want to give you is the Christmas you never had.”

“I’m a little past asking for toys, Santa.”

“Again, it’s Nicklaus. And what is your wish as an adult then?”

“Christmas is over.”

“Given that I’m the guy who invented it, I think I can decide when I can and can’t deliver presents.”

An army of church folk would beg to differ, but then the Christmas we celebrate today really isn’t all that Christ-centered either, so I play along.

“I’m sure you want to hear me say I want a husband who doesn’t disappoint. He’s fiercely loyal. Would do anything for me. Fulfills my every want and need. I would lack nothing because he’s a provider. His love is unconditional, and he supports me and my dreams, no matter how improbable. And we’ll have a couple kids, perfect little angels, and we’ll be one big happy family.”

“Sounds nice.”

“That’s not my wish.”

“Tell me.” He leans closer to me. “What do you want?”

His voice is barely above a whisper, almost seductive. Maybe that’s why I say, “To be naked on somebody’s beach.”

His eyes widen. “Oh, really?”

Not really, though it would be nice. What I really want is to be confident in my own skin. I don’t want to have to rely on what a job or a man can give me. I want to already have it myself. I want to make it. I want to live my own life, not what society has written out for me. I want to be independent. Free.

I feel myself lifting off the ground as I think about it, and when I look at him, he seems to be reading my mind. He smiles, and it feels as if every weight of the world has finally relinquished its pressure, but then the announcement that visitation is over echos from the speakers overhead, and everything comes crashing back down, and I backtrack and say, “I don’t know.”

Once again, I turn to leave, but he stops me with one word.

“Alright.”

“Alright?” I repeat.

“It’s done.”

“What’s done?”

He smirks. “You’ll see.”

When the door buzzer rings, I rush out, feeling flustered. I don’t make eye contact with the guard at the entrance as I exit. I don’t want him to think that the “crazy” has gotten to me, that even I’ve started to believe him. I’m supposed to meet with my boss back and the office to give a report, but the case is the furthest thing from my mind right now. I decide to go home for lunch instead. Maybe if I get something on my stomach, I can clear my head and get back to business before my boss starts to demand where I am.

When I walk through the front door, I can’t help but look at my pathetic attempt at a Christmas tree. It stands at only three feet tall, an artificial tree, and it hardly has any decorations, save for the ones I added last year and never bothered to put away, just like the tree, which has stood in that same corner between my patio door and the couch since last Christmas.

Santa, or, Nicklaus, or whatever his name is, was right. All those hours I spend at the office while my Christmas goes on unfulfilled. A whole year it stood and not a single present underneath—only, now I spot a red envelope caught in the branches.

“To: Jenny. From: N,” it reads.

“There’s no way,” I say, as I tear it open. Inside is a folded flyer that says “Fourteen-day all-inclusive stay at the Cap d’Agde resort on the French Mediterranean.” Could this be…

Before I can finish that thought, my phone rings. I fumble around in my briefcase for it and answer on the fifth ring.

“Jenny, where the hell are you?” It’s my boss.

“I uh—”

“Did you go see the Santa guy?”

“Yes. Actually, I just left.”

“What did you say to him?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean he’s gone. I just got the call.”

“That, that’s impossible!” I look down at my flyer, shaking in my hands.

“You need to get down here ASAP. We need to figure out what’s going on. And you may have to answer some questions since you were the last to see him.” He hangs up without getting a confirmation from me or even bothering to say bye. I stand frozen in the middle of my living room. My bewildered gaze shifting from my phone and its shocking news and my all-inclusive resort vacation, an apparent gift from Santa.

None of this can be real, can it?

Just then I hear what I can only describe as jingle bells jangling right outside my door. I swing it open, and there in my front yard is Nicklaus sitting in a reindeer-drawn sleigh.

I cautiously step toward him. “I must be dreaming.”

“I did say that’s when I appear.” His eyes lower to the envelope and flyer in my hand. “How do you like your gift?”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Well, I didn’t include plane tickets, so I figured you might need a ride.” He slides over, making room for me in the sleigh. “And maybe, if you were feeling generous, you could invite a tired old man who’s been hauling presents for good little boys and girls across the world all night, just spent the last twelve hours in jail, and could really use a vacation.”

“And what about Mrs. Claus?”

“Ah.” He turns ahead, leans back, and crosses one leg over the other as he did in the visitation room. “Also a myth. Contrary to popular belief, Santa Claus has been a bachelor for a very long time.”

“I thought you didn’t want to be called that.”

He shrugs. “It’s growing on me. So, are you coming?”

I stare at him, unsure of what my “yes” will mean. That my mind has finally cracked and this is all an elaborate hallucination? I don’t know, but as I drop my phone on the last step of my front porch and it splits in half, I wonder, what could possibly be worse?

He is grinning from ear to ear as I settle in next to him. He drapes his arm over my shoulder and pulls me even closer to him. I think for a second he’s going to kiss me. It seems weird, especially given that he’s apparently this ageless being who knew me as a child, but I wouldn’t be opposed to it if he made a move. Instead, he turns his head and takes the reins in both hands, preparing to mush the reindeer. I count only eight.

“Where’s Rudolph? Don’t tell me he’s a myth too.”

This time, he does kiss me, but it’s only on my ear, and really, it’s just a whisper for me to look up, his lips enunciating the words. Then he breaks away. “Clear skies,” he says. “Rudolph and his bright red nose had the night off.” And with that, he whips the reins.

“On Dasher! On Dancer! On Prancer and Vixen…”


This hour’s story was inspired by the Twilight Zone episode “The Night of the Meek,” but you may notice some similarities with a certain Living Single episode too. Can you guess which one?

Christmas Spirit | Part 2

Read part one here.

I was still in the parking lot of the First Presbyterian Church thirty minutes after the funeral service was set to begin. I twisted the bottom corner of my blazer around my index finger, brushed away lent from my pants, checked my reflection in the rearview mirror, adjusted my lipstick, fluffed my hair. While I had attended funerals before, this was my first one for someone I met after death. How was I supposed to introduce myself? The church was no bigger than a small house in the suburbs, and I only counted eleven cars in the parking lot. Someone was bound to ask me who I was, how I knew the family.

I was cranking the engine when the doors to the church opened and four men in gray suits carrying the casket stepped down the stairs one by one, in sync with one another. Parked at the curb in front of the church was a black hearse. They pushed the casket into the back of the vehicle and returned to the bottom of the steps to assist people down the stairs. The first to exit was the family: the mother, the three sisters, and an older man who might have been the grandfather. They stood in front of the hearse as those headed to their cars stopped to pay their final respects. The mother could barely hold herself together. Every few minutes, she was pulling tissue from her purse to wipe her nose. Her face was red and her eyes swollen from all of the crying. After the sixth or seventh person walked up to her to squeeze her hands and reassure her that everything would be ok, she collapsed into her father’s arms in a fit of shudders. I didn’t have to roll my windows down to hear her wailing, “My boy! My Jason!” The girls stood off to the side, hugging themselves.

