See amid the winter's snow,
born for us on earth below,
see the tender Lamb appears,
promised from eternal years.
Hail, thou ever blessed morn;
hail, redemption's happy dawn;
sing through all Jerusalem.
Arrive three hours before your flight is scheduled to depart. Make sure you place all baggage on the conveyor belt and run it through the x-ray machine. Once you have, step through the metal detector and please inform the attendant of any unusual incidents like a metal plate or body piercing that cannot be seen. All luggage must be checked and tagged before boarding the plane, you are permitted one carry-on item on the airplane. Before departure you must keep your trays in an upright position and turn all electronic equipment like cellular phones or portable CD players off until destined altitude is reached.
The list went on as the message played over the loudspeaker at O’Hare International Airport. Throughout the building, people were running to gates, some were waiting for planes not due to depart for hours. Security was everywhere, patrolling doorways and ticket counters, looking through carry on bags and watching each person as they stepped through the metal detector.
“Are you excited?” Abby asked, early that morning as her and Luka stood between two black ropes, each holding an orange board pass with the numbers twenty six and twenty seven imprinted on them in large black lettering.
“About the medical conference?” he asked, fanning the pass in his left hand. “No.” he replied, reaching into his pocket. “About flying in an airplane? Not really.” He continued with a small grin. “But about going to New York with you, yes.” He finally finished as she laughed.
“The conference is only for a few hours though.” She replied with a shrug of her shoulders. “And Weaver gave you four days there, and she’s paying for the hotel.” She continued herself. “You sure did get her in a good mood.”
“Yeah.” He agreed as a flight attendant appeared. “I still do not know how you got her to let you take these days off too.”
Raising her eyebrow, Abby didn’t respond, but only clutched the pass tighter in her hand as the flight attendant stood at the front of the three lines, holding her hands around one of the black ropes.
“We’ll now begin boarding all passengers with boarding passes numbered one through thirty five!” she called, nodding at an older attendant standing near the doorway.
“Oh come on.” A guy standing next to Abby on the next line complained. “I’ve got thirty six.”
“One through thirty five.” The flight attendant repeated, taking the boarding passes from the passengers as they passed her by.
Handing over their passes, Abby grasped the straps of her black bag and walked next to Luka down the long hallway to the plane, where they were greeted by another flight attendant and security guard. Peering into the aircraft, Abby stepped in and walked through the aisle, finally settling on two seats near the middle of the practically empty plane.
“Do you want the window?” Luka asked, pushing the bag Abby held into the overhead compartment.
“I don’t care.” She mumbled, as more people began boarding, shoving each other for window seats.
Looking at her, he pushed her gently into the row and pushed her into the window seat, sitting next to her. Laughing loudly, she pulled on her seatbelt and fastened it as a man in a business suit sat next to Luka, pulling his laptop out.. Within about fifteen minutes, the plane was soon filled to capacity and the announcements began, informing everyone of safety procedures and on board rules.
“Ready?” Luka asked as Abby pressed her head against the back of her seat.
“Approximate flight time to New York’s Kennedy Airport, Two hours, ten minutes.”
Lo, within a manger lies
he who built the starry skies,
he who throned in height sublime
sits amid the cherubim.
It was freezing; there was no other way to possibly put it. The temperature was only thirty degrees and the wind was blowing down the streets, gusting harshly as it passed down the side streets between the tall buildings. There was no snow though the weather report had predicted small storm for that evening. But the cold was good, the cold kept them human.
Stepping from the heated hotel lobby out onto the chilly city street, the surroundings of the bustling city-goers engulfed them. They may have been from Chicago, but that was nothing in comparison to New York City. Everything was so alive; everything was so different from what they knew Chicago to be. But they knew Chicago for death and injuries, everything that they saw while at work. The patients that came in with gun shot wounds, the gang members who had tried to get out and been beaten nearly to death, the children abused or abandoned. The same happened in New York, but they didn’t see that part of it, that kept it greater than Chicago.
“Which way are we going?” Abby asked, as they stepped farther out onto the sidewalk. Looking up at Luka as she scrunched her nose, ready to sneeze, she waited as he turned his head from left to right.
“I think we go that way.” He replied, pointing toward the right. “I forgot to ask them at the desk.”
“Let’s go.” She said quickly, before sneezing loudly. “It’s freezing.” She mumbled, pulling her black coat tighter around her body, as she felt Luka’s arm brush up against hers.
“Bless you.” He replied with a small smile. “You sure you want to go out? You don’t sound very good.”
“I didn’t fly to New York with you to sit in a hotel room and watch TV.”
“Ok, ok. Come on.” He said, grasping her hand in his. “It is a long walk probably, do you want to take a cab or the subway?”
Holding her hand up as she sneezed again, Abby shook her head and grabbed a tissue from her pocket, wiping her nose with it. A strong gust of wind blew hard against her face, causing both her and Luka to shiver as they stood at the corner with a large group of others waiting to cross the street.
