This was the last place she expected to spend Christmas.
Angela Jensen fought back a sigh. As if sensing her thoughts, Ron leaned over until his lips brushed her ear. “This environment, this setting—it must be strange to you. More than strange. Foreign.”
Nodding, she turned to catch his gaze. “Yes.” She wasn’t about to give him more. Not here. Not now.
His brows drew together. “Do you want to leave?”
“No, I’m fine. Really.” She was fine, just not comfortable, not at ease.
Besides, damned if she’d get up and walk the wrong way down that long, long aisle, crowded with processing choirs, with all these people watching.
Life as an atheist wasn’t easy, especially during America’s annual homage to over-indulgence known as “The Holidays.” Even harder when it was your birthday, and your mother had lost her life while giving you yours.
Friends who thought it was a double day for celebration were wrong. For her and her dad, it was a day of mourning. So around age ten she convinced her father to let her celebrate her birthday in July so she didn’t have to compete for attention with the Baby Jesus, or a dead mother.
In his logical, engineering-minded way, he’d agreed. It made it easier for him, after all. He didn’t want that memory any more than she did. Sometimes she wondered if either of them remembered her true birth date.
But avoiding Christmas, that was impossible. It followed her wherever she went, jingle-belling and ho-ho-ho-ing and “Merry Christmas”-ing at every corner until she wanted to scream at the top of her lungs that yes, Jesus was a nice man, a good teacher. As for being the son of god…since there was no god, no all-knowing higher power who would make right all the wrongs in life, Jesus’ divinity, or not, was moot. Just get over it.
Usually she kept her thoughts and her beliefs—really, her UNbeliefs—to herself.
Americans were all about freedom of religion. They’d accept worship of animals and snakes, even sports teams. But tell them you believed in nothingness, and stares of contempt, or pity, quickly followed. Getting close to people was…difficult.
Until she’d met Ron. He’d been different right from the start, sneaking into her heart like he’d crept through a back door on ninja feet. He’d hooked her first with steady hazel-brown eyes that crinkled at the corners when he laughed. Charmed her with that easy grin that creased a dimple down the middle of his cheek, inviting her lips to follow. Even that awful flat Midwestern accent that sounded so out of place in rural Virginia intrigued her.
Of course, she’d kept her feelings of UN-faith from him for the longest time, evading questions about her upbringing, her personal habits, until they’d grown close. Until they’d begun to spend nights together, and on rare occasions, weekends.
Then one morning, not too long ago, when they finished making love, he lay over her, braced on his elbows and staring at her with an expression of such adoration, her throat had tightened, and she’d had to blink back tears.
“What?” she’d asked, prompting him to speak.
“I was just thinking.”
“What about me?”
“I love you, Angela. And I think you love me, too.”
She’d nodded, her heart beginning to thud in big timpani booms. And she knew why. For the first time she feared the consequences of her UNbelief. Because Ron was what she’d call “a believer,” and for believers, belief was a biggie.
He didn’t spout scripture, or spend endless hours at church. But he had a Bible on his desk and had dropped enough hints about growing up in that culture.
So she told him. “There’s something you need to know, about me.”
“This sounds serious,” he said. Then he rolled over and settled against the headboard, dragging her next to him with an arm around her waist. “Let me guess. You’re actually a CIA operative, working under cover, literally, to wring from me all the secrets I’ve been harboring about my plans to discover and clone the twerking gene.”
“No.” She’d tried to laugh, but it had come out sounding strained. “It’s just that I’m not what you’d call a religious person.”
“You don’t understand. I’m—” For the first time since identifying her feelings, she had difficulty spitting the label from her mouth. “I’m an atheist.”
“Okay.” Typical guy answer that meant nothing. Not affirmation. Not condemnation. Just nothing. But he’d nestled her closer, wrapped both arms around her and began to rock her, as if trying to comfort. She didn’t want comforting. She wanted understanding, and acceptance.
“What, aren’t you going to try to convince me how wrong I am? Aren’t you going to try to save me?” She lifted her arms and made jazz hands.
He chuckled, began to nibble on her ear. “Why would I do that?”
She twisted to face him. “Isn’t that what religious people do? Try to make believers, or followers, out of us sinners?”
The smile slipped from his face. “That’s not my job, no. That’s God’s job. My job, my beautiful Angela, is to try in my all-too-human way to see you as God sees you, to love you as God loves you.”
“And how does your god see me?”