I turned off the engine and got out of the car. I wasn’t sure what I would say, but watching this woman break down over the death of her son, her only son, hurt my heart. Would she believe me if I told her I had seen Jason’s ghost?

“I just want to say that your son will truly be missed.” I spat out the first generic, unemotional words I could think of. I was so disgusted with myself I started back to my car before letting her respond.

“How did you know my son?” she called after me in a weak, shaky voice.

I slowly turned around, praying that I could think of an acceptable lie before my mouth opened and regurgitated another classic funeral line I’d learned over the years. “Excuse me?” I asked.

“I don’t think we’ve met. How did you know Jason?” the woman asked again, dabbing her nose.

“I, uh—”

“Are you one of the teachers at his school?”

“No.” A reflex answer, but I wished I had said “yes” to end the interrogation.

“Then how?” she asked. The pallbearers, the grandfather, the lingering friends waiting on the steps for their turned to give their condolences, or by their cars to head to the cemetery for the burial were all staring.

“I don’t remember seeing you in the service,” the grandfather said.

“She was in the car the whole time,” the youngest of the sisters said, pointing behind me to my car, the driver’s side door wide open. Had she been watching me?

“Who are you?” the mother demanded.

“I—I,” I couldn’t think of anything, so I told the truth. “I was there.”

“You were where?” she asked.

“When he died.” I didn’t want to say too much. I knew the circumstances were hard enough for them to bear. They didn’t deserve the reminder of how they had gotten there. However, when the only responses I received were confused faces, I began to wonder if I made the right decision in coming. “When he hung himself?” I added, hopeful.

A unified gasp came from all around.

“What are you talking about? My son was killed by a drunk driver!” the woman screamed. She fell over the side mirror of the hearse, heaved up air and released a series of loud sobs.

“Alright, you need to leave,” the grandfather said in a deep, commanding voice. That was when I noticed the program in his hand. Underneath the words: “In Loving Memory of Jason Wilkins,” was a picture of a teenage boy with olive skin and a full face. He had brown freckles only on his nose. His hair was black and cut short, and his eyes were a dark brown. He was not my ghost.

I tried to speak, apologize for the trouble I’d just caused, but the grandfather glared at me and pointed towards the parking lot. “Get,” he said slowly.

I left humiliated, unable to hold back the tears. I drove straight home and stormed through my front door.

“Jason! Or whoever the hell you are because you’re not him!” I said, slamming the door behind me. “You made me look like a fool out there!”

I went to my room, looked behind the door, underneath the bed. “Come out!” I said. I snatched open my closet doors. They rattled against the wall. I pushed aside the clothes on the hangers, knocked on the back wall. I moved down to the floor of the closet, digging through piles of shoes I never wore and wrinkled dresses I never bothered to hang. I tossed everything behind me trying to reach the bottom.

“Where are you, Casper?” I shouted. Then I paused. “Oh, that’s right. You only show when I’m drunk!” I left the mess in my room and headed for the kitchen to get a Heineken from the refrigerator, but when I walked through the living room, I froze. All of my Christmas decorations were out of their boxes and on the coffee table. Not just the ones I’d bought, but also the ones that had been in the attic for over a year collecting dust: the glass ornaments, the candy canes, the red and green ribbons, even the angel.

He stood with his back to me looking at the Christmas tree.

“Hey!” I called.

He turned around. The wide grin on his face took me by surprise so much, I forgot my anger.

“Did you do this?” I asked.

He nodded his head.

“Why?”

He picked up an ornament with dancing elves painted all around it. He put a hook through the loop and hung the ornament on the tree. He looked at me, and with a grin spread from ear to ear, he clapped his hands vigorously without making a sound. He took a second ornament and held it out for me. I stepped toward him, confused. Then I looked down at the coffee table.

“You know,” I said with a wink. “Traditionally, we put the lights on first.” I ripped open one of the boxes and pulled out the string of white lights. I handed him one end, and together we circled the tree, wrapping the lights around each branch. When we finished, I plugged in the lights, and both the tree and the boy lit up. He went for the second box of lights and tossed me one end. Again, we went around the tree, making sure to light every dark space. When we finished, we hung the rest of the ornaments. Although I originally wanted a winter wonderland theme, I let him hang whatever he wanted: candy canes, reindeer, Peanuts characters, basketball ornaments, even a one-legged Santa I thought I’d thrown out years ago. The tree appeared weighed down for all the ornaments, the branches dipping to the floor. He wasn’t bothered, however. His face was void of all hints of sadness. I could barely even see the purple bruise around his neck.

Last to go up was the angel.

“I always wondered why we put angels at the top of Christmas trees,” I said. “I mean, Christmas is about Jesus being born. Why don’t we put him on top?”

I picked up the angel and examined it. She held a candle stick in each hand, and her robe was adorned with tiny light bulbs that would light up when plugged in. I went into the kitchen, took a paper towel sheet from the ring above the sink, balled it up, and stuffed it under the angel’s robe. I plugged the angel into the open plug on the end of one of string of lights on the tree closest to the top and sat the angel on the top branch.

“See, it’s Mary.” I pointed at the cluster of bright white lights perturbed from her midsection created by the paper towel. All the rest seemed to be pouring from her womb. “And that is baby Jesus. He is the light of the world, right?”

He stared up at the angel. His smile was gone but he wasn’t somber. He looked content. The depression and ghostly melancholy that came with his death no longer existed. Watching him, my anger receded. He was just a boy, a lonely boy. I felt a tear glide down my face, but my hand went for his cheek. He clasped my hand in both of his. He was surprisingly warm. He laid his cheek on my hand and closed his eyes. I closed my eyes with him, and when I opened them, he was gone.

Christmas Spirit | Part 1

I was drunk. The shaggy man with the body order and sweaty armpits had been pushing up on me all night and probably slipped something into my drink. I might have hallucinated the whole thing. But could I have imaged the wailing siren? The flashing red lights from the ambulance? Could I have imaged giving my statement to the police? Could I have imaged those cold mud-crusted feet hovering from above, grazing my face as I stumbled into my neighbor’s yard trying to find my way home?

They zipped the body up in a large black bag and pushed it into the back of a van on its way to the hospital morgue. The police could have arrested me, charged me for being heavily intoxicated outside, but the trauma of seeing a young child hang himself saved me. I slurred my address, pointed to the dark house across the street. They carried me home, laid me down on my stomach on the living room couch. There, I awoke the next morning and realized the boy wasn’t dead.

His clouded, gray eyes peered at me through stringy, blonde hair. He wore a wrinkled white t-shirt and basketball shorts. His skin was so pale, it blended with his clothing. What stood out was the purple ring around his neck, created by the shoestring that strangled him underneath the ice-covered tree branch. He could barely hold up his head, similar to the struggle of an infant trying to sit. He looked so short and frail, but when I asked him his age, he mouthed, “Sixteen.”

