Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Christmas Angel

Length: 16456 words               Read time: 1.5 hours

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Part 1

            “Lights! Camera! Action!” Jeffery Byron thought. “Or whatever they say in theater.”
            It was the first full rehearsal of his church’s Christmas play and he waited with baited breath, hoping that it would go well. The actors seemed to be getting their lines in previous practices and the crew had just finished with the props for the sets. The sound and light guys were the only variables in this equation that might ruin things. Or so he thought.
            The first minute and a half went well. The first two actors stepped out onto the stage and acted like they were window shopping and they moved towards each other. In the middle of the stage they bumped into each other, acting startled as if they had not seen the other person. Everything was going exactly according to the script. A third character stepped out of a store and entered the play’s action. The actors were living up to expectations Jeffrey acknowledged with a smile. Even the light and sound guys were doing well for the first rehearsal. He leaned back in the pew and crossed his arms in satisfaction. This was going to be easier than he had thought it would be.
            Suddenly, as often happens in life when things are going according to plan, the bottom fell out of everything. It started out innocently enough with one of the actors missing a cue. Jeffery leaned forward in concern. The crew member gave the cue again and this time the kid got it and stepped onto the stage; crisis averted. Thirty seconds later, one of the actors skipped a line, then a whole block of them. The rest of the actors were flustered now and didn’t know what to do. The sound and light guys were all over the place now, trying to keep up with the act with a quickly changing dynamic.
            The adding mistakes in the play confused and flustered the play’s lead, making him take a wrong step and trip over a cord that should have been taped down. He stumbled into a girl who fell over and crashed into one of the store fronts. Jeffrey couldn’t do anything but watch in horror as his well ordered play descended into chaos.
            “Halt, stop, cut!” he called when he finally found his voice. The command was useless; the cast had already stopped. The crew was now out on the stage, fixing props and pulling the actors up from where they had fallen. One of them was taping down the offending cord so that the accident wouldn’t happen again. The actors shook themselves off and gathered in a corner, trying to figure out what had gone wrong.
            In the pews, Jeffery found himself standing, not sure when he had risen to his feet. Surveying the mess, he slowly sat back down. It was just a freak accident, he told himself. It was nothing to worry about. This next try would be better.
            A few minutes later the stage was ready and the play started again. It wasn’t better than the first time; if anything, it was worse.

******

            Jeffery Byron, Jeff to his friends, was 20 years old. He was currently attending a college several hours away from home, but was back in town for the Christmas holiday. He had no academic affiliation with theater, but it had always been a hobby of his. The church had been looking for someone to head up the play, and he had been more than happy to take on the project. It had promised to be a relatively easy task as it wasn’t an incredibly serious production, but Jeff always took things to the next level. Under his leadership, what was originally going to be a standard church production turned into something much larger.
            Jeff locked the church door and started the short walk home. Immediately, he began to think about what had to be done about the play and the six days that he had to do it in. He was beginning to regret taking on this play, but more than that he regretted making it as large of a production as he had. Now he had to do a spectacular job with it or it would reflect poorly on him. Of course, a good play was not something that he had full control over. He could only do so much; after that, it was up to his cast and crew. He would schedule more rehearsals to try to get them ready for the actual thing. There wasn’t much he could do other than that.
            He rounded a corner and the house came into view. The large house was built in the middle of an even larger yard surrounded by a white picket fence. As he approached the gate, the dog bounded out to meet him, barking a greeting. Jeff carefully opened the gate just enough to squeeze through and enter the yard.
            “Hey boy,” he said to the black mutt that now ran circles around him. The dog was less than a year old which accounted for its bottomless supply of energy. It stopped in front of Jeff and dropped a soggy tennis ball at his feet.
            “That’s really gross, Bob,” Jeff said as he gingerly picked up the slobbery mess and gave it a throw. The dog was off like a shot after the projectile. Jeff jogged to the front door and stepped inside. The warmth hit him suddenly and he suddenly realized how cold it was outside and that he had forgotten his coat at the church. Not that it mattered; if the cast of his play didn’t shape up soon, he would be there a lot over the next several days.
            “I’m home,” he called as he wiped his shoes on a rug.
            “And I should care why?” his brother, Seth, asked as he entered the foyer. He gave his older brother a hard time as much as possible.
            “I was only talking to important people,” Jeff answered with a grin. “I figured one of them might care.”
            “So now I’m not important?” Seth asked, smiling as well.
            Now implies that you ever were,” Jeff shot back. “We wouldn’t want to give people the wrong impression, would we?”
            He followed his nose down the hall and into the kitchen where he found his mother. He hugged her before starting to snoop around the room.
            “What’s for dinner?” he asked.
            “It’s a surprise,” she answered evasively.
            “That means she doesn’t know,” Seth explained. “Dad was the one that made the meal; she’s here doing something else.”
            “Dinner smells good, dad,” Jeff called.
            “Well thank you,” he father said as he stepped into the kitchen. He was adorned with a red and pink apron and a pair of oven mitts. “How did play practice go?”
            “Not well,” Jeff answered as his father pulled the food out of the oven. “Everything that could have possible gone wrong did.”
            “Murphy’s law,” Seth said.
            “Basically, yes,” Jeff agreed. “We’ll be having lots of practices over the next couple days, so I won’t be home very much.”
            “Good, more room for me,” Seth said.
            “That’s true; all that I am is a waste of space,” Jeff agreed with a laugh. “You’re welcome to come tomorrow if you want.”
            “Come to play practice?” Seth asked. “That sounds about as much fun as a hole in the head.”
            “There were people falling all over the stage today,” Jeff said. “It’s been eventful. Oh, and Emma Lawrence is one of the actresses.”
            “Well, if there’s people falling down, I might be able to make it,” Seth said. “I’ll check my schedule.”
            “Sure, that’s why you’re coming,” Jeff agreed sarcastically. “We all really believe that.”
            “Speaking of girls, how is Melisa?” Jeff’s father asked. “We haven’t seen her in a while.”
            “I’d rather not talk about that,” Jeff said and quickly left the room.

******

            Melisa Hornbuckle and Jeffery Byron had been dating ever since 9th grade. Four years in high school and two in college and the couple had managed to make it work. Everyone that knew them thought that they were perfect together and they would eventually get married. So when Jeff said that he didn’t want to talk about Melisa and left the house, the Byron family didn’t move for a long moment. The back door opened and Seth and Jeff’s sister Natalie stepped into the kitchen.
            “Hey Nat, have you talked to Jeff recently?” Seth asked slowly.
            “No, why?” Natalie asked. For the first time since entering the house she looked at her family and a worried look crossed her face. “What’s wrong?”
            “We don’t really know,” Mr. Byron said. “He was just here. He seemed fine until I asked him about Melisa. Then he said he didn’t want to talk about it and left.”
            “Is that all?” Melisa said and took off her scarf. “They probably just had a spat or something. I'm sure it’s nothing to worry about.”
            “I don’t know about that,” Mrs. Byron said. “I think we would have heard about it if they were having a fight.”
            “Hear about it from whom?” Seth asked. “It’s not like Melisa is going to tell us and I think what we saw was Jeff’s way of telling us.”
            “Hopefully you’re right,” Mrs. Byron said. “I would hate to see something happen to them.”
            “The kids are right,” Mr. Byron agreed. “Mel and Jeff just had a fight and they’re still working it out. The best thing that we can do is give them some space. Well, dinner’s ready and there’s no sense in going hungry. Let’s eat.”
            Seth wanted to share the confidence of his father that nothing was seriously wrong, but as he thought about it over dinner, the more he couldn’t convince himself. He and Jeff might be several year apart in age, but they didn’t hide things from each other. Jeff and Melisa had had fights in the past, and Jeff had always told Seth about them. This time something was different and it made him uneasy. He glanced at his sister across the dining room table and saw worry on her face. Either she had something on her mind that he didn’t know about or she wasn’t nearly as confident about Jeff and Mel as she had sounded earlier. Did she know something that she wasn’t saying? He’d ask her later when mom and dad weren’t around.

