All Holidays Matter by R.E.Mullins

Part One December 24th at 10:15 a.m.

    Pulling this off is gonna take a Christmas Miracle…

    Meg Howell finished setting the timer and placed her cell phone on the hastily cleared bathroom counter—next to a white, innocuous-looking, plastic stick.

    She hadn’t realized she’d spoken out loud until her best friend muttered, “Chanukah.” Looking pale and nervous, Talia Baum sat on the closed toilet lid as she practiced controlled breathing.

    “Huh?”

    “Jew here.” The finger Talia pointed at her chest shook, and she quickly rested her hand on her knee. “So,” she drew out the word. “Time and place. Time and place.”

     Meg’s surprise quickly changed into chagrin, “Sorry.”

     “All Christians get a little tone deaf around Christmas. Even happens to the good ones.” Eyes a little wild, Talia spoke as if she were trying to distract herself. "Jews," she moved her hand in a more or less gesture, "have gotten used to it. Hell, we even help you celebrate. Jews wrote at least half of the Christmas songs. You know?"

    “Really?”

    “Yep. And while we’re on the subject, you guys don’t have a monopoly on miracles either—like that one on 34th Street. We have a miracle too, and ours lasted eight days.”

     “Not trying to compete,” Meg said dryly, “but the Christmas Miracle is the birth of Jesus from immaculate conception. It isn't fictional stuff like Miracle on 34th Street, Frosty the Snowman, or Rudolph the Flying Reindeer.”

     Talia seemed to latch onto just one word. “Birth. Oh, my God.” Her eyes were panicked. “How much longer?”

     Leaning forward, Meg checked the numbers that were steadily clicking down. “Twenty-five more seconds to get busy invoking that Chanukah miracle.” Tal’s moan sounded like an injured moose, and she lowered her head between her knees.

     Meg meant to be comforting but, per usual, something else popped out of her mouth. “If you’re preggers, do you think we could get Aaron to sing that old, Paul Anka song? You know the one.” When Talia snorted, Meg sang part of the refrain. “‘Having my Baby. What a wonderful way to say what you’re thinking of me.' Mom said Dad sang it to her while they were expecting me."

   “Not help—” The words froze on Talia’s lips as three short beeps indicated the wait was over. “You look.”

     Meg grimaced. Best friend or not, she didn’t relish touching something recently peed on. “Since when did reading 'the stick of doom' get stuck on the best friend list?”

    “Since always.”

    “Right.” First Meg scanned the package insert. Two lines in the test window would seal Talia's destiny. She might have to put off her last semester of college or, at the very least, move her wedding to Aaron forward. One line, however, meant her friends had dodged the bullet.

    Gingerly picking up the indicator, Meg squinted at the tiny screen. “Huh,” she said before holding it aloft for better light and a different angle. “Huh,” she repeated.

    “Well?” Tal demanded without raising her head.

   “According to this, you’re just a little pregnant.”

   “Give me that.” Surging to her feet, she snatched the test out of Meg’s hands and stared at it in disbelief.

   “See?” Meg said helpfully, “The control line is nice and clear, but there’s only a tiny dot where the preggo line should be.”

   That had her friend wailing, “What does that mean?”

   “Don’t know. Test could be a dud. Or, maybe, you don’t have enough pregnancy hormone in your system to register yet.” Since it was Christmas Eve, Meg knew their options were limited. “There’s the walk-in clinic, or we can grab another test for you to take in the morning.”

   “No clinic,” Talia said firmly. “I’ll buy every kind of test in stock. One of them has to work.” 

   "Good plan."   

   Thump. Thump. Tal lightly pounded her head against the wall. “Aaron and I were supposed to meet Carter for lunch.” Thump. “I don’t feel like going now." Thump

  “Carter? Carter West is back in town?”

  “Through the third of January, I think." Thumping her head one last time, she tossed the test kit in the trash and joined Meg at the sink where they washed their hands. “You know, Carter suggested we bring you with us. I know he’s not your favorite person, but will you? Please? I think I can handle it if you’re there.”