I thought I was dreaming. Maybe that was why I didn’t immediately scream and flee out of the front door. Instead, I rose from the couch and tried to touch him, confirm that he was real, but he drew back, dodged my questioning fingers, and disappeared behind the naked Christmas tree in front of the window facing the scene of his suicide. I tried to follow him, but all of the alcohol from the night before rushed to my head in search of an exit through my ears or eyes. The red and beige zigzags in the carpet twisted my stomach into knots. I toppled over to the burn of the carpet’s fibers against my nose and cheek.

***

The office lights were too bright. The white cells of the spreadsheet absorbed the numbers I’d just entered and glared into my brain. I could taste my breakfast, a hazelnut latte, at the back of my throat. I pulled the trashcan from underneath my desk, laid my head down on the edge, and leaned over the trashcan, prepared to heave up the rest of my stomach.

“So how about that Christmas party, huh?” I heard my co-worker say.

I raised my head to see Charlette standing over me. She was a petite blonde who was as skinny as my pinky finger. A temp five years out of college, but she had the voice of a three-year-old.

“Hey, Charlette,” I said.

“You look like you’re still hung over!” Her shrill voice vibrated against my skull.

“It’s been a long weekend.” I massaged my eyebrows.

“You were dancing with Danny from finance most of the night.” She nudged my shoulder and winked.

“Not by choice.” I rolled my eyes, searched the office for a way to escape the conversation. The cubicles were quiet. Other than an occasional “Southland Rentals?” in response a ringing phone, I would have believed that Charlette and I were the only ones there. Most were already off for the holiday. The rest of us had to work up to Christmas Eve. Customer service—the boss so sure there would be last minute orders placed that he couldn’t be here himself.

We weren’t the only souls in the office. Every sudden chill, every attack of goose bumps, every time the hairs on my neck and arms stood on end as a current of static electricity surfed through them, I knew he was there with me.

I wasn’t ready to admit that I had a ghost following me. The only spirit I believed in was the Holy One, and I had no confirmation that the boy was really dead. I had woken up early that morning, five o’clock, just to watch the news, hoping the reporters would reveal information about the boy hanging from Mrs. Nash’s tree. I didn’t have the convenience of asking her. She was spending the holidays in Georgia with her daughter. Any other neighbors were busy, working parents who barely had enough time to worry about their own children, more less come to the door to talk about someone else’s dead child. Unfortunately, the news was of no avail either. Maybe that segment came on while I was in the shower, or down on my hands and knees, searching underneath my bed for my other pump.

“Well I saw you two leave together—”

“Did you hear about the kid who killed himself Saturday night?” I interrupted.

“No! That’s horrible! Where did you hear that?”

“I just…I heard,” I said. The evidence, or lack thereof, pointed to my encounters Saturday night and Sunday morning being nothing more than dreams.

***

The bar after work was a mistake, but I needed the whiskey. I needed the burn in my throat to kill the haunting feeling that I was being watched. Unfortunately, I gained another pair of eyes. They were green and belonged to a dark skin man with one dimple that made his smile look like a mischievous smirk. He was disgusting—the way he ran his tongue along his front teeth and bit his bottom lip whenever he made a suggestive comment about what other hard things, besides brown liquor, my throat could take. He put his arm around my chair and breathed words of encouragement into my ear, so confident that his one-liners would hike up my skirt. I wanted to retch my response all over his face, show him how lattes and take-out Chinese food tasted after festering at the bottom of the stomach for seven hours.

The whiskey had other plans. It invited him back to my house, challenged him to test the limits of my strong throat. The whiskey took complete possession of my body. I could see myself in the mirror biting on his neck and shoulder as he nearly ripped the zipper off my pencil skirt. He threw me onto the bed and fumbled to unbutton his belt. I looked at his reflection in the mirror, hypnotized by his mahogany skin, and the gyrations of the muscles in his back as he moved. When he bent over to drop his pants, I saw in the mirror, standing directly behind me, another person in the room with us. Immediately, I screamed.

“He’s big isn’t he?” he said, looking down in adoration of himself.

“You …you have to go!” I scooped his pants off the floor and shoved them into his chest.

“Intimidated?” he asked laughing.

“Now!” I threw him out of my house with his pants still in his arms. He wasn’t the least bit embarrassed about being naked outside. He proudly strutted to his car, proclaiming to the world a false victory. I slammed the door behind him and stomped back to my room. The boy was sitting on my bed, his chin in his chest.

“So you only show up when I’m drunk? Is that it?” I asked him. I shifted all of my weight onto my left leg and place my hands on my hips.

He slowly lifted head and stared at me with wide eyes. He looked heartbroken.

“I’m sorry.” I sighed and dropped my arms. “You just…please, you look so sad. Are you depressed? Of course, you’re depressed. You killed yourself. I mean—” I was rambling.

He slowly stood to his feet. I rushed to the bed and knelt in front of him, almost touching him.

“Why did you do it?” I asked.

He walked around me.

“Did your parents divorce? Do you blame yourself?” I continued.

He paused at the doorway but didn’t turn around.

“Are you homeless?” I asked.

He started down the hallway toward the living room. I followed behind him on my toes. He was so silent, I felt like I was disturbing him.

“Are you gay? Did kids tease you at school?”

He stopped in front of the Christmas tree, which still had not been decorated. He looked it over from top to bottom and reached up to pinch the top branch.

“It’s not real,” I said. I’d bought the tree at Wal-Mart on Black Friday along with blue and white lights to go around it. The tips of the branches were white to give the allusion of a dusting of snow. I was on my way to the checkout when I’d spotted silver-glittered snowflake and icicle ornaments and bought four boxes each. They were a perfect addition to the winter wonderland theme I had planned for my Christmas decorations. I was going to prove my mother wrong. She often joked that people could tell I was single and without children because my house always stood dark during the Christmas season.

Unfortunately, in the time between exiting the store, and entering my house, I’d lost my motivation. Instead, the decorations adorned the coffee table for four weeks. The only reason I put the Christmas tree up was because I was sick of seeing the bulky box on my couch.

“I know it’s late. It’ll probably be next year before I get it decorated. But what does a Christmas tree mean, anyway? It’s not in the Bible,” I said with a weak laugh.

He looked translucent, his skin the color of glassine paper. I could see my brown curtains through him and feared he was about to fade away before my eyes.

“At least tell me who you are,” I begged. “Who you were?”

Without looking, he pointed to the coffee table where I had tossed the morning’s newspaper on top of the unopened Christmas decorations.

“The obituaries! Of course!” I shouted. I snatched the paper from the plastic bag and flipped to the obituary section, hunting for any name that didn’t sound like it originated in the 1920s. This was my final hope to prove I wasn’t imagining my haunting. I read throw the Beatrices, the Henriettas, the Homers, and the Kermits, until fell upon a Jason. Sixteen, first baseman on his high school varsity team.