******

            Jeff shut the door behind him as he left the house and stepped out into the cold. The temperature had dropped, and the wind had picked up. It looked like it might snow; that would be just his luck. He wished that he hadn’t left his coat at the church and folded his arms tight against his chest to conserve heat. He started walking towards the large tree in the back corner of the yard, the tree that still had his old tree house in it. Bob bounded up to him again with his ball, but almost immediately sensed his master’s mood. The dog stopped running and followed at Jeff’s heels.
            When he reached the tree, Jeff climbed the short ladder and stuck his head up into the small room above it, a room that had clearly shrunk with time. He used to be able to fit in the house with plenty of room to spare, but now he wasn’t certain that he would even be able to fit through the entrance. With a sigh, he dropped to the ground and sat with his back against the tree. Bob lay down next to him and rested his head on his knees.
            Jeff absentmindedly stroked the dog’s fur and looked up at the wooden structure above him. This was where he had always come to think when he was younger. Sitting on the ground underneath it would have to be good enough this time. The dog was certainly helping and he wouldn’t have been able to get up into the tree house. That was a bonus that he had not had the benefit of in the past. Bob whined and looked up at Jeff, but he was already lost in thought, trying to figure out what had happened.
            He and Mel had fought in the past, but not like this. In all honesty, he wasn’t even certain what it was about, only that she was very mad at him. But it wasn’t anger, was it? When he had last talked to her, she had a hurt expression. Or maybe it was just sad. Probably hurt given the way they had argued. The worst part was that he had no idea what it was that he had done to warrant this. He hadn’t cheated on her, he’d be an idiot to do so, nor had he ignored her or done anything else. So what was it that could have caused her reaction?
            Snow started to fall and gather on his head and arms. Once again he was reminded of his utter lack of warm clothing and started to pace back and forth to keep warm. Bob stayed on the ground but followed Jeff with his eyes. This went on for a long time.
            Jeff was so lost in thought that he was covered in a light dusting of snow before he came to himself. The cold had numbed his limbs and extremities, and he knew that he would have to go inside or suffer hypothermia or frostbite. He looked to where Bob had been laying but the dog was too smart to still be there. No doubt he was in his doghouse where it was warm. Jeff turned and headed toward the house.


Part 2

Monday, December 17
            Jeff woke early the next morning to avoid the rest of his family. After the short altercation with them last night, he didn't really feel like confronting them until later. He stopped by the kitchen and grabbed some of the leftovers from dinner last night, then headed outside and toward the church. He felt better than last night, but probably only because he wasn't living in a minor state of hypothermia. His problems with Melissa kept crowding his mind. He just needed to get to the church and get busy with something to occupy his mind.
            Quickly he jogged down the street, the cold already seeping into his bones through his thin shirt. The temperature had dropped significantly with the snow fall and the wind was biting right now. A thin layer of snow dusted the sidewalks making them feel gritty beneath his feet. Luckily there was still no ice on the roads, so he was able to run without slipping. It took him less than five minutes to reach the church, but he was already freezing by then. He used his numb fingers to fumble the key into the lock and open the door. It was cold inside the building, but compared to the frigid outdoors, it seemed like paradise.
            After spending a few minutes basking in the relative warmth of the church, he found the thermostat and turned up the heat. There were still a few hours before he had to start getting ready for the rehearsal which meant that he would have to come up with things to do. He certainly wasn't going to allow his mind to wander as it had last night. He had been down that road many times and knew exactly where it ended. He decided to check the sound and video equipment first to make sure that there was nothing wrong with it. He headed back to the tech booth entrance located in the front of the church just off the foyer. One of his keys unlocked a door to a staircase. Taking the steps at an even pace, he trudged to the top and stepped into the sound and video booth. Stepping up to the sound boards, he looked through the booth's window at the stage. Everything looked different from this vantage point as oppose to his seat on second row. Everything was smaller and harder to see, and the aerial view provided him with a new perspective of the stage as a whole. He'd have to decide if he could use this to his advantage.
            Jeff powered on the sound and video equipment and quickly checked it over to make sure that everything appeared to be working. Not that he would have been able to tell if something was out of place, especially with the sound equipment. At least he had a cursory knowledge of the video cameras and the lights, but when he looked at the sound boards, all that he saw were a lot of red and green lights. He moved to the camera controls and began to mess around with them. There appeared to be nothing wrong there, so he moved on to the lights.
            After making sure that everything in the tech booth was working, Jeff descended the stairs and stepped into the foyer. He glanced at his watch, noting with a sigh that he had only burned a half hour. It was going to be a while before anyone else showed up, but he had to find things to occupy himself with until that happened. There was absolutely no way that he was going to allow his mind to wander. He'd done that before and knew exactly where he would end up.

******

            It was finally time to start the play practice. Not everyone was present yet, but Jeff had waited long enough. The sound and light techs were ready as well as the play's crew; only a few of the minor cast members had yet to show up. Jeff checked his watch one more time. There was actually two more minutes before rehearsal officially started, and he figured that he could wait that long. The church doors crashed open thirty seconds later and the three wayward cast members entered. Jeff allowed a small smile; things were going according to plan today. Everyone was present on time and they could begin the rehearsal as planned. Hopefully things would go better than yesterday.
            "Lights! Camera! Action!" he said to himself as the play began.
            The two first characters stepped onto the stage and began to "window shop" as they backed towards each other. The bumped into each other, acting surprised as if they hadn't expected the contact. The play proceeded without a hitch. Though the actors needed some more practice working together and though a few of the lines were forgotten, on the whole the first act was much better than that of the previous day. Most importantly, that infernal electrical cord that had caused the huge pileup the previous day was taped securely and didn't cause a problem.
            The second act of the play also went well. The light and sound techs were on top of things, activating and turning off equipment on cue and following the proper characters with the lights. If possible, this act was better than the first. There was only a couple of forgotten lines and a small amount of microphone feedback, but that was too be expected. He knew the people in the sound booth, that they would have that worked out before Sunday.
            The rest of the rehearsal went as smoothly as the first two acts until just before the end. The story was coming to a predictable but seasonal conclusion when suddenly the lights began to flicker. Jeff looked back to the tech booth and saw the head lighting tech giving his shoulders as exaggerated shrug. Whatever the problem was, he wasn't controlling it. The lights returned to normal, and Jeff looked back at his cast. They were flustered for sure, and everyone was looking around at the light fixtures as though examining them would make clear the cause of the malfunction. Jeff looked back to the tech booth and again the lighting expert shrugged. The problem was unexplained, but hopefully it would not reappear.
            "Continue from the last line," Jeff ordered the cast. He gave them the preceding line, and the play started again without a hitch. One thing was for certain, these people were good actors and not easily flustered. That would be important should the light problems show up again at the actual production. Jeff prayed that it they would not, but in these cases, one could never know.
            The actors were only a handful of line back into the play when the sound equipment began to malfunction. Feedback flooded the speakers causing Jeff and his cast and crew to cover their ears to keep out the awful sound. He turned to glare up at the tech booth but only saw the sound men trying frantically to eliminate the screeching emanating from their equipment. As suddenly as it had started, the screeching stopped, and Jeff slowly uncovered his ears. One of the actors said something but he couldn't hear it; nothing was coming through the microphones now. The play's lead began to tap on his microphone and speak into it. Still nothing was coming out.
            A loud tapping and a voice saying "One, two, testing" abruptly blared out of the speakers. The sound level was quickly normalized, and Jeff turned back to the stage again. Once again he gave the last line as a reference, and once again the cast picked up exactly where they had left off. They were still doing a good job with the rehearsal despite the recent issues, and for that Jeff was thankful. The actors were able to finish the play without anymore interruptions and Jeff was impressed. He had picked the right talent for the parts, that much was certain. The last line echoed across the empty sanctuary and Jeff clapped briefly to show his approval.
            With what appeared to be a collective sigh of relief, the whole cast began to talk among themselves. There was a lot of joking Jeff surmised from the expressions on their faces. They were definitely happy with their job and so was he. Perhaps this wouldn't turn out to be as much of a task as he had figured it would. Then, just when everything was going well, the lights gave a brief flare, and the church's electricity cut out completely.

