The wind stung my tear-stained face as I ran, kicking up snow. I had half an hour before the show began...I needed to get home!
The moment I saw my house, my blood pumped just hard enough that I managed to run faster until I reached the front door. I fumbled with my key and unlocked the door, immediately running to the kitchen.
I reached for the food basket that the welfare delivered to us that morning, and shuffled around until my hand landed on the huge ham at the bottom. I took it out and examined it for any rotten places. It seemed to be okay, so I ran into my bedroom and dug around under the bed until I managed to find a red bow from off of a box of Christmas candy I'd swiped from the store the week before. It tied perfectly around the ham, almost as if it was destined to be there from the moment it was made. I gave one final grin before I locked the house up and flew back to the church.
Ralph was waiting for me at the top of the stairs when I got there. I expected to be scolded and probably pummeled. Instead, his face was completely emotionless as he watched me double over when I reached the top, panting.
"That's the ham from the basket," Ralph inquired gently.
Barely able to speak, I simply nodded, until I was able to stand straight and look at him.
I thought..." I was a little unsure of what to say. I looked the ham, as if it could perhaps give me the words I couldn't find.
Ralph began to approach me. My muscles tightened, preparing for a beating, but Ralph put a firm hand on my shoulder and shook me a bit.
"Good idea," He smiled.
I was a little surprise at his reaction to all this, but I just smiled back.
"Alright, the show's about to begin," Ralph took my mop beard from around my neck and tied it back onto my face. "Go make sure the guys are set backstage."
I nodded briskly, rushing into the church to assemble my siblings and I backstage.
On the way there, I accidentally slammed into one of the sheep, almost knocking him down. The minute he saw it was me, the Leroy Herdman, he gasped and froze, petrified where he stood. Pretty much all I could see were his wide eyes...the rest of him was buried under an oversized hooded grey sweatshirt bombarded with cotton balls. That was everyone's answer to a sheep costume, apparently.
"Sorry!" I laughed slightly. "I was in a bit of a hurry there...which one are you, again?"
I flipped off his hood and check his hair...brown hair. So this one's not Hobie...
I stood there for a minute, surveying him. I was searching my head for a name. I could swear it had been said before. He just kept standing there, like a squirrel in the road.
"Sorry, kid," I ducked down to his level. "What's your name, again?"
He just whimpered.
"Name, please?" I said a little louder.
He squeezed his eyes shut, completely ready to be punched in the face, and ultimately squeaked, "Harold..."
"Oh..." I nodded and grinned at him. "Merry Christmas, Harold!"
I gave him a light smack in the arm right before I continued to run backstage.
I'm pretty sure he just stood there stunned for a while, unsure of what to think about how I just acted.
I opened the door to the back of the stage, where Alice was primping baby angels and shepherds were making final adjustments to their costumes. To my surprise, I found my brothers standing quietly backstage, studying their costumes.
They looked up at me, almost as stone-faced as Ralph was. I gripped the ham in my hands.
"I guess you guys are having second thoughts, too?" I chuckled lightly.
They both nodded.
"Maybe we should try something different like Imogene said," Claude spoke up.
"I also...kind of want things to be different," Ollie added.
I smiled at each of them and carefully arranged them in our line.
I heard the audience chatter from behind the curtain...and I was suddenly stricken with the biggest clot of nerves I'd experienced in a long time. My adrenaline pumped, my body went cold, and I could feel myself sweating. It was then that I realized I must have tremendous stage fright. Man...why did it have to show up the day of the performance? Why now?
Too late...the lights dimmed and the show began.
I spent my offstage time with my eyes glued to the floor, taking deep breaths through my mouth. Ollie heard my pants and looked back at me.
"Leroy, you okay?" He whispered.
"I'll be okay," I whispered back, voice quaking. "We just need to make sure this ham gets there, alright?"
Ollie nodded nervously, and turned back around to face the stage.
"HEY!" We suddenly heard Gladys shout.
Whoa, what is she doing?
My brothers and I peeked out from behind the curtains to see Gladys, clad in her red cape, approaching the shepherds.
"Hey," She eyed each of them. "Unto you a child is born! It's Jesus, and he's over there in the barn! Go see him!"
Gladys flexed a finger towards Ralph and Imogene, who were quietly sitting by the manger onstage. When the shepherds didn't move, Gladys began to push them in that direction, not caring if they stumbled to their knees or not.
"What is she doing?" Claude mumbled irately.
"It's okay!" I whispered back, pointing at the scene. "They found Jesus now!"