“Let’s get a cab.” She sighed, watching as hundreds of cars sped by. Hers eyes caught a glimpse of the large sign that stood across the street at Madison Square Garden, watching the bright lights as they faded from word to word of the event taking place there that night.
Within a few minutes, both Luka and Abby were sitting in the back of the warm cab, watching the city speed by outside of their windows. The bright Christmas lights and decorations that hung outside of buildings, the men dressed as Santa Claus that stood on corners and outside of buildings ringing their bells and collecting money for various charities.
“So where you two from?” the cab driver asked, obviously more friendly than he looked.
“Chicago.” Abby replied, turning toward Luka’s window and watching as they passed by a large group of people staring into a store window.
“Wow, how is it there? As cold as it is here?” he asked, stopping behind a large truck ahead of them. “My sister went there one year and said she would never go back. Too much wind.”
“It’s pretty windy here.” She replied. “Where’s Saint Patrick’s?” she asked curiously, as Luka smiled at her, obviously amused at the can driver’s interest in them.
“That would be on Fifth Avenue.” He replied, pulling into a new lane with a quick jerk. “You should go to a mass there if you’ll still be here on Christmas. They fill up fast in there but its well worth it if you get there real early.”
“Ok.” Abby mumbled, pulling her coat again around her.
Pushing her body closer to Luka, she smacked his knee softly and looked up to him with a smile. “Why aren’t you talking?” she whispered.
“I don’t know.” He replied with a laugh, looking ahead at the bright lights coming from various buildings. “I’m glad that you came with me.” He whispered back, kissing her quickly.
“You want Rockefeller center right?” the cabbie called as he pulled off to the side and stopped the meter.
“Yup.” Luka replied, reaching for his wallet. Handing him a bill quickly, he waited as Abby slid out the left side of the car, and quickly followed, slamming the door as the cab quickly pulled away.
Standing on the sidewalk, they both looked quickly around and followed the stream of people that were walking toward a large building and turning its corner. Again clasping Abby’s hand in his own, Luka took a deep breathe and inhaled the smell of roasting nuts and hot pretzels that was slowly wafting over from a nearby vendor set up on the sidewalk nearby.
Turning the sharp corner, Abby’s eyes opened wide in awe as she stood looking down the path. Between the two sides sat a large setup built higher than the ground, with two long rows of white angels holding long horns that lit brightly in the dark night’s sky. Besides each path stood a long line of shops, and various benches where people sat, staring down at the centers main attraction.
“That is the biggest Christmas tree I have ever seen.” Luka said aloud, as Abby began tugging him down the path and through the crowd of people that stood staring at all that surrounded them.
As they got closer, the tree increased greatly in size, hovering hundreds of feet above them. The hundreds of thousands of colored Christmas lights twinkled brightly in the cold air, lighting the sky with dozens of colors. Reds, blues, greens and purples danced along in front of their eyes as they both stood in amazement, watching the tree that stood before them. Rockefeller Center was packed to what seemed to be capacity of people, all attempting to catch a glimpse of the world famous Christmas tree and the skaters that twirled below it in the ice rink.
“It’s beautiful.” Abby mumbled, shivering slightly as the wind again blew. Looking up above her, she watched as the trees branched blew about in the wind, and the lights twinkled brightly. Standing before her was a sight she had always dreamt of seeing each Christmas time since she was a child.
Abby could remember waiting excitedly as a child for the day the tree was scheduled to be lit. She would sit by the television and watch as the countdown began, and feel the butterflies in her stomach until it suddenly lit up on the screen. Then she would hear the happy cheers of all those who actually got to be there watching, lucky enough to see it in person. She always swore to herself that one day when she was older she would go and see the tree in person, she’d finally arrived.
Luka was struck by the sight before his eyes, amazed that the tree actually existed. When living in Croatia he had heard a few times about the large tree that sat in New York City every Christmas, but he had never actually seen it in anything but photos. Then, three years ago after arriving in America, he had seen the tree lit for the first time on a TV at the hospital during a break. His eyes had watched in amazement as the TV broadcaster had counted from ten and suddenly a tree that sat so high in the sky was lit with millions of colors, all shimmering in the snow that had fallen lightly that night.
“Did you remember to bring the camera?” he asked, looking down to Abby with a large grin as she was elbowed by an overweight man with a video camera glued to his right eye.
“Yeah.” She replied with a nod and she reached into her bag and pulled it into her hands, opening the cover. “Luka, where’s the button?” she asked, looking at the camera he had insisted they would need and just purchased. Holding the silver colored camera out to him, she allowed him to take the pictures, not wanting to bother to learn how it worked at that moment.