******

            Jeff was not in a good mood when he headed home that night. This time he was in possession of his coat, but the extra warmth did little to improve his mood. Following the blackout in the church, he had investigated what had gone wrong. A trip to the fuse box revealed nothing to his untrained eyes, so he had dismissed the cast and crew and called the church custodian. The older man had arrived a half hour later and looked over everything, but he was unable to make heads or tails of the event and had called the electric company. According to their representative, there was indeed something wrong with the power grid around the church and they were working to fix it though they couldn't guarantee that anything would be operational before the next day.
            With the electrical crisis taken care of, Jeff used a flashlight to finish putting away the play props and lock up the church. By the time he left, it was already evening, and the sky was almost dark. In an effort to match the state of his production, it seemed, the sky had dumped a full inch of snow on the ground. That would probably further complicate the electrical issue. That was just his luck, Jeff decided. Apparently the whole universe was conspiring against him to make sure this play didn't happen.
            Needless to say, Jeff was in a foul mood when he opened the gate to his yard ten minutes later. Bob bounded up to him, barking an energetic hello, but Jeff ignored him. The last thing that he wanted right now was someone happy to remind him that the emotion still existed. All he wanted was a chance to feel sorry for himself and wallow in his misfortune. Not only this fiasco but also the fight with Melissa that he still didn't understand... He had promised himself that he wouldn't think about that particularly painful situation, and he was bound and determined to keep that promise.
            Jeff knocked the snow off of his shoes before opening the front door and stepping inside. The heat was working overtime to warm the cold house, and he thanked God that the electrical outage hadn't affected the grid that their house was on. That would have been the last straw. As it was, things could be worse. In a practiced movement, he stripped off his coat and hung it on the coat closet near the door. He kicked his shoes off and placed them in the closet also. After securing the closet door, he headed down the hall to the kitchen. He could smell the food cooking there, and his stomach rumbled, reminding him that he hadn't eaten since breakfast.
            "Hey Jeff, how's it hanging?" Seth called from the living room as his older brother walked past the doorway.
            "Could be worse," Jeff answered. "Just going to see what's for dinner."
            Jeff continued to the kitchen and entered to find his mother there. He hugged and kissed her before snooping around the room to see if there was anything with which he could satiate his hunger until meal time. Dinner was ready just a few short minutes after his return to the house, and the family sat down at the table to eat.
            "So Jeff, how was your day?" Mr. Byron asked as he took salad from a bowl. Jeff finished chewing the food in his mouth before answering.
            "Not good," he answered. "Our play practice was going well until all of the electronics began to go haywire. Then the church's electricity cut out leaving us totally in the dark. The bright side is that until the electrical problem, the actors were doing a very good job. If the electric company can get the power fixed before Sunday, I think that play should go fairly well."
            "The electricity is out at the church?" Natalie asked. "Any idea what the problem is?"
            "That whole section of the town is without power, so it must be something pretty large," Jeff answered. "I imagine that it is related to this weather that we're getting, but I don't know for certain."
            "Well, hopefully they'll get it fixed before very long," Mrs. Byron said.
            The rest of the meal was rather uneventful. There was the usual talk about the day's events and other topics that didn't interest Jeff. If he had been less tired, he might have noticed that everyone was walking on egg shells around him, making sure not to mention Melissa. As it was, he didn't notice anything except for the food in front of him. When he was finished, he headed up to his bedroom.
            "They must still be fighting," Natalie said as soon as she heard Jeff reach the top of the stairs. "He didn't mention Mel a single time."
            "And what with the problems that he's having with his play, he must be under a lot of stress," Seth observed. "I wish there was something that we could do to help him."
            "Just stay out his way," Mr. Byron advised. "We can't do anything about the church's power or the play, and the fight with Mel is something that he'll just have to work through by himself."
            "I know that, dad," Natalie said, "but surely there's something that we can do."
            "Keep your eyes and ears open," Mr. Byron advised. "You'll find things to do if you're really that worried about your brother."
            "And we can pray for him right now," Mrs. Byron added. "It sounds to me like he could use some help from God right about now."
            In silent agreement, the Byron family held hands around the table and bowed their heads to pray for Jeff.

******

            Jeff opened the door of his room and stepped through into the blackness beyond. With the door shut behind him, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness and proceeded to prepare for bed. He hadn't realized how tired he was until just now. All that he wanted to was fall into bed and go to sleep, but something stopped him from doing that just yet. He stepped to the window and looked out over the yard. The church steeple rose above the buildings surrounding it, and suddenly Jeff was overcome with the need to pray. Quickly he sent a prayer up for his situations, both of them, before returning to his bed and collapsing into it. He was asleep in less than a minute. Had he stayed awake just a bit longer, he might have seen the two shooting stars streak across the sky and disappear behind the church steeple.


Part 3

Tuesday, December 18

            It was almost ten o'clock before Jeff woke up. In the wake of the power outage, he had postponed practice for today until the afternoon to give the power company time to fix the problem. It might have just been his slightly pessimistic mood carrying over from the previous day, but he didn't have a lot of confidence that they would get the job done in time for practice. Nevertheless, he would be there well ahead of time to get everything ready if the electricity was fixed and to cancel if it was not. He owed that to his cast and crew. But practice wasn't until two o'clock; he could lay in bed for another hour or so, but he wasn't tired anymore and probably wouldn't be able to sleep. Not to mention that his sleep last night had been filled with nightmares that he didn't even want to think about revisiting.
            With a sigh he slid out of bead and headed for the bathroom. He could hear the rest of his family already moving around downstairs as he began to rummage around the cabinets and drawers for his toothbrush and toothpaste. One look in the mirror told him that it was time to shave, so after he was finished with his teeth, he attacked the stubble on his face with a razor. Next it was time for a shower which he realized that he had forgotten yesterday. Oh well, better late than never.
            After drying off and putting on new clothes, Jeff felt much better and headed down for breakfast. He met Seth in the kitchen, washing the morning dishes.
            "What's up, Seth?" he asked as he raided the fridge for anything that looked edible.
            "Um, washing dishes," Seth answered. He had always been a sarcastic one.
            "Yeah, I see that," Jeff responded. "What about after that? Do you have any plans for today?"
            "Not at the moment," Seth answered, then added warily, "Why do you ask?"
            "Well, with the power issue at the church we had to push play practice back to this afternoon, so I'm free now," Jeff said. "Want to play basketball or something?"
            "I'm not sure basketball is the best option considering that it's like 2 degrees outside. Literally."
            "Or something then," Jeff said. "What's the next best option to b-ball?"
            "Let's go with anything that doesn't involve going outside," Seth answered.
            "I guess streaking across town is out," Jeff said with a grin. "That's too bad; I was kind of looking forward to that..."
            "You are such an idiot," Seth said with a smile. It was good to finally see his brother making jokes again. "I think mom and Nat are around. You could ask them if they wanted to play cards."
            "I'll do that," Jeff said. He motioned to the dishes. "How much longer is that going to take?"
            "Five minutes tops," Seth answered.
            "Cool. I'll get mom and Nat."
            Jeff rounded up his mother and sister and corralled them into the den. Even with just the two of them, it was a bit like herding cats to get them to the same place at the same time. He had just succeeded in doing so and acquiring a deck of cards when Seth entered, wiping his hands on his shirt. There was nothing like the good ole' shirt to serve as a hand towel, on that the two brothers agreed.
            "So, girls against guys?" Seth asked.
            "That's not fair," Natalie complained. "You know that you and Jeff will butcher me and mom."
            "Exactly! That's why I suggested it."
            "How about me and Jeff against you and mom," Natalie suggested.
            "Well, it won't be as fun but it'll probably be a bit more fair," Jeff agreed. "Who's dealing first?"
            In no time, the cards were dealt and the family was playing.
            "So mom, I kind of expected you to be at work," Jeff said.
            "Well, things have been fast-paced all year, and I haven't had any time to use my vacation days," Mrs. Byron said. "I have to use them before the end of the year, so I'm taking the end of the year off."
            "What about you?" Natalie asked. "I thought that you would be at play practice by now."
            "Oh, I can answer this one," Seth interrupted his brother as he threw a card onto the table. "He postponed practice until the afternoon because of the power issue."
            "In all honesty, I don't know if it's going to be fixed by then," Jeff added. "I might have to cancel it altogether."
            "That would be too bad," Mrs. Byron commented. "How is the play coming along?"
            "It could be worse," Jeff admitted. "The cast and crew seem to have everything down, but I don't really know because problems keep popping up. What I need is one good practice where nothing goes wrong."
            "Maybe you'll get it today," Natalie said as she dealt the cards for the second round of the game.
            "If the power comes back on," Jeff said. "Fingers crossed on that one."
            The conversation moved onto other things and for the first time in a while, Jeff's brain was empty of the problems that he was currently facing.

******

            Jeff buried his hands in his coat pockets as he trudged towards the church. Despite his hat pulled down securely over his ears, the cold still penetrated every inch of his body. By the time he arrived, all of his extremities were numb and it felt like the cold was trying to freeze his heart solid. He fumbled with his keys, trying to get them out of his pocket with gloved fingers that had no feeling with them and was so preoccupied with the task that he didn't notice the man standing by the door until he was almost on top of him. He jumped back, shouting an exclamation following it quickly with an apology.
            "Kind of cold to be standing outside, isn't it?" Jeff asked as he wrestled the key into the lock and opened the door.
            "It isn't pleasant, but I've experienced worse," the man answered.
            "That's true," Jeff agreed as he stepped through the door and held it for the other man. "Remember last year? Ten days in a row where it didn't get above zero. Now that was bone chilling if I've ever experienced it."
            He shut the door before turning around and offering the man his hand to shake.
            "I'm Jeff, by the way. I'm not sure that we've met before."
            "We haven't," the man agreed as he shook the hand. "My name is Samuel."
            "What can I help you with, Samuel?" Jeff asked. He flipped a light switch and nothing happened. Evidently the power company hadn't fixed the problem yet.
            "I'm here to help you," Samuel explained. "I was told that you were having some trouble with the play practices and thought that I might be able to help."
            "Who told you that?" Jeff asked sharply. The play problems were still a sensitive topic for him.
            "Oh, I think I heard from your family, if I'm not mistaken, "Samuel answered.
            "You know my family?" Samuel asked in surprise. "I've never heard them mentioned you."
            "I know who they are, though I don't know if they would recognize me," Samuel answered.
            "So, like you see them in church and stuff?" Samuel asked.
            "Exactly," Samuel said.
            "Well, I'm happy for the offer of help, though I'm not really sure what you can do right now," Jeff said. "The play is pretty much under control. The only issues that we've really been having is things that we can't control like the electricity going out."
            "So when the power comes back on, you'll be good to go?" Samuel asked.
            "Well, we've also had a few issues with the sound and lighting equipment, but that's probably going to take someone who knows what they are doing to fix."
            "I know someone who is a whiz with electronics," Samuel said and glanced at his watch. "I can give her a call and get her up here in an hour or so to look at the boards and lights."
            "That would only help if the power was back on," Jeff said. As if on cue, the foyer lights flickered to life. Jeff looked up at them for a moment.
            "Well, I guess that problem is taken care of. If you don't think that your friend would mind, go ahead and give her a call."
            "I'll take care of the technical issues, Jeff," Samuel said. "You just focus on the play. We're going to make this the best that it can possibly be."

