Board members from DFW Ready Writers had a great time putting together this Christmas Story, where one would write a portion, then the next one had to build upon it. Enjoy!
The Night Before Christmas
Lee Carver, Barbara Harrison, Lena Dooley, and Janice Olson
Celine slid a less-known Bible commentary through the library’s automated check-out scanner ready to take her aching shoulders home. Volunteering for all the extra hours at the seminary library during Christmas week beat sitting home grieving like last year, but she was tired to the core.
The last patron shifted his cashmere overcoat. “Two weeks?” He caught her attention with his question. Nice looking, about her own age.
She responded to his warm expression with a smile of her own. “Right. Two weeks, but renewable.”
Within fifteen minutes, she had extinguished all but the security lights and set the alarm. Before locking the last door behind her, she scanned the parking lot where her ten-year-old car waited. Not a sound but the cold Texas wind. Not a sight but the barren concrete and brick.
Celine thought in words and expressions, “barren” being one of her least favorite.
Halfway home, on the county road south of Fort Worth, the grinding sound somewhere in the car’s innards returned. Then a loud clunk, and it rolled to a stop on the side of the highway. So much smoke or steam curled from beneath the hood that she grabbed her purse and coat, released the catch, and then scooted out. Again she wished she had made a deposit on a new car when the insurance money came through.
She reached for her cell phone and found the battery was dead. Not a house in sight. The frigid night chilled her bones. No one knew she was here. No one waited for her at home. No one would miss her or come looking.
She did the only thing possible. She propped on the roof, bent onto her upraised arms, and sobbed a prayer to God. “Why have you left me? What am I to do?”
Car lights approached from the rear. Fear charged through her veins. She should get back inside and lock the door.
No, she would face this person and assume the best. Straightening, she swiped off the tears already freezing on her cheeks.
A classic green mustang came to a stop behind her crippled car. The last patron at the seminary library climbed out of the car. “Do you need some help?” He walked toward her, surveying the smoking hood.
“You must be a guardian angel. I do need help. Smoke started pouring from the hood and my car died.” She blushed. “And my cell is as dead as my car.”
“Well, I can’t say I’m a guardian angel, but I did come along just in time. I kinda wondered …” He shook his head and walked to the front of her car.
Both of them watched the steam escaping. That couldn’t be good. Was she going to spend Christmas Eve out on the back roads of the county in a deep freeze? Of course, what was waiting for her back home? Her cat and her large fern that she hung Christmas balls on.
“Well, the water pump has gone out on your car, ma’am. You’ll need it towed.”
“Towed? Where am I going to get a tow truck on Christmas Eve?”
“Well, my brother-in-law owns a garage in our town about five miles up the road. Let me call him.” The man pulled out his phone and made a call. “James, this is Michael. I’m out here on CR224 and there’s a lady with a blown fuel pump. She’s going to need a tow.”
The man nodded and said, “It’s a little job, blue, and it will be the only car on the road by the mile 15 marker. Okay, I’m going to take her with me. It’s too cold for her to wait out here. Yes, I’ll see you later at church.”
“It’s going to be a while before anyone can get here, so why don’t you come with me to the church. We’re having a Christmas Eve service.”
He stuck out his hand. “I’m Michael Murphy.”
She took his hand and introduced herself.
“Well, Celine, I hope you’re in the mood to share a Christmas Eve service, because I’m due at church in less than fifteen minutes and I can’t miss. I’m Joseph in the Nativity scene in the Christmas program, and Mary needs me.”
She wasn’t planning to go to church, but it didn’t look like she had a choice now.
Twenty-five minutes later, they pulled up at the church building glowing with lights streaming through every window. There weren’t that many cars in the parking lot. Celine hoped her rescuer wasn’t too late.
“Michael, finally!” A red-headed woman hurried up the aisle toward them. “We were worried something had happened to you, too.”
Her escort shook his head. “No. Who else isn’t here?” He glanced around.
Celine dropped onto the back pew and looked at all the decorations. She wondered if God would be upset with her presence in His house. Although she had always been involved in church, she hadn’t been back since … No, she refused to think about that awful time that changed her life forever. Why did she agree to come here with him? She could have asked to borrow his cell phone and called her neighbor, or even a taxi.