As he began snapping photos of the tree, the large statue that stood across the rink and the angels, Abby leaned up against the golden rail that sat above the large concrete wall and peered over into the skating rink below. She watched as dozens of people glided around the ice in circles, some holding hands and others twirling in circles after leaping through the air. She chuckled shortly as she watched a small boy of about four attempt a jump, only to land on his behind with a thump as his sister looked on laughing.
Christmas music blared out loudly through large speakers set up at various locations, giving many a tempo not only to skate to, but words to sing along with or dance happily to as they watched. Tapping her gloved hand softly on the railing, she continued watching as the ice began clearing and the zamboni appeared, cleaning the ice and preparing it for the next session.
“Here.” She heard Luka say only a few moments later, handing her a cup of hot coffee while holding another cup in his own hands. “It will warm you up.”
“Thank you.” She replied with a smile, sipping the hot liquid and closing her eyes momentarily as the hot liquid dripped down her throat. “I didn’t even notice you left.”
“You were busy watching.” He replied with a shrug of his shoulders. “I decided to let you have your fun.” He continued with a laugh.
“Get some good pictures?” she asked, pushing the loose strands of her dark brown hair behind her ears, growing tired of them blowing in front of her eyes.
He nodded as he sipped from his own cup, holding the camera up with a smile. “I got a great one of me with my new girlfriend.” He joked; looking back toward the vendor he’d gotten the coffee from. “She is about seventy and lives in New Jersey.” He continued with a laugh. “I told her that I had a girlfriend but she insisted that she was better.”
Laughing, Abby began padding lightly from foot too foot as the coldness of the New York night began to reach her bones, chilling her to the core. “You probably broke that woman’s heart.” She replied with a smile.
“No.” he said, shaking his head slowly as he peered behind him for a second. “But she did invite me to have Christmas dinner with her and her seven children and their families.”
Shaking her head as she laughed again, Abby took another sip from her coffee and again turned back to the ice rink that now stood empty. “Let’s go skating.” She suggested as her eyes lit up.
“I don’t know how.” Luka replied, looking down at the rink as a teenage boy ran past them, knocking into Abby. “You go.” He suggested. “I’ll stand up here and watch you.”
“No.” she said, a small whining sound filling her voice. “I don’t want to skate alone.” She continued, now whining like a child. “Come with me.” She begged.
“I don’t know how.” He repeated. “I’ll fall and make a fool of myself.”
“I’ll teach you!” she replied, suddenly sounding like she had just discovered a great new formula or cure for a disease. “Please? I’ll even hold your hand.” She laughed.
Staring at her pleading eyes, watching a look he could never remember seeing; Luka could do nothing but shake his head and reluctantly agree. Those brown eyes were begging him with such persistence; he could only hope to god that he didn’t fall flat on his face in front of thousands of strangers.
Within only a few minutes they were downstairs and Luka was paying for the both of them to skate. Looking down at the black skates they’d given him, he gave Abby a weary look and began to pull the laces looser as he sat next to her on the bench. She was busy pulling her white skates onto her feet, adjusting her thick socks around her ankles. Pulling on the laces, she knotted them securely and pulled her jeans back over the top of them, waiting as Luka continued to fumble with his.
“Need some help?” she asked as he attempted to tie the lace on his right skate, looking back to her helplessly.
“I told you that I don’t know how.” He replied, pulling his gloves back on as she began tying his laces.
“I feel like your mother.” She mumbled, lacing up the second skate and getting to her feet. Pulling her own gloves back on, she grabbed his hands as he got up from the bench and attempted to steady himself on the skates. “You ok?” she asked.
“No.” he replied with a sly smile. “Couldn’t we go and watch the people skate again, or go out to dinner?” he asked, as she helped him over to the doorway that led out to the rink. “I won’t end up with a broken body part if we do that.”
“Come on.” She encouraged him, pulling him out onto the ice where about twenty others were already skating happily. “Luka, just come here and I’ll show you how!” she exclaimed with a laugh as he teetered out onto the ice and took hold of the wall for support. Looking up to the crowd of people staring down at the rink, he felt all eyes were upon him and him clumsiness.
“I’m going to fall on my face.” He said as she skated a few feet away from him with what looked as if great ease.
“No you won’t. Don’t bend your ankles and just focus on keeping your balance. It’s not hard.” She encouraged him as two small girls skated in front of her, chasing after each other. “Put one foot in front of the other.”
“I can’t.” he replied with a laugh.
“Can you walk?” she asked, placing her hands on her hips.
He stood for a moment and without a word just watched her.
“Then you can skate. Now go!” she ordered, waiting for him to begin moving.
He watched her for another moment before giving up and finally deciding to move his feet. Moving his right leg first, he felt the large skate as it began to glide across the ice and the wind continued to blow down from above them. Then he moved his left leg, and slowly but surely made his way to Abby who only shot him a smile of satisfaction as she grabbed his hand.