   The thought of seeing Carter created a skittering sensation in the pit of Meg’s stomach. She, Talia, Aaron, and Carter had grown up in the same neighborhood and, over the years, the Howells, Baums, Levinsteins, and Wests had thrown countless block parties, cookouts, and holiday gatherings. Heck, they’d even vacationed together a few times.

    So, no one had been surprised when Talia and Aaron started dating their freshman year of high school nor when they got engaged right after graduation. The couple planned to attend the local university as it offered the Religious History degree Tal wanted to pursue. Undecided, Meg had wavered until Carter accepted a soccer scholarship at an out of state institution her family couldn’t afford.

   During the end of summer party thrown for the college-bound teens, Meg felt physically ill at the thought of Carter leaving. At least she had until she’d overheard him tell his Uncle Jim, "Leave it alone. Meg isn’t my type.”

   The Uncle looked over at her, but she pretended to be raptly listening to one of Talia’s history factoids. Turning back to his nephew, he said, “I think she’s cute. What’s wrong with her?”

   “Nothing. She’s like a kid sister,” Carter dismissed her so easily. Pulling out his cell, he showed off a picture. “Now this is what I’m talking about,” he leered. “Jenny Grady. Head Cheerleader and all-round hot babe.”

   To give Carter his due, he hadn’t spoken loudly. He hadn’t meant for her to hear. But she had. College might have physically separated them, but with those words, he emotionally split their group apart.

   Joining Tal and Aaron at the local college, Meg had thrown herself into her studies. Now they were seniors, and the coming spring would see them receiving their diplomas. Meg would earn a dual degree in Education and Chemistry. Student teaching was a last semester requirement, but she’d proactively freed up a couple of afternoons a week. She’d spent two hours every Tuesday and Thursday aiding Mr. Adersley in her old High School laboratory.    

    For three years, it went without saying; she usually made herself scarce when Carter visited his parents. His mother, bless her heart, seemed equally determined to keep her up to date on his every breath. Meg was well aware he’d graduate in May with his Bachelors in Business. From there he’d join his father’s firm as a junior vice-president. Must be nice, she sneered, to be the golden boy.

    If she was honest, it was a lot harder to hear about his social life. Though the big love affair with Jenny Grady ended when he left for college, according to Mrs. West, Carter never lacked for dates.

   Like Meg cared.

   “Well?” Tal broke into her thoughts, “Will you go? After lunch we’ll come back to get ready for the party.”

   “Whatever.” Meg shrugged with faked indifference. “I’m bound to see him sooner or later.”

Part Two:  December 24th 6:45 p.m.

   Wearing a mini in forest-green and thigh-high boots, Meg entered the Levinstein's house. Each year the annual Christmas Eve/Chanukah party was rotated between the four households, and this year Aaron's parents were hosting.

    Her dress fit like a glove, and Tal had spent close to an hour giving Meg’s light-brown hair long, beachy waves. Yes siree, she was looking pretty good—even if she said so herself. It was just her luck when she stepped into the kitchen to drop off a plate of appetizers that Carter was the first person she saw. He had an arm flung around Aaron’s mom, and they were laughing together.

    “Meg,” Mrs. Levinstein exclaimed when she saw her in the arched doorway. “Well, now, don’t you look gorgeous. Come on. Give us a turn.” The older woman twirled her finger in the air and Meg, a bit self-consciously, obliged. The rotation earned her a wolf whistle from her hostess. 

    Carter laughed at the bawdy noise but warmly agreed with the sentiment. “You look fantastic,” he told Meg.

   “Here.” Mrs. Levinstein took the covered plate. “You kids go enjoy.”

    Much to the woman’s delight, Carter kissed her cheek before turning to Meg. “We’ve been ordered to enjoy.” Gesturing for her to proceed him from the room, he added, “Let’s see who else is here.”