“Sharon is sick and won’t be here.” The redhead used her hands to emphasize every other word. “We’re frantic. I’ve called three other women and none of them can take her part.” She placed her fisted hands on her waist. “What are we going to do?”
“We have to have a Mary.” Michael’s firm declaration sent chills through Celine when he turned his attention toward her.
Oh, no you don’t. She would not play Mary in his program. So what if she owed him, but that was way beyond the scope of what she could handle right now … or ever.
She studied the carpet as his firm footsteps led him to the end of her pew. After he dropped down beside her, she still wouldn’t look at him.
“I know this is a lot to ask, but could you stand in for Mary? You wouldn’t have to say anything, and I’d be beside you the whole time. And her costume will fit you.” His voice was gentle, not demanding.
She glanced up at him and shook her head. “I can’t.”
“You do know the story of the first Christmas, don’t you?” His apologetic expression and tender brown eyes tugged at her heart. He had helped her when she needed it. How could she decline? She could sit beside a manger with a doll resting in the hay.
She slowly nodded while her heart cried for her to run out the doors.
After a quick rehearsal where they went through the nativity tableau while the choir sang music describing the event, she was taken to the women’s restroom to dress. God, please help me. The first prayer she’d uttered since she was in high school, if you didn’t count the prayer beside the road.
A strange peace surrounded her.
As the program progressed, she waited beside Michael, taking strength from his presence. When the nativity music started, she looked at the assistant director.
“We forgot to bring the doll from the manger.” Celine wondered how the woman would retrieve it without the audience knowing.
The woman motioned to another young woman Celine hadn’t noticed before. She held the doll swaddled in a white blanket.
“We’re not using a doll. This is Mark. He’s two weeks old.” The assistant held out the baby toward Celine.
I. Can. Not. Do. This. Yes, you can.
She hadn’t heard that whisper in her spirit since that fateful day when she made the worst mistake of her life. Letting her boyfriend convince her to have an abortion stripped everything else from her heart and life.
Instinctively, she held out her arms ready to receive the baby. Michael took her arm and walked toward the stable. In the darkness, no one could see the tears streaming down her face as she cradled the sweet-smelling infant against her beating heart.
Unworthy, unworthy rang in her head. She didn’t think she could walk another step yet Michael led her on. Would the shame be seen in her face?
The baby mewed, nestling closer against her breast, the little one’s warmth seeping deep inside Celine, reaching the cold, frozen places of her soul. Her baby would have been how old now, if …
The closer she got to the front, the more the guilt pounded in her chest. These good people would have never asked her to be the Virgin Mary if they had known. Celine sat in all her shame while the story unfolded of Jesus’ birth and a mother’s love.
Her breath caught in her throat. A vise tightened around her heart until she thought it would explode. Yet the small gathering sat enraptured while Celine’s guilt increased.
As the storyteller spoke of God’s grace and a love that transcends all else, a love that could reach into the blackest of hearts and make them clean again, the filthy rags of Celine’s stained existence began to peel away. When the angel proclaimed that Jesus would save his people from their sins, Celine cried silently for mercy. The flood gates of grace opened, washing away the guilt of her past.
Again, the baby squirmed. She gazed down into his beautiful face, tears streaming down her cheeks. Though the old wound of her decision was still there, she knew God had forgiven her and with time she prayed the pain would heal.
The play over, Celine waited at the back of the little church. People filed by and thanked her for the part she played and invited her to come back on Sunday. The mother of baby Mark spoke with her briefly and was leaving when Michael stepped up.
“If you’re ready, I’ll take you home now.” Michael opened the door leading her to the car. “I appreciate you stepping in tonight. We couldn’t have done the program without you. And I don’t know if you felt it or not, but something special took place tonight, something real.”
Smiling, yet not knowing how to answer, Celine nodded. Her gaze drifted to the countryside that earlier appeared desolate and barren. A beautiful blanket of pure white covered everything. She knew God was saying your sins are forgiven.
In front of her apartment, Michael turned, giving her a nervous smile. “Since your car is in the garage, I could pick you up in the morning for church, if you would like.”
“I’d like that very much. What time?”
“Nine-thirty.” He wrinkled his brow as though trying to work out a problem. “You seem different, more at peace.”
“I am.” She opened the door allowing the chilly blast of air to fill the car. For the first time in years, she felt alive.