“I told you.” She said.
Say, ye holy shepherds, say
what your joyful news today;
wherefore have ye left your sheep
on the lonely mountain steep?
The night went on and it grew darker and colder as it continued. Luka began thanking god as the skating session ended and he was finally allowed to leave the ice and remove his skates. His backside was sore and frozen from all of the time he had spent sitting in the ice that time most likely amounted to more than he had spent on his feet. But Abby was laughing and smiling. She was happy and acted as if she were. He was willing to make a fool of himself if she was amused by it.
“Come here.” He called to her, as she pulled her coat shut and grabbed her bag from the storage area she’d left it. Wrapping his arm around her shoulder, they began walking back out onto the streets, feeling the cold wind as it blew fiercely across their faces.
“Thank you.” She said, looking up at him as they waiting on the corner for the signal to allow them to cross.
“Skating even though you can’t.” she giggled, as she again sneezed, quickly turning her head away.
“No, I had fun.” He lied as they began walking amongst the crowd of people heading to the same destination as they were. “Even if I cannot feel my backside.”
Laughing shortly, she pressed her small body closer to him as they gathered amongst the large group of people all pushing and shoving to see in the colorfully decorated windows of Saks.
Saks Fifth Avenue, everybody knew about those windows. Many knew them as the most famously and most popularly decorated windows in all of the world. People came from anywhere and everywhere to catch a glimpse. The windows that brought beauty to the masses with its displays and all knew that. The colorful statues, the delicately painted backgrounds, and the way everything was set perfectly. Through the glass the windows were like another world that children dreamt about on Christmas Eve.
Abby stood watching as Luka again took the camera from her and attempted to shoot pictures, pressing his way through the crowds and up to the windows. Following behind him, she took hold of his jacket making sure she didn’t lose him and somehow they found themselves right near the windows. Peering in through the glass, both adults were soon mesmerized and absolutely enchanted by what they saw.
“Get a picture of that!” a woman called from besides them smacking her husband’s arm in an attempt to get him to take the camera. “Phil!”
“Do you want to take some?” Luka asked, holding the camera out to Abby in the easiest way he could. The crowd was forcefully pushing themselves up against each other, pressing those in front closer and closer together. It took only a few moments before neither Luka nor Abby could even turn his or her heads without pressing theirs against someone else’s.
“No, just take them so we can get out of here.” Abby shouted over the growing noise as the pushing continued.
Finally, they managed to free themselves from the wraths of the crowd, and again set down Fifth Avenue, staring at the sights along the way.
“Are you hungry?” Luka asked, as Abby dropped the camera back into her purse and looked down at her watch.
“A little.” She admitted, craining her next down the street to see whatever was around. “What do you feel like eating?”
“I don’t care. Anyplace that has heat.”
It only took a few more minutes and two more blocks to finally find a restaurant that had a table available. Setting their belongings down, they both sat in silence as they opened their menus and began reading, allowing their bodies to regain the heat they had lost since leaving the hotel hours earlier.
Inside the restaurant, it was dimly lit and smelled of pasta sauce and Christmas tree. Set near the door was a large fake white one, covered in silver tinsel and blue lights. Music filtered quietly through the air in the background, humming familiar Christmas melodies and words. They were seated towards the back, under a paper Santa Claus head taped to the wall.
“Can I interest either of you in a drink before you order?” a waiter suddenly asked, seeming to appear out of nowhere.
“I’ll just have…” Abby mumbled, staring down at the menu. “A diet coke.”
“And for you?” the man asked, his voice thick with an Italian accent.
“I will have the same.” Luka replied, fumbling with the corner of his menu. “Do you know what you want?” he asked, turning his attention back to Abby who too was playing with her menu.
“Yeah, I’ll have the chicken Parmesan. Just, not too much sauce ok?” she asked, looking back up to the waiter who nodded as he wrote the order.
“Not too much sauce.” He mumbled to himself as he finished. “And for you?”
“The spaghetti for me.” Luka replied, handing the waiter the menus.
Nodding as he finished the order, the waiter soon disappeared, leaving Luka and Abby again alone. The restaurant was warm and felt good against their chilled skin. Wiping her nose, Abby sat staring at Luka who was watching the wall, looking directly at the Santa Claus taped above Abby’s head.
“What are you looking at?” she asked, pulling a pack of cigarettes from her bag, and taking the lighter from the front pocket.
“Nothing.” He replied, his eyes still locked on the picture. “When did you stop believing in Santa?” he asked curiously.
Pulling a cigarette from the box, she sat thinking for a moment as she lit it, inhaling the smoke and allowing it to escape into the air. She sat watching it for a moment as it blew from her mouth and slowly dissolved into the air, leaving behind the faint scent of smoke and tar.
“I don’t know.” She replied, reaching for the ashtray. “I think I was nine or ten.”
“Why did you?”