******

            "The problem was in the internal wiring," Samuel's friend Michel explained. She held a toolbox in one hand and a roll of electrical wire in the other. "The wires had deteriorated over time and..."
            "That's fine, Michel," Samuel said. "Honestly, neither me nor Jeff will understand it if you explain it."
            Jeff waved to the last of the crew as they left the church. Now it was just the three of them remaining.
            "Basically the wires had too much wear and tear on them," Michel explained as simply as she could. It was evident that it killed her to dumb things down this much. "It was causing issues so I pulled them out and replaced them. I had to rewire a lot of the board's innards, but you shouldn't have an issue with the feedback anymore. I also fixed a few other problems while I had it torn apart."
            "How long will it hold together?" Jeff asked. "Are we going to have to replace it in the near future?"
            "Oh boy," Samuel muttered. "You just doubted her ability. You shouldn't have done that."
            "The board is as good as when it was new, probably better," Michel said in an irritated voice. "I used," she proceeded to say something very long and technical that Jeff didn't understand "wire. The stuff is top grade and my work is close to impeccable. That board should be good for another five to ten years if not longer."
            "She's cocky and a bit annoying, but it's true," Samuel admitted. "I've seen her take completely destroyed electronics and completely rework them so that they last twice as long as they were every supposed to. No doubt about it: she's good."
            "Well, thank you very much, Michel," Jeff said. "I appreciate the work that you've done. Can I invite you to the performance on Sunday?"
            "Samuel seems to have gone and gotten me invested in something else that wasn't my problem before," Michel said. "I'll be here unless something comes up."
            "Thanks again," Jeff called after the woman as she walked to her truck. He shut the door and began to finish straightening up. Soon he had moved onto folding the programs for Sunday's performance.
            "Can I talk to you about something?" Samuel asked.
            "As long as you help while you talk," Jeff answered.
            "This play is very important to you, isn't it?" Samuel asked as he picked up a program and deftly folded it in half.
            "I like to do a good job at whatever I do," Jeff said, evading the question.
            "I think there's more to it than that, but I won't push you," Samuel said. "What I will say is that it seems like you're stressing about it an awful lot."
            "That's true," Jeff admitted. "What with all of the problems that we've been having, I have been worrying."
            "Can I suggest that you don't come to practice tomorrow?" Samuel asked. "Just for one day."
            "Why would I do that?" Jeff asked, giving Samuel a strange look.
            "To give yourself time to refocus on what's important," Samuel explained. "You seem so wrapped up in this play. Have you even thought about the true meaning of Christmas in the past couple days?"
            "No," Jeff admitted slowly.
            "Then do yourself a favor and don't come to practice tomorrow," Samuel said. "I'll cover it, don't worry."
            "And what should I do instead?" Jeff asked only partially seriously.
            "Think about Christmas," Samuel said. "Read the Christmas story. Or go help other people. Service is a good way to get in the Christmas spirit."
            "I suppose you have some suggestions for me," Jeff said.
            "Of course I do," Samuel smiled. "You could go to the nursing home and visit the elderly. Many of them get lonely around the holidays. Or there's a place that I know of that serves meals to the homeless. I would recommend going there; the reward from serving there is more than I can say."
            "I'll think about it," Jeff said as he went back to folding programs. He had every intention of ignoring Samuel's suggestion, but sometimes things happen to change a person's mind.



Part 4

Wednesday, December 19

            When he had gone to sleep the previous night, Jeff had had every intention of ignoring Samuel's suggestion to forget about play practice. He knew that the suggestion had been made with good intentions, but the play was his responsibility, and he simply couldn't leave it to someone that he hardly knew. He wasn't sure exactly what happened or changed during the night, but when he woke in the morning, he had decided that he would let his assistant take care of practice today. Perhaps Samuel was right; he did need a break from it for a day.
            After showering and eating breakfast, he was ready to go put in some service hours, he just had to decide what he was going to do. He had planned on taking Seth along and making him decide, but his family was mysteriously missing this morning, gone to who knew where. Well, if had to make a decision, he certainly could do that. He would go to the nursing home first and spend some time there.
            With the decision made, Jeff grabbed his coat from the hall closet and bundled up for the cold weather. The temperature had dropped about ten degrees overnight, and he decided to duck back inside for a good pair of gloves before leaving the house. Bob was nowhere to be seen as he walked toward the front gate. If the dog was smart, he was probably hiding in his doghouse where he had some protection from the elements. Jeff closed the gate behind him and turned left out of habit. He had taken two steps toward the church before he caught himself and turned around; the nursing home was in the opposite direction. He buried his hands in his coat pockets as he walked, already feeling the effects of the cold. The wind was not blowing making things a little better, but the utterly chilling cold seemed to cut through his warm clothes right to his bones.
            The way to the nursing home was fairly long with several turns in it, mostly through residential areas. Most of the houses along the trek had lights adorning them and decorations in their front lawns. The number of Santas and reindeer was astounding. Artificial trees and other Christmas scenes were also common; there was also an artificial snowman, ironic considering the amount of real snow that lay on the ground surrounding it. Jeff didn't even notice the utter lack of biblical decorations until he passed one simply decorated house. All that they had to their credit was a roughly made stable with some poorly designed figurines of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus underneath. Jeff turned his nose up at the scene. Couldn't they have at least shelled out a few bucks to get a nativity scene that looked good? They were totally being shown up by all of the other decorations. Santas that had definitely come from the store and lights that were put to good use on house eaves. It was actually kind of embarrassing.
            The nursing home was around the next corner, and Jeff hurried to get inside and out of the cold. He shook the snow off of his coat in the foyer before stepping into the actual facility. As he did, he suddenly remembered why he avoided these places like the plague. They were so depressing to him with all of the old people concentrated in one place just waiting to kick the bucket. The place smelled funny, and he had to force himself not to cover his nose as he walked to the front desk. The woman there was on the phone and held up a finger indicating that she would be with him in one minute. He seriously doubted it would be that soon.
            "How can I help you?" she asked as she hung up the phone a few minutes later. Her manner indicated that she clearly thought she had something better to be doing now than talking to him.
            "I came over to spend some time with the old folks," Jeff said, noting that the woman cringed at the phrase "old folks." He'd have to use a different turn of phrase next time.
            "You people are all the same, aren't you?" the woman demanded in an irritated voice. "You need to feel like you're doing something good around the holidays, so you come up here to spend as little time as possible with the residents. You know these are people that need to be visited all year long, not just at the holidays."
            "So..." Jeff said, waiting for the woman to conclude her tirade.
            "Normally I'd give you a piece of my mind, but as it turns out, they need a person to call balls for bingo in the dining room," the woman said. "That's straight down this hall and to the right. You can't miss it."
            "Great," Jeff said. "Thank you."
            Maybe this wouldn't be as bad as he thought. He'd call bingo for a few hours, heaven's knew that old people could play it for that long, and then head home. At the end of the hall, he turned right, almost immediately stepping through the large double doors of the home's dining room. There were perhaps thirty of the residents seated in the room, all with bingo cards and clearly ready to go. At the front of the room, or at least in the direction that they were all facing, was a simple bingo machine and ball board but no one sitting behind it. Two of the nursing home's workers stood near the machine talking in low voices. They kept casting looks at the people sitting at the tables and Jeff did as well. It was well that he had arrived when he did, a few minutes later and the workers might have had a slow moving and physically unsound mob on their hands.
            "Hey, I'm Jeff," Jeff introduced himself to the workers. "Apparently I'm here to call the bingo game."
            "Thank God!" the taller nurse said. "We were wondering what we were going to do. They don't like to wait on their bingo. It's the highlight of their day."
            "Here is the basket of prizes," the other nurse said, shoving a rough wooden basket into Jeff's hands. "When someone wins, let them choose something out of this."
            "We have an emergency on the second floor, but if you need help, go to the front desk," the first nurse said. "They should be able to help you."
            "If I need help with what?" Jeff asked, but the nurses were already gone.
            He looked down at the basket of prizes and then out at the elderly people. Given these prizes, he was unsure of why bingo was the highlight of their day, but who was he to argue. If the people wanted bingo, he'd give them bingo.