I looked up at him. “Jason?” I asked.

He turned around, but the melancholy didn’t leave his face, a sad recognition of the life he once had. I continued reading. He left behind a grieving mother and three younger sisters.

“It doesn’t say that you killed yourself,” I said.

He curled his lips, as if to say, “Why would it?”

“Yea, I guess you’re right. The funeral’s tomorrow. That seems pretty quick,” I said, still reading. I considered going. Maybe that was what he wanted, why he latched onto me. Though our connection bore from a tragic event, maybe all he needed was a stranger to care about him after the world was rid of him.

“I’ll go,” I said to an empty room.

Read part two here.

Another Therapy Session

“The seasonal depression is coming in hard this year, Dr. Sims.”

“Why do you think this time of year gets you so down?”

I never know how to answer this question. Loneliness? Overworked?

I glance out the window. The sky is completely clear of clouds. The sun shines brightly. The leaves are still on the trees, still a deep forest green.

“It’s pretty warm for December, isn’t it?”

“Huh?”

“Seventy the high, right?” I didn’t even wear a jacket leaving the house. Now I’m thinking of that song.

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…

No snow this year. More disappointment.  

© Nortina Simmons

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Next: Still in Therapy

After the Wedding

Seven days. Seven days, my period lasted, and each day was a heavier than usual flow. I went through an entire 36-count box of tampons, bought extra panty liners when I realized my tampons weren’t holding—but I would not go a size higher—and I had to toss three pairs of panties that I didn’t feel like scrubbing. It was so unusual, in fact, that I even made an appointment to see my doctor first thing in the New Year.

But this morning I woke up (Hallelujah!) dry, and I wanted to pounce on my husband right then and there!

Yes, my husband. The butterflies still flutter in my stomach when I think of it—I am married. I sit up on my elbows and watch him sleep, study his steady breathing, the slow rise and fall of his chest, how his nostrils sometimes flare when he inhales.

Does he know how much I love him?

I lift my left hand to caress his cheek, and my eyes are immediately drawn to the gold band around my ring finger—I am married. I feel like I’m floating, swimming in the love that is desperate to flow out of me and into him. I don’t want to touch the ground.

But I do come down, tip toe across the cool hard wood of his (our)—I am married—bedroom floor to our bathroom to freshen up.

I find myself giggling hysterically as the steam rises from the shower. The last time I was this giddy was ironically when I had my first period. I was nine years old and so excited to finally be a woman, to be able to make a baby. I saw the blood between my thighs and squealed in delight. I washed my panties in the sink while my mom talked to me about the difference between tampons and pads and which one would be more comfortable for me to use. When I changed my first pad, I wedged my finger underneath the sticky lining an slowly peeled it back from the cotton, like peeling an orange, and the sound, like Velcro, was music to my ears. I rolled it in up in toilet paper, tossed it in the waste basket attached to the stall, the only one in Lincoln Elementary School bathroom.

It lasted three days, and those three days I walked about nose in the air, shoulders drawn back, flat chest perked up and out, as if I had grown boobs overnight. No one could tell me anything. I had surpassed all the other girls in my class. I could do something they couldn’t. I was like my teacher who dressed in prim pressed white blouses and pencils skirts, like my principal who wore her shiny, blue-black hair in a low bun and stomped down the halls in Stiletto heels. I was a woman.

And when my period didn’t return on its scheduled 28-day cycle, I knew I was pregnant. I made that announcement to my mom over breakfast that she would be a grandmother, and she cocked her head at me and asked, “Have you let a boy touch you?” which confused me, because while our class was the guinea pig for the new sex education program, the instructors only taught us about out parts, how they worked, not how to make them work.

But I know how to make them work now. And tonight, I will touch a boy, and he will touch me back, and as I put my hands in my hair, tilt my chin toward the shower head and let the hot water cascade down the curves of my body, I hear the door creak, a light tapping on the frame.

“Tash,” Mitchell says, “what’s so funny in there? You woke me up with all that laughing.”

I peek from behind the shower curtain, call him in with the curl of my index finger. He follows, like a cartoon character that is lured by a sweet-smelling aroma. When he is in front of me, I grab his hand, my eyes locked only on his lips swooped in a side smirk, and whisper, “Take off your clothes.”

—Nortina


This concludes Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans! Thank you so much to those who stuck around (through this month, last month, and even last December when the first nine chapters were originally posted) to the very end! I have truly fallen in love with this story and this cast of characters, and while I plan to take a break from it for a little while, I do hope to return soon to edit and possibly self-publish it just in time for Christmas next year. Thank you so much for all the likes, comments, shares. It means the world to me. I wish you a wonderful, wonderful New Year, and a successful, productive, and prosperous 2018! ¡Besos! 🙂

——
Previous: First Date
Read from the beginning: Before the Wedding

#1MinFiction: Where are you, Christmas?

They thought they heard Santa Claus, never left their rooms as I packed all the presents into bins for the shelter and put them in the trunk of my car.

Now my husband glares at me like I’m the Grinch that stole Christmas, but even the Grinch learned that the joy of this holiday doesn’t originate from a store.

“Come on kids, get your coats. We’re going caroling.” I will show them the true meaning.

—Nortina


Monday’s One-Minute Fiction challenges you to write a story in one minute, no more, no less, based on the prompt provided, but it looks like Grinch-mom stole all the presents from Monday’s Christmas-themed photo prompt! Guess she wants us to know it’s not all about the gifts too. 😉

 

First Date

Rita gathers her thick mane of hair to the top of her head, analyzes her profile in the mirror from the left and then the right. Deciding against an updo, she lets it fall back down to her shoulders, the corkscrew curls bouncing into place. Only the cluster of springs at her temples and along her edges remain resilient, trying too hard to imitate bangs but appearing like an 80’s mullet gone bad instead. No amount of curl control gel will tame them, so she lets them spread out wildly across her forehead.

It looks cute—in a chic throwback rock sort of way. She hates cute, hasn’t been cute since her first training bra. But cute beats sexy, and the last thing she needs to be right now is sexy. Sexy always leads to her panties being tossed in a corner somewhere, her knees being separated for a temporary houseguest, and since her New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to be celibate, sexy is no longer an option.

She can literally feel herself drying up between the legs as she thinks about it. It was only a month ago that she gave up smoking weed, but this, this is much harder, because she’s getting ready to go on a date with Hank, and Hank has touched places, kissed and licked parts of her body most men don’t get to see on the first date.

And it’s not only the date with Hank that’s got her anxious. What if it goes bad? She doesn’t want to fixate on whether or not he could be the one. She’s not even sure if she wants that now with so much change happening in her life. She isn’t the same person she was a week ago when she slept with him an hour after meeting him. If that’s what he’s hoping to get tonight, she hates to disappoint him, because she likes him, a lot, definitely more than just a one-night-stand.