    Entering the den, they arrived just in time to see a Breaking News bar scroll across the bottom of the television screen. 'United Hebrew Temple vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti, exterior doors damaged, and smashed windows,' it read. Contact police with any information.' The number for the local police station followed.

    The United Hebrew Synagogue was a lovely old building where the Baum and Levinstein families attended Shabbat services. Knowing words would never be enough, Meg headed straight for her friend and wrapped Talia in a comforting hug. It took her a moment to realize her friend wasn't rigid with shock but fury.

    “People pretend to love Jesus so much,” Talia spoke in a low and unnaturally hoarse tone. “Can’t they understand there wouldn’t be a Christmas or Christianity without a Jewish woman giving birth to a Jewish child?”

    “Jesus would never approve of such hate,” Meg fervently agreed.

     Finally, Talia lowered her head to her shoulder, and Meg was grieved anew to see the other reactions. She saw sadness and anger on their faces but no surprise. To her, that was worst of all. Her friends were so accustomed to bigotry that it no longer had the power to shock them

    “I bet they hit our cemetery tonight.” Straightening, Talia bunched her hands into fists at her sides.

    “No,” Aaron disagreed as he and Carter approached bearing cups of Brandy spiked eggnog. He handed her one. “The cops are on it so the vandals will lay low for a while.”

    This didn’t appease his fiancée. “I think they will,” she insisted. “We ought to go—"

    “We don’t need to be anywhere we suspect anti-Semitics might target,” Meg’s father gravely offered his opinion. “They’d bash in our heads as quickly as they’d desecrate a headstone.”

    Silenced, Tal nodded slightly. Raising her eggnog, she took a sip, and the eyes she lifted over the rim of her glass told Meg a different story. A message that Meg read loud and clear.

    Using her silent code, Meg lifted her brows fractionally. It let Tal know she was onboard. Any notion she might not participate never occurred to either of them.

    “Come on.” Aaron drew Talia toward the doorway. “Mom’s got the great room set up for dancing.”

   “Dance with me?”

    Being hit by the blast of Carter’s smile, Meg blinked, was enough to dazzle the eye. Backed into a metaphorical corner by good manners—especially in front of their families—she was prevented from any snarky replies. That meant she couldn’t come back with, “I wasn’t good enough for you before, and you aren’t good enough for me now.”

    That made it a dilemma she hadn’t anticipated. Yes, she’d enjoyed their conversation at lunch, and it had brought back remnants of the bond they’d once shared.

    Illogical or not she wasn’t sure how to fully release a grudge festering for four years.

    However, fate had stacked the cards against her, and she accepted the inevitable. They joined the other couples right as an upbeat number ended. “Give us a break,” Aaron hollered at his cousin manning the tunes. “Slow it down.”

    Carter took Meg’s hand and curled her under his arm in a slow twirl designed to have the partner ending in the closed dance position. It was a move learned during their mandatory and much hated Middle School Cotillion classes. Which, judging by his smirk, he also remembered.

    A haunting melody stirred the air. Carter slid his palms down her arms to her hands which he then lifted to place demurely on his shoulders. Then lightly holding her waist, he swayed them back and forth in time to the music.

    Moments later, he bent her backward in a low dip. The illusion of falling made her gasp and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck.

    His low chuckle sent a breath of warm air along the rim of her ear. “That’s better,” he said and slowly danced them across the room until they were near the large, bay window. “Look,” his voice softly rumbled beneath her cheek. “It’s snowing.”

   She looked, and it was, and it was lovely. On a soft sound of awe, Meg watched fat white flakes drift down from the heavens.

    “For the last couple of years, I've been bugging Aaron to tell me why you always avoid me,” he said. At her jolt, he seemed afraid she might take off and started talking faster, “He finally fessed after lunch and told me what you overheard…God, Meg, I’m sorry. There’s no excuse. I was stupid and immature. But, please know I didn’t mean it, and I hate that I hurt your feelings."