The twins studied the sight.
I added, "They don't need to wander all over anymore. They went straight there."
"Oh!" The twins whispered in unison, nodding to each other.
Maxine, positioned at the side of the stage, continued to read from her Bible.
"When Jesus was born, there came Wise Men from the east to worship him,"—oh no...that's our cue! I can't do this, I'm too nervous.—"bringing him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh."
Too late...the music started, and Ollie tromped out. I had no choice but to follow.
I stepped out, glanced once at the booked audience space, and quickly shot my head back in a forward position. My ham served as my safety blanket as my brothers and I circled the stage once before arriving at Ralph's side.
"Being warned in a dream that they should not return to their own country,"—thank goodness. I can get off this stage!—"the Wise Men departed another way."
We rose up from our positions and made our way quickly towards the other side of the stage. I gave a sigh of relief that it was done with already.
That wasn't so hard, I thought to myself. And I even got to give the ham to...oh no, the ham!
As I reached the edge of the stage wings, I realized I was still holding my ham. I twirled back around and held the ham out to Ralph, a little afraid to go back to where I was. Ralph, with both hands, made a downward gesture and mouthed something to me...but I couldn't quite catch what he was saying.
"Put it down," Maxine mumbled to me.
I looked at her, and back at Ralph, who nodded to me to put the ham down beside of Maxine.
I took one more sweeping glance at the audience, and quickly set down the ham.
Awesome. That was good.
I felt a grin creeping across my face. I slowly turned my head towards the baby angels, who shook their heads, begging "no". I nodded my head at them...begging yes.
I slapped my hands together into a gun shape, and like the great James Bond himself, I flew offstage, guns blazing.
When I arrived offstage, I looked back at Ralph and Imogene onstage, fully expecting them to get a light-hearted chuckle out of that. However, the whole time, Ralph was watching Imogene study the baby Jesus doll in her arms, rocking it back and forth. Gladys, who was still onstage, walked over to Imogene right as she laid her face down on the baby.
I think...that might be the first time I've ever seen Imogene cry.
After the church cleared out, my siblings and I walked calmly around the building, seeing the building in a brand new light. Suddenly, it wasn't just a building. It seemed to be a place of peace, where even horrible people like me could find a second chance, and be loved as a person rather than a scorecard of what great things you've done in your life. Perhaps that's not something we'd ever be able to gain from the people of the church...but from the person they came here every Sunday to see.
Imogene held him in her arms today...and I've never seen a more different version of my sister.
"Leroy!" I heard a woman's voice calling from behind me.
I turned around to see Mrs. Bradley running towards me, carrying my ham.
"Here!" She smiled and held the ham out to me. "You left this onstage. Quite a surprise! The audience talked for a while about it after the performance!"
Why is she giving it back to me? It was a gift.
"It's a present," I gently pushed the ham back to her, "and you don't take back presents."
She seemed surprised for some reason, but I gave her a broad but toothless smile to let her know it was okay.
"Well...thank you very much, Leroy," Mrs. Bradley smiled again. "That's very kind of you."
She grinned as each of my siblings before walking away with the ham. I turned back around to face my siblings. Imogene was still holding the doll, cradling it.
Ralph came over to her and put his hand on her back.
"Do you want to go back there?" He asked.
Imogene looked up at him, and with a weak smile, nodded yes.
So, we turned the next corner back towards the auditorium. We opened the doors to see the stage still beautifully lit by the North Star light, giving off a soft gold glow.
My siblings and I patiently waited on the stage as Imogene slowly approached the manger and placed the doll inside.
She looked so loving and peaceful at that moment. She never even looked at baby Gladys the way she looked at this doll. Something was really working inside of her, and I think we could all tell.
I look back at Ralph, who was smiling proudly at Imogene, before looking over and smiling at me. I smiled back, and looked back over at my big sister, who was now carefully looking across the gently lit auditorium. She looked at the set, the pews in the audience space, and once more over at the manger. She tucked the doll into its blankets one final time, before wrapping herself up in her robe hanging loosely from her shoulders.
She took two steps down from the platforms and joined us. She looked each one of us in the eyes: Ralph, Ollie, Claude, Gladys, and me.
"Let's go home," Imogene smiled at us.
Together, we walked out into the snow, back towards home. We didn't stay for the cast party, didn't get any cocoa or snacks...we just walked back to our house, as the family we were becoming for the first time.
Have a wonderful Christmas, everyone, and thank you for reading!