Nathan Pierce adjusted his red and black striped tie and walked through the double doors of the church, his mind screaming at him to turn around and walk back out. This was only going to be a night of stress. Winter was his favorite season, but Christmas Eve—with his family anyway—was the very least of his favorite things.
As his sister, Daisy, and Daniel came up behind him—along with his mother right on their heels—he realized he would much rather be at home, listening to music or reading a book. Or even looking at the stars. Or maybe even getting hit by a car. He would take any of those options over being here tonight. Any of them.
He walked into the sanctuary and glanced to his left, through the congregation, at Theresa Ruin seated there. She caught sight of him and waved with a smile. He waved back, wondering for a split second if Theresa had dragged her only daughter, Cynthia Ruin, to the church this evening.
Shannon Cook came around the corner looking a bit frustrated at Nathan’s tardiness. She wore blue jeans and a white sweater. She looked cute. Nathan knew that she didn’t want to be at church with him, but she agreed to come to the service tonight if he agreed to celebrate Christmas morning with her and her family. That was going to be another stressful event, but he chose to focus on this one first.
When Shannon approached him, Daisy scoffed loudly and—while arm in arm with Daniel—made a beeline past Nathan. Nathan chose to ignore his sister’s blatant hostility toward his girlfriend. He hoped with some degree of naivety that this was just a phase.
Shannon grabbed his hand in hers. “Hey, Baby!”
“Hey. Sorry we’re late, but my mom was running late, as usual.”
They both turned to his mother, Patricia Pierce. Patricia ignored his comment and made her way past him, sitting down in a row in the middle of the sanctuary with Daisy and Daniel.
Shannon smiled at him. “That’s okay. I know how your family is. Speaking of which, do you mind if we sit by ourselves tonight? Maybe toward the back?”
Nathan sighed. “I promised my sister we would sit with them tonight.”
Shannon shrugged. “If we must.”
“Well, they are my family.”
She didn’t reply.
Nathan pulled her through the congregation and they took seats at the end of the row where the rest of Nathan’s family was seated. He closed his eyes for a moment, hoping this night would go by fast. The service was only set to run forty-five minutes, but—
“Hey, Nathan. Do you mind if I sit with you tonight?”
He turned around and found his vision blocked by a red dress that stopped just above a pair of smooth, cream-colored knees. He looked up at Heather and smiled. Her hair was up in a fancy updo with red ribbon spooled through it, and she was wearing black high heels that made her at least an inch taller than usual. Nathan couldn’t help but gaze at her gorgeous knees before he received an elbow in his ribs, courtesy of Shannon.
This is where the trouble really starts. Nathan looked up at Heather and grimaced.
Heather frowned. “Sorry, I didn’t realize Shannon was with you tonight.”
Although he would rather sit next to Heather than the rest of his family, placing Heather near him when Shannon was around was the equivalent of suicide.
“I’m sure you can find a seat over there with your parents, Heather. See, right there.” Shannon pointed to the rows to the left of them. “Right there. Right…there. Right there.”
Nathan looked up at Heather. She already had her back turned to him and was making her way toward her parents, shaking her head.
“Geez, is she always so clingy? Can’t she see that I’m your girlfriend already? Get over it!”
Heather stopped mid-stride and turned her head halfway toward them. She didn’t say anything, though, and this made Shannon smile. Heather took a seat with her parents and stared up at the stage at the giant cross hanging from the back wall.
Shannon moved in toward Nathan’s ear. “You need to take care of that pathetic problem over there. I’m getting really tired of having to remind her of my place in your life.”
“What are you talking about?” he whispered back. “She’s my friend. And she’ll always be my friend.”
“Hurumph.” Shannon crossed her arms and sat back in her chair, staring toward the stage at the giant cross.
Nathan peered down the row and glanced at his sister and Daniel. They were both giggling and chatting with one another. His mother was on the far end of the row, keeping to herself. Nathan knew all along that his dad wouldn’t show up to the Christmas Eve service. When asked if he was coming, his dad mumbled something about his job making him work on the holidays.
The pastor took the stage, fitting the collar of his shirt with a thumb-sized microphone. “Thank you for coming tonight. I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and, as has been the tradition for years, I’d like to start out by reading you all a Christmas story…”
Nathan sighed. The pastor read the same story every single year. Nathan hadn’t minded hearing it the first couple years, but now, five years later, it was getting old. Nathan could practically read aloud with the pastor, citing the exact spots the man would stop reading to give everyone a chance to reflect on the “reason for the season”.