    “Tal always said it was because Jenny Grady let you touch her breasts.” The quip popped out of her unruly mouth.

    “There is that.” His grin flashed before he turned serious again. “Let’s clear the air. I need you to forgive me and be my friend again.”

    "Friends, sure."

    “It’s not that I didn’t consider you cute, sweet, and smart back then. I did. I always have…It’s just, well, some relatives were urging me to ask you out, and I thought of you like—well, more of a kid sister than a potential girlfriend.”

    "I get it, Carter. Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt."

    "Contempt? Never. No matter how it sounded." Carter rested his forehead against hers. "Since I was too stupid to ask you out before—will you let me take you to dinner while I’m home?”

    The yes trembling on her lips died when Tal interrupted. “Come on,” She ordered and clutched Meg’s arm. Within moments she had tugged her out of the room, down the hall, and into a little powder room.

    “I see you’ve forgiven Carter.” Tal closed and locked the door. “I guess most seventeen-year-old males go braindead after touching their first set of boobs. Golly, I remember how Aaron reacted. Do you think, from the moment a boy gets weaned, he starts a quest back to the nipple?”

    “Is that what you dragged me in here to discuss?” Meg perched on the edge of the sink. “And since when have you bought into this blaming the woman crap? It sounds like a guy’s convenient excuse for making unwanted sexual advances.”

     With Tal momentarily silenced, Meg dramatically placed a hand on her heart. “I couldn’t help it, your Honor. Look how she's dressed. So what if I run around without a shirt? It’s her short skirt that causes my lack of control.”

    Getting into the spirit, Tal chimed in, “It's her fault for sheltering my unformed fetus inside her body until I could survive on my own. That’s the reason I have this primitive urge to return to the womb. And if she hadn’t nourished me with milk from her breasts, I wouldn’t have an oral fixation."

    "Besides,” Meg held a hand to the side of her mouth and stage-whispered, "us men got together and decided to blame all our shortcomings on the female. I know you know it’s true because I saw you at the meeting."

    Tal’s laughter slowly died. “You know? That’s too true to be funny."

    "It is. Now tell me why we’re here.”

    “You’re going to get a headache, and I’ll take you home.”

    “Why don’t you get a headache?”

    “Because Aaron will insist on taking care of me. He’ll be okay with me helping you.”

    It made sense. However, Meg frowned as she slid off the vanity to her feet.

   Tal noticed. “What’s the matter? You chickening out?”

   Cocking her hip, Meg sneered, “Have I ever? I was thinking we better dress warm if we're going to be outside for any length of time."

    Relief poured over Talia’s face. Crossing her heart in the time-honored tradition, she vowed, “I’ll never doubt you again.”

    “At least not until the next time.”

    “You got it. Okay, here’s what we’ll do…”

    Close to an hour later, Meg was stuffing herself at the buffet with the guys when Talia joined them. Idly, her friend picked up a black olive and ate it. Taking her time, she selected another one, but this time she paused with it halfway to her mouth.

   "You feeling okay?" She made a show of placing her palm against Meg’s forehead. "You're a bit flushed."

   Oops, Meg choked down a bite of under-chewed spinach tartlet. Somehow, she'd gotten sidetracked from the plan. “Uh. Yeah. Um...headache,” she stammered. To further seal the deal, she pinched the bridge of her nose. It was a gesture she'd once seen an actor make during a migraine commercial to demonstrate his massive pain.

    Talia placed her hand maternally on Meg’s arm. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Turning to Aaron, she announced briskly, “I’ll take her home, give her some pain relievers, and stick around until they take effect.”

    A very confused looking Carter cupped Meg's chin in his hand and peered into her clear eyes. After a moment, he said kindly, “I’m sorry you’re hurting. I’ll call tomorrow to make sure you’re on the mend and to firm up our date.”