******

            "Bingo!"
            The call was made by a sweet looking old lady this time. Jeff would take anything besides the surly gentlemen who had won the last round. First he had complained about the prizes before he even saw them; clearly this man was a regular at bingo. Then he had complained about the colors and everything else he could. Jeff wasn't entirely certain how, but he was pretty sure that the man had even insulted his taste in clothing, though he couldn't be certain. The man was mumbling by then and since he had already taken possession of his winnings, Jeff hadn't stuck around.
            Now he carried the basket to the winner, a woman in a wheelchair sitting next to the surly gentleman. She had dark hair streaked with grey, kind eyes, and reminded Jeff a lot of his grandmother before she had passed away. She was slow choosing a bingo prize and Jeff had to suffer through another round of complaints from the man. The woman didn't seem to hear him and smiled and thanked Jeff after choosing something from the basket. Jeff headed back to the bingo table and was about to start another round when one of the nursing home's employees entered the dining room.
            "You're still playing bingo?" he asked Jeff in a low voice. Jeff wondered why the nurses always talked quietly when they didn't want the old folks hearing them. Most of them had such bad hearing that they wouldn't have heard something yelled directly at them.
            "Yes," Jeff answered the question. "We've been playing since I got here. Nobody told me when it was supposed to end."
            "Well, consider yourself told," the nurse said.
            "Well, it looks like that's all we'll have time for today," Jeff told the room. Booing came from all corners and a few of the residents even threw juice boxes. Jeff dodged the projectiles good-naturedly and smiled to himself. The only thing that these people liked more than bingo was complaining. It was actually kind of funny.
            The events of the next few minutes were a blur for Jeff. He was never quite sure exactly how, but he ended up sitting at one of the tables playing cards with the woman who reminded him of his grandmother, the surly gentleman sitting by her, and several others. Strangely enough, he found that he enjoyed the experience more than he thought he would. These old people were fun to hang around with and funny to listen to. Once you got past all of the complaining that they did on a regular basis, they were great. Time seemed to fly by, and it was past dinner time before Jeff left for home.
            It was dark outside by now, and the lights and decorations of the houses that he passed were now displayed in all of their lighted glory. Strings of lights glittered down the eaves, around doors and windows, and across the roofs of the houses. Large blow up decorations and wireframe figures with lights looked a hundred times more impressive in the night, lighted as they were from the inside with darkness setting them off brilliantly. The rough nativity scene again caught his eye. It was lit by a small spotlight now, and the utter lack of other decorations on the house was as obvious as ever. Once again Jeff felt irrationally embraced and hurried past the yard.
            At the house, Bob was out again and gave an excited bark of greeting as Jeff approached.
            "Hey boy," Jeff returned the greeting as he opened the gate. Quickly he squeezed through and shut it before Bob could put any escape plans into effect.
            "You happy to see me?" Jeff asked as he petting the dog, trying to avoid as much slobber as possible. Bob dropped his tennis ball into the snow and looked up at Jeff, tongue hanging out.
            "I can throw it a few times," Jeff said. Gingerly he picked up the green mess of frozen slobber and gave it a good toss. In an instant, Bob was off tearing after the projectile, chasing it to its landing point. In his hurry, he raced past the ball and had to double back for it. In what seemed like no time at all, he was sitting at Jeff's feet again with the tennis ball between his front paws. He was staring up at Jeff with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, waiting expectantly.
            "Goodness dog," Jeff said as he picked the ball up again. "You spend all day outside and you still have this much energy?"
            He gave the ball a toss and Bob was off after it again. After a dozen tosses, Bob was still as energetic as ever, but Jeff was beginning to feel the cold. He gave the ball one more toss and headed into the house.
            The family was in the den watching a Christmas movie. Jeff stopped to watch a few minutes of it and was quite underwhelmed with the quality to say the least. He didn't remember seeing the film before, but that could have just meant he had blocked out the experience. A movie this bad could probably lead to behavioral problems or even a general dislike for the Christmas season. He dug some leftovers from the fridge and had a late dinner while the movie finished. Next it was time for the family to read from the bible something Christmas related. Tonight they read the account of Gabriel appearing to Mary and telling her that she would be the mother of Jesus. He had always liked this passage, when he was younger it was because of the angel but then because of the implications. Mary had probably been scared to death by the proposition of having Jesus, but she had agreed to it anyway. Jeff had always taken comfort from this passage. No matter what God wanted him to do, he always gave a choice but more importantly would give him the strength to do it. He wondered how he had forgotten about this passage in the last few days. He had not been praying or reading the bible enough. That would have to change.
            After the reading, Jeff headed up to bed. The day's events had wiped him out. It had been a good way to get away from the stress of his production. Tomorrow he would see how much help it had actually been. After a prayer and changing into his pajamas, he slipped under his covers and fell asleep.



Part 5

Thursday, December 20

             Jeff smiled to himself as he locked up the church. Play practice had just ended, and it had been a good one. The actors knew their lines almost impeccably now, and the technical problems were a thing of the past. Samuel was proving to be invaluable, and Jeff wondered how he had managed before. The man could do almost everything and seemed to have precognition. He knew what Jeff wanted almost before he knew himself and had it done in no time. He also had a lot of initiative, often perfecting sets or costumes without any orders to do so. The man was a theater god, it seemed.
            He had also been harping on helping others again especially talking about the soup kitchen that he had mentioned previously. Jeff had finally promised to go just to get him to shut up, and yet he realized now that he had failed to get directions to the place. It was interesting that the guy had put so much emphasis on the soup kitchen and then forgot directions. Maybe he thought that Jeff already knew where the place was. Whatever the case, that piece of information had been neglected, and while Jeff hated to break his word, he didn't see how he could avoid this one. Maybe if he just started walking, he would end up there by chance. Somehow with Samuel involved, that wouldn't surprise him at all.
            Jeff left the church behind and headed into town. He wasn't putting a whole lot of money on finding the place, but he had been spending so much time indoors lately that the fresh air would do him good. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and walked through the snow on the sidewalk. There was just a light dusting, but it was enough to make a crunching sound as he walked over it. By now, Christmas was in the air, on the store fronts, plastered on signs and hanging from street poles. Santa Clause, Christmas trees, bells, candy canes, and Christmas sales were as far as the eye could see, cluttering the town. Yes, things were certainly starting to feel like Christmas.
            Jeff continued to walk through the town, keeping an eye out for the soup kitchen but never expecting to actually see it. It was almost one o'clock; he had been walking around for a half hour already. It certainly didn't feel as though it had been that long. It was time to head home to a nice warm house where lunch would be waiting for him. He turned around to head back and out of nowhere, sitting on the edge of the commercial district sandwiched between a rundown, ghetto restaurant and an abandoned building was a soup kitchen. It was a very unassuming building but not dirty, like Jeff had expected. The front, at least, was cleaner than that of the restaurant directly adjacent with the only indication of its purpose being a small sign in the window.
            Jeff stood on the sidewalk for a minute, trying to decide if he should go inside. He didn't imagine that he would enjoy the experience much, but then again, he had thought the same about the nursing home yesterday. If nothing else, it was a new experience, and he didn't have to come back tomorrow if he didn't like it. He set his jaw and walked through the front door, expecting to hate everything about the place and was pleasantly surprised. The inside of the building was as clean and tidy as the outside and it wasn't set up like he had expected. The long tables with dozens of homeless crowded around them that he had expected to have to walk around and between were nowhere to be seen. Mid-sized cafe style tables and chairs filled the room with a line style serving area at the rear where the registers would be in a normal store. For a moment, Jeff wondered if he had the right place, but there was no mistaking the many patrons who crowded the place for anything but the homeless. He approached the serving line, looking for someone who appeared to be in charge.
            "The line starts down there," one of the servers, motioning with his head to the back of the line. "Grab a plate and utensils and we'll serve you as soon as we can."
            "Oh, I'm not here to get food," Jeff said. "A friend told me about this place, and I came by to see if you needed any help."
            "Jeff, right?" the server said. "Samuel said you'd be by. The door down there goes into the kitchen. Tell Steve that Samuel sent you; he'll tell you what to do."
            "How do I know who Steve is?" Jeff asked, looking warily at the door that the server had motioned to.
            "He's built like a house," the server answered. "You can't miss him, even if you try."
            Jeff was skeptical of the statement. He doubted that anyone was as big as a house. He had missed plenty of people in his time both on purpose and unintentionally. Never underestimate a person’s ability to miss things. Jeff pushed open the kitchen door, stepped into the kitchen, and immediately recanted his recent thoughts. His eyes were immediately drawn to Steve, the largest man by far in the building and probably in the whole city. He was literally as big as a house; perhaps a house for small elves but a house nonetheless. All that Jeff could do for a few seconds was stare at the guy. One thing was for certain, a person definitely couldn’t miss him.
            “Samuel sent you, right?” Steve asked without looking up from what he was doing.
            “Are you speaking to me?” Jeff asked and pointed with a thumb toward his chest.
            “I don’t see anyone else who just walked in the door,” Steve answered, still not looking up from his work. “I know everyone else here, so that would just leave you.”
            “Yes, Samuel sent me. I’m…”
            “Jeff. I know,” Steve interrupted. “Well, you came at just the right time, Jeff. We’re down a few people, and things are starting to get a little crazy. They always do around Christmas.”
            “I imagine so,” Jeff agreed. “What do you need me to do?”
            “See the sink back there?” Steve asked and jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
            “No sink, just a massive pile of dirty dishes,” Jeff said as he looked to where Steve had pointed.
            “The sink is under the dishes,” Steve said. “We’re running out of them. I need you to start washing and do it fast. ”
            “Got you covered,” Jeff said as he rolled his sleeves up. He headed to the pile of dishes at the back of the store, now able to make out the general shape of the sink underneath it. There were certainly a lot of them, more of them than he had ever seen in one place before. It would probably take an hour or more to get through all of them, but he was actually happy with the task. Homeless people made him uncomfortable and he was relieved that he didn’t have to work with them.