“As His child, of course, crafted in His image, designed to some day live with Him in perfect love, beyond the bounds of the earthly body.”
“Huh.” She’d narrowed her gaze, trying to pierce through the words to an underlying deception, but found none.
When several days passed without a follow-up, she began to take him at his word. She began to let down her guard.
That’s how he’d suckered her into going with him to the Christmas Eve midnight service. They’d been at work at the county hospital, way out in the boonies, at the same time for once. She’d just come out of surgery and had plopped down at the computer in the nurses’ station to write her notes. He was in the next chair over, reviewing a patient’s records in preparation for a C-section.
“Hey,” he’d said, “I know it’s not your thing, but how about coming to the midnight Christmas service with me at the church down the road?”
She’d lifted an eyebrow, snickered, then gone back to reviewing the chart of the man whose heart was now pumping much more efficiently, and hopefully would for the next twenty years.
“I mean it, Angie,” he’d said, persisting. “I’d like you to come with me. It’s mostly singing.”
“Ron, I thought I explained. Church isn’t—”
“I know, I know.” He’d rushed the words, cutting her off. “I know all about your UNbelief. You’ve told me, and I respect your choice. I realize I’m asking a lot, but this is my first year here. My family is nine hundred miles away in Chicago. It won’t be Christmas for me if I just sit home. I have to be with people, hear the stories—“
“Yeah, yeah, I know. ‘For unto you this day is born in the City of Bethlehem, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.’” She’d recited the words by rote.
Ron didn’t seem to notice her emotionless delivery. “You know the verse,” he said, and his voice held a pleased but questioning tone that caused her stomach to flip-flop. So she snapped.
“Of course I know it. What American child didn’t grow up watching ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’? Can’t you just rent the DVD to get your fix?”
“I understand. Really. It’s okay. ” He hadn’t exactly pouted, but his shoulders had dropped, and his expression had turned noticeably expressionless. She’d disappointed him, and it mattered.
She closed the patient’s file, logged off the computer, and swiveled from the desk. “Okay, I’ll go and keep you company. We’re both working tomorrow anyway. We can start the day together.”
“Thank you, Angie. I owe you.”
“Don’t get excited. I’ll go and sit with you, but don’t expect any great transformation. I’m not interested. In fact, I’ll meet you there in case I want to make a quick getaway.”
She’d been fine with her decision until she got there, saw the big white church with the lit-up steeple that served as a beacon for fools. She forced herself to the entrance and found him, and at seeing his mouth-stretching grin, hoped his excitement, his pleasure, would see her through the ordeal.
But now, stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder amongst the chattering throngs, she began to sweat.
She should have said no. She should have insisted on staying home, resting for what was sure to be a long Christmas day at the hospital. She and Ron had both volunteered to be on duty, and holidays always brought out the crazies.
Yet, here she sat in this massive church, complete with candle-carrying choristers of all ages heralding the birth of a very mortal baby boy two millennia earlier.
Ron squeezed her hand, drawing her attention from her misery and reminding her just why she’d decided to accompany him. He was a good man, a loving man who deserved to be with someone who shared his beliefs.
The thought brought tears, and she blinked rapidly to halt their flow. Thankfully, he seemed too caught up in the music, the ritual, to notice.
Then the music ended and the preacher began his spiel. He talked about his “God of the Universe” that could somehow know each person’s soul.
He told the story of a teenaged virgin who was visited by an angel, then gave birth to a fully human boy who would later perform miracles and teach the world how to live.
He spoke of the supernatural nature of the event, how people aren’t supposed to understand and it’s okay to feel confused, conflicted. Jesus’ birth, after all, was about hope when logically there should be none. When he ended, for the first time in over an hour the pressure in Angela’s chest eased.
As the church emptied, Ron stopped to shake hands with strangers while she stood at his side, nodding and smiling at the “Merry Christmas” greetings that rang through the chilly midnight air. All the while a slow certainty burned in her belly that she and Ron weren’t meant to be together.
After an eternity, he walked her to her car, gripping her hand like a child would. When they stopped, she said, “I’m glad I came. It was enlightening, on many levels.”
He made a humming noise, then tipped her face up to press a chaste kiss to her lips. It felt like good-bye.
“See you later?”
“Yes. Three p.m. shift. Maybe we’ll have a chance to talk.”
He waited while she started the car, and as she pulled from the curb and headed for home, he shouted, “Be careful. The holidays always bring out the crazies.”
Please check back tomorrow for Chapter Two!