“Why do you care about this?” she asked with a laugh as she again brought the cigarette to her lips.
“I do not know.” He replied with a shrug. “I was just wondering.”
Sitting silent again for another moment, she watched as she flicked the ashes into the ashtray and held the cigarette firmly between two of her fingers before replying with a winded sound.
“I went snooping in Maggie’s bedroom a few days before Christmas.” She replied, holding her arms against her chest. “And I found a stack of presents for me and Eric in her closet. Half of the tags said they were from Santa. No kid actually believes that Santa comes early and leaves presents in a closet. So then I knew he wasn’t real.” She finished blinking quickly. “When did you?”
Now it was his turn to watch her and think of when he no longer believed in the magic that made every child’s Christmas the Christmas it was. The dream that a fat jolly man dressed in a red suit would fly along in the December night with eight or nine reindeer, one with a glowing red nose. The belief that he would visit their house and come down their chimney, leaving piles of presents under the tree and their stockings full of little goodies. A dream that once shattered caused a piece of every person’s childhood to die.
“I was maybe nine too.” He replied, staring as she pulled the cigarette to her mouth again, watching, as with each breath she drew in, the stick would grow shorter.
He hated that she smoked, knowing what it was doing to her body. Filling her lungs with hundreds of thousands of toxic chemicals, slowly turning her lungs a dark shade of black, tar sticking to every crevice. He wished deep down that she would attempt to quit again, only hoping that this time she would find success.
“How’d you find out?” she asked, smashing the butt of the cigarette into the ashtray and sipping from her glass of water.
“I do not really remember.” He replied, shrugging his shoulders and running his hand through his dark hair. “I just remember that me and my brother realized it at the same time.”
“Oh.” Abby replied, nodding slowly as she watched a hostess seat and elderly couple at the table next to theirs. “Marko and Jasna believed in him right?” she asked, hoping deep down that her bringing up his children wouldn’t cause the mood of the conversation or entire evening to turn depressing or sad.
A small smile crept along his face as she mentioned their names and he nodded, reaching for his own water. “Yeah.” He mumbled with a small laugh, playing with his fork. “Jasna used to draw me and Danijela hundreds of pictures of Santa throughout the year.” He continued. “Then she would count the days in December, telling us every night how many days it would be before Santa came to bring her and Marko their gifts.”
Looking as if he were about to continue, Abby waited to hear what he would say; before he was cut off by the elderly woman seated near them.
“Well aren’t you two adorable!” she exclaimed, patting her husband’s hand across the table. “George would you look at those two.” She said, pointing at Luka and Abby who both exchanged an uncomfortable glance.
“They remind me of Jamie and Pat.” He replied, looking up from his menu for a second.
“Oh hush.” She scolded him, leaning over in her chair and extending her hand toward Luka. “I’m Betty Dunnigan. This is my husband George.” She introduced herself, shaking his hand and then Abby’s. “I’m sorry to be a bother, but you two are just adorable.” She continued.
Sending her a friendly smile, Luka laughed lightheartedly as he turned his head toward them and watched, waiting for Abby to speak up.
“I’m Luka.” He introduced himself, clearing his throat. “This is Abby.” He introduced as Abby sent them a friendly smile.
“What kind of accent is that Luka?” she asked interestedly, ignoring her husband who sat quietly, staring down at his menu.
“Croatian.” He replied, looking back toward Abby who only laughed under her breath at the attention being paid to him by the older woman.
“Well, I have never met anyone from Croatia.” She continued as her husband began waving toward the waiter. “Are you two from here? George and I are visiting from Florida, our daughter is due to have a baby any day so we’re staying near her until she does.” She continued, talking as if she’d known the two forever.
“We’re from Chicago.” Abby said, pulling her chair in closer to the table as she began picking at her jeans, tugging on the belt loop.
“Oh Chicago! I’ve always wanted to go there, I never did find the time though. With raising our family and all.” She continued happily, pushing back on her graying hair. “So what are you two doing here in New York?” she asked curiously. “Oh wait! Are you on your honeymoon?” she asked excitedly.
Shaking both their heads, Abby’s eyes grew wide at the excitement the woman was getting from this conversation.
“No, a medical conference actually.” Luka replied, eyeing the waiter that was wandering aimlessly around near the front of the restaurant.
“Oh! You’re a doctor!” she exclaimed. “Did you hear that George, Luka’s a doctor.” She said, attempting to gain her husband’s attention. “What about you Abby, what do you do?”
“I’m a nurse.” She replied, grabbing another cigarette from her pack. Then she saw Luka raise his eyes at her and she sighed, stuffing it back in the box. She knew that look and didn’t feel like dealing with it at that point.
“Well how about that.” She said, unfolding her napkin and placing it in her lap. Looking quickly again at George who was now watching both Luka and Abby, staring up and down at them as if sizing them up, she shook her arm. “A doctor and a nurse. I’ll bet you two come in handy.”