******

            “Thanks for showing up, Jeff,” Steve said. There were only a handful of people left now, finishing up with the kitchen cleaning. “When Samuel said that you were going to come, I’ll admit that I had my doubts.”
            “So did I,” Jeff concurred. “This wasn’t exactly my idea of a fun day, but it turned out pretty well. I do have a question though.”
            “What's that?” Steve asked.
            “Well, this is a charity, so how do you manage to keep it open? Most of the people that were here looked like they probably have families to support and jobs to work.”
            “It’s not easy,” Steve agreed. “The help is all volunteer work by people who can find the time. I’m in charge but only around Christmas because that’s when I can take a significant amount of vacation at a stretch. As for the supplies, we rely mostly on donations and such. It’s tight, but God’s made it work so far.”
            “How long is ‘so far?’” Jeff asked. “How long has this place been operational?”
            “We’re coming up on three years in January,” Steve said. “Pretty young by most standards, but we’ve done our fair share of good in those three years.”
            “I have no doubt about that,” Jeff said as he finished wiping down a table. He tossed the paper towel in the trash. “Well, if you don’t have anything else for me to do, I’m going to head home.”
            “A couple of us head to the bar down the street after we close up here,” Steve said. “You’re more than welcome to come along if you want.”
            “I’m not exactly 21 yet,” Jeff said. “Besides, I need to get home and spend some time with my family.”
            “I hear you, man,” Steve said. “Have a great evening. Will we see you tomorrow?”
            “I can’t swear to anything, but I’ll try to make it out here.”
            As Jeff closed the door behind him, he realized that he had actually meant what he had told Steve. Working with the homeless today had given him a new appreciation of a lot of things. He had even outgrown his discomfort of them after working the serving line for an hour or so. Just as with the old people at the nursing home, these were just people. Sure they had significantly different situations than he did, but that didn’t make them scary, just different. And Samuel had been right about service work. It was good for the soul as well as helping to get in the Christmas spirit. Jeff would certainly be back tomorrow. He would make sure of that.
            As he walked home, his mind drifted to the Christmas Story that he had heard so many time before. About how Jesus had come to the earth as a baby two thousand years earlier just so that he could die thirty-three years later for our sins. Christmas was about giving, not this commercial spin that stores and distributors had put on it. Santa was about getting more stuff, not giving it. What if Jesus had done that as well? Just looked for what he could get out of Christmas? If he had been like that, we would all be in serious trouble. But he hadn’t thought about himself at all when he came to earth as the greatest gift of all time. He had come selflessly as the sacrifice for our sins, and we were supposed to act like him. If Jesus did that couldn’t he, Jeffrey Byron, also make a few sacrifices? What were a few hours with people that made him feel a little uncomfortable when compared to Jesus’ sacrifice?
            Suddenly the play that had seemed to be a matter of life and death no longer seemed as important. He would make sure that it turned out as well as was physically possible, but he wasn’t stressing over it anymore. The past two days had shown him what the true meaning of Christmas was. It wasn’t about what you got or how you appeared to others. It was all about selfless giving and Jesus’ sacrifice. With this incredibly old but at the same time new revelation, Jeff walked the rest of the way home with a bounce in his step. Not even the frigid temperature could ruin his mood.


Part 6

Friday, December 21

“Try that scene again,” Jeff called from his usual seat in the second pew. “It was good, but this time, try to make me believe that you’re actually invested.”
As the actors began the scene again, Jeff smiled to himself in contentment. It seemed that when he wasn’t stressing out, the actors didn’t either. At the beginning of the week, they had had their lines down almost perfectly, but over the past two days, their bearing and carriage had become significantly more believable. Either he was a much better director than he knew, or his assistant was correct.
“The funny thing about nature is that while working hard is important, it isn’t the only aspect at work,” Samuel had told him while they were getting ready for practice. “You can work and work and work and get good, but when you turn everything over to God is when you’ll have great results.”
“You’re saying that I shouldn’t care about the play?” Jeff asked, puzzled by his new friend’s comment.
“Not at all,” Samuel explained. “Ephesians 6:7 says that you should do whatever it is that you do like it is for God. You wouldn’t do something halfway for God, so you never should. What I’m saying is that you should not care so much about the things that you do. Do your best and God will take care of the rest.”
“That’s really easy to say when you aren’t invested in something,” Jeff said. “Once you’ve put hundreds of hours in, though, it’s hard to let God take care of the results.”
“That is certainly the truth,” Samuel agreed. “I never said that it was easy to turn things over to God; that would be a lie. Humans tend to want to control everything as if they can, by sheer force of will, make things happen the way that they want them to happen.”
“I’ve met people that can do it,” Jeff said. “At least, it seems like they can. Everything works out for them.”
“There are people who are better at that than others,” Samuel agreed. “The thing is that no one, no matter how good they may appear to be at what they do, will succeed all of the time. Eventually a situation will come along that they will not be able to handle. God is the only one whose plan works out one hundred percent of the time.”
“I understand all of that up here,” Jeff tapped his head, “but it’s so much harder to actually commit to action based on that. It’s one thing to know it but quite another to act on it.”
“That’s the way things always are with God,” Samuel said. “Since it’s almost Christmas, let’s take a Christmas example. Think about Joseph. All that he knew was that the girl that he was supposed to marry was already pregnant. An angel told him that God wanted him to go ahead with the marriage, so he did. Do you think that it was easy for him? You can bet your sizable yearly tuition that it wasn’t. But he obeyed God and things ended up working out.”
So he was supposed to be like Joseph minus the wife and child part. Except that the analogy was a lot closer than he had initially realized. This play had consumed his Christmas break. It was his baby, one that he had to turn over to God. Well, he would certainly try to do it. Samuel had yet to steer him wrong and besides, what he was saying made sense. And so he had stopped worrying about the play so much. Of course, he still did his best and coached the actors to do so as well, but the results were much better than he could have possibly hoped for. God certainly had more to do with it than anything else had.
“Let’s call it a day,” Jeff told his cast and crew after another hour of practice. He had planned to go for another hour and a half, but decided against it. Things were coming along much better than expected; in fact, if today was any indicator, the play would be of much better quality than he had ever planned. Besides that fact, it was almost Christmas for goodness sake. The actors should be at home right now spending time with their families not slaving away for so long on something like this.
“We won’t be having practice tomorrow, but we will have an optional meeting at 10 o’clock,” he told everyone as they were leaving. “We’re going to go out into the community and do some service. It’s a good experience and helps you get in the Christmas spirit. Believe me, I know.”
“If you’re going back to the soup kitchen today, I’m headed that way myself,” Samuel said, startling Jeff. He hadn’t seen Samuel hang back and had assumed that he was alone in the church. In retrospect, it was a foolish thing to assume since Samuel always stayed until the very end.
“Yes, I was going to head over there,” Jeff said. “Just have to lock up the church.”
“Sure thing,” Samuel said. “I’ll wait for you.”