She’s not a slut. She knows how it looks, with the way things started with Hank. But she doesn’t sleep around; it’s always with the same guy over and over again, until he grows tired of her. True, it’s usually some random guy she met at the bar, or online, or, when she’s really feeling low, Jerome. The affairs never last long, but they quell her of her temporary loneliness, and however brief, she can hide her pain underneath the pleasure she feels when that man, whoever he may be—a bar hopper, a Tender suitor, a weed dealer, a Home Depot employee— clings to her, pushes deep inside her, breathes heavy on her tongue.

She likes to be filled, wanted, needed, useful for something, even if it’s just a quick nut. Sex does that for her. It gives her a purpose, a release, an escape. She doesn’t know what she is without it.

Actually, she does know. Alone—that’s what she is—and she has a vague memory of a sad, stupid girl who quit medical school because some idiot broke her heart, left her in the dust his rear tires kicked up after he dropped off her clothes and $300 for an abortion.

It terrifies her that she could still be that girl.

But just as she’s about to give up on her vow of celibacy before the New Year even starts, she is reminded of something Reverend Murphy said to her—that she has so much God-given potential bottled up inside her. Taped to the upper left corner of her mirror is a list of scriptures he gave her to read, to guide her through the beginning steps of salvation. She’s read a few of them. Jeremiah 29:11 —God has plans you. Romans 12:1-2 — Renew your mind. 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 — Your body is a temple for God. She’s heard Renee say that once. She thinks she’ll call her about it after her date with Hank. And she knows Tash has been through it—the struggle to be as perfect as you can yet still falling short. But she recovered. She got back up. She and Mitchell are happy, and married, and Rita would like to think their love is even stronger.

Even though they fell.

She checks the time. If she wants to meet Hank at the arcade by seven, she should be leaving now. He says he has a ride—a relief for her—it’ll be less tempting not having him in her car. It feels kind of childish, that he’s chosen video games as their first date over dinner, or a movie, reminds her again that he’s not yet old enough to drink, which might not be a bad thing since she’s given that up too.

Will this date end in something serious, or fizzle out like all the others? Rita can hope, but whether it’s Hank or any other man, she knows before she can consider a relationship, she has to discover her new self first, figure out who she is in Christ, which Reverend Murphy calls the most meaningful pursuit in life.

Tash is doing it, and Mitchell. Renee’s the best at it, and maybe one day she’ll get Bryan there as well. And Antonio, even Antonio is trying. Rita must try too. Fellowship, Reverend Murphy says, it’s the best thing any new Christian can have, Rita’s got that in her amazing group of friends who drive her crazy and inspire her all at the same time.

If things go south with Hank, she knows she can count on their support, that they will help her to get back on her feet and back on track in the direction she needs to be.

—Nortina


The final chapters of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans

——
Previous: Bedtime Story
Next: After the Wedding (Epilogue)

Bedtime Story

Ryder’s head feels like five pound weights lying across Antonio’s lap. His breathing is slow, constant. It didn’t take much to put him to sleep. Antonio had barely finished chapter one before the snoring began.

Snoring. His eighteen-month-old son snores. Nothing too loud and obnoxious, like the Chewbacca noises Elise swears she doesn’t make. It reminds Antonio of the sound a small handheld fan makes when the motor is about to go dead. The rise and fall of the boy’s breath sooths him, and he imagines it could be recorded as a sleep track for people who suffer from insomnia. It even starts to lull him, and for a brief moment he forgets that this is the first time he’s ever heard his son snore.

His eighteen-month-old son.

As much as he wants to, he can’t make himself hate Elise for this. Even though she’s tried so hard to keep him exiled from their lives, and for a split second at the wedding, he feared Ryder wouldn’t even recognize him—it’s been that long.

But when he walked into the Fellowship Hall, one of the first people to arrive after the ceremony, and spotted Elise and Ryder sitting alone at a table toward the back corner of the room in front of the “bar” that only served sparkling cider—though he’s pretty sure Bryan and some of the other guests were sipping on something a little stronger—Ryder jumped to his feet, ran—more like wobbled, he’d only learned to walk a month ago, another milestone Antonio missed—arms outstretched, screaming, “Daaaaaddddy!”

And for the third time, Antonio ugly cried, standing there in the middle of the Hall, holding his son as wedding guests filed in looking for their assigned seats. He wouldn’t credit that to Elise, but to Ryder, how much he loved him, how much he missed him.

“I will always fight for you,” he whispered in Ryder’s ear, squeezing him even tighter, as if he feared the boy would slip out of his hands.

Looking back on it, Antonio realizes he didn’t let Ryder go that entire day, not until he strapped him into the car seat to take him home. At the reception, he sat Ryder in his lap as they ate boneless chicken wings and red velvet cake. He held Ryder’s hand on the dance floor and taught him how to slide. He even took the diaper bag from Elise and changed Ryder in the bathroom, which proved tricky to do since men’s restrooms don’t have changing table.

It was the first time—yes, the first time—he’d ever changed his son’s diaper, and it was the stinkiest, wettest, fullest diaper if ever there was one. He wouldn’t doubt that Elise intentionally skipped a few changes just to spite him, but he didn’t care. He sat Ryder in the sink and wiped him down with a smile on his face, a pained smile, but a smile nonetheless.

With Ryder nearing two, he knew he wouldn’t have many more moments like this, and no amount of dirty diapers could make up for the eighteen-months worth he’d missed. So if this was the most disgusting diaper he had to touch, if his pinky finger accidently grazed the soil, if Ryder peed on him will he tried to get the new diaper on, if it resulted in a diaper rash, he’d welcome it all.

And when it’s time to potty train him, Antonio will show him how to aim, teach him to shoot from a distance, be a man. Elise can’t take that from him. He thought she could, but now he knows she can’t. And she can’t teach Ryder to be a man either, not like a man can, not like Antonio can. Now that he has Ryder, he’s always going to be there for him, won’t let months lapse between seeing his son again. He can’t be lazy anymore, blaming Elise for everything he doesn’t have with Ryder. There are enough lazy fathers in the world, who blame the mother for why they don’t have relationships with their children, when they themselves won’t make an effort.

Antonio lightly pets the back of Ryder’s head, and Ryder snuggles closer to his leg. Antonio knows now he’ll always make an effort for Ryder, because he wants more nights like this—lying in bed reading bedtime stories.

And what better story than the original Christmas story? As many times as he’s heard it told, in movies, in songs, every Christmas Eve at Renee’s, he’s never actually read it himself. Now, though Ryder sleeps, he continues reading, fascinated by the whole thing—the virgin birth, the proclamation of the angels, the prophesy of the Messiah who came to save all people, His name, Immanuel, which means God with us.