The conversation continued over the next few minutes, mainly consisting of Betty asking the questions and Luka and Abby providing the answers. George continued to sit at the table, barely tossing a word around even when directly asked. He seemed more embarrassed than annoyed by his wife’s outgoing nature. She sat talking as if there were no tomorrow, interested in every detail she could manage to get Luka or Abby to reveal.
“Who had the chicken?” a female waitress asked, arriving back at the table with a tray of food.
Placing the plate in front of Abby, she set down a basket full of bread, and Luka’s pasta before turning to the table next to them, waiting for Betty and George to place their orders. Staring down into her plate of food, Abby took a deep breath and began picking at the chicken, pulling the cheese in circles with her fork.
“Are you ok?” Luka asked, eyeing her as she played with the plate of food.
Nodding her head, she turned up to him and grabbed her knife, fumbling with it slightly. “Yeah.”
“Oh I know!” Betty called from the table as the waitress left, grabbing for her purse. The sudden shout caused Abby to toss Luka an eyeballing look, as she grew even more uncomfortable with the entire dinner situation. It wasn’t as if she were opposed to talking with others, it was just she’d expected to spend the evening talking to Luka. That had been the reason she’d agreed to accompany him to New York when Kerry had asked him to attend the conference.
“Will you leave the two of them alone.” Her husband hissed, growing tired of his wife. “They came here to have a quiet dinner together, not to have you bother them all night.”
That comment only made Luka and Abby more uncomfortable. Squirming uneasily in her chair, Abby turned to Betty and gave her a small smile. Reaching for her glass of soda, she pulled it to her lips and swallowed the cold liquid, watching as the old woman pulled an envelope from her bag and held it out to Abby.
“Here you go.” She offered them, shaking the envelope at Abby, who took it from her. “George and I ordered these tickets months ago when we knew we’d be coming to New York. But we only found out this morning that we’ll have to cancel our plans because we need to watch our daughters two year old for them while they check into the hospital. They needed a scheduled c-section.” She continued. “There are two tickets to the Radio City Christmas Show, you two go and see it.” She finished with a satisfied smile.
“No, we can’t take these.” Abby protested as Luka too shook his head, wiping his mouth that was full of food.
“No, you two take those and have fun.” She assured them. “They would just go to waste if I kept them.”
“Then let me pay you for them.” Luka replied as he swallowed the last of his mouth’s contents, and dug into his pocket for his wallet.
“Nonsense.” Betty replied, shaking her head in refusal of the money. “Think of them as…. As a Christmas gift.” She said with a smile. “You two have fun.”
Holding the envelope in her hands Abby sent Luka a quick look before smiling gratefully back at George and Betty. “Thank you.” She replied, offering them a larger smile. “You really don’t have to give these to us.”
“Yes I do.” Betty replied, sipping from her glass. “You two are the cutest couple I have seen for a long time and you are both so polite. I know I talk to much and stick my nose where I shouldn’t, but you actually allowed me to.” She laughed as George shook his head, agreeing with her own comments about herself. “But both of you make sure you have fun.”
'As we watched at dead of night,
lo, we saw a wondrous light;
angels singing 'Peace on earth'
told us of the Saviour's birth'.
The church bells rang loudly as the cluck struck the top of the hour, and the hushed crowd in the rows and rows of pews grew absolutely silent as the loud music seeping from an organ began filtering throughout the room, ringing loudly in everyone’s ears. The beat was steady and the organ hit dark, blooming notes as the song continued, and soon the precession began walking up the center aisle, all looking straight ahead and dressed in their holiday best.
The crowds of people were seated shoulder to shoulder, with little room to move their bodies at all in the pews. Each pew was filled to capacity, and many stood along aisles and in the back, standing on tiptoe to see over each other’s heads. The air inside was warm, and a faint smell of inscents filled the entire church, which was colorfully decorated with poinsettia plants and Christmas wreaths. Sitting up front on the large alter was an oversized advent wreath, all four candles lit and glowing brightly in the light.
“Oh Holy Night…. The stars are brightly shining…” the entire congregation sang loudly as the priest and the rest of the precession approached the alter, bowing before it.
“Let us pray.” The priest spoke loudly as he approached his seat on the alter, standing before the crowd. “Tonight is the night that we have gathered to celebrate the birth of our lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”
The fumbling pages of thousands of missals rustled in the crowd as many began searching for the pages full of readings and prayers to be used that night, hoping to follow along. Those without missals stood in their spots, watching the books rustle and listening to the priest as he began a short speech, ending with a prayer.
“What page?” Luka whispered to Abby, from his seat at the end of a pew toward the middle of the huge church.
“Seventy three.” She whispered back, pointing to the small number in the corner of her own book.