    Aaron seemed oblivious to any subterfuge. He slapped Carter on the shoulder. “Come on, dude. We’ll walk the ladies out to their car, so Tal can get Meg home and medicated.”

   Raising up on her tiptoes, Talia planted a kiss on her fiance's mouth. “Thanks, Sweetie. I’ll sit with her until I know she’s better.

   "Call."

   "I will," Talia promised, "if I don't fall asleep on her couch.”

Part Three: December 24th 11:05 p.m.

    The friends entered the Hebrew section of the cemetery on foot. They wore layers of insulated clothing and were packing cell phones, flashlights, and thermoses filled with coffee. Their spirits were filled with grim determination, and their bodies were too cold to register fear.

    The original town planners designed the graveyard in the shape of a capital L with those considered unworthy of spending eternity planted alongside uptight, white, Christian corpses relegated to the leg. A low stone wall further divided the two sections. It was as if the bigots had been afraid the ghosts might mingle.

    The plan was simple: set up sentry stations on either side of the Hebrew funerary grounds and keep them under surveillance. After that, all they had to do was remain hidden and film any trespassers. 

    “There’s a good spot.” Meg pointed her flashlight at a scraggly trio of shrubbery where the exterior fence met the interior barrier.

    “You take it,” Tal told her. “There’s a Willow over there," she gestured. "If I sit under the droopy branches I’ll look like part of the tree trunk.”

    Meg hesitated but needed to ask the question bothering her, “I get that the place used to be segregated but that can’t be legal now. Why hasn’t someone demolished this barricade?”

    “We no longer have to be buried over here. Now we choose to be.”

    “But why?”

    “I don’t know. Tradition, maybe?” She motioned to the gentile section. “It’s a little problematic to be buried over there if you want to spend eternity next to your granny.”

    “Oh,” Meg mumbled. “Well, that sucks.”

    When Talia left for her lookout post, Meg stifled a strong urge to call her back. She found she didn’t like them being so far apart. Splitting up might be the best way to monitor everything, but there was safety and comfort in numbers. Her anxious eyes followed the small circle of light indicating Tal’s progress until it winked off.

   The darkness blanketing the ground seemed complete. Eerie gray snow clouds were doing their best to shroud the moon and stars, and an icy breeze lifted the ends of her hair in a sinister way. Meg shivered and huddled between wall and bushes as a windbreak.

   It was quiet. Too quiet. Not long after the timeworn catchphrase from countless horror films played through her mind, she thought she heard something. Footsteps? If anyone showed, Meg needed to be able to see them to get a clear video of the action. Eyes and ears straining, Meg rose to her knees and looked around.

   Even with her senses on high alert, she didn't detect any movement. Squeezing back into her hiding spot, she'd barely gotten settled when she heard the slight rustling again. This time she stood all the way up, but still saw nothing.

    It had to be the wind. Yeah, blaming the wind was good. It was, after all, the most probable and indeed the most innocuous explanation for any and all strange noises. Satisfied with her answer she was ready to sit back down when a voice broke the night, “Not cool, Meg.”

   Screeching she stumbled forward and slammed into something hard that went, "umph." By this time her mind had registered the male, familiar, and more-than-a-little irritated voice.

   “You’re a terrible actress." Carter gripped her arm. "It was also hard to believe you had a headache when your eyes are clear, and you're practically glowing with health. Still, Aaron and I were ready to give you dumbasses the benefit of a doubt. That is, until, we went to check on you,” his tone turned was wintry as the temperature. “When you weren’t home it was easy enough to figure things out.”

   “We're doing the right thing,” Meg challenged. “Nobody wanted to get involved, and I’m sick and tired of everyone shying away. It’s time to put a stop to white nationalism once and for all.”

   Carter’s tone dripped with sarcasm, “And you think you can stop a bunch of thugs in their tracks?"

   “Yes,” Meg jerked her arm away. “We record them and splash it all over social media.”