Antonio’s only been saved a few weeks, has made a mess of it most of that time, but in the peace of his bedroom, Ryder by his side, the Word in his lap, he holds onto hope. The same hope of the shepherds, the wise men, the prophets, all who witnessed one little baby, born in a manger, who grew to change their lives, forever.

—Nortina


The final chapters of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans

——
Previous: Jesus is the Reason for the Season
Next: First Date

Jesus is the Reason for the Season

When Renee hired DJ Milly Beatz for Mitchell and Natasha’s wedding reception, she made it clear—no secular music, period.

Marriage is a holy sacrament, created by God, and with it being Christmas also—Christmas, she made sure he heard her emphasis on Christ—it’s important that they remember what they’re really celebrating, that without Him, none of them would even be here. There’d be no wedding reception to plan. Shoot, there’d be no wedding either!

Of course, Beatz rolled his eyes, claimed she was limiting him, and she retorted that there were plenty of gospel artists who sang about love, about God and marriage. She asked him had he ever heard “Alabaster Box” by CeCe Winans. He shook his head. She liked to’ve slapped him, but she kept her composure.

She could only blame herself for waiting until the last minute to find a DJ. Music was the least of her worries when she still needed to confirm the menu with the caterer and go over again with the photographer the correct time he was to arrive at the church, especially after she’d read all those bad Yelp reviews online—couples who paid for four hours of service and only received two.

If it’d come down to it, she would’ve just hooked someone’s iPod up to the loud speakers, but a week before the wedding, Rita gave her a name: Milly Beatz, a hip-hop DJ.

All Rita listens to is mind-numbing rap—nothing but drugs, money, and women. She claims she can vibe to it whenever she’s high, it calms her down.

Hopefully that’ll change, now that Rita’s changed.

Renee on the other hand, has never liked rap, not even when she was unsaved, and figuring that Milly was a play on the word “million,” she wondered how many of his “million beats” were appropriate for a “church” wedding. If the row of bejeweled gold teeth in his mouth was any indication, Mitchell would want his money back before the guy could even play the first track. But Renee teaches her own children never to judge a book by it’s cover, and in any case, it was too late to try to find a Christian DJ. She had to make due with what she had.

So she handed Beatz the latest William Murphy album, circled track four in red Sharpie on the casing, “I Have Found,” featuring Tasha Cobb. “Play this the moment the newlyweds enter the Fellowship Hall,” she instructed. When he asked her about the “turn up,” after everyone’s had their first dance and all the slow songs are over, she gave him a playlist she wrote up, all of her favorites, artists who could crank things up to another level better than any rapper, turn the reception into a true Holy Ghost party—Tye Tribbett, Travis Greene, Fred Hammond, Tamela Mann, Kierra Sheard, Israel & New Breed, Hezekiah Walker, Casey J.

And yet, after all that hassle, the wedding party and guests still found a way to do the Electric Slide to Kirk Franklin’s “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.”

“My people, my people,” Renee sighs.

Bryan takes her by the wrist, pulls her up to her feet. “C’mon, babe, you’re the only one not dancing.”

She looks around, spots Melody and Rita in a corner behind the buffet table. Melody follows Rita’s lead in the four-count step. To the right, to the left, take it back, step forward, step back, pivot, turn, skip, step, repeat. Melody catches on pretty fast, and Renee notices, thank goodness, that the white skirt of her dress is still void of spilt food. How much longer would the reception continue; could she make it another hour spotless?

Renee lets Bryan drag her to the dance floor, which is just a small, empty section of linoleum between the head table, where the wedding party sat, and the DJ both to the left of it. They squeeze into the crowd, move in sync so as not to disturb the flow. They make the next turn to face the DJ booth, the head table behind them.

Bryan raises his knee, gives it a slap, bites his bottom lip, and half grunts, half barks at Renee. He’s always so over the top, but it loosens her up, and she starts to add a few extra moves of her own to the basic line dance. She shimmies her shoulders, claps her hands. When they step forward she bends over, smacks the ground. Bryan sticks out his tongue, leans into her, whispers something incoherent over the music but most likely filthy in nature. She has to remind him this isn’t their wedding. And as if, just to convince herself of that, she looks over the sea of heads on the next turn, scanning for the happy couple.

Instead, she catches a glimpse of Antonio and Elise, together, dancing, holding hands–well, Ryder is between them, on his tippy toes, feet barely grazing the floor, swinging as he holds onto his parents. It’s the first time she’s seem them cordial toward each other in months, and not just cordial, but, dare she say it, having fun, smiling, laughing. It’s a Christmas miracle.

Bryan whispers in Renee’s ear again.

“Stop it!” She swats at his chest. Now he’s just teasing her. He misses the cue for the next turn, and facing him now she notices his tongue loose, his eyelids low. He’s drunk! Where on earth did he get the alcohol? He wraps his arms around her waist, and while everyone is stepping back, he hauls her off the dance floor, to their table, sits her in his lap.

“And what do you want for Christmas, little girl?” He breathes heavily into her ear, nibbles on her earlobe, curling his tongue around her dangling chandelier earring. His hand on the small of her back is warm, makes her sweat.

She’s got to hand it to him. He’s managed to seduce her without saying a single four-letter word. She kisses him, and he puts his hands in her hair, slips his tongue between her lips. She tastes the champagne. He had to have snuck it in. She’ll get him for that later.

She turns her attention back to the dance floor, drawn in by the beam on little Ryder’s face. He’s so happy that his parents are getting along. If even there’s no chance of them getting back together, Renee believes that they’ll find a way to co-parent peacefully, for Ryder’s sake.

At a distance now, she finally sees Mitchell and Natasha. Tash looks shorter—she must have taken her heels off—and Mitchell, poor Mitchell, they’re on their sixth turn and he hasn’t conquered the dance yet, still tripping over his own feet. Renee guesses now the reason why he never wanted to go dancing with them in college—he has no rhythm. Tash knows it and laughs at him, hugs him, kisses his cheek tenderly, the entire left side of his face red with her lipstick. Whatever happened in that choir room earlier today, it’s good to see that it’s helped them to overcome this recent testing of their faith and find forgiveness. Now pure euphoria gleams in their faces, and Renee can’t wait to see how these two grow together as a married man and woman of God.

As for Rita– oh, Renee is still in jubilation! Her heart leaps in her chest as she remembers those three joyful words, “I got saved.” It gives her hope that the same could happen for Bryan one day, and for this, she must celebrate.

She takes his hand, leads him back to the dance floor. Seeing the good time everyone is having, the DJ has started the song over again, and she has a few more dance moves up her sleeve.

—Nortina


The final chapters of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans

——
Previous: The Big Day (Part 3)
Next: Bedtime Story

The Big Day (Part 3)

Natasha

“I’m so bloated,” I moan. “Look at how my stomach is poking out!” I frown at my reflection in the mirror as my mom zips me into my dress and pats my non-existent hips. Meanwhile, the chocolate diamond-studded gold mermaid dress she wears perfectly hugs her, making her look twenty years younger that her actual age, and making me wonder who was really getting married.