“And Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem on that fateful night, only to find there was nowhere to stay, except a small stable on the end of the village..” one of the reader’s voices boomed from behind a large podium, staring down at the book he was obviously reading from.
“Mommy, how much longer?” a small girl whined loudly from behind them, tugging on her mother’s jacket. “I’m bored.”
“Olivia, we just got here.” He mother shushed back, pointing to a spot in a book. “We’re there.”
“But I wanna go home.” She continued whining.
“Olivia..” her mother warned as her voice began growing angrier.
Up front, the speaker stepped down from his place and music began playing softly as everyone rose again to his or her feet, holding a songbook in his or her hands. Looking over at Abby, Luka reached for his own book and opened the cover, looking down to her black shoes that she was slowly tracing circles with over the tiled floor.
“Are you bored?” he whispered so softly, it seemed almost inaudible along with the music that was now playing louder.
“I can’t remember the last time I went to church.” She whispered back, between her soft notes as she sang along.
“Didn’t you go last year?” he asked, pressing his left hand against his pants, and guiding them along a crease he’d gotten from sitting.
“No.” she whispered again, shaking her head softly. “The last time I was at church was probably..” she continued as her voice drifted off.
“When?” he asked again, noting how her answer had dribbled into nothing.
“Will you two be quiet!” an elderly man hushed from in front of them, turning with an angry look on his face.
Sorry’s were replied by both Abby and Luka as he again turned and the mass continued. Before long a collection was being taken and dozens of candles were being lit all around them. As the baskets passed, looking for bills or coins worth something to be dropped into them, Luka again turned to Abby who had grown quiet since they short discussion about church.
“Mommy.” The small girl behind them shouted again, sounding tired and angry. “This is boring!”
“Santa will not come tonight if you don’t behave. Don’t think it’s too late for me and daddy to call him and tell him to skip our house.” Her mother shot back, pulling the smaller boy that sat next to her into her lap.
Listening to the conversation between the two, Luka chuckled under his breath, picturing Danijela and Jasna before him. He could hear Jasna’s constant pestering about Santa Claus and wanting him to get there. He could hear Danijela’s voice yelling at Jasna to pick up her toys and be nice to her brother. Telling her that if she didn’t, Santa would skip their apartment.
Christmas was the time of year that he missed them the most of all. He missed Danijela’s laugh, as she would watch Jasna tear the wrapping paper off of her small gifts, dropping it besides her on the dark carpet. He missed the smile’s he would get from Jasna, and the kisses once she’d opened her gifts and found a doll she’d wanted, or book she had read at school. He missed Marko’s drooling as he would chew on the wrapping paper, and his shrieks or short words as he would play happily with the empty boxes once the gifts had been torn from them.
Abby watched Luka laugh as the girl behind them continued to whine. Watching the wrinkles in his forehead grow profound as he laughed, and the small dimples on his right cheek grow deeper as he did. She knew what he was thinking about, it was too obvious for him to be thinking of anything but that.
His memories made her wonder, especially on that night. For the past three Christmases she had wondered about the same thing, continuously thinking to herself if she had made the right choice. Thinking of what it would possibly be like if she hadn’t made the decision she had, wondering if she would be happy.
No, she had made the right decision; at least she felt she had. She couldn’t have cared for that child, especially with Richard. She couldn’t have faced the facts if it had been sick, that she would have been the cause of its illness. She’d grown up in a dysfunctional family where mother’s cried and children were left on their own most of the time. Where fathers were never there, and abandoned their children without leaving a phone number or new address behind. A family where you were guaranteed unhappiness. She couldn’t have brought another child into a life like that, knowing she could possibly be the dysfunctional mother forcing a life of torture on her child.
“Here us oh Lord.” The priest called, breaking both Luka and Abby from their daydreams as he held a large chalice out in front of him, offering it to the heavens above.
His words continued as communion was set up, and pews began emptying and a long line began down many aisles, full of silent people, many with their heads hung, some in deep prayer. After an eternity, Luka got to his feet and stood behind Abby, following her out to the aisle, remaining close to her body.
The host tasted as he always remembered, it reminded him of cardboard. He had hated it since he had first tasted it years ago as a small boy; it was something he knew he would never learn to like. In front of him, Abby felt the small circle as it stuck to the roof of her mouth, tasting as a putrid bowel of oatmeal would. Playing with it with her tongue, she found it impossible to remove from the roof of her mouth and only closed her eyes as she followed the line back to her seat.
“Abby, are you alright?” Luka whispered, noticing her face before receiving the communion, as she was lost in her own thought.
“What?” she asked, getting to her knees. “I’m fine.”
“You looked upset.” He replied, as the man in front of them again turned around.
“Will you two shut up!” he hissed angrily, catching the attention of another man who sat nearby.
“Sorry.” Abby mouthed, lowering her head. “Luka, I’m fine. I promise.”
