Just like before, I soon found myself heading toward the church, drawn by the galaxy of lights and Christmas stars. I leaned my bike against the shed and slipped inside the church, expecting to find it empty since the last Mass had already ended.
But it wasn’t empty. A familiar, ponytailed head rose above the pews near the Nativity, watching the little parol as it spun gently above the Baby Jesus. “John?” I called hesitantly.
He turned, and the shadows in his eyes shook me out of my own misery. Something in my face must have alerted him, too, as concern replaced the pensiveness I’d seen. “Zoey? What’re you doing here?”
“I should ask you the same thing.” I slid into the pew beside him and looked up at Gabe’s parol. I’d come here before to study the little paper star for my illustrations, but now all I wanted was to soak up the air of serenity that surrounded it and the infant Savior who was smiling up at it.
A comfortable silence settled between us. After a while, John began to speak: “I finished the layout earlier, and I had a sudden urge to come here. Did you know, I never even noticed this little guy at first? But now that I know he’s here, I can’t believe I’ve ever not noticed him.”
I smiled faintly. “Yeah. It was the same for me. He’s not flashy, but he’s got…presence.”
“You never asked me why I came to this town.” He slid me a glance before turning back to gaze at the parol. “I was searching for something, only I didn’t know what it was. Doesn’t that sound crazy? All my life, I never felt as if I fit in anywhere. I was always fighting, always resisting…always wanting something more, even though I already had everything. My mom and step-dad assumed that after I graduated from high school I’d calm down. I’d go straight to college like everyone else, earn a degree, get a job, settle down. But I felt like I was squeezing myself into a hole that was completely the wrong shape and size for me. It drove me crazy—it drove my folks crazy—but I just knew there was someplace else I had to be.”
I reached up and touched his scar with my fingertip. “Is this part of the reason you couldn’t stay where you were?” I asked softly.
He took my hand and wrapped his fingers securely around mine, settling our hands between us. “Yeah,” he admitted. “But it wasn’t just that.”
“So why did you come here, to our town? It can’t just be because you’ve got relatives here.”
He glanced at me again and smiled. “Hey, don’t knock the pull factor of having cousins like Camille.” We shared a laugh at that, then he sighed. “My first week here, I asked myself that all the time. But now that I’ve seen this little guy—” he nodded toward the parol “—now that I know his story, I think…I understand now why I’ve been led here. And for that, Zoey, I owe you,” he added solemnly, giving my hand a squeeze.
I looked down at our hands, wondering if I had the guts to ask him if I played even a tiny part in changing his mind about our town. But then he said, “Now tell me what’s wrong, and this time, don’t just run off without answering.”
I sighed inwardly as the moment slipped away. “What makes you think anything is wrong?”
He raised his eyebrow. “Zoey, right now, you’ve got the same look on your face that I saw the first two times I met you. Listen, it’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it. But I want you to know that, if you do need to talk, I’m right here. No matter what, I’ll always be here.”
No, you won’t. You’ll be gone in two weeks. Still, I found myself telling him everything. This situation is oddly familiar, I thought to myself, recalling my outpouring to Sister Beth a week ago. Was there something about this particular Nativity that sparked confessions? I eyed the little parol suspiciously, then wondered if the angel on its front had just winked at me.
“I’ve heard about your family,” John said when I’d finished. “I know they’re supposed to be impressive and all. Heck, your grandfather was a National Artist, and your dad composed some of my mom’s favorite songs. Right now, though, I just feel sorry for them.”
“Sorry?” I echoed. “Why?”
“Because they’ve closed themselves off to anything that isn’t about this one thing they think is all important. They look at everything through this narrow slit, so of course they don’t see the entire picture. Just as they don’t see the real you. That’s their loss, I say,” he added with a shrug.
I laughed a little, and he squeezed my hand again. “You know, Lolo Teo would’ve whacked you over the head if he heard you,” I said lightly. “He once said music is spirit, and since spirit is everything, then music is everything.”
John grunted. “Yeah, sure, music is spirit. But spirit isn’t music. Not just music, anyway.”
“Oh yeah?” I challenged. “If it isn’t music, then what is spirit?”
John grinned. “Spirit is science. Spirit is poetry. Spirit is art. Spirit is…is…is a café latte with perfectly drawn latte art.”
“What?” I burst out laughing again. “So spirit is biking downhill with the wind in your hair?”
“Yeah, exactly,” he declared with a firm nod. “And spirit is laughing too loudly in an empty church. And glowing Christmas stars on a dark night. And—”
“And a parol a little boy made that I bet is the Baby Jesus’ favorite in this whole church.”
“Now you’re getting it,” he said, smiling down at me. “And you know what else I’ve discovered spirit is?”