“Well, honey, if you had just let Marinette adjust it for you–“

“So I can look like I’m dressed in a tent on my one-year anniversary?”

“Oh, honey, wedding dresses get smaller as the years go on, not bigger.”

Easy for her to say, she shrinks with age too. If I had been in my right mind at the fitting—not hungover, thinking about the morning with Mitchell, and the night before—I probably would have said no to the idea of her buying a new dress. Not to say that the first dress wasn’t hideous, that ruffled tail attached to her behind made no sense whatsoever, but it was appropriate for a mother-of-the-bride. Now I feel like I’m being one-upped by my own mother. Even her boobs look bigger than mine!

Still barefoot, while I am in my three-inches to keep from tripping over the front of my dress as I walk about the choir room that we’ve temporarily converted into a changing room, she curls her fingers around the back of my neck and pulls me down level with her eyes. With her other hand, she twirls one of my ringlet curls—courtesy of Renee’s longtime stylist, who also did my make up earlier that afternoon—around her index finger, tucks it behind my ear, then lightly pulls part of it out to loop down the side of my cheek and shape my face.

“Maybe you should have checked your menstrual calendar before setting this date, hmm?” she says smirking.

“I thought I did!”

We both laugh, because we know how ridiculous we sound, how much I’m overreacting. Mitchell has loved me drunk. He’s loved me sober. Even through our moments of shame and unworthiness, we have stuck it through for each other. And while last night didn’t end they way I wanted it to—only a kiss on the hand and a see you at the altar—I know Mitchell would do anything for me.

He’s the very embodiment of Christ’s love. “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church an gave himself up for her,” Scripture says. And I have no doubt that Mitchell would lay down his life for me, that he would sacrifice anything to make sure that I am the best reflection of his love and God’s. And after tonight, when we are united in holy matrimony, nothing will ever separate us. As with the love of Christ, I’m convinced neither death nor life, angels nor demons, present nor future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth.

And certainly not a dumb period.

“This is just great! Of all the days to be late!” Renee stomps down the raised platform of the choir stand, blows past us, and flops with a huff on the stool pulled from underneath the piano that has been pushed against the wall, along with all the other instruments and furniture to make room for the dresses, shoes, curling irons, make-up kits, and everything else spread out all over the room. For it to be just the three of us, we’ve created quite a sty. And here I thought the choir room would be too big.

Renee plants both elbows on the black and white keys of the piano with a harsh, crashing chord never to be played again, and groans even louder.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, though I’m nervous to hear her answer. If it’s anything but, “Mitchell is waiting patiently for you at the altar,” I’d rather tune her out. I have enough on my mind already.

“My husband,” she starts, and I breathe sigh of relief. Bryan doing something crazy to give Renee a panic attack? That’s nothing new. But then she continues. “And your groom. They’re missing.”

“What!” Now it’s my turn to freak, but my too-tight dress stiffens my movements. I feel like I’m going to pop. I reach behind me, clawing for my zipper. My arms are suddenly too short, like a T-Rex. “Help me,” I say to my mom. I need to breathe, I need to scream, I need to change my freaking tampon!

My mom puts my spirited hands at my side and tells me to inhale. She gulps in the air with me, then lets it out. We do it again. And when my heartbeat is back to normal, I ask Renee, “Where are they?”

“I’m sure they’re on their way,” Ma says. “Probably just stuck in traffic.”

“The wedding is in twenty minutes!”

Renee stands and starts to pace. She comes back to the piano and drums her fingers on the polished wood of the lid, which is almost level with her shoulders. “Apparently, Mitchell had to make stop first. It couldn’t wait.”

“What is so important?”

She shrugs. “I don’t know, but if this is some kind of bachelor party crap Bryan is trying to pull, I’m going to kill him.”

“Not if I kill him first,” I say, especially since Mitchell and I had an agreement— no bachelor or bachelorette parties.

“Ok, ok. Let’s try to real in our emotions. No death threats on your wedding day,” Ma pleads. She guides me to a chair not covered in clothes, garment bags, or foundation bottles, and again urges me to breathe, as if we’re practicing for labor pains. This wedding will be a pain if Mitchell and Bryan don’t show up soon.

Meanwhile, Renee is still pacing about the room. She looks up, spins around, as if noticing something else amiss. “Has anyone talked to Rita!”

“No need to send out a search party.”

Talk about speaking someone into existence. Rita stands in the doorway leading out into the hall. She wears only a pair of jeans and a fleece jacket, and waves awkwardly as Renee and I rush to her, dragging her inside.

No one has seen her since she left Renee and Bryan’s last night, and Renee unfortunately had to take poor Hank home when it became very obvious that Rita wasn’t coming back. It bothered Mitchell the most, her leaving, because she left believing a lie, that Mitchell and I had been celibate this whole time. It should have bothered me too. It did, eventually, when he dropped me off at my apartment, not wanting to come inside to tempt fate again. And I was left alone to my thoughts, and the conviction brought on by the Holy Spirit of everything I’ve done wrong that I’ve tried to convince myself is right and good, and not for my own selfish pleasures.

But how do I tell her that? So I look down at the box she’s holding, wrapped in red paper and tied with a golden bow. “What’s that?”

“Oh,” she says, as if she’s just noticing it. She hands it to me. “It’s for you. Actually, for Mitchell. Call it a Christmas present, wedding present, whatever. I saw it in the store and thought of him.”

“You thought of him?” Renee says. Repeating it doesn’t make it sound any more believable to either of us.

Then Rita takes the gift back, puts it down and grabs both my and Renee’s hands. “Guys,” she says, her voice low, in an excited whisper, “I got saved.”

We stare for several minutes, trying to comprehend what she’s just said, if we heard it correctly, what exactly it means, did she know what she was saying.

Finally Renee breaks the silence, her facial expression slowly morphing to elation until she’s through the roof. “Oh. My. God– Praise Him!” she shouts to the high heavens and pulls Rita in for a bear hug, nearly strangling her as she hooks her boney arm around Rita’s neck. “I knew that fast would work!”

“Congratulations,” Ma says, resting her hand on Rita’s back, her lips curled into a distant, gratified smile, as if she’s looked into the future and has seen how much Rita’s life will change for the better and is now content. Since college, she’s been like a surrogate for Rita, especially since her real mother lives so far away, and to this day none of us have ever met her. But today, a mother is proud. She’s been praying for Rita, for just as long as I have.

And yet, here I am, my jaw still hanging when I say, “How? When?”

“Here. Last night.” She reaches up to hug me. I’m still in shock. What could have changed in that time after she left the party last night? And is it guilt I feel that her salvation may have something to do with her false memory of my and Mitchell’s first night together? But then, who am I to judge the power of God? Only He knows just what Rita needs to turn her life around, right? If He could use a talking donkey, nothing should come as a surprise.