Nathan knew the reason for the season: it was to have your life be placed into utter chaos by your dysfunctional family, love-stricken friend, and controlling girlfriend. Very disheartening, if he had anything to say about it.
Shannon squeezed his hand in hers. In his ear, she whispered that she loved him. He glanced over to Heather, who was looking at him from the corner of her eye while at the same time rifling through her black purse for some odd or end.
The pastor began the story. Nathan wished he could get up and leave. But he couldn’t. He had obligations to be here with his family tonight. Daisy especially found it to be an essential priority of his to be here. For her and for their mother. Nathan didn’t see the point. His parents didn’t really seem to pay him any mind.
A foul odor like rotten eggs suddenly wafted into the air around him. He covered his nose with his arm and looked to his right. Shannon was covering her nose as well, looking at him as if he was the culprit. Down the row, Daisy, too, was holding her nose and was scolding Daniel for something. Daniel was laughing—hysterically at that.
Did he really just do that in church? On Christmas Eve? Nathan felt as if his lungs were going to explode. Daisy was getting a bit loud, telling Daniel that passing gas was not allowed in church. Nathan couldn’t help but laugh, now that he realized how absurd this night really was.
Shannon gave him a good shove in his ribs again, but he decided to ignore it this time. This was too ridiculous of an evening for him to be this downtrodden by the jealousy that Shannon apparently had toward Heather. Drama. That’s all it was. Senseless drama.
Shannon gritted her teeth and glanced around the church as she whispered in Nathan’s ear, “Will you please get a hold of yourself?”
He stood up and strode quickly to the back the church, following the aisle to the double doors. He stepped outside and took a huge breath of fresh winter air. The cold felt good in his lungs. He stepped into the parking lot and looked into the sky. The stars were bright—brighter than normal. The north star burned with an uncanny brilliance, calming his soul.
He heard the double doors open. He wanted to be alone. He didn’t want to hear anymore whining from Shannon. He certainly didn’t want to deal with his family right now. The dinner with his family earlier had been bad enough, with his mother ignoring him and Daisy lecturing him on getting into college after high school. He didn’t want to be bothered anymore tonight.
Nathan turned to snap at Shannon or Daisy but was pleasantly shocked to find Heather standing there, in her unforgettable red dress.
“Just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
He smiled warmly. “Yeah, I’ll be okay.”
She looked up into the sky.
“Don’t let what Shannon said bother you,” Nathan remarked.
She continued to stare up at the twinkling abyss above them. “What she says doesn’t bother me. What you do does.” She looked at him for a moment with the most serious face he had ever seen her express. “Don’t let her change you, Nathan. I really like you for who you are. We all do, including your family. We just don’t want to see you get manipulated by her.”
He nodded, not really knowing how to respond to that. She went back to looking at the stars as he studied her for a moment. Her thin neck was flowing into her dress like liquid ivory. Her arms looked so thin and fragile, but they held the largest silver bracelets he had ever seen, all of them reflecting the bright moonlight. Nathan suddenly wanted to hug her, to feel her dress touching him. She was beautiful. But she was his friend. He felt so much comfort when he was around her, but he was with Shannon…
He suddenly felt foolish for thinking such things. He was with Shannon. He couldn’t betray her trust by having these thoughts about Heather. They were just thoughts…right?
“What the hell?”
They both turned to find Shannon outside the front doors. Nathan thought he could see horns creeping up out the top of her skull, but then he realized it was just a combination of his fearful imagination and some stray hairs running haphazard on top of her head.
Heather turned to Nathan and smiled. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Yeah.” He smiled back as Heather retreated into the church. Nathan looked back up at the night sky, suddenly in the mood to pull out his telescope and study the stars. He wondered if God had spread the stars out in this fashion tonight just for him.
Silence lingered for a moment before Shannon finally spoke up. “What were you two doing out here?”
Nathan looked at her. “She came out to see if I was okay.”
Shannon huffed and then stood with her arms crossed again. “Sorry if I don’t entirely believe you.”
He wanted to tell her that she had no reason to worry about him and Heather but wondered if that was actually a lie.
“Anyway, when are you coming back inside?”
Nathan shrugged and then stared back up at the sky. “Not sure.”
She shook her head and rubbed her temples with her fingers. “Okay, Nathan. Whatever. I’ll see you inside.” She stormed back into the church.
Nathan’s thoughts wandered to the people in the church. To the stars. To his God in Heaven who was hopefully going to help ease his soul from this mess. It was Christmas Eve, and there was nowhere he would rather be than anyplace away from this church.
He sighed, but then smiled. At least he saw Heather tonight. That counted for something…