“What?” I asked, smiling back.
“Spirit is a beautiful girl who writes about stars and draws angels, and has no idea what a gift she truly is.”
My breath caught, and I felt as if I was glowing brighter than all the stars in the church. We stared at each other for an endless, breathless moment, and when he began to lean in closer, my eyes slowly drifted shut as I moved to meet him halfway.
A girl’s excited squealing cut through the atmosphere. I jerked back, my eyes flying wide open to find John glancing around as well, looking dazed and flushed. “Did you hear that?” he asked.
“Yeah. It must’ve come from outside,” I answered. Then the realization of what had nearly happened struck me all of a sudden. “Oh my God, what are we doing? We’re in a church,” I whispered, jumping to my feet.
John closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Come on, it’s time to go home,” he told me as he stood up as well, thrusting his hands into his pockets.
He didn’t talk much on the way home, and I couldn’t help feeling an aching disappointment. I wished we hadn’t been interrupted back then. I wished we hadn’t been in a church of all places. And most of all…
…most of all, I wished that he wouldn’t leave.
When I got home, I got an earful from my mom for coming home late, and in the end, I caved in and agreed to go back to rehearsals. But between the sweet sense of accomplishment and gratitude that I felt when I saw the finished booklet John had emailed me, and the lingering giddiness and embarrassment over the kiss we’d almost shared, there was little space left inside me to stew over my family issues.
After all, I had to see the story of Gabe’s little parol through to the end. Like Sister Beth told me to, I kept moving forward.
I showed Marni a printout of the small storybook the next day, and she declared it “acceptable—okay, fine, it looks pretty awesome.” We waited for John that afternoon then the three of us went to the copy-and-print shop to have the book printed, only to discover that I didn’t have enough money to cover printing and photocopying expenses.
As I stood there enveloped in a cloud of gloom, Marni and John exchanged glances. “We were kind of expecting this,” she informed me. Then they proceeded to stun me by handing over some money—part of Marni’s own savings, and John’s earnings from the café.
Aghast, I stared down at the money, then at them. “Oh no. No, no, no, you guys don’t have to do this. You’ve already done so much!”
“Of course we have to do this,” Marni replied reasonably. “Otherwise, we’d never get to see that book in its actual form.”
“We’ve got a stake in this, too, you know,” John added.
“Don’t cry,” Marni warned. “A little dignity, please.”
But even with all our money put together, we still couldn’t make more than over a dozen copies, never mind the fifty I’d thought was a modest minimum. But somehow, the miracles kept coming. During rehearsals that night, as I stood waiting to do my duty as page-turner, Uncle Gary appeared.
He glowered at me as if I’d been the one with the gall to summon him. “Your Dad reminded me that you’re actually my goddaughter,” he said gruffly. Then before I could utter a word, he thrust a small, red envelope at me. “Don’t spend it all at once,” he growled.
Then he stalked off to yell at someone else. Nonplussed, I opened the envelope, and took out enough money to cover the photocopying expenses for over fifty copies. Then during last run-through rehearsal the following evening, as I sat among the chairs watching the crew prep the lights, microphones and monitors onstage, listening to the cacophony of the chamber orchestra tuning their instruments and one of the choirs vocalizing at the other end of the parking lot, my brother came over and sat next to me, setting his violin case down at his feet.
“Don’t you miss it?” he asked, nodding toward the stage.
I gave it some thought, then shook my head. “No, I don’t miss it, maybe because I never really left it or anything.” The disbelief on his face made me laugh. “Music is in my blood, Ray. It’s in my DNA. It’s just that I don’t make music the way the rest of you do.”
He nodded again. “You write stories and draw.”
“Wha—how do you know that?”
“I saw the picture books on your desk. Pretty cute. You’ll sell them during the concert, right?”
“You rat, you were poking around in my room again, weren’t you?!”
Grinning, he bent down to pick up his violin case and got to his feet. As he did, he pulled a crumpled white envelope out of his pocket and tossed it into my lap. “Early Christmas gift, Ate,” he said. “I was going to buy you a cap, but you don’t wear caps anymore.”
“Of course, I—” I stopped, blinking, when the hand I’d lifted to my head encountered hair instead of cloth. He gave me another grin before shuffling away. Straightening the envelope he’d given me, I found that it contained a few bills, enough for a Nike cap.
Or about a dozen more photocopies of the storybook.
Closing my hands tight around the money, I couldn’t help but glance up at the church. In my mind’s eye, the infant Savior smiled up at the little parol. “Thank you,” I whispered. “You’ve been helping me all this time, haven’t you? Thank you.”
I thought I heard the sound of joyous laughter, but it was only the evening breeze. Then the music began to play.