******

            “How long have you known Samuel?” Jeff asked as he and Steve cooked in the kitchen. Rather, Jeff did whatever he was asked to do while the larger man banged pots, pans, and utensils around. By some miracle that was beyond his ability to comprehend, the process managed to produce food and lots of it.
            “A long time,” Steve said as he continued to banged metal on metal. “I haven’t seen him in almost a year, but that isn’t unusual for him.”
            “What do you mean?” Jeff’s face was one, big question mark. “Why would he only work here sometimes? Doesn’t he live here?”
            “Not really sure if he has a permanent home, but it certainly isn’t around here,” Steve said. “He drops in every once in a while to help out here and other places around town. He usually brings a friend or two when he comes though I don’t think I’ve ever seen the same one accompany him twice.”
            "You said he helps out other places around town." It was a statement, but Steve understood the question well enough.
            "He's big in the charity and volunteer worlds here," the big man explained. "I don't know this for a fact, but I would bet that he is known in most of the churches and charities in town."
            Which would explain where he had heard that Jeff needed help with  the play. Any number of people could have tipped him off about that. Which begged the question...
            "How long has he been in town?"
            "I'm not saying that he came here as soon as he got in, but the first time that he showed up here was four days ago, I think. I remember it was Wednesday."
            Which was the same day that he had shown up at the church. Assuming that he had visited the soup kitchen promptly after getting into town, there was no way that he could have heard about Jeff from any of the people at the church. Where in heaven's name had this man gotten his information from? Jeff checked himself; he realized that he was probably letting his imagination get the better of him. Samuel had probably checked in on one of the church members upon getting into town and had heard about the play. After all, what was the alternative? He was a super secret spy with connections all over and used them to go around helping people? And if that was the case, what was the problem? Jeff smiled. He'd stick with the secret agent of good theory. It sounded cooler and made for a much better story. A timer alarm sounded and shook Jeff out of his pondering.
            "That's the second oven," Steve told Jeff. "Oven mitts are laying on the counter by the stoves. Take that out to the serving line, will you?"
            Jeff extracted the food from the oven and held it firmly in both hands as he backed through the door to the dining area. A half dozen workers stood with their backs to him, distributing food to the people in line. After a few seconds of scrutiny, he discovered where the dish he was carrying should go. The heat from the food was already starting to work its way through his mitts, and he moved quickly to dump it into the appropriate serving tray. With the food gone, the dish was much cooler, and he shifted it to one hand. He turned to go back to the kitchen and stopped cold in his tracks, shocked and startled by what he saw. Actually it wasn't "what" but "who." Standing behind the serving counter, dishing out food with the best of them was his almost-forgotten girl-friend Melisa.
            Jeff recovered his wits quickly and headed back to the kitchen. He used the empty dish in his hands strategically to block himself from Melisa's line of sight. The last thing that he wanted right here and right now was a confrontation for that is what their meeting would surely turn into. He slammed through the swinging doors more forcefully than was necessary and carried the dish to the sink. Dropping it on top of a mounting pile of them, he grabbed the edge of the counter with both hands.
            "Is everything alright, man?" Steve asked, looking up from his work. There was concern on his face.
            "Yeah, I'm fine," Jeff lied. "Question: who is that girl working the serving line? She wasn't here yesterday."
            "Who, Melisa?" Steve asked with a knowing smile. "Sure is a cutie, isn't she? Came in for the first time two days ago. Sent in by Samuel, like you."
            Steve kept talking, but Jeff wasn't listening anymore. Sent in by Samuel, like you; those had been Steve's words. It was one thing for the do-gooder to help with a church play, but this was too much. Messing with a man's love life was off limits. How had he even known about them? Suddenly Jeff wasn't so fond of the "secret agent of good. " In fact, he kind of wanted to punch him in the face right about now.
            "I just remembered that I have an important dental appointment," Jeff said, cutting Steve off.
            "You don't have to lie to me," Steve said. "If you have to go, I'm not going to question it. Hope you work out whatever it is that you need to work out."
            Jeff grabbed his coat and headed for the back door. He was too worked up at the moment to appreciate Steve's understanding attitude. He slung the store's back door open to find Samuel standing on the other side, shuffling packages to free a hand for the door knob.
            "You," Jeff growled. "What do you think you're doing?"
            "Bringing in the groceries?" There was a puzzled look on Samuel's face.
            "Not that, I mean with Melisa," Jeff said. "You had no right to do that!"
            "You're going to have to catch me up," Samuel said. "Who is Melisa and what exactly is it that I have done to her that is so horrible?"
            "Don't play stupid," Jeff said. "I talked to Steve. He said that you had suggested that she come down here to volunteer."
            "I can't say that I know a Melisa..." Samuel started. "Wait a minute! I think I remember that. My friend Michel, you remember her, right?"
            "Yes, she fixed the sound board," Jeff said.
            "Well, I met her for lunch a few days ago, and she had brought a girl. I think her name was Melisa. It's distinctly possible that I mentioned this place to her."
            "So you didn't know about us?" Jeff asked suspiciously.
            "What about you?" Samuel asked. "What exactly is Melisa to you?"
            Jeff was about to tell Samuel that it was none of his business. The topic was still fresh for him, and it hurt to even think about it. There was also the fact that he barely knew man standing in front of him, except that that wasn't true. It had only been four days since they had met and already he felt like he could tell him anything.
            "She is my girl friend, or was," Jeff said. "We had a fight not too long ago and things aren't great."
            "That's too bad, but it isn't the end of the world," Samuel said. "Couples fight every day, but they get through it."
            "This wasn't just a fight," Jeff said. "We've fought before, but this was much worse. I think it might have been the fight. We may be done for good."
            "Why don't you go talk to her?" Samuel asked. "Thinking this and considering that isn't going to help this situation at all."
            "I'm not ready for that yet," Jeff said. "I don't know what I would say."
            "Which is why you're using the back door," Samuel said, finally putting the last pieces together. "She's in there and you didn't want a confrontation."
            "Exactly," Jeff agreed.
            "Well, I'll pray for you on this one," Samuel said. "You're going to have to figure this out, but God can certainly help you do that. By the way, can you get the door for me?"
            Jeff held the door as his friend awkwardly squeezed through with all of his packages. As he headed down the alley away from the soup kitchen, he thought about what Samuel had said. He would pray about the situation; help from God never hurt. As he began to pray, he suddenly remember what Samuel had said earlier about his play how turning it over to God was the only thing to do. If he was Joseph and the play was his baby then Melisa was his Mary. He would turn it over to God and see what His plan was.



Part 7

Saturday, December 22

            It was 8 in the morning, and Jeff had already been up for two hours. His brain was full of everything that had happened in the past few days, and he had only been able to grab a few hour reprieve from it last night. Less than twenty minutes ago he had bundled up to face the cold weather and walk the streets in an attempt to forget the things that were bothering him. Last night it had seemed as though he knew exactly what it was that he had to do. He had also been fully prepared to let God take care of the results. They say that clarity comes with the light of day, but for Jeff it had only brought confusion and uncertainty. He still knew what he had to do, knew it in his heart but not in his head. He kept worrying about what would happen and how he could change the outcome.
            To escape from the constant worry, he had read the Christmas story. It seemed as though everyone in it had things figured out. They trusted God to help them, and He did. Why couldn't he be more like that? Why did his brain keep playing tricks on him, first letting him think that he had given the results to God and then keeping him awake at night worrying? That was why he was now out for a stroll in weather well below freezing. Though walking usually helped him think, today he was using to the opposite effect: helping him keep his mind off of things.
            He didn't really think about where he was going but let his feet carry him down streets at random. He started off in the general direction of the church, but somehow or another he ended up at the opposite end of town, near the nursing home. For several minutes he didn't realize that he had stopped and was staring at one house in particular that he had noted a few days earlier. The rough stable and figurines of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were still the only decorations in the whole yard, but they weren't embarrassing this time. There was a certain fittingness to the rough, non-store bought quality of the scene. Jesus hadn't been born in Wal-Mart, had he? He didn't start a whole line of Christmas decorations that made him rich and prosperous. He had been born in a stable, and stables are often times rough around the edges. He hadn't come in a flashy manner because it wasn't how he came but what he did that mattered.
            Everything that Jeff had been learning the last several days slid seamlessly together into understanding. Christmas wasn't about getting things and that also went for the approval of other people. It wasn't about having the best decorations in the world, or putting on the best Christmas play ever. It wasn't even about winning Melisa back. Christmas was about Jesus coming to earth to give humanity the greatest gift of all time. It was about humans praising and thanking Him for the gift and showing our appreciation by helping and serving other people.
            Jeff looked at the driveway of the house before him and noticed for the first time that unlike all of the other driveways around, it was not shoveled. The lights inside were off and the garage doors were closed, but a shovel leaned against the service door. It was a short driveway; hopefully he would be done before anyone realized what was happening. Service didn't have to be visiting old people in a nursing home or helping out at a soup kitchen. Sure these were great things to do, but true service lay in the attitude of the action.
            With a smile, Jeff crunched up the driveway toward the snow shovel. It would take a long time to truly understand the meaning of Christmas, but he was well on his way to doing so    The rest of the day passed quickly for Jeff.  Breakfast was the next thing on his list, which he took care of promptly after getting home. It was off to the church, then, to meet with the members of his cast and crew who decided to show up to do service for the community. The turnout was considerably better than he had expected, and they had a blast, going around town and helping people. After shoveling a dozen driveways, they headed to the nursing home to help bring some holiday cheer to the residents. One by one the people left to go home until it was just Jeff and Samuel. They headed over to the soup kitchen at two o'clock with plans to stay there until it closed.
            "You realize that there is a good chance that Melisa will be there, right?" Samuel asked when Jeff suggested that they head over to the charity.
            "Yeah, I know," Jeff said, "but that's something I have to deal with anyway. It's either now or later; it doesn't matter much to me."
            And so they walked to the middle of town to help the less-fortunate. Despite his outer resolve, Jeff was anxious about what he would say when he actually saw Melisa. He hadn't been this nervous around her since they started dating so many years before. Somehow he knew that this was his only chance to get her back; if he screwed this up, they would be done for good.
            Just leave it to God, he kept telling himself. He knows what's good for me better than I do.
            The inner dialogue did little to reassure him, and he entered the soup kitchen expecting the worse. He was simultaneously disappointed and relieved to see that Melisa was not present, at least at the moment. The inevitably awkward situation was diverted for a while, but that couldn't last forever. This was something that he needed to do and, to his surprise, wanted to do. He had spent enough time not knowing and it was time to clear the air. He decided that one way or the other, after today he would not be wondering anymore.