Still, I’m lost for words. In my heels, I’m nearly half a foot taller than Rita. I kick them off, wrap my arms around her waist and hold her tighter. Renee drapes her arm over both of us. Rita’s joy is contagious. Her wide grin making a mold into my bare shoulders as she clings to me, beings to cry. For the sake of my make-up, I tilt my head back to hold the tears.

If anyone could steal the thunder from my wedding day– But it reminds me what and who is truly important on this Christmas. “I love you,” I say, to Rita, to Renee, to my mom, to God, and I thank each of them, my heart pounding in my chest—but there’s something else I need to do.

“Good, you’re both here.”

The tears in my eyes blur my vision, but I don’t have to see him to recognize his voice.

Mitchell

Either he’s interrupted a private moment, or he’s come just in time. Either way, he’ll take the risk, but Renee looks like she could murder a cat. Eyes bulging, cheeks inflated—if she were a cartoon, steam would be coming out of her ears.

“Mitchell! Don’t you know it’s bad luck to see the bride before the wedding.”

Mitchell rolls his eyes at her. She of all people should know they don’t believe in luck, only the favor of God, and God’s favor comes by being obedient to Him. Nonsensical wedding traditions and superstitions go out the window; there was something more important he needed to do before walking down that aisle.

“Renee, do you mind if I talk to Tash and Rita for a minute? Alone?”

As if wanting to make sure she’s the only Rita in the room, Rita points to herself, “Me? What would you have to talk to me about?”

Mitchell doesn’t answer, keeps his eyes on Renee. “Please?”

Renee throws her hands in the air. “Oh, alright,” she says.

Natasha’s mom follows her out into the hall. She looks dressed for the red carpet instead of her daughter’s wedding. Mitchell mouths, “Sorry,” as she passes. She shakes her head.

“Make it quick. We have a wedding to attend.” She winks, squeezes his arm, then shuts the door behind her.

Both Rita and Natasha wait for Mitchell to speak. He’s silent for a moment, noticing the amplified acoustics of the mass choir room, how he can hear the echo of his own breathing, his heart beating through his tux. Even with the three of them standing there, amongst the instruments, the folded metal chairs, the clothes and shoes spread about—too much for four women, and Rita looks like she’s only just arrived—the room feels empty. The silence strips the room bare, just as this secret, he feels, will do to him.

But he who covers his sin will not prosper, so Mitchell closes his eyes and repeats the word God gave him to say the night before. “Rita, I need you to forgive me.”

“For what?” There’s a hint of a laugh in her voice, which surprises him. He looks up, but still ashamed to meet her eyes, lowers his gaze to her feet instead, sees the rectangular gift box on the floor. Rita bends over and scoops it up. “Here,” she says. “For you.”

He shakes his head. “I can’t take this.”

“Please, I insist.” She shoves the gift into his gut, but he blocks it with is hand, pushes it back to her.

“Rita, I’m not the man you think I am.”

“What does that mean?” Her tone changes. She puts a fist on her hip, shifts her weight to one leg, lowers her head waiting for clarity.

Before Mitchell can answer, Natasha steps in. “Rita, we have a confession to make.”

“It’s about last night,” Mitchell interrupts, finding his voice again. “Before you left. When you were saying how you admired me for not taking advantage of Natasha while she was intoxicated.”

Natasha slips her hand into Mitchell’s. With a squint of the eyes and a nod, she tells him all he needs. This is something they have to do together, how they will start their marriage off right. They interlock fingers and he holds tightly to her hand until the whites in his knuckles show, siphoning her strength, her resolve, so grateful that he doesn’t have to admit to his short comings alone. She truly was created to be a helpmeet just for him, his better half, and he thanks God for her.

“The truth is,” Natasha says, “that night didn’t end the way you think it did.”

“Oh my god.”

Mitchell winces, prepares for a barrage of curses, or worse. He waits for the insults. Rita’s never held back on him before, never sugarcoated her disdain toward him. He expects nothing less now. He holds Natasha even tighter. But Rita only laughs, and again he has to open his eyes to be sure he’s not imagining it.

“Oh my god,” she repeats, grinning from ear to ear. “You guys are too cute.”

Mitchell frowns in confusion. He almost wants to ask what’s wrong with her. This friendlier, happier Rita is something he’s never experienced, not even on the first night he met her. He’s not sure if he should welcome it, or be afraid.

“I know you two had sex.”

“You know?” Mitchell and Natasha say in unison.

Rita scoffs. “Is that really a surprise? I know the after sex look better than anybody.” She smiles, opens her arms, and Natasha lets go of his hand,  now hugging and laughing with Rita again, as they were when Mitchell first entered the room. But he’s still not convinced that all is forgiven.

“So why did you say those things if you already knew?” he says.

Rita exchanges glances between Mitchell and Natasha. She looks down at her present, holding it with both hands, and stretches out her arms to give it to Mitchell. This time he accepts it.

“It wasn’t about you having sex, or not having sex,” Rita says, “but what happened after.” She doesn’t elaborate. She walks out of the room, saying nothing more, closing the door behind her and leaving Mitchell and Natasha by themselves to linger on her words.

What happened after?” Mitchell asks, more to himself.

“Oh sweetie.” Natasha holds his face in her hands, pulls him down for a light kiss. “I love that you’re so naïve.”

Then it clicks. What happened after, and what is still happening. That he’s about to marry Natasha, a woman who wasn’t just a college fling, or a one night stand, but who quickly became the love of his life, who will soon be the only woman in his life.

There was only one thing keeping that from happening…

As he did eight months ago when he proposed, he holds the tips of her fingers in his hand, like a manicurist evaluating his work. “Natasha,” he says, “do you believe that prayer is the answer to everything? That a family that prays together stays together?”

“I do.”

Mitchell drops to one knee, then lets the other leg go from under him. She looks radiant from down here. The ceiling lights hit the rhinestones outlining the bodice of her dress in a way that they sparkle like diamonds, the color spectrum reflected in her eyes. Angelic. She is his angel. He lifts the hem of her dress and searches underneath through the ruffles and tulle until he finds her legs, smooth like cool porcelain. He cups his hands behind her knees, beckons her down. “Pray with me,” he whispers.

She balances herself on his shoulders, rises on her toes, and his arms trail further up her legs, curl behind her thighs, pick her up, hold her close to him, pull her down to the floor, as her dress billows around them.

They clasp hands, bow their heads until their foreheads touch, and Mitchell begins, “Our Father in heaven…”


Reverend Murphy

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, on this Christmas day, a day when we celebrate the birth of a King, to witness the union of this man and this woman in holy matrimony before God…”

—Nortina


The final chapters of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans

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Previous: The Big Day (Part 2)
Next: Jesus is the Reason for the Season