A Chapter in The Horned Edge,
By Rosemary B. Althoff
“You want to do what?” Peggy said incredulously when he talked to her in the break room at work.
“I want to go to the Christmas Eve service at Redeemer Church downtown. I’ve already called them; it’s at seven o’clock.” Lewis sipped his coffee with one hand—the coffee was rather burned, so he’d put more sugar in it than usual—and touched her hand with the other.
“Lewis, we can’t go,” Peggy told him, leaning into him for an embrace. “We have a company party that night, remember? My dad and Mr. Cranz have spent a lot of time and money on putting it together for all the employees.”
Lewis had forgotten. An inner voice said, You’re a newbie around here. You would be wise to meet friends at Peggy’s party. He wavered. He had just decided to bypass his idea and go to the party, but then he felt a different, softer nudging inside. Try the Christmas Eve service. It’s only this time. You won’t know if you don’t go.
He came back to his resolve. “We can still go to the party,” he said, smiling down into her lovely face. “They won’t care if we come by after the service.”
“I don’t think I want to go,” Peggy answered, doubt filling her voice. “I can’t imagine anything I want to do less than go to some stuffy half-baked Christmas ceremony at a decaying old church.” She sounded … scared?
Lewis’s mind was barraged with images of hokeyness inside an unfamiliar moldy building with people who either looked uncomfortably at them as unfamiliar visitors or came at them with teeth and claws to become new members. He could see her point. However, he could not forget the good feeling he’d had whenever he passed that church. He told Peggy, “I think it’ll be fun. It’s as if that place has been calling me.”
She drew back and questioned, “Are you’re having a religious experience after … after we were—”
“No, I’m just—”
“You’re just giving me a hard time.” Peggy acted as if she were teasing, but she was half serious. “We’re busy enough this Christmas. Work is so demanding these days. I’ve got five clients to push drugs to this afternoon in three different hospitals.” Peggy rolled her eyes. “Besides, I can just imagine trying to tell people at the party where we’d been, as if we were … well, regular church people.”
For some reason, the harder Peggy pressed him, the more convinced Lewis felt that he should go. And this conviction felt … appropriate. “I’ve made up my mind,” he said. “But I want you to come with me.”
Peggy looked into his brown eyes with her soft affectionate gaze, and she put a hand on his shoulder. “All right, for you. Just for you.”
As she left, Lewis took a deep, deep breath, held it, and let it out, wondering why he felt like he’d been in a battle instead of making a date with a gorgeous, vivacious woman. Since their session together in that nasty basement with the Horned Edge toughs, he’d felt so close to her. That kiss had been absolutely wonderful! And she’d stuck with him, helped him during the Horned Edge kidnapping and recruitment attempt. Was his decision driving a wedge between their … friendship?
Your romance, a thought corrected his mind. Be honest, Lewis. You’re falling in love with her.
* * *
On Christmas Eve at Redeemer Church, Lewis took a program and a candle and led Peggy to a seat on the right aisle area of the church. He wore his dark slacks and trusty charcoal sweater; she wore fashionable tawny tights over her long, shapely legs, a gold big-shirt, and a glittering red pashmina around her neck. He thought that she looked fabulous.
It was about ten minutes before the start of the Christmas Eve worship service, and the place was filling up. “I don’t want to sit so close to the front!” Peggy whispered when Lewis took her hand and led her up the aisle.
“There’s no room anywhere else,” Lewis murmured. “Besides, I can see better up here.” He felt excitement picking up in the air, the warmth of a crowd along with the fragrance of candles and festive greenery. People all around were talking in low voices. He saw lots of Christmas ties and Christmas sweaters. One bent old man using a candy-cane striped walker with a horn even wore a Santa hat. Lewis’s mood rose. Christmas! I love this season! I’m so glad to try something different after … losing Patrick.
Lewis took the second seat from the aisle; Peggy sat next to him. “Can you see all right from here?” he asked, sliding his arm around her shoulders. To his surprise, she felt stiff with tension.
Peggy put a hand up to her head. “I’m getting a headache. It feels like one of my migraines is coming on.”
“Do you have any aspirin?” Lewis asked. He saw that her eyes were squinched with pain and so he kissed her forehead. Yet, the general uplifted atmosphere in the church had infected him. I wish Peggy could enjoy this.
“Aspirin!” Peggy shook her head. “That wouldn’t even put a dent in the pain I get from my migraines!”
Lewis caressed her cheek. “I’m so sorry you don’t feel good.”
A family of six hovered next to Peggy in the aisle. “Excuse me, but may we squeeze in?” the mother asked with a shy smile. Peggy stood up, Lewis stood up, and they let the cavalcade file past.
Soft introductory music started from an organ high in the back of the church. It played the “Canon in D” by Pachelbel. After a while, a children’s choir joined into the organ music and softly sang one of the parts, “Merry Christmas!” Lewis felt himself smile. Around him, people got quiet, while latecomers squeezed into the available spots.
He let his eyes rove around the altar area. It was a feast of Christmas beauty. Flaming red poinsettias filled the sanctuary, great gold bows hung from the chandeliers. Up by the altar stood a manger scene. A live Holy Family gathered around the manger, and Lewis noted with delight that they were innovatively dressed. Joseph, standing, wore jeans and a dark sweatshirt, held a glowing flashlight, and looked worried. Mary sat, cushioned by Joseph’s coat. She wore a loose blue sweater and a long gray skirt. Her hair was long, dark, and bedraggled, like she’d come through a real labor and delivery. Mary looked toward the audience, rapt with wonder as her hand caressed the tiny fingers of a baby figure in the manger. The baby doll Jesus really looked like a newborn and was wrapped in a yellow and blue baby blanket with ducks on it. The shepherds entered, wearing cargo pants and padded jackets like outdoorsmen. The wise men came in from the other side, wearing suits and expensive coats. How creative!
Delighted, Lewis started to comment to Peggy, but she frowned and said, “I’ve got a splitting headache and I feel nauseous. Oh, my! I’ve got to go, now!” Springing up, she handed Lewis her candle and hurried down the aisle toward the back of the church, nearly knocking down a lady wearing a glittery red Christmas dress.
Lewis sat in a quandary. He felt pulled to get up and go comfort Peggy, but he really wanted to stay and enjoy the service. Just then the lights dimmed. The Christmas Eve service was starting.
Thus began an hour of wonder. For a moment he thought, Peggy must feel awful; I should go to her, but then he realized that she was most likely in the ladies’ bathroom. Soon his soul became immersed in the experience. Someone had written an original musical score that told the Christmas story. Adults and children sang in parts.
What stood out for Lewis was a recitation of the Nicene Creed. The bulletin had printed the text. The pastor, an elderly black man in a crisp white chasuble, picked up the baby from the manger and held it while a reader said from the front,
I believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only begotten Son of God,
begotten of His Father before all worlds,
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God,
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father,
by whom all things were made;
who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven
and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary …
The Nicene Creed’s words stood like huge pillars carved out of granite. What Lewis had come to believe as a vague, shadowy ghost began to solidify. For once, he understood the words about Jesus literally, and they nearly floored him. “Peggy!” he whispered, wanting to share his great emotion with her, but she was not there.
For the final event of the service, while soft music played, ushers came down the aisles and lit the first candle in each row. Lewis was more aware than ever of Peggy’s absence as he leaned over to get his candle lit. He turned to his neighbor and passed the little flame; the man turned to an eager child, and so on down the row until all the candles were lit. Like the kid, Lewis looked behind him to see the host of candle flames. I wish Peggy were here, he thought regretfully, but still enjoyed the moment as everybody sang “Silent Night” a capella, led well by the choir.