******

            "They need more mashed potatoes out on the serving line," Steve yelled to Jeff. As explained in a very hurried fashion by Steve, business picked in the few days before Christmas both in terms of the number of poor that came to be served and the number of people who volunteered to help. The place was packed with people of both kinds, and the noise level had risen to a din.
            Jeff didn't even bother answering except with a nod. He grabbed a large dish of potatoes from a heating unit and wove his way across the kitchen, almost crashing into people several times. Suddenly the adage "Too many cooks spoil the soup" made a lot more sense. He turned to hit the swinging doors with his back and crashed through into the serving area. If the kitchen had been crowded, the dining room was a hundred times worse. The noise was close to deafening and the smell was quite strong. While the homeless didn't smell bad as an all-encompassing rule, this many bodies in one place was bound to give off a distinct odor. After working in the hot kitchen for several hours, Jeff had a feeling that he didn't smell incredibly great either.
            "More mashed potatoes," he told a server's back. The person squeezed to the side and removed the empty dish from the heating unit. Jeff placed the new potatoes in the now vacant space and turned to take the empty dish from the volunteer. In all of the hustle and bustle he hadn't seen her come in, but now Melisa stood right in front of him, a hair net on her head, her sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and a serving spoon in her hand.
            Jeff's heart almost stopped, he was so shocked. He had known that with the building being so crowded, this could easily happen, but nothing could prepare him for it. He almost froze where he was but had enough presence of mind to take the empty dish from her and go back to the kitchen, not quite at a run. He dropped the empty dish by the sink on his way through the kitchen and out the back door. He didn't stop to grab his coat as he rushed out into the alley, and the cold air hit him like a wall, cutting straight through his shirt and sweater. He was already half-way down the alley by the time he realized what he was doing. Slowly he turned, walked to the back steps, and sat down. So much for his resolve and his big speech that he was planning on giving to Melisa. All that was gone at the first sight of her.
            The back door opened, but Jeff didn't even look up. No doubt it was Samuel coming to check on him and make sure that he was alright. Jeff's guess couldn't have been further from reality a fact made abundantly clear to him when he heard the words that he had secretly been dreading for so long.
            "Jeff, we need to talk."
            Jeff rose to his feet and he turned to face the Melisa. She had taken the time to get her coat from the rack by the door before she came outside. Clearly she was smarter than he was. Or at least she had it together more than he did.
            "It's never good when you hear those words," Jeff commented. He tried to keep his tone light but had a bad feeling that he was failing.
            "Talking is something that you have to do to make a relationship work," Melisa said. A small flame of hope danced to life in Jeff's soul.
            "I would agree," Jeff said, "but I don't know what we're supposed to talk about this time."
            "Does it have to be anything specific?" Melisa asked.
            "Based on your tone, yes it does," Jeff answered. "It's something very specific, and I don't even know what it is."
            "If you don't know, I'm not going to tell you!" Melisa said. Jeff almost panicked. If he was going to make this work it would be now, but he was losing her already.
            "Look, Mel," he said and reached out to take her hands. He half expected her to jerk them away, but she didn't. "I understand that you're angry with me, but I don't know why. Please, I need to know what is wrong before I can fix it."
            "Maybe you can't fix it," Melisa said and crossed her arms. "Maybe it's too late for that. Besides, why do you even care? You've been avoiding me for the past week and a half."
            "Because," Jeff began but his voice caught and he had to start over. "Because my relationship with you is the most important thing in this world to me. I've been an idiot about it, and it took me a while to realize it, but it's true." His voice cracked again, but he kept talking, afraid that if he stopped, he wouldn't be able to start again. "I love you, and if I lose you, I don't know what I'll do."
            He looked at Melisa, cursing the tears that were forcing their way to his eyes. He would have wiped them away, but he was still holding Melisa's hand and wasn't about to break that connection, especially not right now. She glared back at him for a long moment, and though his heart clung to hope, he knew that they were done. For what seemed like an eternity she glared at him, making him pay for every day that he hadn't called her, hadn't come to visit. Then, just as he was about to turn away so that she didn't see him cry and think him a baby, she broke down. She collapsed again him and he held her tightly as she spilled tears all over his shoulder.
            "Don't ever do that again," she whispered through her tears. "Never pretend like you don't care."
            He promised that he wouldn't and knew it was true. It had seemed like hell at the time, but he had finally figured out what mattered to him, and he would never let it go.


Part 8

Sunday, December 23

            The electricity was out again. Not for the whole building like last time. This time luck had just targeted the stage lighting. The whole sanctuary was lit except for the part that was supposed to have every eye focused on it. It was ironic for certain, but it was an hour until the show and Jeff wasn't in the mood to see the humor.
            "How soon did you say that she could get here?" he asked Samuel for the hundredth time.
            "She'll be here in a few minutes," Samuel answered. "Don't worry about it. She fixed things last time, and this time it's just the lights. My bet is that she'll have it running in less than thirty minutes."
            "She'd better or this play is toast," Jeff said over-dramatically.
            "Jeff, you're freaking out again," Samuel said in a calm voice. "I thought that we had already talked about this."
            "We did, and it's a good concept except for when you actually have to practice it," Jeff said. "I can't calm down. My nerves are fried."
            "Stressing about it isn't going to fix a thing," Samuel said reasonably. "Besides, what is it that you've learned this week?"
            "That God's in control," Jeff said, "but..."
            "No but's," Samuel cut him off. "God doesn't deal in them." The doors at the back of the sanctuary crashed open and Michel rushed in lugging her massive tool box. "As it happens, you're angel of electronics is here."
            "What's the problem this time?" Michel yelled across the near empty room. She ducked around two crew members rushing to complete some task.
            "Isn't it obvious?" Jeff asked with an embellished gesture towards the dark stage.
            "Yes, it really is, actually," Michel agreed. "That's not going to work very well for a Christmas production that supposed to happen tonight."
            "So what do you think?" Samuel asked with a conspiratorial smile at Jeff. "Can you fix it?"
            "I fixed the soundboard, didn't I?" Michel asked. "Compared to that, this thing is a piece of cake."
            "But do you think that you'll be able to fix it before the play starts?" Jeff asked, egging the woman into action.
            "Of course I can," Michel answered. "Just show me how to get into the ceiling and I'll get started."
            "Into the ceiling?" Samuel and Jeff asked at the same time.
            "That's where all of the wiring for the lights is," Michel explained. "How did you think that they got their power?"
            "Well, I..." Jeff stammered.
            Michel rolled her eyes and headed up to the tech booth to find someone who actually knew something useful.

******

            "Nice work on the lights," Samuel said as he climbed the rest of the way into the steeple. Michel stood looking out the circular window. Her hair stuck up all over the place as if she had stuck her finger in a wall socket, and it almost seemed like she was glowing. It would be time to leave soon. That was Samuel's only regret about this job: it was always time to leave soon.
            "Thanks," Michel acknowledged the complement. "It wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. The wires are old though I don't think they were very good to begin with. It's actually a bit of a safety and fire hazard. I got shocked seven times. It would have been bad if I wasn't a..." she trailed off.
            "An electrician," Samuel said with a knowing look. "So you got everything squared away?"
            "Yes," Michel answered. "The church shouldn't burn down any time soon."
            "Oh, and good work with the girl," Samuel said. "I have a feeling that she was harder than the boy."
            "Not harder, just different," Michel said. "You just have to use the right approach."
            "Yes, well, good work just the same," Samuel said. Then after a moment, "Are you ready to go yet?"
            "I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be," Michel said as she finally turned away from the window.
            "Good," Samuel said with a smile. He liked Michel and hoped that she would be available next time he had to stop in on this town.

******

            "The play went well," Melisa said as she and Jeff left the church hand in hand.
            "Thanks to Samuel," Jeff said. "I couldn't have pulled it off without him and Michel. They were both life savers."
            "So Samuel was talking to you since Tuesday?" Melisa asked. "That's the same day that I met Michel for the first time."
            "Makes sense given that they arrived together," Jeff said.
            "Yeah, but doesn't it seem odd that they would have found you and me considering...you know."
            "Truth is stranger than fiction," Jeff commented. "Speaking of them, have you seen either recently?"
            "Not since the play started," Michel said. "I have a feeling that they've moved on already."
            "Strange people," Jeff said with a shake of his head. "Nice but strange."
            "Strange yes, but in just the right ways and just the right time," Melisa said. "I'll always think of them as our Christmas angels."
            "Angels, you say," Jeff said with a smile. "That would explain a lot of things."
            "Yes it would," Melisa agreed. Neither one believed it for a second. God used people to do His will these days. He didn't send angels to earth anymore.
            "Hey look," Melisa said, pointing at a branch that hung over the sidewalk. "Mistletoe."
            "That's not mistletoe; it looks more like some sort of ivy," Jeff never got to say.
            Overhead, two stars shot across the night sky. It was probably just because of the angle, but it almost looked like they came from behind the church steeple.