Sacred infant, all divine,
what a mighty love was thine,
thus to come from highest bliss
down to such a world as this!
“I am exhausted.” He sighed.
Shutting the large white door behind them as they entered the hotel room, Luka sat down on the large bed, and allowed his body to fall the side, watching Abby who walked over to the dresser that was set beneath the mirror. He watched as she peeled her coat from her body and hung it neatly in the closet area, dumping her purse along with it. The way she walked, the way her arms swung and her hair hung as she moved, he took note of it all.
Outside the air temperature had dipped to below freezing, and the wind chill made it seem even colder. Snow had begun to fall lightly from the sky during the mass, and was falling at a slightly steadier pace now. The flakes seemed to glisten as they blew past the large streetlights, and Christmas lights that decorated the city. The hour was late, and many of the streets were beginning to empty as everyone returned home to their friends and families for the holiday. The usual noise from the streets outside of the hotel and Madison Square Garden was missing, replaced instead with a slight hum of the remaining people and cars that passed by.
The hotel lobby had been deserted, aside from the two receptionists that sat behind the large counter, whispering quietly amongst themselves. The large Christmas tree that was positioned in the center was lit brightly with white lights, and held under it dozens of colorfully wrapped, empty boxes placed there for show. Everything seemed silent around them, creating an eerie yet peaceful feeling at the same time.
Luka swallowed as he lay on the bed, watching Abby as she pulled her hair from the clip that had been holding it behind her head all night. The way it fell to her shoulders and brushed them lightly, framing her face. Deep inside of him he could feel his heart aching to touch her, though he had only been holding her hand minutes earlier. He didn’t know what it was, if it was because it was Christmas Eve, or just being with her continuously over the past few days that was causing this overwhelming feeling to build within him.
“You ok?” Abby asked, turning so she was now facing him. Walking toward the bed, he could feel the mattress press down as she sat upon it, leaning in toward him as she lifted her legs onto the bed.
“Yeah.” He replied with a smile as she drew closer, pressing her hand deep into the pillow that sat next to his head.
“You look upset.” She said, pushing her now dangling hair behind her ears as it fell over her eyes.
“No, I’m just thinking.” He replied with a devilish grin.
“You.” He whispered, pulling his head up from its position on the pillow. Touching her hair with his own hands for a second, he sat staring at her for a minute before drawing his head closer to hers, pressing his lips against hers.
“Me?” she asked with a laugh under her breath as he nodded, leaning in to kiss her again.
Slowly, he allowed his tongue to explore her mouth. Fumbling with hers, he closed his eyes and probed her mouth deeper, listening as she allowed a small sigh to escape her body as he did. Pulling back, he ran his hand slowly down the side of her face, tracing the bone structure and each curve, tickling her gently.
“Oh holy night, the stars are brightly shining.”
After awhile, the lights in the room were dimmed and the wind could be heard howling loudly in the nighttime. It created the sound of a foghorn as it blew against the window, sounding louder and louder. Pressing her head against his shoulder, Abby let out a soft breath and she stared into the darkness, holding her right hand on Luka’s chest as he fiddled with her fingers. They both lay still, neither wanting to move from the positions they found themselves in.
Luka held his arm around Abby’s body, pulling him closer to his naked chest and allowed the warmth of her skin to warm his body. Her hair tickled his chest as it brushed across it, falling beneath her own head as she lifted it for a moment, before setting it back down as her eyes closed. He listened to the sound of her breathing as her chest moved up and down, and got to thinking, hard enough it seemed he would get a headache.
It had been eight months since he and Abby had decided to give their relationship another try, eight months since they’d started again from scratch. This time they’d taken it slow, maybe slower than had been needed. But there had been a difference this time, this time they talked to each other about everything, they didn’t run to others when they had problems or were depressed.
Shivering as Luka ran his hand through her hair and over her scalp, Abby turned her head and looked at the clock that sat on the nearby night table. The red color of the light was irritating to her eyes, already heavy and burning from being exhausted. Pulling the blanket back up over them, pulling high over each of their bodies, she noted the time and allowed it to click in her mind.
Twelve twenty three, it was Christmas. And she was happy.
It had been years since she could remember being truly happy at Christmas. Most years she was lonely, or depressed. She would work on the holiday and allow those who had family to be with a day off. The lights would make her sad, the trees would depress her even more. The gifts just pained her even further, only remembering her how alone she was. Richard had been gone, and then Luka went to Croatia. Then there’d been no one to spend the holiday with. Now she had Luka, lying right next to her.
“Luka?” she called softly, running her own hand over a portion of his chest.
“Yeah?” he replied sleepily, his eyes holding steady on the ceiling.
“Merry Christmas.” She whispered, turning to watch him.
“Merry Christmas Abby.”
Hail, thou ever blessed morn;
hail, redemption's happy dawn;
sing through all Jerusalem.