   “Look, kid, it’d take a Christmas miracle—”

   “Chanukah,” Meg interrupted without a qualm. “Time and place, Carter. Time and place.”

    She knew exactly when her meaning hit him. "Right. I see your point. Still—”

   “You know Jesus wasn’t even born in December.”

    Her distraction seemed to work as he stopped fussing to ask, “How you figure?”

   “Well, there are a couple of things. One deals with the shepherds. If they were 'in the fields' the night Jesus was born, then it wasn’t wintertime. The Talmud recorded daily practices of the time, and it details how the flocks were taken to the fields in March and brought home by early November before the winter cold and rain.”

   “Maybe, they were having a warm winter.”

   She didn’t consider that worthy of a reply. “You might find this more compelling.” Sitting back down, she waited until he joined her. “The timeline is set in the Books of Luke and Matthew. Both state, unequivocally, that John’s father, Zacharias was performing priest duties at the temple during Abia. Tal has explained that’s the time of the eighth Holy course in Judaism and ends in the middle of June. Yeah, I think I have that right…I know the part about it ending in June is correct. So, there was Zacharias busy at the temple when an angel tells him that his wife, Elizabeth will bear a son.”

   “And the point is?” Carter grasped a twig that was poking him in the face and handily bent it back.

   “Since it wasn’t an immaculate thing, old Zac had to finish work, travel home, and beget with Elizabeth. Nine months later, ta-da, John the Baptist is born in March.”

   “What does this have to do with Jesus?”

   “Everything,” Meg lightly slugged his shoulder. “This record of John the Baptist’s conception and birth starts the clock ticking on Jesus. The Gospels further document that Elizabeth is six months pregnant—they're quite specific about that—when the angel informs her cousin, Mary that she will bear Jesus. This places Jesus’ conception someplace in December—not his birth. Count forward nine months, and Jesus was born in September. Which,” she finished triumphantly, “fits with the shepherds’ routine as they would still be in the fields with their flocks.”

   “I didn't know that,” Carter admitted. “I do know we celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December because early Christians wanted to assimilate the very popular Pagan celebration of Saturnalia during the winter solstice.”

   Meg sighed. “It’s kind of disheartening, don’t you think? Knowing that the first Christians deliberately chose the dates on our religious calendar simply to supplant the Holy days of other faiths.”

   “It worked, didn’t it?”

   “Pretty much,” Meg agreed.

   “Why does all this make me feel guilty?” Carter asked. When Meg nodded, he must have mistaken the movement for a shiver. “Come here." He pulled her into his lap and wrapped her in his arms.

    Being held was comforting, but Meg found she appreciated the way their feelings meshed even more. “I said the same thing to Tal, but she said guilt wasn’t what she intended. When she shared what she’d learned in class, it was for me to see how all religions have become interwoven over the centuries. Chanukah and Kwanzaa both celebrate holy days in December. Ramadan follows a lunar calendar, but it eventually rolls back into December.”

   “Then there are Pagans and Atheists.”

   “The Pagans," Meg sighed as she rested her cheek against Carter's shoulder. "I think Pagans were hit hardest by Christianity. I'm glad it still exists. In fact, I was surprised by how many still practice the ancient religion."

   “I admit Christians often act as if we have a monopoly on December.” Carter tugged her a little closer. “I didn’t know you were so well versed in these things.”

   “My best friend is Jewish and studying the History of Religion,” Meg answered bluntly. “She wouldn’t allow me to be anything else.”

   “I—” Whatever Carter was about to say was lost as a car door slammed in the distance. “I don’t believe it,” he breathed. “Aaron was positive there wouldn’t be any more action tonight.”

   The crunch of shoes on gravel prevented further conversation. Whoever it was, they were coming from the main entrance instead of using the one directly accessing their targeted side. By coming from that direction, they would walk across rows of graves boobytrapped with uneven ground and tombstones before reaching the short wall.

    “Told ya no one would be here,” a voice crowed. Immediately, Meg started the video app on her cell phone to record them. “You thought they’d be guarding the place, but I said no one would believe we’d hit again tonight.”

    “Keep it down,” another ordered.

    “It’s too damn dark out here,” a third complained. "That’s the second grave I’ve tripped over, and the thought of stepping on dead people creeps me out.”

    “Keep your light off and shut up,” their apparent leader ordered.

    There was something about…Meg's eyes narrowed. Though their voices were masculine, they lacked the timber of maturity. Dropping her chin with a long sigh, she felt confident at least two of the fools were in the High School Science class where she was student teaching.

   Waiting just long enough for the trio to get over the waist-high barrier, Meg surged to her feet. Flicking on her flashlight, she aimed it and her camera at their stupid faces. 

   “Nate, Dan, and, yep, it’s Dylan,” she yelled in disgust.

   Carter also blasted a powerful beam into the boys’ eyes as he relieved a stunned Nate of the sledgehammer he carried.

   “You idiots. Don’t bother running. You're surrounded, "she lied. "Plus I recorded you bragging about vandalizing the Synagogue. So, now you get to spend Christmas in juvie instead of opening presents.”

   “Shit,” Dylan immediately took off with Carter hard on his heels. A moment later they heard the oomph and thud as the college athlete easily tackled the scrawny teen to the ground.

   “Give it, Miz Howell,” Nate demanded the moment Carter no longer had her back. He thrust out a hand for her phone. “Then it’s your word against ours.”

   “Didn’t you hear me?” Smiling grimly, Meg gestured to Aaron and Talia as they approached. “I said I wasn’t alone.”

   “I’m live streaming to the cops, and they're on their way,” Talia announced as Carter returned pushing a sullen Dylan in front of him.

   Aaron indicated the ground. "Have a seat, boys,"

   “Glad that’s over," A gravelly voice boomed from out of the darkness.

   “Dad?" Meg's jaw dropped. She continued to doubt her ears until her mom said, "Me too.”

    “But we enjoyed the history lesson,” Mrs. Baum’s head popped up a few yards behind them.

    The other parents also agreed it was very informative as all eight came forward.

    “And we’re glad Carter finally came to his senses,” Mr. West added humorously.

     Meg was left desperately trying to bury the burbles of laughter tickling the back of her throat. She should have known. As kids, they’d never gotten anything past their sharp-eyed parents.

    Laughing Carter flung his arms around Meg. “That I have, Dad,” he said and planted cold lips on her equally icy mouth in a surprisingly hot kiss while the peanut gallery applauded.

    Meg then grinned down into the three morose faces of her students. “I’ve got a great idea,” she told them. “While we wait for the police, Talia is going to repeat the history surrounding the birth of Jesus.”

    “Excellent,” Carter said and kissed her again.

Part Four: December 25th 11:27 Late Christmas morning

    Meg stirred as her waking mind became flooded with everything that had happened. She found, with a start, that she was on her couch, fully dressed, and half-draped over an equally clothed Carter.

    He’d stayed.

    Beneath her cheek, she felt the rhythm of Carter’s breathing change. Lifting her head, she was just in time to see him slowly opening his eyes.   

   “Hey you,” she whispered.

   “Hey,” he whispered back and hugged her to him.

   A minute later, Aaron's surprisingly beautiful baritone could be heard outside her door. It took Meg a moment to decipher the new lyrics inserted into the badly mangled tune.

    “Not having my baby—” he sang, and then a cringe-worthy, off-key Talia chimed in, “It’s a wonderful way to say I got my period.”

     Meg doubled over with laughter at Carter’s pained expression.

    “I’ll never be able to listen to that song the same way again,” he complained.

    “We discuss everything around here, so get over it,” Meg planted a kiss on his pouty lips. “That is if you planned on sticking around.”

    “I am.”

    With a big smile, she disengaged herself from his arms and headed for the door. It looked as if she and Tal had gotten their miracles after all.

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